Thursday, February 27, 2014

In the Beginning Was the Deed

"Peoples’ History of Science – Miners, Midwives and ‘Low Mechanicks,’” by Clifford D Conner, 2005

The ‘great man of history’ theory has been taking a beating lately, as historians chip away at this method of describing events.  While high-school history textbooks are for the most part still elitist propaganda, especially describing science – this is also changing.  This book is the perfect antidote to that.  It is clearly written and promotes the idea that sailors, artisans, mechanics, potters, merchants, farmers, women, miners and others made many of the discoveries that we credit only to scientific ‘geniuses.’  Many early ‘name’ scientists were merely collecting the knowledge of the practical ‘commoners’ around them.  Not all of these people were Europeans, as many discoveries came from China, India and the Middle-East.  It shows science to be, not a study of solely individual effort, but a collective enterprise involving a good chunk of the human race. 

This should not be news, but of course if you told this story on the national news, you’d be hounded as a socialistic heretic and ignoramus by our talking heads, whose positions are dependent on elite ‘experts.’ 

Conner understands the issue of class and of the debate between materialism and idealism, and these underlie his extensive research.  He was friends with Howard Zinn and also Jeff Mackler, and is a former history teacher at CUNY. 

The empirical method, which every human is familiar with, consists of testing against reality, otherwise known as trial and error.  Eventually enough knowledge is gained so that ‘trial and error’ includes less errors and more successes.  The progression of empirical work goes from there dialectically.  This is the human basis of science, and much present material science is not much different.  Conner points out that it was the original hunter-gatherers of prehistory – which he calls foragers – that discovered some of the most important facts about plants and animals leading to agriculture.  There were no official ‘scientists’ then, nor written histories - this is the only way it could have come about.  He cites Jared Diamond on the intelligence of these peoples, which Diamond rates as above those of present-day humans.  (Read reviews of Diamond’s books “Guns, Germans & Steel” and “Collapse,” both below.  Use blog search box, above.)

Conner points out that it is writing that many times defines ‘who’ and ‘when’ something happened.  Many events are not recorded, are recorded incorrectly, or are recorded in Latin or Greek, not vernacular tongues, attributing actions to people who adopted them from unknown others.  The written bias is many times towards the ruling class and its academic representatives of the time.  Conner deliciously takes apart the classist Platonic approach to science, which basically shut down real science to replace it with ideas and theory.  He also picks apart Aristotle, who while actually paying more attention to material tests, still favored elite scientists and the teleological thought that every thing has a built-in ‘plan.’  Aristotle eventually became the Catholic Church’s favorite scientist during the European dark ages.  Conner calls this false reliance on the ‘genius’ of the most well-known Greeks, the ‘Greek Miracle.’  He shows that many of the more important Greek materialists hailed not from Greece itself, but its colony in Turkey, called Miletus. 

For instance, Vasco De Gama, credited with being the first person to circumvent Africa, was a criminal plunderer who kidnapped navigators (a common practice) and whose only credential as a sailor was that he was appointed by the Portuguese King to stand on a ship’s deck.  Magellan never circumnavigated the globe – his navigator did, as Magellan was killed in the Philippines for invading one of its islands. 

Conner gives plenty of evidence to back up his claims, citing earlier historians of science, especially Edger Zilsel and the Soviet physicist Boris Hessen.  Modern mathematics was developed by traders and businessmen who visited China, India and the Middle-East, and substituted Indian numbers for bulky and incomplete Roman numerals.  Medical procedures that actually worked came from mid-wives, ‘old woman’ and nurses, not from ‘doctors’ who prescribed bleeding, cauterizations and other brutal forms of ‘medicine.’  Perspective was developed by artist/engineers like Michaelangelo, who was looked down on for being common, as he worked with his hands. Latitude and longitude came from the work of many navigators.  Etc. Conner links the ‘witch burning’ slaughter to a class war by the medical academics against women who knew more about healing than they did.  (See review of “Dark Side of Christian History” – use blog search box)

The development of printing (not invented by Gutenberg but by the Chinese) allowed empirical science to spread among the classes of people not thought to know anything.  Books in vernacular languages, not elite Greek or Latin, allowed early people’s scientists to spread their practical ideas and results. The most well know of these was Paracelsus, a former miner, who intentionally led a movement to undermine the ignorant scholastics of the 1500s with actual experimental work, not ancient theories with no proof.  Hans Lippershey, a spectacle-maker, invented the telescope.  Leeuwenhoek, a fabric seller, invented the microscope, and was the first to look at bacteria & protozoa.  While Robert Boyle & Tyco Brahe are well-known, they were wealthy, government-supported gentlemen scientists who employed dozens of practical specialists that carried out experiments, many of whom worked on their own. 

This kind of science later got christened “Baconism” after its most prominent adopter, Francis Bacon.  Bacon only recognized what was going on ‘below.’  He put his own elitist spin on it, by choosing to focus on the need for gentleman scientists to control everything.  Bacon himself supported the English ruling powers and advocated torture against those who challenged it, like the Diggers and Levelers.  The period of the Scientific Revolution allowed the ‘educated scientists’ to meet the empirical scientists, and this is what created a cultural explosion.  But the bottom-line is that the European working-classes laid the basis for the ‘scientific revolution’ and developed many of its precepts from the ground up. 

The history of science is not separated from the history of society – much as bourgeois attitudes claim that the two are separate, and science is a ‘pure’ discipline living in its own rarified air.  The bourgeois revolutions, especially in France, upended the religious and scholastic authorities of the feudalists – only to eventually replace them with similar scientific bodies connected to capitalism.  Conner describes the contributions of revolutionary Jacobin scientists like Bernardin and Bergasse that were ignored for years.  The former developed a holistic approach to studying the environment – one at odds with the official divisive approach to the various environmental sciences.  However Bernardin's approach is now standard for environmental scientists.  He said, “Everything in Nature is linked in a single chain.”

