Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The Terrorism Spectacle

“Islamophobia and the Politics of Empire,” by Deepa Kumar, 2012

Kumar is an associate professor at Rutgers, who writes from a mostly leftist point of view.  She carefully traces the history of Western fears of the Islamic religion, from the Crusades to today, both outside and finally inside the U.S., and how this has been used as a political tool to justify war, oppression and occupation. 

This books tracks like you might expect.  Most of it is not news to any leftist who has followed the situation, from the over-the-top response to 9/11, the illegitimate wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the various U.S. mosque controversies, the ginned-up arrests of domestic ‘terrorists’ and now the fascist killings of Sikhs.  Remember, after 9/11, 90% of the population stood behind George Bush.  That includes a whole lot of Democrats.  Democrats say they oppose Republicans, but when it counts, they support them in office at the numerous times of ‘national crisis,’ invite them into the cabinet, let them run economic policy and let them set the military agenda too.  Kumar would agree with the points made in “Democrats – a Critical Study,” (reviewed below) – the differences between Democratic ‘realists’ and Republican neo-cons is one of tactics, not strategy.  Both parties agree on the main view, which is to militarily and economically dominate the world, especially the Middle-East. 

Kumar draws a line directly from Islamophobia – anti-near or middle Eastern racism - to support for imperial actions in the Middle East and elsewhere, and to reinforcement of the security state here at home.  In this, Islamophobia, of the crude or suave kind, of obvious Republican kinds, or subtle Democratic kinds, is key.  She contends that the extreme Islamophobes are part of the think tanks, political parties, security apparatuses, corporate funders and media of the United States,and are not some fringe element.  They consistently connect with mainstream and liberal figures, just as Joe McCarthy came after FDR’s Smith Act.

The main problem in the book is that it is written mainly as a local, politically-correct ethnic criticism, and not as a class or materialist criticism.  What I mean by this is that it slides over the very real dangers that ‘political Islam” (her term) pose to leftists and workers movements in Iran, in Algeria, in Egypt, Pakistan, Iraq, Syria and other places.  For instance, the slaughter of the left in Afghanistan and Iran was carried out by the forces of political Islam, and killed far more people than died on 9/11.  It also slides over the economic roots of the types of fundamentalist religion in certain countries, like Saudi Arabia’s Wahabbism.  In other words, what can a nation based initially on raising dates, herding camels and trade, and then the late discovery of oil, have as a culture - or have as a domestic working class movement?  Wahabbism is actually a spear aimed at the heart of any movement to take back the oil fields from the sheiks – a movement that would have to grow out of foreign workers nowadays. 

On the issue of the Enlightenment, Voltaire and atheism – it is not Islamophobic to make jokes about or criticize the Koran, mullahs, Sharia or hijabs as religious topics.  If we can make fun of the Bible or the story of Siddhartha or Mitt’s magic underwear then it stands to reason that other religions are not immune.  This should not be equated with invading or occupying countries, seeking to put Muslims in jail, burning a mosque or planning a drone strike.

Her American localism compels Kumar to equate the ‘red’ scare with the present ‘green” scare. This is somewhat irritating.  The American red scare was against the USSR, China, the Communist Party, other leftists and especially advanced unionists in the U.S.  The green scare is not against a political ideology or a class, but a national/ethnic group of people based on religion.  While the two ‘scares’ might serve the same purpose, the content of the two is different.  Nor are people from the Middle East all ‘Muslims,’ because that plays into the identification of a religion, Islam, with an ethnic group, a tactic even Kumar decries. Nor are all Muslims even Arabs.  There should be no combination of religion and ethnicity.  It is like calling all Americans ‘Christians,” or refusing to make fun of Catholicism because Latino immigrants are ostensible Catholics. 

I am going to bullet-point some of her more interesting points. 

