No Wise Men Here: Gabriel Kolko and Washington’s Continuing Murderous Middle East Myopia

03/06/15 0 COMMENTS

Z Net, May 20, 2015

Gabriel Kolko, Another Century of War? (New York: New Press, 2002)
Patrick Cockburn, The Rise of the Islamic State (New York: Verso, 2014)

More Like Wise Guys
One of the worst ideas I picked up from certain academic historians and political scientists when I was an undergraduate history major in the late 1970s was the notion of a sophisticated and far-seeing United States imperial elite that knew how to smoothly and benevolently manage the planet from the banks of the Potomac River. Who were my Establishment-adoring professors trying to kid?

When I was in nursery school in October of 1962, the purported visionary masters atop Camelot brought the world within a hair’s breadth of Armageddon through reckless nuclear posturing and a deadly game of chicken that might have ended the human experiment but for the heroic last-second actions of a Soviet submarine commander (Vasili Arkhapov) off the coast of Florida. Washington’s “exceptional” global system managers came shockingly close to provoking US-Soviet nuclear war again in 1973 and 1983.

As Harvard’s handsome John F. Kennedy garnered U.S. press and television accolades for facing down the Soviets in the Caribbean, the “best and the brightest” initiated the long mass-murderous debacle known to American History textbooks as “The Vietnam War.” It’s a curious term for a massively one-sided imperial assault on a poor peasant nation by the world’s richest industrialized state. Before that monumental crime was over, 58,000 U.S. soldiers were killed along with 3 to 5 million Vietnamese and other Southeast Asians.  Washington’s dream of creating a unified, U.S.-allied Vietnamese nation lay in tatters. Unlike the previous US quagmire in Korea, Washington failed to keep a client state intact in the southern half of the nation it pillaged. Saigon fell to the officially Communist Hanoi regime forty years ago last April 30th.

The leading Left intellectual Noam Chomsky has argued compellingly that the U.S. “won” the war in a very ugly sense. America pounded and poisoned Vietnam so mercilessly that the Vietnamese Revolution could not demonstrate to other small and poor nations the advisability of defying America to pursue an independent and egalitarian path beyond Washington’s supervision.  The Vietnam “domino” (to use U.S. Cold War planners’ term) may have fallen, but if fell into a pile of ash, blood, and dictatorship. The “threat of a good example” – of positive national and populist development outside Washington’s capitalist and imperial oversight and direction (the real specter behind the fantastic U.S. “domino theory” of Kremlin-coordinated global revolution) – was averted.

If it was a victory for Washington’s “Wise Men,” it had little to do with my professors’ thesis of a munificent and farsighted U.S. Establishment. Confronted with the consequences of its repeated inability and refusal to grasp the basic social and political realities behind an at once nationalist and social-revolutionary peoples’ struggle in Vietnam, the U.S. Empire resorted to its standard default tool – sheer mass-murderous military force and technology – to attain the bottom-line goal. The policy was criminal beyond words, with no small price paid in “the homeland,” where the briefly declared “War on Poverty” was strangled in its cradle by the Vietnam atrocity, leaving Martin Luther King, Jr., to observe that “a nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”

Twenty months before the last U.S. helicopters left Saigon in abject symbolic humiliation, mass murder was deployed by the Nixon administration and the CIA to undo another “threat of a good example” in Chile.  A U.S.-sponsored military coup there overthrew the democratically elected Chilean government of the moderately Marxist Salvador Allende, ushering in a neo-fascist dictatorship that smashed popular organizations and killed thousands of workers, activists, and intellectuals. One lesson of Vietnam and perhaps Chile for Washington was to rely more on the direct killing power of its “Third World Fascist” clients and proxies when it came to making up for its failure to enforce its imperial aims through political means. “All told,” historian Greg Grandin notes, “U.S. allies in Central America during Reagan’s two terms killed over 300,000 people, tortured hundreds of thousands, and drove millions into exile.”  This epic bloodshed took place with lavish funding, training, and equipment from Washington, which had learned to “farm out its imperial violence.”

Not that Uncle Sam didn’t already know how to subcontract mass killing. In Brazil, the Congo, Indonesia, Greece, and indeed across much of the Third World in the 1960s and 1970s, U.S.-sponsored dictatorships killed, maimed, and tortured millions of activists, peasants, intellectuals, and workers who sought the paths of social justice and national independence.

This record is more like what one would expect from Mafia Dons and their “wise guy” henchmen than from munificent “wise men” of principled global vision.

Kolko Reflects (2002): Imperial Hubris, Myopia, and Force Addiction
Not long after the al-Qaeda commandeered jetliners hit most of their targets in New York City and Washington DC in 2001, giving the U.S. its own 9/11 (Latin America had its own in Santiago, Chile, courtesy of Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, on September 11, 1973), the late pioneer New Left historian Gabriel Kolko (August 17, 1932 – May 19, 2014) wrote and published a learned and prophetic little book titled Another Century of War? (New York: New Press, 2002). Unlike even some of his New Left counterparts, Kolko was never remotely impressed by the “best and brightest” Ivy League graduates who ran U.S. foreign policy.  Struck instead by the seemingly endless “myopia, hubris, and ambition” of the nation’s imperial policymakers, he never fell prey to the myth of a U.S. imperial (or domestic) power elite that possessed the capacity to smartly run domestic and foreign affairs through rational and intelligent planning and sophisticated “corporate liberal” politics of “containment” at home or abroad. Kolko’s post-WWII U.S. imperial establishment was a clumsy, violence-addicted menace to global peace, justice, and security – including the security of the U.S. people.   It was a mass-murderous agent and perpetrator of militarism, neo-colonial flag-showing and intervention (the U.S. undertook 215 actions of “force without war” from 1946 through 1975) and war – the field of human endeavor in which it felt most confidently supreme and technologically potent.  Military power was the brutish tool to which it resorted to provide false and deadly “fixes” for political and social problems it could not resolve through civilized means. Again and again, as in Korea and Vietnam, its clumsy default militarism would come back to haunt it and undermine its grandiose planetary ambitions. As Kolko explained in the preface to Another Century of War ?:

“Technologically sophisticated American military power, which has won all the battles in Afghanistan, has only emboldened the Bush administration to use its might elsewhere.  However, military success bears scant relationship to political solutions that end wars and greatly reduce the risk of their recurring. But this dichotomy between military power and political success has existed for most of the past century.  The United States has always been ready to use its superior military strength even though employing that power often creates many more problems than it solves.” (Kolko 2002, p. ix).

Kolko’s deeply knowledgeable skepticism along these lines shaped his judgement on the primary peril facing humanity after September 11, 2001, itself classic “blowback” from prior blundering U.S. imperialism in the Middle East. The threat was the enduring chaotic, irrational, paranoid, unscrupulous, depraved, incoherent, shortsighted, crisis-ridden, self-fulfilling and self-defeating, force-addicted policy of Washington, not the Islamist terror networks and fundamentalism that the U.S. had done so much to create during the last century.  Kolko’s reflections merit lengthy quotation:

“…the principal (but surely no exclusive) danger the entire world confronts is America’s capacity and readiness to intervene virtually anywhere.  After Afghanistan there will be more American military adventures…. America may well intervene elsewhere in its futile, never-ending quest to use its military power to resolve political and social instabilities that challenge its interests as it defines them” (Kolko 2002, ix-x).

“…The United States has more military equipment than ever, and since 1950 Pentagon spending has become one of the traditional and indispensable foundations of American prosperity.  There is no indication that it will decline. But there are no technological quick-fixes to political problems.  Solutions are political.  They require another mentality and much more wisdom, including a readiness to compromise and, above all, to stay out of the affairs of other nations…its reliance on weapons and force has exacerbated or created far more problems for the United States than it has solved…It is imperative that the United States acknowledge the limits of its power – limits that are inherent in its own military illusions and in the very nature of a world that is far too big and complex for any country to dream of managing” (140-141).

“Whatever rationality is built into the [U.S.] foreign policy apparatus has had little impact in guiding policymakers since 1950…There is far less understanding at the top than successive leaders have claimed, and domestic politics and short-term factors play a much greater role than they will ever admit.  The world…cannot afford U.S. foreign policy’s opportunistic and ad-hoc character, its wavering between the immoral and the amoral …that official speechwriters portray as rational and principled.  In reality, it has neither coherence nor useful principles but often responds to one crisis after another – and these are usually of its own making [and]… proof of confusion and ineptness…Rather than leading the world in a better direction, it has usually inflicted incalculable harm wherever it has intervened …Its leaders have been addicted to intervening for its own sake, to save the nation’s ‘credibility,’ to prevent an alleged vacuum of power, or to fulfill its self-appointed role as the enforcer of global or regional order (which it usually equates with the freedom of American businessmen to make money)…All of its policies in the Middle East have been contradictory and counterproductive” (142-43).

Creating the Islamic State
Not bad.  As Kolko noted, “the two men whom the United States has most demonized over the past two decades” (143),  Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden, had both once been sponsored and backed with vast resources by Washington. The 9/11 attacks, Kolko might have added, would not likely have occurred without the support the jihadists received from Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, key U.S. allies who received a free pass from the U.S. in its subsequent global “war on [of] terror.” The Saudi kingdom and the Pakistani military have remained official U.S. friends despite being what the leading Middle East correspondent Patrick Cockburn calls “the two countries most involved in support al-Qaeda and favoring the ideology behind the attacks.”

Opportunistic? As Cockburn notes in his recent book The Rise of the Islamic State, a brilliant study of (among other things) US-led Western myopia and failure, “The shock of 9/11 provided a Pearl Harbor moment in the US 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” (Cockburn 2014, pp.100-101).

Inept and counterproductive? After 9/11, Cockburn observes, the U.S. “targeted the wrong countries when Iraq and Afghanistan were identified as the hostile states whose governments needed to be overthrown” (Cockburn, 138). Look at the bloody and chaotic mayhem the U.S. has sowed across the Muslim world through its ham-fisted reliance on blunt, monumentally destructive military force in the wake of the jetliner assaults. More than a million Iraqis lost their lives unnecessarily because of Washington’s criminal invasion and occupation of Mesopotamia, launched on blatantly and viciously false, 9/11-exploiting pretexts. Like the Korean and Vietnam fiascos, the giant imperial transgression given the Orwellian name Operation Iraqi Freedom is a prolonged bloody seminar in violence- and technology-addicted idiocy rooted in epic political stupidity, racialized imperial arrogance, and capitalist profit lust. The soulless and mindless devastation imposed on Iraq by the world’s greatest killing, dismembering, destroying, and displacing machine (the U.S. military) has given rise to the barbaric and arch-reactionary Islamic State (IS), which now covers an area larger than Great Britain – the biggest radical change in the geography of the Middle East since the aftermath of World War I.

Still, the young lady who recently told presidential hopeful Jeb Bush that his brother George W. Bush “created the Islamic state” has it only partly right.  The IS has also drawn critical strength from Washington’s Obama-era campaign against the Assad regime in Syria, where the new arch-reactionary caliphate has gained a critical foothold with no small help from the US ally Turkey.  “Western support for the Syrian opposition may have failed to overthrow Assad,” Cockburn notes, “but it has been successful in destabilizing Iraq,” where the ISIS has drawn heavily on the prolonged and largely U.S.-funded and –equipped Syrian Civil War. The Sunni jihadist movement created by the U.S. invasion and the Shiite sectarianism of the U.S.-imposed regime in Baghdad had faded in Iraq by 2010.  Al-Qaeda in Iraq, the predecessor of the IS, was at its lowest ebb. But “by supporting the armed uprising in Syria,” Cockburn reports, the U.S. and the West “would inevitably destabilize Iraq and provoke a new round of its sectarian civil war.”  It was given new life by the Syrian conflagration, fueled by Washington and its allies.  As Cockburn explains, like something out of Kolko’s reflections on American ineptitude:

“ISIS is the child of war…The movement’s toxic but potent mix of extreme religious beliefs and military skill is the outcome of war in Iraq since the US invasion of 2003 and the war in Syria since 2011.  Just the violence in Iraq was ebbing, the war was revived by the Sunni Arabs in Syria…it was the war in Syria that destabilized [bordering] Iraq when jihadi groups like ISIS, then called al-Qaeda in Iraq, found a new battlefield where they could fight ah flourish…It was the US, Europe, and their regional allies in Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, and United Arab Emirates that created the conditions for the rise of ISIS.  They kept the war going in Syria, though it was obvious from 2012 that Assad would not fall…He was not about to go, and ideal conditions were created for ISIS to prosper” (Cockburn, 8-9).

Jihadists easily and completely hijacked a Syrian opposition that the White House and other Western power and opinion centers foolishly portrayed as “moderate,” “democratic,” and on the verge of overthrowing Assad. Washington is further handicapped in its effort to roll back the IS by its ongoing conflicts with Syrian and Iranian regimes, both blood enemies of Sunni extremists, and by its continuing alliance with Saudi Arabia and other arch-reactionary gulf monarchies, key sponsors of Wahhabi extremism.

As I write today, on the first anniversary of Kolko’s death (May 19th), I look belatedly at yesterday’s New York Times to see that the Islamic State has seized the key Iraqi city of Ramadi after weeks of U.S. airstrikes meant to prevent that outcome.  The latest radical Islamist triumph in Iraq mocks Washington’s recent claims that the IS is “on the defensive” (NYT, 5/18/2015, A1). Because of its irrational conflict with Teheran, the U.S. has discouraged Baghdad from mobilizing and deploying Iraq’s pro-Iran Shiite fighters, the blood enemies of the IS who are required in battle if the extremist Sunni state is going to be effectively countered in Iraq. It’s another epic imperial “cluster-fuck” of Washington’s own making to no small extent.

Meanwhile extremists thrive in Libya, where the Obama administration sowed anarchy and created fertile soil for radical Islamism within that nation by militarily overthrowing the formerly U.S.-allied Libyan government of Moammar Ghadafi.  The Wall Street Journal reports on its first page today that “the Islamic State has solidified its foothold in Libya as it searches for ways to capitalize on its rising popularity among extremist groups around the world…[the] foothold…gives the group a new staging place to plan attacks in North Africa and across the Mediterranean sea in Europe…Deeper ties in Libya could give Islamic State the ability to extend its influence further into Africa, where groups such as Boko Haram in Nigeria have pledged allegiance to the radical Sunni force.” (D. Nissenbaum and M. Abi-Habib, “Islamic State Sends Fighters to Libya,” WSJ, 5/19/2015, A1, A6).

Across the Muslim world, from North Africa to Afghanistan – where the Taliban has been back on the rise for years – the U.S. “war on [of] terror” policy is a rolling catastrophe, every bit as muddled and stumbling as the Indochinese fiasco.  Under Obama no less than under Bush, the reasons for U.S. and Western failure in the Middle East are largely “recent and self-inflicted” (Cockburn). It’s been quite an accomplishment on the part of Washington’s not-so wise men.  As Cockburn notes:

“Osama bin Laden’s gathering of militants, which did not call itself al Qaeda until after 9/11, was just one of many jihadi groups twelve years ago.  But today its ideas and methods are predominant among jihadis because of the prestige it gained through the destruction of the Twin Towers, the war in Iraq and its demonization by Washington as the source of all anti-American evil. These days, there is a narrowing of differences in the beliefs of jihadis, regardless of whether or not they are formally linked to al-Qaeda central….At the time of 9/11, al-Qaeda was a small, generally ineffective organization; by 2014 al Qaeda-type groups were numerous and powerful.  In other words, the ‘war on terror,’ the waging of which has shaped the political landscape for so much of the world since 2001, has demonstrably failed.” (Cockburn, 55, 59)

Nowhere is this abject failure – a monument to Kolko’s understanding of the U.S. imperial establishment – more glaringly obvious than across northern Iraq and Syria:

“If you look at a map of the Middle East, [Cockburn observes], you will find that al-Qaeda-type organizations have become a lethally powerful force in a territory that stretches from Diyala province northeast of Baghdad, to northern Latakia province on Syria’s Mediterranean coastline.  The whole of the Euphrates Valley through Western Iraq, eastern Syria, and right up to the Turkish border is today under the control of ISIS or Jabhat al-Nusra (JAN), the latter being the official representative of what U.S. officials call ‘core’ al-Qaeda in Pakistan” (Cockburn, 42-43).

Good at Killing People, Good at Spreading Jihad
Elected in the deceptive brand name of peace, the smooth-talking Barack Obama has not slaughtered on the same mass-homicidal scale of his more explicitly militarist cowboy predecessor.  Obama was tasked with reducing the ground-force footprint of the US Armed Forces and has a special taste for murdering in smaller doses through the more “surgical” use of drones, laser-guided missiles, and Special Forces assault. He has joked to his White House staff that he is “good at killing people. Didn’t know that was going to be one of my strong suits.”

He is also quite proficient at broadening the political and ideological spread of jihad by widening the geographic reach and the frequency of America’s high-tech propensity to murder suddenly from the sky.  George W. Bush may have him beat on body count, but Obama takes the prize when it comes to technologically sophisticated killing scope and in terms of direct killing involvement.  The 2009 Nobel Peace Prize winner personally oversees the Pentagon and CIA’s Kill List, which designates “bad guy” Muslims for remote-control assassination without the irritating technicalities of law and politics – and without the risk of U.S. casualties. These cowardly killings and their considerable collateral damage have been emotionally potent jihadist recruiting tools from Libya, Sudan, Somalia, and Yemen to Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan – and indeed in Muslim communities around the world.

Irrelevant Kills
Under Obama as under Bush, Washington has further epitomized Kolko’s take on the politically feckless military illusions of U.S. imperialism by claiming to have won great “war on terror” victories through targeted military assassinations of key jihadi leaders.  The spectacular Navy Seals helicopter raid that executed bi-Laden in Pakistan made great press in the West, eliciting patriotic celebration across the U.S. in May of 2011.  It was wholly irrelevant to the “war on terror,” however, which was failing badly in Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere as the Special Forces moved in for the great moment in what ABC News calls “the Osama bin Laden Kill Zone.”

Last weekend, the White House and Pentagon crowed about a Special Forces raid that killed the Islamic State’s “chief financial officer” and captured his wife. Meanwhile the IS completed its takeover of Ramadi. The IS functionary will be easily replaced.

Meanwhile, jihadist expansion is fueled by the transparent absurdity of the U.S. claiming to support “democracy” and “freedom” across the region while sponsoring the prodigiously corrupt and totalitarian governments of Saudi Arabia and other crooked and debased Gulf oil monarchies. As Cockburn notes, “there was always something fantastical about the US and its Western allies teaming up with the theocratic Sunni absolute monarchies of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf to spread democracy and enhance human rights in Syria, Iraq, and Libya” (Cockburn, 8).

War is a Racket
The endless clumsy application of U.S. and U.S.-sponsored terror only breeds more Islamist terror. Jihadist outrages only provide more pretexts for more Mafia-like Pentagon madness inflicted in the interest of U.S. “credibility,” with concomitant destabilizing consequences across the oil- and religion-fueled tinderbox that is the Middle East.  The only clear winners are radical Islamist extremists and their curious partners the U.S. corporate military-industrial complex.

