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The 2019 Iranian Film Festival

Tue, 2019-01-08 14:55

Ever since 2014, I have made the case for Iranian films on CounterPunch (see links to the articles below).

At the risk of sounding like one of those reviewers addicted to superlatives for Hollywood films that appear in full-page ads in the NY Times, let me say that the five films I have seen in advance of the Iranian Film Festival that opens next week at the IFC Center in New York on January 10th beat the pants off of Roma, Widows, The Favourite, The Green Book or any other films that have the inside track for Academy Awards.

They incorporate the elements that have draw attention to Iranian films worldwide for the past forty years, including a swan song for Abbas Kiarostami, a director/screenwriter that Martin Scorsese describes as having “the highest level of artistry in the cinema.” It is a supreme irony that a state with a well-deserved reputation for censorship is capable of serving as an incubator for great art but then again the greatest music ever written catered to the tastes of both church and nobility.

Let’s be grateful that the batch of five films discussed below, which push the envelope of Iranian cultural norms, can still be made. To some extent this reflects a cultural thaw under Hassan Rouhani who is determined to open up the country’s economy to foreign investors, even if Donald Trump is just as determined to keep the doors closed. I was ecstatic to see that one of the five films was directed by Jafar Panahi who I consider one of the world’s greatest directors. Though under house arrest between 2010 until 2015, he was still defiant enough to make a film in 2011 on an iPhone inside his home titled “This is Not a Film” that was up to his usual high standards. He still cannot leave Iran, even if in film circles he is considered to be on a par with Kiarostami.

At the risk of indulging in hyperbole, I advise seeing as many of these films as possible at the IFC. They will remind you of not only how films can reach the level of fine art but provide insights into a country that is as important geopolitically as any on earth.

Hendi and Hormoz (Friday, January 11, 9:30pm):

If neorealism has gone out of style in most countries, especially in the escapist lost worlds of Hollywood, it still soldiers on in Iran. Thank goodness that Iranian directors are not interested in being fashionable. Using a cast of non-professionals, director Abbas Amini was a volunteer for the Association for the Protection of Child Labourers in Iran before making this film, a background that certainly must have helped him develop the two main characters played by non-professionals. They are Hendi, a 13-year old girl bride, and the 16-year old groom Hormoz, who we meet at the wedding of an arranged marriage on the island of Hormuz that is in the Strait of Hormuz, a strategic waterway that precipitated the Iran-Iraq war.

Neither Hormoz nor Hendi is prepared for marriage but somehow get over their initial wariness toward each other, the consequence of being expected to have intimacies with a complete stranger. As is the case with the classic neorealist films, poverty creates the plot line just as it did in “The Bicycle Thief” and many others. Promised to have a job at a local salt mine if he got married, Hormoz learns that the job has been given to another youth.

To survive, he becomes a smuggler but not of drugs, cigarettes, booze or the usual marketable commodities. Instead, he transports soil from Hormuz Island to the mainland where it commands a high price, especially in the Arab Emirates that have plenty of oil but very little arable soil. When a police patrol boat advances toward him in the dead of night, he throws the bags of soil overboard to avoid arrest. His boss Kamak then demands that he pay for the soil, thus creating a terrible crisis for the two young newlyweds.

Amini has only made one film before this one. Titled “Valderrama”, it stars Hamed Alipour, the non-professional who played Hormoz, as a Tehran youth who has taken the name of a Colombian soccer player. After being caught up in a dilemma like Hormoz’s, he is forced to flee Tehran. Amini pledged all of the film’s receipts to go to the Association for the Protection of Child Labourers.

Sly (Saturday, January 12, 9:00pm):

This is a send-up of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad by Kamal Tabrizi, who also made the satire “The Lizard” in 2004 about a thief who escapes from prison disguised as a mullah and henceforth slyly plays at being a holy man after the fashion of Silone’s “Bread and Wine”. After breaking all box office records within three weeks, it was banned from being shown in theaters and only became available as a DVD.

The Ahmadinejad character is named Qodrat Allah Samadi and is played to the hilt by veteran actor Hamed Behdad as a pious country bumpkin and Islamist activist whose roommate shares his politics. In keeping with their general cultural level, the roommate has a pet chicken who wears trousers. It is a sight gag that never grows old.

Samadi is a “red” but not the kind of red most CounterPunch readers are familiar with. Instead, this is the color of the Islamist party that is vying for control of the government with the “blues”, a party that shares the reformist program of the current President. Is this a reference to red state/blue state distinctions in the USA? I wouldn’t be surprised because toward the end of the film, Trump makes a cameo appearance, at least a billboard of Trump.

One day, Samadi leads a goon squad of red activists into a concert hall in order to prevent blasphemous music from being performed. When the audience pays insufficient attention to their demands to leave, Samadi begins yelling out “Bomb!” This does the trick as people race out. Thirty seconds after the auditorium has cleared, a real bomb goes off and Samadi becomes Iran’s number one hero for saving their lives. The cynical reformist blue party calculates that he can be an ideal candidate since he is obviously ambitious but not too bright. They hope to mold him into an ideal blue candidate, not knowing what they are getting into. He agrees to run for a seat in the Iranian parliament but keeps reverting to his Islamic roots no matter how much they coach him. It is a little bit like Peter Sellers’s hand rising in a Nazi salute in “Doctor Strangelove” involuntarily.

Many of the laughs in this film come from Samadi’s speeches that are filled with the kind of malapropisms Tony Soprano made famous and Shakespeare’s clowns before that. After he agrees to become the blue candidate, his red comrades break down in tears at a gathering of the faithful. Before making his case, he instructs his roommate to “Take the hen out of the men’s gathering.” When someone yells out, “Only friends backstab”, he justifies himself: “Now is the time for obligations and obtrusions”. When a puzzled comrade asks what “obligations and obtrusions” means, Samadi offers up a word salad: “Obligations and ontusions. Time to act! Profit and loss!” The meeting ends with him reassuring them that he will infiltrate the blues and turn them all into reds.

Clearly, Tabrizi views the two-party system in Iran as a joke. Maybe he can find the time to come over to the USA to make a film about our electoral circus.

76 Minutes and 15 Seconds with Abbas Kiarostami (Sunday, January 13, 9:30pm)

One might surmise that Kiarostami never went anywhere without a camera. The film begins with him and a friend driving along a country road in Iran after a heavy snowfall. He stops along the way and takes pictures of a dog in the snow, etc. It is equivalent to seeing someone like Jackson Pollock or Willem de Kooning on camera as they comment on the painting they are working on. To see the world the way one of the most visually oriented filmmakers of all time sees it is a priceless experience for any art or film major to take in but as well one for film lovers who have never held a paintbrush or a camera in their hands in their entire life.

Additionally, Kiarostami has a spell-binding personality, drawing you into his way of thinking. He is the consummate artist who worked in a variety of media, including a striking sculpture composed of industrial tubing made to look like trees.

Perhaps the most haunting moments of the film are when he recites lines from some of his favorite poets, including one totally unfamiliar to me: Nima Yooshij, a poet from the Azerbaijan nationality, the second largest in Iran. It suggests that Iranian poets are as neglected as the nation’s filmmakers based on “Hey, People”.

3 Faces (Sunday, January 13, 7:15pm)

This is the Jafar Panahi film referred to above and an unqualified masterpiece. The publicist requested that I hold off on a full review until March when the film opens in theaters so I will only offer what the IFC Center website has to say: “Well-known actress Behnaz Jafari is distraught by a provincial girl’s video plea for help — oppressed by her family to not pursue her studies at the Tehran drama conservatory. Behnaz abandons her shoot and turns to filmmaker Jafar Panahi to help solve the mystery of the young girl’s troubles. They travel by car to the rural northwest where they have amusing encounters with the charming folk of the girl’s mountain village. But the city visitors soon discover that the protection of age-old traditions is as generous as local hospitality…”

Sheeples (Tuesday, January 15, 7:00pm—closing night feature)

Only 38 years old, director Houman Seyyedi has already made 10 films, none of which have gotten the kind of attention that Panahi, Kiarostami and Asghar Farhadi have received in the West. I am sure this will change with “Sheeples”, a film whose title is derived from the observation that sheep will die unless a shepherd guides them. This is a metaphor for the family at the heart of this raw and brutal view of the Iranian drug underworld reminiscent of films such as Scorsese’s “Mean Streets” and Luis Buñuel’s “Los Olvidados”.

It tells the story of two brothers, one a methamphetamine dealer ruling over a slum neighborhood in southern Tehran and the other his younger and inept sibling who like Robert De Niro’s Johnny Boy in “Mean Streets” can’t stay out of trouble. Their sister is a hair stylist who is the family’s black sheep because she had the audacity to have dyed her ponytail in a rainbow of colors. Even if it is hidden under a hijab, it is considered an insult to Islam by her brothers whose sense of ethics transcends normal understandings of hypocrisy. It is only their father who cuts her some slack. Despite his opium habit, he is less feral than his two sons.

This is a film that comes storming out of the gates like a turbocharged Maserati. The pacing is lightning-fast and the dialog is spoken at a rate of 30 words per second, most of it scabrous put-downs between people who would describe themselves as good friends.

“Sheeple” won the top award at the Fajr Film Festival in Tehran this year and deservedly so. It marks an openness to the nation’s problems from the elite. It is an omen that better things are in store for a country with a great civilization going back thousands of years that could teach a Donald Trump a thing or two about who is the real barbarian.

Finally, in the interests of transparency, the Kiarostami, Panahi and Seyyedi films are sold out but I would urge you to keep your eyes out for their theatrical release this year. These are truly great films that people will be watching and admiring decades from now while most of the Oscar winners for 2018 will have been long forgotten.

————–

Is Abbas Kiarostami the World’s Most Talented Film-maker?

Scenes from the Class Struggle in Iran

Documenting Discontent: Talking With Jamsheed Akrami About Iranian Cinema

An Iranian Tragedy

Categories: News for progressives

J Mascis – Live on KEXP

Tue, 2019-01-08 02:10

Categories: News for progressives

Don’t Speak, Memory: Resistance Apes Trump in Weaponizing Amnesia

Mon, 2019-01-07 16:10

Making the social media rounds at the moment is a transcription of Rachel Maddow’s “utterly terrifying” and “deeply chilling” take on one tidbit from Trump’s surreal and probably drug-addled rambling in front of his Cabinet this week. At one point, Trump said the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in order to fight Islamic terrorism. But Maddow assures us, in great detail, that no one, anywhere — not even among Trump’s most rabid supporters, not even the bug-eyed goobers on Fox and Friends — has ever advanced the notion that the Soviet incursion had anything to do with terrorism. In fact, the only place in the history of the world in which this notion has ever been bruited is — of course — Putin’s Kremlin, which is planning an official “reassessment” of the Afghan invasion. (Which, rest assured, is not all like the “reassessment” being done by our stalwart Resisters today of the murderously criminal regime of George W. Bush.)

Maddow says plainly that this idea does not exist anywhere “in nature” except within the bowels of Putin’s United Russia party. (Though how Maddow herself found about the proposed resolution when no one else in nature could have ever even heard of it outside of Putin’s party circles is not explained.) This notion cannot be found anywhere “in American politics, in American media, in American academia, in American fantasy football chat rooms.” Not even “among weird, conservative fringe media figures that you might not know about, but the President might love.” No one has everwritten, spoken or heard anythingremotely like this until it was cooked up by Putin’s party hacks. And you should be absolutely, utterly, deeply terrified that Trump has somehow got hold of a mangled, drug-addled version of this idea, because he could have only gotten it from Putin’s own party members. Because, again the idea does not exist in nature anywhere else. And Maddow knowsthis, people, because she spent one whole day looking to find some trace of this non-existent in nature idea! And if you aren’t absolutely chilled to the bone, to the marrow, chilled all the way down to your quantum particles by this, then God help you. You must be a Kremlin dupe, like those Black Lives Matter rubes or those Dakota Pipeline saps. Or a paid Kremlin stooge.

Yet if I may paraphrase the great Ronald Reagan — whom that fightin’ progressive Nancy Pelosi favourably cited in her first speech as Speaker this week — facts are stubborn things. They exist, and persist, whether anyone notices them or not. And the fact that Afghanistan’s jihadi extremists were sowing chaos with acts of violence (which in our day we call terrorism but back then were called “freedom fighting”), and that this chaos was exacerbating the turmoil in the faction-ridden Soviet-backed secular government and was a factor in the Kremlin’s tortured decision to intervene, was once considered rather standard fare back in the distant days before history was displaced by hysteria.

When the Soviets went in, their claim that the US was backing Islamic terrorists was widely dismissed as empty propaganda. But it was later confirmed, cheerfully, by the very architect of that policy, Zbigniew Brzezinski, who told Le Nouvel Observateur in 1998 that he persuaded Jimmy Carter to secretly arm and support the jihadis precisely in hopes of provoking a Soviet incursion. Here’s what Brzezinski had to say:

Question: The former director of the CIA, Robert Gates, stated in his memoirs that the American intelligence services began to aid the Mujahiddin in Afghanistan six months before the Soviet intervention. Is this period, you were the national security advisor to President Carter. You therefore played a key role in this affair. Is this correct?

Brzezinski: Yes. According to the official version of history, CIA aid to the Mujahiddin began during 1980, that is to say, after the Soviet army invaded Afghanistan on December 24, 1979. But the reality, closely guarded until now, is completely otherwise: Indeed, it was July 3, 1979 that President Carter signed the first directive for secret aid to the opponents of the pro-Soviet regime in Kabul. And that very day, I wrote a note to the president in which I explained to him that in my opinion this aid was going to induce a Soviet military intervention.

Q: Despite this risk, you were an advocate of this covert action. But perhaps you yourself desired this Soviet entry into the war and looked for a way to provoke it?

B: It wasn’t quite like that. We didn’t push the Russians to intervene, but we knowingly increased the probability that they would.

Q: When the Soviets justified their intervention by asserting that they intended to fight against secret US involvement in Afghanistan, nobody believed them. However, there was an element of truth in this. You don’t regret any of this today?

B: Regret what? That secret operation was an excellent idea. It had the effect of drawing the Russians into the Afghan trap and you want me to regret it? The day that the Soviets officially crossed the border, I wrote to President Carter, essentially: “We now have the opportunity of giving to the USSR its Vietnam war.” Indeed, for almost 10 years, Moscow had to carry on a war that was unsustainable for the regime, a conflict that bought about the demoralization and finally the breakup of the Soviet empire.

Q: And neither do you regret having supported Islamic fundamentalism, which has given arms and advice to future terrorists?

B: What is more important in world history? The Taliban or the collapse of the Soviet empire? Some agitated Moslems or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the cold war?

This is not to say that the Soviets should have intervened in Afghanistan, as Trump was ignorantly asserting the other day. Indeed, the intervention was fiercely contested inside the Kremlin itself, by future leader Andropov among others, but the opponents were overruled by more hardline militarists. (The Politburo PNAC, you might say.) Nor would any knowledgeable person say that the sole reason the Soviets went in was to “fight terrorism” (which is what Putin’s party is apparently getting ready to claim.) But the notion Maddow is pushing here — that Putin’s Kremlin is the only place anyone has ever mentioned anything remotely resembling the idea that Islamic terrorism was a factor in the Soviet invasion is, to put it mildly, ignorant nonsense.

Of course, Trump is ignorant too, but I’m not concerned here with his obvious incapacities. No, what troubles me most about this episode is the increasing historical amnesia of the “Resistance,” which is reducing complex issues  – with long, detailed, nuanced histories – to fear-mongering simplicities. How is this going to help us move forward with any kind of informed, substantive wisdom and insight? How is this “progressive”? Why does every single evil in the world — and every single thing that’s wrong with American politics and society — have to be attributed to a conniving little mastermind cackling in the Kremlin? It’s a childish, cartoonish and dangerous way to look at the world — yet increasingly it is the only take that’s given any space in our “liberal” media.

I’ll say again what I’ve said many times: you don’t have to prove that Trump is a puppet dancing on Putin’s strings to get rid of him. Right down the street from the White House is a hotel. Trump owns the hotel and profits directly from it. Every single day of his presidency, he has been corruptly pocketing personal gains from foreign governments and companies who use his hotel. This alone is an impeachable offense. It’s cut and dried. The Democrats now in control of the House could immediately begin impeachment hearings on this basis alone — if they wanted to.

I’m not saying Russian skullduggery should be ignored, but if even one-tenth of the media energy spent in the last two years trying to prove Trump is getting orders from Putin had been directed at exposing Trump’s open, manifest, plainly impeachable corruption (the hotel is just one example), then we might have built a great public groundswell of outrage and disgust that, at the very least, would have taken us much further down the road to impeachment than we are today.

(And as a side issue: if another one-tenth of that energy had been spent building support for abolishing or reforming the Electoral College system, then we would be well on our way to avoiding yet another presidency by vicious right-wing vote-losers like George W. Bush and Trump.)

Anyway, pace Maddow, there were Islamic terrorist groups in Afghanistan (although they were called “freedom fighters” when they were later invited to Reagan’s White House.) They were engaged in wholesale violence that further destabilized an already unstable, badly governed state. The Soviets did point to this as a factor in their disastrous decision to intervene. The United States did covertly support this jihadi uprising before the Soviets moved in, and continued this support throughout the conflict (including, as the Washington Post reported, providing training manuals for terrorist tactics and even schoolbooks for children that promoted jihad against the secular infidels). All of these facts have been discussed and debated openly and freely in the US media and academia for years. Whole books about the complexities of the Soviet invasion, including these facts, have been written by reputable academics, diplomats and historians. Perhaps Maddow spent too long doing her serious journalistic research in “American fantasy football chat rooms” to avail herself of any of this information. I learned these things from reading readily available mainstream books and articles — some of them published even before Putin was elevated to the Russian presidency by America’s favourite dipsomaniac, Boris Yeltsin. I didn’t get them from Putin party insiders or encrypted Kremlin text messages or even from Facebook memes.

Trump shows us over and over, day after day, that historical facts don’t matter anymore. You say whatever you need to say on any given day to scare and outrage people into turning their brains off. But it’s sad to see the “Resistance” adopting this same attitude and, like Trump, continually reducing the world to a frenzied, fearful cartoon, one which distracts us from the complexities of reality and carries us further away from any kind of genuine change in our woeful situation.

Categories: News for progressives

Nineteen Sixty-Nine: A Look Back at Protest

Mon, 2019-01-07 16:01

In order to write coherently and concisely about the great year of revolt 1969, 1968 needs to be seen as a backdrop to the great days of rebellion that took place in nation after nation across the globe.

Mass movements of 1968 in the United Kingdom, Northern Ireland, Poland, Brazil, the United States, Pakistan, France, West Germany, Italy, Scandinavia, Spain, Mexico, Czechoslovakia, the Soviet Union, and elsewhere made 1968 the year when the echoes of revolution and revolt were heard around the world: “And revolution in the air…”  to quote a line from Bob Dylan, and so was rebellion. Much of the developing world was being rocked in a post-World War II political, economic, and social environment in nations in Africa, Southeast Asia, Asia, Europe, Central America, and South America where the hegemony of the imperial powers was being challenged by ordinary people. A generation and people across the globe were mobilizing for change on the political, social, and economic left. Some of those movements for change would be suppressed violently. Some movements themselves had elements of violence within them, but the vast majority of protest in the U.S. was nonviolent or militantly nonviolent. The cohort of the baby boom generation, an integral part of protest that swept the globe, was coming of age.

What was being opposed? Capitalism, the morphing of communism into an intolerable totalitarianism, imperialism, racism, the lack of civil rights and civil liberties, the subservient role of women, the destruction of the natural environment, and the desire to improve the condition of life of billions of people worldwide. Does this all sound somewhat familiar? Does it sound somewhat romantic and a part of the idealism that is sometimes at the heart of the human condition?

Nineteen sixty-nine was the most significant year in my life and the year in which the political would become intensely personal. During 1968, a group at the college I attended, Providence College Students for Peace, formed in answer to the growing horror of the Vietnam War and the echo of the war’s presence on my campus in the form of the Reserve Office Training Corps brigade. ROTC was an integral part of the experience of many of the students who attended Providence College in Providence, Rhode Island. Only a few, short years earlier, ROTC participation had been mandatory at PC. PC was an intensely conservative school, run by the Dominican Friars, and the student protest group was not welcomed with open arms by either the student body, or the school’s administration. My best friend, Joe, a leader of the student group, had been called into the dean of students office several weeks before our graduation on June 3, 1969, and quizzed about the intentions of the peace group.When we took to the baseball field on campus, where an ROTC commissioning parade would take place during graduation weekend, we knew instinctively (at least that is how rumor had it) that there would be some unofficial presence in the baseball field’s stands that would monitor our actions and behavior where we stood along the foul line at third base. There were about a dozen of us protesting, which was very big news on a campus where those in ROTC often saw their belonging to this military organization as part of an unofficial compact as the children and grandchildren of immigrants in support of the government and its policies around the world. The society had rewarded many students and their families for their allegiance to its values and actions, hence, protest was seen as unpatriotic.

I knew, having been in ROTC during both my freshman and sophomore years at PC, that my membership in the protest group on campus was a signal that most of my college friendships were ending. I had been subtly admonished at a weekend party in an off-campus apartment a few weeks earlier that my membership and actions in the peace group were unwanted and that my friendship with Joe was an indication of connecting to someone who was a political outlier on campus.

Nineteen sixty-nine was never unremarkable. In June, I joined the National Guard as a way to avoid Vietnam. I was so unfit for the military that my experiences, even while waiting to leave for basic and advanced training, were more than unsettling. The monotony and authoritarianism of the military did not suit me in the least. But that is way ahead of the story of the historical and personal importance of 1969.

October 15, 1969 marked the first mass protest against the Vietnam War and by chance I would leave for basic training the next day, first to South Carolina, and then ultimately on to Augusta, Georgia. The Moratorium to End the War organized the October 15th demonstrations. The protest in Boston alone drew 100.000 people. The Moratorium’s second major demonstration in Washington, D.C., on November 15, 1969, would draw 500,000 people, but by that time I would be in Georgia and in the midst of basic training.

I marched down from College Hill on the East Side in Providence, Rhode Island with a mass of people, mostly students from Brown University, in a candlelight procession to the Rhode Island State House. Thousands of people gathered on the state house lawn to hear Mitchell Goodman, then charged (the case against Goodman was later dropped) with counseling men to resist the military draft along with others such as Dr. Benjamin Spock. On the Brown quadrangle, we had listened to Allard Lowenstein, the civil rights and political icon, address the crowd, admonishing the government to listen to the voices of peaceful protest if it, the government, wished the antiwar movement to remain nonviolent. Most of the movement would remain nonviolent, some militantly nonviolent, and others, a small minority of the antiwar movement, would soon turn to more violent means to stop the war.

On the morning of October 16, 1969, I would fly out of Green Airport in Warwick, Rhode Island and after stopping in Hartford, Connecticut, my unit would go on to Columbia, South Carolina and Fort Jackson, the reception station where we would remain for about a week before flying to Augusta, Georgia and Fort Gordon.

