Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Are You Afraid of the Big, Bad "M"?


“A Marxist Education – Learning to Change the World,” by Wayne Au, 2018

I’ll bet you didn’t think Marxism had anything to do with teaching?  Well, think again.  Au is a prominent activist in Seattle who is influential in fighting ‘one size fits all’ testing, charter schools, profiteering, Bill Gates and rote, hegemonic corporate education.  This book fleshes out his ideas, using dialectical materialism and people like Paulo Freire, Lev Vigotsky and V.I. Lenin to make the case for a transformational form of teaching.
Dialectic Spirals...

Au starts with a brief introduction to dialectics and materialism.  He shows that these did not just originate in ‘ancient’ Greece or with Hegel or Marx, but in early Chinese philosophy, with some Egyptian concepts and in Aztec ideas of the universe.  As any one who has studied the development of ideas, they arise in different places because they respond to something universal in human society.  You only have to look at the Chinese ‘yin-yang’ symbol to see several aspects of dialectics in visual form.  He challenges those who see Marxism as a ‘white man’s’ philosophy, given its reality among the proletariat in every country in the world, including U.S. black and Latino/a communities.  As you might imagine, he is a rarity as an education professor in the U.S.

In the process, Au takes on neo-Marxism or bad readings of Gramsci and Althusser which attempt to downplay Marx’s emphasis on economics, as false readings of Marx.  This debate centers around arguments about ‘base,’ ‘superstructure’ and the supposed consequence of ‘economic determinism.’  Au concludes that schools are both sites of indoctrination and control, but also resistance. Yet in the end, Au states that “…the general functioning of schools cannot contradict the capitalist economic base.”

On to the specifically educational material!

CHARTER SCHOOLS

Au’s statistics indicate that 60% of outcomes in U.S. education are determined by the social environment children live in.  Only 20% is due to the schools themselves.  This should be  a ‘duh’ fact, but it is ignored in the clueless hysteria against teachers and public schools.  His stats also show that charter schools either do as well as or worse than public schools.  That is not counting their segregationist, anti-democratic, fraudulent, anti-union, privatizing, real estate or ‘exclusive’ sides, where they pick their student body and still have a higher rate of expulsions than public schools.  He shows instances of charter schools that even after failing are allowed to keep all the public assets they purloined.  This is another example of the ‘enclosure of the commons’ - which is still going on.

TESTING

Neo-liberalism is the prime culprit in our present educational system, as it is everywhere else.  A market-driven approach to education fails society and students, and only enriches corporations and a strata of education profiteers.  Students become ‘consumers’ instead of learners.  Au sees ‘quantification’ as key to neo-liberalism, which is why “No Child Left Behind” and ‘Common Core’ testing is pushed.  Studies show that the conditions in which the test is given influence 50-80% of student performance on that test.  Testing companies use shabby,  quick piece work methods to score those tests.  Unlike the bogus concern for minorities, standardized tests are actually constructed to make minorities and economic disadvantaged students fail.   The NAACP and BLM have both come out against charters and this kind of testing.  Au led a struggle started at Garfield High in Seattle against corporate testing and it was successful.  In this context, the ‘benevolent’ Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation was key in bringing rote testing and charter schools to the U.S. and to Washington state.  When you see the Gates Foundation involved, run.

THEORY

Au studied both Lenin and Soviet psychologist Lev Vygotsky.  He makes a somewhat labored case that ‘learning’ in either the class struggle or as a student occur in similar ways.  Most people start at a spontaneous or emotional level, and only through dealing with the increasing contradictions and challenges that develop can they rise to a more broad view of what is actually going on.  In the same way, the job of a teacher or a revolutionary is to guide students or workers towards a greater, more scientific understanding.  At the same time the teacher or revolutionary is also learning – it is a dialectical, feedback process for both.  This process also flows into an understanding of auto didacticism, where people learn on their own through books, film or experiences.

Au seems to think there are only two stages of understanding, which actually hides a whole ‘process’ that might leave someone in the middle, at a partial point.  Much as various kinds of ‘reformism’ are midway points between the status quo or economic labor struggle only, and a revolutionary position.  Or a partial understanding of some academic topic, like algebra, which a student feels he will never need to know in full.  Refusing to learn can also be a part of directed learning.

FREIRE

Brazilian Marxist educator Paulo Freire wrote “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” and “Education for Critical Consciousness” long ago, and both books are now foundational to some forms of teaching.  Au tries to rescue Freire from liberal educators who don’t understand Freire’s basis in dialectics and materialism.   Essentially, Freire thought that seeing the submerged structure of society allows students to possibly break free from its constraints, and even … change it.  In this chapter, he uses an example of teaching ‘whiteness.’  Au seems not to have realized the biologic fact that there is only one race, the human race.  So his Freire-like example for students of deconstructing ‘whiteness’ and ‘blackness’ as social constructs is marred at a very definitional level.  Accepting the concept of ‘more than one race’ actually plays into the hands of racists.

Freire borrowed from Soviet literary and communications theorist Mikhail Bakhitin’s theory of the ‘dialogic’ – a dialogue method based on dialectics.

In another example, Au takes apart a white woman teacher who claimed that she could not teach or discuss racism with her students because she was white.  Au counters his kind of guilt-laden identity politics, which actually reinforces racism.  He points out that if ‘intersectionality’ is true, then being ‘white’ is not a prohibition from either understanding parts of racism or fighting institutional racism.  Of course, intersectionality is only a half-way point to understanding that some 'intersections' have much more weight than others.

