Confronting Institutional Evil

28/08/14 0 COMMENTS

Z Magazine, September 2014

Look at U.S. House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH), who insists that health care coverage not be expanded in such a way that some people could stop working and still be insured. Boehner and his fellow Republican “sociopaths” want to make sure that millions stay trapped in work they want to escape with the understanding that they can’t survive otherwise—a form of “health care slavery.”

How about those “sociopath” corporate CEOs who take jobs out of the U.S. and send them to cheap labor sites in Mexico and China and who overheat and otherwise pollute the planet?

Don’t forget those Wall Street psychos atop financial institutions like Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan Chase. Those “sociopaths” crashed the national and global economy with wildly reckless practices and financial products. They made sure to get their own firms rescued and returned to obscene hyper-profitability by the taxpayers. The rest of us were left holding the bill and wondering “where’s our bailout?” And then there’s that “sociopath” Barack Obama, with his corporate-neoliberal sell-out of the poor and working people in whose name he campaigned and his arch-criminal Kill List.

I do not doubt that some, perhaps many, of today’s wealth and power elites could be diagnosed as sociopaths. According to reliable research, roughly 4 percent of the population—1 in 25 people—are fundamentally without conscience (Martha Stout, The Sociopath Next Door, 2007). At the same time, it seems likely that psychopathy is more prevalent among the nation’s ruling class than in the general population. Part of what makes and keeps the rich, well, rich is their willingness to put aside moral qualms about such harsh realities. “Modern capitalism,” the Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph E. Stiglitz notes, “has become a complex game and those who win have to have more than a little smarts. But those who win at it often possess less admirable characteristics as well—the ability to skirt the law or to shape the law in their own favor; the willingness to take advantage of others, even the poor; and to play unfair when necessary.” Stiglitz quotes a leading capitalist who says that “the old adage ‘Win or lose, what matters is how you play the game’ is rubbish. All that matters is whether you win or lose.” More importantly, Stiglitz cites a recent experimental study showing that people of higher income are more likely than others to be driven by self-interest, far more likely to cheat, less likely to have misgivings about breaking the rules, and generally more prone to behave in ways that are widely viewed as unethical (Joseph E. Stiglitz, Price of Inequality, 2012).

The nation’s sociopathic 4 percent would appear to be overrepresented among the nation’s economic one percent—as might be expected.

Institutions as Psychopaths

Still, I resist the “sociopath” meme for three reasons. First, even at the elite level, real sociopaths are a small minority. They are hardly numerous enough to account for the multiple and interrelated forms of injustice and oppression imposed on billions by the American System at home and abroad. Second, the problem of socio-pathology is more usefully understood at the institutional level than at the level of individuals—something that helps us understand how a society could come to seem sociopathic even when the preponderant majority of its members are not sociopaths.

The real and most significant problem is how masses of generally decent and caring human beings are induced to behave in outwardly sociopathic ways to adopt sociopathic opinions. How is it that millions of courteous, empathetic folks who would never send a starving child away from their doorstep or kick a dog or curse at a neighbor or steal a candy bar can be induced to oppose the extension of health care coverage to the poor and to support the mass incarceration of casual drug users, bloody assaults on countries whose people never did anything to them, the denial of food and shelter to child refugees from Central America, the election of office-holders who promise to reduce the incomes and benefits of public sector workers, and the like?

The paradox isn’t just about personal values and behavior. When you look at public opinion data, you find that the societal values and policy attitudes of Americans, including many who identify as Republicans, are “more or less social-democratic.” As Noam Chomsky observed in an interview with Rob Kall (a progressive online journalist and commentator concerned about the prevalence of “right wing psychopaths” across the U.S.) earlier this year, “it turns out that among the right wing, the sectors of the population that say ‘get government off our backs’ [also say that]…‘we need more funding for education, more funding for healthcare…more help for…women with dependent children’…When you talk about the population being psychopaths,” Chomsky told Kall, “I don’t think that’s quite true.”

Many otherwise decent Americans have been induced to back plutocratic and regressive agendas by reactionary elites. Right-wing “leaders” have been adept at creating the sense that numerous despicable Others—supposed welfare cheats and other indolent slackers, “illegal” immigrants, “freedom”-hating terrorists, despotic foreign rulers, “Big Labor” bureaucrats, “lazy schoolteachers’” unions, “well-fed” public sector workers, “job-killing” environmentalists, despicable drug addicts, urban “gangbangers,” liberal government bureaucrats, disloyal professors, and (the list goes on)—are threatening and “ruining America.” The right is quite expert at diversion- ary scapegoating.

We can call those elites “sociopaths” and “psychopaths” if we wish. But, as Chomsky rightly told Kall, even that’s not quite right since “it’s the institutions that are psychopaths.” Chomsky was thinking particularly of corporations, whose chief decision-makers operate within a legal and institutional framework that selects, encourages, and even mandates essentially sociopathic behavior like the remorseless ruination of livable ecology and the collapse of the job and housing markets: “Take…a corporate executive. By law, a corporate executive must work to increase the profitability of the corporation, disregarding the effects it has on others. That’s actually a legal principle and that’s psychopathic. That’s one of the reasons…we’re leading the way in destroying the environment, creating a catastrophe…for our own children. Why? Because…the CEOs of corporation are compelled to disregard what the economists call externalities, the effect of a decision on others. The institutional structure is designed to lead to species destruction… And the same thing happens in the financial institutions.

There’s a system in the United States that’s been designed over the past roughly thirty years which underprices risk… The main mechanism…is a government insurance policy…known…‘too-big-to-fail.’ What that means is that if say Goldman Sachs makes a risky transaction…they cover the potential damages [to] themselves but they don’t consider the externality that a failure of their transaction may bring down the whole system…. It doesn’t matter too much to them because…they can run cap in hand to the nanny state who will bail them out…. That underprices risk, guarantee[ing] further crises.… Your taxes go to the big banks to maintain the system. Those institutions are psychopathic. It…is unfair in a way to blame the individuals. They either take part in the institution or they get out. They don’t have any choices within them “Rob Kall, “Chomsky Talks About Psychopaths and Sociopaths,” Op-Ed News, February 15, 2014).

It might seem odd to think of giant institutions as sociopaths. But consider this. In 2003, Canadian law professor Joel Bakan published his widely read volume The Corporation: the Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power. Noting that the U.S. judiciary defined corporations as legal “persons” by the end of the 19th century, Bakan posed an interesting question: what kind of “person” is a modern corporation? His answer: a sociopath, consistent with the corporation’s judicially certified mandate is to pursue relentlessly and without exception its investors’ selfish economic self-interest, regardless of any injury it may cause to others and the common good. Bakan asked the esteemed psychologist Dr. Robert Hare to evaluate the modern corporation against his globally acclaimed diagnostic tool The Psychopathy Checklist. By Bakan’s account, “Hare found there was a close match. The corporation is irresponsible, Dr. Hare said, because ‘in an attempt to satisfy the corporate goal, everybody else is put at risk….

A lack of empathy and asocial tendencies are also key characteristics of the corporation…‘their behavior indicates that they don’t really concern themselves with their victims’; and corporations often refuse to accept responsibility for their own actions and are unable to feel remorse” (Bakan, The Corporation, 2004). “The basis of a corporation,” Chomsky noted years ago, “is limited liability, meaning as a participant in a corporation you’re not personally liable if it, say, murders tens of thousands in Bhopal” (Power Systems, 2003).

Beyond Corporations

Of course, it isn’t just corporations that function as institutional sociopaths and provide amoral institutional protection to elites. Top major party political operatives and officeholders are not held liable for their incessantly deceptive claims and promises or their fealty to big money campaign donors and lobbyists. They are obliged to do and say whatever it takes to win elections. They can forget about staying in the money-soaked business of U.S. politics if they voice serious qualms about the game.

U.S. military commanders are never considered personally liable when they order and direct terrible events like, say, the “Highway of Death,” when U.S. forces savagely massacred tens of thousands of surrendered Iraqi troops retreating from Kuwait in February 1991. No U.S. commanders were held to account for the mass-murderous U.S. assault on the Iraqi city of Fallujah in the spring and fall of 2004, when U.S. Marines targeted hospitals and ambulances and caused an epidemic of child cancer and leukemia by attacking the city with radioactive ordnance.

At the same time, corporations are the central investment-pooling, risk-diluting, and liability-shielding institutions of a broader historical form of organized socio-pathology called capitalism. Capitalism is a class-based socioeconomic system that is about the concentration of wealth and power. It is dedicated to profit for the owners of capital, period, regardless of negative consequences for others and the Earth we all share (see Paul Street, “Capitalism: The Real Enemy,” Chapter 1 in Frances Goldin et al., Imagine Living in a Socialist U.S.A., NY, HarperCollins, 2014). It certainly isn’t about democracy and the common good. As the liberal economist Lester Thurow noted 18 years ago: “Democracy and capitalism have very different beliefs about the proper distribution of power. One believes in a completely equal distribution of political power, ‘one man [sic] one vote,’ while the other believes that it is the duty of the economically fit to drive the unfit out of business and into extinction. ‘Survival of the fittest’ and inequalities in purchasing power are what capitalist efficiency is all about. Individual profit comes first and firms become efficient to be rich. To put it in its starkest form, capitalism is perfectly compatible with slavery. Democracy is not” (The Future of Capitalism, NY 1996).

Institutions of the Lie

A third reason to shy away from the “sociopaths” narrative is that the term “sociopath” fails to adequately capture the depth and degree of institutional malevolence most people face today. In his haunting and brilliant book People of the Lie: The Hope for Healing Human Evil (1983), the Christian psychotherapist M. Scott Peck observed that the worst people he met over his career were not mere sociopaths, people without conscience. The real problem people he ran across were something worse: “evil” people who were conscious of their own immorality and concerned to cloak their behavior in a self-righteous aura of moral perfection.

They were obsessed with the sins of evil others, whose real and/or alleged terrible deeds provided justification for their own crimes. As Peck explained: “The cause [of evil] is not…an absent conscience. There are people…who seem utterly lacking in conscience. Psychiatrists call them psychopaths or sociopaths. Guiltless, they commit crimes…often…with a kind of reckless abandon. There is little pattern or meaning to their criminality; it is not particularly characterized by scapegoating. Conscienceless, psychopaths appear to be bothered or worried by very little—including their own criminality…. They do attempt to hide their crimes, but their efforts to do so are often feeble and careless and poorly planned. They have sometimes been referred to as ‘moral imbeciles,’ and there is almost a quality of innocence to their lack of worry and concern.”

“This is hardly the case with those I call evil. Utterly dedicated to preserving their self-image of perfection, they are unceasingly engaged in the effort to maintain the appearance of moral purity…they dress well, go to work on time, pay their taxes, and outwardly seem to live lives that are above reproach…. The words ‘image,’ ‘appearance,’ and ‘outwardly’ are crucial to understanding the morality of the evil…they intensely desire to appear good. Their ‘goodness’ is all on a level of pretense. It is, in effect, a lie. This is why they are the ‘people of the lie’.” “Actually, the lie is designed not so much to deceive others as to deceive themselves. They cannot or will not tolerate the pain of self-reproach. The decorum with which they lead their lives is maintained as a mirror in which they can see themselves reflected righteously. Yet the self-deceit would be unnecessary if the evil had no sense of right and wrong” (People of the Lie).

The institutional and societal oppression and injustice imposed by the United States’ unelected and interrelated dictatorships of money and empire go beyond mere conscienceless socio-pathology. Those dictatorships regularly and ritually tell themselves and the world that’s it’s all being done for a higher good—in opposition to forces of evil.

“The United States is Good”

The notion that “we” (the U.S.) are inherently benevolent, well-intentioned, freedom-loving, and democratic in “our” foreign policies has long been doctrine in the U.S. imperial establishment. Less than a year after the U.S. military inflicted their shocking carnage on the “Highway of Death,” U.S. President George H.W. Bush proclaimed that, “A world once divided into two armed camps now recognizes one sole and pre-eminent power, the United States of America. And they regard this with no dread. For the world trusts us with power and the world is right. They trust us to be fair and restrained. They trust us to be on the side of decency. They trust us to do what’s right.”

“The United States is good,” Bill Clinton’s Secretary of State Madeline Albright explained in 1999. “We try to do our best everywhere.” Three years before, Bill Clinton explained that the U.S. was “the world’s greatest force for peace and freedom, for democracy and security and prosperity.” These were curious reflections on (among other things) the U.S.-led economic sanctions that killed—as Madeline Albright acknowledged on national television in 1996—more than half a million Iraqi children in the 1990s (Albright added that she “felt the price” of those deaths was “worth paying” for the advance of inherently noble U.S. foreign policy goals).

“More than any other nation,” President Obama announced at West Point in December 2009, “the United States of America has underwritten global security for over six decades. Unlike the great powers of old, we have not sought world domination. We do not seek to occupy other nations. We are still heirs to a moral struggle for freedom.” The Progressive’s Matthew Rothschild gave a historically informed response: “Well, let’s see: The United States led the world to the cliffs of nuclear annihilation during the Cold War. The United States invaded one Latin American country after another, and subverted other governments there covertly. The United States helped overthrow governments in Ghana and the Congo, and supported racist forces in southern Africa. The United States plunged into the Korean War, and then supported one dictator after another in South Korea. The United States killed between two and three million people in Indochina. And the United States supported Suharto in Indonesia, who killed nearly a million people, some at the behest of the CIA, after taking power in 1965. The U.S. also supported Suharto’s invasion of East Timor ten years later, which took another 200,000 lives…. Obama can call that ‘global security,’ if he wants to, but it’s dripping red…. What does having almost 1,000 military bases in more than 100 countries mean, then? The United States has invaded or overthrown dozens of countries in the last six decades, and it doesn’t need to occupy them if it can install a puppet regime instead” (The Progressive, December 2, 2009).

Scapegoating has always been a critical public relations component of U.S. Empire. During the Cold War, Washington’s interventions against popular movements, democracy, social justice, and national self-determination around the world were justified as part of its noble campaign against the supposed “international Communist conspiracy” headquartered in Moscow. Since the collapse of the Soviet bloc, the so-called War on Drugs, the (terrorist) War on (Islamist) Terror, and a steady stream of officially designated new Hitlers (Manuel Noriega, Saddam Hussein, Slobodan Milosevic, Momar Gadhafi, Osama bin-Laden, Hugo Chavez, Mula Omar, Vladimir Putin) have provided substitute good-versus-evil narratives and bad-guy malefactors to rationalize U.S. imperial criminality.

“Responsible Corporate Citizens”

Big Business commanders are no less committed than U.S. commanders-in-chief to the notion that the institutions under their direction are dedicated to magnificent principles. U.S. and other corporations who poison the Earth, destroy eco-systems, undermine democracy, bribe politicians, manipulate citizens, shred jobs, wreck communities, and generally ruin lives (human and other) at home and abroad routinely claim to be acting in the higher and compassionate interests of the greater and common good.

According to Exxon-Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson, head of the world’s second leading institutional and historical agent of anthropogenic climate change (“90 Companies Caused Two-Thirds of Man-Made Global Warming Emissions,” the Guardian 11/20/2013), a well-known corrupter of governments at home and abroad: “We strive to be responsible corporate citizens, and our success along that path is underpinned by our technological expertise, operational excellence, safety performance and unwavering ethical standards.” The leading war contractor, the Boeing Corporation, wants us to know that its “journey as a global industry leader and corporate citizen parallels its nearly 100-year history of building better communities worldwide.” Boeing “contribute[s] toward sustainable growth and systemic impact for our communities and their peoples” in order “to build the capacity of individuals and communities to succeed in a constantly evolving world.” (Some among the large number of Middle Eastern and Southwest Asian people who have seen their lives, locales, and regions devastated by U.S. forces using Boeing-manufactured war planes, drones and helicopters in recent decades would offer some interesting commentary on that statement.)

These are standard statements of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). You can read similar boilerplate on the websites of numerous other Fortune 500 firms. They all want us to know that they care deeply about their fellow humans and the Earth—not just the bottom line. They would not make such grandiose claims if they were simple conscienceless institutional sociopaths, childishly unaware of their transgressions. Like the giant military Empire that serves U.S. corporations at numerous levels, they are stained by the false and narcissistic pride of malignantly narcissistic Evil, requiring them to cover their endless, profit-seeking misdeeds with the fiction of moral purity.

“No Individual Salvation”

In her book The Sociopath Next Door, Martha Stout gives  advice on how to deal with individual sociopaths:

    • Accept that some people literally have no conscience.
    • Suspect flattery. Compliments are lovely, especially when they are sincere. In contrast, flattery is extreme and appeals to our egos in unrealistic ways. It is the material of counterfeit charmand nearly always involves an intent to manipulate.
    • Do not join the game…. Resist the temptation to compete with a seductive sociopath, to outsmart him, psychoanalyze, or even banter with him. In addition to reducing yourself to his level, you would be distracting yourself from what is really important—to protect yourself.
    • The best way to protect yourself from a sociopath is to avoid him, to refuse any kind of contact or communication…The only effective method of dealing with a sociopath is to disallow him or her from your life.
    • Question your tendency to pity too easily.
    • Do not try to redeem the unredeemable.
    • Living well is the best revenge.

