Monday, November 17, 2008

Introduction to the ISO (Sat, Nov. 15th at NESC)

What I want to do is try and present an introduction to the International Socialist Organization—what we stand for, how we analyze and understand the world, and how that analysis informs how we operate and act concretely to change it.


Inside the ISO, we put a priority on revolutionary theory and history. Theory is important because we want to change the world. And in order to change the world, we need to understand how it works.

The ISO uses Marxism because it best makes sense of the world and is the best guide to action for those that want to change it.

Not Capitalism

Obviously, we are for Socialism, not capitalism.

As Marxists, we understand that regardless of who is in political office or how nice your boss is, capitalism has its own logic. Capitalism is a system based on competition for profits. Corporations run by a small minority ruling class compete with each other by exploiting the labor of the majority, or working class.

The logic of capitalism is being clearly exposed in the midst of this economic crisis when our rulers are trying to fix a broken system on our backs.

The logic of capitalism has been demonstrated with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. All of Bush's lies have been exposed. The real motivation behind the wars is US capitalism's drive for profits in competition with their competitors. If US capitalism is not controlling the oil profits and resources of the Middle East, other competitors will. And if it wasn't oil and the Middle East, it would be competition for control of other resources and profits in other areas of the world.

We argue that imperialism flows right out of capitalism itself. Just like Walmart competing with Kmart inside the US, whole countries compete for profits and resources around the world using military and economic force.

Everything capitalism produces, it does so for profit. And the way things are distributed is based on profits. It is not profitable to distribute the overabundance of food to the starving, so it rots on shelves. It is not profitable to house the homeless, so buildings sit vacant.

This is why we argue that war, poverty and oppression are products of the capitalist system, not of lazy individuals or bad rulers. It is not that there is scarcity. It is that it is not profitable to distribute it based on human need.

The alternative to this system is a society based on workers collectively owning and controlling the wealth that their labor creates.


Currently, workers produce everything. We make the cars, we process the food, cook it, and then serve it, and over at RIT we write the code. But at the end of the day, your boss takes what you have produced and decides how it will be distributed. Your boss decides what will get produced tomorrow and for what purpose. And your boss wants you to produce as fast as possible, for as little pay and benefits as possible because this is how he (or she) will make as much profits as possible.

Why does the ruling class get this privilege? Not because they are smarter or more physically able than you or I. In fact, if you ask any worker, they will tell you that they know how to do their job better than their boss does. Karl Marx pointed out that the ruling class gets to call the shots because they own the means of production—the factories, the buildings, the machinery...etc.

Socialism is about workers—the majority—collectively controlling the means of production democratically: Collective ownership and collective decision-making at the point of production. To sum it up, socialism is worker's power.

If workers ran their work places we could produce for human need instead of for profit and plan out what is needed. The reason this is possible is because there will be no one to exploit if the majority—the working class—is in control.

Revolution Not Reform

So great, how do we get there??

Well any change that has ever come about and benefited the working class has come because of mass working class struggle.

Look at: the right to unionize, desegregation, abortion rights, and an ending to the Vietnam war. These things did not end because our rulers said, "you know I think we need to do something nice for our workers". Workers fought and died for these reforms. They forced whoever was sitting in the White House to follow through. And in the process of fighting for these reforms, there was a tendency for workers to develop more confidence and take on more and more of the system as a whole.

For that reason, socialists want to be at the heart of struggles for reforms.

But reforms to the system do not change the logic of the system as described above. The logic of the system is profit. The system then will always try to dismantle and erode these reforms away from the working class. Look at where we are now with the eight-hour work day, abortion rights, and welfare. If we don't want to be fighting to defend reforms our whole life, we need to change the logic of the whole system. We need socialism.

And socialism needs to come about through a revolution. The ruling class will never just agree to hand the reigns over to workers when we demand it. In fact, if you look throughout history, you will see that strike movements become battles with the police, hired thugs, and even the National Guard very quickly.

The factories will not be given to us. They will need to be forcefully taken. If the workers are already on mass strike, essentially, they have already seized the means of production. The question is that of defending the worker's control. This is why Marx argues that the first stage in a successful socialist revolution is the "dictatorship of the proletariat".

The structures of the present government have been created by capitalism to protect the rule of the ruling class. The working class needs an entirely different kind of state—based on councils of workers' delegates. It needs to create its own military. It needs its own media…etc. to prevent the ruling class from reclaiming power. Put another way. The dictatorship of the proletariat means enforced rule of the majority over the minority.

After the worker's state has been defended successfully and the resistance of the capitalist class has been crushed, there will no longer be a need for a state. The working class is the vast majority class in society, and without the resistance of the ruling class, who will there be left to repress? No one. The state would lose its purpose.

This is why Marx argues that between the dictatorship of the proletariat—what is usually defined as socialism—and communism—a classless society, the state withers away.

Our analysis of the state informs why socialists cannot use the government and legislate socialism into being. The government and even democracy under capitalism are instruments created to keep power in the hands of the ruling class.

Think about the billion-dollar corporate lobbying industry in Washington. Both Democratic and Republican candidates receive hundreds of thousands of dollars to do the bidding of the ruling class. The judicial system, the banking system, the laws—these are all structures to protect capitalist rule. A socialist government needs something altogether different.

Why the Working Class

Contrary to the way media and much of the Left portrays the working class as lazy and apathetic, the ISO argues that workers are the key to the fight for socialism.

Capitalism has drawn the working class together on the same factory floor or workplace with hundreds of thousands of other workers.

Workers' central role in production gives them social power. Workers can organize not to produce, shut down their workplace, and even grind whole industries to a halt. This hits capitalism where it counts—in their ability to make profits.

