Saturday, March 6, 2021

College Library Browsing #2

 “Marxist Criticism of the Bible,” by Roland Boer, 2003

(This is the second in a series of 4 looking at purely academic books, as I’ve run out of books by public intellectuals or left authors.) 

This book is not so much an atheist take-down as a historical materialist analysis of the real roots of the Bible.  Boer focuses on ‘mode of production,’ which is key in understanding the Bible and how and why it was written.  He also uses the methods of a number of more modern Marxist thinkers – Althusser, Gramsci, Eagleton, Lefebrvre, Lukacs, Bloch, Adorno, Jameson and Benjamin – to penetrate various ‘books’ of the Bible. 

This is a book for specialists or those deeply knowledgeable of the Bible itself. I am only concerned with one ‘book’ – “The Book of Daniel” – otherwise known as Revelations.  It ends the ‘new’ Testament, a part of the Bible seen by liberal regligionists as less cruel, less misogynist, less bloodthirsty, less weird and less backward than the ‘old’ Testament. Yet it is what you might call the bloodiest book of all.  I’d call it a pretty incredible revenge fantasy.  Holy shit!

Revelations concerns the apocalypse or ‘Armaged’don’, which in Greek, (apokálypsis) is the ‘unveiling,’ ‘uncovering’ or revelation of what is to come when Christ returns.  This apocalypse is supposed to be a positive thing.  But it involves the ‘whore of Babylon,’ the 4 Horsemen – power, war, famine and death; a Beast, dragons, locusts, the Mark of the Devil – 666, stars falling to earth, the moon turning blood red, poisoned waters and islands flying away.  Then there are the 7 plagues – 1. sores on human bodies, 2. the death of everything in the sea, 3. river waters all turning into blood, 4. a scorching sun, 5. endless darkness, 6. a drying-up of the Euphrates 7. a massive earthquake and hailstones.  Then there is “blood as high as a horse’s bridle,” a third of mankind dead and Christ and angels with sickles hacking humans down.  This evidently leaves 144, 000 chosen ones from the ‘tribes of Israel’, which must be where the Witnesses got their membership limitation.

Boer looks at this creepy fever-dream through the lens of Walter Benjamin, an atheist who thought that Biblical language is some kind of ‘basic’ return to the roots of language, to the original ‘naming’ of things in the misty past.  Boer doesn’t think so.  He understands Revelations to be a ‘closed system’ of allegorical thought, dominated by the sacred Yahweh (God).  Revelations itself combines myth and historical names without any real ability to parse one from another.  In it a religious apocalypse is supposed to ‘end time.’  Revelations says “I am the First and the Last … the Alpha and Omega.” Marxists understand that, like Fukuyama’s failed ‘end of history,’ history and time actually never stop.    

Hieronymous Bosch?  The Bible's hell on 'earth'

Material Roots

Who is the all-encompassing Yahweh in this historical world?  Boer likens him to the ruling despot of Marx’s ‘Asiatic mode of production,’ dominating an empire through cruel military force, with ‘the sacred’ as the overwhelming cultural power binding his empire together.  The ‘Asiatic’ form of production involved tribute paid by vassal states, and tribute (somewhat like taxes…) paid by peasants and a few traders to those vassals in exchange for some protection.  When an empire got too large, smaller kingdoms would revolt and break off, which accounts for the many conflicts mentioned in the Bible. Boer thinks Revelations might be written as ‘code’ by possible insurrectionists or rebels against an oppressive king or kingdom, using symbols and metaphors instead of naming names.  Their anger is wrought large in a violent and fantastic revenge parable of eventual triumph.  Sound familiar?

Mode of production is key to any understanding of society and even literary texts like the Bible, wrapped in Yahweh as it is.  It relates to how humans survived at that time in history – how they obtained food, clothing, shelter, protection, solidarity, children and family, etc.  Boer himself practices a text-dense look at the Bible and notes a huge gap – the frequently missing role of women and childbirth, which makes sense in a patriarchal society. 

Boer goes over other Marxists’ various versions of Marx and Engel’s “Asiatic” mode of production in the Bible and Palestine at the time.  Some think production was a combination of the ancient (slave) and Asiatic forms of production; some a patron/client system; others see early Palestine as a more collective ‘communitarian’ economy among ‘tributary’ states; others see it as Neolithic and ‘kinship’ based.  Obviously some have objections to the name, which is old-fashioned.  Boer himself looks at each ‘mode of production’ and sees smaller ‘regimes of production’ within it – derived from what academics weirdly call ‘regulation theory.”  Regulation theory involves “regimes of allocation or distribution” within a mode of production.  In the case of Biblical time the allocation or distribution is of male sons, of land, of tribute, of the war machine and lastly, corvee labor given to the rulers.  According to Boer these were the various bases for the Biblical economy, all dominated by Yahweh, by ‘the sacred’ as the dominant ideology.  After all, the temples also housed treasure.  They were the ‘banks’ for the ruling theocratic elite.

This is another academic book with limited use except to specialists, but which shows the breadth and depth of applying the historical materialist method to any text, even the Bible, in order to demystify and reveal.

 P.S. - The 'death' count in the Bible decreed by God was counted by Steve Wells.  He counted 2.82 million verified dead and estimated 24.99M estimated dead.  No king has ever killed that many.  Bloodiest work of fiction ever!

