Saturday, December 31, 2005

What a loser! Blogging on New Year's Eve!


1. I'm broke.

2. I've been drinking far too much lately anyway.

3. I've got a literary journal to edit and publish, and a PhD chapter to finish, and they're both already a month late.

4. I hate New Year's. Snooty chicks from Pakuranga and staunched-up blokes in denim jackets from Henderson flood into the central city with false displys of bonhomie, which fade to sulen aggression as the New Year takes them well over their alcohol tolerance limits. It's worse than the Devonport Wine Festival, and that's saying something.

5. I'm a loser. Is that good enough?

Monday, December 26, 2005

Stalinist sci-fi, part 2

The Moscow Times has an article on a movie about the 'forgotten' Soviet lunar expedition of 1938. Alexei Fedorchenko's 'First on the Moon' has won prizes at a series of film festivals - including best documentary in the 'Horizons' section of the Venice festival! - and wowed critics with its Borgesian mixture of fact and fantasy:

Among the things the director is proud of today is that in the staged material in "First on the Moon," any scholar of film should be able to trace the evolution of shooting styles through the 1930s. Less than a tenth of the final film is drawn from original archive material -- most notable are scenes of athletes parading on Red Square and extracts from Vasily Zhuravlyov's 1936 science-fiction feature "Cosmic Journey," about just such a moon expedition. All the rest of the black-and-white material was scrupulously created to match, a painstaking process that required designer Nikolai Pavlov and cinematographer Anatoly Lesnikov to find old cameras and film stock...

Fedorchenko's film can hardly be faulted stylistically, whether it's on monumental scenes like the rocket's blast-off, or on closer, often comic moments like preliminary experiments with a dog and a monkey. Some episodes have an intriguingly unexplained character, like the appearance, in one preparatory scene, of a group of German officers -- almost impossible in the historical context, but somehow stressing the sheer randomness of fate and the way history comes to be documented. But the real strength of Fedorchenko's film lies in its uneasy balance: While there's much that will draw laughter from today's audiences, the more elegiac and human strands of "First on the Moon" are no less strong.

Can't wait to see it...

Sunday, December 25, 2005

Stalinist sci fi, part 1: Gorilla Warfare

Isn't Christmas dreary? No cricket 'til tomorrow (and then only in Oz), no pubs, no bookshops, no bands playing...after chatting with some rellies and downing a few beers around the table I find myself drawn back to the net, and to odd stories like this one...

SOVIET dictator Josef Stalin ordered his scientists to cross humans with APES to create an invincible breed of Red Army soldiers, secret documents show. Archive papers say the Kremlin chief demanded his Planet of the Apes warriors be “resilient and resistant to hunger”. He said they should be of “immense strength but with an underdeveloped brain”. He also wanted them to work on railway construction.

Labs and ape skeletons have been found in the Black Sea town of Suchumi in Georgia by workmen building a kids’ playground.
It is thought the apes were among creatures captured for research during the 1920s project, which cost Stalin £8,500 — more than £1million in today’s money. Scientist Ilia Ivanov was ordered to breed the mutants. He had already tried to create a super-horse by crossing the animals with zebras.

OK, I should tell you this article comes from The Sun. If it helps any, Sky News is running a variant here, with some very unpleasant extra details...

Friday, December 23, 2005

Keeping the kalashnikov

From the BBC:

Mozambique's parliament has rejected an opposition attempt to get the image of a gun removed from the national flag. Ruling Frelimo Party MPs said the time was not right to dump the machine-gun - a symbol of the war of independence." The national flag and emblem of the republic are historic references that we don't want to abdicate," Frelimo MP Hama Thay told Reuters news agency. The flag was Frelimo's party banner before being adopted as the national flag.

Grafitti seen today

On a radiator beside Albert Park:


Maybe Charlie's a guard at Pare...

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Comic, in more ways than one

But this is also profoundly depressing, for anyone who knows about the role that the 1983 US invasion of Grenada played in destroying the popular revolutionary government established by Maurice Bishop in 1979.

Let's hope the US never gets to drop propaganda comics on another rebellious Latin American country...

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Fifty one percent!

