Bernie Out of the Closet: Sanders’ Longstanding Deal with the Democrats

27/07/15 0 COMMENTS

CounterPunch, July 21, 2015

I am glad that the left intellectual and activist Chris Hedges does not support the Bernie Sanders campaign for the Democratic Party presidential nomination. As Hedges explained in a recent interview on the Ralph Nader Radio Hour, Sanders’ candidacy lends undeserved credibility to the thoroughly corporatized Democratic Party. Sanders has pledged that he will support the corporatist military hawk Hillary Clinton in the 2016 general presidential election. Sanders stirs up legitimate progressive energy and popular anger and then “funnels it back into a dead political system,” Hedges observes. Sanders fails to confront the American Empire and military state, and, Hedges adds, has unforgivably “abandoned the Palestinians and given carte blanche to Israel.”

I agree on all scores. Hedges’ reasoning is consistent with my own recent writings on interviews on the Sanders presidential sensation. I do, however, want to raise one quibble with Hedges on Sanders’ history – a difference that makes Hedges’ case against Sanders even stronger. “I don’t understand,” Hedges told Nader: “He [Sanders] fought the Democratic establishment in Vermont his entire career. Now he has sold out to it.”

Sanders’ 1990 Deal with the Dems

Sanders did not “f[i]ght the Democratic establishment in Vermont his entire career.” As the left University of Vermont philosopher Will Miller noted in a 1999 essay recounting left peace activists’ occupation of then U.S. Congressman Bernie Sanders’ Burlington, Vermont office to protest Sanders’ support of the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia and the ongoing U.S. War on Iraq, Sanders sold out to the corporate and war Democrats as early as 1990.

Between 1981 and 1988, it is true, Sanders “presented himself to the left outside of Vermont as the leader of the third party movement, vanquishing the two major parties in every Mayoral election.” But in 1988, Sanders got a lesson on the perils of third party politics when he ran for federal office. In the election for Vermont’s seat in the House of Representatives, the independent Sanders and Democrat Paul Poirer divided the majority vote and the contest went to a Republican. Sanders responded by drifting right and cutting a deal with the Vermont Democrats: the party would permit no serious candidate to run against him while he blocked serious third party formation in Vermont and adopted positions in line with the national corporate war Democrats. Miller’s up-close account merits lengthy quotation:

“Bernie – out of office for the first time in eight years – went to the Kennedy School at Harvard for six months and came back with a new relationship with the state’s Democrats. The Vermont Democratic Party leadership has allowed no authorized candidate to run against Bernie in 1990 (or since) and in return, Bernie has repeatedly blocked third party building. His closet party, the Democrats, are very worried about a left 3rd party forming in Vermont. In the last two elections, Sanders has prevented Progressives in his machine from running against Howard Dean, our conservative Democratic Governor who was ahead of Gingrich in the attack on welfare.”

“The unauthorized Democratic candidate in 1990, Delores Sandoval, an African American faculty member at the University of Vermont, was amazed that the official party treated her as a nonperson and Bernie kept outflanking her to her right. She opposed the Gulf build-up, Bernie supported it. She supported decriminalization of drug use and Bernie defended the war on drugs, and so on…”

“After being safely elected in November of 1990, Bernie continued to support the buildup while seeking membership in the Democratic Congressional Caucus – with the enthusiastic support of the Vermont Democratic Party leadership. But, the national Democratic Party blew him off, so he finally voted against the war and returned home – and as the war began – belatedly claimed to be the leader of the anti-war movement in Vermont.”

“Since 1991 the Democrats have given Bernie membership in their Congressional Caucus. Reciprocally, Bernie has become an ardent imperialist. Sanders endorsed Clinton in 1992 and 1996. In1992 he described Clinton as the ‘lesser of evils,’ (a justification he used to denounce when he was what the local press called an ‘avowed socialist’). By 1996 he gave Clinton an unqualified endorsement. He has been a consistent ‘Friend of Bill’s’ from since 1992. One student I know worked on the Clinton Campaign in 1996 and all across Vermont, Bernie was on the stage with the rest of the Vermont Democratic Party Leadership, while the unauthorized Democratic candidate for his Congressional seat was kept out in the audience.”

During the 1990s, the not-so “independent” Congressman Sanders voted for and/or otherwise supported:

* Economic sanctions that killed more than a million Iraqi civilians

* Every U.S. bombing of Iraq from 1992 on

* The sending of U.S. military units to Kuwait and Saudi Arabia to threaten Iraq because “we cannot tolerate aggression”

* The objectively racist and mass-incarcerationist Federal Crime bill.

* Every US intervention since elected to Congress–Iraq, Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Liberia, Zaire (Congo), Albania, Sudan, Afghanistan and Yugoslavia.

Many of Sanders’ liberal fans might be surprised to learn that he voted for a National Rifle Association (NRA)-supported bill to restrict lawsuits against gun manufacturers and against the Brady Bill.

The “leftist” Congressman Sanders liked to send out mailings sends out mailings to veterans that supported the US having “the strongest military in the world” and praised soldiers as sacrificing “for the freedom of Americans.” Sanders repeatedly failed to invite antiwar veterans’ groups to his many veterans events in the state.

By Miller’s account, the “independent” and “leftist” Congressman Sanders’ political trajectory stood well to the right of Black House Democrats like Maxine Waters and Ron Dellums, “who moved paulstreetcontinuously to their left during their Congressional careers.” Sanders, by contrast, “got where he is now by a lurch to the right. He promises working people, the aged, the poor, and the ‘vanishing middle class’ that he will defend them while he repeatedly blocks the building of the anti-capitalist political movement and party that might actual make such promises legitimate.” When a Vermont leftist questioned Representative Sanders in public about his failure to help build a left-progressive alternative to the capitalist party duopoly, Sanders said he was now too busy with his Congressional work to worry about such things.

“The Citizenry Moaned Audibly”

Miller’s essay appeared after he and fourteen other peace activists were arrested for “trespassing” in Sanders’ Burlington office. Seeking to control the public relations damage, Sanders hijacked a regularly scheduled town meeting in Burlington to advance his position on behalf of Bill Clinton’s criminal war on Serbia. By Miller’s observation:

“A general town meeting had already been scheduled for the following Monday, so he turned it to a ‘town meeting on Kosovo.’ Apparently, Bernie Sanders had forgotten what a Town Meeting is…Sanders as the self-appointed moderator/boss opened the evening with naked self-justification: ‘It is a very complex situation’… followed by the ritual of demonization of Milosevic – a technique he has perfected over the last eight years on Saddam Hussein of Iraq. Then he presented the false dilemma that the only alternative to bombing is doing nothing. Sanders said his situation was the same as that of Joschka Fischer’s of the Green Party, Germany’s Foreign Minister, who has outraged his Green Party membership by supporting the bombing his coalition government is carrying out as part of NATO. “

“Back in Vermont the assembled citizenry moaned audibly.”

After the 9/11 attacks, “Bomber Bernie” (as Burlington peace activists dubbed Sanders) voted for the initial 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Terrorists that has been cited as the legal justification for U.S. military interventions and endless U.S. “global war on terror” – including the invasion of Iraq (which Sanders opposed along with most Democrats in Congress in 2002 and 2003). He voted for a non-binding resolution expressing support for troops at the outset of the invasion of Iraq. In March 2006, he opposed efforts to bring articles of impeachment against the open arch-war criminal George W. Bush since “the Republicans control the House and the Senate.”

Senator Sanders as a de facto Dem

When Sanders decided to make a bid for an open U.S. Senate seat in 2005, his longstanding service to the corporate Democrats won him the critical endorsement of Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY), Chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. Schumer’s backing meant that no Democrat running against Sanders could receive financial help from the party. Sanders was also supported by Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada) and Democratic National Committee Chair and Chairman and former Vermont Governor Howard Dean, who described Sanders as an “ally who votes with the Democrats ninety eight percent of the time.” Then-U.S. Senator Barack Obama campaigned for Sanders in Vermont.

As when he was in the U.S, House, Senatorial candidate Sanders made a curious deal with the Vermont Democratic Party: he agreed to be listed on their primary ballot but to decline the nomination should he win, which he did.

The “independent” Sanders has enjoyed a special agreement with the Democratic leadership in the U.S. Senate. He votes with the Democrats on all procedural matters in exchange for the committee seats and seniority that would be available to him as a Democrat. (He can break this rule in some exceptional cases if Democratic Senate Whip Dick Durbin agrees, but the request is rarely made.) Sanders is free to vote as he wishes on policy matters, but he has almost always voted with the Democrats.

Consistent with this party loyalty, Sanders refuses to seriously or substantively criticize his “good friend” and Democratic presidential primary “rival” Mrs. Clinton – a militantly corporatist and militarist right-wing Democrat. Sanders has backed Obama’s numerous murderous military actions and provocations around the world, from Libya, Syria, Somalia, Afghanistan, Yemen, and Iraq to China, Ukraine, and Russia. Sanders has said repeatedly that he will not be a third- party “spoiler” in the general election and thus will direct his primary delegates and voters to line up behind Hillary, Inc. in 2016. In his presidential campaign speeches, Sanders has been unwilling to mention the corporatized Democratic Party as part of the nation’s oligarchy problem. Presidential candidate John Edwards fulminated consistently against “corporate Democrats as well as corporate Republicans” when he ran in the Iowa Caucus eight years ago. Sanders, by contrast, focuses almost completely on corporate Republicans.

“But he’s a socialist,” many leftists exult. I’ve heard a number of Sanders speeches since he announced his presidential candidacy. He does not call himself a socialist. He does not call for socialism. He does not criticize or even refer to capitalism or the profit system, the underlying political-economic regime that is wired for the endless upward distribution of wealth and power and the ruination of livable ecology. Sanders rails against “the billionaire class,” against economic inequality, against the Republicans, against FOX News, against the Citizens United decision, and especially against those terrible Koch brothers. He’s running as a strident populist Democrat. In that regard, he’s not really all that different from Dennis Kucinich in 2003-04, Jesse Jackson in the 1980s and even Edwards in 2007-08, all of whom struck strong populist chords in efforts to reach the Democratic Party’s “progressive base.”

Out of the Democrats’ Closet

None of this is a departure from Sanders’ earlier career since 1989. As the shaggy-haired Mayor of progressive Burlington during the Reagan years, Sanders may have been a Sandinista-supporting left politico willing to challenge the two party duopoly. But Bernie cleaned up his too-radical act after his 1988 defeat. He went to “liberal” Harvard’s imperialist Kennedy school and came back to work in tandem with the corporate and militaristic Democrats under the guise of an “independent” and third party political identity. He’s been on the not all-that-left wing of the dismal dollar Dems ever since.

It’s all very different than the story Sanders tells campus town progressives on the campaign trail. According to that narrative, he has joined with the Democrats only this year and because of his pragmatic calculation that third party candidates cannot succeed under the U.S. party and electoral system. In reality, however, the Democrats have been Sanders’ “closet party” (Miller) for the last fifteen years. He’s really just coming out of the closet now for the presidential race, in a Clinton-welcomed effort to help give the Democrats a much-needed fake-populist makeover for the 2016 elections. The great Socialist Party presidential candidate Eugene Debs (whose poster hangs in Sanders’ Senate office) would not be impressed.

 

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

False Flag Change: History, Racism, Obama, and the Confederate Flag

12/07/15 0 COMMENTS

CounterPunch, July 10, 2015; ZNet, July 9, 2015,

As the reigning corporate United States media and politics culture responds to a terrible racist atrocity by questioning the political correctness of the Confederate Flag and logo across the South, it is a good time to reflect on the different levels at which race and racism operate in post-Civil Rights America. One level appears at the nation’s discursive and symbolic surface.  It is about language, imagery, personnel, and representation. It has a lot to do with the color of faces in high and/or publically viewed places and positions.

Recent calls and acts to remove the Confederate Flag and emblem from public and commercial spaces in the U.S. South are excellent example of race running at this surface level.  The flag and logo have long been seen by many Americans, including now (in the wake of the Confederate symbol-waring Dylan Roof’s murder of nine Black parishioners in a historic Black church in Charleston, South Carolina) the nation’s first technically Black president, as too undeniably connected to slavery and Jim Crow oppression to keep a respectable place in mainstream U.S. culture.

The Deeper Racism Lives On
A different level of race and racism has to do with how the nation’s daily capitalist institutions, social structures, and ideologies function.  Here we are talking about how labor markets, the financial sector, the real estate industry, the educational system, the criminal justice complex, the military state, the corporate system, and capitalism more broadly capitalism work to deepen, maintain, and/or reduce racial oppression and inequality.
At the first, surface and symbolic level, racism has experienced significant defeats in the United States since the rise of the Civil Rights Movement in the middle and late 1950s.  Public bigotry has been largely defeated in the nation’s corporate-crafted public culture.  Prejudiced whites face public humiliation when they voice openly racist sentiments in a nation that took “Whites Only” signs down half a century ago.  Favorably presented Black faces are visible in high and highly public places across the national media and political landscape. The United States, the land of slavery, put a Black family in the White House six years and eight months ago. The new attack on the Confederate Flag is another moment in this long Civil Rights revolution over public-symbolic racism.

At the deeper, more covert institutional and societal level, however, racism is alive and well.  It has not been liquidated beneath the public and representational surface – not by a long shot. It involves the more impersonal and (to be fair) the more invisible operation of social and institutional forces and processes in ways that “just happen” but nonetheless serve to reproduce Black disadvantage in the labor market and numerous other sectors of American life. These processes are so ingrained in the social, political, and institutional sinews of capitalist America that they are taken for granted – barely noticed by the mainstream media and other social commentators. This deeper racism includes widely documented racial bias in real estate sales and rental and home lending; the funding of schools largely on the basis of local property wealth; the excessive use of high-stakes standardized test-based neo-Dickensian “drill” and grill curriculum and related zero-tolerance disciplinary practices in predominantly black public schools; the concentration of black children into over-crowded and hyper-segregated ghetto schools where a highly disproportionate share of the kids are deeply poor; rampant and widely documented racial discrimination in hiring and promotion;  the racist “War on Drugs” and the related campaign of racially hyper-disparate mass black incarceration and criminal marking. (The technically color-blind stigma of a felony record is “the New N word” for millions of Black Americans subject to numerous “new Jim Crow” barriers to employment, housing, educational and other opportunities.)

A Card Table Analogy
A critical and underestimated part of the grave societal racism that lives on beneath the selection of a Black Supreme Court Justice or a Black Secretary of State, the election of a Black U.S. President, or the taking down of the Confederate Flag from a Southern state capitol is the steadfast refusal of the white majority nation to acknowledge that the long (multi-century) history of Black chattel slavery – the vicious racist and torture system the Confederacy arose to defend and that the Confederate Flag celebrates – and its Jim Crow aftermath are intimately related to the nation’s stark racial disparities (see below) today. The refusal stands in cold denial of basic historical reality. Consider the following analogy advanced by the Black American political scientist Roy L. Brooks nearly two decades ago:

“Two persons – one white and the other black – are playing a game of poker. The game has been in progress for some 300 years. One player – the white one – has been cheating during much of this time, but now announces: ‘from this day forward, there will be a new game with new players and no more cheating.’ Hopeful but suspicious, the black player responds, ‘that’s great. I’ve been waiting to hear you say that for 300 years. Let me ask you, what are you going to do with all those poker chips that you have stacked up on your side of the table all these years?’ ‘Well,’ said the white player, somewhat bewildered by the question, ‘they are going to stay right here, of course.’ ‘That’s unfair,’ snaps the black player. ‘The new white player will benefit from your past cheating. Where’s the equality in that?’ ‘But you can’t realistically expect me to redistribute the poker chips along racial lines when we are trying to move away from considerations of race and when the future offers no guarantees to anyone,’ insists the white player. ‘And surely,’ he continues, ‘redistributing the poker chips would punish individuals for something they did not do. Punish me, not the innocents!’ Emotionally exhausted, the black player answers, ‘but the innocents will reap a racial windfall.’”

Seen against the backdrop of Brooks’ living “racial windfall,” there is something significantly racist about the widespread mainstream “post-racial” white assumption that the white majority United States owes Black American nothing really in the way of special, ongoing reparation for the steep and singular Black disadvantages that have resulted from centuries of overt, explicitly racist, and truly brutal oppression and exploitation.

Forget for a moment that American capitalism is still permeated with institutional and societal (and still no tiny degree of cultural) racism.  Put aside the basic and important fact that the game is not being played fairly, with genuinely color-blind, “post-racial” rules. As Brooks’ card table metaphor reminds us, even if U.S. capitalism was being conducted without racial discrimination (as both players in Brooks’ analogy seem to falsely assume), there would still be the question of “all those poker chips” that whites – yes, rich whites in particular – have “stacked up on [their] side of the table all these years.”

