Defending Socialism: Foner and Sanders v. Eugene Debs

23/12/15 0 COMMENTS

Counterpunch, November 6, 2015

Denmarkian Dilution

Never underestimate the moral and intellectual corruption of the professoriat, including even some of its most accomplished left names. Look, for example, at the prolific, progressive, and esteemed United States historian and Columbia University Dewitt Clinton professor Eric Foner’s recent letter of advice to the nominally socialist Democratic Party presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. The subject is how to respond the next time the media asks him what he means by the term “democratic socialism.”

Here, below, is Sanders’ most relevant statement on that score to date – the one that elicited Foner’s letter. It was made early in the Democratic presidential candidates’ first and CNN-choreographed debate in Las Vegas, Nevada three weeks ago:

CNN’s Anderson Cooper: “Senator Sanders. A Gallup poll says half the country would not put a socialist in the White House. You call yourself a democratic socialist. How can any kind of socialist win a general election in the United States?”

Bernie Sanders: “Well, we’re gonna win because we’re gonna explain what democratic socialism is. And what democratic socialism is about is saying that it is immoral and wrong that the top one-tenth of 1 percent in this country own own almost as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent. That it is wrong, today, in a rigged economy, that 57 percent of all new income is going to the top 1 percent. That when you look around the world, you see every other major country providing health care to all people as a right, except the United States. You see every other major country saying to moms that, when you have a baby, we’re not gonna separate you from your newborn baby, because we are going to have — we are gonna have medical and family paid leave, like every other country on Earth. Those are some of the principles that I believe in, and I think we should look to countries like Denmark, like Sweden and Norway, and learn from what they have accomplished for their working people.”

Forget for a moment the falsity of the notion that Sanders is actually trying to win the presidency (he isn’t) and the absurdity of thinking (or claiming to think that) that one can advance socialism from the margins of the hopelessly corporate- and finance-captive and imperial Democratic Party. However gallant Sanders’ denunciations of contemporary American hyper-inequality might be, the most remarkable thing about Sanders’ statement was its power-serving enfeeblement of the meaning of the phrases “socialism” and “democratic socialism.” By any meaningful historical gauge, democratic socialism is about collective property and popular self-governance with workers’ control and real participatory democracy. It’s about popular control of a nation’s leading economic and political institutions, a “radical reconstruction of society itself” (what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. called “the real issue to be faced” near the end of his life). In Uncle Bernie’s diluted Wonder Bread branding, democratic socialism means a decent welfare state on the Scandinavian model.

Why Bernie Can’t Invoke Debs

But this is not the only problem with Sanders’ claim to represent the cause of democratic socialism. An equally serious difficulty concerns his steadfast, well-documented commitment to Washington’s richly bipartisan imperial-military system and project. As Chris Hedges explained last September:

“You cannot be a socialist and an imperialist. You cannot, as Bernie Sanders has done, support the Obama administration’s wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen and be a socialist. You cannot, as Sanders has done, vote for military appropriations bills, including every bill and resolution that empowers and sanctions Israel to carry out its slow-motion genocide of the Palestinian people, and be a socialist. And you cannot laud, as Sanders has done, military contractors because they bring jobs to your state. Sanders may have the rhetoric of inequality down, but he is a full-fledged member of the Democratic Caucus, which kneels before the war industry and their lobbyists.”

A recent CounterPunch essay by Connor Lynch is titled “Why Bernie Sanders Should Invoke Eugene Debs.” As the historian Heather Cottin wrote me when someone posted this essay on my Facebook page, “He [Sanders] can’t. Debs opposed imperialism and World War I. He went to jail for it! …Bernie …is not a worker, he is a life-long socialist of the imperialist vote-for-imperialist-U.S.-wars persuasion. Bernie supports imperialism and WW III.” (The “WWIII” comment might seem like excessive hyperbole, but it isn’t: Sanders has offered his full support to the Obama administration’s maddeningly reckless provocation of the resurgent nuclear power Russia in Eastern Europe and Syria.)

Embrace of empire is not only a moral and ideological problem for Sanders. It also gravely contradicts and renders mute much of Sanders’ progressive domestic social agenda. “The costs of empire,” Noam Chomsky noted in 1969, “are in general distributed over the society as whole, while its profits revert to a few within…empire serves as a device for internal consolidation of power and privilege.” As Chomsky and others have shown many times, American military Keyensianism triumphed after World War II both to underpin a U.S. capitalist wealth and power abroad and to defeat and preempt social-democratic welfare Keynesianism at home. The first form of government spending reinforced business rule while the second did not, the power elite understood. In a purely practical and more immediate sense, moreover, Sanders’ Scandinavia-inspired social-democratic “homeland” program cannot be paid for without a giant rollback of the nation’s massive Pentagon system, recipient of more than half the nation’s federal discretionary spending.

“Embrace Our Own” Radicals

In his missive to Sanders, Foner (who is no dummy and certainly knows better) makes no effort to correct the Senator on the actual meaning of the terms socialism and democratic socialism. He gives Sanders a pass on the candidate’s “social chauvinism” (Lenin’s still useful term for socialists’ caught up in nationalist militarism and imperialism) and longstanding faux-independent collaboration (now open) with the corporate Democrats. (No surprise there: the professor’s letter appears, after all, in The Nation, the leading faux-independent Democratic Party organ). The only problem Foner has with Sanders’ diluted and hypocritical use of “socialism” and “democratic socialism” is that it was too internationalist – well, too Nordic – in inspiration:

“I urge you to reconsider how you respond to the inevitable questions about what you mean by democratic socialism and peaceful revolution. The next time, embrace our own American radical tradition. There’s nothing wrong with Denmark; we can learn a few things from them (and vice-versa). But most Americans don’t know or care much about Scandinavia. More importantly, your response inadvertently reinforces the idea that socialism is a foreign import. Instead, talk about our radical forebears here in the United States, for the most successful radicals have always spoken the language of American society and appealed to some of its deepest values.”

