Business Rule as Usual: US Midterm Reflections

20/11/14 0 COMMENTS

Originally published on TeleSur English, November 12, 2014

Government Works Only for the Rich and Powerful”

Last Thursday’s New York Times (I am writing on Monday, November 10, 2014) contained two instructive and curiously contrasting reflections on the Republican Party’s sweeping victory in last week’s United States midterm Congressional and state elections.  The first reflection came from Frank Luntz, a leading Republican pollster and public relations expert. The elections, Luntz noted in a Times Op-Ed, were no mandate for the “extreme conservative agenda.”  They were really, Luntz felt, a spasm against a government that functions just for the wealthy Few. “This year,” Luntz wrote, “I travelled the country listening to voters, from Miami to Anchorage, 30 states and counting.  And from the reddest [most Republican] rural towns to the bluest [most Democratic] big cities, the sentiment is the same.  People say Washington is broken and on the decline, that government no longer works for them – only for the rich and powerful.”

I was reminded by Luntz’s comment of something that liberal commentator William Greider wrote in the spring of 2009, setting the tone for Washington’s continued service to the wealthy corporate and financial few across the Age of Obama (something that I and a number of other journalists and authors have documented at length) – a time when 95% of US income gains have gone to the top 1%.

“During the past nine months, gigantic financial bailouts amid collapsing economic life made visible the crippling divide between governing elites and citizens at large. People everywhere learned a blunt lesson about power, who has it and who doesn’t. They watched Washington rush to rescue the very financial interests that caused the catastrophe. They learned that government has plenty of money to spend when the right people want it. ‘Where’s my bailout,’ became the rueful punch line at lunch counters and construction sites nationwide. Then to deepen the insult, people watched as establishment forces re-launched their campaign for ‘entitlement reform’ – a euphemism for whacking Social Security benefits, Medicare and Medicaid.” (emphasis added)

“US No Longer an Actual Democracy”

Luntz might have added that what “people say” about Washington happens to be accurate.  Beneath the nation’s identity-politicized marionette theater of partisan warfare, both of the two reigning US political organizations have moved well to the right of the populace under the influence of concentrated wealth. In a study originally released last April, leading mainstream political scientists Martin Gilens (Princeton) and Benjamin Page (Northwestern) report that the US political system has become “an oligarchy,” where wealthy elites and their corporations “rule.” Examining data from more than 1,800 different policy initiatives from 1981 to 2002, they found that wealthy and well-connected elites consistently steer the direction of the country, regardless of or even against the will of the US majority. “The central point that emerges from our research is that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy,” Gilens and Page wrote, “while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence”

A story about Gilens and Page’s study in the liberal online journal Talking Points Memo (TPM) last April bore an interesting title: “Princeton Study: U.S. No Longer an Actual Democracy.” It reported Gilens and Page’s finding that “the government—whether Republican or Democratic—more often follows the preferences” of Americans at the nation’s 90th income percentile than those at the 50th percentile. The TPM story contained a link to an interview with Gilens in which he explained that “contrary to what decades of political science research might lead you to believe, ordinary citizens have virtually no influence over what their government does in the United States. And economic elites and interest groups, especially those representing business, have a substantial degree of influence…. Both parties have to a large degree embraced a set of policies that reflect the needs, preferences and interests of the well to do.” No wonder, as TPM reporter Sahil Kapur noted, “Polls show that many American voters feel on a gut level that the government isn’t looking out for them.” (emphasis added)

Further Omissions

Luntz could have added some other important things. He might have mentioned non-voters.  Nearly two-thirds of the electorate did not participate in last week’s midterm election (the lowest midterm turnout in 70 years), reflecting (among other things) widespread antipathy towards the nation’s noxious, money-soaked and mass-marketed election spectacles and elite-controlled policy and politics.

The Republican strategist might have noted that there’s nothing all that “conservative” about the Republicans’ agenda.  The 21st century G.O.P is more accurately described as radically regressive, something that makes it irrational for voters to think that backing Republicans is a way to protest the control of government by the rich and powerful.

Another related omission in Luntz’s reflection is the Left vacuum in US society and politics. A critical factor behind mass non-voting is the almost complete absence of relevant Left movements and political parties willing and able to capture and act on the popular majority’s progressive policy opinions and values. That absence contributes to the abject failure of the other reigning US political organization, the dismal dollar Democratic Party, to act in accord with its populist-sounding campaign promises. The Left void is also no small part of why millions of ordinary Americans “vote against their own pocketbooks” by backing Republicans.  It is no small part of how and why the Republican Party holds power in the US Congress and in the majority of US state governments even though it is viewed negatively by nearly half the populace and viewed positively by just 29 percent.

Still, Luntz’s comment was honest and candid when compared to the vast right-wing blather about how “the people spoke” against “liberalism” and on behalf of the Republicans’ “free market” agenda last week.

“Expect[ing] a Return on Their Investment” in US “Democracy”

A second and equally candid reflection in last Thursday’s Times came from Robert Shapiro, a top Commerce Department official in the Clinton administration and currently the chairman of a leading Washington economic and security consulting firm.  “With the Republicans controlling both houses,” Shapiro told Times reporters Nelson Schwartz and Clifford Krauss, “the corporations that have been financing their campaigns for years are going to expect to see a return on their investment.” As Schwartz and Clifford explained, the policy “returns” sought on election investments include a significant reduction in corporate taxes, final presidential approval of the eco-cidal Keystone XL Pipeline “to connect Canadian oil sand fields with American refineries on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico,” the reduction of White House efforts to control greenhouse gas emissions, and the enactment of sweeping new “free trade” (investor rights) deals (guaranteed to increase multinational corporations’ ability to exploit workers and poison the environment without interference from governments and popular movements) with Asia and Europe. In other words, more for the rich and the powerful – the common good be damned!

So what if the great majority of the US populace (the vast army of non-voters as well as voters) loathes the oligarchic domination of their government and politics by Big Business and “the 1%”? And so what if the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued right before the election its “starkest warning yet” (New York Times) on the ever more desperate need for the US and other nations to dramatically slash carbon emissions and move off fossil fuels to renewable energy sources?

Who cares?  The Nobel Prize-winning IPCC can kiss Uncle Sam’s oil- and gas-slicked rear end. A good policy return on Big Carbon’s political investment is expected.

“Issues Where There’s Broad Agreement Among the American People”

In press conference remarks given the day after his dismal, dollar-drenched, and demobilizing Democratic Party received its second consecutive richly deserved mid-term shellacking at the hands of the widely disliked and radically regressive Republicans, US President Barack Obama said that he and the now more fully Republican Congress “can surely find ways to work together on issues where there’s broad agreement among the American people.”

Not likely. There has long been broad agreement among the nation’s majority on a number of issues and problems that are completely off the policy table of the nation’s “really existing capitalist democracy – RECD, pronounced as ‘wrecked’” (Noam Chomsky).  Among the technically irrelevant areas of extensive popular concurrence: wealth and income are far too unevenly distributed in the US; big business and the wealthy are far too powerful in the nation’s politics and government; workers should enjoy strong organizing and bargaining rights; wages are far too low; no household with full-time working members should be poor; government should privilege job creation over deficit reduction; taxes should be made far more progressive; government should act firmly to protect the environment and control carbon emissions; government should provide quality health care coverage for all; trade agreements should be revised to include strong labor and environmental protections; private money should be taken out of public elections; third (and fourth) political parties should be permitted a serious chance to compete for votes and representation in the US political system; Social Security and Medicare should be strengthened through progressive funding; strong financial regulations should be passed; corporations should be placed under popular control and strongly regulated; the nation’s giant “defense” (empire) budget should be significantly reduced while social expenditures are increased.  None of these extensive popular and majority beliefs have the slightest chance of receiving support from either of the two reigning business parties in the US where “ordinary citizens have virtually no influence over what their government does in the United States,” where “economic elites and interest groups, especially those representing business, have a substantial degree of influence,” and where “Both parties have to a large degree embraced a set of policies that reflect the needs, preferences and interests of the well to do.”

A ubiquitous and longstanding Washington admonition loyally repeated over and over by US “mainstream” media calls for the nation’s two supposedly “polarized” parties to get past “partisan gridlock” and “get things done.” The media is clear on the “zones of agreement” where the center-right neoliberal President and the hard right neoliberal GOP Congress might be able act on the admonition during the last two years of Obama’s administration.  The “hopeful” areas for “bipartisan action” are “trade” (corporate-neoliberal measures to insulate giant multinational firms yet further from popular and democratic interference), corporate tax “reform” (reduction), and “energy” (increased capitalist fossil fuel extraction and carbon emissions).

“Taking Care of Business”

“The point,” Obama said during his press conference last week, “is it’s time for us to start taking care of business.”  But taking care of big business is what US government has long been all about, and the Obama years have been no exception. Greider’s “blunt lesson about power” is longstanding and ongoing. We should not be deceived by the myth of the powerless and bankrupt state.  It is only what the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu called “the left hand of the state” – the parts of government that serve the poor and the causes of equality and civil liberty – that are broke and fading after decades of corporate and financial neoliberal assault.  The “right hand of the state” – the parts that distribute wealth and power and punish the rest (the rising ranks of the poor especially) – is well-fed and thriving.  As the voters Frank Luntz “listened to” (polled) this year sense, the US government does not lack the resources and wherewithal to carry out key objectives when it comes to serving the needs of the opulent minority. It is inadequate and poor only when it comes to meeting the social and democratic needs of the non-affluent majority.

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

Top Terrorist State: Interview with FARS News Agency

20/11/14 0 COMMENTS

Interview with Paul Street (October 26, 2014) by FARS News Agency (Teheran), published November 5, 2014 at http://english.farsnews.com/newstext.aspx?nn=13930803001434

Q: Reports suggest that Turkey’s border with Syria has been the main entry point for foreign militants who seek to join ISIL. Also, Turkey has demanded a no-fly zone, a buffer zone in Syria and greater efforts against the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Is the buffer zone aimed at creating a safe haven for the displaced or making the area a paradise for the terrorists?

Street: Of all the nations supposedly united against ISIL, Turkey is perhaps the most significant. This is because it shares a 511-mile border with Syria. Takfiri jihadists of all kinds, including those with ISIL and Jabhat al-Nusra (Al-Qaeda in Syria) have crossed from Turkey into Syria with great ease until recently. In 2012 and 2013, Ankara helped fuel the militarization of the Syrian uprising and crisis, backing the rebels on the assumption that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad would soon be defeated and replaced by the oppositions. This did not happen. A resistance that began as a popular uprising was overtaken by sectarian warlords who thrived under circumstances created largely by Turkey.

The buffer zone that Turkey is demanding as a condition of agreeing to cooperate with the US in attacking ISIL is not about helping displaced Syrians. Ankara wants a Turkish-controlled space inside Syria where anti-Assad rebels can be trained. The anti-Assad forces are dominated by ISIL and Jabhat al-Nusra. As a result, the plan means that Turkey, backed by the US, would enter the Syrian Civil war on the side of the Takfiri terrorists. Why does Turkey want a no-fly zone? Because Syria has an air force and ISIL does not. So, yes, Turkey wants to make the buffer zone a haven for terrorists, terrorists fighting the government in Damascus. At the same time, the buffer zone desired by Ankara would likely be devised in part to crush Kurdish autonomy in Syria.

Q: What role is Turkey playing in the region?

Street: A nasty and duplicitous one. On one hand, Turkey is no great fan of extremist Takfiri fundamentalism-terrorism on the models of al-Qaeda and ISIL. On the other hand, it (Turkey) is joined as a NATO member state with the US and other western imperial powers and US-allied Wahhabi monarchies in an alliance against Shiite Iran and against Russia. It is engaged with those other states in a campaign to bring down the Assad government in Damascus – a government that is allied with both Tehran and Moscow. Turkey’s alliance with the West and with the oil sheikdoms and Turkey’s opposition to Iran and the Syrian government have compelled it to aid and abet ISIL and Jabhat al-Nusra, blood enemies of Assad and Iran.

At the same time, Turkey has been engaged in an ongoing bloody conflict with its own Kurdish population for three decades. The Left-led Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) has been waging a political and military struggle for Kurdish self-rule since the mid-1980s. Ever since Syrian forces retreated from the Syrian Kurdish enclaves on the Turkish border in the summer of 2012, Ankara has been extremely uncomfortable with the presence of 15 million self-governing Syrian Kurds right over Turkey’s Southern border.

Make no mistake. While it claimed to have asked the US to bomb ISIL forces to protect the besieged Syrian Kurd city of Kobani last week, Ankara considers the Syrian Kurds a greater threat to Turkey than the fundamentalists. Ankara would rather have ISIL control Kobani than autonomous Kurdish political and military forces.

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has undertaken this policy with the expectation that he can safely dismiss the fury of Turkish Kurds over his complicity with ISIL against the Syrian Kurds. More than 30 Turkish Kurds have been killed by Turkish forces in protests against this collusion. Erdogan is willing to see the resulting collapse of Ankara’s recently attained ceasefire with PKK because he figures that the PKK is too preoccupied with fighting ISIL in Syria to resume armed struggle with the Turkish state.

Q: There is an official open public ISIL consulate in Ankara where you can go and get a visa. What’s your perspective on this?

Street: That is depressing, but it is consistent with what I just said about Turkey and ISIL.

Q: The US formed an international coalition to fight the ISIL terrorists in September. So far, US-led airstrikes have failed to stop the ISIL in Iraq and Syria. Countries like Saudi Arabia and Qatar are among the members of the coalition. In fact, the backers of the ISIL are also among the members of the anti-ISIL coalition. There is a contradiction here. What’s your view on this?

Street: Air-strikes are simply inadequate to the task, as Washington knows. But Washington is reluctant to deploy troops, thanks in part to the war-weariness of the US public in the wake of the failed and criminal US invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. US planners prefer to rely on proxy regimes (Saudi Arabia and the rest) to protect the US Empire’s oil in and around the Persian Gulf. But the proxy regimes aren’t up to the task, either. They all have different agendas than Washington. Crushing ISIL – a Frankenstein partly of their own creation – is not their top priority. The veteran Middle East reporter Patrick Cockburn recently noted that, “The Sunni Arab monarchies may not like ISIL, which threatens the political status quo, but, as one Iraqi observer put it, ‘they like the fact that ISIL creates more problems for the Shiite than it does for them.’”

Q: Do you believe that another international coalition made up of Iran, Russia, China, Lebanon, Syria and Iraq ought to be formed to counter ISIL as the US-led coalition has so far failed to stop the Takfiri group?

Street: I am not a geopolitical adviser or strategist but it seems to me that such a coalition would be far more likely to have its heart in the job of “degrading and defeating ISIL” than the current US-led coalition.

Q: Syria has been the scene of armed and bloody conflicts since March 2011. According to the UN’s latest report, more than 191, 000 people have been killed in the Arab country since the start of the battle. Countries like US and Saudi Arabia have played a significant role in promoting insurgency in the country by massive funding of the Takfiri-Wahhabi terrorists. Why does the US not cooperate with President Assad to root out the Takfiri terrorists in Syria?

Street: It cannot do so openly because it is on record describing Assad as a criminal dictator and calling for his removal from power. The rhetoric against Assad was quite loud inside the US last year. He is one of Washington’s great, officially designated public enemies (new “Hitlers”), in line with other “bad guys” of the past – people like Manuel Noriega, Saddam Hussein, Slobodan Milosevic, and Osama bin-Laden, Assad is allied with the official US regional and global enemies Iran and Russia. The threat that ISIL and Takfiri terrorism more broadly pose to what is always the top US interest in the region – control of Middle Eastern oil through “cooperative relations” with despotic client Arab regimes – means that the US will have no choice but to “cooperate” with Damascus (and Teheran) to some extent to defeat ISIL. But it can only do so secretly, behind the scenes. At the same time, US planners still want to topple Assad and can be expected to act in accord with that goal. They would also like the war to develop in such a way as to de-stabilize Iran. It’s a delicate and duplicitous balance.

More broadly, it should never be forgotten that the US is itself the top terrorist state on Earth. It has killed many millions of innocents around the world over recent decades. Asking Washington to “uproot terrorism” is like asking a Mafia Don to become a good police officer. It is like asking a sociopathic serial killer to become a caring and decent person.

