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Updated: 2 hours 16 min ago

On the Ground in Venezuela vs. the Media Spectacle

Mon, 2019-03-18 15:59

British photojournalist Alan Gignoux and Venezuelan journalist-filmmaker Carolina Graterol, both based in London, went to Venezuela for a month to shoot a documentary for a major global TV channel. They talked with journalist Paul Cochrane about the mainstream media’s portrayal of Venezuela compared to their experiences on the ground.

Paul Cochrane (PC): What were you doing in Venezuela, how long were you there and where did you go?

Alan Gignoux (AG): We went in June 2018 for a month to shoot a documentary; I can’t disclose what channels it will be on right now, but it should be on air soon. We visited the capital Caracas, Mérida (in the Andes), Cumaná (on the coast), and Ciudad Guayana (near the mouth of the Orinoco river).

PC: How did being in Venezuela compare to what you were seeing in Western media?

Carolina Graterol (CG): I am a journalist, I have family in Venezuela, and I knew the reality was very different from what the media is portraying, but still I was surprised. The first thing we noticed was the lack of poverty. Alan wanted to film homeless and poor people on the streets. I saw three people sleeping rough just this morning in London, but in Venezuela, we couldn’t find any, in big cities or towns. We wanted to interview them, but we couldn’t find them. It is because of multi disciplinary programmes run by the government, with social services working to get children off the streets, or returned to their families. The programme has been going on for a long time but I hadn’t realized how effective it was.

PC: Alan, what surprised you?

AG: We have to be realistic. Things look worn down and tired. There is food, there are private restaurants and cafes open, and you could feel the economic crisis kicking in but poverty is not as bad as what I’ve seen in Brazil or Colombia, where there are lots of street children. Venezuela doesn’t seem to have a homeless problem, and the favelas have running water and electricity. The extreme poverty didn’t seem as bad as in other South American countries. People told me before going I should be worried about crime, but we worked with a lady from El Salvador, and she said Venezuela was easy compared to her country, where there are security guards with machine guns outside coffee shops. They also say a lot of Venezuelan criminals left as there’s not that much to rob, with better pickings in Argentina, Chile or wherever.

PC: How have the US sanctions impacted Venezuelans?

CG: Food is expensive, but people are buying things, even at ten times their salary. Due to inflation, you have to make multiple card payments as the machine wouldn’t take such a high transaction all at once. The government has created a system, Local Committees for Production and Supply (known by its Spanish acronym CLAP) that feeds people, 6 million families, every month via a box of food. The idea of the government was to bypass private distribution networks, hoarding and scarcity. Our assistant was from a middle class area in Caracas, and she was the only Chavista there, but people got together and created a CLAP system, with the box containing 19 products. Unless you have a huge salary, or money from outside, you have to use other ways to feed yourself. People’s larders were full, as they started building up supplies for emergencies. People have lost weight, I reckon many adults 10 to 15 kilos. Last time I was in Venezuela three years ago, I found a lot of obese people, like in the US, due to excessive eating, but this time people were a good size, and nobody is dying from hunger or malnutrition.

PC: So what are Venezuelans eating?

CG: A vegetarian diet. People apologized as they couldn’t offer us meat, instead vegetables, lentils, and black beans. So everyone has been forced to have a vegetarian diet, and maybe the main complaint was that people couldn’t eat meat like they used to do. The situation is not that serious. Before Hugo Chavez came to power, Venezuela had 40% critical poverty out of 80% poverty, but that rate went down to 27%, and before the crisis was just 6 or 7% critical poverty. Everyone is receiving help from the government.

PC: So food is the main concern?

CG: The real attack on the economy is on food. When you have hyperinflation everything goes up in price, but food has become the main source of spending because this is the variable going up in price at exorbitant levels. Bills like water, electricity, public transport haven’t gone up that much and represent a small percentage of any family spending. This is why the distortions in the economy are not intrinsic, but caused by external factors, otherwise everything should have gone up, no matter what it is.

PC: Alan, did you lose weight in Venezuela?

AG: No! What surprised me was how many people are growing their own vegetables. It is a bit like in Russia, where everyone has a dacha. Venezuela is tropical, so it is easy to grow produce. Mango trees are everywhere, so you can pick a mango whenever you want.

PC: So the crisis we read about everyday is primarily due to the US sanctions?

CG: The sanctions have affected the country. I want to be fair. I think the government was slow to act on the direction the country was being pushed. It was probably not a good idea to pay off $70 billion in external debt over the past five years. In my opinion, (President Nicolas) Maduro decided to honor the external debt, thinking this was the right way to pay our commitments, but at the same time, this economic war started waging internally, and also externally, blocking international loans.

The government should also have taken action against Colombia for allowing over one hundred exchange houses to be set up on the border with Venezuela. These exchange houses eroded the currency as they were using different exchange rates, and that contributed to the Bolivar’s devaluation. I think they should have denounced the (Juan Manuel) Santos government. If Colombia says that Venezuelan oil that crosses its border is contraband, why not currency? Remember, the biggest industry in Colombia is cocaine – narcotics trafficking – and it has grown exponentially, so they’ve an excessive amount of US dollars and need to launder them, which drained the Venezuelan currency. It is induced hyperinflation. Also, in Miami, the Venezuelan oligarchy created a website called DolarToday about 12 years ago to destroy the Venezuelan economy.

PC: What else struck you?

CG: People are still smiling and making jokes about the situation, which I find incredible. People are willing to share, and we were in some tricky situations, like when our car broke down at night.

AG: Everyone says don’t drive at night in Venezuela. We were on the road, and figured we’d only half hour to go, what could go wrong? Then a transformer burned out. I thought I was about to have my Venezuelan nightmare, stuck in the middle of nowhere on a dark road at night. Who would ever find you?

CG: As there were no lights we had to use our phones to let big trucks know we were on the road.

AG: We pretended I was deaf as I couldn’t pass for Venezuelan with my Spanish accent. So, a really old old pick-up truck pulls up, and the occupants looked rather salty, but they were very nice and took us to a petrol station.

CG: I told you Alan, you are not in the US, you are not going to be shot!

AG: I was with three women with money, I thought OK I will be shot, but it all turned out fine, and they thought I was deaf.

CG: We were told we could sleep in a shop but we slept in the car instead, and it was fine.

PC: What about the power cuts that have plagued the country?

CG: During blackouts, people told stories, played music, or went out and talked on the streets. It was a paradise, no TVs, smartphones, but real human contact. People cook together. During the day they’re playing board games, dominoes, and kids are having fun. People with kids are possibly more stressed, especially if you live in a tower block, as if you’ve no electricity, you’ve no water. That is why the US hit the electricity grid as it means no water in Caracas – a city of 10 million people. Luckily there are wells with clean water around the city, so people queue up to get it.

PC: So there was a real discrepancy between the image you were given of Venezuela and the reality?

AG: Sure, there are queues for oil, but people are not dying of starvation and, as I said, poverty is no where near what it is like in Brazil. I wouldn’t say a harsh dictatorship, people were open, and criticized the government, and the US, but also Chavez and Maduro. The Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela (PSUV) have admitted they had made bad economic decisions. I thought it would be more repressive, and it wasn’t. People were not fearful about speaking out. I think Venezuelans blame the Americans for the situation more than Maduro.

PC: What do you make of the hullabaloo in February about US and Canadian aid being blocked by Venezuela?

AG: It is a Trojan horse, a good way to get the US in, and why international agencies were not willing take part in the plan. Instead there has been Chinese and Russian aid.

CG: There’s not the chaos US and Trump were expecting. (Opposition leader and self-proclaimed president Juan) Guaidó is the most hated guy in Venezuela. He has to stay in luxury hotel in La Mercedes, an expensive neighbourhood of Caracas. They have electricity there, as they were prepared, so bought generators. That is why Guaidó went there, and has a whole floor of a luxury hotel for him and his family. While people are suffering Guaidó is trying on suits for his upcoming trip to Europe. It is a parallel world.

AG: You think Guaidó will fail?

CG: Venezuelans are making so many jokes with his name, as there’s a word similar to stupid in Spanish – guevon. And look at the demonstration in La Mercedes the other day (12 March), the crowds didn’t manifest. It is becoming a joke in the country. The more the Europeans and the US make him a president, the more bizarre the situation becomes, as Guaidó is not president of Venezuela! Interestingly, Chavez predicted what is happening today, he wrote about it, so people are going back to his works and reading him again.

PC: There’s plenty of material on the history of American imperialism in South America to make such predictions, also, more recently, the Canadians and their mining companies, in Paraguay, Honduras, and now backing Guaidó.

CG: Exactly. Look at Chile in 1973, what happened to the Sandinistas in El Salvador, in Guatemala.

It is a well rehearsed strategy to destroy an economy using external forces to drive up prices of supplies and products. When you have such a cycle, it explodes.

Alan Gignoux is a photojournalist, with a particular focus on socio-political and environmental issues. Alan’s work has been published in The New York Times, CNN Traveller, The Independent, Reuters and World Photography News, among others (www.gignouxphotos.com).

Carolina Graterol is a Venezuelan journalist, filmmaker and artist (www.carolinagraterol.com). She has worked for the BBC World Service (Spanish) and Telesur. She is the director of “A Letter from Venezuela” (2019).

 

 

Categories: News for progressives

The Fed and the 3.8 Percent Unemployment Rate

Mon, 2019-03-18 15:55

Last week’s job report, in spite of the slow job growth for February, was actually pretty good news. As many of us pointed out, the most likely reason that the Labor Department reported only 20,000 new jobs in February, is that the economy reportedly added 311,000 jobs in January.

There is always a substantial element of error in these numbers. If we envision that there is some underlying rate of job growth of say, 180,000 a month, if we get a number like January’s strong figure, it is reasonable to expect that job growth in subsequent months will be slower. Either the rapid growth in January was due to error in the survey, or alternatively many businesses may have decided that January was a good time to hire. In both cases, it is reasonable to expect slower growth in future months.

If this just sounds like hand waving to cover up a bad story, consider that the non-seasonally adjusted change in employment in February was a plus 827,000 jobs. In other words, if we just looked at the raw data, the economy actually added a ton of jobs in February. Of course, the economy always adds lots of jobs in February. In 2018 it added 1,236,000 and in 2017 it added 1,030,000. This is why we have seasonal adjustments. But the adjustment is never perfect, and it is one of the factors that leads to error in the headline numbers that get so much attention.

So we should not be too troubled by the weak job growth reported for February. However, as I noted in my jobs report, there was a drop in average weekly hours, which could presage lower hiring in future months. Also, several sectors, notably construction (both residential and non-residential) and manufacturing seem to be weakening, so there are some grounds for concern about slowing growth, apart from the 20,000 jobs reported for February.

But I actually wanted to focus on the good news in the report, specifically the edging down of the unemployment rate to 3.8 percent and the modest acceleration in the rate of growth in the average hourly wage to 3.4 percent over the last year. These items are very good news, especially when we consider that they were the result of policy, specifically the Federal Reserve Board’s decision to allow the unemployment rate to fall below the 5.5 percent unemployment rate that most economists had considered a floor.

The conventional view was that inflation would begin to spiral upward if the unemployment rate fell below 5.5 percent (many economists put the floor at 6.0 percent or even higher), therefore the Fed should begin to raise interest rates to slow the economy and job creation and to keep the unemployment rate from falling below this level. The group of economists arguing this position included some of the Fed’s governors and bank presidents, with at least one of the latter arguing for rate hikes as early as 2011.

Fortunately, the inflation hawks did not carry the day. The Fed, under the leadership of then-chair, Janet Yellen, allowed the unemployment rate to continue to fall. As I have pointed out elsewhere (here, here, and here), lower unemployment not only means that more people have jobs, it disproportionately benefits the most disadvantaged in the labor market. The job gainers are disproportionately black, Hispanic, people with less education, people with disabilities, and people with criminal records.

This fact should make Federal Reserve Board policy a major issue on progressives’ agenda. I am proud to say that CEPR has worked with the grassroots coalition Fed Up to pressure the Fed to comply with the full employment portion of its mandate. Our allies in making the economic argument included the Economic Policy Institute, my friend from EPI days Jared Bernstein who is now at the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, and Bill Spriggs, another old friend from EPI (see a pattern here?) who, as its chief economist, helped bring along the AFL-CIO. The work of this group helped to counteract pressure from inflation hawks who would have the Fed only worry about inflation and not concern itself with maintaining high levels of employment.

While we can be pleased with our success in pressing the Fed (of course we had some great allies on the inside, including Fed Governor Lael Brainard, Minneapolis Bank President Narayana Kocherlakota, and his successor Neel Kashkari), it is still striking how little attention Fed policy gets from the larger progressive community. Although the Fed Up campaign did have the support of one generous funder, for the most part, our work was spare-time activity.

Imagine that someone came up with a job training program that gave another 3 million people jobs with a disproportionate share of the job gainers being the most disadvantaged people in society. I suspect the major liberal foundations would be falling over themselves to fund this program, anxious to take part of the credit for the success.

Of course, the benefits from low unemployment go beyond just getting more jobs. The tighter labor market gives workers at the middle and bottom of the labor force the bargaining power to get real wage gains. We saw this in the late 1990s boom, when the period from 1996 to 2001 gave us the first period of sustained real wage growth for the middle and bottom of the labor force since the early 1970s. Real wages have been rising since 2014, with low- and middle-wage earners seeing real wage gains of between 4.0 percent and 6.0 percent.

That’s not great, but it is going in the right direction and is hardly trivial. For a full-time worker getting $15 an hour, this implies wage gains of between $1,200 and $1,800 a year. For a worker earning $25 an hour, this implies wage gains of between $2,000 and $3,000 a year. We can be pretty certain that if the inflation hawks had kept unemployment from falling below 5.5 percent the path of wage growth would have looked very different the last four and a half years.

One other source of frustration in this effort is the folks on the left who feel the need to remind us that almost 40 million people are still below the poverty line and that more than 40 percent of black children live in poverty. These statistics are, of course, horrible and unacceptable, but it is a bit bizarre they continually get brought up in the context of efforts to lower the unemployment rate and increase wage growth at the middle and the bottom.

If we had successfully pushed for an increase in the Earned Income Tax Credit or an increase in the availability of high-quality child care, would people feel the need to remind us that there are still plenty of people who are suffering? It’s pretty much of a non sequitur. None of us thought that we could right all the wrongs in the economy and society by getting the Fed to allow the unemployment rate to fall further.

We did feel that we could improve the lives of tens of millions of people, and in that respect, we have succeeded. I don’t care about getting credit, but we could use allies since this is an ongoing battle. While we can think of long-term policies, that are both politically and practically difficult, which could offer huge benefits (Medicare for All is one obvious example), pushing the Fed on pursuing a high-employment policy is a politically and practically feasible policy that offers immediate and certain gains.

I remember a few years back the Republican Congress was pushing a budget that called for a 5 percent cut in the food stamp budget. This cut would have been roughly equal to $4 billion a year or 0.1 percent of the federal budget. The liberal punditry and many inside the Beltway groups rallied to beat back the proposed cut.

While I’m glad they stopped a cut which would have hurt a lot of low-income people who depend on this benefit, the difference between 3.8 percent unemployment and 5.5 percent unemployment probably means close to a hundred times as much in terms of wage income for low- and moderate-income households. It would be nice if it got almost as much attention.

This article originally appeared on Dean Baker’s blog.

Categories: News for progressives

Social Media Companies “Struggle” to Help Censors Keep us in the Dark

Mon, 2019-03-18 15:55

According to CNN Business, “Facebook, YouTube and Twitter struggle to deal with New Zealand shooting video.”

“Deal with” is code for “censor on demand by governments and activist organizations who oppose public access to information that hasn’t first been thoroughly vetted for conformity to their preferred narrative.”

Do you really need to see first-person video footage of an attacker murdering 49 worshipers at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand?

Maybe not. Chances are pretty good you didn’t even want to. I suspect that many of us who did (I viewed what appeared to be a partial copy before YouTube deleted it) would rather we could un-see it.

But whether or not we watch it should be up to us, not those governments and activists. Social media companies should enable our choices, not suppress our choices at the censors’ every whim.

If Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube had been primary news sources in 1915, would they have permitted us to view footage  (rare, as film was in its early days)  of New Zealanders’ desperate fight at Gallipoli?

How about the attack on Pearl Harbor?

The assassination of president John F. Kennedy?

The second plane hitting the World Trade Center.

Lucinda Creighton of the Counter Extremism Project complains to CNN that the big social media firms aren’t really “cooperating and acting in the best interest of citizens to remove this content.”

The CEP claims that it “counter[s] the narrative of extremists” and  works to “reveal the extremist threat.”  How does demanding that something be kept hidden “counter” or “reveal” it? How is it in “the best of interest of citizens” to only let those citizens see what Lucinda Creighton thinks they should be allowed to see?

CNN analyst Steve Moore warns that the video could “inspire copycats.” “Do you want to help terrorists? Because if you do, sharing this video is exactly how you do it.”

Moore has it backward. Terrorists don’t need video to “inspire” them. Like mold, evil grows best in darkness and struggles in sunlight. If you want to help terrorists, hiding the ugliness of their actions from the public they hope to mobilize in support of those actions is exactly how you do it.

Contrary to their claims of supporting “democracy” versus “extremism,” the social media companies and the censors they “struggle” to assist seem to side with terror and to lack any trust in the good judgment of “the people.”

 

 

Categories: News for progressives

Death in New Zealand: The Christchurch Shootings

Mon, 2019-03-18 15:54

Five weapons were said to have been used, all inscribed with symbols, numbers and insignia.  The individual charged with the shootings at two Christchurch mosques that left 49 dead was an Australian with, it is alleged, a simple purpose: inflict death, and on specific communities in worship.  Even as the carnage became clear, Christchurch was already the epicentre of twenty-four hour news television, supplying a ghoulish spectacle.  Saturation coverage followed, and continues to do so, a point that will warm the attacker’s blood (his entire effort was streamed on live video on Facebook).

The alleged perpetrator, one Brenton Harrison Tarrant, left an unstirring piece – to call it a manifesto would be far-fetched – for those interested before the attack. It is a document of banality and off target assumptions. “Who are you?” he asks himself, suggesting an inner voice in need of reassurance and clarity.  “Just an ordinary White man, 28 years old.  Born in Australia to a working class, low income family.”  Stock: “Scottish, Irish and English”; a “regular childhood without any great issues”.

He did not like education, “barely achieving a passing grade.”  Universities did not offer anything of interest.  He invested money in Bitconnect, then travelled.  A sense of cognitive dissonance follows; Tarrant had recently worked part time “as a kebab removalist”.

No criminal record, no watch list, no registry. Nothing to suggest a tendency towards mass murder, disrespect or mania.  What Tarrant did have was a desire to avenge individuals he felt a kinship for, suggesting that the dull witted are just as capable of killing as the charismatically ideological.  The “radical”, rooted nature of violence lies dormant in many; all that is required is a match.

The simple language of the note resembled that of various European populist platforms, albeit trimmed of deep historical flourishes: fear the Islamic invader; take to the barricades to repel the forces of Allah.  Interestingly enough, Tarrant leaves the detail of the invaders unclear, given that European lands have received all manner of invasions over its existence, of which the Ottoman and Islamic is but one stream.  The broad statement strikes a note of nonsense: “To take revenge on the invaders for the hundreds of thousands of deaths caused by foreign invaders in European lands throughout history.”

Other statements of motivation follow: the “enslavement of millions of Europeans from their lands by the Islamic slavers”; “the thousands of European lives lost to terror attacks throughout European lands”. Rather conveniently, and in manipulative fashion, the spirit of young Ebba Åkerlund, who died in 2017 in a terror attack in Sweden, is also channelled.  It was not sufficient to merely mention her; the eleven-year old inspired the shooter to name rifles after her.  “How the hell,” expressed stunned father Stefan Åkerlund, “can we ever get to mourn in peace?”

The problem with any such event is the risk of immoderate response.  Sensible comments have been noted: the risks posed by non-Islamic terrorists have tended to be neglected in budgets and rhetoric, though US President Donald Trump is, unsurprisingly, insisting that militant white nationalism is fringe worthy rather than common. Under the John Key government, the overwhelming focus of funding intelligence and security efforts was directed at the phantom menace of Islam, burrowing deep into the suburbs.  Watch lists of suspects were constantly noted; the fear of returned “radicalised” fighters was constantly iterated.  To add a greater sense of purpose to the mission, New Zealand troops were deployed to Iraq to fight the troops of Islamic State. “Get some guts!” exclaimed Key to his opposition counterpart, Andrew Little, who seemed somewhat half-hearted in committing to the effort.

Other policy recommendations, still embryonic and possibly never to fly, are making their errands.  There are suggestions of deploying around the clock security personnel to mosques in various countries, something that risks militarising places of worship.

Vengeful rebuke can also find room in legislative and executive action.  In New Zealand, reforms to gun laws are being promised.  (These are already strict, and it is by no means clear if safety would be improved by such changes.)  In Australia, Tony Burke of the Labor Party suggests punishing hate speech and denying visas to certain right wing advocates of the white supremacist persuasion. Australia’s immigration system is sufficiently intolerant and erratic enough to deny visas to those who might interfere with the false tranquillity of its society but a suspicious paternalism remains the enemy of free speech. Debate, in short, cannot be trusted.

The move to further push tech companies to reign in violent content will also receive a mighty boost.  The response from such companies as Facebook thus far is one of optimism: last year, some 99 percent of content linked with terrorism content promoted by Islamic State and al-Qaeda was successfully purged by artificial intelligence. Calls to do the same for other sources of inspiration are bound to follow.

There is also a stark, uncomfortable reality: no one is safe.  The entire field of terrorist and anti-terrorist studies is replete with charlatan impulses and the promise of placebo styled security.  There are fictional projections and assessments about whether an attack is “imminent” or “probable”.  There are calls to be vigilant and report the suspicious. Political leaders give firm reassurances that all will be safe, a point that, quite frankly, can never be guaranteed.

The actions of Friday demonstrate the ease with which an act of mass killing can take place, the damage than can arise from attacking freely open spaces where people commune.  Extremism is said to lack a face or an ideology, but on Friday, it manifested in an all too human form.

Categories: News for progressives

The Reality Behind Trump’s Venezuela Regime Change Coalition

Mon, 2019-03-18 15:52

In the early 1970s, a handful of Sandinistas were in the mountains of Nicaragua fighting to overthrow the 40-year U.S.-backed, brutal dictatorship of the Somoza family. When a powerful volcanic eruption struck Nicaragua in 1971, Sandinista Omar Cabezas later recounted, they told the peasants whom they encountered that God was punishing them for not getting rid of Somoza.

After the Sandinistas triumphed in 1979, the U.S. waged a bloody war to take back the country with a terrorist paramilitary force called the contras, who regularly murdered civilians. President George H.W. Bush made it clear during the Sandinistas’ second election in 1990 that, although he was not God, he would continue to punish Nicaraguans with a trade embargo and war if they did not get rid of the Sandinistas. Weary of war, hyperinflation, and economic collapse, Nicaraguans voted for the opposition: The Sandinistas lost.

Today the Trump administration is repeating the collective punishment strategyin Venezuela with a crippling financial embargo since August 2017 and, since January, a trade embargo. The financial embargo has prevented any measures that the government might use to get rid of hyperinflation or bring about an economic recovery, while knocking out billions of dollars of oil production. The trade embargo is projected to cut off about 60 percent of the country’s remaining meager foreign exchange earnings, which are needed to buy medicine, food, medical supplies, and other goods essential to many Venezuelans’ survival.

Seeking to foment a military coup, a popular rebellion, or civil war, the Trump administration has made it clear that the punishment will continue until the current government is ousted. “Maduro must go,” said U.S. Vice President Mike Pence yet again in early March.

All of this is illegal under numerous treaties that the U.S. has signed, including the charter of the United Nations, the charter of the Organization of American States, and other international law and conventions. To legitimize this brutality, which has likely already killed thousands of Venezuelans by reducing access to life-saving goods and services, the Trump administration has presented the sanctions as a consensus of the “international community”—similar to what George W. Bush did when he put together a “coalition of the willing” of 48 countries to support his disastrous 2003 invasion of Iraq.

In this narrative, governments—mostly in the Americas and Europe—that have joined the U.S. in recognizing a parallel government in Venezuela are “democratic”; those who have not, or have declared against the attempt to overthrow the current government are “authoritarian,” with the examples of Russia, China, and Turkey most often listed in news reports.

Let’s look at some of the governments that have joined the Trump administration in this illegal regime change operation, and have joined the trade embargo by recognizing Juan Guaidó as “interim president.” The most important and solid ally of Trump in Latin America is Brazil’s far-right president Jair Bolsonaro, famous for telling a Brazilian congresswoman that he would not rape her because she “did not merit it,” for various racist and anti-gay remarks, and for glorifying political violence. Ironically, given that the Trump administration’s main justification for regime change in Venezuela is that Maduro’s election was illegitimate, Bolsonaro himself came to power in an election of questionable legitimacy. His leading opponent, former President Lula da Silva—at the time the most popular politician in the country—was jailed after a trial in which no material evidence of a crime was presented. The verdict rested on the coerced testimony of a witness who was convicted of corruption, and whose plea bargaining was suspended until he changed his story to match the prosecuting judge’s case. The prosecuting judge, Sérgio Moro, demonstrated strong animus against Lula on a number of occasions—including his release of illegally wiretapped conversations between Lula and then president Dilma Rousseff, his lawyer, and his wife and children. After these and other irregularities and illegalities secured Lula’s conviction, he was unconstitutionally imprisoned before the election. After the election that Judge Moro helped Bolsonaro win by these methods, he was appointed minister of justice.

Other Latin American governments in Trump’s Coalition of the Willing owe Washington some favors for helping them seize power. The government of Honduran president Juan Orlando Hernández is probably the most extreme example. His party came to power in 2009 with the overthrow of the democratically elected president Mel Zelaya in a military coup. The Obama administration, along with Republicans, helped legitimize the coup and the “elections” that followed. Hillary Clinton, then secretary of state, later describedin her memoirs how she maneuvered to keep the democratically elected president from returning to office. In 2017, Hernández retained power by brazenly stealing an election—simply altering the vote totals. This was the inescapable conclusion of journalists and observers from across the political spectrum. Even one of the most fanatical leaders of Trump’s Coalition of the Willing, current OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro, rejected the results and called for new elections. Of course nothing happened because the Trump team accepted the results.

Colombia has perhaps the second-most bellicose leader in Trump’s coalition, after Bolsonaro. President Iván Duque is the protégé of former president, now kingmaker, Álvaro Uribe. U.S. diplomatic cables released last year showed widespread concerns among U.S. officials about Uribe’s ties to drug traffickers. In the 1990s, the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency found that Uribe was “dedicated to collaboration with the Medellin [drug] cartel at high government levels.” Uribe is also believed to have long had ties to death squads. He resigned from the Colombian Senate last year in the midst of an ongoing criminal investigation. Uribe has long backed the U.S. regime-change effort against Venezuela. In 2009, numerous South American governments objected to and blocked his plans to expand the U.S. military presence in Colombia.

President Mauricio Macri of Argentina, another influential hard-right coalition member, also owes favors to Washington. In June, this relationship helped him score the biggest IMF loan in history, $50 billion dollars—subsequently upped to $56.3 billion when the economy did much worse than the IMF had forecast under the agreement. The United States blocked loans to the government of his predecessor and rival from multilateral lending institutions such as the Inter-American Development Bank. Since Argentina was running into balance of payments problems toward the end of President Cristina Fernández’s term, this was significant. An even bigger blow to her government came from an apparently politically motivated New York judge, who took more than 90 percent of Argentina’s creditors hostage in 2012 by ruling that they could not be paid until certain U.S.-based vulture funds were paid first. All of these problems with the U.S. were quickly resolved soon after Macri took office in 2015.

The media sometimes singles out President Lenín Moreno of Ecuador to show that there is a “center-left” presence in this illegal and somewhat barbaric enterprise. Moreno was indeed elected in 2017 with the support of former president Rafael Corea’s leftist Alianza PAIS party. But he quickly took a sharp turn away from his mandate, forming an alliance with right-wing oligarchs and using extra-constitutional means to consolidate power. He is now trying to put the former president in jail on what look like trumped-up charges. Moreno has been rewarded by Washington with $10 billion in loans from multilateral institutions, including $4.2 billion just scored from the IMF last week. If $10 billion doesn’t sound like a lot, consider that the loan, expressed as a percentage of the Ecuador’s economy, would be equivalent to the U.S. receiving $1.9 trillion. No surprise that Lenín Moreno has joined the Trump Coalition.

The president of Paraguay also has cause to thank the United States godfather. His party, the Colorado Party, ruled the country for 61 consecutive years, the majority of it under the dictatorship of Alfredo Stroessner. In 2008, a leftist bishop named Fernando Lugo won the presidency against heavy odds. However, he was toppled in a parliamentary coup in 2012, which was opposed by almost all of South America; once again, Washington worked with the OAS to help legitimize the coup. So, there’s another South American president happy to join the U.S.-led push for a right-wing leader in Venezuela. Yet one more is President Sebastián Piñera of Chile, a Pinochet sympathizer who appointed two former allies of the U.S.-backed dictator to his cabinet last year.

This is how we do it—today, at least. A few years ago—when most of the region was governed by left-of-center governments, Trump wouldn’t have gotten a single government in the region to support an illegal regime change operation. Obama’s secretary of state John Kerry discovered this in 2013 when violent opposition demonstrators were in the streets in Venezuela, trying to overturn Maduro’s first election. There was absolutely no doubt about the election results, and almost every government in the world recognized them. Kerry soon found himself completely isolated; Washington gave in and accepted Maduro’s election.

Then there is Europe, which for a number of historical reasons has only occasionally pursued a foreign policy independent of the United States. This is especially true for Latin America, where the Monroe Doctrine, shamelessly invoked in public by National Security Advisor John Bolton a few days ago, is generally respected. That said, some arm twisting was necessary to flip Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez of Spain, who had rather insubordinately opposed the Trump sanctions against Venezuela even prior to the trade embargo and recognition of Guaidó in January. His foreign minister, Josep Borell, told the press that the administration had received “pressure” from Washington. Sánchez’s PSOE socialist-led government was also under intense pressure from the big Spanish media, which has been in full regime-change mode for some time; they face elections at the end of April. Spain was particularly important in securing European support for this venture, since other countries, including Germany, often take Spain’s view seriously on policy in Latin America.

Even if the Trump team had a global majority—which it doesn’t, with only 50 out of 195 countries worldwide backing Venezuelan regime change—their deadly economic sanctions, theft of assets, military threats, and other actions to topple Venezuela’s government would be no more legal or legitimate than George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq, or the many U.S.-led regime change efforts that have taken place in this hemisphere. That’s unsurprising, given who’s at the wheel: perennial regime-change advocate John Bolton, for example, or special envoy Elliott Abrams, who supported what the UN later found to be genocide in Guatemala, as well as the US-sponsored atrocities in El Salvador and Nicaragua in the 1980s. The cast of characters supporting this regime-change effort, whether in Washington or among some of its closest allies, should underline what is already obvious: The United States’ attempt to oust Maduro has nothing to do with democracy or human rights.

This article originally appeared in The New Republic.

Categories: News for progressives

Is Ilhan Omar Wrong…About Anything?

Fri, 2019-03-15 16:05

Drawing by Nathaniel St. Clair

It has been clear for some time that Ilhan Omar owes no one any apologies for her remarks on AIPAC and those who tow its line; quite to the contrary, apologies are owed her.  Developments over the past several weeks underscore how important it is to drive that point home.

Before the 2008 publication of John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt’s The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policythe subject was, for all practical purposes, taboo.

Everything had to be kept hush hush, just as it did with the NSA (no such agency), the massive signals intelligence operation at Fort Meade.  Everybody who cared knew that it was there and what it did, but only “conspiracy theorists” dared speak of it.

Ten years ago, and for many years before that, there was no shortage of books and articles critical of Israel and Zionist ideology.  But accounts of anything resembling an Israel lobby were as rare as snowstorms in July. To broach the topic was to invite charges of anti-Semitism.

Then in 2006, two years before they came out with the book, Mearsheimer and Walt published an article in The London Review of Books.  The authors are distinguished political scientists and public intellectuals, but no suitable mainstream American publication would touch it.

After the book appeared, it did not take long for its arguments to win the day — to such an extent that, nowadays, the taboo that protected the Israel lobby from scrutiny is, like the one that kept the NSA out of public view, a dead letter.  Too bad that the news has yet to penetrate the bubble that surrounds our political class, or the editorial offices of servile mainstream media.

But even in those benighted quarters, the existence of a powerful Israel lobby is, by now, in general currency.  The old taboos still survive, however — enough to keep scrutiny of its activities to a minimum.  Also dissidents still risk being labeled anti-Semitic.

But Israel’s salad days are over.  For that, it has mainly its wars on Palestinians in Gaza – massacres really — its brutal, seemingly never-ending, occupation of the West Bank, the predations of its settlers there, and the overall moral decline of Israeli politics in the Netanyahu era to thank.

It is only getting worse too, especially with elections looming and with Benjamin Netanyahu facing prison for corruption, while his political party, the Likud, is now in open alliance with the bona fide fascists of Otzmot Yehudit (Jewish Power), the latest incarnation of Meir Kahane’s outlawed Kach Party.

But none of this was about to bring on the sea change in American, especially Jewish American, attitudes towards Israel that now seems to be in the works.  For that, more than anyone or anything else, we have Ilhan Omar to thank.

She didn’t mastermind it, no one could have, but, standing on the shoulders of other progressives in Congress, especially newly elected ones not yet frozen into bad old ways, she precipitated it.  She was the straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back.

The straw has been accumulating for a very long time, and there is a lot of it.  There is also a general sense now in many parts of the world, including the United States and Canada, and also Donald Rumsfeld’s “old Europe,” that, for the first time in many decades, the times may be changing rapidly and for the better.

Anxiety levels are therefore running high within the Democratic Party, at both the leadership level and among large strata of the rank-and-file.

Needless to say, Zionists are panicking too.

The large and growing numbers of Christian evangelicals within the Zionist fold are not the problem – they have many times shown that they are capable of believing almost anything.  That an omnipotent, omniscient, perfectly good Being, the creator of all that is, wants Jews to “return” to the Promised Land where they will either accept Jesus or when the End Time comes be cast into Hell for all eternity is, by their lights, only common sense.

Jewish Zionists are another story.  So are the Senators and House members for whom, as Omar pointed out, it’s all about “the benjamins.”

Republicans, of course, are the worst of all; they were born to be vile.