There’s something to be said for working with and through the American radical lineage. But Foner’s rendering of that tradition is disturbing. He mentions some very good names in the U.S. radical pantheon: Tom Paine, Frederick Douglass, Abby Kelley, the early 1890s Populists, and Sanders’ own supposed inspiration, Eugene Debs. Many are left out, of course, particularly those of more radical hue, like the Haymarket Martyrs (including the revolutionary socialist-anarchists Albert Parsons and Adolph Fischer), Lucy Parsons, Emma Goldman, the radical syndicalist (Industrial Workers of the World – IWW) leaders Bill Haywood, Mother Jones, and Tom Mooney, IWW trubador Joe Hill, Free Speech Movement leader Mario Savio, the heroic Communists and Trotskyists who sparked the emergence of mass production unionism during the 1930s and 1940s, Malcolm X, Leonard Peltier and the American Indian Movement, Fred Hampton and the Black Panthers, the aforementioned anarchist-identifying linguist and anti-imperialist Noam Chomsky, and…I could go on.

But it is who and what Foner includes in the American radical hall of fame, not who he deletes, that is most distressing. “What,” Foner asks, “about the Progressive platform of 1912, for a party that nominated Theodore Roosevelt for president, which called, among other things, for strict limits on campaign contributions, universal health insurance, vigorous federal oversight of giant corporations and other measures that, over a century later, have yet to be realized?” As Foner certainly knows, the brazenly nationalistic, Social Darwinist, and military-imperialist Teddy Roosevelt was a fiercely authoritarian “corporate-liberal” enemy of radical-democratic politics generally and Debs’ Socialist Party in particular. Teddy’s project, shared with all of his opponents in the 1912 presidential election but one (Debs), was to complete what the brilliant historian Martin J. Sklar called “the corporate reconstruction of American capitalism”: a transition from proprietary and small-producer capitalism to concentrated corporate capitalism that kept the profits system intact without “undue interference” from the popular majority and grassroots populism and socialism. [1]

“The So-Called Progressive Convention” (1912)

Debs would surely be taken aback to see his name mentioned in the same breath as Teddy Roosevelt and the 1912 Bull Moose Progressive Party as part of a shared “American radical tradition.” Here is a selection from a campaign speech Debs gave in Fergus Falls, Minnesota on August 12, 1912:

“Friends and Fellow-Workers: …the cunning few have triumphed and now have the masses at their mercy. These few are closely allied in their economic mastery as they are also in their control of the political machinery. Their money and their mercenaries controlled the Republican convention at Chicago, wrote its platform and dictated its nominees, and the same is true of the Democratic convention at Baltimore. As for the so-called Progressive convention, it is sufficient to say that there is no attempt to conceal the fact that it was financed and controlled by three conspicuous representatives of the plutocracy which largely owns and rules the land…..The Republican, Democratic and Progressive conventions were composed in the main and controlled entirely by professional politicians in the service of the ruling class…The Socialist party is the only party in this campaign that stands against the present system and for the rule of the people; the only party that boldly avows itself the party of the working class and its purpose the overthrow of wage-slavery.”

“So long as the present system of capitalism prevails and the few are allowed to own the nation’s industries, the toiling masses will be struggling in the hell of poverty as they are today….Private ownership and competition have had their day. The Socialist party stands for social ownership and co-operation. The one is Capitalism; the other Socialism. The one industrial despotism, the other industrial democracy….The Republican, Democratic and Progressive parties all stand for private ownership and competition. The Socialist party alone stands for social ownership and co-operation.”

The Republican, Democratic and Progressive parties believe in regulating the trusts; the Socialist party believes in owning them, so that all the people may get the benefit of them instead of a few being made plutocrats and the masses impoverished….… The workers who have made the world and who support the world, are preparing to take possession of the world. This is the meaning of Socialism and is what the Socialist party stands for in this campaign. We demand the machinery of production in the name of the workers and the control of society in the name of the people. We demand the abolition of capitalism and wage-slavery and the surrender of the capitalist class…. We demand complete control of industry by the workers; we demand all the wealth they produce for their own enjoyment, and we demand the earth for all the people” (emphasis added).

(Read the following endnote if you want to learn more about Eugene Debs’ red-hot socialist-internationalist disdain for Teddy Roosevelt:[2])

“To Rein in the Excesses of Capitalism”

Sanders’ purported hero Debs looks down no less unfavorably on Bernie’s (and Foner’s) milquetoast definition of democratic socialism and Sanders’ ongoing record of militarism than Barack Obama’s purported hero Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. looks down on the current administration’s relentlessly fake-progressive service to the nation’s unelected and interrelated dictatorships of capital, empire, white supremacy, and eco-cide. Debs would be chagrinned by the following statement in Foner’s memo of esteem and guidance for Bernie Sanders:

“As to socialism, the term today refers not to a blueprint for a future society but to the need to rein in the excesses of capitalism, evident all around us, to empower ordinary people in a political system verging on plutocracy, and to develop policies that make opportunity real for the millions of Americans for whom it is not. This is what it meant in the days of Eugene V. Debs, the great labor leader and Socialist candidate for president …. Debs spoke the language of what he called ‘political equality and economic freedom.’ But equally important, as Debs emphasized, socialism is as much a moral idea as an economic one—the conviction that vast inequalities of wealth, power, and opportunity are simply wrong and that ordinary people, using political power, can produce far-reaching change. It was Debs’s moral fervor as much as his specific program that made him beloved by millions of Americans.”

Debs would certainly sense a false choice in this passage: socialism as “a blueprint for a future society” or a morally infused effort “to rein in the excesses of capitalism.” Socialism, for Debs, was an ongoing here-and-now struggle and movement (including grassroots efforts beyond electoral politics) to overthrow and transcend, not merely temper, capitalism. Moral passion, Debs knew very well, would not take the people very far without a specific socialist program and movement to move American and world workers and citizens beyond the deadly depredations of capital and empire.

By Foner’s and Sanders’ gloomily diluted definition of democratic socialism, the militant neoliberal corporatist and arch-imperialist sociopath Hillary Clinton absurdly qualifies as a democratic socialist. After all, candidate Clinton inveighs against New Gilded Age America’s extreme inequalities and plutocracy. She calls in passionate moral terms for greater equality and democracy in the U.S. “The deck is stacked” for the wealthy Few, she claims to bemoan, promising to even up the odds for ordinary working people. Listen to Hillary’s follow up to Cooper and Sanders’ exchange on democratic socialism in Las Vegas:

Hillary Clinton: “Well, let me just follow-up on that, Anderson, because when I think about capitalism, I think about all the small businesses that were started because we have the opportunity and the freedom in our country for people to do that and to make a good living for themselves and their families. And I don’t think we should confuse [socialism with] what we have to do every so often in America, which is save capitalism from itself. And I think what Senator Sanders is saying certainly makes sense in the terms of the inequality that we have. But we are not Denmark. I love Denmark. We are the United States of America. And it’s our job to rein in the excesses of capitalism so that it doesn’t run amok and doesn’t cause the kind of inequities we’re seeing in our economic system.”

