Tuesday, March 27, 2018

We Need a 'New Liberator' Magazine

“Polar Star” by Martin Cruz Smith, 2007 / “The Factory,” Granta Magazine, 2005

What does a fiction story based in Siberia and the Bering Sea have to do with a literary magazine that dedicated a 2005 issue to factories?  Well, something.  Polar Star, a sequel to the Russian novel Gorky Park, takes disgraced detective Arkady Renko onto the slime line, working on a Soviet fish-processing ship, gutting and trimming the catch each day. In other words, a floating factory.  The editors of the British literary journal Granta have gathered a group of memoirs and reportage about factories.  They note in the introduction that the only fiction book in which they can find a description of a factory is American Pastoral by Philip Roth. (reviewed below)  That book contained a loving description of a high quality glove manufacturing facility in Newark, New Jersey, where the gloves were made by hand.

No Fiction Left

Given the exotic nature of factories, which have supposedly disappeared beneath a wave of coffee shops and malls in the U.S. and Britain, this interest by Granta in the quaint lives of blue collar stiffs is illustrative.  In 2005 after all, Reagan, Clinton, Bush and the capitalist class had orchestrated a 25-year jihad to decimate factory and union work.  Thatcher and Blair had done the same job on their side of the pond.  The editors note that fiction in the U.S. is bereft of this focus, which explains why only one of the 8 stories in Granta is from a first-person account of actually working in a production facility.  That exception was a high-school summer and after-school job in a terrible plastics joint making beach-side plastic shovels and other junk.  This is a literary magazine that also contained an old interview with James Joyce, so they proved their own point.  They couldn't find one writer who worked in a blue collar environment for any length of time. They all ran off to college and never returned.

The rest is reportage – about Chinese factories around Shanghai and lamp or auto factories in Chicago, mostly gleaned from factory tours.  Or memoirs about a father working in a Welsh facility making refrigerators.  Or living in York, England as a young boy , a town where Rowntree chocolate is made.  A regular Charlie and the Chocolate Factory story, this latter.  Though Charlie was based on the Cadbury’s plant in Bourneville, England near Birmingham, where a young Roald Dahl lived and was inspired.

Regarding reportage, the first story was based on visits to China.  In 2005 the conditions in the foreign-owned plants in Guangdong were atrocious for a ‘workers state’ of course, even a deformed one.  Strikes were occurring frequently when this report was done and the police always came out to break the strikes.  Workers had silicosis or were poisoned by cadmium.  The union – the All China Federation of Trades Unions – was a ‘company union’ which did little for the workers.  Laws went unenforced, the courts uninterested.  Monitors for many famous ‘brands’ said it was impossible to actually make these factories compliant with minimal standards.  The reporting reveals that the whole ‘monitoring’ program tactic is more of a white-wash served up to Western consumers.  The Chinese CP basically sold their workforce to imperialist firms for a pittance.  Many workers last only 5-7 years, when they are replaced by new workers from the countryside.  All this is similar information in the 2011 book, China on Strike, (also reviewed below).

Other articles consist of photos of a work at a small metal fabricating plant in Minnesota, reportage about an empty but massive former textile mill in Yorkshire inhabited by homeless people and cartoons about living in an abandoned Chechen milk factory during the war there.

A Working Boat

But again, none of this is fiction writing.  On the other hand, the narrow escapes and almost ridiculous high tension in Smith’s Polar Star mark it as really fiction.  What is very real is the description of working on a fishing fleet – the cold, the weather, the smell, the dangers, the monotony, the work, the hardware, the fellow workers, the fish, the sea.  Smith understood the Soviet culture of that time and makes the Soviet workers human.   The system is depicted as workable, not some horror or fantasy.  He sets the story in an exotic factory location in the glasnost period, during a joint project with a U.S. fishing company.  Is he imbibing the working-class character of the dying Soviet state in spite of his U.S. roots? I think so.


If so, Smith is an outlier.  The great tradition of U.S. proletarian and even socialist writing in the early 20th century from 1900 to 1940, as represented by authors like Upton Sinclair, John Steinbeck, John Dos Passos, Richard Wright, Jack London, Mike Gold, Jack Conroy, Meridel LeSeur, B. Traven, Agnes Smedley, Theodore Dreiser, James T. Farrell, Tillie Olsen, Edward Dahlberg and others – has disappeared.  Yet blue-collar work remains the foundation of any economy, even if it is being done south of the U.S. border or overseas in Dickensian conditions or cheaply, as in the U.S. south.  The myth that the U.S. does not produce anything anymore is actually useful in undermining the blue-collar proletariat by making them even more invisible.  Factories have moved or gotten smaller, but they still exist in cities, suburbs and towns across the U.S.

The ‘post-industrial society’ is a fake.  Take that highly-paid corporate attorney who makes a half million or million a year.  Who empties his wastebasket?  Who makes his clothes?  Who grew his food, caught his fish or raised the poor animal that he devours?  Who processed it, transported it and put it on shelves?  Who built the car he drives in from the suburbs?  Who built his house or his skyscraper?  Who maintains that elevator that he takes to the 40th floor?  Who keeps the AC or heat working in his office?  Who cooks his lunch?  Who built his iPhone or his computer?  Who mined the metal?  Who fabricated the parts?  Who built the school he learned law in?  What teachers did he have prior to college?  What about the nurses that keep him healthy?  Who built the water treatment plant that cleans his water?  Who built the pipes that carry his shit away?  Or what about his stay-at-home wife who cooks and cleans for him, and sees his kids off to school?  Or the women who take care of his mother in the nursing home?

That lawyer would be a starving, homeless, naked, uneducated man walking by the side of the road without the working class. But if lawyers like him were missing – well, that would mean that one corporation couldn’t sue another, as most lawsuits are basically about moving cash from one company pocket to another, with the lawyer taking a cut.  Not much else.  Yet he thinks he is ‘the smartest guy in the room.’ The ‘king of the world.’  The man with the most merit.

