Archive for the ‘Anti-Capitalism’ Category

Some Thoughts on Reading ‘The Origins of Totalitarianism’

December 28, 2014

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Hannah Arendt

Lately, I have been reading Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism. This book is dense with ideas, so I have decided to write some blog posts about it, in which I will discuss some of the issues that the book raises.

The Origins of Totalitarianism is divided into three sections, the first of which is titled’Antisemitism’. Arendt devotes a lengthy discussion to this topic because she sees anti-Semitism as being at the center of Nazi ideology (unlike some historians who treat it as a side issue for the Nazis). Arendt begins by making a distinction between antisemitism (Arendt’s spelling), which she sees as a modern phenomenon, and the Medieval religious prejudice against Jews (which Arendt calls “Jew-hatred”). The former sometimes borrowed language and imagery from the latter, but it was nonetheless a distinct historical development.

Arendt is contemptuous of the ‘scapegoat” theory of anti-Semitism – the idea that Jews are made into scapegoats to distract people from the real sources of their problems. Arendt argues that this idea fails to explain the genocidal fury of anti-Semitism, while it ignores the historical roots of anti-Semitism.

According to Arendt, Jewish financiers played an essential role in the creation of the powerful monarchies of the eighteenth century, particularly in France and in Prussia. (The Rothschilds were the most famous and influential of these financiers.) Indeed, Arendt claims that the development of modern Europe would have been impossible without these people. (She quotes Diderot: “Thus dispersed in our time… [the Jews] have become instruments of communication between the most distant countries. They are like the cogs and nails needed in a great building in order to join and hold together all other parts.”) With the development of the modern nation state, which began with the French Revolution (which gave equal political rights to Jews), these financiers became an essential support for these new powerful states. (Arendt notes that the financial provisions of the peace treaty that ended the Franco-Prussian War were negotiated by two Jewish financiers: Gerson Bleichroeder representing Germany, and a Rothschild representing France.)

As a result of this, people began to associate Jews with the state. This made them an object of resentment for two groups. The first was the aristocracy, who bemoaned the loss of their feudal rights under the new nation-states. The second was the lower middle class (small landowners, guild artisans, small tradesmen), who saw their economic positions threatened by the developing capitalism that the nation-states enabled. Among these groups, the notion of a “Jewish conspiracy” began to make sense. Of course, they were aware that there were Jews who were poor, but that only made the success of some Jews seem sinister to them.

Arendt notes that the antisemitic parties that appeared in Germany towards the end of the nineteenth century all claimed to a “party above all parties”. Their aim was “… to become the representative of the whole nation, to get exclusive power, to take possession of the state machinery, to substitute themselves for the state.” From early on, the whole trend of antisemitism was towards totalitarianism.

Arendt ends this section with a discussion of the Dreyfus Affair, which foreshadowed Nazi Germany in some ways. “Kill the Jews” became a political slogan. Mobs attacked Jews on the streets and looted Jewish-owned stores.

Some have tried to draw an analogy between nineteenth century antisemitism and twenty-first century Islamophobia. The two things are similar in that each posits the existence of an inexplicable Other that poses a possibly existential threat. That’s about as far as the similarity goes, however. Antisemitism has anti-state and anti-capitalist overtones that are absent in Islamophobia. Indeed, Islamophobes tend to be strong supporters of the government, especially its military wing, which they see as a necessary bulwark against an expansive Islam. (This pro-government stance was particularly striking in the late Christopher Hitchens, who, before his religious conversion, was actually something of a radical.) Hitchens and Sam Harris endorsed the invasion of Iraq, which they (wrongly) believed was part of some sort of war on Islam. (Richard Dawkins, the most intelligent of the Islamophobes, opposed the invasion, correctly arguing that it was exactly what bin Laden wanted the US and Britain to do.)

The second section of Arend’s book is titled “Imperialism”. I plan to write about that soon.

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The Ruling Class

December 19, 2013

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After the Irish actor, Peter O’Toole, died, some of my Facebook friends said that his best film was The Ruling Class. This piqued my curiosity, so I decided to watch it. (You can find the whole movie on Youtube.)

The Ruling Class is a 1972 film directed by Peter Medak, with a script by Peter Barnes, adapted from his own stage play.

