Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Best Albums of 2009

Because I didn't have a full-time job for most of the year, I didn't buy nearly as much music as I usually do. I did, however, manage to get my hands on a few wonderful albums. The following is my picks for the ten best albums of 2009.

(ALSO: I only count albums I actually own so I know for a fact I'm missing some great music. Please let me know what caught your attention this year!)

10) Wilco- Wilco

Yes, the cover is probably better than the album. But Wilco is Wilco. They are one of the best bands in the world. Period. If you get a chance, see them live.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sifqGTzLGck


9) Mirah (A)spera

"Shells" is one of the most beautiful songs I can think of.

http://www.dustedmagazine.com/reviews/4825


8) The Dead Weather- Horehound

Indie supergroup cuts a solid modern rock record that sounds like a solid classic rock record. Ironically, both classic rock and modern rock radio stations don't play it. Reason number 2,546 why radio sucks. (Check out the video, it's bad ass.)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M7QSkI6My1g


7) Neko Case- Middle Cyclone

Neko Case is a hit away from being a superstar. She is hot, has one hell of a voice, and is a brilliant songwriter. I thought "People Got A Lotta Nerve" (below) might get some mainstream radio play, but it didn't really happen.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zXl870NoF4E


6) Raekwon- Only Built 4 Cuban Linx... Pt. II

Recreating yourself can be good. But sometimes the old saying "if it isn't broke, don't fix it" applies as well. The skits are back, the dirty beats weaved in and out of tales recounting cooking and selling dope are too (as is the guest appearance of Ghostface Killah). Thank God.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JzS2dN99KxM


5) (MF) Doom- Born Like This

MF Doom, or Doom, or whatever he calls himself today, is probably the most innovative rapper this decade. With a knack for catchy beats and clever rhymes; it is pretty much a guarantee any release of his makes my list.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VWdqBZdk2yc


4) Bat For Lashes- Siren Sounds

I enjoyed this album much more than I anticipated I would. Both "Siren Song" and "Daniel" were played frequently in my car. Singer-songwriter electronica? I don't know, you'll have to take a listen.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=00ZHah-c0hQ


3) Grizzly Bear- Veckatimest

Grizzly Bear likes to play this game where they pack as many catchy melodies as they can into one album. They're good at it. I've seen them live twice and was impressed each time.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mQ4jZeGUFzI


2) Antony and the Johnsons- Crying Light

Antony Hegarty's wavering, gentle but defiant voice will cause you to listen. One could draw all sorts of analogies on how his voice is like life, or whatever, but it would be hard to do that without sounding like a melodramatic douchebag. Somehow, Antony is capable of singing stuff like that. I mean, who else could sing "I'm gonna miss the bees" and not sound ridiculous?

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qp23w0v-GB8


1) Animal Collective- Merriweather Post Pavilion

I know, hipster darlings Animal Collective have already gained album of the year honors from the likes of "Spin" magazine and indie Bible "Pitchfork.com" to name just a couple. But this album is that good. I've been a fan for years now and am amazed at how I am never disappointed by each subsequent release. Rather than try to compare or describe, I'd recommend you check them out for yourself. (Hint: You have to listen several times before it clicks. At least I did.)

"Summertime Clothes"
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GxhaRgJUMl8


"In The Flowers"
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fYEAflCO4Eo

"My Girls"
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zol2MJf6XNE

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

The Corporate Attack on Pension Plans

While George W. Bush’s attempt at privatizing Social Security famously failed, private industry has largely been successful at shifting their group pension plans into individual private accounts. In fact, for many people, traditional defined benefit employer-sponsored pensions are something they are not even familiar with. Most of us are used to 401(k), IRA, or other defined contribution plans, if we even have such a plan. These individual accounts (sometimes employers match funds up to a certain amount, many times they don’t contribute anything at all) are almost always invested in the volatile stock market. They essentially absolve companies of any financial risk associated with retirement and firmly place that risk on the back of each individual employee.

Because of the large amount of non-unionized industries, and the class-collaborationist ideology of many union bureaucrats in the industries that are, there have been few attempts to fight this blatant rollback of gains made in the past by the Labor Movement. Many of these individual retrement accounts were legalized, with little to no opposition, in the late 70s as a supplement to existing pension plans. Companies, however, soon realized they could use them to undermine the government-guaranteed benefits provided by pensions. Management set up separate retirement accounts for them, accounts that guaranteed them healthy returns, and shifted rank and file workers into these newly legalized private individual accounts that are subject to the chaos of the stock market, where returns are uncertain at best. By the 1990s, corporations typically paid less than half of what they used to for their employees’ retirement accounts. Since then, it has only gotten worse.

Even if you are one of the few to have kept your traditional pension plan, companies are using the current crisis of Capitalism as an excuse to freeze pension accounts and even steal money from them in order to subsidize their market mishaps. If all else fails, companies simply declare bankruptcy and have their workers, as well as other workers across the country, bail them out with public tax dollars.

Nine of the ten largest pension defaults in history have happened since 2000, leaving the Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation, which was set up by the government in order to protect retirements benefits against such practices, deeply in debt.

With the Federal government, as well as many individual states and local governments, facing a huge budget crisis, workers with pensions find themselves in the precarious situation of bailing out their old employers with tax dollars in order to keep their promised benefits, while at the same time seeing many of the social programs that benefit the general public defunded to the point of being ineffective and sometimes completely shut down. Big Business and their political servants use this to divide the working class by blaming “greedy union workers” for demanding what is rightfully theirs, and should be the right of all workers.

When issues like this are brought up, by the mainstream press or even by friends and family, it is often assumed that the capitalist class has a role to play in finding a solution. Union leaders have also told us this for years, that we all should get together, sit down at a giant metaphorical table, and find something that works for all. When this happens, the “right” of the corporations to make a profit is never even questioned. Why is this?