They have always had the Christian Zionists in their pocket, but, true to Blake’s dictum that “the weak in courage are strong in cunning,” they are shrewd enough to realize that they’ll never win over the Jewish vote.  No matter: there are plenty of lesser or greater Sheldon Adelsons out there, reactionary old farts clinging on to their “identities,” and they wouldn’t mind getting their benjamins away from the Democrats, into whose pockets their money used to flow, and into the ever-greedy coffers of their Grand Old Party.

More important: they have figured out that in these days of post-post-modern times, when words mean whatever those who utter them want, and when speech is reduced to what cable news pundits, following the lead of obscurantist literary “theorists,” call “memes” or “tropes,” there evidently is a percentage, for racists and anti-Semites, in going after anti-racists and anti-anti Semites, by accusing them of, what else!, racism and anti-Semitism.

In much the way that, in the late seventies, the Brits led the way, with Mrs. Thatcher showing the hapless actor, Ronald Reagan, how to promote and implement free market theology – in the process, undoing decades of social progress and enriching the rich from whose troughs all blessings purportedly flow – followers of the despicable Tony Blair and others of their ilk in the British Labor Party have been showing Democrats how to go about keeping progress at bay.

With a true socialist and internationalist in line to become Prime Minister, should there soon be a general election that Labor would win, rightwing and centrist Laborites are now using all the means at their disposal to besmear Jeremy Corbyn and his allies.

Ilhan Omar should feel honored to be similarly targeted, and proud to be leading a resistance every bit as robust as the one that the Labor Party’s left wing has been able to mount.

And then in France there is Emmanuel Macron, a twit for all seasons, identifying anti-Zionism, and criticism of Israel generally, with anti-Semitism and then proposing to criminalize the former — this in the motherland of free speech.  This is not the first time that en route from Voltaire to the French political class, the message has become distorted, neutered, and nearly lost.

Craziness happens when times change.  The Omar Affair is a chapter in a larger crisis of ruling class confidence, a general freak-out the clearest sign of which is the way that corporate media are hell bent on disgracing themselves by going after Alexandria Osacio-Cortez, as if their aim is to expose their own imbecility.  Fox is the worst, of course, but they all do it to some extent.

Liberals and anti-Trump publicans do it mainly by evincing attitudes so condescending that, if they could be bottled and sold, would fast become the nation’s best selling emetic.

But the joke is on them. AOC has proven herself more than capable of countering every one of their provocations, leaving them and their desperation exposed.  Without breaking a sweat, she mows them down with consummate nonchalance.

***

On the spurious question of Omar’s anti-Semitism, I hesitate to belabor the obvious, especially inasmuch as the territory has, by now, been examined so thoroughly, so often, by so many, but there are a few points worth making over and over again nevertheless – until the mindless know-it-all Democrats and the Republican defectors at MSNBC and CNN finally get it.

Even in their world, even at NPR, even at The Washington Post and The New York Times, it would not be news to point out that not all criticisms of Israel warrant charges of anti-Semitism.

Not all criticisms are anti-Zionist either; quite to the contrary, most are not.

Opposition to the idea of a Jewish state in all or part of Palestine, as distinct from a state of the people who live in it, Jewish or otherwise, is a lot rarer than criticism of the Israeli government or its Apartheid policies or the ethnic cleansing it promotes.

The important point, though, is the one that Ilhan Omar has forced into public awareness: that anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism are not the same.

“Zionism” denotes an ethno-nationalist political movement that did not exist before the late nineteenth century.  Its aim, at first, was to establish a Jewish state, not necessarily in Palestine, that would provide a safe haven for victims of anti-Semitic violence and discrimination in Europe and elsewhere too, if need be.

It soon became a movement wedded to Palestine and dedicated, above all, to cultural revival – and to forging a Hebrew-speaking culture.

This exacerbated tensions within the Jewish community.  Jews were anti-Zionists before anyone else was.

Nowadays, “anti-Semitism” has many meanings.  In the term’s broadest sense, it signifies hatred of and opposition to Jews as such. It is largely a creature of late nineteenth century nationalist and racialist ideologies.

It draws on, but also differs from, anti-Judaism, which targets the Jewish religion – and Jewish people only insofar as they are practitioners of it.  Anti-Judaism goes back at least to the days of the Roman Empire; by the time Judaism and Christianity parted ways, it had grown into a full-fledged, theologically driven ideology.

Christian anti-Judaism had little in common with traditional Muslim views of Jews and Judaism.  Relations between Muslims and Jews have varied over the centuries; they were sometimes more hostile than friendly, but nearly always more benign than those that existed between Jews and Christians.

Outside the minds of the miscreants who crawled out from under the rocks that Trump overturned, most anti-Semitism these days has little connection, historically or conceptually, with the anti-Semitism that emerged and flourished in Europe in the years between the end of the Napoleonic Wars and Hitler’s defeat in World War II.

There is therefore an argument to be made for reserving the term for the anti-Semitism of that historical period.  It is the genuine article, the paradigm case. In addition differences between then and now are considerable enough that it might be useful if different words described them.

Today’s versions, in Eastern Europe especially, do echo some of the motifs of pre-Second World War anti-Semitism, but with important modifications.  For one, today’s anti-Semites are not, for the most part, viscerally opposed to all things Jewish; they love Netanyahu, for example, and they love Israel, Netanyahu’s “nation state of the Jewish people.”

Thus the original Zionists had a point: should there be a full-fledged fascist revival in the heartlands of modern anti-Semitism, Israel probably would save some Jews from the ravages of anti-Semitic persecution – by becoming like what it was concocted to oppose, and by redirecting animosities away from Jews – towards Muslims.

The most common forms of anti-Semitism, in the broadest sense, nowadays bear much less resemblance to the genuine article than to phenomena that are unfortunately all too common all over the world, and that involve Jews no more than other peoples.

Moreover, today’s anti-Semitic acting out has little or no ideological basis: it is like the racially tinged hatred that Americans felt, and for the most part no longer feel, towards the Japanese after Pearl Harbor.  The contempt that drove the Nazis and their allies on had deeper roots, and an ideology behind it — an idiotic and evil one, but an ideology nonetheless.

Can the phenomena that fear mongers today deride slide over into something more authentically anti-Semitic? Of course, it can. It sometimes does too, esp. in subaltern Muslim communities in Europe and the Middle East.

The amazing thing, though, is that there isn’t more of that going on than there is  – not just because moral and economic desperation in the communities where it exists is acute, but also because the Israeli propaganda machine has been working overtime to bring out the anti-Semitism in the communities they seek to repress.

Zionism came into being thanks to anti-Semitism and its well-being continues to depend upon it; with Israel having become so widely and justifiably despised around the world, the last thing Zionists need is to lose their reason for being.

***

In much the way that only people with “dirty minds” find problems with remarks that most people would find inoffensive, the remarks for which Omar has received so much grief would seem problematic only to troubled anti-anti-Semites.

On the other hand, people who only know what corporate media tell them would take it for gospel truth that Omar is an anti-Semite of the worst kind.  She can deny it all she wants, but they will not be moved.

Surely, there is some reason for all the consternation she elicited in some – by no means all – Jewish circles.  Omar must surely be wrong about something.

I would say that a better way to think about is that to get to where she wanted to go, she had to walk on eggshells, and, being somewhat new to the game, she didn’t do it quite delicately enough.

I hate to put it that way because it would seem to put me on the side of her high-minded, nauseatingly condescending – and generally obtuse – liberal critics.  But the facts are what they are; and the fact is that ours is a time when identity politics, though widely and justifiably criticized, is still riding high, and therefore when hypersensitivities abound.

To negotiate a way around and through them requires experience, the right kind with the right people and situations.  Novices beware.

On the other hand, there was and continues to be something ennobling in Omar’s honesty and fervor, and even, if that is what it is, in her naiveté.

But then who am I or anyone else, for that matter, to say?  Perhaps she did know what she was doing.  More likely, though, she did not.

In either case, it would not have hurt had Omar taken more care negotiating her way through the minefields.

But however that may be, three cheers to her for kicking down the doors; that was long overdue.  That she could have been more cognizant of the sensitivities and hypersensitivities involved doesn’t change that.

I say this not because I think that in general such feelings deserve deference, or that Jewish sensitivities merit more deference than those of other peoples.

I say it because I suspect that, all things considered, her remarks were impolitic, and therefore functioned as a distraction in much the way that her critics claim.

However, I am far from sure that I am right about this; perhaps she needed to do it the way she did.

She must have done something right, after all, because she did what no one else had been able to do — she got a national conversation going about what Israel, aided and abetted at every turn by the United States, has been doing to Palestinians for more than half a century in plain violation of simple justice, international law, and fundamental principles of political morality.

This probably wasn’t beginner’s luck either; there is every reason to expect that the role she will play in whatever comes next will be a constructive one, like the role she has played so far.

Categories: News for progressives

Grieving in the Anthropocene

Fri, 2019-03-15 15:59

The old Morada at Abiquiu. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

“Having a conscience now is a grief-soaked proposition”

– Stephen Jenkinson, author of Come of Age: The Case for Elderhood in a Time of Trouble

“We are the first generations to grow up surrounded by evidence that our attempt to separate ourselves from ‘nature’ has been a grim failure, proof not of our genius but our hubris.”

– Paul Kingsnorth, Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist and Other Essays

“The greatest challenge we face is a philosophical one: understanding that this civilization is already dead. The sooner we confront our situation and realize that there is nothing we can do to save ourselves, the sooner we can get down to the difficult task of adapting, with mortal humility, to our new reality.”

– Roy Scranton, Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the End of a Civilization

A few years ago I saw my first glacier. I was on a trip to Alaska with my family before my father died and he had always dreamed of seeing the region; so we were happy we could do this one last trip to fulfill it for him. We cruised through the Inside Passage past glimmering mountains of cerulean blue ice, drove through part of the Yukon Territory of Canada by turquoise lakes, and hiked close to a receding glacier. It was breathtaking, yet throughout the journey a specter of sorrow accompanied me.

In the West we are conditioned to chase those specters away. Grief itself is often viewed as something unnatural, as some kind of disorder to be dealt with by silencing ourselves, ignoring it or medicating it to numbness. We often hear well-meaning people suggest to the bereaved that they “keep themselves busy.” If our grief lingers, we are told that we are “depressed” or “not coping well” or that we need “closure.”

But like many others I have found myself encountering a grief that envelops my entire being more and more. An existential grief that cannot ignore our collective predicament as a species and that often accompanies a sense of panic and powerlessness. And I have begun to relate even more to Edvard Munch’s iconic painting “The Scream.” It seems to me to be the perfect emblem of our times, an unheard anthem of despair silenced by the absurdity of an omnicidal status quo. And so many of us feel that sense of terrorized paralyzation at the madness of rising militarism, fascism and brutality and an unfolding ecocidal nightmare. But so often we feel confined to an interior space that our culture has consigned us to.

Today we are bombarded with distraction. Our brains are flooded with carefully programmed and meticulously marketed algorithms that condition us to respond to screens rather than each other and the living planet. The dominant economic order robs us of our feelings, thoughts and even our grief and transforms them into capital and commodities for sale. Indeed, it is incapable of doing anything else. But many ancient traditions grappled with grief in a public way that was not exploitative.

Years ago, in Europe and in the Americas, those who were mourning the death of a loved one announced their grief to others by wearing a piece of black cloth around their arm or by placing a black wreath upon their front doors. Many indigenous cultures have elaborate rituals to mark the death of loved ones and the passage of bereavement. In the small fishing and farming community where my mother grew up every able bodied person was expected to follow the casket up to the cemetery in a solemn procession. And these public expressions of private grief provided a bridge of solidarity and community.

Now many of these traditions have been rejected or forgotten. They are vestiges buried by modernity; and in their absence a deep sense of alienation has grown. Facing our grief can be transformative. It can foster empathy and has the power to galvanize people to action. It cannot alter the past. It does not have the power to halt climate feedback loops or predict and prevent tipping points. And it cannot stop a looming biospheric and societal chaos that is all but locked into the system. But it can strengthen the pysche, offer us an insight into resilience, and give us the tools we need to resist the inhumanity that accompanies collapse. It can also help us appreciate and protect what remains.

I remember pouring over wildlife books when I was a boy, always dreaming of exploring their exotic locations in person one day. The natural world was at once terrifying and abundantly rich with mystery and wonder. Of course in those days I never thought I might witness its end. I never considered that the Great Barrier Reef and scores of other coral reefs around the world would succumb to a bleached death. I never thought that the Arctic Ocean would be ice free, or that it would rain in Greenland in winter, or that gigantic nation-sized shelves of ice would simply break off and fall into the sea in Antarctica.  I never imagined the Amazon Rainforest would suffer from catastrophic fires every year, or that 40% of wildlife would be sponged away from the living earth, or that plastic in the seas would be so ubiquitous that a bag would be found in the deepest part of the ocean, the Marianas Trench. Now, decades later, I have witnessed all of that and more. This is the reality of the Anthropocene, so with all of this it becomes impossible at some point for any rational human being of conscience not to grieve.

But on that trip years ago I had the opportunity to meet grief face to face. I stood alongside my father in silent reverence at the nature before us. At the time I could not have known that he would not be with me on this earth much longer. Perhaps some other sense did. Standing on the deck of the boat, passing under great mountains of melting ice, I felt that sense of awe that a child does. I also felt immensely small. My heart beat hard in my chest as I attempted to comprehend what my species and, in particular, my society has done to this precious life giving earth.  I felt the cold air from that melting glacier roll over me.  But this time I decided to not chase that specter of sorrow away. For a brief moment I wouldn’t view him as an adversary, but as a companion. So I embraced him like a long lost friend and he smiled at me and said, “What took you so long?”

Categories: News for progressives

On the Death of Guantanamo Detainee 10028

Fri, 2019-03-15 15:58

Camp 6, Guantanamo, where Haji Naseem was held for part of his captivity. U.S. government photo in public domain.

Torture, secret confessions and recantations, an ominous email, a mysterious death, a detainee found hanging in a recreation yard outside his cell in the middle of the night — this is the story of the sixth man said to have died from suicide at Guantanamo.

Up until now, his story has gone totally untold. Even the location of the camp inside Gitmo where he died was kept secret for years. What follows is an in-depth examination into what really happened.

The narrative is largely based on an Army report that is mandated after a serious event like a detainee’s death. It is known as an AR 15-6 report. The article also draws upon declassified legal documents included in the detainee’s habeas filings. The full AR 15-6 report and Naseem’s Legal Response to the government in his habeas case are embedded at the end of this article.

These and other relevant documents relating to this story are also available at GuantanamoTruth.com.

A History of Mental Illness

Guantanamo detainee number ISN 10028, Haji Naseem (aka “Inayatullah”), resident of Cell E110 at Camp 6, was hearing “noises” in his head. It was his 18th month at the U.S. Navy-based prison in southeastern Cuba.

Naseem had arrived at Guantanamo after three months imprisonment at Bagram Detention Center in Afghanistan. The date was a good one for propaganda purposes: September 11, 2007, the sixth anniversary of 9/11.

By October he had been placed in one of Guantanamo’s more obscure settings, Camp Echo. The small complex of buildings was separate from the much larger Camp Delta, and held at most two dozen prisoners. It was known for harsh solitary confinement, and was said to consist of high-value prisoners headed for prosecution at the Bush Administration’s new Military Commissions. It may also have housed at one time a CIA black site.

At the start, Guantanamo interrogators found their new prisoner “somewhat cooperative.” But within a few months, Naseem told interrogators that all the information he previously had provided had been a “lie.” Later, he would tell a psychiatrist provided by his defense attorney that he was coerced to cooperate with interrogators by threats to himself and his family, and because at Bagram he had been kept in a dark prison cell and subjected to sleep deprivation.

Nonplussed, the interrogators told him, “cooperation was the only thing that is going to get [you] out of GTMO.”

By January 2008, it was clear that Naseem was having psychiatric difficulties. Four months earlier, in an initial psychiatric assessment during in-processing, Guantanamo medical personnel recorded that he complained of “mild depression and anxiety symptoms.”

But an interrogation report on January 9, 2008 stated that a linguist told Naseem’s interrogator that the prisoner was mentally ill, or “could be getting depressed and incoherent.” Despite this, he was not seen again by mental health personnel for over a year, when on March 3, 2009, he told medical personnel he was hearing “noises” in his head.

Naseem also told the doctors that he had a history of auditory hallucinations dating back to when he was 15 years old. He explained that as a result “he had been hospitalized and treated with medications,” according to a Summary of Behavioral Health Services Care written after Naseem died.

The psychotic episode in March 2009 subsided after eight days. By March 11, Naseem said he was no longer having either hallucinations or suicidal thoughts.

He did, however, tell his doctors that he believed “other detainees were accusing him of being a spy.” We shall see that this was not mere paranoia.

“Lost all hope”

In fact, Naseem was worried that tales of his cooperating with the Americans would get back to Afghanistan and bring retribution upon his brother, his wife, and his six children. U.S. interrogators had already played upon the prisoner’s fears that something bad could happen to his brother, Hidayatullah.

In a very early interrogation at Guantanamo, on September 28, 2007, the interrogator told Naseem his “brother could get killed or arrested.” The U.S. government was accusing he and his brother of helping a local Al Qaeda figure. The interrogator told Naseem Al Qaeda “did not care about what happened to [his] brother.” He said Naseem shouldn’t worry about Hidayatullah but about himself.

Naseem was very close with his brother. His father had died when both of them were young. Afterward, his mother had married his father’s brother. There were other children from this second marriage, and Hidayatullah was his only full sibling.

Naseem also worried about his family, who he loved. His youngest child was only two years old when Naseem was sent to the U.S. detention site at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan. (Hidayatullah also seems to have been sent to Bagram at some point. It’s not clear whatever happened to him.)

There was more to worry about in his immediate situation. He was aware of “rumors” in the camp about his working with his captors. How could other detainees know about this? he asked his interrogators.

But the captors kept pressing him for more information, until Naseem said he could not cooperate any further. As a December 3, 2008 interrogation report explained, Naseem concluded he “had to refuse interrogations in order not to be seen as a spy.”

The “Collector,” whose job was to analyze the events of that day’s interrogation, concluded Naseem had reason to be afraid, yet oddly at the same time saw the refusal as a ruse.

“The detainee’s reasons for refusal are valid,” the Collector wrote in his report, “but… there is a potential that his new stress is a counter interrogation technique.”

On August 7, 2008, Naseem reported he was having dreams that he would be charged of crimes by the Americans and would therefore spend a long time in prison. His interrogator wrote that Naseem told him he had “lost all hope of ever going home and now knows that everything at GTMO is designed to keep detainees and not release them.”

At the same interrogation session, Naseem again recanted all his previous statements. The interrogators concluded, “The detainee is being influenced by other detainees.” Influenced how, they didn’t say.

One thing the camp authorities did do for Naseem was get him out of Camp Echo. He was sent to the more communal prison site at Camp 6 and remained there until hospitalized after a self-harm attempt in March 2009. He would remain in Guantanamo’s psychiatric ward — the Behavioral Health Unit — for the next 19 months.

Naseem was not the only detainee to have worries about being a government informant or otherwise providing information to interrogators. Other detainees are known to have cooperated with interrogators over the years, including Mohamadou Ould Slahi, author of the celebrated book, Guantanamo Diary. Like Slahi and Naseem, a number were tortured or threatened before they gave information.

According to government documents, Abdul Rahman al-Amri, a Saudi detainee who supposedly hanged himself in his cell in Guantanamo’s Camp V in 2007, had been a “very cooperative” prisoner, and like Naseem, had been deemed a “detainee of interest.”

Al-Amri also expressed anxiety to his captors about other detainees thinking he was “helping the Americans,” as he was seen so often talking with interrogators.

“A spy in the camp”

One detainee who took pains to hide his informant status was Harun al-Afghani, aka Haroon Gul (ISN 3148), who was held in Camp Echo at the same time as Naseem. Like Naseem, he was also brought to Guantanamo in 2007.

In a January 17, 2009 meeting al-Afghani told his interrogators that he “played like he is a different person in the camp because he doesn’t want the other detainees to think he was a spy or cooperated with the US government.”

In the same meeting, Al-Afghani mentioned that “everyone” thought that Naseem “was a spy,” because another detainee, Zain Ulla Bidden (ISN 1095) “told everyone before he left [Guantanamo] that [Naseem] was a spy.” Hence, there was no way Guantanamo intelligence and camp authorities did not know that Naseem had been outed in the camps. (As for al-Afghani, he remains one of forty prisoners left in “forever” detention at Guantanamo.)

In late February 2009, the FBI suddenly showed up asking Naseem questions about his family. Naseem was very upset by this visit. He complained to his interrogator that his family was “completely innocent.”

Shortly after the FBI visit, Naseem was physically attacked by another detainee, Shawali Khan (ISN 899), in Camp Echo’s recreation yard. Khan reportedly accused him of being an “American spy.” Naseem said Khan attacked him while he was sitting down in the yard. The fight was apparently quickly broken up.

According to Naseem, several detainees had told him in the recreation yard that they knew he was a “spy” as far back as Bagram, because they’d seen him at Bagram making phone calls. Only “American spies” were allowed to make phone calls home, the detainees believed. Naseem pressed his captors for “assurances” that he and his family would be safe if he were to continue to cooperate.

For the Americans, however, Naseem’s cooperation always seemed dubious. They felt he was not providing the information they believed he really had.

On March 21, Naseem’s interrogator observed in that day’s interrogation report that Naseem seemed “genuinely concerned of being perceived as a spy in the camp.” The interrogator noted he would speak to his team chief about the situation. It’s not known if he or she did, or what if anything happened as a result of that.

In Guantanamo’s Psychiatric Unit

Two weeks later, on March 26 , 2009— two weeks after he assured doctors he had no hallucinations or suicidal thoughts — Naseem attempted to cut his throat. Discovered in his cell, he had lacerations on both sides of his neck. Naseem denied harming himself, and attributed the wounds to an attack by Djinn, or “Central Asian ghosts,” as Guantanamo medical personnel described the term.

Later doctors discovered he had seen the “djinn” before. Two of them “would stand in front of his cell and throw rocks at him.” (See the “Summary of Behavioral Health Services Care” on page 137 of the AR 15–6 release.)

Naseem survived, but spent the next year and a half in a cell in the BHU, Guantanamo’s psychiatric ward.

U.S. Naval Hospital, Guantanamo Bay Gitmo staff participates in an emergency room training exercise. — U.S. Navy photo by Photographer’s Mate Airman Randall Damm [Public domain]

Very little is known of this time spent in the BHU. But we do know that three weeks after he entered Guantanamo’s psychiatric ward, Naseem attempted suicide again by cutting both of his arms. He told doctors that Djinn were responsible for this attack, too.

According to the BHU psychiatrist, writing retrospectively after Naseem’s death, the Afghan detainee never did rescind his belief in the attacks by the Djinn, and seemed “genuinely convinced” of their reality.

A week or so after he cut his arms inside the Behavioral Health Unit, another detainee also held inside Guantanamo’s BHU, Mohammed al-Hanashi, was found dead in his cell, reportedly the victim of self-strangulation with the elastic from his underwear.

There is much to contradict government accounts of his death. Additionally, it is possible that Naseem saw or knew more about al-Hanashi’s death.

Authorities responded to finding al-Hanashi’s body by temporarily shutting down the Guantanamo computer system, the Detainee Information Management System, meant to document detainee activity inside the prison, an unprecedented event that precipitated an internal investigation by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS). Later, all BHU computerized records for the days surrounding al-Hanashi’s death disappeared.

Nineteen months is a long time to be held in a locked mental ward. After the slashing of his arms in the first month of his stay, most of Naseem’s actual progress in the BHU is not known. But a few facts have been reported.

Naseem began taking 2mg of Risperdal (resperidone) on April 22, 2009, or almost a month after entering the psychiatric ward. Risperdal is a powerful and sedating antipsychotic drug. Given that Naseem had psychotic symptoms and suicidal behavior prior to the prescription of Risperdal, one wonders what drugs, if any, he was given prior that point.

Nearly a year into his stay in the BHU, in February 2010 he complained of insomnia and was prescribed Ambien CR (continuous release). But records indicate he stopped less the sleeping pill after approximately a month. Later, he was caught hoarding medications, although it was unclear if this was for an overdose attempt, or because he just didn’t want to take the pills.

His diagnosis by Guantanamo’s mental health unit was Psychotic Disorder NOS (not otherwise specified). In the Behavioral Health Services Summary written after his death, the BHS psychiatrist diagnosed Naseem as having Major Depressive Disorder, Severe with psychotic features.

Naseem continued to take the antipsychotic drug Resperdal, 2mg each day, after he left the BHU. The dose was reduced to 1mg about three weeks after he returned to Camp Echo.

Broken Promises

When Naseem finally was released from the BHU in October 2010, it was back to the interrogations, the fear over exposure, the fears over his family’s safety, the fears of being beaten or sent back to a small, dark cell, like he was kept in at Bagram, where he did not see the sun for months.

He felt embittered about broken “promises” made to him by U.S. interrogators at Bagram during his three month stay there. Despite certain “promises,” presumably of lighter treatment or even of release, after he “cooperated” with the Americans he was sent to Guantanamo. The Bagram interrogator had “lied” to him, and he was leery now about “promises” from interrogators.

On April 29, 2011, guards noted in the record that Naseem was seen talking with Guantanamo’s HUMINT or Human Intelligence Collection Team, presumably interrogators. In early May 2011, he fired his military psychiatrist and asked to be moved to a more isolated environment in the camp, somewhere distant from other detainees.

Previously, Naseem had been meeting with this psychiatrist, who was a woman, every two weeks after his release from the BHU unit.

Behavioral Health Services personnel planned to meet with Naseem again on May 18. They wanted to see if he possibly changed his mind about foregoing visits with the psychiatrist. But the meeting never happened. Around 3:50 am, the morning of May 18, Naseem was discovered by guards hanging from by an improvised noose made of bedsheets from the top pole of the small recreation “pen” adjoining his cell. His feet were hanging above the ground.

Recreation Yard at Guantanamo’s Camp Echo — U.S. government photo in public domain.

Half an hour after the grisly discovery, and as guards still applied CPR to the dead or dying prisoner, an assistant officer-in-charge who came over from nearby Camp Five was perturbed. The call had gone out for an ambulance five times, and still no ambulance had arrived.

Ultimately, Nassem was transferred to the Detainee Hospital, where he was pronounced dead. Did Naseem kill himself? Was he possibly killed by other detainees, who were angry about his cooperation with the Americans, or by perhaps by guards?

Surveillance of Detainees of Interest

Standard Operating Procedures for Camp Echo allowed for a very limited number of other detainees to be in the recreation yards at the same time. There was another detainee out in the recreation yard the night Naseem died, but he was supposedly in a yard in a different quadrant. The records of what other detainees in Naseem’s quadrant were doing that night — part of the computerized Detainee Information Management System, or DIMS — were all redacted in the declassified release of the Army’s report.

The Army report that looked into Naseem’s death said the detainee had killed himself. A “history of auditory hallucinations, self-inflicted lacerations, and mental health issues… likely contributed to his motivation to self-harm.”

There was no mention in the report that any of Naseem’s experiences at Bagram or Guantanamo had anything to do with killing himself. There was no allusion in the autopsy report, as there was in the case of the supposed suicide death of Mohamed Al-Hanashi, that harsh “conditions of confinement” were connected with Naseem’s psychotic wish to harm himself.

“Applicable Standard Operating Procedures (SOP) and other pertinent JTF-GTMO orders in effect at that time were professionally followed…” the Army’s report said.

“However,” the report continued, “due to confusion and misunderstandings about an ambiguous aspect of the JDG [Joint Detention Group] SOP, the guard force did not strictly follow the specific JDG SOP requirement to conduct [one word redacted] checks on all Detainees of Interest (DOIs).”

The redaction likely refers to “line-of-sight” or direct, continuous eyeball observation.

While much about the kinds of checks at Camp Echo at the time of Naseem’s death is redacted in the Army’s AR 15–6 report, it seems unlikely that anything unusual happened in relation to procedures inside Camp Echo on the day Naseem died. What was unusual were the procedures in Camp Echo, which were different than those of any other camp.

Member of U.S. Army Guard Force checks on a detainee in Camp 5 on Aug. 6, 2007. (JTF-GTMO photo by Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Michael Billings — Public Domain)

While we can’t know for sure due to censorship what kind of checks guards were supposed to do on DOIs, we do know that at least two other detainees who died of supposed suicide at Guantanamo were DOIs, Abdul Rahman al Amri and Adnan Latif.

According to a 2012 interview by Jason Leopold with Guantanamo spokesperson Captain Robert Durand, Detainees of Interest were so designated “if they represent a threat to themselves, other detainees, the guard force or good order and discipline in the camps.”

According to Durand, DOIs were subject to “continuous checks” every 60 seconds.

Interestingly, in what appears to be a slip up by government censors, who normally redacted any indication of how many Camp Echo detainees were DOIs, one official (not a regular guard) who worked at Camp Echo the night Naseem died indicated in his sworn statement that to his knowledge at Camp Echo “all of the detainees were detainees of interest” (see pg. 437, item 10 of the AR 15–6 report).

The Joint Detention Group SOP states, “Any detainee who is considered at increased risk of suicide will be designated a DOI.” The Behavioral Science Consultation Team (BSCT), which usually included psychologists, were to make an Operational Threat Assessment on any DOI detainee, and determine risk of suicide. Detainees with a high risk level were assigned Acute Self Harm Procedures protection measures.

(Interestingly, one document released with the Army’s AR 15–6 report states that BSCT staff were also responsible for training guards at Camp Echo in the “elicitation” of information from prisoners.)

Given that all detainees at Camp Echo were DOIs, it’s difficult to believe they were there for suicidality, or were even mainly high-risk. One wonders if some kind of experiment wasn’t happening at Camp Echo. Certainly it has been documented that experiments on prisoners did occur at Guantanamo.

In his book Guantanamo: My Journey (unpublished in the United States), former detainee David Hicks, who like Naseem was imprisoned in Guantanamo’s Camp Echo, described how a guard would sit just outside a diamond wire partition next to his cell and watch him constantly, making notes all day long about what he was doing every fifteen minutes.

This kind of direct behavioral monitoring is consistent with techniques used in observational study.

“Certain privileges”

Despite the fact some DOI’s were supposedly at risk of self-harm, the discipline in Camp Echo seemed much looser than in other camps.

One Memorandum for the Record, dated July 14, 2011, stated, “Camp Echo was a more lenient camp and the detainees had more privileges given them than the other camps.”

Army investigators looking into the causes of Naseem’s death heard about how Camp Echo was different. The Assistant Officer in Charge at Camp V, who had responded to an emergency call guards when Naseem was found, said, “My authority in Camp Echo is limited because the detainees are treated uniquely.”

A different guard told investigators that guards were not responsible for determining how long a detainee spent in the recreation yards. Guards were also not responsible for inspecting the detainee’s cells, hence this guard could not answer a question regarding exactly how many bedsheets each prisoner had at Echo.

This situation was memorialized by the author of the AR 15–6 report in a memo to the Commander at U.S. Southern Command on July 21, 2011. “Not locking a detainee’s cell while he was at recreation was the standard practice and in the SOP…. the Echo guard force does not know how many linen a detainee has on a daily basis.”

The investigating officer added, “Due to the number of self-harm items detainees are allowed to have in Camp Echo, I recommend that no self-harm detainees should be allowed to live there.”

“A lot of stuff that they have in Camp Echo is not in SOP” — Statement of anonymous camp personnel, dated 5/25/2011, pg. 390, AR 15–6 report.

In another example of different procedures for detainees at Camp Echo, visits to doctors were not scheduled, as the doctors simply came to the detainee’s cell.

One statement given to Army investigators from someone whose identity is redacted speaks to the special situation that appears to have existed in Camp Echo. “A lot of stuff that they have in Camp Echo is not in SOP,” this person stated, contradicting assertions made by camp senior leadership.

In addition, the Executive Officer to the 525 MP Battalion, to which the guards belonged, told investigators that many of the procedures in the SOP “were out of date.”

The different level of security around Camp Echo detainees bothered the guards. According to the Assistant Officer in Charge at Camp Echo, guards complained to their superiors about detainees being able to use the recreation yards whenever they wanted, and about the difficulty maintaining visual contact on detainees when they did.

Camp leadership allowed Camp Echo’s detainees “certain privileges,” and guards’ complaints “went unaccepted until this incident,” the Camp V Assistant Officer in Charge (AOIC) told Army investigators.

“Many soldiers don’t want to work in Camp Echo because it has too many gray areas and information is not clearly articulated and posted,” the AOIC said.

Though the many redactions make it difficult to fully understand the controversies over type and timing of detainee checks discussed in the AR 15–6 report, it appears that over time the continuous, “line-of-sight” kind of check that was required for Detainees of Interest morphed into irregular, periodic checks.

Entry from March 6, 2011 “Camp Echo Westside/Backside Guard Pass On Log,” Exhibit 41 in AR 15–6 report.

One guard, labelled Westside 3, who was among the first detainees to find Naseem hanging, told investigators, “When the detainees are out at recreation we are suppose [sic] to check on them randomly.”

The final AR 15–6 report made it clear that a large and constant turn-over in guard force personnel at Camp Echo negatively impacted the situation at the detention site.

Another possible complication may have flowed from the fact that in April 2011, daytime guard training at Camp Echo had been suspended, in order to shorten the amount of hours guards worked. The shifts were too long, and the shortening of hours was “for morale reasons,” the Chief of Operations for the 525th MP Battalion told Army investigators.

There had been no training sessions in the month prior to Naseem’s death.

While detainees were monitored constantly by closed circuit video camera, some areas of the camp were not so covered, including the small recreation pen where Naseem was found hanging. Documents recently declassified show that when a video monitor lost visual on a detainee, they were to radio guards and “acquire a visual on the detainee and give confirmation of his wellbeing.”

But “when detainees are in the enclosed rec pen verbal feedback from the detainee is acceptable.” It is hard to imagine anywhere else in the high-surveillance, high-security environment of Guantanamo where a verbal assurance from a detainee was sufficient to offset a visual confirmation of their status.

With all the emphasis in the government investigation about how guards’ surveillance failed in the small recreation yard where Naseem died, almost no notice is made of the fact that the detainee’s cell, and the areas outside his cell and leading to the recreation area were under constant video surveillance. IN fact, detainees had complained about how this constant surveillance made them feel like animals in a zoo.

How could it be possible then that Naseem (or any other detainee) could take a bedsheet out of their cell and carry it to the recreation yard without being seen or noticed?

Leaving aside other more sinister possibilities, one possible answer is that the Monitor, whose job it was to check the camera feed, was negligent in his or her job, or overwhelmed by the amount of camera surveillance, with probably dozens of screens, he or she was supposed to do. Indeed, one military observer implied that the Monitor job was perhaps overburdened.

