Health Care Slavery and Overwork

25/08/15 0 COMMENTS

teleSur English, August 24, 2015

A recent volume by a leading left U.S. historian is titled “The Age of Acquiescence.”  Its author argues that U.S. workers and citizens have in the last four plus decades lost the will to resist organized wealth and power – a sad departure, he thinks, from their previous long history of mass mobilization against political, social, and economic privilege.

The book is brilliant, erudite, and deeply knowledgeable, particularly when it comes to the political economy and ideology of neoliberal capitalism and the shifting composition and nature of the U.S. power elite. Still, it is flawed by its exaggeration of contemporary popular surrender and – curiously enough and more to the point of this article – by its underestimation of forces that tend to generate fear and a sense of powerlessness amongst the populace.

One such force that receives no attention is the critical role the nation’s employment-based health insurance system plays in deepening the power of bosses over workers and closing off democratic space. It’s no small matter. It’s bad enough that working people have to calculate the risks of going without paychecks before daring to challenge their workplace masters to any significant degree. In the U.S., uniquely among so-called modern capitalist democracies, employees also have to factor in the chances of losing health coverage for themselves and their families along with their jobs. The common 19th century American understanding of the employer-employee relationship as a form of slavery (“wage slavery“) takes on new meaning in light of workers’ dependence on employers for affordable health care.

Employment-based health insurance is a widely ignored underpinning of business-class rule in the U.S. So is endemic overwork in the U.S., home to the longest working hours in the industrialized world. As the pioneers of the American labor movement knew quite well, meaningful popular democracy depends on time – on the possession by the populace of leisure time to study, understand, and communicate and organize on the issues of the day. Time is, among other things, a key democracy issue. Overworked citizens lack the leisure required to participate in politics in an adequately informed, organized, and effective manner. The much-bemoaned American “time squeeze” – a critical part of the nation’s stark “democracy deficit” – also does not receive attention in “The Age of Acquiescence.”

It happens to be intimately related back to the nation’s employment-based health insurance system.  Health care costs amount to a very sizeable portion of total employee “compensation” in the U.S. Of critical significance, these costs are paid per full-time worker employed, not per hour worked.  And this, as the left economist Juliet Schor pointed out 23 years ago in her brilliant study The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure in America, is a major underlying “structural incentive” pushing capitalist employers to get as much work from as few salaried workers as possible.

A different form of democracy-disabling overwork related to the United States’ private health insurance system is experienced by millions of low-wage, no-benefit U.S. workers who take second and third jobs to make ends meet. A major expense pushing them into overwork is the ever-escalating cost of private health insurance in a society that has failed to join with other industrialized “democracies” in de-commodifying health care- in providing universal coverage as a basic human right.

On the back of “The Age of Acquiescence,” another leading left historian (employed by the same elite history department as the book’s author) praises the volume for “helping the 99 percent understand the terms of their defeat and, more important, how they can once again go on the offensive.”  It’s a strange accolade.  Few among “the 99%” are going to read the book’s learned reflections on capitalist hegemony in the age of “disaccumulation” At the same time, consistent with its title, the volume says little if anything about how “we the people” might spark new mass movements against the nation’s unelected and interrelated dictatorships of money, class, empire, race, gender, and eco-cide.

Certainly, however, there is no mystery about what policies we need to overcome the two great authoritarian forces discussed here. The first and most obvious policy change would be to disconnect health insurance from employment by introducing universal government-provided health coverage under a single-payer system would democratize and de-commodify access to medical goods and services. Single-payer (“Improved Medicare for All”) would also significantly reduce the costs of health care, increase labor demand (and hence workers’ bargaining power), and create more of the leisure time working people require to be meaningfully engaged in their nation’s supposedly democratic political system.  It would help working people develop more courage and capacity to resist elite domination – courage and capacity that sorely needs enhancement in a time when the nation’s top 1% owns more wealth than the bottom 90% and a vastly oversized share of the nation’s “democratically elected” officials. Along with a significant upgrade in the U.S. minimum wage, the re-legalization of union organizing to bring back the labor movement (“the people that brought you the weekend,” to quote a clever bumper sticker), the enforcement of rules on overtime pay, giant federal jobs programs to build new environmentally sustainable infrastructure and create decent employment opportunities, and the expansion of other parts of the social safety net, single payer would contribute richly to the creation of a context in which ordinary Americans might “once again go on the offensive” against the privileged few.

It’s not for nothing that you can’t receive Food Stamps while engaged in a labor strike in the U.S. The business class used its influence to prohibit state assistance to striking workers long ago.  They know that working peoples’ marketplace and workplace bargaining power is enhanced by the existence of a strong welfare state, which reduces the hazards involved in challenging capitalist authority by providing working class people alternative sources of income and protection to those provisionally extended by capitalists. The business lobby has pushed through the dismantlement and de-legitimization of social welfare programs for decades in the U.S. because capitalists-as-employers want, in Frances Fox Piven’s words, “to make long hours of low-wage work the only available option for many.”

Many of the policies required for a revival and expansion of popular resistance in the U.S., including single-payer, are advocated by presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. No doubt that is  part of why his large rallies around the country have been treated by the nation’s reigning corporate media as a strange and passing curiosity undeserving of serious, sustained, and respectful attention. A critical 1% asset, the dominant news media naturally treats the Sanders phenomenon as a minor story compared to the spectacle of diversion and reaction provided by the blustering billionaire and uber-narcissist Donald Trump, a onetime fan of single-payer who boasts that his fortune lets him get whatever wants from the nation’s politicians an officeholders.

Politicians and electoral extravaganzas aside, people are in fact organizing and resisting concentrated wealth and power around these and other issues beneath and beyond quadrennial candidate-centered election spectacles. Given the remarkable obstacles to such activism – including the dismissive verdicts of elite (if sometimes leftish) academicians as well as the more relevant barriers of overwork and health care slavery – I am most impressed by the remarkable depth and degree of the resistance that does occur in the U.S. today.

What’s So Great About Running for President?

25/08/15 0 COMMENTS

Counterpunch, August 21, 2015

A Curious Defense of Presidential Politicking

I’ve been getting some of the same e-mails and other electronic messages from left Bernie Sanders supporters that I got from left Barack Obama supporters back in 2007 and 2008. The basic gist is that it is unfair for me to criticize their favorite Democratic Party presidential candidate from the “nihilistic and arch-radical Left” since that candidate is running, after all, for the White House as a major party contender. “You can’t really expect [Obama or Sanders] to step out against the American military Empire or against U.S. racism, deeply understood, or against capitalism, or against the bipartisan nature of the American plutocracy” (a much bigger target than the outsized wealth and power of Bernie’s “billionaire class”) the line goes, “when he’s making a serious effort for the Democratic nomination and the presidency of the United States. He could never win!”

I will leave aside the problematic nature of my correspondents’ assumption that their candidates actually want to be left opponents of U.S. capitalism, imperialism, and racism, deeply understood, in the first place. That supposition was particularly juvenile when applied to the fake-progressive, deeply conservative Obama but many of the nominally socialist Sanders’ left supporters also exude excessive faith in the portsided-ness of their hero.

With all due respect for the domestic policy and related electability differences between Sanders and the imperial Obama (there are few if any foreign policy differences to note), my answer to the left presidential-election devotees who contact me this year is largely the same as my response in 2007-08:  “You are correct,” I write. “A truly Left progressive opponent of U.S. imperialism, racism, and capitalism could not expect to be elected to the U.S. presidency. The ruling class and its media would never permit it. A presidential candidate who is serious about being major party-nominated and elected must stay within narrow parameters that validate the sanctity of the profits system, white privilege, and U.S. global empire. If by some very odd miracle a genuinely Left candidate succeeded in gaining the presidency, the rule would still hold. The nation’s unelected and interrelated dictatorships of money and empire set the terms for ‘viable’ presidencies as well for ‘viable’ presidential candidates.”

So far, so good. My formulation is darker than their own, but my correspondents and I are on the same page to no small degree: it’s about the System, which exerts severe, power-serving limits on presidential candidates and presidents. The critical divergence comes when I ask my critics what – given the institutionally and doctrinally-imposed limits on what a presidential candidate can advocate and achieve – is so great about a “progressive” (fake or real) running for president? The defense my progressive correspondents offer of their politician against
paulstreet“hard left” criticism – that their candidate can’t be all that Left thanks to the reigning dollar-drenched and corporate-mediated political system and the ruling imperial ethos – raises the question of why Leftists should get into U.S. presidential politics to any but the most secondary degree (like perhaps taking two minutes to vote against Jeb Bush or Scott Walker or Donald Trump and maybe even protest-voting for Jill Stein on the first Tuesday of November 2016) if at all. After all, the issues a serious presidential candidate can’t substantively and radically address (by my correspondents’ own acknowledgement) if he or she really wants to become commander in chief of the U.S. military are not small matters: imperialism, capitalism, and racism, deeply understood. These are what the great Civil Rights leader and democratic socialist Dr. Martin Luther King described in his last years as “the triple evils that are interrelated.” All of them and other interrelated evils (I nominate extractivist eco-cide, patriarchy, and the rule of managerial and professional elites atop a savagely unequal corporate division of labor) must be militantly confronted and overcome if humanity is going to have any chance for a decent future.

Why Dr. King Had No Interest in Running for President

The biggest problem with left progressives getting more than marginally involved in U.S. presidential campaigns is not about the ideological and programmatic limits imposed on serious presidential candidates, however. A far more significant difficulty has to do with the critical question of how we define meaningful political activity and how we properly focus and expand our activist capacities. It’s that U.S. major party, candidate-centered electoral politics (and presidential politics above all) tends to suck energy and focus away from forms of popular engagement that are far more meaningful and effective when it comes both to improving the lives of ordinary people and to creating the ground for the radical systemic change that is required.

I like to remind my correspondents that left progressives obsessed with electoral politics approached the great social movement leader King to run for the U.S. presidency in 1968. He was gracious in turning his supplicants down but he wanted nothing to do with it. This was because King knew quite well, no doubt, that my correspondents and I are correct about what a presidential candidate cannot do or say if she or he wants to be an actual contender. King knew also that there is a great difference between participating (as Bernie Sanders did as a young man) in a great grassroots struggle for social justice like the 1960s Civil Rights Movement or the 1960s-70s antiwar movement or the 1930s industrial workers movement and making a serious run for the White House under the banner of the corporate and imperial Democratic Party and within the boundaries enforced on serious presidential challengers.