To win a strike, workers need to prevent the bosses from getting the machinery up and running again. But workers on strike need also to eat, their children need to be taken care of, and workers in battle with the police may need healthcare.

You can see then that workers through struggle are forced to confront the running of society as a whole. And as workers take this task on, it becomes clearer to them they can run this system better and more efficiently then their current rulers.


It is important to note that this cannot be successful if workers do not come together across racial lines, sexual orientation and nationality as well. Capitalism uses sexism and racism to pit workers against one another. It uses nationalism to justify its wars—pitting one country's workers against another. Socialists reject this because we understand that we have far more in common with other workers regardless of race, sex and/or nationality than we do with our bosses.

It is easy to see the possibility for workers overcoming these divisions when linked arm and arm in the struggle for a new society.

In the ISO, we support all the struggles of the oppressed. The liberation of the oppressed is essential to socialist revolution and impossible without it.


At this point people generally say, "Great! Socialism…revolution…the working class…fighting oppression…now give me an example of what you're talking about."

Well, throughout history, strike committees have tended to develop out of working class struggle itself in order to make decisions, coordinate and organize the strikes. These strike committees were called: soviets in Russian in 1905 and 1917 and there are many more examples throughout history.

We argue as Lenin formulated in April of 1917 that these decision-making bodies are the seeds for a future socialist society—that we can build a society based on direct control of the workplace through workers councils on a mass scale.

This is exactly what happened for a time in Russia in 1917. Lenin did not take power on behalf of the workers. Lenin and the Bolshevik party put forward the slogan "All power to the soviets", workers themselves took power, and a new state was created based on the soviets. Leaders were immediately recallable and paid no more than the average worker.

This is why we defend the Russian revolution as an example of why workers power is possible—the opposite of what our history books and others on the Left tell us.

Revolution Betrayed

Next comes the question: What happened to this worker's state?

Well, concrete historical analysis flies in the face that all revolutions inevitably degenerate into tyranny.

In fact, the Russian revolution failed because it did not spread internationally. Lenin and the Bolsheviks knew international revolution was crucial because the working class is international and capitalism is international. You cannot have an island of socialism within a sea of capitalism. For these same reasons, we in the ISO are internationalists.

So Russian industry was decimated along with the working class while trying to defend the revolution from invading capitalist armies. Socialism—a society based on equal distribution could not and cannot today be built on scarcity.

Eventually, bureaucracy—led by Stalin developed to manage Russia where the working class power had once stood. Stalin gave up on the project of international socialism and led a counter-revolution destroying any genuine memory of worker's power.

State Capitalism

You can see what a far cry from socialism the Stalinist counter-revolution was. And the same can be said for China under Mao, Cuba under Castro, and the Eastern Bloc.

The ISO argues that these revolutions were not the act of the working class itself. Instead, they were the act of a small armies or guerrilla forces that claimed to act in the name of the working class.

There was no worker's power in these countries. Instead, a state bureaucracy called the shots. The state acted as a new ruling class squeezing the entire working class just like an individual corporation would, but to compete with other capitalist countries around the world.

Our tradition therefore calls these countries as State Capitalist, not socialist.

The Party

So I've tried to outline a ton of stuff. But the missing thread in all of this is the role of revolutionaries. In the ISO, we are Leninists because the building of a revolutionary socialist party is necessary for a successful socialist revolution.

Marx explained that workers have mixed and uneven consciousness that is constantly changing. So most workers have a mixture of progressive and reactionary ideas. On some issues, workers sound like socialists. On others, they sound like Lou Dobbs. This develops because of a contradiction within capitalism.

1. Capitalism through exploitation and oppression is constantly pushing workers toward struggle with the system.

2. But at the same time it controls the media—it controls the flow of ideas in society. As Marx put it, the ruling ideas are the ideas of the ruling class. They are used to justify the status quo.

Marx pointed out that ideas change in struggle, and there is a tendency for worker's ideas to radicalize. But it is not automatic how worker's ideas will change in struggle. It is crucial that the revolutionaries are organized in struggle to ensure that workers draw revolutionary conclusions.

The role of a revolutionary party becomes even more important in a revolutionary situation. It is not automatic that workers will believe that they can run society themselves. It is not automatic that they will know how to take the struggle toward socialism. The revolutionary party trained in revolutionary theory and history—that has learned lessons from years of struggle will need to win leadership by putting forward the ideas that make the most sense.

This is what we mean when we talk about a Vanguard Party. We want to organize all of the most militant and politically advanced sections of the working class into a party to be as effective as possible in winning over new layers and eventually the whole working class in struggle.


We in the ISO do not claim to be the Vanguard Party. This will be decided by who puts forward the best ideas and wins leadership in struggle.

But we are trying to play a role in rebuilding a revolutionary Left in this country. And we hope to someday win leadership on a mass scale within the working class because we think we have pretty good ideas about the world and how to change it.

So I want to finish with some specifics about the ISO and what it means to be a member.

Branch Routine: The ISO has weekly branch meetings. Branch meetings rotate each week to include two organizational meetings, an educational meeting, and a public meeting. Within the branch, we have a division of labor so that we can organize direct interventions into ongoing struggles. So in Rochester, we have a fraction that organizes a section of the branch to intervene in C.A.N., one to intervene in R.A.W., and one to organize building the branch.

Socialist Worker: Every member of the ISO buys, reads, and sells Socialist Worker Newspaper. We do this in two ways.

1) We call the first way "3-for-me's". So members purchase three papers when a new issue comes out. These are to be used to develop political relationships with classmates, co-workers, friends and political contacts—people that may be interested in socialist politics.

Socialist Worker provides a socialist analysis of the world on a regular basis. It is therefore provides a crucial lead for socialists to engage the people around us politically.