Other prior reviews on this subject, use blog search box, upper left:  “The Da Vinci Code’ (Brown); “God is Not Great” (Hitchens); “The Dark Side of Christian History,” “The Rise of the Nones,” “To Serve God and Wal-Mart,”  “Religulous” (Maher); “Go Tell it on the Mountain” (Baldwin); “The Jesus Comics,” “Jude the Obscure” (Hardy).

And I got it at the University of Georgia Library

The Cultural Marxist

March x, 2021                   

Wednesday, March 3, 2021

College Library Browsing #1

 “The Emotional Logic of Capitalism,” by Martijn Konings, 2015

(This is the first in a series of 4 looking at purely academic books, as I’ve run out of books by public intellectuals or left authors.) 

Quite an intriguing title.  But it should have been called “The Iconic Logic of Money” – as book titles are not always what they seem.  The first two-thirds of this overly academic book is a semiotic quote-party that argues against a ‘progressive’ yet elite approach to money by liberals, left-liberals and especially left economist Karl Polyani. Yet it wishes to not just be critical, but to go beyond criticism. It does not.  Konings essential point is that ‘money’ has two faces: one, the practical; two, the ‘iconic’ - emotional, religious and moralistic.    

The last third attempts to discuss the real world; and hopefully ‘show’ the other side of money.  His point is that you cannot just ‘denounce’ money, you have to understand its socio-political implications, as money is unavoidable.  Neo-liberalism celebrates money.  ‘Progressivism’ instead has an external, technocratic and paternalistic approach to money according to Konings.  He insists this was expressed in the New Deal – without noting that nearly all of the New Deal came from below, from social movements.  It was not just a technocratic capitalist fix.  Nor did it eventually succeed until the command economy of World War II.  Konings points to ‘revolving credit’ as the new lifeline thrown to workers by the banking industry in the 1950s, enabled by Keynesian progressives.  (What ‘progressive’ even means at this point is debatable – a word now stolen by the worst right-wing Democrats.)

"MONEY, MONEY, THAT'S WHAT I WANT"

Neo-liberalism (and capitalism) celebrates money.  While Koenigs does not say it clearly I imagine he’s talking about it’s ‘emotional value’ consisting of proof of strong character, of morality in paying your debts and close to a religion in the Protestant prosperity doctrine.  He's not talking about it as objectively necessary in a capitalist economy.  Konings, in his discussion of the individualist ‘self-help’ and ‘boot-strap’ movement, does a timid Zizek by mentioning Oprah and Dr. Phil as gurus of self-help.  He also mentions the Tea Party and monetarism, trying to juice up his point. 

Konings never succeeds.  He, like so many, orients to other academics, unlike public intellectuals who seek to have a more direct effect on society.  Except for one or two lines, he does not show how money has become more than just cash - which certainly would have been valuable.  Konings’ analysis of the Tea Party (and Trumpism by extension…) is that money is “redemptive” and relating to it and pursuing it shows “moral strength” and results in “spiritual salvation.” He comes out in support of a certain kind of ‘anti-economist’ Marxism as the solution to Polyani, (I love that dodge about ‘economism’…) but never illustrates it sociologically or shows how to combat a moralistic attitude towards making money.

Prosperity Gospel - "Good" moral people have money.

MONEY and the CLASS STRUGGLE

Marx saw money as an embodiment of labor, a commodity of a unique kind, a consequence of labor power (and natural) productivity, vitalizing the law of value.  Under capital money is mainly a medium of circulation, realizing prices in sales and purchases, in which use value turns into exchange value.  But it also becomes ‘fictitious’ when ‘money makes money+’ on stock markets due to financialization - leaving labor far behind. It has other roles too.

How much money there is left for laboring persons (wages, salaries) is the result of the class struggle between labor and capital in the settings of production.  The rub here is that ‘hard work’ or ‘smarts’ do not define the possession of money.  One look at the millionaires, billionaires, inheritances, bourgeois law and a capitalist government shows that. Small businessmen are at the heart of the Tea Party/ Republican Party/ Trumpist right and they wish to ALSO join the rich man’s club.  They dream of being the heroic entrepreneur who eventually can sit around his/her pool all day while his/her workers’ work - that is the real ‘American dream.’  But the overwhelming majority never establish a successful business – some 85% after 1.75 years according to the IRS.  ‘They’ are a target for Marxism and a programmatic strategy oriented towards the difficulties of small farmers and business people with the large capitalists.  But that would be something more than Konigs can offer.  Certainly the fascists are working that group right now from their own anti-communist perspective.   

SOCIOLOGY PLEASE?

Konings considers money to be ‘both’ utilitarian and iconic.  However its ‘iconic’ status, loaded with emotional meaning, would not exist without its utilitarian role.  If money became less and less important providing the essentials of life in a socialized society – health care, education, transport, housing, food, clothing, etc. – its emotional impact would also decrease.  This is just basic materialism.  A sociological look at money’s role in the workers’ states in the past or in current Cuba, Vietnam or the social-democratic Nordics might shed light on this issue.  I know in pre-1989 Hungary few had much money, so many worked more jobs.  But at the same time ‘class envy’ had almost disappeared and the pace of labor had become more relaxed. 

