Saturday, October 29, 2016

An Impossible Situation

"The Good Person of Setzuan,” by Bertolt Brecht.  Frank Theatre Premiere, October 28, 2016  (Directed by Wendy Knox, adapted by Tony Kushner)

This is a long, somewhat archaic play that actually speaks directly to the present.  It deals with the structure of a world presided over by ‘gods’ who want humans to do ‘good’ -  yet a world in which it is impossible to survive while at the same time doing ‘good.’  Getting money is the catch and the play’s constant theme, which is why the play is still relevant.  Given that we have to go back to a play written by a German Communist in the late 1930’s to talk clearly about how economics affects people shows the sad state of present theater. 
The Water Seller and Shen Te
As Erik Wright said in his book ‘Understanding Class’ about game theory, Marxists deal with ‘systemic power’ – i.e. ‘what game should be played.’  They do not just deal with the accepted institutional ‘rules of a given game’ or the even more low-level situational ‘moves within the fixed set of rules.’  The game itself is the issue and this is Brecht’s ultimate point.  What game do you want to play?   

The play was staged in the empty Rainbow Foods building on Lake Street in Minneapolis.  This was a large store bought by a competitor that owned a Cub grocery across the street, then closed it intentionally in order to drive more business to Cub.  The union workers at Rainbow were laid-off in the process.  Frank has staged the resulting large empty space as a homeless encampment – tents, mattresses, sleeping bags, junk, shopping carts… perhaps a sly commentary on that act.  You walk through this on your way to the play’s real site – the loading dock/shipping and receiving area in the far back of the store.  The loading dock has stairways, a huge fan hole, the dock doors and upstairs rooms, which all serve as the set.  Frank in the past was known for this kind of industrial staging, especially with plays dealing with poverty or hard politics.

Poverty is the norm in Setzuan (the original German spelling).  Shen Te is a young prostitute who shows hospitality to 3 gods by housing them for one night, and is given silver dollars in return.  Previously she had to sell her body in order to survive, though she knew it was wrong and optimistically hopes to make a change for the better.  Shen Te takes the money and rents a store, stocking it with tobacco.  However a horde of homeless relatives show up, who take things, thieve up the street and threaten her new livelihood.  The former owner has unpaid bills to a carpenter she had not told Shen Te about and he comes demanding payment.  Her new rich landlord lady knocks and demands 6 months rent up front.  Shen Te gives money to a young man she has fallen in love with, Yang Sun, money she borrowed from neighbors so he can be a pilot in Peking.  She gives out rice to the homeless.  She says she will testify to the police for Wang, the water-seller, who has been injured by the rich barber. She buys water from the water-seller on a rainy day.  She makes a deal with the barber to house her homeless relatives in his unused buildings, almost promising to marry him in the process.  The neighborhood loves her for these acts.

However, all this ‘giving’ makes it impossible to survive running the store, so she dresses up and pretends to be a penny-pinching and hardened male cousin, Shui Ta, to save the business. Through this device, the store begins to turn a profit by ending the charity process, and instead Shui Ta plays financial hardball.  Shui Ta ultimately appropriates some tobacco bales and starts a tobacco factory, employing the relatives and others, including Yang, her ‘lover’, and becomes a successful business person in Setzuan – the ‘king’ of tobacco.  Through this dual-identity device the play becomes a reflection of the battle between altruism and exploitation, between love and economic survival, between capital and something else, playing out internally.

In this play, Brecht is saying that capitalism and mercantile trading economies ultimately shape the psychological and social characteristics of the people in the ‘game,’ no matter what the individuals want.  Implicitly, everyone in society has dirty hands and cannot be completely ‘good.’  Even Frank Theatre accepts corporate donations, as they themselves point out. The real issue then becomes the degree of dirt. The water-seller, Wang, is the only person who exploits no one, but lives in rags with a damaged hand, though some say the water he sells is tainted…   

At the end of the play, after the dual identities are revealed, the cast asks the audience to solve this contradiction. Brecht is obviously hoping audience members will think that perhaps the ‘game’ is the wrong game and that a society not based on money might be a better alternative.  Unfortunately for most, the audience will perhaps leaven their money-consciousness with a bit more kindness, but leave the game unchanged.