CURRICULUM

Au notes that curriculum is a crucial battle-ground nationally, in school districts and in individual schools.  He makes the point that there is no neutral curriculum.  As such objective reality exists as part of our ‘standpoint’ perceptions, and the goal is to encompass that reality from that standpoint.  In one instance, Au shows how fossil fuel companies used Scholastic Magazine to push a coal-mining agenda and how green organizations and individuals got the magazine to stop distribution.

Au is an Asian-American and his final chapter lists the various struggles he has waged over educational practices in the U.S. – some successful, some not.  His father was a communist – probably a supporter of Mao - and taught his son some foundational truths.  One of these is that ideas and action go together, and Au has certainly done that.

Other reviews on this topic:  “Latest Developments in Hungary,” “In and Out of the Working Class,” “University in Chains,” “There is Only One Race…” “The Servant Economy,” “The God Market,” “Monopoly Capital.”

And I bought it at May Day Books!

Red Frog

August 29, 2018

Friday, August 24, 2018

When Coherence was a Thing

“When Journalism Was a Thing,” by Alexandra Kitty, 2018

This paperback book is a long (375 pages), expensive ($38.95 USD), rambling and repetitive screed whose point is correct, but which is written in such a poor manner that the point gets lost in the weeds.  It makes one start to ask questions about the qualifications of the author.  Few journalists or editors would structure a book in such a disjointed way.  The chapter titles mean nothing – you could swap them around randomly and there would be no loss in clarity.   Kitty is the author of two prior books on the failures of journalism, is a professor and a news columnist, so it’s a bit of a mystery.  But then she’s the one who says the experts are wrong and she certainly bears out this theory splendidly.
When Propaganda Is A Thing

Scattered throughout the book are the remains of every single journalistic scandal or terrible journalist in the U.S. and Canada in the last 15 years, which is its main benefit.  Perhaps a book of case studies would have made her point better. Noam Chomsky did that in the book “Manufacturing Consent” and it worked.  Most maddening of all, the book has no theoretical framework above and beyond a reverence for Watergate reporting, Walter Lippman and a love of ‘objective facts’ to frame events.  The 'propaganda model' is nowhere to be seen.  Media ownership and consolidation is almost invisible. As is billionaires buying news organizations.  Her grasp of politics is vague, as she can’t seem to understand why some journalists link up with one faction of the capitalist class or another. A class analysis of journalists is missing. Her definitions of “Left” and “Right” are off. Quite honestly, I read most of it so you don’t have to.  After the first 200 pages I skimmed, looking for actual new content and finished those 175 pages quite quickly.

Kitty is neither a clueless upscale liberal nor a vicious conservative propagandist.  She tries to steer between the conventional political poles of North American journalism, but in a conventional way.   All to the good.  Her holy grail is ‘objectivity’ – more of a goal than a reality, as nothing is fully objective.  She is basically seeing present journalism as a step back into an older era of ‘partisan political journalism.’ She laments its fall from the time when ‘the center held’ and facts from wire services actually made a difference.  This period is nebulous in the book. It is perhaps after the penny press in the 1830s, or after World War II or in the 1960s or until the advent of Fox News and/or 9/11.  The endpoint is clear - the election of Trump put the final nail in the coffin.  This timeline is dubious, as if propaganda didn’t exist until Rupert Murdoch invented it or ‘the global war on terror’ started, leading to Trump’s ‘post-factual’ authoritarian world and the Democrat's Russia-gate conspiracy.  I only have to recall the good old days of the ‘Red Scare’ or the Tonkin Gulf incident to know that proposition is false. Though both Murdoch and 9/11 certainly made things worse…

According to Kitty, the national journalistic collapse in social understanding and the subsequent devolution into outright propaganda by liberals (MSNBC & CNN) joining conservatives (FOX) was Trump’s election.  That, preceded by Brexit and the election of Rob Ford in Toronto, is seen as the final turning point.  What she does not see is that these battles reflect an open faction fight within the ruling classes in various countries, and between countries.  So facts be damned! Increased class conflict with the working class in the U.S. is another source, as the massive open sores of U.S. society won’t heal and that is now more obvious.  Since the 2007 economic crash, the fall in belief in institutions, ‘experts’ and authority figures is across the board. The desperate capitalist logic of depoliticization has led to journalism by scandal and journalism by celebrity or filler.  Kitty is trying to drag the ‘profession’ back to the ostensible days of street-wise, grounded journalism, instead of understanding why it won’t go there.

Kitty knows that many top journalists have become ‘stenographers,’ a point Glenn Greenwald made much more effectively. Or are psychologically unprepared to deal with lies, deception, propaganda, news releases, media massages, public relations, ‘experts,’ important people and what passes for sources or witnesses nowadays.  This laziness in journalism Kitty dubs ‘pseudo-journalism.’  She seems to lament the passing of investigative journalism from most major outlets.  She has disdain for the ‘amateurs’ that crowd the internet, though her hostility is suspect.  As if every site is a replica of The Drudge Report or Breitbart News.  As if ‘partisans’ cannot find facts.  She says the onset of ‘social media’ helped kill journalism.  She specifically looks at the druggie Rob Ford election in Toronto, and how the Toronto Star supported Ford’s establishment opponent on hypocritical grounds, as both admitted to using drugs.   She is even perceptive enough to see how public relations shaped the violent Western regime change narrative that intentionally destroyed Yugoslavia in the early 1990s.  In this war public relations firms spoon-fed journalists the ‘news.’

