Maduro: down but not out

Nicolas Maduro

We’ve written about Venezuela a great deal at this sight, but not lately. What more is there to say? We reported faithfully on its decline, which now seems pretty much complete. Why repeat ourselves? Given what the people of Venezuela are being put through because of the idiocy of chavismo, it seems almost cruel – almost like rubbing it in, like slumming, like saying “I told you so” – to keep returning to the scene of the crime and gazing, like callous rubberneckers at a car accident, at the sad wreckage of Hugo’s and Nicolás’s tyranny.

On the other hand, there have been a few developments worth taking note of. For example, the fact that while most of the governments in the Western hemisphere have joined the U.S. in recognizing Juan Guaidó as the new president of the beleaguered country, Maduro, the former bus driver who inherited the Bolivarian throne from Chávez, still has allies.

Hugo Chavez

One of them is Cuba, whose Communist regime was the model for Chávez’s own. As Eli Lake of Bloomberg News reported recently, the Venezuelan military and police are infiltrated with members of Cuban intelligence, some of whom are responsible for giving Maduro daily briefings. Thousands of Cuban “security forces” harass Venezuelan citizens. The Organization of American States has said that Cuba has what amounts to an “occupying army” in Venezuela numbering about 15,000. “This contingent of Cuban advisers,” Lake wrote “will make it much more difficult for Venezuela’s military to help Guaidó prepare for new elections, as it is being pressured to do.”

Moreover, the ties Chávez forged with Russia and China are still strong. Maduro has shipped cheap oil to China and allowed Russian warships into its ports. Russia, like Cuba, has “military advisers” in Venezuela, and promised in late March to keep them there as long as Maduro needed them — in response to which Trump, while meeting with Guaidó’s wife at the White House, demanded that they be called home. The ayatollas in Iran also continue to support Maduro. Those alliances, of course, are to be expected. Rather more surprising is the apparent coziness between Mexico’s new leftist president, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, and Maduro, whom he invited to his inauguration in January.

Juan Guaido

Even after month after month of painful headlines about the present social and economic conditions in what was once one of the world’s richest countries, some Western politicians continued to profess admiration for Maduro, and some Western media not only find ingenious ways to avoid blaming his nation’s catastrophe on socialism but even try to perform at least a partial whitewash that catastrophe. As recently as in late January, for example, the BBC described Venezuela as having experienced a “reduction in inequality and poverty.” What kind of way is that to describe a country where countless people are eating pets, countless more are fleeing to neighboring Colombia, and the inflation rate is just shy of 10 million percent?

In Seoul, a waning Moon

Moon Jae-in

On February 5, The Diplomat ran an article by Tae-jun Kang whose headline asked the question: “Is Moon Jae-in Becoming a Lame Duck?” Noting that presidents of South Korea serve five-year terms and are ineligible for re-election, Kang explained that there’s a saying in that country: “the nightmare of the third year makes the president a lame duck.” As it happens, President Moon, the incumbent, will begin his third year in office in May – and “signs of the ‘nightmare’ for Moon and his government,” wrote Kang, “have already begun to emerge.”

It sounds fatalistic – as if Moon’s “nightmare” were foreordained. In fact, as Kang goes on to explain, Moon would appear to have surrounded himself with a bunch of crooks. There are so many of them that it can be hard to keep track of them all.

Sohn Hye-won

One of them is legislator Sohn Hye-won, who is suspected of covert involvement in the purchase of properties that were later officially designated as cultural assets, thus automatically enhancing their values. In late January, in a bizarre effort to prove her innocence, she offered to donate her collection of lacquerware to the government.

Another of Moon’s party hacks is legislator Seo Young-kyo, who purportedly asked a judge to reduce the punishment for a crony’s son accused of attempted sexual abuse. Yet another member of the party, Moon’s economic advisor Kim Hyun-chul, resigned on January 29 over some remarks about South Korean retirees and allies that were deemed offensive.

Moon Da-hye

Then there’s Moon’s daughter, Moon Da-hye, who recently moved out of the country with her husband and children, the supposed reason for which was that her husband had embezzled $2.7 million of a government subsidy received by his employer and left the country to protect his assets from seizure.

