Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Underground / Overground

“Clandestine Occupations – an Imaginary History,” by Diana Block, 2015

Block is a prisoner’s rights activist who helped found SF Women Against Rape and was a member of the Prairie Fire Organizing Committee, the ‘above-ground’ support organization for the Weather Underground.  She spent 13 years living underground in support of Puerto Rican and Black liberation groups and has now written a fiction book which draws heavily on those experiences.

Shakur escaped from prison in '79 and fled to Cuba in '84
It is rare that any left political organization is mentioned in present fiction – a union, a socialist or radical group, an illegal group.  Block weaves her experiences into a number of individual stories about 5 different San Francisco & Chicago women who ultimately interconnect, and all know each other in the end.   The book focuses on the 1970s-1980s, a time of radical ferment in the U.S.  The themes of the chapters are similar.  Lesbian women who are somewhat a-political meet more leftist women activists who draw them into the world of prison support work, defense of immigrants and harboring political fugitives.  The left politics of the book are somewhat nebulous, but ‘doing the right thing’ on an ethical personal level seems to have the most weight.

Luba (Yiddish Russian meaning ‘dear.’) is the central hard-core underground activist, probably a stand-in for the author.  She ties the stories together.  One women naively ends up helping an informer arrest a comrade.  Another withdraws from a prison support group for years because of its involvement in illegality, perhaps prison breakouts.  Others pledge to visit political prisoners in California, or help prisoners in hospitals.  One attempts fund-raising with rich liberals, a hard task.  The I-Ching and Tarot cards make frequent appearances oddly enough, helping the women decide what to do next.  

Using violence against the state by small groups in the interest of Puerto Rican or Black liberation is the political issue, but it is not really analyzed thoroughly.  In the end that tactic seems to be a failure, though the topic is somewhat gingerly handled.   

The book ends with the events of Occupy and Ferguson, and one woman’s daughter becoming radicalized herself.  The writing is somewhat moody and interior, which gives the book a lack of definition and perhaps will put some off.  It is a snapshot of a small part of the left of the period, and useful for people who have never been in any organization at all. 

Book review about the Weather Underground, issues of U.S. radical violence or prisons:  "The Way the Wind Blew" "Daydream Sunset," "American Pastoral"  "Are Prisons Obsolete?"  "Son of Saul," "Kolyma Tales," "Andersonville Prison," "Diary of Bergen-Belsen," "The Unseen," (use blog search box, upper left.)

And I bought it at Mayday Books!
Red Frog
February 28, 2017
Happy Mardi Gras!  Laissez Les Bons Temps Rouler!

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Another Spain?


The middle-east has become a selective nightmare of drone strikes, obvious propaganda, civilian deaths, blow-back, Islamic fascism, Saudi money, a massive refugee crisis and imperial strategy.  What can a progressive do? 

The Syrian civil war, funded by the Saudi and Qatari Wahabbists against their religious opponents, the dictatorial but legal and mostly Alewite government and army of Bashar Assad, has seen any progressive content in the rebellion subsumed by the Al Nusra front and various ‘good’ jihadis.  The ‘Free” Syrian Army is now under Sunni jihadi control, while Daesh controls the other half of the rebellion.  At the present, it looks like a later version of the imperial crusade against Saadam Hussein, but this time with the U.S. letting proxies do the fighting and the religious affiliations switched.

PKK Flag
Rolling Stone has just published an article that will peak the interest of anyone interested in actual fights for socialism in the middle-east.  The article is titled “The Dudes vs. ISIS.  In spite of the stupid title, it is straight reporting.  In Kurdish-controlled sections of northern Syria, the Kurds are carving out an egalitarian society led by the People’s Protection Units (YPG), Women’s Protection Units (YPJ) and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).  The YPG is mostly Kurdish, but also contains Christian Assyrians, some Arabs and a group of western leftists. It is led by a former Marxist-Leninist, Abdullah ┼Écalan, who has now become a supporter of the writings of the anarchist Murray Bookchin.  THIS is unique.      