Fort Jackson was a surreal experience for me, further solidifying my revulsion at all things military that were meant for a war of aggression against a people and a government in Vietnam that wished to unify that nation. Fort Jackson was the military base that had seen the physician, Howard Levy, refuse to train Green Berets. For his resistance to the Green Beret’s role in Vietnam, he was imprisoned.

Basic training at Fort Gordon was just as horrific as I could have imagined. I did not belong in the military and had tried a last-minute attempt to get out during the intake physical at Fort Jackson the week before. But getting out of the military at that point was pretty much impossible.

The two features of basic training that stood out in my mind, besides the total loss of individuality, was the constant referral to the Vietnamese as “Gooks” and “Charlie.” That expression of racism was small potatoes when compared to the beating that the scapegoat of our basic training cycle, Alan Sturgis (a fictitious last name), would receive.

Alan was from Brooklyn and was marked and used as a scapegoat by the drill sergeants in the company in which we received our basic training. He was physically weak and made an example of at every turn in the basic training experience. He was a member of either a Guard or Reserve unit from New York (I cannot remember which) and his inability to complete the physical requirements of training ensured that he would return to Georgia and undergo a repeated cycle of basic training reserved for those whom the Army wished to make examples. Alan represented the first rule of military training: Stand out and you will be made to suffer.

A half-century later, I can’t imagine what the torment was like for Alan, but I do remember him breaking down in tears in front of the company one afternoon after that day’s training had been completed. Alan’s experiences paled, however, compared to one draftee, who shot the toes off of one foot in the last few days of the training cycle rather than go on to infantry training and the near-certainty of deployment to Vietnam. That event, sent a shiver through the line waiting outside of the mess hall one morning in December, as we learned what had happened.

Assigned to a communications unit just returned from Vietnam following basic training and advanced training in early 1970, the unit command assigned me to an honor guard that fired M-1 rifles at different military commemorations, including the dedication of a Vietnam memorial. Less than a year later, the significance of the M-1 rifle, a so-called assault weapon, and the National Guard, would be forever linked in my mind to the massacre at Kent State University on May 4, 1970.

The Vietnam War had already become a war widely televised, and although the details of massacres such as at My Lai in March 1968 were not known yet, there was evidence, both televised and by word of mouth, including from veterans of that war, that atrocities were taking place. The extent of those atrocities was not known in 1969.

At the end of basic training, getting off of the train at Penn Station in Manhattan that would carry me home for the holidays, I felt like the odd man out in my uniform as I rushed to meet a friend from college.

The protest leader Abbie Hoffman had it right as he closed a speech to students at Vanderbilt University just days before he committed suicide in April 1989. Speaking of the 1960s, he said: “We were young, we were reckless, arrogant, silly, headstrong… and we were right! I regret nothing!”

Fifty years later all of these events are as important today as they were when they happened. The generation of baby boomers was confronted with the military draft in an unpopular war. The elite knew that the draft could not continue, and the contemporary result is that resistance to war is weak on the left. Students today are generally more concerned about debt and careers than they are with issues of war and peace. Others, not of the student class, are confronted with issues of survival.

A single issue, such as the U.S. support for Saudi Arabia in Yemen, needs to make those with any kind of moral compass have their hair stand on end. But because so few have their skin in the “game,” only relatively small numbers of people care.

 

Categories: News for progressives

The Spontaneous Politics of the Masses: Slavoj Žižek and the Yellow Vests

Mon, 2019-01-07 15:59

The Yellow Vest movement dumbfounded not only the French ruling elites, but also the left intellectuals throughout Europe. This, to be fair, was always the case with every serious revolutionary movement in the last one hundred years. Not one successful revolution was ever “correct” according to the left intellectuals and politicians. The fact that the “Yellow Vests” are treated in a similar fashion could be considered the evidence of significance of the events we are witnessing, and of their potential to initiate serious change in the life of the French society and in the rest of the Europe.

The intellectuals treated the “Yellow Vests” with empathy, but at the same time with paternalistic skepticism or even condescending ridicule. Like: the citizens, of course, have a right to protest, but their demands and views are contradictory, while their potential to win this battle is not quite apparent. Moreover, almost all analysts announced that the program, which was put together by the grass-roots movement, cannot be accomplished.

One characteristic example of this critique is the appearance of Slavoj Žižek on Russia Today.

Žižek sees the mass protests in France as an indisputable symptom of the systemic crisis, but then he parrots the ideologues of the ruling class in their denunciation of the program of the movement. The Slovenian intellectual sees the resolution of the problems in the emergence of some sort of socialist bureaucracy (not clear if the bureaucracy has to be of a Soviet or a Scandinavian type), which would save the day. However, it is not clear who would create this bureaucracy, how, and why it would express the interests of the society and the workers.

It becomes apparent immediately that while accusing the “Yellow Vests” of inconsistency, the philosopher contradicts himself each step of the way. The reasoning about the demands of the protesters that are impossible to meet “within the existing system” is an abstraction, which is typical for the intellectuals. They see the system as something completely holistic and unchanging, and therefore any demands that contradict its current condition are declared unrealistic. Žižek condemns populism, but in doing this he calls into question any popular demands and needs expressed by the masses.

Even if we accept Žižek’s thesis about the impossibility of meeting the demands of the protesters “within the existing system”, the question remains: who and how will change this system? The same enlightened bureaucracy, which, by the philosopher’s own admission, exists only in his imagination?

The thesis about the need to change the system completely and at once sounds very radical, but it lacks political substance. Any change in the system consists of tens, and may be even hundreds of concrete steps and measures that simply cannot be carried out simultaneously and at once. Moreover, almost all serious changes involve multiple phases. Transition from one phase to the next could happen in a very short period of time given a revolutionary situation, but the next step is impossible without the first one. For example, creation of a complete system of democratic planning is impossible without taking control of the top levers of the economy. Likewise, implementation of a large scale social investment program requires reforms of the government institutions and changes in the finance laws. Of course, some steps in this direction can be taken, but we must understand that they will not be very effective until a certain critical mass of institutional transformations has been accumulated. This is why any reforms and revolutions, even if they eventually move the society forward, early on are accompanied by ambiguous results, and often by objective worsening of the situation. Most importantly, any transformative measures, any steps to change the society and the state can (and would) be considered partial, insufficient, reformist, and so on. A true understanding of their significance is only possible in the context of the process as a whole.

But let us return to the discussion of the “Yellow Vests”. Why cannot their demands be met? Yes, Žižek makes an important qualification: the demands cannot be met “within the existing system”. But even here he is absolutely wrong. Most of the demands have been realized in the past by Western capitalism, but after the victory of neoliberalism these social advances were abolished. In other words, the protesters are just trying to win back the gains of the working class, which they lost in the last 30 years. Of course, it is impossible to return into 1960s and 70s. The practical work on the restoration of the welfare state would be successful only if it creates new forms and new possibilities for its development. However, we are talking here about something else: the thesis that social reforms are impossible within a capitalist system is just not true. It’s a whole another story that these reforms never result from a good will of the ruling class, but are rather won through the working class struggles.

In order to support his thesis about the contradictory demands of “Yellow Vests” Žižek points out that it is impossible to lower the taxes on the working people and at the same time to increase financing of education, healthcare, social sphere, etc. It is quite telling that this thesis is borrowed from the neoliberal experts. It is famous in Russia as the formula offered by the Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, who was caught on camera talking to the Crimean retirees: “Money is scarce, but hang in there”.

In reality, there are many ways for governments to obtain the money needed for social spending. There is no need to squeeze the working class by excessive taxation. One can create effective state enterprises, and use the profits for social needs. One can increase taxes on large corporations, or at least take away some of the tax benefits the transnationals enjoyed in almost all countries in the last decade. One can reduce the benefits for the upper layers of bureaucracy, and stop wasting resources on the meaningless “prestigious” projects, one can cut spending on the repressive apparatus, or one can fight corruption more effectively. One can stimulate economic growth and increase the wages, so that even when the taxes are cut, the overall budget revenue increases. One may even finance social programs at the expense of budget deficit: contrary to the opinion of liberal pundits, increase in government spending does not automatically lead to a proportional increase in inflation (currently, loans issued by private banks stimulate inflation to a much greater extent than government expences).

While repeating the falsehood of the ruling class apologists about the impossibility of meeting the demands of the protesters, Žižek does not notice that the danger for the elites from the “Yellow Vest” protests comes precisely from the fact that these demands can be easily met even today, even within the existing capitalist economy. However, these demands simply contradict the interests of the ruling elites. In other words, the impossible demands are not the issue; the problem is the class contradictions inherent to capitalism. Only the pressure from the masses on the ruling elites, who time after time were forced to make concessions to the outraged people, allowed any social progress within the existing system.

The same applies to the notorious “inconsistency” of the program of the “Yellow Vests”. Sure, the demands are somewhat contradictory. Nevertheless, this not only does not mean that they are impossible to meet, but, on the contrary, indicates the opposite. A completely consistent and absolutely non-contradictory socio-economic and political program can exist only in the mind of an ideologue, and even then, only if he does not realize the existence of objective contradictions within a socio-historical process or a social structure. Only a mass movement, which combines different social groups and somehow takes into account their diverse interests, is able to attract and mobilize the vast majority of the people. All movements, which managed to change societies, were populist movements. The Bolshevik slogan “Land to the peasants”, which motivated Lenin’s team to take power and win the civil war, originated not in socialist theory, but reflected the real needs of the “petty-bourgeois” peasantry. Without their participation, the revolution did not stand a chance.

A flawless “consistent” program can never be implemented by definition because it will never gather the support of the majority. Even if a “wise dictator” would try to impose it from above, in reality, he would still have to make concessions, given the inconsistency of public interests and the need to maintain the support of a sufficiently large mass of his subjects.

At the same time, the inconsistency of the demands of the “Yellow Vests” is also deliberately exaggerated by the propaganda of the powers that be. From the point of view of the left, the requirement of breaking up of the leading banks looks rather doubtful. Marxist or left-Keynesian economists will certainly say that nationalization of the largest financial institutions and their subordination to public control is much more reasonable from the point of view of the interests of the society. But first, this requirement is not only quite feasible, but does not contradict the logic of the market economy. And secondly, even if it is implemented, nothing terrible would happen. Moreover, the situation would still be much better than it is now, as breaking up the banks would weaken their political power and undermine the control of the government policies by financial capital.

Does everything mentioned above mean that Žižek is wrong about the systemic crisis? By no means. The movement of the “Yellow Vests” really reflects the fact that the system has come to a certain critical point. However, the transition of the society to a qualitatively different condition happens precisely through such “contradictory” uprisings of the people, which historians have been calling revolutions for three hundred years. If the “Yellow Vests” win, if their demands are met in general (and not a single program was ever completely accomplished, certainly, not at once), it will not lead to the abolition of capitalism.

This, on the one hand, will radically change the balance of class forces in the society, and on the other hand, will give rise to new social interests and demands that grow out of the new situation and the new opportunities it will allow.

In fact, we are dealing here with a kind of “transition program” (using the term of Leon Trotsky), with the only difference that it is formulated not by intellectuals and politicians, but spontaneously by the masses themselves.

We can criticize the spontaneous grassroots movements accompanied by inevitable excesses and mistakes as much as we want, but we have to admit that in the conditions of complete bankruptcy of the left political and intellectual community, the masses simply have no choice but to take their fate into their own hands. In other words, the spontaneous politics of the masses is better than the opportunism of politicians and the narcissism of intellectuals.

It is not surprising that for the left intellectuals, including the best (Slavoj Žižek is one of them), such a turn of events is unexpected and unpleasant. Intellectuals can criticize politicians as much as they want, putting themselves above political games, but at some point they may discover that their integrity and the depth of their statements do not give them any trump cards in the eyes of the masses. Moreover, the situation is even worse for public intellectuals than it is for the academics. The latter, at least, do not expect that the people, having seen the light, will call them as new leaders. On the contrary, public intellectuals genuinely confuse their media success and their popularity with public influence. These are not only different, but, in some cases, are the opposite things.

Any progressive mass movement needs intellectuals. The “Yellow Vests” also need them, but not as arrogant teachers and mentors, not as picky judges who evaluate other people’s actions, but as equal and useful comrades.

The right to qualify for leadership in a mass movement must be earned by a practical presence in this movement. Not by past achievements and clever publications, but by constant activity, direct participation in the events and willingness to share with people not only responsibility for the results of their struggle, but also risks (including moral) and failures. It is important to focus not on abstract theoretical correctness, but on the political efficiency and practical success here and now, on the efficiency in the interests of this movement and the block of social forces this movement represents. One needs not to judge or evaluate, but to participate, to struggle, to make mistakes, to correct mistakes and win.

Categories: News for progressives

It’s Too Late for Trump’s Wall

Mon, 2019-01-07 15:57

Drawing By Nathaniel St. Clair

As we watch the congregation of desperate people at the southern U.S. border, and as the crisis generated by Trumps shut down the federal government, we have come to support the creation of a wall, an impenetrable barrier against those who should not cross it. Unfortunately, it is too late – much too late. The wall should have been created two hundred years ago. If such a wall had existed in 1846, President Polk and his expansionist supporters could not have orchestrated an aggressive war against Mexico, one which resulted in the loss of almost half of all Mexican territory.

The existence of such a wall also would have prevented U.S. banana, sugar and tobacco companies from overrunning Nicaragua in the late 19th century, which led to people being displaced from their land and exploited for their labor. When the popular Nicaraguan President José Santos Zelaya promoted democratic reforms in 1909, he was overthrown at the insistence of U.S. corporations. The U.S. sent Marines to aid in the coup, and afterwards continued to occupy Nicaragua for the two decades. Even after its military withdrew, the U.S. didn’t give up control of Nicaragua, but empowered a brutal dictator — with the understanding that he would use his rule to support U.S. business interests.

In the absence of a wall, the people of El Salvador experienced a similar fate. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Salvadoran landholding aristocracy dominated the country, while maintaining close ties with the United States. Things changed in 1931, when a member of the Salvadorian Labor Party — Arturo Araujo — was elected president. He ran on a platform of providing for the people’s basic needs and restoring land to the poor who had been largely forced off it. Araujo held the office for less than a year before being overthrown by the elite-controlled Salvadorian army, with the U.S. standing ready to provide needed military support. In the repression that followed tens of thousands of Salvadorians were murdered, disproportionately indigenous people. The U.S. formally recognized a ruthless authoritarian as the president of El Salvador shortly thereafter.

Due to the absence of such a wall, prospects for a decent life for people in Honduras dwindled by the early 20th century as U.S. banana companies acquired enormous tracts of land in the county. The U.S. repeatedly dispatched military forces to the country to protect U.S. investments there and repress fruit workers’ efforts to unionize. And imagine what the lives of people in Guatemala could be like today if the popular president promoting a more just an equitable society, Jacobo Árbenz, had not been overthrown by a U.S.-backed coup in 1954 at the behest of the U.S.-based United Fruit Company. Guatemala was ruled afterwards by a series of U.S.-backed, repressive dictators.

In the second half of the 20th century people in Central America and Mexico challenged increasing poverty, worker exploitation and government repression and struggled for democracy and social justice. The United States government supported the ruthless regimes in the region with military support and training. There were over 250,000 fatalities by 1989 as a result of these conflicts – primarily in El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua – and countless traumatized families saw their hopes for a better life vanish.

Then the implementation of NAFTA and CAFTA both intensified worker exploitation, the collapse of small farms, impoverishment, and environmental destruction. While all this represents a “good deal” for U.S. corporations and investors, whose interests are paraded as the “national interests,” in truth such “deals” constitute crimes against humanity.

The poverty, violence, and despair in Central America is, then, not an inherent condition, but rather the disastrous consequence of U.S.-policy that single-mindedly focused on the interests of powerful corporations and elites, both in the past and now. Throughout the region, the use of the U.S. government has sought to protect business interests at any cost. It has operated without concern for the integrity of Mexican and Central American national borders or the “homeland security” of the masses of people who live there. From the vantage point of the people there, they have been, and continue to be, the victims of U.S.-sponsored “murderers and thieves.”

Tragically, people desperate to flee the resultant impoverishment, exploitation and violence routinely find racism, imprisonment, and heartbreak waiting for them at the U.S. border. These folks, many travelling as families, are scapegoated for the declining quality of life and growing economic marginalization of people in the United States. Many in the U.S. are unaware of the oppressive and destructive policies their government has employed in Mexico and Central America (and for that matter, of similar U.S. practices throughout the world.)

Today, Mexico and Central America would be far better places if the U.S. had been constrained by a wall on its border back in 1846. Today what is needed is the type of barrier featured in the Harry Potter series, a platform 9¾. This barrier would be selective in who could pass, permitting all asylum seekers and others seeking a better life to cross uninhibited, while remaining impermeable to further U.S. military and covert intervention. People living south of the U.S., desperate to cross the border, should be treated with dignity and respect, and the people in their countries should have the unimpeded right to pursue the democracy, justice, and equality they have so long struggled for.

Categories: News for progressives

Early Elections: Who Will Dethrone ‘The King of Israel’?

Mon, 2019-01-07 15:51

“A historic mistake” is how Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu responded to calls for early elections last November. A few weeks later, he spoke, in exaggerated confidence of the “unanimous” agreement of his right-wing coalition that early elections must be held next April.

So why the change of heart?

Netanyahu may not be a good leader, but he is certainly a cunning politician. The fact that he is gearing up for a fifth term at the helm of Israel’s fractious political scene speaks volumes of his ability to survive against many odds.

But it is not all about Netanyahu and his clever ways. Israeli politics are truly dismal. The Left, if it ever earned such a title, is marginal, if not entirely irrelevant. The Center lacks any real political identity or decipherable discourse concerning, for example, foreign policy or true vision for peace and coexistence. The Right, which now defines Israeli society as a whole, has moved further to the right, and is saturated in religious zeal, ultra-nationalism, while some of its parties are flirting with outright fascism.

As strange as this may sound, in the company of Education Minister, Naftali Bennett, Justice Minister, Ayelet Shaked, and the recently-resigned Defense Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, Netanyahu is not the most extreme.

Indeed, per Israel’s Orwellian politics, nothing is what it seems.

Netanyahu is now paying the price for his overconfidence. The right-wing creature that he has so diligently created to quash his enemies, has grown so powerful and unhinged, that even the prime minister himself could no longer control political outcomes.

The once unchallenged Israeli leader has himself grown too comfortable with power. His family too has become too accustomed to the good life. His wife is now standing trial for corruption and misuse of public funds.

As of early December, the police have recommended, and for third time, that Netanyahu be charged with fraud, accepting bribes and breach of trust. Between direct involvement in the massive corruption racket that his office has espoused, and the dirty dealings of his own circle of aides and profiteers, the Israeli leader is no longer untouchable.

Netanyahu’s sense of safety has always been buttressed by his good standing in opinion polls.

Even now, his numbers are still relatively high. His Likud party would still win an easy election – 30 seats in the Knesset’s 120 seats – if the vote was to be held today.

In fact, this is precisely why Netanyahu had the change of heart and succumbed to mounting pressure from Bennett, among other dissatisfied right-wingers.

His hands are getting tied in Syria, thanks to Russia’s strong rejection of Israel’s incessant bombing of the war-torn country. His movement in Gaza has too become restricted due to the botched attack on the besieged Strip on November 11.

Gaza was a place where Israeli politicians could freely flex their muscles, punished the trapped population of that tiny region, either with a customary war or a routine bombardment.

But Netanyahu has failed on that front as well, where the Gaza Resistance recently repelled an Israeli commando attack and forced the Israeli government into an Egyptian-sponsored truce.

A mere 48 hours later, Lieberman resigned in protest, further contributing to the growing stigma among Israeli officials from all parties that their leader is ‘weak’ and was ‘defeated’ by Hamas.

Still, his coalition survived, but not for much longer. A razor-thin majority of a single Knesset member kept the once powerful coalition alive in Parliament. Bennett and others suddenly had the key to the Likud-led coalition’s survival and to Netanyahu’s own political fate.

Thus, Netanyahu opted for early elections, hoping for an easy victory and for yet another right-wing coalition, where he would have greater maneuverability and command greater respect.

Since Center and Left parties have already proved worthless, Netanyahu is now counting on their ongoing failure to appeal to Israeli society.

Elections will be held on April 9, as announced on December 24, by speaker of the Knesset, Yuli-Yoel Edelstein; nearly 8 months before they were originally scheduled.

Considering Netanyahu’s increasing misfortunes, 8 months would be too long to maintain his electability. In fact, most Israelis already see him as a corrupt leader.

According to the same calculations, early elections in April is not long enough for a capable contender to emerge from neither the Right, nor the political wreckage of the Center and Left to, finally, dethrone the king of Israel.

However, this, too, might prove to be wishful thinking.

Within days of Edelstein’s announcement, Bennett and Shaked declared the formation of their own new party. The leaders of the ‘Jewish Home’ are now the leaders of the ‘New Right’. While this is seen as a major challenge to Netanyahu within his right-wing constituency, it is also an early sign of the fragmentation of the Right itself.

But that’s not all. Another Benjamin – Benjamin “Benny” Gantz – is hoping to change the Israeli political paradigm entirely.

The ex-general has served in several wars against Gaza, at the Israel-Syria front and was the country’s 20th Chief of General Staff.

With an unclear, thus untainted, political outlook, and a bloody war record, it would be tough for Netanyahu to diminish Gantz’s reputation among Israelis. In Israel, ‘killing Arabs’ is always an incentive at the polls.

Although the army man-turned politician is being perceived as a Center-Leftist, he clearly wants to start anew. On December 27, Gantz launched his own political party: Hosen Yisrael – Resilience of Israel.

With little, if any political campaigning, the new party would win 15 seats in the Knesset if elections were held today.

This says much about Israelis lack of faith in the existing Center-Left political elites, but also about the serious challenge that the Right, with all of its strands – should expect if the pendulum continues to swing.

For now, Netanyahu’s strategy is likely to focus on gaining as much new political capital as possible while taking as little risks as possible.

But with his enemies gaining momentum, police investigations closing in, the fracturing of the Right and the rise of an electable Centrist, Netanyahu, the survivalist might become a liability to his own party, which could, at last, usher in the end of his political career.

Categories: News for progressives

Preventing Brazilian Indigenous Genocide and Protecting the Amazon

Mon, 2019-01-07 15:50

It is official. On the first of the year, Jair Bolsonaro, was inaugurated as the 38thPresident of Brazil. One of his first official acts as a newly inaugurated president was doing away with demarcation of indigenous territories in Brazil. All of us living on this planet should be fearful of this act.

Bolsonaro transferred the responsibility of demarcation of indigenous lands to the Brazilian Ministry of Agriculture and placed the National Indian Foundation (FUNAI, Fundação Nacional do Índio) under its jurisdiction. It is FUNAI’s responsibility to protect the nation’s Indians and yet the Ministry of Agriculture is traditionally known to protect the interests of big business, especially soy farmers and cattle ranchers. Both are powerful lobbying groups in Brazil and likewise partly responsible for destroying the Amazon and its people. In effect, FUNAI is no more under the Bolsonaro administration.

