Sunday, April 27, 2014

Warm Boiled Eggs

"Capitalism – A Ghost Story,” by Arundhati Roy, 2014

I’m not sure what the ‘ghost’ of these essays is.  Is it the apparition of capitalism hiding behind daily events?  Invisible to the less perceptive?  Is it that it makes its enemies into ghosts? Is it that it is a horror show?  Should we be scared? We should.

India is a country with a good PR firm.  A U.S. ally, it is pictured as romantic and happy and now prosperous.  Obama visited and said nothing about the 500,000 soldiers occupying Muslim Kashmir, but did affirm his opposition to ‘terrorism.’  Nor did he mention the slaughter in the forests of central India against the Adivasi peoples.   Because, after all they are all ‘Maoist terrorists.’  Nor should we be concerned that 80% of the population of 1.2 billion live on less than $2 a day.  We should be happy that the middle class is growing, and 100 billionaires now own 25% of the GDP of India.  That must be the reason for all the Bollywood dancing. 

The recent election, in, as our press disingenuously puts it, “The Biggest Democracy In the World,” will probably see the election of the Hindu reactionary and pogromist Narendra Modi.   Roy carefully pulls back the curtain to reveal what is behind this so-called “democracy.” Her journalistic essays cover the brutal and sometime hopeful events in Kashmir.   For years, youth in Kashmir have been fighting against the vicious occupation with stones – totally ignored by the world media, and certainly the Indian media, who, per normal, accuse all of being ‘terrorists.’ 

Connected to this are articles on the execution of a Pakistani scapegoat for the 2001 terror attack on the Indian parliament.  As pointed out in the book “The God Market” (reviewed below), neo-liberalism and an expanding Hindu chauvinism have gone together.  Roy herself was picketed and threatened by far right Hindu nationalists for opposing the occupation of Kashmir.  The scapegoat, Afzal Guru, was executed without warning, after no legal representation and few facts – as the Court said, “the collective conscience of society will only be satisfied if capital punishment is awarded to the offender.”  Roy thinks this execution was a deliberate provocation to Pakistan. 

She also looks behind the fake populist movement of Anna Hazare, which ostensibly wants to fight corruption, but really is a battering ram for further privatization, backed by vast capitalist conglomerates.  Roy details the control immense combines have in the Indian economy – Tata, Reliance Industries, Jindals, Vendanta, Infosys, Essar and ADAG basically own India.  Tata owns 100 companies in 80 countries.  Controlling mineral, land and water rights – which should all be public property – is the basis of their wealth.  They too are embroiled in the struggle for land worldwide. (see review of “Land Grabbing and the New Colonialism,” below.)  The best parts are on the relation between these national entities and international foundations like Ford, Gates and Rockefeller, which now control most so-called progressive NGO’s through their grants, and are busy celebrating literature while dissidents are imprisoned.

Roy, who in the past has exposed the neo-liberal misdeeds of the Communist Party (Marxist) in India regarding its pro-mining role in West Bengal and Kerala, seems to be getting closer to Marxism and its outlook.  While also critical of the Maoist Naxalites, her time with them perhaps showed that the only real opposition will not be coming from any other direction but Marxism.  This reflects the deepening crisis of capitalism in that country, as the happy period of ‘growth’ is now coming to an end, according to Roy. 

And the eggs?  They were given her by someone resisting the occupation of Kashmir, whose relatives had just been killed by Indian soldiers.  

Other books by Roy, “Field Notes on Democracy” and “Walking With the Comrades” are reviewed below.  Use blog search box, upper left. 

And I Bought it at Mayday Books!
Red Frog
April 27, 2014

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The Review of the Reviewers

Thomas Piketty and the Sensation of Being a Left-Liberal Hero

If you’ve being paying attention to the left-liberal internet lately, you’ve come across Professor Thomas Piketty and his new book, “Capital In the 21st Century.  It has topped the Amazon best-seller list, been mentioned in the Economist, the New York Times, by Paul Krugman and on Alternet, Truthdig and, among others.  Piketty teaches economics at the Paris School of Economics and was an advisor to Ségolène Royal in the 2007 elections in France.  Royal was one of the aspiring candidates of the Socialist Party of Francois Hollande. (See ‘Messr. Hollande’s Holiday,” below.)  Piketty’s parents were members of Lutte Ouvrière (Workers' Struggle), a French Trotskyist party.  After 1968, the parents left politics to raise goats in the French hinterlands.    Piketty went on to get his PHD at the London School of Economics, specializing in English income tax studies. 

Piketty tells the Guardian:  “I discovered that the data that did exist contradicted nearly all of the theories including Marx and Ricardo…I saw a pattern beginning to emerge … is that capital, and the money that it produces, accumulates faster than growth in capital societies.”  The liberal interviewer, Andrew Hussey, a former ‘youthful Marxist,’ adds:  “Russia was anyway the most undeveloped country in Europe and it was for this reason that communism took root there.” So reviewer and reviewed are co-thinkers – they both dislike Marx and Lenin.  Only primitives could appreciate socialism, evidently.

Piketty’s work sounds like valuable empirical research.  It has been true for many years that the point of capitalism is the accumulation of capital – to the detriment of everything else.  This should not be news.  But you know what Marxists do with more facts – they make use of them!  His book will be reviewed on this blog in the future.  I want to, right now, review the reviewers. 

The legend of Piketty has now arrived in the U.S.  Although this reticence is breaking down, most left-liberals must make sure they deny, as does Piketty, that they agree with most anything Marx ever said.  Marx is some relic of the past and needs to always be treated as such!  The ‘anti-Marxist’ declaration in each article or book is a pattern that emerges frequently – no surprise here.  It means you are a ‘Very Serious’ person who wants to be taken ‘seriously’ in our very capitalist society, dominated by two very capitalist parties.  (To borrow Glenn Greenwald’s usage.)  No use losing your credibility, or your paycheck, and being tossed into the outer darkness. 

Lynn Parramore of Alternet takes the cake in this regard.  Her post on Piketty is a gem.  Marxists are laughing.  Anarchists are laughing.  Yes, really.

Let’s take the key issue here – that inequality grows under capitalism due to the accumulation of capital.  Capital buys politicians, media, government bureaucrats, a layer of middle-class supporters, repressive forces, think tanks, university departments, military figures and creates corporate oligarchies that work together.  They control the largest corporations who employ the most people in the country.  They ‘own’ the society, almost quite literally.  This is only common sense.  So the more capital they have, the more in control they will be, and that only ‘compounds their interest!’  The cliché ‘ the poor get poorer’ is just the folk wisdom of that issue. 

Marx himself saw the inequality between the classes as fundamental to capitalist society.  He predicted that the working class would become more poverty-stricken as capitalism developed, and hence inequality would grow.  It is even called “the immiseration thesis” by academics.  From “Capital” - 

“Within the capitalist system all methods for raising the social productivity of labour are put into effect at the cost of the individual worker [...] All means for the development of production undergo a dialectical inversion so that they become a means of domination and exploitation of the producers; they distort the worker into a fragment of a man, they degrade him to the level of an appendage of a machine, they destroy the actual content of his labour by turning it into a torment, they alienate from him the intellectual potentialities of the labour process [...], they transform his life into working-time, and his wife and child beneath the wheels of the juggernaut of capital. But all methods of the production of surplus-value are at the same time methods of accumulation, and every extension of accumulation becomes, conversely, a means for the development of these methods. It follows therefore that in proportion as capital accumulates, the situation of the worker, be his payment high or low, must grow worse.”

