I’m the worst person you want on your debate team. A couple of years of Toastmasters didn’t make much of a dent in the problem. This person pitfall is made worse when the subject is politics in general and advocating socialism and criticising capitalism specifically. I get anxious, frustrated, angry when my listener thinks socialism won’t work here in the U.S. (presumably because it has never been tried and my listener does not have the imagination to seriously consider a society without the free market and the social architecture of capitalism). I lose my thread. Hell, I lose my thread nearly every time I tell one of my long-winded stories. Just ask the few friends I have who will attempt to hang on for dear life as I jump subjects like a train in a switching yard until someone asks, “What do cats have to do with California’s GDP?”
This brief piece from Kevin Drum’s column in Mother Jones’ website does a better job explaining how the Democratic Socialists of America want to change one aspect of health care.
I’ve been curious for a while about just what a democratic socialist really is. An FDR liberal on steroids? A Swedish style social democrat? I’m not very clear about this. Meagan Day clears things up for me: Here’s the truth: In the long run, democratic socialists want to end capitalism. And we want to do…
I had heard of Arundhati Roy and her novel The God of Small Things when it was published back in 1997. I had long forgotten why the book interested me. I was a newly-minted Christian at the time, so maybe the provocative title with “God” in it made me want to check it out. I probably jotted the title down for future reading on the bookmark I was using at that time. That was my pre-Goodreads.com method of keeping a list of books I wanted to read. That approach wasn’t advantageous. (Somewhere out in the world, there are a dozen or so deteriorating New Yorker and QPB Book Club bookmarks with book titles scribbled on them.) It took the recent publicity of her 2017 book The Ministry of Utmost Happiness–glowing reviews and fascinating interviews–to remind me of the author’s previous award-winning novel and my interest in it. In between these two critically-acclaimed works of fiction are twenty years and eighteen non-fiction publications and activism.
When I started reading The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, I immediately fell for Aftab, a Shia Muslim hermaphrodite born in Old Delhi, India. As she reaches adulthood, she has gender reassignment surgery and becomes Anjum, a glamorous, affectionate woman. Anjum moves into a house called Khabgah (or “House of Dreams”) with the group hermaphrodites and transgenders. Anjum later leaves Khabgah and moves into a nearby cemetery where she transforms it into a guest house, called Jannat (or “Paradise”), and creates Jannat Funeral Services. Jannat Guest House becomes home to other marginalized and persecuted characters like herself. This, I believe, is where Roy gets the title to the book. The significance of the cemetery is that in India graveyards are usually for Muslims. Hindus cremate their dead, and so these sites become ghettos of sorts since Muslims are the minority and have been pushed to the bottom of the economic and social chain.
But this is only the beginning of this beautiful and brutal braided narrative covering many decades of often bloody struggles and strife. The story moves back and forth in time and geography: Delhi to Kashmir, from the 1990s to current time dealing with the hypocrisy of the caste system to the Kashmiri separatist movement that called for the Muslim-majority Kashmir to break from Hindu-majority India.
The West often thinks of India as the land of yoga, meditation, and Gandhi. However, Roy said in a recent interview with Jeremy Scahill of The Intercept, “There has not been a single day since August 15, 1947, when India was declared independent that the Indian Army has not been deployed within its own borders, against its own people…It’s just a nation that is nailed together by military might.” As an American who never studied the history of India, Richard Attenborough’s version of Mahatma Gandhi’s life is the most background knowledge I have on the subject, so the stuff in this book had some shockers. (By the way, if you have fifteen minutes, check out Roy setting the record straight on Gandhi here. It was news to me!)
Roy dedicated the book to “The Unconsoled,” and that would apply to the characters in this book if they were alive. They don’t fit neatly into the complex grid that is India. An India “that is divided into this tiny little fretwork of caste and ethnicity and language and each is pitted against the other,” as the author told Scahill. A humous example of this is contained in a joke that militants passed around on their mobile phones:
I saw a man on a bridge about to jump. I said, “Don’t do it!” He said, “Nobody loves me.” I said, “God loves you. Do you believe in God?” He said, “Yes.” I said, “Are you a Muslim or a non-Muslim?” He said, “A Muslim.” I said, “Shia or Sunni?” He said, “Sunni.” I said, “Me too! Deobandi or Barelvi?” He said, “Barelvi.” I said “Me too! Tanzeehi or Tafkeeri?” He said, “Tanzeehi.” I said “Me too! Tanzeehi Azmati or Tanzeehi Farhati?” He said, “Tanzeehi Farhati.” I said “Me too! Tanzeehi Farhati Jamia ul Uloom Ajmer or Tanzeehi Farhati Jamia ul Noor Mewat?” He said, “Tanzeehi Farhati Jamia ul Noor Mewat.” I said, “Die, kafir!” and I pushed him over.
