Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Warning - Angry Rant!


In the endless quest for entertainment, I attempt to avoid that which will give me heartburn. It is like food poisoning or wasting your life. Well, can’t always succeed.


I decided to do a favor for a sad friend and see, “The Dark Knight Rises” with him at the Riverview. The latest installment in the Batman franchise. A mistake. We left after 2 hours of punishment.  I apologize for not inflicting the rest of the film on myself.

If you wonder, like me, why a story about some rich man who feels compelled to fight ‘evil’ on his own is so central to some tights-wearing males, you have a point. Who appointed Bruce Wayne? What is some creep with a butler, a big house, some ‘Industries” and a missing “Robin” have to do with this? Yeah, he’s not so friendly with the police, but then he is. He’s like the uber-cop. Charles Bronson. The avenger. A citizen vigilante. One guy? Who flies?

In this case, a group of nuclear-loaded anarchists bust into the New York Stock Exchange on Wall Street. The anarchists then hold a rally for the citizens in a “Gotham” ball field and tell them they are free. Everyone in the stadium looks at each other and wonders what that means. The crafty anarchists trick thousands of cops into being trapped in an unused subway tunnel. Then they free those in Gotham’s prisons - many of whom later turn out to be innocent. They hold trials of rich people or something like that. Everything is not shiny, rich and new anymore, but grey and poor. Sound like anything current? Yes, you got it, an ‘anti-Occupy’ counter-revolutionary Batman movie. Who would have thunk it? The Commissioner is nailed in the film for jailing innocent people, but, look, we still have to free those cops. After all, the anarchists have a weapon of mass destruction. Or maybe they are Iranian or Iraqi.

I was cheering for the nuclear anarchists, and their masked Road Warrior leader, kept in a hole in the desert in Uzbekistan or something.That is never a good sign.

The plot is so convoluted, the story so long, that even some beer could not make this dark night make sense.


I decided to do another favor, this time for one of my daughters, who wanted to see “Appomattox” at the Guthrie. She wanted to see if this play was appropriate to bring students to. The Guthrie is our ‘flagship’ theater in this heavily-theater town, a stylish, airport of a building on the river, sponsored by who rules Minneapolis. Don’t go. I felt trapped, until LBJ told some fart jokes.

The play is written by an evidently English LBJ acolyte named Christopher Hampton. It was in two parts – one, 1865, the last year of the Civil War (hence the title, Appomattox.) and one in 1965 after the Kennedy assassination, when LBJ was president. Mr. Hampton has the most general and clich├ęd view of the civil war put to stage - all text, no feel. It was like a revolving historical diorama of speeches and quotes, spoken by wooden, dull actors (except perhaps by the one playing Grant), repeating every single word now made famous in quotes from history books. It could work as a diorama for tourists in Gettysburg. And would have put students to sleep, as it was doing to part of the grown-up audience. My daughter scotched the play about here.

Then, after a drinks-laden intermission and a view of the twinkling Mississippi, the second half started. LBJ started swearing and insulting, Martin Luther King started pontificating and speechifying, the playwright hit all the typical liberal cliches’ and pablum, and at least LBJ gave us some laughs. Hampton did the FBI and the CIA a favor by portraying Lee Harvey Oswald as a ‘leftist’ defending Cuba - which was the line of the American secret police about that event. Stunning. He then makes fun of Hoover through the eyes of Johnson for the rest of the play, after propagandizing for Hoover in this manner. I have a question, Mr. Hampton. Why didn’t LBJ get rid of Hoover, if he hated him? Or did Hoover have something on LBJ, like he had on everyone else? But LBJ didn’t, and it is quite possible this helped lead to the assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968. Another 'redneck' made fun of by the Texan LBJ, Alabama Governor Wallace, also appears. LBJ did not force the segregationist ‘cracker’ Wallace out of the Democratic Party in 1965 either. That happened 3 years later.

The plays sole strength is showing that LBJ still had aspects of a southern New Dealer about him. This is why he yielded to popular pressure – riots, strikes, sit-ins and marches at home and the opprobrium of the whole world, including the USSR abroad - and adopted the voting rights and civil rights bills, as well as Medicare and Medicaid. Of course, the hook was that meanwhile guns and butter LBJ was sending Marines into Vietnam. The rest is bloody history. Hampton wears an LBJ T-shirt in the printed promo brochure, so we know he didn't volunteer to go to Vietnam to help LBJ out.