The problem for Marxists is that most people at present will not voluntarily disrupt their ‘money’ in order to overthrow the existing capitalist order. Workers and proletarians without much wealth can feel this way unless a somewhat solid alternative is beckoning.  This is the ‘secret’ ingredient of stasis, very incremental change and resistance to transitional, major changes.  Pragmatists, unlike revolutionaries, won’t abandon a boat unless it is sinking and there is a real boat coming into view.  Well, the first boat is slowly taking on water.  This understanding of a sinking boat has become generalized knowledge.  Major transitional change and even revolutionary change are not such 'silly' ideas anymore.

Prior blog reviews on this subject, use blog search box, upper left:  “Debt”(Graeber); “The Deficit Myth,” “How to Rob an Armored Car,” “Debt & Capital,” “House of Cards,” “The Big Short,” “Liar’s Poker” (all 3 by Lewis); “The Wolf of Wall Street”(Scorsese), “The Great Crash” (Galbraith).

And I got it at the University of Georgia library!

Red Frog

March 3, 2021

Saturday, February 27, 2021

Waiting for the Vaccine Connection

 CoVideo Nation - II

“The Assistant,– The best film on working as an executive assistant I’ve seen. (After all, how many are there? One?)  A young college grad gets a high-stress entry-level position at a film production firm in New York.  The film, covering one long day, goes into the many details of how she is ignored and dissed.  She works almost as a personal servant for the rest of the staff and her especially terrifying boss. I’ve done many of these things, so I know how true they are.

This is a reflection of the Harvey Weinstein sex abuse story, so the best scene is the stomach-churning visit to HR.  HR is not your friend, now a cliché for white collar workers but might be news to some. The lead actress also appeared in Ozark as Ruth.

“I Care A Lot,” – The best film on the corruption of the ‘guardianship’ business I’ve seen. (There are no others...)  Guardianship is a business in the U.S. While the film is over the top, it depicts a ruthless guardian intent on soaking her vulnerable elderly wards, then going toe-to-toe with a ruthless gangster who wants his mother back.  Ordinary people in a complex legal situation like guardianship will many times be snowed or not aware of what is really going on. This film works as a wake-up call or warning.   

Small scale capital and crime, hand in hand.  All it takes is a corrupt doctor, a money-grubbing guardian, a creepy nursing home and a compliant and clueless judge.  Not to mention bad law.  Sort of a modern version of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest or Cloud Atlas. It also takes a hard poke at neo-liberal GLBT / feminist ‘woman-power’ capitalism.

“Leah Remini:  Scientology and the Aftermath” – the best series on the Scientology cult...  Remini, an actress and former Scientologist, works with another former Scientologist, Mike Rinder.  They take the cult apart, episode by episode.  Full of tear-jerking personal stories about child and personal abuse, mind control, bizarre building programs, weird archives and very weird ideas, soaking members for money, locking miscreants up in their private prisons, legal abuse, it is an eye-opener – especially the episode about Scientology’s work with the Nation of Islam and Louis Farrakhan.

Worst of all is the seeming impunity of Scientology from the FBI, the IRS, local judges or police and sometimes the media.  They are either intimidated by Scientology's vicious legal and harassment approach or couldn’t care less.  The example of Clearwater, FL says it all, as Scientology took over the city's downtown. It is similar to recent documentaries on the Oregon Rajneeshis or the Bikram “Hot Yoga” guru.

“John Oliver – Meatpacking, – Research like this by Oliver’s crew is one reason he stands head and shoulders above neo-liberal libertarian comics like Bill Maher.  In it he goes into great detail on the treatment of poultry, pork and cattle workers in slaughter-houses.  He discusses how the big producers like Tyson ignored CoVid, so thousands were infected and dozens died.  He looks into the weakening of OSHA standards by the industry; the ridiculous small fines levied by the government; the hiding of injuries at the plants; the vicious line speeds.

Most of these workers are immigrants, former prisoners and vulnerable minorities unable to protest – without unions or decent pay.  Like a modern day Jungle, this story has been done before. It seems with the recent approval of the nasty corporatist Tom Vilsack as Ag Secretary, nothing changes.  No wonder rural areas are in such a mess, dominated by corrupt corporations, and hand in hand with both parties.

United States vs. Billie Holiday” – a story of the harassment of Billie Holiday by the FBI and Frank Anslinger, the originator of the U.S. drug war.  The FBI wanted to stop her singing the anti-lynching song “Strange Fruit” and so decided to harass and jail her for heroin use.  Anslinger originally pitched the drug war as a racist and later political project and this film shows how that worked out in her case.

The wandering, overly-long film looks at Holiday’s history of physical abuse, drug use, tours and concerts with musicians like Lester Young and individual fights against racism, in the context of a fake romance with an FBI agent(!)  The loss of her cabaret performer’s license, prompted by the FBI, led to a long decline and her death from alcoholism and heart disease. The FBI attempted to arrest her even on her death bed.   

“Judas and the Black Messiah” – I haven’t watched it.  Both Louis Proyect at Counterpunch and Akin Ollah at the Guardian point to different significant flaws in the film, even while it pinions the FBI and Hoover as murderers.  The FBI have always been a 'political police' and they still are.  Hampton, like many before him, is being sanitized by the controllers of culture.  One point made in the reviews is the weakness of the Panthers’ adventurism and distance from organized workers; and two, it leaves out their tough anti-capitalist Maoist politics.  The sanitation squad is at work still.