When we ask ourselves this question, it becomes clear that Capitalism itself is the problem. Our interests are in direct contradiction with those of our bosses. The capitalist class must make a profit off our labor in order to ensure their economic, social and political power. Obviously, this is an over-simplification of class relations in society, but it is a basic point we can bring up as we explain our ideas on a daily basis. Instead of simply asking for a seat at that table, we need to demand the whole thing. After all, we made it.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

"Small Thing"

While listening to internet radio (Pandora), I heard the following song by Barton Carroll (listen to it before you read on):

http://bartoncarroll.com/pages/listen.php?f=SmallThing.mp3&title=Small%20Thing

The first thing that struck me about the song was that it's from the viewpoint of a German during WWII. Yes, she was a civilian, and yes, she was young, but I was already thinking about her role in one of the most vile societies ever created. She admits to being "naive enough to survive." Is that a reference to the Germans in Berlin basically going on with daily life while the Russians were advancing? Hitler was insanely calling on nonexistent units to guard the city while Fascist loyalists were rounding up anyone who could hold a gun (and shooting anyone who couldn't or wouldn't). Those who were able to simply ignored their former leaders, clearly seeing the bankruptcy of their ideology. Or is it referencing earlier times, when defeat wasn't certain, when many who benefited from having the Nazis in power simply chose to ignore their atrocities, if not participate in them? In this case, is being "naive" an excuse?

Soon it became clear I was way off. She was telling the story of her being raped by the Soviet troops. I didn't catch it right away, but on second listen it was extremely obvious right from the beginning. The song isn't about the politics, at least not in a direct sense. It's simply about one girl who was one of the many victims, all across the world, of a horrendous war crime that still happens on a regular basis today. She was "naive enough to survive" her rape, not Nazi Germany. Moreover, when she mentions this, it's to imply her mother was also raped and never really fully recovered from the violation.

I picture her sitting down with her son to explain to him who his real father is, or, perhaps more accurately, which group of men his father may have been one of.

"Lord God let the walls melt into the door. Let my skin grow o'er and heal my sore."

What makes this song so brilliantly written, is what isn't written. The unspoken context. Carroll no doubt wrote this from a German woman's perspective on purpose. It isn't hard to feel sympathy for a victim that's on your side. We can all do that. But what about the other side? WWII is one of the rare historical situations where nearly everyone is in agreement that Nazi Germany needed to be destroyed. And by God, it sure as hell did. But we don't like to dwell on what that actually meant. We aren't told anything of the storyteller or her family's politics. Perhaps they were Nazis and active within the party? Maybe they were apolitical and just "going with the flow"? Or, which would add a horribly tragic twist to the story, maybe they were anti-Fascists and actively participating in the resistance? The question Carroll wants us to ask ourselves is this: Does it matter?

My initial reaction made me think about that question. Indeed, the Russians were on the right side of history, especially when it came to sacking Berlin. Despite the terrible leadership of Stalin (whose betrayal of the German working class was one of the major reasons the Nazis were able to take power in the first place), the Soviet Union played the leading role in defeating Fascism. No single country sacrificed more. This, of course, doesn't excuse the actions of many of the Soviet soldiers entering Berlin. Some accounts say 90,000 women were treated for rape in Berlin hospitals, and there's no telling how many were raped but didn't seek treatment. Just thinking about the sheer size of the crime is so daunting it's tough to comprehend that it actually happened. Lootings and robberies were also rampant. The city was completely destroyed. I was in Berlin in 2006 and there were still marks left from the battle.

"I heard that our brothers and our fathers did the same on their side. I heard that all brothers and all fathers do the same during war time."

I would like to say with one hundred percent certainty that if I would've been there I would've pulled my comrades off the helpless German girls and women; I would've drawn my weapon to make sure no one was shooting unarmed civilians; I would not have allowed the smashing of Nazism to forever be soiled by the uncivilized actions of bloodthirsty hooligans ignorant of the historical significance of the situation and hellbent on pillaging the enemy's capital simply because they can. But, in all honesty, I don't think I can. At least not with one hundred percent certainty. I think of my brother, shot in the back of the head by a German solider during the occupation because he looked up while being marched to a prison camp. I think of my sister, raped by multiple German soldiers as they passed through what's now Belarus on their way to Moscow. I think of my best friend, a man I'd known since he was a child, who I watched spend his last few weeks in agony coughing and moaning until he finally died of pneumonia fighting on the Eastern Front. All of them are walking beside me as I march into Berlin. All of them demand their revenge. Am I strong enough to tell them no? Why should I? The Germans could have said no, but they didn't.

And so on and so on millions of times over...

War is a crime, and the context is the culprit. It is a crime against the unwritten laws of human nature, not of any passing government. Yes, it's true, in this society, sometimes we need to commit crimes. But unless we have a clear understanding of the context, the crime of war is the worst possible crime. It makes us act in ways that aren't natural. War can make our friendly neighbor down the street order the massacre of an entire village. It can make a family man, a church going man, earn a living as a guard at concentration camp. It can make the computer whiz you went to high school with spend his days firing missiles from a drone into a family's living room thousands of miles away, only to drink beer and watch football with friends minutes later. They may be called heroes, evil-doers, allies, or enemies; but they are really just criminals.

History tells me I'm in no way immune from such a crime. And it says the same thing to you. We just have to make sure our crimes are in the right context.

"I was a child. I was on the wrong side. I was broken in by broken men with draining eyes. War sleeps deep in a man, long after guns are gone. He loses care for small things, and I, I was a small thing."

