Monday, July 28, 2014

Desert Rebels Against Dystopia

"Good News,” by Edward Abbey, 1980

Abbey is the desert anarchist who wrote while working as a park ranger around the Grand Canyon.  His fiction is movie-like, featuring close escapes, somewhat cartoon villains and the struggle against industrialism gone crazy.  As he puts it, it is about ultimately the ‘oldest civil war, that between the country and the city.’  Good News” is a combination of “Don Juan, a Yaqui Way of Knowledge,” Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road,” Larry McMurtry westerns like “Lonesome Dove,” and “The Road Warrior.” It is a post-apocalyptic look at the west after the collapse of industrial capitalism, centered on a city wasteland, called Phoenix.  The book is prescient in its descriptions and has aged well.  For instance, Abbey identifies the U.S. as a former corporate oligarchy before its fall. 

A catastrophe has destroyed the United States, leaving broken-down cars, empty malls, shuttered stores and an absent government. (And it wasn’t the 2008 financial crash!)  In its place are the remnants of the frightened citizenry and a megalomaniacal dictator called “The Chief” who wants to not only reconstitute the United States with his army of 2000+, and conquer the rest of the world next, but go on to the planets and the universe, where he will meet his ‘God.’  He plans to march east and occupy Washington D.C.  This is a country, by the way, that has almost no fuel left, which must be carried in massive tanker trucks.  So, monomaniacal times 3.  The Chief lives in a steel and glass skyscraper run by diesel generators in the middle of the smoking ruin of Phoenix, sort of like Sauron’s tower.  The skyscraper here has come to symbolize late-stage capitalism, like a pyramid shining out of the past.

Why apocalyptic disasters do not have clear causes is a mystery.  Book or film cannot name what actually happened.  Nuclear war?  Other kinds of wars? Environmental catastrophe or global warming?  Economic collapse?  The end of resources?  The seizure of power by a fascistic rich class?  All you get are crappy hints. This shows either cowardice or cluelessness, but in this case, Abbey is neither.  Abbey clearly says that something about industrialism led it to a dead end – a lack of food as the land was destroyed by industrial 'progress.’  He is a deep ecologist, and posits a rural, agrarian existence based on small landholdings as the counter-point to industrial society of any kind. The “state” is the prime enemy, as in most anarchist fiction.  

The struggle features an old cowpoke and a Hopi shaman on horse-back, an impulsive young man, several tough, good-hearted women and an anarchist guerilla leader against The Chief, his sadistic motor-cycle thugs, his chosen #2 and various sad military lackeys.  One of the motorcycle cops, Brock, is a relentless killer, torturer and rapist, who rides with a brutal Apache.  The Chief knows he is a torturer, but says, prematurely channeling George Bush, that people like Brock allow the ‘Chiefs’ of the world to have ‘clean hands.’  Brock is eventually dealt with … using magic.  Resorting to magic, especially in a literary work, indicates that even the likes of Abbey are impotent before vicious violence. 

Abbey includes a sub-story involving the old cowboy, Burns, looking for his long lost son, who turns out to be the Chief’s #2, Barnes.  This search does not go well. The anarchist guerrillas, who shout “Viva la Libertad” and “Tierra o Muerte” before being hung (shades of the Spanish Civil War…) are led by a professor named Rodack, and are mostly students, some Native Americans and Chicanos.  Portraying your anarchist guerrillas as mostly young students might be a weak point.  Bad pop Muzak plays throughout the Tower and also during the executions on “Unity Square,” which seems named after someplace in Assad’s Syria.  In contrast, a frustrated classical piano player remembers Beethoven and Bach while being forced to play Dylan in a bar.  Abbey, in laughable detail, names all the closed shops that line the weed-grown streets when the collapse happened circa 1984 (!) – Victoria’s Secret, Holiday Inn, B. Dalton, 7-11, McDonalds, Checker Auto Parts, Sambos, Denny’s, Food Giant, Odyssey Records and Tapes, etc.  The head of the military bordello describes the wonders of the vanished civilization to one of her new charges – eating all the time, driving everywhere, dressing in nice clothes, air-conditioning, entertainment, vacations, the Pentagon, drugs for every problem, power plants…

Abbey understood the problems of western capitalism even in 1980, before the recent extreme take-off of inequality and corporatism.  His analysis blames all of industrial society.  Doing this he is unable to separate out the role capital plays with the role ‘the city’ or ‘the state’ or ‘industry’ play in that kind of economy, where they become key and oppressive aspects of capitalist development.  Take the city. The growth of massive cities across the world is an outcome of the concentration of capital, as monopoly destroys agrarian land by ownership and with chemically-enhanced export mono-crops.  The concentration of people mimics the concentration of wealth. Present Phoenix, like Vegas and even Los Angeles, is itself at risk, slated for destruction through lack of water, increased fires, an influx of climate refugees and global heat waves from runaway climate change.  Who builds a massive city in the middle of a desert? Only capital accumulation and lack of planning would lead to something like this.  Abbey is always a rollicking good read.  He refused to remove politics from his literature, unlike the approved writers of purely aesthetic fiction, and hence rises above them.