Counterpunch on J&tBM  Guardian on J&tBM

Epilog:  Have you noticed how many movies about slavery, Jim Crow and now black radicalism have popped up in the last few years?  Unfortunately most of the films have a 'liberal' slant that guts them, fitting them neatly into a liberal schema.  Also, why are so many lead 'black' actors in these films Afro-Caribbean or British?  Fred Hampton?  MLK?  We know the answer.  Then we might wonder why Latinx people are still invisible in Hollywood.  And don't get me started about invisible working class people, Nomadland nonwithstanding.

Prior blog reviews on these subjects, use blog search box, upper left:  White Knight, Mean Girl, The Handmaid’s Tale, Bullshit Jobs, Ideation, Missoula, The Jungle, Manny’s Steakhouse, Vegan Freak, Archaic Thanksgiving, The Emotional Lives of Animals, Black Panther, FBI Secrets, Lost Connections or words like Malcolm X, MLK, Kennedy.

The Cultural Marxist

February 26, 2021

 

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Treading a Fine Line

 “History and Class ConsciousnessStudies in Marxist Dialectics” by Georg Lukács. 1971 English translation with a 1967 preface by the author

This is a ‘non-review.’  Sometimes you come across a book that is partly or mostly impenetrable.  One great thing about Marxism is that it brings ‘philosophy’ down to earth, demolishing various intellectual ‘castles in the air’ constructed of words and not much else.  Lukács, especially in a long, central essay here called “Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat,” shows his mastery of bourgeois philosophers like Kant, Hegel, Fichte, Spinoza, etc.  For the life of me I can barely follow this essay.  I do not have a deep background in Kant or Hegel because I never thought it useful.  I've forgotten what I knew about their terminology.  I am unworthy!  Others I’ve talked to in the Marxist Discussion Group on FB have had much the same experience. 

These essays were written between 1918 and 1922. Lukács was the People’s Commissar for Culture and Education in the Hungarian Council Republic of 1919.  After the Horthyite counter-revolution succeeded, he fled to Vienna.  In the 1930s while visiting the USSR for a second time, he was sent into internal exile by Stalin.  Bela Kun, the leader of the Hungarian Council Republic, was executed for ‘Trotskyism,’ along with many other Hungarian émigrés.  Kun was a follower of Zinoviev according to Lukács.  He had differences with Kun which is perhaps why he survived.

Soviet troops occupied Budapest in 1945 after crushing the Nazis and Arrow Cross and Lukács returned to Hungary.  In 1955 he was appointed head of the Hungarian Writers Union and in 1956 he became a minister in Imre Nagy’s socialist but anti-USSR government.  When that was overthrown by Warsaw Block tanks he was deported to Romania by the Hungarian Socialist Workers Party. He later returned to Budapest and became a somewhat loyal member of the Party until his death in 1971.  At the same time, he knew Stalin was ‘not a Marxist.’ “The bureaucracy generated by Stalinism is a tremendous evil” he said. Yet he adopted some of the language of that strata, perhaps to stay unmolested or perhaps because he believed it.  I've been told the Party could not get rid of him because he knew more Marxism than they did.  Lukács actual record vacillates with the pressure of events as he walked a fine line. 

Lukács was one of the most prominent intellectuals in Hungary and a leading philosophy professor.  His apartment and extensive archive in an apartment block on the banks of the Danube was closed by the Viktor Orban government and the manuscripts ‘taken.’  Orban was one of the student leaders of the Hungarian counter-revolution in ‘89, shouting about ‘freedom.’  Since his election Orban has imposed an authoritarian capitalist regime in Hungary - virulently anti-communist, nationalist, Catholic and money-grubbing.

Republic of Councils in Hungary - 1919

The book has a long 1967 preface written by Lukács which makes self-critical apologies while also illuminating his relations with various other Marxists.  Lukács apologizes for ‘messianic utopianism;’ an ‘abstract and idealist conception of praxis;’ ‘overriding the priority of economics’ and says that ‘those parts of the book that I regard as theoretically false…have been most influential.” This was not his first self-criticism by the way.  He says the essays are “his road to Marx,” as prior to this he was a neo-Kantian and then an existentialist.

This explains why the book is mostly a Marxist argument against idealist philosophy, as well as against reformism.  Parts of his works were criticized by Lenin and Zinoviev in the 1920s.  As a literary theorist, his later work supported Dickens, Balzac, Tolstoy, Walter Scott and ‘realist’ bourgeois literature against modernism like Joyce, Beckett, Kafka, etc. This led to his support of socialist realism – that and pressure from the Party, that is.

Here are my gleanings of relevant points made in the book:

1.     Marxism and the proletariat take up society as a totality, while bourgeois thought cannot and will not do that.

2.     Facts are important, but processes / tendencies are key.  Until facts synthesize into a pattern, they remain isolated.

3.     Labor is a decisive economic force, so when labor is ready to take power, it is unnecessary to wait for the ‘development of the productive forces’ as claimed by what Lukács calls ‘vulgar Marxists.’

4.     Violence is inevitable in the change from capital to socialization, just as it was in the change from feudal relations to capital relations.  I.E. ‘the state’ is not something to take over, but to overcome.

5.     Reification’ is his word for alienation.  He was one of the first to concentrate on alienation.

6.     He argues against both the ‘romanticism of illegality’ and the ‘cretinism of legality.’

7.     He supports and criticizes various positions by Luxemburg.  He was against her very odd support for a Russian “Constituent Assembly’ over and against soviets.  He also polemicizes against her opposition to the role of a party or ‘organization.’ At the same time he praises her for her analysis of imperialism and the limitations of capital accumulation. 