Where is the Dewitt Clinton Professor’s letter of admiration and advice to Hillary Clinton? (That will come, no doubt, after Sanders is swept dutifully off the presidential contender stage). Note, dear reader, the same exact phrase italicized in my last two quoted passages, the first from Foner and the second from Hillary: “to rein in the excesses of capitalism.” Is the precise match of words accidental? I sincerely doubt it.

FDR’s Radical New Deal?

Speaking of politicians “sav[ing] capitalism from itself,” Foner told Bernie Sanders to mention another part of “America’s radical tradition”: “FDR’s New Deal.” The esteemed socialism-thinning professor naturally says nothing about how the clever ruling class politician Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) boasted that his New Deal rescued and preserved capitalism. In March of 1931, the great American philosopher John Dewey observed that “politics is the shadow cast on society by big business.” Dewey prophesized that U.S. politics would stay that way as long as power resided in “business for private profit through private control of banking, land, industry, reinforced by commend of the press, press agents, and other means of publicity and propaganda.” FDR’s New Deal kept that basic problem intact, something for which Franklin Roosevelt was quite proud.

As Lance Selfa notes in his excellent study The Democrats: a Critical History (Haymarket, 2008), “Roosevelt [told]…his business critics [that] ‘I am the best friend the profits system ever had.’ In campaign speeches in 1936, he proclaimed himself the ‘savior’ of ‘the system of private profit and free enterprise.’” That was a brag that might have impressed Dewitt Clinton (who nearly became U.S. President on the proto-state-capitalist Federalist Party ticket in 1812) but not Eugene Debs. Foner says nothing about how class-accommodationist New Deal reforms were forced on the capitalist elite to no small degree by working class rebellion organized largely by officially anonymous but often brilliant and heroic Marxist and other radical sparkplug activists – people who deserve mention in any serious homage to the American radical tradition.

Foner might want to take a look back at the first book published by his academic mentor Richard Hofstader. In his brilliant (for its time) mid-20th century study The American Political Tradition and the Men Who Made It (1949) – a curious anticipation of the New Left revisionist history that Hoftsader would later come to aristocratically oppose – Hofstader “examined,” in Howard Zinn’s words, “our important national leaders, from Jefferson and Jackson to Herbert Hoover and the two Roosevelts – Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives. Hofstadter concluded that [here Zinn quoted Hofstader] ‘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…’” [3] Hofstader dedicated a specific chapter to each Roosevelt, showing in both cases how their deep, underlying Big Business-friendly conservatism contradicted their progressive imagery and rhetoric. He certainly saw nothing radical in FDR or the New Deal.

The Freedom Budget

In the “American radical tradition” that he wants Sanders to invoke, Foner includes the Freedom Budget. It’s an understandable reference to an interesting and all-too forgotten progressive program. Rolled out by the old socialist, labor, and civil rights leader A. Phillip Randolph in 1967, the Freedom Budget was an ambitious plan to end poverty in America. But it was hardly a radical document, given its explicit refusal to call for cutbacks in the Pentagon budget or for any challenge to the overall distribution of wealth and income or any challenge to capital’s managerial prerogatives. The document’s failures on war and empire (quite telling in a time when the criminal U.S. War on Vietnam was deep-sixing the briefly declared and hardly fought “War on Poverty”) is especially noteworthy here in in light of Sanders’ support for the U.S. imperial project. Also worth noting is its commitment to rapid, high-volume economic growth, which the Freedom Budget’s authors saw as the real solution to poverty instead of the redistribution of wealth and income. By all serious indications today, economic growth on the capitalist “business for private profit” model championed by both of the reigning U.S. political parties has turned out to be an ecological death sentence for the human race and other living things.

Earth Time is Up

Which reminds me: where are the great Left environmentalists Barry Commoner, Rachel Carson, and Murray Boochkin in Foner’s American radical tradition? The environmental crisis that is unfolding before our very eyes is the leading reason we really don’t have time for professorial pussyfooting around with diluted and Democratic Party-captive fake-radicalism and once-every-four-years electoralism these days. Capitalism and its twin evil imperialism has brought us now to the literal edge of multiple and interrelated catastrophes, none more urgent and threatening than the ecological one. Debs’ actual goal – “the abolition of capitalism” and popular control of society’s leading institutions, not just an enhanced welfare state – is now an urgently required prerequisite for survival Anyone who thinks they are acting in accord with that reality by jumping aboard the latest seemingly endless quadrennial corporate-managed big money-big media-major party and candidate-centered electoral extravaganza – with its incredibly constricted and time-staggered definition of “that’s politics, the only politics that matters” – is wasting their time and energy and that of their fellow workers and citizens. We’re kind of running out of time for all this kind of milquetoast bullshit, to be perfectly candid. We’ve got some totally different and far more genuinely grass-roots and radical kind of organizing to do.

Notes

1 See Martin J. Sklar, The Corporate Reconstruction of American Capitalism, 1890-1916 (New York: Cambridge University, 1986), 333-364, for a learned discussion of where Theodore Roosevelt stood in the U.S. ruling class’s new anti-socialist corporate-liberal formation during the early 20th century. Sklar’s saddening late-life lurch right should not obscure the brilliance of his brilliant, Marxian work (dating from the late 1950s through the Reagan era) on the U.S. corporate reconstruction and corporate-liberal ideology, law, politics, and policy during the Progressive Age. In all fairness, it should be acknowledged that (thanks to his idiosyncratic conservative-socialist socialist ideas about “mixed systems” wherein capitalism contained socialism and vice versa), the Sklar who wrote The Corporate Reconstruction would side with Sanders and Foner in the argument posited in the present essay.

