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. 


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 is 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 and sister and permanent deformation of her brother during a massacre at Camp Patience carried out by a ‘blue’ militia lead 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 civil war that liberals would love.


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 that is 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. the ostensible majority of the membership.  So the idea that union dues are merely 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 union – opt out.  The union-busters claim well-run campaigns can cut a local’s membership from 5-20%.

C.                Forcing unions to recertify 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

Friday, July 6, 2018

Another Comrade

The Real Balfour Declaration

Earl Balfour, long-time May Day Books volunteer and militant class war activist, died on June 26th in the Our Lady of Peace hospice at the age of 82.  He will be missed by many for his acerbic wit, his signature hats and his commitment to the revolutionary labor movement.   Among others, he was close to his partner Lesa, his sons Jeff and Ken and his daughter Sharon.

He is the 3rd May Day Books volunteer to die in the last 3 years.  A leftist generation blooded in the 1950s and 1960s is passing away.
Earl restraining a cop at P-9 Strike - hat and mustache extra

Earl was a skilled machinist and tool & die maker who worked at Colt Manufacturing in Hartford, Connecticut and small machine shops around Minneapolis.  His fondness for metal machines was unmatched, as was his distaste for computers.  He loved and created small steam engines while at work, enjoying stealing time from the boss. Earl escaped Minnesota winters for many years by driving to the Yucatan area of Mexico, returning only when the snow retreated.

Earl spent time in the Socialist Workers Party in the 1960s and early 1970s, then left with many others due to political differences with the SWP leadership.  During the time he was in the SWP he was active in the anti-war movement against the Vietnam War. After leaving the SWP he joined several smaller left organizations, but decided to devote his time to strike and movement support and May Day Books.

Earl worked to support the P-9 Hormel strike back in the 1980s.  A picture of him in a fracas with police at the strike adorns May Day’s desk and is included here.  He was involved in the local Iowa Pork strike support committee (P-6) and support for UAW Local 869 at Ford, and also worked with Teamsters for a Democratic Union at UPS. Earl’s role in the AMFA strike in 2005, even as an older man, was stellar.  He drove the lead junker car as part of a mobile picket intending to shut down the Northwest scab gate near the airport.  He disabled the car in the road and was arrested by police, being later bailed out downtown by comrades.  Earl helped plan and participated in every anniversary celebration of the 1934 Minneapolis Teamsters Strike, beginning in 1984 with Harry DeBoer, Jake Cooper, and other local labor activists, then every 5 to 10 years thereafter.

Lenin Carries On
Earl played a role in the fight against fascist groups in the 1990s in Minneapolis.  At one point, he got some anti-racists in Anti-Racist Action out of a tight jam at the University of Minnesota by leading a garbage-can charge to break an encirclement by racist thugs.  He supported the American Indian Movement in spear-fishing struggles in the 1990s, homeless rights and every anti-US intervention struggle ever. He struggled alongside many groups, including communists, socialists, anarchists and DeLeonists. If there was a picket, a strike, an occupation or an anti-war demonstration, Earl would be there.

Earl started volunteering for May Day in the early 1980s.  Due to his mechanical intelligence, he planned and built some of the bookcases used to this day.  He contributed a potato clock to the May Day counter, to the delight of young and old.  He helped people move with his aging truck, razzed people with his exaggerations and stayed a proud Luddite to the end.

A memorial for Earl was held at May Day Books on June 30th which filled the store, standing room only.  According to his son Jeff, “he was a good comrade, father, grandfather, friend and mentor.  He was always there with good advice and leadership.  He inspired several generations of activists and always had a good story.”

Now his story is over.

Compiled by friends and family… July 6, 2018

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Summer Lake Read Down

“The Vegetarian,” by Han Kang, 2007 / 2015 English Version

I’m mostly a vegetarian, so of course I was attracted to a book with this title, especially set in South Korea, a place famous for barbecue and obsessed with pork.  Meat, meat meat!  And there was nothing much else to read in the bookstore I got it from.  The book however is not a look at the narrow cultural norms of a certain authoritarian middle-class strata in South Korea.  No, the vegetarianism in the book is merely a prelude to the slow suicide by starvation of a quiet Korean woman, Yeong-hye.  This is a terrible book, and I don’t mean that in a good way.
Another name for starvation?