This was a premiere and still a bit rough, but that is normal.  The play has well-sung songs as do most Brecht plays, some modern, but the words were difficult to understand.  One of the best scenes, reminiscent of the play “Oil and The Jungle,” was the song the workers sing while handling tobacco.  The humor is intermittent, the actors serviceable, the setting familiar to anyone who has worked in shipping, but perhaps exotic for others.

The play will run for the next 4 weeks.

Prior reviews of Frank plays:  Love and Information” and “Things of Dry Hours.”  A U of M play, “Oil and The Jungle,” reviewed below, as well as the book “Understanding Class,” both referenced here.  Use blog search box, upper left. 

Red Frog
October 29, 2016

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

The ‘Harmonious Society’?

"China On Strike – Narratives of Workers’ Resistance,” edited by Hao Ren, Zohgjin Li and Eli Friedman

If Friedrich Engels was writing “The Condition of the Working Class in China” today he would use this book as some of his original source material.  This is a collection of interviews and some commentary on strikes in the Pearl River Delta around Shanghai, in Guangdong and Shenzhen provinces.  They reveal the actual conditions on the ground for the largest working class in the world.  Most of the strikes described here were from 2003 to 2011.  The authors contend that strikes are now more numerous and have moved into the interior of China.  This is because labor in the Delta has become more active and stronger, so factories there were shut down by capitalists to flee for safer havens. 
Real 'pink collar' workers in China
The conditions here are similar to what Engels described in the 1800s in England.  Rural workers forced into the city to work in factories – turning former peasants into factory laborers.  They then have to deal with forced overtime, bad food, low pay, illegalities, theft of wages, accidents, no unions, an unsympathetic government, police action, beatings, mass firings, hostile business owners and … growing resistance.

The strikes described here have a number of similar characteristics.  The workers telling the stories are mostly ordinary migrant workers, with only a few taking leading roles in strikes.  Most are from poor rural backgrounds forced to go to the city to earn money.  Most workers in these factories are young women, so their treatment is a proletarian feminist issue.  The strikes are mostly defensive and are similar to what happens at Wal-Mart or fast food franchises in the U.S., except more radical.  They involve factories of 30K to factories of 25.  Even one production line in a factory or smaller groups of workers will stop working.  They are mostly spontaneous, unorganized and militant strikes – what in the U.S. we call ‘wildcats.’  The workers block traffic, slow down production, shut off power, refuse to leave the plant or leave and don’t come back.  Sometimes a party or holiday atmosphere prevails.  Physical force is sometimes used in self-defense and bad supervisors are beaten in dark alleys.  The government unions are almost non-existent in these areas.  The police and other state forces are almost uniformly hostile.  Local government agencies like the ‘labor bureaus’ ignore the protests for the most part or urge workers to return to work as their ‘patriotic’ duty.  The media even informed on strikers in one instance, while in others they ignore the demonstrations. 

Workers in these stories did not fear being fired as much because there are so many factories that they could quit and go to another.  Many stories reflect workers going from factory to factory, although there are difficulties as companies will frequently not let them resign! The strikers fear being singled out, so they refuse to promote ‘representatives’ who will either sell them out or be attacked.  So they try to get the companies to negotiate with all of them.

The strikes are many times successful in small or even large ways, proving that shutting down production is what gets results – not filing lawsuits, petitions, arbitration or putting suggestions in a box.  However, no continuing organizations seem to exist.  Independent unions are not formed.  Independent socialist or worker’s organizations seem to be weak to non-existent and the evidence of a ‘left’ in the Chinese CP very elusive.  Yet the experience of the working class grows with each confrontation.  These actions were usually against private capitalist employers from Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Japan, Macau, even the U.S., but also Chinese capitalists.  Those tall, beautiful glass towers in Hong Kong harbor that tourists love to moon over are the result of labor exploitation just across the water!  The Chinese work stoppages are focused on the very large private factory sector.  The state sector, which had active strikes earlier in the decade, is not portrayed in these strikes, but the authors contend they are also being influenced by these acts of resistance.

