How Poor Black Lives Matter to U.S. Capitalism Today: Reflections on “The New Jim Crow”

20/06/15 0 COMMENTS

Counterpunch, June 12-14, 2015

A nation that will keep people in slavery for 244 years will “thingify” them – make them things…

— Martin Luther King, Jr. 1967

King Cotton

Black lives have always mattered to white America primarily as a source of economic exploitation. And white American authorities have never been particularly squeamish about killing and maiming Black Americans in defense and advance of that exploitation. Untold millions of Black slaves were tortured and murdered so that Southern tobacco, rice, sugar and cotton planters could extract vast quantities of surplus value from them. As the historian Edward Baptist has recently shown, the violence that was systematically inflicted on Blacks in the forced labor camps of U.S. cotton slavery generated much of the economic surplus that drove the United States’ emergence as a modern capitalist and industrial state before the U.S. Civil War.

After reformist experiments under northern Union Army occupation during the Reconstruction era (1866-1877), Black cotton servitude was resurrected across what became known as the Jim Crow South. The last thing that Black ex-slaves wanted to do after slavery was go back to work under white rule in Southern cotton fields. But, as the historical sociologist Stephen Steinberg noted thirty-four years ago,

“Though the Civil War had ended slavery, the underlying economic functions that slavery had served were unchanged, and a surrogate system of compulsory paid labor developed in its place…ex-slaves…were forced to struggle for survival as wage laborers, sharecroppers, and tenant farmers in southern agriculture. Once again, black paid the price and carried the burden of the nation’s need for cheap and abundant cotton.”

Many thousands of Black Americans died at the hands of white terrorists and authorities, both private and public, to keep Black lives yoked to cotton toiling for a pittance or worse under white owners during the long Jim Crow era.

The Northern Black Proletariat

During and after World War One and through the 1960s, northern industrial firms’ demand for cheap labor (and often enough for strikebreakers) combined with the growing mechanization of Southern cotton farming to push and pull millions of Blacks out of the South to work in giant steel mills, packinghouses, auto-assembly plants and other mass-production facilities in northern cities like Chicago, Detroit, and Pittsburgh. By 1970, nearly half of the nation’s Black population resided north of the Mason-Dixon Line. This Great Migration was a step toward freedom for Black Americans who escaped the open racial terror and formal segregation and political disenfranchisement of the former slave states.

Still, Black lives mattered to northern white capitalists and authorities mainly as a source of cheap, super-exploited labor. Blacks were kept at the bottom of the northern industrial proletariat by their branded status as racial inferiors. Black workers were concentrated in northern industry’s dirtiest, hottest, most unpleasant, worst-paid and least secure jobs. (In Chicago’s slaughtering and meatpacking industry – a major destination for southern Black migrants from WWI through the 1940s – Black employees’ time-cards were specially marked to make sure that they were the first fired and last re-hired during and after seasonal layoffs and economic downturns.) The northern Black population was penned up in inferior and overcrowded ghetto neighborhoods. “Northern blacks,” historian Thomas Sugrue notes, “lived as second-class citizens, unencumbered by the most blatant of southern-style Jim Crow laws but still trapped in an economic, political, and legal regime that seldom recognized them as equals. In nearly every arena, blacks and whites lived separate, unequal lives.” This de facto racial separatism and disparity was sustained and enforced by violence. The agents of white northern repression included street gangs, property associations, city police, and, when deemed necessary – as during the race riots of 1919 (Chicago), 1943 (Detroit), and the 1960s (across urban America) – the National Guard and the U.S. military.

Becoming the Raw Material

Today, as across the long neoliberal era that began in the mid-1970s, millions of Black working-, and lower- class lives still matter to the U.S. power and profits system primarily as subjects for economic exploitation. The exploitation still relies heavily on violence and repression – violence that all too commonly turns lethal, as with the killings of Mike Brown, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray and the hundreds of other Black Americans (usually but not always young and male) who are killed each year by mostly white police officers in the U.S. But there’s a key difference now. Black lives have been largely torn asunder (along, of course, with many white, Latino, and other U.S. lives) from direct engagement in surplus value-generating productive labor.

Already, by the late 1950s, Black northern industrial workers experienced significant jobs losses due to automation and the flight of capital and jobs to whiter and more union-free regions of the country (the great Black-employing Chicago packinghouses Armour’s, Swift’s, and Wilson’s were all closed by the end of that decade, for example). “Deindustrialization” hit the Northern black paulstreetghettoes earlier and harder than it hit other predominantly working class neighborhoods and communities across the north and the nation.

Mass Black joblessness in what would become known as “the Rustbelt” was a major factor beneath the remarkable wave of race riots that washed across northern U.S. cities in the “long hot summers” of 1966 and 1967 and (following the murder of Martin Luther King) the spring of 1968. The eviction of Black lives from production only deepened with the finance capital-led dismantlement of American manufacturing and heavy industry that took off and flowered in the 1970s and 1980s, carried yet further through the next decade by the arch-global-corporatist North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

Concentrated in rotting, deeply immiserated ghettoes as members of a lumpen-proletarianized “underclass,” millions of Black Americans learned that they no longer mattered to white authorities and U.S. capitalism as producers working with industrial or agricultural materials. Their new leading role was now instead to functions themselves as raw material – as the critical ingredient for the nation’s giant new “criminal [in]justice” system of racially hyper-disparate mass surveillance, mass arrest, mass sentencing, mass incarceration, mass parole, mass probation, and mass felony-marking.

Between the late 1960s and 2000, the number of prisoners in the U.S. rose from roughly 300,000 to more than 2 million with non-violent drug offenders making up most of the enormous new U.S. inmate population. The nation that proclaimed itself the homeland and headquarters of global liberty contained 5 percent of the world’s population but now kept more than 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. To confine this giant new captive population generated by the so-called War on Drugs, the U.S. built more than 320 prisons at a cost of $27 billion during the 1990s alone. On top of those behind bars, by the turn of the millennium, more than four and half million Americans were on parole or probation, “doing time on the outside.”’ Twelve percent of the nation’s adult population now possessed a felony record – a major barrier to employment and to numerous other “opportunities,” including the right to vote (for what that’s really worth anymore under the nation’s unelected dictatorship of money) in many states.

Beyond sheer magnitude, the most striking thing about the new U.S. prison state was its heavily racialized nature. By 2001, Blacks comprised 12 percent of the U.S. population but nearly half of its 2 million prisoners. Between 1980 and 2002, the number of Black men in U.S. jails and prisons (mainly for nonviolent drug crimes) grew five-fold. Consider the following comparative incarceration rates at the turn of the millennium: Japan (40 per 100,000), Sweden (60 per 100,000), England (125), South Africa (400), Russia (675), U.S. (690), and Black adult U.S. men (4,848 per 100,000). More than a tenth of all prisoners on Earth is a Black U.S. “citizen” (ex-citizen). There are more black men behind bars than enrolled in colleges or universities in the U.S. By 2007 there were more Black under criminal supervision – in prison or jail, on probation or parole – than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the Civil War. A shocking 1 in every 3 Black adult males is now branded by the lifelong stigma of a felony record. That’s no small white-supremacist “law and order” payback for the great Black U.S. urban uprisings of the 190s.

It all reflects wild racial disparities in the enforcement of the nation’s drug laws – disparities that mock the notion of a “color-blind” and “post-racial America.” Whites use and sell illegal drugs – the main crimes driving U.S. mass incarceration – every bit as much as Blacks and Latinos. The vast majority of the nation’s drug users and dealers are white. Still, Blacks and Latinos together make up three-fourths of those sent to prison for drug offenses in the U.S.

Disturbing Parallels

The resulting giant army of Black prisoners and “ex-offenders” constitutes a criminalized “underclass” that cycles back and forth between the nation’s worst-off jobless and high-poverty ghetto zip-codes and a sprawling archipelago of high-tech mass confinement holding pens that are mainly located in predominantly white and rural parts of the nation. The prison construction and operation boom – fed by the rising “market” of Black drug criminals – has been a significant source of jobs, tax dollars, and associated local economic “multipliers” for mostly rural (“downstate” in Illinois, “upstate” in New York and Michigan) prison towns. As the distinguished criminologist Todd Clear noted nearly 20 years ago, “Each prisoner represents an economic asset that has been removed from that community and placed elsewhere [and]… represents as much as $25,000 in income for the community in which the prison is located, not to mention the value of constructing the prison facility in the first place. This can be a massive transfer of value: A young male worth a few thousand dollars of support to children and local purchases is transformed into a $25,000 financial asset to a rural prison community.”

A July 2001 story in the Detroit News was titled “Ionia Finds Stability in Prisons.” It reported that the “upstate” Michigan town of Ionia had become one of the state’s fastest growing and “most improved” cities thanks to its five thriving penitentiaries, whose 1600 workers collectively made $102 million. “The state’s urban centers dump their felons,” the News reported, “in prison towns and forget about them. Suburbs balks at housing felons…But Ionia sees things from the other end of the spectrum. The prisons bring, of all things, security.”

Not surprisingly, prison-hosting communities, themselves often gravely challenged by the deindustrializing and (family-) farm-destroying gales of neoliberal capitalism, became part of a prison-industrial lobby that pushed for tougher drug and other laws and sentences to bring them more and more captive Black people from distant urban ghettoes. The communities commonly show up in the U.S. Census as half or more Black but when you visit their downtown business districts and adjacent neighborhoods they look lily-white. The explanation, of course, is that their Black populations are almost entirely incarcerated.

Consider the different racial meanings attached to the phrase “going downstate” by young white and Black high school students in the Chicago area. Beyond the shared favorable suggestion of a trip to the state’s high school basketball tournament, the connotations are sharply skin-colorized. For many white youths, the phrase evokes the image of a trip with Mom and Dad to begin academic careers at the University of Illinois or one of the state’s other public universities. But for Chicago area teens and young adults, “going downstate” typically means a trip under armed guard to take up residence at one of the state’s more than thirty prisons.

It’s a disturbing picture with unsettling parallels to chattel slavery: young Black men involuntarily removed as economic assets from Black communities to distant rural destinations where they are kept under lock and key by predominantly white overseers. Considering also the enhanced voting clout that disenfranchised prisoners bring rural communities (along with tax dollars and census count), another unpleasant historical parallel is with the U.S. Constitution’s notorious Three-Fifths Clause (whereby three-fifths of the South’s slaves population counted towards the congressional representation of the Slave states).

A Public-Private System That Kills

The economic scale of the nation’s system of racially disparate mass arrest, prosecution, sentencing, incarceration, and felony-marking is considerable. A 2007 report by the National Criminal Justice Reference Service found that criminal justice expenditures on “police, corrections, judicial, and legal services” had reached $228 billion per year, up by 171% since 1982. The number of Americans employed in these activities rose by 92%, from 1.3 million to 2.5 million (the nation’s largest corporate employer, Wal-Mart, has 1.3 million American workers today) over the same years.