8.     The ‘peasant question’ bedeviled the first Hungarian Council Republic and also Luxemburg – both basically didn’t know how to handle the revolution in the countryside.

9.     Orthodox Marxism is a method, not a ‘belief.’ Defeats are preludes to victory.

10.  In pre-capitalist societies of castes and estates … economic elements are inextricably joined to political and religious factors.”

11.   “Status consciousness … masks class consciousness.”

12.   “One of the elementary rules of class warfare was to advance beyond what was immediately given.”

13.   “Every proletarian revolution has created workers’ councils.”

14.   “The factory…contained in concentrated form the whole structure of capitalist society.”

15.   He even makes fun of journalists’ ‘lack of convictions.’

16.  Unsold overstock hides in every store and is an example of overproduction. (Check the stores you visit.)

17. “Organization is the mediation between theory and practice.”

18.   He indicates that loose opportunist organizations with hardened leadership groups will downgrade theory because they tail the masses.  On the other hand, he thinks sectarianism arises when the views of even the most backward workers are not taken into account.

Lukács discusses dialectics and historical materialism, Luxemburg and Leninism, philosophy and party organization in these essays.  Much of it is a familiar polemic against enemies of revolution and Bolshevism, and as such a bit dated.  He makes almost no open comment on the events of the Hungarian Council Republic, which is quite odd given his experience and theoretical grasp.  He opposed the concept of ‘human nature,’ unlike Marx and Engels, seeing human nature as purely a social product.  His focus on alienation and culture became important for later ‘western’ Marxists. 

Other prior blog reviews on this subject, use blog search box, upper left:  “All Power to the Councils,” “The Marxist Theory of Art,” “The Structural Crisis of Capital”(Mezaros); “Marx and Human Nature,” “The Ghost of Stalin”(Sartre) or the word Hungary.” 

And I bought it at May Day’s excellent used/cutout section!

Red Frog

February 24, 2021 

Friday, February 19, 2021

Don't Tie Me Down, Don't Fence Me In

 “Nomadland,” the film, directed by Chloe Zhao, 2021

Based on the book of the same name written by Jessica Bruder (reviewed below) Nomadland tries to present a picture of proletarian reality.  These are the modern railroad tramps and hoboes of the U.S. 1930s, but now converted to living in vans, RVs and tents.  It is about workers who live by temporary jobs and small social security checks, no longer able to afford a fixed abode.  They are mostly light-skinned people, “the unbearable whiteness of vanning,” many of whom play themselves in the film.  It functions like a slow-moving documentary. This film is unable to hide class issues … but it tries.

The lead character Fern, played by Frances McDormand (who also initiated and produced the film), loses her job in a gypsum plant in Nevada.  She retrofits a beat-up old white van and travels across the country to work at an Amazon warehouse as a Xmas Workamper; a store selling rocks in Quartzite Arizona; a Park District RV lot in the Badlands; a kitchen at Wall Drug and a sugar beet harvest in Nebraska - really on the Red River in North Dakota or Minnesota.  The story never reaches the class-struggle level of Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath” because it only dwells on ‘the road.’   Only once does the cantankerous Fern get into an argument with a relative and his friend in real estate, who claim housing prices 'only go up.'  The book Nomadland was written in 2017, long after the 2008 housing crash, giving the lie to that. 

Instead it is a very slow paen to wanderlust, an elegy to nature.  Burbling books, fallen redwoods, nesting swallows, mountains, desert, roaring surf, buffalo and the dramatic rocky Badlands punctuate. “Don’t fence me in” might as well be the slogan.  Gentrification can arrive even on this road ... the commodification of the 'lifestyle' approaches in $100K RVs, shown once during the film.  The film will encourage the attack of the tricked-out camper vans.  

Fern, the lead character, is a loner who mourns her dead husband for the whole film, no doubt suffering from depression.  It touches on some of the problems of van life – flat tires, repair costs, stealth parking, shitting in buckets and the cold - but not more serious ones like health, food quality, ability to vote, getting mail, severe weather and isolation from family and others.  Some eventually leave the road.  Can you imagine camping for years on end? 

Its main focus is on the collective and positive lifestyle of elderly folks who have ‘rejected the system’ and not just been thrown out of it.  Even the word ‘nomad’ leans to the romantic.  There is hardly anyone who has not yearned to travel the byways of the U.S. and discover the country.  In a way the film transforms van life into a new and 'natural' capitalist adventure.  In a weird way, it is a sequel to Kerouac's "On the Road."  Yet the jobs the nomads have to do are low-paying, hard or monotonous - a profitable adventure for those businesses who use them. 

Unlike the book (reviewed below) Fern is a somewhat made-up character, filling in for the younger journalist who wrote the much more interesting book.  We meet the real Bob Wells, leader of the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous and founder of CheapRVLiving, who teaches people how to survive on the road.  He is a good and kind example of mutual aid.  Unlike the book, Fern has a half-interest in a fellow nomad Dave.  He tries to get her to settle down with him after a classic Thanksgiving scene but she can’t.  For the most part the film has no narrative drive.  Fern repeats the cycle of jobs and ends up where she began, in the abandoned town of Empire, walking through the dusty remains of the USG gypsum plant and her own former house.  The ghost of dead capital inhabits them still.

