Thursday, September 28, 2017

Caught in a Cyber-Hurricane

Cyber-Proletariat - Global Labour in the Digital Vortex," by Nick Dyer-Witheford, 2015

I picked this book up thinking that I was going to find out about a new strata of the working class or proletariat that was unfamiliar.  You know, geeky techies who now consider themselves cyber-communists or something.  But what Dyer-Witheford (DW) does in this book is connect very familiar present events and issues to the living tissue of the technical computer revolution, the cyber-matrix we now live in.  This 'strata' actually involves nearly all proletarians, across the world.

Grin and Bear It?
DW covers robotization, the cell phone, the internet, digital platforms, artificial intelligence and automata, tech companies, the different strata of techies, world supply chains, software and the like - all translated through Marx.  DW is an 'autonomist Marxist' in the Italian tradition of Negri and others, and so eschews Leninism.  He seems to favor a spontaneous, mass approach to class struggle, which he calls 'The Human Front.' (!) Organization is almost invisible in his high-tech world, but then this book is not really a prescription of 'what to do,' but of what is happening to us.

Some writers love to coin new phrases and you can't fault DW for trying in this book.  It is a habit of the precise academic.  In one example he focuses on the 'proletariat' as those who might be able to work, not the narrower category of the 'working class,' which at least has a job.  However, even people without a job have to work to stay alive...  DW contrasts the disaster of industrial capitalism in Detroit with the growth of cyber-capital in Silicon Valley.   He tracks the growth of precarious part-time employment, showing how the majority of proletarians in the world do not have a full-time jobs.  For instance, 93% of Indian workers are in the 'unorganized' sector. He describes finance capital's 'money grid', where 'M=M+' was not possible until the development of the computer, which aided in financialization.  Wall Street and banking were one of the first areas to become digitized.     

In the most illuminating section, DW shows how the mobile phone has become essential throughout the world as a way for temporary workers to be 'on call' for work.  As I've pointed out in the past, it is the neo-liberal commodity 'par excellance.'  In richer countries or higher-income strata in less wealthy ones, the internet phone is the fetish of all fetishes.  The computer, the cell phone, the internet phone, the software and physical networks that tie all of it together are in essence how modern imperial capital controls the world's labour - how it functions.  The quick movement of capital, of orders, of instructions, of commerce, of entertainment, of data, of news, of labor - all are part of this cybernetic vortex.  The stock markets themselves are a reflections of how algorithms trade at lightning speeds.  Nearly every job has been touched by computers - not just in white-collar cubes but blue collar work like mechanics, machinists, construction workers, railway workers, even miners and farmers.  DW, like Marx & Engels, describes it as a type of social hurricane, which is only speeding up.  It is matching nature's Maria, Irma and Harvey in their acts of de-composition.      

Monthly Review has downgraded the role of the tech revolution because of the few people it ostensibly employs.  That is true, at least in the U.S., which outsourced its blue collar PC board force, and now concentrates on intellectual property.  But beneath them, even in Silicon Valley, are more than 200K support workers.  Overseas the tech industry's flagship plant is Foxconn in Shenzen, China, which employs over 200,000 workers alone, making it this century's 'River Rouge' plant.  Modern growth in industrial production has mostly come from the tech industry, saving capital for a time from complete stagnation.  Even automobiles are becoming massive tech gadgets.  Due to automation and software, employment is now not what marks capital's progress - in fact the LACK of it indicates its regressive 'progress.'  

The second issue is profits, and tech firms are some of the most highly capitalized firms in the world. Google, Microsoft, Apple, Amazon, Facebook, Verizon, Sun, Oracle, Cisco, Tesla, etc. - you have heard of them, right?  The third issue is that of control - and the cyber web now encompasses the globe, both in a corporate, a military, a propaganda and a surveillance sense.  This truly qualifies as a technical breakthrough for capital on par with the steam engine or the automobile, and it is a method which is still developing at lighting speed, as the development of 'self-driving' cars and trucks attests.  Truck drivers are the most common blue collar jobs in the U.S. - 1.8 million - so this development, IF it happens, will result in massive unemployment, as capital never has a plan for those rendered obsolete.