But the book garnered the Booker International Prize and kudos from the usual suspects - the New York Times (10 best books, 2016!), Entertainment Weekly, Oprah, the Minneapolis Star Tribune and many more. What more could you want?

I’ve been criticizing the Iowa Writers Workshop for turning out formulaic writers who mostly dwell on personal / family stories set in middle-class settings, full of psychology and pompous images, while paying a very high price for their entry into the hallowed halls.  I’m not alone. I know this is heresy.  I’ve never read a book by one of these people and, to my surprise, after I finished this one, I read the internal blurb on the author and sure enough, she was educated at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop.

I’ve been to the main bookstore in downtown Iowa City, Prairie Lights (the name stolen from you know what…), the same town where the Workshop is located.  The bookstore’s politics section is two small shelves hidden away in a sub-bookshelf.  I had to ask where it was.  This bookstore is the main commercial reference for the esteemed geniuses there.  You can only laugh.

Here is how vegetarianism works in this book.  Yeong-hye has a conventional corporate husband who doesn’t really like her, but married her because it was expected.  She has a bad dream and suddenly stops eating meat - and makes her husband food without meat.  He is outraged, but hopes she grows out of it.  She embarrasses him at a meal with his boss when she turns down the meat-heavy dishes.  At a following celebratory full family meal she also refuses to eat meat.  Her father (former South Korean military soldier who fought in Vietnam for the U.S….) hits her twice and tries to stuff a piece of pig down her throat.  Buried in the story is that her father has been brutal to her for years. After that the husband divorces her.  

From there she starts taking her clothes off in public and engages in adulterous sex with a video artist who is infatuated with her ‘Mongolian’ birth mark, who is also her sister’s husband.  He films them having sex while both are body painted in flowers… Then she is committed to a mental institution.  Edgy!  There she stops eating and just drinking water, and from there wants to ‘live on air’ like a plant and stops any intake whatsoever.  Her sister is sympathetic but overwhelmed.  Then Yeong-hye dies due to starvation, which is evidently the wages of vegetarianism …

The book is narrated by the block-head husband, then the long-suffering sister.  Told, not shown…

You want to read a book like that?  Really?  It is not about vegetarianism at all.  This book reads like some slight attempt at a pathetic copy of 1950s American fiction about the corporate IBM family life.  Bulls-eye for the U.S. literary mafia who work hard to avoid anything up-to-date.  Lord knows, South Korea’s middle class is a dreadful class, but the analysis is glancing.  Where are the majority of South Koreans, many of them militant Korean workers with other issues besides vegetables?  Invisible, as usual.  A book with a crazy woman.  As usual.  Probably needs to be doped up on Valium.  As usual.  Betty Friedan story, 70 years later, of retro fake progressivism and 'insight.'  A typical psychological, derivative, anti-female, dysfunctional story… written by a woman.  A coup!  And an insult to real vegetarianism.

An Iowa Writer’s Workshop® product.

And I bought it at 2nd Story Books, Ely MN.

Red Frog

July 4, 2018

Sunday, July 1, 2018

The Two-Tier Legal System

“The Appeal,” by John Grisham, 2008

Given the right-wing decisions issued last week by the highly political U.S. “Supreme” Court, this book is germane and prescient.  The Supreme’s embraced Trump’s ban on immigration and visits from mostly Muslim countries and slammed the labor movement by allowing public workers to opt out of paying dues even if they benefit from labor contracts.  (Janus v. AFSCME)  NPR ran an interview with Janus, who works in Illinois, and mostly buried the rest of the story.  Then the ‘culture war’ liberal and corporate conservative Anthony Kennedy announced his retirement prior to the 2018 elections, thus giving Trump a slam-dunk at another criminally right-wing ‘jurist.’  After all, Kennedy voted for “Citizens United” where corporations are now treated like people and money becomes ‘free speech.’  He voted for gutting the Voting Rights Act, gerrymandering, for Janus, for the travel ban, for purging voter rolls - and that is just in the last few weeks.  Not to mention his 'Bush v. Gore' vote that handed the 2000 election to Bush.  He's no 'centrist' as claimed by our corporate press.