Other possible evidence appears unaddressed in the Army’s report. For instance, was there a forensic examination made of the bedsheet? We just don’t know. Aside from the autopsy and toxicology reports, Army investigation never mentions forensic evidence (unless it was mentioned in some redacted section of the report).

An Ominous Email

The day before Naseem died, on May 17, the Deputy Commander of the Joint Detention Group (JDG), Guantanamo, was sensing something amiss. He thought there was “a lot of tension in the camps.” He sent an email to the J2, or intelligence chief, sending copies to “applicable staff and camp leadership,” according to a memorandum by the Army investigating officer, appended to the AR 15–6 report.

Slide from Powerpoint presentation at Guantanamo training, an exhibit in the Army AR 15–6 release.

“Too many items are lining up that I don’t like…” the JDG Deputy wrote. “I am not trying to be ‘chicken little,’ but I also don’t want a repeat of 2006 or anything even close.”

In June 2006, three detainees had been found dead in their cells. The government said they had hanged themselves as an act of “asymmetrical warfare.” But their autopsies said they died of asphyxiation, not hanging. And a guard nearby later said he sawwhat looked like detainee movement the night they died, taking three prisoners to and from a secret CIA interrogation site at the base.

When this author was investigating the suicides of two other detainees who died in 2007 and 2009, I was able to show that the government itself had discovered that the guards’ headcount, which placed the detainees in their beds just before they would have killed (or hang themselves), had been falsified.

Strangely, it was also true that another email warning about a detainee’s possible suicide was sent to the guards’ commander the day that Adnan Latif, the last detainee to die of purported suicide at Guantanamo, was found dead in 2012.

In any case, there was no follow-up regarding the Deputy JDG’s email warning in any of the documents released by the government thus far.

The Night He Died

The night Naseem was discovered hanging, Camp Echo’s Officer in Charge said he asked one of the “backside” guards responsible for watching Naseem what time the prisoner had asked to go to the recreation yard.

As the Officer in Charge told government investigators, “The guard said that 10028 did not ask to go to rec. I asked the guard, ‘How did he get outside of this cell?’ and he replied that the cell was not locked. So I asked the guard why was the cell unlocked and he said he didn’t lock it and didn’t know he was supposed to lock the cell. After learning this, I was upset and walked around.”

In fact, as Army investigators discovered, it was Standard Operating Procedure to leave prisoner cell doors open when detainees went out to recreation. On the day he died, Naseem had spent hours in the Echo westside recreation pen — the camp’s computerized records showed he had gone to the rec yard around 8pm — mostly attending to a garden there, and had been able to freely walk back and forth from the “pen” to his cell.

DIMS readout charting detainee’s actions, including by time, in the days leading up to his death. From AR 15–6 report, pg. 557.

To the Command Sergeant Major of MP Battalion 525, Naseem’s death “all came down to the watch force lost accountability of this detainee.”

There is a lot that is mysterious about both the death of Haji Naseem and the detainee operations at Camp Echo. For instance, the timeline and circumstances surrounding the ambulance that took Naseem to the Detainee Hospital is heavily redacted.

But the general outline of events seems pretty clear. The last known or admitted contact with Naseem was at 3:30am, when three “backside” guards saw Naseem at the entrance to the recreation area.

The prisoner and the guards made eye contact with each other. Everything seemed “normal.” Naseem appeared to have been doing a lot of work in the small garden in the area that evening. It was not unusual for detainees to work outside in recreation yards at night, because it was cooler than during the hot Caribbean daytime hours.

The guards discovered Naseem hanging from a bedsheet tied into a noose sometime between 3:45 and 3:50am. He was motionless, hanging from the top pole of the fencing in the small recreation yard not far from his cell. By their own testimony, no guard saw the detainee bring the sheet into the yard.

The guards called for help. Naseem was hanging above the ground, possibly he had stepped off a small white plastic chair that was seen just below his feet.

The guards had trouble finding scissors or shears to cut him down. More than one person tried to lift Naseem’s body up, the better to get at the noose and cut it off. Finally someone found some garden shears and they were able to cut him down. Medical personnel started to arrive about ten minutes after guards made the grisly discovery.

The guards began CPR, and could feel a femoral pulse. By 4:00, personnel on the scene felt no wrist pulse, and Naseem’s pupils seemed “fixed.” The detainee looked dead and was unresponsive. When later an automated external defibrillator (AED) was attached to his body, his heart did not have any rhythm (was “asystole”) that allowed for its use. The AED was prompted multiple times, but each time it showed no shock was required.

The ambulance was sent from another camp, even though there was one parked outside Camp Echo itself. The Senior Nurse Executive from Joint Medical Group told Army investigators that this was due to “staffing requirements.” The SNE felt the delay was only “slight” and “would have unlikely changed any outcome.”

Even so, the ambulance had to be called five times, and arrived a full 35 minutes after Naseem was discovered. It took about 10 minutes more to get him to the hospital, where fruitless attempts to revive him with IV and epinephrine ended with pronouncement of death by the Senior Medical Officer on scene at 4:53 am, approximately an hour after he was initially found by the guards.

A chaplain arrived on the scene and tried to calm those present. He said a prayer. Guards were told to watch the other detainees via “line-of-sight” continuous surveillance during the emergency. One of the detainees requested to speak to an Arabic interpreter. Unfortunately, no testimony from this detainee or any of the other detainees at Camp Echo was included in documents released, assuming that it was even gathered by investigators.

Currently, the Trump administration maintains that Guantanamo may still be used for new prisoners, even as 40 detainees remain there with no hope of release. Recently, the government opened a padded cell for Guantanamo detainees with severe psychiatric problems.

It seems so easy for an individual to be lost in Guantanamo, forgotten and imprisoned for what seems like forever. That is why it’s important to remember that these people are individuals, with families, dreams, foibles and weaknesses. That they, like us, are all-too-human.

So who really was Haji Naseem?

“Inayatullah”

The Pentagon called him Inayatullah. In a Department of Defense press release the government maintained “Inayatullah” was an Afghan national “captured as a result of ongoing DoD operations in the struggle against violent extremists in Afghanistan.”

The exact date of his capture is not known, but apparently was late May or early June 2007. He was an Afghan national, a Balochi by ethnicity, and a Sunni Muslim. For years, he ran a small dried fruit business near Quetta, Pakistan. Later he moved to a town in Iran, where he ran a grocery and mobile phone business .The government alleged some of the traffic in mobile phones was illegal.

Naseem’s involvement with Al Qaeda supposedly began when he, and later his brother, were asked to temporarily house the wife and child of an Al Qaeda figure. Naseem refused to do this, though whether he ultimately was pressured to do so is not clear.

In any case, if Naseem was no “terrorist” or “enemy combatant.” The evidence in government documents shows that he was at most a very reluctant participant in anything having to do with Al Qaeda.

Nevertheless, the U.S. government maintained that its new prisoner supposedly had been “the Al Qaeda Emir of Zahedan, Iran, and planned and directed Al Qaeda terrorist operations.” The captive, in his mid-30s when he arrived at Guantanamo, was said to have confessed “to facilitating the movement of foreign fighters, significantly contributing to trans-national terrorism across multiple borders.”

The government described how Inayatullah “met with local operatives, developed travel routes and coordinated documentation, accommodation and vehicles for smuggling unlawful combatants throughout countries including Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan and Iraq.”

But if Inayatullah, aka Haji Naseem, confessed to some of these things as a result of coercive conditions amounting to torture after his capture at the American’s Bagram prison in Afghanistan, he recanted these confessions over and over again during his time at Guantanamo, even as early as December 2007.

“Forced to say things”

Naseem maintained that the government’s own records showed that he complied with Al Qaeda only when he was forced to. When confronted by interrogators on December 27, 2007 that someone named Abu Sulayman told the Americans that Naseem had been made Al Qaeda’s Emir of Zahedrin in October 2006, Naseem replied, “Abu Salayman is a fucking liar.”

“Detainee does not use profanity very often,” the interrogator noted in his report. But rather than telling the truth, U.S. intelligence felt that Naseem was “likely shutting down due to his interaction with other detainees in Camp Echo…”

The released and declassified interrogation reports released by the Pentagon are not complete, but of the 45 available, as well as the 31 intelligence reports based on Naseem’s interrogations (all available at GuantanamoTruth.com), many, if not most, describe Naseem as uncooperative, or uncertain about cooperating.

Naseem told his interrogators in February 2008 that he believed that other prisoners back in Afghanistan were making up things about him. He told them one man, Hajji Qayamuddin, told falsehoods about him after Qayamuddin was beaten in a Pakistani prison and “forced to say things.”

In June 2008, Naseem was given a chance to appear at a Combatant Status Review Tribunal (CSRT). The CSRTs had been established after a 2004 Supreme Court ruling found that Guantanamo prisoners had certain procedural rights. The purpose of the CSRT was to determine a prisoner’s status, whether he or she were in fact an “enemy combatant.”

At first, Naseem refused to participate or even meet with his government appointed Personal Representative. Instead, he protested he had been treated “like a dog (i.e., having to be placed in level 4 restraint).”

Close-up of section of Army’s AR 15-6 report on Naseem’s death, pg. 129 of PDF release  — Yellow highlight in original.

Other documents released by the government in Naseem’s case include instructions on how guards should handle detainees in straitjacket or “double litters” restraints. While it can’t be certain what constituted “level 4 restraint” at Guantanamo, it likely included restraint of arms, legs, torso, and head.

While the government saw fit to highlight the issue of checking on prisoners in high-level restraints in the accompanying documentation to the AR 15–6 report, there is nothing in the redacted version of the report available that would explain why they included it, except this reference by Naseem himself about being “treated like a dog” by being put in heavy restraints.

Ultimately, Naseem was encouraged to participate in his CSRT review. He testified a few days after his initial refusal, but the government couldn’t have been happy with the result. The official government document on the review says, “detainee stated that he was innocent and the charges against him were baseless.”

Naseem maintained he did not help move Al Qaeda personnel from Iran to Pakistan. He did not receive any money to act as an AQ facilitator. He was not an “enemy combatant.” In fact, he wished the United States would “stop the al Qaeda like they did the Soviets.”

Whether or not one accepts the government’s narrative about who Naseem really was, it can’t be denied that he was one of the last detainees to arrive at Guantanamo, rendered from Bagram to the Cuba-based naval prison on September 11, 2007. Less than four years later he was dead.

No one could explain how the prisoner could smuggle a bed sheet past guards into a recreation yard. No one really even knew who he was, beyond the government’s claims at the time of his death that “Inayatullah” was “an admitted planner for al Qaida terrorist operations” who helped smuggle “al Qaida belligerents through Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan and Iraq.”

Indeed, at the time of his death his identity seemed swathed in mystery. He was one of a handful of Guantanamo detainees who were not included in the 2011 Wikileaks release of DoD assessment briefs of the hundreds of prisoners held by the U.S. Even the camp where he was found dead at was kept secret for years.

Only after his death did his attorney, Paul Rashkind, a Federal public defender in Florida, tell the world his client’s real name: Haji Naseem.

(Naseem’s real name is spelled many different ways, and I have used the form the U.S. government finally settled on. Paul Rashkind told the author via email that he would have “no comment” on this article.)

Rashkind also earlier revealed that his client had profound mental health issues, beginning in childhood. In a May 19, 2011 interview with the Miami Herald’s Carol Rosenberg, he said of Naseem’s death, “I have no doubt it was a suicide.”

Speaking of Naseem’s Guantanamo captors, Rashkind reportedly said, “they treated him pretty humanely, I’d have to say.”

But only a little more than a year later, in a legal filing in Naseem’s habeas lawsuit against the government, Rashkind criticized “the coercive conditions of Mr. Nassim’s confinement and interrogation sessions,” citing specifically threats of beating, threats of imprisoning his family, sleep deprivation, and confinement in small, dark cells. (See Naseem’s reply to the government’s “factual return” embedded at the end of this article.)

Indeed, these forms of torture were the reasons Naseem told a psychiatric examiner that he decided to provide information to the Americans.

For their part, the intelligence agencies always felt Naseem was withholding information from them. But it may be that Naseem just didn’t know that much, as he either was not really involved in terrorist activities, or was such a small player that he really didn’t know much.

A portion of “Unclassified Notes of Interview Conducted by Emily Keram, M.D. (11/10/10)”, published as an annex to Naseem’s attorney’s August 2012 response to the U.S. “factual return” in his habeas lawsuit.

In an examination of government documents, including redacted reports of some of his interrogations, part of a government factual release in Naseem’s federal habeas lawsuit, and the recent release of the Army’s AR 15–6 report on his death, a picture is revealed that is very contrary to government reports in almost every way. (The AR 15–6 report was obtained via FOIA lawsuit by reporter Jason Leopold, and provided to this reporter by U.S. Southern Command’s FOIA office.)

Camp Echo

A November 2012 GAO report to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence described Camp Echo as housing “compliant detainees in shared settings.”

Department of Defense photo of Camp Echo cell, with attached personal shower [Public domain].

“Camp Echo consists of 10 wooden hut-like structures, with each detainee’s housing unit containing a sleeping cell and a personal living area. Detainees assigned to Camp Echo may recreate together up to 20 hours per day,” the report stated.

According to a Guantanamo “primer” published by the Miami Herald, besides being used as a “as a meeting site between captives and their lawyers,” Camp Echo exists as a “segregation site for captives who can’t mix with others.” The Herald didn’t elaborate on that.

According to a 2008 Human Rights Watch report, Camp Echo was “previously used as interrogation and isolation units,” but was closed in 2004 and later reopened and “primarily used to house detainees deemed unsuitable for communal living in Camp 4.”

“Doors to the sheds have reportedly been replaced with bars that allow in natural light, and detainees are reportedly allowed to move freely between the cell, shower area, and small interrogation room in each shed,” the report stated, based on a May 2008 interview with a DoD official.

Again, it’s not stated why the detainees were “deemed unsuitable.”

A Washington Post article in December 2004 stated that part of Camp Echo was used as a CIA interrogation site in the early years at Guantanamo. In subsequent years, it was used to hold detainees presumed to be tried by Guantanamo’s military commissions. A portion of the facility was also used for detainee-lawyer meeting rooms, and for meetings with the International Red Cross.

In 2013, a controversy arose when attorneys for military commissions defendants discovered that listening devices were being used in the rooms where they met with their detainee clients. Camp Echo was apparently riddled with surveillance devices, both audio and video.

It is intriguing to wonder why Naseem was moved from one cell to another within Camp Echo eight times in the first two months he was there. It seems possible this frequent change of cell was meant to help disorient a prisoner, part of the process of “breaking down” detainees in their first months at Guantanamo.

Prior to Naseem’s arrival at Guantanamo, JTF-GTMO authorities utilized something called the “frequent-flyer” program to move detainees around as a way to sleep deprive them. There was also a similar unofficial program. But whether either of these was active in 2007 is unknown.

The period from December 2007 through May 2008 was unusually quiet, as Naseem stayed in the same cell throughout that period. However, some of the interrogation notes from that same time show that Naseem was not necessarily cooperating with interrogators during at a good deal of that period. Hence, it seems unlikely that the cessation of cell movement was due to cooperation. It may have been due to his mental status.

On June 3, 2008 Naseem was suddenly moved again. Then three days later he was transferred to Camp 6, a transfer that came after Naseem requested he be taken out of Camp Echo. He remained in Camp 6 until his hospitalization in March 2009.

After he was released from the BHU on October 25, 2010, he was returned to Camp Echo, where was allowed to keep the same cell until the day he died. His last home at Guantanamo would be the morgue.

This article originally appeared on Jeffrey Kaye’s Medium page.

Categories: News for progressives

In Salinas, Puerto Rico, Vulnerable Americans Are Still Trapped in the Ruins Left by Hurricane Maria

Fri, 2019-03-15 15:58

Socorro Rolon’s house. Photo: Stan Cox.

Abandoned by their country, residents refuse to accept the idea that they will never recover.

Nearly a year and a half after Hurricane Maria, about three-fourths of the houses in the Sierra Brava neighborhood of Salinas, Puerto Rico stand battered and empty.

Some families left because their homes were rendered uninhabitable and they had no money to fix them. Others left because they lost their jobs. In responding to Maria, federal agencies had hired some local people, but just for a few months; meanwhile, many other jobs disappeared and have not come back.

Sierra Brava lies low along the south side of PR Route 3 in the shadow of Salinas City Hall. Go for a walk through its now largely silent streets, and one residence in particular will catch your eye. On a corner along Calle Abraham Peña, the neighborhood’s four-block-long main avenue, stands a small grey house trimmed in bright blue and topped by a blue plastic tarp. It is in even worse shape than some of the abandoned houses. But Wilma Miranda Ramos still calls it home.

The hurricane shifted Wilma’s ramshackle little box on its foundation, separating the front and rear halves and giving it a distinct sideways tilt. Thanks to waters that flooded down the nearby Río Nigua from the mountains on the day of the storm, the floors now undulate wildly and give underfoot. Large portions of the ceiling are gone, and blue light streams in through the tarp above. Water pours in with every rainfall.

Wilma explained that she’d been living there six years, but because the house was not hers, she could get no help with repairs. “Now I have a stitched-together roof,” she said, “but as I have nowhere to go I’m still here. Staying here in these conditions is not easy. But since I have my daughter and grandson of four years here with me, living here and not in the street is worth gold.”

Certain now that no federal help will be coming, Wilma said, “I hope my guardian angel arrives soon.”

In the summer of Maria, the region around Salinas had an unemployment rate that hovered between 15 and 20 percent and a poverty rate of 54%. The median household income in Salinas was a little over $16,000. The city was in economic decline, rendering it deeply vulnerable to devastation by any hurricane, and the monstrous Maria was not just any hurricane.

More than a century of U.S. colonial rule, culminating in a harsh federal plan to deal with the island’s debt to vulture capitalists, guaranteed that Maria’s destructive force would be multiplied by socioeconomic vulnerability. To make matters worse, federal disaster assistance to Puerto Ricans after Maria was much smaller and was doled out much more slowly than the assistance that went to Texas and Florida after hurricanes Harvey and Irma that same season.

Across Puerto Rico, according to the New York Times, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which was responsible for awarding home-repair grants, rejected 58 percent of applications. When they did provide funds, the amount was often inadequate to restore a severely damaged house; the median grant was only $1,800, compared with about $9,127 in Texas after Harvey.

In Sierra Brava, only a lucky few managed to wrangle any home-restoration money out of FEMA. Roofs and the spaces where roofs used to be remain covered in blue tarp. The tap water is foul and undrinkable. Electricity was restored about four months after Maria, but with rates two to three times the cost of power on the mainland, people are falling farther and farther behind on their bills; as a result they now risk seeing their lights go out again, this time shut off by the power company.

Many houses in the neighborhood have been handed down within the same family for several generations, some going all the way back to Spanish rule. And that became many residents’ biggest problem. For almost a year after the storm, FEMA was approving repair funds only for those who could show proof of ownership, and many did not have sufficient documentation.

FEMA finally started accepting affidavits as proof of ownership last August but did not ensure that previously rejected homeowners were informed of the policy change. Anyway, by then, many had abandoned their ruined houses and moved away for good.

“It has just stayed the same way”

On a dead-end side street near Wilma’s home, another woman called us over to have a look at her house, a more substantial concrete structure with a vivid orange paint job and no roof. Throughout, jagged pieces of blue fabric hung from strands of rope above, as if in some ill-conceived art installation. The house was empty except for a stove and a refrigerator, and a couple of ruined mattresses.

The woman, Socorro Rolon, pointed to the shredded tarp. “This was given to me by the church, and I had to go look for some poles to hold it up, and me and a guy from the church put everything like this.” The tarp didn’t last long. “Everything got wet. My husband and I slept there on those old mattresses over there, and everything was wet, nothing could be saved.”

Socorro and her husband had taken refuge in Salinas’ emergency shelter during the hurricane. “When we returned from the shelter,” she said, “we found total destruction. So we went back to the shelter, but since my husband has had a stroke, we had to return to the house even though it was destroyed. We did what we could. The hurricane destroyed half the world over here. It took the street, and didn’t spare anyone.”

Maria survivors who received home-restoration money from FEMA could apply to a program called Tu Hogar Renace (Your Home Reborn), which sent crews to do repairs. Socorro and her husband received some FEMA money; she didn’t say how much. “So,” she said, “we signed up with Renace, and they came four times to check the house. I have a letter they sent, and it said the house couldn’t be fixed,” at least not for the amount of money they had. “It stayed like this, and we lived in it.” When life in a roofless house finally became unbearable, they rented a room in a neighbor’s house.

Tu Hogar Renace has received almost four thousand complaints about the quality or incompleteness of their work, and the Puerto Rican government has launched an investigation. But that won’t get Socorro out of her predicament. “So,” she said, “we have the house and a check that FEMA gave us, but they didn’t help anymore afterwards, and what we get from Social Security isn’t much. I get about $200 and he gets about $300 or so.”

Where they once lived for free in their own house, now, she said, “we are paying to live where we are because we cannot live on the street.”

In seeking help for home restoration, residents faced several obstacles. The closest FEMA office taking applications was in the city of Guayama, a half-hour drive east of Salinas. For car-less residents whose friends and neighbors had fled—and given the lack of a good public transportation system—that office might as well have been in Washington, DC. Those who could get themselves to Guayama found that application forms were in English, but at least the people in the office spoke Spanish.

Those calling the FEMA help line found non-Spanish-speaking employees on the other end. Residents could also apply online, but for four months after the hurricane, Sierra Brava had no electricity. Even if they got access to the Internet, senior citizens who had no family members nearby to help them were often stymied by the FEMA website. And for those who did get their applications submitted, the inspectors who came to check out their houses spoke only English; the documents they had to sign to receive compensation were also in English.

Waiting for FEMA . . .

Madeleine Flores Tenazoa, 30, had volunteered to be our guide and translator in Salinas. She is a kind of unofficial community organizer, deeply rooted in Sierra Brava. She showed us her grandmother’s house, which had been in her family for many decades. FEMA provided a paltry $400 to repair the home’s severely damaged roof and nothing to replace the contents of its flooded-out rooms.

Madeleine told us, “When they came, they asked, ‘Where is the furniture you lost? My grandma said it was all ruined, so it got hauled away. They said, ‘Well then we aren’t going to give you nothing, since we can’t see what you lost.’”

Her grandmother wasn’t the only one to have this problem, and word got around. In and around Salinas, we saw big curbside piles of ruined furniture and appliances, one bearing a hand-painted sign reading “No toque” (“Don’t touch”). Madeleine said that if city workers come now to remove the debris, “Those people say, ‘No, no, no! We are waiting for FEMA. They need to see what we lost!’ But come on, it’s been a year and a half. FEMA’s not coming.”

About a mile south of Sierra Brava is Playa de Salinas, the seafront area that Maria hit even harder than the central city. Riding through the area with Madeleine, we noticed an elderly woman sitting on a stack of concrete blocks in the dirt outside a small half-built house. She had a push broom with her and was shelling gandules—beans she’d plucked from the large bushes that grew nearby.

The woman, Fela Suren, called us over. She said she was “eighty something” years old. The house was being built for her by a local church, but the work was on pause until she or they could get more money together. Next to the unfinished house stood her longtime home, minus its roof and a couple of walls. It was clear that before Maria, it had been a larger, more attractive house than her new concrete-block one was going to be.

Most of Fela’s furniture and appliances sat exposed to the Caribbean sun and rain. A small, new section of roof covered only the kitchen area, which was now serving as Fela’s bedroom. The room was now open to the outdoors on one side. Her bed had big hardwood head- and foot-boards and was draped with  mosquito netting. Out back, her well’s hand pump still produced water, but it was a milky yellow color.

Fela said she has no family in Salinas, but she has good neighbors. One of them cooks meals for her and brings her water to drink. She spends her days tidying up in and around her ruined house and the construction site. As Fela spoke, she was all smiles. At eighty-something, she seemed to be leaving the past in the past and looking to the future. But in that future, she declared, “I never want to see anything like that hurricane again.”

The story of recovery from a devastating hurricane like Maria will always be a long and painful one—but it has to begin somewhere. For many residents of Puerto Rico, that story still hasn’t started. Until something changes, their story is one of survival, not recovery. It isn’t a nice one, but they want every one of us to hear it.

As Madeleine urged in a parting comment, “People need to come here and see how we are trying to live.”

Categories: News for progressives

Christchurch, the White Victim Complex and Savage Capitalism

Fri, 2019-03-15 15:58

Despite his own denials, anti-Muslim xenophobia underwrites the 74-page manifesto compiled by Australian mass murderer Brendan Tarrant. The title itself, The Great Replacement, references a far-right conspiracy theory holding that white genocide is being engineered by useful idiots amongst the liberal elite advocating mass migration, demographic growth and cultural diversity.

To this conspiracy theory, the failure to uphold cultural and racial supremacy is identified with the destruction of whites. The politics of the dummy spit underwrite the belief that acknowledging the existence of and respecting other cultures and ethnic groups is tantamount to the death of the Self. It reflects the mentality of the infantile ego, yet to discover the existence of others outside of the realm of the known, associated in practise with the ego.

It is not a little telling that this atrocity was carried out on the same day as the latest in a series of large-scale climate strikes by secondary students throughout Australia and the world. On the one side, those directly threatened by a very real crisis took active measures to do something positive and constructive. On the other, a small group of people preoccupied with the threat of the existence of others carried out a negative and destructive atrocity. The contrast could hardly be clearer.

What to make of the difference between the two? In an eponymous 2017 work, anthropologist Ghassan Hage enquires, is an environmental threat? Hage explicitly links the global rise in racism, demagoguery and bigotry, of which we can quite easily include this latest Christchurch massacre, with a reaction amongst elite groups to the social consequences of climate change.

In awakening a need for meaningful and profound social change amongst increasingly vast sectors of the world’s population, Hage argued, the climate crisis has come to present increasingly clear and present threats to elite privilege. It has done so in the main, he contended, through rude infringements of scientific fact and lived daily experience on the ideological mores that have upheld a world order of haves and have nots built on 500 years of colonialism.

Not the least of these was the Self vs. Other binary that had been at the core of what Edward Said called ‘Orientalism.’ Orientalism referred to the paternalistic frame of reference for subjugated peoples used to rationalise colonial extractivism as ‘civilising the savages’—a mentality with roots in the Roman propensity to view everyone not under their control as ‘barbarians,’ until they were ‘civilised’ (with all the attendant tributes for the imperial power).

Such formed the basis, Hage argued, for a tendency within advanced capitalism to oscillate between what he called‘savage’ and ‘civilised’ capitalism—the ‘savage’ being that of the racialised associated with the early period of colonialism. The ‘civilised,’ by contrast, was of the type commonly associated with modern industrial capitalism and the liberal democracies associated with it.

This oscillating tendency reflected in essence a scapegoating dynamic, deriving from the fact that capitalist development remained an ongoing process after it had reached an advanced stage. This was specially insofar as late capitalism is plagued by periodic crises driven by the tendency of the rate of profit to fall, or by democratic challenges from below. This, Hage argued, drove the oscillation between ‘civilised’ and ‘savage’ modes, as privileged elites returned to violence to rescue their privilege from the shortcomings of the system that upheld them, or from democracy, or from both.

Periodic returns to the ‘savage’ modalities and mentalities accompanying the conditions that produced its birth was encouraged then as a stopgap against crisis—in the manner documented by sociological research into moral panic and the documented tendency of elite-controlled corporate media to manufacture consent through scaremongering and the production of deviance. Herman and Chomsky produced a classic work exploring this phenomenon; more recent scholarship has identified moral panic in the process.

The Islamic bugbears and hobgoblins in particular were created as a result of the power of the corporate media to control the meaning of deviance and impose their definition on public discourse—not on the features of those so demonised. The global instability created by a world order in which the richest one percent owned half the world’s wealth and the richest ten percent owned ¾ of it could be blamed on the Islamic Other.

Which brings us back to this latest example of white supremacist terrorism in Christchurch. Nothing about this atrocity and the terrible loss of life is special, other than the fact that it took place on the same day as the latest round of climate strikes lead by secondary students. The contrast between the preoccupation with conspiracy and manufactured crisis and the very clear scientific understanding of climate crisis reflects with a unique conspicuousness the function of the former in dodging the reality of and constructing scapegoats for the latter.

If whites are feeling insecure, this has nothing to do with the social and environmental consequences of global economic modality built on the assumption that the world is an infinite resource and infinite garbage dump—it is the fault of those existing outside of the culturally hegemonic and supremacist monoculture for existing. Herein lies the scapegoating dynamic of savage capitalism, built on a white victim complex refusing to acknowledge any difference between respecting other cultures and the death of the Self.

As Ghassan Hage noted, the impetus for the scapegoating of savage capitalism and the white victim complex arises out of accumulation crisis, as the very real social, economic and environmental consequences of maintaining the world of haves and have-nots becomes harder and harder to sweep under the rug. As corporate-captured governments around the world continue to fail to act on climate change in prioritising profit over the planet, opposition from the young in particular can only ever grow.

In the face of this dire threat of democracy, the value of manufactured conspiracy theories alleging racial existential threats to be used as scapegoats increases accordingly—all the more so as the climate crisis continues to worsen, presenting an increasingly unavoidable existential threat to human society.

Atrocities like those perpetrated in Christchurch in the final analysis are driven by the impulse to blame the consequences of the social and economic modalities behind climate change on the victims and any other convenient scapegoats. They are driven by the impulse to reassert the fundamental modalities and mentalities that produced the interconnected crises of our age in the first place.

As long as they continue to be useful in suppressing the ultimate reality that there is no class privilege on a dead planet, prominent Islamophobes in the corporate media and politics (Andrew Bolt and Cori Bernadi here in Australia being prime examples) will continue to promote the conspiracy theories driving the likes of Brendan Tarrant and Anders Brevik to deadly violence. In the end, the terror that these atrocities produce for the affected communities only reflects the racialised terror from which the Western-dominated world order was born, and whose consequences condemn us all to ecological Armageddon.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Categories: News for progressives

Did Dallas Police and Local Media Collude to Cover Up Terrorist Threats against Journalist Barrett Brown?

Fri, 2019-03-15 15:58

Photograph Source Wikipedia User:SGT141

Barrett Brown is an award-winning journalist and author who spent time in federal prison for work he did exposing various elements of the military-industrial complex, including publicizing the hacked emails of private intelligence company Stratfor. Since being released from prison, Brown has worked to establish the Pursuance Project, an initiative aimed at developing a new model of journalism based on crowdsourcing and diverse networks of collaboration using an internet-based platform.

In November 2018, Brown was the subject of a terrorist threat made against his publisher, Dallas-based D Magazine. However, unlike most such terrorist threats against journalists/media outlets elsewhere in the country, this threat was not handled in the normal manner. You might even say that Dallas PD, in collaboration with the Dallas Morning News, moved to cover it up. Was this a case of gross incompetence by the police? Hatred of a well-known local muckraking journalist seen as an enemy of Dallas police and corporate media? Or was it something else?

The following is an edited transcript of an interview between Barrett Brown and CounterPunch Radio host, Eric Draitser. The full interview can be heard at patreon.com/ericdraitser ($1 subscription required).

***

Eric Draitser: You recently had an interesting, let’s call it, series of interactions with law enforcement and local government in Dallas. And it stems from a very grisly murder that took place a few months ago. But this isn’t just about a murder… this is really a story of corruption, of bad journalism, of hackery, of the complete abdication of professional ethics and responsibility.

So, tell us, where does our story start? What happened a few months ago in Dallas and how did things snowball from there?

Barrett Brown: So I’ve been covering local politics for D Magazine for the first time in my life after I got out of prison a few years ago. I was covering city council. And then Botham Jean, a local resident, was shot to death in his own apartment by Amber Guyger, a white police officer (Botham Jean was black).

There are very few large cities where the press was going to be less well-equipped to handle such a story than Dallas. Dallas is a very go along to get along city. There’s something called the Dallas Way. That’s an old sort of political philosophy that launders oligarchy and makes of it a virtue, makes of it a partnership, a cooperation between press, police, and local officials. This is especially true in the case of any interaction between the press and the Dallas police, you have regular deference.

And so, when Amber Guyger and the police union officials, including police union head Mike Mata, started putting out the first explanation of why Amber Guyger shot somebody to death in his apartment below hers, several journalists with the Dallas Morning News printed these claims as more or less fact. And they did the same thing a few days later when Amber Guyger’s story changed dramatically. It was really extraordinary, and I say that as somebody who has been a media critic, ne’er-do-well and malcontent for a long time. It was pretty wild.

So I wrote an article for D Magazine down here, analyzing the specifics and attacking the Dallas Morning News. And you know they were not fond of that. So, the editor of the Dallas Morning News, attacked me from his Twitter account for a minor error removed from the article, while ignoring all the things that remained. The things that were clearly the case about his own journalists and his own editors. And so bad blood had been accrued there between both me and the Dallas Morning News and me and the mayor’s office, which, of course, was responsible for the handling of the Amber Guyger-Bother Jean shooting…

Draitser: So basically, if I understand correctly, you wrote a piece which alleged that these journalists are basically just taking the cops’ word for it and the story keeps changing in rather implausible ways. And these journalists are just stenographers. Is that basically right?

Brown: It is. And it’s to an extent that is even more than you see in national journalism or regional journalism elsewhere. It’s to an extent that is pretty unusual. It’s perhaps best embodied by the occasion when there was the ambush against the police officers a few years ago and several were killed. One of those police officers, it turned out, had a great deal of of white nationalist symbology tattooed upon himself. And that never came up in the press.

And here we have a case in which it’s even more bothersome, in which the errors are so blatant. So, I got into a fight that obviously upset these journalists at Dallas Morning News. I’ve already had a bad relationship with some of them.

Flashforward to November. I’m informed by D Magazine editor Tim Rogers that there’s been a bomb threat delivered to D Magazine’s office, which is in a twenty-story building in downtown Dallas. The person who made the threat said that they were going to blow up the D Magazine offices if they continued to publish my articles. And so, after I told Rogers I had never heard of this person, he goes to the FBI and the cops and the first thing he tells me after he’s spoken with them is “Don’t make this public.”

I listened to him. I read his comments. I acknowledged his comments. And I made it public.

Because he was getting instructions from the police, from the FBI, and I’ve dealt with both in this city. I’ve reported on both for his magazine and I just know that that’s not how these things are done. When CNN had a very similar bomb threat, under almost identical circumstances – an internet threat to blow up CNN’s offices in New York a few weeks after this affair that I’m not done describing – occurred, the NYPD arrived immediately. The building was evacuated. It was news, national news for a couple hours until the all clear was given. In this case, that’s not what happened. This is the only city in the country in which journalists would be expected to help the police keep this under wraps.