Robots of the World ...Unite
Marx pointed out that the more capital invests in technology (fixed capital) and not in labour, it results in a falling rate of profit, as labour is the source of surplus value.  This is if other things do not interfere, like war, environmental destruction and the issues that DW raises about cheaper fixed machinery.  Additionally, it can easily be seen that a corporate plan to replace humans with machines, like some capitalist "Terminator" end-game, will result in poverty for the majority of humanity - and that would be bad for sales at a certain point.  All this 'creative disruption' as Schumpeter labeled it, could become 'plain destruction.'  Which is why billionaires and tech bosses are trumpeting the 'guaranteed national income' - sort of a warehousing plan for now economically useless human beings.

DW points out that Marx's concept of the 'reserve army of labor' implies that some of these people 'might' get a job someday if the production cycle picks up.  At present, some people will NEVER have a job, except perhaps in the marginal peddler economy, selling things people barely want like Chicklets. They are 'surplus humanity.'  He also contends that imperial development is disrupting the standard 'center/periphery' economic model, as the 'center' becomes increasingly immiserated while some in the periphery get wealthier, and tries to describe a new world model based on localized zones.

He has a section on the varying roles of Twitter, Facebook and various messaging platforms in social struggle.  He shows how in some countries - Egypt and China - they played a huge role in organizing protests, while in others they were peripheral.  Mirroring the lack of large revolutionary organizations on the left, some protests were as ephemeral as Tweets - they came and they went. 

DW discusses the dispossession of farmers, migrant labor, virtual slave labor, unpaid labor mostly done by women, and every other kind of workforce drawn into the cyber network.  Primitive mining for metals in the Congo, staffing call centers in India, picking apart e-waste in Mexico, peddling cell phones in Nairobi, 'content-moderating' in San Jose - all join a chain of production that was non-existent not that long ago.  Even the free 'user content' you are reading now on this blog actually helps Google.  And yes, some techies (hackers) have become proletarianized as routine coders and 'help desk' personnel, just as is happening in almost every other white collar area.  But sorry, no real movement in the direction of 'cyber-communism' from the techies I meet. 

Other books on this topic:  "The Precariat,"  "Flash Boys," "Cypherpunks," "The Shock Doctrine," "The Unseen," "China on Strike,"

And I bought it at May Day Books!
Red Frog
September 28, 2017

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Every War Loves Some Healing!

Ken Burns and Lynn Novick's 'Balanced' Whitewash of the American War

Ken Burns is 'America's' favorite video historian, compiling large amounts of photos, videos, quotes, interviews, sad music, period music and chosen bits of history to guide you through troubled periods in the nation's past.  In his initial Civil War documentary, he concentrated on battles and great leaders, larded it with pathos, tragedy and nostalgia, and basically ignored the political and economic issues that were at the bottom of this great conflict, like slavery.  Interviewees like southerner Shelby Foote were the source of much of his information.

Cherubic Nice Guy Finishes First
That series is a stylistic template for his present Vietnam series on PBS - the Government Broadcasting System.  The U.S. is still enmeshed in world wide warfare, war-mongering, war profiteering and war making.  As such, the real impetus behind the government and the corporations drive to war has to be hidden or obscured.  Ken Burns is not going to undermine the continuing narrative of nationalist patriotism, heroics, nostalgia, bi-partisanship and good intentions while the U.S. collaborates, invades, drones and occupies country after country.  We need balance! 

Certainly, for people unfamiliar with the American War, this series can be enlightening.  It talks to and quotes the 'enemy' unlike any standard U.S. historian has done before - Viet Cong and northern Vietnamese, Ho Chi Minh and Giap.  

