Sunday, June 25, 2017

Punk Never Dies

“Subculture – the Meaning of Style,” by Dick Hebdige, 1979

Most people are vaguely aware that sub-cultures exist in many countries, and that they pose somewhat subversive issues to the main-stream culture – whatever that may be.  Hebdige, a British cultural studies intellectual influenced by Marxism, concentrates in this seminal book on UK sub-cultures like the Teddy Boys, Rastas, mods and punks as examples of how ‘style’ issues become translated into a certain political attitude.  “The Personal Is the Political” is an old slogan, but as the majority wake up to how politics infects everything, it has become pertinent again.

Are you in a sub-culture?
Hebdige ignores hippies in his analysis, but of course hippies were the classic and even world-wide phenomenon of an oppositional sub-culture within developed capitalist societies.  Bikers, queer culture, rabid Christian cults, survivalists – and plenty of others – all exist at certain levels in the U.S. and can be both conservative or liberal.  Hebdige concentrates on working-class sub-cultures in the U.K. and their social meanings – many times connected to music and clothes.  His touchstones are Roland Barthes “Mythologies,’ Antonio Gramsci’s idea of ‘hegemony’ and gay French novelist Jean Genet’s writings from prison.  ‘Culture’ as defined here means the whole range of social being, not just ‘high culture.’  Hebdige ultimately gets himself and the reader tied in verbal intellectual knots as he attempts to understand these subcultures through post-modernist theory, but ultimately returns to his Birmingham-school Marxism. 

Ideology operates as ‘common sense’ in most societies.  Hebdige partly uses semiotics to translate the social impact of hairstyles, or even the architectural layout of a college campus, to decipher unsaid meanings.   Every sub-culture has an internally consistent logic that covers many aspects of life.  He first focuses on the role of West Indian / Caribbean black culture, which impacted the white working class in England, especially the youth.  White punks adopted reggae for instance, showing that ‘identity’ can transfer across ethnicities.  As we know from Thomas Frank’s “The Conquest of Cool,” nearly any cultural rebellion can be commodified by capital. For instance, punk fashion found its way onto the high-fashion runways through people like Jean Paul Gaultier.  In a way, the dominant culture has a vampiric relation to sub-cultures, borrowing bits of their vitality for its own commercial and artistic uses.  But this process is never immediate or complete. 

1976 in Britain saw that hot summer explode into riots and punk.  Hebdon looks at the development of many music forms in this period which paralleled the growth of sub-cultures – northern soul, punk, reggae, ska – and how ‘blackness’ became the ultimate subterranean identity, which white youth either embraced or rejected in a dialectical process.  This also happened in the U.S. beginning with hipsters and beatniks back in the 1950s.  Teds and skinheads rejected black culture, while mods and punks embraced parts of it.  Rock Against Racism grew out of this fusion.  The glam and glitter rockers – Bowie led!- actually are identified by Hebdon as those who moved the the focus from class and politics to sexuality and identity.   Bowie represented a more middle-class ‘sub-culture.'  

Hebdon points out that sub-cultures are always historically specific – and not just based on some generalization like ‘youth.’  Many of these working-class subcultures were responses to the economics of England after WWII, and the severe changes in working-class life.  The world of the ‘home, pub and working-mans club’ was disappearing in the face of austerity and the cultural politics of the bourgeois media.  Punk was the primary ‘spectacle’ that arose in response to the degeneration of working-class life, and Hebdon digs into it deeply.  Even language, as we know, is part of a sub-culture, and punk had its own verbalisms, including much swearing. Hebdon thinks that punk ultimately had elements of nihilism, not just rebellion. Shock became the point of some; punk became modern Dada.  Because of this, the hegemonic cultural system tried to turn punk into a clown show, which is one way sub-cultures can be undermined by the dominant culture. To this day, punk still exists -  just visit the crusties in Kensington Street in Toronto.

Jean Genet actually wrote an introduction to “Soledad Brother,” a book of letters by George Jackson, a Black Panther murdered by the state back in the 1960s.  This odd pairing actually implies that parts of black culture in the U.S. are also part of a very large ‘sub-culture’ subversive to corporate culture or capitalist ‘normality,’ just as gay culture once was.  Latino culture represents another strain. This is an odd thought to have.  But as someone who has been a hippie, a motorcylist and a leftist – three subcultures in the U.S. - many of us belong to something out of the mainstream.  Ethnicities form massive sub-cultures and this point is often ignored.  Hebon’s point about West Indians in the U.K. is also relevant to the U.S. black, native and Latino populations.  The former was the basis, at one time, for the proposal for a ‘black nation’ in the ‘black belt’ across the South – a black belt which no longer really exists geographically, but still exists culturally.

Other books on "Chavs," British motorcycling gangs and British soccer 'hooligans,' reviewed below.  Use blog search box, upper left.

Red Frog
June 25, 2017

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Something's Happenin' Here ...What It Is Ain't Exactly Clear...

“The People’s Summit,”

I did not attend this conference, which took place in Chicago on the weekend of June 9-11.  But clearly something is still going on in the wider world of the U.S. left.

All the ‘superstar’ left-liberals were there – Sanders, Greenwald, Klein, Sirota, Van Jones, Goodman, Piven, McGibben, Glover, Van Heuvel, Frank, Zirin, Jealous, Zogby.  OOOH! There were a high proportion of actors and actresses too, oddly enough, but given the weight Hollywood has in the Democratic Party, that would be expected.  We on the ‘hard left’ call these people the ‘soft left,’ as they straddle the fence between anti-capitalism and pro-capitalism.  Their careers would be in the toilet if they adopted the former, but they can’t help themselves going part of the way.  I critically review many of their books because the intent of this blog is to move normal working-class people beyond comfortable left-liberalism.  But you can’t do that without ‘intersecting’ with the liberal-left, which does have valuable things to say.

At the Summit, Sanders excoriated the Democratic Party for losing so many elections and he also refrained from promising to bring millions into the Democratic fold.  Democrats only have their 'power' and winning to cite, so this hits particularly hard.  However the basic intent of this conference is to prepare new candidates to run as ‘left’ Democrats, so a level of sheep-herding is still the basic plan.  Several prospective candidates or winners were on hand.  Activity on the left of the Democratic Party is inevitable in the run up to the formation of an independent, class-based party, so this turmoil is indicative.  It is also possible that a ‘left’ section of the Democrats will split off at some point.

People’s Party
There was a counter-trend at the ‘Summit’, as a section of the conference campaigned for a “People’s Party” by drafting Bernie Sanders as its leader.  This effort was led by a former Sanders staffer, Nick Brana.  The head of National Nurses United (NNU), Roseann Demoro, endorsed the independent “Draft Bernie” idea, and asked Sanders from the podium if he would support it.  No answer from Sanders of course. NNU had 1,000 nurses attending out of the 4,000 total attendees.   Brana has said that even if Sanders doesn’t get on-board, they will go ahead to form a populist People’s Party.  What that will look like is unknown at present, but it certainly is a step to some kind of mass opposition party.  However, if it follows Sanders’ program exclusively, it will be born with deformations.

