The IS Shock, the ‘New Cold War,’ and the Unmentionable History of US Empire

16/03/15 0 COMMENTS

Thanks to the childishly ahistorical and amnesia-inducing narratives disseminated by dominant US corporate media, the origins of contemporary issues and dilemmas go back much further in time than is generally understood in the United States. Look at the abominable fundamentalist Sunni-Salafist Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) — also known as the Islamic State group, which holds de facto state power across much of western Iraq and Syria. In reigning US mass media, ISIS is presented as a great cloud of Islamo-extremist evil that mysteriously and shockingly arose out of thin air last year.  And that is how it is widely misconstrued in the US.

With its horrifying snuff films, its genocidal practices towards Shiite Muslims, Christians, and “polytheists,” and its arch-reactionary social codes imposed through whippings, limb-chopping, beheadings, stoning, eye-gouging, the shooting of children for minor infractions, and its sexual enslavement of women, ISIS is most definitely extremist and perversely evil. But in reality, as numerous left and other commentators have noted, ISIS, is among other things, a predictable “blowback” consequence of the brazenly criminal, mass-murderous United States invasion and occupation of Iraq between March of 2003 and 2011. “Had the United States and its satellites not initiated their war of aggression in Iraq in 2003,” John Pilger recently noted on TeleSur English, “almost a million people would be alive today; and Islamic State, or ISIS, would not have us in thrall to its savagery.”

Quite so. ISIS, a spin off and mutation of al Qaeda, is very much “the child of war.” As the brilliant British foreign correspondent Patrick Cockburn notes, “the movement’s toxic but potent mix of extreme religious beliefs and military skill is the outcome of the war in Iraq since the U.S. invasion of 2003 and the war in Syria since 2011.” The first war collapsed Iraq state authority and took the lid off the nation’s fierce ethno-religious and sectarian divisions. The US fueled those divisions and Sunni uprisings against the corrupt and sectarian Shia government it set up in Baghdad. It produced droves of martyrs killed by US “Crusaders” in places like Fallujah, a Sunni city the US Marines targeted for near destruction (replete with the bombing of hospitals and the use of radioactive ordnance that created an epidemic of child cancer and leukemia) in 2004 – a town ISIS took over last year.

But just as the sectarian war that fed ISIS’s horrific emergence was retreating in Iraq, it was reignited when al Qaeda in Iraq, the predecessor to ISIS, found new soil in which to blossom in neighboring Syria. The US, Europe, and their Middle Eastern allies (Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates) kept a vicious civil war going against Syria’s Assad regime going though it was clear from 2012 on that Assad was not going to fall anytime soon. The US-sponsored war in Syria became the fertile, blood-soaked breeding ground for ISIS’s expansion on both sides of the Iraq-Syria border, something the crooked and incompetent US-backed government in Baghdad was powerless to prevent.

Other recent US policies have fed the extraordinary growth of extreme jihadism modeled on al Qaeda and ISIS. The US-led NATO bombing of Libya in 2011 helped turn that country into a breeding ground for ISIS and related jihadist movements. Thanks in no small part to Obama’s deadly drone, bomb, and other attacks around the Muslim world (the recipient of the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize has bombed at least seven Muslim countries so far), the US has helped advance civil war and Sunni, al Qaeda- and ISIS-inspired jihad across the Middle East and North Africa. Washington has generated an expansion of Salafist terror and extremism beyond the wildest dreams of Osama bin-Laden, who was irrelevantly killed by Obama’s beloved Special Forces in May of 2011.

In reality, though, the United States’ complicity, along with its satellites and allies, in the rise of ISIS, goes back at least to the late Cold War era. As Cockburn notes in his indispensable book The Rise of the Islamic State; ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution(Verso, 2015), the key moment for the rise of political Sunni jihad was 1979, when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan and the Iranian revolution turned Iran into a Shia theocracy. In the summer of 1979, the Jimmy Carter White House secretly granted massive military support to fundamentalist tribal groups known as the mujahidin, direct forebears of al-Qaeda and ISIS.  During the 1980s, a critical and remarkably durable partnership was formed between the United States, Wahhabist Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan’s military and intelligence services. This alliance has been a leading prop of US power in the Middle East. It has also “provided a seed plot for jihadist movements, out of which Osama bin-Laden’s al-Qaeda was originally only one strain” (Cockburn, The Rise, p. 100).

Among the many fundamentalist Sunnis recruited to fight in Afghanistan by the CIA and Pakistan’s intelligence agency (the ISI) was none other than Osama bin-Laden. A son of the Saudi elite, bin-Laden was the architect of the 9/11/2001 jetliner attacks, a predictable “blowback” from the United States’ longstanding mass-murderous actions and presence (Google up “Highway of Death” and “Iraqi children killed by US economic sanctions”) in the Arab and Muslim worlds. The al Qaeda attacks on the US “homeland” gave the George W. Bush administration cover and false pretext for the invasion that ironically brought jihadist Sunni rebellion and ultimately ISIS to Iraq (where al Qaeda had no real presence under Saddam). By Cockburn’s expert account, “The shock of 9/11 provided a Pearl Harbor moment in the U.S. when public revulsion and fear could be manipulated to implement a preexisting neoconservative agenda by targeting Saddam Hussein and invading Iraq. A reason for waterboarding al Qaeda suspects was to extract confessions implicating Iraq rather than Saudi Arabia in the attacks” (“bad information” was precisely the point of the torture).

The full history of the United States’ role in the creation of ISIS goes back further. Since the dawn of the Cold War, the United States has lent its considerable power to the defeat of left and secular nationalism across the Middle East.  As Left Middle East expert Gilbert Achcar noted nine years ago, “when Arab nationalism, Nasserism and similar trends began to crumble [under US pressure] in the 1970s, most governments used Islamic fundamentalism [with US encouragement and assistance] as a tool to counter whatever remnants there were of the left or of secular nationalism.” Along with this came “the neoliberal turn of the last quarter century” – the spread of alienating capitalist and commercial forces and values. “Neoliberal globalization,” Achcar explained, “has brought about the disintegration of the social fabric and of social safety nets.”  This led to widespread social disarray and anxiety, fueling “violent assertions of ‘identity,’ extremism or fanaticism….religious [and/] or political…”

It was an example of what Achcar rightly called “the classic tale of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice.” Washington “let some kind of genie out of the bottle, but they can’t control it and, after a while, it turns against them.” Further: “The combination of their own repression of progressive or secular ideologies and the subjective failure – the bankruptcy of these ideologies, aggravated by the collapse of the Soviet Union – left the ground open to the only the ideological channel of anti-Western protest available, which was Islamic fundamentalism” – itself long “tolerated and even used and encouraged by the local regimes and by the United States.”

None of this significant history makes it into the “mainstream” US media and politics culture. That makes it impossible for anyone who relies on that culture for information on world events to respond to the rise of ISIS with anything but clueless surprise and astonished horror of the kind that supports yet more of the very imperial US policy that has done so much to create the terrible mess.

The same problem plagues US “mainstream” coverage of the “new Cold War” that has arisen between the US and Russia in connection with the Ukraine crisis. As far as anyone might tell from the usual ahistorical and decontextualized US coverage and commentary, the current crisis dates from Russia’s seizure of Crimea in late February and early March of 2014, widely portrayed in US media as an unprovoked outrage explained by little more than the rapacious imperialism of yet another new “Hitler”: Russian premier Vladimir Putin. There’s nothing in this account about how Crimea’s mostly Russian population voted overwhelmingly to return to Russia a voluntary popular referendum. Or about how the United States masterminded and sponsored a right-wing coup in Ukraine’s capital Kiev in February of 2014, hatching a toxic new pro-US regime that includes numerous highly placed neo-Nazis and relies on neo-fascist shock troops whose leaders call for the liquidation of “the Moscow-Jewish mafia” and “other scum,” including leftists, feminists, trade unionists, environmentalists, and gays. Washington was happy to work with such unsavory elements in its determination to enlist Ukraine in the western-imperial military alliance (the so-called North Atlantic Treaty Organization – NATO), to seize control of Ukraine’s abundant natural gas resources, and to displace Russia as the leading supplier of Europe’s gas. There’s nothing in the US media, of course, about Russia’s longstanding legitimate sphere of national interest in Eastern Europe, especially in Ukraine, or about the long history of foreign military powers invading Russia, with disastrous consequences, through that country.

In reality, the “new cold war” goes back to the early 1990s, when, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, a key debate occurred within the first administration of US President Bill Clinton. One side in this debate called for a Russian policy similar to the US Marshall Plan in Western Germany after WWII. It advocated providing significant economic and social assistance to assist Russia on the path to recovery, modernization, and solid reintegration into the world as a proud and independent player in the global community of nations. The other and victorious side argued that Boris Yeltsin’s Russia should still be humiliated and ostracized and treated as a potential enemy and obstacle to America’s quest for “unipolar” global hegemony. This was the position argued by the grand US-imperial geopolitical strategist Zbigniew Brzezinski, whose acolytes in the Clinton White House included US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and National Security Adviser Anthony Lake.  It informed the US decision (contrary to George HW Bush’s promise to former Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev) to expand NATO into Eastern Europe, even and even quite provocatively into the former Soviet Baltic republics – no small humiliation on top of an IMF-imposed economic “shock therapy” that slashed Russia’s GDP to a smaller size than the US “defense” (empire) budget.

This naturally generated a nationalist reaction among Russians, who observed that Washington was still treating them like hated adversaries even after they got rid of “communism” – the supposed basis for the United States’ Cold War hostility to Russia. Russian nationalist sentiments only increased with the Balkan Wars and the US decisions to wage a NATO war in Kosovo and to bomb Serbia – this over Russia and China’s opposition and despite Yeltsin’s offer to negotiate a peaceful resolution of the Kosovo conflict.

That was the rich historical die in which was cast the ascendancy of Russian strongman Vladimir Putin and a new Cold War marked among other things by a resumed, reckless armaments build up between the two nuclear powers.

There are common threads in this unmentionable history.  One is the long shadow of the militant Russia-hater Brzezinski, a key architect behind both the original US Cold War policy of sponsoring Islamic fundamentalism and the “new Cold War” policy of humiliating post-Soviet Russia. Another is US hostility to anything smacking of socialism, social democracy, and independent popular nationalism in other nations, be it in Nasser’s Egypt, Soviet-allied Afghanistan (a bastion of human and women’s rights compared to the periods before and after),  Russia (a great nation that developed with some real accomplishments outside capitalism between through the 1970s), Milosevic’s Serbia (which antagonized the US with its resistance to Western dictates of neoliberal privatization and “free market” fundamentalism).

Another common theme is Washington’s endless quest to control global fossil fuel resources, long understood by US policy makers as a strategically hyper-significant form of critical imperial leverage over other nations. The United States wouldn’t have been deeply involved in the Middle East since World War II but for that region’s unmatched oil reserves.  Today, US elites lust over the vast gas and oil resources found not just in Ukraine but also in Russia itself, which Washington would love to dismember after somehow collapsing Putin’s regime.

Careful observers will note that the same imperial, anti-democratic, and petroleum-obsessed themes run though US policy towards oil-rich Venezuela, where Washington under Obama as under Bush has recently supported another attempted military and business coup to overthrow the democratically elected Chavista government. The Bolivarian state in Caracas has committed what US policymakers consider the unpardonable sins of national independence, popular democracy, and egalitarian wealth distribution, including the use of fossil fuel revenues for the related purposes of reducing poverty, inequality, and autonomous national and regional development beyond and against the dictates of US planners.

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

Sources consulted in the writing of this essay include: Patrick Cockburn, The Rise of the Islamic State; ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution (Verso, 2015); Noam Chomsky and Gilbert Achcar, Perilous Power: The Middle East and U.S. Foreign Policy(Paradigm, 2007); Gilbert Achcar, “Interview: New But Still Cold,” LeftEast, December 19, 2014 

Barack Obama, Monty Python, and the U.S. Threat to Venezuela

11/03/15 0 COMMENTS

ZNet, March 11, 2015

As I’ve always said about Barack Obama, you’ve almost got to admire his cynical Orwellian chutzpah.  Reading some talking points of Empire, the United States President recently told his fellow US-of-Americans that Venezuela – yes, Venezuela – is an “unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States.” Obama declared a “national emergency” to deal with that threat. The perceptive Canadian observer Graeme Cheadle offered the following reflection on Obama’s declaration in an online communication:

“Venezuela’s air force is the 43rd largest in the world (smaller than Singapore’s), its navy is smaller than Cameroon’s, and its army has fewer tanks than Uganda’s. Its total defense expenditures come to about 1.7% of those of the United States. The US was recently implicated in a coup attempt against the Venezuelan government, not the other way around. Yet somehow Venezuela is the threat? Reminds me of Reagan’s 1986 warning that the Nicaraguan Sandinistas were just ‘two days driving time’ from Harlingen, Texas, or the response given by the Mexican ambassador to the United States in 1961 to Kennedy’s call for collective action against Cuba: ‘If we publicly declare that Cuba is a threat to our security, 40 million Mexicans will die laughing.’”

Shall US citizens rush to the military recruiting office, stock up on weapons and ammunition, form militias, and prepare to defend the nation’s borders because …the Venezuelans are coming? Will the deadly Latin American revolutionists arrive by land? By sea? By air?  Will they perhaps dig underground, burrowing beneath Florida to emerge from the infields at Major League Baseball spring training and exhibition game diamonds?  Yes, it’s like something out of Monty Python’s Flying Circus: absurd.

I learned about Obama’s declaration after finishing British Middle East correspondent Patrick Cockburn’s important new book The Rise of the Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution (Verso, 2015). Cockburn writes (among other things) about two governments that might well be legitimately be understood as a threat to the security of US citizens: Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.  Together with their US sponsors, these two governments nurtured the rise of Islamic terrorist organizations including al Qaeda, which on September 11, 2001 carried out the most spectacular foreign assault on US soil since the War of 1812, killing thousands of innocent US citizens. Like its heir ISIS, al Qaeda was funded largely by Saudi oil sheiks.  Most of the 9/11 attackers were Saudi nationals. Both governments, along with Turkey and the other Persian Gulf oil kingdoms, are heavily implicated in the emergence and consolidation of ISIS, a genuine threat to life and sanity within and beyond the Middle East.

Neither Saudi Arabia nor Pakistan was invaded or otherwise targeted for US punishment after 9/11. Indeed, the US let bin-Laden relatives and other elite Saudis flee the US before they could be investigated right after the jetliner attacks.  Not long thereafter, Washington backed and sponsored a failed military, business, and media coup attempt against Venezuela’s democratically elected and highly popular socialist president Hugo Chavez. Perhaps Washington wanted to seize and secure Venezuela’s vast oil reserves prior to its planned and brazenly petro-imperial invasion of Iraq, an oil-rich nation that (contrary to the claims of the George W. Bush White House, dutifully disseminated by most US “mainstream” media) had nothing to do with al Qaeda and 9/11 (and no great stocks of “weapons of mass destruction”).  By Cockburn’s expert account, “The shock of 9/11 provided a Pearl Harbor moment in the U.S. when public revulsion and fear could be manipulated to implement a preexisting neoconservative agenda by targeting Saddam Hussein and invading Iraq.  A reason for waterboarding al Qaeda suspects was to extract confessions implicating Iraq rather than Saudi Arabia in the attacks.” (“Bad information” was precisely the point of the torture.)