He’s not.  In a healthy society not based on profit, he’d be useless.  There is a case to be made that even in the present U.S. he and others like him are useless still. 

Other reviews on these topics:  Enter the word ‘factory’ or the titles Is the East Still Red? and China on Strike in the blog search box, upper left.

And I bought them at May Day’s excellent used/cutout book section!
(Note:  The original "Liberator" magazine was published by Max Eastman, featuring political and working-class fiction.)

Red Frog

March 27, 2018

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Another Dispatch from the “American South”

Florida Will Sink

We spent some time in the Tampa Bay Florida area last week on ‘spring breakdown.’  As the cranky Yankee, I still enjoy southern nature, musicians and writers.  But something is wrong on this peninsula.  And it is not just shoddy construction and missed phone calls regarding pedestrian bridges or bloody school shootings by NRA-trained marks-boys. (Most school shootings in 2018 have occurred in the south by the way.)  “Thoughts and Prayers!©” will not help this place.   Florida is a low-lying sandy spit which will sink into the ocean some day.  It is doomed.  As time advances, houses will suddenly become unsellable except as short-term rentals or termite lairs. A quiet exodus has already begun, according to Rolling Stone.

Life's a Beach...Until You Are Underwater
Only two 3-lane freeways extend the length of the peninsula, and those lanes were packed with cars as we drove down, even in the middle of Florida’s scrubby nowheres.  The evacuees of the recent hurricanes must have felt quite cramped as they drove north or east or west across this narrow land trying to escape the storms.  We saw 2 car fires around Tampa/Bradenton, which backed up traffic for 10-15 miles because there are so few road alternatives.  No roaming lions blocked the highways, but that has happened too.  The cramped barrier islands are just one big traffic jam in key periods.  Riding a bicycle, using the terrible public transport or walking are seen as something for poor or homeless people, or ‘stupid’ hippies.  Florida is the capital of auto accidents, with the highest rates in the U.S.  Their traffic is a combination of overly slow rural drivers and weaving maniacs, with too many not knowing what ‘flow’ means.  This is the most car-dependent place I have seen in awhile. 

Mega-churches line some rural highways just outside the suburbs, so you can pray for a break in the traffic.  You can get a Florida ‘In God We Trust” license plate motto too, to let everyone know if you can be trusted.  Having one of these says the opposite, I think.

It seems everybody in Florida is from somewhere else.  Many young northerners moved south after the widespread introduction of air-conditioning in the 1970s.  So ‘southern accents’ are not omnipresent.  Prior to that, many young Floridians packed up and moved north to get away from the lack of jobs and the heat and humidity.  Then there is the high proportion of old people shuffling back and forth from their cars to chain restaurants in ubiquitous strip malls, dozing in their recliners in front of Fox News or visiting chintzy gift shops.  Where have the drunken spring-breakers gone?  I miss them.


A drive up the Clearwater coast along “Gulf Drive” over skinny barrier islands is revelatory.  These former islands contain narrow white sand beaches lined with miles of cheek-by-jowl hotels, motels, businesses and houses.  All built yesterday or the day before that. These islands are about 3 blocks wide.  Houses, commercial buildings and marinas sit on landfills so that boats and yachts can dock next to their house along the intra-coastal waterways.  Most of these buildings sit a few feet above ocean level.  The literal weight of the construction – 30 story towers, electrical and sewage lines, asphalt and concrete everywhere - will make the landmass sink.  This is a separate effect even from the over-removal of groundwater, which is also leading to ground settling.  This is not that different from the endless line of towns on the eastern coast of Florida above Miami, where the landmass is sinking due to geologic settling of the continent’s edges. With rising sea levels and a hotter Gulf, it is only a matter of time before these barrier islands are no longer barriers to anything.  

But the buildings will certainly form a splendid base for a barrier reef when they collapse and become inhabited by fish, sea urchins and coral.  When you see ‘development’ like this you know terms like ‘sustainable development’ and ‘fragile ecosystems’ mean nothing to capital.  The proof is in on every overdeveloped island in the state.

Last year’s Hurricanes Irma and Maria inundated fresh water and sewage systems in Florida, while the hurricane’s flooding damaged infrastructure and homes across the state.  What you see everywhere below the ‘grass’ or planted tall palms is bleached white sand. That is what Florida is actually built upon.  Sand.  As Hendrix once pointed out, “Castles made of sand fall into the sea, eventually…”

Leave Me Alone Dude
There is still wildlife, principally birds and waterfowl, so if you are a birder, get there soon.   The manatees, which are now a protected species, used to be regularly killed by zealots driving propeller speedboats.  The gentle walrus-like beasts now hunker down next to a gas-fired power plant on Tampa Bay because of its warm-water discharge, but some of their backs are still scarred.  You see, Florida Power uses the manatees as their community outreach.  Large and small alligators sink into the water or sun on the edge of rivers and ditches.  On the upper Manatee River we saw frantic young people paddling away from a pack of sunning alligators like they were going to be attacked.  Too many movies, as the old hippie Floridian pointed out. The alligators are far more afraid of the biggest predator on the peninsula– humans.  But not otters!  Television news reported that one angry river otter attacked an elderly woman in a kayak, ripping her flesh in a number of places.  After all, it is their river and they might be getting sick of the tourists.


