'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Friday, February 26, 2010

Call Him, Just for Now, Spartacus 

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Sometimes, the content of the articles speak for themselves, and require minimal exposition.

Celebrate the Winter Olympics (Part 3)

As for Vancouver’s municipal government and the taxpayers, the bad news is already in. The immediate Olympic legacy for this city of 580,000 people is a nearly $1 billion debt from bailing out the Olympic Village development. Beyond that, people in Vancouver and British Columbia have already seen cuts in services like education, health care and arts financing from their provincial government, which is stuck with many other Olympics-related costs. Many people, including Mrs. Lombardi, expect that more will follow.

While the mood in the city has picked up since the start, when many people were suffering a severe case of buyer’s remorse, the looming budget realities make it unlikely that all will be forgiven or forgotten.

While it’s very hard to see all the costs, I think people are going to pay for it for a long time, said Lee Fletcher as he walked past several flowering cherry trees near his apartment outside Stanley Park, a large tract of forest tucked up against the city’s downtown. Some people are going to benefit hugely, not the average guy. The average guy is going to see his taxes increase.

Neoliberal Parking Enforcement

Oakland parking officers were ordered to avoid enforcing neighborhood parking violations in two of the city's wealthier neighborhoods but told to continue enforcing the same violations in the rest of the city, according to a city memo obtained by The Chronicle.

The July order is corroborated by interviews with three parking officers, who said they and their colleagues had complained about what they deemed a discriminatory practice since it began last summer - to no avail.

It's not fair, said Shirnell Smith, 44, a parking officer for 22 years who has lived in Oakland for 24 years. Smith and the union representing parking officers said the policy has resulted in tickets being issued disproportionately to poor, black and Latino people.

The United Kingdom Adopts the US Financial Model:

The state-owned Royal Bank of Scotland has paid more than 100 bankers at least £1m each in bonuses, despite making a loss of £3.6bn.

In total, the bank will reward its 16,800 investment bankers with £1.3bn in bonuses. The average that each of them will pocket comes to £160,000, made up of a basic salary of £80,000 and the same again in bonus, although that will be paid in shares. That compares to the national average full-time wage of those whose taxes are propping up the bank of about £25,000.

Its chairman, Sir Philip Hampton, said the payouts were the minimum necessary to retain and motivate the staff crucial to the recovery of this bank. The bank has received more than £45bn in state funds. This year's loss is an improvement on the £24.3bn record British corporate deficit in 2008.

Senate Democrats Leave for the Weekend Without Extending Unemployment Benefits:

With most senators already home for the weekend, Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., tried Friday morning to have the bill passed on a voice vote, which can be blocked by the objection of a single senator. Bunning objected, as he has repeatedly since Thursday.

Everybody in this chamber wants to extend unemployment benefits, COBRA health care benefits, Bunning said Friday. But, he added, If we can't find $10 billion somewhere for a bill that everybody in this body supports, we will never pay for anything.

Durbin said the nation's economic problems justify borrowing to pay for the programs. He noted that Congress, with Republican support, has extended the benefits in the past without offsetting the costs.

I believe it is unthinkable, unforgivable that we would cut off unemployment insurance payments to these people, Durbin said. Addressing Bunning, he said, Find a way to express your political views that's not at the expense of these people.

The Senate does not have any roll-call votes scheduled before Tuesday, though Democratic leaders said they would continue trying to persuade Bunning to lift his objection, allowing the bill to pass without a recorded vote.

Sometimes, journalists in the mainstream media are kind enough to write this blog for me. Much appreciated.

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Thursday, February 25, 2010

Orca Resistance at Sea World 

The three whales, including Haida’s newborn calf, were sold to Sea World for five million dollars.

Of course, Counterpunch posted the article in response to the orca attack upon a trainer at SeaWorld in Orlando yesterday that resulted in the trainer's death. My wife, after reading the media coverage, was startled by the discovery that the killer whale in question, a whale named Tilikum, had a history of attacking trainers, even killing one in Vancouver in 1991. Indeed, SeaWorld acquired him after the attack by including him among the aforementioned three whales purchased upon the closure of the Vancouver facility.

In this instance, Tilikum was literally more valuable in dollars than the trainer who died, Dawn Brancheau, more irreplaceable, and hence, if forced to choose between commercializing Tilikum, and protecting the trainers from serious injury or death, SeaWorld predictably chose the former. Even worse, SeaWorld deliberately purchased a belligerent killer whale because of the lucrative income stream associated with him. And the trainers, including Brancheau, played along, working with Tilikum, despite the risk, as manifested by Tilikum's involvement in a subsequent 1999 death as well as an attack by a different whale at the San Diego SeaWorld location in 2006.

There is nothing new about this. The willingness of people to acclimatize themselves to abuse more readily than animals has long been recognized. Consider, for example, this passage from the B. Traven novel, The Carreta, wherein he describes the conditions by which cart drivers, carretas, and their oxen worked in order to transport goods around southern Mexico in the early part of the 20th Century:

. . . There was a limit, however, beyond which the oxen could be worked without a break. When they got too low and exhausted and were not given a rest at grass, they finally refused to rise to their feet while on a journey, and then not the best of feeds or any other persuasion could urge them to go any farther. Blows had no effect. Oxen will very often act as mules do. They lie down, refuse food, and die.

Oxen and mules required a break of three or four weeks in good grass three or four times a year; and they got them. Oxen and mules were costly, and therefore suicide on their part was expensive for their masters. The carretas never had a holiday. They worked day by day, Sundays and holidays, by day and by night, in rain or tropical glare, in sandstorms and thunderstorms of such violence that the sky seemed to burst. The carretas too sometimes lay down by the way; but they did not commit suicide by exhaustion. That was the privilege of oxen and mules. And if a carretero perished by the way, or fell down a ravine while hoisting a carreta out of a hole, or got under the wheels, he was no loss to his employer. Carreteros did not mean the outlay of a centavo, unless it was that the employer took over the debt of a carretero to a previous master; and this debt would be little compared with the money an ox cost, even if the employer were left with it unredeemed due to the mishap of a carretero.

Brancheau undoubtedly worked under conditions more favorable than the carreteros, but, in the end, she was less important to SeaWorld than Tilikum, enslaved as he is, and she accepted it. One shudders to imagine the liability waiver that she was required to sign before she was hired.

Clearly, it was, by capitalist standards, a rational approach for SeaWorld. Even if one accounts for a substantial wrongful death civil judgment, given that SeaWorld's insurance will likely account for most, if not all, of it, and that SeaWorld has made substantial profit off both Tilikum and Brancheau, the balance still comes out quite well in favor of SeaWorld. Add Tilikum's proficiency as a breeder to the ledger, and there is no longer any doubt.

According to SeaWorld, he was quite the stud, having bred 17 calves. It may be conservative to estimate the value of each of these whales at 1 million dollars each, given that Tilikum was part of a three whale purchase for 5 million 19 years ago. Tilikum and Brancheau found themselves ensnared in a web of exploitation at the cost of Brancheau's life and Tilikum's liberty. We can only hope that killer whale and dolphin shows at amusement parks go the way of bear baiting.

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Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The Sub-Proletarianization of Europe (Part 1) 

From today's Independent:

A wave of industrial and social unrest is building across Europe as workers resist attempts by governments and private companies to impose austerity policies, drive down wages and rescue some nations from near-bankruptcy.

Huge protest rallies took place in cities across Spain last night; today a general strike could paralyse Greece while industrial action at French airports and oil plants as well as the narrowly averted stoppage at Germany's Lufthansa promise to be just the start of the greatest demonstration of public unrest seen on the continent since the revolutionary fervour of 1968. Europe's industrial economy is not clear of recession yet either and with unemployment rising and demands for austerity growing, Europe's workers are becoming increasingly restive.

Italy's beleaguered car giant Fiat abruptly suspended production across all its Italian plants this week, laying off a workforce of 30,000 people for two weeks and further closures are forecast for next month.

In Europe, the people are beginning to fight back against one of the most extreme redistributions of wealth from the bottom to the top in recent memory. As anticipated by the author of the Independent article, Sean O'Grady, the people of Greece are leading the way:

For trade unions the mass show of force was a warning shot to a government struggling to satisfy its eurozone partners with policies deemed vital for the nation's fiscal health while appeasing angry workers at home.