2 In a famous speech delivered in Canton, Ohio in 1918, Debs spoke with passionate scorn against Teddy Roosevelt’s transparently hypocritical beating of the drums of war against Germany in the name of “democracy.” Debs noted that Roosevelt and the German Kaiser were war-mongering and authoritarian upper-class comrades, both enemies of the working class and socialism: “You remember that, at the close of Theodore Roosevelt’s second term as President, he went over to Africa to make war on some of his ancestors. You remember that, at the close of his expedition, he visited the capitals of Europe; and that he was wined and dined, dignified and glorified by all the Kaisers and Czars and Emperors of the Old World. He visited Potsdam while the Kaiser was there; and, according to the accounts published in the American newspapers, he and the Kaiser were soon on the most familiar terms. They were hilariously intimate with each other, and slapped each other on the back. After Roosevelt had reviewed the Kaiser’s troops, according to the same accounts, he became enthusiastic over the Kaiser’s legions and said: ‘If I had that kind of an army, I could conquer the world.’ He knew the Kaiser then just as well as he knows him now. He knew that he was the Kaiser, the Beast of Berlin. And yet, he permitted himself to be entertained by that Beast of Berlin; had his feet under the mahogany of the Beast of Berlin; was cheek by jowl with the Beast of Berlin. And, while Roosevelt was being entertained royally by the German Kaiser, that same Kaiser was putting the leaders of the Socialist Party in jail for fighting the Kaiser and the Junkers of Germany. Roosevelt was the guest of honor in the white house of the Kaiser, while the Socialists were in the jails of the Kaiser for fighting the Kaiser. Who then was fighting for democracy? Roosevelt? Roosevelt, who was honored by the Kaiser, or the Socialists who were in jail by order of the Kaiser? ‘Birds of a feather flock together.’…When the newspapers reported that Kaiser Wilhelm and ax-President Theodore recognized each other at sight, were perfectly intimate with each other at the first touch, they made the admission that is fatal to the claim of Theodore Roosevelt, that he is the friend of the common people and the champion of democracy; they admitted that they were kith and kin; that they were very much alike; that their ideas and ideals were about the same. If Theodore Roosevelt is the great champion of democracy —the arch foe of autocracy , what business had he as the guest of honor of the Prussian Kaiser? And when he met the Kaiser, and did honor to the Kaiser, under the terms imputed to him, wasn’t it pretty strong proof that he himself was a Kaiser at heart? Now, after being the guest of Emperor Wilhelm, the Beast of Berlin, he comes back to this country, and wants you to send ten million men over there to kill the Kaiser; to murder his former friend and pal. Rather queer, isn’t it? And yet, he is the patriot, and we are the traitors. I challenge you to find a Socialist anywhere on the face of the earth who was ever the guest of the Beast of Berlin , except as an inmate of his prison—the elder Liebknecht and the younger Liebknecht, the heroic son of his immortal sire.”

3 Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States, 1492-Present (New York: Harperperennial, 2003), 563. Prior to the publication of Zinn’s People’s History, Hofstader’s American Political Tradition offered perhaps the best and most readable single-volume counter-narrative for a progressive U.S. history professor to assign in a U.S. History Survey class. Hofstader is mentioned as Foner’s dissertation director at Columbia University in Eric Foner,’s brilliant first book Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party Before the Civil War (Oxford University Press, 1970), vii.

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

 

“Humility and Restraint”: Barack Obama, Don Corleone, and the Ongoing Record of U.S. War Criminality

23/12/15 0 COMMENTS

teleSur English, November 4, 2015

“Recall,” Barack Obama intoned during his first Inaugural Address, “that earlier generations [of U.S. foreign policymakers] faced down fascism and communism not just with missiles and tanks, but with the sturdy alliances and enduring convictions.  They understood that our power alone cannot protect us, nor does it entitle us to do as we please.  Instead they knew that our power grows through its prudent use; our security emanates from the justness of our cause, the force of our example, the tempering qualities of humility and restraint… We are the keepers of this legacy.  Guided by these principles once more we can meet those new threats that demand even greater effort, even greater cooperation and understanding between nations.”

Obama was taking a not-so veiled shot at his predecessor George W. Bush atrocity-laden invasion and occupation of Iraq.

“The tempering qualities of humility and restraint” in “the prudent use” of American power.” Those were curious words to apply to the United States’ monumentally mass-murderous and unnecessary atom-bombing of hundreds of thousands of “Jap” civilians in Hiroshima and Nagasaki – monstrous war crimes meant to warn the Soviets not to cross the new global hegemonic power Uncle Sam in Asia or anywhere else. Committed after the defeat of German and Japanese fascism, the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atrocities were really the first shots in the U.S. Cold War against Soviet “communism.: US President Harry Truman had an interesting comment when news of the Hiroshima bombing reached him: “This is the greatest thing in history!”

Consider another U.S. massacre of nonwhite others intended as a message to Russia and the rest of the world at the other end of the Cold War: the U.S. incineration of thousands of surrendered Iraqi troops as they retreated from Kuwait on February 26 and 27, 1991. It would be remembered as “The Highway of Death.” The Lebanese-American journalist Joyce Chediac testified that:

“U.S. 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 U.S. 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…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… 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…”

How was that for “humility and restraint” in the “prudent use” of force by a great nation whose imperial leaders “understood that [their] power…[did not] entitle [them] to do as [they] please[d]”? As Noam Chomsky noted in 1992, reflecting on a different U.S. crime, “No degree of cruelty is too great for Washington sadists.”

Then U.S. President George H.W. Bush clearly expressed the underlying cold and imperial significance of Operation Desert Storm (the first U.S. war on Iraq) and the aerial massacre. It was meant to let the world that “What we say goes” in the emergent post-Cold War era, with now Russia back on its heels. The words were spoken like those of a Mafia Don.

Less than a year later, the elder Bush proclaimed that, “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 the side of decency. They trust us to do what’s right.” In reality, then as now, the world regarded the U.S. as a rogue superpower and the greatest threat to peace on Earth – with good reason.

Between Hiroshima and the Highway of Death, useful markers for the Cold War era, the U.S. military committed countless atrocities across the planet. During the so-called Vietnam War (a curious term for a one-wised invasion and slaughter conducted against a peasant nation by the most powerful industrial state and military empire in history), Uncle Sam’s benevolent military liquidated more than 4 million Indochinese – regularly labeled “gooks” and other racist names by U.S. troops. Untold thousands of Vietnamese died in criminal civilian massacres like the one exposed in My Lai. Forty thousand alone died in a CIA torture program called Operation Phoenix.

Another shining moment in U.S. “humility,” and “restraint” came in 1988, when the USS Vincennes, a guided missile cruiser shot down an Iranian civilian Airbus flying in a commercial air route through Iranian airspace. All 290 aboard were killed. In 1990, the Vincennes’ commander was rewarded with the Legion of Merit award for “exceptionally meritorious conduct” during the period when he blew hundreds of civilians out of the sky. The elder Bush offered some interesting commentary on the carnage: “I will never apologize for the United States. I don’t care what the facts are…I’m not an apologize-for-America kind of guy.”

