Sunday, July 29, 2018

Know Your Enemies

“A Threat of the First Magnitude – FBI Counter-Intelligence and Infiltration from the Communist Party to the Revolutionary Union 1962-1974,” by Aaron Leonard & Conor Gallagher, 2017

This book is a follow-up to the authors' prior book, “Heavy Radicals,” which focused on the Maoist Revolutionary Union (RU) in the 1960s and 1970s.  This expands to include more on the RU; the Communist Party (CP) and a key informer in their leadership, Morris Childs; an Asian activist in the Bay Area, Richard Aoki, who was a member of the Black Panthers and the Socialist Workers Party; and efforts directed against James Forman of the Black Workers Congress.  The main point the authors want to make is that ‘human intelligence’ – i.e. infiltrated agents – are the top form of intelligence, and can even be used for internal sabotage on a large scale.  This book, while historically relevant to those many cadre who went through the communist movement or are still in it, is not merely a history.  It shows the limitations of human or electronic surveillance that the Church Committee only focused on.  The issue of deep agents was never exposed by them and is not irrelevant to any progressive organization, even today.  That is the real value of this book.

The Title is the FBI's description of RU

There seem to be four kinds of infiltrators and tactics.  The first are politically unsophisticated people that take pictures, gather information, give rides and bake cookies.   The second are the obvious provocateurs who are always advocating violence – bombs, guns, what-have-you.  The third are the most dangerous.  They are highly-sophisticated agents who master leftist rhetoric and insinuate themselves into leadership positions.  The fourth are actual fake organizations – in this case an ostensible Maoist faction in the Chicago CP called the “The Ad Hoc Committee for a Marxist-Leninist Party.”  This group was run by the Chicago FBI, put ads in the National Guardian newspaper and issued Maoist bulletins attacking the CP from the left. Anyone contacting them was put under surveillance.  These latter two tactics are the focus of this book.

Other groups that were targets of police infiltration at the time  – Socialist Workers Party, Progressive Labor Party (PL), Black Workers Congress (BWC), League of Revolutionary Black Workers, Black Panther Party and other leftist, mostly Maoist or Trotskyist groups, are mentioned but not focused on extensively.  Their infiltration history is yet to be written.

As I pointed out in the prior review of “Heavy Radicals,” the FBI had a deep interest in breaking up any unification of left-wing organizations.  Early on an internal FBI agent, Darrell Grover, urged the Maoist RU to attack the Maoist PL in RU’s “Red Papers #1.” The FBI then pushed for a split in Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) against PL in 1969. This split slowly destroyed SDS, the left’s largest mass organization.  Later Don Wright, in the leadership of RU, worked to break up a promising 1973 unification of a number of Maoist organizations in the U.S. that were working together in the ‘National Liaison Committee.’  The NLC fell apart.  The same Wright worked to sideline James Forman of the BWC and LRBW, an influential leader who came out of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and had moved towards Marxism.  The BWC and the LRBW were heavily involved in the workers movement in the Detroit auto plants.  Their dispersal was a key goal of the FBI. 

The authors show the many splits in the Maoist movement, which should give that old tired joke about '3 Trotskyists in a room' the final heave-ho.

Through Morris Childs' top position in the CP, the FBI (and CIA) got the latest intelligence on the split between the USSR and China, as Childs traveled and met leaders from the USSR.  Childs was part of a large operation against the CP, as the FBI had 400 informants in the CP even after it began hemorrhaging members.  The split between the two largest bureaucrat-run workers' states was made definitive in 1972 when Nixon visited Mao in China, making a bloc with China.  Later the Chinese CP came out with the ‘Three World’s Theory,’ which maintained that the USSR was the ‘main enemy’ of the world’s workers, not the U.S.  This theory and the hardening of a more right-wing bureaucratic caste in China after 1976 ultimately ended China’s role as an immediate revolutionary ‘beacon.’  This unfortunate break was the ultimate split on one side in the global class war…

The infiltrators listed by the authors – Childs, Aoki, Wright, Darrell Grover, Larry & Betty Goff – all had personal issues that might be a tip-off that they were not on the ‘up and up.  Morris Childs had been expelled from the CP for being a ‘Browderist” and was angry about it.  He also had expensive health problems that the FBI helped pay for.  Aoki was an egoist who gloried in interviews and being a ‘leader’ of the left.  The backgrounds of the Goffs were in evangelical Christianity, an odd jump to Maoism.  Larry Goff was from a working-class background and had ‘gun-smithing’ skills, so RU cut him some slack, as RU’s workerism was pronounced.  Don Wright was a quarrelsome black man who pushed his way into positions, hoping the white members of the RU would not object.  His background was in U.S. military intelligence, which should have been some kind of flag.  Grover was part of an internal RU group that ‘prepared members for armed struggle’ – which might suggest that not only were RU’s politics leaning to ultra-leftism but these politics left an opening for the FBI.