“War is a racket,” wrote Smedley Butler, a decorated Marine general who recalled functioning in essence as “a high class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street and the bankers” during numerous early 20th century deployments in Central America and the Caribbean. The militarism that he coordinated enriched a select few wealthy Americans, Butler reflected, not the mostly working class soldiers on the front lines. “How many of the war millionaires shouldered a rifle. How many of them dug a trench?”

Butler’s reflections have, if anything, grown in relevance since World War II when the U.S. became home to the most powerful military empire the world has ever seen – and to a vast military-industrial complex whose direct prices (including mass death and injury in a long line of neocolonial wars of invasion and occupation from Korea through Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan) and more indirect costs (including social welfare opportunity costs) have been borne by American society as a whole (not to mention the many millions of non-American others killed, injured and displaced by the U.S. military and its military client states).  The benefits have flowed especially to wealthy Americans. Today, as during the Cold War and before, war and the apparently permanent preparation for war is a source of corporate mega-profits as it provides a deceptive cloak of national unity behind which elites concentrate wealth and power, shaming those who question that upward redistribution as unpatriotic carpers seeking to “divide rather unite America.” Military Keynesianism remains intact while the business class’s campaign to dismantle what’s left of the welfare state takes another step forward in poverty- and prison-ridden America. Such are the “perverted priorities” (Martin Luther King Jr.’s phrase) of policymakers in the U.S., the “beacon to the world of the way life should be,” to quote onetime U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson (R-TX), reflecting in October of 2002 on why George W. Bush should be allowed to invade Iraq if he wanted to.

The U.S. imperial establishment might still rule, but it does not do so through superior intelligence, vision, principles, planning, and strategy. As Kolko suggested in his synthesis Main Currents in American History (1976), it reigns instead thanks to deep structural fragmentation, powerlessness, cruelty, misery, and chaos in the imperial “homeland” and across the world system. It rules over and through disorder, drift, violence, division, and sheer inherited  technological, institutional, and territorial advantage at home and abroad. The moment when underlying political-economic and other structural and conjunctural shifts and events will unseat the great post-WWII “rogue superpower” once and for all from its deadly global position cannot be precisely determined of course. There have long been signs that the death spiral of U.S. hegemony is underway; how long the process will take and whether humanity can survive it in decent shape are open questions.  In the meantime, Kolko was certainly right to note after 9/11 and before the U.S. invasion of Iraq that “Everyone – Americans and those people who are the objects of their efforts – would be better off if the United States …allowed the rest of the world to find its way without American weapons and troops…To continue as it has over the past century is [for the U.S.] to admit that it has the vainglorious and irrational ambition to run the world.  It cannot.  It has failed in the past and will fail in this century, and attempting to do so will inflict wars and turmoil on many nationals as well as on its own people” (Kolko, 150).

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

No Respect for the Poor, Working or Not

22/05/15 0 COMMENTS
teleSur English, May 21, 2015

We all make mistakes. In 1996, I ventured a silly notion at the end of a grant-funded project study that criticized the over-optimistic labor market assumptions behind U.S. “welfare reform.”  Welfare “reform” was a euphemism for the elimination of poor families’ entitlement to basic family cash assistance in the name of “welfare-to-work” and “work first.” My fellow researchers and I (working under the rubric of the Midwest Job Gap project) showed that the U.S. economy was generating far too few decent-paying low-skilled jobs to absorb the millions of poor mothers being pushed into the job market by the bipartisan “Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act.”  There wasn’t enough employment “opportunity” out there for welfare “reform” to meaningfully reduce poverty in the U.S., we argued.

Nonetheless, I found it necessary for some reason to hint that there might be a “silver lining” to the vicious policy in question. Maybe, I suggested, poor people would be treated with more respect in the U.S. since it would now be clearer than ever that most of the nation’s worst-off citizens were employed. I was thinking of opinion surveys I’d seen showing that the working poor were held in much higher regard than “the welfare poor” by the public and by policy makers.

Surrendering Basic Rights

Who was I trying to kid? In the late 1990s, at the peak of the “Clinton boom,” the brilliant left author Barbara Ehrenreich began the participant-observatory research for what became her bestselling 2001 book Nickeled and Dimed: On Not Getting By in America – a harrowing account of her attempts to pay her bills and maintain her dignity while working at the bottom of the American occupational structure. Ehrenreich wanted to know how anyone could make it on $6 an hour without benefits as a hotel maid, house cleaner, waitress, and Wal-Mart sales “associate,” working in the precarious region between fading public benefits eligibility and good jobs?  She found that the nation’s lowest-status jobs were both physically and mentally exhausting and that one such job was not enough to pay for decent food, clothing, and shelter.

But what most particularly struck Ehrenreich about life at the low-wage end of the “Fabulous Nineties” was the remarkable extent to which working people were “required to surrender…basic civil rights…and self-respect” thanks to employer practices that helped “mak[e] ours not just an economy but a culture of extreme inequality.”  The humiliations she witnessed and experienced included routine mandatory drug testing, intrusive pre-employment tests full of demeaning questions, rules against “talking” and “gossip” (against organizing, often enough), restrictions on trips to the bathroom, abusive rants by over-bearing supervisors, petty disciplinary measures, stolen labor time, and the constant threat of being fired for “stepping out of line.”  She learned as a waitress that management had the right to search her purse at any time.

So much for the notion that Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich’s welfare “reform” (elimination) might restore some dignity and honor to the poor by moving more of them off the dole and into the paid workplace.

Two Cruel Jokes: The Minimum Wage and Poverty Level

Things have gotten worse for low-wage U.S. workers since Nickeled and Dimed hit the bookshelves. Real hourly wages for those at the middle of the wage distribution have stagnated since 2000, consistent with deeper trends across the long neoliberal era. But no group of workers has suffered more than those at the very bottom. Americans with only a high school degree or less have actually seen their wages fall since the turn of the millennium.

One part of the problem is that the U.S. minimum wage is a bad joke. If it had kept pace with increases in U.S. labor productivity since the 1970s, it would be $18 an hour today.  Instead it sits at a pathetic $7.25, which translates (assuming full-time year round work) into $14,500 per year, well below the notoriously inadequate federal poverty level for a three-person family ($19,790).

The most that “liberal” Democrats in Washington seem ready to pretend to fight for is an increase of the minimum wage to $10 an hour, that is, to a mere $20,000 a year for low-wage workers fortunate enough to work 40 hours a week 50 weeks in a year.

Which brings us to another bad joke: the U.S. poverty level. According to the Economic Policy Institute’s heroically researched Family Budget Calculator, the real cost of a minimally adequate no-frills standard of living for one parent with one kid in Iowa City, Iowa, is $48,235.  That sounds high until you add up the monthly expenses: housing ($853), food ($369), child care ($684), transportation ($459), health care ($891), other necessities ($313), and taxes ($450), for a total monthly outlay of $4,020. Go to the San Francisco metropolitan area and the cost of a basic family budget for one parent with one kid is $70,929. In the Chicago area, it’s $53,168. Make it two parents and two kids in Iowa City and the cost is $66,667.

It is absurd not only that the US federal poverty level (based on a hopelessly antiquated 1950s formula that multiplies a minimum food budget three times) is so low but also that it is not adjusted for significant geographic variations in the cost of living across US metro areas.

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

With most Americans’ wages stagnating for more than a decade and with the lowest paid workers’ wages shrinking, it is no wonder that half of the more than 24 million Americans who rely on food banks for basic nutrition are employed.  The cost of living just keeps going up.

“Put a Bullet Through Your Head”

Psychological abuse from employers remains very much a problem for the working poor. As the working class activist and journalist Bob Simpson reported from Chicago last year, a McDonald’s worker named Carmen Navarrette was “told that she ‘should put a bullet through her head,’ because she had requested permission to go home after becoming very ill at work. She is a diabetic and had just been released from the hospital.”  The daughter of a different Chicago fast food worker spoke “about how her mom comes home crying because ‘the manager would scream at her and yell mean things. And right now she is pregnant and he makes her carry more than she is supposed to and that’s not good for her. But he says he doesn’t care.’….On top of …[the] economic burden” that goes with working poverty in the U.S.,  Simpson noted, “comes the stress of cruel verbal abuse and the threat of arbitrary discipline without fair hearing.”

Dickensian Facts

Back to “welfare reform.” How’s that forgotten experiment in neoliberal “tough love” doing these days? As the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) reported to Congress three weeks ago, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF, the program that replaced AFDC, Aid for Families with Dependent Children under the 1996 welfare “reform”) provides cash assistance to very few needy families and lifts far few children out of “deep poverty” (incomes below half the federal poverty line) than did its predecessor, AFDC – this while poverty has risen in the current century. CBPP Vice President Ladonna Pavetti’s testimony to the U.S. House Ways and Means Committee reads like something out of Charles Dickens:

“The national TANF average monthly caseload has fallen by almost two-thirds — from 4.7 million families in 1996 to 1.7 million families in 2013 — even as poverty and deep poverty have worsened. The number of families with children in poverty hit a low of 5.2 million in 2000, but has since increased to more than 7 million. Similarly, the number of families with children in deep poverty hit a low of about 2 million in 2000, but is now above 3 million. These opposing trends — TANF caseloads going down while poverty is going up — mean that TANF reaches a much smaller share of poor families than AFDC did. When TANF was enacted, nationally, 68 families received assistance for every 100 families in poverty; that number has since fallen to just 26 families receiving assistance for every 100 families in poverty…In ten states, fewer than 10 families receive cash assistance for every 100 families in poverty.”

On the eve of its elimination in 1995, AFDC raised 62% of children who would have otherwise been in deep poverty.  It saved 2,210,000 children from life at less than half the poverty level.  Fifteen years later, TANF did the same for a mere 629,000 children, lifting just 24% of children who would have otherwise been deeply poor. U.S. welfare payments were in fact never high enough to permit poor mothers to escape the necessity of participation in the job market, but, as the Public Broadcasting System recently reported, “welfare checks have shrunk so much that the very poorest single-parent families [now] receive…35 percent less than they did before welfare-to-work began.”

That is disgraceful in and of itself.  It is doubly shameful in a time when poverty has expanded while wealth and income have concentrated in ever fewer hands (the top 1% garnered 95% of the nation’s income gains during Obama’s first administration), bringing the nation to an openly acknowledged New Gilded Age of savage inequality and transparent plutocracy.

Welfare to Work?

Welfare to work? As Pavetti told Congress, most of the early employment gains among single mothers that were seen after TANF’s creation in 1997 have vanished thanks to the disappearance (after 2000) of the briefly favorable labor market for lesser skilled workers that emerged in the late 1990s.  The success of “work first” programs, which emphasize getting participants into the labor market quickly during the late 1990s, is vastly overstated. Although employment increased, the vast majority of former welfare recipients pushed into the job market did not attain stable employment even at the height of the unsustainable, debt-leveraged Clinton expansion. And today, after two predictable (and predicted) capitalist recessions (one epic in nature) and with another recession looming, U.S. states “spend little of their TANF funds to help improve recipients’ employability.”  TANF recipients report that TANF “welfare to work” programs typically involve little more than direction to short-lived, commonly seasonal low-wage jobs and that serious training and placement programs are unavailable and without funds.

“Welfare to work” is a scam to cover the slashing of government’s responsibility for the nation’s most vulnerable citizens in a society whose “free market” system offers ever fewer real opportunities for stability and upward mobility through employment while conferring vast government subsidies and protections and on the wealthy corporate and financial Few.

Fight for 15 and for Dignity

The U.S. working class struggle for a Living Wage that has emerged in recent years in connection with the Fight for Fifteen – for a minimum wage of $15 an hour (still below basic family budgets in all U.S. metropolitan areas) – is more than an economic struggle. It is also a political and moral struggle for basic decency, for self-respect, and for dignity.

Connecting economic oppression to psychological mistreatment in her widely read book, Barbara Ehrenreich guessed in Nickeled and Dimed “that the indignities imposed on so many low-wage workers – the drug tests, the constant surveillance, being ‘reamed out’ by managers – are part of what keep wages low.  If you’re made to feel unworthy enough,” Ehrenreich wrote, “you may come to think that what you’re paid is what you’re worth.”  It was an important point. Debilitating shame and the related psychological battering of working people in the all-too unprotected, de-unionized, and hidden abode of the workplace is part of how the employer class rules over low-wage workers in “the land of freedom.”

Inspiringly enough, however, tens of thousands of those workers in the U.S. have in the last two years stood up to tell their bosses and the nation that they not only need but also deserve more than miserable wages and denigration on the job.  “The [workers] of the Fight for 15 campaign,” Simpson noted last year, “want a world where a decent standard of living and respect for all is the norm.”

The fight for 15 is also a fight for dignity. Respect for workers, the struggle’s participants know, will only be won from the bottom up, through collective and militant action.  It will never granted from the top-down by elites who have little more respect for a Walmart or McDonald’s worker than they do for a TANF recipient or for one of the nation’s more than 2 million prisoners.

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

The Liberal Apologies for Obama’s Ugly Reign

19/05/15 0 COMMENTS

Counterpunch, May 15-17, 2015

“Fact and Scrutiny”

So this is how Barack Obama is moving into the final 20 months of his dismal neoliberal presidency, which he once (proudly) described as ideologically akin to the Eisenhower White House. He is nauseating much of his own Wall Street-captive party’s electoral base by trying to push through the absurdly regressive, secretive, eco-cidal, and global-corporatist Trans Pacific Partnership treaty – a massive investor rights measure that promises to reduce wages, deepen inequality, undermine popular sovereignty, and assault already endangered livable ecology in the name of (what else?) “free trade” and “growth.”

The treaty is so toxically capitalist and transparently authoritarian that even the leading right-wing corporate Democrats Bill and Hillary Clinton – champions of the arch-neoliberal North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) – have to keep their distance from it in accord with Mrs. Clinton’s presidential ambitions.

After going on television to childishly claim that U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren’s elementarily logical and evidence-based “arguments [against TPP] don’t stand the test of fact and scrutiny” (harsh if inept words for a top party colleague and ally), Obama was at first unable to persuade all but one U.S. Senate Democrat not to block his bid for “fast-track” legislation, which would grant the president to bring the TPP to an up-or-down floor vote with no amendments. A subsequent re-do secured enough sold-out Democratic votes to combine with unanimous Republican support to succeed in the upper Congressional body.

“A Striking Piece of This President’s Environmental Legacy”

Speaking of ecological ruin, the Obama administration has just cleared the way for the giant climate-changing multinational oil corporation Royal Dutch/Shell to begin drilling for fossile fuels in the Arctic Ocean this summer. Shell got approval to drill in the U.S. portion of the Chukchi Sea off the coast of Alaska. Shell’s leases are 70 miles out, in a remote, untouched, and pristine area that provides critical habitats for several rare species and large marine mammals. It’s a treacherous area characterized by extreme storms, likely to cause massive oil spills.

The New York Times described Obama’s decision as “a devastating blow to environmentalists.” It might have added “and to prospects for a paulstreetdecent future.” Environmental groups have long warned against the madness of drilling in the area, which holds 22 billion barrels of oil and 93 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. The decision comes just four months after Obama opened up a large portion of the southern U.S. Atlantic coast to new deep-water offshore drilling, the Times notes. The national newspaper of record might have added that it comes five and half years after Obama, elected on a promise (among other things) to reduce climate change, almost singlehandedly undermined desperate international efforts to set binding limits on global carbon emissions in Copenhagen. His environmental record ever since has been calamitous, greasing the eco-cidal skids for the United States’ largely fracking-based emergence as the world’s leading oil and gas producer in the name of an “all-of-the-above” (nuclear included) energy policy and so-called national energy independence.

According to Times environmental reporter Coral Davenport, speaking on the “P”BS Newshour last Monday, the Chukchi Sea announcement “is still a very striking piece of this president’s environmental legacy,” one that has “environmental groups…surprised.”

“Every Four Years”

There are a number of understandable and respectable responses (horror and disgust come to mind) to these latest corporatist White House policies, but surprise is not one of them. This is precisely the capitalist Obama that a good cadre of Left activists and writers tried (none more voluminously than this writer) to warn liberals and progressives about from the beginning of the Obama phenomenon and then presidency. Like the Bill Clinton presidency but with considerable less success to a far less favorable economic and global context and to Obama’s comparative political ineptitude, the Obama administration has been (as predicted) a monument to faux-progressive corporate and Wall Street rule and to the wisdom of left historian Lawrence Shoup’s judgement in early 2008:

“Every four years many Americans put their hopes in an electoral process, hopes that a savior can be elected—someone who will make their daily lives more livable, someone who will raise wages, create well-paying jobs, enforce union rights, provide adequate health care, rebuild our nation’s infrastructure, and end war and militarism. In actuality, the leading ‘electable’ presidential candidates have all been well vetted by the hidden primary of the ruling class and are tied to corporate power in multiple ways. They will stay safely within the bounds set by those who rule America behind the scenes, making sure that members of the plutocracy continue to be the main beneficiaries of the system…It is clear that, at best, U.S. ‘democracy’ is a guided one; at its worst it is a corrupt farce, amounting to manipulation, with the larger population objects of propaganda in a controlled and trivialized electoral process.”

“The Republicans Made Him Do It”

Faced with a relentless onslaught of evidence in favor of Shoup’s judgment over the Age of Obama (a subset of the Age of Bipartisan Neoliberal Oligarchy), liberal and progressive Obama defenders have brandished two justifications for their president’s depressingly Big Business-friendly record. The first rationalization claims that 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, the nation’s great wannabe people’s president and his peoples’ party has been powerless to act on these noble ambitions because of the combined reactionary and checkmating influences of the Republican Party and its big money and big media (FOX News et al.) backers.

But this is a weak defense. Obama and his fellow Democrats had no actual commitment to the progressive- and populist-sounding things he promised on the campaign trail – things that were well within their capacity to enact after Obama and the Democrats’ sweeping victory in 2008. As the liberal author, Harper’s essayist, and former Obama fan, Thomas Frank, observed on Salon last January, it would have been more than good policy if Obama had enacted populist and progressive measures (“the economy would have recovered more quickly and the danger of a future crisis brought on by concentrated financial power would have been reduced”). It would also have been “good politics,” highly 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.” As the onetime Obama enthusiast Frank had the decency to admit, 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…When historians seek to explain the failures of the Obama years” Frank mused, “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.”

