Saturday, December 29, 2012

Shouldn't We Include NPR?

“Rich People Things – Real Life Secrets of the Predator Class,” by Chris Lehman, 2011

If you don’t like the rich or the upper-middle class, you’ll enjoy this book, in spite of the déjà vu. 

Chris Lehman is a reporter and blogger who joins the ranks of outraged American social-democratic liberals writing about class issues.  He is an erudite and funny writer, styling himself a latter-day Gore Vidal – but of course, without the depth.  Murray Kempton and A.J. Liebling are some of his models as culture critics.  He also admires C Wright Mills, but then, so does everyone.  His articles are somewhat reflective of more in-depth studies found in other books.  For instance, he nails Alan Greenspan, but Matt Taibbi eviscerated Greenspan even more enjoyably.  He further hits Frank Gehry, but after Mike Davis already took down Gehry in “City of Quartz.”

This book is based on his blog for the Awl website.  Like Chris Hedges (“Death of the Liberal Class,”) Matt Taibbi (“Griftopia”), Jeff Faux (“The Servant Economy”), and Guy Standing (“The Precariat”) – all reviewed below – Lehman is no Marxist, but does show an affinity for a biting class analysis.  Lehman cut his teeth as a PHD at the University of Rochester with Christopher Lasch (who wrote “The Culture of Narcissism”), training mostly in the field of cultural criticism. 

What are ‘rich people things?’  Private jets, haute-couture, 3rd homes, exotic vacations, massive jewelry?  Well, yes, but no, since that would be too obvious.  He takes apart more subtle targets, but none-the-less favored cultural artifacts of the bourgeoisie.  Here is a list of most chapters in the book, with some short quotes and/or commentary:

The U.S. Constitution – “Charles Beard found that holders of landed estates, financial securities and regional commercial enterprises … made up the overwhelming majority of ratifiers at the Philadelphia Convention.” 
The New York Times – “Every section of the Times is its business section.”  
Meritocracy – After publication of a 1958 satire about meritocracy written by Michael Young, a British     sociologist, Lehman writes:  “…the greatest joke of Young’s satire is that the ideology of meritocracy has taken firm hold in the U.S. – not as Young intended, as a cautionary watchword for social tyranny of the knowledge class, but rather as a virtual synonym for the hoary American myth of equal  opportunity.” 
“Populism” – Lehman: “… that is how populism has quietly bulked into a Rich People’s Thing.  Once you’re able to separate it from any coherent economic affiliation or program, populism becomes a floating signifier.” Meaning almost nothing.
The Free Market – Lehman: “Goldman made most of its fortune in 2009 by wheeling from the Treasury’s welfare window to exploit the infinitesimally low interest rates the firm commands as a Potemkin consumer banking shop to vacuum up virtually free profits in the municipal and federal bond markets.” 
The Stock Market – Regarding the former Icelandic internet bank, Icesave: “Iceland’s citizens put the government’s proposed bailout plan to a referendum vote – which resulted in 93 percent of the voters responding in the negative.” 
“Class Warfare” – “… persecuted millionaire trope…”
The Democratic Party – Lehman:  “Democrats (during the 2008 election) now represent 57% - some 4.8 million – of the nation’s $200,000 and above households.”  The majority.  This was also repeated in the 2012 election.  This, then, is ‘the party of the working-class and oppressed.’
The Prosperity Gospel – A pastor of a mega-church in Mesa, Arizona said, “The poor will follow the rich, the rich will follow the rich, but the rich will never follow the poor.”
Wired Magazine – Lehman doesn’t like the techie ‘revolution’ for good reason.  And Wired is the upscale Silicon Valley spawn and herald of that fake revolution.  A quote from Wired:  “It’s a consumers’ paradise.  The Web has become the biggest store in history and everything is 100% off.”  
The “Creative” Class – These are the people who moved into the factories, warehouses and mills when they closed.  Lehman:   “American social commentators … have divined exotic new brands of class stratification that have almost nothing to do with material living conditions.”   
Malcolm Gladwell – I actually read one of Gladwell’s books, “Blink” and now I’m feeling sheepish.  It centered around how ‘snap’ decisions were best for large issues.  Good luck with that.  Lehman quotes Gladwell, “If you dwell on a subject for more than thirty seconds or so, you’re probably missing the point.” 
Reality Television – My favorite was “Undercover Boss.”  Lehman writes that at the end of that show, “the corporate CEO… indulges in a sentimental display of noblesse oblige…” while nothing really changes for anyone else. 
Ayn Rand – Lehman reminds us that Rand enthused over rape in her book, ‘The Fountainhead.’ Lehman on Rand:  “L’economie, c’est moi.”  (See also ‘Class Warfare.’)
The Memoir – I have to say, this take-down of the ‘Oprah-age” memoir was most enjoyable.  Lehman:  “The very particular family saga shared by today’s memoir genre has prompted literary scholar Walter Benn Michaels to dub it the ‘signature storytelling form for neo-liberalism.’”
The Supreme Court – Actually, the granting of personhood to corporations took place in 1886, in the Supreme Court decision, “Santa Clara County v Southern Pacific Railroad.”  Lehman contends that it is possible the court reporter, a former president of a railroad (!), included written comments supporting personhood in the final ruling, which had only been in oral argument. 
Higher Learning – University of Phoenix, 420,000 students, 20,000 instructors all part-time, none tenured; federal money accounted for 86% of their income in 2008; defaults run 11%, twice as much as other schools, and their graduation rate is only 16%, while other schools average 55%.  I’m a fucking PHOENIX!  More likely, you are a dead duck.
The Troubled Asset Relief Program – As FDR said, “…they had begun to consider the Government of the U.S. as a mere appendage of their own affairs.”   And we know who ‘they’ are.
The Lobbying World – Northern Virginia’s Loudon County, where many lobbyists live, is the richest county in the U.S.
Libertarianism – Reminding us all that Rand Paul supports segregation. 
The iPad – When the “i” stood for the internet.  And now it stands for “me.”  The commodity fetish of all fetishes. 
The Sporting Life – Romney’s 2004 Winter Olympics paid out $1 million in bribes to 24 members of the Olympics IOC.
Frank Gehry – Lehman agrees with Mike Davis that Gehry designs with the uber-rich in mind.
The Social Media – Lehman, following his theme of skepticism towards ‘high tech,’ questions the real role Twitter and Facebook had in the Arab Spring.  As he puts it, in the 2009 post-election protests in Iran, there were only 19,000 Twitter accounts in all of Iran - .027 of the population.  Of course, he might not come up with the same figures for the recent revolts in Greece, Spain and other parts of Europe. Even the numbers in Egypt are higher.
Language – one of his best essays is actually on language, as he clearly relishes punchy words and phrases.  Like many others, he shows how the term ‘middle-class’ has become ‘empirically meaningless.’ And says Lehman: “We are all affluent entrepreneurs waiting to happen.”