Leonard is a former member of the Revolutionary Communist Party, which came out of the RU, so he is both critical and fond of that organization, as you would expect.  He and Gallagher have done deep research into redacted FBI files and files from the National Archives.  Many times the redacting of the FBI left something to be desired, exposing their informants to the authors' careful eyes and research. To prevent infiltration, the authors discount the role of having more democracy in an organization to prevent it.  Most of these groups were internally top-down, secretive and not run democratically.  These groups version of “Leninism” seemed to be that of a purely military organization.  However, the authors caution that no one is immune from infiltration.  The FBI are not all a bunch of 'crew-cut dimwits' as the stereotype goes, but can use sophisticated human tactics to infiltrate any organization – even non-Marxist ones.  The Bolsheviks themselves were fooled by Roman Malinovsky, who was a Czarist agent within the Party and sent many to prison or worse.  Lenin himself did not deal with the issue very deeply, according to the authors.

But if the U.S. left EVER forms a large mass organization or left front, and gets rid of certain sectarian and anti-democratic habits, Leonard and Gallagher will certainly be nominated to lead that organization’s ‘counter-intelligence’ group.  This detailed history is sterling and includes photo-copies of many of the original documents they cite, as this work is based not on conjecture but on primary sources.  Many of their information requests have still not been issued by the government, which might clear up further issues about FBI infiltration.

Other posts on this topic: “Heavy Radicals,” “Revolution in the Air,” “FBI Secrets,” “Finks,” “The Terror Factory,” “FBI Virus,” “American Assassination,” “Selma,” “Green is the New Red,” “On the Trial of the Assassins,” “The Meta-Meaning of Ridiculous Cop Shows,” “The Devil’s Chessboard,” “They Killed Our President,” “Orders to Kill,” "CIA Fly Boy."

And I bought it at May Day Books after Leonard’s book talk!

Red Frog

July 29, 2018

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Gentrify This!

“Cade’s Rebellion – A Novel,” by Edward Sheehy, 2018

Gentrification is a severe problem throughout the U.S. – in cities or upper-end suburbs, around lakes or vacation areas, on seashores, or anywhere the rich or middle-class might want to live. It is the logical, unequal result of too much money in the hands of too few people.   This book deals with a rebellion against gentrification in Washington, D.C., in a large apartment complex called Glebe Valley where 5,000 mostly Latino or Salvadorean immigrants live.
History Comes Alive Again

In the U.S., housing and ‘the city’ are controlled by capitalist real estate interests - 'rentiers.'  Land is privatized.  Private property is king, so your ‘roof’ is always in play.  City councils and ‘development’ bodies, no matter their political party affiliation, side with large construction outfits, real estate developers and real estate investors to enable this circulation of capital, including one in particular - ‘eminent domain.’  The U.S. ‘Supreme” Court has predictably decreed that a city can condemn a property for being a ‘nuisance’ and hand it over though eminent domain to upscale gentrifiers to ‘fix.’ Or because it serves a greater 'public good.'

These are the issues high-lighted in this book, a rarity in any book of current fiction.

Jack Cade is a former sergeant who fought in Iraq and now drives an outstanding green, metal-flake taxi. He has to deal with traffic jams, Uber scabs stealing his rides and shit-bags who don’t pay. He suffers from low-level PTSD, pounding headaches, substance abuse and guilt.  He’s non-political, but has a low anger level and knows when he’s being fucked with.  When he hears that his low-rent apartment in the Chapelita apartment complex might be torn down for an upscale development, he is ultimately convinced to lead the ostensibly hopeless fight against it.  The local liberation theology priest from El Salvador, Father Gustavo, helps, along with a hard-leftist public activist lawyer from Miami, Rita Castro, and the head of a local non-profit, Luis Guzman.  Together they form the ‘Chapelita Coalition for Justice’ to fight a ruthless ‘new urbanism’ real estate developer, Urban Renaissance Partners (URP).  The neighborhood and most small business people back them up, as the tenants realize they are to be forcibly moved to far suburbs, unaffordable apartments or homelessness, no matter the sweetners offered by URP.

The hipster, new-age rhetoric of the new urbanist URP about ‘community’ reeks of hypocrisy, which is one of the delights of the book.  High-end coffee shops, yoga studios and the ‘internet of things’ replace businesses catering to the working class and low-income workers – who happen to speak mostly Spanish.  URP christens their upscale real-estate psycho-babble ‘PULSE tec’ – a brain-computer interface called “Psycho Unified Life-style Environment.”  Yeah, you can stop laughing now.

This story is not a typical non-violent struggle between developers and working-class residents, though that is what normally takes place.  After all, violence is not needed when the real-estate corporations have the law, the political parties, the police and the press locked down. In this story, even the Catholic diocese is part of the sale of the property to URP.  The fix is in, though the residents only suspect it.

Instead, in this fiction, everyone seems to have death lurking in the background. Luis was a former teen soldier in the Salvadorean army who killed peasants and priests during the U.S.-sponsored  holocaust in Central America, and now regrets it.  One of his sons, Enzo, has become a highly-skilled gangster.  Cade himself regrets a moment of laxity in Iraq, which led to the death of 8 Iraqi ‘jundi’ allies.  He’s still a pretty violent guy and can handle himself with thugs.   Anti-capitalist Ms. Castro also seems to want to use violent methods against the English head of the real estate syndicate.  The local agent of URP, Mick Finn, hires Luis’ son Enzo to disrupt the protesters.  A group of armed female white vigilantes, the “Watchdogs” (women stock fillers and checkout clerks…?) police the housing complex.  They represent the reactionary forces against immigration, who think all immigrants are criminals.  Somehow here they have been drawn from the lowest level of the working-class.  Even ‘M13’ gets a mention. The book says it is based on real events.  How much of the violence is real and how much of it is imagination, only the author knows.

