Sunday, December 27, 2015

Another Take on the Sorriest Swindle of the Capitalist Century

“The Big Short,” film by Adam McKay, 2015

Finally, a film that does a book justice.  Like some weird convergence of Bertold Brecht and Michael Lewis, this film never lets you forget it’s a film by directly addressing the audience a great number of times, then actually being didactic and even polemical.  It directly explains what short selling is, what a ‘tranche’ is, what a ‘credit default swap’ is, what a mortgage bond is, an adjustable rate mortgage, the internal structure of collaterized mortgage and debt obligations (CMOs and CDOs), even those of the ‘synthetic’ variety.  If you are none too polite and like laughing at clueless authority figures – know-it-all equity bankers, SEC officials, Alan Greenspan, ratings-agency pooh-bahs, complacent billionaire investors, Wall Street Journal journalists – this film will provide the dark humor.  It is sharply funny and cannot be missed.
 
NYSE at 11 Wall Street - No longer open for public tours!
In 2010, Michael Lewis wrote the book on which this film is based. It became a story of the biggest financial fraud ever perpetuated in the U.S. – a criminal fraud involving the whole power structure of the U.S., from Wall Street outward.  This fraud has never been prosecuted because a system will not and cannot indict itself.  While the ‘heroes’ are 3 groups of contrarian investors who short the mortgage bond market and make mega-millions and billions, their profit comes at a price.  As they soon realize, millions of U.S. citizens will become unemployed, lose health insurance, go into foreclosure and become homeless – and that just in one country.  The contagion, as we know, spread to the financial systems across the world, especially to Europe, which had produced and invested in U.S. mortgage bonds too.  The effects are still with us.

For years Marxists have pointed out the fantasy role of finance capital at this stage of capital’s development and decay, and this film shows how it plays out in all its grubby, glitzy sub-reality.  The film ignores the legal preparation for the collapse in the Bush and Clinton administrations, and instead focuses on Wall Street itself, reflecting the weaknesses of Lewis’ own book.

The film only lightly touches on the misery of millions, showing one family living in their van and a 'job-fair' of the unemployed.  It acknowledges that the working people who were lured into these phony ARMs by slick real estate agents will be blamed by racists and classists, not the actual people who caused the crash.  Of interest is the very tough attitudes of the short-sellers, who had the intelligence and odd fortitude to stand up to the whole financial system.  People with a get along/go along method of life could not handle this situation.  But of even more interest are the sleazy, weak, pompous blowhards and conformist individuals making up these institutions of power.  We’ve all met them, or people like them.  Power is ultimately based on living people.  They are still with us.

Reviews of books “The Big Short” ,"Flash Boys" and "Liar's Poker,' all by Michael Lewis, below.  Review of the film, “Wolf of Wall Street,” below.  Many other books on the financial crisis have been reviewed below.  Use blog search box, upper left.

Red Frog
December 27, 2015

Friday, December 25, 2015

The “Hail Mary” Pass in Paris

Reflections on the Environment and Consumerism

I don’t know about you, but the ‘results’ of the Paris talks on global warming were upsetting, yet no one in the bourgeois press dwelled on it.  Instead the happy talk stenographers in the news prattled on about an historic agreement, echoing the government lines.  'Historic,' all right, historically bad.  The New York Times, the paper of ruling-class record, said Paris was “the last, best hope" to deter the more serious effects of global warming.  The post-mortems have now come in from the Left.

Flooding in Wales in 2015
James Hansen, no radical, called the agreement a ‘fraud.’  Hansen thinks the market will fix everything, and yet the agreement signed in Paris did not put a price on carbon.  Pricing carbon interferes with neo-liberal ideas of the market, which does not price environmental costs and never has.  Only Soviet economists back in the 1920s started to take into account environmental damage for economic plans.  They did not carry through with it, perhaps due to the rise of Stalinism. There are political economists right now who are doing so, but their influence is negligible.

The environment minister for Nicaragua said much of it.  Besides not treating or pricing carbon realistically, the agreement is A, voluntary – there is no enforcement except by Mother Nature.  We know how ‘voluntary’ efforts work among capitalist governments.  B, In the agreement there was no specific mention of oil, gas or coal as problems – the words were not even there.  Yet these carbon commodities hovered over the meeting like unnameable dark forces.  They were not named so as not to offend some of the richest corporations in the world. C, There was no bar on the building of coal plants or dirty oil.  D, Nor was there a mention of the elimination of the massive government subsidies to the oil/coal/gas industries.  Britain itself is a league leader in this respect, and the U.S. is no slouch either.  Government subsidies add up to $10M a minute worldwide, according  to the 'Guardian.E, The plan itself admits, even if carried out, it is still over the 2 degree Celsius limit that allows massive climate damage.  F, Conservation was not mentioned; reduction of production in useless items was not mentioned.  G, The plan will go into effect in 5 years, not immediately.  H, The military and aviation are exempted from doing anything about climate change.

Obama’s ‘all of the above’ strategy and the fake idea of natural gas as a ‘bridge’ fuel were implicit in the agreement.  While the U.S. signed this agreement, Obama’s mixed message outside Paris include arctic drilling and the TPP.  WTF?

Carbon emissions have been going down recently, but not enough to significantly alter the main trajectory of climate change.  This is due to recessionary economic pressures in many countries, which is the chaotic form ‘planning’ takes in capitalist economies. And what capitalist wants a ‘recession’?  He wants growth!   It is also due to the effects of real transitions to solar and wind power grids in some countries, electric & hybrid cars, conservation efforts by individuals and cities, the rise of bicycling, local food production, vegetarianism and organic agriculture, better mass transit, the growth of LEED buildings, forest preservation and other efforts.  China is actually leading the way in the world production of sustainable power generation due to their partially-planned economy.  Germany is also making massive strides, as the German state is still capable of some guidance of the market economy.

Ultimately though, the Paris ‘Hail Mary’ pass by the capitalist world governments is a failure.  This is significant.  This is the situation staring the world population in the face.  We are actually already experiencing the effects at this moment, as events in the Middle East and other failed states are not purely political or economic, but also have environmental causes – especially drought and food production in that part of the world. 

The center has not held.  

The real question is, what does this mean for the revolutionary socialist movement?  As dialectics shows, events sometimes are gradual, but build up to a qualitative change.  Climate disasters might roll along for years, but at some point, there will be a serious break – much as the inundation of New Orleans and later New York by hurricanes were ‘breaks’ in the understanding of climate change in the U.S.  It might not happen all over the world, but certainly country by country - until ‘critical mass’ is reached.  The happy talk issuing out of Paris will seem like whistling past the graveyard.  At that moment, the old ruling classes will be politically naked.  The capitalists will be shown to be buffoons and criminals.  Their governments will be ruled incompetent.  And the majority of the population will understand the time for reforms is over.

The political question will then be – a social revolution ... or a return to the world of human-eat-human barbarism, dictatorship, mass deaths, war and religious and national tribalism.  Socialism or barbarism? A cliché but one which never seems to go away - because its roots are based in reality.