Specifics:  Worms or insects in the dormitory or canteen food.  Workers paying for their own required clothing or health care, even due to accidents caused by working conditions.  Paying for hot water in the dormitories.  Frequent wage cuts.  A wage rise accompanied by benefits’ cuts.  Non-payment of wages for months.  Inept or domineering supervisors.  Working forced overtime every day – even up to 17 hours a day.  Factories that shut down without warning, while the bosses flee, equipment is moved and wages go unpaid.  In this latter case, local neighborhood committees or local governments attempt to make up the difference, but usually don’t do it completely.    

Of most significance is the fact that even if some factories have better conditions (usually the high-end sector related to direct U.S. products), they cannot break the overall compact among the capitalist sector, as too high wages or benefits undermines capitalist unity across these Chinese localities. Low wages are the foundation of the development of the modern Chinese working class.  Many of these smaller factories are sub-contractors for the major factories and brands.  As such, the whole sector must control overall conditions or perish. This is the reason no program that only deals unilaterally with Apple products or Nike workers can raise general conditions or even their conditions. 

Of most significance is the role of the bureaucratic ‘workers’ state.  It does not generally kill, shoot, jail, blacklist or outlaw these actions outright, as is done in many low-end capitalist countries like India, South Africa, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Indonesia, etc. This reflects its contradictory class nature. For instance, Chinese laws on minimum wages or overtime exist to ameliorate conditions for workers, yet they are not enforced by the government. Workers have to enforce them by their own actions.  As mentioned, sometimes stolen wages are recompensed by local governmental agencies or bodies - but not fully. Occasionally the police lay-off peaceful protesters, but this is rare.   

The general purpose of the Chinese state in these geographic areas is to enforce severe labor discipline for the benefit of foreign and local capitalists.  Just the government’s legal treatment of migrant rural workers during this period – the ‘hukou’ system - reflects its own hostility even to the farmer/peasant strata, the former main base of the Chinese CP.  These conditions indicate that the Chinese state is not in the hands of the Chinese working class, but a bureaucratic strata quite clearly separated from it.

This strata must and will be replaced in power by a true political revolution led by the Chinese working class - a class that we see here in action.   This political revolution will allow the development of proletarian political parties, working-class democracy, independent unions, factory and geographic counsels and revolutionary Marxist politics – not some pale imitation. These developments can then spread this revolution beyond the borders of modern China.

Other books on China reviewed below.  Use search box, upper left, with word 'China'. Also a reviews of "Revive the Strike," about U.S. issues, below.

And I bought it at Mayday Books!
Red Frog
October 25, 2016  

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Who is Lester Nygaard?

“Fargo,” HBO, Season One

I guess ‘binge watching’ really is a thing.  It occupies the time of many workers, not just kids or college students with too much time on their hands.  Sort of a drug, better than religion, a form of escape.  Escape from what, you might ask?  The present U.S. social reality is certainly one item to avoid by long stretches in the dark room of television.

Yah, its way cold...
I watched “Fargo” on HBO, Season One, a story that takes one season to tell – which is actually an innovation in long-form television, as most stories extend year to year.  The series is inspired by the film of the same name, and bills the Cohen brothers as producers.  The same exaggerated Minnesota accents, snow-scenes and winter highways populate this film, as well as the conventional homey interiors, bad food and mundane lives of small towns in the state.  Hey dere, it's pretty real! Why the film is called ‘Fargo’ when it is set nearly all in Minnesota is probably a joke.  At least to most Minnesotans, Fargo in North Dakota is a much more benighted place than Minnesota’s Iron Range.  ‘Fargo,’ then, is kind of a feeling.

The key character is a nebbish insurance salesman named Lester Nygaard, a good Minnesota name, who lives in Bemidji, a real northern Minnesota town.  You might remember the prior nebbish in the ‘Fargo’ film was an auto salesman, Jerry Lundegaard.  So ‘sales’ seems to be the province of conventionally nice but wimpy men - who you might have to be on 'guard' for.   Mild-mannered talkers, ya know.  These are not exactly working-class jobs but instead are jobs in which men attempt to ingratiate themselves for money.  After watching the whole series, you have to wonder – who IS this ‘typical’ small-town male?   Who is Lester Nygaard?

