On the Organization of Society

16/04/15 0 COMMENTS

ZNet, April 16, 2015.We have very different views of how society should be organized.” So said US President Barack Obama on his recent meeting with Cuban President Raul Castro at the Summit of the Americas in Panama. “I was very direct with [Castro],” Obama added, “that we are not going to stop talking about issues like democracy and human rights and freedom of assembly and freedom of the press.”

Oligarchy
Leaving aside how Obama thinks society should be organized, let’s take a look at how U.S. society actually is organized – at what Noam Chomsky amusingly calls “really existing capitalist democracy, ‘RECD,’ pronounced as ‘wrecked.’” Popular self-rule? The self-declared homeland and headquarters of democracy is an ever more transparently plutocratic nation where the top 1 percent owns more wealth than 90 percent of the population and a probably comparable share of the nation’s “democratically elected officials.”  The richest 400 Americans have between them as much wealth as the nation’s bottom half. Six Wal-Mart heirs together possess as much net worth as the bottom 42% of the population. And since wealth is power, as Western political thinkers since Aristotle have long understood, majority public opinion is technically irrelevant in the US today.  The most unequal of the world’s rich and industrialized nations by far, the purported model of popular governance is ruled by an “unelected dictatorship of money” (Edward S. Herman and David Peterson’s excellent phrase) that works relentlessly to “take the risk out of democracy” through numerous means that include but go far beyond merely the funding of elections.[1]

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

Nobody should be surprised. “We must make our choice,” US Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandies, hardly a Left radical, noted in 1941: “We may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.” Or as the “ordinary citizens” I grew up around used to say: “money talks, bullshit walks.”

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

It’s not about “big government” versus “the free market.” It’s about who government and indeed society serves: the wealthy corporate and financial Few and its endlessly selfish, accumulation-addicted agenda or the working class majority and the common good.

Society? As far as many of the money masters are concerned, the right wing British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher got it right. “There is,” the Iron Lady said, “no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families…. people must look to themselves first. It’s our duty to look after ourselves…People have got the entitlements too much in mind, without the obligations. There’s no such thing as entitlement, unless someone has first met an obligation.” The comment applied to the poor and working classes, not the fat cats. It exempts the wealthy few who regularly look to government entitlements to help protect and serve their obligation to fill their pockets (a topic to which I shall return later in this essay) even as they insist in the names of fiscal discipline and personal responsibility that benefits and protections for the poor and the working class majority be slashed

“Fighting Inside the 40-Yard Lines”
Obama is well adapted to the cold authoritarian reality of RECD.  His policy has consistently served elite corporate and financial interests. In December of 2013, he advanced some revealing reflections before some friends atop the US capitalist class at an event called The Wall Street Journal CEO Council. “When you go to other countries,” Obama mused, “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. The stock market is looking pretty good last time I checked.” As the left, actually socialist writer Danny Klatch commented, “It was a touching ruling class moment. At a time of bitter partisan warfare in Congress and frequent mudslinging by business executives, a bunch of CEOs were able to sit down with their president and realize that they really aren’t so different after all. Together, they shared a good laugh at the idea held by many ordinary people in both parties – that Obama and Corporate America are somehow on different sides.”

It goes back to the beginning of his presidency and before. Obama 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 US House and the US Senate and majority working class US population that was deeply angry at nation’s wealthy elite, which, understood as the literal top 1 percent, owned more wealth than almost all of the rest of the nation.  What did Obama and his Democratic colleagues in Congress deliver? 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?”

Bamboozled “progressives” were foolishly “disappointed.”  Left critics (including this writer) and Obama himself had long given abundant warnings that the silver-tongued champion of “Hope” and “Change” (also corporatist Bill Clinton’s campaign key words in 1992) was just another corporate-imperial neoliberal Democrat wearing false rebels’, fake-progressive clothes.  Obama always understood very well that Bill Clinton’s declaration that “the era of big government is over” applied only to what the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu called “the left hand of the state” – the parts of government that represent past popular victories and protect the poor and broad populace against poverty, insecurity, and oppression.  The “right hand of the state” – the parts of government that distribute wealth and power upward, fight wars abroad, and punish and imprison the poor and working class – are to remain well-fed.

How sad to hear Raul Castro declare in Panama his “admir[ation]” for Obama and to describe the president as “an honest man” whose supposedly good “behavior has to do with his humble origins” (this after Castro actually apologized to Obama for recounting the history of US imperialism in Latin America and the Caribbean). Not a good sign.

From Shadow to Dark Enveloping Cloud
The fact that majority opinion on numerous key issues stands to the left of the Democratic Party’s “40 yard line” is technically irrelevant in U.S. politics, which the great American philosopher John Dewey reasonably described in 1931 as “the shadow cast on society by business.”  Eighty-four years later, Dewey’s characterization seems mild: corporate and financial power is more like a deadly vapor that has seeped into the pores of US politics, culture, and society, poisoning even private experience and consciousness. As Chomsky noted after the elite-manufactured debt-ceiling crisis in the summer of 2011, “Since the 1970s, [Dewey’s] shadow has become a dark cloud enveloping society and the political system. Corporate power, by now largely financial capital, has reached the point that both political organizations, which now barely resemble traditional parties, are far to the right of the population on the major issues under debate.”

Among the many areas in which U.S. public opinion is far more egalitarian and social democratic than either of the reigning “parties” is on the matter – of no small significance to the question of “how society should be organized” – of wealth distribution. As business professor Michael Norton and psychologist Dan Ariely have shown, most Americans think that the ideal distribution would be one in which the top 20 percent owned between 30 and 40 percent of the privately held wealth and the bottom 40 percent had between 25 and 30 percent.  They are unaware of the reality – that the top fifth owns nearly all U.S. wealth and the bottom two quintiles possess close to nothing – thanks to the 1 percent’s ownership and control of the nation’s media, politics, and educational systems.

Savage Inequalities, Weak Society
It would be one thing, perhaps, if everyone was well fed, clothed, and cared for under this corporate and financial oligarchy. Sadly, however, 16 million US children – a shameful 20 percent of those children – live below the federal government’s notoriously inadequate poverty level.  One seventh of all US citizens rely on food banks for basic nutrition (half of those people are employed, incidentally).  Hunger, homelessness, and extreme poverty are visibly evident in and around any and all U.S. cities.  The shocking U.S. poverty rates for Black (36%), Native American (35%), and Latino children (31%) are disgraceful in a nation that is described by its “leaders” as the world’s great egalitarian model for “how society should be organized” –  as what former US Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson once called (in a speech calling for Congress to authorize George W. Bush to invade oil-rich Iraq if he wanted to) “the beacon to the world of the way life should be.” In Chicago, which Obama has long deceptively called his “home city” (the president is actually from Honolulu), 11 percent of the population lives in “deep poverty,” at less than half the poverty level. Roughly a third of that dangerously poor population are children.  Half are Black, hardly surprising in a society where median white household wealth is 22 times that of Black median household wealth.  The ferocious racial disparities persist and deepen while the U.S. continues to congratulate itself over the supposed great victory over racism represented by the election of a “first Black president” – a technically Black chief executive who has been remarkably reluctant to discuss U.S. racism in any serious way and has  recurrently lectured Black Americans on their own supposed personal and cultural responsibility for their persistent position at the bottom of the steep US socioeconomic pyramid.

Poverty is only of many of many problems resulting from the savage inequality that lurks at the dark heart of “how our [U.S.] society is organized.” There’s a considerable health and social science literature on the alienation and sickness (both physical and mental) that people (even privileged persons) experience in radically unequal societies like the US. In their groundbreaking book The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger (2009), the British health researchers Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett provided hard evidence showing that numerous key measures and indications of human well-being and (conversely)  human dysfunction – life expectancy, mental illness, healthy body weight, disease rates, friendships, social cohesion, trust levels, educational performance, literacy, violence, racial and ethnic conflict, child abuse, status-seeking, soulless consumerism, civic engagement, teenage pregnancy, domestic violence, incarceration, environmental destruction – are affected less by how wealthy a society is than by how unequal it is  Societies with a bigger gap between the rich and the poor do far more poorly on all of these measures and traits than do more equal societies.  They are worse off for everyone in them, including even the well-off. More equal societies produce healthier, happier people than do less equal societies whether comparisons are made between “rich nations” (i.e., egalitarian Norway vs. the hierarchical US) or between “poor nations” (egalitarian Cuba vs. hierarchical Brazil).The United States shows up again and again on the wrong and unhealthy side of Wilkinson and Pickett’s measures – consistently scoring at or near the bottom of the rich nations when it comes to life expectancy, infant mortality, child well-being, stress, depression, happiness, social capital, isolation, trust, addiction, mental illness, suicide, homicide, obesity, heart disease, addictions, literacy, numeracy, and other key measures.

Lockdown
Human rights? Beyond its cruel denial of union organizing and collective bargaining rights to hundreds of millions of U.S. workers, its abject failure to guarantee highly quality and free or even low-cost health care to its citizens, its notoriously weak social safety net, and its nasty police habit of murdering mostly unarmed Black men (more than 300 killed by “peace officers,” each year, including 100 just this last March), the United States has in the last four decades emerged as the world’s leading prison state by far – a curious accomplishment for the “Land of the Free.” With more than 2.3 million prisoners (two thirds of whom are Black and Latino), the US is home to a twentieth of the world’s population but a quarter of its prisoners. It puts more Black men behind bars than in college. Along the way, “post-racial America” (didn’t it elect a first Black president?) has saddled 1 in 3 of its adult Black  males with the crippling lifelong mark of a felony record, famously labelled “the new Jim Crow” by law professor Michelle Alexander.

Freedom of assembly? Here, again, Obama has little to tell Raul Castro on how to proceed in a democratic way. We might recall the widespread, coast-to-cast police state shutdown of the Occupy protestors who spoke out against the rule of “the 1%” in the fall and winter of 2011. The repression was coordinated to no small degree by the Obama administration’s Department of Homeland Security. It occurred in hundreds of cities and towns across the nation. In Oakland, California, the city’s “progressive” Democratic Mayor Jean Quam decided to crush the movement with an iron first in a pre-dawn raid. In the still dark hours of the very early morning of October 25th, 2011, heavily armored and visor-wearing riot police from no less than ten Bay Area jurisdictions assaulted protestors with a barrage of rubber bullets, batons, chemical agents, and concussion grenades. The attack was described by a downtown security guard who beheld a brutal rush on peaceful protesters, a precursor of later scenes televised from Ferguson. Missouri:

“I witnessed the raid on the Occupation Oakland camp… after 4:30 in the morning, and it was terrifying…there were just so many policeman… the numbers were incredible….they lined up almost like in a phalanx, on the street, and then they moved in…. There were helicopters flying about and with high beams on the camps…the beams were moving across every which way…There were young people in these camps and children, infants in a lot of the tents …They shot…tear gas into the middle of the camp…and then they moved to the next stage of taking the barricades and kicking them down. And then they moved in and the first thing they hit was the information tent, and they just started just tearing everything down… this was a military type operation…It harkened back to old footage I had seen of Nazi Germany …It had that tenor. …The helicopters, and the lights, and the loudspeaker, all those were all intended to create panic and terror for the people inside…. They had these vehicles that looked like armored boxes, black, special riot vehicles….the thing that stays in my mind’s eye is in the middle ground with the lights from the helicopters, the police moving in and just stomping on these tents, and moving in one layer, after another, moving in deeper and deeper…”

This “Nazi”-like raid put a U.S. military veteran (Scott Olson) in intensive care with a fractured skull and inflicted numerous other injuries.  The White House had nothing to say about this chilling police-state assault on public assembly and free speech, launched 16 hours after Obama raised a million dollars from wealthy Americans in the same metropolitan area (across the bay in San Francisco). Obama was silent again weeks later when the New York City police swept down on the original Occupy Wall Street (OWS) site in New York City on the orders of Wall Street titan-turned New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. By one account:

“The area around Zuccotti Park was subject…to a 9/11-level lockdown over peaceful, lawful protests by a small number of people…Martial law level restrictions were in place. Subways were shut down. Local residents were not allowed to leave their buildings. People were allowed into the area only if they showed ID with an address in the ‘hood. Media access was limited to those with official press credentials, which is almost certainly a small minority of those who wanted to cover the crackdown… they were kept well away from the actual confrontation (for instance, the tear gassing of the Occupiers in what had been the [OWS] kitchen, as well as the use of pepper spray and batons). News helicopters were forced to land. As of 10 AM… police helicopters were out in force buzzing lower Manhattan.”