Sanders is problematic at this point.  He is the most popular politician in the U.S. (admittedly a low bar) and also the most prominent ‘in-house’ critic of the Democrats, even though he’s not an official Democrat…!  Sanders has a standard social-democratic domestic policy with many progressive features, though he seems to be backsliding on socialized medicine right now.  He does not support nationalization of rogue industries or essentially public industries as well.  However Sanders’ foreign policy is an endorsement of imperial and military actions by the U.S. - a symptom of social-patriotism.  As anyone politically aware knows, there is a deep economic, social and political connection between U.S. foreign and domestic policy.   Without an attack on both, not artificial walling off of one from the other, no progress can be made domestically or internationally. 
Social Patriotism
Sanders’ roots are in social-democratic practice, which is social-patriotic in essence.  This schizophrenic bifurcation allows Sanders to become popular more easily, but ultimately bars the road to any significant social progress in the U.S. - not to mention the rest of the world.  Jeremy Corbyn of the British Labour Party understands the links between foreign and domestic policy, as does Jean-Luc Melenchon of the French “Unbowed France” Party (which was endorsed by nearly all of the French left.)  Given left socialism is strong in both organizations, it shows lazy comparisons between Sanders and Corbyn or Melenchon only go so far.  The European left is far ahead of the U.S. left in this and other respects – as it has always been.

At any rate, one of the other dividing lines between the soft left and the hard left is the issue of the Democrats.  They are the ‘donkey’ in the room.  People bitch about this being a ‘focus’ all the time, like they are tired of the debate.  However, the reason the debate does not go away is because the Democrats are a failure for workers no matter their ethnicity, and have been for many, many years.  As the call from the People’s Party advocates went:   “…corporate money is not a distinct, corrupted organ of the (Democratic) party that can be surgically removed from an otherwise healthy body. Corporate money is the party.”

The Labor Party
In the past I’ve pointed out to people in the labor movement and leftists who want a ‘labor party’ that the main impulse for independent  political action right now will probably come from outside of the official labor movement.   The AFL-CIO is still deeply in the pocket of the Democrats unfortunately, but they can be lured away, bit by bit.  The Sander’s campaign was part of the ferment for actual political change in this country – not the Democratic Party Potemkin Village of ‘change’ and ‘hope,’ but something a bit more real.  As the involvement of unions and now the NNU shows, labor is a key component in this ferment.  They ultimately are THE key component to any revived class struggle against the rich white male billionaires who control this country now and founded this country 243 years ago.

“Intersectionality’ – an academic phrase that left-liberals adore – is a concept that only goes part way to understanding how to move forward.  The reason is that class is not just ‘one among many’ in this mixture, but the primary intersection.  I’ll show you why.  Let us take the “$15 Now” campaign.  Ostensibly only an ‘economic demand,’ if it is won it benefits low-paid workers the most.  Those would mostly be black, Latino and immigrants from Africa primarily.  But as anyone knows, many white workers also labor for pittances.   So it unites the ‘class’ on an ostensibly economic issue, but actually attacks the material foundation of racism the most.  

The problem with ‘intersectionality’ is that it is not a materialist approach, and assumes the oppression of women, gays, black, Latino, indigenous and African labor to be independent of economics.  It assumes that, instead of the deep profiteering generated by the super-oppression of non-whites or women, that that oppression is just the result of white people’ s ‘bad ideas’ or meanness  or stupidity.  All of this is idealist claptrap ultimately.    Yes, there are plenty of bad ideas, meanness and stupidity to go around, but racism and sexism are institutionalized in the U.S. – by the economy, the courts, the schools, the police, the state – for economic purposes.   It is part of the foundation of this ‘great Republic” since the beginning. So these bigoted ‘ideas’ ultimately serve the profit system.   “Intersectionality’ as conventionally presented ignores the whole capitalist profit system and ultimately fails as a way of understanding how to move forward.  

The other failure of intersectionality is strategic.  For instance, Black oppression cannot be solved by black people alone.  It is actually part of the way the whole class is divided and weakened.   White workers MATERIALLY lose because of black super-oppression.   Just look at conditions in the South or any industry where cheap labor is employed or where communities are treated brutally by police or through environmental racism.  Police violence is ultimately a form of labor control, for instance. Instead of appealing to white guilt (something white upper-class liberals love), appeals to white workers on a grounded MATERIAL basis will be more successful in fighting racism.  Unions, the most integrated organizations in this country, understand this.  The greatest unity and strength is to understand that racism hurts everyone but the capitalists.  That may be a cliché, but it has definitely been ignored.  It doesn’t ignore super-oppression of non-whites, it only shows how the whole society is affected.  And that should be the real goal of ‘intersectionality’ instead of burying economics.

Resistance & Revolution
The People’s Summit was sponsored by NNU, “Our Revolution,” DSA, UE, Move-On, Presente, Our Walmart and others.  These are groups that claim to be part of the “Resistance” to Trump.  Perhaps they include that other ‘resistor’ Hillary Clinton and perhaps they don’t.  But if they work in the Democratic Party, she and her allies are unfortunate comrades. The term ‘Resistance’ comes from the French Resistance in WW2 – which was led by Communists in opposition to Petain and fascism.  It should be noted that there are no reds running this new ‘resistance’.  Instead it is a ‘resistance’ mostly directed at the Republicans, not the whole system. Sanders’ group ‘Our Revolution” is also committed to the Democratic Party at this point.  No matter how many times they excoriate the Democratic top donors, corporate base, neo-liberal politics and top officials, they are also still ‘comrades.’  And this makes a mockery of the term “revolution” too.  A real political revolution in the U.S. would involve the replacement of the capitalist parties in power, not by working within one capitalist party to promote it.  A social revolution would involve the overthrow of the private property system in favor of a collectively owned and controlled economy, not by pushing illusions that capital will become ‘nice.’

Neither is the goal of “Our Revolution” at present.  As you can see, both of these terms have been co-opted. 

The more proletarian elements in the People’s Congress – and I do not include the listed hot-shot super-stars – could be moving in the direction of political independence, as shown by the support for the People’s Party.   UE has always been for a Labor Party, and now NNU is moving in that direction. The left should keep a good eye on what is going on in this grouping, as part of a real Resistance could emerge from it.

Unity Around Jentzen
 Ginger Jentzen
Locally, leftists and unionists finally got together to support a socialist and anti-capitalist program – without the Democratic Party.  A large fundraiser was held for Ginger Jentzen at Mayday Books on Thursday, June 16.  She is running for the 3rd Ward council seat in Minneapolis, MN, USA as a socialist, as a prime mover of “$15 Now” in the city and as an advocate for rent control and fighting the capitalists who run Minneapolis.  May Day Books, Socialist Action (SA), the local Democratic Socialists of America (DSA-M), International Socialist Organization (ISO) and Socialist Alternative (SA) have all endorsed her.  More importantly, Minnesota Nurses United (MNU), the Communication Workers of America (CWA) and the United Transportation Union (UTU) have all endorsed Jentzen too.  What Minneapolis needs is a socialist in the city council once again.  If she wins, politics in Minneapolis will radically change in favor of working-class people.

