communists in situ

leberwurst proletariat

Month: August, 2018

Socialism in one apartment complex

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The House on the Embankment, Moscow, pictured in January 2007. 

Historian Yuri Slezkine in conversation with ‘Rīgas Laiks’ editor Uldis Tirons (via eurozine)

Moscow’s House on the Embankment was home to many of the first generation of Russian revolutionaries. Historian Yuri Slezkine, who has written the definitive account of the building, describes how it embodied the lives, hopes and fate of the Soviet project and its elite.

Introductory note

The historian Yuri Slezkine, professor of Russian history and director of the Berkeley Program in Eurasian and East European Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, is one of those Soviet émigrés who have ended up in the US not so much trby force of circumstance as out of curiosity and thanks to a chain of coincidences. In the late 1970s, after graduating from Moscow State University, Slezkine worked in Mozambique, later moving to Lisbon and, in 1983, to Texas, to teach Russian at the University of Texas at Austin, where he gained a PhD.

Although, as Slezkine explains, his wanderings were driven by a desire to discover more of the world rather than by the pursuit of a career, this experience, both academic and general, nevertheless exerted a fundamental influence on the theoretical thrust of his research. In the early 1980s Slezkine visited a number of indigenous Indian reservations in America, studying the impact of western colonial policy on what the Soviets referred to as ‘small peoples’. However, as a historian working and studying abroad, the system required him to cover Russian history in one way or another, and he began to study the Soviet Union’s treatment of its multinational population in the broader context of colonial policies, drawing parallels between the collective fates of national minorities in various imperial structures. This provided the theme of two of his books: Arctic Mirrors: Russia and the Small Peoples of the North (Cornell University Press, 1994) and The Jewish Century (Princeton University Press, 2004). His most recent book, The House of Government: A Saga of the Russian Revolution (Princeton University Press, 2017), which took Slezkine 20 years to write, is an exhaustive account of the most prestigious block of flats in the Soviet Union, situated on the embankment of the River Moskva, and of the first generations of its tenants – revolutionaries and functionaries and their families. Here, as in his previous works, Slezkine views national identity as a vital element of their life, but on this occasion his focus in on personal history: what went on in the kitchens and bedrooms of the nomenklatura, its members’ faith in a new utopian life, and the disillusionment that the utopia turned into.

Sven Kuzmins, Rīgas Laiks

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Prisons and Class Warfare

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Interview with Ruth Wilson Gilmore 

Clément Petitjean: In Golden Gulag, you analyse the build-up of California’s prison system, which you call “the biggest in the history of the world”. Between 1980 and 2007, you explain that the number of people behind bars increased more than 450%. What were the various factors that combined to cause the expansion of that system? What were the various forces that built up the prison industrial complex in California and in the US?

Ruth Wilson Gilmore: Sure. Let me say a couple of things. I actually found that description of the biggest prison building project in the history of the world in a report that was written by somebody whom the state of California contracted to analyse the system that had been on a steady growth trajectory since the late 1980s. So it’s not even my claim, it’s how they themselves described what they were doing. What happened is that the state of California, which is, and was, an incredibly huge and diverse economy, went through a series of crises. And those crises produced all kinds of surpluses. It produced surpluses of workers, who were laid off from certain kinds of occupations, especially in manufacturing, not exclusively but notably. It produced surpluses of land. Because the use of land, especially but not exclusively in agriculture, changed over time, with the consolidation of ownership and the abandoning of certain types of land and land-use. It also produced surpluses of finance capital – and this is one of the more contentious points that I do argue, to deadly exhaustion. While it might appear, looking globally, that the concept of surplus finance capital seemed absurd in the early 1980s, if you look locally and see how especially investment bankers who specialised in municipal finance (selling debt to states) were struggling to remake markets, then we can see a surplus at hand. And then the final surplus, which is kind of theoretical, conjectural, is a surplus of state capacity. By that I mean that the California state’s institutions and reach had developed over a good deal of the 20th century, but especially from the beginning of the Second World War onwards. It had become incredibly complex to do certain things with fiscal and bureaucratic capacities. Those capacities weren’t invented out of whole cloth, they came out of the Progressive Era, at the turn of the 20th century. In the postwar period they enabled California to do certain things that would more or less guarantee the capacity of capital to squeeze value from labour and land. Those capacities endured, even if the demand for them did not. And so what I argue in my book is that the state of California reconfigured those capacities, and they underlay the ability to build and staff and manage prison after prison after prison. That’s not the only use they made of those capacities once used for various kinds of welfare provision, but it was a huge use. And so the prison system went from being a fairly small part of the entire state infrastructure to the major employer in the state government.

