Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Weekend Edition

Friday, January 21st, 2022

What I got wrong about Assange

Friday, January 21st, 2022


I wrote a piece for Australian online publisher Crikey just before Julian Assange’s extradition hearings resumed in September 2020 in which I regurgitated a slur that has done enormous harm to his reputation.

Australian journalists should stop using the WikiLeaks treasure trove in their stories if they wouldn’t speak up for Assange, I’d written. Journalists like to think they’d go to jail to protect a source. Well, their source was suffering in London’s high-security Belmarsh prison, I said.

The problem was I also wrote that Assange dumped the Iraq and Afghan war logs on the internet without redacting names. I was wrong and lazy in repeating that slur which appeared whenever you Googled Assange’s name. That must make it true, right? Two of Assange’s well-known Australian supporters tried to correct me. To my shame, I brushed them off.

Their overtures nagging at the back of my mind, I recently did what I should have done at the time: read the submissions Assange’s legal team made at his extradition hearings and transcripts of witness testimony. I soon realized how mistaken I was.

Why should anyone listen to me? 

In Baghdad

I was bureau chief for the Reuters news service in Baghdad when an Apache gunship with the call-sign Crazy Horse 1-8 killed 12 people including two of my staff, photographer Namir Noor Eldeen and driver Saeed Chmagh, on July 12, 2007. Namir and Saeed would have been forgotten statistics of that illegal war if not for Assange’s publication of footage he famously called Collateral Murder on April 2010. Thanks to Assange and Chelsea Manning, Namir and Saeed’s names will never be forgotten.

LA Progressive for more

Philosophers with no clothes: A Review of ‘The War Against Marxism’

Friday, January 21st, 2022


This book is refreshing and long overdue. It has two main qualities. First, it dares to call out some of the fashionable idols of academic Marxism and critical theory–including Theodor Adorno, Louis Althusser, Chantal Mouffe, Ernesto Laclau and Slavoj Zizek–for being obscurantist on the one hand, and often deeply misleading on the other. Second, it explains and defends the philosophical basis of revolutionary Marxism in a very clear and combative way.

The stakes are high. The issues McKenna addresses are mainly theoretical, but far from abstract. They concern how people experience capitalism, the significance of class and the potential for anti-capitalist resistance. They even raise the question of our ability to understand society at all.

McKenna’s thesis is that many of the leading intellectuals associating themselves with Marx over the last decades have not just obfuscated Marxism, but attacked its essence. As a result they have had a deeply corrosive effect on the left in the universities, and by extension on the wider movement.

In chronological order, his targets include members of the Frankfurt School of critical theory, Althusser and his ‘structuralist Marxist’ followers, some of the big names of leftist literary theory, and the pin-ups of ‘post-Marxism’. Divorced from any real movements, these theorists, he argues, have in different ways stripped Marxism of all that is antagonistic, contradictory and dynamic. The results have been disastrous. McKenna dissects each of these tendencies in detail, and I can only point to some highlights and key themes here.

The benighted masses

Hinting at bluntness to come, the book’s first chapter is titled, ‘Why the Founding Fathers of the Frankfurt School Should be Considered anti-Marxist.’ The Frankfurt school developed a ‘cultural Marxism’ in the 1930s which became influential after the Second World War. Its most influential protagonists, Theodore Adorno and Max Horkheimer, argued that the mass culture that was developing around them was brainwashing the masses and was the key to understanding capitalism’s staying power. McKenna quotes a typical passage by Adorno and Horkheimer about Hollywood cinema:

no scope is left for the imagination. Those who are so absorbed by the world of the movie–by its images, gestures, and words–that they are unable to supply what really makes it a world, do not have to dwell on particular points of its mechanics during a screening. All the other films and products of the entertainment industry which they have seen have taught them what to expect; they react automatically (pp.23-4).