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Wall Street has got a brand new bag

From the NY Times:
The bankers plan to buy “life settlements,” life insurance policies that ill and elderly people sell for cash — $400,000 for a $1 million policy, say, depending on the life expectancy of the insured person. Then they plan to “securitize” these policies, in Wall Street jargon, by packaging hundreds or thousands together into bonds. They will then resell those bonds to investors, like big pension funds, who will receive the payouts when people with the insurance die.

Monday, August 31, 2009

No fooling us

Americans: We're sick, poor, undereducated, and overworked. But, forget all that, we're happy about it. I think this is a collective case of the man in us being too proud to ask for directions when we are clearly lost.

http://www.leftbusinessobserver.com/Awfulness.html

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Elections in Afghanistan: What Now?

On Thursday, August 20, 2009, Afghanistan held its provincial and presidential elections. This is the second presidential election since the occupation of the country began in 2001. While a winner has yet to be declared, many have predicted that incumbent Hamid Karzai would win outright in the first round of the runoff election, although recent reports suggest a second round of voting is probable. Regardless of who is elected, they will be backed by the U.S. led NATO occupation forces, who aren’t planning on leaving any time soon. A few days before the election, Barack Obama made it a point to reiterate that the war in Afghanistan “won’t be quick.” Towards the beginning of the year the administration ordered thousands of more troops to the region, and early reports are suggesting Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s upcoming assessment of the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan is going to call for even more troops (up to 45,000 more). The reports of possible further escalation are coming right as a recent poll suggests that a majority of Americans are now, for the first time, against the war.

It is impossible to talk about the current situation in Afghanistan without talking about the U.S. led NATO occupation. According to NATO’s own website, there are 64,500 foreign troops occupying Afghanistan soil, with nearly half of those troops coming from the U.S. and the rest coming mainly from the UK, Germany, Italy, France and Canada. These figures, however, don’t take into account the large number of “private contractors” (i.e., mercenaries) in Afghanistan, which is said to be around 70,000. This puts the total foreign troop presence in Afghanistan over 130,000. Many Afghans view the propping up of the Karzai regime as the main task of these occupying forces. Given Karzai presides over what is widely considered one of the most corrupt governments in the world, this destroys whatever credibility the “pro-democracy” forces might have had. On top of this, history tells us the Afghan people are less than receptive to foreign control of their land, regardless of the invading force’s stated intentions.

Back in 2001, after the relative ease of early U.S. operations, Alan Woods warned the war was far from over. He explained, “The Taliban have lost their grip on power, but not their potential for making war. They are very used to fighting a guerrilla war in the mountains. They did it before and can do it again. In the north, they were fighting in alien and hostile territory. But in the villages and mountains of the Pushtoon area, they are in their own homeland. The prospect opens up of a protracted guerrilla campaign which can go on for years.” This view, which has subsequently been proven correct, was nearly absent from the mainstream media, who had praised the swift defeat of the Taliban and dubbed Afghanistan the “good war.” Many of the so-called “anti-war” activists and politicians spouted similar nonsense, with some going as far as arguing against sending troops to Iraq because they wanted to keep them in Afghanistan.

Much like the presidential election in late 2004, Afghanistan’s recent election was held under foreign occupation, with the Taliban threatening violence to anyone who votes. In the days before the election, there was an onslaught of attacks. The Taliban managed to fire rockets at the presidential palace as well as orchestrate various suicide attacks across the capital Kabul. While the government played down the events, they also forbade journalists from covering any violent actions during the day of the election. Despite the government censorship, Al Jazeera reported that at least 26 people were killed in 135 incidents. Understandably, voter turn out was lower than many expected. Despite what officials may say, this played well for Karzai, who is receiving somewhat of an unexpected challenge from former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah. Only days before the election, Karzai was able to secure the return of feared warlord General Abdul Rashid Dostum. Dostum is to turn out the ethnic Uzbek vote for Karzai in exchange for influence in the new government. This was not unexpected, as Karzai’s senior vice presidential candidate is a Tajik warlord named Mohammad Qasim Fahim. With many people staying home because of the violence, the votes the warlords were able to bring in could very well give the election to Karzai.

So what is to make of all this? First off, it is important to acknowledge the obvious disconnect between the imperialist power and their local Afghan representatives. While Obama has been using Afghanistan to prove his hawkishness since the beginning of his run for president, all the major Afghan presidential candidates have made it clear dialogue with the Taliban is key to their candidacies. NATO bombing missions, which appear to be the Obama administration’s specialty, are clearly not as popular in Afghanistan as they are in Washington. Also, it is important not to forget about the Afghan people. They are largely being lost in the grand schemes of both local, and foreign, leaders. Sonali Kolhatkar, an author and advocate for Afghan women, addressed this fact on a recent “Democracy Now” episode. She said, “…I think we really need to remind ourselves that these elections are happening in the context of this occupation that’s now gone on for nearly eight years, what it ends up looking like in context of these elections is one set of warlords—that’s us—protecting a second set of warlords—that’s Karzai and his cohorts—from a third set of warlords, which are the Taliban.” Right now, the people of Afghanistan are seen as pawns. The imperialist invaders are largely clueless and view them as “collateral damage,” while the local warlords, from whichever variety, view the people as cannon fodder and are only interested in brute control.

This isn’t to say the situation is hopeless, however.

The question of “Socialism or barbarism” is perhaps stated at its most acute relevance in Afghanistan. Clearly, the solution for the Afghan people doesn’t lie within the artificial borders of their country (which many have never accepted anyway). The fate of Afghanistan is tied to neighbor countries like Iran, and most notably, Pakistan. The people of Afghanistan see the Iranians rising up against their brutal theocratic regime and they are also no doubt aware of their country’s deep ties with Pakistan. But what conclusion are people drawing from these relationships? Due to both misinformation and the actions of those who control these countries, many Afghans are getting a distorted view of their neighbors. The Taliban almost went to war with Iran and it is common knowledge that Pakistan’s infamous intelligence service, the ISI, has been a source of support for the Taliban (with the U.S. providing much of the resources during the war with the Soviets). Right now, education is key. Groups like “The Struggle” (the IMT’s section in Pakistan) understand this well, as they set up Marxist educational relief camps during the brutal attacks on the Pushtoonkhwa area of Pakistan earlier this year. It is hard to overstate the importance of such actions. Once the peasants and workers decide to take power, there will be no stopping them.