Bloomberg’s “media blackout” on the raid violated international human rights law. A report published in the summer of 2012 documented 130 incidents of excessive force by the NYPD – actions that violated protestors’ civil and human rights – during the occupation and over subsequent months.

If Obama wants to see police state repression of popular protestors, he might want look at his “hometown” Chicago, where local, county, state, federal and private gendarmes confronted anti-NATO protestors with a colossal assemblage of high-tech repressive power in May of 2012.  Activists there were unjustly detained and falsely accused on crassly concocted “terrorism” charges.  It was recently revealed that the Chicago Police Department (CPD) spies on the phone conversations of social justice protesters with a technology (the “StingRay”) that lets police track and listen to private cell phones (without the knowledge of cell phone companies).  That is a gross violation of citizen-activists “constitutionally guaranteed” privacy and protection from unjust search. And recently we have also learned from The Guardian (UK) that Chicago police take detainees to an “off-the-books interrogation compound, rendering Americans unable to be found by family or attorneys while locked inside what lawyers say is the domestic equivalent of a CIA black site.” This “homeland” rendition site is located in the city’s predominantly Black and poor West-Side neighborhood North Lawndale, in a warehouse known as Homan Square. Homan Square’s “black site” prisoners are “disappeared,” held incommunicado while not being entered into the department’s citywide booking database.  “It’s sort of an open secret among attorneys that regularly make police station visits” a Chicago lawyer told The Guardian,  that “if you can’t find a client in the system, odds are they’re there” (at Homan Square). Other police state abuses carried out at Homan Square include beatings, prolonged shackling, denying’ attorneys access to the “secure” facility, and holding people without legal counsel.

Free World Media
A free press?  Independent media? Consistent with its possession as a leading and money-making asset of the 1%, the US mass media is a bastion of power-serving propaganda and deadening twaddle designed to keep the masses loyal to their masters in Big Business and to the imperial state.  It regularly portrays the United States as a great model of democracy and equality.  It sells an image of the US as a society where the criminal rich are rich because of hard and honest work and where the poor are poor because of their laziness and irresponsibility.  The nightly television news broadcasts and television police and law and order dramas are obsessed with violent crime in the nation’s Black ghettoes and Latino barrios, but they never talk about the extreme poverty, the absence of opportunity imposed on those neighborhoods by racism, by mass structural unemployment, and by under-funded schools. The nightly weather reports tell of ever new record high temperatures and related forms of extreme weather.  They never relate these remarkable meteorological developments to anthropogenic climate change, a topic that US media refuses to discuss in a serious manner.

US citizens regularly see pictures of people who are angry at the US around the world.  The US media never gives them any serious discussion of the imperial and mass-murderous US policies and actions that have created that anger, leaving millions of American to ask in childlike supreme ignorance “Why do they hate us?  What have we done?”

US newscasters and their print media counterparts routinely parrots and disseminates the often preposterous foreign policy claims of the imperial elite. As far as you can tell from “mainstream” US media, Washington’s global aims are always benevolent and democratic, Washington’s clients and allies are always good guys. Washington’s enemies are always nefarious and Washington’s victims as undeserving and incidental. Elections in other countries that are won by politicians that Washington likes because they can be counted on to serve the interests of US corporations and the military are portrayed in the media as good and clean elections. But when elections put in power people that Washington doesn’t like, people (like Hugo Chavez and Nicolas Maduro) who can’t be counted on to serve so-called “US interests,” then the media portrays those elections as corrupt. When Americans or people allied with Washington are killed or injured abroad, they are “worthy victims” (Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky) and receive great attention.  The people who are killed or injured by the US and US clients and allies are anonymous and “unworthy victims” whose experience hardly merits mention in US “mainstream” media.

Uncle Sam can occasionally make mistakes, but he is never immoral, criminal, or imperial in that media. This is consistent with the doctrine of so-called American Exceptionalism, which decrees that the US along among great powers in history seeks no selfish or imperial gain and that the US has nothing really to learn from other nations and people.

As the US Marxist commentator Michael Parenti once remarked, US “Newscasters who want to keep their careers afloat learn the fine art of evasion…with great skill they skirt around the most important parts of a story.  With much finesse, they say a lot about very little, serving up heaps of junk news filled with so many empty calories and so few nutrients.  Thus do they avoid offending those who wield politico-economic power while giving every appearance of judicious moderation and balance.  It is enough to take your breath away.”

Recently we had an extraordinary episode in US media – the firing of a leading national news broadcaster, Brian Williams of NBC News because of some fibs told in connection with the US invasion of Iraq.  It would be nice to report that he was discharged because he repeated the Bush administration’s lies about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction and Saddam’s supposed connection to 9/11.  In reality, however, Williams lost his job because he falsely claimed to have been riding on a helicopter that was forced down by grenade fire during the initial invasion.  If transmitting Washington’s Orwellian untruths about Iraq were something to be fired about, then the “mainstream” news media would have to get rid of pretty much of all its top broadcasters.

Meanwhile, new US box office records have been set by a Hollywood movie called “American Sniper,” a film that celebrates a sociopathic US soldier who is reputed to have killed more than 150 Iraqis during the US occupation of Mesopotamia.

US media is every bit as propagandistic and biased as the Soviet Union’s media (never termed “mainstream” in US discourse) ever was, but there’s differences of course.  One distinction is that the Soviet Union was open about it. Every day at the bottom of the front page of Soviet newspapers Pravda and Izvestia you could see at the bottom of page one the initials of two individuals.  As everyone in Russia knew, those were the initials of that edition’s government censors. Comedians joked about it in Soviet Moscow’s night clubs. US media is no less censored and distorted but you’ll never see the names or even the initials of those who are responsible at the bottom of a US newspaper. And you’ll never hear a late night US comedian joke about how US media supports the American Empire.

There’s nothing surprising about this media conduct. The U.S. media is owned by giant corporations representing wealthy investors with a large interest in both American state capitalism in the reigning imperial order. One should never be fooled by the large number and types of channels and stations on a typical US car radio or cable television set, or by the dazzling large number and types of magazines and books you can find at a typical Barnes & Noble bookstore.  Currently in the US today, just six gigantic global corporations – Comcast, Viacom, Time Warner, CBS, The News Corporation and Disney – together control more than 90 percent of the nation’s print and electronic media, including cable television, airwaves television, radio, newspapers, movies, video games, book publishing, comic books, and more. Three decades ago, 50 corporations controlled the same amount of US media. The ever-deepening concentration has been assisted by oligopolistic legislation (the 1996 Telecommunications Act was key) that the leading media firms helped write.

Each one of the six media giants is a diversified multi-media conglomerate with investments beyond media, including the military Asking reporters and commentators at one of those giant corporations to tell the truth about what’s happening in the US and the world is like asking the General Motors company newspaper to tell the truth about wages and working conditions in GM’s auto plants in Mexico.

“Our Free Market System”
Obama, it is true, campaigned against the extreme economic inequalities mentioned at the beginning of this essay in 2008 and 2012.  In the run up to his re-election, he said more than once that economic inequality was the nation’s leading problem.  But so what?  Pretending to care about inequality is what corporate-friendly Wall Street-captive captive Democratic Party politicians have been doing for decades, consistent with the once Left Christopher Hitchens’ pithy and all too accurate description of “the essence of American politics” as “the manipulation of populism by elitism.” The arch-neoliberal Big Business-friendly Bill Clinton (a champion of the arch-regressive anti-labor and ecocidal North American Free Trade Agreement and the reckless de-regulation of leading financial institutions) did the same thing in 1992 and 1996. The dismal dollar Democrat Hillary Clinton will follow suit this and next year, as in 2007 and 2008. Released two days ago (I am writing on Tuesday, April 14, 2015), the slick and outwardly progressive online video belatedly announcing Mrs. Clinton’s 2016 presidential candidacy has her claiming to be concerned that “the deck is still stacked in favor of those at the top.  Everyday Americans need a champion,” Clinton says, “and I want to be that champion.”

After Obama’s “blunt lesson about power,” only bamboozled fools could possibly take such rhetoric seriously. Neither the Clintons nor “honest” (according to Raul Castro) Obama have ever meant a single word of the progressive- and populist-sounding heroic they’ve let slip from their lips in their efforts to win votes from their party’s working class base.  The “beacon to the world of the way life should be” is approaching the first $5 billion presidential (s)election in 2016. “Hillary, Inc.” has built up a preemptive money machine so gargantuan than it will smash previous fundraising records and prevent rivals from mounting any serious opposition in the 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 Hillary 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.”

At the same time, the steep socioeconomic disparities that Obama purports to be disturbed about are precisely the consequence of the capitalist profits system he has repeatedly upheld as the source of America’s purported exceptional greatness and “unmatched prosperity.”  They are the natural outcome of what he called in his 2006 campaign book The Audacity of Hope “Our greatest asset…our system of social organization, a system that for generations has encouraged constant innovation, individual initiative and efficient allocation of resources…our free market system.”

Here, again, you don’t have to be a Marxist or other kind of anti-capitalist to appreciate the dark reality beneath the flowery rhetoric. As the liberal MIT economist Lester Thurow noted 19 years ago, “Democracy and capitalism have very different beliefs about the proper distribution of power. One believes in a completely equal distribution of political power, ‘one man [sic] one vote,’ while the other believes that it is the duty of the economically fit to drive the unfit out of business and into extinction. ‘Survival of the fittest’ and inequalities in purchasing power are what capitalist efficiency is all about. Individual profit comes first and firms become efficient to be rich. To put it in its starkest form, capitalism is perfectly compatible with slavery. Democracy is not” (The Future of Capitalism [NY, 1996], 242). My copy of the eminently patriotic  Webster’s New Twentieth Century Dictionary defines capitalism as “the economic system in which all or most of the means of production and distribution…are privately owned and operated for profit, originally under fully competitive conditions: it has been generally characterized by a tendency toward concentration of wealth and, its latter phase, by the growth of great corporations, increased government controls, etc.”

It is worth noting, consistent with Webster’s, that capitalism has little to do with “the free market.”  The top US profit-making entities from the leading financial institutions on down are heavily dependent on state subsidies and other government “entitlements” and protections – corporate and Wall Street welfare Obama has shown himself eager to extend and expand even as 95% of the nation’s income growth went to the nation’s top 1% during his first term.. Don’t take it from radical anti-capitalists like me.  As Chomsky has noted, a 2013 study by the International Monetary Fund “attributes the profits of the big banks almost entirely to the implicit government insurance policy (‘too big to fail’), not just the widely publicized bailouts, but access to cheap credit, favorable ratings because of the state guarantee and much else. The same is true,” Chomsky added, “of the productive economy. The IT revolution, now its driving force, relied very heavily on state-based R&D, procurement and other devices. That pattern goes back to early English industrialization.”