Eva Morales' share of the vote in Bolivia's Presidential elections just keeps getting bigger and bigger - reports are now giving him an extraordinary 51%, meaning that he'll be able to assume the office of President without needing to ask the approval of the National Congress. In the lead-up to the election many commentators and pollsters had predicted a close tussle between Morales and his right-wing opponent Jorge Quiroya, yet Quiroya has ended up with less than a fifth of the vote. Morales' Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) party has also done far better than predicted in elections to the two houses of Congress: in the lower house, it looks set to become the largest party, with 65 of 130 seats.

Reaction to Morales' landslide has come from far-flung parts of the internet. Over in dear old Blighty Lenin's Tomb speaks for many on the left when it hails the victory, while also emphasising that the workers and peasants who elected Morales have high expectations, and will be pushing the new government hard. Lenin might have been thinking about the national summit of Bolivian workers held in El Alto last week, which laid out a radical set of demands and made plans for a nationwide network of workers' assemblies independent of the state. Blogging from inside Bolivia, liberal lefty Jim Schulz is surprised and disappointed at the confrontational nature of Morales' victory speech. I can't help finding Schulz's view that now is the time for Bolivia's bitterly divided classes to kiss and make up touchingly naive.

On the right side of the spectrum, the Financial Times has a sober account of Morales' victory and its likely repercussions, but its more ideological cousin The Economist is noticeably grumpy. The neo-con Moonies at the Washington Times can't seem even to admit that Morales has scooped a majority of votes. The Miami Herald, a traditional voice of America's reactionary Latin American expats, tacks a thinly-disguised pitch for the phoney separatist movement in Bolivia's wealthy Santa Cruz region onto the bottom of its account of Morales' triumph. Is this a sign of things to come?

Monday, December 19, 2005

Landslide for Morales in Bolivia

Early reports suggest that Movement Towards Socialism candidate Evo Morales has won something resembling a landslide victory in Bolivia's Presidential elections.

In recent weeks a series of polls had predicted that Morales would win around 35% of the vote, but he appears to have scored something closer to 45%. This figure becomes even more impressive when we remember that it is compulsory to vote in Bolivia, and that around 20% of voters - people who would stay away from the polls if they could - normally cast blank or invalid ballots. Morales' nearest rival has a third of the vote. The last elected President of Bolivia, Sanchez de Lozada, received only 21% of the vote.

If Morales fails to win an absolute majority of the vote, Bolivia's next President will be decided by the country's National Congress, which is still dominated by conservatives. The size of Morales' victory will make it very hard, though, for the National Congress to deny him the Presidency without risking enormous protests.

What can we expect from a Morales Presidency? I made a few tentative remarks in last night's post, when I would perhaps have been better off leaving readers in the hands of experts like the folks at the upsidedownworld website, who have some fascinating material on the pressure that will be brought to bear on Morales, and on the danger of intervention by US troops deployed in nearby Paraguay.

What can be said with certainty is that the huge support for Morales is more evidence of the sharp leftward turn that Latin American has taken in recent years. No wonder the White House is worried.

Bolivia votes

Bolivia goes to the polls today, and for the first time it seems possible that South America's poorest country could get an Indian President. One might well think that rather overdue, considering the fact that Indians have always comprised a majority of the country's population.

Evo Morales looks likely to secure the largest slice of the vote, but the peculiarities of Bolivia's electoral system mean that if he falls short of an absolute majority the office of President could be handed to one of his rivals, courtesy of a conservative National Congress. Morales' supporters in the peasant and union movements are sure to meet any attempt to cheat him of the Presidency with calls for large-scale protests, and there is good reason to take them seriously: in the last three years, popular protest has forced two right-wing Presidents from power. Bolivians know how to organise a demo.

Morales has run a populist left-wing campaign, arguing for the nationalisation of the burgeoning gas sector, an end to coca eradication programmes, and a less supine attitude toward the United States. The peasant leader is supported politically and financially by Venezuelan Presdient Hugo Chavez, and many people have tagged him as an advocate of a Bolivian incarnation of Venezuela's 'Bolivarian revolution'. There are certainly a number of intriguing similarities, but two factors rule out the possibility of a Morales-led government following the path Chavez has pursued in Venezuela.

