Friday, April 27, 2012

The saint

A wonderful bit of anti-clericalism from the latest New Left Review:
Marco D'Eramo
The spiritual career of Padre Pio poses a challenge for those who, following Max Weber, expected that the world should become more and more disenchanted in the face of modern capitalist civilization. [1] It also helps to dismantle the notion that modernity is a univocal concept; rather, we must speak of plural modernities, simultaneous and mutually irreducible. From the former perspective, it is difficult to explain the fact that Francesco Forgione—as Pio was named on his birth in 1887—would become the most famous Italian of the last century. Neither Antonio Gramsci nor Benito Mussolini can match the hordes of pilgrims, several million each year, who visit San Giovanni Rotondo to worship at Forgione's grave. How could this sickly, ill-educated southerner achieve such global renown? The details of his life have been rehearsed endlessly in media of every kind. Yet this translation of Sergio Luzzatto's outstanding biography gives Anglophone readers the first opportunity to consult a serious account of the Padre Pio phenomenon, a study of the man and of his socio-political environment, based on comprehensive research by a skilled and subtle academic historian.
Most of the books and articles devoted to Forgione—Luzzatto rightly speaks of a 'logorrhoea' inspired by the saint—have set out to confirm or deny his holiness, his capacity to bestow miraculous cures upon the sick, his legendary stigmata. Luzzatto, a professor of modern history at the University of Turin, declares his intention to avoid such matters in the book's preface: 'All those seeking answers—affirmative or negative—as to whether the stigmata or the miracles were "real" had better close this book right now. Padre Pio's stigmata and his miracles interest us less for what they tell us about him than for what they tell us about the world around him.' And that world showed—and shows—a desperate hunger for belief in the sacred and the supernatural. Heine and Nietzsche first spoke of the 'death of God', and some philosophers went even further in the 1960s, formulating a 'theology of the death of God'. This report of divine mortality proved to be as mistaken as Weber's theory of disenchantment: not only has God not died, but all of the various gods continue to prosper, as witnessed by the rapid diffusion of Pentecostalism around the world, the strength of Christian fundamentalism in the hyper-technological and capitalist usa, the popularity of Islamist movements and of India's Bharatiya Janata Party. Superstitions, do-it-yourself beliefs, all sorts of magic are thriving. Who in the early twentieth century would have expected that in a hundred years' time, several Christian denominations would each have more followers than all the parties of the global workers' movement put together?
Francesco Forgione was born in the village of Pietrelcina in southern Italy, about sixty miles east of Naples. In all the years preceding his death in 1968, Forgione never travelled more than eighty miles from his birthplace. He became a novice at the age of fifteen and joined the Capuchin Order two years later. Having managed to perform his military service well away from the front line during the First World War, Forgione secured a discharge on grounds of physical disability and entered the convent of San Giovanni Rotondo in 1916, never to leave this corner of the Gargano Peninsula again. In the summer of 1918, as the war approached its conclusion, wounds appeared on the hands and feet of the man who would become Padre Pio: they were soon interpreted as stigmata by the believers, who compared them to the wounds of Christ's crucified body.
Luzzatto is greatly interested in those elements of mass psychology which create and disseminate popular beliefs about the extraordinary powers of a certain person's body—a king, a duce, a saint. His early research on the French Revolution was influenced by Marc Bloch's seminal work on the healing power of French kings, and Luzzatto's study of Padre Pio follows his previous book The Body of Il Duce: Mussolini's Corpse and the Fortunes of Italy (2005). The historian evokes the trauma of the First World War to explain why, as soldiers returned from the front—many carrying their own wounds—belief spread that a humble Capuchin in a southern convent had received the sanguinary marks of Christ. The immediate context for this belief was of course the traditional superstitions and the almost folkloric cult of saints among southern Italians, as evoked by the Fascist writer Curzio Malaparte: 'St Martin on horseback, St George with his spear, St Lucy with her eyes on a plate, St Rocco with his unguents for the plague, St Anthony among the pigs, St Christopher at the ford, St Joseph with his carpenter's plane, St Agnes of the seven swords.' Yet already by the 1920s, the Padre Pio cult had become a national phenomenon, transcending its southern origins. 'The majority [of pilgrims] came from Tuscany', notes Luzzatto, 'followed by Liguria, Lazio and Lombardy, with a few from southern regions of Puglia, Sicily and Sardinia.' Nor was belief in Padre Pio's miraculous gift confined to Italy: the guestbook at San Giovanni Rotondo for 1924 already contains signatures from Spain and France, Brazil and Argentina, Ireland and Chile.