Draitser: This is already insane to me. How is it possible? I work in a high-rise building in Manhattan. There are thousands of people who work in a twenty story building in the downtown area. It is already almost inconceivable that this would be kept under wraps.

Brown: It is. It was actually shocking even to me and I look for these things. I search for incidents of poor press conduct and things indicative of the Republic’s collapse.

I’ve dealt with this magazine and this editor since I was fifteen years old when I was interning at the alternative weeklies down here. It’s not quite the Village Voice. It’s not something that’s really out there to shake things up but it is a good magazine. And I’ve been happy to write for it. It is where I started my column that went to the Intercept later on and I got the National Magazine Award. It was a magazine that had given me a lot of breath that I wouldn’t have gotten elsewhere.

So I was a little bit taken aback to be given this instruction delivered from the police to my editor and then to me. And so of course I, you know, violated it and immediately announced without naming any names or publication that a threat had been made against a magazine that I work for over my work…

Draitser: So was the threat explicit that it was not only about you but about your coverage of the Guyger-Botham Jean story? Or was it more implied that this is what it was about? Or was it more a general kind of threat?

Brown: The threat was made on Facebook but I never saw it myself. All I have is the assistant police chief’s email, which we’ll get to later. His characterization – the characterization of the assistant chief of police – that it was a threat over me and that it was a threat that was conditional such that if they continued to publish my work, this person would blow up the building. And the same fellow also made a threat, a very similar threat against the downtown public library, which is a very large facility – not a bad one for a city of this size – if the Democrats and in this case the assistant chief of police quoted the fellow: something along the lines of “If the Democrats don’t stop with their conspiracies, I’m going to blow up your library.” And so… but there was no mention that I know of of specific coverage.

I would say though that the last article that I’ve done for D had been this piece on the Dallas Morning News and the media and the police and the police’s misconduct and why one should not take their word for anything. And the one previous to that had been one in which I had sat there with a police scanner off and on for a couple weeks and written down my observations of what the police… of how the Dallas police conduct themselves. And, you know, scored a few hits in there that I was fond of. But bottom line is that I’ve been very, very openly anti-police for a number of years here. After all, I was raided by SWAT team after sort of challenging the police based on my understanding which is now I think sort of the accepted view among everyone that they were retaliating against me and my mother illegally.

So there was already bad blood and that had been accelerated in recent times. And so when this happened, I published some information about it and the editor got mad at me. But there were no articles about this. There was nowhere where you could really go and see that a response team had been sent to the Dallas public library to search for bombs or that a threat, one of several threats over the last few months against media outlets and against journalists, had been carried out or had been made.

Remember the context of this: We’ve had shootings in newspapers in the last year in this country. We’ve had some guy threaten a journalist on Twitter down in Florida and when he was ignored he sent some would-be pipe bombs to a bunch of other figures. We’ve just had a bunch of this accelerated anti-press violence and threats of violence.

And so there is a protocol for when this happens. The protocol is that you immediately announce it. And that’s how it’s happened in every other situation. And it’s not how it happened here.

As time went on I got more and more concerned because when you do have this situation, when you do have this environment, you follow the protocol that has been established the country which is that you take it seriously. At the very least, you arrest the person. I know that because I was arrested by a SWAT team for making totally non-violent threats against an FBI agent as a journalist who was about to expose him. But in this case, rather than sending a SWAT team and beating someone down to the ground, bruising his ribs and charging him immediately, they did something entirely different. We’re not entirely sure what it was.

I eventually asked my city councilman, Philip Kingston, who is an unusually carefree politician, to check in with the Dallas police and ask them what was going on. Because the editor has stopped talking to me and he was upset that I’ve put the stuff out.

Draitser: So this is where the story really gets quite interesting because now you’ve involved not just representatives of the police or the police union or journalists. Now you have an elected official and the kinds of information that is exchanged between a law enforcement officer and an elected official is supposed to be at least quite different from how they interact with normal civilians. So I want to hear the details about this exchange between your local city councilman and the assistant police chief.

Brown: Right, so [assistant police chief] Lonzo Anderson. Philip Kingston inquired with Lonzo Anderson and got an email back. Kingston forwarded it to me. It’s a few paragraphs long and it very matter-of-factly notes that on November 13th somebody made what this benighted police pseudo-chief described as “a veil threat.” He means veiled, although that’s kind of a strange use of the term veiled even if you do it appropriately because the threats involved “blowing your fucking library up” which is not very, highly well-veiled. And then, of course, the threat to blow up the magazine in Lonzo’s words: “if they continue to publish Barrett Brown.”

And so he goes on to cite two actual charges, two specific charges that this suspect, who did it under his own name, was going to be charged with. And noted that he had been taken into custody on November 15th and was interviewed at the station and the investigation is ongoing. So, from that you get the sense that the cops are on it. They’ve brought somebody in, which is, you know, reasonable enough…so I’m thinking “Well I guess Tim Rogers is right. They really are on it, maybe I should have trusted him this time. They’re not going to allow a terroristic threats against the press and against public institutions pass in this day and age.

But it turns out I was wrong to have briefly trusted them because the guy was never arrested. And because [D Magazine Editor] Tim Rogers was meanwhile being told something entirely different from this investigator that had been assigned to the case. That investigator told him that no one had been brought in. It was all ongoing and they don’t have anything to tell him.

And so eventually, me and Tim Rogers get into this sort of public dispute about how this should be handled. I was obviously had an opinion about it and he had a different opinion. And at some point he says, “Look, you’re writing about this. You don’t know what’s going on. Trust me.”

And I said, “Well look, I’ve got a statement here from the assistant police chief my city councilman sent to me.” So and I posted it on his Twitter reel and he reads it and is like okay. So he writes an article explaining the situation. Explaining that they had told him all this, this and this and now suddenly he’s getting these statements delivered thirdhand that contradict what he’s been told.

And here’s where the story kicks in as of what happened today. Rogers recorded this conversation between him and the police officer, the investigator who called him after they ran that story. It does include the investigator being very abrasive, he’s obviously not used to dealing with someone saying “No, what you just said contradicts that other thing you just said and that doesn’t make sense.” He’s just not up to that kind of thing. Frankly, I think we’re fortunate that he wasn’t actually in charge of catching somebody with an actual bomb because this would have been a shorter story.

The cop berates Rogers for putting this information out. Tim reminds him that they didn’t put the information out. It was the Dallas police that put the information out through a city councilman through Barrett Brown – the named victim, the named subject who this person is clearly focused on. This is all very revealing of how police see the press and how Dallas operates.

But the important part is when the cop claims, I guess in a bid to win an exchange in this argument, that contrary to what Rogers had heard, the information that the assistant police chief had given the city councilman was “not true” in his words. He expands upon that and says that it’s not what happened. The information is truth be told not correct.

And so, Tim understandably says, “Well, are you saying that this assistant police chief gave false information to a city official about a matter of terrorist threats against the press? That seems very important.” And the police investigator goes, “Well, there you go again” and he throws out a bunch of incompatible metaphors and aphorisms and cliches that he’s picked up somewhere and strings them into a sentence. If you didn’t already have a distaste for cops in general, which I did actually, you would be hard pressed to make a contribution to the policeman’s ball this year after hearing this tape.

Draitser: Well, I’m certainly canceling my recurring donation. That’s for sure.

Brown: I’d advise that, yes.

Anyway, there’s one other element here. The cop is confirming that in prior conversations one of the first things he did when he was speaking to Tim and four or five other staffers at D Magazine was to tell them: (a) not to tell anybody and (b) not to tell me anything else beyond what I have already been told. So, the only reason I knew about this in the first place is because Tim had asked me about this guy who had been making the threat before he went to the police. And so that’s revealing. Aside from everything else being aside from protocol, outside of the normal way of doing things, not letting the focus of a terrorist threat know anything about the case and obviously preferring that he not know that it happened. That’s what convinced me when I got this recording that there was something wrong here that I suspected all along. And so, there you have it. Now it’s out.

***

Draitser: Was there any indication that there was a formal arrest versus a “Oh, we took somebody into custody?” And if so, wouldn’t the obvious move for a journalist at that point be to find the records of the arrest? It seems like nothing was done. I mean it seems like it’s just all words here. It’s all words and opinions.

Brown: Right, so yeah the first thing that I looked at – and I think anyone would look at – is the actual phrasing of what the assistant police chief told Philip Kingston in this email. First of all he talks in the future tense about the charges so that, in fairness to Tim and to anybody else, you wouldn’t be able to look up any charges because they would be nonexistent yet. Having said that, there are ways of getting records of who has been arrested.

The assistant police chief uses terminology that makes it very ambiguous as to what’s going on. They say: “On November 15th, the DPD took the subject into custody for a DPD alias warrant. The subject was interviewed” – which means he had an existing warrant for something else entirely. Probably a minor warrant. “The subject was interviewed at headquarters. The investigation is ongoing. I will contact intelligence, updates” blah blah. So he doesn’t say he was arrested. He doesn’t say he wasn’t arrested. He just says interviewed at headquarters.

So I wasn’t satisfied; I posted it on Twitter. I did what I could to try to bring attention to it and finally I went to city council and confronted the mayor and the councilmen and explained in the three minutes I had allotted to me as a regular citizen what had gone on here and why I was unhappy about it and why I thought it was something they ought to look into.

So anyway, the mayor apologized right there. There’s a video of it. Then he once again he confirms, as if this was something that I was really hoping to hear, that the investigation is ongoing. And so, three months later, here we are.

Draitser: So one of the things that I find really kind of bizarre about all of this is the fact that they keep saying an investigation is ongoing. But this isn’t the OJ trial. This is a fairly straightforward case, it’s handled fairly routinely in pretty much every major city.

So I guess I have to ask the question, and pardon me if it’s too blunt or whatever, but are we looking at a Dallas police cover-up here?

Brown: Well, I mean in a way, literally yes in so much as this investigating officer told D Magazine to keep this quiet, to not tell the target, me, about it, etc. Also, D Magazine put up a short piece sort of commenting on it and, of course, castigating me for having broken the blue bond of silence or whatever it is that I guess we had formed between the press and police down here.

And then the next day, they deleted the article without explanation. And that was the only piece in the entire city about this. It was actually really the only coverage at all except for I think it was a blog post by some independent fellow who’s out there trying his best somewhere on his website. Beyond that, beyond my Twitter account, beyond the arguments that Tim Rogers got into with some people from the Freedom of the Press Foundation, and EFF and all that who were telling him that like, hey, like this is serious. This is not how you should handle this. You shouldn’t be putting out a blog post attacking your journalist for this. You’ve done wrong here.

That was the only coverage. And Dallas Morning News knew about it. I made sure they knew about it because I had a feeling that they would be reluctant to cover it given that it does produce sympathy and raises one’s stature when one is having buildings blown up and even in people’s imaginations blown up.

And so as I suspected, they did not cover it. They went out of their way not to cover it. Even after I went to city hall and the press was there and a couple of them asked me, gave me their cards and said that they’d call me, nothing ever happened. So I gave up. I was frankly pretty upset back then and I feel like I’ve gone through enough bizarre commotions just in Dallas alone that I should have a pretty thick skin. I was rearrested illegally in 2017 after giving an interview to Vice and PBS. When the bureau of prisons claimed I was not supposed to do that without getting their permission, which is patently false, I was put in jail for four days and Democracy Now! did a thing on that and otherwise it was, you know, all quiet on the front.

And I would be shocked frankly given my time in this city and having grown up here if anything were to come of it tomorrow. There’s just no one who has anything to gain from talking about it. Obviously to the extent that Dallas Morning News does start talking about it, it brings up the question of why they ignored this situation back then. This is not something that happens when an outlet is threatened. You don’t play politics and place an embargo because you don’t like the journalist that was mentioned in the threat. That’s not how it happens anywhere else in this country.

So there you have it. I’m always on the lookout for examples of why we need press reform; why crowdsourced research and why some of these experimental protocols we’re developing such as the Pursuance Project, why they’re needed. Why things are worse in the press than people even realize until they’ve had a chance to both write for it and be covered by it extensively. And this is a great example. It’s an example that really astonishes me and I thought I’ve seen quite a bit in my day.

Draitser: Honestly, it seems like we have multiple cover-ups overlapping with each other here. Because, as far as I understand it, the Amber Guyger story itself was potentially a cover up where the police were essentially running interference for a suspected murderer. They were giving her access to her smartphone. They were letting her go home and talk to other people and so forth. And this was all whitewashed in the press with no actual interrogation of the facts. There was no investigation or anything and so the story continued to shift and the coverage just shifted with that.

And then here we have the second piece of this story where exactly the same thing is happening. So not only do we have collusion between the press and the police, but it seems that like they’re both actively working multiple cover-ups.

Brown: Yeah, well, there’s different kinds. There’s some cover-up within the police that probably has to do with mishandling the case or maybe the person who did this. Maybe he has well connected or wealthy family, which certainly would explain it. Maybe it’s one of those more baroque situations where the guy is suffering mental illness and for that reason as the FBI has done in the past, often times of Muslim youth, has been trying to get him to do something that would provide the DOJ with a great press release when they catch him doing the thing they told him to do. There are a number of possibilities and I don’t have a strong opinion on any one of them.

So there’s some kind of cover up there. There’s a dispute whereby this police officer thought it would make sense to claim that the original report of the guy being charged was false and thought it would work to, I guess, accuse his commanding officer, his superior of lying to the press or lying to the city council. He did not expect to be recorded. I guarantee that because that’s the kind of thing you can say on the phone to a guy, you know, and it’s hearsay but he had no reason to expect a recording would get to me. And frankly, I’m kind of surprised it did. It was only because of the foibles, the sort of the personal foibles of some of the people involved in this that I did get it.

Here we have an unusual sort of vivisection where we get to see more about the day-to-day just how these things do get covered up. We see how it doesn’t require a strong plan. It doesn’t require that you hide every element. All these elements have been out there. Not just out there but I’ve been pushing them down people’s throats.

So it’s one of those things just like the stuff I went to prison for. The HBGary hack where we suddenly got a great view from all these emails of how these intelligence contractors work and how the FBI deals with these private firms and how the DOJ acts like a concierge service for Bank of America and sends them to espionage firms that commits crimes with the DOJ’s blessing. You know it’s another great example. It’s a great opportunity that will not be taken here in Dallas and that, ultimately, I will describe in my book, which I’ve just completed now.

This whole fiasco is just one more argument as to why we need scaffolding around these institutions. Why we need to start building something that can address them from bottom to top because there’s very little that the press has done commendably in the last ten years on any of these issues. And even in the election, it didn’t take.

It didn’t cause them to stop and say, “Hey maybe we need to pay attention to what Palantir’s doing since they just got caught once again this time helping to manipulate the election with Cambridge Analytica. Maybe if next time we talk about Palantir, let’s remark about that. Let’s keep pointing that out from a few years ago.”

Let’s not adopt collective amnesia in a way that makes it easy for even dumb conspirators to get away with anything. And so that’s the story here as far as I am concerned.

Draitser: There’s also the absolute abdication of responsibility for journalists but especially those who are advocates for and defenders of journalists. You’re not Beyoncé, Barrett, but you’re not the lowest profile guy either. And you have a somewhat substantial Twitter following. You are notorious in many ways – certainly notorious in Dallas. And the fact that we don’t have even one journalistic ethics or any such organization whether Committee to Protect Journalists or any other groups of that kind defending you on this case. I think it’s also somewhat telling.

And so my question is: (a) have you reached out to any of those types of organizations (you know, CPJ and others)? And then (b) do you think that nobody has picked up on this story and is kind of, you know, speaking out on your behalf because you’re toxic? Is that what this is about? Because people are afraid that you’re toxic?

Brown: I don’t think so actually. The bizarre thing is that, you know, since going to prison and becoming a convict and then getting out and announcing I was going to start this very subversive group, I mean I run a non-profit now. I’m more mainstream than I ever was. I’ve got a board of directors with, you know, two ex-CIA agents who are, of course, dissidents. They’re reconstructed CIA agents. I’ve got professors at colleges. I’m addressing the Texas Library Association in Austin in April. And then a week later at the Tennessee Library Association in Chattanooga. So I don’t think it’s that I’m toxic. It’s not that.

It’s more that people look at institutions from the outside as I did before I first started interning at weekly newspapers. And you see print; you see a news organization; you see the CIA; or you see a company. And you have this sense of a solid thing that acts all at once. So people say, “Oh, this is what the CIA wants.” Or, “Oh, the New York Times always wants to do this.” However, we must constantly remind ourselves that these are collections of individuals and these are individuals that were not designed or evolved to oversee a press outlet or to oversee a kingdom or a nation-state. These are all haphazard things that we’ve constructed and accepted by inertia.

And so, we have jealousy and we have fear. We have minor, petty concerns for what our publisher thinks that we want them to do. We have people who are underpaid and they don’t have time to even develop sources in a way that they would had they more pragmatic or practical impetus to do so. They can get away with just, you know, putting in the bare minimum. I know because I’ve done it as a freelancer years ago. I’ve done the same thing.

We have a model of journalism that is fundamentally unchanged from what it was in seventeenth-century London where it was the editor and the writer. And it has never reexamined itself. It’s adopted hyperlinks and maybe LexisNexis and a few things like that, but it’s never stopped and said, “Hey, let us consciously reconstruct ourselves.” And knowing that the internet exists, let’s do crowdsourced journalism. Let’s bring in a structure here that doesn’t require the journalist to have to decide who is actually an expert and who isn’t. And that still hasn’t been done. There’s no impetus to do it from the inside for the most part and so it has to be done from the outside. And that’s just a reminder here.

In this case, I do not think there is any one reason for the cover-ups. Obviously, I’ve articulated that Dallas Morning News, there is no one at the Dallas Morning News who would benefit career-wise by writing stuff sympathetic to me at this point. And there are others who simply do not understand these issues.

One of the terrible things about journalism, and about the US press generally, is that editors and producers – and they would never articulate this out loud – do tend to think that if something important had happened and there’s evidence for it, then someone else would have covered it. And they all think that. And they know that even if they know their own weaknesses, they tend not to see the weaknesses in others in a strange way.

This is an environment that’s very haphazard – as I keep saying – a perfect ecosystem for misdeeds, for conspiracy, for disinformation. And that’s what we’ve gotten. And even the deterioration in the last few years has not been enough quite yet to overcome the day-to-day, mundane, mediocre careerism that permeates all of this.

And so we should not expect better than this is what I’m saying.

Categories: News for progressives

Roaming Charges: Straighten Up and Fly Right

Fri, 2019-03-15 15:58

Haida eagle totem pole, British Columbia. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

+ Few things have made me more despairing about the future of the country than the fact that Liz Cheney is now ascendent as a political powerbroker in DC. The one thing Trump could have done to assure himself some lasting historical merit was to eradicate the Cheneys from public life. Wimp.

+ How many babies did Daddy kill, Liz?

Rep. @Liz_Cheney: "[The Democrats] have become the party of anti-Semitism, they've become the party of infanticide, they've become the party of socialism." pic.twitter.com/Fd4G8LkXGU

— The Hill (@thehill) March 12, 2019

+ Meanwhile, the Dark Lord himself unloaded on Pencebot, comparing the Trump administration’s foreign policy to the spineless Obama. (It actually more closely resembles HRC’s.)

+ Pompeo Maximus squeaks…accusing Cuba and Russia of “propping up” the Maduro government in Venezuela.

+ With all the mewling on MSDNC about how Paul Manafort got off with a light sentence (7.5 years), you can see why so many liberals eagerly supported minimum mandatory sentences, the drug war & the Clinton Crime Bill & why tough on crime candidates like Biden & Harris appeal have such a gut-level appeal to them.

+ The rat who didn’t snitch.

MSDNC, theory 1: Manafort didn’t snitch because he feared the Russian mob.

MSDNC, theory 2: Manafort didn’t snitch because he wants a pardon.

Doesn’t a pardon essentially turn Manafort over to the Russian mob, assuming they want him?

+ The indictment of mercenary kingpin Erik Prince alone would make the two-year long monotony of the Mueller probe, in the immortal words of Madeline Albright, “worth it.”

+ 46% of all new income in the US is captured by the top 1% and a mere 3 people own as much wealth as the bottom 50%.

+ Tucker: “If there were a Democrat to come out in the 2008 election and say, “You know what the problem is? It’s Islamic extremism. It’s not terror, it’s not some, you know, indefinable threat out there. It’s these lunatic Muslims who are behaving like animals, and I’m going to kill as many of them as I can if you elect me.” If a Democrat were to say that, he would be elected king, OK?”

+ Tucker was on safe ground with the Fox audience, until he started indulging in rape fantasies about the white debutantes of South Carolina…

+ You gotta wonder if Tucker’s has his own version of Neverland Ranch somewhere in Virginia horse country…

+ Stephen Colbert on Tucker Carlson: “R. Kelly just got a character witness.”

+ If you’ve been following the travails of Tucker Carlson lately, you might be interested in what happened to his sidekick, Bubba the Love Sponge

+ Most of the people implicated in the college entrance bribery scam are corporate executives, but the media has spent 98% of its time focusing on two B-list Hollywood actresses.

+ Why you should be contributing to Lori & Felicity’s Defense Fund: Their children cheated their ways into “elite” universities, so that your child wouldn’t be stuck with soul-crushing debt and forced to pay it off by taking a job at a hedge fund or oil industry lobby shop.

+ I was on a plane with Lori Loughlin in the mid-80s, during her first season on Full House. She was in the middle seat and sweetly said she’d love to see the Rockies. I gallantly offered her my window seat. I should have asked for money.

+ In the wake of the college admissions bribery scandal, it’s perhaps worth recalling the words of Antonin Scalia during oral arguments in an affirmative action case, where the justice advised that “black students should go to a less-advanced school, a slower-track school where they do well.”

+ Alan Dershowitz, who is already hawking a book on the as-yet-non-existent Mueller Report,  has been a guest on FoxNews 27 times since the Miami Herald broke the big story on how Labor Secretary Alex Acosta and other federal prosecutors let Jeffrey Epstein off the for his long-list of sex crimes and gagged his young victims. Dershowitz, a high flier on Epstein’s jet, dubbed Air Lolita, hasn’t been asked one question about his relationship with Epstein.

+ Is this really the best time for Trump to be nominating ex-Boeing executive Patrick Shanahan for Secretary of Defense?

+ Keeping his head firmly planted in the sand, Shanahan claims he hasn’t been briefed on the Boeing 737 Max 8 crashes.

+ The odious Chris Cuomo is busy trying to blame the Boeing crash on “foreign pilots.”

+ But according to a US government database, at least two pilots who flew Boeing 737 Max 8 planes on U.S. routes had filed reports about the plane’s nose suddenly dipping after engaging autopilot.

+ In a desperate bid to protect Boeing, the NTSB is actively working to coerce Ethiopian Air to turn the black box data recorders over to them, instead of crash experts in the UK.

+ With the wreckage of Ethiopian Air FL 302 still smoldering, this is the time to crack open Ralph Nader and Wesley Smith’s prescient book, Collision Course: the Truth About Airline Safety. It was published 24 years ago, but the book still reads like a thriller and the situation has only gotten scarier since then.

+ Nader’s great-niece, Samya Stumo, died in the Ethiopian Airlines crash. Ralph has warned for years against the increasing reliance on artificial intelligence in aviation. “In this case, this is a plane whose misguided software overpowered its own pilots,” Nader said.

+ The critical software update to the Boeing 737 Max series was delayed for over a month as a result of Trump’s impetuous decision to shutdown the federal government.

+ According to Public Citizen:

-Boeing donated $1 million to Trump’s inauguration

-The Boeing CEO visited Mar-a-Lago

-Trump’s acting secretary of defense worked at Boeing for 30 years

-Nikki Haley is about to join Boeing’s board

-Trump has used Boeing products & sites as a backdrop for major announcements

+ When the Trump Shuttle made a crash landing.

+ If an airplane crashed and it didn’t kill any Americans, did it really exist?

+ “Who will rid me of these meddlesome brats?” According to the new book Kushner, Inc, by Vicky Ward, Trump asked John Kelly to fire Jared and Ivanka.

+ Trump to Breitbart on how thing could get “tough”: “I have the support of the police, the support of the military, the support of the Bikers for Trump — I have the tough people, but they don’t play it tough — until they go to a certain point and then it would be very bad, very bad.” Trump’s Altamont?

+ Apparently, only Israel is permitted to use quotes from Anne Frank’s diary for political causes. I wonder how Anne would have viewed the Nation State Law?

+ The Democrats will hold their 2020 national convention in Milwaukee. I guess this is one way to make sure your presidential nominee visits Wisconsin at least once…

+ Let’s recall that in 2006, Joe Biden voted to build a 700-mile long border wall.

+ Democrats and the Iraq War

Bill Clinton: for it

Al Gore: for it before he was against it

John Kerry: for it before he was against it before he was for it again

Barack Obama: against it before he was for it

HRC: for it

Joe Biden: for it

(I guess Max Boot and David Frum could write speeches for all of them).

+ Max Boot wants to retire the term “neocon“. (Did he check with the ghost of Norman Podhoretz?) So we can go back to calling them “Chickenhawks?”

+ The trajectory of two Iraq War propagandists: Judith Miller is relegated to occasional appearances on the off hours at FoxNews. David Frum is a daily fixture on MSDNC and writes insufferable cover stories for the Atlantic.

+ For those who still had any doubts about whether Israel was a “democracy,” Netanyahu made it crystal clear: “Israel is the nation state of Jews alone.”

+ According to Gideon Levy, one of the world’s greatest journalists, the IDF forced a Palestinian man to demolish his and his daughter’s houses with his own hands.

+ Tell it to Bill Maher, Bibi, who pronounced last week: “Palestinians are victims, but not of Israel — they are victims of other Palestinians, unfortunately.”

+ If HBO ever grows a conscience gives Maher the boot, he could always land a gig co-hosting a show on Fox with Judge Jeanine…

Fox host Jeanine Pirro says that Ilhan Omar's hijab may mean that she's against the Constitution. pic.twitter.com/yxGRVoYkQm

— John Whitehouse (@existentialfish) March 10, 2019

+ All of this talk about having an “honest discussion” about Israel and Palestine. Yet we never hear from Palestinians in this manufactured “discourse.” Palestinians are only given a voice in the media to condemn other Palestinians.

+ Librarians and archivists around the world have spent 1000s of hours laboriously reclassifying almost everything you’ve ever written as “fiction.” Did you ever thank them, Judy?

Failure to condemn anti-Semite Rep. Omar by House Democrats is a profile in cowardicehttps://t.co/oZ3irzHB1Y

— Judith Miller (@JMfreespeech) March 8, 2019

+ The Washington Post ran a hit piece this week headlined “In Minnesota, Rep. Ilhan Omar’s Remarks Cause Pain and Confusion.” Of course, it’s the distorted coverage of Omar’s remarks that has created all of the confusion, much of it by writers at the Post.

+ lhan Omar: “For many children, school lunch is the only meal they eat all day. Trump’s budget would cut $1.7 billion from child nutrition and eliminate food assistance for millions—literally taking food out of kids’ mouths. This is not humane. This budget isn’t humane. He is not humane.”

+ Well, that didn’t take long….Minnesota Democrats are already scurrying to find someone to primary Ilhan Omar.

+ Meanwhile, Trump is quietly escalating the US war against Somalia, with barely a peep from the press or American politicians. Over to you, Ilhan…

+ Bennett Bressman, a field operative for Nebraska’s Republican Governor Pete Rickets, has been openly posting white nationalist rants on his social media accounts for several years, including such rancid quips as he has “more compassion for small dogs than illegals” and that his “whole political ideology revolves around harming journalists.” Bressman said the only reason he’d hesitate to run over a Black Lives Matter protesters was that “I have a nice car and it’s white.”

+ Will Rickets and Bressman get the Omar treatment? (Evil network executive cackle.)

+ According to the Pew Research Center, only 24 percent of Americans supported cutting legal immigration last year, a sharp decline from 40 percent in 2006.

+ That chill you felt enter the room may have been an undercover ICE agent sent out to monitor anti-Trump protesters.

+ Over the next 10 years, Trump’s budget would cut:

+ $1.5 trillion from Medicaid
+ $845 billion from Medicare
+ $25B from Social Security
+ $207B from college education
+ $220B from food stamps

While base defense spending would swell by $861 billion.

+ Trump plans to divert $385 million in funds from HIV and cancer research to fund his concentration camps for kids…

+ The Democrats might be better off if they replaced Tom Perez with Stormy Daniels as head of the DNC. She appears to understand much about the nature of the current American political environment that he doesn’t. They certainly couldn’t do any worse.

+ Nancy Pelosi proved once again this week why she is one of the most accomplished bait-and-switch politicians of her time, when she slammed the door on the impeachment of Trump. At least she’s consistent. In 2006, Pelosi sternly quashed any seditious talk in her caucus about impeaching George W. Bush.

+ Beto O’Rouke, who has scrupulously avoided identifying any specific issues he will campaign on, told Vanity Fair that he felt “called to run” in the 2020 presidential elections. These days it’s the people who are hearing voices who must be insane.

+ People are complaining that Beto hasn’t taken any policy positions. But when he does, you’ll wish he hadn’t.

+ Richard Wolff: “For profit, employers pay low wages, charge high prices. With low wages we can’t afford much, so banks profit by loans (for mortgages, car loans, credit cards, college debt) to let us “afford” more. Then, we get to pay interest. Isn’t capitalism wonderful?”

+ Kamala Harris is the house cop at the casino of American capitalism

+ Ralph Nader: “Why after 10 years of inaction regarding a frozen federal minimum wage of $7.25, is the Democratic Party bill in the House so leisurely in raising it over the next five years to $15? Even if passed now it wouldn’t reach Obama’s broken promise of $9.50 by 2011 for another year.”

+ The State of Texas spent $7 million fighting a proposal to install air conditioning in one of its stifling prisons. The cooling system only cost $4 million.

+ Terrebonne, Louisiana Sheriff: “People should indicate – when they get their driver’s license – whether they want the death penalty sought if they end up murdered.”  The Sheriff also said that decision should be taken out of the hands of jurors.

+ Good to see California Gov. Gavin Newsom take executive action to abolish the death penalty in California. But California hasn’t executed anyone in 13 years. So what about ending the living death penalty, aka Life Without Parole?

We can no longer allow the death penalty to be a part of what defines us. That begins today in California. https://t.co/7baNcPP3OR

— Gavin Newsom (@GavinNewsom) March 13, 2019

+ Miss having Jeff Flake to kick around? That’s OK. You can kick Ben Sasse twice.

+ After decades of grifting, self-promotion, discrimination and hate-shaming (chronicled over the years in CounterPunch by Ken Silverstein, Alex Cockburn and yours truly), the Southern Poverty Law Center finally fired its co-founder Morris Dees

+ Benjamin Dixon: “Meghan McCain is the complete embodiment of what extreme wealth can do for mediocre children.”

OF COURSE Meghan McCain thinks it's unfair to criticize legacy admissions at universities and military academies pic.twitter.com/D6uUINMDyX

— Justin Baragona (@justinbaragona) March 13, 2019

+ I eagerly await an exegesis from the Deep State theorists on the meaning of a letter signed by more than 50 retired generals and diplomats urging the US to reenter the Iran nuclear pact.

+ There’s no need to use Jared and Ivanka as surrogates for your newest scheme to gut federal environmental regulations. Lobbyists have found they can now target Trump directly through TV and Twitter.

+ Of Time, Words and the River of Bullshit Flowing

+ Amount of time Trump saved by calling Tim Cook of Apple “Tim/Apple”: 0.27 seconds.

+ Copies of the Pence Bible, signed by Trump, are going fast on e-Bay…

+ David Kusnet, still in recovery from being a speechwriter for Bill Clinton (92-94), makes a compelling case for why the much-abused Warren Harding shouldn’t be considered one of the worst American presidents:

* Didn’t deny rumors of African American ancestry;
* Reversed some of Wilson’s racism;
* Pardoned Eugene Debs & hired a young Norman Thomas at his paper;
* Had 1st pres speechwriter: Judson Welliver.

+ James Felton: “She whipped against her own position from yesterday and still lost. Theresa May now so weak she can’t even defeat Theresa May.”

+ As Ken Surin reports for CounterPunch this week, Margaret Thatcher, like the “Royal” Family, was a devoted believer in quack remedies. Of course, the biggest quack remedy of them all was Thatcher’s economy plan.

+ What a real Resistance looked like

+ Important questions the one-percent ask: Is spending $50,000 on a set of golf clubs too much?

+ Jay Leno is the perfect judge for whether late night comedy has lost its edge, never having been the least bit funny himself.

Republicans: “Late night hosts these days make fun of Donald Trump too much! Johnny Carson would never do that!”

Johnny Carson: *literally does jokes about Trump evicting people from their homes* pic.twitter.com/H0XS3FPy6M

— Mike Drucker (@MikeDrucker) March 14, 2019

+ I was saddened to learn of the death of former Indiana Senator Birch Bayh, at the age of 91. I worked on a couple of Birch’s cliffhanger campaigns. (See my essay on Waylon Jennings.) The best thing about Birch was his wife Marvella. She had all the spine and spirit in the family, not an ounce of which dribbled its way into her son Evan.

+ Few people remember that Indiana once had two very liberal senators serving at the same time: Birch and Vance Hartke. But, Honey, things have changed, as Dylan sez.

+ Both Birch Bayh and Vance Hartke were strong anti-war voices in the senate. The farm states were often anti-war. They needed the young labor in the fields. As industrial agriculture took over, the anti-war sentiment across the midwest slowly faded.

+ Why health insurance companies secretly loved ObamaCare and will fight like hell against single-payer: Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, a “nonprofit” health insurance company, posted $580 million in net revenue (profits) on $29.3 billion in total revenue in 2018. It’s CEO Dan Loepp saw his compensation grow 43% in 2018 to $19.2 million.

+ The US may not have any of the best cities to live in, but I know we have a few of the worst, starting with Page, Arizona…

+ An evocative study from the British Academy suggests that neolithic people (4,500 BCE) came from across Britain to Stonehenge-like sites in Devonshire and Wiltshire for ceremonial feasts. A similar region-wide gathering took place in the Pacific Northwest, where archaeological evidence indicates native people came all the way from Yellowstone and northern Arizona for salmon feasts at Celilo Falls in Oregon, a village that swelled to a seasonal population of 30,000 during the spring and fall runs.

+ In Alaska, indigenous people make up less than 20% of the population, but Alaskan Natives account for 60% of the kids in foster care.

+ Native Americans are already the most vulnerable population in the US to wildfires and the Trump administration’s policies are putting their communities at even greater risk.

+ How Inuits teach their kids to control their anger.

+ Proof labor strikes work: Nicolas Petit, a favorite to win the Iditarod, dropped out of the race, less than 200 miles from the finish line, when his team of dogs refused to run after he yelled harshly at one of them.