The first form of activism is worthwhile. The second type of politics is not – not under the present U.S. electoral game. It’s not just that it can’t deliver the goods and the far-reaching change we need. It is also, and more importantly, that it connects legitimate popular hopes for progressive change and social justice to an electoral regime that is designed and functions to destroy the grassroots popular movements required both for wining reforms and for advancing the deeper transformation the times demand – the “radical reconstruction of society itself” that Dr. King identified near the end of his life as “the real issue to be faced.”

The U.S. electoral racket is the longstanding graveyard of social movements and radical aspirations. It channels popular anger and excitement into a dead, money-soaked system and its quadrennial, highly personalized, corporate media-ted candidate-centered electoral pageants – as if that’s the real and only politics that matters. It isn’t. The development of rank-and-file resistance and pressure organizations and movement cultures strong enough that they can’t be ignored by organized wealth and power is far more meaningful.

As Howard Zinn explained seven years ago, criticizing the “election madness” that had “engulf[ed] the entire society, including the left” in the year of Obama’s ascendancy: “Historically, government, whether in the hands of Republicans or Democrats, conservatives or liberals, has failed its responsibilities, until forced [to act in accord with popular needs] by direct action: sit-ins and Freedom Rides for the rights of black people, strikes and boycotts for the rights of workers, mutinies and desertions of soldiers in order to stop a war. Voting is easy and marginally useful, but it is a poor substitute for democracy, which requires direct action by concerned citizens.” No amount of nominally socialist social-democratic posturing by a longstanding de facto Democrat like Bernie Sanders (whose progressive domestic policy agenda is fundamentally challenged and undermined by his ongoing commitment to the imperial U.S. Pentagon system) can change that basic underlying reality.

What’s so great about running for president on the master’s savagely time-staggered schedule for “politics,” with the standard childish and quadrennial focus on candidates instead of the major issues that live on beneath and beyond the nation’s purposely populace-marginalizing and corporate-managed spectacles of “democracy”? As Zinn noted in 2001, “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.”

That’s why it was so essential for the system that the great 2011 Wisconsin protests on behalf of worker rights be shut down, its dynamism dissipated as it was directed into a doomed electoral effort to recall a Republican governor (Scott Walker) and replace him with a tepid Democrat. It’s also why the Democratic Obama White House and hundreds of mostly Democratic-controlled city governments acted to crush the Occupy Movement in the fall and winter of 2011 – this while Democrats stole Occupy’s populist rhetoric for the usual manipulative electoral purposes.

Magical Thinking

There are some on the Left, the radical left even, who want to believe (for strange, history-defying reasons) that the Sanders campaign will help advance the organizational structure required both for Zinn’s “direct action by concerned citizens” and (ultimately) for King’s “radical reconstruction.” In response I offer the sober reflections of the keen Left commentator and New York City-based Indypendent editor Arun Gupta:

“Leaving aside that Sanders is pushing for Keynesian policies, not socialist or even social democratic ones, his campaign is antithetical to movement building. Its top down, centered on one person, with no process or space for popular input to discuss his political failings, the limits of electoralism, or other strategies. After 2016 Sanders is not going to turn over his organization with its apparatus, lists and expertise to the left. Past experience — Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition, Howard Dean’s Democracy for America, Barack Obama’s Organizing for Action — shows candidates retain tight control over their organization. Even in 2000, when Ralph Nader ran as the Green Party’s presidential nominee, but did not exert control over the organization, he failed to benefit the party despite the 2.9 million votes that he garnered…Expecting a presidential campaign to solve the problem of organization is magical thinking…. If America is the land of the get-rich-quick scheme, the American left is the province of the get-power-quick scheme. It’s always looking for the one tactic, the one protest, the one election that will change everything. [In reality, however], Building power that’s strong and flexible takes years in the trenches developing organization, trust, community, leadership, action, and theory. Taking an electoral shortcut to power means fracturing movements as those with the least power are pushed to the sidelines. Leftists may thrill at finding a ‘socialist’ horse on the electoral merry-go-round, but if they hop on board they’ll be the ones taken for a ride” (emphasis added).

Indeed. This is not to say that the grassroots social movements that we need to rejuvenate, develop, expand, merge, energize, and amplify should not seek to change U.S. electoral politics and policymaking in such a way that seeking high national office might be a worthy endeavor. Of course we should. In the meantime, however, running for U.S. president (which has to rank as one of the top narcissistic endeavors on Earth, by the way) is nothing to write home about. It encourages people to embrace an “easy” and at best “marginally useful” form of “politics” that functions at best as a “poor substitute” for – and at worst as a potent enemy to – the difficult but essential work of day-to-day organizing and activism that constitutes the most urgent task for those who want to steer the nation’s political culture and policy in a decent, democratic, and sustainable direction.

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

Why Bernie Sanders is No Great White Hope for Black America

21/08/15 0 COMMENTS

Black Agenda Report, August 18, 2015, Counterpunch, August 12, 2015

It’s good to know a little history when trying to make sense of current events.

“What’s wrong with those people,” the young liberal white campus town woman – a big environmentalist – said to me a month or so ago. “Don’t they know that Bernie is their best hope?”

By “those people,” she meant Black people, who she had recently read were not showing a lot of support (in polls) for Bernie Sanders’ campaign for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination.

This was well before the recent incident in Seattle, where a Sanders speech was interrupted by some purported Black Lives Matter “activists.“ It was also prior to a similar disruption of Sanders by Black “activists” at the NetrRoots conference in Phoenix.

While I do not pretend to know all the facts behind the skirmishes in Seattle and Phoenix, I do not share many white liberals’ and progressives’ sense that it is outrageous or mysterious for Black Americans to be uninspired by the Sanders’ campaign. Sanders may – as he made a point of telling the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) a few weeks ago – have participated as a young man in the early and mid-1960s Civil Rights Movement. Good for him. So did millions of other people, including no small number of idealistic young white adults (including my parents in Chicago in 1966).

Three Strikes and More

But since his youth in multiracial Brooklyn and his work for civil rights in the mid-1960s, Sanders moved to the liberal and very white state of Vermont and became a U.S. Congressman (1991-2000) and U.S. Senator (2001-present). With the exception of his opposition to George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq in 2003, Sanders has been a stealthily staunch supporter of the U.S. military state and empire over the last quarter century – a military state and empire that murders and maims mainly non-white others (though white Serbians qualified as targets for a U.S. bombing that Bernie approved in 1999) and steals billions of dollars each year from meeting the needs of the United States’ own very disproportionately Black, Latino, and Native American poor.

As a member of the US House of Representatives, Sanders voted for Bill Clinton’s deeply racist 1994 “three strikes” crime bill. The legislation imposed tougher sentences, put thousands of more police on the streets and helped fund the building of extra prisons. It was known for its sadistic “three strikes” provision, which consigned “violent offenders” to lifetime imprisonment for a third criminal conviction, including for minor parole violations and drug addiction. Backed by congressional Republicans, the bill helped dramatically expand the nation’s globally unmatched and wildly race-disparate mass incarceration system – this, while crime was falling.

As a Senator, Sanders has voted for a measure that has advanced urban school privatization, deepened educational race disparities, and deepened the hold of deadening standardized testing pedagogy over minority student: the No Child Left Behind Act. He is a supporter of the state and federal Common Core States Initiative, another key part of the neoliberal-racist schools agenda.

I do not know if the activists who interrupted Sanders in Seattle and/or Phoenix had this policy history in mind but his uninspiring legislative record on race should matter to anyone who thinks that Bernie is Black Americans’ “best hope.”

Feeding Candidate-Centered Election Madness

At the same time, and this is a key point, there’s a big difference between assisting a great grassroots struggle for social justice like the 1960s Civil Rights Movement and running for the White House under the banner of the corporate and imperial Democratic Party. The first form of activism is a worthy commitment. The second is not. It encourages people to link their hopes for progressive change and social justice to a reactionary political party with a long and deserved history as the graveyard of social movements. It channels popular anger and excitement into a dead, money-soaked political and elections system and its staggered, quadrennial, highly personalized and mass-marketed corporate media-ted candidate-centered electoral spectacles – as if that’s the real and only politics that matters.

It is so such thing. The development of grassroots social movements strong enough that they can’t be ignored by concentrated wealth, privilege, and power is far more significant. As Howard Zinn explained seven years ago, criticizing the “election madness” that had “egulf[ed] the entire society, including the left” in the year of Brand Obama’s ascendancy, “Historically, government, whether in the hands of Republicans or Democrats, conservatives or liberals, has failed its responsibilities, until forced [to act in accord with popular needs] by direct action: sit-ins and Freedom Rides for the rights of black people, strikes and boycotts for the rights of workers, mutinies and desertions of soldiers in order to stop a war. Voting is easy and marginally useful, but it is a poor substitute for democracy, which requires direct action by concerned citizens.”

Presidential Candidate Sanders’ Anti-Racist Agenda

Since Sanders ago traded in social movement politics for major party candidate-electoral politics on the masters’ biennial and quadrennial schedule long ago (he’s been fake-independent de facto Democrat since at least 1990), however, let’s take a look at the racial content of his White House quest. As a presidential candidate boasting his Civil Rights past and launching a campaign in the wake of a significant Black struggle against an epidemic of racist white police shootings of Black Americans, Sanders has been remarkably slow to put racial justice anywhere near the center of his campaign. He has upped his rhetoric against racial inequality and institutional racism in recent weeks, under pressure from Black activists, it is true, but he done so in a way that badly underestimates both the depth and degree of racial oppression in the contemporary US and the necessity of undertaking specifically anti-racist struggle against specifically racist institutions and ideologies. He has badly exaggerated the extent to which contemporary US racial inequality and oppression can be addressed and overcome with color-blind economic populism and “jobs, jobs, jobs” for all. He has not turned against Washington’s racist and imperialist Pentagon System, which eats up 54 percent of the United States’ federal discretionary spending and accounts for nearly half of all military spending on the planet. He hasn’t called for that system’s dismantling and the use of the funds released to launch a domestic Marshall Plan to overcome the massive and crushing poverty that plagues Black America thanks to two and half centuries of slavery, a century plus of Jim Crow, a century of urban ghettoization, decades of liberal social policies that actually deepened racial inequality (see below), and four decades of racist mass incarceration. He has not apologized for his terrible “Three Strikes” vote (even Clinton himself now calls the draconian and racist 1994 crime bill a “mistake”) or renounced his attachment for the miserable, Dickensian NCLB. He has not denounced or even noticed the intimate and toxic relationship between the United States’ racist global empire and the militarization of the local U.S. police departments that regularly harass and even gun-down unarmed Black Americans while gathering up vast swaths of those Americans to function as the critical, multiply disenfranchised raw material for the nation’s globally unmatched and racially hyper-disparate mass incarceration and felony-marking system.