Dystopian and post-apocalyptic film and fiction - “The Road,”The Hunger Games,” “Blade Runner or "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” "World War Z," and "Cloud Atlas"  are reviewed below.  The Monkey-Wrench Gang” by Abbey is also reviewed.  Use blog search box, upper left.)

Red Frog
July 28, 2014

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Mutiny on the Bounty

"Soldiers in Revolt – GI Resistance During the Vietnam War,” by David Cortright, 1975, intro by Howard Zinn

This is a true work of people’s history, written by a former GI activist in the U.S. military during Vietnam, who took years to document many acts of revolt - and to tie them together.  Most of these events were hidden from the general U.S. press, which rarely gave a real picture of what was going on in the Army, Marines, Navy & Air Force.  Even to this day, CNN in its ‘60’s’ coverage gives almost no space to the rebellion in the U.S. military against Vietnam, and by extension, imperialism.  The book is based on a close reading of 250 dissident military newspapers, anti-war materials and contacts among GI activists, as well as official documents and news stories. 

What clearly comes through from every fragging, act of sabotage; refusal to fight, board ship or fly; desertion, insubordination, military prison takeover, riot, GI organization, off-base coffee-house, GI newspaper, vigil, march, rally and published statement is that the U.S. military, from the Army to the Marines, from the Navy to the Air Force, broke down in Vietnam.  It was a chief reason why the U.S. gave up the fight.  At one point, 3 aircraft carriers were demobilized by sabotage or rebellions.  Soldiers in the field stopped obeying their officers.  Some army barracks were taken over by rebels for short periods of time.  This extended from Vietnam to Japan, Thailand, Guam and the Philippines, into nearly every camp in the U.S. and into Germany and the U.K.  It was worldwide, and involved hundreds of thousands of soldiers in various ways.  To accomplish this, the civilian anti-war movement and the soldier’s anti-war movement worked together frequently. 

The leaders in many of these fights were black soldiers.  The movement over common goals resulted in unity between black and whites, although there were also racial brawls between black radicals and the more conservative and racist white soldiers, or the even more racist white MPs.  The Black Panther Party was invited on to one base. Memorials for Malcolm X were held at another.  Black study groups sprang up everywhere.  Clearly the movement for black liberation in the U.S. intervened into the military. The movement started being against this particular war, then became against imperial intervention anywhere, and started to include the social demands of soldiers – better housing, the unjust military legal codes, racist military police and officers, discrimination in job assignments, mistreatment of various kinds, low pay and every other issue soldiers – similar to workers – have with their employer. 

In effect, the class war being waged by the Vietnamese extended into the ranks of the enemy army.  U.S. soldiers were the second line in this fight, and the third, the domestic anti-war and black radical movements.  The latter never extended far enough into the domestic labor movement, but if it had, that would have led to a more profound revolutionary crisis throughout U.S. society.  The labor movement, then and now, is harshly policed to forbid this kind of truly radical activity.

Cortright documents in painful detail every single rebellion, no matter how small.  I take great enjoyment in reading about every single one.  He lists the increasing AWOL rate – peaking in 1971 in the Army at 18% and the Marines in 1970 at 17.5%.  Or the desertion rate – 7% in 1971 for the Army and 6% in 1970 for the Marines.  In-service CO applications – the Army had 2,827 in 1971.  Discharges for misconduct and unfitness – 11% in 1970 for the Marines.  Marijuana usage?  42% of the Army used it in 1971.  In the 173rd Airborne, 68% had used weed.  Of course harder drugs were also being used.  Nearly 500,000 Vietnam-era soldiers were discharged with less than honorable separations. Confirmed fraggings in the first 11 months of 1971 were 215.  80% of victims were officers or NCOs.   All these are from official figures and Cortright documents that some of these figures are under-counts, especially the latter.  Cortright does not shy away from supporting fragging or desertion or almost any action by angry soldiers, which shows that he understand who the real killers are. 

The issue of ‘who’ opposed the war the most – enlistees or the draftees – is handled in this book, but not very thoroughly.  While Cortright believes, following other writers, that the men who enlisted were the most unhappy with the war, there is not much evidence of that in the book. Cortright does point out that the majority of organizers against the war within the military were working-class enlistees.  The theory is that they felt most betrayed when the promises of ‘training,’ ‘fighting for your country’, ‘discipline’ and ‘leadership’ fell far short. In other words, the difference between a 'full-time' worker enlistee versus a temp 'draftee.'  I propose a more subtle argument - that the leadership were working-class enlistees but the majority of their followers were draftees. 