This play could have just been called “Lyndon’ and expanded around that. As it was, it was a pastiche and a traffic accident.  The black people were stereotypes.  The running joke was that the wives and the aides of these ‘great men of history’ really had the power. The two token ‘radicals’ in the play, John Lewis of SNCC and Frederick Douglass, had almost no role – playing walk-ons to the ‘great men’ like Lincoln and King instead.

Hampton’s basic point was that the civil war did not solve the issue of slavery and oppression in America, even after a 100 years. However, nor did the 1960s. The position of black people at the bottom of the U.S. economic hierarchy has now not changed for 147 years – even after so many ‘great men.’ If this punk writer had been serious, this might have been his real point.  As it was, this little fact the adulator did not make.


This film was the best of the three. I chose to go to this myself, based on the massive buzz. It is a cross between the style of Terrence Malick’s surreal “Tree of Life” (reviewed below), the class atmosphere of Winter’s Bone and the theme of Spike Lee’s “When the Levees Broke.” It is the spotted story of a tough 6 year old black girl named “Hushpuppy” who deals with a Katrina-like flood on her island in the Mississippi River delta. While handling a drunk, violent father, a missing mother, a burning shack, being left alone and homeless, being hungry, then a dead dad, and monstrous wild boars the size of semi-trucks. Clueless white people actually brought their children to the Riverview Theater to munch on popcorn, pop and candy bars and watch this, because they thought it was a child’s film. Global warming caused this film, not Disney.

At the end of this story, there is only an emotional residue. Like a bad dream. I mean a really ‘bad’ dream. Flashing images. Fear. Disgust. But she’s a tough, plucky feral child, sort of like the kid in Road Warrior II. And we are supposed to be cheered by that. Too bad she’s not real.

This film provided the basis for an essay by film ‘theorists’ who argue that America has become such a 3rd World country that ‘magical realism’ is no longer foreign. This is how the powerless handle bad facts – through magic and poetry. It used to be confined to fucked-up little countries outside our borders, but it is now invading our ‘own’ psychic terrain. Those guys should have seen “The Dark Knight Rises.” Their pessimism would have been cured.

Red Frog
October 31, 2012
Happy All Hallows Eve
Happy Dia Dos Muertos

Sunday, October 28, 2012

The Oligopolists Unite

“The Endless Crisis – How Monopoly-Finance Capital Produces Stagnation and Upheaval from the USA to China,” by John Bellamy Foster & Robert W McChesney, 2012

Live in the U.S.?  Hoping to go back to the 50s?  Hoping the good times will return?  Is history circular?  Does it oscillate?  It is like a pendulum?  Is it purely linear?  Does it always get better?  Do you know?  In this book, supporters of the Monthly Review tendency, probably the most vital in U.S. Marxism on a theoretical basis, extend their analysis of what happened in the U.S. in 2007-2008 to the whole world.  Historical economics, they would agree, is dialectical – and now it has fully entered the international stage, which, barring the discovery of another livable planet, should be the final stage of capitalism.  They call this final stage, “international monopoly-finance capital,” a mouthful, but still accurate.

This book is a continuation of Foster’s first book on this subject, “The Great Financial Crisis,” (reviewed below), and of course, based on the seminal work of Baran & Sweezy, “Monopoly Capital.” (Also reviewed below.)  One of its pluses is that it is a very good overview of economic debates within the left, and also against bourgeois economic theory since the turn of the century.  It is written, like all their books, in a clean, clear prose, with lots of repetition to make the points.  The authors go back to Marx frequently to show how his ideas were germinal in their analysis.  The authors pay special attention to the issue of growing world-wide monopoly (oligopoly) among multinational corporations in most industries, and how these oligopolies actually destroy the price theory of capitalism.  I.E. oligopolistic corporations do not compete through price, as it is too destructive, but only through advertising, squeezing labor costs and other efficiencies.  As such,“prices” are not set by the market, but by the oligarchs. 

Concurrent with this is the thesis that the apparent conflict, let us say between several massive world airlines, software, plane or auto manufacturers, is a reflection of the oligopoly in those industries, and nothing more. Foster/McChesney present much data to back up their claim that the expansion of multinational corporations world-wide has led to larger oligopolies, not the ending of oligopoly, or monopoly, as is the blinding myth presented by bourgeois economics. 