Brooks’ surplus “chips” are not quaintly irrelevant hangovers from “days gone by.” They are living, accumulated weapons of racial inequality in the present and future. As anyone who studies capitalism in a smart and honest way knows, what economic actors get from the present and future so-called “free market” is very much about what and how much they bring to that market from the past. And what whites and blacks bring from the living past to the supposedly “color-blind” and “equal opportunity” market of the post-Civil Rights era (wherein the dominant neoliberal authorities and ideology purport to have gone beyond “considerations of race”) is still and quite naturally and significantly shaped by not-so “ancient” decades and centuries of explicit racial oppression.
Given what is well known about the relationship between historically accumulated resources and current and future success, the very distinction between past and present racism ought to be considered part of the ideological superstructure of contemporary white supremacy.

Priceless: The Half Barely Told
There’s no way to put a precise dollar amount on the value added to American capitalism by the Black human beings who provided the critical human raw material for the giant whipping machine that was British North American and US chattel slavery.  Their blood-drenched contribution was, to quote the old MasterCard commercial, priceless. As the historian Edward Baptist has suggested in his brilliant volume The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Rise of American Capitalism (Basic Books, 2014), Americans’ tendency to see slavery as a quaint and archaic “pre-modern institution” that had nothing to do with the United States’ rise to wealth and power is deeply mistaken. Contrary to what many abolitionists thought in the 19th century, the savagery and torture perpetrated against slaves in the South was about much more than sadism and psychopathy on the part of slave traders, owners, and drivers.  Slavery, Baptist demonstrates was an incredibly cost-efficient method for extracting surplus value from human beings, far superior in that regard to “free” (wage) labor in the onerous work of planting, tending, and harvesting cotton. It was an especially brutal form of capitalism, driven by ruthless yet economically “rational” torture along with a dehumanizing ideology of racism.

It wasn’t just the South, home to the four wealthiest US states on the eve of the Civil War, where investors profited handsomely from the forced cotton labor of Black slaves. By the 1840s, Baptist shows, the “free labor North” had “built a complex industrialized economy on the backs of enslaved people and their highly profitable cotton labor.”  Cotton picked by southern slaves provided the critical cheap raw material for early Northern industrialization and the formation of a new Northern wage-earning populace with money to purchase new and basic commodities. At the same time, the rapidly expanding slavery frontier provided a major market for early Northern manufactured goods: clothes, hats, cotton collection bags, axes, shoes, and much more. Numerous infant industries, technologies and markets spun off from the textile-based industrial revolution in the North.  Along the way, shipment of cotton to England (the world’s leading industrial power) produced fortunes for Northern merchants and innovative new financial instruments and methods were developed to provide capital for, and speculate on, the slavery-based cotton boom. All told, Baptist calculates, by 1836 nearly half the nation’s economy activity derived directly and indirectly from the roughly 1 million Black slaves (just 6 percent of the national population)  who toiled on the nation’ southern cotton frontier.

Geographical section aside, The Half Has Never Been Told shows that “the commodification and suffering and forced labor of African Americans is what made the United States powerful and rich” decades before the Civil War. The US owes much of its wealth and treasure precisely to the super-exploited labor of Black chattel in the 19th century. Capitalist cotton slavery was how United States seized control of the lucrative the world market for cotton, the critical raw material for the Industrial Revolution, emerging thereby as a rich and influential nation in the world capitalist system by the second third of the 19th century:

“From 1783, at the end of the American Revolution to 1861, the number of slaves in the United States increased five times over, and all this expansion produced a powerful nation…white enslavers were able to force enslaved African American migrants to pick cotton faster and more efficiently than free people. Their practices transformed the southern states into the dominant force in the global cotton market, and cotton was the world’s most widely traded commodity at the time, as it was the key material during the first century of the industrial revolution.  The returns from cotton monopoly powered the modernization of the rest of the American economy, and by the time of the Civil War, the United States had become the second nation to undergo large-scale industrialization.” (emphasis added)

After short-lived and half-hearted reformist and democratic experiments under northern Union Army occupation during the Reconstruction era (1866-1877), Black cotton servitude was resurrected across what became known as the Jim Crow South. The last thing that Black ex-slaves wanted to do after slavery was go back to work under white rule in Southern cotton fields. But, as the historical sociologist Stephen Steinberg noted thirty-four years ago, “Though the Civil War had ended slavery, the underlying economic functions that slavery had served were unchanged, and a surrogate system of compulsory paid labor developed in its place…ex-slaves…were forced to struggle for survival as wage laborers, sharecroppers, and tenant farmers in southern agriculture. Once again, black paid the price and carried the burden of the nation’s need for cheap and abundant cotton.” Untold thousands of Black Americans died at the hands of white terrorists and authorities, both private and public, to keep Black lives yoked to cotton toiling for a pittance or worse under white owners during the long Jim Crow era – this for the sake of national U.S. capitalism, not just regional exploiters. With all due respect to that great Canadian Neil Young, it was never just about “Southern [white] Man.”

Speaking of Symbols…
Perhaps people who care about racial justice should talk about down the United States Flag as well as the Confederate one. As the Black historian Gerald Horne has shown in his provocative book The Counter-Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States (NYU Press, 2014), the nation that invented the Star Spangled Banner (SSB) broke off from England largely because of its propertied elite’s reasonable fear that North American Black chattel slavery could not survive and expand under the continued rule of the British Empire. The Declaration of Independence contained no criticism of North American slavery (though it did accuse King George of “excit[ing] domestic insurrections amongst us”).  The U.S. Constitution sanctioned and defended the vicious institution of slavery. Exactly 76 years after U.S. independence was declared and 9 years before the Confederate Flag was first flown, the great Black escaped slave and abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass reflected on “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?”As Douglass answered in the shadow of the SSB:”

“a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy — a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages.”

Reading Douglass’s famous and bitter oration again as I do each year on July 4th, I was reminded of Patrick Campbell’s painting New Age of Slavery, which was inspired by the police killings of Mike Brown and Eric Garner and went viral last December:

http://ih2.redbubble.net/image.35469750.0886/flat,550x550,075,f.u2.jpg

Think also of the millions of Native Americans and persons abroad who have died and suffered subjugation under the “hollow mockery” of the SSB.

At the same time, if the Confederate Flag is going to come down, should Confederate names and symbols perhaps also disappear from other public spaces in the region? As the New York Times noted recently, “Black people across the South live on streets named for heroes of the side of the Civil War that opposed the end to slavery.” The region is rife with Confederate war memorials, along with numerous public and private buildings, parks, and other places bear the names of former rich slave-owners and Confederates. What about the offensive presence of that vicious Indian-killer and southern slaver Andrew Jackson on the U.S. $20 bill, or for that matter the wealthy slave-owner George Washington on the $1 bill and the liberal slave-owner Thomas Jefferson (the great revolutionary who worried about “domestic insurrections” in North America) on the US Nickel?

“History Belongs in a Museum”
Symbols aside, Baptist’s book and other recent volumes documenting the centrality of cotton slavery to the United States’ emergence as a powerful player in the world system raise the question of what Black America is owed today for the richly capitalist crime of slavery.  What sort and amount of reparations are due in light of the fact that the United States owes its rise to wealth and power to Black slaves who suffered unimaginable misery and ordeal under the torments of cotton slavery between the American Revolution and the American Civil War?
As Baptist muses with irony, “if the worst thing about slavery was that it denied African Americans the liberal rights of citizens, one must merely offer them the title of citizen – even elect one of them president – to make amends.  Then the issue will be put to rest forever.” If we look honestly at the scale and (more importantly) the pivotal historical significance of the wealth stolen from African Americans, we are talking about reparations and that is something that America appears to be institutionally and ideologically incapable of addressing in a forthright and substantive way. We raise the question of reparations – yes, the “R word” that can’t be uttered in polite “post-racial” company.

Take down the Confederate Flag?  “Fine. Should have been long ago.”  Deal truthfully and significantly with – and advance compensation for – the profits made, the crimes committed, and the long and living price imposed on Black Americans by the multiple-centuries system of Black chattel slavery that the Confederacy fought to defend and indefinitely prolong?  “Forget it. Get real.  Get over it.  Move on. Nothing more to see here.  Put the flag in a closet and stop whining.”

Driving in my car a couple of weeks ago I heard some older white authority figure (I did not catch his name or title) in Charleston say (in a deep South Carolina) accent that the Confederate banner should come down because “it’s a piece of history and there’s a place for history. History,” the elite Caucasian intoned, “belongs in the museum.”

For some right-wing folks, taking down the Confederate Flag is a way of pushing the all-too living historical relevance of slavery and Jim Crow further down Orwell’s memory hole. That history is too transparently related to contemporary racial oppression in a time when Black Americans are locked up en masse and murdered by police on an all too regular basis.

For many milquetoast liberal and progressive civil rights sorts (including Black middle- and upper-class Urban Leaguers and NAACP members), it should be added, the flag issue is an all-too safe and welcome diversion from the difficult grassroots struggle and work required to take down the contemporary racist police, apartheid, and mass incarceration state – living and substantive legacies of chattel slavery.

Symbolic Change, Cloaking, and White Self-Congratulation
It is tempting, perhaps, to see contemporary America’s split race decision – progressive victory on the surface level of race and continuing defeat on the deeper societal, institutional, and historical level of race – as a case of glass half-empty versus glass half-full. “Let’s celebrate the victory on Level 1 racism and build on that triumph to move forward against Level 2 racism”… right?  Not so fast. It’s more complicated than that. For, perversely enough, the deeper level of racism may actually be deepened by Level 1 Civil Rights victories insofar as those victories and achievements have served to encourage the great toxic illusion that, as Derrick Bell once put it, “the indolence of blacks rather than the injustice of whites explains the socioeconomic gaps separating the races.” It’s hard to blame millions of white people for believing that racism is dead in America when U.S. public life is filled with repeated affirmations of the integration and equality ideals and paeans to the nation’s purported remarkable progress towards achieving it and when we regularly celebrate great American victories over Level 1 racism (particularly over the open racial segregation and terror of the South). As the black law professor Sheryl Cashin noted in 2004, five years before the existence of a first black U.S. president, there are [now] enough examples of successful middle- and upper-class class African-Americans “to make many whites believe that blacks have reached parity…The fact that some blacks now lead powerful mainstream institutions offers evidence to whites that racial barriers have been eliminated; [that] the issue now is individual effort . . . The odd black family on the block or the Oprah effect — examples of stratospheric black success,” Cashin wrote, “feed these misperceptions, even as relatively few whites live among and interact daily with blacks of their own standing.” One of the many ways in which Obama’s presidency has been problematic for the causes of racial justice is the way it has proved to be something of a last nail in the coffin for many white Americans’ already weak willingness to acknowledge that racism is still a major problem for Black Americans.

This is something that Martin Luther King, Jr. anticipated to some degree. “Many whites hasten to congratulate themselves,” King noted in 1967, “on what little progress [black Americans] have made. I’m sure,” King opined, “that most whites felt that with the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, all race problems were automatically solved. Most white people are so removed from the life of the average Negro,” King added, “here has been little to challenge that assumption.” (Note the importance of segregated experience in the observations of both professor Cashin and Dr. King. The media image of black triumph and equality trumps the reality of persistent racial inequality in white minds so easily thanks in part to the simple fact that whites have little regular contact with actual, ordinary black Americans and little understanding of the very different separate and unequal ways in which most Blacks’ experience life in the United States. This is one of many ways in spatial and residential segregation – still quite pronounced in the U.S. – matters a great deal.)

“A Reminder of Systemic Oppression and Racial Subjugation”
Like the election and re-election of President Obama, the takedown of the Confederate Flag carries with it the risk of providing deadly “post-racial” cloaking for the nation’s deeper societal, institutional, and ideological racism.  How appropriate in that regard it is to hear the deeply conservative and neoliberal Obama (for whom the notion of reparations is both ideologically and pragmatically unthinkable) call in his funeral oration at the stricken Charleston church for the final takedown of the Southern slave confederacy’s flag and symbol:

“For too long, we were blind to the pain that the Confederate Flag stirred into many of our citizens. (Applause).  It is true a flag did not cause these murders.  But as people from all walks of life, Republicans and Democrats, now acknowledge, including [South Carolina’s right wing and objectively racist] Governor [Nikki] Haley, whose recent eloquence on the subject is worthy of praise…(Applause)…as we all have to acknowledge, the flag has always been represented more than just ancestral pride (Applause).  For many, black and white, that flag was a reminder of systemic oppression (Applause)…and racial subjugation (Applause).  We see that now.  Removing the flag from this state’s capital would not be an act of political correctness.  It would not be an insult to the valor of Confederate soldiers.  It would simply be acknowledgement that the cause for which they fought, the cause of slavery, was wrong (Applause).  The imposition of Jim Crow after the Civil War, the resistance to civil rights for all people, was wrong.  It would be one step in an honest accounting of America’s history, a modest but meaningful balm for so many unhealed wounds. It would be an expression of the amazing changes that have transformed this state and this country for the better because of the work of so many people of goodwill, people of all races, striving to form a more perfect union. By taking down that flag, we express God’s grace. (Applause)”

In his oration, Obama said that the murdered minister and state senator Clem Pinckney “embodied the idea that Christian faith demands deeds and not just words.”

Obama was right, of course, to observe that the Confederate Flag represents slavery, Jim Crow, and opposition to the great Civil Rights Movement that arose more than half a century ago. But what, really, are the “amazing changes” that have pushed the U.S. towards a “more perfect union,” racially speaking, in recent decades? Obama was referring mainly to the rise of a certain number of Black faces into high and public places, none more notable than his ascendency into the White House. But beneath the surface change, as Obama knows all too well, the Black poverty and unemployment rates remain double that of the white rates and Black median household wealth has fallen to less than one twentieth of white media household wealth.  Blacks make up more than 40 percent of the nation’s globally and historically unmatched population of prisoners and a third of Black men are marked with the crippling lifelong stigma of a felony record. A shocking 38 percent of Black children are growing up at less than the federal government’s notoriously inadequate poverty level. The poverty rate among Black children is more than twice as high as that of white children.

White America repeatedly congratulates itself over its readiness to shed open public bigotry and make symbolic statements against racism like electing a Black president (though it should be noted that Obama has never won a majority of the national white electorate despite his best efforts to not seem “too Black” and concerned with racial justice) and taking down the Confederate Flag.  Meanwhile, these savage racial disparities persist and even deepen thanks to the underlying societal, institutional, historical, and political-economic racism that churns on behind the curtain of an officially color blind and, yes, politically correct media and politics culture.

In her speech calling for the removal of the Confederate Flag (which she called “a deeply offensive symbol of a brutally oppressive past” for “many”) from the grounds of the South Carolina state capital, that state’s right wing Republican Governor Nikki Haley said that “we have made incredible progress in South Carolina on racial issues.” There is surely some basis for that statement at the surface level, in the racial composition of the state’s legislature and evening broadcast news teams and the like.  But underneath all that, damn near half (44%) of South Carolina’s Black children are growing up in officially poor families, compared to roughly a sixth (16%) of the state’s white children.  While Blacks make up 28 percent of South Carolina’s population, they comprise 62% of the state’s 22,000 prisoners.  The state’s Black poverty rate (28%) is nearly three times as high as its white population’s poverty rate (10%).

Such glaring racial disparities reflect the long living legacy and price of chattel slavery, inextricably intertwined past and present with the nation’s amoral profits system. Slavery may perhaps qualify as the nation’s “Original Sin,” as Obama called it from the pulpit in Charleston, but it was, as Baptist shows, an integral, highly profitable, and driving force in the so-called free market system – capitalism – that Obama has upheld as the source of the United States’ supposed “unmatched prosperity.” And today, as in the nation’s early development, America’s not-so “color blind” capitalism remains inseparably bound up with deeply entrenched and egregiously under-acknowledged structures, institutions, and ideologies of racial oppression and inequality.

Obama’s Curious Case for Keeping the Confederate Flag Flying
Listening to Obama’s Charleston speech and hearing my fellow Caucasian Americans talk about the supposed over-ness of U.S. racism and the purportedly ancient and “long ago” nature of slavery and Jim Crow – and hence about the supposed personal and cultural responsibility of Blacks themselves for their position at the bottom of the nation’s steep class hierarchies – I almost wonder if the Confederate Flag ought not stay put.  After all, the President says the flag is “a reminder of systemic oppression and racial subjugation.”   He says that taking it down is a “modest balm for unhealed wounds.”  Constantly barraged with reactionary neoliberal messaging on how poor and working class people and especially poor and working class people of color supposedly created their own difficult situations in the “land of the free” (the ever more savagely unequal and openly plutocratic nation that happens to be leading prison state and military force in world history), Americans of all colors could use some good reminders of “systemic oppression and racial subjugation.” They need to be reminded of such oppression both in the past and in the present – and of the intimate relationship between past oppression and racial subjugation and present systemic oppression and racial subjugation.