Well, that is Mr. Lehman.  Here are my beefs – let’s start with that last quote.  I know of no one who was expecting to become a rich businessman.  This cliché is repeated over and over again. Are there some statistics?

Lehman’s chapter on Libertarianism compares it to the “New Left.”   It is a familiar trope that some young Gen X types need to put down those dirty hippies and leftists of the 60s and 70s – mostly because they quite clearly don’t know anything about them.  Lehman’s comments about anarchism, libertarianism and the “New Left” reflects this impressionistic hogwash.  His factual link?  Well, you see, there was this Rand Paul supporter he saw who carried a sign, “This is My Woodstock.”  There are many kinds of anarchists – some are right, some left, some working class, some middle class, some even bourgeois.  Being ‘anti-government’ because you hate war or racism is different from being ‘anti-government’ because you hate paying all taxes or poor people.    Class, however, has disappeared from Lehman’s analysis of this, which is odd. 

Lehman also archly says, “Socialism is dead as an ideological force.”  It is ‘an irksomely gnomic floating signifier.”  (Ah, yes, still haunting…) Yet he ends his book with an 1894 quote from a moderate socialist.  He says he like Barbara Ehrenreich, who is a member of DSA, an ostensibly socialist organization.  C Wright Mills, who he also admires, popularized the term “new Left” and not as an epithet.  Mills himself was heavily influenced by Marxism and guild socialism.  Either Lehman is a fool or he’s scared to be identified with socialism, as are the majority of middle-class radicals and uber-liberals.  Perhaps he fears it will interfere with his work at Harpers, Newsday or Yahoo News. 

Lehman is like a gay man who hates gays, or a self-hating Jew, or a middle-class black guy who looks down on poor black guys.  Come on buddy, you’re nearly there!  Just become non-public and stay in the closet, like so many others. 

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

Monday, December 24, 2012

Rubbing Your Commodity Fetish?

The Gift That Stops Giving

Gift-giving within Christmas originated in the Roman solstice festival of Saturnalia, which, after Constantine I, evolved into Christianity.  The Romans knew, in spite of their empire, that without the sun, they’d be toast.  Ah, ok, they’d be very cold toast.  No olives, no grapes, no sex at all.  Rome, and later Catholic Germany, then Dickensian England, were all places where scarcity ruled.  So a gift meant something.  Studies of early Christmas (read “The War for Christmas”) showed that Christmas – its lights, food, drink, gifts, pine trees, yule logs, wassailing – was still mostly a pagan festival.  This is what I tell my observant and non-observant Jewish friends about the present one too, but neither probably believes it.  It is true.  There is nothing specifically “Christian” about putting up lights for instance.  And lights are just a reflection of the big light.  No, not ‘God’ – the sun. 

Old Christmas was a combination of New Years Eve, Halloween and Mardi Gras that lasted for weeks, from the beginning of December into the first week in January.  After all, most of these societies were still rural and no plowing was being done, while lots of food had been stored.  In essence, one long party to enliven the dark, cold days of Europe, Russia and America.  Many times, gifts were given on New Years Day, not on the mythical ‘birth of Bejesus day,’ December 25, or even on Solstice Day, December 21.  The New York rich put a stop to that in the late 1800s and ever since, it has become an interior tradition centered on family, children and … shopping. 

Now I can get behind the children part, having been one myself, and having children myself.  There was a magic to Christmas mornings that the instant gratification of Christmas Eve giving does not match.  And buying presents for children is – or should be – an enjoyable exercise.  What limits it is their demands for higher and higher-priced artifacts, based on the advertising and consumerism they see all around them. Yet, they are still children.  After all, who is more vulnerable than they?