Oligopolies, due to their dominant position in the state, in the political system and in the economic system, are able to increase profits to the point where they see no need to expand production.  Hence, the MR thesis that ‘over-accumulation’ of profits and surplus value by oligopolistic multi-nationals leads to economic stagnation.  This stagnation is dealt with instead by playing in the financial casino markets – the ‘only game in town,’ as I once called it.  They also point out that the attempts by U.S. & European governments to prop up the financial firms is an acknowledgement that finance capital IS the most profitable sector, and that particular ‘goose’ should not be killed. 

The authors say kind words about Keynes on this subject, showing him to be close to Marx on the growth of finance capital.  (Keynes never read Marx…)  Marx predicated that sometimes his famous theory – M-C-M+ - could just be – M-M+ - meaning that money would just make more money, and avoid producing any commodity whatsoever.  This is an elegant picture of financialization, one which Keynes agreed with.  Krugman, America's leading "Keynesian," has read Marx, however, and does not have that excuse.  The authors point out Krugman’s support for ‘globalization’ and low wages (like Thomas Friedman, his ostensible opposite…) places him as a loyal supporter of world capitalist expansion.  Krugman’s liberalism always stopped at the border’s edge anyway.

These theories, which I think are basically correct, bring up a key question.  The authors repeatedly talk about a ‘new invention’ that might mitigate the stagnation thesis.  Marxists in the past have cited the steam engine, the railroad and the automobile as key inventions that spurred capital from the outside, as it were.  I would suggest that the computer – ‘the digital revolution’ as even they call it – has done so since the early 1980s, the period they focus on.  It has enabled globalization, the increase in unemployment, the increase in corporate size and the increase in surplus value due to its spurring of productivity.  The authors are aware of some of these effects – but barely.  They do not admit that without the invention of the computer and extensive digitalization of so many areas, much present industrial manufacturing would not exist. 

Of note, the most profitable sector in the world now is technology infrastructure, which is definitely digitally-related.  In 2012, of the top 10 firms in U.S. market value, 5 are digitally-related – Apple, Microsoft, IBM, Google & AT&T.  Apple, Microsoft and IBM are in the top 10 firms in profitability. (CNN Money)   I do not know what percentage the industries connected to digitalization have overall – software/ tele-communications/  internet sites/ tech infrastructure/ computer-phone-etc. hardware manufacturing – but without their existence industrial production in the world would be much smaller. It is literally dragging every other sector into its orbit.  Even cars, toasters, washing machines and refrigerators are being digitized.  Newspapers are disappearing, as digitization affects all media and all entertainment.  Travel agencies have disappeared. Schools are becoming internet-based.  Anyone that cannot work a computer cannot get a job in many industries, even blue-collar ones like machinists and automobile mechanics.  To me, the authors, in their desire to proclaim industry dead and financialization supreme – ignore the very real existence of this new industrial sector. 

Yet, the digital revolution doesn’t change some basics.  It has also created oligopolies in every area – Verizon & AT&T; Microsoft & Apple; Intel & AMD; IBM, HP & Lenovo; Cisco & Qualcomm, etc.  It is rife with planned obsolescence and the ‘wit’ of advertising fetishism – just look at any Apple product.  Employment in these industries, like the finance industry, is not as extensive as in automobile manufacturing.  And the digital revolution is now beginning to slow down, no doubt, in line with the MR thesis.  Digitalization is no panacea for capital, but it is still the single manufacturing event that has breathed life into that sector, and produced massive profits, which also have gone into state capture and the Wall Street/ City/ Bourse etc. casino.

As Foster/McChesney point out, the unfettered rule of the multinationals is creating the largest working class in world history.  Marx noted this long ago, as capitalism creates workers alongside surplus value.  As of last year, there are now more workers in the world than any other class, and the majority of people now live in cities.  To those who think the working class disappeared – just look to the global South, where according to the authors, the numbers are now 71% of the world total.  Alongside the absolute increase in the world working class is the pauperization of that class, its ‘precariousness’ (See reviews of “The Precariat,’ “Planet of Slums,” and “Tropic of Chaos,” below).  Foster/McChesney even quote Marx in detail on the part-time nature of many workers in the reserve army, undermining any thesis that this is a 'new' class, unexpected by Marxism.  The ‘reserve army of the unemployed’ and semi-employed is one of the largest armies the world has ever seen.  It is essential to the process of monopolization.  So too is the monopolization of the political contours of each country.

