No Debate, Fake Debate

19/02/14 0 COMMENTS

First published on ZNet, February 12, 2014. The United States’ corporate mass media and political class conduct fake debates and childish presentations of issues for the public – for the deliberately bewildered herd. Meanwhile, honest and candid discussion occurs with within the nation’s business and political establishment, which needs and wants to know what’s actually going in the world so as to function effectively in the interests of investors.

Just Ask Business: Goodbye J.C Penney, Hello Barneys

For an excellent example, look at a recent New York Times article that has received considerable attention in the last couple of weeks: “The Middle Class is Steadily Eroding – Just Ask the Business World,” by Nelson D. Schwartz. I was less than shocked by Schwartz’s main finding – that retail outlets catering to the rich and the poor are both doing well while those that targeting the middle class are doing poorly, something that reflects the sharp polarization of wealth and income in the U.S. today:

“In Manhattan, the upscale clothing retailer Barneys will replace the bankrupt discounter Loehmann’s, whose Chelsea store closes in a few weeks. Across the country, Olive Garden and Red Lobster restaurants are struggling, while fine-dining chains like Capital Grille are thriving. And at General Electric, the increase in demand for high-end dishwashers and refrigerators dwarfs sales growth of mass-market models… gambling properties like Wynn and the Venetian in Las Vegas are booming, drawing in more high rollers than regional casinos in Atlantic City, upstate New York and Connecticut, which attract a less affluent clientele who are not betting as much, said Steven Kent, an analyst at Goldman Sachs….Among hotels, revenue per room in the high-end category, which includes brands like the Four Seasons and St. Regis, grew 7.5 percent in 2013, compared with a 4.1 percent gain for midscale properties like Best Western, ….Sears and J. C. Penney, retailers whose wares are aimed squarely at middle-class Americans, are both in dire straits…Loehmann’s, where generations of middle-class shoppers hunted for marked-down designer labels in the famed Back Room, is now being liquidated after three trips to bankruptcy court since 1999.” (NYT, February 2, 2014, A1)[1]

An Old Story

This is an important story that deserves coverage, but it’s not exactly new. I’ve been clipping media reports (usually from the business sections of major newspapers or from explicitly business-oriented magazine likeBusiness Week) with the same basic finding for many years across the Second New Gilded of savage and deepening inequality we’ve been experiencing in the U.S. since the Reagan years.

Four years ago, a study from the American advertising industry’s top trade journal Advertising Age (AA) reported that the American middle class had become economically irrelevant. The great global recession, AA found, had shined “a spotlight on the yawning divide between the richest American and everyone else,” signaling that “mass affluence is over.” Since “the incomes of most American workers have remained more or less static since the late 1970s” even as “the income of the rich (and the very rich) has grown exponentially,” AA explained, a “small plutocracy of wealthy elites drives a larger and larger share of total consumer spending and has outsize purchasing influence… More than ever before, the wealthiest households will be the households with significant disposable income to spend.”[2]

Remember all the excitement nearly a decade ago when Citigroup economist Ajay Kapur had the audacity to tell investors that the U.S. was a “plutonomy” in which “There are rich consumers, few in number but disproportionate in the gigantic slice of income and consumption they take …And then there are the rest, the ‘non-rich, the multitudinous many . . . accounting for a surprisingly small bite of the national pie’”?[3] The “plutonomy” story was already technically old, in 2005. By that time, the U.S. was already by far and away for some time the most wealth-top-heavy and unequal state nation among the world’s rich (“developed”) states[4].How could that harsh reality not be reflected in the spending patterns studied by market researchers and economists and reported on by business journalists?

There’s another and bigger problem with the Schwartz story, one it shares with others in the same mode I’ve looked at over the decades: a failure to place this growing inequality within the social-systemic and institutional context of capitalism, which is characterized by a strong inherent tendency towards the concentration of wealth and income in ever fewer hands. Just ask that Marxist your brother knows who teaches economics as an adjunct instructor down at the community college. Or just look up “capitalism” in the Webster’s New Twentieth Century Dictionary Unabridged.

Sham Debates for the Rabble, Honest Discussion for the Few

I did find one passage in Schwartz’s article particularly interesting and useful, however. “As politicians and pundits in Washington continue to spar over whether economic inequality is in fact deepening,” Schwartz wrote, “in corporate America there really is no debate at all…the speed at which companies are adapting to the new consumer landscape serves as very convincing evidence. Within top consulting firms and among Wall Street analysts, the shift is being described with a frankness more often associated with left-wing academics than business experts” (emphasis added).

So there’s a sham public “debate” about whether drastically deepening inequality actually exists staged for the bafflement of the multitude. But when corporate elites and their well-paid coordinators and experts talk amongst themselves beyond the hearing of the rabble (the rest of us), the harsh authoritarian reality imposed by the top-down class war the rich have been waging on and (as Warren Buffett likes to say) winning against the nation’s working class majority is a no-brainer. These guys have to know what’s actually going on. They don’t want to invest in fading and failing markets like U.S. middle-class retail when there’s big money to be made in sales to the rich and the growing ranks of lower-class bargain-basement proles – or to “emerging middle class markets” in places like China, India, and Brazil. The New Gilded Age isn’t about $17 per-person tabs at Olive Garden. It’s about $71 per-person bills at the Capital Grille and $3 lunch deals at Taco Johns.

Climate “Debate”

Schwartz’s passage (the second one quote above) reminds me of something similar relating to the ever-escalating problem of climate change. Thanks to the remarkable lobbying, campaign finance, advertising, and public relations power of the coal and oil corporations and “carbon capital” more broadly, much of the U.S. public has been led to believe that there is a serious debate among scientists about (a) the existence of global warming and (b) human causation of global warming. Inside elite business and government planning circles, however, it is widely and well known that (c) no such debate exists and (d) greenhouse gas emissions from capitalism’s massive exploitation of fossil fuels have significantly altered planetary ecosystems in ways that can be expected to cause epic disruptions of social and material existence across the world. The nation’s leading corporations and financiers and the Empire – the Pentagon, the CIA[5], the NSA –cannot afford ignorance about real world earth system developments if they are to plan effectively to protect privilege’s profit rate and keep the carbon flowing out of the ground and into the air in the new age of anthropogenic (really capitogenic[6]) global warming. So what if all earth science indications are that we have to get off fossil fuels fast if humanity expects a decent and desirable future? As Noam Chomsky observed two and half years ago in an important speech in Chapel Hill, North Carolina:

“If you look at the [sham public climate change] debate, on one side is maybe 98 percent of the relevant scientists in the world, on the other side are a couple of serious scientists who question it, a handful, and Jim Inhofe or some other senator. So it’s a debate. And the citizen has to kind of make a decision between these two sides. The Times had a comical front-page article maybe a couple months ago in which the headline said that meteorologists question global warming….That’s one side of the debate. The other side…is practically every scientist who knows anything about it. Again, the citizen is supposed to decide. Do I trust these meteorologists? They tell me whether to wear a raincoat tomorrow. And what do I know about the scientists? They’re sitting in some laboratory somewhere… So, yes, people are confused, and understandably….It’s interesting that these debates leave out almost entirely a third part of the debate, namely, a very substantial number of scientists, competent scientists, who think that the scientific consensus is much too optimistic. A group of scientists at MIT came out with a report about a year ago describing what they called the most comprehensive modeling of the climate that had ever been done. Their conclusion, which was unreported in public media was that unless we terminate use of fossil fuels almost immediately, it’s finished. We’ll never be able to overcome the consequences. That’s not part of the debate.”[7]


Exterminst Growth Ideology

Which brings me back to Schwartz’s article. What, according to Schwartz and the experts he consulted, is the leading problem (besides declining profits for investors in middle class retail and job loss there) posed by the extreme inequality evident in U.S. consumer markets (and in other areas, including the nation’s money-soaked political system? Is it, perhaps, that this inequality consigns millions upon millions of Americans to abject poverty and insecurity through no fault of their own – this while a fantastically rich and frankly parasitic few enjoy lives of opulent luxury? Is it that inequality of outcome is in fact inequality of opportunity[8]– a blunt repudiation of the national mythology of upward mobility through hard and honest work? Is it that economic inequality is strongly linked to and correlated with environmental spoliation[9] (a problem I’ll return to in a moment)? Is it that popular governance is impossible when economic and hence political power is gathered in the hands of a narrow elite, consistent with Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandies’ 1941 admonition (channeling Western wisdom as old as Aristotle): “We must make our choice. We may have democracy in this country, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we cannot have both”? [10]

No, the problem cited by Schwartz and his experts is that, to quote Washington University economist Steven Fazzari, “It’s going to be hard to maintain strong economic growth with such a large proportion of the population falling behind.” Never mind that modern capitalism’s addiction to endless material expansion and accumulation lay behind the environmental crisis, threatening to destroy life on finite Earth in the not-so-distant future [11].

Schwartz, Fazzari and indeed much of what passes for a liberal intellectual class (including heralded “progressives” like Paul Krugman) in America have been cognitively captured by “the growth ideology.” As Le Monde’s ecological editor Herve Kempf noted in his aptly titled book How the Rich Are Destroying the Earth(2007), “the oligarchy” sees the pursuit of material growth as “the solution to the social crisis,” the “sole means of fighting poverty and unemployment,” and the “only means of getting societies to accept extreme inequalities without questioning them. . . . Growth,” Kempf explained, “would allow the overall level of wealth to arise and consequently improve the lot of the poor without—and this part is never spelled out [by the economic elite]—any need to modify the distribution of wealth.”[12]

“Growth,” the liberal economist Henry Wallich explained (approvingly) in 1972, “is a substitute for equality of income. So long as there is growth there is hope, and that makes large income differentials tolerable.”[13]

Sadly, however, growth on the current carbon-capitalist model has put humanity – not to mention thousands of other sentient beings on Earth – on the path to near-term (historically speaking) extinction. The rich are not only hogging up a disproportionate share of the consumption pie and consigning millions to chronic material misery and uncertainty. They are dissolving democracy (what’s left of it) in the acid grip of plutocracy while poisoning the pie for every one else, ultimately even themselves. “There is,” a wise environmental slogan reminds us, “No Economy on a Dead Planet.” There is No Planet B.[14]

Paul Street is the author of “Capitalism: The Real Enemy,” Chapter 1 in Francis Goldin et al., IMAGINE: Living in a Socialist USA (New York: Harper Collins, January 2014). Street’s next book is They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, 2014:


Selected Endnotes


2. Quoted in Sam Pizzigati, “Madison Avenue Declares ‘Mass Affluence’ Over,” Campaign for America’s Future, May 30, 2011,

3. Noam Chomsky, Making the Future: Occupations, Interventions, Empire, and Resistance (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 2012), 303–304.Robert Frank, The High-Beta Rich (New York: Crown, 2011), 156; Robert Frank, “U.S. Economy Is Increasingly Tied to the Rich,” Wall Street Journal, August 5, 2010.

4. Paul Street, Empire and Inequality: American and the World Since 9/11 (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2004),

5. See, for example, National Public Radio, “Pentagon, CIA Eye New Threat: Climate Change” (December 12, 2009),

6. For why I only half-playfully use this term, see Paul Street. “Why I am an Eco-Socialist,” (discussion of capitalism and climate change starts at minute 16).

7. Noam Chomsky, “Human Intelligence and the Environment,” University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, September 30, 2011,

8. Joseph E. Stiglitz, Price of Inequality, (New York: W.W. Norton, 2012), 17-20.

9. For important discussion and findings in this regard, see Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger (New York: Bloomsbury, 2009), 217-232.

10. Quoted on the Website of Brandeis University at and inHarvard Magazine (March 2011) at The original source in the latter is Labor, October 14, 1941.

11. Richard Smith, “Beyond Growth or Beyond Capitalism,” Real World Economic Review, issue 53, June 26, 2010, reprinted with revisions at Truthout (January 15, 2014),; John Bellamy and Brett Clark, “The Planetary Emergency,” Monthly Review, Vol. 54, Issue 7 (December 2012),; Joel Kovel, “The Future Will be Ecosocialist Because Without Ecosocialism There Will be No Future,” Chapter 2 in Francis Goldin, Debby Smith, and Michael Steven Smith, IMAGINE Living in a Socialist USA (New York: Harper Collins, 2014).

12. Herve Kempf, How the Rich Are Destroying the Earth (White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green, 2007), 70, 73.

13. Wallich is quoted in William Greider, Come Home America: The Rise and Fall (and Redeeming Promise) of Our Country (New York: Rodale, 2009), 202.


“Course We Ain’t Equal”: Capitalism, Climate Change, and Corporate Propaganda

10/02/14 0 COMMENTS

First published on ZNet, February 7, 2014

Years ago in another lifetime I went every day for a week to the Chicago Historical Society and combed through every issue published during the 1920s of The Swift Arrow, the company newspaper of the giant Chicago plant of the Swift & Company meatpacking company. It was an early lesson in corporate propaganda.

An Arrow Pointed at Workers’ Minds

Like other plant newspapers produced by management during that decade, the Swift Arrow was an instrument of company thought control meant to make and keep workers loyal to their employer and inoculated against the poisons of trade unionism and socialism. Conspicuous for its refusal to report anything that might reflect badly on the harsh reality of work in the industry that Upton Sinclair had famously portrayed as an arch-capitalist Hell for workers (and for cows, pigs, and sheep) in his widely read socialist novel The Jungle (1906), the Swift Arrowportrayed the Chicago Swift plant as “one big happy family” cared for by the compassionate Swift family and its at once highly efficient and generous managers. The paper made constant reference to vacations, employee stock ownership programs, employee purchases of consumer items (especially automobiles), company-sponsored recreation programs (including the “Swift’s Premium” baseball team), workers’ private homes and gardens, and high wages with “bonus money” (earned under the complex “Bedaux incentive wage system” that was reputed to have made Swift “the highest paying firm in the industry”) as indications of the great benefits flowing to those employed by “a great liberal corporation.”

In some cases, the Arrow’s “personal news” section was meant to exemplify the cheerful, hard-working attitude of loyal proletarians who never complained about life and labor under the rule of their benevolent bosses. A typical 1928 item introduced the smiling worker Henry Price from the shipping department. “Henry…says,” theArrow approvingly reported, “the work can’t come too fast for him!”

A Packinghouse Barber

One of the many ways in which the ambitious editors and writers of The Arrow sought to advance their corporatist message was a regular column in which a fictional company barber named Mike would gruffly answer workers’ and radicals’ complaints with pearls of corporatist, welfare-capitalist wisdom. In one “Barber Mike” column, a “Speed and Company” (the Arrow’s revealing pseudonym for Swift & Company) packinghouse worker declared that he was done working himself “to death” for his boss. Barber Mike was ready with an answer that combined the classic bourgeois notion that supply creates its own demand with the new mass consumerist spirit of the “Roaring Twenties” and the notion that Swift’s was one big united team. “Bosh!,” Mike pronounced: “The only limit there is to the amount of work to be done is what folks want, and the more they git the more they want. The faster men work, the more things they can make, and the more they make the lower the price gets so that more people can afford to by what they’re produc’n…WHEN THE TEAM WINS EVERY GUY ON IT WINS…And that goes whether it’s the White Sox (Chicago’s major league South Side baseball team) or Speed and Co.’s packing plant.”

Responding to a barber shop patron who voiced disgust at the vast private fortunes amassed by Chicago’s business elite, Mike instructed workers that those fortunes created job opportunities. “In the long run,” the fictional company barber argued, “rich folks can’t keep their pile except by putting folks to work.”

“Barber Mike” was ready when workers at his shop voiced manual workers’ venerable suspicion of those who get paid more money without “getting their hands dirty” by complaining about the surplus of “do-nothing” managerial “non-producers” at the “Speed” plant. “How do you suppose Speed & Company has come to stand at the top of the packing industry?” Mike asked. “It wasn’t no dumb luck. Them big guys that some of you fellas think don’t earn their money are thinking all the time…There’s more to the meatpacking business that just packing meat.”

One of the columns was titled “Mike Answers a Bolshevik.” When a worker dubbed “Rats Cook” announced that he had “just heard a great [left-wing] speech at the park last night,” the barber intervened to explain that “every one of us wage slaves that you’re talking about lives a dozen times better’n kings did a couple o’hundred years ago.” When “Rats” protested “but we ain’t equal,” Mike stepped in to say “ ‘Course we ain’t. Never was. Better have some rich and some poor with all having a lot that they can enjoy than to have all equal and miserable.” The company barber completed his shutdown of the Marxist sympathizer by advancing the standard bourgeois-hegemonic common sense that class hierarchy was an inherent fact of nature by wondering sarcastically if “Rats” had any complaints “‘bout the weather.’”(Swift Arrow, May 22, 1926)[1]

From Chicago to Shenzhen

Things change. Today, more than ninety years after the Swift Arrow was launched (along with hundreds of other anti-union company newspapers across industrial America) in response to the threat posed to capitalist prerogatives by unions and socialists, Chicago’s once giant meatpacking industry is a thing of the distant past. So is much of the industrial base that once provided employment for millions of American workers and the cradle for the emergence of a mass production unionism that propelled many of those workers into something approximating a middle class after World War Two.

The slaughtering, rendering, and packing of animals and animal products was dispersed westward across the U.S., closer to livestock supplies and further from the once militant, Left-led unions that had held sway among packinghouse workers in the nation’s once great rail-connected packing centers (including Chicago, Omaha, St. Louis, Cedar Rapids) from the late 1930s through the 1950s.

The manufacture of non-edible commodities like cars, clothes, steel and computers has been dispersed across the world to a remarkable degree, especially to East Asia. A contemporary Upton Sinclair looking for vast production complexes in which to portray the horrors of working class life and labor would do best to travel to China. He might well visit the Foxconn’s Langhua factory “campus” in Shenzhen, China, where more than 300,000 workers make products like the Apple iPhone, Sony PlayStations and Dell Computers at wages of $175 per month. Working and living conditions in the Langhua complex are so alienating that large numbers of workers commit suicide, leading the company to string more than 30 million square feet of yellow nets to catch the bodies of employees who leap from the windows and roofs of high-rise proletarian dormitories.[2]

Global Weirding

Another change is that it is no longer absurd for a Marxist or other kind of leftist to complain “’bout the weather.” Current weather patterns are now clearly not just the result of timeless natural forces alone. Decades of economic expansion and ever-escalating consumption and production based on the relentless and wasteful exploitation of carbon-rich fossil fuels have warmed the world’s climate through the “greenhouse effect” in ways that have produced weather extremes being lived in real time right now. With the Arctic having already lost 40 percent of its ice volume over the last 30 years, with 1,600 years of ice formation having melted over the last 25 years in the upper altitudes of South America, and with signs emerging that the planet’s northern permafrost is leaking carbon-rich methane to a deadly degree, “climate change abnormalities in the Arctic are altering the jet streams, which, in turn, negatively impacts weather patterns all across the Northern Hemisphere”[3].As leading climate scientists Jennifer Francis (Rutgers), Lean Saffrey (University of Reading – UK), and Jeff Masters (Weather Underground) note, the warming of the Arctic reduces the temperature difference between the North Pole and the Equator. That reduces the speed and increases the north-south meandering of the northern jet streams (great wind streams that determine northern weather patterns at the 7-to- 9 miles top of the planet’s troposphere), creating “blocking patterns” that produce longer duration cold spells, snow events, heat waves, droughts, and floods as well an increased frequency and intensity of storms (including tornadoes and hurricanes) across the North.

The altered jet streams explain the remarkable increase in extreme and dangerous weather across the U.S. and much of the rest of the world. They lay behind numerous weather events and conditions, from the United States’ worst drought in 50 years (2012) to the by-now routine registering of record high temperatures in years that are now regularly among the hottest recorded in human history, to record snowfalls (“snowmaggedons” including one that recently stranded thousands of drivers on snow and ice-covered highways in the southern U.S. metropolis of Atlanta), to major floods (England in 2012 and Colorado and Eastern Europe in 2013) and epic tornadoes, cyclones, and hurricanes. Weather occurrences that used to be classified as “once in-100-years” and “once-in-500-years” are now taking place on a regular basis. At the same time, seemingly bizarre out-of-season weather events are part of the new meteorological reality. Dozens of tornadoes appeared in the middle South U.S. just short of Thanksgiving last fall. There have been 80-degree days in Chicago in late January (with sun-bathing and beach volleyball) in recent years.

Counter-intuitive though it may seem, the record Cold Arctic outbreak this northern hemisphere winter (2013-204) is tied to anthropogenic global warming [4]. Call it global weirding.


“An Unavoidably Radical Future”

More than merely dangerous, uncomfortable, and expensive (I have replaced one roof thanks to a [2006] tornado and have never shoveled more snow than I have in the last three years), the new weather patterns threaten the world’s food and water supplies. They raise the real specter of human extinction if and when terrible “tipping points” like the large-scale release of Arctic methane (a potential near-term context for truly “runaway global warming”) are passed. The related problem of ocean acidification (a change in the ocean’s chemistry resulting from excessive human carbon emissions) is attacking the very building blocks of life under the world’s great and polluted seas.. Thanks to climate change and other forms of toxic human intervention in global ecosystems, we most add drastically declining biodiversity – a technical phrase for the massive dying off of other species –to the list of “ecological rifts” [5]facing humanity and other living and sentient beings in the 21stcentury.

