Saturday, September 26, 2015

The Children of Time

"The Beach Beneath the Street – the Everyday Life and Glorious Times of the Situationist International,” by McKenzie Wark, 2011

This is a curious bunch.  Leaving little trace, the Situationist ‘International’ (“SI”) was mostly based in Paris, with comrades in Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark and Italy.  By no stretch was it actually an international, just a conceit of an international – a group that totaled 72 people all told, from beginning to end.  Like many other currents, it was made famous in the fires of the general strikes and street battles of May-June 1968 in France.  When that ‘situation’ ended, the SI disbanded in 1972.  Some architects and artists still take inspiration from it, even citing it as the source behind the temporary ‘Burning Man” art village in the Black Rock desert in Nevada.  Now Burning Man has been invaded by wealthy libertarian techies, so perhaps, like the hippies of Haight-Ashbury once did in 1967, a funeral can be held for Burning Man too.  Capital can co-opt most anything cultural, as Thomas Frank noted in the ‘Conquest of Cool.”  The SI would have no doubt agreed.

Parisian Children at the Barricades in 1945
This book is a small history of certain intellectual, political and artistic figures in Paris and Europe, as well as a group of intellectual movements that percolated there after World War II.  It covers almost every significant figure that was involved with ‘Situationism’ at any point. Wark is an erudite fan of the SI and in this book traces their history back to the “Letterist” International, which was based on the bohemian / existentialist atmosphere of several square blocks in the Saint-Germain, a quarter of Paris in the 1950s.   This is the book’s primary value - not as a work of complete philosophy or politics, but as a recreation of a fertile European artistic and intellectual sub-culture.  

In a sense the SI began as a lumpen art-life movement – drinking and dancing in bars to ‘avoid boredom.'  Or as one put it, “Cursing is the work of the drinking classes,” a play on a quote from Oscar Wilde used by Wark.  As Guy Debord, their most well-known proponent first said, the point of life was to ‘never work.’  Later Debord spent many hours editing the ‘Internationale Situationniste’, organizing the SI and writing several books.  As Debord later admitted, writing, painting and collectivity are work and necessary work at that.  The SI borrowed from romanticism, Dadism, anarchism, Marxism, the Beatniks and bohemia, drug and café culture - but now influenced by the enormous disaster of World War II.  They might be considered a forerunner of the ‘new urbanism,’ performance art, free software hacker culture, ideas of the ‘creative class’ and deconstructionism.  They attempted to forge a collective negation to the conventional middle-class and ruling class views of how to live life.    

Perhaps most interesting is their notion of ‘psycho-geography.’  This is the effect that architecture and city planning have on human and class life within the city. Different ‘cityscapes’ evoke different human interactions and feelings.  Cedar Riverside in Minneapolis, with its somewhat shabby human-scale buildings and loitering hipsters, old hippies and Somalis creates a different mood than the corporate glass skyscrapers of downtown and it’s hurrying white-collar workers, or the effect of a neglected suburban mini-mall fronted by an arid parking lot and empty stores.  The LI and SI were fervent opponents of the architectural ides of Le Corbusier – the geometric fashion of glass and steel buildings lining wide, straight streets that became the template for corporate building.  In a sense the ‘New Urbanism’ movement in the U.S. is attempting to take their views into account – yet ‘new urbanism’ is still controlled by capital - and the SI proclaimed itself communist.  The SI also proclaimed ‘literary communism’ and ‘architectural communism,’ based on a collective approach to these areas. 

And that is the problem here, as the SI were not Marxists, although they were anti-capitalist.  They sought to define themselves against the Communist Party orthodoxy which dominated French intellectual life at the time, due to the CPs role in the Resistance.  They also took on Surrealism, various leftist intellectuals like Jean Paul Sartre and the Trotskyists, Maoists and Guevaraists who crowded Europe. Through it all, they did not succeed.  The reason is perhaps the disparate oddness of their ideas.  As Wark puts it, the SI collapsed ‘beneath the weight of its incoherence.” 

From what I can tell their philosophy was based on 6 primary notions:  1. To wander the city (the ‘dérive.’); 2. to borrow from prior writers, artists, thinkers and turn it into something new (in French, ‘détournment’); 3. to give gifts, which was their idea of funding the SI or each other; 4. Potlatch, an extension of the ‘gift’ which borrowed from the native American idea of free labor in trade, an act which enhances the reputation and repute of the giver; 5.‘unitary urbanism,' also referred to as psycho-geography; 6. and to create or find ‘situations’ – rare but memorable events like festivals, riots, occasions, real 'situations.'  The latter is what gave its name to the SI.  The SI took over the pulpit at Notre Dame, crashed bourgeois art shows in Venice & London and removed the head of the “Little Mermaid” in Copenhagen.  Later echoes of these actions are Jerry Rubin throwing money to the floor of the NYSE, Pussy Riot invading a Russian Orthodox church in Moscow or PETA throwing blood on rich people wearing furs. 