The time scale for this prediction was not made, but accumulation is at record heights at this time in history.  Nor was this prediction made out of thin air, but upon the most intense study of economic facts.

Some recent American Marxists – economists Paul Sweezy and Paul Baran, who wrote the classic, “Monopoly Capital” in the 50s, refined the same issue. (Book reviewed below, use blog search box at upper left.)   Baran and Sweezy pointed out that capital had so much surplus that they needed to ‘burn’ it through wasteful military spending, among other methods.  David Harvey, another Marxist, just published a book (“The Enigma of Capital, reviewed below) in which he said that over-accumulation leads to capital investing in massive building projects, also in order to get rid of the excess capital.  Present Marxists at Monthly Review, led by John Bellamy Foster, argue that excess capital has been pumped into the financial sector instead of the ‘productive sector.’ This has been a cause and a result of stagnation in that latter sector, and conversely, a cause of financial bubbles and the strength of the former sector. In a recent Monthly Review there are two stories about the drop in the share of earnings for labor versus capital in the U.S. AND in China.  I.E. inequality is growing between the classes, and this is not confined to one country.  Examples could be multiplied.  All based not on ‘lazy’ thinking, but on financial imperatives, backed up by facts and analysis.  From the reviews it seems Mr. Piketty has done a great job adding to them.

Lets get back to Parramore.  Parramore is incensed that the Republicans are red-baiting Piketty for being critical of capitalism.  Of course, Republicans red-bait almost everything, even a neo-liberal like Obama, so what is the surprise?  His father was a Kenyan socialist, after all.  Why is she so incensed?  Hitting too close to home? 

I quote from Parramore:  “His 700-page book Capital in the 21st Century is certainly not some kind of screed filled with calls for class warfare.”  Heaven’s no. No 'screeds' here.  So shrill!  Let’s wait to see what Piketty’s solution is then.

Again:  Pikety “opens his tome with a description of his typical Gen X abhorrence of what he calls the “lazy rhetoric of anti-capitalism."  Right.  In the U.S. – and even in France - is it ‘lazier’ to be anti-capitalist or pro-capitalist?  The question answers itself.  After being bombarded from birth with the ideological wonders of capitalism, people that absorb what they have been told will do … what?  At present they become, at best, ‘lazy’ capitalist reformers.  Which is exactly what Parramore is.  And notice the generational dig - the dumb-bunny Boomers and the immature Millennials - Gen X is so clever!  We won't get sucked into anything that is not post-modern.  Yeah, after all, you grew up in the immediate aftermath of Reagan and Thatcher.  But wait, there’s more!

Parramore quotes reactionary commentators like the NYT’s Ross Douthat and NR’s James Pethokoukis, who accuse Piketty of Marxism in articles titled “Marx Rises Again” and “The New Marxism.”  She is livid because they want ‘unfettered capitalism.’  Of course, by implication, Parramore wants ‘fettered capitalism.’  As I have asked before, hasn’t that been tried?  It seems that Goliath broke them a long time ago. 

Then she makes the incredible statement that “Income and wealth inequality have not been comprehensively studied to date” until Piketty came along. (She later says it would be a mistake to put him on a pedestal.  Perhaps she should stop building one then.)

Here is the punch line.  What is Parramore’s solution to ‘capitalism’s inherent dynamic’ (towards inequality)?  Parramore agrees with Piketty that it is “only our express intervention, in the form of things like a global wealth tax, investment in skills and training, and the diffusion of knowledge can lead us to a different outcome.”

The U.S. has the richest, most powerful and most well-armed ruling class in history and this is the solution?  Are you kidding me?  Whoa, no class struggle for me – just tax the rich and educate workers, and you’ve got it made.  Intervene!  Is that like talking a drunk into AA? 

So here is where the laughing really starts.  Obama also makes the neo-liberal argument – and it is precisely that – that the ‘education’ of the ignorant, laid-off worker will provide more jobs.  This ‘intellectual capital’ idea – and don’t you love it when your thinking processes are now re-christened as ‘capital’ as if they are trying to colonize your brain too – is the same ‘blame the victim’ strategy they use on almost every social problem.  There are plenty of American IT workers – and yet they hire H-1B visas for cheap.  There are millions of unemployed workers in the U.S. – and yet they hire immigrants because they want to pay less.  There are U.S. companies with jobs – that they locate in China or India.

Laid-off factory or white-collar workers whose firms close are offering ‘retraining’ – which many times doesn’t show up because it is unfunded, or is useless because there are no jobs in the field you are learning.  People with BA’s are crowding out people with only high-school educations in lower-end jobs.  Not sure that is what Parramore means about ‘skills and training.’  Corporations are also unwilling to take on the expense of training people ‘on the job’ – they want people with the exact qualifications they need, and they want the public to pay for it.  Apprenticeships have almost disappeared except in some union shops.  Corporations use technology to make people work faster and harder, and even more efficiently, thus reducing jobs. Productivity has been rising for years under the lash of capital.

As with the issue of poverty or hunger, it is not a paucity of food or a lack of money in the world system or a dearth of education – it is that food is an unaffordable commodity, that money has been hoovered-up by the rich and that even many educated unemployed cannot get jobs – because there are not enough to go around.  And that is called, in Marxist terms, ‘the reserve army of labor.’  It is a permanent feature of capitalism.  These are not optional ‘policies,’ but the very nature of the system. 

It would certainly be good to raise taxes on the wealth of the capitalists, and Marxists are all for that.  (Marx also pointed out that taxes were part of the exploitation of labor by the capitalist state.)  Yet to raise taxes on the wealthy you must build a class-struggle movement that outflanks the Democrats on the left – as the wealthy reside in the Democratic Party too.  This explains why the Democrats even agreed with the Republicans on much of the past tax-cutting for the rich.  “Shared austerity’ is still part of Obama’s agenda – much as it was Francois Hollande’s.  Now they have made timid steps in the other direction, but hardly any progress.  Voting is an inadequate form of ‘intervention’ – and voting for capitalist parties to restrain themselves is almost self-defeating.  

The form of "intervention" would mean 'confiscatory' taxation (as reviews have said about Piketty's views.)  Recent analyses of the amount of carbon that would have to be left in the ground regarding global climate change is in the 'trillions' of dollars.  I.E. both issues would require that the capitalists be partially expropriated.  Can you imagine the present capitalist setup in the U.S. allowing this kind of expropriation? 

Piketty was the advisor to a SOCIALIST in France.  So he’s not exactly outside the circle of Marxist influence, I would say.  Perhaps mom and dad had some impact on the little tyke.  Perhaps the Republicans are on to something?  Being called a “Marxist’ is supposed to make people squeal like a stuck pig, to run like little kids, as if they were gay in Russia, or an atheist in Saudi Arabia or black in America or a vegetarian in Argentina!  Stand up and be proud, Ms. Parramore!  ‘I’m Red and I’m proud.’  Say it.

