Friday, July 27, 2012

A Peruvian Writes

“The Dream of the Celt,” by Mario Vargas Llosa, 2010 

Critics are always yapping about Gabriel Marquez and his ‘magical realism.’  Realism that actually buries and hides reality, like transmittals from Plato’s cave, writings for the aesthetic sensors and the political censors.  We get the tail of the elephant only, not the elephant itself.  Llosa, a Peruvian, has no such compunctions.  He is by far the best Latin American fiction writer.  His prose is clean and almost elegant, he tells a great story, and his stories have a point.  A political point, which means he actually cares about the human condition, not just someone’s psychological condition.

Some of the arrows in Llosa’s quiver: “The War at the End of the World,” about a real communist / anarchist insurrection in central Brazil; “The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta,” describes the life of a Trotskyist terrorist/activist in Peru; “Feast of the Goat,” covers the struggle against Trujillo in the Dominican Republic; “Death in the Andes,” an analysis of Sendro Luminoso through the eyes of one of his continuing characters, Litumo; “The Time of the Hero,” his first novel, about students at the military academy in Lima, a book which was banned by Peruvian authorities; “Conversation in the Cathedral,” a serpentine story of intrigue after a right-wing coup in Peru, peopled by dozens of characters and periods of time. 

“The Dream of the Celt” is his latest novel – a novel that removes the curtain from economic colonialism in the Congo and Brazil in the late 1800s and early 20th century, and then links that to the struggle against the British in Ireland.  The book follows the life of disowned Irish nationalist and human-rights hero Roger Casement, who ended being hanged by the British soon after the Easter Rebellion in 1916.  This book ends any speculation about the ‘humanizing’ mission of colonial capitalism. 

Casement is an odd fellow.  He was thrilled by reading about the imperial adventures of Stanley and Livingston in Africa.  He got a job with the Belgians and Stanley himself, a brutal pig, who were ‘developing’ the Congo at the time.  It took years for Casement to understand what was happening around him.  Rubber was the extractive material of the day.  Africans were forced, by gun and whip, not wage, to work for the Belgian King’s company, going into the forest to milk the rubber trees, then bringing the fluids back to the rivers, where they were hauled overland and eventually shipped down river, back to Europe.  Of course, the Congolese could not hunt or grow crops while also tending rubber trees, so men disappeared, villages revolted, the Congolese starved, villages were burned and the Africans eventually became slaves on their own continent, this time enslaved by Europeans. 

Casement began to understand all this, and started to write letters back to England, working with anti-slavery societies and exposing the Belgians.  Eventually he was sent on an official trip by the English government to describe the conditions of the Belgian rubber trade.  He survived because of the British connection, presented his findings to Parliament, and the Belgian companies were denounced and ostracized by the British government.  Casement was a hero, interviewed, invited to make speeches and feted by the liberals of his day.  And all the while, he was still, really, an Irishman. 

It suddenly dawned on him, that, while the brutality the Belgian King showed to the Africans – who they considered sub-human – was extreme; it did not differ in essence from the centuries-long British occupation of Ireland.  Casement started to learn Celtic, and made contacts with the Irish nationalists of the time, all the while working for the British government as an officer of the foreign office.  He also remembered that his mother, a Catholic, had secretly baptized him in the Roman Church when he was little. 

Casement also had another secret.  He was a homosexual in a time when being gay was considered a crime.  He never had a long-lasting affair – it seems the only one he had that lasted for months was with a British spy assigned to inform on him.  Instead, he visited bathhouses, dark bars, parks and swimming holes in the Congo, and later, Brazil. And kept an incriminating diary of these encounters.  This is one reason he has been almost forgotten as a prominent Irish nationalist.

Stories of similar brutal treatment were coming out of Brazil, about a British crown company also involved in harvesting rubber there.  Casement was again sent to Brazil by the British government to discover the truth.  He left with a group, and traveled down the rivers to the bases of the rubber company.  There he documented more whippings, beatings, rapes, starvation, intimidation, child-selling and executions of the native Amazonian tribes, who were being forced to work for free to harvest rubber, and resisted for the same reasons the Africans had.  They were treated like animals, which was the key to justifying their economic exploitation.  ‘Animals,’ after all, are the most inferior beings of all.  Blacks from Barbados were used as foreman to control the Amazonians, and they were the first to step forward to tell what they knew.  Again, modern slavery, covered up by pretty words, lies, legal niceties, prominent people and lots and lots of money.  Eventually, unlike others, he escapes with his life, presents his findings to Parliament, and the Amazonian rubber company is ultimately dissolved. 