This book is one of Grisham's best, as it shows the combination of corporate politics and corporate law.  It concerns a chemical corporation buying a seat on the Mississippi Supreme Court in order to get a large compensatory and punitive judgment against them reversed.  As we know, stacking the courts with ultra-conservative ‘judges’ has been normal practice by the Republican Party vetted by the Federalist Society.  It is called ‘tort reform,’ which is a euphemism for corporations legally doing whatever they want.  This book shows how it is done.  Anyone who thinks the ‘law’ is objective and neutral has not been living in the real world.  In a capitalist society, the laws and the courts enforce private property and, while varying their interpretations, defend an archaic Constitution over 200 years old.  The U.S. Supreme Court, where members are inducted for life or until they retire, is a perfect example of this.  It is the most reactionary institution in the government.

The corporation in the book, Krane Chemical, is accused and convicted by a jury of poisoning the water of a small Mississippi town, Bowmore, through years of dumping toxic chemicals into ravines behind their plant.  This results in a ‘cancer cluster’ 12 times the national average, resulting in many deaths and sicknesses, giving the name “Cancer County” to the locale.  Not to be confused with the real ‘Cancer Alley” across the river in Louisiana, also related to the chemical and oil complexes in that region.  The jury issues a huge punitive and compensatory award of $41M.  

The objective of the Wall Street firm behind Krane Chemical is to get the decision reversed on appeal, jury be damned.  To do that they need to find a young, na├»ve white lawyer who believes in church and hunting and is against gay marriage and is ‘tough on crime’ ... and run him for Mississippi Supreme Court judge.  Almost nothing to do with actual supreme court decisions, but Krane hopes to introduce a political litmus test into electing judges.  If they are successful they will be able to kick out a centrist female Supreme Court judge who might uphold the jury verdict in a 5-4 decision against them.  Sounds like the U.S. Supreme Court, aye?  Controlling every state’s Supreme Court means that any unpleasant awards on the district level can be reversed, and firms don’t even have to settle.  As shown here, they have the money and the time to appeal.

Points to note:  Money is the crucible under which these legal issues are decided.  The defendants push the small-town opposing lawyers into bankruptcy. They funnel millions of dollars in secret and openly into the campaign of their patsy, Ron Fisk.  The holding company of Krane Chemical manipulates its stock price so as to enrich the largest shareholder.  High-end lawyers, consultants, managers and techies are hired to blanket southern Mississippi with fliers, TV ads, e-mails and lies.  They push culture war ‘ho-ha’ about gun rights, gay marriage, crime and religion, which are merely window-dressing to limit or eliminate liability for corporations in the state.  Sorta of a ‘What’s The Matter With Kansas,” the realistic fictional version.   Christian fundamentalist ministers, white and black, provide troops and money for the corporations.  Decoy candidates are paid to run and then drop out.  Fake false-flag attempts at gay marriage in deeply conservative Mississippi are instituted.  Lies are broadcast.  Omissions are made.  Fraud in black neighborhoods is set up. Senators are bought on retainer.  I.E. normal capitalist ‘democratic’ methods.

If you look at what is happening to societies with formal 'democratic' voting procedures, they can manipulate bourgeois laws to the point where they can create a permanent authoritarian government.  See Poland, Hungary, Turkey, Russia as examples - now the U.S.  No need to resort to outright fascism ... you use your police and soldiers to maintain order.  The hysteria by Clintonite and Obama liberals about Trump's 'fascism' hides the fact that authoritarianism is built into capitalist legal and governmental structures.   Their middle-class analysis is ahistorical, clueless about class struggle and the material roots of fascism.  Will the capitalists ultimately need actual fascism if a real mass working class resistance occurs in the U.S.?  History will decide that, but the logic is yes.