Into this idyll of conventionality roams death.  The reason Lester breaks the stereotype is he kills his irritating wife - and then is involved with a contract killer in the murder of the beloved chief of police and one of Bemidji’s leading creepy citizens, in a perfect non-conformist trifecta of violence, two of which take place over a few short minutes.  A stain of blood remains on Lester’s living room floor through the whole show, like some Lady Macbeth problem.  In “Deadwood” Swearingen was always wiping up blood stains on the wooden floors too, but here it takes Lester forever to even call a cleaning service.  Lester spends the rest of the series trying to hide his involvement, but then gets ‘too big for his britches,’ as they say in northern Minnesota, and that is his downfall.  How can something like this happen? 

The Cohen’s dark humor meditates on the ‘devil’ in a number of films, like Cormac McCarthy's ‘No Country For Old Men.’  Here there is indication that the devil is involved again, straight from the ‘garden of Eden.’  This is because the other key character is the sadistic killer Lorne Malvo, played by Billy Bob Thornton.  Malvo is a hired gun who is smarter and more ingenious than the slow-witted small-towners he deals with, which he proves while leaving bodies in his wake and not being caught.  Malvo escapes time and time again, making the FBI, some random hired syndicate killers and local Bemidji and Duluth police look like amateurs.  Which they are.  (Mal means ‘bad’ in French.)

Sensing a weak but ‘kindred’ soul, Malvo takes Lester under his wing and helps him cover up his murder of his wife.  Note that the initial dead are all the key authority figures in small towns – the top cop, the richest businessman and the queen of ‘home-life’ – the wife.  The real mystery is why this small-town schlup would work with a big-city assassin.  Evidently Lester’s marriage was a really bad marriage – and Lester didn’t know divorce existed.  Or perhaps … and I think this is the Cohen brothers point here … the ‘devil’ is in superficially ‘nice people who are really sociopathic creeps underneath.  So it is a slam against Small Town America, which is populated by criminal syndicates (!) and defective losers.  Anyone reading the news knows that in the racist imagining gruesome murders, abductions and shootings are only the province of black neighborhoods in big cities. But they actually happen in sleepy little white burgs.  Then everyone says – and this happens even in the city: “He seemed like such a nice guy.”  Because it’s usually some ‘nice’ white guy who kept the curtains drawn.

Lester compounds his arrogance by eventually antagonizing Malvo in Las Vegas while Malvo is slickly setting up another profitable murder.  This fit of hubris leads to the death of Lester’s pretty Asian second wife – something Lester saw coming and avoided like a coward, sending his wife in his place.  So who is this detestable coward, Lester Nygaard? 

The pretension of the film is that it is a ‘true’ story, a statement which is part of the introduction for each episode.  This is not true, as nothing like this has ever happened in Minnesota.  A wood-chipping did take place on the East Coast in Newton, Connecticut, perhaps inspiring the initial story. Is this purely a cultural creation to perhaps undermine ‘small town values’ that are so celebrated, even though small towns are some of the most clannish and limited places in the country? No.  The dénouement turns that on its head.  One of the most frightened characters, a former Duluth animal control officer, surprises and kills Malvo on his own. So Small Town America ultimately gets its revenge on the big city and on one of its own traitors – though it takes awhile.

Who is Lester Nygaard?  The people of Bemidji are polite, humane, persistent but somewhat clueless at the same time. He is actually quite devious.  Nygaard himself is desperate to pretend nothing happened, to get back to normality while proving he is a ‘man,’ not just a salesman.  Lester ultimately comes across as part of the ‘diseases’ of the big city – divorce, violence, self-centeredness, deception.  The Cohens have crafted a conservative morality tale of murder and retribution where ‘small town values’ win. 

A great story, but not quite true.