Most historians admit that it was the work of mechanics, brewers and others that powered the scientific developments during the Industrial Revolution – not the theories of ‘great men,’ which trailed afterwards.  For instance, Conner explores the contributions of Abraham Darby, a proprietor of an ironworks, who discovered how to smelt iron with coke.  Blacksmith Thomas Newcomen and plumber John Calley invented a steam machine pump.  James Watt, who built on this work, was an instrument maker.  A brewer discovered how to produce and bottle oxygen. These were key inventions in the industrial revolution and the development of capitalism and later led to theoretical advances by others.  Etc.  

An epic meeting between capitalist and Soviet scientists was held in 1931.  The Soviet delegation was led by Nicolai Bukharin and included Boris Hessen, who presented an explosive paper on Issac Newton’s “Principia” that shocked the conference.  It basically linked the development of science to the development of societies and their economic systems.  This led to a split between the two groups – not unpredictable.  However this view has become more and more accepted.

Eventually, however, nearly all science was corralled into control by capitalist forces, to the point where government, industry and academe are all one ‘scientific-industrial’ complex, and as a consequence, the pronouncements of beholden scientists are not trusted.  This is seen in medicine, in agriculture, in chemistry, in genetics, in nuclear warfare, in Taylorism, in internet surveillance.  Even the half-assed right-populist distrust of environmental science can be a result of the corporate angle taken by so many ‘experts.’  They have polluted science's purposes for the use of profit.

Conner describes the challenge of the non-specialist Rachel Carson to pesticides and the chemical industry in the 1950s and later feminism’s challenge to corporate health care in the 1960s.  He shows how the 1970s ‘Green Revolution” basically benefitted large farmers, created dependencies on corporate seeds and artificial fertilizers and still could not solve the problem of hunger.  Hunger cannot be solved by ‘more food’ but by eliminating food as a commodity.  After all, huge amounts of food are thrown away, mostly by capitalist supermarkets..  Just look at the shelves in American supermarkets and compare that to the penniless American hungry.  This is true across the world.

You may think this process has completely stopped.  Not true.  For instance, the growth of the computer industry and software, especially the latter, was done by many non-specialist 'artisans' who built many of the software and hardware systems we all use today, many quitting college.  This was long before anyone was being trained in coding and other skills by experts.  It is a commonplace to meet people employed in the computer industry with no college, who learned their skills on their own.  As to the present-day Platonists?  You might include many positions of theoretical physics and abstract math as newer forms of idealism.  

This is a nice primer and history lesson for the non-specialist.  It revives an attitude of ‘science for the people’ – not science for the elite, which is sorely missing in today’s frightened corporate climate. 

And I bought it at Mayday Books!
Red Frog
February 27, 2014 

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Kiev's Maidan Square and the "Game of Thrones"

US/EU Meddling Attempts to Make Ukrainians Pawns, Promotes Neo-Fascists

The bloody events in Kiev over the past week make one realize that not all street fighting is ‘equal’ – and that not all ‘revolutions’ are simple or even revolutions.  The struggle against corruption and for ‘democracy’ can produce strange bedfellows.  The ‘choice’ between ties with the EU or Russia is not a choice most working-class Ukrainians want to make.  Nor is that what underlies these events.  Economic dependency is sought by both sides.  The stark manipulations of American diplomats, as caught on tape, are just the behind-the-scenes maneuvers of massive capitalist forces, principally Germany, attempting to control the Ukraine’s economic life.  In a full hearing of the tape text on the Amy Goodman show, the diplomats discuss overthrowing the Ukrainian government, not just dissing the EU.  In essence, the EU/US are attempting regime-change and ‘nation-building.'  It could lead to a civil war or partition.  They would love to establish another client state on the border of Russia, and they will do almost anything to accomplish that.  

Ukrainians should not become pawns for anyone, but develop an independent working-class alternative.  There is no ‘one’ Ukrainian people, but an ethnically and culturally-diverse country, like most in the world.  It is industrialized in the east, rural and agrarian in the west.  The present – now missing -  president has the support of many in the east, and he is also backed by many Ukrainian billionaire oligarchs.  He was actually elected, though most elections are easily manipulated.  But elections mean nothing to the 'Democrats" of capital.  The rural west is the heartland of the anti-government right.  The U.S. always enjoys exploiting ethnic antagonisms, as can be witnessed by recent U.S. involvement in Syria, Libya and Egypt.  In this they have Ukrainian allies in the Svoboda Party and the Right Sector, both neo-fascist organizations.  The former is one of three largest anti-Yanukovich political organizations – the others being “Fatherland” and Udar – the latter two helmed by businessmen and boxers.  They are not fascist at least. 

Svoboda is descended from Stepan Bandera, the leader of a Ukrainian nationalist organization that carried out mass murders of Jews, reds, Poles and Soviet Soldiers in World War II.   According to ‘Workers Vanguard’, in 2004 Svoboda was called the “Social-Nationalist Party” after Nazi propaganda, with a swastika-like party symbol, and denounced the “Jewish/Russian” mafia that allegedly ran Ukraine.  Svoboda has engaged in physical confrontations in the Ukrainian parliament.  Its leader, Oleg Tyagnibok, met John McCain, one of our endless own war-mongers, in an explicit endorsement by the Republican Party.  Assistant Secretary of State Nuland met with Svooboda in February, being endorsed as legitimate by the our Democratic government. According to The Guardian:  “the party, now running the city of Lviv, led a 15,000-strong torch-lit march earlier this month in memory of Ukrainian fascist leader Bandera, whose forces fought with the Nazis in the Second World War and took part in massacres of Jews.”