When Affirmative Action Was White

In the Seattle speech that was pre-empted by the BLM interrupters, Sanders was going to hail the 80th anniversary of the New Deal’s Social Security Act (SSA). He would no doubt have heaped well-deserved praise on the measure, which has provided progressively funded and desperately needed old-age pensions for millions upon millions of working and middle class Americans for seven plus decades. Along with the National Labor Relations (Wagner) Act (which legalized union organizing in the U.S), the SSA was a benchmark New Deal program that functioned to expand and preserve a U.S. middle class in the post-WWII “golden age,” when overall economic inequality fell significantly (and quite anomalously, as Thomas Piketty reminded us last year) in the US as across the advanced capitalist world.

At the same time, however, Sanders and his speech writers might want to reflect on the role of the SSA and other New Deal programs as well as the widely heralded GI Bill played in deepening racial inequalities in “golden age” America. As political scientist Ira Katznelson showed in his important 2005 book When Affirmative Action Was White: An Untold History of Racial Inequality in Twentieth Century America, the leading New Deal programs were administered in racially discriminatory ways. They were deliberately worded to exclude minority groups. Subsidies came to a large number of ordinary Americans, it is true, but the SSA was written in such a way as to deny benefits to millions of disproportionately Black and Latino maids, farmers, and migrant workers. The GI Bill fell under the purview of the states, preventing Black veterans from enjoying the federal government’s underwriting of returning soldiers’ schooling and housing. Far from levelling the playing field racially, Katznelson showed, the key New Deal and post-WWII policies deepened the gap between white and Black Americans.

Conscious that post-WWII America was scarred by massive racial inequality and facing significant Black protest and racial unrest in the 1960s (when young Bernie Sanders worked with the Civil Rights Movement in Chicago), U.S. President Lyndon Johnson and other top U.S, liberals made some efforts to reduce the nation’s racial disparities. But the landmark civil rights legislation of the 1960s (the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Open Housing Act of 1968), the short-lived Great Society programs of the same period, the momentary progress in school desegregation form the 1950s through the 1970s, and modern affirmative action – all of these were unable to undo the damage imposed by centuries of racial oppression and by more recent liberal (New Deal and WWII veterans benefits) federal policies that magnified U.S. racial inequality.

It didn’t help, of course, that Johnson and the rest of the U.S. imperial establishment decided to wage a massively criminal and expensive war on Southeast Asia – a mass-murderous and racist military campaign that swept up vast resources that would have been required for any serious effort to attack the deep poverty that still plagued Black America at the height of the nation’s middle-class expanding postwar “golden age.” Dr. King came to understand and oppose this underlying conflict between “guns” and “butter,” observing that the imperial system had crushed “hope for the [U.S.] poor – both black and white.” The anti-poverty program was “broken and eviscerated as if it were some idle plaything of a society gone mad” on a militarism that drew “men and skills and money like some demonic destructive suction tube,” King said. “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift,” King added, “is approaching spiritual death.”

Many of his fellow democratic-socialist Civil Rights and anti-poverty leaders of the time, including Michael Harrington and Bayard Rustin, failed egregiously to join King in combining anti-racism and anti-poverty with anti-imperialism to forthrightly oppose the U.S. “crucifixion of Southeast Asia” (as the young Chomsky described “the Vietnam War”).

Beyond Social-Democratic Economism

This New Deal and post-WWII US history matters for understanding the racial limits of the Sanders campaign. On the campaign trail, Sanders has argued that what is most needed for racial justice and Black advancement is progressively color-blind policy that defends “the middle class” (in current U.S. politics you are now more likely to hear the phrase “working class” from the lips of a Republican candidate than a Democratic one) and reduces overall economic equality and poverty while producing millions of good jobs, jobs, and jobs. Consider it a form of social-democratic trickle over economics: “what’s good for white America beneath the “billionaire class” is good for Blacks too.”

Sanders is right when he says that racial inequality in the U.S. cannot be meaningfully addressed without also taking on the question of economic inequality across the entire society. History, however, suggests strongly that the racial problem is far more complex. Racial inequality actually deepened while overall opportunity, jobs, government benefits for working people and the poor rose expanded like never before and while poverty and inequality fell like no time before during a “golden age” – at the height of the long New Deal era’s “[corporate-] liberal [and Keynesian] consensus” – that was far more golden for white Americans than for Black Americans. At the same time, it is also true, today as in previous eras, that the United States’ shockingly high and persistent racial disparities cannot be meaningfully addressed and overcome without specific struggles against the very specific racial oppression experienced by Black Americans – oppression that has always been written into the national DNA of American capitalism and class rule. Social-democratic economism will simply not do the trick.

Also no less true today than before, resources to address and overcome that special oppression are going to have to come out of the giant imperial military system that makes the US still “the leading purveyor of violence on the planet” (Dr. King, April 4, 1967). It’s a system Sanders refuses to forthrightly oppose, very much like his milquetoast social-democratic soul brothers Harrington and Rustin in the middle 1960s.

Whatever one thinks of the incidents in Phoenix and Seattle, there should be little doubt that Black Americans have plenty of reasons not to embrace Bernie Sanders as their shining knight in armor and “best hope.”

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

Kick Capitalism Out of the Serenity Prayer

20/08/15 0 COMMENTS

ZNet, August 13, 2015

One of the oddest things about being a “radical” eco-socialist is the way it tends to pigeon-hole you as some of kind of wild-eyed child caught up in a terrible and irrational tantrum. In reality, “radical” eco-socialists just want their fellow human beings to grow up enough to do something conservative: save prospects for a decent, environmentally sustainable future.

Growing up means acknowledging some harsh realities, some of which – like the inevitability of an individual’s ultimate weakening and death – are unavoidably written into existential reality.  Death is an inescapable fact of life. Other harsh realities like the consignment of billions of people to deep poverty while others live in luxuriant opulence, the incarceration of 2.4 million disproportionately Black people in the so-called land of liberty (the United States), the massive provision of economic resources to destructive militarism and empire in a world of vastly unmet need, or the setting up of workplaces where most people perform mindless, alienating, socially useless and (often) harmful tasks under authoritarian direction are not inherent existential facts of “life.” They are products of human agency and “socially constructed” inequality and oppression.

“Radical” eco-socialists want their fellow humans to grow up about and respond with maturity to four harsh realities that are about human agency and social construction and oppression, not human existence as such. The first such reality is the escalating prospect of human extinction in the historical near-term future thanks to a growing environmental crisis driven first and foremost by the dramatic warming of the planet. The signs of this mounting crisis are starkly evident right now. It is happening in real time, not at some point in the distant future.  It’s not just about “our grandchildren” (though those children certainly will be facing some very dreadful environmental prospects if “radical” changes are not introduced soon). I will not fill up this essay with quotes and references from the voluminous and increasingly dark scientific literature on this frightening topic. For those who take science seriously, the calamitous projections are beyond serious doubt, notwithstanding the constant propagandistic efforts of the climate denial industry, funded by the fossil fuel corporations.

The second harsh reality is the basic core responsibility of homo sapiens for climate change – hence the term “anthropogenic global warming” (AGW). This is thanks to humanity’s creation of what basic junior high science calls the Greenhouse Effect through the wildly excessive extraction and burning of fossil fuels. Here again I will bypass references from and to the vast scientific literature. For those who take science seriously, the human agency behind current warming trends and their terrible consequences (including rising sea levels, increasingly destructive storms, epic heat waves, horrible droughts and more) is beyond serious doubt, notwithstanding the constant propagandistic efforts of the climate denial industry, funded by the fossil fuel corporations.

The third harsh reality is the special responsibility of capitalism – the profits system – for AGW and the related impossibility (to be perfectly frank) of averting environmental catastrophe under the rule of that soulless system, which is addicted to endless growth and accumulation and incapable of the coordinated social and global planning required to bring human economic life in line with the ecological requirements of survival. This is something that I have written and spoken about at no small length in the past. Instead of repeating or even condensing all that here, I will give here links to a long talk I have given on this topic to the Open University of the Left and to a number of citation-heavy pieces I’ve done on ZNet:

I am all aware that for many Americans and others, “capitalism” falls into the category of an “inescapable existential fact of life.” The profits system for them stands outside human beings “sphere of influence” and belongs in the category of “things I cannot change” in Alcoholics Anonymous’ well known Serenity Prayer

“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.”

It is indeed foolish to spend a lot of energy fretting about things one cannot change – like, say, the inevitability of individual sickness and death or the reality that people are not equal in all their inherited physical and mental attributes.  But it foolish, irresponsible, and childish to place capitalism in that category. The profits system is a human, social, and historical creation and the same would and indeed must be true of its undoing and transcendence. I say “must be” because changing our socioeconomic system is not only something we can do but something we must do if I am correct that the salvation of livable ecology cannot happen under the rule of capital (and I am about 95% sure on that score). Going beyond capitalism is an existential imperative for homo sapiens.