If you follow these and other of Stout’s rules, most “sociopaths” will generally disappear from your personal life, like the Wicked Witch of the West after Dorothy doused her with water in The Wizard of Oz. Stout’s counsel applies just as well to those “malignantly narcissistic” individuals Peck calls “evil.” But what about sociopathic/evil institutions? We certainly need to acknowledge their evil and pitiless nature. We should resist any impulse to pity or redeem them. We must distance ourselves from their self-interested efforts to flatter us though advertising and other means. And we should do our best to live well in spite of their endless depredations. But it’s pretty much impossible to avoid all contact with capitalist corporations. They are the ubiquitous, reigning, institutions of our time. They permeate daily life on numerous levels, from the clothes we wear, the food we eat, our modes of transportation, the medicine we take, the news and entertainment we receive, where and how we work, the debt we hold, the prices and interest we pay, the wages and salaries we receive, the air we breathe, and the (plutocratic) nature of “our” (their) political system.

The big corporations and the neoliberal policies and culture they inflict have a richly authoritarian “presence in every aspect of our daily existence… [and have] subsumed our lives” (Oscar Olivera, Cochabamba! Water War in Bolivia, South End Press, 2003) to no small degree. “Capital,” Vandana Shiva noted 11 years ago, has undertaken “the neoliberal commodification and privatization of every dimension of life.” Its corporate globalization project seeks “the ultimate enclosure of the commons—our water, our biodiversity, our food, our culture, our health, our education….” (Olivera)

The modern corporation and the so-called free market corporate state have made “living well” impossible for billions. They are institutionally wired to use their far-flung power to put democracy and livable ecology—a decent future—beyond our grasp. We have no choice but to join the game of outsmarting corporations and, more fundamentally, to join the struggles to place them under popular control and (where necessary) to eliminate them—and to create basic societal and institutional arrangements beyond the capitalist framework that gives rise to giant corporations and feeds other and related institutional complexes of hierarchy and oppression. Here, again, the matter goes beyond the level of the individual. Individual sociopaths and narcissists can usually be dealt with at the personal and individual level. But for institutional evil and socio-pathology on the scale of contemporary corporate state capitalism, there is “no individual salvation” (Olivera). The good news according to Shiva is that—as the people of Bolivia reminded us when they defeated the attempted privatization of their water supply in 2000—“there is one power stronger than the power of money—and that is the power of people.” Is she right? It’s not about the crystal ball. We have no choice but to do everything in our power to make it so.

Z

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 Paul Street’s latest book is They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm, 2014).

Reflections on a Bernie Sanders Presidential Run

28/08/14 0 COMMENTS

ZNet, August 27, 2014

Should United States Senator Bernie Sanders (Independent, VT) come to Iowa and run in the US presidential 2015-2016 Caucus race here, as many Progressive Democrats are urging? He seems interested. In less than three weeks, “Bernie” will visit three Iowa Cities (Dubuque, Waterloo, and Des Moines) to hold “town halls” in which he will share his ideas on rolling back corporate power, raising the minimum wage, controlling climate change, and other matters.

As a radical who resides in Iowa City, I was at first intrigued by the idea of a Sanders presidential run. Sanders calls himself a “democratic socialist” and could be expected to raise critical and interrelated issues of economic inequality, poverty, plutocracy, corporate rule, and environmental catastrophe. He would do so in a way that will stand to the popular left of Clinton Inc.’s Hillary 2016 machine.

I can certainly understand why many decent and well-intended, left-leaning progressives in Iowa and elsewhere might be excited at the prospect of a Sanders White House bid.

So I will try to be as careful as I can as I explain why I won’t back a Sanders presidential run within or beyond Iowa as the next US big money-big media-major party-candidate-centered quadrennial electoral extravaganza (QEE) builds momentum moving into 2015. It comes down to five considerations.

Eye to Eye

First, I am convinced along with a longstanding US majority that the two dominant corporate- and empire-captive US political organizations (both of which stand well to the right of the majority progressive US citizenry on numerous key issues) do not adequately reflect or capture real, majority-progressive popular sentiments in the US. As Andrew Levine, a Senior Scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, writes on Counterpunch, “our government – and therefore our tax money – enables the crimes we deplore.  And there seems to be nothing that we can do about that. In part, this is because in American politics, at the national and state levels especially, money talks; indeed, money is ‘speech,’ according to our Supreme Court. It doesn’t help either that we have two highly polarized, semi-established political parties that fight each other tooth and nail, though they see eye to eye on nearly everything of political consequence” (emphasis added).

The reigning duopoly is an authoritarian disaster, something the de facto Democrat Sanders will only reinforce if and when he enters the Iowa Caucus, which will require him to drop his technical status (more formal than substantive for some time) as an independent and formally enlist as an open Democrat.

Why Help the Elite Manipulation of Populism?

Second, the Democratic Party has long been a full-fledged rich folks’ party, not to mention a party of war and empire. As such, it will never allow a candidate sincerely committed to progressive and populist domestic policy goals – much less, one who calls himself (however vaguely) a socialist – become its standard-bearer. It will nominate either Hillary Clinton or some other murky corporate Democrat in the summer of 2016. Why help the dismal dollar Dems disguise their oligarchic essence? Why abet their attempt to seem to have had a full and open debate over the issues that concern ordinary Americans? Why assist any effort to make either of the two dominant political organizations that Upton Sinclair accurately described as “two wings of the same [Big Business-dominated] prey” (both now stand well to the right of majority public opinion on numerous key policy issues) seem more democratic and progressive than they really are? Why give succor to those who would wrap vile plutocracy in false rebels’ clothes? Why lend a hand to the corporate-captive Democrats’ effort to play their pivotal role in what the formerly left Christopher Hitchens (in a cleaver book on the first Clinton presidency) called “the essence of American politics…..the manipulation of populism by elitism”?

“Elbow Deep” in Empire and “the Blood of Gaza Children”

Third, I am convinced that it is impossible to deal meaningfully with the nation’s massive economic inequalities or to overcome the poverty of millions at home and abroad without fundamentally challenging United States global Empire. This is a lesson that US progressives have been given over and over again: US Empire and inequality are two sides of the same racist, classist, and authoritarian coin. The lesson was given most dramatically perhaps during the 1960s, when President Lyndon Johnson’s briefly declared “war on poverty” was strangled in its cradle by Johnson and John F. Kennedy’s imperialist and racist war on Southeast Asia. That episode is one of many to remind us that, as Dr. Martin Luther King. Jr, remarked,Injustice anywhereis a threat to justice everywhere.”

Sanders shows little evidence that he’s gotten the historical message. His foreign policy record is pretty much in line with that of any standard imperial Democrat. And it doesn’t help that neither Sanders nor any other “progressive” in Congress could bring himself to oppose the US Senate’s odious “unanimous” vote of support for US client state Israel during its latest openly criminal, mass-murderous assault on helpless civilians in Gaza. Here’s what Sanders had to say when a reporter from The Daily Beast queried him on Israel’s outrages last July: “That’s not where my mind is right now.”

How seriously are we supposed to take a candidate’s claim of concern for poor people at home (or anywhere else) when he cannot lift a finger against the slaughter of innocents abroad by “US jet planes with Israeli pilots” (Noam Chomsky)? As Levine notes, arguing from the moral perspective of Dr. King, “we have no one worth voting for. Gaza proved that beyond a reasonable doubt. Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Al Franken, the handful of progressives in the so-called Progressive and Black Caucuses, and so on  – every last one of them is elbow deep in the blood of Gaza children”(emphasis added).

Imagine a Functioning Democratic Society

Fourth, I do not think that entering the Democratic presidential Caucus and primary race is the only way to oppose Hillary and other corporate-imperial fake-progressive Democratic presidential candidates in Iowa and New Hampshire. Progressives in those states could simply ignore or more actively resist Democratic campaign events. They could disrupt and protest those events, making statements against the plutocratic and militarist nature of the Democratic Party today and against the farcical, corporate-crafted charade that the US elections process has become. (It’s a charade that is featured for an absurdly long period of time, particularly in Iowa and New Hampshire – the “first in the nation” caucus and primary states).

Alternately, and more positively, progressives could do something along the lines of what leading Left thinker Noam Chomsky suggested to Occupy Boston activists in October of 2011 – hold local people’s caucuses and primaries based on issues, not candidates and their marketing entourage:

“We’re coming up to the presidential election’s primary season. Suppose we had a functioning democratic society (laughter). Let’s just imagine that. What would a primary look like, say, in New Hampshire? … The people in a town would get together and discuss, talk about, and argue about what they want policy to be. Sort of like what’s happening here in the Occupy movement. They would formulate a conception of what the policy should be. Then if a candidate comes along and says, ‘I want to talk to you,’ the people in the town ought to say, ‘Well, you can come listen to us if you want…we’ll tell you what you want, and you can try to persuade us that you’ll do it; then, maybe we will vote for you”….

“What happens in our society? The candidate comes to town with his public relations agents and the rest of them. He gives some talks, and says, ‘Look how great I am. This is what I’m going to do for you.’ Anybody with a grey cell functioning doesn’t believe a word he or she says. And then maybe people for him, maybe they don’t. That’s very different from a democratic society.”

“The Urgent Task”

Fifth, I agree with what Chomsky and the late radical US historian Howard Zinn have written and said about the sort of politics that ought to matter most for serious progressives. As both of these and other left activists and intellectuals have long argued, voting in presidential elections (and primaries and caucuses) is a relatively minor matter within the deeper and more fundamental struggle for a real peoples’ politics. Zinn put it well in March of 2008, as the “election madness engulf[ed] the entire society, including the left” with special intensity in the year of Barack Obama’s ascendancy:

“The 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 and choose one of the two mediocrities who have already been chosen for us. …Would I support one candidate against another? Yes, 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, our 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…. Let’s remember that even when there is a ‘better’ candidate (yes, better Roosevelt than Hoover, better anyone than George Bush), that difference will not mean anything unless the power of the people asserts itself in ways that the occupant of the White House will find it dangerous to ignore…..”

As Zinn said in an interview with the Socialist Worker after George W. Bush was first “elected” to the US presidency, “There’s hardly anything more important that people can learn than the fact that the really critical thing isn’t who is sitting in the White House, but who is sitting in-in the streets, in the cafeterias, in the halls of government, in the factories. Who is protesting, who is occupying offices and demonstrating – those are the things that determine what happens.”

Chomsky wrote something similar (and quite a bit more) on the eve of the 2004 elections:

“The U.S. presidential race, impassioned almost to the point of hysteria, hardly represents healthy democratic impulses….Americans are encouraged to vote, but not to participate more meaningfully in the political arena. Essentially the election is yet another method of marginalizing the population. A huge propaganda campaign is mounted to get people to focus on these personalized quadrennial extravaganzas and to think, ‘That’s politics.” But it isn’t. It’s only a small part of politics. ..”

“The urgent task for those who want to shift policy in progressive direction – often in close conformity to majority opinion – is to grow and become strong enough so that that they can’t be ignored by centers of power. Forces for change that have come up from the grass roots and shaken the society to its foundations include the labor movement, the civil rights movement, the peace movement, the women’s movement and others, cultivated by steady, dedicated work at all levels, every day, not just once every four years…”

“So in the election, sensible choices have to be made. But they are secondary to serious political action. The main task is to create a genuinely responsive democratic culture, and that effort goes on before and after electoral extravaganzas, whatever their outcome.”

Potential Harm

Could a Sanders presidential run help us build the grassroots movements and weight that Chomsky sees (and Zinn saw) as the “serious political action” that ought to count most for those who wish to bring about substantive progressive change? I very much doubt it, for two reasons. First, candidate-centered campaigns tend to pretty much soak up all or at least most of the political energies of their participants. There’s not much left for efforts to build and expand movements for deeper systemic changes beneath and beyond biennial and quadrennial elections. (This is especially true for the absurdly lengthy presidential race, which begins in Iowa and New Hampshire at least 18 months prior to the actual election date.) As Levine observes, “mid-term elections are upon us, and the contest for the presidency in 2016 is about to heat up. These elections, like others before them, will suck up political energy that would be better expended elsewhere; and, as usual, little, if any, good will come from them.”

Second, there’s the deepened sense of popular powerlessness that will be engendered when Sanders is defeated if not in Iowa and/or New Hampshire then later on, as he almost certainly will be given the giant financial expense of presidential politics and the inevitable and powerful bias of elite campaign donors and “mainstream” (corporate state) media against any candidate who calls himself a socialist (however vague and mild that candidate’s usage of that term may be) and runs against the over-concentration of wealth. The fact that Sanders will campaign on behalf of policies that most US citizens actually support but will lose will obscure the fact that most of those citizens are progressive. It will fuel the deadly illusion that progressive, social-democratic policies lack majority support and further a sense of futility and isolation among progressive activists.

These impressions are not positively correlated with meaningful popular action of any kind, outside or inside the reigning US elections racket. Quite the opposite.

That’s all worse than “little, if any good” (Levine). It’s harmful for progressive causes and people.

The Liberal “Will to Believe” in Savior Candidates

“As democratic politics have moved from the stump to the airwaves,” the leading US political scientist Jeffrey A. Winters (Northwestern University) noted last April, in a Huffington Post Op-Ed titled “Oligarchy and Democracy in America,” “the cost of campaigns has exploded. And they are overwhelmingly financed by the rich, particularly during the primaries when the choices are narrowed and the agenda gets set. In the end, ordinary Americans still get to vote. But their choices are vetted via a wealth primary (with $30,000 a plate dinners) that starts long before ordinary citizens hear about candidates or issues.”

Let’s face it: the US party and elections systems are hopelessly captive to big money campaign donors and corporate media spinners. Those systems are therefore incapable of meaningfully advancing the progressive social and democratic (and social-democratic) policies and values that most US citizens support. As Levine notes, “in a sham democracy like ours, voting is not how justice is advanced.”

This is a harsh reality that may US progressives simply do want to confront. “Lesser evilism happens,” Levine adds, “when elections are held; it will be no different this November or in 2016.  And progressive hearts will again be set atwitter – by one or another meretricious savior….In liberal circles, the will to believe is irrepressible.  The Obama experience hasn’t stifled it; and even complicity in war crimes and crimes against humanity will not overcome it” (emphasis added).

Why work to help the United States’ frankly oligarchic elections and candidate-as-“savior” arrangement seem like anything different than what it really is – a coldly cynical plutocratic caricature of democracy? Far better to save and invest our energy in a different kind and definition of the politics that matters. Far better to steer clear of the next QEE* to focus instead on developing day-to-day grassroots progressive organizations pushing for fundamental democratic transformation and for transcendence of the nation’s core authoritarian institutions, including its party and elections structures, which are hopelessly ensnared by the nation’s unelected and interrelated dictatorships of money and empire.

The point is not to denounce or reject electoral politics as such, but to advance and advocate (among other things) electoral and party systems that accurately reflect and empower public opinion and thereby merit popular participation.

*Qualification: How to Maybe Make it Useful

There is, I suppose, one caveat to my negative judgment on a Sanders presidential run. The way to make it useful would be for him and others to use his candidacy as an opportunity to bring substantive issues – including the authoritarian fiasco that is the corporate-dominated and militaristic US elections system and political culture – into the public eye, without illusions about his campaign. It could be worthwhile, perhaps, if Sanders exploited his platform to, among other things, note the absurdity of how he is going to get clobbered even though he is advancing policies that most citizens support – and to tell folks to follow Chomsky Zinn’s advice on the real politics that matters most beyond those minutes in the ballot box (or those two hours at the caucus). Along the way, he could (ironically enough) mock the delusions and trickery of US candidate-as-“savior”-centered politics and follow the example of Dr. King by realizing and stating unequivocally that one cannot meaningfully oppose domestic poverty, racism and inequality without meaningfully confronting Empire at home and abroad.

None of that would be easy. Little of it strikes me as likely. But it’s probably the only way to create a Sanders presidential run that would help rather than harm the interrelated struggles for justice, peace, democracy, and environmental sustainability.

In the meantime, maybe progressive Iowa and New Hampshire residents should try to launch some version of the bottom-up people’s caucuses and primaries that Chomsky proposed to Occupy Boston – the way we’d approach presidential and other candidates in “a functioning democratic society.”

Comments On ZNet site:

  1. From Paul Street: I got this from a left activist in Burlington, VT:
    Today at 9:54 AM
    “Paul, Concerning the third point in your Reflections on a BS Presidential Run —Those of us on the left in Vermont, have long known about Bernie’s decidedly schizophrenic self. He’s like the little girl with the curl in the middle of her forehead. When he’s good, he’s very good, consistently good, but for the most part in foreign policy and war and peace issues, he’s horrid. Worse than horrid — completely unresponsive to widespread, consistent, well-argued constituent pressure, and actively immoral. ”
    “It’s not just the Senate Res.498 vote — which, btw, he is defending as a non-vote for (just a non-objection against), but a long legislative history of voting for military funding, supporting Israeli atrocities, and last year fighting (along with the entire congressional delegation and the mayor) for basing the F-35 in Burlington, in the face of every possible objection.”
    “I don’t know if you’ve ever met him, but he is a gruff and imperious personality, intolerant of criticism, experienced at shouting down questioners at the public meetings he calls. I never really understood him before an interaction I had with his chief of staff back when Bernie was supporting the bombing of Kosovo.”
    “I had just written an article for our monthly neighborhood journal on Bernie’s voting for the bombing. I met the chief of staff at the Farmer’s Market, and I said to him, ‘ we have a piece coming out about Bernie’s vote to bomb Kosovo. Do you think Bernie would like to write something for us, explaining his vote? We can publish them together.’ He said to me (I’ve memorized this word for word, and if I ever perform it for you, I can include intonation and emphases):
    ‘If you fucking lefties [note YOU lefties] would get your heads out of your assholes for one second you could see that this is not important. I go to hundreds of meetings, and I can tell you that these things have never been raised once. So, no, Bernie will not write anything for you, because we have more important work to do!’ ”
    “In other words, Bernie simply does not consider war and peace issues important enough for his consideration. As he has told protest groups many times in his office, ‘these are not my issues.’ Then, if they sit down, he will have them arrested.”
  2. “Another (10-year long) anecdote. Sanders used to walk past our 10+ year daily peace vigil across the street from his office (not directed at him — directed at whatever wars were happening) with no indication that he and we were on the same side of anything. Sometimes he would charge through the line head down. If somebody challenged his behavior with a semi-sarcastic ‘Hi, Bernie’, he might grunt something, and keep on charging through to the parking lot behind the church where he parked his car. Often he took a less direct route across the street to avoid us. And of course he never joined us. ”
  3. “He ain’t no peace candidate.”
    1. avatar
    Paul August 28, 2014 2:23 am 

    “In other words, Bernie simply does not consider war and peace issues important enough for his consideration.”