Never forget that the US is home to a giant military- and security-industrial complex that has strong vested interests in endless war. The elites atop this complex garner wealth and power from the vicious circle of US escalation and Takfiri terrorism. They don’t want to see terrorism uprooted – either the ISIL variant or the US variant. Dealing with this corporate and military complex is the duty of beleaguered democratic forces here in the US, where a revolutionary North American Spring is long overdue. (Interview by Javad Arab Shirazi)

On the Frontline of Imperial Evasion at “P”BS

20/11/14 0 COMMENTS

Originally published on TeleSur English, November 7, 2014.

One of the fundamental principles behind “mainstream” media coverage and commentary on United States foreign policy is that the criminal and imperial nature of Washington’s actions abroad can never be acknowledged. Also beyond the parameters of acceptable reporting and opinion in that media is the real depth and degree of the monumental harm the US empire causes in other nations and regions (and for that matter, in the “homeland”).  There is some limited room for admitting that tactical and strategic “mistakes” may have been made by US planners and operatives abroad. Still, these errors must always be discussed as part of Uncle Sam’s supposedly and always benevolent purpose and essence, with the terrible consequences and transgressions minimized and toned down.  As the brilliant left critic Michael Parenti noted seven years ago:

“Be it the Vietnam War, the invasions of Grenada and Panama, the intervention against Nicaragua, the Gulf War massacre, and subsequent invasions of Afghanistan, US military undertakings are portrayed [by ruling US media] as arising from noble if sometimes misplaced intentions.  The media’s view is much the same as the view from the State Department and the Pentagon. The horrendous devastation wreaked upon the presumed beneficiaries of US power generally is downplayed – as are the massive human rights violations perpetrated by US-supported forces…”

To see those richly ideological boundaries in operation in the nation’s supposedly “objective” and “value-free” mass media, it is best to examine the “leftmost” outposts of establishment opinion. As Noam Chomsky has been saying for decades, it is at the “liberal” New York Times, the Washington Post, MSNBC, and the “Public” Broadcasting System where the most relevant boundaries of acceptable debate are set, not at more reliably and stridently reactionary venues like FOX News or the Wall Street Journal, or other “conservative” organs like the Weekly Standard.

Last week’s “P”BS Frontline report (I am writing on the morning of Wednesday, October 29, 2014) on The Rise of ISIS is a textbook case study in the rigid nationalistic and imperial boundaries set at the (not-so) portside extremities of dominant US media.  It’s a sharp and professional production.  It contains a wealth of information and footage on the brutality of ISIS, the sectarian policies of the Maliki regime, the ethnic and regional politics fueling the Islamic State’s emergence in Iraq, the critical role of the Syrian crisis in the remarkable success of formerly marginal jihadist forces, and more.  Frontline posed stern questions about the Obama Administration’s real or alleged failure to properly gage the potency of the ISIS threat.  It spoke to numerous current and former top military and intelligence officials on White House miscalculations and other “mistakes,” putting Obama’s National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes on camera to repeatedly deny charges of strategic oversight.

Consistent also with my longstanding sense that the “P” in “PBS” should be said to stand for “Pentagon” and/or “Presidential” (there’s a case to made also for “Petroleum”), however, the Frontline production’s main accomplishment was to bypass the single most significant point about the phenomenon it purported to explain. Frontline couldn’t bring itself to remotely discuss the important extent to which the murderous and medievalist Islamic State is a natural outcome of US imperial assault very much on the model of the genocidal Khmer Rouge’s rise to power in Cambodia in the wake of Washington’s giant South Asian bombing campaign in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The analogy was recently developed by John Pilger on TeleSur English, “According to [Khmer Rouge leader] Pol Pot, his movement had consisted of ‘fewer than 5,000 poorly armed guerrillas uncertain about their strategy, tactics, loyalty and leaders.’ Once Nixon’s and Kissinger’s B52 bombers had gone to work,…the west’s ultimate demon could not believe his luck….The Americans ….levelled village after village, returning to bomb the rubble and corpses. The craters left monstrous necklaces of carnage, still visible from the air. The terror was unimaginable…. completed.  Under [US] bombs, the Khmer Rouge grew to a formidable army of 200,000.”

“ISIS has a similar past and present. By most scholarly measure, Bush and Blair’s invasion of Iraq in 2003 led to the deaths of some 700,000 people — in a country that had no history of jihadism. The Kurds had done territorial and political deals; Sunni and Shia had class and sectarian differences, but they were at peace; intermarriage was common. Three years before the invasion, I drove the length of Iraq without fear. On the way I met people proud, above all, to be Iraqis, the heirs of a civilization that seemed, for them, a presence.”

“[George W.] Bush and [Tony] Blair blew all this to bits. Iraq is now a nest of jihadism. Al-Qaeda — like Pol Pot’s ‘jihadists’ — seized the opportunity provided by the onslaught of Shock and Awe and the civil war that followed. ‘Rebel’ Syria offered even greater rewards, with CIA and Gulf state ratlines of weapons, logistics and money running through Turkey. The arrival of foreign recruits was inevitable. …ISIS is the progeny of those in Washington and London who, in destroying Iraq as both a state and a society, conspired to commit an epic crime against humanity. Like Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, ISIS are the mutations of a western state terror dispensed by a venal imperial elite undeterred by the consequences of actions taken at great remove in distance and culture. Their culpability is unmentionable in “our” societies.

“Let me ask you this,” the US comedian George Carlin queried his audience in 2005, adding that “this is a moral question, not rhetorical, I’m looking for the answer: what is the moral difference between cuttin’ off one guy’s head, or two, or three, or five, or ten – and dropping a big bomb on a hospital and killing a whole bunch of sick kids?” Carlin’s question applies to the conduct of the US-funded Israel Defense Forces in Gaza this past summer.  It is relevant also to savage US assaults on the Iraqi city of Fallujah in the spring and fall of 2004 – massive attacks that targeted hospitals and used radioactive ordnance that left “a toxic legacy…worse than Hiroshima” (UK journalist Patrick Cockburn), plaguing the city with an epidemic of child leukemia and birth defects. (Predominantly Sunni Fallujah is now under ISIS control, along with most of the rest of Iraq’s Anbar Province.)

Thanks to such operations, Washington turned Iraq into “a disaster zone on a catastrophic scale hard to match in recent memory” (Tom Engelhardt, Tom Dispatch.com, January 17, 2008). According to the respected journalist Nir Rosen, in December 2007, “Iraq has been killed…the American occupation has been more disastrous than that of the Mongols who sacked Baghdad in the thirteenth century” (Current History, December 2007).

The US destruction of Iraq predates the 2003 invasion, of course.  After encouraging Saddam Hussein to invade Kuwait in late 1990, the US slaughtered thousands of surrendered Iraqi conscripts withdrawing from that country on “The Highway of Death” in late February of 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…it was simply a one-sided massacre of tens of thousands of people who had no ability to fight back or defend.”

This great testament to “Western civilization” and U.S. benevolence was the culmination of “Operation Desert Storm,” on which Obama has sought to model his anti-ISIS air war.

After the one-sided imperial slaughter of Iraqis that is known in U.S. History texts as “The First Persian Gulf War,” US “economic sanctions” killed at least half a million Iraqi children.  That’s the number of dead Iraqi minors that CBS’s Leslie Stahl famously asked US Secretary of State Madeline Albright about on national television in 1996. The Madame Secretary did not dispute the appalling number. She said “we think the price [the giant juvenile death toll in Iraq] is worth it” (for the advance of inherently noble US foreign policy goals). “Mainstream” US media offered no judgment on that remarkable statement. As Albright explained three years later, “The United States is good. We try to do our best everywhere.”

While Obama claims to care that ISIS kills Muslims as well as Christians and others in the Middle East, it is simply beyond the pale for a “mainstream” US reporter or commentator to note that nobody has killed and maimed more ordinary Muslim people in Iraq than Uncle Sam. All told, the number of unnatural deaths caused by U.S. attacks and sanctions in Iraq since 1990 certainly exceeds two million and may go as high as 3.3 million (including 750,000 children).

The deadly havoc wreaked by “good” Uncle Sam in Iraq since at least 1990 (a fuller account would include a US-backed Iraq coup in 1963 and US backing of Iraq in a bloody war with Iran during the 1980s) is difficult to fathom. The U.S. has murdered Iraqis indiscriminately, treating “collaterally” killed Iraqis as nothing more than “bug-splat” – a candid elite U.S. military term for civilians expected to die in the US invasion of Iraq.

None of this ugly, quasi-genocidal history can receive the slightest bit of serious attention in reigning US media, even and indeed especially on so-called public media. US culpability and its consequences are unmentionable in the dominant communications institutions. The doctrinal rules of US “mainstream” reporting and commentary require that US crimes and their toll (including the rise of vicious outfits like the Khmer Rouge and ISIS) be thrown down George Orwell’s totalitarian “memory hole” even as they occur.

So what if doing so means that the news’ producers and consumers miss the biggest part of the story in question? That’s the point, actually. US Corporate war and entertainment media doesn’t exist to tell us the truth about contemporary tragedies and crimes. Its mission is to sell goods and services to people with money and to advance a view and record of the world and current events that matches the interests and perspectives of its owners, advertisers, and other reigning authorities.

The United States is good. We try to do our best everywhere.” These are venerable incantations internalized by every “mainstream” US newscaster, reporter, editor, and commentator who wants to keep their careers alive. It’s an ancient occupational requirement in imperial media, where nothing ever changes.

“We should not accuse [‘mainstream’ media personnel] of doing a poor or sloppy job of reporting,” Parenti reminds us. “If anything, with great skill they skirt around the most important points of a story” so as to “avoid offending those who wield politico-economic power while giving every appearance of judicious moderation and balance. It is enough to take your breath away.” They are masters in the “fine art of evasion.”

That’s a perfect description of “P”BS Frontline’s Rise of ISIS special, which artfully treats Washington as at worst a well-intentioned but ill-informed, befuddled, and insufficiently aggressive and interventionist power in the Middle East. If anything, indeed, the US culpability indicated in Frontline’s account is about Washington (under Obama) not projecting enough force and control and thereby “losing Iraq” (as if Iraq is US property). Never mind that mass-homicidal US-imperial force projection and control is the leading cause of the murderous mess that Mesopotamia has become, making it fertile ground for medieval butchers like ISIS, itself funded by numerous US “partners” (including arch-reactionary Saudi Arabia).

The monumental historical omissions are more than just coincidentally consistent with the US military- and security- industrial complex’s commitment to endless war. They are darkly reminiscent of the totalitarian state maxim in Nineteen Eighty Four: “Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past.”

 Paul Street’s latest book is They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy

Six Barriers in Three Minutes: Some Post-Midterm Reflections

11/11/14 0 COMMENTS

Sooner or later, any progressive activist trying to make headway on the interrelated causes of democracy, social justice, and peace in the United States comes up against six barriers that I recently confronted within three minutes at the Iowa City Public Library.

“You Can’t Complain if You Don’t Vote”

Outside my local library last week, I walked past two college students holding up big red, white, and blue signs saying VOTE TODAY. They were both telling passers-by to vote so as to “participate in your democracy.” I said very nicely (I thought) to one of them, “look, I voted yesterday but I’m curious about something: what’s so great about voting? The spectrum is very narrow and it seems like it is all pretty much about the money. It seems to me it’s more like a democracy for the rich, a plutocracy.” (I confess I didn’t relate that I only voted on a ballot measure, against a local jail expansion proposal).

“Sir,” one of the students responded, “Voting is how we the people make decisions in this country. It’s our voice. You can’t complain about politics if you don’t vote,” this student added, relaying a catchphrase I’ve heard for years.”

“And please stop attacking me personally. You are making me uncomfortable.”

Taken aback, I assured the student that I meant nothing personal. I asked her if she had ever read anything by Howard Zinn or Noam Chomsky on the limits of voting as an avenue for popular input under the reigning big money-big-media US elections and party systems, and on the role that popular movements have played in bringing about change in American history.

“Of course I have,” she said, “I’m a political science major.”

“Awesome,” I said, and moved towards my destination, the newspaper section on the library’s second flow.

The two students were with the Democratic Party.   They were part of a last-minute “get-out-the-vote effort” to prevent the inevitable election of the right wing Republican Joni Ernst to the open US Senate seat formerly held of the liberal Democrat Tom Harkin.  I didn’t have the heart to tell them that the uninspiring Democratic candidate for that seat (Bruce Braley) and dozens of other Democratic congressional and gubernatorial candidates were headed for defeat in no small part because their party is hopelessly captive to the corporate and financial interests that drive the economic inequality that roils so many voters (and perhaps more non-voters). In the absence of any serious grassroots social movement to push the dismal, demobilizing, and dollar-drenched neoliberal Democrats towards remotely progressive action (aligned with technically irrelevant majority opinion) and without any viable Left parties to provide an alternative to the Democrats other than the radically regressive Republicans, it would not matter that “nearly half of all registered voters view the GOP negatively, versus just 29% who view it positively” (Wall Street Journal /NBC poll October 30-Nov 1, 2014). The even more plutocratic Republicans would be the only “protest vote” on offer. Millions of non-Republican voters would simply stay home.

That is precisely how the 2014 mid-terms played out, of course.

“I Don’t Believe That”

Thirty feet into the building, I was confronted by a big display honoring all “Our Fallen” soldiers who have died “fighting for freedom after 9/11.” The exhibit included photographs of soldiers in full uniform who had died “in service to their country” in Iraq and Afghanistan over the last 13 years.

I asked the middle-aged lady in charge of the display if all the soldiers were from Iowa.  “Yes,” she said, “there are all fallen heroes from Iowa.”

“Not one of yours, I hope.”

“No.  My son made it back safe and sound from Iraq.”

“That’s good to know,” I said.

“We’ve got a niece in the Army.  We’re very proud of them both.”

“I’m sure.”

But I was not through causing discomfort at the library, it turned out.  I asked the lady in charge of the “Our Fallen” display if she’d heard about the many hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who died because of the blatantly illegal US invasion of their country. I told her the Pentagon’s internal programming term for collaterally killed Iraqis: “bug-splat.”

“Oh, I don’t believe that,” she said, adding that “we’re not that kind of a country. Our military and our wonderful troops are about making the world a better place.”

“I prefer to remember these fallen,” she said, pointing to photographs of the dead US soldiers on her display. She walked away, visibly upset.

“That’s Politics”

The first barrier to “homeland” democracy and justice that I glean from this five-minute stretch of discomfort in a bright blue (“liberal” Democratic) university town is the almost religious faith that many Americans still retain (even through the current New Gilded Age of abject bipartisan oligarchy) in the democratic power and relevance of voting in the nation’s staggered, candidate-centered major party elections.  As the late and great radical American historian Howard Zinn noted six and half years ago, an “election frenzy…seizes the country every four years because we have all been brought up to believe that voting is crucial in determining our destiny, that the most important act a citizen can engage in is to go to the polls and choose one of the two mediocrities who have already been chosen for us.” Already chosen, that is, by the major party insiders and big campaign donors, who make sure that nobody gets nominated who would seriously and honestly represent the progressive values of the nation’s working class majority. “It is a multiple choice test so narrow, so specious,” Zinn observed, “that no self-respecting teacher would give it to students.”

A narrow choice sold by marketers, pollsters, and public relations professionals, so that, as Noam Chomsky once observed, “voters end up endorsing an image, not a platform.” A narrow choice that is sold to us as “politics,” the only politics that matters. “But it isn’t,” as Chomsky observed:   “It’s only a small part of politics.” As Chomsky noted ten years ago, writing on the eve of the 2004 presidential election, “Americans are encouraged to vote, but not to participate more meaningfully in the political arena” by forming grassroots movements too powerful to be “ignored by centers of power.”

Reflections on an Aphorism and a Rant

An aside: I don’t know who invented the phrase “you can’t complain if you don’t vote” or when that expression became a part of the national political language, but I am quite certain that it is one of the most idiotic aphorisms ever coined. It simply deletes the understandable complaint that the “choices” offered in the US ballot box are not democratic and diverse enough to merit partaking in the process. It equates meaningful participation in politics with voting for generally second-rate candidates already selected by elites determined to weed out aspirants who might threaten concentrated wealth and power. It also seems to equate popular political engagement with complaining about what policymakers do instead of with the quest for actual popular governance and participatory self-rule – the real meaning of democracy.

It’s true that there’s an opposite argument true complainers’ privileges goes to non-voters.  As the legendary contrarian US comic George Carlin Carlin once ranted:

“People like to say, ‘if you don’t vote, you don’t have any right to complain.’ But where’s the logic in that? If you vote, and you elect dishonest, incompetent people and they get into office and screw everything up, well then you are responsible for what they have done.  You caused the problem, you voted them in.  You have no right to complain!  I, on the other hand… (uproarious laughter), who did not vote, who, in fact, did not even leave the  house on election day (laughter) am in no way responsible for what these people have done and have every right to complain as loudly as I want to about the mess you created that I had nothing to do with.”