As Foster/McChesney note as an aside, in the U.S. and other countries like India, two parties of the oligopoly compete for our votes, mirroring the economies on which they sit.    

As is typical, Foster/McChesney ignore the role the workers’ state economies played in stabilizing the world economic system in the past.  Their ending (minus some small effects of the weaker markets and role of the state in Cuba, Vietnam, North Korea and China), is noted here only in the context of expanding the range of capital’s ability to directly exploit millions more workers. Central Europe is now a low-wage colony for western European capital, and China's workers have become one for the U.S. They go into great detail at the end of the book on why China will not pull world capitalism out of its decline. The reasons are legion - increased labor and farmer struggles, the massive bubble in Chinese property values and construction overbuilding, the domination of the private 'shadow banking sector,' an extreme disparity of wealth, where 250,000 families control 70% of assets - and the very real, impossible limitations of escaping an export model with an internal consumer economy based on ... very low wages. For more on this, read Minqi Li's "The Rise of China." (reviewed below.)

The MR crew point out that the upshot of the multi-national takeover of the world economy is that their problems of finance & debt; their methods of paying low wages; their political tactics of divide and conquer of the world’s workers; their rape of the environment - is being visited on almost every citizen in some way.  It is not sustainable or long-lasting – it is a perversely disruptive gold rush that destroys much of what it touches.  Only the oligarchs and their footman benefit.  Which is why there is a possibility that a world-wide revolution is more possible now than in the past, given the broad and simultaneous nature of capital’s effects. 

And I bought it at May Day Books!
Red Frog
October 28, 2012

Sunday, October 21, 2012

The Trickledown Counter-Revolution

“Walking With the Comrades,” by Arundhati Roy, 2011

Arundhati Roy is an internationally-known woman journalist and novel writer, famous for her romantic novel set in Kerala, “The God of Small Things.”  I’ve reviewed her last book of journalistic writing, “Field Notes on Democracy,” (below) and this is another in that line, except focused on the Naxalite rebellion in the forest regions in central India, involving the Communist Party (Maoist). 

As a journalist, Roy was invited in 2010 to spend time with the guerrillas.  She interviews many comrades, walks for days, her only cover a blue tarp, and doesn’t complain much.  She attends a giant rebel celebration, Bhumkal, that goes on all night, consisting of mass singing and dancing.  Later, other journalists are killed by police for covering the rebellion.  Roy's picture was flashed on TV later as a “terrorist supporter” because she did not condemn a successful Naxalite raid on a police camp.  Journalists are not allowed to enter the tribal forest zones by the government, and as Roy points out, the government may be preparing a “Sri Lankan Solution.”  That consisted of killing thousands of Sri Lankan rebels behind closed doors.

This book is the stone-cold accompaniment to Michael Klare’s “The Race for What’s Left.” (reviewed below) The reason the forest peoples of several India states – Andra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Chhittisgarh, Orissa, Jarkhand and West Bengal – are in armed revolt is due to the government signing ‘memorandums of understanding’ with various Indian and international mining consortiums to dig out trillions of dollars of bauxite, iron ore and other valuable minerals. (with the government getting a tiny 7% royalty.) Besides stripping the land, forests and mountains, massive dams are needed to produce the electricity to make aluminum out of bauxite. For all these reasons, the Indian neo-liberal government has undertaken to remove millions of adivasi tribal peoples who live there.  And the only way to do it is through violence.  60 million people have already been displaced. 

Roy points out that handing over the land to these corporations violates India’s own 1950 Constitution.  However, laws are made to be broken, especially when they conflict with the goals of the most powerful corporate forces in India.

In response, the forest peoples have begun to make common cause with the Maoists, who have been waging guerilla warfare since the peasant rebellion in Naxalbari in 1960.  Hundreds of thousands are now organized in militias, the “Peoples Liberation Guerilla Army,” cultural groups and women’s organizations.  The guerrilla movement is using revolutionary violence to defend the adivasi way of life - to stop the destruction of homes and lands, the rape of women, the thievery, the killing of anyone who stands up to the police, the fascist “Salwa Judum” and now more frequently, the army.  These government forces basically take orders from the mining companies.  As Roy puts it, what else can they do, call an ‘indefinite hunger strike?” 