The findings and judgments of the best contemporary earth science are crystal clear. As the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research (UK) concluded last year: “Today, in 2013, we face an unavoidably radical future…We either continue with rising emissions and reap the radical repercussions of severe climate change, or we acknowledge that we have a choice and pursue radical emission reductions: No longer is there a non-radical option. Moreover, low-carbon supply technologies cannot deliver the necessary rate of emission reductions – they need to be complemented with rapid, deep and early reductions in energy consumption.”[6]


The Deeper Disease: Capitalism

Sadly, however, the Tyndall scientists failed to raise the question of the deeper social-systemic cancer behind the spreading disease of human-generated climate change. The disease is capitalism[7], for whose masters and apologists the answer to the venerable popular demand for equality has long been “more.” They answer is based on the theory that growth creates “a rising tide that lifts all boats” in ways that make us forget about the fact that a wealthy few are sailing luxuriantly in giant yachts while most of us are struggling to keep afloat in modest motorboats and rickety dinghies.

As Le Monde’s ecological editor Herve Kempf noted in his aptly titled book The Rich Are Destroying the Earth(2007), “the oligarchy” sees the pursuit of material growth as “the solution to the social crisis,” the “sole means of fighting poverty and unemployment,” and the “only means of getting societies to accept extreme inequalities without questioning them. . . . Growth,” Kempf explained, “would allow the overall level of wealth to arise and consequently improve the lot of the poor without—and this part is never spelled out [by the economic elite]—any need to modify the distribution of wealth.”[8]

“Growth,” the liberal economist Henry Wallich explained (approvingly) in 1972, “is a substitute for equality of income. So long as there is growth there is hope, and that makes large income differentials tolerable.”[9]

To repeat Swift & Company’s 1926 counsel to its workers through Barber Mike: “Course we ain’t equal…[but]every one of us wage slaves that you’re talking about lives a dozen times better’n kings did a couple o’hundred years ago…. Better have some rich and some poor with all having a lot that they can enjoy than to have all equal and miserable.”

Of course, growth is more than an ideology under the profit system. It is also a material, economic imperative for investors, managers, workers, and policymakers caught up in the disastrous competitive world-capitalist logic of what John Bellamy Foster calls “the global ‘treadmill of production.” Capitalism demands constant growth to meet the competitive accumulation requirements of capital, the employment needs of an ever-expanding global class or proletarians (workers dependent on wages), the sales needs of corporations, and governing officials’ need to legitimize their power by appearing to advance national economic development and security.[10] This system can no more forego growth and survive than a person can stop breathing and live. It is, as Joel Kovel notes, “a system built on endless growth”, the “eternal expansion of the economic product,” and the “conver[sion of] everything possible [including the air we breathe, the water we drink, the soil and plants] into monetary [exchange] value.” It is therefore wired “to destroy the integrity of the ecosystems upon which life depends for food, energy, and other resources.”[11]

Consistent with this harsh reality, the system’s leading investors have invested massively in highly wasteful advertising, marketing, packaging and built-in-obsolescence. The commitment has penetrated into core processes of capitalist production, so that millions toil the world over in the making of complex electronic (and other) products designed to lose material and social value (and thus to be dumped in landfills) in short periods of time.[12]

 Merely to Save the Planet: On Asset Inertia

Along the way, U.S. capital has invested huge amounts of fixed capital in the existing fossil fuel-addicted energy system – “sunk” capital investments that make giant and powerful petrochemical corporations and utilities all too “rationally” (from a profit perspective) resistant to a much needed clean energy conversion. As leading environmental author and activist Bill McKibben explained in his 2010 book Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet:

“Sunk costs…it’s a phrase we need to know if want to understand why all the big companies are not jumping aboard the clean energy train. The journalist Paul Roberts figured earlier in the decade that ‘the existing fossil fuel infrastructure, from power plants and supertankers to oil furnaces and SUVs,’ is worth at least $10 trillion, and scheduled to operate anywhere from ten to fifty more years before its capital costs can be paid off. If we shut it down early, merely to save the planet, someone will have to eat that cost. Given such ‘serious asset inertia,’ no owner or investor in a power plant is likely to accept the write-down without a ‘nasty political fight’” (emphasis added).[13]


The Blame China Syndrome/U.S. Responsibility

Big U.S. carbon capital and its many allies in government and politics like nowadays to observe out that China is now technically the world’s leading national carbon emitter, painting that coal-devouring and pollution-ravaged nation out as the top contributor to climate change. The charge omits the still unmatched per capita carbon consumption of the U.S., the still unmatched historical contribution of the U.S. to accumulated carbon in the atmosphere (now past the long-feared tipping point of 350 parts per million), and the massive investment of U.S. capital in Chinese fossil fuels and manufacturing. JPMorgan Chase and Citibank invested $17 billion and $14 billion, respectively, in new coal plant construction abroad between 2006 and 2013.[14] “American” corporations have been outsourcing their industrial carbon emissions – and visible air pollution – to China to no small degree.

At the same time, no national government has done more to deep-six increasingly desperate international efforts to reduce global carbon emissions than that of the United States – a record that has continued with depressing vengeance through the supposedly “green” Obama presidency. And no nation has invested more heavily and powerfully in the political, ideological, and military promotion and defense of the at once carbon- and growth-addicted profits system than the United States. The U.S. is headquarters of the corporate carbon-industrial-complex’s giant lobbying and propaganda war on the increasingly dire findings of modern climate science – including those of NASA. Almost alone among the world’s nations, as Noam Chomsky has noted, the U.S. is moving backwards on the climate issue, with policy driven to no small extent by corporate-led denial of the dire findings and warnings being advanced by the preponderant majority of earth and life scientists. [14A]

The U.S. carbon-industrial complex’s propaganda war on climate science would elicit awed admiration from editors of the Swift Arrow and numerous other company newspapers through which corporations advanced the art and science of thought control (pioneered and carried to globally unmatched levels in the U.S [15]) during the 1920s.

“A Free Market Success Story”

The problem of petro-capitalist carbon-industrial eco-cidal asset inertia has deepened in the “homeland” in recent years as untold billions are now invested in the arch-toxic process of hydraulic fracturing, whereby gas and oil are extracted through high-pressure horizontal drilling processes that involve the massive exploitation and poisoning of already endangered freshwater supplies and the forcible underground injection of toxic chemicals. Touted by both of the major U.S. business parties as the source of a glorious new “American Energy Independence,” the highly carbon-intensive extraction of shale gas and oil through “fracking” fuels further exterminist Greenhouse-warming. The global gassing project is also furthered also by the corporate-captive U.S. State Departments’ recent granting of a green (as in petro-corporate money) environmental light to the Keystone XL (tar-sands) pipeline.[16]

Fracking is sold by its leading corporate investors as a great “free-market success story: a natural gas boom created by drilling company innovation, delivering a vast new source of cheap energy without the government subsidies that solar and wind power demand…But,” as the Associated Press’s Kevin Begoss had the decency to note in the fall of 2012, “those who helped pioneer the technique known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, recall a different path. Over three decades, from the shale fields of Texas and Wyoming to the Marcellus in the Northeast, the federal government contributed more than $100 million in research to develop fracking, and billions more in tax breaks.”[17]

This hypocrisy is of little concern to many thousands of workers who have found desperately needed employment in hundreds of new fracking sites in Texas, Pennsylvania, and North Dakota. Capitalism creates a giant popular default demand for growth (however attained) among the billions it has removed from self-sufficiency and communal support through its ongoing assault on the natural and social commons and the social state. Poor and property-less multitudes who possess little or nothing beyond their labor power cannot be expected to agonize over corporate welfare – or the environment for that matter – as they struggle to put food on the table and clothes on their children’s bodies by renting their work capacity out to those who own the means of production, extraction, distribution, finance, and communication.

Animal Agriculture

As the vegetarian Upton Sinclair would certainly appreciate (and the editors of the Swift Arrow would not), however, it’s not all about fossil fuels. According to a recent report published by the Worldwatch Institute, a stunning 51 percent of annual worldwide greenhouse gas emissions come from animal agriculture – that is from livestock and their byproducts (human inventions no less than the internal combustion engine and the automobile). According to the United Nations, raising animals for food is “one the top two or three most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems…from local to global.” Clearly, animal agriculture is one of the largest sources of carbon dioxide and the single largest supply for both carbon-rich methane (20 times more potent than carbon dioxide when it comes to trapping heat in the atmosphere) and (300 times more potent) nitrogen oxide emissions. (You can almost hear Rush Limbaugh (a modern day Barber Mike of sorts for the airwaves) guffawing in disbelief, between bites, perhaps, of a hamburger hacked out of a sick cow raised in a brutal Colorado feedlot).“By itself,” the Worldwatch Institute eports, “leaving a significant amount of tropical land used for grazing livestock and growing [animal] feed to regenerate the [tropical rain] forest [currently under massive capitalist assault in the developing world] could potentially mitigate as much as half (or more) of all anthropogenic Greenhouse Gases.”[18]

The once great black soils of the formerly Great U.S. Plains are dominated by the ubiquitous industrial “fencepost-to-fencepost” planting of corn and soybeans for animal consumption. Converting that land from growing animal feed to the direct organic production of food for human beings could (properly managed) significantly cut U.S. carbon emissions and U.S. hunger at one and the same time.


The relevant contemporary socialist project of producing democratically and for the common good is not simply about placing existing forces and means of production under workers’ and citizens’ public and popular control. Many of those forces and means of production have long been rendered useless, harmful, and even exterminist in essence. They cannot be put to decent use in a world beyond the rule of capital. Factory farms and killing floors and SUV assembly lines and have no more place in an ecologically balanced, egalitarian and participatory peoples’ future than do nuclear power plants and nuclear weapons and bomber plants – or than giant coal-fired industrial complexes dedicated to the manufacture of millions of I-phones and video consoles designed to become obsolete within a short period of time. When and if – as now clearly must occur if humanity and other livings things are going to have any chance of a decent future – the relations of production are democratized and socialized, old forces of production will have to be swept into the dustbin of history. New forces will emerge and not-so old pre-class forces and methods ones will be re-invigorated, consistent with the late Marxist historian Chris Harman’s observation that “societies…characterized by competition, inequality, and oppression” – by class – are “the product of…rather recent history.”[19]

Paul Street is the author of “Capitalism: The Real Enemy,” Chapter 1 in Francis Goldin et al., IMAGINE: Living in a Socialist USA (New York: Harper Collins, January 2014). Street’s next book is They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, 2014).


Selected Notes

1. Original citations can be found in Paul Street, “A Company Newspaper: The Swift Arrow and Welfare Capitalism in Chicago’s Meatpacking Industry,” Mid-American: An Historical Review (Winter 1996), Volume 78, Number 1.

2. Frederick Balfour and Tim Culpan “The Man Who Makes Your Iphone,” Business Week, September 9, 2010 at

3. Robert Hunziker, “the Inevitability of Radical Climate Change,” Z Magazine (January 2014), 38.

4. Terrell Johnson, “Is the Record Cold Arctic Outbreak Tied to Global Warming?” The Weather Channel (January 6, 2014)

5. John Bellamy Foster, Brett Clark, and Richard York, The Ecological Rift: Capitalism’s War on Earth(New York: Monthly Review, 2010), 14-15.

6. Tyndall Center for Climate Change Research, “The Radical Emission Reduction Emission Reduction Conference, December 10-11, 2013,”

7. See the incisive reflections of historian Richard Smith in “Beyond Growth or Beyond Capitalism,” Real World Economic Review, issue 53, June 26, 2010, reprinted with revisions at Truthout (January 15, 2014),

8. Herve Kempf, How the Rich Are Destroying the Earth (White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green, 2007)70, 73.

9. Wallich is quoted in William Greider, Come Home America: The Rise and Fall (and Redeeming Promise) of Our Country (New York: Rodale, 2009), 202.

10. John Bellamy Foster, “Global Ecology and the Common Good,” Monthly Review (February 1995), read online at

11.Joel Kovel, “The Future Will be Ecosocialist Because Without Ecosocialism There Will be No Future,” Chapter 2 in Francis Goldin, Debby Smith, and Michael Steven Smith, IMAGINE Living in a Socialist USA(New York: Harper Collins, 2014), 27-28

12. John Bellamy and Brett Clark, “The Planetary Emergency,” Monthly Review, Vol. 54, Issue 7 (December 2012),

13. Bill McKibben, Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet (New York: Time Books, 2010), 55.

14. Phillip Gaspar, International Socialist Review (January 2013]).

14A. “Noam Chomsky at 2013 Left Forum,”

15. Alex Carey, Taking the Risk Out of Democracy: Corporate Propaganda versus Freedom and Liberty(Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1997), 11-84.

16. “State Department Moves Keystone Closer to Approval, But Does Conflict of Interest Taint Report?”Democracy Now! , February 3, 2014,

17. Kevin Begos, “Fracking Developed With Decades of Government Investment,” Associated Press (September 23, 2012)

18. Robert Goodland and Jeff Anhang, “Livestock and Climate Change,” World Watch(November/December 2009), ; People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, “Fight Global Warming,”

19. Chris Harman, A People’s History of the World: From the Stone Age to the New Millennium (London: Verso, 2008[1999]

Capitalism’s Ironic Defenders

07/02/14 0 COMMENTS

First published in Z Magazine, February 2014. Capitalism finds some of its most under-acknowledged supporters among liberal and progressive commentators who pile ridicule on some of its most egregious offenders atop the financial sector. Look, for one example, at television personality Dylan Ratigan’s book Dirty Bastards: How We Can Stop Corporate Communists, Banksters, and Other Vampires From Sucking Us Dry (2012), a New York Times bestseller. In Dirty Bastards, Ratigan claims that the United States’ current “vampire” economic order is “the opposite of capitalism.” He calls the new order “extractionism”: a system based on “taking money from others without creating anything of value, anything that produces economic growth or improves our lives.” His book is dedicated to exposing the gluttonous Wall Street financial “bastards” who are “tearing down” America because they “take,” like “vampires,” rather than “make” goods, like good capitalists.

A similar narrative, more elegantly developed, pervades another New York Times bestseller, progressive journalist Matt Taibbi’s Griftopia: A Story of Bankers, Politicians, and the Most Audacious Power Grab in History (2010). Telling much the same story of parasitic financiers who suck up the nation’s wealth while dismantling its once proud industrial base, Taibbi says that the difference between understanding and misunderstanding Wall Street’s complex financial instruments “is the difference between perceiving how Wall Street made its money in the last decades as normal capitalist business and seeing the truth of what it often was instead, which was simple fraud and crime” (Griftopia 14). By Taibbi’s account: “….the financial leaders of America and their political servants have seemingly reached the cynical conclusion that our society is not worth saving and have taken on a new mission that involves not creating wealth for all, but simply absconding with whatever wealth remains in our hollowed-out economy…. The same giant military-industrial complex that once dotted the American states with smokestacks and telephone poles as far as the eye could see has now been expertly and painstakingly refitted for a monstrous new mission: sucking up whatever savings remains in the pockets of the actual people living between the coasts, the little hidden nest eggs of the men and women who built the country and fought its wars.”

The notion that the destructive, sponging, and crisis-prone behavior of the financial elite and its corruption of political officials mark a ravenous, bloodsucking, and criminal departure from the benevolent and balanced norm of capitalism is common in recent liberal literature on the U.S. economy.

It is present in Nobel laureate economist Joseph Stiglitz’s recent volume The Price of Inequality (New York, 2012), which details how high finance has rigged the American economic and political game in the interest of “rent-taking”—a form of economic activity in which investors receive wealth without contributing to society—and contains the following statement on its back cover: “in recent years well-heeled interests have compounded their wealth by stifling true, dynamic capitalism.” Similar notions can be found (among other places) in the writings of Paul Krugman (another Nobel Prize-winning U.S. liberal-Keyensian economist and public intellectual) and in leading liberal political scientists Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson’s widely read book, Winner-Take-All Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer and Turned its Back on the Middle Class (New York, 2010). The latter volume calls for rolling back the outsized wealth and power of finance capital so as to unleash “vibrant, dynamic capitalism,” which “requires that guidance that only a vibrant, dynamic democracy can provide.”

The assumption of a munificent and sensible capitalist system perverted by the criminal, de-stabilizing parasitism and greed of the financial sector is explicit in Charles Ferguson’s widely read book, Predator Nation: Corporate Criminals, Political Corruption, and the Hijacking of America Predator Nation (2012). That volume’s opening chapter contains a revealing caveat, expressing the author’s underlying allegiance to the profit system: “I should perhaps make one comment about where I’m coming from. I’m not against business, or profits, or becoming wealthy. I have no problem with people becoming billionaires…but that’s not how most of the people mentioned in this book became wealthy. Most of them became wealthy by being well-connected and crooked.”

Predator Nation gives policy recommendations to reign in and regulate the U.S. financial sector. Above all, however, Ferguson seems interested in criminal prosecution of “the bad guys [who] got away with it”—with causing the financial crisis and subsequent epic recession of 2007-2009. Ferguson cites his desire to call those “bad guys” out as the first reason he wrote his book. He decries on the first page that, “As of early 2012 there has still not been a single criminal prosecution of a senior financial executive related to the financial crisis.”

In Business to Make Profits, Period

The problem with these and other analyses in the same vein is not that their descriptions of finance capital’s importance, behavior, and consequences are inaccurate. There has occurred in the neoliberal era (mid-1970s to the present) a significant shift of investors’ domestic preference from industrial production to “FIRE”—finance, insurance, and real estate—a transformation that tripled financial institutions’ share of total U.S. corporate profits (Noam Chomsky, Making the Future).

These profits have not contributed to much in the way of national economic development. “For years,” the New Yorker’s perceptive economics writer John Cassidy has noted, “the most profitable industry in America has been one that doesn’t design, build, or sell a single tangible thing.” Economists’ standard argument for such “financial innovations” as asset-backed securities (ABS) and the various derivative financial instruments associated with them like Credit Default Swaps (CDS) and Collateralized Debt Obligations (CDS) has been that they increase the size of the overall economic pie to the “trickle-down” benefit of all. “But these types of things don’t add to the pie,” Cassidy rightly observes, “They redistribute it”—upward (J. Cassidy, “What Good is Wall Street?” the New Yorker, November 29, 2010). They also create remarkable dangers of financial and attendant economic collapse, exacerbated by the requirement that taxpayers spend trillions of dollars bailing out the very financial institutions who developed and marked the “weapons of mass economic destruction” whose implosion sparked the first true crisis of capitalism in its neoliberal phase.

None of this has changed since the epic financial meltdown of 2007-08, reflecting the outsized political influence of Wall Street’s spectacularly rich and powerful chieftains. The big banks and investment houses have avoided serious new regulations, much less criminal investigation and prosecution, much to the (understandable) chagrin of Ratigan, Taibbi, and Ferguson, et al. This is all quite despicable.

And who in progressive circles wouldn’t enjoy seeing Jamie Dimon and other hyper-opulent Wall Street chiefs hauled off to prison for their dastardly roles in the liquidation of livelihoods and the destruction of families and communities across America—all while lining their own super-opulent pockets in a nation that now ranks 95th in the world in terms of income equality, “just behind Nigeria, Iran, Cameroon, and the Ivory Coast” (Predator Nation)?

Still, writers like Ratigan, Taibbi, and Ferguson do their readers and the cause of progressive change a disservice when they suggest that the exploitative financial behavior they denounce is somehow different from the real or “normal” nature of the capitalist system. “U.S. Steel,” that company’s former Chair David Roderick once candidly commented in explaining why his firm was laying off workers and closing plants, “is in business to make profits, not to make steel” (David Bensman and Roberta Lynch, Rusted Dreams: Hard Times in a Steel Community).

“Rarely is the reality put with greater clarity,” notes the Marxist political scientist David McNally: “under capitalism, use is irrelevant; profit is king. Capitalist enterprises have no particular attachment to what they turn out, be it flat-rolled steel, loaves of bread, or pairs of jeans” (D. McNally: Global Slump: The Economics and Politics of Crisis and Resistance). And, it should be added, capitalism has no intrinsic attachment to making anything material or tangible in any particular country. Purely financial and largely parasitic instruments like junk bonds and CDs and CDOs are normal capitalist productions no less than a ton of steel produced by a multinational corporation in Gary, Indiana—or, for that matter, in central China. When capitalism is understood for what it is really about (investor profit), there is nothing paradoxical about its failure to serve working people or the common good or the economic development, industrial policy, and employment needs of the United States or any other country.

Making Things, Taking Surplus Value

But even when and where the profits system is fulfilling Ratigan’s notion of a good, true, and dynamic capitalism—one that involves “making” tangible goods and manufacturing jobs instead of just rent-taking and speculation inside the United States—it does so in a way that is all about extraction and exploitation. Most of us interact with the so-called free market primarily by renting out our core human capacity for work to more privileged others in order to survive—to purchase use values that make life possible. Capitalists are different, by economic definition. They and (above all) their highly organized concentrations of profit-seeking capital—corporations—care about little beyond exchange value and profit. They engage the market as investors seeking to exploit the world and its people for gain. There would be no capitalist point to their investment without exploitation. There would be no purpose for them in paying us wages and salaries without surplus value—extra labor value going to them beyond the commodity price of our labor power.

There’s a long, ongoing, and frequently bloody history of conflict between capitalists and workers resulting from the struggle between labor and capital over how much surplus value (surplus labor) the latter is entitled to extract from the former in return for making the profit-seeking investments that drive “growth.” A related ugly environmental history reflects merchant and industrial capital’s long history of extracting and exploiting natural resources for profit.