On what grounds did Obama justify his latest Monty Python-like statement on Venezuela, which accompanied a White House executive order slapping economic sanctions on seven top Venezuela officials? He recycled standard trumped-up US charges accusing the Caracas government of corruption and unjust, authoritarian state repression of political protestors – protesters, the President did not mention, who have been significantly funded and otherwise sponsored by United States agencies hoping to de-stabilize Venezuela.  The deeper US goal is to assist in the overthrow of that nation’s democratically elected Left government and its replacement by a Big Business and US- (Empire-) friendly regime, less encumbered by concern for popular aspirations and social needs.

But of course, if corruption and the oppression of domestic populations (both much less pervasive in Venezuela than in most other nations, including the United States itself!) are grounds for Washington to declare a foreign government a threat to US security, then most states on the planet would qualify for the designation.

Which brings us back to Saudi Arabia, one of most corrupt nations in the world and very possibly the most oppressive and reactionary state on Earth. If ‘totalitarianism’ has any meaning,” the leading Middle Eastern expert Gilbert Achcar noted seven years ago, “that’s totalitarianism there [in Saudi Arabia].” By Sarah Flounders’ accurate account:

“Saudi Arabia is an absolute and brutal dictatorship. The country is named after the royal Saud family that has expropriated the country’s fabulous oil wealth, and treats it as a wholly owned family asset. Their control is maintained by massive state-organized repression. All forms of political dissent and social organization, from political parties to trade unions, are banned under pain of death.”

“Executions by decapitation in public squares are held on average once every four days. Capital crimes include adultery, homosexuality and political opposition to the regime. Public stonings are also a common form of execution. Other punishments include eye gouging, limb amputation, tooth extraction, surgical paralysis and public lashings.”

“Government departments are treated as fiefdoms … Personal and state funds are completely commingled. All family members are guaranteed astronomical monthly allowances from birth…60 percent of the population live[s] below the poverty line… More than 1.5 million migrant women work in domestic slavery [and]… the International Trade Union Confederation … report[s] alarming levels of child labor, discrimination and forced labor … women have no rights to employment, property or education. They cannot step out of their homes unless covered head-to-toe in a long black abaya and accompanied by a male family member.”

The vicious elite atop this horrific society has provided more funds and arms than any other national ruling class to al Qaeda, ISIS, and related al Qaeda-inspired (and now ISIS-inspired) forms of Islamist terrorism, whose leading single accomplishment before the recent formation of the ISIS “caliphate” was the 9/11 attacks on US soil.

Obama makes no denunciations of Saudi Arabia and no calls for Saudi Arabian democracy, reform, transparency and regime change.  He orders no punitive sanctions when it comes to this ghastly, terror-financing state.  Quite the opposite.  Last January, Barack Obama responded to the death of Saudi Arabia’s medieval monarch King Abdullah Bin Abdul-Aziz by hailing the despot’s “vision” and “courage.” Obama asked “God” to “grant [Abdullah] peace” and saluted the departed despot’s commitment to the sacred “partnership” between the U.S. and the Saudi kingdom.

Abdullah’s death was followed by high-profile visits to the Saudi royal palace in Riyadh on the part of the President and First Lady. Also sent to pay tribute to the deceased royal brute: U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, CIA Director John Brennan. U.S. General Lloyd Austin (head of U.S. Central Command for the region), U.S. Senator John McCain, and leading U.S. House Democrats Nancy Pelosi and Joe Cowley. General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, announced a research and essay competition in honor of the king, who Dempsey called “a man of remarkable character and courage” – a fascinating act by a top military official in a nation that claims to have been born in popular opposition to absolute monarchy and hereditary aristocracy. It was like something out of, well, Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

TeleSur tells us that Obama’s declaration is to be taken seriously: “This type of declaration tends to precede military aggressions, either by its own hand, as was the case of the bloody invasion of Panama to overthrow Manuel Noriega in 1989, as well as the one issued in relation to Southeast Asia that culminated with the Indochina war, especially in Vietnam, starting in 1964. But it can also be the prelude to military operations of a different kind, in which the United States acts jointly with its European minions, grouped under NATO, and the region’s oil theocracies.” Indeed, as TeleSur and other outlets have been reporting, the White House, Pentagon, and CIA recently supported another attempted right wing business-military-media coup in Venezuela.  There is every reason to think that US public and private agencies are at work preparing the ground for new putsch efforts.

Nobody who has followed the career and record of Barack “The Empire’s New Clothes” Obama without silly imperial blinders on should be remotely surprised to see the United States’ fake-progressive and fake “peace” president following in George W. Bush’s footsteps on that score. Obama backed a right wing coup that overthrew the democratically elected government of Honduras in 2009.  Three years before that, in the foreign policy chapter of his personally and nationally narcissistic campaign book The Audacity of Hope (2006), then presidential candidate Obama criticized “left-leaning populists” like Hugo Chavez for thinking that developing nations “should resist America’s efforts to expand its hegemony” and for daring – imagine! – to “follow their own path to development” [emphasis added].” Such dysfunctional “reject[ion] [of] the ideals of free markets and liberal democracy” along with “American” ideas like “the rule of law” and “democratic elections” (interesting terms for the heavily state-sponsored U.S. effort to impose authoritarian financial and corporate-state policy on poor countries) would only worsen the situation of the global poor, Obama claimed. Obama did not comment on the remarkable respect the U.S. showed for “democratic elections” and “the rule of law” when it supported an attempted military coup to overthrow the democratically elected Chavez government in April of 2002. Obama also ignored a preponderance of evidence showing that the “free market” neoliberal “Washington Consensus” had significantly deepened and expanded poverty and inequality across the world and in the US itself.

Beneath the at once childish and cynical White House rhetoric targeting socialist Venezuela but not the Islamist terror-sponsor Saudi Arabia as a “national security threat,” what’s really going on is that the bipartisan US “foreign policy” (imperial) establishment cannot forgive the popular and democratic Bolivarian government of Venezuela for choosing to use its political influence and its giant oil resources in ways that do not fit Washington and Wall Street’s imperial directives. Venezuela prioritizes Latin American regional independence, social justice, and the reduction of poverty and inequality, in accord with popular demands and elementary democratic principles. Washington has always looked with extreme displeasure upon such disobedience.

Things are different in the neo-feudal oil principality of Saudi Arabia, where the populace is brutally repressed with some of the military hardware the regime purchases in astonishing quantities from U.S. “defense” (Empire) contractors like Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and Raytheon.  The despotic Saudi regime is much friendlier to US oil corporations and to the giant Wall Street financial institutions who “service” trillions of surplus Saudi petrodollars.

Meanwhile, today as on the eve of the 9/11, the greatest threat by far and away to the security of U.S. citizens is the far-flung and mass-murderous U.S. Empire, which wreaks havoc, distributes means of destruction, and cultivates deadly “blowback” the world over.

Paul Street is the author of numerous books, including The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (Paradigm, 2010) and They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm, 2014).

Beyond Twelve Years a Slave

11/03/15 0 COMMENTS

Black Agenda Report, March 11, 2015

I am never more than slightly encouraged about white America’s capacity for breaking from the United States’ deeply embedded racism when I hear one of my fellow US Caucasians report that they’ve viewed the Black British director Steve McQueen’s powerful movie Twelve Years a Slave and were “moved” (sometimes to tears) by it. It’s good that some US whites have retained enough inner humanity to recognize and recoil from the revolting racist cruelty and abominable torment that lay at the heart of the Southern US slave system depicted in Twelve Years a Slave. Sadly and sickeningly enough, untold millions of white Americans have been induced to think of the slave South as some kind of quaint, benign, and paternalistic time and place when benevolent white masters cared for the black chattel they viewed as inferior “family members.”

Twelve Years a Slave burst that childish white historical bubble with a relentlessly true-to-life and death portrayal of 1840s and 1850s slave traders, slave-owners, and slave-drivers as ferocious and perverse sociopaths, exploiters, torturers, sadists, and rapists. Based on the published 1853 narrative of Solomon Northrup, a free Black Northerner who was kidnapped and sold into Georgia cotton slavery, the film rightly portrays the slave system as a living Hell for its Black victims.

Good for McQueen and good, I suppose, for whites and others who have left the movie with a new or newly intensified sense of repugnance at the massive crime that was North American Black slavery. Any other feeling taken from the movie would be a strong indication that one is less than human.

A Bigger White Block: What the United States Owes Black America

Still, we shouldn’t exaggerate the anti-racist moral victory here. White America’s major block when it comes to acknowledging what the United States did and owes to Black Americans through and because of chattel slavery is not a failure to acknowledge that system’s immorality and cruelty. For every white American who idiotically believes that the “old time” South was a happy time and place for slavers and their masters alike, you can two or three more with the elementary decency to recognize that slavery was a nightmare of misery and suffering for slaves. A much bigger and more important block in the white American mind comes around the question of what the United States is obliged to pay Black Americans because of the crime of slavery, committed over two and half centuries stretching from the nation’s colonial origins through the American Revolution (itself largely fought largely to guarantee North American slavery’s survival and expansion) and the Civil War. The answer for most whites on this score is of course “absolutely nothing.”

Here we are talking, or should be talking, about compensation – reparations (yes, the “R word”) – for more than the astonishing loss, trauma, anguish and unpaid labor imposed on and extracted from Black Americans. A brilliant historical literature now shows that, in the words historian Edward Baptist, “the commodification and suffering and forced labor of African Americans is what made the United States powerful and rich” decades before the Civil War. By 1836, Baptist reasonably calculates, nearly half the nation’s economy activity derived directly and indirectly from the roughly 1 million Black slaves (just 6 percent of the national population) who toiled on the nation’ southern cotton frontier. Capitalist cotton slavery was how United States seized control of the lucrative the world market for cotton, the critical raw material for the Industrial Revolution, emerging thereby as a rich and influential nation in the world capitalist system by the second third of the 19th century. As Baptist explains in his recent widely read book The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Rise of American Capitalism (New York: Basic Books, 2014):

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

This is what Baptist calls “the half” that “has never been told”: the dynamic and profitable contribution of cotton slavery to the development of the US capitalist system. Contrary to what many US abolitionists thought before the Civil War, Baptist shows that the systematic terror perpetrated against slaves in the South was about much more than sadism and psychopathy on the part of slave traders, owners, and drivers. Slavery, Baptist demonstrates was a highly cost-efficient method for extracting surplus value from human beings, far superior in that regard to “free” (wage) labor in the onerous work of planting and harvesting cotton. It was an especially brutal form of capitalism, driven by ruthless yet economically “rational” torture along with a dehumanizing ideology of racism – and one that proved the key driving force behind the rise of a powerful national capitalism and great mercantile, banking, and manufacturing fortunes in the “free labor” North and across the entire US before the Civil War.

Consistent with Baptist’s findings, Twelve Years shows slaves being whipped and otherwise abused in accord with their precisely measured productivity in cotton fields. On the whole, however, the greater impression left by the movie is one of highly sexualized and mentally disturbed psychopathy on the part of the masters, something that tends to distract from slavery’s underlying “rational” centrality to US capitalist development. I am afraid that many of the movie’s viewers have been encouraged to continue the abolitionist mistake of separating the sociopathic brutalization of the slaves from the profit imperatives of capital within and beyond the South.

The “Freed” in 1863/65 Narrative: Another Half Left All Too Untold

Another and related great block to white Americans’ proper understanding of what the US owes to Black America goes beyond what people could ever get from Twelve Years a Slave, which ends with Northrop’s return to free life in upstate New York in 1853 (thanks to the intervention of a benevolent white anti-slavery carpenter played by Brad Pitt). I am referring to the widespread narrative that the US set its Black slaves “free” during and after the Civil War.

Okay, Go Compete

This “freed during and after the Civil War” story line is highly problematic on at least three levels. First, there is the absurdity of expecting four million people (the US slave population on the eve of the Civil War) who had been horrifically and systematically disfigured, tortured, traumatized, pulverized, stripped of wealth and income and otherwise savagely abused over centuries by the multiple and unfathomable torments of slavery to be in any kind of condition to suddenly and magically compete on a free and equal basis for jobs, land, education, and businesses with a free white population spared the incredible ordeal of racist total commodification – this in a nation that remained viciously racist in North and West as well as South after the Civil War. Success in the capitalist so-called free market depends largely on what one brings to the market and slavery took everything, or close to it, from those who survived it.

A Poker Chip Analogy

Second, there is the related absurdity – repeated again and again in US history from 1865 through the present day of thinking that Blacks could ever be granted “equal opportunity” to succeed in the white capitalist US without a massive prior redistribution to Black America of wealth and other advantages stolen from it over centuries since the onset of North American Black slavery in the 17th century. Racial (and class and other) inequalities are cumulative and because they accumulate over time, the distinction that defenders of the current racial status quo make between “past and present racism” is inadequate and deceptive. The ongoing need for historical acknowledgement and correction, commonly called reparations, was expressed with a useful metaphor by the Black political scientist Roy L. Brooks nearly two decades ago:

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

Roy Brooks’ surplus “chips” are not quaint but irrelevant hangovers from “days gone by.” Besides having been accumulated largely through blood-soaked expropriation from Black Americans, they are weapons of racial oppression in the present and future. Given what is well known about the relationship between historically accumulated resources and current and future success, the very distinction between past and present racism ought perhaps to be considered part of the ideological superstructure of contemporary white supremacy functioning as an ongoing barrier to black advancement and equality.

Savage Racial Oppression Since the Civil War

Third and last but not least, there is the harsh historical reality that the racist US South was basically permitted to undertake the “reconstruction of Black servitude” (in the words of the anti-racist scholar Stephen Steinberg) to keep Black Americans essentially chained to cotton production in the wake of the Civil War and the aborted effort at anti-racist Reconstruction in the South. Millions of Black Americans journeyed into a type of freedom after the Emancipation Proclamation (1863) and the Thirteenth Amendment (1865) only to fall back under the shadow of involuntary servitude – slavery by another name – shortly thereafter. Reparations are due Black America not only for two plus centuries of chattel slavery but also for the hyper-exploitative system of cotton sharecropping and debt peonage that followed pure slavery’s demise, the Black Pass Codes and ubiquitous racial terror and violence that enforced the restored servitude, and for the political re-disenfranchisement and the Jim Crow segregation that were imposed across the South by extra-judicial terror and law in the final decades of the 19th century (and which lasted through the seventh decade of the 20th century), Reparations are due also for the brutal, commonly violence-enforced system of de facto racial segregation and inequality maintained in the North through the last century and into the present; for the forced, often murderous expulsion of “free” Blacks from thousands of Midwestern and border state “sundown towns” during the late 19th and early 20th centuries; for the present so-called New Jim of “racially disparate” (racist) mass incarceration and felony-marking, not to mention the ongoing shoot-down of hundreds of Black Americans (young Black males especially) by white US police each year.