This film is a mostly emotional version of the book and suffers from that. Its avoidance of a bigger picture assumes the viewer will fill in the blanks.  They will not always.  Poverty porn?  Perhaps, to some.  It is mostly humanitarian, showing the reality of working people handling whatever darkness capital throws at them with grace and strength, which at this point is a necessary cliche.  Whether 'endurance' is enough is a question which filmmakers have yet to answer.

P.S. - For those irritated by this review:  The director has said that the film was about compassion, memory and loss, which is even more distant than portraying it as a 'lifestyle' choice.  In a way, she chooses a 'universal' approach over the quite modern phenomenon of mobile mass penury. She has pointed out 'politically' that being forced to live in a van is unacceptable, but that was not the thrust of her film.

Other prior blog reviews on this subject, use blog search box, upper left:  “Nomadland,” “On the Clock,” “The Precariat,” “Love Your Job?” “Minneapolis 2040,” “Postcards From the End of America,” “Sutree,” “Tales of Two Cities.”

The Cultural Marxist

February 19, 2021              

Monday, February 15, 2021

Class - the Elephant in the Womb

 “Caste – the Origins of Our Discontents,” by Isabel Wilkerson, 2020

This book is a small step forward from the simple-minded analyses of ‘race’ carried out by U.S. liberals and conservatives, the media and educational institutions to this day.  Wilkerson realizes that ‘race’ is a reactionary social construct, not a biologic fact, citing scientists like Ashley Montagu in the 1950s.  Among humans, it does not exist, as we are 99.9% the same.  Yet everyone blathers on about race in the plural, inspired by government categories derived from Jim Crow. 

Wilkerson knows there is no such thing as ‘white’ or ‘black’ people, just various shades of melanin – of brown, beige and pink skin.  She knows that skin color and certain small physical markers are products of geography and nothing else.  She makes fun of the odd qualification of ‘Caucasian.’  What does exist is the politicization of these terms.  Wilkerson understands that there is a difference between active institutional racism and personal bigotry or prejudice.  She calls the former ‘caste.’

INDIA and the U.S.

Wilkerson’s touchstone on the subject of caste is the religious caste system in India, which MLK once visited to better understand Gandhi.  At one point, MLK was introduced in India as an American ‘untouchable,’ which surprised him but then made sense.  Wilkerson herself upholds Dalit ‘untouchable’ B.R. Ambedkar as the MLK of India.  Wilkerson does not note that Gandhi, a Hindu, was a supporter of the Indian caste system in his battles with Ambedkar.  Gandhi’s father was from the Modh Baniya caste – a merchant caste – and Gandhi became a lawyer.  Indian ‘castes’ themselves are buried in hundreds of years of Hindu varna hierarchies, originating out of slave and medieval economies, not capitalism.   

Wilkerson considers India, the brief existence of fascist Nazi Germany and the U.S. to be the only sources of a ‘caste’ understanding.  All three examples actually come from different sources and economies.  She ignores apartheid South Africa, the treatment of indigenous Latin Americans, Palestine since 1947 and the existence of mistreated color, ethnic or religious strata all over the world.  Wilkerson is casual in her approach, relying on anecdotes and psychology, not statistics or social science.  The style is stories and journalism, not sociology. She does mention earlier works written in the 1930s:  “Deep South: A Social Anthropological Study of Caste and Class” and “Caste and Class in a Southern Town.”  But notice their titles as opposed to hers.  One of the authors of the first treatise, Allison Davis, was probably a Marxist who criticized the black bourgeoisie in a famous 1929 essay, “The Negro Deserts His People.” A favorite of liberals and Wilkerson, W.E.B. Du Bois, is ignored in his opposition to capitalism.

For Marxists I do not think the concept of a color caste in the U.S. raises problems if you rename ‘race’ to ‘caste.’  It exists between the obvious flaws of simple-minded identity politics and class.  Caste has attributes of class if the concept is applied properly.  The Indian caste system denotes roles in a religious and social hierarchy and sometimes geographic origins.  It is also supposed to determine your economic job.  Given there are many castes and sub-castes and many jobs in India, the concept divides the working classes and farmers by Hindu religious boundaries. Even Indian Muslims, Jains, Sikhs and Christians are affected by it.  This archaic caste system objectively props up the virulent Indian class system. 

Wilkerson’s concept of U.S. caste on the other hand is simple, deceptive and somewhat artificial, stretched across various ethnic identities.  She assigns Latinos and Asians to a ‘middle’ caste, while exiling indigenous native Americans from the caste system altogether!  Her conception is a mostly ‘black’ centric concept, bi-polar to ‘whites.’  This reflects a theoretical weakness in the book, a blinkered tunnel vision that continues throughout.  It is one of several crucial weaknesses in her theory.

Someone Got There First

CASTE is ECONOMIC

Wilkerson accepts ‘caste’ as an economic category, as job-related.  Her examples include assumptions that all 'black' people must be waiters or clerks, or cannot be NYT reporters, as she once was. Slavery and Jim Crow legally prohibited darker skinned persons from having businesses or more skilled jobs.  Agricultural, servant and physical or ‘menial’ labor was almost all that was allowed or possible, even as people moved north to escape Jim Crow.  Wilkerson’s examples of job restrictions become fewer and fewer as she approaches the present, as most are from Jim Crow.  Dark-skinned people who succeed in a job ‘outside of their caste’ like herself she cleverly calls ‘miscast.’  Those numbers of ‘miscasts’ are not infinitesimal or accidental.