The 13th Earl of Gurney (Harry Andrews) accidentally kills himself while engaging in autoerotic asphyxiation. His will leaves his entire estate to his only surviving son, Jack (Peter O’Toole). The problem here is that Jack believes he is Jesus Christ. He spends his time making speeches about love and hanging on a cross. This scandalizes the Gurneys and their aristocratic neighbors. Jack’s uncle, Sir Charles (William Mervyn) plots to take the estate away from him. He reasons that if he can get Jack to produce a male heir, he can then have Jack declared insane while having the Gurney line continue unbroken. Sir Charles persuades his mistress, Grace, (Carolyn Seymour) to woo Jack. Jack falls in love with her. They get married, and Grace soon gives birth to a son. Sir Charles’s plan, however, is complicated by the psychiatrist, Dr. Herder (Michael Bryant), who is determined to cure Jack of his delusion. After several failed attempts, Herder hits upon the idea of confronting Jack with a mental patient who also believes he is God. This appears to work; Jack seems to be restored to his old self. Sir Charles is still determined to have him committed, however, and he arranges to have a court-appointed psychiatrist interview Jack. The meeting gets off to a rocky start, but when Jack begins spouting reactionary and xenophobic political rhetoric, the doctor declares him to be sane.

The Ruling Class should have ended at this point. Instead, it goes into a lengthy coda, in which Jack convinces himself that he is actually Jack the Ripper, and he starts killing people. The joke here is that the “sane” Jack is actually a pathological murderer. This struck me as unnecessary, since it doesn’t build on the film’s previous ideas. What’s more, it makes the movie long: two-and-a-half hours. The characters and the situation simply aren’t strong enough to sustain one’s interest for that period of time. Satire is best done with a light, but sharp, touch. This movie does have many funny moments, though, and it benefits from strong performances. O’Toole is powerful and convincing as Jack.

It no doubt tells us something about O’Toole’s political views that he lobbied United Artists to make Barnes’s play into a film. He even went so far as to agree to do the part of Jack for no pay. The aristocratic Gurneys are portrayed as moral hypocrites. The movie strongly implies that Britain’s upper classes secretly yearn for fascism. Whatever his faults may have been, O’Toole was on the right side of history.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

December 14, 2013

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The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is the second installment of the films based on Joanne Collins’s young adult novels. Although I found it entertaining, I did not like it as much as the first film in the series. (You can read my review of that movie here. I will discuss the reasons for this below.

Catching Fire picks up where the previous film left off. Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) returns to her home district after the game. She and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) are about to go on a victory tour of the various districts. She meets with President Snow (Donald Sutherland), who warns her that she had better do as she is told, or there will be dire consequences. During the tour, it becomes clear to Katniss that she has become a symbol of resistance to the people. This is clear to the government as well. Snow’s henchman, Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) devises a scheme to solve this problem. They will make Katniss fight another Hunger Game, in which she will be made to kill people who have helped her. The aim is to disillusion people who see her as a heroine.

This is where I start to have a problem with this movie. When Katniss arrives at the Hunger Game, the government immediately tries to kill her, sending poisonous fog and giant babbon-like creatures at her, before she has a chance to kill anyone. It seems to me that the makers of this film were more concerned about having a lot of action than they were about maintaining narrative logic. Which is a problem with a lot of Hollywood movies.

The posters for this film feature the line: “Remember who the enemy is.” The line in the movie is actually “Remember who the real enemy is.” It occurs twice: Haymish (Woody Harrelson) says it to Katniss just before the Hunger Game, and a character whom Katniss mistakenly believes has betrayed her says it just before the film’s climactic scene. The word “real” is the most important word in the sentence. The Hunger Games create false enemies, when the real enemy is the government. The Hunger Games is a metaphor for how our society creates false enemies to distract us from our real enemy. This is why the story has had such a strong resonance with many people.

Russell Brand and Jeremy Paxman

October 27, 2013

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I finally got around to watching that video of the Jeremy Paxman interview with Russel Brand that has caused so much comment on the Internet. Although I’m not a fan of Russell Brand (I find him annoying), I have to say that I found this interview refreshing. You would never hear anyone say these sorts of things on American TV. Here in the U.S., we seem to get an endless parade of washed-up rock singers, over-the-hill movie actors, and former Saturday Night Live cast members all stupidly babbling about how Obama is a “socialist”. Whatever his faults may be, Brand at least pays attention to what’s going on in the world.

Jeremy Paxman starts out by making the idiotic “if you don’t vote, you can’t talk about politics” argument, and then goes to the inane “you can change the world by voting” argument. These are things that I’ve heard American liberals say. These are just ways of evading discussion of how seriously screwed up our world is. Brand is at least willing to acknowledge this, even if his arguments are sometimes confused.