I’ve lived in a number of small towns.  ‘Small town values’ are what is thrown into the face of leftists and liberals quite frequently by Republican politicians, and even some Democrats.  Given very little of the population of Minnesota and nearly every other state lives in a small town anymore, it is somewhat of an ‘anti-democratic’ plea.  Small towns don’t normally have factories, are dominated by a few wealthy families that own the biggest stores, ranches or farms and work with other small businessmen to run the towns.  The culture is limited to drinking in bars and television and perhaps hunting and fishing.  Young people escape if they can.  Most working-class people are dependent on the boss who ‘gives’ them a paycheck, so they normally see things the boss’s way. Outsiders are just that – outsiders.  Anti-intellectualism is normal.  Religion is still taken seriously.  Mostly these towns in the U.S. are white or white-dominated, as in the South.  There are of course some benefits to small towns, but politics is not one of them.   

So I’m thinking my take on ‘small town values’ really lean more to Sinclair Lewis’s version than the Cohen’s version.  Sinclair Lewis made fun of the small town U.S. in the novels "Babbitt," and "Main Street," his fictional recreation of the insular and business boosterism of towns like Sauk Centre, Minnesota.  There are large bits here of this view in "Fargo", but ultimately the 'salt of the earth' prevail.  Whether they really should or not is another matter. 

Reviewed below:  Prior Cohen film: “Hail Cesar.”  Cormac McCarthy’s “Child of God,” “Suttree,” “The Road” and “All the Pretty Horses.”  Other television long-form dramas reviewed – “Deadwood,” “Game of ThronesandThe Wire.   

Red Frog
October 20, 2016

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Religion Scores Again

Female Genital Mutilation  (FGM) II

I am following up on a previous post on this brutal practice directed against women mostly in the global South, but also in diasporas in the global North.  That post took issue with the claim that FGM was a 'cultural' ‘African’ practice, a perhaps racist idea put forward by a celebrated liberal apologist for religion, Reza Aslan.  Aslan is an Iranian-American religious studies scholar that converted to Evangelical Christianity and appears as a liberal Christian on many television programs.  He serves to give an intellectual cover for all religions.  Not coincidentally, he is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, (CFR) one of top organizations which the ruling class uses to … rule.  Odd, that, but shows to what extent the ruling class embraces religion.

200 million women & girls have been subjected to various forms of this bloody procedure.  Its effect is deleterious to a women’s physical, emotional and sexual health.  It is meant quite clearly to destroy women’s sexual desire so that they will not ‘stray’ from a marriage.  It is one of the most damaging male chauvinist practices on earth, right up there with honor killings and mutilations and rape.  A recent survey conducted by the Population Council centered on Africa shows a very close symbiosis between Islam and FGM in this central African geographic area.  The survey is hampered by lack of information from some countries, and exclusion of other parts of the world, like south and southeast Asia.

Here is the map:
 What does the map tell you about the relation between Islam and FGM?  Here are the percents of Muslim residents, per country, per Wiki.

Highest Green Level of FGM:
Somalia – 99% Muslim
Sudan – 97% Muslim
Djibouti – 94% Muslim
Mali – 90% Muslim
Egypt – 88% Muslim, rest Coptic/Orthodox
Guinea – 85% Muslim
Sierra Leone – 78% Muslim, 20% Christian
Eritrea – 48% Muslim per US Govt.

Next Highest Brown Level of FGM:
Mauritania – 100% Muslim
Burkina Faso – 60.5% Muslim
Ethiopia – 33% Muslim, 43% Ortho Christian

Yellow Level of FGM: 
Chad – 53% Muslim
Cote d’Ivoire – 40.2% Muslim

So just starting with Somalia, it is a 99% Muslim country in which 98% of the girls are cut.  A large number of Somalis have moved to Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA, my home town.   It is widely known here that some girls are sent back from Minneapolis to Somalia for ‘vacations’ in which they are mutilated, then flown back.  This shows the extent to which this tragic practice is ingrained in the religious/ethnic culture. 

There is missing data on other Gulf countries, but some is available.  In Oman, 90% of females have been mutilated (Oman is right next to Saudi Arabia). Kurdistan has a 72% level of FGM in some areas.  Many Kurds practice Sunnia and Shia brands of Islam.  In Kuwait, 38% of Sunni women have been subjected to the process.  Yemen has 30% rates.  And so on.  These are all Islamic-dominated countries with almost no Africans.  