This book puts the fight against gentrification front and center.  It cites Henri Lefebvre, a French Marxist who believed that the residents of a city had a right to the city, just as workers have a right to the factories or warehouses or mills or offices they work in. Right now rent control and building controls are almost non-existent in the U.S.  A ‘right to housing,’ like a ‘right to food,’ does not exist in a capitalist commodity society. ‘Food, clothing and shelter,’ the basics of human life, are priced…  Real estate interests have the run of the table.  Politicians, except socialist ones, are in their pockets. It is happening in Minneapolis and every U.S. city of any size.   Liberal politicians constantly blather about ‘affordable housing’ but this is just fairy dust thrown in the eyes of a gullible voting public.  These politicians still rely on ‘market forces’ to supply these so-called affordable homes, with just a ‘nudge’ from government.  It is market forces that are creating the problem in the first place, so it is like hiring the arsonist to put out the fire.  (Which is a good gig if you can get it!)

This book is an antidote to that slick sales pitch.  Do the residents win?   Is there a way to defeat gentrification?  Read it and find out.

The author, Ed Sheehy, is local and will be giving a presentation on his new book in September at May Day.  Sheehy references an earlier Jack Cade, who led a popular rebellion in England in 1450 against royal corruption.  That rebellion did not end well for Cade.

P.S. - Eminent domain is used automatically in Louisiana for oil pipelines.  There is a current fight around the Louisiana Bayou pipeline, which is the southern end of the Dakota Access Pipeline.  In South Dakota, the Dakota Access Pipeline got an eminent domain ruling from the state.  So eminent domain is not limited to housing issues, but extends to any private corporation which has sway with corporate politicians.

Other works of fiction reviewed below:  “The Road,” “Polar Star,” “The Ministry of Utmost Happiness,” “Consider the Lobster,” “Behind the Beautiful Forevers,” “The Dispossessed,” “Red Baker,” “Independent People,” “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?”, “Good News,” “Life and Fate,” “Prague,” “Peace, Love & Petrol Bombs,” “Amiable With Big Teeth,” “What is To Be Done?”, “All the Pretty Horses,” “The Dream of the Celt,” “American Pastoral,” “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” “Petersburg,” “Factory Days,” “The Damnificados,” "The Sympathizer," “Last Man in the Tower,” “White Tiger,” “Between the Assassinations,”American War.” “The Vegetarian,” “The Appeal,” “Time to Kill,” “Gray Mountain,” “Sycamore Row,” "Child of God," "Suttree," "Blood Lake," "The Heart Goes Last," "Handmaid's Tale," "Merry Month of May," "Fear," "Hayduke Lives!" "The Monkey Wrench Gang," "Affliction."  Use blog search box, upper left.

P.S. - RT/Long-Haired Hippie Swearer Commie reports 9/20 that the Catholic Church is actually, right now, evicting people from a historically black neighborhood that has rent control. 

And I bought it at May Day books excellent fiction section!

Red Frog

July 25, 2018


Saturday, July 21, 2018

Cheap World

“History of the World in Seven Cheap Things - a Guide to Capitalism, Nature and the Future of the Planet,” by Raj Patel and Jason Moore, 2017

This is a short history of “capitalist ecology’ that combines all its effects on society and nature, starting from the very beginnings of commodity production for the sugar markets in Madiera in the 1400s.  It is a polemic against false intellectual dualisms that were developed to justify alienation within society, between society and nature and between labor and human beings.  It is an analysis of the ‘frontier’ as the essence of capitalist expansion and profit.  It is written by two academics who, because of the broad sweep of their analysis, sometimes substitute verbal grandiosity for a clearer presentation.  
The 'frontier' of Cheapness
According to Patel/Moore, the 7 cheap things are:  Cheap nature, cheap money, cheap labor, cheap caretaking, cheap food, cheap energy, cheap people.  These cheaps all intersect.  The authors note that every one of these ‘cheaps’ is becoming more dear, which is why the future of capital is becoming dimmer on a planetary scale.  Whether their identification of various singular progressive ‘movements’ will turn the tide is debatable, even to themselves.  They seem to have abandoned references to the working class as the ultimate power that can intimidate the bourgeoisie into history.

I’m going to bullet-point this short history, which is a good primer for someone who wants an anti-capitalist, Marxist-based history of the earliest beginnings of capital formation.  This is the period of ‘primitive accumulation’ so to speak, which in many places in the world is still going on in the same way.