We should also realize this is not only a fulfilled campaign promise of Bolsonaro but a realized fear for the legitimation of genocide against Brazilian indigenous peoples and also the imminent destruction of the Brazilian Amazon. It is also important to note that 60 percent of the Amazon is under Brazilian jurisdiction.

At the end of November, a United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity was held in Egypt. It was there many of the world’s Amazonian indigenous leaders proposed a 200-million-hectare corridor stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to the Andes mountains along the great meandering Amazon River and its tributaries in order to protect the world’s largest rainforest and its incredibly varied fauna and flora. Such an ecological plan would not only protect the forest and its wildlife but its many indigenous peoples and their lands. What is more, such a scheme may have the long-term benefit of preventing climate change and global warming from becoming inevitable realities.

To understand the immensity of such a proposed biodiversity corridor, think of an area the size of Mexico and 500 different Amazonian indigenous nations with their wide array of cultures living within it. Ponder for a moment that 10 million species of animals, insects, and plants exist within the Amazon rainforest. Almost 80 percent of the world’s biodiversity is to be found on indigenous lands and Native territories are some of the most biodiverse on earth.

Now more than ever we should be taking such environmental propositions very seriously for the fate of humankind.

The proposal to protect the Amazon with a “sacred corridor of life and culture” was presented by COICA (Coordinator of Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon River Basin, Coordinadora de las Organizaciones Indígenas de la Cuenca Amazónica)at the UN conference.

Yet, Brazilian President Bolsonaro and newly elected Colombian President, Iván Duque Márquez, along with other powerful business leaders, most likely will not consider such a plan because of economic interests for developing the Amazon for energy (e.g. hydro-electric dam projects and oil prospecting), mining (e.g. excavating gold), resource exploitation (e.g. timber extraction) and agri-businesses (e.g. cattle ranching and soy farming). The UN biodiversity agreement is scheduled to be signed in Beijing, China in 2020.

President Bolsonaro has infamously likened indigenous peoples residing on protected territories in Brazil to “animals in zoos” (como animais em zoo). When humans dehumanize other humans, and equate them with non-human animals, we know psychologically such rhetoric allows for genocide. This was evident from the Rwanda genocide when Hutu heard racist radio messages about Tutsi equating them to cockroaches, among other things. Such directed racism allowed for the near Tutsi extermination, ranging between 500,000 to 1,000,000 killings in 1994. Similarly, Hitler’s propagandists relentlessly compared Jews to rats. We know those results.

In a recent 2018 report commissioned by the ‘Climate and Land Use Alliance (CLU), Impacts on Extractive Industry and Infrastructure on Forests: Amazonia, it stated the following: “…large-scale infrastructure development, in particular road building and hydropower, have induced human settlement, forest clearance and an aggressive expansion of the agricultural frontier across substantial parts of Amazonia. The synergies between agriculture and infrastructure are important, particularly in the Legal Amazon. The scale of future changes in forest cover will depend on where and how infrastructure investments move forward.”

There are presently about 850,000 Natives in Brazil. Bolsonaro believes they should be forcibly assimilated and integrated into Brazilian society along with Afro-slave descendants or Quilombolas living in the hinterland. 

Three prominent Brazilian indigenous leaders, Davi Kopenawa Yanomami, Sônia Bone Guajajara, and Raoni Metuktire, have written a letter to the world to express their alarm.

Their peoples live in different areas of the Brazilian Amazon. The Yanomami people have been mostly isolated, living in Brazil and Venezuela, numbering some 35,000 people.

Since the 1980s, Yanomami have been subject to massacres from Brazilian gold miners (garimpeiros) who have also brought disease and mass death.

The Guajajara people live in the state of Maranhão and number some 19,000 people. During the 1960s through 1980s, there have been concerted efforts to develop and illegally settle on their lands.

The Kayapó live in the states of Mato Grosso and Pará and number some 9,000 people. Since the late 1980s, they have been fighting hydroelectric dam projects on their lands. The ongoing Belo Monte Dam will flood vast areas of Kayapó territories and have a very lasting negative impact upon the survival of these people by limiting fishing and massively destroying both fauna and flora.

Davi Kopenawa, Sônia Guajajara, and Raoni Metuktire stated in their letter:

“A genocide is unfolding in our country, Brazil. Our government is destroying us, indigenous peoples, our country’s first people. In the name of profit and power, our land is being stolen, our forests burned, our rivers polluted and our communities devastated. Our uncontacted relatives, who live deep in the forest, are being attacked and killed…This is the most aggressive attack we have experienced in our lifetimes. But we won’t be silenced. We do not want the riches of our land to be stolen and sold. For as long as we can remember, we have looked after our lands. We protect our forest as it gives us life…Please tell our government that our land is not for stealing.”

We should heed their warning and not allow the Brazilian government to sanction such a genocide against Brazilian Indians and simply remain silent. It is time to speak up.

Not only are nearly one million Brazilian indigenous lives at stake, but the Amazon rainforest as a world natural resource, is in certain jeopardy without protective measures. The “sacred corridor” plan proposed by COICA at the 2018 UN Biodiversity Conference is a good beginning to ensure two million square kilometers of rainforest land along the Amazon River and its vast tributaries be preserved and safeguarded for future generations.

Let’s begin the New Year by helping and protecting these people and the Amazon before it is too late.

How you can help:

One organization which has ongoing campaigns to protect Brazilian Amerindians is Survival International: https://www.survivalinternational.org/tribes/brazilian https://www.survivalinternational.org/news/12060

You may wish to donate them or get involved in their ongoing campaigns to protect Brazilian Indians: https://www.survivalinternational.org/donate Or consider writing your US Senator or US Congressman or even your local Brazilian Consulate or Brazilian Embassy in Washington, D.C.: http://www.brazil-help.com/brazil-emb-consul.htm

Or sign a petition at Amazon Watch and pledge your support to protect the Amazonian Indians: https://amazonwatch.org/take-action/pledge-solidarity-with-brazils-resistance

Categories: News for progressives

Biting into Apple: The Giant’s Revenues Fall

Mon, 2019-01-07 15:50

The worm has gotten into Apple, and is feasting with some consistency.  Revenue has fallen. Chief executive Tim Cook is cranky.  The celebrated front of Apple’s wealth – the iPhone with its range of glittering models – has not done as well as he would have hoped.  Dreams of conquering Cathay (or, in modern terms, the Chinese market) have not quite materialised.

In a letter to Apple’s investors, Cook explained that “our revenue will be lower than our original guidance for the quarter, with other items remaining broadly in line with our guidance.”  This somewhat optimistic assessment came with the heavily stressed caveat: “While it will be a number of weeks before we complete and report our final results, we wanted to get some preliminary information to you now. Our final results may differ somewhat from these preliminary estimates.”

The reasons outlined were various, but Cook, in language designed to obfuscate with concealing woods for self-evident trees, suggested that the launches of various iPhone types would “affect our year-to-year compares.” That said, it “played out broadly in line with our expectations.” While Cook gives the impression of omniscience, he is far from convincing.  Why go for the “unprecedented number of new products to ramp”, resulting in “supply constraints” which led to limiting “our sales of certain products during Q1 [the first quarter]”?  Such is the nature of the credo.

Where matters were not so smooth to predict were those “macroeconomic” matters that do tend to drive CEOs potty with concern. While there was an expectation that the company would struggle for sales in “emerging markets”, the impact was “significantly greater… than we had projected.”  China, in fact, remained the hair-tearing problem, singled out as the single biggest factor in revenue fall.

“In fact,” goes Cook’s letter of breezy blame, “most of our revenue shortfall to our guidance, and over 100 percent of our year-over-year worldwide revenue decline, occurred in Greater China across iPhone, Mac and iPhone.”  The slowing of China’s economy in the second half of 2018, with a slump in the September quarter being the second lowest in the last 25 years, deemed a significant factor.

The irritating tangle of world politics also features; as ever, Apple can hardly be responsible for errors or misjudgements, and prefers, when convenient, to point the finger to the appropriate catalyst. The United States has not made matters easy for the Apple bottom line in its trade war spat with Beijing.  “We believe that the economic environment in China has been further impacted by rising trade tensions with the United States.”

While it is never wise to consult the view of economists without caution (their oracular skills leave much to be desired), the feeling among the analysts is that a further contraction is nigh.  “We expect a much worse slowdown in the first half, followed by a more serious and aggressive government easing/stimulus centered on regulating the property market in big cities,” claims chief China economist at Nomura, Ting Lu. But chin up – a rebound is bound to happen in the latter part of 2019.

The Apple vision is, however, dogmatically optimistic, an indispensable quality to any cult.  China remains customary dream and object, a frontier to conquer.  It is stacked with Apple friendly innovators (“The iOS developer community in China is among the most innovative, creative, and vibrant in the world.”) and loyal customers who have “a very high level of engagement and satisfaction.”

Product fetishism only carries you so far.  The iPhone models are not exactly blazing a trail of enthusiasm in other countries either.  Users in Brazil, India, Russia and Turkey can count themselves as being more reluctant.

Some of this dampening is due, in no small part, to a certain cheek on the part of the tech giant, one nurtured by years of enthusiastic, entitled arrogance.  In late 2017, for instance, the company revealed that it was slowing down iPhones with old batteries in an attempt to prevent undesired shutdowns.  But the company did not feel any great desire to inform users of this fiddling, and it took the published findings of an iPhone user to replace his iPhone 6’s battery, thereby restoring performance to accepted levels, to kick the hornets’ nest.

As Chris Smith explains, “The fix was implemented via an update last January [2017], but Apple didn’t accurately inform users of what was going to happen to chemically aged batteries.”  Class action suits followed in the United States; Brazilian authorities insisted that the company inform iPhone users on how to have their batteries replaced within 10 days.

The bite on Apple has had its predictable shudder on the markets.  Investors ran off some $75 billion on the company’s stocks. The Nasdaq fell by 3 percent; the Dow Jones Industrial Average fell 2.8 percent.  An environment of chaos has greeted us in 2019, and fittingly, Apple remains at the centre of it, a company as responsible for modern technological worship as any.  As with any central dogma, disappointments are bound to happen, an irrepressible function of misplaced belief.

 

Categories: News for progressives

If China is Suffering So Much From Trump’s Trade War, Why is Its Surplus Up So Much?

Mon, 2019-01-07 15:43

Donald Trump has made his tariffs against China and other countries a big part of his agenda as president. He even went so far as to dub himself “Tariff Man” on Twitter.

The media have been quick to assume that Tariff Man is accomplishing his goals, especially with regard to China. It is standard for news articles, like this one, to assert that China’s economy is suffering in large part because of Trump’s tariffs.

In fact, through the first ten months of 2018 China’s trade surplus with the United States on trade in goods has been $344.5 billion. This is up 11.5 percent from its surplus in the same months last year.

The tariffs surely are having some effect, and China’s surplus would almost certainly be larger if they were not in place. But it is difficult to believe that China’s $13.5 trillion dollar economy (measured at exchange rate values) could be hurt all that all that much by somewhat slower growth in its trade surplus with the United States. (For arithmetic fans, the surplus is equal to 2.5 percent of China’s GDP. We are talking about slower growth in this surplus.)

It is worth noting that we will not be getting new trade data until the government shutdown is over since the Census Bureau is one of the government agencies without funding for fiscal year 2019.

This article originally appeared on Dean Baker’s blog.

Categories: News for progressives

Happy New Year from Kim Jong-un

Mon, 2019-01-07 15:41

Long ago, US foreign aid programs honored the principle that humanitarian aid should be treated separately from economic and military assistance to governments. Public Law 480 (popularized as “Food for Peace”), which began under President Eisenhower in the 1960s and expanded under President Kennedy, was mainly intended (in Kennedy’s words) to “narrow the gap between abundance here at home and near starvation abroad.” It was a simple and ethical goal, though it applied only to “friendly” countries and therefore had the secondary aim, as Kennedy admitted, to be a barrier against communism.

The original humane goal has now vanished, and the secondary political aim has taken its place. The Trump administration is explicitly using humanitarian aid as another weapon to sanction adversaries. North Korea is the prime example. After decades providing humanitarian aid by private citizens and NGOs, Americans will no longer be able to send or deliver it: the decision includes denial of permission to travel to North Korea to deliver aid. Programs that made perceptible contributions to economic development and health care in North Korea, and built trust, will now be grounded.

The American Friends Service Committee, Nautilus Institute, Mercy Corps, Northwest Medical Teams, and other well-established NGOs are among the affected organizations.

All this in the name of the Trump administration’s policy of “maximum pressure” to force North Korea to take tangible steps toward verifiable denuclearization. The administration justifies the ban as necessary to protect Americans from being taken prisoner and eliminate a source of hard currency for the North Korean regime. But those are excuses; humanitarian aid is a carrot now turned into a stick because Trump’s summit meeting with Kim Jong-un has failed to bring denuclearization any closer to realization and has no interest in an incentives-based engagement strategy.

Keith Luse, executive director of the National Committee on North Korea, a group that supports engagement, points out in a message to members (which includes me) that “a line has been crossed.”

American citizens and NGOs have provided humanitarian assistance to that country for decades. Whether motivated by a faith-based perspective—or out of a compassionate nature—all have been committed to saving the lives of the neediest of North Korea’s citizens, including children, the elderly and pregnant mothers. Thousands of North Koreans neglected by their own government, particularly in rural areas, know their lives have been impacted, or saved because of the intervention of the American people. It has become clear that the Trump Administration regards the provision of humanitarian assistance to the North Korean people as a legitimate target for its maximum pressure campaign.

Despite improvements in its economy, North Korea’s public health and food circumstances remain dire. The World Food Programme reports a shortfall of over $15 million for its work in North Korea. Ten million people—40 percent of the population—are said to be undernourished, and roughly 20 percent of children suffer from chronic malnourishment. The White House, where the president periodically extols his friendship with Kim Jong-un, has said nothing about the human condition in North Korea. But even if it did, US termination of humanitarian aid to North Korea would undermine its criticisms of human rights there.

In the United Nations, the US position makes Russia and China look good. Their representatives have called for rewarding North Korea for its diplomacy and its focus since April 2018 on economic development rather than on the byongjinline of parallel military and economic development. Moscow and Beijing have both arguedin the Security Council for North Korean exemptions from UN sanctions. A Chinese foreign ministry statementof June 12, 2018 said:

The UN Security Council resolutions that have been passed say that if North Korea respects and acts in accordance with the resolutions, then sanction measures can be adjusted, including to pause or remove the relevant sanctions. China has consistently held that sanctions are not the goal in themselves. The Security Council’s actions should support and conform to the efforts of current diplomatic talks towards denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula, and promote a political solution for the peninsula.

But to date Washington, with veto power in the Security Council, has taken a firm line on UN sanctions. In the White House’s view, reflected for example in a statement of August 29, 2018, China’s food and fuel assistance to North Korea—which typically amounts to 70 percent of North Korean imports—is “not helpful.” The White House is fighting a losing battle, however. Since the Trump-Kim summit, leakage in the UN sanctions regime has increased significantly as neither Russia nor China feels duty bound to honor it as before, particularly when it comes to oil. South Korean humanitarian aid also enters the picture as inter-Korean talks move ahead. North-South Korea agreements so far have greatly reduced military tensions along the demilitarized zone and at sea, paving the way for renewal of a South Korean-funded industrial zone and resort complex just across the DMZ in the North. But the Trump administration stands in the way of South Korean aid to the North.

In response to Seoul’s interest in lifting trade and investment sanctions, Trump said: “They won’t do it without our approval. They do nothing without our approval.”

North Korea is not an isolated case. Iran is also subject to “maximum pressure” and worse—meaning regime change—as became apparent in a speech by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeoon May 28, 2018. Officially, Trump’s imposition of sanctions on Iran following withdrawal from the Obama-era nuclear deal separates humanitarian aid from US sanctions on Iran’s banks, oil, airlines, and other industries. But in fact humanitarian aid requires the same bank processing as any other aid, making food and medicine imports hard to find under US sanctions. As Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said: “The US has imposed financial sanctions on Iran. When you want to transfer money, the bank does not ask whether it goes for food or other items—that is why sanctions always hit food and medicine.”

Economic sanctions do hurt. Iran’s Zarif has said as much, while also saying that sanctions “strengthen the resolve to resist. The North Koreans have not acknowledged the pain but have demanded an end to US sanctions as a condition of further dialogue. A major problem with sanctions, surely applicable to Iran and North Korea, is that they arouse nationalist resistance in the targeted regime. Studies of sanctions show, moreover, that they have a poor record when it comes to forcing policy changes

As for sanctions on humanitarian aid, the core issue is moral as well as economic. The people most affected by such sanctions are, of course, those who are most in need of basic necessities. Political leaders, the military, and residents in the capital rarely suffer. Moreover, loss of direct contact by aid groups with ordinary people undermines opportunities to build goodwill and nurture diplomatic engagement. In short, weaponizing humanitarian aid has no upside even in a policy based on “maximum pressure.”

The future of humanitarian aid is grim. The sheer number of people in need around the world almost defies imagination. Food and health deficits in North Korea and Iran pose one kind of humanitarian need. They are in caught in the middle of international rivalries, like the half-million Yemenis displaced by war and the “caravans” of people fleeing Central American violence and trapped in Mexico. But then there are the over 60 million displaced and transnational refugees and migrants who are victims of natural catastrophes (including climate change), war, and persecution.

Five countries—Afghanistan, Myanmar, Somalia, Syria, and South Sudan—account for two-thirds of today’s refugees according to Mercy Corps and Amnesty International. The global map is pockmarked with encampments, many of them permanent, as governments struggle either to support or find a way to remove hundreds of thousands of people. Governments that put out the welcome sign for such people, like Germany and Lebanon, risk being ousted by the current tidal force of anti-immigrant sentiment. And in the United Nations, refugee fatigue is an old problem, and funding relief has long since become a mission impossible.

Categories: News for progressives

“Are You Serious?” Awards, 2018

Mon, 2019-01-07 15:40

The Golden Sprocket Wrench Award goes to Lockheed Martin, the world’s largest arms manufacturer, for its F-22 Raptor Stealth fighter, a fifth-generation interceptor said to be the best in the world.

That is when it works, which isn’t often.

When Hurricane Michael swept through Florida this fall, 17 Raptors — $339 million apiece — were destroyed or badly damaged. How come the Air Force didn’t fly those F-22s out of harm’s way? Because the Raptor is a “hanger queen”— it loves the machine shop. Less than 50 percent of the F-22 fleet is functional at any given moment. The planes couldn’t fly, so they got trashed at a cost to taxpayers of around $5 billion.

Lockheed Martin also gets an Oak Leaf Cluster for its F-35 Lightning II fighter, at $1.5 trillionthe most expensive weapon system in U.S. history. Some 200 F-35s aren’t considered “combat capable,” and may never be, because the Pentagon would rather buy new planes than fix the ones it has. That may cost taxpayers $40 billion.

The F-22s and F-35s also have problems with their oxygen systems, but no one can figure out why.

However, both planes did get into combat. According to Vice Admiral Scott Stearney, the F-35 achieved “tactical supremacy” over the Taliban (which doesn’t have an air force). The F-22, the most sophisticated stealth fighter in the world, took on Afghan drug dealers.

As for Lockheed Martin, the company was just awarded an extra $7 billion for F-22 “sustainment.”

The Golden Parenting Award goes to the U.S. State Department, for trying to water down a resolution by the UN’s World Health Assembly encouraging breastfeeding over infant formula.

A Lancet study found that universal breastfeeding would prevent 800,000 infant deaths a year, decrease ear infections by 50 percent, and reduce gastrointestinal disease by 64 percent. It lowers the risk for Type 1 diabetes, two kinds of leukemia, sudden infant death syndrome, and asthma. It also makes for healthier mothers.

In contrast, infant formula — a $70 billion industry dominated by a few American and European companies — is expensive and not nearly as healthy for children as breast milk.

When Ecuador tried to introduce the breastfeeding resolution, the U.S. threatened it with aid cuts and trade barriers. Several other Latin American countries were also threatened and quickly withdrew their names from a list of endorsers. Finally, Russia stepped in and introduced the resolution.

The measure finally passed, but the U.S. successfully lobbied to remove language urging the World Health Organization to challenge “inappropriate promotion of foods for infants and young children.”

The Golden Cuisine Award goes to Ron Colburn, president of the U.S. Border Patrol Foundation, who told Fox & Friends that the tear gas used on migrants at the U.S. border was not harmful, because pepper spray was such a “natural” product that “you could actually put on your nachos and eat it.”

The Marie Antoinette Award has two winners this year:

* Nikki Haley, retiring U.S. ambassador to the UN, who blasted Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vt) for supporting the UN’s special rapporteur report on poverty in the United States, who found that tens of millions of Americans suffer “massive levels of deprivation.” In a letter to Sanders, Haley said it was “patently ridiculous” for the UN to even look at poverty in the United States, because it is “the wealthiest and freest country in the world.”

In a response, Sanders pointed out that while this country is indeed the wealthiest in the world, it is also one of the most unequal. “Some 40 million people still live in poverty, more than 30 million have no health insurance, over half of older workers have no retirement savings, 140 million Americans are struggling to pay for basic living expenses, 40 percent of Americans cannot afford a $400 emergency, and millions of Americans are leaving school deeply in debt.”

* U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin, who expressed surprise that the people attending the World Economic Forum in the resort town of Davos, Switzerland were considered elite. “I didn’t realize it was the global elite.”

Basic membership in the forum costs more than $70,000, and getting to the event by helicopter or car is expensive, as are accommodations. There also numerous glittering parties hosted by celebrities like Bono and Leonardo DiCaprio. (But those parties can have a sharp edge: one had attendees crawl on their hands and knees to feel what’s like to flee an army.)

The Golden Matthew 19:14 Award (“Suffer the little children”) goes to Danish Prime Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen for threatening to seize the children of poor people if parents commit crimes or fail to teach children “Danish values.”

The Danish parliament has designated 25 “ghetto” areas — Denmark’s term — which Muslim immigrants are crowded into. Families living in “ghettos” must send their children — starting at age 1 — to schools for 25 hours a week, where they’re taught about Christmas, Easter, and the Danish language. Failure to do so can result in a welfare cutoff.

Proposals are also being considered to double prison sentences for anyone from a “ghetto” convicted of a crime, and a four year prison sentence for parents who send their children back to their home countries to learn about their cultures.

The neo-fascist People’s Party, part of the governing coalition, also proposed forcing all “ghetto” children to wear electronic ankle bracelets and be confined to their homes after 8 PM. The measure was tabled.

Runners up are:

* The British Home Office, which, according to a report by the House of Lords, is using children for undercover operations against drug dealers, terrorists, and criminal gangs. “We are concerned that enabling a young person to participate in covert activity for an extended period of time may expose them to increased risk in their mental and physical welfare,” the Lord’s report concluded.