What is clear here is that Islam plays a major role in the perpetuation of FGM, as mostly Muslim countries rank the highest in its prevalence.  This contradicts Azlan’s contention that it is a purely ‘African’ practice.  It is a practice which is 'unique' to central Africa where Islam is predominant.  It is not prevalent in all of Africa, which indicates it is not merely 'African.'

If we look at the statistics in south and southeast Asia – which are not on this map, and where there are few Africans or of African descent – the prevalence of FGM there is more obviously linked to Islam. 

India – 97% of Bohra Shia females. 
Pakistan - Overwhelming majority of Bohra Shia females.
Indonesia – 97% of Muslim females.
Malaysia – 93% of Muslim females.
Wikipedia notes that FGM is practiced by many Muslim communities in other south-east Asian countries, but they do not have exact statistics. 

Obviously Christianity and animist religions also play a role in Africa, especially in Egypt, Ethiopia, Eritrea and Kenya, which says something about religion in general.  Religion itself leaves the door open to the oppression of women, as demonstrated by the practice of FGM by religious groups, but especially Islamic ones.  Mistreatment of women is the Achilles heel of all conservative religious tendencies – including Christian, Jewish, Mormon, Amish et al.  But its high prevalence among Muslim communities indicates a oppressive male attitude towards women on the part of the ruling elite.  This is something progressives and feminists cannot ignore, no matter how much Islam stylizes itself as the ‘religion of peace.’   

This  of course does not negate defending Muslim people from violent attacks and police actions in the U.S. or abroad carried out by imperial or chauvinist forces.  

P.S. - Recently the Russian government found out that FGM is common in Dagestan, a republic on the Caspian Sea.  There is an Islamist/Salfist insurgency there similar to Chechnya.  It intends to implement Sharia even against the Sufis and other ethnicities who are more secular.  Dagestan is 83% Muslim.

Red Frog
October 13, 2016

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Mao Holds Up Half the Sky

“Maoism & the Chinese Revolution, a Critical Introduction,” by Elliot Liu, 2016

Liu is a council communist who has written a short and concise critique of Maoism, centered on both ideological and historical highlights of the Chinese Revolution.  He is sympathetic to the revolution but hampered by a vague and idealistic understanding of what ‘state capitalism’ is.  Nevertheless this is a valuable book that allows the weaknesses of Maoism to be evident.

Mao Zedong in Feb 1952
Given the majority of people in the world now live in cities; that ‘guerilla warfare’ as a mode of social revolution is now very limited; that ‘national liberation’ for the most part has been formally won; that China itself has the largest working-class in the world, Maoism as a complete ideology of guerrilla war, national liberation and a mostly peasant base has very little future.  Even Maoism’s recent victory in Nepal is chastened by that government’s embrace of neo-liberal methods under the guise of what they might call ‘new democracy.’  The course of the revolution in China to this day also serves as a profound example of its contradictions. 

The thread that runs through the whole book is that Mao Zedong's ideas of socialism and class struggle was always dependent on control by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) – and that anything that got outside of its control had to be ultimately squashed.  This contradictory strategy ultimately allowed a bureaucracy in the Communist Party to strangle the activity of the working class and substitute itself, instead of leading that struggle.  This, as we have seen from counter-revolutions in the USSR and Eastern Europe and the recent trajectory of the CCP, results in the strengthening of capitalism, even within a workers state. 

Liu traces a direct line from Stalin's bureaucratic ideas derived from the USSR to Mao’s adoption and also rejection of some of those same methods and ideas.  In essence Liu understands that Mao used Stalinist methods to critique bureaucracy and Stalinism.  This is especially seen in the experiences of the 1949 military victory, the “Great Leap Forward,” the “100 Flowers” campaign and the Cultural Revolution itself. 