Carlin’s argument is entertaining but it is deeply flawed, too. It deletes the much bigger responsibility of those conducting the prior behind-the-scenes selection of flawed, power-serving candidates before ordinary citizens get to supposedly “cause the problem” and “create the mess” by voting for one of Zinn’s “two mediocrities.”  Carlin forgot or disregarded the fact that some citizens do vote for a small number of candidates who are actually honest and competent (e.g.,  Seattle’s socialist city council member Kshama Sawant). He discounted the possibility that some who vote do so with full knowledge that all the available candidates are bad but with a tactical and/or strategic calculation that some candidates are less terrible than others or that prospects for popular movements might be better with one candidate or set of candidates in office then another candidate or set of candidates.  Like pro-voting activists, Carling ironically also exaggerated the power and relevance of voting and deleted the greater significance of popular grassroots organization and movements, something that encouraged him to wrongly conclude that a non-voter is any less responsible than a voter for what elected officials do.

The notion that anyone who participates (for whatever reason) in the nation’s highly flawed, frankly plutocratic elections system is any less privileged to “complain” about US politics is of course absurd. My own critique of the US elections and party systems as a plutocratic mess that serves to marginalize the populace and advance elite interests stands whether I enter the voting booth or not.

Orthodoxy Still Rules 

The second barrier I came up against at my local public library is the notion that people know anything of civic and democratic value because they have attended college and perhaps even taken humanities and/or social science courses (“Of course…I’m a political science major”).  Quite the opposite is generally the case. As the brilliant Left political commentator and former academician Michael Parenti noted seven years ago, “By purchase and persuasion, our institutions of higher learning are wedded to institutions of higher earning. Most universities hardly qualify as hotbeds of dissident thought.  The product is a mild but pervasive ideological orthodoxy.  College is a place where fundamental criticisms are in scarce supply.  The predominant intellectual product in academia remains largely bereft of critical engagements with society’s compelling issues. Orthodoxy still rules.”

Parenti’s observation is richly consistent with my own experience over many years in and around the nation’s deeply conservative “higher education” system,   I doubt very much that the student who told me I could experience meaningful democratic participation by going into a voting booth has ever had any serious engagement with the writings of such great dissident thinkers as Chomsky, Zinn, or Parenti. She certainly has not encountered such thinkers through course work in the thoroughly mainstream political science department at the University of Iowa.

“How Dare You Say That in My Proximity?”

The third barrier I confronted at the library is the belief that one has been personally attacked because someone else raises a discordant, dissenting political note. I have run across this same sort of response, conveying a sense of personal injury after I have said and written things like the following: “capitalism and democracy are two very different and fundamentally opposed things;” “labor unions have made many positive contributions to the lives of ordinary Americans;” “racism is still  a major barrier to Black advancement and equality in the US today;” “global warming is caused by human beings and poses grave risks to our prospects for a decent future;” “the reigning US political organizations today both serve corporate interests.” Outraged listeners or readers are moved to say, essentially, the following: “How dare you say [or write] something that makes me uncomfortable because it is different from what I think?”

It’s difficult to have the free-flowing exchange of perspectives and information that a functioning democracy requires when people react in this personalized and defensive way to views and facts that they find cognitively and ideologically dissonant.

“We Lead the World in Battling Evils”

Back to my second encounter in the public library. The fourth barrier that I contended with in a stretch of three minutes last week is the widespread national belief that the US is a great force for good in the world – one that would never commit terrible, criminal, and indeed evil transgressions against other people.  “The United States is good,” US Secretary of State Madeline Albright proclaimed in 1998. “We try to do our best everywhere.”  As Barack Obama explained seven years ago, voicing standard US rhetoric on Washington’s grand noble global role, “We lead the world in battling immediate evils and promoting the ultimate good…. America is the last, best hope of Earth.” Obama elaborated in his first Inaugural Address. “Our security,” the president said, “emanates from the justness of our cause; the force of our example; the tempering qualities of humility and restraint.”  These are fascinating reflections on Hiroshima and Nagasaki (unnecessary for the completion of the United States’ victory over a clearly defeated Japan at the end of WWII), on the US “crucifixion of Southeast Asia” (with a death toll of 2-3 million Indochinese between 1962 and 1975), on the “Highway of Death” (when US air forces engaged in the “turkey shoot” slaughter of many thousands of surrendered and retreating Iraqi conscripts), on the death of more than 500,000 children thanks to US-led “economic sanctions” during the 1990s, on the Battles of Fallujah (when the US Marines practically levelled an entire Iraqi city that it attacked with radioactive ordnance than left a legacy of epidemic child cancers and birth defects), and on much more that is terrible to mention,

It isn’t just presidents and top diplomats who accept the notion of US goodness in the world. Listen to the following recent reflection on ZNet from the eloquent US Iraq War veteran and antiwar and social justice activist Vincent Emanuele:

“Throughout the course of my second deployment, I became increasingly opposed to the war. This happened for many reasons, but primarily because of the insane brutality inflicted on the Iraqi people by my fellow Marines. They took it upon themselves to shoot at innocents, torture civilians and enemy combatants, steal goods from the local populations, mutilate dead bodies, take pictures with corpses and cover-up any evidence of said actions. According to MSNBC, CNN and FoxNews, we were the good guys. Hell, many veterans didn’t even believe such nonsense. But most Americans did. They bought the hype.”

Mass misplaced belief in the basic and inherent virtuousness and decency of the US Empire and its military is nothing new, of course. On March 18, 1968, for example, a US Army company entered My Lai 4, a small village in South Vietnam, and systematically massacred between 450 and 500 unarmed civilian inhabitants, including a large number of children and infants.  After this atrocity (one of many committed by US forces during the aforementioned crucifixion) was finally reported in major US media eighteen months later, replete with graphic photographs of slaughtered and defenseless women and children, the Pulitzer Prize-winning US reporter Seymour Hersh noted that the Wall Street Journal published an informal poll undertaken by its reporters in US cities. “Many of those interviewed refused to believe that mass killings had taken place,” Hersh observed. “A teletype inspector in Philadelphia …said…’I can’t believe our boys hearts are that rotten’…Much of America’s anger at the disclosures was directed towards the newspapers and television stations publicizing them…A statewide poll published shortly before Christmas by the Minneapolis Tribune showed that 49 percent of 600 persons interviewed there believed that the reports of mass murder at My Lai 4 were false…A later Time magazine poll of 1,600 households found that 65 percent of the American public believed such incidents were bound to happen in any war…”

Worthy and Unworthy Victims

A fifth barrier is the standard Orwellian distinction made in mainstream US media and politics culture between “worthy” and “unworthy victims” of global violence. People really or allegedly harmed by forces who stand in the way of Washington’s global ambitions (by, say, Putin’s Russia, the socialist government of Venezuela, or Islamist “insurgents” in Iraq or Palestine) are officially “worthy victims.” Their real and alleged suffering matters.  It must be acknowledged, redressed, and even avenged as far as dominant US corporate media and major party politicians are concerned.

Things are very different for those killed, crippled, maimed, starved, sickened, displaced, and traumatized by US forces and/or by other forces allied with the US. These injured and murdered people are “unworthy,” anonymous, and invisible victims in US doctrine and media. Their suffering does not merit significant attention or redress.

The ultimate “worthy victims” in US political culture are the US civilians who died on 9/11/2001 and US troops who have been killed in US operations ostensibly directed at battling evil and promoting good. No US victims since those who died at Pearl Harbor have been more frequently invoked than those who perished on 9/11 – a tragedy US citizens are instructed to “Never Forget” even as Uncle Sam’s mass-murderous transgressions are routinely sent down Orwell’s memory hole. It is close to unthinkable that anyone would be permitted to set up a display in a local US public library showing the names and faces of any significant number from among the millions of Iraqis who have been killed by US policy over the last two-plus decades.

Loving the Military

A sixth barrier to justice, peace, and democracy in the US is the remarkable high esteem in which the US military is held in the “homeland” (a revealingly militarized and imperial term). According to Pew, the nation’s leading polling outfit, 78 percent of US-Americans say that members of the armed services “contribute a lot to society’s well-being.” By contrast, just 37 percent of poll respondents said that “the clergy” make a big contribution to society.  Just 30 percent gave such praise to artists.  The military “tops the list of ten occupational groups, followed by doctors, scientists, and engineers,” when it comes to honoring positive contribution.  “On balance,” Pew noted, “the military is viewed [very] positively by all major social and demographic groups.”

Pew’s findings are consistent with a Gallup poll earlier this year showing that the military is by far and away the institution in which US citizens hold the most confidence.  Seventy-four percent of (US of) Americans told Gallup that they had “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in “the military.”  The next highest confidence scores went to “small business” as 62 percent and “the police” at 53 percent (the US Congress came in last at 7 percent).

Some “Homeland” Prices of Empire

Why are these last three and heavily overlapping barriers – faith in Uncle Sam’s noble role in the world, the ubiquitous distinction between worthy and unworthy victims, and widespread popular approval of the US military – a problem for the causes of justice and democracy? Beyond the support they grant to Washington’s deadly imperial projects abroad, they help sustain a massive drain of resources away from potential investment in domestic healing.  Accounting for nearly half the world’s military spending, the Pentagon budget each year sweeps up hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars required to tackle the giant list of unmet social and environmental needs in the savagely unequal “homeland,” where the richest 400 Americans own more wealth between them than the bottom half of the population while 16 million children live beneath the federal government’s notoriously inadequate poverty level. The Pentagon system is a gargantuan “cost-plus” profits machine for wealthy “defense” (empire) contractors – a mechanism for the upward concentration of wealth and power.  Currently facing prosecution by the Obama administration for refusing to divulge an inside government source for his earlier reporting on warrantless federal wiretapping, the former New York Times reporter James Risen shows in his latest book Pay Any Price: Greed, Power, and Endless War (October 2014) that “The…global war on terror has become essentially an endless war [and]…a hunt for cash.” The main driving force behind the new “endless war” is a large corporate “military and homeland security complex” that rakes in lucrative profits – attained largely in secret and with significant levels of fraud – that are fed by the relentless selling of fear.

At the same time, the military is an openly authoritarian, rigidly hierarchical, and command-based institution, hostile by its very nature to popular governance and self-rule. For it to be the most revered institution (by far) in US society does not bode well for democracy’s “homeland” prospects.

Some Overlaps

The last three barriers have some curious overlaps with the first three barriers mentioned above.  The US elections fetish is often projected by US media and elites onto other nations in which the US has intervened. The holding of US-approved and US-managed elections (exercises that commonly certify the rule of US-sponsored elites) is often said by Washington its compliant media servants to show that  Uncle Sam is advancing “democracy” and “freedom” abroad.

The nation’s ever more corporatized and conservative colleges and universities generally side with US imperial policy. Serious and dedicated critics of US foreign policy are not wholly absent there, but they are all too rare and marginalized in US “higher education,” which grants elite professorships, “research” positions, and the occasional top administrative post to numerous former US military and foreign policy officials.  (No wonder there was no real campus-based antiwar movement even when George W. Bush undertook his monumentally criminal and brazenly imperial invasion of Iraq.) Guardians of academic convention like Stanley Fish rail against the supposed vast army of liberal arts and social science professors who purportedly use their teaching positions to advance a left political agenda.  Fish and his moronic ilk have nothing to say about the significant number of corporate and imperial agents and ideologues who hold academic and administrative positions – or, of course, about the pervasive capitalist, nationalist, and imperial ideological biases that color what passes for “neutral,” “value-free”, and “objective” discourse in “higher education.

To be heard questioning the supposed nobility and benevolence of Uncle Sam’s global mission, policies, and/or  military or talking about the many crimes the US has committed abroad is to risk evoking a highly personalized sense of inappropriate behavior here in the US “homeland.”  “How dare you!” I could feel the cold stares of the crowd around me once when I failed to leap to respectful attention when military veterans were suddenly paraded onto the ice and thanked for their service to “freedom” during a break in an NHL hockey game.  What kind of “Anti-American” does not pay his respect for “our boys” and their grand “sacrifice” for liberty, justice and everything good in the world?

Some Silver Linings

There is a silver lining or two for left progressives in the Gallup and Pew surveys cited above – and even in the recent midterm elections.  According to Pew, less than a fourth (24%) of the US populace thinks that business executives “contribute a lot to society’s well-being.”  Only lawyers scored lower (18%).

Gallup reports that the percentage of US citizens who have a “great deal” or “quite a lot of confidence” in “the banks” and in “big business” are just 26% and 21%, respectively.  The Congress, itself largely controlled (as is fairly well known) by the big financial institutions and corporations (leading contributors to the obscene, record-setting $4 billion price of this year’s Congressional elections) is viewed with a “great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence by a tiny 7 percent of the US populace. (The Republicans might want to temper their celebrations over the completion of their takeover of the US Congress.  Already highly unpopular in the US, the GOP now rules both wings of the nation’s least popular national institution.)

There’s been no great move to the right either in the US populace or even in US government.  Before the mid-terms and since 2010, the US federal government was already “gridlocked” between a center-right, conservative and neoliberal President and a more radically right wing neoliberal Congress on the other.  The Supreme Court remains in GOP hands as before. The top US 1% already received 95% of the nation’s income gains during Obama’s presidency, even without a Republican-controlled US Senate.

Voters approved an increased minimum wage in each of the five states where proposals for such a hike were on the ballot.  And turnout appears to have been quite low even by the usual low standards for mid-term (non-presidential) election years, reflecting (among other things) widespread popular antipathy with the nation’s recurrently noxious, money-soaked and mass-marketed election spectacles. According to Obama in his press conference the day after the mid-terms, just one-third of the eligible electorate bothered to vote. Unlike the minimum wage and other policy-specific measures on the ballots (I voted simply to reject a measure calling for an expensive jail expansion bond in my county), the candidate contests are, as Chomsky says, about images and public relations, not issues. The aversion many US non-voters feel for the major parties and their candidates, advertisements, and donors is highly understandable.  The elections, after all, are mass-marketed, frankly sociopathic exercises in the marginalization and manipulation of the populace.

“US No Longer an Actual Democracy”

Beneath the highly identity-politicized marionette theater of partisan warfare in Washington and the state capitals across the country, both of the two reigning political organizations – once accurately described by Upton Sinclair as “two wings of the same bird of prey” – have moved well to the right of the majority working class populace on numerous key issues. In a study originally released last April, leading mainstream political scientists Martin Gilens (Princeton) and Benjamin Page (Northwestern) report that U.S. democracy no longer exists. Over the past few decades, Gilens and Page determined that the U.S. political system has become “an oligarchy,” where wealthy elites and their corporations “rule,” wielding wildly disproportionate power over national policy. Examining data from more than 1,800 different policy initiatives from 1981 to 2002, they found that wealthy and well-connected elites consistently steer the direction of the country, regardless of or even against the will of the U.S. majority. “The central point that emerges from our research is that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy,” Gilens and Page write, “while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence”

A story about Gilens and Page’s study in the liberal online journal Talking Points Memo (TPM) last April bears an interesting title: “Princeton Study: U.S. No Longer an Actual Democracy.” It reported Gilens and Page’s finding that “the government—whether Republican or Democratic—more often follows the preferences” of Americans at the nation’s 90th income percentile than those at the 50th percentile. The story contained a link to an interview with Gilens in which he explained that “contrary to what decades of political science research might lead you to believe, ordinary citizens have virtually no influence over what their government does in the United States. And economic elites and interest groups, especially those representing business, have a substantial degree of influence…. Both parties have to a large degree embraced a set of policies that reflect the needs, preferences and interests of the well to do.” No wonder, as TPM reporter Sahil Kapur noted, “Polls show that many American voters feel on a gut level that the government isn’t looking out for them.” Kapur might have added “and non-voters,” along with the following concluding phrase: “but is looking out instead for the wealthy Few.”

Millions of properly disgusted Americans are too nauseated by the whole plutocratic charade to “participate” in the narrow-spectrum spectacle. Along with the stunning unpopularity of both Congress and the Republican Party, last Tuesday’s super-majoritarian shunning of the nation’s corporate-managed electoral fake-democracy mocks the mid-term election victors’ claim to be riding any kind genuine popular mandate for their vicious, right-wing agenda.