Instead, when the military brass realized the extent of demoralization and opposition in the ranks in the early 1970s, enlistments were ended in a mass way – thousands were sent home.  The draft itself ended in 1971.  And this reduced the rebellion in the ground forces military almost overnight.  Cortright himself thinks that the draft would be re-established, and the ‘all volunteer’ army would become a failure.  That was his view in 1975.  Almost 40 years later we can say he was wrong.  The ‘high-tech’ mercenary army has enabled the U.S. to carry out many invasions since.  The ‘draft’ has not been seriously raised, except perhaps by people who view an army formed of economic refugees, right-wing patriots and macho personalities, reflecting a small slice of the population, to actually be anti-democratic.  The ‘citizens army’ is no more – perhaps because the citizens will no longer do what they are told.

Of particular interest is the issue of how the rebellion spread from the grunts in Vietnam to the Navy seamen, then to the air-craft carriers and bases, as the focus of the war changed over time from ground combat to air-bombing campaigns and big naval guns.  No part of the military was off-limits to protest – even groups of NCO’s, pilots and other officers came out in an organized way against the war. 

Another key point was the mistreatment of black soldiers.  One indicator was that they ended up in the military prisons in far higher numbers than their numbers in the military would indicate.  The prisons inside the army mirrored the prisons outside it.  Cortright makes an invaluable point that the U.S. Army was (and I think still is) heavily dominated by white Southerners in the leadership.  The South is also where most military bases are located.  In fact the largest employer in Texas is a federal base, Fort Hood in Killeen.  Their backward racist and classist ideas dominated the military at the time – sort of a Klan with bars and stars. 

The role of the left is not very visible in this book, except for a mention of the SWP’s Young Socialist Alliance.  He does mention the formation of a soldier’s union, which he asserts (in 1975 again) will continue to function due to the conditions in the forces. He documents how much the ‘volunteer army’ is costing the government, and how conditions were changing a bit to accommodate the ‘volunteers.’ Cortright exposes the lies told by recruiters to trick people into joining the armed forces.  He points out that without dealing with the racism in the military, no military can survive in the U.S.  I do not know if there are any organizations left in the ‘volunteer military,’ though a soldiers’ union is still needed.   

This book is essential to understanding how to stop a war.  Cortright includes a section on the history of resistance to militarism within the military in various American wars – especially the massive ‘Go Home” movement after fighting ended in World War II, which essentially forestalled another war from starting.  He discusses how to bring 'democracy' into an essentially authoritarian capitalist organization, much like trying to get a union into a top-down business.  Having such an organization, perhaps modeled after similar conditions in the German Army of 1975, or the People's Liberation Army ("PLA") of China in 1975, he feels will improve conditions for enlisted men.

Cortwright's points on fighting militarism are germane. It is not about large peace crawls alone.  Or pacifism.  Or appealing to Democrats or liberals – who only opposed this war because it was a losing proposition.  The 300 dead Vietnamese to every 1 American ratio didn’t bother them.  To stop war the fight must be extended into the military itself – just as the Bolsheviks did in 1917 and the German revolutionaries did after WWI.  Take as much of the army from the capitalists as can be taken.  It has been done.  
Prior reviews of books on Vietnam – use search blog box in upper left are:  Kill Anything That Moves,” “Matterhorn,” “People’s History of the Vietnam War,” “What It Is Like to Go To War,” “In the Cross-fire – Adventures of a Vietnamese Revolutionary,” and “Working-Class War.” 

And I bought it at Mayday Books
Red Frog
July 24, 2014

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Dive Down

"Palmers Bar,” Minneapolis, West Bank (of the Mississippi River), Minnesota, USA

Community is a word, and the actual reality is fleeting.  Especially in the alienated U.S. Talk to someone who you don’t know and register the startled looks.  Yet everyone seeks it.  Facebook is a placebo, as real community has to actually become ‘face to face’ not 'face to book.'   

Bars are face to face.  Barring medical problems like alcoholism, to paraphrase Karl Marx, be careful to trust those who don’t drink occasionally.  Fundamentalist Christians or Muslims or yoga bunnies?  Hmmm.  What better place to go than a public house, a bar?  In the U.S. the ‘bar’ is the long wooden high counter you lean against to get a drink.  Alcohol is a depressant for a wired-up population trying to do 100 things a day on caffeine.   Of course, too much booze and you are useless and demobilized. And that is the way the powers-that-be like it.