Red Frog
June 18, 2017

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

I Come From the American Empire

Cornell West in Toronto, Canada

A public event last week at the 86th Canadian Humanities Congress at Ryerson University featured Cornel West, probably one of the best public speakers in the U.S.  The organizers were not prepared for the overflow crowds, budgeting a room holding only 500 people.  Given the present political situation, more and more people are coming out of their isolation to grapple with issues like racism and classism, and they caught the academics unaware in Toronto.

“I Come from the American Empire.” were his first words...
Uncle Cornel Wants You
West is the fiery preacher, the verbal jazzman, the learned academic, the prodigious memory bank, the concise analyst, the person who is not afraid to target liberal shibboleths.  You might call him a Christian socialist, or you might not, but he’s definitely one of the speakers you should hear in your life.  His speeches are punctuated by a wide array of quotations from writers, activists and philosophers.  He praised the Humanities Congress, while pointing out that words like ‘diversity’ (which were highlighted in his introduction) are merely stale euphemisms for dealing with issues like racism, sexism and homophobia.  He took questions from the audience and handled odd interjections and bad politics well.  He did not agree with a speaker who insisted that his religion (Islam) was never violent.  West indicated, as a Christian, that Christianity and every religion include many who are full of violent hatred.  He pointed out to a young student that thinking white academics can never be allies or ‘know’ anything is a failing position.   

West is the ‘love’ man, after all, and not a black nationalist.  He has a position that without a united front of all ethnicities against Wall Street and the “1%,” based on principled demands, no peaceful revolution or even resistance can occur.  This is similar to the policies of Bernie Sanders, who West supported in the Democratic primaries.  It is similar to the combined class and ethnicity position of Marxists, but in a somewhat less class conscious manner.

West loves music and references blues, jazz or R&B constantly.  At one point he said he could sit down and play Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” and not talk, because that album says it all for him.  (Of course it IS one of the greatest jazz albums of all time.)  His speechifying is not purely logical, but plays ‘riffs’ that return, improvising in a flow, with ‘choruses’ that appear at an end.  Jokes abound.  He insulted Stephen Harper of the Conservative Party by calling him a ‘smart Trump.’  He remarked that every black person should get a ‘standing ovation’ for not deciding to resort to constant violence.  Most of the Toronto press, as would be predicted, did not cover his speech, except for one snarky corporate site. 

West repeated his opposition to the corporate politics of Barack Obama, but said he would ‘give his life to save the brother’ from the police. He recently got into a yelling match with Democratic Party blowhard Bill Maher over this.  In his speech in Toronto he even pointed out that Malcolm X had some sexist positions.  WEB Dubois was the ‘exemplar’ that he structured the speech around, in the process giving ‘exemplars’ like Beyonce short shrift.  He highlighted Gandhi’s support of the Hindu caste system, and approvingly name-checked Gandhi’s opponent on this issue, Ambedkar.  He praised Canada’s health care system, calling for it in the U.S.  He referenced the incarceration state in the U.S. and this brought out a flood of African, West Indian and black speakers at question time who discussed the racist treatment of black people by police, schools, the welfare state and the government in Toronto.  All this in the supposedly enlightened, but still capitalist, country of Canada. This was the main ideological contribution of the audience. For the most part the audience did not approach things on a higher level, but only coming from their various silos. 

West repeated his condemnation of Wall Street and capitalism, and noted that black poverty was ignored by Obama and is now worse than when he was a young man in Sacramento, California.  In that vein, I first heard West talk at a convention of the Labor Party in Pittsburgh in 1998, but his speech there was a bit different.  Given the date and the large crowd of left-wing union activists who had come together to oppose corporate capitalist methods like NAFTA and the Democrats, West emphasized economics.  He is what you might call a left social-democrat, but he does consort with Canadian Marxists like Henry Giraux. The book “The Jungle” illustrated the role of Christian socialists at the turn of the 20th century, who castigated the rich and the uncaring capitalist system through Jesus’s eyes.  West seems to be part of that tradition, with all its pluses and minuses.

The main problem with West is that, while he tells everyone to ‘take action’ and ‘speak truth to power’ he (like Chomsky and other academic radicals) has no real organizational solution to what ails those who live under capital.   West himself is still preparatory to the real revolutionary movement that could arise.   

Some books mentioned by West, reviewed below:  Michelle Alexander: “The New Jim Crow;”  Ambedkar: “Annihilation of Caste;” Henry Giraux: “The Violence of Organized Forgetting.”  Use blog search box, upper left.

Toronto, Canada
Red Frog
June 7, 2017

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Green Fallacies

"Marx and the Earth – An Anti-Critique," by John Bellamy Foster and Paul Burkett, 2017

While JB Foster was swilling his celebratory beer at the conclusion of the Marx Symposium in Toronto, Canada, last weekend, we may ask ‘what use does an intense and detailed academic Marxist rebuttal of green ecologist philosophy have to do with an actual revolutionary movement’?  Well, a bit!  This book is a follow-up to the author's prior works on “Marx’ Ecology” and “The Ecological Revolution” (both reviewed below). Yet it’s point is not examine Marx’s perspective of the metabolic rift between humans and nature brought about by capital, but to challenge certain anti-Marxist stereotypes promulgated by Green ecology thinkers - while doing just that.

The Book Jacket
Now it’s supposedly not nice to polemicize against people who call themselves ‘eco-socialists.’  Yet I have found that ‘socialists’ who are against Marx – the most radical anti-capitalist in history – have a hidden agenda, which usually translates into some kind of compromised version of bourgeois socialism and anti-capitalism.  So there are eco-socialists and eco-socialists.  Foster/Burkett paraphrase Sartre to this point, saying that ‘Marx’s critique was so ruthless… that it is impossible to surpass it without surpassing bourgeois society itself.’

Here Foster and Burkett take on 6 main theories opposing Marx on the terrain of ecology.  They make quite effective work of them, using their voluminous knowledge of Marx and Engel’s writings, along with many later Marxists who followed in their footsteps. To do this, Foster and Burkett must have every written document done by Marx and Engels on a searchable database.  They reference many of the leading socialist and scientific thinkers in the field from the 1800s onward, which the reader will find valuable in filling in gaps in knowledge.

The sloppy mischaracterizations of Marx include thinking he was merely a ‘productionist’ who had no ecological perspective, but was only interested in putting more material goods on the table of the worker.  They take on John Clark who says that because Marx said that nature was ‘the inorganic body of man’ he demonstrated his anthropocentrism; Martinez-Alier, who insisted it was incorrect for Marx and Engels to criticize Sergei Podolinsky ‘energetic’ theory of labour; Martinez-Alier and Bensaid’s charge that Marx opposed the second law of thermodynamics; Herman Daly’s charge that Marx’s economics excluded material flows from nature; Tanuro’s claim that Marx ignored fossil fuels; and the claims of Kovel and Worster that Marx slighted the ‘intrinsic’ value of nature. 

