Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Labor By Another Name

“Slavery by Another Name – the Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II,” by Douglas A Blackmon, 2009

This is a great book of original research by an Atlanta-based journalist from the Wall Street Journal.  It makes the point that slavery was not simply the product of ‘bad ideas’ or ‘bad people’ but was financially beneficial to many businessmen in the post-Civil War South. 

This is why virtual slavery didn’t go away after the end of the war, or the White League’s destruction of Reconstruction.   Capitalism remained.  And capitalism will use any kind of labor – slave, forced, debtor, contract, involuntary servitude, Bracero, guest worker, share-cropper, prison or so-called ‘free’ – in order to make a profit.  This book shows how Blacks after the Civil War were still exploited for super-profits through various forms of forced labor, helped by the southern legal system, the prison system and the political system, in a seamless web of oppression.  “Jim Crow” and segregation were only a reflection of these labor relations.  At this point, chattel slavery had come to a formal end.  But ‘slavery’ in its financial essence, as a peculiar form of labor – in some respects worse than chattel slavery – still affected the whole black population in the South, especially in the period after Reconstruction until World War II.  Not ‘affected’ in the sense that everyone was a direct ‘prison’ slave, but that every black person feared this. 

Blackmon (who is a white man) keys his story around a black man sent to an Alabama coalmine near present-day Birmingham in Jefferson County in 1908.  He was sold-off by a sheriff in Columbiana, Shelby County to work as a prisoner at the Tennessee, Coal, Iron & Railroad mines, recently purchased by U.S. Steel.  His debt was $38.22.  He was 22 years old.  He was ‘convicted’ to work for 6 months for the crime of ‘vagrancy.’   He died in that most profitable hell-hole 5 and a half months later of tuberculosis, overwork and bad nutrition.  His name was Green Cottenham. This is his story and that of unknown hundreds of thousands like him.

Not all black people in this South were subject to county or state prison labor – but the legal ease with which a black person could be thrown into these death-holes – many times underground coal and iron mines - played a role in disciplining the whole black working class in the south.  It also had a role in disciplining white southern workers too, though they only intermittently understood this. Strikes of ‘free’ white and black workers were repeatedly broken using government-supplied contract slaves.  Unions were proscribed.  Communist, leftist and progressive organizers were persona non grata.  Having a vast pool of indentured slaves had a bad effect on everyone, much as plantation slavery distorted not just the black man but the white.

This kind of industrial slavery – on cotton farms either picking cotton or clearing land, timber stands and sawmills, underground coal and iron mines, coke ovens, limestone & quartz quarries, turpentine camps, railroad and road construction, poultry processing – played a role in the further ‘primitive accumulation of capital’ in the south.   This benefitted not just southern capitalists but northern ones too, who used the coal and steel to build or heat the cities of the north.  In fact, another monumentally bad 1896 Supreme Court decision, ‘Plessy v Ferguson,’ allowed the southern States to set their own standards when it came to black people – not just regarding segregation, but in everything.  It spelled the death knell of northern concern with black labor standards.  By 1901 according to Blackmon, no black people were voting anywhere in the South.  The last vestiges of Reconstruction had been destroyed.

It worked like this.  Thuggish locals saw some strong young black man.  They’d grab him and lock him up.  Then some county, state or random ‘justices of the peace,’ sheriff, deputy, constable, store-owner or rich son made up a fake or real charge like vagrancy, drinking, not having any money, swearing, stealing, adultery, carrying a firearm or razor blade, failing to honor a contract, laughing inappropriately, making advances on a white woman, riding a box car, etc.  A mock trial would be performed in minutes, few records were kept and the suspect was always convicted.  They would fine the black man more money than he had, then add extra fees.  The county or state would then ‘sell’ the fine & fees to an industrialist or big farmer, who would pay the tiny amount in order to get a ‘contract’ worker for many months.  Because he couldn’t pay, they’d force the black man to sign a contract with an “X” saying he would work for 3 months, 6 months, a year to pay his ‘debt.’  The sheriff or store-owner would get a kickback, and the circle continued. 

Then the owner would keep him locked up, in chains, beat him regularly, barely feed or clothe him, and work him literally to death.  Debt peonage was worse than chattel slavery because they didn’t own the people over the long run, they only wanted to squeeze the most out of them in a shorter period of time.  If anyone tried to escape, they’d track them with bloodhounds.  Punishment would be meted out to those who helped.  To extend the ‘term’ of a good worker, they’d make up another ‘crime’ and he’d be incarcerated to do more time.  Sometimes they’d even be sold to other businessmen to serve out their ‘time.’

Black women would be dragooned for the crime of ‘prostitution,’ then held at a farm and raped.  Black children as young as 8 also became prisoners.

The racism of the South was all about justifying cheap labor.  WEB Dubois put it this way in a fictional book about the issue:  "Cheap cotton depends on cheap niggers."  It was not simply a moral failing.  In fact, a good case could be made that the eventual weakening of the system came about through the mechanization of mining, road building, cotton farming and timber, not the tardy efforts of the Federal government.