The savage oppression of Black Americans after the Civil War and slavery’s formal demise should also be considered part of “the half” that “has never been told” – or is at least badly under-told and widely ignored in white majority America – about the US Black historical experience.

The Savage Irony of the Civil War

I’m not sure the post-1865 history isn’t even worse in a way than the long nightmare of slavery. Between 1861 and 1865, more than 700,000 Americans, including 40,000 Black Union soldiers, died in the US Civil War. That epic conflict led to the formal abolition of slavery and was fought essentially over the issue of slavery’s death or survival after January of 1863. “If God wills that [the war] continue,” US President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed in his Second Inaugural Address (March 4, 1865), “until all the wealth piled by the bond-man’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether.’”

To what end did the 40,000 Black Union anti-slavery warriors meet their early demise? For less than a decade, between 1866 and the early 1870s. Baptist notes, “Reconstruction in the South seemed like it might produce a radically transformed society. White resistance was brutal and widespread but the national commitment to emancipation kept federal troops stationed in the South.”   But the commitment was not that strong and did not last very long in the new Age of Capital:

“after 1873, when the industrial economy fell into a deep depression, white America’s conscience wavered. Consumed by labor disputes in the North, Republican leaders were increasingly unlikely to see the free [Black] laborers of the South as people with whom they shared interests….Across the South, night riders went out – hooded in white, burning, raping, beating, and killing. They stole one state’s elections after another. They torched the homes of black folks bold enough to buy land…They rode to Washington to make deals. To resolve the disputed presidential election of 1876, northern Republicans made a corrupt bargain with the South’s Democratic rulers to let the later have ‘home rule.’ The ‘Redeemers’…changed the laws to roll back as much of Reconstruction as they could. By 1900, they had taken away the vote from most Black men, and many of the less reliable white men as well. They also lowered the book of segregation – ‘Jim Crow,’ as people would come to call it – an array of petty and brutal rules [that]….forbade Americans…from enjoying the civil rights to move in public space as equals or have access to the same education and economic opportunities as white.”

Then the Jim Crow South added supreme historical insult to injury. Dixie “built monuments to the defeated generals of their war for slavery, memorialized the old days of the plantation, and wrote histories that insisted that the purpose of the war had been to defend their political rights against an oppressive state,” Baptist notes. “They were so successful at the last goal that they eventually convinced a majority of white Americans, including most historians, that slavery had been benign and that ‘states’ rights’ had been the cause of the Civil War.”

Solomon Northrup at least got to return to a type of freedom (a highly qualified Antebellum Northern version of it) in 1853. For millions of Southern Black ex-slaves, neither the Civil War nor Reconstruction did the trick. The uncompensated crime and tragedy of racial oppression in before and after slavery continues to accumulate its blood and financial cost to this very day, when median white household wealth is 22 times higher than median Black household wealth in the US, when fully 39% of Black American children, compared to just 14% of white US children, live below the federal government’s notoriously inadequate poverty level, and when Black Americans comprise more than 40% of the nation’s giant (2.4 million) prison population. “Long ago” history lives on in ugly racist shame while untold masses of US Caucasians preposterously believe that Black Americans have been given every opportunity to advance and succeed (“the president is Black, isn’t he?”) in a nation that “set them free” in 1863.

Paul Street is the author of Segregated Schools: Educational Apartheid in the Post-Civil Rights Era (Routledge, 2005) and Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis: A Living Black Chicago History (Rowman & Littlefied, 2007).

The Ruling Class Never Lost Its Way – or Its Power

11/03/15 0 COMMENTS

TeleSur English, March 10, 2015

Sun-Washed” Days

Former New York Times columnist Bob Herbert’s recent book Losing Our Way: An Intimate Portrait of a Troubled America (New York: Doubleday, 2014) is one of many recent liberal volumes to pine for the supposedly “golden time” and place that was the post-World War II United States. In the U.S. between 1945 and 1971, Herbert fondly recalls, economic inequality declined, a vast middle class arose, great Civil Rights victories were achieved, jobs were plentiful, the middle class swelled, “high-consumption lifestyles” spread, economic growth took off, the welfare state expanded, and US astronauts flew to the moon. United-States-of-Americans exhibited what Herbert calls “a bold confidence in the future.”

Losing Our Way begins by recalling the “heady sun-washed” 1950s and 1960s, when “everything embodied in the great promise of the United States – freedom, equality, opportunity – appeared to be coming to fruition” and this “proud and triumphant nation …[was]…a dynamic and robust country that served as the economic and cultural role model for the rest of the world.” Near the end of his book, Herbert calls 1960s America “a reasonably egalitarian society.”

Half a century later, in a much less U.S.-centered and more multipolar world, all of that seems like long lost liberal dream. Reflecting more than a generation of upward re-distribution, “homeland” disparity is now so great that the 400 richest Americans possess as much wealth between them as the 150 million poorest. A fraction of the U.S. top 1 percent has more net worth than the bottom 90 percent. The United States and its once ballyhooed middle class seem in persistent decline as poverty and unemployment stalk the nation, along with crumbling infrastructure, shattered hope, and fading expectations.

The question for Herbert is “what happened?” The answer for him and many other liberals is that elite corporate and financial interests seized control of the nation’s politics and society to grab riches and power, squandering national health and development in service to short-term greed. It’s a familiar progressive lament, telling us how big money “fat cats” pushed through tax cuts and deregulation, gutted social welfare programs, smashed unions, and hijacked fiscal and other policies to create a New Gilded Age of savage inequality and abject plutocracy.

The Not So Golden Age

It’s all true enough to no small degree, but there is a far less nostalgic and much more accurate and radical way of looking at the U.S. “Golden Age” and why it collapsed. This different perspective combines acknowledgment of the era’s tendencies towards increased socioeconomic equality and rapid growth with respect for the unique historical circumstances that enabled those tendencies and for the important fact that the U.S. never stopped being a deeply unbalanced and authoritarian, Big Business-run society during its “golden time.” Across the postwar period, Howard Zinn noted in his forgotten classic Postwar America: 1945-1971 (1973), the bottom tenth of the US population – 20 million poor Americans – experienced no increase whatsoever in the share of the national income (a paltry 1 percent). Corporate profits and CEO salaries rose significantly across the Sixties boom as steep US poverty remained firmly entrenched in “the world’s richest nation.” As Zinn elaborated:

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

As the nation spent billions to put astronauts on the moon, millions of 1960s Americans remained ill-clad, ill-fed, and ill-housed. The median U.S. family income in 1968 was $8,362, less than what the Bureau of Labor Statistics defined as a “modest but adequate” income for an urban family of four. The Bureau found that 30 percent of the nation’s working class families were living in poverty and another 30 percent were living under highly “austere” conditions. “Affluence,” historian Judith Stein notes, “was as much as an ideology as a description of U.S. society” in the 1950s and 1960s.

There is much more that is less than flattering to say about “golden age” America. An honest history of the post-WWII U.S. would include:

  • The actual deepening of racial (white over black) U.S. inequality even as overall socioeconomic disparity fell in the nation.
  • The remarkable material and cultural explosion of wasteful mass consumerism and the related vast expansion of global “free trade” and production, both contributing to the emergence of a foreboding environmental crisis by the end of the “golden time.”
  • The defeat of real (single-payer) national government health insurance for all (with the key exception of U.S. citizens 65 years and older after 1965) and the triumph of a highly dysfunctional and authoritarian model of employment-based health insurance.
  • The birth of a bourgeois identity politics that has provided populace-dividing service to the corporate and financial elite across the subsequent long neoliberal era.
  • The criminal and mass-murderous U.S.-imperial wars on Korea, Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia which killed more than six million Asians between 1950 and 1975.
  • The massive expansion of the U.S. Pentagon system and Empire, replete with pervasive and often deadly, mass-murderous U.S. military and political interference in dozens of not-so “sovereign” nations around the world under the cover of the “Cold War”– a manufactured conflict that brought the world to the very edge of nuclear holocaust in the fall of 1962.
  • The “post-WWII labor-capital bargain,” whereby the nation’s newly consolidated mass-production unions relinquished concern for workers’ control, workplace democracy, and social-democratic transformation (including national health insurance) in return for money and benefits for members only and automatic dues collection or labor bureaucrats – a deal that capital significantly revoked after 1970 without any giveback on what labor surrendered. (The “bargain” included the expulsion of Left cadres who had sparked resurgent industrial unionism during the 1930s and 1940s.)
  • The atomizing spread of private television and automobile ownership, the ecologically toxic explosion of regional and interstate highway construction, and the related advent of large-scale white suburban residential and commercial sprawl.

Capital Never Lost its Commanding Position

What really happened to the “golden time?” The positive, “reasonably egalitarian” post-WWII gains and direction whose vicious neoliberal reversal Herbert bemoans reflected an anomalous moment in the history of a rapacious capitalism that was never removed from its position atop U.S. society and reverted to its default long-term inegalitarian and undemocratic tendencies once that moment passed. Between 1930s and the 1970s, it is true, a significant reduction in overall economic inequality (though, again, not of racial inequality) and an increase in the living standards of millions of working class Americans occurred in the U.S.

This “Great Compression” occurred thanks to the rise and expansion of the industrial workers’ movement (sparked to no small extent by Communists and other Left militants), the spread of collective bargaining, the rise of a corporate-liberal New Deal (later “Fair Deal” and “Great Society”) welfare state and the democratic domestic pressures imposed by World War II and subsequent U.S. social movements. Still, core capitalist prerogatives and assets – “private control” and “business for profit” (John Dewey) – were never dislodged, consistent with New Deal champion Franklin Roosevelt’s boast that he had “saved the profits system” from radical change. US capital never lost its way or its dominant role in American society.

Furthermore, the gains enjoyed by ordinary working Americans were made possible to no small extent by the uniquely favored and powerful position of the U.S. economy (and empire) and the remarkable profit rates enjoyed by U.S. corporations after the war, when the U.S. was briefly home to more than half the world’s industrial production. When that remarkable position and those profits were inevitably challenged and rolled back by resurgent Western European and Japanese economic competition in the 1970s and 1980s, the “egalitarian” “golden time” trends that Herbert trumpets were naturally reversed by capitalist elites who had never lost their critical command of the nation’s core economic and political institutions. Middle and working-class Americans have paid the price ever since.

Capitalism 101

Though he uses the Marxian phrase “ruling class” (the “alliance between the corporate class and elected officials”) in Losing Our Way, Herbert is either unable or unwilling to acknowledge that the New Gilded Age he detests is U.S. capitalism returning to its historical wealth- and power-concentrating norm (even though here he could cite the safely non-radical French liberal economist Thomas Piketty). Herbert is aghast that “corporate profits rebounded to record levels after the Great Recession in large part because of savings that management realized by savaging payrolls.” He quotes with disapproval a leading private global economist who told The New York Times that “American business is about shareholder value. You basically don’t want workers. You hire less and you try to find capital equipment to replace them.” Herbert also cites a business executive who worries that U.S. companies have in recent decades been “firing their customers.”

That’s all terrible, of course, but it is sociopathic capitalism 101, right out of Marx for Beginners. It reflects the profits system’s longstanding contradiction between capitalists’ competitive drive to cut labor costs and capitalists’ competitive struggle to realize value (and surplus value) through the sale of the goods and services their employees produce.

Four Strong Points

These criticisms aside, I nonetheless recommend Losing Our Way for four reasons. First, Herbert is a master at something vital that many radical intellectuals do not excel at: telling the personal and human stories of real people at the bottom of the U.S. socioeconomic pyramid. Losing Our Way provides numerous moving portraits of what American working class people are actually experiencing under the rotten system that Leftists properly denounce. We would do well to pay attention to such stories.

Second, Herbert is right to highlight the deadly implications of the mass structural unemployment that has come to afflict millions of U.S. citizens in the neoliberal era. It’s not just that mass joblessness generates widespread poverty, insecurity, and depression (suicide rates spike after job loss) or that “the economy” is damaged by the lost purchasing power of those without “earnings.” It is also that “when Americans are decently employed, it is easy for them to focus on society’s other challenges, from education to environment and everything in-between” (Losing Our Way, p. 255).

That is a very important point. A working class majority that is afraid for its jobs (with good reason) and worried about its basic economic security is often poorly situated to embrace important changes that Left progressives rightly support like real immigration reform, racial justice, a “peace dividend” (involving significant cuts to the Pentagon budget), and the urgently required shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy. The problem is especially acute in a society where capital and its corporate media and politicians relentlessly tell people that progressive change around these and other issues threatens jobs. The zero-sum each-against-all mindset that mass structural joblessness, under-employment, and austerity help engender among millions of U.S. citizens – with no small assistance from dominant ideological institutions – is antithetical to the broader progressive project.

Third, Herbert merits praise for highlighting the problem of crumbling and outdated U.S. infrastructure (roads, bridges, water lines, sewer systems, gas and electric lines, rail-beds and more). This infrastructure crisis is a clear threat to life quality and safety. It is also an obvious place to target for major public investments that would employ millions of jobless Americans in socially and ecologically useful work.

Fourth, even if he fails to name and fully comprehend the system that brings so much misery to ordinary Americans, Herbert is right that no solutions to the problems detailed in Losing Our Way will emerge unless “citizens overcome their reluctance to engage in collective action on an organized and sustained basis…There are good ideas all over the place, even great ideas,” Herbert adds. “But none of them have a prayer of working if the citizenry is not somehow aroused to reclaim American from the powerful moneyed interests – the ‘malefactors of great wealth’…who have been the ones most responsible for driving the nation into such a wretched state of affairs.” That is an issue of popular and social will. It is also and perhaps above all a question of organization, without which even the best progressive reform proposals and radical ideas become largely academic exercises. One need not be a bleeding heart liberal with too much nostalgia for the post-World War II era and too little radical critique of capitalism to take counsel from Herbert’s wise judgment on this score.

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

Capitalist Cotton Slavery and a Case (One Would Think) for Reparations

04/03/15 0 COMMENTS

TeleSur English, February 28, 2015

Edward E. Baptist, The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Rise of American Capitalism (New York: Basic Books, 2014). 

I’ve never quite been a fan of the United States cultural convention called Black History Month (BHM). This is for three reasons. First, it’s always seemed insulting to me that Black Americans are given February – the shortest month of the year and one with little particular significance to the Black historical experience – to honor their past.