If this sounds all really obscure, then remember that the class struggle is not just confined to the streets or the factories, but also happens in the realm of ideas and culture.
Briefly, Foster/Burkett’s response to these 6 main charges are this:

Clark was not familiar with the usage of the term ‘organic’ and ‘inorganic’ during this period in philosophy, especially through Hegel.  

Podolinsky’s theory of the ‘perfect human machine’, which was to create the perfect caloric retention of heat, was carefully examined by Marx and Engels.  It was found to be unworkable and in fact part of a reductionist ‘closed’ system analysis that did not incorporate many external inputs. 

Marx and Engels incorporated the early beginnings of thermodynamics in their writings, but opposed the extension of the second law (entropy) to the theory of the ‘heat death of the universe’ – an idea having more in common with Christianity, and which had no proof, and still doesn’t.  As anyone familiar with scientific laws know, they sometimes apply to one area, but not all.  Foster/Burkett however fail to follow up on this insight as to the flawed nature of the ‘Big Bang’ theory itself, which would have also been opposed by Marx and Engels.  The ‘big bang’ is the  theoretical equivalent - at the other end of the 'clock' - of the ‘heat death’ theory.  (Commentaries and reviews on the "Big Bang," below.)

Foster/Burkett point out that Marx and Engels, while describing the circulation of capital, always included ‘material’ inputs, and never left the system closed to the effects and attributions of nature – i.e. raw materials.  Indeed Marx said quite clearly in their criticism of the simplistic economics of the German Social-Democrats in the Critique of the Gotha Programme that value comes from both nature AND labour, not just labour. 
Tanuro a-historically blames them for not predicting global warming, which makes you think there is another agenda here.  Marx and Engels always paid close attention to sources of power at that time, like wood, wind, steam and later, coal, and even commented on the over-use or ‘squandering of our reserves of energy, our coal’ (Engels).  Foster/Burkett mention that Tanuro has no proof citations in his article as to their ignoring of power sources.  Marx & Engels are generally recognized as foundational to ecological economics, and saw the role of energy in historical, not neutral, terms.  But no, they did not predict global warming, though they kept very close attention to nearly all scientific developments.  The first scientific mention of the role of carbon and the greenhouse effect happened about the time of Marx’s death.

Kovel presents ‘eco-socialism’ of a certain type as a successor to Marxism by insisting that Marx did not recognize the human role in the alienation of nature.  Foster/Burkett point out the frequent parallels Marx and Engels drew between the alienation of and exploitation of labor AND also of nature. Marx’s description of the ‘metabolic rift’ is basic to them.  Both were aware of the various ecological crises of the 1800s – polluted water and air, destruction of the soil, unsustainability, deforestation, loss of biological diversity, natural resource shortages. Theirs, unlike capitalist economics, was an ‘open’ economics that took everything into account, not merely the circulation of products or ‘supply and demand’ or mystical processes like ‘the market.’

Lying beneath Foster and Burkett’s polemics with ‘green socialists’ is a general criticism of green ecology itself.  For instance, ‘deep ecology’ is an essentially anti-human and idealist response to the present situation.  The mere worship of nature is not a substitute for a dialectical response to the crisis we are in.  There is much mysticism in current Green theory. Instead, ‘there is an abstract, moral division between anthropocentric and ecocentric views,’ which basically slights the working class and human society.  Deep ecology is at bottom a romantic, pre-industrial idea that offers little to the working classes.

They quote Murray Bookchin regarding Deep Ecology:  ‘Mystical ecologists who dualize the natural and the social by contrasting ‘biocentricity’ with ‘anthropocentricity’ have increasingly diminished the importance of social theory in shaping ecological thinking.  Political action and education have given way to values of personal redemption, ritualistic behavior, the denigration of human will and the virtues of irrationality… mystical ecology has advanced a message of self-effacement, passivity, and obedience to the laws of nature that are held supreme over human activity and praxis.’

The struggle with the bourgeois corporate Greens – the ‘Big Greens’ - who are based on the capitalist market – or the anti-working class ‘deep greens’ – will decide whether the ecological crisis is solved through an actual socialist solution – or barbarism.  That is the choice we face.

While some of the debates are a bit obscure, this book is a valuable in-depth look at past scientific thinkers and discoveries and Marxist political and economic contributions to that science, showing their intimate and enduring relationship.

Prior reviews of “Marx’s Ecology” and “The Ecological Revolution,’ below.  Use blog search box, upper left.

Red Frog
June 4, 2017
Toronto, Canada

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

I'm Lost in the Supermarket

Shopping World

What does capitalism do well? Well, it makes for a ‘great’ shopping experience.  You can get 200 varieties of breakfast cereal.  Tens of thousands of shoes.  Uncountable choices in clothing that you can throw away later. Many, many cable channels, some you don’t even watch.  Every conceivable type of furniture.  Drugs for every conceivable illness – even ones that you don’t have or that don’t work.  Hundreds and hundreds of car or scooter choices that only an expert can tell apart.  Toothpaste?  Soap?  Addictive fast food?  You got it baby!

Branded!  Woman Passing through Boutique
It is this very plethora of goods that is the end-point of capital.  It ultimately is the point of the whole system – that and that alone.  Really.  But without money you cannot buy anything, so even shopping is ultimately based on class and where you reside within which class strata.   This plethora is not for everyone.  The worker on a pinched budget will make the economical choice nearly every time. 

I put ‘great’ in quotes because there is a massive cost here.  Unplanned and profit-based consumer development creates waste, repetition, consumer fetishization, shoddy materials, environmental destruction, pollution, packaging nightmares, cheap wages (even virtual slavery), unhealthy or chemically destructive products, over-production, ‘under consumption’ and high prices due to monopolization or control of real estate.  Capital does not take anything but the profit cycle part of this 'circulation' into account.
But it is still in this consumer wonderland that shopping shines as the number one attribute of capitalism.  It is the Number One ‘hobby’ in the U.S.  It is what most people do to relax, even when they don’t buy anything.  For many it is retail therapy which justifies those long hours of work. 