Well, actually, many.  Like your grown-up children, who still do not have decent or stable jobs.  Parents try to provide ‘gifts’ to their grown-up children throughout the year if they really need them - they do not wait for Christmas.  Or the poor of society.  Or the lower levels of the blue and white collar working class.  Perhaps one day around Christmas a mostly middle-class person will volunteer at a soup kitchen. The rest of the year, do they argue against welfare benefits and single-payer health care, want to cut Medicaid and the Earned Income Credit, and insist that the poor and unemployed are lazy and don’t want jobs?  It is very possible.  Charity, which is many times nothing but a boost to the ego of the giver, never results in permanent social benefits. And so it goes.

As an atheist, I celebrate "Christ" mass because Christmas is really a stolen solstice and pagan ceremony, only renamed, with a bunch of creches interjected.  And I'm not letting those people steal it. 

Now, in the present commodity economy, there is a chunk of society which does not need any more ‘presents.’  They have everything they need.  Presents are nothing but a redundant echo of the over-production economy.  From scarcity to too much junk.   This is not relegated to just rich people or upper-middle class people.  Some workers too have closets and basements full of crap.  So excessive shopping – and the consumer fetishism that promotes it are actually trials – economic, physical and social.  Which is why many families opt for just buying one person in the family a gift.  Or limiting the cost to $25.  Or not giving anything, or not accepting gifts.  Which is what I’ve decided to do next year.  No more gifts for me.

Christmas is actually a debt trigger, as workers attempt to copy the spending of the wealthy, to give their children things they cannot really afford (which actually hoodwinks children about financial reality), to forget for a moment their limited funds, to participate in the social ritual in order not to feel left out. In a way, it is a reflection of primitive regimes of 'competitive feasting' where families try to outshine others in their spending.  Weddings also reflect this. But the hangover happens anyway - especially the reception of credit card bills in January.   

The scarcity gift economy that originated in the pagan solstice celebrations is becoming its opposite in some social places.  Over-consumption and over-production are intimately linked. Continuing on this path of consumerist frenzy will not be possible at some point, as the Christmas buying orgy contains within itself the seeds of its own refutation.  Consumerism is a non-religious tradition that the corporations are happy to oblige.  In this, they have become the ultimate ‘pagans.’ So perhaps we will have to reject Christianity and also a bit of modern, dollar-drenched ‘paganism,’ and return to reality.

Happy Solstice. Happy New Year. Happy Old Christmas.
Red Frog, December 24, 2012

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The Marijuana Diaries

“Budding Prospects,” by T. Coraghessan Boyle, 1984; “Rule of the Bone,” by Russell Banks, 1995.

While you are waiting to see if Obama/Biden can again outdo Bush’s pot busts in the next 4 years, you can read these two hilarious and/or true books about the evil weed.  Boyle and Banks are two of the top U.S. fiction writers who cover working-class life.  Though not writing about riots, strikes, revolution, class war, factory work, the assassination of rich people, service work, office work, anarchists or socialists, they write about something a bit more acceptable in the present climate – white people who happen to be blue-collar and/or poor.  Books about the former radical events are few and far between, but as society disintegrates, they will become more prevalent. 

Both of these books center on marijuana – its sale, cultivation and enjoyable use.  This has resonance since the statistics that claim only 10% of the U.S. population uses marijuana are about as accurate as post-U.S. Prohibition estimates of illicit booze.  Scratch a white working-class booze hound now, and he’s probably got a stash too.  And then add in the black and Latino folks?  Sheeeit.  A quarter of houses in Minneapolis probably house the not-so-evil weed.


“Rule of the Bone” is part of a series of books by Banks that combine scenes of New Hampshire and New York with the balmy breezes of the Caribbean – Florida and Jamaica.  His priors – the great novel, “Affliction,’ “The Sweet Hereafter,” “Continental Drift,” “Cloudsplitter,” (a novel about John Brown), “Trailer Park,” and the most recent “Lost Memory of Skin,” - all center on working-class characters being torn apart by circumstances.  Banks has to be congratulated for not allowing his status as a literature professor or the self-centered tenets of MFA writing programs dull his interest in the real world. 

“Bone” is a tattooed young kid who has escaped from an abusive relationship in a trailer-court in rural Plattsburgh, New York, along Lake Champlain.  He becomes a self-identified kid ‘criminal’ – hanging with bikers, breaking into rich people’s stocked cabins, and eventually, living in an abandoned school bus with a ganja man.  There he turns his life around, being taught another way of living and thinking that seems superior to the bargain-basement ideas fed him since he was a little kid.  Bone learns all the rules of the ganja trade (he’d been a small-time dealer earlier…) from his Rasta mentor I-Man, learns the Rasta code, and eventually travels to Jamaica with I-Man when he finds out his real father is also living in Jamaica.  There the ganja deepness only gets deeper.  Some reviewers have called Bone a new “Holden Caulfield” or “Huckleberry Finn,” but I think he actually is more real than Caulfield or Huckleberry – at least to us.  And time is not irrelevant.  Mooning only over books that are a 100 or 50 years old is actually quite odd.  Does the present hold such menace?