Nor is there anyone to vote for, as the political process, as in the U.S., is completely controlled by the ‘liberal’ Congress and rightist JHP parties, both of which support the mining corporations.  Roy has a funny, capsule view of the Congress Party, which is somewhat equivalent to our “Democratic” Party.  Sonia Gandhi and her son Rahul are charged with running the Congress Party’s “Department of Compassion and Charisma” while the neo-liberal Congress economist Manmohan Singh takes India towards complete corporatism behind that screen.  Another of the neo-liberal ‘coven,’ P. Chidambaram, lecturing at his alma mater, Harvard, as quoted by Roy:  “Democracy – rather the institutions of democracy – and the legacy of the socialist era have actually added to the challenge of development.”  (India used to be more state-driven, and ‘development’ is what this all is, you see.)  Does this remind anyone of anything here in the U.S.?

As the stale vacuous argument about ‘violence versus non-violence” goes, no one considers the role of defensive violence. (See our review of “Non-Violence Protects the State, below.)  Almost no one except extreme pacifists believes people do not have a right to defend themselves.  Even a radical journalist like Roy understands there can sometimes be no other choice. 

Most interesting is that 45% of the guerilla army and militia are women.  India as a whole is one of the most chauvinist societies in the world.  Many tribal Indian women live lives of quiet desperation – as one women pointed out, in her village, even on a trivial level, ‘girls are not allowed to climb trees, or they will be fined; if a woman hits a man who has hit her, she is fined one goat; women are not allowed to go hunting or get the best parts of the meat; women are not allowed to eat eggs.”  To the police, a short ‘bob’ haircut is a sure sign a woman is a Maoist, and she might be killed just for that. 

Roy is not a Maoist, and is well aware that today’s comrade can be tomorrow’s thug.  She tracks the inconsistent politics of the Maoists, while praising their toughness and resilience.  As she puts it: “ ..their doctrinal inflexibility, their reputed inability to countenance dissent, or work with other political formations, and most of all their single-minded, grim, military imagination make them too small to fill the giant pair of boots that is currently on offer.”  The Maoists represent many of the forest peoples, “‘the most militant end of a bandwidth of resistance movements fighting” … the mining cartels.”  But they have no roots among the Dalit ‘untouchables,’ the working classes in the city, farmers and the agricultural working classes outside the forests.  Roy dismisses the other Communist Parties in India, which have failed at revolution, and become in one case in West Bengal new defenders of exploitation, and calls for ‘a more vital and genuinely Left movement in India" that will encompass many movements.

What is most interesting about Roy’s reporting is that she notes that across the spectrum, from liberals to Communists, all have rejected, at least theoretically, the neo-liberal turn of the dominant Indian political caste.  And that all the rebellions happening throughout India at various levels over land, dams, water, hunger, unemployment, government repression and corruption, Hindu revanchism, imperialist edicts and the endless occupation of Kashmir might come together, sparked perhaps by more mass atrocities against the forest peoples and against the Naxalites. 
After all, it was the World Bank, the IMF, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher that instituted the reign of neo-liberalism across the world, which ‘trickled down’ to India.  So our responsibility in the U.S. is not so far away.

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

Monday, October 15, 2012

Atheists, Agnostics, the Unchurched. Congratulations!

Atheists to Talk at May Day Books

Yesterday, the PEW survey of religion found that self-described Protestants in the U.S. had dropped below 50% of the population, and secularists were increasing.  Self-described Protestants now are 48% (from 53%), while the 'religiously unaffiliated' category rose to 19.6%.  That is an 'un-churched' increase of 5% in 5 years, or more than 60 million people - far more than identify as Muslims, Jews or Mormons, faiths we never hear the end of.  Catholics dropped by 1%, while some 'other' faiths saw tiny gains.  This 'non-affiliated' category is more common among the youth and among Democrats. To all those people whining about the 'new Atheists' and their 'deleterious effect' - they should eat their words. 

It is clear that most of the erosion in the U.S. is not from Catholics, but from Protestants, or those brought up Protestant.  This follows similar recent findings in Germany, where you cannot find a person who believes in God under 28 in the formerly Protestant eastern Germany, while the Catholic south and west of the country is still far more religious, and home to the ruling "Christian Democrat" party of Angela Merkel.  This continuation of membership is surprising, considering the lurch to the right by the Catholic Church in the last few years under Pope Ratzinger.