In 1903, the federal government under Theodore Roosevelt finally got wind of what was happening in central Alabama, initially in Coosa, Tallapoosa and Lowndes counties.  A Federal grand jury sitting in Montgomery took testimony from black men who had been snatched off streets of tiny shit towns like Goodwater and Dadeville, and the owners and deputies who had taken them.  A naïve Federal judge finally announced that the system of debt peonage was illegal, and that the Alabama law that said that it was a crime for a black worker to quit his job was also illegal.  (Nearly every other southern state had the same law.) The judge thought the system just involved a few ‘bad apples.’  He didn’t realize the whole state of Alabama was guilty – and, according to Blackmon, involved ‘tens of thousands’ of virtual black slaves and the men who were complicit in rounding them up.  Many of the wealthiest and most prominent people in each state were involved.  While several like John Pace pleaded guilty without a trial, alleging that slavery was not illegal, the rest were released with fines, and cases were dropped.  This became true across the south. Prosecutors eventually believed that ‘symbolic’ victories were the best, and so, eventually, did the federal government.  The Supreme Court struck down lower courts that had declared debt peonage illegal, as ‘states rights’ trumped human rights.  So the system continued, with a slight legal twist - they'd run everything through a courthouse.

Through all this, Dubois called the South ‘an armed camp for the intimidation of the Negro.’  As Blackmon put it, what choices did black people have? “…free labor camps that functioned like prisons, cotton tenancy that equated to serfdom, or prison mines filled with slaves.”  Dubois himself, in an interesting sidelight, did a first-rate and deep sociological survey of Lowndes County, only to have it lost by the U.S. government for political reasons.

Black neo-slavery – or prison labor, ‘contract’ labor, debt peonage - was similar to the methods used against young white ‘criminals’ – many times poor, homeless or orphan children - dragooned off the streets of Ireland, Scotland, Wales and England.  They too were sold to farmers as indentured ‘servants’ (essentially workers in bondage) in the 1500 and 1600’s, prior to the full advent of black slavery.  (Read the book, “They Were White and They Were Slaves.”) The U.S. was built on this kind of labor thievery from day one, only switching methods or targets from time to time.  The north had its own debtors prisons and work programs, though these died out much earlier than the south.

Blackmon historicizes this issue, as do most bourgeois historians, by ending his history under the Roosevelt and Truman administrations, which finally abolished neo-slavery through actually applying and clarifying earlier federal laws in 1951 – not leaving it to the “South” to decide.  This, of course, came due to the pressure from Japanese and German propaganda, and also from the Soviet Union and domestic communists, who made debt peonage a world-wide political issue. 

Blackmon does not mention the present ‘war on drugs,’ which allows the U.S. to incarcerate millions of black and Latino people for fake crimes.  Nor does he mention the present prison-industrial complex, which still uses black prison labor for super-profits on a large scale. According to Steve Fraser, "nearly a million prisoners are now making office furniture, working in call centers, fabricating body armor, taking hotel reservations, working in slaughterhouses or manufacturing textiles, shoes and clothing, while getting paid somewhere between 93 cents and $4.73 per day."  Wal-Mart, for instance, along with other large corporations, use suppliers using prison labor.  Private capitalists taking advantage of prison labor was legally sanctioned in 1979 under Democrat Jimmy Carter, unsurprisingly of Plains, Georgia. Recently a rash of stories have come out about poor people being thrown in jail for non-payment of legal fines and fees, and, even more draconian, failure to pay debts to private parties.  The 'debtor's prison' is returning.  I have been told that the book, "The New Jim Crow" goes into this in some detail.

And I bought it at May Day Books!
Red Frog
January 30, 2013

Women War Mongers

Dear Fellow Commodity,

The women in combat question brought to mind the Virginia Slims cigarette slogan, of a few years back,”You've come a long way, baby.” And, in one case, it referred to a woman fighter pilot whose nickname was K C which stood for Killer Chick!
When the Secretary of Defense??? ruled that women could be in combat there was great enthusiam (but not from Code Pink). Much of the focus seemed to be on the “career” opportunities (A Career in Killing!)
A few years ago at the annual Mayday Parade down Bloomington Ave to Powderhorn Park , the late Myron Fossum , a Veterans For Peace member, carried a sign which read:
The sign got great cheers and applause.
Tom R. Dooley
St Paul MN

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Bonaparte’s Russian Mustache

“The Struggle for Power – Russia in 1923,” by Valentina Vilkova, 1996

This is a work of original research on documents from what was then the newly-opened Soviet government archives in Russia.  Vilkova is a researcher at the Centre for Political and Economic History of Russia in Moscow.  In the excellent preface of this volume she analyzes original documents rarely made available within the country.  They show, according to her, that in this critical year 1923, when Lenin was dying, a factional triumvirate (the ‘troika”) of central Soviet leaders – Kamenev, Zinoviev & Stalin – assumed power based on a campaign of distortions and slander against Trotsky and those who agreed in some respects with Trotsky.  This event some have called the assumption to power of a new bureaucracy within the party, based not on politics, but on a pure power play.    

This concentration of power in ‘the troika,’ and then ‘the seven,’ resulted in the eventual consolidation of power in ‘the one’ – Stalin, and the subsequent liquidation of nearly all of his confederates – Rykov, Zinoviev, Kamenev, Bukharin.  Subsequently the overwhelming majority of the Bolshevik Old Guard, and later, the overwhelming majority of the leadership of the Red Army were also executed.  In essence, over time the revolutionary generation was killed, and a new generation loyal to a ‘strongman’ like Stalin and the new bureaucracy was installed.

Trotsky later called this “Bonapartism,” as it reflected how Napoleon Bonaparte defanged the French Revolution.