The Kurdish people have been denied national self-determination and are now trying to achieve it in the form of “Rojava,” in a multi-sided fight with Daesh and sometimes with the Turkish military, with little help from the purely nationalist Kurdish Peshmerga in Iraq.  Kurds live in Turkey, Iraq and Syria and have been denied national independence since the colonialists drew the boundaries of the middle-east.  According to the article, they have liberated an area the size of Massachusetts of 4 million people, and are instituting a secular, social-democratic government run by peoples assemblies, which protects the rights of women, advocates ecological sustainability and limits capital.  This is unlike almost anything else in the middle-east – which is for the most part a bastion of theocracy, the bazaar, military dictatorships and failing states.
Rojava in northern Syria
Young anarchists, communists and independent leftists from European countries like Italy, Britain and Spain and also from the U.S. have been traveling there, some to the socialist-controlled city of Sulaymaniyah, Iraq, and then on into Rojava to take up arms. Since Spain and perhaps some deserters in Vietnam or volunteers with the Sandinistas, this is one of the rare instances of American leftists who have no love for bourgeois pacifism to be able to directly fight for what they think is a socialistic society.  The internationals in Rojava formed a sniper group, then their own company, but are still far below the numbers of internationals that went to Spain to fight the fascist Franco.  Some 60,000 went to fight in that war.  The article in Rolling Stone personally profiles some of the young men, mostly disaffected with their lives under U.S. capitalism.  Some have been killed, some have returned a number of times, some are still there. But the number of internationals in Rojava may grow. 

Daesh is afraid of women fighters and both the YPJ and now the Yazidi religious minority have women under arms.  According to the article, presently the YPG is moving on Raqqa on the Euphrates in northern Syria, along with other forces.  Raqqa is the ostensible capital of Daesh’s brutal ‘caliphate.’ 

Three cautionary points here.  One, the U.S. government can prosecute anyone who goes to fight for groups the U.S. might deem ‘terrorist.” The PKK is still declared a ‘terrorist’ organization because of U.S. anti-communism and Turkish pressure.  The Feds have used this law to jail Somali teens who traveled to link up with the Islamic fundamentalist El Shaabab in Somalia.   They could use it to prosecute those who go to fight for Rojava if they change policy.  Two, the U.S. government has military embedded with Kurdish forces besieging Raqqa.  However, those advisors can be withdrawn at a moments notice, as leftist Kurds are only being backed because they are actually effective against the anti-working class elements in Daesh. Once the reactionary Turkish government and the U.S. decide the Kurds are dispensable - boom!  Three, Raqqa, while having some Kurdish civilians living there, might be a trap to exhaust the YPJ/YPG and the PKK in a bloodbath, while other factions pick up the pieces. 

Nevertheless, the article is an eye-opener and shakes the view that the middle-east is a hopeless ‘mess’ of bad possibilities. This fragile opening in the middle east is based on the collapse of the colonialist 'state' system imposed by the West.  It also reflects the weakness and decline of the U.S. military and government and their regional allies, which has failed time after time to impose their will on the middle-east and in places like Afghanistan. Support Kurdish independence and socialism.  Support Rojava!


P.S. - Counterpunch reports that some 'Free" Syrian Army militias backed by Turkey have been attacking Rojava and Kurdish positions. More evidence that the FSA is not as advertised.

Red Frog
February 23, 2017

Friday, February 17, 2017


"Ways of Seeing,” by David Berger, 1972

This classic on art was written by Berger, a Marxist who died in 2016.  It is inspired by Walter Benjamin and a bit by Levi-Strauss.  The book came out of a video series on BBC.  It combines text with black and white pictures of older paintings between the Renaissance and up to Impressionism, with some chapters made up of only pictures.  As Berger points out, the eye came before the word.
A hunting we shall go ... what wonderful brush strokes!
As you might expect when a Marxist looks at art, the impression is far different than the standard formalist criticism of a bourgeois art critic.  Berger’s essay hits on things you might have thought during your last gallery visit or non-visit, but ones which you never clearly formulated as legitimate ideas. 