Finally, there’s Kim Kyung-soo, governor of the South Gyeongsang province and a former Moon campaign aide, who was sentenced on January 30 to two years behind bars for helping to rig an opinion survey.

As a result of all this, Moon’s approval rating has dropped from a high of over 70 percent to below 50 percent.

Kim Kyung-Soo

In a January 22 piece for the East Asia Forum, Kim Kee-seok, a political scientist at Kangwon National University, was even blunter than Kang. Whereas Kang’s headline ended in a question mark, Kim’s made a firm statement: “Moon’s popularity wanes as South Korea’s economy stalls.” As the headline indicates, Kim, unlike Kang, cited the nation’s faltering economy as a reason for Moon’s declining fortunes. Kim also mentioned the failure of the North Korea peace initiative to bear any fruit thus far.

But Kim, like Kang, also focused on corruption. Whereas Kang itemized the sleazy presidential sidekicks and family members who are dropping like flies, Kim attended not to these specifics but to the general issue of reform.

As Kim put it, South Korean voters who “demanded fundamental innovation of the political system,” including changes in the constitution, electoral process, and judicial system, become “sceptical of the prospects for innovations of this kind as the Moon administration continues to lose golden time.” We could hardly put it better ourselves. In 2017, Moon Jae-in made big promises to an electorate that’s increasingly sick of routine corruption at the highest levels of politics and business – and he’s utterly failed to deliver on them.

Has Hanjin’s ship sailed?

Hanjin HQ in Seoul

The Hanjin Group is one of South Korea’s largest family-owned conglomerates – or, as they say in Seoul, chaebols. It owns Korean Air and Jin Air, and has major holdings in shipping and industry. And like the other chaebols, it is at once admired for its wealth and power, notorious for its endemic corruption and shady political ties, and resented for the ease with which it can crush competition by upstart entrepreneurs as well as for its executives’ ability to routinely escape punishment for even the most egregious acts of embezzlement, money laundering, and bribery.

As we reported last week, a newly hatched activist fund called Korea Corporate Governance Improvement (KCGI) – which is now Hanjin’s second largest shareholder – is pushing for reforms of the sort that one South Korean government after another has promised for decades and that the current president, Moon Jae-in – who, upon taking office in 2017, insisted would be a central objective of his administration – has utterly failed to carry out.

Moon Jae-in

Now, as we noted, KCGI is seeking to get Hanjin to sell off its hotel chain, which includes major hostelries in Los Angeles and Hawaii, and – in a truly radical move – to force the firm to ditch the traditional practice that is at the heart of chaebol culture: namely, the passing on of top leadership positions from one generation of the company’s founding family to the next. Instead, KCGI wants Hanjin to agree to have its leaders appointed by an independent committee.

We’re still waiting to see how that drama works itself out. Meanwhile, a new subplot has developed – one that underscores the fact that the once seemingly invincible chaebols have entered a new era of vulnerability. At this point it should be noted that in 2016, a division of Hanjin, Hanjin Shipping, declared bankruptcy and was liquidated. It had been the world’s seventh largest container shipping line. The loss of Hanjin Shipping was a major blow to Hanjin, to the chaebols, and to the South Korean economy.

Hanjin’s shipyard at Subic Bay

Now Hanjin is facing another significant loss, also involving shipping. Hanjin Philippines is a division of the chaebol that runs a shipyard at Subic Bay, the former U.S. naval base. It is the biggest shipyard in the Philippines, and one of the biggest in the world, and has been a cornerstone of the Philippines’s ambition to become a top-flight shipbuilding nation.

Hanjin Philippines, however, has not been doing well. In January, the division, which has massive assets but is cash-poor, declared bankruptcy, defaulting on $400 million in bank loans – the largest such bankruptcy in the history of the Philippines and an event that was described as being, for the world’s shipping sector, equivalent to the collapse of Lehman Brothers. It filed for “court-assisted rehabilitation,” meaning that it wanted the courts to help it arrange debt payment with five banks in that country that had lent it a total of $412 million.

An image from the glory days of Hanjin Shipping

This month, it was reported that Hanjin Philippines might soon have to let go of thousands of employees, and that several other international corporations, most of them based in Europe but one based in North America, might be willing to help Hanjin out by snapping them up. Another report indicated that “at least two major Chinese shipbuilders” were looking into a much more sweeping move – namely, taking over Hanjin’s entire operation in the Philippines.