2) The second way we use Socialist Worker is on street sales. The enables us to meet people that we would never get to see otherwise. There are far more people out there that are interested in socialism that we can relate to.

By engaging people and selling socialist worker, we develop our members because we have to learn how to articulate and relate socialist politics with the people around us.

And of course, we charge a dollar for our paper because we need to keep it coming out. There are no advertisements in there. We get donations from the people that are politically interested.

Education: Education is a crucial part of every branch routine. No one is going to teach us revolutionary theory and history. This is why the ISO has put so much time, energy and resources into Haymarket Books and ISR. Ideas are our weapons to be used in the struggles around us.

Dues: Every ISO member pays monthly dues to the organization based on a sliding scale. It's pretty obvious that no one is going to fund a revolutionary organization but the revolutionaries. And let's face it. Putting on conferences, producing a newspaper, and now daily online SW website takes resources. Dues allow use to be self-sustaining and remain independent.

Lastly, to wrap up, if you agree with our politics, if you agree with what we stand for, if you agree with our project, and you have a pretty good sense of what we do, you should join. If you're a socialist, you should join a socialist organization.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

halloween playlist

So we had a pretty amazing specially evil psychedelic therapy in honor of halloween at the bug jar last week. So i though i'd post some of the songs i played in no particular order:
1. black hearted woman - the standells
2. evil hearted you - the yardbirds
3. teenage werewolf - the cramps
4. the witch - the sonics
5. you must be a witch - the lollipop shoppe
6. devil in disguise - elvis
7. ventures in space (an assortment of songs off the album)
8. i'm gonna dress in black - them
9. paint it black - the rolling stones
10. i put a spell on you - screamin jay hawkins
11. evil - howlin wolf
12. human fly - the cramps
13. psycho - the sonics
14. season of the witch - donovan
15. evil hoodoo - the seeds
16. people are strange - the doors
17. st james infirmary - the standells
18. fire - arthur brown
19. electric funeral - black sabbath
20. feast of the mau mau - scream jay hawkins
21. down in the bottom - the groupies
22. ill go crazy - james brown
23. i move around - lee hazlewood

Friday, July 25, 2008

Los Mockers "Original Recordings 1965-1967"

i have no idea how i got this record. i'm pretty sure i ordered it through Get Hip.

...Anyway, it's pretty clear that you can't always judge a record by it's cover...kinda like Eddie Haskell. Los Mockers look like they are posing for the yearbook club high school photo (and apparently we are looking at this photo through a telescope). But don't let the picture fool you. Their music's got that real soul like...Daniel Desario!

The music is garage from Uruguay...the Uruguayan Invasion! My first listen impression is that this record rules. It has the early garage Rolling Stones feel to it but with more screamin. It hits all the usual themes. Some songs are just straight-forward garage (Girl you won't succeed), some songs slow it down and get a bit poppier (Can't be a lie), and there's a song with a great beat/psych feel (Empty harem). My favorite is a brilliant head-boppin working-class theme-song (What a life):

I have got to eat

So every day I work

And I've have to dress

so I must do my job

I don't want to work

but I must to feed you

I don't like my job

but I've got to dress you

What a life

Wait a minute. The lyrics are in english? And that's when you realize that this band doesn't make any sense. Los Mockers are a Latin American band singing in english and the singer sounds like a french dude. Yah...i don't know. i still haven't figured it out. But this record rules regardless.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

The Ventures In Space

i want to start by saying that The Ventures rule. It is my official policy to purchase any Ventures records i can find in thriftstores and i usually pick up anything under $5, because it's always worth it. Ventures In Space is one of the best and i was lucky to find a great copy cheap.
It's the usual Ventures recipe: instrumental-driven surf music with a theme. The space theme is great. The songs are slow and creepy. It sounds like it could be the soundtrack to a Tim Burton movie if Danny Elfman didn't have that shit on lockdown. Think Tim Burton mixed with Hitchcock mixed with Star Trek. The album seems to be experimenting with all sorts of sound effects and synthesizers. It therefore has a psychedelic feel to it as well.
Ventures In Space holds together as an album. The songs are versatile but flow from song to song. "The bat" kicks off the album with fuzzy guitars, tribal floor toms, and a great ride-driven drum beat. The side ends with psychedelic-graveyard-dance jams "The fourth dimension" and "The twilight zone" (That's right. Get your ipods and your goth friends together for a 4am trip to Mt Hope Cemetery).
The second side of Ventures In Space touches down for a landing and grounds us with some poppy surf tunes that more resemble the first Davie Allan record than the first side of this one. But the fourth song "Fear" launches us back into space with a rather slow and sexy melody (Note: "Fear" can be played at 45rpm and it sounds sweet as well. i've actually been playing it this way on my dj night) and finishes off strong.
So if you're a fan good surf music but you have a soft spot in your heart for some things goth--maybe you sneak out to 80's night cause you got your eyes on a girl with black lipstick, i say ask her over and put on Ventures In Space. You can probably makeout with her.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

The Montells/The Evil Split 12"

So i had a pretty good day today. It was my day off. i was woken up by my new landlord at 9:30am hungover. i rode over to borrow my roommate's car and my bike chain broke. Then i went to Record Archive and ran into my friend Tyler. i picked up a couple crucial records missing from my collection (finally, i got Nancy Sinatra "Boots" and Lou Reed "Transformer")...but the most interesting is the split 12" by The Montells and Evil.
i've never heard of either of these bands. They are both from Florida. There is nothing special about em. But it is definitely solid 60's garage punk. It's a bit darker than the standard. It reminds me of the first Pretty Things record (which i love by the way).
It must be said though that Evil definitely carries the split. They are darker and nastier than the Montells. Plus, on side two, you find that they slow it down and get creepier. It keeps to the standard garage framework but feels almost like "Come on in" by The Music Machine. It's nice. And i'm glad i decided to get it.
Evil is definitely worth doing some more research on and finding real singles.
Note: The split is listed The Evil. But the band called themselves Evil. Apparently the record companies and radio shows...etc just assumed and put "The" in front of their name despite their objections.
This isn't a great review because it's 4:30am and i can't sleep and i'm drunk...but still listen to this record for $16 or less.
Think i'm gonna watch Fargo.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Peter Laughner "Nocternal Digressions"

After having a lengthy discussion about making music with my friend Cory, he recommended that i check out Peter Laughner's solo stuff. So i ebayed and google-searched. But i found nothin. i have no idea how to find this stuff. In fact, i'm not really sure that it was ever released. So i really don't know how you can get this other than finding a friend to make you a copy (thanks Cory)...