It’s not just cops and prison guards who find reasonably remunerative employment in neoliberal America’s new “correctional” Leviathan. The nation’s 2.5 million criminal justice employees include prosecutors, court clerks, public defenders, parole officers, probation officers, prison medical staff, prison administrators, criminal justice instructors, correctional facilities managers, police identification and records officers, juvenile court counselors, medical examiners, court reporters, judges and magistrates, bailiffs, forensic science technicians, correctional treatment specialists, wardens, law librarians, law enforcement instructors, and…the list goes on.

The “correctional Keynesian” job programs is not limited to the public sector. On top of the millions employed directly in governmental criminal justice occupations, untold millions work in a vast network of private sector firms contracting with the mass arrest and incarceration system. From the building equipping, and maintenance of police stations, jails, prisons, and courts to running programs for “offender” counseling and rehabilitation to evaluating parolees drug tests countless other collateral tasks and services that are subcontracted out to private firms (including the big telecommunications firms that charge inmates and their families absurdly inflated rates for phone calls into and out of prison) by criminal justice offices, the prison-industrial complex built upon the nation’s giant army of disproportionately Black drug inmates and felons generates considerable employment and revenue beyond the public sector.

The disproportionately nonwhite criminal class generates proceeds in other ways. It is charged, often at exorbitant rates, for various criminal justice processes and services, including court-ordered treatment programs. Local law enforcement agencies have taken billions of dollars in wealth through “asset forfeiture” laws that permit police to seize the property of accused drug offenders – curious form of primitive accumulation for correctional state capitalism in the neoliberal era.

The endemic police killings of mostly young Black men that sparked the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement are one terrible reflections of this vicious and parasitic system. Hundreds of Black Americans die each year as heavily armed police try to round them up to serve as the critical human component for the mass incarceration, criminal supervision. and felony-marking regime – a system that keeps its victims either in prison or jail or stuck without remotely decent employment, housing, educational, financial, and political opportunities while “on the outside.”’ Like slavery and its Jim Crow successor regime in the U.S. South, it’s a system that does not shirk from killing its Black human profit sources when “necessary.”

It’s telling that one of the frequent causes of fatal police shootings is flight. Few things do more to provoke a U.S. police officer into using lethal force than a potential prisoner trying to run away. (Never mind that, legally speaking, police are permitted to use such force only in cases where they reasonably sense that their own lives or the lives of others are in imminent danger.) Running from a contemporary mass-incarcerationist prisoner-catcher – a badge-brandishing “peace officer” trained to “shoot to kill”– gets young poor Black (and poor white and Latino) men killed with chilling regularity in the U.S. today.

“Jim Crow” New and Old

In her justly heralded book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (2010), Ohio State law professor Michelle Alexander made a compelling case for seeing the nation’s multitude of criminally marked Black prisoners and felons as victims of a new system of racial caste suited to the ostensibly color-blind post-Civil Rights era. Provocatively timed with the recent ascendancy of a first technically Black U.S. President, her book noted a curious irony:

“As the United States celebrates the nation’s ‘triumph over race’ with the election of Barack Obama, the majority of young black men in major American cities are locked behind bars or labeled felons for life. Jim Crow laws were wiped off the books decades ago, but today an astounding percentage of the African American community is warehoused in prisons or trapped in permanent, second-class status, much like their grandparents before them, who lived under and explicit system of control….We have not ended racial caste in America: we have simply redesigned it… In the current era, it is no longer permissible to use race, explicitly, as a justification for discrimination, exclusion, and social contempt. Yet it is perfectly legal to discriminate against criminals in all the ways that it was once legal to discriminate against African Americans. The old forms of discrimination – discrimination in employment, housing, education, and public benefits; denial of the right to vote; and exclusion from jury duty – are suddenly legal once you’ve been labeled as felon.”

Alexander provided abundant evidence for her argument that the new Black criminal underclass is subjected to a type of de facto caste-like status in the U.S. today – a status that is commonly enforced through savage and ever-more militarized police-state violence.

Still, there are significant difficulties, historically speaking, with description of the neoliberal era’s racist mass imprisonment and criminal-marking order as a “Jim Crow” system new or old. The original Jim Crow regime was imposed on all Black people, regardless of wealth and status, and specifically in the former slave and Confederacy states of the U.S. South. It was dedicated to keeping Southern Blacks working under whites, sunup to sundown, primarily in cotton fields –as sharecroppers, tenant farmers, debt peons, wage-earners, prisoners, and even as flat-out slaves. The real Jim Crow sat atop a cotton production-ist regime in a time when Southern white authorities and owners were (after the collapse of Reconstruction) given the right to reconstitute Black cotton servitude” and national authorities agreed that Black lives were for the most to be restricted to the South in the interest of cheap cotton.

The mass incarceration “new Jim Crow” regime is a nationwide phenomenon with primarily Northern origins in the “law and order” campaign and related Drug War that emerged after Jim Crow’s final abolition and in response to the related Black urban uprisings and youth counter-culture that arose in the 1960s. While many members of the Black professional and upper classes (which have expanded significantly since and thanks to the Civil Rights era) can tell disturbing personal stories about white bias and harassment within and beyond the criminal justice system, the “new Jim Crow” and the terrible violence associated with it (including the police killings that have received so much media attention in the last year) are directed mainly at working and lower-class Blacks. Much of the new Black elite is less likely to be arrested, incarcerated, and shot by U.S. criminal justice authorities than the worst-off sections of the white working and lower classes.

The “new Jim Crow” emerged in a time when swaths of the U.S. Black population had long been removed not just from the agricultural toil of old but also from the industrial work that all-too transiently provided employment for millions of Black Americans in the North. While southern Black chain-gang Black prisoners (slaves for all intents and purposes) under the real Jim Crow regime commonly labored under the whip in cotton fields or other miserable production realms in the South, today’s nationwide Black (and white and Latino) U.S. prisoners are being warehoused, not worked, to death. Their Black lower- and working class lives matter to the U.S. state capitalist system not because of their capacity to labor in the handling of agricultural or industrial materials – cotton, sugar, tobacco, rice, animals and carcasses (on plantations or up on industrial killing floors), coal, steel, automobile frames, electrical wire, etc. – but rather as the critical raw material for the vast new social and spiritual Death Row that is the modern U.S. prison-industrial complex.

The original Jim Crow was about reconstituting and controlling a mostly unfree black cotton proletariat in the South and yoking it back to the hated crop. The “new Jim Crow” is about disciplining a deindustrialized Black lumpen proletariat and turning it into a largely inert, deindustrialized profit-source whose “value added” comes mainly from the mere fact of its captive existence. It is a curious kind of neo-slavery or “new Jim Crow”: a system without any cotton or any other raw material to be worked upon by a slave or a sharecropper or a convict lease prisoner or a debt peon or a wage-earner in a field or a mine or a slaughterhouse or a mill or a factory. Reflecting the reconstitution of racial caste in an age when finance capital has overseen the dismantlement of the nation’s manufacturing base, it’s a system in which poor Black Americans themselves are the key raw material. This is how their Black lives matter to authorities atop an ostensibly color-blind but still richly white-supremacist state-capitalist power structure whose mostly white gendarmes all too commonly end Black lives as punishment for an understandable “crime”: running away.

A Nation That Will “Thingify” Poor Blacks

It probably makes more sense call this “the new slavery” than it does to call it “the new Jim Crow,” though neither phrase quite captures the current neoliberal reality. The question of historical or sociological nomenclature is perhaps mainly academic. Whatever we want to call it, it seems clear that this at once new and old system of race and class oppression – traceable on numerous levels to the still relevant and savagely uncompensated crime of Black chattel slavery – is not about to about to go away because some cops and prison guards are equipped with body cameras and sent to “diversity training” workshops any more than slavery would have disappeared if some plantation overseers had been sent to Quaker Sunday schools. In this as in other areas (e.g., the crisis of livable ecology), a whole new and different and democratic political economy is required, one that takes us beyond the amoral socio-pathology of the profits system.

“A nation that will keep people in slavery for 244 years,” the great democratic socialist Martin Luther King, Jr. noted in 1967 (as violence erupted across the nation’s largely jobless northern ghettoes) “will ‘thingify’ them – make them things. Therefore they will exploit them, and poor people generally, economically. And a nation that will exploit economically will have to have foreign investments and everything else, and will have to use its military might to protect them. All of these problems are tied together.”

Had he lived into the neoliberal era of “racially disparate [racist] mass incarceration” – an era that arose on the ashes of his efforts to build a great poor people’s movement to end poverty in America – King would certainly have updated this passage to make room for “the new Jim Crow.” He would put the mass imprisonment regime  that arose in the wake of his assassination (or execution) and the brave new militarized police state that feeds that regime (often with weapons and methods applied from the American Empire abroad) at the heart of his understanding of how America has “thingified “poor Black lives and how American has betrayed ts grand promises of freedom and liberty.

Paul Street is interviewed by Eric Draitser in Episode 5 of the CounterPunch Radio podcast, which can be streamed or downloaded for free from CounterPunch or iTunes. 

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


The Silly Season: Reflections From Iowa

20/06/15 0 COMMENTS

teleSur English, June 12, 2015

The presidential election season is already upon the United States, fifteen months before the presidential contest in November 2016.  I have a front-row seat for the candidate-centered spectacle in Iowa, home to the “first-in-the-nation” major party presidential Caucus, to be held in early January of next year.

The “election madness,” as Howard Zinn once called the American obsession with voting, begins early and takes on special vexing force in Iowa.  The only other state that comes close is New Hampshire, home to the nation’s first-in-the-nation presidential primary.

The leading hog and corn producer in the nation (Iowa) is already crawling with wannabe presidents, many of whom will try to talk to voters – well, to Caucusers (not the same thing) – in all 99 of the state’s counties between now and the Caucus. Along with the candidates come their armies of advance agents, marketers, canvassers, and other staff – and a rising tide of journalists and reporters who feed the national media’s obsession with presidential politics and candidates.  They fill a lot of hotel rooms, restaurants, and bars in Des Moines. Local hospitality business-owners appreciate the business.  So do the owners of the local corporate television stations, who make out like bandits from political advertising. I’ve already seen my first Rick Perry commercial.

Someone should calculate the carbon footprint of all these candidates and their political and media posses flying back and forth between Iowa and New Hampshire and to other locations around the nation for six months each four years. The absurd length and geographic spread of this quadrennial ritual is part of why U.S. presidential elections are so absurdly expensive (the current presidential contest will cost at least $5 billion) that no candidate can hope to be “viable” without the backing of millionaires and billionaires.

What’s a leftist supposed to make of it all? Ecological and campaign finance atrocities aside, let me start with some sage words of wisdom from the nation and world’s leading Left intellectual, Noam Chomsky. Here’s a useful formulation from an editorial Chomsky published in the international edition of the New York Times on the eve of the 2004 elections:

“The U.S. presidential race, impassioned almost to the point of hysteria, hardly represents healthy democratic impulses….Americans are encouraged to vote, but not to participate more meaningfully in the political arena. Essentially the election is yet another method of marginalizing the population. A huge propaganda campaign is mounted to get people to focus on these personalized quadrennial extravaganzas and to think, ‘That’s politics.’ But it isn’t. It’s only a small part of politics. ..”