Never mind that the privilege-friendly corporate Democratic president Frank described this year is precisely the neoliberal and deeply conservative Obama that a significant number of radical Left writers and activists (myself included) futilely tried to warn Frank and other liberals about from the very beginning

“To Quell the Mob”

My favorite story indicating the depth and degree of Obama’s loyalty to the wealthy Few comes from the spring of 2009. In his important book Confidence Men: Wall Street, Washington, and the Education of a President (2011), the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Ron Suskind tells a remarkable story from March of 2009. Three months into Barack Obama’s supposedly progressive, left-leaning presidency, popular anger at Wall Street was intense and the nation’s leading financial institutions were weak and on the defensive in the wake of the financial collapse and recession they had created. The new president called a meeting of the nation’s top 13 financial executives at the White House. The banking titans came into the meeting full of dread. As Suskind noted:

“They were the CEOs of the thirteen largest banking institutions in the United States… And they were nervous in ways that these men are never nervous. Many would have had to reach back to their college days, or even grade school, to remember a moment when they felt this sort of lump-in-the-throat tension…As some of the most successful men in the country, they weren’t used to being pariahs… [and] they were indeed pariahs. The populist backlash against the financial sector—building steadily since September—was finally beginning to cause grave discomfort on Wall Street. As unemployment ballooned and credit tightened, the country began to look inward, toward the origins of the panic and its disastrous consequences.”

In the end, however, the anxious captains of high finance left the meeting pleased to learn that Obama was totally in their camp. For instead of standing up for those who had been harmed most by the crisis—workers, minorities, and the poor – Obama sided unequivocally with those who had caused the meltdown. “My administration is the only thing between you and the pitchforks,” Obama said. “You guys have an acute public relations problem that’s turning into a political problem. And I want to help…I’m not here to go after you. I’m protecting you…. I’m going to shield you from congressional and public anger.”

For the banking elite who destroyed millions of jobs in their lust for profit, there was, as Suskind puts it, “Nothing to worry about. Whereas [President Franklin Delano] Roosevelt had [during the Great Depression] pushed for tough, viciously opposed reforms of Wall Street and famously said ‘I welcome their hate,’ Obama was saying ‘How can I help?’” As one leading banker told Suskind, “The sense of everyone after the meeting was relief. The president had us at a moment of real vulnerability. At that point, he could have ordered us to do just about anything and we would have rolled over. But he didn’t – he mostly wanted to help us out, to quell the mob.” When “the bankers arrived in the State Dining Room,” Suskind notes, “Obama had them scared and ready to do almost anything he said…. An hour later, they were upbeat, ready to fly home and commence business as usual” (Confidence Men).

This remarkable episode happened in the White House in a time when, to repeat, the Democrats held the majority in both houses of Congress along with an angry populace ready with good reason for Wall Street and 1% blood. And what did the populace get from this seemingly progressive alignment of the stars? The venerable left liberal journalist William Grieder put it very well in a March 2009 Washington Post Op-Ed: “a blunt lesson about power, who has it and who doesn’t.” Americans “watched Washington rush to rescue the very financial interests that caused the catastrophe. They learned that government has plenty of money to spend when the right people want it. ‘Where’s my bailout,’ became the rueful punch line at lunch counters and construction sites nationwide. Then to deepen the insult, people watched as establishment forces re-launched their campaign for ‘entitlement reform’ – a euphemism for whacking Social Security benefits, Medicare and Medicaid.”

“Inside the 40 Yards Lines”

They also watched as Obama moved on to pass a health insurance reform that only the big insurance and drug companies could love, kicking the popular alternative (single payer “Medicare for All”) to the curb while rushing to pass a program drafted by the Republican Heritage Foundation and first carried out in Massachusetts by his 2012 Republican opponent Mitt Romney. As Obama later explained to some of his rich friends at an event called The Wall Street Journal CEO Council a month after trouncing Romney’s bid to unseat him: “When you go to other countries, the political divisions are so much more stark and wider. Here in America, the difference between Democrats and Republicans–we’re fighting inside the 40-yard lines…People call me a socialist sometimes. But no, you’ve got to meet real socialists. (Laughter.) You’ll have a sense of what a socialist is. (Laughter.) I’m talking about lowering the corporate tax rate. My health care reform is based on the private marketplace.”

A year and a half before this tender ruling class moment, the American people had watched Obama offer the Republicans bigger cuts in Social Security and Medicare than they asked for as part of his “Grand Bargain” offered during the elite-manufactured debt-ceiling crisis of 2011

Republican “Obstruction” as Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

It has all unfolded pretty much as I predicted (easily and with no particular claim to originality or clairvoyance) in my spring 2008 book Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics. It’s gone ways that are consistent with my account of Obama’s first year in the White House in my follow-up volume The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (Paradigm Publishers, June 2010).

I was apprehensive about writing the second book when my publisher first suggested it. Did I really want another volume on my resume with the noxious neoliberal Obama’s name in the title? And wasn’t it to too early to write a relevant account of Obama in power? In retrospect, however, I’m glad I followed through on The Empire’s New Clothes – a detailed account of Obama’s predicted betrayals of his progressive “base,” imagery, and campaign promises in different and interrelated realms: race, labor, environment, immigrant rights, civil liberties, war, and empire during his initial eleven months as U.S. president. The book is useful as a record of Obama’s allegiance to the nation’s unelected and interrelated dictatorships of money, empire, institutional racism, nationalism, and eco-cide in a time when his party held Congress and the citizenry was angrily primed for progressive and even populist policy – in the time when it was most transparently ridiculous to say that “the Republicans made him” be neo-Hooverian business conservative.

There’s also Thomas Frank’s important point, something I warned about in both my 2008 book and its spring 2010 sequel: the Republicans wouldn’t have had their great Tea Party movement takeover of Congress in 2010 if Obama had actually governed in accord with the progressive and populist sentiments of the mere citizenry (as I predicted he would not in my 2008 book) instead of the dictates of the nation’s corporate and financial masters.

“We Didn’t Make Him Be the Progressive He Wanted to Be”

A second liberal and “progressive” apology for Obama’s corporatism, imperialism, militarism, and eco-cidalism places the blame on the rest of us. It’s our failure, this second storyline goes. The citizenry and activists are at fault for not making Obama be the progressive, populist, environmentalist, and peace-dividend president he really wanted to be. We didn’t compel him to advance the decent, egalitarian, and ecologically sustainable policies he sincerely desired to enact by organizing and protesting from the bottom up.

This justification for Obama’s power-serving presidency is barely less idiotic than “the Republicans blocked him” excuse. It is certainly true that the U.S. “progressive movement” – if such a thing even exists now or existed in 2009 – has failed badly on numerous levels. Any such movement ought to seek to be powerful enough that it has to be taken into consideration by whoever sits in the White House and other top public offices, elected and otherwise. There isn’t much to say for progressive efforts along those lines in the Age of Obama, with some partial exceptions.

Still, there are two critical flaws in this rationalization. The first problem, shared with the “blame the Republicans” narrative, is the silly idea (revealingly shared with the Teapublican “insurgency”) of Obama as a left-leaning politician who wanted to do good progressive, populist, social-democratic, and peaceful things. Any remotely serious investigation of the real Obama and his career (what I undertook in my 2008 volume) would have revealed someone very different: a “deeply conservative” agent and servant of American Empire and Inequality, Inc. masquerading (like fellow arch-neoliberal Bill Clinton in 1992) as a man of the people – an old and deadly character (with a tantalizing racial twist fit for the post-Civil Rights era in Obama’s case) at the long duplicitous heart of U.S. political culture.

The second flaw is that the Obama administration and Democratic Party operatives and elective officials across the country have worked diligently precisely to destroy left progressive movements through a combination of repression and co-optation. Take the Occupy Movement, a populist uprising against the bipartisan corporate and financial oligarchy in the late summer and fall of 2011. It was crushed by a coordinated federal campaign of surveillance, infiltration, and violent assault, with the lion’s share of the repression carried out by Democrat-run city governments across the country. At the same time, Obama and other corporate Democrats did everything they could to steal and incorporate Occupy’s populist message in their fake-progressive campaign against the former “equity capitalist” Mitt Romney and other “1 percenter Republicans” in the 2012 elections.

Hillary Picks Up the Hitchensian Ball

It was nothing new. The “essence of American politics,” a still left Christopher Hitchens noted in his 1999 book on the Clintons (No One Left to Lie To) “is the manipulation of populism by elitism.” The swindle continues. As I demonstrated in a recent essay, Mrs. Clinton is providing an almost picture-perfect illustration of Hitchens’ thesis in her belatedly announced bid for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination. If she’s elected (a distinct possibility given the Republican Party’s devolution into what Norman Ornstein calls “an apocalyptic cult”), we can expect bamboozled liberals and progressives to blame the Republicans for her militantly corporatist, imperialist, and eco-cidal policies. There will also be the charge that the people and the Left bear responsibility for the predictable White House ugliness because we didn’t roll up our sleeves to make her be the progressive president she really wants to be. The double-fanged idiotic liberal apology will be passed on from Clinton41 to Obama43 to Clinton44. Never mind that few things could be more preposterous than to dream that a White House ruled by the militantly pro-Big Business and hawkish Hillary Clinton (who last year praised the blood-soaked arch-imperialist coup-manager Henry Kissinger as a great champion of participatory democracy) could be pushed to the progressive and populist left by U.S. citizens and social movements. Few things except perhaps the belief that Bernie Sanders is going to achieve anything more than help his “good friend” Hillary Clinton campaign in accord with Hitchens’ dictum.

Learn Something

“Read a book,” an old Marxist history professor of mine used to tell students: “you might learn something.” U.S. liberals and progressives might want to read up on recent American political history. They might learn something about how they’ve been manipulated by Democratic politicians and presidents again and again and decide to invest their hopes and energies in a different kind of more genuinely progressive and democratic politics beneath and beyond the big money-big media-major party-mass-marketed-candidate-centered presidential “electoral extravaganzas” that are staged as “yet another method for marginalizing the population” (Noam Chomsky, October 27, 2004) once every four years.

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

A Racially Blind Night in the Life of the “P”BS Newshour

18/05/15 0 COMMENTS

Black Agenda Report, May 13, 2015

The reluctance of “mainstream” United States media to deal forthrightly and seriously with U.S. racism deeply understood can be quite pronounced.  Consider the “Public” Broadcasting System’s nightly Newshour episode for Thursday, April 30, 2015. It aired one day after Baltimore’s Major League Baseball (MLB) franchise the Orioles took the unprecedented, MLB-approved step of banning fans from a game.

The Orioles determined that protests and riots sparked by the Baltimore police’s murder of the young Black man Freddie Gray threatened the safety of the Orioles’ mostly white fans. And so the Orioles played the Chicago White Sox in an eerily “closed” game at Baltimore’s showcase Camden Yards.

“When the Jobs No Longer Exist”
The Newshour featured a remarkable interview with Orioles Vice President John Angelos, son of team’s owner. Reflecting on the unrest that brought the National Guard into Baltimore, Angelos spoke to Newshour host Gwen Ifill about how “the system has failed Baltimore.” Angelos’ comments were not the sort of thing you commonly hear from members of the U.S. economic elite:

“…the system is failing…the diminution of manufacturing jobs and good, high-paying quality jobs in cities like Baltimore and regions throughout the country….the massive loss, the exportation of good, high-paying jobs for working-class people has been a tremendous source — in fact, the most significant source – of civil unrest, civil misery …Having grown up here as a native and seeing the difficulties of factories moving from Baltimore, the shipyard areas, the manufacturing areas, relocating to foreign parts of the globe, [I think] it’s difficult to ask people to work hard and pull themselves up when the jobs that used to be here for prior generations no longer exist.”

There’s no small and welcome distance between Angelos’ rueful reflections on capital’s abandonment of the urban working class and the standard elite charge that inner city-poverty is primarily the result of poor folks’ own culture, values, and “bad choices.” Angelos placed the real and underlying blame on the investor class’s globetrotting thirst for cheap labor.  Interestingly enough, his father, Orioles owner Peter Angelos, grew up working class and made his treasure in labor law.

Rich Ironies
Beyond John Angelos’s candor on capitalist failure, three other remarkable things stood out in the Newshour’s Angelos interview. The first such aspect was the skepticism towards the younger Angelos’s analysis displayed by Gwen Ifill.  A longtime hack who can barely contain her love for the United States’ corrupt major party electoral politics, Ms. Ifill seemed taken aback by the elementary observation that mass structural unemployment might have anything to do with urban protest and violence.  She also suggested that Angelos’s comments might be seen as “politicizing a tragedy” – as if the murder of Freddie Gray and the riots and marches that followed were not already a thoroughly political and politicized news story.

The second remarkable thing about the Ifill-Angelos dialogue was the opportunity it provided for a top Orioles executive to shed what many Baltimore residents might understandably see as crocodile tears over the terrible consequences of neoliberal capitalism for working people. As the Left sports and politics commentator David Zirin noted in an incisive commentary at The Nation, Camden Yards and other shiny and largely publicly financed ballparks built in major U.S. cities in recent decades are monuments to post-industrial “sports-driven apartheid.” As Zirin explains, these stadiums were sold to metropolitan citizens and authorities with the misleading assurance that they would anchor a robust “service economy that could provide jobs and thriving city centers” to help make up for the disappearance of manufacturing employment. In reality, “this sports-centric urban planning has been a failure. It’s been an exercise in corporate welfare and false political promises. What the stadiums have become instead are strategic hamlets of gentrification and displacement. They have morphed into cathedrals to economic and racial apartheid, dividing cities between haves and have-nots, between those who go to the game to watch and those [predominantly white and affluent and largely suburban fans] who go to the game looking for low-income work.” And nine years ago, Zirin added, the Orioles waged a vicious struggle against Camden Yards employees (“some of whom lived in area homeless shelters”) when those workers organized to demand a living wage.

Deleting Racial Oppression

The third remarkable feature of the Ifill-Angelos exchange was its total avoidance of race and racism and their central relevance to the disorder in Baltimore. The protests and riots in the city were sparked, after all, by a recent and gruesome episode in a long and ongoing record of “law enforcement’s” use of deadly force against U.S. minorities and most particularly against young Black men. The Freddie Gray murder is just the latest in a seemingly endless string of such police killings to receive national media attention and to spawn mass protests and the Black Lives Matter movement.

Four decades of cross-racial job loss resulting from capitalist “deindustrialization” and (more accurately) globalization certainly has naturally created relevant structural and historical context for any “civil misery and unrest” that emerges in contemporary Baltimore or in any other major U.S. metropolis. But let’s keep it real about who the system is most particularly failing and subjugating in not-so “post-racial” America.  White working class people are up against terrible odds, thanks primarily to the amoral depredations of big capital and its corporate-financial Deep State. It’s silly to call such folks “privileged” just because they are Caucasian. Still, working class whites do not remotely face the same level of oppression, bias, and inequality as what the Black working class experiences in the U.S. today. The long, deadly, and newly publicized record of police violence against Black Americans takes place in a context of persistent harsh racial segregation and intimately related racial inequality so steep that the median wealth of white US households is 22 times higher than the median wealth of black US households.  The Black joblessness rate remains more than double that of whites – as usual. The Children’s Defense Fund (CDF) reports that an astonishing 40 percent of the nation’s Black children are growing up beneath the federal government’s notoriously inadequate poverty level. Roughly 1 in 5 Black and 1 in 7 Hispanic children live in “extreme poverty” – at less than half the poverty measure – compared to just more than 1 in 18 white, non-Hispanic children.

This radical race disparity both reflects and feeds a four decades-long campaign of racially disparate hyper-incarceration and criminal marking.  More than 40 percent of the nation’s 2.4 million prisoners are Black even though Blacks make up less than 12 percent of the nation’s population. One in three black adult males carries the crippling lifelong stigma (what law Professor Michelle Alexander has famously termed “the New Jim Crow”) of a felony record. Criminal marking is a lethal barrier to employment, housing, education, voting rights and more for the nation’s giant and very disproportionately Black army of “ex-offenders.”  It makes “re-integration” next to impossible for many, feeding a vicious circle of poverty, crime, joblessness, family disintegration, jailing, and recidivism.

Separate, Unequal

Contemporary U.S. policing is about keeping Blacks in their place in more ways than one. The Baltimore metropolitan era is the nineteenth most segregated metropolitan area in the US. It has a Black-white residential “segregation indice” of 65.4, meaning that two-thirds of the region’s Blacks would have to move to a different neighborhood be geographically distributed exactly like whites. Such extreme residential segregation has little to do with Black choices.  It reflects class and racial bias in the operation of real estate markets and home lending and the persistent reluctance of many Caucasians to live in racially mixed communities. It is highly relevant to the nation’s steep racial inequalities because place of dwelling is strongly connected to social and economic status and opportunity. As sociologists Douglas Massey and Nancy Denton noted in their important 1998 book American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass, “housing markets…distribute much more than a place to live; they also distribute any good or resource that is correlated with where one lives. Housing markets don’t just distribute dwellings, they also distribute education, employment, safety, insurance rates, services, and wealth in the form of home equity; they also determine the level of exposure to crime and drugs, and the peer groups that one’s children experience.”

By concentrating poor and working class Black people in a certain restricted number of geographical places, American de factoapartheid reinforce Blacks’ persistently disproportionate presence in the lowest socioeconomic places. That basic underlying concentration of poverty and its many ills (including crime, addiction, and family fragility) is deeply reinforced by the nation’s four-decade campaign of “racially disparate” (racist) mass imprisonment and felony branding, conducted under the cover of a “war on drugs.”

The prevailing pattern of harsh racial de facto apartheid predates the relative disappearance of manufacturing and shipping jobs that John Angelos bemoans.  It also postdates that deindustrialization, exacerbating the impact of “good job” loss on Blacks, who have far less access to such viable job networks as can still be found in urban America is the new neoliberal/global era.

“All of Your Questions”

In a chillingly Orwellian commercial that “P”BS has run for years, Gwen Ifill declares that she loves her Newshour job because it allows her to “ask not only all of my questions but also and more importantly all of your questions.” Really, Gwen? I would have followed up John Angelos’ reflections on the terrible impact of capital disinvestment and job “exportation” by asking him to elaborate on the distinctive barriers to opportunity and equality faced by Black people in urban America. This is what Ms. Ifill (herself Black) asked Angelos instead: “That said, when will the Orioles be back at Camden Yards?”

The New Jim Crow Minus Race

The Newshour was not through doing somersaults to avoid race and racism after the Angelos-Ifill interview last April 30th.  The show’s next segment presented viewers with a curious display of “left-right unity” regarding the problems of over-incarceration and felony marking in the U.S.  Representing “the right” was Mark Holden, a policy staffer from Koch Industries, owned by the arch-reactionary Koch brothers. Standing in for “the left” was Neera Tanden from the centrist Center for American Progress (CAP), corporate Democrat Hillary Clinton’s favorite think-tank. Here was the Newshour’s set-up for the segment:

“The figures are staggering…While the U.S. accounts for 5 percent of the world’s population, it houses more than 20 percent of its prisoners. In a significant shift, groups on opposite sides of the political spectrum, that often find themselves at odds – like Koch Industries from the right, and the Center for American progress from the left  – are coming together with a common goal — to overhaul the country’s criminal justice system.  Together they’ve launched the ‘Coalition for Public Safety.’”