Things to watch for, according to those who have seen part or all of this arty, deceptive, partially enlightening and disjointed endorsement of imperialism:

Veterans for Peace Comment on Series
1.  Liberal narrative is that Vietnam was a 'mistake' and 'national tragedy.'  Actually it was intentional and only tragic for the millions of dead and injured Vietnamese, Laotians, Cambodians and the thousands of dead and injured American grunts.  Not to mention the animals, plants, environment and descendants of all of these people.
2. Fabricated Gulf of Tonkin incident slides by quickly.  It is treated as if it actually happened: Quote: "retaliation for the Gulf of Tonkin."
3. Spends long time giving credence to the Domino Theory, which was used to justify the invasion of Vietnam by the U.S.
4. Implies that South Vietnam was a country forever, not an artificial creation of the French and U.S.
5. Economics is totally ignored.  For instance, the French owned nearly every valuable resource in the country, including opium.  As their replacement, U.S. companies were bound to inherit part of this bounty. Invisible.
7.  The land question is ignored, which was a large part of the reason the South Vietnamese peasants backed the Viet Minh and Viet Cong.  The only rationale given for resistance is 'nationalism.'
8.  Burns at a public meeting before the showing said the Vietnamese peasants were misguided in following the reds.  He also believes that damage from Agent Orange is 'inconclusive,' when responding to a question.
9.  Many war criminals are interviewed as experts, especially John Negroponte. Always good to give respected criminals a continuing platform.
10.  There are may 'truths' to the American war, according to Burns, which is sort of how the U.S. now does journalism and history.  Actually, the overwhelming truth of the American War was that it was a bloodbath based on body counts engineered by the U.S. for imperial reasons. 
11. Japanese and French colonialisms are criticized, but the words 'colonialism' or 'imperialism' never crosses the lips of the narrators in regard to the U.S.  The U.S. is the 'great exception.' 
12.  In the first 5 minutes, the narrator (Peter Coyote) says the war was 'begun in good faith.'  Don't they always start that way?
13.  "Healing" doesn't happen when the criminals run loose.  We are talking about you, Henry Kissinger.  There should be war crime tribunals, not kumbaya. But then when did the criminals of the 2008 crash go to jail either?  No rich or powerful people ever go to jail!  No problem.  No healing.
14. The key war critic Daniel Ellsburg is missing from film.  One of the war critics allowed to speak apologizes.  Only one stands out.
15. Karl Marlantes, author of "Matterhorn," joins a host of former generals, CIA agents and government officials in interviews.  Marlantes repeats some fables that have been exposed, like being 'spit on' or called 'baby killer.'  But in his book, "Matterhorn" he also noted the conflict between blacks and whites in the military and the stupidity of holding some hill in the middle of nowhere.  See if he goes there.
16. Sponsored by Bank of America, Rockefeller & Mellon foundations and the Koch Brothers.
17. Pro-South Vietnam 'experts' propound the idea that it was a 'civil war,' not an anti-colonial struggle in which some people collaborated with the occupiers.
18. Best specific parts are U.S. veteran Tim O'Brien and N.V.A. veteran Bao Ninh, who wrote "Sorrow of War," probably the greatest book on the war.  It is carried at May Day and you should come down right down and buy it.  I myself bought it on the streets of Hanoi from a crippled man.
19.  Can you say 'even-handed'?  Can you track the U.S. 'heroism' references?
20.  Tropes about evil women in Hanoi continue.  Jane Fonda, anyone?
21. Class struggle disappears.  Everyone in Vietnam is in the same class evidently.
22.  They finally mentioned that the whole U.S. army and good chunks of the Navy and Air Force refused to fight by 1970-1971, for maybe 10 minutes. Every form of resistance - desertions, fragging, refusals to go on patrol ... briefly discussed.
23.  Operation Phoenix assassination program justified or soft-peddled.  Phoenix was the basis for the My Lai massacre - it was policy. 
24. Series red-baits all U.S. anti-war protesters as "Maoists."
25. Nick Turse points out that the massive civilian casualties are mostly hidden.

Sources:  Veterans for Peace, Counterpunch, Mekong Review, Truthdig, the Intercept, nearly every leftie on the internet and folks around May Day who have seen parts of the series.
Prior reviews of books on Vietnam:  "Kill Anything That Moves," "Matterhorn," "People's History of the Vietnam War," "What It Is Like To Go To War," "Soldiers in Revolt," "In the Crossfire - Adventures of a Vietnamese Revolutionary," "The Sympathizer."  Use blog search box, upper left.