Grisham’s heroes fighting this setup are the usual small-town lawyers fighting for the ‘little guy.’  Their back-up are the somewhat deep pockets of the trial lawyer associations.   Yet after finishing the book, you will understand that even these legal heroes are insufficient to fight the rising and open dictatorship of capital.  In a way, Grisham undermines his own liberal politics by showing how this whole charade functions. Clearly, more than lawsuits and heroic lawyers are needed.  If you don’t think so, you are lying to yourself.

Other reviews of books on capitalist law or by Grisham:  “With Liberty & Justice for Some,” “Legal Logic,” “The Divide,” “Gray Mountain,” “Eric Holder,” “99 Homes,” “Sycamore Row,” "Dispatch from the American South" and “A Time to Kill.”  Use blog search box, upper left.

And I bought at Chapman Streets Books, Ely MN

Red Frog

July 1, 2018

Friday, June 29, 2018

Lapland Lives

"Sami Blood," film by Amanda Kernell, 2016

This film confirms that nearly every indigenous people in the world is or was the victim of extreme oppression by colonialism or white supremacism. Even in the Nordic countries, which had fascist or extreme conservative governments until the socialist labor movements defeated them.  The Sami are indigenous reindeer herders who inhabit northern Norway, Sweden and Finland.  “Lapland” as they used to say.  This film, set in the 1930s in northern Sweden, shows their children being removed from their parents, forbidden the use of the Sami tongue, inculcated in Christianity and abused by Swedes.  Sound familiar?  It is the same thing that happened to native Americans, Australian aborigines, Brazilian forest people and African tribal children.
Not Intimidated...

Elle-Marja is a 14 year old headstrong Sami girl who sees where her life is heading and makes a break for urban Swedish society.  Among other things, a group of ‘racial’ scientists come to the school, maker her stand naked in public and measure her skull.  After having her ear notched like a reindeer by some cruel Swedish boys, she runs away from her sister Njenna and her school, heading to the town of Uppsala, Sweden.  Key to her transformation is losing the traditional embroidered dress she is made to wear at home and school.  In disguise, she borrows, then steals a more modern Swedish dress for a dance, then a frock on a train.  She changes her name to Christina to fit in – choosing such a name is not an accident.

In Uppsala everything is strange to Elle-Marja's rural ways.  She tries to move in with a young rich boy she met at a party, even offering to be the family’s servant.  When his parents say no, she enrolls in a dance school she cannot afford, doing gymnastics she has never done.  To get money for the school, she returns home and tries to slaughter the reindeer that were given to her.  Her mother gives her a silver buckled belt owned by her father, then turns her back on her.  She never sees her sister, mother or village again.

These scenes are all set in flashbacks she remembers as an old white-haired lady returning north for the funeral of her dead sister.  Estranged from her relatives and the Sami of the village, at the end she regrets cutting ties with her family, especially her younger sister, and leaving the rural life she could have led.

A quiet, visual film, political without meaning to be so.
Other reviews on Nordic topics:  "Viking Economics," "Lenin in Helsinki,"  "Redbreast," "Age of the Vikings" and "The Vikings."

Red Frog

June 29, 2018

Monday, June 25, 2018

The 2nd Red Century?

“The 1st Red Century,” Jacobin, No. 27, Fall 2017

I’m really done reading about the Russian Revolution, but I figured I’d wade through Jacobin’s issue on that subject, with some pithy comments.

This issue is like a children’s pop-up book, with small tear-out sections and a big poster-sized insert.  I figured there might be a pop-up of the Winter Palace or a button that would play The International, but no deal.  Sure looks like it cost a lot though.  Making reading fun!

The whole thing reads like a statement of left-social-democratic intent, with some nostalgia for Soviet films, the hammer and sickle iconography, ‘where are they now’ details on former ‘socialist’ countries and stuff about statues of good ‘ol dead Lenin. Their somewhat open intent here is to fight the ‘ultra-left,’ though it is not clear who they are talking about.
A Movie Retrospective

In order:  Chibber

The poster is written by Vivek Chibber.  Chibber is a professor of sociology at NYU. He mentions that the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party and after that, the Bolsheviks, were not a monolithic party but had space for disagreements and discussion.   Even while underground.  Unlike the military idea of ‘Leninism’ now embraced by various small left organizations.  Or in present so-called ‘socialist’ states. Not news.