Vilkova collects here key documents tracking the developments in that fateful year 1923 – a few of which were only available previously from Trotsky and his supporters.  Lenin’s last testament – which indicated support for Trotsky, and opposition to Stalin – is not included here, but it plays a role in the background.  Vilkova notes that the Testament was distorted or suppressed at the time.  She also does not deal with documents related to the “Georgian question,” which revealed Stalin’s real attitude towards national minorities – not a pleasant one, but a 'great Russian chauvinist' one.

In her introduction, Vilkova makes some main points in her analysis of the texts.  The economic questions which plagued the USSR in 1923 were ignored in order to focus on attacking Trotsky.  The national question was also not clarified.  The troika agreed to Lenin (and Trotsky’s) ideas on the national question regarding federalism formally.  But when Lenin left political life after his stroke in March 1923, they backtracked, and reverted to a position that ‘local nationalism’ was the main enemy.  As part of this, they dissolved the Ukrainian government headed by Rakovsky, and put the Georgian leader M. Sultan-Galiev on trial.  

Lenin, being sick, was ignored or kept in the dark by the troika.  Stalin, getting wind through Kamenev that Lenin was going to advocate he be demoted from his post as “General Secretary” (an ostensibly ‘organizational’ position), put forward a resolution to postpone the 12th Congress to prevent this, to buy the troika some time.  It was postponed and it worked, as Lenin had a ‘stroke’ and was not able to intervene in the Congress, except with pre-prepared paper documents on the national question and the formation of the USSR

Vilkova notes that a new form of ‘intra-party’ discussion developed – one of rudeness, disloyalty and animosity.  Pyatakov, one of Trotsky’s allies, was called a Menshevik, which in those days was equated with being a White Guard.  In December 1923, the Central Committee removed Antonev-Ovseenko, Radek and Pyatakov for ‘factionalism.’  The ‘Statement of the 46” – mostly old-time party members in positions of authority in various parts of the economy who agreed with Trotsky’s concerns about the crashing economy – led them to being put on a black list.

To justify the new attitude, here is a choice quote from Kamenev:  “… that in order to support the dictatorship of the proletariat, it was necessary to support the Dictatorship of the Party, which was impossible without the dictatorship of the ‘old guard,’ which, in turn, was impossible without the leading role of the Central Committee as a leading institution.”

According to Vilkova, Lenin understood what was going on and, too late, proposed a different organizational structure for the Bolshevik Party.  He proposed doing it as part of a joint block with Trotsky.  It would be one much more controlled by the ranks of the Party, not a faction of the Central Committee, or a ‘charismatic’ leader, and which he hoped would prevent a split at the top.  Unfortunately, the ‘split’ happened in 1923, but took another 15 years to mature into the Moscow Show Trials of 1938.   

Other materials to read on this subject is the pamphlet, “On the Suppressed Testament of Lenin” by Leon Trotsky; and “Conscience of the Revolution: Communist Opposition in the Soviet Union,” by R Daniels. 

And I bought it at Mayday Books excellent used and cutout book section!
Red Frog
January 23, 2013

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Hypocrisy & The World's Largest Arms Dealer

A Culture War Debate

The Democrats are starting off their second term, not with a focus on jobs, class disparities, union rights, poverty, low wages or continuing foreclosures – but with the ‘deficit’ and now, gun control in the U.S..  I.E. the culture war. 

Let no crisis go unavailed.  The slaughter of the little white innocents in Newtown, CT has led to putting some spine into the Democrats on their side of the American culture war.  Hence Obama’s suggestions to control the gun trade within the United States.

I say ‘within’ because the United States is the biggest gun dealer in the world.  By 2011, the last year for which there are figures, the worldwide percentage of U.S. weapons sales to other countries had reached a near-monopolistic 78% ($66.3 billion in weapons sales), with the Russians coming in a distant second at 5.6% ($4.8 billion).  Saudi Arabia, a reactionary, anti-female kingdom dominated by fundamentalist Sunni clerics and oil billionaires, is one of the leading recipients of these weapons.  The Pentagon is the biggest arms dealer and broker/shill for weapons in history. Obama’s recent focus on Chinese ‘militarism’ pointed out that they ‘might’ have 400 inter-continental ballistic missiles.  The U.S. has 10,000.  We could go on, but you see the point.

No limits are being discussed there, of course.  In fact, the ‘happy’ co-incidence that the Democrats and Republicans made a deal on their self-created ‘fiscal cliff’ was based on not cutting Pentagon or Homeland spending one iota.  That was the main motivator for a deal.  So our well-armed SWAT teams and police departments in every city in the country are in no danger of being deprived of their weapons.  

Shit runs downhill.  Or should I say, violence runs downhill.  The U.S. is a most violent society – for a society ostensibly at peace.  The U.S. has the highest homicide rate of any ‘advanced’ nation, thought violent crime has been going down in the U.S. for some time. 16,000+ died by homicide in 2011.  It is the second leading cause of death for young people, and the leading cause of death for African Americans.  Of all regions, the southern U.S. is the most violent, which figures.  Nevertheless, twice that number – around 32,000+ in 2011 - die by suicide in the U.S., though this does not approach the numbers in Japan or Russia.  This is a statistic that is most alarming for former soldiers.

Our television, films and video games are all saturated in violence.  As I have said before in an essay on TV cop shows (reviewed below), the .45 handgun is the most common ‘leading man.’  Mirror or accelerant, this is no accident either.  Our love of ‘hunting’ has resulted in hunters shooting other hunters – and also ‘legally’ shooting endangered moose and wolves here in Minnesota.  The clowns are even having gun accidents at gun shows – 3 in the last week.