    This is easy enough to test….

    There are tow, and only two, mutually exclusive propositions:

    A – Bernie does not consider whether to vote for US aggression or against US aggression.

    B- Bernie considers whether to vote for or against US aggression

    The tow are mutually exclusive and there are only tow states possible like flipping a coin.

    If Bernie is making no consideration this implies that, based on an analysis of his voting record we should see:

    P(vote for aggression) = 0.5
    P(vote against aggression) = 0.5

    Just like a flipped coin.

    But instead we see:

    P(vote for aggression) = very nearly 1.0

    Therefore, the proposition that he is not consideration regarding his vote can be excluded.

    This leaved the only possibility that he makes a consistent consideration on this issue – and his Chief of Staff is spouting utter bullshit and nonsense.

    Q.E.D.

    I leave it as an exercise to similarly deconstruct through logic that supposedly sublime Golda Meier quote about killing and Arab children that has been bandied about so much – and based on this recent “town hall meeting” Bernie seem to hold with high regard, as shown here:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vf2cCdgwgoM

     

  1. avatar
    Michael August 27, 2014 4:15 pm 

    In some other countries where voting is mandatory, those who wish to register their discontent and missing trust in elections that simply endorse more of the same, citizens hand in blank or damaged ballots. These numbers, too, are tabulated. Here in the U.S., many, sometimes as many who go to the polls, just don’t vote. In U.S. presidential elections this number can just about equal those who vote. Not much conversation take place about this outside of academic or scholarly research after the election is over.

    Paul’s skepticism is well-founded and a run by Senator Sanders mostly will only suggest the legitimacy of the electoral system in the U.S. as a dissident (barely) participates. If he does pursue his run and in some way makes ideas known that the main presidential politics will not, then he will simply be mostly absent from news reporting. This is feel-good liberalism not at its best.

     

  2. Ed Lytwak August 27, 2014 3:57 pm 

    “The point is not to denounce or reject electoral politics as such, but to advance and advocate (among other things) electoral and party systems that accurately reflect and empower public opinion and thereby merit popular participation.” That is exactly THE POINT. Representative democracy is the problem not the solution. Street et al. should read Sitrin and Azzellini’s new book “They Can’t Represent Us: reinventing democracy from Greece to Occupy” We need to move to real participatory democracy where people govern themselves rather than having some neofascist stooge or marshmallow socialist rule for and over us. I like Bernie, but Sanders reminds me a lot of Roosevelt someone that is “elected” by oligarch/banker/corporate sham “democracy” to defuse revolution rather than ignite it.

     

  3. Richard Bluhm August 27, 2014 1:22 pm 

    I’m thinking of what happened to Warren Beaty’s character in the film, Bulworth; of what happened to J.F.K. after indulging in too many “Bay of Pigs” incidents, of what happened to Bobby after the elite swore that a Kennedy would never get in the White House again, of what happened to M.L.K. when his activism was making a difference. I’m also thinking of what happened to my candidate, jill Stein, whose Green New Deal you praise in your new book, “They Rule.” We met her at a park in Denver before the Obama and Romney’s so-called debates. Several hundred of us marched to Denver University at which point Jill and Cherrie were cuffed and disappeared for eight hours. They elite stop at nothing, NOTHING to stay in control. The only glitch is that the vultures need us. They need us to believe their constant stream of propaganda, to serve them, to protect them and to validate them. Lots of us have come to the conclusion that there is no dignity in being spun like tops and played like fiddles.

 

“No Just God”

28/08/14 0 COMMENTS

ZNet, August 23, 2014

By the calculations of the White House, beheaded journalist James Foley’s life wasn’t worth the annual “earnings” of a top US corporate CEO. It wasn’t worth a tiny fraction of the money paid out by the federal government to giant corporations and their filthy well-off CEOs in the form of cost-plus “defense” contracts and other subsidies to the rich.

Foley’s grisly murder was, however, an opportunity for Barack Obama to express outrage and determination to press on with the same military and imperial policies that have done so much to create the Islamic state of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the new arch-reactionary caliphate in the Middle East. In an official statement on Foley’s killing, Barack Obama “went all Bush” as he spoke with seething anger:

“They have rampaged across cities and villages — killing innocent, unarmed civilians in cowardly acts of violence. They have murdered Muslims…by the thousands….ISIL speaks for no religion.  Their victims are overwhelmingly Muslim, and no faith teaches people to massacre innocents.  No just God would stand for what they did yesterday, and for what they do every single day…the fact is they terrorize their neighbors and offer them nothing but an endless slavery and… the collapse of any definition of civilized behavior.”

Going through that condemnation, it is difficult for any honest and competent observer not to notice how much of it could accurately be applied to Israel. Imagine Obama saying anything remotely comparable about Israel’s mass slaughter of civilians in Gaza this summer (see the name, age, and gender of nearly 1800 Palestinian victims counted as of August 13, 2014 here) and the deadly apartheid and related miserable poverty Israel imposes on the Palestinian people (including 1.8 million trapped in the besieged open-air prison that is the Gaza Strip) every single day. It’s unthinkable, of course.

What “just God would stand for” Israel’s targeted massacre of women and children in apartment buildings, schools, UN shelters, hospitals, playgrounds, and beaches?  Or for the miserable restrictions Israel places on Gaza residents’ basic human rights, including the right to decent food, shelter, clean water, and more?

(I am reminded of November and December 2008, when then President Elect Obama condemned in no uncertain terms the Islamist terror attack in Mumbai but claimed that “institutional constraints” – “one president at a time” – prevented him from commenting on recent large-scale Israeli massacres in Gaza.)

But then, speaking of the massacre of Muslims, “what just God would stand” for the United States’ one-sided killing of literally millions of Iraqi civilians – including more than a million children – since 1991?

You want to learn about evil that “no just God would stand for”? Take a look at US policy in Iraq, including early on the “Highway of Death,” when U.S. forces massacred tens of thousands of surrendered Iraqi troops retreating from Kuwait on February 26 and 27, 1991. The Lebanese-American journalist Joyce Chediac testified that:

“U.S. planes trapped the long convoys by disabling vehicles in the front, and at the rear, and then pounded the resulting traffic jams for hours. ‘It was like shooting fish in a barrel,’ said one U.S. pilot. On the sixty miles of coastal highway, Iraqi military units sit in gruesome repose, scorched skeletons of vehicles and men alike, black and awful under the sun…for 60 miles every vehicle was strafed or bombed, every windshield is shattered, every tank is burned, every truck is riddled with shell fragments. No survivors are known or likely…. ‘Even in Vietnam I didn’t see anything like this. It’s pathetic,’ said Major Bob Nugent, an Army intelligence officer…. U.S. pilots took whatever bombs happened to be close to the flight deck, from cluster bombs to 500 pound bombs…. U.S. forces continued to drop bombs on the convoys until all humans were killed. So many jets swarmed over the inland road that it created an aerial traffic jam, and combat air controllers feared midair collisions…. The victims were not offering resistance…it was simply a one-sided massacre of tens of thousands of people who had no ability to fight back or defend.”

Less than a year after his forces inflicted this unthinkable carnage, U.S. President George H.W. Bush proclaimed that, “A world once divided into two armed camps now recognizes one sole and pre-eminent power, the United States of America. And they regard this with no dread. For the world trusts us with power, and the world is right. They trust us to be fair and restrained. They trust us to be on the side of decency. They trust us to do what’s right.”

Later came Madeline Albright proclaiming on CBS (1996) that “the price” of 500,000 dead Iraqi children killed by US-led economic sanctions was “worth paying” for the advance of inherently noble US foreign policy goals. Then there was the monumentally criminal US invasion that killed a million-plus in Iraq (2003-2012/13) – an invasion that included among countless US atrocities the practical levelling and radioactive poisoning of an entire city (Fallujah) in April and November of 2004. It’s all wonderful context for something then presidential candidate Obama liked to say on the campaign trail in the summer of 2008: “it’s time to stop spending billions of dollars a week trying to put Iraq back together and start spending the money putting [the US of] America back together.”  What did a “just God” think of that little bit of evil populace-manipulating trickery?

What would a “just God” think of what a US military source told antiwar journalist and author Jeremy Scahill about a standard Special Forces “anti-terror” operation in the Age of Obama: “If there’s one person they’re going after and there’s thirty-four [other] people in the building, then thirty-five people are going to die.”

I could go on.  The Orwellian-doublethink absurdity of it all is just breathtaking. It applies to the “homeland” as well.  The “first black president” is immeasurably more upset about the brutal killing of a white US journalist than he is about the pitiless liquidation of hundreds of Black US civilians by US cops every year. He cautions against protestor violence in Ferguson but he sure loves to launch the missiles, bombs, and drones all over the Muslim world (on bombs just ask the people of Bola Boluk). He sure was ready to give the racist apartheid state of Israel more ammunition to kill more Palestinian children, wasn’t he? The technically Black Obama’s “going all Bush” over James Foley but it’s all caution and calm when it comes to Mike Brown…and Denzel Curnell (killed by South Carolina police in Charleston last June), and Ezell Ford (shot to death by an LAPD officer earlier this month) and Eric Garner (choked to the death by the NYPD last July), and Dante Parker (Tased to death by county police Victorville, CA earlier this month) and Kajieme Powell (killed by 10 police bullets after stealing pastries in St. Louis last Tuesday)…and…the list goes on and on.

What just God stands for predominantly white US police, security guards, and self-appointed vigilantes killing a Black civilian once every 28 hours on average or for the United States’ emergence as the world’s mass incarceration leader (a curious attainment for the self-appointed homeland and headquarters of “freedom”) largely on the basis of the arrest, incarceration, and lifelong criminal-marking of mostly nonviolent Black American “offenders” (who make up 40 percent of the nation’s massive 2.4 million prisoner army)? What “just God stands for” for the persistent hyper-segregation and near-starvation of millions of deeply poor US Black children or the continuation of an institutionally racist power structure so savage that the net worth of the median white US household is 22 times that of the median black US household?

What just God would stand for the existence of 16 million US children living below the federal government’s notoriously inadequate poverty level in: a now openly oligarchic nation so unequal that the top 1% holds more wealth than the bottom 90%; a  nation whose “popular” government stands ready to spend 29 trillion taxpayer dollars on the rescue of parasitic financial institutions that crashed the economy; a nation of mass poverty and insecurity with the weakest welfare amongst all “developed” countries that accounts for half of the world’s military spending.  That giant “defense” expenditure is necessary among other things for it to maintain more than 1000 military installations across more than 100 “sovereign” nations and for Obama to place US Special Forces now in 134 nations.

As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said in New York City’s Riverside Church exactly one year before his assassination, “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.” This was same speech in which King said the following on why he had chosen to condemn the mass murderous US war on Indochina: “I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today — my own government.”

The US ghettos still stand in big cities and also in suburbs like Ferguson, Missouri, and smaller towns like Benton Harbor, Michigan.  They are as abandoned and demonized as ever (Ferguson’s whites have reportedly gone on a gun-purchasing spree) while well more than $1 trillion is spent each year to support the United States’ continuing role as “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today” – a role that is well understood outside the US, by a global populace that continues to rank the US as the leading threat to peace on Earth.

If there’s a “just God” (or just Goddess) in the cosmos, She or He does not look favorably on US Empire and Inequality at home and abroad.  She/He is also not pleased with the narrow and selective fake-moralism of Barack Obama.

Paul Street is a writer and author in Iowa City, Iowa. He can be reached at paul.street99@gmail.com . His next book is They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (order at http://www.paradigmpublishers.com/Books/BookDetail.aspx?productID=367810).

Ferguson Reflections: Race, Class, and the Crisis of Democracy

28/08/14 0 COMMENTS

teleSur English, August 22, 2014

This essay was written on Wednesday, August 20, 2014.  Numerous developments in the fast-moving Ferguson situation will certainly have occurred in intervening days and nights prior to this essay’ s publication.

No Mystery

Last Monday evening on the Public” Broadcasting System’s nightly Newshour, Brian Fletcher, the white former mayor of Ferguson, Fletcher, said that “I don’t think anyone quite knows the answer why calm is not coming” to his home town.  He left the impression that the main cause behind the continuing unrest was – you guessed it – “outside agitators.”

It was a remarkable statement.  There is nothing remotely mysterious about what  has caused the continuation of popular protest and battles with local, county, state, and now (with the calling in of the National Guard, supported by Fletcher) national authorities in Ferguson.  The “forces of order” have been the consistent provocative and driving influence.

Beyond the initial execution-style murder of Michael Brown, there was the Ferguson police’s decision to leave Brown’s body lying in the street in a pool of blood for hours. Then came the official police story that Brown had been shot after fighting with a white officer and “reaching for his gun” – a narrative that did not match what many eyewitnesses saw.

Then there was the Israeli-style response to the initial protests. Ferguson and above all St. Louis County cops went into full paramilitary mode. They donned helmets, shields, flak vests, gas masks, and shields, using armored vehicles as they dispersed crowds with tear gas and rubber bullets. SWAT team members brandished high-powered assault rifles, aiming their military-issue weapons at unarmed civilians.

There was the long delay in releasing the name and the race of Michael Brown’s killer, Darren Wilson.  Then there the Ferguson police department’s inflammatory decision to show a video of Brown stealing a snack from a local convenience store (in what the police called a “strong arm robbery”) on the day he was killed.  That release was obviously intended to “change the narrative” in favor of the police, as if petty theft somehow merits summary execution.

And there was the autopsy commissioned by Brown’s parents, showing that Wilson shot Michael six times, including shots to the head as he bent over in surrender.

Links in a Long and Deadly Racist Chain

It would be a mistake to view the events in Ferguson as some kind of freakish anomaly in the supposedly color-blind US. The Malcom X Grassroots Movement calculates that on average a Black US civilian is killed by a(n almost always white) police officer, security guard, or self-appointed vigilante once every 28 hours. Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown are tragic links in a vast chain of Black corpses still created by local, county, and state police in the Ages of Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush 41, Clinton, Bush 43, and Obama 44. Recent victims include Denzel Curnell (killed by South Carolina police in Charleston last June), Terrence Shurn (whose death at county police hands sparked off two days of rioting and a massive local and state police response in Benton Harbor, Michigan in June of 2003), Sean Bell (killed in a 500-bullet NYPD barrage just hours before he was supposed to be married in November of 2006), Ezell Ford (shot to death by an LAPD officer earlier this month and Eric Garner (choked to the death by the NYPD last July), Dante Parker (Tased to death by counter police Victorville, CA earlier this month) and Kajieme Powell (killed by 10 police bullets after stealing pastries and waving a knife around in St. Louis last Tuesday), and …the list goes on and on.

The killings take place a context of persistent harsh racial segregation and related savage racial inequality so steep that the median wealth of white US households is 22 times higher than the median wealth of black US households. They take place against the backdrop of a four-decades-long campaign of racially disparate hyper-incarceration and criminal marking. More than 40 percent of the nation’s 2.4 million prisoners are Black. One in three black adult males carries the crippling lifelong stigma (what law professor Michelle Alexander has famously termed “the New Jim Crow”) of a felony record.

The militarization of local police that has been highlighted in the US “mainstream” media during the Ferguson drama has been a strongly racialized phenomenon for decades. To no small extent, the process was sparked off by white racist reaction to the Black Civil Rights movement and the urban Black uprisings of the 1960s. Warrior-style policing has been fueled ever since by the racially disparate so-called War on Drugs – the leading force behind United States’ ugly emergence as the world’s mass imprisonment leader (a curious attainment for the self-described “land of freedom”).

Beyond Big Cities

The misery inflicted on the nation’s many millions of poor and working class Blacks by persistent interrelated race and class apartheid and oppression – the institution and societal racism that lives on beneath the emergence of Black Faces in High Places (including even the White House, where the nation’s “first black president” has predictably shown himself even less willing to seriously confront the nation’s steep racial disparities and their real causes than the more fully white presidents who preceded him) – is commonly identified with classic vast ghetto swaths in big cities like Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, St. Louis, Cincinnati, Milwaukee, and Detroit.  In reality, however, concentrated Black poverty, joblessness, and related racial apartheid is pervasive in numerous smaller US jurisdictions. If you want to talk to heavily segregated and deeply poor, criminally marked, and police-abused Black Americans, you don’t have to go major metropolises. You can visit smaller cities and towns like East St. Louis, Illinois, Benton Harbor, Michigan (containing astounding hyper-segregated Black misery in close proximity to lush Lake Michigan resorts and the sprawling modern headquarters of the Whirlpool Corporation), Flint, Michigan, Michigan City, Indiana, Gary, Indiana, Inkster, Michigan, Rock Island, Illinois, and Camden, New Jersey.  You can also travel to predominantly Black suburbs adjacent to big cities like Maywood and Bellwood, Illinois (extensions of Chicago’s vast West Side ghetto), numerous suburbs south of Chicago, and Ferguson (north of St. Louis, whose main black ghetto is on its North Side).