Debord, while being the ‘secretary’ of the SI, is not the focus of this book.  His policy of expelling people from the SI comes up regularly, at it created splits to the point where there was even a ‘2nd SI’ led by a young woman, Jacqueline De Jong which lasted from 1962 to 1967.  They opposed the ‘sectarianism’ of the original SI and did their own artistic praxis.  Debord would expel people without consulting anyone – usually because the people were not contributing anymore, but sometimes for their ideas.   Debord took more political and anti-art positions and kept the organization functioning due to that and Wark praises him for it.  Debord felt that without expulsions membership would mean nothing.

Of the sample of individuals discussed in the book two are of note:  Henri LeFebvre and Asgar Jorn.  Jorn, a painter, criticized Marx and created his own ‘theory of value’ which hypothesized that there were two creative classes, not one – the proletariat and a ‘creative class’ of artists and intellectuals.  Jorn maintained that an ‘aesthetic economy’ should replace the Marxist ‘political economy.’  This notion has reappeared in the U.S., as the development of capital in various cities attempts to attract the ‘creative class’ - which is really a strata of self-employed artisans. This group of people then stimulates real estate values in run-down or neglected areas, and also keeps corporate workers entertained.  Jorn wrote a psycho-geography of Paris and an enormous history of Scandinavian folk art and became a profitable painter.  LeFebvre fought in the Resistance, then left the CP and moved to the left. Lefebvre wrote the book, “The Critique of Everyday Life” focusing on politicizing the normal day, which capital has culturally colonized for its own purposes. He probed the issue of ‘time’ which has also been colonized by the time clock of wage slavery.  These are ideas Debord also held.  Both LeFebvre and Jorn were ultimately thrown out of the SI by Debord. 

The book ends by briefly covering the events of May-June 1968 in France, indicating that the SI was active in Paris, convening their own ‘general assembly' at the National Pedagogical Institute on the Rue d’Ulm.  The slogan, "the beach beneath the street" came from this period, created by a working-class member of the SI.

Wark is a fertile writer with many good quotes.  Here is one favorite: “If there is one purpose to psychoanalysis, it is to make bourgeois lives seem fascinating, at least to those who live them.”  Yet Wark throws so many ideas and people into the hopper in sequential sentences that the book itself seems contradictory, opaque or wandering at times.  But that is a reflection of Situationism itself. 

The Society of the Spectacle” by Guy DeBord, reviewed below.  Prior books on Paris and France reviewed below include “The Coming Insurrection” and “The Conspiracy.”  A film and a book about 1968 - “Something in the Air” and “The Merry Month of May” are also reviewed.  Use blog search box, upper left. 

And I bought it at Mayday Books!
Red Frog
September 26, 2015

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

‘Creative Destruction’ and Capitalist Disruption

"Illegals,’ Migrants and Refugees

The humanitarian crisis in Europe over refugees from the American and European wars in the Middle East is a part of blow-back.  Hillary Clinton’s ‘clean’ war in Libya has resulted in boat people trying to reach Spain and Italy.  Haven’t things become so much better in Libya since Khadafy was shot in the head (some say by French intelligence) thrown in a ditch, then publicly displayed?  Actually not.  In Syria the same might be said.  The statist dictator Assad throws barrel bombs, the criminal Daesh of the Iraqi prisons destroys cities and kills anyone they don’t like in bulk, the U.S. and its allies drop bombs that are not so precise.  I won’t mention Afghanistan and the 15+ year U.S. occupation or the U.S. years-long destruction of Iraq starting in 1990 - both more 'success' stories.  To date things are so bad in Yemen, where U.S. reactionary ally Saudi Arabia is indiscriminately bombing cities and town, that no one can even leave!   You can say the same thing for Palestine and especially Gaza. 
Syrian Refugees attempting to get to Greece.
This is all well-known, at least on the left.  The U.S. has its our own reflection in this situation - Haitian boat people, desperate Central American children, Mexican laborers – the orphan children of our empire.  Not quite the same, as economics here plays a more direct role, but still many fleeing from warfare or dictatorships supported by us.  This is also not news on the left. 

The U.S. has offered to take all of 10,000 Syrian refugees.  To put that in perspective, here in Minneapolis there are 65,000 Somalis alone, along with some Ethiopians and Eritreans.  Somalia is another country we helped destroy, with help from the Ethiopian army, although the forces of petit-bourgeois Islamic politics played their role too.  10,000 is probably the number of innocent people American coalition bombs have killed or injured in Syria by now.

What does capital want though?  In Minneapolis male Somalis are the taxi drivers of the city and some now work in temporary-tier post-office jobs or in factories.  The females work in parking garages and as bank tellers or retail clerks.  A few start small businesses and dominate the community, along with the inmans who are numerous.  As you can see, most Somalis are taking working class, low-end jobs.  The woman are allowed to drive at least, unlike Saudi Arabia, the ‘home’ of Islam, so they are able to get around town more easily.