Which brings us to Barack “Kill List” Obama, winner of the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize and the direct, personal overseer of the CIA targeted assassination and drone war programs. He has always been a big fan of the elder Bush’s Persian Gulf War. After taking his opening “dovish” shots at Bush Junior, Obama kept the U.S. military “machine set on kill” (Alan Nairn). Under his administration, Washington has killed thousands of civilians in drone, bomb, and Special Forces attacks in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Libya, Syria, Somalia, and Yemen. When his forces of “humility and restraint” killed 140 civilians, including 93 children (many of the literally blown to pieces) in early May of 2009 in the western Afghanistan village of Bola Boluk, Obama refused to apologize.

The most recent US war crime in the Age of Obama took place a month ago in the Afghan city of Kunduz, where “just” America bombed a hospital, killing 22 people, including patients, three children, and medical personnel from Doctors Without Borders, also known as Medicins Sans Frontiers (MSF). U.S. forces consciously, repeatedly, and precisely targeted the MSF hospital, an egregious war crime under the Geneva Convention. MSF provided the American military its exact GPS coordinates on multiple recent occasions, including on September 29th. There was a nine-foot flag on the roof identifying the building as a hospital. After the first strike, MSF contacted U.S. officials and pleaded with them to stop the carnage. Nothing doing: a U.S. AC-130 gunship persisted in pounding the medical facility for more than an hour, burning patients in their beds and butchering doctors and nurses as they worked. The hospital was targeted because it treats all injured persons, including those fighting the U.S.-backed Afghan government and thereby resisting Washington’s crime-boss dictum: “What we say goes.”

There’s nothing like “humility and restraint” in the “prudent use” of U.S. power.

Obama has broken with his standard U.S. No Remorse policy and apologized in this case because it was a widely popular Western-based organization that got targeted and a big media outcry arose over the Kunduz massacre. MSF’s white and European identity makes its medical staff casualties into victims deemed considerably more worthy than the anonymous Muslims the U.S. routinely slaughters in the Middle East and Southwest Asia. Still, the U.S. client and ally Saudi Arabia bombed MSF hospital in Yemen just five days ago. This criminal assault was conducted in coordination with the U.S. military intelligence.

But with Russia’s forceful and effective entrance into the war against U.S.- and Saudi-backed Islamist extremists in Syria and on the side of the U.S.-targeted Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, “What We Say Goes” seems to be have hit a snag. That’s should give civilians and medical personnel pause across the Middle East. A wounded Mafia Don with Uncle Sam’s firepower is a dangerous thing indeed.

This essay originally appeared on teleSur English.

Anthropocene or Capitalocene?

23/12/15 0 COMMENTS

teleSur English/ZNet, October 29, 2015

A few months ago, I received a statement of anthro-exceptionalist hubris from an American academic:

“I love and respect the life, beauty, and intelligence of other animals, BUT, as the American Museum of Natural History reminds us, ‘Our intelligence and creativity go well beyond those of any other animal.  Humans have long communicated through language, created and appreciated art and music, and invented complex tools that have enabled our species survive and thrive, though often at the expense of other species…we owe our creative success to the human brain and our ability to think symbolically….only humans can use symbols to re-create the world mentally and contemplate endless new realities [while]…symbolic consciousness has given us the capacity for spirituality and a shared sense of empathy and morality.’”

Yes, I responded, and what has our glorious species done with these marvelous and unmatched qualities? What other species can remotely match supreme homo sapiens when it comes to destroying lives, including both those of other species and our own? It has recently become clear to Earth scientists that the history of our planet has resided for some time now in a new geologic epoch called “the Anthropocene” (successor to “the Holocene”).  It is an era in which, in the words of leading experts Will Steffen, Paul Crutzen, and John McNeil, “Human activities have become so pervasive and profound that they rival the great forces of Nature and are pushing the earth into planetary terra incognita.  The Earth is rapidly moving into a less biologically diverse, less forested, much warmer, and probably wetter and stormier era.” It is “a no-analogue state” in which “the Earth system has recently moved well outside the range of natural variability.”

The new Earth epoch bearing its species’ mark and name is nothing for homo sapiens to boast about. The changes introduced by humanity are ecologically unsustainable for decent life. Thanks to the Anthropocene, the world is in the middle of “its sixth great extinction event, with rates of species loss growing rapidly for both terrestrial and marine ecosystems.  The atmospheric concentrations of several important greenhouse gases have increased substantially, and the Earth is warming rapidly,” Steffen, Crutzen, and McNeil note. As Noam Chomsky has observed:

“The world that we’re creating for our grandchildren is grim…The level of species destruction in the world today is about at the level of sixty-five million years ago, when a huge asteroid hit the earth and had horrifying ecological effects. It ended the age of the dinosaurs; they were wiped out. It kind of left a little opening for small mammals, who began to develop, and ultimately us. The same thing is happening now, except that we’re the asteroid…Human civilization is tottering at the edge…”

Humans have “survived and thrived,” the American Museum of Natural History raves. But not for long if it doesn’t act soon to avert the environmental calamity that is already showing signs of dark and potentially irreversible arrival before the births of “our grandchildren.” The nightmare threat isn’t about anthropogenic global warming marching along slowly in a linear fashion, with the planet getting a little hotter year by year. It’s about tipping points and the question of civilizational survival producing abrupt and irreversible climate change with catastrophic outcomes. A recent report from the prestigious and normally restrained Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) suggest very strongly that the Earth is approååaching such tipping points – the melting of polar ice and Arctic permafrost, the acid-bleaching of global coral reefs, and the drying out of the Amazonian rain forest – at a pace and in ways that had not been anticipated.

My aforementioned academic correspondent’s accolade to his species reminded me of something Chomsky wrote in Hegemony or Survival(2003). Reflecting on biologist Ernest Mayr’s observations that the average life expectancy of a species is roughly 100,000 years and that evolutionary history suggested longer biological success for less intelligent species than more intelligent ones, Chomsky argued that “We are entering a period…that may provide an answer to the question of whether it is better to be smart than stupid…If it receives a definite answer, that answer can only be that humans were a kind of ‘biological error,’ using their allotted 100,000 years to destroy themselves and, in the process, much else.”