We returned to Georgia past many interstate billboards Jesus had rented to advertise his wares.  I can only conclude that there are a lot of sinners in this part of the south, as ‘he’ seems to be needed.  We stopped in Gray, just east of Macon, Georgia. In Gray is a musical memorial to Otis Redding, who was born nearby in Dawson, in Jones County.  Before Otis died he bought a large ranch in northeast Jones County, where the Redding family still resides.  Redding, Little Richard, James Brown and Ray Charles all hail from Georgia. Richard was born in Macon, Charles was born south of Macon in Albany while Brown grew up near South Carolina in Augusta, Georgia.  Augusta is the setting for left-wing writer Erskine Caldwell’s “Tobacco Road.”  Caldwell himself was born in White Oak, Georgia, northwest of Macon.  The Allman Brothers, the originators of a jam-band version of ‘southern rock,’ also hail from the Macon area. The Georgia Music Hall of Fame is in Macon.  So there is something in the water here.

We drove through Eatonton, Georgia northeast of Macon, on the outskirts of which Alice Walker was born and lived in and where she set The Color Purple.  It is also the town where a white journalist, Joe Harris, was born.  Harris created the Uncle Remus stories based on his collection of the oral folklore of the local African-Americans.  ‘Brother Rabbit’ became ‘Br’er Rabbit,” as Harris was not afraid to write the way people talked. Mark Twain was one of the first U.S. writers to use dialect, and Harris may have been inspired by him.  East of Eatonton near Milledgeville, the former Georgia capital, is the country home of the Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor.  She specialized in moralistic southern gothic stories like Wise Blood and The Violent Bear It Away. Her farmhouse, ‘Andalusia Farm,’ reminds one of Faulkner’s pillared rural house in Oxford, Mississippi, ‘Rowan Oak.’  If you can give a formal name to your house, you evidently are no longer invisible.

Defeated peoples specialize in music, poetry and literature.  It is there that the best of the south comes out.

The Cranky Yankee
March 21, 2018

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Dressed for Distress

“Dressed Up For a Riot – Misadventures in Putin’s Moscow,” by Michael Idov, 2018

This journalistic memoir by a New-York centric author and editor is by turns funny, self-aware, perceptive and politically clueless.  As they say, why do partially blind politics happen to ‘smart’ people?

Idov is a middle-class writer who brings the strengths and weaknesses of that class position to his writing.  He grew up in Riga, Latvia, learned Russian, then left with his parents to live in the U.S.  He still had a jones for Russian rock and roll and wrote a novel that few read except the people that count.  Through it he got a job as the editor of GQ Russia – an upscale fashion magazine catering to wealthy Russians, especially in Moscow.  Conde Nast publishes GQ, Vanity Fair and Glamour and its pages are beholden to ads for over-priced couture from Gucci, Prada, expensive watches and expensive liquor.  And the joke is, he doesn’t even dress that well. 

GQ Russia - Soccer, Fashion & Manliness

Idov arrives in Moscow in late 2011, during the height of what he calls demonstrations by the ‘new Decembrists” against the Putin regime. That designation is perhaps more true than he knows. In December 2011 a large Facebook-organized demo in Moscow’s Bolotnaya Square happened, with slogans opposing corruption, censorship and electoral fraud by the Putin government.  This culminated in a 100,000 strong demonstration in Moscow’s Sakharov Square against the government, the largest demonstration in Russia in many years.  These December demonstrations were organized by the sons and daughters of notables in the Moscow intelligentsia and cultural milieu.  This is where Alexei Navalny, a lawyer by training, first made a name for himself.  Idov details how, over time, the Putin government responded with various levels of repression, jailings and deaths.

Idov spends about two and a half years in Moscow editing GQ, first attempting to ingratiate himself with the opposition to Putin and Medvedev’s United Russia party.  But since he edited a glossy upscale magazine dominated by advertisers, no matter how many critical and clever pieces he ran, he eventually became distanced from the isolated and ultimately cynical middle-class rebels of Moscow.  At one point, he even raised funds for jailed members of Greenpeace, and that still wasn’t sufficient.  He tried to make GQ face Russia, using Russian writers, pictures and topics instead of being a wealthy memo from a glorified New York.  Idov finds out that the ‘opposition’ so despise Russia’s situation that they mostly yearn for London and New York, not Moscow or St. Petersburg.  Many became exiles later, both because of government repression and Russian economic hard times due to the fall in the value of the ruble and oil prices.  Many of their magazines and internet sites closed or were closed.

The book is full of Russian cultural name-dropping, rappers and ridiculous figures.  Idov ultimately becomes a celebrity himself (the Russian-American Jewish editor slot…) and goes to parties, hobnobs with other celebrities and meets some of Russia’s major cultural figures on both sides of the Putin fence.  Then he gets to work on what he is really good at – TV scripts for various Russian-language productions that are on a higher cultural level than most Russian TV.  One is ‘Londongrad,’ about Russians in London and another, ‘Rushkin,’ that seems to be a copy of his own life in Moscow.  At a certain point he can no longer put up with the contradictions at GQ Russia and gets hired to work on some terrible Conde Nast magazine in Azerbaijan connected to the Azeri dictator’s daughter. (Really?!)  He now lives in Berlin and realizes New York is not the center of the world.

Idov actually believes that the U.S. and NATO had no role in the anti-Russian coup in the Ukraine, in spite of the large amount of documentation which contravenes that position… (can you say 'Victoria Nuland'?) (https://www.counterpunch.org/2014/03/05/chronology-of-the-ukrainian-coup/)

The coup basically replaced an elected pro-Russian billionaire oligarch with an unelected pro-EU/US oligarch hostile to Russia and Russians.  Or that the involvement of Right Sector and other Ukrainian fascists in Maiden Square was peripheral, and their role in western Ukraine still is.  He toes the U.S. government line in thinking the overwhelming secession vote of the heavily Russian-populated Crimea was wrong  Or that the Donetsk and Luhansk rebels are evil as they fight those very same fascist militias.  After all, is there a problem with EU missiles on the Russian border? He calls anyone to the left of conventional 'liberal' Democrats the ‘tinhat left.’  He lumps in Trotskyists with monarchists and religious zealots.  But then he also realizes there might be a touch of Russiaphobia in the U.S.  Do you think?