To understand his music--or any music for that matter--it helps to understand something about Peter Laughner's life. Music, after all is an expression of some kind of interaction between the world around and the musician.

i only know what i remember Cory telling me after getting wasted at the Bug Jar and from what little i've read on the intergeek. But Peter Laughner grew up in the 60's obsessively listening to The Velvet Underground--basically a worshiper Lou Reed. He was friends with Lester Bangs and wrote about rock'n'roll for Creem Magazine. He played in a sweet punk band called Rocket From the Tombs which was pretty much the precursor to The Dead Boys.

In a lot of ways though, it seems like Peter Laughner was caught in a really tough period. He was witnessing the death of probably the most dynamic period of music in US history and the ushering in of....disco. All he wanted to do was make music and no one ever appreciated anything he did. He was a sweet guitar player but wanted to play punk-driven rock'n'roll. He never got along with any of his bands. And when he tried to perform solo, the only venues really were coffee shops. And of course they hated him because he was basically playing punk music--not exactly complimentary of the latte.

You can see how a situation like this could lead to disaster.


Well, in 1977, Peter Laughner came home to his Cleveland apartment, pressed play on his tape recorder, recorded what is now called Nocturnal Digressions and then died that night of organ failure. Cory calls it suicide and after listening to the album, i think he's right.

Peter Laughner was barely coherent. He even tells us in between songs that it's from all the drugs, alcohol and Lucky Strikes. His voice is raspy from the beginning and deteriorates throughout the course of his recording. It's clear that he's walking himself into the grave.

Then there's the songs that he decides to play. From Television's "Blank Generation" to The Velvet Underground's "Pale Blue Eyes", it says a lot about Peter Laughner's life at that time. When you're listening, you can almost see him playing in your head (In fact, you're probably looking similar).

Peter Laughner chooses mostly covers to play. i think this makes a lot of sense given the way his music was received, not to mention what a fan of rock'n'roll he was. He almost seems to be paying his last tributes: Television, Robert Johnson, the Rolling Stones, Van Morrison....etc.

Peter Laughner ends the album with an abbreviated version of "Summer Time Blues" rushing through to finish before the tape cuts off. And it does. And that's the end.

The result is a mix of "i don't give a fuck" punk, folk, and post World War II blues. The recording quality is horrible. His guitar playing is amazing. And he plays the songs beautifully. But more than that, it expresses (maybe better than anything i have ever heard) alienation from the world around you, and alienation from yourself. It expresses being depressed and being pissed off about it. It's what music is about.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Is the Earth Overcrowded? : a speech given in chicago, 06/19/08


According to the CIA’s World Fact Book, the world’s population is believed to be just under 6.7 billion people (June 2008).

Three billion people today—almost half the world population—survives on less than $2 a day.

Of these 6.7 billion, 600 million people lack adequate shelter.

1.1 billion people—approximately one in six people on earth—have no access to drinkable water (United Nations Development Report 2006).

The United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that 854 million people worldwide are undernourished.

300 million children go to bed hungry every day and more than 90 percent of these children are suffering long-term malnourishment and nutrient deficiency.

United Nations estimate that approximately 18,000 children die daily as a direct or indirect consequence of malnutrition (Associated Press, February 18, 2007).

People are being forced to resort to new lows to try to feed themselves and survive. Haiti is the poorest nation in the Western hemisphere. There, 80 percent of the population lives on less than $2 per day and the typical adult diet consists of just 1,640 calories—640 calories less than the average adult requirement (World Food Program). Haitians are now eating biscuits made from yellow clay dirt. In Burundi, people are trying to survive by eating a mixture of black flour and moldy shrubs. And Somalis are trying to sustain themselves on a thin gruel made from mashed thorn-tree branches.

Most recently, as a result of world food inflation, protests have sparked in Egypt, Haiti, Mexico, Mogadishu and elsewhere basically demanding the right to eat. Even the President of the World Bank warned that 33 nations are at risk of “social unrest” because of the rising prices of food (NYT 04/10/08 editorial).

Food inflation, raising gas prices and economic turmoil resulting from the subprime mortgage meltdown has put big questions back on the table for both those that control society (or the ruling class), and those that work for a living. The ruling class is eager to explain the current situation in a way that protects their power and wealth. And the working class is trying to figure out how to change their increasingly dire situation.

From radio talk shows to internet blogs to newspaper editorials (liberal and conservative alike), one explanation that seems to have quite a serious following is that the food crisis stems from out-of-control population growth—that there are just too many people to be fed.