Kitty’s obsession with ‘objectivity’ is standard practice.  In the past, every beginning journalism student is hammered with the idea of ‘objectivity.’  Yet as experience and later philosophy tells you, ‘objectivity’ as a god-like, all-seeing perspective is a chimera.  Every story makes choices.  The headline, the sub-head, the quotes, the pictures, the narrative of the story, the facts chosen, down to the words or phrases used – all slant it in one way or another.  Hiding behind many stories is a political perspective, even in the ‘golden age’ of journalism. Almost any story but the most bland can be taken apart to find its political slant. At best, journalists might try to be ‘more’ objective.  Total objectivity is impossible.

I could go on, but you get the picture. Kitty seems unaware of internet sites beyond mainstream ones like Buzzfeed or Huffington Post or Gawker.  She does respect Glenn Greenwald, Wikileaks and “hacktivists’ for their contributions to actual fact-based journalism.  Yet the book reads like 22 similar windy lectures to large university classes.  Journalism freshman or journalism nerds might want to read this book, but I doubt any would actually finish it properly.   I could not.

Other reviews on journalistic issues:  “The Post,” “Southern Cultural Nationalism,” “Empire of Illusion,” “Manufacturing Consent,” “Ken Burns … Whitewash of the American War,” “Turning off NPR,” “Kill the Messenger,” “NPR Completes Editorial Assassination,” “Doublespeak,” and Bernay’s classic “Propaganda.”  Use blog search box, upper left.

P.S. - Truthdig/Paul Street, with today's more coherent piece on our propaganda state:
https://www.truthdig.com/articles/trump-and-the-corporate-media-are-both-enemies-of-the-people/

And unfortunately I bought it at May Day Books!

Red Frog

August 24, 2018

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Prisoners are Workers

PRISON Strike Against Modern Slavery

The second prison strike since 2016 starts today, the anniversary of the start of Nat Turner's slave rebellion in 1831 and ends September 9th, the anniversary of the Attica revolt in 1971. 

https://incarceratedworkers.org/campaigns/prison-strike-2018
Florida Prison.  This looks very familiar.

There are 10 demands, with getting rid of 'solitary' and the issues of private prisons and capital punishment missing.  It is quite a mild document, but does include the right to vote denied to 6 million former felons. What I'd like to focus on is the U.S. Constitution.  The 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution banned slavery and involuntary servitude, with one vital exception: “as punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted."

In other words, servitude or slavery is allowed in prisons, legally.  It is all 'legal.'  And many prisoners are black or brown, so it seems very familiar. Right now millions of prisoners are working for free, or pennies an hour, for capitalist corporations, for various states or governmental institutions, for local companies, and sometimes in for-profit prisons.  Since the abolition of slavery, this became one of the main methods of labor control and exploitation of non-white populations, especially in the U.S. South.  It accompanies the institutional racist police and court practices of the drug war, killer fines, police shootings, militarized police and the incarceration state.

The books 'Slavery By Another Name ... ' and 'The New Jim Crow' made this obvious. They both describe a 'prison-industrial complex.'
Labor is Power, even in Prison

So our U.S. Constitution, which is treated as almost a religious text by liberals and conservatives alike, has an additional flaw.  We can add this line from the 13th Amendment to the undemocratic Electoral College, undemocratic Senate and undemocratic Supreme Court; the misinterpreted 2nd Amendment to the Bill of Rights; the misinterpreted 1st Amendment, which says money is now 'free speech' and the rubber-stamp Grand Jury system.   

Time for a new set of laws.  These are done. 

Alternet on progress of strike, 8/24:  https://www.alternet.org/us-prison-strike-fourth-day-reports-hunger-strikes-and-work-stoppages-nationwide
The South Rises Again

Prior reviews on this topic:  "Are Prisons Obsolete?" "The New Jim Crow," "Slavery by Another Name," "Clandestine Operations," "Kolyma Tales," "The Unseen."   And on the law:  "Loaded," "Witty Lightweight Attacks Marxism," "The Appeal," "The Trial Before the Trial," "Rise of the Warrior Cop" and "3 Days in the Jury Pool."

Red Frog
August 21, 2018

Saturday, August 18, 2018

Time on Your Hands?


The Golden Age of U.S. Television

This is actually the ‘golden’ age of U.S. television, hackneyed as that phrase is.  Never thought it would happen.  I’ve always revered Bruce Springsteen’s lyric about "57 channels and nothing's on…”  But now, not all channels have 'nothin on.'  Though the modern equivalent could be '500 channels and nothin's on... '

TV - KGB  Handles Washington, D.C.

It all started with the thug show, “The Sopranos.”  No one I knew watched it.  I didn’t as I have no love for the Mafia.  Then “The Wire” came out, and I didn’t watch it until much, much later, as others were recommending it.  It was too much focused on black crime in Baltimore to convince me.  Then the advertising soap opera “Mad Men.”  Only one couple I knew watched it.  I didn’t for obvious reasons.  But then came “Game of Thrones” and something changed.  The high school teacher and his drug business -  "Breaking Bad" - was also in the mix, though I didn't watch that either.  I also found a cheap way to view all these shows…as there is a price barrier to this kind of television.

What changed is that the depth of television has just vastly increased.  Series that last years begin to resemble fictional novels.  Novels are a superior form of fiction over film because of their depth, their detail, the world’s they create that do not appear and disappear in 2 hours.  I’m a novelist, so that is my first understanding. The serialization of novels, as Dickens or Balzac practiced, has now been replicated in a visual form.  This has created a new depth.  The stories, unlike PBS productions, have broken out of their conventional British straight-jacket.

Like bad beer, bad TV is not worth it.  Stop watching the junk.  Here are some of my long form TV recommendations, which lean to popular history.  Are they all historically accurate?  Of course not, but you can uncover what is true and what is not yourself.