As McKenna points out, despite Adorno and Horkheimer’s pretentious and opaque writing, (‘its esoteric, incomprehensible idiom is meant to illustrate to the reader that they are dealing with the type of thought which can only be grasped by a glittering and select intellectual elite’), the point they were making was quite simple. They argued that commodification and mass production of culture were blinding people to their real predicament. It wasn’t just that the culture produced by the expanding entertainment industry was promoting capitalist values. Few Marxists would disagree with that. Their argument was that the new techniques of production were inherently mystifying. As they put it:

The stunting of the mass-media consumer’s powers of imagination and spontaneity does not have to be traced back to any psychological mechanisms; he must ascribe the loss of those attributes to the objective nature of the products themselves, especially to the most characteristic of them, the sound film (p.23).

As McKenna argues, this is an elitist approach, and, despite its influence amongst some calling themselves Marxists, it has nothing to do with Marxism. Commodification does have an impact on working-class consciousness, but this is not because of the mass production of culture, which will be an essential part of any socialist society, but because of the commodification of labour power.

As Marx explained, and the Hungarian Marxist Georg Lukács further elaborated, the commodification of workers’ labour makes exploitation appear as the mere exchange of equivalents–a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work–when it actually involves the robbery by the capitalist of a portion of unpaid labour. As McKenna says, this was for Lukács, ‘the essence of reification, the moment when social relationships appear in the guise of things’ (p.29).

Monthly Review Online for more

Empty gestures or substantive change? On the Nobel Prize in Literature and its discontents

Thursday, January 20th, 2022


A peace dove flies past a relief of Alfred Nobel after it was released in front of the Nobel Peace Center in Oslo, Norway, on 8 October 2021. PHOTO/ALI ZARE/NTB/AFP via Getty Images

The fact that Tanzanian novelist Abdulrazak Gurnah won the 2021 Nobel Prize in Literature is welcome news, especially as the Swedish Academy is historically known for lacking in diversity, as if intellectual creativity is largely confined to Western intellectual circles.

It is premature to suggest that the Academy has finally decided to break away from its ethnocentric past and genuinely embrace the incredible literature constantly originating from the Global South. One can be excused for appearing too cynical – after all, since its inception in 1901, over 80 per cent of those who have received the award hail from Europe and North America. In the last decade, Chinese novelist, Mo Yan, was the only non-Western author to receive the award in 2012.

This raises several grim possibilities:

First, the Academy does not believe that the Global South is making real intellectual, literary contributions to world culture and literature, and that only Western authors are capable of producing literature that is relatable and truly speaks to the human condition.

Second, the Academy and its judges have not done their due diligence in uncovering the literary brilliance that can be found in every nation throughout the Global South.

Third, the award is, essentially, political and is denied to authors and writers who attempt to correct fallacious colonial narratives, push for radical decolonisation – in politics, culture, literature and language – and do not adhere to the watered-down version of post-colonialism as championed by Western academic institutions of today.

Gurnah, I am sure, is most deserving of the award. However, what truly matters is not that an author of African origin has finally won the award after the Academy’s neglect of Africa for nearly 15 years. The last African novelist was a white British-Zimbabwean author, Doris Lessing (born to British parents in Iran, in 2007). What matters is that we – Western academia and audience, especially – truly engage with the writings of these great intellectuals.

If such awards merely serve as a simple nod and symbolic acknowledgment of how Western colonialism in Africa – and throughout the Global South – has resulted in irreversible harm to shattered, impoverished and colonised societies, then the gesture is an empty one. To be meaningful, post-colonial writers who adhere to what should have remained a radical form of anti-colonialism should become the heart and soul of the literary movement, not only in the Global South but throughout the world.

It does matter that Kenya’s celebrated author, novelist, poet and playwright Ng?g? wa Thiong’o is yet to win the Nobel prize in literature. The man who has challenged the world’s view on language and literature in his book ‘Decolonizing the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature’, is the very manifestation, not only of Africa’s literary genius but of the true organic intellectual. Thiong’o was once imprisoned in post-colonial Kenya for writing a play in G?k?y?, his mother tongue, and not in English.

Middle East Monitor for more

The dissolution of the Soviet Union

Thursday, January 20th, 2022


US President George Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev formally recognizing the dissolution of the Soviet Union

On December 26, 1991, the Soviet Union — which had emerged out of the socialist revolution of October 1917—was formally dissolved by the Stalinist bureaucracy.