Bars have been organizing places.  The Minute Men, including Paul Revere, met in the Green Dragon Tavern in Boston.  The Bolsheviks met in the Crown Tavern in London.  The Wobblies met in the Dil Pickle Club in Chicago.  The Stonewall Inn led to the first mass gay fight against cops in New York.  Italian sharecroppers met in taverns to organize against landlords and Austrian occupiers in the late 1800s.  The First Continental Congress of the U.S. met at the City Tavern in Philadelphia.  Jean Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop in New Orleans is the oldest bar in the U.S., and served as an organizing center against the British invasion of Louisiana.  You might know of a bar or public house in your town that has had a role in various progressive fights.   This is a mostly invisible part of people’s history.

Here in Minneapolis, we have a bar, Palmers, that has been a workingmen’s bar for many, many years – 108 to be exact.  It might not have organized much, except maybe a fight against the high-rise destruction of the West Bank in the early '70s.  In the 1960s, hippies gathered there to drink, across the street from the drug-saturated sidewalk next to Richter’s Drug and up the street from the vinyl Electric Fetus record shop, which is still in town.  It was part of the Minneapolis folk scene, and a poster of the cover of 1963’s “Blues, Rags & Hollers” is still is up on the wall, featuring some of Minneapolis legendary folkies during the time of Bob Dylan – John Koerner, Dave Ray and Tony Glover. It might be the only place left from the old ‘West Bank” – a time of hippies, pot, protest and music.  The other classic bars – the Viking, the Triangle, the CafĂ© Extemp, the Five Corners – have all closed.  Spider John Koerner still plays the tiny triangle-shaped stage at one end of Palmers, and his voice is almost as sweet as ever.  Koerner and Willie Murphy, another West Banker, did the best folk-rock album from that period, “Running Jumping Standing Still.” 

Posters of local musicians and patrons were up in the bar several weeks ago for sale, as art on the wall is now a regular thing.  Sometimes artists will sell their work while you are drinking.  In the 1980’s radicals used to argue Maoism, Pro-Sovietism and Trotskyism around the old pool table, an area which is now used for setting up bands.  I heard the ‘Theory of 3 Worlds’ took a verbal beating, not just at the pool table.

This year Esquire, a magazine of upscale male consumers, voted Palmers one of its top ten U.S. bars.  Esquire mentioned their simple ‘double whiskey with a beer back’ as a standout.  The regular mixed drinks are almost doubles, so buying beer might not be very cost-effective.  Strong stuff, so watch out.  A Pokeman bar crawl of odd geeksters came through one night, and the poor souls had a hard time leaving Palmers because they didn’t know what they had walked into.  After the award was announced, the bar made fun of the ‘craft cocktail douchbags’ at more trendy establishments on its Facebook page. The bands also cackled at the award, which tells you something about the bar.

Music is still in the lifeblood of Palmers.  Today the Front Porch Swingin’ Liquor Pigs sit in every Friday to continue the vibe, and on Wednesdays a ragged ‘Hippienanny’ allows people to sing along to their favorite tunes.  But late at night the young folks come out and the bar changes from older folks listening to blues rock or R&B to punks and young hipsters, and the music becomes alternative rock and punkier or funkier.  Two young and genial bar-tenders keep the place ‘up’ in the late hours, and one will even sing with the bands.  Big John, a 6+ foot black bouncer, keeps everything above board, and makes the place comfortable for every kind of entrant – black, Somali, old, young, working-class, poor and even single women, who can sit alone without being harassed by some meat-market type.  Out back in the patio a fire burns on cold evenings, people can smoke, sometimes even cigarettes.  The juke box is full of musical quality.  Next door is a closed Mosque, the victim of a fatal fire last winter in the building one door down from Palmers.  Somalis who don’t drink have to put up with the rowdy crowd of talkers in the back, very near to their high-rise ‘Mogadishu” in the West Bank apartments that tower over the bar.  Christian Ethiopians and Eritreans come in to drink, talk and even dance.  Occasionally a liberal Muslim, perhaps in secret ...  

The place is partly owned by a female real estate attorney, Lisa, who drops in regularly.  Free produce from the co-ops is given away on Saturday mornings, and Korean women crowd the bar for vegetables and bread.  Free food crops up because of the many birthdays.  Musicians will yell out people’s names and those people answer.  The place tends to retain people – Dave is an older bartender whose been working there for 15 years.  The place has many regulars – old hippies with long grey hair, young bicycle punks, young and old musicians, suburbanites who are fleeing the suburbs, black folks who appreciate the laid-back vibe, north Africans running from Allah and perhaps too many alcoholics.  Big John had a 60th birthday party, and the whole bar joined in singing “Big Bad John” by Jimmy Dean after he got his present from the patrons.  Uptight suburbanite ‘slummers’ come through from time to time, and either do a quick circuit of the bar and back patio in horror, or stay for one quick drink to prove their mettle.  I.E. its not some fake ‘Cheers’ bar with scripted conversation, but a place where people actually can talk to each other.  If you don’t like talking to an eclectic group of ‘strangers,’ you shouldn’t show up.  And maybe, just maybe, you might not be a stranger anymore.  Drink up and see. 