The French Socialist Party just had an immense rejection by its own base, as Socialist and working class voters stayed home during the recent election.  Mr. Piketty was, and probably still is, a supporter of that party.  The ‘hard left’ in France, as it is called by the soft left of Mr. Piketty, actually proposes class struggle and higher taxes on the corporations.  Something abandoned by the Socialists and reflected in this election.  You will not get higher taxes on the rich or corporations without massive class struggle at this point.  In the U.S. they were brought about by the class struggles of the 30s and 40s, and by powerful union and socialist movements.   

What about the ‘diffusion of knowledge’ – whatever that means?  Since capital now controls the majority of the media oligopoly, the means of communication and is taking charge of the school systems – ‘knowledge’ will be increasingly shaped by capital.  (As it already is now, but in a more subtle way.)  It will actually demand a massive counter-offensive against both parties of capital – who support privatization and religion through charter schools and testing.  Their goal is a society of ‘trained’ people, not educated people.  If that fails, and even if it succeeds, it will need counter-institutions of knowledge, like workers’ parties, organizations of the oppressed, artists, schools (and websites!) to combat the rule of capital’s ideas.  As Marx pointed out in the ‘German Ideology’: 

  The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force.”

That ‘diffusion’ will not be easy without class struggle.  You don’t even have to be a socialist to support the idea of class struggle. But it helps. Here Piketty and Parramore fall short.

P.S. - Piketty's introduction to his book is far more complimentary of Marx than the reviewers reveal.  A common omission among Americans. 

Red Frog
April 23, 2014

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Evidently, Once Was Not Enough

"Land Grabbing: Journeys in the New Colonialism,” by Stefano Liberti, 2013

Stefano Liberti takes a reportorial tour around the world investigating the new status of agrarian capitalism - and its an eye-opener.  A good primer on a ‘world’ level, mostly focusing on Africa – it shows the rush to buy land and control food / bio-fuel production is the ‘new’ and most vital commodity for international capital.  Quickly rising world population figures presage a period where food and land will become more valuable, while financial instability, an increasing meat appetite, higher gasoline costs and global climate change aggravate that basic problem.  Drought and rising food prices underlie some of the conflicts in Syria, Ukraine, Thailand and Brazil.  Like disaster capitalists everywhere, they anticipate billions – 25% profit a year.  The people with money are quite literally ‘buying the farm’ - but not in the way we wish. 

Liberti traveled to Ethiopia, Saudi Arabia, Geneva, Chicago, Brazil & Tanzania to investigate this situation.  The 2007 capitalist financial crash occasioned a large increase in food prices and export controls on food commodities.  In response, nations in the oil-rich Gulf, corporations in India and South Korea, commodity speculators at Goldman Sachs and at the Chicago Board of Trade and international capitalist institutions like the World Bank and the IMF woke up and ‘smelled the coffee.’  Quite literally in the case of Ethiopia.  Dictatorships like Ethiopia, with a fake veneer of democracy lauded by the U.S., have cheaply rented ostensibly ‘empty’ land, at $1 or less a hectare per year, to Saudi corporations to grow export vegetables and wheat.  This process has turned local small farmers into farm workers, and reduced local food security, but it has bolstered the power of the ruling clique in Addis Ababa. 

Madagascar made a 99 year deal for almost half of its arable land to be rented to South Korea’s Daewoo - for free - for the production of palm oil and corn.  The government that did this was later removed by mass protests.  Mozambique is still ruled by FRELIMO, a formerly Marxist liberation movement which is now neo-liberal.  Mozambique, in spite of its fertile land, now imports food for its population.  At a sales bazaar in Saudi Arabia, the FRELIMO Minister of Agriculture offers 50 year land rentals, at a $1 a hectare and no cap on the export of food produce.  Tanzania’s government set up some toothless guidelines about ‘sustainability’ but solicits monster projects, tricking local villages into giving away their land.  In one, a Danish company bought land for almost nothing, cut down thousands of trees, sold the wood and then decamped.  They had only wanted the wood.  In another, a British agro-fuel company got a lease for 99 years on 8,000 hectares from 11 villages, planted jatropha seeds that can be ground into fuel and never compensated the villagers.  Instead they work on the plantation without toilet breaks, with no protection against pesticides.  This rich land was formerly for food.

Many of these ‘independent’ governments are not independent at all, but still under the control of big international capital.  It is a myth that the 'south' or the '3rd' world is some kind of anti-imperialist block.

Liberti points out is it a lie that the Chinese are involved in this in a big way.  The Chinese are quite sensitive to the issue of neo-colonialism.  In their normal functioning they want actual partnership agreements. According to African government officials, the entities from the “West” or “North” want to dictate the investment conditions. It is really the World Bank and its various arms – headquartered in the U.S., run by Americans and Europeans – that plans agrarian policy.  As peasant activists never tire of saying, the World Bank is only concerned with plantation monoculture run by large corporations.  This privatizes formerly public land; corporatizes former small owner or grazer land, dispossessing farmers; creates biological hazards due to monocultures; takes land out of food production into bio-fuel and is nearly always for export only, thus reducing local food.    Accompanying dams, also planned by the World Bank, divert water from the local population to the corporate plantations.  Farmers who have lost their land end up in the slums of 3rd world cities, eking out a living.  To hide this reality, the World Bank’s financial arm publishes happy ‘guidelines’ that pay lip-service to preventing all these results.  The guidelines, of course, are not mandatory.  They are the tie-dye shirt on the pig, part of a necessary deception.  Very few investment funds, nations or corporations actually abide by them.

 Liberti travels to an ‘industry’ conference in Geneva and visits Patrick Arbor, head of the Chicago Board of Trade, to get the ‘pro’ view on this process.  The CBoT is the heart of commodity speculation in the world, and Arbor, like everyone else, claims that it is only a ‘thermometer’  of events, not actually controlling them.  Even after the 2008 equities crash forced massive amounts of cash into the commodity market, he denied that had anything to do with the run up in food commodity prices.  Liberti calls on every proponent of the neo-liberal strategy in each country.  Oddly, in the empty and modern spaces of Saudi Arabia he meets a farmer who grows crops using hydroponics, which uses a 20th (yes…) of the water of an irrigated field.  The Saudi government has ignored him and he suspects it is because the big Saudi money is on making fertilizer, buying land overseas or drilling deep wells for the vast cattle operations in Saudi Arabia.  One Saudi cattle operation employs 12,000 immigrant laborers to supply Riyadh and Mecca with beef, milk and cheese. 

The most revealing is his trip to the Matto Grosso du Sol in western Brazil, where foreign corporations – Cargill, ADM, Bunge and Louis Dreyfuss, have removed the indigenous people, the Guarani Indians, and now control 11% of the land.  Cargill and ADM control 65% of the world’s cereal market.  They plant vast fields of GMO soybeans and sugar cane.  This area of Brazil has become an oligarch’s paradise, where the whites drive SUV’s while the Indians ride creaky bicycles.  Lula’s ‘progressive’ party and now government has done nothing about the landed estates, and little about deforestation – instead many trees were cut down to make way for sugarcane bio-fuel projects in the Matto Grosso. As campesino activists point out, other Brazilian prices have risen due to the land and ethanol rush.  Lula made a deal with George Bush in March 2007 to promote bio-fuels throughout the world.  At least sugarcane is a more efficient bio-fuel than corn. 