“The urgent task for those who want to shift policy in progressive direction – often in close conformity to majority opinion – is to grow and become strong enough so that that they can’t be ignored by centers of power. Forces for change that have come up from the grass roots and shaken the society to its foundations include the labor movement, the civil rights movement, the peace movement, the women’s movement and others, cultivated by steady, dedicated work at all levels, every day, not just once every four years…..[elections] are secondary to serious political action. The main task is to create a genuinely responsive democratic culture, and that effort goes on before and after electoral extravaganzas, whatever their outcome.”

And here’s Chomsky talking to Occupy Boston seven years later:

“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.”

Translation: don’t get hung up on the major party-big money-big media once-every four years presidential candidates, their marketing imagery, fake promises, and narcissistic display.  The election spectacle is a racket.  It’s a way a way of deterring and taking the risk out of democracy and bamboozling the populace. Focus on developing real and powerful grassroots social movements beneath and beyond the “quadrennial extravaganzas.” That’s the real and significant politics that matters most. If you want to have caucuses or primaries or whatever, make them about policy and issues that matter and put them under popular control.  Don’t go running at the beck and call of the candidates and their advertisers. If you must engage with candidates, make them come and listen to you, to “we the people,” not the other way around, on the major issues.  Stay focused on policy and popular movement-building, not the politicians who are sold like so many brands of toothpaste.

There’s more to say than Chomsky expressed in the two above quotations about the candidates and what they are about.  The only contenders with a serious chance of prevailing in the presidential nomination and election contests are backed with hundreds of millions and even now billions of dollars of campaign funding provided mainly by rich people.   On the Democratic Party side of the circuit – the only side with which I have any experience – the candidates don’t simply say “look how great I am” and “this is what I’m going to do for you.”  They engage fiercely in what the formerly Left Christopher Hitchens once described as “the essence of American politics”: “the manipulation of populism by elitism.”  They claim to embrace the progressive and populist sentiments of the nation’s working-class majority (typically described as “the middle class” in US media-politics culture) – sentiments they have no intention of honoring given their grave financial and ideological captivity to the moneyed elite. Thus it was in February of 2008 that the deeply conservative presidential candidate Barack Obama’s top economic advisor, the neoliberal University of Chicago economist Austan Goolsbee, told Canada’s ambassador to the US to disregard Obama’s populace-pleasing campaign criticisms of the corporatist North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).  The electoral rhetoric was geared toward winning working class votes in Ohio, Goolsbee explained, and was not to be taken seriously as a threat to the corporate globalization agenda that U.S. and Canadian elites shared.

The game is understood by Democratic Party presidential frontrunner Hillary Clinton’s elite financial supporters. A recent report in the Washington political journal Politicobears a perfectly Hitchensian title and theme: “Hillary’s Wall Street Backers: ‘We Get It.’” As Politico explains, “Populist rhetoric, many say, is good politics – but doesn’t portend an assault on the rich…It’s ‘just politics,’ said one major Democratic donor on Wall Street…Indeed many of the financial-sector donors supporting her just-declared presidential campaign say they’ve been expecting all along the moment when Clinton would start calling out hedge fund managers and decrying executive pay.” One Democrat at a top Wall Street firm told Politico that Hillary’s populist rhetoric “is a Rorschach test for how politically sophisticated [rich] people are…If someone is upset by this it’s because they have no idea how populist the mood of the country still is. The fact is, if she didn’t say this stuff now she would be open to massive attacks from the left, and would have to say even more dramatic stuff later” (Politico, 4/15/2015).

In a recent silly season essay in the liberal zine AlterNet, Evan McMurry praises the Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders for “keeping Hillary honest on trade” – that is, for making her stay neutral on the campaign trail about the arch-corporatist authoritarian, and eco-cidal Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP – a “NAFTA on steroids” that would impact 40 percent of the world’s economy) that Obama is trying to push through the U.S. Congress. McMurry has it wrong on two counts.  First, it isn’t so much Bernie Sanders as U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren and majority public opinion (which is deeply skeptical about so-called free trade) that prevents Hillary from openly embracing TPP (which she championed as U.S. Secretary of State in 2012).  Second, Sanders, Warren, and public opinion are doing precisely the opposite of “keeping Hillary honest on trade.” They are compelling the neoliberal Wall Street-funded Mrs. Clinton to pretend on the campaign trail to be skeptical about the TPP, a measure she would be certain to push for as U.S. President.

Nobody, it seems to me, has more responsibility to take Chomsky’s advice to heart and to reject this populism-manipulating game than progressives in Iowa, the top initial staging ground (with a secondary nod to New Hampshire) for the “quadrennial extravaganzas.” From their pivotal role in the nominations of the transitional neoliberal Democrat Jimmy Carter in 1975-76 and the classic arch-neoliberal Bill Clinton in 1991-92 through their critical role in the ascendancy of the monumentally deceptive fake-progressive militant neoliberal Wall Street bailout and TPP champion Obama in 2007-08, the liberal Iowa Democratic Party Caucus cadre has long played a special enabling role in selling the Hitchensian-Chomskyan elections swindle.

What if Iowa “progressives” decided to skip the Iowa Caucus in protest of what John Nichols and Robert W. McChesney have rightly called “the money and media and elections complex [that] is destroying America”? Perhaps they could hold the alternative people’s primary that Chomsky suggested in Boston four and half years ago.  Such a gathering wouldn’t just have to focus on national issues.  God knows there’s more than enough for concerned and progressive  Iowans to focus on just in their own state: the sorry pollution of Iowa’s many hundreds of rivers and dreams by unregulated corporate farming fertilizer run-off; the incredibly high racial disparities for arrest and incarceration that make Iowa’s criminal justice system one of the most discriminatory in the nation; Iowa’s status as one of just four U.S. states to bar people with felony records from voting for life; the setting up of a U.S. drone warfare base in Des Moines; the proposed building of a vast pipeline to carry fracked oil and gas through 17 Iowa counties from North Dakota to Illinois.

“But,” I can already hear a “progressive Democrat” saying, “you are too cynical.  Haven’t you seen that the great democratic socialist Bernie Sanders is already making headway as a presidential candidate right there in your state of Iowa?” I do not have time and space in this essay to explain precisely how and why the Sanders phenomenon complements rather than complicates the Clintonian “manipulation of populism by elitism” and the “marginalizing of the population” by “the quadrennial extravaganza.”  I have already written about this topic at length hereherehere, and here. Please read each essay carefully.

In the meantime, Iowa progressives caught up in the candidate-centered major party electoral obsession might look at some recent history one state to their Northeast. Let us never forget the shut-down of the great early 2011 Wisconsin Rebellion when union and political leaders moved to channel the remarkable populist social movement energies that had emerged in response to right-wing Republican Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s assault on public sector workers’ collective bargaining rights into a doomed and ridiculous campaign to electorally recall Walker and replace him with a hapless and dismal Democrat (Tommy Barrett) who Walker had already trounced. It is one of recent history’s classic textbook studies in the Democratic Party’s ability to move workers and citizens off the “urgent task” by shutting down social movements with candidate-centered major party politics and electoral spectacles.  It is a monument – one among many – to Zinn’s “election madness.”

Walker, by the way, is now a top dark-horse candidate to seriously challenge Jeb Bush as the Republican presidential nominee for 2016. Iowans can now behold in their own state the presidential preening of Scott Walker, a national monster that silly liberal-Democratic electoralists helped create in Wisconsin.

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

Feeding the Frenzy: The Sanders Syndrome Hits Home Court

09/06/15 0 COMMENTS


Weekend Edition June 5-7, 2015


The election frenzy…seizes the country every four years because we have all been brought up to believe that voting is crucial in determining our destiny, that the most important act a citizen can engage in is to go to the polls.

— Howard Zinn, April 2008

The Bernie phenomenon has landed in my neighborhood. I am referring to “democratic socialist” Bernie Sanders’ candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination, heavily focused on Iowa, home to the nation’s earliest presidential Caucus. Last Saturday, downtown Iowa City’s usually quiet Robert A. Lee Recreation Center, six blocks from my house, was packed with 1100 liberals to hear Sanders talk. I looked down into the center’s gym, where I occasionally shoot baskets alongside no more than 5 or 6 young and poor Black men. It was wall-to-wall with middle class white folks, many white-haired.

“Enough is Enough”

I was simultaneously stirred, irritated, and saddened by the event. Sanders is good at this sort of thing. He’s a practiced and clever stump speaker. He sounds like a smart, pissed-off, and Leftist truck-driver from Brooklyn as he bemoans the takeover of the nation’s politics and policy by “the billionaire class.” He’s skilled in the use of statistics. He peppers his deep-throated orations with terrible numbers on the percentage of the nation’s wealth (more than 90%, he says) owned by “the top tenth of the top 1 percent;” the real U.S. unemployment rate (11% he says); Black youth unemployment (50%); the number of decent-paying jobs (13 million) that would be created by a $3 trillion investment in U.S. civil infrastructure (according to the American Society of Civil Engineers); the number of U.S, factories closed due to the North American Free Trade Agreement (he says 60,000); the number of Americans without health insurance (35 million); the co-pays and deductibles that average Americans pay for health care; the small number of giant firms that run our “corporately owned media;” the escalating costs of college tuition; college student debt loads; student loan interest rates; the percentage of Black men in the U.S. criminal justice system (33%); the tax rates paid by hedge fund managers; the skyrocketing costs of elections; and the political expenditures of his arch enemies, the right-wing Republican brothers Charles and David Koch.

Like any effective political speechmaker, Sanders knows that facts have to be situated within a simple moral storyline. He frames his horrifying statistics in a moral narrative of opposition to the greed of the wealthy few. Sanders has a basic populist message: “Enough is enough: billionaires cannot run everything! Billionaires: you can’t have it all!”

It’s a “disgrace,” Sanders says, that “the wealthiest nation in the history of the world” doesn’t fund free college tuition (“even Chile does that”), single-payer universal health care (“Medicare for All”), adequate national infrastructure, and publicly financed elections. It’s “grotesque,” Sanders intones, that right-wing Washington politicians “reject science” on climate change, under the influence of the nefarious Kochs. The U.S., Sanders says, can “learn from other countries,” like Canada and most European states on health care and more.

Democrats, Hillary, and Capitalism Unnamed and Un-blamed

It’s hard not to be encouraged by the sight of more than a thousand people cheering as a barrel- chested “democratic socialist” rails against savage inequality and plutocracy. So why my irritation? One of the irksome things about the two Sanders talks I’ve heard in Iowa City this year – a previous one a local bookstore last February – is how reluctant he seems to mention the thoroughly corporatized Democratic Party as part of the problem. Crazy John Edwards railed consistently against “corporate Democrats as well as corporate Republicans” when he ran in the Iowa Caucus eight years ago.