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The Paradox of Social Democracy: The American Case

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by Robert Brenner (1985)

Part I

I A New Social Democracy?

A very long time ago — in the Palaeolithic days of the new left of the later 1960s — few red-blooded radicals would have been caught dead inside the Democratic Party. This was the era of the student and anti-imperialist movements, of SDS; of the militant Black movements, of SNCC, the Black Panther Party, and the League of Revolutionary Black Workers; and of the nascent rank and file movements among industrial and public service workers. In those days, it was strictly the politics of the streets and of mass direct action. ‘Power to the people’ definitely did not mean ‘part of the way with RFK.’ The Democratic Party was recognized as firmly wedded to American imperialism, as expressed in LBJ’s Vietnam War, not to mention Harry Truman’s A-Bomb over Hiroshima or his Cold War or Kennedy’s Bay of Pigs. Moreover, despite the fact that workers, Blacks, and the poor did vote, in their majority, for the Democratic Party, that Party was viewed as clearly pro-capitalist, anti-working class, and anti-Black. Neither workers nor Blacks controlled, nor even much participated in the Democratic Party. So, it was hardly surprising to the 60s radicals that the Party never tried to repeal the viciously anti-labor Taft-Hartley Act, that it refused to seat the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party at its 1964 convention in place of the arch-segregationist official delegation, and that the Kennedy presidency failed to achieve a single significant piece of social legislation.

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The Impossible Profession

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by Janet Malcolm (1980)

It almost looks as if analysis were the third of those “impossible” professions in which one can be sure beforehand of achieving unsatisfying results. The other two, which have been known much longer, are education and government.—Sigmund Freud: “Analysis Terminable and Interminable” (1937).

As psychoanalysts, we are only too aware that our profession is not only impossible but also extremely difficult.—Adam Limentani: International Journal of Psycho-Analysis (1977).

Aaron Green (as I shall call him) is a forty-six-year-old psychoanalyst who practices in Manhattan, in the East Nineties. He has seven patients in analysis, who come four or five times a week and lie on the couch, and eight patients who come for psychotherapy once or twice or three times a week and sit in a chair. He charges between thirty and seventy dollars per (fifty-minute) hour. He is on the faculty of a local medical school, where he teaches and supervises medical students and psychiatric residents. He is a graduate of the New York Psychoanalytic Institute and a member of the New York Psychoanalytic Society. He came to New York to study at the Institute after getting his medical degree and serving his interneship and residency in a New England city.

He is a slight man, with a vivid, impatient, unsmiling face. He has thin dark hair and wears professorial clothes. A herringbone jacket, light-blue oxford shirt, subdued tie, and gray flannel trousers are his customary apparel. He looks Jewish. He lives with his wife and son in a brownstone apartment off Madison, four blocks from his office. The living room of his apartment is furnished with black modern sofas and armchairs, beige carpets, reproductions of modern art, photographs, folk art and archeological objects, and books; it is spare, extremely neat, pleasant, perhaps a hair studied. His consultation room is a kind of poor relation of his living room. The couch is fifties Scandinavian modern rather than seventies high-tech Italian; the pictures are old moma reproductions rather than Fondation Maeght exhibition posters; there are floor lamps instead of track lighting. The lights in the consultation room are kept dim, purposely.

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The Velvet Glove and the Iron Fist

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New York City public-sector workers marching in the 1950s. District Council 37

In the late nineteenth century New York City was covered in trash, ash, and horse shit. In addition to the dirt, garbage, and snow bedeviling New Yorkers today, the streets were strewn with mountains of cinders from innumerable coal-burning furnaces, and the excrescence of over two hundred thousand horses depositing sixty thousand gallons of urine and 2,500,000 pounds of manure onto the streets each day.

The dominant scientific theory of “miasma” attributed diseases like smallpox to airborne odors, and while the scholarly consensus was shifting toward the modern theory of germs, enthusiastic consensus remained that bad odors ought to be eliminated regardless.

Keeping the streets clean and unobstructed was paramount to public health, optimal circulation and consumption of commodities, and quality of life in a city where the rich and poor share many of the same streets. Street cleaning was therefore source of social power for the workers who could strike their tools and let the garbage pile up.