Chibber thinks that the middle-class people he is explicitly talking to, who fill the ranks of non-profits, campus organizations, book clubs and study groups, should turn to the working class.  Odd because this is the oldest point in socialist politics and something ‘hard’ left organizations have understood for years.  See for instance the Worker-Student Alliance circa the late 1960s and the practice of ‘colonization.’  Hey, he could have asked any geezer Marxist about this.  As he humorously points out, instead these groups yap about ‘language, individual identity, body language, consumption habits and the like.”  Well, yeah.  They are sometimes the same people who are unable to chair a book club or a Jacobin discussion group.

Chibber advocates “non-reformist’ reforms or ‘revolutionary reforms.’  Evidently he has never heard of the Transitional Program, which was developed in the 1920s.

At the end, Chibber advocates market socialism, an end to central planning, (‘Marx was wrong…’) a pluralistic, multiparty order (including bourgeois parties) with a significant role for the market.  China is a market-socialist economy, so I wonder what he thinks of them. Oh, wait, I know.  The Nordic social-democracies are his immediate goal and yes, we’d all rather live in Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Canada or damn, New Zealand, Australia, France and even Germany than the U.S.  But can the imperialist beast become a social-democratic cuddle-town?  Or is world capital structured in such a way that someone has to keep order…?  I think you know the answer.

Evidently he has not read enough about the decay of the USSR and other countries to know their version of ‘central planning’ was undermined by each factory or sector’s ultimately following their own plans. To boot, the defense industry distorted the whole economy, at almost 85% in the USSR.  A bad plan. They also mandated the economies of their central European allies.  And yes, the Party did not pay attention to ‘market’ intelligence at all.  But even so, the USSR lasted 70 years…so it had ‘an empirical foundation.’


Next up is the tiny tear-away section, written by a former loyal CPer from the USSR who as a Soviet academic had run-ins with various bureaucrats, and is now an academic in the U.S.  Georgi Derluguian shows how the ‘expert’ bureaucrats actually had very little clue about some issues, and certainly Marxism was farthest from their minds.  Funny stuff, but…why?

Kilpatrick / Usmani

Yes, the ‘hammer and sickle’ is an outdated symbol for most.  But you must remember, the East Germans had a ‘hammer and protractor’ which seems a bit more up-to-date.  Perhaps now we need a battery-run electric drill crossed with a computer mouse as our symbol.  The Drill and the Mouse!   And yes, the Russian Revolution happened in conditions that will rarely be repeated – certainly not in the U.S. or Europe.  A weak bourgeoisie, a massive peasantry, a cruel war killing millions of citizens, a corrupt royal family.  Nope.  Even leftist hardliners know that.  Though in a few countries this is still relevant…


Next up is the Jacobin heavy editor, Bhaskar Sunkara.  He writes a mostly accurate description of the Russian revolution, which was actually not ‘two’ revolutions, but one that lasted from February to October 1917.  He correctly sees the problems of running factories through the party alone, or through unions.  He knows that the other Russian left organizations ran from power and abandoned the Soviets.  And unlike Chibber, he indicates that state planning actually revived the economy.  Though only good for poorer countries as an initial phase, as a later graphic tries to attest.  We may want to ask the Chinese about this also…

A sad section on Michael Gorbachev, the man who helped bring down the USSR because he had nothing to replace it with.  Capital loves a vacuum.


Daniel Finn writes about the role of the USSR in various national liberation struggles after World War II, starting with Spain prior to the war.  Except for Spain, the Soviet role was useful in overturning South African apartheid, backing up Vietnam and North Korea in not being overrun by the U.S., helping Cuba survive and aiding national liberation movements all over Africa and in the Middle East, even in Central America.  Sorry but the truth will out.  The U.S. was on the wrong side of every one of these issues. But then this was when the USSR wasn’t advocating popular fronts that defanged revolutionary movements elsewhere.  They had twisted ‘internationalism’ to mean anything that the Soviet bureaucracy wanted.  Cuba, China, Vietnam and Yugoslavia were not their doing.  A mixed record, but better than post-1949 China, which practiced virtual isolation.

