Tuesday, June 28, 2022

Hippies, Radicals and Riot, oh My!

 “Summer on Fire – A Detroit Novel” by Peter Werbe, 2021

Detroit, 1967. A swirling novel of anti-war activism, Black Power, riot and rebellion. All the boxes are ticked – The 5th Estate; the MC5; the Black Panthers; the ostensibly Trotskyist SWP; Maoists, anarchists, White Panthers, early DRUM – groups that thrived in Detroit’s radical scene. The lead characters are left anarchists at the 5th Estate underground hippie newspaper. The lead character, Paul, has a cat named Durruti, an anarcho-syndicalist leader during the Spanish Civil War. The author is now a rock DJ, still an anarchist and was formerly a staffer at the 5th Estate, who now works for the 5th Estate magazine.

So anarchism is supposed to come out looking the ‘best’ if you are chugging the political side of this tale. But it’s also a story of the counter-culture. Marijuana, LSD, Timothy Leary, Janis Joplin, Cream, the local Fillmore - the Grande; motorcycles, Zappa, vegetarian food, tie-dyes, Hare Krishnas, patchouli and always rock and jazz music. And also the political counter-culture against the Vietnam War – affinity groups, NLF flags, the National Guardian newspaper, anarcho-hippies versus Peace march leaders, socialists being shot by a right-winger, police provocateurs, ‘eating the rich’ and gullible ‘action’ anarchists intent on breaking bank windows. Hell, even Malcolm X's brother is dropped into one scene.

Yes, the book drops every name it can. For leftists who lived through this period or were part of it, this is all familiar stuff. Perhaps too familiar. For others, it might be fun, as it fits some prior images or stereotypes of goofy radicals.

HISTORY and BACKSTORY

Werbe also tells the recent history of Detroit at the time – the migration of black and white southerners into Detroit to work on the auto plants, the 1943 Belle Isle 'race riot,' the Ossian Sweet trial, white flight out of the city – and the preponderance of white southerners in the Detroit police department in 1967. Institutional racism is one of the themes, like the destruction of the vibrant Black Bottom neighborhood by 'urban renewal' and I75 freeway construction. Local references abound, as do bits about the history of the 5th Estate, Vietnam and U.S. events, so the book serves as sort of a history – something verboten in recent 'naturalist' bourgeois fiction. The French were the ones who named Detroit 'de troit' – as it was situated on a narrow waterway between lakes Erie and St. Clair. “Troit” means narrow in French.

Paul's backstory is included, showing his development towards radicalism through a troubled high-school experience and then college at Michigan State in East Lansing. He encounters the Beats like Kerouac, cool jazz, existentialism and especially Wilhelm Reich, who he seems to be fascinated with due to the influence of a hip professor. He gets into confrontations with jocks and frat-boys. Then he finds out how Michigan State is collaborating with the CIA on Vietnam. He is involved in disrupting a HUAC film shown on campus by police. This is 1962. At the end of the book, we find his well-off family living on an island in Maine.

DETROIT REBELLION

Werbe finally covers the main event of that 'hot' summer of '67, the Detroit rebellion, which started on July 22nd. A late-night 'Welcome Home' party with booze and Motown for two returning black soldiers on 12th Street and Clairmount was being hosted by a black community organization. The party was attacked by Detroit police. In response, bottles and bricks were thrown. The rest is history.

Looting, arson, snipers, police and National Guard killing rioters, the 'Algiers Motel Incident,' and many dead, injured and jailed. The Democratic mayor and Republican governor called out the trigger-happy, rurally-based National Guard. Humphrey is asked for federal troops, which Johnson eventually provides. Preachers, baseball players and Representative John Conyers tried to quiet the crowds, to no avail. Looting, fires and gunfire spread.

After escaping the city for a night, the 5th Estate crew returns to cover the rebellion. They witness the celebratory 'carnival' of getting stuff for free from store after store, engaged in by thousands of black and white proletarians. They put out an emergency issue of the 5th Estate from all the reports they had gathered on expropriations, police brutality, civilian damage, along with a column by John Sinclair of the White Panthers. While the police and National Guard killed looters, only one cop was killed by a shotgun blast from another patrolman. In fact, much of the 'sniper fire' was coming from other Guard units shooting randomly. According to Werbe, there was no evidence of black snipers besieging police stations or firefighters. Racist cops assassinated 3 unarmed teenagers at the Algiers Motel over the sound of a starter pistol. Eventually the Army ordered the out-of-control Guard to unload their weapons until authorized to do so. But no one ordered the police to stand down.

After 5 days, whole blocks were in ruins, nearly all in the black community. It was over.