The fourth harsh reality is we need to act very, very soon to move off of fossil fuels and towards water, wind, and solar if we want to save prospects for a decent future. How soon? Yesterday. I am reminded of the old Howling Woolf (Chester Burnett) blues lyric:

I should have quit you, long time ago
I should have quit you, long time ago
Then I wouldn’t be here
Down on this killing floor

Think of the “you” here as fossil fuels. We needed to move off those fuels (and nuclear) and on to wind, water, and solar in at least the 1970s, when “energy crisis” and “environmental crisis” both held prominent places in US public consciousness. We needed that transition after the long US and global capitalist expansion of the post-WWII “golden age” generated the beginnings of a visible ecological catastrophe (one of many reasons not to sentimentalize that lost Keynesian growth era)

Recent science indicates that AGW is now moving faster than even the direst early prognostications warned. If nothing substantial is accomplished in the way of radical carbon emission reduction in the next 10-20 years, indeed, it appears likely that humanity will turn runaway global warming into an in fact unavoidable existential reality – possibly beyond meaningful human intervention at the level of causation (there will always remain basic existential human agency at the level of response, adaptation, mitigation and the like) – by setting off the planet’s own internal methane and other carbon “bombs.”  If I am correct that capitalism has no more than a 5% chance of being capable of permitting and making the necessary environmental adjustments, the betting odds are pretty high that we have to begin a process of radical and democratic socioeconomic restructuring well….now or at least very, very soon. It’s eco-socialism or barbarism if we’re lucky, and soon, to paraphrase and update Rosa Luxembourg and Istvan Meszaros.  When I say eco-socialism instead of just socialism, I mean to underline that it will not suffice to introduce a popular and democratic economic system relies on the rapacious extraction of fossil fuels and other natural resources to power its development. Eco-cide with a socialist face will of course not save us.

It’s past time to kick capitalism and extractivism out of the Serenity Prayer and grow up to reclaim our commons from the eco-cidal masters of profit and growth. Let Goddess or whatever spiritual power we prefer give us the courage to conserve livable ecology and hopes for a decent future by radically transforming both our relations with each other and with the planet before it’s too late. We can do it. We must do it.

Beyond Anti-Capitalism

20/08/15 0 COMMENTS

ZNet, August 11, 2015

To be seriously radical on the Left is, among other things, to be against capitalism – the system that, as Karl Marx noted in 1848, “has left no other nexus between [people other] than naked self-interest, than callous ‘cash payment’” and “resolve[s] personal worth into exchange value” (hello Donald Trump?). Under the rule of capital and its holy so-called free market, the human spirit is “drowned in the icy water of egotistical calculation…all that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned” (Marx). Stable communities, decent and meaningful work, economic security, nurturing and intact families, nurturing relationships, political democracy, social justice, healthy lives, nurturing childhoods, vibrant societies, public space, livable ecology, intellectual culture, communications and media, the common good – all these and more are brought to heel and ultimately trashed by the profits regime’s perpetually venal market reckonings. This is no less true today – when capital has created a “planet of slums” (Mike Davis) and cooked the globe to the point where Earth scientists warn quite seriously of the near-term possibility of anthropogenic self-extinction – than it was in Marx’s time.

Still, for many of us on the anti-capitalist Left, it is simply not enough to be anti-capitalist. This is, I think, for three basic reasons. The first is that there are numerous relevant and powerful forms, structures, institutions, values, and ideologies of oppression and environmental destruction that are technically distinct from capitalism and cannot be simply reduced to, or explained by, capitalism. Among those other oppression systems and values (hereafter designated “OSVs”) we must include patriarchy, masculinism, racism, ageism, nationalism, imperialism, militarism, bureaucratism, police-statism, narcissism, coordinator-ism (the privileged position and power of those who manage and supervise the labor of the relatively subordinated working class populace among other things), destructive anthropocentrism, the alienating corporate division of labor that subjects most working people and others to the rule of coordinators (the professional and managerial elite), and – of special relevance in the current era of incipient ecocide – extractivism. This last term refers to the reliance of modern societies on the relentless extraction of natural resources, above all fossil fuels, for economic and social development.

It is true that capitalism merges with, exacerbates, and fuels these OSVs to a very significant degree. It also true, however that each of these OSVs possess significantly autonomous lives and logics of their own and have been found in societies that are not capitalist in the full Marxist sense. The ancient Greek, ancient Roman, ancient Ottoman, feudal and absolutist European, ancient Chinese, Inca, and Aztec (and other past and pre-capitalist) empires and dynasties exhibited many of the above evils before the emergence of the first classically capitalist society in 17th century England and prior to the rise of modern capitalism in 19th century Europe, the United States, and Japan. The bureaucratic-collectivist and in fact socialist (if authoritarian) Soviet Union and its satellite regimes did the same in the last century. Twenty-first century populism and socialism in Latin America relies on an extractivist model (the term extractivism originated from ecological critique of that populism and socialism) to pay for its anti-poverty programs. It naturally and quite inevitably struggles with numerous of the OSVs mentioned above – all, of course, very much, in the context of 21st century global capitalism and US imperialism. In a similar vein, 20th century state-bureaucratic socialism (it is silly to call the Soviet Union “state capitalist”) showed itself fully capable of generating significant alienating class inequalities and of wrecking the natural environment through reckless extraction and pollution – all without capitalists, though not of course in a world without capitalists and capitalist empire.

Second, capitalism has always relied for its terrible reproduction and perpetuation on its merging with many if not all the OSVs mentioned above. Where would the de facto class dictatorship called capitalism be without the remarkable power of nationalism, racism, militarism, sexism, ethno-centrism, and imperialism to divide the workers of the world both within and across national boundaries? Without the critical role of coordinators in supervising, disciplining, dividing, and otherwise oppressing the broad working class populace and in handling numerous other technical and managerial tasks? Without the extraction of vast natural resources through a relentless assault on nature and other sentient beings to fuel its production processes, generate its surpluses, and power its seemingly endless, cancerous expansion? Without militarism to expand its access to raw material and markets and to destroy and then/yet absorb its surplus capital and to fund its research and development?  Without the savage top-down sorting and segmenting of workers into hyper-alienating divisions and hierarchies of work and labor (a problem that capitalism took to new heights but did not invent and over which it possesses no systemic monopoly)? Being seriously anti-capitalist means opposing all the OSVs.

Third, radical anti-capitalists need to oppose the OSVs in order for their anti-capitalism to be remotely desirable to the broad mass of workers and citizens.  Breaking with, struggling against, and overthrowing capitalism is no small matter! It carries considerable risks and costs for those who commit. Jobs, careers, homes, marriages, families, health, and more, even life itself, are at stake. Serious anti-capitalism is not for the meek of heart! Who is going to hazard all that only to create a word still ruled, say, by soulless eco-cidal coordinators and bureaucrats and/or by blood-soaked militarists and/or racists and/or sexists and/or power-worshipping despots, manipulators, misleaders, and narcissists ….in order, perhaps to more equally share out the fruits of an environmentally poisoned pie and/or to be mired in endless resource wars between internally semi-egalitarian but externally violent nation states?  Being a serious anti-capitalist also means going beyond anti-capitalism when it comes also to developing a desirable mental and moral picture of a good life and society after capitalism – a vision of a world worth fighting for beyond the profits regime.

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

The Real Cost of Being Poor

18/08/15 0 COMMENTS

ZNet, August 8, 2015

Serious debates over what the minimum wage should be in various U.S. locales and jurisdictions should start with serious information on what it actually costs to live in the different places where Americans live.

One common reference point, the U.S. federal poverty level, is sorely inadequate to the task. It has two basic flaws. First of all, it is absurdly low, based as it is on a hopelessly antiquated 1950s formula that multiplies a minimum food budget three times. The formula made a certain miserly sense when it was set in 1955 (when the average U.S. family actually did spend one third of its budget on food), but it is wholly inappropriate today. The minimum required outlays for rent, transportation, child care, health insurance, medical care have since risen significantly both in absolute terms and as a percentage of U.S. household expenditures.

Here’s the federal poverty level right now: one person in a household: $11,770; two persons: $15,930; three (say, one parent and two children): $20,090; four (say, two parents and two children): $24,250; five: $28,410; six: $32,750. I defy any household that does not grow its own food and manufacture its own clothes and medicine while foregoing modern health care, insurance, telecommunications, and transportation, to try to live with minimum basic level of comfort and health at these levels.

A second major flaw in the U.S. poverty level is that that it is not adjusted for significant geographic variations in the cost of living across US metropolitan areas. It costs considerably more to get by in Chicago or New York City than it does in “downstate” rural Illinois or “upstate” New York.  It is much more expensive to live in San Francisco than it is in Bakersfield, California.

What does it cost just to get by in the U.S. today? It depends on where you live, to no small extent. In an all-too rare example of real social use value resulting from the labor of intellectuals, researchers at the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) have done some remarkable work on this topic. They have calculated the varying minimum no-frills “income required to afford an adequate standard of living” for six family types living in 615 specific U.S. communities, taking into account the varying costs in each of community of seven basic expenditures: housing, food, transportation, child care, health care (premiums plus out of pocket expenses), “other necessities” (clothing, personal care, household supplies, reading materials, school supplies, telephone), and taxes.

According to the EPI Family Budget Calculator, the real cost of a minimally adequate no-frills standard of living for one parent with one kid in Iowa City, Iowa (where I currently reside) is $48,235 – more than three times the official U.S, poverty level for a two person household! That sounds high until you add up the monthly expenses: housing ($853), food ($369), child care ($684), transportation ($459), health care ($891), other necessities ($313), and taxes ($450), for a total monthly outlay of $4,020. Go to the San Francisco metropolitan area and the cost of a basic family budget for one parent with one kid is $70,929 (compared to $46,989 in Bakersfield), more than four times higher than the federal poverty measure. In the Chicago area, it’s $53,168. Even over in depressed Rockford, Illinois, its $48,936. In rural Illinois, its $48,129. Make it two parents and two kids in Iowa City, Iowa, and the cost is $66,667 – 275% of the federal poverty level for a four- person household.

With most Americans’ wages stagnating for more than a decade and with the lowest paid workers’ wages shrinking, is it any wonder that half of the more than 24 million Americans who rely on food banks for basic nutrition are employed?

The EPI’s figures are worth keeping in mind the next time you hear the Chamber of Commerce or the American Enterprise Institute express horror at the notion that the minimum wage should go as “astronomically” high as $15 an hour. Even such a dramatically increased minimum wage translates into just $30,000 a year for a worker fortunate enough to stay employed full time.

Put two parents with two children successfully in the job market full time and you still come up $6, 667 short in Iowa City, where the local Proctor and Gamble plant is currently hiring (through an employment firm called Staff Management/SMX) warehouse and production workers for just over $10 an hour ($20,000 per years if able to get full time hours year round).