Alternet reports, based on anarchist eyewitnesses who had difficult getting into the Maidan Sqaure past the neo-Nazis, who they estimated at 30%:  
"White supremacist banners and Confederate flags were draped inside Kiev’s occupied City Hall, and demonstrators have hoisted Nazi SS and white power symbols over a toppled memorial to V.I. Lenin. After Yanukovich fled his palatial estate by helicopter, EuroMaidan protesters destroyed a memorial to Ukrainians who died battling German occupation during World War II. Sieg heil salutes and the Nazi Wolfsangel symbol have become an increasingly common site in Maidan Square, and neo-Nazi forces have established “autonomous zones” in and around Kiev."

Like Jobbik in Hungary (see several commentaries on Hungary, below), Svoboda is a resurrection of fascists tendencies buried during the period of the workers’ states, and now free to roam under capitalism.  Fascism is not some dusty artefact from the distant past.  As the U.S. has proved many times before, making friends with fascists or dictators is just part of any anti-Russian or anti-communist strategy.  People fighting for democracy might want to look at these particular allies in this struggle – ‘allies’ who have no intention of democracy.

In the U.S., there is a never-ending hatred of Russia and demonization of Putin across the whole bourgeois political spectrum.  Obama actually criticized Putin for ‘interfering’ in the Ukraine, while U.S. and EU negotiators swarmed all over Kiev.  The U.S. – in spite of its liberal mask – cannot stand ANY opposition from ANY country on the globe.  When Putin bailed Obama out in Syria and aided the Iranian talks – which the U.S. is fumbling on purpose; when Putin gave shelter to Edward Snowden; when Putin had the temerity to hold the Olympic Games on Russian territory; when the Russians passed reactionary anti-gay laws – all these are examples that corporate bullies do not appreciate – or can use. 

On the latter, do you think that the U.S. criticizes one of the most anti-homosexual countries on the globe, Saudi Arabia?  A country that executes atheists and homosexuals, keeps women in literal closets and is run by unelected billionaire royals, a toxic theocratic mix of oil and Wahhabism?  No. The U.S. sells them weapons instead, as they are an ally.  28 states in the U.S. allow a business to fire homosexuals for being gay.  A peep from Washington or Biden about this?  No.  Because this kind of talk is merely cover for a U.S. global economic strategy, just as their ‘pro-women’ talk in Afghanistan was the cover for military intervention and mineral leases.  It is not about ‘democracy.’ 

Like Russia, Ukraine was economically crushed by neo-liberal shock therapy and mass privatization after the disintegration of the USSR.  More than half the country's income was lost in 5 years and it has yet fully to recover.  A crowd of oligarchs and new capitalists seized state property for a song.  This is one of the roots of this situation.  The left in the Ukraine needs their own forces, mobilized not in the name of the EU or of Russia, but in the name of the Ukrainian working class and their allies everywhere.  Self-determination is essential, but is also a mask for capitalist control.  Killing demonstrators with snipers will not solve this problem.  Nor will successes by Svoboda and the Right Sector – clubs, guns, shields, helmets, gas bombs and all.  The only beneficiaries to that will be one group of big businessmen who are using these particular street-fighters as battering rams for their own interests. 

Fight for working class democracy.

P.S. - An IMF Coup.  The IMF is moving into Ukraine in a big way, dangling $15B with strings - the strings being raising gas prices, cutting subsidies and increasing privatization.  They hope this time they can make the Ukraine swallow the medicine. Anytime the IMF shows up, austerity follows.  Democracy?  Not quite.  Even the unelected 'president' says he will be the most hated man in the Ukraine if he pushes them through - but he's going to do it.

Red Frog
February 22, 2014

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Even Leftists Have to Take a Break

Zappa Plays Zappa – First Avenue – February 16, 2014

The U.S. is not in the midst of an upheaval, as are so many countries.  So I’m not handing out leaflets anymore or calling people on telephones.  I don’t have to travel to organization conventions or get on buses to Washington.  I have no required reading from ‘the leadership.’  I don’t worry about peddling newspapers.  Paying the high or ridiculously low dues is out.  Attending too many meetings is optional.  Going to every picket line or march or forum is no longer done.  No security details, tear gas or standing behind barricades even.  I can choose to enjoy myself after work a bit.  Like 'normal people.'  It is a hard thing for many leftists to hack.  Theater?  Nightclubs?  Bars?  Museums?  Travel?  Dancing?  Eating decent food?  Even movies are a stretch.  The revolution beckons. 

Frank Zappa was probably the freest musician to come out of the 1960s.  His 60 albums are a compendium of doo-wop, R&B, electronic, jazz, rock, comedy and classical.   His skills were even broader than groups like the Grateful Dead, who covered many styles too. (See review of “Let Us Now Praise the Dead,” below.) Zappa was a prolific composer, probably the best to come out of rock and roll so far.  His influences range from early R&B to Edgar Varese and Stravinsky.  Zappa never shied away from politics.  He made fun of conformist education, the Christian religion, the police, naïve hippies, Valley girls, repression of speech, TV, drugs, Ronald Reagan and commercial music like disco, heavy rock, bebop and psychedelia.  He appeared before Congress to debate Tipper Gore’s proposals to censor popular music.  He was one opinionated bastard, loved by all opinionated bastards.  Zappa started as a drummer, met Captain Beefheart while in high school, then graduated to guitar and became a self-taught musician.  His absurdist orchestral rock is complex, beautiful, dissonant and always intriguing. 