Casement by this time is deeply involved with the Irish revolutionaries, from the socialist / laborite John Connolly on down, though he favors the more Catholic, nationalist faction himself.  He believes an armed rebellion at the wrong time would be a mistake, and counsels caution.  Casement’s great idea to aid the Irish nationalist cause is to call on the German government for guns, aid, even troops against the British.  World War I gives Casement the chance to try out this unpopular theory – unpopular even among nationalists.  During the war, he goes to Germany, works with the Kaiser’s generals and is allowed to recruit Irishmen out of the German prison camps.  Only 50 Irish volunteer to work with the Germans to fight for Irish nationhood.  Casement hears about the Easter Rising, and sets out on a German submarine to aid it, with German guns in tow, but no soldiers.  He’s caught, the submarine carrying the guns does not land, and Casement is sent to prison for trial in London.

The rising happens without the added guns.  Hundreds are killed, hundreds arrested, many disappear or escape, and many do not mobilize.  The book ends as a meditation on the wisdom of the Easter Rising, eventually coming down on the side of martyrdom.  Casement himself meets the gibbet a bit later – his own martyrdom, but hung as a double-traitor and a pervert. 

Nothing ‘magical’ about this story.  Only true.

And I bought it at Cheapo Books!
Red Frog
July 25, 2012

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Musicians With A Spine

“33 Revolutions per Minute – the History of Protest Songs, from Billie Holiday to Green Day,” by Dorian Lynskey, 2011 

How fast does a CD spin?  Around 500 rpm at the center, and 200 rpm at the edge.  And audio files don’t ‘spin’ at all, except perhaps from a hard drive.  So you know this book is anchored in the past - after all, it is a history.

Lynskey is a British music critic for the Guardian.  In this book he concentrates on popular U.S. and British music, and other music that has appeared in those countries, like Afro-pop, Chilean folk and reggae.  He ignores U.S. blues, country-western, blue-grass, Tex-Mex, old English or American folk, but does discuss political jazz, and concentrates mostly on songs about social issues, not about economic issues or class.  His appendix includes a bit on older folk music.  Each chapter is organized around a song and a group or musician, but delightfully spreads out to capture the other artists and songs surrounding that period.  He manages to encyclopedically name-check many political songs or bands in the process, though not all. An index of mentioned albums, songs and artists is included at the end.

Canned Heat’s “Sic’ Em Pigs,” Beach Boys “Demonstration Time,” the Band’s “King Harvest,” Sir Douglas Quintet’s “Chicano," key pieces by the Plastic People of the Universe or Gang of 4, and neglected country music like Charlie Daniel's "Still in Saigon," John Anderson's "Seminole Wind" and Aaron Tippin's "Working Man's PHD" are examples of songs that I can think of that are not mentioned even in footnotes.

Lynskey starts his music history with the 1939 recording of “Strange Fruit” by Billie Holiday, though there were political blues songs prior to that – for instance Leadbelly recorded “Bourgeois Blues” in 1938.  Lynskey ends with a chapter focused on the period during and after Green Day’s 2004 anti-Bush punkish rock opera, “American Idiot.”  Lynskey seems to ask at the end of the book, “Is political music dead?”

The main ideological issue with music and politics is – can they be combined?  Bourgeois high and middle-brow culture says no – citing ‘arts for arts sake,’ while commercial low-brow culture says no too, citing its sole use as dance tracks or love songs.  Capitalist culture generally sees music as a form of escapism, elevated entertainment or aesthetic pleasure alone.  But of course, it does not have to be only that.  Bureaucratic socialists insist music’s role is solely political – again, a warped view.  The author shows some nervousness about this issue, but of course makes an excellent case for their possible combination.  And like most leftish Brits, Lynskey is not afraid of talking about socialist influences on musicians, unlike American critics - which is probably one reason why he was the person to write this book.  Many British political musicians – not just Billy Bragg - were influenced by socialism and trade unionism because of the strength of British labor traditions.

