Saturday, December 28, 2013

Serfs on the Land


"Foodopoly – the Battle over the Future of Food and Farming in America,” by Wenonah Hauter, 2013

This book describes the clusterf*** of Big Meat, Big Ag, Big Pharma, Big Bio-Tech and a tiny little government – the FDA, EPA, FTC, DOJ & USDA.  In meticulous detail, Hauter lays out the confluence of big capital and captured government, extending an analysis of oligopoly and bi-partisan neo-liberalism to the farm sector.  Frequently forgotten by some radicals, land and food issues are fundamental to any society, and are illustrative markers of who holds power and how.  After all, what is more basic than food?

Hauter is a farm activist and working organic farmer who represents middle and small farmers.  Yet her analysis is not limited to the representation of the needs of beleaguered middle farmers, but extends it to the workers in slaughterhouses, the treatment of animals, the health of consumers and the condition of the land.  All combine as victims and targets of the oligopoly of food corporations that now have a profit stranglehold on the U.S. food economy.  While not a Marxist, Hauter confirms four basic propositions of Marxism – increasing monopoly/ oligarchy is basic to the capitalist system; the depopulation of small and medium farmers, EVEN in the U.S., is essential to its functioning; profit is the only motivator for this system; privatization and patenting of everything is inherent, including seeds, animals and food itself. 

We are all familiar with the ‘enclosure of the commons’ in England at the start of capitalism, which is now spreading across the world as peasants and small farmers are forced off the land into cities.  For the first time in history, most people in the world now live in cities.  This process of proletarianization also happened in the U.S., something no one talks about.  It was explicit government policy in the 1950s.  Farm numbers dropped drastically since the 1930s, as farmers were forced to become workers.  This process is essential to the growth of capitalist monopoly in the land.  Now the few medium farmers, growers and ranchers remaining are contracted ‘serfs’ who sign contracts with meat or food companies, contracts which govern their price, debt and responsibility.  These contracts are always more beneficial to the big firms than to the farmer because of the power of monopoly.  The contracts force many farmers into debt-bondage, which has resulted in the bankruptcy of many.  Farmers who reject the deals are black-listed.  In essence, most farmers, who used to have some form of independence, are now beholden to a company like Tyson, Monsanto or Cargill. 

Prices for product are determined by the Big Ag firms.  As an example, a bucket of KFC chicken bought in NY city costs $19.09 in Manhattan.  .25 cents goes to the chicken grower, about $3-$5 go to JBS, a massive corporate food ‘integrator’ and the rest to KFC itself.  The workers at KFC?  A tiny, tiny chicken bone.  The grower is working almost for free, or even at a loss. 

Hauter has charts showing the control major corporations have over each sector of the food economy. She quotes from many farm activists across the country, detailing their somewhat hidden struggles against the travesties of food capital.  Her book contains a history of the fight in the U.S. between corporations and farmers. She shows how the gains of the Progressive movement during the Teddy Roosevelt administration like anti-trust and food safety laws, and the gains by the labor movement during the Franklin Roosevelt administration like unions and farm price supports have all been weakened to the point of irrelevance.   Nor is she some sad Democratic party loyalist who blames everything on Republicans.  She clearly shows that this process is almost fully bi-partisan, with Bill Clinton’s regime putting the finishing touches on corporate control of the land by law and policy, and Obama’s merely following in its footsteps. 

Hauter as an example highlights the revolving door between the FDA, Monsanto and various lobbying firms on the issue of rBGH drugs and one lobbyist/government official, Michael Taylor.  rBGH, a milk production growth hormone, is banned in the European Union for its harmful role in human health, but allowed in the U.S. due to pressure from Big Pharma. Taylor, who wrote the government regulation, worked for Monsanto, Bush, Clinton and now Obama.  

As another example, the normal use of antibiotics on animals was first opposed 35 years ago, as it decreased human resistance to disease, resulting in the deaths of thousands.  Corporations feed tetracycline and penicillin to animals due to the conditions they are kept in on factory farms, conditions which would make any animal sick.  Yet only in the last few weeks of 2013 did the FDA finally issue ‘guidance’ to companies on the overuse of antibiotics with animal feed.    The weakness of the ruling is stunning.  Companies now have 3 more years to comply.  The FDA does not track antibiotic use, relying only on private corporate monitoring.  ‘Captured’ veterinarians can still prescribe it.  And there is a ‘prevention’ loophole that will allow the continued use of antibiotics as a ‘growth’ item. 

Hauter comes up with a great phrase to describe these kind of ‘regulations’ applied to factory food – “pseudo-regulation.”  It is a fig leaf to make the public think ‘all is well.’ It is a placebo the political parties use to placate their base, especially the Democrats.  Hauter calls for a new politics around monopoly and food, and mentions the need for 'movements.' She still believes in a 'functional market', whatever that is. She does say you need a new global commons with 'collectively shared assets.' She knows you cannot 'shop your way' to a better food system.  She knows that the local trend will not solve the major problem.    (See review of the book, "No Local," below.)

As long as big capital controls the food supply and the government, nothing will change. Each Farm Bill is an exercise in Big Ag's power, as they are its main beneficiaries.  Farm Bill subsidies back up oligopoly, mono-crops and unhealthy food.  The situation can only be changed through a mass anti-capitalist movement.  Following in the footsteps of the Democratic Party or trying to reform them is the road of delay and defeat.  As history has shown, 'better regulations' are always being reversed.  Hauter’s book supplements prior analyses of neo-liberalism’s role in finance and industrial firms, in government policy, educational institutions, the media and news companies.  It is essential to a fully-rounded view of what has happened to the rural U.S. and its people, separating the nostalgia of the land and farming from the real thing.