Take a look at women’s clothing.  The men’s clothing area is about quarter of the women’s sections.  Women’s clothing dominates many brick and mortar locations.  Women of course must look ‘good’ or sexy or constantly diverse, either to other women or to men.  This is a reflection of the sexism in the society.   It is not such a burden on men.  Class is reflected in clothing choices, as is being ‘hip’ or projecting some other image, like health or sportiness or corporate ownership or manliness.  Clothing is also a ‘costume’ and we are all players on that stage.
A brick- and mortar woman’s clothing shop is full of young women attending to the needs of the shoppers. Serving them, waiting on them.  After all, everyone wants a servant...  Trying on clothes is a ritual in the dressing rooms.  The music is never disturbing or obtrusive - it is always light and poppy so that the shopper pulls out her purse.  Each store has an ‘atmosphere’ created by careful design.  There is sometimes a men’s chair, but mostly women shop alone so that they can spend as much time as possible.   A ‘shopping trip’ can take up a whole day, visiting both department and boutique stores and include a lunch.  Boutiques exist so that the shopper can get ‘individualized’ clothing, which enhances her individualization – a prime goal under capital.  The ‘hit’ only happens at the end – when the woman has to take out her wallet and pay for the overpriced item she just chose.  You can go to Wal-Mart, buy bespoke shoes in a chi-chi part of town or buy from a ‘craft fair’ – facilitating artisanal capitalism.  It only varies in price and quality.

Is her closet full?  Will she wear it? How long will it last?  Will it go ‘out’ of fashion?  With ‘fast fashion’ it certainly will.  Will it ultimately go to a second hand store, become a rag, be thrown in the garbage and landfill, given to someone else or molder in the closet until death?   Which at that time the children have to dispose of in some way.
We all know this cycle.  It is in fact so ‘normal’ that we do not notice how actually abnormal it is.  Commodification extends into our very psychology.   Normality is the mask capital wears.

Wealthy women used to start women’s clothing boutiques, perhaps with their husband’s money, but now it is an avenue for the petit-bourgeois strata of women to earn money.  It was one of the first ways that women became business ‘owners.’  Now many other avenues are open and these businesses are really the root of the petit-bourgeois part of the womens’ movement.  This extends to women-owned ethnic businesses too.    
What is interesting is that the shopper is ultimately a passive ‘consumer.’  There is no need in this system to sew your own clothes, or to add or subtract to clothes in various ways, to enhance them - to have any imagination or creativity.  Sewing is a dying skill at present.  All is ‘off the shelf’ – the work is done by someone else.  The shopper is not active or creative or even skilled – except as to where to get the best price for the best item.  Shopping itself becomes a skill of sorts, which used to involve lots of driving and some walking, but which now maybe comes down to being internet-saavy.  In a way, it is a procedure of infantilization. 

The recent mass closing of department stores is a sign that shopping is becoming even more ubiquitous.  Department stores were originally a signal of the ‘democratization’ of clothing, as a variety of mass-produced clothing items could be bought at lower prices in central locations.  Now with shopping moving into the computer robot, every home has a ‘store’ installed in it, open 24 hours a day.  Stores are becoming fronts only. 
In a capitalist society, the ‘consumer’ is king and queen.  The worker is forgotten.  The environment is forgotten. But the real issue is why is the diner superior to the cook?  The coffee drinker a buck above the Starbucks barista?  The clothing buyer more important than the hidden seamstress?  The skilled worker less important than the consumer?  The land beneath the chemical dyes? Is it because of the ownership of a credit card, in which the banks then collect interest?  Of course that is it.  The credit card and shopping are almost like the banking carrot before the donkey.  Many people have been forced to use credit cards for essentials, so then it also becomes extortion by criminal syndicates called banks.

Consumerism is routinely denounced, but few have yet to grapple with the changes that an environmentally sustainable and labour-friendly economy would bring to this shopping house of cards.  Essentials would be taken care of – education, shelter, food, health, clothing.  But the production of goods would be decided by democratic means instead of market and profit means, by the ‘associated producers’ in factories and assemblies.  As such, many useless products would disappear… the ‘pet rocks’ of consumption.  Many marginally ‘different’ products would also disappear.  In the realm of fashion, people would enhance clothing by their own creativity to create fashion items, much as was done in the past.   That is the future or the future will not be.
Review of a book on a Marxist analysis of fashion, "Stitched Up."  Use blog search box, upper left. 

Toronto, Canada
May 30, 2017
Red Frog

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Thug Life

Erdogan Comes to the U.S.

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is more than familiar to leftists in the U.S.  He is well-known for his extreme right-wing positions. Ideas like “Childless women are incomplete.” “Muslims cannot carry out genocide.” “Abortion is murder.” "Islam teaches that women’s position is motherhood.”  “You cannot put men and women on an equal footing.” “Forsake alcohol – eat grapes!” “Muslim sailors discovered the Americas.”  “Hitler’s Germany was an example of effective presidential government.”  And on and on. 

 However his political actions are even worse.  As has been well-documented, Turkey has been aiding Daesh and other right-wing anti-working class jihadi formations in Syria and Iraq by allowing their oil, guns, fighters and supplies through the Turkish border.  As one Kurdish general pointed out, ‘Turkey is to Syria what Pakistan is to Afghanistan.’  In other words, a rear area for Daesh and Al-qaeda.  Reporters have even described sarin gas deliveries to Syrian Sunni jihadis.

In Turkey, journalists, unionists and Kurdish political parties are virtually outlawed.  Erdogan and the AKP have increased the power of the police and the intelligence apparatus, the MIT. Key cities in Kurdish areas are under military occupation and partially destroyed, like Sur.  All of this is well-known to leftists and anyone paying attention.

On Wednesday, Erdogan gave just a taste of what the Turkish government dishes out to any opponents in Turkey.  The security detail with Erdogan attacked a protest outside the Turkish embassy Washington, D.C. injuring 9 people protesting his rule.  Erdogan had just met with his ‘friend’ Donald Trump.

Calls have been made for the arrest of the Turkish government thugs, but no one will be touched, as this has happened before and nothing was done.  You can imagine what would have happened if U.S. leftists had stormed Erdogan’s coterie!  Diplomatic immunity? You bet. Yet Turkey will never be allowed in the EU until Orban dominates Brussel’s.  Erdogan’s real slogan?   “First the Armenians, now the Kurds!”

Book reviews on the Middle East and Commentary on Syria, below.
Red Frog
May 21, 2017

Sunday, May 14, 2017

The Witness

“I Am Not Your Negro,” film and book by Raoul Peck, texts by James Baldwin, 2107

James Baldwin spent many years in ‘the tree-shaded boulevards’ of Paris, escaping from the racism of U.S. society, but decided to come back and witness the fight against Jim Crow and for black rights in the 1960s.  This book and film are based on 30 pages of notes by Baldwin for an unpublished book centering on Malcolm X, Martin Luther King and Medgar Evers – all martyrs in the struggle for black liberation and also friends or acquaintances of Baldwin’s.  Peck, initially a Haitian, brings a radical Caribbean sensibility to his film curation of Baldwin’s work.  He was helped by Baldwin’s daughter throughout the project, as she gave him the notes that became the heart of the film.  Peck is currently working on another film about the young Karl Marx, due to be released this year.