The Shelves Are Full

I have had to go shopping a bit for the holidays, and something is bothering me.  In every store I go into, the shelves are groaning with massive amounts of merchandise of every variety.  Really junk mostly.  In each specific store there are hundreds of olive oils or hundreds of colors of lipstick or hundreds of cheap plastic toys or hundreds of T-shirts or hundreds of snacks or thousands of books or DVDs.  This is not just during the holidays – this is year-round.  There is every single absurd commodity that you could imagine, and every variation on it.  It seems our ‘freedom’ really is the freedom to buy almost any commodity we want - if we have the money. 

Something We Need
This is partly a product of capitalist overproduction, which is certainly evident.  It is clearly environmentally wasteful.  As George Monbiot of The Guardian humorously put it, you can…

“…buy them a solar-powered waving queen; a belly button brush; a silver-plated ice cream tub holder; a “hilarious” inflatable zimmer frame; a confection of plastic and electronics called Terry the Swearing Turtle; or – and somehow I find this significant – a Scratch Off World wall map…An electronic drum-machine t-shirt; a Darth Vader talking piggy bank; an ear-shaped i-phone case; an individual beer can chiller; an electronic wine breather; a sonic screwdriver remote control; bacon toothpaste; a dancing dog…” 

“In “The Story of Stuff,” Annie Leonard discovered that of the materials flowing through the consumer economy, only 1% remain in use six months after sale. Even the goods we might have expected to hold onto are soon condemned to destruction through either planned obsolescence (breaking quickly) or perceived obsolescence (by becoming unfashionable).”

But this is the ‘raison d’etre’ of the whole system.  This is what it does!  This is what it is good at!  This is its final wisdom.

What is unmistakable is also how cultural commodities like movies, music, books, magazines, games, TV and cable, internet U-Tube videos, software, applications, streaming videos, etc. are also a large part of the economic mix.  Entertainment and the hardware designed to view, use or produce it, is central to American capitalism.  In a way, even as the economy gets worse, these products are how the majority of the population is pacified and entertained while they are fleeced and dominated.  Sort of like the Roman Coliseum or the role of any drug like alcohol, or the prior role of the ‘boob’ tube.  Culture even beats out the diversion of professional sports.   

Is there a point where we will be over-saturated with entertainment?  I think that point is here or almost here.  The culture drunks might wake up after being over-sozzled by another yuk-yuk TV episode of “Veep.”  Then what?

Happy Holidays
Happy Solstice
Red Frog
December 25th, 2015

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Bombs or Vermont?

"Daydream Sunset – the 60s Counterculture in the 70s,” by Ron Jacobs, 2015

The 1960s – which ended around 1975 or later – exercises its influence to this day. Jacobs specializes in the history of this period, as he wrote a prior book on the Weather Underground. The book uses Jacob's own reminiscences as the basis for this short history. He was a young kid entranced by rock music bands like the Grateful Dead and also influenced by various Maoist groups. He traveled the country in the '70s as a post-hippie with friends, attending both musical and political events, working temporary shit jobs to survive. Jacobs helped organize some protest activities like rents strikes and marijuana 'smoke-outs' and seemed to be a freelance nomad. Music and politics in this book are entwined as they were at the time. A free-wheeling counter-cultural identity was formed in the 60s and 70s similar to the 'gig' economy of many of today's youth. The book describes a time that may be decidedly familiar to them.

1970s Hippie Commune
No one can encompass a decade, so Jacobs does his bit to fill in some blanks. He covers the collision of the counter-culture and history, paying attention to the groups that attempted to combine them, not ignore them. Familiar cliches about Altamont are supplemented with information on the activities of the White Panther Party, the Diggers, the Yippies and Zippies, the Mayday Tribe, High Times magazine, the German Autonomists and the Italian Autominia.

 Jacobs highlights the more radical nature of the counter-cultural / political movements in Europe, as the proletarian-oriented groups there did not shy away from self-defense against the police. He contrasts it with the 'non-violence' of the U.S. anti-nuclear movement, which was dominated by middle-class pacifists. Jacobs illustrates the role class plays in the attraction of pacifism.  

Jacob's first concert was a performance by the Who that he and his young friends came upon accidentally in New Jersey in the '70s. It was downhill from then on! Jacobs went to a lot of concerts and festivals, including what he considers to be the last real hippie concert in 1977, in which the Dead headlined. His love of music leads him to note that Patti Smith, a working-class girl from New Jersey, was a key link between the beats, the hippies and the punks - a remarkable feat. He reminds us of the 'culture-wars' between sub-cultures that defined themselves by their choice in music - in disco, punk, rock and country.  Jacobs was an enthusiastic user of various 'hippie' drugs like LSD, psilocybin, weed and hashish and doesn't shy away from saying he inhaled.  He describes the history of the Vermont co-op movement which started around the “Free Vermont” slogan. This ultimately moved the whole state to the Left, including the formation of the Vermont Progressive Party and the various candidacies of Bernie Sanders.

The extreme poles of counter-cultural politics became, according to Jacobs, either moving to Vermont and forming communes to grow food, or becoming a Weatherman and planting bombs in government buildings. These poles reflected the fault lines among hippies between the more political and the more cultural revolutionaries.  

The book suffers from being breezy and familiar (at least to me). His description of 10 years of history sometimes just ends up being a list. His capsule of the Progressive Labor, for instance, describes it as a 'culturally conservative' group wearing ties, suits and crew-cuts. No one in 1970 in PL looked like this, so I suspect some other points might be a bit thin. Yet the book is a nice intro to this lost decade for those unfamiliar with rebel youth culture during that period.  And it also might help those who lived through it remember that decade in all its shabby glory.

Also reviewed below: “The Way the Wind Blew,” (Jacob's book about the Weather Underground); “Hippie Modernism,” an art show review; commentary on the Grateful Dead, “Let us now Praise the Dead,” and “Laurel Canyon,” about the LA rock music scene in the 1960s-1970s.

And I bought it at Mayday Books!
Red Frog
December 17, 2016




Sunday, December 6, 2015

The Anarchist Moon

"The Dispossessed,” by Ursula Le Guin, 1974

Progressive science fiction is rare in the U.S.  Most science fiction concerns dystopias, machines gone mad, invasions by aliens or socially medieval societies set in modernistic technical worlds.  Optimism about social progress is almost nil – unless you read late Soviet science fiction.  Le Guin is an exception.

Annares, as viewed from Urras

Le Guin’s hero is an anarchist scientist Shevek, patterned after Einstein, living on Anarres, a somewhat barren planet on which exists an anarchist society.  The book is based on Sheveks’ visit to the ‘propertarian’ society that exiled the anarchists 177 years earlier.  The society is on Urras – a place recognizably like the capitalist earth - full of war, poverty, wage slavery, extreme class differences, female oppression, proletarian rebellions and repressive governments.  As if an advanced alien landed on our planet and was ultimately repulsed by what he saw.  