Egypt’s Revolution is Not Over

July 5, 2013

Fireworks over Tahrir Square

I suppose it shouldn’t come as a surprise that writers at CounterPunch have taken a gloomy view of the recent events in Egypt. They point out that Morsi was Egypt’s first democratically elected president. True, he did win the election, but he did so in a problematic way. Remember that in the first round Morsi only won 24.78% of the vote. In the second round, in which Morsi’s only opponent was Ahmed Shafik, Morsi won 51.73% of the vote. And many people voted for Morsi simply because they didn’t want Shafik, the military’s candidate, to win. Morsi clearly didn’t have overwhelming support. And once in office, he continued the neoliberal economic policies that provoked the Egyptian people into rising up in the first place. So it should be no surprise that he is now out.

The fact that the military has intervened is worrisome. However, it is clear that the military is not the master of the situation, rather it is trying to contain it. The Egyptian people have come too far to return to the days of Mubarak. A lot depends at this point on what the people on the street choose to do next.

A Global Revolution?

June 19, 2013

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Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

The recent protests in Turkey and in Brazil have brought some renewed optimism to this country’s perpetually gloomy Left. In The Daily Kos, Ray Pensador writes:

    We’re here folks. This is the real thing. The global revolution has started. What’s happening in Turkey, and Brazil, as a write this, are not unrelated events. The revelations about how corparatist cartels are using government institutions to cast a wide net of surveillance over the entire population (NSA spying) with the intent of using it as a tool to control, manipulate and exploit the citizenry, is part of the collusion.

I don’t want to sound like Mr. Downer, but I’ve heard this kind of talk before. I heard it after the “Battle in Seattle” in 1999. (I remember Alex Callinicos saying that Seattle was “a fork in the road”. It was more like a speed bump for neoliberalism.) I also heard this talk in the Occupy movement in the fall of 2011. Yet at some point the increasing corruption and criminality of our global economic system is going to produce some kind of sustained fightback. If not now, some time in the near future. Something has got to give.

Rehabilitating the Kingfish

March 25, 2013

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Huey P. Long, a.k.a. The Kingfish.

Mike Whitney has posted an article on CounterPunch titled Our Chavez: Huey Long. There seems to be an effort in recent years on the part of some people to to try to portray the sometime governor of Louisiana and U.S.Senator as a great champion of the people, no doubt because of his ant-capitalist rhetoric. Yet when one takes a closer look at his life, it becomes clear that things were not that simple.

During Long’s lifetime, most of the Left regarded him with deep wariness, if not outright hostility. There were good reasons for that. First of all, he governed Louisiana as a virtual dictator. He even organized a secret police force to keep watch on his opponents as well as on his followers.

Long was also a white supremacist. He maintained Louisisana’s Jim Crow laws. (Long would sometimes smear his opponents by spreading rumors that they had “coffee blood”. This gives a bitter irony to calling him “our Chavez”.) Long’s apologists point out that he didn’t talk about white supremacy in his speeches. This was perhaps because he didn’t need to. In 1935, Roy Wilkins interviewed Long for The Criis. They discussed an anti-lynching bill that Long opposed in the Senate:

    How about lynching. Senator? About the Costigan-Wagner bill in congress and that lynching down there yesterday in Franklinton…”

    He ducked the Costigan-Wagner bill, but of course, everyone knows he is aganst it. He cut me off on the Franklinton lynching and hastened in with his “pat” explanation:

    “You mean down in Washington parish (county)? Oh, that? That one slipped up on us. Too bad, but those slips will happen. You know while I was governor there were no lynchings and since this man (Governor Allen) has been in he hasn’t had any. (There have been 7 lynchings in Louisiana in the last two years.) This one slipped up. I can’t do nothing about it. No sir. Can’t do the dead nigra no good. Why, if I tried to go after those lynchers it might cause a hundred more niggers to be killed. You wouldn’t want that, would you?”

    “But you control Louisiana,” I persisted, “you could…”

    “Yeah, but it’s not that simple. I told you there are some things even Huey Long can’t get away with. We’ll just have to watch out for the next one. Anyway that nigger was guilty of coldblooded murder.”

    “But your own supreme court had just granted him a new trial.”

    “Sure we got a law which allows a reversal on technical points. This nigger got hold of a smart lawyer somewhere and proved a technicality. He was guilty as hell. But we’ll catch the next lynching.”