What Liberti comes up against, again and again is that he sees two sides with absolutely no common ground.  He notes that not all agricultural problems in the South are caused by this ‘new colonialism,’ as international market prices also play a role.  While he yearns for some kind of compromise, he concludes that there is none to be had.  That one side or the other – and the latter meaning the progressive and farmer organizations like those from Malaysia, India, Brazil, Congo and even Italy – will win or lose, and that there is no compromise in this struggle.  

(See prior book reviews on similar subjects – “The Race of What’s Left,” “Blue Covenant,” “Planet of Slums,” and “Foodopoly.”  Use blog search box, upper left.)

And I bought it at Mayday Books!
Red Frog
April 20, 2014  (As DH Lawrence said, “Christ Has Risen.”)

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The New Right - The White Wing

"Angry White Men,” by Michael Kimmel, 2013

If you are an angry white man, you might not be the target of this book.  What he really means is ‘angry right-wing white men’ of the U.S. but that title wouldn’t sell evidently, so he appeals to the identity crowd by misidentifying the target.  This topic was covered years ago in more accurate ways, first by Susan Faludi in 1999’s “Stiffed,” and then by people like Michael Moore in 2001’s “Stupid White Men.”  He also admits that black people of both sexes are angry and so are white women.  Even young people are angry if they stop being mellow for a second ... In fact, EVERYONE might be angry!

Fuck, I’m angry at this guy for sometimes confusing working-class, middle-class and upper-class men in his introduction and in the section on ‘class’ in the book.  I’m angry that as a result he sometimes makes blanket inferences that all white men now hate women or immigrants or blacks.  I’m angry that he can’t tell left from right populism – he thinks it is all ‘emotion.’  In fact, I’m sick of upper middle-class professorial fucks who are Democratic Party hacks and pretend to analyze things without a mention of the Democratic Party’s role in all this.  Or the role of capitalism as a whole.  Just myopic sociology.  

OK, I feel better now.

Kimmel is another liberal obsessing over Rush Limbaugh, Michael Savage, Sean Hannity and that ‘sexy’ Sarah Palin - if he has time.  You know, like the liberal internet sites that incredulously repeat every stupid racist/sexist/religious stupidity these guys utter.  Even though intellectually he knows that these people are just part of the American woodwork.  Here’s the deal.  Limbaugh is as essential to capitalism as air.  They’ve had guys like Limbaugh for 150 years in the U.S. - slamming foreigners, wimmin, Jews, ‘negroes,’ ‘wetbacks,’ Commies, ‘fags,’ union thugs, Russians, now Muslims.  Same shit, different decade.  The Know-Nothings, the Klan, Father Coughlin, the John Birch Society, now the Tea Party.  Let’s go a little deeper, shall we …who benefits?  Whose the real enemy underneath all these disguises? 

Kimmel has made a cottage industry out of looking at maleness in the U.S. – writing books like “Guyland” and the 'History of Men.'  He’s probably a guy who’s never turned wrenches in his life, had a working-class job, been in a fight or shot a gun. His idea of danger is watching skiing on TV.  He wears a suit to work, has a secretary and calls a doctor every time he has an ache.  HE never gets mad because his annual tenured salary is in the $200,000s.  He’s polite and kind to everyone.  So in this case, ‘anger’ is just odd.  Which is maybe why he has to study it.

OK, I got that off my chest!

Kimmel’s book is a blend of sociology and psychology, based on interviews and internet visits regarding different right-wing mens' issues, mostly based on what he calls entitled white anger.  Kimmel’s first chapter is on the billionaire A-males of the AM Radio dial who prey on insecure white men in the listening audience – or as Kimmel calls them ‘Angry White Men.’ (AWM).  The role of woofs like Limbaugh is to blame everyone but the rich and the capitalist system for the problems white middle-class and working-class men face.  Business bankruptcies, house foreclosures, job layoffs, inflating costs, uppity wives, lost wars and gays on TV – don’t look behind the curtain!  It’s obvious these reactionaries are as necessary to capital, in the ideological sense, as a large mental shield.  Diversion, diversion!  Kimmel understands that, and says the AWM’s should direct their anger at … the Wall Street behemoths behind it all.  OK, right.  Except that might not be so emotionally satisfying as bashing women.  Or as easy.

His next chapter examines school shootings, especially since the 1999 Columbine shootings.  It is white boys that are behind the overwhelming majority of school massacres.  He shows how the majority of these white boys were physically and verbally bullied by jocks and the various conformists you find in high school, attacked as ‘nerds,’ ‘fags,’ ‘weirdos’ and small ‘wimps.’  So shooting these fucks was psychologically logical at a certain point for these boys.  Not sure there is a problem here, only a solution.  They took the macho gun culture they grew up in and threw it in the face of the bullies.  Of course, suicide and depression are much more common results of bullying.  The obvious, immediate villain is the right-wing culture in some schools – mostly in rural areas or upscale rightist suburbs – that endorse bullying of anyone who doesn’t conform to some right-wing cultural norm. 

Kimmel’s next chapters are on the ‘men’s rights’ and ‘dads’ rights’ movements, which are, of course, mostly straight white men.  This movement seems to be marginal, and not sure why he spends so much time on them.  He does agree with them on the issues of the courts being outdated on divorce and child custody, but parts ways on the rest.  Kimmel locates their birth in the ‘men’s liberation’ movement that then parted ways with mainstream feminism.  They guide frustrated men through divorce by blaming everything on ‘women’ as a sex.  If you want a useful polemic on these issues, he has one from a male feminist point of view. 

Kimmel covers the issue of the rape and violence culture in the U.S., opposing those AWM’s who think that gender violence is ‘equal.’  95% of all violence in the U.S. is carried out by men.  Women are being brutalized and killed by their husbands, exes and boyfriends every day. Everyday in the U.S. 5 women die at the hands of their intimate partners.  The U.S. has the highest rate of spousal homicide in the developed world.  45% of female homicides are by spouses and ex-spouses.   Rates in some more patriarchal cultures are even higher. He gives figures on the rates among different classes and ethnicities.  None of this is news, but it is repeatedly ‘hidden’ news.  (See commentary below, "Rape?  Really?," below.  Use blog search box, upper left.)

The key chapter to my mind should be his on class –both middle and working class – but this chapter somewhat short-shifts the issue.  Kimmel discusses the epidemic of ‘going postal’ shootings at work sites, which target both bosses and co-workers.  In an exception, a very efficient accountant killed only the bosses who denied him a promotion – no sloppy shooting here!  Accountants are not messy people, and he must have tallied up who actually did him in.  Kimmel does not blame the high rates of male suicide or depression on just psychological issues, but on the rates of unemployment, foreclosure, injury, poverty and other major events, as rates always rise along with these economic factors.  Like India, though not as extensive, hundreds of small farmers in the U.S. committed suicide in the Reagan 1985-1986 recession.  This was after experiencing the 80-90,000 farm foreclosures brought on by Reagan's recessions and the advance of Big Ag, coddled by the U.S. government. 

Relief for men is found in ‘media fantasies’ like the film “Fight Club,” where young men immerse themselves in ‘reel’ life in order to live out revenge or power fantasies they cannot carry out in ‘real’ life.  And perhaps move on to actual fight clubs.  Violent gaming provides an outlet for other young men.  Or watch infantile films with super-heroes or action heroes.  But most do not join with others in unions or organizations to fight the corporations.  According to Kimmel, they just listen to talk radio and curse the wrong people on the internet. 