* The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for placing Dr. Ruth Etzel, head of Children’s Health Protection, on administrative leave and derailing programs aimed at reducing children’s exposure to lead, pesticides, mercury, and smog. Etzel was pressing to tighten up regulations because children are more sensitive to pollutants than adults. A leader in children’s environmental health for more than 30 years, Etzel was asked for her badge, cell phone, and keys and put on administrative leave.

The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight Award goes to arms maker Raytheon (with a tip of the hat to contributors Northup Grumman and Lockheed Martin) for its Patriot anti-missile that has downed exactly one missile in 28 years of use (and that was a clunky old Scud).

An analysis of the missile interceptor system by Jeffrey Lewis of the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey, California, concluded that Patriot is “a lemon.” Writing in Foreign Policy, Lewis says, “I am deeply skeptical that Patriot has ever intercepted a long-range ballistic missile in combat.”

But it sure sells well. Saudi Arabia forked over $5.4 billion for Patriots in 2015, Romania $4 billion in 2017, Poland $4.5 billion in 2018, and Turkey $3.5 billion this year.

The Golden “Say What?” Award has three winners:

*The U.S. Department of Defense for cutting a deal in the Yemen civil war to allow al-Qaeda members — the organization that brought us the September 11 attacks — to join with the Saudis and United Arab Emirates (UAE) in their fight against the Houthis.

According to Associated Press, while the Saudis claim that their forces are driving al-Qaeda out of cities, in fact, the terrorist organization’s members were allowed to leave with their weapons and looted cash.

U.S. drones gave them free passage. Why, you may ask? Because the Saudi coalition says the Houthis are supported by Iran.

* Saudi Arabia and the UAE for bankrolling a series of racist and Islamophobic attacks on newly elected Muslim Congress members Ilhan Omar (D-Minnesota) and Rashid Tlaib (D-Michigan) because the Gulf monarchies accuse both of being members of the Muslim Brotherhood. Neither is, but both are critical of the absolute monarchs of the Persian Gulf and are opposed to the Saudi-instigated war in Yemen.

* Israel, for selling weapons to the racist and anti-Semitic Azov Battalion in the Ukraine. On its YouTube channel, members of the militia showed off Israeli Tavor rifles, the primary weapon of the Israeli Special Forces. The Tavor is produced under license by the Israel Weapons Industries. The unit’s commander and Ukraine’s Interior Minister, Arsen Avakov, met with Israel’s Interior Minister Aryeh Deri last year to discuss “fruitful cooperation.”

Azov’s founder, Anriy Biletsky, now a Ukrainian parliament member, says his mission is “to restore the honor of the white race,” and lead “a crusade against the Semite-led untermenschen.”

The Blue Meanie Award goes to U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo for blocking medical supplies to North Korea. Drugs to fight malaria and tuberculosis have been held up, as have surgical equipment and soy milk for child care centers and orphanages.

According to the UN, sanctions “are not intended to have adverse humanitarian consequences for the civilian population” of North Korea. The U.S. position has come in for criticism by Sweden, France, Britain, Canada, and the International Red Cross.

The Little Bo Peep Award goes to the Pentagon for its recent audit indicating that some $21 trillion (yes, that is a “t”) is unaccounted for. Sharing this honor is the U.S. Air Force for losing a box of grenades, which apparently fell off a Humvee in North Dakota. The Air Forces says the weapons won’t go off without a special launcher. Right. What can possibly go wrong with grenades?

In Memory of Dr. Victor Sidel, a founding member of the Physicians for Social Responsibility and the Nobel Prize winning International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War. Sidel, along with Dr. Barry S. Levy, wrote several important books, including War and Public Health, and Social Justice and Public Health. In 1986 he was arrested, along with astronomer Carl Sagan, at the Mercury, Nevada nuclear test site. He once said, “The cost of one-half day of world arms spending could pay for the full immunization of all the children of the world against the common infectious diseases.”

Categories: News for progressives

“It’s Your Congress, People!” Make it Work for You!

Mon, 2019-01-07 15:37

Drawing By Nathaniel St. Clair

Congress is the Constitutionally delegated repository of the sovereign authority of the people (the Constitution which starts with “We the People,” not “We the Congress!”). Most of the changes, reforms, and improvements desired by a majority of people have to go through Congress. Incentives for change often start with Congressional elections or grass-roots organizing. But sooner or later, change has to go through the gates of our national legislature on Capitol Hill.

This point is so obvious that it is astonishing so many reformers fail to regularly hammer home that we must intensely focus on Congress.

Just 535 humans (Senators and Representatives) need your votes far more than they need fat cat campaign contributions.

Guess what the following twelve redirections or changes have in common with one another?

1. A living wage, much higher than the long-frozen federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour

2. Full Medicare for all or what is called a “single payer” system covering everybody, with free choice of doctor and hospital, is much cheaper and has better outcomes than the present complex, bureaucratic, price-gouging, claim denying, profits-first chaos in the U.S.

3. Moving swiftly to a renewable, solar-based, wind-powered, more efficient energy system, that diminishes climate disruption and toxic pollution.

4. Cleaner air, water, soil and food for a healthful environmental for today and for coming generations.

5. Clean elections reform and strong, enforceable laws against public corruption.

6. Criminal justice reform, especially regarding non-violent offenses and additional reforms of sentencing and prisons.

7. Stopping taxpayers from being required to pay for very costly corporate welfare, or what conservatives call “crony capitalism” in all its many forms.

8. Enforcing the criminal and civil laws against corporate rip-offs, thefts, hazardous products, and hearing the voices of workers, consumers and those from beleaguered communities (especially on the public’s airwaves unfairly controlled by the monetized gatekeepers called radio and television stations).

9. Protecting access to justice for wrongfully injured people to have their full day in court with trial by jury as demanded by the country’s founders and our Constitution.

10. Protection of the public lands – the national and state forests and the national parks and wilderness regions from corporate profit-driven encroachment and despoliation.

11. Re-evaluating the loss of lives from unconstitutional, boomeranging wars abroad that spread death and destruction abroad making more people our enemies. These wars have also taken trillions of taxpayer dollars from rebuilding our community infrastructure – schools, highways, bridges, public transit, libraries, health clinics, drinking water/sewage works, and environmental cleanups.

12. Make it easier for consumers, workers, and small taxpayers to band together for civic action and a powerful seat at the table with big businesses and their government toadies.

These twelve advances have the following in common:

1. They have majority public opinion support – in some cases huge support– which means many liberal and conservative voters agree, which can produce an unstoppable political movement.

2. Most of them cost nothing or little to implement, bringing more efficiencies and less damage to our society. Wisdom is less expensive than constant folly or deep greed!

3. They are understandable. People relate to the experiences, agonies, and dreams for a better life and livelihood for themselves and for their families.

4. They provide people with a sense of empowerment and accomplishment – traits necessary for a worthy democracy to work. Cynicism and withdrawal begin to be reversed in favor of engagement and new civic institutions needed by our posterity.

5. They all have to go through our Congress – a good majority of only 535 people whose names we know become much more responsive to citizen action, people-driven town meetings, civic agendas, and democratizing procedures inside Congress.

Start by inviting the old and new members of the House of Representatives and the Senate to your town-meetings. Five hundred citizens clearly signing a petition will get a Senator to attend; considerably fewer names a U.S. Representative.

When you have them face-to-face with no flak, you’ll see what “we the people” can accomplish. It has happened before in American history; it must happen again. (For more advice, see ratsreformcongress.org).

Categories: News for progressives

“If Bernie Runs?” Wrong Question

Fri, 2019-01-04 16:56

Drawing By Nathaniel St. Clair

Remembering Bernie Sanders at Prairie Lights

In late 2014 Bernie Sanders came out to Iowa City to speak before a large and enthusiastic crowd at that university town’s venerable independent Prairie Lights Bookstore.  It was part of his exploration before finally committing to running for the U.S. presidency as a Democrat   Iowa City was a key spot – a big campus town bastion of liberal Democrats whose support would be needed in the pivotal first-in-the nation Iowa Caucuses in January of 2016.

Sanders spoke well and angrily against economic inequality and its terrible social and political consequences. He made a compelling case for single-payer health insurance, progressive taxation, the restoration of union organizing and collective bargaining rights, and positive climate action.

It was a good progressive-populist talk with some nice identity politics thrown in for the university crowd. It made important points any leftist could applaud.

There were two things missing from Bernie’s presentation, however – a pair of deletions that made me wonder how serious he really was about fighting for the nation’s working-class majority and against the nation’s unelected dictatorship of capital.  The first omission did not surprise me: any criticism of the American war and empire (“defense”) machine as a barrier to the progressive policies he advocated for “the middle class.”

The second thing missing was any reference to any Democrats being every much part of the American plutocracy as the Republicans.  In his talk, Sanders skewered the evil racist, corporate, and climate science-denying Republicans again and again. He never mentioned corporate Democrats.  It was left to a leftist film professor to stand up and politely remind Sanders that the Democratic “leaders” were also tools and agents of the American oligarchy.

I found Bernie’s silence on Big Business Democrats curious. I recalled John “Two Americas” Edwards denouncing “corporate Democrats” across Iowa in the long lead-up to the 2008 Iowa Caucus. Edwards was no leftist. He’d been a full-blown Democrat who had run on the same presidential ticket with the corporatist neoliberal John “I am Not a Redistribution Democrat” Kerry in 2004.

The mainstream Edwards could say and denounce “corporate Democrats” – meaning, accurately enough, Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, Bill Richardson, and Chris Dodd – in 2007, but the avowed socialist and independent Bernie Sanders could not in 2014?   It seemed odd.

It wasn’t just that Sanders called himself (somewhat deceptively) a socialist and an independent. By late 2014, the nation was nearly six years into an Obama presidency that had richly validated Edwards’ 2007 description of Obama as a corporate Democrat.  Surely Sanders was aware that Obama and top Congressional Democrats had protected the nation’s top parasitic bankers and had expanded the massive federal taxpayer bailout of the very financial institutions that had recklessly collapsed the economy – all this without advancing any remotely comparable rescue for ordinary working-class people. The nation had been given what William Greider called “a blunt lesson about power, who has it and who doesn’t. In a March 2009 Washington Post editorial titled “Obama Asked Us to Speak, Is He Listening?” Greider wrote about how “Americans watched Washington rush to rescue the very financial interests that caused the catastrophe. They learned that government has plenty of money to spend when the right people want it. ‘Where’s my bailout,’ became the rueful punch line at lunch counters and construction sites nationwide.”

Sanders certainly knew that Obama’s presidency, loaded with Goldman Sachs and Citigroup veterans, had worked with Congressional corporate Democrats to pass a Republican-drafted health insurance plan that only the big insurance and drug companies could love. And that Obama and his fellow corporate Democrats did nothing to honor Obama’s campaign pledge to re-legalize union organizing by passing the Employee free Choice Act

Bernie must have known that, in the summer of 2011, Obama offered the Republicans bigger cuts in Social Security and Medicare than they asked for as part of his “Grand Bargain” put forward amidst the elite-manufactured debt-ceiling crisis.

Sanders undoubtedly understood that Obama and other Democrats across urban America had approved the deployment of federal and local police state to infiltrate and crush the populist, anti-One Percent Occupy Movement.

Sanders could not have been unaware that Obama followed his 2012 re-election by going to the Wall Street Journal CEO Council to brag about how he was “talking about lowering the corporate tax rate. My health care reform,” Obama added, “is based on the private marketplace.”

Sanders surely saw that Obama was dedicating his second term to trying to get Congress to pass the arch-authoritarian, super-secretive, and global-corporatist Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Despite knowing all this, all Sanders had to say about Obama in Iowa City in late 2014 was how inspiring it was that Iowans had Caucused and voted for a first Black president and that Obama supported gay marriage.

I left the talk with the impression that Sanders would enter the major party presidential candidate circus as an adjunct to the Democratic Party’s inevitable nominee Hillary Clinton – a useful player to help the pre-selected Goldman Sachs candidate create the illusion of having won the nomination through a democratic contest instead of a corporate coronation. I also had the sense that Sanders would do better than the Clinton-Obama Democrats expected thanks to the undeniable  resonance between his progressive-populist message and socioeconomic realities on the ground in a nation where – as Sanders tirelessly pointed out – the top One Percent (later amended to be the top tenth of the upper One Percent)  had more wealth than the bottom 90 percent.

Sanders did better than I expected, pushing the Clinton machine to the wall with essentially no support from Big Business – no small accomplishment in America’s money-drenched political system.  Still, even after the Clinton machine and the corporate-/Clinton-captive Democratic National Committee had treated him with elitist abuse and clearly rigged the primary races and the Democratic National Convention against him, Bernie dutifully campaigned for her (as he promised to do from the outset) right up until the terrible Trump victory day.

“If I Run”

Listen four years later to an email that message Sanders just sent out to Democrats and Independents across the land:

Subject: If I run

Date: Thu, 27 December 2018

Whenever I am asked about running for president in 2020, I answer that if I am the best candidate to beat Donald Trump, then I will probably run. That is the truth.

If that happens, the political, financial and media elite of this country will stop at nothing to defeat us…they will …try to divide us up with attacks — some old, some new — and our political opponents will spend obscene sums of money on ads to defeat us.

I just did not expect the attack ads to begin before I even made a decision. But they have…

Right now, a group of Wall Street Democrats known as the Third Way is running ads in early primary states — Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada — calling me out by name and saying our ideas, like Medicare for all, are a path to defeat in 2020.

They not only want to discourage or defeat a Sanders candidacy, they want to make sure that the progressive agenda is not advanced by anyone. They want us to go back to their failed corporate approach which has led to a massive level of income and wealth inequality, a bloated military budget and a failure to address the crises of climate change, a broken criminal justice system and inhumane immigration policies.

Our agenda terrifies the political and financial establishment of this country….But the truth is, their agenda should terrify all of us…Our ideas will lift people out of poverty, they will guarantee health care as a right for every man, woman and child, and they will make certain that every person in this country with the ability and the desire can get the education they need, regardless of the income of their family.

Ours is not a radical agenda. It’s the agenda the American people want.

Their agenda, paid for by wealthy campaign contributors, has led to record levels of inequality, a health care system that costs more per capita than any other developed nation while leaving millions uninsured and underinsured, and grotesque amounts of student debt that rob many of our young people of their futures.

Theirs is the agenda that made Donald Trump possible. Ours is the agenda that will defeat him.

…In 2016 we faced the kitchen sink. If we run again, you should expect no less. But the political revolution is stronger and larger than ever, and they will be no match for us if we’re in this fight together.

Bernie’s statements that the Wall Street (neoliberal) agenda “made Trump possible” is accurate. “Wall Street Democrats” have repeatedly demobilized and antagonized the majority working-class electorate and thereby opened the ugly barn door to the ever more dangerously reactionary and racist Republican Party.  It is thanks in large part to the dismal, dollar-drenched Democrats’ corporate neoliberalism that two noxious George Bushes and the terrible Trump have held the White House.

He’s Running

But there are eight basic problems with Bernie’s email in my “ultra-radical” opinion.

First, Bernie’s tentativeness about whether he’s running or not is disingenuous. His people have already been spotted in Iowa and New Hampshire.  There’s no “if I run” (as a Democrat) about it.

Progressive Populism or Anybody but Trump?

Second, Bernie needlessly steps back from arguing forcefully that he’s the winning candidate because he’s the progressive-populist. By saying (in his second sentence) that he’ll run only “if I am the best candidate to beat Donald Trump,” he leaves the door open for later “sheep-dogging” behind a depressing corporate-neoliberal Joe Biden or Beto O’Rourke (or Corey Booker or Kamala Harris or …fill in the blank) bid or a more hybrid progressive-lite Elizabeth Warren candidacy in 2020.  Which is it: Bernie’s the one who can win because he’s the progressive-populist in the ring or Anybody But Trump, possibly even Joe the “Anti-Populist” Biden or the de facto Republican Beto, to mention the top two among the growing list of neoliberal Democrats (plus Warren, whose precise ideological nature remains unclear to this writer) lining up for the Iowa circus to carry on the Wall Street agenda that (as Bernie rightly says) “made Donald Trump possible”?

Electoral Madness

Third, Bernie is too much about the crippling, insanely time-staggered election cycle, which advances a maddeningly shrunken definition of democracy as those brief moments every two or four years when some varying percentage of U.S.-Americans  walk into caucus rooms and voting booths to argue and make marks for narcissistic politicos who falsely claim to be represent “the people” in government.

The next U.S. presidential election will take place roughly 670 days from now. That’s pone hell of a long time from now. In the meantime, Sanders ought to call for the removal of the malignant, criminal, corrupt, and dangerous Trump from the presidency through impeachment or the 25th Amendment. The orange monstrosity should be evicted from the Oval Office as soon as possible. We really can’t wait until January 20, 2021.

At the same time, we need a new day- to-day politics of people’s resistance in the streets beneath and beyond the quadrennial candidate-centered-big money-major party-mass media electoral extravaganzas and marketing campaigns sold to us as “politics” – the only politics that matters. “The really critical thing,” the great American radical historian Howard Zinn noted after George W. Bush was first installed in the White House, “isn’t who’s sitting in the White House, but who is sitting in—in the streets, in the cafeterias, in the halls of government, in the factories.” As Zinn elaborated in an essay on and against the “Election Madness” he saw “engulfing the entire society including the left” in the year of Obama’s ascendancy, an “election frenzy seizes the country every four years because we have all been brought up to believe that voting is crucial in determining our destiny, that the most important act a citizen can engage in is to go to the polls. …” Zinn acknowledged that he probably would support one major-party candidate over another “for two minutes—the amount of time it takes to pull the lever down in the voting booth.” But “before and after those two minutes,” Zinn wrote:

[O]ur time, our energy, should be spent in educating, agitating, organizing our fellow citizens in the workplace, in the neighborhood, in the schools. Our objective should be to build, painstakingly, patiently but energetically, a movement that, when it reaches a certain critical mass, would shake whoever is in the White House, in Congress, into changing national policy on matters of war and social justice…Before [elections] … and after … we should be taking direct action against the obstacles to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. … Historically, government, whether in the hands of Republicans or Democrats, conservatives or liberals, has failed its responsibilities, until forced to by direct action: sit-ins and Freedom Rides for the rights of black people, strikes and boycotts for the rights of workers, mutinies and desertions of soldiers in order to stop a war. Voting is easy and marginally useful, but it is a poor substitute for democracy, which requires direct action by concerned citizens.

(This is why I was less than awestruck by the enormous outpouring of Americans who protested the inauguration of Donald Trump in January. Cable news talking heads marveled at the marches, calling them the “biggest social movement since the 1960s.” But what were those massive but polite, pink-hatted marches all about? While many of the chants and signs heard and seen at the historic marches indicated policy concerns, the clear and simple thing that had put millions in the streets was an election outcome. The new president hadn’t even made any policy yet. And what Trump has actually done as president has yet to generate protests remotely on the scale of the ones sparked by the Awful One’s entrance into the Oval Office. Most of the millions who hit the streets to voice outrage against the election of Trump would have stayed home if it had been the dismal arch-corporatist and “lying neoliberal warmonger” Hillary Clinton – a president who would have been differently but no less enthusiastically committed to eco-cidal corporate oligarchy and institutional racism than Donald Trump.)

The Gilet Jaunes aren’t waiting for 2022 French presidential election to call for radical policy and institutional change in their county. We could learn a thing or two from their bold activism – and from their call for direct democracy and fundamental transformation beyond elections.

Beyond protest and disruption there’s the pressing need to build alternative people’s institutions and a culture of popular resistance.  As Andrew Levine recently argued on CounterPunch, the electoral obsession diverts us from critical organizational work without which nothing much can be accomplished beneath and beyond periodic personnel shifts in the nominally ruling elective offices:

There are distressingly many bona fide U.S. citizens who do not acknowledge or even understand how much of a menace Trump is…It is understandable that, when he ran against Hillary Clinton in 2016, some voters thought Trump the lesser evil. They were wrong, but not crazy. Supporting Trump now, after so much about him has become clearer, is crazy. It defies understanding…Does it therefore follow that the main task now is to get to work electing a Democrat in 2020? I don’t think so. Defeating Trump or Pence or whichever other excuse of a human being Republicans nominate in 2020 is of paramount importance of course, but there are more urgent, politically consequential tasks calling for attention now…Laying foundations for building an authentically oppositional left political party is an example; so would be transforming the Democratic Party to such an extent that it is more than just a lesser evil…Focusing on electoral politics can be, and often is, a distraction in much the way that fantasy football is a distraction from real football. This is why becoming obsessed now with the 2020 primaries and caucuses is a snare best avoided – except perhaps by those who think the Democratic Party is salvageable and who believe that the thing for them to do is to work on salvaging it.

Bernie “if I run” (“I’m running”) Sanders has been consistently feeding that great electoral and candidate-centered distraction from what Noam Chomsky in 2004 called “serious political action. The main task,” Chomsky rightly noted, “is to create a genuinely responsive democratic culture, and that effort goes on before and after electoral extravaganzas, whatever their outcome.”

As Levine may know, a cadre of former Bernie staffers and activists organized in The Movement for a People’s Party is already doing work to “lay foundations for building an authentically oppositional left political party.” It’s happening, with significant buy-in from key labor leaders.  The work is led by young activists who have learned from experience in the belly of the Democratic Party beast that the Inauthentic Opposition Party (as Sheldon Wolin labeled the Democrats in early 2008) is beyond progressive transformation and salvaging.

It isn’t just an authentically progressive electoral institution – a party – that needs to be built and grown but a whole and many-sided popular-oppositional movement and culture functioning beneath and beyond the election cycle. Following in the footsteps of those Gilets Jaunes who are calling for a new constitution and government in France, this movement must demand a radical overhaul of the U.S. political system in such a way as to make U.S. elections worthy of passionate citizen engagement.

Bernie says “If I run.” We need to say when we revolt and need to start now.

Guns v. Butter

Fourth, it is gross understatement to call the US military budget merely “bloated.”  For two decades at least, Sanders’ political career has been plagued by his failure to embrace Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s at once spiritually and fiscally elementary observation that we cannot advance social democracy and justice while spending the lion’s share of our federal taxpayer dollars on a giant war machine.  Fully 56 percent of U.S. discretionary spending goes to the feeding of the giant and mass-murderous Pentagon System, itself a giant corporate welfare platform for high-tech “defense” (war) companies like Lockheed Martin and Raytheon.  This system accounts for nearly half the world’s military spending, floods the world with lethal weapons, and maintains more than 800 military bases across more than 100 nations. “Bloated” doesn’t even begin to describe the horrors of the U.S. military budget.

A fierce advocate of the criminal US-led NATO bombing of Serbia in 1999, Sanders himself has proven unable to resist the perceived political benefits of “military Keynesianism” in Vermont.  He continues to cite Scandinavian nations as his social democratic role models without noting that they possess tiny military budgets by comparison with the U.S.