+ By 12,000 BCE, dogs were being depicted on stone columns and buried in the arms of humans

+ They’re aerial gunning wolves again in Alaska, using the specious rationale of “boosting” moose populations…

+ Read Rick McIntyre’s gripping account of the life and death of Yellowstone Wolf 926F and try not to cry (or resist the urge to blow something up).

+ Bulldozers are carving up forests in the name of fire prevention. They aren’t preventing any fires, but they sure are destroying a lot forest.

+ A new report reveals that white people in the US generate much more pollution than blacks and Hispanics and yet suffer much less from the health consequences of such pollutants.

+ According to the European Heart Journal, air pollution prematurely kills 800,000 people a year, twice the previous estimates.

+ The pipes don’t work cause the vandals turned the handles

+ People complaint that I’m a pessimist. But it’s hard to stay as pessimistic as the science: “Out of 5.2 million possible climate futures, carbon emissions must reach zero by 2030 in every country in the world if we are to stay at less than 2 degrees Celsius by 2100 of warming.”

+ According to the latest UN Report, it’s all over for the Arctic: Even if the Paris Agreement is met, global temperatures will rise 3-5C above preindustrial levels. Even if all carbon emissions stop, Arctic temperatures rise will 5C above 2005 levels.

+ In recent study published in Nature, researchers estimate that half of all coral in the Great Barrier Reef has died since 2016! “On average, across the Great Barrier Reef, one in three corals died in nine months,” said Terry Hughes, an author of the paper and the director of the ARC Center of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies. “You could say the ecosystem has collapsed. You could say it has degraded. I wouldn’t say that’s wrong. A more neutral way of putting it is that it has transformed into a completely new system that looks differently, and behaves differently, and functions differently, than how it was three years ago.”

+ The so-called Bomb Cyclone generated a barometric pressure reading of 970 millibars, the lowest ever recorded in Colorado.

+ There’s $$$ in “adaptation” to the wreckage of climate change–not so much in reducing consumption of fossil fuels and products made by them…

+ Of course, Bill de Blasio’s plan to confront climate change is to add more ground to Manhattan Island, in a last ditch move to stem rising sea levels. He’d probably have more success making sacrifices to Poseidon.

+ True to form, AFL-CIO’s Energy Committee slams the Green New Deal, then leaks the letter to Wyoming’s oil patch Sen. John Barrasso.

+ How CNN describes Gov. John Frackenlooper: “worked with oil executives to fight climate change.”

Hickenlooper, who worked w oil executives to fight climate change as gov, tells @BuzzFeedBen that his critics on climate are off base.

"So I did stuff. They’re mad that I did stuff. And they are still talking… And we actually did stuff. Alright, sue me," he said.

— Dan Merica (@merica) March 10, 2019

+ Yes, this is the same John Frackenlooper who threatened to sue any Colorado communities that voted to ban fracking.

+ Sen. Fossil (Manchin) and Sen. Fuel (Murkowski) admonished lawmakers to take “responsible action” on climate change, which is like Coors telling football fans to “drink responsibly” …

+ Lawmakers in Pennsylvania, the state that gave us Three Mile Island, are considering a bill that would inject $500 million into the region’s failing nuclear reactors, which is throwing good public funds down a radioactive drain.

+ As Trump gears up to clearcut America’s public forests at a pace not seen since the Reagan Administration, the rate of forest coverage in China has increased by nearly 10 percent in the past four decades, with the world’s largest planted forests and an 80 percent expansion of forest areas across the country.

+ If we get really good photographs of all the world’s butterflies, we can project life-life holograms of them when they’re gone. But we’ll have to charge you to see them. “Butterflies” won’t be “free” anymore..

+ Emissions from air travel are going through the roof, while emissions from other forms of travel are gradually declining.

+ SWSX has long been a corporate orgy. Now it’s opened its doors to the CIA

+ The astounding Roy Haynes just turned 90 and he’s still too cool for school.

It’s been an honor being in Roy Haynes’ 4tet for 13 yrs now. One of the most important things I’ve learned from him is something he says almost every time we play. “Everyday is precious!” & “When the spirit hits you, you have to go with it!” Happy Birthday, Roy! pic.twitter.com/SBtxbHvJPC

— Jaleel Shaw (@jaleelshaw) March 13, 2019

+ I get the sense that anything interesting that might take place in San Francisco has already taken place and no one could afford to make anything interesting happen there again…

+ Wayne Shorter: “When Miles Davis and I talked, he would ask me a question. ‘Hey Wayne — do you ever get tired of playing music that sounds like music?’ Before I answered him, he said, ‘I know what you mean.’ Like, he’s answering his own question.”

+ I’ve been listening to Jobim’s Wave all morning and have still haven’t come any closer to understanding why Creed Taylor put that photo of a giraffe on the album cover. That’s OK. I’ve played it five times now and heard something new each time, especially in the percussion of Claudio Slon. And that’s after listening it to for 40 years…

+ Just give Her money that’s what She wants…

Interviewer: Are you millionaires now?
Lennon: No. Another rumor.
Interviewer: Where’s all the money go, then?
Lennon: Most goes to Her Majesty.
Harrison: She’s the millionaire.

Your Story’s Touching, But It Sounds Like a Lie

Sound Grammar

The 10 best movie soundtracks…

1) The Harder They Come (Jimmy Cliff, et al)

2) Superfly (Curtis Mayfield)

3) Purple Rain (Prince)

4) Escalator to the Gallows (Miles Davis)

5) Hard Days Night (The Beatles)

6) Anatomy of a Murder (Duke Ellington)

7) Naked Lunch (Howard Shore and Ornette Coleman)

8) Blow Up (Herbie Hancock)

9) Alfie (Sonny Rollins)

10) Straight Outta Compton (NWA, et al.)

Booked Up

What I’m reading this week…

Biotech Juggernaut: Hope, Hype & Hidden Agendas of Entrepreneurial BioScience by Tina Stevens and Stuart Newman (Routledge)

Prisoners of Politics: Breaking the Cycle of Mass Incarceration by Rachel Barkow (Belknap Press)

The Lost Worlds by Robert Macfarlane (Anansi)

The Hawk’s High Gyres

Robert Macfarlane: “Wild animals, like wild places, are invaluable to us precisely because they are not us. They are uncompromisingly different. The paths they follow, the impulses that guide them, are of other orders. The seal’s holding gaze, before it flukes to push another tunnel through the sea, the hare’s run, the hawk’s high gyres: such things are wild. Seeing them, you are made briefly aware of a world at work around and beside our own, a world operating in patterns and purposes that you do not share. These are creatures, you realise that live by voices inaudible to you.”

Categories: News for progressives

Trump’s $34 Trillion Deficit and Debt Bomb

Fri, 2019-03-15 15:57

Drawing by Nathaniel St. Clair

This week Trump released his latest budget for 2019-20 fiscal year. It calls for $2.7 trillion in various social spending cuts over the decade, including $872 billion in reductions in Medicare, Social Security, Disability spending; another $327 billion in food stamps, housing support, and Medicaid; a further $200 billion in student loan cuts; and hundreds of billions more in cuts to education, government workers’ pensions, and funds to operate the EPA and other government agencies.

Not surprising, the $2.7 trillion in social program spending cuts will finance spending for the military and defense related programs like Homeland Security, Border walls, veterans, police, and programs like school vouchers.

Of course, the budget proposal is ‘dead on arrival’ with the US House of Representatives, which must approve all spending bills, according to the US Constitution.  But don’t hold your breath. Trump may now have a back door to this Constitutional obstacle and eventually get his way on the budget, at least in part, to fund his military spending plans.

Trump’s National Emergency ‘Workaround’ & the Budget

It should not be forgotten, Trump just enacted his ‘national emergency ’ to build his Mexico border wall by diverting funds, without Congressional approval, from other sources in the US budget—i.e. a clear violation of the US Constitution.  That ‘national emergency declaration’ will almost surely be approved by his current stacked US Supreme Court before the end of Trump’s first term.  When approved, the precedent will allow Trump to repeat the action, perhaps on an even larger scale. So what’s to stop him from using the same national emergency precedent to shift other funds in the future from social programs to the military and defense, as he clearly proposes in this latest budget?

Some liberals and Democrats may declare he can never do that. But they said the same about his national emergency declaration to fund his wall, and he declared it anyway. He will continue to subvert and destroy long-standing rules and even Constitutional norms within the government.  The national emergency declaration about funding his wall gave him his foot in the door. Will the Supreme Court eventually allow him to kick it open now in the future?  One shouldn’t be too surprised with this President, who has little concern or respect for Democratic rights and institutions.

We now have a precedent in the national emergency declaration. So what’s to stop him from shifting even more funds from social programs to war, defense and the military? In other words, to spend a good part of his proposed additional $2.7 trillion for the Pentagon, and to simply divert the funds from Medicare, Social Security, Education, etc.? The Democrat Party majority’s control of the US House of Representatives’ may refuse to pass legislation to approve Trump’s $2.7 trillion budget shift to the military and defense. But the precedent now exists allowing him to do it. Trump is intent on getting what he wants, to pander to his right wing base, and get himself re-elected. He cares little for Democratic norms or civil liberties. Don’t underestimate his willingness to shred those liberties and subvert those norms.

As worrisome as the politics of the US budget process going forward may yet prove to be, however, the economics of Trump’s 2019-20 budget are more serious. It represents a trend that will continue whether or not the budget is passed, either in the short or the longer term by national emergency declaration.

The $34 Trillion National Debt 

Whether Trump’s budget is passed or not, his fiscal policy (taxation and spending) already represents a faster escalation of US deficits and therefore Debt.

During Trump’s first two years in office, US federal government deficits have driven the national debt up already by $3 trillion:  At the end of 2016, when Trump entered office, the US national debt was $19.5 trillion. Today it is $22.5 trillion. He’s thus already added $3 trillion, a faster rate per year of debt accumulation than under even his predecessors, George Bush and Barack Obama.

The Treasury Advisory Committee, a long standing committee of private experts who regularly provide advice to the US Treasury, recently warned the US Treasury that it will have to sell $12 trillion more US Treasury bonds, bills and notes, over the next decade if the US is to fund the $1 trillion plus deficits every year that now coming over the next decade, 2018-2028.

That’s $12 trillion on top of the current $22.5 trillion national debt!  That’s a $34 trillion national debt by 2028!  According to the Congressional Budget Office research, that $34 trillion national debt will translate into no less than $900 billion a year just in interest payments on the debt by 2028—a roughly tripling of interest payments that will have to come out of future US budgets as well, in addition to escalating tax cuts and war-defense spending.

How will the US government pay for such escalating interest—as it continues to cut taxes for business, investors and the wealthy while continuing to accelerate war and defense spending?

20 Years of Accelerating National Deficits & Debt

The US government’s growing Deficit-Debt problem did not begin with Trump, however. He just represents the further acceleration of the Deficit-Debt crisis.

Trump’s escalating deficits and debt are driven by two main causes: tax cutting and defense-war spending increases.  But this is just a continuation of the same under Bush-Obama.

Studies show tax revenue shortfall accounts for at least 60% of US deficits. Another 20% is due to escalating defense spending, especially the ‘off budget’, so called ‘Overseas Contingency Operations’ (OCO) budget expenditures that go for direct war spending. The OCO is in addition to the Pentagon’s official budget, now to rise to $750 billion under Trump’s latest budget proposal.

The US actual defense budget, therefore, includes the $750 billion Pentagon bill, plus the OCO direct war spending.  Total defense-war spending also includes additional ‘defense’ spending for Homeland Security and for the CIA’s, NSA’s, and US State Department’s growing covert military spending for their ‘private’ armies and use of special forces. It further includes spending for Veterans benefits and military pensions, and for the costs of fuel used by the military which is indicated in the US Energy Dept. budget not the Pentagon’s. Add still more ‘defense’ spending on nuclear arms billed to the Atomic Energy Agency’s budget.  And let’s not forget the $50-$75 billion a year in the US ‘black budget’ that fund’s future secret military arms and technology, which never appears in print anywhere in the official US budget document and which only a handful of Congressional leaders in both the Republican and Democrat parties are privy to know.

In short, the US ‘defense’ budget is well over $1 trillion a year and is rising by hundreds of billions a year more under Trump.

US wars in the Middle East alone since 2001 have cost the US at minimum $6 trillion, according to various estimates. But contributing even more than wars to the now runaway national deficits and debt is the chronic and accelerating tax cutting that has been going on since 2001 under both Republican and Democrat presidents and Congresses alike—roughly 80% of which has gone to business, investors, and the wealthiest 1% households.

The Bush-Obama $14 Trillion Deficit-Debt Escalation

When George Bush took office in 2001 the national debt was $5.6 trillion. When he left it was approximately $10 trillion. A doubling. When Obama left office in 2016 it had risen to $19.6 trillion. Another doubling. (Under Trump’s first two years it has risen another $3 trillion). For a US national debt of $22.5 trillion today.

Under George W. Bush’s 8 years in office, the tax cutting amounted to more than $4 trillion. Defense and war spending accelerated by several trillions as well.  The middle east wars represent the first time in US history that the US cut taxes while raising war spending. In all previous wars, taxation was raised to help pay for war spending. Not anymore.

Obama cut another $300 billion in taxes in 2009 as part of his initial 2009 economic recovery program. He then extended the Bush tax cuts, scheduled to expire in 2010, for two more years in 2011-12—at a cost of another $900 billion.  He further proposed, and Congress passed, an additional $806 billion in tax cuts for business as the US economic recovery faltered in 2010. Obama then struck a deal with Republicans in January 2013 to extend the Bush tax cuts of 2001-08 for another entire decade—costing a further $2 trillion during Obama’s second term in office (and $5 trillion over the next ten years, 2013-2023).  Thus $2 trillion of that further $5 trillion was paid out on Obama’s watch from 2013-16 as part of the 2013 ‘Fiscal Cliff’ deal he agreed to with the Republicans.

So both Bush and Obama cut taxes by approximately $4 trillion each, for $8 trillion total. And defense-war spending long term costs rose by $6 trillion under both.

Trump’s Deficit-Debt Contribution 2017-18

When added up, Bush-Obama 2001-2016 combined $6 trillion in war-defense spending hikes, plus their accumulated $8 trillion in tax cutting, roughly accounts for the US federal deficit-debt increase of $14 trillion, i.e. from $5.6 trillion in national debt in 2000 to $19.5 trillion by the end of 2016.

To this Trump has since added another $3 trillion during his first two years in office, which adds up to the current $22.5 trillion US national debt.

Here’s how Trump has added the $3 trillion more in just two years:

In January 2018 the Trump tax cut provided a $4.5 trillion windfall tax reduction over the next decade, 2018-2028, targeting businesses, multinational corporations, wealthy households, and investors. US multinational corporations alone were allocated nearly half of that $4.5 trillion.

So where did the 2018 Trump (and continuing Bush-Obama tax cuts) go? Several bank research departments in 2018 estimate that in 2018 alone, the first year of Trump’s tax cuts, that the S&P 500 largest corporate profits were boosted by no less than 22% due to the tax cuts.  Total S&P 500 profits rose 27% in 2018. So Trump’s tax cuts provided the biggest boost to their bottom line.

Not surprising, with $1.3 trillion in corporate stock buybacks and dividend payouts occurring in 2018 as well, US stock markets continued to rise and shrug off corrections in February and November that otherwise would have brought the stock market boom to an end.

But starting this year, 2019, the middle class will begin paying for those corporate-wealthy reductions. Already tax refunds for the average household are down 17%, according to reports. The middle class will pay $1.5 trillion in higher taxes by 2028, as the tax hike bite starts in earnest by 2022.

Another $1.5 trillion in absurd assumptions by the Trump administration about US economic growth over the next decade supposedly reduces the Trump’s $4.5 trillion of tax cuts for the rich and their corporations by another $1.5 trillion. Thus we get the official reported cost of only $1.5 trillion for the 2018 Trump tax cuts. But the official, reported ‘only’ $1.5 trillion cost of Trump’s 2018 tax cuts is the ‘spin and cover-up’. Corporate America, investors and the wealthy 1% actually get $4.5 trillion, while the rest of us pay $1.5 trillion starting, now in 2019, and Trump spins the absurd economic growth estimations over the next decade.

The 2018 Trump tax cuts have reduced US government revenues by about $500 billion in 2018. Add another $.5 trillion per year in Bush-Obama era tax cuts carrying over for 2017-18, another $.4 trillion in Trump war and other spending hikes during his first two years and more than $.6 trillion in interest payments on the debt—and the total is a further $3 trillion added to the national debt during Trump’s first two years.

So Bush-Obama add $14 trillion to the $5.6 trillion debt in 2000. And Trump adds another $3 trillion so far. There’s the $17 trillion addition to the $5.6 trillion national debt.[1]

And now, according to the Treasury Advisory Committee, we can expect a further $12 trillion in debt to be added to the national debt over the coming decade—to give us the $34 trillion and $900 billion a year just in interest charges on that debt!

Total US Debt: 2019

But it gets worse than another $12 trillion. Today’s $22.5 trillion, rising to $34 trillion, is just the US national government debt. Total US debt includes state and local government debt, household debt, corporate bond and business commercial & industrial loan debt, central bank balance sheet debt, and government agencies (GSEs) debt.

Household debt is now $13.5 trillion and rising rapidly for student loans, auto loans, credit cards and other installment loans.  In 2018, State and Local government debt was $3.16 trillion and rising as well. Corporate bond debt today  is more than $9 trillion—two thirds of which is considered ‘junk’ and low quality BBB investment grade bonds, much of which is likely to default in the next recession. To this must be added other forms of business loan debt, commercial paper, and the like.  The Federal Reserve bank’s balance sheet is also a form of debt, which is $4 trillion and, according to the Fed recently, will not be reduced further. Other government housing agencies, like Fannie Mae, add hundreds of billions more in US debt. All these account for more than an additional $30 billion in US debt.

Add these other forms of debt to the national debt of $22.5 trillion and the total debt in the US rises easily to around $53 trillion. And add the further $12 trillion additional national debt on the horizon and further increases in other forms of debt, and the total US debt may easily exceed $70 trillion by 2028. The $900 billion a year in interest charges assumed by the CBO may thus be actually too low an estimate.

Who Pays the Debt and to Whom?

To whom do the various interest payments on debt accrue? To the wealthy and their corporations who buy the US and corporate bonds and who issue the credit cards, auto loans, and mortgages; to their banks that offload their debt to the Federal Reserve central bank during financial crises and recessions; to wealthy investors who buy government and agency bonds; to wealthy shareholders who have been getting $1 trillion a year since 2009 in dividends payouts and capital gains from stock buybacks made possible in large part by corporate bond raisings; and to wealthy households and corporations that get the tax cuts that drive the deficit and debt.

Their ‘interest income’ is projected to continue to accelerate over the next decade, thus further exacerbating income inequality trends now plaguing the US and getting worse.

Policies accelerating debt-based income transfer since 2001 have been expanding and deepening since 2000, across both Republican and Democrat regimes, from Bush through Obama, now accelerating even faster under Trump.

For consumer and household debt, clearly the working class-middle class pays most of the interest on the debt—via mortgage, auto, student and credit cards, rising state and local taxation, more federal taxation paying for the Trump tax cuts, etc.  The federal government—and thus the taxpayer–pay the interest on the government bond debt.  The creditors and owners of the debt reap the benefits, now in the trillions of dollars annually.

The Trump budget proposes to pay for the US government’s share of the total debt, by transferring the cost of financing military-defense spending and tax cutting—which creates more deficit and debt—to those households who aren’t investors and business owners. But whether Trump gets his budget approved or not is irrelevant. The deficits and debt will continue to accelerate nonetheless.

And if he does get to shift some of the cost via extending his national emergency rule to the US spending in general, not just his wall, the economic consequences will of course even be worse.

Notes.

[1] Conservatives argue that this excludes rising social program spending debt, like social security and medicare. But those programs are not financed out of the US budget (with the exception of the prescription drugs program for seniors). They have their own tax base, the payroll tax.  What about the 2008-09 bailout? The banks were bailed out by the Federal Reserve not Congress. And the costs of social program spending hikes after 2008-2011, were offset by a $1.5 trillion cut in social spending that started in August 2011—which exempted effectively cuts in defense spending thereafter.

 

Categories: News for progressives

America’s Puppet: Meet Juan Guaidó

Fri, 2019-03-15 15:57

Drawing by Nathaniel St. Clair

Juan Guaidó is a useful pawn for U.S. interests in Venezuela, but is he expendable?

On January 15th, the White House reported that VP Mike Pence spoke by phone “today” with Guaidó, the president of Venezuela’s National Assembly.  It claimed the call was made “to recognize his courageous leadership following his arrest and intimidation this weekend, and to express the United States’ resolute support for the National Assembly of Venezuela as the only legitimate democratic body in the country.” On the 23rd, Guaidó declared himself interim president of Venezuela.

In its brief statement about the call between Pence and Guaidó, the White House failed to report that the VP “pledged” that the Trump administration would support him “if he seized the reins of government from [elected President] Nicolas Maduro by invoking a clause in the South American country’s constitution.”

This was revealed by The Wall Street Journal and sheds light on what actually was said during the conversation. “That late-night call set in motion a plan that had been developed in secret over the preceding several weeks, accompanied by talks between U.S. officials, allies, lawmakers, and key Venezuelan opposition figures, including Mr. Guaido himself,” it reported.  Citing an anonymous administration official, it noted, “Almost instantly, just as Mr. Pence had promised, President Trump issued a statement recognizing Mr. Guaido as the country’s rightful leader.”  On the 23rd, Trump twitted, “President @realDonaldTrump has officially recognised the President of the Venezuelan National Assembly, Juan Guaido, as the Interim President of Venezuela.”

The Journal went further, pointing out, “Other officials who met that day at the White House included… [Sec. of State] Pompeo and [National Security Advisor] Bolton, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who presented Mr. Trump with options for recognizing Mr. Guaido.” It added, “Mr. Trump decided to do it. Mr. Pence, who wasn’t at that meeting, placed his phone call to Mr. Guaido to tell him, ‘If the National Assembly invoked Article 233 the following day, the president would back him.'”

On the 30th, as reported by Roll Call, Trump placed a follow-up call to Guaidó.  Press Sec. Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in a statement, the call was made to “congratulate him [Guaidó] on his historic assumption of the presidency and to reinforce President Trump’s strong support for Venezuela’s fight to regain its democracy.” During the call, Guaidó “noted the importance of the large protests across Venezuela against former dictator Maduro, set to occur today and Saturday,” she added.

Almost on cue, following Trump’s call 11 European Union countries quickly recognized Guaidó as Venezuela’s president, including Austria, Britain, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, France, Germany, Poland, Portugal, Spain and Sweden. By mid-February, 65 countries had recognized him as president.  Quickly thereafter, Canada, Israel and the bloc of right-wing Latin American governments known as the Lima Group recognized Guaidó.

As if they were a Greek chorus cheering from the sidelines, the U.S. mainstream media joined it anointing Guaidó as president.  As summarized by GreyZone, “The New York Times editorial board hailed Guaidó as a ‘credible rival’ to Maduro with a ‘refreshing style and vision of taking the country forward.’ The Bloomberg News editorial board applauded him for seeking “restoration of democracy” and the Wall Street Journal declared him ‘a new democratic leader.’”

The innumerable print and media reports about the on-going Venezuela crisis share a common portrait of Guaidó, one in which he emerged, like an innocent new-born politician, from the social chaos to take leadership. More troubling, it presents him as a unifier of large spectrum of political groups in opposition to the Maduro regime.  This portrait is not only mostly a fiction but serves to hide not only his history as a rightwing militant but the role the U.S. government has played for a decade-a-half in shaping Guaidó for his current effort to orchestrate a coup d’etat.

In the highly informative expose, “The Making of Juan Guaido,” Dan Cohen and Max Blumenthal, report that as a student, Guaidó strongly opposed Venezuela’s former president Hugo Chavez and supported the 2002 coup attempt against him.  He backed Radio Caracas Televisión (RCTV), the privately-owned rightwing radio station, that played a key role in fermenting the 2002 coup by helping mobilize anti-government demonstrations, blaming government supporters for attacks on anti-government forces and blocking pro-government reports about the coup.

Guaidó graduated from Caracas’ Andrés Bello Catholic University in engineering in 2007 and went on for a graduate degree in the governance and political management program at George Washington University.  At GW, he studied under the Venezuelan economist Luis Enrique Berrizbeitia, a leading Latin American neoliberal economist.

In 2007, the Maduro regime refused to grant RCTV’s a license renewal and Guaidó helped lead anti-government rallies protests against the decision.  Guaidó and some of his closest associates were part of a rightwing youth group, “Generation 2007,” that sought to overthrow the Chavez government. The group included Leopoldo López, a Princeton-education man who came from one of Venezuela’s richest families and was a descended from his country’s first president, who long worked with the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and was elected mayor of a district in Caracas.  López founded the Popular Will (Voluntad Popular) party which Guaidó eventually came to lead.

Two years earlier, in October 2005, some of those who would form the Generation 2007 group – but apparently not Guaidó — went to Belgrade, Serbia, for rightwing insurrectionary training.  The trip was sponsored by the Center for Applied Nonviolent Action and Strategies (CANVAS) and largely funded by the NED. Stratfor, the military-intelligence contractor, reported that “[CANVAS] may have also received CIA funding and training during the 1999/2000 anti-Milosevic struggle.”

Stratfor outlined CANVAS’s training program in revealing terms: “Success is by no means guaranteed, and student movements are only at the beginning of what could be a years-long effort to trigger a revolution in Venezuela, but the trainers themselves are the people who cut their teeth on the ‘Butcher of the Balkans’ [i.e., Milošević].  They’ve got mad skills. When you see students at five Venezuelan universities hold simultaneous demonstrations, you will know that the training is over and the real work has begun.”

In 2010, Statfor outlined what one analyst called a plan to “drive a dagger through the heart of the Bolivarian revolution.”  The scheme involved upending country’s electrical system, thus leading to a 70 percent in service. “This could be the watershed event, as there is little that Chavez can do to protect the poor from the failure of that system,” a Stratfor internal memo declared. It went on to note, “This would likely have the impact of galvanizing public unrest in a way that no opposition group could ever hope to generate. At that point in time, an opposition group would be best served to take advantage of the situation and spin it against Chavez and towards their needs.”  Nine years later, an idle scheme became a threating reality.

In 2010, Guaidó and a handful of other student activists attended a secret five-day training retreat at Mexico City’s Fiesta Mexicana run by Otpor, the Belgrade-based regime-change trainers backed by the U.S. government, notably Otto Reich, an advisor to the Reagan and Bush administrations.  Venezuela’s Socialist Party legislator Robert Serra claimed, “Behind this [retreat] are big interests and big finances, we´re talking about an international network which sought to destabilise our country.”

One of Guaidó’s associates, Miami-based Maria Corina Machado, was identified as the key to a 2014 plot against Maduro.  She claimed that the plot was OK-ed by U.S. Ambassador to Colombia, Kevin Whitaker. “I have already made up my mind and this fight will continue until this regime is overthrown and we deliver to our friends in the world,” Machado said. And insisted, “If I went to San Cristobal and exposed myself before the OAS, I fear nothing. Kevin Whitaker has already reconfirmed his support and he pointed out the new steps. We have a checkbook stronger than the regime’s to break the international security ring.”

Most troubling, the Popular Will party, including Guaidó, was actively involved in a 2014 campaign known asguarimbas, anti-Maduro street protesters.  He tweeted a video featuring himself wearing a helmet and gas mask and surrounded by masked and armed associates.  They blocked a highway and had violent clashes with the police. The demonstration also took place at universities where students wore T-shirts embossed “Popular Will” or “Justice First.”  The 2014 guarimbas showdown ended with the killing of about 43 people and, in a 2017 incident, 126 people, including many Chavistas and police officers.

In 2015, Guaidówas elected a member of the National Assembly and, in 2018, he spearheaded the opposition coalition named the Democratic Unity Round Table (MUD). As a member of the Venezuelan parliament, Guaido headed an inspection commission investigating high-profile corruption cases, such as the Odebrecht construction company bribery case, involving officials of Maduro’s government. Odebrecht, the largest construction and development company in Latin America, admitted in 2016 to bribing government officials in a dozen South American countries.

As Cohen and Blumenthal report, “Guaidó is known as the president of the opposition-dominated National Assembly, but he was never elected to the position.”  They point out that Guaidó was fourth in line among opposition-group leaders for the position but the first was under house arrest, another was hiding out in the Chilean embassy, the third mysterious did not assume the position and the fourth was Guaidó. The Popular Will party represents only 14 percent of legislators.

In late 2018, Guaidó visited Washington, Colombia and Brazil to help coordinate plans for mass opposition demonstrations during Maduro’s second inauguration in January 2019.  Leading the anti-Maduro campaign, Bolton screeched, “What we’re focusing on today is disconnecting the illegitimate Maduro regime from the source of its revenues. We think consistent with our recognition of Juan Guaidó as the constitutional interim president of Venezuela that those revenues should go to the legitimate government.” As reported in the Journal, another U.S. official said, “We have been engaged with the same strategy: to build international pressure, help organize the internal opposition and push for a peaceful restoration of democracy. But that internal piece was missing.”  A U.S. official said, “He [Guaidó] was the piece we needed for our strategy to be coherent and complete.”

The New York Times confirmed this assessment, quoting William Brownfield, the former American ambassador to Venezuela: “For the first time, you have an opposition leader [Guaidó] who is clearly signaling to the armed forces and to law enforcement that he wants to keep them on the side of the angels and with the good guys.”

Like the tide, America’s political puppets come and go, some last longer while other serve for but an historical instant. Among the many who’ve served U.S. interests and were, in time, swept from the historical stage are Manuel Noriega (Panama), Augusto Pinochet (Chile), Rios Montt (Guatemala) and Anastasio Somosa (Nicaragua) along with the (Shah) Mohammad Reza (Iran) and Saddam Hussein (Iraq). Looking to Guaidó’s fate, Diego Sequera, a Venezuelan journalist, notes, “It doesn’t matter if he crashes and burns after all these misadventures, to the Americans, he is expendable.”

 

Categories: News for progressives

Annexing the Stars: Walcott, Rhodes, and Venezuela

Fri, 2019-03-15 15:56

Illustration by Nathaniel St. Clair

Poet Derek Walcott’s “A Far Cry from Africa” provides a stirring glimpse into the perspectives and policies of British colonialists in the 20th century. Of course, the perspectives it reveals are temporally confined to British colonialism in Walcott’s poem: he was a native of Saint Lucia, a British colony or “possession” in the Caribbean; and he was writing about Kenya, a British colony or “possession” in Africa. But the mindset he reveals could easily be applied to the modern neocolonialists of the American empire, which succeeded the British empire after World War Two.

It was the British from whom the Americans inherited the imperial mandate. Imperialist enthusiast Sir Cecil Rhodes, the infamous South African magnate, understood the mutual interests of capitalism and imperialism, and how the latter was in fact a species of the former. Rhodes passionately believed expansionism was everything in capitalism and in nations. He once remarked, with a disarming frankness, “I would annex the stars if I could.”

Contrast this with a quote from Derek Walcott, who spoke of his native region with a different kind of enthusiasm, “Visual surprise is natural in the Caribbean; it comes with the landscape, and faced with its beauty, the sigh of History dissolves.” How curious a contrast—the native of a country with an embarrassment of natural riches, star-struck by its beauty, who understood it to be a palliative for the individual suffering under the ravages of colonialism. It acted like a physic on the soul; like a balm on the body. Walcott sensed the same visual medicine existed in Africa. In A Far Cry, he notes the “tawny pelt” and a “white dust of ibises” and the “…bloodstreams of the veldt” that mar this “paradise.”

A not inconsiderable part of the colonialism that visited social and ecological catastrophe on the Caribbean and Africa, threatening to destroy the natural beauties Walcott so loved, was the ideological justifications for the conquest. For Walcott, like African author Chinua Achebe, the rationales for colonial cruelty were almost as galling as the acts themselves. They revealed the inner workings of the hand that slew, the eye that hated, the mouth that cursed, the law that confined natives within the humiliating mews of servitude. There are connected justifications that Walcott notes in his poem.

Throughout the work, Walcott underscores the racist attitude the colonial British had toward their African subjects: “savages, expendable as Jews.” And later, “The gorilla wrestles with the superman”. These phrases reveal the history of colonial thought, dating back even to the Greeks, who were perhaps the first to externalize the ‘other’ as almost nonhuman. The Greeks called non-Greeks “barbarians.” Walcott suggests that this, too, was how the British saw Africans, as ‘savages’ and ‘gorillas’. This diminishing of the humanity of the African made it easier for the British to condone their colonial cruelties. For them, then, this was not a case of one human harming another. This was rather a case of humans necessarily exerting dominion over sub-humans, not simply as a byproduct of conquest, but rather as a mandate from heaven. This was the second justification. Indeed, the British believed they were civilizing the savages. Walcott saw this quite clearly. He writes, “The violence of beast on beast is read/As natural law, but upright man/Seeks his divinity by inflicting pain”. Perfectly put. Here we see the ideologies of racism, messianic religion, and social Darwinism merging into a deeply delusional reconfiguring of reality.

This is Orwellian in the truest sense. In 1984 Orwell imagined a state that taught that, “War is Peace. Freedom is Slavery. Ignorance is Strength.” Here Walcott describes a colonial regime that reinterprets enslavement as altruism. Walcott concludes, “Again brutish necessity wipes its hands/Upon the napkin of a dirty cause, again”. That dirty cause is what needs cleaning up, what needs a rationale. That dirty cause Walcott laments is what author J.M. Coetzee wrote so memorably of in Waiting for the Barbarians:

One thought alone preoccupies the submerged mind of Empire: how not to end, how not to die, how to prolong its era. By day it pursues its enemies. It is cunning and ruthless, it sends its bloodhounds everywhere. By night it feeds on images of disaster: the sack of cities, the rape of populations, pyramids of bones, acres of desolation.

The brutal exploitation of nations and peoples must be dulcified by subjugating it to a larger cultural project, in this case the civilizing of savages. In a sense, these are, at bottom, issues of language. Without the mental justification, would colonialism persist? Language here is the articulated embodiment of inner greed yoked to rationality, the former conditioning the latter.

Modern Incarnations

This is the story of Venezuela. Racism reveals itself in the character of the protagonists and the antagonists. Juan Guaido’s National Assembly is a whitebred clan of privileged ‘representatives’, representing little more than the interests of privilege. Venezuela’s Constituent Assembly is a cross-section of society, mostly comprised of people of color, working to imbue their constitution with a revolutionary array of rights for every citizen. Yet across Latin America, as Amy Chua has written, small bands of whites with European heritage tend to control the wealth of these societies. It is no different in Venezuela.