The Americans – Undercover Russian KGB in U.S.

Babylon Berlin – Events in Wiemar Germany.

Black Mirror – Surreal stories of modern tech England.

Black Sails – Caribbean pirates fight colonial powers and ally with ex-slaves.

Britannia – Roman invasion of England versus Celts and Druids.
Damnation - Farmer revolution in Iowa and a mining town in the Appalachians in 1930s.

Deadwood – The creation of a western mining town.

Fargo - Evil comes to Minnesota.

Game of Thrones – Fantasy which reads more like medieval and modern fact.

Handmaid’s Tale – American theocratic dystopia, centering on the oppression of women.

Mayans - Social rebels fight a Mexican drug cartel with a motorcycle gang in the middle.

Outlander – Romantic fight against English oppression in Scotland, leading to Culloden.
Rebellion - 1916 Easter Rising in Ireland.

RomeFriendship between two soldiers, Julius Caesar, his assassination and the power struggle in its aftermath.

Treme – Musicians, food and politics in post-Katrina New Orleans.

Vikings – Ragnar Lothbrok and sons roam the world.

The Wire – Crime, dysfunction and corruption in 1980s Baltimore.

The Last Kingdom - The Kingdom of Wessex fights the Danes, with help from a godless Saxon raised by Vikings.

The Americans is the latest series we’re watching.  It is about a secret Russian KGB cell in Washington D.C, a deep cover family who work to defend the ‘motherland’ during the Reagan years.  Season One is focused on the U.S. escalation of the nuclear arms race by Reagan through the ‘Star Wars’ space shield.  Bodies pile up, mostly the work of the KGB agents, which makes you think they are the most bloodthirsty.  But they are also smarter than the FBI, at least in fiction.  Given the couple are excellent fighters and masters of disguise, the KGB agents survive.  Agents and double-agents are recruited.  Yet right now the political subtext is that hysteria over improbably good 'sleeper' Russian agents feeds into the Democrat's Russian-gate conspiracy mongering and war plans.  

We feel sympathy for the Russian couple, who live in a suburban house with two kids.  Yet the series has almost no politics.  The only motivation for the KGB officers is to ‘defend their country.’ A black ally of theirs is shown without the motivation of systemic institutional racism in the U.S.  The show hides the actual aggressive nuclear strategy of the U.S. during this time -  somewhat similar to Trump's present "Space Force" plans. 

You are not supposed to feel much sympathy for the Russian agents while watching this series, but I do.  It does humanize them a bit, but then ignores 'why' there was a cold war in the first place.  (tvonline.cc)

Prior reviews on long-form television:  “Game of Thrones,” “Deadwood,” "Black Sails," "Who is Lester Nygaard?" and “Vikings” are below.  Use blog search box, upper left.

Red Frog

August 18, 2018

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Moving the Meat Along

“The Trial Before the Trial,” by Ernest Larsen, 2018

This is a hilarious and riveting account of one subject’s experience in the Grand Jury system in New York City.  It tells you all you need to know.  As a former member of the legal ‘fraternity’ it gives me the chills.

A Jury of your Peers...

If you thought Grand Jury’s were made up of permanent secret panels of rich white people who meet to dole out judgment constantly, you would not be far wrong.  But not rich and not permanent.  Instead here the ‘random’ jury selection process ends up with nearly all middle-class white people intent on following orders and ‘doing their duty,’ maybe for two weeks straight.  Larsen found himself on just such a jury for 8.5 days until he was, without precedent, accused of ‘contempt of court’ for asking too many questions and expressing his opinion in deliberations. 

Of most import, given the overwhelming prevalence of ‘plea bargains’ (no bargain!) in criminal cases, the only real trial IS the Grand Jury hearing.  In reality, it is a rubber-stamp for the prosecutor.  If every drug case went to a jury trial, the drug laws could not be enforced, given the volume of cases.  As we know from recent experience, Grand Jury’s almost never indict police for killing unarmed civilians, especially black or brown folks.  They have also recently been used against leftists like Freedom Road Socialist Organization.

This narrative touches on everything in the criminal justice system:
  • The endless and massive drug war and its laws. 
  • Black and brown people who are the overwhelming majority of legally unseen and unheard recipients of Grand Jury justice.
  • The absence of any defense lawyer.
  • Cops as almost the only witnesses.  Well rehearsed and covering for each other.  The jurors are instructed to believe them.
  • Clueless and robotic white people on the Grand Jury.  Not a jury of peers.  Or as Larsen calls them “socially moribund.”
  • A profusion of intimidating cops in the police-state courthouse.
  • Dictatorial judges.
  • The inability to ask open questions of the Grand Jury witnesses, except upon agreement of the prosecutor.
  • The legal standard is: “…a reasonable cause to believe…” – which leaves the idea of ‘reasonable’ undefined.
  • A ‘no discussion’ possibility before each vote to convict or acquit.
  • The looming grim prison of Riker’s Island hovering in the background.  Chains and leg-irons are still used on black bodies.  It is, according to Larsen, the ‘largest penal colony on the planet.’
  • Jurors are not supposed to know the consequences – the sentences – for any of the crimes in which they vote to convict.  Even though the laws are freely available on the internet.
  • Setting up police street-corner drug buys is legal and not considered entrapment.
  • The court system is one big jobs program for cops, lawyers, judges and clerks.  Even the Assistant DA’s dress in ‘uniforms.’
Grand Jury’s are included in the 5th Amendment of the Bill of Rights, and inherited from British law.  They are another example of the archaic and undemocratic nature of the U.S.’s founding documents.