  1. The Catholic “Christian” Church was far more intolerant and reactionary than Muslim mosques.  Crusaders ransacked whole cities like Constantinople and Jerusalem, butchered civilian populations, killed Jews and even some Christians they didn’t like.  English hero Richard the Lionheart beheaded thousands of captive Muslim soldiers after a battle, for instance.  (See review of “Dark Side of Christian History,” below.) On the other hand, Muslim societies allowed Jewish temples and Christian churches to exist, as long as they paid taxes.  Some so-called heretics even escaped from the European Inquisition to live in Arab and majority-Muslim lands. (The latter is her term, I think a useful one.)  The City of Cordoba in Spain, under Muslim Arab occupation, became a site of higher learning that existed in spite of the dark ages brought by Catholic Christianity over the rest of Europe
  1. Kumar insists that the Muslim faith had a ‘reformation,' which did not involve wars like the Catholic/Protestant wars.  As a result, there was always a division between the bazaar and the Imams, the Caliph and the Sultan, between the armed forces and the cultural/religious forces.  Her proof for this, however, seems scant, although indeed, I don’t think an equivalent to the 100 years war can be located.  Recent fighting in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq between Shia and Sunni reflects economic and political forces primarily – but without the religious dimension, they would not be so successful.  It is as if the Irish inter-Christian conflict of the past had been imported to the Middle East on a giant scale. If she were right, there would not be so many attempts at Muslim 'theocracy' or Shia/Sunni fights in the present world.  As the most glaring example, the new "Constitution' of Egypt proposed by Muslim Brotherhood delegates enshrines Islam and Sharia law.  Theocracy, theocracy.  Secular representatives are opposing this proposed Constitution of course.  Will Kumar?
  1. Muhammad was a merchant, and Islam was his way of uniting the tribes of the desert economically.  Merchants are supposedly held in high esteem in Islam. Curious, that, and perhaps a route of inquiry.
  1. Kumar quite rightly places the recent rise of ‘political Islam’ in the context of a rise in all political fundamentalisms – Christian, Hindu, Jewish and Buddhist.  She does not really explain why religion in general is now resorting to violence, intolerance, conservatism or political organizing, except to cite the failure of nationalist, socialist and neo-liberal projects in many nations.  There might be other causes – perhaps orthodox religions are fighting for their ideological/political/cultural lives.
  1. She highlights the excruciating failures of the Middle-Eastern Communist Parties, which supported every twist and turn of Soviet policy.  One day they supported the establishment of the State of Israel, and the next, supported war on Israel.  One day they endorsed opposition to bourgeois nationalists, and the next day, uncritical and unending support for bourgeois nationalist/state capitalist forces like the Baath Party.  The rise of Hamas among Palestinians and the fall of the PFLP and the DFLP can also be traced to the lumpenization and precarious nature of the Palestinian population over time, weakening its working-class component.
  1. Kumar tracks the 30 years of clear support that the U.S. and Britain gave to Islamists, from FDR in 1945 to Carter and Reagan in 1980s, to Clinton in Bosnia in the 1990s.  The first break in this alliance was the victory of Khomeini in Iran, which led to the concept of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ political Islamists among the American political establishment.  Prior to this, the Muslim Brotherhood and others were seen as political counter-weights to Nasser, Mossedegh and the various Communist parties.  There is even evidence that Israel politically supported and funded the Muslim Brotherhood as a counter-weight to the PLO.  And of course, who can forget Carter and then Reagan, along with the CIA, taking Osama Bin Laden into their financial and political arms in Afghanistan, and helping create the international jihadist movement. 
  1. Israel’s Likud supporters in the U.S. are at the heart of many Islamophobic organizations.  (see review of “The Holocaust Industry,” below)
  1. Kumar ignores the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan and the local Communist Karmal government there.  This is part of her glossing over what ‘political Islam’ means to the world’s workers. Many members of the Afghan Communist Party were teachers, who tried to teach girls.  They are all dead now.
  1. Kumar singles out a fellow named Bernard Lewis, a prominent Princeton professor and neo-conservative, for the recent development of the ideology of ‘Orientalism’ – the ostensible ‘clash of civilizations’ thesis upon which the Islamophobes base their politics.
  1. On the issue of sexism, Kumar makes a point that every religion in the world is sexist.  True. However, fundamentalist political Islamists are seen across the world executing adulteresses, sometimes supporting female genital mutilation, beheading people having parties and dancing (something that happened this week in Afghanistan), tolerating acid thrown in the face of divorcing wives, not allowing women to drive, female social separation, honor killings, forcing women to wear hijabs, etc.  In India, political Hinduism endorses female infanticide, shunning of divorced women and honor killings too, but the list seems not quite so long.  So while imperialism uses this issue to back up imperialist intervention (and bourgeois feminists happily get on the bandwagon, as they did over the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan or Bush’s invasion of Afghanistan, and Obama’s continuation of it), it is still a real issue that the working class would have to deal with severely.  Even our own Christian fundamentalists rarely go to these lengths. In other words, to put it blandly, the severity of female persecution under some forms of politicized religious fundamentalism varies.
  1.  One of her contributions to a materialist analysis of political Islam is highlighting the role of the Saudi-based “Islamic Banking” system, which allowed funds to be spread to political Islamists throughout the Middle-East.  Western banks – Citibank, Chase, Price Waterhouse, Goldman - enthusiastically cooperated with them
  1. Kumar has a nice directory of the members of the right-wing ‘hate Muslims’ clique in the upper reaches of bourgeois political society – think tanks, media, the government, the political parties, academe. 
  1. She details the times when military defense of ‘political Islamic’ forces are necessary – the invasion of a country like Lebanon, Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan or Gaza for instance.  But she does not believe that should extend to romantic or full political support of these movements, cheer leading best done by some left organizations in the U.S.
  1. Kumar makes the excellent point that neo-conservatives and neo-liberals want to destabilize their opponents – they do not really want to ‘nation-build.”  This is exactly the experience in Iraq, Somalia, Libya, Afghanistan and now Syria. This fits well with Naomi Klein’s analysis of the ‘Shock Doctrine.’ (reviewed below.)  Leaving a society in a shambles is the real goal.  Claims of liberating females, protecting civilians, democracy, stability, etc. are merely window-dressing for propaganda purposes. Kumar points out that Clinton, Carter and Obama’s ‘humanitarian imperialism’ is just one tactic, along with the Bush’s strategy of unilateralist imperialism, to achieve a greater aim -  control of oil, control of waterways, control of economic inputs, social classes, resources, military superiority, etc.
  1. 50% of all Muslims in the U.S. have been affected by police investigations into members of their families.  Kumar describes security services like the FBI, CIA and DHS as being motivated by an ‘every Muslim is a potential terrorist’ approach.  This has resulted in Minneapolis Somalis being forbidden from wiring money home to their families in Somalia.  It has also led to indictments of local Somalis for recruiting young men to fight with Al-Shabbab in Somalia against the American-supported Ethiopian Army, which occupies part of Somalia
Kumar cites the successful mobilizations against the burning of the Koran in Florida, against the opposition to the Muslim center in Manhattan, the activities of some anti-war groups and coalitions, the efforts of OWS, and the protests over the NYPD’s racial profiling efforts as the answer to Islamophobia, not the Democratic Party.  She cites the disillusionment with Obama’s policies among Arab-Americans, Muslim-Americans and middle-easterners.  She also cites Minnesota representative Keith Ellison (first Muslim in Congress) for standing up to ‘Islamophobia.”  She would be interested to see a video of Ellison refusing to condemn the shelling and invasion of Gaza by Israel, so as to stay in tune with his fellow Democrats. On the other hand, she would have been heartened to see earlier this spring, in the streets of Minneapolis for the first time, the uniting of a Somali protest against Wells Fargo over their wire policy with a protest by Occupy Minneapolis against that same bank for foreclosures. 