Beyond Greed

Contrary to liberals and progressives who are morally offended (understandably) by the 1% “takers,” it is not simply or even mainly greed that pushes capitalists to engage in this “extractionism.” As McNally explains, industrial capitalists are driven to exploit workers by their own intra-class competition with each other for market share: “….this drive for profit is not a mere personal idiosyncrasy of an individual investor…. Each owner of a bakery, every investor in a garment factory, every CEO of a steel mill is competing with many others. Each is trying to bring to market a product of equal quality at less cost…. And that means profits must regularly be plowed back into the company in order to buy the latest technology, machines, and equipment. Only in this way can the company become more efficient, capable of producing the same goods (or an improved one) more quickly and cheaply. But such improvements are not possible without making profits; they can only be paid for if the company earns more than it spends…competition compels each firm to minimize costs and maximize profits. And because the source of all profit is unpaid work, or as Marx prefers, surplus labor, if profits are to rise then labor must be sped up and intensified, its productivity increased” (McNally, Global Slump).

Many capitalists exploit workers and the natural environment without necessarily being avaricious or malevolent. “When capitalists do display greed and other character flaws,” the radical economist Richard Wolff notes, “these flaws are less causes than results of a system that requires certain actions by capitalists who want to survive and prosper” (Richard Wolff, Democracy at Work: A Cure for Capitalism).

The conflict between “hostile [capitalist] brothers” extends beyond production into trade, communications, real estate, insurance, finance and other realms. Great mass retailing firms (Wal-Mart, K-Mart, and Target, for example) battle each other for consumer dollars and market share. Giant media conglomerates duke it out for readers, viewers, listeners, and advertising dollars. Corporate insurance behemoths fight each other for health, life, home, and car insurance sales. Massive financial institutions clash over market shares of home, car, business, and consumer loans and the complex financial securities built on the proliferation of credit.

The So-Called Financial Cris

These two core and classic tensions of capitalism—(a) the conflict between capitalists and workers over the amount of surplus labor the former can extract from the latter and (b) the conflict between capitalists over how much total surplus value different investor groups get to realize and appropriate—are intimately related to the expansion of the financial sector and its complex financial instruments in the neoliberal era. They are inseparably linked also to the epic economic crisis those instruments and that sector helped create. As Wolff explained as the crisis unfolded in the late summer of 2008, “The so-called financial crisis today is a symptom. The underlying disease is capitalism: an economic system that weaves implacable and destructive conflict into its production and distribution of goods and services.”

During the 1970s, Wolf noted, the U.S. employer class succeeded in slashing U.S. workers wages, making it impossible for the nation’s working class majority to purchase the goods and services produced by an increasingly automated, global, and cheap labor economy. A total crisis of over-production was averted “because U.S. capitalism found a way to postpone it: massive debt.” As Wolff elaborated: “Since employers succeeded in keeping wages from rising, the only way to sell the ever-expanding output was to lend workers the money to buy more. Corporations invested their soaring profits in buying new securities backed by workers’ mortgages, auto loans, and credit-card loans. Owners of such securities were thereby entitled to portions of the monthly payments workers made on those loans. In effect, the extra profits made by keeping workers’ wages down now did double duty for employers who earned hefty interest payments by loaning part of those profits back to the workers. What a system!” (Richard Wolff, “Capitalist Crisis, Marx’s Shadow,” MRZine, September 26, 2008.)

The crisis was only postponed over subsequent decades as a consumer lending boom furthered by financial deregulation “loaded millions of Americans with unsustainable debts. By 2006, the most stressed borrowers—sub- prime—could no longer pay what they owed.” The resulting “house of debt cards” collapsed. Intra-capitalist competition also created the crisis. As Wolff explained: “As some banks made big profits rushing to lend to workers, other lenders feared that those banks would use those profits to outcompete them. So they too rushed into ‘consumer lending.’ To raise the money to make such profitable loans to workers, lenders made expanded use of new types of financial instruments, chiefly securities backed by workers’ debt obligations (securities whose owners received portions of workers’ loan repayments). U.S. lenders sold these securities globally to tap into the entire world’s cash. The whole world thus got drawn into depending on a whirlpool: U.S. capitalism propping up its workers’ purchasing power with costly loans because it no longer raised their wages. The competing rating companies (Fitch, Moody’s, Standard and Poor’s, etc.) inaccurately assessed these securities’ riskiness. These companies competed for the business of lenders who needed high ratings to sell the debt-backed securities. Private and public lenders around the world competed with one another by buying the U.S. debt-backed securities because they were rated as nearly riskless and yet paid high interest rates” (Wolff, “Capitalist Crisis, Marx’s Shadow”).

Foundations of Manufacturing Revival

It is critical to remember, contra Ratigan, that U.S. capitalism never really quit “making” (manufacturing) things. What U.S. corporations and investors really abandoned was making things (manufacturing) inside the U.S. as finance both led and followed a shift of capital to production in lower-wage “developing nations” abroad and particularly in East Asia, especially the giant cheap labor market of China by the 1990s. The shift was driven by capitalism’s endless quest for profit and the surplus labor/value that makes up a critical ingredient of that profit.

If manufacturing revives in the United States to any significant degree in coming years, it will not do so because of any particular commitment on the part of investors to U.S. development. It will happen because U.S. labor, materials, energy, transportation, and/or other production costs have fallen to the point where capitalists find it profitable and competitively advantageous to make things in the so-called homeland.

Consistent with this basic understanding of capital’s aims, it became possible in early 2013 to talk about a mini-revival of U.S.-based manufacturing (R. Foroohar and B. Saporito, “Made in the USA,” Time, April 22, 2013). This was because mass unemployment, the continuing corporate rollback of private sector unions, and the slashing of the welfare state reduced “homeland” wages and benefits to the point where the U.S. became what left analyst Joel Geier calls “the cheap labor market of the advanced industrial world” (J. Geier, “Capitalism’s Long Crisis,” International Socialist Review, March-April 2013). Economist Alan Nasser provides a chilling perspective on how this development creates the basic context for why capital was willing to invest back in U.S. manufacturing to an increased degree:  “It is not far-fetched to see a growing resemblance of U.S. and poor-country workers.

“High-priced economic forecasters and consultants are known to refer to the U.S. as ‘Europe’s Mexico.’ In the near future, they predict, some U.S. states, mostly in the South, but also including California and the Rust Belt, will be not only the cheapest manufacturing locations in the developed world, but also competitive with India and China. Wages are rising in the production- and service-oriented poor countries and falling in the rich ones…[since] unrest is brewing in the periphery. Costs of production are gradually converging between China and the U.S.: declining-wage U.S. workers are more productive and fuel prices are expected to continue to rise, making it increasingly expensive to ship goods around the world. Non-union workers contracted by Ford to do inspection and repairs at the Dearborn truck plant make $10 an hour without benefits, which is projected to be less than the Chinese average by 2015…. Companies like Ford, Caterpillar, Wham-O Inc. (Frisbees), Master Lock, Suarez Manufacturing, and General Electric have recently relocated production from China and Mexico to Georgia, Ohio, Indiana, Wisconsin, California, and Michigan. This may or may not be a growing trend, but the mere fact of some U.S. regions becoming newly competitive with Mexico and China bespeaks the declining fortunes of the U.S. worker” (Counterpunch, December 2, 2011).

Along with cheap labor, U.S. industrial competitiveness has recently received a further boost from cheap energy resulting from environmentally disastrous hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) and horizontal drilling inside the United States. “U.S. oil production grew by 779,000 barrels a day in 2012,” Geier observes, “more in any one year than at any time since the start of U.S. oil production in 1859…. Within a few years, the expectation is that the United States will be the largest world producer of oil…. Oil imports have dropped to a twenty-year low and are now starting to reduce the balance of payments deficit dramatically.” The terrible ecological costs of fracking includes increased carbon emissions and climate warming (currently on the verge of catastrophic levels) and the massive waste and pollution of already endangered North American water supplies. They are of no concern to capital, which never lets worry for the Earth we all share stand in the way of the holy bottom line imperatives of endless accumulation and “growth.”

The Not-So Golden Age

Those who harbor nostalgic feelings for a time when U.S. capitalism was more committed to “making” things inside the U.S. (always on the condition that a profitable level of surplus labor could be extracted from workers) might want to take a closer look at the U.S. experience at its booming “golden age” apex, just prior to the onset of the neoliberal era of corporate globalization, savage U.S. deindustrialization, and related “financiali- zation.” Across the entire postwar period (1945-1971), Howard Zinn noted in 1973, the bottom tenth of the U.S. population—20 million Americans—experienced no progress in increasing their share of national income (a paltry 1 percent). Corporate profits and CEO salaries rose significantly across the 1960s boom, but deep poverty remained deeply entrenched in “the golden age” of western and American capitalism.As Zinn elaborated:

“Being rich or poor was more than a statistic; it profoundly determined how an American lived. In the postwar United States, how much money Americans had determined whether or not they lived in a home with rats or vermin; whether or not their home was such that their children were more likely to die in a fire; whether or not they could get adequate medical and dental care; whether or not they got arrested, and, if they did, whether or not they spent time in jail before trial, whether they got a fair trial, a long or a short sentence, whether or not they got parole. How much money Americans had determined whether or not their children would be born alive. It determined whether or not Americans had a vacation; whether they needed to hold down more than one job; whether or not they had enough to eat; whether or not they could influence a congressman or run for office; whether or not a man was drafted, and what chances a man had that he would die in combat” (Howard Zinn, Postwar America, 1945-1971).

As the nation spent billions to put astronauts on the moon, millions of Americans remained ill-clad, ill-fed, and ill-housed. The median U.S. family income in 1968 was $8,362, less than what the Bureau of Labor Statistics defined as a “modest but adequate” income for an urban family of four. The Bureau found that 30 percent of the nation’s working class families were living in poverty and another 30 percent were living under highly “austere” conditions. “Affluence,” historian Judith Stein notes, “was as much as an ideology as a description of U.S. society” in the 1950s and 1960s (J. Stein, Pivotal Decade: How the United States Traded Factories for Finance during the 1970s, New Haven, CT, 2010).

U.S. industrial capitalism at its “golden” best was no land of milk and honey for millions of Americans on the wrong end of capital’s constant drive to extract value from working people, the broader community, and the Earth. Thanks to its rapacious and wasteful extraction of wealth from the natural environment, moreover, the profit system had already generated what numerous left and other U.S. environmentalists were already describing as an ecological crisis (see Barry Commoner’s haunting 1971 book The Closing Circle).

We can pine for the past when “the…giant military-industrial complex once dotted the American states with smokestacks and telephone poles as far as the eye could see,” blaming greedy, “vampire”-like finance capitalists—“criminal” manipulators of paper wealth and politicians they own—for tearing it all down. Or, better, we can confront the deeper underlying system and disease called capitalism, a rapacious and extractive exploiter of human beings and the natural environment for more than five centuries now. As Wolff explained two years ago: “Historical and contemporary records overflow with blame variously heaped on the illegal acts of financiers, corporate executives, corrupt state officials, union leaders, and ‘organized crime’ for causing capitalism’s cycles and crises… Pinpointing ‘the bad guys’ perpetuates the ancient art of scape- goating, deflecting blame on convenient targets when in fact the system is the problem. Capitalist societies can continue to monitor, identify, regulate, and prosecute economic misdeeds, but doing so never will prevented cycles and crises. Overcoming the systemic roots and nature of capitalist crises requires a change in the economic system” (Wolff, Democracy at Work).

We might add that saving livable ecology also requires a social and democratic transformation beyond the profits-based economic system, which is no less dependent on rampant, environmentally disastrous waste, excess, and growth in the “financialized” neoliberal era than it was in the years of U.S. mass-productionist manufacturing supremacy. Without such transformation in a generation or two, little else that progressives are concerned about, including the exaggerated wealth and power of finance capital, is going to matter all that much.

Obamaphelia: a Short History and Diagnostic Guide

03/02/14 0 COMMENTS
Diseases and Conditions

Obamaphelia: a Short History and Diagnostic Guide


Obamaphelia, “the Obama disease:”  a delusional belief that Barack Obama is a progressive, peace- and justice-oriented, liberal and even left politician and policymaker.  The belief is maintained despite abundant evidence to the contrary dating to and preceding the national unveiling of the “the Obama phenomenon” in the summer of 2004.[1]

The disorder’s prevalence peaked in the presidential and primary and election years of 2007 and 2008.  It remained at high levels during Obama’s first two years in the White House and continues to plague millions of Americans – some quite highly educated (in a formal sense) – to this day.

The disorder has “left” and right varieties. In its “progressive,” liberal, and “left” version, Obamapheliacs insist that their hero is committed in his heart to peace and social justice but experiences frustration in his desire to advance those goals by the Republicans and their big business backers.  The president needs and even wants activists and movements to push him left, providing the grassroots muscle to “make” him do progressive things, “left” Obamapheliacs feel. For neo-McCarthyite, right-wing Teapublican Obamapheliacs channeling the “paranoid style” of “conservative” politics first diagnosed by the renowned liberal historian Richard Hofstader,[2] Obama is a “big government” socialist who wants to overthrow “free market” capitalism, redistribute wealth downward, elevate blacks and other minorities over whites, and dismantle U.S. global military power.

A Shared Victimization

While the two variants view each other as mortal enemies, they share the same basic delusion about the United States’ 44th president, ignoring mountains of proof showing beyond any serious doubt that he is a conservative friend and agent of America’s highly unequal capitalist system, imperialism, and (curiously enough) white supremacism.

This shared hallucination started early on. As Obama’s first budget was rolled out in the early spring of 2009, John MacArthur, then president ofHarper’s Magazine, observed that both right and left had collaborated in the creation of a “fantasy” – in “an absurd reading of Obama” as “commit[ted] to left-wing ‘change.”  This was   the “wishful thinking” shared by “pundits across the political spectrum” – quite preposterous since the new chief executive was “a moderate with far too much respect for the global financial class” and as “surely the unleft, unradical, president.”[3]

To a significant extent, Obamapheliacs are victims of marketing and public relations.  The image of the center-right Obama as a left progressive – even as a “Marxist” in some Teapublican rhetoric – was cultivated for electoral and partisan purposes by leading political strategists in the nation’s two dominant business-backed political organizations. Consistent with the formerly left Christopher Hitchens’ apt description of “the essence of American politics” as “the manipulation of populism by elitism,”[4] Democratic image-makers found it useful and indeed necessary for the winning of ordinary Americans’ votes to cloak Obama’s allegiance to big business and the military state in the false rebels’ clothing of heartfelt concern for working people, the environment, and peace. They would have done the same if Hillary Clinton or John Edwards had won the Democratic nomination in 2008.

Seeking to rally their older, whiter, more rural and more southern base against the other business party’s leading politician, Republican/FOX News spin-doctors found it useful to advance the image of Obama as a dangerous totalitarian socialist.  They would have the done the same to any Democratic presidential nominee and president, consistent with “the paranoid style” (which fueled similar charges against previous Democratic presidencies from Franklin Roosevelt through Bill Clinton), though Obama’s race, ethno-cultural nomenclature and celebrity combined with the anxiety generated by economic crisis to stoke the fires of the political psychosis they fed to new levels.


As the Obama phenomenon and disease first emerged at the tail end of the first George W. Bush administration and then became endemic in 2007 and 2008, a cadre of writers and activists from the actual Left made repeated warnings about Obama’s center-right and imperialist essence.  The present left-socialist writer published a deeply researched 272-page book dedicated to raising the alarm.  Written mainly in 2007 and published in the spring of 2008, this volume received enthusiastic endorsements from leading, seriously left intellectuals and essentially predicted the right-leaning course of the Obama presidency.[5] It was one of many left warnings and reflections regarding the Obama phenomenon/disease/disorder.[6]

Corrections to the “left Obama” fantasy did not come only from the “radical left,” routinely ignored by “serious” intellectuals.  In an April 2007 Washington Post column titled “Obama the Interventionist,” the right wing foreign policy advisor Robert Kagan praised Obama for embracing Cold War language describing the U.S. as the “leader of the free world” and for advancing an aggressively “interventionist” foreign policy requiring a significant increase in “defense” spending.  “He talks about how we need to ‘seize’ the ‘American moment,’” Kagan gushed, adding “This is left-liberal foreign policy? Ask Noam Chomsky next time you see him.”[7]

One month later, the centrist New Yorker (no radical platform) published an in-depth portrait of Barack Obama in which journalist Larissa MacFarquhar reasonably depicted Obama as “deeply conservative”:

“In his view of history, in his respect for tradition, in his skepticism that the world can be changed any way but very, very slowly, Obama is deeply conservative. There are moments when he sounds almost Burkean. He distrusts abstractions, generalizations, extrapolations, projections. It’s not just that he thinks revolutions are unlikely: he values continuity and stability for their own sake, sometimes even more than he values change for the good. Take health care, for example. “If you’re starting from scratch,” he says, “then a single-payer system”—a government-managed system like Canada’s, which disconnects health insurance from employment—“would probably make sense. But we’ve got all these legacy systems in place, and managing the transition, as well as adjusting the culture to a different system, would be difficult to pull off. So we may need a system that’s not so disruptive that people feel like suddenly what they’ve known for most of their lives is thrown by the wayside”…Asked whether he has changed his mind about anything in the past twenty years, he says, “I’m probably more humble now about the speed with which government programs can solve every problem. For example, I think the impact of parents and communities is at least as significant as the amount of money that’s put into education.”

MacFarquhar’s portrait was consistent with what Cass Sunstein, Obama’s colleague at the University of Chicago Law School, identified as Obama’s “minimalist” approach to law and politics” – a preference for “modest adjustments in institutions in search of his ‘visionary’ goals.”[8]

Classic Obamapheliac Texts:

“Historians for Obama” (November 2007)

None of this stopped more than 250 mostly liberal and left U.S. historians (including more than a few who would certainly identify as democratic socialists) from signing an embarrassing late November  2007 endorsement of Obama that praised him as a “world citizen” and former “community organizer” with “an acute awareness of the inequalities of race and class” – and as “that rare politician who can stretch the meaning of democracy, who can help revive what William James called ‘the civic genius of the people.’” Obama, the historians gushed, exhibited “qualities of mind and temperament that really separate [him] from the rest…He is a gifted writer and orator who speaks forcefully but without animus. Not since John F. Kennedy has a Democrat candidate for president showed the same combination of charisma and thoughtfulness.” [9]

With a discernible professorial whiff about him (honed at Columbia, Harvard, and years as an adjunct law professor at the arch-neoliberal University of Chicago), Obama, like JFK, made a play for the academicians (at least 85 percent of whom are registered Democrats in the humanities and social sciences).Some, like the “Historians for Obama,” ran like poodles to their master.

Clearly, Obama’s “acute awareness of the inequalities of the race and class” has not prevented him from lining up with those atop both disparity structures and from ignoring.  That awareness and his “qualities of mind and temperament” have hardly stopped him from ignoring, disdaining, and repressing progressive and Left activists and movements – including Occupy (crushed by a coordinated federal crackdown) – seriously committed to opposing inequality, militarism, and eco-cide. The liberal-left historians’ line about how Obama can “stretch the meaning of democracy” seems more than a little haunting in light of his strong embrace and expansion of the Bush-Cheney national security and surveillance state and his extreme repression of whistleblowers and dissenters at home.

The American historians were warned by one of their past, justly honored guildsmen.  In 1948, Hofstader, in his widely read volume The American Political Tradition, looked at leading American political figures from the Founding Fathers through Franklin Roosevelt. He examined Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives alike. Hofstader determined that “the range of vision embraced by the primary contestants in the major parties has always been bounded by the horizons of property and enterprise…they have accepted the economic virtues of capitalist culture as necessary qualities of man….That culture has been intensely nationalistic.”[10]  As I predicted (easily and with no particular claim to originality) in Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (2008), Obama has been no more of an exception to Hofstader’s rule than any president to occupy the White House since Hofstader wrote those lines.  He gave no serious observer of current events or his career any reason to think he would be.

Obama’s Challenge (2008)

Perhaps the raging arch-Obamapheliac and liberal economist Robert Kuttner should have reviewed the Hofstader volume before he published his own book on Obama in 2008.  In Kuttner’s embarrassing volumeObama’s Challenge: America’s Economic Crisis and the Power of a Transformative Presidency he wrote about “how great Presidents overcome great crises” and “what President Obama must do to redeem his own promise and the promise of America.” In Kuttner’s view, Obama “unmistakably possesses[d] unusual gifts of character and leadership.” Obama, Kuttner hallucinated, could “be that rare transformational leader” because “his personal odyssey, writings, and speeches suggest a capacity to truly move people and shift perceptions as well as bridge differences…they suggest more a principled idealist than a cynic.” Reflecting his embrace of the juvenile “great man” theory of history (Obama’s Challenge was dedicated to “presidential historian” Doris Kearns Goodwin),  Kuttner’s book contained a chapter devoted to the proposition that supposedly “great presidents” (he mentioned the corporatist imperialist JFK[11]) “animate” and “educate” the “people on behalf of expansive uses of progressive government.”  By using “the moral power of the presidency” to “lead by teaching,” along with “the force of [their] own character,” Kuttner argued, these Heaven-sent heads-of-state show the way toward progressive change from on high.  Kuttner fantasized that the recession Obama inherited from Bush would spark him to apply his “truly transformative” self in progressive and even “radical” ways.[12]

Early in Obama’s presidency, Kuttner was sorely “disappointed.”  He told a television interviewer that the new chief executive was advancing “conservative solutions to a radical crisis”[13] – as if that was somehow surprising.  Soon thereafter, the liberal-left journalist William Greider wrote the following in a Washington Post column titled “Obama Asked Us to Speak, But is He Listening?”:

“People everywhere [have] learned a blunt lesson about power, who has it and who doesn’t.  They [have] watched Washington run to rescue the very financial interests that caused the catastrophe.  They [have] 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 sides nationwide.  Then to deepen the insult, people [have] watched as establishment forces re-launched their campaign for ‘entitlement reform – a euphemism for whacking Social Security benefits, Medicare and Medicaid.”[14]

Clueless Disappointment

There is no record of Kuttner or any among the “Historians for Obama” apologizing for the terrible judgment they showed in trumpeting the supposed progressive virtues of a center-right politician who had already and repeatedly been exposed as a tool of Wall Street, corporate America, and the Pentagon.