The number killed in ‘mass shootings’ is statistically small.  Schools are statistically safer for children than their home or the streets.  The greatest danger regarding guns, as Tom pointed out below, is in accidents and homicides within families or among those who know each other.  People with poor impulse control, conflicts, mental problems, anger issues or depression should not have guns in their home.  It is a public health issue. 

It is also a political issue.  Suicides do not use semi-automatic weapons or high-capacity magazines on themselves.  Most murders are not committed by these weapons either.  The recent wave of killings of black kids in Chicago was unlamented by the national media – but assault weapons were not the norm in these shootings. Nor does the media focus on police shootings - 43 shot dead by cops in Chicago in 2011 alone.  So why the focus on these weapons? 

I think the secret reason is that the government does not want large numbers of people to have weapons approximating those held by the police, the secret police and the army.  Would some single civilian have a chance against a trained SWAT squad storming his house?  Of course not.  No matter how many rounds, or bullet proof vests or weaponry that individual has.  It is ridiculous.  However, if thousands of people suddenly have decent weapons, it becomes a different issue.  It comes down to the issue of disarming your own population – not for health issues, or crime reasons, but for political reasons.  Which is why some working class people are worried.  The inordinate fear of ‘crime’ is legitimate in some neighborhoods, but certainly not in all. 

Another consideration is the possible use of weapons by fascists.  In any situation of social unrest, fascist elements would use guns against unions, picket lines, against left demonstrations, against individuals, against occupations, against African Americans, Jews and Latinos. The left does not want to be disarmed, nor can it ‘trust’ the police at all times.  After all, the police many times work with the right.

I’d certainly support the majority of suggestions Obama made about gun control, which seem to be all common sense - especially allowing scientific study of the issue, better logs by dealers, real background checks, tougher gun show requirements, etc.  I don’t support the ban on large magazines and assault weapons unless that ban also applies to our local SWAT squads, police and the domestic military.  Then we can start working on 'downsizing' the Offense Department and the Department of Homeland Insecurity.  After all, what’s fair is ‘fair.’

P.S. - Obama recently visited Minneapolis and was quoted as saying, as he stood before an audience of policeman, in essence "we cannot have a situation where the 'bad' guys are better armed than the police."  What happened to the little martyrs of Newtown?

Red Frog
January 20, 2013

Friday, January 18, 2013

Dear Fellow Commodity,

Would a pistol in your hand change your behavior?

Although a gun is an inanimate object, it still has the strange ability to  influence human behavior. For example, a punk in the hood becomes a big man, a Rambo, with  a pistol in his hand. Indian Princess Sita said many centuries ago,“The bearing of a weapon changes the nature of the bearer”. Similarly, the driving of a vehicle changes the nature of the driver (sometimes to road rage.)

A doctor in Fridley, MN a suburb of Minneapolis, had a fancy sign in the yard of his office on which he placed short messages. One was:   A WEAPON CAN BE AN ENEMY EVEN TO ITS OWNER. Nancy Lanza mother of Adam Lanzer, the killer at the school in Newtown CT, was killed by him with one of her many guns. A young father in Minneapolis bought  a gun for protection and his 4 year old son killed his 2 year old brother with this gun. Hundreds of hunters are killed; father by son, brother by brother, friend by friend, all killed by accident by a weapon that is "an enemy even to its owner".                                  

Tom Dooley 
1176 Ashland Ave
St Paul MN 55104
ph 651 645 0295

Slightly Noire

Los Angeles Stories, by Ry Cooder, 2011 (a book)

No, he doesn’t sing these.  Cooder is a nationally known singer-songwriter who started his own musical life as a roots slide player, and was made most famous by bringing the Cuban Buena Vista Social Club out of the woodwork.

Here he tries his hand at short stories, and provides a picture of old Los Angeles in the 40s and 50s, before it was so crowded, expensive or glittery.  Before it became a third-world city.  Here it is dusty streets and low rent shacks, palms and broken cars, zoot suits and pachucos.  If the characters live around downtown, they’ve never been to the beach.  No one goes to Hollywood, not even Frankie.  The other neighborhoods and streets of LA shine here – Chavez Ravine, Pershing Square, Venice, the Valley, Boyle Heights, Santa Monica, Chinatown, Pico Boulevard, Ocean Park Drive, the Barlow Hospital.  The people are down and outs, scruffy musicians or working people, with many having a tie to music.  Amateurs or professionals, the jones for the music vibe runs through these tales.  John Lee Hooker, Charlie Parker and Merle Travis all make cameos.  It is not your movie-land LA. 

Except when it is.  One of my beefs about LA books is that so many think ‘noire’ is the only way to go. As if every Angeleno can’t wander around town without bumping into a corpse. Bullshit.  Cooder is no exception, and that is the weak thing in most of the stories here.  At least “The Big Lebowski” and Pynchon’s “Inherent Vice” made LA noire funny.  Cooder has a tiny edge of politics – disturbing echoes of the 1943 Zoot Suit riots around downtown vibrate throughout the book.  Chavez Ravine is here, a Mexican neighborhood tracked by Mike Davis in his ‘City of Quartz.’ The Ravine resisted being bought out by the rich gringos for years, only to be eventually destroyed for Dodger Stadium.  After all, real estate is the highest of southern California arts.  Cooder recorded an album called, “Chavez Ravine,” which centered on the history of this neighborhood.  Even Trotsky gets props from Cooder, as his picture hangs on the wall of some Mexican radical.  But that is it. Mostly it is sepia-stained Tom Waits we’re talking here – with corpses and shifty characters.