Here, however, we need to be careful about falling into ahistorical and bourgeois misanthropy. The concept of “the Anthropocene” has rich geological validity and holds welcome political relevance in countering the carbon-industrial complex’s denial of humanity’s responsibility for contemporary climate change. Still, we must guard against lapsing into the historically unspecific and class-blind uses of “anthros,” projecting the currently and historically recent age of capital onto the broad 100,000-year swath of human activity on and in nature. As left environmental sociologist Jason Moore reminded radio interviewer Sasha Lilley last March, “It was not humanity as whole that created …large-scale industry and the massive textile factories of Manchester in the 19th century or Detroit in the last century or Shenzen today. It was capital.”  And it is only during a relatively small slice of human history – roughly the last half-millennium give or take a century or so – that humanity has been socially and institutionally wired from the top down to wreck livable ecology.

Moore and other left analysts argue with good reason that it is more appropriate to understand humanity’s Earth-altering assault on livable ecology as “Capitalocene.” After all, it is only during the relatively brief period of history when capitalism has existed and ruled the world system (since 1600 or thereabouts by some academic calculations, earlier and later by others) that human social organization has developed the capacity and inner accumulation- and commodification – and “productivity” – and growth-mad compulsion to transform Earth systems – with profitability and “productivity” dependent upon on the relentless appropriation of  “cheap nature” (cheap food, cheap energy, cheap raw materials and cheap human labor power or cheap human nature).  Moore maintains that human destruction of livable ecology is best explained by changes that capitalism’s addictive and interrelated pursuits of profit and empire imposed on humanity’s relationships with “the web of life” since “the long sixteen century” starting in 1450.

In terms of measurable material consequences, it is true, the real destructive and Earth-altering impact dates from more recent history.  The original geological Anthropocene argument pegged the major changes with the onset of the Industrial Revolution around 1800 but recent Earth science findings point to 1945 and the post-WWII era of US-led global monopoly-capitalist economic expansion as the real material onset of the Anthropocene/Capitalocene.  Still, the social, historical, political and class-historical DNA of the eco-cidal disease crystalized during Europe’s transition from feudalism to capitalism in the wake of the Black Death.

This matters for those who want to avert catastrophe. There is no desirable remedy without a proper historical diagnosis. Those who want to avert a new Black Death on a planetary scale need to confront the imperial world system that emerged in feudalism’s aftermath – capitalism – if prospects for a decent future are to be saved. We cannot afford stupidity about systems of class rule any more than we can afford stupidity about our species’ impact on planetary life systems.

Paul Street is an author in Iowa City, Iowa.

Why Exxon Executives Deserve the Ultimate Punishment

23/12/15 0 COMMENTS

Counterpunch, October 28, 2015

On October 16, 1946, shortly after the conclusion of the Nuremberg Trials, ten prominent members of the political and military leadership of Nazi Germany were marched to the gallows. Some of the former elite Nazis did not die quickly of an intended broken neck but strangled slowly. Since the trapdoor was too small, several of the condemned suffered bloody head injuries when they hit its sides while falling through.

What sort of grisly sentence shall we impose on the masters of the great capitalist carbon-industrial complex for their efforts to exterminate human (and other forms of) life by the turning the planet into a giant Greenhouse Gas chamber? The Nazis, to be sure, to be sure, killed in the tens of million, including six million Jews murdered with explicit genocidal intent. (The Allies and the U.S. also committed monumental war crimes, including the appalling atom-bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki). But anthropogenic – really capitalogenic – global warming threatens to end the human experiment altogether. Exterminist Ecocide is hard to beat when it comes to criminality.

“Oh,” one defense of the corporate Greenhouse Gassers runs, “but nobody really knew about the danger to life posed by the rapacious drilling and burning of fossil fuels until quite recently.”

Wrong. The story of climate change and the oil corporations is very much like the story of lung cancer and the big tobacco firms. Millions of Americans – including both of my parents – grew up convinced that it was okay to smoke cigarettes for years only to learn later that tobacco products were highly lethal. Their understanding of that terrible fact was tragically set back by a tobacco industry that worked for decades to knowingly obstruct the truth with a spurious message of scientific uncertainty and by advertisements that presented cigarettes as a sign and even source of healthy vitality. The tobacco companies made these commercials with full knowledge of the medical research showing that science showed that cigarettes were sending millions to early graves

Inside Climate News (ICN), a Pulitzer Prize-winning nonprofit news agency, has recently showed that the same basic thing has occurred with global warming. In a series of articles based on internal documents from Exxon Mobil going back to the 1970s and on interviews with former company scientists and employees, ICN shows that Exxon’s “own research confirmed fossil fuels’ role in global warming decades ago.” Yes, decades ago – during the late 1970s to be precise. Here is a key passage from ICN’s investigative reporting:

“At a meeting in Exxon Corporation’s headquarters, a senior company scientist named James F. Black addressed an audience of powerful oilmen. Speaking without a text as he flipped through detailed slides, Black delivered a sobering message: carbon dioxide from the world’s use of fossil fuels would warm the planet and could eventually endanger humanity. ‘In the first place, there is general scientific agreement that the most likely manner in which mankind is influencing the global climate is through carbon dioxide release from the burning of fossil fuels,’ Black told Exxon’s Management Committee, according to a written version he recorded later. It was July 1977 when Exxon’s leaders received this blunt assessment, well before most of the world had heard of the looming climate crisis.”

“A year later, Black, a top technical expert in Exxon’s Research & Engineering division, took an updated version of his presentation to a broader audience. He warned Exxon scientists and managers that independent researchers estimated a doubling of the carbon dioxide (CO2) concentration in the atmosphere would increase average global temperatures by 2 to 3 degrees Celsius (4 to 5 degrees Fahrenheit), and as much as 10 degrees Celsius (18 degrees Fahrenheit) at the poles.  Rainfall might get heavier in some regions, and other places might turn to desert. ‘Some countries would benefit but others would have their agricultural output reduced or destroyed,’ Black said, in the written summary of his 1978 talk…. Still, Black estimated quick action was needed. ‘Present thinking,’ he wrote in the 1978 summary, ‘holds that man has a time window of five to ten years before the need for hard decisions regarding changes in energy strategies might become critical.’”

In the 1980s, Exxon scientists worked with academic and government scientists to construct and interpret advanced climate models. Reviewing the resulting projections, the director of Exxon’s Theoretical and Mathematical Sciences Laboratory concluded that it was “distinctly possible” that a warming trend after 2030 “will indeed be catastrophic (at least for a substantial fraction of the earth’s population).”