In the first place, Bolivia is a far poorer society than Venezuela, and Morales will lack the oil revenues that have allowed Chavez to satisfy his supporters with increased spending on social programmes. In the second place, Bolivia's trade union movement is stronger and more militant than its counterpart in Venezuela, and is sure to pressure a Morales administration from the left, demanding not just increases in social spending but changes to the basic structures of Bolivian society. (In the aftermath of the overthrow of President de Lozada in 2003, Bolivia's trade union confederation went so far as to demand the creation of a workers' state and workers' control of the key parts of the economy.)

It is very likely, then, that a Morales administration will come under immense pressure from the left and the right. On the right, the country's capitalist class and its backers in the US will fiercely resist even relatively minor reforms that threaten slender profit margins and a fragile economy. On the left the unions and peasants' organisations will be pushing their own agendas aggressively. The sort of relatively peaceful, relatively gradual change that has been possible in Venezuela is very unlikely to occur in Bolivia. It is likely that a Morales government will very quickly be faced with the choice of betraying its core constituencies, or provoking the wrath of Bolivia's ruling class and its powerful backers. But don't take my word for it: check out Latin America expert Jorge Martin's detailed Marxist analysis here. For a wider backdrop, check out the BBC's excellent interactive political map of twelve Latin American countries here.

Reading and repentance

Not for the first time, I seem in danger of contradicting myself. After reading a fascinating thread on Crooked Timber about books we regret having read as kids, I was about to argue that there was no reason to feel shame about having dabbled with the likes of Erik von Daniken and Colin Wilson. These folk might be difficult to take seriously as thinkers, but their work has, I was thinking, a certain mad poetry which is bound to appeal to kids and which has a certain value for the rest of us, too. I mean, von Daniken might be decidedly dodgy as far as the old empirical research goes, but who else would have an imagination grand enough to fuse prehistory with science fiction, as he does with his theory of the role of 'aliens' in evolution? (Alright, I suppose the first half of Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey might have done something similar, but Kubrick isn't bad company to be in, is he?)

I must confess that I defend von Daniken out of impure motives: I pillaged one of his numerous tomes for part of a recent sequence of prose poems:

The Astronauts

The alien astronauts landed in the clearing their force field had burned out of the jungle. The ape men dropped slowly from their branches, and crept in twos and threes into the shadow of the ship. The astronauts removed their helmets and fell to their knees: from this moment, they would worship the inhabitants of the new world as Gods. Soon they would alter their genes, remaking themselves in the image of the Gods.*

There's not a great deal of forgiveness on display, however, in my latest intervention at the long-suffering spanblather blog: that poor old fascist JRR Tolkien gets a right old raking over. What happened to charity for cranks? Perhaps, though, I'd be less favourably inclined towards von Daniken if he boasted legions of annoying fans and a trilogy of absurdly over-rated film adaptions. A crank isn't so funny when he's taken seriously...

*Richard Taylor vows that he will respond to this piss take with a poem portraying von Daniken as a staunch anti-imperialist. Do your best, mate.

Friday, December 16, 2005

How can a Dalek have a conscience?

Dr Who's forthcoming Christmas Special will have an anti-war theme, and the show's right-wing fans are not amused. Here's one comment I saw on a blog lost somewhere in the vastness of cyberspace:

This kind of limp-wristed, PC propagandist tone has completely ruined the otherwise quite impressive new Dr Who. The WMD analogy, mentioned above, was bad enough but the sight of a Dalek having a crisis of conscience? Daleks don't have consciences, they're the embodiment of evil, that's their point and their appeal. Doubtless when the Cybermen make their inevitable reappearance we'll be exploring the 'root causes' of Cyberman discontent and the way it has engendered militancy - I imagine they'll find a way of blaming it on the Spiders of Metebelis 3 as well.

I must say one of my favourite Doctor Who series was 'The Genesis of the Daleks' - I was intrigued by the character of Davros, who was a sort of decrepit and embittered humanoid who created the Daleks so that his besieged race could survive and prosper. He ended up, of course, being destroyed by his own creation, giving us the classic lines:

'Please, show mercy'


Or words to that effect (it's a long time ago...)