(Prior reviews on corporate control and food issues, “Salt, Sugar, Fat” and "Behind the Kitchen Door," below.)

And I bought it at Mayday Books.
Red Frog
December 28, 2013

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Swine Before Pearls

Its the End of the World as We Know It - Manny’s Steakhouse in the W Hotel, Minneapolis

Hidden away in the fake art hotel ambience of the W Hotel on Marquette Avenue in downtown Minneapolis is the storied steak joint, Manny’s.  Prudes will find its ‘bull with balls’ picture to be the essence of tacky ‘men’s club’ juvenalia, but really that is not the most revealing.  The prices are enough to give one a heart attack.  $100 monster lobster tails from Australia.  Pieces of steak bigger than a plate. Simple vegetables that cost the same as entrees at other joints.  And on and on.  The place is full and noisy – the upper-middle class enjoying their just desserts. Very big desserts in fact – one can feed 4 hungry diners.  Upscale steak houses are the same all over the country.  For working class people, this is a once a year ‘celebration’ place.  For the traveling business manager or lawyer, it is just another hotel meal. 

Manny’s never gets listed as one of the 10 best restaurants in Minneapolis – it is no match for La Belle Vie or the 112 Eatery or the other mostly French restaurants in town.  It is just what it is – one of the last vestiges of ‘50s throwback comfort food, of Sinatra style, of “Mad Men’ nostalgia, and of reactionary social thinking.  ‘Murrays Steak House,’ the real thing several blocks away on 6th Street, still exists from the ‘40s but is actually too old to be popular.

Manny’s is owned by Parasole Inc., a hidden corporate manager of a chain of dissimilar restaurants in the city, ones like Chino Latino, Salut and Masa.  It is Parasole’s flagship and one of its main cash cows, pardon the phrase.  The staff is relaxed, yet highly professional.  Their benefits are slightly better than most chains, but they have no paid sick time, for instance.  Our server looked like Ringo Starr, bellowed like Pavarotti and worked hard.  The show starts with a rolling demonstration table of giant cuts of meat and lobster.  Really big steaks, with bone handles, with names and cuts I don’t’ care to remember, wrapped in plastic, waved before us like sacred fetishes.  Anyone with the slightest understanding of the effect red meat has one’s personal health, on the environment and carbon production, on hunger and the production of other foods, on cow methane flatulence, on the lives of cows – well, let’s say this place is the Roman orgy banquet table of modern times.  The vomitorium is just around the corner.  Nero, not Sinatra, is playing violin in the background, romancing the Hummer of foods.  It is gluttony central.  One guy couldn’t get out of the shitter at the W – his friends were looking for him.  He, like Elvis, was probably trying to eject the 40 pounds of undigested red meat in his intestines. 

On the rolling cart was a dark lobster with his claws bound.  And he moved.  Yes, they put a live lobster on a dry tray for our viewing pleasure.  Now, please refer to the essay by David Foster Wallace, “Consider the Lobster “reviewed below.  A hint of cruelty was only appropriate.  The waiter made fun of their ‘salmon’ offering, showing it to us in a disappearing flash, hinting that ‘this was not called “Manny's Salmon House.”  Ha ha.  Even though Alaska salmon is at least sustainable.  The UN has called meat – especially from cows – one of the largest sources of carbon production across the world.  You don’t have to be an environmentalist or vegetarian to find something odd about meat.  The addiction to meat, now growing in developing nations, is pushing carbon production even higher.  As to where these bloody hunks are coming from, the provenance of Manny’s beef is unknown.  Grass-fed?  Local?  Full of antibiotics and other drugs? Treated humanely?  Imported?  Duh.  Manny’s doesn’t give a shit and hopes you don’t either.  Manny’s is just another high-end outlet for that cholesterol-laden addiction, on a grand scale, as a ‘metier,’ a cause, a lifestyle choice, a man’s man’s meal. 

Perhaps there is something of the fear of being gay that makes men fetishize the eating of steak and the drinking of whiskey. 

And cows have horns for a reason. 

Overpriced bottles of California cabernet followed.  Alcohol is the largest financial rape item found on any restaurant table, and no respectable restaurant would go without it.  I don’t know the prices, as I wasn’t paying.  This was a meal of vendor appreciation, competitive feasting and conspicuous consumption, and I was a beneficiary of sorts.  Good company, better than the food.  Though I had to endure a long bit of conversation (silently larded with guilt) over recent visits to health clubs – those locations where ‘exercise’ exists in splendid isolation from the rest of our lives.

The bloody meat arrived for the lawyers in attendance, but was not fully consumed due to its quantity. The bread was returned partly uneaten.  Even the potatoes did not get finished.  Desserts followed, and they were so big that both people who ordered them couldn’t finish them.  Maybe a ¼ was eaten.  What happened to them?  Doggie box sir?  Not in stylish restaurants!  These giant hunks of chocolate, whipped cream, caramel and nuts were both thrown away.  Very conspicuously.  40% of food in the U.S. is ostensibly thrown away.  If you have been around people that barely eat their meals, or throw away food, you know you are dealing with people that are too wealthy or spoiled – or who pretend to both.  Manny’s loves ‘em. 