Of course, this lesson isn’t just for Afghanistan and its neighbors, but is also a lesson for those of us across the rest of world. Ultimately, only the world’s working class can end the wars, occupations, and brutal dictatorships that plague our society. As the situation in Afghanistan tells us, it is urgent we do so.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

The Workers' State

I used to think of the State in very abstract terms. The State was an idea represented by a flag and arbitrary borders; a symbolic existence that has largely outlived its usefulness. While all this is all true, there is also a much more tangible aspect to it. The State is also involved in governing, providing services, taxation, etc. But, as anyone who has been through our justice system can attest, the State is not neutral. Naturally, the State is controlled by the ruling class. It is, at its roots, a tool for one class to dominate another.

This is where confusion sets in and tempers flare. Traditionally, the main disagreement between Anarchists and Marxists is on the question of the State. While Anarchists insist on immediately abolishing it, Marxists argue for taking State power in order to implement Socialism. It was fairly easy for me to understand the Anarchist position (although not so easy to understand what they would replace the State with). It was, however, a bit more difficult for me to understand the Marxist position. By taking State power wouldn't a "red bureaucracy" form, as what happened in the Soviet Union? Instead of Capitalist cops beating us over the head, are we now to have "Marxist" cops beating us over the head?

To answer these questions first we have to understand what Marxists, from Marx and Engels to Lenin and Trotsky, understand as the State. While writing on the Paris Commune, Marx tells us a State controlled by the working class would have to be fundamentally different than a Capitalist controlled State. This has always been the case from one historical epoch to another, with those in charge of the State using it to further their interests:

But the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes.

The centralized state power, with its ubiquitous organs of standing army, police, bureaucracy, clergy, and judicature – organs wrought after the plan of a systematic and hierarchic division of labor – originates from the days of absolute monarchy, serving nascent middle class society as a mighty weapon in its struggle against feudalism. Still, its development remained clogged by all manner of medieval rubbish, seignorial rights, local privileges, municipal and guild monopolies, and provincial constitutions. The gigantic broom of the French Revolution of the 18th century swept away all these relics of bygone times, thus clearing simultaneously the social soil of its last hinderances to the superstructure of the modern state edifice raised under the First Empire, itself the offspring of the coalition wars of old semi-feudal Europe against modern France.

During the subsequent regimes, the government, placed under parliamentary control – that is, under the direct control of the propertied classes – became not only a hotbed of huge national debts and crushing taxes; with its irresistible allurements of place, pelf, and patronage, it became not only the bone of contention between the rival factions and adventurers of the ruling classes; but its political character changed simultaneously with the economic changes of society. At the same pace at which the progress of modern industry developed, widened, intensified the class antagonism between capital and labor, the state power assumed more and more the character of the national power of capital over labor, of a public force organized for social enslavement, of an engine of class despotism.

After every revolution marking a progressive phase in the class struggle, the purely repressive character of the state power stands out in bolder and bolder relief. The Revolution of 1830, resulting in the transfer of government from the landlords to the capitalists, transferred it from the more remote to the more direct antagonists of the working men. The bourgeois republicans, who, in the name of the February Revolution, took the state power, used it for the June [1848] massacres, in order to convince the working class that “social” republic means the republic entrusting their social subjection, and in order to convince the royalist bulk of the bourgeois and landlord class that they might safely leave the cares and emoluments of government to the bourgeois “republicans." (Marx, The Civil War in France, Chapter 5)


So, what would this State controlled by the workers look like? How would it operate? How would it be different from the State controlled by the "bourgeois republicans"? Marx outlines a Workers' State when he describes the Paris Commune later in that same chapter:

The first decree of the Commune, therefore, was the suppression of the standing army, and the substitution for it of the armed people.

The Commune was formed of the municipal councillors, chosen by universal suffrage in the various wards of the town, responsible and revocable at short terms. The majority of its members were naturally working men, or acknowledged representatives of the working class. The Commune was to be a working, not a parliamentary body, executive and legislative at the same time.

Instead of continuing to be the agent of the Central Government, the police was at once stripped of its political attributes, and turned into the responsible, and at all times revocable, agent of the Commune. So were the officials of all other branches of the administration. From the members of the Commune downwards, the public service had to be done at workman’s wage. The vested interests and the representation allowances of the high dignitaries of state disappeared along with the high dignitaries themselves. Public functions ceased to be the private property of the tools of the Central Government. Not only municipal administration, but the whole initiative hitherto exercised by the state was laid into the hands of the Commune.

Having once got rid of the standing army and the police – the physical force elements of the old government – the Commune was anxious to break the spiritual force of repression, the “parson-power", by the disestablishment and disendowment of all churches as proprietary bodies. The priests were sent back to the recesses of private life, there to feed upon the alms of the faithful in imitation of their predecessors, the apostles.

The whole of the educational institutions were opened to the people gratuitously, and at the same time cleared of all interference of church and state. Thus, not only was education made accessible to all, but science itself freed from the fetters which class prejudice and governmental force had imposed upon it.