The book ends with a trip through Canada to that Maine island to see Paul's family … which reveals that this is really a personal story, not just a political one. That visit ends with some ultra-left posturing about the “propaganda of the deed” by killing 50 Coast Guard members and their dates or blowing a Post Office, which Paul and his girlfriend reject. That thankfully never happens.

But the personal story is far less interesting than the political one. The political and cultural parts of this story might enlighten a few. For leftists who lived through this period, the synthetic 'box checking' of cultural and political markers seems obvious, helping them remember 'the good 'ol days' or some such thing.

Prior blog reviews on this subject, use blog search box, upper left, to investigate our 15 year archive, using these terms: “Detroit,” “WR: Mysteries of the Organism,” “The Flivver King” (Sinclair); “How to Kill a City,” “Searching for Sugar Man,” “Black Radical” (Peery); “Riot, Strike, Riot” or the word “looters.”

And I bought it at May Day's excellent fiction section!

Red Frog

June 28, 2022

Saturday, June 25, 2022

"One Nation, Under God..."

 “Against the Nation - Anti-National Politics in Germany” by Robert Ogman, 2022

This book has several themes.  The main one is the resurgence of nationalism in Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the annexation of East Germany by Bonn. The other is about the more frequent blocking between so-called Leftists and right-wingers – the Red/Brown alliance – on certain issues like ‘anti-imperialism.’  

If you’ve heard anti-imperialists waxing enthusiastic about Rand Paul or Tucker Carlson ‘opposing’ the Ukraine war; if you noticed ‘leftists’ praising ISIS, al-Qaeda or the Nusra Front in the past for being ‘anti-imperialist’; if you remember people like Ralph Nader telling us rich people will save us, or a block can be made with the right like Pat Buchanan; if you’ve seen Putin, Khomeini, Orban or any capitalist reactionary who opposes the U.S. from the right lauded; if Islamists like Hamas or Hezbollah are feted as the only oppositions to the Israeli state; if you remember Adbusters initiating Occupy Wall Street as “beyond Left and Right,” or ‘leftist’ clown Jimmy Dore blocking with Tucker Carlson and the rightist candidate for president of Columbia – then you know what Ogman is talking about. 

Hell, even Hitler and Tojo framed their being goaded into war as reactions to European or U.S. imperialism – which in a way they were.  Capital’s antagonisms produced the bloodiest war in history, WWII, as it does nearly all other wars, including the present one in Ukraine.

Fighting imperialism with ‘nationalism’ reinforces the form of the bourgeois nation-state at this point in history, which is the connection to Ogman’s larger argument. Ogman understands that ‘anti-imperialism,’ ‘anti-capitalism’ and ‘self-determination’ can be used by rightists or fascist forces, so some Leftists have to be cognizant of their new bedfellows.  He calls the former method “vulgar anti-imperialism” for blocking with the enemy of my enemy.  Ogman mentions examples of how ‘globalization’ and Zionism are opposed in binary nationalist terms by some leftists and libertarians.  In a way, they are all forms of lazy reformism, attempting to sound tough and ‘for oppressed people,’ but without any revolutionary, Marxist, emancipatory or proletarian content.

The WALL FALLS   

Ogman goes on to describe the consequences of the dissolution of the GDR, which engendered violent nationalism in the new, reunited Germany.  Attacks on guest workers, refugees, Jews and minorities sky-rocketed after 1989.  Fascist and ultra-right organizations built their membership.  The press lauded the reunited Germany as a resurrection of the ‘volk.’ The State passed a new Alien Act, admitting Germans ‘by blood’ ethnicity as full citizens, while severely limiting asylum.  Only after the left mobilized over several pogroms carried out against Turkish and Vietnamese guest workers did the State finally intervene against the fascistic mobilizations. 

In response to the fall of the wall, the left under the Radical Left / Die Radicale Linke battled this resurgence with the slogan “Never Again Germany!”  They opposed reunification, even though it was inevitable.  When they realized that, they asked for a referendum vote.  Bonn instead annexed the former GDR by fiat.  In this context they also opposed the Alien Act, the speedup of deportations and supported ‘open borders.’  They pointed out that the new Germany would privatize most firms in the former GDR, leading to massive unemployment, including women being sent back into the home.  The GDR’s labor laws and women’s programs would be abolished. They also opposed Germany’s plan to use central and eastern Europe as a cheap labor zone.  And indeed, all these things came to pass in spite of their efforts.      

In the early ‘90s a further grouping, Wohlfahrtsaussechusse, of intellectuals, artists and political groups developed a program called “Something Better Than the Nation.” They engaged in political and cultural work against nationalism, while physically confronting racists and fascists. They did concerts, speaking tours, street art and postering, a blockade of the Bundestag, but found almost no reception among the population.  I suspect this was mostly an autonomist’ left communist movement, but I’m not sure.