During the first Sanders talk I heard in this university-company-town, it was left to a smirking graduate student to remind Sanders and his liberal audience that the dismal dollar Democrats and their power-serving president are as much a part of the ruling class assault on equality, democracy, and livable ecology as the Republicans. Last Saturday, Sanders didn’t mention the Democratic Party (which he has now technically joined) until late in his talk. He did so only indirectly, when he
paulstreetnoted that regressive and authoritarian “free trade” agreements like NAFTA, CAFTA, and the Trans Pacific Partnership have been supported by both “Republicans and Democratic presidents” – presidents he did not name. Also left unnamed was the abjectly corporatist Democrat Hillary Clinton, who Bernie described as “a good friend of mine” in his earlier Iowa City talk – and who is currently masquerading as a populist in accord with standard campaign-season practice. That’s another contrast with Edwards, who did not shrink from calling out right-wing business Democrats Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton by name.

Curiously enough for a politician who has identified himself as a “democratic socialist” and keeps a poster of the great U.S. Socialist Party leader Eugene Debs in his U.S. Senate office, Sanders does not use the term “capitalism” when he discusses the nation’s sharp economic disparities and the problem of climate change. As far as I can tell from his campaign pitch, Bernie thinks that America’s stark class disparities and plutocracy and climate change are just the product of the Republican Party, FOX News, the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision, and the greed of “the billionaire class.” The deeper truth (something you can learn not just from radical anti-capitalist thinkers but also from the liberal and distinctly un-Marxist French economist Thomas Piketty) is that our planet-warming New Gilded Age is the consequence of decades of eco-cidal and sociopathic capitalism returning to its deeply inequitable and undemocratic historical norm. At the same time, the nation’s political system and its two major “parties” (if that’s what we really want to call them anymore) moved well to the right of the populace under the influence of the nation’s “unelected dictatorship of money” (Edward Herman and David Peterson’s excellent phrase) well before Citizens United knocked the lid off corporations’ “independent campaign expenditures.”

Free Pass for the Pentagon, or Where’s the Pie Chart?

Let’s grant for argument’s sake that it’s too much to ask a major party presidential candidate with serious designs (Bernie claims) on the White House to criticize the profits system – capitalism – as such. And let’s forget for a moment that if that’s true it raises the question of why run for president with either of the two major U.S, political organizations when the capitalist system is not just actively ruining democracy and social justice (as usual) but poses an ever more clear and present danger to life on Earth. All that aside, is it really too much to expect Sanders to follow in the footsteps of “Progressive Democrat” presidential candidates – here I think of Dennis “Department of Peace” Kucinich – by taking aim at the nation’s gargantuan “defense” (Empire) budget, which accounts for 54 percent of U.S. federal discretionary spending and nearly half the world’s military spending?

Nowhere in the two Bernie talks I have attended this year has Sanders voiced a single word against the nation’s massive Pentagon system of permanent war and empire. Nowhere does he explain how Washington would pay for the large-scale progressive social, environmental, infrastructural, educational, and health care programs he advocates without taking a giant slice out of the nation’s soulless military outlay. The “military industrial complex” that Sanders sometimes likes to (very quickly) denounce (sort of, and oddly enough for a politician who embraced the building of a wasteful F-35 fighter jet base in his home state) arose not only to sustain a global state-capitalist empire and provide corporate welfare for high-tech military corporations. It was also intended to provide a regressive form of publicly financed domestic economic stimulus (“military Keynesianism”) that would pre-empt a more egalitarian, social-democratic welfare state and a vibrant popular public sector (social Keynesianism) in the U.S. It has worked very well in that regard for more than seven decades.

With his failure to forthrightly oppose the Pentagon System, Sanders is repeating one of the most glaring and basic mistakes of 1960s U.S. social democrats like Bayard Rustin and Michael Harrington. They stood all too pathetically mute as the Vietnam- swelled costs of the giant U.S. war machine helped strangle the “War on Poverty” in its cradle and deep-sixed their forgotten “Freedom Budget for All Americans” (an ambitious plan to end U.S. poverty within a decade).

As I said to a friend I ran into after Sanders’ talk last Saturday, “how is Bernie gonna sheep-dog me back into the Democratic Party when he can’t even bring out the Dennis Kucinich pie chart” (the diagrammatic presentation of the U.S. federal budget showing the disproportionate share of taxpayer spending that goes to the military)? “I’ve got to have my pie.”

Sanders’ silence on “defense” spending undermines his claim to embrace the “Scandinavian model” of social democracy. As Sanders never notes, Sweden, Norway, and Denmark have tiny military budgets. They would never be able to fund the health care and safety-net programs that Sanders says he admires (without noting that the “Nordic Model” countries have been moving in a neoliberal direction for years) if they were saddled with military expenditures on the proportionate scale of the U.S.

“Election Madness”: Some Sage Reflections

The sadness I felt over Sanders’ speech last Saturday is about the big turnout he got, strange as that might sound. Okay, yes…it’s nice to see more than a thousand Middle Americans crammed into relatively small public space – a poorly funded community center – to applaud an old New York City populist’s rant against the wealthy few. It’s depressing, however, to see that happening in connection with an electoral campaign for a major capitalist party presidential candidate – a candidate who has already declared that (since he’s “not going to be a spoiler who helps the Republicans take back the White House”) he will give his support to Hillary Clinton against the Republicans after she defeats him with her massively superior financial resources and corporate media approval. He’s a candidate who will help the corporate appointee (Mrs. Clinton) appear to have emerged victorious from “a real and open debate over the issues,” not because she’s spending $2.5 of mostly rich folks’ money. Along the way, he will help her and the hopelessly plutocratic US “two party system” – in which the Republicans and Democrats function as “two wings of the same bird of prey” (as Upton Sinclair put it in 1904) – seem far more progressive and populist than they really are.

More than eleven years ago, on the eve of the 2004 presidential election, the leading U.S. Left intellectual Noam Chomsky offered some useful reflections on the nature of American presidential elections and the difference between (a) the narrow candidate-centered politics promoted from the top down by big money, the major parties, and corporate media and (b) the rank-and-file social movement politics that forced progressive victories from the bottom up throughout U.S. history:

“The U.S. presidential race, impassioned almost to the point of hysteria, hardly represents healthy democratic impulses….Americans are encouraged to vote, but not to participate more meaningfully in the political arena. Essentially the election is yet another method of marginalizing the population. A huge propaganda campaign is mounted to get people to focus on these personalized quadrennial extravaganzas and to think, ‘That’s politics.” But it isn’t. It’s only a small part of politics. ..”

“The urgent task for those who want to shift policy in progressive direction – often in close conformity to majority opinion – is to grow and become strong enough so that that they can’t be ignored by centers of power. Forces for change that have come up from the grass roots and shaken the society to its foundations include the labor movement, the civil rights movement, the peace movement, the women’s movement and others, cultivated by steady, dedicated work at all levels, every day, not just once every four years…election …choices…are secondary to serious political action. The main task is to create a genuinely responsive democratic culture, and that effort goes on before and after electoral extravaganzas, whatever their outcome.”

As Chomsky’s good friend the late radical historian Howard Zinn said in an interview with the Socialist Worker after George W. Bush was first “elected” to the US presidency, “the really critical thing isn’t who is sitting in the White House, but who is sitting in-in the streets, in the cafeterias, in the halls of government, in the factories. Who is protesting, who is occupying offices and demonstrating – those are the things that determine what happens.” Just more than seven years later, as the electoral Obama phenomenon peaked, Zinn reflected on the “the election madness” he saw “engulfing the entire society including the left.” It was nothing new, he observed:

“the election frenzy…seizes the country every four years because we have all been brought up to believe that voting is crucial in determining our destiny, that the most important act a citizen can engage in is to go to the polls and choose one of the two mediocrities who have already been chosen for us. It is a multiple choice test so narrow, so specious, that no self-respecting teacher would give it to students. And sad to say, the Presidential contest has mesmerized liberals and radicals alike. … But before and after those two minutes [in a voting booth], our time, our energy, should be spent in educating, agitating, organizing our fellow citizens in the workplace, in the neighborhood, in the schools. Our objective should be to build, painstakingly, patiently but energetically, a movement that, when it reaches a certain critical mass, would shake whoever is in the White House, in Congress, into changing national policy on matters of war and social justice…Historically, government, whether in the hands of Republicans or Democrats, conservatives or liberals, has failed its responsibilities, until forced to by direct action: sit-ins and Freedom Rides for the rights of black people, strikes and boycotts for the rights of workers, mutinies and desertions of soldiers in order to stop a war.” (H. Zinn, “Election Madness,” The Progressive, April 8, 2008)

Unimpressed by the Urgent Task

As I walked down to the Robert A. Lee Recreation Center to hear Sanders speak last Saturday, I passed through Iowa City’s College Green Park, whose southeast corner was home to an inspiring little outpost of the Occupy Movement in the fall and winter of 2011. For all its flaws, it was an attempt to spark the people’s social movement and direct action politics that Zinn talked and wrote about (and participated in). And it met no small amount of scorn and indifference from the middle class folks I saw assembled last Saturday to cheer a presidential candidate who has now fully enlisted in the capitalist-imperial party that campus-town liberals like.

I didn’t see many of the 2015 Bernie throng even so much as visit the town’s embattled Occupy camp four plus years ago. During the Obama re-nominating Iowa presidential Caucus in January of 2012, however, local liberal Democratic Party activists did make sure to sell their Wall Street-protecting president as “the candidate for the 99 percent” – this despite the fact that Obama’s Department of Homeland Security helped supervise the federally coordinated repression of the Occupy Movement (inventor of the “99 percent” slogan) in mainly Democratic-run cities across the nation.

(My sense is that in late 2011 most of the local campus-town liberals currently hoping for change through Bernie were too caught up in silly hopes for Obama and Democratic politicians to recognize or care about a real-life bottom-up populist movement in their midst. I witnessed a meeting of Iowa City progressives hoping to enlist Sanders in the Democratic presidential primary last fall. When the thirty attendees went around the table introducing themselves, all but three stated their “disappointed” dreams for progressive and left-leaning policies from Barack Obama – a man who had made it abundantly clear from the beginning of his national celebrity that he would govern in accord with the narrow parameters set by the nation’s unelected and interrelated dictatorships of money and empire.

I didn’t see any of the Sanders fan-base in the streets of Iowa City last fall when local Black Lives Matter protests emerged in connection with the police killings of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and hundreds of other Black Americans (a topic Sanders failed to address in both of his Iowa City talks). Or at the small gatherings in support of the Fight for Fifteen at the local Wal-Mart and McDonalds.

The “urgent task” (Chomsky) garners tiny engagement from liberals and “progressives.” The “personalized quadrennial extravaganzas” around the question of “who’s sitting in the White House” garners large-scale interest and turn out. That’s sad.