Banks has a hallucinogenic view of rural New England – a place of blasted farms, greasy spoons, shitty little towns run by businessmen, real trailer parks, bloody anger, perversion and brotherhood.  Bone spends his time in malls being harassed by underpaid rent-a-cops who score weed on the side; hitchhiking from tiny town to tiny town, living in closets alongside thieving bikers; enduring his step-father’s sexual attentions; living through firestorms, cold and poverty – and comes out the other side.  Marijuana forms a normal substrate of his social and economic life, much like alcohol, though not quite so stupid or sad.  The Bone Abides.


In T.C. Boyle’s hilarious book, “Budding Prospects,” (not ‘Buddenbrooks,’ thanks), three working-class guys get roped into an agricultural mountain of mishaps and heroism trying to grow weed in Mendocino County, California.  Boyle’s ‘priors’ are the political “Tortilla Curtain,” the hippie “Drop City,” the environmental “A Friend of the Earth,” the verbally hilarious “Water Music,” the deeply historical, “World’s End,” and the too-well known, “Road to Wellville.”  This is a cautionary tale about the lust for money.  Lots of money.  The easy life.  A $Half-Million!  Boyle is more of a comedian than Banks, and punctures his prose with set-ups.  He’s also someone who is an observer, but not so much a feeler as is Banks.  Banks, heavyweight; Boyle, middleweight with a hook. 

The central character, Felix, gets convinced by a quirky, rich shit-bag named Vogelsang that he can score big by creating a marijuana plantation at the top of a large hill in California’s version of Appalachia.  He talks two other friends into the plan – Gesh, an enormous doper and Phil, his other high friend.  You have to hand it to these three – they handle every disaster the bud business could throw at them – and survive.  Nosy and retarded neighbors are slobbering up their road.  Snitches haunt them in bars.  Animals eat their crop.  Fascist Hiway Patrol cops knock at their car windows.  Inept Harvard biology majors are their mentors.   And a beautiful woman fashions clay pots – the most dangerous creature of all.

Boyle ends the book with the beautiful losers losing, but not everything.  Felix loves drinking a bit too much, and his dick even more.  Sodden or enamored, Felix is no match for Vogelsang – nor is the rest of the trio.  As is typical of literary ‘observers’ of life like Boyle, his characters get mad, but they don’t get even.  They fall in love or get high or get a bit of money – in other words, they survive. And that is about it.

Red Frog
And I did not buy these at May Day Books - but we have plenty of even more political fiction.
December 18, 2012      

Monday, December 10, 2012

Goodbye to Vanguard Marxism

“The Contradictions of Real Socialism – the Conductor and the Conducted” by Michael A. Lebowitz, 2012

The title of this book reads like it is some Ayn Rand screed, and the unfortunate phrase chosen by Lebowitz, ‘real socialism,’ confuses the issue he is raising.  ‘Ostensible socialism'; ‘really-existing attempts at socialism’ or ‘workers states,’ would be far more accurate for what he means.  After all, Marx in the “Critique of the Gotha Program” made it clear that socialism was a classless society, which would mean it had no state.  However, the important thing is not the terms Lebowitz uses, but the ideas behind them.  He makes his own terms up for some categories, in an attempt to define the nature of what happened in the USSR, China and eastern Europe after 1950. 

This date is picked because, other than the analysis of Yevgeni Preobrazhensky in the 1920s, and of course, quotes from Marx, history for Lebowitz starts in that year.  The prior period is somewhat of a foggy haze to him, filled with some 'crazy uncle' or something.  Though not acknowledging the struggle of the Left Opposition, in a somewhat dishonest way Lebowitz pays ideological homage to it.  The Marxist concept of ‘permanent revolution’ is upheld and the idea of ‘socialism in one country’ undermined, in spite of his dissimulations. Workers democracy is endorsed by Lebowitz and the bureaucracy pilloried, though as the "vanguard."  Trotsky and the Left Opposition were indeed the first Marxists to analyze the effects of the bureaucracy in power, not Michael Lebowitz.

Lebowitz feels that every Marxist must study what happened in the former ‘socialist’ countries, applying Marxism itself.  He uses many original sources to factually analyze the former workers states, and to uncover what led or will lead to counter-revolution.  The Hungarian Janos Kornai is one of his key sources for facts, but not conclusions.   His overall analysis shows that the ‘plan’ was never carried out anywhere, with, of course, national variations.   The reason for this was that social and economic relations were always contested between capitalism on one side, the ideology and organization of the vanguard party on another side, and on a third side, the working class.  Society never became an organic whole.  Preobrazhensky understood this contestation was happening in the 1920s in the USSR.  Lebowitz, instead of forgetting dialectics, applies it to the situation after the conquest of working class power.  Dialectics makes the ‘linear’ development of communism based on an increase in the ‘productive forces’ a fantasy.  He shows, in somewhat dry language, how the struggle between capitalist tendencies and the ‘vanguard’ party, ‘vanguard’ state, ‘vanguard’ economy and the ‘vanguard’ culture – and, hidden in the shadows, the ‘moral economy’ of the working class, actually created motion - in this case, backwards.   The influence of world imperialism is not mentioned in this book as a finger on the scale of capitalist restoration, but it could have been.