The Real Issue to be Faced
When it comes to “deeds and not just words,” moreover, they don’t need a symbolic “modest balm.” “A nation that will keep people in slavery for 244 years,” the great democratic socialist Martin Luther King, Jr. noted in 1967 (as violence erupted across the nation’s largely jobless northern ghettoes) “will ‘thingify’ them – make them things. Therefore they will exploit them, and poor people generally, economically. And a nation that will exploit economically will have to have foreign investments and everything else, and will have to use its military might to protect them. All of these problems are tied together.” That all being no less true 48 years later, and with capitalism now bringing livable ecology to the edge of ruin, the people need deep systemic change along the lines of what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called the “real issue to be faced” beyond “superficial” matters (like the color or gender of a president): “the radical reconstruction of society itself.”

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

Obama’s Good Republican Week

12/07/15 0 COMMENTS

teleSur English, July 7, 2015

I’ll never forget the night of January 3, 2008.  It was the evening of the Iowa Democratic Party Presidential Caucus. Iowa City High School’s cafeteria was packed. Old-timers couldn’t remember a bigger Caucus crowd.

The Democratic voters (well, caucusers) had come to put the deeply conservative Barack Obama over the top in the name of liberal and progressive values of equality, democracy, sustainability, social justice, and peace – meanings they were encouraged by Brand Obama’s slick and deceptive marketers to project on to blank branding sheets of “Hope” and “Change.” And all I could think was “liberal fools.  You have no idea what this thoroughly neoliberal and imperial politician is about!” Obama rose to power in Washington with remarkable, record-setting financial backing from Wall Street and K Street election investors who were not in the business of promoting tolerating politicians who seek to challenge the nation’s dominant domestic and imperial hierarchies. “On condition of anonymity,” journalist Ken Silverstein noted in the fall of 2006, a Washington lobbyist he interviewed “point[d] out the obvious: that big donors would not be helping out Obama if they didn’t see him as a ‘player.’” The lobbyist added: ‘What’s the dollar value of a starry-eyed idealist?”

As far as I could make out from years of following the GOP-friendly Obama in Chicago and Illinois (where I worked in social policy and civil rights positions during the late 1990s and early 21st century), Obama’s real ideological orientation was to the right of Richard Nixon.  He was an Eisenhower Republican at leftmost.

When the Caucus process was over, a young lady who had caucused for John Edwards said to me, “but he [Obama] can’t win in the [November 2008 presidential] election.”  I told her, “Oh Obama can win the presidency, alright. You just watch. But when he does, you may find yourself wondering what the point was. The rich will continue to rule and the first Black president is often going to seem like a Republican.”

Flash forward seven years and five plus months, to late June of 2015.  The last week of that month is considered by U.S. pundits to have been “a very good one for the President.” On Friday, June 26th, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld gay marriage – a cause Obama has embraced – in all 50 U.S. states. The day after, Obama gave a stirring funeral oration in the historic Black church where nine Black parishioners had been murdered by a white supremacist. On Thursday, June 25th, the Supreme Court upheld for a second time a critical provision of what Obama and others tout as the shining and signature policy accomplishment of his first administration: the so-called Affordable Care Act.  And the day before that, Obama succeeded in getting Congress to sign off on a critical legislative ingredient – “fast track” trade authority – in his long campaign to push through what he and others tout as the hoped-for signal and shining policy accomplishment of his second administration: the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) Agreement.

It is instructive to ponder the essence of these two grand Obamanian policies. The first, known as “Obamacare,” is based on a plan first designed by the Republican Heritage Foundation in the 1990s. It is a richly neoliberal measure.  It sets up a complex, “market-based” program that leaves the corporate insurance and drug syndicates’ cost-driving profit-taking fully in place, with disastrous consequences for the quality and affordability of U.S. medical care. Obama rushed to pass this brazenly corporatist measure after kicking the popular choice (single payer “Medicare for All,” supported by most U.S. citizens for many years) to the curb.

The second, the TPP, is a sweeping authoritarian and corporatist measure that would cover 40 percent of the world’s economy.  Lawyers and lobbyists for giant multinational corporations have been working it up and promoting it for nearly a decade. Beneath standard propagandistic boilerplate about trade and jobs, the real thrust and significance of the TPP is about strengthening corporations’ ability to protect and extend their intellectual property rights (drug patents, movie rights, and the like) and to guarantee that they will be compensated by governments for any profits they might lose from having to meet decent public labor and environmental (and other) standards, something certain to discourage the enactment and enforcement of such standards. It’s all about what the New York Times calls “investor protection.

No wonder Obama has done everything he can to keep the TPP’s details under wraps. (The secrecy has been remarkable: U.S. Congresspersons and some of their staff can see the TPP’s text only if they agree not to take notes or discuss the details in public.) And no wonder that Obama wanted Congress to give him “fast-track” authority to force a yay or nay Congressional vote on the TPP, with no time for careful consideration and no chance for revisions. Under fast-track rules, there’s no chance for delays or alterations. The pact must be voted up or down in a very short time-frame.

And who did Obama and his Big Business sponsors rely on to pass “fast track” through Congress?  His good “free trade” (investor rights) friends in the Republican Party.  The bill passed over and against the opposition of most of his party’s delegation in both the House and the Senate, with Obama directing no small nastiness at his supposed fellow “progressive Democrats” in Washington. It all happened quietly while the national media was focused on the heavily racialized and bloody Charleston story.

It’s all very consistent with the judgment of the lobbyist Silverstein interviewed in 2006: “what’s the dollar value of a starry-eyed idealist?”  So, of course, is much else in Obama’s Wall Street-friendly record.  Examples include his escalation of the giant taxpayer bailouts of the big financial institutions that wrecked the economy, his shielding of those firms from calls for nationalization and break-up, his refusal to act on his campaign promise to fight for legislation to re-legalize union organizing in the U.S.,  his failure to back the 2011 public worker rebellion in Wisconsin, his repression of the Occupy Movement in late 2011, his torpedoing of desperate efforts to reduce global climate emissions, his embrace of hydraulic fracturing, and his repeated opening of formerly protected waters to offshore drilling. For big capital, the answer to lobbyist’s question has been (to quote the old MasterCard commercial) “priceless.”

Beneath progressive pretentions, Barack Obama the national political phenomenon has never been anything other than a tool of the United States’ corporate and financial ruling class.  This is something that I (and a sturdy cadre of other researchers and commentators) have argued and documented at painstaking length from the beginning.  But surely the TPP takes the cake when it comes to solidifying his legacy once and for all as a died-in-the-wool global corporatist. How any serious liberal or progressive could still cling to the notion of a “progressive” President Obama after his work with big capital, the Republicans, and fellow corporate Democrats to pass the arch-authoritarian, super-corporatist, anti-labor, and eco-cidal Fast Track bill over and against technically irrelevant public opinion and the opposition even of most of his party’s Congresspersons is a chilling kind of mystery.

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

The Birthplace (Greece) v. the Farce (the United States) of Democracy

10/07/15 0 COMMENTS

CounterPunch, July 2, 2015

Democracy is among other things the rule of majority public opinion. Plutocracy is the rule of the wealthy few over and against the popular majority. To understand the different meanings of these two terms, you can consult a dictionary. You can also look at the very different decision-making processes on display regarding major political-economic policies in Greece (the ancient homeland of the Western democratic ideal) and the United States (the self-declared homeland and headquarters of contemporary democracy).

Greece: “The People Must Decide”

Let’s start with Greece. It has been under pressure from international, principally European creditors to slash social and other governmental expenditures in order to qualify for a five-months extension of the “economic rescue program” (bailout) that European authorities have advanced to keep the nation’s financial system solvent. The austerity (“reform”) proposals advanced by the European Commission, the European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund (the “Troika”) include deregulation of the Greek labor market, rollbacks in union power, pension cuts, and an increase in taxes on basic food products. The Troika give Greece until yesterday (I am writing on the morning of Wednesday, July 1, 2015) to accept their terms or face default.

The “reforms” demanded by the European financial power elite promise to further the economic humiliation of a nation that has been struggling for years to meet the outrageous debt payment and austerity commands of its northern creditors. As liberal U.S. economist Paul Krugman explained in the New York Times two days ago, austerity has been a dead end for Greece, denied (thanks to its membership in the Eurozone) the ability to reduce its deficits by devaluing its currency:

“most…of what [Americans have] heard about Greek profligacy and irresponsibility is false. Yes, the Greek government was spending beyond its means in the late 2000s. But since then it has repeatedly slashed spending and raised taxes [as required by the Troika]. Government employment has fallen more than 25 percent, and pensions…have been cut sharply. If you add up all the austerity measures, they have been more than enough to eliminate the original deficit and turn it into a large surplus….So why didn’t this happen? Because the Greek economy collapsed, largely as a result of those very austerity measures, dragging revenues down with it….And this collapse, in turn, had a lot to do with the euro, which trapped Greece in an economic straitjacket. Cases of successful austerity, in which countries rein in deficits without bringing on a depression, typically involve large currency devaluations that make their exports more competitive. This is what happened, for example, in Canada in the 1990s, and to an important extent it’s what happened in Iceland more recently. But Greece, without its own currency, didn’t have that option.”

A letter published yesterday by a number of international academics, including former Archibishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, Slavoj Zizek, and Judith Butler, notes that:

“Over the past five years, the EU and the IMF have imposed unprecedented austerity on Greece. It has failed badly. The economy has shrunk by 26%, unemployment has risen to 27%, youth unemployment to 60% and, the debt-to-GDP ratio jumped from 120% to 180%. The economic catastrophe has led to a humanitarian crisis, with more than 3 million people on or below the poverty line…Against this background, the Greek people elected the Syriza-led government on 25 January [2015] with a clear mandate to put an end to austerity. In the ensuing negotiations, the government made it clear that the future of Greece is in the Eurozone and the EU. The lenders, however, insisted on the continuation of their failed recipe, refused to discuss a write down of the debt – which the IMF is on record as considering unviable – and finally, on 26 June, issued an ultimatum to Greece by means of a non-negotiable package that would entrench austerity. This was followed by a suspension of liquidity to the Greek banks and the imposition of capital controls.”

The Troika’s ultimatum has been rejected by the Syriza government. That government arose on a wave of anti-austerity sentiment fist expressed in years of mass street protests and then organized electorally in the form of the Syriza Party.paulstreet

Telling the democratically elected Syriza government to sign off on the Troika’s “deal” is directing it to commit political suicide. Anti-

austerity has always been Syriza’s political raison d’etre, as the Troika knows quite well. So the ultimatum amounts to something of an attempted coup by the financial command of neoliberal bureaucrats in Brussels, consistent with the European “democracy deficit” that the left historian Tony Judt characterized several years ago as “a sense that that decisions were being taken ‘there’ with unfortunate consequences ‘here’ and over which ‘we’ have no say.”

In the name of popular and national sovereignty and with an honest understanding that rejecting the “reform” and bailout package offered by the Europeans will entail costs, Greece’s 40-year old Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras Syriza decided (imagine) to take the deal to the Greek citizenry. Hours after meeting with European “leaders” at a summit in Brussels last week, Tsipras announced that his government would put the European creditors’ proposals up to a yay or nay popular referendum on Sunday, July 5th. “The people must decide,” Tsipras said. “We should respond to authoritarianism and harsh austerity with democracy, calmly and decisively,” Mr. Tsipras said. “Greece, the birthplace of democracy, should send a resounding democratic message to the European and global community.”

Here’s the ballot measure that will be posed to the Greek people:

“Should the agreement plan submitted by the European Commission, European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund to the June 25 eurogroup and consisting of two parts, which form their single proposal, be accepted? The first document is titled ‘Reforms for the completion of the Current Program and Beyond’ and the second ‘Preliminary Debt sustainability Analysis.’”

“Not approved/NO”

“Approved/YES”

It’s a very basic act of democracy, taking a policy decision that will impact millions of Greek workers and citizens to…well, to millions of Greek workers and citizens.

European financial elites have reacted with shock and horror. The Eurozone finance ministers’ Dutch leader Jeroen Dijsselbloem said he was “very negatively surprised” by the Greek referendum decision. “That is a sad decision for Greece because it has closed the door for further talks where the door was still open in my mind,” Dijsselbloem added.

Germany’s hardline pro-austerity finance minister Wolfgang Schaeuble said the Greek government had “ended the negotiations unilaterally.” The European Commission chief, Jean-Claude Juncker, said he felt “betrayed” by the “egotism” shown by Greece in failed debt talks. He accused Tsipras of playing “liar’s poker.”

“Stunned,” New York Times correspondent James Yardley reported yesterday, “[Tsipras’] fellow European leaders shut down negotiations, capped the lifeline they had been providing Greece’s banks, angrily denounced him as irresponsible and dishonest with his own people, and not so subtly suggested that Greece needed a new government if it wanted to continue drawing economic help.”

Jacob Funk Kierkegaard, a Senior Fellow at the arch-neoliberal Peterson Institute for International Economics, responded to Tsipras’ referendum call by saying that Greece was “joining countries we would normally regards as failed states” (NYT, July 1, 2015).

The Troika has refused to extend the deadline for its latest bailout out offer until the day of the historic Greek referendum. The vote will be held nonetheless, with it being understood that a “No” victory very possibly spells Greece’s exit from the Eurozone, that is, from the European Economic Union. Without the European bailout, Greece will have no choice but to pay pensioners and government employees and others in scrip, creating a parallel national currency.

A “yes” victory would signal national submission to yet more creditor-imposed Greek austerity, the very policy that has failed for five years running. It would also likely lead to the departure of Tsipras. Anti-austerity has always been his political raison d’etre. With Western (European and US) elites scrambling to prevent a “Grexit,” it seems possible that a deal of some sort will still be possible despite European elite’s chagrin at the horror of a democratic vote.

The key point for the purposes of this essay, however, is that decision-making power is largely in the hands of the Greek populace.

The United States: a Different Kind of Failed State

Things could hardly be different in the United States. Look now at the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a sweeping corporatist measure that U.S.President Barack Obama, big business, and top Republicans have been slowly but surely advancing in Washington. It’s a sweeping measure that would cover 40 percent of the world’s economy and negatively impact the lives of millions of Americans, their jobs, their quality of life.

Lawyers and lobbyists for giant multinational corporations have been working it up and promoting it for nearly a decade. Beneath standard propagandistic boilerplate about trade and jobs, the real thrust and significance of the TPP is about strengthening global corporations’ ability to protect and extend their intellectual property rights (drug patents, movie rights, and the like) and to guarantee that they will be compensated by governments for any profits they might lose from having to meet decent public labor and environmental (and other) standards, something certain to discourage the enactment and enforce of such standards. It’s all about what the Times calls “investor protection.”

No wonder Obama has done everything he can to keep the TPP’s details under wraps. The secrecy has been remarkable: U.S. Congresspersons and some of their staff can see the TPP’s text only if they agree not to take notes or discuss the details in public. No wonder Obama wanted Congress to give him “fast-track” authority to force a yay or nay Congressional vote on the TPP, with no time for careful consideration and no chance for revisions. (Under fast-track rules, there’s no chance for delays or alterations: the pact must be voted up or down in a very short time-frame.) And no wonder most of the U.S. population is (all too irrelevantly) opposed to the TPP and fast track.

How about a national citizens’ referendum on these key political-economic measures of great significance for “We the [American] People”? The very notion of such a popular vote is absurd in the U.S. as currently constituted. No such basic act of popular and national sovereignty is remotely conceivable under America’s reigning model of corporate oligarchy.

Meanwhile the unpopular TPP is marching its way through the halls of American so-called popular governance. After some momentary difficulties in the U.S. House, fast-track just sailed quietly through the U.S. Congress while the nation was focused on the gay marriage issue along with terrible racist and gun violence and the Confederate Flag issue in the U.S. South. All indications are that Obama and his Republican allies will succeed in passing the TPP.

Sadly enough, there’s nothing particularly unusual about a global-corporatist measure moving its way through the U.S. government over and against popular opposition. Over the past three plus decades, the mainstream political scientists Martin Gilens (Princeton) and Benjamin Page (Northwestern) calmly reported last Fall, the U.S. political system has become “an oligarchy,” where wealthy elites and their corporations “rule.” Examining data from more than 1,800 different policy initiatives in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, Gilens and Page 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 and regardless of which party holds the White House or Congress. “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.” As Gilens explained to the liberal online journal Talking Points Memo (TPM) last year, “ordinary citizens have virtually no influence over what their government does in the United States.” And that is no small part of why the United States has entered a savagely unequal New Gilded Age in which the top 1 percent owns more wealth than the bottom 90 percent, along with a likely comparable percentage of the nation’s “democratically elected” officials.

Such is the harsh reality of “really existing capitalist democracy” in the U.S. —what Noam Chomsky calls “RECD, pronounced as ‘wrecked.’” Does this perhaps qualify the United States as a “failed state”?