This is the red line, said Nikos Goulas, head of a union that represents 20,000 workers at Athens international airport. Greece is not Ireland. If the government does not back down there will be huge unrest, he added, holding a banner that proclaimed: As much as you terrorise us, these measures won't pass.

The protests came against a backdrop of mounting Greek hostility towards the EU, with particular venom reserved for Germany, which has pressed for harder measures to be forced on Athens.

Greece's political elite has been outraged and hurt by hard-hitting German media coverage of the debt crisis. The cover of a German magazine, Focus, which showed the Venus de Milo making a less than complimentary finger gesture under the headline Swindlers in the eurozone has triggered widespread fury.

In an extraordinary tirade, the deputy prime minister, Theodore Pangalos, said Germany had no right to judge Greek finances after wreaking havoc on the economy during the four years that the country was under Nazi occupation in the second world war. Worse still, he said, Germany had failed to make adequate compensation.

They took away the Greek gold that was at the Bank of Greece, they took away the Greek money and they never gave it back. This is an issue that has to be faced sometime, he told the BBC.

I don't think they have to give back the money necessarily but they have at least to say thanks. And they shouldn't complain so much about stealing and not being very specific about economic dealings.

Germans should know better than to call others swindlers, that's a pejorative term that the Nazis used to describe Jews, and it is understandable that Greeks have responded with hostility.

Furthermore, the Greeks no doubt recognize that they have been left holding the bag after Wall Street financial firms, like, yes, you guessed it, Goldman Sachs, facilitated the dodgy financial practices of the government:

Wall Street tactics akin to the ones that fostered subprime mortgages in America have worsened the financial crisis shaking Greece and undermining the euro by enabling European governments to hide their mounting debts.

Gary D. Cohn, president of Goldman Sachs, went to Athens to pitch complex products to defer debt. Such deals let Greece continue deficit spending, like a consumer with a second mortgage.

As worries over Greece rattle world markets, records and interviews show that with Wall Street’s help, the nation engaged in a decade-long effort to skirt European debt limits. One deal created by Goldman Sachs helped obscure billions in debt from the budget overseers in Brussels.

Even as the crisis was nearing the flashpoint, banks were searching for ways to help Greece forestall the day of reckoning. In early November — three months before Athens became the epicenter of global financial anxiety — a team from Goldman Sachs arrived in the ancient city with a very modern proposition for a government struggling to pay its bills, according to two people who were briefed on the meeting.

The bankers, led by Goldman’s president, Gary D. Cohn, held out a financing instrument that would have pushed debt from Greece’s health care system far into the future, much as when strapped homeowners take out second mortgages to pay off their credit cards.

It had worked before. In 2001, just after Greece was admitted to Europe’s monetary union, Goldman helped the government quietly borrow billions, people familiar with the transaction said. That deal, hidden from public view because it was treated as a currency trade rather than a loan, helped Athens to meet Europe’s deficit rules while continuing to spend beyond its means.

For more on the role of Goldman, and the investment climate that nurtured it, consider these two posts over at naked capitalism, this one by Edward Harrison, originally posted at Credit Writedowns, and this one by Yves Smith as well as an exoneration of Goldman by Felix Salmon.

But, as noted by Smith, the problem has expanded far beyond the manipulations of a transnational brokerage house like Goldman. Consider, for example, the invovation of the Doomsday Cycle by Peter Boone, a research associate with the Center for Economic Performance ("CEPR"), London School of Economics, and Simon Johnson, a Professor of Entrepreneurship, Sloan School of Management, MIT and CEPR Research Fellow:

What will happen when the next shock hits? We believe we may be nearing the stage where the answer will be – just as it was in the Great Depression – a calamitous global collapse. The root problem is that we have let a ‘doomsday cycle’ infiltrate our economic system.

The doomsday cycle has several simple stages. At the start, creditors and depositors provide banks with cheap funding in the expectation that if things go very wrong, our central banks and fiscal authorities will bail them out. Banks such as Lehman Brothers – and many others in this past cycle – use the funds to take large risks, with the aim of providing dividends and bonuses to shareholders and management.

Through direct subsidies (such as deposit insurance) and indirect support (such as central bank bailouts), we encourage our banking system to ignore large, socially harmful ‘tail risks’ – those risks where there is a small chance of calamitous collapse. As far as banks are concerned, they can walk away and let the state clean it up. Some bankers and policymakers even do well during the collapse that they helped to create.

Martin Wolf of the Financial Times isn't much more optimistic:

Anybody who looks carefully at the world economy will recognise that a degree of monetary and fiscal stimulus unprecedented in peacetime is all that is prodding it along, not only in high-income countries, but also in big emerging ones. The conventional wisdom is that it will also be possible to manage a smooth exit. Nothing seems less likely.

Wolf concludes, as he has done before, that the way out requires an emphasis upon investment instead of credit fueled consumption, but as Smith observes, similar to what I posted here over a year or so ago, that doesn't sound very plausible, especially within the context of a country like the US, where such investment would require a substantial decline in the standard of living for a protracted period.

For now, the emphasis is admittedly upon sub-proletarianization, but for the benefit of transnational financial institutions like, Goldman, and not for manufacturers like, say, GM, Intel, Samsung and Siemens. Such an expropriation of wealth will constitute yet another form of subsidization of speculative financial transactions that will make the eventual global collapse even more severe, with the middle and lower classes suffering even more miserably than they do today. The notion that such subsidization may well be endemic to capitalism, necessitating even more radical solutions, doesn't seem to have occurred to these analysts who are otherwise well attuned to the contours of the current crisis.

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Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous 

Or, what really aggravates the wealthy other than declines in their investment portfolios and the prospect of increased taxes. Please consider reading the comments to the linked article to get the full flavor of it, as well as other recent entries by Michael Bauer. Am I the only person that considers foodies to be self-absorbed to the point of narcissism?

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Free Fire Zone Afghanistan (Part 6) 

Yet another deadly air strike in Afghanistan:

U.S. Special Operations Forces ordered an airstrike that killed at least 27 civilians in southern Afghanistan and the soldiers may not have satisfied rules of engagement designed to avoid the killing of innocents, Afghan and coalition officials said Monday.

The airstrike Sunday hit a group of minibuses in a remote part of the south near the border between Uruzgan and Daykundi provinces. The area is hundreds of miles from Marjah, where the largest allied offensive since 2001 is now in its second week. But the airstrike nonetheless illustrated one of the major problems for coalition forces as they try to win over civilians in Marjah and across Afghanistan: figuring out who is a civilian and who is an insurgent—and not killing the civilians.

It also underscored the risks of the expanding use of Special Operations Forces, whose primary mission is hunting down Taliban, as the leading edge of the fight against the insurgents. Many Special Operations missions by their very nature emphasize the use of violent force, and coalition officials say they have led to a string of recent successes against valuable targets.

Apparently, General McCrystal is having some difficulty communicating the new policy about minimizing civilian casualties in the field. Or, could it possibly be that the purported new policy has only been announced for public relations purposes in the US?

On the ground in Afghanistan, it seems that the war is being fought as it has always been fought, by attempting to instill fear in the civilian populace through the application of indiscriminate violence. In this instance, the intention is pretty clear. Special Forces fired upon any transport on the highway to send a strong message that it was a free fire zone and that anyone who traveled along it did so at the risk of their lives. They weren't overly concerned whether non-combatants were in the minibuses or not, as long as the Taliban got the message.

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Sunday, February 21, 2010

Celebrate the 2010 Winter Olympics (Part 2) 

I missed this last week. Apparently, the Olympic flame has been kept under a sort of house arrest:

They came by the thousands to get a photo with the Olympic flame. They had to settle for a shot of the Olympic fence.

The chain-link wall keeping the unwashed away from the outdoor Olympic cauldron is a menacing doozy, maybe 10 feet high and peaked with sharp prongs. It's more North Korea than West Coast Canada, but there it is, fronting a demilitarized zone the size of a football field that separates the flame from the public's closest vantage point.

And in the minds of many who went to the scene on Sunday, it carried this message: These Olympics are in Canada, but they're not ours.

It's so incredibly wrong, said Alex, a Vancouver businessman who didn't want to give his surname. What always ticks me off is the officials and the dignitaries, they can go past (the fence). But that's my money over there. I'm paying taxes, big time, for this.

Indeed, while a few lucky souls with credentials to the adjacent International Broadcast Centre snapped pictures by the cauldron, the rest of us had to settle for poking zoom lenses through mesh.