Considering all this, I can be forgiven, perhaps, for not showering praise on my local county (Johnson County, Iowa) board of supervisors for agreeing (under pressure from local labor activists) to consider a proposed ordinance that would raise the county’s minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10 an hour by 2017 in three 95-cent increments. To be sure, the current U.S. minimum wage of $7.25 an hour is another bad joke. (If it had kept pace with increases in U.S. labor productivity since the 1970s, it would be $18 an hour today. At its current level, it translates [assuming full-time year round work] into $14,500 per year, well below the horrific federal poverty level for a three-person family.)

It’s good to see local city councils and now even (in this case) a county board experiment with going beyond the federal minimum wage. The precedent is most welcome. But, please, just ten dollars an hour… $20,000 a year, assuming full-time year round work (which many workers cannot attain)…and this just by 2017? Forget for a moment that many employers in the area (I’ve been sampling the bottom end of the local labor market as a job applicant in recent weeks) are already at or above $10 an hour.  That aside, the EPI’s carefully calculated basic family budget even just for one parent and one kid in Iowa City (Johnson County’s biggest municipality) is over $48,000 per year. That’s more than 240 % of what someone can make at a measly ten dollars an hour. The so-called People’s Republic of Johnson County is currently “feeling the Bern” (the passion for nominally socialist Democratc presidential candidate Bernie Sanders) more intensely than any county in America. Could its whole county board please join one of its members (Mike Carberry) by having the basic decency to Fight for Fifteen?

Paul Street is an author in Iowa City. His latest book is They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm, 2014)

Posing as the Great Emancipator: Obama’s Prison-Posturing is Nothing New

18/08/15 0 COMMENTS

Counterpunch, August 7, 2015

Barack Obama is a model and epitome of the triumph of symbol over substance. Take his great show of concern last month for the sickening national crime and embarrassment that is the United States’ shockingly high rate of racially disparate mass imprisonment. Beneath the praise and fanfare this performance evoked, what has the President actually done for the nation’s vast army of Black prisoners and marked-for-life felons? Two years and seven months into his second presidential term, Obama became the first U.S. president to set foot in a federal U.S. prison. He went to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (the NAACP) to proclaim his purported recent discoveries that “mass incarceration makes our country worse and [that] we need to do something about it.”

He commuted the sentences of 46 federally imprisoned nonviolent drug offenders, eight of whom had been convicted for possession of crack cocaine. He expressed dismay that 80,000 U.S. prisoners (including 5 percent of all federal prisoners) are held in the torture of solitary confinement, many of them for decades. Pronouncing this not a “smart” practice, he told his Justice Department to conduct a study on how to reduce the horror of solitary confinement in America’s giant mass incarceration system and racist holding pens.

It’s a classic case of too little, too late. As the veteran Black Left commentator Glen Ford notes, “If Obama had launched his reviews of solitary confinement and other U.S. criminal justice atrocities during his first term in office, then, theoretically, tens of thousands of inmates might have been spared millions of collective days and nights of isolation and psychological torture. But, Obama will have less than a year left in office when his new study is completed.” Two years ago, Ford writes, Obama’s Justice Department successfully argued against the release of prisoners convicted under the notoriously racist 100-to-1 crack-to-power cocaine sentencing laws. Thousands of people, most of them Black, continued to waste away behind bars, thanks to Obama. Now, however, the president is hailed for showing the mercy to free two thirds of a dozen of those inmates.

There’s nothing like a study or a blue ribbon commission to make it seem like you are getting something done when you are really just kicking the con – I mean the can – down the road.

What’s behind Obama’s supposed late-presidency epiphany on the evil of racially biased mass imprisonment? What drove the president’s “sudden desire to look like the Great Emancipator” (Margaret Kimberly, emphasis added) – this even while he offers close to nothing in the way of actual liberation and after six and a half years of making no serious efforts to dismantle the nation’s giant, global unmatched, and deeply racist mass incarceration system? The indispensable Ford explains it very well:

“The president waited until the second half of his second term in office – and the rise of an incipient mass protest movement – before experiencing his epiphany on mass incarceration. So-called prison reform is now a thoroughly bipartisan affair. Republicans have harbored a strain of prison reformism ever since many of Richard Nixon’s men found themselves behind bars in the aftermath of Watergate, and even the rabidly reactionary Koch brothers are funding prison reform. The legislatures of at least 15 states have either passed, or are debating, ways to limit solitary confinement. And Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, a crucial swing vote on the high court, has all but invited prison reform groups to challenge solitary confinement on Constitutional grounds. So, although Obama is the first serving president to actually set foot in a prison, he is moving in politically safe territory…However, don’t expect anything other than cynical theatricality and double-dealing from this president. When it comes to the criminal justice system, Obama is a consummate trickster.”

On this issue on so many others, the president is “a master of appearing to do what he doesn’t do” (Kimberly). Beneath symbolism – setting foot in a prison, applauding the take-down of the Confederate Flag, public anger at the police treatment of the bourgeois professor Henry Louis Gates, a claim to look like Trayvon Martin – there’s no seriously anti-racist or social justice substance in Obama’s presidency. Mass incarceration may have plateaued for systemic reasons in the Age of Obama, but if it ever declines significantly it will do so in spite of his criminal justice con-game.

Obama’s Con Game in Chicago and Springfield (2002-2004)

It’s all as predicted by some of us who knew the Obama phenomenon in its Chicago and Illinois years, before the national and global version that went public at the Democratic National Convention eleven years ago.

I can be forgiven, perhaps, for not being terribly excited or impressed when Obama visited a federal prison and made his supposed recent discovery of the problem of the racist mass confinement and torture of Black Americans. And for not being surprised that his actions claiming to address the problem don’t amount to very much. In the fall of 2002, I published (in my role as the director of the once-respectable research department of the Chicago Urban League) a study documenting the remarkable extent to which city, county, and state authorities in and around Chicago were exacerbating black social and economic disadvantage by saddling an astonishing number of African Americans with prison histories and the lifelong mark of a criminal record. Among my findings:

(1) there were nearly 20,000 more black males in the Illinois state prison system than enrolled in the state’s public universities in the 2001-2002 school year;

(2) Chicago area black male ex-felons were equivalent in number to 42 percent of the metropolitan region’s Black male workforce;

(3) ten very predominantly black Chicago zip codes received 25 percent of Illinois prisoners released in the years 2000, 2001, and 2002;

(4) the chance of securing legitimate employment decreased significantly with prison time and ex-prisoners suffer a lifetime “wage penalty” (earnings reduction) as high as 30 percent;

(5) the massive –over-incarceration of Blacks in Illinois was the outcome of a “War on Drugs” that was really a prolonged assault on deeply impoverished Black communities and was waged in profoundly discriminatory and racist biased ways;

(6) Black urban prisoners and felons (many of whom recycled between the state’s poorest neighborhoods and its many “downstate” prisons) were functioning as both an economic and a political raw material for one of rural white Illinois’ only “job-creating” “growth industries”: the prison-industrial complex.

The study, titled The Vicious Circle: Race, Prison, Community and Jobs (Chicago Urban League, 2002) was released at a day-long conference in October of 2002 on the South Side of Chicago. It was a major event on a racial justice and economic development issue that had long escaped adequate attention. And who was the keynote speaker (selected by the Urban League)? State senator Barack Obama, who orated with outward passion and knowledge about “excessive mass incarceration” and excessive felony marking’s horrific social and economic impact on Black Chicago, Black Illinois, and Black America. Obama called for policies to roll back racially disparate hyper-imprisonment and to give Black and other “ex-offender” a legitimate second chance to make their way and meaningfully reintegrate society within and beyond Illinois. Make no mistake: the president was fully up on the facts of the U.S. racist prison state in the fall of 2002.

The Vicious Circle (an inspiration for Ohio State law professor’s widely read book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Color Blindness) became part of the arsenal used by activists to push for two state bills meant to ease ex-offender employment barriers in Illinois. The first bill, sponsored by the genuinely progressive Chicago-based state representative Constance Howard (the 2003 Ex-offender Expungement and Sealing Act ) permitted the “sealing” (from review by employers and the public) of criminal records for Illinois ex-prisoners – four years after their release – who had been convicted of nonviolent misdemeanors and certain low-level Class 4 felonies (minor drug possession and prostitution). The act also allowed the expungement (the actual destruction) of all records – with 2 to 3 year waiting periods depending on the offense – for a small number of minor criminal cases, including arrests that did not result in a conviction and first-time possession of marijuana.

The second bill, sponsored by the fake-progressive Obama mandated the issuing of “Certificates of Relief from Disability” [CRDs] by the Illinois Department of Correction’s Prisoner Review Board to certain ex-offenders. Modeled weakly on a much stronger law in New York, the legislation originally permitted a first “offender” who had been convicted of no more than one non-violent felony to apply to the courts or to the Prisoner Review Board to receive a Certificate purportedly entitling them not to be denied an occupational or professional license in fifteen (subsequently expanded to twenty-eight) specified and mostly skilled employment fields because of a previous conviction.

These progressive-sounding bills meant little in reality. They were more about symbol than substance. By my best estimates in a 2006 program evaluation conducted for the Chicago-based advocacy organization Protestants for the Common Good (PCG, headed by a strong Obama supporter), all but a small portion of Illinois prison inmates – probably no more than 5 percent – were ineligible for records sealing, much less expungement, under Rep. Howard’s law. It didn’t help that, as the New York Times reported in the fall of 2006, employers enjoy widespread access to private criminal history databases that commonly omit expungements.

Obama’s bill – subsequently expanded to include second-time nonviolent offenders – cast a slightly wider net over the prisoner and ex-offender community. Given the remarkable recidivism that characterizes the inmate population and the large percentage of inmates serving time for technically violent offenses, however, the margin of difference was not terribly great. At the same time, Obama’s bill did nothing about the persistently high de facto barriers to ex-offender employment in Illinois. It contained no capacity to compel occupational licensure, much less actual employment, of qualified ex-offender applicants. It covered only a very small percentage of mostly skilled occupations beyond the reach of the ex-offender population regardless of explicit and/or de facto barriers to the training and/or hiring of people with criminal records.

The conclusions of a 2006 PCG test-project seeking to evaluate the Obama bill’s outcomes and relevance were less than inspiring. PCG found that the legislation, “while well-intended,” had “very limited applicability as currently drafted. The number of ex-offenders” who were assisted in any meaningful way, was “small indeed.”