Chocolate beans are one of the most endangered crops in the world due to global warming.  Eat up folks, for chocolate, coffee beans and even bananas might be going the way of … a good chunk of the human race.  Manny’s and the steak restaurant chains will be there to shepherd you along through the gates, down the ramp … to the kill box.  As their slogan says, “Life is Good at the Top of the Food Chain.”  The question is, who’s for dinner?

(See review of the play, “Oil/Jungle,” below) 

Happy Solstice!
Red Frog
December 21, 2013

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Poverty Comes to the Stage

"The Lower Depths,” by Maxim Gorky.  December 16, 2013, Nimbus Theatre
 

This play does not wear as well as it should.  When it was first written in 1902, nothing like it had been seen in Russia.  Similar to Orwell’s work, “Down & Out in Paris & London,” ‘The Lower Depths’ depicts the world of the unemployed or working poor, a group of people hidden in the culture of that time.  It was set in the Bugrov 'homeless' shelter - more like a bunked rooming house - near the Volga in Nizhny Novgorod, a place Gorky was familiar with.  Nimbus Theatre updated the play to reflect the U.S. during the Depression in the ‘30s, as the prior setting was perhaps too archaic.  The update helps, but even the ‘30s are now a distant memory.  It should have been updated to a shelter, rooming house or transient hotel in the present, though that might have involved a significant amount of adaptation.  Yet it is the present that is the source of the future, and where most theatre-goers live.

Gorky's writing here pulls you through the 2.5 hours of stage time quite well.  Politically this play reflects his pre-Marxist period.  Gorky himself lived as an orphan, and began working at 12, so this play is drawn from his life.  He probably lived in this place and knew these people. As such it is an early and ground-breaking example of Russian realism.  The pseudonym “Gorky” means ‘bitter’ in Russian.  The central character in the play, Luka, is a wandering peasant philosopher who comforts everyone in the shelter and encourages kindness.  Luka is not a proletarian.  The people in the shelter are thieves, alcoholics, prostitutes, piece-workers, unemployed workers, fallen petit-bourgeois and dying consumptives. There is little plot, just a passing of time by playing cards, singing, drinking or arguing. Sort of a “Waiting for Godot” without the universalities. 

The central conflict is between ‘the truth’ of misery and some comforting fictions that allow humans to endure poverty and oppression.  Luka tells the alcoholic actor that there is a hospital which will cure his alcoholism for free.  He comforts the dying consumptive when her husband will not.  He tells the thief that he can go to Alaska with his love Natasha, and find a new life.  He compliments the gambler on his good spirits.  He chastises the cynics when they make fun of the prostitute for imagining a real lover.  Luka is so ‘good’ that he becomes, not a real person, but the idea of ‘Christian’ charity, much like Dostoevsky’s idiot.  A waft of opium fills the bunkhouse air. 

Class conflict is not really a big part of the plot.  The thief Vasska confronts the miserly owner of the shelter, Kostylyov several times.  But Kostylyov is killed near the end, not by Vasska but by the owner’s wife, Vassilissa, who hates him.  She then blames the killing on Vasska.   A bad marriage seems to be the only plot in existence. 

Nimbus’ stage set is excellent, the clothing accurate, the price very reasonable, the theatre itself intimate without being crowded.  The acting, however, was uneven. 

While revelatory in 1902, a play like this loses impact in 2013, especially considering developments over the last 110 years in the class struggle.  It is primarily a character study, and not like Gorky’s later, more political works like “The Mother.”  While some may find a play on poverty to be voyeurism, the Lower Depths is not that. These are clearly human beings.  No one watching is absolutely immune from ending up in a shelter or transient hotel themselves.  It could even be staged in these locations.  Why a real update?  The ‘distancing’ of poverty to the distant past or even more distant past aestheticizes it, and makes it less real.  So what we really need on stage is the poverty of now, with all the adaptation that might entail.  Our own ‘lower depths.’   

Red Frog
December 18, 2013

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Avoiding Politics, Embracing Combat

"Matterhorn,” by Karl Marlantes, 2010

This book took 30 years to write – and 40 to publish.  It is 600 pages long.  It is the most detailed fictional account of the lives of U.S. combat soldiers in the Vietnam War ever written.  It might also be the most detailed fictional account of front-line combat of any war ever written. 

Marlantes volunteered to fight in Vietnam and this book is based on his combat tour after Tet in 1968.  Marlantes is an outlier by not actually being politically anti-war – which maybe accounts for why this book was published 35 years after the U.S. pulled out.  Most other Vietnam novels are more explicitly anti-war.  Yet politics soaks this book.  It can’t help but do so.  But the focus is on the daily, even hourly grind of combat – which mostly does not entail actual fighting.  A tiger rips off the head of a solider lying in ambush.  Soldiers’ bodies come unglued with cerebral malaria, skin rot, incessant headaches, infections, near starvation, thirst, exhaustion and accidents.  Soldiers perform impossible feats of climbing, marching and self-denial.  The fog or darkness or rain frequently hides them from air support, each other and the enemy.  They are repeatedly told to do things that are countermanded.  Conflict between officers and men is constant.  Drinking beer and whiskey to excess is normal.  The majority of these soldiers are 19 years old – the average.  They are just kids. 

Mellas is the lead character, a young newbie Lieutenant eager to prove himself.  He’s been assigned to Bravo Company of the 24th Marines, somewhere in the Khe Sanh area of south Vietnam, near the DMZ and Laotian border.  He’s graduated from Princeton and spent time at Oxford College in England, so he’s the ‘bookish’ one in the bunch.  Yet Mellas is worried about dying, and ruminates on how to run away from combat frequently, but does not.  There is no ‘Going After Cacciato’ here.  He is a military social climber dreaming of medals, being noticed and promotions.  He’s good with maps, understands that racism and bigotry hurts the whole unit and does his math.  He’s also got an anger streak against the cruel stupidity of the brass.
 