It's sad, said Brianne Boehm, an 18-year-old studying at the University of Victoria. It's supposed to be for everyone.

As one might expect, the IOC responded with an inadequate face saving solution that failed to dissipate public dissatisfaction:

Now, organizers have opened an observation deck on the roof of a nearby building. From there, visitors can get clean I was there shots.

But getting there is another story.

You now have to wait, and wait, and wait in a line that usually takes an hour — all the while listening to someone shout instructions through a bullhorn.

It's better than things were. But it's not exactly ideal — and some visitors are still grumbling, calling the new setup a joke and a tease.

If you click on the link for this story (here it is, again), you can also watch an entertaining video of people complaining about having to stand in line for about an hour to take a picture of it, with one person acidly observing that such paranoid security is not Vancouver.

Oh, but it is. Perhaps, this is what some call an educational moment, when people are confronted with things as they are, not as they would wish them to be. Limiting access to the flame to political, economic and social dignataries is a perfect encapsulation of the corporatized, autocratic philosophy of the IOC. And, consistent with such a philosophy, the IOC has demanded a substantial amount of public subsidy from various Canadian governmental entities. It is essential for the populace to pay for the privilege of hosting international elites.

Brianne Boehm naively believed that the Games are supposed to be for everyone, but the IOC, since its inception, has always organized them around the opposite principle. It is rare to see athletes at the Winter Games from lower middle class and poor backgrounds, and, of course, it is impossible to attend the events unless you are either pretty well off financially or willing to incur significant debt. Even most Vancouver residents find it financially challenging to attend Olympic events.

Indeed, the Games aren't even for Vancouver, instead, the city merely serves as a scenic backdrop for the IOC and multinational television networks to make millions of dollars by broadcasting events, often edited and tape delayed, to an enormous, passive global consumer audience. As I said in 2008, just prior to the Summer Olympics in Beijing: The Olympic Torch has therefore become the symbol of the dominant neoliberal economic order. If Alex, the businessman who was unwilling to give his last name (perhaps, for fear of financial retribution in tolerant Vancouver?), is any indication, even some of the bourgeoisie are rejecting it, if only because they find themselves taxed to pay for it.

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Thursday, February 18, 2010

The Broken Stick 

The recent split in the Socialist Workers Party in Britain, initiated by the departure of long time leadership figure Lindsey German, has precipitated a round of soul searching that may ultimately be beneficial to it, and the broader left as a whole. For those of you who want the complete blow by blow account, go here and here and here in addition to the Splintered Sunrise link already provided. Obsessives who work their way through to the last one from Luna 17, a blog with posts by Alex Snowden, a participant in the Left Platform group that abandoned the SWP, will be amused by the fact that two of his posts on the subject have been scrubbed clean of comments, while a third one allowed none at all from the inception.

As activists know, splits within political groups can be as painful, and sometimes even more painful, than the end of a relationship. Invariably, the personal and political become confused, as ideological, tactical and organizational differences are enmeshed with an accumulation of personal resentments. For this reason, it is difficult for people on the outside to initially understand the reasons for the split as the differences don't appear very significant in the absence of the personal dimension. The comment sections of the posts linked above are full of ones in which the dirty laundry is hung out to dry in full public view. Quite consciously, I don't call them petty disputes, because, for people who have dedicated their lives to radical politics within a particular group or party, such personal conflicts have a centrality in their lives that they otherwise wouldn't.

Despite over 100 years of trying to figure it out, Marxist-Leninists have not found a way round this intersection of the personal and the political and the destructive consequences that often ensue. Far Left at Splintered Sunrise lays it out for us:

So, are we just scraping the barrel in terms of human material, or are there explicable reasons? I like to think it’s the latter. It’s not innate but a learned behaviour, traceable back to the left’s social isolation but also ensuring it can’t escape that isolation. There are issues about groups with fantastically grandiose perspectives – small far-left groups most real people have never heard of, but who aspire to overthrow every government in the world – but whose lack of impact in society at large means their posturing carries with it very little in the way of consequences. Allied to that is a cod-Leninism – which is really a cod-Machiavellianism without the merits of either Lenin or Machiavelli – which disdains personal probity as just bourgeois moralism, which preaches that the ends justify any means, and which carries with it a highly elitist view of leadership. There are many worse examples out there than Lindsey German, but when I hear talk about bending the stick, seizing the key link in the chain or the small cog moving the big cog, a shiver runs up my spine and I wonder who’s about to be shafted.

The Platypus Affliated Society encourages us to return to Marx, Lenin, Luxemborg, Trotsky and Adorno to understand why the current left is dead, and what sort of new left can emerge to replace it. But Far Left may have already shortened the path to understanding considerably. A leftism that encourages its most prominent activists and intellectuals, such as, according to Far Left, Tony Cliff in the 1960s and 1970s, to paint a social portrait of Lenin that conforms to them, so as to justify otherwise contradictory and self-aggrandizing actions, no longer has any allure, if it ever really did. After all, if your activist experience reveals to you that the vanguard is composed of several people that you don't consider personally reliable in your daily life, you might just have some apprehension about collectivizing the economy and turning it over to their control.

This is the hidden pillar that buttresses capitalism, the willingness of people to accept its grotesque excesses as the price for preserving their limited and conditional personal autonomy. The outward appearance of its fragmentation provides a reassuring contrast to the concentrated egoism of Marxist-Leninism. It is a form of class consciousness in the negative, based upon an acceptance of the tyranny of capital over the assumption of power by a few who claim a special, scientific insight into how society should be structured.

Of course, this is not a new perspective. Anarchists have been saying something along these lines since the Bolsheviks began to concentrate power within themselves after the October Revolution. But it deserves repetition. In theory, anarchists consider the means by which the revolution is carried out as important as the outcome, because they believe that a better, alternative society cannot be created by a recourse to the methods of coercion that make capitalism objectionable. Now, in practice, things don't always turn out that way, human nature being what it is, but at least, they recognize the problem, and strive to overcome it. There are no shortage of anarchist publications, such as this and this, focused upon the theme of democratizing decision making processes and social relations.

But is there a more profound dimension to it? One anarchist novelist recently said, I distrust any activists who don't read fiction. The remark struck a nerve with me, because I have had a similar experience with political activists generally, that the ones who were disinterested in various forms of cultural expression, like theatre, film and literature, were the most rigid and intolerant. There is a relativism in such creations that enhances one's perception of the world and one's place in it. Such relativism is not incompatible with radical left beliefs, one need only look at the novels of Tariq Ali and Victor Serge as examples of the harmonization of it. One of the reasons that I post book reviews and film notes on this site is to encourage people to recognize that politics and culture are interrelated aspects of a broader social vision. If only I could get visitors to the site to read them as much as my political posts.

The development of such a vision is certainly urgent. As Eric Hobsbawm said in the most recent New Left Review:

Can you envisage any political recomposition of what was once the working class?

Not in traditional form. Marx was undoubtedly right in predicting the formation of major class parties at a certain stage of industrialization. But these parties, if they were successful, were operating not purely as working-class parties: if they wanted to extend beyond a narrow class, they did so as people’s parties, structured around an organization invented by and for the purposes of the working class. Even so, there were limits to class consciousness. In Britain, the Labour Party never got beyond 50 per cent of the vote. The same is true in Italy, where the pci was much more of a people’s party. In France, the left was based on a relatively weak working class, but one which happened to be politically reinforced by the great revolutionary tradition, of which it managed to make itself the essential successor—and that gave it and the left far more leverage.

The decline of the manual working class in industry does seem terminal. There are, or will be, plenty of people left doing manual work, and defence of their conditions remains a major task for all left governments. But it can no longer be the principal foundation of their hopes: they no longer have, even in theory, political potential, because they lack the potential for organization of the old working class. There have been three other major negative developments. One is, of course, xenophobia—which, for most of the working class is, as Bebel once put it, ‘the socialism of fools’: safeguard my job against people who are competing with me. The weaker the labour movement is, the more xenophobia appeals. Second, a lot of manual labour and work in what the British Civil Service used to call ‘minor and manipulative grades’ is not permanent, it’s temporary: students or migrants, working in catering, for instance. And therefore it’s not easy to see it as potentially organizable. The only readily organizable form of that kind of labour is that employed by public authorities, and this is because those authorities are politically vulnerable.