There are many obvious parallels in the book to institutions and ideas existing in 1974.  The USSR is here called Thu.  The attempt to unite quantum mechanics and relativity has an unconvincing parallel here.  The founders of anarchism - like Kropotkin, Godwin and Proudon – is here named Laia Odo and the philosophy, Odonism.  Odo even writes something called the “Prison Letters’ which will remind anyone of Gramsci.  The central city of A’Lo has many sky-scrapers and is reminiscent of New York; the U.N. is called the “Council of World Governments.” And so on.

The book is organized in a non-sequential way, with events in the future and past mixed.  This is a somewhat lame attempt to translate Shevek’s theory of ‘Simultaneity’ – where past, present and future all literally exist at the same time – to the book’s structure.  This theory results in Shevek providing the secret to a hyper-drive that could benefit everyone to more easily travel through space & time.  It is ultimately broadcast to the various worlds to avoid it being owned by the government on Urras, which has been trying to steal it from him.  Shevek has been attempting to create a version of the ‘unified field theory,’ here called ‘general temporal theory.’  This scientific hokum is actually one of the most unconvincing things about the book. 

Of most interest is Le Quin’s attempt to describe life on Anarres – a society without a government or capitalist firms that cooperates among its members to survive.  Anarres is a place where food is difficult to grow, so is subject to periodic famines.  The society somewhat resembles Maoist China without Mao or the CP.  Le Guin calls it ‘an administration of things.’  Physical labor is required of all citizens.  Criticism/self-criticism sessions are sometimes held.  People own few personal items and eat cooperatively in dining halls.  Children live in dormitories, not with their parents and are brought up by society at large.   There are no wages and no profits, so work is allocated by a computer in the largest city based on the needs of the society.  Education is valued, privacy is difficult to find and sexuality is free.  Individualism is frowned upon and is called ‘egoizing.’  Le Guin even mentions their use of solar, geo-thermal and wind power – this in 1974. Life on ‘the moon’ Anarres is simple and practical, and based on the cooperation of nearly everyone.

Yet even on Anarres, the dialectic operates.  As Shevek and a group of co-thinkers figure out, petty bureaucrats develop who control scientific issues, use group pressure to quash any individual ideas and limit the spread of practices they consider objectionable.  The society itself is closed off from contact with any of the other worlds in the universe – not just Urras but several others.  They won’t even let Odonian rebels from Urras join them, as they suspect they will be ‘spies.’  However at the same time they deliver raw metals to Urras, so they are not completely autarkic.

Why social criticism has to be set up as ‘science fiction’ has always bothered me.  It is as if a certain ‘cover’ must be thrown over a work in order for it to slip by internal censors among readers or the U.S. culture controllers.  This is the same method that is followed in any repressive society, where an opposing point of view must be hidden through analogy or surreptitious comparisons in order to soften the blow.   Nevertheless, Le Guin and people like Terry Bisson stand out for not letting the propertarian geeks control the genre.

Several science fiction books are reviewed below – Bisson’s “Fire on the Mountain,” Phil Dicks’ “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” as well as various dystopian books/films like “The Road” “Cloud Atlas,” “Divergent,” “Planet of the Apes” and the Hunger Games series. 



And I bought it at May Day Books!
Red Frog
December 6, 2015

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Children of the Future Past

"Hippie Modernism – The Struggle for Utopia,” Walker Art Center, Minneapolis Through February 28, 2016.

Every 5 years or so, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis has a break-through show, similar to the ones they did on Frida Kahlo and on Picasso’s influence.  This is one.  It is organized by the theme “Tune in, Turn on, Drop Out,” which seems a cheesy, clichéd way to approach the issue, but there it is.

Organized mostly by architects, it highlights the technological developments brought about by the hippie movement in the 1960s-1970s like the use of geodesic domes, inflatables, early ‘Google glass’ headsets, light shows, the Whole Earth catalog of tools, DIY mass production of art and publications, tiny houses and modular living structures and, lastly, early computer graphics.  It doesn’t talk about the role of hippies like Steve Jobs, who, along with many others, was a member of the Homebrew Computer Club in 1975. These are the people who invented the personal computer.  1975 is the end of the hippie era for this show and the end of the Vietnam war, too.  

President Ford - Puppet of Corporations.  BPP/Douglas
Other aspects of the hippie cultural movement are also represented, a movement that was world-wide - though this sample is not so clear on that.  The use of LSD (marijuana is strangely absent) by Timothy Leary, the Merry Pranksters and the Grateful Dead and during the Acid Tests is mentioned, though its uses to help PTSD, depression and alcoholism are not followed up on.  There are great San Francisco rock posters from Mouse, Moscoso and other famous artists.  Mention is made of the free ‘white bikes’ of Copenhagen; recycled fabric threads using in clothing; a light show done with overhead projectors and colored oil in water.  There are many different types of art projects, some of which were political; and oddly enough a real eco-greenhouse of fruit trees.

Groups like the Cockettes, an early out-front gay rights movement, who grew out of the San Francisco Mime Troop have a section, along with the “Ant Farm,’ which set up free rest stops for hippies and nomads traveling or hitch-hiking around the U.S.  The Drop City art colony living in geodesic domes in Colorado - the first commune ostensibly - is also represented in a section.  There is even complex art describing the democratization of education in Free Universities at that time, and the concurrent growth of auto-didacticism. 

The direct political content of the show is very thin, as would be expected from a show set up by architects and engineers. It consists of posters by the Black Panther Party’s Minister of Culture, Emory Douglas**; anti-war posters produced by members of Berkeley’s art department; social-justice posters done by a radical Catholic nun.  There is one large picture from a march on the Pentagon, where activists carried Viet Cong flags and got into the Pentagon.  There are also panels on the Diggers, an anarchist collective in San Francisco named after the original ‘leveler’ Diggers of the U.K.  There is little about the feminist movement; nothing about cultural festivals like Woodstock; the cooperative movement in the cities; vegetarianism; jeans; hippie writers, but then this cultural movement was so broad one show cannot contain it.

20-30 Million Strong - We are not afraid. BPP/Douglas
What is significant here is that the cultural ferment of the hippie movement would not have been possible without the political ferment in the U.S. over Jim Crow and Vietnam.  It basically loosened the control of the dominant culture.  Every society in the world had their issues during that time too, as the explosions in France, Mexico, Czechoslovakia, Japan, Italy and other countries proved, giving birth to hippie movements there.  The hippie movement itself was forward-thinking to such an extent that now many ‘way out ideas’ of that time are givens.  Concern for the planet, organic food, rock music, festivals, weed, a peace movement, a black-rights movement, environmentalism, recycling, etc. – all are continuing mass concerns, though still denounced by the troglodyte right as ‘hippie’ craziness. 

But ultimately this search for ‘utopia’ had conflicting byproducts.  It produced more democratic cultural forms, but also a new boost to capitalist productivity in the form of the personal computer technological revolution and new ideas for capitalist expansion that fit reality better.  For instance, North Face was at one time a tiny hippie outdoors store in North Beach, and is now a world-wide winter clothing behemoth.  Vancouver shoe outfits like John Fluevog were inspired by hippie naturalism.  Large capitalist chains are adopting organic standards.  Solar and wind businesses are becoming dominant over carbon-producing technologies like coal.  Recycling is a normal part of the production cycle.  Bicycling is growing and actually providing more tourist income in some states than tourists in cars.  Local food and farmers markets are returning.  In this case the past IS prologue to the present and the future.