The Trotskyist movement, organized in the International Committee of the Fourth International, was the only political tendency at the time that was not taken by surprise by the events unfolding in the USSR. Basing itself on Leon Trotsky’s analysis of the counterrevolutionary role of Stalinism, the ICFI, from the very beginning, provided an extraordinarily prescient analysis of the crisis of the Stalinist regimes. The Trotskyist movement also intervened powerfully in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. It fought for the defense of the conquests of the October Revolution through a political revolution by the working class against the bureaucracy, and the international extension of the revolution, as the only alternative to capitalist restoration.

The ICFI developed this work based on the political and theoretical conquests made in the aftermath of the split with the national-opportunists of the Workers Revolutionary Party in 1985-1986. The expulsion of the Pabloites from the Fourth International provided the basis for a renaissance of Marxism within the ICFI.

On this page, readers will find the most critical documents from this intervention. This unique record testifies to the power of the Trotskyist perspective and Marxist analysis. Three decades later, in a new period of social and political upheavals, it will help educate new generations of revolutionaries in Marxism and the critical experiences of the working class in the 20th century.

Timeline Gorbachev’s “perestroika” and the crisis of Stalinism

When Mikhail Gorbachev, the general secretary of the Soviet Communist Party, proclaimed the policy of “perestroika” (“reconstruction” or “restructuring” in English) in 1985, virtually the entire petty bourgeois left hailed it as a move toward a “self-reform” and toward genuine socialism by the Stalinist bureaucracy. 

The ICFI developed an entirely different assessment: Basing itself on Trotsky’s analysis of the nature of the Soviet Union and the counterrevolutionary role of Stalinism, it recognized that, with perestroika, the bureaucracy was preparing the wholesale restoration of capitalism.

World Socialist Web Site for more

What does the Dutch model of comprehensive, ‘shame-free’ sex-ed look like?

Thursday, January 20th, 2022


In the Netherlands, students learn about sexuality gradually, starting as young as age four. This expansive sex-ed model has been credited with some of the world’s best outcomes for teen sexual health. Known as ‘Spring Fever’, the programme is centred around a week each March in which students learn about sex, love and relationships in a ‘shame-free’ environment. This documentary from the UK filmmaker Anna Snowball follows a group of pre-teens during Spring Fever as they attend lessons, engage in open discussions and submit anonymous questions for their teacher to address. Alongside an introduction to the Dutch system of comprehensive sex education, the film offers a charming window into to the awkward adolescent years – and all the giggling, camaraderie and self-discovery they entail.

Watch the viseo on Aeon

COVID relief donations are supporting a project to “Hinduize” India

Wednesday, January 19th, 2022


A health worker collects a swab sample for a coronavirus test at the North Bengal Medical College and Hospital in Siliguri, India, on Wednesday. DPHOTO/Diptendu Dutta/AFP via Getty Images

Why are Twitter, Microsoft, and Google promoting a charity with ties to right-wing nationalism?

As the world has become more aware of India’s still-grim COVID crisis, concerned and well-meaning citizens of the world have shared links through which to donate money and supplies to India’s beleaguered populace and overcrowded health and funeral services. One of the most popular of these has been a group called Sewa International.

According to the organization’s press releases, Sewa’s “Help India Defeat COVID-19” media campaign has raised millions of dollars from more than 100,000 donors since late April, with this money going toward purchasing and sending oxygen concentrators, oximeters, and other essential equipment to India, which is grappling with a dire shortage of these technologies. The organization—which is not to be confused with India’s Self-Employed Women’s Association, commonly known as SEWA—has also raised money and sent equipment for COVID relief in Nepal and Trinidad and Tobago.

Sewa’s initiative has become well-known within and beyond the Indian diaspora: Stories of distraught Indian Americans encouraging Sewa donations have proliferated in the news, and outlets like ABC News have highlighted Sewa’s work. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey earmarked $2.5 million for Sewa as part of a $15 million donation for Indian COVID relief. Internal communications provided to me by a source showed that Microsoft and Google encouraged their employees to donate to Sewa and offered matching funds, in Microsoft’s case through the donation-management platform Benevity. New Jersey’s Monroe Township partnered with Sewa to provide India aid, while the American Association of Physicians of Indian Origin, the largest organization representing Indian American doctors, also held a fundraiser for India with Sewa. The group also has partnered with the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency to ramp up domestic vaccination efforts in both Philadelphia and Texas, where Sewa’s U.S. branch is based.