    My guess is that Huey is a hard, ambitious, practical politician. He is far shrewder than he is given credit for being. My further guess is that he wouldn’t hesitate to throw Negroes to the wolves if it became necessary; neither would he hesitate to carry them along if the good they did him was greater than the harm. He will walk a tight rope and go along as far as he can. He told New York newspapermen he welcomed Negroes in the share-the-wealth clubs in the North where they could vote, but down South? Down South they can’t vote: they are no good to him. So he lets them strictly alone. After all, Huey comes first.

In 1934, Long created the Share Our Wealth Society, which had clubs all over the country. He chose as its national organizer Gerald L.K. Smith, an outspoken anti-Semite and a former member of a fascist group called the Silver Shirts. Long also formed a political alliance with the ant-Semitic radio broadcaster, Father Coughlin, who expressed sympathy for Hitler and Mussolini and who claimed that the Russian Revolution was the work of Jewish bankers. Lance Hill has argued that the Share Our Wealth movement was an incipient form of fascism.

According to Wikipedia:

    Long .. planned to challenge Roosevelt for the Democratic nomination in 1936, knowing he would lose the nomination but gain valuable publicity in the process. Then he would break from the Democrats and form a third party using the Share Our Wealth plan as its basis … The new party would run someone else as its 1936 candidate, but Long would be the primary campaigner. This candidate would split the progressive vote with Roosevelt, causing the election of a Republican but proving the electoral appeal of Share Our Wealth. Long would then run for president as a Democrat in 1940. In the spring of 1935, Long undertook a national speaking tour and regular radio appearances, attracting large crowds and increasing his stature.

This scheme came to naught, as Long was assassinated in 1935. The Share Our Wealth movement quickly dwindled after that. The reasons for this may be that the economic recovery of 1934-36 strengthened support for Roosevelt, and that the revitalized labor movement probably drew in people who might otherwise have been attracted to Share Our Wealth.

It is often tempting to idealize figures from the past, yet if we hope to actually learn from them, we have to look at these people for what they actually were.

Gore Vidal (1925-2012)

August 2, 2012

Gore Vidal has died. I enjoyed reading his essays in the New York Review of Books, but I was never keen on his novels. (Although I did enjoy Julian.) Vidal’s acerbic criticisms of U.S. foreign policy and of this country’s plutocracy earned him an enthusiastic following among the left. However, Doug Henwood, who is generally an admirer of Vidal’s, reminds us that he had a “creepy nativist streak”. He recalls hearing Vidal express sympathy for the racist Dutch politician, Pim Fortuyn. In the 1980’s, Vidal published an article titled The Empire Lovers Strike Back, in which he wrote:

    My conclusion: for America to survive economically in the coming Sino-Japanese world, an alliance with the Soviet Union is a necessity. After all, the white race is the minority race with many well-deserved enemies, and if the two great powers of the Northern Hemisphere don’t band together, we are going to end up as farmers—or, worse, mere entertainment—for more than one billion grimly efficient Asiatics.

The kindest thing one can say about this is that it shows that Vidal was completely ignorant about Asia. Vidal surely must have been aware of the “Yellow Peril” rhetoric that was common in the early twentieth century. And bear in mind that he was making this argument in a country with a history of discrimination against Asians, including the internment of 110,000 Japanese-Americans during World War II.

In the same article, Vidal says that Norman Podhoretz is not an “assimilated American”. This comment provoked accusations of anti-Semitism. Vidal once said of Hilton Kramer that his name “sounds like a hotel in Tel-Aviv”.

Also problematic for the left are the disturbing implications of Vidal’s ham-fisted writings on population control. He once said:

    If the human race is to survive, population will have to be reduced drastically, if not by atomic war then by law, an unhappy prospect for civil liberties but better than starving… it may already be too late to save this ark of fools.

Vidal would perhaps have been pleased to know that the birth-rate in Japan has been falling.

Despite all his faults, I am saddened by Vidal’s passing. He was a public intellectual, a type of person that is becoming increasingly rare in the United States. Unfortunately, the media often saw him as a figure of entertainment rather than enlightenment. They could never get enough of his silly fight with Norman Mailer or his tiresome feud with Truman Capote. It seems the media must trivialize everything, including writers.

Some Thoughts on the Occupy Movement

July 8, 2012

At CounterPunch, Alexander Cockburn has an article about the Occupy movement. Although Cockburn makes some valid criticisms, I think he is too dismissive of the movement as a whole. He writes, “People have written complicated pieces trying to prove it’s not over, but if ever I saw a dead movement, it is surely Occupy.” In fact there are still Occupy groups all over the country, and many of them still hold regular meetings. It is true, however, that the movement doesn’t have as strong a presence as it did last winter. It’s possible, I think, that the movement might be in better shape if some things had been done differently.