The third and most important development, in my view, is the growing divide produced by a new class criterion—namely, passing examinations in schools and universities as an entry ticket into jobs. This is, if you like, meritocracy; but it is measured, institutionalized and mediated by educational systems. What this has done is to divert class consciousness from opposition to employers to opposition to toffs of one kind or another—intellectuals, liberal elites, people who are putting it over on us. America is a standard example of this, but it’s not absent in the uk, if you look at the British press. The fact that, increasingly, getting a PhD or at least being a postgraduate also gives you a better chance of getting millions complicates the situation a bit.

Is this not an acknowledgement, by one of the most highly regarded leftist intellectuals of the 20th Century, that Marxist-Leninism is now an antiquated form of political action? For, if the working class as understood by Marx no longer exists, and cannot be reconstituted, then how can it be effectively mobilized by a revolutionary vanguard? It would seem that a new integration of theory and practice is required to adapt to contemporary conditions.

FOOTNOTE: Long time readers may also be amused by the discovery that the purported ultra-leftism of Left Platform advocate, and former SWP member, Lindsey German manifests itself practically by an insistence upon the importance of voting Labour in the anticipated election in the United Kingdom.

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Tuesday, February 16, 2010

BOOK REVIEW: Beijing Coma 

Yes, every now and then, I do actually read something that appears on a New York Times list of notable books, although, invariably, a year or two after the fact. For me, I consider the discovery of any interesting book to be a contemporary event, regardless of when it was published, because, somewhat egotistically, I consider myself the referent, not the book. I don't segregate books that were published in the past into a cultural ghetto, and I don't dismiss movies released in the past merely because of the technological limitations of their production and distribution.

So, in this instance, I kept running into Ma Jian's Beijing Coma in bookstores for the last couple of years, but couldn't bring myself to purchase it because I had a long list of other books to read. I was also wary of American praise as American critics have a tendency to evaluate literature about China primarily in terms of individual resistance to the government. As a consequence, they are blind to a subject about which the Chinese have long been well aware, namely, the voluntary participation of Chinese people in the worst excesses of the regime. Consider, for example, this review by Jess Rowe in the New York Times, or this excellent one by Christine Smallwood in the Los Angeles Times. Both implicitly separate the individual from the repressive society in which they live, a separation that is never quite so evident in real life.

But, finally, I succumbed when I came across a discounted copy and purchased it. I remembered that Ma Jian first emerged on the international literary scene with his remarkable account of his underground travel across China in the mid-1980s, Red Dust, and hoped that there was much more to the novel than related by critics. There is. As the novel begins, the protagonist, Dai Wei, lies in a coma, as he has done for over 10 years after being shot in the head during the military suppression of the Tiananmen Square protests in June 1989. Unbenownst to those around him, including his mother, who cares for him, he can perceive the world around him, even though he cannot move and cannot speak.

The narrative proceeds in a contrapuntal movement, with the experiences and expectations of Dai Wei's youth contrasted with those while immobilized. It is a masterful way of bringing out the contradictions of a person's life within the context of the world around them. By doing so, Jian tells a story of redemption, a story whereby Dai Wei comes to know the people of China and bond with them. But, to recognize this, the reader must be attuned to one of the more subtle themes of the sections regarding his youth, his self-hatred for being Chinese. Dai Wei comes from a family of classically trained musicians, and expresses sentiments about many things, but this one is too sensitive, and he never addresses it directly. Instead, it emerges, as it does with many of his university friends, through their fascination with American culture, as synthesized and imported into the country from Hong Kong and Taiwan, his recollections of his father's imprisonment as a rightist and, most specifically, through his encounter with someone investigating the Cultural Revolution in Guangxi Province.

While on vacation from school, Dai Wei finds Dr. Song, a doctor that treated his father while incarcerated in a reeducation camp there. Song explains how he discovered numerous episodes of brutality after being selected to investigate the Cultural Revolution in Guangxi, including one where villagers ate the flesh of bad elements to demonstrate their revolutionary ardor. The thread that runs through all of Song's stories is not the extremism of those who ignited the Cultural Revolution, but, rather, the intensification of it by people determined to purify society by any means necessary. Curiously, given that Jian has a deserved reputation for morbid parody, critics have assumed that the cannibalism episode has a factual basis of some kind, even if only as a composite, ignoring the possibility that it may serve as a gothic fable of the revolution literally eating its own. In any event, many of Dai Wei's friends in college, especially the ones that he makes during his undergraduate education in south China, are driven by an emotional dialectic centered around the difficulty of reconciling their Chinese identity with the ostracism that they have experienced as the children of parents and relatives considered class enemies.

Such an interpretation of the novel leads the reader to perceive some of the more important aspects of the 1989 student movement in a new light. For example, Bai Ling's insistence upon adopting the tactic of the hunger strike, its embrace by thousands of students in Tiananmen Square and the simultaneous decision of some students to take advantage of opportunities to go to the US reveal the desperation of the students as they sought escape from the seemingly irreconciliable dilemma of being Chinese through death or departure. Jian, as a person who returned from Hong Kong to participate in the protests, is critical of the decision to launch the hunger strike, rightly characterizing it as one that permanently foreclosed any prospect for a mediated resolution of the crisis, but there is arguably something more much serious here, an understanding by Jian that the hunger strike exposed the movement as one fueled by schizophrenia as well as concrete political aspirations. Dai Wei was caught in the middle, a ubiquitous presence around the square in his role as organizer of security, yet someone who, by conscious decision, refused to participate in the process, such as it was, by which decisions were made.

Through the alternation of chapters relating Dai Wei's life as a student, and ones describing his subsequent experience while paralyzed, Jian brings to mind the Biblical injunction: When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me. Prior to being shot by an undercover cop, Dai Wei was a precocious child, but, as he suffered through his immobility, and the humiliations that came with it, he becomes a man, emotionally bonding with the people that he involuntarily encounters. He overcomes his resentment towards his mother, despite her inconsistency in properly caring for him, as he observes her isolation and humiliation despite having been a loyal Party member throughout her life. As he sits in his bed day after day, he comes into contact with those he and his student friends presumed to liberate, nurses, migrants, construction workers and elderly pensioners living off the pittance provided by the government.

In other words, Dai Wei learns about the day to day lives of all those people that the student movement failed to effectively reach during the spring of 1989, and becomes one of them. He, along with his mother, struggle with them to survive Deng's reforms throughout the 1990s, as the choices of the emerging market economy merely serve to make their lives more insecure and difficult. The cost of his medical care pushes his mother to the point of insolvency, while a public/private partnership of politicians and real estate developers destroy one of the last remaining vestiges of the iron rice bowl, their home. One is tempted to describe this as a descent into lumpen proletarianism, but it is more accurately described as the life of someone forced to live in a social world that has been informalized.

Hence, through Dai Wei, Jian suggests that the spring of 1989 was a missed opportunity for China to move in a more compassionate, socially inclusive direction. But the students in the square were too immersed in romantic entanglements and sectarian conflict to connect with the populace beyond it. The longer they stayed there, the more arrogantly they conducted themselves towards those who came to support them, and the more they splintered into various committees that squabbled amongst one another for control. In this respect, the students, many of whom had parents victimized during the anti-rightist campaign and the Cultural Revolution, subconsciously mimicked the political behaviour passed down to them. They were so removed from the reality of the daily lives of most Chinese that they could not communicate with them, as given allegorical expression by Jian when a passionate man from a provincial region, perhaps Sichuan or Shanxi, insists that he be allowed to speak to the assembled students in the square.

After a discussion, the students in command of the radio station allow him to speak after he offers 10,000 yuan for the privilege. Money flowed freely in the square, coming from all over China and Hong Kong, but no one could keep track of it, much less direct its expenditure, perhaps another parable by Jian, this time about the capitalization of protest. In this instance, the students took the money and allowed the man to speak for about 5 minutes, but finally turned off the microphone because his dialect was incomprehensible. It never occurred to them that the problem was not that he couldn't speak to them in a way that was understandable, but that they were incapable of hearing what he had to say. Students, like Dai Wei and his girlfriend, Tian Yi, could thoughtfully address these sorts of problems when speaking together within the boundaries of their personal relationships, but seemingly lost the ability to do so within larger groups.