The birth pangs of the cult coincided with another event that brought San Giovanni Rotondo to national attention: the shooting of eleven Socialist demonstrators by government troops in the autumn of 1920. Padre Pio did not hesitate to bestow his spiritual authority upon the 'party of order'—fascio d'ordine—preparing to engage in temporal battles against the rising Left. Shortly before the massacre, the saint had emerged from his cloister to bless the banners of right-wing army veterans in the town. He would go on to receive Giuseppe Caradonna, a prominent southern Fascist whose squadristi transformed Puglia's political conflicts into a one-sided civil war, also playing their part in the March on Rome. As Luzzatto recalls, Caradonna's great enemy in the region was the trade unionist Giuseppe Di Vittorio; born a short distance from San Giovanni Rotondo, Di Vittorio would himself become a 'secular saint' of the Italian labour movement, his photo circulating among working-class militants much as images of Padre Pio did among the faithful. (After Di Vittorio's death in 1957, Pio's hagiographers made baseless claims that he had planned to visit the monk: not even a Communist could escape the divine embrace.)
However committed he may have been to the defence of the established order, Forgione's immense popularity was by no means a source of delight for the Vatican. One of the main themes of Luzzatto's book is the conflict between the popular religiosity inspired by Padre Pio and the distrust of the institutional Church. The monk endured several years as a 'prisoner of the Vatican', compelled to isolate himself from the laity on strict orders from the church hierarchy. During this period some of Forgione's more enthusiastic partisans suggested that he might play the role of a modern-day Savonarola, purging a 'decadent' Church of its worldly leaders, while Vatican loyalists compared him to Rasputin. Pius xii—whose dubious relationship with the Axis powers remains a source of occasional awkwardness for the Church—was the first pope to embrace Padre Pio and grant free rein to his cult. This coincided with the emergence of Pio as a global celebrity in the period following the Second World War. Before the war he had received 9,000 letters annually; by 1945 there were 40,000 arriving at San Giovanni Rotondo every year, and the numbers continued to rise.
The story of the hospital built under Pio's supervision, the Casa Sollievo della Sofferenza, illustrates his passage from outlaw status within the Church to respectability. The project began with a huge donation of 3.5 million francs bestowed upon the Capuchin by his most devoted supporter of the inter-war period, a certain Emanuele Brunatto, who had worked as an informer for Mussolini's secret police and made his fortune on the black market in occupied France supplying luxury goods to the German officer class. One hagiographer quoted by Luzzatto prefers to overlook such unseemly matters: 'It has never been clear from where such a sum in francs, so large for those times, could have come'. Yet work was completed on the hospital after the war with the help of a new sponsor: Barbara Ward, foreign editor of the Economist. A devout Catholic who had visited San Giovanni Rotondo in 1947 and found herself 'enchanted' by Padre Pio, Ward was also the fiancée of Robert Jackson, deputy chief of the un Relief and Rehabilitation Administration. Her lobbying efforts, in tandem with those of the Vatican and the Christian Democrats, ensured that the Casa Sollievo della Sofferenza would receive 250 million lira from unrra; by contrast, the entire Red Cross organization in Italy was given just 130 million lira. As the crucial election of 1948 approached, us officials could see the propaganda value of a large grant to Padre Pio, who thus found himself in charge of the best-equipped hospital in southern Italy.