Red Frog
September 21, 2017

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Red Vienna and the Culture of Socialism

"Antifascism, Sports, Sobriety - Forging a Militant Working-Class Culture," with Selected Writings by Julius Deutsch, edited by Gabriel Kuhn, 2017

I'll bet Austromarxism was not on the tip of your lips.  Mine either.  However, this intriguing little book came into May Day and touched on topics few talk about.  Dave Zirin, the sports lefty, should read it, as should some of the pacifist types on the left.  Even our teetotalers will feel a bit vindicated.
The Working Class Atlas

Events in "Red Vienna" are somewhat unknown on the U.S. left, so this study helps with its extensive bibliography.  Lenin, Trotsky, Serge, Bela Kun & Ilona Duczynska all criticized the ideas and methods of the Austrian Social-Democratic Workers Party (SDAP) - Kautsky, Hilferding, Bauer, Adler and their '2.5 International" - from a Bolshevik point of view.  Their key criticisms were brought out when the SDAP failed to stop Austrian fascism from triumphing in 1934. They called them 'all bark, no bite."  The SDAP talked left, mentioned the possible need for a dictatorship of the proletariat and tried to effect theoretical unity between Social Democrats and Communists, but none of that occurred. 

At four key moments of crisis in Austria the SDAP failed to live up to its revolutionary talk.  The first was their refusal to actively support the March 1919 council republic in next door Hungary.  Next, in July 1927, a court acquitted some fascists who had shot at an SDAP march and killed some workers.  During the mass workers protest that followed, the SDAP did not come out in a show of force to respond to the fascist threat.  Third, in March 1933 the SDAP failed to properly deploy their "Schutzbund" workers militia in the face of the suspension of the Austrian parliament by the fascists, and disappointed their own base. They followed that up in February 1934 by missing the moment and not moving fast enough to seize power in Vienna as the fascists were taking power.  This last failure, after a 3 day battle, led to the triumph of fascism in Austria.  The basic lesson learned was that 'retreat' emboldens the bourgeoisie and their fascist henchman, and at these key moments, the SDAP leadership backed down for fear of civil war.  Well, civil war came anyway. 

The German and Italian CPs did not even make the late attempt the SDAP did, so there is lots of blame to go around.  Though the CPs, including the tiny one in Austria, were key in the later partisan movements across Europe.

However the SDAP made valuable contributions in building an anti-fascist military militia, which unfortunately only went into action once.  The SDAP dominated the sports scene with working-class sports clubs. Some of their leaders crusaded against alcoholism as something which weakened the working-class, ultimately coming out against any drinking.  Karl Polyani described changes in Vienna after the 1919 election of the SDAP as unique in the socialist movement.    


The Republican Schutzbund was the anti-fascist militia built by the SDAP, which was drawn from party cadres, unions, the proletarian sports clubs, youth and the general working class.  It guarded meetings and demonstrations, paraded in strength, practiced military skills and was to be eventually called out in combat with fascist gangs or in defense of the working class and republican institutions.  As was noted by the SDAP leadership, the bourgeois military is THE key prop of the capitalist order, so without an organized opposition, defeat is far more likely.  Yet due to the aforementioned hesitations of the SDAP leadership, the Schutzbund was only used once, which demoralized the Austrian working class and encouraged the fascist paramilitaries. 

There were debates within the Schutzbund as to whether it was to be a strictly military organization or should learn the skills of what has come to be called urban guerilla warfare.  The majority was in favor of traditional militarism.  Duczynska noted that this technique was sometimes more useful in controlling the working class than the enemy.  Nothing in the book indicates that the units allowed democratic votes, so they might have been purely top-down.   


The SDAP tried to create a working-class culture to accompany their political struggle.  After their election in Vienna they constructed large workers apartment buildings like the 'Karl Marx-Hof' to better house the class.  One writer about Red Vienna called it a "foretaste of the socialist utopia."  Public swimming pools, dental clinics in schools, maternity homes, adult education centers, lending libraries, , bookstores, publishing houses, theaters and festivals were all part of life in Red Vienna, part of an expression of Austromarxism and unknown in other cities.  It showed the role of the 'city' in socialist organizing.      