The book starts with an “Op” reconnaissance into the jungles north of Matterhorn, ordered by their insensitive Marine commander, Simpson.  The Bravo marines christen it the “Trail of Tears.”  They are ordered to make various destinations with no thought to terrain – only the distance on a map back at the base.  They are not supplied with enough food or water.  Casualties cannot be airlifted out and have to be carried.  The injured and sick must suffer.  They are marched like puppets, creating LZs with almost no tools, digging fighting holes, climbing cliffs – all while they physically come apart.  Their only contact with the enemy is a brief firefight with a few young kids in the NVA.  (North Vietnamese Army.)  They return angry and exhausted. 

Bravo Company finally gets thrown into two fights with a large NVA battalion at and around Matterhorn, which is a fire-base built by the marines and then abandoned three times.  The NVA occupy their former base twice.  It is mountaintop cleared of trees, holding bunkers and a small landing strip for helicopters.  Matterhorn is similar in layout to Khe Sanh itself.  Death by friendly fire is not rare. Mellas himself realizes he has accidentally killed a kid by firing uphill without looking while trying to save him.  All this done for a medal.  This kid is someone he had helped return to field combat, who had been relegated to mess duty before.  As a result, he has guilt that he can’t shake.  In the first battle, Mellas kills an NVA solider, shooting him in the head while Mellas is squatting with diarrhea.   To add brutality to injury, Bravo must take Matterhorn twice – and after the second time, the Marine brass abandon the fire-base again.  Their colonel, Simpson, orders the assaults to punish Bravo for being ‘slackers’ – which is what they are from his position comfortably in the rear.  In the second assault, Mellas discovers he is a natural fighter, is good at killing and somehow evades death with only shrapnel wounds and an injured eye.  Prisoners are never taken.  Attrition is the only goal. 

The most profound split in the units is between the black and white soldiers.  The black soldiers are much more against the war, and resent the racist comments and actions of officers and men, particularly one lifer redneck from the south named Cassidy and even their colonel, Simpson.  Fragging of racist officers is becoming a common occurrence.  The Marine brass all hate the ‘black power’ brothers, of course.  They police the unit for afros or long hair, for peace medals, neck nooses and any other ‘non-regulation’ item that might infer that soldier is not particularly keen on the war.  Yet the soldiers protect each other from the narc informers who are sent into units to report on marijuana use.  They take care of each other in the field, until they get back to base.  They fight for their unit, not for their country.  Mellas himself is the least racist of the officers, and several black soldiers learn to trust him.

Even among the black soldiers there is a split between the more ‘criminal’ elements and the more political elements aligned with the Black Panther Party.  As Marlantes pictures them, the former are more eager to frag the racist sergeant, Cassidy, than the BPP sympathizers.  As it happens, the grenade kills the wrong officer. 

Marlantes includes a large glossary of military and Marine slang/verbiage at the end of the book.  While 600 pages long, it is actually a fast read and pulls you through it.  He is what I call a ‘visual’ writer, as much of this could be seen as a film. 

Regarding the politics of the war, not one white solider directly opposes the war, except insofar as asking – ‘what is the point?’; ‘this sucks’; ‘the war-mongers and brass suck’ and ‘I want to go back to the world.’   Mellas enlisted because he thought he owed the President, who represents the Constitution, who has requested help in the war.  If you can think of a more high-school grade logic to military service, I don’t know what it is.  But that was a common logic. That and fighting ‘communism.’  At one point, when the young NVA soldiers on Matterhorn do not retreat, and fight to the death, Mellas knows that the Vietnamese will not be beaten. 

Marlantes won a lot of medals in Vietnam.  I suspect he still has them.  However, here is what the Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW) and Winter Solider thought of medals, at the Mayday Tribe demonstrations in D.C. organized to ‘shut down the government,’ which I attended: 

May 1971 in Washington, D.C. A large group of Vietnam veterans, men who had been in the thick of it and seen it all, decided they needed to do something that would bring national attention to the goal of ending the war. The method they chose was to act out their repudiation of their previous participation in it. Snaking past the Capitol, an extremely long line of men in uniform threw purple hearts and medals of every sort into a trash bin. Most then made a brief statement about why they hated the war and could no longer bear to keep those medals.

Ultimately this is another book that will encourage war, as it ignores real politics.  But it will allow young soldiers to see what they are getting into.  Marlantes himself suffered (suffers) from PTSD and so, while surviving, has still paid the price. 

Marlantes also wrote, “What is it Like to Go to War,” reviewed below.  Mayday carries many books on Vietnam and war. 

(Other books on Vietnam reviewed below:  In the Crossfire - Adventures of a Vietnamese Revolutionary,” “Kill Anything That Moves,” and “People’s History of the Vietnam War.”)

Red Frog
December 15, 2013

Friday, December 13, 2013

A Luta Continua

Mandela, Obama, Castro & Kennedy


You are no doubt aware of the Republican and Cuban ultra-right’s upset over a handshake between Obama and Raul Castro at Mandela’s memorial.  This was the highlight the corporate media focused on in their reporting of the rain-soaked memorial at a soccer stadium in Soweto, where Mandela gave his first speech after prison.