Slate for more

What’s driving the UK’s shortage of medical doctors?

Wednesday, January 19th, 2022


PHOTO/DFID – UK Department for International Development – CC BY 2.0

At the beginning of the first lockdown two years ago a friend told me about a relative of his who was a nurse in a London hospital who had caught Covid-19. She said that her manager had told her “to go home and tell nobody about it”.

His response to bad news was to hide it, which is in keeping with secretive traditions of the NHS, as it is with all large institutions protecting their own interests. In the case of the NHS, the secrecy may be less obvious because a sympathetic media has been giving wall-to-wall coverage to its heroic efforts to treat victims of the pandemic.

Reporting today focuses largely on the shortage of doctors and nurses, their numbers depleted by Covid-19. Much publicity is given to short-term fixes such as sending in the army and re-employing retired medical staff.

Unfortunately, what is lost in this tidal wave of information are fundamental questions about the state of the health service from which flow most of these short-term problems.

Most important of these is why Britain trains only half the number of doctors that it needs, which is far less than in other developed countries. England has 28 doctors for every 10,000 people compared with 37 in comparable EU countries according to a report by the British Medical Association.

The chair of the Commons Health Committee and former health secretary Jeremy Hunt cites figures from the royal colleges showing that the country is short of 2,500 GPs, 2,000 emergency care consultants, 2,000 midwives, 1,900 radiologists, 1,400 anaesthetists, and 500 obstetricians while the NHS has 100,000 vacancies.

Britain has never trained enough doctors, but the deficit has got a lot worse in recent years – and so too has the dubious means used to bridge the gap between demand and supply. The solution is to rely on foreign-trained doctors and nurses, often from poor countries with health systems already crippled by staff shortages.

“In 2019 more doctors joined the [NHS] workforce from outside the UK than were UK-trained, a ratio never before seen,” says Rachel Jenkins, professor emeritus of epidemiology and international mental health policy at King’s College London. She says that the number of medical student places in Britain needs to be double from the 10,403 currently available, so as not to rely on attracting scarce doctors and nurses from Africa and South Asia.

Counterpunch for more

Why it’s so hard to tax billionaires

Wednesday, January 19th, 2022


Elon Musk in 2015. ( NVIDIA Corporation / Flickr)(CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

A recent NPR story attempted to explain why it is so hard to tax billionaires. The expert NPR interviewed for the story ticked off the usual ways the 1 percent avoids paying its fair share of taxes:

Billionaires have the best accountants who know all the loopholes. Their wealth isn’t in income, but in assets. They often move to states (like Texas) that don’t have a state income tax, and move their money to offshore tax havens. They live off tax free loans. Legislation to tax billionaires goes nowhere because wealthy coal barons like Democratic Senator Joe Manchin don’t believe in taxing the “job creators,” a notion that has been debunked again and again. (Basically a thriving middle class creates jobs, while billionaires invest their profits in real estate.)

What NPR didn’t say, and what the corporate and corporate-sponsored media never say, is that it is hard to tax billionaires because billionaires rule America and they don’t want to be taxed.

“We live in a nation owned and controlled by a small number of multi-billionaires,” says U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders.

Our political system is now “an oligarchy with unlimited political bribery,” says former President Jimmy Carter.

Americans like to think they live in a democracy, but a peek behind the curtain shows the real power lies not with the people, but the super rich. This fact seems obvious, but in the corporate media and corporate-sponsored media, this basic truth is still considered a radical notion fit only for magazines like, well, this one.