Marxists and anarchists in the Crimea are now being arrested, beaten and detained, according to a report in Counterpunch.  This figures, given the class character of the Putin government.  But this is not the kind of thing Idov would bother with.

The Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF) is barely mentioned, except as a wimpy fake opposition to Putin.  Yet the CPRF nearly won the 1996 election and might have really won except for massive U.S. ‘meddling’ to support Boris Yeltsin. (Speaking of ‘election meddling,’ academic statistics by Don Levin show the U.S. has interfered in 81 foreign elections since 1946…) The CP’s elderly leadership voted for the dissolution of the USSR in 1991, which shows how bureaucratic and weak it had become.  But recently younger people are trying to turn it into a real working-class opposition to Putin, not a ‘loyal opposition.’  The CPRF is still the second largest party in Russia, bigger than Navalny’s organization the Progress Party by far.  However, their presidential candidate, Pavel Grudinin, is a millionaire, so they have not had any effect at the top of the party.  The only workers Idov must have met are bin cleaners, bartenders, waitresses and chauffeurs in his travels around Russia, which is typical. 
Punk, Feminist, Atheist, Anarchist

Idov focuses, like most of the bourgeois press, on the trial and jailing of Pussy Riot in 2012.  (Does the hypocritical bourgeois press like punks in the 'west'?  No...) Given his love of Russian rock and roll, this makes a certain cultural sense for him.  But their 45 second performance in one of Moscow’s Orthodox cathedrals is not the biggest issue in Russia, even though the Russian government also tried to make it so.  Putin is certainly opposed to atheist feminist anarchism, and many reactionary anti-gay laws and censorship laws have now been passed, as well as bans on foreign adoptions and EU food.  But Pussy Riot is only the tip of the iceberg.  What Idov could have looked at was also how this connects with the status of ordinary Russians, unions, organizations and political parties outside the approved “Western” circle.  Perhaps how the Russian economic crisis affected normal Russians after the drop in oil prices.

Because after all, Putin and Medvedev are capitalists, even though they now parade around as the alt-right version of ‘strongmen’ in the tradition of the Czars and Stalin.  Idov and Putin both agree on propping up capital.  One supports an authoritarian nationalist version of capital, with significant state involvement enriching certain individuals and the other supports a liberal imperialist version centered around identity, enriching certain individuals.  There are ‘oligarchs’ in both systems, but one is still covered by a better and thicker veneer of democracy, though fading. The multi-billionaires in the U.S. have another name too: “oligopolists.’ Idov pointed out that Medvedev made some noises towards a more liberal democracy, which fooled some members of the ‘new Decembrists.’   But after Putin’s crackdown on dissent, no longer.

Given Idov is a first-person journalist, his travels through Moscow society have the ring of truth. But if you look at history, something else rings a bell.  The December 1825 revolt of Russian army officers against the new Czar Nicholas I took place in St. Petersburg.  It occurred on Peters Square in front of St. Issac’s Cathedral on the southern bank of the Neva, where the ‘bronze horseman’ statue of Peter the Great now sits.   Yet these Decembrists were impotent to bring about an overthrow or an adjustment in the monarchy without the involvement of the then small St. Petersburg working class and the vast Russian peasantry.   Sound familiar?

Other books reviewed below on Russia:  “Absurdistan,” “Russia, Snowden, Stoli and the Gay Movement,” “Russia and the Long Transition from Capitalism to Socialism,” “Soviet Fates and Lost Alternatives,” “US/EU Meddling Attempts to Make Ukrainians Pawns” and others.  Use blog search box, upper left.

And I got it at the Athens, GA, USA library!

Red Frog

March 16, 2018

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

To be an "American" 'Under God"

Your New Bosses, ah, "Fellow Citizens."

The Citizenship Test:

Here are some lowlights from the test booklet to become a naturalized U.S. citizen.  It has two sections – civic and historical.  It asks about Martin Luther King, Susan B. Anthony and various Native American tribes and also mentions slavery.  But it also asks these questions:

  1. What is the economic system in the United States?  Answers:  ‘Capitalist economy’ or ‘market economy.’ 
    Making it clear.

  1. What are two major political parties in the United States?  Answer:  ‘Democratic and Republican.’ 
    Making it clear.

  1. What are two rights of everyone living in the United States?  Answers include ‘the right to bear arms.’ 
    Pure and simple, no militia, no state qualifiers on the right to bear arms.  No mention that this interpretation is based on subsequent court decisions.

  1. What is one promise you make when you become a United States citizen?  Answers include ‘be loyal to the United States,’ ‘defend the Constitution and laws of the United States’ and ‘serve in the U.S. military, if asked.’ 
    A lot of us are in trouble.

  1. There is no ‘mother of our country,’ only a ‘father.’  Washington!  Happy International Women’s Day!
  2. Name one problem that led to the Civil War.  Answers include ‘states’ rights.’ 
    Which was the Confederate rationale…

  1. What is one responsibility that is only for United States citizens?  Answers include ‘serve on a jury’ and ‘vote in a federal election.’ 
    You can be cited for contempt of court by refusing to serve on a jury, but at least half the population would be in trouble if they prosecuted people for not voting.