If there’s one immutable fact to take away from the liberal French economist Thomas Piketty’s celebrated volume Capital in the 21st Century (2014), it is that wealth, left to its own devices, inexorably concentrates in capitalist economies.  Proving this thesis with more than two centuries of heroically discovered and compiled data, Piketty shows that there is nothing inherent in the workings of “free market” capitalism to block, much less roll back, that tendency. The only things that have reduced inequality under the bourgeois system have been extraordinary crises like the Great Depression and the last century’s two world wars and related political/policy interventions on behalf of downward redistribution. With inequality in the rich nations currently approaching “levels equal to those observed in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries,” Piketty observes that “wealth [capital] is once again flourishing.  Broadly speaking,” he demonstrates, “it was the wars of the twentieth century that wiped away the past to create the illusion that capitalism had been structurally transformed” (Capital in the 21st Century, p. 118).  “Modern economic growth and the diffusion of knowledge,” Piketty shows, “have not modified the deep structures of capital and inequality – or in any case not as much as one might have imagined in the optimistic decades following World War II.” It was the so-called Golden Age of western capitalism (1945-1970) following the Great Depression and the two cataclysmic world wars – a period of significant downward wealth and income distribution in the core (rich) nations of the world capitalist system – that marked the real anomaly in the history of capitalism. The sweeping re-concentration of wealth and income over the last four decades of hyper-capitalist “neoliberalism” have been a return to the systemic norm.

State-socialist Cuba, for all its own flaws and problems (many of which trace to US aggression and embargo), has escaped the savage and extreme disparities that are evident in the US.  The result is a much healthier and happier society. It is also a much more environmentally sustainable society. The U.S. is the world’s leader in total accumulated carbon emissions and is home to the biggest per capita carbon footprint on the planet. By contrast, the makers of the United Nations’ Human Development Index (UNHDI) have found that Cuba is the only country on the planet to combine a quality of life consistent with “high human development” with a globally sustainable carbon footprint. A report by the World Wildlife Foundation includes a graph that shows two features for the nations of the world: the UNHDI (including measures of life expectancy, poverty, literacy, health care, and the like) and “ecological footprint” – the energy and resources consumed per person in each country. Only Cuba received a passing grade in both areas.  This remarkable accomplishment is an achievement of no small significance in an age of ever more imminent US-led environmental catastrophe resulting from capitalism’s addiction to fossil fuels. It is no mere accident. Beyond a fuel and currency shortage, it reflects considerable eco-socialist innovation in the use and development of alternative fuel sources, technologies, and practices on the part of the Cuban state.

Whatever went on between Barack Obama and Raul Castro in Panama, one thing is clear: the former doesn’t have shit to say to the latter (or anyone else) about “how society should be organized.”

Paul Street (paul.street99@gmail.com ) is an author and political commentator in Iowa City, Iowa.
1. For elaboration, please see Chapter 5, “How They Rule: The Many Modes of Moneyed Class Power,” in Paul Street, They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm, 2014).

American Exceptionalism in the New Gilded Age

13/04/15 0 COMMENTS

Counterpunch, April 10-12, 2015

At one point last year, United States President Barack Obama declared that he “believe[d] in American exceptionalism with every fiber of my being.”  It was hardly a surprising or remarkable thing to hear.  In US political culture, faith in “American exceptionalism” has long been doctrinally mandatory for top politicians, policymakers, and other elites. For those persons and others, stating one’s allegiance to “American exceptionalism” is hardly more controversial than standing up for the National Anthem or a US “commander in chief” saying “God Bless America” at the end of a major national speech.

(Just to be clear, the more accurate term would be “United States exceptionalism,” for “American exceptionalism” really refers to the US, not “America,” which technically includes Canada, Central America, the Caribbean islands and nations, and South America.)

“The United States is Good”
But what, exactly, does the term denote? Its meaning depends, I suppose, on the identity and values of its user and the context in which it is used, among other factors. For me, observing the term’s habitual use by US political and media personalities and some intellectuals, the phrase has two basic and interrelated meanings when it is employed by those “leaders.” The first such connotation holds that the United States is unique among world history’s great powers in the fundamentally benevolent, democratic, humanitarian, and non- and even anti-imperial intention and nature of its foreign policies – of its actions abroad.

“The United States is good,” Bill Clinton’s Secretary of State Madeline Albright explained in 1999. “We try to do our best everywhere.” Three years before, Clinton explained that the U.S. was “the world’s greatest force for peace and freedom, for democracy and security and prosperity.” These were curious reflections on (among other things) the U.S.-led economic sanctions that killed – as Albright acknowledged on national television in 1996 – more than half a million Iraqi children in the 1990s (Albright added that she “felt the price” of those deaths was “worth paying” for the advance of inherently noble U.S. foreign policy goals).

“More than any other nation,” Obama announced at West Point in December of 2009, “the United States of America has underwritten global security for over six decades. Unlike the great powers of old, we have not sought world domination. We do not seek to occupy other nations. We are still heirs to a moral struggle for freedom.” The Progressive’s Matthew Rothschild gave a historically informed response:

“Well, let’s see: The United States led the world to the cliffs of nuclear annihilation during the Cold War. The United States invaded one Latin American country after another, and subverted other governments there covertly. The United States helped overthrow governments in Ghana and the Congo, and supported racist forces in southern Africa. The United States plunged into the Korean War, and then supported one dictator after another in South Korea. The United States killed between two and three million people in Indochina. And the United States supported Suharto in Indonesia, who killed nearly a million people, some at the behest of the CIA, after taking power in 1965. The U.S. also supported Suharto’s invasion of East Timor ten years later, which took another 200,000 lives…. Obama can call that ‘global security,’ if he wants to, but it’s dripping red…. What does having almost 1,000 military bases in more than 100 countries mean, then? The United States has invaded or overthrown dozens of countries in the last six decades, and it doesn’t need to occupy them if it can install a puppet regime instead” (The Progressive, December 2, 2009).

“The Beacon to the World of the Way Life Should Be”
The second meaning of “American exceptionalism” holds that the domestic United States “homeland” is a uniquely excellent and unmatched global role model of political and societal democracy, freedom, and opportunity.  This is what US politicians mean when they customarily refer to the US as “the envy of the world” (a phrase Obama has used more than once), the “greatest nation on Earth,” the “leader of the free world,” and the like.  It’s what Republican US Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson (R-TX) meant when she called the US “the beacon to the world of the way life should be” – this during a speech given on the floor of the US Senate in support of Congress authorizing George W. Bush to invade Iraq if he wanted to.

So what if the current “New Gilded Age” United States is now the most savagely unequal society is the industrialized world, an ever more openly plutocratic nation where the top 1% owns more than 90% of the wealth and a probably comparable share of the nation’s “democratically elected” officials? So what if 6 Walmart heirs possess as much wealth between them as the bottom 42% of US citizens (or ex-citizens) while16 million US children live below the federal government’s notoriously inadequate poverty level and 1 in 7  US citizens rely on food banks for basic nutrition (half of those people are employed, incidentally). And who cares if these and numerous other terrible facts reflect more than three decades of deliberately engineered upward wealth and income distribution: a ruthless state-capitalist concentration of riches and power that has brought the “homeland”  to a New Gilded Age of abject oligarchy and (along the way) to the brink of environmental catastrophe? Or that white median household wealth is 22 times that of Black median household wealth while Blacks make up more than 40 percent of the nation’s 2.4 million prisoners in the US, the world’s leading prison state (a curious achievement for the self-declared Land of Liberty!) and 1 in 3 Black adults males carry the crippling mark of a felony record?

City on a Hill
The two basic meanings of “American exceptionalism” complement and reinforce each other, of course.  The US is so good and excellent abroad because it is so good and excellent at home.  Its wonderfulness around the world only furthers its wonderfulness at home. The planet has everything to learn from the shining exemplar that is “America” (the US). The exemplar has nothing to learn from the rest of humanity: what could other nations and people possibly have to teach the “beacon to the world of the way life should be”?  And who would seriously think that such a grand model of brilliance superiority, and benevolence could commit base and imperial crimes abroad?

This grandiose national self-image goes back a long way.  It has roots in religious zealots’ settlement of New England, described by one of its Puritan founders as a God-ordained “City on a Hill.”  Including a fair portion of wealthy slave-owners, the architects of US national independence boasted of their determination to “make the world over again.” They constructed an “Empire of Liberty” blazing an ever expanding, Indian-clearing frontier of forced labor camps for their tortured Black chattel. They gazed awestruck at themselves as they wrote a new blueprint for Freedom in rich “virgin” soils beyond the stultifying reach of old feudal, aristocratic, monarchical, and peasant-saturated Europe. They took the mass dying-off of Native people infected by European germs as a divine message signifying their unparalleled splendor.

“To Cover Up Crimes Which Would Disgrace a Nation of Savages”
US elites boasted of their great success in carrying out their magnificent mission from the War for Independence on.  One who was not impressed was the escaped slave and leading abolitionist Frederick Douglass.  Douglass reflected as follows in the summer of 1852:

“What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? …a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy — a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices, more shocking and bloody, than are the people of these United States, at this very hour…”

“…Americans!…You boast of your love of liberty, your superior civilization, and your pure Christianity, while the whole political power of the nation (as embodied in the two great political parties), is solemnly pledged to support and perpetuate the enslavement of three millions of your countrymen.! You are all on fire at the mention of liberty for France or for Ireland; but are as cold as an iceberg at the thought of liberty for the enslaved of America. You discourse eloquently on the dignity of labor; yet, you sustain a system which, in its very essence, casts a stigma upon labor. You can bare your bosom to the storm of British artillery to throw off a three-penny tax on tea; and yet wring the last hard-earned farthing from the grasp of the black laborers of your country …You declare, before the world, and are understood by the world to declare, that you ‘hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; and are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; and that, among these are, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness;’ and yet, you hold securely, in a bondage which, according to your own Thomas Jefferson, ‘is worse than ages of that which your fathers rose in rebellion to oppose,’ a seventh part of the inhabitants of your country.”

Strange Liberators and the Triple Evils
The inflated, self-congratulatory rhetoric of American exceptionalism rides roughshod over the ugly and interwoven realities of US “foreign policy” (imperialism) and domestic order to this day.  It has long been reinforced by the United States’ status – first definitively established in the wake of the suicide of Europe and Japan during World Wars I and II – as the most powerful nation on Earth, something that it is itself commonly taken to somehow prove US marvelousness.

Another great Black American who rejected and even flipped the exceptionalist narrative was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., for whom the United States’ murderous empire abroad was intimately related to the nation’s savage inequalities and injustice at home.  In the last years of his life, King referred repeatedly to what he called the nation’s “triple evils that are interrelated”: racism, economic exploitation (capitalism), and militarism/imperialism. King stepped out of the imperial (“foreign relations”) version of the exceptionalist story line when, after studying US actions in Vietnam, he (on April 4, 1967) described the United States as “the leading purveyor of violence in the world today” and mentioned some of the horrible things he had learned about US actions in Southeast Asia:

“[The Vietnamese] must see Americans as strange liberators…the people read our leaflets and receive regular promises of peace and democracy – and land reform.  Now they languish under our bombs….as we he herd them off the land of their fathers into concentration camps. They know they must move or be destroyed by bombs. They watch as we poison their water, as we kill a million acres of their crops [with chemical weapons]. They must weep as the bulldozers roar through their areas preparing to destroy the precious trees. They wander into the hospitals, with at least twenty casualties from American firepower for one ‘Vietcong’-inflicted injury. So far we may have killed a million of them – mostly children… What do they think as we test out our latest weapons on them, just as the Germans tested out new medicines and new tortures in the concentration camps of Europe?”
King challenged the domestic version of American exceptionalism with a career dedicated to trying to make the US live up its false promises of equality and democracy, all betrayed, he knew, by “the triple evils that are interrelated” – evils at the dark heart of “western civilization” through the ages.  A democratic socialist, King challenged homeland exceptionalism explicitly in the summer of 1966, when he noted the greater poverty that existed in the United States compared to other First World states in Europe.  “Maybe something is wrong with our [capitalist] economic system,” King told an interviewer, observing that there was no or little poverty, slums, and unemployment in “democratic socialist” countries like Sweden.  The “beacon to the world” and “city on a hill” had something to learn from other nations, King was suggesting. Imagine.