Herein lies the tragedy of 1989 and the subsequent neoliberalization of China. Many, including Dai Wei's mother, found solace in Falun Gong. This is an aspect of the novel that doesn't seem to draw much critical attention. Surprisingly, Jian presents the allure of it for people like Dai Wei's mother sympathetically, through characters suffused with a warmth and humility that is, with a few exceptions, lacking in the participants in the student movement. Or, more accurately, lacking until the movement is violently suppressed, and they are expelled from the utopian life of protest, where all things are seemingly possible, into one in which they must make painful choices, if they are lucky enough to have choices at all. Jian is more empathetic to those caught up in the crackdown on Falun Gong, like Dai Wei's mother and her mentor, than he is to the victims of Tiananmen, primarily, it seems, because the adherents of Falun Gong were only seizing upon an erzatz spirituality to alleviate the insecurity of their daily lives.

Falun Gong and the student movement are therefore opposite sides of the same coin of liberation. As elaborated by Jian, the practitioners of Falon Gong acted compassionately towards one another in the service of a religion that falsely attributed all sorts of powers to those who scrupulously followed its precepts, while the students conducted themselves in an elitist fashion towards those they purportedly represented, even though they did have, as Marxists used to say, the right line, or, at least, a lot closer to it than Falun Gong. The novel concludes as Dai Wei is about to awake as a new man, and leaves us with the question, is he now someone capable of bridging this gap, or merely someone who, like many others before him, will find a way to enrich himself and separate himself from the misery around him.

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Sunday, February 14, 2010

Celebrate the 2010 Winter Olympics (Part 1) 

The Eastside of Vancouver is the epicenter of hostility to the 2010 Winter Olympics. As noted by Harsha Walia of the Olympic Resistance Network:

We see that the Games have been overrun with a budget of over $7 billion; indigenous lands continue to be exploited and stolen, with ski resort development all across British Columbia; increasing poverty and criminalization of the poor in the Downtown Eastside; a massive cutback in public spending; and an increasing budget for policing and militarization here in Vancouver. We have $1 billion that are being sunk into a military-police state in the lead-up to the Olympics.

Or, as noted by Harjap Grewal of the Network:

We don’t see the Olympics industry as being that much different than these other institutions that are unaccountable to the people of the world. The IOC is like the WTO. The IOC is like the IMF, is like the World Bank. And it encourages the transfer of wealth from public hands to private pockets.

Precisely. And, not surprisingly, you find the same kind of people, governments and corporations associated with all three of them.

On Friday night, I watched some of the opening ceremony on television. One of the most shocking things about it was the offensive expropriation of the First Nations to define the event. As with the Summer Games in Sydney in 2000, the Canadiens have been shameless in exploiting indigenous people to manufacture a facade of multicultural harmony after stealing much of their land and killing them in large numbers. It seems that the more a country has abused a particular community, the more suitable it is for a prominent role in the marketing of the Games.

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Saturday, February 13, 2010

A Few Did the Right Thing 

While many seized upon the internment of Japanese Americans to grab farms in the Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys at bargain basement prices, as they did up and down the West Coast, a few recognized how they were being victimized, and took over their farms until the war ended:

One crisp, bright morning last week, two old friends gazed lovingly at a scruffy field in south Sacramento. A few gnarled walnut trees and a thick pine are all that's left of Marielle Tsukamoto's lush family farm in what was old Florin town.

Once filled with roses, persimmons, strawberries and sweet flame Tokay grapes, the field is Tsukamoto's monument to all that's good about the human spirit.

That spirit's name is Bob Fletcher, a lanky 6-footer who stepped up to save three Japanese family farms – including this one – when 3,000 Sacramentans of Japanese descent were sent to internment camps in May 1942.

Most were U.S. citizens. After the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, many lost everything – their homes, farms, jobs, dignity and pride in being Americans.

Fewer then 200 came back to Sacramento, and Florin became a ghost town.

But Fletcher, an agricultural inspector and University of California, Davis, grad, couldn't stand to see their hard work go to waste.

"I did know a few of them pretty well and never did agree with the evacuation," said Fletcher, now 98. "They were the same as anybody else. It was obvious they had nothing to do with Pearl Harbor."

So he quit his job and worked 90 acres belonging to the Tsukamotos, Nittas and Okamotos until they came home from camp in 1945.

I have a friend whose uncle did something similar. Such actions by whites were not without risk, as Fletcher discovered:

Fletcher was called a "Jap lover" and was nearly hit by a bullet fired into Tsukamoto's barn.

"When my dad asked about the bullet hole after the war, Bob said it was a hunting accident, but my dad said, 'You don't shoot pheasants with a .22,' " Marielle Tsukamoto said.

"We don't want Japs back here–EVER," read one sign posted at a local business.

The scars of the internment run so deep in California that, on the night on 9/11, former Secretary of State Warren Christopher, a Californian, warned against doing something similar to Arabs and Muslims. I still remember what another friend told me about how the internment unfolded in South Berkeley, a segregated neighborhood of African Americans and Japanese Americans where her father, grandmother and grandfather lived in early 1942 before being sent to the camps: the only people who came by to express sadness were black people. Whites, even those from families for which her grandmother and grandfather had worked, were nowhere to be found.

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Friday, February 12, 2010

Olympic High Modernism 

In his eccentric, pathbreaking book, Seeing Like a State, James Scott examined what he identified as the authoritarian high modernism of the 20th Century, a form of modernism marked by an extreme tendency to impose technocratic solutions upon a populace reduced to fungibility. Authoritarian high modernists had two obsessions: the rationalization of the city and agriculture. After the catastrophic failures of collectivization, they have, by and large, abandoned the countryside, leaving it to the ongoing encroachment of agribusiness, but their fixation upon the city remains.

Curiously, perhaps because its ostensible purpose is sports entertainment, the Olympics endures as one of the sanctuaries of high modernist urban aspirations, and this is evident in the 2010 Winter Olympics about to commence in Vancouver. Vancouver has a deserved reputation as a socially vibrant place, and, yet, it is precisely this vibrance that must be eradicated in order for the Olympics to go forward. In this respect, it recalls the famous example of the 19th Century reconstruction of Paris by Baron Haussmann, briefly discussed by Scott in State.

Just as Haussmann was driven to try to extinguish every aspect of social unpredictability and transgression, the International Olympic Committee and government officials must likewise attempt to sanitize Vancouver and the surrounding areas of such pathologies in order to make it suitable for the event to go forward. Of course, unlike Haussmann in Paris, they cannot rebuild many of the objectionable parts of Vancouver from the ground up. In the early 21st Century, that would be too costly and engender too much opposition. They must limit their developmental ambitions to the Olympic Village and the venues where the athletes will compete for medals. Furthermore, they understand, as Haussmann, and later, Le Corbusier, did not, that there is a limited correlation between the objectionable aspects of human behaviour and urban architecture. But they believe that they can achieve similar results through the imposition of social control measures, and this they have done without remorse. Indeed, we may fairly say that the substitution of intangible social control measures for the physicality of urban design is a defining feature of contemporary high modernism.

Internally, the IOC imposes strict controls upon athletes, spectators, and, implicitly, the people who work within the Olympic Village and specific competitive sites. Athletes may act only in accordance with one purpose, to compete in a way that glamorizes the Olympics and their corporate sponsors. They are not allowed to have any political or social opinions that run contrary to it, except for mild, innocuous expressions of nationalism. Spectators may only attend in order to enjoy the Olympics as a once in a lifetime experience and cheer for their favorite athletes. And, of course, the workers are there to ensure that the trains run on time. As observed by Jules Boykoff, all are expressly prohibited from expressing any kind of anti-Olympic dissent by the IOC official charter. The Olympics are one of the most heavily corporate sponsored activities in the world, and the prohibition is necessary to reduce the prospects for public exposure of it as a corporate utopia in which people have been stripped of all individuality and reduced to the roles of spectator, service worker and performer. The IOC, their corporate sponsers and government enablers loathe spontaneity.