One answer to the problems in a Grand Jury is ‘nullification,’ which allows a Grand Jury to follow its own conscience and understanding – if it has one.  This is even written into the Grand Jury guidebooks in the word ‘may,’ but is almost universally ignored – until Larsen took it upon himself to challenge the process from the inside.  In effect, the law – especially if the law or the punishments themselves are criminal, stupid or bad – does not need to be followed.

Taking on the frightening and Kafkesque legal system is intimidating, and Larsen takes you inside his efforts to make the proceedings more democratic and reasonable.  And, surprisingly, he has some success, which is when the criminal justice system tries to take its revenge.  Given Grand Jury proceedings are supposed to be secret, the publication of this book appears to jeopardize Larsen.  But the embarrassment of prosecuting him with a felony for writing this account might be more than the New York courts and judges can handle.

“Moving the meat along” is the phrase New York prosecutors use to describe the Grand Jury process.  Great stuff!  Read it before you get called.

Other posts relevant legal issues:  “Three Days in the Jury Pool,” reviews of 4 books by John Grisham and “A New Movement,” “Missoula,” “With Liberty and Justice for Some,” “Legal ‘Logic’ Behind Raids,” “Rise of the Warrior Cop,” “The Divide,” ’99 Homes,” “Eric Holder,” “Justice Department Brings Back Hoover.”

And I bought it at May Day Books!

Red Frog

August 15, 2018

Saturday, August 11, 2018

Marx Lives Again...


“Old Gods, New Enigmas – Marx’s Lost Theory,” by Mike Davis, 2018

Davis’ new book is a another varied academic work that deals with a number of issues, and whose title is partially inaccurate.  The first part deals with the history of Marx’s neglected political thought about, not just the full-time proletariat, but classes and sections of classes like the ‘informal proletariat.’  The second part is a long, exciting history of labor ‘agency’ from mostly 1838 to 1921, which puts the present U.S. labor and progressive movement to shame.  The last chapters are about the dark environmental situation – with Davis’ pessimistic and optimistic responses.  As much as he tries to present the latter, he leans to the former.  Wedged in is an analysis of Marx's views on nationalism, which is the 'lost' theory that Davis is talking about.
Available at May Day Books

The most valuable piece is Davis’ investigation of Marx’s various ideas on the different socioeconomic strata of France, and how they acted based on their class or social interests. Given the whole panoply of Marx’s work is now known, far more detail has been unearthed by scholars.  While some people have accused Marx of having ‘no political program,’ here Davis shows that Marx took into account the views of ‘class fractions’ – and of the peasantry, small urban businessmen and farmers, individual tradesmen and artisans and others in constructing how the proletariat should move forward amongst all these different claims.  What Davis is getting at is that the complex economic strata in various capitalist countries is not a new thing – and that a successful political strategy involves gaining allies from other classes or sub-classes.  Marx, unlike Engels, clearly saw that the peasantry and small businessmen would side with the proletariat if the latter took up the causes of debt and tax relief.

Marx was well aware of the ‘precariat’ that people like Guy Standing have suddenly discovered.  Many workers had precarious existences in the 1800s, and could be hired and fired based on the recessions and depressions that continually occurred under capital.  Home piece work was generalized. There was a huge group of domestic servants (which Marx called ‘modern domestic slaves’).  A pauperized working class existed, which now has its parallel in the global South.  Even autoworkers in the U.S. in the 1930s prior to unions had precarious existences where they could be fired easily.  Precariousness is nothing new.

Even the ‘land question’ comes into play, as the Social-Democratic Party of Bela Kun in the 1919 Hungarian / Budapest Soviet refused to call for ‘land to the tiller’ - breaking up the large Hungarian estates mostly owned by nobility. Instead the rural areas became a base for Horthyite reaction.  A revolutionary program would have allowed the bulk of the peasantry to come over to the side of the Social Democracy.  Davis also defends Lenin from people (like Samir Amin,) who thought Lenin too ignored the peasantry like Stalin.  Lenin’s consistent conception of the Russian revolution was based on an alliance with the peasantry and breaking up the landed estates.  This is no secret if you can remember Lenin’s convoluted phrase about the ‘democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry.’

In this book, Davis makes these additional points:

  1. Marx understood that the hesitant bourgeoisie and localized peasants were not capable of making a through-going democratic revolution against the nobility, and showed this through his historical studies.  Only the working classes could make this so, which was one of their great historical contributions to society.
  2. Marx did not believe in the ultimate success of an alternative society based on cooperative / artisanal principles in the face of large capital. 
  3. Marx and socialists during this time did not discuss in depth the role of the city, war or women’s issues.   
  4. Marx did not believe industrial workers would be a majority in society.  He himself said:  “the increase in the productivity of large-scale industry …permits a larger and larger part of the working class to be employed unproductively.” (No kidding...)
  5. In what might be relevant today regarding rural politics, the Marxist historian Hobsbawm said: “peasant consciousness tends to be entirely localized or constituted in abstract opposition to the city, often in the language of millenarian religion.”
  6. “Auschwitz was quite literally an IG-Farben company town.” 
  7. In Engels' look at the English working-class, he was always surprised by how religion had almost no hold on the English and London proletariat.
  8. Davis, like David Harvey, understands the combined power of the neighborhood and the worksite – the productive and the geographic – both sources of exploitation and resistance.
  9. Gentrification was going on in Paris and in Europe in 1872, according to Engels in “The Housing Question.” 
  10. English workers froze during the war winter of 1916, as all coal went to war industries.
  11. Davis illustrates how cities incubated resistance and revolution across Europe, through culture, buildings, societies, cooperatives, sports, neighborhoods, etc. 
  12. The class struggle actually pushes the capitalists to develop new technologies to raise productivity and reduce labor’s power.
  13. The Russian Revolution led to the success of the 8-hour day movement across Europe.
  14. Alexander Rabinowitz described the Petrograd Bolshevik Party during 1917:  “…internally relatively democratic, tolerant and decentralized structure and method of operations, as well as its essentially open and mass character… within the Bolshevik Petrograd organization at all levels in 1917 there was continuing free and lively discussion and debate over the most basic theoretical and tactical issues.”
  15. Davis asserts that national planning in the past was very difficult, but with present modern software, databases and supply-chain structures, national and even international planning would be easier.
  16. Marx’s ostensible lost theory concerns nationalism.  Davis cites the work of Erica Benner, who defends Marx against his opponents on this question.
  17. Nationalism according to Marx was an ‘opium’ for two quasi-classes – urban shopkeepers and rural smallholders.  The magic of the ‘nation’ abolished class struggle and imagined that all social classes were equal.
  18. On the issue of nationalism, Davis (and Marx) contend that the working class can win these ‘quasi-classes’ to follow the national leadership of the working class if their demands against debt, mortgages and taxes are dealt with.  (Taxes, as we might remind Democrats, are not all ‘progressive.’)
  19. But then Davis insists that “martial nationalism was an essential fuel for social revolution, as well as a precondition for socialist leadership of the peasantry and the lower middle classes.”  What ‘martial nationalism’ means is unclear.  Certainly Davis himself brings up SDP support for ‘war credits’ in 1914 as one possible example.  But the other example is that one side of a civil war can be progressive (like the U.S. Civil War, the Cuban or Nicaraguan revolutions) or in wars of national liberation (for instance, Haiti's fight against France, China's struggle against the Japanese or Mexico's resistance to the U.S.) 
  20. Marx said that the exploitation of peasants “differs only in form from the exploitation of the industrial proletariat.”
  21. In his environmental chapters, Davis praises the anarchist Kropotkin’s geologic travels and ground-breaking research into climate change, which showed that landscapes changed over time.  Davis notes that it was common knowledge that the middle-east and east Asia at one time were ‘well-watered.’ He quotes Engels to the effect that ‘nature takes revenge’ on every human victory. He cites Nils Ekholm in 1901 as the first scientist to recognize the ‘greenhouse’ effect.  Davis points out that the mega-drought in Syria between 2007-2010 played a role in the uprising there.  And that the whole ‘Fertile Crescent’ is probably heading to desiccation by century-end. 
  22. Davis holds hope that ‘the city’ can somehow be a new ‘ark’ - a center of ecological sustainability.  He endorses the concept of the “Anthopocene,’ though driven by capitalist profiteering.  He seems to be unaware of the concept of the 'Capitalocene." He concentrates on the impact of global warming on the global South where it is most severe, and skims over any impacts in the global North.  Which perhaps is not the best tactic for a mostly northern readership.
This book, given its multi-contents, deserves a mixed review.  At times useful and informative, at times repetitive (do we need another familiar contribution on the environmental issue?), at times exciting, you could do worse.

Other books related to this review:  “The Precariat,” “In Praise of Barbarians,” “Anti-Fascism, Sports, Sobriety…” and books on Marxist theory.

And I bought it at May Day Books!

Red Frog

August 11, 2018

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

No ... Is An Island


“From Commune to Capitalism – How China’s Peasants Lost Collective Property and Gained Urban Poverty,” by Zhun Xu, 2018

This short book is an excellent introduction to the recent agrarian question in China, and by extension, to what is happening in the rest of the world to peasants and land.  Xu is a Maoist / Marxist who thinks China is now capitalist, a process he thinks started with the land reform of the early 1980s in China that turned land from collectives to individually farmed plots.  Whether you believe China is completely capitalist or not is actually irrelevant to how he looks at the land question, which is based on his factual analysis. 

From Rural to Urban

One of Xu’s contributions is to look at the land question across the world, not just limiting his analysis to China.  Xu tracks the wave of various forms of land reform and collectivization that occurred in many different countries like Egypt and Mexico after World War I and II, and how that ‘wave’ fell back starting in the 1980s with the advent of the neo-liberal market strategy, a strategy which was partly embraced by the Chinese Communist Party majority.  Mao had advocated collectives, but after his death the majority of the CCP called for a return to individual family farming (the ‘household responsibility system’ - HRS) in 1979.  This transition was completed by 1984.  Xu makes the valuable point that political economy is a ‘world’ system, so not one in which one country, one island or one bloc can survive unchanged.

Xu outlines 3 main approaches to the land question in China – collectivization, individual family farming and capitalist large farming.  Of course as we know, in every country there are bridges between each category, as you only have to track how large family farms in the U.S. are basically contractors for giant agribusinesses.  China’s land was collectivized in the 1950s at a Commune, Brigade and Production Team level.  Land was held in common, worked in common and the benefits were shared in common.  According to his detailed statistical look at the issue, large infrastructure projects, health, education and an increase in production of 2 of the top 3 crops in China all made great strides under collectivization.  At the same time, HRS de-collectivization in the 1980s, while giving a temporary boost to profits and to production, ultimately did not actually do better than collectivization and in certain ways, worse.  Besides production stagnation, major rural infrastructure projects disappeared, schools were shut down and clinics closed.