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

Beyond the Real Time Catastrophe of Capital

10/07/15 0 COMMENTS

Counterpunch, June 26, 2015

In a recent column on Pope Francis’ latest encyclical, Laudato Si, the conservative New York Times columnist Ross Douthat says that “After this document, there’s no doubting where Francis stands in the great argument of our time….But,” Douthat elaborates, “I don’t mean the argument between liberalism and conservatism. I mean the argument between dynamists and catastrophists.” Here’s how Douthat understands that “great argument”:

“Dynamists are people who see 21st-century modernity as a basically successful civilization advancing toward a future that’s better than the past. They do not deny that problems exist, but they believe we can innovate our way through them while staying on an ever-richer, ever-more-liberated course….Dynamists of the left tend to put their faith in technocratic government; dynamists of the right, in the genius of free markets. But both assume that modernity is a success story whose best days are ahead.”

“Catastrophists, on the other hand, see a global civilization that for all its achievements is becoming more atomized and balkanized, more morally bankrupt, more environmentally despoiled. What’s more, they believe that things cannot go on as they are: That the trajectory we’re on will end in crisis, disaster, dégringolade…that current arrangements are foredoomed, and that only a true revolution can save us.”

Douthat puts Pope Francis in the “catastrophist” camp because of the pontiff’s call for humanity to take climate change seriously by undertaking global action and “radical change” to move off fossil fuels and selfish profiteering and consumerism. Thanks to anthropogenic global warming, the Pope writes, “Doomsday predictions can no longer be met with irony or disdain. We may well be leaving to coming generations debris, desolation and filth.”

Douthat mildly applauds Pope Francis for increasing the likelihood that Catholics and non-Catholics will “think anew” about climate change. Still, Douthat rejects the Pope’s “catastrophism” and related radicalism. “It’s possible,” Douthat argues, “to believe that climate change is happening while doubting that it makes ‘the present world system … certainly unsustainable,’ as the pope suggests. Perhaps we’ll face a series of chronic but manageable problems instead; perhaps ‘radical change’ can, in fact, be persistently postponed.”

“Successful Modernity”: The Present is Stranger Than Dystopia

It’s not an impressive argument. Who thinks anymore that the U.S-of American “argument” between “liberalism [translate: the Democrats] and conservatism [translate: the Republicans]” (both of which are aligned with corporate plutocracy, global U.S. Empire, and eco-cide against democracy, social justice and the common good) marks “the great argument of our time? (Try democracy and the common good versus the unelected and interrelated dictatorships money and empire or, more simply, the people versus the ruling classes.) What is a leftist who believes in governmental technocracy? A contradiction in terms, not to be taken seriously – no more seriously than “the genius of free markets.” No such markets or genius remotely exist. Contemporary capitalism, likes its antecedents, relies heavily and thoroughly on state protection and subsidy. Its “market logic” (cover for corporate and financial rule) is the amoral enemy of democracy, justice, and livable ecology.

Who in their right moral and intellectual mind could possibly believe that “21st-century modernity” (the world capitalist system) is “a basically successful civilization” moving on “an ever-richer, ever-more-liberated course….a success story whose best days are ahead”? Why should anyone take Douthat’s unnamed “dynamists” seriously? Humanity today isn’t merely moving towards a potential catastrophe. It’s in the middle of multiple and interrelated catastrophes right now: mass poverty and hunger; mass involuntary migration; shocking inequality (the Guardian reported last year “that the richest 85 people on the globe – who between them control as much wealth as the poorest half of the global population put together – could squeeze onto a single double-decker” bus); massive structural unemployment; permanent war and endemic militarism; nuclear re-escalation; ubiquitous corporate and financial totalitarianism, (both hard and soft); abject corruption and plutocracy; mass incarceration; rampant governmental police statism; ubiquitous propaganda in ever more potent mass media; a corporate-crafted mass culture of stupidity, selfishness and cruelty; rampant disease and poor health more generally; a compromised food supply and the degradation of food; the ever-escalating crisis of livable ecology, led by anthropogenic global warming (AGW), which poses the very real near term risk of human (self-) extinction. “Successful modernity” indeed!

You don’t have to turn to the dystopian warnings of 20th century writer and filmmakers like Ray Bradbury (Fahrenheit 451 and other writings), George Orwell (1984), Aldous Huxley (Brave New World), Kurt Vonnegut (Player Piano), Robert Brunner (The Sheep Look Up), John Carpenter (They Live, Escape From New York), Richard Fleischer (Soylent Green), Norman Jewison (Rollerball), Phillip K. Dick (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and other novels), and Ridley Scott (Blade Runner) to glimmer a world gone mad and suicidally eco-cidal under the rule of elites. You can pay close attention to current events and developments.

Truth, the old saying goes, is stranger than fiction. And the present, I might add, is stranger than dystopia. We don’t have to imagine and warn of authoritarian and ecological nightmares at some point in the far-away future. The nightmares are happening in real time.paulstreet The catastrophic future, brought to us by the financial-corporate and military state, is now. The Pope’s “Doomsday predictions” are coming true right now. And, no, this planet-cooking present is not remotely sustainable. The judgement of Earth science on that is clear as day: only prompt and radical change leading to a radical reduction in carbon emissions can save prospects for a decent future. Anyone who thinks that such a future is possible if “things go on as they are,” without radical change, is in deep denial and/or lost in a dream world.

Calling such judgements and observations “catastrophist” is an interesting choice. I’ve always found that choice gendered in a patriarchal sort of way, as in the outwardly composed man who tells a distraught and “emotional” woman to “calm down” and “stop being so hysterical.” So consider a clinical analogy. If you went with terrible symptoms to a team of expert doctors and received a carefully considered diagnosis of potentially terminal cancer, would you denounce those medical professionals as “catastrophists” and ignore their prognosis – or would you accept the diagnosis and undertake a serious, likely radical, plan of treatment and change to prolong and enhance your life?

The real questions for those who wish to save the prospects for a decent human future isn’t whether Douthat’s “dynamists” or Douthat’s “catastrophists” are correct about the state and trajectory of the species. Instead, they are: what is/are the cause/s of current cancerous catastrophes? What must we do about it/them before it is too late?

Capitalism is the Disaster

Regarding climate change, the problem isn’t “modernity” (whatever that term really means at the end of the day) or “industrial civilization” as such. It is a particular form of “modernity” known as capitalism, which stands in an inherently antithetical relationship to livable ecology. The taproot is the growth-, accumulation- and exploitation-addicted world capitalist system, with its anarchic and atomized dispersion of economic decision-making, inherently antithetical to public planning for the common good. As the Canadian Marxist Sam Gindin explained last winter:

“It is not just that…capitalism is inseparable from the compulsion to indiscriminate growth, but that capitalism’s commodification of labor power and nature drives an individualized consumerism inimical to collective values (consumption is the compensation for what we lose in being commodified and is the incentive to work) and insensitive to the environment (nature is an input, and the full costs of how it is exploited by any corporation are for someone else to worry about)….[furthermore…] A social system based on private ownership of production can’t support the kind of planning that could avert environmental catastrophe. The owners of capital are fragmented and compelled by competition to look after their own interests first, and any serious planning would have to override property rights — an action that would be aggressively resisted.”

There’s a lot more that could be said about how and why the soulless and chaotic bourgeois mode of socioeconomic management (furthered and not tempered by the modern corporation) is wired to destroy life on Earth, but that will do for a useful summary at present. Louis Proyect is correct when he argues that “capitalism and capitalist politics have to be superseded if humanity and nature are to survive. Once we can eliminate the profit motive, the door is open to rational use of natural resources for the first time in human history. How we make use of such resources will naturally be informed by our understanding that reason governs the outcome and not quarterly earnings. The alternative,” Proyect reminds us, “to this is a descent into savagery, if not extinction.” To update Rosa Luxembourg for the age of “the ecological rift,” it’s eco-socialism or barbarism if we’re lucky.

The Canadian journalist and activist Naomi Klein deserves credit for identifying the profit system as the main culprit behind global warming in her latest book This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate.  “The really inconvenient truth,” Klein notes, “is that [AGW] is not about carbon – it’s about capitalism…. [and] the war [that system] is waging on earth.” But what does Klein mean, exactly, when she says “capitalism?”  Listen to the following passage from This Changes Everything:

“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”

The final sentence in this passage is consistent with Klein’s radical statement about “the really inconvenient truth” – that the problem is capitalism.  Not so the second sentence, which attaches the moderating description “deregulated” to the overall system supposedly in the docket. The problem recurs across This Changes Everything, which repeatedly attaches such qualifiers (“free market,” “neoliberal,” “market fundamentalist” and the like) to the profit system It leaves space for Ross Douthat’s foolish hope (formulated in a critique of the Pope, not Fidel Castro) “that perhaps ‘radical change’ can, in fact, be persistently postponed.”

This is not a new difficulty in Klein’s writing.  Her previous book The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (2007) was directed primarily at neoliberalism – at (Milton) “Friedmanite capitalism” and at so-called disaster capitalism, not at capitalism itself. It exhibited no small nostalgia for the Keyensian “regulated” and “welfare” capitalism that reigned across much of the rich world in the post-World War II “Golden Age” – a rapidly growing capitalism that (among its many terrible consequences) pushed the world into environmental crisis by the last quarter of the last century.

Capitalism itself is the disaster and the catastrophe. Understanding and transcending capitalism in a systemic fashion is going to be essential for moving beyond d the real time dystopian catastrophes of the present. For the profit system lays at the base of all the “Doomsday” developments mentioned above (environmental ruin, mass poverty, stark inequality, plutocracy, mass incarceration, the police state, racial hyper-disparity, corporate media, etc.) and not just AGW, the biggest issue of our or any time.. All these and other evils of so-called modernity are – to use the language of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in the middle and late 1960s – intimately “interwoven” and “interrelated.” They suggest that King was right near the end of his life when he wrote that “real issue to be faced” beyond superficial matters (like, say, the color or gender or sexual orientation of a corporate-captive political candidate) was “the radical reconstruction of society itself.” And that King was correct when he said that “the United States will have to adopt a modified form of socialism.”

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

Democracy Wrecked Again: On the Fast Track of Corporate Authoritarianism

07/07/15 0 COMMENTS

ZNet, June 26, 2015

Public Opinion: So What?
In a recent telephone survey of more than 1100 randomly selected U.S. adults, the New York Times recently reported, the paper and CBS found that the U.S. citizenry stands to the progressive and populist left on numerous key political-economic issues. Pollsters working for the two corporate media giants learned that:

  • Two-thirds (66%) of Americans think that the distribution of money and wealth should be more evenly distributed among more people in the U.S.
  • 61% of Americans believe that in today’s economy it’s mainly just a few people at the top who have a chance to get ahead.
  • 83% of Americans think the gap between the rich and the poor is a problem.
  • 67% of Americans think the gap between the rich and the poor needs to be addressed immediately, not as some point in the future.
  • 57% of Americans think the U.S. government should do more to reduce the gap between the rich and the poor in the U.S.
  • “Almost three-quarters [74%] of respondents say that large corporations have too much influence in the county, about the double the amount that said the same of unions.”
  • 68% of Americans favor raising taxes on people “earning” – the pollsters’ term (a better one would be “taking”) – more than $1 million per year.
  • 50% of Americans support limits on money “earned” by top executives at large corporations.
  • “Americans [are] skeptical of [so-called] free trade.  Nearly two-thirds [63%] favored some form of trade restrictions, and more than half opposed giving the president [fast-track] authority to negotiate trade agreements that Congress could only vote up or down without amendments.”

These are noteworthy findings. Consistent with numerous surveys revealing a preponderantly progressive populace in the U.S. over many years, they show majority support for greater economic equality and opportunity, increased worker rights, a roll-back of corporate power, and trade regulation.

The U.S. economic power elite has a response to such popular sentiments: So what? Who cares? Public opinion is pitilessly mocked by harshly lopsided socioeconomic realities and coldly plutocratic politics and policy in the U.S. America is mired in a New Gilded Age of savage inequality and abject financial corporatocracy so extreme that the top 1 percent garnered 95 of all U.S. income gains during Barack Obama’s first administration and owns more 90 percent of the nation’s wealth along with a probably equivalent portion of the nation’s “democratically elected” officials.

Over the past three plus decades, the liberal political scientists Martin Gilens (Princeton) and Benjamin Page (Northwestern) reported last Fall, the U.S. political system has become “an oligarchy,” where wealthy elites and their corporations “rule.” Examining data from more than 1,800 different policy initiatives in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, Gilens and Page 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 and regardless of which party holds the White House or Congress. “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.” As Gilens explained to the liberal online journal Talking Points Memo (TPM) last year, “ordinary citizens have virtually no influence over what their government does in the United States.” Such is the harsh reality of “really existing capitalist democracy” in the U.S. —what Noam Chomsky calls “RECD, pronounced as ‘wrecked.’”
A “Positive Legacy” of “Investor Protection”
Which brings us to the supposedly liberal and progressive U.S. President Barack Obama’s ongoing campaign to win Congressional approval for the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) – a classically neoliberal so-called free trade agreement that has been under secret construction by multinational corporate lawyers and corporatist government officials for at least a decade. The measure has taken on what New York Times White House correspondent Peter Baker calls “special meaning for a president eager to change the world. It [is] a way to leave behind a positive legacy abroad, one that could be measured, [Obama] hope[s], by the number of lives improved rather than [as with his military actions in the Middle East] by the number of bodies left behind.”

The TPP would join the United States along with 11 other nations along the Pacific Rim, including Canada, Mexico, Japan, Vietnam, Malaysia and Australia in a “free-trade zone” covering nearly 40 percent of the world’s economy. The president is allied with Congressional Republicans and big business groups in claiming that the TPP will open up foreign markets to American goods and “level the playing field by forcing Asian competitors to improve labor and environmental standards.”

Labor unions, environmental groups, food safety activists, civil libertarians, civil rights groups, and a good number of Congressional Democrats know that’s all manipulative business propaganda. The measure isn’t really about trade or improved standards, they are quite aware. As the liberal economist Paul Krugman has noted, whatever benefits may nor may not befall the U.S. economy from “free trade” between the TPP’s projected signatory nations have “already been realized.” The real thrust and significance of the TPP is about strengthening corporations’ ability to protect and extend their intellectual property rights (drug patents, movie rights, and the like) and to guarantee that they will be compensated by governments for any profits they might lose from having to meet decent public labor and environmental (and other) standards, something certain to discourage the enactment and enforce of such standards. It’s all about what the New York Times yesterday (I am writing on Thursday, June 25th) rather over-technically called  “investor protection.” As the liberal economist Dean Baker explained last December:

“TPP and [the TransAtlantic Trade and Investment Pact – TTIP] are about getting special deals for businesses that they would have difficulty getting through the normal political process. For example, oil and gas companies that think they should be able to drill everywhere may be able to get rules that prevent national or state governments from restricting their activities. This could mean, for example, that New York State would have to compensate potential frackers for the ban that Governor Cuomo imposed last week…Similarly, the financial industry will be looking to roll back the sort of regulations put in place through Dodd-Frank and similar legislation in other countries. Again, if governments want to ensure that their financial system is safe, they may have to pay the banks for the privilege….The pharmaceutical industry and entertainment industries will get longer and stronger patent and copyright protection. And the food and pesticide industries will be able to able to limit the ability of governments to impose safety and environmental regulations…Best of all [for big capital], these trade deals will set up a new legal structure that goes outside existing system in the United States and elsewhere. All the businesses that didn’t think German or British courts could be trusted to give them a fair deal can turn to the investor-state dispute settlement tribunals established as part of these trade pacts. These tribunals will effectively make their own law. The trade deals allow no appeal back to U.S. courts or the courts of any other country that is included….In short, these trade deals are a real bonanza for business.”

No wonder Obama has done everything he can to keep the details of the TPP and TTIP under wraps. When you realize that the TPP would “affect the lives of millions of Americans, their jobs, their quality of life” (as Diana Johnstone recently noted on CounterPunch), the secrecy is astounding: U.S. Congress persons and some of their staff can see the TPP’s text only if they agree not to take notes or discuss the details in public!