There was a local panel hosted by the Walker of people discussing hippie developments in Minneapolis during this period, but I have no information on how that went.  Mayday Books itself in 1975 grew out of the political/cultural ferment of that time as part of the co-operative movement.  Some people call us 'throwbacks.'  We prefer to think that we are still ahead of our time. 

**Emory Douglas will be talking at Penumbra Theater on December 14th at 5:30 PM about his cultural work for the Black Panther Party.  

A prior review on the Walker's Frida Kahlo show is below. Reviews on other art issues like the Tate Modern and art in London, Banksy and "9.5 Thesis on Art & Class" are also below.  Use blog search box, upper left.

Red Frog
November 29, 2015

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Blacksgiving and Women in Film

It Was Only a Matter of Time

The execution of an unarmed and possibly handcuffed young black man, Jamar Clark, by Minneapolis police was only a matter of time.  The video on UTube is out there blurrily showing Clark to be handcuffed and the testimony of many eye-witnesses.  The Guardian count for civilians killed by police in the U.S. is over 3 a day.  The protest against the 4th Precinct in Minneapolis was later visited repeatedly by white racists, who confronted protesters again, then pulled out guns and shot 5 young black men from Black Lives Matter.  The cops told BLM that ‘that is what they wanted, wasn’t it?”

One of the fascists who shot BLM protesters
The 4th Precinct Police station is still under siege.  It is an “Occupy” scene.  Tents, fires, gas heaters, barricades and food lines full of protesters and neighborhood people limit or stop cop movement out of the front of the police station.  The street is closed.  How long will the cop’s ‘patience’ last?  They chafe at the orders of the lesbian Chief and the female mayor.  How long will BLM’s patience last?  After all, an Injustice Department examination of this issue could take months. 

The black proletariat, when roused, is a revolutionary force.  This is what the election of Obama was meant to corral, through symbolism and quarter-measures.  It is also the role of the police departments across the U.S. – to intimidate and kill black people so that no one gets out of line.  Calling the police ‘slave patrols’ and these ‘legal lynching’s’ is not far wrong.  Now both have been institutionalized by the whole capitalist state and are not just concentrated in the South. 

The third force trying to stop the development of a revolutionary black and Latino movement are the white fascists and right-populist demagogues like Donald “El Duce” Trump.  The fact that they have taken their bravado to a new level – not just beating a BLM member in Alabama during a Trump Rally, or arriving at protests with ‘open-carry’ firearms, but shooting 5 BLM folks - means that the things are reaching a new level.

Noticeable at the camp in front of the 4th Precinct is the absence of any visible military organization, though BLM does have marshals that protect rallies and marches.  No sentinels at the corners of the camp, no armbands, no communications in evidence.  The Black Panther party started as a force monitoring police violence against the Black community and developed a form of home-grown black socialism.  BLM has the potential to go that route, though it is influenced by members of the black middle class and also by some reports, money from George Soros.  All of these still have illusions as to the reformability of the police.  Remember, the BPP was upset about the same issues nearly 50 years ago.  Nothing has changed. 

Which is why police reformism is dead.  No amount of civilian review committees, body-cams, black cops, enlightened chiefs of police or better training changes this situation.  After all, it is Grand Juries and police unions with control over politicians that rule immediately.  The BPP advocated 'community-controlled policing' which would essentially end the present form of police.  This is similar to the Cuban block committees, which monitored crime.  This demands a very high level of organization in a neighborhood but also a change in the class structure of society. Both things BLM is not yet advocating.

Mayday Books pledges any support needed.

Note:  On November 30, the Democratic Party elite and their middle-class black hangers-on (what Black Agenda Report calls, "the black mis-leadership class") told the protesters to shut down the encampment in front of the police station, portraying it as a massive problem on the north side.  The liberal mayor Betsy Hodges, the slippery 'lefty' Keith Ellison, the corporate Start Tribune, millionaire governor Dayton and various preachers inveighed against the encampment.   The protesters held solid.  A few days later the cops cleared the camp.

Four Somewhat Political Films that Center on Women’s Issues 'Grandma,' ‘Sicario,’ ‘Suffragette’ and ‘MockingJay, Part II.’  (Warning, Spoilers Ahead…)

'Tis the season for political films.  ‘Trumbo’ and ‘Spotlight’ are also playing in theaters. 

"Grandma"

This is one of the first Hollywood films to give an unapologetic and rousing defense of the right to abortion.  Lilly Tomlin plays a tough and out-front lesbian feminist. Elle Reid, who helps her too-young niece get an abortion.  Reid would probably be a hard person to live with, but if you need someone in a fight, she's it.  Hilarious, pointed and angry, Tomlin's character should wake up some of the young women who think that 'women have won' and can consequently sit back, knowing little and doing nothing.  Reid knows otherwise.

“Sicario

Sicario is a film about the drug war in Mexico, in which a young female FBI agent is drawn into the ‘heart of darkness’ that is U.S. anti-drug methods.  She is tricked by the CIA and perhaps DEA into participating in their efforts – to give them cover while they carry out illegal acts.  The essence is that the agents are actually working for one of the drug cartels in Columbia and revenge-killing their competition.  The ‘logic’ is to make the fight against drugs simpler, instead of a fractionated drug-delivery system. (which is what happens when you kill ‘king pins.’) This reminds one of “Operation Fast & Furious,” in which the BATF sold weapons in 2009 to the cartels in order to ‘track them.’  The most dramatic scenes are shot in Juarez, Mexico, the murder capital of Mexico – a place where not just gang members end up dead, but plenty of innocent people. 

The agent, played by Emily Blunt, eventually rebels, but signs off on their methods at the point of a gun.  Ah, naiveté.  The film asks if women are the Achilles’ heel of capitalist or government corruption.  A black FBI agent also accompanies her – another Achilles’ heel, but neither sufficient to stop the investment of the U.S. government in the failed drug war.

“Suffragette”

Notice the singular nature of the title.  This is the story of a young woman working in a laundry who becomes radicalized by her experiences and through contact with the British feminist movement of the 1900s, fighting for the right for women to vote.  She is dumped by her weak husband, loses custody of her child, is fired from her job, is made homeless, jailed several times, yet comes through to become an activist for the Women’s Social & Political Union (WSPU).  She participates in demonstrations, testifies before Parliament, bomb’s Lloyd George’s new house and some post-boxes and goes to Epsom Derby to protest, only to see a comrade die under the horses.  She protects a young woman in the laundry from sexual abuse by the owner – the same abuse she suffered. 