For instance, Berger looks at a picture by Frans Hals, an aged, penniless and almost homeless painter, doing portraits of the ruling burghers of Haarlem, Holland.  The rich people portrayed are somewhat ugly, drunk or creepy.  However, the bourgeois art critic only discusses the ‘play of light and shadow,’ not the possible class hostility the painter might have felt. Berger looks at the plethora of paintings of things – still lifes or land holdings for instance – which actually parade the ownership of these things.  In the past, the elite had walls covered with oil paintings, by this method attempting to absorb the things in the images into their literal woodwork.  

Berger discusses the invention of the camera and art reproductions, and how they change and subvert the nature of oil-painted originals.  Timelessness disappeared because of them.  Berger looks at advertising (which he somehow calls ‘publicity’) and illustrates how it tries to borrow from classic art to give itself some inherent quality, which it absolutely lacks.  Berger has a chart which shows that the majority of people think present art museums most closely resemble churches, and second, libraries - which should explain why they are sometimes depopulated.  Berger has another that shows the more education you have, except in Holland, the more you visit art museums - showing the class nature of art museums.  He slyly describes how the words in the explanation next to a painting change the painting.  Berger feels that the lowly landscape painters actually led the way in technical improvements in oil painting. 

Look What We Have to Eat!
Pornography or the ‘pin-up’  - the woman as beautiful object - definitely originated from oil painting. Berger describes two kinds of oil paintings of nakedness.  The first being the most common:  the nude – the object woman, where male desire becomes fantasy.  The second is more rare, the naked - the real woman, where the woman remains herself.  Countless nudes dot the museums of Europe and the U.S., with virtually no comment.

Here are some of the more leftist quotes from Berger:
  • Art critics I:  “A privileged minority is retrospectively inventing a history to justify the role of the ruling classes.” 
  • Museums I:  “The work of art is enveloped in an atmosphere of entirely bogus religiosity.” 
  • The art market:  “The market price is said to be a reflection of its spiritual value.”
  • Sophisticated culture experts and painting catalogues: “They are declared art when their line of descent can be certified.”
  • The promotion of old art:  “…makes art seem noble and hierarchies seem thrilling.”
  • Art critics II:  “Clerks of the nostalgia of a ruling class in decline.” 
  • Old art:  “The art of the past no longer exists as it once did, its authority is lost.”  This thought might occur to you upon seeing your 200th Italian Madonna and child.
  • Oil painting I:  “Oil painting did to appearances what capitalism did to social relations…  It reduced everything to the equality of objects.” 
  • Museums II:  “Visitors to art museums are often overwhelmed by the number of works on display…such a reaction is altogether reasonable.”  Berger points out that everything is jumbled together on purpose.
  • Portraits:  “…equality must be made inconceivable.”  The formality of a portrait creates a distance based on class. 
  • Gold leaf in paint or on frames:  Exactly.
  • Classic paintings:  “…a certain moral value was ascribed to the study of the classics.” 
  • “Genre” pictures:  Berger points out that the 'low-lifes' in most of these hack pictures always look happy.
  • Marxists:  “We are accused of being obsessed by property.  The truth is the other way around.  It is the society and culture in question which is so obsessed.” 
  • Advertising I:  It functioned during the cold war as the ‘visible sign of the ‘Free’ World.” 
  • Oil painting II:  “Oil painting, before it was anything else, was a celebration of private property.” 
  • Advertising II:  “Glamour cannot exist without personal social envy being a common and widespread emotion.” 
  • Advertising III:  “The working self envies the consuming self.”
  • Advertising IV:  A paraphrase:  The hope to acquire becomes the lone satisfaction under the culture of capitalism.  
If you realize the present art world is pricey, constipated and barely living, you might like this book.

Other books or commentaries on art reviewed below:  9.5 Thesis on Art,” “All Art is Propaganda,” “Art is Dead,” “Desert of Forbidden Art,” “Women in Soviet Art.”