The Real Looters

Another mistake is to see the militarization of US local policing as an almost unconscious and creeping development devoid of intentionality on the part of the US power elite. One doesn’t have to be a “conspiracy theorist” to know better than that. The ever more openly oligarchic United States is a ferociously unequal society marked by severe racial and class disparity. It is an imperial state-capitalist and white-supremacist plutocracy where the top hundredth owns more wealth than the bottom 90 percent.  Six Walmart heirs possess as much wealth between them as the bottom 42% of US citizens (or ex-citizens) while16 million US children live below the federal government’s notoriously inadequate poverty level.  One in seven US citizens currently rely on food banks for basic nutrition (half of those people are employed, incidentally).  These terrible facts reflect more than three decades of deliberately engineered upward wealth and income distribution: a ruthless state-capitalist concentration of riches and power that has brought us to a New Gilded Age of abject oligarchy and (along the way) to the brink of environmental catastrophe.

The real Looters of America are in the suites, not the streets. The corporate and financial elite and their many allies and agents in politics, media, and government have long understood that their “neoliberal” project – Austerity and ruin for the Many combined with endless opulence and increased power (to defend that opulence) for the Few – requires an augmented capacity for “homeland” repression. The tools for that repression are richly enhanced by the technologies, practices, culture, and institutions of global Empire abroad, itself a leading vehicle for the upward distribution of wealth and power.

Aristotle’s Great Democracy Dilemma

It is hardly surprising that the weapons of domestic repression are used most lethally against Black Americans. As black radical commentator Glen Ford noted on Black Agenda Report last week, “The people who rule America no longer need Black labor. What they do need is a class that is forcibly anchored at the bottom of U.S. society, who can be scapegoated for whatever is wrong with America, and whose very presence serves as an excuse for massive urban dislocation and the steady erosion of civil liberties. Michael Brown and countless others have died in order to keep America deeply stratified. That’s the only use the United States has for young Black men.”

It’s been that way for quite some time.  But non-elite, working- and “middle”-class Caucasians (that most white Americans) can hardly rest easy.  There’s plenty of white Caucasians whose labor and buying power no longer matter to “the 1%.”  The elite is ready, willing, and able to place tens of millions of white “surplus Americans” on the wrong side of the burgeoning domestic police and surveillance state.

This too is less than novel. The US ruling class declared a “crisis of democracy” – by which they meant there was too much democracy and too many popular expectations for improved lives and a more decent world – in the late 1960s and early 1970s.  It looked askance not just at the rising militancy of communities of color during those years but also at the restiveness and egalitarian sentiments of younger white middle class and working class Americans.

As US capitalism’s ability to deliver the goods to ordinary citizens of all colors faded with the rise of new European and Japanese economic competition in the late 1960s and 1970s, the nation’s “unelected dictatorship of money” (never removed over roughly three decades of significant downward wealth and income distribution) gave a chilling response to what might be called Aristotle’s Great Democracy Dilemma. The ancient Greek philosopher understood that a democracy should be widely participatory and that it should aim to serve the common good.  To reach those goals, he felt, is had to enforce relative equality and “lasting prosperity” for all. A society scarred by extremes of rich and poor, Aristotle knew, could never be a serious or functioning democracy. “Aristotle also made the point,” Noam Chomsky has further explained, “that if you have, in a perfect democracy, a small number of rich people and a large number of very poor people, the poor will use their democratic rights to take property away from the rich, Aristotle regarded that as unjust, and proposed two possible solutions: either reducing poverty (which is what he recommended) or reducing democracy.”

Faced with the threat of democratic upheaval, a declining ability to provide “lasting prosperity,” and the threat (real and/or perceived) of expropriation from below, the US power elite resoundingly rejected Aristotle’s counsel. It took the path suggested by James Madison and other wealthy US Founders: containing and rolling back democracy rather than reducing poverty and inequality. The “left [popular, egalitarian and participatory] hand of the state” was trumped by the reactionary, regressive, and repressive “right hand of the state” (to use the terminology of the late French sociologist Pierre Boudieu).  We’ve been living with the terrible authoritarian and Orwellian consequences ever since – consequences that are, as always, imposed with special viciousness against Black Americans, as in Ferguson today but from which millions of whites can hardly count on exemption.

Paul Street’s latest book is They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm, 2014). Street can be reached at paul.street99@gmail.com

Posse Comitatus, Ferguson, Missouri, and Racialized Military Policing

21/08/14 0 COMMENTS

First published on ZNet, August 17, 2014

Many United-States-of Americans like to think that they are fortunate to live a nation where the military is prohibited from interference in domestic civil affairs. Thanks is often given to the 1875 Posse Comitatus Act (hereafter “PCA”), commonly seen as prohibiting the use of the US Armed Forces in domestic policing. US citizens are fortunate, the narrative runs, not to face the threat of a military police state – of military rule on their streets. The PCA is credited with keeping the US military out of the business of “executing the laws” (language from the act).

Posse Comitatus Act Not All It’s Cracked Up to Be

The narrative should be rethought for at least three reasons. First of all, the PCA is loaded with qualifications and limits that render it far less than a comprehensive ban on the “homeland” use of the military. As the civil libertarian journalist and author Radley Balko explains, the PCA is “commonly misunderstood to bar the president or Congress from using the military to enforce federal or state law. That isn’t quite correct. The law only prevents domestic law enforcement officials from using the military to enforce the law without authority from the president or Congress. It puts no restrictions on the president or Congress.”

US courts have held that the phrase “executing the laws” refers to “hands-on policing”: searching, arresting, and coercing citizens. But the PCA does not bar the military from giving equipment and training to domestic authorities – or from working thereby to cultivate a warrior culture among local, county, and state “peace officers.”

The PCA applies only to Army regulars and federalized National Guardsmen. If Guard units stay under the authority of state governors, the legislation is null.

The PCA does not ban the domestic employment of the military in “hands-on policing” as long as Congress passes a statutory “exception.” There are numerous such exceptions in place, including a “military purpose” allowance. When the Army is used domestically “to achieve a military purpose” and incidentally reinforces civilian policing, it does not violate the act.

And despite the fact that the PCA has been clearly violated many times since its passage, the US Department of Justice has never once prosecuted anyone for violating the legislation.

“Homeland” Military Deployments: A Short History

Second, there is a rich history of the US military being deployed in domestic policing and repression both before and since the PCA. Leading past incidents of military deployment in the “homeland” include:

  • The use of federal militia to put down the agrarian Whiskey Rebellion in western Pennsylvania in 1794.
  • Frequent military deployments in the 1850s to enforce the odious Fugitive Slave Act by dispersing abolitionist protests and forcibly returning alleged escapade slaves to bondage.
  • Repression of nationwide railroad worker strikes in 1877.
  • Repression of striking workers in Homestead, Pennsylvania in 1892.
  • Repression of railroad and other workers during the 1894 Pullman Strike.
  • Repression of striking miners, followed by two years of federal martial law in Coeur d’Alene, Utah, 1899-1901
  • Repression of striking mineworkers in Ludlow, Colorado, in 1914.
  • Numerous crushed strikes, occupation of the copper mining regions of Arizona and Montana, and destruction of the International Workers of the World (IWW) during and after World War I (historian Jerry Cooper notes that “unrestrained federal military intervention… substantially slowed unionization for more than a decade.”)
  • The deployment of the US Army infantry and cavalry (under the direction of US Army chief of staff Douglas MacArthur) to crush the unemployed veterans Bonus Army camp in Washington DC in July 1932.
  • Repression of protesting Black Americans during the 1943 Detroit race riot.
  • Repression of protesting Black Americans during the 1965 Los Angeles Watts riot.
  • Repression of protesting Black Americans during the 1967 Detroit race riot.
  • Numerous Army National Guard deployments to repress antiwar and urban black protests during the late 1960s and early 1970s.
  • Repression of protesting Black Americans during the 1992 Los Angeles (Rodney King) riot: the US Army 7th Infantry and the 1st US Marines Division were deployed along with the California Army National Guard

Rise of the Warrior Cop

A third reason not to get too proud of the United States’ purported grand civil-libertarian tradition of keeping the military out of law enforcement is more indirect in nature. As Radley Balko notes in his useful recent book Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces (2013):

“the principle of keeping the US military out of law enforcement [has] remained largely intact. Despite the best efforts of too many politicians, [the] public has still tended to recoil at the idea of putting soldiers on city streets, even for a brief time, much less for day-to-day law enforcement…That’s the good news. The bad news…[is that] we’ve done a poor job, to borrow a bit of martial rhetoric, of guarding our flanks. The biggest threat today…comes from indirect militarization. Instead of allowing our soldiers to serve as cops, we’re turning our cops into soldiers. It’s a threat the Founders didn’t anticipate, that nearly all politicians support, and that much of the public either seems to support or just hasn’t given much attention….No one made a decision to militarize the police in America. The change has come slowly, as a result of a generation of politicians and public officials fanning and exploiting public fears by declaring wars on abstractions like crime, drug use, and terrorism. The resulting policies have made those war metaphors increasingly real” (emphasis added).

Dystopian Scenes: Ferguson as the West Bank

The recent flood of clips and images (on television and online) from the predominantly black and poor St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, Missouri are all too consistent with Balko’s observation. They promise to increase public attention to the problem of police militarization. In response to legitimate black popular anger and protest over yet another fatal shooting of a young black man by a white police officer in the US (an endemic problem in not-so “post-racial” America), predominantly white police from Ferguson, other jurisdictions, and (above all) St. Louis County went into paramilitary and anti-insurgent mode – reminding many viewers of Israel’s repressive tactics in Gaza and the West Bank. The police donned helmets, shields, flak vests, gas masks, and shields, using armored vehicles as they dispersed crowds with tear gas, rubber bullets, and sound cannons. SWAT team members brandished high-powered assault rifles, aiming their deadly military-issue weapons at unarmed fellow civilians.

Apparently the Israel connection is more than mere analogy. According to reporter Rania Khalek at the Website Electronic Intifada:

“Since the killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown by Ferguson police in Missouri last weekend, the people of Ferguson have been subjected to a military-style crackdown by a squadron of local police departments dressed like combat soldiers, prompting residents to liken the conditions on the ground in Ferguson to the Israeli military occupation of Palestine. And who can blame them? The dystopian scenes of paramilitary units in camouflage rampaging through the streets of Ferguson, pointing assault rifles at unarmed residents and launching tear gas into people’s front yards from behind armored personnel carriers (APCs), could easily be mistaken for a Tuesday afternoon in the occupied West Bank….And it’s no coincidence. At least two of the four law enforcement agencies that were deployed in Ferguson up until Thursday evening — the St. Louis County Police Department and the St. Louis Police Department — received training from Israeli security forces in recent years” (emphasis added).

From Warfighter to Crimefighter…and Back

Two Ferguson images I just can’t shake: the picture of a St. Louis County sniper sitting with his state-of-the-art killing machine attached to its elaborate stand like a US Marine pausing between fatal shots in Fallujah; the picture of a young longhaired black man wearing blue jeans, a bright blue t-shirt, sneakers, and a baseball cap with a cloth bag over his left shoulder and both hands in the air while five white para-militaries wearing gas masks move aggressively towards him with assault rifles pointing at his chest and face.

In Ferguson and St. Louis County as in thousands of other jurisdictions across the country, local authorities have received significant amounts of military equipment from the Pentagon. The materials obtained range from pistols and automatic rifles to heavy armored vehicles used in Afghanistan and Iraq. The surplus military disbursements have been coming into local police departments in rising quantities ever since Congress created the “1033” program in the early 1990s. The program’s motto: “From Warfighter to Crimefighter.” The equipment and the training required to use it often come with deadly culture baggage, helping turn local police from civilians engaged in law enforcement to soldiers involved in the control of subjects.

By 2005, Balko reports, 80 percent of US towns with populations between 25,000 and 50,000) had SWAT teams, up from 25 percent in 1980 (the number is certainly close to 100% in cities above 50,000). In 2005 alone, an astonishing 60,000 local SWAT raids (most undertaken to serve a drug warrant) took place across the nation.

It Helps But You Don’t Have to be Black to Face the New Warrior Cops

Across the nation as well as in Ferguson, the militarization of US local police has been a strongly racialized phenomenon. To no small extent, the process was sparked off by white racist reaction to the Black Civil Rights movement and the urban Black uprisings of the 1960s. Warrior-style policing has been fueled ever since by the racially hyper-disparate so-called War on Drugs – the leading force behind the ugly facts that the US is now far and away the world’s leading incarceration state while 1 in 3 black adult males carry the crippling lifelong stigma (what law professor Michelle Alexander has famously termed “the New Jim Crow”) of a felony record.

At the same time, you don’t necessarily have to be Black or Latino to get on the wrong wide of the new military police state. Besides the many Caucasians who have been killed and maimed by local, state, and country drug warriors, predominantly (though not at all exclusively) white US protestors have faced off against significantly militarized local, county, and state police (and mercenary corporate security forces) in Seattle (the WTO protests of 1999, when para-militarized police famously tear-gassed middle class neighborhoods), New York (the Republican National Convention, when the NYPD first rolled the Long Range Acoustic Device [sound cannon - LRAD] for domestic crowd control purposes), St. Paul (the 2008 RNC), Denver (the 2008 Democratic National Convention), Pittsburgh (2009 G8 protests), and Chicago (2012 anti-NATO and anti-plutocracy marches and demonstrations).

There are limits to the honorary Blackness you will be granted by the militarized police if you are a white protestor in the US today. While you may get tear-gassed, billy-clubbed, shoved to the ground, handcuffed, and briefly imprisoned, it is extremely unlikely that you will be shot dead or choked or tazed to death like hundreds of Black victims of police (and private security) violence each year. The Malcom X Grassroots Movement’s finds that a Black American is killed by a police officer, a security guard, or a self-appointed vigilante guards once every 28 hours (on average) in the US (see MXGM’s study “Operation Ghetto Storm,” at http://mxgm.org/operation-ghetto-storm-2012-annual-report-on-the-extrajudicial-killing-of-313-black-people/http://mxgm.org/operation-ghetto-storm-2012-annual-report-on-the-extrajudicial-killing-of-313-black-people/). The Kent State slaughter (of four white antiwar protestors by the Ohio National Guard in May of 1970) remains a great anomaly – a tiny Caucasian taste of the deadly violence that US police have long used and still routinely use against Black Americans on a regular basis.

Which is not to say that a white man cannot get a positive chill down his spine from the nation’s new breed of warrior cops. Having attended and participated in the last protest noted (Chicago 2012), I can personally testify to the positively dystopian feel of seeing unarmed peaceful marchers surrounded by legions of heavily equipped para-militarized Darth Vader-like “local” police from numerous jurisdictions. The officers glower at you from behind plastic face shields, with giant batons in hand while jackbooted commanders survey the scene atop horses. Black police vans speed through the street with recently arrested insurgents. The ever-present police helicopters whir high above, watching every move. Police teams stand nearby with the city’s recently acquired sound cannons, ready to be deployed to ear-splitting effect in case things get “out of control.”

It doesn’t take much to feel like an official Enemy of the State and when you do it doesn’t seem to matter all that much if the spiteful-looking agent of repression is glowering at you from behind a uniform that says “POLICE” or one that reads “ARMY.”

Besides being overrated on its own terms, the Posse Comitatus Act is somewhat beside the point in this Brave New World of militarized policing.

Paul Street’s latest book is They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm, 2014,http://www.paradigmpublishers.com/Books/BookDetail.aspx?productID=367810)

Really Bad Media

21/08/14 0 COMMENTS

teleSur English

August 17, 2014

Imagine having a cousin who insists on drinking a bottle of vodka and smoking three packs of cigarettes each day. He eats the majority of his meals at fast-food restaurants and never exercises. He lurches from one terrible health crisis to another, something he likes to talk and complain about at great length, again and again.

He’s happy to hear about medications and treatments for his endless ailments. But he ignores and shuts out anyone who raises fundamental questions about how he lives. He won’t discuss the deeper cause behind his symptoms, which will recur and expand until and unless he makes some deep changes. His doctors and pills will patch him up.  Until they can’t anymore. But “hey, that’s life…Life stinks and then you die,” your cousin likes to say, “but we get to have a little fun at least along the way.”

The Never-Ending Onslaught of Really Bad News

“Mainstream” United States “news” reporting and commentary is like this imaginary cousin.  The reigning US corporate media diet is loaded with ceaseless symptomatic tragedy. The Really Bad News never stops. There’s been another gang or police shooting in an urban ghetto or barrio. Tens of thousands of Central American child refugees are piling up at the US southern border.  Thousands more jobless people lined up to apply for a handful of low-paid positions at a local Wal-Mart.  Another factory closes its doors, costing hundreds of livable wage jobs and destroying the tax base that sustains basic services in a local community.

Another river or lake is polluted by corporations. Another chunk of the Arctic or Antarctic breaks off under the pressure of climate change.  A giant crater is created by the leakage of carbon-rich methane from melting not-so permafrost in Siberia. Another deadly storm and flood has resulted from global warming. Another species becomes extinct thanks to pollution.  Another widely consumed product contains cancer-causing chemicals.  Another automobile defect killed hundreds.