Obamaphelia can take an especially deep hold on its victims in intellectual and academic circles, where status and self-worth depend heavily on a carefully cultivated image of unimpeachable intellectual authority. Professors and other officially designated intellectuals can afford to look foolish and deluded far less than can those whose wealth and position rests more clearly on property and money and who can hire intellectuals to correct the record and mistakes.

The furthest most liberal-progressive academic Obamapheliacs seem willing to go towards acknowledging the corporatist, imperialist, militaristic, white-supremacist, patriarchal, Orwellian, and eco-cidal essence of the Obama presidency is to make ritual statements about their (indefensible) “disappointment,” qualified by standard references to the role the terrible Republicans have played in blocking Obama’s supposed true progressive agenda and to Obama’s supposed desire (completely mythical) to be pushed in a more progressive direction (“make me do it”) by popular forces making history from the bottom up.

The “disappointment” of Obamapheliacs has been as foolish as their original hopes. As Noam Chomsky told a German television interviewer who asked him in early 2010 why Obama falling short of progressive hopes, “The expectations were based on nothing….I wrote about his record and prospects before the campaign, just looking at his website. And it was pretty clear that he [was] going to be a normal centrist Democrat roughly Clinton-style… People were desperate for some hope so they grabbed onto it. But there was no basis for any expectations.”[15]


Obamaphelia has much in common with earlier variants of delusional belief about the supposedly progressive nature of previous corporate-captive and imperial presidents and presidential candidates thrown up by the Democratic Party: the Kennedy Syndrome (encompassing Bobby and Jack), the Carter Complex, Clintonitis (currently being mixed and spun for an updated epidemic/release in 2015-16), and the Gore Illusion.  Obamaphelia is somewhat distinctive amongst these strains of Democratic Party Presidential Delusion in at least four ways, however: the extent of media fascination and “rock star” celebrity associated with Obama early on (approximated only by that linked to JFK); the dire economic straits Obama inherited (second only to the Great Depression passed on to FDR); the degree of right-wing animosity and psychosis expressed by the Republican Party (consistent with the sharp overall drift of the U.S. party system well to the right of the populace) in the period when Obama arose (something that intensifies liberals and many progressives’ standard “lesser-evilist” attachment to Democratic standard-bearers); Obama’s technically black (half-white) racial identity, something that has encouraged many liberals, progressives, and even leftists to think that they have been doing something inherently progressive by backing and defending the nation’s “first black president”  - a president who has ironically “talked about race less than any Democratic president since 1961”[16] and who has been openly hostile to the notion that government should address the specific needs of black Americans.[17].

“Waste[s] of Carbon” and the “Burning They Will Richly Deserve”

Obama’s color has at times given his liberal, often Obamapheliac supporters an opportunity to identify any criticism of their hero as racist.  It has helped silence the racial justice sentiments of the black elite, who tended to see “the decline…of a political vision centered on challenging racial inequality” as “the necessary price for the pride and satisfaction of having a black family in the White House” (black Columbia University political scientist Fredrick Harris).[18] It has also helped make some progressives reluctant to make open criticisms of Obama, fearing that doing so will open themselves up to the charge of racism from strident liberals.  I myself was strangely criticized by the professional liberal white anti-racist Tim Wise, a charter member of the oxymoronically named group “Progressives for Obama” (which had to change its name to “Progressive America Rising” in 2009) who not-so subtly hinted at anti-black racial bias in my failure to express enthusiasm for Obama’s initial presidential candidacy and victory[19] – this despite my long history of anti-racist speaking and writing.[20] The day after the 2008 election, Wise voiced the opinion of more than a few Obamapheliacs when he launched the following violent, color-coded attack on “barbiturate leftists” who lacked proper enthusiasm for Obama’s victory in his eyes:

“.. let me say this, to some of those on the left–some of my friends and longtime compatriots in the struggle for social justice–who yet insist that there is no difference between Obama and McCain, between Democrats and Republicans, between Biden and Palin:Screw you. If you are incapable of mustering pride in this moment, and if you cannot appreciate how meaningful this day is for millions of black folks who stood in lines for up to seven hours to vote, then your cynicism has become such an encumbrance as to render you all but useless to the liberation movement. Indeed,those who cannot appreciate what has just transpired are so eaten up with nihilistic rage and hopelessness that I cannot but think that they are a waste of carbon, and actively thieving oxygen that could be put to better use by others…. It’s like this y’all: Jesse Jackson was weeping openly on national television. This is a man who was with Dr. King when he was murdered and he was bawling like a baby. So don’t tell me this doesn’t matter… Those who say this election means nothing, who insist that Obama, because he cozied up to Wall Street, or big business, is just another kind of evil no different than any other, are in serious risk of political self-immolation, and it is a burning they will richly deserve.”[21]

Token Proposals for Opportunity, Not Equality (2014)

The prevalence of the “left” version of Obamaphelia has waned somewhat in recent years, thanks to Obama’s consistent and dedicated service to the nation’s unelected and interrelated dictatorships of wealth, empire, white supremacy, patriarchy, and ecocide. Still, Obama and his handlers continue to play the Hitchensian (populism-manipulating) card, with some success.  He rolls out fake-populist rhetoric again and again.  He claims to believe that economic inequality is the “defining issue of our time,” insists he will dedicate the remainder of his presidency to shrinking that disparity, and positions himself as the champion of those left behind in the current New Gilded Age. Like his 2012 presidential campaign (for which Mitt “Mr. 1%” Romney was perfect, central-casting foil), Obama’s latest State of the Union Address (last Tuesday night) was geared largely around the problem of inequality, which the president and other top Democrats refuse to seriously confront with policies that might actually generate greater equality. As the incisive left economist and economics commentator Jack Rasmus accurately noted and predicted:

“Now that it has become an ‘acceptable’ discussion theme, Obama and Democrat party politicians (and a few clever Republicans) have also discovered income inequality. Together they plan to raise the rhetoric on the topic in upcoming midterm and 2016 national elections. Therefore, in Obama’s SOTU speech today we’ll hear some basic facts about the problem, some vague proposals that are never intended get to the earliest legislative stages, and a lot of general talk about how improving ‘opportunity’ is the only answer to reducing inequality—all of which means let’s not do anything significant… Real solutions to income inequality would have to include proposals not only to enable the recovery of incomes of the middle working class, and the working and non-working poor, but would have to include proposals to reign in the runaway income accumulation of the very rich, the mega-rich and their friends. But you won’t hear the latter even suggested in Obama’s SOTU speech. What you’ll hear are token long run proposals to slow the decline in income growth for the working poor perhaps, and a lot of vague suggestions about the middle class.”[22]

All the standard liberal posturing about equality/inequality of opportunity is beside the point – a diversion from the well-documented fact that inequality in fact/condition/outcome is inequality of opportunity.[23]  At the same time, economic inequality would be no less toxic and authoritarian if it emerged from an actually equal competitive race.  There is no level playing field in the U.S., of course, as Obama knows, but the creation of such an equal beginning would not make it any less toxic and authoritarian for the top tenth of the U.S. population to own more than three fourth’s of the if the nation’s wealth, along with a probably higher percentage of America’s politicians and policymakers.

Krugman’s Inoculation Times Out

Some liberal intellectuals who should know better can’t seem to resist the pull of the president’s deceptive rhetoric.  One such liberal is New York Times columnist and leading liberal economist Paul Krugman, living proof that inoculation against Obamaphelia is in some cases time-limited.  In 2007 and much of 2008, Krugman regularly and cleverly mocked Obama’s declared faith (evident to those who looked beyond populist-sounding campaign rhetoric lifted from John Edwards and the venerable Hitchensian playbook) in advancing “liberal” goals through collaboration business elites and Republicans. Krugman ripped Obama’s ‘big table fantasy” that “the next president can achieve real change without bitter confrontation” with the rich.[24]  His withering shots at Obama’s reluctance to confront the wealthy few were hot clipboard material for progressive labor-Democratic John Edwards canvassers in Iowa and New Hampshire.

Nowadays, however, Krugman is oddly Obamapheliac.  He is carried away by how Obama “now seems to accept progressive arguments that…America’s growing class inequality largely reflects political choices, like the failure to raise the minimum wage along with inflation and productivity” and says that the “deficit of opportunity” is a bigger problem than the nation’s fiscal deficit.[25]  He applauds the president for having “done more [to fight inequality] than many progressives give him credit for”[26]– curious praise as the nation sinks ever further into the grip of an abject plutocracy that is entirely predictable when a nation’s richest 400 individuals have as much net worth between as the bottom half of the population.

“We must make our choice,” U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandies wrote in 1941: “We may have democracy in this country, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we cannot have both.”[27] Presidents and other major party politicians won’t solve that problem – only a revitalized mass democratic, popular, and socialist movement can do that.  As the great radical historian Howard Zinn (never particularly welcome among the sort of tweed-wearing guildsmen who signed the embarrassing “Historians for Obama” letter) used to say,“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.” [28]

Getting that basic wisdom right is the best known opening antidote for “left” versions of Democratic Party Presidential Delusion Psychosis, including Obamaphelia.  The right-wing version of the Obama disease should linger on for three more years, morphing into a renewed variant of paranoid-style Clintonitis as “socialist” Hillary’s unstoppable march (certain to include no small degree of elite populism-manipulation) towards the first female presidency picks up.  Along the way, the best thing that could happen to this country is the emergence of a mass popular movement that shows Americans what actually left and socialist upheavals, activists, and politicians look like – very different from the corporate imperialism of Democrats and Republicans alike.

Paul Street, an ex-American historian, is the opening contributor to the new volume IMAGINE: Living in a Socialist United States  (New York: Harper Collins, January 2014) . Street’s latest book is They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Boulder, CO; Paradigm, 2014). 


[1] At the Democratic Party’s National Convention in Boston in late July of 2004, when this writer began dissecting the Obama phenomenon and examining Obamaphelia.  See Paul Street, “Keynote Reflections,” originally published on ZNet, July 29, 2014,

[2] Richard Hofstader, “the Paranoid Style in American Politics,”Harper’s Magazine (November 1964),

[3] John R. MacArthur, “Obama is Far From a Radical Reformer.”Harper’s (March 18, 2009),

[4] Christopher Hitchens, No One Left to Lie To: The Values of the Worst Family (New York: Verso, 1999), 17-18.

[5] Paul Street, Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics(Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2008), was researched and written mainly in 2007.

[6] See Paul Street, The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, 2010), 176-177, in Chapter 5, titled “We Were Warned.”

[7] Robert Kagan, “Obama the Interventionist,” Washington Post, 29 April, 2007, B7

[8] Sunstein was quoted in David Moberg, “Obamanomics,” In These Times, March 10, 2008,

[9] “Historians for Obama,” History News Network (November 2007),

[10] Richard Hofstader, The American Political Tradition and the Men Who Made it (New York: Vintage, 1989 [1948]), xxxiii-xl.

[11]  For reality-based portraits of the arch-militarist and corporatist presidency of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, see Bruce Mirroff, Pragmatic Illusions: The Presidential Politics of John F. Kennedy (New York: Longman, 1976); John Pilger, Hidden Agendas (New York: New Press, 1998); Howard Zinn, Postwar America: 1945-1971 (Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill, 1973); and  Noam Chomsky, Rethinking Camelot: JFK, the Vietnam War, and US Political Culture (Boston, MA: South End, 1993).

[12]   Robert Kuttner, Obama’s Challenge; America’s Economic Crisis and the Power of a Transformative Presidency (White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green, October 2008).

[13] “Conservative Solutions to a Radical Crisis,” Real News Network (February 13, 2009),

[14] William Greider, “Obama Asked Us to Speak But is He Listening?”Washington Post,, March 22, 2009.

[16] Frederick Harris, “The Price of a Black President,” New York Times, October 27, 2012,

[17] Street, Empire’s New Clothes, 133-134; Paul Street, “Barack ‘‘Under the Bus’ Obama,” presentation to Black Agenda Report panel at Left Forum, June 9, 2013, minutes 57 to 63,

[18] Harris, “Price of a Black President.”

[19] Tim Wise, “Are Words (and History) Really That Hard to Understand” (November 11, 2008),, written in ignorance of the fact that my own online writing and 2008 book shared his notion that the Obama campaign and an Obama presidency might  (somewhat on the model of JFK’s election and the rise of the New Left in the early 1960s) be engaging popular forces and expectations in ways that could help fuel progressive activism reaching beyond anything Obama was going to advance on his own. . See Tim Wise, “Good and Now Back to Work,” November 5, 2008,; Street, Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics, 203-206.

[20] Including, most notably, The Vicious Circle: Race, Prison, Jobs, and Community in Chicago, Illinois, and the Nation (Chicago: Chicago Urban League, October 2002), (an inspiration for black law professor Michelle Alexander’s justly heralded book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York: The New Press, 2010); Paul Street, Segregated Schools: Educational Apartheid in Post-Civil Rights America (New York: Routledge, 2005); Paul Street, Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis: A Living Black Chicago History (New York: Rowman&Littlefield, 2007), along with dozens of publications (2002-2013) at black-run anti-racist periodicals including Black Commentatorand especially Black Agenda Report.  The last publication is put out by black leftists who combine consistent radical anti-racism with consistent left radical criticism of the Obama phenomenon and presidency.

[21] Wise, “Good and Now Back to Work.” (I, for one, never claimed and never claim that there is “no difference” between the Republicans and the Democrats. even if I have long agreed with Upton Sinclair’s onetime description of the two dominant business parties as “two wings of the same bird of prey”). Wise was not, diagnostically speaking, a full Obamapheliac because he had the sense to describe Obama as a “moderate” and to argue that “he (as with any president) will only move left if forced to do so” (Wise, “Are Words?”) Still, Wise underestimated how militantly corporatist and imperial (and objectively white-supremacist) candidate Obama really was beneath potent fake-progressive branding. Wise’s judgments that “the relatively moderate John F. Kennedy…was, on balance, far less progressive than Obama in many ways” and that Obama was “surely more progressive” than Michael Dukakis, Bill Clinton, Al Gore, and John Kerry (see  Tim Wise, “Your Whiteness is Showing,” Counterpunch, June 7-9, 2008, have not held up very well in light of Obama’s predicted “deeply conservative” presidency. That presidency has been particularly terrible – as predicted in some parts of “the barbiturate left” – on race, Wise’s bread and butter.

[22] Jack Rasmus, “Obama and Friends Discover Inequality,” (January 28, 2014),

[23] Joseph E. Stiglitz, Price of Inequality, (New York: W.W. Norton, 2012), 17-20.

[24]  See Paul Krugman, “Big Table Fantasies,” New York Times, 17 December, 2007; Paul Krugman, “Played for a Sucker,” New York Times, 16 November, 2007; Paul Krugman, “Mandates and Mudslinging,” New York Times, 30 November 2007Paul Krugman, “Responding to Recession,” New York Times, 14 January, 2008; Paul Krugman, “Loans and Leadership,” New York Times, 28 March, 2008, p. A23.

[25] Paul Krugman, “Obama Gets Real,” New York Times, December 6, 2013.

[26] Paul Krugman, “The Paranoia of the Plutocrats,” New York Times, January 26, 2014.

[27] Quoted on the Web site of Brandeis University at and in Harvard Magazine (March 2011) at The original source in the latter is Labor, October 14, 1941.

[28] “The Legacy of Howard Zinn,” Socialist Worker (November 2, 2010),

Keynote Reflections (re-post from July 2004)

30/01/14 0 COMMENTS

Originally published on ZNet, July 29, 2004. I come from the same Chicago neighborhood (Hyde Park) as the nation’s official new political rock star Barack Obama. I work in urban policy and civil rights and I’ve recently been telling leftists to engage in “tactical” presidential voting – for Kerry in undecided states and for leftists like Cobb or Nader in “safe” states. So I must have really liked the charismatic former civil rights attorney Obama’s much-ballyhooed keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention on Tuesday, right?

Not really. Sorry, I might be (rather unenthusiastically) advising people to vote Kerry in some jurisdictions next fall but I’m still a leftist – the real thing, not the mythological sort created by the crackpot right, which conflates the disparate likes of (say) Bill Clinton, The New York Times, Tom Daschle, Al Franken, Michael Moore, Noam Chomsky, and Che Guevara as part of the same ideological vision.
Equality Versus Equal Opportunity

And as a person of the real left, I am opposed to social inequality in and of itself, whatever its origins. The massive socioeconomic disparities that scar American and global life would be offensive to me – and supremely damaging to democracy and the common good in my world view – even if all at the top of the pyramid had risen to their positions from an equal position at the starting line of a “level playing field.” There is no such field in really existing society, but the creation of such an equal beginning would not make it any less toxic and authoritarian for 1 percent of the U.S. population to own more than 40 percent of the nation’s wealth (along with a probably higher percentage of America’s politicians and policymakers). As the great democratic Socialist Eugene Debs used to say, the point – for radicals, at least – is not to “rise from the masses, but to “rise with the masses.” Serious left vision is about all-around leveling before, during, and after the policy process.

The world view enunciated in Obama’s address comes from a very different, bourgeois-individualist and national-narcissist moral and ideological space. Obama praised America as the ultimate “beacon of freedom and opportunity” for those who exhibit “hard work and perseverance” and laid claim to personally embodying the great American Horatio-Algerian promise. “My story,” one (he says) of rise from humble origins to Harvard Law School and (now) national political prominence, “is part,” Obama claimed “of the larger American story.” “In no other country on Earth,” he said, “is my story even possible.”

Obama quoted the famous Thomas Jefferson line about all “men” being “created equal,” but left out Jefferson’s warnings about the terrible impact of unequal outcomes on democracy and popular government. He advocated a more equal rat-race, one where “every child in America has a decent shot at life, and the doors of opportunity [the word "opportunity" recurred at least five times in his speech] remain open to all.”
Sorry, but those doors aren’t even close to being “open to all.” America doesn’t score particularly well in terms of upward mobility measures, compared to other industrialized states (and Brazil’s current chief executive was born into that country’s working-class). Every kid deserves “a decent life,” not just “a shot” at one. And such a life isn’t about living in a world of inequality or (see below) empire.
Democracy Versus Polyarchy

Real leftists are radical “small-d” democrats. They believe passionately in substantive, many-sided, root and branch democracy. By democracy they mean one-person, one-vote and equal policymaking influence for all, regardless of class, wealth, ethnicity, and other socially constructed differences of privilege and power. They are deeply sensitive to the core Jeffersonian contradiction between democracy radically defined and capitalism’s inherent concentrations of wealth and power. They advocate a political and social life where real, regular, and multi-dimensional popular governance is structured into the institutional fabric of daily experience and consciousness.

They are hardly enthralled by what passes for political “democracy” in the United States, where highly ritualized, occasional, and fragmented elections are an exercise in periodic pseudo-popular selection of representatives from a “safe” and small circle of privileged “elites.” One term to describe really existing US “democracy” is “polyarchy,” what left sociologist William I. Robinson calls “a system in which a small group actually rules and mass participation in decision making is confined to leadership choices carefully managed by competing [business and business-sanctioned] elites.

The polyarchic concept of democracy,” notes Robinson, “is an effective arrangement for legitimating and sustaining inequalities within and between nations (deepening in a global economy) far more effectively than authoritarian solutions” (Robinson, Promoting Polyarchy – Globalization, US Intervention, and Hegemony, Cambridge University Press, 1996, p. 385).

Obama’s address advanced a truncated, passive, and negative concept of democracy, one where we are supposed to be ecstatic simply because we don’t live under the iron heel of open authoritarianism. It is an American “miracle,” he claimed, “that we can say what we think, write what we think, without hearing a sudden knock on the door” and that “we can participate in the political process without fear of retribution, and that our votes will be counted — or at least, most of the time.”

Never mind that what we say and think is generally drowned out by the giant, concentrated corporate-state media cartel and that our votes – even when actually counted – are mere political half-pennies in comparison to the structurally empowered super-citizenship bestowed upon the great monied interests and corporations that rule our “dollar democracy,” the “best that money can buy.” Jefferson and Madison tried to warn us about that power disparity.
“Pleding Allegiance to the Stars and Stripes”

Real leftists are suspicious of those who downplay internal national divisions, “patriotically” privileging “homeland” unity over class differences and over international solidarity between people inclined towards peace, justice, and democracy. We are deeply critical, of course, of war and empire, which advance inequality and misery at home and abroad. Global humanity – the species – and not “fatherland” or nation-state, is the “reference group” that matters to us.