POLITICS

The politics that developed out of these efforts, which continue to this day, were a reaction to the period of National Socialism in Germany and the subsequent establishment of the GDR.  These groups realized that the state, the media, the fascists, the police and most of the population were to varying degrees supportive of German nationalism. A common consensus was that reunification had put Nazism and Communism in the dust-bin of history.  Social Democrats and Greens were also on board.  They saw nationalism as a capitalist ideological project that induces citizens into supporting German capitalism’s efforts across the world and the consequent material benefits.  It is the same as loyal brown-nose employees who support their corporation no matter what, because they feel they will keep their job, get rich or get a promotion. As capital is still mostly organized on a ‘state’ basis, nationalism is one of its props.  So ‘internationalism’ is verboten, as it threatens capital to its bones.           

As Eric Hobsbawn said of nations, they are a product of a particular historical period.  Ogman calls the politics of these German groups “absolute, concrete, negative universalism” which is certainly a mouthful.  However, unlike some guilty New Leftists, they did not adopt the identity of the excluded – Palestinian, African, Latin American, Asian, Arab – as a substitute for a German identity.

After the 2007-2008 capitalist financial crash, some centrist German Social Democrats blamed Muslim and Turkish communities of bringing about economic ruin.  This was followed by a German and EU media campaign against lazy Greeks.  Similar rightist propaganda was found in Britain, pushed by New Labour, the National Party and the Tories, and in the U.S., most forcefully presented by centrist Democrats, the GOP Tea Party and FOX News.  Obama was declared a ‘foreigner.’  However, Obama himself always pushed the lying line that “all Americans” are in the same boat. Some call this “the national competitive state” – a natural result of a man-eat-man market economy.

Ogman says this “national frame-work as a strategy to solve … global crisis” is a dead-end.  He thinks the thinking in this book breaks with both the Old and New Left, which I think is wrong on the former.  Proletarian internationalism does not seem to conflict with an ‘anti-national’ perspective.  The ideas of ‘self-determination’ of nations in the present global context of imperialism and global capitalism leaves almost no nation actually independent, tied as they are by political, economic, military and cultural restraints and benefits, a web of control that binds almost every so-called ‘nation’ together.  Going back to nationalism tears the world apart and is a prelude to capitalist war and wars.

Ogman has no particular solution to the nationalist dilemma in his historical overview of German movements.  This little book seems to be almost a PhD. thesis.  It does indicate the difficult path forward for socialists in a contracting and fearful world.

Prior blog reviews on this subject, use blog search box, upper left, to investigate our 15 year archive, using these terms:  “A Socialist Defector,” “Line of Separation,” “Leaving World War Two Behind” (Swanson); “Why Women Have Better Sex Under Socialism,” “The Brown Plague” (Guerin); “Against the Fascist Creep,” “Yugoslavia: Peace, War & Dissolution” (Chomsky); “Proud Boys and the White Ethnostate,” “Fascism Today – What It Is and How to Fight It,” “Illegals, Migrants and Refugees,” “The Latino Question,” “Stateless,”

And I bought it at May Day Books!

Red Frog

June 25, 2022

Tuesday, June 21, 2022

You Are What You Don't Eat

 “Animal, Vegetable, Junk” by Mark Bittman, 2022

Bittman is a famous chef who decided to write what he calls a serious book about food.  And it is!  He tracks the development of food from Neolithic hunger-gatherers to our present globalized industrial food system.  He, like Jared Diamond, wonders if the development of agriculture was all it was cracked up to be.  He’s focused on how certain kinds of agriculture deplete the quality of the soil. He’s hard on animal products, saturated fat, sugar and over-salting as a part of a diet.  He’s against factory farming and supermarket merchandising. He’s especially opposed to processed and ‘ultra-processed food’ lacking in nutrients and toxic to human health. He seems to agree with Michael Pollan in support of real food as opposed to the shit-food / junk-food / restaurant capitalist mainstream. 

Bittman’s materialist analysis, though not Marxist, is this: “Food drives history and soil drives food.” In this context he supports leaving land fallow, green fertilization, crop rotation, multiple cropping and cover crops, organics, growing crops for humans - not for animals or cars.  He opposes food exporting and ‘cash crops’ that leave countries without food of their own.  He tracks how the Sumerians, the Maya and early Chinese empires collapsed because of lack of food due to soil depletion and over-population.  No doubt he could add the civilization around Ankor Wat in Cambodia, the Greenlanders and others, as Diamond did.  He mentions the importance of food to warfare – noting shortages in Germany during WWI helped defeat them.  As Napoleon said, “An army travels on its stomach” – and the U.S. army in WWII traveled the best of any. Bittman shows how famines are related to colonial / capitalist commodification of food – in India, Ireland, China, Niger and Gabon – or were used as political weapons in Ukraine, Kazakhstan and China by bureaucrats intent on forced collectivization.