Within the workers states, the capitalist tendencies were initially embodied in the enterprise managers, who ultimately wanted control and then ownership of the factories they ran.  The ‘vanguard’ party, which tried to organize a planned economy, was also dominated  by sectoral factions – the leading ones being in heavy industry, the military and resource extraction.  As a result, a scarcity economy was created for the working class based on how the enterprise managers and the ‘vanguard’ planners interacted.  The enterprise managers, who were paid incentives to ‘make the plan,’ hoarded labor and materials, lied about production capabilities and quality, participated in the underground economy  and used ‘storming’ methods to fulfill the plan, creating poor-quality goods or a lack of goods.  As a result, the plan did not work – partly because the planners did not know the real facts.  And the planners began to do some of the same things, though in broader sectors.  This conflicted economy was characterized by shortages of everyday things – housing, food, quality clothing, car parts and many other consumer goods. This scarcity economy was one of the factors undermining the workers state and the allegiance of the working class. 

This clash between the planners and the enterprise managers was a key disequilibrium in these countries attempting to reach socialism.  It reaches it apotheosis in the neo-liberalism of Gorbachev's USSR, which installed theoreticians who supported the independence of the enterprise managers – paving the way for a complete breakdown of planning and the beginning of formal privatization.  Lebowitz shows that the process had started long before that.  He understands that legal ownership of property by the state is only a precondition for socialism and forward movement – not socialism itself.  As it was, in the workers states he contends that property was owned in reality (though not legally) by the vanguard at the center of society.  His key point, based on Marx’s own words, is that material development alone does not lead to the realization of socialism – it is the development of the working class as full human beings that leads to socialism. Material development is secondary and follows that human development.

Lebowitz, like many others, points out that the working class was ignored in their own state.  As long as the social wage was supplied – stable prices, the supply of basics like housing and health care, job security based on full employment, a slow pace of labor, the ability to steal enterprise goods, and the ability to move to other factories – workers were content with the bargain of having no direct power in the factory, the trade unions, the political bodies or in any workers councils.  This was the source of stability, this bargain.  As time went on, stagnation began to creep into the economy due to the failure of the plan and the lack of involvement by the workers.  Lebowitz points out that experiments in ‘workers self-management’ in Yugoslavia and several other workers states to counter this failed because they actually increased the centrifugal forces tearing the plan and the working class apart.  This is similar to the writings of Americans like Gar Alperwitz, who is always promoting workers self-management in the present U.S. – but within only one firm.  Group capitalism in essence, which I guess is an improvement over our conventional capitalism.  But in a society trying to move to socialism, it is backward looking, though apparently ‘democratic.’ 

So the real villain of counter-revolution ultimately was not the enterprise managers, but the ‘vanguard’ itself, as they were responsible for holding back the working class.  They enforced their power through ‘regulation’ – not just of the enterprise managers for a time, but of the working class itself.  Hence the subtitle of this book, ‘The Conductor and the Conducted.”  After a time, the planners and the enterprise managers reached accommodations, as each acted upon the other.  Factory managers supplied central 'planners' with scarce goods.  They became a hardened strata which became ever more distant from the working-class, and moved ever slowly back towards capitalism.  There is a bit of the innocent Maoist analysis here in Lebowitz, but Mao was also a ‘vanguardist’ of the highest order, so I suspect Lebowitz has left Mao behind.  The 'Vanguard' pressed their organizational structure upon every aspect of  society, attempting to bring it to socialism by depriving the class that actually creates socialism from actual power.  And herein lies the irony.

Lebowitz traces how the 'moral economy of the working class' had the possibility of leading the society towards real socialism.  As an example, the Russian term "blat" - essentially trading goods and services, some stolen, some not - created networks of solidarity among workers, in essence a 'gift economy' - yet an economy that was only in the 'egg,' only limited to small circles   He maintains that normal working-class egalitarianism and the idea of fairness among workers holds the seeds of a new society.

Some of Lebowitz’s lines about how the 'Vanguard' can almost literally ‘own’ the means of production in certain sectors is a picture of what is now happening in China, as counter-revolution winds society backwards on the gears of the vanguard’s money.  And the Chinese working-class is ignored, in this so-called 'socialist state' by this so-called 'Communist Party.' 

After all this, Lebowitz has no comments on the nature of the vanguard party prior to the revolution, or what should be the role of a vanguard party, if any, in the struggle for socialism.  He dodges this question too.  I’ll make a suggestion that I’ve made in the past.  That is that the ‘vanguard party’ as a ‘democratic-centralist’ body – if it is even possible for a millions-strong proletariat to end up following only one organization! – should see itself as a combat organization primarily, and begin to ‘wither away’ once the capitalist state is overthrown.  That will guarantee that ultimately the workers councils hold real power, not a group of self-chosen bureaucrats.

And I bought it at May Day Books! 
Come to the May Day Book Sale & Party this Saturday Afternoon.  All books 20% off and purchases of over $35 will get you a free book from our used/discounted section.
Red Frog
December 10, 2012


Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Industrial Homicide

Dystopic Detroitus:  The Bi-Partisan Austerity Cliff

I don’t ever link to, or quote other internet articles at length, and I probably won't do it again.  But there is something punchy about this one that should not be missed.  It is from “TomDispatch,” one of the best left-wing non-sectarian sites on the internet.  It is a graphic representation of what has happened to the American working class in the last 40 years. 