So, just skimming down the comment section of the first New York Times editorial that popped up on my Google search—which, by the way, discusses the role of ethanol in raising food prices—I found the following comment among others of the same vein:

“As with all discussions of food supply, global warming, land degradation etc., this editorial fails to even mention the only real issue underlying all of these: limitless growth of the human population. Essentially all environmental problems are proportional to the number of humans consuming resources and belching out chemical pollution…All of these problems are insoluble without confronting the fact that there are far more people than the world can support. Until all countries institute effective measures to lower the birth rate and gradually reduce the human population to sustainable levels, we will continue to destroy the planet at an ever-increasing rate until it becomes incapable of supporting any kind of life. Avoiding this issue is suicidal madness” — Jeremy Bounce

The argument that: the world is overpopulated (or overcrowded), and the pressures of population on the earth’s resources create the social problems we see around us today—from poverty, to global warming, to famine—is not a new argument. In fact, it was made popular by the Essay on the Principle of Population in 1798 by political economist and Cleric in the Church of England Thomas Malthus.

Malthus claimed to have discovered a “law of nature” which explained poverty as natural and inevitable. He proposed that population, if unchecked, increases at a geometric rate (i.e. 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, etc.), whereas the food-supply grows only at an arithmetic rate (i.e. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 etc.). Poverty and starvation therefore were natural consequences of food production being unable to keep up with population growth.

Malthus never really proved this law scientifically, and as many of his critics pointed out, historical data did not support his claims either. So from where, according to Malthus did this law arise? Malthus argued in his first essay that: “The Supreme Being, through the gracious designs of Providence…ordained that population should increase faster than food”.

Malthus argued that if left unrestricted, human populations continue to grow until they become too large to be supported by the food grown on available agricultural land, causing starvation which then controls population growth.

Malthusian population theory has resurfaced over and over again since. When I told my Dad that I was doing this talk, he said nonchalantly, “Oh yah. They were talking about the overpopulation “crisis” back in the 60’s and 70’s when I was in school”…So I looked it up:

Paul R. Ehrlich wrote The Population Bomb (in 1968) and The Limits to Growth (in 1972) where he predicted that "the population of the U.S. will shrink from 250 million to about 22.5 million before 1999 because of famine and global warming". Ehrlich also predicted that, "Before 1985, mankind will enter a genuine age of scarcity . . . in which the accessible supplies of many key minerals will be facing depletion."

These ideas have been popular enough to have crept into literature and television. The 1969 Star Trek episode (in the original series of course) entitled “The Mark of Gideon” dealt with a race of overpopulated aliens who abducted Captain Kirk to solve their population problem.

So at this point you may be thinking (especially after my Star Trek reference: “What is the purpose of this talk anyway?”)

Well…First, I want to show the social implications of the overpopulation argument—that the “plague” of overpopulation has been used as a tool of the ruling class throughout history to advance its agenda at the expense of the working masses. Second, I want to argue that while sustainability is an important question for socialists, we cannot understand sustainability and overpopulation without first understanding the way things are produced under capitalism and the corresponding way society under capitalism is divided into classes. Third, I want to argue that the current food and environmental crises are the result of capitalism, not overpopulation. And finally, I want to put forth some reforms we can argue for today in the process of rebuilding a Left, but I also want to argue that ultimately, socialism is a necessary step for planning a sustainable society.

Social Implications of the Population Argument

Far from being “fair and balanced” (like Fox News), Malthusianism arose from and was propelled forward by the ruling elite to justify the wealth, power and private property of (none other than…) the ruling elite. Anthropologist Eric Ross points out that:

Among [Malthus’] principal aims was to explain the nature of poverty in a way that not only would suggest that there was no viable alternative to capitalist economy, but which would also contribute to the evolution of that economy in a form of certain policy prescriptions—most notably the abolition of the old poor laws, the closest thing that existed in his time to social welfare (The Malthus Factor, pg 1).

Malthus’ argument was to absolve the emerging system of capitalism of responsibility for the impoverishment of the masses. The blame instead was placed on the victims. Any public obligation to mitigate that misery therefore was fundamentally incompatible with the ultimate rights of property, since any form of social welfare was bound to be little more than a way of subsidizing the fertility of the poor at the expense of the well-to-do.

In fact, Malthus argued that poverty, misery, disease and famine where actually necessary to check overpopulation. Malthus argued that hardships awakened “Christian virtues” missing from the poor.

Socialist, Frederick Engels succinctly summed up the social implications of Malthusianism: “It is always the poor who are the surplus and nothing should be done for them except for make their dying and starvation as easy as possible (Outlines of a Critique of Political Economy)”.

Malthusian thought presumes that the poor are not really the equals of the more privileged. It rationalizes poverty using the “laws of nature”. But you can also see what is implied here: That the poor innately lack middle-class virtues such as prudence, foresight and the capacity to manage their affairs in a rational manner.

Throughout history, the Malthusian line of thinking has led down the political road to justifying imperialism: The line is that “The problems of developing countries aren’t the result of colonization and plundering by imperialist pirates. It’s because they are irrational and uncultured”. Malthus himself advanced similar arguments to justify English colonization of Ireland after the potato famine.

If we follow the line of thinking, it is not hard to see how eugenics—trying to create a “purer race” through breeding—could flow from Malthusian arguments of overpopulation and poverty. To quote Eric Ross again:

Eugenics was the next step in drawing the conclusion that these moral deficiencies were innate, that the poor where inherently inferior to the well-to-do and therefore incapable of manifesting such traits. The implication was no longer that the poor were a threat to social order simply because they were too numerous. They were dangerous on an even more fundamental level, because their excessive fertility was considered to be the cause of the deterioration of the nation’s “racial stock” (pg. 60).

I don’t think most people on the liberal or Left side of the political spectrum making overpopulation arguments today should be accused of supporting eugenics. But I do think it’s important to point out the implications of the argument. And it’s important to understand the history of overpopulation thought and its class nature.

Just a couple more examples and then we’ll move onto the real causes of poverty:

1. Overpopulation was used to try and justify cold war. It was argued that overpopulation and poverty was a breeding ground for communists and measures needed to be taken.