(Book on the ‘Dil Pickle Club,’ below.  Use blog search box, upper left.)

Red Frog
July 14, 2014
Bastille Day – Liberate the Prisons!

Saturday, July 12, 2014

The Revolution Continues

"The End of the Revolution – China and the Limits of Modernity,” by Wang Hui, 2011

China contains the largest working class in the world, and is still a main fulcrum for the future of class struggle.  What happens there can determine the future in large part.  

Wang Hui has been identified with the ‘new left’ in China, a new left that has gone beyond waving the ‘red book.’  He is a critic of neo-liberalism, ‘developmentalism’ and corporate ‘modernity’ from a theoretical background that seems to include left sociology, soft Maoism, ‘morality’ and certain Western Marxists like Althusser and Gramsci.  The key chapters here are about the 1989 ‘Tiananmen’ movement and the collapse of the USSR, modernity as a concept, the rise of neo-liberalism in China and the subsequent de-politicization of society.

Hui is the author of a seminal history of Chinese philosophy, “The Rise of Modern Chinese Thought,” which he supplements in this volume.  The latter chapters concerning this book are mostly of interest to specialists, as they don't deal very much with Marxist or proletarian influences and more with, at least to Western eyes, idiosyncratic Chinese intellectual currents, although some concepts were certainly adopted by Mao.  The broad outlines are differences with respect to modernity and the ‘collective.’  However, Hui's favortie is Lu Xun, an 'organic' intellectual who left academe, and believed in permanent revolution and a cultural 'war of position' ala Gramsci.  Lu Xun was harsh and believed in conflict, not peace, nor forgiveness of social crimes.

Hui is a theoretically indistinct but detailed analyst.  He does not identify the class character of current China, though his running description is not complimentary.  He seems to indicate that the Chinese state peacefully transformed from proletarian to bourgeois as it went backwards, starting in the 1970s, but this is not clear.  He approves of Mao’s “Three Worlds Theory,’ even though a very good case could be made for it being the first significant theoretical step towards Western capital and away from class struggle.  This would be something he’d ostensibly oppose.  Hui was a supporter of the left movements around Tiananmen and clearly delineates the progressive from reactionary forces that were involved.  He gives actual breadth to a portrait that is stupidly pictured as ‘all counter-revolutionary’ or ‘all democratic.’ He debates various pro-government neo-liberals who do not question China’s path of development, which is increasingly capitalist and anti-popular.  The fact that some Chinese are reading and using Hayek, the famous libertarian reactionary, says something about the intellectual character of present debates.  Hui supports ‘markets’ but insists these are separate from capitalism, much as some anarchists do. 

What is most interesting is how heavily influenced the Chinese are by Western philosophy and ideas, starting in the early 1900s and the May 4th Movement, and continuing to this day.  Hui is not a ‘Chinese’ nationalist who believes in rejecting all ‘foreign’ ideas, but he does understand that China has ideas of its own, like ‘nationalism,’ that pre-date those of the West, or are contemporaneous.  Hui himself references many European thinkers.

Within China, the practical dividing line for Hui is how people stand on the ‘cultural revolution.’  From my perspective, the cultural revolution was an ultra-left and ultimately sectarian attempt to gain working-class democracy and control over the bureaucratization of China.  Unfortunately sectarian because it was used by a wing of the Chinese bureaucracy for their own power.  It ended in violence and chaos because it did not have a real solution to propose – actual control devolving to the ‘commune,’ or in the western term, workers and peasants councils, or in the Russian phrase, Soviets. Or the freedom to have various working-class parties and independent unions. In essence, working class / farmer democracy.  Yet it involved millions of workers, peasants and students in wresting control of factories, offices and land from the hierarchy for a time.  Any sympathy with the cultural revolution is verboten in official China. The bureaucracy and capitalist elements were permanently scarred by this experience.  Hui himself sympathizes with aspects of it, and so puts himself outside this consensus.  He clearly understands that ‘voting’ is not a sufficient form of democratic involvement, but larger structures need to be involved.  The cultural revolution now plays much the same role in China as Stalin plays in the U.S. – an automatic shutoff to debate about socialism.