Radical Times

Fifth, what’s wrong with having a “radical agenda”? These are radical times in which three absurdly rich people (Jeff Bezos, Warren Buffett and Bill Gates) have as much wealth between them as the poorest half of US-Americans.  The plutocrats’ profits system (capitalism, if you like) is tipping humanity into environmental catastrophe.  What’s really called for given the grave threats posed to livable ecology, peace, democracy, and hopes for a decent future is persistent mass and heroic, death-defying civil disobedience and creative radical organization to sweep away the power of the entire corporate, financial, political, and military establishment and to set up a government and society dedicated to popular sovereignty and the commons/common good. This was understood by Dr. King, who wrote in his last essay that “the real issue to be faced” beyond superficial matters was “the radical reconstruction of society itself.”  That was true in 1968, as the U.S.-led “Golden Age of capitalism” was tipping he world into environmental crisis.  It is no less true today, when the literally cancerous bourgeois regime is now visibly ruining the planet for human habitation.

Radical times calls for radical demands, movements, and measures.

(In his own sick way, Trump showed that many US voters are hungry for audacious and even in a way radical campaigning. He gained huge “authenticity” points for being blunt and strident about what needs – in his own twisted opinion – to be done.)

A Wall Street Party

Sixth, as the left historian and journalist Terry Thomas recently wrote me: “just what faction of the Democratic Party leadership would not be properly defined as ‘Wall Street Democrats?’ Bernie has some very good ideas to get things started, but unless he somehow figures out a way of purging the Dems of Wall Street types, then he’s just another guy who probably should be teaching in a university someplace.”

Nothing against academics, but that’s a good point.  Sanders is mistaken if he thinks the Third Way[1]creeps are the only Wall Street-captive politicos in the Democratic Party. The Democrats are a deeply and widely corporate-managed, even corporate-owned entity and have been for many decades, and arguably even from the onset of the corporate era in the early 20th century.

Where is this Bernie Sanders “political revolution” that is “stronger and larger than ever”? Inside the Democratic Party?  For the 2018 congressional midterms, the “CIA Democrats” fielded an unprecedented number of military and intelligence veterans as candidates.  Of 107 contenders originally fielded in the primary season with endorsements from Sanders’ “Our Revolution” organization, just 44 made it to the general election, most of them in bright-red (Republican) districts where they hardly stood a chance. Twelve won their general elections. Of those 12, five were incumbent officeholders and five more were longtime party politicians in line for higher office. Only two insurgent Sanders-supported candidates opposed by the party went on to unseat establishment Democrats in their primaries—Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Ayanna Pressley of Boston.

And just how “revolutionary” are these two new congresswomen? It was nice to see them join a Congressional protest on behalf of the urgently needed Green New Deal. It’s good to see Ocasio-Cortez fight back against vicious right-wing attacks from the likes of the recently defeated corporate-Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill (D-MO).  Despite their instant “radical” celebrity, however, Ocasio-Cortez and Pressley both endorsed the multimillionaire arch-neoliberal Nancy “We’re Capitalist and That’s Just the Way it Is” Pelosi as the House speaker. Neither Ocasio-Cortez nor Pressley spoke out when Pelosi marked the Democrats’ midterm victory on election night by promising to advance “a bipartisan marketplace of ideas” with the white-nationalist Republicans and their horrific, creeping-fascist president.

As the MPP’s Nick Brana noted right after the 2018 mid-term elections, the contests ought to have been “a serious wake-up call for progressives” who dream of gaining power by taking over the Democratic Party. By Brana’s account, “The blue wave [was] a corporate wave that…swept in the same kind of Democratic politicians that drove working people into Donald Trump’s arms after eight years of Obama. When Democrats busy themselves serving the wealthy again, the result will be an even sharper lurch to the authoritarian right.”

Meanwhile, corporate forces in the Democratic Party have solidified and enhanced the power of anti-democratic Convention superdelegates, many of them corporate lobbyists, while moving to eliminate party caucuses, seen as too friendly to progressive insurgents in the Sanders mode. They have also imposed a neo-McCarthyite “loyalty test” that empowers the DNC to advance-veto any presidential nominee deemed insufficiently faithful to the Democratic Party. All of these steps and more aim to further insulate the party from another dreaded populist insurgency.

Bernie Could Boast a Bit More

Seventh, I fail to see why Sanders isn’t more boastful about how close he came to un-seating the Goldman Sachs-Citigroup candidate Hillary Clinton as the Democratic nominee in 2016 …and how did that while relying completely on small working- and middle-class donations (a remarkable feat)…and how every match up-poll during the primary season showed him doing far better against Trump than Hillary in a general election contest.

Sanders could learn a bit from Trump here.  He should just say it: “If the corporate Democrats hadn’t rigged the primaries and convention against me, I would have been the Democratic nominee and I would have won and Donald Trump would not be our president!”   (He might also want to mimic Trump by threatening to go Independent in the presidential election).

Don’t hold your breath waiting for Sanders to say this. He’s too polite – and too scared, perhaps, of the corporate Democratic blowback.

The Russian Dog That Ate Their Homework

Eighth, Sanders ought to say something about how the corporate “progressive-neoliberal” Democrats – and that’s pretty much all the Democrats (not just the nauseating Third Way group) – have cultivated and exploited Russia-Gate as the “dog ate my homework” excuse for handing the White House to a dangerous monster. “Progressive neoliberalism”– the curious mixture of corporate-financial allegiance and bi-coastal bourgeois and metropolitan identity politics that lay at the heart of the Clinton-Obama-Pelosi Democratic Party’s “leadership” and world view) – should have been finally discredited and defeated by the moral and strategic fiasco that was Mrs. Clinton’s 2016 campaign.  Whatever the truth or falsity of charges that Putin’s government significantly intervened in the 2016 election (I have been alternately skeptical and agnostic on that matter), Russia-Gate has been the corporate Democrats’ great device both for casting a pall over the certainly pall-worthy (racist, nativist, sexist, eco-cidal, authoritarian/creeping-fascist, infantile, militarist, and pathologically mendacious) Trump presidency and for keeping Sanders’ progressive-populist “revolution” at bay.  It has played this role by providing an external explanation for the debacle of the “progressive neoliberal” Inauthentic Opposition. Hillary’s defeat was richly home-grown and largely self-imposed.  Insofar as Russia’s interference was relevant (if at all) to her loss, that too was largely of her own doing — predictable blowback from her provocative advance of Western military expansion in Eastern Europe.

Endnote

1. The “Third Way” group is pretending that there is something new about their label. “Third Way” is an old term used by neoliberals – think Tony Blair, the Clintons, and the Democratic Leadership Council to pretend that they aren’t just pushing good old finance-led global capitalism-imperialism.

 

Categories: News for progressives

Capitalism and Race Redux

Fri, 2019-01-04 16:05

Race is among the more tortured axes of American social relations. The nation was formed from slavery and genocide and no redistribution of political and economic power has been made to rectify the imbalance that resulted. And less formalized types of violence and exploitation have persisted into the present. The same is true of treatment of the indigenous population— as late as the 1970s indigenous women of childbearing age were still being forcibly sterilized.

This history creates a paradox. Three and one-half centuries after the Anglo-American incarnation of slavery was brought to American shores and one-hundred and fifty years after it was formally ended, racial injustice persists. The economic basis of the injustice was well understood during slavery. Subsequent framing in terms of race misstates the economic motives that have persisted into the present.

The strategy of placing slavery and genocide in a nebulous past ignores that genocide against the indigenous population was still underway when the Nazis began their political ascent in Germany. The relationship between ‘clearing the land’ through genocide in the Americas and the rise of American industrial and military hegemony hardly required an analytical leap. Neither did the contribution of ‘capital accumulation’ that resulted from slavery.

“Avoiding links to the Nazi genocides and German eugenics program may be the foremost contributor to this deliberate secrecy regarding American eugenics.”  – D. Forbes, University of Vermont

The backdrop of the political question is that the U.S. remains highly racially segregated. The broader social axis that encompasses this racial segregation is economic segregation. Within the liberal conception of race, racial segregation has an ugly logic. People who share an ‘identity’ live with those who share it. Economic segregation— rich with rich, bourgeois with bourgeois, working class with working class and poor with poor, suggests that economic factors drive most segregation.

Economic history, as a social history of economic relations, goes quite far in tying where people live to the economic reasons for their being there. The Great Migration of Southern blacks to the industrial North occurred with industrialization and ended with deindustrialization. Today, the heaviest concentrations of poor and working-class blacks remain where they landed in the Great Migration and in the Southern states where slavery was last to end.

A central problem for resolving the class versus race divide is that identity politics and class analysis proceed from incompatible conceptions of history. Economic history goes far in explaining racial segregation. Race as identity offers no insight into economic segregation more broadly considered. The fey concept of ‘choice’ applies to those with economic means. Otherwise, people tend to live where economic history has landed them.

Between 1890 and 1960 the U.S. forcibly sterilized 60,000 human beings under the theory that doing so improved the ‘race,’ used here as a term for species. The science that supported forced sterilization, eugenics, was founded in the U.S. and it formed the basis of the Nazi eugenics program. When Nazi atrocities became fully known after WWII, efforts were made to distance the American program without abandoning forced sterilization. Twenty-two U.S. states still have compulsory sterilization laws.

Of note is that the concept of race embedded in eugenics is transhistorical in the same sense as ‘identity.’ The human beings labeled ‘defective’ were considered to have transhistorical qualities that made them so. The paradox at work is that the process of ‘improving the race’ was historical, but the qualities upon which doing so was premised were transhistorical. This same paradox lies behind identity politics. Identity is transhistorical, even while the process that is said to have created it is historical.

This temporal sleight-of-hand likely explains why the American left has found identity politics increasingly plausible in recent years. Race, as the possession of individuals as identity, is transhistorical even as it is ‘externally’ generated by an historical process. As personal possession, the tactic of resolution is personal persuasion. As generated by an historical process, the tactic of resolution is to rework the generating process, a/k/a political economy.

This transhistorical concept of identity can only have developed historically from a pre-existing conception of race. (If not, where did it come from?) Otherwise, if race didn’t motivate racist institutions like slavery and genocide in the past, what did? The occasional answer, that slavery and genocide were motivated by economic interests, but at some point race took on a life of its own, leaves the generating mechanism (capitalism) unchallenged.

In the liberal formulation, ameliorating the social impact of racism is a battle, either literal or metaphorical, between racists and anti-racists. If this idea is traced back through history, its implausible structure is made apparent. Slaves weren’t enslaved based on identity, and neither was it the basis of genocide committed against the indigenous population. The concept of race didn’t exist until a half-century after the establishment of American slavery.

Following WWII, the U.S. theorists of capitalist democracy had two problems with selling the American project. The first and largest was that the Great Depression was widely understood to have been a crisis of capitalism so grave that it contributed to the rise of European fascism. The second was that much of the Nazi program had been borrowed from, and a response to, American economic ascension.

It isn’t just that Nazi race laws were based on Jim Crow; American slavery and genocide were used by Adolf Hitler as models for Nazi atrocities. Slavery was used by the Nazis to benefit German industrialists much as the ‘capital formation process’ of American slavery created the material basis of American capitalism.  As historian Adam Tooze argues, Nazi conquest and genocide were a grab for land and industrial ‘inputs’ much as the American genocide was.

Neoliberalism was conceived in 1948 as ‘pragmatic’ capitalism by a coterie of Western liberals including Milton Friedman, Friedrich Hayek, Ludwig von Mises and Karl Popper. The claim of pragmatism was used to reframe capitalism as non-ideological, as political economy conducive to an open society. ‘Markets’ gave it a scientific basis that ideologies lacked, went the theory. Popper’s philosophy of science has held sway over the American left ever since.

The strategy for obscuring the relation of American to Nazi atrocities was to pose irrational ideology as the cause of European fascism. Friedman and Popper proposed scientific inquiry as the solution to fascist irrationalism. That the Nazis had ‘better’ science under the terms they (Friedman and Popper) laid out didn’t matter. The conception of ‘rationality’ used came from capitalist economics. This is important, because genocide for economic gain is ‘rational’ within the frame.

Assertions that irrational ideas led to the rise of Nazism tie to the argument that ‘race’ explains American history. Friedman, Popper, et al had to explain American history in terms that fundamentally and irrevocably dissociated American from Nazi atrocities. American slavery and genocide were regrettable, but they formed the material basis of American capitalism. Conversely, went the argument, Nazi atrocities were irrational because they were motivated by racial hatred.

But this assignment of motives was at best only partially true. Adam Tooze provides plausible, if grotesque, economic motives for the holocaust. Adolf Hitler saw foreign conquest, slavery and genocide as the path to American style industrial and military hegemony. His motives were rational, if profoundly socially destructive, within the neoliberal conception of rationality. But why would motives determine the moral character of slavery and genocide?

This is where sanity and rationality part ways. The neoliberal conception ties rationality to economic calculation. This is also what ties neoliberalism to liberalism to identity politics. If racism and anti-racism both emerge from identity, then on which side is the broader social interest best served? Racism is irrational in the economistic sense that it undermines the efficiency of markets. It does so by placing racial preference ahead of economic gain.

Modern identity politics could be said to have been born in 1990 when George H.W. Bush nominated Clarence Thomas to replace Thurgood Marshall on the Supreme Court. Mr. Marshall had a distinguished career in civil rights litigation that he brought to the Supreme Court. In contrast, Clarence Thomas was a right-wing functionary who, as a Reagan administration appointee to the EEOC, had thrown out tens of thousands of employment discrimination lawsuits without review.

As a candidate for the U.S. Senate, Mr. Bush had opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. And he later used the racially coded ‘Willie Horton’ ad to accuse Michael Dukakis of being ‘soft on crime,’ a right-wing dog whistle. Given this political history, Mr. Bush’s apparent motive for nominating Clarence Thomas was to move the Supreme Court hard-right by putting forward a hard-right candidate that liberals wouldn’t oppose because he was black.

To the extent that he lacked known racial animus, Mr. Bush couldn’t be accurately labeled a racist. But likewise, his use of race to gain political leverage— an act, could hardly be called liberatory. The same is true of Bill Clinton’s 1994 ‘Crime Bill.’ The bill wasn’t overtly racist— no explicit racial motives were embedded in it. Its consequences were racially lopsided (racist) because of the distribution of political and economic power that it affected.

In some ways this is analogous to neoliberal distinctions made between American and Nazi atrocities based on motives. While a program to extract economic gains explains large parts of both ‘projects,’ (see Tooze above), replacing the Nazi motive with ‘irrationality’ went far toward drawing a distinction between them. That Americans imported Nazi scientists wholesale after the war to build weapons of mass destruction and to work in industry suggests that the narrow economistic definition of irrationality served a political purpose.

Identity politics is an argument for social reconciliation without a redistribution of power. In the neoliberal frame, redistribution would interfere with the good working of markets even more than racism does. The rational solution: create equality of opportunity. Anti-racist activists play an important role in assuring the good functioning of markets in this respect. If they could end racism entirely, capitalism would benefit.

It is this perceived convergence of interests that appears to have led the American left to embrace liberalism. However, it is the incompatibility of the competing views of history that points to the disconnect. On the one hand, capital accumulation was the motive and conspicuous product of American slavery and genocide. It has also been the rarely uttered subtext of American foreign policy and militarism for the last two centuries.

On the other hand, the distance between the distributional assumptions of liberal / neoliberal economics and oligarchic control of political economy is profound. ‘Whites’ weren’t the primary beneficiaries of slavery and genocide, oligarchs were. Racialization of the distribution of the spoils is to fundamentally misstate the motives and social mechanisms by which these came to be. Slavery was one of the earliest ‘rationalized’ forms of capitalist production, in this respect a model for the industry that followed.

In the present, fighting racists, rather than racism, implies that the redistribution of power has no bearing on the matter. Racism operates through power, not identity. And even this formulation misstates the structure of the problem: racism is a mechanism of social control, not its motive. As an institution, slavery required broad social power to be maintained. It ended when maintaining it became untenable. Following the Civil War, state and private power were used to recreate the economic mechanisms of economic expropriation outside of slavery.

This reading likely strikes post-modernists as wrong— identity is socially constructed goes the logic, and thereby avoids the pitfalls of being transhistorical. However, a taxonomy that denotes axes of identity— race, gender, etc., either operates outside of history or its meaning as given is indeterminate. This is how the economic motives that drove slavery and genocide in an ‘earlier period’ were dissociated from race as identity the present.

If race is perception— ‘identity,’ then what ties it to other people’s perceptions of race to render it singular? Identity politics and racism emerge from related conceptions of what race is. By rendering concrete (reifying) the concept, identitarians agree that it is what racists claim it to be. From the structure of the question, both views emerge from the modular scientific taxonomy shared with eugenics to claim it as intrinsic.

Politically, race as identity is a category of oppression without an identifiable oppressor. Lacking an analytical frame that ties oppression to power, racists and anti-racists are posed as equals. An analogy of mixed liking to anti-racists is equivalently equipped soldiers on a battlefield. They represent competing forces, but none amongst them launched the war, and shooting one another will have little impact on its ultimate resolution.

Once racism is separated from political economy, there is nowhere go with it. Citing race is to grant its fact without resolution. The distribution of political and economic power would bear no causal relation to the problem as it is formulated, therefore the redistribution of these would do nothing to resolve it. This is likely why the idea is so popular amongst liberal politicians. It is a posture without a path to resolution.

Without the analytical frame of class, capitalist modernity is inexplicable, a march of ideas that emerged from history, but with no ties back to it. This deference to an imagined ‘earlier period’ was used by Adam Smith and John Locke to ground economic relations in history without their being historical. In contrast, it was Marx who, in the latter third of Capital, Volume I, lays out his history of the Enclosure Movement to explain where the dispossessed classes he was writing about came from.

The fear of rolling a program of racial reconciliation into a broader political program has an historical basis in the structure of the New Deal that excluded blacks in several realms. As historian Touré Reed addresses here, the problem then was the separation of the idea of race from economic history in the construction of the programs. The goal of the New Deal was to save capitalism, not to redistribute political and economic power democratically.

In a personal sense, my friends and I rallied with the few members of the New York Black Panther Party who weren’t then in prison after Fred Hampton was murdered by the police (in Chicago). The Panthers, the Weather Underground and the broader forces of the anti-War (Vietnam) movement worked together toward a socialist revolution. The first Earth Day took place four months after Fred Hampton was murdered. My only regret is that we weren’t successful then.

Capitalism was / is an attack on everything meaningful, sacred and important. It can’t be overcome without a democratic redistribution of political and economic power. The neoliberal / liberal worldview is fundamentally antithetical to the socialist program. This doesn’t mean don’t form alliances. It means that a democratic redistribution of political and economic power is the path forward. Those in the weakest social position today have the most to gain from such a movement.

Categories: News for progressives

Yemen, Where No One Hears You Scream

Fri, 2019-01-04 16:03

Now we know what it takes to briefly flip the script on Saudi Arabia. A journalist has to be murdered in an embassy on the orders of the Crown Prince, his body dismembered with a bone saw and then the butchered remains dissolved in a vat of acid. But not just any journalist.  The Saudis have killed and imprisoned many journalists before. But Jamal Khashoggi was journalist working for the Washington Post, a paper owned by the world’s richest man. Usually, the Saudis just buy off their critics. But in Jeff Bezos they may have encountered a man too rich to be bought.

Still there was no anguished outcry, from the Washington Post or the New York Times, three months earlier, after a Saudi Arabian fighter jet launched an airstrike on a school bus in Yemeni village of  Dahyan. The bus had stopped in Dahyan for refreshments, after a picnic, and was heading back to the school when it was struck by a laser-guided MK 82 bomb manufactured by Lockheed and sold to the Saudis by the Pentagon. Fifty people were killed in the bombing, all of them civilians, 30 of them children, most of them 10 years old and younger. Another 48 people were wounded.

One of the school’s teachers, Yahya Hussein, was driving behind the bus in a car. She arrived in Dahyan a few minutes after airstrike and encountered a scene of unspeakable horror. “There was body parts and blood everywhere,” she told Al Jazeera.

The Saudis didn’t bother cleaning up the blood or hiding the severed limbs. Instead the Crown Prince declared the school-bus bombing a “legitimate military attack.” A few days later, the Saudis bombed a funeral for one of the victims, killing and maiming another dozen people. The Saudis said the victims were being used as human shields by the Houthi militias. “I’ll be talking about a lot of things with the Saudis,” Trump quipped to Axios recently. “But certainly I wouldn’t be having people that don’t know how to use the weapons shooting at buses with children.”

One might have hoped for at least a little introspection from the Pentagon in the wake of this gruesome child slaughter.

Instead we were treated to some appalling nonsense from the liberals’ favorite general, James Mattis, who said that the US’s role in the war was helping to prevent civilian casualties. “Therearen’t news reports when Saudi coalition pilots exercise restraint,” Mattis declared. Which begs the question: who is being killed when the Saudis show restraint with their American weapons and the press isn’t around to examine the body parts?

After all, the Dahyan bombing was far from first the massacre of civilians perpetrated by the Saudis using American-made “smart bombs.” In March 2016, 97 civilians were killed when the Saudis bombed the Kames Market in Mastaba. According to Human Rights Watch, 25 children died in that attack. Seven months later, the Saudis targeted another laser-guided missile at a funeral hall in Sanaa, killing 195 civilians. In between, those atrocities the Saudis bombed hospitals, schools, power plants and water treatment facilities, all in violation of international law.

In all, more US-backed Saudi airstrikes have killed more than 5,000 people, 60 percent of them civilians. This lethal lawlessness eventually proved too much even for the drone king himself. After the Sanaa bombing, Obama ordered a halt new weapons sales to the Saudis. Of course by this time, his administration had already sold the Saudis more than $115 billion in weapons, the most of any administration in the 70-year history of the US/Saudi relationship. The ban was swiftly lifted under Trump, who wasted little time in brokering his own $110 billion arms deal with the House of Saud.

The war in Yemen, started under Obama and accelerated under Trump, can legitimately be called a war on children. The famine sweeping the country largely as a result of the crushing embargo against the nation may be the worst on the planet in more than a century, according to the United Nations. More than 1.8 million children are the brink of starvation, with at least 130 dying each day.

Despite the rising death toll, Yemen remains a place few Americans have heard of or could place on map. Yet it is where Barack Obama ordered the assassination by drone of an American citizen, Anwar al-Awlaki, and two weeks later called up another hit that killed his 16-year-old son, Abdulrahman, also an American citizen. Neither were afforded any kind of due process by the peace prize president.

Yemen is also where Donald Trump committed his first war crime, authorizing a commando raid eight days after his inauguration on a village that killed 15 civilians, including, al-Awlaki’s 8-year-old daughter, Nora. Why is the US killing children in Yemen? Who authorized it? What is the goal? When will it end? No one is saying. Few in congress or the press even bother to ask.

It’s not a secret war, the way Afghanistan was under Jimmy Carter. It’s something worse: a war no one cares enough about to mention, assess or debate. Yemen is the place where no one hears you scream, even as you shout in horror at the sight of the dismembered bodies of the 10-year-olds who were once your students.