The problem in the film is that it is somewhat claustrophobic and its notion of a ‘movement’ is very tiny.  There is little understanding of broader events in society or even the time period.  The socialist movement was a big supporter of the right to vote, for instance.  The labor movement was beginning to flex its political and economic muscle. There was a left in the feminist movement that opposed WWI, represented by Sylvia Pankhurst; and a right represented by Emmeline Pankhurst that supported the war and stopped feminist activities during it.  All this was happening at the time of the film.  As is standard in films for U.S. audiences, it focuses on one isolated woman’s struggles.  The part is played by Carey Mulligan, who seems too middle-class to be a laundry-woman.  Then it moves to a very small group of activists who carry out direct action of various types, like bombings and window-breaking.  Emmeline Pankhurst, the leading middle-class Suffragette, is played by Meryl Streep for 3 minutes - an unfortunate and humorous choice. 

All women over 21 gained the right to vote in England in 1928. 

“Mocking Jay II,” (The last of the Hunger Games)

The ‘democratic’ revolution finally arrives.  All the districts are now united and Alma Coin, the head of the rebellion in District 13, orders a general attack.  Katniss Everdeen, played by Jennifer Lawrence, leads a combat group underground through Panem to assassinate the dictatorial President Snow.  (Everdeen, by the way, is the last name of the heroine of Thomas Hardy’s “Far From the Madding Crowd,” so the name is no accident.)

Fancy Panem is now a wasteland, as the whole city has been booby-trapped by Snow.  Snow ultimately orders his well-dressed subjects to come to his palace for protection.  At the gates of the palace, what 'looks' like an imperial plane drops floating bombs, killing many children (including Katniss’ sister Prim, who is now a rebel nurse) and the resistance collapses after this war crime.  Coin subsequently postpones any election and Katniss is chosen to kill Snow with an arrow to the heart. 

Katniss figures out that the plane was actually a rebel plane, and that Coin committed an atrocity before she cancelled elections.  Bombing people who rush to aid wounded people is actually something American drone operators do.  Katniss instead shoots Coin with her arrow and the crowd kills Snow.  The 13 districts decide to have a vote right away, and the black female leader of District 2 is chosen president.

So the revolution is not in vain, as some middle class critics were trying to say, chief among them Andrew O’Hehir of Salon.com.  Nor is the old refrain by the Tory band, the Who, ‘Won’t get fooled again’ played out.  What is significant here is that it is now part of the popular understanding that any revolution has to be aware of the possibilities of a new bureaucracy rising, and to deal with it quickly.  Here that is done with one arrow, given this is a ‘political revolution’ in a movie that does not change the class system.

The most disturbing part of the film is what happens to Katniss after the revolution.  Her relationship with Peeta was always unconvincing, idiotic and juvenile, but then this was a YA book.  She returns to live in the empty District 12 shooting pheasants, living with Peeta and has two children, ending up dressed in a calico dress with her baby.  So a woman who has basically became the face and a fighter of a national revolution, who was chosen to execute the dictator, is now having babies and living a rural life.  Almost like the author wanted this woman to stay non-political, barefoot and pregnant. 

Reviews of books on the police – “The New Jim Crow,” and “Rise of the Warrior Cop,” an examination of the drug war, “Drug War Capitalism,” proletarian analyses of the women’s movement, “Marxism and the Oppression of Women,” and “Fortunes of Feminism,” and reviews of prior films in the Hunger Games series, below.  Use blog search box, upper left. 

Red Frog
November 26, 2015
Blacksgiving / Civil War Thanksgiving / Native American Mourning Day

Sunday, November 22, 2015

All Power to the Imagination

"The Utopia of Rules – On Technology, Stupidity and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy,” by David Graeber, 2015

Graeber is the author of “Debt,” the blockbuster analyzing financial debt from the beginnings of human civilization.  Yet Graeber is really an anthropologist, not a political economist or a political ‘scientist’ and it shows in this book.  Written as a somewhat gentle description of ‘bureaucracy,’ it might convince you that not all bureaucracy is really so bad.  After all, he calls everything bureaucracy – filling out forms, getting a POA for his dying mother, any paperwork, the military, building codes, government regulations in general, the Post Office, government transparency – everything it seems but the call and response meetings of Occupy.  In this, he seems a bit like a child.

Fill Out the Form, please.
Graeber sums it up in the phrase ‘all power to the imagination’ – a phrase made popular during the 1968 uprising in France.  Those who can ‘imagine’ another way of being can usher in a new reality – not just escape from this one.  While he is an anarchist, he admits in this book that bureaucracy - the real, hard state bureaucracy of the U.S. government or of international capitalist institutions like the World Bank and IMF – are merely aids to capital. This puts him in the same position as Marxists and Marx, whom he quotes frequently.  Unlike many Libertarians and some anarchists, he does not see the government as separate from the economic system, but an essential part of it.  In addition, he repeatedly describes the inherent violence residing behind even the most innocuous ‘rules’ in a capitalist society – private guard intervention, police action, FBI arrests, NSA surveillance, military occupation. As he figures, rules are only the advance guard of guns.  As Engels wrote about long ago, ‘force’ lies at the bottom of all states, legal systems and property rights.  Mao said the same thing somewhat more crudely - ‘all power grows out of the barrel of a gun.’

Graeber goes on in this book somewhat like Zizek, analyzing bits of culture and bringing out what is underneath. He complains that all the techno-futurism of ‘flying cars’ promised by bourgeois optimists like Alvin Toffler in “Future Shock” has not come to pass – something he as a child actually believed.(!)  He explains, using Marx’s ‘falling rate of profit’ theory, why U.S. technological development is actually stagnant and becoming more so. He praises “Star Trek” as a film showing a regime of communism and also praises the bureaucrats of the Soviet Union for being the last people to ‘dream big’ through their gargantuan projects, something he refers to as ‘poetic technologies.’ (His estimate of Indian or Chinese dam building or American proposals for weather geo-engineering to fight global warming might be interesting to hear.)  He opposes ‘deep ecologists’ who reject nearly all technology and long for a return to the Stone Age.  In that vein he considers the iPhone and the internet to be modest fetishes at best.   

Graeber uses his own experience in the university to decry the time administrative work takes from professors.  He sees this as one of the reasons why, in his area, there has been a stagnation of social theory in the U.S., which instead recycles 1970s French post-modernists like Deleuze, Foucault or Bourdieu.  Graeber even refers to the ‘global class war’ in relation to the competition with the Soviets, a phrase not often heard on the lips of an anarchist.

The discussion of the origins of the excellent Post Office in Prussian Germany, an organization praised by Lenin, is one of the first examples of a possibly ‘good bureaucracy,’ according to Graeber. The post office may lure people into thinking that bureaucracy can be ‘neutral.’  The German post office had many deliveries per day and reached all over Germany.  Berlin had its own series of pneumatic air tubes shooting mail around town.  The German post office was run from the top-down, and also developed as a way to forestall actual Bolshevism.  That must be his point, though you might miss it.  Postal workers will find his description of the post office somewhat odd.  They might work for bureaucrats, but they perform a useful service in spite of that.  Graeber however now thinks his mail is all junk.  Perhaps he relies too much on the internet, something he has mixed feelings about. As the infamous PeeWee Herman once said, ‘you have to send a letter to get a letter.’