Potential Harm

Sanders said one thing that surprised me a bit last Saturday. “The best and most honest president,” he acknowledged, “could not fix” America’s broken pseudo-democracy, because of “the power of the billionaire class, including corporately owned media.” But “there’s good news,” Bernie added: “history shows that the people can join together to say ‘Enough is enough. Billionaires cannot run everything.’” Both statements are true. But, then, why run for president? Why enlist in the “quadrennial extravaganza”? Why not opt instead for the more important politics of grassroots social-movement building?

Could a Sanders presidential run help us build the popular movements and weight that mater count most for those who wish to bring about substantive progressive change? I very much doubt it, for two reasons. First, candidate-centered campaigns tend to pretty much soak up all or at least most of the political energies of their participants. There’s not much left for efforts to build and expand movements for deeper systemic changes beneath and beyond biennial and quadrennial elections. (This is especially true for the absurdly lengthy presidential race, which begins in Iowa and New Hampshire at least 18 months prior to the actual election date.) As Andrew Levine observed on Counterpunch last fall, “mid-term elections are upon us, and the contest for the presidency in 2016 is about to heat up. These elections, like others before them, will suck up political energy that would be better expended elsewhere; and, as usual, little, if any, good will come from them.”

Let us never forget the shut-down of the great early 2011 Wisconsin Rebellion as union and political leaders moved to channel the remarkable populist social movement energies that had emerged in response to the right wing Teapublican Governor Scott Walker’s assault on public sector workers’ collective bargaining rights into a doomed and ridiculous campaign to recall Walker and replace him with a hapless and dismal Democrat (Tommy Barrett) who Walker had already trounced. It is one of recent history’s classic textbook studies in the Democratic Party’s ability to move workers and citizens off the “urgent task” by shutting down social movements with candidate-centered major party politics. It is a monument – one among many, to be sure – to Zinn’s “election madness.” Walker, by the way, is now a top dark-horse candidate to seriously challenge Jeb Bush as the Republican presidential nominee for 2016.

Second, there’s the deepened sense of popular powerlessness that will be engendered when Sanders is defeated, as he almost certainly will be given the giant financial expense of presidential politics and the inevitable and powerful bias of elite campaign donors and “mainstream” (corporate) media against any candidate who calls himself a socialist (however vague and mild that candidate’s usage of that term may be) and runs against the over-concentration of wealth. The fact that Sanders will campaign on behalf of policies that most US citizens actually support but will lose will fuel the deadly illusion that progressive, social-democratic policies lack majority support and further a sense of futility and isolation among progressive activists. And that is not positively correlated with meaningful popular action of any kind, outside or inside the reigning US elections racket. Quite the opposite. That’s worse than “little, if any good.” It’s harmful for progressive causes and people.

Paul Street is interviewed by Eric Draitser in Episode 5 of the CounterPunch Radio podcast, which can be streamed or downloaded for free from CounterPunch or iTunes. 

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

Privilege-Serving Story Placement at the New York Times

07/06/15 0 COMMENTS

ZNet, June 7, 2015

One of the many ways in which the capitalist press serves the owning class has to do with story placement – where it places a report.  Considers the recent story titled “Inequality Troubles Americans Across Party Lines” in the New York Times last Thursday.

It’s a remarkable news item for anyone who cares about democracy and social justice in the U.S.  In a recent telephone survey of more than 1100 randomly selected U.S. adults, the Times reported, the paper and CBS found that the U.S. citizenry stands to the progressive and populist left on numerous key political-economic issues. Pollsters working for the two corporate media giants learned that:

  • Two-thirds (66%) of Americans think that the distribution of money and wealth should be more evenly distributed among more people in the U.S.
  • 61% of Americans believe that in today’s economy it’s mainly just a few people at the top who have a chance to get ahead.
  • 83% of Americans think the gap between the rich and the poor is a problem.
  • 67% of Americans think the gap between the rich and the poor needs to be addressed immediately, not as some point in the future.
  • 57% of Americans think the U.S. government should do more to reduce the gap between the rich and the poor in the U.S.
  • “Almost three-quarters [74%] of respondents say that large corporations have too much influence in the county, about the double the amount that said the same of unions.”
  • 68% of Americans favor raising taxes on people “earning” – the pollsters’ term (a better one would be “taking”) – more than $1 million per year.
  • 85% of Americans favor requiring employers to offer paid sick leave to workers who are ill.
  • 80% of Americans favor requiring employers to offer paid leave to parents of new children and employees caring for sick family members.
  • 73% of Americans favor requiring chain stores and fast-food outlets to give workers at least two weeks’ notice of any changes in their work schedule or provide them with extra pay.
  • 50% of Americans support limits on money “earned” by top executives at large corporations.

“Americans [are] skeptical of [so-called] free trade.  Nearly two-thirds [63%] favored some form of trade restrictions, and more than half opposed giving the president [fast-track] authority to negotiate trade agreements that Congress could only vote up or down without amendments.”

These are noteworthy findings. They show majority support for greater economic equality and opportunity, increased worker rights, a roll-back of corporate power, and trade regulation. As the Times might have added but naturally did not, this public opinion is pitilessly mocked by harshly lopsided socioeconomic realities and coldly dollar-drenched plutocratic politics and policy in the U.S. America is mired in a New Gilded Age of savage inequality and abject financial corporatocracy so extreme that the top 1 percent garnered 95 of all U.S. income gains during Barack Obama’s first administration and owns more 90 percent of the nation’s wealth along with a probably equivalent portion of the nation’s “democratically elected” officials. Over the past three plus decades, the liberal political scientists Martin Gilens (Princeton) and Benjamin Page (Northwestern) have determined, the U.S. political system has become “an oligarchy,” where wealthy elites and their corporations “rule.” Examining data from more than 1,800 different policy initiatives in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, Gilens and Page found that wealthy and well-connected elites consistently steer the direction of the country, regardless of or even against the will of the U.S. majority and regardless of which party holds the White House or Congress (the current “liberal” Democratic U.S. president, for example, is trying to push the deeply regressive and authoritarian “free trade” [investor rights]Trans-Pacific Partnership and “fast-track” legislation enabling that treaty through Congress).  “The central point that emerges from our research is that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy,” Gilens and Page wrote, “while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence.”

A story about Gilens and Page’s research in the liberal online journal Talking Points Memo (TPM) last year bore an interesting title: “Princeton Study: U.S. No Longer an Actual Democracy.” The report contained a link to an interview with Gilens in which he explained that “ordinary citizens have virtually no influence over what their government does in the United States.” Such is the harsh reality of “really existing capitalist democracy” in the U.S. —what Noam Chomsky calls “RECD, pronounced as ‘wrecked.’”

Where did the Times place its write-up on its important survey on public opinion on inequality and worker rights? The first part of the Times’ report appeared well below the front-page fold, comprising up two short columns in the bottom left corner of the first page of the paper’s opening news section.  It was located beneath stories on the Islamic State’s political gains, the Democratic Party’s efforts to defend voting rights in Republican states, education in Kenya, and an import restriction’s impact on the Pentagon’s ability to build rockets. Even worse, the majority of “Inequality Troubles Americans Across Party Lines” appeared on the eighth page of the Times’ business section. It was published there behind articles about an Apple music app, Bitcoin rules, and Yahoo’s recent winning of the right to host the first live Webcast of a regular season National Football League game.  The main findings of the Times-CBS poll are printed just above the following two stories: “Showtime to Offer Streaming Service” and “Netflix Expanding Its Programming for Children With 4 Animated Series.”

This might seem like a trifling quibble, but it is no small matter. By taking most of their story about the Times-CBS poll out of their national and political news section and placing it in their  business (and sports) section, the Times’ editors privatized (so to speak) and de-politicized the report.  They suggested that majority public opposition to currently reigning extreme U.S. inequality, plutocracy, and “free trade” and majority popular support for workers’ rights and for the downward distribution of wealth, income, and power are matters mainly for the consideration of corporate managers and business professionals – not everyday citizens and regular readers. The New York Times is an elite venue. Its business section is especially so, making it a curious place to locate most of a story on a poll demonstrating the (all-too technically irrelevant under current “RECD”) populist and progressive sentiments of the popular majority.

Such telling story mis-/dis-placement is authoritarian. It’s a way of pulling the survey’s strikingly populist findings – full of dark meaning for the national establishment’s ritual claim that the U.S. is the homeland and headquarters of global “democracy” – back from the potentially troublesome public and political sphere and into more private and privilege-friendly confines.

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

Enough with the Holy Founders and Their Undemocratic Constitution

06/06/15 0 COMMENTS

teleSur English (shorter version), May 31, 2015 and ZNet (this version), June 1, 2015

In a foreword to John Nichols and Robert W. McChesney’s important book Dollarocracy: How the Money and Media Election Complex is Destroying America (New York: Nation Books, 2013), U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders wrote that, “we cannot govern our own affairs when our national, state, and local debates are bought and sold by billionaires, who use thirty-second commercials to shout down anyone who disagrees…The money and media election complex, producing a slurry of negative ads, spin, and obstruction, is not what the founders intended.”

Sanders was right to suggest that the United States’ revered “founding fathers” would be scandalized by the plutocratic madness of the big money and big media elections racket that passes for popular democracy in the ever more openly oligarchic U.S. today. Jefferson, Madison, Adams and other U.S. founders (including even the state-capitalist Alexander Hamilton) would be revolted by the crass commercialism and mass-marketed manipulation that lay at the heart of contemporary major-party U.S. politics.

“Let the People Be Taught…”

Still, we should not imagine that the founders were champions of anything remotely like popular self-rule. Democracy was the last thing they intended.  Drawn from the elite propertied segments of late British colonial North America, the delegates to the U.S. Constitutional Convention shared their compatriot John Jay’s view that “the people who own the country ought to govern it.” As the celebrated U.S. historian Richard Hofstader noted in his classic text The American Political Tradition and the Men Who Made it (1948): “in their minds, liberty was not linked not to democracy but to property.” Democracy was a dangerous concept to them, conferring “unchecked rule by the masses,” which was “sure to bring arbitrary redistribution of property, destroying the very essence of liberty.”

In Hofstader’s account, the New England clergyman Jeremy Belknap captured the fundamental idea behind the Founders’ curious notion of what they liked to call popular government. “Let it stand as a principle,” Belknap wrote to an associate, “that government originates from the people, but let the people be taught…that they are unable to govern themselves.”

Hofstader’s take on the Founders was born out in historian Jennifer Nedelsky’s comprehensively researched volume Private Property and the Limits of American Constitutionalism (1990). For all but one of the U.S. Constitution’s framers (James Wilson), Nedelsky noted, protection of “property” (meaning in essence the people who owned large amounts of it) was “the main object of government.” The non-affluent, non-propertied and slightly propertied popular majority was for the framers “a problem to be contained.”

