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 Erdo─čan 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