Real popular democracy will not be advanced through that current reigning party and elections system, except in a few isolated cases like Sawant’s victory in Seattle. It will come through struggle beyond and against the nation’s sham democracy, beneath and beyond the biennial and quadrennial extravaganzas.

Paul Street’s latest book is They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy

You and What Army? Reflections on Parenti, Vision and Organization

10/11/14 0 COMMENTS

When told the Pope thought he should stop repressing Catholics under his yoke, the Soviet dictator Josef Stalin famously asked, “The Pope? How many divisions has he got?” A different version of the same put-down, typically issued in response to someone who says they are going to make you do something: “on yeah, you and what army?”

Both of these phrases passed through my mind after I (belatedly) read through the section titled “What is to be Done?” in the Marxist-Leninist (possibly even Stalinist [1]) Michael Parenti’s 2007 book Contrary Notions.

My reflections here are hardly limited to Parenti’s book.  I often want to say “us and what army” or “how many divisions do we have?” to fellow leftists and progressives as I hear and read their generally smart and noble statements on what needs to be done.

A Good Read 

Contrary Notions is a brilliant volume. I bought a copy in a left-wing bookstore in downtown Madison, Wisconsin two months ago and sat down with it in a nearby coffee shop. I couldn’t put it down. On one important topic after another – racism, capitalism, ecology, ethnic stereotypes, patriarchy, gay marriage, history, US imperialism, technology, corporate media, propaganda, academic culture, stolen US elections, and more – Parenti offered eloquent, highly readable insights.  Listen, for example, to this formulation:

“Newscasters who want to keep their careers afloat learn the fine art of evasion.  We should not accuse them of doing a poor or sloppy job of reporting.  If anything, with great skill they skirt around the most important parts of a story.  With much finesse, they say a lot about very little, serving up heaps of junk news filled with so many empty calories and so few nutrients.  Thus do they avoid offending those who wield politico-economic power while giving every appearance of judicious moderation and balance.  It is enough to take your breath away.” (Contrary Notions, 7)

Exactly.  Most of Contrary Notions reads like that – straightforward and powerful prose telling an important truth about something that matters. I was particularly impressed by this formulation:

“American socialism cannot be modeled on the former Soviet Union, China, Cuba, or other countries with different historical, economic, and cultural developments. But these countries ought to be examined so that we might learn from their accomplishments, problems, failures, and crimes. Our goal should be an egalitarian, communitarian, environmentally conscious democratic socialism, with a variety of participatory and productive forms. …What is needed to bring about fundamental change is a mass movement that can project both the desirability of an alternative system and the possibility and the great necessity for change in a social democratic direction. There is much evidence indicating that Americans are well ahead of political leaders in their willingness to embrace new alternatives, including consumer and worker cooperatives and public ownership of some industries and services.” [2]

That, too is very well said and much to be applauded, on the whole.

Proposals Abound

There is much, also, to recommend the section of Contrary Notions titled “What is to be Done?” The section consists essentially of a set of policy recommendations for reforms that would make the US and the world more just, sustainable, and democratic places to live.  Among the decent social-democratic  things that Parenti proposed:

  • the public financing of elections
  • proportional representation in elected legislative assemblies
  • abolition of the archaic Electoral College in US presidential elections
  • breaking up giant corporations and placing corporations under popular control
  • making corporate directors personally liable for company crimes
  • limiting and transforming corporate charters in accord with social and environmental need
  • the replacement of toxic corporate agribusiness with sustainable and organic agriculture
  • measures to ensure conservation and ecological restoration
  • the replacement of fossil fuels with alternative renewable energy
  • the introduction single payer national health insurance – the de-commodification of health care for all
  • the development of rapid mass-transit
  • statehood for Washington DC
  • steep progressive income, wealth and business taxes
  • giant jobs programs to meet social and environmental needs
  • the re-legalization of union organizing
  • massive slashing of the giant Pentagon budget and conversion to a peacetime economy in which resources formerly dedicated to the military are directed to social need
  • repealing all so-called free trade agreements
  • the progressive funding and reform of Social Security[3]

Today, as in 2007, I support each of these policy suggestions and more (e.g., a financial transactions tax and a carbon tax to help pay for renewable energy programs and other worthy social and environmental investments) in the way of major structural reform. Reading through that list, I was reminded of one of my favorite lines from Noam Chomsky: “One commonly hears that carping critics complain about what is wrong, but do not present solutions. There is an accurate translation for that charge: ‘they present solutions and I don’t like them.’”[4]

We – the Left that is, such as it is (more on that below) – advance “solutions” all the time, and (though you wouldn’t know it from Parenti’s “What is to be Done” section) not just reformist ones.

We always have. Yes, we and what army, with how many divisions?

Eleven Pages on The Point of it All?

I have four problems with Parenti’s “What is to be Done?” section.  First, it is remarkably slim – a mere 11 pages in a 400-page book – given what one would think to be the central significance of the topic for a Marxist-Leninist like Parenti. “Philosophers,” (the first official Left icon) Marx once wrote, “have tried to understand history; the point is to change it”[5](of course, understanding history might be useful for those who want to change it). The first widely read pamphlet published by Lenin, a second great Left icon, was titled What is to be Done? My copy of that key Bolshevik polemic is 200 pages long.

Reforms Will Not Suffice

“At this point,” Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett argued in their important book The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger (2009), “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 a vision of a better society which is both achievable and inspiring.”[6]

As Wilkinson and Pickett might have added, leftists and other egalitarians have done a lot more work on policies than they have around vision. Parenti is no exception.

My second problem with Parenti’s “What is to be Done” section is that it contains nothing remotely like a sketch of a vision of an alternative society beyond the rule of capitalist and other elites.  Is this a problem?  I think so.  In 1932, the great American philosopher John Dewey noted that U.S. politics was “the shadow cast on society by big business.” Things would stay that way, he predicted, for as long as power resided in “business for private profit through private control of banking, land, industry, reinforced by commend of the press, press agents, and other means of publicity and propaganda”[7]

It might seem that Dewey spoke too soon. Between the 1930s and the 1970s, a significant reduction in overall economic inequality (though not racial inequality) and an increase in the standard of living of millions of working class Americans occurred in the United States. This “Great Compression” occurred thanks to the rise and expansion of the industrial workers’ movement (sparked to no small extent by Communists and other radical left militants), the spread of collective bargaining, the rise of a relatively pro-union New Deal welfare state, and the democratic domestic pressures of World War II and subsequent powerful social movements. Still, core capitalist prerogatives and assets – Dewey’s “private control” and “business for profit” – were never dislodged (consistent with New Deal champion Franklin Roosevelt’s boast that he had “saved the profits system” from radical change). The gains enjoyed by ordinary working Americans were made possible to no small extent by the uniquely favored and powerful position of the United States economy (and empire) in the post-WWII world.

When that position was significantly challenged by resurgent Western European and Japanese economic competition in the 1970s and 1980s, the comparatively egalitarian trends of postwar America were reversed by the capitalist elites who had never lost their critical command of the nation’s core economic and political institutions. Working class Americans have paid the price ever since. For the last four decades, wealth, income, and power have been sharply concentrated upward, marking a New or Second Gilded Age of abject oligarchy.  Along the way, and intimately related to the neoliberal regression, US and global capitalism have pushed the environment to the edge of a grave, possibly irreversible catastrophe.[7A]

Reforms will not suffice, as Dewey suggested – and as a Marxist like Parenti (who referred in other parts of Contrary Notions to the desirability of socialism) surely knows. Both to help people live better lives and to gain credibility with the broad populace, leftists must advance reforms under really existing capitalism. At the same time, they should never fall prey to the illusion that justice, democracy, and livable ecology can ever be seriously and lastingly attained under the rule of “business for private profit.”  They can’t.  And it is hard to know why elites should agree to pass reforms unless activists with a mobilized mass constituency articulate a popular revolutionary vision that threatens those in power with genuinely radical and structural change unless rulers concede smaller changes.

Missing: Corporate Divisions of Labor and Coordinators 

Parenti’s singular focus on reforms in his “What is to be Done” section left me wondering how genuinely interested he really was in authentically radical and democratic transformation – the kind of deep, taproot change required. It encouraged my suspicion that Parenti was interested not so much in popular revolution and egalitarian transformation as in the replacement of one set of elites by another.

My concern on this score was deepened by a third problem with Parenti’s “What is to be Done?” section: the lack of any serious egalitarian thinking on the related issues of how work (what Marxists have long called “the labor process”) is organized and who presides over the contemporary workplace. Jean Paul Sartre is supposed to have once commented that Marxists seemed to think that people didn’t really exist until they got their first paid jobs. I’ve often found that many Marxists seem to think that working people need to care about little more regarding work than the pay and benefits workers receive, the purchasing power of their wages, and the pace, length, and safety of the working day. Also, Marxists too commonly seem to think that the only real and relevant oppressors of the working class majority are the big holders of capital, the bourgeois owning and investing class, as if droves of critical and intermediate managerial and professional elites – those left-libertarian economists Robin Hahnel and Michael Albert designate the “coordinator class” – do not also rule and enjoy privilege. For traditional Marxism (of which Parenti has long been an able and prolific popularizer), the socialist transformation that is desired comes down basically to a shift from the authoritarian and selfish private ownership to the socially democratic public ownership of the nation’s means of production and investment.  As Parenti explained in his 2002 book Democracy for the Few, “What is needed then is public ownership of the major means of production and public ownership of the moneyed power itself – in a word, socialism.”

In reality, of course, most workers suffer not just from the private, profit-seeking capitalist ownership of the workplace but also from what Albert calls the “corporate division of labor” – an alienating, de-humanizing, and hierarchical subdivision of tasks “in which a few workers have excellent conditions and empowering circumstances, many fall well below that, and most workers have essentially no power at all.”  This pecking order “marks the difference between being an all- purpose gopher, a custodian, an assembler, a foreman, a manager, an engineer, a vice president, or a CEO.” The core disparities between these jobs are not merely about money and benefits.  They also reflect vast differences in the autonomy and pleasure of work, along with differences in information, status, training, knowledge, confidence, and voice on the job.  Over time, Albert noted in his anti-coordinator and anti-capitalist book Parecon: Life After Capitalism (2002), corporate divisions of labor harden “into a broad and pervasive class division” whereby one class – roughly the top fifth of the workforce – “controls its own circumstances and the circumstances of others below,” while another (the rest, the working class super-majority) “obeys orders and gets what its members can eke out.” The “coordinator class…looks down on workers as instruments with which to get jobs done.  It engages workers paternally, seeing them as needing guidance and oversight and as lacking the finer human qualities that justify both autonomous input and also the higher incomes needed in order to support more expensive tastes.”

The problem is not limited to capitalism. A shift in ownership from private to public, while necessary, does not undo the problem of hierarchical “labor process[es]”and workplaces. In centrally planned state-socialist economies like that which prevailed in the old USSR (of which Parenti was and remains something of a cheerleader), this coordinator class ruled entirely without capitalists.  Members drawn from its elite ranks became the militantly undemocratic (arch-authoritarian, in fact) ruling class of “really existing socialist” nations. At the same time, coordinators reign without capitalists (though of course within the broader framework and rules of capitalism) in numerous public bureaucracies and large non-profit institutions in the US today.[8]

No meaningfully social and democratic vision of the changes required in the US and elsewhere today can ignore the need to confront the difficulties posed by corporate divisions of labor – difficulties that are intimately related but not merely reducible to the rule of capital.  Surely, this must be a central focus for any leftist who claims to embrace “participatory” and “democratic” socialism and who says they want to critically examine the experience of the USSR, China, and Cuba “so that we might learn from their accomplishments, problems, failures, and crimes.” We do not wish to replace the rule of capitalists and coordinators with the rule of coordinators alone.

For what it’s worth, there’s nothing inherent in Marxism or the Marxist tradition requiring the omission of critical points hierarchical divisions of labor and the authoritarian organization of work.  Indeed, one can find careful and often brilliant discussions of this problem in the more “humanistic” writings of Marx and in the reflections of numerous self-described Marxist writers and theorists like Harry Braverman[9], Rudolph Bahro[10], Andre Gorz[11], Stephen Marglin [12], and now perhaps Richard Wolff.  In a recent reflection at the Marxist Web site MRZine, the leading US Marxist Wolff offered the following admonition and analysis:

“What socialists need first is to recognize and accept that the classic socialist focus on macro-level institutional change – from private to social ownership of productive assets and from markets to planning – is insufficient ….socialists need…to stand emphatically for the transformation of the enterprise: more precisely, for its radical democratization….In a socialism redefined along these lines, all the workers in an enterprise collectively and democratically make all the key economic decisions…Such a redefined and refocused socialism opens a path beyond capitalism different from what happened in the USSR, PRC…”

“In such a transition to socialism, workers would transform themselves – from undereducated, under-informed, and often deskilled drones, controlled and directed by others, into members of self-directed cooperatives. Their tasks are equitably shared, everyone develops multiple skills, and rotation of function keeps jobs from hardening into status ranks, etc. Everyone partakes in turn in giving and taking orders to get jobs done. In such democratizations of workplaces and work-processes, new kinds of people will emerge.”[13]

Wolff critically leaves out coordinators and their central role under capitalism. He advocates a market socialism that is frankly inconsistent with the radical reorganization of work (“enterprises”) he now claims to advocate. As workers’ control advocate Tom Wetzel wrote me: “It’s true that his description here sounds like the change in jobs proposed to break down the power of the coordinator class. But…it would be very unlikely for that to happen under market socialism, because labor markets would empower people with special experience and skills in managing, engineering and they could force coops to empower them as a condition of being hired.”

Still, it interesting and useful to see a leading Marxist intellectual go so explicitly beyond the traditional stale and inadequate definition of socialism largely as a change in ownership (from private to public) of core economic institutions and into the “micro” territory of how workplaces and the “labor process” are organized.

“There is No Left Now”  

Fourth, and last but not least, Parenti’s section on “What is to be Done” contains nothing about organization.  His silence here is doubly ironic. Parenti claimed in Contrary Notions that (as quoted above) “What is needed to bring about fundamental change is a mass movement.” Movements require organization. At the same time, Lenin’s famous 1902 pamphlet What is to be Done? (certainly the inspiration for the title of Parent’s section) said nothing either on reforms under capitalism (or under Russian Tsarist rule) or on what an alternative, post-capitalist society might look like. It was focused entirely on the critical question of revolutionary (as opposed to merely reformist and “economist”) organization.

One does not have to be a Leninist to recognize the critical nature of this curious omission. With all due respect for Wilkinson and Pickett’s important point (quoted favorably above) about the necessity of broad societal vision for the creation of mass egalitarian political will, I cannot escape the suspicion that the greatest barrier to such will is the lack of viable institutional Left with the capacity to act meaningfully on (abundantly developed) Left policy proposals and alternative societal vision (far less abundantly developed). What’s missing above all and quite egregiously is durable popular and revolutionary organization and an entrenched Left cadre ready to spark and lead people’s struggles and to tie together struggles over disparate issues through thick and thin and over a long period of time.

The dominant media and many mainstream politicians, particularly Republicans, are strongly attached to the notion that something called “the Left” (a term that preposterously ranges in application from the left anarchists and Marxists who sparked Occupy Wall Street to Oprah Winfrey, the New York Times, and Barack Obama) is a powerful force in the United States today. The news and commentary media speak constantly about the supposedly sharp “polarization” of US politics between “left” (meaning the corporate- and Wall Street–captive Democrats) and “right” (the deeply reactionary, arguably radical Republicans). But, as Noam Chomsky pointed out in a 2010 interview with David Barsamian, the “mainstream” discussion is absurd:

Barsamian: “The Left seems to have nothing to say.”

Chomsky: “The Democratic Party and even the Democratic left are not going to tell people, ‘Look, your problem is that, back in the 1970s, we took part in a major process of financialization of the economy and the hollowing out of the productive system. So your wages and income have stagnated for thirty years, while what wealth is produced is in a very few pockets. Those are our policies.’ No, there is no real left now. If you are just counting heads, there are probably more people involved than in the 1960s, but they are atomized, committed to different special interests—gay rights, environmental rights, this, that. They don’t coalesce into a movement that can really do things” (emphasis added).