To be perfectly blunt, popular sovereignty was the U.S. founders’ ultimate nightmare.

Against “the Secret Sigh for a More Equal Distribution”

Anyone who doubts the anti-democratic character of the Founders’ world view should read the Federalist Papers, written by the leading advocates of the U.S. Constitution to garner support for their preferred form of national government during the late 1780s. In Federalist No. 10, James Madison argued that democracies “have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention” and “incompatible with…the rights of property.” Democratic governments gave rise, Madison felt, to “factious leaders” who could “kindle a flame” amongst the dangerous masses for “improper and wicked projects” like “the printing of paper money,” “abolition of debts,” and “an equal division of property.”

“Extend the [geographic] sphere [of the U.S. republic],” Madison wrote, and it becomes “more difficult for all who feel it to discover their own strength and act in union with each other.”  That was an explicit statement of anti-democratic/anti-popular intent.  So was the following argument given by Madison at the Constitutional Convention on behalf of an upper U.S. legislative assembly (the Senate) of elite property holders meant “to protect the minority of the opulent against the majority” and to thereby “secure the permanent interests of the country against innovation:”

“In framing a system which we wish to last for ages, we should not lose sight of the changes which ages will produce. An increase of population will of necessity increase the proportion of those who will labour under all the hardships of life, and secretly sigh for a more equal distribution of its blessings. These may in time outnumber those who are placed above the feelings of indigence. According to the equal laws of suffrage, the power will slide into the hands of the former. No agrarian attempts have yet been made in in this Country, but symptoms, of a leveling spirit, as we have understood, have sufficiently appeared in a certain quarters to give notice of the future danger. How is this danger to be guarded against on republican principles? How is the danger in all cases of interested coalitions to oppress the minority to be guarded against? Among other means by the establishment of a body in the government sufficiently respectable for its wisdom and virtue, to aid on such emergences, the preponderance of justice by throwing its weight into that scale. Such being the objects of the second branch in the proposed government, a considerable duration ought to be given to it.”

Checkmating Democracy

Consistent with these openly authoritarian sentiments, the nation’s rich white fathers crafted a form of “popular government” (their deeply deceptive term) that was a monument to popular incapacitation. The U.S. Constitution’s preamble claimed that, “We the people” had formed a new government “in order to…establish Justice… promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.” But the framers’ fear and loathing of the “wicked,” “factious” and “violent” masses shaped the structure of America’s not-so democratic experiment at inception.

The Constitution divided the federal government into three parts, with just one-half of one of those three parts (the House of Representatives) elected directly by “the people” – a category that excluded blacks, women, Native Americans, and property-less white males (that is, most people in the early Republic). It set up elaborate checks and balances to prevent the possibility of the common people influencing policy to any significant degree. It omitted any mechanism to enforce elected wealthy representatives’ direct accountability to “the people” between elections and introduced a system of intermittent, curiously staggered elections (two years for the House, six years for the Senate, and four years for the presidency) precisely to discourage sweeping and focused electoral rebellions by the majority. It created an elite Supreme Court appointed for life with veto power over legislation or executive actions that might too strongly bear the imprint of the dangerous masses. It sanctified the epic un-freedom and anti-democracy of black chattel slavery, permitting slave states to count their savagely disenfranchised and incapacitated chattel towards their Congressional apportionment in the House of Representatives. The Constitution’s curious Electoral College provision guaranteed that the popular majority would not directly select the U.S. president —even on the limited basis of one vote for each propertied white male.

It is true that the Constitution’s Article V provided a mechanism technically permitting “We the People” to make critical amendments to the nation’s charter document. But the established process for seriously amending the U.S. Constitution is absurdly difficult, short of revolutionary and civil wars (and of course the U.S. War led to the Constitutional abolition of slavery and the formal introduction of Black voting rights, not actually achieved in durably practice until won by the Civil Rights Movement during the middle 1960s). As the progressive Constitution critic Daniel Lazare observes, “Moments after establishing the people as the omnipotent makers and breakers of constitutions, [the 1787 U.S. Constitution] announced that they would henceforth be subject to the severest of constraints. Changing so much as a comma in the Constitution would require the approval of two-thirds of each house of Congress plus three-fourths of the states.” At the end of the 18th century, that means that 4 of the 13 states representing less than 10 percent of total U.S population could forbid any change sought by the rest. Today, 13 of the nation’s 50 states can disallow constitutional changes while containing just more than 4 percent of the nation’s population.

“The people,” Lazare remarks, “did not assert their sovereignty in Philadelphia in 1787. Rather, the founders invoked it. Once they uttered the magic incantation, moreover, they hastened to put the genie back in the bottle by declaring the people all but powerless to alter their own plan of government.” This harsh reality defies both the Constitution’s preamble and the U.S. Declaration of Independence’s determination that governments “derive[e]…their just powers from the consent of the governed.” It negates popular sovereignty, as intended.

As Lazare and other Constitutional scholars have shown, we are still dealing on numerous levels with the purposefully authoritarian consequences of the nation’s practically deified founding charter. Democratic politics are gravely crippled in the U.S. by numerous factors and forces (not the least of which is the development of a modern corporate and financial capitalism of epic national and global reach) that have developed and emerged over the last 22-plus decades, but the democracy-deadening procedural grip of the revered U.S. Constitution continues to play a critical role in that disablement.

Moves to Amend  

U.S. progressives have long advocated constitutional amendments meant to more properly align U.S. politics and policy with public opinion, which stands well to the left of both of the nation’s reigning, business-captive political organizations. Among the changes proposed through the amendment route: abolition of the anti-majoritarian Electoral College and the introduction of direct national popular election and majority choice either in a first multi-party round or (if no candidate attains a majority in the first round) a runoff race between the top two presidential candidates; reversal of the Supreme Court’s equation of political money and “free speech”; the full public financing of campaigns (eliminating private money from public elections); undoing the special legal “personhood” protections enjoyed by corporations and reversing the plutocratic Citizens United decision; the introduction of proportional representation (whereby seats are awarded to parties in accord with their share of the vote, opening the door for significant third, and fourth parties) into Congressional elections; the elimination of partisan gerrymandering in the drawing of electoral districts; an economic democracy amendment requiring (among other things) that economic institutions incorporate internal democracy, social responsibility, and environmental sustainability; the mandating of well-funded and genuinely public and non-profit, non-commercial media.

But chances are slight for winning real socially progressive and democratic changes in the nation’s economy, society, and polity through constitutional amendments when alteration in the nation’s political and government rulebook require the support of super-majorities among plutocratically selected politicians who sit in the US Congress and in the nation’s 50 state legislatures largely at the behest of the nation’s unelected dictatorship of wealth. The same corporate and financial largesse that plays such a critical role in tilting the nation’s elections towards the business-friendly right would also come into play in powerful ways in fighting efforts to amend the U.S. Constitution to further the causes of social justice, equality, democracy, and environmental sustainability.

Serious About Popular Sovereignty

Around the planet, “constitutions do not last very long.” As the U.S. academicians Thomas Ginsburg, Zachary Elkins, and James Melton note in their book The Endurance of National Constitutions (2009), “The mean lifespan [of national constitutions] across the world since 1789 is 17 years. …the mean lifespan in Latin America and Africa is 12.4 and 10.2 years, respectively…Constitutions in Western Europe and Asia typically endure 32 and 19 years, respectively… [Since] World War I, the average lifespan of a constitution …[is] 12 years.”

The U.S. is different. Its absurdly venerated founding constitution has remained in place with occasional substantive amendments over more than 220 years. The absurdly long endurance of this purposefully authoritarian, wealth- and property-protecting document is nothing to be proud of.

Those who advance progressive amendments to the U.S. Constitution are right to sense the importance of a nation’s rule-making political and governmental charter. Still, given the intentionally remarkable difficulty of amending the US Constitution in progressive ways and the profoundly and purposefully undemocratic nature of the Constitution more broadly, it really makes more sense for Left (and other) U.S. democracy activists to think of constitutional change in terms of a total re-write. Pardon my sacrilege, but it’s long past time to stop standing in awe of the framers’ explicitly authoritarian document and to think about designing and creating a new governmental structure appropriate to social and democratic values in the 21st century. Serious advocates of popular sovereignty should call for – imagine – a new U.S. Constitutional Convention dedicated to building and empowering popular democracy, not checkmating and containing it[1]. Other countries hold such constituent assemblies (for example, Venezuela in 1999, Bolivia in 2006-7, and Ecuador in 2007-2008) and so should the U.S.  Certainly, it’s absurd to think that a document crafted by wealthy slave-owners, merchants, and other vast property-holders with the explicit purpose of keeping the “wicked” popular majority and its “secret sigh for redistribution” at bay can function in meaningful service to popular self-rule in the 21st (or any other) century.

Paul Street is the author of They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm, 2014).

1. So argues the highly respected legal scholar and professor Sanford Levinson. See his books Our Undemocratic Constitution (Oxford University Press, 2006 and Framed: America’s 51 Constitutions and the Crisis of Governance (Oxford University Press, 2012).

Theater of the Absurd

03/06/15 0 COMMENTS

TeleSur English, May 25, 2015

If want to keep up with United States political culture, you’d better have a strong stomach for the absurd. Four days ago (I am writing on Sunday, May 24th), for example, U.S. President Barack Obama made a stirring speech to graduating U.S. Coast Guard cadets about the scientifically proven reality of anthropogenic global warming (AGW). Obama discussed climate change as a grave peril to “our national security” that “undermines the readiness of our [military] forces.” He failed to note that the ecological impact of AGW has transcended nuclear war as the leading threat to the continued viability of human life on Earth.

That was pretty absurd.  So was the spectacle of the president speaking against the specter of AGW after he had just recently cleared the way for the giant global and climate-changing oil corporation Royal Dutch Shell to begin drilling in the Arctic Ocean this summer. Shell got approval to petro-pillage the U.S. portion of the Chukchi Sea off the coast of Alaska. The company’s drilling leases are in a remote, untouched, and pristine area that provides critical habitats for several rare species and large marine mammals. It’s a treacherous area characterized by extreme storms, likely to cause massive oil spills.

The New York Times described Obama’s decision as “a devastating blow to environmentalists.” It might have added “and to prospects for a decent future.” Environmental groups have long warned against the madness of drilling in the area, which holds 22 billion barrels of oil and 93 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.

More than five years ago, Obama almost singlehandedly undermined desperate international efforts to set binding limits on global carbon emissions in Copenhagen. His environmental record ever since has been calamitous, greasing the skids for the United States’ fracking-based emergence as the world’s leading oil and gas producer in the name of so-called energy independence. Such is the record of a president who was elected on a promise to (among other things) reduce climate change.

And the “first green president” is not done contributing to the very process he described to Coast Card graduates as a dire threat to U.S. security. Obama is pushing the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) through Congress over and against the public’s understandable suspicion of such “free trade” (investor rights) agreements. As the environmental group Friends of the Earth reminds us, the TPP is “a platform for economic integration and government deregulation for nations surrounding the Pacific…The TPP is a potential danger to the planet, subverting environmental priorities, such as climate change measures and regulation of mining, land use, and bio-technology.”