Second, BHM’s official representations of that past rarely seem to acknowledge anything close to the fully atrocious and criminal, white-imposed horror of much of that experience. The horror includes two and a half centuries of Black chattel slavery followed by the re-imposition of slavery in all but name across much of the former US Confederacy; many decades of vicious Jim Crow segregation in the US South; and a long history of savage racial inequality and related de facto racial apartheid that continues up to the present, when the median wealth of white US households is 22 times higher than the median wealth of black US households and more than 40 percent of the nation’s2.4 million prisoners are Black.

Third, it can be dangerously misleading to suggest that Black history can be meaningfully broken out from the broader year-around and 239-year record of United States history, segregated into a separate month of its own. The Black experience has always been at the heart and soul of American History, much more than a footnote or appendix to the “bigger” national story.

Every Modern Method of Torture

For a useful antidote to all this, I can think of no better starting point than historian Edward Baptist’s book The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Rise of American Capitalism (New York: Basic Books, 2014). Nobody should accuse Baptist of underplaying the dreadfulness of the US Black historical experience. Among other things, his remarkable and richly researched volume chronicles the astonishing raw violence and terror inflicted on millions of Black Americans who suffered in bondage over the eight decades between US national independence (1783) and the US Civil War (1861-1865).

Baptist is rightly irritated by those who tell you that “the worst thing about slavery as an experience was that it denied enslaved African Americans the liberal rights and liberal subjectivity of modern citizens.” Slavery denied those rights egregiously, of course, but it also murdered Blacks in huge numbers and “stole everything” from surviving slaves through “the massive and cruel engineering required to rip a million people from their homes, brutally drive them to new, disease-ridden places, and make them live in terror and hunger as they continually built and rebuilt a commodity-generating empire…” (Baptist. pp. xviii-xix).

The Half Has Never Been Told tells an unpleasant story. Over a generation, the infant US South grew from a thin coastal belt of burnt-out tobacco plantations into a giant continental Empire of Cotton. This remarkable expansion was rooted in regular and ferocious white violence. The brutality and bloodshed included mass-murderous Indian Removal (cotton slavery required constant westward territorial extension), forced slave migrations, the endemic fracturing of slave families, and, last but not least, the ubiquitous and systematic torture of Black slaves: the regular application of extreme torment to extract ever more production out of a commodified population.  As Baptist observes:

“In the sources that document the expansion of cotton production, you can find at one point or another almost every product sold in New Orleans stores converted into an instrument of torture [used on slaves]: carpenters’ tools, chains, cotton presses, hackles, handsaws, hoe handles, irons for branding livestock, nails, pokers, smoothing irons, singletrees, steelyards, tongs. Every modern method of torture was used at one time or another: sexual humiliation, mutilation, electric shocks, solitary confinement in ‘stress positions,’ burning, even waterboarding…descriptions of runaways posted by enslavers were festooned with descriptions of scars, burns, mutilations, brands, and wounds” (p. 141)

A Great Capitalist Success Story

Baptist’s other and intimately related major argument is with Americans’ tendency to see slavery as a quaint and archaic “pre-modern institution” that had nothing really to do with the United States’ rise to wealth and power.  In this tendency, slavery becomes something “outside of US history” (xix), even an antiquated “drag” on that history. That tendency replicates a fundamental misunderstanding curiously shared by anti-slavery abolitionists and slavery advocates before the Civil War.  While the two sides of the slavery debate differed on the system’s morality, they both saw slavery as an inherently unprofitable and static system that was out of touch with the pace of industrialization and the profit requirements of modern capitalist business enterprise.

Nothing, Baptist shows, could have been further from the truth. Contrary to what many abolitionists thought, the savagery and torture perpetrated against slaves in the South was about much more than sadism and psychopathy on the part of slave traders, owners, and drivers. Slavery, Baptist demonstrates was an incredibly cost-efficient method for extracting surplus value from human beings, far superior in that regard to “free” (wage) labor in the onerous work of planting and harvesting cotton. It was an especially brutal form of capitalism, driven by ruthless yet economically “rational” torture along with a dehumanizing ideology of racism.

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

All told, Baptist calculates, by 1836 nearly half the nation’s economy activity derived directly and indirectly from the roughly 1 million Black slaves (just 6 percent of the national population)  who toiled on the nation’ southern cotton frontier (p. 322). Sectional differences aside, The Half Has Never Been Told shows that “the commodification and suffering and forced labor of African Americans is what made the United States powerful and rich” decades before the Civil War. The US owes much of its wealth and treasure precisely to the super-exploited labor of Black chattel in the 19th century. Capitalist cotton slavery was how United States seized control of the lucrative the world market for cotton, the critical raw material for the Industrial Revolution, emerging thereby as a rich and influential nation in the world capitalist system by the second third of the 19th century:

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

The R Word

These are things – the sheer horror of US cotton slavery and the pivotal centrality of that horrific system to US development and “success” – you never hear about when you take one of those “old time South” plantation tours that are regularly conducted for visitors at many former slave labor camps (plantations) across the former Confederacy. These white-pleasing excursions are dedicated to the myth of the slave Cotton South as a delightful and chivalrous time and place outside the main modern, capitalist, and imperial currents of American history.

Baptist’s important book would seem to raise the question of what Black America is due today in light of the fact that the United States owes its emergence as a wealthy and powerful capitalist state to Black slaves who suffered unimaginable misery and ordeal under the whips, irons, shocks, cages, sickness, disfigurements, heartbreaks, and other torments of capitalist cotton slavery between the American Revolution and the American Civil War.  As Baptist muses with irony, “if the worst thing about slavery was that it denied African Americans the liberal rights of citizens, one must merely offer them the title of citizen – even elect one of them president – to make amends. Then the issue will be put to rest forever.”

So what would Baptist like to see happen in the way of actual repayment?  That’s hard to say. In an interview with Salon’s Michael Schulson last fall, he appeared to approve of a growing movement to remove slave-owners’ names from college and university buildings. He’d like the endowment funds of historically Black colleges and universities raised to the same levels as those in historically white institutions of higher learning. He thinks Black slaves and Indian nations and tribes who were murdered, maimed, displaced, and tortured on behalf of King Cotton should be properly memorialized and recognized in public historical monuments and the like (the South is full of statues and memorials to “heroes of the Confederacy” – soldiers who fought to defend slavery during the Civil War). The aforementioned plantation tours should start to tell the truth about what really happened in the Hellish forced labor camps of the cotton South, Baptist thinks.

That’s all well and good, but it’s pretty weak tea given the monumental findings of The Half Has Never Been Told. The real logic of Baptist’s book points to a demand the professor seems unwilling to openly embrace because of the sneers and reprimands it is likely to evoke from academic and other authorities: a massive federal program of reparations paid to Black Americans in partial and belated compensation for the massive horror and theft that lay beneath the highly profitable and nationally pivotal system of US capitalist cotton slavery.

Paul Street, a former historian and recovered academic, is an author and writer in Iowa City, Iowa.  His latest book is They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm, 2014).

What’s the Matter With Thomas Frank?

03/03/15 0 COMMENTS

ZNet, February 28, 2015. It’s an odd and perhaps usefully ego-deflating sensation to feel invisible, in my case to write books and essays and give speeches and talks that can seem like they never existed, as if they were never penned, typed, or spoken. That’s how the celebrated liberal author, Harpers’ Magazine essayist, Salon writer, and political commentator Thomas Frank has been helping some of us on the intellectual Left feel this year.

“A Bit of Blunt Class Analysis”

Consider Frank’s recent, widely read Salon essay properly mocking the standard center-left defense of US President Barack Obama. According to a standard liberal apology, Obama has always and sincerely wanted to do genuinely progressive and left-leaning things to roll back the exaggerated power of the wealthy corporate and financial Few and to defend the nation’s poor and working class majority and the common good.  Alas, the excuse runs, our great wannabe people’s president has been powerless to act on these noble ambitions because of the combined reactionary and checkmating influences of the Republican Party, big political money, a gerrymandered Congress, the deadening handing of American federalism, and racism.

Without completely discounting these real barriers to decent policy on the part of a hypothetically progressive White House, Frank’s Salon piece offers a historically astute correction to this liberal lament. “When historians seek to explain the failures of the Obama years” Frank muses, “they will likely focus on a glaringly obvious, and indeed still more hard-headed explanation that the apologists for Obama’s enfeeblement now overlook: that perhaps Obama didn’t act forcefully to press a populist economic agenda because he didn’t want to. That maybe he didn’t do certain of the things his liberal supporters wanted him to do because he didn’t believe in them.”

Why, Frank asks, did the Obama administration not only “leave Wall Street standing after Wall Street plunged the nation into a slump without parallel in most people’s lives” but even “allow…Wall Street to grow more concentrated and more powerful than ever”? Why did a president elected on a promise of progressive change repudiate his own clear “power to react to the financial crisis in a more aggressive and appropriate way”? Why did he choose Wall Street insider “Tim Geithner to run the bailouts” and appoint the corporate lawyer “Eric Holder to (not) prosecute the bankers” and Wall Street ally “Ben Bernanke to serve another term at the Fed?” As Frank points out, it would have been both good policy (“the  economy would have recovered more quickly and the danger of a future crisis brought on by concentrated financial power would have been reduced”) and good politics – “massively popular” with the nation’s mostly white working class majority (something that would “have deflated the rampant false consciousness of the Tea Party movement and prevented the Republican reconquista of the House in 2010”) – if  Obama had wielded his “bully pulpit” to take a populist and progressive stand.

Frank’s thesis is that the financial crisis worked out the way it did – with Wall Street unpunished, richer, and more powerful than ever – “in large part because Obama and his team wanted it to work out that way.” At the same time, Frank proposes “a bit of blunt class analysis” suggesting that that big money exercises huge influence (imagine!) over Democrats as well as Republicans (imagine!) and that the Democratic Party has been “transform[ed] in recent decades into a dutiful servant of the professional class” with an “amazing trust in the good intentions and right opinions of their fellow professionals from banking, law, economics and journalism” and by a “generally dismissive attitude toward the views of working people.” (Thomas Frank, “It’s Not Just FOX News,” Salon, January 11, 2015)

Invisible Left Warnings

Gee…who knew? Starting in the summer of 2004 (right after Obama’s rock star speech at the Democratic National Convention) and continuing through the 2008 presidential election and beyond, I took to the pages of numerous Left journals and Web sites (ZNet, Z Magazine, Black Agenda Report, Counterpunch, Dissident Voice, and more) to warn my fellow US progressives and leftists the world over about Obama’s fake-progressive, reactionary, neoliberal, imperial, and objectively white-supremacist essence.  The Obama who “didn’t do certain of the things his liberal supporters wanted him to do because he didn’t believe in them” (Frank) is the very Obama (with whom I was quite familiar from my years working as a social policy and Civil Rights researcher and advocate in Illinois and Chicago from the late 1990s through 2005) about whom I raised insistent alarms from the birth of the national Obama phenomenon (in August of 2004) on.

I wrote a book that pulled these warnings together. My volume Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (Paradigm Publishers, June 2008) situated Obama (my pick as the next US President once John Kerry was defeated by George W. Bush in November 2004) within what I called the “corporate-dominated and militaristic U.S. elections system and political culture.  The book even warned of the coming fake-populist right-wing Tea Party Republican phenomenon likely to emerge in the wake of a President Obama’s coming service to the Lords of Capital.

I was even set to go on television on December 8, 2008 to put these warnings on the progressive airwaves after Obama’s election and prior to his inauguration. Sadly, however, my scheduled appearance on Democracy Now! was cancelled as I walked out of the New York City Port Authority at seven in the morning to catch a cab to the show’s studios in lower Manhattan.

I didn’t just write and speak about Obama’s subservience to the financial elite.  I also documented at length his deep and related commitments to US global-military Empire and the unchallenged persistence of neoliberal “color-blind” racism. And I didn’t write about Obama outside the broader context of the Democratic Party and its subservience to capital, empire, and institutional racism. Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics was careful to situate the next president within “the blunt class analysis” that Frank recommends.  I prefaced my discussion of Obama’s likely Wall Street-friendly trajectory with an historical account of the Democratic Party’s dollar-drenched descent into neoliberal corporatism since the 1970s.  Similar treatments of the Democratic Party’s less-than progressive history opened my chapters on Obama’s racial and foreign policy history. The book included some nice quotations from Frank’s celebrated volume What’s the Matter With Kansas? (2004) on the Democratic Party’s corporate-neoliberal abandonment of its onetime working class base.

I was hardly alone on the Left in questioning Obama’s progressive bona fides in the years leading up to his election. In March of 2010, Noam Chomsky told a German television interviewer that he was “one of the few people who isn’t disappointed [by Obama’s conservativism and imperialism] because I had no [progressive] expectations” (of Obama) – this because he looked at candidate Obama’s Website and saw little there beyond “a normal centrist Democrat roughly Clinton-style.” Obama “never pretended to be anything else,” Chomsky added (incorrectly- see below),

In reality, a considerable number of Left thinkers and activists tried to caution progressives and serious liberals off “the Obama Kool Aid” from 2005 through the 2008 election. Those voices included John Pilger, Adolph Reed, Jr, Glen Ford, Bruce Dixon, Michael Hureaux, Doug Henwood, Margaret Kimberly, Juan Santos, Greg Guma, Marc Lamont Hill, Pam Martens, Alexander Cockburn, Jeffrey St. Clair, Kim Peterson, David Peterson, Chris Hedges, Lance Selfa, Joshua Frank, Jeremy Scahill, John MacArthur, Ken Silverstein, and numerous others in such journals as Black Agenda Report, Z Magazine, ZNet, Dissident Voice, Harper’s, Left Business Observer, The Progressive, Truthdig, AlterNet and Socialist Worker.

My aforementioned book was perhaps the most ambitious and comprehensive effort before the 2008 election to demystify the Obama phenomenon and to warn about the Obama re-branding project from a Left perspective. Along with Lance Selfa’s study The Democrats: A Critical History (Chicago: Haymarket, 2008), Sheldon Wolin’s chilling book Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism (Princeton, 2008), and John R. MacArthur’s You Can’t Be President: The Outrageous Barriers to Democracy in America (New York: Melville, House, 2008), it can reasonably be said to have predicted the Obama presidency’s dismal betrayal of the Obama campaign’s liberal and progressive base.  It did so through a simple insistence on rigorously situating Obama in the world of what Pilger calls “power as it is, not as many of us wish it to be.”

The sixth chapter of my next book – The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (Paradigm, 2010) – was titled “We Were Warned.” It listed no less than twenty key ways in which reasonably attentive citizens were given advance warning of the corporatist, military-imperialist, and white-pleasing trajectory of an Obama White House.

Liberal and Centrist Warnings About the “Deeply Conservative” Obama

My guess is that Thomas Frank never paid any attention to the “hard left” outlets mentioned three paragraphs above. During a talk I heard him give last February at the University of Iowa, Frank appeared completely unaware of the existence of anything that might merit respectful consideration to the left of the Democratic Party in the US in recent years. Talking about the terrible consequences of Obama’s decision to serve and protect the nation’s top banksters in 2009 and 2010, Frank riffed ruefully on how the mantle of American populism has fallen entirely and perversely to the Koch Brother-funded market-fundamentalist Tea Party right. The Wisconsin and Occupy rebellions of 2011, the Fight for Fifteen, the Kshame Sawant election in Seattle, the Chicago Teachers strike of 2012, and the Black Lives Matter movement and other progressive struggles received democracy no mention whatsoever. Frank clearly does not spend a lot of time consulting seriously Left media.