Zappa was an underground youth sensation in the U.S. with only one very funny hit, “Valley Girl,” with his daughter Moon Unit.  Many U.S. musicians loved him.  He was huge in Europe however.  A street is named after him in East Berlin.  Many bands tried to cover him in Czechoslovakia.  The legendary ‘Plastic People of the Universe’ rock band in Prague named themselves after lyrics from one of this songs. Vaclev Havel even named him a ‘cultural attaché’ in the early ‘90s. He played Budapest and almost every European capital, even during the so-called ‘cold war.’  Like the Beatles his free music subverted the constricted cultural guidelines of the apparatchiks - and of the capitalists as well.  (Read reviews of “How the Beatles Rocked the Kremlin,” and a play related to Czech rock, “Rock & Roll,” both below.)

Of course Zappa was an individualist, not a leftist.  He could be considered a left-libertarian perhaps nowadays.  His music can sometimes become too cute, jokey, juvenile and intentionally and arbitrarily dissonant – reflective of the composer, I think.  Zappa was legendary as a highly-controlling band leader.  He ran his own studio in his basement.  He tried his own record label.  He changed band members like a rotating record.  He was a businessman, in spite of the fun he made of having ‘no commercial potential.’  As Thomas Frank said in the “Conquest of Cool” – this is how rebellion is turned into a marketable commodity. 

So.  Too bad he died in 1993 anyway.

However, his son Dweezil carries on his father’s music.  Dweezil and his accomplished band of multi-instrumentalists came to First Avenue this Sunday. First Avenue is the blacked-out “Fillmore” of Minneapolis, an intimate rock venue that has been rated as one of the top 10 rock clubs in the U.S.  I saw Zappa in the 1970s in that very room, when he had Flo & Eddie, ex-Turtles, doing the vocals, and the place was called “The Depot.”  It is an old bus depot and the stage at the time was tiny.  Now it is not.    

The centerpiece of this performance was a recreation of the whole 1974 album “Roxy And Elsewhere,” 40 years after it was first recorded.  It is a live Zappa album I’d never heard.  It was all new music to me, as is any music you’ve never heard.  Even if the album came out so long ago, as Dweezil said, this is still ‘the music of the future.’ A great show.  2.5 hours and not boring.  Danceable to a limit.  The female keyboard/ clarinetist/ saxophonist almost stole the show.  Dweezil soloed almost like his dad. The deep-voice singer and horn player hit all the lyrics.  The drummer could have done jazz.  The keyboardist had 7 boards and a computer to play.  And the bassist jumped around.  A good time was had by an audience stretching between 19-year olds and those who had seen Frank themselves.  Musically intriguing, crescendos of horn-driven choruses, and cowbell.     

So, if you like rock music, let us now praise … Frank Zappa. 

Red Frog
February 18, 2014

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Disaster Capitalism Lives

Climate Change is Coming For You

Mostly, it seems like disasters happen to other people.  Well, they don’t.  Sometimes they happen to you.  It’s not god’s wrath or the devil walking the world.  You didn’t sin, at least not in a Biblical sense.   Its global warming and its not kidding.

Here in quiet Minneapolis we have had 9-10 weeks of the polar vortex.  People mostly haven’t been going anywhere.  We are shut-ins.  This is dangerous weather.  Some people have frozen to death.  Others amputated for frostbite.  Fires that take lives.  Fear of gas or electrical failure.  Propane supplies running out in rural areas.  In the last few years we’ve had two tornadoes enter the city, which is unprecedented.  Last summer a wind storm blew down thousands of trees, blocking streets and knocking out power.  Also unprecedented.  Now, nothing like Hurricane Sandy.  Or, evidently, that snowfall in Atlanta that paralyzed the city and the airport.  Or, California, which is suffering another year of severe drought, shutting down some vital agriculture.  The east coast has been hit with more snow than they are used to, leading to the most travel delays at airports - ever.  Go abroad?  Same story, starting with the endless floods in the UK, the wettest in 200 years.  These are symptomatic issues.

Most astute meteorologists understand that the vortex has been caused by the weakening of the barrier between cold and warm weather due to the warming of the arctic regions.  This has changed the jet stream, pushing it south, making it lazy, bringing with it polar air.  In parts of the arctic the weather is warmer than Minnesota.  Temperatures in the Arctic and Siberia are running 10 degrees above normal.  Valdez, Alaska had the largest snow slide ever, blocking the only highway into town.  It took them a week to remove.  It was caused by rain and 50 degree temperatures.

Most sentient people know that something is up, even by their own limited personal experience. You can start a disaster shelf - and I recommend it - but that is not the only thing to do.  Oil lamps, canned food, face-masks, crank radios, gas generators, gas and water carriers, soap, stored vodka, etc. only go so far.

So where are our political ‘leaders’ on this issue?  The Democratic Party and its leadership voice support for the idea that climate change is man-made.  However, the practical actions it takes are ‘as if’ they don’t understand what that actually means.  I don't think they actually believe their own position!  They only say 'they understand' to snow Democratic voters.  It seems to work – over and over again.

John Kerry’s State Department just OK’d the XL Pipeline in a flawed study.  The ‘logic’ here is that there are no lines to draw in any sand – ever.  This pipeline will pump out massive amounts of coal tar oil from the Canadian tar sands – mostly for export to other countries.  This process pollutes the McKenzie River basin and is highly-carbon intensive.  (Review of book “Tar Sands – Dirty Oil and the Future of a Continent,” below.) 