The U.S.

Bittman is focused on the U.S., tracking how ‘family’ farmers gradually disappeared to be replaced by massive operations in debt to banks and equipment manufacturers.  These giant farms and ranches use mono-cropping, artificial fertilizer, chemical pesticides, patented seeds, feedlots, cage farms and heavy machinery to produce food for animals, cars or humans (in that order), methods encouraged by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the U.S. EPA and every Ag. School.   Capital and state here are joined at the hip, downplaying rural workers and smaller farmers.

Bittman goes into detail about the toxic effect of industrial food on human health – increases in empty calories and nutrition-less garbage like Wonder Bread©.  The hysteria for vitamins is a result of the lack of nutrients in marketed factory-food.  Animal fats, over-salting, the lack of fiber and added sugar lead to diabetes, heart disease, obesity, hyper-tension, cancer, muscle aches, etc. – the scourges of the ‘western’ profit-based diet.  He calls non-nutritious sugar a modern form of tobacco in its toxic effects. He describes how the U.S. would not sign-on to an international convention in support of breast-feeding and also refused to stop television marketing sugary junk breakfast cereals and candy to children.  He parses the division between processed ‘simple’ junk carbohydrates (white rice, white bread, white noodles, multiplying treats and ‘snacks,’ white flour pancakes, pizza crusts, hamburger buns, etc.) and healthy complex carbohydrates. 

INTERNATIONAL POLICY

The U.S. exported industrial capitalist agriculture to the rest of the world in Norman Bolaug’s “Green Revolution” (GR) as an answer to Mao’s ‘red revolution.’  It was based on an export model of growing cash crops using synthetic fertilizers, patented seeds, chemical pesticides, GMO techniques and large machinery.  These were provided by U.S. agri-business – ADM, General Foods, Cargill, General Mills, Monsanto, John Deere, etc.  This created debt and the winnowing away of formerly successful small farmers and peasants in the rest of the world too.  It was claimed that the GR vastly increased yields, but further analysis shows that huge price subsidies, increased rain and parallel non-GR examples show that to be false.  In fact, if you exclude non-GR China, hunger actually rose in the world during the GR!  Its clear negative effects are now coming to light – toxicity, debt, suicide, urban poverty, soil depletion, exploitation, pollution, privatization.

Mexico is an example of where ‘free trade’ and ‘comparative advantage’ play out regarding food.  After NAFTA was passed by the Clintonites and the Republican Party Mexico lost 2 million small farmers, increasing emigration to the U.S.  It now imports 40% of its food from the U.S., while virtual slavery has returned in the export of avocadoes and tomatoes.  Mexico has the highest obesity levels in the world due to the ‘new’ diet introduced by the U.S. capitalists and the Mexican collaborator class.

Liebig, founder of soil science and source for Marx 

ALTERNATIVE AGRICULTURE    

Bittman supports alternative agriculture under its various names:  Organic, sustainable, regenerative, agroecologic, small-holder, traditional, circular, permaculture, integrated, no-till, low carbon, food sovereign, biodiverse, climate resilient.  He does not advocate full veganism or vegetarianism, but calls for vastly downgrading animal products and the CAFO industry. He relies on Justus von Liebig, Marxist John Bellamy Foster, George Washington Carver, Rachel Carson, Frances Moore Lappe, Fannie Lou Hamer, Scott Nearing, Vandana Shiva and the Black Panthers.  He narrates the U.S. government’s convoluted approach to ingredients over the years and how industrial food concerns manipulate ‘organic’ for profit, as organic is a very limited definition according to the USDA.  It could still be slave-grown, mono-cropped, heavily carbon, from tortured animals and owned by a vast food conglomerate, as most organic firms now are. Nor are ‘fake’ meats the solution to Bittman, as they are also processed, though better than real meat.

Bittman narrates the host of ills from industrial and meat agriculture, contributing a huge percentage to global warming and devastating health across the globe with junk food.  The fuel and feed inefficiencies of aqua-culture, which is the source of 50% of fish, are even worse than those of beef.  Or the takeover of fertile agricultural land by speculators, investors, corporations and countries.

Detroit Urban Farm, one of over 1,000

Da Plan Boss?

However like most left-liberals, he has no major strategy except agroecology. He makes familiar, ‘moderate’ suggestions about what kinds of foods to eat instead of taking a harder line.  He does finally admit that food comes back to labor.  He cites various state efforts to improve farmworker conditions; urban gardens and farms in cities like Detroit; farmer’s markets, SNAP programs; farm to table and school programs; CSAs; campaigns against junk food; anti-hunger programs in Brazil; natural agriculture programs in India and France; meatless Mondays; partial veganism; the Green New Deal; healthy school food programs in Minneapolis.  The list is long but not dominant at all.