This would be a drastic development indeed. For one thing, a Chinese purchase of Hanjin Philippines would also contribute to ongoing expansion of the PRC’s presence in East Asia, and would be troubling news for the U.S. and all of its allies in that region. In its own small way, it could cause a shift in the worldwide balance of power.

Part of Korean Air’s fleet

In South Korea, however, such a purchase would have an even stronger impact. Like the disappearance of Hanjin Shipping, it would not only mark yet another downturn for the Hanjin Group. It would also be a blow to South Korean national pride, which rested for decades upon the bedrock of its powerhouse economy. Not least, it would further tarnish, in the eyes of South Koreans at both the top and bottom levels of society, the already fading luster of the chaebol model. So it is that the closing or sale of a shipyard in the Philippines may have a very real impact on the volatile economic developments in the Republic of South Korea.

An end to chavismo?

Venezuelans queue up to buy groceries that may or may not be on the store shelves

Since we’ve devoted so much space at this site to the plight of Venezuela under chavismo, it’s only right for us to acknowledge – and celebrate – an extraordinary turning point in the history of that country.

We need hardly go into detail here about the devastation wrought upon Venezuela, once one of the richest nations in the world, by hard-core socialism. That the land with the world’s largest oil reserves should decline into such terrible poverty – to say nothing of the steady erosion of individual liberty and human rights – is a classic lesson in the horrible consequences of socialist policies.


Juan Guaidó

On January 5, Juan Guaidó, a fierce opponent of chavismo, was sworn in as President of Venezuela’s National Assembly. Five days later, Nicolás Maduro, who had succeeded his mentor, Hugo Chávez, as President of Venezuela, in 2013, was inaugurated for his second term after being re-elected in what was widely considered an illegitimate election. The next day, Guaidó led a massive rally, attended by hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans, at which it was announced that, in accordance with the Venezuelan Constitution, he would be assuming the presidency. On January 15, the Washington Post ran an op-ed by Guaidó headlined “Maduro is a usurper. It’s time to restore democracy in Venezuela.”

Nicolas Maduro

“We are living in a crisis without precedent in Venezuela,” the op-ed began. “We have a government that has dismantled the state and kidnapped all institutions to manipulate them at will.” Truthfully enough, Guaidó called Maduro a dictator, but a dictator with a difference, who had “ties to drug trafficking and guerrilla groups,” but whose nation continued to have “a functioning, democratically elected parliament, the National Assembly,” which enjoyed “the backing of the international community and the majority of Venezuelans.”

On January 23, Guaidó formally declared himself President of Venezuela. Almost immediately, he was recognized as the country’s legitimate head of state by U.S. President Donald Trump. By the end of day, he had been recognized as President by the Organization of American States as well as by the governments of Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Guatemala, Honduras, Panama, Paraguay, and Peru. In all of Latin America, only Communist Cuba and socialist Bolivia reiterated their full support for Maduro, while Mexico’s new left-wing leader, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, criticized Guaidó but instead of totally backing Maduro called for “dialogue.”

Mauricio Macri

The swiftness with which so many Latin American governments endorsed Guaidó’s ascent to power is a reflection of the degree to which socialism in that region has, in a relatively short time, given way to a renewed wave of democratic capitalism. A few years ago, for example, Cristina Fernandez, then President of Argentina, would surely have stood behind Maduro; now, her successor, Mauricio Macri, took to Twitter and explicitly cheered on “all efforts toward rebuilding democracy in Venezuela and reestablishing conditions of life worthy of all its citizens.” Likewise, in Brazil, the new president, Jair Bolsonaro, widely known as the Trump of Latin America, tweeted that “Brazil supports politically and economically the transition back to democracy and social peace in Venezuela.”

To be sure, it’s all easier said than done. At this writing, Maduro seems determined to stay in Miraflores, the White House of Caracas. He still enjoys the support of the military, of the Supreme Court (which he has packed with cronies), and of the powerful and notoriously corrupt national oil company, PDVSA. So it will be interesting to see how things develop in the days and weeks to come.