Nevertheless, if you enjoy visiting LA, this book gives you a feel for what the city was, and still is – if you just squint real hard.  Put on “Chavez Ravine” by Ry and read.

And I bought it in Mayday Books large fiction section.
Red Frog
January 17, 2013

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Social Darwinism


Here is a picture from a modern corporate manager magazine.  The evolution of the Meritocracy.  Just gaze on this…

You may be laughing, but this CEO magazine sees this as actual fact.  If the guy on the right looks a little like Spock, you might be right.  Most of us are the schmuck on the left.  Our striving, suck up, brown-nose status quo types are in the middle.  And on the right?  The 1%.  4% or so of the guys on the left even make it to the middle.  What do you think the percentage is after that? Some say the ‘scum rises to the top.’  Some say, ‘the bigger they are, the harder they fall.’   And some say, ‘stand erect in the name of love.’ 

I say their days are numbered… because the guy on the left is going to hand them that big pile of paper and say, ‘get to work.’

Red Frog
January 17, 2013

Sunday, January 13, 2013

What is Under this Movie’s Hood?

Cloud Atlas, 2012 – Tykwer/Wachowski film with Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Hugh Grant

Cloud Atlas is another one of those ’10-Level” movies that zigs between different historical times or consciousnesses, attempting to unite everything in some fictional constant – in this case a comet birthmark, recurring motifs and recurring actors.  It reminds one of 'Inception' in its multi-layering and time scrambling, but without the spinning top.

The earliest sequence concerns a naval story set in the American slavery days of the 1840s or so – something like “Armistad” or "Master and Commander." In the next period represented, the “Cloud Atlas Sextet” is a piece of orchestral music composed by a suicidal gay man in the 1930s – something perhaps seen on the BBC.  Then there is a vintage corporate crime mystery, set in 1973 in San Francisco. The touchstone could be the “The Parallax View.” And in what seems to be the present, (there is a car with an 'On' button...) an old publisher is locked up in a ‘nursing’ home by his sadistic brother. That film reference is “One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest.” Then a horrific tale of a future dystopia in “New Seoul” sometime in the late 2100s, where Asian worker slaves serve ‘consumers’ and then are turned into meat themselves.  Sort of “The Matrix” meets “Soylent Green.”  The last level is a future world of people speaking pidgin-English living in island huts, hunted by death-head savages, while another crew of advanced survivors are trying to get off planet Earth.  Something has destroyed much of the planet much earlier.  Film reference; Planet of the Apes or Terminator.  One scene even screams "Nazgul" from Episode 1 of "Lord of the Rings."  Cloud Atlas is really 6 movies in one.

We can see that movies borrow from other movies, combine some parts, then reconstitute themselves as something new.  Nothing we didn’t already know.  However, anything that stars Tom Hanks sets off alarm bells of middle-America.  So what is the subtext - or actually, text?

In each story, someone is being ‘locked up’ or oppressed by someone or something else, and those people rebel.  The phrase, “I will not be subjected to criminal abuse” reoccurs several times.  So mainly it is a fictional attempt to fight oppression – not that rare in films these days.  This seems to be the real fictional constant. 

In the naval voyage, a young man who has traveled to the Pacific finds himself helping a 'black' Polynesian stowaway who had been beaten by island thugs.  He himself is slowly poisoned by the ship’s doctor for his gold, eventually being locked in his sick room.  Only to be rescued by the recalcitrant stowaway he himself had helped earlier.  The young man eventually joins the Abolitionists.  In the piece about musicians in the 1930s, an old over-the-hill composer threatens his gay helper with exposure of his gayness so as to steal his Sextet.  The young man escapes by shooting the old man, then after finishing the piece under his own name, escapes again through suicide.  The 1973 mystery results in lots of people dying too, but the tough black reporter - Berry - fights back and eventually gets the goods on an attempt by the oil industry to create a nuclear accident.  At one point, she is trapped in a sinking car, and at other points, toking up. In the improbable tale of the oldster locked up in a nursing home, a group of tough, working-class Scots in a bar beat-up the "English" people from the nursing home and allow the old folks to get away.  In the Seoul-less matrix, a rebel underground army, the “Union,” frees one of the robotic servers from certain death, and shows her the fate of her kind.  She becomes a prophet of truth and revolution, but all are eventually defeated.

The last sequence is set on a green tropical isle.  Two people from two different ‘tribes’ fall in love, one of them overcoming the imprisoning whispers of fear and hatred to do so.  They escape to another planet, far from earth, which has become only a ‘blue shimmering’ thing in the sky.  So the escape is if the earth itself is the problem.  All of these sequences are mixed, not sequential, so history is a puzzle piece, not a linear process.

The film toys with the idea that we never die, that there is an ‘eternal reoccurrence,’ a repetition of lives throughout history, much like the Hindu belief in reincarnation.  This plays the role in the film of an ideological sop to conventionality, to mysticism.  In fact, the links between people, situations or the birthmark in the film are actually very weak.  There is no real connection made, just implied.  The Sextet shows up as music in two sequences, one in a San Francisco hippie music store, one while being composed.  The markings on the black slaves in the oldest sequence show up on the white hut-dwellers in the last sequence.  The diary of the young man on the ship is discovered by the gay composer.  The movies of the locked-up old man are watched by those in New Seoul.  Yet you never get the actual impression that these events matter, or these people are alive again.  But the stark fact of bloody rebellion exists in each story, and is far more grounded in the film’s sections than the fantasy of reoccurrence. Love is present in several of the stories, but love is such a cliche in American film that it cannot even be extracted from its surroundings anymore.  It is sort of like the sun coming up - thematic wallpaper.