These self-anointed rulers must vindicate their behaviors in some fashion. Today we here extremists like Donald Trump and Marco Rubio declaring the need to defend the persecuted people of Venezuela from their own elected leader; the responsibility to nobly restore democracy (read market capitalism) to a nation that has made stunning social strides underneath the banner of Bolivarian socialism. This modern fake faith in democracy is not unlike the old ruse of disguising colonialism as missionary work. Both rationales cloak an underlying madness of capitalist imperialism: as cultural theorist Walter Benjamin wrote, capitalism is, “…a pure religious cult, perhaps the most extreme there ever was.”

But unlike the heavy-handed imperial Britain that Walcott wrote of, the imperialism of the United States has found a modern method of conquest and rule, a more opaque template that looks to leave a lighter footprint, less evidence of its own barbarity, the better to project it onto the victim. As many alternative media outlets have explained, Venezuela’s economic and social problems are principally the product of economic warfare against it by the United States, and only secondarily an expression of the ham-fisted economic management of the Maduro government (I nearly wrote ‘Maduro regime’. It is never wise to discount the effects of mainstream media on the unconscious.).

The U.S. has instanced a variety of brutal economic and clandestine measures to destabilize the legitimate government in Caracas under the guise of democracy promotion. They include the use of destructive sanctions that prevent the Maduro government from attaining international loans, of importing precious medical supplies and agricultural products, as well as necessary resources to process its petroleum; the confiscation of Venezuelan gold (by the British government) and the revenues of its North American oil supplier Citgo (by the U.S. government); the de facto banning of Venezuela from using the SWIFT system of international payments; the funding of violent opposition by the National Endowment for Democracy (NED); the use of public relations stunts like the sham humanitarian aid deliveries to the Venezuelan borders, organized by convicted gunrunner Elliot Abrams (indelibly exposed by Minnesota Representative Ilhan Omar in Congressional hearings); the backing of coup d’états (one temporarily succeeded in 2002, another foiled in the planning stages in 2014, the latest a slow-motion series of mishaps); and last but not least, the massive undeclared media campaign to establish the narrative that Maduro was a dictator hellbent on destroying his own society through purblind socialist economics and authoritarian brutality to suppress resistance; and finally the threat of military invasion if these efforts fail to dislodge the Bolivarian movement. All of this to install a racist ingenue in the presidency, backed by a phalanx of neoliberal technocrats who will unravel the Bolivarian achievements to reintroduce the laissez-faire hellscape that the socialist movement lifted Venezuela out of.

The Othering of Men and Women

It is, in the end, a politics of the ‘other’. By rationalizing conquest as a necessary conquest of ‘other’, ‘lesser’ humans, we allow ourselves to conduct it with little cognitive dissonance. This might be sufficient for the continuation of subjugation until enslaved populations rise up and throw off their chains. But what occurs in all colonial settings is that the colonizer intermingles with the colonized and produces a new community of people that contain within them elements of both. This changes both the colonized and the colonizing nations, and gives the lie to the notion that one is superior to the other. Derek Walcott was a member of this co-mingled community, and in his final stanza of “Far Cry”, rather than issuing a fierce call for resistance (which would have been perfectly valid), he calls into view his own being. He had white and black grandparents. He was a subject of a British colony and yet a master of the colonial language. This contradictions within his own person troubled him, even as a new social realm emerged from the interplay of conquest and resistance.

We see this clearly enough in Europe and America today. The colonization of North Africa, the conquest of half of Mexico, the neocolonial conquests in the Middle East and Central America–all produce their refugees, seeking shelter within the walls of the empire, beneath the gun turrets themselves. There is safety at the metropole. It is an unsettling paradox: in the heart of evil, the evil only echoes at a distance. Yet this is the proverbial nightmare scenario for men like President Trump and Abrams and Rubio, who see refugees as desperadoes come to rape and pillage our pristine societies. This feverish vision—like the regime change wars themselves—is merely the unconscious mind projecting its own unacceptable behavior onto those it violates. This capacity for self-delusion and the delusional rationalization of savagery is one of the deepest dilemmas of the human species. We are, in this respect, no further along the road to peaceful cohabitation than we were in the days of satraps and the Raj, only that our barbarities are better shielded from view. We are better dissimulators than we once were; we are better magicians of the unreal. The more one considers this, the more plausible it seems that our material advances in civilization have been offset by a moral recidivism for which we have few comprehensive solutions. But if capitalism has been shown to exacerbate that dilemma, why are we once again backing the proposed plunder of another sovereign nation, for which we will again have to invent false narratives to appease our agitated conscience?

Categories: News for progressives

Our Green New Deal

Fri, 2019-03-15 15:55

Photograph Source Sunrise Movement Logo

On Friday, February 22, 2019, Sunrise Bay Area, Youth Vs. Apocalypse and Earth Guardians Bay Area Crew gathered together for a rally held outside of Senator Feinstein’s office in San Francisco in an attempt to persuade her to vote yes on the Green New Deal.

We attended the rally at Feinstein’s to show support and help in whatever ways we could as this movement is one that matters to us and our future– we hadn’t planned to talk with Feinstein directly. In spite of this, when the opportunity presented itself YVA and Earth Guardians accepted gladly and were more than excited when we learned that we would actually be allowed into her office to speak to her personally. For us at least, this excitement turned quickly into fear as our peers and Senator Feinstein began to converse.

This fear was not because we felt that we were being “Taught a lesson” or “Told off”. It was because we could see ourselves talking to our future grandchildren about what breathable air used to be like. We could see workers in impoverished communities whose children’s lives depended on risking their own. We were afraid because, at that moment, we could see the world around us shrinking – becoming something small and unimportant, and with it so did we.

However, we only felt this way. As we sit here and write this piece, we know that we are not small and we are definitely not unimportant. Our words speak for all youth, as we demand a future. And that future will only be possible through the Green New Deal. Because as we advocate for the Green New Deal, we are also advocating for the future of our Earth and all of its inhabitants. A promised future. The future we deserve. Because the adults that decide our future, got theirs. So who are they to cancel ours?

We are not fighting for the Green New Deal because we are brainwashed youth or because we are being manipulated and used for political gain. We fight for the Green New Deal because we are in charge of our future, and know exactly what it means. It lies in our hands, only ours. It is our future, whether or not elected officials like that and the only way to protect what belongs to us is through bold and transformative action.

We cannot separate ourselves from all the animals, plants and all other life because we are all interconnected. We are all affected by the destructive aftermath of climate change. Just because we are human, it does not negate the fact that we are also in danger because of our actions. We are in also in danger from inequality and lack of economic opportunity. We can’t leave behind anyone.

That is why we believe in the Green New Deal, and we know what the Green New Deal is. We have read it and we understand it because we know exactly what we have to do to secure our future. Youth have a right to be in this conversation because in the long run, this is more than a debate. It is our life and future.

Categories: News for progressives

Trump’s Nightmare Budget

Fri, 2019-03-15 15:55

Drawing by Nathaniel St. Clair

Two things can be said with certainty about Trump’s 2020 budget request: It is DOA, dead on arrival, in the House; and it is a political document, catering to his loyal supporters, rather than a serious fiscal statement. What the budget request reveals is that Trump, left to his own devices, would further skewer the middle class and low-income groups, downgrade diplomacy and environmental protection, give the military more than it really wants or needs, and fulfill his obsession with a border wall. To say the budget is revolting and immoral would be a vast understatement. But it may (and should) give Democrats additional evidence of Trump’s unfitness to lead.

Below is a quick breakdown of the budget proposal. The Washington Post has a very good analysis March 13, 2019, at the source for the figures below.

Proposed changes to funding in Trump’s budget

-31% Environmental Protection Agency
-24% State and USAID
-19% Transportation
-16% Housing and Urban Development
-15% Agriculture
-14% Interior
-12% Health and Human Services
-12% Education
-11% Energy
-10% Labor
-2% Justice
-2% NASA
-2% Treasury
+5% Defense
+7% Commerce
+7% Homeland Security
+8% Veterans Affairs

Key proposed additions
–Adds more than $33 billion to the Department of Defense budget, for a total of $718 billion, 57 percent of the proposed federal discretionary budget
–Allocates $8.6 billion to build sections of a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, on top of the close to $7 billion Trump already announced in his national emergency declaration
–Sets aside $750 million to establish a paid parental leave program and $1 billion for a one-time fund to help underserved populations and encourage company investment in child-care
–Commits $291 million toward ending the spread of HIV in the United States within a decade, a promise Trump made in his State of the Union last month

Key proposed cuts
–Cuts $845 billion over the next 10 years from Medicare, the federal program that provides health insurance to older Americans
–Removes $241 billion from Medicaid, the health-care program for low-income Americans, over the next decade as part of an overhaul that shifts more power to states
–Slashes $220 billion from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) over the next decade, with proposed reforms including mandatory work requirements and food box delivery service in lieu of cash benefits for low-income families
–Reductions to the federal student loan programs that total $207 billion in the next 10 years and include eliminating Public Service Loan Forgiveness and subsidized student loans.

Categories: News for progressives

The 18th Brumaire of Just About Everybody: the Rise of Authoritarian Strongmen and How to Prevent and Reverse It

Fri, 2019-03-15 15:55

The Prototype for Trump, Putin and Co. [1]

A great nation becomes disillusioned with the promises of free competition, free trade, economic liberalization, and greater integration into the world market, policies that seem to benefit only a few at the expense of the many. In an election that shocks the liberal and educated elements in the society, and international opinion, the people elect a strongman – an individual who is already famous, and who promises to return the country to greatness. Widely popular with working people, but linked to a more troubling group of militant supporters who his opponents might reasonably consider to be “deplorables”, he wins the election by promising public works to create employment. Yet, he also promises to business to safeguard its interests. Once in power, he quickly begins to violate recent norms of policy, standard governmental practice and traditional diplomacy.

Sound familiar? Around the world the 21stcentury has seen leaders fitting most of this description come into power in one democratic country after another: Silvio Berlusconi in Italy, Jakob Zuma in South Africa, Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, Vladimir Putin in Russia, Victor Orbàn in Hungary, and of course Donald Trump in the United States. We might add to this list China’s President Xi Jinping, even if he was only elected by the governing body of China, not the people themselves.  And we might also, though with some caution, add Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua, Rafael Correa of Ecuador, and Hugo Chavez of Venezuela to the list, as at least having gained a degree of personal authority while undermining the previously existing structures. As we will see, we can include these Latin American leaders only if we recognize some important differences. Then there are those who have come close but not yet won power, such as Marine Le Pen of France’s National Front. Looking over the worldwide panorama of power, we have to admit that a major form of government – one either based on, tending toward or favorable to one-person rule has spread around the world.

The countries involved, and cited above, are so different from each other in political culture, levels of wealth and economic development and historical trajectories, that in looking for answers to the question why such governments, leaders, and political parties are becoming so common, we must go beyond the specifics of each individual national case – even if the particularities of each country determine the specific forms of strongman-type leaders or nationalist parties. We must look for some systemic, and global, causes.

One place to look that would be fruitful is in the work of a thinker whose analysis of the case I described above in the introduction still stands as a model of brilliant and original theorizing about the causes of political outcomes.

The case that I described above was not one of the leaders of recent years, but the prototype for all such modern strongman-type leaders: Louis Bonaparte, the nephew of Napoleon. And the work of analysis that shed light on how this vulgar, scheming, authoritarian mediocrity was first elected President of France on December 10, 1848, and then in a coup d’etaton December 2, 1851 became Emperor of France, was a long pamphlet by none other than Karl Marx, entitled “The 18thBrumaire of Louis Bonaparte.” I will argue that Marx’s basic argument, that such individuals and the centralization of power in their hands is possible only under particular conditions is very useful for understanding what is happening today around the world. Further, I will show that by understanding the necessary and sufficient conditions for the rise of strongmen to power, we can derive important strategic understandings to help us prevent such authoritarian government, to reverse its rise and to create conditions that can make such leaders unlikely, or, where they do gain office, to control them through democratic and popular institutions and mobilizations. Finally, I consider the possibility of a coalition capable of making the changes needed to protect republican institutions in the future, and address the obstacles facing such a coalition from coming into being today.

Marx’s title itself parodied Louis Bonaparte, since the 18thBrumaire was the date on the Revolutionary calendar of the French Revolution when Napoleon carried out his own coup, leading to his eventual coronation as Emperor. The difference in historical grandeur and importance between the two coups, and the two Bonapartes, led to Marx’s famous opening line, “Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.”[2]Marx, and Hegel, are right: surely we can recognize that the first time the world faced an authoritarian backlash at liberal overreach was horrible tragedy (and worse) – the rise of Fascism, Nazism, Stalinism, and world war. Compared to Stalin or Hitler, even to Mussolini or Franco, the Vladimir Putin’s, Xi Jinping’s, Donald Trumps and Victor Orbàns do seem parodies of themselves and of the type. As farce in other words. As Marx pointed out throughout his work of course, this does not make them less dangerous to democracy or to freedom. If anything, it means we risk underestimating the threat due to the very lack of grandeur and gravitas compared with the world-shaking dictators of the mid-20thcentury, as Louis Bonaparte was easily underestimated by his opponents. I am in no way suggesting that any of today’s strongmen, be they in democratic polities like Trump, Berlusconi, or Orbàn, or in dictatorships like China, are comparable to the mass murders of the 20thcentury. I amsuggesting that they are comparable to Louis Bonaparte.

Bonaparte’s opponents often ridiculed him. And many of today’s leaders are easily enough parodied or ridiculed, despite their high office and great power. Xi Jinping, unchallenged leader of a vast and powerful organization with a monopoly of power over the world’s most populous country has to ban Winnie the Pooh and the letter N[3], which were used on social media to mock him. Banned also is the word “Emperor” – apparently things have changed since Louis Bonaparte’s time, when Emperor was a status one aspired to. Still, I wonder how school children in the world’s oldest continual civilization can do research for homework assignments on much of Chinese history without being allowed to look up the word Emperor on the internet. Berlusconi’s insulting behavior to women, his lack of personal dignity, even as he dresses impeccably in the latest styles from Rome’ elegant Via del Corso; Trump’s…well, do I even have to go into all that? Let’s just say that social media has not lacked for jokes, memes, and embarrassing posts, poking fun at his oversized sense of self-importance.  Oh, and let’s not forget  that even the powerful Putin has had to deal with Pussy Riot, or recently been ridiculed in a Randy Newman song.

The End of Kings

That the public has taken to making fun of many of these larger-than-life seeming heads of government is undoubtedly heartening to all of us who still hold to the classic definition of a republic. That definition is powerfully defended in William Everdell’s magnificent book, The End of Kings. Everdell relies on John Adams’ phrase in a letter to Roger Sherman in 1789, stating that a republic is “a government whose sovereignty is vested in more than one man.”[4] Public ridicule of those who aspire to one-person rule is a sure sign of the health of the polity, and of the people’s good sense.

Unfortunately, as Everdell demonstrated in The End of Kings, republics have always been more securely defended by institutional and structural arrangements than by what Machiavelli called republican virtue, that is, by civic spirit. Civic spirit eventually lags, and opens the door to the power-hungry, unless constitutional, institutional, and legal safeguards are in place. The problem is that even constitutional and institutional systems still need at least enough civic spirit and mobilization of social power to defend the constitutional system itself, and to insist on its being respected. We shall later examine the social bases of this willingness and capacity to mobilize on behalf of republican institutions. So, constitutional limits on power and civic spirit reinforce each other and need each other. But even this combination is inadequate if the broader social forces in society both fragment civic spirit and weaken the institutional restraints.  Civic spirit and institutional restraints on power are dependent on, and need to be used to foster and maintain, organized class forces that are intrinsically committed to defending democratic and republican order.  And this is where Marx’s analysis comes in.

What Classes Have to Do with It: Avoiding the Great Man Theory and Economic Determinism

Marx’s concern is twofold: first, the relationship between social forces. For Marx this means the class relations in society, the institutional system of the state and the subjective ways of seeing the world of society’s members; and second, how to avoid two wrongheaded viewpoints – one that sees all outcomes as the inevitable results of large-scale processes and systems, and another that instead vastly overstates the role of individuals in the making of history.

Many today argue that today’s political crises result from the crisis of elites and the rise of populists. Populists and elites however, are superficial categories, weakly defined, more descriptive of effects than causes. The causes, according to many mainstream explanations are globalization and technology.[5]The first is assumed to be an inevitable historical process, resistance to which is, as Star Trek’s Borg used to say, futile. The latter is taken to be an independent variable, a force in itself, one that human beings must adjust to and accept as a politically neutral and ultimately always progressive and even liberating power. But technology is the work of human brains and hands, and, as is in fact embodied in human knowledge and skills. This is not well understood in accounts of technological inevitability, otherwise we would realize that humans can affect human creations and abililities. In these accounts, elites are those best able, or even most worthy to take advantage of the opportunities provided by the advance of globalization and new technologies. Populists are said to represent the unworthy in the new pitiless meritocracy, those left behind along with their smokestack industries, mining towns, or forgotten farming communities and fishing villages.

The other approach is to see the rise of strongmen to governmental power as the result of their individual qualities, or lack thereof – cheating to get ahead, willingness to rely on fake news, alliance with disreputable and anti-democratic foreign powers such as the Russian government, willingness to lie, being all things to all people to win votes from all over the spectrum, lack of respect for the norms of democracy, constitutionality and even ordinary human decency. Much of this list does describe accurately many of the above-mentioned men. And so far they are all men. The rise of one-person authoritarian government is a highly gendered process. Murdered journalist Anna Politkovskaya warned us all about Putin long ago and paid the highest price for it. We would be hard-pressed to decide whether Duterte, Erdogan or Putin would be the more dangerous opponent if any of them should decide that some group is a threat to their power and agenda. And nearly every one of this crop of leaders, even in democratic countries, has made clear that diplomatic niceties are at best a very low priority, if not one of the pillars of the old order that needs to be knocked down.

Both of these poles of analysis have some elements of truth to them. But each is flawed. To see the rise of Trump or Orbàn as the result of globalization or technology puts the cart before the horse – seeing the results of human policies and practices as the causes of outcomes. It also strains credibility – does globalization lead to Clintons, Blairs and Obamas, to Macrons and to the liberal-democratic end of history? Or to Le Pen, to the UK Independence Party winning its Brexit referendum, to Orbàn and to Trump? And why is Xi Jinping, arguably the leader of the greatest centralization of power in the greatest up and coming world power the new global spokesman for free trade and further global integration in the wake of President Trump’s new protectionist policies? Advocates of globalization can’t have it both ways. Either globalization is inevitable, and the pace of technological change irreversible, in which case the populist forces can be no threat anyway, or else globalization supports the rise of the so-called Third Wave of Democratization defined by Samuel Huntington, in which case these political outcomes can’t be happening. But they are. Nor can each individual case can be explained by the personal characteristics of the rising leaders themselves. As I wrote at the start of this article, the rise of similar political regimes worldwide despite all the cultural, economic and political differences in the relevant countries suggests that the individual national conditions, let alone individual politicians, cannot be the cause of their own rise. To accept this account would mean accepting the self-narratives of the Berlusconis, Trumps, Dutartes, etc., namely that they are self-made men.

Marx took each of these arguments apart in “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte.” And not for abstract reasons. The arguments made by his contemporaries parallel those we find today to explain Donald Trump’s presidency, or Victor Orbàn’s authoritarian politics. And the arguments Marx contested were made by two of the most famous writers and most respected social critics of his time: Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, and Victor Hugo. Proudhon, who had risen to becoming one of the best-known writers in the European left during the Revolution of 1848, saw the anti-politics style of Louis Bonaparte’s electoral victory: “France has named Louis Bonaparte President of the Republic because it is tired of parties, because all the parties are dead, because with parties power itself is dead.”[6] Proudhon, who would pay with years in prison for his troubles, saw the economic revolution of the 19thcentury – free enterprise, market reforms, privatizations, the industrial revolution and free trade – as decisive in determining the trajectory of Louis Bonaparte’s government and his hold on power. As Lois Spear writes, according to Proudhon,

Bonaparte would doom himself to failure once a free economy emerged. Free men would cast off rulers and their legions and Bonaparte would find himself’ out of power. The ultimate need was to institute the economic revolution. In the supreme act of his political life, Proudhon called upon Bonaparte to forget all the vituperations hurled at him, the entire philosophy of nongovernment, and take charge of the revolutionary wagon, directing it into the path of the new order. It is small wonder that he puzzled and shocked his contemporaries?[7]

As Spears points out, “Proudhon’s faith in the reasoning power of the masses, enslaved and brutalized by poverty, as he termed it, had never been strong. But he was stunned by their speedy acceptance of the inevitable, noting that it was only the bourgeoisie who protested.”[8] The assumption that economic globalization, in both the 19thand 21stcentury varieties, is inevitable, that the industrial revolution, in both 19thand 21stcentury versions, will determine the destiny of human societies, easily marries such a view of the common people as ignorant and uninformed, and so easily manipulated into voting against their own interests. Marx had already seen the type of today’s Thomas Friedmans, or of the post-mortems by the brain trust of the Hillary Clinton campaign, and he had rejected it as unable to account for the whys and whens of events. Proudhon would successively predict that the tendency of the economic revolution of the times would force Louis Bonaparte to move toward a leftist version of liberalization, and then predicted instead that it would lead to dictatorship and betrayal of popular and liberal values.

Karl Marx is often stereotyped as an economic determinist. His argument in “The Eighteenth Brumaire” refutes that charge. But Marx also rejected any inflation of the role of individuals in history. Not because people did not matter in the political, social and economic outcomes, but because they did not matter as much in all situations. Conditions are never entirely under the control even of those in power, and therefore all actions have unintended consequences. This is not due to the Fall of Man or human imperfection, but because we inherent given conditions from history, and our current actions are always met by those of others acting in opposite directions. And so situations are not reducible to inevitable economic or technological trends, nor completely under our control.

“Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please in circumstances they choose for themselves; rather they make it In present circumstances, given and inherited.[9]” Marx argues that only under very specific conditions can a single individual, even if backed by a movement or popular support, gain power to rule in an authoritarian fashion, with a high degree of independence from existing institutions, from the main social classes and interest groups in society, and from the norms of behavior. What, then, are those conditions?

Marx’s answer gives the lie to whole “Great Man” approach to history, an approach that is central to the autobiographical narratives of so many of today’s leaders and candidates for leadership. The answer is that these kinds of leaders and governments are possible only when the struggle between the leading classes of society leads to a stalemate, in which none of the main contending classes are in a position to offer leadership through their own direct representatives, or their own organizations. When that happens, it becomes possible for shrewd leaders with access to organization and resources, and well-versed in public manipulation, to play the game of being all things to all people, of telling each class in turn that he (or someday she) represents their concerns and interests, and so to gain the relative autonomy to consolidate personal power and rule through plebiscite, spectacle, and a close-knit circle of clients and sycophants.

This enables Marx to explain what is wrong with today’s political center, left and center-left who are so easily drawn into the trap of personalizing the struggle with their opponent in power. The Italian left fought Berlusconi for years and have never yet really neutralized the threat of his return to power; but they never analyzed seriously the conditions that led to Berlusconism in the first place. The US left demonized George W. Bush’s erosion of Constitutional limits, without understanding his victories beyond plausible accusations of stolen elections, blaming Ralph Nader, and appeal to the ignorance of the masses in “Red State” or “fly-over” America. And the obsession with Trump himself during the election campaign of 2016, with his tweets, with the Mueller investigation into the Russian connection with the Trump campaign  (whether the latter had a real impact on the results or not), all show that the lesson has not been learned.  In the 1869 Preface to the Second Edition of “The Eighteenth Brumaire”, Marx showed again that he knew this type of opposition and criticism of authoritarian leadership, and again he rejected it, this time in the work on Louis Bonaparte’s coup by Victor Hugo:

Victor Hugo confines himself to bitter and witty invective against the responsible producer of the coup d’etat. The event itself appears in his work like a bolt from the blue. He sees in it only the violent act of a single individual. [10]

So, the first problem with this kind of criticism of such leaders, even if, as we saw above, a healthy sense of public humor about those in power is a necessary element to maintaining republic spirit and civic virtue, is that the focus on the person in power as an individual also confines the opposition to bitter and witty invective – the late night comedians, the Hollywood actors’ tweets, and the rest. But while such invective may keep the nation on its toes, it can never bring down a regime in power. And it certainly cannot change the circumstances that enabled it to come to power in the first place. In fact, it cannot even analyze and understand those circumstances, because it sees the event itself as the act of a single individual, or at most of him and a small circle around him of co-conspirators. James Madison’s model of checks and balances based itself, as Madison made clear in Federalist Papers numbers 10 and 51, on the idea that ambitious individuals, like factions that would seek privilege and power, were inevitable facts of political life that could never be wished away. A good constitutional design would find ways to use such ambitions. It would not just check one government branch with another, but, as Federalist 51 argues, also use the ambition of power-hungry individuals in power to block each other, as individual office-seeker and government agency became one. It would further check the ambitions of any faction in the country through the activity of other factions. In other words, any analysis that blames a power-hungry and ruthless or unprincipled individual or faction gaining power on that individual or faction being power-hungry, ambitious or unprincipled is completely useless, both intellectually and in practical politics. Madison assumes that these are the very kind of people that will seek power, at least often. He hoped for an at least widespread sense of republican virtue by policy makers, but he knew enough not to count on it. While Marx’s concern is not checks and balances, he is at pains to show that blaming the power-hungry for their ambitions is not only pointless, but dangerous. In his Preface to the Second Edition, he continues in his critique of Hugo’s work on Louis Bonaparte’s coup, “He does not notice that he makes this individual great instead of little by ascribing to him a personal power of initiative unparalleled in world history.” [11]

And this is why it is dangerous for opponents of Trump, Berlusconi, Orbàn, or even of those on the right who oppose a Madura or Chavez in Venezuela, or for that matter a Fidel Castro in Cuba, to continually focus on, even to obsess over, the individual in power himself and his failings, missteps, violations of norms of behavior, personal characteristics. While seeking to criticize, such opposition merely suggests that everything would be alright if only this individual were not in power or had not engaged in the actions they had to gain and use power. It renders them godlike. Beyond and above history and its processes, above and beyond the forces in the society itself. The logic is clear: when we say “everything would be fine if it were not for X being in power” we are denying that any conditions existed that legitimately provided an opportunity or resources for that person to gain power. This is a way of avoiding collective responsibility for the polity. We are also claiming that there are not legitimate grievances on the part of those who voted for or support the leader in question. Yes, there are those, many probably who voted for Trump out of racist motives or sexist motives, but even racists and sexists can have legitimate grievances over other issues. And no, millions of people who voted twice for Barack Obama did not suddenly become racist, nor are the vast majority of non-college educated white women that voted for Trump a whole population of Stepford Wives.[12] And if the example of Berlusconi’s decades at the center of Italian politics or of Victor Orbàn’s three electoral victories, or even Hugo Chavez’s four electoral victories and Daniel Ortega’s long period in power in Nicaragua are all too obscure as examples, just ask yourself how effective it was for the Cuban community in Florida to hurl its curses at Fidel Castro in order to drive him out of power. Want a losing strategy? Here it is. Obsess about your opponent and personalize and demonize authoritarian leaders in power. If the West continues with its own vitriolic attacks on Russian President Putin as an individual in power, without analyzing why he is and stays in power and what makes that possible, I expect him to last as long as Castro. If Democrats make every election a referendum on Trump’s personality, put your money on his re-election.

As for the approach of Proudhon, his descendants today see all opposition to globalization, free trade, or what is irritatingly called “Europe” (as in headlines like “New Italian Government latest threat to Europe”), as if Europe were an austerity and debt-collection program and not a continent, as utterly irrational and inexplicable. Marx has words for them as well:

Proudhon, for his part, seeks to represent the coup d’etat as the result of an antecedent historical development. Inadvertently, however, his historical construction of the coup d’etatbecomes a historical apologia for its hero. Thus he falls into the error of our so-called objective historians. [13]

Any analysis that argues that historical processes, be they economic or technological, or political, are inevitable, ends up legitimizing the particular leaders, regimes, parties, ideologies in power. This is a necessary effect of such discourses. This was the meaning of saying that world Communism was inevitable on the part of the old Soviet Union and Stalinism – it allowed for legitimizing what they called “real socialism” – the one they governed. And it is the effect of saying that globalization is inevitable, since it of course legitimizes the Clintons, Blairs, Obamas and Macrons, and now even Xi Jinping. Likewise saying that the current austerity programs of the EU are unavoidable merely legitimizes the policies of the EU Commission, the Central Bank, the IMF and the Merkel government in Germany.

Hegel, Polanyi and the Law of Unintended Consequences

But this much is obvious. EH Carr told us long ago that universal ideologies are merely expressions of the real interests that are most powerful internationally. Those who are less powerful cannot afford to be universalist or cosmopolitan.[14] But Marx is going further: all the arguments against so-called populism have been based on the idea that since globalization and technological advance – this globalization and this technology – are inevitable, the losers – those lacking the skills and education to take advantage of these changes, will inevitably become disgruntled, and react. While this reaction was in no way predicted by those now stating the obvious, the argument nevertheless amounts to the following: 1) globalization and technological change are inevitable, 2) inevitably they will benefit some more than others, 3) those who don’t benefit won’t like it, but 4) due to 1) there is nothing that can be done.

Since nothing can be done, the disgruntlement won’t go away, and so these leaders and governments are equally inevitable as are supposedly globalization and technological innovation themselves. Therefore, while this analysis is intended to show the irrationality of the so-called populist movements and governments, it ends up in a Hegelian teleology, proving the inevitability of populist authoritarian leaders. There is truth in all of this, though not in the way intended by pro-globalization critics of authoritarian “populism”. The truth is that, as Karl Polanyi demonstrated convincingly in his The Great Transformation, there is always a double movement at work when society moves to becoming a market society, to subordinating itself to market relations: on the one hand the hyper-liberalization of the economy, and on the other the reaction of society to protect itself by any means necessary, left or right – Tsipras in Greece and Chavez in Venezuela, Corbyn or Bernie Sanders, or on the other hand, Orbàn, Putin, Le Pen, the new coalition government in Italy, and Trump.

But for Marx, this is not a satisfactory conclusion. If liberalization goes too far there will be some reaction begs the question, what kind of reaction, and under what conditions does liberalization gain the upper hand so radically in the first place, and under what conditions does a counter-reaction, by left or right become possible? And finally, under what conditions can a single individual – appealing to the right, or the left, or to all at once – gain and centralize power in his or her own hands, seemingly independently of government structures, constitutional limits, and the social and class forces in society?

Why James Madison Was Wrong

We can now turn to Marx’s explanation, which we need to update for our own circumstances and needs today.  To understand Marx’s insights, we need first to return to Madison’s arguments about how best to design a republic.

James Madison argues in Federalist Paper number 51 that in a large republic, there will be so many different factions that it will be impossible for any one of them to become dominant. The preference for scale is meant to preserve the republican principle of avoiding power ending up in the hands of one person, or, extending this principle as I think Madison intends to, into the hands of any one group in society. This parallels the argument in Federalist Paper number 10 in which he argues for checks and balances among the branches of government, such that the self-interest of each branch blocks that of the other preventing institutional concentration of power, and so that the individual ambitions of exactly the types of politicians we are seeing today come to power around the world are also channeled into blocking those of the various other branches, resulting in a mutually reinforcing deadlock. While we can argue about how well the preservation of the balance of power between branches of government has worked over the years, one thing is clear. The other part of Madison’s model, that based on preventing a monopoly of power in the wider society by having many social factions check each other, does not work.

We know that first of all because we know from political scientists that in a pluralist condition, a well-organized minority has the best conditions for gaining greater power and influence.[15]Second, because we know how corporations are governed – the more shareholders the better so that a small minority of large owners of stock can wield power over the company’s governance. Marx demonstrates in “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte” that not only does Madison’s system in the larger society not work, but it is the ideal condition for power to become concentrated in the hands of one person. He does so by taking us on a tour of the state of the various contending classes in France in the mid-19thCentury.

First, Marx demonstrates that the working class has been defeated in the June 1848 uprising, in which workers sought to establish a socialist republic. Its organizations are crushed, its attempt at political power thwarted for the foreseeable future. This is the foundation on which all the other events of the period that Marx writes about are based. An organized working class would mean a viable alternative to the existing power structure before Louis Bonaparte’s coup, and a major obstacle to that seizure of power, and to his election in the first place.

Before we move on to the conditions of the other classes, and how an overall stalemate resulted in Bonaparte’s rise to power, and then to see how well this model applies to today’s political shocks, it is worth emphasizing this last point. The shattering of working class organization takes out of the picture the best organized non-privileged force for democracy in the society. It is a necessary, though not sufficient condition, for one-person rule or for the concentration of power. Every dictator worth their salt, from Mussolini and Hitler, to Pinochet and Saddam Hussein has broken unions, banned cooperative organizations and working class political parties, or jailed union activists. Or worse.

We will return to this issue when we discuss today’s authoritarians and strongmen.

Marx goes on to examine the conditions of the other major classes in French society. The general tendency was that after the workers had been defeated in June 1848, one class after another – the peasants, small businesspeople, artisans and shopkeepers, the professional middle class, one after another made demands for change that would have benefitted them and arguably improved society. Do we not recognize Marx’s description of the response each sector of society met when it presented its grievances to those in power in the Second Republic, and to the class in power, what Marx calls the Financial Aristocracy?

Every demand for the most simple bourgeois financial reform, for the most ordinary liberalism, for the most commonplace republicanism, for the flattest democracy, is forthwith punished as an “assault upon society,“ and is branded as “Socialism.“ [16]

Hasn’t this been the response to every call for protection against exposure to the forces of globalization? To every demand for public policy to redress the growing inequalities of income? To every call for regulation of financial systems and banks? To even hints at a return to Keynesian economic policies? To every protest at the effects of austerity in the European Union?

The refusal to address legitimate grievances is not just bad policy. It undermines democracy itself and weakens republics because the social classes making demands, by not having them even addressed seriously, are either then disorganized and demobilized or else driven to seek redress in other camps. Either way, the path to the Louis Bonaparte’s is further paved.

The capitalists, the “bourgeoisie” to use Marx’s term, are divided between republicans and monarchists, and then again, among monarchists, are torn between those favoring the Bourbons, the Orleans, and the Bonapartes. The small traders are scattered, the institutions where their representatives had some influence are dissolved by the Constitution of 1848, which favors large business interests. The professional middle class had allied with the republicans among the bourgeoisie, but once they had won the republic in the 1848 revolution, they had turned on their allies the workers, and now had no solid base of support in society.  None of these classes were any longer in a position to lead the country, to impose both their will (dominance) and their vision of society (hegemony) on the national life as a whole. Those that had ruled remained powerful and privileged, but no one would any longer follow their lead or support their project. The various classes supporting a more democratic and egalitarian outcome were demobilized or crushed.