A bad year for the chaebols

Samsung headquarters

The verdict is in. Briefly put, 2018 was a bad year for the chaebols. A very bad year.

This news should not come as a big surprise to regular readers of this site.

In recent months, we’ve seen that entrepreneurs in South Korea have become increasingly outspoken in their resentment toward the giant family-run conglomerates, whose massive power enables them to smother competitors in their cradles.

Hyundai headquarters

We’ve seen that the chaebols’ continued dominance of the South Korean economy, by preventing the flowering of major new firms, has kept that economy from growing as fast as it used to.

We’ve seen that South Koreans generally are getting more and more tired of the privileged position of chaebol families, one consequence of which is that corruption in their ranks routinely goes unpunished.

LG headquarters

Not least, we’ve seen that foreign chaebol stockholders who have begun to challenge the distinctively South Korean policies that deny those stockholders the ability to influence major chaebol decisions, even if they own bigger shares of the companies than the ruling families do.

Now all of these critics of the chaebols have more ammunition to use against the system. On December 27, 2018, it was reported that South Korea’s ten largest chaebols experienced a twenty percent reduction in market value over the course of 2018.

SK headquarters

That’s a stunning number, especially given how robustly other Western economies – such as that of the U.S. – performed during the same year.

By the end of 2018, the combined value of the top ten chaebols was $173 billion. All by itself, Samsung, the largest of the chaebols, accounted for half of the loss. One of the companies that make up the Samsung Group, Samsung Electronics, dropped a full 30 percent in value.

Hanjin headquarters

But Samsung wasn’t alone in bleeding badly. LG Group lost 21 percent of its value. SK and Hyundai also posted huge losses. Only two major chaebols – Hyundai and GS – had a good year.

Obviously, these lousy results aren’t good news for the legendary families that run the chaebols. On the contrary. They also mean that shareholders in these firms lost a lot of money. And given the central importance of the chaebols to the South Korean economy, these figures will have a negative impact on South Koreans as a whole.

Then again, this isn’t entirely bad news. A dramatically poor showing almost all the way across the chaebol board may well help speed efforts at substantial systematic reform. One South Korean president after another has promised such reform and failed to deliver. The current president, Moon Jae-in, installed a so-called “chaebol sniper” who has proven to be a paper tiger.

Moon Jae-in

Repeatedly, critics of the chaebols have been told that the chaebols are simply too vital to the South Korean economy to justify major overhauls. Break up Samsung? Knock the chaebol dynasties down a peg or two? Impossible! But numbers like the ones we’ve seen here may open up more people in power to the possibility of real change. South Koreans won’t endure too many years of chaebol contraction without accepting – indeed, clamoring for – radical transformation.

In short, 2019 promises to be an interesting year for the chaebols. Stay tuned.

The clueless “chaebol sniper”

Kim Sang-yo: almost as tough and scary as Kim Novak

On December 18, the Korea Herald published the most extensive interview we’ve seen yet with Kim Sang-jo, who was appointed to a three-year term as head of South Korea’s Fair Trade Commission in June 2017 and who, tasked with reining in the power of the chaebols – the family-run conglomerates that are at once the engines of that country’s economy and the greatest hindrances to its growth – calls himself the “chaebol hunter.” Shin Ji-hye, the Herald’s reporter, maintained that Kim had made some progress, proposing key revisions to the Fair Trade Act that were approved by the Cabinet in November and await ratification by the National Assembly. Shin also sought to portray Kim as a sympathetic man in the middle, criticized from both sides, one of which assails him for failing to bring about promised reforms and the other of which accuses him of going too far in his purported war on the chaebols.

Hyundai headquarters, Seoul

In the interview, Kim also sought to depict himself as a man of balance – a “reasonable reformist,” who appreciates the value of the chaebols to South Korea and who seeks not to blunt their economic impact, let alone destroy them, but to make them competitive. In fact, it turns out that Kim no longer calls himself the “chaebol sniper” but, rather, wants to be known as an “evolutionary reformer” who “walk[s] the middle line.”

According to Kim, the key to proper chaebol reform, in Shin’s paraphrase, is “to put an end to ‘gapjil,’ unfair business practices employed by market monopolies, as well as undue inter-affiliate trading. Doing away with both is the main objective of the FTC’s proposed bills to amend the Fair Trade Act.”