A “time window of five to ten years,” Black wrote – in 1978! More than a generation later, the climate change that Black and other scientists warned Exxon officials about during the Carter administration has brought humanity to the cliffs of ecological calamity. A recent report from the prestigious and normally restrained Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) suggest very strongly that the Earth is approaching terrible “tipping points” – the melting of polar ice and Arctic permafrost, the acid-bleaching of global coral reefs, and the drying out of the Amazonian rain forest – at a pace and in ways that had not been anticipated, thanks to anthro-/capitalo-genic global warming.

This did not have to happen. Had Exxon been honest and forthright about the dangers inherent in the mass drilling and burning of fossil fuels, humanity might have started decades ago to develop a less carbon-intensive energy system and thereby to avert the multiple catastrophes that beckon today. Shockingly enough, politicians today are still debating the reality and causes of climate change. And we can thank Exxon for that, to no small extent. By the late 1980s, when global warming (something that academic and government and academic scientists started warning policymakers about in the 1960s) became an observed fact, Exxon falsely claimed that science on the causes of climate change was highly uncertain. Nobody really knew if the climate was really changing or what was causing the change if such change was in fact occurring, Exxon insisted. Never mind that its own internally generated scientific evidence showed otherwise.

Exxon did not merely understand the science that contradicted its propaganda, it contributed to that science. Ever since the waning days of the Reagan administration Exxon has been actively undermining its own findings – this even as the data has mounted on climate change’s anthropogenic (capitalogenic) nature and lethality and while the scientific community has started speaking out on the supreme danger with rising urgency and even desperation. Along the way, it has set the climate-denial tone for the rest of the leading oil corporations and portrayed itself as a friend of the environment.

The evil involved in all this is almost beyond belief. As the Harvard science historian Naomi Oreskes recently wrote in The New York Times, the rich and powerful firm Exxon not only denied its own findings but also set the deadly propaganda tone for the broader industry

“Exxon had a choice. As one of the most profitable companies in the world, Exxon could have acted as a corporate leader, helping to explain to political leaders, to shareholders and institutional investors, and to the public what it knew about climate change. It could have begun to shift its business model, investing in renewables and biofuels or introducing a major research and development initiative in carbon capture. It could have endorsed sensible policies to foster a profitable transition to a 21st-century energy economy….Instead — like the tobacco industry — Exxon chose the path of disinformation, denial and delay. More damagingly, the company set a model for the rest of the industry. More than 30 years ago, Exxon scientists acknowledged in internal company memos that climate change could be catastrophic. Today, scientists who say the exact same thing are ridiculed in the business community and on the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal.

Is there still time to avert the worst consequences of world capitalist Greenhouse Gassing? Perhaps. The ultimate culprit is the accumulation-, “growth”-, “productivity”-mad and imperial profits system. Clearly, though, we have lost precious time, precious species, precious glaciers, precious rain forest, precious coral reef, and precious permafrost thanks to the Orwellian, and eco-cidal machinations of Exxon’s executives and other elite managers atop the unelected corporate and financial carbon-industrial-complex. As Oreskes notes, “We have lost …decades during which we could have built a smart electricity grid, fostered efficiency and renewables and generated thousands of jobs in a cleaner, greener economy.”

And that’s why I cannot completely escape the dream-like image of Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson (a leading force behind Exxon’s climate denial efforts since the 1990s) and other top oil executives being marched up to the gallows in the wake of a world Ecocide Trial. Let the ropes be short and the trapdoor narrow. And then let us return to the bigger and technically feasible task at hand: a comprehensive conversion to renewable energy and a sustainable economy and society before it’s too late.

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

Benghazi and Blowback Basics

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ZNet, October 26, 2015

So there was another big Republican-orchestrated Congressional hullabaloo last week over Hillary Clinton and what she did or didn’t do as Secretary of State to prevent the deaths of US Libyan ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other U.S. diplomatic staffers in Benghazi, Libya, on September 11, 2012.

Was it about Republican politicking as the country approaches its next presidential election year?  Of course it was – and it appears to have failed in that regard, with Hillary emerging from her latest Benghazi hazing looking more “presidential” than ever.

Does that mean that Hillary and the White House’s hands on Benghazi are clean and that all good progressives should applaud the forgetting of the incident? Not at all. More than four years ago, in early 2011, the Obama administration launched a criminal air war on Libya that collapsed the Libyan government long headed by Muammar Gaddafi. Gaddafi’s removal predictably opened the nation to chaos that led to the triumph of Islamist militia men in Libya.

The air war was launched by Washington in the names of democracy and human rights, as part of Washington’s supposed alignment with the Arab Spring. But there was always something outrageous about the notion that the petro-imperialist US and its Western allies were going to join with the US-sponsored, arch-authoritarian, and theocratic Sunni monarchies of Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf to spread democracy and human rights across the oil-rich  Middle East. And US power in the region had been weakened considerably by 2011 thanks to Washington’s epic military failures in Iraq and Afghanistan. “Come the uprisings of 2011,” the prize-winning Middle East correspondent Patrick Cockburn notes, “it was the [al Qaeda-linked and inspired] jihadi and Sunni-sectarian, militarized wing of rebel movements that received massive injections from the kings and emirs of the Gulf.  The secular, non-sectarian opponents of the long-established police states were soon marginalized, reduced to silence, or killed.”(P.Cockburn, The Rise of the Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution [Verso, 2015]. P.8)

Libya was no exception. The speciousness of the pretense that the Libyan “freedom fighters” were pro-Western democratic-humanitarian moderates was revealed early on. One of the first acts carried out by the Islamist rebels who rose to power there after US and NATO air strikes finished off the Gadaffi regime was to call for the legalization of polygamy. As far as Western “leaders” and media were concerned, however, there were no serious similarities between al Qaeda and the supposedly noble, NATO-backed rebels who fought against Gaddafi.

The foolishness of this belief was exposed when Stevens and his colleagues were killed by Sunni jihadists on 9-11-2012. This demonstration of al Qaeda-like Islamist power in a nation “liberated” by US and NATO bombs did not fit Washington’s narrative about its supposed democratic and humanitarian role in the region. It also contradicted Obama’s insistent election-year claim to have won the “war on terror” by killing Osama bin Laden the previous year. (The Obama team loved it when Vice President Joe Biden had recently coined a new campaign slogan: “Osama bin Laden is dead and General Motors is alive.”)