Forgive this blogger’s indulgence. The joke was too funny to not reproduce here. It is also the only time while reading the book that I laughed out loud. So, the passage misrepresents the work as a whole, but the punchline fits with much of the novel’s text. Still, there are beautiful love stories here amongst the massacres, lynchings, and tortures. The fact that Roy can effectively reveal love and tenderness in this kind of landscape is her genius.
When interviewed by Amy Goodman on Democracy Now! Roy said, “Fiction in reality as well as in my imagination is my real home, but this time it is home with the roof blown off.” Indeed, at times The Ministry of Utmost Happiness seems like it is rubble where home used to be. I, for one, am grateful for the storm. I found The Ministry of Utmost Happiness a tough read, but worth every challenging page.
If I had treated Ministry of Utmost Happiness as some kind of dark speculative history and didn’t follow up by reading the sobering nonfiction Capitalism: A Ghost Story I might have just moved on an been a happy idiot, but I didn’t. Capitalism: A Ghost Story is, at least to this rookie of Indian politics, a The Ministry of Utmost Happiness without tenderness or beauty. Capitalism: A Ghost Story is in part about how non-taxpaying foundations like Carnegie Corporation, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the Ford Foundation with almost unlimited resources turn their economic wealth into political, social, and cultural capital.
Capitalism: A Ghost Story is about neoliberalism, racism, the privatization of public works, and pollution run amuck, and the wreckage unfettered capitalism leaves in its path. There are Kashmiri separatists, anti-government Maoists rebels in the jungles fighting against the government that wants to strip the forest for mining operations and massive privately-owned dam projects threatening to wipe out hundreds of poor communities. Scary shit, indeed!
Roy spends much of the ink here on the evils of foundations. It is fascinating in a very dark way how foundations have a history of “defusing and deradicalizing” movements like, for instance, the Black civil rights movement here in the 1960s and the “successful transformation of Black Power into Black Capitalism.” Roy writes:
“The Rockefeller Foundation, in keeping with J. D. Rockefeller’s ideals, had worked closely with Martin Luther King Sr. (father of Martin Luther King Jr.). But his influence waned with the rise of the more militant organizations—the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Black Panthers. The Ford and Rockefeller Foundations moved in. In 1970 they donated $15 million to “moderate” Black organizations, giving people, grants, fellowships, scholarships, job-training programs for dropouts, and seed money for Black-owned businesses. Repression, infighting, and the honey trap of funding led to the gradual atrophying of the radical Black organizations. Martin Luther King Jr. made the forbidden connections between Capitalism, Imperialism, Racism, and the Vietnam War. As a result, after he was assassinated even his memory became toxic, a threat to public order.”
Foundations “remodeled his legacy to fit a market-friendly format.” The Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change, with a grant of $2 million, was set up by the Ford Motor Company, General Motors, Mobil, and Monsanto, among others. The center maintains the King Library and Archives of the Civil Rights Movement. We rarely hear about the radical, socialist King. All we easily remember (unless you look for his late speeches or read Tavis Smiley or Cornel West) is the “I Have a Dream” speech, the non-violent protests, and the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial in D.C. Stuff that corporate and middle American can easily ingest.
Capitalism: A Ghost Story is a sharp rebuke of neoliberalism and multinational capitalism. Her in-depth writing reminds me of Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky, Naomi Klein, and Chris Hedges. I can’t always wrap my head around what she is saying. That’s alright though–I would prefer to be challenged than jaded.
The last book I read was Roy on mass government surveillance. Things That Can and Cannot Be Said is a collaboration with American actor John Cusack and is, for the most part, nothing new. Roy and Cusack fly to Moscow with Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg to interview NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden. The interview turned out to focus on Ellsberg as much as on Snowden. Most of the book is interview transcripts, the first part of it between Roy and Cusack alone and the second half the co-authors with the famous whistleblowers.