  1. Cartesian ‘dualism’ – dividing the world intellectually into mind/body, nature/society, man/woman, civilized/primitive, religious/pagan, etc.  Capital cultivated one side of each dualism in order to dominate the other, when in reality they are all intimately connected.  Rene Descartes, John Locke and Francis Bacon were some of the first to push this method.  Descartes:  “I think, therefore I am.”
  2. The Portuguese island of Madiera off the Iberian coast served as one of the first examples of mono-culture mass production – in this case, sugar.  Slaves, wage laborers and indebted colons were used in a mass way to produce sugar, a commodity valued by the rich.  In the process, the forests of Madiera were used for ship-building, then for boiling sugar in production, until the trees were all gone.
  3. The idea of the ‘frontier’ is where most cheap things are found.  As frontiers disappear, profits become cramped or disappear.  Which is why indigenous peoples were and are repeatedly impacted by colonial and capitalist expansion which is looking for cheap labor, nature, people and energy.
  4. The first European bankers were in Genoa, Italy, which took the silver from the Spanish mines in Potosi, Peru (a colonial frontier) as payment for their loans to pay for war and empire expansion in Spain and other countries. Without their loans, colonial expansion was impossible.  Even the ‘Holy Grail’ was used as collateral by Genoese bankers. 
  5. Without the ‘mita’ extraction of forced labor from the indigenous people in Potosi, the Spanish royal house and European bankers would have been kaput.
  6. For this second colonial power, the Dutch Republic’s first power source was peat from bogs.  It produced less carbon than British coal, but became more expensive to produce and helped sink the Dutch landscape below sea level.   Windmills ultimately replaced peat (600 industrial windmills in 1730), until coal displaced the windmills.  Now coal is on the way out, but not fast enough. 
  7. Cheap ‘care’ refers to the free services provided mostly by women, who were/are relegated to the home for childcare, tending the sick and elderly and feeding the workers. These services make the reproduction and maintenance of the workforce almost free. This reduced the status of women to second-hand – still true throughout the world – even after getting a paid job.
  8. Cheap food is needed so that wages can be kept low.  Provision of cheap – and many times low quality food – to the urban working class is essential to prevent rebellions.  See Russian or French revolutions for proof of this.
  9. Nature is not ‘costed’ on the books of corporations, so it is ‘free’ in that sense. Marx said labor and nature were the two components of production, but capital only sees one.  It is an ‘externality’ in their jargon, one capital has had to combat constantly without admitting it.
  10. Chattel slavery, forced labor, debt servitude and wage labor are all intimately combined – then and now.  There are more slaves in our ‘modern’ world than at the height of the slave trade.  This is the ultimate in cheap labor.  As the dark joke goes, ‘not every job has dental.’
  11. The enclosure of the forests and lands in early England – as noted by Engels – is still going on, now in India, Africa and Latin America.  The public becomes private, and this becomes another of capital’s frontiers.
  12. The invention of chemical fertilizers made cheap food possible, even while depleting the land of its real fertility.
  13. Christopher Columbus was more than an ‘explorer.’  His real purpose was to estimate and realize the valuable foods, plants, ores and people of the ‘new’ world for the Spanish.  He appears in this book like some kind of 'Where's Waldo?'  Slaves were his first find.  He was really an accountant.
  14. Money, government and capital are all part of a single ecology, now a ‘world-ecology’ according to the authors.  Libertarians who think ‘government’ is part of some restraint of trade are dreaming.  By the way, the word ‘ecology’ seems to be trending in academe. 
  15. Jews were blamed for the Black Death and killed en mass – even though the Pope at the time tried to limit the damage to them.  Part of the birth of the capitalist ethos.
  16. The authors endorse the concept of the ‘capitalocene’ – as the expansion of commodity production has now marked nature forever.
  17. The authors think replacing this complex system of corporate relations will not be easy or pleasant.   Or perhaps even possible.
  18. The ‘Green Revolution” has devolved into a an ‘industrial grain-oil seed-livestock complex’ that is now increasing world-wide prices for everything but chicken, dried rice, sweets and processed food, breeding nutrition OUT of foods.  Meat production is central to the devaluation of land and food.
  19. The Catholic 1513 “Requeriemiento’ gave religious endorsement to the slavery of indigenous people.
  20. The first U.S. strike was by women in 1824, when they walked away from a cotton mill in Rhode Island.
  21. The authors contend that the oppression of women is directly connected to societies in which agriculture used the plow.
Bullet points never do justice to a book, but only provide a flavor or emphasis.  Overall this history shows that capitalism is not a ‘new’ system, but one that slowly grew from ‘seeds’ in the 1400s to what it is today.  They track the European impact of the Black Death, the Little Ice Age and the Great Famine. It’s birth was attended by the proletarianization of farmers, the private enclosure of common property, colonial exploitation and genocide, slavery, the ravaging of animals and nature, with money and commodities coming to rule, all backed by a powerful new ideology.  These are the tricks of primitive accumulation.  None of this is a secret, but this history allows us to track the beginnings of ‘cheap.’  Or as they say, “a dozen eggs for 79 cents – what is wrong with this picture?”  Though perhaps an 8th ‘cheap’ can be added – ‘cheap fixes’ promoted by the system to deal with the impact of the other 7.

Some quotes from Patel/Moore to close:

a. “To maintain hegemony is, as Antonio Gramsci observed, to recruit and maintain forces from across society in a block that is able to continually outmaneuver its rivals.”
b. “Capitalism not only has frontiers, it exists only through frontiers…”
c. “Money binds the ecosystem…”
d. “What’s new about capitalism is not the pursuit of profit but rather the relations among the pursuit, its financing and governments.” 
e. “Capitalism’s story isn’t a Eurocentric one…from Potosi to Manila, from Goa to Amsterdam.”
f. “Every global factory needs a global farm.”
g. “Thoughts on bodies and hierarchies are old.”  (i.e. physical characteristics define class status.)