The Coalition is dedicated to reducing the imprisonment of nonviolent offenders and to cutting barriers to employment and re-entry for people with prison histories and felony records.  As Ms. Tanden explained, “we’re concerned with the challenges of rising inequality and how the criminal justice system is actually increasing poverty…when you have a young person who goes into the prison system, that affects…their ability to get a good-paying job the rest of their lives. So you’re not just burdening that person, you’re burdening their families. You’re burdening the communities.”

That’s no joke. Ms. Tanden is quite correct, as a significant body of research (including material I have produced) demonstrates. And it is arguably a good thing to see arch-Republicans and corporate Democrats agree on the need to lessen the burden placed on poor Americans by mass incarceration and criminal marking.

Still, there was something very odd about this Newshour piece, something stranger even than calling the Center for American Progress “left”: a breathtakingly total deletion and avoidance of race in connection with the problems of mass imprisonment and the difficulties faced by “ex-offenders” in the U.S. It was an extraordinary omission. Race and (more to the point) racism are highly pertinent factors across the broad spectrum of socioeconomic disparity in the savagely unequal U.S. inequality, but nowhere are they more overwhelmingly and (one would think) inescapably relevant than in the nation’s “New Jim Crow” criminal justice system – from surveillance and arrest through jail, bail, trial, conviction, sentencing, probation, imprisonment, parole, felony marking, and execution both within prison walls and on the streets.

It might seem bizarre to see race and racism omitted from discussions of urban poverty and the New Jim Crow criminal justice system on the supposedly liberal “public” broadcasting network. In reality, the omissions are consistent both with the deep, privilege-friendly conservatism of “P”BS and with the post-racial mythology of reigning “neoliberal racism” in the Age of Obama. Still, for someone with some basic working knowledge on contemporary U.S. racial oppression, watching such racially blind discussions feels almost as surreal as watching a Major League Baseball game broadcast from a big city ballpark without a fan in the stands.

Paul Street is an author in Iowa City, IA.  His publications include Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis (New York: Rowman&Littlefield, 2007) and The Vicious Circle: Race, Prison, and Jobs in Chicago, Illinois, and the United States (Chicago Urban League, October 2002).

Hillary Clinton and the Manipulation of Populism

17/05/15 0 COMMENTS

ZNet, May 12, 2015

“The Essence of American Politics”

Fifteen years ago, the then still left Christopher Hitchens published a short and pungent study of Bill and Hillary Clinton titled No One Left to Lie to: The Values of the Worst Family (Verso, 1999, 2000). The book’s first chapter, titled “Triangulation,” contained a memorable passage that summarized the duplicitous “essence of American politics” as “the manipulation of populism by elitism. That elite is most successful,” Hitchens noted:

“which can claim the heartiest allegiance of the fickle crowd; can present itself as most ‘in touch’ with popular concerns; can anticipate the tides and pulses of public opinion; can, in short, be the least apparently ‘elitist.’ It is no great distance from Huey Long’s robust cry of ‘Every man a king’ to the insipid ‘inclusiveness’  of [Bill Clinton’s slogan] ‘Putting People First,’ but the smarter elite managers have learned in the interlude that solid, measurable pledges have to be distinguished by a reserve’ tag that earmarks them for the bankrollers and backers. They have also learned that it can be imprudent to promise voters too much.”

Later in the same chapter, Hitchens noted that “At all times,” the Clinton administration’s “retreat from egalitarian and even ‘progressive’ positions has been hedged by a bodyguard of political correctness.”

Hitchens provided a useful take on the militantly corporatist, Wall Street-friendly core of the Clintons’ first two terms in the White House.  The “co-presidents” served the “bankrollers and backers” with such Big Business-pleasing policies as the regressive and anti-worker North American “Free Trade” (investor rights) Agreement (NAFTA), repeal of the New Deal’s separation of commercial and investment banking, sponsorship of oligopolistic hyper-conglomeration in the mass media (the 1996 Telecommunications Act), and the non- and de-regulation of Wall Street’s growing financial derivatives sector.  Bill Clinton apologized to corporations for the high U.S. taxes they supposedly endured.  He warmed CEO hearts by proclaiming that “the era of big government is over” and pursuing a “balanced budget” even while tens of millions of Americans were still mired in poverty and economic inequality climbed towards “Second Gilded Age” levels.  Clinton kept the gigantic Pentagon system of corporate welfare fully intact despite the disappearance of the Soviet nemesis that had provided the critical Cold War pretext for massive “defense” (Empire) spending. The Clintons did all this and more to satisfy the elite “donor class” that put them in power while claiming to speak and act on behalf of everyday working people and wrapping themselves in the outwardly progressive clothes of politically correct multicultural tolerance and diversity. Never mind the Clinton administration’s vicious liquidation of the disproportionately Black, Latino/a, and Native American poor’s entitlement to basic family cash assistance and its promotion and signing of legislation that accelerated the nation’s epic mass hyper-incarceration of Blacks.

A Blunt Lesson About Power and Money

For what it’s worth, the Obama administration has been an epitome of the same basic formula: fake-populist service to the wealthy few wrapped also in the false rebels’ clothes of identity-politicized diversity and tolerance. With the technically Black Obama in the White House, the corporate Democrats have dampened protest from multiculturalist liberals and “progressives” reluctant to question and challenge an actually “first Black president” (Black comedian Chris Rock’s amusing description of Bill Clinton). (Anticipation of such a “politically correct” windfall was always part of Obama’s special appeal to the donor class.) Beneath the surface spectacle of “change” (a black family in the White House, with a Muslim-sounding name to boot) lay more of the plutocratic same, consistent with the elite liberal political scientists Martin Gilens (Princeton) and Benjamin Page’s (Northwestern) finding that the U.S. has become “an oligarchy” in which wealthy elites and their corporations “rule” regardless of technically irrelevant public opinion and of which party holds nominal power in Washington. The venerable liberal-left commentator William Greider put it well in a March 2009 Washington Post column titled “Obama Told Us to Speak But is He Listening?”: “People everywhere learned a blunt lesson about power, who has it and who doesn’t. They have watched Washington run to rescue the very financial interests who caused the catastrophe. They learned that government has plenty of money to spend – when the right people want it” (emphasis added). And little to spend on the rest of us, the wrong people, soon to be known as “the 99%,” left to ask “where’s my bailout?”  During Obama’s first term, 95% of the nation’s income gains went to the nation’s top 1 percent – a shocking statistic that provides some interesting context for right-wing celebrity Sarah Palin’s question: “how’s that hopey-changey thing working out?”

“Tell Me Something Interesting”

A technically female Hillary Clinton presidency promises a similar dividend and disguise for the nation’s corporate and financial oligarchy, this time with gender rather than race providing the main identity-politicized sheen of historic correction and change. Hitchens’ volume contained a chapter documenting Mrs. Clinton’s richly triangulation-ist history along with much to suggest that she (like her husband) is a power-mad sociopath.  Especially memorable was Hillary’s response, in her role as head of the White House’s health reform initiative, to Harvard medical professor David Himmelstein, head of Physicians for a National Health Program.  Himmelstein told her about the remarkable possibilities of a comprehensive, single payer “Canadian style” health plan, supported by more than two-third of the U.S. public.  Beyond backing by a U.S. citizen super-majority, Himmelstein noted, single-payer would provide comprehensive coverage to the nation’s 40 million uninsured while retaining free choice in doctor selection and being certified by the Congressional Budget Office as “the most cost-effective plan on offer.”

“David,” Hillary commented with fading patience before sending him away in 1993, “tell me something interesting.” Along with the big insurance companies the Clintons deceptively railed against, the co-presidents decided from the start to exclude the popular health care alternative – single payer – from the national health care “discussion.” (Obama would of course do the same exact same thing in 2009.)  What she advanced instead of the Canadian system that bored her was a hopelessly complex and secretly developed system called “managed competition.” Mrs. Clinton’s plan went down in flames, thanks in no small part to her inflexible arrogance.

New Democrat Pioneers

No One Left to Lie To and other left critiques of the Clintons did little to dissuade liberal and “progressive” New Yorkers from backing Hillary’s successful, cynical, and carpet-bagging 2000 campaign for the U.S. Senate – a body wherein she would offer “liberal” support for George W. Bush’s criminal invasion of Iraq. What about 2015-16, with the Clintons poised for a return White House engagement? Will truthful, hard-hitting reporting and commentary make any differences her chances? An excellent article by the incisive Left commentator Doug Henwood in Harper’s last fall bears the title “Stop Hillary!” Henwood provides a clever and concise catalogue of Mrs. Clinton’s conservative, corrupt, corporate-neoliberal, and imperial record from her years at Yale Law and the Arkansas governor’s office (held by Bill for all but one 2-year term between 1978 and 1992) through her stints in the U.S. Senate (2001-2009) and atop the Department of State (2010-2013). Henwood’s essay is particularly valuable on how the Clintons during their tenure in Arkansas helped “lay…the groundwork for what would eventually hit the national stage as the New Democrat movement, which took institutional form as the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC).”

The essence of the DLC was dismal, dollar-drenched “neoliberal” abandonment of the Democratic Party’s last, lingering commitments to labor unions, social justice, civil rights, racial equality, the poor, and environmental protection in abject service to the “competitive” bottom-line concerns of Big Business. The Clintons helped launch the New Democrat/DLC juggernaut by assaulting Arkansas’ teacher unions (Hillary led the attack) and refusing to back the repeal of the state’s anti-union “right to work” law – this while Hillary began working for the Rose Law firm, which “represented the moneyed interests of Arkansas” (Henwood). Connection with one of the sleazier players among those interests, a Savings and Loan charlatan named Jim McDougal, got them involved in the Whitewater scandal, which involved the Arkansas Governor’s spouse (Hillary) doing legal work at Rose (work about which Hillary lied upon outside investigation) for a shady land speculator (McDougal) who had enticed the governor and his wife (the Clintons) to foolishly invest in a badly leveraged development project.

When the Arkansas-based community-organizing group ACORN passed a ballot measure lowering electrical rates residential users and raising them for commercial businesses in Little Rock, Rose sent Hillary into court to argue a business-backed challenge. As Henwood notes, Hillary “helped to craft the underlying legal strategy, which was that the new rate schedule amounted to an unconstitutional ‘taking of property’…now a common right-wing argument against regulation…” (Harper’s, November 2014)

“The Gold Standard in Trade Agreements”

There’s plenty more to say about Hillary’s intimate links and service to the economic elite – connections that could yield a bumper crop of reports on “conflicts of interest” between her claim to stand for everyday working folks and her real-life proximity and allegiance to the super-rich. In 2001, Mrs. Clinton was one of 36 Democratic U.S, Senators to do the bidding of the financial industry by voting for a bill designed to make it more difficult for consumers to use bankruptcy laws to get out from crushing debt. As Secretary of State, she repeatedly voiced strong support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).  The TPP is a secretive, richly corporatist 12-nation Pacific “free trade” (investor rights) agreement that promises to badly undermine wages, job security, environmental protections, and popular governance at home and abroad.  It would be the largest “trade agreement” in history, potentially affecting 40 percent of the world’s gross product. Obama’s championing of this regressive, authoritarian, eco-cidal, and anti-worker treaty has “set off perhaps the biggest fight of his presidency within his own party, with trade unions, environmentalists, and liberal activists lining up in opposition to the White House.  There is a strong possibility,” the New York Times reports, “that Mr. Obama could lose the battle.” (NYT, April 18, 2015). In Australia in November of 2012, Secretary of State Clinton declared that “we need to keep upping our game both bilaterally and with partners across the region through agreements like the Trans-Pacific Partnership or TPP. … This TPP sets the gold standard in trade agreements to open free, transparent, fair trade, the kind of environment that has the rule of law and a level playing field.”

“The Choice is Clear: There is None”

In the years since she resigned as Secretary of State to prepare – mainly to raise godawful piles of cash – for her next presidential run, Mrs. Clinton has faced criticism for giving speeches to leading Wall Street firms and the Chicago Mercantile Exchange for more than $200,000 each – more than four times U.S. median household income. Hillary depends heavily on the elite financial sector and big corporate interests to pay for her campaign, which is expected to spend at least $2.5 billion. “Hillary, Inc.’s” preemptive “money machine” will smash previous fundraising records and prevent rivals from mounting serious opposition in the caucuses and primaries.  “It’s going to be like nothing you’ve seen,” a top Democratic donor gleefully told The Hill, “The numbers will be astounding.”

The “numbers” are driven by giant contributions from super-wealthy donors who have no interest – quite the opposite in fact – in seeing government serve the “everyday Americans” in whose name Mrs. Clinton is running.  Black Agenda Report’s Executive Director Glen Ford provides some sobering context on what’s going on:

“[The United States is] a nation of more than 300 million people in which politics has become the sole property and domain of the rich. The rich decided some time ago that Hillary Clinton would be the virtually unchallenged presidential candidate of the Democratic Party. The 48 percent of Americans that express an affinity with the Democratic Party have not yet chosen Clinton. There has been no primary election in any state. But, that does not matter because the selection process that counts occurs in the boardrooms and mansions and private clubs and getaways of the rich. Hillary Clinton and her husband, Bill, have spent virtually their entire adult lives on the millionaires’ campaign circuit, the rich man’s primary. In the process of pleasing the rich, they have become rich, themselves….Hillary hopes to spend two and a half billion dollars of – mostly – rich people’s money in the 2016 campaign. Wealthy people will be just as generous with the Republican candidate. The outcome on Election Day is absolutely certain: the rich man’s candidate will definitely win, and the people will lose – because they have no candidate in the major parties.”

Ford’s summary provides context for a Hillary-mocking bumper sticker that is starting to circulate as the presidential caucus and primary campaign begins to heat up in Iowa and New Hampshire. “Ready for Oligarchy. The Choice,” the sticker reads, “is Clear: There is None.”

“A World Awash in Money and Connections”

There’s more than a few plutocratic skeletons rattling around in Hillary Clinton’s campaign closet. According to a New York Times report last April 23rd, the owners of a uranium company that donated $2.35 million to the Clinton Foundation (Bill Clinton’s giant global “nonprofit” organization) sought approval from the U.S. government during the time of Hillary’s tenure at the State Department to sell the company to Russia’s atomic energy agency. Mrs. Clinton’s agency signed off on the deal. The Clintons failed to report the donations as they had agreed to in the agreement they made with the Obama White House when Hillary became Secretary of State. On the same day, Reuters reported the Clinton Foundation and another family charity were refiling at least five annual tax forms “due to errors.” The foundation failed to include tens of millions of dollars in donations from foreign governments. According to New York Times reporter Carolyn Ryan, speaking on the Public Broadcasting System’s Newshour, “the timing [of the Times’ and Reuters’ revelations] is not great [for the Hillary Clinton campaign], because… she’s really trying to present herself in a way to blunt the Elizabeth Warrens of her party as a sincere messenger for the message of economic mobility, economic inequality….these stories…have a way of underscoring the international orbit that the Clintons operate in…a world awash in money and connections and a very privileged place” (PBS, 4/23/2015, emphasis added).

 “Inclusive Capitalism”

Hillary and her handlers, including long-time top Monsanto lobbyist Jerry Crawford (recently tapped to run the “Ready for Hillary” Political Action Committee), are conscious that Mrs. Clinton has a public relations problem with the working class and middle class Americans. She enjoys a net worth of $13 million and “a high flying lifestyle” (Politico, 4/15/2015) while seeking popular support in a savagely unequal New Gilded Age U.S. where (thanks in part to the neoliberal policies advanced by the first Clinton administration) the top 1 percent now dangerously owns more than 90 percent of the nation’s wealth.   A Gallup poll taken last January found that 67 percent of the US population is dissatisfied with the nation’s top-heavy distribution of wealth and income.

Consistent with the Hitchens’ dictum on “the essence of American politics,” Times reporter Amy Chozick aptly describes Hillary’s central campaign “quandary” as “how to address the anger about income inequality without overly vilifying the wealthy.” As Chozick ads, “She must convince a middle class that feels frustrated and left behind that she understands its struggle, even as she relies heavily on the financial industry and corporate interests to fund her candidacy” (NYT, 2/7/2015).” Stated more fully, the dilemma is how to sound populist enough to win tens of millions of working class votes without sounding so populist as to alienate the privileged financial elite that pays for viable presidential campaigns and owns the corporate media that confers or denies legitimacy to candidates. The job, as usual, is to seem “in touch with popular concerns” while keeping “the bankrollers and backers” assured that the candidate will honor the capitalist “reserve tag” she will (if successful) carry into office.

In a sloppy effort along those lines last year, Mrs. Clinton preposterously told ABC’s Diane Sawyer that the Clintons were “dead broke” after leaving the White House in 2001. It was a transparently preposterous and widely mocked claim that only highlighted Hillary’s huge distance from the real lives of “everyday Americans.”

But now the real populism-manipulating game is on. Last February, the New York Times dutifully related the claim of “Mrs. Clinton’s closest economic advisors” to embrace  a “philosophy” of “inclusive capitalism” that “calls for corporations to put less emphasis on short-term profits that increase shareholder value and to invest more in employees, the environment, and communities.” (The democratic socialist George Orwell would smile at this oxymoronic formulation in a time when the profits system poses an ever more apparent danger not merely to democracy, justice, and economic stability but to life itself). Hillary’s spokesman Nick Merrill told the Times that Hillary’s “economic plan” is “more populist and reliant on government than the centrist approach of trade agreements, welfare reform and deficit reduction associated with her husband, former president Bill Clinton” (NYT, 2/7/2015).

To Steal “a Footnote’s” Populist Thunder

Behind the claim of a left-leaning “populist” Hillary lay the shadow of U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), a former financial regulator whose “blistering critique of Wall Street” (in the word of the Times) was a big hit at the last Democratic National Convention.  Many liberals and progressives in Iowa and New Hampshire wish that the more genuinely progressive Sen. Warren was running for the Democratic presidential nomination. Sensing Warren’s popularity and vulnerability on her left flank, Hillary Clinton went to the pages of Time magazine last April to praise Warren as someone who became one of “the world’s 100 most influential people” because “She never hesitates to the hold powerful people’s feet to the fire.”

In the outwardly folksy and progressive, politically correct, multicultural, and admirably  gay-friendly online video that announced her candidacy last April, Hillary claimed to be upset that “the deck is stacked” in favor of the rich and powerful.  “My job,” Mrs. Clinton said, “is to reshuffle the cards.”  (Here she was clearly channeling Warren, who regularly says that “The game is rigged to work for those who have money and power.”)  As Chozick, the leading Times reporter on the Hillary beat, noted last April 21st:

“For anyone who wondered what kind of an economic message Mrs. Clinton would deliver in her campaign, the first few days made it clear: She is embracing the ideas trumpeted by Ms. Warren and the populist movement – that the wealthy have been benefiting disproportionately from the economy while the middle class and the poor have been left behind… Mrs. Clinton was the original Elizabeth Warren, her advisers say, a populist fighter who for decades has been advocate for families and children; only now have the party and primary voters caught up….A 16-page dosser, titled ‘Hillary Clinton: A Lifetime Champion of Income Opportunity,’ and assembled by a close friend and adviser to Mrs. Clinton, calls Ms. Warren a ‘footnote.’  The document, provided to The New York Times, presents 40 instances in which Mrs. Clinton took the same stance as Ms. Warren on issues….”