The first song, “Strange Fruit” was written by a Jewish Marxist, Abel Meeropol, the lyrics first appearing in “The New Masses.”  It was about the lynching of blacks in the south, based on a photo printed in newspapers around the U.S.  Billie Holiday adapted it and it became her signature song – one of the most powerful ever sung. 

Lynskey goes on from there, covering in historical sections the U.S. folk scene starting with Woody Guthrie, then Dylan’s contribution; a large raft of 60s radical folkies, rockers and R&B stars; his international section, with Victor Jara, Fela Kuti and reggae-man Max Romeo; the birth of punk and rap in the 70s and 80s, featuring the Clash, Grandmaster Flash and Special AKA; and songs from Rage Against the Machine, Steve Earle and Public Enemy in the 90s until 2008. 

What struck me is the heavy human toll being a leftist songwriter took on people like Phil Ochs, Fela Kuti and Victor Jara.  Kuti was forced into exile after having his home and recording studio burnt; Jara was killed during the Chilean coup.  Though this is unlike political song-writers in the U.S. or U.K, where only career suicide or depression itself threaten.  Ochs did commit suicide.  In the U.S. and U.K., many hard-core political bands just disappeared - but they were not 'disappeared.'  Being political in England or the U.S. was for the most part not very financially viable or socially acceptable, except in special times.  So mainstream bands like REM, U-2 and Radiohead jumped in the water when the water was warm, or wrote in indirect ways about political/social topics so as to cushion themselves from reaction. They did not wear it on their sleeve.

Lynskey’s closing section on the difficulty of writing and performing political music at the present is weak.  He never makes an explicit connection between the strength of dissident political, class, geographic and cultural movements and the rise and quality of protest songs.  The folkies, hippies, punks, black nationalists, riot grrrls, trance dancers, trade unionists, anti-war activists, environmentalists and other sub-cultures make appearances time and time again in the book.  Without them it is obvious that political songs would not exist in such abundance. Why Lynskey doesn't make this connection explicit is odd.  Certain kinds of politicized music exist only in connection with movements of social change or cultural disruption - they do not exist alone or in a vacuum.   Bemoaning the lack of politicized music is really bemoaning the lack of the dissident movements that underlie it!  Of note, the book was finished before the Arab Spring, anti-austerity movements in Europe and Occupy.  Perhaps Lynskey will be able to add a major song or two based on them.  I know Tom Morello is certainly trying to write it.

And I bought it at May Day Books expanded music section!
Red Frog
July 22, 2012

Saturday, July 21, 2012

The Dialectic is Ruthless

“Occupy the Economy – Challenging Capitalism. In conversation with Richard Barsamian.” by Richard Wolff, 2012. 

The dirty secret of American politics is that no one is supposed to ever think about the ‘big picture.’  We are supposed to plod away, either observing passively or cheering our ostensible political party while the corporate press discusses the acceptable or ginned-up issues.  How much austerity should we have?  How great small businessmen are!  How culture-war politics are the only politics.  How stupid those who don’t agree with us are.  How afraid we should be of terrorism.  How the ruling taste-makers are always right, considerate and noble.

Richard Wolff, one of the few Marxist economics professors in the U.S., produced this small book at the height of the Occupy movement.  Occupy, unlike the culture-war politics of the Democrats or Republicans, made class and economic power key to its analysis, and in the process galvanized a more objective approach to the world.  Wolff is right to understand it as the beginning of a new American class understanding – something long abandoned in bourgeois politics.  Recent studies have shown that this has penetrated beyond tattooed youth camping in town squares.  Most American’s now self-identify themselves as working-class, not middle-class.  This is a sea-change.  Surveys also reveal that ‘socialist’ is no longer the terminal slur it once was, with significant minorities supporting some form of the term.

Like the vicious religious fundamentalists of all stripes, who have done more to promote atheism than anyone else, the market fundamentalists of the world, in word and deed, are now promoting socialism.  The dialectic is ruthless. 