The U.S. Catholic Church is now in a highly-publicized fight with the older "Nuns on the Bus" (mentioned below in "Reflections on May Day," ) about their work for the poor.  The nuns were inspired by 1962's Vatican II, for Christ's sake, while younger nuns - the few that exist - are reported to be more about praying, fasting and penance.  And can we forget the U.S. bishops highly-publicized fight against gay marriage - which makes them allies of the Mormon Church and the Protestant fundamentalists.  This and the Catholic child abuse scandals all over the world, and especially in Germany, have for instance led  to 100,000 Catholics quitting the German Church every year. I actually see the end of the line for this Church that thinks of itself as 'eternal' - especially in countries with higher standards of living.  Recently the German Church - which is one of 3 religions recognized by the German state - received over C8 billion Euros in donations collected by the German state through taxes.  They announced they would only give absolution, marriage, funerals, confession, etc. to those who pay through this method or other methods.  I.E. you have to pay to play.   Sound familiar?

Many older Catholics were brought up thinking the Church was some kind of bastion of progressivism - a Dorothy Day or Liberationist Theologist around every corner. Au contraire.  Open your eyes. Dorothy Day is dead, and Liberation Theology has been banned.  From the outside, this former liberal Protestant saw private schools run by punitive nuns, sexual repression, chauvinism, a bizarre high-church cult, and absolutely no 'gain' in educational quality.   Every disgruntled Catholic should quit this church.

Of course our Muslim brothers are not much better - even 'liberal' Muslims are still culturally conservative and saturated in their religion, while the political Islamists are busy attempting to kill teenage girls who are for education.  Local Somalis get uptight around your tiny Satanic dog, but the women still drive - while in Saudi Arabia even rich women are not allowed to do that.  Right-wing Hindus?  Remember the periodic religious pograms in India which resulted in the death of thousands of Muslims or Christians? (see Arudati Roy's "Field Notes on Democracy," reviewed below.)  Heaven help an atheist in a place like that.  At least atheists don't have a language, style of dress or skin color - or they'd be dead targets too. 

While it is obvious that all the 'unchurched' are not on the same page ideologically, the fact that so many are not going to church, are not paying money to churches, are not following some preacher, some priest or some Inman - means that they can let logic and material reality have a bit of a role.  Many people are 'spiritual' - you find that vague description a lot - but what this means other than being theoretically impoverished, I do not know.  I myself have been an atheist since I was a little boy.  Having a father die when I was two didn't strike me as quite the thing, nor did it impress my mother about God's mercy or whatever.  

However, atheism by itself misses the point.  Religion is not just a topic of intellectual contradiction, as so many plain atheists think. It has material roots in class society.  Class society needs a 'religious' illogic in order to justify itself and its ideas, and a religious illogic in order to hand solace to those who will find it nowhere else - certainly not from them.  But above all it is the power of long-standing material organizations, large buildings in every neighborhood, whose tax-free pulpits preach their doctrines, support war, support reaction, support capitalism.  The organized conservative churches are one of the main pillars of the Republican Party, while liberal ones steer 'reasonable' Christians into the tender embrace of the Democratic one.

So congratulations to the freethinkers out there.  Enjoy Sunday morning.  Or Saturday morning.  Or Wednesday afternoons.  Or every other religious holiday.  Or all the banned foods and drinks.  While doing so, you can read our reviews, below, of "American Theocracy," "Da Vinci Code," "Dark Side of Christianity," "God & Walmart," "God is Not Great," "The Handmaid's Tale," "The Holocaust Industry," and "Islamophobia."

Mayday Books will be hosting talks and a reception for the authors of the newly published book, "Atheist Voices of Minnesota," on October 24th Wednesday, 7:00 PM, at Mayday, hosted by George Kane, sponsored by the Minnesota Atheists.

Red Frog
October 15, 2012 

Monday, October 8, 2012

War is Personal! And That's All.

"The Yellow Birds,” by Kevin Powers, 2012.

This book has been hailed as the first and best U.S. book coming out of the Second Iraq War.  “Jarhead” was written by Anthony Swofford based on the First Iraq War, and is arguably the best of that war.  We have already reviewed one other book written by soldiers involved in war, Paul Zerby’s, “The Grass,” (reviewed below), about U.S. involvement in Korea.