Mexican green-card holders and migrants work as cooks, waiters, janitors, roofers, construction helpers, factory, warehouse and slaughterhouse workers – just about any working-class job they can get.  Nearly all of these people do not have union protection and are paid the least a businessmen can get away with – and sometimes nothing at all!  Wage theft and failure to pay overtime are common.  Illegality helps because it further intimidates immigrant workers to demand anything. Illegality is really ideal for capital.

So capital in the U.S. is very happy to have immigrants – better illegal than legal.  And Europe?  France’s colonial occupation of Algeria has resulted in many Algerians living in France doing the same kind of working class/low-skilled jobs we see here in the States.  In Germany the Turks fill the same role.  In the UK, almost everyone - central Europeans, Africans, Pakistanis and Indians – are all doing that work.  That was one of the reasons behind the hostility to the former workers’ states – their labor was off-limits.  Not any more.  Now London is one of the largest Polish cities in the world and is the second most populous Hungarian city.  Today there was even a story in Bloomberg about how Denmark needs more skilled labor and more consumers. The story credits their slowing growth rate to their tight immigration policies.  So really, what are more Syrians, more Afghans, more Libyans? More cheap or skilled labor! The benefit of many Syrians is that they are already very educated, so Europe can freely poach their talents – a real plus.  The U.S. and other countries did that to central Europe as well.  It’s called ‘the brain drain’ in the common parlance, but it is really the appropriation of other countries' educational investments. 

The argument over population started with Malthus but it has not finished with him.  At the time Malthus wrote in 1798, the world population was smaller – a bit less than a billion.  Now 200 years later it is 7.3 billion and growing exponentially.  Leftists who cite Malthus as reason not to be concerned with population should instead look at what has changed since he wrote his reactionary script.  First, the finite and failing environment.  Second, the objective development of world capital.  Third, the women’s question.  Remember someone named ‘Margaret Sanger?’  Family planning and economic planning but no ,,, population planning?  Really? 

As Piketty pointed out in “Capital,” low birth rates in Europe (and places like Russia) lead to lower revenues for capital, as there are fewer people to buy products and fewer people in the reserve army of labor, thus bidding up the price for the remaining labor.  Growing populations are one key to capitalist ‘growth’ in a stagnant economy.  Which is why no capitalist country has legal controls on population anywhere in the world.  Only China does, which I do not consider a capitalist country.  Which is why the Catholic Church and other religions and governments even oppose birth control or abortion in many places, as do the most retrograde elements in the U.S.  This attitude is also partly behind the hostility to gay rights. 

Which is why immigration is essential to low-birth rate economies.  You know, those places where every woman isn’t having 4 babies.  Is this why capital is destroying so many countries in the Middle East?  Hmmm.

On the question of culture, there is something else going on too.  It has not escaped the Republican Party in the U.S. that their supposed ‘ace in the hole’ was to appeal to the Catholicism of Latin American immigrants, whom they could enlist in the culture wars on the side of conservatism  Even though the Republicans are making a hash of that with their virulent nativism, religion is something the more sane right-wing and governments rely on.  Religion makes the majority of people more docile and more conformist and many times more conservative.  They sometimes follow their religious leaders and mostly stay away from radicalism of ANY kind, as it is an ideology opposed to real change.  Europe has the same problem, as Christianity and religion, not to mention marriage, are dying there too. Bringing in many Muslims can revitalize religion in Europe and increase the birth rate.  Maybe it doesn't prop up Christianity, but it all basically boils down to the same thing.

The right-wing populists across Europe are attempting to take advantage of this situation by demonizing immigrants as a way to pretend they care for workers.  However that is a transparent sham, as they never care for workers anywhere else.  Sort of like the Christian fundies who appreciate ‘life’ in the womb, then forget about the kids once they are born.  Opposing immigration is like opposing sex – good luck with that.

So what is the left to do? At one time in the 1980s under more conservative union leaderships, U.S. unions avoided organizing unorganized immigrant workers.  However, eventually the unions realized capital relies on the portability of the labor commodity across national lines.  Now they and everyone else in the labor movement understand that this is a ‘one-world economy’ and the best course is to organize Latinos and other immigrants, no matter what.  This will improve wages for everyone and put the pressure where it belongs – on the capitalists. The same is true in Europe.