Luzzatto describes the ten years after 1948 as the 'golden age' of Padre Pio's cult. San Giovanni Rotondo and its environs witnessed a tourist boom as pilgrims travelled from every corner of the world to pay homage to the Capuchin miracle-worker. He was the first Catholic saint to be embedded in the celebrity system, to ascend simultaneously to heaven and to stardom. Pio became a favourite of the rotocalchi—weekly magazines that have the same role in Italy as the Anglophone tabloids, full of celebrity pictures and gossip—where his image could be seen alongside that of Claudia Cardinale on their front pages. He was asked for blessings by sportsmen such as the cyclist Gino Bartali and the race-car driver Tazio Nuvolari. In the Italian edition of the book, Luzzatto draws parallels between Pio's iconic status and that of Che Guevara or Marilyn Monroe; the comparison would doubtless strike the Anglo-Saxon reader as so outlandish that the translator preferred to drop it from the English text.
Another affinity which comes to mind is that between Pio and Diana Spencer, between a saint who was also a star and a star who was also a saint. In both cases the body—and its underlying sexuality—played a crucial role. Each was seen, in defiance of any logic, as a foe of the establishment. The popular emotion which surrounded them developed against the traditional institutions, be it the monarchy or the Church. Diana was hailed as an adversary of Britain's royal family, while Padre Pio was considered a 'popular saint' in opposition to the Vatican hierarchy. Although his public character expressed what is known in Italy as 'clerico-fascism', believers still credit Pio with a left-leaning heart. Despite the fact that he gave his blessing to the squadristi who perpetrated the massacre at San Giovanni Rotondo, I have myself seen his image in many southern branches of Rifondazione Comunista. While Padre Pio appears at first glance to have been a deeply traditional figure, there is nothing archaic about the Pio phenomenon, which is unmistakably a product of the modern age. The state-of-the-art Casa Sollievo della Sofferenza, and Pio's own incorporation into the star system, are perfect examples of the plural character of modernity noted earlier—and of what the late German scholar Reinhard Koselleck called 'the simultaneity of the non-contemporaneous'.
The trajectory and significance of Pio's life are described with remarkable skill by Luzzatto. It is perhaps to be regretted that the book concentrates so heavily on the 1919–39 period, which accounts for two-thirds of its extent. Even though the author recognizes that Padre Pio's celebrity is largely a post-war phenomenon, the remaining 28 years of the saint's existence, and the four decades of his afterlife, are given too concise a treatment. This imbalance has both subjective and objective roots: Luzzatto specializes in the history of the Fascist era, and the Vatican archives beyond 1939 are still not open for study. Taste and disposition perhaps also played a role: it appears that Luzzatto feels more at ease with archival documents, correspondence, police reports and chancellery files, than with tabloid culture, holy trinkets and souvenirs; more comfortable with history than with anthropology.
The accession of John xxiii to the papacy brought fresh attempts to circumscribe the Pio cult. The new pope ordered an investigation into rumours of personal impropriety and sought to curtail the undignified scenes at San Giovanni Rotondo, where pilgrims anxious to win a place in the queue for confession sometimes came to blows inside the church itself. His private view of Pio was contemptuous, describing the monk as a 'straw idol'—idolo di stoppa. As Luzzatto remarks, 'stoppa (oakum, made of jute fibres) has served the Church for centuries as a symbol of the transitory nature of human life, being burned symbolically during the papal investiture to the chant of sic transit gloria mundi.' The metaphor was, he notes, 'a pitiless one'. Yet Pio would outlive John xxiii by five years, and his posthumous glory was secured when Karol Wojtyła became pope in 1979. The Polish cleric had first visited San Giovanni Rotondo in 1948 and was unshakeably devoted to the Pio cult. Forgione's beatification in 1999 marked the final victory of his supporters inside the Church, after eight decades of struggle. A million-strong crowd in St Peter's Square heard Wojtyła refer to Padre Pio as the 'living image of a suffering, risen Christ'. Today, as Luzzatto remarks, the tiny chapel where Pio began his monastic career has been replaced by a 'twenty-first-century temple of glass and concrete', designed by Renzo Piano, 'big enough to hold eight thousand of the faithful and with room for many thousands more in the plaza outside'.
[1] Sergio Luzzatto, Padre Pio: Miracles and Politics in a Secular Age, Picador: New York 2011, $22, paperback 371 pp, 978 0 312 61166 8