And I bought it at Mayday Books!
Red Frog
August 29, 2012

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Not the First Draft of the Port Huron Statement


“Boarded Windows,” by Dylan Hicks, 2012

I don’t usually review non-political books.  They are most of the time self-indulgent or inward – two characteristics this country is already awash in.  And this book is both.  However, this author is also a local musician and writer, talks about Minneapolis and the Midwest, and he’s immersed in popular music.  In addition, he can write well, on some phrase occasions. 

Boarded windows close the narrator’s years-long association with two women who had figured prominently in his young life during the 1970s and 1990s.  The narrator is an ostensible orphan, either sold to his foster-mother by a living mother who ‘wanted her weekends back’ or inherited from a drug-addled dead mother.  The focus of the book is Wade, a handsome native-American - musical, drug-dealing, opinionated, aesthetic - who might or might not be the narrator’s father.  Wade tells stories, seduces every woman in sight, bullshits genius, and drifts away to be a country DJ in Berlin.  Wade and the narrator trade high/low cultures references like two totally unreal people – but you will assuredly be impressed. 

Don’t we love orphans?  Or bullshitters?  Perhaps not.  What gives this book its charm is the saturation with which music inhabits the spaces of every day and every conversation.   Real and imagined musicians, old records, playing in bands, instruments, music gear, sing-a-longs, car tapes, remembered concerts, significant LP purchases, liner notes and used record scrawls, band vans, record collectors, music style showdowns, working in records stores, studios, bad poetry, good poetry, critics, conversations, vinyl clutter – its all here.  Hicks is a musician, after all, and this has formed the ground of his life, and of many in Minneapolis

Sex, masturbatory and consensual, is also a sub-text, and Hicks isn’t afraid of it.  It becomes part of the scenery, not the scene itself.

What gives this book its reality is that it reminds me of the low-key, poor, relaxed life many led in the 1970s in Minneapolis.  Money was invisible.  Shitty jobs were the norm.  Shabbiness was genteel.  Sex was there.  Living quarters were what you got. Music got you high.  Cars rusted.  Snow fell.  Not everything worked or was expected to work.  And we didn’t die from it all.

I am not quite sure that is the truth anymore.

And I bought it from May Day’s growing music book selection!
Red Frog, August 25, 2012

Sunday, August 19, 2012

The Donkey In the Room

“The Democrats – A Critical History, by Lance Selfa, updated fall 2011 

There is really only one major political question in the United States.  It is not ‘peace’ or ‘union rights’ or ‘economic polarization’ or ‘health care’ or ‘unemployment’ or 'the environment' or the right to smoke marijuana.    Every single one of these issues, and every other, flows back through the contradiction of the Democratic Party and its role in being the graveyard of progressives and progressivism. 

Without solving this question, ultimately, all other questions will not be resolved either, except almost always in a bad way.  This issue is the real Gordian knot – a knot that literally cannot be untied, only severed. 

Selfa is a socialist activist who traces the history of the Democratic Party’s role in American history since before the Civil War.  Wilson, Roosevelt, Truman, LBJ, Carter, Clinton and Obama are put under the microscope, and the few progressive things they were forced to accomplish are embedded in their overall role as representatives of the rich.  As the ‘second most enthusiastic capitalist party’ he shows how the Democrat’s claim to represent the working class or blacks or Latinos or women, etc. cannot be fulfilled, as they have been dominated by capitalists since their inception.  Essentially, deception is integral to their existence as the party assigned to take over when the Republicans grandly fuck-up, or as the party designated to co-op or buy off progressives and weaken mass struggles against the system.  The Democrats trade costless 'culture war' politics with their base for an unspoken agreement not to touch the true sources of capitalist power - the military, Wall Street and the police state.  As traced by Selfa, Republican and Democratic administrations flow into each other quite well.  The genius of American capitalism is that, instead of having one party representing capitalist interests, it has two! And then they call it a 'democracy.'

Selfa is somewhat sketchy on the economic forces that have owned the Democrats since the beginning, as it is not his real focus.  He specifically points out minority or even majority factions of the capitalist class that back the Democrats when it is in their interest – the last being the support given to Obama in 2008 after Bush’s disastrous 8 years, lead by the FIRE sector. He does not mention the Kennedy assassinations or the CP's decades-long support for a 'popular-front' block with the Democratic Party either.