In State, Scott observed that, as the attainment of the initial transformative intentions of high modernist projects became implausible, their promoters miniaturized them into models, model farms, model housing projects, model schools. It was as if the proponents sought to preserve their dreams for another day when they could be attained. But the Olympics constitute a model in which the momentum is in the other direction, and, as such, constitutes the emergence of a postmodern adaption of an essentially modernist project. In Vancouver, the IOC has persuaded government officials to import its authoritarianism into the surrounding communities. According to Boycoff:

In 2003 Olympic boosters low-balled their estimate for the Olympic security budget at $175 million. Since then, security costs have ballooned to almost $1 billion, with taxpayers on the hook for a huge chunk of it. Much of this money has been spent on the Vancouver Integrated Security Unit (ISU), created specifically for the Olympics in 2003 by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP). Comprised of groups like the Vancouver Police Department, the RCMP, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS—Canada’s top spy organization), and the Department of National Defense, the ISU patently shatters the thin glass wall between policing and military activity.

As the Olympics approach, the ISU has made numerous moves to intimidate activists and gather intelligence on them. For starters, there is a concern among activists and civil libertarians that ISU officials are infiltrating activist groups and that these undercover agents lack proper safeguards guiding their actions. In February 2009 B.C. Civil Liberties Association President Rob Holmes wrote letters to CSIS and the ISU asking for assurance that agents would not inflame tensions and tactics as agents provocateur or attempt to influence the political direction, policy positions, or internal discussions of any organizations infiltrated by security forces. In clipped, written responses, both CSIS and ISU officials refused to rule out the possibility that their infiltrating agents would break the law or try to assume leadership positions within anti-Olympic groups.

Law enforcement officials have also frequented the homes and workplaces of anti-Olympics activists as part of their threat assessment program. On January 20, 2010, ISU personnel visited the workspace of Vancouver-based dissident Franklin Lopez. An hour earlier, Lopez had filmed a public talk that political sportswriter Dave Zirin delivered at the Maritime Labour Centre in Vancouver. To be honest, Lopez told me, I was not surprised, being that most people that I have been involved with either through friendship or through organizing have been visited, some multiple times.

First Nations activist Gord Hill was also visited by the ISU’s Joint Intelligence Group after he offered strongly worded criticism of the Olympics in the media. It should be noted that the Olympics are taking place on unceded indigenous territory—hence, the slogan No Olympics on Stolen Native Land is plastered on kiosks across Vancouver, which sits on unceded Coast Salish territory. ISU officials visited Hill’s residence in October 2009, leaving their business cards when they did not find him home. Hill, from the Kwakwaka’wakw nation, promptly plunked images of these cards online along with an account he penned, Statement by Gord Hill Regarding Visits by Olympic Police Agents.

Canada has also refused to permit activists and alternative media participants from the US from entering the country after subjecting them to interrogation. Boycoff relates how Vancouver police are so obsessed with preventing the subversion of the transcendent IOC message of a joyful world of athletic competition that they are removing homeless people from the streets of the impoverished Eastside and arresting people for jaywalking, unlicensed street vending and, worst of all, putting up anti-Olympic posters on poles.

There is, however, an alternative to the passive, repressive social vision of the IOC and those within government who embrace it. It is an approach that celebrates unpredictability, spontaneity, diversity, and, most importantly, participation:

Reclaim the Streets often stage non-violent direct action street reclaiming events such as the 'invasion' of a major road, highway or freeway to stage a party. While this may obstruct the regular users of these spaces such as car drivers and public bus riders, the philosophy of RTS is that it is vehicle traffic, not pedestrians, who are causing the obstruction, and that by occupying the road they are in fact opening up public space. The events are usually spectacular and colourful, with sand pits for kids to play in, free food and music.

Or, as expressed by Reclaim the Streets London:

The street
is an
out of the street
The idea
to keep

on the curbstone
"should I play it safe
and stay on the
should I
go into the street?"
the most risks
that will ultimately
effect the change in society

New Orleans Reclaim the Streets recently blockaded Canal Street to create a police free zone as a contrast to ineffectual policies of arrest and incarceration, as described in this flyer:

So, What’s Wrong with prisons anyway:

-Louisiana has the highest incarceration rate in the U.S., yet we are no safer.

-Louisiana has the highest arrest rate in the U.S., yet we are no safer.

-The Angola 3 are still in prison, yet we are no safer.

-We spend more on police and prisons, yet our communities are never protected from the violence that is poverty, war, racism, sexism, and homophobia. In fact, these communities are disproportionately targeted by the very system claiming to exist for their protection.

-We spend more on police, but no one protects our communities from the destruction of our homes for private hospitals, new condos, and “mixed-income” developments.

It was, no doubt, confirmation of what Reclaim the Streets London blanded observed in 2007: The Reclaim the Streets idea has grown up and left home. Street parties and suchlike often happen without anyone in RTS London hearing about them until afterwards.

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Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Vote or Die (Part 7.5) 

[Explantory Note: Vote or Die is a periodic, ongoing series of posts that challenges the conventional liberal perspective that the electoral process constitutes a plausible means for people to compel the government to implement policies for their benefit, as first explained here. The term Vote or Die is an ironic reference to a comment someone posted on this blog to the effect that the choice in the 2008 presidential election was to either vote or die. For anyone interested in previous posts in this series, click on the Vote or Die label at the bottom of this post.]

Some of you may recall my recent reference to T's analysis over at Pink Scare on the limitations of the electoral process in a capitalist system:

Thus, if you're committed to human emancipation, if you're committed to radically rethinking economic and social organization, Trotsky's worry is that you cannot accomplish this within the parameters of parliamentary procedures under capitalism.

Here's the argument for why this might be the case. Holders of economic power can make use of this power outside of the electoral arena. Capitalists can make threats. They lay off politically active workers that are 'trouble makers', they can move their operations to other places, they can close factories, they can threaten democratically-elected governments with disinvestment, layoffs, etc. They may purchase and privately control and own media institutions. Economic power is not relinquished without a fight. And even when regulations and limits are imposed upon capitalists, they will relentlessly deploy their economic power to game the system and find ways to get the limits and regulations repealed. Witness the slicing and dicing of the regulatory apparatus put in place in the 1930s over the period from 1973-present. It took a while, but their incessant pressure and efforts eventually paid off.

It is also crucial to point out here that the struggle to reconfigure economic power via electoral institutions never occurs on a level, fair playing field. This struggle always occurs within a social formation already organized around concentrations of class power. Moreover, even when a progressive left-wing government is elected, it runs up against the entrenched extra-electoral power of capitalists. An instructive case study here is socialist head of state Salvador Allende in Chile circa 1970-73.

Allende was elected by a broad coalition of center-left and left-wing parties in Chile amidst uproar from the landed elites and ruling classes in Chile. When Allende tried to reform economic institutions and put land reform into law, his efforts were stonewalled and sabotaged by economic elites who used their power to "go on strike", lay off workers, suffocate the economy and try to bring the country to its knees.

Now, entering stage left is lenin over at Lenin's Tomb, with a well timed post that couldn't be more germane to the subject:

The current speculative attack on the Euro is a very powerful vote against EU states that investors (capitalists) do no believe have moved swiftly enough to cut their budget deficits. The rules of the Stability and Growth Pact agreed among EU member states say that budget deficits must not exceed 3% of GDP. Those rules were designed to put a cap on public spending. They have provided the occasion for various EU governments to slash and burn welfare and public services, and they effectively insulate any government that wishes to do so from criticism - this is the cost of being a member of the EU, they say. Of course, the rules are subject to interpretation and haggling, and two of the most powerful EU states - namely France and Germany - were able to force through some get-out clauses when they went in to deep recession in the early 2000s and found themselves repreatedly breaching the 3% limit. Nevertheless, EU member states are now being pressured to get their own budgets back within that limit.

Greece has been the subject of investors' disapprobation lately, with a deficit of 12.5% (slightly lower than the UK, at 13%, and comparable to Ireland and Spain). The government has been instructed to look for ways to make big spending cuts to meet this EU target. And though it was elected on a promise not to cut wages, the spending cuts agreed at the EU include a 10% cut in wages. George Papandreou, defending this betrayal, was able to cite a speculative attack on government bonds, which drove up the yield (the interest repayable) to more than twice that of Germany - which means it costs the Greek government more than twice as much to fund its deficit. He said: Greece is at the centre of an unprecedented speculative attack: we cannot be at the mercy of creditors. Despite our tragic mistakes, our fate is today defined by rating agencies that bear responsibility for the 'bubble' that led to the global crisis in the first place. So, the pressure being applied by this 'virtual parliament' of capitalists is being used to deflect criticism of the elected parliament of Greece while it does the exact opposite of what it was elected to do. This is Pasok's only answer to the trade unionists who will be undertaking mass strike action this week.