But it wasn’t just “radical” Leftists who suggested that Obama wasn’t anything like the left-leaning progressive that Hope-besotted liberal Obamaphiles imagined. In mid-December of 2007, the legendary corporation-battling progressive Ralph Nader endorsed “fighting John” Edwards over Barack Obama in the Democratic presidential primary race on MSNBC. When MSNBC’s Chris Mathews observed that Nader had “excluded Obama from the progressive coalition,” Nader responded that “he’s excluded himself by the statements he’s made, unfortunately” – statements “which are extremely conciliatory to concentrated power and big business…The people of Iowa and New Hampshire,” Nader added, “have to ask themselves: who is going to fight for you.”

On the same day Nader spoke with Mathews, the leading liberal economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman noted that “there are large differences among the [Democratic] candidates in their beliefs about what it will take to turn a progressive agenda into reality…Anyone,” Krugman added, referring to Obama, “who thinks that the next president can achieve real change without bitter confrontation is living in a fantasy world.”

Krugman’s rhetoric mirrored that of his presidential candidate Edwards, who repeatedly mocked Obama’s message of conciliation with big business and the G.O.P. as “singing Kumbaya.” Edwards called Obama’s repeatedly stated desire to work with big corporations, Wall Street, and the Republicans “a total fantasy.” Obama, Edwards said repeatedly, was selling the conservative illusion of progressive change without confrontation. “When you sit down at a big table to ‘negotiate’ with the Republicans and the big corporations,” Edwards said across Iowa and New Hampshire, “it doesn’t get you anywhere. They just eat everything at the table.”

Nader, Edwards, and Krugman’s take on the “corporate Democrat” Obama (Edwards’ recurrent description of the next president in Iowa) in late 2007 were consistent with a deeply researched, in-depth portrait of Obama published in the centrist New Yorker in early May of the same year. In an extensive, carefully constructed account, The New Yorker’s Larissa MacFarquhar depicted Obama as anything but a left-leaning progressive. “In his view of history, in his respect for tradition, in his skepticism that the world can be changed any way but very, very slowly,” MacFaruhar reported, “Obama is deeply conservative. There are moments when he sounds almost Burkean….It’s not just that he thinks revolutions are unlikely: he values continuity and stability for their own sake, sometimes even more than he values change for the good.” Echoing MacFarquhar’s judgment, the New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza noted in July of 2008 that Obama’s career had been “marked at every stage” by “an eagerness to accommodate himself to existing institutions rather than tear them down or replace them.” MacFarquhar’s and Lizza’s portraits were consistent with what Cass Sunstein, Obama’s conservative colleague at the University of Chicago Law School, identified (favorably) as Obama’s “minimalist” approach to law and politics” – a preference for “modest adjustments in institutions in search of his ‘visionary’ goals.”

Candidate Obama himself gave numerous warnings, some quite explicit, to the effect that he was not the liberal champion and peoples’ candidate many of his supporters imagined him to be. Some of his statements seem more than a little haunting in retrospect. In a late 2007 debate in Des Moines, Edwards repeated his oft-stated line that only an “epic fight” with the rich and powerful could deliver livable wages, clean government, and meaningful healthcare reform. Obama responded with what Left author Mike Davis called “typical eloquent evasion.”  “We don’t need more heat,” Obama said: “we need more light.”

Numerous leftists at the time (myself included) were happy to tell anyone willing to listen who a President’s Obama’s bringers of “light” would be: people like Tim Geithner, Lawrence Summers, and Eric Holder.

“I Love Obama”

All of which raises an interesting issue: where was Thomas Frank on the supposed Great Liberal Hope Barack Obama in 2007 and 2008? Here are some fascinating exchanges between PBS’s Bill Moyers and Frank on January 23rd, 2009, three days after Obama’s first presidential Inauguration:

BILL MOYERS: Tom, you even wrote a column the other day with the headline that said, in The Wall Street Journal, “Obama should act like he won.” Is he doing that?
THOMAS FRANK: You know, it’s a funny thing because he — I love Obama. I voted for him many times. He was my state senator back in Chicago. I’ve, you know, followed this guy’s career for ages. I think he’s the greatest thing in the world. I don’t understand why a man that just won a sweeping victory over the other party — you know, won a landslide in the electoral college and the other party, you know, is crawling off with its tail between its legs, you know, horribly discredited, everything they believe in ruins….And he goes to that party and says, you know — he wanted a majority of the Republican votes in the Senate for his stimulus package as well as, of course, the Democrats. And I read that, I was, like, well, why? You just gave them a whooping that they’re not going to forget in a long time, you know? You are in charge.
Let them, you know, why go to them? Let them come to you. And I think — you know what I think is going to happen is that he’s going to discover very quickly what Bill Clinton discovered but then Bill Clinton never — you know, that these guys are implacable, you know? That they are not going to come around, that they don’t have his best interests at heart. And they don’t even have the nation’s best interests at heart. I’m sorry. I’m very partisan.
…BILL MOYERS: So what do you see in Obama that you think will justify your voting for him over and over again? No, that’s a serious-
THOMAS FRANK: Now you’re putting me on the spot here, Bill.
BILL MOYERS: No, no. You’re a historian. You can’t see right quite yet.
THOMAS FRANK: Yes. That’s true. That’s true. And I will admit that one of the reasons that I was so pleased to vote for Obama in the primaries was that I thought that it would bring a new crowd to Washington, that it would be the end of this sort of centrist nonsense. Okay, call me gullible. But-
BILL MOYERS: All right, gullible.
THOMAS FRANK: -it would be, you know, but it would-
BILL MOYERS: Thomas Gullible Frank.
THOMAS FRANK: Yeah. You know, that you would not have a return — just a return of the Clinton Administration. That’s what I was looking for. And he seemed to be offering that. You know, new people, new blood. Unfortunately, you know, he gets in there and he’s brought in a lot of the Clinton — I’m not happy about this.
At the same time, I still have — I have a great deal of faith in the man. He — look, I’ve met him in person. I have never met a politician as intelligent, as rhetorically gifted. He’s brilliant.

Bad Faith, Bad Forgetfulness, or Something in-Between

Thomas Frank is a hard guy not to like. He’s an affable and engaging speaker (especially when he leaves his script) and writer: funny, learned, highly intelligent, and not particularly arrogant.  I’ve been fond of Frank’s witty and erudite prose since the mid-1990s, when he edited the brilliant left-liberal cultural-political journal The Baffler and he published a dazzling history of the post-World War II US advertising industry (The Conquest of Cool: Business Culture, Counterculture, and the Rise of Hip Consumerism). Nobody’s better than Frank at making clever fun of the right wing and the fake-populist and pseudo-humanitarian pretenses of the business class.

Still, I think Frank spoke with more than a hint of bad faith and/or excessive self-forgetfulness during his aforementioned University of Iowa talk. During the Q and A session after that talk last February, I observed that progressives and liberals and Iowa and elsewhere had been amply warned about Obama’s “deeply conservative” proclivities leading up to the 2008 elections and that the corrections to liberal Obama fantasies had come not just from “out there” radicals leftists like me but also from centrist and liberal commentators and political actors like MacFarquhar, Lizza, Krugman, Edwards, and – last but not least – Obama himself.  Frank responded by saying that Obama had “campaigned on a progressive platform” and that what he really supported was “the Obama movement” – the large number of people who sparked to fight for progressive change by the “inspiring” candidate.

Frank is right about the deceptive campaigning. Contrary to Chomsky’s comment quoted above, candidate Obama did often pretend to be something more than just a “normal centrist Democrat, roughly Clinton-style” – especially during the primary campaign.   I saw the future president engage in precisely that deceit (driven in part by Edwards’ strident rhetorical populism) over and over again in Iowa in 2007. Consistent with that recurrent observation, the Bill Moyers transcript quoted above contains an interesting comment from the progressive journalist David Sirota in which Sirota recalls that candidate Obama called him up to say “You know, I want you to know I am a real progressive….if you look at my record I’m a real progressive.”

Still, talk of a progressive Obama sociopolitical “movement” should not be taken very seriously. The Obama phenomenon was a sophisticated top-down marketing and branding creation geared around a strictly limited and narrow electoral purpose.  The “movement” was about inducing people to enter and depart from voting booths.  It was not mobilizing grassroots masses to pressure government for populist action beneath and beyond quadrennial big money-big media-major-party candidate-centered “electoral extravaganzas” (Chomsky’s term) like something out of Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States. It was a brilliant, elite-crafted exercise in what the formerly left Christopher Hitchens described as “the essence of American politics…the manipulation of populism by elitism” – one that richly deserved its 2008 award from Advertising Age for “Marketer of the Year”

At the same time, Thomas Frank, by his own admission to Bill Moyers three days after Obama’s initial inauguration, “love[d] Obama” and thought Obama “was the greatest things in the world” after “follow[ing] his career for ages” and “vot[ing] for him many times.” That’s embracing the man, not just “the movement.”

Little to Love

From what it’s worth, I’m from Chicago (I lived and went to elementary school in “Obama’s neighborhood[s]” Hyde Park and Kenwood during the 1960s) and also formerly had Obama as my state senator (from 2001 through 2004). I even had to deal with Obama directly in my capacity as the research director of a fairly conservative Black civil rights and social service agency on Chicago’s South Side between 2000 and 2005. I always found him insufferably corporatist, elitist, and imperial, hardly a man remotely of the progressive left. The Obama I observed was richly consistent with the Black and Left political scientist Adolph Reed’s ominous description of Obama in The Village Voice at the onset of Obama’s political career in January of 1996:

“In Chicago, for instance, we’ve gotten a foretaste of the new breed of foundation-hatched black communitarian voices; one of them, a smooth Harvard lawyer with impeccable do-good credentials and vacuous-to-repressive neoliberal politics, has won a state senate seat on a base mainly in the liberal foundation and development worlds. His fundamentally bootstrap line was softened by a patina of the rhetoric of authentic community, talk about meeting in kitchens, small-scale solutions to social problems, and the predictable elevation of process over program — the point where identity politics converges with old-fashioned middle-class reform in favoring form over substance. I suspect that his ilk is the wave of the future in U.S. black politics, as in Haiti and wherever else the International Monetary Fund has sway. So far the black activist response hasn’t been up to the challenge. We have to do better.”

There was never much if anything for a true progressive to “love” about Barack Obama.

What’s the Matter With “Left Media”?

All of which makes me wonder what was the matter not just with Frank but also and perhaps more importantly with “left” media and politics culture. “Left media” could put a liberal intellectual who was foolishly and gullibly in “love” with Obama on Moyers at the birth of the new Clinton-neoliberal Democratic presidency, but it couldn’t follow through with the booking on Democracy Now! of an actually Left intellectual (this writer) who had the comprehensively worked-up real story on that presidency prior to its onset. I hate to sound like a “Truther” (I am no such thing), but there really is a “gatekeeper” problem in what passes for Left media in the US.

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

The Moral Autism of the Brian Williams Affair

02/03/15 0 COMMENTS

TeleSur English, February 21, 2015. Through much of 2002 and into the spring of 2003, the United States corporate media helped the George W. Bush administration and the bipartisan Washington war lobby sell fateful lies to the United States citizenry. It helped the White House and Pentagon advance the criminally mendacious claims that the government of Iraq was linked to al Qaeda and the Sept. 11, 2001 jetliner attacks, that Iraq possessed great stashes of “weapons of mass destruction” (WMDs), and (after no such weapons were discovered) that the U.S. invaded Iraq to bring freedom and democracy to that nation.

In his role as a top reporter for NBC News in 2002 and 2003, the recently suspended NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams played along with the dominant U.S. media mission of convincing Americans to accept Washington’s duplicitous rationales for the outrageously criminal and shamelessly imperial occupation of Iraq, which led to the deaths of more than 1 million Iraqis (mainly civilians by far) along with four and a half thousand U.S. military personnel.

Like nearly all U.S. “mainstream” news reporters and commentators at the time, Williams never subjected the U.S. government’s blatantly bogus arguments for illegal war to remotely serious critical scrutiny. He simply relayed those arguments, functioning, along with the rest of his media brethren, as little more than a propagandistic agent of the U.S. military-industrial complex – as a government loudspeaker.

Beyond his advance public relations work for the invasion, Williams also worked to sanitize and whitewash the assault after it occurred. On April 2, 2003, he absurdly suggested to viewers that the invasion of Iraq was “the cleanest war in all of military history.” On March 18, 2005, he claimed that in Iraq, “the civilian toll is thought to range from 17,000 to nearly 20,000 dead and beyond” – this when the most rigorous estimate at the time found that 100,000 civilians had already died. On March 8, 2005,  Williams said that Bush’s invasion had provided “an example of presidential leadership that will be taught in American schools for generations to come.” Even more preposterously, Williams claimed that “even the harshest critics of President Bush … admit maybe he’s right about freedom’s march around the globe.” (See Jim Naureckas, “Some Other Tall Tales Brian Williams Might Want to Apologize For,” Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, Feb. 5, 2015).

Surely then, we should be gratified to learn that Williams has been forced out of his US$10 million-a-year job without pay for at least six months (it seems ever more likely he will in fact never return) because of false statements he made in connection with the U.S. invasion of Iraq, yes? Not exactly. While there’s a certain dark justice and karmic blowback to appreciate in William’s recent misfortune, perhaps, it is distressing and instructive to reflect on why Williams has been humiliated and disciplined. It has nothing to do with how he helped Washington sell deeply fraudulent disinformation to launch and sustain a criminal, imperialist, racist, and mass-murderous war. That is totally irrelevant.

Williams’ sin is that he falsely claimed to have ridden in a U.S. military helicopter that was forced down by an Iraqi rocket-propelled grenade during the opening days of the invasion. The illegal and destructive nature of the occupation – enabled and whitewashed by Williams and numerous other U.S. media personnel – is of no interest whatsoever. It’s all about how Williams dishonored valiant U.S. troops by claiming to have met some of the same dangers that the “American heroes” confronted.

The Brian Williams-NBC affair reminds me a bit in this regard of the current hit U.S. movie “American Sniper.” The film’s audiences are supposed to marvel at the noble feats, sacrifice, and American heroism” of Chris Kyle – a Navy SEALS sniper who killed 160 Iraqis over four tours of occupation “duty” – with no thought given to the fact that the U.S. invasion of Iraq was one of the most egregiously criminal acts in the long and bloody history of American and global Empire.