Kimmel lastly samples various organized right-wingers  – from Neo-Nazi, Klan, racist skinheads, WAR, Posse Comitatus, the Church of the Creator, Christian Identity Church, Minute Men, National Alliance, Aryan Nations and the Tea Party.  9/11 threw the right into a frenzy, but Obama’s election in 2008 made them see the ‘end of time.’  There has been a 50% increase in ‘hate’ groups since 2000, per the Southern Poverty Law Center, to 1,108.   We can see their local strength in Idaho recently, where a right-wing millionaire rancher wants his cattle to graze on public land for free – and backs his idea up with armed buddies.  Yet most of these organizations key spot to organize is on the web. Most of his interviews were in rural areas, small towns or decimated exurbs.  He sympathizes and then makes the white Right all about gender and masculinity – which of course it is on one level, but not the most essential. 

Far Right groups have pretended to oppose farm foreclosures.  It is a failure of the farm and Democratic Party groups that they have let small farmers hang …and the right has attempted to fill the gap.  Small farmers have been intentionally crushed by agri-business and the government that works for Big Ag.  (See review of book on Big Ag, “Foodopoly." Use blog search box, upper left.)  The far right attempts to speak to the white ‘lower-middle-class’ - which is Kimmel’s catchall for working/middle class fusion.   Kimmel actually is describing the small businessman that is the classical basis of fascism.  (‘…independent farmers, small shopkeepers, …small-scale entrepreneurs”)  In that sense, the ultra right attempts to make a class appeal, much as Hitler did with ‘national socialism’ or as the Tea Party uses right-wing populism against the Democrats.  It works, because the Democrats are also in the pocket of the corporations and long ago left working people – even unionists – as an after-thought, fit for crumbs.  Defeating these right-populist appeals can only be done by a left or left-populist position - not Democratic Party centrism.  In fact centrism encourages the right.

The problem with Kimmel’s various identity and sociological solutions (…’can we turn the volume down?”... he plaintively asks) is that it doesn’t fully account for the economic and political character of the society we live in.  Kimmel does call for a ‘new New Deal” - but we’ve had one and this is how it turned out.  It is being whittled away.  A capitalist society doesn’t want people to ‘unite’ – except at the mall.  A capitalist society wants you to believe that the Democratic Party or the Republican Party – your two and only choices – will solve all your problems.  A capitalist society wants women and blacks and Latinos to be at the bottom of things, because money is made off their unpaid and super-exploited labor every day.  And they provide excellent scapegoats!  A capitalist society is run by money, not by fairness or reason or human solidarity.  A capitalist society has to exploit the labor of white working class and even some middle-class men too.  And it even needs unemployment!  Foreclosures are part of its ordinary functioning.  Oligopoly is part of its ordinary functioning.  A capitalist society will never stop producing these right-wingers, these AWM, because of its very nature. 

So really, Kimmel, what’s your real beef?

And I bought it at May Day Books!
Red Frog
April 15, 2014 – TAX Day.  When the corporations pay less than the workers.   

Saturday, April 12, 2014

The Place to Be - Mayday Books - on Utube

Talks at Mayday by Mike Gimbel

You might have read prior reviews here on books that discuss the issues of present science and materialism, specifically opposing certain idealist views on relativity, the 'new physics,' the Big Bang and idealist 'science' in general.  As part of this, Mike Gimbel's pamphlet on this issue was reviewed on January 1, 2014.  (use blog search box, upper left, to find it.)

Gimbel has posted the two digital videos from his talks at Mayday on Saturday, April 5.  The first, on 'dialectical materialism vs the new physics,' is linked to here.

Mike also gave a follow-on talk, to a bit different audience, about the basic need for left unity, which he calls a unity of 'Marxist-Leninists." It is posted here:

Posted by Karen & Jon,
April 12, 2014

Thursday, April 10, 2014

The Old Normal

"Hopper Drawing:  A Painter’s Process,” Walker Art Museum, running through June 20, 2014

Occasionally the Walker (Minneapolis, US Art Museum) brings a heavy-weight show that resonates beyond the ‘post-modern art’ rubric that has isolated the Walker for so long.  This would be one of them.  Hopper is most famous for his picture, “Nighthawks,” (1942) of a lonely corner diner at midnight, peopled by 3 diners and a cook seen through glass.  It has become one of the best known American paintings, and has inspired kitsch artists, musicians and filmmakers. 

This show brings some of the New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art’s Hopper pictures and the accompanying sketches he did to prepare for them, in one show.  ‘Nighthawks’ is not here – it is on the walls at the Chicago Institute of Art, while others are at New York’s MOMA.    Yet some of the Nighthawks preparation sketches – of the back of a man, the arm of a woman, the coffee urns, the corner building (reportedly somewhere in Greenwich Village) are here.  The Whitney’s collection was willed to them by Josephine Hopper, his widow and the female subject and model for many of his paintings. 

Hopper painted from his apartment in Washington Square, in the heart of Greenwich Village, and then from his many walks and train rides around New York.  He was like a voyeur, who peeked through windows and painted what he saw.  After purchasing a car and then getting a summer house in South Truro on Cape Cod, he began to paint ‘road scenes’ made up of unexceptional woods or buildings, stark factories, hotels and gas stations, as if also shot from the window of a passing car.  He painted ordinary people, usually alone or in small groups in a vaster human landscape – a theatre worker, a man and his secretary, 3 people having a meeting in a room, a woman waiting on the stoop of a building, a naked woman looking out a window into New York.  Grasping architecture was an early skill he developed and here it envelops the people – or stands alone.  Light and shadow are prominent – sort of filmic New York noire.  Isolation and alienation are everywhere, even in the summer, even in the sunlight.  The domination of the environment is taken for granted.  Early on he painted a series of French paintings, as he visited Paris 3 times and was enthralled by French culture, but these are atypical of his later master works. 

The black and white charcoal, ink and pencil sketches show the work that went into every painting – in one work almost 50 signed preparatory sketches were done, trying to find the right overall visual structure and the details.  Hopper would also indicate what colors were going to be used in each area by writing the color on the sketch.  He didn’t do color sketches.  He also made extensive notes sometimes on the bottom of the sketch.  One sketch, in which a woman is hitting a man off a bed with a club, stands out for its violence and movement, something Hopper almost never did.  Another humorous sketch is of small cluster of people peering at paintings in a large gallery – just like the viewers peering at the small cluster of humans in the sketch in the real gallery.  Another large painting, of a motley group of strange and classical Parisians, stands out for not being based on something he saw, but on imagination… something he returned to towards the end of his painting life.
The painting ‘Office at Night’ (1940) is one any white collar worker will understand.  We’ve all been in that café in ‘Nighthawks.’  Anyone looking out a window onto the vast built expanse of the city will understand ‘Morning Sun.’ (1952).  The bored usherette of “New York Movie,” (1939) is a person we’ve seen many times.  We might even have been that person.  The painting “Dawn in Pennsylvania” (1942 apx.) is of a factory near a railroad station in a coal town – not a house in Malibu.  We might have worked there.  We’ve driven by the non-descript woods in the painting, “Road and Trees,” (1962) many times.  “One of his paintings, “The House by the Railroad,” (1925), though not in this show, was used as a model of the house in “Psycho” and the farm house in Terrence Malick’s “Days of Heaven.”  - an isolated yet ornate structure in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by nothing.  We’ve seen that too out on some rural hill.  Hopper makes the ordinary noticeable. 