The book is centered on actions around Al Tafar in Iraq.  Al Tafar is a distance from the Tigris River in far northern Iraq, peopled mostly by Sunni Turkomen. While Powers does not mention it specifically, U.S. Operation “Black Typhoon” in September 2004 secured the city for a time, but emptied the city of residents and was protested by the Turkish government for the excessive killing of ethnic Turkmen by U.S. troops.  The city was later lost to Iraqi rebels and had to be ‘retaken.’

The plot is simple.  Two young Virginia boys enlist and end up in Al Tafar, Iraq in 2004, and one dies, interspersed with the scenes of preparation for war, and the consequences of war.  There is the fatherly but rough and crazy sergeant; the German whorehouse; the sad and almost invisible Hajjis, the alcoholism, the fear, the need to be a man, the depression, the desperate acts – one hinging on a stupid promise made to a mother – and the familiar theme, ‘war is hell.’  Tom Wolfe, a man who figured that if he wore a white suit all the time people might mistake him for Mark Twain, heralded this book as the “All Quiet on the Western Front” of this war.

Let us assume it is.  Why is there not a drop of politics in this book?  Why are we on war #47 and writing about war has not gotten past, let us call it War #1?  Why is war still primarily a private and internal matter of crushed poetry and bloody silences?  Why is this war, a war draped in politics since its beginning, now a springboard for one individual’s post traumatic stress syndrome?  In a sense, the war is ‘aestheticised’ and purely individualized.  Trauma is filtered through art until the trauma weakens.  Even the central event of the book does not ‘seem’ believable, but more poetic.  As such, there is something oddly artificial at the heart of the book, and that shouldn’t be.  Powers is a graduate of the MFA (“Master of Fine Arts”) program in Austin, Texas.   Politics is not what they do in MFA programs, evidently. 

There are some fine lines in this book, there is no doubt.  A description of war given to some useless, embedded reporter as, and I paraphrase, ‘constantly existing in the moment just prior to a violent car crash’ captures something.  Powers’ anti-war sentiments are present: “We were unaware of even our own savagery now: the beatings and the kicked dogs, the searches and the sheer brutality of our presence.  Each page was in an exercise book performed by rote.  I didn’t care.”  Powers commenting on the ‘yellow ribbon’ mania – “…you have bottomed out in your spirit but yet a deeper hole is being dug because everybody is so fucking happy to see you, the murderer, the fucking accomplice, the at-bare-minimum bearer of some fucking responsibility, and everyone wants to slap you on the back and you start to want to burn the whole country down, you want to burn every goddamn yellow ribbon in sight…”

War will never end until books about war are actually more than this.  Of course, the books reflect the soldiers.  The soldiers who went to war in Iraq were not a slice of the general population, but a self-selected group of mostly rural working-class and poor people who had specific economic, emotional or political reasons for enlisting.  This is why the U.S. government does not want to draft soldiers anymore, but prefers private volunteers and mercenaries to ensure a military force as compliant as possible.  War and the services do not really allow this in the end, as the effects are brutal on everyone involved, no matter the intention they first had.  Soldiers, even volunteers, will one day organize against the military of constant war, and when that happens, the continuation of wars will really be in doubt.

However, this books shows how far we have to go. 

P.S. - October 10, "Yellow Birds" was nominated for a National Book Award.   Prescient, hey.

And I did not buy it at MayDay Books, which has a large selection of books on war.
Red Frog
October 7, 2012

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

2012 Winter Palace in Madrid?

“All Power to the Councils! – A Documentary History of the German Revolution of 1918-1919," edited and translated by Gabriel Kuhn, 2012
What giant park in a capitalist city contains two memorials to two assassinated revolutionaries?  It is certainly not Central Park or anywhere in the U.S.  Along the Landwehr Canal in the Tiergarten in Berlin is a memorial to Rosa Luxemburg, at the spot where she had her arms tied behind her back, a rope put around her neck, where she was shot and then dropped into the canal.  A few hundred yards north is a memorial to Karl Liebknecht, shot there by another group of soldiers under orders of the ‘socialist’ Social Democratic Party (“SDP”) in 1919.  They were only the most prominent of many German revolutionaries murdered or killed in the 1918-1919 November Revolution, which ended the creaking Hohenzollern monarchy, but failed to establish a workers’ council republic.  Essentially, a February revolution without October.  Kerensky, not Lenin.