Beginning in 1888, New York sanitation workers did just that, embarking on a spate of successful strikes opposing speedup and late wages, and demanding a regular work schedule. Their struggle came to foreshadow the whole trajectory of public-sector unionism in New York City.

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#NYCStripperStrike: Race, Class and Women’s Work

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“Honey, I guess you can sum up this business in one sentence,” stripper Bobbie Bruce told reporter Jack Griffin at Minsky’s Rialto Theater, a hub of early-1950s Chicago burlesque. “You grab as much sex as the law is allowing at the time, and throw it across the footlights as hard as you can.”1

In the 1950s, only seven states, including Illinois and New York, permitted striptease performances. Chicago law gave club owners full discretion about just how much strippers could or could not take off.2 Meanwhile in New York, dancers were limited to uncovering a single breast, for eight bars of music at a time.3

Griffin discovered “a stripper’s life is a tough one, made up of long hours. Although she may be on stage only a total of an hour or so, she has to be on call for 10 to 12 hours a day.” Moreover, he learned, “the private life of a strip teaser, one who takes her art seriously, is about as routine as that of a file clerk in a business office–and often duller. A stripper is doing five or six shows a day, seven days a week, isn’t in the mood for much of anything except going home–alone–and going to sleep.”4

In major cities like New York City and Chicago, nascent strip clubs like Minksy’s Rialto offered women better pay than working the counter at Macys or Bloomingdales. As Moira Weigel argues, retail workers were mostly working-class girls who hoped to entice just the right wealthy man and thus escape a life of wage labor drudgery.5 Strip clubs, meanwhile, stimulated desire and seduction in a manner not unlike the courtship of retail customers or the theatrical fantasies window displays brought to life for urban consumers.6 The women who worked in retail and strip clubs symbolized a new worker, proliferated by a mid-twentieth century boom in the US service industry. Feminized service workers relied on guile, cajolery and flirtation to attract customers and clientele to purchase commodities. As a unique form of service work, strippers turned this allure into the commodity itself. But then as now, stripping was nonetheless work, and hard work at that.

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The Belly of the Revolution: Agriculture, Energy, and the Future of Communism

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by Jasper Bernes (2018), from Materialism and the Critique of Energy

In the days when man’s members did not all agree amongst themselves, as is now the case, but had each its own ideas and a voice of its own, the other parts thought it unfair that they should have the worry and the trouble and the labour of providing everything for the belly, while the belly remained quietly in their midst with nothing to do but to enjoy the good things which they bestowed upon it; they therefore conspired together that the hands should carry no food to the mouth, nor the mouth accept anything that was given it, nor the teeth grind up what they received. While they sought in this angry spirit to starve the belly into submission, the members themselves and the whole body were reduced to the utmost weakness. Hence it had become clear that even the belly had no idle task to perform, and was no more nourished than it nourished the rest, by giving out to all parts of the body that by which we live and thrive, when it has been divided equally amongst the veins and is enriched with digested food — that is, the blood.

Many on the left still subscribe to a view of technology that G.A. Cohen, in his reconstruction of Marx’s thought, called “the fettering thesis.” From this perspective, the technological forces that capitalism employs in its quest for productivity-driven profit are the foundation upon which an emancipated humanity will erect its new dwelling. Humane cultivation of these forces is, however, “fettered” by capitalist social relations. Capitalism is pregnant with what could be, a deployment in the conditional tense of given productive forces. In a resonant moment of triumphal phrasing at the end of the first volume of Capital, Marx describes capitalism as tending toward a moment of crisis, its property relations an “integument… burst asunder” by the maturation of increasingly centralized and concentrated productive forces. The consequences, for Marx, are clear: “The knell of capitalist property sounds. The expropriators are expropriated.” At a critical point in the development of capitalism, the fragmented, unplanned allocation of wealth that characterizes production for profit in competitive markets no longer conforms with the complex, industrialized labor process of modern workplaces: only socialist planning and the supervision of the direct producers themselves can make effective use of the technology whose adolescence the bourgeoisie oversaw. Today, many will advance these arguments only with significant caveats, avoiding some of its more embarrassing iterations. Few would argue, for instance, that the deskilled, socialized labor of the factory system contains the germ of a new world in the making. They will not hesitate, however, to pour new wine into old bottles and say much the same thing about 3-D printers and self-driving cars… [READ PDF]