President Obama is negotiating a secret “Trans Pacific Partnership,” which nearly every environmental organization in the U.S. has condemned.  Many of these organizations supported Obama in 2012 and 2008.   In essence, the TPP allows the capitalists to bypass any local environmental standards in the interest of trade.  It privatizes more plants and animals, otherwise known under capital as ‘intellectual property.’  It has no cost structure for environmental damage.  It backs down on population control, logging and the killing of endangered animals. 

This treaty is being negotiated by Michael Froman, a former Citigroup executive, National Security Counsel member and Harvard law school buddy of Obama’s.  Froman worked for Citigroup during the sub-prime mortgage crash.  To help him, Stefan Selig, a Bank of America investment banker has just been nominated to become the Under Secretary for International Trade at the Department of Commerce.  Selig received more than $9 million in bonus pay when he was nominated to join the administration in November. THESE are YOUR trade representatives!  

Then there is the ‘petcoke’ export issue.  Petcoke is the dirtiest waste coal in the world, and the Obama administration allows it to be exported to other countries for use as a dirty and inefficient fuel. You see, it is even too dirty to be used in the U.S. Who is the major beneficiary of petcoke?  Koch Industries and the Koch brothers - see the recent issue of Rolling Stone.  Now do you think the effects of petcoke will ever get back to the U.S.?  Do the clouds of pollution from China drift across the Pacific Ocean?  Duh.

So there is a nice connection - the Koch Brothers and the Obama administration.

The Republicans are not the only problem.   The addiction to the Democratic Party by so many ‘progressives’ is not going to solve the issue.  Anyone who poses these issues as Party issues, where one Party is only at fault, is really not being objective at all.  Party loyalty is a great substitute for accuracy.  There should be a penalty for ignoring your base, but the spineless patriots of the Democratic Party evidently like being ignored.  Both Parties, in different ways, are in criminal cahoots with extractive industries.  They truly represent two wings of one class. The hard truth is we need a new mass working-class political formation in the U.S. to make any headway against global warming.  It may be too late, but even in that context we need a way to defrock these frauds when climate ‘change’ becomes a continual climate disaster.  Let start by giving the Koch Brothers a real job, like resealing the Alaska pipeline by hand.  It will be hard for them to leave their Park Avenue apartments, but that’s the breaks. 

Red Frog
February 15, 2014

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

The Titantic or the Battleship Potemkin - Your Choice

"Save Our Unions – Dispatches from a Movement in Distress,” by Steve Early, 2013

Who would have thought we would be worried about ‘saving unions?’  Once giant presences in American society, unions have been sidelined to ostensible irrelevancy in the ‘new economy’ brought about by neo-liberalism.  Their ‘friends’ in the Democratic Party treat them as unpaid doormats.  Unions themselves have not grasped the extent of their plight, nor the ‘desperate’ means needed to save them.  Steve Early understands, at least to a point.  This book is his second on this issue, though here he lets himself speak instead of basing it mostly on reviews of pro-labor books, as he did in the 2009’s “Embedded With Organized Labor.” (also reviewed below.)

Early is a left activist and former staffer in the CWA, UMW and others.  He’s been a long-time supporter of Teamsters for a Democratic Union (“TDU”), Labor Notes and various rank-and-file caucus movements in the UAW, the UMW and other unions.  His prior book was a somewhat sad tour of the defeats endured by labor in the 1980s and beyond.  In this, he concentrates on present events, which actually are not quite so grim.  He presents definite evidence that the promises shown by the “Change To Win” confederation or the election of Richard Trumka as head of the AFL-CIO have not born fruit.  Trumka led the Pittston Coal strike and was in the insurgent UMW movement that removed the corrupt class-collaborationist Tony Boyle, so the disappointment is especially keen.  “Change to Win” foundered on the top-down autocratic style of Andy Stern of the SEIU. 

He notes that it was the struggle of TDU in the Teamsters and the victory of Ron Carey which propelled John Sweeney to the head of the AFL-CIO, in the first contested presidential election in that formation's history.  Sweeney himself however, a social-democrat in “Democratic Socialists of America” (“DSA”), did nothing to halt the decay of the labor federation. 

Early makes several points worth emphasizing.  He understands that health care issues, which are key issues in most individual labor and contract fights, cannot be limited to individual bargaining by one union against one company anymore.  It needs to be a social fight across the whole country.  Same goes for retirement benefits.  It has shown up even in the issue of crippling labor laws or a “Department of Labor” that is really a department to discipline labor.  OSHA boards are toothless, safety boards that deal with chemicals or environmental hazards are weak and missing-in-action, and the NLRB process is almost broken.  The concept of ‘pseudo-regulation’ comes to mind.  (Mentioned in the book, “Foodopoly,” reviewed below.)   

Early reviews the seemingly complex situation in California and Nevada regarding SEIU and its jurisdictional fights with the California Nurses Association (“CNA”) and the National Union of Health Workers (“NUHW”).  The key here, according to Early, is that the SEIU operates at Kaiser Permanente as a class-collaborationist force, agreeing to sub-standard contracts and participating with Kaiser in ‘cooperation’ schemes at work.  One of the most notable is the attempt to make an individual’s health a guide to how much to charge them in contracts for health-care.  I.E. Kaiser wants to monetize ill-health, obesity, smoking and other conditions.  SEIU puts into receivership any locals that opposed their strategies, which created the conflict in the first place.  As a CWA insider, Early tracks the struggles by the land-line Verizon workers and their attempt to unionize the non-union Verizon Wireless sector.  In the process he covers the large 45,000 member Verizon Land-line strike in 2011.