The judicial functionaries were to be divested of that sham independence which had but served to mask their abject subserviency to all succeeding governments to which, in turn, they had taken, and broken, the oaths of allegiance. Like the rest of public servants, magistrates and judges were to be elective, responsible, and revocable. (Marx, The Civil War in France, Chapter 5)


In many aspects, particularly in my more abstract understanding, a Workers' State isn't much of a State at all. The army and police are to be disbanded and replaced by armed citizens; the governing bodies are to be made up of worker councils; all public officials are not to receive a higher wage than an average worker; all laws protecting corrupt clergy are to be abolished; all public officials are to be recallable at any time; and so on. Lenin, who is still a boogieman to many, also talked about such measures in his writings about a Workers' State (e.g., The State and Revolution). The following is Lenin writing in 1917, a few months before the October Revolution:


What is the class composition of this other government? It consists of the proletariat and the peasants (in soldiers’ uniforms). What is the political nature of this government? It is a revolutionary dictatorship, i.e., a power directly based on revolutionary seizure, on the direct initiative of the people from below, and not on a law enacted by a centralised state power. It is an entirely different kind of power from the one that generally exists in the parliamentary bourgeois-democratic republics of the usual type still prevailing in the advanced countries of Europe and America. This circumstance often over looked, often not given enough thought, yet it is the crux of the matter. This power is of the same type as the Paris Commune of 1871. The fundamental characteristics of this type are: (1) the source of power is not a law previously discussed and enacted by parliament, but the direct initiative of the people from below, in their local areas—direct “seizure”, to use a current expression; (2) the replacement of the police and the army, which are institutions divorced from the people and set against the people, by the direct arming of the whole people; order in the state under such a power is maintained by the armed workers and peasants themselves, by the armed people themselves; (3) officialdom, the bureaucracy, are either similarly replaced by the direct rule of the people themselves or at least placed under special control; they not only become elected officials, but are also subject to recall at the people’s first demand; they are reduced to the position of simple agents; from a privileged group holding “jobs” remunerated on a high, bourgeois scale, they become workers of a special “arm of the service”, whose remuneration does not exceed the ordinary pay of a competent worker. (Lenin, The Dual Power, Marxists Internet Archive)

Obviously, both Lenin and Marx had similar ideas. It is also obvious that neither man advocated any sort of "red bureaucracy" or "bureaucratic totalitarianism." (It is worth noting Lenin's use of the word "dictatorship" is different than our modern usage. It essentially means majority rule. In a Workers' State there would be a true majority rule, a "dictatorship of the proletariat." In a Capitalist State, like the United States today for example, there is a "dictatorship of the bourgeoisie.") Most of all, by quoting Marx and Lenin side by side like that, I wanted to point out that neither of them invented the Workers' State! This is extremely important. Both men based their ideas on the Paris Commune. Once again, the ingenuity of the working class comes up with a solution for their situation. In the hands of leaders like Marx and Lenin, these solutions became a formulated plan of attack.

Now, with an understanding of a Workers' State, it isn't hard to see how nationalization has a completely different meaning. This is another topic that many on the left seem to be confused about. Of course nationalization of any industry under a Capitalist State, or a State run by a bureaucratic caste, is not going to give workers control over that industry. This is not what Marxists advocate. In fact, I'm personally not too thrilled with even describing the working class seizure of industry as "nationalization." In many respects it isn't any sort of "nation" taking over industry, but a worldwide class. This brings up another extremely important part of worker control: Internationalism. The Workers' State has no interest in chest-thumping, flag-waving chauvinism. As Marx and Engels so famously said, "Workers of the world unite!"

Unfortunately, due both to Western and Stalinist governments, much of the history of the Workers' State has been distorted or suppressed. Many Stalinist States claimed, among other things, that they had achieved Socialism and were building Communism. In reality, Stalinism, in all its different variations, has little to do with a Marxist conception of Socialism or Communism. Western governments were quick to point out the shortcomings of these bureaucratic caricatures of Socialism in order to discredit anyone advocating a worker controlled society. Tellingly, both the "Communist" and the Capitalist parts of the world didn't have to stretch the truth to come up with horrible abuses committed by the other side.

So is a Workers' State possible? This seems to be the central question. The few times there have been genuine attempts, they have not succeeded. What is to say it ever will? It helps to remember that the bourgeois State is a relatively new invention. And like all inventions, it had to be created. Imagine a commoner arguing for the same political rights as the royalty in feudal Europe. No doubt they were considered radical, "out there" so to speak. But they not only argued for political rights, they fought and took them. They failed many times, but in the end succeeded. There was a material and social basis for this new society. Feudalism was historically rotten. The same applies for Capitalism. Capitalism, and bourgeois society in general, have long ago stopped playing a progressive historical role. They are rotten to the core. Capitalism has continued to "work" because of State intervention, but hardly a decade can go by without a major crisis. These crises are not simply caused by bad policies, or bad leaders, but instead are a result of the internal contradictions of Capitalism itself. (The current crisis, a crisis of overproduction, was explained by Marx well over a century ago.)

It is obvious that a Workers' State is not going to come about overnight. It is also obvious it is not going to form by itself. Of course those who control society today will use all the power they have to fight against any threat to their rule. But despite all their weapons and propaganda, they are on the wrong side of history. This is what convinced me to get involved. I urge you to do the same.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

The Power Question

The Spanish and Russian Revolutions

When I first got involved in "radical" politics, I quickly learned that the Spanish Revolution was the "good" revolution and the Russian Revolution was the "bad" one. While the big names of the "anti-authoritarian" left do a wonderful job of explaining the positive gains in social and property relations during the Spanish Revolution, as well as putting the acts of violence in context, they seem to agree with the Capitalists' version of history regarding the Russian Revolution.