Ever since the decline of the “Old Left,” primarily the Communist Party (itself crushed by state repression in the age of McCarthyism), progressive forces have been plagued by the absence of organizational and cadre continuity. “We’re not supposed to say it,” Chomsky told Barsamian:

“but the Communist Party was an organized and persistent element. It didn’t show up for a demonstration and then scatter so somebody else had to start something new. It was always there and it was there for the long haul. . . . That’s why the old Communist Party was so significant. There was always somebody around to turn the mimeograph machine. . . . They didn’t expect quick victories. Maybe you win something, maybe you don’t, but then you lay the basis for something else. That mentality is basically missing [now]. And it was during the 1960s, too.”[14]

“Do We Want to Win”? 

There is also the related issue of fragmentation – the dissipation and division of often noble progressive and Left efforts into too many over-separated issues, too many overblown sectarian affiliations, too many local struggles, too many identities, and too many separate efforts.  This longstanding Left problem led Albert to issue a proposal and plea for strategic unity in “one big movement” last July:

“Suppose representatives from four diverse organizations, parties, and projects got together with the purpose of creating a Solidarity with Autonomy Movement (SAM) They hammer out the structural norms – a clear understanding of what allegiance implies, what dues there are, how resources are distributed back to affiliates and to overall projects, how SAM-sponsored campaigns and projects are determined, what SAM affiliates have to do vis-a-vis one another, etc.”

“Then they take this vision, which they are ready to participate in and to help build, to some other constituency groups, projects, and organizations, agreeable to each of the initial four. Perhaps they go to some media projects. Or perhaps they go to some ecology organizations, or to community groups, and so on. Slowly and steadily the growing structure could reach out to include national, regional, and even local organizing projects, periodicals, and movement organizations. It could even go international.”

“Would it be everyone who calls themselves progressive? I doubt it. But it certainly could be a very large and diverse formation, in one country, and then later across countries, able to have a huge impact on solidarity and on the ability of progressive and left elements to focus their efforts effectively.”

“Is this a pipe dream? One might put that question differently, I think; do we want to win?” [15]

The greatest obstacle to the development of mass political spirit around progressive and radical ideas (reformist and revolutionary) that are actually quite (if all too silently and passively) popular is the widespread sense of powerlessness and isolation shared by countless citizens and workers struggling to get by and stay sane in Brave New Gilded Age America. It’s the pervasive sense, drummed into millions of Americans for decades by a many-sided (at once economic, political, ideological, cultural, and personal) top-down neoliberal assault, that we are all on our own and the intimately related idea that there’s no serious or viable alternative to, and nothing really that can be done about, the dominant order. “We live,” Wilkinson and Pickett note, “in a pessimistic period.”[16]

This “no alternative” sense is the “mental slavery” [17] of our time. It feeds most fundamentally not on an absence of progressive reform proposals (quite abundant) and not on a lack of alternative visions (less abundant but not entirely absent) but above all on an absence of serious, sustained and unifying Left organization. Big alternative societal vision matters.  So do progressive measures for the improvement of life under the currently existing system. But neither revolutionary vision nor reform proposals are going to go very far without serious and durable organization – the main topic of Lenin’s famous pamphlet.  One need not share Lenin’s authoritarian mindset and dictums to get this very basic point.

It might seem odd to make this point in critiquing an essay published seven years ago, near the end of the George W. Bush era, but is amazing how little progress the Left has made on this issue over the intervening years – this even after a two term-Democratic presidency has given us yet another great historical lesson that the contemporary unelected and interrelated dictatorships of capital, empire, eco-cide, white supremacy, patriarchy and coordinator-ism are richly bipartisan and that the two reigning business parties are (while not precisely “identical”) are what Upton Sinclair called them in 1904: “two wings of the same bird of prey.”

Excuses and Time are Running Out

We on the US Left, such as it is, are running out of excuses and time for our own internal fragmentation, both a cause and a reflection of our relative weakness.  Do we have any interest in actually winning?  Do we seriously want to prevail? The stakes are rather high, given the ecological catastrophe that capital and its coordinators – and other coordinators/managers – are bringing to bear: the salvation not only of democracy and social justice but of life itself.  It’s participatory socialism or barbarism if we’re lucky at this stage of capitalist and state-sponsored ecocide. “The uncomfortable truth,” Istvan Meszaros rightly argued 13 years ago, “is that if there is no future for a radical mass movement in our time, there can be no future for humanity itself.”[18]

 Paul Street’s latest book is They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy.

1. According to Paul d’Amato, “[Michael] Parenti’s softness for [Julius] Caesar has something to do with his Stalinism – his view that the fall of Stalinism [that is, of the USSR and Soviet bloc – P.S.] was a ‘historic defeat for the people of the world.’ In his 1997 book Blackshirts and Reds, Parenti claims that the nastier aspects of Stalinism—the gulag, the mass removal of populations, the untold number of deaths, the inequality between workers and bureaucrats—were all exaggerated by Stalin’s critics. Is it any wonder then that Parenti tends to play down Caesar’s noble birth, his conquests, his support of slavery and empire?”  See Paul d’Amato, “Dictator of the Proletarii,” International Socialist Review, Issue 36 (July-August 2004).  I found d’Amato’s harsh description of Parenti likely accurate after I read a bizarre section of Contrary Notions where Parenti described the different components of the US political left as follows: “Further along is the political left: the progressives, social democrats, democratic socialists, and issue-oriented Marxists (There is also a more ideologically oriented components of the left composed mainly of Trotskyists, anarchist, anarcho-syndicalists, ‘libertarian socialists’ and others who will not figure in this discussion given their small numbers and intense sectarian immersion.  What they all have in common is an obsessional anti-communism, a dedication to fighting imaginary hordes of ‘Stalinists,’ whom they see everywhere, and with denouncing existing communist nations and parties.  In this they resemble many centrists, social democrats, and liberals.)” Michael Parenti, Contrary Notions (San Francisco, CA: City Lights, 2007), 190. This passage wildly misrepresented the activities and world view of Trotskyists, left-anarchists, and libertarian socialists (many in each category would at some level describe themselves as a type of communist) at the time (and since).  The strange notion that these groups and individuals were/are obsessed with fighting real or imagined Stalinists and so-called existing communist nations and parties could only have been held, well, by a Stalinist – so it seems at least to me.

2. Parenti, Contrary Notions, 223. Note that this paragraph marks a rightward retreat from an almost identical paragraph Parenti published in the 7th [2002] edition of his widely read book Democracy for the Few. In 2002, the last sentence of that paragraph read as follows: “There is much evidence – some of it presented in this book – indicating that Americans are well ahead of political leaders in their willingness to embrace new alternatives, including public ownership of the major corporations and worker control of production.” What shift in public opinion occurred, I wonder, over five years to induce Parenti to replace “public ownership of the major corporations” with the milder “public ownership of some industries and services” and to supplant “worker control of production” with “consumer and worker cooperatives”? See  Michael Parenti, Democracy for the Few (7th edition, 2002), passage reproduced at  http://www.neoeugenics.net/few.htm

3. Parenti, Contrary Notions, 103-114.

4. Noam Chomsky, Failed States: The Abuse of State Power and the Assault on Democracy (New York: Metropolitan, 2006), 262.

5.  Karl Marx, Theses on Feuerbach (1845), accessed online at  https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1845/theses/theses.htm

6.  Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger (New York: Bloomsbury, 2009), 271.

7. John Dewey, “The Need for a New Party,” New Republic (March 18, 1931), http://www.newrepublic.com/article/magazine/104638/the-need-new-party

7A. Paul Street, They Rule: The 1% v, Democracy (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2014), 202-203 and passim.

8. Michael Albert, Parecon: Life After Capitalism (New York: Verso, 2003), 44-55. The US radio personality and Marx-fan Doug Henwood recently informed us that “the USSR…for all its problems, was living proof that an alternative economic system was possible” See Doug Henwood, “The Top of the World,” BookForum (April/May, 2014), www.bookforum.com/inprint/021_01/12987.  Five years before, this admirer of the Soviet achievement denounced parecon as an unhelpful “off-the-shelf utopia.”  See Doug Henwood, “A Post-Capitalist Future is Possible,” The Nation (March 30, 2009).

9. Harry Braverman, Labor and Monopoly Capital: The Degradation of Work in the Twentieth Century (New York: Monthly Review, 1974).

10. Rudolf Bahro, The Alternative in Eastern Europe (London: Verso, 1978).

11.  Andre Gorz, Division of Labor: Labor Process and Class Struggle in Modern Capitalism (Branch Line, 1974).

12. Stephen Marglin, “What do Bosses Do? The Origins and Functions of Hierarchy in Capitalist Production,” Review of Radical Political Economics, 1974, vol. 6, no.2: 60-112, http://scholar.harvard.edu/marglin/publications/what-do-bosses-do

13. Richard Wolff, “Socialism and Workers’ Self-Directed Enterprises,” MRZine (September 14, 2014), http://mrzine.monthlyreview.org/2014/wolff140914.html.

14.  Noam Chomsky and David Barsamian, Power Systems: Conversations on Global Democratic Uprisings and the New Challenges to Empire (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2013), 23-32.

15.  Mike Albert, “One Big Movement?” ZNet (July 24, 2014), http://zcomm.org/znetarticle/one-big-movement/

16.  Wilkinson and Picket, Spirit Level, 271.

17.  Chomsky and Barsamian, Power Systems, 34.

18. Istvan Meszaros, Socialism or Barbarism: From the “American Century” to the Crossroads (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2001), 80.

What is to Be Imagined – and Done?

10/11/14 0 COMMENTS

TeleSur English, October 24 2014.

When told that the Pope thought he should stop repressing Catholics under his yoke, the Soviet dictator Josef Stalin famously asked, “The Pope? How many divisions has he got?” A different version of the same put-down, typically issued in response to someone who says they are going to make you do something: “on yeah, you and what army?”

Both of these phrases pass through my mind whenever I contemplate the standard list of reform proposals U.S. left progressives tell you they support when asked V.I. Lenin’s famous question, the title of his first widely read pamphlet: What is to be Done? (1902). The list includes the public financing of elections; limiting and transforming corporate charters; the replacement of fossil fuels with renewable energy sources; single-payer national health insurance; steeply progressive taxation; giant jobs programs; the re-legalization of union organizing; a financial transaction tax; a carbon tax; the slashing of the Pentagon budget and conversion to a peacetime economy in which resources formerly dedicated to the military are directed to social need.

On the more radical wing of the U.S. progressive community, these proposals are typically combined with obligatory statements about the ultimate necessity and desirability of “socialism.”

Reading through that (abbreviated) list, I am reminded of one of my favorite lines from Noam Chomsky: “One commonly hears that carping critics complain about what is wrong, but do not present solutions. There is an accurate translation for that charge: ‘they present solutions and I don’t like them.’”

The U.S. “left,” such as it is (more on that below) advances “solutions” all the time. Yes… “the left” and what army?

I have four leading problems how “the [U.S.] left” (if such a thing even exists) approaches “what is to be done.” First, it is remarkable how little attention that “left” gives to Lenin’s question compared to the incredible amount of energy it spends on detailing what’s wrong with the current order.

This is ironic. “Philosophers,” the top left icon Karl Marx once wrote, “have tried to understand history; the point is to change it” (of course, understanding history might be useful for those who want to change it).

Second, there’s the vision problem. “At this point,” Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett argued in their important book The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger (2009), “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 a vision of a better society which is both achievable and inspiring.”

As Wilkinson and Pickett might have added, it is hard to know why elites would agree to pass reforms unless activists with a mobilized mass constituency articulate a revolutionary vision that threatens those in power with genuinely radical change unless rulers concede smaller changes.

U.S. leftists have not done very well in the imagination department. As most serious U.S. leftists certainly know, reforms, while necessary, will not suffice.  For the last four decades, U.S. wealth, income, and power have been sharply concentrated upward, marking a New or Second Gilded Age of abject oligarchy, consistent with harsh underlying and socio-pathological nature of capitalism.  Along the way, U.S. and global capitalism have pushed the environment to the edge of a grave, possibly irreversible catastropheSo where, then, are the inspiring visions of an alternative society beyond capitalism (something considerably more elaborate than obligatory references to how it will take “socialism” to ever really fix things)?  There’s a few out there, some quite important and stirring, to be sure, but they are commonly dismissed as “off-the-shelf utopias” (U.S. radio personality and Marx fan Doug Henwood’s phrase in summarily dismissing  left-libertarian “participatory economics”) and other such wastes of time by “serious” U.S. left intellectuals who like to complain eloquently about contemporary outrages (of which there is an inexhaustible supply) and to quote Marx on how “the tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living” and how “men make history, but they do not make it as they please.”

U.S. left progressives’ tendency to focus on reforms and criticisms of really existing capitalism at the expense of alternative societal vision sometimes makes me wonder how genuinely interested they are in radical and democratic transformation.

My concern on this score is deepened by a third problem with many left progressives’ reflections (and lack thereof) on “what is to be done”: a relative paucity of serious egalitarian thinking about how work (what Marxists have long called “the labor process”) is organized and who presides over the contemporary workplace. Jean Paul Sartre is supposed to have once commented that Marxists seemed to think that people didn’t really exist until they got their first paid jobs. I’ve often found that many Marxists seem to think that working people need to care about little more regarding work than the pay and benefits workers receive, the purchasing power of their wages, and the pace, length, and safety of the working day. Also, Marxists too commonly seem to think that the only real and relevant oppressors of the working class majority are the big holders of capital, the bourgeois owning and investing class, as if droves of critical and intermediate managerial and professional elites – those left-libertarian economists Robin Hahnel and Michael Albert designate the “coordinator class” – do not also rule and enjoy privilege. For traditional Marxism, the socialist transformation that is desired comes down basically to a top-down shift from private to public ownership of a nation’s means of production and investment.

In reality, however, most workers suffer not just from the private, profit-seeking capitalist ownership of the workplace but also from what Albert calls the “corporate division of labor” – a de-humanizing and hierarchical subdivision of tasks “in which a few workers have excellent conditions and empowering circumstances, many fall well below that, and most workers have essentially no power at all.”  This pecking order “marks the difference between being an all- purpose gopher, a custodian, an assembler, a foreman, a manager, an engineer, a vice president, or a CEO.” The core disparities between these jobs are not merely about money and benefits.  They also reflect vast differences in the autonomy and pleasure of work, along with differences in information, status, training, knowledge, confidence, and voice on the job.  Over time, Albert notes, corporate divisions of labor harden “into a broad and pervasive class division” whereby one class – roughly the top fifth of the workforce – “controls its own circumstances and the circumstances of others below,” while another (the rest, the working class super-majority) “obeys orders and gets what its members can eke out.” The “coordinator class…looks down on workers as instruments with which to get jobs done.  It engages workers paternally, seeing them as needing guidance and oversight and as lacking the finer human qualities that justify both autonomous input and also the higher incomes needed in order to support more expensive tastes.”

The problem is not limited to capitalism. A shift in ownership from private to public, while necessary, does not undo the problem of hierarchical “labor process[es]”and workplaces. In centrally planned state-socialist economies like that which prevailed in the old U.S.SR, this coordinator class ruled entirely without capitalists.  Members drawn from its elite ranks became the militantly undemocratic – indeed despotic – ruling class of “really existing socialist” nations. At the same time, coordinators reign without capitalists (though of course within the broader framework and rules of capitalism) in numerous public bureaucracies and large non-profit institutions in the U.S. today.

No meaningfully social and democratic vision of the changes required in the U.S. and elsewhere can ignore the need to confront the difficulties posed by corporate divisions of labor – difficulties that are intimately related but not merely reducible to the rule of capital.  We do not wish to replace the rule of capitalists and coordinators with the rule of coordinators alone.

Fourth and last but not least, there’s the “you and what army?” problem. Left reflections on “what is to be done” typically say remarkably little about organization. This is curious. The great left icon Lenin’s famous 1902 pamphlet said nothing either on reforms under capitalism (or under Russian Tsarist rule) or on what an alternative, post-capitalist society might look like. It was focused entirely on the question of revolutionary organization.

One does not have to be a Leninist to be disturbed by the silence of the “U.S. left” on movement institution-building. With all due respect for Wilkinson and Pickett’s point about the necessity of vision for egalitarian political will, I cannot escape the suspicion that the greatest barrier to such will is the lack of viable institutional Left with the capacity to act meaningfully on (abundantly developed) progressive policy proposals and genuinely alternative societal vision (far less abundantly developed). What’s missing above all and quite egregiously is durable popular and revolutionary organization and an entrenched Left cadre ready to spark and lead people’s struggles and to tie together struggles over disparate issues through thick and thin and over a long period of time. That’s why Chomsky rightly told David Barsamian four years ago that “there is no real left now” in the U.S..  “If you are just counting heads,” Chomsky elaborated, “there are probably more people involved than in the 1960s, but they…don’t coalesce into a movement that can really do things.”