Samsung headquarters, Seoul

Yet when it came to one of the major issues involving the chaebols — the most prominent of which include Samsung, Hyundai, and LG –Kim was as stubborn as any chaebol CEO. Noting that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and four of its counterparts in other countries had signed a statement in November challenging South Korean regulations as well as the FTC’s approach to investigation, Kim defended the chaebol system and argued that it wasn’t reasonable for U.S. businesses to expect other countries to model their corporate structures on its own.

As for American investors who are major chaebol shareholders but who, in keeping with the antiquated traditions of the system, have been denied the kind of influence on corporate decision-making that they would enjoy in Western firms – and who, of late, have been raising their voices more loudly to complain about this unfair state of affairs – Kim said, “This is a sensitive issue,” then said of the most prominent of those investors that “its understanding of Korea still remains insufficient.”

LG headquarters, Seoul

In fact, when Kim swipes at a major international investment firm for its supposedly “insufficient” understanding of Korea he is confessing to the very provincialism that lies at the heart of the chaebol problem. It is no exaggeration to say that Kim’s remark is by far the most telling part of the interview, indeed the only part that really matters. It underscores the fact that chaebol reform has been placed in the hands of a man who, however well-intentioned he may be, just doesn’t get it.

He doesn’t grasp, in short, that halfway measures, parochial measures, are just not enough; he doesn’t realize that he’s thinking inside of a very narrow box, a South Korean box, when what is called for in this situation is a major adjustment in South Korean business practice and business thinking — an adjustment that will result in a system that conforms to international norms and will allow for international investment on the same terms that obtain elsewhere in the developed world. Kim’s interview leaves the unfortunate impression that, until South Korea puts the future of the chaebols in charge of another individual, someone with a more global perspective, hope for real chaebol reform will be entirely in vain.

Surprise! Another chaebol brat.

When South Koreans hear the word “chaebol,” which refers to the massive, family-run conglomerates that dominate their economy, they think about power, money, and corruption. They also think about the children of the chaebol CEOs, those princes and princesses who – not to overgeneralize – are often notoriously spoiled and inclined to abuse underlings.

Heather Cho

Just last week we recalled the infamous “nut rage” case of 2014, when Heather Cho, daughter of the chairman of the Hanjin Group, ordered a Korean Air flight (Hanjin owns the airline) back to the gate at JFK because she’d been served macadamia nuts in a bag rather than on a dish. This is only one of many such episodes that, for many ordinary South Korean citizens, have underscored the excessive degree of privilege that, in their view, poisons the chaebol dynasties.

On November 24 came another such story. According to the Straits Times, the ten-year-old daughter of Bang Jung-oh, president of the cable network TV Chosun, had been recorded some weeks earlier “verbally attacking and threatening” her chauffeur, a man in his fifties.

Apparently the driver had asked her to sit down. Apparently she refused. And apparently he insisted. Whereupon she said: “I told you I don’t want to….Why should I sit down? This is my car, not yours!” The driver replied by telling her to fire him; in response, she is reported to have asked (and let’s just preface this by saying that the English translation here could be a bit more felicitous): “Do you think I would get embarrassed? I’m not such a person who freaks out with this.” She went on to call her driver “a crippled guy – crippled without arms, legs, face, ears and mouth…especially devoid of mouth and ears….You are insane.”

Bang Jung-oh

Just wondering: do bratty American ten-year-olds come up with such bizarre insults? Or is this sort of thing unique to South Korea?

At some point the girl also told the driver, “I will speak to my mum today…in order to make you lose your job.” Then there was this: “You are fired! You are really insane.” And here’s another patch of awkward translation: “Hey, I’m speaking to you with good words. Perhaps I’m the only person who treats you like this.”

Just a bit more. “Hey, your parents taught you wrong,” she taunted. “All of your family members taught you wrong.” And here’s the coup de grace: “I really hate you. I want you to die. It’s my wish.” Charming child.


In fact, the chauffeur did end up being fired. In October. Without any explanation.

Then, in November, MBC TV released a recording of the girl’s rant. The worm turned. Her father – who, by the way, is the younger son of Bang Sang-hoon, president of South Korea’s largest daily, Chosun Ilbo – not only apologized to the chauffeur but announced his resignation.