On a personal note, I myself was a factory worker for 20 years, and after being laid-off too many times, decided I’d had enough, and jumped out of the frying pan and into the soup.   After being laid off some more in Cubeland, I finally got a job in the finance industry at a Wall Street firm.  I went from the sick industrial sector of the U.S. economy to one that helped kill it.  It was actually the only full time job I could get, so now you know what sector was growing in the mid-1990s - that lovable Clinton-time.  Most workers, however, would not be able to make the jump.  While I don’t agree with his general picture of southern towns, here is the reason why I left the factory life.

The post is from the 12/3/2012, by Steve Fraser of TomDispatch:

 “Debtpocalypse looms.  Depending on who wins out in Washingtonwe’re told, we will either free fall over the fiscal cliff or take a terrifying slide to the pit at the bottom.  Grim as these scenarios might seem, there is something confected about the mise-en-scène, like an un-fun Playland.  After all, there is no fiscal cliff, or at least there was none — until the two parties built it.

And yet the pit exists.  It goes by the name of “austerity.” However, it didn’t just appear in time for the last election season or the lame-duck session of Congress to follow.  It was dug more than a generation ago, and has been getting wider and deeper ever since.  Millions of people have long made it their home.  “Debtpocalypse” is merely the latest installment in a tragic, 40-year-old story of the dispossession of American working people.

Think of it as the archeology of decline, or a tale of two worlds. As a long generation of austerity politics hollowed out the heartland, the quants and traders and financial wizards of Wall Street gobbled up ever more of the nation’s resources. It was another Great Migration — instead of people, though, trillions of dollars were being sucked out of industrial America and turned into “financial instruments” and new, exotic forms of wealth.  If blue-collar Americans were the particular victims here, then high finance is what consumed them.  Now, it promises to consume the rest of us.

Scenes from the Museum
In the mid-1970s, Hugh Carey, then governor of New York, was already noting the hollowing out of his part of AmericaNew York City, after all, was threatening to go bankrupt.  Plenty of other cities and states across what was then known as the “Frost Belt” were in similar shape.  Yankeedom, in Carey’s words, was turning into “a great national museum” where tourists could visit “the great railroad stations where the trains used to run.”

As it happened, the tourists weren’t interested.  Abandoned railroad stations might be fetching in an eerie sort of way, but the rest of the museum was filled with artifacts of recent ruination that were too depressing to be entertaining.  True, a century earlier, during the first Gilded Age, the upper crust used to amuse itself by taking guided tours of the urban demi-monde, thrilling to sites of exotic depravity or ethnic strangeness. They traipsed around “rag-pickers alley” on New York’s Lower East Side or the opium dens of Chinatown, or ghoulishly watched poor children salivate over toys in store window displays they could never hope to touch.
Times have changed.  The preference now is to entirely remove the unsightly.  Nonetheless, the national museum of industrial homicide has, city by city, decade by decade, grown more grotesque.

Camden, New Jersey, for example, had long been a robust, diversified small industrial city.  By the early 1970s, however, its reform mayor Angelo Errichetti was describing it this way: “It looked like the Vietcong had bombed us to get even.  The pride of Camden… was now a rat-infested skeleton of yesterday, a visible obscenity of urban decay.  The years of neglect, slumlord exploitation, tenant abuse, government bungling, indecisive and short-sighted policy had transformed the city’s housing, business, and industrial stock into a ravaged, rat-infested cancer on a sick, old industrial city.”

That was 40 years ago and yet, today, news stories are still being written about Camden’s never-ending decline into some bottomless abyss.  Consider that a measure of how long it takes to shut down a way of life.

Once upon a time, Youngstown, Ohio, was a typical smokestack city, part of the steel belt running through Pennsylvania and Ohio.  As with Camden, things there started turning south in the 1970s.  From 1977 to 1987, the city lost 50,000 jobs in steel and related industries.  By the late 1980s, the years of Ronald Reagan’s presidency when it was “morning again in America,” it was midnight in Youngstown: foreclosures, an epidemic of business bankruptcies, and everywhere collapsing community institutions including churches, unions, families, and the municipal government itself.

Burglaries, robberies, and assaults doubled after the steel plants closed.  In two years, child abuse rose by 21%, suicides by 70%. One-eighth of Mahoning County went on welfare.  Streets were filled with dead storefronts and the detritus of abandoned homes: scrap metal and wood shingles, shattered glass, stripped-away home siding, canning jars, and rusted swing sets.  Each week, 1,500 people visited the Salvation Army’s soup line.

The Wall Street Journal called Youngstown “a necropolis,” noting miles of “silent, empty steel mills” and a pervasive sense of fear and loss.  Bruce Springsteen would soon memorialize that loss in “The Ghost of Tom Joad.”

If you were unfortunate enough to live in the small industrial city of Mansfield, Ohio, for the last 40 years, you would have witnessed in microcosm the dystopia of destruction unfolding in similar places everywhere.  For a century, workshops there had made a kaleidoscope of goods: stoves, tires, steel, machinery, refrigerators, and cars. Then Mansfield’s rust belt started narrowing as one plant after another went shut down: Dominion Electric in 1971, Mansfield Tire and Rubber in 1978, Hoover Plastics in 1980, National Seating in 1985, Tappan Stoves in 1986, a Westinghouse plant and Ohio Brass in 1990, Wickes Lumber in 1997, Crane Plumbing in 2003, Neer Manufacturing in 2007, and Smurfit-Stone Container in 2009.  In 2010, General Motors closed its largest, most modern U.S. stamping factory, and thanks to the Great Recession, Con-way Freight, Value City, and Card Camera also shut down.