Other related reviews below.  Use these terms or phrases:  “Capitalocene,” “Seventeen Contradictions,” “Zombie Capitalism,” “The Enigma of Capital,” “Collapse,” “This Changes Everything,” “Open Veins of Latin America,”The Race for What’s Left,””Salt, Fat, Sugar,” “Slavery by Another Name.”  Use blog search box, upper left.

And I bought it at May Day Books!
Red Frog
July 21, 2018

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Facts, not Tweets

Look at the War-Monger Facts – not the Carnival Barker(s)

  1. Heavy economic and personal sanctions on Russia and Russian diplomats.
  2. Military weaponry supplied to Ukraine…something Obama did not do.
  3. Bombing of Russians in Syria twice.  Something Obama did not do.
  4. Large NATO and U.S. military maneuvers around Russia’s borders – can you say ‘The  Baltics’?
  5. Blocking of Russian tourists from the U.S.
  6. New Pentagon policy – the 2018 National Defense Strategy - names “Russia” and “China” as number one enemies, no longer pointing to terrorism.
  7. Pentagon plan to encircle China militarily and to move NATO to Russia’s borders.
  8. New military budget largest in history – and added to by Democrats.
  9. Demand that NATO pay 4% in military spending, upped by 100%.
  10. Attack on Germany for working with Russia on natural gas pipeline, in league with U.S. shale oil producers.
  11. “Upgraded” nuclear program, also advocated by Obama.
  12. Rejection of treaty with Iran, which was originally worked on by Russia and Obama.
  13. Continual presence of U.S. troops in Syria/Iraq.
  14. Support of Trump and Republicans/Democrats by every single weapons’ manufacturer, ah …war profiteer.
  15. Biggest trade war is with China. 
  16. Unilateral cancellation of prior nuclear treaties by U.S. administrations.
  17. A ‘new cold war’ campaign by most Republicans and Democrats.
  18. Demonization of Putin and Russia by corporate media.
  19. Nuclear clock closer to midnight.
  20. The attack on Trump for actually halting U.S. war-mongering exercises in Korea.  Not bloodthirsty enough…
  21. The unending embrace of an even more aggressive Israel, Saudi Arabia and India.
  22. The continued military occupation of the world by the U.S. – 800-1,000 bases, not to mention JSOC operations, military ships, NSA surveillance and aircraft. 
  23. The FBI, the CIA and the military are not your friends.
  24. The embrace of ‘regime change’ logic by all bourgeois factions.
  25. The hysteria of many normal Americans, only proving again that the majority of the population is easily manipulated.
  26. William Blum details 57 attempts at regime change or coups by the U.S. from 1949 to 2014.
  27. Liberation News details 56 U.S. military interventions in Latin America alone.
  28. Heavy political and economic help by U.S. for Boris Yeltsin in 1996 Russian presidential election, the godfather who promoted Vladimir Putin.
  29. Hypocrisy - the essence of U.S. politics.
And the corporate media hysterics are whining about a data breach that may or may not have been caused by Russians?  Not to mention all the other ‘America First” campaigns that put the U.S. on a blundering course to continued ‘world domination.’  Who thinks only Republicans are fooled by bogus facts?  No matter what an erratic front-man and alt-right wanna-be dictatorTrump says or tweets, the reality of a slow buildup towards conflict and war is more relevant that ever.  Follow the money… follow the facts... follow the military-industrial complex and the state.

P.S. - Democracy Now recently gave Noam Chomsky two hours to wheeze about the current situation.  Of note, Chomsky could not seem to wrap his head around the fact that Trump was nice to Putin while the U.S. government was becoming more and more belligerent.  It is not that complicated, given the Mueller probe and the actual existence of a militarized state.  V.J. Prashad has an article on the war moves taking place now on Alternet.

"Democrats in the US Senate showed themselves to be just another war party this week, with 40 of their number out of 47 voting to pass a record $717-billion military budget for FY 2019." (Counterpunch, 8/7/18)  

Red Frog

July 17, 2018


"Ideation,” a play by Aaron Loeb, 2018, Gremlin Theater

Mind-fucks are par for the course in the U.S.  Movies, politics, some human beings.  This 2016 play toys with the idea of building extermination camps for humans, then frames such a thing as useful in saving the rest of humanity from extermination by a deadly virus.  Then it segues into the possibility that the whole exercise is some kind of a corporate test with an obscure intent. Do they go through with it?  Does the manager keep the team together?  Do they realize what is going on?  The audience is never meant to know which is true, as the ending is inconclusive.  In the end, one team member believes it is a normal assignment to be completed so he can go to his daughter’s sports event.  Another finally thinks it is a corporate test of the team.  A third, the manager, worries they are in some kind of danger to even work on it, but she continues… A fourth – Sandeep, an Indian with a green card - walks out over the insanity of designing an extermination regime for terminally infected people.  A ‘logic’ provided to them which might be a lie anyway.

A corporate nightmare

And that vagueness is the point.  The arch New York Times theater critic called it “a psychological game, one that’s both amusing and intriguing to play.” Which I guess is high praise on the ‘silliness’ of the whole idea, as you’d hate to think that a corporation was actually planning extermination camps - again.