But there is even a higher logic here that the left has yet to grasp on the immigration issue.  Mexican, Honduran, Guatemalan and Salvadorean people do not want to leave their homes and come to the U.S.  Really!  We’re not that great!  Nor do Syrians or Libyans.  However the U.S., through its policies, has made their homelands into something they almost have to leave.  For Mexico, the U.S. ‘war on drugs,’ NAFTA, support for a long string of conservative Mexican PAN and PRI governments, privatization plans pushed by international lenders like the World Bank and IMF, GMO seeds and the ‘free-labor’ maquiladora zones have all decimated the Mexican economy.  Mexican immigration is the result.  Slowing Mexican immigration would benefit Mexicans the most because they do not want to be forced from their homes.  The first step would be to change these policies and work to remove the corrupt and criminal Mexican government and state.  But will the U.S. change its imperialist spots?  Will it refuse hegemony?  Doubt it.  Bloody events in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador still echo to the present – all because of our past and present support to the military and fascist right in those countries.  Same perspective needs to be applied there. 

Do we even have to mention the European and U.S. role in what has happened in Syria, Libya, Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia and Palestine?  No doubt the criminals in Daesh are also responsible – but would they exist without the Iraq war?  I don’t think so.

Capital is counter-revolutionary in a violent, abrupt and basic way. Their ‘creative destruction’ and corporatist enthusiasm for ‘disruption’ and disaster is guaranteed to continue and worsen.  And it will affect us all sooner or later.

Red Frog
September 22, 2015

Friday, September 18, 2015

Capital has Reached the Outer Limits

"The Necessity of Social Control,” by István Mészáros, 2015

This book is a disdainful explanation of how capital has reached its global limits, and can now only create more destruction and death.  The options of unexplored areas of expansion or a world war or a vast discovery of commodities or new technology that might give capital breathing room are vanishing.  This is why more war, more environmental destruction, more unemployment, more intense labor exploitation and more austerity and dictatorship are what are in store for the workers of the world.  Mészáros thinks there is no reforming this expansive profit system – so the only alternative is the dialectical growth of a global self-managed social movement in opposition to it -  a ‘New International’ that intends to replace capital on a global scale.  He calls the period we are in a “structural crisis of capital.” 

Hungarian children work together!
As you can see, Mészáros, a former Hungarian who worked with György Lukács, takes a global view at all times.  Now living in the U.K, he left Hungary after the 1956 insurrection.  This book is a series of his essays, with the first one published in 1971 and since added to.  The essays are undated, which makes it difficult to gain context for each one  Since the book contains much repetition, many $25 words and mostly theory, I will distill some major points that I see.  Unlike most book reviews, I am not interested in some vague, gauzy description of the text, as the specific ideas here are key. 