The effects of such policies are not difficult to establish. The Irish government, arguably the most enthusiastic neoliberal state in Europe, didn't hang about. Its response to the economic crisis was to impose several austerity budgets which depressed GDP by 5%.

As discussed here many times over the last couple of years, we are living through one of the most remorseless economic rationalizations ever attempted, one based upon centralizing more money and power within elites while subjecting the workforce to increased insecurity in every aspect of their lives. The bursting of a historically unprecented speculative bubble has set the stage for an attempt to restructure the global economy along lines that predate the emergence of trade unionism and social democracy.

If the attempt succeeds, as it has to date, it will cause generations of future leftists to wonder whether the creation of the bubble and its subsequent collapse was by design. A conspiracy theory of sorts, for those leftists that ascribe events more to human agency than to the interrelated structures of capitalist society. Life is messier than that, and not reduceable to a linear narrative along a straight line, but one could understand why they might consider the apparent cause and effect relationship as indicative of a calculated effort, especially when one looks at the persistence of the effort to cut Medicare and Social Security benefits here in the US, as expressed by Treasury Secretary Geithner last Sunday. For those of us living through this nightmare, the most important aspect of the situation remains the failure of any effective opposition to emerge.

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Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Iran's New Labor? 

A fascinating interview of Iranian trade unionist Homayoun Pourzad, a representative from the Network of Iranian Labor Unions, by Ian Morrison of the Platypus Review. Morrison interviewed Pourzad following Pourzad's appearance at a US Labor Against the War conference. It is well worth reading in its entirety.

Here is an excerpt:

IM: Do you think there are any possibilities for a party of labor in Iran? That is a problem all over the world. Different labor organizations meet up, and there are groups that believe in various trade union rights, and they release statements to that effect. But there is no political body that consistently stands up for working people.

HP: I may have sounded too much of an alarmist, for I emphasized the dangers. But the opportunities are also great. Like I said, you have almost eight million workers in need of organizing. They will even be able to organize themselves, if the situation changes. The Green Movement holds promise, I think. It came totally out of the blue; no one expected it, from the Ministry of Intelligence to the opposition and the foreign governments. This means there are elements that could coalesce into a progressive and democratic labor party. It should not be forgotten that Iran not only has a huge working class, but also a tradition of left-wing activity going back some 100 years. The working class in Iran, moreover, is not semi-proletarian as it was during the Iranian Revolution. This generation of workers has advanced political skills and a mature political worldview. You are no longer dealing with peasants just come to the city. Iran is fairly industrialized in many ways and these workers have their own subcultures. We have a good situation in that sense. So yes, there is a good possibility that we will have a strong labor party. The conditions are there, but none of this will materialize without a strong, deeply rooted labor movement.

So what needs to be done? We must put across to other sectors of society what the working class stands for. The protest movement is now primarily middle class. That is its primary weakness. But once labor strikes get under way in the next few months, we hope they will change how the Green movement sees the workers, themselves, and their moment. It is our job as labor activists to put across a genuine working class platform and to familiarize the country with working class demands.

We cannot, as some Left groups do, start condemning the Green Movement just because it lacks a strong Left component. It is the Left's job to influence the movement and to see that its demands and wishes are incorporated -- not just with respect to Mousavi, but to the movement as a whole.

Again, please consider reading the interview in its entirety. Pourzad also has some enlightening things to say about the conflict between the US and Iran over the country's nuclear program and the consequences for the left if the US launches a military attack.

If the left outside Iran expects to play any meaningful role in relation to events within the country, it should consider starting with understanding the perspective of workers who are actually organizing there. By incorporating such an indigenous perspective, it can escape the extremes of romanticizing the revolutionary prospects of the Green movement, describing the movement as one manipulated by US/Israeli covert operations and pessimistic acquiescence to the perpetuation of the theocratic regime, extremes that have dominated left discussion to date.

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Monday, February 08, 2010

The War at Home 

With the war on terror approaching its 9th anniversary, the pathological consequences of it domestically are becoming more and more evident. First, there are the suicides:

Of the more than 30,000 suicides in this country each year, fully 20 percent of them are acts by veterans, said VA Secretary Eric Shinseki at a VA-sponsored suicide prevention conference on Monday. That means on average 18 veterans commit suicide each day. Five of those veterans are under our care at VA.

Second, there are the chilling instances of domestic violence that immediately commenced upon the return of troops from Afghanistan to Fort Bragg, N. C. in 2002:

On June 11, 2002, Sgt. First Class Rigoberto Nieves fatally shot his wife Teresa and then himself in their bedroom. On June 29, Sgt. William Wright strangled his wife Jennifer and buried her body in the woods. On July 9, Sgt. Ramon Griffin stabbed his estranged wife Marilyn 50 times or more and set her house on fire. On July 19, Sgt. First Class Brandon Floyd of Delta Force, the antiterrorism unit of the Special Forces, shot his wife Andrea and then killed himself. At least three of the murdered wives had been seeking separation or divorce.

And, finally, there is this, as reported today in the Daily Mail:

A soldier waterboarded his four-year-old daughter because she was unable to recite her alphabet.

Joshua Tabor admitted to police he had used the CIA torture technique because he was so angry.

As his daughter 'squirmed' to get away, Tabor said he submerged her face three or four times until the water was lapping around her forehead and jawline.

Tabor, 27, who had won custody of his daughter only four weeks earlier, admitted choosing the punishment because the girl was terrified of water.

War without end, at home and abroad.

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Friday, February 05, 2010

David Horowitz, America's Foremost Expert on Howard Zinn 

NPR apologizes for their Zinn obit, which someone mentioned in comments a few days ago:

Writing an obituary can be a challenging assignment because it is often the last thing that will be said about someone, and the subject can no longer speak on his own behalf. It must be fair. It must provide context and it must tell warts and all -- all in a limited space.

Critics are right that NPR was not respectful of Zinn. It would have been better to wait a day and find a more nuanced critic -- as the Washington Post did two days after Zinn died --than rushing a flawed obituary on air.

The Sub-Proletarianization of America (Part 8) 

From the Hunger in America 2010 report, issued by Feeding America:

In the annual USDA survey on food insecurity, the number of Americans found to be food insecure in 2008 rose sharply to 49 million individuals (17.1 million households), a 36% increase over the prior year. The Hunger in America 2010 analysis reveals that Feeding America’s network of food banks and their partner agencies provide emergency hunger-relief services to an estimated 37 million low-income individuals (14.5 million households) in the United States annually. This represents an increase of 46% in unduplicated annual clients since the Hunger in America 2006 report. The 37 million annual client estimate falls within a 95% confidence interval ranging from 33.7 to 40.2 million unduplicated clients. Even if the true number falls at the lower end of the confidence interval, it still represents a substantial increase over 2005.

Among the key findings of the report:

Many of the client households served by Feeding America food banks report that their household incomes are inadequate to cover their basic household expenses.

--46 percent of client households served report having to choose between paying for utilities or heating fuel and food.

--39 percent of client households said they had to choose between paying for rent or a mortgage and food.

--34 percent of client households report having to choose between paying for medical bills and food.

--35 percent of client households must choose between transportation and food.

One in four client households (24 percent) do not have health insurance and nearly half of our adult clients report that they have unpaid medical and hospital bills.

Thirty percent of households report having at least one member of their household in poor health.

For the entire report, go here. As you might expect, it makes for pretty disturbing reading.

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Wednesday, February 03, 2010

BOOK REVIEW: Lonely Hearts Killer 

Amazingly, Oakland, California has not one, but two anarchist book publishing firms. AK Press has been a fixture for quite some time, but the new one, PM Press, was founded in 2007. To its credit, PM Press has embarked upon an effort to publish works of fiction as well as ones related to theory, economics and social history.

Last year, PM Press published a translation of Tomoyuki Hoshino's Lonely Hearts Killer, and, apparently, more translated works of international fiction are forthcoming. In Lonely Hearts, Hoshino seizes upon the Japanese identification with the Emperor as a point of entry to confront troubling questions about the nature of hierachy and the purposes that it serves within society. The brilliance of the novel lies in Hoshino's decision to put two distinctively Japanese cults in conflict with one another, the cult of the emperor and the suicide cult of seppuku and jigai.