In hindsight, I think it was a mistake not to put forward clear demands. The argument that I often heard for not doing so was that demands would lead to disagreements, which would lead to divisions. Yet disagreements and divisions happened anyway. Political clarity was sacrificed in order to attain an impossible ideal of group harmony. The greatest division, it seems to me, was, and is, between those who favor Black Bloc tactics and those who advocate Gandhian non-violent resistance. These two approaches are, in fact, mutually exclusive. This can not be covered up by platitudes about “diversity of tactics”. Some tactics are incompatible with others.

I suspect that this exaggerated fear of division is what drives the insistence upon a consensus approach to decision-making. The argument was that consensus, although time-consuming, will bring everyone into harmonious agreement. Yet some people became dissatisfied and left anyway, as would have happened under simple majority rule. So, what has been gained by having consensus? Nothing that I can see.

Then there is the pretense of “leaderlessness”. The truth is that some people become unofficial leaders, either because they are very good at making arguments, or because they possess specialized skills that are useful to the movement, or because they are simply both willing and able to devote an enormous amount of time and energy to the cause. Wouldn’t it make sense to acknowledge this and make these people directly accountable to the entire group?

Cockburn makes one point that strikes me as particularly salient. He writes:

    Where was the knowledge of, let along [sic] the respect for the past? We had the non-violent resistors [sic] of the Forties organising against the war with enormous courage. The Fifties saw leftists took [sic] McCarthyism full on the chin. With the Sixties we were making efforts at revolutionary organisation and resistance.
 
Yet when one [sic] raised this history with someone from Occupy, I encountered total indifference.

Typographical errors aside, what Cockburn says here is true of much of the U.S. left. How many American leftists have even heard of A.J. Muste? Or the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement? Or C.L.R. James? (Although you can always find an anarchist who is willing to talk your arm off about Kronstadt.) On left-wing British websites you can find informed discussions about such topics as the Battle of Cable Street, the 1926 General Strike, or Trotsky’s conception of the united front. We have nothing quite like this here in this country. There is little effort among the U.S. left to learn from the successes and failures of the past. It’s as though we must continually re-invent the wheel. What’s more, this historical amnesia makes us vulnerable to all kinds of dishonesty, as when, in Capitalism: A Love Story, Michale Moore reminds us of the 1936 Flint sit-down strike – only to make the false claim that F.D.R. sent in National Guard troops to defend the strikers from the police. In fact, they were sent there to intimidate the strikers.

These are just some thoughts I have had about the Occupy movement and about the U.S. left in general. I would be interested to hear what other people have to say about these topics.

Update on Occupy Eugene

December 27, 2011

Rick Youngblood, the man who suffered a heart attack on the occupation site on December 19, died on the morning of December 23. You can read about it here. OE held a candlelight vigil for him that evening at the Wayne Morse Free Speech Plaza in downtown Eugene.

On December 24, OE issued the following press release:

Eugene’s Homeless Back on the Streets for Christmas

For 75 days, in one of the longest running occupations in the US, Occupy Eugene provided a legal place to sleep, three meals daily, professional medical assistance, job skills trainings, and most importantly, a community for hundreds of homeless folks in Eugene. Simultaneously, we have explored with the city how Eugene might better serve homeless people.

This week, the city of Eugene unilaterally shut down the site at Washington Jefferson Park, and after two nights of the Wheeler Pavilion being open to provide beds for those coming from the Occupation, folks are back on the street again, just in time for Christmas.

Occupy Eugene appreciates that the city has put forth additional funds, created a task force with seats for homeless people, and expanded the car camping program by adding sites and allowing tents. However, these efforts do not add up to the far greater support that was available at the Occupy Eugene site, and none of the city’s efforts are happening on a community basis among equals, which was more respectful than a government handout.

The alarming number of people who are homeless is a consequence of our deeply unjust economic and political systems, systems which Occupy Eugene is dedicated to changing. In the meantime, we are proud to have taken on the task of helping some of the people most affected – entirely with volunteered time, and as a community.

Occupy Eugene remains strong, renting an office in the Grower’s Market Building and making use of a donated warehouse on 7th and Polk. Plans to participate in the national Occupy the Courts protest are underway, and the unfair foreclosure of many Eugene homes presents another opportunity for Occupy Eugene to support people impacted by unjust systems.

We invite the community to join in our efforts to address systemic injustice while we continue to occupy the minds of Eugene.

This Press Release was approved by the general assembly of Occupy Eugene.