Of particular note, the SDAP created the Austrian 'Workers League for Sport & Body Culture,' which had hundreds of thousands of members and participated in nearly all sports. This kind of organization was not possible until workers got an 8 hour day.   This movement went international, with a series of well-attended proletarian ' Workers Olympics' that made no mention of nations and did not fly national flags, as does our present rabidly bourgeois 'Olympics.'  This was under the umbrella of the 'Socialist Workers Sport International (SWSI).'  At its peak, the SWSI had 2 million members and held 3 international Olympics. 

The sports clubs promoted health, community and strength for the average worker, not individualism, commercialism and 'records' by pampered elite bourgeois athletes.   Participation was emphasized over passive watching of sports by fans.  One main purpose was to prepare the working class for a physical confrontation with the fascists or even the state, as flabby, weak or lazy workers would not be much good in a clash.  As part of this physical culture, the SDAP also created the 'Whersport' organization, which specialized in more military physical skills - marksmanship, martial arts, running and other disciplines related to military training.  All of this has echoes in the U.S.  - the Teamster Local 544 Union Guard, the BPP, AIM, Robert Williams and the Deacons for Defense, the JB Anti-Klan Committee, Socialist Rifle Association, Redneck Revolt - but in the U.S. they occur on a much smaller level.  So far...


Drinking is a two-edged sword, and many times it (and its modern equivalent, drugs) demobilizes working class people.  Karl Kautsky once remarked that 'liquor, that is the enemy.'  Like the strict rules against drug and alcohol by the Black Muslims, the SDAP promoted temperance as an antidote to the rampant alcoholism found among some working class people, which only profited the bourgeois 'inn' owners in Austria.  If religion is not the opiate of the people, certainly drugs and alcohol can be.  Most socialists at this time were OK with socializing around a glass of beer or wine (Marx was a beer drinker himself) but not the SDAP leadership.  And they might have had a point, as their society was marinating in fascism at the time. 

The book ends with re-publication of some of the writings of Julius Deutsch, a former impoverished worker and military man who met Luxembourg, Kautsky, Bebel, Trotsky, Bauer and Adler in Berlin and Vienna.  Deutsch had organized an anti-war group in the Austrian military during WWI and also fought in Spain.  During the first Austrian Republic in 1918, after the fall of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, he was appointed minister of defense by the Social Democrats as part of a joint government.    

May Day Books carries a number of Dave Zirin's books on sports.  Commentaries on anti-fascism, the NFL, the Olympics, drugs and alcohol, below.  Use blog search box, upper left with those terms. 

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

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Bloody Perestroika

'Secondhand Time - the Last of the Soviets," by Svetlana Alexievich, 2016 English Translation

Alexievich is a liberal journalist from Belarus who presently opposes Russian policy in the Ukraine, so politically she has lined up with the U.S. government.  However, she is also a professional reporter who in this book seeks out many stories about the fall of the Soviet Union, from both capital-C Communists and newly-minted businessmen, but mostly those in between.  Whatever your theoretical views about the fall of the USSR, these stories help flesh out what went wrong, or what was right.  They are organized into two dated sections, 1991 to 2001 and 2002 to 2012. 

Would You Trust Your Country to this Man?
Alexievich, through these first-person narratives, paints a picture of a de-politicized, disorganized population yearning after consumer goods and a bit of freedom, who bought into Yeltsin's abstract pleas for 'freedom' and were tricked.  Many tell stories of rushing out to back Yeltsin in his Moscow showdown in August 1991, when tanks of the tiny remnant of the bureaucracy that still backed 'actually existing socialism' attempted to stage a putsch. The Army was unsure, the 'putsch' lasted 3 days and they surrendered to a pro-capitalist strata of the nomenklatura, Yeltsin and Putin, et al.  Unlike the mass uprising that was the Bolshevik revolution, the capitalist counter-revolution could be more likened to the collapse of a rotten building, given the small amount of people involved.  It was a true putsch. 