It is also no wonder that Obama wanted Congress to give him “fast-track authority” to force a yay or nay Congressional vote on the TPP, with no time for careful consideration and no chance for revisions. Under fast-track rules, there’s no chance for delays or alterations. The pact must be voted up or down in a very short time-frame. “The idea,” Baker noted last year, “is that with the bulk of the business community promising large campaign contributions to supporters and threatening to punish opponents, most members of Congress would find it difficult to vote no.”
The Playbook Holds
Liberal and “progressive” activists and intellectuals got badly over-excited two weeks ago when US House Democrats succeeding in momentarily obstructing Fast Track (widely deemed essential for passage of the TPP) by voting against a usual liberal priority: a federal program for the retraining of workers displaced by global “trade.” This down vote on retraining was able to obstruct Fast Track because training and Fast Track were coupled together as essential parts of the same measure. It was an embarrassing “rebuke” for Obama, who lobbied hard for TPP along with corporate America. As the sage left-liberal commentator William Greider exulted, “After 25 years of losing out to Wall Street and corporate interests, the party’s faithful constituency base managed to take down their Democratic president and his sweetheart deal with the big money. The left-liberal policy groups and grassroots activists agitating for change stood their ground against the power elites and, for once, they triumphed.” Georgetown University labor historian Joseph McCartin (himself a onetime Obama enthusiast) enthused to The Guardian that “This is the first time Congress considered a trade deal since we as a country became much more cognizant of surging inequality and the crisis in middle-class jobs. “The old playbook,” professor McCartin said, “of the president being able to get the votes at the last minute doesn’t seem to apply anymore.”

But, to repeat: So what? Who cares? Sorry, but the “playbook” still applies. Greider’s “left liberal triumph” was all too predictably short-lived. While the national media and populace focused on a prison escape in upstate New York, a terrible racist gun massacre in Charleston, South Carolina, and a subsequent debate over calls for the removal of the Confederate Flag from the state capitol in Columbia, South Carolina, Obama and his big business and Congressional Republican allies came back for a second and better try, with a new parliamentary strategy. All Obama and his partners in arch-neoliberal rule had to do rescue TPP Fast Track was to decouple it from the training measure. A decoupled Fast Track bill passed through Congress yesterday.  It is headed to the White House in what The Hill calls “a big second-term legislative win for President Obama after a months-long struggle.” Obama’s cherished TPP (truly a grand dream for a “progressive” president!) will pass despite the technically irrelevant opposition of most of the populace – and despite the death blow it may well land against prospects for a decent and democratic future.
Time for an Overdue Apology on Obama
Beneath progressive pretentions, Barack Obama the national political phenomenon has never been anything other than a tool of the United States’ corporate and financial ruling class.  This is something that I (and a sturdy cadre of other researchers and commentators) have argued and documented at painstaking length from the beginning.  But surely the TPP takes the cake when it comes to solidifying his legacy once and for all as a died-in-the-wool global corporatist. How any serious liberal or progressive could still cling to the notion of a “progressive” President Obama after his work with big capital, the Republicans, and fellow corporate Democrats to pass the arch-authoritarian, super-corporatist, anti-labor, and eco-cidal TPP over and against the opposition even of most of his party’s Congressional delegation is a chilling kind of mystery. Is this latest betrayal of his “progressive constituency” not a last and heavy final straw to break the back of the moronic, mass-marketed myth of a “progressive Obama”?  Could we now finally get some former “Progressives for Obama” members to formally apologize for the abject foolishness they exhibited in support of this deeply conservative corporatist Democrat – and for the venom with which so many so-called left-liberals attacked those of us on the actual Left [1] who tried to warn U.S. citizens and activists and the world about the cold corporate and imperial reality of Obama, Inc. from the start?
The Bigger Point
Obama aside, let us remember again: Washington runs on corporate and financial cash, connections, reach, and propaganda, not public opinion. As the TPP’s imminent passage makes abundantly clear, in case anyone hasn’t been paying attention, the United States, the self-declared homeland and headquarters of democracy, is ruled by an “unelected dictatorship of money.”

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

1. Please see the sub-section titled “Insistent Left Warnings” on pages 176-177 in the sixth chapter (titled “We Were Warned”) of my 2010 book The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (Paradigm, 2014)

From Watergate to Deflategate: Scandalous Reflections on Scandal

07/07/15 0 COMMENTS

Z Magazine. July-August 2015

Originally published on Counterpunch

One useful measure of a political culture’s moral level is the nature of what counts as a terrible outrage, disgrace, or scandal in that culture. The Vietnam War—really an imperial U.S. war on Vietnam and neighboring countries—has a bad reputation in the United States. That’s a good thing, no doubt, but consider the main reason for the war’s poor standing in the nation’s collective memory. It’s not because the U.S. “crucifixion of South Asia” (as Noam Chomsky described it at the time) was a monumentally immoral and imperial crime that killed from 3 to 5 million Southeast Asians (along with 58,000 U.S troops) between 1962 and 1975. No, the Vietnam War’s bad name results from the fact that the crime is understood to have been a humiliating failure, costing tens of thousands of U.S lives, stirring up mass protest, and damaging the credibility of U.S. foreign policy in a blundering, but supposedly well-intended, “mistake” that ended with the North Vietnamese sweeping into Saigon.

Street-watergate

A similar moral cluelessness mars the national U.S. memory of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney’s invasion and occupation of Iraq. It is commonplace by now for many U.S. politicians on both sides of the nation’s partisan divide to refer to the absurdly named Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) as “a mistake.” What you won’t hear except on the mostly excluded margins of U.S. media and politics culture is serious reference to OIF as immoral, imperial, and/or criminal. Such descriptions are wholly appropriate for a transparently illegal war of unprovoked invasion driven by blatantly petro-imperial, racist, and commercial imperatives. Granted advance approval from Congress by then U.S. Senator Hillary Clinton and many other hawkish Democrats, including Reille Hunter’s future sex-scandal partner John Edwards (then a U.S. Senator from North Carolina), this astonishing imperial transgression killed as many as 1 million Iraqis, injured and displaced millions more, and devastated social and civil infrastructure across Mesopotamia. Still, the invasion can be discussed as a “mistake” only in the same sense as Vietnam: as a well-intended policy that didn’t work. Much the same vapid moral nothingness surrounds the debates over the U.S. military and CIA’s use of “enhanced interrogation” (torture) techniques and murderous drone strikes across the Muslim world in the wake of the 9/11/2001 jetliner attacks. The disputes are mainly about whether or not these terrible, arch-criminal tools of repression actually work or not in the so-called war on terror, more accurately described as a war of terror. The fact that these outrageous methods and weapons have immorally traumatized, maimed, crippled, and killed human beings on a mass scale is beside the point, for Uncle Sam is never a criminal. “The United States,” Bill Clinton’s Secretary of State Madeline Albright explained in 1999, “is good. We try to do our best everywhere.”

The infamous Watergate Scandal is another case in point. It was a petty burglary of the Democratic Party’s national headquarters in 1972 by a handful of thugs working for the Republic National Committee. It became a giant national media obsession that led to the resignation of U.S. President Richard Nixon. And it was nothing compared to COINTELPRO. As Noam Chomsky explained 25 years ago: “at the exact same time that Watergate was discovered, there were exposures in the courts and through the Freedom of Information Act of massive FBI operations to undermine political freedom in the United States, running back to Roosevelt but really picking up under Kennedy. It was called COINTRELPRO [short for Counterintelligence Program], and it included a vast range of things…the straight Gestapo-style assassination of a Black Panther leader [Fred Hampton]…organizing race riots in an effort to destroy black movements; …attacks on the American Indian Movement, the women’s movement, you name it…fifteen years of FBI disruption of the Socialist Workers Party—that meant regular FBI burglaries, stealing membership lists and using them to threaten people, going to businesses and getting people fired from their jobs, and so on. That fact alone…is already vastly more important than…a bunch of Keystone Kops [breaking] into the Democratic National Committee headquarters one time. The Socialist Workers Party is a legal political party after all…. And this wasn’t just a bunch of gangsters, this was the national political police; that’s very serious… .In comparison to this, Watergate is a tea party” (Chomksy, Understanding Power, New Press, 2002). Very serious, that is, to anyone who cares about basic civil liberties. It wasn’t terribly serious as far as the Washington Post and other Watergate-obsessed corporate media institutions were concerned, which is why you will get blank stares when you mention “the COINTELPRO scandal” to all but a few Americans.

MASS MURDER V. CIGARS AND A STAINED DRESS

street-fbi

Watergate and even COINTELPRO were small crimes compared to Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon’s transgressions abroad, including, in Nixon’s case, the secret, mass-murderous bombing of Cambodia (leading to the rise of the proto-genocidal Pol Pot regime there) and U.S. coordination and support of a fascistic military coup that overthrew the democratically elected Chilean government of the Salvador Allende and killed thousands of workers and activists in 1973. During the televised Watergate hearings, nobody in the reigning mass media or in Congress bothered to mentioned that Nixon had carried out “one of the most intense bombings campaigns in history in densely populated areas of a peasant country [Cambodia], killing maybe 150,000 people” (Chomsky, Understanding Power). Watergate was also a much smaller crime than the Reagan administration’s Iran-Contra cockup. That scandal involved elite U.S. military, White House, and intelligence officials illegally funding the right-wing Nicaraguan terrorists, known as the Contras, by covertly selling missiles to Iran. Reflecting the U.S. Establishment’s sense that 1960s- inspired press freedom and independence had gone far enough with the Watergate coverage, corporate media chieftains agreed not to pursue the Iran-Contra Scandal to the point where another criminal U.S. president might have had to resign—this time over a matter that was explicitly problematic for the notion that U.S. foreign policy is always conducted with good and noble intentions.

Thanks in no small part to that agreement, the next biggest scandal in the official U.S. memory after Watergate involves not the murder of thousands of Nicaraguan peasants, but rather the unseemly soiling of a young White House staffer’s blue dress with Bill Clinton’s well-travelled DNA. Clinton currently enjoys remarkably high popularity in the U.S. He does so with assistance from a corporate media that helped nearly force his resignation in the face of a monumental presidential scandal two decades ago.

So what brought Clinton to the brink of defenestration from the Oval Office: passing the arch-regressive and corporatist North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) over and against his campaign promises not to do so? Pushing and signing the vicious elimination of poor families’ prior entitlement to minimal federal cash assistance in the name of “welfare reform” while em- bracing endemic corporate welfare and pushing through the deadly de-regulation of high finance? Humiliating Russia, criminally bombing Serbia (on falser pretexts), and otherwise generating a New Cold War with Russia that helped crush hopes for a desperately needed diversion of resources from the bloated Pentagon System to the meeting of human and social needs?; imposing the savage “economic sanctions” that killed more than a million Iraqis? No, what almost proved Clinton’s undoing was the childish Monica Lewinsky cigar and fellatio fiasco—one of Wild Bill’s copious sordid sexual escapades—and the silly lies he told about his private skullduggery.

Clinton v. Edwards and Nixon

Clinton has been forgiven and redeemed in the “mainstream” U.S. media and politics culture. Such exoneration will never be extended to John Edwards. The reasons for this contrast include the particularly twisted nature of Edwards baby-Daddy transgression (committed while Elizabeth Edwards struggled with ultimately terminal cancer) and his subsequent bizarre cover-up. At the same time, however, crazy John Edwards committed an even more unpardonable sin in the corporate-managed “demo- cracy.” He campaigned eloquently, passionately, and perhaps even sincerely against the moneyed elite and corporate-financial domination of both of the nation’s leading political organizations. Whether he meant it or not, candidate Edwards went off the reservation on concentrated wealth.

street-brettonThe more interesting Clinton comparison is with Nixon. Reflecting on why Nixon was removed from the White House over the “triviality” of Watergate, Chomsky noted that Nixon “made a lot of powerful enemies” when he tore apart the post-World War II Bretton Woods system. The Bretton Woods framework established the U.S. dollar as the global reserve currency fixed to gold and placed restrictions on import quotas and the like. It made the U.S. the world’s banker, in essence. When Nixon took the nation off the gold standard, suspended the convertibility of the dollar, and raised import duties, he messed with “the people who own the place.” Leading “multinational corporations and international banks relied on the [Bretton Woods] system, and they did not like it being broken down” (Chomsky, Understanding Power). This elite anger over Nixon’s move was evident in the Wall Street Journal and other elite business venues, suggesting strongly that more than few powerful people were happy to see Nixon go.

Clinton, it should be remembered, stayed carefully obedient to the nation’s corporate and financial masters. The “people who own the place” occupied key positions and maintained hegemonic influence in his militantly neoliberal, NAFTA-signing administration. As Charles Ferguson notes in his useful book Predator Nation: Corporate Criminals, Political Corruption, and the Hijacking of America, Clinton’s “economic and regulatory policy was taken over by the [financial] industry’s designated drivers—Robert Rubin, Larry Summers, and Alan Greenspan…[and] investment bankers were given clear signals that they could behave as they wished.”

Deflategate vs. Militarism Promotion

A revealing episode in the U.S. rich history of selective public outrage comes from the world of sports. Look at the high-profile media scandal that emerged before the most recent Super Bowl merged over supposedly shocking revelations that the National Football League (NFL) champion New England Patriots manipulated the air pressure of game footballs in accord with the preferences of their quarterback, Tom Brady. “Deflategate” is a minor matter even on purely athletic and sportsmanship grounds, but it received enormous media attention and popular discussion over seven months. It is now the biggest NFL scandal ever.

street-defenseIn reality, however, two other NFL-related scandals deserve considerably more attention in a morally serious culture. The first is the NFL’s campaign to undermine and discredit recent path-breaking medical research showing beyond reasonable doubt that the frankly vicious and super-violent game sold by the massively profitable and powerful league has a pervasively crippling and deadly impact on the brains of many of its players from top professional ranks down. This is no small moral matter given the extreme popularity of football in the U.S., where the more than 1.1 million high school students and more than 90,000 college students play the brain-damaging sport each year.

The second scandal has to do with recent reports that NFL teams have received millions of dollars from the U.S. Defense Department in exchange for honoring U.S. troops and veterans in on-field ceremonies and on stadium screens before and during games. There’s something more than a little distasteful about the NFL taking cash to salute the nation’s military personnel. The league, after all, is rolling in profits. Thanks to its favored status with Washington, it functions as a de facto legal monopoly. It is classified as a 501(c)6 and therefore pays no taxes. No wonder the billionaires who own all but one of the league’s teams (the Green Bay Packers belong to 360,584 stockholders) all make handsome profits on their franchises (no other major U.S. sports league can say that). Surely, one might imagine, these uber-wealthy beneficiaries of corporate welfare do not need to be paid to throw some love at “our troops”—at the people who are sent off to kill, maim, die, and suffer horrible injuries in the name of “freedom” and “civilization.” But no, football barons must have their pound of flesh, even for that little bit of “giving back” to the military “heroes”—something that militaristic Republican politicians like John Mc-Cain (R-AZ), Jeff Flake (R-AZ), and Chris Christie have called “disgraceful” and “outrageous.”

street-milijpgNote, however, what is not a scandal in the national coverage and commentary, trapped in the usual moral quicksand of American Exceptionalism, which dictates that the United States and, above all, its military and its wars are inherently good and noble: the federal government takes millions of taxpayer dollars to invest in promoting the imperial militarism that produces mass-murderous crimes like the U.S. invasions of Vietnam and Iraq and the torture and drone strikes that have helped push untold masses of Muslims into the arms of the Islamic State and other extremist Islamist groups. If the taking of the taxpayer money by explicitly commercial, profit-seeking football capitalists is scandalous, so is the giving of it by the purportedly higher-minded Pentagon. The Defense Department spends the public money with the intention of advancing its ability to garner recruits and continued lavish taxpayer funding for its murderous activity across a war-ravaged planet in which the U.S. accounts for nearly half of all military spending.

Poor Folks’ Welfare v. Rich Folks’ Welfare

Still, it’s good, I suppose, to see any scandal emerge that focuses some attention, however briefly, on federal payouts to the rich. In the U.S. for many decades, “mainstream” media has advanced the noxious notion that there is something scandalous about the comparatively tiny percentage of resources the United States government spends on assistance to the poor. This poisonous and reactionary sentiment helped drive Bill Clinton’s (and Newt Gingrich’s) aforementioned welfare “reform” (elimination), a Dickensian policy that has proved calamitous for the nation’s many millions of impoverished Americans in the current century. Meanwhile, U.S. government welfare remains all too quietly alive and well, free of scandal—for the wealthy corporate and financial few, that is. As the leading U.S. business paper Bloomberg-Business candidly informed its elite readers two years ago, reporting on research from the International Monetary Fund: “the largest U.S. banks aren’t really profitable at all…the billions of dollars they allegedly earn for their shareholders [are] almost entirely a gift from taxpayers…. The top five banks— JPMorgan, Bank of America Corp, Citigroup Inc., Wells Fargo & Co,. and Goldman Sachs Group Inc…the banks occupying the commanding heights of the U.S. financial industry—with almost $9 trillion in assets, more than half the size of the U.S. economy—would just about break even in the absence of corporate welfare. In large part, the profits they report are essentially transfers from taxpayers to their shareholders.” By corporate welfare, Bloomberg-Business meant not just the massive bailouts the big banks received after helping crash the economy in 2008 and 2009, but also the reduction of their borrowing costs by the federal government’s policy of loaning them money at low to zero interest rates.