I was a bit disappointed by the new Doctor Who, but now I'm quite looking forward to that Christmas Special (which we'll probably get by Christmas 2006 down here).

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Ancient pa over-run again

Read Karena Puhi's report and call to action here.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Burn Lenin's Corpse

I disagree with Alliance for Workers Liberty member Paul Hampton about Venezuela, but he is dead right on this one.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

New mammal snapped in Borneo

Snapped, but not captured, yet. Check out the tail - huge, and muscular.

The experts are scratching their pointy heads over this one - some of them think it's a marsupial, but how could a marsupial have gotten to Borneo? Another possible connection is with the lemurs of Madagascar - but Madagascar is thousands of miles away. Perhaps the strangest thing of all is that the tribe of indigenous people who live in the forest reserve where the creature was photographed have no idea what it might be. Is this a victory for the cryptozoologists?

Richard Gott on Venezuela

Richard Gott has a reasonable analysis of Venezuela's National Assembly elections in the Guardian, but another of his pieces for the paper, an obituary for Eva Haraszti-Taylor, has raised eyebrows with its apparently favourable references to the invasion of Hungary by the Soviet Union in 1956.

I recently read Gott's 'Hugo Chavez and the Bolivarian Revolution', an updated version of his 'In the Shadow of the Liberator', a book which was published in 2000. The chapters move between Chavez's life, the history of the Bolivarian revolution, and discussions of diverse aspects of Venezuelan history and society, in a quite entertaining manner.

The strength of the book is the way it opens up whole areas of Venezuelan history which have been off-limits to non-specialist outsiders: for instance, there are fascinating discussions of Zamora, the nineteenth century peasant leader, and Samuel Robinson/Simon Rodriguez, the educationalist and comrade of Bolivar, both of whom are big influences on Chavez and many of his supporters. There is also a reasonably detailed discussion of the more recent Venezuelan left - there is some fascinating detail about La Causa R, now renamed Homeland for All, a left split from the Communist Party which based itself in the southern industrial heartland of Bolivar state and tried to develop a distinctively Venezuelan form of socialism. La Causa R's ideas can be seen in many aspects of the Bolivarian revolution.

The weakness of the book is the way that, like much of the writing of the enemies of the Bolivarian revolution, it focuses too much on Chavez and his role in events of the past few years, at the expense of the millions of ordinary Venezuelans who have been involved in the radical overhaul of their society.

Another, not unrelated weakness of Gott's book is its insistence on the Bolivarian revolution as a revolution sui generesis, which cannot be assimilated to the tradition of revolutionary socialism. In this respect, the book is already badly outdated: it is a year since Chavez declared himself a socialist, and 2005 has seen many cases of groups of workers and peasants forcing the government to expropriate capitalists and make way for collective ownership of farmland and industry.

Gott's apparent indifference, if not antipathy, to the role of independent working class and peasant activity in the Bolivarian revolution makes it easy for me to believe he has a Stalinist background. His book is still well worth reading, though, perhaps in combination with some of the reports on the workers' and peasants' movement which can be found at (see their labor and land reform article archives).

Monday, December 05, 2005

Vigil today

Like many members of Auckland's all-too-small 'activist community', I have met Harmeet Sooden, who is one of the four hostages being held in Iraq by an outfit mistitling itself the Swords of Righteousness. There is a vigil for Harmeet and the other hostages being held tomorrow at six o'clock in Aotea Square. Here is the statement from the vigil organisers, which should say everything that needs to be said about the absurdity of the claim that Harmeet and his friends are 'spies'.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Bombs going off in Venezuela

This report suggests that at least some parts of the opposition are prepared to use violence to drive home their call for abstention in tomorrow's elections:

"Three people were injured Friday from explosions near the Republic Attorney General's and the Fort Tiuna 3rd Division of the National Armed Forces. At the same time, three explosive devices were detected close to Central University (UCV) and the offices of the National Electoral Council (CNE). Authorities reported the arrest of 11 people in Ojeda, in western Zulia, and the confiscation of 55 Molotov cocktails, 31 containers of combustibles, 40 cell phones, and other items."