That’s why many leftists cringed when they heard the newly anointed Great Progressive Hope Obama refer to Americans as “one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes, all of us defending the United States of America.” Its part of why I was uncomfortable when Obama praised “a young man” named Shamus who “told me he’d joined the Marines and was heading to Iraq the following week.” One of Shamus’ endearing qualities, Obama thinks, is “absolute faith in our country and its leaders, his devotion to duty and service.” “I thought,” Obama said, “this young man was all that any of us might hope for in a child.” Not me. I hope for children who regularly and richly question authority and subject the nation and its leaders/mis-leaders to constant critical scrutiny.

Many of us on the left should have been disturbed when Obama discussed the terrible blood costs of the Iraq invasion and occupation purely in terms of the U.S. troops “who will not be returning to their hometowns,” their loved ones, and other American soldiers dealing with terrible war injuries.

What about the considerably larger quantity (into the tens of thousands) of Iraqis who have been killed and maimed as a result of U.S. imperialism and whose numbers are officially irrelevant to U.S. authorities? One of the problems with the American exceptionalism that Obama espouses is that it feeds indifference towards “unworthy victims” among peoples and nations less supposedly favored by “God” and/or History than “beacon” America. This racially tinged coldness goes back to the nation’s founders, who thought their “City on a Hill” had been granted the Creator-ordained right to eliminate North America’s original, Godless and unworthy inhabitants.

In the part of his speech that came closest to a direct criticism of the Iraq invasion, Obama suggested that the Bush administrated has “shad[ed] the truth” about why “U.S. troops were sent into “harm’s way.” He added that the U.S. must never “go to war without enough troops to win the war, secure the peace, and earn the respect of the world.”

It’s hardly a “war,” however, when the most powerful imperial state in history attacks and occupies a weak nation that it has already devastated over years of deadly bombing and (deadlier) “economic sanctions.” “Securing the peace” is a morally impoverished and nationally arrogant, self-serving description of the real White House objective in Iraq: to pacify, by force when (quite) necessary, the outraged populace of a nation that understandably resents an imperial takeover it rightly sees as driven by the superpower’s desire to deepen its control of their strategically super-significant oil resources.

And “shade the truth” doesn’t come close to doing justice to the high-state deception – the savage, sinister, and sophisticated lying – that the Bush administration used and is still using to cover their real agenda, understood with no small accuracy by the people of Iraq.
The low point in Obama’s speech came, I think, when he said the following about his repeatedly invoked concept of “hope:”

“I’m not talking about blind optimism here – the almost willful ignorance that thinks unemployment will go away if we just don’t talk about it, or the health care crisis will solve itself if we just ignore it. I’m talking about something more substantial. It’s the hope of slaves sitting around a fire singing freedom songs; the hope of immigrants setting out for distant shores; the hope of a young naval lieutenant bravely patrolling the Mekong Delta; the hope of a mill worker’s son who dares to defy the odds; the hope of a skinny kid with a funny name who believes that America has a place for him, too…In the end, that is God’s greatest gift to us, the bedrock of this nation; a belief in things not seen; a belief that there are better days ahead.”

Sorry, but this leftist takes exception to this horrific lumping of antebellum African-American slaves’ struggles and sprituality with the racist U.S. crucifixion of Southeast Asia – “the young naval lieutenant line” is a reference to John Kerry’s “heroic” participation in a previous and much bloodier imperialist invasion, one that cost millions of Vietnamese lives – under the image of noble Americans wishing together for a better future. I suppose “God” (Obama’s keynote made repeated references to “God” and “the Creator”) gave Nazi executioners and Nazi victims the shared gift of hoping for better days ahead.

What told Kerry and his superiors that the Mekong Delta was theirs to “patrol”? The same arrogant sensibilities, perhaps, that gave 19th century white Americans permission to own chattel slaves and allowed the Bush administration to seize Iraq as a neocolonial possession.
Popular Struggle, Not “Elite” Saviors

Need I bother to add in conclusion that leftists believe in organizing and fighting alongside ordinary people for justice and democracy at home and abroad, not in holding up as saviors great leaders from (whatever their alleged humble origins ala Obama or John Edwards) within the privileged “elite”? It was probably inherent in the nature of Obama’s keynote assignment that he would finish by saying that the swearing in of Kerry and John Edwards as president and vice president will allow America to “reclaim its promise” and bring the nation “out of this long political darkness.” It’s inherent in my leftist sense of what democracy and justice are about and how they are attained to say that a desirable future will be achieved only through devoted, radically democratic rank and file struggle for justice and freedom and not by hoping – or voting – for benevolent “elite” actors working on behalf of any political party and/or its corporate sponsors.

Paul Street ( is Vice President for Research and Planning at The Chicago Urban League in Chicago, Illinois. His book Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 ( will be published in September, 2004.


Missing the Marx, More or Less: On Intellectual Failure and Environmental Catastrophe

24/01/14 0 COMMENTS

First published on ZNet, January 24, 2014. Getting radical anti-capitalist ideas wrong and ignoring those ideas  completely are timeworn traditions for U.S. intellectuals. The habits go back a long way and have continued through the current millennium. The consequences can be deadly, as is seen with two short books printed by leading U.S. publishing firms a few years ago – liberal historian James Livingston’s Against Thrift: Why Consumer Culture is Good for the Economy, the Environment, and Your Soul (Basic Books, 2011) and environmental journalist David Owen’sThe Conundrum: How Scientific Innovation, Increased Efficiency, and Good Intentions Can Make Our Energy and Climate Problems Worse (Penguin, 2011).


 Marx’s “Protestant Work Ethic”

Here, from page one hundred and sixty-five of the early Barack Obama enthusiast[1] Livingston’s book is a graphic example of a U.S. intellectual getting a leading past anti-capitalist thinker (Karl Marx) badly wrong: “In fact, I would claim that we can’t live comfortably with the pleasures of consumer culture (not to mention the life of the mind) precisely because the Protestant work ethic still haunts us – because we believe along with Marx, who got the idea from Hegel, who got it from Luther, that human nature just is the metabolic exchange with nature that we call work.” By “work,” Livingston here means manual and physical labor, skilled and unskilled, engaged primarily in material production, extraction, transportation and the like.

It’s hard to imagine anyone missing the mark on Marx more completely. Marx spent the lion’s share of his most productive years engaged in intensely intellectual activity (“the life of the mind,” to say the least) in his study and at the British Museum library. He was grateful to escape the clutches of wage labor (production-oriented or otherwise) thanks in part to the support of his bourgeois comrade and fellow communist Frederick Engels. In his late twenties, Marx wrote of the glories of a “communist future” when all would be free to follow creative and intellectual pursuits beyond the requirements by class society’s division of labor:

“For, as soon as the division of labor comes into being, each man has a particular exclusive sphere of activity, which is forced upon him and from which he cannot escape. He is a hunter, a fisherman, a shepherd, or a critical critic and must remain so if he does not wish to lose his means of livelihood; while in communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, to fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner, just as I have in mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, shepherd or critic.”[2]

Two decades later, near the end of the draft third volume of Capital, Marx imagined a post-capitalist and post-class society, one in which people as “associated producers” would create a world of “true freedom” beyond the necessity of toil and in accord with their true “human nature” – a world that required first of all a shorter work day:

“In fact, the realm of freedom actually begins only where labour which is determined by necessity and mundane considerations ceases; thus in the very nature of things it lies beyond the sphere of actual material production. Just as the savage must wrestle with Nature to satisfy his wants, to maintain and reproduce life, so must civilised man, and he must do so in all social formations and under all possible modes of production. With his development this realm of physical necessity expands as a result of his wants; but, at the same time, the forces of production which satisfy these wants also increase. Freedom in this field can only consist in socialised man, the associated producers, rationally regulating their interchange with Nature, bringing it under their common control, instead of being ruled by it as by the blind forces of Nature; and achieving this with the least expenditure of energy and under conditions most favourable to, and worthy of, their human nature. But it nonetheless still remains a realm of necessity. Beyond it begins that development of human energy which is an end in itself, the true realm of freedom, which, however, can blossom forth only with this realm of necessity as its basis. The shortening of the working-day is its basic prerequisite”(emphasis added).[3]

That’s not exactly “the Protestant worth ethic” inherited from Calvin, Luther, and Hegel – or from anyone else. It certainly isn’t Marx advancing a concept of “human nature” requiring us to be at constant hard work making things – quite the opposite, in fact.


An odd thing about Livingston’s mind-bending misrepresentation of Marx is that in Livingston’s case he knows Marx well. He has a history of writing in something of a Marxist vein, including essays in an academic journal called Marxist Perspectives and two academic books that display a substantive background in classic Marx texts, including Capital.

Why does he misrepresent the famous anti-capitalist in such an egregious fashion? My guess is that Livingston wanted to create a straw left dog to complement his neo-Keynesian critique of the right in attracting establishment intellectuals and opinion-makers to his call for Americans to embrace the glories of “consumer culture” as “good for the economy, the environment, and your soul.” It always helps to take a shot or two at Marx and “Marxists” (Livingston preposterously accuses the latter of romanticizing small business and craft producers) when trying to achieve recognition and status within the establishment intellectual culture. [4]

Never mind that America’s really existing consumer culture (RECC) has yoked untold millions of Americans precisely to overwork (look up the left economist Juliet Schor’s learned reflections on capitalism and “insidious cycle of work and spend”[5]). Never mind that RECC, driven by unremitting corporate advertising and an addiction to built-in obsolescence that has penetrated the production process itself, is a leading factor behind contemporary capitalism’s ever-escalating liquidation of livable ecology. As the Marxist ecologists John Bellamy Foster and Brett Clark noted in late 2012:

“We live in a world not of increasing real wealth but rather of ‘illth’ to use John Ruskin’s memorable term….The packaging industry, much of which is devoted to marketing wares, is the third largest industry in the world after food and energy… Around 300 million tons of plastic are produced globally each year. Only two-thirds of this is enough, according to the Guardian, ‘to cover the 48 contiguous states of the U.S. in plastic food wrapping.’…Durability is the enemy of the system. Maximum profits are thus generated by a throwaway culture. The economic life of cell phones in the Untied States is only a couple of years due to both planned and psychological obsolescence, with the result that 140 million cell phones reached what the Environmental Protection Agency refers to as their ‘end of life’ (EOL) in 2007. Some 250 million computers and peripherals reached their EOL in the same year. In 2006 Steve Jobs urged customers to buy an iPod every year to keep up with the latest technology. More than 150 billion single-use beverage containers are purchased in the United States every year, while 320 million take-out cups are bought and discarded each day. Since the 1960s, one-time-use containers have risen from 6 percent of packaged soft drinks to 99 percent today. The more than 100 billion pieces of mostly unwanted junk mail delivered to homes and businesses in the United States each year add 51 million tons of greenhouse gases annually. In an economy designed to maximize overall waste, products are systematically made so as to no longer be repairable.”[6]

That’s not “good for the environment,” to say the least.

And never mind that RECC cultivates and preys on the destruction of the human psyche. As Foster and Clark note:

“Marketing commodities in ways that exploit the alienation of human beings in monopoly capitalist society is now a fine art. As early as 1933, sociologist Robert S. Lynd observed in a monograph entitled, ‘The People as Consumers,’ written for the President’s Research Committee on Social Trends, that ‘advertising, branding, and style’ changes were designed to take full advantage of the social insecurity and alienation brought on by changing economic conditions. Corporations looked on ‘job insecurity, monotony, loneliness, failure to marry, and other situations of tension’ as opportunities for elevating ‘more and more commodities to the class of personality buffers. At each exposed point the alert merchandiser is ready with a panacea.’ The symbolic need that commodities thus attain in our society is crucial to what Juliet Schor has called ‘the materiality paradox,’ i.e., the selling of material goods to satisfy needs that cannot in fact be met by material commodities. Ironically, it is this inability to obtain satisfaction from these commodities that ensures capital a permanent market—as long as, we are constantly told, ‘satisfaction is guaranteed.’ Marketing plays on these social vulnerabilities, creating an endless series of new wants, enhancing the overall wastefulness of the system.”[7]

That’s not good for the soul, or the environment, however much it might help spur the Gross National Product (“the economy”).

The Myth of the Sovereign Consumer

Livingston is ready for such criticisms, of course. It is one of Livingston’s core contentions (embedded in the title of his book[8]) that consumers have the power to heal the environment by making smart, soulful, and green decisions about what sorts of goods and services they wish to consume and how. Such decisions, Livingston notes, are based on the basic human need and desire for real use values, not the relentless lust for endless accumulation of exchange values (wealth) that drives capital when it enters Marx’s famous money and commodity cycle (M [money]-C-[commodity]-M’ [money “prime,” with profit added on]). They permit us, Livingston contends, to put ecologically friendly values – energy efficiency, reduced pollution and greenhouse emissions, de-industrialized food, sustainable agriculture, etc. – at the heart of economic development and production. At the same time, he argues, “consumer culture” holds out to us the dream of a world beyond production and toil – a bridge to a world geared toward simple, free-flowing, psyche-nourishing human enjoyment and pleasure, not endless labor serving the infinite accumulation needs of the investor-class few.[9] 

There are two fatal flaws in Livingston’s ecological argument. The first is Livingston’s embrace of the myth of the sovereign consumer, which inverts the dark essence of contemporary capitalism. “With one of every twelve dollars of U.S. GDP spent on marketing (which does not include the marketing costs built into the production of the commodities themselves),” Foster and Clark note, “consumer sovereignty is a mere illusion. Individuals in society are subject to relentless marketing propaganda nearly every moment of their waking lives. Indeed, as John Kenneth Galbraith argued through his famous ‘dependence effect,’ the way we consume in today’s capitalism is largely dependent on the way we produce, and not the other way around.”[10]

Green capitalist niche markets aside, that harsh reality isn’t going away until citizen-workers gain control of the “forces of production” to “rationally regulate” society’s “interchange with Nature” [production]),…achieving …under conditions…worthy of their human nature.”



The second fatal flaw in Livingston’s argument is the belief that green, that is energy-efficient consuming and producing is good for the environment. Which brings us to David Owen. Moving from Livingston’sAgainst Thrift to Owen’s The Conundrum takes us from an author who knows Marx’s work butmisrepresents Marx in telling us to consumer more to an author who seems completely oblivious to Marx and other anti-capitalist thinkers before and since in the course of telling us to consume less.

Unlike Livingston, Owen is a serious and significantly science-based environmental thinker[11] who cares deeply about livable ecology. The Conundrum is dedicated to puncturing the notion that we can purchase and energy-efficiency-ize our way out of environmental collapse. Hybrid cars, compact fluorescent light bulbs, e-books, solar panels, fast trains, local foods, carbon offsets – for Owen these and other supposedly sustainable products and eco-living strategies “are irrelevant or make the real problems worse.”`[12] 

Owen’s judgment is based on an economic principle called the “rebound effect.” Under the “rebound” rule, increased energy efficiency reduces the cost of a given item or activity, causing increased consumption, which cancels out energy savings (what some analysts call “backfire”) and thereby negates environmental gain. Owen’s book takes aim at what he calls “the Prius Fallacy” – the “belief that switching to an ostensibly more efficient travel mode turns mobility itself into an environmental positive.”[13] As numerous studies and reports demonstrate, government-mandated increases in fuel efficiency have led to gas consumption going up since people simply drive more miles and buy larger vehicles with increased horsepower (the SUV). Owen also dismisses HOV lanes, traffic-control systems, and smart-phone apps for finding a parking spot as “counterproductive from an environmental point of view because they make drivers even happier with cars than they were already.”

The Conundrum is packed with other eco-ironic predicaments. Air conditioners are more efficient and affordable and so more homes are now air-conditioned. The more affordable light bulbs get, the more they’re left on. The more efficient and cheap refrigeration has become, the more cold storage has proliferated (your local gas station has more cooling capacity than large grocery stores possessed 40 years ago). Airplanes may be more energy-efficient and faster than ever, but this only means that it has become cheaper to fly longer distances. And so on. “The environmental problem with such advances,” Owen writes, “is that the productivity gains have almost always been reinvested in additional production: as we’ve gotten better at making things, we’ve made more things.”[14]


Jevons’ Paradox 2.0

Speeding through Owens’ easily readable book (another contrast with Livingston’s tedious Against Thrift)[15], I kept waiting to see the phrase “Jevon’s Paradox.” The term finally came on page 102, prior to a short chapter titled simply “William Stanley Jevons.” Jevons was the 1860s English economist who famously responded to British officials who were worried that their glorious industrial system was going to run out of coal by observing that rising technical efficiency – most particularly economical burning of coal in mechanical engines – actually boosted absolute national consumption of coal and other resources rather than saving them. “It is the very economy of [coal’s] use,” Jevons proclaimed in The Coal Question (1865), “which leads to its extensive consumption….. [E]very improvement of the engine….does but accelerate anew the consumption of coal[16]…..It is wholly a confusion of ideas to suppose that that the economical use of fuel is equivalent to a diminished consumption. The very contrary is the truth.”[17]

So it is today, as Owens knows. “Jevon’s Paradox” is alive and well on our ever more endangered planet. As Foster notes: 

“Technological advancements in motor vehicles, which have increased the average miles per gallon of vehicles by 30 percent in the United States since 1980, have not reduced the overall energy used by motor vehicles. Fuel consumption per vehicle stayed constant while the efficiency gains led to the augmentation, not only of the numbers of cars and trucks on the roads (and the miles driven) but also their size and ‘performance’ (acceleration rate, cruising speed, etc.) – so that SUVs and minivans now dot U.S. highways. At the macro-level…even though the United States managed to double its energy efficiency since 1975, its energy consumption has risen dramatically. Over the last thirty-five years, Juliet Schor notes, ‘energy expended per-dollar of GFP has been cut in half. But rather than falling, energy demand has increased by roughly 40 percent. Moreover, demand is rising fastest in those sectors that have had the biggest efficiency gains – transport and residential energy use.’”[18]


“No Non-Radical Option”

What to do? Owen argues (as Jevons did in his time) for reduced overall consumption in the interests of longer term sustainability. One his book’s many chapters is titled “The Importance of Less.” We simply must consume less, much less, as a species. And that means that society must drop its commitment to “permanent, year-over-year economic growth.”[19] Towards that end, Owen reasonably wants Americans to cut energy use by living closer together. (He holds up New York City as “the [unintentionally] greenest community in the United States” because the metropolis is dense, living spaces are restricted, public transportation is [mostly] convenient, and car ownership is low)[20]. He wants citizens and officeholders to undertake policies that acknowledge “the environmental necessity of imposing frugality” by compelling reduced consumption of natural resources: increasing fuel taxes and capping consumption. He wants us to metaphorically drive Model T’s: “If the only motor vehicles available today were 1920 Model T’s, how many miles do you think you’d drive each year, and how far do you think you’d live from work?” In Owen’s view, “Efficiency initiatives make no sense as an environmental strategy unless they’re preceded—and more than negated—by measures that force major cuts in total energy use.”[21]

Along with “steady state” and anti-growth/degrowth experts he cites (e.g. Herman Daly), Owen rightly notes that continuous economic growth – even the so-called green growth favored by “green capitalism” advocates like Paul Hawken and Paul Krugman (and professor Livingston) – is simply unsustainable on finite Earth. The findings and judgments of the best contemporary earth science are crystal clear. As the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research (UK) concluded last year: “Today, in 2013, we face an unavoidably radical future…We either continue with rising emissions and reap the radical repercussions of severe climate change, or we acknowledge that we have a choice and pursue radical emission reductions: No longer is there a non-radical option. Moreover, low-carbon supply technologies cannot deliver the necessary rate of emission reductions – they need to be complemented with rapid, deep and early reductions in energy consumption.”[22] As Naomi Klein notes, “our relentless quest for economic growth” is “killing the planet” (killing livable ecology that is – the planet will outlive us).[23]

Capitalism: The Real Conundrum

Owen is mistaken, however, if the thinks it is sufficient to criticize pseudo-green methods and technologies and to call for less consumption, invoking the ghost of Jevons. The “rebound” and “backfire” he deplores is not simply a function of unintended technological consequences. There’s nothing wrong with technological energy efficiency as such. In and of itself, indeed, it should be a very positive thing, much to be encouraged. The problem is that the technological “improvements” Owen knows not to be the solution – and even as contributors to the problem – have been introduced under capitalism, a system in which cheaper inputs help profit-hungry corporations sell more products to more consumers, pushing sales and return on investment (profit) higher. “Under different social arrangements,” the economic historian Richard Smith notes, “if profit were not the goal of production, then such gains in efficiency could indeed save…natural resources for the benefit of society and future generations.” [24] The trick is to create what Foster calls “a system in which efficiency is no longer a curse – a higher system in which equality, human development, community, and sustainability are the explicit goals.”[25]

Owen’s second, intimately related mistake is that he fails to understand that calling for an end to continuous growth means calling for an end to capitalism. Growth is not optional under capitalism. It is built into the system. As Smith notes, “irresistible and relentless pressures for growth are functions of the day-to-day requirements of capitalist reproduction in a competitive market, incumbent on all but a few business….”[26]Most businesses know very well that “grow or die” is for them a maxim of survival thanks to the pressures they face: (i) to find markets for their every-expanding productivity and output; (ii) to defend their position against capitalist competitors. The eloquent eco-socialist Joel Kovel puts it very well in the recent collaborative book Imagine: Living in a Socialist USA:

“However capitalism may be dressed up as a society of democracy, free markets, or progress, its first priority is profitability and, therefore growth, the eternal expansion of the economic product. This requires converting everything possible into monetary value….As [Marx] vividly wrote in Capital: ‘Accumulate! Accumulate! That is the Moses and the prophets’…capital is in the grip of a quasi-religious impulse that drives its system to convert the entire Earth – its oceans and atmosphere and everything under the sun – into commodities to be sold on the market, the profits converted to capital…Seen in this light, capitalism is truly pathological….a kind of metastasizing cancer, a disease that demands radical treatment – revolutionary change.”[27]

The “Global Treadmill of Production”

At the same time, cancerous though it may be to the environment, economic growth is an imperative for the majority of the population, which relies on it for jobs and more. As Smith notes after asking the question “why would anyone want a steady-state capitalism?”:

“Poll after poll shows that ordinary citizens want to see the environment cleaned up, want to a see a stop to the pillage of the planet, the destruction of their children’s future. But as workers in a capitalist economy, ‘no growth’ just means no jobs….if corporations and the economy do not continuously grow, where would the jobs come from for the workers’ children? Today, in the United States, there are said to be at least seven applicants for every available job. Where are the other six people going to find jobs if there is no growth? And this situation is far worse in the developing world, where unemployment levels are off the charts.”[28]

Welcome to what Foster has called ago “the global treadmill of production.” As he explained:

“The logic of this treadmill can be broken down into six elements. First, built into this global system, and constituting its central rationale, is the increasing accumulation of wealth by a relatively small section of the population at the top of the social pyramid. Second, there is a long-term movement of workers away from self-employment and into wage jobs that are contingent on the continual expansion of production. Third, the competitive struggle between businesses necessitates on pain of extinction of the allocation of accumulated wealth to new, revolutionary technologies that serve to expand production. Fourth, wants are manufactured in a manner that creates an insatiable hunger for more. Fifth, government becomes increasingly responsible for promoting national economic development, while ensuring some degree of ‘social security’ for a least a portion of its citizens. Sixth, the dominant means of communication and education are part of the treadmill, serving to reinforce its priorities and values.”