So he’s out of a job. No word as to whether the chauffeur found new employment. Let’s just hope the child was appropriately punished and taught something about respect. We’re not betting on that one, though.

“Chaebol sniper” or chaebol masseur?

 

Kim Sang-jo

Last January, the Economist offered an optimistic forecast of the future of South Korea’s economy under Kim Sang-jo, that country’s newly appointed antitrust czar. Kim’s task, during his three-year term, was to “tame the chaebol,” those massive, family-run corporate conglomerates that were the engines of South Korean economic growth after since the Korean War but that in recently decades have increasingly served as a hindrance to further growth – and, in particular, to the establishment and successful development of small businesses. (The Korean language even has a word – gapjil – for the way in which the chaebol bully more modest-sized enterprises.) Moreover, the chaebols, which were once universally admired for having led South Korea out of Third World status, are now more and more the objects of public resentment because of their top leaders’ chronic corruption and impunity.

Moon Jae-in

At the time of his appointment, Kim, a former activist for the rights of shareholders, enjoyed the strong backing of President Moon Jae-in as well as of the great majority of his countrymen, who refer to him as the “chaebol sniper.” All these months later, has he lived up to that nickname? How much, exactly, has he accomplished?

For a close reader, the article in the Economist contained a few hints that Kim might, in fact, prove to be something less than a bull in the chaebols’ china shops. “The sniper,” we read, “would rather his targets surrender willingly and is encouraging ‘voluntary’ reform.” Some sniper! Indeed, the Economist admitted that some critics of the chaebols “carp that Mr Kim now seems to be more chaebol sympathiser than sniper,” though the Economist was quick to assure us that this view of Kim was “unfair.”

Hanjin Group headquarters, Seoul

Fast forward five months. Kim, reported the Korean media, was accusing the Hanjin Group, the parent company of Korean Air, of “breaching market rules.” At a press conference marking the end of his first year on the job, the “chaebol sniper” lamented the standard practice by chaebols of doing business with, say, real-estate firms and ad agencies that are affiliated with them rather than dealing with independently owned firms in those same sectors. “I honestly ask conglomerates,” said Kim, “to sincerely review if it necessarily needs these businesses that are owned solely by their controlling families.”

Wow, tough talk!

Samsung headquarters, Seoul

Kim said his agency had “tried to work on encouraging conglomerates to change their…management practices.” Tried? Encouraging? “We’re seeing positive changes,” he said, but “we still have a long way to go.” He said he regretted “not being able to bring changes that the public can actually feel,” and admitted that some observers might feel that his achievements thus far had fallen “short of expectations.”

No kidding. Is this a sniper or a masseur?

Coming to a theater near you: a buddy movie about Marx and Engels!

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels

Karl Marx would have turned 200 on May 5, and during the last couple of weeks we’ve been noting that more than a few bien pensant types on both sides of the Atlantic manage to ignore – or explain away – the disastrous history of the twentieth century and to view Marx’s legacy with fondness. On Tuesday we examined a recent piece in the Independent, the British broadsheet, arguing that Marx’s time has finally come; today we’ll look at another contribution to the Independent, this one by Kaleem Aftab, who interviews celebrated director Raoul Peck about his new film The Young Karl Marx.

Raoul Peck

The film is, by Aftab’s account, a hagiography – a loving account of the close friendship between Marx and Friedrich Engels, his collaborator on The Communist Manifesto. Aftab likens the movie to Walter Salles’s 2004 biopic The Motorcycle Diaries, a cinematic billet doux to Che Guevara. “Both films,” Aftab explains, “are more interested in the youthful antics of the protagonists than their later work and exploits.”

This makes sense, if you think about it: such films are intended not for mature, serious audiences who have faced the truth about Communism but for those who still romanticize it. The better, then, to view these figures in their early years, through the pink lens of youthful idealism and intellectual excitement. Better to observe the germination of the ideas than the bloody results thereof.