The same moral autism and vacuum stains the Williams fiasco. In a decent society, a reporter’s roguish and unseemly false boasting about facing combat hazards in a vast criminal enterprise like the invasion of Iraq would be nothing compared to the far greater crime of transmitting propaganda to advance and justify that immoral and blood-soaked venture. But, of course, Williams was just one among a large number of media operatives who committed this crime under the orders of higher imperial authorities.

Speaking of those authorities, the dominant U.S. media has played a standard, power-serving role both in the Williams-NBC fiasco and in the “debate” that has emerged over “American Sniper.” It is focusing our historical attention on American subordinates – one a working class hero with a rifle (Kyle) and one a wealthy buffoon with a news camera (Williams) – while the mostly truly culpable masters of U.S. war and Empire, the real decision-makers and profiteers, continue to escape serious public scrutiny.

In his official statement on Williams’ suspension, NBC President and CEO Steve Burke said that “By his actions, Brian has jeopardized the trust the millions of Americans place in NBC News.” That’s a rich statement coming from the head of a giant and powerful media network that provided propagandistic public relations work (under the guise of objective “journalism” and “reporting”) for an arch-criminal war of deadly imperial occupation and mass murder in 2002 and 2003. How did NBC’s pivotal role – shared, to be sure, with all but a few leading U.S. news outlets – in selling the false pretexts for “Operation Iraqi Freedom” repay “the trust” that “millions of Americans” supposedly placed in NBC News?

Don’t expect that monumental institutional crime to elicit any mea culpas from Burke or his fellow top media honchos. They can hardly be expected to acknowledge such transgressions when history beckons for U.S. “mainstream” media operatives who are serious about keeping their careers afloat to enlist as dutiful propagandists for the American Empire’s endless aggressions – in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, Syria, Africa, East Asia, Venezuela, Colombia, Ukraine (the most potentially disastrous site of all), and, well, everywhere, to be perfectly honest, including the “homeland” itself.

Paul Street is the author of numerous books including Empire and Inequality: American and the World Since 9/11 (2004), Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis (2007), The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power(2010); and They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (2014).

Nine Years – to Avert Catastrophe with Revolution

02/03/15 0 COMMENTS

ZNet, February 25, 2015. Slowly but surely and at an ever-accelerating pace, the leading issue of our or any time – anthropogenic global warming (AGW) – shapes our experience and limits our future. Don’t kid yourself (no pun intended): things don’t look good for your grandchildren at the current pace of relentless capitalist carbon emission, but significant negative climate changes are underway right now, not just in some distant dystopian future.

Buried in Snow in New England
Look at the off-the-charts snowfall in New England this winter. Counter-intuitive as it might seem, the record winter precipitation in the Northeast is a predictable outcome of global warming. The temperature measures on the surface of the North Atlantic Ocean are balmier than ever, something that carries huge atmospheric significance. As Penn State climate researcher Michael Mann recently told the Washington Post,  “Sea surface temperatures off the coast of New England right now are at record levels, 11.5C (21F) warmer than normal in some locations… There is [a] direct relationship” Mann noted, “between the surface warmth of the ocean and the amount of moisture in the air. What that means is that this storm will be feeding off these very warm seas, producing very large amounts of snow as spiraling winds of the storm squeeze that moisture out of the air, cool, it, and deposit it as snow inland.” At the same time, a warmer ocean raises the temperature contrasts that winter storms encounter when they hit the East Coast, something that increases their strength.

Record snowfalls might seem to suggest a world getting colder but the opposite is actually true.  Good luck trying to explain that to one of the many Americans who have been conditioned to respond with instantaneous and idiotic skepticism towards the findings of climate science.

Weakened Polar Vortex and Wavy Jet Streams
It gets even more directly counter-intuitive. Consider also the prolonged episodes of extreme Arctic cold that have broken out in recent winters across North America, Europe, and Asia. (Washington DC recently set new records for cold, as did many other cities across the US South.) Recent climate-science suggests that these “polar vortex” incidents are actually an ironic form of collateral damage from global warming.  Here’s how it works: abnormally warm waters in the tropical Atlantic migrate via the Gulf Stream toward Europe in the late summer and fall. This produces the radical melting of sea ice in the Barents and Kara Seas north of Scandinavia and Russia. Open water there releases warmth into the air in November and December, creating an extended warm blocking pattern over the Ural Mountains. By midwinter, as more and more heat is being transferred to the Arctic, the “polar vortex” (an area of very low pressure marked by very low temperatures that spins over the North Pole during the winter) is destabilized, weakening the planet’s great northern jet streams and sending giant waves of cold air southward.

Miami Sinking
Then there’s the sinking of Miami. Last year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicted that oceans could rise more than three feet by 2100, creating water-logged cities around the world, if humanity does not drastically cut carbon emissions.  The process is already underway in Miami. At the University of Miami’s Department of Atmospheric Sciences last week, researchers reported that sea levels around the Miami coast have already gone up 3.7 inches just over the last 19 years. Worse, the sea-level rise is accelerating faster than the IPCC has projected. Predictions about daily tide levels are less accurate than ever, endangering Miami’s capacity to prepare for extreme weather events.  Beyond the certainty of increased flooding, the sea-level rise is already creating saltwater intrusions into the region’s freshwater aquifers – no small hazard to a metropolitan area containing 5.5 million people.

Escape From New York?
Miami is just one of numerous US and global coastal cities threatened with inundation and other grave risks linked to global warming in coming decades. The New York City Panel on Climate Change (a committee of scientific experts convened by former NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg) recently issued a report warning of dire consequences for the nation’s leading city by 2100 if AGW goes unchecked: a six foot rise in the sea-levels; massive flooding every 8 years; an increase of the city’s flood zone to 99 square miles; a 13% increase in rainfall; an average temperature increase of 9 degrees Fahrenheit; seven major heat waves per year; repeated incidents of extreme precipitation. It’s a future likely to make Hurricane Sandy (Mother Nature’s futile attempt to interject climate change into the 2012 presidential election “debates”) look like a mild event.

Beyond the Dust Bowl
There’s also a recent study suggesting that the recent and ongoing drought in California and the Southwestern US is going to look like a little dry spell compared to what’s due later this century in much of the Central and Western US.  According to leading climate scientists, the US Southwest and Great Plains has an 80 percent chance of experiencing a “megadrought” worse than anything seen over the last 1000 years between 2050 and 2100.  Think of the 1930s Dust Bowl over three to four decades, with dire implications for food supplies. The dry conditions will be “driven primarily” by AGW, the scientists said.

To the Brink of Collapse
Things are much worse in the global South, where drought and water shortages and food crises related to AGW are already an established fact of life. In the state of Sao Paulo, Brazil, currently experiencing a third consecutive year of soaring temperatures and drastically reduced rainfall, “the main water reservoirs are are operating at their lowest capacity. The Cantareira reservoir system, which serves more than nine million people in the state, is only 5% full,” The Guardian reports.  “At the Alto Tietê reservoir network, which supplies three million people in greater Sao Paulo, water levels are below 15%. State officials recently announced a potential rationing program of five days without water and two days with, in case the February and March rains do not refill the reservoirs.” An “extreme climate scenario” has “combined with a series of management flaws, political negligence and a culture of waste and pollution” to “bring…the largest metropolitan region of Brazil to the brink of collapse,” the Guardian concludes.

An Unsustainable Future
I could go on with numerous other examples of the catastrophic – yes, catastrophic – change that is coming and that is already underway to some degree. It’s all part of a much bigger Eco-exterminist story. As Naomi Klein notes in her important new book This Changes Everything: Capitalism v. The Climate:

“We know that if we continue on our current path of allowing emissions to rise year after year, climate change will change everything about world.  Major cities will very likely drown, ancient cultures will be swallowed by the seas, and there is a very high chance that our children will spend a great deal of their lives fleeing and recovering from vicious storms and extreme droughts…the World Bank [warns]…that ‘we’re on track for a 4 degrees Celsius warmer world [by century’s end] marked by extreme heat waves, declining global food stocks, loss of ecosystems and biodiversity, and life-threatening seal level rise.’…Major cities likely in jeopardy include Boston, New York, greater Los Angeles, Vancouver, London, Mumbai, Hong Kong, and Shanghai…Meanwhile, brutal heatwaves that can kill tens of thousands of people, even in wealthy countries, would become entirely unremarkable summer events on every continent but Antarctica.  The heat would also cause staple crops to suffer dramatic yield losses across the globe…When you add ruinous hurricanes, raging wildfires, fisheries collapses, widespread disruptions to water supplies, extinctions, and globe-trotting diseases to the mix, it indeed becomes difficult to imagine that a peaceful, ordered society could be sustained…” (Klein, This Changes, pp. 4, 13-14)

“Ill fares the land,” Oliver Goldsmith wrote in 1775, “to hastening ills a prey.  Where wealth accumulates, and men decay.”

The Really Inconvenient Truth
Solutions? A path beyond the malignant decay and death of land, water, air, and humanity? They absolutely exist. What’s clearly and urgently required is a gigantic “Marshall Plan for the Earth” (Klein’s phrase) – one that “mobilize[s] financing and technology transfer on scales never seen before.  It must get technology onto the ground in every country to ensure we reduce emissions while raising people’s quality of life.  We have only a decade” (Klein, This Changes, p.5).

The solution (the US-specific version of which is what the US Green Party calls “The Green New Deal”) must not, Klein wisely counsels, be framed in terms of the stern demand that people “make do with less.” The command reinforces the neoliberal austerity that has been advanced by financial and corporate elites and their many agents in state power for the last three-plus decades. It’s hard to expect calls for a more austere lifestyle to be received favorably by a working class majority whose standard of living has been relentlessly assaulted for more than a generation. Mass and wasteful consumerism is a giant problem, but the point is not to call for more mass self-denial. It’s not about more versus less; it’s about better versus worse. The task is to create qualitatively different and better material and social lives beyond the authoritarian and ecocidal rule of capital.

The good news is that the technology to save livable ecology without undermining mass life quality and living standards exists and is fully viable. Stanford engineering professor Mark Jacobson and University of California-Davis research scientist Mark Delucchi have shown that humanity could convert to a completely renewable-based energy system by 2030 if nations would rely on technologies vetted by scientists rather than those promoted by industries. Jacobson and Delucchi’s plan to have 100% of the world’s energy supplied by wind, water, and solar (WWS) sources by 2030 calls for millions of wind turbines, water machines, and solar installations. “The numbers are large,” they write, “but the scale is not an insurmountable hurdle: society has achieved massive transformations before. During World War II, the U.S. retooled its automobile factories to produce 300,000 aircraft, and other countries produced 486,000 more. In 1956, the U.S. began building the Interstate Highway System, which after 35 years extended for 47,000 miles, changing commerce and society.”

The chief barrier is social and political: the global rule of a highly organized, wealthy and plutocratic capitalist corporate and financial elite that can brook no serious public and populace interference with the unfettered reign of the so-called free market, even where and when such interference is desperately and urgently required to save prospects for a decent human future.

Klein is right. “The really inconvenient truth,” she writes, “is that [global warming] is not about carbon – it’s about capitalism.” Klein hedges her argument a bit with qualifications, suggesting that the problem is “unregulated capitalism” and “free market fundamentalism” and the like.  In reality, through the problem is in fact chaotic, competitive, global, and growth-, really accumulation- and profit-addicted capitalism itself.

Beyond Letter Grades
This is no time for Mandarin-like historical patience.  There’s no more room for waiting like some kind of dispassionate academic observer for Karl Marx’s supposed iron “laws of history” (always a great Hegelian myth) to show us how “capitalism is the midwife of socialism.” Capitalism is cancer, literally and figuratively: an eco-exterminist system of endless upward wealth and power accumulation that is literally wired to destroy life on Earth. And things are moving far too quickly and dangerously to knowingly entertain analogies and reflections on how many centuries it took for Europe to make the transition from feudalism to capitalism. Comrades: capitalism is transitioning humanity and countless other living things into extinction over a shockingly short period of time.

If I’m right about that (I am) and if Klein (reflecting the conclusions of many top climate scientists) is right about us having “a decade” (she probably is) to make the leap, then (considering that Klein published This Changes Everything last year) we have nine years to make an international radical-environmentalist anti-capitalist revolution to preserve the chances for a decent future. We are beyond letter grades and gaining a few yards on a flat field of history at this stage. We’re in pass-fail territory now. We either leap across the chasm or we fall into an abyss. Call me a “catastrophist,” but, to paraphrase Che Guevara, it’s not my fault that reality is urgently Eco-Socialist.

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

Hollywood’s Service to Empire: Two Examples

24/02/15 0 COMMENTS

Counterpunch, February 20-22, 2014

Paul Street

More Than Entertainment
The United States corporate media’s function of transmitting ideology and propaganda in service to those atop the nation’s reigning and interrelated structures of Empire and inequality is hardly limited to the news. Equally if not more significant for that that task are “entertainment” media, including – of special interest on the eve of the 2015 Academy Awards – the US movie industry. Far from restricting their hearts-and minds-influencing powers to the (Aldous) “Huxlean” tasks of mass diversion, distraction, and infantilization, US movies (like US television sit-coms and dramas and video games) are loaded with richly “Orwellian” political and ideological content.

US citizens are being more than merely entertained when they sit before the nation’s 40,000 commercial movie screens.  They are also propagandized by a film industry whose owners and executives are deeply biased on behalf of the aforementioned hierarchies.

Many Americans would find it strange to think of their local Cineplex as propaganda sites. But more than six and a half decade ago, the notion of US movies as tools of propaganda was hardly debatable for right-wing McCarthyites determined to eliminate leftists from Hollywood.  As US Court of Appeals Justice Bennett C. Clark explained in upholding the conviction of ten Hollywood screenwriters and directors who refused to “confess” current or past Communist Party membership in 1949, US motion pictures play “a critically important role” as “a potent medium of propaganda dissemination” (quoted in Ellen Schrecker, Many Are the Crimes: McCarthyism in America [Boston, 1998], 328).

Zero Dark Thirty: “Pure Storytelling”?
Indeed they do.  Look, for example, at Zero Dark Thirty, a 2012 “action thriller” and war film that dramatized the United States’ search for Osama bin-Laden after the September 11, 2001 jetliner attacks.  Directed by the Academy Award-winning director Kathryn Bigelow, the movie received critical acclaim and was a box office-smash. It was also a masterpiece of pro-military, pro-CIA propaganda, skillfully portraying US torture practices “as,” in Glenn Greenwald’s words, “a dirty, ugly business that is necessary to protect America.” By “excising the moral debate that raged over the interrogation program during the Bush years,” The New Yorker’s Jane Mayer rightly noted, “the film …accept[ed] almost without question that the CIA’s ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ played a key role in enabling the agency to identify the courier who unwittingly led them to bin Laden.”  Under the guise of a neutral, documentary-like examination, Zero Dark Thirty marked a distressing new frontier in US military-embedded filmmaking whereby the movie makers receive unprecedented technical and logistical support from the Pentagon in return for producing elaborate public relations on the military’s behalf.