Obama’s Revealing Comparison
Barack Obama, who has long claimed King as a leading inspiration, took a very different, militantly American-exceptionalist approach in his nauseating 2006 campaign book and memoir The Audacity of Hope. There Obama mused rhapsodically on “just how good” even “our [the United States’] poor…have it” compared to more truly miserable counterparts in Africa and Latin America. Obama took this comparison to be evidence for his argument in Audacity that US capitalism (“the logic of the marketplace” and “private property at the very heart of our system of liberty” and “our system of social organization”) had brought its fortunate American citizens “a prosperity that’s unmatched in human history.” Obama naturally omitted considerably less American-friendly US contrasts with Western Europe, Japan, and, for that matter even Cuba, where social and public policies create far more social equality and security than can be found in more militantly hierarchical nations (all with high “Gini coefficient” measure of inequality) like Haiti, Brazil. Botswana, Chile, Nigeria, Peru, South Africa, and, by the way, the United States.

Reverend Wright and the Golden Rule
The title of Obama’s campaign book was stolen from the name of a sermon given by the Black South Side of Chicago preacher Jeremiah Wright, a pulpit master in in the truth-telling tradition of Black prophetic Christianity – a tradition shared by Douglass and King and Cornell West today. Wright, the reader may recall, had once been Obama’s preacher and personal religious counselor, part of Obama’s effort to achieve an electable Black American political identity in Chicago.  He was also a harsh critic and questioner of the United States’ nationally narcissistic American exceptionalist doctrine in both its domestic and its global dimensions, one who denounced the nation’s interrelated structures and practices of empire and inequality at home and abroad. In a sermon that included the phrase “God Bless America? No, God Damn America!” Wright had the gall to note that the US government was no special exception to the rule that “governments fail.” After recounting previous failures by the Roman imperial government, the British imperial government, the Russian government, the German government, the Japanese government, Wright had the audacity to note that the US government, too, had failed when it came to giving fair and decent treatment to people of Indian, Japanese, and African ancestry. In a different sermon, Wright had the related audacity to note that the US had helped prepare the ground for the 9/11 terror attacks by engaging in imperial terror across the Middle East prior to the al Qaeda assault. He had the officially unforgivable insolence to note that “America” (the US) held no special exemption from the universal law that what goes around comes around or from the Golden Rule instructing people to treat others as we ourselves would like to be treated.

The doctrinal rules of American exceptionalism required Obama to shed all connections with his former minister if he wanted a shot at the nation’s top job.  He dutifully complied in March of 2008, with a shallow but instantly heralded “race speech” in Philadelphia. The speech helped pave the way for his ascendancy to an office whose occupants always function as advance agents for the triple evils – and a few others (including patriarchy, police-statism, and environmental destruction) along the way – that are interrelated.  From the very beginning of the Obama phenomenon, in the career-making speech he delivered to the Democratic National Convention in July of 2004, Obama has indeed advertised himself as a shiny embodiment and epitome of the American exceptionalism that provides deceptive cover for those evils, whose execution he has eagerly conducted while a bust of Dr. King sits behind him in the Oval Office in unfathomable shame.

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

Cuba’s Socialist Spirit Level

12/04/15 0 COMMENTS

TeleSur English, April 10, 2015

Having just visited Cuba to deliver a paper on the dangers of United States corporate media, one impression I took from my trip is that we should never underestimate the intrinsic positive significance of social equality.

Does Cuba have significant problems and contradictions? Seguro!…of course it does. Paint is peeling off many of the buildings in Havana.  Many structures there seem to be crumbling and in various states of disrepair.  Sidewalks and streets are full of cracks and potholes.  Technical infrastructure is very limited. Large number of people live on dark grey streets and blocks of stone and concrete without a hint of greenspace.

People drive ancient (but remarkably well-preserved) General Motors cars from the 1950s, vehicles that can’t get more than 9 miles a gallon, along with old Russian cars (Ladas were the most common brand I saw) that Cubans also miraculously manage to keep running in the 21st century.

There is a very narrow range of basic consumer goods in local stores. Politics and media are under state control, even while foreign visitors with valued tourist currency can watch CNN (UK) and ESPN along with national French, German, Italian, and Chinese television networks, TeleSur, and (of course) Cuban state television in their hotel rooms.  (After viewing government posters celebrating Cuban socialism, I returned to my room and turned on my television to hear an obnoxious British CNN broadcaster tell viewers that “The economic gap is getting bigger every day.  The question is, how can you get your slice of the pie!”)

Government elites have access to media, communications, some luxuries and foreign travel not available to the broad populace. The elites seem to have little reluctance to coordinate and otherwise rule over less privileged and less educated Cubans, including waitresses, bellhops, garbage-pickers, taxi drivers, custodians, and the like. Racial prejudice and inequality has not been abolished in Cuba.

Despite an abundance of fertile soil and rainfall, Cuba imports 70 percent of its food.  This reflects a shortage of fuel and up-to date technologies for planting, harvesting, and transporting food and farm supplies.

Happiness in Havana  

Still, what struck me first and most consistently during my stay in Havana was the vibrancy, happiness, warmth, kindness, sociability, health, and free spirit of the people.  Havana is the most broadly jovial and high-spirited the most alive city Ive ever walked. I spent many hours hiking its often dingy yet brightly colored streets.  It is nothing like the dark Stalinist and Orwellian nightmare one might imagine from standard right-wing US media depictions: a closed society where cowed, sickly, and silent subjects citizens crawl through the streets with eyes averted, cringing in fear of Big Brother. It’s quite the opposite, in fact.

Havana is the safest city I’ve ever visited. No matter what corner I turned, I never had the slightest sense of fear that someone might try to mug me. I’ve never seen a slighter police presence. (One of the first things I noticed in a new way upon my return to Chicago was the ubiquity of heavily armed high-tech police in the “free world.”  I reflected back to a 2010 visit to Ecuador, where national gendarmes and local police were much more visibly present.  The bank outlets in Quito and Cuenca were guarded by heavily armed private security contractors employed by the global mercenary and prison firm Wackenhut. That is common across much of Latin America, especially in Mexico and Columbia.)

The Socialist Spirit Level

What’s it all about?  Part of the explanation is that, for all its disrepair, Havana is a magically beautiful and history-rich city adjacent to the magnificent, windy Caribbean.  A bigger part is that while Cuba is not a perfect radical utopia (how could it be?), it is in fact a socialist society. There are no oligarchs no Rockefellers of the United States’ first Gilded Age and no Jamie Demons of its current Second Gilded Age in Cuba.  Cuba lacks the desperate shantytowns and extreme poverty that are so evident in other “developing nations” (the former “Third World”). Its inequalities do not come remotely close to what exists in other Latin American nations or the US, where six Wal-Mart heirs possess as much wealth themselves as the bottom 42 percent.  While there is deprivation in Cuba, it is “poverty with security,” thanks to a wide social safety net that includes a remarkable governmental health care system with universal free care and an abundance of doctors so great that Cuba exports medical personnel around the great peripheries of the world capitalist system.  

Thanks in great part to the absence of extreme class disparities, racial inequality is mild in Cuba compared to the US, where median black household wealth is less than five percent of median white household wealth. Social and personal relations between Black and lighter skinned Cubans are much more relaxed and democratic than in the US.

There’s a considerable health and social science literature on the alienation and sickness (both physical and mental) that people (even privileged persons) experience in radically unequal societies like the US. In their groundbreaking book The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger (2009), the British health researchers Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett provided hard evidence showing that numerous key measures and indications of human well-being and (conversely)  human dysfunction life expectancy, mental illness, healthy body weight, disease rates, friendships, social cohesion, trust levels, educational performance, literacy, violence, racial and ethnic conflict, child abuse, status-seeking, soulless consumerism, civic engagement, teenage pregnancy, domestic violence, incarceration, environmental destruction are affected less by how wealthy a society is than by how unequal it is  Societies with a bigger gap between the rich and the poor do far more poorly on all of these measures and traits than do more equal societies.  They are worse off for everyone in them, including the well-off.

More equal societies produce healthier, happier people than do less equal societies whether comparisons are made between “rich nations” (i.e., egalitarian Norway vs. the hierarchical US) or between “poor nations” (egalitarian Cuba vs. hierarchical Brazil).

A Remarkable Accomplishment

Cuba stands out among all nations (rich and poor) in a critical way. The makers of the United Nations’ Human Development Index (UNHDI) have found that Cuba is the only country on the planet to combine a quality of life consistent with “high human development” with a globally sustainable carbon footprint. A report by the World Wildlife Foundation includes a graph that shows two features for the nations of the world: the UNHDI (including measures of life expectancy, poverty, literacy, health care, and the like) and “ecological footprint” the energy and resources consumed per person in each country. Only Cuba received a passing grade in both areas.  

This remarkable accomplishment is an achievement of no small significance in an age of ever more imminent environmental catastrophe resulting from capitalism’s addiction to fossil fuels. It is no mere accident. Beyond a fuel and currency shortage, it reflects considerable eco-socialist innovation in the use and development of alternative fuel sources, technologies, and practices on the part of the Cuban state.

Defiance

Another part of Cuba’s magic, I think, is the pride its people rightly feel in having survived to build an independent nation under and against the murderous hostility of the Yankee superpower 90 miles north.  The murals and signboards one sees all around Havana honoring Che, Fidel, the Cuban Revolution, and “Socialismo” resonate with ordinary Cubans to some degree because everyone there knows that Cuba owes much of its technical “backwardness” precisely to the US economic embargo, implemented with the explicit intent of collapsing the Cuban experiment in national independence and social equality. Condemned by the entire world minus Israel, the embargo and isolation Uncle Sam has imposed on Cuba has helped keep the spirit of the revolution seem relevant more than half a century later.

Cuba Leads the United States in Democracy

In the original draft of the talk I gave to academicians in Cuba, I included a quote from the noted Left US media analyst Robert W. McChesney writing nearly twenty years ago on what he considered the three top conditions for a democratic society:

“First, it helps when there are not significant disparities in economic wealth and property ownership across the society. Such disparities undermine the ability of citizens to act as equals.  Second, it helps when there is a sense of community and a notion that an individual’s well-being is determined to no small extent by the community’s well-being.  This provides democratic political culture with a substance that cannot exist if everyone is simply out advance narrowly defined self-interests…Third, democracy requires that there be an effective system of political communication, broadly construed, that informs and engages the citizenry, drawing people meaningfully into the polity…While democracies by definition must respect individual freedom, those freedoms can only be exercised in a meaningful sense when the citizenry is informed, engaged, and participating…[thanks to popular]…control of the means of communication [media].”

(I would add three additional requirements: a radically democratic educational system; abundant free-time or leisure for popular participation in culture, society, and politics; and the participatory-democratic structuring of workplaces and the labor process.)