The Chinese took note of the cataclysmic version of capitalist privatization that the Russians and others in east and central Europe went through, and were determined not to go that route.  They also noted the disastrous role that the 1990s Asian financial crisis brought to those economies, as capital fled overnight from Asian countries, resulting in a collapse in their finances, and resolved to have some controls on capital.  Hui observes that the 1989 Tienanmen events actually predated the collapse of the decayed workers states across eastern Europe, and might have helped propel them. 

Hui describes the ‘Tiananmen’ movement – which was a national movement - as involving students, a wing of government bureaucrats and propagandists, ‘intellectuals,’ neo-liberal capitalists and proletarians and farmers.  The various class strata each emphasized different aspects of ‘democracy’ – some wanting more freedom for capital and some more freedom for labor.   Hui notes that the precise state of the troubled Chinese economy at that moment had an effect on the working classes, and actually propelled Tiananmen into being.  It was not some ethereal event played out only in the realm of ideas, as portrayed in the press.  As in Hungary 1956, Czechoslovakia 1968, Poland and Solidarnosc in 1980, this event also had a dual character.  I would mention that the concept of ‘intellectuals’ does not exist in the U.S.  We have either paid professors or paid think-tank members, and not much else.  Being paid inhibits their actual 'intellectualism' as they are in the orbit of whatever institution is paying the bills - in spite of 'academic freedom.' Hui  believes that any link between 'intellectuals' in China and the masses has been broken.  

Hui has great chapters on the ideas of ‘modernity’ and ‘developmentalism’ which infuse many growing capitalist areas across the world, and especially China.  While not clearly connecting them to capitalist mechanisms like advertising, planned obsolescence and profiteering, he asserts that ‘modernity’ and ‘development’ are false without taking the needs or control of the majority of the population into account.  As he says, “The modernity of the elites is primarily …one… in which they play the heroes of history.”  He also explores the goal of all neo-liberal policies – the de-politicization of society.  Politics in China is to be made invisible, and not desirable for people to be involved in.  It becomes an automatic process, above the heads of most everyone.  Commercialism is its replacement.  Americans are very familiar with this process – starting from the dull adage that one cannot talk about politics, sex or religion in mixed company.  (These are almost the only topics to talk about!)  Cultural figures who are left-political suddenly become invisible.  Take Russell Brand’s recent turn to the left after leaving pop princess Katy Perry, and his subsequent invisibility on American talk shows. 

De-politicization is at the heart of what Americans now face, and Hui has done a good job of showing it as essential to the functioning of neo-liberalism.  The inability of people to conceive of having power or a role outside their own small family or individual self, or their tiny job, and being relegated to bystanders ‘watching the news’ is at the heart of the problem.  As Hui, and every leftist understands, it is when the population becomes engaged in social life that change happens.  This is what the present power systems will do everything to prevent.

(Other reviews on China include a Monthly Review on Bo Xilai by Yeuzhi Zhao and the "Rise of China" by Minq Li.  Use blog search box, upper left.)

And I bought it at Waterstones, in Bloomsbury, London, UK.
Red Frog
July 12, 2014

Monday, July 7, 2014

Nothingism

ART is DEAD

First God died, now this.  What to do?  The London Tate Modern museum is a perfect example of how various forms of  Western ‘post-modernism’ – i.e. minimalism, ‘found’ objects, random agglomerations, quirky ideas, shock or grotesque art, performance ‘art,’ ruined art, shaky black and white films, the absence of people or representational reality - replaced the art movements of most of the 19th & 20th century.  Post 1914 and World War I, art changed forever in European society, as the high noon of bourgeois art – Impressionism – came to a crashing halt.  Impressionism was the apex of the use of color, the brandishing of light and shadow, the freedom of brushstrokes, the rule of nature and ‘peace’ – all creating an airy, optimistic, enjoyable atmosphere. As Piketty observed, this was also a high point of inequality and wealth.

Then came WW I, which punctured the bourgeois equilibrium.  Constructivism, cubism, surrealism, dada, protest art, socialist realism and futurism emerged from that tragedy, which continued through the world Depression and into WW II.  Even today, a visit to the art galleries of Berlin shows the effect World War II still has on Germany.  It took years after WW II for art to regain a foothold as American regionalist art, then New York ‘pop’and ‘op’ art, poster art, and various forms of abstract art.  Today that smaller burst of optimism in art has now ended in various forms of post-modernism.  An ash-tray on a stool, anyone? 

Confirmation of this came with visits to another gallery in the London area.   Outside the Serpentine Gallery in Hyde Park are two boulders balancing on each other, paid for by the gallery.  As anyone who has hiked knows, nature can also put two boulders on top of each other – and create magnificent ‘art’ pieces without trouble.  Yet the gallery paid two ‘artists’ for these two boulders to be placed on top of each other – in effect doing what nature does for free in certain places.  The question you ask, is ‘who needs artists and art like this?’  In fact, does this actually exist?