This book is a good compendium of the massive, systemic and multiple problems in capitalist agriculture which are leading to severe breakdowns.  It’s a collection of points from many other books, so it is a pretty complete, detailed survey.  But it fails at understanding how to overturn capital in the rural political space, even though he’s aware that capital’s profiteering is the main source for everything that is happening on the land. Instead Bittman wants to supplement Big Food, not replace it, with “incremental changes.” This is a familiar dead-end for left-liberals, who cannot make the next step towards a cooperative, eco-socialist outlook.          

Prior blog reviews on this topic, use blog search box, upper left, to investigate our 15 year archive of reviews, using these terms:  “Collapse” (Diamond); “Propaganda” (Bernays); “Salt, Sugar, Fat,” “The Potlikker Papers,” “Foodopoly,” “Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking,” “A Foodie’s Guide to Capitalism,” “Grocery Activism,” “Land Grabbing,” “Behind the Kitchen Door,” “Vegan Freak,” “$15.4 Billion Write-down for Kraft-Heinz,” “Dead Epidemiologists,” “In Dubious Battle” (Steinbeck); “Damnation,” “Seaspiracy,” “Land Grabbing” or the 4 books John Bellamy Foster wrote on Marx and environmentalism -  “The Ecological Revolution,” “Marx and the Earth,” “the Robbery of Nature” and “Marx’s Ecology.” 

And I bought it at Second Story Books, Ely, MN

Red Frog

June 21, 2022

Saturday, June 18, 2022

Pleasure Boating

 The Pleasure Principle

Taking an idea from Zizek about 'pleasure' and its role in politics. I came across a YouTube video of boaters on Lake Havasu in Arizona on Memorial Day, 2022.  I noticed some pro-Trump flags on the boats and something clicked.

Lake Havasu is downstream from the Hoover and Glen Canyon dams and lakes Mead and Powell in Arizona and Nevada.  The whole Colorado water system is being depleted, to the point where water and energy might stop flowing from Hoover Dam... and stop going into Lake Havasu too.  All this because of a global warming and climate-change-induced long drought.  The State of Arizona created Lake Havasu for just this purpose – a playground for ‘pleasure’ boating – damming it with the Parker Dam.  This keeps less and less water from getting to Mexico.  Parker will one day run dry too.  But the Party went on, seemingly oblivious.

Boat Party

Giant cigarette boats, luxury cruisers with 4 massive outboards, speed-boats, pontoons, topless nudity, partying, drinking, dancing, bikinis and skin, ass wiggling  – sort of a French Quarter Mardi Gras, but on water with fancy toys and occasional American and Trump flags. No costumes, no neighborhood, no history, no pedestrians, no jazz as in a real Mardi Gras.  The main ingredients here are upscale, massive and expensive boats running expensive gas. Many are parked along the Bridgewater Channel, beached on sand in rows. The rest parade down the channel like expensive show ponies. Clearly in this scene the middle and upper middle class rule, the businessmen cash in.  Look at them preen!  Vvrooom.

Lake Havasu was near 100F degrees that day.  Mohave County had a 'red flag' warning out for heat and fire.  For the last week it has been over 100F every day in Lake Havasu and Phoenix.  The ‘lake’ is surrounded by expensive vacation homes for the monied of Phoenix, California or retirees. House prices right now go from $260K to nearly $2.8M, but most are in the $300K-$600K range, even for ugly, barren ramblers.  Remember, this is Arizona, a somewhat cheap southwestern state. 

If you look at 'pleasure' as a simple political ingredient – something Trump caters to – and remember the boat parades for Trump on Lake of the Ozarks, Lake Lanier in Georgia, along the Miami intercoastal waterways and probably on Havasu itself – it starts to make sense.  The upscale right-wing doesn't like masks because it interferes with their pleasure.  They don't want to be poked with a needle. They don't like thinking about racism or capitalism or sexism because it interferes with lazy forms of prior indoctrination. They hate people who point out that the food they are eating is toxic or unhealthy. Trolling with bullshit is their form of comedy.  They want their toys, including boats, as money is pleasure.  The men hate not being able to lust after women at all times; nor the women being told that perhaps a 'sugar daddy' is not quite the catch.  No one tells these types that massive gas-guzzling boats might be problematic. As the film “Vice” showed us, both Dick Cheney and George Bush were drunkards as young men.  And yes, its a mighty 'white' crowd.  In a way, they are still children, but even children are not this sad and obtuse.  Science is abstract, but pleasure is immediate.