Why does Hopper matter?  Hopper (1882-1967) was born to middle-class parents, was inward and conservative, interested in Freud and painted for years before his great paintings clustered in the 1940s.  Yet Hopper matters because of the emotional resonance of his painting, and especially because of his subject matter.  It is ordinary, not extraordinary.  It is normal, not meant to shock.  It is more real than reality at times, as it captures the human feelings behind visual reality.  It shows the isolation permeating capitalist life and the overwhelming constructed environment dwarfing human beings.  In a way, the humans are lost in the environments and sometimes completely absent.  It is sober, not hysterical or agitated.  He painted factories, tenements and warehouses, bridges, working people, isolated nudes, lonely houses and woods.  Part of the historical ethos of the Depression, World War II and its aftermath soaks his paintings – a kind of realistic and historical gravity that is unmistakable.  Time is present in paint and sketch.   

In that, his paintings pre-date abstract art, pop art and post-modernism.  You might consider him part of the U.S. ‘regionalist’ movement of Thomas Hart Benton, Grant Wood and John Steuart Curry.   His paintings communicate more directly to most viewers, representing a reality that people are more familiar with and understand.  Art for everyone, not for someone. 

And I saw it on Sunday, April 6, 2014
Red Frog
April 10, 2014

Monday, April 7, 2014

3% Compound Growth Or Die

"The Enigma of Capital and the Crisis of Capitalism” by David Harvey, 2010

Harvey is a professor that teaches in New York, and while this book at times descends into a kind of rote, sociological descriptionism, that is part of his attempt to grasp the 'enigma' of capital - an enigma that probably can't be put in one book.  He is somewhat sensitive to his role as someone only involved in the 'mental conceptions of the world' side-of-struggle, but that is common with academics, and many times true.  If you are tired of the term 'crisis' in so many leftist book titles, I guess this tic is the revenge of the angry.  Capital spans the globe, has many aspects and is always changing, like everything else.  But like trying to identify an enormous shape-shifter moving in the dark, this moloch can only be fully described after it is dead.  However, Harvey makes a good attempt here. 

Harvey’s contribution to radical theory is his emphasis on the geographic terrain of capital circulation – rents, housing debt, displacement of people from land and neighborhoods, the ‘right to the city,’ land degradation, city design, etc.  He draws from this perspective a view that wage labor in the factory and office, warehouse and mill, restaurant and shop are not the only locus of confrontation with capital.  It is in the neighborhoods, in the apartment buildings, in giant building and infrastructure projects, in the construction of the cities and the ownership of agricultural land that the battle also extends.  Surplus value, rents and interest/credit are all sectors in the circulation of capital – each contributing to control by the capitalist class, not isolated from each other.  Capital, after all, has a physical, geographic dimension, just as the working class has a home - hopefully.  Harvey feels that Marx never got around to fully describing this sphere of capital circulation, but he certainly intended to. 

This book contains a supplement to various theories of crisis.  Harvey supports the idea that the ‘falling rate of profit’ is real, but agrees with Marx that there are many offsets to it.  He describes the 3 main theories as:  1, the profit squeeze due to rising wages; 2, the falling rate of profit due to investment in fixed capital goods and 3, lack of effective demand – i.e. ‘under-consumptionism’ – due to the poverty of the population.  Oddly enough, he does not mention over-production.  Harvey introduces another kind of outlook – that there are other, numerous blocks to capital formation, and that when one problem is ‘solved,’ the problem is usually shoved on to another area.  Crises are just moved around.  Money capital can become scarce; labor in short supply or rebellious; economic sectors disproportionate; environmental limits appear; unbalanced technological versus organizational changes like oligopoly versus competition, lack of effective demand, labor indiscipline, geographic limitations and even war.  Harvey is a sort of a ‘multiplier’ and doesn’t like pat answers, so part of the book addresses these blocks to capital formation and circulation.

As part of his geographic emphasis, Harvey shows how building projects are absolutely necessary for the absorption of vast amounts of surplus capital, which jibes with Monthly Review’s position on the difficulties of burning capital in some way.  Massive infrastructure and building projects introduce ‘growth’ and a modicum of stability into the capitalist economic system, providing some outlet for capital.  Some think the massive building boom in China after the 2007 crash – 40% of all Chinese assets went into new highways, cities, airports, trains and ship ports for awhile - is one thing that stabilized the world economic system.  Of course this building boom also dialectically created massive debt, displacements, environmental damage and vacancies – which will all have consequences, perhaps leading to a massive devaluation of this fixed capital.  On a local note, that is one reason why the Minneapolis capitalists have just built 3 new stadiums for professional football, baseball and college football, with a 4th for amateur baseball on the way.  The ‘love of sports’ hides the economic imperative. 

This imperative is in Harvey’s contention that a ‘3% compound growth rate’ is necessary for capitalism to survive.  Without this level of growth, it will weaken and die.  And it will do anything to maintain this level of growth.   

This book is partly inspired by a footnote from Marx in Capital, Vol I., Chapter 15 where Marx lays out perhaps 6 ways that capital affects society.  Harvey’s response is to create a schema based on this footnote of ‘co-revolutionary’ arenas of struggle regarding capital.  They are:  1, Technology and organization forms; 2, social relations; 3, institutional and administrative arrangements; 4, production and labor processes; 5, relations to nature; 6, reproduction of daily life and the species; 7, mental conceptions of the world.  In this he draws the conclusion that centering a revolutionary movement only on labor processes will not be able to sway a complex capitalist system across continents.  He wants to combine these 7 strands into a rope to hang the capitalists with.  Harvey describes this as, not an attempt to lower the importance of the working class, but to delineate all the arenas of class struggle for that class and its allies.  He sees the revolutionary struggle as being played on a 7-layer chess board, not on a single layer one, with interactions between the levels. 

On the issue of allies, Harvey maintains that the proletariat of all collars, the precariat, the indigenous, the unemployed and debt-ridden, the small farmer or peasant, the poor, the disaffected students - all have anti-capitalist motives and, if they are not diverted by religious, nationalist or ethnic hatreds, can join in a united front against capital worldwide.  That is his dream.  It is also the dream of every left-wing revolutionary, I would think. 