John Coltrane Dead and Some of You Have Yet to Hear Him Play

Booked Up

What I’m reading this week…

Fat Cat: the Steve Mnuchin Story by Rebecca Burns and David Dayen (Strong Arm Press)

Paradise Rot: a Novel by Jenny Hval (Verso)

The Savage Frontier: the Pyrenees in History and the Imagination by Matthew Carr (The New Press)

Sound Grammar

What I’m listening to this week…

Presence by Orrin Evans (Smoke Sessions)

The Groove Hunter by McLenty Hunter Jr. (Strikezone)

Science Fair by Allison Miller and Carmen Staaf (Sunnyside Records)

Freedom is the Whole Life of Everyone

Vasily Grossman: “I used to think freedom was freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of conscience. But freedom is the whole life of everyone. Here is what it amounts to: you have to have the right to sow what you wish to, to make shoes or coats, to bake into bread the flour ground from the grain you have sown, and to sell it or not sell it as you wish; for the lathe operator, the steelworker, and the artist it’s a matter of being able to live as you wish and work as you wish and not as they order you to. And in our country there is no freedom – not for those who write books nor for those who sow grain nor for those who make shoes.”

Categories: News for progressives

The Shutdown as Fascist Creep: Profiling Right-Wing Extremism in America

Fri, 2019-01-04 16:00

The government shutdown over Trump’s proposed southern border wall is a teachable moment, speaking to the danger of rising fascism in America. Contrary to prominent scholarly efforts, I do not believe it is useful to draw a dividing line between Trump’s politics on the one hand, and white supremacy and fascist ideology on the other. [1] Trump may not officially call for an exclusively white ethno-state in his speeches or proposals, but he has long straddled the line between hateful far-right ideology and fascism in his rhetoric and policies. Considering his flirtation with the white supremacist “alt-right” movement and his authoritarian politics more generally, it makes sense to speak of American politics under Trump as falling victim to “creeping” fascism. This classification is not new, as the concept of “fascist creep” is drawn from previous journalistic and historical works. [2]

Trump’s efforts to bully Congress into funding his wall draw on classic elements of totalitarianism and fascism. But in “mainstream” American political discourse, warnings that Trump’s politics speak to a nascent fascism and represent a threat to republican government tend to be marginalized, leaving the impression that these concerns are alarmist and paranoid. For example, in the New York Times– the nation’s “paper of record,” the terms “fascist” and “fascism” are infrequently applied to Trump. An analysis of the Nexis Uninews archive finds that the terms appeared alongside discussions of Trump (within 50 words of references to the president) in 67 articles included in all segments of the newspaper throughout 2018. By comparison, moderately less incendiary references to “authoritarian” politics or “authoritarianism” and Trump appeared in 194 articles – almost three times as often. But it’s not fashionable to depict Trump in fascistic terms, despite journalists and pundits recognizing his authoritarian tendencies.

Considering the ahistorical nature of American popular political culture, it’s worth establishing a working definition of fascism. Historian Kevin Passmore discusses various “features” of fascism, including “ultranationalism”; public reliance on a dictatorial single-party politics and on leaders who exhibit “charismatic leadership”; an embrace of racist and antisemitic prejudices; and support for paramilitarism and violence against government critics. [3] Passmore notes that fascism is “reactionary” in its opposition to leftist politics, liberal democracy, and socialism. [4]

Historian Robert Paxton lists various “mobilizing passions,” which serve as the foundation for fascism. These include: efforts to construct popular notions of “crisis,” in order to cultivate public support for concentrated political power; portrayals of specific groups as “victim[s]” in a larger national cultural and political “decline”; the elevation of “a purer community” to the top of national discourse and aspirations, which typically excludes racial, ethnic, and economically disadvantaged groups; embrace of specific “natural leaders” and “a national chief” as inherently “superior” in their political “instincts”; and the idealization of the “beauty of violence” – particularly via efforts to “dominate others without restraint.” [5]

Critical theorist and cultural critic Henry Giroux writes of the danger of “neoliberal fascism” within the American political context. In a recent essay, he describes its characteristics: the commitment to erasing history and critical lessons of the past; an assault on the rule of law; attacks on the media – which fit within the broader assault on truth, facts, and history; indulgence in the “rhetoric of white supremacy”; efforts to punish disadvantaged groups via xenophobic attacks on immigrants, disciplining the poor, and demonizing racial and religious minorities; and a “flirtation with violence” against one’s political critics and enemies. [6] As Giroux warns in American Nightmare, fascistic leaders seek to subvert enlightenment principles of truth and fact – “to derail the architectural foundations of reason in order construct a false reality and alternative political universe in which there are only competing fictions and the emotional appeal of shock theater.” [7] Contemporary fascism, Giroux writes, embraces the “malleability of truth” in pursuit of the agendas of those holding political and economic power. [8]

Based on the above definitions, the parallels between historical fascism and Trump’s politics are difficult to ignore, particularly on the controversy over the wall with Mexico. Trump has invoked crisis, xenophobia, and security, announcing that “we desperately need border security and a wall on the southern border” in order “to stop drugs, human trafficking, gang members, and criminals from coming into our country.” [9] In a fit of Orwellian propaganda, he demonizes Congressional Democrats by placing responsibility for the deaths of detained children [on his watch] solely at their feet:

“Any deaths of children or others at the border are strictly the fault of the Democrats and their pathetic immigration policies that allow people to make the long trek thinking they can enter our country illegally. They can’t. If we had a wall, they wouldn’t even try!” [10]

This demonization, coupled with Trump’s calls to “Make America Great Again,” suggest that his definition of “America” idealizes one party rule and the marginalization of competing political actors, celebration of reactionary nationalism, and hatred of non-white “others.” Additional components of fascism in Trump’s fixation with the wall include his efforts to punish unauthorized immigrants via his calls for a “wall” that utilizes an ominous “steel slats” spike design. [11] Here, Trump invokes a surreal level of cartoonish villainy – channeling images of Vlad the Impaler in his symbolic (and very real) assault on immigrants from Latin America and Mexico. In another sign of rising fascism, Trump displays contempt for the rule of law when he threatens to revoke birthright citizenship for the children of unauthorized immigrants in violation of the 14thAmendment, and via his threat to “close the southern border entirely if the obstructionist Democrats do not give us the money to finish the wall.” [12] The latter action would also violate federal law, preventing Americans and legal immigrants from entering or re-entering the country.

A point of distinction between historical fascist regimes and the Trump administration relates to rhetoric versus action – with the president’s fascistic politics being – in significant part – aspirational. [13] Trump is notorious for his flirtations with various dictators throughout the world, who he sees as strong men who are adored by their people. [14] Trump’s politics have long been authoritarian in flare. But it’s one thing to call for the criminalization of journalists – which Trump did when declaring the New York Times“treasonous” for printing a critical anonymous op-ed from a member of the administration – while also threatening to ignore federal immigration law, and quite another to follow through with this rhetoric in practice. [15] The danger of “creeping” fascism moving forward is that the Trump administration will intensify its assault on the rule of law and become even more militant in its attacks against critics and principles of limited government and democracy.

Even if one takes the establishment position that Trump is no fascist and that all his authoritarian rhetoric is hot-air, there is still the big-picture concern with the rise of fascism in American political culture. Creeping fascism is about much more than a single leader; it’s about the legacy that Trump leaves behind when he is no longer in power, and about decades of radicalization of the American right via right via media indoctrination and extremism. The rise of rightwing authoritarianism will not simply be wiped away if Trump is impeached or defeated in 2020. It will persist so long as reactionary media traffic in racial, ethnic, religious, and classist bigotry. And it will remain prominent in national politics when Republicans normalize the fascist tendencies of Trump by placing their own partisan concerns with winning political power and elections over valuing individual rights and the rule of law.

Neoliberal Fascism as a Template for Contemporary Extremism

Outside of Trump’s manufactured immigration crisis, there remains the larger threat that Giroux warns of: neoliberal fascism. It’s a sign of a degenerate intellectual culture that American popular discourse, in its radically truncated capacity, automatically links fascism to Nazism. There have been many different versions of fascistic politics throughout Western history outside of the most extreme example of Hitler, the Holocaust, and the Third Reich. In other words, fascism is hardly an exotic concept; it’s been building in America for decades via the rise of rightwing indoctrination and extremism. In the United States, rising fascism has become intertwined with neoliberal politics via overlapping assaults on the rule of law and against disadvantaged peoples, and in the enrichment of corporate interests and the American plutocracy. Ultimately, neoliberal fascism is about imposing a political-economic agenda that serves the rich, while strengthening a governing system working against the masses. This system seeks to discipline the poor, religious minorities, people of color, and anyone else who steps out of line by protesting the political-economic status quo. These groups – if effectively organized – pose a serious threat to the neoliberal order. But with Trump, creeping fascism is deemed the “solution” to suppressing this democratic threat to American plutocracy.

To better understand the threat of nascent fascism, I undertook an original analysis of national polls that surveyed Americans on extremist political positions. Recent empirical work has done much to expose rising right-wing extremism. Political scientists Marc Hetherington and Jonathan Weiler find that authoritarian values are more likely to be embraced by individuals on the American right. [16] Similarly, political scientist Matthew MacWilliams’ analysis in Politicofinds that authoritarian parenting values are statistically linked to increased support for Trump. [17] Drawing on Theodor Adorno’s work on fascism, sociologists David Norman Smith and Eric Hanley address the importance of two traits – aggressiveness and submissiveness – in driving American authoritarianism. [18] Smith and Hanley measure public opinion on two authoritarian assertions:

+ “Our country will be great if we honor the ways of our forefathers, do what authorities tell us to do, and get rid of the ‘rotten apples’ who are ruining everything.”

+ “What our country really needs is a strong and determined leader who will crush evil and take us back to our true path.”

They find that these authoritarian values are significantly linked to increased public support for Trump, in line with the president’s own authoritarian beliefs and politics. [19]

Smith’s and Hanley’s authoritarianism scale is useful in exposing the underlying undemocratic, repressive elements that drive support for Trump. I expand on their findings, by examining how aggressiveness against perceived enemies and submissiveness to strong leaders both impact whether Americans express approval of the Trump administration. But I also go beyond these two traits, incorporating various elements of fascistic ideology into my examination of the factors driving Trump support. In measuring Trump supporters’ attitudes toward neoliberal governance, I looked at the January 2016, July 2017, and December 2017 national Pew Research Center surveys. These polls included the following questions regarding poverty and racial and economic inequality:

+ “Should dealing with the problems of poor and needy people be a top priority, important but lower priority, not too important, or should it not be done?” (January 2016).

+ “How big a problem, if at all, is economic inequality in this country today?” (July 2017).

+ “In America, are conflicts between poor people and rich people” and “between whites and blacks” “very strong conflicts, strong conflicts, not very strong conflicts, or there are not conflicts?” (December 2017).

On the authoritarian-fascist front, Pew included survey questions that each captured some aspect of these ideologies in their February 2017 and March 2018 national surveys:

On the rule of law, freedom of the press, and individual rights:“How important is it to maintaining a strong democracy in the United States: that news organizations are free to criticize political leaders” (“very, somewhat, not too, or not at all important”) (February 2017).

On checks and balances and the rule of law:“Which comes closer to your view…Many of the country’s problems could be dealt with more effectively if U.S. presidents didn’t have to worry so much about Congress or the courts,” or “It would be too risky to give U.S. presidents more power to deal directly with many of the country’s problems.” (February 2017; March 2018).

On violence against “others”:“Some people think targeting and killing civilians can be justified in order to further a political, social, or religious cause. Other people believe that, no matter what the reason, this kind of violence can never be justified. Do you personally feel that this kind of violence can often be justified, sometimes be justified, rarely be justified, or never be justified?” (February 2017).

On the assault on immigrants: “All in all, would you favor or oppose building a wall along the entire border with Mexico?” (February 2017).

On extreme nationalism: “We’d like you to compare the United States to other developed nations in a few different areas. What about its political system?” (“best in the world”; “above average”; “average”; “below average”) (March 2018).

Each of the above traits speaks to one component of American fascism. When combining these measures to examine how they jointly relate to Trump support, I can better gauge how fascism as a multi-faceted ideology relates to the American right.

A simple analysis of the survey items above reveals that the concern with fascism in Trump’s America is warranted. Twenty-one percent of Trump supporters agreed in 2017 that the use of violence against civilians was acceptable in pursuit of political, social, and religious goals – in line with the longstanding embrace of such acts on the Christian reactionary right and among right-wing militia groups in America. Twenty-eight percent of Trump supporters in 2017, and 30 percent in 2018 agreed that the president should be freed from Constitutional checks and balances imposed by Congress and the courts in order to pursue his political agenda. Eighty-three percent of supporters agreed with the creation of the “wall” between the U.S. and Mexico. Another 32 percent felt that the U.S. political system is the best in the world. Finally, 19 percent of supporters agreed that freedom of the press is not too important or not at all important, contrary to longstanding First Amendment protections for journalists against media censorship. Other measures outside those considered here suggest that Trump supporters’ and Republicans’ authoritarianism is even more severe, with about half of Republicans agreeing that the 2020 election should be postponed in light of Trump’s claims of widespread voter fraud, that the news media are the “enemy of the people” and that news outlets should be “shut down” if they are perceived to be trafficking in “inaccurate” or fake news. [20] The focus on Republican authoritarianism is obviously relevant to Trumpian authoritarianism, considering the vast majority of Republicans approve of the president when asked in surveys. [21]

While about half of Republicans and Trump supporters endorse political authoritarianism in one form or another, the number of openly fascist supporters is not as high, but disturbing, nonetheless. Seventeen percent of Trump supporters in 2018 endorsed both extreme nationalism and contempt for checks and balances between the president and the other branches. Twenty-four percent supported the creation of Trump’s wall, while also holding contempt for Constitutional checks and balances (2018). Between those supporting violence, and those embracing both extreme nationalism and attacks on Constitutional checks and balances, these polls suggest that about one-in-four to one-in-five Trump supporters endorse fascist politics. Furthermore, many seem content in their contempt for the rule of law, with 15 percent of the president’s supporters (2017) recognizing that Trump doesn’t care about democracy but endorsing him all the same.

Authoritarian and fascistic political views are held by large numbers of Trump supporters. But how significant are these attitudes in driving Trump support? Using statistical “regression” analysis, I isolate the predictive power of each of the above attitudes in increasing Trump support, after accounting for (or “controlling” for) other demographic factors, by holding each constant at its average value. [22] These “control” factors include respondents’ political party affiliation, self-declared ideology, gender, age, education, race, and income. My results suggest that authoritarian and fascistic sentiments are significant predictors of support for Trump in all of the analyses undertaken. More specifically, I find that, after controlling for the demographic factors above, fascistic and authoritarian beliefs predict Trump support in the following ways:

+ Contempt for checks and balances between the branches of government was accompanied by a 26 percent increased likelihood of supporting Trump in 2018, and 33 percent increased likelihood in 2017. [23]

+ Embracing violence against perceived enemies was associated with an 11 percent increased likelihood of supporting Trump. [24]

+ Contempt for media freedom was associated with a 33 percent greater likelihood of being a Trump supporter. [25]

Respondents’ embrace of fascistic politics, as embodied by their support for numerous authoritarian positions, is even more strongly associated with Trump support, after controlling for other demographic factors. In other words, as fascistic values intensify, so too does support for Trump:

+ Those endorsing political violence, holding contempt for checks and balances, and rejecting media freedom were 45 percent more likely to approve of Trump (2017). [26]

+ Being Republican, endorsing extreme nationalism, and holding contempt for checks and balances was associated with being 51 percent more likely to support Trump (2018). [27]

+ Finally, those endorsing both the wall and holding contempt for checks and balances were 63 percent more likely to approve of Trump (2018). [28]

+ Trump support is also heavily defined by a neoliberal component. In the case of attitudes toward the poor and people of color, Trump supporters were notable in terms of their lack of concern. My analysis of survey data from 2016 through 2018 finds that Trump supporters indicated little interest in the problems of the poor or black Americans, and they were not strongly concerned with inequality in America.

I uncovered the following statistical findings via “regression” analysis, which remain after controlling for respondents’ political party, ideology, gender, age, education, race, and income. First, individuals who agreed in the 2016 primary season that the problems of the poor and needy should not be a serious priority or a priority at all were significantly more likely to support Trump. Those refusing to recognize the problems of the poor and needy were about 50 percent more likely to support Trump’s presidential candidacy. [29] Second, those recognizing that inequality is a big problem in America were not significantly more likely to indicate support for Trump in mid-2017. Only 24 percent of Trump supporters said rising inequality between “rich and poor” was a “very big problem,” compared to 64 percent of non-Trump supporters.

Finally, Trump support was significantly linked to an increased likelihood of agreeing that conflicts between rich and poor, and between blacks and whites, were not very strong. [30] In December of 2017, 58 percent of Trump supporters agreed that there was not strong conflict between rich and poor, while 48 percent agreed strong conflict was not evident between blacks and whites. In contrast, just 28 percent and 26 percent of non-Trump supporters respectively agreed that strong conflicts did not exist between rich and poor and blacks and whites.

There is little evidence here to suggest that Trump supporters are angry at the neoliberal political-economic status quo. If they were, they would be more likely to recognize the plight of those who have lost out on the rising prosperity associated with recent economic growth and record corporate profits in America. But this isn’t the case. Trump supporters lack interest in the problems of people of color, the poor, and in inequality more generally. This disinterest is compatible with a neoliberal “leave it to the market” approach to political governance. This disinterest overlaps with prevailing conservative-reactionary stereotypes that the poor are “undeserving” of aid due to their “laziness” and their (alleged) efforts to “game” and “abuse” social welfare benefits. Increasing social welfare benefits, as the neoliberal ethos tell us, is simply a waste of taxpayer resources, and an unnecessary confiscation of the tax dollars of “hardworking” Americans. There is little indication in any of these findings that the neoliberals who comprise much of Trump’s base are committed to government action aimed at aiding the poor or reducing poverty and inequality.

Lessons for American Politics and Society

None of my findings suggest that all Republicans or Trump supporters are fascists. Half of Republicans refuse to lend their support to authoritarian measures aimed at assaulting American elections or limiting press freedom. And most Trump supporters are not openly fascist in their politics. Still, that roughly one-fifth to one-quarter are openly fascist is a massive red flag in-and-of-itself. These individuals provide comfort to the president and his reactionary, creeping fascist political agenda. Their consumption and endorsement of reactionary media adds fuel to the fire for the increasingly public displays of fascist-sympathy observed in news outlets like Fox News, and among the army of right-wing talk radio pundits in America.

To get a better sense of the gravity of the threat I’ve addressed, it helps to look at the hard numbers of Americans who embrace authoritarian and fascistic politics. With approximately 250 million adults in the United States, with 25 percent self-identifying as Republican, and with half of those individuals supporting attacks on elections and the press, this means that approximately 30 million Americans endorse the Republican Party and Trump’s brand of authoritarian politics. [31] Approximately 40 percent of American adults approve of Trump in national surveys, and about one-fifth to one-fourth of Trump supporters embrace fascistic politics in some form, amounting to a staggering 20 to 25 million American fascists. [32] With these numbers, it should not be surprising that the United States is experiencing its own crisis of right-wing, paramilitary-based fascism, as seen in the rise of routine mass shootings and domestic terrorist attacks – two-thirds of which are perpetrated by well-armed members of the reactionary right. [33] These ominous statistics suggest that the discussion of “creeping fascism” may be somewhat misplaced, as we appear to be well into the era of full-blown, citizen-driven fascism.

Sadly, few intellectuals, scholars, journalists, or political officials have managed to connect the dots. Few officials have linked efforts to regulate guns to the larger issue of terrorism and fascism on the American right. And news reports often refer to these shooters as “lone” wolves. [34] This language itself plays into creeping fascism, as the “lone wolf” label is typically reserved for whites who engage in mass shootings, while Muslims engaged in such acts are widely referred to as terrorists. [35] We need to get past the extremely naïve and racist “lone” wolf narrative when discussing rightwing extremism. Recent research finds that “lone wolf” shooters are hardly alone, as they draw on reactionary online social media communities and other rightwing sources of information in the radicalization process. [36]

Fascism has become a permanent feature of American political culture. It’s not going anywhere, because it’s been incrementally nurtured and fed by the far right, and particularly by conspiracy-laden reactionary media, for decades. With the rise of Donald Trump to national power, American fascists now have one of their own in office and can look to him for inspiration moving forward. Even if Trump is defeated in 2020, his influence is unlikely to disappear from public discourse. Nor are the tens of millions of fascists who made his rise to political power possible going to simply go away.

If there is a silver lining associated with the fascist creep, it’s that Trump’s election has catalyzed mass opposition to his presidency. Gallup polling found that Trump’s disapproval rating in late 2018 ranged between 55 to 60 percent, and Pew polling revealed that between 56 to 59 percent of Americans agreed from 2017 to 2018 that Trump had little to no “respect” for “this country’s democratic institutions and traditions.” [37] This suspicion of Trump is hardly overwhelming, but it does speak to principled anti-authoritarianism on the part of the mass public. Furthermore, the sentiment that Trump is anti-democratic is a significant predictor of opposition to the president. After “controlling” for other factors including ideology, gender, age, education, race, and income, anger at Trump’s contempt for democracy was associated with an 86 percent increased likelihood of disapproving of the president in 2017, and a 92 percent increased likelihood of disapproval in 2018. [38] In other words, principled anti-authoritarianism was a much stronger predictor of opinions toward Trump than were authoritarian or fascist attitudes, which speaks to the galvanization of intense opposition to the president throughout his first term, and to the polarization of the mass public on the problem of creeping fascism.

Defeating American fascism will require a sustained and militant effort on the part of government to reign in the power of well-armed and deranged right-wing militants, who have no qualms about using violence to attain their political goals. It will also require a fundamental reorienting of American media and education systems to effectively spotlight and combat creeping and full-blown fascist threats, and to intellectually challenge the assumptions that drive neoliberal and authoritarian belief systems. The U.S. can continue down the road of rising fascism, which will most certainly end in travesty and the destruction of what little remains of democratic government, individual rights, and the rule of law. Or we can shift our priorities toward returning sanity to national discourse and politics, via a full-frontal assault on the forces of fascism. The longer we put off this choice, the more dangerous the threat from the reactionary right becomes.

Notes

[1] George Hawley, Making Sense of the Alt-Right(New York: Columbia University Press, 2017); George Hawley, The Alt-Right: What Everyone Needs to Know(New York: Oxford University Press, 2018).

[2] David Niewert, The Eliminationists: How Hate Talk Radicalized the American Right (New York: Routledge, 2009); David Niewert, Alt-America: The Rise of the Radical Right in the Age of Trump (London: Verso, 2017); Alexander Reid Ross, Against the Fascist Creep (Oakland, CA: AK Press, 2017).

[3] Kevin Passmore, Fascism: A Very Short Introduction(New York: Oxford University Press, 2014): 5.

[4] Passmore, Fascism, 2014: 16.

[5] Robert Paxton, The Anatomy of Fascism(New York: Vintage Books, 2004): 41.

[6] Henry A. Giroux, “Neoliberal Fascism and the Twilight of the Social,” Truthout, September 5, 2018, https://truthout.org/articles/neoliberal-fascism-and-the-twilight-of-the-social/

[7] Henry A. Giroux, American Nightmare: Facing the Challenge of Fascism(San Francisco, CA: City Lights, 2018): 74.