2. Along with Reganism, we heard that “welfare queens” were the reason for economic hardships—that poor people were just having too many babies and draining the system.

3. Finally, we hear overpopulation arguments used to criminalize immigrants. It is portrayed that immigrants are the reason that it is hard to find work: “There are only so many jobs and immigrants are taking them all”.

Hopefully you can see that the overpopulation argument is no friend of socialists or the Left because it diverts attention from the system and scapegoats the most oppressed and struggling in society. But what is our analysis?

Capitalist Production and Overpopulation

Rather than poverty and environmental destruction flowing from overpopulation, Socialists argue that these problems are the result of the way that capitalism organizes production.

In fact, Karl Marx and Frederick Engels—authors of The Communist Manifesto pointed out that capitalism creates for the first time the potential to eliminate poverty and hunger once and for all. Before capitalism, the technology did not exist to produce enough to meet the needs of the whole population. When people ran out of food, they “packed up shop” and moved somewhere else. When draughts or floods happened, huge sections of the population were wiped out. But the rise of capitalism has created a world market where each part of the world is dependent on the other. It has developed machine-based mass production creating the productive forces that far surpass all previous societies. Marx and Engels identified this aspect of capitalism as progressive.

The problem isn’t that capitalism can’t produce enough to sustain its population. The problem is that production under capitalism takes place for profits, not human need.

What Marx called the “means of production”—the factories, the machinery, the tools are controlled by a minority in society while the majority has to work for a living. In fact Marx and Engels pointed out that the immense wealth of the ruling class is made on the backs of the exploited majority. Under capitalism, those that own the means of production—the ruling class—produce in competition with other capitalists for profits. If one capitalist is not making as much in profits as possible, chances are, they are losing out to another. Think of it this way: If Kmart isn’t leading the pack in making profits, they are being gobbled up by Walmart. So under capitalism, profits are the driving force.

Competition for profits is the logic that drives the system and if “minor details” such as feeding people, housing people, and protecting the environment get in the way, they are trampled. Human needs like food are treated just like any other commodity under capitalism. That is, their only worth to the system is how much profit it produces for the rich. People are not considered to have a right to purchase any particular commodity, and no distinction is made in this respect between necessities and luxuries. Those who are rich can afford to purchase anything they want while the poor are often not able to procure even their basic needs. Under capitalist relations, people have no right to an adequate diet, shelter, and medical attention (Monthly Review 05/08).

So while overpopulation is decried as the reason people are starving, consider the following: According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, with record grain harvests in 2007, there is more than enough food in the world to feed everyone—at least 1.5 times the current demand. In fact, over the last 20 years, food production has risen steadily at over 2.0 percent a year, while the rate of population growth has dropped to 1.14 percent a year.

That’s right. The rate of food production has increased over the past twenty years and the rate of population growth has decreased. Population is not outstripping food supply. The problem is that people cannot afford the very food they need to survive. People under capitalism starve amid plenty. Take for example the New York Times article from a couple years ago with the following headline “Poor in India Starve as Surplus Wheat Rots” (December 2, 2002). Or as a Wall Street Journal headline put it in 2004, “Want Amid Plenty, An Indian Paradox: Bumper Harvests and Rising Hunger” (June 25, 2004).

How can this be?

1. Agribusiness actually hoards food or destroys it to keep prices high. And believe it or not—governments actually pay subsidies (with taxpayer money) to agribusiness to not produce food. According to The Washington Post, $25 billion per year is paid by the US Government to agribusiness and individuals to effectively not feed the hungry. One of the starkest examples of this was painted during the Great Depression. While millions of poor and unemployed Americans went hungry, U.S. farmers were facing the exact opposite problem: They were producing too much food to keep prices from falling. So at the same time that millions of poor and unemployed people stood in breadlines for food assistance, food crops were being destroyed, because no profit could be made from giving it away (SW “Can the world be fed?”).

As the author John Steinbeck characterized this tragedy in the Grapes of Wrath:

The works of the roots of the vines, of the trees, must be destroyed to keep up the price, and this is the saddest, bitterest thing of all. Carloads of oranges dumped on the ground. The people came for miles to take the fruit, but this could not be. How would they buy oranges at 20 cents a dozen if they could drive out and pick them up?...A million people hungry, needing the fruit–and kerosene sprayed over the golden mountains...

There is a crime here that goes beyond denunciation. There is a sorrow here that weeping cannot symbolize. There is a failure here that topples all our success. The fertile earth, the straight tree rows, the sturdy trunks and the ripe fruit. And children dying of pellagra must die because a profit cannot be taken from an orange. And coroners must fill in the certificate—died of malnutrition—because the food must rot, must be forced to rot.

So as Marx and Engels characterized in the Communist Manifesto, corporations sit on top of their huge piles of wealth by sending the rest of us on a downward spiral into poverty. It shouldn’t be a surprise then that the agriculture business industry has become the second most profitable section of business in the United States—second only to pharmaceuticals.

We should consider the question of the environment in the same way as food, specifically the question of oil reserves.

At some point clearly the oil reserves will run out, and there is a serious debate taking place right now on whether or not we have reached peak oil production. But the fact of the matter is that there are other far less polluting technologies such as water and hydrogen fuel systems, as well as technologies that harness the sun, sea and wind. What prevents them from replacing oil today is simply that oil and coal are cheap to get out of the ground and are extremely profitable. Energy companies are not interested in the massive retooling and investment a shift in energy sources will require—not to mention the amount of capital they have sunk into oil exploration, extraction, and refining that they will be forced to write off. Existing forms of alternative energy, moreover, are at this point not nearly sufficient to meet present needs. What is needed is massive investment in research and development to develop viable alternatives to oil, but this is not profitable (Meaning of Marxism, 182).