Mao broke with the flawed strategy of the USSR after the Comintern’s representative, Mikhail Borodin, forced the CP to make a popular front with the Kuomintang (“KMT”), the party of the Chinese bourgeoisie, in the 1920s. The KMT was even inducted into the Comintern!  This led to the slaughter of the cream of the Chinese working class in Shanghai in 1927 by the KMT. This was depicted in the book “Man’s Fate” by Andre Malraux and included the destruction of many Trotskyist cadres.  After that awful defeat, Mao made his turn to the peasantry, declared independence from the KMT and perfected guerilla war.  As Liu notes, the CCP that Mao built at that time was only made up of 1% working-class cadre.  This essentially changed a key class component of the CCP. 

Liu critically discusses  Maoist ideas like ‘new democracy,’ the ‘mass line,’ the ‘united front,’ guerilla war, his flawed struggle against bureaucracy and Mao’s idealist version of dialectics.  Liu especially discusses the ambivalent practice towards women's liberation by the CCP.  Mao’s concept of ‘new democracy’ meant uniting with the ‘progressive’ or ‘patriotic’ elements of the capitalist class to govern society.  His concept of the ‘united front’ was not a unity of proletarian, middle class or peasant forces, but also included the same elements of the Chinese bourgeoisie.  These were essentially cross-class ideas that grew out of the war against the Japanese invasion of China, but also existed before that – just as Stalin had moved to the same position, really called the ‘popular front.’  The CCP prevented land and factory takeovers and the formation of Soviets or counsels by the militant Chinese working class and peasantry.   In the process of the national liberation war against Japan, the CCP had to militarily fight the KMT as well, showing another flaw in the theory.   This was similar to the Stalin's method in Spain, which resulted in the victory of counter-revolution there.   

The revolution in 1949 was won under the banner of 'new democracy' but the CCP did nationalize the majority of capitalist enterprises, thereby breaking that compact.  Liu compares the 1950s “Great Leap Forward” to the forced collectivization seen under Stalin, especially as it relates to the mass blood and damage caused. 
Shanghai Commune - Independent of CCP
The most interesting parts of the book are events during the 1960s Cultural Revolution – a failed attempt by Mao and the ‘Gang of Four” to restrain bureaucracy in China (which Liu calls ‘state capitalists’).  Liu describes a mass workers Commune that formed in Shanghai in 1967, to Liu a form of ‘dual power.’   Mass working class and peasant organizations developed in various parts of China, especially in Hunan, led by the “Red Flag Army,” “Xian River Storm” and a united front called ‘Shengwulian.’  However these were outside the direct control of the CCP and so Mao opposed them, and came up with a plan that all control should involve the CCP, the Army and representatives of the workers or peasants.  Of course, any vote would be lost by the latter in these ‘committees of three.’  And so the Cultural Revolution was buried by its author.  Liu saw it as an attempt to build one wing of the CCP – Mao’s - not ultimately to ‘correct’ the bureaucracy. 
In 1971 Mao decided the USSR was the ‘main’ enemy of the world’s working classes and began blocking with the U.S. after the Nixon visit.  Chinese support for international revolutions were paltry to non-existent during this period, given their theory they could build socialism in China alone.  After Mao died in 1976 the conservative bureaucratic faction of the CCP took over, led by Deng Tsiao-ping, and have retained power since.  The Chinese working class is still massive, restive and able to organize.  However they have been consistently demobilized by the CCP majority.  Without that class coming into actual direct power, hopefully with a wing of the CCP coming along, the descent of China into full counter-revolution and full capitalism is far more possible. 

Other valuable books on this topic:  Problems of the Chinese Revolution” by Leon Trotsky; “The Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution” by Harold Isaacs & Liu Renjin.

Other books on China reviewed below:  The Rise of China and the Demise of the Capitalist World Economy,” “The Fall of Bo Xilai & the Chongqing Model,” “The End of the Revolution. 