By my observation, Cuba scores far better than the United States on at least two of McChesney’s three criteria (socioeconomic equality and sense of community) and may even do better than U.S. on number three, thanks to the abjectly propagandistic, mass consent-manufacturing, and thought-controlling nature of US corporate-commercial mass media. The United States, the self-declared homeland and headquarters of democracy (which happens to be the world’s leading prison state), swings and misses badly on all three of McChesney’s criteria (it does the same on the three criteria I added in parentheses above).  That’s a strike out, to use a metaphor from baseball, the sport that the US and Cuba share. To stay with the baseball analogy (to use some language shared by both nations). Cuba has at least two hitters on base.  Despite its elite-controlled and state-run media, its communication system may actually come closer than to meeting McChesney’s third criterion than that of the US (and here it helps that Cubans now get TeleSur on their televisions a Venezuelan station that widens the scope of regional and global information available to the Cuban people without undermining the strong and related senses of equality and community that are very pronounced in Cuban political culture and media.)

“A Better Outcome for the Cuban People”

I traveled to Cuba easily and directly thanks to changes introduced by US President Barack Obama in the name of “engagement” last December 17th. It is at once fascinating and disturbing to read Obama’s recent comments to New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman on why he is moving towards normalized travel and diplomatic relations between the US and the socialist island in the Caribbean. “You take a country like Cuba,” Obama told Friedman last week: “For us to test the possibility that engagement leads to a better outcome for the Cuban people, there aren’t that many risks for us. It’s a tiny little country. It’s not one that threatens our core security interests, and so (there’s no reason not) to test the proposition. And if it turns out that it doesn’t lead to better outcomes, we can adjust our policies.”

Note the president’s doctrinal failure to acknowledge the remarkable positive outcomes of a socialist revolution made over and against US opposition.  Note also the implicit and related assumption, made explicit by the president when he rolled out his Cuba changes, that the only thing wrong with the previous US towards policy towards Cuba driven by the best of intentions,” Obama said last December was merely that it didnt succeed in its goal of “empower[ing] the Cuban people.” The reality, deleted from the official historical record as usual, is that Washington’s embargo and its long terror war against Cuba (of which repeated CIA attempts to assassinate Fidel Castro were just one part) were intended to punish the island for having effectively flouted Uncle Sam’s presumed (Monroe-) doctrinal right to rule the hemisphere.

Speakers at the Havana gathering I attended agreed that Obama’s recent changes reflect a shift in means, not ends.  The US goal remains the same: to destroy the threat that the example of Cuba’s independence and social egalitarianism socialism poses to US capitalism and empire within and beyond the Western hemisphere. The challenge before socialist Cuba is how to turn the dramatically increasing influx of US and other foreign global visitors and money to its overall advantage while preserving its egalitarian, solidaristic, and environmental accomplishments and culture against the corrosive, alienating, sickening, atomizing, demobilizing, regressive, repressive, and eco-cidal forces of the profits system. 

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

Name That System — or Overthrow it

06/04/15 0 COMMENTS

TeleSur English, April 1, 2015. Like many who write for ZNet, Telesur English, and other Left venues, I suspect, I often feel torn between (A) more activist and positive, change and action-oriented energies (relating to the question of “what is to be done?”) on one hand and (B) more intellectual, academic, Mandarin-like and critical, often outwardly negative interests (relating to “what’s wrong with present-day society?”) on the other hand.  I am aware and have recently argued in Z Magazine (“Beyond False Dichotomies,” April 2015) that tendency A and tendency B are not necessarily or inherently opposed to one another and should be understood as complimentary parts – like diagnosis and prescription in health care – of Left political culture. At the same time, it has long struck me that that Left intellectual culture in the United States is often quite excessively weighted towards A at the expense of B.

A recent provocative essay by Tom Engelhardt on TomDispatch, the left Website Engelhardt manages, sparked the tension between these two tendencies for me. Engelhardt’s commentary details five core characteristics of the current US social and political system that in his opinion combined to have create “A New American Order” – a “grim new system” of authoritarian state-capitalist rule:

1. “1% Elections”: a big money, dollar-drenched electoral process in which candidates from the two dominant parties cannot hope to win or compete without giant campaign contributions from super-opulent oligarchs and elite corporate and financial interests.

2. The privatization of basic governmental functions, including much of the nation’s giant military and national security apparatus.

3. The “de-legitimization of Congress and the presidency,” both now held in shockingly low regard by the preponderant majority of Americans, in chilling contrast to the high popularity enjoyed by the military inside the US.

4. The emergence of a gargantuan national security state as a de facto “fourth branch of the federal government.”

5. The “demobilization of the American people,” reflected in depressing “mass acquiescence” to “the grim new system” – a surrender that is itself a defining aspect of the current dark and different era (T. Engelhardt, “The New American Order,”TomDispatch, March 19, 2015).

What exactly is this “new order?” Engelhardt says that he does not feel qualified to give it a name.  The main thing for him is for us all to admit “that something new is afoot.”  “Call it what you want,” Engelhardt writes, “but call it something.  Stop pretending it isn’t happening.” Stop acting like this is American democracy and/or plutocracy (or some contradictory combination of the two) “as usual.”

Engelhardt’s reflection sure got the Mandarin wheels turning in the more academic regions of my brain. (That’s hardly surprising, I suppose:  I recently published a book on the contemporary US state-capitalist order, a volume concerned with many of the issues Engelhardt raises.) A number of questions and problems flashed across my mind after reading Engelhardt’s  piece. I was struck, to begin, with the contradiction between (I) his admonition to “call it what you want but call it something” and (ii) his insistence that we call it “something new.”  There is, after all, a respectable case that could be made that Engelhardt’s “new American order” is really the natural progression and denouement – a gloomy and ongoing culmination – of longstanding, interrelated, and interwoven US evils, including capitalism, corporatism, racism, state repression, imperialism, militarism, patriarchy, and (I would add along with other leftists in the “parecon” mode) coordinator-ism (the rule of managers, professionals, and other privileged members of the “coordinator class”).  Has quantity changed to quality and bred a terrifying new (as yet unnamed) system within the womb of the old?  Maybe…

Eighty-four years ago, the great American philosopher John Dewey observed that “politics is the shadow cast on society by big business.” Dewey rightly prophesized that U.S. politics would stay that way as long as power resided in “business for private profit through private control of banking, land, industry, reinforced by command of the press, press agents, and other means of publicity and propaganda.”  In the summer of 2011, in the wake of the grotesque elite-manufactured debt-ceiling crisis, when the leaders of both of the major parties agreed to slash government expenditures in standard defiance of majority citizen support for increased public investment to address mass unemployment, the leading US Left intellectual and Dewey fan Noam Chomsky provided a chilling update. “Since the 1970s,” Chomsky observed, “[Dewey’s] shadow has become a dark cloud enveloping society and the political system. Corporate power, by now largely financial capital, has reached the point that both political organizations, which now barely resemble traditional parties, are far to the right of the population on the major issues under debate.” Is the move from “shadow cast on society” (probably a bit mild at the time) to “dark cloud enveloping society and the political system” part of the rise of a “new order”?

Along with the other changes that Engelhardt mentions – and additional developments that he does not (see below) – it could well be.

Engelhardt offers no precise dates, no formal or even informal periodization for his “new order.” Some of what he describes seems best pegged to the onset of the corporate-neoliberal era in the early to mid-1970s and the related authoritarian response of US power elites to popular and democratic protest during the 1960s.  More of Engelhardt’s account seems to date from the September 11, 2001 terror attacks.  In any event, the question of  periodization would seem relevant matter given Engelhardt’s claim of a novel era.

Are the American people living under the current New or Second Gilded Age really as “acquiescent” and “demobilized” as Engelhardt claims, citing his friend the liberal historian Steve Fraser on the significant popular protests that rocked the nation during the original Gilded Age of the late 19th Century?  My sense is that he and Fraser underestimate contemporary popular surrender and overestimate past popular resistance. As I argued two or so years ago in an essay criticizing the brilliant Marxian historian Perry Anderson’s glib dismissal of popular resistance in the contemporary US, there’s a lot more protest and organizing going on beneath the headlines than typically meets the Mandarin eye of the intellectual class.

If we are in and under a new order/era that deserves a name, why not mention some of the terms and phrases that have been advanced for some time, some more rigorous than others: corporate plutocracy, neoliberalism, neoliberal authoritarianism (Henry Giroux);  “inverted totalitarianism” (political scientist Sheldon Wolin, who puts a significant central emphasis on the “demobilization” of the US populace), “corporate-managed democracy” (Wolin again), imperial “polyarchy” (sociologist William I. Robinson’s Marxian-Gramscian adaptation of the term from liberal political science), oligarchy (even liberal intellectuals increasingly describe the US as one these days), financialization, and the like.

I have in previous essays explained why I do not think the term fascism is usefully or accurately applied to the current US order.  Still,  Engelhardt practically dares certain Leftists to respond with that descriptive and that he might want to explain why he rejects that phrase.  Those who think it applies have a depressing number of parallels to cite.

Going with the premise of a “new US order,” I am struck by the significant quantity and quality of things relevant to the possible rise of  a new regime that Engelhardt leaves out of his essay.  The following list of such missing topics is unfair, perhaps, but some of these issues and factors certainly deserve mention in any serious discussion of such a new order:

* The intimately related processes of capitalist globalization, financialization, and US deindustrialization.

* The multiple, interrelated, and many-sided ways in which giant corporations and financial institutions control US politics and policy beyond just election funding.

* The authoritarian politics and culture of neoliberalism, consistent with the dramatic expansion of the “right hand of the state” (Pierre Bourdieu) – the parts of government that distribute wealth and power further upward, repress dissent, fight wars, and punish the poor and working classes.

* The mass structural unemployment of many millions of “surplus Americans” (Left US sociologist Charles Derber’s term for the significant slice of the US population that has been removed by capital from “productive engagement” with the economy).

* The remarkable expansion of “racially disparate” (racist) mass incarceration (a form of post-industrial warehousing of racially branded “surplus Americas” among other things) and felony marking (what law professor Michelle Alexander has memorably labelled “The New Jim Crow”) that has accompanied the neoliberal era, turning the “land of freedom” into the world’s leading prison state.

* The ever-deepening concentration of corporate media ownership and the expansion and spread of mass media’s technical delivery and surveillance capacities.

* The atomizing and alienating impact of digital and online technologies, communications, “social networks” and obsessions.

* The deadening and fragmenting power and reach of “identity politics” in the neoliberal era.

* The rise of the neoliberal and administrative university and the near eclipse of “higher education” as a space for resistance to the power of Big Business and the capitalist and imperial state.

* The remarkable expansion of the reach of the American Empire in the post-Cold War era.

* Last but not least, the ever growing and more imminent danger of eco-cide, the decline of livable ecology under the pressure of capitalism’s relentless drive for growth and accumulation – an issue that threatens to drown out everything else progressives care about (maybe the “new order” should called “The Age of Exterminism”)

But this is all my Mandarin-side talking, the tendency B I mentioned at the beginning of this essay. The other, activist side (tendency A) tends after long to shrug and say “who cares?” One could spend years, decades, an entire career trying to determine the extent to which the current period of capitalist class rule in which one resides has passed into a new stage or “order” – and to figure out what exactly that new or ongoing (but always changing) old order should be called. Isn’t it sufficient from a “what is to be done” perspective to understand that this order is fundamentally opposed to democracy, to justice, to community, to the common good, to a decent future – indeed to life itself.  While intellectuals – many with decent and genuinely democratic intentions – devote the lions’ share of their energy on diagnosis and labeling of current and past evils, dark realities urgently require action now and in the very near future.  As the socialist philosopher Istvan Meszaros noted 14 years ago in a short book titled Socialism or Barbarism, “we are running out time:”

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

Movement-building would seem to be the major order of the day.  If reflections like Engelhardt’s (and mine in this essay) can help spark and inform such movements, that’s all for the good. Whether they can or not, more us who like to write and speak about what’s wrong with society need to come down from our ivory towers, writing cellars, and online outposts to get our hands dirty in the making of a democratic, just, peaceful, and sustainable world beyond “capital’s destructive course of development.”