In this book, of particular interest  is how the labor leaders’ alliance with the Democratic Party in the late 1940s necessarily involved craven subservience before their racist Dixiecrat wing.  In the 1940s this derailed the labor movement’s attempt to organize the South, at a time when labor was quite strong.  The working class has paid for this historic and racist blunder with years of plant closings in the north, and low wages and poor health in the south.  And now the ‘southern plan’ is coming to a northern state near you.

Just to focus on one president, Jimmy Carter is known through corporate propaganda as a hammer-pounder for Habit For Humanity and a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize for the Camp David accords – when he’s not wearing sweaters or admitting he thinks about sex with women other than his wife.  Selfa takes Carter apart, piece by piece, showing him to be the forerunner to both Clinton and Reagan.  Essentially, the 1970s recessions, gas shortages and labor strikes impressed upon capital the need for a new way of doing things.  This gave rise to the ‘New Democrats.”  According to Selfa, Carter was backed by Atlanta-based Coca-Cola and ‘free traders in the Trilateral Commission.”

Carter, among his reactionary accomplishments, initiated the “Carter Doctrine,” which declared the Mideast to be vital to American interest, thus allowing for the projection of U.S. military power into the region.  The Camp David accords were actually an aid to Israeli expansionism, by removing the need for a war by the Israeli state on two fronts, and was understood as such.  Carter reduced domestic spending for the first time in many years; signed the Hyde Amendment; proposed a tax plan that cut taxes for the wealthy, while boosting social security taxes; bailed out Chrysler by making the UAW take massive concessions and called out the Army, invoking Taft-Hartley regarding the 1977-1978 UMW coal miners strike.  Carter increased the military budget, re-instituted the draft, created the ‘Rapid Deployment Force’ and boycotted the Moscow Olympics over the Soviet move into Afghanistan - after secret and extensive U.S. funding of the Afghan mujahedeen and Taliban.   Carter, incidentally, was also the first aggressively ‘Christian’ President in many years, another nod to the regressive traditions of the South.

All of these actions continue to haunt us today.

Selfa examines recent efforts to move the Democrats ‘to the left’ from the inside of the Party.   He also addresses the rationalizations people use to actively support or vote for Democrats, in spite of their dreadful history.  This history every generation somehow has to learn and experience – again and again, as if a part of the American population had collective amnesia.  Selfa covers the history of Michael Harrington and the Democratic Socialists of America, (“DSA”) and their failed attempt to work within the Party.  DSA called t he Democrats the ‘left-wing of the possible,’ - and now, in a choice quote from DSA,"...there now is no 'possible' to be a left-wing of."  Selfa also covers more recent groups like “The Progressive Democrats of America” (“PDA”) which evolved from a post 2004 fusion of  Kucinich/ Dean/ Sharpton Democratic activists and DSA.  All of whom went on to support the Kerry campaign, which opposed every idea they had.  Both William Winpisinger, former head of the old IAM, and John Sweeney, former head of the AFL-CIO, were members of DSA.  The “Progressive Caucus” of the Democratic Party, involving people like Dennis Kucinich and John Conyers, also are a part of the fake left within that organization. The Progressive Caucus, for instance, all voted for the formation of the Simpson-Bowles Debt Commission, organized to come up with ways to 'cut the budget' and enforce austerity. 

Essentially the Democratic Party is not a membership organization, and, as such, cannot be changed democratically.  Without overthrowing the permanent funders and party bureaucrats who dominate it, the Party has proved impossible to change.  PDA’s job is to ‘keep the hope alive’ that the Democratic Party will ever be anything but a more effective evil. (Phrase courtesy of Glen Ford.)

In my book, the lesser evil is a transmission belt for the greater evil.  It’s like in wrestling - we are fighting a tag team that should be called “Hard Cop, Soft Cop."  You know, one cop has a crew-cut, bulging biceps and a cruel look on his face, while the other cop's hair is longer, he's polite, wears a tie and smiles occasionally.  Elections should not consist of placing these two cops in either corner and watching them fight from the sidelines, while cheering one or the other. The Democrats are actually the true enablers of the Republicans, not their opponents.  They are a tag team.  The 'fight' is a staged show for the voting cattle of both parties, prepared for us by the entertainment news media - as real as the wrestling it is modeled after.

Every single time independent political action has become a mass force in American politics, the Democratic Party stepped in to destroy it.  You can go back to the Populists at the end of the 19th Century, who made the mistake of fusing with the Democrats, thus destroying their organization.  Or the labor leaders who sold out the move for an independent labor party in the 1930s to become Democratic Party boosters.  The sad demise of the Minnesota Farmer-Labor Party’ through its 1944 fusion with the Democrats is also a funereal memory.  The support for Truman’s lying pledge to ‘oppose Taft Hartley’ led the majority of unions to back Truman instead of Henry Wallace in 1948.  Then Truman used Taft-Hartley 12 times against the unions.  The sad campaigns of Jesse Jackson in the 80s were the last time anyone had a hope that a 'mass movement' of some kind would be able to affect that Party. What did the Rainbow Coalition win from the Democrats?  A few staff positions in the party and government.  In the 1990s, though not mentioned by Selfa, Labor Party affiliates like the UMW, ILGWU and other national, regional and local unions were threatened by John Sweeney (a DSAer, of course) that if they actually ran independent labor candidates, they would be thrown out of the AFL-CIO.  Recently, in response to the Green Party’s success in the 2000 election, the PDA helped create a fusionist wing in the Green Party which virtually destroyed that organization. Of course, the Obama election enthralled millions - and left not one bit of progressive organizational residue.