2. In the drive for profits, Marx and Engels described another tendency of capitalism: the tendency of capital to be concentrated and centralized into the hands of fewer and fewer capitalists. That is, as successful businesses run other smaller businesses under, they gobble up “the weak” and acquire their wealth. In order to outcompete, capitalists purchase the latest technologies and machinery enabling more to be produced with fewer and fewer hands. These two aspects of capitalism combined to create greater and greater unemployment. Marx and Engels called the unemployed the “reserve army of labor”. Further, Marx described how capitalism needs the unemployment and poverty to keep competition for jobs intense which puts pressure on workers to accept lower wages.

Statistically, this trend is illustrated by the unprecedented growth in the gap between the super-rich and the super-poor.

But this can be seen most devastatingly in developing countries where there has been a huge migration of people out of the countryside to the cities. They leave the countryside because they have been forced off their land as giant agribusiness takes over. The small farmers move to cities seeking a better life but they instead find a hellish existence—life in slums with extremely high unemployment and underemployment. Mike Davis in his book Planet of Slums describes how most try to scrape by in the “informal” economy by buying things and then selling them in small quantities. He describes how people are packed into hand-made shacks like sardines and live in their own “shit” (his words) because they lack any kind of sewage system. Of the half of humanity that lives in cities (3 billion), some 1 billion, or one-third of city dwellers, now live in slums.

3. When discussing the question of world poverty—especially in relation to the current food crisis, one cannot ignore the role of international financial institutions such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF). Without getting into too much detail (because there are whole talks on this stuff), the World Bank and IMF have been tools for huge corporations—many being from the U.S.—to extract wealth and profits from poorer developing countries. The term “neoliberalism” has been used to describe this, but it’s really just the economic side of imperialism. When Marx and Engels pointed out that capitalism chases profits all around the globe, they described this process accurately. Let me give you just one example in the interest of time (printed in the very first color edition of Socialist Worker) to illustrate how this works:

Haiti, one of the countries hardest hit by the food crisis, used to grow its own rice, and Haitian farmers were protected by high tariff barriers. All that ended in 1986, when the International Monetary Fund (IMF), as a condition for more loans to pay off previous debt, forced Haiti to remove trade barriers.

Within two years, domestic rice growing was decimated by cheap U.S. imports, leaving Haiti open to the vagaries of the world market and unable to feed its own population when prices shot through the roof.

How can U.S. companies afford to sell rice so cheaply that they can undercut competition in a country where 80 percent of the population lives on less than $2 a day? U.S. agribusiness is subsidized to such an extent that it can sell rice at up to 20 percent below production cost--the very kind of support that Haitian farmers were barred from receiving.

By using the leverage of debt, these policies have gutted the economies of developing countries and pushed huge sections of the population off their land while funneling billions of dollars into the coffers of rich corporations here in the United States. The crisis is not the result of some “iron law of nature”—of overpopulation. It is the product of the laws that govern capitalism—profits before people.

American Exceptionalism and Consumerism?

One of the arguments that is popular on the Left related to overpopulation and sustainability is that average American workers and their culture of overconsumption and waste is eating up the world’s resources. The real situation though is much different:

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 10 percent of U.S. households today are either at risk of, or experiencing, hunger.

According to America's Second Harvest, the largest food bank in the U.S., demand across the U.S. is up 15 percent to 20 percent over last year, and many food banks are having difficulty coping. CBS News recently reported that more than 80 percent of food banks said they were unable to meet that rising demand.

In some places, applications for food stamps have doubled in the last year. According to federal statistics, in March alone, some 27.9 million Americans received food stamps—up 1.5 million, or 5.7 percent, from a year earlier.

And with food stamp benefits averaging just $1 per person per meal, many recipients find it nearly impossible to stretch what little they get.

The idea the Americans are fat and happy while the rest of the world starves if far from the truth.

Additionally, as Heather Rodgers makes clear in her book Gone Tomorrow: The Hidden Life of Garbage the way products are consumed needs to be understood in relation to the way they are produced under capitalism. Workers don’t need two or three cars. But capitalism needs workers to have two or three cars. She quotes a marketing consultant after World War Two:

Our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption our way of life….We need things consumed, burned up, worn out, replaced, and discarded at an ever increasing pace.

As a result, manufacturers designed products to wear out faster than they need to through technological obsolescence, fashion obsolescence, or some combination of the two. Durable items have been manufactured to be less durable to increase profits. Whole categories of products have been created to be disposable from the outset. Think of Styrofoam plates!

And workers in the US had to be taught to accept disposability. It was not natural. The Society for Plastics Industries funded a massive public relations campaign to educate workers to shift their attitudes on their “notions of waste”.

Another telling example is that US workers did not choose to rely on gas guzzling automobiles for transportation. In fact, Rockefellers' Standard Oil of California joined General Motors, Firestone Tire and Phillips Petroleum to form the National City Lines holding company, which bought out and dismantled more than 100 trolley systems in 45 cities between 1936 and 1950. Cities like Rochester, NY where I live have such a pathetic public transportation system now that most employers during interviews ask applicants if they have reliable transportation. The buses are totally unreliable and at the same time, we have empty rail tunnels weaving throughout Rochester that now are only used as shelter for the homeless.

Which way forward

This is clearly not our fault. Capitalism is a chaotic system because it is driven by profits. In competition, capitalists are only concerned about the short-term profit. They do not consider the long-term effects their decisions will have on the rest of society and generations to come (and we’ve seen that when they do, they don’t care). In fact, I hope my talk has shown how their profits are made because the poor are starving. Capitalism by its very nature has alienated workers from nature. Workers have been ripped from the land and hoarded into giant cities (and now slums). Capitalism has created an antagonism between agriculture and industry where there should be cooperation and planning. This rift needs to be healed.