Obama’s legislation anticipated a key warning made two years later by leading national prisoner reentry expert Jeremy Travis in his award-winning 2006 study But They All Come Back: Facing the Challenges of Prisoner Reentry. (Urban Institute, 2005). “The risk at this juncture,” Travis warned about a recent upsurge in ex-offender reintegration policies, “is the allure of success …We must not confuse superficial reforms with profound changes.” Highly advertised small changes can work against real and substantive change. By “the allure of success,” Travis meant at least in part the thirst of legislators to pad their resumes with progressive-sounding policy-changes that actually did very little for the nation’s vast and disproportionately black army of prisoners and felons.

In reality, Obama’s legislation was not “well-intended.” Insiders told me it was deliberately “watered down” under the influence of powerful conservative players (including the leading corporate-neoliberal downtown Chicago organization Metropolis 2020 and the state-prison-affiliated Safer Foundation) and in order for the ambitious Obama to avoid an unpleasant “floor fight” with reactionary “downstate” legislators who enjoyed fiscal and legislative-apportionment windfalls accruing to their districts from racially disparate mass incarceration. Obama wanted to “get something done” largely for his political and policy resume, regardless of his bill’s consequences for the (ex-offender) population in question. It was one of many ways in which the deeply conservative Obama’s Republican-friendly record in the Illinois legislature was far less liberal and progressive than his subsequent liberal and progressive fans imagined.

This is one of many reasons (the biggest ones are systemic and institutional) why I – virtually alone (I find this very telling) among a group of 40 or left progressives called together to discuss the prospects of a Bernie Sanders presidential run in Iowa last fall – have never felt the slightest bit of “surprise” or “disappointment” about the conservative and neoliberal nature of the Obama presidency.

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

Trumped: On the Political and Ideological Functions of The Donald

18/08/15 0 COMMENTS

ZNet, August 6, 2015

Chilling as it may seem, the frothing uber-narcissistic hate-machine and tabloid-feeding media freak Donald Trump leads the polls in the early campaign for the presidential nomination of one of the United States’ two dominant political parties. In both Iowa and New Hampshire, sites for the nation’s earliest presidential caucus (Iowa) and primary (New Hampshire), the blustering and odious Donald is outpacing Jeb Bush and the rest of the ugly ten-personal Republican pack, heading to its first televised debate tonight. He is far ahead of all candidates in both parties when it comes to media focus and to political conversation at picnics and dinner parties. “The Donald” is in narcissist’s heaven. He’s a leading center of attention, good and bad.

More and Worse Than Entertainment
What’s it all about? Beyond Trump’s billions of dollars and endless hunger for attention, the national political columnist Matt Bai sees the Trump phenomenon as an epitome of the liberal social and media critic Neal Postman’s Aldous Huxley-inspired warnings on the totalitarian merging of politics and entertainment. By Bai’s account:

“Trump’s juggernaut isn’t an actual campaign, with an agenda or a strategy. It’s great programming. And this is exactly — I mean, exactly —what the social critic Neil Postman warned of when he wrote a phenomenal little book called Amusing Ourselves to Death in 1985. …Postman’s essential point (as I’ve written before, both in this column and in All the Truth is Out, my own book on the subject of trivial political coverage) was that our news and politics were veering ever closer to the dark vision of Aldus Huxley in Brave New World. He warned that the line between TV entertainment and real events would become so porous that the nation would soon be unable to distinguish between them, and as a result our public discourse would become a series of meaningless story arcs rather than an informed debate over the consequential business of government…” (M. Bai, “Donald Trump Amuses Us to Death,” Yahoo Politics, July 30, 2015)

It’s hard, of course, to deny, that the Trump phenomenon seems very much like something out of Postman’s analysis. Still, Bai makes a critical mistake, when he suggests that the Trump phenomenon reduces merely to trivial amusement and infantilizing diversion – to twaddle and entertainment. As in U.S. corporate entertainment culture more broadly – and this was something that Postman failed to fully understand – the Huxleyan surface is loaded with richly ideological and Orwellian political content. Trump’s “story arcs” are far from ideologically random. They carry a strong whiff of fascism. As Conor Lynch recently noted at Salon, picking up on the observations of Newsweek’s Jeffrey Tucker:

“Donald Trump, whether he knows it or not, is a fascist (or is at least acting like one). Much like Mussolini and Hitler, Trump is a demagogue dedicated to riling up the people (particularly conservatives) with race baiting, traditionalism and strongman tough talk – and, according to polls, it’s working — for now. Tucker writes: ‘Trump has tapped into it, absorbing unto his own political ambitions every conceivable resentment (race, class, sex, religion, economic) and promising a new order of things under his mighty hand.’ No doubt about it, Donald Trump has decided to stir the pot, and, as Tucker says, he seems to be running for a CEO position, rather than president of a nation. Trump discusses Iran and Mexico as if they were competing corporations, and says that, as president, or CEO, he will drive them into the ground, make them file for bankruptcy — something Trump legitimately knows a thing or two about.”

As Lynch further notes, Trump has no monopoly on proto-fascistic sentiments wither among the vile GOP presidential candidate roster and the more rabid parts of the GOP base:

“The thing is, his ‘style’ — full of race baiting, xenophobia and belligerent nationalism — is not unique to Trump; he is simply the most blatant and vocal about it. There’s a reason he’s leading in the GOP polls: the party’s base likes what he’s saying. The people are angry about illegal immigrants murdering white women (anyone who has followed Bill O’Reilly over the past week knows what I’m talking about), homosexuals destroying the tradition of marriage, and so on. Much like fascism reacted to modernity and social progress in the early 20th century, right-wingers are reacting angrily to social progress of the new century” (C. Lynch, “Donald Trump is an Actual Fascist,” Salon, July 25, 2015)

Reading Lynch’s essay the other day, I was reminded of something that the longtime Republican Congressional staffer Mike Lofgren wrote five years ago, after resigning from his position in Washington. “The Republican Party,” Lofgren observed, “is becoming less and less like a traditional political party in a representative democracy and becoming more like an apocalyptic cult, or one of the intensely ideological authoritarian parties of 20th century Europe.” (M. Lofgren, “Goodbye to All That,” Truthout, September 3, 2011)

Resentment Abhors a Vacuum
Lynch makes a very important point beyond the question of ideology, however. It is that Trump and other vicious, far-right Republicans have a real social basis among (though Lynch does not specify race, gender, or class) white male lower-middle and working class whites who are loaded with anger at gays, feminism, immigrants, and (Lynch might have added) at Blacks, welfare recipients, gang-bangers, tree-huggers, and (…fill in the blank).
Where Lynch, too, goes wrong is by rooting this right-wing anger simply in reaction to “social progress.” It would be more accurate, I think, to call it a desperate and misdirected reaction to socioeconomic regression and insecurity in America’s neoliberal New Gilded Age. Listen to the reflections of left activist and essayist Vincent Emmanuelle on why his older white working class neighbors in deindustrialized Gary, Indiana back Trump:

“Beyond racist platitudes and xenophobic rants, what’s Trump’s appeal? To me, it’s obvious: he says whatever he wants…Trump’s unscripted tirades leave no establishment political figure or cultural icon untouched. In many ways, he’s channeling decades of white working class anger and disillusionment with the American political-economic system (a system Trump has greatly benefited from, no doubt).”

“In the teleprompter-age, people rarely witness even a glimpse of authenticity. …The other day, I was speaking with my father about politics when he informed me that many of his childhood friends support Trump. Most of these guys are current or former union members and absolutely dependent on the benefits they’ve earned via contracts negotiated by organized labor. Yet, they hate unions. And they loathe immigrants, even though they come from immigrant families. In short, they’re ideologically confused….They, like most people, go to work, watch sports, party with friends and raise their children. They’re not bankers, or hedge fund managers, nor are they military big-shots or political lackeys. They’ve never been members of white supremacist organizations or extreme-right political parties. In short, they’re not part of the so-called establishment.”

“…From the perspective of class, Trump’s supporters should be socialists or at the very least liberals. The white working class, like their Latino and black counterparts, but to a lesser extent, has endured decades of savage neoliberal economic programs. Their jobs have been shipped overseas. And their retirements have been plundered. As a result, their neighborhoods and childhood communities have crumbled and fallen prey to drug addiction and gang violence. They’re frustrated and upset, and for good reason, but at all the wrong people and institutions.” (V. Emmanuel, “Donald Trump, Working Class Whites, and the Left,” ZNet, August 4, 2015)

A critical piece to add here – and Emmanuel does – is that leftists and progressives have done an exceedingly piss-poor job of connecting to, organizing, and directing that anger at the right people and institutions – that is, at the corporate and financial aristocracy and the military empire that props up the decadent, planet-murdering-death-by-amusement-and -propaganda profits system at home and abroad.

Anger and resentment abhor a vacuum. If the right has one great virtue to angry and insecure white working and lower middle class people, it is that it sounds furiously angry at evil Others who are giving The American Working Man the shaft.

It’s not just an American problem. And it’s hardly new. A left vacuum in Weimar Germany helped recruit millions of German workers to Hitler’s Nazi Party. French workers who used to vote Socialist and Communist end up backing the Le Pens for this reason. European “social democracy” and British “Labour’s” tepid subordination to the neoliberal agenda concedes considerable working and lower middle class “populist rage” to European neo-fascism. Golden Dawn threatens to capitalize on Syriza’s humiliation by Europe’s dictatorship of unelected financial institutions.

We on the “radical Left” can call it all “false consciousness” (accurate to no small degree) and even perhaps “pathetic” and run away in horror or we (as Emmanuel advocates) can try to engage with the nation’s angry white workers (and working class retirees) and try to overcome ruling class divide-and-conquer by helping those “ordinary Americans” (a curious phrase) direct their rage at the nation’s actual economic, political, and military power elites – not at comparatively powerless scapegoats.