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

Beyond Manufacturing Consent

30/03/15 0 COMMENTS

TeleSur English, March 27, 2015

I am still occasionally asked by readers and others what I think of Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky’s 1988 text Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media. My answer is always the same: it is an indispensable, classic, and justly famous study of the United States corporate media’s role as propaganda organ for that nation’s imperial establishment. For many of us on the Left, Manufacturing Consent was a revelatory volume, one that significantly sharpened our grasp of how and why “mainstream” US media perform that function. The book was particularly enlightening for me on the critical role played by the (not so) “leftmost” liberal wings of that media – the New York Times especially – in setting the narrow imperial parameters of acceptable political and policy debate for the nation’s educated classes.

Beyond the News

Still, Herman and Chomsky did not pretend to give readers anything more than a modest and opening take on dominant US media’s inclusive power-serving role. The brilliant content analysis and “propaganda model” that Herman and Chomsky advanced in Manufacturing Consent focused on how that media reported and commented on matters of US “foreign policy” (US Empire).  The same basic model and analysis can and should be adapted for and applied to US domestic policy and society as well (and indeed it has been in various writings since, including those of Herman and Chomsky).  The leading capitalist US media corporations are naturally no less committed to advancing “homeland” oppression structures and ideologies than they are to hawking related imperial policies and propaganda.

At the same time, Manufacturing Consent did not examine what is probably the biggest part of US corporate media’s contribution to the engineering of mass “consent.” That media’s function of transmitting ideology and propaganda in service to those atop the nation’s interrelated hierarchies of empire and inequality is hardly limited to the news. Equally if not more significant for that task are “entertainment” media. Far from restricting their hearts-and minds-influencing powers to the (Aldous) “Huxlean” tasks of mass diversion, distraction, and infantilization, US movies (like US television sit-coms and dramas and video games) are loaded with richly “Orwellian” political and ideological content. As US Court of Appeals Justice Bennett C. Clark explained in upholding the conviction of ten Hollywood screenwriters and directors who refused to “confess” current or past Communist Party membership in 1949, US motion pictures play “a critically important role” as “a potent medium of propaganda dissemination.”  The same could be accurately said six-plus decades later about US television sit-coms, dramas, “reality shows,” talk shows, and even commercials, along with the movie industry, not to mention video games and much of book and magazine publishing.

Manufacturing Idiocy and Cruelty

But even this expansion of our understanding of the US mass media’s authoritarian role in (not-so) “democratic” America comes up short.  Seen broadly its total many-sided and multiply delivered impact, that media’s mission is worse than merely the production of mass consent. The real goal is the construction of mass idiocy – the manufacture of idiots. Here I use the words “idiocy” and “idiot” in the original Greek and Athenian sense, one that refers not to stupidity but rather to childish selfishness and willful indifference to public affairs and concerns.  As Wikipedia explains, “An idiot in Athenian democracy was someone who was characterized by self-centeredness and concerned almost exclusively with private – as opposed to public – affairs…Declining to take part in public life, such as democratic government of the polis (city state),…’idiots’ were seen as having bad judgment in public and political matters.”

In US movies, television sit-coms, television dramas, television reality-shows, commercials, the state Lotteries, and video games, the ideal-type American is to no small degree an idiot in the classic Athenian sense: a person who cares about little more than his or her own well-being, affluence, personal consumption, individual status and accomplishments. This noble American idiot has no real concern for the fate of others.  He or she is blissfully indifferent to the terrible social and environmental prices paid by fellow human and other sentient beings for the maintenance of currently reigning and interrelated oppressions structures  (class, race, gender, ethnicity, nationality, anthropocentrism, Empire, and more) at home and abroad.

A critical, vicious and pervasive theme in this ugly media culture is the notion that people who are poor, insecure, coerced, struggling, and otherwise pushed and kept down by those (officially invisible) oppression structures are the irresponsible, personally and culturally flawed creators of their own fate.  The mass US media’s version of Athenian idiocy “can imagine,” in the words of Left cultural theorist Henry Giroux (who includes superb  content analyses of US movies and non-news television shows in his prolific work on the authoritarian “culture of neoliberalism”), “public issues only as private concerns.”  It works to “erase the social from the language of public life so as to reduce” questions of racial and socioeconomic disparity to “private issues of …individual character and cultural depravity. Consistent with “the central neoliberal tenet that all problems are private rather than social in nature,” it portrays the only barrier to equality and meaningful democratic participation “being a lack of principled self-help and moral responsibility” and bad personal choices. (Giroux).  Government efforts to meaningfully address and ameliorate (not to mention abolish) sharp societal disparities of race, class, gender, ethnicity, nationality and the like are relentlessly portrayed as futile, counterproductive, naïve, megalomaniacal, dangerous, deluded, counter-productive, and “anti-American.”

A type of public concern and engagement does, to be sure, appear and take on a favorable light in the corporate media culture. It takes the form of an often cruel, even sadistically violent response to those unworthy and evil Others who unforgivably fail to abide by the capitalist media’s malicious “neoliberal” cultural codes.  The idiocy-manufacturing communications system isn’t opposed to government per se.  It’s opposed to what the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu called “the left hand of the state” – the parts of the public sector that serve the social and democratic needs of the non-affluent majority. It celebrates and otherwise advances the “right hand of the state” – the portions of government that serve the opulent minority, dole out punishment for the poor, and attack a shifting parade of “bad guys” those who resist or are perceived as nefariously resisting the supposedly benevolent US corporate and imperial order at home and abroad.   Cops, prosecutors, and military personnel (including even a sociopathic sniper who is hailed for killing more than 150 Iraqis resisting the criminal invasion and occupation of their nation by the inherently noble US Empire) and commanders who fight and kill various “bad guys” (“anti-American” “insurgents” and “terrorists” and various crooks and radicals abroad and in the “homeland”) are the most common heroes and role models in this media; public defenders, other defense attorneys, civil libertarians, civil rights advocates, peace activists and the like are commonly presented as at best naïve and irritating “do-gooders” and at worst as nefarious coddlers and even agents of evil.

Irrational Persuasion and Electronic ADDvertising

This does not mean that the generation of idiocy in the contemporary sense of sheer stupidity is not also a central part of the “mainstream” media mission. Such idiocy is widely cultivated across the “homeland” media spectrum.  Nowhere is this more clearly evident than in the constant barrage of rapid-fire advertisements that floods US media. As the US cultural critic Neil Postman noted thirty years ago, the modern US television commercial is the antithesis of the rational economic consideration that early Western champions of the profits system claimed to be the enlightened essence of capitalism.  “Its principal theorists, even its most prominent practitioners,” Postman noted, “believed capitalism to be based on the idea that both buyer and seller are sufficiently mature, well-informed, and reasonable to engage in transactions of mutual self-interest.” Commercials make “hash” out of this faith. They are dedicated to persuading consumers with irrational claims, relying not on the serious presentation of evidence and logical argument but on suggestive emotionalism and evocative imagery

The same techniques poison US electoral politics. Investment in openly deceptive and manipulative campaign commercials commonly determines success or failure in the nation’s ever more depressingly dumbed-down marketing and branding contests between business-beholden candidates. To make matters worse, the stupendous cost of this noxious commercialization of politics drives campaign expenses so high as to make candidates ever more absurdly dependent on big money corporate funders.

Along the way, mass cognitive competence is assaulted by the numbing, high-speed ubiquity of commercials, which assault capacities for sustained mental focus and rational deliberation nearly sixteen minutes of every hour on cable television (with 44 percent of the individual ads now running for just fifteen seconds). A factor perhaps in the United States’ long-bemoaned epidemic of “Attention Deficit Disorder” (ADD)?

Treetops and Grassroots

Here is where a knowledgeable reader of the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Financial Times, the Wall Street Journal and critical US Left literature might interject that each of these and other major corporate media outlets produce a significant amount of, informative, high-quality and often candid reporting and commentary that Left thinkers and activists commonly cite to support their cases for radical and democratic change.  The observation would be correct.

Does this mean that the paranoid-style Tea Party FOX News right wing is right when it claims that “mainstream” media has a liberal and even Left bias?  Hardly. To understand why Left truth-seekers who oppose the power structures that media supports can commonly find useful information in establishment news and commentary outlets, it is important to realize that the dominant media crafts two different versions of US policy, politics, society, “life” and current events for two different audiences. Following the work of the brilliant Australian propaganda critic Alex Carey (whose work helped inspire Herman and Chomsky to write Manufacturing Consent), we can call the first audience the “grassroots.”  It comprises the general mass of working and lower-class citizens. As far as the business elites who own and manage the mass media and the corporations that pay for that media with advertising purchases are concerned, this “rabble” cannot be trusted with serious, candid, and forthright information.  Its essential role in society is to keep quiet, work hard, be entertained (in richly propagandistic and ideological ways, we should remember), buy things, and generally do what they’re told.  They are to leave key societal decisions to those that the leading 20th century US public intellectual and media-as-propaganda enthusiast Walter Lippman (coiner of the phrase “manufacture of consent,” as Herman and Chomsky noted) called “the responsible men.”  That “intelligent,” benevolent, “expert,” and “responsible” elite – responsible, indeed, for such glorious accomplishments as the Great Depression, the Vietnam War, the invasion of Iraq, the Great Recession, global warming, and the rise of the Islamic State  – needed, in Lippman’s view, to be protected from what he called “the trampling and roar of the bewildered herd” (quoted in N.Chomsky, Power Systems [2013], 81).  The deluded mob, the sub-citizenry, the dangerous working class majority (the “proles” in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four )is not the audience for elite organs like the Times, the Post, and the Journal.

The second target group comprises the relevant political class of Americans from at most the upper fifth of society. This is who reads the Times, the Post, and the Journal. Call this audience (again following Carey) the “treetops”: the people who matter and who deserve and can be trusted with something more closely approximating the real story because their minds have been properly disciplined and flattered by superior salaries, significant workplace autonomy, and the advanced, “specialized” educational and professional certification. This segment includes such privileged and heavily indoctrinated persons as corporate managers, lawyers, public administrators, and (most) university professors. Since these super-citizens carry out key top-down societal tasks of supervision, discipline, training, demoralization, co-optation, and indoctrination, they cannot be too thoroughly misled about current events and policy without deleterious consequences for the smooth functioning of the dominant social and political order. They require adequate information and must not be overly influenced by the brutal and foolish propaganda generated for the multitude. At the same time, information and commentary for the relevant and respectable business and political classes and their managers and coordinators sometimes reflects a degree of reasoned debate among elites as to how best to run society in the interests of the privileged. That is why a radical thinker and activist can find much that is of use in such elite media organs as the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times and in various other treetops media. Such a thinker or activist would, indeed, be foolish not to consult these sources if they have the time and energy to do so.

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

Bernie Dreaming and the Hillary Money Machine

30/03/15 0 COMMENTS

First published on Counterpunch, March 27-29, 2015

The Violin Model

The late and formerly Left provocateur Christopher Hitchens once usefully described “the essence of American politics” as “the manipulation of populism by elitism”:  the cloaking of plutocratic agendas, of service to the rich and powerful, in the false rebels’ clothing of popular rebellion; the hidden and “unelected dictatorship of money” (Edward S. Herman and David Peterson) masquerading in the false rebels’ clothes of the common people. “That elite is most successful,” Hitchens added in his study of the classically neoliberal Clinton presidency, “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.”

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 US 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 by 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.
The Obama administration has been an especially revolting but instructive violin lesson to say the last.  Compare the 2008 Obama campaign’s progressive-sounding “hope” and “change” rhetoric and imagery/branding with the Obama administration’s predictably ugly corporate and imperial record, including such highlights:

The bail out and protection of the Wall Street financial institutions and chieftains who collapsed the US and global economy.