What is accurate is the depiction of corporate life in the play. All the scenes take place in an office board room, where 5 employees brain-storm about a very secret project they have been given by the CEO of the company.  It is so secret they cannot put anything in digital form.  They have 90 minutes before they verbally present a rough draft to the CEO.  (Needless to say the CEO communicates with the team like the Wizard of Oz through a digital program like Skype... oops…)

In the process we see careerists not trusting each other.  Teams that are driven by an excess of white-board rationality and no emotional intelligence.  Connected interns who are really plants to observe the team.  Clueless Americans that trust and fear the wrong things.  Sexual desire between managers and those they manage.  Possible layers of projects that might reveal layers of lies, thus intentionally keeping employees in the dark.  Fears of losing their highly-paid white-collar jobs.  Subservience to the anonymous, vicious boss.  Competition for profitable work.  Amoral planning in the service of profit.  Assured arrogance and possible surveillance.  Board rooms, water bottles, snacks and fancy chairs.  It is all here.

I take issue with the intentional vagueness, especially in the ending, trendy as that is.  The ultimate point of this play is that we know nothing definitively, and so everything is subjective.   Facts?  Experience?  Prior knowledge?  Pshaw.

Really, what was this corporate exercise about?   We know the U.S. Pentagon, as do other military forces, have various plans for war or virus outbreaks or political rebellion.  Plans for prison camps or isolation regimes or software blocking or roundups of various kinds are not unthinkable.  The play could have actually been about that, but then it would have moved it from ‘dark comedy’ to politics.  Anyone with even a glancing familiarity with present health practices would know that killing the terminally ill en mass – a 2 million figure is suggested at one point – would not be practical or done.  (Yeah, they even suggest putting the bodies in hydrochloric acid and secretly burying the acidic mess at sea in shipping containers.)  So the ostensible rationale for this project is basically flawed and illegal - and most people would grasp that immediately.  Except perhaps some corporate types…these corporate types - blinded by a certain narrow-minded functionalism.

I was just following orders.  As an exposure of highly-paid white collar consultants it certainly works.

Many times in the fog of limited facts you have to still make a decision, based on certain simple things.  Certainly Sandeep made the correct decision, maybe at the expense of his job and perhaps at the expense of his green card.  But in this play, reality is subjective and supposed to be ultimately unknowable.  Actually even ‘amusing!’  And that is the way we are supposed to like it.  I don’t.

On the practical side, the theater is a small ‘in the round’ style.  The acting is excellent.  There is only one set, which keeps things simple.  And it’s down the hall from a brewery, so except for the price and the basic message, what is not to like?

The play will be performed at the Gremlin Theater in St. Paul, 550 Vandalia Street, from July 6 to July 29.

Other theater plays reviewed below: “Rock and Roll,” “The Good Person of Setzuan,” “Things of Dry Hours,”  “Oil & the Jungle,” “A Bright Room Called Day,” “Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again,” “Camino Real,” “The Lower Depths,” “The Dutchman,” “Puntilla and his Hired Man,” “Love and Information.”

Red Frog

July 17, 2018

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Fictional Blowback?

“American War,” by Omar El Akkad, 2017

This book is ostensibly about a second American civil war that starts in 2075.  Given that 30%, of the U.S. population presently thinks another civil war could happen in the U.S., it would seem to be a book that could surf on that meme quite well.
It is actually about something else.  It is a book structured so that we feel sympathy for a suicide bomber who kills 100 million people.  It is far more about past and present events in the Middle-East – torture facilities, reactionary rebellions, imperial invasions, refugee camps, armed militias, political suicide, massacres, assassinations, drones, tribal allegiances and revenge – than a 2nd American civil war.  Not that some of these things might not occur in the U.S. as well.  In that sense it seems to be a book about present imperial ‘blowback’ processed through a reactionary logic.  And set in the U.S. to ‘bring the message home’ to readers who are paying attention.  Akkad was a reporter who covered the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, so it makes sense that he would infuse his story with events there. 


Akkad has combined this overlay with elements of the first Civil War on American soil in 1860-1865 and the catastrophic effects of global warming to create a cramped simulacrum of the future.  In the book, Florida is all gone, now called the Florida Sea.  Only an island prison camp, Sugarloaf, that resembles Guantanamo or Bagram or Abu Ghraib remains on a slightly higher chunk of land.  Or, if you know your Civil War history, the old Union prison on Dry Tortuga.  New Orleans is gone, to be replaced by the Mississippi Sea.  Savannah and Charleston are underwater, and now Augusta, Georgia is the main port receiving aid supplies and contraband.  All southern coasts are gone and some eastern ones, seemingly including Washington, D.C.  Hurricanes and storms are frequent.  Overwhelming heat and dust swirl around the south, so that farms in skyscrapers around Atlanta provide almost the only food for that region.  Food from greenhouses provide another source.


The 2075 civil war revolves around 4 states in the deep South – Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia and South Carolina – who refuse to give up the use of gasoline and move to a solar electric grid.  They secede and form the “Free Southern State” (FSS).    A singular reed to hang a civil war on, but that is one of the main motivations in the Middle East.  Somewhat funny logic for the U.S. though. “You’ll have to tear the wheel of my 8-cylinder muscle car from my cold, dead hands.”  Oddly, wind turbines are invisible in this future.  The southerners are “reds” who start another sad and doomed reactionary rebellion for gasoline production against the “blues” in the north. (Those colors come from the present corporate press’s identification of a state’s political loyalties, of course.  Socialists will take back the color ‘red!’)  This scenario reflects the first U.S. Civil War, which was launched to defend a reactionary economy, slavery, so long ago.  This civil war involves the reactionary oil barons of Texas evidently defending their profits, though Texas is oddly not part of the FSS.  South Carolina itself has been walled off from the rest of the country, as the North allowed a biologic agent to damage everyone in the state permanently.