It isn’t just in the financial sector, of course, where big, politically influential corporations receive giant government subsidies and protection, all free from the tough-love “free market discipline” of “welfare reform.” The aforementioned Pentagon System is itself a giant form of corporate welfare for high-tech U.S. and other global corporations, one of countless ways in which the federal government funds and protects Big Business, including the highly subsidized and super-profitable fossil fuel firms who are leading humanity over the cliff of radical anthropogenic climate change. Funny how that never quite makes it to real scandal status in the U.S. no more than the millions killed abroad as “collateral damage” by the U.S. Empire, particularly in the oil-rich Middle East.

Z

 Paul Street (paul.street99@gmail.com ) is a writer and author in Iowa City, IA. His latest book is They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy. This article was originally published on Counterpunch, May 29, 2015.

Idiots of Empire: From the “Freedom Budget” to Bernie Sanders

22/06/15 0 COMMENTS

ZNet, June 19, 2015

A Jeffersonian New Dealer Who Hated Ronald Reagan
My paternal grandfather, may he rest in peace, was, along with many millions of other Americans past and present, an idiot – an idiot of Empire. Don’t get me wrong.  William Paul Street (1907-2000) wasn’t stupid. Far from it.  He was the clever and well-spoken son – one of a large number of brothers and sisters – of an itinerant Missouri Methodist preacher. The family would travel from town to town, down around Hannibal, Missouri, and other parts of Mark Twain’s America in the years before World War I.  The preacher (my great-grandfather) had received his religious conversion while attending a tent revival meeting to which he had been sentenced as punishment for committing the crime of playing baseball on Sunday.

My grandfather knew his New Testament inside and out.  He knew his Mark Twain and his John Steinbeck and his John Dewey.  He also knew how to live off the land through hunting and fly fishing.

Reflecting the ministerial upbringing, my grandfather was a fine public speaker.  He even won an oratorical prize during high school, the first sign of a skill that would serve him well years later in his teaching career. He had a fine baritone speaking, singing, and preaching voice that commanded attention. He never lost his Missouri drawl.

But such skills did not free him from the experience of wage labor.  Lacking the money for college at first, he worked in a General Motors plant in St. Louis in the late 1920s. He toiled on an agricultural labor gang in rural Missouri. He paid his way through college by working as a janitor at Northern Illinois Teachers State College (NITSC – later to become Northern Illinois University) in DeKalb. Illinois in the 1930s.  There he met my grandmother Lina Luhtala, daughter of Finnish steelworkers and secretary to the college’s president.  He went on to get a doctorate (Ed.D) at Northwestern University and became an Education professor in the college whose bathrooms and hallways he had formerly cleaned.  During WWII, he worked summers and weekends in DeKalb’s Del Monte cannery (where I would work four decades later) to help pack food rations or U.S. troops.

My grandfather was an ardent and intensely moral New Deal Democrat – an identity he maintained until his death at the age of 93 in 2000.  His Democratic Party liberalism and pro-labor sympathies and his encouragement of editorial freedom at NITSC’s student newspaper (The Northern Star) got him absurdly labelled a “red” by the college’s ridiculous president Leslie Holmes – a charge that encouraged him to move to the University of Kentucky in the early 1960s.  During the middle-1960s, he was heavily involved in Lyndon Johnson’s short-lived War on Poverty.  He held an administrative post in the program in the poorest section of Appalachian Kentucky.

Two decades later, my grandfather was appalled by what he called “the false Christianity” of U.S. President Ronald Reagan and the religious right.  He could hardly stand to look at Reagan on the television.  When I did an oral history of him in the middle 1990s, he spoke in support of “Thomas Jefferson’s opposition to the establishment of a wealthy aristocracy.”  That “Jeffersonian” sentiment was part of why I received more money in the will of my widowed working class aunt Liz Munson (Luhtala) than I did (as the only child son of a deceased only child son) from my paternal grandfather. That and the Protestant moralism that compelled William Paul Street to leave most of his inheritance to the Salvation Army and the Lutheran Church.

Vietnam and the Moral and Economic Absurdity of Cold War Liberalism
William Paul Street’s Achilles Heel was the same as Lyndon Johnson’s and as that of countless other Cold War liberals and even a contingent of U.S. Cold War socialists.   It was the American Empire.  Looking back on his life when I interviewed him in the 1990s, he bemoaned two terrible facts.  First, he’d been “too young to fight in World War I.” Second, unlike his younger brother Harold, who went on to become an FBI agent and then a wealthy lawyer and Republican in Michigan, he’d been “too old for WWII.” In fact, at age 35 in 1942, he was not technically too old.  As the father of a child with significant health problems (my father was afflicted with a rare blood disease), however, his enlistment was discouraged.

Still, reflecting perhaps a certain of guilt about his military non-“service,” Dr. William Paul Street aligned his loyalties strongly with the US military across the long Cold War era.   It would never have his crossed my mind that U.S. foreign policy during or after each of the last century’s World Wars might have been motivated by anything but the most noble, democratic and benevolent of aims.

(My guess is that the same could be said of my maternal grandfather, Ursa Freed.  Ursa was a noted architect in Aberdeen, South Dakota.  [He once helped design new construction at the notorious Sioux Indian reservations at Pine Ridge.] Grandpa Freed (who died before I was born) really was too old – and [by my mother’s recollection] too alcoholic – for fighting in WWII.  His son Connie was in the U.S. Army even before Pearl Harbor, however.  After the Japanese attack, Ursa told Connie in a letter that he “envied” his son’s coming participation in the next Great War.  The following June, Ursa received a short government telegram informing him that Connie was missing in action. Connie never saw more than brief and fatal moment of military action. He was almost immediately killed by French fascist forces off the coast of North Africa.)

I learned from my mother that my father (David Street, who became a left-liberal sociologist at the University of Chicago in 1963) and his father “did not speak for two years” in the late 1960s “because of Vietnam” – that is, because of my grandfather’s firm commitment to the mass-murderous US war on Southeast Asia.  “We made a promise to the government of South Vietnam,” my grandfather would tell my father (by my mother’s recollection), “and it would be wrong to renege.”  The “Vietnam War” – a curious name for a one-sided assault on a poor peasant nation by the most powerful military-industrial state in world history – was necessary, William Paul Street believed, to defend “freedom” against Soviet-directed “communism.”

As I discovered going through my paternal grandfather’s files after he died, he was no mild or passive supporter of Kennedy, McNamara, Johnson, and Nixon’s assault on Southeast Asia.  William Paul Street was an avid public War Hawk. He was a faculty spokesman for Johnson’s criminal Vietnam policy in public debates held with antiwar SDS activists on the University of Kentucky (UK) campus.  No administrators at UK were going to accuse him of Communist leanings!

There were two huge problems with his pro-war position.  The first one was that the policy he supported was a massively immoral imperialist onslaught.  Washington’s “crucifixion of Southeast Asia” (as the early Vietnam War critic Noam Chomsky aptly described it that time) killed from 3 to 5 million Vietnamese, Laotians, and Cambodians between 1962 and 1975, turning Vietnam into a devastated land so that Washington could send an ugly message to the Third World: don’t defy Uncle Sam by trying follow a path of national independence and social equality.  The “war” (the one-sided US-imperial attack) also needlessly slaughtered 57,000 mostly young American men – one of whom might have been my grandfather’s brilliant nephew Bill Street (Harold Street’s son, who would go on to become a heroic Civil Rights and poor peoples’ attorney in Saginaw, Michigan) if Bill (who died suddenly last year) had not been able to parlay his years in the University of Michigan Marching Band into a hitch with the US Army Band after he was drafted. (Bill returned to Michigan as an antiwar activist) During the time when my father and his father were not speaking, a preached named Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke against the war at New York City’s Riverside Church. The Vietnamese, King said,

“must see Americans as strange liberators…the people read our leaflets and receive regular promises of peace and democracy – and land reform. Now they languish under our bombs….as we he herd them off the land of their fathers into concentration camps. They know they must move or be destroyed by bombs. They watch as we poison their water, as we kill a million acres of their crops [with chemical weapons]. They must weep as the bulldozers roar through their areas preparing to destroy the precious trees. They wander into the hospitals, with at least twenty casualties from American firepower for one ‘Vietcong’-inflicted injury. So far we may have killed a million of them – mostly children… What do the peasant think as we ally ourselves with the landlords and as we refuse to put any action into our many words concerning land reform? What do they think as we test out our latest weapons on them, just as the Germans tested out new medicines and new tortures in the concentration camps of Europe? We have destroyed their tow most cherished institutions: the family and the village.  We have destroyed their land and their crops.”

The second big problem with my grandfather’s support for the U.S. war on Vietnam and for the U.S. Empire more broadly was the nation’s giant expenditure of taxpayer dollars on the Indochinese crime and on the US war machine as a whole strangled his cherished liberal War on Poverty in its cradle. It stole federal money that would have been required to fund a serious federal effort to undo poverty in the nation.  As King noted in his Riverside pulpit:

“There is…a very obvious and almost facile connection between the war in Vietnam and the struggle I, and others, have been waging [against poverty and racism] in America. A few years ago, there was a shining moment in that struggle. It seemed as if there was a real promise of hope for the poor – both black and white – through the poverty program. There were experiments, hopes, new beginnings. Then came the buildup in Vietnam and I watched the program broken and eviscerated as if it were some idle plaything of a society gone mad on war, and I knew America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic destructive suction tube. So I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor and to attack it as such.”

Budgetary matters and the particulars of Vietnam aside, King added that “a nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”

Social Keynesianism v. Military Keynesianism
This pre-emption of social welfare by warfare, it is important to realize, was very much a central point behind the giant U.S. military budget that Washington kept going after the “Good War” that killed my uncle on his first day in combat.  The (state-) capitalist function of the nation’s giant post-WWII war and empire budget went far beyond lining the pockets of “defense” contractors. Massive spending on empire, war and the preparation for war provides a useful way for government to stimulate demand and sustain the corporate political economy without fueling threats to business class power and the unequal distribution of wealth. Business Week explained in February 1949 the economic elite’s preference for guns over butter when it comes to government stimulus. It observed that:

“there’s a tremendous social and economic difference between welfare pump-priming and military pump-priming….Military spending doesn’t really alter the structure of the economy.  It goes through the regular channels.  As far as a businessman is concerned, a munitions order from the government is much like an order from a private customer.  But the kind of welfare and public works spending that [liberals and leftists favor]…does alter the economy.  It makes new channels of its own.  It creates new institutions.  It redistributes wealth….It changes the whole economic pattern.”

As Noam Chomsky noted in the early 1990s, elaborating on Business Week’s post-WWII reflections in explaining why there would be no “peace dividend” ( no major shift of resources from military to social spending) in the U.S. ever after the demise of the Soviet bloc, the Cold War enemy:

“Business leaders recognized that social spending could stimulate the economy, but much preferred the military Keynesian alternative – for reasons having to do with privilege and power, not ‘economic rationality.’….The Pentagon system[‘s]….form of industrial policy does not have the undesirable side-effects of social spending directed at human needs.  Apart from unwelcome redistributive effects, the latter policies tend to interfere with managerial prerogatives; useful production may undercut private gain, while state-subsidized waste production (arms, Man-on-the-Moon extravaganzas, etc.) is a gift to the owner and managers, to whom any marketable spin-offs will be promptly delivered.  Social spending may also arouse public interest and participation, thus enhancing the threat of democracy; the public cares about hospitals, roads, neighborhoods, but has no opinions about the choice of missile and high-tech fighter planes.”

It was with these sorts of considerations in mind, perhaps, that former and future General Electric President and serving War Production Board executive Charles Edward Wilson warned in 1944 about what later became known as “the Vietnam syndrome” – the reluctance of ordinary citizens to support the open-ended commitment of American troops and resources to military conflict abroad.   “The revulsion against war not too long hence,” Wilson cautioned fellow U.S. industrialists and policymakers in an internal memo, “will be an almost insuperable obstacle for us to overcome.  For that reason, I am convinced that we must now begin to set the machinery in motion for a permanent war economy.” (Quoted in Joel Bleifuss, “INSHORT…Leader of the PAC,” In These Times, December 16-23, 1986, p. 4)

The Freedom Budget (1966) At War With Itself [1]
My grandfather was hardly alone among liberal and progressive Americans in his idiotic failure to confront the at once moral and practical contradiction between the social Keynesian welfare state he (sincerely) supported and the military-Keynesian warfare state and the Vietnam War he also embraced during the middle 1960s.  In the fall of 1966, the civil rights and social justice champions Martin Luther King, Jr., A Phillip Randolph, and Bayard Rustin—and more than 200 prominent academics, religious leaders, trade unionists, and civil rights figures—put forth an ambitious Freedom Budget for All Americans. Their people’s budget built on Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s calls (in 1941) for “freedom from want” (the third of Roosevelt’s “four freedoms”) and (in 1944) for an “Economic Bill of Rights,” including the rights to “a useful and remunerative job,” to “earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation,” to “decent homes,” to “a good education” and to “protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accidents, and unemployment.” It was designed to abolish poverty and provide a decent living within ten years by:

  • Providing full employment for all who are willing and able to work
  • Assuring decent and adequate wages to all who work
  • Providing adequate income to all unable to work
  • Guaranteeing modern health services and adequate education for all
  • Guaranteeing decent homes for every family
  • “Purify[ing] our air and water and develop[ing] our transportation and natural resources on a scale suitable to our growing needs”
  • “Unit[ing] sustained full employment with sustained full production and high economic growth”
  • Updating social security and welfare programs to provide full economic security against old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment

If the Freedom Budget had been successfully adopted and implemented in its time, “a majority of voters would not have responded positively to candidate Ronald Reagan’s challenge to Democratic incumbent Jimmy Carter where the conservative hopeful asked the American people…. Are you better off than you were four years ago?” My grandfather’s nemesis and contemporary Ronald Reagan would not have ascended to the White House. As the socialist scholars Paul LeBlanc and Michael Yates argue in their important book, A Freedom Budget for All Americans: Recapturing the Promise of the Civil Rights Movement in the Struggle for Economic Justice Today (Monthly Review, 2013):

“The history of the United States and the world would have been qualitatively different from the way things have turned out from the 1980s until now….poverty in the United States would have been abolished. Everyone who wanted a job would have had a job… The very young, the elderly, and everyone in-between would enjoy greater care, greater security, greater dignity…. There would be universal health care as a matter of right…quality education…available to all as a matter of right, without students amassing exorbitant debt in the process…decent housing for all…no slums. Our social and economic infrastructure…would have been improved…environmental and ecological concerns would have been incorporated into the re-building of our economy and society…Crime would have diminished….Institutional racism would be gone.”

The Freedom Budget was defeated and pushed to the margins of historical memory. Mention it to most Americans and expect blank stares.  One main culprit behind its rapid trip down Orwell’s memory hole was of course my grandfather’s supposedly noble “Vietnam War,” which diverted massive federal resources and national energy away from potential use in a federal campaign against poverty.  A second culprit was the war-accommodating position of many of the Freedom Budget’s key champions, including Rustin, Randolph, Tom Kahn, and Michael Harrington. Unlike my grandfather, these and other leading “democratic socialists” of the time had no special love for Lyndon Johnson’s criminal escalation in Vietnam. Rustin, Randolph, and Harrington felt that the war was immoral and disgraceful. Still, they found it pragmatically necessary to stand back from the furious criticism and protest of the war undertaken by the 1960s New Left.  As LeBlanc told the academic journal Inside Higher Ed two summers ago, they “concluded that the Democratic Party was the pathway to political relevance” and “identified the working class and organized labor movement with the person of the relatively bureaucratic and conservative AFL-CIO President George Meany. And they went along with (or at least didn’t organize opposition to) the Vietnam War, which was promoted by the Democratic Party leadership and fully supported by Meany. …Most Democrats saw the Freedom Budget as too radical, especially given the spending priorities associated with the Vietnam War.”

This key “pragmatic” Randolph-Harrington-Rustin calculation was reflected in the language of the Freedom Budget document.  The authors announced that their proposals could be implemented with “No skimping on national defense” (!) In his introduction to the Freedom Budget, Randolph argued that Vietnam and the Pentagon budget should not be seen as in conflict with anti-poverty spending. “The Freedom Budget, Randolph wrote, “is not predicated on cutbacks in national defense nor on one or another position regarding the Vietnam conflict, which is basically a thorny question to be viewed on its own terms.”  In a Q&A section attached to the document’s summary, the authors argued that their program required no slashing of the Pentagon budget – or even any reduction in the annual increases of that so-called defense budget:

“Q. Does the ‘Freedom Budget’ Assume That National Defense Expenditures Would Not Rise? A. No. For national defense, space technology and all international outlays, the federal budget in 1967 was $64.6 billion.  The ‘Freedom Budget’ assumes this figure would rise to $87.5 billion in 1975. In making this estimate, the Freedom Budget neither endorses nor condemns present military sending policies. It relies on the judgement of informed experts.  Obviously, if the international situation improves and a reduction in military spending is in order, so much more money will be available for social needs.”