The 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 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 US-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 – something that has fueled the dramatic expansion of extremist Islamic jihad and sparked a dangerous new confrontation with Russia.

An Unworthy Endeavor
In recent months, “Progressive Democrats” have been hoping to breathe new life into the United States’ hopelessly 1%-dominated “two party system” by running the nominally socialist, technically Independent, and genuinely populist and domestically progressive US Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) to challenge the Clinton-Obama arch-neoliberal and imperial corporate Democrat Hillary Clinton in the Iowa 2016 Democratic Presidential Caucus and the New Hampshire Democratic Presidential Primary. Leaving aside Sanders’ terrible record on Israel-Palestine and U.S. imperial policy more broadly and focusing just on domestic policy, it is a complete waste of time – not a worthy endeavor. Both of the nation’s dominant political “parties” 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.

Basic candor requires acknowledgement that the Democratic Party has in recent decades become an ever more full-fledged and unabashed rich folks’ party, not to mention a longstanding 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 either Hillary Clinton or (in the chance of highly unlikely developments) some other 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 all-too accurately described as “two wings of the same [Big Business-dominated] bird of prey” seem more progressive than they really are? Why lend a hand to the corporate-captive Democrats’ efforts to manipulate populism in service to elitism?

“Not Emblematic of a Democracy”
Thankfully, perhaps, the ever-escalating hyper-plutocratic cost of presidential campaigning seems to be turning Sanders against making a run for the White House 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, I think). As Sanders;’ adviser Tad Devine recently told Salon’s Luke Brinker, “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’ Senate campaign committee possessed a modes $4.5 million while his political action committee, Progressive 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” (emphasis added).

Also significant, the corporate media is highly unlikely to treat Sanders as a “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 US working class majority of citizens.  That’s technically irrelevant under “our” current system of 1% elections, 1% lobbying, and 1% media, etc As Blinker notes, “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.”

Gee, you don’t say. A saving grace for a Sanders run would if he were to drop in advance all hopes of winning and using the presidential campaign stage as an educational platform.  He could exploit the process to relentlessly expose the authoritarian and dollar-drenched absurdity of the nation’s oligarchic 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 for as yet another method for marginalizing and containing the populace ever four years – a movement that would include in its list of demands the creation of a political party and elections systems worthy of passionate citizen engagement.

Imagine a Democratic Society
Sanders or other potential electoral “saviors” aside, backing a “progressive” (whatever that term means anymore) candidate in Democratic 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 today and against the farcical, corporate-crafted charade that the US 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 you 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 for him, maybe they don’t. That’s very different from a democratic society.”

With the first $5 billion presidential campaign contest coming around corner, an “electoral extravaganza” (Chomsky) very possibly pitting two 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 oligarchic New Gilded Age, now seems as good a time as ever to embrace a different, genuinely popular type of 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.

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

Beyond False Dichotomies: Toward a New American Left

25/03/15 0 COMMENTS

Beyond False Dichotomies: Toward a New American Left,  Z Magazine (April 2015)

Paul Street

I have long registered my agreement with the brilliant socialist philosopher Istvan Merszaros’s dark, environmentally informed 2001 judgment that: “many of the problems we have to confront—from chronic structural unemployment to the major political/military conflicts [of our time], as well as the ever more widespread ecological destruction in evidence everywhere—require concerted action in the very near future. The timescale of such action may perhaps be measured in a few decades but certainly not in centuries. We are running out of time…The uncomfortable truth of the matter is that if there is no future for a radical mass movement in our time, there can be no future for humanity itself…If I had to modify Rosa Luxembourg’s words, in relation to the dangers we now face, I would add to ‘socialism or barbarism’ this qualification: ‘barbarism if we are lucky.’ For the extermination of humanity is the ultimate concomitant of capital’s destructive course of development.”

I do not see how the movement required can emerge as long as leftists and many others here are plagued by the false dichotomies and false dilemmas discussed in this article. Here’s a useful definition and discussion of a false dichotomy, found online: “a false dilemma, or false dichotomy, is a logical fallacy which involves presenting two opposing views, options or outcomes in such a way that they seem to be the only possibilities: that is, if one is true, the other must be false, or, more typically, if you do not accept one then the other must be accepted. The reality in most cases is that there are many in-between or other alternative options, not just two mutually exclusive ones…. There are two ways in which one can commit a false dilemma. First, one can assume that there are only two (or three, though that case is strictly speaking be a ‘false trilemma’) options when there really are many more. Second, one can take the options to be mutually exclusive when they really are not.”

Below I discuss and propose solutions from an eco-leftist and participatory-socialist perspective to 25 leading false dichotomies and false dilemmas (hereafter abbreviated as FDs) that afflict leftists and those leftists would like to enlist in the cause of radical-democratic change. Many of these FDs seem to have been internally created by the Left itself; others seem more externally than internally derived. They require attention and remedy—resolution—by leftists either way.

  1. Self or Society  

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

  1. Earth or Jobs  

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

  1. Race/Gender/Ethnicity/Nationality or Class

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

  1. Pro-union or Anti-Union 

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

  1. Voting or Apathy 

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

  1. Democrats or Republicans  

This U.S.-specific FD claims that leftists and other progressives must support the Democratic Party to block the arch-reactionary Republican Party in all U.S. elections and policy. The PFDL understands why many U.S. progressives feel compelled to grant tactical backing to Democrats over Republicans. It does not think that one ceases to be seriously Left simply because one chooses to step into a U.S. voting booth for two minutes to block a hideously reactionary Republican candidate with a less horrific Democrat or to select a more progressive Democrat over a right wing Democrat (i.e., Chicago Mayoral candidate Jesus “Chuy” Garcia over the incumbent arch-corporatist Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel in that city’s 2015 elections). It also does not believe that the two dominant U.S. political organizations are completely identical (the Republicans and the Democrats have different histories, constituencies and funding streams among other variations between them).

At the same time, the PDFL never forgets that those organizations are more alike than different in their shared captivity to the capitalist elite, the “free enterprise” (state-capitalist) system, and the U.S. global and military empire. The PFDL also knows that the Democrats are in some ways worse than the rightmost of the two organizations (the Republicans). They are to some degree “the more effective evil” (Glen Ford), particularly when it comes to their ability to capture, co-opt, and shut-down the disruptive and radical potential of popular social movements. The PFDL does not believe that meaningful solutions to our current grave societal and environmental dilemmas are remotely attainable through the U.S. “two party system,” both of whose wings (the far-right Republicans and the center-right Democrats) stand well to the right of the majority populace in combined service to the nation’s unelected and interrelated dictatorships of money, capital, business, empire, patriarchy, and white supremacy.

  1. Reform or Revolution  

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

The PFDL knows that reforms will not suffice. Martin Luther King, Jr. was right when he wrote near the end his life that “the real issue to be faced” is “the radical reconstruction of society itself.” The PFDL is highly conscious and wary of reformism’s long record of co-opting, diluting, de-radicalizing, dividing, and demobilizing popular movements. It is nonetheless ready and willing to work creatively with the tensions inherent in the dialectical dance of reform and revolution.

  1. Demands or Organization

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

  1. Growth or No Growth 

According to the FD, we must either (a) support the environmentally disastrous economic growth that billions of people require under capitalism for employment and income or (b) oppose growth in the interests of saving livable ecology. Painfully conscious that a no-growth economy would lead to drastically expanded unemployment and poverty for billions under the currently reigning state-capitalist system, the PFDL does indeed oppose growth on the chaotic and environmentally exterminist state-capitalist model. The PFDL does not so much reject growth as redefine growth to mean a number of things beyond and against the dominant capitalist meaning.

The great humanist psychologist Abraham Maslow wrote about peoples’ remarkable capacity for “psychological growth,” by which he meant advance toward “self-actualization” through (in the words of one his leading followers, Frank Goble) “a constant development of talents, capacities, creativity, wisdom, and character”—something he found contrary to capitalist society’s over-emphasis on material and economic “success.”

On a broader scale, the PFDL thinks of a society’s real and desirable growth in terms of the increased quantity, spread, and intensity of equality, justice, democracy, participation, sustainability, health, creativity, imagination, empathy, solidarity, compassion, and happiness experienced by the broad populace. All of these (we think) positive attributes are assaulted and undermined by the state-capitalist model and definition of “growth,” ultimately a form of human de-development and extermination.

  1. More or Less  

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

  1. The Environmental Crisis or Everything Else 

Given recent ever-worsening climate projections, it is tempting to conclude that if the global environmental catastrophe created by anthropogenic climate change isn’t averted soon, then, as Noam Chomsky has warned, “in a generation or two, everything else we’re talking about won’t matter.”

The warning is powerful and chillingly accurate enough given “capital’s destructive course of development” (Merszaros). Still, the brilliant left environmentalist Naomi Klein is right to challenge activists to understand the environmental crisis and climate action within the broader political framework of issues and problems that are directly linked to global warming: housing, public space, labor rights, unemployment, the social safety net, human services, infrastructure, militarism, racism, democracy and more. Climate action, Klein shows, is intimately related to and consistent with positive government and collective action around each of these and other interrelated areas.

A movement to address the climate crisis can be a bridge to broad progressive and revolutionary change and the regeneration of democracy and the public sector in all areas of society. In her important new volume This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate, the argument isn’t “solve climate change or soon everything else we progressives talk about won’t matter.” Klein’s point instead is that climate action, necessary to save a livable planet, is also a crossing to progress on “everything else.” Ultimately, Klein argues—correctly in this writer’s opinion —that “the really inconvenient truth is that [global warming] is not about carbon—it’s about capitalism…. [and] the war [that system] is waging on earth” (a position with which Chomsky would likely agree). The PFDL (well, the present writer) concurs.

  1. Vanguardism or Spontaneity  

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

  1. Real-life Struggle or “Utopian” Blueprints 

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

  1. Capitalism or Really Existing Socialism

If we pose our vision of an alternative society purely in terms of the historical conflict between capitalism and really existing past and present socialism, it becomes all too easy to unduly suppress grave difficulties shared across both systems to date. The PFDL reminds us that really existing capitalism and really existing socialism have shared some terrible characteristics and patterns in the 20th and 21st centuries. Two such characteristics and patterns that deserve special mention are (a) attachment to an alienating and hierarchical “corporate division of labor” (Michael Albert and Robin Hahnel’s useful term) under whose reign the great majority of the working population is assigned to narrow and disempowering, low-status tasks that are conceived and coordinated by a comparatively privileged, empowered, and affluent elite class of managers and professionals (what Hahnel and Albert call “the coordinator class”); (b) attachment to an “extractivist” model of interacting with Earth—a model that is ruining livable ecology in ever more imminently catastrophic ways.

The PFDL rejects these and other negative characteristics of really existing socialism. It calls for a participatory and egalitarian economy that attacks and transcends capitalist and other corporate divisions of labor as well as capitalist property and ownership relations. It fights for a new “regenerative” (the opposite of extractivist) relationship between humans and their natural environment.

  1. Local or Global/Systemic 

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

  1. State Socialism or Worker Control 

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

  1. Forces or Relations of Production  

In Marx and “Marxism’s” classic formulations, the revolutionary Left aims to free the “forces of production” (factories, mills, mines, railroads, steamships, farms, etc.) from the oppressive bourgeois (capitalist) “relations of production” that largely brought them into being, placing those forces under the democratic and social/socialist direction and ultimately into the hands of “the associated producers” themselves. The task was to change the relations—not so much the forces—of production from capitalist to socialist. The PFDL remains committed to that project to no small degree but it also recognizes that many (if not most) of the productive and distributive and other techno-economic forces called into being by capital are now cancerous, wasteful, destructive and ecocidal. These and other horrific, exterminist “forces of production” need to be discarded, replaced, and/or re-converted in ways consistent with the necessary shift from an extractivist to a sustainable (regenerative) relationship between Homo Sapiens, other species, and the Earth—and with our intimately related obligation to dismantle weapons of mass destruction, imperial domination, and endless war.