Akkad focuses on a tough, tomboyish girl, Sarat, who comes from the Mississippi swamps in ‘purple’ territory.’  She is the book's central character.  She eventually ends up with most of her family in a refugee camp called Camp Patience near the Kentucky border.  The camp is presided over by the ‘Red Crescent’ society – in actuality the present Middle-Eastern version of the Red Cross.  The joke here is that the Chinese and the large Middle-Eastern “Bouazizi Empire” are now the powers of the world, who send humanitarian aide to the U.S. FSS.  A large chunk of the U.S. southwest has been retaken by Mexico as well and turned into a protectorate.  So the U.S. is no longer what it once was. 

Given global warming would have impacted the Middle-East into an even more extreme oil-depleted desert, it is not clear what the Bouazizi Empire is based on, but fantasies sometimes run rampant. Nor does anything here tell us why Mexico would be able to take back the Southwest – as Mexico would be even more parched than Arizona.  China’s aid seems to be purely humanitarian and that makes sense.  Akkad’s future national imagining is somewhat arbitrary.


Sarat is recruited by a wealthy FSS agent to be a sniper for the “reds” and she goes on to shoot the top general of the ‘blues.’  Later she is captured and tortured in the Sugarloaf detention facility in Florida.  This cruelty and the prior deaths of her mother, sister and deformation of her brother during a massacre at Camp Patience carried out by a ‘blue’ militia make her even more angry.  It leads her to accept another assignment by a Bouazizi agent.  She sneaks into the North with help from a southern militia leader Bragg (name-checked after Braxton Bragg, Confederate general.)  There she releases a toxic biologic agent supplied by the agent in the new northern capital, Columbus, Ohio.  This happens during a ‘reunification ceremony’ that follows the 2nd Northern victory in the 2nd civil war.

And like I said, 100 million plus die in a plague that last 10 years.  Revenge.

Other than the view of global warming, which seems quite accurate for the U.S., this view of the “American” future uses a Middle-Eastern template which I find unconvincing.  There is nothing about class in here, or rural versus city, or economics or the many other fractures that actually exist in the U.S.  A ‘state-versus-state’ rebellion is actually very unlikely based on one issue, though it fits the conventional journalistic template.  For instance, Atlanta, the ostensible capital of this southern rebellion, is mostly controlled by black or Democratic Party politicians now.   Houston is too, as are most large southern cities.   Black and Latino people are invisible in this book, so you have to wonder what happened to them in this version of the South.  It is hinted that Sarat might be mixed, but she is the only one.  She’s a lesbian too.  Instead she becomes a ‘rebel’ flying the four-starred and barred flag.

Akkad has basically taken bits of the U.S. and Middle-Eastern present and stretched them out to 2075, creating a creepy central character for us to cheer on.  Or not.  It is an enjoyable read as a bit of speculative fiction, but its structure is flawed.  This is a future civil war vision that liberals would believe in.


Predictably, the New York Times compared it to Cormac McCarthy's "The Road," an inaccurate comparison.  'The Road' was actually a less political and more Biblical version of dystopia or the future than this. There is another future that might be imagined, a revolutionary future where the version of ‘civil war’ is actually that between corporations and the rich one side, with their fascist allies – and the working class on the other, in all its ethnicities.  Global warming is certainly a constant, but ‘capitalism’ - not gasoline alone - will be the real fulcrum around which a class-based ‘civil’ war develops.

I even know someone that is working on a book about precisely that.

Other reviews on dystopian futures:  The Road,” “Hunger Games,” “Divergent,” “Blade Runner,” “War for the Planet of the Apes,” “The Heart Goes Last,” “Good News,” “World War Z,” “Cloud Atlas.”

And I bought it at 2nd Story Books, Ely MN.
Red Frog
July 14, 2018

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

After Janus

“Rebuilding Power in Open-Shop America,” by Labor Notes, July 2018

Labor Notes has rushed out a guide for unionists on how to deal with the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision, “Janus v AFSCME.”  On ‘free speech’ grounds the Supreme Court decision basically says that public sector union dues ‘violate the free speech’ of those who don’t agree with the politics of the union.  This echoes the logic of the “Citizen United” Supreme Court decision, which said that restrictions on corporate contributions were a restraint on ‘free speech.'  In a sense it brings what in the union movement is called the ‘open shop’ to all public workers – teachers, postal workers, state and federal government workers, firefighters, etc.  I.E. a minority of workers can benefit as ‘free riders’ from a union contract, while not contributing at all.

Mr. Janus is a deadbeat, basically.  He’s the guy who only thinks of himself.

Janus-Faced Supreme Court
Anthony DiMaggio of the Illinois Federation of Teachers points out that union dues in his union are used for these 5 things: 
+ Money is allocated to the faculty union’s legal fund, to represent members bringing complaints or charges forward against the college and its administration, in cases when both were in violation of the language of the collective bargaining agreement.