Obama’s hostile policy towards Cuba will not change because of a handshake, as pathetic government spokesmen immediately made clear.  His policy is no different from any other U.S. president.  On this issue, as on so many others, the U.S. is almost unique in the world in its reactionary position – similar to its stance on Israel.  Obama should have apologized for the long U.S. role in propping up the Afrikaner dictatorship.  He did not. 

However, our corporate press has the memory of a mouse – on purpose.  Do you think the ex-Cuban gusano fascists in Miami who complained about this handshake are supporters of the fight against apartheid?  Or of Mandela?  Au contraire.  Yet what was the position of Cuba on apartheid, the ANC and Mandela?  Why was Raul Castro even at the memorial?

Asking the question answers it, for those who know a bit of history.  Cuba sent soldiers and hardware to Angola in the 1980s in support of Neto’s MPLA, allowing them to defeat an invasion of Angola by South African armed forces allied with Savimbi’s UNITA.  Che Guevara himself went to Angola to help provide military direction.  This internationalist effort also allowed Cuba to make direct contact with Mandela’s ANC, which was using Angola as a base area.  Cuba supplied military training and hardware to the ANC’s military wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe, an organization founded by Mandela. They also helped the guerrilla struggle in nearby Namibia led by SWAPO.  Namibia at the time was occupied by the South Africans.  Cuba backed the ANC when the U.S. government, Democrats and Republicans were still calling them ‘terrorists.’  Cuba backed the ANC and opposed apartheid and never wavered.   Mandela praised Cuba in 1991 as the only government that actually treated the ANC with respect, and introduced him to real 'internationalism.'

As far as the U.S. went, that great freedom-loving honky, Ronald Reagan, supported the apartheid state.  The CIA even played a role in getting Mandela arrested.  Only later did some forces in the U.S. decide that perhaps apartheid was a bad idea, EVEN IF the ANC was supported by the USSR and its allies. 

Of course, this issue was the rock that broke the pro-imperialist theory of “Three Worlds” put out by the Chinese Communist Party, originated by Mao Tse Tung.  Many U.S. leftists turned from adulation of the bureaucracy in China when the impact of this theory became even more obvious.  If the USSR (and by extension Cuba) was the ‘main enemy’ in the world, then clearly the USSR’s actions  in Angola and southern Africa (supporting national liberation fronts in Namibia, which was under South African control, in Rhodesia/Zimbabwe, in Mozambique, in Guinea Bissau, in the Congo, in Tanzania, etc.) where all ‘imperialist’ efforts.  Clearly the Chinese didn’t have a Marxist definition of ‘imperialism.’

The corporate media is now defanging Mandela just as they have done with ML King, hoping to make their only message that of a grandfatherly ‘peace.’  They have conveniently forgotten the support the U.S. gave to South Africa for many years, just as they cover up the government assassination of King by the CIA.  They will remember Kennedy’s “Camelot,” but not Kennedy’s opposition to nuking Cuba or invading Cuba; not his support of the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty with the USSR; not his intention to withdraw troops from Vietnam; not his constant communications with Khrushchev.  All of this led to his assassination (and his brothers) in a campaign organized by James Jesus Angleton of the CIA.  Fidel Castro recently pointed out that Cuba had nothing to do with killing Kennedy.    The killing of the Kennedys amounted to a coup by the military-industrial complex in the U.S.  If the cold-war policies of Lyndon Johnson had not been followed, the U.S. might have cut South Africa loose long before they finally did, and maybe even made trade agreements with Cuba.  The world might be a slightly different place, with slightly less blood. 

What a tangled web.  Clearly the Cuban lovers of Batista and other clients of the U.S. government have no right to denounce a handshake at Mandela’s memorial … or even a kiss.  Nor does our rotten press deserve the title of ‘journalists’ when they are unable to give some perspective to their hypocritical comments. Even paying attention to their fascist braying is significant.  

Perhaps the real issue is that Raul Castro should have not shaken Obama's hand!

In South Africa itself, Mandela’s death signifies the start of a new struggle, this time against the white capitalist system that was completely left in place by ANC concessions after the end of apartheid.  Economic conditions for the black working class, farmers and poor of South Africa have deteriorated since the removal of the Botha regime.  A Luta Continua.

Red Frog
December 13 2013

Sunday, December 8, 2013

The Benefits of Rage

"Sick Puppy” by Carl Hiaasen, 1999

Carl Hiaasen is a Florida genre writer who used to be a newspaperman.  His main interest is the environment of Florida, and poking fun at the rich, white bastards who are ruining that state’s beautiful nature in the pursuit of lucre.  I guess writing is the revenge of the powerless because even though this book was written in 1999, Florida keeps on being bulldozed under. 

This is funny shit.  It follows the activities of a strangely rich, enraged young environmentalist, Twilly Spree, who trails deadbeats that throw garbage out of their SUVs onto the highways, or shoot endangered animals, or who obliviously dump in protected areas.  He will kill if necessary.  He is joined by a former governor, nicknamed “Skink,” who walked out of the governor’s mansion after 2 years when he realized only criminals could last a full term.  Skink became an older version of Twilly, choosing to live in the swamps of Key Largo in an abandoned car body, living on fish and road kill.  They team up to defeat a real estate project which would destroy a still undeveloped barrier island and its wildlife, named “Toad,” somewhere north of Tampa on the Gulf. 

Real estate is the name of the game in most of Florida – centered around the pristine beaches, estuaries, barrier islands, salt-water marshes and shoreline of this massive peninsula.  Water is everywhere, and real estate developers are hoping there is a sucker who will pay large bucks to put his house right on the ocean, or near it, global warming be damned – or un-dammed.  Twilly and Skink are pissed, mad, outraged and dangerous.  Exactly what the majority of the U.S. population is not.  Do sheep read of electric rebellions?  Evidently they must because Hiaasen sells lots of books.   