Baldwin in the urban land
This topic is a very familiar tale for most leftists.  Baldwin, being a writer, is not as well known as the 3 protagonists.  As such the book or film are good introductions to his larger works – ‘Go Tell it On the Mountain,’ ‘Notes of a Native Son,’ and ‘The Fire Next Time.’  Baldwin calls himself a witness to the ‘participants’ – as he never went to jail, was beaten, shot at or killed – and there is a bit of guilt about his role of writer and witness here.  Even so the FBI put him on their ‘security index.’ 

Peck points out that Baldwin “saw through the system” and illustrates this with his many insights.  While many Americans blithely accept the history or politics or ‘news’ they are fed, radicals like Baldwin unearthed the real story.  Baldwin, like Jeffrey St. Clair, pointed out that knowing reality was preferable to a rhetorical ‘hope.’ Baldwin never managed to hate white people, as a white woman was very kind to him when he was young.  So his politics were not simply black nationalist.  For instance his attitude to the NAACP was negative, as it “was fatally entangled with black class distinction or illusions of the same, which repelled a shoe-shine boy like me.”  (The NAACP has not changed much!)  He points out that King and Malcolm X became closer over time, and Martin “picked up Malcolm’s burden, articulated the vision that Malcolm had begun to see.”  Baldwin equated segregation with ‘know-nothingism’ but knew that liberals like Bobby Kennedy were not really allies either.  Baldwin self-evidently knew it was harder to be a black revolutionary than a white one.  He knew that black people were in the Americas for one reason only – “cheap labor.”  And so on. 

Many Baldwin quotes in the book are like a poetic narrative, while others are bits of straight transcripts of interviews.  Baldwin frequently cited films and stars like John Wayne or Sidney Poitier in his writing, somewhat like Zizek today.  In this celluloid reality he saw the cultural heart of ‘Americaness,’ as did black audiences.  Baldwin says:  “Their concept of entertainment is difficult to distinguish from the use of narcotics.’ Baldwin was also gay, but this issue did not come up very much in his narrative - and perhaps the monumental issues of the time forced it to the back seat.

I’ll leave you with a final quote:  “This is not the land of the free; it is only very sporadically and unwillingly the home of the brave.” 

And I bought it at Mayday Books!
Red Frog
May 14, 2017 

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Billions Dead in U.S. Alone

“The Emotional Lives of Animals,” by Marc Berkoff, 2007

Full disclosure.  I used to think that the ‘animal’ issue could wait until the ‘human’ issue was resolved.  Well, as is apparent in science and our own experience, there is no wall between them.  Nor between them and the environment as a whole.  So I’m now a 90% vegetarian that eats a bit of fish and two animal products, eggs and one kind of cheese.  I’m gradually reducing the latter two categories. This kind of food 'reductionism' is happening across the U.S.  And its part of the reaction to books like this.

Moon Bear in a 'crush cage' in China
This book starts with our own simple experience with dogs or cats or farm animals and links it up with science.  At one point science – based on Christianity and also capitalism – decreed that animals had no feelings, intelligence and were totally separate from humans.  This allowed animals to be treated like ‘things.’ To this day, some scientists still think this and of course the meat and dairy industry is based on it.  But according to Berkoff the majority of scientists now accept that animals have emotions and thought of a certain kind..  Like evolution and global warming, another scientific point that can be ignored? 

So people might wonder, what is the difference between us – is it only in degree?  Engels in ‘The Part Played by Labor in the Transition from Ape to Man” pointed to the unique role of labor in creating the human animal.  Oddly enough, Berkoff says that other animals spend about 90% of their time not working – not hunting or foraging or building a place to live.  While humans?  Way more work than that.  Of course, then there are the animals that work for men for a pittance - sheepdogs, elephants, water buffalo, horses, captive whales, etc.  Engels postulated that the erect hominid posture freed up the hands even more than any ‘ape.’  This allowed more fine ‘work’ to be accomplished, including the development of complex tools and weapons. Humans became the 'tool-making animal.'  Complex languages developed as a way for humans to communicate while working together. This led to brain development, then the development of shelters and clothing and the consequent spread of humans across the globe.

Engels said that humans ‘belong to nature’ and Berkoff obviously agrees.  We are connected intimately.  Darwin wrote that animals had at least 6 emotions, though more have been identified now, like sympathy, love, a sense of humor, even a certain ‘morality.’  Darwin observed 6:  anger, happiness, sadness, disgust, fear and surprise.  Berkoff makes the point that it would be illogical if evolution would not carry emotions forward to homo-sapiens.  Otherwise they would have to spring full-grown, ex nihilo, out of nothing.  Berkoff and other’s field experiments and observations – especially observing play - confirm that animals have many emotions; they share both neural areas of the brain and chemicals with humans; and that ‘anthropomorphizing’ animal behavior actually identifies animal emotions quite well.  Berkoff studied elephants, dogs, chimpanzees, birds, penguins, pigs, even mice.  He contends that ‘brain size’ has nothing to do with it and calls the handoff ‘evolutionary continuity.”

Berkoff identifies ‘behavioral flexibility’ in animals as more evidence of emotions and intelligence.  I.E. animals are not automatons. 

Emotions are actually key to animal survival.  Berkoff contends – as many other scientists are now confirming – that emotions enable cooperation and survival among groups.  Unlike capitalist / libertarian ideology which maintains a primitive ‘survival of the fittest’ ideology leading to rampant individualism, actual observation shows that animals that deceive, do not cooperate, attack others or break the ‘golden rule’ actually are isolated and sometimes driven out of groups.  Evolution confirms that cooperation plays the main role in survival, not conflict.  Berkoff’s field studies indicate that animals spend far more time taking care of each other than fighting – even across species.  So the promotion of social Darwinism or biological ‘survival of the fittest’ is primarily an ideological project, not based on science. 

Of course, the key in politics is ‘what group’ you are part of.  If you pick the wrong ‘group’ you may become an inappropriate enemy of another group.

Berkoff stopped using animals for scientific studies after obediently killing a certain dog for an experiment.  He subsequently became a vegetarian purely for ethical reasons.  He opposes the meat industry, the animal experimentation complex and zoos and circuses because of their destructive effect on animals, in the wild and not.  He dedicated the book to Jasper, a moon bear kept in a ‘crush cage’ for 15 years in China.  The cage helped squeeze the bile out of his body – part of some kind of ‘traditional’ Chinese medicine.  This would be like you lying in a cage for 15 years unable to move, with bars pressed against your body.  Sadism?  Sure. The bear was ultimately rescued.

In 1998 26.8 billion animals were killed for food in the U.S.  That does not include hunting, road kill, testing or government extermination programs.  That number would be far higher today. The meat industry worldwide is the biggest beneficiary of the lust for meat, which has now become the signifier of economic success in many societies. I'm not talking about societies where meat is part of survival.  Like addictions to sugar, salt and fat, meat is a fetish or a habit in societies that have a choice, but still unsustainable in the present world environment.   