  1. It also asks about how many wars the U.S. was involved in in the 19th Century and the 20th Century.  Answers are ‘4’ wars and ‘6’ wars respectively. 
    Some wars are not mentioned, including Afghanistan.  Preparing you for the 21st century, where we may go to 8 wars…! 
    Anyway, good luck!
    Red Frog
    March 14, 2018

Thursday, March 8, 2018

The Profit Bias

“The Long Depression – Marxism and the Global Crisis of Capitalism” by Michael Roberts, 2016

While you might be confused by the title as I was, this book is actually a breakthrough in Marxist economics.  Robert’s contends that the present period of lowered stagnation is really a ‘depression.’  He theorizes that in its length, lower employment and growth and lack of productive profitability it marks itself as similar to the depressions of the 1930s and the 1870s.  But this is not the central point of the book.  In the process of looking at the cycles of capitalist prosperity, Roberts calmly analyses the origins of capital’s crises from various political perspectives – Keynesian, Austrian, neo-classical, monetarist, post-Keynesian and neo-Marxist, giving a reader a real panorama of almost every theory.
The Profit Bias We Live in Everyday

Robert’s breakthrough is showing how the falling rate of profit internal to capitalist production is key to understanding the recessions and depressions that form the cycles of capital.  The ‘tendency of the rate of profit to fall’ was developed by Marx in Capital , Vol. 3, Theories of Surplus Value and the Grundrisse.  It is based on the interplay of variable and constant capital, i.e. between the rate of extraction of surplus value from workers (variable) and the value of machinery, software, buildings, etc. necessary to make things (constant/fixed).  Marx posited that an increase in the latter would force the profit rate down, as profit comes from the exploitation of labor only.  The formula is “R (rate of profit) = S (surplus value) / C (constant capital) + V (variable capital.)

For most leftist activists, understanding that profit is key to understanding capitalism is second nature.  However, some Marxists, such as Paul Sweezy of the Monthly Review school, have rejected Marx’s understanding on this issue. Some think recessions or depressions are caused by ‘under-consumption’ or over-production. Marx called ‘under-consumptionism’ a tautology – a tautology which Keynes based most of his theory on.  This book puts reality back together, with hard data on profit rates over time, including absolutely revealing charts.   Robert’s figures from the OCED, WTO, NBER, BEA, Federal Reserve, other Marxist economists, as well as his own calculations, show the intimate relationship between rising or falling profit rates and the reverse image of falling or rising increases in constant capital.

Roberts is an economist that worked in the capitalist banking and securities industry for 30 years.  Unlike Tony Norfield, he has figured out how to glean data on profit rates (and even surplus value rates) for all 3 depressions that affected the U.S.  Nor is he alone in this ability, as he cites a number of other Marxists like Minq Li who have done similar research.  He has rates for individual countries in the EU before and after the 2008 crash, data regarding the long Japanese stagnation and data for the BRICS too - Brazil, South Africa and India.  Roberts also analyses China, which is an exception to the rule.  Its mixed economy is dominated by the state, and does not behave in the same manner as fully capitalist economies.  Roberts points out that a recent World Bank report is clear China is not capitalist, though the law of value still operates in parts of the Chinese economy.  This is why China is always being counseled by capitalist economists to engage in ‘more privatization’ or scolded for having a Communist Party that controls the economy.

Roberts compares the explanations of capital’s 3 depression crises by other economic schools and describes how they fall short.   For instance, Keynesianism didn’t work even in the 1930s in the U.S., a depression which ended through a government takeover of the economy and war-spending.  Nor has it worked on Japan’s stagnation when it has been tried.  It was dropped by the U.S. ruling class in the 1970s due to dropping profit rates and replaced with neo-liberalism, which drove rates up for a time.  Roberts shows how financial crises can ‘trigger’ recessions or depressions, but are not the underlying cause.  Under-consumption and over-production are results, not causes of capitalist economic downturns.  Under-investment is a result of lack of profits, not a cause.  Excessive debt or credit is a result of lack of profits from production, not the reverse. Excessive saving is a result of lack of opportunities to profit. Financialization and financial crises are brought about by falling profits in the productive sector of the economy.  Inequality is a result of the search after profits, not a cause of the crisis. And so on.  Many crisis theories reverse the actual process, finding results are really causes, or external shocks dominate.  Of course, results can intensify any crisis.

In essence, the cause of destructive capitalist depressions and recessions is embedded within the profit system.  It is basically a reflection of dialectics on the economic level.                                                                                                            

Roberts understands, as do many leftist activists, that there are ‘counter-tendencies’ to the tendency of the rate of profit to fall.  Proletarians see these issues everyday.  Without seriously 1. increasing the rate of exploitation of workers or  2. imposing austerity and privatization on the proletariat or 3. lowering the amount of constant capital needed or 4. bringing in cheap imports or technology or 5. having a larger reserve army of labor or 6. destroying capital in various ways (war!), it cannot regain its prior level of profitability.  So it tries all of these, as we have seen – though Roberts barely mentions war.  When these counter-tendencies eventually weaken, as Marx said they would, it results in situations like the present economic stagnation or worse.  Stagnation or ‘secular stagnation’ is something recognized by Monthly Review and many Keynesians like the NYT’s Krugman.  Roberts thinks the present lowered, dead-in-the-water world-wide growth situation will continue unless drastic events occur to reignite profitability.

Most present economic analyses point to finance capital as the ‘heart’ of present capital.  Roberts, following Marx, shows that if profits are hard to come by in ‘productive’ capital, then capital switches to a ‘rentier’ form (I.E. the FIRE sector), betting on ‘fictitious capital’ to make a profit instead.  In other words, casino capitalism.  That is exactly what is going on now, as capital attempts to concentrate in the securities markets, making money with money. (M=M+)  Or losing it too, as we’ve seen lately.  But nothing real is actually being created, only digits on a computer screen.

Roberts also analyses the present role of debt.  Corporate debt, followed by government and consumer debt, is at the highest levels in history.  The search for profits drives the expansion of credit … and debt.  Roberts contends the level of corporate cash has been the same for 30 years, but it is now invested differently, like share buybacks.  Any evidence of rising levels of cash in corporate coffers shows the failure to invest in productive enterprise.
Cycles of Capital

The reason we are now hearing endless stories about robots, artificial intelligence and the ‘universal basic income’ is because capital is trying to reduce labor’s share of work, and gain profits temporarily through another round of higher-end automation.   Roberts estimates that every 18-20 years or so, capital must replace their machinery, software and buildings, which is the real essence of capital ‘depreciation’ in the tax code.  Increases in profits and labor productivity from globalization and the first computer hardware and software revolution has stalled, then dropped.  Increasing robotization and AI will increase fixed capital, which will ultimately drive down profits once again.  It is the bind capital is always in. He calls it the ‘capital bias.’