Red Frog
February 17, 2017

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Short Reviews of Thin Books

“The Worker Elite: Notes on the Labor Aristocracy,” by bromma; “Night Shift,” by Ron Kolm


“Worker Elite” is a book probably written by an anarcho-syndicalist.  ‘bromma,’ a former Canadian/Quebecois unionist, attempts to draw a class line between more privileged workers and less privileged workers, indicating that the former become traitors to ‘revolution.’  While giving valuable data and drawing accurate material lines even within poor countries and internal communities, he ultimately fails in his thesis.  That is because revolution is not the only working class goal.  To even get to that point, a series of transitional demands would have to be achieved.

Understanding that wealth and income play a role in consciousness and behavior is not a secret to any materialist.  No news here.  It is one of the great problems that socialists have in advanced and complex capitalist countries, in any class society, an issue that capital creates due to its strategy not to immiserate everyone.  

Here bromma uses that understanding to make a hash of class categories.  He blurs the lines or disappears the contradictions between union bureaucrats and union members; workers in the global “south” and workers in the global ‘north; the actual middle class and the actual working class; white-collar workers and blue-collar workers.  Essentially, drawing a 'class line' within the working class seems to be somewhat sectarian!  I couldn’t even find a reference to any white worker in north America who wasn’t privileged economically.  There is so much blurring, you ultimately have to guess who he’s talking about in much of the book.

'Privileged' workers on the Midnight Shift
His main fire is aimed at union workers in the global north and privileged workers in the global south.  bromma calls them ‘middle class’ – thereby identifying their own possible self-consciousness with their actual class reality.  He doesn’t like the term ‘labor aristocracy’ which has been used in the past, and substitutes the term ‘worker elite,’ widening it to include all unionists, not just highly skilled workers.   His main material tool is an economic category called ‘purchasing power parity’ (PPP).  Bromma has useful though somewhat dated statistics comparing workers world-wide.  He established a PPP of around $10,000-$15,000 as the threshold of his middle-class category.  Autoworkers worldwide are especially in his sights, due to their higher incomes such as in Mexico or South Korea.

As capital is driving more workers into a less privileged position world-wide, the great task will be to unite the struggles of all workers across economic strata. Given the complexity of class structures in most countries, this is not an easy task.  Given union membership in the U.S. is at a serious low, that should bring joy to bromma’s heart.  But change is certainly made harder by an analysis that turns possible allies into the ‘enemy.’ Revolutions do not come until the bulk of the working class agrees, and that cannot be changed by aiming your main fire at the wrong people. 


“Night Shift’ is a book of straight-forward short stories, only one of which concerns actually working a night shift in a plastics factory.  That is disappointing, as night-shift workers face peculiar and nasty problems.  Most of them are vignettes about working crappy jobs in bookstores, non-profits or the plastics factory, or writing a crappy book.  Kolm’s experiences led to problems with marriages and relationships.  I worked in a plastics factory for 2 days and left due to the toxic environment.  I still ride by small plastic’s factories that now employ mostly Latino labor and on a warm summer morning the factory doors are open and you can smell the fumes.  Kolm, after his night shift, literally stunk so bad his wife told him to sleep on the couch. It was a dangerous and toxic environment. Why he didn’t leave is beyond me.  Kolm mentions drugs a lot, so that might have been part of it. 

Kolm is one of a group of working-class writers that cover the de-politicized and seamy side of working-class life in the U.S., people like Bukowski and Palahniuk.  As a writer, his first foray into literature along the lines of a middle-class academic provides a certain amount of humor.  His attempt to combine Joyce, Ben Johnson, Swift, Beckett and Celine caused a wordy wreck.  It became ‘the worst book he ever read.’ These stories are the kind of things you might hear at a ‘reading’ session in the back of a bar.  I have a severe allergy to short stories but if you like them, this might work for you.

Other fiction/non-fiction about factory life mentioned below:  Factory Days,”Night Shift” (by David Macaray this time); “Shop Class as Soulcraft.”