As our scientific knowledge grows, ‘animals’ become part of any project of liberation, socialist or otherwise.  The 'metabolic rift' between human society and nature has to be overcome.  Like nearly all 'green' deep ecology or 'animal rights' thinkers, Berkoff cannot locate the source of this alienation in the very nature of capital, and hence has no revolutionary alternative to it.  Yet it is capital that gains through the exploitation of man, animal and nature.

Prior reviews on books about this subject: “Fear of an Animal Planet,”, “Salt, Fat & Sugar,” "Green is the New Red," and various books on factory farming.

And I bought it at Mayday Books!
Red Frog
May 6, 2017

Sunday, April 30, 2017

There's a man with a gun over there... telling me I've got to beware...

The Ultra-Right

Monthly Review, a Marxist magazine, has called the present situation ‘pre-fascist.’  That might not be quite accurate, but it is certainly an improvement over prior positions that have been loosely slung on the internet.  Their position is a bit of an antidote to the hysterical and impressionistic liberals who call every right-wing thing ‘fascist,’ or the ‘knowing’ radicals who think that the combination of corporations and government is already ‘fascism.’  The support of corporations by the capitalist state is general capitalist policy, and has been since the development of the corporation.  The latter is Mussolini’s definition of fascism, not a Marxist one.  Trump is not a ‘fascist’ – he is the open rule of capital, but without (yet) the need to crush opposition.

One of 4 clashes at Berkely, CA, USA
Both of these positions denigrate actual fascism and reveal a deep ignorance of history.  There have been plenty of racist, sexist and nationalistic U.S. presidents and policies.  Can you say ‘Japanese internment camp’ or ‘Jim Crow’ or 'bracero' or even 'Taft Hartley"?  6 million Jews, 20 million Soviet citizens, millions of Chinese, hundreds of thousands of socialists, trade unionists, Roma and homosexuals and even Jehovah’s Witnesses were victims of real fascism.  So far Trump’s immigration ban, drones and bombings have not approached that level. 

However Trump at this point in history is encouraging a small movement of Neo-Nazis, Klan members, ‘alt-right’ organizations, militias and white nationalists to come out in the open in the U.S. and even in other countries like France.  In the past, the Nazis and Klan were isolated and vastly out-numbered.  They were confronted by the left-wing and anti-racist organizations for years and had crawled back into their holes. Now the ultra-rightist movement has metastasized far beyond these groups due to the economic failures of capital and the vast concentration of wealth at the top.  That is what has changed.

A key part of fascism is the suspension of democratic rights by government through various laws and police actions, but in coordination with fascists in the streets.  Fascist ideology directs hostility away from the rich and capitalism and towards a long list of scapegoats.  This is part of an attempt to create a mass base in the population for fascist policies.  Controlling the streets by brown-shirts is a key part of the development of real fascism. 

That is what is starting to happen now on a broader scale, beyond isolated incidents.  Here in Minneapolis, last year a quartet of white nationalists came to a Black Lives Matter occupation outside the 4th Precinct police station and intentionally shot several people.  The leader of that group has just been indicted.  In Seattle, an anti-Trump, anti-Milo Yiannopoulos protester was shot in the stomach by a far-rightist.  In Berkeley, 4 clashes have already occurred.  Yiannopoulos was turned away by a mass protest in February, then in April, antifas – mostly anarchists and some communists - violently clashed with ultra-rightists at pro-and anti-Trump rallies.  According to the right-wingers, they came out ahead in several clashes.  They are basically yearning for blood, but courts are still indicting them, so they do not yet have the state stamp of approval.  Recently reactionary performance artist Ann Coulter canceled her appearance in Berkeley due to anti-fascist pressure.

Yesterday, an armed neo-Nazi rally took place in Pikeville, Kentucky, while odd 'militias' claiming to be neutral also showed up. Kentucky is an ‘open carry’ state so both sides could bring guns.  In response the liberals canceled their anti-racist rally and students were advised to leave town.  The city council banned masks and hoods used by the black bloc, so anti-fascist protesters showed up with bandannas only.  The sides were kept apart by fences and a police line and no one got hurt.  The 3 small groups of ultra-rightists seem isolated.  I saw one black guy across the street carrying a semi-automatic combat weapon.  Wonder how long 'open carry' will exist when black and Latino groups start carrying semi-autos? (Shades of the Panthers...!) This event in the South seemed similar to prior failed attempts by neo-Nazis to demonstrate, showing their isolation.

The ultra-right understands that physically controlling the streets and normalizing fascist events is key to their progress.  Some leftists – not all – also understand this.  Any reading of German, Spanish or Italian history shows that street clashes were part of the fascist attempt at power.  In Germany and Italy the Communists and the Nazis fought constant street battles before Hitler or Mussolini came to state power.  It is inevitable.

The left has to understand that the media, the ACLU, the Democratic Party and the neo-liberals in general will never support shutting down these ultra-rightists.  Not until someone is at their door! Anyone hoping the police will step in don’t know that the police can be allies of the ultra-right, and when they disappear – look out.  This recently happened in Berkeley, as the police let the confrontations go on and stood back hoping the rightist fighters would win.  A classic example is from Greensboro North Carolina, where a massacre took place in 1979.  The Communist Workers Party and other anti-fascists protested a KKK/Nazi rally. 5 were killed and 10 wounded when the Klan/Nazi’s opened fire after pulling weapons out of their car trunks.  All-white juries acquitted the fascists.  Prior to this, the police withdrew and that should have been a danger signal for the protesters. If you think the cops are there to ‘quell violence’, think again, as this will not always happen.

The ultra-right will parade behind the absurd banner of ‘free speech’ – yet fascist speech is not allowed in Germany for good reason.  The U.S. liberals will back the ultra-right on this though.   Speech that leads to killing minorities is not really a ‘reasoned’ debate pointing to some reasonable and peaceful resolution.  There is no debating them, as they don’t have ideas, just instincts. 

However, given the danger, leftist tactics and slogans must be carefully chosen.  Each situation is different.  Sloppy voluntaristic tactics sometimes get people hurt or arrested unnecessarily.  Anarchists are especially prone to ultra-leftism in their enthusiasm.  Self-defense is the best tactic, but not always possible or desirable.  Yet leftists who want to distance themselves from these confrontations are also making a sectarian mistake. They have to get involved too.  What is needed is a permanent anti-fascist united front with weight, organization and military skills that can eventually draw in the heavy battalions of the labor movement, white anti-racists, the black and Latino community and every left group possible to shut down these ultra-reactionaries, who are a danger to us all.

In the meantime, as the Boy & Girl Scouts say, ‘Be Prepared!’

Happy Mayday!  Demonstrate today!
Red Frog
April 30, 2017

Sunday, April 23, 2017

The First One

“What Is To Be Done?” by Nikolai Chernyshevsky, 1863

To celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution in November 1917, I read Lenin’s favorite novel, the title of which he later turned into his first pamphlet in 1902.  To the Russian movement this book has been compared to Uncle Tom’s Cabin in its real-world subversive impact.  It was written as a direct counterpoint to mainstream liberals like Turgenev, who reviled Chernyshevsky.  According to the introduction, younger Bolsheviks made fun of Lenin’s fondness for this work, which continued throughout his life.  I can see why they found it somewhat odd.