1.                  1.  Global capital means a world-wide ‘leveling’ of labor costs.  Different rates of exploitation still exist obviously, but they are giving way to “the equalization of rates of exploitation” across the whole world. The totality of the labor force’ – skilled, semi-skilled and unskilled labor – are all under attack by capital.  As a result, Mészáros does not spend his time guilt-tripping European or American labor, because he knows what is in store for them. 
2.                  It is not enough to ‘expropriate the expropriators’ and institute a nationalized economy run by a bureaucracy, as was proved by the Soviet example.  The revolution must continue until the “second order mediations” of capital are also overcome by the organized “self-management of the freely-associated producers.”  Socialism means “social ownership of production;” “workers control of production” and “consumption based on communal needs.” This did not happen in the USSR or China.
3.                Capital’s “second-order mediations” include:
    a.       the nuclear family
    b.      alienated means of production
    c.       money
    d.      sterile production objectives
    e.       labor divorced from control
    f.       capital / state form
    g.      the world market
    h.      culture
4.                  Socialism in one country is impossible.  The choice is on a global scale - now more than ever. 
5.                  ‘Precariousness’ is the leading character of labor in our time.
6.                  The 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th Internationals failed for different reasons. The 1st International in retrospect was premature because capital was still expanding worldwide.  The 1st International failed through defeat; the 2nd by the adoption of the ‘evolutionary’ road to socialism and national capital’s ballot box; the 3rd was dissolved by Stalin after being turned into an arm of Soviet national policy; and the 4th because its ideas did not grip the masses.  According to Mészáros: ‘Today the situation is radically different.’ He thinks it is time for a “New International” based on a global confrontation with capital from a general socialist perspective, not on the basis of some narrow ideological purity.  In American terms, the ‘hatchet must be buried’ – just not in each other’s skulls.    
7.                  Issac Deutscher wrote, “Humanity needs unity for its sheer survival; where can it find it if not in socialism?” and Mészáros agrees. 
8.                  Present science is embedded in capital.
9.                  ‘Free time,’ increasing skills and education are threatening capital and are a form of social dynamite, turning the subordinate/ruler dialectic into an anachronism.  Religion and the ‘cell of the family’ are also disintegrating – two more pillars of social control.
10.              All-out world war is off the table, thus hampering capital’s ability to destroy the means of production and reinvent itself.  The many small wars are not sufficient.
11.              Capital’s state intervention in the economy actually hastens the ‘maturation of contradictions.’  It reveals that the state is not neutral and drags the state into the contradictions of the economic system itself.
12.              Marx was not an ‘economic determinist.’  His whole point was to free human life from being determined by economics. 
13.              Parliamentarism in Europe made both the Social-Democratic and the Communist parties into accessories of the capital system.  In response, Mészáros believes the labor movement must have a strong ‘extra-parliamentary’ approach or it's leaders will be bribed and co-opted.
14.              The future of socialism will be decided in the U.S.
15.              Capital breaks down at the moment of its supreme global power, because it cannot control or restrain itself.  Capital is not future-oriented, but only reactive and retroactive.  Capital’s has reached its world-wide limits and the limits of its system of “social metabolic control.”
16.              The situation of women in the world is an “Achilles heel of capital” because women are everywhere, in every class, ethnicity and nation, and they still sit at the bottom of each social layer.
17.              The public purse is not bottomless.  Public debt went from 35% to 71% from 1974 to 1994.  It is much greater now.
18.              There can be no world government under capital.  As Clinton put it, the U.S. is the only ‘essential country’ in the world.  This is the essence of the imperialist attitude.
19.              China is the largest target of U.S. military and political efforts.
20.              Mészáros praises Sartre, Diderot, Rousseau, Babeuf, Bolivar and Deutscher. Like many thinkers, he admires French intellectuals.  He spends a lot of time debating Hegel, which I find somewhat unnecessary at this point. 
21.              Environmental sustainability must involve a planned economy and controls on production.  No other path will work.  He mentions the environmental crisis a lot.
22.              Keynes prediction that everyone would have so much leisure time they wouldn’t know what to do with it has not come true.
23.              The collapse of the USSR has instituted a “new historical epoch.”  Its collapse was a by-product of the crisis of world capital.
24.              Capital attempts to control, not just economic processes, but all areas of human activity, up to “the most sophisticated intellectual and cultural domains.”  Take note, professors.
25.              The national question has been neglected.  Mészáros sides with Lenin against Stalin in the last debate about the national question in the USSR, in which Lenin understood Stalin was pushing Great Russian chauvinism.  As a humorous aside, Rakosi, the party leader in Hungary before the 1956 insurrection, said that “the criterion of Hungarian patriotism … is our love of the Soviet Union.” In a world context, national resistance to U.S. imperial domination should be understood and supported, as a socialist global response is based on equity, not any great nation’s chauvinism. 
26.              The left needs to unite and the world labor movement needs an international organization.  I.E. we have to ‘act globally’ - unlike the lame bumper-sticker.  The “multi-faceted groups of protest” and the “great multiplicity of social groups” need to unite on the ‘emancipatory side of the class divide behind labor’s hegemonic alternative to capital.’  I.E. a broad class front.  The new international cannot succeed as a “self-oriented sectarian organization.”  Mészáros points out: “…the adherents of the much needed socialist alternative are fragmented and divided among themselves, instead of internationally combining their strength for the cause of a successful confrontation with their adversaries.”
27.              Marx said in the 1850s that “the historic task of bourgeois society is the establishment of the world market.”  However Marx continued that a revolt may “be necessarily crushed in this little corner of the world…” In 1870 the Paris Commune was crushed, with German capital supporting French capital. Marx understood that capital was a world-wide phenomenon even at that point.
28.              Liberalism is the method by which workers in one core capitalist country are galvanized to support their own bourgeoisie in its rapine attacks on the rest of the world.

It is hard to miss that Mészáros opposes ‘socialism in one country,’ (an idea invented by Bukharin); supports the ‘continuation of the revolution’ (the ‘permanent revolution’ of Marx); calls the caste in the USSR a bureaucratic one overseeing a non-capitalist society (very similar to the ‘degenerated workers state’) and opposes Stalin’s Great Russian chauvinism. These were all positions taken by Trotsky at the time of their occurrence - but Mészáros is evidently content to elide over the disagreements of the past in pursuit of future unity…

Mészáros understands that without a strike/occupation/street/counter-institution movement, no electoral work can succeed.  He also understands the reverse, as the capitalist state is essential to the defeat of strikes and other struggles.  Ignoring the state and politics is fatal to any real strike or occupation movement.  He contends that the state and capital are completely connected and few would argue with that except anarchists and libertarians.

It is also hard to miss the fact that Mészáros abhors ‘single-issueism,’ of which the left is inundated.   The fact that social struggles are disconnected; that the multiplicity of organizations have few bonds with others; that no common ideas or ideology connect the various fights (which ARE connected); that people view the world from their little rabbit-hole – all this radiates pathetic weakness.  Yet it is only through world-wide working class unity that the capitalists can be defeated!  This means that the oppressed have a long way to go to understand what is necessary, and frankly, the ‘left’ in many of its recent forms has been of little help. 