A study shows that we have entered a New Gilded Age of extreme inequality and plutocracy. Another scandal demonstrates how the nation’s “democratically elected” officials are captive to the top 1% that owns more than 90% of the nation’s wealth. Another analysis determines that the US isn’t “an actual democracy” anymore(if it ever was) – it’s an oligarchy [1].Another study shows that majority public opinion is now irrelevant on numerous core policy issues. A paper shows that the so-called War on Drugs has made the United States the world’s leading incarceration state and exacerbated violence in Central America.  Another investigation shows that mass imprisonment and the rampant felony marking of minorities deepens the nation’s savage racial inequalities. Another study shows that millions of US citizens are hopelessly alienated from “their” basic institutions and view “their” political system as a dollar-drenched racket. Another analysis shows that US citizens know shockingly little about US or world history.

More breaking “news”: childhood obesity is even more rampant than previously thought.  Children’s brains are being scrambled by too much television, too many video games, and too much time online. Human capacities for empathy are under assault from corporate advertising and so-called social media. Juvenile suicide is on the rise. Personal finance experts report that stagnating wages, weak employment prospects, and rolled back benefits mean that most Americans now need to develop “freelance side-gigs” on top of full-time jobs [1A]. Millions of grade-schoolers are zoned out on prescription psychotropic drugs. Another mass shooting at a school, shopping mall, or movie theater.  Another vital public service or benefit has been shut down or privatized. Another promise to the citizenry has been broken by a fake-populist, pseudo-progressive president.  Six Walmart heirs possess more wealth between them than the bottom 42% of US citizens. Another few trillions of dollars are lost to corporate subsidies and military (“defense”) spending while 16 million children live under the federal government’s notoriously inadequate poverty level.  Two billion people live on less than a dollar a day.

Another report of government and/or corporate spying on citizens (and even political leaders) at home and/or abroad.  Another new tool of mass destruction (the latest Stealth Bomber), mass surveillance (PRISM) or planetary Ecocide (horizontal drilling for hydraulic fracturing) is unveiled.   Another murderous right-wing Latin American coup (e.g. Honduras 2009) or coup attempt (Venezuela 2002) is backed by Washington in the name of “democracy.”  Another earthquake kills thousands who would have survived if their homes has been up to rich world standards. Another story about rampant child trafficking, labor, and/or prostitution. Another openly criminal, civilian-targeting attack on innocents is launched in Gaza by US client Israel (you can see the clip of an ambulance being attacked over and over again on CNN).

The lungs of the planet (the rain forests) are being felled in the name of development. Another lower class neighborhood is razed to make way for an Olympic or World Cup stadium (the arena will briefly be filled by affluent spectators and then sit empty for decades). Another US drone attack kills dozens of innocent civilians, recruiting untold numbers of youth to militant Islamism.  Another reckless US military or political action (e.g. a US-encouraged coup in Kiev, a US missile ship entering the Black Sea, and the US Seventh Fleet blustering through the South China Sea) provokes nuclear-armed Russia and/or China, harkening a “new Cold War.”  Another atrocity occurs in a nation (e.g. Iraq or Libya) where the US Armed Forces blew up the previously existing government, fomented ethnic divisions, and caused massive damage to social and technical infrastructure. (I am aware that I am advancing interpretations that are often not included in US “news” – especially with regard to US foreign policy, which US media uniformly treat as benevolent and democratic). I could go on.

That’s the nightly television “news.”  Then it’s on to the game shows, sit-coms, reality shows, crime dramas, and the endless barrage of quick-hit commercials that appear every six minutes during both “news” and entertainment broadcasting, which are increasingly merged. “And that’s the way it is: another crazy day in the unending and ongoing record of human folly.  Stay tuned to OHBN (the Orwell Huxley Bradbury Network) for an Entertainment Forever report on Megan Fox’s new figure-hugging mini-dress. But first some clever and happy automobile, insurance, and anti-anxiety pharmaceutical advertisements.”

Invisible Evils

In the official “mainstream” news and commentary, it is sometimes possible to discern reflections on some of what should and could be done to prevent and/or alleviate some of the pain connected to all this really bad news. Especially if you pay attention to the more highbrow sections of the media spectrum, you can discern occasional calls for job training programs, gun control measures, cease fires (at home and abroad, from the West Side of Chicago to Gaza and Syria), refugee shelters, United Nations efforts, community policing experiments, water purification technologies, carbon taxes/credits/caps/sequestration methods, alternative energy experiments, “ex-offender re-entry” and prison diversion programs, endangered species protections, tax reform proposals, campaign finance reforms, class-action law suits, police training measures, minimum wage laws, capital controls, environmental rules, financial regulations, charitable contributions, non-profit interventions, and the like. Every two and four years, you can glean glimmers of manipulative policy discussion from corporate-funded political candidates who try to sound like they care about current disasters in short and usually negative campaign ads focused mainly on superficial matters.

Still, most of the interminably appalling “news” reports come without the hint of solution.  The “news” is rarely accompanied by any serious inquiry into why the problems reported exist in the first place. Those difficulties confront media consumers as overwhelming evidence of the dark and painful reality of “life” and “the human condition.” The viewer/reader/listener is left with the definite impression that the species has very little to say for itself. (It can feel like quite a relief when escapist pleasures like “Wheel of Fortune” and “American Idol”– some of the aforementioned “fun along the way” – come on after all the really bad news.)

At the same time, the reforms and other often well-intended responses that do receive mention are painfully narrow and limited. They do not rise above the level of temporary and partial symptom-alleviation. Like the intermittent campaign commercials, they do not come remotely close to getting at the root of the rampant societal injustice and dysfunction embedded in the nation’s reigning authoritarian institutions and ideologies. They do not relate the endless parade of contemporary chaos and calamity to what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. called “the triple evils that are interrelated” – capitalism (now largely financial capitalism), racism (deeply understood), and militarism/imperialism.  They steer clear of what today might be more comprehensively termed “the six great evils that are interrelated”: King’s great triplet plus patriarchy (deeply understood), managerial-ism or coordinator-ism (the authoritarian rule of professionals, managers, and other members of “the coordinator class” atop hierarchical corporate divisions of labor such as those prevalent in the old Soviet Union and countless private and public workplaces in the US and around the world today[2]), and Ecocide (humanity’s capital-driven war on livable ecology and other species[3]).

Corporate Media’s Mission

The corporate conglomerates that own “mainstream” media perform as we should expect. In the fairy-tales of US high school Civics, the “free press” provides the vital democratic “fourth estate” function of keeping citizens richly informed on current events and their meaning and context.  In the real world, the dominant for-profit media behave in anti-democratic accord with their corporate charters.  They are dedicated to three core overlapping goals: pleasing advertisers; selling content to media consumers with money to spend; and generating mass obedience and powerlessness in relation to the nation’s unelected and interrelated dictatorships of class, race, gender, state, and empire.  They are fulfilling their core propagandistic and consent-manufacturing roles within the broader inequality and power system.  They are doing their jobs when they work to keep the populace dazed, divided, overwhelmed, confused, ignorant, depressed, diverted, frightened, and cynical.

No Mere Coincidence

The chain-smoking, booze-guzzling, and pill-popping cousin I mentioned at the outset of this essay is almost certainly going to die short of his natural lifespan.  He will, that is, unless he breaks through his denial and changes the unsustainable way in which he lives.

Something similar can be said about Homo sapiens as long as so much of the species remains captive to the constant denial, fantasy, ignorance, pessimism, division, and infantilism imposed by reigning ideologies and institutions, including especially corporate media. As Noam Chomsky observed in an interview with Chris Steele last year, “There’s a major problem that the whole species is facing. A likelihood of serious disaster may be not far off. We are approaching a kind of tipping point, where climate change becomes irreversible. It could be a couple of decades, maybe less, but the predictions are constantly being shown to be too conservative. It is a very serious danger; no sane person can doubt it.” The most interesting part of the interview came when Chomsky reflected on those who are acting to prevent and reverse the catastrophe and those who are furthering it:

“…the ones who are trying to make it better are the pre-industrial societies, the pre-technological societies, the indigenous societies, the First Nations. All around the world, these are the communities that are trying to preserve the rights of nature…The rich societies, like the United States and Canada, are acting in ways to bring about disaster as quickly as possible…we make sure that every bit of Earth’s fossil fuels comes out of the ground and we burn it. In societies that have large indigenous populations, like, for example, Ecuador,..people are trying to get support for keeping the oil in the ground. They want funding so as to keep the oil where it ought to be. We, however, have to get everything out of the ground, including tar sands, then burn it, which makes things as bad as possible as quickly as possible. So you have this odd situation where the educated, ‘advanced’ civilized people are trying to cut everyone’s throats as quickly as possible and the indigenous, less educated, poorer populations are trying to prevent the disaster.” [4]

It is no mere or minor coincidence that the “educated” and “civilized” – that is, rich and powerful – world is also homeland and headquarters to the modern mass consent-manufacturing and populace-deadening corporate media. The core institutional purposes of that media is clear as day: to keep people in a state of fragmented powerlessness and unreality in relation to contemporary evil and to keep them buying more of the idiotic, purposefully wasteful stuff that helps ruin livable ecology.  It is not surprising that those most removed from the influence of that media would stand in the vanguard of the struggle to save the commons and a decent life on Earth.

Author and historian Paul Street’s latest book is They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (order at http://www.paradigmpublishers.com/Books/BookDetail.aspx?productID=367810)

Selected Notes

1. Brendan James, “Princeton Study: U.S. No Longer an Actual Democracy,” Talking Points Memo (April 14, 2014), http://talkingpointsmemo.com/livewire/princeton-experts-say-us-no-longer-democracy

1A. Gregory Karp, “Moonlighting is the New Money Maxim,” Chicago Tribune, December 15, 2013), http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2013-12-13/site/sc-cons-1212-karpspend-20131213_1_personal-finance-big-money-job

2. See Mike Albert. PARECON: Life After Capitalism (London: Verso, 2003).

3. John Bellamy Foster et al., The Ecological Rift: Capitalism’s War on the Earth (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2010).

4. Noam Chomsky, Occupy: Reflections on Class War, Rebellion, and Solidarity (Westfield, NJ: Zucotti Park Press, 2013), 150-151.

Beyond Piketty – and Capital

08/08/14 0 COMMENTS

August 8, 2014

The Official Web Site of Paul Street

 

“I am Not a Marxist”

When the “Public” Broadcasting System Newshour’s Paul Solman sat down with the overnight academic rock-star Thomas Piketty at the height of the latter’s celebrity in the United States (US) last spring, Solman’s first question was about his politics:

Solman: “Capital, capitale, the name of Karl Marx’s famous work, so are you a French Marxist?”

Piketty: Not at all. No. I am not a Marxist. I turned 18 when the Berlin Wall fell, and I traveled to Eastern Europe to see the fall of the communist dictatorship….I had never had any temptation for communism or, you know, Marxism.” [1]

The celebrated French economist Piketty may have invited comparisons with the great anti-capitalist Marx by writing a bestselling tome titled Capital in the 21st Century (NY: Belknap, 2014), using Marx-like (or Marx-mimicking) phrases like “the central contradiction of capitalism” and “the fundamental laws of capitalism,” and arguing that economic inequality is deeply rooted in the institutional sinews of the profit system. But in his surprise spring and summer US bestseller Capital in the Twenty-First Century (New York: Belknap, 2014) Piketty tells us that Marx was wrong. While he admits that “Modern economic growth and the diffusion of knowledge… have not modified the deep structures of capital and inequality,” he argues that they “have made it possible to avoid the Marxist apocalypse.” (Piketty, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, p.1, emphasis added).

In the introduction to his magnum opus, Piketty says that he “belongs to a generation that came of age listening to news of the collapse of the [Soviet bloc] communist dictatorships,” something that “vaccinated [him] for life against the conventional but lazy rhetoric of anticapitalism….” He says he “ha[s] no interest in denouncing inequality or capitalism per se – especially since social inequalities are not in themselves a problem as long as they are justified, that is, ‘founded upon common utility,’ as article 1 of the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen proclaims.” (Piketty, 31, emphasis added)

Savage Inequalities Right Out of Capitalism

But what justifications of “common utility” can possibly be found in the extraordinary level of the socioeconomic disparity the profits system has brought into being today? Just here in the US, where 16 million children languish below the federal government’s inadequate poverty level, the top 1% owns more wealth than the bottom 90% and a probably comparable share of the nation’s “democratically elected” officials. Six Walmart heirs have more wealth between them than the bottom 40%. Between 1983 and 2010, the Economic Policy Institute has calculated, 74% of the gains in wealth in the U.S. went to the richest 5%, while the bottom 60% suffered a decline.

This savage inequality comes courtesy of the class-based socioeconomic regime called capitalism, a defining aspect of which is its constant underlying tendency towards the concentration of more wealth in fewer hands – a tendency Piketty demonstrates with more than two centuries of brilliantly compiled and analyzed data. It also comes from forms of elite business-class agency that Piketty does not come close to thoroughly examining. Last May, the left economist Jack Rasmus rightly took Piketty to task for missing two leading explanations for dramatically increased inequality in the US since the 1970s: “the manipulation of global financial assets and speculative financial trading” and the “reducing of labor costs across the board.” Focusing almost exclusively changes in the tax system (the third leading explanation by Rasmus’ account), Piketty ignores both the remarkable proliferation and de-/non-regulation of financial instruments (credit default swaps and other complex derivatives and financial “innovations”) and the “top-down class war” (former UAW president Douglass Fraser) that corporations have waged on unions, wages, job benefits, and the social safety net over the last four decade. These are critical omissions.[2]

An Alternative System?

Does the misery and collapse of the Soviet Union/bloc really discredit Marxism or other forms of “anticapitalism”? “One can debate the meaning of the term ‘socialism,’” Noam Chomsky noted in the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse, “but if it means anything, it means control of production by the workers themselves, not owners and managers who rule them and control all decisions, whether in capitalist enterprises or an absolutist state.”[3] Bearing that consideration (true to Marx) in mind and adding in the question of who controls the economic surplus, the US Marxist economist Richard Wolff reasonably describes the Soviet experiment as a form of “state capitalism.” Under the Soviet model, “hired workers produced surpluses that were appropriated and distributed by…state officials who functioned as employers. Thus, Soviet industry was actually an example of state capitalism in its class structure.” By calling itself socialist – a description of “Marxist” Russia that US Cold Warriors and business propagandists eagerly embraced, for obvious reasons – the Soviet Union “prompted the redefinition of socialism to mean state capitalism.”[4]

In a mostly flattering review of Piketty’s book, the Brooklyn-based Marx fan and political-economic commentator Doug Henwood remarked that “the USSR…for all its problems, was living proof that an alternative [to capitalism] economic system was possible.”[5] Alternative post-capitalist systems are indeed achievable, but Henwood’s statement on Soviet Russia is dubious in light of the Soviet Union’s class structure and demise.

The nature and collapse of the Soviet tyranny might with reason be seen as discrediting the “lazy anti-capitalism” of say, the old (Stalinist) French Communist Party. But, as Henwood wrote in his Piketty review, and here we must concur, “Anticapitalist rhetoric need not be lazy.” Marx’s certainly wasn’t. Neither is that of numerous subsequent radical thinkers and activists like, say, Chomsky or Wolff.

“Dark Prophecy”?

What is “the Marxist apocalypse” that we have “avoided” in Piketty’s view? Piketty means the growing division of Western industrial society between a wealthy bourgeoisie on one hand and a vast ever more miserable property-less proletariat, leading to working class socialist/communist revolution – what he calls “Marx’s dark prophecy.” (Capital in the Twenty-First Century, p.9).

Piketty is correct that the European and North American socialist revolutions that many leftists dreamed of didn’t happen in the late 19th or early 20th centuries. Neither did proletarian immiseration on the scale that Marx predicted – at least not in the core Western countries at the center of capitalist development. But why call Marx’s dialectical divination “apocalyptic” and “dark”? Piketty’s word choices strongly suggest elite bias: it’s always been the ruling classes who have most particularly found radical anticapitalists’ ideas catastrophic, for obvious reasons. For socialist, communist, and left anarchist revolutionaries of the mid and late-19th century, the overthrow of private capital and its amoral profits system and the replacement of the capitalist ruling class by the democratic reign of the associated producers and citizens in service to the common good was hardly an apocalypse. It was for them the dawning of the end of the long human pre-history of class rule, ushering in the possibility of a world beyond exploitation and the de facto class dictatorship of privileged owners. It was a “true realm of freedom” beyond endless toil and necessity and “worthy of …‘human nature.’” (Marx, Capital, v.3, p.820). “In the place of the old bourgeois society, with its classes and class antagonisms,” Marx and his indispensable comrade Frederick Engels proclaimed in their 1848 Communist Manifesto, “we shall have an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.”

The Capitalist Apocalypse That Is

Another, more genuinely dark question arises.   Have we really “avoid[ed]” Marxist, well, capitalist apocalypse in the years since Marx wrote? Forget for a moment the cataclysmic global wars, imperial policies, abject plutocracy, and misery of the 20th and early 21st centuries, terrible problems that Marxist and other radical intellectuals reasonably root to no small degree in the system of class rule called capitalism. Never mind the global pauperization that has spread like something out of the Communist Manifesto in the neoliberal era, however much the rich nations may have avoided Piketty’s “Marxist apocalypse.”