  1. Understanding History or Changing History

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

  1. Critique or Solution

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

  1. Marxism or Anarchism

The PFDL does not feel compelled to choose harshly or dogmatically between these two great and long-warring tendencies on the anti-capitalist Left. It draws inspiration from the “Haymarket synthesis” of both, combining respect for the trenchant critique of capitalism advanced by Karl Marx and his many declared followers with esteem for the left-libertarian and anti-authoritarian writing and activism of radical Left anarchists over the years.

  1. Religion or Revolution 

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

  1. Earth or Homo Sapiens  

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

  1. Hope or Hopelessness  

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

  1. “Hairshirt” or “Hedonist”  

Some elite urban Marxians like to join rich business cosmopolitans in mocking left radicals and environmentalists as supposed “hairshirt” puritans who “don’t know how to enjoy life” and who thus coldly reject any and all enjoyable activities like world travel, attending theater, viewing spectator sports, and fine dining. The PFDL does not embrace wasteful, ecologically destructive, and excessive consumption and travel or lifestyles of elitist and narcissistic display, it is true. At the same time, it is hardly opposed to sensual pleasures, material enjoyment, attending a baseball game, viewing movies, eating well, traveling within reason, and generally “enjoying life.” The PDFL is neither “hair-shirt” nor hedonistic and finds great personal and collective enjoyment in revolutionary struggle.

  1. Personal Responsibility or Structural Change 

The PDFL rejects neoliberalism’s common vicious victim-blaming explanation of poverty as the consequence of the lack of personal responsibility on the part of the poor. It roots poverty and inequality (and more) in the exploitative nature of contemporary and historical class society and capitalism and calls for root and branch structural transformation beyond such society and the profits system. At the same time, the PDFL does not simply reject the notion that all citizens have a personal responsibility to behave in healthy, decent, and nurturing ways towards others and indeed towards themselves. It includes the duty to engage in revolutionary struggle to bring about radical structural change beyond class exploitation, socioeconomic inequality, racism, sexism, imperialism, and ecological ruin in its definition of personal responsibility.

Z

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

 

 

Look Home Obama

22/03/15 0 COMMENTS

TeleSur English, March 19, 2015. In justifying his recent absurd declaration that Venezuela poses an “unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States” – a threat so great as to constitute a “national emergency” for the U.S. – U.S. President Barack Obama, recycled standard trumped-up US charges accusing the Caracas government of corruption and unjust and authoritarian state repression of political protestors.

Forget for a moment, if you can, all of the following:

  • Neither Venezuela – with a defense budget less than one fiftieth the Pentagon’s – nor its alleged corrupt and repressive practices pose the slightest threat to U.S. citizens or “national security.”
  • The protesters whose alleged repression Obama bemoans have been significantly funded and otherwise sponsored by U.S. public and private agencies hoping to spark the overthrow of Venezuela’s democratically elected Left government and its replacement by a Big Business and US- (Empire-) friendly regime, less encumbered by concern for popular aspirations and social needs.
  • If corruption and repression of protest are grounds for Washington to declare a foreign government a threat to US security, then most states on the planet would qualify for the designation.
  • The U.S. is a close ally, sponsor, and military supplier of Saudi Arabia, an absolutist monarchy that treats government departments as elite family fiefdoms and subjects political dissenters (and those accused of violating its arch-reactionary social codes) to be-heading, limb chopping, eye-gouging, public lashing, and other hideous torments.

The US: “An Oligarchy”

Put all that aside for the moment (if you can) and reflect on the stark corruption of the United States. The mostly working class US population has remarkably little say on politics and policy in an ever more transparently plutocratic New Gilded Age America, where the top 1 percent owns more wealth than 90 percent of the population and a probably comparable share of the nation’s “democratically elected officials.”  Majority public opinion – including the opinion of most whites – is technically irrelevant in the US today, ruled as it is by an “unelected dictatorship of money” (Edward S. Herman and David Peterson’s excellent phrase).

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

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

Obama’s own Big Business-friendly career and administration (during which 95% of the nation’s income gains have gone to the top 1%) is a great monument to and brazen object lesson in this oligarchic “homeland” reality. For Obama or any other top US official to accuse Venezuela or any other nation of corruption is like the pot calling the kettle black.  People who live in glass, dollar-drenched houses of fake democracy should not throw stones.

“It Harkened Back to Nazi Germany”

Repression of protestors and dissent? How about the U.S. police-state crackdown on the Occupy protestors who spoke out against the “homeland” rule of “the 1%” in the fall and winter of 2011? The repression was coordinated to no small degree by the Obama administration’s Department of Homeland Security. It occurred in hundreds of cities and towns across the US, the self-declared homeland, headquarters, and beacon of popular democracy.

In Oakland, California, the city’s “progressive” Democratic Mayor Jean Quam decided to crush the movement in a pre-dawn raid. In the still dark hours of the very early morning of Tuesday,  October 25,  2011, heavily armored and visor-wearing riot police from no less than ten Bay Area jurisdictions assaulted protestors with a barrage of rubber bullets, batons, chemical agents, and concussion grenades.  They fired a “sonic canon” designed to attack protestors’ ear drums. The attack was described by a downtown security guard who beheld a massive, Nazi-like police rush on 100 or so hundred peaceful occupiers:

“I witnessed the raid on the Occupation Oakland camp… after 4:30 in the morning, and it was terrifying…there were just so many policeman… the numbers were incredible….they lined up almost like in a phalanx, on the street, and then they moved in…. There were helicopters flying about and with high beams on the camps…the beams were moving across every which way…There were young people in these camps and children, infants in a lot of the tents …They shot…tear gas into the middle of the camp…and then they moved to the next stage of taking the barricades and kicking them down. And then they moved in and the first thing they hit was the information tent, and they just started just tearing everything down… this was a military type operation…It harkened back to old footage I had seen of Nazi Germany …It had that tenor.

…The helicopters, and the lights, and the loudspeaker, all those were all intended to create panic and terror for the people inside…. They had these vehicles that looked like armored boxes, black, special riot vehicles….the thing that stays in my mind’s eye is in the middle ground with the lights from the helicopters, the police moving in and just stomping on these tents, and moving in one layer, after another, moving in deeper and deeper…”

The “Nazi”-like action put a U.S. military veteran (Scott Olson) in intensive care with a fractured skull and inflicted numerous other injuries.

The White House had nothing to say about this terrible police-state assault on peacefully assemble protestors, unleashed sixteen hours after Obama raised a million dollars from wealthy Americans in the same metropolitan area – just across the bay in San Francisco. Obama was silent again weeks later when the New York City police swept down on the original Occupy Wall Street (OWS) site in New York City on the orders of Wall Street titan-turned New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. By one account:

“The area around Zuccotti Park was subject…to a 9/11-level lockdown over peaceful, lawful protests by a small number of people…Martial law level restrictions were in place. Subways were shut down. Local residents were not allowed to leave their buildings. People were allowed into the area only if they showed ID with an address in the ‘hood. Media access was limited to those with official press credentials, which is almost certainly a small minority of those who wanted to cover the crackdown… they were kept well away from the actual confrontation (for instance, the tear gassing of the Occupiers in what had been the [OWS] kitchen, as well as the use of pepper spray and batons). News helicopters were forced to land. As of 10 AM… police helicopters were out in force buzzing lower Manhattan.”

Bloomberg’s “media blackout” on the raid violated international human rights law. A report published in the summer of 2012 documented 130 incidents of excessive force by the NYPD – actions that violated protestors civil and human rights – during the occupation and over subsequent months.

Sweet “Home” Chicago

If Obama wants to see police state repression of popular protestors, he might want look at his own self-declared “home town” Chicago (the president is actually from Honolulu), where local, county, state, federal and private gendarmes confronted anti-NATO protestors with a colossal assemblage of high-tech repressive power in May of 2012.  Activists there were unjustly detained and falsely accused on crassly concocted “terrorism” charges.

It was revealed three weeks ago that the Chicago Police Department (CPD) spies on the phone conversations of social justice protesters  with a technology (the “StingRay”) that lets police track and listen to private cell phones (without the knowledge of cell phone companies).  That is a gross violation of citizen-activists “constitutionally guaranteed” privacy rights and protection from unjust search.

And now we have just learned from the leading British newspaper The Guardian that Chicago police take detainees to an “off-the-books interrogation compound, rendering Americans unable to be found by family or attorneys while locked inside what lawyers say is the domestic equivalent of a CIA black site.” The “homeland” rendition site is located in the city’s predominantly Black and poor West-Side neighborhood North Lawndale, in a warehouse known as Homan Square. Homan Square’s “black site” prisoners are “disappeared” – held incommunicado while not being entered into the department’s citywide booking database.  “It’s sort of an open secret among attorneys that regularly make police station visits” a Chicago lawyer told The Guardian,  that “if you can’t find a client in the system, odds are they’re there” (at Homan Square). Other police state abuses carried out at Homan Square include beatings, prolonged shackling, denying’ attorneys access to the “secure” facility, and holding people without legal counsel.

The Guardian told the chilling story of Jacob Church and fellow NATA protestors who were rendered to Homan Square in the spring of 2012:

On May 6, 2012, [Church] and 11 others were taken there after police infiltrated their protest against the NATO summit. …officers cuffed him to a bench for an estimated 17 hours, intermittently interrogating him without reading his Miranda rights to remain silent. Church had written a phone number for the National Lawyers Guild on his arm as a precautionary measure. Once taken to Homan Square, Church asked…to call his lawyers, and was denied. “Essentially, I wasn’t allowed to make any contact with anybody”… Church’s left wrist was cuffed to a bar behind a bench in windowless cinderblock cell, with his ankles cuffed together… for about 17 hours… Though the raid attracted major media attention, a team of attorneys could not find Church through 12 hours of ‘active searching,’ Church’s lawyer recalled. No booking record existed. Only after [the lawyer] and others made a ‘major stink’ with contacts in the offices of the corporation counsel and Mayor Rahm Emanuel did they even learn about Homan Square. They sent another attorney to the facility, where he ultimately gained entry, and talked to Church through a floor-to-ceiling chain-link metal cage.”

Neither of the two major Chicago corporate newspapers – the Chicago Sun Times and the Chicago Tribune – have until very recently given this remarkable and explosive story serious attention.  The main thrust of their coverage has been to dismiss the charges as paranoid fantasy.  The story is credible and less than surprising to former Chicago public defenders, however.  One of those former true public servants is Andrea Lyon, currently the dean of Valparaiso University Law School.  Lyon remembers the Chicago police maintaining various “shadow sites” during the 1980s and 1990s, where prisoners were held incommunicado. And she remembers the South Side Chicago Area 2 police station where former police commander John Burge secretly tortured more than 200 suspects to force confessions between 1972 and 1991.

Courtesy of the post 9/11-era, Homan Square has something that none of the city’s old “shadow sites” and Area 2 could have dreamed of: a fleet of big military vehicles (which Church says look like “the MRAPs they use in the Middle East”) transferred to the CPD by the Pentagon over recent years. The surplus military hardware is meant no doubt to deter “terrorism” – well, protest and democracy – in “the homeland.”

If Barack Obama is seriously concerned about egregious political corruption and police state repression of protesters, he should look home — all the way to his “home town.”

http://www.telesurtv.net/english/opinion/Look-Home-Obama-20150319-0028.html

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

 

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

16/03/15 0 COMMENTS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

11/03/15 0 COMMENTS

ZNet, March 11, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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