A critical issue here is fragmentation – the dissipation and division of progressive and left efforts into too many over-separated issues, too many overblown sectarian affiliations, too many local struggles, too many identities, too many transitory projects, and too many separate efforts.  This longstanding left problem led Albert to issue a proposal and plea for strategic unity in “one big movement” last July:

“Suppose representatives from four diverse [Left] organizations, parties, and projects got together with the purpose of creating a Solidarity with Autonomy Movement (SAM) They hammer out the structural norms – a clear understanding of what allegiance implies, what dues there are, how resources are distributed back to affiliates and to overall projects, how SAM-sponsored campaigns and projects are determined, what SAM affiliates have to do vis-a-vis one another, etc.”

“Then they take this vision, which they are ready to participate in and to help build, to some other constituency groups, projects, and organizations, agreeable to each of the initial four. Perhaps they go to some media projects. Or perhaps they go to some ecology organizations, or to community groups, and so on. Slowly and steadily the growing structure could reach out to include national, regional, and even local organizing projects, periodicals, and movement organizations. It could even go international.”

“Would it be everyone who calls themselves progressive? I doubt it. But it certainly could be a very large and diverse formation, in one country, and then later across countries, able to have a huge impact on solidarity and on the ability of progressive and left elements to focus their efforts effectively.”

“Is this a pipe dream? One might put that question differently, I think; do we want to win?”

Good question. The greatest obstacle to the development of mass political spirit around progressive and radical ideas that are actually quite popular is the pervasive sense – drummed into millions of Americans by decades of top-down many-sided neoliberal assault – that we are all on our own and 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 “mental slavery” of our time. It feeds most fundamentally on an absence of serious, sustained and unifying Left organization. Big alternative societal vision matters.  So do progressive measures for the improvement of life under the currently existing system. But neither revolutionary vision nor reform proposals are going to go very far without serious and durable organization. One need not share Lenin’s authoritarian mindset to get this basic point.

Do we seriously want to prevail? The stakes are rather high given the ecological catastrophe that capital and its coordinators (and other coordinators) are bringing to bear: the salvation not only of democracy and social justice but of life itself.  “The uncomfortable truth,” Istvan Meszaros rightly argued 13 years ago, “is that if there is no future for a radical mass movement in our time, there can be no future for humanity itself.”

 Paul Street’s latest book is They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy

They Rule: It All Circles Back to The 1%

25/10/14 0 COMMENTS

ZNet, October 25, 2014. Having spent much of 2012 and some of 2013 writing a book on the wealth and power of the United States economic elite and the conflict between capitalism and democracy, I’ve followed current events ever since with a certain amount of selfish apprehension.

“Wow,” I’ve caught myself ruminating, “wouldn’t it be great if this book had come out in the fall of 2011, when the Occupy Movement was putting my book’s subject matter in the headlines?”

The big stories that have received top US media attention since I wrote most of the recently released volume They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm, 2014) don’t seem to rival the Occupy Wall Street movement/moment when it comes to focusing people on the capitalist elite and its class system.  Here are some of the stories that come to mind

  • The Edward Snowden revelations on the National Security Agency’s Orwellian electronic surveillance programs.
  • The Ukraine crisis and the emergence of a “new Cold War” between the US and Russia.
  • The Central American child refugee crisis on the southern US border.
  • Israel’s mass-murderous assault on Palestinian civilians stuck in the open air apartheid prison called the Gaza Strip last summer
  • The killing of an 18 year-old black man named Michael Brown by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, and the mast protests and militarized police response that followed that shooting last August.
  • The Ebola crisis.
  • The recently proclaimed US war on the Islamic State (IS) in Iraq and Syria.
  • The largest climate justice march in history, which took place in Manhattan last September.

I am not proud of my rumination. Besides being self-centered, it’s silly in other ways. The decision to write They Rule was prompted in no small part by the rise of Occupy Wall Street, so it’s absurd to wish the book had come out at the time of Occupy’s emergence.

The NSA’s Corporate Partnerships

At the same time, more to the point of this essay, it’s instructive to note how fundamentally the big news stories just bullet-pointed above link back to the problem of  “the 1%” – to the outsized wealth and related extreme power of the US capitalist ruling class and its giant corporations. Take the surveillance issue and the Snowden revelations.  As the brilliant and intrepid civil libertarian journalist and author Glen Greenwald (the leading conduit for Snowden’s heroic whistle-blowing) notes in his latest book No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the US Surveillance State:

“While the National Security Agency is officially a public agency, it has countless overlapping partnerships with private-sector corporations, and many of its core functions have been outsourced.  The NSA itself employs roughly thirty thousand people, but the agency also has contracts for some sixty thousand employees of private corporations, who often provide essential services.  Snowden himself was actually employed not by the NSA but by the Dell Corporation and the large defense contractor Booze Allen Hamilton….according to Tim Shorrock, who has long chronicled the NSA-corporate partnership, ’70 percent of our national intelligence budget is being spent on the private sector’….[The NSA’s] corporate partnerships extend beyond intelligence and defense contractors to include the world’s largest and most important Internet corporations and telecoms, precisely those companies that handle the bulk of the world’s  communications and can facilitate access to private exchanges.”

As Snowden told Greenwald during their first meeting in Hong Kong, “In [my position], I  saw firsthand that the state, especially the NSA, was working hand in hand with the private-tech industry to…build…a system whose goal was the elimination of all privacy, globally.”

The for-profit companies Greenwald and Snowden are talking about happen to be under the control of wealthy US (and other) investors and to work primarily for the benefit of those investors. They have a direct interest, it should be noted, in the surveillance of US citizens and activists, many of whom are less than pleased to live a nation so savagely unequal that six Wal-Mart heirs possess more wealth between them than the bottom 40 percent of the population.

“A Perfect Storm of Suffering”

Look at the child refugee crisis that briefly held headlines last summer. It cannot be properly understood without reference to the US global neoliberal economic agenda forced through by US and other global economic elites.  So-called “free trade” (really big investor rights) agreements have flooded Central America with cheap, subsidized US agricultural imports, devastating campesino communities and forcing millions of farmers off the land.  They “also result,” the left commentator William Blum notes, “in government enterprises being privatized, the regulation of corporations being reduced, and cuts to the social budget. Add to this the displacement of communities by foreign mining projects and the drastic US-led militarization of the War on Drugs with accompanying violence and you have the perfect storm of suffering followed by the attempt to escape from suffering.”

The problem at the border can be traced to no small extent to the US and global “1%” and its “neoliberal’ (a fancy word for unrestrained capitalism) agenda.

“The Political Economy of Ebola”

So, for that matter, can the Ebola crisis.  In a recent and incisive reflection on “The Political Economy of the Ebola Crisis.” Jacobin Magazine’s Leigh Phillips observes that “neoliberal fallout has established the ideal conditions for the epidemic.” As Phillips explains:

“Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone are some of the poorest countries on the planet, ranking 178th, 174th, and 177th out of 187 countries in the UN’s Human Development Index. Were such an outbreak to occur in northern European countries…nations with some of the best health infrastructure in the world, the situation would more likely have been contained.”

“It is not merely the dearth of field hospitals, lack of appropriate hygiene practices in existing hospitals, absence of standard isolation units, and limited cadre of highly trained health professionals that are able to track down every person that may have been exposed and isolate them. Or that better supportive care is a crucial condition of better outcomes, whatever the treatment available. The spread of the disease has also been exacerbated by a withering away of basic governmental structures that would otherwise be able to more broadly restrict movement, to manage logistical difficulties, and to coordinate with other governments.”

“ [In Guinea] as in many countries, a series of structural adjustment programs have been encouraged and enforced by Western governments and international financial institutions that require privatization and contraction of government services, removal of tariffs while Northern agribusiness remains subsidized, and an orientation toward crops for export at the expense of food self-sufficiency. All of this drives poverty and hunger, and, in turn, competition between food and export crops for capital, land, and agricultural inputs leads to an ever greater consolidation of land ownership, in particular by foreign companies, that limits access of small farmers to land.”

“Ebola is a zoonotic disease, meaning a disease spread from animals to humans (or vice versa)….The single biggest factor driving growth in new zoonotic pathogens is increased contact between humans and wildlife, often by the expansion of human activity into wilderness. As neoliberal structural adjustment forces people off the land but without accompanying urban employment opportunities, Wallace points out, they plunge “deeper into the forest to expand the geographic as well as species range of hunted game and to find wood to make charcoal and deeper into mines to extract minerals, enhancing their risk of exposure to Ebola virus and other zoonotic pathogens in these remote corners.”

To make matters worse, Phillips notes, the world’s leading pharmaceutical corporations have yet to find it profitable to develop an effective Ebola vaccine.  Such a vaccine is fully feasible and would in all likelihood already exist but for Big Pharma’s calculation that there wasn’t much financial return in developing a remedy for a disease that has tended to have small breakouts among poor Africans every 30 or 40 years.

Policing Racial Oppression and Capitalist Decay

Consider Ferguson, a stark local window on broader national problems: racial oppression, mass structural unemployment, selfish capital flight, police brutality, and militarized policing. At Mike Brown’s funeral, the corporate media operative and civil rights charlatan Al Sharpton said that the issue in Ferguson there was “how we gonna police in the United States?” But beneath that subject is the deeper problem of what the nation’s ever-more militarized law enforcement agencies police.  No small amount of what they police is deep and concentrated, hyper-segregated Black poverty in festering, de-industrialized ghettos that have long been abandoned by a viciously indifferent capitalist elite.  “The 1%” has been happy to relocate production and other jobs to cheaper-labor zones of the world capitalist system as the repressive right hand of the state is wielded against those left behind in jobless ghettoes. And it is not only young Black men who can and do fall on the wrong side of the emboldened capitalist police state. As the author of a strident neo-Trotskyist screed recently handed to me in Iowa City rightly observes, “The inner cities and Barrios are hell-holes for the oppressed brown and black masses, lorded over by largely Democratic Party city administrations, who unleashed the police on largely white Occupy youth during those demonstrations, and who daily unleash them on the black and brown communities…The ruling class answer to capitalist decay is more police, more prisons and jails, more NSA spying, more repressive laws and militarized police.”

Along the way, the privately owned corporate media does its best to keep the white working class majority focused on how impoverished US Blacks supposedly create their own misery with an alleged “self-sabotaging” culture of poverty.  “If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man,” the future US President and veteran Southern US politician Lyndon Baines Johnson told Bill Moyers in 1960, “he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.”

It all circles back to “the 1%” – the all-too invisible capitalist elite.

Endless War Pays

The point pertains as well to the endless US war on/of terror that moved back to the forefront of the national news this fall – and to Israel’s atrocities and the Ukraine crisis as well. “War,” the leading liberal pundit Krugman informed his New York Times readers last August, “doesn’t pay” anymore, if it ever did, for “modern, wealthy nations.”  This is particularly true, Krugman feels, in “an interconnected world” where “war would necessarily inflict severe economic harm on the victor.”

There’s truth in his argument if by “war” we mean only major military conflicts between large and industrialized states. Such conflagrations are more than unlikely in our current “ultra-imperialist” (Karl Kautsky’s term) era marked by massive cross-national capital investment and global market inter-penetration. But many elites in rich nations, the US (the world’s sole military superpower) above all, still (quite reasonably) see bottom-line payoffs in military engagements in mostly poor but resource-rich nations and regions. Washington remains committed to the use of military force in pursuit of the control of Middle Eastern oil (and other strategic energy concentrations around the world) to provide profits for deep-pockets multinational petroleum corporations and because of the critical political-economic leverage such control grants the US over leading competitor states.

The biggest flaw in Krugman’s argument is his failure to make the (one would think) elementary distinction between (a) the wealthy Few and (b) the rest of us and society as whole when it comes to who loses and who gains from contemporary (endless) war.  As the venerable US foreign policy critic Edward S. Herman asks and observes:

“Doesn’t war pay for Lockheed-Martin, GE, Raytheon, Honeywell, Halliburton, Chevron, Academi (formerly Blackwater) and the vast further array of contractors and their financial, political, and military allies? An important feature of ‘projecting power’ (i.e., imperialism) has always been the skewed distribution of costs and benefits…The costs have always been borne by the general citizenry (including the dead and injured military personnel and their families), while the benefits accrue to privileged sectors whose members not only profit from arms supply and other services, but can plunder the victim countries during and after the invasion-occupation.”

Today, as Noam Chomsky observed in his 1969 book For Reasons of State, the costs of empire are spread across society as a whole while the benefits accrue to the wealthy corporate and financial few. Another update to the young Chomsky’s conclusion can be discerned in a recent reflection by Greenwald:

“A state of endless war justifies ever-increasing state power and secrecy and a further erosion of rights. It also entails a massive transfer of public wealth to the ‘homeland security’ and weapons industry (which the US media deceptively calls the ‘defense sector’)….Just yesterday, Bloomberg reported: ‘Led by Lockheed Martin Group (LTM), the biggest U.S. defense companies are trading at record prices as shareholders reap rewards from escalating military conflicts around the world.’ Particularly exciting is that ‘investors see rising sales for makers of missiles, drones and other weapons as the U.S. hits Islamic State fighters in Syria and Iraq’; moreover, ‘the U.S. also is the biggest foreign military supplier to Israel, which waged a 50-day offensive against the Hamas Islamic movement in the Gaza Strip.’ ISIS is using U.S.-made ammunition and weapons, which means U.S. weapons companies get to supply all sides of The New Endless War; can you blame investors for being so giddy?…This war – in all its ever-changing permutations – …enables an endless supply of power and profit to flow to those political and economic factions that control the government regardless of election outcomes” (emphasis added).

Krugman should be embarrassed by the recent release of veteran New York Times investigative reporter and Pulitzer Prize-winner James Risen’s latest book Pay Any Price: Greed, Power, and Endless War (October 2014). Currently facing prosecution by the Obama administration for refusing to divulge an inside government source for his earlier reporting on warrantless federal wiretapping, Risen shows in his latest book that “The…global war on terror has become essentially an endless war [and]…a hunt for cash.” The main driving force behind “endless war” is a vast corporate “military and homeland security complex” that rakes in lucrative profits fed by the relentless selling of fear.

It’s not polite to say, but permanent war is profitable to the US Deep State military-industrial-complex, including such giant and powerful Pentagon-subsidized entities as Boeing, Raytheon, and Lockheed Martin.

There’s that greedy1% again, raking in profits and pulling strings behind the scenes.  (There’s a different sort of connection to note between the economic elite and the endless US war of/on error. As the noted Middle East scholar and left intellectual Gilbert Achcar has noted, the neoliberal triumph of global capitalism and its soulless so-called free market logic since the 1970s has fueled religious fundamentalism in the Middle East and elsewhere. That triumph “created a state of disarray, the loss of familiar points of reference, the spread of what sociologists call ‘anomie for all kinds of people. And this made the ground very fertile for religious revivalism or fundamentalism, because in such situations people tend to seek refuge in identity markers. Thus we’ve seen all over the world, since the shift of the last quarter of the twentieth century, a huge rise in all kinds of identity or tribal politics, whether ethnic, nationalist, religious, sectarian, fundamentalist,….”).

The Ukraine crisis, sparked by Washington and its western NATO allies/proxies, has not devolved into full-scale war – thanks in no small part to Moscow’s refusal to let that happen. It is the result of numerous and complex problems and developments, but one key factor is clearly the desire of powerful US energy corporations to block or the flow of oil and gas from Russia to Europe.

As the political economist and artist Rob Urie recently noted on Counterpunch, moreover, there’s an intimate 1% connection between the belligerent US policies in the Middle East and Eastern Europe: “The relation of the US/ NATO proxy war in Ukraine to renewed military intervention in Iraq and Syria is about who supplies Europe with oil and gas. The strategy appears to be to break the relation between Russia and Europe and use U.S. and ‘coalition’ control over Middle Eastern oil and gas to sell it to Europe. This ties twentieth century geopolitics to the long-standing use of American state power to further the private interests of multi-national oil and gas companies.”