Snowden seemed to add little new information to the conversation. Roy questioned Snowden over the controversial Wired Magazine September 2014 cover. Snowden gave a flippant answer. Presumably, because he has fielded that question too many times already. To me, this was a missed opportunity. Snowden–like Ellsberg–entered the armed forces and later the government because he wanted to serve. Like Ellsberg (and for that matter Chelsea Manning, Thomas Drake, et al.) he was not a radical. I might be reading in between the lines here, but I felt Roy was disappointed in the Wired cover pic. She has been quoted as saying, “Flags are bits of coloured cloth that governments use to first shrink wrap people’s brains and then as ceremonial shrouds to bury the dead.” My guess is she felt that Snowden was falling back on a banal patriotic trope and she wanted a clear answer from him and what she got was frustration.
I gleaned more from the Ellsberg comments. I hadn’t visited the Pentagon Papers scandal since college, so some of what he had to say refreshed my memory. One of the more chilling comments came from Ellsberg. I have heard others comment on this, most notably Chris Hedges, though Ellsberg broke it down to how it would all happen:
“We don’t have a police state, not yet…One more 911 and then I believe we will have hundreds of thousands of potentials. Middle-easterners, Muslims will be put into detention camps or deported. After 911 we had thousands of people arrested without charges, but I am talking about the future…I’m talking of hundreds of thousands in camps or deported. I think the surveillance is relevant to that. They will know who to put away. The data is already collected.”
Ultimately, Things That Can and Cannot Be Said was a rehash for me. All the stuff I have read about since the initial story from The Guardian broke and then the interviews and articles that have come in its tsunami-size wake.
What to read next by Arundhati Roy–Walking With the Comrades where Roy traveled into the forests of Central India where Maoist guerillas confront some of the world’s biggest mining corporations. Or maybe The Doctor and the Saint where Roy attempts to replace Gandhi with Ambedkar as India’s preeminent modern figure. Wait! Minutes before posting this I bought An Ordinary Person’s Guide to Empire–a book that has been described as “a call to arms against the apocalyptic apparatus of the American empire.”
I’ll probably just take a break from Roy for a while. She is an excellent writer and a great thinker, but like Chomsky, Hedges, and Klein, a little too sobering to take in large doses. Still, I just may get around to reading The God of Small Things sooner than later. I wonder what other titles are on all those lost bookmarks.
Today is the bicentennial of Karl Marx’s birth, and while much of his work is over my head, some of his basic ideas are spot on like how all profit is “surplus-value” (obtained by paying workers less than the value of what they produce). Marx called capitalism inefficient, wasteful, and immoral. Today this seems like an understatement. Read Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism and This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate for starters. Marx wrote of the “laws of motion” of the capitalist system before there were crippling recessions and depressions, booms and busts. Marx also predicted monopolies. Most of these predictions and assertions were writing in his masterpiece, the three-volume tome Capital: Critique of Political Economy (also known by its German name Das Kapital). While I can say I have read the passionate yet anachronistic Communist Manifesto (co-written by his friend and often financial supporter Friedrich Engels), I cannot say I have read much of Capital Volume 1 and I have never seen the other two volumes.
I had a proper introduction to Marx in high school thanks to Mr. Thorn–an exceptional economics teacher–who had his class read Robert Heilbroner’s The Worldly Philosophers. Heilbroner’s Marx seemed to me like the hero of the common laborer, but I was young and a remedial student and was aware of this deficiency. I was easy prey to the smarter kids who thought Marx was terrible. (It was the Cold War and I lived in an upper-middle class neighborhood and attended a high school of the like.) Mr. Thorn was a free-thinking kind of teacher and was open to ideas by Marx and Thorstein Veblen–another thinker in Heilbroner’s book that fascinated me. I loved the class so much that upon receiving a “C” in the course I enrolled in the class again, earning the same grade despite covering the same material. (I told you I was dull!) Without a doubt, Marx was the most challenging chapter in a very challenging book for me, but Marx cared about working person. No matter how mediocre of a student I was, I understood Marx cared for the little guy, and I liked that.