So what is the solution? How do we create a sustainable society?

Many propose individual solutions to the problem. I talked to a woman the other day that said she is going to plant her own vegetable garden and stop eating anything with corn syrup in it. But while I encourage people to plant gardens and recycle and carpool…etc, there are no individual solutions to what are systematic problems rooted in the very structure of capitalism.

As Paul D’Amato wrote in his book The Meaning of Marxism using quotes from Marx and Engels:

What is required is nothing short of a revolutionary reconstitution of society—“a complete revolution in the hitherto existing mode of production, and simultaneously a revolution in our whole contemporary social order”. The point is not to leave nature alone, but to transform human social relations so that production (and the technology accompanying it) develops in a planned manner. Human need—and, by extension, the care of the natural environment upon which human needs depend—must be central to that planning. Only by overcoming capitalism’s contradiction between production and distribution, between social planning and market blindness, and between classes, can all scientific knowledge that we have acquired be used in a completely conscious and rational way (pg 185).

In short, we need socialism. We need workers to collectively seize the means of production to make decisions collectively in the interest of the majority. Then, profit can be taken out of the equation all together.

But honestly, revolution is not on the agenda for the next couple weeks. So what do we do today?

First, we need to combat the overpopulation arguments that blame the victim. We should use the current period—when the failures of neoliberalism are so clear for people to see—to explain why capitalism—where profit rules—is an irrational way to organize society. We have a role to try and win political arguments about the nature of the system and why the status quo can be changed.

Second, we need to be proponents of collective action against the system. Take for example, the struggle in Bolivia in 2000 against the privatization of the water system. Millions of Bolivian workers, peasants, and poor people took to the streets and forced the government to back down on its plan to hand the country’s water systems over to the American-owned Bechtel Corporation.

What is required now is the rebirth of a global justice movement that can link arms in solidarity with the protesters around the developing world and raise the slogan that “food is a fundamental human right”—that demands that debts held by developing countries are dropped so they can spend their money on feeding people instead of paying international loan sharks. We need a global justice movement that recognizes capitalism has created the problem of world hunger and is incapable of being part of the solution.

We should continue to organize collective struggle against the war in Iraq. After all, the gasoline used by me or you in our cars pales in comparison to the fuel needed every day to grease the gears of tanks and jets needed to occupy Iraq. Depleted uranium used in US weapons has spread throughout Iraq and created a toxic environment resulting in high rates of birth defects as well as what is being called the Gulf War Syndrome in returning soldiers. And the occupation of Iraq has caused the largest world refugee crisis where people are corralled into refugee camps—a place that overpopulation is clearly a problem.

Lastly, and I’ll finish on this: we need to build a revolutionary organization of militant Marxists that can implant themselves into the struggles around—that can help to propel forward the movements as they develop—that can help people see that capitalism is the problem, and can articulate an alternative worth fighting for. More than ever, after writing this talk, I know this needs to be done—and i’m proud to be a part of it.

Friday, June 13, 2008

The Very Special World of Lee Hazlewood (1966)

This is hands down my favorite LP. Somehow i found this on ebay and didn't pay any more than $15 total. i almost shat myself. Its got everything i need in an album:

1. This album is punk-as-fuck.

Listen to Lee's voice. It sounds like the dude chillin in the alley you hate walking by on the way home at 3am some Wednesday morning. You know that dude--he's got an 8th of whiskey under his arm, a cigarette hanging out his mouth and hits on your girlfriend while she's clearly got her arm around you. Now imagine if somehow this guy could hit every note right on and for some reason your girlfriend decides she wants to stay with him for the night.

You're used to the Nancy Sinatra version of "These Boots Are Made For Walkin'". It's all sexy because it's Nancy singing. But when Lee sings it, it takes new form. He's no joke. He's actually going to walk all over you. It's a fighting song for real. "My Baby Cried All Night Long" does the same thing. And "I Move Around" is about just going wherever and doing whatever you want to do.

2. The production rules.

I'm pretty sure there's nothing better. Phil Spector for sure ripped this dude off for his "wall of sound". On this album, everything is huge. Huge voice. Huge string/horn arrangements. And it's all layered with reverb you can only find back when they built reverb chambers--before shitty-ass digital reverb pedals.

3. Lee sings the blues.

Lee's punk-as-fuck attitude collides with the hardships of everyday working-class life. You get the feeling that he is fighting a losing battle. Many songs feel like he is fishing for any bit of relief: a cigarette, a glass of whiskey at a farmiliar bar, the memory of a past love...etc. My favorite example--"My Autumn's Done Come" Lee tells us that he's "tired of holding [his] stomach in". Who isn't. You wanna meet someone cute. But you don't. So you keep drinkin. Before you know it, you got yrself a pinch-full of beer blub. You try to play it off as cute, but come on--you know that shit's gross.

4. Tounge in cheek

Throughout the album--and characteristic of all Lee's albums (i've heard), he's got these great spoken word lines woven into some of the most serious songs (like "My Baby Cried All Night Long") that just crack me up. Perhaps it's just my sense of humor but i love when someone can step back and pull some ridiculous shit out of a serious situation. It's not cool every time. But when it is, it's the best. It's almost like Lee in the end returns to his punk attitude by making fun of himself after realizing how stupid it is to get so down.

5. The Moon Seeds

Since .kelley. left for NYC and Ghostharm broke up, i've needed some kinda somethin to do musically. So i started The Moon Seeds. In my eyes, it's a blatant ripoff of Lee Hazlewood mixed with a bit of The Velvets. But no one knows what the fuck is going on because no one listens to Lee Hazlewood.

So get this album and know whats up, in more ways than one.