Yes, it is easy to write off such a monumental event if Stalinism is a direct result of "Lenin's vision" and the conflict between Trotsky and Stalin was essentially a conflict of individual personalities. Only understanding the "anti-authoritarian" and Capitalist version of the events, I tended to romanticize the Spanish Revolution (which failed) and had no interest in the Russian Revolution (which succeeded). This didn't allow me to put the our historical situation in its proper context. I, no doubt along with a countless number of others, was setting myself up to expect failure. It is true that both Revolutions were extremely complicated, messy, violent, and full of contradictions; but after reading several accounts of both it is clear the class independent leadership of Lenin and Trotsky, along with the Bolsheviks' willingness to take power, pushed the Russian Revolution forward to success while the class collaborationist leadership during the Spanish Revolution, and their outright refusal to take power, led to its failure.

The "anti-authoritarian" left rightfully wants to distance themselves from the awful degeneration of Stalinism, but in doing so they forfeit the legacy of the greatest event in the history of humanity. This isn't to say the Russian Revolution is a template all subsequent Revolutions must fit into (the Revolution in Venezuela, a Revolution which I fully support, doesn't exactly fit this format), but it does mean that we can learn both positive and negative lessons from the way it was carried out, and it's eventual betrayal.


Power, Leadership, and the Working Class

Power isn't bad. Leadership isn't bad. Although both can be bad, they aren't inherently bad. Like other tools that can be used to restrict the actions of another, they need to be held directly accountable by those who they could potentially affect. Despite the hundreds of essays and books deconstructing both words to the point of them meaning whatever the so-called "expert" desires, the concepts of leadership and power are easily grasped by the average worker. There is no controversy here.

Many also recognize there is a politically advanced layer of the working class. This is an objective fact. For whatever reason, certain people have drawn certain conclusions while others haven't. This doesn't mean the advanced group is better, smarter, or anything of the sort. They do, however, have a more defined role to play. They must be on the front lines making demands Capitalism can't fulfill and simultaneously explain why these demands are only "unrealistic" within the confines of a system that allows a few people dictatorial control over all of industry. It is not their job to "make a revolution." As factory occupations, "bossnappings," and Soviets (worker councils) have shown, workers come up with all sorts of ingenious solutions for their situations. In order to coordinate and best implement these revolutionary changes, the working class needs leaders who are willing and able to take power. Again, despite the babble so many intellectuals have made a career out of spewing, this is common sense to many working people.

It appears for many on the left, largely because of the Stalinist caricature of Socialism, power and leadership have become taboo, something to be avoided. This is a recipe for failure. If our leaders aren't one hundred percent ready to take power, and use that power to implement Socialism, we are forever doomed to activist groups and autonomous movements that offer little more than book opportunities for the usual suspects within leftist circles.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

"Bossnapping" - Workers React to the Crisis of Capitalism

Another piece written for Socialist Appeal. It also appears on Marxist.com.

Luc Rousselet, who works for Minnesota-based 3M, recently told reporters that talks between his company and its employees were a good thing. This, however, was only after he was kept in his office for more than 24 hours by workers he was intending to fire. Rousselet, who manages one of 3M’s French factories, was described as a “scoundrel boss” by the workers, who demanded negotiations surrounding their layoffs. This case, along with similar situations across France and in other parts of Europe, has been dubbed a “bossnapping.”

Bossnappings have quickly caught the attention of the world Capitalist class. Recently, Forbes.com went so far as to post an article on how to avoid such an embarrassing ordeal. The article largely reads like the motherly “don’t talk to strangers” speech given to a young child, and no doubt puts executives’ fears to rest when it offers brilliant advice such as, “escaping rather than freezing in a kidnap situation.” There are at least three Belgian Fiat managers who probably wish they had had access to such valuable insight when the workers decided that their bosses could camp out in their office until they agreed to renegotiate job cuts a few weeks ago.

What the business press won’t explain is that workers’ interests are in direct contradiction with those of their bosses. This is the real reason behind bossnappings and other similar actions. Unfortunately, most of the workers’ leaders seem equally confused – or are downright negligent – as they also harbor fantasies about class harmony. While workers around the world begin to exert increasing levels of revolutionary vigor, their leaders continue to ask for a cuter, greener, friendlier Capitalism.

Yes, winning economic reforms are important, but without any political demands, we are simply begging the Capitalist for crumbs off of his or her table. It is great to get a good severance package – but you’re still without a job. It is wonderful to occupy a factory, but if that factory isn’t nationalized under workers’ control you’re still working at the mercy of the Capitalist system, be it in the form a few large shareholders in a traditional business structure or a group of mini-Capitalists in a cooperative.

Without a clear working class political program, most workers don’t draw the necessary conclusions from their situation. Substituting the conscious action of the masses of workers for the actions of a handful of “self-sacrificing” activists will never solve the problem. This has been proved time and time again. Eventually, the protests end, smashed windows get repaired, black face masks are put away, and economies recover. Without a conscious development of the flame sparked by the current global economic crisis, it will burn down to a mere flicker. This is where the revolutionary party comes in. Not to substitute itself for the masses, but to fight as part of the working class, as its most class conscious and dedicated layer.

As the crisis of Capitalism deepens, we are seeing workers in the industrialized countries, as well as in the less developed, react to the attacks on their conditions of life. From the uprising in Greece, to the factory occupations in the UK, to the large protests in Iceland, to the general strike in France, to the continuing Venezuelan Revolution, to countless other actions all across the world; bossnappings are simply the latest working class innovation to deal with the failure of Capitalism. They are another reminder of the awesome power the working class holds.

We, as Marxists, understand we should not only be in the trenches fighting the battles for reforms, but also be explaining the historical role the working class must play in removing the rotting corpse of Capitalism altogether. Armed with an understanding of this dialectical struggle, another world is not only possible, but is our duty to make a reality.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Human Consciousness

The following, from a piece entitled Canadian Persepectives 2009: The Failure of Capitalism and the Need for a Socialist Alternative written by the Canadian section of the IMT, is a wonderful description of the dialectal nature of human consciousness. Understanding this is key to understanding how societies change, and this excerpt is some of the best writing on the subject I've ever read. (Click here to read the whole piece.)