In college, my exposure to Marx was relegated to a guest speaker on one day in my Economics 1A class. My professor lectured almost exclusively on how reduced governments, free trade, deregulation, and fiscal responsibility in government was the ideal. I got re-acquainted with Adam Smith, David Ricardo and was introduced to Friedrich Hayek and other Austrian School economists, as well as Milton Friedman, and other University of Chicago economists. Just like in my high school economics class, I was horrible, garnishing a “C” and compelling me once and for all to stay away from the subject but focus on the social ramifications of economic projects. I have always been compassionate. Where I got that from I don’t know. Maybe my parents, but also there were my Sunday school teachings of Jesus. (I would later articulate Jesus feeding and healing the poor into being pro-welfare, pro-National Health Insurance, and pro-Guaranteed Minimum Income.) When I was a kid, I liked Robin Hood’s stealing from the rich and giving to the poor idea. (I would later articulate this into aggressive wealth redistribution aka Progressive Taxation.)
Anyway, I put up with the libertarian-leaning class study. In a lame attempt to be “fair” the professor had a student who was a member of a socialist party come in an explain socialism to the class. It sounded good to me, but after the socialist finished his talk a classmate who had been quiet the whole semester started asking questions. Soon he was ripping into the speaker rhetorically asking something like “How do you expect architects, engineers, doctors, lawyers, etc. will agree to be paid the same as janitors, waitresses, groundskeepers, dishwashers, etc.” The socialist stammered and the guy in class just kept coming at him. I even remember the professor smiling impishly on the sidelines not about to help the young socialist out even if he could defend the speaker if only in theory. When the capitalist apologist was done, he became the Big Man in Econ 1A. I knew there were smarter socialists on the planet who could debate this student, and for every smarter socialist, there would be a more intelligent capitalist, and so on, but I didn’t know the answers. I would like to think the winner in the Debate Royale would be a socialist. In a timeless universe perhaps Marx would be the last man standing.
After I graduated I put away Marx and socialism and settled down as a family man, discontinued my subscriptions to leftist magazines, and voted an uninspiring Straight Democratic Ticket in most elections. Twenty years later, in 2007, I would get back into following politics after falling in love with the eloquent words of Barack Obama. At the same time, though, I started reading the alternative press, like I did back in college. People were calling the U.S. Senator from Illinois a socialist and I was intrigued to know if he really was one.
Could it be true?
Yes! Lowrie homered!
Shortly after Obama took office, I started wondering how this guy could be a socialist when he was hiring the same people Clinton used to betray American workers with their free trade agreements, screwing the poor by reforming welfare and passing the Crime Bill, and opening the door for catastrophe by dismantling Glass-Stegall. I was flipping through an issue of The Nation Magazine one day and saw an ad for the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). It sported the faces of Cornel West, Noam Chomsky, and the Independent U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders–three people I had a lot of respect for. West was one of Obama’s biggest supporters. (He would later call Obama a “counterfeit.”) I knew of the erudite Chomsky back in college. The Senator from Vermont I just had heard about. Sanders had recently done a filibuster on the Senate floor corporate greed and the decline of the middle class that lasted over eight hours. I had read extracts from it in The Nation and was inspired: I hadn’t read Marx in years but thought this hero of the working class and poor was the closest thing to it. When I became a member of the DSA, it was the first time I called myself a socialist. By the time I read the full transcript of Sanders filibuster in his book The Speech I was a big fan, but I also knew–long before he ran for president in April of 2015–that he was a lite version of a socialist. Bernie was–is–more like a pre-neoliberal Democrat. Noam Chomsky has referred to him as a “New Dealer” and others have likened him to LBJ. I knew he was the best bet by far for president in that election, but neoliberalism has both parties and the mainstream media in a death grip. Bernie didn’t stand a chance. At least in 2016.
Shortly after the Mid-term elections of 2010, I began attending meetings and reading groups at my local chapter of the DSA here in Sacramento, but while my fellow members were warm and welcoming all my years of reclusiveness had taken its toll. Additionally, I was often by far the oldest person in the room. Most of the attendees were college students–my kids’ ages. I stuck out. I continued to attend meetings off and on, then quit for a while, then started up again, then I just decided to watch from the sidelines. I remain a member. I pay my dues, contribute whenever there are fund drives, but otherwise, I’m more of an armchair socialist.
I have read the Max Beer biography The Life and Teaching of Karl Marx, portions of Eric Fromm’s Marx’s Concept of Man, as well as revisiting the chapter on Marx in Heilbroner’s book. I admire Marx mainly in some of the ways he has inspired thinkers that I better understand and follow. For one there is the filmmaker Raoul Peck, director of the new film The Young Karl Marx. The movie is good if not stunning like his previous film I’m Not Your Negro. The interview below of Peck by Amy Goodman is interesting because they show how the National Rifle Association uses fear of Marx(!) to combat the rise of anti-gun protests after the Stoneman Douglas High School shootings in Parkland Florida.