There are a number of understandable and respectable responses (horror and disgust come to mind) to Obama’s Arctic Ocean move, but surprise is not one of them.

Next time you see a liberal Democrat U.S. environmentalist, ask him (to amend the absurd Sarah Palin): “so how’s that hopey-climate-changey thing working out for ya?”

Populist Hillary Clinton
Meanwhile, the front-running U.S. presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton has recently been spending a lot of time in Iowa in local coffee shops, restaurants, and community colleges.  She’s impersonating a nice middle-class lady who wants to fix the rules of game so that the wealthy corporate and financial Few no longer dominate the country and “everyday people” get a fair shake.  She’s striking the populist pose.

It’s a farce. As New York Times reporter Carolyn Ryan recently noted, the Clintons “operate…in an international orbit” and “a world awash in money and connections and a very privileged place.” Mrs. Clinton enjoys a net worth of $13 million and “a high-flying lifestyle” (Politico). New disclosure forms revealed last week that she and her husband “earned” $30 million since January of last year. Most of that money – more than $25 million — came from roughly 100 paid speaking engagements given largely to elite corporate and financial audiences.

The Clintons’ long pro-Big Business, militantly neoliberal policy record (a topic I addressed in a recent ZNet essay) is richly consistent with these opulent wealth and “earnings” (takings). It’s unsettling to see Hillary masquerading as a champion of “everyday people” in their struggle with the plutocratic 1 percent. It’s absurd.

Still, many “mainstream” media personnel seem absurdly willing to play along with the fake-populist ruse.  During a recent discussion of the social Democrat Bernie Sanders’ bid to challenge Hillary Clinton in the Democratic presidential primaries on the “P”BS Newshour, the constantly smiling political commentator Amy Walter pronounced that Hillary had gone so far left that “on economic issues, I don’t know that there is that much room for somebody like Bernie Sanders to outflank her.”

That was an absurd comment. There’d be quite a bit of such room if reporters and commentators like Walter would decide to function as serious investigators instead of corporate hacks.  Any honest and thoughtful look at Sanders’ 12-point program would identify numerous areas where he stands well to the progressive portside of Hillary Clinton on economic issues.

The Not-So Nordic Bernie Sanders
Not that Sanders is beyond nonsense. He has courageously identified himself with the social-democratic policies of Scandinavia, going on ABC News to say that the US has a lot to learn Sweden, Norway, and Denmark when it comes to social programs and the distribution of wealth and income.  He fails, however, to call for the significant reductions in the United States’ giant “defense” (empire) budget, which eats up 57% of U.S. federal discretionary spending and accounts for nearly half the world’s military spending. Giant cuts in the nation’s gargantuan war budget would be required to implement his populist economic program and implement the “Nordic model” of welfare capitalism. The Scandinavian states have tiny military budgets compared to the U.S., something Sanders fails to mention in accord with his continuing faith in, or refusal to openly question, the necessity and virtue of the Pentagon System – and in accord with his own captivity to so-called military Keynesianism. Here he is repeating the most elementarily obvious mistake of previous Democratic Party- and Empire-captive U.S. “socialists”– people like Bayard Rustin and Michael Harrington – who failed to forthrightly oppose the military system even as it strangled the War on Poverty in its fiscal cradle. Absurd.

Of course, you can almost hear Sanders and his advisors discussing the untouchable nature of the US military budget in light of media reports on the continuing forward march of the barbaric and arch-reactionary Islamic State (IS) in Iraq, Syria, and (apparently now even) Libya. Who could make a serious bid for the U.S. presidency calling for the slashing of the Pentagon budget while the nightly news carries regular chilling images of depraved, arch-fundamentalist IS head-choppers on the black-flagged rise?

The deeper absurdity, of course, is that the IS is largely the creation of the very U.S. military empire that no serious U.S. Democratic presidential candidate is willing to seriously confront.  The mindless devastation criminally imposed on Iraq – on absurdly false pretexts – by the  world’s greatest killing, dismembering, destroying, and displacing machine (the U.S. military) in the openly absurd name of “Iraqi Freedom” gave rise to al Qaeda in Iraq and then to the Islamic State. U.S.-led Western support for a prolonged and bloody armed uprising in Syria re-destabilized Iraq and expanded the jihadist base in Syria (where al-Qaeda-like elements easily hijacked the “moderate opposition” to the Assad regime).  As the heroic British Middle East correspondent Patrick Cockburn notes:

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

Nobel Peace Farce

Elected in the brand name of peace, Barack Obama has joked to his White House staff that he is “good at killing people.” He is also proficient at broadening the political and ideological spread of jihad by widening the geographic reach and the frequency of America’s practice of murdering people suddenly from the sky. George W. Bush may have him beat when it comes to body count, but Obama takes the prize when it comes to technologically sophisticated killing scope and personal involvement in imperial homicide. Obama individually oversees the Pentagon and CIA’s Kill List, which designates “bad guy” Muslims for remote-control assassination without the irritating technicalities of law and politics – and without the risk of U.S. casualties. These cowardly killings and their considerable collateral damage have been remarkably effective, emotionally potent jihadist recruiting bonanzas from Libya, Sudan, Somalia, and Yemen to Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan – and indeed in Muslim communities around the world.

They have also mocked the Nobel Peace Prize that some silly Scandinavians preposterously gave Obama in 2009 – and the bust of Dr. Martin Luther King that sits behind Obama in the Oval Office.  Perhaps the Nobel committee hoped that Obama would be guided by the revered award in the same way that Dr. King was four decades earlier. As King said on April 4, 1967, explaining why he could not stay silent on the U.S. crime in Vietnam, “a burden of responsibility was placed upon me in 1964: I cannot forget that the Nobel Prize for Peace was also a commission – a commission to work harder that I had ever worked before for ‘the brotherhood of man.’ This is a calling which takes me beyond national allegiances …to the making of peace.”

Obama has taken a rather different path, keeping the American “machine set on kill” (Allan Nairn’s excellent metaphor). In light of extensive advance warnings produced by a hardy cadre of U.S. and other (e.g. the Australian writer and filmmaker John Pilger) Left writers and activists (this writer included), it was foolish for the Nobel selectors to expect anything else from Kill List Obama.  It’s a useful reminder that the United States has no monopoly on elite absurdity.

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

The Not-So Nordic Bernie Sanders

03/06/15 0 COMMENTS

Counterpunch, Weekend Edition May 22-24, 2015 

Imperial Omissions

The Not-So Nordic Bernie Sanders


Speaking to George Stephanopoulus on ABC News’ “This Week” three weeks ago, the recently declared Democratic Party presidential candidate Bernie Sanders identified himself with the “the democratic socialism” of Scandinavia. In Denmark, Norway, and Sweden, Sanders told Stephanopoulos, politics and society are “very democratic…health care is the right of all people…college education, graduate school is free…retirement benefits, childcare are stronger than in the United States of America. And in those countries, by and large, government works for ordinary people and the middle class, rather than, as is the case right now in our country, for the billionaire class.”

“I can hear the Republican attack ad right now,” Stephanopolous said, “He wants American to look more like Scandinavia.” Sanders shot back: “And what’s wrong with that? What’s wrong when you have more income and wealth equality? What’s wrong when they have a … higher minimum wage than we do, and they are stronger on the environment…? Look…we can learn from other countries. We have the highest rate of childhood poverty of any major country on earth, at the same time as we are seeing a proliferation of millionaires and billionaires. Frankly, I don’t think that is sustainable. I don’t think that’s what America is about.”

One could certainly argue with Sanders about how democratic and socialist his “Nordic model” countries really are and about whether or not savage inequality is “what America is about” (maybe it is). Still, it’s nice, I suppose, to see a major party presidential candidate look past the doctrinal blinders of American Exceptionalism to embrace the social and democratic accomplishments of people in other nations and to advance the notion that the U.S. might (imagine) have something to “learn from other countries.”

Revealing Comparisons

Nearly nine years ago, any lingering doubts that I might have harbored about the reactionary nature of the soon-to-announced Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama were undone by reading numerous American-exceptionalist passages in Obama’s 2006 campaign book The Audacity of Hope. There Obama mused rhapsodically on “just how good” even “our [the United States’] poor…have it” compared to their more destitute 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[s] of liberty [and] social organization” – had brought Americans “a prosperity that’s unmatched in human history.” Obama omitted considerably less American-friendly contrasts between the US and its fellow rich nations in Western Europe and Asia (Japan), where capitalism comes with
paulstreetconsiderably more social equality and security than can be found in militantly hierarchical nations like Haiti, Nigeria, South Africa, and the United States.

This was a very different approach from that of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who Obama has claimed as a major influence and whose bust sits behind the “first Black president” in the Oval Office. A “democratic socialist” like Sanders, King challenged American Exceptionalism in the summer of 1966, when he noted the greater poverty that existed in the United States compared to other First World states. “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 countries” King was suggesting. The learning process, King felt, meant “question[ing] the capitalistic economy” since “an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”

Against Spiritual Death

But here the parallel between Sanders today and the mid-late 1960s King drops off in a critical way. King’s increasingly open left sentiments (he ended his life advocating mass civil disobedience on behalf of “the radical reconstruction of society itself”) were intimately connected to his righteous and eloquent criticism of the American military empire. For King by at least 1966, the Black-led poor people’s struggle against American poverty and inequality was inextricably bound up with radical criticism of the mass-murderous US war on Vietnam and the US Empire more broadly. King referred repeatedly to what he called the nation’s “triple evils that are interrelated”: racism, economic exploitation (capitalism), and militarism/imperialism. As King explained in a 1967 speech titled “Where Do We Go From Here”: “The problem of racism, the problem of economic exploitation, and the problem of war are all tied together. A nation that will keep people in slavery for 244 years will ‘thingify’ them – make them things. Therefore they will exploit them, and poor people generally, economically. And a nation that will exploit economically will have to have foreign investments and everything else, and will have to use its military might to protect them.”

At New York City’s Riverside Church on April 4, 1967 (one year to the day before he was killed), King described the United States as “the leading purveyor of violence in the world today.” He 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. 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 broke with both sides of the American Exceptionalist coin: (A) the notion that the United States is so breathtakingly splendid that it has nothing to learn from the rest of the world and everything to teach others and (B) the notion 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.

For King, it was both immoral and impractical to break with only the first side of the coin. Explaining why he had turned openly and loudly against the Vietnam War, King noted that “a burden of responsibility was placed upon me in 1964: I cannot forget that the Nobel Prize for Peace was also a commission – a commission to work harder that I had ever worked before for ‘the brotherhood of man.’ This is a calling which takes me beyond national allegiances …to the making of peace” (Barack Kill List Obama had a different take on his Nobel Peace award).