And I bought it at Mayday Books!
Red Frog
September 18, 2015

Monday, September 14, 2015

Guess Whose Coming To Dinner?

“Things of Dry Hours," by Naomi Wallace.  Produced by Frank Theater. Playwrights' Center, Minneapolis, Minnesota. 

This is a rare play about a radical black worker and his daughter living in a shack in 1932 Birmingham, Alabama – a shack that hears the ‘knock on the door’ that they most fear and yet expect.  He is an unemployed steel worker in the Communist Party; she does washing for rich white people in the city.  It’s the Depression and they barely survive.  Rarely do plays sympathetically portray Marxists and labor agitators or the issue of class.  Rarely do plays talk about the almost unbridgeable gulf between black and white people.  This one does.  The Communist Manifesto, the Bible and an apple all provide grist for this narrative about working class struggle, the real nature of ‘whiteness’ and betrayal. 

A Scene from the play
The play is a hostage drama, though it is not always clear who is the hostage, the white visitor or his black 'hosts.' The play introduces a dialectic between a white man, Corbin, who has ostensibly killed a foreman at the steel plant and needs shelter in their shack; an older black worker, Tice, who swears on both the big Bible and the thin Communist Manifesto; and his somewhat tough daughter Cali, who is not political yet still sees what is.  Corbin threatens Tice and Cali that if they throw him out of their shack, he will somehow inform on them.  So they are forced to put up with him.  Corbin makes sexual moves on Cali, and eventually she wants to be with him.  Tice says no, for his own knowledgeable reasons.

In a role reversal in one scene, the white man Corbin puts on black face paint and the black woman Cali puts on ‘white-face’ paint.  She humiliates him as she has been humiliated by her rich Birmingham employers; she threatens him as she has been threatened by all white folks; he stands ‘buck’ naked before her as black men stood ‘buck’ naked before white planters in slave auctions.  In a twist, old man Tice is more educated than this young, pale, button and steel worker, who is originally from Muscatine, Iowa and doesn't know how to read.  Tice attempts to teach Corbin to read – in a reversal of the process whereby slaves were forbidden education.   He talks to him about Hayden; he reads to him from the Manifesto; he tries to recruit him to the Party; he points out that whiteness is a concept and a social category, not a biological imperative. YOu can see that, while a poor working man who might need some educational help, all this is over Corbin's head. 

Tice knows that the only hope they have if this white man is an informer or police agent is to ‘turn him’ into a class conscious ally - even an ostensible Party member.  Tice never double-checks Corbin's story, but perhaps because he knows the answer - that it is not true and Corbin never killed anyone. 

The dialectic of these discussions and a certain kiss are intentional.  There is the play of the unity of opposites, as all here are workers, though not all are the same ethnic and class-level category.  There is process of thesis, anti-thesis and synthesis between Marxism and incoherent working-class consciousness, which clash in these discussions.  Cali eventually becomes an activist after these events, showing that people can understand eventually, though not perhaps the people you are aiming at.  And quantity into quality develops, as the essence of this mutual hostage system becomes very clear. 

Corbin knows that the Communist Party is the only organization in 1932 Birmingham that had both black and white workers in it. It was led by black workers, who made up the majority – and numbered nearly 500 members.  This is the Jim Crow ‘South’ in which the Party and organizations like the Sharecropper’s Union or the unemployed or relief organizations are virtually illegal.  Members face death, beatings or job losses from cops and the Klan.  Wallace mentions that the Klan is made up of the 'best' people in town, who use linen for their hoods.  Things don’t change much - now they just wear suits. 

The play begins and ends with poetic soliloquies by Tice.  They center on an apple, which he cuts in half at the end.  Is it the apple of knowledge from the Garden of Eden?  Does it represent the (black) seeds of black revolutionary leadership within the white surrounding fruit?  Is the apple the unity of black and white? The juice of life? Your call.

Unfortunately the labor movement we see in in fiction, history or theater is set in the heroic period of the 1930s.  This portrayal of the past keeps us from modernizing and grasping the present state and future of the world labor movement.  This play is part of that nostalgia, attempting to resurrect an admittedly valuable ghost - but one that is stillborn at present.  For most it will not succeed, but will instead historicize the Marxist movement and its relation to the black struggle.  A step to know the past, but modernity is really needed.  The struggle is now.

The author Naomi Wallace is a radical playwright who has been produced locally at Macalester College and also at Frank Theater prior to this.  She was born in Kentucky and now resides in the U.K.  Local history professor Peter Rachleff took part in the Sunday question and answer session and also helped on the play itself.  The music interludes are beautifully chosen by Frank, with old-time and labor songs by Paul Robeson, Pete Seeger, Leadbelly and others. The actor playing Tice heroically stepped in at the last minute due to the sickness of the original actor, and had to read from a script.  But it somehow fit.