Locally, ex-Maoist and newspaper owner Ed Felien was elected back in the 1980s as a city council member from the “Farmer-Labor Association,” an organization within the Democrats attempting to move it to the left.  He was set up and destroyed quite handily, and yet still cheers for Democrats like millionaire Mark Dayton on a regular basis, and has recently proposed another episode of 'deep entry' into the Democrats.  Now Green Party member Cam Gordon, according to some other Greens, has made a deal with the Democrats, and they have left him secure in his seat in the 2nd Ward.  This is after other Minneapolis Greens lost to Democratic gerrymandering and criminal set-ups similar to what happened to Felien. 

Selfa understands the web of organizations that promote the Democratic Party – NOW, NARAL, many ‘Big Green’ groups, AFL-CIO funding committees, Move-On, the Communist Party, DSA/PDA etc. – will sacrifice their own goals to maintain an alliance with the Democrats.  Even ACORN met its demise in this manner.  This is their road to ‘power’ – truly an addictive choice.   They face an actual choice – real progress or continuing subservience to capital through the Democrats - and they make the wrong choice almost every day.  Selfa points out that it is only through mass struggle (not just wine brunch ‘pressure’) that the Democrats came up with the New Deal or the Great Society.  This is no chicken and egg question. The on-going failure of the American left is the inability to go beyond independent militant struggle to independent militant politics.  Political and economic independence are key – not fealty to the Democratic Party.  A political price for betrayal must be extracted.

Of course, the problem here is that friends, relatives, co-workers and many activists are not ready to give the Democrats the heave-ho, or at least not in public.  This creates a personal pressure to conform, and shut up. On top of that it has been obvious from the beginning that ANY opposition to the Democrats will bring forth the wrath of the capitalist donkey gods. The Democrats come after true independents with the propaganda version of a 50-caliber machine gun, plus every dirty trick in the book.  Recently a Wisconsin union officer who had contact with the Campaign for A Mass Party of Labor was turned out of his union job within months of discussing his ideas about independent labor politics.  This is nothing but a modern version of McCarthyism / Humphreyism, and shows how the Democratic Party polices the unions. Subsequently the Democratic Party once again puked on its shirt  - and everyone elses - in Wisconsin during the recall campaign, a campaign which replaced independent strike or political action.  The Democrats virtually killed the Wisconsin movement. 

This is why you know you are hitting their sore spot, the spot where they live, and ultimately, the ‘spot’ they cannot survive without, when they still go ape about Nader or independent political action of any kind.  The Democratic Party is the Achilles heel of the whole capitalist political structure, the lynchpin that keeps the flywheel of ‘business as usual’ from flying off the applecart. Pull the pin!

And I bought it at MayDay Books!
Red Frog
August 19, 2012

Sunday, August 12, 2012

White People Can't Run in Hijabs

Reflections on the Olympics 2012

What’s interesting about the Olympics isn’t the commercialization or the nationalism.  These have ruined it for many years, and this year is no different.  This year there is a Nike ‘swoosh’ on nearly every track suit, swimming costume and warm-up jacket.  Nike does not even have to run ads because every athlete is an ad.  Even the Russians are now labeled.  Of course, that was the point of promoting counter-revolution in the USSR – expanding the markets for U.S. and western products.  Right next to the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin is the U.S. embassy, now on the ‘east’ side of town.  And right across the street?  A Starbucks.  Lining Unter Den Linden are no longer stores selling the plastic Trabant, but stores selling luxury Italian automobiles like Lamborghini. 

Ahh, freedom. 

I understand in the next Olympics, the athletes will be tattooed with the Nike emblem, with a number for individual identification.

Nor is it enough to watch the ads for one of the Deutschland’s best cars, BMW, promoting U.S. sports, but now “God’ – ah, Morgan Freeman, is portentously narrating VISA ads.  And Freeman is a self-styled liberal-leftist and atheist.  Does he need the money? 

Or the nationalism.  Is it now a requirement for every athlete to literally wrap themselves in their national flag after winning their competition?  The odious coverage by NBC featuring bland and ignorant hosts Matt Lauer, Meredith Vieira, Bob Costas and Ryan Seacrest concentrates solely on American athletes, from what I can see.  If one is not participating, that event will not be covered, which is why we have not seen some events at all.  NBC cut the tribute to the British victims of the 2005 London tube bombings from their opening ceremony broadcast, claiming Americans wouldn’t be interested.  Probably it interfered with squeezing some more ads on, but NBC is not going to say that.

So this is all as it always is.  6 corporations control most of our media.  Relax!  You are in good hands. 

However, the Olympics are still the most popular international sporting event in the world, hence there are some things that happen that are not under complete U.S. control.  I’ve got to hand it to Danny Boyle - the opening ceremony started like some theatrical version of the “Making of the English Working Class.”  Boyle, of course, is the producer of the subtly subversive film, “Slumdog Millionaire.”  The ceremony started with Tolkein’s idyllic world of the English village - which was then replaced by hundreds of industrial and mine workers emerging from pagan-haven Glastonbury Hill, and hammering out a very large Olympic ring (the one to rule them all?) - accompanied by the thundering of drums.  Strutting around while they worked were the top-hatted capitalists of ostensible yore.  Of course, to please everyone, they had to fly in the bored Queen, Daniel Craig as James Bond and the military, but then the damn thing veered back towards celebrating the National Health Service (single payer for you Yanks), British childrens’ stories like Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan and Harry Potter, then finished with a history of British rock music, ending with the off-key contribution of “Sir” Paul McCartney.  (See commentary on ‘Music Sell-Outs,’ below.)  They certainly couldn’t end the story with crowds of tie-wearing capital-markets traders and bankers from the City with their feet on the necks of office workers and factory blokes, but hey, it’s a thought.  And maybe Boyle wished he could.