Graeber has a section on 20th century science fiction and fantasy, which he understands as a return to the middle ages,  He references Tolkien, C.S. Lewis and assumably JRR Martin as writers that harken back to a time before ‘logic’ and bureaucracy.  A time of desirable and dangerous personalist leadership and unruly, violent behavior.  He seems oblivious of their modern parallels - for Tolkien, a reverberation of World War I; and for Martin, a recreation of the bloodthirsty pursuit of power in our own time inspired by the Vietnam war.  C.S. Lewis was an attempt to bring Christian ‘magic’ back into the world, but ended up being mostly for children.  In other words, he misunderstands the masters.  Harry Potter is in this latter vein as well, which does suggest that one wing of fantasy is concerned with pre-industrial life and rejects modernism.  He intimates that events like the Renaissance Festival harken back to a time of revolt, peasant gluttony and sexual debauchery – yet ignores that all this happens in the shadow of kingly rule.  In one section, he hints that anti-racism and demands for capitalist transparency are both ‘bureaucratic’ thinking – another oddity of his worship of spontaneity and ‘play.’   

Lastly is a chapter on comics and film super-heroes – the conservative ‘superegos’ that all ultimately back up conventional power and law.  Graeber targets the worst example in this avalanche of super-heroes, the blatantly anti-Occupy “Dark Knight Rises.” (reviewed below.)

What are we to make of this grab-bag?  Many interesting ideas here, but ultimately weak execution and questionable logic, or ‘anti-logic.’ 

Graeber’s “Debt;” a review of Situationist books, “The Beach Beneath the Street” and “Society of the Spectacle;” a review of post-modernism, “Fashionable Nonsense,” and reviews of cultural works "The Dark Knight Rises, Game of Thrones and Lord of the Rings, all reviewed below.  Use blog search box, upper left.

And I bought it at Mayday Books!
Red Frog
November 22, 2015

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Paradise Confused

“American Pastoral,” by Phillip Roth, 1997

Phillip Roth is one of the ‘great white male middle-class’ writers of the last decades in the U.S.  In this book he attempts to portray the wider 1960s and early 1970s and fails.  At bottom, this is a claustrophobic novel.  It is like being locked in the obsessive mind of, first, the ‘writer’ of the Newark High class of 1950, Skip Zuckerman (a thinly disguised Roth?), and then his hero, the uber-jock, conformist and kind man, Seymour “Swede” Levov.  In the process, it is hard to understand why either is worth our attention.  In the course of the novel, the writer disappears and instead his idol becomes the narrator.

Swede is an assimilating Jew who drops the possibility of an incredible sports career and marries a shiksa Ms. New Jersey.  He takes over the family business making gloves in Newark, then moves to a giant house in Old Rimrock, a fake rich suburb somewhere in New Jersey. The "Swede" is a large and gifted athlete - and Roth goes into ecstasies about the athletic and cultural skills of this 'body.'  The social subtext is the existences and maintenance of a ‘Jewish’ identity in patrician, goy New Jersey.  This might be the point for some readers, but the book attempts to carry much more historical weight than that.

1972 Bombing of North Vietnam
The book is a not so subtle parallel to Milton’s “Paradise Lost,” as the sections are called “Paradise Remembered,” then “The Fall,” then “Paradise Lost.”  The ‘paradise’ is the complacent world of 1950s high school sports, adolescent awkwardness, puppy love and innocence, a period that nearly everyone goes through. For Jewish youth of the second or third generation, it was their chance to become somewhat like the Christian ‘goys.’   Here it is reflected in a long description of a high school reunion 45 years later.  The ‘fall’ in this idyllic life is Swede’s child Merry.  She is a stutterer that grows up to be a Vietnam antiwar activist, who at the age of 16 decides to put a bomb in the neighborhood post office and kills an innocent doctor.  She goes on to kill 3 other people with bombs.  Oddly, the police don’t track her; nor is her admission to her father that she did it even credible.  Yet this is the central event in the book.

The problem is nothing like this happened during the Vietnam war era.  It’s like the myth of ‘spitting’ on troops by anti-war activists.  There were plenty of bombings, yes, all over the country, but almost no one was killed in those bombings.  Roth attempts to link Merry to the “Weatherman,” an ultra-left split from SDS.  Yet the Weatherman didn’t kill any innocent civilians.  Their only victims were themselves – 3 dying in a townhouse in New York when one of their bombs exploded accidentally.  The one innocent victim of an anti-war bombing that I know of was in Madison, Wisconsin, at the Army Mathematics Research Center in 1970.  That is it.  One.   

The book’s characters associate Marx, Che, the Black Panthers and the Vietnamese with ‘crazy.’   Working-class labor exploitation is only referred to sarcastically.  Swede at one point oddly hopes that Angela Davis, a member of the Communist Party, will help him find Merry, who has gone underground.  Merry eventually leaves the anti-war movement and becomes a religious ‘Jain’ that her father later locates in a stinking tenement room in Newark.

The consuming focus on this ‘insane’ young woman who passionately hated the war says more about Roth than the 1960s or 1970s.  There is no mention of the actual incineration of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos by the real bombers – Johnson, Nixon, LeMay, McNamara, Kissinger.  Not one mention of the 1968 assassination of MLK and the oppression of black people in the city – which led to the rebellion/riots in Newark.  This book focuses so much on psychological and individual issues that the real world outside the cramped heads of the characters disappears.  It is typical middle-class fiction.  And yet this book got kudos from the San Francisco Chronicle, Time, LA Times, Playboy, People, the St. Louis Dispatch and the NY Observer.  Most importantly, this book won the Pulitzer Prize!  Really.

More pointedly, 4 women are the ‘bad people’ in this book.  All are too left-wing.  Merry the murderer; some sexually crazy anti-war blackmailer named Linda Cohen; a left-wing neighbor who dresses in caftans, Marcia; and Sheila, another neighbor who hid Merry from the police and her family right after the bombing.  It is almost as if femininity is politically deviant too.  Roth has a long history of being criticized by the feminist movement and this book would seem to offer no exception.  At the end of the book, Swede ultimately suspects his own wife Dawn of an affair with a rich gentile architect, so no woman goes unscathed.  

The 1968 riots tear Newark apart, but we don’t know why from this book.  Only a few gunshots from racist police break the windows of the glove factory, as it has a sign on the window that says it employs black people, written to protect it from rioters.  Swede’s father Lou is the family patriarch, decrying the death of Newark, explaining how to make gloves and being angry about what is wrong with the film “Deep Throat” and Linda Lovelace.   It seems the 1960s destroyed the upper middle-class dreams of reasonable, hard-working, considerate Jewish businessmen and dropped them into an ocean of violence, infidelity, sex, conformism and disappearing Jewishness.  

The best part of the book is actually the tours inside the Newark glove factory and the information on the dirty and difficult business of making fine leather gloves, which as a piece of clothing is one of the hardest to make well.  Roth’s detailed descriptions of the cutters dressed in suits and ties link the fine hand work to a different era.  Yet that is small compensation for a novel that offers a dishonest window into its time.

(see reviews of “The Way the Wind Blew,” about the Weather Underground; “The Bomb,” about the Haymarket events; “Kill Anything That Moves,” about the attempted destruction of Vietnam; “People’s History of the Vietnam War” and other books on Vietnam, all below.  Use blog search box, upper left.)