Trumping Sanders
Yes, but what about Bernie Sanders? A different but related question beyond the problem of what and who Trump represents is why the U.S. media has run so strongly with the “authentic” and angry Trump story as the quadrennial presidential extravaganza heats up. There are two key answers I think. The first is that the proto-fascistic Trump provides a useful focus for corporate media to divert citizens from focusing on what ought to be the most important news story in the presidential primary season so far: the big crowds and support that the populist and nominally socialist Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders is getting with his forthright denunciations of the nation’s extreme economic inequalities and corporate plutocracy. I’m no great fan of Sanders, as is clear from my recent publication record (which includes numerous criticisms of the not-so “independent” Vermont Senator from the “radical left” and most particularly from an anti-imperial, anti-Democratic Party standpoint). Still, I am fully aware that Sanders is tapping and articulating widespread popular and progressive anger over the mind-boggling over-concentration of wealth and power that has taken place in the U.S. over the last four decades. He is also advancing domestic social programs that have widespread public support: seriously progressive taxation, the re-legalization of union organizing, major federal jobs and infrastructure programs, single-payer health insurance, and more. And Sanders is doing all this with a passable measure of authenticity – something for which he is often praised in comparison to the forced and fake-populism of Hillary Clinton (who is such a flawed candidate and poor campaigner that establishment talk is now surfacing of a Joe Biden bid).

The U.S. corporate media is not fascist but it has predictably demonstrated a far greater willingness to cover an authentic neo-Mussolini like Donald Trump than to give exposure to an authentic wannabe Mitterand like Bernie Sanders. Trump’s advantage over Sanders in media attention is about more than Trump’s billions and his status as a notorious “entertainment” personality. It also reflects the fact that his spiteful far-right world view matches up with the malicious authoritarian ideological imperatives of the wealth-concentrating, mass-incarcerating, permanent war-waging, privatizing, and victim-blaming neoliberal-capitalist era. Sanders’ “Scandinavian” and social-democratic progressivism – notwithstanding its tepid nature and its captivity within the corporate-managed Democratic Party – does not pass the authoritarian smell-test of a corporate media that seeks to maintain a political vacuum even to the mild portside of corporate Democrats like Hillary and Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, and Joe Biden.

Making Jeb and Hill Look Reasonable
The second answer and the second political and ideological function of Trump is that his ugly and vicious madness, buffoonery, narcissism, and revanchism (and that of other GOP proto-fascists like Ted Cruz and the rest) help make the “mainstream” Big Money candidates Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton look reasonable, responsible, respectable, mature, and trustworthy by comparison.  Never mind that both of those candidates are deeply captive and loyal to the unelected and interrelated dictatorships of money and empire that have turned the United States into a grotesquely unequal plaything of the rich.  Never mind they will both act to further the United States’ wretched devolution into a decadent rentier society in which (as Sanders notes again and again) the top 1% owns more wealth than the bottom 90% – a  “world’s richest nation” where  more than 45 million people (roughly 15 percent of the population) live below the federal government’s notoriously inadequate poverty level, where overall life expectancy has actually dropped for the first time in history, and where female life expectancy has fall from fourteenth to forty first in the world since 1985 (and where …the list of terrible national New Gilded Age indicators goes on and on).  Never mind that Jeb Bush now advocates the arch-reactionary “phasing out of Medicare” or that the militantly corporatist Hillary promises to be one the most cold-blooded imperialists on record. Compared to a Trump, a Ted Cruz, a Ben Carson, or a Rick Santorum (spiteful proto-fascists all), or to a Rand Paul (a libertarian flake) or, I suppose, to the dominant media’s preposterous portrayal of Bernie Sanders as a “far out radical leftist,” Jeb and Hill (they of the dynastic corporate Bush and Clinton machines) look relatively sane and trustworthy.

Trump’s absurdity and clownish behavior make him a distant long-shot for the Republican nomination. “The Donald” is not a viable politician. Still, Trump has become “a thing,” so to speak, for the reasons discussed above.  We would do well to make a serious and genuinely progressive effort to address and more properly channel the legitimate lower-middle and working class white anger that a malevolent and sociopathic billionaire bully like Donald Trump is able to exploit, with no small help from a media system owned by a ruling class that will always prefer an authoritarian fascist to even a milquetoast and nominal democratic socialist.

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

Bernie Sanders, Dr. King, and the Triple Evils

08/08/15 0 COMMENTS

teleSur English, August 2, 2015Bernie Sanders, Dr. King, and the Triple Evils

In the final years of his life, the increasingly radical Black Civil Rights, peace, and social justice leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke and wrote against what he called “the triple evils that are interrelated.”  The first such evil was racism, deeply understood to mean not just prejudiced white sentiments and formal segregation in the U.S. South but the racially separate and unequal functioning of the nation’s basic institutions and social structures.
The second evil was poverty and economic inequality – class injustice, which King rooted in capitalism. That system, King felt, “produces beggars” alongside luxuriant opulence, necessitating “the radical redistribution of economic and political power.”

The third evil was U.S. military imperialism – no mere afterthought in King’s critique of the American System. Explaining why he had turned openly against Washington’s monstrous war on Vietnam in 1967, King argued that conscience did not permit him to remain silent on the crimes the “strange [American] liberators” were committing in Southeast Asia.  At the same time, he noted, his condemnation of America’s role as “the leading purveyor of violence in the world today” (a description that still rings true today) was strongly linked to his struggles against racial and economic disparity in the U.S.

Reflecting on the race riots that washed across U.S. cities in the summers of 1966 and 1967, King blamed the reactionary posture of “the white society, unprepared and unwilling to accept radical structural change.” He also attributed the violence to U.S. militarism. The Pentagon, King noted, sent poor blacks to the front killing lines to a disproportionate degree. It modelled the destructive notion that violence was a reasonable response and even a solution to social and political problems. Black Americans and others sensed what King called “the cruel irony of watching Negro and white boys on TV screens as they kill and die together for a nation that has been unable to seat them together in the same school. We watch them in brutal solidarity burning the huts of a poor village, but we realize that they would never live on the same block in Detroit,” King said.

At the same time, King knew that U.S. war and militarism stole resources from the nation’s briefly declared and barely fought “War on Poverty.”  Besides murdering peasants and others in Southeast Asia, the deadly imperial expenditures had crushed “hope for the [U.S.] poor – both black and white.” The anti-poverty program was “broken and eviscerated as if it were some idle plaything of a society gone mad” on a militarism that drew “men and skills and money like some demonic destructive suction tube…A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift,” King added, “is approaching spiritual death.”

Recently, the nominally democratic-socialist, Scandinavia-admiring Democratic Party presidential candidate and U.S Senator (“I”-VT) Bernie Sanders spoke to Dr. King’s old organization – the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) – in an attempt to demonstrate his commitment to racial justice. Reflecting the influence of the Black Lives Matter movement that has arisen in response to racist police killings, Sanders came to the SCLC armed with a surplus of terrible statistics on US racial disparities and institutional racism. He showed himself knowledgeable on these topics, though he was far too ready to portray racism as merely an economic problem and he failed to mention the persistent deep de facto residential and educational segregation – the continuing American race apartheid – that contributes richly to racial inequality in the US today.

Sanders seemed eager to wrap himself in the legacy of Dr. King.  Bernie trumpeted his own youthful work in the 1960s Civil Rights Movement.  He quoted King on the disgraceful existence of mass poverty in a land of prosperity and on the obscenity that (as King noted in Memphis, Tennessee just days before his assassination) “most of the poor people in our country are working every day…and…making wages so low they cannot begin to function in the mainstream of the economic life of our nation.” After praising King for understanding that (in Sanders’ words) “it is useless to try to address race without also taking on the larger issue of [economic] inequality” (one might counter that it is essential to fight racism and racial division to struggle usefully against economic injustice), Sanders moved into long, fact-filled reflections on wealth and income inequality and corporate plutocracy in contemporary New Gilded Age America.  He reiterated his standard campaign denunciations of the Republican Party, the right-wing billionaire Koch brothers, and the Supreme Court’s oligarchic Citizens United decision.   He denounced Republican efforts to disenfranchise Black voters. He called for major federal jobs programs and infrastructure investments, combined with progressive taxation and single-payer health insurance, to fight poverty, create good jobs, and redistribute wealth and power in the U.S.

It was a good progressive speech on numerous levels.  Dr. King would have politely applauded throughout most of it. At the same time, the great Civil Rights leader would have been disturbed by the absence in Sanders’ oration of any comprehension or concern whatsoever regarding the last of King’s “triple evils.” As King would certainly note if he were alive today, Bernie is – just like some of King’s fellow democratic-socialist Civil Rights and anti-poverty leaders (Bayard Rustin, Michael Harrington, and A. Phillip Randolph) in the mid-1960s – hung up on the U.S. war machine.

Sanders’ silence on the final component of King’s great triplet at the SCLC is consistent with his long and ongoing record of supporting Washington’s criminal military adventures (when they are commanded by U.S. Presidents from the Democratic Party) abroad and Israel’s crimes against the Palestinians.  The Senator barrels ahead, calling for expensive (and desperately needed) domestic social and environmental programs without making any serious reference to how the United States’ gargantuan war budget devours more than half of the nation’s federal discretionary spending – without any attention to Dr. King’s warnings on “spiritual death.” He upholds the social-democratic Scandinavian welfare states as a role model for the U.S. without noting the critical fact that Denmark, Norway, and Sweden dedicate comparatively tiny portions of their budgets to military spending. He seems unwilling to acknowledge that the U.S. cannot have the progressive changes he advocates as long as it remains a military superpower with tentacles of deadly and vastly expensive force in nearly every corner of the planet.

Related to all this, Sanders does not seem to have any of Dr. King’s accurate historical sense of the United States’ longstanding misconduct at home and abroad. At the end of his SCLC speech, Sanders said that ordinary Americans need to “once again make the United States the leader in the world in the fight for economic and social justice, for environmental sanity and for a world of peace.” It was a curiously propagandistic statement with little respect for the historical record. Dr. King would rightly have found it very odd.

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

Bernie’s Top Five Race Problems: The Unbearable Whiteness of Nominal Nordic Socialism

08/08/15 0 COMMENTS

Counterpunch, August 4, 2015

Racism as Just an Economic Problem

The nominally socialist Democratic Party presidential candidate Bernie “sheep dog” Sanders, from 95% white Vermont, has, it turns out, has some race problems – at least five by my count. The first one, very much on his display in his speech to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s old organization the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) last July 25th, is his economistic tendency to downplay the significance of race and the importance of specifically anti-racist struggle.