+ Funds are set aside for various social outings, including food/dinner functions, and drinks, and to promote solidarity between union members.

+ A small salary is allocated for the union president of $5,000 a year, to compensate he/she for all the work involved in representing faculty by bringing forward grievances, and for coordinating all other union activities.

+ Funds are set aside to pay a nominal fees (less than a few thousand dollars) to each of the three members of the collective bargaining team, who spend countless hours negotiating/arguing with college administration in pursuit of pay raises and other benefits for dues-paying union and non-union members.

+ Fees were paid to the IFT for various activities funded by the union, including political lobbying, public outreach campaigns, salaries of IFT representatives, and the salary of the IFT lead negotiator who aided us during our collective bargaining sessions with the college. 

I’m sure many other unions could say the same.  Only in the last bullet point do some funds go to political candidates chosen by the local or region or international… i.e. leaders elected by the ostensible majority of the membership.  So the idea that union dues are merely undemocratic 100% transmission belts to Democratic Party coffers is a lie.  Which of course is part of the rationale for this decision, not just crippling unions and impoverishing the working class.

To revive the union movement after Janus, Labor Notes bullet-points 6 things:

  1. Be democratic in the union.  Unions that don’t rely on their members are weak and fail.
  2. Fight the boss.  Unions that don’t win fights with management fail.
  3. Turn up the heat.   Well-planned campaigns win.
  4. Ask people to join the union.  Part of everyday organizing.
  5. Count noses.  Have good data on the company and the employees.
  6. Don’t go it alone.  Reach out to community groups and other unions.
They spend the rest of the pamphlet expanding on these points, which seem pretty vanilla.  But for conservative ‘business unions’ that only dwell on maintaining their own structure, this might be news.

Due to the astounding weakness of private sector unionism, the public sector has now become the next target.  Labor Notes points out that this Supreme Court decision is anti-union but is also racist, as many black and Latino workers, especially women, were hired in the public sector since the 1960s and 1970s.  This draconian legal decision impacts minority workers the most, but the Supremes don't care.

Labor Notes lists other legal tactics by anti-union forces in the public and private sector, as well as what unions are doing to combat these tactics.  The 4 anti-union strategies are:

A.                 Right to Work … for less.  Spread the open shop to every single workplace, public and private, though local or state legislation.  Trump has pledged so sign national ‘right to work for less’ legislation too.

B.                Encourage individuals to resign from unions – to opt out.  The union-busters claim well-run campaigns can cut a local’s membership from 5-20%.

C.                Forcing unions to re-certify every number of years.

D.                Individual workers have individual contracts with the company, instead of being covered by the union contract.

Note the Empty Slogan - "Equal Justice Under Law"
Pretty dystopian, aye?  Labor Notes has charts that gauge how exposed your union or local is to any of these anti-union tactics through members attitudes to the union:  Do members merely see it as a ‘dues collector,’ a hired ‘business,’ a ‘firefighter’ or a ‘movement.’  The latter, of course, is the most powerful.

What is glaringly missing from this syndicalist pamphlet is any notion of political action.  This might have been tacked onto their point 6 about ‘going it alone.’  A union movement without a political arm that it can trust – i.e. a Labor or Labor/populist Party – is not ‘reaching out.’   It is ignoring the role of the very lawmaking that is destroying unionism.  By omission Labor Notes is relying on an abusive corporate ‘friend’- the Democrats - to somehow pull labor’s ass out of the fire.  As we’ve seen from the past 40 years, since the Georgian Jimmy Carter went after the miners and jump-started deregulation in 1977, this ‘friendship’ is that of the rider with the horse, or the mule and his driver, or the elephant and his mahout.

"Reaching out" might also be understood as having a social agenda that benefits society as a whole, not a narrow agenda that adds work on projects that might be anti-social or part of a corporate plan.  That, I think, is what 'movement' really means.

Also missing is a long-term analysis of conditions ‘before’ wide-spread unionism in the U.S.  Given unions can be fined, or unions can work to restrain workers, or unions can make really bad political choices (Republican or Democrat…) the period prior to unionism may also be a guide.  Remember the recent wave of teacher strikes in the south and west sometimes went outside the bounds of the union leaderships or recognized strikes (a wildcat…) to pressure their respective state legislatures.  Direct action might become a thing!  No one can decertify or seize or take over or fine thousands of workers as they can an official union body.   Unleashed labor might be a threat that capital fears more than unions…

Another thing missing is the big picture.  Unions were at one time part of the structure of welfare-state capitalism.  Welfare-state capitalism – the social contract - is on the way out in many capitalist countries, and with it the social stability of unionism.  This is a huge loss but it is part of the international and political restructuring of capital.

This is a valuable guide on the level of the shop floor, the contract, the local and even the region.  But it fails on a national or international level to provide the real keys to overturning Janus, ‘right to work’ and every other law against labor, which started all the way back after World War II in 1947 with Taft-Hartley.

Other books, commentaries and fiction on labor reviewed below:  “Factory Days,” “Reviving the Strike,” “Embedded with Organized Labor,” “Meeting of Campaign for a Mass Party of Labor,”  “Save Our Unions,” “On New Terrain,” “Labor Day,” “A Snake Slithers Up the Mississippi.”

And I bought it at May Day Books large periodicals section!
Red Frog

July 1, 2018