So the Party goes on. Burning gas is a right, along with giant boat engines, which tells you something about their attitude to global warming.  Bigger boats, cars, SUVs, pick-ups, toys.  Real men don't think, they act!  Physicality is the only form enjoyment.  They do not want to break with the conservative nonsense that comforts them because that means pain.  Women mean babies or sex to Trumper men – and to some of the women.  That is traditional and easy.  Will they be able to confront the challenges of pandemics, climate change, recession and depression, fascism?  No.  It's not fun.  And if you challenge their pleasures?  Time to shoot to kill.  Violence can also be pleasurable.  Liberty!

So is 'pleasure' limited to the Right?  No.  Upscale liberals bask in their own monied existences.  They partake in a more sophisticated 'party' – comfortably pleasant, without ostentatious displays, but still there, hidden away.  They take part in their own forms of lazy thinking.  After all, pleasure is a human thing.  The working class has its pleasures too and I'm sure some were in the audience at Havasu cooling off in the boat water.  However, some pleasures can become universal pains, especially in the long run. “Freedom” becomes its opposite.  Liberty becomes illiberal.  That is dialectics. The long-term view, the arduous view, is what 'Trumpism' inveighs against, hiding the pain from its supporters, encouraging a glittery hedonic debauche.  This wealth is a form of pleasure. After all, Trump is a fake billionaire and that is what billionaires do – shit in golden toilets.  It is one of the psychological roots of his appeal.  So Trumpists fiddle while 'Rome' burns.  To 'party on' like a Titanic on the high seas.   Never mind the ugly and too few life boats.

Not sure where this commentary came from, but let me know if I've blown a gasket.

Prior blog reviews on this subject, use blog search box, upper left, to investigate our 15 year archive, using these terms: "Caligula on the Potomac," "Impeachapalooza," "Bits and Pieces," "The Only Political Question that Matters?" "The Coming Storm," "What Can You Say About Bill Maher?" "Multi-Millionaire Comedians Who Love the System" or the word "Trump."  

The Cultural Marxist

June 18, 2022

Wednesday, June 15, 2022

Owning Ideas

 “Elite Capture – How the Powerful Took Over Identity Politics (and Everything Else)” by Olufemi O. Taiwo

Taiwo exposes the present usage of identity politics and intersectionality, showing how they have been taken over and distorted by those in power – principally the kente-cloth performers of the Democratic Party. The left view of identity was originally developed by the Combahee River Collective, a group of socialist-feminist black lesbians. One of their members, Barbara Smith, says of its present usage: it is “very different than what we intended.” It was originally intended to promote unity across struggles, not division.

Identity politics as practiced by the Democrats – and even Republicans – is that the gender, sexual orientation, skin color, nationality or religion of the politician is what is primary. This ignores their political beliefs, which, if featured, are inevitably those of the wealthy, European-American, male ruling elite behind them.

Taiwo recounts the contributions of Charles Frazier, who wrote “The Black Bourgeoisie” in 1957 and Frantz Fanon, who wrote “Wretched of the Earth” in 1962. Both exposed a layer of middle-class African Americans and Africans who gained wealth and/or power from the civil rights movement or the end of formal colonialism, and who turned their back on the black masses. Both are examples of 'elite capture' or what Frazier called a “lumpenbourgeoisie.” Present examples are the Black Congressional Caucus or the neo-colonial, comprador rulers of Nigeria, but there are many others.

Taiwo's contributions are several. He opposes a politics of guilty 'deference' to those 'more marginalized' – and proposes a “constructive politics” as more effective. Instead of focusing on issues of personal complicity, moralism or aesthetics, he proposes a focus on outcomes. This is in order to unify various struggles to achieve actual success and power. He illustrates how in the U.S. black consumerism, black capitalism or an insulated 'black economy' (like NOI) are weak, difficult or almost impossible in that order. Nor are they goals for the majority of the black population. Black capitalism is a consistent propaganda point by 'elite' media like NPR and PBS and more.

Elite Capitalism

Taiwo goes all the way up to the international level in his schematic, saying the IMF, the World Bank and the multi-national corporations who dominate the world economy also reflect 'elite capture.' All well and good, except for the academic framing. As I have learned, simple definitions are 'upgraded' by creative academics who substitute a word like 'elite' for the more direct word in this case - 'capitalist.' Corporations and international banking entities weren't 'captured' – they originated from the capitalist class. 'Elite' is a general word used in sociology for various upper strata, but somewhat empty of class content. Even Republicans howl about anti-nationalist 'elites' who went to college, drink wine, eat Brie cheese, drive Volvos and look down on 'good 'ol Americans' who drink beer, eat Velveeta, drive Fords and only passed high school. This is a view of 'elites' absent real class content, which is why Republicans use it.