U.S. color ‘castes’ are not impermeable categories, as we can easily find exceptions, including Ms. Wilkerson herself, a professor. Or the unemployed Scots-Irish miner in Appalachia suffering from black lung, high on opioids.   I stereotype because it reveals the weakness of ‘caste’ as an all-encompassing view.  Class is a bedrock economic reality that encompasses concepts of caste and ‘race.’  Class is sometimes permeable but it still cuts across every caste, every ethnicity, every nation, every identity, every single society.  Class is present in all capitalist societies, even when there are no castes present.  In the U.S. the 'permeability' of class has become less and less, even in comparison to Europe.  

A visit to a typical U.S. restaurant will let you see a color caste and class system in action.  Light skinned women up front as waitresses and hostesses, Latino cooks in the kitchen, dark-skinned or Latino dishwashers and bussers in back … and an alabaster owner counting profits in the office.  The first groups are all exploited by the last, though the waitresses might get the best tips.  This is how caste and class intertwine but ultimately capital dominates.  Profit is the actual motivation, not history, ‘meanness,’ stupdity or theology.

Wilkerson is aware of ‘elites’ in the dominant caste and economic exploitation of those lower down through slavery and afterwards.  Yet she doesn’t consider present versions of slavery as relevant to her theory.  Right now debt slavery and non-chattel labor imprisonment are at record levels.  Imprisoned Thai shrimp fisherman locked on their boats and Mexican tomato workers in walled farms; young Indian boys staining leather for their father’s debts; body parts taken from poverty-stricken proletarians; caged children picking chocolate beans in Ivory Coast; captured miners in the Congo; imprisoned Indonesian housemaids in Saudi Arabia; Romanian girls sold to London brothels.  

It is all part of an international system of profit off of labor and bodies, an imperial ‘side gig’ that is illegal, but like the drug trade, gun smuggling, money laundering, tax evasion and crime itself, are part of the overall capitalist economy.  It is not ‘chattel’ slavery - it is the modern equivalent.  Profit makes the law.  

FAMILIARITY

Much of this book is very familiar.  She locates the origins of caste in colonialism.  She outlines slavery, descriptions of lynching and miscegenation laws.  She writes about the Jim Crow ‘one drop’ and 1/64th rules and Nazi adoption of Jim Crow law applied to German Jews.  She has a chapter on the false science of eugenics, which dominated social sciences in the early 1900s.  Obama as a ‘black’ president; Charlottesville and the Confederate flag issue; personal slights; a few mentions of cop violence but not many; the Trump victory.

Where she gets into quicksand is her description of so-called ‘middle castes.’  She notes historical attempts by Asians, Indians, native Americans or Latinos to be considered ‘white’ in the legal sense, just as Italians or Irish became ‘white.’  However that ignores the fact that Mexicans and native Americans, many Arabs, Africans and Asians are specifically oppressed.  They are not ‘middle’ castes. They don’t have the long oppressive history of slavery behind them, but they do have ‘that skin thing.’  Some middle-class Asians might be the best candidates for middle-caste, but it is because of their class standing.  The poverty-stricken and proletarian Hmong in St. Paul, Minnesota or Somalis in Minneapolis are in no way ‘middle caste.’  The term reflects Wilkerson echo of the liberal fantasy term ‘middle class’ for everyone who is between Bill Gates and those on welfare.

Professor Wilkerson

BLACK BOURGEOISIE

Wilkerson never uses the term ‘capitalism’ and avoids the term ‘class’ except in one paragraph in which she addresses it, admitting that ‘some’ low-caste members can ‘make it’ but are still subject to a caste problems.  She gives examples of wealthy or prominent African-Americans who were treated like low-level nobodies by cops or business owners, or talked down to at meetings by clueless 'whites'.   What she does not do is talk about the existing ‘black bourgeoisie’ and explain how their existence disrupts her caste paradigm.  Nor does she deal with the vast ‘white’ proletariat, which also disrupts her view. She admits the upper caste has elites and so does the lower - but goes no further.  Here be monsters!

According to Forbes there were only 7 African-American billionaires in the U.S. in 2020, “from finance to technology to entertainment.”  In 2021, Nubia notes the top 10 ‘black’ wealthy were: Vista Equity Partners owner Robert Smith; a businessman, David Steward; Oprah Winfrey, Michael Jordan, Jay-Z, P-Diddy; another business owner, Sheila Johnson; Dr. Dre, Rihanna, and Tyler Perry.  This small number of super-wealthy concentrated in entertainment reflects a growing wealth gap between the castes, but it does not eliminate class in the ‘black’ community.  The ‘black’ upper class is estimated to be 1% of the overall population.  Making over $200K a year qualifies a person to be in the upper middle class (UMC) according to some estimates.  In 2016 Brookings reported that 7% of the UMC was African American, 9% Hispanic-American, 11% Asian-American, the rest European-American.  Asians had the smallest proportion of the overall population so Brookings notes that Asians have more members in the UMC than ‘whites.’  This further undermines Wilkerson’s version of caste.

Like many middle-class liberals, Wilkerson assumes in her text that all ‘white working class’ people are bigots or racists, relishing their higher caste standing and all endorsing Trump.   This is factual nonsense, unsupported by statistics.  Blue-collar proletarians have more in common across any caste than those who are in the upper middle class of their ‘own’ caste.  Integrated workplaces, political organizations and unions show this best. 