(Sorry John!)
Red Frog
November 8, 2015

Saturday, October 31, 2015

The First Red Scare

“Struggle & Progress – Celebrating the 150th Anniversary of Union Victory and Emancipation,” Jacobin, Issue 18, Summer 2015. 

The Civil War is still going on, in both an ethnic and a class sense.  That is why the anniversary of the bloodiest conflict in U.S. history is worth understanding and not forgetting.  It is still going on in the sense that the South still acts as a reactionary political drag on the rest of the country.  It is the homeland of some of the most reactionary sections of the capitalist class – in defense; in oil; in coal; in retail; in construction.  These people are the spawn of the landed planter aristocracy that was expropriated at the end of the Civil War.  It is still going on in the sense that minorities and immigrants are still persona non grata in that region in a more intense way than elsewhere - though institutional racism elsewhere is no slouch.  

Black soldiers in the Civil War
Conditions in the South for black and Latino peoples are below most other parts of the country – in healthcare, education, wages and working conditions, government services, policing and ‘justice’ issues.’  It is still going on in the sense that even white workers in the South are also spat upon – suffering in less degree the same conditions as black and immigrant workers.  They take on a servility to the new southern capitalist aristocracy in exchange for their ‘higher’ standing vis a vis minorities, but this only prolongs their own oppression.  The official southern State antagonism to unionism is just one example. It is still going on in the sense that the same Southern bible-thumpers that justified chattel slavery now justify wage slavery and adoration of the market.

What is clear is that constant talk that ignores class in favor of only ‘race’ discussions avoids the centrality of economic roles in the nation and especially in the South.  Ethnicity is many times a dimension of class; it stamps those with different skin colors or languages as fit for certain jobs, certain wages and certain treatment, in spite of the ‘talented tenth.’  The constant liberal prattling about ‘diversity’ alone hides the economic component and imperative of profiteering  that underlies racism.   If ‘race’ is merely a political category, then why does it endure?  Just that people are ‘stupid’ or ‘mean?’  After all, the much heralded ‘Second Reconstruction’ during the 1960s has also failed to bring equality to the black strata of the working class even now.  

Anarchists and other ultra-leftists believe that the Civil War changed nothing.  Jacobin begs to differ. They, like many Marxists before them, consider it to be a ‘2nd American Revolution’ which destroyed chattel slavery uncompensated.  Jacobin interviews Eric Foner, son of the famous left historian Phil Foner, who first gave this real understanding to Reconstruction.  Here Eric Foner carefully shows how the northern Republican capitalists under Johnson refused to alleviate the debts of southern small farmers and working men, which helped turn them away from Reconstruction.  The northern Republicans also instituted land taxes on small holdings for the first time, which increased the financial burden on poorer whites.  Foner says that the Abolitionist movement was small, and only increased in power as its views became confirmed by events.  Yet it ignored the plight of working men in the North, such as Irish textile workers, so he considers its leaders to be mainly moralists. 

Foner points out that ‘love’ is not the basis for a real politics, as you do not need to love people to work with them, you only need to have similar goals.  Foner has a ‘Let a 100 Flowers Bloom” approach to class struggle, but then points out that the myriad political groups and causes fractionate the left in the U.S.  He points to the role of the Socialist Party in the early part of the 20th century that acted as a ‘big tent’ for every force – suffragettes, labor agitators, anti-war activists, anti-lynching partisans and socialists of every stripe.  Nothing like it exists today, and in my opinion, that is the reason the left is so weak. 

This discussion leads into Jacobin’s main point about the war, expanded on in several articles – that the Southern planter elite saw the anti-slavery movement as part of wedge to bring broader progressive changes that they understood as a ‘socialism’ of some type.  Jacobin calls it “America’s First Red Scare.”  Abolitionists or Republicans or free blacks were called ‘red Republicans,’ labor anarchists, Communards, even ‘communists’ by more astute Confederate polemicists.  Their point was that first you get rid of slavery – pretty soon you are going to have unions and labor strife!  They thought that slavery would keep blacks and whites separate – and hence easier to rule.  The anti-slavery role of socialist and labor radicals who had emigrated after the failed 1848 revolutions in Europe confirmed this.  German socialists chased pro-slavers out of St. Louis.  German socialists in east Texas kept that area loyal to the North.  Marx himself supported the Northern side in the war.  Later the black vote in the South allowed the Populist movement to challenge southern businessmen and landed gentry.  This was intolterable to the KKK and the White Leagues.

Two articles talk about the agency of black slaves in the struggle for their own freedom – 200,000 black soldiers who joined the Union army, participating in 450 military engagements, providing 120 infantry regiments, 22 light and heavy artillery regiments and 7 cavalry regiments.   At Petersburg, 1 in every 8 soldiers besieging Richmond was black.  Or black women who organized for the right to marry their husbands in the army, which sounds trivial until you understand that slaves were forbidden to be married.  Jacobin also has articles in this issue on why there are so many pro-Confederate films about the Civil war and also one about Populist labor struggles in the South after the civil war that united blacks and whites. 

Adolph Reed corrects the black-nationalist myth that slavery was solely destroyed by black people themselves through a look at film.  This argument seems false on the face of it based on the numerous facts of the Civil war and Reed calls it the ‘James Brown’ theory of black liberation.  I.E. it is just up to individual black action, as expressed in fantasies like “Django Unchained.”  In the process Reed deconstructs various films that deal with the Civil War, like ‘Glory,’ ‘Lincoln,’ ‘Cry Freedom,’  ‘Mississippi Burning,’ ‘Driving Ms. Daisy’ and ‘The Help.’  Reed is tough on ‘psychobabble’ and multiculturalism.  Ultimately the Civil War was a joint white and black military project to end slavery and that cannot be ignored.  Reed was a supporter of the Labor Party in the 1990s.  

Another author, Kenneth Warren, takes black elites to task for only focusing on ‘race relations’ rather than inter-ethnic worker alliances as the best way to overcome institutional racism.  Ultimately at the time Booker T Washington became the standard bearer of integrating black labor into capital.  He also criticizes Michelle Alexander, writer of “The New Jim Crow,” for partially following a goal of ‘improving race relations’ instead of a broader social justice approach.  Warren makes the point that it was only after Populism was defeated that Jim Crow could rule unhindered in the South, as Populism motivated both black and white workers and sharecroppers in the South to oppose the southern oligarchy.  

The only real missing piece of information in this issue of Jacobin is how many white southerners actually opposed the war or supported the union.  This alone was a significant political fact which underscored the failure of Confederate ‘nationalism’ and provided a ready base for the subsequent Readjuster and Populist movements after the war.  