As the novel begins, the people of Japan are mourning the loss of their young, vibrant, charismatic young emperor. The ascension of such a young person, about 40, to the throne had excited the populace with the hope that he could ignite the reinvigoration of an increasingly routinized society. But, instead, the Young Majesty died after contracting an unknown illness, plunging much of the country into an isolative despair, with the exception of two young film students, Inoue and Iroha. But Iroha's lover, Mikoto, entered a comatose state for days on end.

Upon his reawakening, Iroha introduces him to Inoue, resulting in the death of Mikoto at the hand of Inoue and Inoue's suicide in a sleeping cafe, the Dormir. Inoue leaves behind an Internet statement to the effect that, inspired by His Young Majesty, he was going to kill himself to escape this illusory, demoralizing world, going so far as to encourage mass suicide:

I will lead the vanguard and sacrifice myself. If enough of you identify with my dream, and, we can really bring back this world to what it is truly meant to be. We can extinquish this phony world, and return to the real, natural, authentic world of the dead.

In his penetrating study of anarchism in China, Anarchism in the Chinese Revolution, Arif Dirlik observes that . . . anarchist ideology, in its peculiar formulation of questions of conflict and interest in society, lent itself to counterrevolution almost as easily as to revolution. In Lonely Hearts, Hoshino confronts us with the troubling insight that such an observation warrants a global instead of a site specific application by describing a reactionary public response to the deaths of Inoue and Mikoto.

Instead of recognizing that Inoue sought to induce a rejection of hierarchy and the deference to authority that it necessarily entails, the public became more and more hostile to his memory as suicides proliferated. Predictably, the government seizes upon the crisis as an opportunity to seize greater police powers for itself, posthumously condemning Inoue as a terrorist, and thereby suppressing all of his cyberspace statements and videos. A small minority answered his call, but a majority either rejected him or remained indifferent as the state assumed more control over their lives. During the period, a woman ascends the throne for the first time as His Young Majesty's successor. Caught between the constraints of her personality, her role as empress and the requirements for reaching people through the media, she proves herself incapable of alleviating public feelings of unease and aimlessness.

To the extent that there was an individualistic response to the deaths of Inoue and Mikoto, it was in a social Darwinist direction, as people could only fall back upon past cultural experience. Suicides became love suicides and love suicides became assassination suicides, analogous to propaganda by the deed, and assassination suicides became indiscriminate love suicides, ones in which a person randomly selected someone to die with them. As you might have guessed, some responded by adopting the rationale of the war on terror, kill them before they kill us. In one celebrated incident, a young man kills his best friend because he thought his friend was running towards him to kill him. A court finds him not guilty, and he subsequently becomes a politically powerful figure.

Through this narrative, which he presents reflectively through his three primary characters, Inoue, Iroha and Mokuren, Hoshino mines a rich vein of social conformity and autocracy that the Japanese left has been unable to transcend, as explored in the films of Nagisa Oshima. But some reject the false choice between suicide and submission. After the deaths of Inoue and Mikoto, Iroha goes to live in a retreat center nestled in a cedar forest, a retreat operated by her high school friend, Mokuren. As she lives there for several years, she deals with her grief over the deaths of Inoue and Mikoto, and imperfectly strives to assert an independent identity. She does so in a way that Mokuren condemns as perpetuating the circle of cynicism, self-centered rebellion and sacrifice initiated by Inoue.

By contrast, Mokuren challenges the emerging social Darwinism in an editorial entitled, I Won't Kill, and rightists direct their rage towards her and the residents of her retreat center. Her challenge, and the violent rightist response to it, becomes the center of a media circus, reducing her attempt to emotionally reach people into yet another form of entertainment. If there is a moral to Hoshino's postmodern fable of alienation and impotence, it is that before there can be a political revolution, there must first be a social one within our hearts and minds. Or, even more, a social one renders the need for a political one superfluous.

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Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Prisoner No. 650 

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Monday, February 01, 2010

Liking Obama 

In response to last Friday's post about Howard Zinn and the future of left politics in the US, Joe remarked that he "liked" Obama. It's understandable. Despite his frequent episodes of mendacity, I like him, too, and I can understand why others like him as well. He's an engaging, thoughtful person, one that we'd probably enjoy talking about things as diverse as film, literature, sports and pop music, or even personal things like our families and friends. We'd promptly go over to his house if he called and said that he needed help to move furniture out of his house and into his garage. With the possible exception of Ronald Reagan, he's the only president in recent memory that comes across as accessible and personable. Paradoxically, also much like Reagan, I'm not sure that he likes us all that much, but I've already addressed that subject.

In any event, the future is going to be increasingly bleak if we don't recognize that capital is exploiting Obama's personal appeal, much like it did Reagan's, to the detriment of the rest of us. While the election of an African American president is an undoubted achivement that was unimaginable until, literally, the moment it happened, I do not consider it to be an achievement of the New Left of which Zinn was one of its most prominent figures. Or, to be more precise, it was a limited achievement related to one of the New Left's objectives, social inclusion. After all, the New Left recognized that the transformation of American society required more than racial integration. Indeed, drawing upon Malcolm X, the Black Panthers and pan-Africanists of that period warned that people in power would attempt to coopt the movement through elevating people of color politically.

Along these lines, one of the consequences of Obama's election has been the proliferation of a revisionist view of the past, especially as it relates to Martin Luther King. With the election of Obama, we are now told that King's vision has been achieved, whereas, in fact, Obama is pursuing policies that run contrary to King's world view in every way. King has been reduced to the role of modern successor to Booker T. Washington. We should be alarmed at the extent of the embrace of this revisionism throughout much of American society, especially within the media, as the intention is to sanitize the rememberance of the 1960s and 1970s of all traces of radical perspectives about the necessity of anti-imperialism and socialism. It is a global enterprise. During his successful 2007 campaign for president in France, Sarkozy asserted that the legacy of May 1968 must be liquidated.

And, what exactly, must be liquidated within the US? Clearly, it's not civil rights, at least as defined within a legal, liberal context, although there is a good argument that another Obama legacy will be the elimination of the infrastructure of civil rights protections constructed over the last 40 years. Perhaps, that will happen. Presently, though, the targets are the New Left emphasis upon anti-imperialism and capitalism, along with civil rights, into a coherent social critique that once appealed to millions around the world. But, in recent decades, if people like Zinn may be taken as representative, the economic component was deemphasized, primarily, it seems, because of the need to preserve the fiction that the Democratic Party was a pathway to a more equitable society. Hence, Zinn's recent comment defending Obama on domestic policy, which, contrary to Joe, I believe speaks directly towards economics (note the emphasis upon "ordinary people").

Middle class and working class Americans are far ahead of people with roots on the New Left on this. They know that Bush, and now, Obama, are pushing them towards marginization. But, the allegiance of many New Left figures to the Democratic Party has prevented the creation of any avenue for them to organize on the left. Unions are complicit in the development of the health care bill even as the EFCA remains dormant, and they have, if Jane Hamsher is to be believed, abandoned a populist public campaign targeting the bailout and the abuses of the financial sector at the behest of the White House. Hence, many Americans are responding to the historic allure of nativism, anti-intellectualism and hostility to the government being put forward by the corporately sponsored Tea Party scene.

Interestingly enough, Chomsky perceives the peril. During an interview late last fall, he emphasized the importance of attempting to reach alienated, working Americans, many of whom have been attracted by Tea Party rhetoric, through an understanding of their economic distress. His remarks were in marked contrast to what one often encounters on the liberal site, DailyKos, where all participants in the Tea Party scene are treated as idiots and racists because of some of the signs that have been encountered there. My suspicion is that these posts are an organized effort to prevent the emergence of a populist movement in the US that would threaten the neoliberal orthodoxy within the Democratic Party.

Of course, Chomsky's advice is consistent with his anarchist background, and his knowledge of what transpired in Europe during the 1920s and 1930s. He is encouraging us to try to reach people individually at the level of their personal struggles and hardships, instead of writing them off collectively, as many liberals appear to be willing to do (with the notable exception of Hamsher, and, naturally, other liberals are excoriating her for it). His advice evokes the left touchstone that race, class and religion are used to divide workers against themselves, so as to prevent them from assuming their rightful position of power within society. While such an outreach is fraught with difficulties, and may well fail, he is cautioning us that abandoning these people to the cynical manipulations of others will ensure bad, possibly even horrific, outcomes, as the sub-proletarianization of America runs its course.

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