DISAPPEARING CLASS

Ultimately the effect of Wilkerson’s book is to disappear class as part of a broad propaganda effort by the bourgeois academy, corporate media and the political system.  She has no plan to overcome ‘caste’ and ignores any perspective of emancipation from class, caste or institutional racism.  Her solution is:  an intervention of humanitarian impulses.”(!) She herself has been a top NYT reporter, a prominent journalism professor and a celebrated non-fiction writer for an earlier book on the Great Migration.  Caste itself got a pat on the back from Oprah and the NYT.  She’s a ‘somebody’ writing for nobodies.  Is she an Ambedkar?  Not even.  A hard answer to Wilkerson’s version of this theory are the efforts of Marxists, now and in the past.  Here is Black Agenda Report’s look at her book:   BAR on Caste

Prior blog reviews on this subject, use blog search box, upper left:  “Annihilation of Caste (Ambedkar); “Slavery by Another Name,” “The New Jim Crow” (Alexander); “One Night in Miami,” “Arundhati Roy,” “White Tiger,” “Toward Race Reductionism,” “Mistaken Identity,” “Blood and Earth,” “Modern De Facto Slavery,” “Slave States,” “Prison Strike” “White Trash” “Chavs” or words like ‘racism,’ ‘caste’ or slavery.

And I bought it at May Day Books!

Red Frog

February 15, 2021

Thursday, February 11, 2021

Adriatic Adventure

 “The Paper / Novine” Season 1, directed by Dalibor Matanić, written by Ivica Dikić, 2016

This Netflix series is set in a working town on the Adriatic coast in Croatia, Rijeka, just below Trieste and the Istrian Peninsula.  The shadow of the reactionary wars to breakup the Yugoslav Federation still hang over this ‘modern’ seaport.  It was written by a former journalist, Dikić, whose picture of the city, country and people is dark and revealing.  While we don’t get to Ustaše-level corruption and violence, we get hints.  This is the first Croatian series to get international exposure.  

It centers around the last ‘serious’ newspaper in Rijeka city, Novine, which attempts to do real journalism while the other papers and websites are sunk in sensationalism, sex, scandal and shallow takes on everything.  We watch as this narrative of ‘investigative’ journalism breaks down.  After several betrayals, one veteran reporter comments that integrity and journalism can no longer be mentioned in the same breath.  He knows because he’s part of it, as he's most worried about holding his job, not 'the truth.'

The main journalistic issues are two: a deadly but mysterious late-night crash that killed 3 young people, which the powers-that-be in Rijeka want to cover-up; and a wealthy fraud ring using fake invoices involving the mayor, the police chief and a top construction magnate.  Good luck getting the journalists on the ‘last serious newspaper’ to crack these stories, though they try.  For one, Novine is first bought by the construction boss, who wants to use it for fraud and to manipulate public opinion.  Then the Mayor gets his hands on the paper through surrogates.  On two occasions, to save their jobs, the ‘editors’ burn cover stories by their staff that reveal the fraud ring.  With self-censorship like this, who needs official censorship?

And sweet Jesus, all these people drink constantly.  They repeatedly meet in a drab, smoky bar hashing over journalism but mainly their own personal issues. Flirting and smoking are de riguer.  Cheap Croatian pint beers, wine, whiskey and brandy come up in every scene.  Adultery is rampant, relationships are troubled and there is a serial rapist among the local ruling class.  The rulers trade favors to prop each other up, even the Catholic Archbishop who is part of the elite and wields his religious power like any other boss.  This is when the top dogs aren’t trying to jail or intimidate each other.  

One ‘star’ journalist takes a month off, giving up on research to wallow in personal issues and somehow remains employed.  Two editors and one journalist cover their asses and kill stories.  One careerist woman does what the crooked boss tells her, pretending to be an editor.  One journalist gets fired and becomes the spokesman for the right-wing Mayor running for President of Croatia, a clone of Hungary's Orban, a predecessor to Trump.  Another journalist who is fired ends up on a cheesy news website that scandal-baits.  Scandal is the main form of politics it seems, and post-journalism its message.  The Mayor is aided by a smart and efficient former Croatian spy who has mother problems.  The lead cop spends his time gambling and consorting with various criminals while doing cover-ups.  Over it all is a rich Mama, who seems to have hidden powers over her son and others.

The first season paints a picture of a corrupt and fucked-up Croatian city even among the white collars.  It is somewhat similar to Baltimore’s The Wire but more focused on the journalism angle, and without so many 'heroic' cops.  Journalism, a former bastion of ‘truth,’ is shown to be vulnerable and obedient to power.  The writer was a journalist in Croatia, so he knows of what he speaks.  Journalists and leftists will understand this portrayal of a former workers’ state now sunk in a creepy and reactionary form of capitalist restoration, with all the personal impacts on individuals that implies.

Prior blog reviews on this subject, use blog search box, upper left:  “The Post,” “When Journalism Was a Thing,” “Manufacturing Consent” (Chomsky); “Turning Off NPR,” “No Longer Newsworthy,” “Southern Cultural Nationalism,” “Yugoslavia – Peace, War and Dissolution” (Chomsky); “Welcome to the Desert of Post-Socialism,” “The Ghost of Stalin”(Sartre); “WR:  Mysteries of the Organism,” “Living in the End Times” (Zizek), "Comrade Detective."  

The Kulture Kommissar

February 11, 2021