Inside the Serpentine was an ‘art performance’ by a world-famous Serbian, Marina Abramovich, who essentially stares at and whispers to people who come into white but quiet rooms.  She had been doing this for 18 days for 8 hours a day, the poor soul.  The ‘art’ consists of visitors (who have removed their electronic devices and watches) standing or sitting with sound-blocking headphones on, closing their eyes and/or putting on blindfolds, and perhaps walking a floor at least 7 times.  This is to ‘center’ you and make you aware of yourself and others. This is based on yoga ‘mindfulness’ practice.  A friend talked to Ms. Abramovich for a time, asking her how she could put up with it for so many days.  Abramovich said that she was somewhat surprised ‘people took it so seriously.’   My friend asked why a form of meditative yoga was now art, and Abramovich had no real answer.

So what we have here is a well-paid person basically pretending yoga is art.  “Art’ has disappeared, and so has the artist, except as a practitioner of a performance deception.  Obviously tricks like this will not fool enough people enough of the time.  Instead the BBC described to my mind the next phase of ‘optimistic’ art – electronic arts of various types – which they covered in a new show in London.  Participants hook themselves up to electronic sensors and make images move the way their bodies move.  Electronic images of various types pulse on big screens, much as screen savers and algorithms produce images on your little computer screen.  Lights beam down on objects or visitors, creating shadows or spotlighting the individual under it.  And so on.  Colorful, busy, self-referential, simplistic, decorative, hip and ‘modern’ – everything you could want in a society dominated by commercialism.  Lady Gaga is the supposed blend of this ‘art’ and pop – the new Andy Warhol.  Yet without the brushes, just the clothing, the surface but not the body.  

Don't get me wrong, I actually have a piece of computer art in my house.

The antidote to these kinds of easily commercial art is living outside the galleries and the curators of museums, though it too is moving into them.  “Street Art,’ which is the sophisticated version of ‘graffiti,’ has come to London, especially Shoreditch in the east.  Similarly in Berlin the remnants of the old ‘Wall’ are now covered with panels from street artists all over the world.  This is also happening in New York.  Yet London is its center, perhaps mainly because London money was smart enough to see the value of this kind of art quickly, and also because a secretive anarchist street painter named Banksy moved there from Bristol, England.   

Street art is an extension of Mexican muralism, but more temporary.  Murals are nearly always painted with permission, while street art can be added to by other artists, covered up by landlords or commercial posters, or destroyed by angry people or by souvenir hunters – or it can be painted with permission as well, even very high up on a 4 story building. It is not commissioned by anyone. Shoreditch around Brick Lane and Hackney Wick are the centers of street art in London. 

Banksy made street art, and he made it political and anti-authoritarian, using ‘actions’ to publicize himself.  His first show was outside the back of a van full of his paintings, which he stopped in the middle of a narrow street to serve free beer, which attracted a quick crowd in crowded London.  The cops showed up because he had stopped traffic.  His stencil paintings make fun of authority, cops, war, capitalist governments, corporations, poverty and systemic ills. In New York one day while on a residency, he sold his paintings anonymously in Central Park for cheap, and few bought them.  Yet when they are labelled ‘Banksy’s” they now sell for massive amounts. This act showed that ‘art’ now is nothing but another form of commercial branding.  New York has smartly covered each Banksy work as it came up on the streets with plexiglass, to protect it from being destroyed. 

Street art is free, fluid and is getting more widespread – done by artists from all over the world.  Some is sculpture crafted to walls or poles.  Some duplicates Soviet revolutionary propaganda.  Here at Mayday, we had a stencil of a black kid with an AK-47 stenciled to our brick wall in 2 colors, saying 'Lets Riot."  It lasted for 3 years.  We think the city 'graffiti patrol' patriotically cleaned it off.  An American street artist, Shepard Fairey, did the “Hope” poster that was adopted by the Obama campaign, and whose supporters sticker his images on light poles everywhere in the world.  But like anything else, now non-political decorators are moving in (even a Hare Krishna), and the art is moving into the galleries due to the obvious talent. Fairey himself is no radical obviously, as his work about Obama shows. 

Regular art movements are dead and empty, lacking excitement and instead provoking laughter.  Nothingism is their moniker.  The only artistic life that rises above decoration now comes from what I call ‘critical art,’ which reflects the future, from the lower classes, ethnic minorities, from third-world or second-world nations.  It comes from areas outside commercialism, outside the ‘first’ world and outside the bourgeois power structure. Street art is their herald.

(Mayday Books carries Banksy's work in two picture books, Vol I & II.)