Capital’s progressive nature is its ability to develop technology and improve productivity in the creation of real things.  When that fails, the actual economic mechanism indicates it can be ‘past its use-by date,’ as some leftist economists contend.  Roberts thinks capital can always reignite another profitability cycle after much destruction to regular proletarians and society at large, while he quotes others who say the present world situation regarding growth, the environment and exploitation is ‘endgame.’

Roberts predicts another economic crisis in 2018 per his reading of capitalist cycles, but ‘forecasting’ is always a dangerous business.   He ends the book by tracking capital’s business cycles since the 1800s, all based on the economists that researched them.  Longest is the Krondratiev ‘long wave’ of 50 to 70 years that tracks depressions; shorter waves labeled ‘Kuznets’ based on major construction lasting 18 years;  even shorter cycles named  ‘Juglar’ for recessions every 8 to 10 years; and the smallest cycles called ‘Kitchin,’ which reflect inventory cycles of about 4 years.

Krondratiev was a Russian Marxist who first discerned the ‘long wave’ of capitalist economic development, but with much less data than that available to Roberts.  Marx developed the theory that cycles were connected to the replacement of fixed capital, i.e. depreciation rates.  In effect, Roberts links patterns and sub-patterns that explain capital’s crises over long periods of time.  When the patterns coincide determines what the crisis actually looks like, and how deep it will be.

If you are going to read one book about how capitalism actually works as an economic system, this is it.  It ties the room together!

Other book reviews on this topic:  “The City,” “The Rise of China,” “The Endless Crisis,” “Monopoly Capital,” The Great Financial Crisis,” “Zombie Capitalism,” “J is For Junk Economics,” “Capitalism’s Crisis Deepens” and “Fortunes of Feminism.”

And I bought it at May Day Books!
Happy International Women’s Day!
Clara Zetkin, German Marxist, seconded Luise Zeitz in approving a resolution to establish International Women’s Day at a meeting of the 2nd Socialist International in 1910.

Red Frog

March 8, 2018

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Dispatch from the 'American' South

‘Southern Cultural Nationalism’ and Southern Liberals

I went to a journalism seminar at the University of Georgia (UGA) campus in Athens, Georgia, USA, which was announced in the local alternative weekly The Flagpole as ‘For the Love of the South.”   Yup.  As a cranky Yankee, I had to see what ‘southern’ journalists had to say about their region, because no one ‘up north’ is talking about how they ‘love’ the north.  The panel consisted of editors from the 'Flagpole,’ ‘The Bitter Southerner - Great Stories from the South;’ the ‘Oxford American – A Magazine of the South;’ the NY Times Atlanta bureau and ‘Scalawag – Reckoning with the South;’ along with one member of the journalism faculty at UGA.
The South is Easy to Find

If you pay attention you discover that the ‘south’ is saturated with an obsession about itself as a region, and this does not compare to anything in the north. The reporter from the NY Times brought this up in the panel discussion.  The exception might be the tub-thumpers of New York City, though they never identify with ‘the north,’ only their own city.  The conservatives in ‘the west’ attempt to carve out some kind of identity, but the Pacific Coast states blunt their regionalism.

The South is Everywhere

I went to a fashion show at UGA and cups were handed out that said ‘Stay Southern.’  I’ve never seen a cup like that in Minnesota.  One local Athens rock venue is called ‘the Georgia Theater.” If it were in Minneapolis, we’d laugh at the dullness of the title “Minnesota Theater” as the name of a rock music venue.  Minneapolis’ own tongue-in-cheek outdoor store “Midwest Mountaineering” doesn’t even know that Minnesota is not in the ‘Midwest’ but is actually in the north.  If you go to a music show in Athens where roots, folk or country music are played, you will inevitably hear one or two damn songs about “being born in Kentucky” or Tennessee or some other southern state.   You never or rarely hear Minnesota or Iowa bands yowling about their region or even state.  The Weather Channel, headquartered in Atlanta, refers to the area between the Dakotas and Pennsylvania as ‘the Midwest’ not ‘the north.’ They never call New England ‘the north’ but maybe the north-east and definitely New England.  They never fail to include Georgia in ‘the south’ or at least the ‘south-east.’   This geographic misdirection is rampant, essentially disappearing ‘the north’ as a place.  The 2018 Minneapolis city campaign to re-christen Minnesota ‘The Bold North” during the recent Super Bowl is indicative of the lack of northern regionalism or nationalism.

There is no ‘northern rock’ genre to compare with ‘southern rock.’  There is ‘southern gothic’ as a type of U.S. literature, but nothing of the reverse.  Country music itself is self-consciously based in the south, though it certainly flows into rural areas throughout the country.  There is no ‘northern’ equivalent.   We have the ‘Southern Baptist Convention” but not the northern version.  There is a 'southern strategy' which has been successful. I could go on, but you see the point.  All of this expresses a smothering southern regional or ‘national’ consciousness, in this case cultural.  Is this basically progressive or reactionary?  I think the latter.
Funny and Symptomatic

The Panel

The speakers on the panel, especially the editor of Scalawag, made brief obligatory nods to ‘racial and class’ problems in the south.  But then they went on to one of their central topics, the stereotypes and misconceptions about the south. They insisted there is a ‘modern south’ now, full of ‘diversity,’ localism, cross-culturalism and pleasantries, incorporating migrants, hip-hop and women.  Great southern food like okra (?), great music, beautiful landscapes and craft cocktails!  I like music or fiction artists from the south as much as the next person and the land can certainly be outstanding.  But the subtext of what they were saying is that the ‘new South,’ as inaugurated by the presidency of neo-liberals like Jimmy Carter and later, Bill Clinton, exists and seemingly has little to do with the ‘old one.’  Interestingly, the concept of the 'new south' was first introduced in 1877...so the 'new south' is nothing new. (Scalawag is headquartered in Durham, North Carolina; the Bitter Southerner in a suburb south of Atlanta; the Oxford American in Little Rock, Arkansas.)   It seems problems are in the past.   But is the ‘new’ south really that new?