Perhaps Mrs. Clinton should revise her assessment of Elizabeth Warren and call her one of “the world’s 100 most influential footnotes.”

Consistent with her latest populist campaign makeover (her last one was in 2007 and 2008), Mrs. Clinton is now somewhat “skeptical” about the TPP (Bill was similarly skeptical towards NAFTA on the campaign trail in 1991 and 1992). “Any trade deal has to produce jobs and raise wages and increase prosperity and protect our security,” Hillary has said since leaving the State Department.  Candidate Hillary is now openly bothered that Wall Street financers profit from the “carried interest” loophole, which allows them to pay a capital gains tax, lower than the ordinary tax rate, on large portions of their incomes. She rode in a modest van to the automotive shop of an Iowa community college to say that “There is something wrong when hedge fund managers pay lower tax rates than nurses or the truckers that I saw on I-80 as I was driving here over the last two days.”  Mrs. Clinton also claimed to be upset that “the average CEO makes 300 times what the average worker makes” and empathized with students bemoaning the extreme costs of a college education. “People are struggling,” Clinton said, adding that she “want[s] to stand up and fight for people so they can not just get by, but they can get ahead and stay ahead.”

If this all sounds a bit like what Obama promised in 2008, only to deliver a “blunt lesson” about oligarchy, Mrs. Clinton’s liberal promoters want us to know that the current president had a noble “progressive vision” but lacks Hillary’s hands-on experience and practical political skills to “get [progressive] things done.” She will carry the mere vision of progressive transformation out of the “hopey-changey” mist and into the real world of politics and policy.

“Populist Rhetoric is Good Politics”

How is Mrs. Clinton’s latest leap into Hitchens’ “essence of American politics” working? It’s too early to tell in Iowa and New Hampshire, where the “progressive” sorts who tend to become most intensely involved in the nation’s first presidential caucus and primary campaigns are still pining for Warren.  The good news for Hillary is that there’s nothing remotely around like the big dollar Obama phenomenon (which began accumulating large amounts of corporate and financial money four years before the 2007-2008 campaign) to de-rail her ascendancy to the Democratic nomination this time around.

It’s time for serious progressives to undertake a quadrennial reality check. Given her long power-serving past, her considerable personal wealth, the Democratic Party’s long record of serving the rich and powerful (from the Andrew Jackson7 through the Clinton42 and Obama44 administrations), the ever more openly plutocratic nature of U.S. politics, and the deep structural captivity of both of the nation’s dominant political organization to the corporate and financial donor class and to the corporate media, two things seem clear. First, a voter or activist has to be pretty naïve to fall for Hillary Clinton’s effort to recast herself as a dedicated and lifelong populist – as someone who seriously cares that “the deck is stacked” on behalf of the wealthy few. Second, it’s just as naïve to think it would make all that much difference if Mrs. Clinton really was the “fighting populist” her campaign claims she is. As Laurence Shoup noted in Z Magazine in early 2008:

“Every four years many Americans put their hopes in an electoral process, hopes that a savior can be elected—someone who will make their daily lives more livable, someone who will raise wages, create well-paying jobs, enforce union rights, provide adequate health care, rebuild our nation’s infrastructure, and end war and militarism. In actuality, the leading ‘electable’ presidential candidates have all been well vetted by the hidden primary of the ruling class and are tied to corporate power in multiple ways. They will stay safely within the bounds set by those who rule America behind the scenes, making sure that members of the plutocracy continue to be the main beneficiaries of the system…It is clear that, at best, U.S. ‘democracy’ is a guided one; at its worst it is a corrupt farce, amounting to manipulation, with the larger population objects of propaganda in a controlled and trivialized electoral process.”

Nobody understands this harsh reality better, perhaps, than Hillary’s Wall Street backers.  A recent report in the widely read insider online Washington political journal Politico bears a perfectly Hitchensian title and theme: “Hillary’s Wall Street Backers: ‘We Get It.’” As Politico explains:

“Populist rhetoric, many say, is good politics – but doesn’t portend an assault on the rich…It’s ‘just politics,’ said one major Democratic donor on Wall Street, explaining that some of Clinton’s Wall Street supporters doubt she would push hard for closing the carried-interest loophole as president…’The question is not going to be whether or not hedge fund managers or CEOs make too much money,’ said a separate Clinton supporter who manages a hedge fund. …Nobody takes it like she is going after them personally’…Indeed, many of the financial-sector donors supporting her just-declared presidential campaign say they’ve been expecting all along the moment when Clinton would start calling out hedge fund managers and decrying executive pay — right down to the complaints from critics that such arguments are rich coming from someone who recently made north of $200,000 per speech and who has been close to Wall Street since her days representing it as a senator from New York.”

“ ‘As a CEO and former Wall Street executive, I applaud Secretary Clinton’s remarks, and I do not view them  as populist nor far left,’ said Robert Wolf, former CEO of UBS Americas and a major Democratic fundraiser who now runs his own firm….In the words of Democratic strategist Chris Lehane, a veteran of Bill Clinton’s White House who now advises Tom Steyer, the billionaire environmentalist hedge-fund manager and donor: ‘The fact is that any Democrat running for president would talk about this. It’s as surprising as the sun rising in the east.’”

One Democrat at a top Wall Street firm even told Politico that Hillary’s politically unavoidable populist rhetoric “is a Rorschach test for how politically sophisticated [rich] people are…If someone is upset by this it’s because they have no idea how populist the mood of the country still is. The fact is, if she didn’t say this stuff now she would be open to massive attacks from the left, and would have to say even more dramatic stuff later.” (Politico. 4/15/2015)

These reflections from “liberal” elites atop what Edward S. Herman and David Peterson have called the nation’s “unelected dictatorship of money” speak volumes about the nation’s descent into abject plutocracy and the limits of progressive change permitted under elections and through parties subject to “the hidden primary of the ruling class.” They are also a monument to the continuing relevance of Hitchens’ properly cynical take on the manipulative “essence of U.S. [electoral and major party] politics.”

Why Hillary Welcomes Bernie

What about the entrance of progressive Democrat and nominal “socialist,” the former “independent” U.S. Bernie Sanders, into the Democratic presidential primary?  Does the “Sanders challenge” complicate or complement the Clinton’s populism-manipulating game?  Clearly it’s the latter (complementation).  It’s not for nothing that, as the New York Times reported two Saturdays ago, “Mrs. Clinton cheerily welcomed Mr. Sanders into the race.”  Of course she did. It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that Sanders’ “good friend Hillary Clinton” (that’s how Sanders described Mrs. Clinton in Iowa City last February 19th) is pleased to hear that Bernie is throwing his hat in the ring.  The Clintons are very smart and calculating political actors. They know that the only real threat to de-rail Hillary (as Obama did in 2007 and 2008) on the road to the Democratic presidential nomination this time was Warren. But with Warren appearing to mean it when she says she’s not up for a presidential run (not ready for fighting Hillary’s daunting money machine, perhaps) and with little else to contest her ascendancy on “the left” (Martin O’Malley and Jim Webb…seriously?), Hillary now faces a rather different political and public relations problem.  She is in danger of enjoying an all-too obviously Wall Street-funded dynastic coronation as the Democratic nominee.  She probably sees it as useful to face a progressive challenge from a progressive candidate like Sanders who could never receive the funding or corporate media approval required to make a serious bid for the nomination. That way her pre-selected nomination can look less transparently plutocratic and more like a passably “democratic” outcome of “a real debate.” Ashley Smith puts things very well in a trenchant analysis on SocialistWorker.org:

“Hillary Clinton certainly doesn’t regard Sanders as a threat. She knows that the election business follows the golden rule: Whoever has more gold, wins. Clinton is expected to amass a war chest of more than $1 billion, mostly from Wall Street and Corporate America, to pay for advertising, an army of paid staff and Astroturf support. This will overwhelm Sanders’ fundraising goal of $50 million and his underdeveloped volunteer infrastructure….In fact, Clinton regards Sanders as an asset to her campaign. He will bring enthusiasm and attention to Democratic primaries that promised to be lackluster at best. He will also help her frame the election in populist terms that have widespread support. That benefits the Democrats and undermines the Republicans, who have little to say about inequality, except that they like it….No wonder Clinton celebrated Sander’s entry into the race.”

Anyone who doubts that Sanders will hand over his voters, delegates, and money to Hillary once he’s through in the primaries hasn’t been paying attention. “No matter what I do,” Sanders said last January, “I will not be a spoiler. I will not play that role in helping to elect some right-wing Republican as president of the United States.”[1]

Of course Sanders could have avoided the “spoiler” charge by running for and very likely winning Vermont’s Governorship as the standard-bearer of that state’s Progressive Party.  There Sanders could likely succeed in pushing through single-payer health insurance, recently and shamefully abandoned by Vermont’s Democratic governor Peter Shumlin. That would be a very significant progressive victory with very real social-democratic substance.  But Vermont working peoples’ loss is Hillary Clinton’s gain. A very strange choice for an independent “socialist.”

Paul Street lives in Iowa City, Iowa, where he “enjoys” a front row seat for the latest quadrennial electoral extravaganza.  His latest book is They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm, 2014)

[1] For further critical reflections on Sanders’ decision to run in the Democratic presidential primary race, see my most recent previous essay on ZNet: “Bernie Sanders Enlists in the Hillary Clinton Campaign.”

Bernie Sanders Enlists in the Hillary Clinton Campaign

11/05/15 0 COMMENTS

ZNet, May 8, 2015.  A shorter and earlier version of this essay appeared today on TeleSur English

Last February 19th, Vermont’s “socialist” U.S. Senator, the nominally independent Democrat Bernie Sanders, spoke to an enthusiastic crowd in a downtown Iowa City bookstore.  He had come to explore his potential prospects in Iowa’s upcoming “first-in-the-nation” Democratic Party presidential caucus-primary campaign.
Sanders began by denouncing U.S. economic inequality and plutocracy and expressing concerns about anthropogenic global warming in terms that any serious, environmentally astute leftist could welcome.  He decried the horrific facts that six Walmart heirs possess as much wealth between them as the bottom 42% of the U.S. population and that 95% of the nation’s income gains went to the top 1% during President Obama’s first term. Sanders cited and bemoaned terrible statistics on U.S. poverty.  He condemned the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision for furthering the “corporate takeover of our democracy.” He deplored climate change and its deniers.

Deleting the Dollar Dems
I applauded politely along with everyone else after these statements. Then things went downhill. After complimenting Iowa City for helping elect a first Black president by supporting Barack Obama in the 2008 Iowa caucuses and suggesting that the nation’s drift toward the embrace of gay marriage meant that it was ready to overcome economic inequality, Sanders repeatedly attacked the dastardly right-wing pro-business Republicans.  As far I could tell, he seemed to think that the GOP and its big money backers alone were responsible for the hot plutocratic mess in Washington.

Unlike his purported hero Eugene Debs, he had nothing to say against the other great capitalist party. It was left to a smirking graduate student to remind Sanders and his adoring Iowa City audience that the national corporate and financial oligarchy is a richly bipartisan affair in which dastardly pro-Big Business Democrats – including powerful people like Bill and Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama – are (to say the least) deeply complicit.

It struck me that here the “socialist” Sanders stood oddly to the right of the position taken in Iowa in 2007 by the former Democratic Vice Presidential candidate John Edwards.  Edwards denounced “corporate Democrats as well as corporate Republicans” in his call for “an epic fight with concentrated wealth and power.” He clearly and correctly included Hillary and Obama in the “corporate Democrat” category and mocked Obama’s promise to “get things done” by “reaching across the table” to business elites as well as the Republican Party.

Surely, I thought, an old Brooklyn “socialist” like Sanders knew that much of the nation’s disproportionately Caucasian ruling class loved the empty, identity-politicized, and fake-progressive illusion of change that the deeply conservative Obama’s election represented.

“My Friend Hillary”
Another warning sign came when Sanders said that he “liked Hillary” and considered her “a good friend.”  Why, I thought to myself, would a “socialist” and “independent” politician and “activist” be “good friends” in a supposedly adversarial political culture with a fabulously wealthy and notoriously mendacious arch-corporatist and militarist major party politico like Hillary Clinton, who:

* Forcefully backed George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq.

* Applauded her husband’s elimination of public family cash assistance for poor families through a vicious welfare “reform” (elimination) that has had disastrous consequence for the nation’s most vulnerable citizens.

* Helped lead the development of the neoliberal “New Democrat” movement, which pushed the Democratic Party to abandon its last lingering commitments to labor unions, racial and social justice, and environmental protection.

* Voted (as a US Senator) for legislation advanced by Wall Street to make it more difficult for poor families to use bankruptcy laws to get out from under crushing debt.

* Said the following – in her role as the head of the Clinton administration’s failed corporatist health reform initiative – to a leading national physician and health care activist when he told her in 1993 that “Canadian-style” single-payer health insurance was supported by more than two-thirds of the U.S. populace and was certified by the Congressional Budget Office as the most cost-effective plan on offer: “tell me something interesting.” (Along with the big insurance companies that the Clintons deceptively railed against, the “co-presidents” Bill and Hillary Clinton decided from the start to exclude the popular health care alternative – single payer – from the national health care “discussion.” [Obama would do the same exact same thing in 2009])

* Called (in her role as Secretary of State) the richly corporatist, regressive, anti-worker, secretive, authoritarian, and eco-cidal Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) “the gold standard in trade agreements” for “open free, transparent, fair trade, the kind of environment that has the rule of law and a level playing field.”

* “Operates,” in the words of New York Times reporter Carolyn Ryan, in “a world awash in money and connections and a very privileged place” – this while deceptively posing as a “populist” who is “in touch” with the concerns of everyday working Americans and is bothered that “the deck is stacked” in favor of the rich and powerful.

* Gives speeches to leading Wall Street firms (and the Chicago Mercantile Exchange) for more than $200,000 each – more than four times U.S. median household income – as part of her effort to build a preemptive  “money machine” meant to block rivals from making serious primary and caucus challenges.

“It’s going to be like nothing you’ve seen,” a top Democratic donor gleefully recently told The Hill about “Hillary, Inc.’s” campaign finance war chest. “The numbers will be astounding.”  The dollar “numbers” are driven by giant contributions from super-wealthy donors who have no interest – quite the opposite in fact – in seeing government serve the “everyday Americans” in whose name Mrs. Clinton is running.  Black Agenda Report’s Executive Director Glen Ford provides some sobering context on what’s going on:

“The rich decided some time ago that Hillary Clinton would be the virtually unchallenged presidential candidate of the Democratic Party…the selection process that counts occurs in the boardrooms and mansions and private clubs and getaways of the rich. Hillary Clinton and her husband, Bill, have spent virtually their entire adult lives on the millionaires’ campaign circuit, the rich man’s primary. In the process of pleasing the rich, they have become rich, themselves….Hillary hopes to spend two and a half billion dollars of – mostly – rich people’s money in the 2016 campaign. Wealthy people will be just as generous with the Republican candidate. The outcome on Election Day is absolutely certain: the rich man’s candidate will definitely win, and the people will lose…”

“Populist Rhetoric is Good Politics”
Hillary’s big Wall Street backers recently told the leading insider political journal Politico how they understand that their candidate’s “populist” comments are politically unavoidable, unsurprising, and even advisable. The language is merely a pose Hillary has to take to get elected; it presents no serious threat to wealth and privilege. “Populist rhetoric, many [of these elites] say,” Politico reported, “is good politics – but doesn’t portend an assault on the rich.”

I almost wondered if any of the big Clinton donors interviewed by Politico had read the still left Christopher Hitchens’ book No One Left to Lie to: The Values of the Worst Family (Verso, 1999, 2000) – a study of the Clintons. The book’s first chapter, titled “Triangulation,” contained a memorable passage that summarized the “essence of American politics” as “the manipulation of populism by elitism. That elite is most successful,” Hitchens noted:

“which can claim the heartiest allegiance of the fickle crowd; can present itself as most ‘in touch’ with popular concerns; can anticipate the tides and pulses of public opinion; can, in short, be the least apparently ‘elitist.’ It is no great distance from Huey Long’s robust cry of ‘Every man a king’ to the insipid ‘inclusiveness’  of [Bill Clinton’s slogan] ‘Putting People First,’ but the smarter elite managers have learned in the interlude that solid, measurable pledges have to be distinguished by a reserve’ tag that earmarks them for the bankrollers and backers. They have also learned that it can be imprudent to promise voters too much.”

Later in the same chapter, Hitchens noted that “at all times,” the Clinton administration’s “retreat from egalitarian and even ‘progressive’ positions has been hedged by a bodyguard of political correctness.” Kind of like Sanders moving back fully into the corporatized Democratic Party while saying nice things about gay marriage and praising liberals for supporting a Black presidential candidate.

Why Hillary Welcomes Bernie
I thought back to Sanders’ talk in Iowa City last February and reflected on Politico’s report when Bernie announced last week his decision to run in the Iowa Democratic Party presidential caucus. It is not a worthy endeavor. Both of two dominant U.S. political organizations stand well to the right of the citizenry on numerous key issues. The Democratic Party has long been a full-fledged rich folks’ party, not to mention a party of war and empire. (Bill and Hillary Clinton helped see to that during the last quarter of the last century.) With its last positive links to its long New Deal interlude pretty much swept into the dustbin of history (thanks in part to the Clintons and other “New Democrats” since the 1970s), its leadership and funders will never allow a candidate who is sincerely committed (as I think Sanders is) to socially progressive domestic policy goals – much less one who has called himself a “socialist” – become its standard-bearer. It will nominate either Hillary Clinton or (in the odd event of her departure) some other fully corporatized Democrat in the summer of 2016.

All of which raises the question: why help these dismal dollar Democrats disguise their oligarchic essence? Why abet their attempt to seem to have had “a full and open debate” over the issues that concern ordinary Americans in the nation’s caucuses and primaries? Why help the Democrats seem more democratic and progressive than they really are? Why give succor to those who would wrap plutocracy in false rebels’ clothes? Why lend a hand to Hillary’s effort to manipulate populism in service to elitism”? Why help the Clinton machine deny that it is anything other than the pre-selected choice of what “the hidden primary of the ruling class” (Laurence Shoup, 2008)? Why help the dollar Dems put fake-populist lipstick on the nation’s plutocratic pig of a party and elections system?