The book is presented in a series of conversations with Richard Barsamian in late 2011. Key points made by Wolff in these conversations:

  1. For the first time in 150 years, wages for the U.S. working class are now stagnant.  30 years of credit replaced wage growth, and now that, too, is over.  Wolff considers the present conjuncture not to be a normal capitalist ‘downturn.’
  2. Wolff estimates in the past 30 years in the U.S. that only the top 5-10% of the population has benefitted.  (See commentary "Look Who We're Calling Comrade" on the narrowness of the‘1%’ designation, below.)
  3. Corporations can still prosper by serving international markets, not local/US markets.  Hence the Keynesian idea that no money in the pockets of the American people means less sales and profits for U.S. corporations is actually false.  Krugman does not take the international economy into consideration - he's in essence an economic nationalist. 
  4. The political liquidation of communists, socialists, left populists and now unions in the U.S. has been the trump card the rulers use to ensure that no significant or even small economic changes can ever be made.  There is no ‘big stick’ on the left anymore. 
  5. Wolff recommends government-run national jobs programs.  Incentives to private enterprise do not work, and have not worked.
  6. Wolff believes the democratization of enterprises is key, instead of the rule of some untrained white-collar manager, let alone a group of high-flying plutocrats.  Of course, how this is done without unions or political groups having strength in the workplace or in the political system is beyond me.
  7. Marxism is the only living method that really understands capitalism.  All critics of capital eventually have to adopt some or all of its premises. 
  8. The government is not a family, nor does it have to balance its budget like a family.
  9. Recent events have shown that “capitalism does not deliver the goods… it now delivers the ‘bads.’”
  10. The most recent figures show 1/3rd of the U.S. population – 100 million people – now live below or close to the real poverty line.
  11. Occupy’s work with the unions – during the Verizon strike and the longshore strike at Longview, Washington  – are key.
  12. Wolff feels that U.S. weapons’ production does not generate many jobs.  Actually, Robert Reich pointed out in 2010 that the biggest ‘jobs program’ in the U.S. was the U.S. military and weapon’s producers – which involved 3.83 million jobs at that time, not including foreign contractors.  Reich estimated that this lowered the U.S. unemployment rate by 2%. Military spending in the U.S. has been the true Keynesian program (and surplus destruction program) since after World War II – not to mention an absolute necessity for imperialism.  Wolff does point out that money spent on weapons production is actually less productive, dollar for dollar, than money spent on domestic programs.
  13. The Social-Democratic Parties of Europe – in Greece, in Spain, in Germany, in England – have become obvious pillars of capital, and have betrayed their own working-class bases. 
  14. A real political democracy and the present economic dictatorship are incompatible.
  15. The real U.S. unemployment rate – the U6 figure - is around 16%.  This is a picture of a large precariat. However, the U6 figures does not include prisoners, which would make the rate even higher.  (See review of "The Precariat:  The New Dangerous Class," below.)
  16. Stocks and bonds should be taxed, just as property is taxed.  Religious institutions are not taxed, but should be.  The so-called separation of church and state stops at the money door.  Universities like Harvard and Yale pay no taxes, but should.  Lotteries and legal gambling are disguised – and regressive - taxes. 
  17. Markets are very recent, are not egalitarian and are not efficient. 
  18. Mexicans are an imported labor commodity that became less needed during the Great Recession. 
  19. The capitalist banking system was saved by the working-class taxpayer – and the capitalist state – in 2008. The sector was nationalized, for all purposes, then returned to profitability by that same state.  Recent revelations by Neil Barofsky, the TARP overseer, depict Geithner and Treasury being interested in saving the banks and no one else.  Wolff, like many others, maintains there is no justification for a private banking system anymore. 

Wolff ends with a “Manifesto for Economic Democracy and Ecological Sanity.”  His real solution is hinted at in the phrase, “occupy the corporations.”  He thinks that worker-run businesses, federations of such businesses like Mondragon in Basque Spain, ESOPS, co-ops and businesses with more control by the people who work there, will ‘transform the economy.’ 

However, as an example, the food co-ops of Minneapolis, which were started by radicals and hippies in the 60s and 70s, still exist.  They are wonderful enterprises – but they have not transformed capitalist agriculture for the majority.  The U.S. Farm Bill is still written by agri-business and the politicians in league with it.  The food (and bike, etc.) co-ops provide a bit of economic and cultural/lifestyle space – but, in a sense, then allowing the major corporate institutions to stand.  Co-ops from the 30s also still exist, but are barely distinguishable from normal capitalist businesses now.  Greg Sharzer’s book, “No Local – Why Small-Scale Alternatives Won’t Change the World” is a great answer to Wolff’s point, and will be reviewed soon.

And I bought it at May Day Books!
Red Frog, July 21, 2012