Kaleem Aftab

The other people we’ve been profiling during the past two weeks see Karl Marx as being more relevant now than he ever was. Peck agrees. Like others, he cites the 2008 financial crisis as definitive evidence of capitalism’s unworkability and inevitable failure, even as he refuses to recognize that the deterioration and collapse of one Communist regime after another demonstrates anything whatsoever. “You sum up the articles [by Marx] and it is exactly the description of the 2008 crisis,” says Peck, who was nominated for an Oscar for his 2016 documentary feature I Am Not Your Negro, about the author James Baldwin. “It’s like the children’s book of the history of capitalism and you can trace it until today. So what other proof do you need?”

August Diehl as Marx and Stefan Konarske as Engels in The Young Karl Marx

Peck’s “desire to connect to the present,” writes Aftab, “has led to him make a movie that at times seems like an overly theoretical political analysis, and in other moments like a fun bromance, capturing the hijinks of ordinary young men.” Terrific – a totalitarian buddy movie! Peck’s hope is “that young people will recognise themselves in the film” and take inspiration from it in their efforts to “fight back.” And precisely what, Aftab asks, is crying out “to be fought against right now?” Like others whom we’ve discussed this week, Peck’s answer can be reduced to a single word: Trump.

Promoting Marxism in the U.K.: Youssef El-Gingihy

An East German stamp honoring Marx

Last week, in the wake of Karl Marx’s 200th anniversary, we discussed on this website a couple of recent New York Times op-eds, both by academics with impressive-sounding credentials.

One of them, Jason Barker, sang Marx’s praises and hoped for a time when his magnificent ideas will be implemented by some enterprising government; the other, James A. Millward, while never mentioning Marx or Communism, cheered Communist China’s current approach to international relations, comparing it very favorably to that of the current American president.

Youssef El-Gingihy

But the New York Times isn’t alone in its enthusiasm for Marx and his heirs. The Independent, a left-leaning British broadsheet, celebrated Marx’s birthday with an article headlined “The world is finally ready for Marxism as capitalism reaches the tipping point.” As evidence of Marx’s current relevance, the piece’s author, Youssef El-Gingihy, noted that “[t]he world’s most populous state and rising superpower, China, is officially communist, albeit nominally.” It wasn’t entirely clear what one was to make of El-Gingihy’s description of China as only “nominally” Communist. Was he suggesting that China is not, in fact, a totalitarian or authoritarian country? Does he dissent from the verdict of, for example, Freedom House, which considers China “Not Free”?

Hugo Chavez

El-Ginghy, an Oxford-educated physician and ardent champion of Britain’s National Health Service, further noted that “socialist ideas remain prevalent throughout the world,” and as an example of this prevalence he cited “the Chavismo new left wave of Latin American politics.” He added that chavismo is “admittedly now in the process of being rolled back” in Venezuela, although it would have been a good deal more honest, of course, to say that chavismo is in the process of dying a torturous death at its own hands – and is taking heaven knows how many Venezuelan lives with it. El-Gingihy also pointed to the electoral successes of Bernie Sanders in the U.S., of “unapologetic socialist Jeremy Corbyn” in the U.K., and of Jean Luc Mélenchon in France as examples of just how popular Marx is in the West – though we consider them proof of just how ignorant many Westerners are of the monstrous reality of Marxism.  

Mao Zedong

Denying that the fall of the USSR discredited Marxism, El-Gingihy argued that, on the contrary, the 2008 worldwide financial crash discredited capitalism. “Mao Zedong’s description of capitalism as a paper tiger seems as pertinent as ever,” he wrote, apparently unashamed to be citing with approval the most murderous individual in human history. Mao, El-Gingihy suggested, was only one of many brilliant figures who constitute Marxism’s “rich legacy of thinkers.” El-Gingihy praised the Communist Manifesto as “a call to arms, as well as a work of canonical sublimity and literary fecundity; by turns poetic, inspired and visionary.” And he concluded by asserting that in a time when “late capitalism is economically, socially and ecologically unsustainable, not to mention bankrupt,” Marx is the answer. How bizarre that, in a time when free markets are lifting up economies and radically improving the lives of ordinary people around the world – even as the utopian, reality-defying ideas of Marx’s followers have turned places like North Korea, Cuba, and Venezuela into nightmarish hellholes and killing fields – presumably intelligent people are still capable of raising their fists in Marxist solidarity.