This book is part of a whole series dedicated to a Florida full of eccentric characters, ‘old’ Florida values and vicious humor.  In it, some of the female characters, like the lobbyist’s wife and the governor’s chief of staff, come across as repulsed by the activities of their men.   On the other hand, do you hate lobbyists?  Real estate developers?  Stupid cops?  Slimy politicians descended from car dealers?  Bimbos?  Hired guns?  Republicans?  People who run ‘wild game’ shooting parks?  People that hate nature or who have big game heads mounted in their dens?  Then you will love reading this one. They all get their comeuppance – and not gently.  Several end up rotting in the mud or trampled underfoot. 

Has Hiaasen inspired any real ‘lone wolves?’  I guess you’ll have to check the Florida papers.  What is interesting is how many writers pick some of the same targets as leftists do.  Perhaps ‘something’ in the real world is lining up in the minds of many people. 

(Other books about Florida reviewed below - "Back to Blood" by Tom Wolfe and "Blockaders, Refugees and Contrabands," on the Civil War in Florida, reviewed below.) 

And I bought it at Forgotten Coast Books in Apalachicola, Florida, on the ‘old’ Florida Panhandle.
Red Frog
December 8, 2013

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Warning: HERE BE MONSTERS!

"Reason in Revolt – Marxist Philosophy and Modern Science,” by Alan Woods and Ted Grant, first published 1995

We actually are ‘recycled stardust,’ as Carl Sagan used to say.  With the emphasis on recycled.

This book ‘Reason in Revolt’ is a fitting extension of Engel’s works ‘The Dialectics of Nature’ and “The Transition from Ape to Man” - which is a significant achievement.  The authors are or were active Marxists in what is now the Workers International League.  What is amazing is that they had the time to read and understand extensively the science of our day, while still being activists.  The book is written in a clear, popular, somewhat repetitive style.  It covers modern developments in science since Engels and Hegel like thermodynamics, quantum mechanics and relativity; continental drift; brain science and developments in Darwinism.  They highlight various recent scientists that have broken from the orthodoxies, like Stephen J Gould.  As they and Engels point out, scientists who do not have a grasp of philosophy will be unconsciously (and sometimes consciously) dominated by the cultural and political environment they live in, even as scientists.  As a result their theories can reflect bourgeois ‘philosophy’ like a bad mirror, and end up wrong.  Philosophy begins where religion ends – and without a philosophy, you actually end up with bits of religion in disguise.

To counteract this, Woods and Grant take apart various dead ends in philosophy, cosmology, mathematics, biology, psychology and geology by using a materialist dialectic.  They attack many sacred cows in the process, and make a convincing case for a new, more accurate scientific attitude which also incorporates the findings of recent science, as well as chaos and complexity theories.  It sometimes reads like a science primer, but then engages critically with many erroneous theories.  Its greatest weakness is its avoidance of environmental science, which in 1995 might be forgivable, but might also stem from their political views. 

On the chopping block are philosophies like religion, idealism, logical positivism and empiricism.  Formal logic and only theoretical math and physics come in for a beating.  Euclid and Newton get relegated to their roles.  Reductionism gets reduced in status.  Gradualism is worn away with a hammer.  Biological determinism is determinably buried.  The second law of thermodynamics is not as lawful as it appears.  The Catholic Church has not really changed its stripes.  Big heroes like Stephen Hawking, Richard Dawkins, his selfish gene and Werner Heisenberg go down – even Einstein comes up a bit short.  (Heisenberg was a Nazi, by the way, which influenced some of his ideas.)  Brain size, soul, the mind-body dualism, intelligence, super-brains, meteor causation, time travel, grand unified theories and the Big Bang are all found extremely wanting. 

Take the “Big Bang,” the star theory of our time.  Though there have been at least 5 versions of this theory so far.  Nearly everyone believes it.  Red shift, right?  Nobel-prize winning scientists claim they know what happened within a micro-second of the ‘explosion’ that created the universe.  Which is somewhat amusing - after all, how do they know this in such certainty, billions of years ago?  Not through actual experiments or verification mind you, but through theoretical math.  The authors point out that the overwhelming majority of papers describing the cosmos – 95% or more – are now based on theoretical math or other methods, and not on actual evidence.  This is because every cosmologist fancies himself the second coming of Einstein, who deduced his ideas from theory first, only to be backed up by proof later.  Science is supposed to be about proof, not just beautiful mathematical formulas.  And mathematics without material proof becomes a form of idealism.  The other theory that opposed the ‘big bang’ – the ‘steady state’ theory – has been defeated in the minds of nearly all cosmologists by its internal inconsistencies. 

However, the authors propose another theory based on the work of young scientists like Eric Lerner, Hannes Alfven, Oskar Klein & Anthony Peratt – that the universe has no beginning or end, just the endless movement and transformation of matter.  The ‘red shift’ that has been tracked may only be related to the part of the universe that is viewable.  These scientists maintain that a nebular hypothesis accounts more accurately for the structure of the universe than a ‘bang.’  Woods and Grant insist this view reflects what we know of all matter at present, yet is almost not on the agenda of cosmology.  Why?  Even Stephen Hawking worried about the implications of the Catholic Church embracing the theory of the ‘big bang.’  And for good reason.  It seems to be nothing but a scientific version of the Biblical creation story, supported by little evidence except the conditioning of the minds of scientists, and ours as well. 