Unlike U.S. sports coverage, which is dominated by year-around exclusive focus on male baseball, football and basketball, the Olympics gives equal play to women’s sports.  This is absolutely rare.  So for the shortest time, Americans get to see strong, fit, good-looking women compete equally, and not be relegated to the background.  And surprisingly, the evidence shows that white American women cannot run and that black women have a lock on many track events. We’ve known for years that American black men outrun white men, at least in the Olympics.  And this seems to be true internationally too.  Jamaican Usain Bolt (Insane Bolt?), a theatrical name if I ever saw one, is now the fastest human on the planet, at least in short distances.  Russian and Ukrainian women are about the only women that give black American and African women a run for their medals.  This, of course, reflects social practices in Russia and the Ukraine that have existed for many years, especially during the workers’ states period.

In my day in high school, the only thing women were allowed to do in sports was join the ‘dance line,’ which was like the cheer-leader squad.  There were no women’s sports.  After Title IX in 1972 (under Nixon, I might add) American girls were finally allowed to get involved in sports, and this has made great changes in women’s abilities.  Many women of my generation are not involved in exercising at all, while many younger women participate in sports and exercise, simply due to Title IX.  Just look at the capable young female bike riders on the streets to see how this plays out in real life. 

In the Olympics, women’s achievements seemed to be roughly linked to the development of a country, and also its cultural values – specifically religion.  It is not just that countries which are wealthy or partly or mostly developed always bring forth women.  For example, Saudi Arabia is wealthy, and India is supposedly one of the great rising ‘tigers’ of neo-liberalism.  (While the real tigers are all being killed.)  Yet in neither country have women made a significant contribution in the Olympics.  The Saudi’s and other countries were humiliated into enrolling a couple of women in hijabs this year for the first time.  As a result, this is the first year that women are represented on every Olympic team.  India, with 1.2 billion people, spent more money than they ever have, and so far have only gained 5 medals – with a woman winning bronze in badminton and another in judo.  Yet China, which is sometimes compared to India, and does not suffer from Hindu and Islamic fundamentalism, sent 100s of women to the games.  African women participated too – even from the poorest countries like Kenya and Ethiopia. (One winner oddly plastered a picture of Mary and baby Jesus on her forehead after she won a long distance race.)   The Saudi women – and other women from Muslim countries – are almost invisible.  The only exceptions are some Turkish runners and one Malyasian girl in diving.  Turkey, under the revolutionary Kemel Ataturk, expelled Islamic controls in the war for independence in 1922 after a 4 year war for independence against the British.  Women were then given rights, unlike many other Middle-eastern countries.  The Turkish women did not run in hijabs or burkas, which would make running harder, and at least got into the final heats.

India and Saudi Arabia, both U.S. allies, are consistently listed in the top 10 worst countries for women in the world.  

The Malaysian girl came from a country that is only 61% Islamic, and she became the first Malaysian woman to win a medal for her country, a bronze.  I do not know her religion, but Islam is weaker in Malaysia than in Afghanistan or Iran, for instance.  Several Iranian women did compete in the Olympics.  However, they are not allowed to compete in swimming events, due to the allegedly skimpy clothing involved.  Clothing for every sport in Iran has to be approved by the regime – and Iranian women are still waiting for approval regarding karate uniforms, so they could not compete there either.  Iranian women cannot compete in any sport in Iran before an audience of men, even their fathers, which of course limits their abilities and participation.  How the reactionaries in Tehran square that with competing internationally before men at the Olympics is anyone’s guess.  Perhaps the immense political humiliation that would follow if they forbade it?

Title IX was a product of a domestic women’s movement in 1972, but was also the product of the success of women’s sports in the USSR and eastern Europe, especially as displayed at the Olympics. The comparison did not sit well with US authorities.  After all, the Soviets had attained their version of Title IX and the ERA in 1917 after the Bolshevik Revolution.  Like civil rights, which was not just a product of black struggle, but also chided into being by relentless international propaganda against racism run by the USSR, and through domestic, communist-inspired songs like “Strange Fruit” (See review of ‘Malcolm X,’ or “33 Revolutions Per Minute,” below) - abrogations of women's rights are having a harder and harder time existing in national isolation.

Red Frog
August 12, 2012

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Everyone Loves Small Businessmen!

“No Local – Why Small Scale Alternatives Won’t Change the World,” by Greg Sharzer, 2012. 