Xu’s main point is to challenge the CCP (and Western capitalist) assumption that de-collectivization was a., more productive and b., voluntary.  According to his research, it was neither.  This has huge implications for the Marxist strategy towards land reform, as China was the largest recent attempt at collectivization.  To combat the anti-collective view, he especially looks at the pro-privatization research by Justin Lin, published in the American Economic Review.  

In 2008 the CCP leadership encouraged peasants to sell their land to larger capitalist farmers, as the CCP now favors consolidation of landholdings.  This happens under the natural course of capital too, which leads to oligarchy or monopoly in every financial area.  Land consolidation under capital is slower, given the inherent weaknesses of large farming. In China, land leases for 20 and 70 years can be sold, though all land is technically socialized as to its ultimate ownership, based on the Chinese Constitution.  In practice individual landholding in China is becoming a middle step towards large capitalist farms, with the aide of government policy, but on ‘leased’ land.

On the issue of whether de-collectivization was ‘voluntary’ Xu’s statistical studies, first-person visits to Songzi County to interview peasants and a study of CCP and other documents showed that the CCP Central Committee ordered de-collectivization – it was a top-down strategy.  Any rural cadre that wanted to keep their position had to eventually go along, and many found material benefits in doing so.  The only broad democracy in the rural areas was on the Production Team level, while Brigade and Commune were determined by cadre vote only or appointment from above.

Xu discusses the broad issue of ‘laziness’ that collectivization was accused of fostering, and shows it to be a result of bureaucratic stratification or cadre corruption in some Brigades or Communes.  He touches on issues like debt in the Communes, as a segment of farmers never earned enough and had to take interest-free loans from the Commune.  He shows how improvements in seeds, irrigation and ostensible benefits of fertilizer (organic to chemical) in collectivized times helped making the transition to individual household plots look better.  In addition, the CCP raised agricultural prices for a time during the transition.  So the ‘wind’ of HRS was really one powered by 25+ years of collective farming or a hand from above.

In this study Xu does not deal with the Chinese famine in 1959, leaving it unexplained.  This seems to be a big issue.  His allegation that China is now a fully capitalist country is not explained either, though this book certainly shows how granular privatization took hold in the agrarian sector.  He does call for workers and peasants’ power at the base of the society, i.e. a proletarian democracy enlarged from below, but he realizes the impetus is now with the Chinese urban working class, not the peasantry, to accomplish this.

Xu thinks the privatization of land was done to weaken the peasant-worker alliance, as the working class had first resisted similar moves.  In this way, both groups were split from each other, allowing the CCP bureaucracy to ‘divide and conquer.’  As has been seen, the small plots ultimately could not produce enough for whole families to survive.  So HRS privatization became the means by which the countryside provided the cities with millions of rural workers that Chinese export industrialization needed.  This is similar to what happened in Russia during Czarist times, as the villages provided the raw labor for beginning Russian industrialization.  This is presently true all over the world, which is why the land question is intimately related to the labor question. 
Land Use in the U.S. - The majority is animal pasturage, livestock feed, ethanol, landowning families, defense, corporate timberland.

Othis reviews on China or the agrarian question:  “Two Sea Changes in World Political Economy,” “Is the East Still Red?” “The End of the Revolution,” “The Rise of China…,” “The Implosion of Contemporary Capitalism,” “The Fall of Bo Xilai...,” “Maoism and the Chinese Revolution,” “China on Strike” AND “Foodopoly,” “A Foodie’s Guide to Capitalism,” “Land Grabbing,” “Salt, Sugar, Fat.”  Use blog search box, upper left.

And I bought it at May Day Books!

Red Frog

August 8, 2018

Sunday, August 5, 2018

Social-Realist Art

Elizabeth Olds and Wanda Gag Exhibit at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, 2018

Both Elizabeth Olds and Wanda Gag were Minnesota artists active in the 1930s and 1940s, with Gag the better known.  Yet as part of the collective amnesia over this period in history, their art, like the writers of the time, has been neglected.  Today, realist, social realist or modernist art is over-looked in favor of various forms of post-modernism.  The bourgeoisie has skillfully enlisted art in being socially abstruse, shocking, meaningless, socially ignorant or just plain decoration. 

Harlem Musicians - Elizabeth Olds

However, given the social stresses of the present, post-modernism is looking more and more like an expensive and laughable dead-end.

You could say that Olds might be considered a 'social-realist' while Gag could be included as a ‘Regionalist’ in the tradition of Grant Wood, Thomas Hart Benton or John Curry.  Though some of Old's non-political and 'primitive style' work could be considered in that category too.  Of course, the descriptor ‘Regionalist’ is never applied to fundamentally New York artists, who by definition are somehow national.  Both Gag and Olds lived in New York for a time.  Ben Shawn, a New Yorker who painted proletarian themes similar to Benton, is never called a ‘Regionalist.’ Olds and Gag are women, so they are also part of a second neglected group.

This is a great little exhibit which dedicates a room to each artist.  Olds was born in Minneapolis and studied at MCAD many years ago.  Olds’s art was sometimes cartoonish, but socially conscious and politically left.  She was employed by the New Deal’s ‘Public Workers of Art Project’ and the ‘Federal Art Project.’  She was inspired by the muralism of the Mexican painter Jose Orozco.  She used mass production ‘screen printing’ techniques to bring art to many.  Olds made fun of Wall Street and the conformism of ‘white collar boys’ heading to work.  She even cast a satiric eye on gallery-goers worshipping the Italian art classics (“Adoration of the Masters”) and Picasso (“Picasso Study Club”).  She showed black musicians, working-class neighborhoods in New York, steel and meatpacking plants and strong miners. One of her pictures features a dance line of nude women smiling powerfully down on the audience, which was not allowed to be shown due to nudity (“Burlesque”).  Olds reminds one of Hogarth or Daumier sometimes.