[8] Giroux, American Nightmare, 2018: 76.

[9] Jacob Pramuk, “Government Shutdown Likely to Extend into Next Year as Trump and Congress Fail to Break Border Wall Stalemate,” CNBC.com, December 27, 2018, https://www.cnbc.com/2018/12/27/trump-chides-democrats-over-border-wall-amid-government-shutdown.html

[10] Maggie Haberman, “Trump Blames Democrats over Deaths of Migrant Children in U.S. Custody,” New York Times, December 29, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/12/29/us/politics/trump-immigrant-children-deaths.html

[11] Donald J. Trump, “A Design of Our Steel Slat Barrier which is Totally Effective While at the Same Time Beautiful,” Twitter, December 21, 2018, https://twitter.com/realDonaldTrump/status/1076239448461987841

[12] Julie Hirschfeld Davis, “President Wants to Use Executive Order to End Birthright Citizenship,” New York Times, October 30, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/30/us/politics/trump-birthright-citizenship.html; Erin Durkin, “Trump Threatens to Shut Border ‘Entirely’ Unless Democrats Fund Wall,” Guardian, December 28, 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2018/dec/28/trump-mexico-border-wall-democrats-fund-shutdown

[13] William E. Connolly, Aspirational Fascism: The Struggle for Multifaceted Democracy under Trumpism (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2017).

[14] Krishnadev Calamur, “Nine Notorious Dictators, Nine Shout-Outs From Donald Trump,” The Atlantic, March 4, 2018, https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2018/03/trump-xi-jinping-dictators/554810/; Philip Rucker, “Trump Praises Kim’s Authoritarian Rule, Says ‘I Want My People to do the Same,’” Washington Post, June 15, 2018, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/trump-praises-kims-authoritarian-rule-says-i-want-my-people-to-do-the-same/2018/06/15/cea20aa2-70a5-11e8-bf86-a2351b5ece99_story.html?noredirect=on&utm_term=.fa58afbe947a; Conor Friedersdorf, “Trump’s ‘Great Chemistry’ with Murderous Strongmen,” The Atlantic, June 13, 2018, https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2018/06/trumps-great-chemistry-with-murderous-strongmen/562709/

[15] Billy Perrigo, “President Trump Calls New York Times ‘Virtually’ Treasonous for Publishing Anonymous Op-Ed,” Time, September 7, 2018, http://time.com/5389795/donald-trump-new-york-times-op-ed-virtually-treason/

[16] Marc Hetherington and Jonathan D. Weiler, Authoritarianism and Polarization in American Politics (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009).

[17] Matthew MacWilliams, “The One Weird Trait that Predicts Whether You’re a Trump Supporter,” Politico, January 17, 2016, https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2016/01/donald-trump-2016-authoritarian-213533

[18] Theodor Adorno, Else Frenkel-Brunswik, Daniel Levinson, and Nevitt Sanford, The Authoritarian Personality (New York: Harper & Bros., 1950).

[19] David Norman Smith and Eric Hanley, “The Anger Games: Who Voted for Donald Trump in the 2016 Election, and Why?” Critical Sociology, 44 no. 2 (2018): 195-212.

[20] Anthony DiMaggio, “Full-on Fascism: Trump Makes the Transition in his War on the Press,” Counterpunch, September 11, 2018, https://www.counterpunch.org/2018/09/11/full-on-fascism-trump-makes-the-transition-in-his-war-on-the-press/; Anthony DiMaggio, “Fascist Nation: The ‘Alt-Right’ Menace Persists, Despite Setbacks,” Counterpunch, August 21, 2018, https://www.counterpunch.org/2018/08/21/fascist-nation-the-alt-right-menace-persists-despite-setbacks-2/

[21] For example, in the March 2018Pewsurvey analyzed here, nearly 8 in ten Republican Party supporters indicate that they also approve of the job Trump is doing as president. Other polling data finds that about 90 percent of self-identified Republicans approve of President Trump. For example, see: Gallup, “Presidential Approval Ratings – Donald Trump,” Gallup, 2018, https://news.gallup.com/poll/203198/presidential-approval-ratings-donald-trump.aspx

[22] I utilize multiple regression analysis, specifically binary logistic regression, to analyze Pew survey data and predictors of support for and opposition to Donald Trump. I use the Clarify statistical program, and a first differences analysis to generate predicted values for each independent variable of interest, after holding the other independent variables constant at their means, and with movement of each individual variable from its minimum to maximum value.

[23] The relationship between contempt for checks and balances and Trump support is significant at the .1% level for 2017, and again at the .1% level for 2018.

[24] The relationship between support for violence and Trump support is significant at the 5 percent level.

[25] The relationship between contempt for media freedom and support for Trump is significant at the .1% level.

[26] The interactive relationship between support for violence, contempt for checks and balances, and contempt for media freedom and its relationship to Trump support is significant at the .1% level.

[27] The interactive relationship between support for extreme nationalism and contempt for checks and balances and its relationship to Trump support is significant at the .1% level.

[28] The interactive relationship between support for the wall and contempt for checks and balances, and its relationship to Trump support is significant at the .1% level.

[29]  The relationship between opinions about whether the problems of the poor and needy should be a priority and Trump support is significant at the .1% level.

[30]  The relationship between recognition that there is a serious conflict between rich and poor and Trump support is significant at the 1% level, while the relationship between recognition that there is serious conflict between blacks and whites and Trump support is significant at the 5 percent level.

[31] Mona Chalabi, “Who are the Three-Quarters of Adult Americans Who Didn’t Vote for Trump?” Guardian, January 18, 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/jan/18/american-non-voters-election-donald-trump; Gallup, “Party Affiliation,” Gallup.com, 2018, https://news.gallup.com/poll/15370/party-affiliation.aspx

[32] Gallup, “Trump Job Approval (Weekly),” Gallup.com, 2018, https://news.gallup.com/poll/203207/trump-job-approval-weekly.aspx 

[33] Janet Reitman, “U.S. Law Enforcement Failed to See the Threat of White Nationalism. Now They Don’t Know How to Stop it,” New York Times Magazine, November 3, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/03/magazine/FBI-charlottesville-white-nationalism-far-right.html; Bill Morlin, “Study Shows Two-Thirds of U.S. Terrorism Tied to Right-Wing Extremists,” Southern Poverty Law Center, September 12, 2018, https://www.splcenter.org/hatewatch/2018/09/12/study-shows-two-thirds-us-terrorism-tied-right-wing-extremists

[34] Jason R. Silva and Joel A. Capellan, “A Comparative Analysis of Media Coverage of Mass Public Shootings: Examining Rampage, Disgruntled Employee, School, and Lone-Wolf Terrorist Shootings in the United States,” Criminal Justice Policy Review, July 16, 2018, https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/0887403418786556

[35] Jonathan M. Metzl, “When the Shooter is White,” Washington Post, October 6, 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/made-by-history/wp/2017/10/06/when-the-shooter-is-white/?utm_term=.8aefbdaa9b37; Moustafa Bayoumi, “What’s a ‘Lone Wolf’? It’s the Special Name We Give White Terrorists,” Guardian, October 4, 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/oct/04/lone-wolf-white-terrorist-las-vegas

[36] Francie Diep, “A Look into the Evidence That ‘Lone Wolf’ Terrorists are a Pack,” Pacific Standard, October 29, 2018, https://psmag.com/news/a-look-into-the-evidence-that-lone-wolf-terrorists-are-a-pack

[37] This anti-authoritarian sentiment is expressed in the February 2017 and March 2018 national Pewsurveys examined in this essay.

[38] Anti-authoritarian sentiment was a significant predictor of opinions of Trump at the .1 percent level for both the February 2017 and March 2018 Pew surveys. I did not include political party as a statistical control in my regression analysis because of the very strong correlation between party identification and feelings that Trump does not respect democratic institutions and traditions, which stood at .6 (or 60 percent) in 2017 and at .65 (or 65 percent) in 2018.

Categories: News for progressives

Russia and the Liberals

Fri, 2019-01-04 16:00

Hillary Clinton and the people around her did not revive the Cold War on their own, but they did play a significant role.

As a general rule, HRC’s initiatives turn out badly. As First Lady, she set the cause of health care reform back a generation – or longer, inasmuch as the Affordable Care Act is no prize.  As Secretary of State, she helped spread misery, death, and destruction all over the planet. Her mark is especially evident in such places as Syria, Libya, and Honduras.

A non-negligible amount of blame for the ensuing refugee crises is on her too, notwithstanding the fact that she never quite made it to the spot, occupied at the time by Barack Obama, where the buck finally stops.

There is however an exception to the rule: as a promoter of a new (or revived?) Cold War with Russia, she has done a fantastic job — mobilizing support in elite political and media circles and among liberals generally.

This is good news for everyone whose livelihood depends on war and preparations for war.  To keep their game going, they need worthy and credible adversaries.  Russia is good for that.

With its huge population and economy, China would be even better.  But that would be bad for business.  Moreover, the groundwork is already laid for Russia, while, for most Americans, China is a blank slate.

Cold War mongers seldom bother to argue for their cause.  Why go to the trouble when everybody “knows” that those damn Ruskies are out to subvert America’s (ridiculously non-democratic) “democracy,” the pinnacle of God’s creation.

Cold War anti-Communism had been a tenet of the American civil religion for decades.  After Communism imploded, this was no longer possible.

That venerable article of faith didn’t disappear, however; it went dormant.  American elites could live with that as long as Russia, reeling from its abrupt regression to the particularly vicious form of capitalism that domestic kleptocrats and triumphalist Americans and other Westerners imposed upon it, remained a basket case.

But circumstances change, and therefore so do the needs of ruling classes.  As the neoliberal order matured, it became increasingly obvious that what they needed is what they had had when the original Cold War was on. They therefore did their level best to bring it, or something like it, back — along with the old time (civil) religion that made it possible.

In that endeavor, Hillary helped – inadvertently.  Explaining how she could have lost to the likes of Donald Trump was a challenge. But in the collective consciousness under construction, Vladimir Putin – the very name strikes terror! – was, figuratively speaking, a master criminal with superpowers.   Pinning Clinton’s defeat and Trump’s victory on him was easy peasy.

Though never the principal issue, except in theory and in the propaganda operations of both sides, Communism did play an important role in the rise of the Cold War ethos.  It turned what would otherwise have been a two-party power contest, fought out on a global scale, into a world historical conflict between rival economic systems.  This gave, or appeared to give, the Cold War a transcendent importance.

But now that “godless atheistic” Communism is gone and the mighty Soviet Union is no more, what is a Cold War monger to do?   It turns out that this is less of a problem than people imagined at the time.

It is enough, it seems, that Russia is still around.  Even without the other Soviet republics and notwithstanding the fact that the Russian economy is as capitalist as our own, deeply entrenched notions of “commies” everywhere, subverting everything in their way, and of Soviet agents hell bent on destroying the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave linger, waiting only to be revived.

And so, Russia became a serviceable adversary on its own.  For defeated Clintonites in search of scapegoats, it has proven more than good enough.

Thus the old Marxist saw about the first time being tragedy and the second farce is proving true yet again. A new, Cold War orthodoxy is on the rise, asserting itself everywhere – no less dangerously or unnecessarily, but a good deal more ludicrously, than before.

***

Had Hillary and her handlers been less inept at campaigning or less contemptuous of rural white folk or less indifferent to working class interests and concerns, or had they even just aligned themselves less disingenuously with the unions whose money and manpower they, being Democrats, treated as rightfully theirs, then, in all likelihood, there would be a Clinton administration in Washington today. Awful as that would be, it would be a lot better than what is now there instead.

But it would also be worse, or no better, in respects dear to the hearts of the stewards of the institutions, understandings, and practices that the United States and its allies concocted in the post-World War II period to assure as much American world domination as circumstances would allow.

Liberal media have taken to calling defenders of that world order “the adults in the room.”  Because he could care less about governance or indeed anything other than his own vainglory and his and his family’s bottom lines, our Commander-in-Chief was eager to welcome a few of those adults on board, and even to let them have their way from time to time.

He was especially fond of putting top-level military men in responsible positions, so long as they would not challenge his judgment or abilities in ways he would notice, and on condition that they acknowledge his authority and remain under his thumb.

Those days seem to be over now, gone the way of Mad Dog Mattis.  Mattis has become the latest in an increasingly long line of old regime malefactors that liberals have taken to glorifying.  The consensus view in their circles is that his dismissal is cause for extreme concern.

No doubt, it is — inasmuch as his departure, along with the loss of other adults already departed, leaves Trump, a septuagenarian with the mind of an unstable male adolescent, his airhead daughter and son-in-law, his two adult sons – Don Junior and Eric, the Uday and Qusay of Trumpland — and a few manifestly incompetent sycophants in charge of the executive branch and of a military capable of destroying the world and much of what lives upon it many times over.

We don’t yet know how much, if any, damage control the new Congress will be able and willing to do. Neither do we know whether Republican Senators, enough to make a difference, will somehow find the backbone to stand up against the sleazeball who hijacked their party.

It used to be that invertebrates massed under the Democratic tent.  Many still do, but nowadays spinelessness is more of a Republican than a Democratic problem.

That is unlikely to change any time soon, though it now seems a lot less unlikely than it did just a few weeks ago, before the legal and political pressures Trump is under took a few quantum leaps forward, and before the Commander-in-Chief started going so obviously bonkers that pretending not to notice was no longer an option.

Extreme concern therefore seems about right.

However, this does not alter the fact that a Hillary victory in 2016 would have been perilously dangerous too – worse, in some respects, even than the Trump victory that has befallen us.

This is because, contrary to what liberals take for gospel truth, on matters of war and peace and imperial overreach, and on the discontents of all but a handful of rentier capitalists and venal connivers clustered around the very top of the economic pyramid, Trump sometimes was, and still is, more right, or less wrong, than she and the other adults in the room.

Starting and winning trade wars, closing down, or scaling back, NATO and other U.S. dominated multilateral organizations, and ending the never-ending “war on terror” that the United States has been waging against the historically Muslim world since even before 9/11, will not enhance the American footprint upon the world.

Perhaps Trump thinks he has to do all that and more in order to “Make America Great Again.”  If so, he is dead wrong.  But his views on trade and war and peace are on a sounder track than anything the gaggle of liberal imperialists and later-day neocons Clinton would have empowered would now be putting into practice.  And they would probably be moving against Russia more aggressively than Trump now is as well.

It is unclear, at this point, why Trump is more restrained.  I would venture that nefarious motives, tied in to Trump’s business dealings, have a lot more to do with it than irenic instincts or, for that matter, plain common sense.  But, at this point, all we can do is speculate and conjecture.

What motivates the thinking of the people who defend the positions on trade and war and peace that Trump opposes is very clear, however.  Their aim is to reinforce American hegemony over the entire planet.

Trump disgraces a lot more than the office he holds; he disgraces humanity itself.  But when he is right, he is right, no matter how flawed or shallow his reasons.

He is even right that it is better to get out of Syria sooner than later, provided, of course, that the exit is executed in a thoughtful, not reckless, way; and provided that the more progressive forces in the region are not left in the lurch.   Unfortunately, Trump’s Syria pullout seems on track to doing precisely that: leaving the Kurds in the lurch.

But on the question of whether the U.S. should be there at all, he is a hell of a lot more right than the guardians of the status quo, the foreign policy establishment, that liberal media commentators love so much.

The problem with Trump, compared to them, is not that his instincts are bad and theirs are good; just the opposite is the case.  It is that Trump is constitutionally incapable of getting anything done the right way.   He doesn’t have it in him.  Therefore, all his desperate, inconsistent, and fundamentally incoherent tweets are likely to do is make things worse.

There is no way to know whether they would be worse still had Hillary not turned a sure and easy victory into an ignominious defeat.  The consensus view in liberal media circles is that of course it would be worse – because Trump is worse than Hillary and Republicans are worse than Democrats. Indeed, this is generally the case. But it is far from certain that it is true in this case; and, even if it is, it is not obviously true, whatever Rachel Maddow and others of her ilk may think (and endlessly repeat).

***

A Rip Van Winkle who had slept through the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush years, and who was slow to awaken the first year or two of the Obama administration, would not find the current fixation on Russia odd.

What is going on now in liberal circles was a national pastime in the world he would have known before he fell asleep.  Upon awakening, he would have needed to be caught up, however.  While he was sleeping, anti-Communism bore its way back into the American psyche to a degree that had not been seen since the 1950s, at the height of the Cold War.

Also, the Soviet Union, America’s once and future eternal enemy, was no more – its constituent republics mostly spun off, leaving the Russian Federation, a union of more or less autonomous, Russian speaking, culturally Russian republics in its place.

This would not have confounded a later-day Rip Van Winkle all that much.  Russia was the Soviet Union’s largest constituent republic and, by far, its dominant cultural, political, and economic force.  To the public, “Soviet Union” and “Russia” were, for all practical purposes, synonymous.

Therefore, throughout most of living memory, vilifying Russians, or Soviets, was as American as glorifying sleazy real estate tycoons.  It was different during World War II and, again in the nineties and early two thousands, but those were exceptional times; and, even then, genuine amity, when it existed at all, was the exception to the rule.

Lived experience is typically ahistorical, however, especially in what Gore Vidal liked to call the United States of Amnesia; and so, for anyone who imbibed the spirit of the still very recent past, when the last exception was on full throttle, the relentless vilification of Russia now underway should seem strange to the point of preposterous.

To the extent it does not for Americans now, our ruling elites have their media’s highly efficient propaganda system to thank.

After all, Russia had become one of “us” – in more or less the way that the EU is.  Along with other rising capitalist nations, it was one of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa).  To informed observers at the time (ten years ago), BRICS nations did pose a potential challenge to American world domination, but not one that was about to fall due.  Along with global warming and climate change, worrying about them could be put off until the distant future.

Ten years on, that sense of things has vanished down the memory hole, in much the way that the period of World War II Soviet-American friendship did, almost immediately after World War II ended.

Meanwhile, the neocons of the Bush-Cheney era had become Obama’s and Clinton’s neo-cons.  Notwithstanding solemn promises made to Gorbachev by Ronald Reagan and Bush the Father, they had made it their mission to move “democracy” – and, wherever possible, NATO – right up to Russia’s borders.

Needless to say, by “democracy,” they didn’t mean democracy.  They meant political regimes friendly to American world domination and integrated into the American dominated global capitalist system.

Having cut their teeth on the so-called “color revolutions” — the Rose Revolution in Georgia, the Orange Revolution in Ukraine and the Tulip Revolution in Kyrgyzstan – they were itching to move on to new frontiers. By the time, Obama came along, the itch had become impossible to resist.

The times were right. The military-industrial complex, the motor of the U.S. economy since the end of the Great Depression, was, as always, in need of a reason for being.  With the Soviet Union gone and “Red China” off on the capitalist road, plausible rationales for maintaining a (quasi-) war economy were becoming hard to find.

The Bush-Cheney “global war on terror” was serviceable for a while, but, after going on seemingly forever and getting nowhere, it wasn’t cutting it anymore.  The reasons, real and imaginary, that brought it into being in the first place hadn’t changed fundamentally.  However, they had become almost useless for justifying such a fundamentally irrational economic regime as the one we live under.

In earlier periods, capitalism was good for developing productive capacities; it performed its mission well, though at great human and environmental cost.  But now that productive capacities have developed to the extent that they have under capitalism’s aegis, the United States and other developed countries no longer need to put their peoples or their environments through that kind of travail.

Yet for a variety of reasons, capitalism survives, as deeply entrenched as ever.  And so, we have a system that, notwithstanding the confusions of its libertarian defenders, is kept afloat by massive public expenditures and various fiscal and monetary interventions.

To that end, war, and preparations for war have become indispensable means.

Thus while the underlying causes are economic, it is politics that has made ours a war economy.

Economic, political, and military elites, aided and abetted by stables of media flacks, create fear; public opinion then sides with those whom they regard as their protectors, the masters of war. And voilà– the military-industrial complex is in business, calling the shots.

The need for something, anything, to keep the public on board became increasingly urgent as capitalism evolved in ways that began to deviate profoundly from the post-war ethos of shared prosperity across class lines.

World War II spending ended the Great Depression.  Then, thanks to circumstances pertaining in the ensuing historical period, post-war state spending was able to go on working its magic for three decades longer. In time, though, even the hardiest “solutions” run their course.  By the late seventies, everything had to change in order that all could remain the same.

The riches that come with expanding productive capacities do not spread across class lines in the austere, neoliberal order that emerged as the post-war period ended.  Neoliberalism shamelessly enriches the few at the very top, leaving the material condition of the vast majority to stagnate or decline. Also, by “starving the beast,” as Ronald Reagan put it, it causes public services and other institutional arrangements that benefit the many as much or more than the few to deteriorate.

To a large extent this transformation was technologically driven; through robotics and by other means, economic development itself, beyond a certain level, renders many forms of human labor obsolete.  This causes manufacturing jobs to disappear and wages to decline.

In a socialist order, this would be all to the good.  For the first time in human history, most people could be relieved of the burdens of toil, becoming free to engage, or not, in whatever activities they might want to pursue.  Meaningful work could finally become available to the vast majority.

Instead, nowadays, people find themselves busier and more burdened by work than ever, bereft of free time and cut off from meaningful productive activity, while communities are enmeshed in debilitating fiscal crises that leave people increasingly on their own in their dealings with life’s vicissitudes.

Public life is correspondingly impoverished, as we become increasingly unable to build new, cutting edge transportation and communication systems or even to maintain the infrastructure we already have.

“Make America Great Again” is code for making it white, or rather whiter, again.  But taking Trump’s foul words literally, the idea does have a certain appeal.  America was once a place where great things could be accomplished, where a flourishing public sphere served the people.  Those days are gone.  Like progressive taxation, the America that could still, for example, build the interstate highway system has disappeared along with Ike and Mamie.

The best way forward would of course be to work towards establishing a more rational, post-capitalist – ideally, democratic and socialist — economic order.   But this is not going to happen, at least not in the foreseeable future, in part because neoliberal capitalism has too severely damaged the conditions for its possibility, a vigorous labor movement, first among them.

And so, corporate liberals continue to lead the way.  In the circumstances they confront, in order to keep things going as they are, their safest option is to try, as best they can, to restore the fear-driven mobilizations of the original Cold War period, relying on longstanding, deeply entrenched fears to keep people enough in line to render the old regime safe from fundamental transformations.

To that end, our economic and political elites have come back around to the view that the thing to do is to villainize Russia.  They tried working the anti-Muslim angle for many years, but found eventually that they couldn’t quite get all they needed out of it.  What they needed was a more natural enemy, an enemy we Americans would know to be villainous in just the way we would if that “knowledge” were somehow inscribed in our genes.

There is, of course, nothing natural about American Russophobia, though there might as well be thanks to what amounts to a century long experiment in genetic engineering – not the kind biologists have lately figured out how to do, but by something more nefarious: relentless propaganda assaults by media flacks intent on maintaining the political and economic power of the capitalists they serve.