Early touches on various non-traditional forms of unionizing, like geographic organizing, workers centers, minority unions and rank-and-file caucuses. He focuses on the labor ‘gerontocracy’ at the top of many national unions, where the ranks have very few young people, and the leaders are in their 60s, 70s and even 80s.  Early highlights the roles of thousands of left-colonizers or labor ‘salts’ that went into the factories in the 1970s, based on socialist principles, at the urging of their various socialist organizations.  I was one of those people, and appreciate his pointing this out.  He is fuzzy on ‘who’ these organizations were, which hints he’s still afraid to mention socialism in the labor movement. 

Early ends with the struggle for a ‘single-payer’ health system in Vermont, and the prominent role played by the Vermont Progressive Party (“VPP”) in that struggle.  The VPP is an independent electoral/activist front to the left of the Vermont Democrats.  Vermont might be the first state that, like Canada’s Saskatchewan in 1944, enacts single payer.  However, this attempt has been complicated by the passing of the neo-liberal ACA, which undermines a single payer approach, and is preventing a quicker passage of single payer in Vermont.  The pressure of the VPP and most unions in Vermont has made even the Democratic governor a supporter of enacting single payer.  At least for now. 

The development of Occupy, and its relation to the labor movement; the strikes at Wal-Mart, its warehouses and in the fast-food industry; the massive and successful Chicago Teachers strike, the movement for a $15 minimum wage, and the looming Trans-Pacific Partnership play a small role in this book.  He oddly gives somewhat short-shrift to Joe Burn’s book, “Reviving the Strike,” (reviewed below) and instead quietly advocates various in-plant strategies when striking is too difficult to succeed. 

His last chapter is titled, “Dare to Struggle, Dare to Win.”  This phrase is a cliché from Mao Tse Tung that, while somewhat true, avoids some hard issues that Early does not tackle, or expand on.  Single payer is making headway in Vermont because an independent electoral formation backed by unions, the VPP, is pushing it.  This should make Early think that perhaps we need an independent union-backed electoral party - nationwide!  This in most countries is called a labor party – two words Early stays away from.  The CNA, which he praises, was part of the Mazzocchi-inspired “Labor Party” in the late 1990s, as were most progressive unions, regional bodies and locals in the U.S.  

His skittishness towards the term ‘socialism’ regarding ‘colonizers’ and even his compadres in Labor Notes also shows that the alternative political movement labor needs – socialism - is still too ‘outre’ for this left staffer.  Yet you cannot fight neo-liberalism without a long term oppositional outlook, and without it, labor will not advance.  Keeping it a secret does no one any good.  This has also been the lesson of history, in this country and elsewhere. We’ve elected ‘social democrats’ to the presidency of the AFL-CIO (Sweeney), elected ‘rank-and file’ caucus leaders  and strike leaders to the presidency (Trumka) and the unions are still not making much headway.  So what is next?  The fact that some unions, including SEIU, endorsed socialist candidates in Socialist Alternative in Seattle and Minneapolis might mean the facade is cracking. 

And I bought it at May Day Books!
Red Frog
February11, 2014

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Russia, a Painterly Society

"Desert of Forbidden Art,” documentary by Tchavdar Georgiev and Amanda Pope, 2010

If you were amazed by the beautiful images at the $50 Billion Sochi Winter Olympics opening - giant colorful tableaus floating in a visual theatrical production that went far beyond the Chinese and English openings - it might be ‘in the air.’   The same can’t be said for the Christmas Sweater Patriotism of the Ralph Lauren-dressed U.S. athletes.  Certainly, Ralph Lauren is graphically-challenged. 

Nor was the highly-politicized anti-Putin/anti communist U.S. government line presented by former Clinton Press Secretary George Stephanopoulos as ‘Olympic’ commentary on NBC of any help.  NBC is owned by media oligopolist General Electric.  Stephanopoulos now works for another media oligopoly, Disney’s ABC.  He is also a member of the ruling-class advisory group, the “Council on Foreign Relations.”   The Sochi Olympics have multiple problems, but mouthpiece Stephanopoulos' propaganda is of little use.

In a society that does not have as much television and images beamed into its life constantly, painting is still considered a serious art, not just decoration or an expression of weirdness.  This can also be seen in countries like Cuba or Vietnam, and poorer countries around the globe.  This was especially true in the 1920s and early 30s when Russian avant-garde painting in styles like Constructivism and Suprematism, and painters like Malevich, broke new ground in world art.  Later socialist ‘realism’ became the only allowed style, and these painters disappeared, were sent to mental hospitals or were imprisoned. 

In an extraordinary documentary, “Desert of Forbidden Art,” filmmakers Pope & Georgiev captured the life and achievement of Igor Savitsky, who rescued 40,000 works of avant-garde Soviet/Russian art and stored them in his invisible museum in northern Uzbekistan, in Nukus.  Nukus is the capital of the northern Uzbek province of Karakalpakstan, near the shrunken Aral Sea.  Savitsky traveled to Moscow and Leningrad, secretly collecting the art of side-lined and unknown female and male painters.  His greatest achievement was the discovery of a colony of hidden Russian artists in Uzbekistan who brought together European impressionism, cubism and Fauvism, Uzbek desert culture and Soviet themes to create an absolutely new art.  All this hidden away from the KGB and bureaucratic governments in Moscow, and actually paid for by friendly Communist officials in Karakalpakstan. 

Out-of-favor paintings from artists like Alexander Volkov, Mikhail Kurzin, Ural Tansykbaev and painters of the gulag like female artist Nadezhda Borovaya were all saved and housed in Nukus. 