And I bought them at Mayday Books!
Red Frog
February 11, 2017

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Non-Fictional Fiction

“Behind the Beautiful Forevers – Life, Death & Hope in a Mumbai Undercity” by Katherine Boo, 2012

This book reads like a luminous and intense fiction story written by someone who has had much contact with the working underclass of Mumbai.  What astonishes is that at the end of the book, the author tells you that it is based on 4 years of interviews with slum dwellers in an actual squatter neighborhood called Annawadi near the Mumbai airport in India, and a review of 3 thousand public records that related to these squatters.  All the events and people are real, including the use of their real names.  The period is from 2007-2010, during which even this little community is impacted by Wall Street’s 2008 mortgage crash.

Recyclers from Annawadi
So this is some kind of new form of ‘fiction’ – not historical so much as sociological / political non-fiction fiction!  Because of course Boo cannot create all thoughts and dialog from research. 

The fluffy title “Beautiful Forevers” comes from an advertising slogan about floor tile posted on the tall wall to the airport, behind which Annawadi lies.  A bit of irony, as there are no beautiful forevers there.

The book tells the tale of a few Muslim families living in a majority Hindu slum, peopled by rural migrants from various parts of northern India.  A septic pond sits near the slum.  Water is shared by everyone from a single pipe.  Toilets are sorts of outhouses.  The living quarters are made of loose bricks, plywood, bamboo, tarpaulins, corrugated metal and whatever people can find to cover themselves.  After the 2008 economic crash and a subsequent Islamic terror attack on downtown Mumbai, fewer tourists came through the airport and so times got harder.

One of the main occupations is collecting valuable garbage from the near-by airport – cups, cans, metal, plastic – anything that can be resold.  Some get temp jobs as waiters or baggage boys.  Others run scams based on fake schools or non-existent ‘anti-poverty’ or women’s organizations to get international aid – money which is then divied-up among the powerful.  Bribery demands from everyone in authority – police, coroners, investigators, government clerks, lawyers, politicians – are constant.  Many voters are disenfranchised and never get to vote.  The conservative Shiv Sena and the neo-liberal Congress Party take turns basically buying votes from the slum.  Some boys become thieves.  The girls fear being sent back through arranged marriages to brutal men in backward villages, as they actually have more freedom in the slum.  Suicide by drinking rat poison or anonymous murder of scavenger boys occurs on a regular basis.  Plans to bulldoze the slum and build malls or other upscale buildings hover over Annawadi the whole time. 

The key plot here is a fight between two families in which a women lights herself on fire, and her death is blamed on a Muslim family.  Three members of that family are arrested and thrown in jail, and into the hands of the absurd and crumbling Indian ‘justice’ system where they await their fate.

The ‘modern’ people - the ‘over-city’, the foreign airport tourists, the Mumbai wealthy - all weigh on the denizens of Annawadi.  Even these slum people now think in the new setting of neo-liberalism they may escape their conditions by working hard, getting a bit of education, by copying or making friends with the better-off.  None of it happens.

Boo captures their individual humanity in the midst of this trapped situation.  But instead of uniting politically as a class or group, she shows how they fight among themselves, jealous of any financial success, attempting some individual financial trick that will catapult them out of the slum.  In the process they are unable to conceive of any bigger force than their own individual families. As the stories show, oppression oppresses – something those who romanticize poverty forget on a regular basis.  It does not always make people stronger, but instead can destroy them bit by bit. 

Other books related to India reviewed below:  Capitalism:  A Ghost Story,” “Annihilation of Caste,” “Field Notes on Democracy,” “The God Market,” “Garbageland,” “Southern Insurgency,” “Walking With The Comrades,” Tropic of Chaos,” “Story of My Assassins,” and “Last Man in the Tower.”    

Red Frog
February 5, 2017

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Stick it the Man!