“And yet”  Marx writes, “ the French Government does not float in the air. Bonaparte represents an economic class, and that the most numerous in the commonweal of France.”

Namely, the farmers. In the 1790s, the peasants of France, like the small farmers in America, had provided the backbone of the Revolution. But in France in 1850, after the revolutionary land reform that privatized their holdings, they are not able to lead the country, despite their numbers. But they are numerous enough to delegate power to another. It is precisely their lack of organized force that makes them the appropriate vehicle for a leader seeking to centralize authority. Marx explains the political sociology involved:

The allotment farmers are an immense mass, whose individual members live in identical conditions, without, however, entering into manifold relations with one another. Their method of production isolates them from one another, instead of drawing them into mutual intercourse. This isolation is promoted by the poor means of communication in France, together with the poverty of the farmers themselves… We have the allotted patch of land, the farmer and his family; alongside of that another allotted patch of land, another farmer and another family. A bunch of these makes up a village; a bunch of villages makes up a Department. Thus the large mass of the French nation is constituted by the simple addition of equal magnitudes—much as a bag with potatoes constitutes a potato-bag. [17]

Americans will recognize this as the way urban coast dwellers might characterize the culture of “fly-over country”. But we need to keep in mind that rural America was once the bedrock of Jeffersonian Democracy, of Jacksonian Democracy, of Turner’s Frontier Thesis, and later of the realPopulists, namely the 10 million strong Farmers Alliance cooperative that gave birth to the People’s Party. Rural France had experienced the French Revolution, the smashing of the remnants of feudal power. The sociological reality of the countryside had changed because its material conditions had changed.  This meant that the conditions for a class being a class as an active force have been splintered; it remains numerically important, but its progressive character is eroded by its inability to democratically mobilize itself for social and political change. This makes all the difference:

In so far as millions of families live under economic conditions that separate their mode of life, their interests and their culture from those of the other classes, and that place them in an attitude hostile toward the latter, they constitute a class;

So writes Marx. Similarly the historian of the English working class E.P. Thompson  famously wrote,

Class happens when some men, as a result of common experiences…feel and articulate the identity of their interests as between themselves, and as against other men whose interests are different from (and usually opposed to) theirs. [18]

Neither Marx nor Thompson assume that class is an inevitability, nor are classes predetermined. And so Marx continues in analyzing the composition of French farmers,

in so far as there exists only a local connection among these farmers, a connection which the individuality and exclusiveness of their interests prevent from generating among them any unity of interest, national connections, and political organization, they do not constitute a class. Consequently, they are unable to assert their class interests in their own name, be it by a parliament or by convention. They can not represent one another, they must themselves be represented. Their representative must at the same time appear as their master, as an authority over them, as an unlimited governmental power, that protects them from above, bestows rain and sunshine upon them. Accordingly, the political influence of the allotment farmer finds its ultimate expression in an Executive power that subjugates the commonweal to its own autocratic will.[19]

And so here we have it. When the social classes contending for influence in society have been too successful in blocking each other’s initiatives, and each of their projects has been rejected by the most powerful classes with a previously existing monopoly on policy-making, the result is that a class that reflects that reality of fragmentation of the whole society as a large microcosm of the whole becomes the most representative. In turn, its inability to lead society, to assert its own interests in its own name, reflecting the larger condition of no class being in such a position, leads it to pass off its potential sovereign power to an individual who represents its outlook but not necessarily its interests.

The December 10th Society and today’s “Deplorables”

Dictators, however, in the end, must safeguard their position beyond the popular support that is likely a temporary basis for rule in any case, stemming as it does from such a weak foundation, namely a class that is not well-organized.  Otherwise this class would itself govern through its own institutions, rather than rely on an authoritarian strongman who represents it at best symbolically. Nor can the authoritarian leader really represent fully the interests of such a numerous but politically inert class. The competition for power and influence between national states forces any government to ensure that economic development enhances the country’s potential military power.[20] Since the resources needed for state power remain largely in the hands of capitalist classes, despite their rhetorical opposition to capitalist interests and the physical replacement of that class or its representatives from governance, authoritarian leaders are constrained by reality to carry out policies that for the most part further capitalist interests.  The result is likely eventual repression against organized efforts by the common people, and in turn a possible break with the class whose votes have brought them to power. Further, authoritarian leaders need access to resources not only for their own enrichment and for that of the particular interests and allies they bring into government, crony capitalism as it has been called, but also for one other insurance policy to maintain power – the real “deplorables”. For Louis Bonaparte, this was the December 10thSociety.  Marx describes them as such:

This society dated from the year 1849. Under the pretext of founding a benevolent association, the slum-proletariat of Paris was organized into secret sections, each section led by Bonapartist agents, with a Bonapartist General at the head of all…along with the foul and adventures-seeking dregs of the bourgeoisie, there were vagabonds, dismissed soldiers, discharged convicts, runaway galley slaves, sharpers, jugglers, lazzaroni, pickpockets, sleight- hand performers, gamblers, procurers, keepers of disorderly houses, porters, literati, organ grinders, rag pickers, scissors grinders, tinkers, beggars—in short, that whole undefined, dissolute, kicked-about mass that the Frenchmen style “la Boheme“ With this kindred element, Bonaparte formed the stock of the “Society of December 10,“…the only class upon which he can depend unconditionally. [21]

Such a body of supporters, whose own aspirations for advancement and whose own desperation mirror the ambition of the leader himself, is essential for any dictatorship. He needs to enrich his immediate aides and allies – cronies – and himself,  and to maintain the support of this “dangerous class” as embodied in the December 10thSociety. Meanwhile they held  him repress the people and deny the elite classes direct access to power; only a thoroughly loyal, and well-armed and organized body of followers can guarantee tenure in office. The architype is captain Ahab, who while beguiling the common crew, intimidating the middle class officers and ignoring the demands of the capitalist owners, smuggled Malaysian pirates aboard the Pequod to help ensure he remained in command.[22]

The Road to Serfdom is Paved with Neoliberal Intentions

Bonaparte represented the French farmers, but ruled over them, and over the other classes without actually representing their true interests, something that he could not do even if he were good-willed about it, since a class that cannot mobilize itself on a big enough scale cannot influence policy-making. Today’s leaders represent classes whose ability to self-organize to lead society and assert their own vision of society has been pulverized, in analogous contexts, in which the leading classes of society have come to a stalemate.

The globalization project has lost all popular support except among some professionals. The neoliberal economic policies in favor since the elections of Thatcher and Reagan are rejected wholesale by huge swaths of every society. Every effort to replace these is rejected. Small business people have either been eaten alive (as usual) by the large companies, or, paradoxically, seen their numbers technically swell only due to the forcing of ordinary workers into freelance conditions (Uber for example, but the examples and methods are many), but even more subordinated to big business then ever. Real small businesses face fierce market competition, even international market competition, not in a competitive free market as neoclassical economists’ myths would have it, but in markets for selling as suppliers to large businesses such as Walmart, Amazon, the large UK supermarket chains, Uber, and so forth. Their independence is now a relic of a bygone age. Farmers are a small part of industrialized workforces now. In Thailand, they were the majority in the Red Shirts movement allied with the politician Thaksin. At first they played a role similar to that played by French farmers in Marx’s account, but then did assert their own class interests only to be slaughtered in the squares of Bangkok.

This leaves the professional class or professional managerial class. And it is this class whose growing influence in society is paradoxically responsible for the overall stalemate in society as a whole. But first, let’s make clear the analogy to France’s farmers of the 1850s – today’s more traditional working class.

As we saw in the Trump election, working class votes, traditionally left wing, have also gone across much of Europe to right wing parties and so-called populist leaders. Thomas Picketty has shown recently that today’s strongman authoritarian leaders rely to a remarkable, even shocking and depressing degree on working class votes.[23]The factory closing, and the degradation of the traditional working class neighborhood with its sense of community, is the equivalent today of the isolated farmhouse without sufficient social connections to form itself into a class.

The analogy is not perfect: workers still have unions to some degree and where they work at large enterprises their mode of work, unlike that of farmers, brings them into social contact with each other and forces cooperation on them. This reality was always the ace in the deck of Marxist analysis and hopes for social change. But under today’s conditions, this high degree of social cooperation, at least in the wealthiest countries, is an exception rather than a rule. Today it is mainly workers in the public sector that are well-organized with strong unions and an ability to strike. Unions in the private sector in the US are rare and are becoming rarer every year even in Europe. Social media, ironically, have a similar impact to that of the poor means of communication that Marx attributes to France, leading to isolation, rather than stronger social relationships. Immigration, whatever its positive aspects, makes strong community bonds more complicated to form and maintain.

And so, sometimes a class, if well-organized, coherent, and with its own strong cultural sense of self and a vision of the kind of country it wants can be and has been the most progressive and democratic force in history. But that same class, if  defeated and disorganized, it becomes the soil for the rise of authoritarian leaders. This is not necessary and is not an inevitable outcome. In our times, it is the result, just as Marx argued of Louis Bonaparte’s rise, of class struggle. The defeat of the working class movement, through hostile policies, from the Reagan-Thatcher era through the long austerity policies and neoliberal reforms of the European Union in the wake of the Lisbon Treaty and the 2008 economic crisis, have left the traditional working class in the Western countries a numerical majority, but a ghost of their former selves as a social force. As Thomas Picketty demonstrates[24], right wing and nationalist parties have been increasingly able to count on working class voters (excluding most members of national minorities and/or immigrant communities) as center-left parties have represented the more  highly educated professional classes and monopolized the votes of national minorities and immigrants.[25] This split in working class votes along ethnic lines explains both the electoral rise and return of the right. The inability of either of these two coalitions or factions to provide a coherent vision of government, national leadership and purpose, or proposals for concrete policies that a large majority could rally behind speaks for itself.

Checking and Balancing the Majority Leads to Individual Rule

But the pro-business policies of authoritarian leaders mean that the working class support, based largely on the prospect of a return to a large manufacturing base and not on ideological commitments or long-term party loyalty, could evaporate. The need for a dangerous class, for a group of genuine deplorables to maintain power, is apparent. That we see the presence, and at times association of such types- neo-Nazis, Klansmen, and other White Supremacists, for example – with or near aides to presidents, prime ministers, or candidates for high office in democratic countries is alarming for this reason. That none of these has been constituted yet as the real praetorian guard of an authoritarian government in a democratic Western country is – reassuring is too strong a word – an important reality check to not go too far rhetorically in identifying nationalist or authoritarian-style leaders in the democratic West as fascists or dictators just yet. But the December 10thtypes are on the margins everywhere, increasingly visible and vocal, and worryingly and even shockingly willing to speak in their own names with their own voices for the first time since 1945.

In places like the Philippines and Russia, instead, we already find such forces in existence, and the survival of democracy seriously threatened, if not already fatally damaged. The Davao city vigilante groups (death squads) in the rise to power and hold on power of Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines is the closest parallel to the December 10thprototype, and indeed, arguably more violent by a good measure than the original version. Here we are close to the transformation of a group of authoritarian deplorables into actual fascist bands, comparable to Hitler’s SA, though the ideological vision is far less fully developed.[26]

As for Vladimir Putin’s Russia, journalist Anna Politkovskaya had already, in her dispatches from the Chechen War, called what she was seeing “fascism”.[27] The recent declaration of Cossacks that they would use force to repress any non-heterosexual kissing at the World Cup[28] is only the latest example of unofficial violence in Russia towards those not accepted by, or opposed to, the current political order.

The Curious Case of the Latin American Populists and the Thai Red Shirts

We now must address the somewhat different cases of the recent charismatic populist leaders of the recent Latin American left – Venezuela’s Chavez, Maduro his successor, Evo Morales, Rafael Correa and Daniel Ortega. Their cases require us to make our model a little more flexible. In the Bolivian case, we do have a well-organized social movement representing class interests – typified by the 1999-2000 struggle against water privatization in Cochabamba, so Morales at least did not come to power under conditions of representing a disorganized but instead an organized class.

As for the other leftist leaders in the region, the principle of substitution of leader for class does seem to apply, and the same may be said for Thaksin Shinawatra in Thailand as well. But the Red Shirts movement there, and the rise of organized movements in Venezuela, Honduras before and after the coup that toppled the leftist president, and Ecuador suggest that a different process may be at work, and indeed an ancient one. In ancient Greek cities, populist dictators often preceded actual organized struggles to win and maintain democracy. Something of the sort may have unfolded in Latin American countries in the dialectic between leader and followers, though so far with the result of dividing the organized social class interests and the charismatic leader and populist government. At times an authoritarian or at least extra-constitutionalist streak has shown itself in repression of the very social movements one might have expected to become a base of support of the president and government. This, at least, has happened in Ecuador and in Bolivia. An organized popular class movement that puts a leader into power has less tolerance for an authoritarian power grab by that leader than a disorganized class that needs to see itself reflected in the head of state [29].

An under-appreciated defense of constitutional, republican and democratic principles is a well-organized popular or working class, even one that comes to constitute “a majority faction” as James Madison called it in Federalist Paper number 10. Clearly, the movements in Bolivia and later in Thailand, as well as those that twice brought Jean-Bertrand Aristide to power in Haiti would qualify as clear examples of what Madison sought to avoid with his constitutional machinery.[30] If instead, a well-organized majority faction not only is a key to making democratic machinery work for reform and social justice, but itself a crucial defense against abuse by its own leaders and the powers of a government it has brought into power, then Madison, and indeed much of the liberal-constitutionalist approach to, and limitations of democracy are to be rethought. Certainly, the latter have not prevented a Trump, an Orbàn or a Putin from gaining power, nor from governing in ways that stretch, if not break the frames of the constitutions in question.

When the People Defend Their Leaders, When the People Control Their Leaders

In Venezuela, Thailand, Haiti and Honduras, instead, we have a different phenomenon: mass movements that arise precisely to defend their elected governments and the populist leaders that lead them. In Venezuela up to a million people surrounded the Presidential Palace to stop and reverse the 2002 coup d’etatthat had overthrown Hugo Chavez and declared the elected parliament and the courts nullified. This reversed the sense of terror as well that had weighed on the entire continent ever since the Pinochet coup of September 11, 1973 against the elected Allende government in Chile, and the horrors that followed. Chavez had the army with him, something Allende did not have, but it was the popular uprising in his defense that made the difference. In Thailand the Red Shirts were massacred in the streets demanding that the government and leader they elected twice be re-instated. And in Honduras a government that became progressive once in office was overthrown and a popular uprising sought to defend it, only for activists to be brutally repressed and murdered by those still holding power. In each case, we have a situation where a populist leader representing a disorganized or dispersed mass started a process whereby his supporters became a class, organized, ready to fight to defend what they had gained. This suggests that the relationship between democracy and leaders, even authoritarian leaders, is more complex than at first appears, but in each case the crucial variable is the coming-into-being of an organized class movement or interest, whether that happens before or after the election or rise to power of the leader. Put differently, if a consequence of the government of a populist or authoritarian-style leader is the self-organization of the working class, peasantry or farmers, or other popular forces, it is possible that a self-regulating principle of democracy and of republican government takes over: the organized class will fight to defend democracy from those class forces and potential agencies that would deny it to them as an instrument for reforming society. Further, they themselves become a major force preventing inroads against republican or constitutional principles as a means to maintain their own control over their leader, preventing his or her power and influence from reducing them anew to a dispersed and disorganized mass, unable to represent themselves and needing representation. None of this is reflected in the standard liberal or conservative literature on democracy or republicanism or constitutional defense of civil liberties.

In part, this is due to what I think of as the “New York Times Interpretation of History”. In this version, a strong middle class is the basis of democratization, because having become wealthy thanks to market economies or access to globalization or free trade, this middle class of small scale and medium sized business owners, independent farmers, self-employed, professionals, and the well-educated staffs of large organizations wants a greater say in things, and also wants constitutional protections for civil liberties to safeguard their property and social status. The problem with this vision of the world is not only that this very class – small business owners, shopkeepers, artisans, propertied farmers, government bureaucrats, and university-educated professionals – was also the backbone of the support for Hitler, Mussolini and Franco, as well as Pinochet’s military coup, even if each later required the support of big business to actually govern. To be sure, as we have seen, small farmers, artisans, and shopkeepers were also central to democratic movements, such as the American and French Revolutions and the US Populists – the real Populists, the farmers’ movement of the late 19thand  early 20thcentury. These were all progressive and democratic movements, with deep regard for republican principles. So, for the same class to later become a fascist stronghold requires explanation. The rise of corporate capitalism from above, organized labor from below, and the Great Depression of the 1930s led them to desperation and in some countries willingness to throw overboard their values. But the problem for the New York Times version of history is deeper. Democracy historically has mainly, though not solely been the work of working people, not middle classes defending their property.[31]

All of our previous analysis leads us therefore first to the realization that the legitimate fears of authoritarian leaders and governments and of “populism” miss the mark. The soil in which such governments can grow is one where the majority of people, especially of working people, is geographically and socially dispersed (by private holdings, factory closings or mass unemployment to name a few mechanisms).  Italian historian Sergio Bologna has demonstrated that, regarding the working class in Germany at the moment of Hitler’s rise to power, “Thus when we speak of the working class of the final period of Weimar, we are talking of a working class that was already extremely atomised, which inhabited a factory environment that was fragmented and pulverised – as if they had been subjected to a decentralization of production…” [32]

The best defense against threats to democracy and constitutional government instead is a well-organized working class acting in its own interests, even if that working class brings to power populist leaders. Because in order to defend and maintain its own control of its leaders and ensure that popular and even radical government acts in the people’s and not its own interests, a well-organized class will resort to its own power and organization – strikes, protests, mass mobilization – to limit the threat to popular control of government, thereby defending as well constitutionality, civil liberties, and republican principles for all. What may not be defended are the property, wealth, power and privilege of elite and upper middle classes of course. And if that is what is most important to these classes, then their opposition to populism is less a matter of principle than of masquerading interest as principle. A genuinely democratic government rooted in organized labor would face their opposition as well. And these principles are as much in danger when liberal elitist governments reign as when vulgar populists do.

Making Democracy Safe For Free Trade

Indeed, as Jennifer Delton has demonstrated in the pages of the Washington Post of June 7, 2018, liberal Democrats dedicated to free trade undermined the very democratic and constitutional limits to presidential power over trade that now permits President Trump to impose tariffs unilaterally. [33] Similarly, it was liberal internationalists who have supported shifting decision-making and budget controls to organizations such as the EU Commission, the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organization. Nor have liberals in any major country addressed the troubling shift of economic policy making to central banks, which remain independent of democratic control in most countries today.[34] Indeed, the willingness to shift power and policy to unaccountable technocratic institutions and processes – including ratings agencies[35], and investors (whom Thomas Friedman celebrated as “the electronic herd”)[36] means that liberals and cosmopolitans expose themselves to charges of hypocrisy when they (rightly) criticize the undemocratic and anti-republican practices and rhetoric of the authoritarian strongmen rising to power.

For they themselves have run roughshod over democracy as expressed most (un)eloquently in 2011,  when German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schauble said “Elections change nothing. There are rules” in answer to appeals to popular sovereignty by the then new Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras and his then Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis.  And when then EU Commission President Jean-Claude Junker added “there can be no democratic choice against the European treaties. One cannot exit the euro without leaving the EU”, a “rule” that appears in no EU treaty, nor that has been agreed to by any member state upon entering the Eurozone.[37] Further, by supporting free trade agreements, such as Bill Clinton’s support of NAFTA and his advocacy of China’s entry into the WTO without any labor or human rights strings attached, and the European center-left’s willingness to impose austerity programs, liberals have been as much a cause of the dispersion of the working class as the anti-union policies of conservatives. Indeed, the latter have had a much easier time breaking unions because of the shift in the balance of power away from labor and toward mobile capital resulting from globalization. Following the siren song of economists who assure that free trade will result in the same net number of jobs eventually, center-left parties and leaders have neglected to note that it is not just employment but the concentration of workers in unionized industries and their long-term employment stability that allows for a social fabric to develop in the workplace and communities leading to a well-organized independent class that is the key to preventing authoritarian government, as we have seen.  All of this means that cosmopolitan liberals are in bad faith when articulating republican and democratic principles against the new governments and leaders arising worldwide. Not that these do not need defending. But the material basis of this bad faith must be found in the one large and important social class we have not discussed yet, and which is ultimately the decisive actor in the political drama of our times: the professional-managerial class, or middle class professionals.

Caught in the Middle?

The class of professionals, or of highly educated, highly trained personnel has been a kind of sphinx for sociologists, political scientists and socialist activists, among others, for a long time. Their first theorist was of course Thorstein Veblen, who saw engineers and technicians as the great new motor of production processes, and opponents of the absentee owner class whose interest was not in efficient production nor a rationally organized economy and society, but merely money and profit.[38] The great sociologist C. Wright Mills had already studied white collar workers as a mass phenomenon of complexity and an ambivalent social force back in the 1950s.[39] Barbara and John Ehrenreich theorized this class in a seminal article in the 1970s.[40] This class was newly dubbed the “knowledge worker” in the 1990s [41]. According to the Ehrenriechs in a 2013 re-examination of the issue, it has recently suffered a dual fate: one the one hand, the professional managerial class has suffered its decline and fall for two reasons: ideologically its rationalist values have only been fully tried in the less than inspiring socialist countries of the Soviet era, and to a lesser extent in some of the Keynesian technocratic management of the economy; on the other hand, new technologies and corporate strategies since 2000 have eliminated many of their professional opportunities, with journalism in particular hemorrhaging jobs, but with many other professions such as programmers suffering from outsourcing to less expensive labor zones. [42]

But John McDermott, whose analysis of the role of the professional-managerial sector is a surer guide, bases his analysis on a different starting point: the corporation. The corporation is a form of collective property (not private property in any meaningful sense), and a form of organization of economic activity involving three classes: top management, the middle strata we are discussing and the working class. He sees the middle sector in similar terms to the Ehrenreich’s, as a class whose role is hostile to workers, inasmuch as “the middle element has one job and only one job – to manage workers.”[43] But expanding on the insight that society itself is now a product of corporations, which are no longer aberrations in an otherwise liberal society [44], McDermott further deepened his analysis. He came to see the Corporate Middle Class, what he later terms the Professional life trajectory[45] as the human embodiment of technology – as technology itself, which without direct reference to this class is a reified anthropomorphism. Further, this class he argued in the late 1990s had become “a mass constituency for globalization”.[46]  As such, as the bearers of contemporary technology and as the constituent class for globalization, the professionals are not likely for the most part to see technologies as their main problem, as the Ehrenreich’s argue, though some specific categories like adjunct professors and journalists have certainly seen better days.

The technology of the professionals – their knowledge and inventions, are typically in a mutually reinforcing relationship with the “corporate form” (including government agencies and non-profits, universities and hospitals as well as the military) which is the only institutional setting in which they can obtain the resources and funding they need, have access to the instruments of their work, and carry out their life professions. [47] This reality means first that many of the definitions of knowledge workers or professionals, based on the assumption that they are merely a contemporary version of the old skilled workers or professionals with their autonomy in a liberal society and so will rebel against corporate inroads on that autonomy, are based on incorrect premises. Second, it explains, as McDermott points out, why the working class has had a more difficult time asserting its independent political initiatives in the corporate era compared with the late 19thand early 20thcentury. It has had to contend with not one but two well-organized and resource-rich opponents.

The reality that the middle class professionals are both the bearers of technology and the constituent class for globalization explains the now much-noted phenomenon of parties of the center-left having come to represent the highly educated and relatively better paid as well as national ethnic minorities.[48] The Ehrenreichs claim that the PMC (their abbreviation) has seen its day come and go now, and will be increasingly proletarianized by the same corporate strategies that have decimated workers for decades now. But I would argue instead that the evidence is far stronger that the professionals have gone from being a high status group with many sectors to becoming a class in Marx’s and British historian EP Thompson’s sense in recent years. They have a viewpoint – that of expertise and education based on research and knowledge; they have a central role in production and economic life in general; they are the principle mass constituency for globalization and reject the nationalism of many of the new authoritarians, and also that of some of the left and right radical governments around the world as a default setting. Their life experience is cosmopolitan. They carry knowledge and science with them as both badges and identities, as well as the source of their social power. They are increasingly noted as a central part of society in popular culture – from Big Bang Theory to Dr. House, from the children’s cartoon the Croods to the Tony Stark character in the Avengers movies, to the films Moneyball, Transcendence and Limitless. These various representations in the culture all show the professional working in a corporate setting, and in teams, even when the main characters are strongly individualistic in their outlook on life. And finally, the professionals have a political party – indeed one in nearly every industrial country – the main center-left parties, which no longer can be said in any serious sense to represent the working class, as Thomas Frank and Thomas Picketty have shown.

The professionals, the Ehrenreichs notwithstanding, have put themselves forward as a potential leadership class able to provide an alternative to the authoritarian strongmen. But there are serious problems with the professionals’ claim to social and political leadership. The basis for such a leadership claim is not, as the Ehrenreichs argue, or as Veblen argued back in the 1920s, the rationalization of production, though this was certainly the case of the engineers and technicians of that era. Instead the claim today is based, as Frank makes clear, on expertise, and on education. The highly elitist basis of this claim means that despite their relative cultural coherence, which to some degree does transcend the ethnic, racial and gender divisions in their class, though these are far from fully overcome as the crisis of sexism in the high tech sector this past year has demonstrated, the professionals are not only likely to find it difficult to convince workers to come to their side, but in fact are openly despised by working class communities, and in turn hold the latter in contempt. Nor do they consider the small local shopkeeper or small scale entrepreneur or artisan in higher regard, considering them to be equally ignorant and parochial as are the workers. And as McDermott points out, their structural role – as teachers over working class students, as lawyers or doctors treating the needs of but also exploiting working class clients and patients, as university administrators making absurdly high salaries while raising tuition beyond the means of working class opportunity structures and thereby exacerbating the inequality already on the increase between the two classes – makes it difficult to imagine a common project to unite the two largest classes in modern society.

Capitalist Hegemony Over the Professionals, or Take the Beam Out of Your Own Eye

But the biggest problem is one that the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci would have recognized, and the term he used to explain it was “hegemony”. Gramsci’s concept of hegemony has been widely used in international relations [49], cultural studies and by any number of Marxists political theorists. Too often it is used in either of two ways: as a substitute term for domination, or as a substitute term for ideology, or ideological social control. But Gramsci instead intended hegemony as the capacity, at least plausibly based in reality, of the most powerful class in society to lead other classes on the basis of a common project that represents a believable common good.[50] As Gramsci writes,

the supremacy of a social group manifests itself in two ways, as “domination” and as “intellectual and moral leadership”. A social group dominates antagonistic groups, which it tends to “liquidate”, or to subjugate perhaps even by armed force; it leads kindred or allied groups. A social group can, and indeed must, already exercise “leadership” before winning governmental power (this indeed is one of the principal conditions for winning such power); it subsequently becomes dominant when it exercises power, but even if it holds it firmly in its grasp, it must continue to “lead” as well. [51]

As this quote makes clear, a dominant class does not exercise hegemony over dominated classes who are somehow tricked by its manipulation of cultural symbols or language to gain ideological consent. This is how the concept has too often been understood by cultural theorists. Nor is it reducible to domination by superior physical force, military power, economic supremacy or other forms of “hard power”, as realist in IR would have it. It is instead closer to the more superficial idea of “soft power”[52], but involves very specific kinds of relationships with very specific groups. In particular, hegemony operates in relationships with other allied or kindred classes (or nations in the case of international politics) who have a reason to participate in a larger project organized by the dominant class, group or state, because it corresponds to their own interests and to their own vision of a common good.

The professionals do have their own idea of the common good, but more than any other class in modern society with the possible exception of small businesspeople  they are subject to the hegemony of the dominant investor capitalist class. Professionals  can only do their work in a certain corporate-style context, even when they work for government, universities, hospitals or non-profits. They need the resources that only a large organization with access to capital can provide. Second, they are the mass constituency for globalization as John McDermott has argued, and indeed, pro-globalization, pro-immigration, pro-openness as  cultural values are written into their DNA. Like the global capitalists, but with greater cultural coherence than the latter, they are a true international class. Third, they are at least vulnerable to the argument that government interference in the development of the new technologies is unwanted and likely to be counterproductive, though this can take the form of anti-militarism, of anti-fundamentalism, or simply a bias against bureaucracy. It is not clear that they have a fully developed analogous critique of corporate structures, though many are critical of too much power in the hands of corporations. This, as expected by Veblen and the Ehrenreichs, more often takes the form of distaste for the dominance of money over intelligent use of available or possible technologies that could improve the human condition.

But their support of the capitalist program of globalization, their dependence on corporate form, and their dislike of the parochialism of both the working class and the small business class, make them likely allies and supporters of global capital. This is exactly the kind of hegemony that Gramsci meant, and it is not the working class but the professionals who are “hegemonized”. There is a grain of truth in the idea that workers through patriotism at least in the US, and through the idea of the “American Dream” are at times followers of the leadership of dominant class forces. But they are no fans of market economics, hate globalization as much as professionals love it, and are often suspicious of military adventures (working class districts and their Congressional representatives in the House of Representatives voted strongly against NAFTA in 1994, and against the first Gulf War authorization resolution in 1991). Workers see new forms of work organization, such as the  downsizing in the 1990s and the Uber-Gig economy model as means of avoiding paying them decent wages and appropriate benefits. Professionals are much more likely to approve of the Gig economy and rave about Uber’s services, though as the Ehrenreichs might point out, journalists and adjunct professors are exceptions to this rule, while programmers don’t love being exposed to competition through outsourcing. Small businesspeople certainly support a libertarian, low tax and low regulation, union-free economic policy, and to that degree are a partner of a  hegemonic class of larger capitalists. But opposition to the TARP bailout in the US in 2008, the Tea Party, the new Five-Star Movement-Northern League government in Italy (a small business class government if ever there was one), and their response to the appeal of both authoritarian leaders and racist political parties in various countries[53]are indications that the small propertied classes are increasingly hostile to the leadership of large corporations, of globalization, and of a financial sector that has hung them out to dry when they most needed credit (this is particularly true in Italy since 2008). So, if hegemony has an ally, it is the professionals.

And yet the professionals do exhibit growing confidence in their view of the world, and in their ability due to their meritocratic credentials, to lead society, using the technology that they embody to bring about a better world. And some sectors like journalists and adjunct professors clearly have no reason to support current corporate strategies, while others, like school teachers in the Republican-governed states of the US, have engaged in a wave of mass strikes in West Virginia, Colorado, Kentucky, Oklahoma, and North Carolina. Such behavior may overcome some of the understandable hesitation that workers would have in joining the professionals in a common project. Other recent events, such as the creation of a new organization by former employees of Google, Apple and Facebook to challenge the dominance of manipulative social media corporations over the internet and the use of their technologies to disaggregate the social fabric, and the protest by Google employees that forced the company to end its collaboration with the Pentagon, may be harbingers of a growing autonomy of action by the professional class.  After all its key value, that technology, that is, they themselves and their work, be used in the interests of humankind, are violated by corporate capital, finance, governments and the military.[54] All of these examples are to the good, as the independence of professionals from corporate management and finance is a necessary, if not sufficient precondition for any alliance that could both challenge the neoliberal global project that has so expanded inequality everywhere and prevent and replace authoritarian governments and the siren song of racist, sexist and homophobic governments and parties.

But for such an alliance to happen, professionals would have to challenge one of their own other most cherished principles: meritocracy. For as Thomas Frank points out, one reason for the Democratic Party in the US, and by analogy center-left parties everywhere, to kneel before the altar of finance is that financial managers seem to be merely the most accomplished version of the class of professionals in the first place, an extension of themselves: highly educated, trained in the disciplined use of statistical methodologies, smarter than everyone else, hard-working. For a true gap to emerge between finance and professionals a lot would have to happen, though some of it has and more may soon. The crash of 2008 did delegitimize finance in the eyes of much of the population. Smart or not, it becomes hard to believe in the merits of, and to follow a class that nearly capsized the whole world economy, which was saved only by government action, and which did capsize many of the organizations they run, while continuing to vote themselves disproportionate incomes in the forms of bonuses, stock options, and share buybacks.  This last item have grown to the point that American businesses are arguably not sustainable over any long period now due to buybacks and dividends surmounting not only investment in capital goods, research and product development, all of which are close to the heart of professionals, but also surmounting revenues from sales! [55]

Reconstruction

We have seen that the necessary condition for avoiding the rise of authoritarian leaders is a well-organized working class, since it is from a disaggregated and dispersed majority class that such leaders draw support. We have also seen that a necessary condition for an alternative to both the neoliberal project that got us into this mess and to authoritarian governments is for the rising professional class to gain an autonomy from the corporate-finance-investor class that holds hegemony over it based on real, material and not merely ideological bases. A necessary and sufficient condition for an alternative therefore, would be an alliance between the two largest classes in modern society, workers and professionals. An alliance that went so far as to protect the interests of small businesspeople as well would be formidable indeed, restoring democracy, fortifying republics.

But such an alliance is difficult to construct. The two classes of workers and professionals can no longer be plausibly considered the same class merely because in Marxist terms they are both wage earners or produce surplus value and profits for capitalists. They have organizationally, culturally, politically made clear their differences in outlook, values, identity and political party preferences. They would need at least two necessary conditions to be able to unite. The first ingredient is intermediary organizations – be they unions, cooperatives, professional associations, new forms of business – that can negotiate some of the terms between them, provide an institutional setting for cooperation on common causes, and provide continuity for ongoing solidarity with each other. Such mediating organizations also are needed to overcome the fragmentation of society itself, its breaking up into either isolated individuals drawn to socializing only digitally and at a distance [56], or self-referential identity groups on a slide greased by social media’s marketing methods. [57]

The second ingredient is a common project that can provide an alternative hegemonic vision to that of neoliberal corporate global capital. Such a project would have to include certain key elements: employment guarantees for ordinary workers, but beyond mere jobs, forms of work that aggregate workers facilitating their self-organization. This means some restoration of manufacturing, be it of traditional industries, or of new ones such as high-speed trains and solar power panels, etc. It also means massive investment and permanent maintenance of infrastructure. It means a renewed capital goods industry, since this where the know-how for further developments in productivity and job creation come from. For workers to again be seen as sources of important economic and social knowledge would create a bridge to professionals with their concern for expertise. This would mean reversing definitively the process known as Taylorism or Scientific Management, which shifted control over work to management in workplaces around the world.