Reflecting the influence of the Black Lives Matter movement that has arisen in response to racist police killings, Sanders addressed the SCLC to demonstrate his commitment to racial justice. He came armed with a surplus of terrible statistics on US racial disparities and institutional racism. Sanders seemed eager to wrap himself in the legacy of Dr. King. “Bernie” (as his liberal; and progressive fans like to call him) trumpeted his own youthful work in the 1960s Civil Rights Movement. He quoted King on the disgraceful existence of mass poverty in a land of prosperity and on the obscenity that (as King noted in Memphis, Tennessee just days before his assassination or execution) “most of the poor people in our country are working every day…and…making wages so low they cannot begin to function in the mainstream of the economic life of our nation.”

After praising King for understanding that (in Sanders’ words) “it is useless to try to address race without also taking on the larger issue of [economic] inequality” Sanders moved into long, fact-filled reflections on wealth and income inequality and corporate plutocracy in contemporary New Gilded Age America. He reiterated his standard campaign denunciations of the Republican Party, the right-wing billionaire Koch brothers, and the Supreme Court’s oligarchic Citizens United decision. He called for major federal jobs programs and infrastructure investments, combined with progressive taxation and single-payer health insurance, to fight poverty, create good jobs, and downwardly redistribute wealth and power in the U.S.

He showed himself knowledgeable on racial disparities in the U.S. at the SCLC. Still, he was far too ready to portray racism as merely an economic problem that can be solved with social-democratic economic solutions producing enough to go around for everyone. Sanders is right that serious anti-racism needs to be coupled with opposition to the class and economic inequalities that – he might have added but did not – (a) have done so much to create racial divisions and (b) thrive on racial fragmentation in the majority working class. But it is equally true that (c) it is useless to try to organize meaningfully and effectively against economic paulstreetinequality in the U.S. without struggling to overcome fierce racial divisions that have long crippled and undone American popular and working class movements and that (d) overcoming those divisions means a forthright acknowledgement of the special, vicious super-exploitation, torture. and oppression experienced by Black America from the nation’s colonial origins through more than two and a half centuries of Black chattel slavery followed by Jim Crow servitude and segregation, urban ghettoization, and racist mass incarceration. Reparations and more are due for that especially terrible history, which is the main reason for the remarkable distinctive poverty, insecurity, and criminalization experienced by Black Americans today.

The racially specific differences are stark indeed Black Lives Matter has emerged in the context of a savage racial disparity so steep that (to mention some numbers Sanders did not include in his SCLC talk) the median wealth of white US households is 22 times higher than the median wealth of black US households and a four-decades-long campaign of racially disparate hyper-incarceration and criminal marking so extreme that more than 40 percent of the nation’s 2.4 million prisoners are Black while one in three black adult males carries the crippling lifelong stigma of a felony record. Criminal marking is a many-sided barrier to employment, education, housing, borrowing, and more – an obstacle to full and democratic participation in American society so extreme for that so steep that the Black law Professor Michelle Alexander has with no small justice labelled it the “New Jim Crow.” At the same time, however, employers’ discrimination against Blacks is so harsh that U.S. bosses have been shown (in an important study by the sociologist Devah Pager) to be more likely to hire white job applicants with felony records than Black applicants without such records. It’s all much worse than what might one expect if racial inequality was just one part of “the larger question” of economic inequality.

Unequal Minus Separate

That’s Bernie’s first race problem. His second one, also very evident in his SCLC lecture, is a failure to mention the persistent deep de facto residential and educational segregation – the continuing American race apartheid – that contributes richly to racial inequality in the US today. Take the St, Louis area, home to the racist police killing (of Mike Brown) – and the militarized police-state response to protests of that killing – that set off the BLM movement. It is just the seventh most segregated metropolitan region in the US. It has a residential “segregation indice” of 72.3, meaning that nearly three-fourths of the region’s Blacks would have to move to be geographically distributed exactly like whites.

Such extreme residential segregation has little to do with Black choices.  It is a product of class and racial bias in the functioning of real estate markets and home lending and the persistent reluctance of many Caucasians to live in racially mixed communities. It is highly relevant to the nation’s steep racial inequalities because place of dwelling is strongly connected to social and economic status and opportunity. As sociologists Douglas Massey and Nancy Denton noted in their important 1998 book American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass, “housing markets…distribute much more than a place to live; they also distribute any good or resource that is correlated with where one lives. Housing markets don’t just distribute dwellings, they also distribute education, employment, safety, insurance rates, services, and wealth in the form of home equity; they also determine the level of exposure to crime and drugs, and the peer groups that one’s children experience.” By concentrating poor and working class Black people in a certain restricted number of geographical places. US de facto apartheid reinforce Blacks’ persistently disproportionate presence in the lowest socioeconomic places. That basic underlying concentration of poverty and its many ills (including crime, addiction, and family fragility) is deeply reinforced by the nation’s four-decade campaign of “racially disparate” (racist) mass imprisonment and felony branding, conducted under the cover of a “war on drugs.”

Racial inequality is still very much about racial and race-class apartheid in the U.S. today – something to think about the next time you see a nearly all-white audience of liberals applauding Bernie in a predominantly white community in Iowa or New Hampshire.

The Color of Empire

Bernie’s third race problem has to do with his longstanding support for the American military Empire and (especially when the U.S. President is a Democrat) its wars, from Bill Clinton’s bombing of Serbia through and beyond Barack Obama’s bombing of Libya – and for Israel’s ongoing war of terror against its Palestinian subjects and neighbors. Just like some of Dr. King’s fellow democratic-socialist Civil Rights and anti-poverty leaders (Bayard Rustin, Michael Harrington, and A. Phillip Randolph) in the mid-1960s, Bernie is hung up on the U.S. war machine. He barrels ahead, calling for expensive (and desperately needed) domestic social and environmental programs without making any serious reference to how the United States’ gargantuan war budget devours more than half of the nation’s federal discretionary spending. He upholds the social-democratic Scandinavian welfare states as a role model for the U.S. without noting the critical fact that Denmark, Norway, and Sweden dedicate comparatively tiny portions of their budgets to military spending. He seems unwilling to acknowledge that the U.S. cannot have the progressive changes he advocates as long as it remains a military superpower with tentacles of deadly, vastly expensive force in nearly every corner of the planet.

What’s it got to with race? Plenty. The primary targets of the American military Empire and its client state Israel are nonwhite, predominantly Muslim people in the Middle East, Africa, and Southwest Asia. At the same time, nobody inside the U.S. is more in need of the progressive domestic social policy that is fiscally, politically, and culturally pre-empted by the perverted military priorities of the U.S warfare-over-welfare state than the nation’s very disproportionately Black, Latino, and Native American lower classes.

“Bring in All Kinds of People”

Bernie’s fourth race problem has to do with immigration. In a recent online interview, Sanders was asked about his views on that topic by former Washington Post writer Ezra Klein. “You said being a democratic socialist means a more international view,” Klein said. “I think if you take global poverty that seriously, it leads you to conclusions that in the US are considered out of political bounds. Things like sharply raising the level of immigration we permit, even up to a level of open borders.” Sanders interrupted sharply to say, “Open borders? No, that’s a Koch brothers proposal….That’s a right-wing proposal, which says essentially there is no United States… It would make everybody in America poorer. You’re doing away with the concept of a nation state,” Sanders continued, “and I don’t think there’s any country in the world that believes in that… What right-wing people in this country would love is an open border policy. Bring in all kinds of people, work for $2 or $3 an hour. That would be great for them… You think we should open the borders and bring in a lot of low-wage workers, or do you think maybe we should try to get jobs for those [American] kids?” As the bitter arch-sectarians at the World Socialist Website rightly note:

“Sanders’ argument that open borders would “make everybody in America poorer” takes for granted the enforced division between American and immigrant workers and the super-exploitation of the latter. It also implicitly accepts as permanent the continued monopolization of wealth in the US by a tiny financial aristocracy. The expropriation of this parasitic social layer would, in and of itself, provide substantial resources to raise the wages and living standards of all workers in the US, native-born and immigrant alike…By promoting economic nationalism and protectionism, Sanders implicitly argues in favor of American workers lining up behind ‘their’ bosses and government against workers of other countries. So much for his supposed hostility to the American ‘billionaire class!…While Democratic politicians, along with their agents in the trade union bureaucracy, have long utilized the supposed threat of foreign labor to whip up nationalist sentiment within the working class, Sanders takes this position to its logical conclusion, openly promoting the sanctity of the American nation state.”

“The implications of this position are profoundly reactionary. Sanders’ insinuation that open borders would lead to the dissolution of the United States is an argument whose logic leads to fascistic conclusions. Sanders is not a fascist, but his suggestion that immigrants pose a threat to the American nation state recalls the type of arguments and slogans utilized in Germany during the Nazi period. These included the notion of ‘überfremdung’—the inundation of the Fatherland by foreign, non-Aryan elements.”

“The democratic right of workers to live and work wherever they choose is a basic principle of socialism. It is bound up with opposition to nationalism, which is the essential ideology of the bourgeoisie, and promotion of internationalism, i.e., the recognition of the fundamental identity of interests of all workers, regardless of nationality, race, ethnicity, religion or gender, and the struggle to unite workers across national borders against their common exploiters, the capitalists of all countries.”

Beneath the nationalism of Sanders’ opposition to increased immigration (which he immediately identified with “open borders” though Klein meant no such thing) lay an undeniable racial sub-text. When Sanders said that “open borders” would “bring in all kinds of people,” is there any serious doubt that he is referring mainly to people of color from Latin America, Asia, and Africa?

Digging Scandinavia But Not Latin America

These, I think are Bernie’s biggest four race problems. Let me go out on a limb to mention a fifth one. I am referring to Sanders’ recurrent and ritual reference to the “social democratic” Scandinavian states of Sweden, Norway, and Denmark as examples of other nations from which the United States has something to learn when it comes to egalitarian social policy and politics. There are two difficulties here. Forget for a moment that each of these very predominantly white (like Vermont) countries is scarred by white racist and xenophobic attitudes towards nonwhite immigrants. That problem aside, why does Sanders have nothing to say about the recent significant positive social democratic, poverty-reducing, and egalitarian accomplishments of governments that have taken an historic Left turn in Latin America – Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, Uruguay, and Argentina – or about the remarkable poverty-reducing accomplishments of the Cuban Revolution? Among the many explanations for Sanders’ silence on the noteworthy achievement of Latin American populism and socialism (achieved over and against U.S. opposition and intervention), we cannot discount race – a stubborn white reluctance to acknowledge that Uncle Sam might have anything to learn from his supposedly inferior, non-white neighbors in South America.

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

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