Woods and Grant, along with Engels, maintain that time has no beginning or end.  Matter has no beginning or end.  Energy is matter in motion.  Infinity is real.  Systems are complex, interrelated, self-acting, binary, fractal, yet consistent, though sometimes apparently chaotic.  Older scientific theories have limited applicability.  Woods and Grant show how these concepts – all based on dialectics, but also verified by experiment after experiment – run through the whole history of the cosmos, the earth, human beings, and even provide a material grounding for geometry, calculus and other mathematics.  They emphasize the scientific importance of quantity into quality, the interpenetration of opposites and the negation of the negation, sometimes graphed as 'thesis/anti-thesis/synthesis' or the movement of contradiction.  They rely on many authorities, including Hegel, Engels and J. Gleick’s ground-breaking classic, 1988’s ‘Chaos, Making of a New Science,’ to make these points.  Their work consistently intertwines philosophy with science.

Woods and Grant’s limitations never crowd out their points, but they are there.  They are optimists about technology and ‘progress’ even in the face of the material limits being discovered by environmental science.  Nuclear power has no dialectical anti-thesis in their mind.  The authors verge on a ‘productionist’ view of Marxism, though they deny that.  They repeatedly delight in describing how animals are qualitatively inferior to humans, which is true.  Tool-making made the human animal what it is today.  However, this delight might be tempered with a somber reflection on some of the destructive 'tools' created by those humans which could destroy humanity.  Meat eating might have helped nourish the brain of early humans, but it is now turning into its opposite.  And that is dialectics.  They track 5 mass die-offs of animal species in geological time in their argument against biological gradualism, while not mentioning the one presently occurring in this epoch, the Anthropocene.  Nor do they recognize any limits to population growth – attacking the straw man of Malthus in place of the findings of recent environmental science.  If global warming is based on dialectics, then 'quantity into quality' could result not in a gradual trend, but a sudden leap into overwhelming heat.  A massive release of methane from the arctic and Siberian regions is predicted to occur and bear this out. In a word, they are classically-educated Europeans whose views were formed soon after World War II, somewhat disdainful of popular culture, yet optimistic about the young.  These limitations do not dull the quality of this work. 

In this blog, I’ve covered books that have updated Marx to modern times.  Contrary to the light-minded and common American idea that Marxism is some bromide relegated to the late 1800s and early 1900s, these books show that Marxist methods are even more applicable today. As examples, books like “Monopoly Capital” by Baran & Sweezy cover the development of modern capitalist monopoly.  The Environmental Revolution” by John Bellamy Foster extended Marx’s concern with environmentalism into the present.  Samir Amin’s “The Law of Worldwide Value” showed how the conception of ‘ground rent,’ which Marx did not get to expand, could be applied to imperialism.  Rebel Cities” by David Harvey looked at the functioning of ground rent and geography in modern capitalist cities.  The recent growth of the bourgeois financial sector was covered in “The Great Financial Crisis,” co-authored by Harry Magdoff and JB Foster.  The Precariat,” while not Marxist, focused on the massive expansion of this section of the world working class. (All reviewed below.)

This book is proof that living Marxists are not just activists, but can also advance theory – just as Lenin, Luxembourg, Trotsky, Gramsci, Mao, Che and others have done.  Congrats to them.

(Prior books on science, complexity theory and survival– “Ten Assumptions of Science,’ ‘Deep Survival’ and ‘Ubiquity’ - are reviewed below.)

P.S. - Scientific American and the Journal of Cosmology and Astroparticle Physics have just published articles on the "rainbow universe" and 'relative locality.'  The former theory was developed by an Egyptian researcher, Adel Awad, and the latter by Lee Smolin of Ontario. One suggests that gravity can affect colors, and the second that 'location' is relative.  Both theories, according to Scientific American, throw into question the red shift and the Big Bang, and suggest time has no beginning or end.

And I bought it at Mayday Books!
Red Frog
December 4, 2013

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Remember Who the Real Enemy Is


"The Hunger Games – Catching Fire,” directed by Francis Lawrence, 2013 (Partial Spoiler Alert)

Hungry for revolution?  The word gets bandied around – the ‘Tea Party Revolution,’ the Syrian ‘revolution,’ the ‘Orange’ revolution, the Reagan or Thatcher ‘revolutions.’  It is clear that the bourgeois press doesn’t know the actual differences between one or another.  They use the term in a lazy way, referring to any ‘big change.’ Here in the U.S., this film has been critiqued by Andrew O’Hehir of Salon.com as to what kind of a ‘revolution’ this film is talking about.  Is it a Left/Occupy one or a Right/Tea-Party one?   He doesn't know which.  O’Hehir is a red-diaper baby, but evidently this did not endow him with a consistent class analysis.  He's is fatally confused between different types of ‘populism’ or what the working class thinks. There are tips in this film as to what kind revolution is being discussed, and they are not very hidden.  

Donald Sutherland, who plays President Snow in the film and is an old ‘60s radical, said in an interview in ‘The Guardian,’ that he hopes the film inspires youth to become more politically active and actually foment some kind of ‘revolution.’  So what are the tips?  Well, the name ‘Hunger Games” certainly doesn’t discuss a topic of interest to the right-wing in any country, especially the U.S. Tea-Party Republicans.  Hunger is an exclusively left-wing issue.  In the film, Katniss’ real boyfriend in District 12, Gale, says that a life of ‘being hungry, working like a slave and being oppressed’ is not a real life.  Nearly every scene in District 12 shows miners shuffling off to work, not free-market small businessmen standing behind their shop counters.  Clearly, these issues of hunger and wage-slavery are not right-wing concerns. This is a picture of a proletarian Appalachia, not an outer suburb in Orlando.  And what of the main protagonist?  While the Tea-Party model of hero is the middle-class white male, this protagonist is a young woman who is no slouch in the 'action' department. 