“A defining trait of the system is that it is a kind of giant squirrel cage. Everyone, or nearly everyone, is part of this treadmill and is unable or unwilling to get off. Investors and managers are driven by the need to accumulate wealth and to expand the scale of their operations in order to prosper within a globally competitive milieu. For the vast majority the commitment to the treadmill is more limited and indirect: they simply need to obtain jobs at livable wages. But to retain those jobs and to maintain a given standard of living in these circumstances it is necessary, like the Red Queen in Through the Looking Glass, to run faster and faster in order to stay in the same place. “[29]

The same irrational systemic imperatives that drive capitalism into recurrent cycles of boom and bust turn the profits system into a cancerous threat to human existence. The extermination of the species is practically an “institutional imperative” (Noam Chomsky[30]) for the western business class that stands atop this malignant rat-wheel treadmill of endless accumulation.


The Ghost of Marx

David Owen might have understood all this if he’d look at another great thinker who worked on political economy in England during the 1860s besides Jevons. I am referring, of course, to Marx. For the Jevons Paradox in both its original and subsequent forms is at heart an example of the larger efficiency conundrum of capitalism as understood by Marx. Gains in labor productivity, for example, do not commonly lead to reductions in total time spent in labor because the goal behind such gains under the rule of capital is to advance further accumulation of profit. As Marx noted, the reduction of working time is “by no means the aim of the application of machinery under capitalism…. The machine is a means for producing surplus-value” and thereby for enhancing endless capital accumulation.[31] Like Adam Smith, David Ricardo, and generations of subsequent bourgeois economists through Keynes and beyond, moreover, Marx understood quite well that capitalism depends on endless overall economic expansion.[32]

It would be wonderful if we could heal the environment through green, energy-efficient consumption and production. And it would be great if we could move to a steady-state de-growth economy which values the common environmental good over the endless consumption and accumulation of exchange values. But these things simply won’t happen under capitalism, a system that can no more forego growth and continue than people can stop breathing and live on. The profit system’s core definition of efficiency always comes down not to true and general social efficiency but to specifically capitalist efficiency: maximum return on private investment.

This is particularly true in the age of the corporation. Under the corporate form, top corporate managers lack the freedom to opt for de-growth or prioritize ecological concerns over profit. “Corporations,” Richard Smith notes, “are owned by masses of shareholders. And the shareholders are not looking for ‘stasis;’ they are looking to maximize portfolio gains, so they drive their CEOs forward.” Moreover, those CEOs are forbidden by US law to privilege social responsibility (including environmental responsibility) over the profit interests of shareholders. As Smith argues, following Marx, “we need a completely different kind of economic system, a non-capitalist economic system based on human needs, environmental needs, and a completely different value system, not based on profit.”[33]

Such, surely, would be the conclusion of Marx’s imagine “associated producers, rationally regulating their interchange with Nature, bringing it under their common control, instead of being ruled by it as by the blind forces of Nature; and achieving this with the least expenditure of energy and under conditions most favourable to, and worthy of, their human nature.”


Of course, Marx is long dead. It’s not about him or his real or purported followers. And it’s not about political labels. It’s about the survival of “future as well as present generations …including…other species with which we share this precious blue planet.” As Smith concludes: “‘Socialism’? ‘Economic democracy?’ Call it what you like…Either we save capitalism or we save ourselves. We can’t save both.”[34]

Professor Livingston’s dream of a greener mass-consumer- and use-value-driven capitalism (calling for “more”) and Owen’s dream of a sustainable capitalism (calling for less) are both beside the point. It’s not about consuming and producing less or more at the end of the day. It’s about what: (a) production and consumption for the common good and in accord with democratic principles, or (b) production and consumption for private profit, under the command of the unelected dictatorship of capital? A growing body of earth science and historical understanding suggests rather strongly that human survival and the survival of other living things on Earth requires a fairly rapid transcendence of the latter by the former. As the Hungarian Marxist philosopher Istvan Meszaros put it thirteen years ago, “We are running out of time. . . . The uncomfortable truth of the matter is that if there is no future for a radical mass movement in our time, there can be no future for humanity itself.”[35]

Paul Street is a contributor to the recently released collaborative volume Imagine: Living in a Socialist United States (New York: Harper-Collins, 2014, )and the author of They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Boulder,CO: Paradigm, 2014,


1 See the embarrassing late November 2007 document “Historians for Obama,” History News Network, The laugh-out-loud punch line came at the end: “As president, Barack Obama would only begin the process of healing what ails our society and ensuring that the U.S. plays a beneficial role in the world. But we believe he is that rare politician who can stretch the meaning of democracy, who can help revive what William James called ‘the civic genius of the people’.” “Stretch the meaning of democracy” seems a bit of an understatement more than six years later, though not in the direction meant by the dozens of historians who signed. See “Civil Liberties Under Obama With Glenn Greenwald,” Speech to International Socialist Organization, Chicago, Illinois, July 2011, - a soul-numbing reflection on Obama’s assault on civil liberties prior to the Snowden revelations.

2. Karl Marx, The German Ideology [1845] (New York: International, 2001). 53

3. Karl Marx, Capitalvol. 3: The Process of Capitalist Production as a Whole [1867[ (New York: International, 1976), 820

4. For evidence that some success was achieved in that regard, see Livingston’s appearance on the “Public” Broadcasting System’s power-worshipping “Newshour” ( and Livingston’s attainment of Op-Ed spaces in the New York Times ( and ) and Bloomberg News ( and appearances on Bloomberg TV,

5. Juliet Schor, The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure (New York: Basic, 1992), 107-138; Juliet Schor, The Overspent American (New York: Basic, 1998), 99, 162-63, 240-41.

6. John Bellamy Foster and Brett Clark, “The Planetary Emergency,” Monthly Review (December 2013),

7. Foster and Clark, “Planetary Emergency.”

8. I am referring to the phrase “good for the environment,” in the title. It is odd that the only environmental reference in Against Thrift’s index is the following: “Environmental concerns: moral life of consumer, 179-181; online shopping, 22; and food revolution, 183.” That’s four pages in a 257-page book that puts “good for the environment” in its title.

9. Livingston, Against Thrift, 22, 180.

10. Foster and Clark, “Planetary Emergency.”

11. Thus, Owen would never write something like the following: “We’re as much a part of Nature as the soil itself, because since the Neolithic revolution our planting and harvesting…have been changing the physical and even the chemical composition of the earth. So the ‘material reality’ of the world is not a fixed externality that operates according to laws of motion we didn’t devise: most of the ‘things themselves’ that make up this earth, including the trees and the deserts, wouldn’t be here without us, because, God help us, we were present at their creation” (Livingston, Against Thrift, 180). Livingston is right to note (rather elementarily) that humanity has long shaped what we call Nature but of course there are numerous natural laws that we did not devise. We may come to understand and work with the Second Law of Thermodynamics or General Relativity or Wave-Particle Duality but that hardly makes us authors of Nature, whose laws we still incompletely understand. Those laws were in operation before we appeared on the planet and will outlast us if and when we disappear – a distinct possibility over the next millennium thanks in no small part to anthropogenic climate change and other generally growth-driven human interventions in natural systems, undertaken in arrogant defiance of Natural laws.

12. Owen, The Conundrum, 2.

13. Owen, The Conundrum, 95.

14. Owen summarizes “the conundrum” with a personal anecdote: “On my desk I have an old beer can, from the 1940s, that once contained twelve ounces of Hampden ‘mild but sturdy’ ale. The empty can (which I found inside a wall in my house during a renovation project) weights seventy-nine grams, or five and half times as much as a modern twelve-ounce beverage can made of aluminum. That modern can represents an impressive feat of dematerialization. But has the slimming of our disposable contains caused the per capita human waste stream to shrink? Or has it merely enabled and encouraged us to become still more reckless in our consumption” Owen, The Conundrum, 32.

15. Though Owen’s book lacks something that Livingston’s book shares with most serious nonfiction volumes: an index. This, if after you’ve finished reading Against Thrift and want to review everything he Livingston wrote about, say, Keynes or Marx or savings, you can do that fairly quickly. To review what Owen had to say about Herman Daly or Model Ts or carbon caps or Jevons and so on, you have to pretty much leaf through the book again and again. The movement away from serious indexes in nonfiction publishing is an intellectual atrocity.

16. William Stanley Jevons, The Coal Question, third edition (New York: Kelley, 1905), cited in Richard Smith, “Beyond Growth or Beyond Capitalism,” Real World Economic Review, issue 53, June 26, 2010, reprinted with revisions at Truthout (January 15, 2014),

17. Jevons, The Coal Question, cited in Owen, The Conundrum, 104. Emphasis in Jevons.

18. John Bellamy Foster, Brett Clark, and Richard York, The Ecological Rift: Capitalism’s War on the Planet (New York: Monthly Review, 2010), 178.

19. Owen, The Conundrum, 246.

20. Owen, The Conundrum, 38-60.

21. Owen, The Conundrum, 149, 151-152

22. Tyndall Center for Climate Change Research, “The Radical Emission Reduction Emission Reduction Conference, December 10-11, 2013,”

23. Naomi Klein, “How Science is Telling Us to Revolt,” New Statesman (October 29, 2013),

24. Smith, “Beyond Growth or Beyond Capitalism?” (see note 13, above)

25. Foster et al. The Ecological Rift, 181.

26. Smith, “Beyond Growth or Beyond Capitalism?”

27. Joel Kovel, Chapter 2: “The Future Will be Ecosocialist Because Without Ecolsocialism There Will be No Future,” in Francis Goldin, Debby Smith, and Michael Steven Smith, IMAGINE Living in a Socialist USA (New York: Harper Collins, 2014), 27-28

28. Smith, “Beyond Growth or Beyond Capitalism?”

29. John Bellamy Foster, “Global Ecology and the Common Good,” Monthly Review (February 1995), read online at

30. “I do not want to end without mentioning another externality that is dismissed in market systems: the fate of the species. Systemic risk in the financial system can be remedied by the taxpayer, but no one will come to the rescue if the environment is destroyed. That it must be destroyed is close to an institutional imperative.” Noam Chomsky, “Is t he World Too Big to Fail?” TomDispatch (August 20, 2012),,_who_owns_the_world_

31. Karl Marx, Capital, vol. 1 (London: Penguin, 1976), 492.

32. P.M. Mathew, “Marxism in Revival Mode,” The New Indian Express, August 22, 2013,; William Appleman Williams, The Great Evasion: An Essay on the Contemporary Relevance of Karl Marx and on the Wisdom of Admitting the Heretic Into the Dialogue About America’s Future (Chicago: Quadrangle, 1964), 31; Smith, “Beyond Growth or Beyond Capitalism?”

33. Smith, “Beyond Growth or Beyond Capitalism?”

34. Smith, “Beyond Growth or Beyond Capitalism?”

35. Istvan Meszaros, Socialism or Barbarism: From the “American Century” to the Crossroads (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2001), 80; emphasis added 

Trumpet of Conscience Remembering the Officially Deleted Dr. King

23/01/14 0 COMMENTS

First published on Counterpunch on January 17-19, 2014.

Last summer I happened upon a neat find in a used book store. I found an original edition of Martin Luther  King’s posthumously published book The Trumpet of Conscience (New York: Harper & Row, 1968) – a compilation of five lectures King gave over the Canadian Broadcasting System (CBC) during November and December of 1967, just five months before his assassination (or execution) in Memphis. The CBC had invited King to talk about anything he considered relevant not only in the U.S. but around the world.

The Trumpet of Conscience does not jibe well with the conventional domesticated and whitewashed image of King that is purveyed across the nation ever year during and around the national holiday the bears his name.  That image portrays King as a moderate reformer who wanted little more than a few basic civil rights adjustments in a mostly benevolent American System – a loyal supplicant who was tearfully grateful to the nation’s leaders for finally making those adjustments.

The official commemoration says nothing about the Dr. King who studied Marx sympathetically at a young age[1] and who said in his last years that “if we are to achieve real equality, the United States will have to adopt a modified form of socialism” [2]. It deletes the King who wrote that the “real issue to be faced” beyond superficial matter was “the  radical reconstruction society of society itself.”[3]

In his first talk (“Impasse in Race Relations”), King reflected on how little the black freedom struggle had actually attained beyond some fractional changes in the South. He deplored “the arresting of the limited forward progress” blacks and their allies had attained “by [a] white resistance [that] revealed the latent racism that was [still] deeply rooted in U.S. society.”

“As elation and expectations died,” King explained, “Negroes became more sharply aware that the goal of freedom was still distant and our immediate plight was substantially still an agony of deprivation. In the past decade, little has been done for Northern ghettoes. Al the legislation was to remedy Southern conditions – and even these were only partially improved” (p.6).

Worse than merely limited, the gains won by black Americans during what King considered the “first phase” of their freedom struggle (1955-1965) were dangerous in that they “brought whites a sense of completion” – a preposterous impression that the so-called “Negro problem” had been solved and that there was therefore no more basis or justification for further black activism. “When Negroes assertively moved on to ascend to the second rung of the ladder,” King noted, “a firm resistance from the white community developed….In some quarters it was a courteous rejection, in others it was a singing white backlash. In all quarters unmistakably it was outright resistance” (p.6).

The White Man Does Not Abide by Law”

Explaining the remarkable wave of race riots that washed across U.S. cities in the summers of 1966 and 1967, King made no apologies for black 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 (whose expectations for substantive change had been aroused) “that they must expect to remain permanently unequal and permanently poor” (9-10, emphasis added).

King also blamed the riots in part on Washington’s imperialist and mass-murderous “war in [here he might have better said “on”] Vietnam.” The military aggression against Southeast Asia stole resources from Johnson’s briefly declared and barely fought “War on Poverty.” It 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.

Black Americans and others sensed what King called “the cruel irony of watching Negro and white boys on TV screens as they kill and die together for a nation that has been unable to seat them together in the same school. We watch them in brutal solidarity burning the huts of a poor village, but we realize that they would never live on the same block in Detroit,” King said in his second CBC lecture, adding that he “could not be silent in the face of such cruel manipulation of the poor” (p. 23).

Racial hypocrisy aside, King said that “a nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense [here he might better have said “military empire”] than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual doom” (p.33).

Did the rioters disrespect the law, as their liberal and conservative critics alike charged? Yes, King said, but added that the rioters’ transgressions were “derivative crimes…born of the greater crimes of the…policy-makers of the white society,” who “created discrimination…created slums. [and] perpetuate unemployment, ignorance, and poverty….[T]he white man,” King elaborated, “does not abide by law in the ghetto. Day in and day out he violates welfare laws to deprive the poor of their meager allotments; he flagrantly violates building codes and regulations; his police make a mockery of law; he violates laws on equal employment and education and the provision of public services. The slums are a handiwork of a vicious system of the white society.” (p.8).

Did the rioters engage in violence? Yes, King said in his fourth lecture, but noted that their aggression was “to a startling degree…focused against property rather than against people.” He observed that “property represents the white power structure, which [the rioters] were [understandably] attacking and trying to destroy” (pp. 56-57). Against those who held property “sacred,” King argued that “Property is intended to serve life, and no matter how much we surround with rights and respect, it has no personal being”

The Roots are in the System”

What to do? King advanced significant policy changes that went against the grain of the nation’s corporate state, reflecting his agreement with New Left Radicals that “only by structural change can current evils be eliminated, because the roots are in the system rather in man or faulty operations” (p.40). King advocated an emergency national program providing either decent-paying jobs for all or a guaranteed national income “at levels that sustain life in decent circumstances.” He also called tor “demolition of slums and rebuilding by the population that lives in them” (p. 14).

His proposals, he said, aimed for more than racial justice alone. Seeking to abolish poverty for all, including poor whites, he felt that “the Negro revolt” had come to challenge what he called “the interrelated triple evils” of racism, economic injustice/poverty (capitalism) and war (militarism and imperialism). It had “evolve[ed] into more than a quest for desegregation and equality” by becoming “a challenge to a system that has created miracles of production and technology to create justice.”

If humanism is locked outside the system,” King said in his opening lecture, “Negroes will have revealed its inner core of despotism and a far grater struggle for liberation will unfold. The United States is substantially challenged to demonstrate that it can abolish not only the evils of racism but the scourge of poverty and the horrors of war….” (pp. 16-17, emphasis added).

There should be no doubt that King meant capitalism when he referred to “the system” and its “inner core of despotism.”[4]

They Must Organize a Revolution…. Against the Privileged Minority of the Earth”

No careful listener to King’s CBC talks could have missed the radicalism of his vision and tactics. “The dispossessed of this nation – the poor, both White and Negro – live in a cruelly unjust society,” King said in his fourth lecture. “They must organize a revolution against that injustice,” he added (p. 59)..

Such a revolution would require “more then a statement to the larger society,” more than “street marches” King proclaimed. “There must,” he added, “be a force that interrupts [that society’s] functioning at some key point.” That force would use “mass civil disobedience” to “transmute the deep rage of the ghetto into a constructive and creative force” by “dislocate[ing] the functioning of a society.”

“The storm is rising against the privileged minority of the earth,” King added for good measure. “The storm will not abate until [there is a] just distribution of the fruits of the earth…” (p. 17). As this reference to the entire earth suggested, the “massive, active, nonviolent resistance to the evils of the modern system” (p. 48) that King advocated was “international in scope,” reflecting the fact that “the poor countries are poor primarily because [rich Western nations] have exploited them through political or economic colonialism. Americans in particular must help their nation repent of her modern economic imperialism” (p. 62).

In the Trumpet of Conscience you read a democratic socialist mass-disobedience world revolution advocate who the guardians of national memory don’t want you know about when they honor the official, doctrinally imposed memory of King.

Regression, Betrayal, and “The Mendacity of Hope”

The threat posed to that official memory by King’s CBC lectures – and by much more that King did and said and write in the last three years of his life – is not just that they show an officially iconic gradualist reformer to have been a radical opponent of the profits system and its empire. It is also about how clearly King analyzed the incomplete and unfinished nature of the nation’s progress against racial and class injustice, around which all forward developments pretty much ceased in the 1970s, thanks to a white backlash that was already well underway in the early and mid-1960s (before the rise of the Black Panthers) and to a top-down corporate war on working class Americans that started under Jimmy Carter and went ballistic under Ronald Reagan.

The “spiritual doom” imposed by militarism has lived on, with Washington having directly and indirectly killed untold millions of Iraqis, Central Americans, South Americans, Africans, Muslims, Arabs, and Asians in many different ways over the years since Vietnam.[5] Accounting for half the world’s obscene military expenditure, the U.S. maintains Cold War-level “defense” (empire) budgets to sustain an historically unmatched global killing machine (which operates from more than 1000 bases located in more than 100 “sovereign” nations) even as the current record-setting number of officially poor Americans remains stuck at 46 million, a very disproportionate number of whom are black and Latino/a.