But that, I suspect is the point. It’s not for nothing that, as the New York Times reported last Saturday, “Mrs. Clinton cheerily welcomed Mr. Sanders into the race.”  Of course she did. It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that Sanders’ “good friend” Hillary Clinton is pleased to hear that Bernie is throwing his hat in the ring.  The Clintons are very smart and calculating political actors. They know that the only real threat to de-rail Hillary (as Obama did in 2007 and 2008) on the road to the Democratic presidential nomination this time is (perhaps I should say “was”) U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), whose “populist thunder” Mrs. Clinton has been working to steal in a very systematic way in recent weeks. But with Warren appearing to mean it when she says she’s not up for a presidential run (not ready for fighting Hillary’s daunting money machine, perhaps) and with little else to contest her ascendancy on “the left” (Martin O’Malley and Jim Webb…seriously?), Hillary now faces a rather different political and public relations problem.  She is in danger of enjoying an all-too obviously Wall Street-funded dynastic coronation as the Democratic nominee.  She probably sees it as useful to face a progressive challenge from a progressive candidate like Sanders who could never receive the funding or corporate media approval required to make a serious bid for the nomination. That way her pre-selected nomination can look less transparently plutocratic and more like a passably “democratic” outcome of “a real debate.” Ashley Smith puts things very well in a trenchant analysis on SocialistWorker.org:

“Hillary Clinton certainly doesn’t regard Sanders as a threat. She knows that the election business follows the golden rule: Whoever has more gold, wins. Clinton is expected to amass a war chest of more than $1 billion, mostly from Wall Street and Corporate America, to pay for advertising, an army of paid staff and Astroturf support. This will overwhelm Sanders’ fundraising goal of $50 million and his underdeveloped volunteer infrastructure….In fact, Clinton regards Sanders as an asset to her campaign. He will bring enthusiasm and attention to Democratic primaries that promised to be lackluster at best. He will also help her frame the election in populist terms that have widespread support. That benefits the Democrats and undermines the Republicans, who have little to say about inequality, except that they like it….No wonder Clinton celebrated Sander’s entry into the race.”

Bernie Will Not “Push Hillary to the Left”
I am hearing hopeful statements from Iowa progressives who claim that Sanders will “help pull Hillary to the left.” That’s a very naïve thing to believe. Hillary Clinton is a dedicated corporatist and hawkish imperialist (last summer she praised her “friend” Henry Kissinger for his supposed grand commitment to democracy) who will never go left beyond the Machiavellian requirements of campaign oratory (what her Wall Street backers call “good politics”). At the same time, as the liberal commentator Paul Woldman noted in the Washington Post last week, “Sanders isn’t going to pull her to the left because she was already moving that way” – at the level of rhetoric, that is.  The specter of Elizabeth Warren and an angry, progressive-majority populace already did the job.

At the same time, we should note that Sanders shows no interest in attempting to pull Hillary or anyone else leftward on the problem of the U.S. military Empire, which accounts for 57% of federal discretionary spending and nearly half the world’s military spending while functioning as a massive system of corporate welfare for leading high-tech U.S. corporations like Boeing and Raytheon. As TeleSur English commentator and U.S. military veteran Vinny Emmanuelle recently noted, “whether we’re talking about Bernie Sanders or Ted Cruz, Hillary Clinton or Jeb Bush, any serious discussion of the US Empire is still off the table.” Sanders agrees with other “liberals like…Obama” that “the US Empire is essential, yet should operate differently. In some ways, they view the Pentagon the same way Donald Rumsfeld did: as an entity to be reformed, modernized and streamlined” (But Sanders is not sufficiently committed to “defense” reform to reject the Pentagon’s decision to base a fleet of highly wasteful F-35 fighter jets in Vermont – a move Sanders endorsed in the name of  jobs.)

Sheep Dog
One Iowa left-liberal recently wrote me to say the following: “The third party approach has proven to be futile. Why condemn Sanders for trying something different?”  Something different?  Forget that Sanders essentially abandoned his (Eugene) Debsian third party roots and became a de facto Democrat (despite his nominal “independent” status) once he entered the U.S. Congress in 1991. As the veteran campaign manager, Black Left political commentator, and Georgia Green Party co-chair Bruce Dixon explained during a conference on independent Left electoral action in Chicago last weekend, Bernie is getting ready to play an old “sheep dog” role. It’s nothing new: progressives understandably stray from the dismal dollar Democrats (the Clintons being perhaps the ultimate historical example of such) from one election cycle to the next thanks to the party’s underlying captivity to the nation’s unelected and interrelated dictatorships of money and empire. In the primaries the Democrats send out some “sheep dogs” to corral such folks back into the fold. The “sheep dogs” lose in the primaries and then give their voters and resources over to the officially nominated major party corporate candidate. Think Dennis Kucinich and Obama in 2008, Jesse Jackson and Mondale in the 1980s.

Anyone who doubts that Sanders will hand over his voters, delegates, and money to Hillary once he’s through in the primaries hasn’t been paying attention. “No matter what I do,” Sanders said last January, “I will not be a spoiler. I will not play that role in helping to elect some right-wing Republican as president of the United States.”

Wasted Energy, Deepened Futility
Leftists should consider two additional forms of harm that could be inflicted on the progressive cause by Sanders’ “run for the White House.” First, candidate-centered campaigns tend to soak up most of the political energies of their participants. There’s not much left for efforts to build and expand movements for deeper systemic change beneath and beyond the great “quadrennial electoral extravaganzas” that are staged “as yet another method of marginalizing the population” (Noam Chomsky, October 2004). This is especially true for the absurdly lengthy presidential race, which begins in Iowa (and New Hampshire) eighteen months prior to the actual election date.

Second, there’s the deepened sense of popular powerlessness likely to be engendered when Sanders is defeated. The fact that Sanders will be the only candidate to run seriously on behalf of populist, social-democratic domestic policies that most U.S. citizens support but will be badly creamed threatens to help the “mainstream” (corporate) U.S. media and politics culture obscure the fact that most of those citizens are actually left-leaning progressives in their policy preferences. It may further the deadly illusion that those social-democratic policies lack popular support (“we just don’t have the numbers”) and thereby deepen progressive activists’ sense of futility and isolation.

Blowing Off Vermont and Single Payer
If Bernie really wanted to impact policy on behalf of working people through electoral action, he had a much better option than enlisting as a populism-manipulating sheep dog for his “good friend” Hillary Clinton in the national presidential electoral racket.  As Ashley Smith explains, he could have made a likely successful bid to win single-payer health insurance for the people of Vermont by running as the Progressive Party candidate for governor of that state:

“He could have set a very different example, with a far greater chance of success, if he ran for governor in Vermont against the Democratic Party’s incumbent Peter Shumlin, who has betrayed promises to implement a single-payer health care system, create green, union jobs and much more…Sanders is Vermont’s most popular politician. With the backing of the Progressive Party, he could have run for governor as an independent and easily defeated both the Democratic and Republican nominees, and never faced the accusation of being a spoiler that is inevitably thrown at any third-party challenger.  A victory for a truly independent campaign by Sanders would have been even bigger than Kshama Sawant’s election to the Seattle City Council as an open socialist. In so doing, Sanders could have built momentum for a national third party alternative to represent workers and the oppressed.”

Eugene Debs would not be pleased by Bernie’s choice.

Postscript: Sanders declared his candidacy on April 30, 2015. Wouldn’t a genuine socialist have waited just one more day to announce on May First, May Day – the day of the international working class dating back at least to the workers’ Left-led Eight Hour struggle in Chicago 1886?

Paul Street is an author and political commentator in Iowa City, IA, where he “enjoys” a front row seat for the latest “quadrennial extravaganza.”  His latest book is They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm, 2014).

May Day: Four Interrelated Meanings

08/05/15 0 COMMENTS

TeleSur English, April 30, 2015. May First, or May Day, is, as leftists know, the real Labor Day.  It marks the struggle of the international working class against the selfish capitalist rulers, who enjoy unimaginable opulence on a planet where nearly 3 billion struggle to survive on less two dollars a day.

But let me suggest here four separate but intimately interrelated meanings of “May Day.” The first is the more traditionally understood radical and proletarian meaning of the term, dating by most accounts from the Marxist- and left-anarchist-led struggle for an Eight Hour Day in Chicago in the spring of 1886 – the conflict that led to the infamous Haymarket bomb, the hanging of the Haymarket Martyrs, and a terrible wave of anti-union and anti-Left repression across the United States.

A second meaning has pre-industrial and pre-capitalist origins. It is to celebrate the beauty and bounty of Nature as it blooms each spring across the northern hemisphere. Think dancing around the Maypole, not marching in the streets.

A third and 20th century meaning comes from the airplane pilot whose plane is going down: “Mayday! Mayday!” he or she says into his or her radio. The term applied this way comes from French: “m’aidez, m’aidez,” that is “help me, help me.”

A fourth meaning is the embrace of leisure, free time, time for doing what one wants beyond the demands of necessity, bosses, and other authorities. The modern laborite May 1st is a day for “what we will.”  Recall that it was born as part of a struggle for shorter working hours.

Pieces of a Poison Pie

These four meanings are inextricably interwoven with each other. Take the first and second meanings.  The first connotation – the struggle between the working class majority on one hand and the capitalist elite on other – still holds relevance. It is true that the class struggle has been most aggressively fought and fairly consistently won by the wealthy few over the last “four decades of greed and deceit” (Noam Chomsky), so that, in the US for example, the top 1% now owns more wealth than the bottom 90 percent and has garnered 99 percent of all income gains since the economic “recovery” in 2009. “There’s class warfare, all right,” the multi-billionaire U.S. financier Warren Buffett noted nearly a decade ago, “but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.”

Still, things like the 2011 Wisconsin and Occupy rebellions, the 2012 Chicago teachers’ strike, the election of an openly Marxist activist (Kshama Sawant) to the Seattle City Council, and the ongoing Fight for Fifteen (the struggle for a decent minimum living wage) show that there is popular and even class struggle being waged from the bottom up as well as the top down in the United States as in other countries.

At the same time, it has become sharply apparent over the same four decades that the full pathology of the capitalists and their profit system is hardly limited to the struggle over how the pie of wealth and income is distributed. It’s about the relentless expansion and poisoning of the pie by economic and technological practices that undermine the capacity of human beings and other species to live in sustainable harmony with Nature. We must of course support the demand that McDonalds, KFC, Burger King, Target, Kmart, Wal-Mart, and other workers be paid a reasonable livable wage (even $15 an hour falls short by that measure in most major U.S. metropolitan areas).  At the same time, we must also now call for the massive redirection of labor and other resource from environmentally toxic sectors like fast “food” and other mass-consumer industries (which tend to be very dangerously invested in waste, pollution, and disease) to socially useful and ecologically necessary activities like the building and maintenance of a clean and renewable energy system.

Rising Tide and Common Ruin

Homo sapiens can’t kill the Earth. The planet will outlive us.  What’s at stake is our ability – and that of other sentient beings and livings things – to live on it decently for much longer unless we simultaneously transform our relations with each other and with the natural environment. Livable ecology has been pushed to the edge of catastrophe (yes, catastrophe) by capitalism’s relentless drive for expansion and accumulation, by capitalism’s inherently chaotic  pattern of destructive “development,” by capitalism’s unyielding pressure to turn everything (including basic elements and requirements of life) into a commodity, by capitalism’s unremitting war on democratic governance and planning for the common good, and by capitalism’s ideological commitment to the notion that growth is the answer to those who criticize and fight against the poverty and joblessness it generates. As Le Monde’s ecological editor Herve Kempf noted in his aptly titled book The Rich Are Destroying the Earth(2007), “the oligarchy” sees the pursuit of material growth as “the solution to the social crisis,” the “sole means of fighting poverty and unemployment,” and the “only means of getting societies to accept extreme inequalities without questioning them. . . . Growth,” Kempf explained, “would allow the overall level of wealth to arise and consequently improve the lot of the poor without – and this part is never spelled out [by the economic elite] – any need to modify the distribution of wealth.” Growth, the liberal economist Henry Wallich explained (approvingly) in 1972, “is a substitute for equality of income. So long as there is growth there is hope, and that makes large income differentials tolerable.”

In reality, growth on the capitalist model mocks and betrays hope by undermining the material conditions of a decent existence. The great capitalist metaphorical promise of “the rising tide” that “lifts all boats” is literally raising sea levels, melting ice caps, leveling forests, shrinking glaciers, setting off the planet’s ticking permafrost methane bombs, killing off a record number of species, and poisoning the air, water, and soil to a degree that makes past dystopian visions of a dark future look tepid. I will not overwhelm readers with the latest terrifying data on the ever-deepening “ecological rift” (John Bellamy Foster) created by the profit system’s war on the environment. The rift is led by but hardly limited to the anthropogenic (capital-o-genic) climate change that results from the over-saturation of the atmosphere with Greenhouse Gasses produced by the massive extraction and burning of fossil fuels. Other critical and related ecological boundaries being blown through by rapacious global capitalism include the oceans’ capacity to absorb carbon dioxide, the soil’s capacity to absorb inorganic phosphorous and host agriculture, the planet’s supply of freshwater, the number and diversity of living species, and the planet’s ability to process various chemical pollutants. Problems in these and other environmental areas raise the very real specter of human extinction in the not so distant future.  A failure to address them through eco-socialist and anti-extractivist transformation will bring us face to face with the unpleasant alternative to proletarian revolution that Karl Marx and Frederick Engels posed in The Communist Manifesto (1848): “the common ruin of the contending classes.”

Hence the relevance of the third meaning: “Help! we’re going down!”  (The airplane metaphor is appropriate in another sense: the carbon footprint of humanity’s manic, globetrotting air travel is shockingly high.)

If we want to avoid this third May Day meaning we are going to have to combine the first two –class struggle and love of nature – in a great popular movement informed by a deeply Ecology-informed version of what Marx and Engels in 1848 considered the only alternative to “common ruin”: the “revolutionary reconstitution of society at large.”

The Ecocidally Overworked American

Which brings me to the fourth related May Day meaning: free time. Full-time U.S. workers, it is all too rarely noted, have the longest working hours in the advanced capitalist world.  According to the International Labor Organization, “Americans work 137 more hours per year than Japanese workers, 260 more hours per year than British workers, and 499 more hours per year than French workers.” Eighty-six percent of employed U.S. males and 66 percent of employed U.S. females work more than 40 hours per week. In many professional sectors, work weeks of 60 to 70 hours and more are not uncommon in the U.S. Add in brutal (and high carbon-footprint) commutes and extensive car travel related to the nation’s sprawled-out residential and shopping patterns and it’s no surprise that hundreds of millions of U.S. citizens face a critical shortage of free time.

What’s it all about? As the economist Juliet Schor noted nearly fifteen years ago, the long hours experienced by “the overworked American” (the title of her widely read first book) reflect U.S. employers’ preference for compensating workers (however imperfectly and unfairly) for productivity gains with money instead of with free time.  Public opinion polls have long showed that most Americans would choose more leisure time over more consumer goods.  They would, that is, if the choice was given to any significant degree.  It isn’t. There’s a remarkable difference in the respective “markets” for goods and services on the one hand and for free time on the other.  An environmentally cancerous super-abundance of consumer goods, far beyond real human and social “use-value” needs, is widely available in the U.S. But free time is a relatively scarce “commodity” in “the land of the free.”

Schor attributed this “market disparity” largely to the capitalist dictates of the employer class.  preference for slack in the labor market – that is, to capitalist bosses’ longstanding reluctance to face the enhanced collective marketplace bargaining power that the working class enjoys when employment is more widely shared out (as it would be if hours for individual workers were reduced to a more reasonable level). U.S. capitalist employers’ ongoing class war on unions – so fierce that U.S. union density (the percentage of U.S. workers enrolled in unions) has fallen from 35 percent in the mid-1950s to 20 percent in 1983 to less than 12 percent today – is a strong related contributing factor.  Organized labor has always been the leading and most effective historical force pushing for reduced working hours, as in Chicago during the 1880s, when workers demanded “Eight Hours for Work, Eight Hours for Sleep, and Eight Hours for What We Will.”

Their actual preferences for leisure aside, U.S. workers who receive any extra rewards from their employers generally receive more money, not more free time.  This encourages them to buy more stuff to more “efficiently” enjoy the comparably slight leisure time they do get, something that feeds “a vicious circle of work and spend” (and borrowing) whereby people constantly work (and borrow) to “keep up with the Jones” – that is, to maintain social status as defined by the purchase of ever bigger and higher quality suburban homes, SUVs, refrigerators, televisions, VCRs, vacuum cleaners, and the like.

Time as a Democracy and Survival Issue

In her books The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure (1991) and The Overspent American (1998), Schor rightly noted the devastating impacts of this rat-wheel of work and spend on personal, family, and social health and livable ecology (impacts that have survived the collapse of the long “Clinton boom” at the end of the last century, along with the problem of over-work for many and joblessness for others).  But she left out something critical for the problem of how to solve (or at least now ameliorate) the environmental crisis created by capitalism: the devastating impact of overwork and the waning of leisure on peoples’ capacity for self-rule.  Free time is among other things but perhaps above all a democracy issue.  In my experience, social movements in the US founder again and again on the shoals of time-shortage and exhaustion: people simply lack the leisure and vigor required for meaningful grass roots activism and resistance. Without a reasonable abundance of free time off the capitalist treadmill and “for what we will,” popular movements of the kind required to rollback capitalist and extractivist ecocide cannot hope to emerge, much less to thrive and succeed. For what it’s worth, the 19th century pioneers of the US labor movement talked and wrote about the demand for shorter hours – early American unions’ top issue by far – largely in terms of how overwork stole from citizen workers the time and energy essential for meaningful participation in the great experiment in popular governance that had supposedly been launched by the American Revolution. Two centuries later, the struggle for free time remains very much a democracy issue and has also become a matter of ecological survival.

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

Left Radicals, Radical Republicans, and Dismal Dollar Dems

08/05/15 0 COMMENTS

Z Magazine, May 2015. Like other radical Left writers and activists who have spent considerable energy criticizing Barack Obama and his corporate-imperial Democratic Party, I am sometimes accused of downplaying the danger posed by the U.S. Republican Party (GOP). As an author of two books and countless essays that have strongly disparaged and denounced the George W. Bush administration and the Republicans more broadly, I find the charge unfair. In both of those volumes and in numerous shorter print and online commentaries, I (along with numerous others from the radical Left) have consistently portrayed the GOP as a vicious, sociopathic, radically regressive, racist, sexist, imperialist, chauvinistic, repressive, arch-capitalist, ultra-reactionary, and even evil organization that endangers democracy, justice, and life itself at home and abroad.

For what it’s worth, I (like most Leftists) have always detested the Republican Party. It’s how I was raised during my 1960s grade-school years on the South Side of Chicago: to root for the White Sox and hate the Cubs and the Republicans. And that was when the GOP was moderate and reasonable—actually “conservative”—compared to its current radical incarnation.