Taiwo goes on to discuss game and social theory about how power determines behavior in conversations in every context – work, media, schools, social groups, political parties, families, what have you. In effect, we must claim the king wears clothes, even though we see he is naked, because we might lose our job, position, role or relationship. According to Taiwo, 'deference politics' only changes the attention economy, not the real one. “Sharing our stories” is one of those methods. Academics call this “standpoint epistemology,” but now it is the pat liberal version of liberation. It is not true that one story can change the country, as Obama maintained - and as he proved.

Amilcar Cabral of the PAIGC

Anti-Colonial Struggle

Taiwo seems to direct this book at the academic, NGO/non-profit and liberal corporate worlds that are deeply involved in anti-political deference functioning. This part of the book seems excessively psychological, as if he's attempting to soothe the psyches of those who think otherwise. He understands the personal uses of 'deference' but is focused on its limitations. 

Taiwo then goes on to quote Amilcar Cabral against cultural relativism; Paulo Freire on critical consciousness. He focuses on the struggle against the Portuguese empire in Africa, especially in Cape Verde/Guinea Bissau, which overthrew a long-running colonial and fascist government in Portugal backed by NATO in 1973.

The African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde (PAIGC) instituted a guerilla struggle after dozens of dockworkers were massacred. They used many methods – a secular education program that included girls and adults; alliances with Cuba, the USSR, the Swedish Social Democrats, the Portuguese CP, Nkrumah, Toure and the OAU. They put out a newspaper and involved women in the armed struggle. This kind of experience gives Taiwo a critical eye to the limp methods in the U.S. - although the PAIGC methods are specific to the anti-colonial struggles across the world at that time. The PAIGC was not against the (white) Portuguese or even captured Portuguese soldiers, which aided the revolutionary struggle in Portugal itself that came after their success n 1973. As they said “some white people oppress us and others help us.” A real basic idea.

In the end, Taiwo vaguely wants to 'build things' that in a permanent way create power to counter racial capitalism. 'What that is ain't exactly clear,' to para-quote Buffalo Springfield. He does suggest a few commonplace ideas, including a debt jubilee for student, medical, payday and judicial debt, as debt is part of the control structure in the U.S. No mention of mortgages! He runs through a familiar litany of CIA coups, climate change, NAFTA, the incarceration state, the UFW and personal humiliation.

At bottom, to me academics have to contribute something new. I'm not sure his ideas of 'deference politics' and 'constructive politics' qualify – i.e. giving new names to issues already known. Virtue signaling, white guilt, black nationalism, divisiveness, performative anti-racism – all are preexisting names for the former.

Prior blog reviews on this subject, use blog search box, upper left, to investigate our 15 year archive, using these terms: “Mistaken Identity” (Haider); “The South”(A. Reed); “Toward Freedom – the Case Against Race Reductionism”(T. Reed); “Like a Thief in Broad Daylight” (Zizek); “The Populists' Guide to 2020,” “The New Black,” “The Six-Sided Prison.”

And I got it at May Day Books!

Red Frog

June 15, 2022

Sunday, June 12, 2022

The Situation is Excellent?

 “Heaven in Disorder” by Slavoj Žižek, 2021

This is a series of essays our Slovenian professor wrote in 2020 covering a plateful of events.  The Lacanian word-salad is absent, except for the unnecessary substitution of “Master-Signifiers” for ideological dominance in his discussion of Chile.  Generally, he seems to be moving away from any “Leninist” conceptions towards critical support for mass social-democratic struggle within the capitalist context.  Perhaps that is his ‘transitional’ approach, as Lenin’s slogans in 1917 were “Bread, Land and Peace” not ‘socialist revolution.’  I’m going to give a flavor of each chapter in one sentence.  See if I can do it.

    1.   Yemen:  Houthi drone attack on Saudi Arabia is not a ‘game changer.’

     2.   Kurdistan/Rojava:  ‘Anti-imperialists’ who criticize the left-wing Kurds for trying to survive through a military link with the U.S. don’t live in the real world or care for social progress.

     3.   Hong Kong:  China warns the West, in solidarity, that street demonstrations also threaten them.

     4.   Assange:  Žižek visited Assange in the U.K.’s “humanist prison” and confirms that the U.K., especially after Brexit, is more than ever a U.S. poodle. 

     5.   Bolivia: The religious white-people’s coup against Morales, Arce and indigenous people failed because Morales had been successful in improving Bolivia.

     6.   Chile:  The APRUEBO Constitutional process was victorious in dispensing with the Pinochet constitution due to a mass class polarization.

     7.   U.K. Labour Party:  The LP failed in the election because they didn’t take a clear stand on Brexit - they should have been against it.

     8.   Israel & Palestine:  Anti-Israeli government politics and anti-Semitism are not the same thing, as Zionism itself is now anti-Semitic.