Another interesting note about Wayne LaPierre’s C-PAC speech is that it is highly speculative that “on college campuses ‘The Communist Manifesto’ is one of the most frequently assigned texts” and it is dubious, at best, that “Karl Marx is the most assigned economists” [sic]. The complaints from Marxist professors like David Harvey, Erik Olin Wright, and my favorite, Richard D. Wolff, is that heterodox economics is not being taught in many colleges in the U.S. enough. The trend for some time now has been towards Neoclassicalism, a school of thought that has no room for Marx, or Keynes or any of the others outside the orthodoxy. I like Wolff (and Harvey and my youngest son who is a Marxist) because he is so accessible. He hosts the excellent podcast Economic Update, he is a frequent guest on The Thom Hartmann Program and here he is on Real Time with Bill Maher.
Finally, I accidentally found the video below when looking up Wolff on YouTube. Wolff is the narrator for this Join the Socialist Party USA video. I am not endorsing the party, but maybe I should. I’m still a Democrat for some inexplicable reason. (More about me and my attachment to the Party of FDR and LBJ (and not the Clintons and Obama) in an upcoming post.)
Anyway, I agree (at least on an intellectual level) with the message in the video. I’d like to think Marx would, too, if he were around today.
One night a few years ago I showed a 2-for-1 coupon for a local pan-Asian restaurant to my son. I wanted to know if he had visited the restaurant. He is a pescatarian, and places like this noodle restaurant are right up his alley. “Yeah, I’ve been there–many times,” he said. “It’s good. Our local chapter of the Wobblies meets there.”
Dad’s jaw dropped.
I wasn’t surprised that he would be associated with something like the Wobblies (Last time I checked he was still a Marxist.) I was shocked that the Wobblies were even around!
A week or so later I asked one of the officers of my local Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) organization if he knew the Wobblies (or the Industrial Workers of the World or IWW) were still around. He said yes, with a cynical chuckle. All I had to do was look online. The IWW has a presence on the web, but unlike popular political organizations like my DSA or progressive political parties like the Party for Socialism & Liberation and the Socialist Alternative party, the Wobblies don’t get a lot of coverage in the alternative press. Their history, however, is more vibrant than any other progressive organization in America.
Established in in 1905, by William D. Haywood of the Western Federation of Miners, the great Eugene V. Debs of the Socialist Party, and Daniel De Leon of the Socialist Labor Party, the IWW was comprised mostly of unskilled farm workers, miners, and loggers–many of these people immigrants. Unlike other unions, the IWW welcomed all working people–immigrants, minorities, women, and the unemployed. They advocated the overthrow of capitalism, placing workers in control of their own work lives. The IWW used walk-out and sit-down strikes, boycotts, slowdowns, and other forms of direct action to achieve their goals.
True to its name, the Industrial Workers of the World spanned the globe — an international history that has long been forgotten. IWW supporters in the early twentieth century. Even Americans familiar with labor history might be surprised by the slogan of the Congress of South African Trade Unions: “An injury to one is an…
With all the press (the positive reviews and also some fascinating critical views) about the Ken Burns and Lynn Novick series on Vietnam, Peter Davis’ brilliant 1974 documentary seems to have been forgotten–once again. When the 1983 PBS series Vietnam: A Television History came out, I was in college majoring in journalism. I was fascinated by the miniseries based on Stanley Karnow’s tome. My mentor, William A. Dorman, a professor of journalism at CSUS, told me to skip the book and the miniseries and watch “Hearts and Minds.”
In a fraction of running time of the 1983 PBS series, I found “Hearts and Minds” a much better presentation of the U.S. involvement in the war. It asks the hard questions. The comparison of the 1983 series with “Hearts and Minds” seems very familiar when reading the criticisms of the Burns/Novick work visa vis the 1974 Davis film. In trying to be fair and balanced the Burns/Novick series misses the mark when it comes to the U.S.’ costly Cold War doctrine and its toll on Third World countries like Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia.
Full disclosure here: I have not seen the Burns/Novick work yet. Like all TV series I view, I’ll binge watch all the episodes over a few nights some time in the future.
Here is the Davis film on Vimeo.com. I believe it is also available on Amazon Prime for a few dollars.