Red Frog
July 7, 2014

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Scenes From The End Of The World

"Last Train to the Zona Verde,” by Paul Theroux, 2013

Theroux confirms that Africa is the home to the most ghettoized cities in the world.  Vast conglomerations of shantytowns in each country surround the centers, with isolated pockets of wealth behind gates.  Rural areas of poverty where villagers eke out a living, as hunter-gatherer lifestyles are dead.  Theroux taught for 6 years as a teacher in Malawi, then took a famous trip from Cairo to Capetown in his book of 10 years ago – “Dark Star Safari.” He now attempts to complete the circle by going from Capetown to Timbuktu in sub-Saharan Africa, up the west coast of Africa.  At 70 years-old this lone and intrepid white traveller wants to find out what has happened in Africa since his last trip.

It’s not good.  He quits.  Travel books are supposed to be triumphant stories of new information and the overcoming of obstacles.  They are not supposed to end in frustration and misery.  Theroux travels from a luxury hotel in Capetown to the chaos and poverty of Luanda, Angola.  Three of the people he meets along the way die.  The “Bushman” of the Kalahari put on a show for him, pretending to be hunting in native regalia, then don their regular torn t-shirts afterwards.  Lying ahead of him if he leaves Angola is the Congo of no roads and warlords.  Above that is the Nigeria of Boko Harum and violence.  Above that is the Islamist rebellion in Mali.   He quits by answering the question, “Why am I here?”

Theroux is not really political but he is an honest observer.  But all ‘honest observers’ also harbour inbred thoughts.  He is dour about the Cuban intervention in Angola against South Africa and UNITA.  He somewhat resents the landless blacks of Zimbabwe.  He labels as ‘racism’ many anti-white feelings.  His view of the Chinese work in Africa is more negative than the work of the ‘good whites’ of helpful liberalism.  Yet he also pitilessly sees the crookness of so many African governments, which are mostly kleptocracies.  Angola makes millions a day on oil and diamonds, and sits in a vast fertile country – yet almost none of the money trickles down from the international firms and the permanent government bureaucrats to the people, who live in squalor.  He also is aware of the ‘hooked’ value of international capitalist aid, which is sometimes used properly, but more often than not is a neo-liberal placebo and useless, or simply stolen.  He makes fun of Western ‘conferences’ that are supposed to ‘help Africa’ or fake emissaries of hope like Bono and Angelina Jolie.  He hates seeing animals controlled or penned up in zoos, and prefers what few remain to run wild.  Almost none are left in Angola – all killed for food or in the wars.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 
Theroux is not a fan of cities and values the natural wonders of Africa, including its wildlife, vegetation and its village life.  This is the ‘old’ Africa, which is dying as the cities grow, and climate change brings drought, or capital brings large expropriating  farms and dams.  (see review of “The New Colonialism,” below.  Use search box in upper left.) In one contradictory chapter, he visits a friend who runs a safari 'elephant riding' camp for very rich Westerners.  They sit on the verandas sipping tea while watching the elephants in the bush - who are then hobbled and forced to shoulder these wealthy fleas.  Theroux admires his friend who runs the camp, yet can't accept the chaining of the elephants for the tourists.

Theroux visits the squatter townships around Capetown, and except for one township, concludes that conditions have gotten worse since the end of apartheid for the people that are flooding into the camps.  He discourses on poverty tourism, where Western tourists in South Africa are taken on bus rides to observe the misery in the townships, containing ‘museums’ of labour squalor that resemble the conditions outside.  Apartheid was a vast labour control system, after all.  He travels to Namibia and, except for the Germanic  and Dutch cleanliness of Windhoek town, above the ‘red line’ bisecting the country lies a realm of rural isolation and depression.   Everyone there is afraid of Angola, which lived through 30 years of bloody war against South Africa and then the warlord Jonas Saivimbi.  This war included one battle at Cuito Cuanavale in which 50,000 Angolans, Cubans and South Africans died – the ‘Stalingrad of Angola.’  Rusted tanks still litter the countryside and mines explode, maiming and killing hundreds a year. 

Theroux takes the broken down cars, the rickety buses, eats the fly-covered food, puts up with insults, shoving and menace, the theft of his credit card (although who uses a credit card in these conditions...) the noise, ignorance and death of this trip, and decides to quit before he too lies moribund in some shanty alley – a dystopian reality that overwhelms him.  As he alleges, he is not a chronicler of the end of time. 

Present Africa is a result of the impact of world capitalism.  It has become the ‘ghetto’ of the world. It is a bleeding ‘zona verde’ from which capital extracts oil, minerals, food and cheap labour like a syringe, while leaving the remainder – not so different for now than the colonialisms of old. 

Red Frog
July 2, 2014