It is ironic that Barack Obama keeps a bust of King in the White House’s oval office to watch over his regular betrayal of the martyred peace and justice leader’s ideals. Consistent with Dr. Adolph Reed Jr.’s early (1996) dead-on description of the future President as “a smooth Harvard lawyer with impeccable credentials and vacuous to repressive neoliberal politics”[6], President Obama has consistently backed top corporate and financial interests (whose representatives have filled and dominated his administrations, campaigns, and campaign coffers) over and against those who would undertake serious programs to end poverty, redistribute wealth (the savage re-concentration of which since Dr. King’s time has produced a New Gilded Age in the U.S.), constrain capital, and save livable ecology as it approaches a number of critical tipping points on the accelerating path to irreversible catastrophe. Thus is that one of Obama’s supporters was moved in late 2012 to complain that a president “whose platform consists of Romney’s health care bill, Newt Gingrich’s environmental policies, John McCain’s deficit-financed payroll tax cuts, George W. Bush’s bailouts of filing banks and corporations, and a mixture of the Bush and Clinton tax rate” was still being denounced as a leftist enemy of business by the Republicans.[7]

Obama has opposed calls for any special programs or serious federal attention to the nation’s savage racial inequalities, so vast now that the median of white households is 20 times that of black households and 18 times that of Hispanic households. He has done this while the fact of his ascendency to the White House has deeply reinforced white America’s sense that racism is over as a barrier to black advancement and has generated its own significant white backlash that only worsens the situation of less privileged black Americans. He has made it clear that what Dr. King called (white) America’s unpaid “promissory note” and “bad check” to black America [8] will remain un-cashed under his watch – consistent with his preposterous 2007 campaign claim (at a commemoration of the 1965 Selma Voting Rights March) to believe that blacks had already come “90 percent” of the way to equality in the U.S.[9]

Completing the “triple evils” hat trick, Obama – he of the of personally approved Special Forces Global War on (of) Terror Kill List – has embraced and expanded upon the vast criminal and worldwide spying and killing operation he inherited from Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, and Bush. He has tamped down their spent and failed ground wars only to ramp up and inflate the role of unaccountable special force and drone attacks in the spirit of his dashing and reckless imperial role model John Fitzgerald Kennedy. In waging his deadly and disastrous air war on Libya, he did not even bother with the pretense of seeking Congressional approval. Meanwhile he has far outdone the Cheney-Bush regime when it comes to repressing antiwar dissenters, not to mention those who oppose the rule of the 1 percent – smashed by a coordinated federal campaign in the fall of 2011.“As all kinds of journalists have continuously pointed out,” Glenn Greenwald notes, “the Obama administration is more aggressive and more vindictive when it comes to punishing whistleblowers than any administration in American history, including the Nixon administration.” [10]

“A Calling Beyond National Allegiances”

Thinking of the FTBP’s imperial record, I am reminded of something King said in his second CBC lecture. Explaining why he had turned 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” (p.25).

In answering that call, 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[11] Besides opposing the war on moral grounds, King understood very well that expenses of crushing Vietnam were precluding and cancelling out anti-poverty spending.

A Testament of Radical Hope

Perhaps the Obama experience is at least a lesson on how progressive change is about something much bigger than a change in the party or color of the people in nominal power. That is certainly something King (who would be 85 today) would have thought has been able to witness the endless mendacity of the the nation’s first half-white president first-hand. “The black revolution,” King wrote in a posthumously published 1969 essay titled “A Testament of Hope” – embracing a very different sort of hope than that purveyed by Brand Obama in 2008 – “is much more than a struggle for the rights of Negroes. It is forcing America to face all its interrelated flaws – racism, poverty, militarism, and materialism. It is exposing evils that are rooted deeply in the whole structure of out society. It reveals systemic rather than superficial flaws and suggests that radical reconstruction society of society itself is the real issue to be faced.”[12]

Those words – words you will not hear via “mainstream” media during the national King Day celebrations– ring as true and urgent as ever today, as it becomes undeniable that the profits system’s inner core of despotism is driving humanity over an environmental cliff and that it has become eco-“socialism or barbarism if we’re lucky.”

Paul Street ( is the author of many books, including Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis (Rowman & Littlefield, 2007), Segregated Schools (Routledge, 2005) and They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm, 2014).

Selected Endnotes

1. Marshall Frady, Martin Luther King, Jr, A Life (New York: Penguin, 2002), 25

2.  David J.Garrow, Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Council(HarperCollins, 1986), 41-43.

3.  See note 12, below.

4. Garrow, Bearing the Cross, 382, 591-92; Michael Eric Dyson, I May Not Get There With You: The True Martin Luther King, Jr. (Free Press, 2000), 87-88.

5. A useful review is William Blum, Rogue State: A Guide to the World’s Only Superpower (Common courage Press, 2005). See also Noam Chomsky, Year 501: The Conquest Continues (South End Press, 1993) and Ward Churchill, On the Justice of Roosting Chickens: Reflections on the Consequences of U.S. Imperial Arrogance and Criminality (AK Press, 2003),

6. And with my description of Obama’s commitment and career in my book Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (Paradigm 2008, written in 2007). See Adolph Reed, Jr., “The Curse of Community,” Village Voice (January 16, 1996), reproduced in Reed, Class Notes: Posing as Politics and Other Thoughts on the American Scene (New York, 2000), 10-13.

7. Ezra Klein, “Block Obama!,” New York Review of Books, September 27, 2012, quoted in Perry Anderson, “Homeland,” New Left Review 81 (May-June 2013).

8. Martin Luther King, Jr., “I Have a Dream…” (1963),

9. Paul Street, “The Pale Reflection: Barack Obama, Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Meaning of the Black Revolution,”  Black Agenda Report(March 20, 2007),

10.  Transcribed from

11. For a detailed and remarkable account, see Paul Le Blanc and Michael D. Yates, A Freedom Budget for All Americans: Recapturing the Promise of the Civil; Rights Movement in the Struggle for Economic Justice Today (New York: Monthly Review, 2013).

12, Martin Luther King, Jr., “A Testament of Hope” (1969) in James Washington, ed., A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King. Jr (New York: Harper Collins, 1991), 315.

The Biggest Threat to Peace on Earth: Reflections on Empire, Evil, and American Exceptionalism

10/01/14 0 COMMENTS

First appeared on ZNet on January 10, 2014. According to a global survey of 66,000 people conducted across 68 countries by the Worldwide Independent Network of Market Research (WINMR) and Gallup International at the end of 2013, Earth’s people see the United States as the most significant threat to peace on the planet. The US was voted top threat by a wide margin, receiving 24% of the vote. Pakistan was a very distant second with 8%, followed by China (6%). Afghanistan, Iran, Israel and North Korea tied for fourth place at 4%.[1]

 “A Black Check in Their ‘McWorld’”

An International Business Times headline on the WINMR-Gallup poll seemed to question the validity and/or rationality of the finding. “In Gallup Poll,” the headline read, “Leading Threat to World Peace is….America?” In reality, however, the United States’ status as by and far away the leading threat to peace in the world’s eyes should be anything but surprising to any serious observer of US foreign policy and the international scene. The US, after all, accounts for nearly half the world’s military spending. It maintains more than 1000 military installations across more than 100 “sovereign” nations spread across every continent. The Obama administration deploys Special Operations forces in 75 to 100 countries (up from 60 at the end of the George W. Bush administration) and conducts regular lethal drone attacks against officially designated terrorists (and a much larger number of innocent civilians) in the Middle East, Southwest Asia and Africa. It maintains a massive global surveillance program dedicated to the de facto elimination of privacy on Earth – a program that has spied even on the personal cell phones of European heads of state, including Germany’s Angela Merkel. As Der Speigel, Germany’s leading newspaper noted in 1997: “Never before in modern history as a country dominated the earth as totally as the United States does today….America is now the Schwarzenegger of international politics: showing off muscles, obtrusive, intimidating….The Americans, in the absence of limits put to them by anybody or anything, act as if they own a kind of blank check in their ‘McWorld.”[2]

No Apology

This Schwarzenegger has gone off on a bit of a one-sided rampage in the current Millennium. The US since September 11, 2001 has killed, maimed, and displaced millions across the Muslim World as part of its Global War on [of] Terror (GWOT). The violence is always conducted in the names of peace, freedom, democracy, and security. An illustrative incident in the US war on/of terror occurred in the first week of May 2009. That’s when US air-strikes killed more 140 civilians in Bola Boluk, a village western Afghanistan’s Farah Province. Ninety-three of the dead villagers torn apart by US explosives were children. Just 22 were males 18 years or older. As the New York Times reported:

“In a phone call played on a loudspeaker on Wednesday to…the Afghan Parliament, the governor of Farah Province, Rohul Amin, said that as many as 130 civilians had been killed, according to a legislator, Mohammad Naim Farahi…’The governor said that the villagers have brought two tractor trailers full of pieces of human bodies to his office to prove the casualties that had occurred…Everyone was crying…watching that shocking scene.’ Mr. Farahi said he had talked to someone he knew personally who had counted 113 bodies being buried, including…many women and children.”[3]

The initial response of the Obama Pentagon to this horrific incident – one among many mass US aerial civilian killings in Afghanistan and Pakistan beginning in the fall of 2001 – was to blame the deaths on “Taliban grenades.” Obama’s Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressed “regret” about loss of innocent life, but the administration refused to issue an apology or to acknowledge US responsibility.[4] By contrast, Obama had just offered a full apology and fired a White House official for scaring New Yorkers with an ill-advised Air Force One photo-shoot flyover of Manhattan that reminded people there of 9/11.[5]

The disparity was extraordinary: frightening New Yorkers led to a full presidential apology and the discharge of a White House staffer. Killing more than 100 Afghan civilians did not require any apology. Nobody had to be fired. And the Pentagon was permitted to advance preposterous claims about how the civilians perished – stories that taken seriously by “mainstream” (corporate-imperial war and entertainment) media. The US subsequently conducted a dubious “investigation” of the Bola Boluk slaughter that slashed the civilian body count and blamed the Taliban for putting civilians in the way of US bombs.[6]

Sons and Daughters

Another shining example of the US commitment to peace and security is Fallujah, Iraq. In a foreign policy speech he gave on the eve of announcing his candidacy for the US presidency, Barack Obama had the audacity to say the following in support of his claim that US citizens supported “victory” in Iraq: “The American people have been extraordinarily resolved. They have seen their sons and daughters killed or wounded in the streets of Fallujah [emphasis added].”[7]

This was a spine-chilling selection of locales. Fallujah was the site for colossal US war atrocity – the crimes included the indiscriminate murder of thousands of civilians, the targeting even of ambulances and hospitals, and the practical leveling of an entire city – by the US military in April and November of 2004. The city was designated for destruction as an example of the awesome state terror promised to those who dared to resist US power.[8] By one account:

“The US launched two bursts of ferocious assault on the city, in April and November of 2004… [using] devastating firepower from a distance which minimizes US casualties. In April….military commanders claimed to have precisely targeted…insurgent forces, yet the local hospitals reported that many or most of the casualties were civilians, often women, children, and the elderly… [reflecting an] intention to kill civilians generally….In November … [YS] aerial assault destroyed the only hospital in insurgent territory to ensure that this time no one would be able to document civilian casualties. US forces then went through the city, virtually destroying it. Afterwards, Fallujah looked like the city of Grozny in Chechnya after Putin’s Russian troops had razed it to the ground.”[9]

US deployment of radioactive ordnance (depleted uranium) in Fallujah helped create a subsequent epidemic of infant mortality, birth defects, leukemia, and cancer there. [10]

Fallujah was jut one especially graphic episode in a broader arch-criminal invasion that led to the premature deaths of at least one million Iraqi civilians and left Iraq “a disaster zone on a catastrophic scale hard to match in recent memory” (Tom Engelhardt[11]). According to the respected journalist Nir Rosen in December 2007, “Iraq has been killed….the American occupation has been more disastrous than that of the Mongols who sacked Baghdad in the thirteenth century.”[12]


“So You Stuff’ Em in Guantanamo”

Lawrence Wilkerson is a former combat officer and onetime chief of staff to George W. Bush’s Secretary of States Colin Powell. Speaking to investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill, he described a typical Special Forces operation during the occupation of Iraq: “You go in and you get some intelligence…and you say ‘Oh, this is really good actionable intelligence. Here’s ‘Operation Blue Thunder. Go do it.’ And they kill 27, 30, 40 people, whatever, and they capture seven or eight. Then you find out that the intelligence was bad and you killed a bunch of innocent people and you have a bunch of innocent people on your hands, so you stuff ‘em in Guantanamo. No one ever knows anything about that….you say, ‘chalk that one up to experience,’ and you go on to the next operation.”[13] Blank check, indeed.

An “Aerial Traffic Jam” Above a “One-Sided Slaughter” (Iraq, 1991)

All of this and much more terrible to mention from the current century of one-sided American war is consistent with the United States’ long record of savage imperial violence. That history stretches from the bloody extermination of the nation’s original inhabitants (the long Native American Holocaust of 1607-1890[14]) through the openly racist butchering of tens of thousands of Filipinos between 1899 and 1902 (when US soldiers engaged in the slaughter wrote home to friends and relatives about how they had come “to blow every nigger to nigger heaven” and had vowed to fight “until the niggers are killed off like Indians”[15]), the monumentally arch-criminal and unnecessary atom-bombing of Japan[16], the soul-numbing US “crucifixion of Southeast Asia” (Noam Chomsky’s term for a US policy that liquidated 2 million Indochinese – regularly labeled “gooks” and other such racist names by US troops – between 1962 and 1975[17]), and the “Highway of Death,” when US forces massacred tens of thousands of surrendered Iraqi troops retreating from Kuwait on February 26th and 27th, 1991. Regarding this last atrocity, the Lebanese-American journalist Joyce Chediac testified that:

“US planes trapped the long convoys by disabling vehicles in the front, and at the rear, and then pounded the resulting traffic jams for hours. ‘It was like shooting fish in a barrel,’ said one US pilot…On the sixty miles of coastal highway, Iraqi military units sit in gruesome repose, scorched skeletons of vehicles and men alike, black and awful under the sun, says the Los Angeles Times of March 11, 1991… for 60 miles every vehicle was strafed or bombed, every windshield is shattered, every tank is burned, every truck is riddled with shell fragments. No survivors are known or likely….” ‘Even in Vietnam I didn’t see anything like this. It’s pathetic,’ said Major Bob Nugent, an Army intelligence officer…US pilots took whatever bombs happened to be close to the flight deck, from cluster bombs to 500 pound bombs…US forces continued to drop bombs on the convoys until all humans were killed. So many jets swarmed over the inland road that it created an aerial traffic jam, and combat air controllers feared midair collisions…The victims were not offering resistance…it was simply a one-sided massacre of tens of thousands of people who had no ability to fight back or defend themselves.”[18]

There are ways to kill other than direct physical violence, of course. Five years after the Highway of Death, US Secretary of State Madeline Albright told CBS that the death of half a million Iraqi children due to US-imposed economic sanctions was a “price…worth paying” for the advancement of US goals.[19]

Keeping the “Machine Set on Kill”

Anyone who thinks US imperial savagery came to some kind of a merciful halt with the ascendency of Barack Obama is living in a dream world. Obama may have been tasked with winding down the Washington’s failed ground wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (the same job would have fallen to a President McCain), but he had drastically expanded the scale, intensity, and scope of the drone war and the presence of Special Forces troops around the world. Obama, as the courageous journalist Allan Nairn noted early on, has kept the giant US imperial “machine set on kill.”[20]

The tone was set from the start, with Obama signing off on two major drone strikes in Pakistan on his fourth day in office. The first strike “killed between seven and fifteen people, nearly all of them civilians.” The second one “struck the ‘wrong house’ and killed five to eight civilians,” including two children. Less than half a year later, another one of Obama’s “signature [drone] strikes” targeted a funeral and killed “scores of civilians – estimates ranged between eighteen and fifty-five.” By October of 2009, Scahill reports, “Obama had already authorized as many drone strikes in ten months as Bush had in his entire eight years in office.” A military source told Scahill about a standard Special Forces kill operation in the Age of Obama: “If there’s one person they’re going after and there’s thirty-four [other] people in the building, then thirty-five people are going to die.”[21]

“The United States is Good”

Last week a broadcast journalist from Iran asked me if I thought the WINMR-Gallup poll would elicit any anti-imperial backlash on the part of US citizens. I had to say no for three reasons. First, I doubted very seriously that dominant US mass media would pay much attention to the survey given that the poll’s finding was radically inconsistent with that media’s longstanding habitual and reflexive treatment of the United States as force for peace and stability in the world (my expectation has been fulfilled: the survey has been pretty much of a non-story in US news and commentary). Second, similar global survey data has been (weakly) reported on past occasions with the little discernible impact on US opinion and policy, which remain coldly indifferent to the views of people on the wrong end of US power.

Third, even if the poll and what people think abroad held a more prominent place in US media and opinion, it seems unlikely that any more than a relatively small minority of US citizens are ready to accept the notion of the US as any kind of threat to world peace at all, much less the leading threat. Consider the reflections of former New York Times foreign correspondent Stephen Kinzer on the United States’ annexation of Hawaii and the Philippines, its seizure of Puerto Rico, and its overthrow of elected governments in Nicaragua and Honduras during the late 19th and early 20th centuries:

“Why did Americans support policies that brought suffering to people in foreign lands? There are two reasons, so intertwined that they became one. The essential reason is that American control of faraway places came to be seen as vital to the material prosperity of the United States. This explanation, however, is wrapped inside another one: the deep-seated belief of most Americans that their country is a force for good in the world. Thus, by extension, even the destructive missions the United States embarks on to impose its authority are tolerable. Generations of American political and business leaders have recognized the power of the noble idea of American exceptionalism. When they intervene abroad for selfish or ignoble reasons, they always insist that in the end, their actions will benefit not only the United States but also the citizens of the country in which they are intervening-and, by extension, the causes of peace and justice in the world.”[22]


This problem of “American exceptionalism” – the doctrinal belief that US goals and behavior are inherently benevolent, well-intentioned, and good for the world – remains deeply entrenched more than a century later. It is a leading reason, along with the scale and conduct of US empire, that the world’s people are correct to identify the United States as leading threat to peace on Earth. Nothing is more dangerous – and evil (see below) – than a sole military Superpower that believes itself beyond moral reproach. Listen, in that regard, to the following malignant nationally narcissistic statements from US foreign policy elites of both of the dominant US political organizations (aptly identified as “two wings of the same bird of prey” by Upton Sinclair more than a century ago):

“A world once divided into two armed camps now recognizes one sole and pre-eminent power, the United States of America. And they regard this with no dread. For the world trusts us with power, and the world is right. They trust us to be fair, and restrained. They trust us to be on side of decency. They trust us to do what’s right.”

- US President George H.W. Bush, 1992 [23]

“ The willingness to serve and sacrifice for the greater good is the ultimate tribute to your character and your efforts…The values you learned here….will be able to be spread …throughout the world and give other people the opportunity to live as you have lived, to fulfill your God-given capacities.”

- US President Bill Clinton, speaking to West Point graduates, 1993 [24]

“When I came into office, I was determined that our country would go into the 21st century still the world’s greatest force for peace and freedom. For democracy, and security, and prosperity.”

- US President Bill Clinton, 1996 [25]

“The United States is good. We try to do our best everywhere.”

- US Secretary of State Madeline Albright, 1999 [26]


“America was targeted for attack because we’re the brightest beacon for freedom and opportunity in the world… Today, our nation saw evil…Our military is powerful, and it’s prepared….. we go forward to defend freedom and all that is good and just in our world.”

- President George W. Bush, September 11, 2001 [27]


“We lead the world in battling immediate evils and promoting the ultimate good….America is the last, best hope of Earth…. America’s larger purpose in the world is to promote the spread of freedom. The American moment has not passed…we will seize that moment, and begin the world anew. “

- US presidential candidate Barack Obama, April 23, 2007 [28]


“The mission of the United States is to provide global leadership grounded in the understanding that the world shares a common security and a common humanity.”

- US presidential candidate Barack Obama, August 2007 [29]

“Our security emanates from the justness of our cause; the force of our example; the tempering qualities of humility and restraint.”

- US President Barack Obama, .Inaugural Address, January 20, 2009 [30]


“The Self Righteous Who Think they are Without Sin”

Reading through these statements and holding them up against the criminal, racist, and imperial reality of US foreign policy in this and previous centuries, I am reminded of the Christian psychotherapist and author M, Scott Peck’s study of human evil People of the Lie. By Peck’s reckoning:


“The evil in this world is committed by the…self-righteous who think they are without sin because they are unwilling to suffer the discomfort of significant self-examination…[their] most basic sin is pride – because all sins are reparable except the sin of believing one is without sin…Since they must deny their own badness, they must perceive others as bad. The project their own evil onto the world… Utterly dedicated to preserving their self-image of perfection, they are unceasingly engaged in the effort to maintain the appearance of moral purity. The words ‘image,’ ‘appearance,’ and ‘outwardly’ are crucial to understanding the morality of the evil. While they seem to lack any motivation to be good, they intensely desire to appear good. Their ‘goodness’ is all on a level of pretense. It is, in effect, a lie…they are the ‘people of the lie.’’[31]

That sounds to me like a reflection on the “American exceptionalist” rhetoric of US empire past and present. When combined with the record and reach of US military power, the parallels suggests that the people of the world are quite right to identify self-righteous America as the leading threat to peace on planet Earth.