The wonders of capitalist lab science

The article calls out two problems that are compromising the ability to detect drug resistant pathogens.
  1. de-skilling of microbiology labs
  2. proprietary lab kits whose constituents are kept secret, from the lab workers who use them, to protect manufacturers profits

Drug-Resistant 'Superbugs' Go Undetected


...some researchers think that poor training has left microbiologists unaware of how best to interpret test results. Kenneth Thomson, director of the Center for Research in Anti-infectives and Biotechnology at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska, says that an ongoing "de-skilling" of microbiology laboratories in Europe and the United States is problematic. He says that lab directors with PhDs are not being replaced when they leave, and that budget constraints are cutting continuing education for laboratory staff.

Left Front and French election results: conflicting views

A note I sent to Workers World newspaper re the article below expresses my own perspective on the French election results, which differs significantly from the WWP balance sheet:
This article mischaracterizes the Left Front candidacy of  Jean-Luc Mélenchon on several points.
First, after the Left Front's defeat,  Jean-Luc Mélenchon endorsed Hollande without making any anti-austerity demands of the SP candidate.  Mélenchon's lesser-evil support for Holland and the SP was unconditional.
Clearly this indicates the article's contention that "Left Front wants to defeat Sarkozy without making any deal with Hollande" is incorrect.
Second, the Left Front's mobilizations of supporters were of an electoral character only.  They did not reflect any long term perspective of organizing the working class and leading it in independent class action to defend its own interests.  In fact, the Left Front lead the supporters it inspired back to the Socialist Party of Hollande, and nowhere else.
The article itself:
By G. Dunkel
Published Apr 26, 2012

Voters in the first round of France's presidential election on April 22 reflected the impact of the capitalist economic crisis on the population. A high vote for the fascist National Front (FN) party raised a danger flag for the European working class. This was partly countered by the Left Front's mass actions during the election campaign.

France's incumbent center-right president Nikolas Sarkozy got 27 percent of the vote, two percentage points behind François Hollande, the candidate of the so-called Socialist Party, whose program is not much different from that of the U.S.'s Democratic Party. This is the first time an incumbent president has trailed a rival in the first round since the founding of France's Fifth Republic in 1958.

While polls had indicated that a large number of voters intended to abstain, a record number actually voted.

Sarkozy and Hollande will run in a second round on May 6. The winner of that contest will become president, which is the most powerful post in the French government.

Ten parties ran in the first round. ­Marine Le Pen, candidate of France's fascist FN, got 18 percent. The Left Front, whose candidate was Jean-Luc Mélenchon, got around 11 percent. A centrist party got around 9 percent, and all the other parties, including two other small leftist parties, got 2 percent or less.

The highest-ever FN vote has led to calls from Sarkozy's party, the Union for a Popular Movement, to campaign by appealing to the fascists. That would mean emphasizing his already-racist approach to foreigners, especially to Muslims and Africans.

The French Communist Party (PCF) did not run independently. It had a very close alliance with the Left Front, helping to coordinate its campaign.

Two major issues raised

In March a French citizen, born in France to Algerian immigrants, named Mohammed Merah, apparently killed three French paratroopers and in a later assault killed three children and a rabbi at a Jewish school.

While Sarkozy and Hollande stopped campaigning until after the funerals and condemned the killings unequivocally, both the PCF and the Left Front, while condemning these criminal acts, tried to put them in the context of the racist oppression of North African Muslims and expressed sympathy with the distress of Merah's father.

Sarkozy tried to use the incident against Hollande and Mélenchon. A number of commentators on French blogs thought this incident cost Mélenchon votes.

The other issue that surfaced in the election was the economy. Sarkozy has pushed for a policy of austerity that he developed in conjunction with the German government. Hollande promoted higher taxes and for more economic expansion.

Sarkozy ran in 2007 on a platform of transforming the French economy to make it more like the U.S. economy. The level of productivity — the output per hour — is about the same in both countries. But in France, although Sarkozy's government has chipped away at the benefits the French working class had won through hard struggles, workers still have guaranteed vacations, free day care and higher education, universal health care and a shorter work week. In the United States, the productivity gains of U.S. workers increased the profits of the 1%.

The Left Front ran on a platform of the fundamental reorganization of the French state and economy, withdrawing French troops from Afghanistan and France from the euro zone and NATO, and building a more just and humane society. The Left Front wants to defeat Sarkozy without making any deal with Hollande. More significant than its vote, however, was the Left Front's ability to mobilize mass anti-capitalist and anti-racist demonstrations, the largest being 100,000 in Paris on March 18.