And I bought it at Mayday Books!
Red Frog
October 8, 2016

Saturday, October 1, 2016

The Real Thing

"Night Shift – 270 Factory Stories,” by David Macaray, 2015

This entertaining book can be read in chunks, which makes it easy reading.  It contains scrambled anecdotes from almost 30 years of working at a union paper mill in San Remo, California, from 1972 until the late 1990s.  The stories reflect on the odd people and conflicts found in blue-collar factories.  Some of them center on Macaray's experiences as a union shop steward and union president.  They paint a picture of the cultural life of workers during that time and the attitudes of management and the white collars – the ‘suits’ and ‘shirts’ – to all this.  Anyone reading it who worked in factories will be hit with the familiarity.  It also tracks how factory life changed from the wide-open 1970s, when workers were far more free to be themselves, to the constricted corporate control exercised in the 1990s, as corporate management gained power.  Macaray calls the present situation ‘industrial fascism’ to indicate the change. 
Break Time Stories
Macaray has a good sense of humor and structures some of these incidents around some surprising joke or comment involving a co-worker.  Bad relationships, drug and alcohol use, sexism, the importance of food, inter-union conflicts, odd ideas floating through the plant, the freedom to say whatever you want, personality quirks, misplaced anger, physical fights between employees, the problems of actually going on strike, hard work, long hours, accidents, obnoxious managers and union members – the whole human mess.  As Trotsky once remarked, nothing human is foreign to Marxists and this book is proof. 

Macaray started as a steward and ended up being union president for a time.  He details some of his personal mistakes based on his opinionated personality.  He also makes some very astute but small points about what it takes to actually do those jobs well.  He is evidently versed in socialism but was really a liberal Democrat, and seems to have brought a kind of realist progressivism to his job.  His union, the ‘WCPA’, (which seems to be a non-existent moniker, perhaps really the ‘Association of Western Pulp & Paper Workers Union’) was more progressive and democratic than most. It came out of a west coast split in the 1960s from a more conservative paper-workers union.  Macaray had some opinions about union work.  His comment about contract negotiations?  They were a ‘study in deprivation,’ where the union gets less than it wants or needs.  He notes that federal  mediators have no other interest except ending a strike. Regarding the dreaded OSHA, unlike their supposed role of making factories safer, instead tells workers they will just have to protect themselves.  He points out that strikes, even in an industry like paper, do not actually work well unless many other things are in play.

During Macaray’s working days there were 700 factory workers and 300 white collars in the paper plant, making diapers, toilet paper, feminine hygiene products, paper towels and tissue, 24 hours a day, running 3 shifts.  The white collars are at times pictured as arrogant and clueless towards the plant workers.  He pictures essentially a large human community in which the union plays a key role in handling the most trivial issues to the most complex.  The company - an unnamed ‘Fortune 500” entity - is not always hostile or insensitive, but Macaray points out that at contract time they were never afraid to threaten a shut-down due to the ostensible ‘cost’ of the mill.  He emphasizes that, barring a few lumpen criminals, the workers there were proud of their skills and hard work, and always tried to do their best in trying circumstances – especially when the archaic or high-speed machinery broke down.  They were well-paid and had good union benefits, which is why so few quit.

I’ll retail one story:  Some young white engineers were sitting in the lunch-room, drinking Cokes on a Saturday.  3 young Latino janitors sat down at a table across from the engineers.  The janitors bought tuna sandwiches from the vending machines (the kitchen was closed that day)  and put hot sauce on the tunafish.  The look on the engineers faces said it all:  “If you can’t even eat a fucking tuna sandwich without desecrating it, you have no business in this country.”

And another:  A veteran of the Korean war was kept on by the company because of his service, even though he was an alcoholic.  He wore the 2nd thickest glasses in the factory.  However he was late or missing once a week.  The union couldn’t do anything about this, nor did they want to.  Ultimately new managers fired him and he ended up selling t-shirts at festivals or buying TVs and raffling them off in bars.  He died after being beaten in a bar fight at the age of 60. 

Macaray makes blue-collar workers ‘visible’ and human – no small feat in this time of bourgeois consumerism, not proletarian laborism.  According to him, the San Remo plant is still there and this community continues to this day, unlike so many others.   

Many similar themes also pop up in the fiction book ‘Factory Days,’ announced below.   

Books on similar topics reviewed below:  Reviving the Strike,” “Class Against Class,” “Save Our Unions,” “Embedded With Organized Labor,” “Chavs”, “Class Action" and “Southern Insurgency.”  Use blog search box, upper left. 

And I bought it at Mayday Books!
Red Frog
October 1, 2016