Jacobin ends with a look at how Reconstruction was killed by Southern violence and Northern hostility, starting with President Andrew Johnson – reflecting the renewed economic links between the southern capitalists and landowners and the northern bourgeoisie.  There was no widespread “Homestead Act” in the south and plantation properties seized by former slaves were returned to their original owners.  So most black people were deprived of land and ultimately after 30 years (and perhaps consequently) the vote.  This article points out that the myth of the lazy ‘welfare queen’ originated during Reconstruction as a weapon by southern racists to take back the South.  In 1875 the U.S. Supreme court even ruled that citizenship did not guarantee the right to vote.  By the turn of the century, Jim Crow was fully in control and black people had for the most part lost any power in the South.  Both black people and ‘socialism’ had been stopped.  

What is significant in all this is that the struggle against any form of ‘socialism’ in the U.S. has been going on far longer than the cold war that ended in 1989, the Red Scare of the 1950s, or the Palmer raids of 1919.  It is a target not connected to any nation, like China or the USSR, but ultimately aimed at the American and world labor movement.

And I bought it at Mayday Books’ excellent magazine and newspaper section.
(“The New Jim Crow,” and books that challenge the myths of Confederate nationalism, reviewed below.)
Red Frog
October 31, 2015

Monday, October 12, 2015

“Collateral Consequences”

"The Divide – American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap,” by Matt Taibbi, 2015

Taibbi is an easy-to-digest writer that zeroes in on one of the big problems of class society – the justice system for the rich and Wall Street, and the justice system for the various layers of the working class.   Unlike Gleen Greenwald, who wrote a similar book to this, he is not so arid and rationalistic, but instead takes you inside the lives of a number of people who have been victims of rich-class justice – a small Chinese community bank; a black man from the Bronx; a white homeless stoner in New York; ‘illegals’ in Gainesville, Georgia; the immigrant owner of Canadian insurance company; a Latino family on welfare in LA; a female whistle-blower at Chase. 

Goofy Cover of Lady Justice
Taibbi’s no leftist, just an enraged liberal.  He makes some excuses for the justice and capital system, focusing only on financial corporate crime and no other.  Yet what he pictures as a good journalist, in spite of his politics, is a corporate system rife with criminal firms and practices like rigging LIBOR.  Chase Bank, HBSC, BofA, Countrywide, Enron, AIG, Wells Fargo, Arthur Andersen, Goldman Sachs, Citgroup and many hedge funds all engage in criminal behavior on a regular basis.  It is the price of doing business.  He especially looks at the 2008 crisis, which he calls ‘the biggest white-collar crime wave in history.”  In 2008, he says that ‘Every major financial company had chosen to participate in this enormous fraud.”  He calls the forced sale of Lehman, “the biggest bank robbery in history” and shows you why. 

Taibbi, like many others, points out that no one has gone to jail, corporations (i.e. shareholders) just paid fines and signed non-prosecution ‘agreements,’ which are the new form of government deregulation.  But he goes further.  Intimately related to this lax environment for corporate crime is an absolutely lock-tight system aimed at ordinary people.  This encompasses New York’s stop and frisk / ‘broken windows’ policy; the mass incarceration state; the drug war; the war on immigrants; private prison systems; out-of-control police violence (although he does not talk about police shootings…); excessive fines; the deportation extravaganza; the development of civil debtor’s prisons; intrusive welfare inspections; excessive criminal prosecutions of welfare recipients; even those traffic tickets that are showered on the population like confetti.  All of it is connected, unlike what the politics of so many single-issue organizations would suggest. You cannot defeat these issues in isolation. 

So who are the villains, besides the gallery of well-known corporate criminals like John Mack, Jamie Dimon, Anthony Mozillo or Lloyd Blankfein that liberals so love to hate?  Taibbi instead focuses on Eric Holder, Bill Clinton, Lanny Breur, Mary Jo White (now head of FINRA), Barack Obama, Tim Geithner and the corporate-defense law firm of Covington and Burling, where both Holder and Breur worked before government.  Odd that the list is made up of Democrats, but they were the ones in charge of the aftermath of the 2008 crash.  After all, under both Bushes more financial crimes were prosecuted, especially in the big round-up around the S&L crisis in the 1980s.  Capital has a tag-team method of political control and the Democrats happened to inherit the mess when it was their turn.  So what happened to institute the rules of neo-liberalism? 

Taibbi starts with Holder’s 1999 ‘collateral consequences’ memo, written while he was first at the DOJ.  The memo was once intended to be ‘tough on banks,’ but later surfaced to provide a reason not to disrupt companies or ‘the markets’ by leaving executives and companies alone.  It became the legal rationale for doing nothing except collecting fines from corporations that could well-afford to pay them.  Lanny Breur carried out this policy in the fines levied on many banks, like HSBC, which laundered money for terrorists and drug cartels. Essentially 'crime' disappeared if committed by corporate figures and they became civil matters.  Not so for the population at large. 

Next up is Bill Clinton, who destroyed ‘welfare as we know it’ and turned it into a punitive and abusive paper-trap for the poor, instituting no-knock searches of welfare recipient’s homes.  Or Obama, the king of deportations, who broke Bush’s record, and while attempting to mitigate some tactics, hasn’t changed a thing. Then there is Mary Jo White, who was head of the SEC at the time and basically decided to go after ‘small companies’ or issues only.  This was conscious policy.  You can still see this in their and FINRA’s investigations of small fry.  Or padding their quota numbers with empty ‘paper’ investigations of bankrupt foreign companies that collapsed and did not file Edgar / SEC paperwork.

Taibbi instead contrasts this process with depictions of the life of a homeless stoner, who is thrown in jail for 3 months in vicious Riker’s Island prison for a half a joint, while drug money launderers at banks go free.  Or a black man who stands in front of his apartment at 2 AM at night with a friend and is arrested by quota-filling NY cops for ‘blocking the sidewalk’ to non-existent walkers.  Those same arrests are not happening on the Upper East Side of New York.  Or the story of a small bank in Chinatown which was the only bank to be brought up on ‘mortgage fraud’ criminal charges, called by some the “Lee Harvey Oswald” of the banking crisis.  Or the lives of persecuted immigrants in Gainesville who are arrested for bullshit traffic issues and are deported into the private prison system and into the dangers of Mexico and reentry into the U.S.  Yet all the while Georgia businesses want them back. Taibbi’s descriptions of the difficulties of trying to apply for and collect welfare in LA, where you voluntarily put a target on your back for a tiny bit of money, are brutal.  Yet other corporations or people that get loans or grants from the government are not so treated.  A whistle-blower at Chase loses her job after naively pointing out illegal practices like robo-signing and no-document loans as the basis for securitized products.  Yet the Chase executives who OK this practice go free, even though they have committed tens of thousands of frauds re foreclosures.  And lastly, an insurance executive unjustly targeted by short-sellers at hedge funds who nearly loses his business, while the hedge funders walk free. 

Taibbi usefully answers all the arguments of the government types who defend these practices.  Ultimately non-prosecution and ‘too big to jail’ guarantees another corporate crime wave.  It’s not just ‘two Americas.”  It’s one America, with one slice of it living off the backs of the rest.   

Taibbi’s “Griftopia,” Greenwald’s, “With Liberty & Justice for Some,” and Lewis’ “The Big Short,” all reviewed below.  Use blog search box, upper left.

And I bought it at Mayday’s cutout rack
Red Frog
October 12, 2015