Chernyshevsky in the Pillory, St. Petersburg
Chernyshevsky himself wrote just this one book.  His main role was as the editor of a materialist, feminist and socialist publication in St. Petersburg, Russia – ‘Sovremennik.’  He supported the idea that art should be a weapon in changing society.  After radical student disturbances in St. Petersburg in 1862, he was blamed, arrested and put in the Peter-Paul Fortress, then exiled for the rest of his life.  In the Peter-Paul fortress, he wrote What Is To Be Done.  This is a work of prison literature. 

In 1863 Czarist censors poured over manuscripts looking for seditious and revolutionary thoughts.  So much of this novel, which is designed as somewhat of a comedy of manners, is in ‘code.’  There are no heroic workers, no strikes, no rebellions, no mass violence, no war, no direct class conflict, no factories or peasants.  It is a close look at a trio of ‘new people’ – those who are not identified as fools or swindlers.  Chernyshevsky observed that most of Russian society was made up of these two latter types.   The ‘new people’ are young, use reason and science, abhor money and acquisitiveness, are quite cultured and admire utopian socialists Owen & Fourier.  They seriously discuss various new scientific theories, such as on soil or related to medicine or psychology.  They believe that Russian society is corrupt and needs to be changed.  You could call them a ‘professional elite’ because of their educations and jobs, but people during the period called them ‘the intelligentsia.’  This strata became a class definition in early versions of Marxism but no longer.   

In the text are allusions to revolution and socialism, but without the excellent footnotes you’d be skilled to find them all.  The one quite clear example is the formation of sewing cooperatives by Vera Pavlovna, the key female protagonist.   There the women workers ultimately share the profits, make joint decisions, live together, form buying clubs and help each other out in various ways –a microcosm of the coming socialist society.  Vera herself, the founder, shares equally instead of lording it over the collective as would be her conventional due.  Three cooperative workshops are established by the end of the book.  As you can see, the working-class feminist slant of the novel, especially in 1863, was very strong.

The first part of this 400-page narrative consists of a young Vera running away from home and her controlling mother, and getting married to the man she loves, Lopukhov, a student doctor.  Her mother was forcing her into a marriage with a somewhat wealthy military man she didn’t like for among other things, his intellectual dullness.  This is a familiar storyline in the development of capitalism and romantic love that continues even now in the film and literature of a number of countries like India or Iran.  At that time in Russia the girl could be arrested, incarcerated or forcibly returned to the parents, or the man sued in court by the disobeyed parents.  After several years of a somewhat sterile marriage Vera begins to fall in love with her husband’s best friend, Kirsanov, another student doctor.  ‘Sterile’ because there is not even the slyest suggestion of sex in the book – so it’s not clear if this is the result of censorship or if Vera & Lopukhov are in a platonic relationship, acting as a veritable ‘brother’ and ‘sister’.  Vera & Lopukhov sleep in separate beds all the time, have separate rooms and this seems to be part of their being ‘new people.’  When Vera announces she is now in love with Kirsanov, Lopukhov is not upset at all – until later...  I will not reveal this plot point.  This triangle forms the second part of the book.  

The third part involves the marriage of Kirsanov and Vera.  It starts with the strict radical Rakhmetov.  He is variously described as ‘horrible’ and ‘the rigorist.’  If Rakhmetov and “Raskolnikov” sound alike, perhaps Doestoevsky thought so too.  Crime & Punishment came out in 1866, not long after this book.  Doestoevsky, like other Russian liberals and conservatives, were horrified by the anti-Czarist anarchists looming up in their midst and this showed in their fiction.  Turgenev included a 'nihilist' radical named Basarov in Fathers & Sons. Rakhemtov, though his friends don’t know it, is the son of a landed aristocrat, and has 3,000 rubles a year in income – a not inconsiderable sum.  Yet at one point Rakhhemtov sleeps on a bed of nails.  He abstains from sex or drink, travels the world learning and contacting other revolutionaries.  In this book he acts as a stand-in for Lupukhov in a conversation with Vera.   But he is obviously the ‘monk’ of revolution – a type we are acquainted with in such books as I Married a Communist. (reviewed below)

The rest of the book is full of psychological and political dialog, and leads up to a somewhat artificial plot trick that would be ridiculous except for its usefulness in making a pedantic point about love.  Vera herself begins to train to be a doctor.  Oddly, Vera and Kirsanov sleep in separate beds again, with only the barest hint that they may actually visit each other’s beds!  The book’s narrative centers around 3 love affairs, and it is not clear if that is its real intent or it is preparing the way for Chernysheveky’s prediction of a Russian revolution by 1865 – or both.  It includes an idyllic vision of the coming socialism, similar to what William Morris did in News from Nowhere in 1890. (reviewed below)

Stylistically, Chernyshevsky interrupts the plot many times, addressing the reader as the author, making fun of the standard ‘mysteries’ that authors use, arguing with reader and critic alike.  This ‘distancing’, like Brecht, makes clear that this book is not about creating a fabulous and romantic world you can escape into, as Tolstoy does in Anna Karenina.  It is a somewhat modern technique.  The book has very little in the way of plot, and is mostly dialog obsessing about the nature of love and sub-textually, politics.  

What has happened to the ‘intelligentsia” since 1863?  Lenin quite clearly put some faith in this strata.  Yet now no ‘intelligentsia’ exists.  The present petit-bourgeois strata – professors, doctors, lawyers, architects, engineers, scientists, journalists – live comfortable lives reconciled to the capitalist system.  They are mostly supporters of the Democratic Party.  The spread of education in the U.S., Europe and parts of the rest of the world – (the majority of U.S./Euro graduates now get college degrees, whether useful or not!)  - makes education, science and reason more widespread.  As a result, the most radical elements in Europe or the U.S. will not be found in the ‘degreed’ strata that Thomas Frank makes fun of (Listen, Liberal!, reviewed below) but among self-educated, working-class autodidacts with or without college credits.  Those perhaps who have not gained entry into the well-paid professional strata, yet feel they are not fools!  There might be certain elements of the professional strata that DO join the radical movement (Chris Hedges as an example), but the strata as a whole has lost any modern claim to leadership.  The next revolution will be far more led by the actual people that it will directly benefit.  This changes the nature of any ‘vanguard’ party or parties that might come into existence.

The fact that Lenin liked this book so much has much to do with its historical role, as there was nothing like it at the time.  If What Is To Be Done seems like one long drawing-room melodrama with women and love as its focus, then perhaps there was another side to V.I. Ulyanov that has been ignored. 

Red Frog
April 23, 2017
Happy Earth, Science, Weed Days!

P.S. – Isn’t it odd that the U.S. has to promote science while in 1863 they also had to promote science?  The only constant here is the necessary irrationalism needed by capital.