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Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Reform, revolution, resistance: Platypus event

This was left as a comment on the Red Ink article:

Reform, revolution, resistance: what kind of weight do these categories hold for the Left today? How are they used, to where do they point, and what is their history? Join the Platypus Affiliated Society for a discussion concerning a question that has renewed immediacy in light of the #Occupy movement.

Thursday, April 26, 2012 — 7:00 PM
238 Thompson Street, Room 279 (NYU Global Center)

1. John Asimakopoulos (Institute for Transformative Studies)
2. Todd Gitlin (Columbia University)
3. Tom Trottier (Workers' International Committee)
4. Ross Wolfe (Platypus Affiliated Society)

Red Ink

Occupy Wall Street: what is to be done next?

How a protest movement without a programme can confront a capitalist system that defies reform

Slavoj Žižek, Tuesday 24 April 2012

What to do in the aftermath of the Occupy Wall Street movement, when the protests that started far away – in the Middle East, Greece, Spain, UK – reached the centre, and are now reinforced and rolling out all around the world?

In a San Francisco echo of the OWS movement on 16 October 2011, a guy addressed the crowd with an invitation to participate in it as if it were a happening in the hippy style of the 1960s:

"They are asking us what is our program. We have no program. We are here to have a good time."

Such statements display one of the great dangers the protesters are facing: the danger that they will fall in love with themselves, with the nice time they are having in the "occupied" places. Carnivals come cheap – the true test of their worth is what remains the day after, how our normal daily life will be changed. The protesters should fall in love with hard and patient work – they are the beginning, not the end. Their basic message is: the taboo is broken, we do not live in the best possible world; we are allowed, obliged even, to think about alternatives.

In a kind of Hegelian triad, the western left has come full circle: after abandoning the so-called "class struggle essentialism" for the plurality of anti-racist, feminist etc struggles, "capitalism" is now clearly re-emerging as the name of the problem.

The first two things one should prohibit are therefore the critique of corruption and the critique of financial capitalism. First, let us not blame people and their attitudes: the problem is not corruption or greed, the problem is the system that pushes you to be corrupt. The solution is neither Main Street nor Wall Street, but to change the system where Main Street cannot function without Wall Street. Public figures from the pope downward bombard us with injunctions to fight the culture of excessive greed and consummation – this disgusting spectacle of cheap moralization is an ideological operation, if there ever was one: the compulsion (to expand) inscribed into the system itself is translated into personal sin, into a private psychological propensity, or, as one of the theologians close to the pope put it:

"The present crisis is not crisis of capitalism but the crisis of morality."

Let us recall the famous joke from Ernst Lubitch's Ninotchka: the hero visits a cafeteria and orders coffee without cream; the waiter replies:

"Sorry, but we have run out of cream, we only have milk. Can I bring you coffee without milk?"

Was not a similar trick at work in the dissolution of the eastern european Communist regimes in 1990? The people who protested wanted freedom and democracy without corruption and exploitation, and what they got was freedom and democracy without solidarity and justice. Likewise, the Catholic theologian close to pope is carefully emphasizing that the protesters should target moral injustice, greed, consumerism etc, without capitalism. The self-propelling circulation of Capital remains more than ever the ultimate Real of our lives, a beast that by definition cannot be controlled.

One should avoid the temptation of the narcissism of the lost cause, of admiring the sublime beauty of uprisings doomed to fail. What new positive order should replace the old one the day after, when the sublime enthusiasm of the uprising is over? It is at this crucial point that we encounter the fatal weakness of the protests: they express an authentic rage which is not able to transform itself into a minimal positive program of socio-political change. They express a spirit of revolt without revolution.

Reacting to the Paris protests of 1968, Lacan said:

"What you aspire to as revolutionaries is a new master. You will get one."

It seems that Lacan's remark found its target (not only) in the indignados of Spain. Insofar as their protest remains at the level of a hysterical provocation of the master, without a positive program for the new order to replace the old one, it effectively functions as a call for a new master, albeit disavowed.

We got the first glimpse of this new master in Greece and Italy, and Spain will probably follow. As if ironically answering the lack of expert programs of the protesters, the trend is now to replace politicians in the government with a "neutral" government of depoliticized technocrats (mostly bankers, as in Greece and Italy). Colorful "politicians" are out, grey experts are in. This trend is clearly moving towards a permanent emergency state and the suspension of political democracy.