 The bureaucratic/Stalinist response to art was to control it, much as they outlawed vegetarianism, homosexuality, jazz or anything not under their control – all with the workerist rubric that it was ‘not working class.’  This method, as seen in their treatment of rock and roll music (see review of ‘How the Beatles Rocked the Kremlin,’ below) actually undermined the workers’ state and alienated many artists from socialism.  It also impoverished the new culture.

The Nukus museum still exists today, managed for many years by a woman whom Savitsky asked to take over when he died after inhaling preservative fumes.  They refuse to sell to private collectors or loan out their pictures to other museums, demanding that visitors come to seem them in their original home.  Today, capitalist art profiteers, Islamic militants and corrupt Uzbek bureaucrats all threaten this collection.  The Minneapolis Museum of Russian Art estimates it would cost $500K to bring a show of Nukus art to the U.S.  (see review of MORA show on ‘Women in Soviet Art,’ below.) Anyone got that much?

Red Frog
February 8, 2014

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Missing Links

The Invisible Man

Oddly, in Truthdig, and Rolling Stone, defences of Marxism all appeared this week.  They were written, not by full-blown Marxists, but by people who see some truth in parts of Marxism.  In response, in, a mainstream Democrat who used to be a conservative, Michael Lind, attacked the Marxist idea that ‘workers of the world’ would ever unite against the global elites. 

Hmmm.  The reports of Marxism’s death are greatly exaggerated.  The invisible old man is reappearing.   And that means the invisible men and women of the world are reappearing again too. 

Kamrades!  You WILL visit site!

All Kamrades please click below here now.  Required for cadre and lumpen-proletarians.  You won’t regret this most funny visit to Red Past.  Stakanovites of class humour appear!  But not funny, serious, maybe, maybe not.

Teach for the Rich in America

Here is David Simon’s crushing take on “Teach For America,’ the thinly educated, arrogant and anti-union organization used to undermine public education in the U.S.  Simon is another who recently spoke out in favour of some Marx.  This clip on U-tube is from Treme, Simon’s HBO series on the aftermath of Katrina in New Orleans, as spoken by the jazz-loving DJ and hipster, Davis McAlary.  (Treme is reviewed below.)  New Orleans has dismantled their public school system and gone to charter schools, all under the aegis of our beloved Democrats.  Take this praise shit sandwich, TFA!

Super Weed Bowl

Always nice to see corporate shills like Peyton Manning of the Denver Broncos get a blasting comeuppance. Of course the underdog Seahawks are owned by Paul Allen, Microsoft billionaire. 

NFL sponsors like Pepsi, Bud Light & Doritos pitched their dubious products.  Official sponsors included a host of brokerages and banks.  Yeah, and Maserati, with that cool little black girl from that weird movie!  Street cred for Maserati? No.  The good part is most people forgot the ads immediately. (Source:  Bloomberg Businessweek)  The chauvinist Right was upset that people who drink Coke can sing the U.S. national anthem in various languages.  Do they know that Coke is sold in other countries too?  Cheerios really went ‘out there’ by not featuring a white or black family but a multi-ethnic one.  The racist Right didn’t like that either.  Do they know that multi-ethnic families eat cereal?   The ads went for $4M every 30 seconds.  $300M total. 

I understand the city of Rutherford, New Jersey got stiffed by the NFL anyway.  No surprise there.  What do you expect from a cabal of billionaires? 

Bruno Mars, the satiny pop R&B somebody, played for free so popsters everywhere could buy his albums.  Not gonna do it.  Use and be used they say.

At least people in the home states could smoke legal weed and not be worried about a knock on the door. 

Red Frog
February 4, 2014

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Once Bitten, Twice Shy

"Spiritual Snake Oil – Fads and Fallacies in Pop Culture,” by Chris Edwards, 2011

This book is by an atheist who trashes various new age ‘philosophers.’ If you are interested in this kind of thing, then his targets are useless pop morons like Dinesh D’Souza, Deepak Chopra, Michael Crichton and popcorn books like “The Secret” and “The Celestine Prophecy.”  Even Robert Pirsag of “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” comes in for a shot.  I barely pay attention to these people, except Pirsag, and while Pirsag’s book seemed to be about ‘motorcycle maintenance’ it slipped an idealist mickey into that oily drink. 

My real issue is with pure and narrow atheism.  So, now, a Marxist v. ‘narrow’ atheist smack-down.  How could that be?  After all, both are atheist.  Yes, well. Edwards doesn’t like Marxism, as do most other run-of-the-mill American atheists, so he asked for it. 

Edwards thinks Marxism is a ‘millennial’ fantasy (at least Marx’s ‘prescription’ of what to do about capitalism), much like Christianity.  Dialectics is some kind of confusing ‘determinism’ to him.  He is an advocate of ‘reason,’ atheism and skepticism.  Now ‘reason,’ while commendable as an idea, is not limited to oppressed people.  Capitalists are also very reasonable – about how they run their businesses, how they prevent unions, how they buy politicians, how they discipline their workforces.  All using ‘reason.’  Reason is a method that can be used by anyone, in any class.  Even criminals use reason, even hit men.  So even if you made all the religious loons in the world adhere to ‘reason’ you’d still have some devious ‘reasonable’ exploiters and military bastards to deal with. 

Capitalists even use ‘science’ all the time.  They may sprinkle the bullshit dust sometimes, but to make money, technology is still king.  So anyone who merely has an ideology promoting ‘science and reason’ is not beyond a forward-thinking capitalist. 