“Good times” or bad, it didn’t matter.  Mansfield shrank relentlessly, becoming the urban equivalent of skin and bones.  Its poverty rate is now at 28%, its median income $11,000 below the national average of $41,994.  What manufacturing remains is non-union and $10 an hour is considered a good wage.
Midway through this industrial auto-da-, a journalist watching the Campbell Works of Youngstown Sheet and Tube go dark, mused that “the dead steel mills stand as pathetic mausoleums to the decline of American industrial might that was once the envy of the world.” This dismal record is particularly impressive because it encompasses the “boom times” presided over by Presidents Reagan and Clinton.

The “Pit” Deepens 
 In 1988, in the iciest part of the Frost Belt, a Wall Street Journal reporter noted, “There are two Americas now, and they grow further apart each day.”  He was referring to Eastport, Maine.  Although the deepest port on the East Coast, it hosted few ships, abandoned sardine factories lined its shore, and its bars were filled with the under- and unemployed.  The reporter pointed out that he had seen similar scenes from a collapsing rural economy “coast to coast, border to border”: shuttered saw mills, abandoned mines, closed schools, rutted roads, ghost airports.

Closing up, shutting down, going out of business: last one to leave please turn out the lights!
Such was the case in cities and towns around the country. Essential public services — garbage collection, policing, fire protection, schools, street maintenance, health-care — were atrophying.  So were the people who lived in those places.  High blood pressure, cardiac and digestive problems, and mortality rates were generally rising, as was doubt, self-blame, guilt, anxiety, and depression.  The drying up of social supports, even among those who once had been friends and workmates, haunted the inhabitants of these places as much as the industrial skeletons around them.

In the 1980s, when Jack Welch, soon to be known as “Neutron Jack” for his ruthlessness, became CEO of General Electric, he set out to raise the company’s stock price by gutting the workforce.  It only took him six years, but imagine what it was like in Schenectady, New York, which lost 22,000 jobs; Louisville, Kentucky, where 13,000 fewer people made appliances; Evendale, Ohio, where 12,000 no longer made lights and light fixtures; Pittsfield, Massachusetts, where 8,000 plastics makers lost their jobs; and Erie, Pennsylvania, where 6,000 locomotive workers got green slips.

Life as it had been lived in GE’s or other one-company towns ground to a halt. Two travelling observers, Dale Maharidge and Michael Williamson, making their way through the wasteland of middle America in 1984 spoke of “medieval cities of rusting iron” and a largely invisible landscape filling up with an army of transients, moving from place to place at any hint of work.  They were camped out under bridges, riding freight cars, living in makeshift tents in fetid swamps, often armed, trusting no one, selling their blood, eating out of dumpsters.

Nor was the calamity limited to the northern Rust Belt.  The South and Southwest did not prove immune from this wasting disease either.  Empty textile mills, often originally runaways from the North, dotted the Carolinas, Georgia, and elsewhere.  Half the jobs lost due to plant closings or relocations occurred in the Sunbelt.

In 2008, in the sunbelt town of Colorado Springs, Colorado, one-third of the city’s street lights were extinguished, police helicopters were sold, watering and fertilizing in the parks was eliminated from the budget, and surrounding suburbs closed down the public bus system. During the recent Great Recession one-industry towns like Dalton, Georgia (“the carpet capital of the world”), or Blakely, Georgia (“the peanut capital of the world”), or Elkhart, Indiana (“the RV capital of the world”) were closing libraries, firing police chiefs, and taking other desperate measures to survive.

And no one can forget Detroit. Once, it had been a world-class city, the country’s fourth largest, full of architectural gems.  In the 1950s, Detroit had a population with the highest median income and highest rate of home ownership in urban America.  Now, the “motor city” haunts the national imagination as a ghost town. Home to two million a quarter-century ago, its decrepit hulk is now “home” to 900,000.  Between 2000 and 2010 alone, the population hemorrhaged by 25%, nearly a quarter of a million people, almost as many as live in post-Katrina New Orleans.  There and in other core industrial centers like Baltimore, “death zones” have emerged where whole neighborhoods verge on medical collapse.

One-third of Detroit, an area the size of San Francisco, is now little more than empty houses, empty factories, and fields gone feral.  A whole industry of demolition, waste-disposal, and scrap-metal companies arose to tear down what once had been. With a jobless rate of 29%, some of its citizens are so poor they can’t pay for funerals, so bodies pile up at mortuaries.  Plans are even afoot to let the grasslands and forests take over, or to give the city to private enterprise.

Even the public zoo has been privatized.  With staff and animals reduced to the barest of minimums and living wages endangered by its new owner, an associate curator working with elephants and rhinos went in search of another job.  He found it with the city — chasing down feral dogs whose population had skyrocketed as the cityscape returned to wilderness.  History had, it seemed, abandoned dogs along with their human compatriots.”