Is the South Oppressed?

For instance, is the south as a whole an oppressed region, hence logically responding to oppression with expressions of national or regional defiance?  No, unless you confuse some idiotic northerners making fun of ‘rednecks’ as ‘oppression.’ This is not an expression of the ‘black belt’ or even Appalachia.

Wall Street, Silicon Valley, Hollywood, the oil patch and other centers of capital are scattered throughout the country.  They manage to oppress every single geography and rural area in different ways.  The southern capitalists are centered in Houston, Dallas, Atlanta, Miami and Charlotte.   The most powerful and right-wing are in Texas, the center of oil and gas corporations.  Many low-quality fast-food chains originate from the south, including the most popular diabetic beverage of all time, Coca-Cola (Atlanta).  Ted Turner’s media empire started in Atlanta and Delta, UPS, Home Depot, AFLAC, The Southern Energy Co. and Suntrust are headquartered there too.  Charlotte is the home to top national financial corporations like Lending Tree, Bank of America and BBT and others like Lowes and Duke Energy.  Miami has American Airlines, Office Depot, Wackenhut and Motorola.  Even partially ruined New Orleans hosts corporations like Entergy and Centurylink.  Wichita, Kansas is home to Koch Industries. The vast majority of U.S. military bases are located in the south.  Many automobile manufacturers moved their plants from the north to the south to get cheaper wages, or came from overseas to do the same.  Its factory chicken industry dominates the country.  It is the last bastion of coal.  It is a powerful sector of the U.S. capitalist class, not some backward bunch of plantation owners living without air-conditioning while watching sharecroppers bringing in the cotton.

And yet, tax revenues flow from mostly northern states to mostly southern states, as part of the currency union that is the U.S.A.

Mississippi Godamn, II

It is not an oppressed region, but its regional working class is the most oppressed in the U.S., as determined by every statistical measure you can name.  Disposable income, poverty-rates, health coverage, under-age pregnancy, unionism, abortion rights, education, literacy, collectivity, voting rights, life expectancy, workplace safety, pollution, homicides, voter turnout, public benefits, privatization, Medicaid, minimum wage laws etc.  Mississippi is at the bottom of the state stack and this affects the black population of that state the most.  Louisiana has the most prisoners per population of any state in the union, with Texas, Oklahoma, Mississippi and Alabama not far behind.  New Orleans parish and its archaic 'habitual offender' law, along with plea bargaining, is one of the main reasons. So they sell ‘southern nationalism’ to white workers, as if waving a virtual rebel flag at northerners will solve these problems.  The basic truth is that these problems are also their problems, white workers' problems.

Did this panel of journalists mention so-called ‘right-to-work’ laws?  Did they mention the word ‘Republican’ once?  Did they mention the role of fundamentalist religion?  Did they mention the long list of low quality-of-life indicators for the southern population and southern states?  Did they mention the low minimum wages in the south?  Did they mention the modern neo-Confederates?  Not at all.  Did they mention mass incarceration?  Once in passing, by the editor of the Scalawag.  There was a polite hush over specific southern problems.  All evidently to be combated by ‘increasing diversity,’ the all-purpose liberal panacea and also the ostensible goal of many corporate HR departments.  They concluded that the upscale Gun & Garden magazine could do with some diversity, even though most rich white people in the south probably don’t want to look at anyone but their own.

VW Chooses Non-Union
Unions and the South

One person who recognized that there was still a continuing real ‘battle’ in the south was the UGA professor.  And that is exactly it.  To improve the U.S. for the working class, especially black and Latino people who are the most exploited, unions and progressive community organizations have to win the fight in the south – not ignore it.  That was the 1940s program of the AFL-CIO – to organize the south, and it is still absolutely necessary.  As an example, a Caterpillar plant was just re-located to Athens Georgia from Illinois, making small-track bulldozers and excavators, but with a far cheaper workforce due to the absence of a union.

For northern workers, southern ‘right-to-work-for-less’ laws are the Dred Scott laws of modern wage slavery.  Dred Scott was a slave who lived for a time at Fort Snelling in Minnesota, and also in Wisconsin and Illinois with his slave master.  According to an 1857 U.S. Supreme Court decision when he sued for his freedom, he was still a slave even though these northern states did not have legal slavery.  This became the basis of the fugitive slave laws, which is why you had to get to Canada to really get away.  As the battle in Wisconsin showed, these anti-union laws still move up the Mississippi.  And they rob the north of work by enabling plant foreclosures.  Delta Airlines, based in Atlanta, merged with Minneapolis-based Northwest Airlines in 2008 and in the process, decertified the Machinists and other unions that had existed at Northwest.  The unions are now trying to re-unionize Delta now.  The problem is not just cheap labor in China or Mexico, it is in our own southern-accented ‘maquiladora’ zone, running a race to the bottom.  This mostly middle-class panel did not see fit to address this key issue.