Cloud Atlas, of course, started out as a book.  Here are two political quotes from it:  “All revolutions are the sheerest fantasy until they happen; then they become historical inevitabilities.” “The better organized the state, the duller its humanity.” Quotes from 'Cloud Atlas,' the book, by David Mitchell.  Many other quotes fly off into fantasy or poetry, as this book is not an exclusively political one. 

So what do we make of this odd film?  Like so many, it seems to reflect the sub-consciousness of people who seem to be more readily living in a state of rebellion, yet a rebellion that has not broken out in fact.  It is still sublimated, still relegated to fantasy, still outside the plane of the real.  As Marxists, we observe culture to take the temperature of the ‘drip, drip’ of rebellion, of quantity into quality. As one of the characters in Cloud Atlas says:  “My life amounts to no more than one drop in a limitless ocean. Yet what is any ocean, but a multitude of drops?”  Certainly this is not the mentality of the isolated libertarian individualist anymore, or the drunken partier, or even the Obama voter.  Yet we are not yet at 'flood stage' obviously.

And perhaps films like this don't reflect rebellion, but actually play a role in releasing it vicariously, thus making audiences even more passive.  Perhaps 'that' is the subtext.

And I saw it at the Riverview Theater.
Red Frog,
January 13, 2013

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

The British "Red Neck"

“Chavs – The Demonization of the Working Class,” by Owen Jones, 2011

Britain has always had a strong labor tradition, and it is hard to read a book that focuses on the particular variety of sado-capitalism practiced there since the mid-1970s.  The parallel to events in the U.S. is clear, making one think that perhaps the capitalists around the globe … actually work together! 

“Chavs’ is a British slang term for the poorest part of the working class, which has taken on connotations covering the whole British working class. It is similar to U.S. slang like redneck, trailer-trash, wigger or hillbilly – an anti-working class stereotype and pejorative.  It is from a Romani (gypsy) word meaning ‘youth.’  It was initially used to describe white working-class young people in Britain with designer sportswear and gold jewelry who ostensibly don’t work and make trouble.  The stereotype is that they live in public ‘council’ housing, like graffiti, rap, soccer and also wear hoodies and slanted baseball hats.  They are lazy, violent, uncouth, smell, are racist, like beer and drugs, have plenty of babies and enjoy sex – and yes, are white.  Sort of Eminen gone massive.  Jones contends that the stereotype has been applied to an alleged ‘rump’ working-class that seemingly won’t live in a ‘middle-class’ way.   All other aspiring respectable workers, you see, have migrated into the ‘middle class.’  The image now in Britain is that ‘working class’ actually means poor and 'middle-class' means respectable and evidently well-employed. 

Jones demolishes this version of bourgeois class hatred, which he sees as just another continuation of the class war started by Margaret Thatcher, and embraced by the Tories and New Labour.  The middle of the British wages system in yearly earnings is ₤21,000, which is $33,600.  That is not comfortable or ‘middle-class’ by any definition.  Jones contends that the majority of people in England are still actually working class – and if you add fake ‘professional’ categories like nurses and other skilled white collar workers, the numbers are even greater.  There are many white-collar 'trades' no different than being a carpenter, plumber, electrician or machinist.  The image of a giant middle class, a smaller underclass of sad ‘chavs’ and a few invisible rich people is a social fabrication which the power structure in Britain projects.  It has been harder to fake this after the destruction wrought by the 2007 economic crash.  Jones uses this book to deconstruct a rigged British class society hiding behind insults.

The parallels to the U.S. are frightening – Reagan and Thatcher, New Democrats and New Labour; welfare reform in both countries; Jerry Springer and a similar British sod; snooty middle-class columnists; charter schools and ‘free’ schools; the 47% and the chav ‘rump,’ the worship of the mythical 'middle-class'; the meritocracy.  There are even conservative U.S. theorists now declaring that white workers are becoming as ‘morally weak’ as Black people, who now have English counterparts.

Jones spends a lot of time looking at stereotypes in British tabloids, television and reality TV, in film and even in rock, where working-class bands are now the exception, not the rule.  (Mumford and Sons, anyone?)  Many British journalists and politicians from both parties now hail from private schools, Oxbridge, Eton and Oxford, and have never been working class in their lives.  Tony Blair, of New Labour, famously said that, ‘we’re all middle-class now’ much as Thatcher declared that ‘society does not exist."  Blair had thus denounced the base of his own party.  After all, where could they go with their votes?  (Sound familiar?) 

The most interesting parts of the book is how Jones describes what has happened to the British working class since the famous General Strike of 1926 and the rise of Labour.  He makes the heavy point that without a political party or unions, working class people have a hard time rising in society, and in fact, these organizations helped many people rise from humble backgrounds to prominence.  During the 1960s and 1970s, miners, car workers and dockers were the majority of British proletarians.  Now their sons and daughters are more likely to be working in call centers, at grocery stores, as temps, or in some other low-paid office job - with no union, lower pay, lower skills and less solidarity and community than their parents. That is if they can even find a job. 

Prior to Thatcher, the British miners union – NUM - brought down a British government in 1974 – and the Tories never forgot it.  Thatcher – like Reagan – decided to destroy the unions and weaken the British working class by de-industrializing and instead de-regulating the banking industry to unleash “The City” – London’s Wall Street. After the miners under Scargill were finally defeated in the brutal and bloody 1984-1985 miners strike, it has been downhill for union concentrations in Britain and the working conditions of the British working class.  Working class self-esteem has also taken a nose dive.  One example Jones uses is the closure of the Longbridge Rover plant in 2005, which created a hole in a formerly thriving community that has never been filled. 