As our seasons of faux-politics troop by year after year, a real counter-trend has emerged on a somewhat ‘grassroots’ level.  It is the buy local/small co-op/business approach to creating an alternative culture, ostensibly to replace the corporate model.  Richard Wolff, a Marxist professor of economics at Amherst, endorsed the anti-capitalist part of this approach as a key way of ‘democratizing the workplace’ in his book, “Occupy the Economy.” (Reviewed below.)  Various localvore chefs like Alice Waters, the Italian Carlos Petrini of the ‘slow food’ movement, progressive writers like Barbara Kingsolver (Her book “The Lacuna” is reviewed below), advocates of Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) and urban gardening, both left and right anarchists, prominent environmentalists like Bill McKibben, and E.F. Schumaker in his seminal 1973 book, “Small is Beautiful,” all tout local, small-scale efforts as the key way to change the economy, protect health and protect the environment.  These efforts don’t necessarily need to be non-capitalist, of course – in reality, the two trends are combined in most people’s heads.

Here in Minneapolis, like many other cities, we can see the material results of this movement.  Neighborhood micro-brewers, bicycle co-ops, the continuing existence of the 60s-based organic food co-ops in the metro area headed by the Wedge, the blossoming of urban gardens led by the grand-daddy of them all - Dowling, numerous CSA’s providing food to metro residents, many local restaurants serving local/organic produce, farmers’ markets – even Mayday Books itself – form a web of local institutions that seemingly provide a popular- based alternative to the Target/WalMart economy.  However, no actual worker-controlled businesses exist in the Twin Cities except some small co-ops – a point Wolff would be at pains to make.

On a parallel course, Republicans, followed by Democrats, have for years claimed that local small businesses provide the most jobs in the U.S., and thus money should be funneled to small businesses to lower unemployment.  They are the ‘job creators.’ Since both parties are not parties controlled by small businessman, these apparently populist claims are mostly useful in gaining votes.  Even the local Green Party, dominated by progressive small business owners, was indirectly involved in a mayoral campaign led by Pappa John Kolstad that mainly focused on the plight of small business. (see commentary, “Meltdown of the Minnesota Green Party?“ below.) 

It seems, everyone loves small, local businessmen.

Greg Sharzer is a British Marxist, and decided to take a look at this movement.  This timely book puts the local movement under the lens, and reveals why it is lacking as a way to actually protect the environment or change the economy.   He does not completely dismiss it either, for obvious reasons.  Localism is an indicator that the corporate approach is not working, and has arisen as an alternative to monopoly capitalism.  I have noticed that the people most interested in recycling, growing their own food, buying locally, changing their diet, reducing energy use, bicycling, etc. – and are actually willing to DO these things in their personal lives -  are many times the same people who want an anti-capitalist alternative. After all, if individuals and families can all do this, why can’t businesses and government?  I myself compost, recycle to one bag of garbage per month, grow some vegetables, bicycle to work, mow my lawn with a push-mower, eat vegetarian and a bit of fish, belong to a CSA, repair items, try to buy used, and purchase items locally, or ‘fair trade’ items, if possible, even if they cost more.  Yet none of this is going to change capitalism ultimately.  It is a sandbox.

The apparently populist claim that small businesses ‘create’ the most jobs has been debunked recently by Jared Bernstein in his blog, “On the Economy.”  In a massive study on small-business job production by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, it reveals that, like the deceptive unemployment, GDP, poverty and inflation numbers issued by the government, the ‘job creation’ numbers have also been massaged.  (And they used to bitch about the USSR issuing fake statistics!) The numbers which show small businesses generating the most jobs are based on ‘establishment size.”  And ‘establishment’ is based on a specific geographic site. In effect, if you have a business that employs less than 50 people on a geographic site, that qualifies as a ‘small business.’  Even if it is a McDonald’s restaurant, a GAP store or a MAC cosmetics store.  And now you see the falsity of these numbers.  When you take an ‘entity’ point of view, large corporations are the chief hirers of labor in the U.S., not small businesses. And on an international scale? No contest.  Nor does it show how many small businesses are nothing but feeders for large corporate enterprises.

Small business has also recently taken another adjustment in the statistics field.  George Zornick of the Nation recently posted statistics that show that 66% of low wage workers work for large corporations, not small business, so that raising the minimum wage is really something corporate America does not want, not ‘small business’ America. 

In Sharzer’s reasonable polemic, of which I can only sketch an outline, he takes on many claims of the localist movement.  Probably the most solid claim by the localist movement is that money spent in a local business stays in the community.  On the face of this, it seems quite logical and bullet-proof.  'Civic Economics' is an organization charged with investigating this issue in Andersonville, a Swedish ethnic business neighborhood in Chicago.  They found chain stores retained $43 in the local economy, while local stores retained $68.  However, hidden in this statistic is how much of the product being ‘locally’ sold is also produced locally.  I.E. an Andersonville gift store selling handicrafts or food from Sweden is exporting part of that $68 back to Sweden.  It is also possible that that gift store is owned by someone living on the tony ‘Gold Coast” of Chicago – and again, more of the $68 starts migrating away from Andersonville into a wealthy ‘local’ enclave of the same city.  An expensive and unhealthy ‘mom & pop’ grocery store in Andersonville may suck more money out of the local population than a Wal-Mart, thus leaving less for other local vendors.  Nor might all local stores pay more than chains.  In addition, not all local products are as carbon-friendly as products shipped from other countries, due to the low carbon output of rail and ship.  Sharzer maintains that the apparent economic/environmental benefit of consumption based on local firms is not as clear as stated.  