Put all that aside for a moment, if you can, and reflect on the growing environmental catastrophe that now poses a genuine threat of human extinction. Marx suggested two stark alternatives in the Manifesto: “either…a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes.” Can there be any serious doubt in the current age of accelerating and catastrophic climate change that the very “modern economic growth” that Piketty praises for having kept “the Marxist apocalypse” at bay threatens to bring about “the common ruin of the contending classes” – indeed the degradation and final destruction of life on Earth – because it is taking place under the command of capital? More than merely dangerous, uncomfortable, and expensive, anthropogenic global warming (AGW) threatens the world’s food and water supplies. It raises the very real specter of human extinction if and when terrible “tipping points” like the large-scale release of Arctic methane (a potential near-term context for truly “runaway” warming) are passed. The related problem of ocean acidification (a change in the ocean’s chemistry resulting from excessive human carbon emissions) is attacking the very building blocks of life under the world’s great and polluted seas. Thanks to AGW and other forms of toxic human intervention in global ecology we most add drastically declining biodiversity – a technical phrase for the massive dying off of other species – to the list of “ecological rifts” facing humanity and other living and sentient beings in the 21stcentury.

The findings and judgments of the best contemporary earth science are crystal clear. As the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research (UK) concluded last year: “Today, in 2013, we face an unavoidably radical futureWe either continue with rising emissions and reap the radical repercussions of severe climate change, or we acknowledge that we have a choice and pursue radical emission reductions.” Sadly, however, the Tyndall scientists failed to radically confront the social-systemic cancer behind AGW. The deeper disease is capitalism, for whose masters and apologists the answer to the venerable popular demand for equality has long been “more.”[6]The answer is based on the theory that growth creates “a rising tide that lifts all boats” in ways that make us forget about the fact that a wealthy few are sailing luxuriantly in giant yachts while most of us are struggling to keep afloat in modest motorboats and rickety dinghies.

As Le Monde’s ecological editor Herve Kempf noted in his aptly titled book The Rich Are Destroying the Earth (2007), “the oligarchy” sees the pursuit of material growth as “the solution to the social crisis,” the “sole means of fighting poverty and unemployment,” and the “only means of getting societies to accept extreme inequalities without questioning them. . . . Growth,” Kempf explained, “would allow the overall level of wealth to arise and consequently improve the lot of the poor without — and this part is never spelled out [by the economic elite] — any need to modify the distribution of wealth.”

“Growth,” the liberal economist Henry Wallich explained (approvingly) in 1972, “is a substitute for equality of income. So long as there is growth there is hope, and that makes large income differentials tolerable.”

But growth is more than an ideology and a promise to cover inequality under the profits system. It is also a material imperative for investors, managers, workers, and policymakers caught up in the disastrous competitive world-capitalist logic of what the Marxist environmental sociologist John Bellamy Foster calls “the global ‘treadmill of production.” Capitalism demands constant growth to meet the competitive accumulation requirements of capital, the employment needs of an ever-expanding global class or proletarians (workers dependent on wages), the sales needs of corporations, and governing officials’ need to legitimize their power by appearing to advance national economic development and security. This system can no more forego growth and survive than a person can stop breathing and live. It is, as the eco-socialist Joel Kovel notes, a system based on the “eternal expansion of the economic product,” and the “conver [sion of] everything possible [including the air we breathe, the water we drink, the soil and plants] into monetary [exchange] value.”

“The Earth we live on,” Kovel notes, “is finite, and its ecosystems have evolved to accommodate to that finitude. Therefore, a system built on endless growth is going to destroy the integrity of the ecosystems upon which life depends for food, energy, and other resources.” [7]

Consistent with this harsh reality, the system’s leading investors have invested massively in highly wasteful advertising, marketing, packaging and built-in-obsolescence. The commitment has penetrated into core processes of capitalist production, so that millions toil the world over in the making of complex electronic (and other) products designed to lose material and social value (and thus to be dumped in landfills) in short periods of time.[8]

Along the way, U.S. capital has invested huge amounts of fixed capital in the existing fossil fuel-addicted energy system – “sunk” capital investments that make giant and powerful petrochemical corporations and utilities all too “rationally” (from a profit perspective) resistant to a much needed clean energy conversion. And there are more than enough fossil fuels left underground to push the planet past livability before carbon capital’s drillers and frackers run out – something to keep in mind in light of a recent report that methane released from melting permafrost has opened a gigantic crater in Siberia’s Yamal peninsula [9]. Talk about a “specter haunting Europe” (Marx and Engels, 1848) and indeed the whole world.

The same irrational systemic imperatives that drive capitalism into recurrent cycles of boom and bust turn the profits system into a cancerous threat to human existence. The extermination of the species is practically an “institutional imperative” (Noam Chomsky[10]) for the state-capitalist ruling class that imposes the lethal triumph of “exchange value” over “use value” (a key dichotomy in Marx’s analysis) atop the malignant rat-wheel of endless accumulation.

“The World’s Principal Long-Term Worry”

The Jacobin growth and equity advocate Piketty (he reports that high economic and demographic growth rates tend historically to reduce inequality) is not completely unconcerned with the problem. In a brief sub-section of his book, he writes the following: “The second important issue on which [capital accumulation] questions have a major impact is climate change and, more generally, the possibility of deterioration of humanity’s natural capital in the century ahead. If we take a global view then this is clearly the world’s principal long-term worry.” Piketty’s statement comes on page 567, like a tiny afterthought near the end of Capital in the 21st Century, in the volume’s mere three pages that focus on the leading specter haunting humanity in the 21st century, brought to us courtesy of capital. A “global view” would seem to be the view to take when it comes to planetary ecology, but “deterioration of natural capital” is econospeak for eco-cide.

According to the conservative Marxian Meghnad Desai more than a decade ago (in a book provocatively claiming that Marx would have predicted and welcomed the collapse of the Soviet Union), Marx felt that a real and viable socialism would only come after capitalism had exhausted its limits and was no “no longer capable of progress.”[10A]Whatever the accuracy of Desai’s claim regarding Marx (questionable since the mature Marx told Russian radicals they could skip the capitalist stage on the path to socialism), the ecological limits to “progress” under the profits system (private and/or state versions) were passed decades ago. It’s “[eco-] socialism or barbarism if we’re lucky” (Istvan Meszaros): a revolutionary red-green transcendence of continuing bourgeois class rule or a capitalist eco-apocalypse that is right out of Marx.

One can label this stark conclusion as a form dysfunctional “catastrophism” – a nasty term hurled by some Marxians (including the aforementioned Henwood[11]) at those who (like Chomsky) warn of the ever more imminent environmental….well, catastrophe. But to paraphrase and adapt Che Guevera, it’s not my fault if reality is now eco-socialist. “The Earth,” as the young Buddha was reported to have said, “is my [our] witness.”

“Capitalism is Awful but There is Nothing We Can Do About it”

The “catastrophist” matter of capital-o-genic eco-cide aside, what does the neo-Jacobin Piketty recommend in the way of solutions, so as to bring inequality back into the proper bourgeois-revolutionary boundaries of “common utility”? Proclaiming that that the standard liberal-domestic tax, spending and regulatory agenda is now ineffective in the face of capital’s planetary reach, he advocates a measure that is beyond the grasp of any currently existing national or international body: “a global tax on capital”– something Piketty candidly calls “a utopian idea” (Capital in the 21st Century, 515). Only such a worldwide levy “would contain the unlimited growth of global inequality of wealth,” Piketty writes.

Given the monumental logistical and political barriers to the implementation of such a tax, it’s hard not to see Piketty’s heralded Capital as feeding popular pessimism about the existence of any alternatives to the United States’ drift into what former New York State Tax Commissioner James Wezler calls “a plutocratic dystopia characterized by wealth inequality approaching that of ancien régime France.”[12] Piketty feeds the “de facto mental slavery” (David Barsamian[13]) of our time: the widespread sense of powerlessness and isolation shared by millions of citizens and workers and the intimately related idea that there’s no serious or viable replacement for – and nothing much that can be done about – the dominant order.

Given all this and more, including its oversized and tedious nature, why was Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century such a hit with relatively well-off, highly “educated” and supposedly “left”-leaning US liberals this last spring and summer? Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, got to the heart of the matter last May, at the peak of the Piketty craze. In an email to Columbia University journalism professor Thomas B. Edsall, Baker wrote that “a big part of the appeal is that it allows people to say capitalism is awful but there is nothing that we can do about it.” The author of a comprehensive domestic policy agenda for reducing inequality, Baker told Edsall “that many people will feel that they have done their part after struggling through a lengthy book on economics, and now they can go back to their vacation homes and say it’s all a shame.”[14]

It takes a lot more time and energy to read Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century than it does to vote for Barack Obama. Still, it’s hard to miss the parallel here. Like poking a ballot card for the first half-white US president, purchasing (and maybe even working their way through some or all of) Piketty’s book seems to help some liberals think they’ve made a contribution to solving the world’s injustices even while it asks them to do nothing of substance to fight inequality and justifies that nothingness by suggesting that nothing much can be done anyway.

Alternative Reading

For readers interested in deeper anti-capitalist substance and more than  Pikettyan powerlessness, there is no lack of first-rate writing on how to construct a radically transformed and democratized America Beyond Capitalism – title of an important book by the University of Maryland economist Gar Alperovitz. Alperovitz advocates giving workers and communities stakes and self-management through the expansion and support of significantly empowered employee stock ownership and other programs and policies (including highly progressive tax rates and a 25-hour work week) designed to replace the current top-down plutocracy with a bottom-up “pluralist commonwealth.”

Another “utopian” proposal is MIT engineering professor Seymour Melman’s call – developed in his 2001 book After Capitalism and other works—for a nonmarket system of workers’ self-management. Also important: left economist Rick Wolff’s Democracy at Work: A Cure for Capitalism,combining a Marxian analysis of the current economic crisis with a call for “worker self-directed enterprises”; David Schweikert’s After Capitalism,calling for worker self-management combined with national ownership of underlying capital; Michael Liebowitz’s The Socialist Alternative,taking its cue from Latin America’s leftward politics to advance a vision of participatory and democratic socialism; Joel Kovel’s The Enemy of Nature (arguing that solving the current grave environmental crisis requires a shift away from private and corporate control of the planet’s resources); and Michael Albert’s prolific writing and speaking on behalf of participatory economics (“parecon”),inspired to some degree by the “council communism” once advocated by the libertarian Marxist Anton Pannekeok. In his book Parecon: Life After Capitalism (2003), Albert calls for a highly but flexibly structured model of radically democratic economics that organizes work and society around workers’ and consumers councils – richly participatory institutions that involve workers and the entire community in decisions on how resources are allocated, what to produce and how, and how income and work tasks are distributed.

More recently, a sprightly and highly readable Occupy-inspired volume published by a major US publishing house, HarperCollins, is titled IMAGINE Living in a Socialist America (2014). It includes essays from leading intellectuals and activists and provides practical reflections on how numerous spheres of American life and policy – ecology, workplace, finance/investment, criminal justice, gender, sexuality, immigration, welfare, food, housing, health care/medicine, education, art, science, media, and spirituality – might be experienced and transformed under an American version of democratic socialism.

Imagine the lively, inspirational, and forward-looking Imagine and not Piketty’s lumbering, backwards-looking, and pessimism-inducing Capital in the 21st Century (which offers little in the way of solutions and comes up very short on the problem) as the surprise bestseller of 2014. It’s not too late: order your copy here: http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/imagine-frances-goldin/1115888725?ean=9780062305572.

Author and historian Paul Street’s latest book is They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (order at http://www.paradigmpublishers.com/Books/BookDetail.aspx?productID=367810) Street is the author of “Part I: What’s Wrong with Capitalism?” in IMAGINE Living in a Socialist USA.

Selected Endnotes

1. “P”BS Newshour, May 12, 2014, http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/piketty-takes-on-inequality-in-capital/

2. As Marx would certainly note with no small disdain. See Jack Rasmus, “Economists Discover Inequality But Have Yet to Explain It,” Jack Rasmus: Predicting the Global Economic Crisis (May 13, 2014), http://jackrasmus.com/2014/05/13/economists-discover-income-inequality-but-have-yet-to-explain-it/.

3. Noam Chomsky, What Uncle Sam Really Wants (Berkeley, CA: Odonian Press, 1991), 91.

4. Richard Wolff, Democracy at Work: A Cure for Capitalism (Chicago: Haymarket, 2012), 82). For a brilliant left-anarchist historical perspective on the Soviet model (and the broader evolution of capitalist class relations in the workplace), see the formerly radical Stephen Marglin’s classic essay, “What do Bosses Do?,” pp. 13-54 in Andre Gorz, ed., The Division of Labor: The Labour Process and Class Struggle in Modern Capitalism (Humanities Press, NJ, 1976). The Soviet “model” was hardly without real accomplishments.  It succeeded in significantly modernizing Russia (the nation that more than any other defeated Hitler’s fascist regime) outside the pure Western capitalist model of privately owned means of production, distribution, transportation, finance, and communications. This was the main reason for U.S.-led Western hostility of the “Soviet specter,” not (following the doctrinal U.S. Cold War line) Russia’s alleged commitment to global revolution, something it abandoned with the exile of Trotsky in the 1920s. On Western/US Cold War complicity in the false description of the USSR as socialist, see Chomsky, Want Uncle Sam Really Wants, 92: “The world’s two major propaganda systems did not agree on much, but they did agree on using the term socialism to refer to the immediate destruction of every element of socialism by the Bolsheviks. That’s not too surprising. The Bolsheviks called their system socialist so as to exploit the moral prestige of socialism. The West adopted the same usage for the opposite reason: to defame the feared libertarian ideals [of workers’ control and true popular governance] by associating them with the Bolshevik dungeon, to undermine the popular belief that there really might be progress towards a more just society with democratic control over its basic institutions and concern for human needs and rights. If socialism is the tyranny of Lenin and Stalin, then sane people will say: not for me. And if that’s the only alternative to corporate state capitalism, then many will submit to its authoritarian structures as the only reasonable choice.”

5. Doug Henwood, “The Top of the World,” Book Forum, April/May 2014, http://www.bookforum.com/inprint/021_01/12987 It is interesting to compare this description of the Soviet model as proof that “an alternative system was possible” with Henwood’s dismissal of Mike Albert’s Parecon – the most elaborate attempt in recent post-Cold War times to develop a comprehensively non-and anti-capitalist economic vision (including non-hierarchical work relations) – as an unhelpful “off-the-shelf utopia.” See Doug Henwood, “A Post-Capitalist Future is Possible,” The Nation, March 13, 2009, http://www.thenation.com/article/post-capitalist-future-possible#. Parecon is a dysfunctional dreamland but the Soviet state-capitalist tyranny shows “that an alternative economic system was possible.”

6. Tyndall Center for Climate Change Research, “The Radical Emission Reduction Emission Reduction Conference, December 10-11, 2013,” http://www.tyndall.ac.uk/radical-emission-reduction-conference-tyndall-centre-event-confronting-challenge-climate-change; Richard Smith, “Beyond Growth or Beyond Capitalism,” Real World Economic Review, issue 53, June 26, 2010, reprinted with revisions at Truthout (January 15, 2014), http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/21215-beyond-growth-or-beyond-capitalism

7. John Bellamy Foster, “Global Ecology and the Common Good,” Monthly Review (February 1995), read online at http://clogic.eserver.org/3-1&2/foster.html; Joel Kovel, Chapter 2: “The Future Will be Ecosocialist Because Without Ecosocialism There Will be No Future,” in Francis Goldin, Debby Smith, and Michael Steven Smith, IMAGINE Living in a Socialist USA (New York: Harper Collins, 2014), 27-28.

8. John Bellamy Foster and Brett Clark, “The Planetary Emergency,” Monthly Review (December 2013),http://monthlyreview.org/2012/12/01/the-planetary-emergency

9. Terrence McCoy, “Scientists Maye Have Cracked the Giant Siberian Crater Mystery – and the News Isn’t Good,” Washington Post, August 5, 2014, http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2014/08/05/scientists-may-have-cracked-the-giant-siberian-crater-mystery-and-the-news-isnt-good/; Katia Moskia, “Mysterious Siberian Crater Attributed to Menthane,” Nature (July 31, 2014), http://www.nature.com/news/mysterious-siberian-crater-attributed-to-methane-1.15649

10. “I do not want to end without mentioning another externality that is dismissed in market systems: the fate of the species. Systemic risk in the financial system can be remedied by the taxpayer, but no one will come to the rescue if the environment is destroyed. That it must be destroyed is close to an institutional imperative.” Noam Chomsky, “Is t he World Too Big to Fail?” TomDispatch (August 20, 2012), www.tomdispatch.com/blog/175581/best_of_tomdispatch%3A_noam_chomsky,_who_owns_the_world_ On the permafrost crater in Siberia, see Nature (July 31, 2014), http://www.nature.com/news/mysterious-siberian-crater-attributed-to-methane-1.15649

10A. Meghnad Desai, Marx’s Revenge: The Resurgence of Capitalism and the Death of State Socialism (New York: Verso, 2002).

11. See the horrid ecological chapter by Eddie Yuen in Sasha Lilley, David McNally, James Davis, Eddie Yuen, and Doug Henwood, Catastrophism: The Apocalyptic Politics of Collapse and Rebirth (PM Press, 2012). For a measured and brilliant response to Yuen, see Ian Angus, “The Myth of ‘Environmental Catastrophism,’” Monthly Review (September 1, 2013), http://monthlyreview.org/2013/09/01/myth-environmental-catastrophism/

12. Wezler is quoted in Thomas B. Edsall, “Thomas Piketty and His Critics,” New York Times, May 14, 2014), http://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/14/opinion/edsall-thomas-piketty-and-his-critics.html?_r=0

13. Noam Chomsky, Power Systems: Interviews with David Barsamian (New York: Metropolitan, 2013), 34.

14. Edsall, “Piketty and his Critics.”

 

Israel, Gaza, and the False Face of Barack Obama

08/08/14 0 COMMENTS

First published on Counterpunch, August 8, 2014.