Any look at who has become an atheist shows that just being an atheist proves little beyond your distaste for religious fundamentalism.   That is all to the good, of course.  Edwards himself seems to be a progressive fellow.  He dislikes the extermination of the Indians and the enslavement of black people.  Yet Christopher Hitchens let his atheism lead him to supporting the Iraq invasion.  Most well known atheists like Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Victor Stenger and Michael Onfray are ordinary liberals.  Many rightist libertarians are also atheists.  These same libertarians are in the Republican Party with theocratic Dominionsits and neo-Confederates.  Most famously of all, our beloved Ayn Rand was an atheist, as are other “Objectivists.’  Anyone who has participated in an anti-religious pile-on on the internet knows that many of the commentators are libertarians.  Need we remind anyone that Stalin was an atheist.  Stalin is the prime bogey that the religious right uses when slamming atheism, so I only bring him up to show that just being an atheist is not sufficient.

Marx actually didn’t think that socialism was inevitable.  It was only a possible outcome of the class struggle.  The emphasis is on ‘struggle.’   Trotsky famously said, “Socialism or barbarism?” which indicates a somewhat less than sanguine attitude towards the future.  Dialectics is a form of ‘reason in motion’ – i.e. it is a method that explains the development or motion of society and even matter itself.  It is actually a higher logic than ‘reason’ and has nothing to do with determinism, as the 'destination' is never inevitable.  Capitalists play with ‘dialectics’ at their peril, because it infers that their system is not eternal, and that change - even fast change - is built into existence.  Which is why they disparage it so. 

Now one slightly amusing aspect of these essays is that nearly every pop spiritualist and New Age guru makes use of aspects of ‘quantum mechanics’ or 'relativity' to justify their idealism. Some, echoing the Catholic Church, refer to the ‘big bang’ as further proof of God and idealism.  Edwards should wonder why these same issues keep popping up again and again.  Instead of looking into these theories a bit more deeply, and wondering if there is fire behind the smoke, he just defends them.  He should wonder if perhaps they DO reflect idealist thinking.  I submit that the Marxists are far more dedicated to materialism and science than this particular atheist.  Most who have thought about these topics notice the idealist or anti-materialist slant of factually thin theories like the ‘big bang’ and parts of ‘relativity’ and quantum mechanics.   

Edwards explains one of Einstein’s propositions just so: “the position and speed of the observer actually changes the way in which the observer experiences time.”  And then he wonders why pop spiritualists line up with Einstein, alleging that the ‘observer’ is key, not material reality.  You see, time changes based on the ‘eye of the beholder.’  Time is subjective!  Edwards also quotes Stephen Hawking about seeking a unified field theory: “that would allow (us to see,) to use Hawking’s unfortunate phrase from ‘A Brief History of Time,’ the mind of God.”    Hawking didn’t use this phrase lightly.  In fact a ‘theory of everything’ can be nothing but a ‘god theory.’  Where is Descartes ‘radical doubt’ that Edwards is always prattling about?   No actual atheist writes an ‘unfortunate’ phrase like that. 

The biggest problem with the atheists, bless them, is that they think debates, arguments and logic alone are sufficient.  The more socially-oriented ones propose ending tax subsidies to churches – something most Marxists support.  They also all believe in the ‘separation of church and state’ – which Marxists support too.  However, EVEN if you won these two reforms, you would not be able to end the oppressive capitalist state or remove the wealth of the capitalist class from its pockets.  The capitalist class in almost every single country relies on organized religion and idealist ideas to protect itself.  Yet that is only one of its bulwarks.  Nationalism, racism, sexism, greed, brute intimidation, the laws, monopoly and money all play their roles too.  Marxists understand that capitalism actually promotes religion, and as long as capitalism exists, religion will exist in its present form.  The Marxists are actually more materialist than the ‘scientific atheists’ because Marxists think that these objective conditions have to change to really undermine idealism.  Debates alone will not bring down this religious monstrosity. The material reality of society predominates over ideas.  So whose the real materialist here? 

Secondly, some religious people oppose the right things, though sometimes for the wrong reasons.  While narrow atheists are not interested in building mass social movements against the foundations of religion, which in this period is capitalism, Marxists are.  Marxists understand that you sometimes block with religious people in action.  Religious pacifists oppose aggressive wars, and Marxists still work with them.  Fundamentalist pacifism may be an inane theory that only satisfies its supporters emotionally, and actually promotes the war makers in the long run, but in the short run, they are allies.  In the period of liberation theology (now over) Marxists all over Latin American worked with the proponents of liberation theology in struggles against dictatorships.  During the early twentieth century in the U.S., socialists blocked with ‘millennial Christians’ who believed that Christ favored the poor.  The text of “The Jungle” makes very clear the close connection between socialism and some forms of religious advocacy.  (“The Jungle,” reviewed below.)

Religious movements also have class components and they have to be carefully looked at from this angle to see what is actually motivating them. They are not always purely obscurantist. 

Narrow atheists don’t have a perspective of overturning the economic and social structures which support religion, hence they will never defeat religion as it is.  In a way, narrow atheism is as idealist as its opponents – thinking these reforms and discussions are all it takes.

Books on more materialist views of modern science – “Ten Assumptions of Science,” “Reason and Revolt,” and “Dialectical Materialism v. the New Physics,” are reviewed below.   Books about religion reviewed below: "The DaVinci Code," "God is Not Great," "The God Market," "American Theocracy," "To Serve God and Wal-Mart," "The Dark Side of Christian History," and "Bright-Sided.

Super-Bowl Fun Fact:  50% of all Super Bowl viewers call on "God" to help their team win.   

P.S. - The head of the American Atheists, David Silverman, was upset that he was rejected for a booth at the Republican right-wing meeting, CPAC.   Silverman believes in 'limited government' and a 'strong military.' He wants to convince them that 'conservatism' and Christianity are not inextricably linked. Ha ha ha.

And I bought it at May Day Books!
Red Frog
February 1, 2014