Such an alliance also requires a national ideology, or vision that can create a common focus providing meaning to daily life and work, as a sense of unity. The New Deal for the American People, The People’s Home of the 1930s and 40s Swedish Social Democrats, A Nation Fit for Heroes – the Labour Party’s wartime election slogan, are examples of what is needed. There would need to be a change in policies to once again enable unions to organize and represent workers’ interest. But it would also require some of the elements of globalization that professionals like, such as free movement to work abroad, or to study abroad like the Erasmus program in the European Union. It would need to be based on the full utilization of the new technological possibilities without letting financial issues or profit motive determine which technologies get tried, utilized, or diffused. And yet decisions over the use of technologies at work must involve ordinary workers so that the professionals are no longer an instrument for replacing workers and undermining their organized power, a practice we now see is self-defeating for professionals, as it favors the rise of the Trumps and Orbàns, even if it benefits capitalists and top management.

Technology must be negotiated over between the two classes, as must immigration. No country can realistically close its border entirely, nor open them entirely. This means that there should be room for a rational discussion over how much immigration, on what basis – family, skills needed in the economy, or cultural diversity and so on.  Openness is a fine value. But the setting one class in society into constant competition with each other on the basis of ethnicity and locally-born residents vs. newcomers, while another is able to rely on its expertise and scarcity of its skills to face little or no competition is exactly what workers are rebelling against. It is not yet clear how to resolve this issue in an equitable, non-racist, and practical way.

Most of all an alternative that can unite the non-capitalist classes means three other major transformations: first, converting finance into a public good, into a public utility, like water and electricity and roads, a form of infrastructure.[58] Publicly provided, and democratically governed money and credit could provide capital for municipal enterprises, worker and professional-managed cooperatives, and a national infrastructure program including sustainability and ecological repair as well as for a restoration of manufacturing. Second, the transformation of large corporations, industrial and commercial (such as Walmart and Amazon) into stakeholder republics through a Charter [59] providing for representation of workers, professional consultants, and small business suppliers as well as community members on corporate boards. This would allow for converting the commerce giants into consortia managed in the interests of employees and suppliers, so they can no longer drive prices down forcing small business to impose a race to the bottom for working conditions and wages. Finally, we need an international order (a people’s Bretton Woods) to enable these changes. A “People’s Bretton Woods” could provide the vision, institutional arrangements (democratized workplaces and companies, publicly provided finance, unions and professional associations), and material base (a production not finance based real economy) [60] to unite professionals, workers and many small businesses into a vast coalition.  Such a coalition could shift the destiny of our societies from an endless neoliberal globalization with finance in a dominant role. Such projects have been hinted at by Jeremy Corbin’s idea of a “Green Industrial Revolution”, by Yanis Varoufakis’ proposals in his recent works, and by some of Bernie Sanders’ proposals in his 2016 presidential campaign.

They have been more fully worked out by a few writers such as Jon Rynn[61]and Jonathan Feldman[62], who, even before it became a legislative program for Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the left wing of the Democratic Party (to their credit), have long proposed a Green New Deal that would provide work for all, improve infrastructure, and favor cooperatives as democratically run workplaces. Naomi Klein has argued that many local initiatives based on ecological sustainability also provide alternative forms of economic development.[63]and from Cleveland, Ohio to Austin, Texas to Jackson, Mississippi, local cooperative-based economic community development projects inspire hope for new ways to organize the relationship between jobs, technology, enterprises, and the community. Rynn and Feldman use the term “Reconstruction” for their proposals, in part to both poke fun at and to counter the obsession of academic leftists with deconstruction. The postmodernists fail to see that deconstructing the existing values, institutions, identities of democratic societies and of the bases of wider unity exacerbates the rending of the social fabric by neoliberalism, thus improving the likelihood of authoritarian government. Reconstruction will do as a slogan, as we have much to reconstruct.

None of these proposals are panaceas in themselves, and the real differences that exist between working class and professional class people around the world will not be overcome overnight. But we must prevent the end of history as neoliberal globalization being replaced by a New Dark Ages marked by the rise of strongmen and authoritarian government. We must prevent the oligarchy of the neoliberals being replaced by the monarchies of the new authoritarians. To do so means instead restoring the organized power and self-representation of working class power,  and enabling the independence of professionals and small businesses through a use of technology and money in the public interest for the common good. Otherwise, we risk seeing many more 18thBrumaires in the near future.

[1] I want to thank, for their invaluable comments and criticisms on an earlier draft, Ferruccio Gambino, Fabrizio Tonello, Jon Rynn, John McDermott, Jonathan Feldman, and William Everdell .

[2] Karl Marx, “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte” in Marx: Later Political Writings, Cambridge University Press, 1996, p.31.

[3] New York Times, “China Censors Ban Winnie the Pooh and the Letter N after Xi’s Power Grab” February 28, 2018.

[4] William Everdell, The End of Kings: A History of Republics and Republicans, The Free Press, New York, 1983, p.6.

[5] Paul Krugman had already demonstrated that this is not the case in 2006 in New York Times, “Oligarchs Versus Graduates” February 27, 2006.

[6] “Proudhon and 1848” found at: http://francestanford.stanford.edu/sites/francestanford.stanford.edu/files/Beecher_GimonConference.pdf, p. 40. My translation from the French.

[7] Lois Spear, Pierre Joseph Proudhon and the Revolution of 1848, Loyola University Chicago, 1971, p.261.

[8] Spear, Pierre Joseph Proudhon, p.252.

[9] Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire, p.32.

[10] Karl Marx, Preface to the Second Edition, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, found at: https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1852/18th-brumaire/preface.htm

[11] Karl Marx, Preface. Marxists.org.

[12] See the analysis by Jonathan Feldman on this point, at https://portside.org/2016-11-23/why-trump-really-won-its-not-just-race-gender-and-class

[13] Karl Marx, Preface, marxists.org.

[14] EH Carr, The Twenty Years Crisis.

[15] Robert Dahl and Charles Lindblom, Politics, Economics, and Welfare: Planning and Politico-Economic Systems Resolved Into Basic Social Processes  Harper & Row, New York, 1953, pp.359-360.

[16] Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, Dodo Press, New York, 1897, pp.10-11.

[17] Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire, Dodo Press, New York, 1897, pp.97-98.

[18] E.P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class  Vintage New York, 1966, p.9.

[19] Karl Marx, Eighteenth Brumaire, Dodo Press, p.98.

[20] Max Weber, General Economic History, Transaction Books, New Brunswick, NJ 1981 p.337 which argues that the modern era is characterized by the fact that “The separate states had to compete for mobile capital, which dictated to them the conditions under which it would assist them to power.” See also, William McNeil, The Pursuit of Power University of Chicago Press: Chicago, 1982; Giovanni Arrighi, The Long Twentieth Century  Verso London 1994; Paul Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers  Random House  New York, 1987.

[21] Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire, Dodo Press, pp.54-55.

[22] See the classic analysis of Moby Dick, C.L.R. James, Mariners, Renegades and Castaways   London:Allison and Busby  1985, pp.60-64.

[23] Thomas Picketty, Brahmin Left vs Merchant Right: Rising Inequality & the Changing Structure of Political Conflict (Evidence from France, Britain and the US, 1948-2017)World Inequality Lab  EHESS and Paris School of Economics, March 2018.

[24] Thomas Picketty, Brahmin Left vs Merchant Right March 2018.

[25] Picketty, ibid., see Thomas Frank, Listen, Liberal, or Whatever Happened to the Party of the People?  Metropolitan Books  New York 2016.

[26] See the analysis by Danilo Andres Reyes, “The Spectacle of Violence in Duterte’s ‘War on Drugs’” in Journal of Current Southeast Asian Affairs, 35, 2, pp.111-137, 2016, especially pp.128-130 regarding the utility of these bands for remaining in political office.

[27] Anna Politskovskaya, A Small Corner of Hell: Dispatches from Chechnya  University of Chicago Press, 2003, p.111.

[28] Daily Mail June 6, 2018  “More than 300 Cossack horseman will be deployed ‘to monitor LGBT kissing’ in World Cup host city”.

[29] The rise of Stalin to power rested on the necessary but not sufficient condition of the almost complete elimination of the working class that had created the elected Soviets in 1917. This class was disproportionately represented in the Red Army that had to fight the Civil War after the Revolution to defend the government they had brought to power. The subsequent destruction of the Bolshevik Party leadership itself, and so of the political representation of the working class, through the purges and show trials in the 1930s, was another necessary precondition.

[30]See also the discussion of constituent power in Toni Negri, Il potere costituente, translated into and published in English as Toni Negri, Insurgencies  Univ. of Minnesota Press. Minneapolis 1999.

[31] See, among others, Forging Democracy: The History of the Left in Europe, 1850-2000  Oxford University Press Oxford and New York 2002; Sean Wilentz, American Democracy  Norton  New York, 2005; and Charles Berqquist, Labor in Latin America. See also the discussion in my own article Steven Colatrella, “Collective Housekeeping and the Revenge of the Oikos: Against Hannah Arendt on Democracy, Work and the Welfare State” International Critical ThoughtVol. 3, no. 4 December 2013.

[32] Sergio Bologna “Nazism and the Working Class 1933-1993”(translated by Ed Emery)-Paper presented at the Milan Camera del Lavoro, 3 June 1993. Found at: https://theshadesmag.wordpress.com/2017/05/18/nazism-and-the-working-class-sergio-bologna/.

[33] Jennifer Delton, Liberal Democrats sidestepped Congress to bring free trade to the U.S. Now, Trump is able to do the same to destroy it.” Washington Post, June 7, 2018.

[34] See the discussion of this issue in the transition to democracy in South Africa in Naomi Klein, The Shock DoctrineRandom House  New York, 2007; see also Yanis Varoufakis’ analysis of the class interests served and represented by central bank independence, and his critique of the myth of technocratic neutrality in his book Yanis Varoufakis, And the Weak Suffer What They Must London Penguin 2016, as well as in Yanis Varoufakis, Talking With My Daughter About the Economy London Penguin 2017. The classic discussion of the undemocratic and pro-finance  character of the Federal Reserve in the United States remains William Greider, Secrets of the TempleNew York, Touchstone 1987.

[35] See Timothy Sinclair, The New Masters of Capitalism  Cornell University Press Ithaca, NY 2005 for a demystifying analysis of the role of ratings agencies in political life; see also Steven Colatrella, “Meet the Global Ruling Class” Counterpunch.org, Nov. 24, 2011.

[36] Thomas Friedman, The Lexis and the Olive Tree Picador 1999, pp.101-145.

[37] Gavin Hewitt, “Greece: The Dangerous Game” BBC News February 1, 2015, found here: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-31082656.

[38] Thorstein Veblen, Absentee Ownership and Business Enterprise in Recent Times   New York Viking Press, 1923.

[39] C. Wright Mills, White CollarNew York and Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1951.

[40] Ehrenreich, John; Barbara Ehrenreich) in Pat Walker, ed. Between Labor and Capital (1st ed.). Boston: South End Press, 1979.

[41] John W. Cortada, The Rise of the Knowledge WorkerButterworth-Heinemann Boston 1998.

[42] John and Barbara Ehrenreich, The Real Story Behind the Crash and Burn of America’s Managerial Class  Alternet, Feb. 19, 2013  https://www.alternet.org/economy/barbara-and-john-ehrenreich-real-story-behind-crash-and-burn-americas-managerial-class?page=0%2C0 .

[43] John McDermott, The Crisis in the Working Class  South End Press 1980  Boston p.111.

[44] John McDermott, Corporate Society: Class, Property, and Contemporary Capitalism Westview Press  Boulder, 1991 p.7 and passim.

[45] See John McDermott, Restoring Democracy in America  Pennsylvania State University Press University Park 2010.

[46] John McDermott, “A Mass Constituency for Globalization” Rethinking Marxism  Vol. 20 2008

[47] John McDermott, Corporate Society

[48] Thomas Picketty, “Brahmin Left versus Merchant Right:  Rising Inequality and the Changing Structure of Political Conflict (Evidence from France, Britain and the US, 1948-2017) Thomas Piketty EHESS and Paris School of Economics January 2018 (updated March 2018). http://piketty.pse.ens.fr/files/Piketty2018PoliticalConflict.pdf.; Thomas Frank, Listen Liberal !

[49] In works as different as John Mearsheimer, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, and Robert Cox, Approaches to World Order.

[50] See the discussion in Giovanni Arrighi, The Long Twentieth Century  Verso 1994.

[51] Antonio Gramsci, Selections from Prison Notebooks International Publishers New York 1971, pp.57-58.

[52] Joseph Nye, Soft Power  Foreign Affairs  1990; Joseph Nye, Soft Power: the Means to Success in the World 2004.

[53] See Sweden, where a poll in June 2018 showed the Nazi-inspired party now over 20%, second only to the Social Democrats and only two points behind.

[54] New York Times, “Workers of Silicon Valley, It’s Time to Organize !”, April 25, 2018; New York Times, April 4, 2018, “Google Employees Protest Work for Pentagon”.

[55] See the Reuters report on buybacks, “The Cannibalized Company” Dec. 23, 2015. Available at: https://www.reuters.com/investigates/section/the-cannibalized-company/.

[56] See the discussion of lack of sociality at college campuses described by Bard College President Leon Botstein in “Stop the Generational Moralizing About Free Speech” in Chronicle of Higher Education, December 4, 2017, Available here: https://www.chronicle.com/article/Stop-the-Generational/241969.

[57] I am grateful to my wife, Silvia Bedulli for this insight. She has lectured on this topic at a number of venues, including Boston College in Parma, Italy on “Le associazioni di categoria” on May 3, 2016.

[58] I am grateful to Dan Karan who has educated me on the need for public finance. See also, Ellen Brown, The Public Bank Solution Third Millennium Press 2013; L. Randall Wray, Modern Money Theory  Palgrave Macmillan 2012; and Yanis Varoufakis, Talking with My Daughter About the Economy.

[59] See the fuller description in John McDermott’s Restoring Democracy to America, andEmployers’ Economics versus Employees’ Economy.

[60] See, on the latter, and on the failures and illegitimacy of the reigning discipline of economics, John McDermott, Employers’ Economics versus Employees Economy Palgrave Macmillan 2017.

[61] In Jon Rynn, Manufacturing Green Prosperity Praeger  2010.

[62] Such as in Jonathan Feldman, “Why Trump Really Won: It’s Not Just Race, Gender and Class” in Portside  November 23, 2016, available here: https://portside.org/2016-11-23/why-trump-really-won-its-not-just-race-gender-and-class.

[63] Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything   New York  Simon and Schuster, 2014.

Categories: News for progressives

Riding the Wild Bull of Nuclear Power

Fri, 2019-03-15 15:55

From atomic theory to nukes

I am proud the Greek philosophers Leucippus and Democritus invented the Atomic Theory, which says that everything in the cosmos is atoms and void. But who could have foreseen that, 2,500 years later, American “physicists” would turn such a glorious insight on the structure of matter into apocalyptic weapons?

The violence and hatred of WWII fueled and speeded the development of the atomic bomb. But why drop such a hideous weapon over Japan and, just as bad, create another giant monstrosity dubbed nuclear bomb?

Nuclear experts say any nuclear war would doomed humanity. Exploding nuclear weapons would darkened the Sun, triggering global winter and famine. Humans, and probably most other life forms, would become extinct.

There are thousands of nuclear weapons in the world — the vast majority in the armories of the United States, Russia and China, lesser amounts in the UK, France, India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea.

But why arming for apocalypse? Have world leaders and their advisers become barbarians?

And why do we need to use nuclear fuel to boil water for steam for the production of electricity? Those nuclear bomb-like factories go by the deceptive name of nuclear power plants.

Accidents bedevil both nuclear bombs and nuclear power plants. We have been extremely lucky so far. But with nuclear electricity factories, our luck seems to be less tenuous than that with the original monster of the nuclear bombs.

Nuclear accidents

In 1979, the breakdown of a water pump precipitated the disaster of the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. In 1986, the nuclear power plant meltdown in Chernobyl, near Kiev, Ukraine, shook Europe and the world as never before.

In 1986, I was visiting Athens, about 1,485 kilometers or 925 miles distance from Kiev, and I was astonished seeing university students with Geiger devices measuring radiation among volunteers. I also remember the US EPA news bulletins citing the measurable amounts of Chernobyl radiation in north America.

Nevertheless, business as usual buried Chernobyl. Nothing of substance affecting the nuclear industry took place. Nukes remained sacred cows. Eisenhower’s 1950s delusion of “atoms for peace” still clouded the vision of world leaders. The Cold War was on and the nukes — military and civilian — provided, in theory at least, some kind of justification  for pathological security.

In 1989, the United States and the collapsing Soviet Union (Russia) did diminish their stockpiles of nuclear bombs, but failed to reach agreement on nuclear disarmament because nuclear war industry enthusiasts had filled the brain of president Ronald Reagan with lies about shielding the country from incoming nuclear missiles.

So, accidents continue.

In 2011, a nuclear calamity struck Japan. The Fukushima meltdown in Japan was the work of a tsunami. Yet the Japanese government and industry repeated the deception, betrayal, and extreme danger of all previous nuclear power accidents.

No cowboy can ride safely a wild bull, especially when that bull is a sibling technology to nuclear weapons.

The nuclear disaster in Japan was an opportunity for America: the chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission was Gregory Jaczko.

Jaczko goes to Washington

A series of accidents had brought to Washington, DC, Jaczko, a theoretical physicist burnt out with particle physics but burning with desire to see good come out of science. His technical education made it easy for him to understand the science and technology of nuclear power plants. He thought they served some kind of a useful purpose, though he was cautious about their “safety.”

He came to Washington because he wanted to do good. He knew next to nothing about Congress or its cutthroat politics.

He was fortunate in serving on the staff of the Democrat Congressman Edward Markey from Massachusetts and Democrat Senator Harry Reid of Nevada. In both cases, his cautious approach to nuclear power served him well with these two powerful politicians.

Markey wanted to increase the regulation of nuclear power and to strengthen international arms control. Reid wanted to dismantle the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste dump next to America’s gambling capital, Las Vegas, Nevada.

Reid was so impressed by the virtues of Jaczko (his neutral attitude towards the industry and its opponents and his commitment to public safety above all) he successfully nominated him, in 2005, to become one of the commissioners of NRC. Then with Obama becoming president, Reid insisted that Jaczko should be appointed to be the chairman of NRC.

In the belly of the nuclear beast

In his book, Confessions of a Rogue Nuclear Regulator (Simon and Schuster, 2019), Jaczko describes a brief meeting he had with Obama’s chief of staff Rahm Emanuel. Emanuel went straight to the point. He was brutal:

“You are a fucking asshole and nobody likes you. If we make you chairman, everyone at the NRC is going to quit… Being chairman is a very important job. I don’t expect you to make problems for the president. Do you understand that? You work for the president and you better not fuck this up.”

Jaczko was shocked by the “ferocity” of the attack on his character. “I am not an asshole,” he said to Emanuel.

This humiliation, however, convinced Jaczko that Obama did not want him in the NRC, much less its chairman. But Obama gave in to Reid, who was the Senate majority leader.

Jaczko’s three-and-a-half years tenure as the chairman of NRC was stormy. The nuclear industry and its supporters in Congress could not stand him. The idea of reform or regulation was an anathema. In fact, the industry was so successful in its propaganda it had convinced Americans nuclear power was safe: don’t expect any accident at the nuclear power plants.

The other commissioners and senior staff looked at Jaczko with suspicion and mistrust. Here was a young man, younger than most of them, being their boss and constantly probing them to protect public health and the environment.

Running Jaczko out of town

Even the Fukushima tragedy made no difference. Jaczko was convinced NRC was a hopeless case, being a subsidiary of the nuclear industry.

“I eventually got run out of town because I saw things up close that I was not meant to see: an agency overwhelmed by the industry it is supposed to regulate and a political system determined to keep it that way,” he wrote.

The Fukushima “cataclysm” finally convinced him that “nuclear power is a failed technology.” Keep using it and it will bring “catastrophe in this country or somewhere else in the world,” he wrote.

I sympathize with the mental anguish and humiliations Jaczko suffered for trying to improve the safety of a dangerous technology. And shame on the Obama administration for missing a rare opportunity to get the country out of the nightmare embedded in nuclear power.

Jaczko had the courage to insist things  had to improve at NRC and the nuclear power plants. He knows what he is talking about. Like other dangerous technologies, nukes have no place in a civilized society.

I love Jaczko’s book: Confessions of a Rogue Nuclear Regulator. It’s a passionate and personal account of what happens to honest bureaucrats trying to use science and the government in the public interest. It’s also a riveting true story, well-written, insightful, very timely, and extremely important. In addition, the book is a warning from the horse’s mouth: nuclear power plants will continue melting down; they are ticking time bombs. And in the words of Jaczko: “Nuclear power… is large and bulky and will lumber into extinction.”

Categories: News for progressives

Thirty Years Gone: Remembering “Cactus Ed”

Fri, 2019-03-15 15:54

“Freedom begins between the ears.”

-Edward Abbey

“What do old men who don’t believe in Heaven think about?” queried Edward Abbey rhetorically in his masterpiece Desert Solitaire. “. . . they think about their blood pressure, their bladders, their aortas, their lower intestines, ice on the doorstep, too much sun at noon.” In other words, they think about postponing dying, though many may never have gotten around to actually living.

To die well, one must live fully, Abbey thought, and dedicated himself to the task.

Anarchist, wilderness defender, story-teller, truth-lover, industrial saboteur, sex fiend, river runner, poker lover, beer guzzler, cantankerous social critic, part-time fanatic opponent of unrestrained growth, full-time desert rat, Edward Abbey went at life full throttle, forsaking a long, half-lived, half-life for a shorter span of years indulging his hearty appetite for bourbon, bacon, cigars, and countless nights out under the stars. (Abbey died at 62, before his own father.)

Faced with terminal illness in late middle age, he never bargained with God for more time or experienced any of the alleged “stages” of accepting death that psychiatrist Elizabeth Kubler-Ross says we all inevitably pass through. The reason? For Abbey it was not death or dying that was tragic, but rather to have “existed without fully participating in life – that is the deepest personal tragedy.” He was philosophical, not horrified, by the inevitability of his own death, which he accepted decades ahead of time while communing with the desert: “If my decomposing carcass helps nourish the roots of a juniper tree or the wings of a vulture—that is immortality enough for me. And as much as anyone deserves.”

You owe the earth a body, he believed.

A shy man infuriated by the devastating effect of industrial “progress,” Abbey’s rage was an expression of love for all that it destroyed: wilderness, freedom, free-flowing rivers, the pre-Stone-Age desert that his spirit would not leave even in death. And perhaps it was this passionate bond with the earth that gave Abbey his extraordinary poise, which never abandoned him, even in tragic moments. When he collapsed at a friend’s house in 1982 doctors gave him only a few months to live. Quipped Abbey, then fifty-five: “At least I don’t have to floss anymore.”

In a 1957 journal entry Abbey wrote that we don’t come into the world so much as grow out of it: “Man is not an alien in this world, not at all. He is as much a child of it as the lion and the ant.” But though we emerge from nature, its importance, especially in the desert, is that it bears no reflection of us: “In the desert, a man comes directly upon a world that is not a projection of human consciousness, a world that has not been interpreted by art or science or myth, that bears no trace of humanity on its surface, that has no apparent connection to the indoor human world.” Just this is its essential value. “In the desert one comes in direct confrontation with the bones of existence, the bare incomprehensible absolute is-ness of being. Like a temporary rebirth of childhood, when all was new and wonderful.” The city, for all its treasures, cannot reveal this.

Born in 1927, Abbey’s adult years were lived under the shadow of nuclear annihilation, among other ominous signs of massive destruction, but while others fretted over looming social disaster, Abbey actually looked forward to the end of human misrule, taking solace in the fact that his beloved Grand Canyon had already outlasted thirty failed civilizations.

“Be of good cheer,” he wrote in Down the River (1982), “the military-industrial state will soon collapse.” Although our “military industrial” state is now more of a military financial state, Abbey felt its approaching demise represented “good news,” the actual title of a novel he wrote on the topic, which critics took to be an ironic comment, whereas Abbey intended it as nothing more than the literal truth. Given that human population had vastly overshot its land base, progress required catastrophe, he thought, and he hoped that in the ruins of former cities “a small society of friends in a community of mutual aid and shared ownership of land” might manage to “rebuild the simple farming and pastoral economy that had been destroyed by the triumph of the city.” A Jeffersonian anarchist vision for the 21st century.

Though broadly cultured and obviously possessed of a lively intellect, prolonged visits to the city always produced in Abbey a longing for prompt return to “light on rock, the sun on my bones, the smell of a sweating horse, the bright thirsty air of the high plateaus.” Only a small scale civilization could be compatible with Abbey’s yearning for vast unspoiled wilderness, and then only if it recognized the primacy of nature. “A world without wilderness is a cage,” said environmentalist David Brower, and Abbey fervently concurred.

He flatly rejected the view that his deep urge to preserve what remained of humanity’s ancestral home was a marginal or superfluous concern. Wilderness, he wrote, “is not a luxury but a necessity of the human spirit, and as vital to our lives as water and good bread.” Only in wilderness could one find an abundance of life’s essentials: clean air, pristine sunlight, pure water, unbounded space and time, grass and woods to play and get lost in, solitude and silence, “alien” life and the risk of death. “A civilization which destroys what little remains of the wild, the spare, the original,” warned Abbey, “is cutting itself off from its origins and betraying the principle of civilization itself.” And the danger part was not to be omitted. Abbey agreed with his friend Doug Peacock that one was not truly in the wilderness unless one was at risk of being eaten.

An original thinker unafraid of honest examination of any issue, Abbey inevitably ran afoul of multicultural dogmas. He felt that liberal taboos against criticism of official minority groups was a form of censorship, and he was regularly accused of sexism, racism, “eco-fascism” and xenophobia for violating those taboos. Abbey rejected these rejections of his work. In response to a suggestion that he remove the “Archie Bunkerisms” from his then forthcoming novel The Fool’s Progress, he ranted: “I’m not going to toady to chickenshit liberalism anymore; fuck it. I’ve already been called fascist, racist, elitist, as well as communist, terrorist, misanthrope, bleeding-heart etc. so often it doesn’t bother me anymore. To hell with all those petty, taboo-ridden dogmatic minds.”

The critics “hate my books,” he went on, because “almost all reviewers, these days, are members of and adherents to some anxious particular sect or faction . . . . As such, any member of any one of those majority minorities is going to find for certain a few remarks in any of my books that will offend/enrage’s/he’ to the marrow.” Thirty years after Abbey’s death Donald Trump is the arsonist in charge of our ideological fire department, eagerly flinging gasoline in the faces of identity politics dogmatists, setting off an ever-widening sectarian conflagration. Maybe we should have paid more attention to Abbey’s criticisms when he first made them.

Although it is difficult to see Abbey as outright hating anyone (except the rich, whom he loathed), it’s easy to detect double standards in his work and life. While enjoying the benefits of monogamous marriage, he cheated on four out of five wives, using his celebrity to help bed attractive women. Though he was convinced that (1) “girls should be encouraged from infancy on to see the world as a playground of potentiality,” and (2) women’s under-representation in most fields was regrettable, and (3) “no man who is really a man will feel his manhood demeaned or threatened by the act of washing dishes,” he nevertheless disapproved of novelist Barbara Kingsolver’s having left young children at home in order to attend a 1989 writing conference that Abbey also attended (Kingsolver says Abbey was “respectful to the point of deference” in his treatment of her, however).

Abbey’s justification for the double standard was uncharacteristically unoriginal. Women are morally superior to men, caring for others, while men crave sexual variety out of selfish pleasure. (“I’ve never met a nymphomaniac I didn’t like,” commented the hero of Abbey’s The Fool’s Progress). The vast majority of men are polygamous, bogged down and frustrated with monogamy, which they submit to only out of sloth. So why did Abbey, hardly a slothful type, get married five times? His fifth and final wife (Clarke) said that he was seriously conflicted: “There was always the real complex issue of wanting to be married and have a family and wanting to be totally on his own and doing what he wanted.” One illustration of just how serious the conflict was for Abbey is provided by his fourth wife, Renee, who remembers a time she sent him to the store for groceries and had to wait two days for his return.

On feminism, Abbey had a very mixed response. Three years before Roe v. Wade his unpublished “Some Second Thoughts on Women’s Lib” contained the opinion that “a woman’s womb is not the property of the State . . . She must be mistress of all that’s enclosed within her skin.” On the other hand, he saw feminism as androgyny-promoting and contemptuous of working class men. And though he supported the Equal Rights Amendment and reviewed, counseled, and befriended several women writers, his negative portrayal of feminism in The Fool’s Progress offended his father (a lifelong socialist who appreciated the social gains of the Bolshevik Revolution) to the point that he stopped reading the book, and also his wife Claire, who hated the depiction, saying that Abbey never treated her in the sexist manner he sympathetically portrayed in his books. At a book event in 1987 a number of women who apparently shared this dislike walked out of an Abbey reading of The Fool’s Progress.

On the issue of race, Abbey very clearly did not sympathize with the multiplication of victim minorities, which he claimed were “advance men for planetary majorities.” However, it should be kept in mind that Abbey’s misanthropic convictions (in one book he commented that what the world needed to solve the overpopulation problem was a vast, painless plague) made him portray nearly all groups in a negative light, white people included. For example, in a 1956 journal entry he wrote: “On the Negro question: I don’t like ’em. Don’t like Negroes,” which seems to be an openly bigoted statement. But the next sentence is: “As far as I can see, they’re just as stupid and depraved as whites.” Similarly, in one breath Abbey depicted (American) Indians as alcoholic welfare bums, while in the next he had the hero of one of his novels say, “Indians are just as stupid and greedy and cowardly and dull as us white folks” (The Monkey Wrench Gang).

Asians he portrayed as products of authoritarian “anthill societies” mindlessly producing consumer junk for clueless Americans (“Jap crap,” the hero of The Fool’s Progress called it). He rejected the idea that (densely overcrowded) Eastern cultures had anything important to teach the West, and roundly criticized those who thought differently. “I find it pathetic as well as ironic to see the enthusiasm with which hairy little gurus from the sickliest nation on earth are welcomed by the technological idiots of all-electric California,” he said in Abbey’s Road.

However, when Washington unleashed a nearly genocidal assault on tiny Vietnam, Abbey spoke out harshly against the deeply racist slaughter. He considered the Vietnam war the most shameful chapter in U.S. history apart from slavery, and in a 1968 appearance to promote Desert Solitaire, he offended many in his audience by denouncing the war instead. Four years later in a letter to the Arizona Daily Star, he compared it to the worst atrocities of totalitarian states: “Nothing in American history, not even the wars against the Indians, can equal the shame and brutality and cowardice of this war. It makes an obscenity of our Christmas holidays and sinks our own Government and all who passively consent to its atrocities down to the moral level of Stalinist Russia and Hitler’s Germany.”

Abbey called himself a racist in Confessions of a Barbarian, though he defined the term as an aversion to being dominated by a race to which one did not belong, which definition would render nearly all of humanity “racist”: “Am I a racist? I guess I am. I certainly do not wish to live in a society dominated by blacks, or Mexicans, or Orientals. Look at Africa, at Mexico, at Asia.” Abbey was aware of the contributions of Western colonialism and imperialism to the widespread misery found in those regions, but argued it was but “Western guilt neurosis” to assign primacy to them in accounting for Third World conditions in the late twentieth century.

He urged a complete halt to immigration coming north from Mexico, contending that a porous border was allowing in “millions of hungry, ignorant, unskilled, and culturally, morally, generically impoverished people.” Such people brought with them an “alien mode of life which . . . is not appealing to the majority of Americans . . . Because we prefer democratic government . . . hope for an open, spacious, uncrowded, and beautiful – yes, beautiful! – society. The alternative, in the squalor, cruelty, and corruption of Latin America, is plain for all to see.”

Abbey argued that a solution to mass immigration from the south had to be sought in Mexico, not the United States: “Mexico needs not more loans – money that will end up in the Swiss bank accounts of los ricos – but a revolution.” According to his best friend John Du Puy, Abbey considered the Mexican government an appalling betrayal of the Zapatista revolution and he vehemently opposed allowing them to “dump people on us” that they “couldn’t deal with.” In One Life At A Time, Please, he called for the militarization of the U.S.-Mexico border, but also advocated handing out rifles to those turned back there, so they could return home and settle accounts with their exploiters. Though more rhetoric than serious policy proposal, the implied sympathy for social revolution is hardly racist (racists prefer eugenic solutions). Curiously, Abbey “didn’t think much” of the 1979 Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua, which implemented a wide range of popular programs for the poor that made it unnecessary for Nicaraguans to migrate to the United States in large numbers, as campesinos from Mexico, Guatemala, and El Salvador did (and still do), much to Abbey’s dislike. Perhaps Abbey was the kind of anarchist who favors every revolution except the (imperfect) ones that succeed.

In any event, Abbey had curious associations for a “racist.” Early in his career he spoke at a Navajo rally, and in 1959 he edited the bilingual newspaper El Crepusculo de la Libertad (Twilight of Liberty), which promoted Indian rights. Years later he favorably reviewed Vine Deloria’s Custer Died For Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto, one of several favorable articles he wrote on Indian affairs. He lamented that Deloria’s views were not being taught in schools, and noted that “the many parallels between the war in Vietnam and the war against the American Indian has not escaped the American Indian.”

Though, as noted, he opposed mass immigration from Mexico, he bore no grudge against Hispanics per se, and felt that any immigrant who had managed to live in the U.S. five years or more should be allowed to stay. For many years he wore a cap with the inscription “Viva La Causa,” and his best friend John De Puy reports he was sympathetic to Chicano activists in Taos and throughout northern New Mexico. De Puy says Abbey’s opposition to immigration, both legal and illegal, was not because of contempt for other cultures, but because of the problems inherent in large scale immigration.

Responding to Alfredo Gutierrez in the New York Times in August, 1983, Abbey conceded he preferred his own culture to others: “I will confess to cultural bias. Though an aficionado of tacos, Herradura tequila, and ranchero music (in moderate doses), I have no wish to emigrate to Mexico. Nor does Alfredo Gutierrez . . . At some point soon our Anglo-liberal-guilt neurosis must yield to common sense and enlightened self-interest.” In a 1987 letter to Earth First! Journal, Abbey drew a distinction between chauvinism and racism: “I am guilty of cultural chauvinism – I much prefer life in the USA to that in any Latin American country; and so do most Latin Americans – but chauvinism is not racism. Racism is the belief that all members of one race are innately superior to all members of some other race. I do not subscribe to any such belief. In a 1988 journal entry he wrote that the only “superior” races would be those who have done the least harm to the earth; he suggested the Bushmen of Africa, the Australian aborigines, and perhaps the Arizona Hopi.

If this is white supremacy, it’s a rather novel strain.

Categories: News for progressives

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