The ‘socialist’ SDP majority were the same ones who in August 1914 endorsed the German instigation of World War I, which split the Marxists in Germany, and led to four years of crushing death and misery for the German working classes and others across Europe. 

Of all the ‘what ifs’ in history, this failure led to the most drastic consequences – the subsequent rise of the Nazi Party and World War II.  Any failure of the Left emboldens the right, and when it involves the “Left” splitting and attacking each other, it increases the culpability of the wrong party.  A successful German revolution could have lead to stronger working-class uprisings all over Europe and possibly prevented the rise of Stalinism in the USSR.  The Hungarian Soviet in 1919 and the workers councils in Italy in 1920 were part of this same movement.

The present ‘American SDP’ is called the Democratic Socialists of America (“DSA”), who should really be called the Democratic Capitalists of America (“DCA”), in tribute to their now 88 years of blocking with the capitalist class.  Congratulations, DCA!  DCA members are found in the various commentariat magazines like “In These Times,” “Mother Jones”, “The Nation,” “,” in the liberal wing of the Democratic Party, in various activist groups and in the staffs of some trade unions.  They play an essential role in policing the Left and providing a transmission belt for reformist ideas to penetrate various rebellious movements.  At the same time, they parade as ‘friends’ of the movements, which as Malcolm X pointed out, is sometimes more dangerous than open enemies. 

This book is comprised of primary sources – anarchist, Marxist and blends of the two.  It puts you in the streets with the rebellious red sailors of northern Germany, who had seized the German fleet in the Baltic, occupying the towns of Wilhelmshaven, Kiel & Bremen; with the council communists of Brunswick and Munich/Bavaria; at the seizure of the SDP paper’s building in Berlin; following the repression against the so-called Spartacist rising in January 1919 in Berlin, seeing the development of  the Ruhr Red Army, based on a general strike and the factory councils in the industrial Ruhr valley; and with armed KDP militias in Vogtland near the Czech border which operated on and off into 1921.

We learn that the KDP (Communist Party, former Spartacus League) sabotaged a united declaration of the Bavarian Council Republic, and played a sectarian role at times.  We learn that some of the anarchists supported federalism, and had no centralized, coordinated response to the national counter-revolutionary activities of the SDP and the German military staff.  We learn of the “Red Stewards’ – working class radicals active in the factories that opposed the slaughter of World War I, and who drew close to the Spartacus League.  We learn that the revolutionaries banned SDP and trade union bureaucrats from the councils in places.  We learn of the revolutionary Germans’ support for Lenin & Trotsky in the concurrent civil war against the White armies in Russia.  We see the hesitations, confusion, half-hearted measures, delays and misplaced trust of a revolutionary process extending over 6 months, involving soldiers and sailors, peasants, workers, the petty-bourgeoisie and the bourgeoisie, and layers of each class and group, and their political parties. 

The main political issue was choosing a council republic, involving mass, democratically-elected workers, farmers and other strata, or a parliamentary system based on occasional voting, dominated by inflexible Party structures, the bourgeois press and money.  For awhile, the two systems existed side by side in Germany as a kind of dual power, but the trajectory of the revolution went towards the conventional, with the help of a lot of killing by the Freicorps and White Guards.  As Luxemburg noted, the elected legislature had been the form of power the bourgeois class chose in its fight with the feudal aristocracy.  The SDP leadership chose the former, the revolutionaries across the board – even some SDP rank and file – chose giving power to the councils, a new form of mostly working-class power.  As many writers noted, including Luxemburg, councils are the natural outgrowth of revolutionary situations, when the population itself gets involved in politics, not leaving it to others or occasional voting. 

Bourgeois democracy in many countries, including Spain and the U.S., is at a new low, dominated by corporate money, bought-off representatives, a sclerotic Party system and a corporate media with no interest in any issues but the horse race.  U.S. congressional and presidential politics essentially have little to do with real democracy.  The German example of a council government, based on workplaces and geography, shows the ‘way forward’ to a democracy of the majority.  “This” is what democracy actually looks like. 

And I bought it at the Anarchist Book Fair – but it should also be available at May Day Books.
Red Frog
October 3, 2012