The most revolutionary observation about human consciousness is that it is inherently conservative. People do not expect or welcome change. The empirical philosophy of "what you see is what you get" is how most people live their lives. For most of their lives, this philosophy is a close enough approximation of reality that it does not cause people too much distress. However, during times of great change and crisis such as the period we are currently passing through, the philosophy of empiricism is woefully inadequate. Capitalism has failed, and yet the psychology of the mass of the population is more reflective of the past than the present. If psychology faithfully kept track with objective reality, we would have been living in a socialist society for at least 100 years.

The relationship between reality and psychology, the objective and the subjective, is not linear. However, there is obviously still a relationship. This relationship is contradictory and dialectical - in other words, after doing everything possible to resist change (taking on increased overtime, a 2nd or 3rd job, sacrificing health and family, etc.) a limit is reached where there are no more "individual" solutions. It is impossible to determine exactly when this limit will be reached; people are willing to endure more in some periods than others. But eventually, people start looking for collective, systemic explanations and solutions to the change going on around them. They reject the old justifications (and those who peddled them) and look for ideas that explain reality. Consciousness does not catch up to reality in a gradual, linear, reformist manner; it catches up in a convulsive, sudden, and revolutionary way. A conservative consciousness leads to revolutionary conclusions - dialectical philosophy calls this phenomenon the unity and inter-penetration of opposites.

The "old" discredited idea of socialism is coming back with a vengeance. Newsweek magazine even declared, "We Are All Socialists Now." Those who extolled the virtue of small government and free markets are now spending billions of dollars of taxpayers' money to intervene in the economy. They are even nationalizing banks. The captains of industry, the best and the brightest with their multi-million dollar bonuses, have driven the largest banks, corporations, and the entire economy into the ground. In this environment the ideas of genuine socialism can again get the ear of the masses. When every other "solution" has failed, when the so-called experts have failed, and when workers are faced with the prospect of unemployment and homelessness, the idea of occupying your factory to save your job no longer seems so outlandish. People ask themselves, "Why should the bosses receive billions while there is no money to help workers facing foreclosure and bankruptcy? Why couldn't we use that money to nationalize industry to save jobs? What purpose do these bosses play anyway?" Marxists have long explained that it is not revolutionaries that cause revolutions. It is capitalism that creates the conditions that lead workers to revolutionary conclusions.

Monday, February 23, 2009

10 years under Chavez (a mainstream economic report card)

While I am of the opinion the revolution in Venezuela must continue to move forward and end current property relations or it is doomed to fail; I'm certainly not against enacting progressive reforms along the way. The following report gives an idea of what has been accomplished so far. (Obviously, at least from my point of view, not everything is positive. Many of these programs show their limitations within the confines of a capitalist system.) It was done by the Center for Economic and Policy Research, a research institute with Nobel laureates Joe Stiglitz and Robert Solow, among others, on its advisory board.

http://www.cepr.net/documents/publications/venezuela-2009-02.pdf


Key points (as taken from the report):

* The current economic expansion began when the government got control over the national oil company in the first quarter of 2003. Since then, real (inflation-adjusted) GDP has nearly doubled, growing by 94.7 percent in 5.25 years, or 13.5 percent annually.

* Most of this growth has been in the non-oil sector of the economy, and the private sector has grown faster than the public sector.

* During the current economic expansion, the poverty rate has been cut by more than half, from 54 percent of households in the first half of 2003 to 26 percent at the end of 2008. Extreme poverty has fallen even more, by 72 percent. These poverty rates measure only cash income, and does not take into account increased access to health care or education.

* Over the entire decade, the percentage of households in poverty has been reduced by 39 percent, and extreme poverty by more than half.

* Inequality, as measured by the Gini index, has also fallen substantially. The index has fallen to 41 in 2008, from 48.1 in 2003 and 47 in 1999. This represents a large reduction in inequality.

* Real (inflation-adjusted) social spending per person more than tripled from 1998-2006.

* From 1998-2006, infant mortality has fallen by more than one third. The number of primary care physicians in the public sector increased 12-fold from 1999-2007, providing health care to millions of Venezuelans who previously did not have access.

* There have been substantial gains in education, especially higher education, where gross enrollment rates more than doubled from 1999/2000 to 2007/2008.

* The labor market also improved substantially over the last decade, with unemployment dropping from 11.3 percent to 7.8 percent. During the current expansion it has fallen by more than half. Other labor market indicators also show substantial gains.

* Over the past decade, the number of social security beneficiaries has more than
doubled.

* Over the decade, the government's total public debt has fallen from 30.7 to 14.3 percent of GDP. The foreign public debt has fallen even more, from 25.6 to 9.8 percent of GDP.

* Inflation is about where it was 10 years ago, ending the year at 31.4 percent. However it has been falling over the last half year (as measured by three-month averages) and is likely to continue declining this year in the face of strong deflationary pressures worldwide.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Class independent leadership is key

Class collaboration doesn't favor the working class. It never has. No matter how practical it seems, the working class always ends up being subjugated.

This situation reminded me of something I read a couple days ago.