The film’s defenders and Bigelow herself argued that the film was neither pro- nor anti-torture: “Pure storytelling,” film supporter Mark Bowden wrote, “is not always about making an argument, no matter how worthy. It can be simply about telling the truth.” In reality, however, Zero Dark Thirty’s outward impartiality over the sickeningly cruel and unusual punishments inflicted by CIA torturers amounted to a normalization and endorsement of torture that was all the more insidiously potent precisely because of its understated, detached, and “objective” veneer.

American Sniper: “Makes Me Wanna Go Shoot Some Fucking Arabs”
The 2014-2015 blockbuster American Sniper, directed by the Republican Clint Eastwood, is another good example of Hollywood’s “critical role” as “a potent medium of [US imperial and military] propaganda dissemination.” The film’s audiences are supposed to marvel at the supposedly noble feats, sacrifice, and heroism of Chris Kyle, a rugged, militantly patriotic, and Christian-fundamentalist Navy SEALS sniper who participated in the US invasion of Iraq in order to fight “evil” and to avenge the al Qaeda jetliner attacks of September 11, 2001.  Kyle  killed 160 Iraqis over four tours of “duty” in “Operational Iraqi Freedom.” So what if the invasion was one of the most egregiously criminal, brazenly imperial and mass-murderous (evil anyone?) acts in the long and bloody history of Empire? And so what if Iraq had nothing to with 9/11 and al Qaeda?

Like Zero Dark Thirty’s apologists, American Sniper’s defenders claim that the film takes a neutral perspective of pure and true storytelling, neither for nor against the US occupation of Iraq.  Eastwood has even claimed that the movie reflects his opposition to the war. In reality, however, the movie is so rife with reactionary, racist, and imperial distortions and deletions as to function for all intents and purposes as flat out war propaganda.

Despite its director’s purported opposition to the war, American Sniper fails it to tell us why Kyle falsely believed that Iraq was connected to the 9/11 attacks. Doing so would mean confronting one of Washington’s numerous deceptive pretexts for the criminal war.

American Sniper uncritically portrays Kyle referring to Iraqi occupation resisters as “savages,” a racist term used by white US settlers to justify their genocidal destruction of the North American indigenous population during the 19th century.

It portrays Iraqis who resisted the monumentally criminal and imperial US invasion as fundamentally evil, consistent with Kyle’s skewed Christian-fundamentalist perception of them before he was deployed.

The movie suggests that any and all Iraqis who took up arms against the American occupiers did so for no other reason than that they were bloodthirsty killers – as if the “insurgents” had no legitimate reasons to resist the imperial takeover of a once proud and independent nation and region by American invaders.

American Sniper portrays al Qaeda in Iraq with no reference to the fact that the terrorist organization followed the US into the country, lacking a presence in Mesopotamia until the devastating US assault occurred.

It portrays the Iraqi city of Fallujah (where Kyle was sent in 2004) as a mysteriously devastated community, with no reference to Fallujah’s massive prior bombardment by the US.

It falsely suggests that US troops in Iraq would have been subject to arrest and incarceration as war criminals by the US military if they had mistakenly killed Iraqi civilians (nothing would be further from the truth).

It presents the main torturers and killers of Iraqi civilians as the “evil” occupation resisters – and Kyle and other US troops as those civilians’ protectors.  The opposite was much closer to the truth during a deadly US invasion that killed more than a million Iraqis.

American Sniper also portrays a US soldier as having becoming unforgivably weak and as therefore causing and deserving his own death because he came to question the invasion.

In the face of all this and more, Eastwood’s claim to have made an antiwar movie is laughable. It’s hard not to agree with Rania Khalek’s judgment that “American Sniper is dangerous propaganda that sanitizes a mass killer & rewrites the Iraq War.”  Clint “Dirty Harry” Eastwood’s latest film whitewashes the arch-criminal US occupation and lionizes a racist, Christian-fundamentalist mass murderer of unjustly invaded Muslims. It sends a very dark and ugly message.

After seeing American Sniper, I found it unsurprising to learn that a large number of Americans were influenced by the film to post comments like these on Twitter:

“Great fucking movie and now I really want to kill some fucking ragheads.”

“American sniper makes me wanna go shoot some fuckin Arabs.”

“Just watched american sniper and I feel like killing every sand nigger on the fucking planet.”

“American sniper got me pumped up to kill sand people.”

“American Sniper was so good. Makes me wanna join the Seals and take some towelheads out.”

“Damn props for the director of American Sniper making me wanna snipe some towel heads/sand niggers.”

“American sniper made me appreciate soldiers 100x more and hate Muslims 1000000x more.”

“American Sniper best movie EVER hands down. Really captures just how insane Muslims in Iraq and Syria are.”

“Nice to see a movie where the Arabs are portrayed for who they really are – vermin scum intent on destroying us.”

“American Sniper the movie is about one of our HERO warriors but it also exposes the sick culture of Muslims and there way of living.”

Clint Eastwood might want to review these and numerous other similar Tweets and Facebook posts and Instagram messages before he makes his next “antiwar” movie.

It will not bode well for the Hollywood elite’s commitment to keeping such terrible, incipiently fascist sentiments at bay if American Sniper does well during this weekend’s Academy Awards, where the movie is nominated for “Best Film.”

Perfect Timing for Renewed War and Denial
The movie is perfectly timed for Hollywood darling Barack Obama’s recent request for the Congress to grant him essentially unlimited, blank-check power to use military force to wage an expanded US war against the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) and its “associated persons or forces” – all understood to be fundamentally “evil” and “beyond civilization” (like Eastwood’s Iraqi insurgents) in the eyes of the president and the US government.

American Sniper is also nicely situated in relation to Obama’s address to a recent Washington “Summit on Countering Violent Extremism.” In his vapid reflections on how and why millions of Muslim youth have been drawn to al Qaeda, ISIS and other fundamentalist organs of Islamist jihad, the president avoided what is by far and away the single leading recruitment factor: repeated devastating, mass-murderous and petro-imperial US incursions, interference, and invasions in the oil-rich Middle East, resulting in the death and displacement of millions of Arabs and Muslims. The deletion is hardly surprising given the fact that Obama “has launched 2,300 airstrikes in Iraq and Syria since August 8, 2014. In his six years as president,” Marjorie Cohn notes, “he has killed more people than died on 9/11 with drones and other forms of targeted killing in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia – countries with which the United States is not at war.”  Now the president is ramping up an expanded US war, certain to involve considerable ground forces, in the Middle East, seeking an open-ended Congressional Authorization for the Use of Military Force – certain to be granted with some small modifications – for re-escalation of the endless imperial wars that drive “violent extremism” in the Middle East in the first place.

From the perspective of the White House and others in the vast bipartisan Washington War Lobby, movies like Zero Dark Thirty and American Sniper provide richly welcome propagandistic cover. Here’s guessing that Obama and his aides will be rooting for Republican Clint Eastwood’s dangerous propaganda film to out-perform Selma – a liberal film on Martin Luther King Jr, and the Civil Rights Movement’s struggle to win voting rights for Blacks in the US South during the middle 1960s – at the Academy Awards.  So what if Obama owes his political career to the heroic activism of King and other Civil Rights activists fifty years ago?  The great Civil Rights leader (whose bust sits in shame behind the desk of the corporatist and militarist Obama in the Oval Office) became an open opponent of the US military Empire not long after his voting Rights victory in 1965, a legacy that the imperial Obama can no more embrace than he can acknowledge King’s democratic socialism. Were he alive today, he would surely not approve of Obama’s endless war on the Muslim world. For that and other reasons, the President is much closer in essence to the likes of Clint Eastwood and countless other predominantly white agents (witting and unwitting) of US military empire.

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

Beyond False Dichotomies and Capitalist Exterminism in an Age of Environmental Crisis

18/02/15 0 COMMENTS

Paul Street, ZNet, February 11, 2015

I have long registered my agreement with the brilliant socialist philosopher Istvan Merszaros’ dark, environmentally informed 2001 judgment that:

“many of the problems we have confront – from chronic structural unemployment to the     major political/military conflicts [of our time], as well as the ever more widespread ecological destruction in evidence everywhere – require concerted  action in the very near future.  The timescale of such action may perhaps be measured in a few decades but certainly not in centuries.  We are running out of time…The uncomfortable truth of the matter is that if there is no future for a radical mass movement in our time, there can be no future for humanity itself…If I had to modify Rosa Luxembourg’s words, in relation to the dangers we now face, I would add to ‘socialism or barbarism’ this qualification: ‘barbarism if we are lucky.’  For the extermination of humanity is the ultimate concomitant of capital’s destructive course of development.”

I do not see how the movement required can emerge as long as leftists and many others here are plagued by the false dichotomies and false dilemmas discussed (below) in this essay. Here’s a useful definition and discussion of a false dichotomy, found online:

“a false dilemma, or false dichotomy, is a logical fallacy which involves presenting two opposing views, options or outcomes in such a way that they seem to be the only possibilities: that is, if one is true, the other must be false, or, more typically, if you do not accept one then the other must be accepted. The reality in most cases is that there are many in-between or other alternative options, not just two mutually exclusive ones…. There are two ways in which one can commit a false dilemma. First, one can assume that there are only two (or three, though that case is strictly speaking be a ‘false trilemma’) options when there really are many more. Second, one can take the options to be mutually exclusive when they really are not.”

Below I discuss and propose solutions from an eco-leftist participatory-socialist perspective to some of the leading false dichotomies and false dilemmas (hereafter abbreviated as “FD”s) that afflict leftists and those leftists would like to enlist in the cause of radical-democratic change.

Many of these FDs seem to have been internally created by the Left itself; others seem more externally than internally derived. They require attention and remedy – resolution – by leftists either way.

1. Self or society. According to this FD, one must choose between one’s own personal interests and health on one hand and the greater or common good on the other.  This is nonsense.  While the revolutionary project of my desired post-false dichotomous Left (hereafter referred to half-seriously as the “PFDL”) sees selfishness, excessive ego attachment, and narcissism as reprehensible, it also believes that individual development and health are enhanced by social and environmental justice. At the same time, the PFDL does not believe that people who sacrifice their individual well-being on behalf of changing society are likely to succeed in making the world a better place.  The opposite is more likely.  As the Buddhist teacher and author Chogyam Trungpa once observed, “our individual experience of sanity is inherently linked to our vision of a good society…If we try to solve society’s problems without overcoming the confusion and aggression in our own minds, then our efforts will only contribute to the basic problems, instead of solving them.”

2.  Earth or Jobs. According to this FD, we must choose between ecological sustainability on one hand and jobs on the other.  This is a false choice which ignores both the long-term reality that (to quote a favorite green protest slogan) “there’s no economy [and hence no jobs] on a dead planet” and the shorter term fact that a broad conversion to ecologically sustainable energy sources and infrastructure would generate millions of socially and environmentally necessary jobs. The PFDL advocates massive public works “green jobs” programs designed to move humanity off fossil fuels and away from extractivist relationships with the planet to renewable energy and other Earth-regenerative policies and practices (see point 14 below).  At the same time, the PFDL advocates a post-capitalist participatory-democratic society in which citizens are no longer compelled to rent out their labor power to an inherently exploitative capitalist employer class  (to work in “jobs”) to obtain life necessities.

3.  Race/Gender/Ethnicity/Nationality or Class. According to this FD, we must choose between advocating for racial justice and equality on one hand and fighting for economic and class justice and equality on the other.  This is a false choice which ignores the facts that racial injustice and inequality find much of their taproot in class oppression, that class injustice is significantly sustained by racial division, and that one cannot meaningfully struggle against class oppression without fighting also to overcome racial inequality. The PFDL does not feel forced to choose between fighting against class oppression and fighting against race oppression.  The same basic points holds for inequalities of gender, ethnicity, regional identity, nationality, sexual orientation, religious (or non-religious) identity, age, sickness, and disability. The PFDL is simultaneously against any and all structures, institutions, and ideologies of oppression, exploitation, and inequality.

4.  Pro-union or Anti-Union. This FD posits that one is either pro-union or anti-union. This ignores key differences between different types of unions. The PFDL does not align with purely job- and wage-conscious “business” unions that care about nothing more than employment opportunities and pay and benefit levels for their members.  Such unions show no concern for the often anti-social and environmentally toxic nature of the work tasks their members perform or for the deeply dehumanizing ways in which that work is structured and organized – typically on a militantly hierarchical basis, with an extreme authoritarian division of labor. (Examples of anti-social and eco-cidal work include the construction, operation, and maintenance of: oil, gas, and coal extraction and transportation facilities; nuclear power plants; mass prisons and police and surveillance facilities and technologies; obesity-inducing fast-food restaurants; nuclear weapons and other means of mass annihilation.)  At the same time, the PFDL believes that all workers (prison guards, oil-drillers, and weapons-makers as well as teachers, social workers, and nurses) under capitalism deserve union recognition and collective bargaining rights.  It backs and advances socially and politically oriented unions ready to fight for broad, many-sided progressive and radical-democratic change leading (among other things) to the non-authoritarian and egalitarian structuring of work (along “pareconish” lines) and the collective and the application of human labor power to socially necessary and useful, environmentally sustainable tasks. The PDFL supports radical and revolutionary unions – working class organizations that seek a new and democratically transformed world turned upside down rather than just a better deal for its members and its bureaucratic officials in the rotten old top-down world of ruled by the exterminist logic of capital.

5.  Voting or Apathy. This FD says that one either participates in political elections or is politically disengaged. Besides exaggerating the extent of politically relevant options that are commonly offered in time-staggered elections under “really existing capitalist democracy” (“ ‘RECD,’ pronounced as ‘wrecked,’” in the clever words of Noam Chomsky), it misleadingly identifies electoral politics as the only relevant form of politics. While the PFDL does not reject any and all participation in electoral politics (this writer would certainly have voted for Syriza in the recent Greek elections and for Socialist Kshame Sawant’s Seattle City Council candidacy last year and would vote for the Left third party Podemos in upcoming Spanish elections), it is more concerned with developing the power, disruptive capacity, cultural influence, and daily relevance of grassroots social movements beneath and beyond the candidate-centered election spectacles that are sold to US citizens as “politics,” the “only politics that matters.”  This is particularly true in the United States, where the range of “choices” offered by viable parties and candidates is especially narrow and Big Business-controlled/-friendly. To paraphrase the radical American historian Howard Zinn, it is much more interested in who’s sitting in the streets and on the shop-floors and in the schools and the offices and the public squares than in who’s sitting in the White House, the 50 state governors’ mansions, the US Congress, and other supposedly “representative” positions. At the same time, the PFDL supports changing the US party and elections systems to make US elections more worthy of popular participation than they are at present.