The lack of violence also shows the class basis upon which the USSR was built - the working class majority.  Unlike our own greedy capitalist class, which will have working class soldiers fight to the end to protect their yachts and bank accounts against the majority, a government based on the majority has to collapse at some point if its supporters drop out.  Sort of like a union that faces a decertification vote because of years of malfeasance.  The massive 15 million member Communist Party rallied no one.  It's own roots were weak, as the bureaucratic cadre had robbed the actual working class of any independent agency.  The inextricable link between workers democracy and class rule had already been broken by the CP, and this led Russia and the rest of the USSR's working class into an economic abyss for 10 years and ongoing. 

Nearly all of the people in these stories rue the day they supported Yeltsin and Gaidar, as criminals, oligarchs and former nomenklatura took over everything.  Factories were bought for a song, many workers were laid off, PHD's became taxi drivers, kiosk peddlers appeared in Red Square barely making a living selling Hungarian sausage, old people begged.  The stability of the USSR collapsed.  Thugs appropriated apartments.  The majority of the bureaucracy had the head start in being the owners of the factories they once managed.  This is the root of their counter-revolutionary role, which came to final fruition after being predicted by the Left Opposition so long ago.

One thing made clear by the book is that the concentration on military defense - one official put it at 80% of the economy - robbed the population of easily-produced consumer goods like VCRs, blue jeans and decent food like salami, which is mentioned many times in the book. Housing for many was primitive or very small - barracks, dormitories, bunkers, packed communal or small apartments. While you may think that 'defense' is all about how many tanks or jets you have, a real defense is also a population that supports you, and that means not spitting on their material needs.  For instance, when the Rolling Stones played Havana in 2016, the Cuban workers state did not collapse.  Rock & roll is not 'anti-communist' except to a clueless bureaucrat.  If the Soviets had grasped this simple idea, they might have still existed, but that would mean losing control. 

Alexievich tells the stories of former CP officials who dismiss the counter-revolution as basically 'trading our souls for chewing gum and VCRs.'  She describes the brutal ethnic cleansing that broke out after the destruction of the Soviet Union against many nationalities - Armenians, Jews, Tajiks, Georgians,  Abkhazians, Azerbajanis.  There were many subsequent suicides; vicious drunken husbands beating their wives or girlfriends; people exchanging books for new toilets; the desires for a 'new Czar" or a return of Stalin by some; the oppression of poverty-stricken Tajiks by the new Russian businessmen, cops and skinheads.  

It covers an endless war and terrorism from Chechnya; unhappy soldiers returned from Afghanistan; kitchen conversations that ended after 1991; the present obsession with money and the passing of the 'Sovak' citizen; the enduring memories of the penal colonies, torture, deaths and arrests of Stalin's time that hover over everyone; the Russian love of suffering; the nostalgic security of life in the USSR; anti-Soviet 'democrats' getting rich; the unity of 'all peoples' given over to violent nationalism after the counter-revolution; the failures of Gorbachev; the enduring life of the countryside, no matter who is in power; the haunting sweetness of Victory Day and Yuri Gagarin; the suicide of Akhromeyev after the fall of the USSR; veterans of World War II committing suicide because of the counter-revolution; Russian anti-Semitism; the passions of rich Russian yuppie women; the many dreams of escaping Russia; the enduring romance of prisoners in the culture and on and on.

Alexievich has chosen mostly tragic and depressing stories.  Perhaps that is what makes up mainstream Russian life, but I think it is an authorial choice to illustrate certain issues.  For instance, a former camp guard tells a story of needing massages of his trigger finger, as he was getting carpel tunnel after shooting so many people in the head 'back in the day.'

Yeah, sad ass stuff.

Prior reviews of books on the USSR:  Alexievich's own "The Unwomanly Face of War." Also: "How the Beatles Rocked the Kremlin," "Russian Fates and Lost Alternatives," "Russia and the Long Transition from Capitalism to Socialism," "Absurdistan," "Reinventing Collapse" and others.

Red Frog
September 9, 2017