As in revolutionary Russia, the importance of class independence isn't recognized by many on the left today (even within the "radical" left). The result is an NDP coalition with Liberals in Canada and sizable left support for Obama here in the States. Unlike the US and Canada, however, revolutionary Russia also had a large group of people who understood class collaboration to be a mistake. Victor Serge wrote the following some eighty years ago in his account of the Bolshevik led Russian Revolution:

Nothing is more tragic at this juncture than the moral collapse of the two great parties of democratic socialism. The Socialist-Revolutionaries had carried considerable weight, through their distinguished record and their influence in the countryside, on the intellectuals and middle classes and, not so long ago, among powerful minorities of workers: they had enjoyed every opportunity of taking power without any transgression of the established legality and of governing as Socialists. The country would have followed them. At its Fourth Congress the majority of the party castigated the Central Committee for not having done so. But the SR leaders, ridden by a fetishism for formal democracy, fearing more than anything else the anarchy of the masses and peasant jacquerie, and dreaming of a parliamentary democracy where their eloquence would have held sway, rejected the arduous Socialist road in favour of collaboration with the liberal bourgeoisie.

Serge goes on to the Mensheviks:

The Mensheviks, a minority of the Russian Social-Democratic Workers' party who had tussled over twenty years with the Bolsheviks (in factional struggles which were actually contests between revolutionary intransigence and Socialist opportunism), were influential in the industrial centres, among the intelligentsia, in the cooperatives, in the trade union leadership, and in the circles around the late government. They had contributed statesmen as remarkable, for their personal qualities and their revolutionary past, as Chkeidze and Tseretelli, and theoreticians and agitators as gifted as G. V. Plekhanov, the great founder of Russian Social-Democracy, Y. Martov, Dan and Abramovich. But the Mensheviks, with similar hesitations to those of the SRs, declared themselves on the side of class collaboration, 'democracy' and the Constituent Assembly, and against `anarchy', `premature socialism,' 'Bolshevik hysteria' and (even) civil war.

Compare the revolution in Russia to the revolution in Spain and we see how important class independent leadership is. The Russian Revolution would have no doubt failed had there been no answer to the policies of the SRs and Mensheviks.

Friday, January 23, 2009

"Guns, Germs, and Steel"

Over Christmas, while in Canada at my grandfathers, I picked up his copy of Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel. It is a few years old, and I had always been meaning to read it, but hadn't got around to it yet. It actually was really easy to read and I finished it quite quickly.

Diamond's thesis is, contrary to what was accepted by most people and still is by many, environment is the major reason certain areas of the world developed more than others, not race and culture. It was simply an accident of geography that Europe and Asia developed guns, writing, general technology, and domesticated animals. This made the Spanish able to easily rout South American societies, as well as the English in Australia and North America, the Dutch and French in parts of the "new world," and still others who colonized areas all over the world.

This seems obvious, but it is no doubt hard for some to realize as many of us have had near meaningless catchphrases like "personal responsibility" jammed down our throats since we were able to comprehend ideas. This, I believe, is a way to rationalize the otherwise blatant murderous greed of a few in our society, a society which we like to claim is superior to others largely due to our Judeo-Christian values, which in text claims to empathize with the oppressed, but in practice tends to get around that with established church doctrines like "free will". Diamond's environment thesis puts a material cause to what many thought had strictly cultural and divine implications. In short, we aren't any more special than anyone else from anywhere else.

Diamond also throws a bucket of reality in the faces of those "leftists/liberals" who have a fetish for the developing world. No doubt we've all encountered those who believe all of western Europe and its offshoots are evil, and all those in the developing world are hopelessly exploited, downtrodden, and seemingly incapable of horrific deeds. In reality, African chiefs sold other Africans as slaves; Mesoamerican societies were as, and sometimes more, brutal than those in Eurasia; and so on. Today, Robert Mugabe certainly needs no help from the west to brutally exploit anyone unfortunate enough to live under his rule. If the natural world would have evolved in a different way, there's nothing to say Native Americans wouldn't have colonized, and nearly wiped out, Europeans.

That brings me to my main criticism of Diamond's book. While he tells us why Europe was able to colonize the world, he doesn't offer any reasons why they went ahead and did it. If Europe isn't full of a bunch of innately brutal people, why did they do so many brutal things? This requires an economic, class-based, analysis. Much of the wealth created by the natural resources bestowed on Eurasians (as well as wealth creating human labor) was eventually privatized. Ever since societies have created surplus wealth, that is when societies made it able for some (chiefs, lords, kings, capitalists, bureaucrats, etc.) to live off the work of others, there has been a struggle over who controls this surplus. This is a struggle of classes. Be it the obvious ownership of the surplus and subsequent exploitation of the oppressed classes in feudalistic and slave driven societies, or the less obvious ownership and exploitation in modern capitalist societies- whoever owns that surplus wealth, and the economic system that justifies that ownership, are obvious major factors in why these societies were compelled to colonize other lands. This is completely absent from Diamond's work. He does attempt to answer why Europe colonized the "new world" and places like China, despite their technological prowess, didn't. (He says that in China- because it was geographically prudent for them to have a single central government- merchants, explorers, and others looking for wealth and adventure, had pretty much only one option to gets funds. In Europe, on the other hand, there were many kings and queens to fund expeditions if one happened to decline.) But he seems completely unaware of, or completely disregards, the effect economics has had on world history. In the afterward Diamond seems downright giddy about the businesspeople and economists that have contacted him about his book. Again, he appears to either not be aware of, or disregard, any argument that holds their dictatorship of industry, and their justification of that dictatorship, at any way responsible for the wars of conquest that have plagued our history. This is a major omission if we want to formulate any meaningful ways to learn from our past.

Of course there are other reasons that aren't directly related to environment that make our societies different. There are also reasons of conquest other than economics. But I challenge anyone to find a case in history where environment doesn't have any effect on a society and economics isn't involved in a conquest. Jared Diamond tells half the story, but then bows down to bourgeois sensibility. Perhaps a class analysis wouldn't have got him the endorsement from Bill Gates, but it doesn't always pay, at least in the monetary sense, to be honest.