6. Democrats or Republicans. This US-specific FD claims that leftists and other progressives must support the Democratic Party to block the arch-reactionary Republican Party in US elections and policy. The PFDL understands why many US progressives feel compelled to grant tactical backing to Democrats over Republicans.  It does not believe that the two dominant US political organizations are identical (the Republicans and the Democrats have different histories, constituencies and funding streams among other variations between them), but it never forgets that those organizations are more alike than different in their shared captivity to the capitalist elite, the “free enterprise” (state-capitalist) system, and the US global and military Empire.  The PFDL also knows that the Democrats are in some ways worse than the rightmost of the two organizations (the Republicans).  They are to some degree “the more effective evil” (Glen Ford),  particularly when it comes to their ability to capture, co-opt, and shut-down the disruptive and radical potential of popular social movements. The PFDL does not believe that meaningful solutions to our current grave societal and environmental dilemmas are remotely attainable through the US “two party system,” both of whose wings (the far-right Republicans and the center-right Democrats) stand well to the right of the majority populace in service to the nation’s unelected and interrelated dictatorships of money, capital, business, empire, patriarchy, and white supremacy.

7.  Reform or Revolution.  This FD claims that one must support either reforms under the currently reigning power system or the revolutionary overthrow of that system.  The PFDL thinks that reform and revolution are not mutually exclusive goals. It grasps that revolutionary movements are built partly on the basis of popular support won through the advocacy and occasionally the winning of reforms that improve everyday peoples’ lives.  It understands the certain reforms create and expand popular expectations that the currently reigning state-capitalist system and its rulers cannot satisfy. At the same time, the PFDL knows that serious reformers need radical “thunder on the Left” to convince reluctant elites to pass reforms as alternatives to more radical change.

The PFDL knows that reforms will not suffice. Martin Luther King, Jr. was right when he wrote near the end his life that “the real issue to be faced” is “the radical reconstruction of society itself.” The PFDL is highly conscious and wary of reforms’ historical ability to co-opt, dilute, de-radicalize, divide, and demobilize popular movements. It is nonetheless ready and willing to work creatively with the tensions inherent in the dialectical dance of reform and revolution.

8.  Demands or Organization.  This FD posits that an emergent Left movement must focus either on specific demands or on the development of its organizational capacity for forcing change and winning demands from the bottom up.  The PFDL priorities organization since a strong and durable (“sticky”) institutional presence and power – not policy ideas or demands – is the primary thing missing on the Left right now.  Still, the PFDL does not ignore or indefinitely postpone the inevitable question of “what are you for” either in terms of immediate reforms or on the longer timeline of alternative societal and political-economic vision.  Ideas without organizations to fight for them have little chance of implementation, but organizations without specific, well-conceived demands and ideas for change are unlikely to be taken seriously or to recruit a large and durable membership.

9.  Growth or No Growth. According to the FD, we must either (a) support the environmentally disastrous economic growth that billions of people require under capitalism for employment and income or (b) oppose growth in the interests of saving livable ecology. Painfully conscious that a no-growth economy would lead to drastically expanded unemployment and poverty for billions under the currently reigning state-capitalist system, the PFDL does indeed oppose growth on the reigning chaotic and environmentally exterminist state-capitalist model.  Growth- and accumulation-addicted capitalism floods the world with toxic waste and climate-cooking carbon, squanders and poisons the world’s resources, and advances endless, soulless, and eco-exterminist material expansion as fatal and false substitutes for serious anti-poverty and anti-inequality efforts. Still, the PFDL does not so much reject growth as redefine growth to mean a number of things beyond and against the dominant capitalist meaning.  The great humanist psychologist Abraham Maslow wrote about peoples’ remarkable capacity for “psychological growth,” by which he meant advance toward “self-actualization” through (in the words of one his leading followers, Frank Goble) “a constant development of talents, capacities, creativity, wisdom, and character” – something he found contrary to capitalist society’s over-emphasis on material and economic “success.”  On a broader scale, the PFDL thinks of a society’s real and desirable growth in terms of the increased quantity, spread, and intensity of equality, justice, democracy, participation, sustainability, health, creativity, imagination, empathy, solidarity, compassion, and happiness experienced by the broad populace.  All of these (we think) positive attributes are assaulted and undermined by the currently reigning state-capitalist model and definition of “growth,” ultimately a form of human de-development and indeed extermination.

10.  More or Less. The PFDL rejects the argument of some environmentalists that the populace must be instructed to “make do with less.”  The command reinforces the neoliberal austerity that has been advanced by financial and corporate elites and their many agents in state power for the last three-plus decades.  It’s hard to expect calls for a more austere lifestyle to be received favorably by a working class majority whose standard of living has been relentlessly assaulted for more than a generation. Mass and wasteful consumerism is a giant ecological, social, and even spiritual problem, but the point is not to call for more mass self-denial. It’s not about more versus less; it’s about better versus worse. The task is to create qualitatively different and better material and social lives beyond the authoritarian and eco-cidal and exterminist rule of capital.

11.  The Environmental Crisis or Everything Else. Given recent ever-worsening climate projections, it is tempting to conclude that if the global environmental catastrophe created by anthropogenic climate change isn’t averted soon, then, as Noam Chomsky has warned, “in a generation or two, everything else we’re talking about won’t matter.”  Chomsky was writing for leftists and progressives, a group for whom “everything else” includes standard portside targets like poverty, imperialism, racism, inequality, plutocracy, neoliberalism, sexism, police-statism, nationalism, government surveillance, mass incarceration, corporate thought control, militarism, and, last but not least, capitalism.

The warning is powerful and chillingly accurate enough given “capital’s destructive course of development” (Meszaros).  Still, the brilliant left environmentalist Naomi Klein is right to challenge activists to understand the environmental crisis and climate action within the broader political framework of issues and problems that are directly linked to global warming: housing, public space, labor rights, unemployment, the social safety net, human services, infrastructure, militarism, racism, democracy and more. Climate action, Klein shows, is intimately related to and consistent with positive government and collective action around each of these and other interrelated areas. A movement to address the climate crisis can be a bridge to broad progressive and even revolutionary change and the regeneration of democracy and the public sector in all areas of society. In her important new volume This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate, the argument isn’t “solve climate change or soon everything else we progressives talk about won’t matter.”  Klein’s point instead is that climate action, necessary to save a livable planet, is also a crossing to progress on “everything else.” Ultimately, Klein argues – correctly in this writer’s opinion (notwithstanding Klein’s tendency to add qualifiers to the system in question) – that “the really inconvenient truth is that [global warming] is not about carbon – it’s about capitalism…. [and] the war [that system] is waging on earth” (a position with which Chomsky would likely agree). The PFDL (well, the present writer) concurs.

12.  Vanguard-ism or Spontaneity.  According to this FD, we must either advance a militant and controlling, top-down, vanguard style of radical leadership or we must “give in” to the “naïve spontaneity” of the insufficiently radical “masses.”  The PFDL does not romanticize or sentimentalize the rank and file working class and citizenry or reject the need for leadership, programs, strategy, tactics, cadres and organization.  Painfully conscious of the powerful role that ruling class propaganda, media, “education,” and ideology and other reactionary influences have long played in manufacturing mass consent to state-capitalism and imperialism (and other authoritarian oppression structures and ideologies), it does not support unquestioning deference to whatever oppressed people might say, think, or do. It does not shrink from its duty to struggle against elite and reactionary cultural and ideological influences and to advance a critical pedagogy of radical liberation. At the same time, the PFDL does not wish to substitute its own privilege and power for that of currently reigning elites.  It works to widen, not narrow, the depth and breadth of popular participation and power both in society and in popular movements. Seeking to rise with and not above the popular majority, the PFDL aims less to direct than to accompany and assist the “masses” – the great majority of world worker-citizens – in solidarity on the path to a genuinely popular, many-sided democratic revolution.

13. Real-life Struggle or “Utopian” Blueprints. According to this FD, we must choose between (a) organizing and fighting struggles in the here and now and (b) rigorously imagining and proposing a future beyond contemporary oppression structures. The PFDL prioritizes contemporary real-time struggles and recognizes that a revolutionary future will have to emerge primarily from those struggles.  At the same time, it thinks it is useful for activists in the present to develop, maintain, and update a strong sense and vision of what kind of future ends and aims and society we seek.  Doing so helps sustain us in our current struggles and helps shape those struggles in accord with ultimate intentions.

14. Capitalism or Really Existing Socialism. If we pose our vision of an alternative society purely in terms of the historical conflict between capitalism and really existing past and present socialism, it becomes all too easy to unduly suppress grave difficulties shared across both systems to date. The PFDL reminds us that really existing capitalism and really existing socialism have shared some terrible characteristics and patterns in the 20th and 21st centuries. Two such characteristics and patterns that deserve special mention are (a) attachment to an alienating and hierarchical “corporate division of labor” (Michael Albert and Robin Hahnel’s useful term) under whose reign the great majority of the working population is assigned to narrow and disempowering, low-status tasks that are conceived and coordinated by a comparatively privileged, empowered, and affluent elite class of managers and professionals (what Hahnel and Albert call “the coordinator class”); (b) attachment to an “extractivist” model of interacting with Earth – a model that is ruining livable ecology in ever more imminently catastrophic ways. The PFDL rejects these and other negative characteristics of really existing socialism.  It calls for a participatory and egalitarian economy that attacks and transcends capitalist and other corporate divisions of labor as well as capitalist property and ownership relations.  It fights for a new “regenerative” (the opposite of extractivist) relationship with the world’s resources and the natural environment.

15.  Local or Global/Systemic.  This FD tells us that we must choose between seeking change either at the “merely” local level or at the more systemic levels of nation and world. The PFDL does not foolishly imagine that giant oppressive structures of class, race, nationality, and empire can be overcome through merely local (or for that matter merely regional or national) struggles alone.  Still, it does not ignore or downgrade the importance of lived local and regional experience, local issues, and the ecological imperatives of local resource utilization. It is a sign of the capitalist and eco-cidal madness of our times that more than 90 percent of the edible items in a typical dinner in an agriculturally hyper-fertile states like Iowa derive from foodstuffs grown and raised outside that state. The PFDL’s vision of national and global change naturally includes provisions encouraging and even mandating the significant reasonable re-localization the provision and transport of food and other resources.

16.  State Socialism or Workers Control.  The PFDL recognizes the dual and simultaneous necessities of (a) Leftists seizing state power and using it against counter-revolutionary capitalist forces and (b) Leftists and others developing mass-based democratic institutions and modes of popular-participatory power in workplace and community. We reject the Bolshevik Revolution’s almost instantaneous subordination of (b) to (a).  Consistent with its rejection of the FD between capitalism and really existing socialism to date (see point 14) and its related rejections of the FDs between vanguard-ism and spontaneity (point 12) and between growth and no-growth (point 9), the PFDL advocates a mutually reinforcing and dialectically inseparable relationship between transitional state socialism on one hand and workers’ and people’s power on the other hand – a relationship in which a revolutionary state protects organs of workers and popular power, enhancing popular support for that state’s necessary struggle against capitalist and imperialist reaction.

17.  Forces or Relations of Production. In Marx’s and “Marxism’s” classic formulations, the revolutionary Left aims to free the “forces of production” (factories, mills, mines, railroads, steamships, farms, etc.) from the oppressive bourgeois (capitalist) “relations of production” that largely brought them into being, placing those forces under the democratic and social/socialist direction and ultimately into the hands of “the associated producers” themselves.  The task was to change the relations – not so much the forces – of production from capitalist to socialist. The PFDL remains committed to that project to no small degree but it also recognizes that many (if not most) of the productive and distributive and other techno-economic forces called into being by capital are now cancerous, exterminist, wasteful, destructive and eco-cidal. Examples include the bulk of the world’s giant carbon-industrial complex, the nuclear power industry, weapons and other military production, modern Confined Animal Feeding Operations [CAFOs], the fast-food industry, and countless production processes designed around the principle of obsolescence.  These and other horrific, exterminist “forces of production” need to be discarded, replaced, and/or re-converted in ways consistent with the necessary shift from an extractivist to a sustainable (regenerative) relationship between humans, other species, and the Earth – and with our intimately related obligation to dismantle weapons of mass destruction, imperial domination, and endless war.

18. Understanding History or Changing History. The young Marx is often misquoted by leftists as having written that “philosophers have tried to understand history; the point is to change it.” The real comment was “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.”  Marxology aside, the PFDL believes that people are in a better position to change history (or “the world”) in a desirable direction when they have studied and understood history (and “the world”).

19. Critique or Solution.  Leftists are commonly, even almost ritually told that they carp and complain without offering solutions. As Chomsky once wrote, “there is an accurate translation for that charge: ‘they present solutions and I don’t like them.’” While the work of Left thinkers is excessively weighted toward criticism over solutions, there is no shortage of good Left thought on radical peoples’ alternatives to currently reigning policies, practices, sociopolitical relations, and institutions.  The PFDL strongly encourages such thought, but it does not believe in separating its solutions from its critique any more than a medical worker believes in separating a patient’s treatment plan from her understanding of the condition being treated. Social critique and solution are inextricably linked like diagnosis and treatment in health care.

20. Marxism or Anarchism. The PFDL does not feel compelled to choose harshly or dogmatically between these two great and long-warring tendencies on the anti-capitalist Left. It draws inspiration from the “Haymarket synthesis” of both, combining respect for the trenchant critical of capitalism advanced by Karl Marx and his many declared followers with esteem for the left-libertarian and anti-authoritarian writing and activism of radical Left anarchists over the years. It also takes guidance and inspiration from other strains of thought and culture, including radical religion (see no.  21) and indigenous people’s spiritual attachment to harmony rather than conflict (see no.22 below) between human beings on one hand and other sentient beings, living things, and the Earth on the other hand.

21.  Religion or Revolution. Atheists have no monopoly on revolutionary potential.  There are radical-democratic and egalitarian strands in every major world religion and there is a long history up to the present of heroic and egalitarian activism on the part of religious believers, including (for example) the proponents of Latin American Liberation Theology, who combined Christianity with Marxism, anarchism, and indigenous influences to fight brutal US-sponsored dictatorships in Latin America.

22. Earth v. Homo Sapiens. The PFDL rejects capitalism’s and indeed industrial society’s long struggle to “conquer” nature.  It embraces humanity’s remarkable capacity to understand the laws of nature and the universe and to turn scientific knowledge to the benefit of the species  At the same time, it insists that we employ those capacities in a way that seeks to restore and advance relations of harmonious of co-existence between living things and their earthly surroundings – relations that have been collapsed in ever more imminently catastrophic ways by the war that capitalism is waging on life on Earth.

23. Hope or Hopelessness. The PFDL does not spend much time looking into the crystal ball, speculating on its chances for success or failure. We have a moral and existential duty to fight for justice, equality, democracy, and livable ecology – the salvation and flowering of the commons – “even if we do not know we are going to win” (Mario Savio, 1994). Hope is preferable to hopelessness, no doubt, but it is a largely maudlin and easily manipulated “pie in the sky” sentiment regarding future outcomes of present day struggles that need to be waged with no certainty of triumph if humanity is going to have any chance of enjoying a decent future.

Paul Street is a writer in Iowa City, IA.  His latest book is They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy.

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