Peck’s volume was, of course, about individuals, not power structures. For all I know, Barack Obama is a perfectly moral and caring individual in relation to his family and friends (same for George W. Bush). But that’s irrelevant when it comes to global affairs, where the role of a US president and his top foreign policy advisors and operatives is to advance the blood-soaked American Empire Project under the guise of benevolent intent and a national form of malignant narcissism that we call American exceptionalism – to be the ultimate “people of the lie” on the public and global stage. How appropriate then, that the US has retained its status as most dangerous nation in the world’s eyes after the passage from the more openly and clumsily imperialist Bush 43 to the more stealthily imperial and supposedly more peace-oriented Obama 44. The world, clearly, is no longer fooled by the great Obama re-branding of the “Schwarzenegger of international politics.” It properly understands the latest post-Bush president elected in the name of “hope” and “change” [32] to be simply the empire’s latest new-old clothes. 

Paul Street is the author of many books, including Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis (2007) and The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (2010). His next is They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (2014, forthcoming, Paradigm)

Selected Endnotes

1. Eric Brown, “In Gallup Poll, Leading Threat to World Peace is….America?” International Business Times, January 2, 2014,

2. The Der Spiegel quote is replicated at the front of William Blum, Rogue State: A Guide to the World’s Only Superpower (Monroe, ME: Common Courage, 2005).

3. Carlotta Gall and Taimoor Shah, “Civilian Deaths Imperil Support for Afghan War,” New York Times, May 6, 2009.

4. Gall and Shah, “Civilian Deaths;”

5. Christina Boyle, “President Obama Calls Air Force One Flyover ‘Mistake’ After Low-Flying Plane Terrifies New York,” New York Daily News, April 28, 2009; Michel Muskai, “Presidential Plane’s Photo-Op Over New York Coast as Much as $357,000,” Los Angeles Times, May 9, 2009; Peter Nicholas, “Louis Caldera Resigns Over Air Force One Flyover Fiasco,” Los Angeles Time, May 9, 2009.

6. Paul Street, “Niebuhr Lives, Civilians Die in the Age of Obama,” ZNet (June 15, 2009), read at

7. Barack Obama, “A Way Forward in Iraq,”  Chicago Council on Global Affairs, November 20, 2006,

8. Michael Mann, Incoherent Empire (New York: Verso, 2005, p. xiii; Anthony Arnove, Iraq: The Logic of Withdrawal (New York: New Press, 2006), 27-28.

9. Mann, Incoherent Empire, xii.

10. Patrick Cockburn, “Toxic Legacy of US Assault ‘Worse Than Hiroshima,” Independent (UK), July 24, 2010,

11. Tom Engelhardt, “The Corpse on the Gurney,”, January 18, 2008.

12. “The Death of Iraq,” Current History, December 2007, 31.

13. Jeremy Scahill, Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield (New York: Nation Books, 2013), 142-143.

14. Ward Churchill, On the Justice of Roosting Chickens: Reflections on the Consequences of U.S. Imperial Arrogance and Criminality (Oakland, CA: AK Press, 2003); Ward Churchill, From a Native Son: Selected Essays on Indigenism, 1985-1995 (Boston, MA: South End Press, 1996).

15. Stephen Kinzer, Overthrow: America’s Century of Regime Change From Hawaii to Iraq (New York: Times Books, 2006), 50.

16. Gar Alperovitz, The Decision to Use the Atom Bomb (New York: Vintage, 1996)

17. And “after the Vietnam War was ended in 1975,” Chomsky noted in 1992, “the major policy goal of the US has been to maximize repression and suffering in the countries that were devastated y our violence. The degree of the cruelty is quite astonishing. When the Mennonites tried to send pencils to Cambodia, the State Department tried to stop them. When Oxfam tried to send ten solar pumps, the reaction was the same. The same was true when religious groups tried to send shovels to Laos to dig up some of the unexploded shells left by American bombing. When India tried to send 100 water buffaloes to Vietnam to replace the huge herds that were destroyed by the American attacks – and remember, in this primitive country, water-buffalo mean fertilizer, tractors, survival – the United States threatened to cancel Food for Peace aid. That’s one Orwell would have appreciated).No degree of cruelty is too great for Washington sadists. The educated classes know enough to look the other way.” Noam Chomsky, What Uncle Sam Really Wants (Berkeley, CA: Odonian Press, 1992), 58-59. As Chomsky has noted in other places, “Vietnam War” being a rather awkward term for a one sided US imperial assault

18. Ramsey Clark and others, War Crimes: A Report on United States War Crimes Against Iraq to the Commission of Inquiry for the International War Crimes Tribunal, testimony of Joyce Chediac at



21. Scahill, Dirty Wars, 248-251, 253. As Scahill ads, summarizing the chasm between campaign rhetoric and policy when it came to Obama’s shift from candidate to president: “Laying out policy visions on the campaign trail was one thing, but confronting the most secretive, elite forces in the US national security apparatus would be no easy task. The more the president became involved with the day-to-day running of the targeting killing program, the more it expanded. By the end of his first year in office, Obama and his new counterterrorism team would begin building the infrastructure for a formalized US assassination program.”

22. Kinzer, Overthrow, 107. Kinzer forgot to add that “the material prosperity of the United States” is generally a nice-sounding euphemism or “the profits of the US economic ruling class.” As Noam Chomsky noted in 1969, “There are, to be sure, costs of empire that benefit no one: 50,000 American corpses or the deterioration in the strength of the United States economy relative to its industrial rivals. The costs of empire to the imperial society as a whole may be considerable. These costs, however, are social costs, whereas, say, the profits from overseas investment guaranteed by military success are again highly concentrated in certain special segments of the society. The costs of empire are in general distributed over the society as a whole, while its profits revert to a few within” (emphasis added).Noam Chomsky, For Reasons of State (New York: Pantheon, 1972), 47

23. Blum, Rogue State, Opening Quotes.


25. Blum, Rogue State, Opening Quotes.

26. Blum, Rogue State, Opening Quotes.


28. “Remarks of Senator Barack Obama to the Chicago Council on Global on Global Affairs,” April 23, 2007, global-affairs/p13172

29. Barack Obama, “Renewing American Leadership,” Foreign Affairs (July-August 2007),


31. M Scott Peck, People of the Lie: The Hope for Healing Human Evil (New York: Touchstone, 1983), 72-75. Peck made an interesting distinction between the truly evil, whose main flaw is “malignant narcissism” (Eric Fromm’s term), and mere sociopaths: “The cause is not, I believe, an absent conscience. There are people, both in and out of jail, who seem utterly lacking in conscience or superego. Psychiatrists call them psychopaths or sociopaths. Guiltless, they not only commit crimes but may often do so with a kind of reckless abandon…there is almost a quality of innocence to their lack of worry or concern….This is hardly the case with those I call evil,” who Peck found to be constantly trying to sell their badness as goodness.

32. These were also the watchwords of the 1992 Bill Clinton campaign. Those candidate branding terms were appropriated by the Obama campaign in 2007 and 2008 along with two other Clinton’92 hallmarks: “it’s the economy stupid” and the promise of health care refor

Dastardly Dollar Democrats

21/12/13 0 COMMENTS

First published on ZNet, December 21, 2013

An “Unsung Triumph”

Never underestimate the dastardly state-capitalist depravity of the dollar Democrats. Take Larry Summers, the leading Wall Street Democrat and Charles W. Eliot University Professor at Harvard University. During a recent appearance on the power-worshipping Charlie Rose show, Summers hailed the rise of domestic fracking as a great and “unsung” national “triumph” and sign of “the American system working.”[1] He did do without so much as a side glance at fracking’s epic environmental problems. Neither he nor his obsequious interviewer Rose made even a passing reference to the ecological dimension.

“Fracking” is short for hydraulic fracturing, which uses the doomsday procedure of horizontal drilling to extract oil and highly methane-intensive natural gas from wide and shallow North American fields by pummeling rocks with massive amounts of toxic chemicals, water, and sand. Besides upping the ante of catastrophic global warming, fracking is a menace to diminishing U.S. water supplies and water quality. According to Al Jazeera last summer, “Extracting gas from one well through fracking takes about five million gallons of water, the equivalent of between 800 and 1,300 truckloads….. Over its lifespan, an average well produces more than 4 billion cubic feet of gas equivalent- enough energy to power about 16,000,000 homes for one day. Mixed with chemicals, much of the water ends up contaminated after being used in the fracking process. One well will often need to be fracked up to 18 times, drastically increasing water contamination.”

By Al Jazeera’s account:

“Traders in New York and wildcat drillers in Pennsylvania might be celebrating the newly minted resources, as are security hawks who relish the idea of reducing US energy dependency on the Middle East….But there is near-universal consensus among scientists and policymakers that these new resources should be left in the ground. ‘No more than one-third of proven fossil fuels can be consumed prior to 2050 if the world is to achieve the two degrees Celsius goal’ – the limit for averting catastrophic climate change – according to International Energy Agency data released in November. The IEA is hardly Greenpeace, and predictions from the IEA, an industry-backed body, should be taken seriously, environmentalist campaigners said. “[2]

“For More Pollution”

Who cares? Not Lawrence Summers, who argued in 1991 as the World Bank’s top economist that Africa was under-polluted with cancer-causing wastes and chemicals compared to other parts of the world since Africans didn’t live that long or make much money. In making his case “for [his words] more pollution in the LDCs (Less Developed Countries),” Summers advanced the cold logic of “neoliberal” (bourgeois) economics to reason that “The measurements of the costs of health impairing pollution depends on the foregone earnings from increased morbidity and mortality. From this point of view a given amount of health impairing pollution should be done in the country with the lowest cost, which will be the country with the lowest wages. I think the economic logic behind dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest wage country is impeccable and we should face up to that.”[3]

Now the leading Democrat Summers appears to have no concerns about the increased pollution of the rich nations’ lowest wage country – the United States[4] – with the epic toxic wastes generated by fracking.

Of and For the Oligarchs

Summers was the supposed “progressive” Bafrack[5] Obama’s choice as Director of the National Economic Council and the White House’s top economic advisor in 2008. It was a telling selection, consistent with the liberal filmmaker Charles Ferguson’s observation that with the election of Obama in 2008 “we got just another oligarch’s president.”[6]

Summers came into the admini$tration fresh from “earning” $20 million from top Wall Street hedge funds and investment banks. The payout was appropriate given his past service to Wall Street as a leading player in the dollar-Democratic Bill Clinton admini$tration.

Under Clinton, Summers was “the man behind nearly every disastrous policy that created the [2007-08 financial] crisis.” He helped turn the Clinton White House into “the driver of financial deregulation,” pushing (successfully) for the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act’s strict separation between investment and commercial banking and for the fateful “banning [of] any regulation of over-the-counter (OTC) derivatives, including all the complex securities that were at the heart of the 2008 crisis.” [7]

Under Obama, Summers continued to serve his Wall Street friends and benefactors. He directed the admini$tration’s policy of bailing out and restoring the grotesque super-profits of the financial overlords who crashed the national and global economy while offering minimal assistance to the working class majority that suffered massive losses of income, net worth, and security.[8]


“Pension Reform” as the Wage Theft

Acting no doubt with Summers’ approval, the business-based Obama White House has recently added of its long record of serving elite corporate and financial interests by intervening in court to defend the bankrupting of Detroit and the raiding of that city’s workers’ retirement funds to pay off creditors. The marks a dark precedent for the destruction of public worker pensions across the country.

Here’s a thought: maybe state and federal officials can bring U.S. life-spans and senior citizen incomes down through pension-raiding in a way that can provide Summersian bourgeois-economic justification for increased fracking and other forms pollution in “the homeland”!

Dark sarcasm aside, this deepening new Obama-approved assault on public sector workers’ retirement incomes is an elaborate form of wage and salary theft at the end of the day. Listen to the following exchange between PBS Newshour host Judy Woodruff and Steven Kreisberg, Director of Collective Bargaining and Health Care at the American Federation for State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFL-CIO):

Woordruff: Steven Kreisberg…The basic question here, I think, is, should public employees who have done their time working for the government, are now retired, be subject to any kind of cuts when the city or the state they work for is facing terrible fiscal crisis and an underfunded pension fund?” 

Kreisberg: Well, the underfunding of these pension funds has nothing to do with the workers. The workers, as you have said, have served their — their city. They put in their time. They have done the services that they have been paid to provide….The pension is a form of deferred compensation. So, typically, when people do the service, they get paid. You know, becoming a deadbeat on a pension, as the city of Detroit is proposing to do, is not consistent with the values, I think, of just about anybody in America….So it’s really not a case where the workers who are now retired are seeking something to which they are not entitled. The pension isn’t provided as a gift. It’s provided in compensation for service previously provided.”[9]

“To Take the Lead” 

Dollar Democrats are very much in the vanguard of this new form of White House-approved wage-theft beyond the Beltway. Chuck Reed, the Democratic mayor of San Jose, California’s third largest city, has been traveling around his state trumpeting a measure that would target public pensions for significant reductions. The “Pension Reform Act” that he is advancing would “do what many cities have been reluctant to implement in the face of union opposition: provide ‘clear authority’ to change future benefits for existing employees.”[10]

He is not the only California Democrat looking to put public pensions in the deficit-reduction crosshairs. As the San Diego Union Tribune notes, the Pension Reform Act would take a significant new step in the assault on pensions and is being led by Democrats:

“Some writers have been trying to portray the ongoing California effort to reform the state’s pension system as a right-wing Republican effort, but Democrats dominate the list of supporters of a statewide pension initiative announced today. It is targeted for the November 2014 ballot…An outgrowth of a Sacramento-area reform confab first reported in June, the Pension Reform Act of 2014 is designed to let local governments do what they are largely forbidden from doing today: reducing pension benefits for current workers going forward…Most pension reform efforts deal with new hires only, and therefore will take years before the changes yield any cost savings. The measure leaves reform in the hands of local governments. All five of the politicians who submitted the measure to the state attorney general are mayors of cities that have struggled with ballooning pension costs….The four Democrats are Chuck Reed of San Jose, Pat Morris of San Bernardino, Miguel Pulido of Santa Ana and Bill Kampe of Pacific Grove. Anaheim’s Republican Mayor Tom Tait joins the list. Three of those cities have been Ground Zero in the pension-reform battle.”[11]

Chuck Reed thinks that Democrats have to “take the lead” in the assault on public workers pensions since “Democrats helped get us into the problem.”

“More Than a Promise Broken”

And then there’s Illinois, where the state House and Senate, both strongly controlled by the Democrats, recently passed a “pension reform” measure that will hike the retirement age for many state workers and reduce the size of and even “skip” some annual cost-of-living increases for currently employed and retiredstate workers. This is despite a provision in the Illinois state constitution saying that once someone is in a retirement system, they’ve entered into “an enforceable contractual relationship, the benefits of which shall not be diminished or impaired.”[12]

In the Illinois House, the Republicans mustered just 15 votes for “pension reform.” Democrats controlled by the House Speaker and campaign finance kingpin Michael Madigan – a legendary Chicago Democrat – delivered 47 votes, permitting the measure to pass 62-53.

In the state Senate, The Republicans provided just 10 votes for Republican-style “pension reform” while the Democrats provided 20 to meet the minimum 30 votes required. One state senator who signed off on pension assault was the supposed progressive Democrat Kwame Raoul, an Obama favorite from the South Side of Chicago, who called the vote “a test of courage.”[13]

“The people have won…We have all won.” So said Illinois’ clownish Democratic governor Pat Quinn, calling the passing of the bill a “great day for the taxpayers of Illinois.”

Meanwhile, the office of Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan – Mike Madigan’s supposedly liberal daughter, widely considered a future gubernatorial candidate – said that her lawyers were “readying to defend the measure in court.” Those lawyers are expected to argue that “the constitutional phrase ‘contractual relationship’ allows enough wiggle room to impose retirement benefit reductions if they offer something in exchange to employees — a legal concept known as ‘consideration.’”

For state Sen. Linda Holmes (D-Aurora), it’s all about thievery. “What we are doing is quite simply wrong,” Holmes said in the state Senate chamber, adding that “This is actually no different than a thief coming into your house at night and stealing your valuables. The difference is this isn’t a thief coming in the night, this is your elected representatives coming to you, looking you straight in the eye and saying, ‘I’m going to take away your future.’ That is more than a promise broken. That is reprehensible.”[14]

The Very Same Day

For what it’s worth, Kreisberg reminded “P”BS viewers that “Detroit and Illinois are two very, very different circumstances. Illinois is the state with the fifth highest GDP, gross domestic state product. It has very high levels of income. It is not an impoverished state at all, by any stretch of the imagination…. This is a state that the very same day that it voted to take away retirees’ pension benefits and to cut those benefits adopted a multimillion-dollar tax cut for a multinational corporation within that state. So the state is not impoverished. The state is choosing priorities that are different than the citizens have chosen by adopting the constitutional protection of pension benefits.”[15]

That was very well said. If I were to add anything, it would be that if Illinois legislators really want to mess with their state’s constitution, they could start by passing an amendment eliminating that constitution’s dysfunctional prohibition of a progressive income tax in Illinois. That prohibition and other gifts from state and local government to the wealthy few (i.e., the state’s latest corporate-welfarist tax break for a multinational firm) are much bigger contributors to the state’s fiscal woes than the deferred wage and salary payments called pensions owed to currently employed and retired state workers.

In the spirit of disclosure, I am in the Illinois State retirement system (SURS) by virtue of a number of years of employment as a teaching assistant, adjunct history teacher, and a social policy researcher at Northern Illinois University. I also used to live in state Senator Raoul’s district in the neighborhood of Hyde Park. The money stolen from me by Raoul’s “test of courage” (Linda Holmes’ “thief coming in the night”) should be relatively small but real enough. It will at least remind me through my senior years never to give money or votes to another dastardly dollar Democrat as long I reside on Earth.

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

Selected Endnotes

1. Larry Summers, “Responding to Crisis,” The Charlie Rose Show, Decembe2 12, 2013, “I do think that when we in the United States get down on ourselves, we do need to recognize that somehow we’ve had two pretty unsung un-sung triumphs in the last few years. We’ve bent the curve on health care costs…And we’re now on a viable path to being an energy exporter…those are two big things that American society has managed to do…really powerful things….that we’re a net energy exporter means we’re more secure. It means we’re richer. It means we’re going to have a lot more jobs…There’s an element of luck in it that fracking came together but there’s also an element of the American system working.”

2. Chris Arsenault, “U.S. Could Reclaim Role as Net Energy Exporter,” Al Jazeera, August 31, 2013, Emphasis added. “Leaving massive amounts of cheap natural gas untouched, however,” Arsenault added, “will be nearly impossible for politicians in the US and beyond who are keen to jumpstart recession-battered economies and end dependence on foreign energy sources.”

3. The leaked Summers memo is reproduced in Jim Valette, “Larry Summers’ War Against the Earth,” Counterpunch(June 15, 1999), Summers would later achieve notoriety as the President of Harvard University by arguing that females were biologically unsuited for advanced intellectual and academic work in math and sciences

4. Joel Geier, “Capitalism’s Long Crisis,” International Socialist Review, Vol. 88 (March-April 2013), notes that “To carry through its restructuring, the United States is becoming the cheap labor market of the advanced industrial world.” See also Alan Nasser, “The Political Economy of Redistribution: Outsourcing Jobs, Offshoring Markets” Counterpunch (December 2-4, 2011), notes that U.S. “Manufacturing competitiveness has gotten an additional boost through cheap energy, as a result of fracking and horizontal drilling,” which he describes as “environmentally destructive,” adding that “The environmental destruction and future costs of ‘fracking’ ….are ignored. Short-term profit for capitalism always trumps self-destruction.”

5. Brad Johnson, “Obama Administration Rushes to Expand Fracking on Public Lands,” ClimateProgress (August 16, 2013),

6. Charles Ferguson, Predator Nation: Corporate Criminals, Political Corruption, and the Hijacking of America (New York: Crown Business, 2012), 300.

7. Ferguson, Predator Nation, 45, 47, 301. “After serving as Clinton’s financial treasury secretary, Larry Summers became president of Harvard, while consulting for a major hedge fund, Tacinic Capital. After two no-confidence votes from his faculty, Summers was forced to resign as president of Harvard, at which point he joined another, larger hedge fund, D.E. Shaw, and began giving speeches to financial institutions that made him millions of dollars per year” (p.47).

8. A useful account of Summers’ role in the Obama White House’s regressive, arch-corporatist, Wall Street-friendly response to the economic crisis can be found in Ron Suskind, Confidence Men: Wall Street, Washington, and the Education of a President (New York: Harper Collins, 2011).

9. PBS Newshour, “States and Cities Grapple With Cuts to Pensions Workers Have Already Earned,” (December 4, 2013),

10. Nick Green, “San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed among organizers plotting state pension reform ballot measure,”


12. Monica Garcia, “Illinois Pension Reform Fight Shifting to Courtroom,” Chicago Tribune, December 4, 2013.

13. Ray Long and Monica Garcia, “Illinois Lawmakers Approve Major Pension Overhaul,” Chicago Tribune, December 4, 2013.

14. Long and Garcia, “Illinois Lawmakers;” Garcia, “Illinois Pension Reform Fight.”

15. PBS, “States and Cities Grapple.”

Why I am an Eco-Socialist (YouTube)

18/12/13 0 COMMENTS

Why I am an Eco-Socialist

Open University of the Left

December 14, 2013

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