While the Tea-Party opposes ‘the government’ they actually only oppose the parts of the government that benefit the poor and workers.  They endorse oppression, war and militarism - those parts of government that in the Hunger Games are represented by guys that look like Star War's stormtroopers.  

In a key scene, Katniss and Peeta visit District 11, where the dead black girl Rue was from in the first film, and Katniss makes an emotional speech about her. This is greeted by the black folks of District 11 with the ‘hand raised’ sign that has become a symbol of the revolution.  Clearly, Katniss has made a block between the mostly white District 12 and the mostly black District 11,whether she knew what she was doing or not.  Again, another sign that this revolution is not being run by aging middle-class white people, aka the ‘Tea Party.’  

If you watch this series you see that Katniss has killed only in self-defense.  In this film’s ‘game’ she makes a larger block with 5 others, including Peeta.  The new plan by Plutarch, the new game creator, is to show her to be as blood-thirsty as some of the others.  As she has become a symbol of resistance to the Capitol, this will supposedly undercut any optimism she projects.  Again in this film the “Careers” from District 1 are the main internal enemy, the most blood-thirsty and ‘careerists’ too.  A careerist is just another name for a yuppie or upscale, cutthroat business person.  Not exactly Tea-Party terminology. 

Other evidence that this is more of a ‘left-wing’ revolution – i.e. a progressive one that deals with the problems of poverty, hunger, wage slavery and state oppression?    As Marxists know, the ‘state’ in a bourgeois society (which Panem clearly is) is not an independent entity lording over everyone, but actually represents the rich and the capitalist class.  The people in Panem are disgustingly rich.  Their clothes and makeup are indicative.  One scene even features a drink that is the modern equivalent of the vomitorium of Roman times.  It will make you throw up your food so that you can 'taste' yet more food. However wealth is not a bad thing to the 'prosperity loving gospel' of the Tea Party.  They are the sometime allies of Wall Street, but definitely they want to all be rich. On the military side, the soldiers from the Capitol who occupy the Districts are called “Peacekeepers.”  Can we get any more Orwellian and true to life?  The real U.S. 'peacekeepers' in Iraq and Afghanistan were supported by many in the T-Party.

Another is the key phrase in this film.  At a pivotal point in this Hunger game, Katniss aims her arrow at another tribute and – for the first time – might let it fly outside the rules of self-defense.  The tribute she is aiming at says, “Remember who the real enemy is.”  And she aims her arrow in another direction. 

Now the phrase, ‘Remember who the real enemy is” is such a standard Marxist and leftist term that it screams so.  Not black people, not gay people, not foreigners, not the poor, but the people who run everything, who profit off of everything, in every country.  The ruling class – the corporations, the wealthy, and their politicians.  These are the real enemies. No matter their color, religion, party or nationality. 

Katniss is portrayed as mostly an emotional thinker by Suzanne Collins, who wrote the novels on which these films are based.  This is a standard trope in fiction as an attempt to link the non-political lives of most people, who supposedly experience politics ‘emotionally,’ and bring them to a more conscious and scientific political view.  Katniss gets angry, gets sad, wants to run away, just thinks about her family and others in her ‘home’ in District 12, and generally doesn’t have a plan as to how to beat the Capitol.  Until she does.  I might add, there is a subversive conspiracy afoot that helps her.
 
Now I don’t know about you, but merely calling the capital of Panem, “The Capitol” might tip off some conscious viewers that the Capitol and capitalism are linked.  Writers do not name cities at random.  Again, not a word-association a Tea-Party member would make, but then, it might have been an accident.

Collins, who in 2008 wrote the youth books on which this series is taken, based them on the juxtaposition between reality television and the war in Iraq.  2008 was a year in which the U.S. experienced an economic collapse and unnecessary wars on two fronts.  In an interview, Collins talked about how the novel deals with ‘severe poverty, starvation, oppression and the effects of war.’ (Wikipedia)  Again, not Tea-Party topics.  Is she some kind of subversive or Marxist?  Doubtful.  What is interesting about culture – especially film - is how it reflects certain issues, even against the intentions of the writers or filmmakers.  She seems on the left and probably a later sympathizer of Occupy, and never realized how her books would hit a nerve.

As to whether this film is better than the first, or worse, it is up to you.  Generally, the newness of the situation is less in a follow-up film, the characters are known and the plot line more predictable.  All this is here, so the startling newness of the first film is gone. (Read review of first film, 'Hunger Games - Mockingjay,' below)  But, as can be seen, the series is changing gears towards revolution.  

Is the film a placebo?  Televised revolution or resistance as opposed to the real thing can actually deflate, or provide a release for rebellious feelings - if the situation is not yet at a certain point.  It is like the valve on a teapot.  "I like the "Hunger Games" - therefore I'm a rebel.  "Now where's my Facebook prompt?" Most middle-class authors fall apart at the end of books, as they cannot bring on a real or true ending. They cannot follow the logic that they created to its bitter end.  Will Collins fall apart in the last installment or not? Only the readers of the books know for sure.   

Red Frog
November 30, 2013