None of this can receive remotely serious attention in the corporate mass and so-called mainstream media, owned and operated for and by the elite segments of “the 1%.”  As Michael Parenti noted seven years ago in his book Contrary Notions, “be it the Vietnam War, the invasions of Grenada and Panama, the intervention against Nicaragua, the Gulf War massacre, and subsequent invasions of Afghanistan, US military undertakings are portrayed [by that media] as arising from noble if sometimes misplaced intentions.  The media’s view is much the same as the view from the State Department and the Pentagon.” A hallmark characteristic – strikingly evident in what passes for mainstream reporting ad commentary on Ukraine and the new war on ISIS  in the 1%’s media  – is simple “face-value transmission” of US policy as following in accord with the noble pursuit of “national security,” “world leadership” and “American interests.”

“An Elite Minority That Has a Stranglehold…”

And then there’s climate change, the ever more grave existential issue behind the historic Climate March in New York (trumped in media coverage by the Obama administration’s escalation follies in the Middle East) last month. The veteran progressive author Naomi Klein’s latest tome This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate is dedicated to demonstrating that “the really inconvenient truth that [global warming] is not about carbon – it’s about capitalism…. [and] the war [that system] is waging on earth.” By Klein’s account, it’s the wealthy Few and its neoliberal (global capitalist) ideology that stands to blame:

“What is really preventing us from putting out the fire that is threatening to burn down our collective house? I think the answer is far simpler than many have led us to believe: we have not done the things necessary to lower emissions because those things fundamentally conflict with deregulated capitalism, the reigning ideology for the entire period we have been struggling to find a way out of this crisis.  We are stuck because the actions that would give us the best chance of averting catastrophe – and would benefit the vast majority – are extremely threatening to an elite minority that has a stranglehold over economy, our political process, and most of our major media outlets” (emphasis added).

There’s that nasty 1% again – not just driving the process that threatens to destroy life on the planet but controlling the nation’s political and cultural institutions and communications structures to undermine understanding and action the destructive force.

Updating Brandeis

For what it’s worth, readers can find a significantly similar analysis (consistent with what eco-socialists have been saying for many years) in They Rule. As I show in that volume, however, the conflict between the rich and powerful few and “the earth” – livable ecology, actually (the planet will survive our capital-o-genic “self-liquidation”) is rooted in far more than just “deregulated” capitalism and its current neoliberal ideology.  The real conflict is with the profits system as such, with its relentless pressure for 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” (Joel Kovel).

Meanwhile, untold billions of taxpayer dollars are thrown into funding an endless war dedicated to exploiting and controlling eco-cidal fossil fuels that are so critically concentrated in the Middle East – and to lining the pockets of corporate “defense” (empire) and “security” (fear) contractors. In keen Orwellian fashion, this permanent war on/of terror fuels its own declared jihadist enemy/pretext.  It also steals public resources from potential investment in the development of alternative energy programs that would permit life to continue.

“We must make our choice,” US Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandies noted in 1941.  “We may have democracy in this country, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of the few, but we cannot have both.”

Let’s update Brandies for the age of catastrophic capital-o-genic climate change.  We must make our choice.  We can have democracy, livable ecology, and a decent future on this planet, or we can have capitalism, whose essence is the endless pursuit of profit and the amoral accumulation of more and more wealth in ever fewer hands.  We cannot have both.

“The 1%” and its class system is killing us.

Paul Street will read from and sign copies of his latest book They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy at The Open University of the Left in Chicago, Illinois (Lincoln Park Branch Public Library, 1150 W. Fullerton Ave.) on Saturday, November 15th (2pm) and Rainbow Bookstore Cooperative in Madison, Wisconsin (426 W. Gilman Street, right off State Street downtown) on Monday, November 17th (6 pm).  Street will take questions on his book and the issues it raises on the Firedoglake Book Salon on Sunday, November 2nd, 2014 at 2pm Pacific time/1 pm Mountain time/12 Noon Central (Chicago) time/11AM Eastern time. 

Endless War

18/10/14 0 COMMENTS

First published at TeleSur English, October 18, 2014 

The nightmare totalitarian state envisaged by George Orwell in his famous dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty Four was one of endless war.  The subject populace of “Oceana” was kept in a perpetual state of militarized hatred and fear regarding a shifting array of always supremely evil foreign others. Endless war drove Oceana’s hierarchical and impoverished economy and kept the toiling masses focused on hideous, threatening enemies abroad, raging and cowering under the supposed protection of their many-sided dictatorship at home.

“A Kind of 30-Year War”

Leading members of the supposedly liberal (even “left” by the reckoning of FOX News and right wing talk radio) US Democratic Party would certainly recoil at any analogies between them and Orwell’s warmongering state. Still, it’s hard not to detect a chilling commitment to permanent war in the recent comments of two top imperial Democrats angling for power and legacy in the post-Obama US. Four days ago (I am writing on the morning of October 10th), former Obama Defense Director and CIA chief Leon Panetta (also a former Chief of Staff for President Bill Clinton) told USA Todayreporter Susan Page that “America should be prepared for a long battle against the brutal terrorist group Islamic State that will test the resolve – and the leadership of the Commander in Chief” (Page).

“I think we’re looking at a kind of 30-year war,” Panetta told Page, adding that the campaign he envisions will “have to extend beyond Islamic State (IS) to include emerging threats in Nigeria, Somalia, Yemen, Libya, and elsewhere.”

“Elsewhere” – that’s quite a geographical scope…all of planet Earth, consistent with the fact that U.S. Special Forces are now present in 134 “sovereign” countries and Washington’s operation of more than 1000 military installations in more than 100 nations. As far as US planners have been concerned in the post-Cold War era, “we own the world.”

Then we have Hillary Clinton, who enjoys a strong chance of becoming the nation’s next president. Speaking earlier this week to an elite Canadian think tank in Ottawa, Obama’s former Secretary of State proclaimed the New War against IS a “long-term struggle” from which the U.S. would turn away “at our peril.”  She added that the campaign must include “an information war on social media….as well as an air war.”

They Obey Other Considerations”

“Thirty years” and “long-term” is being polite.  It is also misleading.  Washington is continuing with a Forever and Everywhere War with no single or clear enemy that has been underway since at least September 12, 2001. As many U.S. intelligence and policy elites certainly know well, moreover, U.S. military interventions and the broader longstanding heavy US imperial presence in the (more than just coincidentally) oil-rich Middle East fuels and expands “anti-American” Islamic jihad there and across the Muslim world. Launched thirteen years after an epic terror attack on the “homeland” (9/11) that was a predictable and to some degree predicted “blowback” response to U.S. imperial presence and provocation in the Middle East, the US War on/of Terror is a viciously circular self-fulfilling prophecy in which cause and effect become hopelessly interwoven. The more Washington socio-pathologically bombs and drones the Muslim world, the more easily jihadists find recruits to help expel the Infidel Invaders.  And U.S. planners know it.  As the distinguished Middle East scholar and US foreign policy critic Gilbert Achcar noted eight years agoU.S. officials do things knowing they will breed terrorism, but they do them nevertheless, because they obey other considerations, which for them are far more significant than the lives of civilians.”

Obama as Insufficiently Imperial

Panetta’s comments came in connection with the release of his of new memoir Worthy Fights: A Memoir of Leadership in War and Peace (how’s that for a narcissistic and Orwellian title?).  In the volume, Panetta criticizes the militantly imperial and brazenly Orwellian Obama for making the supposedly noble “30 year war” more difficult by not being militaristic enough.  Obama “lost his way” and damaged U.S. world “leadership” (translation: imperial power), Panetta feels, by not insisting that Iraq keep a residual U.S. military force past 2011, by not arming Syrian rebels in 2012, and by not authorizing air strikes against Syria last year. In a similar vein, Hillary Clinton’s memoir Hard Choices (released last spring) finds Obama insufficiently hawkish and imperial on numerous fronts, including Russia and Afghanistan.  She faults Obama for not adequately supporting Egypt’s murderous dictator Hosni Mubarak and Israel’s expansion of illegal settlements in Palestinian territories.

(Panetta told Page that Hillary will be a “great” commander in chief as U.S. corporate media persists in the manufacture of childish suspense about whether or not Ms. Clinton is running for the White House in 2016. Do bears defecate in the woods?)

Logical Insanity

It might seem stupid and self-defeating for “liberal” Democrats to advocate the US doubling down yet again on the very militaristic, imperial, and (let’s be honest) terrorist policies that fuel the Islamist terrorism US policymakers claim to loathe.  Didn’t Albert Einstein once usefully define insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”?

But let’s not assume that democratic common sense and since regard for peace, security, and the common good are the real driving forces behind US policy.  That’s a naïve premise. Achcar’s reflection bears repetition: “US officials…obey other considerations.” Numerous powerful corporate and military interests have strong selfish reasons to not really want different results in the Middle East.  It’s not polite to say, but (Orwellian as it may sound) permanent war is profitable to the U.S. Deep State military-industrial-complex, including such giant and powerful Pentagon-subsidized entities as Boeing, Raytheon, and Lockheed Martin. Today, as the young Noam Chomsky observed in 1969,  the costs of empire are spread across society as a whole while the benefits accrue to the wealthy corporate and financial few. An update to Chomsky’s reflection can be discerned in a recent reflection by Glenn Greenwald:

“A state of endless war justifies ever-increasing state power and secrecy and a further erosion of rights. It also entails a massive transfer of public wealth to the ‘homeland security’ and weapons industry (which the US media deceptively calls the ‘defense sector’)….Just yesterday, Bloomberg reported: ‘Led by Lockheed Martin Group (LTM), the biggest U.S. defense companies are trading at record prices as shareholders reap rewards from escalating military conflicts around the world.’ Particularly exciting is that ‘investors see rising sales for makers of missiles, drones and other weapons as the U.S. hits Islamic State fighters in Syria and Iraq’; moreover, ‘the U.S. also is the biggest foreign military supplier to Israel, which waged a 50-day offensive against the Hamas Islamic movement in the Gaza Strip.’ ISIS is using U.S.-made ammunition and weapons, which means U.S. weapons companies get to supply all sides of The New Endless War; can you blame investors for being so giddy?…This war – in all its ever-changing permutations – …enables an endless supply of power and profit to flow to those political and economic factions that control the government regardless of election outcomes.”

War Pays for Some: “A Hunt for Cash” 

That’s something for the leading liberal pundit, partisan Democrat, and converted Obama fan Paul Krugman to reflect on. “War,” Krugman informed New York Times readers last August, “doesn’t pay” anymore, if it ever did for “modern, wealthy nations.”  This is particularly true, Krugman feels, in “an interconnected world” where “war would necessarily inflict severe economic harm on the victor.”

There’s truth in his argument if by “war” we mean only major military conflicts between large and industrialized states. Such conflagrations are more than unlikely in our current “ultra-imperialist” (Karl Kautsky’s term) era marked by massive cross-national capital investment and global market inter-penetration. But many elites in rich nations, the US (the world’s sole military superpower) above all, still and quite reasonably see am economic payoff in undertaking military engagements in mostly poor and “pre-modern” but resource-rich nations and regions. In a more classically national-imperialist vein, Washington remains committed to the use of military force in pursuit of the control of Middle Eastern oil (and other strategic energy concentrations around the world) because of the critical leverage such control grants the US over competitor states.

The biggest flaw in Krugman’s argument is his failure to make the (one would think) elementary distinction between (a) the wealthy Few and (b) the rest of us and society as whole when it comes to who loses and who gains from contemporary (endless) war. As the venerable U.S. foreign policy critic Edward S. Herman asks and observes:

“Doesn’t war pay for Lockheed-Martin, GE, Raytheon, Honeywell, Halliburton, Chevron, Academi (formerly Blackwater) and the vast further array of contractors and their financial, political, and military allies? An important feature of ‘projecting power’ (i.e., imperialism) has always been the skewed distribution of costs and benefits…The costs have always been borne by the general citizenry (including the dead and injured military personnel and their families), while the benefits accrue to privileged sectors whose members not only profit from arms supply and other services, but can plunder the victim countries during and after the invasion-occupation.”

Krugman should be embarrassed by the recent release of veteran New York Times investigative reporter and Pulitzer Prize-winner James Risen’s latest book Pay Any Price: Greed, Power, and Endless War (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, October 2014). Currently facing prosecution by the Obama administration for refusing to divulge an inside government source for his earlier reporting on warrantless federal wiretapping, Risen argues in his new book that  “The…global war on terror has become essentially an endless war. It started with a search for justice. And I think, 13 years later, it’s become a hunt for cash.” The main driving force behind this “endless war” is a large corporate “military and homeland security complex” that rakes in lucrative profits – attained largely in secret and with significant levels of fraud – that are fed by the relentless selling of fear.

Orwell’s Diversion

Such is the logic of endless imperial war, an Orwellian U.S. complex with a stark state-capitalist twist in the second decade of the 21st century. This is another among many reasons to revisit an essay titled “The Orwell Diversion” (1986), written by the late Australian propaganda critic Alex Carey and included in his 1997 book Taking the Risk Out of Democracy: Corporate Propaganda Versus Freedom and Liberty. Carey argued that the most relevant long-term threat to liberal democracy has never come from the state totalitarians of the Stalinist left or the fascist right. It comes instead from the homegrown, big business-connected “Respectable Right” that arose within the liberal-democratic societies of the West (chiefly the U.S.) largely to protect concentrated corporate power against its key domestic enemy – the popular democratic tradition.

Twenty eight years after Carey’s essay, the Soviet Union has long ago joined Nazi Germany in history’s proverbial dustbin and the last classic 1984-style regime (if such a thing has ever existed) limps along in North Korea. A “homeland”-grown version of Big Brother stalks the corridors of domestic and imperial power and rules behind the scenes of the “marionette theater” of partisan political warfare in Washington, wearing the uniform of the respectable right, now richly bipartisan – including corporate-imperial  Democrats of endless war like Hawk Hillary, Barack Obomber, and Leon “Thirty Years” Panetta. Beneath the eco-cidal 1% that owns more wealth than the bottom 90% of US citizens, the common good and people in whose name this respectable bipartisan right rules suffer. As usual, the economic and imperial elite has other considerations, serious matters of wealth and power that trump the mere general welfare.

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

Civil Unrest?

18/10/14 0 COMMENTS

Beyond the City of Ferguson”

According to a recent report from Reuters, “Missouri authorities” are meeting three times a week. They are asking local police departments around the country for intelligence on “out-of-state” activists (“agitators”).  “Missouri law enforcement officials,” Reuters observed, “have been in contact with police chiefs in Los Angeles, New York, Florida, and Cincinnati, Ohio.”

The Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) has been involved in the discussions.  The FBI’s top St. Louis official, Agent William Woods, “attended a strategy session last week.”

Also attending the get-togethers: Ferguson mayor James Knowles and representatives of the Missouri State Highway Patrol, St. Louis County Police, St. Louis City Police, and the Ferguson Police.

The subject of these multi-jurisdictional Missouri meetings and information requests to police departments across the nation?  The development of “contingency plans” for the effective management of the local and even national “civil unrest” the “authorities” expect to result when and if a St. Louis Count grand jury chooses not to indict the white Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson (currently held in a secret location) for executing an unarmed 18 year-old Black man named Michael Brown last August 9th. Wilson killed Brown with multiple shots to his chest and head as Brown surrendered with hands raised.

As the “authorities” surely know, white police officers are rarely indicted and even more rarely convicted for murdering Blacks – an all too common occurrence in the not-so “post-racial” United States. They are no doubt also aware that the Los Angeles “Rodney King” riots occurred not in response to the videotaped 1991 police beating of Rodney King but to the acquittal in April of 1992 of the four white Los Angeles police officers who had abused King.

Mayor Knowles told Reuters that “the unrest is going to go far beyond the city of Ferguson.”  If Wilson goes uncharged, St. Louis County Police Chief John Belmar added, violence will break out “not just in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson but across the greater metropolitan area and even in other US cities” (Tim Reid, “Missouri Police Plan for Possible Riots if Darren Wilson Not Charged,” Reuters, October 10, 2014, http://www.popularresistance.org/fbi-multiple-cities-preparing-for-riots-if-no-ferguson-indictment/)

What They Police

Knowles, Belmar, Wood and the rest of the “authorities” gathering regularly in Missouri have reason to anticipate discontent in St. Louis. In that racially hyper-segregated and unequal city, white police have fatally gunned down two black males since the Brown killing.  The most recent incident occurred last week, with the hotly disputed police shooting of 18-year old Vonderrit Myers Jr.