     9.   Iraq:  The U.S. assassinating General Soleimani was a rational act in a 'mad' middle-east intent on fomenting Sunni versus Shia bloodshed as an excuse for nationalist dominance.

     10.     EU:  Reactionary states like Turkey, Russia and Trump’s U.S. are against the EU in principle, though the ‘nation-state’ is outmoded.

11.     U.S.:  The U.S. contains 4 ‘parties’ – centrist Republicans, Trumpists, centrist Democrats and Sandernistas.

12.     France:  Zizek supports Corbyn, Sanders and ‘people’s assemblies’ as part of a “a moderately conservative left.”

13.     Brazil:  The Amazon is burning and Žižek calls for a “strong global agency” – a.k.a. 'communism' - to coordinate against global climate change.

14.     Immigrants:  The answer to immigration is not abstract and moralistic humanitarianism but changing the world conditions that are forcing immigrants to leave their countries.

15.      Censorship:   Liberals who censor leftist art that parodies fascism (Rammstein and Philip Guston) underestimate viewers.

16.     Corbyn:  The removal of Jeffrey Corbyn from the Labour Party for ‘anti-Semitism’ was actually a removal for anti-capitalism.

17.     U.S. Right:  Žižek spends chapters writing about Trump, Biden, the pandemic and January 6, 2021 in pretty familiar terms.  He calls the latter a ‘carnival’ based on a fragment of the population seeking to restore ‘pleasure’ to the “American Way of Life.”  Actually, a nice psychological insight.

18.     Christ:  The problem of evil and Christ’s inability to shield humans from disaster.  Really?  In 2022?  This is an issue?

19.     AOC:  AOC has been coopted and now polemicizes against the social democrat U.S. left as making inauthentic criticisms, which is not news.

20.     Europe:  Against the liberal idea of Europe as a space for humanitarianism; the capitalist idea of a world economic power; the conservative idea that it is a military front of nations, he supports Europe as a bastion of the secular and scientific Enlightenment which still has emancipatory potential.


I can’t do it.  Žižek’s best chapter is on Mao’s On Contradiction, which famously made the case that that the struggle against Japanese occupation was the key link in the class struggle, the “main contradiction.”  (Though class-collaborationism with the Guomindang made this ‘contradiction’ much harder to resolve…)  He quotes Maurizio Lazzarato as to the “irreducible plurality of struggles for emancipation, and the resonance between them.” In other words, the present struggle for the right of women to control their own bodies related to abortion, or the struggle against racist police killings, brutality and the incarceration state - are all forms of class struggle.

The Paris Commune - the First Workers' State

Yet Žižek stands behind ‘class’ as not just another identity (as fascists, liberals and even Trump made out…) but because it “over-determines the totality of social identities.”  In other words the goals for anti-racist or anti-sexist struggle is mutual respect, equality, cooperation and peaceful co-existence.  The goal of class struggle is the elimination of its opponent and in the process eliminating class in toto.  This makes class an irreconcilable antagonism in a capitalist society.  It is not just another contradiction, though it is tied to all the others.

Žižek chooses a vague form of communism as the only way out of the impasse, as opposed to the false solutions of liberal capitalism or authoritarian populism. In his description or nostalgia for the Paris Commune, he points out the January 6, 2021 riot was an idiot’s Commune, a form of middle-class, white, anti-Enlightenment barbarism.  It proves that ‘the people’ can be manipulated.  While supporting local councils in France in one essay, he downplays their chaotic self-organization during the Paris Commune in another – a Commune led by Blanqui.  He calls for actual leadership – Party, personal or otherwise:  “A true leader literally creates the People as a united political agent out of a confused mess of inconsistent tendencies.”  No shit.  Chaotic ‘self-organization,’ so beloved of anarchists, never rises to the level of a serious threat if left at that level.  Žižek once again proves the point that it is the organizational question which is paramount.

P.S. - Zizek takes his Euro-Vision into overdrive, supporting NATO and the Zelensky government in an editorial in the 6/21/22 Guardian. In Point 20. above, he supposedly opposed "the conservative idea that it is a military front of nations."  Seems like he's doing a Hitchens.

Prior blog reviews on this subject, use blog search box, upper left, to investigate our 15 year archive, using these terms:  “Violence,” “Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism?”, “First As Tragedy, Then as Farce,” “Like a Thief in Broad Daylight,” “Living in the End Times” and “Pandemic” (All 6 by Zizek); “The Invisible Committee,” “Parasite,” “Nomadland,” “Capital in the 20th Century” (Piketty) “On Contradiction” (Mao); “From the Factory to the Metropolis” (Negri); “Left Confusion on Brexit,” “Illegals, Migrants and Refugees.”

And I bought it at May Day Books!

Red Frog

June 12, 2022