 

False face must hide what the false heart doth know….To show an unfelt sorrow is an office
Which the false man does easy” — William Shakespeare, Macbeth, 1.7.83; 2.3.136-37

If there’s one thing I’ve learned over many years of following the political career of United States’ President Barack Obama it is to never underestimate his false-faced cynicism. Examples could fill volumes. Here I highlight a small number of instances relating to recent, ongoing, and terrible events in the Middle East.

“Trying to Put Iraq Back Together”

During the 2008 presidential campaign, Obama repeatedly told voters that “it’s time to stop spending billions of dollars a week trying to put Iraq back together and start spending the money putting [the US of] America back together” (Janesville, Wisconsin, February 15, 2008). The candidate was far too knowledgeable and intelligent to have honestly believed that the US was engaged in a benevolent nation-building project in Iraq. He was too smart not to have understood that the criminal US invasion of that country had killed hundreds of thousands and destroyed vast swaths of social and technical infrastructure and fanned the flames of violent sectarian conflict there. (The horrible consequences of the US invasion are evident in current news reports from devastated Iraq – reports that rarely if ever acknowledge Washington’s critical role in the crippling of Mesopotamia.)

His statement was a cynical ploy for votes from citizens who had long been lied about the real nature and purposes of US foreign policy.

“The Streets of Fallujah”

In late 2006, the all-but-declared presidential candidate Obama made a remarkable statement in support of his claim in a speech to the Chicago Council on Global Affairs – a speech where he falsely claimed that most US citizens supported US “victory” in Ira. He proclaimed that “The American people have been extraordinarily resolved. They have seen their sons and daughters killed or wounded in the streets of Fallujah” (Barack Obama, “A Way Forward in Iraq,” Chicago Council on Global Affairs, November 20, 2006).

It was an extraordinarily cynical, cold-blooded selection of locales. Obama certainly knew that Fallujah was the site of colossal U.S. war crimes, including the indiscriminate murder of thousands of civilians, the targeting of ambulances and hospitals, and the practical leveling of an entire city in April and November of 2004. Obama certainly knew also that majority US public opinion was opposed to the one-sided “Iraq War” (the ongoing US imperial assault on Iraq) when he spoke.

“One President at a Time” (2008-09)

Two months after he was first elected to the White House but before his Inauguration, the powerful US-funded and US-equipped military state of Israel unleashed its lethal force on the open-air Israel-imposed prison called the Gaza Strip. Palestinians of Gaza. Israel’s grossly “disproportional response” to alleged provocations by the Palestinian group Hamas included the bombing of hospitals, ambulances, playgrounds, and schools. Israeli forces engaged in “the shooting of civilians holding white flags, the deliberate and unjustifiable targeting of UN shelters and the killing of over 300 children while the Israeli Army had at their disposal the most precise weaponry in the world.” I quote here from a 2009 United Nations Human Rights Council fact-finding report on “the Gaza War” of 2008-09 – the “Goldstone Report.”

What did the supposedly antiwar man of peace who had just ascended to the highest war-making office on Earth have to say about these outrages? The Palestinians and their many supporters in the Middle East and around the world watched in disgust as the famously wordy President-Elect stood curiously mute in relation to Israel’s dreadful massacre of civilians. Obama claimed that “institutional constraints” prevented him from commenting on “the Gaza War.” The US can only have “one president at a time,” Obama said. Meanwhile, however, he gave regular proto-presidential speeches on the US economy and forthrightly condemned the terrible Islamic terrorist action that took place in Mumbai, India, in late November of 2008. As Noam Chomsky noted at the time:

“To [Israel’s] crimes Obama’s response has been silence – unlike, say, the terrorist attacks in Mumbai, which he was quick to denounce, along with the ‘hateful ideology’ that lies behind it. In the case of Gaza, his spokespersons hide behind the mantra that ‘there is one president at a time,’ and repeated his support for Israeli actions when he visited the Israeli town of Sderot in July [2008]: ‘If missiles were falling where my two daughters sleep, I would do everything in order to stop that.’ But he will do nothing, not even make a statement, when US jets and helicopters with Israeli pilots are causing incomparable worse suffering to Palestinian children (emphasis added).” (Noam Chomsky, “Elections 2008 and Obama’s Vision,” Z Magazine, February 2008)

Even worse, the New Yorker’s Seymour Hersh disclosed that US “smart bombs” and “other high-tech ordnance” used in the attack on Gaza were re-supplied after “the Obama team let it be known that it would not object.” (S. Hersh, “Syria Calling,” New Yorker, April 6, 2009).

“To Touch the Muslim Soul” (Cairo 2009)

Five months after his first Inauguration, Obama gave a much-ballyhooed speech “to touch the Muslim soul” in Cairo. He called for Arab governments to “normalize” relations with Israel in accord with the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative (API). The call was transparently cynical, however, for it ignored key Israel action required by the plan. The API, approved by 22 Arab League nations, offered “normalization” only in exchange for Israel’s withdrawal to its pre-1967 borders, the sharing of Jerusalem between Israel and a new Palestinian state, a fair resolution of the Palestinian refugee crisis in accord with international law, and more. But so what? The freshly elected “new” top false man from Washington simply ignored Israel’s obligation under the initiative. This was consistent with his deafening silence on Israel’s crimes against Gaza and with his deletion of Israel from his Inaugural Address call for leaders around the world “to unclench your fist.”

When the UN Goldstone report came out in September of 2009, the Obama White House used its power to bury the document, smearing it as (in the words of US UN Ambassador Susan Rice) “unbalanced” and “deeply flawed.” Palestinian rights activist Sonja Karkar was later struck by how empty Obama’s promise of “change” already seemed to Palestinians people: “If you would only give us more than words. Perhaps from where you stand, Mr. President, you don’t hear how hollow they sound…Yet, it is in that very same hollow space that more and more people can hear the keening sounds of silence from Gaza and the rapidly fading echoes of your ‘Yes we can.’” (“Letter to Obama,” ZNet, October 13, 2009)

The US fist has hardly unclenched under Obama. He may have been tasked with winding down Washington’s failed ground wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (the same job would have fallen to a President McCain), but he has drastically expanded the scale, intensity, and scope of US drone warfare (the killer of 951 civilians in Pakistan alone under Obama) and the presence of US Special Forces troops around the world. Obama kept the US imperial “machine set on kill” (Allan Nairn).

“Nothing More Shameful Than Attacking Sleeping Children”

During the most recent “Gaza fighting” (“mainstream” US media’s deceptive term for Israel’s latest one-sided and mass-murderous assault on the Gaza prison strip), Israel has killed more than 1900 Palestinians, 70 percent of them civilians, including hundreds of children. Israel’s crimes have again included the bombing and shelling of schools, hospitals, ambulances, and UN shelters. Gaza’s main power plant was bombed (as usual), “sharply curtailing the already very limited electricity and worse yet, reducing still further the minimal availability of fresh water” (Noam Chomsky). The openly criminal savagery has occurred in full view of the world, most of which is appalled by the vicious, even sociopathic carnage inflicted on the defenseless and trapped people of Gaza by the “Most Moral Army in the World”: US planes, tanks, and helicopters with Israeli pilots and commanders.

Israel is creating a “no man’s land” in Gaza, shrinking the outdoor prison by more than 40 percent. The Daily Beast’s Jesse Rosenfeld reports that

“This narrow strip of land that used to be called ‘the Gaza Strip,’ already one of the more densely populated places on Earth, is growing dramatically smaller. The Israeli military, relentlessly and methodically, is driving people out of the 3-kilometer (1.8 mile) buffer zone it says it needs to protect against Hamas rockets and tunnels. According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the buffer zone eats up about 44 percent of Gaza’s territory… Apartment blocks are fields of rubble, and as I move through this hostile landscape the phrase that keeps ringing in my head is ‘scorched earth.’” (“Israel Creates ‘No Man’s Land in Gaza,” Daily Beast, July 28, 2014).

“The world stands disgraced” – so said United Nations Relief and Works Agency Commission-General Pierre Kraehenbuehl after Tel Aviv bombed a UN shelter filled with more than 3000 refugees on July 30th. Many of the 16 killed were women and children. The usually restrained Secretary-General of the UN Ban Ki-moon has condemned Israel’s latest sociopathic attack on Gaza “in the strongest possible terms…Nothing,” the Secretary-General added, “is more shameful than attacking sleeping children.” Ban Ki-moon noted that the precise location of this school had been communicated to the Israeli military authorities 17 times.

Unfelt Sorrow: No Honest Broker

Thanks to publicly available images of open Israeli state crimes that have shocked the world, including many in the US, Obama has had to make sounds of humanitarian concern this time. At an August 1st press conference, Obama said it was “heartbreaking to see what’s happening in Gaza.” He said he “want[ed] to see everything possible done to ensure Palestinian civilians aren’t killed.”   A White House spokesperson said “We are extremely concerned that thousands of internally displaced Palestinians who have been called on by the Israeli military to evacuate their homes are not safe in UN designated shelters in Gaza.”

These and other US “condemnations” of some of Israel’s more egregious war crimes against Palestinian humanity would seem a bit more genuine if they didn’t come at the same time as the Administration directs the Pentagon to release more weaponry to Israel. And if they weren’t accompanied by the usual US statements of sympathy for Israelis (who have lost a grand total of three civilians in the latest “Gaza fighting”) combined with the customary claims that Hamas is largely responsible for Palestinian civilians deaths, the standard sham expressions of distress for Palestinians “caught in the crossfire,” and the regular strong backing for Israel’s “right to defend itself.” What crossfire? Where? And of course, as far as the US is concerned, “Palestinians…have no right to defend themselves, surely not when Israel is on good behavior, keeping to the norm of quiet-for-quiet: stealing their land, driving them out of their homes, subjecting them to a savage siege, and regularly attacking them with weapons provided by their protector….Palestinians,” Noam Chomsky notes, “are like black Africans, the Namibian refugees in the Cassinga camp for example, all terrorists for whom the right of defense does not exist.” (Noam Chomsky, “Outrage,” ZNet, August 2, 2014)

The Administration’s expressions of worry for Palestinian lives are right out of Shakespeare’s Macbeth: “False face,” the great playwright noted, “must hide what the false heart doth know.” (Macbeth, 1.7.83) “To show an unfelt sorrow,” Shakespeare added “is an office Which the false man does easy” (Macbeth, 2.3.136-37).

Obama is not naïve or stupid. He knows very well that the US is actively helping Israel in its racist and sociopathic war on Gaza by: sharing raw signals intelligence with the Israeli military; “continually replenishing Israel’s ammunition; diplomatically supporting Israel’s economic blockade of Gaza; exporting vast supplies of weapons and munitions and other military technology to Israel each year; opposing the designation of Palestine as a “nonmember observer state” in the UN (thereby preventing Palestinians from enlisting the International Criminal Court in its struggle against Israel’s theft of their land. As Juan Cole notes, “The US cannot serve as honest broker in Israel-Palestine negotiations because its government is overwhelming committed to and identified with Israel, including in this war. That is why President Obama keeps mouthing propaganda like that Israel has a right to defend itself (it doesn’t enjoy an absolute right of that sort– its defense has to be proportionate and within international law).” (J. Cole, “Top 5 Ways US is Israel’s Accomplice in War Crimes in Gaza,” Informed Comment, August 4, 2014).

Nothing is more shameful than attacking sleeping children – nothing except perhaps giving others ordnance, weapons, and intelligence data with which to attack sleeping children and providing blank check diplomatic and political cover for the murderers and acting throughout like you’ve got nothing to do with the horror.

Marrowless Men: “Look Man, I’m a Politician”

Shakespeare again: “Thy bones are marrowless, thy blood is cold.” (Macbeth, 3.4.93). The condemnation applies not just to Obama but to almost the entirety of the US elite political class and imperial establishment, most of which is deeply committed and captive to the savage racist and sociopathic occupation and mass-murder state Israel has become. A recent Daily Beast article is titled “Even Left Wing Democrats Can’t Quit Israel.”   Reporter Tim Mak notes that:

“Despite grassroots outrage at Operation Protective Edge, left-wing members of the House and Senate won’t criticize Israel’s ongoing incursion into Gaza. Much of the American left is critical of Israel, particularly since its incursion into Gaza. But in the halls of Congress, even progressive Democrats beloved by grassroots activists are loath to criticize the Jewish State’s ongoing military offensive.”

“A Pew Research poll released Monday showed that a plurality of Democrats across the country, 35 percent, and liberals, 44 percent, said that Israel had ‘gone too far’ in its response to its conflict with Hamas. Meanwhile 47 percent of Democrats told Gallup that Israel’s actions during the current conflict were “unjustified…But these opinions are nearly impossible to find in Congress. Democrats, when asked a question about Israeli operations in Gaza, had two standard responses: irritation, or else a statement of their broad support of Israel, without going into specifics. It was as if the very mention of Israel turned the question into a hostile interview.”

“ ‘Look, man, I’m a politician, with multiple constituencies. Why should I alienate one just so that you can write a story?’ Democratic Rep. Keith Ellison angrily told The Daily Beast. Ellison, a stalwart progressive, was the first Muslim-American elected to Congress.”

“Ellison cited a Thursday op-ed he had written that was critical of the Gaza blockade, but became noticeably agitated when asked to expand on his views. In particular, he did not want to address whether Israel had gone too far during its current operations in the Gaza Strip.”

“Sen. Bernie Sanders, a darling of the left who identifies as a democratic socialist, was curt. His tone changed suddenly when the topic shifted from the Veterans Administration bill that he had been shepherding through Congress to Israel’s operation in Gaza.”

“ ‘That’s not where my mind is right now,” he told the Beast.”(T. Mak, Daily Beast, July 30, 2014)

This is yet another reminder to seriously progressive citizens never to look for “leadership,” moral or otherwise, from politicians. Howard Zinn would have appreciated Rep. Ellison’s remark. “Except for the rare few,” Zinn noted seven years ago, “our representatives are politicians, and will surrender their integrity, claiming to be ‘realistic.’ We are not politicians, but citizens. We have no office to hold on to, only our consciences, which insist on telling the truth. That, history suggests, is the most realistic thing a citizen can do” (H. Zinn, “Are We Politicians or Citizens?” The Progressive, May 2007).

Paul Street is the author of The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (Paradigm, 2010). Street’s latest book is They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm, 2014, http://www.paradigmpublishers.com/books/BookDetail.aspx?productID=367810). Street can be reached at paul.street99@gmail.com

“Mainstream” News as Mobster Dinnertime

08/08/14 0 COMMENTS

teleSur English

August 4, 2014

Imagine growing up in a household ruled by a violent, psychotic father – a man who bullies, beats, and otherwise abuses everyone in his family. When he isn’t throwing his weight around at home, he and a handful of thugs under his command are busy robbing, assaulting, torturing, and even killing others in the community. He causes suffering and spreads fear and silence within and beyond his domicile.

He justifies this behavior with claims of benevolent intent.  It’s necessary to use force and intimidation, he says, to protect others against evil, including their own. He’s a vicious sociopath and a malignant narcissist, not to mention a murderer.

Imagine that every night the people living in this family gather for dinner under his fake-benevolent supervision.  During supper, people talk about the day’s events and other topics in a very careful way.  They make sure not to say anything real about the father’s transgressions.  They steer clear of his terrible role in their lives and the broader community.

His wife reports that her wrist is continuing to heal, but she still can’t shake those nasty headaches.  There’s no mention of the fact that her wrist was broken and her brain concussed when he slammed her to the kitchen floor in an angry rage last month.

His daughter reports that her anxiety medicine worked a little today but she still couldn’t focus in school.  She can’t mention that her underlying depression comes from growing up in a terrorized home.

His son fakes a smile as he claims to have enjoyed beating up “a punk who’d been bugging me” in the playground. He can’t admit that he abhorred the violence he inflicted.  He would never mention that he bullies others because of the fear and violence imposed by his father at home.

The father inveighs against the supposedly self-inflicted poverty of a family across the street. “Why don’t those bums get off their asses and make some real money?” he says.  Nobody in his house dares to mention that the neighboring family has been impoverished ever since he had two of his henchmen put its main breadwinner in a coma for failing to pay back a loan on time.

Deleting “Homeland” Oppression

This terrible dinner-time scenario is a bit like what it’s like to watch US “mainstream” (corporate state) media coverage of current events.  Terrible events regularly flash across the screen, accompanied by vapid commentary that offers no serious and honest reflection on context and causation. Such reflection would violate longstanding, deeply embedded prohibitions on mentioning the elephants in the room: the United States’ unelected and interrelated dictatorships of money, empire, white supremacy, patriarchy, and eco-cide.

Thus, we are fed a regular television news diet of terrible violence and crime in the nation’s black ghettoes and Latino barrios – a staple item on evening television news across metropolitan America. The causes of the violence are a non-story. Reporters never make elementary connections between the carnage that is all too common in the nation’s most disadvantaged communities and the savage abandonment and oppression of those communities by the business class and its growing police state. Chronic structural unemployment, shredded social services, under-funded and authoritarian schools, discriminatory hiring practices, racial profiling by police and prosecutors, persistent residential hyper-segregation by race and class, the ubiquitous felony-branding and incarceration of blacks and Latinos — these and other serious problems plaguing the nation’s poorest neighborhoods are not “news.” Violence and crime in those neighborhoods (symptoms of officially unmentionable injustice and oppression) are the only stories that matter.