No more.  Now we have ‘humanitarian’ regime change sponsored by the sole world power, the U.S.  Pick your bloodbath.  Pick your failed state.  Pick your refugees.


Megan Erickson writes about revolutionary educational practices in the early USSR, which were years ahead of anything being done now, sort of like what Finland does now.  Though that is unfair.  In the U.S. present education from top to bottom is back-peddling into a dystopia run by corporate needs…sponsored by Apple, Microsoft, Democrats and Republicans. Oh, and big Pharma, Big Ag and the defense industry.  So it is too easy to make fun of…


This Jacobin includes an odd article by Seth Ackerman on how Henry Wallace ran on a 3rd Party ticket in 1948, in a campaign basically run by the Communist Party.  A campaign that included the worst of CP propaganda skills, essentially dooming Wallace.  But it does include a great quote from Engels making fun of ‘Americans’ – “The tenacity of the Yankees…is a result of their theoretical backwardness and the Anglo-Saxon contempt for all theory.  They are punished for this by a superstitious belief in every philosophical and economic absurdity, by religious sectarianism and by idiotic economic experiments.”  Not sure what this has to do with Henry Wallace, but it is still funny.  But hey, can we kick Henry Wallace some more?  And didn’t the social-democrats support Truman?

A good commentary on how present ‘anti-communist’ campaigns in Ukraine, Poland, Hungary and Lithuania are combined with pro-fascist campaigns in those same countries – which makes you wonder who is behind them?  Wait, we know. Actually timely!

A list of mostly former Soviet ‘Communist’ bureaucrats who became multi-millionaires and billionaires because of their seizure of Soviet common property.  More evidence that nomenklatura apparatchiks became the core of a new capitalist class.

And lastly, former Maoists in the Communist Party (ML) (former October League), now capitalist entrepreneurs, who enthusiastically embraced Pol Pot.  Jokes on them!  Clever propaganda by left social-democrats.  Easy targets, that…


The tendency that Jacobin supports, the Democratic Socialists of America, is growing exponentionally.  That is due to the Sander’s campaign and the election of Trump.  Many are joining because of its size, as it is now the biggest organization on the 'left.'  It might play the same role that SDS did in the 1960s, which is to say it is attracting people from various tendencies.  However, the plan by “Our Revolution” and some elements of DSA to ‘take over’ or ‘move to the left’ the Democratic Party is faltering heavily.  The recent resignation of Keith Ellison from Congress bodes ill for that old, tired strategy.  He has just lost a lot of clout.  He was the Sanders-supporter and honorary ‘co-chair’ of the Party.  He has chosen to run for Minnesota state attorney general and bring lawsuits, instead of the political strategy of Our Revolution – to chip away at the Party internally.  The Democratic Party establishment has stymied somewhat leftish candidates at every turn, as a recent “This American Life” with Ira Glass recently exposed in a Congressional district in New York involving Sandersite Jeff Beals.  Or attempt to lie about their positions to siphon off votes in primaries, as the Intercept has reported.  Bye, Keith.  Perhaps now he doesn’t have to be the token Muslim to run interference for Israel.

And I bought it at May Day Books, which carries many left newspapers and magazines – even left-liberal ones!

See below for other reviews of Jacobin.  And many commentaries on the Russian Revolution and associated issues…

C:  The victory of a female Latino DSA member in a Democratic Party primary in New York against a mainstream Democrat, especially over the issue of abolishing ICE, has put wind in DSA's sails.  She had no bourgeois support. This after a number of defeats for the 'progressive' wing of the Democratic Party.  However, this is something the central party will no doubt combat, in a position of non-support and isolation if she wins the general...  which she probably will.  Anyway, a good indication that people have had it with neo-liberalism.