“Captain Fantastic,” film directed by Matt Ross, 2016

This is a film that was excoriated by some mainstream film reviewers – Peter Bradshaw at the Guardian calling it “fatuous and tiresome,” “phoney-baloney,’ and ‘cult-like,’ while the leading character was a contradictory ‘pro-Buddhist’ atheist and ‘pompous and preposterous.’  One-star!!
Are You On the Bus?
On the other hand, if you are not a fan of what is left of mainstream culture, it is pretty funny.  Viggo Mortensen (a Hollywood leftie) plays the father, Ben Cash.  He is taking care of 6 kids of various ages in the Oregon or Washington woods the old hippie way.  They raise their own vegetables, kill their own meat, play their own music, study their own curriculum and learn skills like rock-wall climbing.  Into this isolated Eden intrudes a problem.  Their depressed mother, who had left them to go to live in Arizona near her mother and father, commits suicide.  This subject becomes the plot of the whole film.  The family decides – against the wishes of the woman’s father who blames the daughter’s depression and suicide on Ben – to go to the funeral anyway.  One of Ben’s kids agrees with the grandfather, so there are more problems in paradise. 

And so the family embarks on their visit to that other planet – the U.S. of A.  All of them are atheists, so they fool a cop who stops their bus ‘Steve” by singing religious songs.  They visit a roadside cafe offering pop, hamburgers and fries.  Ben the dad says they are leaving because there is no real food on the menu.  They ultimately rob a store (…) to make their own dinner over a campfire.  Instead of Christmas, they celebrate “Noam Chomsky” day, and dad hands out high-quality knives as presents.  Ben parades his nudity at one point and discusses sex frankly.  Being physically fit themselves, the children are stunned by how many fat people there are in the U.S.A. 

Arriving at a relatives’ house in the suburbs, the children drink wine in front of their kids during dinner, to the dismay of the relatives.  They actually tell the truth about the death to the relatives’ kids too, instead of lying about it.  At one point, when questioned about his home-schooling, Ben brings his 8-year old daughter down and compares her knowledge of the Bill of Rights to the relatives’ older children.  This somewhat tactless behavior is apologized for, but funny nevertheless.  They make fun of the massive stores and feel discomfort in the gigantic house the grandparents live in. They are intent on an atheist cremation, per their mother’s wishes, while the grandfather wants a church and casket burial.  They disrupt the funeral service, to which the father was not invited.

Early in the film, the 18 year-old son Bodevan at one point announces that he was a Trotskyist and is now a Maoist.   Ben responds by telling him, “Stay away from Marxism!” When do you hear that kind of dialog?!  I won’t tell you the rest, but ultimately their anarchist ‘deep ecology’ cultural politics do not split the family, in spite of Ben’s risk-taking with his children.  The son, Bodevan, goes off to travel in Namibia instead of accepting college offers from Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Dartmouth that his mother helped him apply for.

Ben is supposedly ‘Captain Fantastic’ - but the real problem here is whether families like this actually exist.  The ghost of hippiedom haunts Republican and Democrat Amerika in the form of real people and real policies to this day.  We all know this.  But whether ‘deep ecology’ families live in idyllic settings right now is up for grabs.  Certainly the resonance of the film comes from the fact that actual people are doing many of the things this family does.  The director himself grew up in somewhat similar circumstances, raised by his mother.  As to the climbing scene, the leading rock climber in the U.S. took his 6-year old up a mountain in real life. Yet ultimately its ‘factuality’ is not the real point of the film – it is a polemic of sorts against right-wing capitalist culture. I did not see it as a film pretending to be about a real family, as Bradshaw did.

The film ends by one of the young girls telling Bodevan as he’s leaving for Namibia, “Power to the People!” and “Stick it to the Man!”  The funny part is that these slogans are still on-target 50 years later.  And yet no film made in the present day ever says them.  That must be why Mr. Bradshaw really went nuts.

Other posts on hippies below:  The Hippies Were Right,” several commentaries on the “Grateful Dead,” a “Hippie Modernism” museum show and a book review:  Daydream Sunset.”

Red Frog
January 29, 2017