A small union was recently organized on the UGA campus, the “United Workers of Georgia, Local 3265.” They attempted to run an ad on a local radio station, which refused their ad because a union ‘was not consistent with free market principles.’  This is a state campus, so the ability to organize is easier than in the directly capitalist workplaces, but still very difficult.  That is what the low-paid workers of the south face.
Oxford, MS Town Square - Faulkner Land
Shadow of the Civil War

The real issue is that southern regional / national consciousness was based on the agrarian and plantation economy of indebted servitude, then slavery - first white, then black.  This clash of economic systems with a more industrialized north populated by free farmers led to the Civil War.  As noted in the book, “Why the South Lost the Civil War” the south lost primarily because of the failure of this southern nationalism.  As books like “Peoples’ History of the Civil War,” “Guerillas, Unionists and Violence on the Confederate Home Front” and “The Civil War in Florida” all note, non-plantation regions in nearly every southern state resisted secession and opposed the war.

Yet ‘southern nationalism’ still continues, attempting to bind especially white southern workers to white southern capitalists.  And it extends across the whole political and social culture of the south.  It is most strongly seen in the openly racist defense of Confederate monuments or the Confederate battle flag by fascist and alt-right groups.

Politically it is seen in the practices and rhetoric of the present Republican Party, which is strongest in the south, controlling every state.  It is accompanied by the fundamentalist propaganda of the Southern Baptist Convention and the strong celebrations of militarism in southern states (even at Atlanta’s Hartsfield airport), especially around the civic religion of college football.  The continuing efforts of the oil, gas and coal industries, along with auto, to demonize unions and mask the effects of global warming (even as it floods the south) are part of the same right-wing assault.  It is coming not just from Wall Street but the resurgent southern capitalists.  Wall Street in fact is in league with them, as it was prior to the Civil War.  Slavery was actually a large part of the northern capitalist class's strategy for profits.  Now the federal government is once again held by the virtual party of the south.  Ironically, the same Supreme Court that criminally ruled on Dred Scott will probably soon rule that paying dues to a union in a union-represented ‘agency’ shop is illegal in government workplaces. This will help spread southern anti-unionism nationwide.   The case is “Janus v. AFSCME Council 31.” You want a union, pretty soon you’ll have to escape to Canada.

One Big Happy Southern Family

The southern capitalists have succeeded in their strategy to split southern white workers from the black and Latino working class by claiming that ‘we are all southerners,’ binding lord and vassal together. This ‘rebel’ tactic works, especially when combined with intimidation of all kinds.  This can be seen in the recent anti-union votes at Volkswagen in Chattanooga, Tennessee and the Nissan plant in Canton, Mississippi.  Imagine that.  The majority voted for a German or Japanese company over an evidently 'foreign' U.S. based union, the UAW!  The UAW was faced with incredible intimidation, threats to close the plants and an almost community-wide hostility on the part of businesses and politicians.  This is the root of the subservience of southerners to their ostensible ‘betters’ - threats.  Even small farmers in the south buy into this fable, though corporate farming is pushing them off the land too, as it did to black farmers already.

How does liberal southern cultural nationalism play into this scenario?  From what I can see, it dovetails, as they all embrace the concept of ‘the wonderful south’ in varying degrees.  The fact of the matter is that in every capitalist country, there are regions that are the most benighted.  In the U.S. the ‘south’ is it. Combined and uneven development is essential to capitalist economics and this country is no exception.

The Magazines

The Oxford American is a mostly apolitical cultural and academic journal that styles itself the New Yorker of the south. (Though the New Yorker was never a symbol of the ‘north.)  At one point the editor of the Bitter Southerner sounded like he said that the average income of their supporters was $335K a year, which created a buzz onstage.  When I brought up the term ‘southern cultural nationalism’ to the panel in the short question and answer period, the editor of the Bitter Southerner threatened to semi-humorously come down and ‘shake’ me. Striking a nerve is always entertaining.

Scalawag seems to be the most left in its approach to political issues in the south, mentioning in their most recent issue capitalism and the ‘Trillbilly Workers Party,’ a leftist podcast out of Appalachia.  In one podcast the Trillbillies take right-wing ‘Hillbilly Elegy’ author T.D. Vance apart.  The term ‘scalawag’ was applied to southerners who supported Reconstruction and the post-Civil War Republican Party, so the title is progressive.  The editor returned from the north to the south to ‘reclaim’ the south, as her relatives were part of the mass exodus to the north in the 1920s-1930s.  But you’d never guess that from the presentation - instead the editor wanted the south to be a ‘re-imagined place.’   But what that means is left unimagined.  The Flagpole heroically soldiers on as an alternative weekly based on advertising - making food, drink, music and mild liberal politics its mainstays.  The Bitter Southerner seems more like a high-end lifestyle magazine for educated southerners, which the editor said earns most of its money from sales of T-shirts and coffee mugs (!)   We all know about the NY Times, and it mostly covers hard news like the Florida school shooting.

What would be really progressive is to challenge southern regionalism as an idea, because it stretches across the political spectrum, but is a mainstay of the southern capitalist class and its far-right allies.  Tub thumping of any kind – whether ‘patriotic’ Americanism, southern or ‘western regionalism;’ city boosterism (Babbitt-style), ‘love my state’ mania or football team loyalty – are all crude and divisive geographic perspectives that ignore our potential collective unity as proletarians across all these borders.  Yes, of different places and locales, of different ethnicities and genders, of different national origins or sexualities, of different levels of oppression, but still potentially united as people with the same economic and social goals.

Besides the civil war books mentioned above that are all reviewed below, other relevant reviews are:  “Hillbilly Elegy,” “White Trash,” Jacobin’s ‘Civil War’ issue, “The New Jim Crow” and “Slavery by Another Name.”  Use blog search box, upper left.

P.S. - The present teacher strikes in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Arizona and Kentucky only confirm this diagnosis.  Victory to the mostly female teachers!

Read this Truthout article about a new 2018 audit of poverty in the U.S., which specifically highlights policies in the south that increase poverty:  http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/44315-damning-audit-of-us-poverty-fuels-new-poor-people-s-campaign
Red Frog, the Cranky Yankee

Athens, GA

March 1, 2018