Can they bring any of the army with them? I doubt it: since the 2002 coup, the military's leadership has been cleaned out. Chavez is blaming the US for the sabotage, and the Organisation of American States election observers are giving the opposition a cold shoulder.

Update: Gregory Wilpert gives us a detailed background to the electoral boycott here. His view that a new opposition will be born, out the vacuum the boycott is probably creating, is interesting, but I'm not sure that it takes into account the changed political conditions in Venezuela. It is quite possible that there will be no heir to the old opposition parties, and that the real political divisions in Venezuela will instead be found within the Bolivarian movement, which is already diverse and disputatious. I mean, how far can any opposition that wants to roll back the major gains of the Bolivarian revolution get? How many votes can a platform that promises the abolition of fee health and education and land for the landless get?

Update: Results just announced show a 75% abstention rate, and 89% of the votes for pro-Chavez candidates. While the opposition's claims of a moral victory are of course nonsense, I think that by failing to mobilise a larger chunk of its base the Fifth Republic Movement has handed a small propaganda victory to the right.

Chavez won the big struggles - the coup attempt, the lockout, the recall referendum - in 2002-2004 by mobilising his supporters. To do so he had to give them a real role in the struggle, and encourage them to build real organisations of struggle over which they had some control. If the Bolivarian Circles hadn't existed independently of the state they wouldn't have been able to mobilise and stop the coup; the same goes for the unions and the role they played in defeating the lockout by occupying industry. In the leadup to the recall referendum last year Chavez led a huge campaign to build the Fifth Republic Movement and mobilise its base - to this end rank and file activity was encouraged, and candidates for municipal and gubernatorial elections were selected in democratic primaries.

By contrast, the candidates for these elections were handpicked by Chavez and a few intimates; not surprisingly, reports suggest less enthusiasm amongst the party rank and file, even some open expressions of unhappiness, and even independent breakaway campaigns. The fight for democracy in Chavez's party reflects the larger fight between Bolivarian bureaucrats intent on slowing the revolution down and militants at the grassroots bent on speeding it up.

Making the Bible relevant...

A friend of mine has just become a Presbyterian Minister. I might send him this, in case he's trying to come up with some ideas for fundraising...

Friday, December 02, 2005

A high-stakes gamble

The Venezuelan opposition has pulled out of the upcoming National Assembly elections, dismaying the Organisation of American States, which is going to monitor the elections, and Teodoro Petkoff, the leading intellectual opponent of Chavez. Both Petkoff and the OAS feel that the opposition's claim that the elections will not be fair is unsustainable, especially since Venezuela's electoral commission recently made major concessions to opposition complaints about electoral procedures.

The opposition is taking this action because it knows it would be heavily defeated in the poll in two days' time. Its own polling shows its trailing far behind Chavez's Alliance for Change bloc of parties. At present, the Alliance for Change has only a narrow majority in the National Assembly, but this is a reflection not of support for the opposition but of the way that numerous politicians elected on a pro-Chavez ticket did an about face in response to the Chavez government's move to the left in 2001-2003. If the pro-Chavez ticket wins two-thirds of National Assembly seats, it will have the power to amend the constitution, and thus strengthen key reforms like the reorganisation of agriculture and co-management in industry.

The opposition has given up on preventing Chavez winning a two-thirds majority, but it is hoping to be able to present his victory as illegitimate, in the eyes of the world if not in the eyes of Venezuelans. Whether it succeeds in doing this depends largely on what sort of turnout the elections now attract. A high turnout would obviously be devastating for the opposition - not only would it have lost any base in the National Assembly, it would have lost the propaganda war against the Chavez government too. The boycott is a high-stakes gamble that reeks of desperation.

Update: "71% of voters will stay away on Sunday according to a poll we commissioned this week," said Eleazar Diaz Rangel, editor-in-chief of Ultimas Noticias newspaper and friend of Mr Chavez. "A 50-60% abstention rate is OK but anything above that is in dangerous territory."

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Capitalism overthrown for six hours in Christchurch?

Read about it here. Well, I'm a cynical bastard, as you can see in the comments boxes...