The “Missouri authorities” are correct also to think that “civil unrest” is possible in other cities and towns around the US.  It’s not just that the Brown killing and the protests and the over-the-top militarized police state repression (commandeered by Belmar) that followed got leading and graphic media attention last August.  It’s also that that the US seems to be in the middle of “a national epidemic of in which a disproportionately high number of unarmed black men are fatally shot by white police officers” (Reuters’ words). 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 created by local, county, and state police. Recent victims include Denzel Curnell (killed by South Carolina police in Charleston last June), Ezell Ford (shot to death by an LAPD officer last summer) and Eric Garner (choked to the death by the NYPD last July), Dante Parker (Tased to death by county  police in Victorville, CA last summer) and Kajieme Powell (killed by 10 police bullets after stealing pastries and waving a knife in St. Louis not long after Brown was killed), Vonderrit Myers, and …the list goes 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. Fully 39% of US Black children live below the federal government’s notoriously inadequate poverty level, comparted to 36% of Native American children, 34% if Hispanic children and 13% of white children.

The killing epidemic occurs 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 Ohio State Law Professor Michelle Alexander has termed “the New Jim Crow”) of a felony record.

The Civil Rights charlatan, corporate media personality, and White House front man Al Sharpton went to Michael Brown’s funeral to say that the Ferguson protests were about “how we gonna police in the United States.” While police methods do need to change, Sharpton left out the fundamental question of what “the authorities” police in the US.  Among other things, US local, county, and state police serve and protect a “homeland” regime of harsh and interrelated racial and class disparity.  Are any “authorities” in Missouri and/or Washington or anywhere else in the US meeting to discuss how to call off the racist police killing epidemic, how to end the massive over-incarceration of Black Americans, and what to do to close the absurd national racial gaps in wealth and income? Not really.  The forces of order are deliberating on how to repress the Black anger that naturally emerges from egregious racial abuse and disparity in the post-Civil Rights US.

“The Cure”

A white reader wrote me recently to relate his concern that recent reports on white police killing black men might lead us to ignore the terrible problem of Black on Black violence in ghetto communities, “Even if we protect the ‘disproportionately high number of unarmed black men [who] are fatally shot by white police officers,’ how do you stop the scourge of black men killed by other black men? If you find a cure for the former, you are still left with a whole lot of dead black men.”  Here was/is my response:

“I’m not sure why you use quote marks around the racially disparate killing problem: that problem unquestionably exists. That aside, the cure is well known: undo endemic and deeply entrenched US race-class apartheid.  De-segregate the currently existing overlapping and interrelated spatial and social hyper-concentrations of poverty and race. If you penned whites up in hyper segregated jobless opportunity-less disinvested communities like the north side of St. Louis, the west side of Chicago, inner Benton Harbor, Michigan and (the list goes on) and if you locked up and felony-branded millions and millions of white men mainly for non-violent drug crimes, then you’d have an endemic scourge of white men killing white men. It’s actually that basic and simple. “Find a cure”? Please. What do you think the cops who kill and otherwise oppress the Michael Browns and Trayvon Martins and .Denzell Curnells and Vonderrit Myers (killed by St. Louis cops last week) are protecting and enforcing? Racial Apartheid, American-style. Put this on your reading list – its mainstream social science (not by ‘dangerous radicals’ like me): Douglass Massey and Nancy Denton, American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998).

Black Teddy Bears, White Smith & Wessons

Many whites in Ferguson and the St. Louis area are not content to rely on the ever-more militarized and high-tech US local, state, and federal police state to keep them safe from “civil unrest.” They are stocking up on weapons and ammunition. Reuters reports that:

“while mostly black residents hold small protests outside the police station each day, gun store owners reports a jump in sales to white residents….A memorial to Brown on the spot where he died, and where his body lay uncollected for four hours, still stands, a crucifix surrounded by teddy bears, photographs, flowers and handwritten notes decrying his loss and the alleged brutality of police…..Adam Weinstein, co-owner of County Guns, said sales were up 50 percent since Brown’s shooting, mostly among white residents fearful of riots who are buying Glock, Springfield and Smith & Wesson handguns, and shotguns. ‘They are afraid the city is going to explode,’ Weinstein said, a former member of the U.S. Navy and St. Louis firefighter with heavily tattooed arms.”

A white worker in a Ferguson liquor store told Reuters that he now brings his personal handgun to work and is “ready to shoot anyone looking for trouble.”

Oligarchy

The white worker might want to think about “looking for trouble” himself – with the very disproportionately white US economic and power elite, not with poor and ghettoized Blacks. White Americans should consider the possibility that they’d be better off joining Blacks and other nonwhite Americans in mass civil unrest.  After all, it isn’t just “people of color” (a phrase that seems to imply that Caucasians have no hue and shading) who suffer under the current American System of savage inequality.  The mostly working class white population has remarkably little say on politics and policy in an ever more transparently oligarchic and plutocratic New Gilded Age America, where the top 1 percent owns more wealth than 90 percent of the population and a probably comparable share of the nation’s “democratically elected officials.”  Majority public opinion – including the opinion of most whites – is technically irrelevant in the US today, ruled as it is by an “unelected dictatorship of money” (Edward S. Herman and David Peterson’s excellent phrase) that regularly eliminates and offshores jobs formerly held by white and other US workers.

You don’t have to be a Marxist, left-anarchist, or other kind of “dangerous radical” to note that popular governance or democracy has been badly trumped by oligarchy and plutocracy in the US. In a study released last April and scheduled for publication in the academic journal Perspectives on Politics, leading mainstream political scientists Martin Gilens (Princeton) and Benjamin Page (Northwestern) reported that U.S. democracy no longer exists. Over the past few decades, Gilens and Page determined that the U.S. has become “an oligarchy,” where wealthy elites and their corporations “rule,” wielding wildly disproportionate power over national policy. Examining data from more than 1,800 different policy initiatives from 1981 to 2012, they found that wealthy and well-connected elites consistently steer the direction of the country, regardless of or even against the will of the U.S. majority. “The central point that emerges from our research is that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy,” Gilens and Page write, “while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence” (M. Gilens and B. Page, “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens,” April 9, 2014,).

A story about Gilens and Page’s study in the online journal Talking Points Memo (TPM) last April bore an interesting title: “Princeton Study: U.S. No Longer an Actual Democracy.” The story contained a link to an interview in which Gilens explained that “contrary to what decades of political science research might lead you to believe, ordinary citizens have virtually no influence over what their government does in the United States. And economic elites and interest groups, especially those representing business, have a substantial degree of influence.”

The social, economic, and political gains that the working- and middle class white majority have attained in British colonial North America and the US through at least the early 1970s can be traced to no small extent to ordinary white Americans’ willingness to engage in civil unrest that challenged the prerogatives of propertied elites. Examples include the Boston Tea Party of 1774 (when a large and highly organized crowd composed largely of white laborers and artisans put the nation on the irreversible path to independence by destroying a large quantity of private property owned by the British East India Company) and the sit-down strike wage of 1936-37 (when mostly white industrial workers occupied capitalist workplaces across the nation). The great rollback of white working and middle class incomes, security, and power and the relentless upward concentration of wealth and power in the US since the mid -1970s reflects in part the terrible decline of organization, militancy, activism, and civil unrest on the part of white working and middle class Americans.

“He Won’t Notice You Picking His Pocket”

The nation’s super-wealthy economic and power elites love it when American working and middle class whites focus their anger and resentment on lower and working class Blacks, other nonwhites, and officially designated foreign enemies (Soviet-directed “communists” for most of the second half of the last century and Islamic jihadists in the current century). Racial and ethnic “divide, divert, and rule” for and by the white elite is a rich US tradition, as old as the nation’s history.  It is arguably the taproot of the vicious system of black chattel slavery that poisoned the birth, youth, and long life of the nation (see historian Edmund S. Morgan’s powerful book American Slavery, American Freedom, 1976)

“If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man,” the future US President and veteran Southern US politician Lyndon Baines Johnson told Bill Moyers in 1960, “he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.” (Bill Moyers, Washington Post, November 13, 1988)

As race-class thinkers and activists have long observed, racism has long proved perversely attractive for a significant number of white lower- and working-class Americans struggling with their subordinate status in capitalist America. By W.E.B. DuBois’ account, anti-black racism grants lower and working-class whites a “public and psychological wage”—a false and dysfunctional measure of status and privilege used “to make up for alienating and exploitative class relationships.” White workers in the U.S. have long tended, as historian David Roediger has noted, to “define and accept their [subordinate] class position by fashioning identities as ‘not slaves’ and ‘not blacks.’” As Martin Luther King Jr.’s   observed in a 1968 speech titled “The Drum Major Instinct,”  racialized capitalism gave its Caucasian working-class victims the sad “satisfaction of…thinking you are somebody big because you are white.”

Join the Rage

“Missouri authorities” who don’t want civil unrest might want to secretly instruct the Darren Wilson grand jury to indict and the subsequent jury to convict. Without indictment and conviction they’re going to have disturbances and thus another pretext to deploy their militarized policing hardware. If not this case, then another one, perhaps. The national racist police-killing epidemic creates new incidents on a regular basis. On top of the ferocious persistent racial segregation and hyper-inequality and racist mass incarceration that is so endemic in “post-racial” America, the shoot-fest fuels seething anger across much of Black America.

My recommendation to everyday whites is to think about joining the unrest, not cowering or arming up in fear of it. They should stop being satisfied with being given others to look down on. They should get their American History X on and aim upward, turning their anger against the propertied and privileged elites who own and run the country, and who are running it into the ground. They should refocus their anger on the wealthy Few, who (by the way) are pushing the environment past the point of livability, stealing prospects for a decent future.

We all need some civil unrest – a lot actually, on a mass scale, each and every day on behalf of what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. called in 1968 the “real issue to be faced” beyond “superficial” matters (like, say, the technical racial or gender identity of a corporate-imperial US president): “the radical reconstruction of society itself.” Imagine.

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

The Nutty Professor and the Attorney General

18/10/14 0 COMMENTS

First published at Black Agenda Report, October 15, 2014.

The liberal left’s bourgeois and identity-politicized buffoonery over the Obama administration persists long after the president has become a lame duck.  Look for example, at the Nutty Professor Michael Eric Dyson’s recent defense of resigning US Attorney General Eric Holder’s epic non-prosecution of Wall Street criminals.  Dyson’s following apology for Holder was recently heard on the liberal-left television show Democracy Now, where Dyson has regularly appeared in the Age of Obama, sadly enough:

“If we’re going to talk about this in the actual political context, the kind of racial realpolitik that exists, let’s be real. If President Barack Obama can’t be seen as too gruffly treating white Americans vis-à-vis the Skip Gates situation, where he simply said that the policeman was acting stupidly—the uproar on that was incredible—what do you think will happen then if Eric Holder, as the first African-American attorney general, is seen to be going after mostly white CEOs and other corporate titans within the economic infrastructure? Now, it sounds great, on the one hand, because it is an acknowledgment of our adherence to rational principles of the defense of the poor and vulnerable, but in the real political context within which we exist, [we must appreciate] the pervasive character of race, how it has shaped the very lens through which we perceive these issues. And unfortunately, the optics on black men at the top—Barack Obama and Eric Holder—exercising a certain kind of aggressive posture toward these particular entities or individuals [should not be] underestimated…”

Now, forget for a moment, if you can, the epic nature of the financial crimes that Holder and Obama declined to prosecute: fraud, deception, and manipulation on a giant and pervasive and giant scale that contributed to the loss of millions of jobs and to millions of foreclosures and a huge poverty spike. Forget also that Holder worked up the basic legal argument behind the federal government’s refusal and failure to prosecute Wall Street long before he became the first technically Black US Attorney General working for the first technically Black US President.  In June of 1999, when Holder was a little-known attorney working for the corporate-neoliberal Bill Clinton administration, Holder published a remarkable memorandum titled “Bringing Criminal Charges Against Corporations.”  Despite its progressive-sounding title, the memo provided federal prosecutors a convenient argument to cite when deciding not to crack down on giant companies’ illegal conduct: consider the “collateral consequences” of prosecuting a large company. “In the corporate context,” Holder explained, “prosecutors may take into account the possibly substantial consequences to a corporation’s officers, directors, employees, and shareholders, many of whom, depending on the size and nature of the corporation have played no role in the criminal conduct…”

In other words, Holder argued that some corporations were just Too Big to Jail and so should not be charged. Ten years later, as Obama’s top lawyer in the wake of Wall Street’s greatest crime wave ever, Holder would absurdly use the Collateral Consequences doctrine to justify not bringing charges even against specific individuals (criminal executives, that is) at large companies.  This was no small amplification of the doctrine’s original meaning, but the basic Too Big to Prosecute idea was clearly in Holder’s head long before Dyson’s “racial realpolitik” might have come into play.

Consistent with the original Collateral Consequences idea and with the later amplification, Holder would spend the years between Clinton and Obama serving giant corporations at the posh Washington D.C. law firm Covington & Burling.  There Holder represented such entities as the pharmaceutical colossus Merck, the National Football League, Chiquita Brands International, and the massive Swiss private bank UBS.

If the clownish academic and media personality Dyson seriously believes that Attorney General Holder wanted to prosecute Wall Street’s financial arch-perpetrators but was held back from doing so by his/and or the Obama team’s fear that they would spark white backlash if they went after super-rich white men, then he is sadly and badly mistaken.  Holder is a wealthy, Ivy League-bred neoliberal and quintessential corporate Democrat going back to the Big Business-friendly Clinton administration.

But put all that all aside and ask yourself honestly: would Holder and his fellow black-bourgeois, deeply conservative friend Barack Obama really have sparked devastating white backlash by moving assertively against the nation’s widely reviled financial overlords? It is probable that any white fear or anger that might have resulted from such serious prosecution of members of the United States’ super-wealthy .001% would have been quite mild compared to the broader white and multiracial popular approval the US working class majority would have felt for Obama actually acting on his 2008 campaign’s progressive-sounding promises by responding seriously to the arrogance and corruption of the financial elite. Running dog Dyson is barking up the wrong bourgeois tree when he says that the nation’ mostly working class whites were too racist to let a technically Black administration stick it to white criminal plutocrats. Nonsense.

But let’s pretend that Dyson is right to claim that the harsh racial realities of the US politics are such that a White House and a Justice Department headed by technically Black office-holders cannot undertake such an action.  I think it’s a false and even idiotic premise, but imagine that it was accurate for a moment.  An obvious question arises, at least it does for anyone who doesn’t want to live in a New Gilded Age of shocking inequality (racial as well as socioeconomic) where mind-boggling corporate and financial criminality goes unpunished: why then should US citizens of any color have joined Dyson in enthusiastically backing and defending a first technically Black president and a first technically Black Attorney General? What, just so we could applaud the symbolic gratification of putting Black Faces in High Places, as if that marked some sort of grand substantive victory over US racism?  Sadly, as I and other anti-racists of the “radical left” warned and predicted from the beginning of the Obama phenomenon, the symbolic achievement has been little more than just that – symbolic.  It has come at no small price to substantive movement against US racism deeply understood, for reasons and in ways that I and others have demonstrated elsewhere.

Obama has, as predicted, been a disaster for racial as well for economic justice. His presidency has, among other things, deeply reinforced the widely held white illusion that racism no longer provides a serious and pervasive obstacle to black advancement and racial equality in the US.  As predicted, Obama has been nearly as silent about race and racism as any US president in recent memory. Along the way, he and his fellow black-bourgeois friends of white economic and power elite, like the civil rights charlatan Al Sharpton, have continued their nasty habit of blaming poor and working class Blacks, not institutional and societal racism, for Blacks’ persistent disproportionate presence at the bottom of the steep US socioeconomic pyramid. By the way, and for what’s it is worth, Sharpton’s speech along those victim-blaming lines at the funeral of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, was approvingly broadcast on Democracy Now (DN) last August.

Funny story: I was booked to appear on DN in December of 2008 to discuss my book Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics – a book that pretty much predicted the broad power-serving trajectory of the Obama presidency on class injustice, racism, military empire (Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “triple evils that are interrelated”) and more. The booking was cancelled on the day I was going to be interviewed, just 45 minutes before the taping, just as I stepped (riddled with the flu, I should add) out of the Port Authority in midtown Manhattan.  Cleaning out my den the other day, I happened upon an old file in which I had placed some talking points for the ND interview that never occurred.  One such point read as follows: “Obama will not prosecute Wall Street.  Look out for the ‘liberal’ defense that doing so would spark white fears of the ‘angry black man.’”

Street’s latest book is They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy

 Page 1 of 28  1  2  3  4  5 » ...  Last »