No wonder the radical MIT economist Seymour Melman denounced The Freedom Budget as “a war budget.”

Dr. King, an original Freedom Budget champion, would break with its reluctance to take on the Pentagon system. By the spring of 1967, he openly and eloquently linked opposition to the Vietnam atrocity to the struggle for economic justice because of moral opposition to the nation’s criminal, mass-murderous assault on Southeast Asia and from an understanding that a serious federal war on poverty was economically impossible as long as the nation’ privileged hateful spending on the guns and bombs of war over loving investment in the meeting of human and social needs.

The Sanders Silence
Nearly half a century King’s assassination or execution – an operation conducted exactly one year to the day after he spoke out against the Vietnam War in New York City’s Riverside Church – King’s warnings seems hauntingly germane. Forty-seven years after King’s death and despite the disappearance of any credible military rival to the US with the end of the Cold War, the Pentagon budget today accounts for more than half of US federal discretionary spending (symptomatic of “a society gone mad on war”). The US generates nearly half of all military spending on the planet. This giant war and empire (“defense”) expenditure ($1.2-1.4 trillion or more each year) maintains (among other things) more than 1000 US military installations spread across more than 100 “sovereign” nations.

“Financially,” the U.S. peace and justice activist David Swanson writes, “war is what the U.S. government does. Everything else is a side show.” Military outlays on the current U.S. scale carry enormous social, human, and environmental, opportunity costs. They cancel out spending to address massively unmet social, human, and environmental needs.  The trade-offs are disturbing. As Swanson observed last December:

“The cost of one weapons system that doesn’t work could provide every homeless person with a large house. A tiny fraction of military spending could end starvation at home and abroad. The Great Student Loan Struggle takes place in the shadow of military spending unseen in countries that simply make college free, countries that don’t tax more than the United States, countries that just don’t do wars the way the U.S. does. You can find lots of other little differences between those countries and the U.S. but none of them on the unfathomable scale of military spending or even remotely close to it”(emphasis added).

If King’s call for funding human needs over warfare finds contemporary echoes in the writing and speeches of peace and justice activists like Swanson today, the cowardice and myopia of Harrington, Randolph, and Rustin (and the different but overlapping cowardice of my Cold War liberal grandfather) lives on in the presidential candidacy of the “democratic socialist” Bernie Sanders.  Like the aforementioned “democratic socialists” of the 1960s, Sanders has decided that the corporate and imperial Democratic Party is the only “pathway to political relevance” (Sanders has sacrificed his prior technically “independent” status to run in the Democratic presidential caucus and primary contest) and has refused to call either for an end to the United States’ leading imperialist campaigns of the day (in the Middle East, Ukraine, and East Asia) or for any steep reductions in the oversized U.S. military budget.  This grand moral and political-economic failure mocks his claim to embrace Scandinavian “socialism,” practiced by countries with comparatively tiny military budgets.

Sanders v. Rustin, Harrington, Randolph – and King
There are three policy and political areas in which Sanders might be thought to deserve higher marks than The Freedom Budget. First, Sanders is calling for significant enhanced progressive taxation of the U.S. rich leading to a downward distribution of wealth and income. This is something the Freedom Budget’s failed to do. They argued instead that poverty could be ended simply by accelerating the expansion of the U.S. economy, yielding a wonderful “growth dividend” for anti-poverty expenditures – something its authors anticipated would result from the increase of effective consumer demand by rising government antipoverty expenditures.

Second, Sanders is not standing down from his longstanding identification of himself as a “democratic socialist” (whatever precisely he means by that term).  He calls again and again for Americans to undertake “a political revolution.” By contrast, the Freedom Budget, while originally developed by people who considered themselves democratic socialists, went out of its way to avoid any identification with socialism or any kind of radical change.  The documents authors were very explicit in this regard: “The ‘Freedom Budget’ does not contemplate that this ‘growth dividend’ be achieved by revolutionary nor even drastic changes in the division of responsibility between private enterprise and government under our free institutions.”

That was a pathetically over-conciliatory statement in a time when America’s “free enterprise system” generated giant economic disparities and crushing poverty for millions upon millions of Michael Harrington’s “other Americans. Across the whole postwar period, Howard Zinn noted in his forgotten classic study Postwar America: 1945-1971, the bottom tenth of the U.S. population – 20 million poor Americans – experienced no increase whatsoever in the share of the national income (a paltry one percent). Corporate profits and CEO salaries rose significantly across the 60s boom as steep U.S. poverty remained firmly entrenched in “the world’s richest nation.” As Zinn elaborated on middle and late 1960s America:

“Being rich or poor was more than a statistic; it profoundly determined how an American lived. In the postwar United States, how much money Americans had determined whether or not they lived in a home with rats or vermin…whether or not they could get adequate medical and dental care; whether or not they got arrested, and, if they did, whether or not they spent time in jail before trial, whether they got a fair trial, a long or a short sentence…whether or not their children would be born alive. It determined whether or not Americans had a vacation; whether they needed to hold down more than one job; whether or not they had enough to eat; whether or not they could influence a congressman or run for office; whether or not a man was drafted, and what chances a man had that he would die in combat.”

As the nation spent billions to put astronauts on the moon, millions of 1960s Americans remained ill-clad, ill-fed, and ill-housed. The median U.S. family income in 1968 was US $8,362, less than what the Bureau of Labor Statistics defined as a “modest but adequate” income for an urban family of four. The Bureau found that 30 percent of the nation’s working class families were living in poverty and another 30 percent were living under highly “austere” conditions. “Affluence,” historian Judith Stein notes, “was as much as an ideology as a description of U.S. society” in the 1960s.

Third, Sanders is campaigning fairly hard on environmental issues, specifically (good for him) on climate change, arguably the single gravest threat to a decent future at present.  While the Freedom Budget made reference to environmental concerns, ecology was a secondary concern for its authors. And much worse, the Freedom Budget’s Keynesian commitment to economic growth (as opposed to the downward redistribution of wealth, income, and power) as the solution to poverty aligned it firmly western capitalism’s longstanding assault on livable ecology.  As Le Monde’s ecological editor Herve Kempf noted in his aptly titled book How the Rich Are Destroying the Earth (2007), “the oligarchy” sees the pursuit of material growth as “the solution to the social crisis,” the “sole means of fighting poverty and unemployment,” and the “only means of getting societies to accept extreme inequalities without questioning them. . . . Growth,” Kempf explained, “would allow the overall level of wealth to arise and consequently improve the lot of the poor without—and this part is never spelled out [by the economic elite]—any need to modify the distribution of wealth.” Growth, the liberal economist Henry Wallich explained (approvingly) in 1972, “is a substitute for equality of income. So long as there is growth there is hope, and that makes large income differentials tolerable.”

Still, Sanders doesn’t deserves all that much credit for being more progressive than the 1966 Freedom Budget on these three scores.  Reflecting the significant upward distribution of wealth and income that has occurred since the onset of the neoliberal era in the 1970s, any and all serious progressives, not to mention democratic socialists, advocate progressive taxation in the U.S. today.  How could they not in a time when (as Sanders likes to note on the campaign trail) the top 1 percent owns more wealth than the bottom 90 percent of the nation (thanks in part to regressive measures passed since the 1960s)?

At the same time, climate change had not emerged as a leading existential and ecological issue in the middle 1960s.  If you took Randolph, Harrington, and Rustin and dropped them in the current era, it is very likely that they would be calling for a Green New Deal to put millions to work on wind, water, and solar power and green infrastructure in general.

As for being willing to be identified publicly as a democratic socialist, that’s much easier today – after the end of the Cold War and four plus decades of crisis-prone neoliberal capitalist misery and upward wealth distribution consistent with the long-term essence of capitalism.  At the same time, Sanders does not explicitly attack the profits system as such, preferring to direct his populist ire at greedy billionaires like the Koch brothers and the dastardly Republican Party.  One does not hear (Eugene) Debsian denunciations of American or global capitalism fall from the lips of Bernie Sanders as he barnstorms and blusters – largely against the Koch brothers and the Republican Party – across Iowa and New Hampshire.

Meanwhile there is Sanders’ damning silence on the Pentagon System, shared with my publicly pro Vietnam War liberal grandfather and the more privately anti-Vietnam War socialist leaders of the Freedom Budget.  As Swanson has noted about Sanders’ 12-point policy platform, which includes calls for major investments in infrastructure and related efforts to reverse climate change:

“All wonderful stuff. Some of it quite courageous outside-the-acceptable stuff. But what do you spend on reversing climate change? And do you also keep spending on the single biggest contributor to climate change, namely the military? What do you invest in infrastructure? It’s not as though Sanders doesn’t know about the trade-offs…he blames ‘the Bush-Cheney war in Iraq’ for costing $3 trillion. He says he wants infrastructure instead of wars. But routine ‘base’ military spending is $1.3 trillion or so each and every year. It’s been far more in recent years than all the recent wars, and it generates the wars as Eisenhower warned it would. It also erodes the economy, as the studies of U-Mass Amherst document. The same dollars moved to infrastructure would produce many more jobs and better paying ones. Why not propose moving some money? Why not include it in the list of proposals?”

No doubt many of Sanders’ supporters will claim that it is political suicide, “pragmatically” speaking, for Sanders to take on the giant military-industrial complex that “Bernie really doesn’t like.”  But it is highly questionable whether he really does in fact dislike the Pentagon system given his long record of supporting numerous U.S. military actions. Swanson understandably observes that Sanders is at least “partly a true believer in militarism” who “wants good wars instead of bad wars (whatever that means).” And it is both moral and practical political-economic anti-poverty suicide not to call for a massive re-direction of U.S. taxpayer resources away from the spiritual death of endless global war to the meeting of human and social needs at home and abroad.

There’s another point: if you can’t make a viable run for the U.S. presidency while opposing the Pentagon system, then why should a serious “democratic socialist” make a serious bid for the U.S. presidency at all? It would be far better, both morally and practically, to focus instead on building a mass grassroots popular movement against the interrelated evils of capitalism, corporate-financial plutocracy, militarism, ecocide, racism, and sexism.  That’s the path that was taken by Dr. King, who very politely but firmly declined when progressive electoralists tried to entice him to run for the U.S. presidency. It’s also the path that has done the most to win progressive victories in U.S. history.  As the great radical American historian Zinn told Socialist Worker in early 2001, “There’s hardly anything more important that people can learn than the fact that the really critical thing isn’t who is sitting in the White House, but who is sitting in–in the streets, in the cafeterias, in the halls of government, in the factories. Who is protesting, who is occupying offices and demonstrating – those are the things that determine what happens.”

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

Endnote
1. The subsection relies heavily and throughout on Paul LeBlanc and Michael Yates, A Freedom Budget for All Americans: Recapturing the Promise of the Civil Rights Movement in the Struggle for Economic Justice Today (Monthly Review, 2013).

“Progressive” Obama: He’s Melting, He’s Melting – TPP Wipes Away the Last Shreds of Illusion

21/06/15 0 COMMENTS

Counterpunch, June 19-21, 2015

Priceless

Beneath progressive pretentions, Barack Obama the national political phenomenon has never been anything other than a tool of the United States’ corporate and financial ruling class. Obama rose to power in Washington with remarkable, record-setting financial backing from Wall Street and K Street election investors. Those elites are not in the business or promoting or tolerating politicians who seek to challenge the nation’s dominant domestic and imperial hierarchies and doctrines. “It’s not always clear what Obama’s financial backers want,” the progressive journalist Ken Silverstein noted in a Harpers’ Magazine report titled “Obama, Inc.” in the fall of 2006, “but it seems safe to conclude that his campaign contributors are not interested merely in clean government and political reform…On condition of anonymity,” Silverstein added, “one Washington lobbyist I spoke with was willing to point out the obvious: that big donors would not be helping out Obama if they didn’t see him as a ‘player.’ The lobbyist added: ‘What’s the dollar value of a starry-eyed idealist?’”

And answer to the lobbyist’s question came less the three years later: priceless. In his book Confidence Men: Wall Street, Washington, and the Education of a President (2011), the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Ron Suskind tells a remarkable story from March of 2009. Three months into Obama’s presidency, popular rage at Wall Street was intense and the leading financial institutions were weak and on the defensive. The nation’s financial elite had driven the nation and world’s economy into an epic meltdown in the period since Silverstein’s essay was published – and millions knew it. Having ridden into office partly on a wave of popular anger at the economic power elite’s staggering malfeasance, Obama called a meeting of the nation’s top thirteen financial executives at the White House. The banking titans came into the meeting full of dread only to leave pleased to learn that the new president was in their camp. For instead of standing up for those who had been harmed most by the crisis – workers, minorities, and the poor – Obama sided unequivocally with those who had caused the meltdown.

“My administration is the only thing between you and the pitchforks,” Obama said. “You guys have an acute public relations problem that’s turning into a political problem. And I want to help…I’m not here to go after you. I’m protecting you…I’m going to shield you from congressional and public anger.” For the banking elite, who had destroyed untold millions of jobs, there was, as Suskind puts it, “Nothing to worry about. Whereas [President Franklin Delano] Roosevelt had [during the Great Depression] pushed for tough, viciously opposed reforms of Wall Street and famously said ‘I welcome their hate,’ Obama was saying ‘How can I help?’” As one leading banker told Suskind, “The sense of everyone after the meeting was relief. The president had us at a moment of real vulnerability. At that point, he could have ordered us to do just about anything and we would have rolled over. But he didn’t – he mostly wanted to help us out, to quell the mob.”

The massive taxpayer bailout of the super fat cats would continue, along with numerous other forms of corporate welfare for the super-rich, powerful, and parasitic. This state-capitalist largesse was unaccompanied by any serious effort to regulate their conduct or by any remotely comparable bailout for the millions evicted from their homes and jobs by the not-so invisible hand of the marketplace. No wonder 95 percent of national U.S. income gains went to the top 1% during Obama’s first term.

A Tutorial on Power

It was a critical moment. With Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress and an angry, “pitchfork”-wielding populace at the gates, an actually progressive President Obama could have rallied the populace to push back against the nation’s concentrated wealth and power structures by moving ahead aggressively with a number of policies: a stimulus with major public works jobs programs; a real (single-payer) health insurance reform; the serious disciplining and even break-up or nationalization of the leading financial institutions; massive federal housing assistance and mortgage relief; and passage of the Employee Free Choice Act, which would have re-legalized union organizing in the U.S. But no such policy initiatives issued from the White House, which opted instead to give the U.S. populace what William Greider memorably called “a blunt lesson about power, who has it and who doesn’t.” Americans “watched Washington rush to rescue the very financial interests that caused the catastrophe. They learned that government has plenty of money to spend when the right people want it. ‘Where’s my bailout,’ became the rueful punch line at lunch counters and construction sites nationwide. 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.”

Americans also watched as Obama moved on to pass a health insurance reform (the so-called Affordable Care Act) that only the big insurance and drug companies could love, kicking the popular alternative (single payer “Medicare for All”) to the curb while rushing to pass a program drafted by the Republican Heritage Foundation and first carried out in Massachusetts by the arch 1 percenter Mitt Romney. As Obama later explained to some of his rich friends at an event called The Wall Street Journal CEO Council a month after trouncing Romney’s bid to unseat him: “When you go to other countries, the political divisions are so much more stark and wider. Here in America, the difference between Democrats and Republicans–we’re fighting inside the 40-yard lines…People call me a socialist sometimes. But no, you’ve got to meet real socialists. (Laughter.) You’ll have a sense of what a socialist is. (Laughter.) I’m talking about lowering the corporate tax rate. My health care reform is based on the private marketplace.” He might have added that his “health care reform” was dreamed up by Republicans, consistent with some of his elite supporters’ likening of the Obama White House to the presidency of Dwight Eisenhower.

A year and a half before this tender ruling class moment, the American people watched Obama offer the Republicans bigger cuts in Social Security and Medicare than they asked for as part of his “Grand Bargain” offered during the elite-manufactured debt-ceiling crisis. It was at that point that hundreds of thousands of mostly younger Americans had received enough of Obama’s “blunt lesson about power” to join the Occupy Wall Street Movement, which sought progressive change through direct action and social movement-building rather than corporate-captive electoral politics. (We will never know how far Occupy might have gone since it was shut down by a federally coordinated campaign of repression that joined the Obama administration and hundreds of mostly Democratic city governments in the infiltration, surveillance, smearing, takedown and eviction of the short lived movement – this even as the Democrats stole some of Occupy’s rhetoric for use against Romney and the Republicans in 2012.)