Sharzer analyzes the role that consumers can have in changing capitalism, both factually and theoretically. At present, in the UK, only 1% of all purchases are ‘ethical’ purchases – not enough to sway anyone.  Even if this percentage crept up to 5 or 10%, it could not dominate the economy.  One of the present losing tactics of the labor movement, as Joe Burns pointed out in “Reviving the Strike,” (reviewed below) is the consumer boycott (aka “Corporate Campaign”) which replaced effective strike action in many strikes in the recent past.  Burns concluded consumer boycotts are only subsidiary tactics that can accompany a real strike, not the main tactic itself.   

Theoretically, neo-liberals maintain that consumers are at the heart of capitalism and labor is peripheral – or invisible.  If they are right, then the localist movement is also right.  If they are wrong, then the localist movement’s ideology is just a bit of populist neo-liberalism, this time benefitting small business.  Anarchists like Proudhon believed capital was not the enemy, just the way the market was run.  Marx believed the market was a product of the social relations of production – ownership by the capitalists of most land, means of production and most property.  Changing the ‘market’ could not change the ownership of society, because the owners of society controlled the market.  Sharzer points out that even present ‘fair-trade’ items do not eliminate exploitation.  Sharzer hinges his argument on “SNALT” – socially necessary abstract labor time, a Marxist concept – in essence, labor power.  Humans create value, not machines or techniques.  The market does not exchange concrete use values; only exchange values.  As a result, no worker will be compensated adequately and no product will be sold for its real price.

Schumaker himself opposed Marx’s ‘labor theory of value’ because it was ‘human-centric.’ Marx’s theory actually showed that capital was anti-human because it only valued products – and in the derivative, the consumers who buy those products.  In addition, Marx implicitly costed natural inputs.  It was a Soviet Marxist who actually formalized this – though his economic accounting was not followed by the Soviet state. Most pro-capitalist localists idealize the market – and that is why they can never  undermine a market economy, nor can they free labor as a commodity, nor can they protect the environment, which can also be exploited ‘locally.’  Their real goal is to realize the dominance of small enterprise owners – an impossible goal, of course, in a period of increasing world monopolization.  It is only an argument to create niche markets within the broader confines of the capitalist system.

Sharzer cites authors who contend that the nostalgia for local small business hides their real make-up – in 2010 83% of small businesses in the U.S. were owned by older, white, married men.  No surprise there. 

Sharzer takes on the anti-capitalist version of localism too. He contends it is similar to visions of national autarky, yet on an even more narrow, fragile basis. Long-distance trade has never been absent from almost any economic system, even the former workers’ states.  Hidden behind the bias against the use of efficient large-scale technology is an anti-industrial attitude – essentially substituting subsistence and a microscopic cottage economy.  This paradise was idealized by Marxists like William Morris in his book, “News From Nowhere”, (reviewed below.)  Sharzer, citing Marx, says that anti-capitalist localists cannot overcome the law of value when they try to replace big industry and high-tech with direct, non-capitalist trade. Big capital dominates markets and will always do so until capital is overthrown.

Sharzer goes into an analysis of urban agriculture (“UA”), its dependence on bourgeois land rent and its minor role in national agricultural policy.  He then discusses the lifestyle recommendations similar to those of middle-class socialists in England cited by George Orwell (In “All Art is Propaganda,” reviewed below) -‘hygiene, fruit-juice, birth-control, poetry…”- and their similarity to the life-style recommendations of the present localists – organic food, yoga and craft beer. Ultimately, Sharzer identifies localism as an ideology of the progressive petit-bourgeoisie – which sees the culture war as the true font of politics, not capital and class.  Kingsolver even sees conspicuous consumption in negative Buddhist religious terms – in essence, shopping is now a spiritual issue.  Market choices for upscale hiking boots, vintage furniture, wheat-grass juicers and locavore food identify the true cutting edge of this revolution – in its cultural, consumptive choices.  In essence, this approach disappears the working-class – that grubby majority which this ostensible democracy rests upon.  Everything returns to a modern day ‘Renaissance Festival” of artisanal villages and art fairs for consumptive hobbits. 

Artisanal improvements in certain products can increase quality and health – hand-made soaps, hats, furniture, breads, etc.  They might be made by individual entrepreneurs that live a somewhat precarious existence. Yet this improvement in quality does not change the essence of the commodity as a commodity.  And in both price and payment for labor, artisanal products for the most part cannot compete with large capital. 

Sharzer’s book flows directly into “Rebel Cities” by David Harvey, (reviewed below) which raises the class issues of any locality or ‘community’ that do not disappear once the worker leaves his plant, office, warehouse, hospital, school or working at a store and returns home.   Predatory local businessmen are many times a derivative exploiter, seeking their cut of the workers’ wages.  Not to mention the ‘local banks’ that mortgage the houses, apartment buildings and businesses lining the local streets. 

At best, both pro and anti-capitalist localism provides a space for alternative businesses and people to get a breathing space and an organizing center. At best, it provides training for the future task of running the whole of society, not a tiny part of it.  At worst, it provides a substitute, a placebo for true change, and ultimately, is a prop to the petit-bourgeoisie as a class, and no one else. 

P.S. - February 27, 2013 on Bloomberg, a professor at the New School in NYC said the similarity between "Occupy" and the Tea Party was that they both liked small capitalism.  He called the new form of hipster capitalism, "Indie capitalism," citing one of the first organic restaurants, Alice Water's Chez Panisse in Berkley.  'Nuff said.  

And I bought it at May Day Books!
Red Frog, August 1, 2012