Thomas Picketty and other left-leaning thinkers have long maintained that the billionaire ruling class is hostile toward democracy because true democracy means sharing power with the masses. While a few prominent billionaires (Bill Gates, George Soros, Tom Steyer, Michael Bloomberg) like to portray themselves as pro-democracy and socially responsible, the overwhelming majority are anti-democratic and ultra-conservative, especially on economic issues. As Benjamin Page, Jason Seawright, and Matthew Lacombe wrote recently in The Guardian, “Most of the wealthiest US billionaires – who are much less visible and less reported on – more closely resemble Charles Koch … Obsessed with cutting taxes, especially estate taxes – which apply only to the wealthiest Americans.”

These conservative billionaires don’t talk publicly about their politics because the self-interested economic policies they work to implement are highly unpopular with American people. Take the wealth tax, a recent poll found that two-thirds of voters approve of it. You would think then that a wealth tax would be a slam dunk.

Not so much.

This billionaire class runs the country stealthily (through dark money groups, campaign contributions, owning the media, etc.), because doing so outright would make Americans wake up to the fact that their democracy has been hijacked by oligarchs.

Instead we find shadowy billionaire-funded groups like Americans for Prosperity spending millions to get their hand-picked candidates into elected office, candidates who have agreed to promote the billionaires’ agenda—like no wealth tax.

Recently, however, this reluctance to speak out has begun to fade. More and more, today’s super rich don’t even try to hide their disdain for paying their fair share. Elon Musk recently whined that U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden’s call for higher taxes on billionaires was targeting people like himself. “Eventually, they run out of other people’s money and then they come for you.” New York supermarket magnate John Casimatidids said politicians who are peddling a wealth tax—Wyden, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren— “are just nuts. They’re trying to change our way of life, and it’s not going to happen. If they don’t like the United States the way it is, I’m buying them a one-way ticket to Venezuela.”

Hedge fund manager Leon Cooperman recently complained that paying his fair share of taxes would be unfair. “The idea of vilifying wealthy people is so bogus,” he said.

Catsimatidis and Home Depot co-founder Bernard Marcus penned a recent piece in the Wall Street Journal titled, naturally, “Making Money is a Patriotic Act.” “[W]e have nothing to apologize for, and we don’t think the government should have more of our profits,” they wrote.

That more and more billionaires are speaking out publicly shows how little concerned today’s real ruling class is about public opinion.

Scheer Post for more

“The Abbasid Caliphate” by Tayeb El-Hibri

Tuesday, January 18th, 2022


The Abbasid Caliphate, Tayeb El-Hibri (Cambridge University Press, April 2021)
The Abbasid Caliphate, Tayeb El-Hibri (Cambridge University Press, April 2021)

Few families have had as much success shaping history as the Abbasids. Descended from one of the Prophet Muhammad’s four uncles, they used their reputation for probity and piety to take over and rule the Arab Empire for 37 reigns. Deftly managing family feuds, they enjoyed a century of unimaginable splendor, followed by four centuries of highs and lows. They survived by pitting powerful external forces against one another: Arabs versus Persians, Northern Arabs versus the Southerners, Muslims versus non-Muslims, Sunni versus Shi’a. They allied with Charlemagne to put pressure on the Byzantines, with the Tang Dynasty to contain the Turks. They were the ultimate dynasty of fixers.

As a result of their balancing and inclusiveness, the culture and art of the ancient world flourished in their palaces in Baghdad, Raqqa and Samarra, where Greek and Persian were spoken alongside Arabic. Like their allies the Tang dynasty, they were open to new products or ideas: “It should be no shame for us to honor truth and make it our own, no matter whence it may come, even though from far distant races and peoples who differ from us”, said al-Kindi, one of their great philosophers. As a result, we look upon the Abbasid era not only as the golden age of Islam, but one of the world’s golden ages, period.

Given the importance of the Abbasids, it is surprising how little has been written in recent years about them. The last decade has seen just one book each on Harun Al-Rashid, on the early Abbasids, and on the Abbasid Revolution. Dynastic histories have fallen out of favor, and historical narrative has been neglected in favor of thematic histories or idea-based histories. The result, writes author Tayeb El-Hibri, is to detach the intellectual and artistic accomplishments of this golden age from the lives of the men and women who delivered them. The Abbasid Caliphate addresses this lacuna.

Asian Review of books for more