We Were Warned

Liberal intellectuals who have claimed to be “surprised” and “disappointed” by Obama’s corporatist record have either been disingenuous pretenders or bamboozled fools. Obama’s allegiance to the American business elite was evident from the get go. It was well understood by the K Street insiders that Silverstein interviewed in the fall of 2006. It was grasped by the liberal journalist and New Yorker writer Larissa MacFarquhar in the spring of 2007. “In his view of history, in his respect for tradition, in his skepticism that the world can be changed any way but very, very slowly,” MacFarquhar wrote after extensive interviews with candidate Obama in May of 2007, “Obama is deeply conservative. There are moments when he sounds almost Burkean…It’s not just that he thinks revolutions are unlikely: he values continuity and stability for their own sake, sometimes even more than he values change for the good.”

MacFarquhar cited as an example of this reactionary sentiment Obama’s reluctance to embrace single-payer health insurance on the Canadian model, which he told her would “so disruptive that people feel like suddenly what they’ve known for most of their lives is thrown by the wayside.” Obama told MacFarquhar that “we’ve got all these legacy systems in place, and managing the paulstreettransition, as well as adjusting the culture to a different system, would be difficult to pull off. So we may need a system that’s not so disruptive that people feel like suddenly what they’ve known for most of their lives is thrown by the wayside.” So what if large popular majorities in the U.S. had long favored the single-payer model? So what if single payer would let people keep the doctors of their choice, only throwing away the protection pay off to the private insurance mafia? So what if “the legacy systems” Obama defended included corporate insurance and pharmaceutical oligopolies that regularly threw millions of American lives by the wayside of market calculation, causing enormous disruptive harm and death for the populace?

This was the slick and slimy, unnamed Obama – granted undue progressive credibility thanks in part to the simple color of his skin – that the Black political scientist Adolph Reed, Jr. warned people about in The Village Voice at the beginning of the future president’s political career (in the Illinois state senate) in January of 1996:

“In Chicago, for instance, we’ve gotten a foretaste of the new breed of foundation-hatched black communitarian voices; one of them, a smooth Harvard lawyer with impeccable do-good credentials and vacuous-to-repressive neoliberal politics, has won a state senate seat on a base mainly in the liberal foundation and development worlds. His fundamentally bootstrap line was softened by a patina of the rhetoric of authentic community, talk about meeting in kitchens, small-scale solutions to social problems, and the predictable elevation of process over program — the point where identity politics converges with old-fashioned middle-class reform in favoring form over substance. I suspect that his ilk is the wave of the future in U.S. black politics, as in Haiti and wherever else the International Monetary Fund has sway.”

Things Democratic Presidential Candidates Have to Say

It is true that Illinois state senator Obama publicly embraced single-payer health care insurance speaking before the Illinois AFL-CIO in late June of 2003. But he didn’t really mean it. It was just fake-progressive rhetoric related to his upcoming campaign for an open U.S. senate seat in Illinois, pronounced before he realized that he had a serious near-term shot at the U.S. presidency (something that became clear only in the summer of 2004) – an ambition that required the jettisoning of such policy commitments in pursuit of Wall Street backing.

Five years later, candidate Obama’s top economic advisor, the neoliberal University of Chicago economist Austan Goolsbee, told Canada’s ambassador to the U.S. to disregard Obama’s populace-pleasing criticisms of the corporatist North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).  The criticisms were just campaign oratory geared toward winning working class votes in the Midwest Rustbelt, Goolsbee told the Canadian diplomat. As Goolsbee explained, Obama was just saying the populist-sounding stuff Democratic presidential candidate have to declare in order to get nominated and elected. His anti-NAFTA language it was not to be taken seriously as a threat to the corporate globalization agenda that U.S. and Canadian elites – and Barack Obama – shared.

“To Change the World”

Which brings us to Barack Obama’s ongoing campaign to win Congressional approval for the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) – a classically neoliberal so-called free trade agreement that has been under secret construction by multinational corporate lawyers and corporatist government officials for at least a decade. The measure has taken on what New York Times White House correspondent Peter Baker calls “special meaning for a president eager to change the world. It [is] a way to leave behind a positive legacy abroad, one that could be measured, [Obama] hope[s], by the number of lives improved rather than [as with his military actions in the Middle East] by the number of bodies left behind.”

The TPP would join the United States along with 11 other nations along the Pacific Rim, including Canada, Mexico, Japan, Vietnam, Malaysia and Australia in a “free-trade zone” covering nearly 40 percent of the world’s economy. The first Black “Eisenhower Republican” President is allied with Congressional Republicans and big business groups in claiming that the TPP will open up foreign markets to American goods and “level the playing field by forcing Asian competitors to improve labor and environmental standards.”

Labor unions, environmental groups, food safety activists, civil libertarians, civil rights groups, and a good number of Congressional Democrats know that’s all manipulative business propaganda. The measure isn’t really about trade or improved standards, they are quite aware. As the liberal economist Paul Krugman has noted, whatever benefits may nor may not befall the U.S. economy from “free trade” between the TPP’s projected signatory nations have “already been realized.” The real thrust and significance of the TPP is about strengthening corporations’ ability to protect and extend their intellectual property rights (drug patents, movie rights, and the like) and to guarantee that they will be compensated by governments for any profits they might lose from having to meet decent public labor and environmental (and other) standards, something certain to discourage the enactment and enforce of such standards. The progressive economist Dean Baker explained things well last December:

“TPP and [the TransAtlantic Trade and Investment Pact – TTIP] are about getting special deals for businesses that they would have difficulty getting through the normal political process. For example, oil and gas companies that think they should be able to drill everywhere may be able to get rules that prevent national or state governments from restricting their activities. This could mean, for example, that New York State would have to compensate potential frackers for the ban that Governor Cuomo imposed last week…Similarly, the financial industry will be looking to roll back the sort of regulations put in place through Dodd-Frank and similar legislation in other countries. Again, if governments want to ensure that their financial system is safe, they may have to pay the banks for the privilege….The pharmaceutical industry and entertainment industries will get longer and stronger patent and copyright protection. And the food and pesticide industries will be able to able to limit the ability of governments to impose safety and environmental regulations.”

“Best of all, these trade deals will set up a new legal structure that goes outside existing system in the United States and elsewhere. All the businesses that didn’t think German or British courts could be trusted to give them a fair deal can turn to the investor-state dispute settlement tribunals established as part of these trade pacts. These tribunals will effectively make their own law. The trade deals allow no appeal back to U.S. courts or the courts of any other country that is included….In short, these trade deals are a real bonanza for business.”

No wonder Obama has done everything he can to keep the details of the TPP and TTIP under wraps. When you realize that the TPP would “affect the lives of millions of Americans, their jobs, their quality of life” (as Diana Johnstone recently noted on CounterPunch), the secrecy is astounding: U.S. Congress persons and some of their staff can see the TPP’s text only if they agree not to take notes or discuss the details in public!

It is also no wonder that Obama wants Congress to give him “fast-track authority” to force a yay or nay Congressional vote on the TPP, with no time for careful consideration and no chance for revisions. Under fast-track rules, there’s no chance for delays or alterations. The pact must be voted up or down in a very short time-frame. “The idea,” Baker noted, “is that with the bulk of the business community promising large campaign contributions to supporters and threatening to punish opponents, most members of Congress would find it difficult to vote no.”

A Rare Moment

Last Friday, the US House voted no on “fast-track” in an indirect way. It was a stunning rebuke and embarrassment for Obama, who lobbied hard for TPP along with corporate America. As the sage left-liberal commentator William Greider noted, “After 25 years of losing out to Wall Street and corporate interests, the party’s faithful constituency base managed to take down their Democratic president and his sweetheart deal with the big money. The left-liberal policy groups and grassroots activists agitating for change stood their ground against the power elites and, for once, they triumphed.” The Eisenhower Republican did not help his case with his characteristically arrogant and self-righteous approach to Congressional Democrats. “Lots of people in the [Democratic] party warned Obama that he was heading into a buzz saw with his Trans-Pacific Partnership,” Greider writes. “He ignored them. Even worse, he got a little nasty with those resisting his proposal—leading voices like Senator Elizabeth Warren. Surrounded by advisers from Citigroup and Goldman Sachs, he scolded labor…”

Peter DeFazio, an Oregon Democrat, was deeply insulted. “He’s ignored Congress and disrespected Congress for years,” DeFazio told reporters, “and then comes to the caucus and lectures us for 40 minutes about his values and whether or not we’re being honest by using legislative tactics to try and stop something which we believe is a horrible mistake for the United States of America, and questions our integrity. It wasn’t the greatest strategy.”

Obama and his big business and Congressional Republican allies are coming back for a second try. One thing you can count on: the campaign finance money spigot that flows from the corporate class to the nation’s not-so democratically elected officials is fixed in the “on” position. If anyone cares, a recent CBS-New York Times poll finds that “Americans [are] skeptical of [so-called] free trade.  Nearly two-thirds [63%] favored some form of trade restrictions, and more than half opposed giving the president [fast-track] authority to negotiate trade agreements that Congress could only vote up or down without amendments.”

Washington runs on corporate campaign cash, not public opinion, it is true. Still, this might be one of those rare moments when something approximating democracy prevails in the nation’s dollar-drenched government. As the incisive Georgetown University labor historian Joseph McCartin (himself a onetime Obama enthusiast) told The Guardian, “This is the first time Congress considered a trade deal since we as a country became much more cognizant of surging inequality and the crisis in middle-class jobs. The old playbook of the president being able to get the votes at the last minute doesn’t seem to apply anymore.”

The Icy Waters of Neoliberal Calculation

Whether the Eisenhower Republican in the White House – properly identified neatly two decades ago as a “vacuous to repressive neoliberal” (Reed) – and his corporate allies can still salvage a deal is anyone’s guess. Whatever occurs, I am afraid I must concur with the left economist Robert Urie last weekend on CounterPunch:

“As of the moment of this writing the certainty surrounding passage of ‘fast-track’ authority is waning. What has been unleashed by the push to pass the TPP is impetus toward completion of the capitalist/corporate coup begun in the 1970s. Investor State Dispute Settlement-like mechanisms [shadowy institutions that write global trade rules in accord with corporate interests] exist from past trade agreements and are already being used. Growing catastrophes for global labor and the environment will be at best incrementally inconvenienced by a political setback for ‘fast-track.’ And while ending ‘fast-track’ is a possibly necessary diversion, the capitalist coup and its institutional facts will remain the problem. The next President from either political party will push the same high-capitalist program and the most likely lesson learned from a defeat of ‘fast-track’ will be to better hide the grab for increased corporate power, not to reverse it.”

That’s the depressing reality of the world capitalist system. In the short-term, however, let us appreciate the final crumbling of the myth of a progressive Barack Obama phenomenon and presidency. The myth is perishing in the icy waters of neoliberal calculation – kind of like the Wicked Witch of the West who screamed “I’m Melting, I’m Melting” as Dorothy doused her with a bucket of water near the end of The Wizard of Oz. What a pathetic but predictable finish for Obama: a president elected in the name of progressive “hope” and “change” seeking to “leave behind a positive legacy” by pushing a noxiously authoritarian and eco-cidal “free trade” measure on behalf of the nation’s unelected dictatorship of money over and against public opinion and the common good.

The sooner Obama breaks the ribbon on his presidential library – to be suitably housed at the arch-neoliberal University of Chicago – the better. In the meantime, I would like just one former “Progressive for Obama” member to offer a formal apology for the abject foolishness they exhibited in support of this deeply conservative corporatist Democrat – and for the venom with which so many liberals attacked those of us on the actual Left [1] who tried to warn U.S. “progressives” and the world about the cold corporate and imperial reality of Obama, Inc. from the start.

Now, of course, the magic wand of fake-populist candidate deception has been passed on to the militant neoliberal corporatist Hillary Clinton. In November of 2012, as Secretary of State, she said that the TPP “sets the gold standard in trade agreements to open free, transparent, fair trade.” Currently, however, she is compelled by the dictates of the quadrennial campaign season to pretend to be skeptical about the authoritarian measure. No doubt, Leftists who protest when she moves forward on “the high capitalist program” as U.S. President will be absurdly denounced as sexists by many of her liberal defenders just as Obama’s Left critics have been falsely called racists by many of his liberal fans. Such are the sinister uses of identity politics for the globalist bourgeoisie. Plus ca change, plus c’est la mệme chose.

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

Endnote

1. Please see the sub-section titled “Insistent Left Warnings” on pages 176-177 in the sixth chapter (titled “We Were Warned”) of my 2010 book The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (Paradigm, 2014)

Race Violence, Gun Violence: Reflections on Obama’s Charleston Comments

20/06/15 0 COMMENTS

ZNet, June 20, 2015

One of the many rich and predictable (and predicted) ironies of the “post-racial” and neoliberal Barack Obama White House has been that the “first Black President” that many U.S. liberals and progressives proudly voted for in the name of racial progress has been remarkably reluctant to speak in honest and forthright ways on and against the depth, degree, and central relevance of anti-Black racism in American life. Obama’s special remarks to the press on the terrible fatal shooting of nine Black Americans at the storied Black Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina are a depressing case in point. Obama led in his remarks with the race-neutral gun-control issue. That’s where the main focus of his anger was by far.

“I’ve had to make statements like this too many times. Communities like this have had to endure tragedies like this too many times…We don’t have all the facts, but we do know that once again, innocent people were killed in part because someone who wanted to inflict harm had no trouble getting their hand on a gun…Now is the time for mourning and for healing. But let’s be clear. At some point, we as a country will have to reckon with the fact that this type of mass violence does not happen in other advanced countries. It doesn’t happen in other places with this kind of frequency….And it is in our power to do something about it. I say that recognizing the politics in this town foreclose a lot of those avenues right now. But it’d be wrong for us not to acknowledge it, and at some point, it’s going to important for the American to come to grips with it and for us to be able to shift how we think about the issue of gun violence collectively.”

The problem here is that the Charleston tragedy is first and foremost a racial – a racist – incident. It was an act of explicit racial hatred and terror carried out by a very specifically racist psychotic who wore patches of the flags of apartheid South Africa and white-ruled Rhodesia and who absurdly told the shooting’s sole survivor that Black people were “raping our women” and “taking over the country.” Yes, the gun madness in this country is insane. More than 30,000 people are killed with firearms each year in the U.S. It’s disgusting and the proto-fascistic right wing National Rifle Association bears no small part of the blame. But the nine gun-violence deaths in Charleston were above all else about racial hatred and terror. The demented white-supremacist Dylann Roof’s hideous crime is much more like the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing that killed four Black schoolgirls in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963 than it is like the Sandy Hook school-shootings or the Aurora, Colorado Batman movie shootings – or any other of those other numerous cases where young psychotic white men have gone on shooting rampages that mainly killed fellow Caucasians.

Does anyone doubt that Roof would have resorted to a bomb or to arson or to some other method of mass homicide to act on his venomous racial hatreds if he were denied access to firearms? And what exactly did Obama mean when he said that “Communities like this have had to endure tragedies like this too many times”? Did he really mean to fold Black Charleston in with white suburban Newtown, Connecticut and Aurora, Colorado as yet another terrible mass gun-violence tragedy? Has there been a previous one-time gun massacre of a large number of Black people (I do not mean the ongoing string of racist police shootings spread across each year) by a white racist during Obama’s time in the White House? (I am unaware of any such previous incidents)

Obama in his comments did make an historical reference to the 1963 Birmingham bombing and showed some elementary understanding of the Charleston killings’ racial character.

“The fact that this took place in a black church obviously also raises questions about a dark part of our history. This is not the first time that black churches have been attacked, and we know the hatred across races and faiths pose a particular threat to our democracy and our ideals…The good news is I am confident that the outpouring of unity and strength and fellowship and love across Charleston today, from all races, from all faiths, from all places of worship, indicates the degree to which those old vestiges of hatred can be overcome….That certainly was Dr. King’s hope just over 50 years ago after four little girls were killed in a bombing at a black church in Birmingham, Alabama.”

But this was incredibly pale tea, far too lacking in strength to remotely wake this country up from its deep sleep of racial denial. “A dark part of our history”? How about “a living and ongoing nightmare in our present”? Why not call this an act of domestic racial terrorism, rooted in a national culture white supremacism that encourages demented young white men to absurdly think that Blacks are “taking over America” and subordinating whites to “Black rule” in a time when Black median household wealth is less than a twentieth of white median household wealth, when more than a third of Black children live below the federal government’s notoriously inadequate poverty level, when the Black unemployment and poverty rates continue to double those of whites, when a third of young Black men are under the supervision of the criminal justice system, and when Blacks make up more than 40 percent of the nation’s globally unmatched 2.4 million prisoners?

Weak – and secondary.  Obama’s brief and cursory comments on race came after his longer and clearly angry and primary comments on the color-blind and more white-friendly issue of gun control. And that should not be surprising to anyone who has followed “post-racial” Obama’s white-pleasing oratory over the years.
Let’s be clear. At some point, we as a country will have to reckon with the depth, degree, and relevance of anti-Black white societal, institutional, and cultural racism in American life. Electing a “post-racial” Black U.S. President obviously isn’t going to fix the problem. Quite the opposite would seem to be the case, in fact.

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

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