The play was based on the classic history book about Communists in the Alabama labor movement, “Hammer & Hoe,” which is for sale at Mayday.  Another Frank Theater play reviewed below is “Love and Information.”  Books relevant to Alabama in the 1930s are “Slavery By Another Name,” (reviewed below) which traced forced black prison labor in the coal mines, steel plants and turpentine camps, especially around Birmingham.   

The Play runs until October 4th. Please attend!

Red Frog
September 14, 2015

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Roller Coaster Markets

Debt & Capital – a Confluence of Factors

The last month has seen a swoon in the global stock and bond markets – a drop that was to be expected given the endless financial ‘gas’ from corporate profits and government central bank policies drifting upward into the ‘stockosphere’ since 2009.  On another “Black Monday,” August 24th, the U.S. Dow Jones fell 1,100 points.  Program trading is driving the volatility, but beneath it is something else. Debt is the immediate culprit if you look, but beyond that it is a stagnant profit outlook from actual production.

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The destruction of Greece in the interests of the European Central Bank (ECB) and the German and French bankers over the debt issue served as a prelude to the latest mini-heart attack in the markets.  The action of the ECB to cut off daily transaction abilities of Greek banks to enforce the Troika’s demands was unprecedented but expected.  It crushed Syriza, which has now gone through a left-split, with “Popular Unity” emerging out of the social-democratic shell of Syriza’s leadership.  The social-democrats found out the ECB does not negotiate.  The markets rose after this slaughter.

Spain, Portugal, Italy and Ireland, take note.

But now Puerto Rico has begun the path to default.  Puerto Rican bonds, bought by many retirement pension funds and 401k outfits, are the subject of many lawsuits across the U.S., especially in Florida.  Puerto Rico engaged in the same heavy borrowing as was encouraged on many other municipalities by Wall Street.  Prominent capitalists in the U.S. like the ‘sage of Omaha,’ Warren Buffet, are calling for ‘staying the course’ in making Puerto Rico bleed.  No haircuts here.  No jubilees, no way.

No one remembers that back in 2008 the Chinese government (which the writers at understand controls the ‘commanding heights of the economy,’ even if some Marxists don’t) floated the world economy through one of the biggest building booms in history – making the pyramids look like a day’s work.  Chinese growth continued through that whole sorry capitalist episode.  New cities, ship and air ports, roads and freeways, apartments and office buildings went up.  China ‘grew’ through the Great Recession and helped pull the capitalist world out of its debt crisis  - a crisis brought on by the domino effect of bogus securitized mortgages and unpaid credit default swaps that nearly brought down world finance.  I.E. debt.

Yet that situation is not over.  Last year China accounted for almost 40% of world growth.  But this year the chickens have come home to roost, especially in China.  Many of those built facilities are empty or unused. Due to the large debt overhang from over-building and real-estate speculation, according to McKinsey it quadrupled Chinese debt.  In response, the yuan was devalued by the government.  The private Chinese ‘shadow’ banking system is in trouble for the same reason.  The Chinese stock market, the Shanghai composite, took an enormous drop.  In response the People’s Bank of China – the main state bank - is propping up the market every day by buying shares, just as the U.S. central bank has done for many years in the U.S. through cheap money. 

Many commentators in the U.S. are saying – so who cares about China!  Well, China has been the cheap labor production site for world capital for many years.  It has been one of the chief importers of basic commodities like steel, cement, oil and rubber.  If it starts pulling back, retrenching and focusing on its own domestic market – and perhaps paying Chinese workers more – that puts a wrench in the model.  Since the 1980s the Chinese oriented to neo-liberalism and the ‘world market’ and have followed that path to a T.   

When Yellen’s Fed made noises about ‘cheap money’ becoming more expensive in the U.S., it also contributed to the U.S. market drop.  They are now putting this off for another month.  The Federal Reserve is basically floating Wall Street through cheap money, which Wall Street and various corporations use to loan money to us at higher rates – rates civilians then have to pay.  The ECB and the Bank of Japan are doing the same thing.  Corporations use this money for buying other companies or buying their own stock back.  Now the Fed could loan money directly to people at these rates – but that would be ‘socialism!’  So they funnel it through capitalist corporations so someone can buy a yacht.  The Fed is also buying up U.S. bonds to make them more expensive, so it will force people back to the markets.  They call it ‘quantitative easing’ – around $4.5 trillion according to Bloomberg since 2008.  It makes the 2008 $800K U.S. government ‘bailout’ of Wall Street look like a teaser. 

The Chinese state bank is doing the same thing – flooding the Shanghai market with financial support every day at 2 P.M. to cover the debts of all the ‘get rich quick’ Chinese speculators who trade stocks in their bathrobes.   Capital in China has just gotten a black eye.  China has also cut interest rates and loosened borrowing limits – yet wants to avoid more debt at the same time!  Schizophrenia.  As many have pointed out, once money is almost free and the markets are freeer from ‘moral hazard’ - what can a government do if the markets continue to drop?  Some of the largest bullets are then gone from ‘monetary’ policy.  This behavior by the Chinese central bank endangers the real Chinese economy.  Of course they have a mountain of cash they too are sitting on.