At this point, the organization has degenerated into sheer classist, racist, nationalist, ecocidal, and patriarchal savagery. With its opposition to the expansion of health insurance coverage to some of the poor (under a Republican-inspired, Big Business-friendly program called “Obamacare,” absurdly condemned as “socialist”), its repeated opposition to the provision of unemployment other elementary benefits to the poor, its open jihad against unions and collective bargaining rights, its dreadful efforts to roll back the voting rights of minorities, and its diehard opposition to the findings and urgent recommendations of climate scientists, the GOP is an arch-authoritarian atrocity.

Even some elite Republicans are horrified at what the organization has become. By the judgment of former top Republican intellectual Norman Ornstein (a longstanding political analyst and commentator at the American Enterprise Institute), the GOP isn’t a functioning or conservative party any more. Ornstein thinks it is now more like a paranoid and “apocalyptic cult,” a radical right-wing insurgency.

A Long Record of Perfidy

Given the ferocious institutional monster that the Republican Party has become, why do so many Left radicals (this writer included) still feel no less, and often even more, revulsion towards the GOP’s official sole partisan rival the Democrats as they do for the Republicans? Part of it is that it’s the entire U.S. “two party” system—including the Democrats as well as the Republicans—that has shifted well to the corporate and imperial right over the last four decades. Currently no further to the portside than the Eisenhower and Nixon Republicans of the post-World War II era (Obama himself has suggested that he is an “Eisenhower Republican”), the Democratic Party has richly earned radical Leftists’ enmity over the decades with a long series of actions that affront our core values of peace, social justice and equality, popular and participatory democracy, and environmental sustainability. I do not have time or space here to do justice to the long record of Democratic Party and Democratic policymakers’ hideous record of capitalist and imperial perfidy, but some highlights include:

  • The Kennedy administration’s nuclear deceptions and saber-rattling, which brought the world to the literal edge of annihilation.
  • The Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson administration’s criminal and mass-murderous, imperial War against Vietnam, butcher also of the stillborn domestic “War on Poverty.
  • The Carter administration’s decision to arm, train, and fund fundamentalist Islamic terrorists in Afghanistan and its neoliberal turn to corporate deregulation.
  • The Clinton administration’s vicious elimination of the poor families’ prior entitlement to federal cash assistance.
  • The Clinton administration’s championing and passage of the radically regressive, arch-neoliberal North American Free Trade Agreement.
  • The Clinton administration’s deregulation of financial derivatives and tearing up of the previously existing New Deal firewall between commercial and invesment banking.
  • The Clinton administration’s decision to launch a New Cold War with Russia, including the criminal bombing of Serbia on fake “humanitarian” pretexts.
  • The Clinton administration’s enforcement of economic sanctions that killed more than a million Iraqis.
  • The Obama administration’s bailout and protection of the Wall Street financial institutions and chieftains who collapsed the S. and global economy.
  • The Obama administration’s passage of a Republican-inspired version of health insurance reform (the absurdly named “Affordable Care Act”) that only the big insurance and drug companies could love.
  • The Obama administration’s undermining of urgent global efforts to impose binding limits on world carbon emissions and its related approval and encouragement of the United States’ emergence as the world’s leading producer of gas and oil.
  • Obama’s embrace of the expanding U.S.-totalitarian national security and surveillance state and his related and unprecedented repression of leakers, whistleblowers, and journalists.
  • Obama’s relentless and reckless military imperialism within and beyond the Muslim world, that has fueled the expansion of extremist Islamic jihad and sparked a new confrontation with Russia.

street-teaA major part of Left radicals’ animosity for the Democrats has to do with the fake-progressive deception that has gone along with this perfidy. The late and formerly Left provocateur Christopher Hitchens once usefully described “the essence of American politics” as “the manipulation of populism by elitism.”

The Democrats have no monopoly on such manipulation in the two-party system. The Republicans have long practiced their own noxious version. Still, the division of labor between the two dominant corporate and imperial political entities in the U.S. party system assigns the greater role to the Democrats when it comes to posing as the political arm of the working class majority, the poor, women, and minorities at the bottom of the nation’s steep and interrelated hierarchies of class, race, gender, ethnicity, and nationality. For the system- serving task of shutting down, containing, and co-opting popular social movements and channeling popular energies into the nation’s corporate-managed, narrow- spectrum, major-party, big money, and candidate centered electoral system, the Democrats are far and away “the more effective evil” (Glen Ford’s phrase). For the last century, the Marxist political analyst Lance Selfa notes, it has been their job to play “the role of shock absorber, trying to head off and co-opt restive segments of the electorate” by masquerading as “the party of the people.”

The Democratic Party has been most adept at ruling in accord with what David Rothkopf (a former Clinton administration official) in November 2008 called (commenting on then President Elect Obama’s  corporatist and militarist transition team and cabinet appointments) “the violin model.” Under the “violin model,” Rothkopf said, “you hold power with the left hand and you play the music with the right.” In other words, “you” gain and hold office with populace- pleasing progressive-sounding rhetoric even as you govern in standard service to existing dominant corporate and military institutions and class hierarchies.

Making little secret of their commitment to radical capitalist ideals and “free market” doctrine and barely cloaking a policy agenda that is transparently cruel towards working people and the poor, the Republicans are more honest about—and less able to hide—their allegiance to the nation’s “unelected dictatorship of money” (Edward Herman and David Peterson’s phrase).

Another part of radical Leftists’ aversion to Democrats has to do with social and institutional proximity, authority, and control. Leftists commonly work under the control and discipline of coordinator class Democrats and “liberals,” not Republicans. It has long been Democrats’ job to police and define the (not so) “left-most” parameters of acceptable debate, especially within institutions where radical Left intellectuals and activists most commonly work and apply pressure: labor unions, non-profit advocacy and service organizations, schools (from K through “higher education”), media organiza- tions, “progressive” foundations, and think-tanks. As a radical Leftist who has spent years trying (with very limited success) to work effectively in such organizations, I’ve never had to contend with Republican authorities. It’s always Democrats in charge, setting the narrow boundaries on what can and can’t be said, written, advocated, and done—and on how far a radical Leftist can go in terms of professional advancement. It is Democrats who determine the permissible limits of progressive action and discourse, who tell radicals most directly: “This far and no further.”

Liberal-Left rancor in such organizations is a two way street. Working under the supervision of Democrats, radical Leftists often incur remarkable, vituperative hostility and mistreatment from their “liberal” and “progressive” superiors. It’s not surprising. Effective Leftists threaten more than just Democrats’ and liberals’ institutional and ideological power and authority. They also endanger Democrats and liberals’ own sense of themselves as the noble, courageous, and enlightened guardians of the common good. How dare Leftists discuss and treat them as friends of privilege, inequality, injustice, and empire? Left radicals offer no such outflanking challenge to the institutional position and self-esteem of Republicans.

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Presidents Obama, Carter, and Clinton with Michelle Obama

Another reason many radical Leftists abhor Democrats, curiously enough, has to do with our abhorrence of the Republicans. Again and again, Democrats tell us to keep our mouths shut and get in line behind their painfully constricted definition of how far (not very) to the portside “progressives” can go so as to stay united against the Republican enemy. “Be quiet,” Democrats’ and liberals’ repeated and often heated admonitions to Left radicals runs, “or you’ll only help the Republicans win. You don’t want that, do you?”

 Giving the Game Away

The irony of the command is that by closing off and shutting down the possibility of serious popular confrontation with the elite corporate and financial interests that have been running the nation into the ground and pushing the concentration of wealth and power ever further upward—bringing us to an openly plutocratic New Gilded Age—the dismal dollar Democrats help the Republicans win elections again and again. Curiously enough given its remarkable unpopularity in the U.S., the “apocalyptic cult” (the GOP) stands a good chance of completing its takeover of all three branches of the U.S. government next year. It’s not really that a giant mass of Americans has been converted to the arch-reactionary aims of the GOP. The Republican Party is broadly disliked in the U.S., consistent with the fact that its agenda falls well to the right of majority progressive policy opinion in the nation. An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll last January found that just 25 percent of the U.S. populace hold a “favorable” view of the Republican Party, compared to 46 percent with an “unfavorable” view. The deeper problem is that Democrats repeatedly fail, by design, to act on their deeply dishonest claims of commitment to progressive change, leaving millions to give up on it and/or on voting altogether and many to vote by default for the only viable alternative party under the U.S. “two party” system: the Republicans, whose politicians and media talking heads have the virtue of sounding furious.

Look at Obama. He rode a wave of popular and progressive hope and the promise of universal health care into the White House as the nation fell into the Great Recession, itself caused to no small extent by the nation’s leading giant and arch-parasitic financial institutions. He had Democratic majorities in both the U.S. House and the U.S. Senate. He had a majority working class U.S. population that was deeply angry at the nation’s wealthy elite, which, understood as the literal top 1 percent, owned more wealth than almost all of the rest of the nation.

The Liberal Myth of the Powerless President

What did Obama and his Democratic colleagues in Congress deliver? Obama has been no less solicitous of the nation’s corporate and financial ruling class and has done little more for the nation’s working class majority than his more ham-fisted predecessor. The venerable liberal-left commentator William Greider put it well in a March 2009 Washington Post column titled “Obama Told Us to Speak But is He Listening?”: “People everywhere learned a blunt lesson about power, who has it and who doesn’t. They have watched Washington run to rescue the very financial interests who caused the catastrophe. They learned that government has plenty of money to spend—when the right people want it.” And little to spend on the rest of us, the wretched rabble, the wrong people, soon to be known as “the 99%,” who were left to ask “Where’s my bailout?” 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, the nation’s great wannabe people’s president and his peoples’ party 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. The deeper truth, however, is that Obama and his fellow Democrats had no actual commitment to the progressive- and populist-sounding things they said and say on the campaign trail—things that were fully within their capacity to enact after Obama and the Democrats’ sweeping victory in 2008. As the liberal author, Harper’s essayist, and former Obama fan, Thomas Frank, observed on Salon last January, it would have been more than good policy if Obama had enacted populist and progressive measures (“the  economy would have recovered more quickly and the danger of a future crisis brought on by concentrated financial power would have been reduced”). It would also have been “good politics,” highly 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.”

street-frankThe financial crisis, Frank wrote, 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….When historians seek to explain the failures of the Obama years” Frank mused, “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.” At the same time, Frank proposes “a bit of blunt class analysis” suggesting that that big money exercises huge influence 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 “a generally dismissive attitude toward the views of working people” and an “amazing trust in the good intentions and right opinions of their fellow professionals from banking, law, economics and journalism” (Thomas Frank, “It’s Not Just FOX News,” Salon, January 11, 2015).

What’s the Matter With Thomas Frank?

The dismal Dems typically point the finger of blame all over the place but rarely at themselves, who bear no small responsibility for the nation’s ever more chillingly rightward and oligarchic drift—in abject defiance of ever more technically irrelevant public opinion. Frank’s widely read book What’s the Matter With Kansas? (2004) has been generally cited by liberals as a brilliant reflection on how clever, dastardly, and plutocratic Republicans succeeded in seducing working class whites over to their side by exploiting divisive “social issues” like gun rights and abortion. Rarely if ever noted by those same liberals is the significant extent to which Frank in the Epilogue to that book blamed the Democrats for leaving those whites open to such reactionary manipulation by abandoning the party’s past greater commitment to the economic concerns of labor and the working class majority in the quest for corporate money and elite approval. But the disappointed Democrat Frank might also take an honest and unflattering look in the historical mirror. The privilege-friendly corporate Democratic president he describes this year is precisely the neoliberal and deeply conservative Obama that a significant number of radical Left writers and activists tried to warn liberals and progressives about from the very beginning. The populace-demobilizing and dollar- drenched Democratic Party has continued to act in accord with its cringing captivity to elite interests in ways that radical Left writers and activists and others have been documenting and denouncing for decades. In defiance or ignorance of those warnings, Frank fell (by his own admission to Bill Moyers in January of 2009) into foolish “love” with the Obama presidential candidacy.

Dreams of Bernie v. Hillary’s Money Machine

In recent months, “Progressive Democrats” have been hoping to breathe new life into the nation’s hopelessly 1%-dominated “two party system” by running the nominally socialist, technically Independent, and genuinely populist and domestically progressive U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) in the Iowa 2016 Democratic Presidential Caucus and the New Hampshire Democratic Presidential Primary. It is not a worthy endeavor—and not just because of Sanders’s terrible record on Israel-Palestine and other matters of U.S. imperial foreign policy. The Democratic Party has long been a full-fledged rich folks’ party, not to mention a party of war and empire. As such, it will never allow a candidate sincerely committed to progressive and populist domestic policy goals—much less, one who calls himself (however vaguely) a “socialist”—become its standard-bearer. It will nominate Hillary Clinton or—in the unlikely event of her withdrawal or defeat—some other Wall Street-financed corporate Democrat in the summer of 2016. Why help the dismal dollar Dems disguise their oligarchic essence? Why abet their attempt to seem to have had a full and open debate over the issues that concern ordinary Americans? Why assist any effort to make either of the two dominant political organizations that Upton Sinclair once accurately described as “two wings of the same [Big Business-dominated] bird of prey” seem more progressive than they really are? Both organizations now stand well to the right of majority public opinion and in accord with the views of the elite political “donor class” on numerous key policy issues. Why lend a hand to corporate Democrats’ effort to manipulate populism in service to elitism?

Thankfully, perhaps, the ever-escalating cost of presidential campaigning seems to be turning Sanders against making a presidential run either outside or inside the Democratic Party. Sanders has become increasingly reticent about the effort. It’s not because he thinks that Hillary Clinton or any other Democratic candidates are likely to advance anything remotely like a progressive agenda to tackle the issues of poverty, inequality, and climate change (issues that Sanders sincerely holds dear).

It’s because the aforementioned “unelected dictatorship” has already selected Hillary, Inc. as the presumptive Democratic standard-bearer even before the electoral formalities get underway in Iowa, New Hampshire, Florida, and Nevada. As Sanders’s adviser Tad Devine told Salon’s Luke Brinker last March, “We have not really raised money…. He [Sanders] has absolutely no rapport with the people giving him money…. As a matter of fact, he’s spending most of his time trashing them.” By Brinker’s calculation, Sanders’s Senate campaign committee possessed a modest $4.5 million while his political action committee (“Progres sive Voters of America”) raised just over $535,000. “Meanwhile,” Blinker noted: “Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton each aim to raise well north of a cool billion for their campaigns; Bush’s financial juggernaut is already on track to collect $50 million to $100 million for the first three months of this year, and while his party’s base is decidedly skeptical of him, his cash cow of a campaign may ultimately be too much for his rivals to overcome. As for Clinton, there’s no doubt that much of her strength in early polls reflects goodwill among Democratic voters—of course, 2008 attests that such sentiment can be fickle—but is that what’s  really behind the recent spate of headlines that for all her flaws, Democrats have no other alternative?  Hardly.

Above all else, the party apparatus is loyal to Clinton because, in the unlikely event that she doesn’t run, they don’t see any other candidate who could build anything like her money machine, and in the near-certain case that she does enter the race, strategists don’t see how any potential rival would compete against it. So why alienate a potential president by backing someone else.” (L. Brinker, “Bernie Sanders is Increasingly Iffy on Running for President—and the Reason is Thoroughly Depressing,” Salon, March 13, 2015.)

Also significant, the corporate media is highly unlikely to treat Sanders as a remotely “serious” and “viable” candidate—an additional and related death blow to his chances. Never mind that much of what Sanders advocates—genuinely progressive taxation, restoration of union organizing and collective bargaining rights, single- payer health insurance, strong financial regulation, public financing of elections, large-scale green jobs programs to put millions to decently paid work on socially and ecologically necessary tasks and more—is popular with the U.S. working class majority. That’s technically irrelevant. As Brinker bemoans, “the question of who counts as [a] ‘serious’ [presidential candidate] cannot be separated from the question of money. What we’re witnessing is a vicious circle whereby candidates struggle to raise money and therefore struggle to get their messages out and rise in the polls, and because said candidates’ polling numbers are nothing to write home about, it’s difficult to get donors to pay up…. The implications of such an order are nothing if not pernicious. Economic inequality and political inequality, it turns out, are indelibly linked…. Call it what you will—a plutocracy, an oligarchy, a corporatocracy —but this state of affairs is not emblematic of a democracy.”

A saving grace for a Sanders run perhaps would be if he were to drop all pretense of trying to win and used the campaign stage as an educational platform. He could exploit the process to relentlessly expose the dollar- drenched absurdity of the nation’s 1% elections and party system. He could advocate for a powerful new popular sociopolitical movement beneath and beyond the big money-big media-major party-mass-marketed candidate- centered quadrennial electoral spectacles that are staged as yet another method for marginalizing and containing the populace. The movement would include in its list of demands the creation of a party and elections system worthy of passionate citizen engagement.

Imagine a Democratic Society

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Jon Stuart speculates comedically

Sanders or other supposed potential electoral “saviors” aside, backing a “progressive” candidate in Demo- cratic presidential caucus and primary race is not the only way to oppose Hillary and other corporate- imperial fake-progressive Democratic presidential candidates in Iowa and New Hampshire. Progressives in those states could simply ignore or more actively resist Democratic campaign events. They could disrupt and protest those events, making statements against the plutocratic and militarist nature of the Democratic Party and the farcical, corporate-crafted charade that the U.S. elections process has become. (It’s a charade that is featured for an absurdly long period of time, particularly in Iowa and New Hampshire—the “first in the nation” caucus and primary states). Alternately, and more positively, they could do something along the lines of what Noam Chomsky suggested to Occupy Boston activists in October of 2011—hold local people’s caucuses and primaries based on issues, not candidates and their marketing entourage: “We’re coming up to the presidential election’s primary season. Suppose we had a functioning democratic society (laughter). Let’s just imagine that. What would a primary look like, say, in New Hampshire?…. The people in a town would get together and discuss, talk about, and argue about what they want policy to be. Sort of like what’s happening here in the Occupy movement. They would formulate a conception of what the policy should be. Then if a candidate comes along and says, ‘I want to talk to you,’ the people in the town ought to say, ‘Well, you can come listen to us if you want…we’ll tell you what we want, and you can try to persuade us that you’ll do it; then, maybe we will vote for you.” “What happens in our society? The candidate comes to town with his public relations agents and the rest of them. He gives some talks, and says, ‘Look how great I am. This is what I’m going to do for you.’ Anybody with a grey cell functioning doesn’t believe a word he or she says. And then maybe people vote for him, maybe they don’t. That’s very different from a democratic society.”

With the first $5 billion presidential campaign contest coming around the corner, an “electoral extravaganza” (Chomsky) very possibly pitting 2 dynastic families (the Clintons and the Bushes have together have held the White House for 20 of the last 26 years) against one another in an ever more openly plutocratic New Gilded Age, now seems as good a time as ever to embrace a different, genuinely popular politics from the bottom up. The top-down method has failed miserably and not incidentally threatens to wipe out life on Earth in the not so distant future.