Gag, born in New Ulm, is the famous children’s artist of “A Million Cats.”  But she also made fun of consumerism in the midst of the Depression (“Progress”) and like Olds, did covers for the Communist Party-backed “New Masses” magazine (“Skyscraper”).  Gag lived in New York for a time too, painting an alienated stairway at Macys. (“Macy’s Stairway”) but left to live in the country at a house she called ‘Tumble Timbers.’  Her rural upbringing gave her a left-populist outlook, especially appropriate here in Minnesota with its strong Farmer-Labor Party influence.  This also explains the influence of nature in her art and drawings. Cats, snowdrifts, garden tools, fireplaces, lamplight, squash, green peppers, moonlight and trees populate her later work.  I even see bits of R. Crumb in the way she shades objects.

The exhibit is titled: “The Rabble-Rouser and the Homebody,” on the third floor at the MIA.  It continues from March 2018 to December 9, 2018.  There are several other new exhibits worth seeing as well.  Right nearby is the ‘Duluth Living Room”, a recreation of a prairie-style living room looking out on Lake Superior.  Admission is free or with a donation.

Other reviews of art below:  “9.5 Thesis on Art & Class,” “Adios Utopia,” “Art is Dead,” “Ways of Seeing,” “State of the Art,” “The Marxist Theory of Art,” “The Hermitage and Winter Palace,” “Desert of Forbidden Art,” “The Minneapolis Spectacle,” “Hopper Drawing,” “Women in Soviet Art,” “Frida Kahlo,” “Street Art.” Use these terms in blog search box on upper left.

Red Frog

August 5, 2018

Thursday, August 2, 2018

Lace Curtains Torn

“The Plough and the Stars,” “Shadow of a Gun Man,” and “Juno and the Paycock,” plays by Sean O’Casey, 1920s

Sean O’Casey grew up a clerk's son in Dublin, Ireland, and he set these three theatre productions in the Dublin tenements around where he lived.  As such, these were the first proletarian plays to come out of Ireland. He was self-taught, not attending Trinity College as did fellow dramatist Samuel Beckett.  His plays are in mostly idiomatic Irish English, the brogue, sort of what Twain did with American slang.  O’Casey helped organize the Irish Citizen Army in 1913, a socialist labor military grouping formed to defend against English aggression and later led by James Connolly.  He was a socialist.  However, in these plays O’Casey takes a ‘tragic-comedic’ eye to the events that followed, which brought political opprobrium on him for his simple and deep humanism. 

Scene from "Juno and the Paycock" (Peacock...)

These three plays could be seen as one long play, really a play cycle, set in Dublin.  They go from the period of the Irish Easter Rising in 1916 (‘Plough’) to the revolutionary war against the English in 1920 (‘Shadow’) to the civil war between the Free-Staters and the Republican Brotherhood in 1922 (‘Juno’).  All involve the impact of the violence on civilians, usually from the viewpoint of a woman.  The men are many times pompous, foolish, drunken or blatherers.  An arrogant Socialist, a bad poet, a drunken and lazy husband display their wares.  The English make only two appearances, both marginal.  World War I, where many more Irish died in the English army than who died in Ireland in 196-1922, is muted to invisible in the ‘Plough.’  The plays are soaked in displays of Irish patriotism, which O’Casey quietly mocks, especially in a scene where a man brags about his pilgrimages to Wolfe Tone’s grave.  So the whole reason why these men are fighting (though women fought too…) is obscure, and perhaps intentionally so.

The women – the grounded and realistic Mrs. Boyle (Juno); the courageous girl Minnie; the suffering wife Nora and her kind neighbor Bessie – all feel the impact of the violence on their brothers, their husbands, their potential boyfriends, their neighbors.  Two of them fall victim to the violence themselves. The men say that ‘a principle is a principle’ and that they’ll ‘die for Ireland’ while the women want them at home half-fed, not starving and alive, not crippled or dead.  A familiar story.

The women are the ‘realists’ while some of the men are the ‘romantics,’ at least in the common parlance.  But given Ireland had been an oppressed country for hundreds of years, a million died of an English-aided famine, tens of thousands of Irishmen were sent to slaughter in ‘Flanders fields’ or Gallipoli, all while Ireland remained a colony of the English empire, its land owned, its people poor wage slaves, its democratic rights almost nil – something had to give.  So there was a powerful political logic here that rose above a granular humanism. The Irish infatuation with ‘gunmen’ and killing shown in these plays - sloppy and sometimes thoughtless – was inevitable given English oppression.  In a way, this continued during the war for Irish independence in northern Ireland, a guerrilla war which only ended in 1994.  Northern Ireland today is still a colony of the less august “United Kingdom” - as the Brexit vote might finally end that. And perhaps Scotland won’t be far behind.

Because of O’Casey’s change of heart, I imagine he is looked on as something of a political cynic in Ireland.  After all, there are consequences to violence, even justified violence.  Beyond the politics though, these plays reveal the hidden lives of typical working class Dubliners in these terrible times – and that is their main strength.  The dialog is dead-on accurate, the settings shabby, the humour immense, the humanity obvious.  People get into debt because of a promise of an inheritance that never comes.  They loot during the rising. They make do with tea and whiskey.  The lace curtains are torn, the windows broken and money scarce.  These years have marked Ireland and the Irish people even to this day, and these plays show how.

And I bought it Chapman Street Books in Ely, Mn.

Red Frog

August 2, 2018