In a series of lectures on the Canadian Broadcasting System, King reflected on the remarkable wave of race riots that washed across U.S. cities in the summers of 1966 and 1967. He made no apologies for Black urban violence. He blamed “the white power structure…still seeking to keep the walls of segregation and inequality intact” for the disturbances. He found the leading cause of the riots in the reactionary posture of “the white society, unprepared and unwilling to accept radical structural change,” which” produc[ed] chaos” by telling Blacks “that they must expect to remain permanently unequal and permanently poor.”

King also blamed the riots to no small degree on Washington’s “war in [here he might have better said “on”] Vietnam.” The military aggression against Southeast Asia, King noted, sent poor blacks to the front killing lines to a disproportionate degree. It advanced the notion that violence was a reasonable response and even a solution to social and political problems. It also stole resources from the federal government’s briefly declared and barely fought “War on Poverty.” As King ruefully observed at Riverside Church:

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

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

In answering his “call…beyond national allegiances,” King stood to the portside of leading U.S. 1960s social democrats like Bayard Rustin, A Phillip Randolph, and Michael Harrington.  These and other left leaders (e.g. Max Shachtman and Tom Kahn) were unwilling to forthrightly oppose the US-imperial assault on Indochina because of their misplaced faith in pursuing the fight against poverty in alliance with the pro-war Democratic Party and the AFL-CIO.

Rustin, Harrington, and Randolph were practical as well as moral fools on this score. Besides opposing the war on moral grounds, King understood very well that the expenses of empire precluded serious anti-poverty spending.

Bernie’s Imperial Omission

Which brings us back to Bernie Sanders. Anyone who wants to bring the “Nordic model” of “democratic socialism” to the United States must surely confront a core and critical difference between the United States and Scandinavia. Forty-seven years after King’s assassination and despite the disappearance of any credible military rival to the US with the end of the Cold War, the Pentagon budget today accounts for more than half of US federal discretionary spending (symptomatic of “a society gone mad on war”). The US generates nearly half of all military spending on the planet. This giant war and empire (“defense”) expenditure ($1.2-1.4 trillion or more each year) maintains (among other things) more than 1000 US military installations spread across more than 100 “sovereign” nations. “Financially,” the U.S. peace and justice activist David Swanson writes, “war is what the U.S. government does. Everything else is a side show.”

Military outlays on the current U.S. scale carry enormous social, human, and environmental, opportunity costs. They cancel out spending to address massively unmet social, human, and environmental needs – needs that Sanders talks about in knowledgeable, populist, and properly angry terms. The trade-offs are disturbing. As Swanson observed last December:

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

Military budgets are drastically smaller in Scandinavia, to say the least. Defense accounts for 3.1% of central government spending in Finland, 3.2% in Denmark, 4.3% in Sweden, and 4.8% in Norway.

So where is the call to drastically slash the Pentagon System and introduce a great social and environmental peace dividend in the Sweden- flattering Sanders’ program for social-democratic change on the Nordic model in the United States? Nowhere. As Swanson notes, Sanders’ politics and policy agenda are usefully acronym-ized as “PEP” to mean not just “Progressive Except for Palestine” (standard among top Democratic politicians, the nominally “independent” and pro-Israel Sanders included) but also “Populist Except for the Pentagon.” Sanders’ top 12 proposals include calls for major investments in infrastructure, measures and programs to reverse climate change, an end to corporate welfare, federal support for worker-owned coops, a real livable minimum wage, the restoration of union organizing and collective bargaining rights, equal pay for women, single-payer health insurance (Medicare for All), progressive taxation, expanded Social Security, college affordability, the break-up of the big Wall Street banks, and end to NAFTA, CAFTA, and permanent normal trade relations with China.

This is all good and essential stuff that Leftists, left-leaning progressives, and others have been advocating for quite some time. Still, there are three glaring omissions. First, there’s no call for a Financial Transaction Tax – for a levy on transactions made by the nations’ hugely profitable, taxpayer-subsidized and federally protected financial giants. Such a tax would create significant public revenue to fund federal social and environmental programs.

Second, there’s no reference to the nation’s savage racial disparities or to the intimately related problems of persistent de facto racial apartheid and racist mass arrest, incarceration, felony-marking, and police abuse. This is a glaring oversight in light of Ferguson (Michael Brown), Staten Island (Eric Garner), Baltimore (Freddie Gray) – to mention just the top three racial hotspots of 2014 and 2015 – and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement to protest the ongoing epidemic racist police killings across the country.

Third, and most relevant to the main topic of this essay, there’s nothing on the need to drastically cut the nation’s giant “rogue superpower” military budget, itself a giant form of corporate welfare and the revenue source for “the single biggest contributor to climate change, namely the military” (Swanson). By Swanson’s analysis, this conspicuous and social-democratically self-defeating omission is explained largely by the fact that Sanders (who supported the Pentagon’s installation of a hugely expensive F-35 fighter jet base in Vermont in the name of “jobs” and “growth”) at the end of the day is on board with the American military project:

“What do you invest in infrastructure? It’s not as though Sanders doesn’t know about the trade-offs….he blames ‘the Bush-Cheney war in Iraq’ for costing $3 trillion. He says he wants infrastructure instead of wars. But routine ‘base’ military spending is $1.3 trillion or so each and every year. It’s been far more in recent years than all the recent wars, and it generates the wars as Eisenhower warned it would. It also erodes the economy…The same dollars moved [from the military] to infrastructure would produce many more jobs and better paying ones. Why not propose moving some money [out of the Pentagon]? Why not include it in the list of proposals? In Sanders’ case, I think he’s partly a true believer in militarism. He wants good wars instead of bad wars (whatever that means) despite the belief in ‘good wars’ requiring ongoing military spending. And partly, I think, he comes at it from a deep habit of ‘supporting’ the troops and veterans for both sincere and calculating reasons. He’s also a PEP in the Palestine sense.”

The problem is more than just fiscal and budgetary. It’s also moral and spiritual. If Dr. King were alive today, he would denounce the “spiritual doom” at the heart of the contradiction between the United States’ gargantuan military spending and the comparative paltriness of its welfare state in a time when 1 in 5 US children live in food insecure households and 14.7 million US children live below the federal government’s notoriously inadequate poverty level. At the same time, King, unlike Sanders, would not be able to stay silent about such appalling crimes as US client state Israel’s horrific killing of many hundreds of children in Gaza last year and in 2008. King would never join Sanders in keeping mum about the vicious “collateral damage” inflicted on civilians by President Kill List’s endless jihad-recruiting drone strikes across the Muslim world.

Sanders has transcended one side of the American Exceptionalist trap – the notion that the U.S. has nothing to learn from other countries and people. Great. The other, foreign policy side of the trap still exercises great pull over him as it did over previous U.S. progressives who could not break free from the corporate and militaristic Democratic Party. And here’s the rub: clinging to the second side of the trap (the notion of a good American Empire and “good [US] wars”) tends to render null and void a politician’s effort to act on his or her rejection of the first side by advancing progressive social and democratic and environmental policies of uber-white Scandinavian – or French or German or (in a less Caucasian vein) Latin American (Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, Uruguay, Argentina, Cuba?) – inspiration. Is this not an almost embarrassingly elementary lesson of post-World War II US history for any “Left” worth its label? Uncle Sam cannot fund a “Nordic” social democracy to end poverty, provide free and high quality health care, fund college, build green infrastructure, avert global warming and generally advance equality, sustainability and justice at home while also paying for a giant military war and empire machine at home and abroad. He has to choose. And so does Bernie if he wants more Left progressives to take his “democratic socialism” more seriously. Along the way, it would help if he would pay more explicit attention to the United States’ appalling racial disparities and oppression.

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

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

03/06/15 0 COMMENTS

Z Net, May 20, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Opportunistic? As Cockburn notes in his recent book The Rise of the Islamic State, a brilliant study of (among other things) US-led Western myopia and failure, “The shock of 9/11 provided a Pearl Harbor moment in the US when public revulsion and fear could be manipulated to implement a preexisting neoconservative agenda by targeting Saddam Hussein and invading Iraq. A reason for waterboarding al-Qaeda suspects was to extract confessions implicating Iraq rather than Saudi Arabia in the attacks” (Cockburn 2014, pp.100-101).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No Respect for the Poor, Working or Not

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

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

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

Surrendering Basic Rights

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

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

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

Two Cruel Jokes: The Minimum Wage and Poverty Level

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Put a Bullet Through Your Head”

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

Dickensian Facts

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

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

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

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

Welfare to Work?

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

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

Fight for 15 and for Dignity

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

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

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

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

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

The Liberal Apologies for Obama’s Ugly Reign

19/05/15 0 COMMENTS

Counterpunch, May 15-17, 2015

“Fact and Scrutiny”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Every Four Years”

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

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

“The Republicans Made Him Do It”

Faced with a relentless onslaught of evidence in favor of Shoup’s judgment over the Age of Obama (a subset of the Age of Bipartisan Neoliberal Oligarchy), liberal and progressive Obama defenders have brandished two justifications for their president’s depressingly Big Business-friendly record. The first rationalization claims that Obama has always and sincerely wanted to do genuinely progressive and left-leaning things to roll back the exaggerated power of the wealthy corporate and financial few and to defend the nation’s poor and working class majority and the common good. Alas, the excuse runs, the nation’s great wannabe people’s president and his peoples’ party has been powerless to act on these noble ambitions because of the combined reactionary and checkmating influences of the Republican Party and its big money and big media (FOX News et al.) backers.

But this is a weak defense. Obama and his fellow Democrats had no actual commitment to the progressive- and populist-sounding things he promised on the campaign trail – things that were well within their capacity to enact after Obama and the Democrats’ sweeping victory in 2008. As the liberal author, Harper’s essayist, and former Obama fan, Thomas Frank, observed on Salon last January, it would have been more than good policy if Obama had enacted populist and progressive measures (“the economy would have recovered more quickly and the danger of a future crisis brought on by concentrated financial power would have been reduced”). It would also have been “good politics,” highly popular with the nation’s mostly white working class majority— something that would “have deflated the rampant false consciousness of the Tea Party movement and prevented the Republican reconquista of the House in 2010.” As the onetime Obama enthusiast Frank had the decency to admit, the financial crisis “worked out the way it did”—with Wall Street unpunished, richer, and more powerful than ever—“in large part because Obama and his team wanted it to work out that way…When historians seek to explain the failures of the Obama years” Frank mused, “they will likely focus on a glaringly obvious, and indeed still more hard-headed explanation that the apologists for Obama’s enfeeblement now overlook: that perhaps Obama didn’t act forcefully to press a populist economic agenda because he didn’t want to. That maybe he didn’t do certain of the things his liberal supporters wanted him to do because he didn’t believe in them.”

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

“To Quell the Mob”

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

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

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

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

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

“Inside the 40 Yards Lines”

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

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

Republican “Obstruction” as Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hillary Picks Up the Hitchensian Ball

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

Learn Something

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

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

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