Z

 

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

The U.S., Iran, and the Saudi Bombing of Yemen

08/05/15 0 COMMENTS

Fars News Agency TEHRAN (FNA), April 27, 2015  – Dr. Paul Street, an American journalist, historian and political commentator, says the Saudi kingdom is following the lead of its US-Zionist masters in attacking Yemen, describing Washington, Tel Aviv and Riyadh as three war criminals totally unaware of the calamities that lie ahead of the poor nation as a result of their warmongering.

“The Obama administration is providing critical technical and other military assistance assisting its leading client state Saudi Arabia in the bombing of Yemen. Along with the Saudi embargo, this attack is generating a humanitarian calamity. Yemen is the poorest nation in the Middle East, a country that faces deadly water and agricultural crises and the threat of takeover by barbarous Salafist extremists. Civilians are dying, including hundreds of women and children. What little infrastructure Yemen has is being devastated. The US-Saudi attack (backed by the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Qatar and Bahrain) is highly criminal and threatens to tip Yemen into utter catastrophe,” Paul Street said in an exclusive interview with FNA.

He further said that the Saudi monarchy’s claim that it is bombing Yemen in order to preserve its national security is not surprising at all, and noted, “That’s standard war propaganda. Aggressor regimes typically say that their criminal wars of aggression are really about ‘self-defense,’ ‘national security,’ and the like. That’s what Washington always does when it invades and otherwise attacks other countries. It wouldn’t make much ‘public relations’ sense for Riyadh to tell the truth about its real geopolitical ambitions, allied with those of the US and Israel.”

Paul Street is the author of numerous books including “Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11″, “Segregated Schools: Educational Apartheid in the Post-Civil Rights Era”, and “Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis: a Living Black Chicago History”.

Street’s essays, articles, reviews, interviews, and commentaries have appeared in numerous outlets, including ZNet, Z Magazine, Black Agenda Report, CounterPunch, Truthout, the Chicago Tribune, Capital City Times, In These Times, and Chicago History.

Street’s writings, research findings, and commentary have been featured in a large number and wide variety of media venues, including The New York Times, CNN, Al Jazeera, the Chicago Tribune, WGN (Chicago/national), WLS (ABC-Chicago), Fox News, and the Chicago Sun Times.

What follows is the text of Fars News Agency’s (FNA) interview with Paul Street, conducted on April 17, 2015.

FNA: Saudi Arabia began its aerial bombardments on Yemen on March 26 in an attempt to restore power to fugitive president Mansour Hadi. The monarchy declared end to Yemen airstrikes after four weeks of bombing and killing around 2900 innocent people. Meanwhile, the attacks continued despite the fact that Riyadh declared an end to them on Tuesday. Certain regional and western countries supplied Riyadh with critical support in air refueling, surveillance and logistics. What lies behind attacking another Middle-Eastern country?

Street: Let’s be clear about which among “certain Western countries” matters most. That would be the United States, whose “defense” (Empire) budget accounts for nearly half the world’s military spending and pays for more than 1000 US military installations across more than 100 “sovereign” nations. The Obama administration is providing critical technical and other military assistance assisting its leading client state Saudi Arabia in the bombing of Yemen. Along with the Saudi embargo, this attack is generating a humanitarian calamity. Yemen is the poorest nation in the Middle East, a country that faces deadly water and agricultural crises and the threat of takeover by barbarous Salafist extremists. Civilians are dying, including hundreds of women and children. What little infrastructure Yemen has is being devastated. The US-Saudi attack (backed by the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Qatar and Bahrain) is highly criminal and threatens to tip Yemen into utter catastrophe.

The absurdities of Washington’s Yemen policy here are striking. For US Secretary of State John F. Kerry to say that the US supports the bombing because Washington “won’t stand by while the region is destabilized” is ridiculous. Bombing is a well-known means of destabilization (look at the record of the US war on Indochina, 1962-1975). US drone attacks and bombings conducted in Yemen in the name of the so-called Global War on Terror (really a global war of terror) bear significant responsibility for the unraveling of Saleh’s and Hadi’s pro-US/pro-Saudi regimes. At the same time, the Ansarullah fighters have been effectively combatting the al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and the Yemeni affiliate of the ISIL.

What’s it all about? It’s revealing that Kerry said “region” instead of “Yemen.” According to the official narrative in Riyadh, Washington, and Western media, Yemen is “under siege by agents of Iran,” the “Houthis” (the Ansarullah fighters). The claim is exaggerated, to say the least. The Houthis may practice a kind of Shiite Islam, Zaidi, but their version differs significantly from Iranian Shiism. In fact, the Houthis are merely the latest manifestation of a long-oppressed Yemeni religious minority seeking autonomy from the central government. After years of being deceived and stymied by pro-US dictators and puppets in Sana’a, they finally overthrew the government, with assistance from government forces formerly loyal to Saleh. Calling the Houthis “agents of Iran” is misleading. As the regional analyst Emma Ashford noted two weeks ago in the New York Times:

“Yemen’s volatile civil war has been depicted as merely a battleground between Sunni Arab countries and Shiite Iran for dominance in the Middle East… But in fact, the conflict in Yemen is local, not regional. Washington and Riyadh have pushed the narrative of an Iranian-supported Houthi rebellion in Yemen. This is an oversimplification at best…. While the Houthis are Shiites, their Zaydi faith is theologically distinct from the Shiite practices of most Iranians. Historically, this has limited ties between them and Tehran. And although Iran has given the Houthis some financial support, it has not been directly involved in the conflict. In fact, many of the Houthis’ recent gains are a result of their alliance with Sunni supporters of Hadi’s predecessor, Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was removed from power in 2012.”

Still, Saudi Arabia unshakably views Iran as a grave threat and sees Tehran’s hand behind almost every regional development it doesn’t like. Now that Washington has the outlines of a nuclear deal with Iran – with whom it must make some rapprochement if the barbarian ISIL (which frightens even its Saudi sponsors) is going to be rolled back (the same is true for Syria), the Obama administration in Yemen is placating the Saudi royal family, who sits atop a giant pile of oil and money that Washington does not take lightly.

Meanwhile the ISIL and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula can be expected to find rich, blood-soaked ground in which to grow in more devastated Yemen. As Emma Ashford rightly notes, “Yemen has the potential to become the next Syria, spiraling into sectarian violence, with money and arms from abroad fueling the conflict. If Arab airstrikes continue, Yemen is likely to become a failed state. Tragically, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula would be the one beneficiary, as the terrorist group enjoys a respite from drone strikes, counterterrorism campaigns… A bombing campaign won’t stabilize Yemen…Instead, it could lead to a prolonged and bloody civil war and provide fertile ground for extremist groups.” And of course, historically no government has done more than Saudi Arabia more to spread the extremist Wahhabi ideology that fuels the Salafist groups in Yemen and across the region.

FNA: The Saudi-led air campaign on Yemen is a blatant violation of international regulations and the rights of a sovereign state as a member of the United Nations. However, the UNSC adopted a resolution earlier and imposed sanctions on the revolutionaries and didn’t condemn the Saudi aggression which has so far killed thousands of people. What’s your perspective on that?

Street: Clearly, it is absurd. Russia at least abstained, I believe. I do not pretend to understand the internal politics of the UNSC, but clearly it functioned here as the de facto agent of Washington, Riyadh, and Israel. The Yemeni branch of ISIL and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula must have been pleased for the Ansarullah Houthi fighters are their blood enemies in Yemen. Finally, let’s be candid about an unpleasant truth: history shows that the United States and its clients never take international law or “regulations” seriously when those laws and regulations violate their perceived “national interests.”

FNA: The Saudi monarchy claims its air campaign against Yemen is an issue of national security. What do you think?

Street: The claim is unsurprising. That’s standard war propaganda. Aggressor regimes typically say that their criminal wars of aggression are really about “self-defense,” “national security,” and the like. That’s what Washington always does when it invades and otherwise attacks other countries. It wouldn’t make much “public relations” sense for Riyadh to tell the truth about its real geopolitical ambitions, allied with those of the US and Israel. In meantime, it is worth bearing in mind that the greatest threat to the security of the Saudi people is Saudi Arabia’s vicious regime, very possibly the most reactionary and oppressive government 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).” As Sarah Flounders observes at Fight Back! News:
“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 …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 (royal) 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.”

The Saudi regime’s victims include its own Shiite minority, which makes up 10-15% of Saudi Arabia. Shiite Saudis are heavily concentrated in the nation’s Eastern province, where most of the kingdom’s oil is produced. That is no small context for understanding the Saudi regime’s hostility to any examples of Shiite self-rule and power in the region.

Interview by Javad Arab Shirazi

Boston, Blowback, and Barack Obama

23/04/15 0 COMMENTS

TeleSur English, April 18, 2015

I am personally opposed to the death penalty.  Still, I’d be lying if I said I cared a great deal about the fate of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the surviving Boston Marathon bomber. Tsarnaev and his brother committed a hideous crime that cost three innocent people their lives, blew limbs off of seventeen others, and wounded two hundred and forty more. Please don’t ask me to shed a tear for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, whose death penalty trial begins on April 21st.

What does bother me quite a bit is not so much the possibility that Tsarnaev may be sentenced to death (I hope he is not) as the utter failure of United States political and media culture to grant remotely serious moral attention to the important fact that Tsarnaev and his older brother decided to kill Americans in what they perceived as, in the words of The New York Times last week, “retaliation for American-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

The Times’ word choices were too mild. It would be much more accurate to say “retaliation for criminal, mass-murderous, and imperial US invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan.”

Boston v. Bola Boluk

The Tsarnaev brothers’ crime was despicable. But let’s compare their transgression with another crime that occurred early in the presidency of Barack Obama. Before Boston, there was Bola Boluk. In the first week of May 2009, a U.S. air-strike killed more than ten dozen civilians in Bola Boluk, a village in western Afghanistan’s Farah Province. Ninety-three of the dead villagers torn apart by U.S. explosives were children. Just 22 were males 18 years or older. As the New York Times reported: “In a phone call played on a loudspeaker on Wednesday to…the Afghan Parliament, the governor of Farah Province, Rohul Amin, said that as many as 130 civilians had been killed, according to a legislator, Mohammad Naim Farahi…. The governor said that the villagers have brought two tractor trailers full of pieces of human bodies to his office to prove the casualties that had occurred…. Everyone was crying…watching that shocking scene.’ Mr. Farahi said he had talked to someone he knew personally who had counted 113 bodies being buried, including…many women and children” (NYT, May 6, 2009).

The initial response of the Obama Pentagon to this horrific incident—one among many mass U.S. aerial civilian killings in Afghanistan and Pakistan beginning in the fall of 2001—was to blame the deaths on “Taliban grenades.” Obama’s Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressed “regret” about the loss of innocent life, but the Administration refused to issue an apology or to acknowledge U.S. responsibility. By contrast, Obama had just offered a full apology and fired a White House official for scaring New Yorkers with an ill-advised Air Force One photo-shoot flyover of Manhattan that reminded people there of 9/11 (New York Daily News, April 28, 2009;  Los Angeles Times, May 9, 2009).

The disparity was remarkable: frightening New Yorkers led to a full presidential apology and the discharge of a White House staffer. Killing more than 100 Afghan civilians did not require any apology. Nobody had to be fired. And the Pentagon was permitted to advance preposterous claims about how the civilians perished—stories that were taken seriously by corporate media. The U.S. subsequently conducted a dubious “investigation” of the Bola Boluk slaughter that slashed the civilian body count and blamed the Taliban for putting civilians in the way of U.S. bombs.

“Really Good at Killing People”

“Peace prize? He’s a killer.” So said a young Pashtun man to an Al Jazeera English reporter on December 10, 2009—the day Obama was given the Nobel Peace Prize. “The man,” the reporter wrote, “spoke from the village of Armal, where a large crowd gathered around the bodies of twelve people, one family from a single home, all killed by U.S. Special Forces during a late-night raid. ”

Nearly three years later, the peace prize hero agreed with the young Muslim from Armal. “Turns out,” Obama said to White House aides while reflecting on the CIA drone assassination of Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen, “I’m really good at killing people. Didn’t know that was gonna be a strong suit of mine.”

Al-Awlaki’s 16-year-old son, Abdulrahman, a U.S. citizen, was killed in a separate U.S. drone strike two weeks after his father.

Overseeing the expansion of the CIA’s targeted killing program, the peace prize idol has long personally managed the agency’s Kill List, which designates secretly selected “bad guys” for liquidation without the irksome obstructions of law.  Call it same day imperial assassination.

Obama is a skilled murderer in a wide range of places. While his “cowboy” predecessor George W. Bush has him beat by far on total body count (thanks to “the American-led war in Iraq”), Obama takes the prize when it comes to geographical scope.  According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism last January, “At least 2,464 people have now been killed by US drone strikes outside the country’s declared war zones [Iraq and Afghanistan] since President Barack Obama’s inauguration six years ago.” The Nobel champion’s drones, bombs, missiles, and Special Forces have wreaked havoc in many more Muslim nations than were invaded by Bush’s troops, something that has helped Washington spread and intensify Salafist jihad across a much broader territory (including Libya, Yemen, Somalia, and Syria) in the Age of Obama

Who Cares?

Bola Boluk, Armal, and the Awlakis are just drops in the giant river of blood that the United States has created across the Muslim world since the September 11, 2001 jetliner attacks on “the homeland.”  In his important 2011 book The Deaths of Others: The Fate of Civilians in America’s Wars (Oxford University Press), John Tirman, the Principal Research Scientist and Executive Director of the Center for International Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, determined that the US invasion of Afghanistan led to as many as 35,000 civilian deaths, “including nonviolent ‘excess’ deaths, with about 9000 from direct U.S. military action, through the first half of 2010.” That’s the noncombatant death toll in what Obama considered Bush’s “good war,” actually no less illegal than the invasion of Iraq.

As for Bush’s “bad war” (occasionally criticized as a “blunder” and “mistake” but never as an imperial or murderous crime in “mainstream” US media-politics culture), Tirman conservatively estimates that the orgy of violence conducted and unleashed by “Operation Iraqi Freedom” produced “hundreds of thousands of [Iraqis] deaths, perhaps close to a million” along with four million displaced and “a society in shambles.” It’s true that the US lost thousands of troops in Iraq but the US body count was tiny in comparison to the Iraqi one: the US to Iraqi death ratio was 1 to 200.

Who cares? Not the American people, at least not by Tirman’s account. The “casualty aversion” that tends to repeatedly undermine US public support for Washington’s global wars is always mainly about the deaths of U.S. military personnel, Tirman notes.  It has little to do with the much bigger swath of humanity the US kills abroad (more than two million people in Vietnam between 1962 and 1975 and probably as many as 2 million in Iraq from 1990 through 2011).  The West’s shocking “absence of concern,…absence of sympathy” and “collective autism” regarding civilian suffering in the Muslim world is shaped by a dominant “homeland” political discourse that refuses to seriously discuss “the deaths of others” at US hands and makes “even the scattered attempts to account for the [foreign] dead [i.e., Iraq Body Count]… [into] a highly charged endeavor” (Tirman)

Numb About Unreported Crimes

In Tirman’s view, this indifference is rooted in mass evolutionary-psychological responses of “denial,” “withdrawal,” “psychic numbing,” victim-blaming (“they brought it on themselves”) and other mental and emotional means (“it all turned for the best in the end”).  These defense mechanisms function to “mitigate the horror of the outcomes we’re witnessing” and to reduce our perception that “the world is perhaps unjust, threatening, and random.”

Tirman may be on to something, but there’s a problem with his argument.  Thanks to the imperial and nationalist ideological and related informational biases and deletions of reigning US corporate-state “mainstream” media, US citizens for the most part simply do not have much opportunity to witness the horror that the US Empire inflicts on others around the world. As Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky demonstrated in their classic text Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media (1988), one way that US “mainstream” reporters, editors, and commentators prove their “balanced” safety to those who wield power and keep their careers afloat is by respecting and enforcing a great doctrinal distinction between “worthy” and “unworthy victims.” Under dominant mass media rules, people killed and maimed by official enemies of the U.S. and its allies in the world geopolitical order are worthy victims. Their fates deserve serious investigation, empathy, mourning, and solemn efforts to identify and punish those who harmed and killed them.  The vastly greater number of people the U.S. and its clients and allies have killed and maimed abroad receive no such heartfelt acknowledgement and grave concern. They are unworthy, largely uncounted, and anonymous victims in reigning U.S. media and politics culture. They are at best faceless and unquantified “collateral damage” in Washington’s inherently noble efforts to do “good” around the world, as far as the leading U.S. communications authorities are concerned. They do not merit serious attention.  Their fate is generally ignored, their stories untold in US media.

It’s hard to respond with indifference and withdrawal to deaths you don’t even know about thanks to the propagandistic nature of the media on which you rely for accurate information about a vast and complex world.

“Blowback”

Whatever the explanation, few Americans lose any sleep over the million or so Iraqis the US has killed since March 2003 – or over the 6 to 7 million mostly civilian people that Tirman estimates the US has killed in Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq since 1950, (The rest of the humanity notices this unconcern and/or ignorance and much of the Muslim world would probably and understandably agree with Tsarnaev’s mother’s recent statement that “The terrorists are the Americans and everyone knows it.”) But what about the loss of innocent US lives to the terrorism that is provoked by US military actions abroad? Well before the 9/11 terror attacks, the late US historian Chalmers Johnson noted, CIA officers invented the term “blowback” to connote the dangers posed to Americans by “their” nation’s vastly over-extended Empire, “which insists on projecting its military power to every corner of the earth.”  The September 11 jetliner assaults were the ultimate example of such “blowback,” a clear and forewarned (in all but technical and logistic specifics) response to Washington’s heavy and blood-soaked imperial footprint in the Middle East and the Muslim world. There have been many smaller examples since, including the Boston Marathon bombing, fed by the also predictable (and predicted) U.S. response to 9/11:  by Washington’s decision to double down on the very imperial presence and aggression that provoked the al Qaeda attacks in the first place.  The US escalation has brought into being the hideous Islamic State, among other terrible developments.

US policymakers undertake provocative and mass-murderous military adventures abroad with full knowledge that their actions are certain to generate “blowback,” including terrorist attacks killing innocent U.S. citizens on “homeland” soil. The policymakers don’t care.  If anything, it seems that many in the US imperial establishment welcome such attacks because of their “Pearl Harbor” and “Remember the Maine” role – 9/11 was a classic example – of convincing millions of US citizens to rally around the flag, cower under the umbrella of the so-called national security state, and support further U.S. aggression in the name of revenge and the false promise of security. The aggression only fuels more “blowback,” which in turn only deepens the nation’s commitment to a permanent global war of (“on”) terror that guarantees super-profitable cost-plus contracts for Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon and other blood-drenched corporate masters of war.  That everyday U.S. citizens confront a world more dangerous than ever even in the “homeland” is at most a minor concern for the US imperial establishment.

Paul Street (paul.street99@gmail.com ) is a writer and author in Iowa City, IA.

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