In Harvey’s musings, he touches on some interesting issues: 
A.  Can a global ‘super-imperialism.’ of US military, political and economic domination, after liquidating any opposition from China, Russia, Iran, and other countries, eliminate war or not? 
B.  He points out the limitations of Jared Diamond’s ‘geographic determinism’ in tracking how capitalism develops.  Diamond, while pretending to defend societies which did not develop into rapacious capitalists – ignores the class and exploitation issue completely.  Africa is poor not because of colonial or imperial exploitation, but because of the environment! 
C.  Harvey points out that ‘multiculturalism’ – which is the ideology of the ‘left’ in the Democratic Party and liberalism generally – is incapable of dealing with the class issue.  Class is the basic relation in society, ‘the foundational inequality necessary to the reproduction of capitalism’ and hence its consideration rises above simple multiculturalism, and is incomprehensible to it. 
D.  He describes the relation between capitalist growth rates and population growth rates as almost the same - hence hinting that birth control perhaps is not in the interests of the capitalist system. 
E.  He shows how labor migration is key to the flow of capital, because capital is interested in removing all barriers to its quick movement.  The easy movement of wages slaves is part of that.  “Time” under capital is only speeding up – if anyone hasn’t noticed.  Anyone who cannot keep up – who cannot work fast or stay connected – is out of luck.  This mirrors the micro-seconds of trading on Wall Street or the movement of liquid assets from Hong Kong to New York in seconds, or the executives traveling the globe by airplane.  Globalization is part of capital’s domination of space, a globalization presciently mentioned in the Communist Manifesto, which was written in 1848 with the knowledge of colonialism alone.  
F.   The suburban lifestyle was part of the geographic investment of capital made in the 1950s and now spreading across the globe.  It allowed capital to expend its capital surpluses.  Cars, freeways, single-detached houses, malls were all created on the basis of the needs of the absorption of a capital surplus.
G.  Harvey’s last book, “Rebel Cities,” focused especially on issue of the city.  Some of the issues in this book show up there, but emphasized – especially how capital destroys working-class neighborhoods through violence, removal of squatters, removal of populations in the way of vast projects, eminent domain and gentrification of neighborhoods.  All this intentional, all produced by the economic or political needs of capital. 
H.  Harvey understands the looming problems of the environment, though he hedges his bets about whether technology can deal with the problem or not – a common-enough issue with some Marxists.  He takes apart the ‘Green Revolution,’ showing how its successes also have led to failures that are coming to light now.
I.  He describes the present forces in a coherent anti-capitalist front – 1, Organizations of Indigenous people; 2, anarchist, autonomist and grassroots organizations; 3, Marxist revolutionary groups; 4, social movements fighting displacement and dispossession of common goods; 5, identity emancipation movements – women, ethnic minorities, gays and other movements for equality.   Notably he leaves out labor and small farmer organizations. 
J.  Harvey hints that it might be possible for a rapproachment between anarchism and Marxism - at least the proletarian sides.   In his text, he consistently includes mentions of proletarian anarcho-syndicalism.  Harvey understands, as do some left-wing anarchists, that some anarchists are nothing but the middle-class libertarians of the left.
K.  Lastly, he describes how Marxism or revolutionaries will have to take geographic issues into account in any replacement of class society.  From this I take it that workers councils will have to have a geographic aspect, to represent the whole class.  

(‘Rebel Cities and two books by Jared Diamond are also reviewed below.  Use blog search box, upper left, to find them.) 

And I bought it at May Day Books!
Red Frog
April 7, 2014

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

A New Socialist Movement

French Elections during a Ukrainian Frenzy before a possible Presidential Candidate

Mr. Hollande’s Holiday

The hammer came down on the Socialist Party (“SP”) of Francois Hollande on Sunday, depriving his party of many municipal governments, and the loss of thousands of jobs for Party supporters.  It was a massive repudiation of a government that did little about unemployment, but raised regressive VAT taxes.  A 38% abstention rate told the tale of a French electorate so disappointed that they stayed home.  Most were working class and former Socialist voters.  The bourgeois presses howled about the small gains made by the extreme rightist National Front (“NF”) as if this was the only story.  The real message here is the complete bankruptcy of this Euro tendency of social-democracy, which volunteers to manage French capitalism for the majority, and actually manages it for the tiny minority.  Just as the New Labour Party does in the UK, and the Socialist Party does in Spain and Greece. 

The ‘far left,’ as they are dubbed in the press, still hold more municipal seats than Marie LePen’s NF, which controls 11 small towns now.  The divided forces of the Communist Party (“PCF”), the Anti-Capitalist Party, the Green Party, the “Left Party” Lutte Ouvriere and others were the only electoral forces campaigning against capitalist austerity.  While the NF makes that part of their appeal, they blame immigrants and welfare state policies for austerity instead of the capitalist class.  The PCF actually divided the left by running on joint tickets at this particular juncture with the discredited SP in certain cities, and lost shares because of it. 

Since 1914, when they voted to participate in the bloody nightmare of World War I, the SP social-democracy has failed the working class again.  Their failures only embolden neo-fascism, as has become obvious across Europe, and now in France.  It is clear a new socialist movement has to be reborn.  Developments in the approaching Euro-elections promise the ‘far left’ more of a role, as candidates from Greece, Italy and France are poised to make large increases in the European parliament elections, reflecting widespread opposition to European capitalist austerity. 

Hollande’s reaction to this defeat?  Instead of understanding that it resulted from his coziness with capital, he nominated a more right-wing technocrat to be his new Prime Minister, Manuel Valls.  He’s a Blairite/Clintonite.  Which goes to show the SP has no clue – its real lodestar is the needs of the system, not the working class. 

Ukrainian Frenzy

The U.S. imperialists were quite upset that the tactic of ‘self-determination’ blew up in their faces, as Crimea voted to join the Russian Federation.  The capitalists are always for national rights when it comes to bloodily decimating a country they oppose – can you say Yugoslavia? – but when it comes to them - Ireland, Quebec, Scotland, anywhere else – all of a sudden national self-determination is a bad idea.  So the hypocritical and helpless rage over the ‘invasion’ of the Crimea is predictable.  It was bloodless, it was an overwhelming majority and it drove them mad.

The hostility and war-mongering has reached from Republicans to Democrats to even most ‘progressives’ – who wouldn’t know a coup if it happened next door.  It took them only a few days to line up like tin soldiers and vote whatever sanctions and monies were needed to support the EU/IMF/US coup.  You think they work this fast in the interests of the U.S. working class?  Here again we see the ostensible ‘enemies’ – the Democrats and Republicans – singing Kumbaya.  Events like this expose the vicious chorus of ‘democratic’ imperialism that saturates the American polity.  Really, these people would be laughable if they didn’t have so much money and so many guns.  They are sort of the Lanisters of the world.  The Game of Thrones continues and it’s not just a fiction story on HBO.  You are playing your part, boys.

In the wake of the decimation of the Iraqi, Afghan, Libyan, Somalia, Sudanese, Malian and Syrian states by US 'anti-terror' policies, might there be a pattern here where U.S./ EU intervention leads to bloodshed and a failed, partitioned or crippled state?  Might that even be the intention?

The neo-fascist-led Ukrainian coup is already blowing up in the Ukrainian working class’s face.  The immediate vote of the new government to make the Russian language unofficial sent an ethnic message the neo-fascists and eastern Ukrainian oligarchs love.  Ukrainian neo-fascist activity in western Ukraine has already resulted in the killings of Russian speakers there.  The Ukrainian government will now have to institute austerity over Ukrainian workers, farmers and students in order to keep the EU bribe. Ukrainian workers are being forced to take sides on language and ethnic issues, and to replace class consciousness with nationalism.  Nationalism is the last refuge of scoundrels and the drapery of fools, but it is capitalist policy world-wide.  That is, as long as you allow the international imperialists into your little nation. 

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?