Red Frog

June 25, 2018

Friday, June 22, 2018

Summer Desert Read

“Hayduke Lives!” by Edward Abbey, 1990

This fiction book is the sequel to the “Monkey Wrench Gang,” Abbey’s classic manifesto of sabotage in the interests of Mother Earth.  Specifically, the area in the U.S. southwest around the Grand Canyon in Utah and south into Arizona.   Abbey was a park ranger on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon for years and had plenty of solitude in which to write.  In the book he uses his deep knowledge of the locale to describe the plants, animals and rock formations of that area.  Sitting in his ranger shelter or on a rock ledge he could imagine the comedic conflict between the U.S. government, local developers, mining companies and corrupt politicians on one side and a gaggle of courageous Earth Firsters! on the other.  No corporate media or Big Green organizations need apply.
No Bombs Needed

His quartet of hard-core troublemakers – Seldom Seen Smith, Doc Sarvis, Bonnie Abzzug and George Hayduke himself – get back on the sabotage trail against the hulking 7-story, 22 million pound earth mover called Super-GEM, a GOLIATH - part of a mining effort near the Grand Canyon in Arizona.  This surreal moloch monster is being used to construct a massive ore mine for nuclear materials.  Of course it takes until the end of the book for the ultimate conflict to occur, which gives plenty of time for making fun of the capitalist U.S. and its love of false ‘development’ – although Abbey never calls it that.  A vague ‘industrialism’ seems to be his target, but the dangerous and warlike nuclear industry seems to be the immediate issue.  A stupid Mormon politician and businessman, Bishop Love, eats radioactive ore just to prove it is safe, and this moronic (The Angel Moroni!) Bishop Love provides the human ‘target.'

The ideology of the book is deep ecology anarchism, even while the protagonists drive cars, drink corporate beer, eat meat and live in ranch houses.  What they really object to is the destruction of a fragile desert nature by industrial methods – dams, roads, mines and developments like hotels and golf courses.  Once destroyed, never recovered…

The book reflects a somewhat innocent political situation prior to the present application of ‘terrorism’ statutes against water protectors or earth protectors or animal protectors in the U.S.   Now the full weight of the capitalist military and police comes down on the heads of people trying to protect the planet or animals, not a ludicrous bunch of inept establishment clowns as portrayed here.  Bloodthirsty and/or foolish federal, state and private agents all attempt to protect the massive Super-GEM earthmover in the interests of the Syn-Fuel corporation.  A familiar story…still ongoing.

Abbey’s obsession with a Ericka, a Swedish Earth Firster’s ‘upthrust breasts’ and his continual ridicule of lesbians hints at a somewhat archaic approach to sexual issues.  Basically some horny and lonely park ranger’s wonderings...  River guide Seldom Seen is a practicing polygamist Mormon, a church which comes in for a mountain of ridicule.  Yet Seldom never misses a chance to couple with others, so the men become ridiculous lechers too.

Earth First!, Abbey's favored organization, is now a shadow of its former self.  For those you cannot defeat, ridicule serves as a second tactic.  It seems to be the secret of this book.  Triumphant fictional victories over Moloch are a form of ‘eco’ fantasy that only exist in more mundane ways in the real world.  However, given the many oil pipelines being driven through various places, like west Canada (Trans Mountain), northern Minnesota (Enbridge 3) and through Texas (Trans Pecos), this is no laughing matter.  Abbey would agree, as his humorous book dedication attests.  The issue now extends far beyond the destruction of the immediate environment and goes into the warming of the whole planet.  Earth First! relied on secretive sabotage or small civil disobedience protests, when what is needed is a mass movement and a real eco-socialist mass opposition party to put muscle into the fight.  Certainly the dismal Democrats are not a real opposition.  We saw a taste of a mass opposition in the "NoDAPL" fight at Standing Rock.  I.E. bring in the heavy battalions, not just the skirmishers.

Prior books by Edward Abbey reviewed below:  “Monkey Wrench Gang” and “Good News.”  Also similar issues: “Tar Sands,” “Sulfuric Acid & the Boundary Waters,” “The Party’s Over,” “The Race For What’s Left,” “Capitalism Vs. The Climate.”