So we should see in this development also a challenge: it is not enough to reject the depoliticized expert rule as the most ruthless form of ideology; one should also begin to think seriously about what to propose instead of the predominant economic organization, to imagine and experiment with alternate forms of organization, to search for the germs of the New. Communism is not just or predominantly the carnival of the mass protest when the system is brought to a halt; Communism is also, above all, a new form of organization, discipline, hard work.

The protesters should beware not only of enemies, but also of false friends who pretend to support them, but are already working hard to dilute the protest. In the same way we get coffee without caffeine, beer without alcohol, ice-cream without fat, they will try to make the protests into a harmless moralistic gesture. In boxing, to "clinch" means to hold the opponent's body with one or both arms in order to prevent or hinder punches. Bill Clinton's reaction to the Wall Street protests is a perfect case of political clinching; Clinton thinks that the protests are "on balance … a positive thing", but he is worried about the nebulousness of the cause. Clinton suggested the protesters get behind President Obama's jobs plan, which he claimed would create "a couple million jobs in the next year and a half". What one should resist at this stage is precisely such a quick translation of the energy of the protest into a set of "concrete" pragmatic demands. Yes, the protests did create a vacuum – a vacuum in the field of hegemonic ideology, and time is needed to fill this vacuum in in a proper way, since it is a pregnant vacuum, an opening for the truly New. The reason protesters went out is that they had enough of the world where to recycle your Coke cans, to give a couple of dollars for charity, or to buy Starbucks cappuccino where 1% goes for the third world troubles is enough to make them feel good.

Economic globalization is gradually but inexorably undermining the legitimacy of western democracies. Due to their international character, large economic processes cannot be controlled by democratic mechanisms which are, by definition, limited to nation states. In this way, people more and more experience institutional democratic forms as unable to capture their vital interests.

It is here that Marx's key insight remains valid, today perhaps more than ever: for Marx, the question of freedom should not be located primarily into the political sphere proper. The key to actual freedom rather resides in the "apolitical" network of social relations, from the market to the family, where the change needed if we want an actual improvement is not a political reform, but a change in the "apolitical" social relations of production. We do not vote about who owns what, about relations in a factory, etc – all this is left to processes outside the sphere of the political. It is illusory to expect that one can effectively change things by "extending" democracy into this sphere, say, by organizing "democratic" banks under people's control. In such "democratic" procedures (which, of course, can have a positive role to play), no matter how radical our anti-capitalism is, the solution is sought in applying the democratic mechanisms – which, one should never forget, are part of the state apparatuses of the "bourgeois" state that guarantees undisturbed functioning of the capitalist reproduction.

The emergence of an international protest movement without a coherent program is therefore not an accident: it reflects a deeper crisis, one without an obvious solution. The situation is like that of psychoanalysis, where the patient knows the answer (his symptoms are such answers) but doesn't know to what they are answers, and the analyst has to formulate a question. Only through such a patient work a program will emerge.

In an old joke from the defunct German Democratic Republic, a German worker gets a job in Siberia. Aware of how all mail will be read by censors, he tells his friends:

"Let's establish a code: if a letter you will get from me is written in ordinary blue ink, it is true; if it is written in red ink, it is false."

After a month, his friends get the first letter written in blue ink:

"Everything is wonderful here: stores are full, food is abundant, apartments are large and properly heated, movie theatres show films from the west, there are many beautiful girls ready for an affair – the only thing unavailable is red ink."

And is this not our situation till now? We have all the freedoms one wants – the only thing missing is the "red ink": we feel free because we lack the very language to articulate our unfreedom. What this lack of red ink means is that, today, all the main terms we use to designate the present conflict – "war on terror", "democracy and freedom", "human rights", etc – are false terms, mystifying our perception of the situation instead of allowing us to think it.

The task today is to give the protesters red ink.

 • This article is based on remarks Slavoj Žižek will be making at an event at the New York Public Library on 25 April, ahead of publication of The Year of Dreaming Dangerously (2012).


Monday, April 23, 2012

The Militant 1949 now available
from The Militant, 01/10/1949