Bernie Sanders, that’s who.  A member of the Socialist Party, and a Senator from Vermont, he is thinking of running for President against the Democratic Party nominee, Hillary Clinton.  While Sanders is of the same ostensibly socialist tendency as Francois Hollande, a good showing in the U.S. would mean something quite different than the poor showing of the French SP.  That is because of the absolute ass-backwardness of American politics.  His musings have set off a debate about the obvious role of the Democratic Party in squelching the left in the U.S.  Adolph Reed, a supporter of the defunct Labor Party, took the Democrats to task in Harpers over this, while the left-liberals at Truthdig mulled it over too.  Run, Bernie, run.  Or at least - walk.  He’s 72.

Red Frog
April 2, 2014

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Genre Fiction / Familiar Facts

"A Time to Kill,” by John Grisham, 1989

This was Grisham’s first book, which he couldn’t sell until someone grabbed his second – the “Pelican Brief” – and made it into a movie.  This book didn’t change, but the possibility of profits did.  Grisham lives in Oxford, Mississippi, the center of Faulkner’s fabled Yoknapatawpha County, and location of Faulkner’s later home, Rowan Oak.  Grisham is no Faulkner, but he does have a series of stories ‘round Oxford called, oddly enough, “Ford County Stories,” so he’s plumbing the gravity of place for all its worth -  similar to his inspiration.  This book also carries on bravely in a town named “Clanton” located somewhere northwest of Oxford.  With a judge named “Noose.”  Yes, a hanging judge.  The Klan makes an appearance or three in this book, which might hint at the inspiration for the town’s moniker. 

Grisham is not a stranger to humor – nor is he a stranger to making fun of lawyers, judges, the courts and all the rest, being a former lawyer himself.  He is the doyen of the ‘lawyer fiction’ genre, mostly because he’s not some ideologue for the nobility of the profession like many of the painfully dull, straight-arrows who practice it.  This book also cherishes ‘Southernness.' Which comes off as painfully stupid when it stands up for the death penalty or being a chauvinist or a bigot.  Grisham originally wrote this book in 1989 before the ‘Innocence Project’ had taken off.  Yet it didn’t take much to recognize even then that many men, especially black ones, were being killed by the State while innocent.  The cuteness of old boy bastards leering at young women wears thin.  As does everyone’s use of the word ‘nigger’ – this is not set in the ‘60s, mind you.  It is supposedly taken for granted in ‘80s Mississippi that the courtrooms are segregated by habit, that all voting is ethnic and that the Klan still has a base in northern Mississippi. And this is just good ‘ol boy normality - nothing to get your ‘panties’ in a twist about. Grisham portrays some close relationships between the black and white residents of Clanton – including the black sheriff, the disbarred white drunken lawyer Lucien, and his hero, the working attorney Jake Brigance. (ne brigand?) 

Jake is a young, brash, tough, small-town lawyer that fends off a crooked Memphis criminal attorney and a smug white NAACP attorney to handle his client’s case.  Black factory worker Carl Lee Hailey has killed two white bigots with an M-16 after they tied up, raped and beat his 10-year-old daughter.   Carl Lee is a Vietnam vet and, as the defense will show, ‘snapped,’ went temporarily insane, and shot the Confederate flag-waving killers at close range on some interior Courthouse steps.  Many blacks and whites around Clanton sympathize with Carl Lee, but technically he did the deed.  Jake’s strategy is to give the jury a ‘legal’ reason to acquit or fail to find a verdict, and channel their sympathy.  Not legal – but human.  Jurors have been bought in other trials - and lying testimony sought and rendered.  Racism has been fundamental all the time.  Jake will make them see it Carl Lee’s way instead. 

Jake, on Lucien’s bad advice, hires the drunkenest psychiatrist in Mississippi to testify on Carl Lee’s behalf because they have no money for a real psychiatrist.  Jake, partial teetotaler, is driven to drink during this trial.  And so do his beautiful hired female paralegal Ellen, his old patron Lucien and his divorce attorney buddy Rex.  Lots of drinkin’ is done, and I guess that is part of the picturesque south.  The more they yell about morality, the more they drink, have illegitimate children and hurt each other evidently. 

Now the Klan arrives to take up the cause of the two dead bigots, Billy Ray and Willard.  Believe it or not, the Klan gets away with almost dynamiting Jake’s house, killing his secretary’s elderly husband, killing an informer, brutalizing Ellen, terrorizing 20 members of the jury pool and eventually burning Jake’s classic old house and car to the ground.  This is the 1980s now.  No FBI around.  No effective police work by the black sheriff.  No publicity. The Klan have the run of the land, it seems.  Jake keeps the Klan efforts hushed up, instead of using them to get sympathy. 

That is until the black folks show up.  The Klan appear in the center of Clanton (which strongly resembles Oxford, with the southern-facing courthouse in the middle of the town square) surrounded by hundreds of angry black people who chase them out of the square.  Later a mass march by 20,000 black people from various black churches in Mississippi intimidates the Klan into permanent hiding.  No white radicals ever appear in “Clanton” to confront the Klan, even though every appearance by the Klan during the 80s was an occasion for integrated radical groups like the John Brown Anti-Klan Committee and various communist organizations to confront them too.  Which is one of the reasons why you don’t see the Klan in public anymore.  

You know when the Klan or the Nazis show up in a book or movie that the ‘bad guy’ quota has been met. This is a tired liberal tactic, as no further in-depth work has to be done to find or create who the actual ‘bad guys’ really are.  Who benefits from the Klan? Duh.

Grisham makes fun of the leading black reverend who keeps the donations for Carl Lee instead of giving it to the family.  The preacher is forced to hand the money over to Carl Lee’s family, who have lost his factory wage and have no food.  

Judge Noose is corrupt, as he needs to be re-elected and is told if he moves the case to another county his campaign funders will cut him off.  So he stays the course and holds the trial in Clanton in the midst of an armed circus, as the National Guard has come to town.  Prosecutor Buckley wants to be governor, so he preens for the cameras, as does Jake.  The prosecutor asks for the gas chamber, so the stakes are high.  Jake’s buddies Lucien and Rex all think men will vote to acquit, but Ellen, Jake’s aide, thinks women will.  The eventual jury is all white and mostly female.  Almost everything in the trial goes against Carl Lee.  There are no blacks on the jury.  Every juror has to claim he believes in the death penalty.  The drunk psychiatrist is unmasked as someone accused of statutory rape for having sex with a 17 year old as a youth.  Carl Lee comes off apologetic on the stand.  Jake gets drunk before his closing argument.  Except for the police officer Carl Lee accidentally shot who stands up for him, the odds are stacked against him. 

However there is a massive march outside the courthouse while the jury deliberates.  This pressure helps.  And the jurors vote to acquit…led by a woman who told them to imagine if the girl raped had been white and their little daughter.  They do a blind vote on whether they would kill the guys who did it – and 12 hands go up.  And so Carl Lee is free.

This is a fast, funny, entertaining read.  The Klan comes off as unreal.  The twists and turns against Jake seem a bit contrived.  The politics are pabulum.  The South is pictured as a somewhat of a cliché.  The law becomes more exciting than it really is.  But this is genre’ fiction and he’s the master. Grisham’s sole non-fiction book, ‘An Innocent Man’ is one of his most gripping because it is more real - about a working class guy unjustly accused of murder.  He’s got plenty of others, so take your pick.

Red Frog
April Fool’s Day, 2014