Jones details many human interest stories of individual poor white people demonized by the newspapers, TV, the internet and the political parties, in some kind of throwback to Victorian England’s bear-baiting.  Putting fat, pregnant, unemployed women in the stocks, while being pelted with rotten tomatoes by posh poseurs would be somewhat similar.  The self-congratulation of series like “Downton Abbey,” which historicizes class snobbery and class oppression as things of the past, fits in quite well with the myth that class no longer matters.  In fact, class is the main thing that really matters, and it matters in every country on the globe. 

Jones does a careful deconstruction of newspaper columnist attacks on ‘chav’ white workers for being ‘racist’ in the name of middle-class ‘multi-culturalism.’  He shows this to be part of the same myth generated by the Tories, just from the liberal side.  Workers are only to be seen for their ethnicity, their personal attitudes – or gender preferences – not their class.  Thus middle-class ‘leftists’ can look down on white workers – just as liberal U.S. Democrats sneer at southern white workers and other northern ‘red necks.’  It is, after all, the last acceptable prejudice.  However, white skin privilege isn’t what it used to be, as more and more white people sink into poverty.  But ‘middle-class’ privilege still is going strong!

If you haven’t noticed, the caricature of poor white workers is similar to the long-standing caricature of poor non-whites.   Caribbean, Indian, Pakistani and Bangledeshi workers in England are also highly concentrated in poor, working-class communities.  In the 2011 youth riots against police brutality, British non-white and white youth actually worked together against the police.  I would say one of the weaknesses of this book is it does not link up the situations of both very well, though that was not its intention.  He does point out that working class Britain is far more integrated by marriage, neighborhood and job than middle or upper-class Britain.  Nor was his intention a general critique of capitalism, as he seems to think that a pro-industrial policy would have somehow kept capitalism from going overseas, or industrialism from becoming less profitable in Britain.  Neo-liberalism is not only a 'policy,' it is driven by economic factors within capitalism itself.

Jones ends the book with a look at the influence of the British National Party, (BNP) the racist anti-immigrant organization that is now the 5th largest party in Britain by votes.  He contends that working-class votes for the BNP are a direct a result of the destruction of the industrial economy, the evisceration of the unions and the class-abandonment politics of New Labour.  For instance, the closure of the Dagenham Ford plant has created the conditions of growth for the BNP in that area.  It is material deprivation and a scramble for the scraps of unavailable housing and jobs that causes the hostility to immigrants, not some magical ethnic hatred floating above social reality. Jones advocates unions and a real Labour Party organize in communities and geographies (as others are starting to suggest too) to deal with the new nature of the working class.  He thinks we need a return to class politics - not identity politics, anti-war politics or simple 'international' issue politics that the left has engaged in as a substitute. 

Other books about the mostly U.S. working class reviewed below:  “Embedded with Organized Labor,” “In and Out of the Working Class,”  “Reviving the Strike,” “The Precariat,” “Waiter Rant” and “The Invisible Handcuffs of Capitalism.” 

And I bought it at Mayday Books!
Red Frog, January 9, 2013

Today was the start of the 1905 revolution in Russia and the beginnings of the Petrograd Soviet.  Na zdorovie!

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

The Transnational Surveillance Dystopia

“CypherPunks – Freedom and the Future of the Internet,” by Julian Assange, with Jacob Applebaum, Andy Müller-Maguhn and Jérémie Zimmermann, 2012

Julian Assange was under house arrest when this book was created, and is now holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy in a threadbare room, like an anarchist Cardinal Mindszenty.  He’s there because his deportation to Sweden for ‘questioning’ on a sex-crime allegation would most certainly result in him being handed over to the U.S. to face kangaroo court Grand Jury charges of ‘aiding terrorism.’  This is the dramatic backdrop to this discussion between 4 aging ‘cypherpunks’ about the dual nature of the internet – the largest realm of popular interaction in history and also the final form a total surveillance society may take. 

Assange is one of the founders of Wikileaks, a journalistic website, and also one of the most prominent ‘hackers’ and internet activists in the world.  Here he talks with comrades from 3 other countries who do not agree on everything, but agree that ‘the people’ must be protected from ‘the state.’  They are not leftists in any traditional sense – essentially supporting market solutions on repeated occasions in these discussions – but they are ferocious opponents of censorship and government surveillance – and some of them have already paid a price for that.

Applebaum has been repeatedly detained in airports and at the U.S. border, his computer seized and himself interrogated, all because he supports Wikileaks.  Muller-Maghuhn is a long-time member of the mostly German Chaos Computer Club hackers group.  Zimmermann works in France for ‘La Quadrature du Net,” a citizens advocacy group fighting corporate copyright and intellectual ‘property’ laws and for net neutrality. 

First the dystopic news.  It should come as no surprise that Google, Facebook, Twitter, Amazon etc. work closely with the U.S. government.  NSA intercept spy servers are running in the same buildings as the servers of these internet websites and internet providers.  The basic thesis, shown to be true by multiple whistleblowers, is that all digital communications by U.S. citizens are being retained and mined for data, not just that with so-called foreigners.  Your Skype phone call, your e-mail, your Facebook pictures, your purchases at Amazon, your web browsing, your iPhone call is all captured and stored.  The cost of retention is going down to the point that any country can afford it.  Surveillance software to capture and mine this data is not regulated, while encryption software is.  Which means that, legally, governments and corporations can spy on you, but you cannot defend yourself as easily. This, of course, shows that the Stasi were just amateurs.