And I got it at May Day Books! (Which also has “The Monkey Wrench Gang.”)

Red Frog

June 22, 2018

Happy Solstice!  Enjoy the fading light…

Saturday, June 16, 2018

Religious Frenzy

“Go Tell It On The Mountain,” by James Baldwin, 1952

For an atheist, no matter the author, this is a hard book to read, ‘classic’ or not.  This is about a group of black fundamentalist Christians, centered around one family from the U.S. South who move to New York.  They strongly believe in heaven and hell, Satan and God, being ‘saved,’ prayer, physical abuse and bad marriages.  They hate sex, masturbation, homosexuality, children born out of wedlock, the non-religious, the blues, movies, drinking and other ‘sins’ too numerous to name.  As one character remarks later, their ideas make religious people miserable, but in a different way.

If You Want to Climb That Mountain...

The fiction book is written in a feverish tone, where simple naturalism is invaded by multiple psychological fantasias of fear and loathing.  The young boy in the book, his foster father and his real mother track their internal frenzies of evil and salvation – in page after page after page.  This gets hard to read because their emotions become disconnected from anything but biblical verbiage, like bad dreams doled out by a Christian drunk.

The book ends during a Saturday night revival service attended by only a few faithful at a store-front church in Harlem.  The revival lasts until dawn. The young boy John, who is 14, hates his abusive foster-father, the holy-roller pastor of the church.  The pastor, Gabriel, dislikes this foster son, as John is not his actual genetic child.  Gabriel’s own son Roy has just denounced him earlier in the evening, so it’s not going well for Gabriel.  His sister Florence also dislikes him over the years for his censorious ways.  But he is God’s mouthpiece, so…they have all congregated in the church, along with a few other hard-core Pentecostals.  And there, John gets ‘saved’ - even though he might be gay.  He almost is forced into it, as the son of a preacher-man.  The ‘salvation’ is tentative at best.

But sometimes the people who rage against sin are the biggest sinners.  That post-frenzy dawn, Florence produces a letter from Gabriel’s dead first wife Deborah that she’d been holding onto for 30 years. It describes events earlier in the novel.  The letter indicates that Gabriel had a ‘love’ child with another woman while dutifully married to Deborah, and while working as a pastor.  Subsequently shunned by Gabriel, this irreligious woman went off to Chicago to have the baby and died in childbirth.  But the child survived.  After that, Gabriel had nothing to do with his son, even when the boy lived with his mother’s relatives in the same southern town as Gabriel did.  He kept it a secret but his wife figured it out quickly.

Standing behind this pressure cooker of religion is the oppression of black people.  In the background, white thugs kill uppity Negroes at will in the southern town, while racist store-owners and cops in New York accuse any black person of a crime. The ‘demons’ of poverty, crime, drink, drugs and sex lure those who fall off the ‘straight and narrow.’ Marx called religion ‘the opium of the people’ and indeed it functions that way for many today, no matter their ethnicity.  But not all, as the continuing split in the black community between the bible-thumpers and the more secular is made evident in the book.  This has not changed.

The black church is a refuge, but also a jail.  It has a liberal wing and also a very conservative wing. This book reflects the latter.  It was Baldwin’s first novel, and it reflects his heavy immersion in fundamentalist Christianity as a young man, and his beginning rejection of it.

Most black socialists and radicals do not trust the church, as it many times either collaborates with a wing of the ruling class or holds back struggle within the black community.  It refuses to recognize the class structure among black people themselves. It doesn’t look at the world scientifically, but instead looks at it from a moralistic point of view.  They feel that "bearing witness" is insufficient.  MLK represented the best of the black Christian church.  Jesse Jackson, John Lewis and others from King’s circle of preachers have tried to follow in his footsteps.  His present attempted successor is Reverend William Barber, leader of Moral Mondays and the Poor Peoples Campaign II.  But not all black preachers are of this liberal type, even today.  There is still a large, crazed wing that is similar to other Christian fundamentalists in this country.  They are reflected in this book.

Other reviews re James Baldwin:   "I Am Not Your Negro" and "Finks."

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

Red Frog

June 16, 2018