The stock, bond and commodity markets are the thermometer of capitalist health – and they are basically casinos at bottom.  Every time there is a panic, as the high speed computers trade millions of shares in split seconds, it only proves this. 

Commodities are also taking a beating.  The oil and coal industries are clocking out, while other commodities are dropping in value due to slowing economies.  Oil is again at record lows on the spot markets – below $40 a barrel.  This reflects a possible approaching recession, both around China and countries like Canada, our biggest trading partner.  The Saudi’s and OPEC have intentionally not limited oil production for political reasons – to hurt the Russian and Venezuelan economies.  Smaller U.S. oil / fracking outfits are idled or going bankrupt.  The ‘boom’ in North Dakota is being tempered.  One of the largest coal companies in the U.S. has recently declared bankruptcy, as solar and wind can compete economically.  No one is crying about that except the miners that are out of work – as capital has no plan to retrain them for another job.  Welcome to the ‘free’ market.

What are the capitalist corporations doing with their ocean of cash?  Stock buy-backs.  Not investing in plant, equipment or people – mostly just stock buy-backs, sitting on it or speculation in markets or real estate.  This is because the production of actual commodities – not financial commodities – is no longer profitable enough.  Build another factory?  Pshaw!  Labor productivity – which has helped corporations for many years make more money – has leveled off or is declining.  I.E. they have worked people’s brains and bones enough.  The environmental issue is also weighing on capital.  Basically it no longer sees a long-term future for its basic model, but can’t admit it.  The model is too rigid to change, so it just plunges ahead. 

This is the face of stagnation.  Everywhere you look both real and hidden debt is acting like a giant set of concrete shoes.  This mountain of debt – corporate, civilian and lastly government – is a sign that capital has no outlet in actual commodity production anymore.  It is instead as if a giant Hoover vacuum cleaner has sucked all the money up out of many municipalities, countries, workers, like a bloodsucker that needs a host.  What happens when the host is drying up?  The vampire bloodsucker can’t stop  - the system cannot ‘reform’ itself. 

Debt now reflects our almost French Revolution level of class stratification, as Piketty might point out.  Those below the top 10% of the society owe the most – if they have anything to owe, that is.  Now what did Marx say about debt?  Famously he described national debt as part of the ‘primitive accumulation’ process of capital. (in Capital, Vol.1)   He contended that ‘public’ debt was concomitant with the existence and growth of capitalism. 

National debts, i.e., the alienation of the state – whether despotic, constitutional or republican – marked with its stamp the capitalistic era.” - Marx

As to corporate / capitalist debt, he early identified credit as an absolutely necessary part of the circulation of capital, as the capitalist needed a bridge loan between the production of commodities and the realization of profits.  Hence credit had to become part of the ‘fictitious capital’ generated by the system.  Minsky, going Keynes one up, argued that financial capital had built-in boom-busts based on credit and debt.   This sounds suspiciously like Marx talking about production and over-production in the actual commodity economy.

Another form of debt is debt peonage for people (debt slavery) – and for whole nations.  See Greece.  The globalization of credit and debt is upon us. 

Lastly is individual debt.  Debt is now intimately intertwined with private property.  When Marx wrote Capital, the credit card, the mortgage and the auto loan were unknown.  So he does not focus on individual debt - but it fits the understanding quite easily.  Later Marxists have pointed out that capital engenders debt like a snake puts out venom.  Debt is now closely entwined with the population – through student loans, car loans, house loans, equipment or business loans and credit card debt.  This is because, as Monthly Review might point out, excess capital must find a use – and the use is to put everyone else in debt by issuing these loans. Which is why you see late night TV handing out loans on lawsuits or giving payday loans over the internet.  

As the British Marxist David Harvey said,
The perpetual accumulation of capital and of wealth is therefore crucially dependent upon the perpetual accumulation and expansion of debt.”

Debt has grown as wages and salaries have failed to keep pace with prices.  For workers, a loan of some kind became essential to survival.  So actually debt slavery is a bi-product of wage slavery, the commodity economy and the profit system - not some ahistorical issue.  Debt leads to the control and subsequent exploitation of labor.  This is not the position of anarchists like David Graeber, who think debt slavery came first and is essentially primary.  U.S. household debt was $12.8 trillion in 2006.  Imagine what it is now.

Without a program to cancel all debts to the banks this situation will only get worse.  Of course, that would bring down the capital system.  Exactly.

Reviews of "Debt" by David Graeber and "Flash Boys," by Michael Lewis, and commentaries on modern slavery, below.  

Red Frog
September 3, 2015