The discussion notes that the Russian government reasonably requested that Russian Visa/ Mastercard/ Paypal transactions be hosted by servers in Russia (instead of the U.S.) and the bankers, backed up by the U.S. government, said ‘no.’  Which means every Russian transaction using these banks is being recorded by U.S. servers monitored by the NSA.  It should be noted that these banking entities also cooperated with the U.S. government to deny payments to Wikileaks without any visible legal process or convictions.  Here we can see the secret subpoenas and secret orders of the government at work, thanks to the Patriot Act and the FISA law.  250,000 secret ‘national security letters’ went out in 2011 or 2010, and none were concerned with terrorism, according to the authors.  These modern ‘bi-partisan’ laws are essentially overruling progressive parts of the Bill of Rights and the Constitution.

The government rationale for total surveillance the group dubs, ‘the four horseman of the Info-Apocalypse’ – terrorism, child pornography, money-laundering and drugs.  Assange asserts what this is instead leading to is a ‘transnational surveillance dystopia’ more concerned with protecting the powerful and limiting protest.  Assange understands that physical coercion underlies all of this surveillance – it is not merely disembodied surveillance.  And he should know, as should Bradley Manning.

So what does the group recommend as its utopian answer?  Technically, they put a particular emphasis on encryption.  Assange himself invented the ‘rubberhose file system’ which encrypts groups of files from surveillance, and also includes certain password protections against torture.  The group also mentions ‘tor’ frequently, which was formerly known as “The Onion Router (tor).”  Tor is a method of using the internet while encrypted, like web-browsing, e-mailing, on-line posts, instant messaging, etc.  This is done by passing data through a host network of volunteers’ computers.  This is similar to ‘the dark internet,’ ('Freenet") which uses similar encrypted methods on similar networked computers (bits of a file scattered across 1000's of computers), but is ostensibly used for more illegal purposes.  Tor is, amazingly enough, funded by the Government of Sweden, the U.S. State Department, the National Science Foundation and the Broadcasting Board of Governors according to Wikipedia.  I suspect anything sponsored by the State Department might have a ‘backdoor’ for the NSA that users might not know about, although it is supposedly transparent software.  But that is another story, and one this group should be aware of, no doubt.  Another technological invention is the ‘Cryptophone’ which allows encrypted telephonic messages, which Muller-Maghuhn helped develop.

Given the supervision of monetary transactions by the government, they also advocate ‘bitcoins’ which is basically internet money that can be exchanged for real Euros or dollars, etc. later.  Yet, bitcoin transactions cannot be tracked in the same way, and so provide a method of anonymity for internet transactions.  

Transparency, which Wikileaks is dedicated to, is Assange’s particular interest.  Governments and corporations that are allowed to hide their activities from citizens, while they spy on those same citizens, are the enemy.  Assange asserts that the millions of pages Wikileaks has published are only the tip of an iceberg of ostensible secrecy that no one will be able to plumb.  Wikileaks helped the Tunisian resistance get revealing articles about the Tunisian government past royal internet censorship and into the hands of Tunisian citizens, so they don’t merely publish material, but distribute it.

The authors’ real goal is to support a free internet and free software, by awakening people to what is actually happening.  In this way they hope to recruit a mass movement in support of ‘physics’ that has the technical and political skills to reverse the surveillance and censorship trend.  Applebaum recounts his visit to a U.S. military conference that featured war-gaming for ‘cyber warriors,’ in a ‘patriotic’ attempt to recruit tech-savvy youth to the CIA and other government agencies.  Of course, there is never a cyber game about ‘cyber peace.’  In a way, this group wants to recruit people to the ‘other side’ of a ‘virtual ’collective defense – of the world citizenry, not the corporations or governments.  Assange puts it this way as to the importance of the medium, “…of course, anyone can stay off the internet.  But then it’s hard for them to have any influence.” We might mention that strikes, sit downs, occupations and revolutionary organizations are not ultimately internet-based, but they can certainly be helped – and sometimes hindered - by the internet.

The weakness here is, of course, that this technical struggle for internet freedom is abstracted from the greater struggle of the working class for freedom.  The ‘physical’ force understood by Assange is really the state apparatus, which is not any old ‘generic’ state, but in nearly all the cases presented here, is a state that defends the corporate ‘market.’  Assange states that: “underpinning the high-tech communications revolution – and the liberty that we have extracted from that – is the whole neoliberal, transnational, globalized modern market economy.”  But then he repeatedly hopes that industrial corporations who have an interest in privacy will join them in the fight – as Google did on net neutrality.  He speaks of ‘micro-capital’ being on their side, and even asserts, seemingly not with tongue-in-cheek, that U.S. congressman and congressional votes should be purchased like every other commodity by ‘productive industries.’ Applebaum wants a ‘socially restrained capitalism.’  Muller-Magnum thinks Sarbanes-Oxley really will protect whistle-blowers.  Etc.  So combined with their tough and elegant real work on these issues, they have certain contradictions that veil the true enemy.

After all, who thinks there is a market that will not be dominated by corporate capital?  It is an idea that is as old-fashioned as Adam Smith, and oddly coming out of the mouths of the most high tech people.

And I bought it at Mayday Books!
Red Frog
January 2, 2013