And I read it on the Internet, not in my local mainstream newspaper. 
Red Frog December 5, 2012

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Horse Warriors of the Southern Plains

“The Empire of the Summer Moon – Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History,” by S.C. Gwynne, 2010

Up in the upper Midwest, we know our Dakota, our Ojibwa, our Potawatomi, our Mandan.  But the Comanche’s were only a rumor.  Even a bigger rumor than the Apaches – after all, Geronimo, Cochise and the Chiricahua, the Mescaleros, Mangas Coloradas, Victorio - were as well known as Sitting Bull, Red Cloud and Crazy Horse. 

The rumor ends here.  Gwynne brings the riveting and yet sad story of the Comanches to life, making many claims about the powers of the Comanche nation.  The story centers on the high plains of the Llano Estacado, a sea of grass rising above the western part of Texas in the Panhandle, covering 37,500 square miles – the seat of Comanche hunting territory and Comanche power.  Several large rivers – the Canadian, the Red, the Brazos, the Pecos – originate from it.   

Originally they were a miserable tribe chased out of the mountains of the north, who, upon coming into contact with wild Spanish horses as they moved south, adopted the horse as their mainstay.  Gwynne contends that the Comanche became the best horse warriors in North America.  They were the only tribe to learn to breed them.  Their military fortunes turned the minute they understood what horses could do.  As a result, they held off the colonial Spanish, the Mexicans, and later the Texans and then the United States, from 1598 until 1877. They perfected fighting at night, especially under a “Comanche Moon” and were able to travel hundreds of miles with little food and water.  They could unleash dozens of arrows in the time it took a muzzle-loader to get off one shot.  They were the Spartans of the Plains, basing their life on the hunting of buffalo and brutally successful warfare against other Native Americans and white men.  Comanche society was simple, patriarchal and nomadic, ranging from Colorado to Mexico.  The women did most of the work, while the men practiced polygamy, hunting and warfare.  But the women also fought on horseback. Gwynne maintains that they were more of a barrier to white migration than any other tribe in the U.S.

Interwoven with the story of the rise and fall of the Comanche tribe and bands is the story of Cynthia Ann Parker and her half-native son, Quanah.  Cynthia Ann was the woman made famous in the John Wayne film, “The Searchers.” She was a white woman kidnapped by a band of Comanche and later married one of their most powerful chiefs, had 3 children including Quanah, and lived with the band for many years.  When she was recaptured by the whites, she wasted away in anger and unhappiness, eventually dying by self-starvation.   Quanah grew up to be the leader of the Quahadi Comanches, the most uncompromising band, who had as little contact with whites as possible.  Quanah eventually reads the writing on the wall in his mid-twenties, and becomes a well-known and model reservation Indian.  In this story, more of Quanah’s life is taken up with the latter than the former.  Eventually, both Quanah and his mother were buried side by side in Cache, Oklahoma, where Quanah lived for many years in a large, 10-room house. 

Gwynne captures the constant Comanche raiding and settler retaliatory strikes that took place in Texas, resulting in massacres, military defeats, army and Ranger victories, burning villages and towns, escapes and standoffs.  The Comanches, being war-like, brooked no quarter on the battlefield, only took young or female prisoners, practiced torture, burned civilian towns, and escaped with as many horses and goods as they could steal.  The Texans eventually learned the lessons of Comanche warfare.   They were as brutal to the native people, if not more so. 

Gwynne is a reporter for the Dallas Morning News.  There is a bit of political wobbling in his narration of this dramatic tale, using terms like ‘advancing civilization’ and the “Comanche problem,” while at the same time denouncing the atrocities committed against the Plains tribes; praising the skills of the Comanche horse warriors, and equally their tough opponents, the Texas Rangers or U.S. generals like Ranald McKenzie.  Being a reporter, 'fair and balanced' is how we like it, it seems.  Gwynne ultimately understands the Comanches were being killed to get them off the land – but, as his narration implies, this was inevitable.  The Comanches were a hunter/gatherer society coming face to face with advancing agrarian/ merchant capitalism.  The latter had its Four Horseman of the Indian Apocalypse – Colt six-shooters, Sharps carbines and buffalo guns; disease and whiskey; thousands of settlers; and many dead buffalo, the Comanche’s food.  In the rear marched racist Christianity, Manifest Destiny, greed and private property.  These would prove to be an unstoppable force. 

One day as a gift, the Comanches are let off the Fort Sill Reservation in Oklahoma to go buffalo hunting, just as in the old days.  However, they could find no buffalo to hunt – just heaps of bones and rotting meat.  When they returned to their old camping grounds in Palo Duro Canyon on the Little Prairie Dog Fork of the Red River, they found a white rancher had already laid claim to their canyon.  This canyon was the site of one of the last battles of the southern Plains Indian wars in 1875.  There, fittingly, few lost their lives but the Army commander McKenzie killed nearly all the Comanche horses, thus breaking the back of the hold-out bands.  The very last Comanche was led onto the Fort Sill reservation by Quanah himself in 1877.   This marked the destruction of this southern hunter/gather society – a story unfamiliar, but somehow not.

And not so dissimilar to what is still happening to indigenous, tribal peoples all over the world, at the hands of a more 'civilized' capitalism. Inevitable?  I don't think so. Gwynne prefers to historicize these events, as if they have no relevance to the present.  But they do. For instance, see my review of "Walking With the Comrades," below.

And I did not buy it at May Day Books!
But we have a large selection of books on Native American issues.  Come in for our Holiday Party...
Red Frog
November 30, 2012