An analogous omission mars the nightly news’ local weather reports. Delivered with the latest high-tech graphics, they tell of new record meteorological extremes—stifling heat waves, terrible droughts, giant rain and snow falls, high-intensity storms, deadly floods, shocking forest and brush fires, and deep-freeze “polar vortexes” resulting from altered northern jet streams. The reports are detailed and often sensational, like the crime news. But the cause of what’s being reported – the “new” extreme weather “normal” – is a non-story. Television weatherpersons never connect their news to Earth scientists’ finding that endless economic growth based on the relentless, wasteful exploitation of carbon-rich fossil fuels have warmed the world’s climate to a degree that raises the specter of human extinction in the not-so-distant historical future. Anthropogenic (really capital-o-genic) climate change is the weather news’ elephant in the room, the giant explanatory factor that simply can’t be mentioned.

Political dysfunction and related US governmental gridlock and “do-nothing”-ness is another staple item in US media news and commentary.  The rooting of that dysfunction and policy failure in the power of the investor class (which delights and invests in and profits from “paralyzed” politics and government) is a non-news story in the “mainstream” coverage and commentary. It is a forbidden topic. Also taboo is the stark chasm between (a) the relatively progressive and social-democratic policy preferences of most US citizens and (b) the regressive and plutocratic policies handed down to the populace by “democratically elected” office-holders who are captive to “the 1%.” – a reflection of the unmentionable fact that the US political system is paralyzed only when it comes to helping the working class majority of people, not when it’s about serving the economic elite.

Uncle Sam as Innocent Bystander

Turning abroad, the “border crisis” created by the arrival of tens of thousands of unaccompanied child refugees from the Northern Triangle of Central America is reported without reference whatsoever to the critical role of past and present US imperial policy in making decent life impossible in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras (for details and sources, see Paul Street, “Deleting the Imperial Perpetrator,” teleSur English/ZNet, July 19, 2014, http://zcomm.org/zcommentary/deleting-the-imperial-perpetrator/). You’d think the US was little more than a befuddled and innocent bystander to the misery in these nations.

The latest outbursts of chaos and bloodshed in Iraq are reported in “mainstream” US media as if they are utterly unrelated to a US invasion that killed more than a million Iraqis, collapsed the nation’s infrastructure, and intentionally aggravated religious and ethnic divisions in Mesopotamia. That devastating US attack and occupation came on top of a previous one-sided and mass-murderous US-imperial assault (the so-called Persian Gulf War), followed by more than a decade of US-led economic sanctions that killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children.  But, as far as dominant media is concerned, it’s got nothing to do with good old Uncle Sam, who has no imperial ambitions and just wants peace and stability around the world.

The violence in Ukraine is reported by “mainstream” US media as being all about the imperialism of Moscow.  There’s no reference to Washington’s role in replacing Ukraine’s previous government with a regime allied with Western and US interests and including fascist elements.  It’s got nothing to do with the US, benevolent protector of those freedom-loving Ukrainians.

The barely reported melting of the planet’s icecaps and the catastrophic warming of the planet is never connected to US policy and power in “mainstream” US media. So what if the US is the world’s leading per-capita Greenhouse Gas-emitter, the greatest historical contributor to accumulated global-atmospheric carbon, and the global headquarters of Big Carbon political and ideological power, including the climate change denial industry?  It’s got nothing to do with us/the US.

Israel’s ongoing, almost unimaginably evil and intentionally mass-murderous attack on Palestinian civilians trapped in the open-air prison of Gaza this summer is another case in point. Given the sinister savagery and open criminality of the assault, carried out in full view of the world (replete with body part-strewn footage from Palestinian schools, playgrounds, and hospitals), US “mainstream” media has had no choice but to acknowledge some humanitarian criticism of Israel’s conduct.  What can’t receive serious attention, however, is of course, the criminal role of the United States. So what if Israel and the US are a single co-joined military entity and everything Israel does takes place with tacit US consent? Here, again and as usual, it’s got nothing to do with that good old well-intentioned “honest broker” Uncle Sam.

“We Are Good” So “Why Do They Hate Us?”

That “crazy, scary world” out there that flashes horror across US television screens has nothing to do with us/the US. For “the United States is good.  We try to do our best everywhere.”  So proclaimed then US Secretary of State Madeline Albright in 1999 – yes, the same Madeline Albright who told CBS News three years before that more than half a million dead Iraqi children was a “price worth paying” for the advance of inherently noble US foreign policy goals.

“We are good.” Every modern US President (none perhaps with more audacity than Barack Obama) and Secretary of State has said and still routinely says things along the same psychotic and nationally narcissistic “American exceptionalist” lines. They do so without facing any more criticism from US “mainstream” media than Soviet rulers faced from PravdaIzvestia, and Soviet state television (“mainstream” Soviet media) when they described their nation and its Eastern European satellites as “great socialist people’s democracies.”

No wonder so many US-of-American are befuddled by the anger the US evokes around the world (particularly now in the Muslim world), childishly clueless when it comes answering the pathetic question “Why Do They Hate Us?” In the US, and indeed across much of the West, “mainstream” media and in the reigning intellectual culture the record of ongoing US criminality is airbrushed out from official history and the mass culture even as it occurs.  It is instantaneously tossed down George Orwell’s “memory hole.” As Harold Pinter noted in his acceptance of the 2005 Nobel Prize in Literature, dominant Western cultural authorities behave as if US imperial violence does not exist and never has. “Even while it was happening,” Pinter said, it never happened.  It didn’t matter.  It was of no interest.” Pinter was speaking of the Cold War era. Nothing has changed in this regard since the collapse of the Soviet Union.  It’s very much the same today.

When Salaries Depend on Playing Along

“It is difficult to get a man to understand something,” Upton Sinclair once noted in an oft-quoted statement, “when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” No doubt, some of the talking and writing media heads enlisted in the project of airbrushing Uncle Sam out of the global criminal record (no small act of distortion and deletion) know very well that “good” Washington’s role in the world is very different than what they report. They also know that telling even small truths about US imperial arrogance and criminality could cost them their jobs and future employment prospects. It is difficult to get a reporter to reveal his or her understanding of the real US role in the world when his or her salary depends on that reporter not revealing that understanding.  She knows that the Mafia don at the head of her dinner table will lock her up in the attic without a meal if she breaks the rules on acknowledging his wrongdoing.

More Ammunition, Please

Which is not to say that viewers can’t put a few truthful things together from “mainstream” coverage. Madeline Albright’s “price worth paying” comment on CBS in 1996 is one example of imperial psychosis slipping through the bubble to some degree.  Another example for me at least came on the evening of July 30, 2014, when CNN broadcast terrible footage of an Israeli rocket assault whose targets included an ambulance in Gaza. Right after the chilling clip, the CNN newsreader noted with stone face that Israel had recently requested “more ammunition” from the United States – yes, more ammunition so that (any half-perceptive viewer could deduce) Israel could kill more Palestinian children and ambulance drivers.

The request was honored. The US quickly agreed to provide Israel more ordnance so it could butcher more families in Gaza. It did so without much attention from “mainstream” US media.

 

Top Threat to Peace on/and Earth

Things are different beyond the US media bubble. Washington’s real role in the world is well understood outside the United States, by a global citizenry that ranks the US as by far and away the leading threat to peace on Earth – and to a livable Earth.  It does so with good reasons, including the Orwellian nature of the US “mainstream” media.

Paul Street’s next book is They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm, 2014, http://www.paradigmpublishers.com/books/BookDetail.aspx?productID=367810

Beyond Mental Slavery

08/08/14 0 COMMENTS
First published on TeleSur English, August 1, 2014.
The greatest obstacle to democracy and popular activism for the common good in the current New Gilded Age United States (US) is the widespread sense of powerlessness and isolation shared by countless citizens and workers. It’s the pervasive sense drummed into millions that we are all on our own.  It’s also the intimately related idea that there’s no serious or viable alternative to – and nothing really that can be done about – the dominant order. This “no alternative” sense is the “de facto mental slavery” (David Barsamian’s term) of our time.
 
“Beyond My Ability to Imagine”
 
Which brings me to the saddest essay I’ve read in a long time. It was published on the progressive US Website TomDispatch two months ago under the ironic title “Why Don’t the Unemployed Get Off Their Couches?” Its author, former United States (US) State Department whistle-blower Peter Van Buren, reflected on the epic economic inequality and related mass joblessness that have spread like a plague across the US in recent years. He bemoaned the fact that eight Americans (four Walmart heirs plus the two Koch brothers, Bill Gates, and Warren Buffett) “earned” more money between them last year than “3.6 million American minimum-wage workers combined. The median pay for CEOs at America’s large corporations rose to $10 million per year,” Van Buren observed, “while a typical chief executive now makes about 257 times the average worker’s salary…Overall,” Van Buren added, “1% of Americans own more than a third of the country’s wealth.”
 
Van Buren might have added that the 1% owns more than wealth than the bottom 90% of US Americans and six Walmart heirs have between them as much wealth as more than 40% of the US populace (millions have no or negative net worth).
 
Van Buren went through a list of reasons that mass unemployment is deeply embedded in the currently US socioeconomic terrain. There is, he rightly noted, a brutal disconnect between the small number of good (remunerative) jobs the US economy is generating and  the vast number of US citizens searching for decent employment.
 
It’s not a pretty story. And, as Van Buren rightly noted, it helps explain why liberal French economist Thomas Piketty’s tome Capital in the 21st Century – a book Van Buren does not seem to understand very well[1] – became a “surprise bestseller” in the US last spring. Piketty’s book shows that economic inequality is rooted in the institutional sinews of capitalism and that this is no less true in the US than anywhere else.
 
But the real downer in Van Buren’s essay came at the end, in his concluding paragraph.  After saying that we should raise the US minimum wage and “maybe appoint Thomas Piketty to the board of directors of Walmart,” Van Buren epitomized the “mental slavery” of our “neoliberal” (hyper-capitalist) times: the belief that there is no real alternative to the existing system of top-down class rule:
 

“What most likely lies ahead is not a series of satisfying American-style solutions to the economic problems of the 99%, but a boiling frog’s journey into a form of twenty-first-century feudalism in which a wealthy and powerful few live well off the labors of a vast mass of the working poor. Once upon a time, the original 99% percent, the serfs, worked for whatever their feudal lords allowed them to have. Now, Walmart ‘associates’ do the same. Then, a few artisans lived slightly better, an economic step or two up the feudal ladder. Now, a technocratic class of programmers, teachers, and engineers with shrinking possibilities for upward mobility function similarly amid the declining middle class. Absent a change in America beyond my ability to imagine, that’s likely to be my future – and yours.” (“Why Don’t the Unemployed Get Off Their Couches?” TomDispatch.com, June 3, 2014)

Van Buren did not merely say that he saw progressive change as unlikely. He said he found it beyond his ability to imagine.  Perhaps he should have put down Piketty’s giant volume and picked up some other, more radical and forward-looking books. 
 
I’ve got a reading list for Peter Van Buren.
 
Reforms
 
“One commonly hears that carping critics complain about what is wrong, but do not present solutions,” Chomsky noted in in his 2006 book Failed States.  “There is,” Chomsky added, “an accurate translation for that charge: ‘they present solutions and I don’t like them.’”
Consistent with Chomsky’s observation, there is no shortage of good progressive policy ideas to check and roll back the plutocratic reach of the corporate and financial elite. A short list of well-known proposals includes the “Tobin” financial transactions tax; the Employee Free Choice Act (which would re-legalize union organizing in this county); regular and serious hikes in the minimum wage; increased regulation, downsizing and even nationalization of the leading financial institutions; full employment as a matter of federal policy; a significantly reduced work week; the removal of private money from public elections and the full public financing of those elections; seriously progressive taxation; single payer health insurance; renegotiation of NAFTA and other “free trade” deals to include significant labor and environmental protections; national and international measures to control carbon emissions; green jobs public works programs; an expanded social safety net; a shift from mass incarceration, the “War on Drugs,” and military empire to investing in schools, antipoverty programs, and broader human welfare; and the restoration of civil liberties through the repeal of NDAA, the Patriot Act, and other repressive measures. No “demand” is more urgent and necessary than the call for large-scale public green jobs programs, connected to a wider program for the conversion of the US economy to environmental sustainability – one that (among other things) drops reliance on fossil fuels. I could go on.
  
America Beyond Capitalism
 
“At this point,” Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett argued in their important book The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger (2010) “creating the political will to make society more equal is more important than pinning our colours to a particular set of policies to reduce inequality…Political will,” Wilkinson and Pickett added, “is dependent on the development of avision of a better society which is both achievable and inspiring.”
There is no lack of first-rate thinking on how to construct a radically transformed and democratized America Beyond Capitalism – title of an important book by the University of Maryland economist Gar Alperovitz. He advocates giving workers and communities stakes and self-management through the expansion and support of significantly empowered employee stock ownership programs and other programs and policies (including highly progressive tax rates and a 25-hour work week) designed to replace the current top-down plutocracy with a bottom-up “pluralist commonwealth.”
 
Alperovitz is a founder of the University of Maryland’s Democracy Collaborative (DC), which focuses on community wealth-building through the creation of worker co-ops and worker-owned companies that build structures that reflect workers’ and communities’ stakes in the design and purpose of economic enterprises. The Evergreen Cooperatives in Cleveland, Ohio, embody the DC model. They reference the more well-known Mondragon Cooperative Corporation in Spain, a successful conglomerate of worker-owned cooperatives that employs 85,500 workers in areas ranging from medical technology to the manufacture of home appliances and running a giant credit union. The United Steelworkers union has become “a strong advocate of worker ownership, and is actively working to develop new models based on the Mondragon Cooperative,” with which it has recently undertaken a joint initiative. Alperovitz thinks that Mondragon-like experiments could become seeds of a future post-capitalist economy.
 
Another “utopian” proposal is MIT engineering professor Seymour Melman’s call – developed in his 2001 book After Capitalism and other works—for a nonmarket system of workers’ self-management. Also important: left  economist Rick Wolff’s Democracy at Work: A Cure for Capitalism, combining a Marxian analysis of the current economic crisis with a call for “worker self-directed enterprises”; David Schweikert’s After Capitalism, calling for worker self-management combined with national ownership of underlying capital; Michael Liebowitz’s The Socialist Alternative, taking its cue from Latin America’s leftward politics to advance vision of participatory and democratic socialism; Joel Kovel’s The Enemy of Nature (arguing that solving the current grave environmental crisis requires a shift away from private and corporate control of the planet’s resources); and Michael Albert’s prolific writing and speaking on behalf of participatory economics (“parecon”), inspired to some degree by the “council communism” once advocated by the libertarian Marxist Anton Pannekeok. In his book Parecon: Life After Capitalism (2003), Albert calls for a highly but flexibly structured model of radically democratic economics that organizes work and society around workers’ and consumers councils – richly participatory institutions that involve workers and the entire community in decisions on how resources are allocated, what to produce and how, and how income and work tasks are distributed.
 

A recent Occupy-inspired volume published by a major US publishing house, HarperCollins, is titled Imagine: Living in a Socialist America (2014). It includes essays from leading intellectuals and activists and provides practical reflections on how numerous spheres of American life and policy – ecology, workplace, finance/investment, criminal justice, gender, sexuality, immigration, welfare, food, housing, health care/medicine, education, art, science, media, and spirituality – might be experienced and transformed organized under an American version of democratic socialism.

Imagine the forward-looking Imagine and not Piketty’s giant, dull, data-packed and backwards-looking historical reflection (which offers little in the way of contemporary solutions and comes up very short on the problems) as the surprise bestseller of 2014.
 
The Duty of Struggle
Moving off the rule of capital in the US is not just desirable. It also necessary – an imperative for survival in the current era of deepening environmental catastrophe. As Kovel notes in Imagine,volume, capitalism is based on the “eternal expansion of the economic product” and the “conver[sion of] everything possible [including the air we breathe, the water we drink, the soil and plants] into monetary value….The Earth we live on,” Kovel observes “is finite, and its ecosystems have evolved to accommodate to that finitude…a system built on endless growth is going to destroy the integrity of the ecosystems upon which life depends…”
 
There are no guarantees of success, of course. But we have a duty to struggle. “We have to be prepared, on the basis of our moral insight,” Mario Savio said in late 1994, “to struggle even if we do not know that we are going to win.” Perhaps we have only a 20%, or worse, a 1% chance of success, of creating a just, sustainable, and democratic nation and world no longer lethally occupied by the “unelected dictatorship of money.” Failure to believe in the worthiness of collective struggle for a decent and democratic future beyond that plutocratic occupation takes our odds down to zero.
 

We lose nothing by believing. By not believing, we lose everything – quite literally everything given current environmental projections, which suggest that “we are really facing the prospect of species destruction for the first time in human history” (Noam Chomsky). As Marxist philosopher Istvan Meszaros put things in 2001, “We are running out of time…The uncomfortable truth of the matter is that if there is no future for a radical mass movement in our time, there can be no future for humanity…”

No boiling frogs here. It’s not about the crystal ball. We are obligated to imagine a just and democratic world beyond Van Buren’s “21st century feudalism” (capitalism, really) and then to fight for that world. The people are ready to fight for that world and win – as I will show in a subsequent commentary.
 
 

Paul Street is author of They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm, 2014, http://www.paradigmpublishers.com/books/BookDetail.aspx?productID=367810and author of the Section 1, “What’s Wrong With Capitalism?” in Imagine Living in a Socialist USA (http://www.harpercollins.com/books/9780062305572)

Note

[1] Van Buren’s characterization of Piketty’s thesis as “a rising tide lifts all Yachts” inverts the economist’s core historical connection between heightened inequality and slow growth.  Van Buren also falsely credits Piketty with attributing part of contemporary inequality to employers’ “crushing of unions.”  Piketty actually ignores union issues and labor/capital conflict (“class struggle” in Marxist terms) to a remarkable (and problematic) degree.

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