American Russophobia is an exception to the rule that, in our era, international animosities are underwritten by nationalist ideologies or by religion.  In this instance, class struggle is the principal cause.

Nothing matches religious fervor as a source of civil strife, but in a secular age, the genuine article is hard to find, even in communities in which the outer forms of traditional religious practices are strictly preserved.

Western animosity towards Islam is a case in point.  The Christian West has been at war with Islam since even before the first Crusade.  But this historical memory has not had much political resonance in Western countries since the dawn of the modern era, nearly half a millennium ago.

Since the late eighteenth century, when Western capitalism, having taken an imperialist turn, reduced Muslim peoples to a subaltern status, and as Western leaders and Western thinkers justified their depredations with orientalist and racist ideologies, Muslims, Arabs especially, went from being thought of as rivals, worthy of respect, to being “natives” fit only for domination and control.

For the most part, the “natives,” having been effectively disarmed, acquiesced.  Also, some of them emigrated to Christendom, in both the old world and the new, seeking nothing more than to be left alone.

Thus, in the United States, until quite recently, Muslims were a not insignificant but nevertheless invisible minority.

Busy making a life for themselves and their families, they were not much interested in “celebrating” their differences, except in the private ways that other immigrant groups did.

The future jihadists that everyone nowadays fears were very nearly as unassuming.  It took liberal, anti-Soviet “adult in the room” schemers, like Jimmy Carter’s National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski. to arouse the demons of nationalism and religious zealotry from their irenic slumber.

Even after they became bona fide terrorists, and despite the unrelenting efforts of the most skillful molders of public opinion that the American propaganda system has produced, seeing them as worthy adversaries is difficult.

Liberals seem to have understood that.  They understood the need for an enemy that could be depicted as a super-demon, led by an evil genius like the Putin of their imaginings, cunning enough to go after the American juggernaut on its own terms.

Islamist terrorists could never do that.  They are only good for capturing poorly defended territories in remote desert areas, and spreading terror in civilian populations by launching unprovoked attacks on soft targets.

Try, some seventeen years after 9/11, to keep Americans on board with the neoliberal version of an economic stimulus with nothing more to work with than that!  No wonder our rulers need the Russians back.

***

Therefore, if Putin’s Russia didn’t exist, our ruling elites would have had to invent it, which is pretty much what they did – not from nothing, but from the remnants of a century’s worth of Russophobic Cold War mongering.

Who would have believed it? Even as recently as Election Day 2016 and then in the immediate aftermath of Trump’s Electoral College victory, with the candidate hankering to get the Cold War back up and running having suffered an embarrassing and unexpected defeat, Russia was just not on peoples’ minds.

Remarkably, though, the Cold War that everyone thought had ended decades ago bounced back with a vengeance.

One has to hand it to its promoters on Team Clinton, their co-thinkers in the larger Democratic Party and, by now, in the entire political class — not exactly for getting their way, history had over prepared Americans for that, but for getting their way despite the stupefying levels of hypocrisy involved.

The United States and other Western countries began “meddling” with Russia almost from the moment the Bolsheviks assumed power.  “Meddling” was the least of it; in the ensuing Civil War, the American army, along with its European counterparts, fought on the side of the counter-revolutionary forces.

In Communism’s heyday, there were limits to what the CIA and other Western intelligence services could do in the Soviet Union, even in republics far removed from the centers of Soviet power.  But ever since Communism imploded and the Soviet Union fell apart, the United States has been working overtime, not without success, to exercise all the influence it can.

Nowhere have American meddlers been more active than in Ukraine – the very place where, according to the dominant Western narrative, the evil Putin has been at his most mischievous and most diligent.

In fact, Russian today, like the Soviet Union decades ago, is playing a mainly defensive game in the face of Western hostility.  In the face of the West’s unrelenting efforts at regime change (or modification), it has little choice.

This exacerbates the hypocrisy that all but defines the American stance.  Trump isn’t the only one who faults his opponents for doing what he ought to be faulted for more. The liberals’ “adults in the room” are as bad or worse.

And it isn’t just Russia and former Soviet republics that bear the brunt.  One would be hard pressed to find an election anywhere in the world or at any time since the end of the Second World War that might have turned out in ways that the U.S. would oppose, where America has not thrown its substantial weight around, even to the point of initiating or malignly supporting rightwing coups d’états.

Then there is the utter fatuousness of what Russia is supposed to have done.  Intelligence services exist to lie, but even if everything the CIA and the others claim about Russian meddling in the 2016 election actually happened, Russia did nothing to America that Americans didn’t do, a lot more effectively, to themselves.

Attack American values? Suppress the African American vote? Who needs the Russians for that when there are Koch Brothers, and fat cat Republican donors around, not to mention Republican Governors and Secretaries of State.  And, of course, the war on “truth, justice, and the American way” is not confined to the more odious duopoly party.  Democrats are part of the problem too.

So far, it is fatally unclear what benefit Russia has gotten from Trump’s victory.  Would Clinton really have been worse for them?  Or, even if not, is that what they thought?

She would surely have brought the neocons and liberal imperialists that she and Barack Obama empowered back into the government, and her administration would have been comprised of persons a good deal more hostile to Russia and more eager to derogate Vladimir Putin than Trump’s flunkies have been.  Also, she herself she would have been more hostile towards the Russian government and its president than Trump has been.

The propagandists and (retired) military and diplomatic “experts” who establish the going narratives in print media and on America’s liberal cable networks would today be boosting, not knocking, administration officials for their attitudes towards Russia.

But would the chances for peace be worse than they now are?  And would Russia now be worse off had Clinton won than it now is with Trump in the White House?

There are no easy answers to these questions.  It is clear, though, that if the Russians thought it would be good for them to have Trump where he now is, they were very, very wrong.

Wouldn’t a true evil genius, much less a sophisticated intelligence service such as Russia is supposed to possess, have figured that out from the beginning, without having had to bother meddling or colluding or whatever else the Russians are supposed to have done?  After all, Trump’s myriad character flaws and well-demonstrated unreliability weren’t exactly secrets.

If they really did spend time, effort and money doing their part to get the Donald elected, then they are incompetent or unlucky or both.  Even Sheldon Adelson was less of a dunce.  He got his money’s worth, after all: the American embassy is now in Jerusalem.

Liberals should ponder that before their problem with Russia becomes, as it has been from time to time in the past, even more of a problem than it currently is.

Categories: News for progressives

Why Are Leftists Cheering the Potential Demise of Rojava’s Socialist Experiment?

Fri, 2019-01-04 15:59

Lost in the discussions of Donald Trump’s abrupt announcement of the withdrawal of United States troops from Rojava is the possible fate of the democratic and cooperative experiment of the Syrian Kurds. Threatened with annihilation at the hands of Turkish invaders, should we simply wipe our hands and think nothing of an interesting experiment in socialism being crushed on the orders of a far right de facto dictator?

The world of course is accustomed to the U.S. government using financial and military means to destroy nascent socialist societies around the world. But the bizarre and unprecedented case — even if accidental — of an alternative society partly reliant on a U.S. military presence seems to have confused much of the U.S. Left. Or is it simply a matter of indifference to a socialist experiment that puts the liberation of women at the center? Or is it because the dominant political inspiration comes more from anarchism than orthodox Marxism?

Most of the commentary I have seen from U.S. Leftists simply declares “we never support U.S. troops” and that’s the end of it; thus in this conception President Trump for once did something right. But is this issue really so simple? I will argue here that support of Rojava, and dismay at the abrupt withdrawal of troops on the direct demand of Turkish President and de facto dictator Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, is not at all a matter of “support” of a U.S. military presence.

Let’s think about World War II for a moment. Was supporting the war against Hitler and Mussolini’s fascist régimes simply a matter of “supporting” U.S. troops? The victory over fascism likely could not have been won without the herculean effort of the Soviet Union once it overcame the initial bungling of Josef Stalin and the second-rate commanders he had put in charge of the Red Army after purging most of the best generals. To say that the Soviet Union won World War II is no way is meant to denigrate or downplay the huge sacrifices borne by the Western allies. That Western effort was supported by communists and most other Leftists. The Communist Party of the United States of America (CPUSA) were staunch supporters of the U.S. war effort — party members well understood what was at stake.

In contrast, the main U.S. Trotskyist party, the Socialist Workers Party, dismissed the war as an inter-imperialist dispute. That may have been so, but was that the moment to make a fetish of pacifism or of an unwillingness to be involved in any way in a capitalist fight? We need only think of what would have happened had Hitler, Mussolini and Tojo triumphed in the war to answer that question. Backing the war effort was the only rational choice any Leftist not blinded by rigid ideology could have made. It is no contradiction to point out the CPUSA took the correct approach even for someone, like myself, who is generally strongly critical of the party.

Shouldn’t we listen to the Kurds?

To bring us back to the present controversy, we might ask: What do the Kurds want? The Syrian Kurds, surrounded by hostile forces waiting for the opportunity to crush their socialist experiment, made a realpolitik decision in accepting the presence of U.S. troops, and a limited number of French and British troops. The dominant party in Syrian Kurdistan, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), is strongly affiliated with the leading party of Turkey’s Kurds, the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). The PKK has been locked in a decades-long struggle with successive Turkish governments.

The preceding sentence is something of a euphemism. It would be more accurate to say that the Turkish government has waged an unrelenting war against the Kurdish people. Ankara has long denied the existence of the Kurdish people, banning their language, publications, holidays and cultural expressions, and pursuing a relentless campaign of forced resettlement intended to dilute their numbers in southeast Turkey. Uprisings have been met with arrests, torture, bombings, military assaults, the razing of villages and declarations of martial law. Hundreds of thousands have been arrested, tortured, forcibly displaced or killed. Turkish governments, including that of President Erdoğan, do not distinguish between “Kurd” and “terrorist.”

The PKK’s leader, Abdullah Öcalan, has been held in solitary confinement since his abduction in Kenya in 1999, an abduction assisted by the U.S. Successive U.S. governments have capitulated to Turkey by falsely labeling the PKK a “terrorist” organization and have actively assisted in the suppression of Turkish Kurds. Can it really be possible that Syrian Kurds are somehow unaware of all this? Obviously not.

Surrounded and blockaded by Turkey, an oppressive Syrian government, Islamic State terrorists and a corrupt Iraqi Kurdistan government in alliance with Turkey, the Syrian Kurds of Rojava have made a series of realpolitik choices, one of which is to accept a U.S. military presence in the territory to prevent Turkey from invading. That in the wake of the announced U.S. withdrawal Rojava authorities have asked the Syrian army to move into position to provide a new buffer against Turkey — despite the fact the Assad father and son régimes have been relentlessly repressive against them — is another difficult decision made by a people who are surrounded by enemies.

To ignore what the Kurdish people, in attempting to build a socialist, egalitarian society, have to say are acts of Western chauvinism. It is hardly reasonable to see the Syrian Kurds as “naïve” or “puppets” of the U.S. as if they are incapable of understanding their own experiences. And Turkey’s invasion of Rojava’s Afrin district, which was disconnected from the rest of Rojava, resulting in massive ethnic cleansing, should make clear the dangers of further Turkish invasions.

The Kurdistan National Congress, an alliance of Kurdish parties, civil society organizations and exile groups, issued a communiqué that said, as its first point, “The coalition forces must not leave North and East Syria/Rojava.” The news site Rudaw reports that Islamic State has gone on the offensive since President Trump acquiesced to President Erdoğan’s demand, and quotes a spokesperson for the Kurd-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces as saying that “More than four million are exposed to the danger of massive displacement, escaping from possible genocide,” noting the example of Turkey’s brutal invasion of Afrin.

Here’s what someone on the ground in Rojava has to say:

“Trump’s decision to withdraw troops from Syria is not an ‘anti-war’ or ‘anti-imperialist’ measure. It will not bring the conflict in Syria to an end. On the contrary, Trump is effectively giving Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan the go-ahead to invade Rojava and carry out ethnic cleansing against the people who have done much of the fighting and dying to halt the rise of the Islamic State (ISIS). This is a deal between strongmen to exterminate the social experiment in Rojava and consolidate authoritarian nationalist politics from Washington, DC to Istanbul and Kobane. … There’s a lot of confusion about this, with supposed anti-war and ‘anti-imperialist’ activists like Medea Benjamin endorsing Donald Trump’s decision, blithely putting the stamp of ‘peace’ on an impending bloodbath and telling the victims that they should have known better. It makes no sense to blame people here in Rojava for depending on the United States when neither Medea Benjamin nor anyone like her has done anything to offer them any sort of alternative.”

None of this means we should forget for a moment the role of the United States in destroying attempts to build socialism, or mere attempts to challenge U.S. hegemony even where capitalist relations are not seriously threatened. Certainly there is no prospect of a U.S. government supporting socialism in Rojava; experiments in building societies considerably less radical than that of Rojava have been mercilessly crushed by the U.S. using every means at its disposal. That the project of Rojava, for now, has been helped by the presence of U.S. troops is an unintentional byproduct of the unsuccessful U.S. effort to overthrow Bashar al-Assad. At the same time of the expected pullout from Rojava, U.S. troops will remain in Iraq and Afghanistan, where they are unambiguously occupiers.

Assad brutality in the service of neoliberalism

Even if the analysis is overly mechanical, cheering the withdrawal of troops is understandable, given the imperialist history of U.S. aggression. Less understandable is support for the bloodthirsty Assad regime. “The enemy of what I oppose is a friend” is a reductionist, and often futile, way of thinking. The Ba’ath regime of Hafez and Bashar Assad have a long history of murderous rampages against Syrians. The United Nations Human Rights Council reports “patterns of summary execution, arbitrary arrest, enforced disappearance, torture, including sexual violence, as well as violations of children’s rights.” Amnesty International reports that “As many as 13,000 prisoners from Saydnaya Military Prison were extrajudicially executed in night-time mass hangings between 2011 and 2015. The victims were overwhelmingly civilians perceived to oppose the government and were executed after being held in conditions amounting to enforced disappearance.”

Enforced monoculture agriculture was imposed on the Kurdish regions of Syria by the Ba’ath régime, with no economic development allowed. These areas were intentionally kept undeveloped under a policy of “Arabization” against Kurds and the other minority groups of the areas now comprising Rojava. Kurds were routinely forcibly removed from their farm lands and other properties, with Arabs settled in their place. Nor should the Assad family rule be seen in as any way as progressive. Neoliberal policies and increasingly anti-labor policies have been imposed. The spark that ignited the civil war was the drought that struck Syria beginning in 2006, a disaster deepened by poor water management and corruption.

Political scientists Raymond Hinnebusch and Tina Zinti, in the introduction to Syria from Reform to Revolt, Volume 1: Political Economy and International Relations, provide a concise summary of Assad neoliberalism. (The following two paragraphs are summarized from their introduction.)

Hafez al-Assad became dictator, eliminating Ba’athist rivals, in 1970. He “constructed a presidential system above party and army” staffed with relatives, close associates and others from his Alawite minority, according to professors Hinnebusch and Zinti. “[T]he party turned from an ideological movement into institutionalized clientalism” with corruption that undermined development. In turn, Alawite domination bred resentment on the part of the Sunni majority, and a network of secret police and elite military units, allowed to be above the law, kept the regime secure. Over the course of the 1990s, widespread privatization drastically shrank the state sector, which earned Assad the support of Syria’s bourgeoisie.

Upon Assad’s death in 2000, his son Bashar was installed as president. Bashar al-Assad sought to continue opening Syria’s economy to foreign capital. In order to accomplish that, he needed to sideline his father’s old guard and consolidate his power. He did, but by doing so he weakened the régime and its connections to its base. He also altered the régime’s social base, basing his rule on technocrats and businessmen who supported his economic reforms and concomitant disciplining of the working class. Syria’s public sector was run down, social services reduced, an already weak labor law further weakened and taxation became regressive, enabling new private banks and businesses to reap big incomes.

Not exactly friends of the working class, and a strong contrast to the system of “democratic confederalism” as the Rojava economic and political system is known.

Building political democracy through communes

Clandestine organizing had been conducted among Syrian Kurds since a 2004 massacre of Kurds by the Assad régime; much of this organizing was done by women because they could move more openly then men under the close watch of the régime. Kurds were supportive of the rebels when the civil war began, but withdrew from cooperation as the opposition became increasingly Islamized and unresponsive to Kurd demands for cultural recognition. Meanwhile, as the uprising began, Kurdish self-protection militias were formed in secret with clandestine stocks of weapons. The drive for freedom from Assad’s terror began on the night of July 18, 2012, when the People’s Protection Unit (YPG) took control of the roads leading into Kobani and, inside the city, people began to take over government buildings.

What the Syrian Kurds have created in the territory known as Rojava is a political system based on neighborhood communes and an economic system based on cooperatives. (“Rojava” is the Kurdish word for “west,” denoting that the Syrian portion of their traditional lands is “West Kurdistan.”) The inspiration for their system is Murray Bookchin’s concept of a federation of independent communities known as “libertarian municipalism” or “communalism.” But democratic confederalism is a syncretic philosophy, influenced by theorists such as Immanuel Wallerstein, Benedict Anderson and Antonio Gramsci in addition to Mr. Bookchin but rooted in Kurdish history and culture.

Political organization in Rojava consists of two parallel structures. The older and more established is the system of communes and councils, which are direct-participation bodies. The other structure, resembling a traditional government, is the Democratic-Autonomous Administration, which is more of a representative body, although one that includes seats for all parties and multiple social organizations.

The commune is the basic unit of self-government, the base of the council system. A commune comprises the households of a few streets within a city or village, usually 30 to 400 households. Above the commune level are community people’s councils comprising a city neighborhood or a village. The next level up are the district councils, consisting of a city and surrounding villages. The top of the four levels is the People’s Council of West Kurdistan, which elects an executive body on which about three dozen people sit. The top level theoretically coordinates decisions for all of Rojava.

Integrated within the four-level council system are seven commissions — defense, economics, politics, civil society, free society, justice and ideology — and a women’s council. These committees and women’s councils exist at all four levels. In turn commissions at local levels coordinate their work with commissions in adjacent areas. There is also an additional commission, health, responsible for coordinating access to health care (regardless of ability to pay) and maintaining hospitals, in which medical professionals fully participate. Except for the women’s councils, all bodies have male and female co-leaders.

At least 40 percent of the attendees must be women in order for a commune decision to be binding. That quota reflects that women’s liberation is central to the Rojava project on the basis that the oppression of women at the hands of men has to be completely eliminated for any egalitarian society to be born. Manifestations of sexism, including male violence against women, have not magically disappeared. These may now be socially unacceptable, and more likely to be kept behind closed doors, but the system of women’s councils attached to the communes, and councils at higher levels, and the self-organization of women, has at a minimum put an end to the isolation that enabled the toleration of sexist behavior and allowed other social problems to fester.

A system of women’s houses provides spaces for women to discuss their issues. These centers also offer courses on computers, language, sewing, first aid, culture and art, as well as providing assistance against social sexism. As with peace committees that seek to find a solution rather than mete out punishments in adjudicating conflicts, the first approach when dealing with violence or other issues of sexism is to effect a change in behavior. One manifestation of putting these beliefs into action is the creation of women’s militias, which have played leading roles in battlefield victories over Islamic State.

Building a cooperative economy based on human need

The basis of Rojava’s economy are cooperatives. The long-term goal is to establish an economy based on human need, environmentalism and equality, distinctly different from capitalism. Such an economy can hardly be established overnight, so although assistance is provided to cooperatives, which are rapidly increasing in number, private capital and markets still exist. Nor has any attempt to expropriate large private landholdings been attempted or contemplated.

Given the intentional under-development of the region under the Assad family régime, the resulting lack of industry and the civil-war inability to import machinery or much else, and the necessity of becoming as food self-sufficient as possible due to the blockade, Rojava’s cooperatives are primarily in the agricultural sector. There is also the necessity of reducing unemployment, and the organization of communes is seen as the speediest route to that social goal as well.

The practitioners of democratic confederalism say they reject both capitalism and the Soviet model of state ownership. They say they represent a third way, embodied in the idea that self-management in the workplace goes with self-management in politics and administration. Since their liberation from the highly repressive Assad régime, Rojava agriculture has become far more diversified, and price controls were imposed.

Cooperative enterprises are not intended to be competitive against one another. Cooperatives are required to be connected to the council system; independence is not allowed. Cooperatives work through the economics commissions to meet social need and in many cases their leadership is elected by the communes. The intention is to form cooperatives in all sectors of the economy. But basic necessities such as water, land and energy are intended to be fully socialized, with some arguing that these should be made available free of charge. Because the economy will retain some capitalist elements for some time, safeguards are seen as necessary to ensure that cooperatives don’t become too large and begin to behave like private enterprises.

We need not indulge in hagiography. There are, naturally, problems and contradictions. Private ownership of the means of production is enshrined in documents espousing socialism and equality, and large private landholdings, with attendant social relations, will be untouched. It is hardly reasonable to expect that a brand new economy can be established overnight, much less in a region forced to divert resources to military defense. Nonetheless, capitalists expect as much profit as can be squeezed out of their operations, an expectation decidedly at odds with goals of “equality and environmental sustainability.” In essence, what is being created is a mixed economy, and the history of mixed economies is fraught with difficulties. Another issue is that Rojava’s authorities, connected with the dominant Democratic Union Party (PYD), can be heavy-handed, including the closing of the offices of the opposition Kurdish National Council on questionable legal grounds.

Nonetheless, what is being created in northern Syria is a remarkable experiment in economic and political democracy — not only Kurds but other minority groups and Arabs consciously working toward socialism. Why shouldn’t this be supported? The authors of the book Revolution in Rojava, supporters of the project and one of whom fought in the women’s militia, argue that the idea that Rojava’s acceptance of Western aid is a “betrayal” is “naïve,” drawing parallels with Republican Spain of the 1930s. Describing Rojava as an “anti-fascist project,” they note that the capitalist West turned its back on the Spanish Revolution, allowing fascism to triumph.

In the forward to the same book, David Graeber, careful to differentiate the targets of his critique from those who oppose the global dominance of North American militarism, argues:

“What I am speaking of here instead is the feeling that foiling imperial designs — or avoiding any appearance of even appearing to be on the ‘same side’ as an imperialist in any context — should always take priority over anything else. This attitude only makes sense if you’ve secretly decided that real revolutions are impossible. Because surely, if one actually felt that a genuine popular revolution was occurring, say, in the [Rojava] city of Kobanî and that its success could be a beacon and example to the world, one would also not hold that it is better for those revolutionaries to be massacred by genocidal fascists than for a bunch of white intellectuals to sully the purity of their reputations by suggesting that US imperial forces already conducting airstrikes in the region might wish to direct their attention to the fascists’ tanks. Yet, astoundingly, this was the position that a very large number of self-professed ‘radicals’ actually did take.”

It does seem quite reasonable to hope for a socialist experiment to avoid being destroyed by Islamic State fascism, Turkish ultra-nationalism or Syrian absolutism rather than clinging to dogmatism.

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