There should have been nothing surprising about the assault on the US mission in Benghazi, a major oil-port on the Mediterranean Sea. In the months leading up to the assault, her top staff made it clear to Secretary Clinton that the U.S. mission in Benghazi was vulnerable to attack by heavily armed Islamist militias who were roaming the city’s streets with impunity. Hillary was hardly unaware that numerous violent incidents had jarred Benghazi over recent months. She knew that the US mission there had in August sent her a cable warning of its inability to defend itself. Even as Obama crowed over his supposed victory over Islamist terrorism in the run-up to his 2012 re-election, he was getting regular intelligence briefings telling him that jihadist networks had metastasized and posed a growing threat to “American interests” across the Middle East.

Why didn’t Hillary take action to protect the US mission in Benghazi, or to close it? And what was Stevens doing in an under-protected, highly exposed hot spot like Benghazi anyway? Hillary figured, incorrectly, that the CIA – the actual US agency behind the Benghazi mission – would provide adequate security if the “diplomatic post” was attacked. She reasonably calculated that CIA Director David Patraeus was the relevant authority responsible for the Benghazi mission, which was a front for the “intelligence” agency’s arming of rebels in Syria. As the conservative author Edward Klein has noted:

“the American effort in Benghazi  was from first to last a CIA operation.  Of the forty or so Americans officials stationed in Benghazi, only seven worked for the State Department.  The consulate’s primary purpose was to provide cover for the thirty-plus Americans who worked for the CIA…Hillary personally ordered the consulate to remain open in order to accommodate the CIA’s mission. As she knew all too well, the CIA was involved in the clandestine – and probably illegal – transfer of weapons out of eastern Libya, through Turkey, and into the hands of rebel groups fighting against the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria.  Those weapons, including rocket launchers, were purchased from al-Qaeda-affiliated militants in Libya.  And many of those arms were finding their way back into the hands of al-Qaeda fighters in Syria and terrorists in other parts of the Middle East…All of this was being done [illegally] without the knowledge or consent of the United States Congress…in an operation that had many of the earmarks for the Iran-Contra Scandal…” (Edward Klein, Blood Feud: The Clintons vs. The Obamas [Regnery, 2014], p.143)

Stevens was in Benghazi to oversee the CIA’s arms smuggling operation there.

The Benghazi mission, attacked as part of a jihadist upsurge sparked by U.S.-imposed regime change in Libya, was part of the U.S. effort to bring about regime change in Syria. And, as we know now, the Washington-led campaign against the Assad regime in Syria has created the basic context for the revival of jihadism in Iraq and for the rise of the arch-reactionary Islamic State across vast swaths of both Syria and Iraq.

With less than two months leading up to his re-election, Obama could not let anything close to the truth about Benghazi come out.  The reality of what happened there undermined two of his leading campaign claims: (1) that he had won the “War on Terror” and swept Middle Eastern jihadists into the dustbin of history and (2) that he had successfully kept the U.S. out of another war in the Middle East by refusing to get involved in Syria. Benghazi and the larger context surrounding it also raised unpleasant questions about the Obama administration’s violation of federal law requiring Congressional oversight of the CIA and about Obama’s continuation of George W. Bush’s policy of illegally pursuing regime change in foreign nations.

And all of that is why the White House concocted a story claiming that the Benghazi attack had emerged from a “spontaneous demonstration” sparked by an Internet video that had mocked the founding Muslim prophet Mohammed.  Obama instructed Hillary to play along with fairy tale and she complied.  Late in the evening of September 11, 2012 she released a statement connecting the attack to “inflammatory material posted on the Internet” and “deplor[ing] any intentional effort to denigrate the religious beliefs of others.” The message expressed America’s “commitment to religious tolerance goes back to the very beginning of our nation.”

Thus was an incident that emerged from blood-soaked and jihad-fueling US imperialism in the Middle East wrapped in the deceptive flag of America’s supposed noble commitment to tolerance and diversity in its grand humanitarian struggle with Islamist fanatics. It is certainly a story that should interest any serious antiwar and anti-imperial Left, not just right-wing politicos.

And antiwar types should be concerned also about something very odd and chilling that Mrs. Clinton claimed in her testimony before the House of Representatives last week. She told her inquisitors that the 2012 attack on the Benghazi consulate was the consequences of a “power vacuum” resulting from the US prematurely withdrawing its military after “the Libya War.” Never mind that Washington never committed ground forces to its criminal air war on Libya. ”Far from a lesson learned,” Jason Ditz notes on Antiwar.com, “Clinton’s testimony likely reflects the beltway’s conventional wisdom on the matter, and [suggests] that years later Benghazi could easily happen again in any number of places, with the attack only strengthening official resolve to meddle.”

Paul Street is an author in Iowa City, IA.

Bernie and Hillary: the Sheepdog and the She-Wolf in Vegas

23/12/15 0 COMMENTS

Counterpunch, October 20th, 2015

Left critics of Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign inside the dismal, dollar-drenched, corporate-neoliberal and imperialist Democratic Party were born out by the first Democratic presidential debate in Last Vegas last week. In his first exchange with the CNN host Anderson Cooper and Hillary Clinton, Sanders spoke in terms consistent with Bruce Dixon’s early identification of Sanders as a “sheepdog” candidate – a “contender” whose basic mission is to rally reasonably disaffected voters and non-voters to the corporate and military Democrats by fueling the illusion that meaningful progressive change can be achieved by voting for history’s second most enthusiastic capitalist party. Here’s the exchange, initiated when Cooper challenged the notion that a self-declared “socialist” could be electable in a U.S. presidential race:

COOPER: Senator Sanders. A Gallup poll says half the country would not put a socialist in the White House. You call yourself a democratic socialist. How can any kind of socialist win a general election in the United States?

SANDERS: Well, …we’re gonna explain what democratic socialism is. And what democratic socialism is about is saying that it is immoral and wrong that the top one-tenth of 1 percent in this country own almost 90 percent — almost — own almost as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent. That it is wrong, today, in a rigged economy, that 57 percent of all new income is going to the top 1 percent. That when you look around the world, you see every other major country providing health care to all people as a right, except the United States. You see every other major country saying to moms that, when you have a baby, we’re not gonna separate you from your newborn baby, because we are going to have — we are gonna have medical and family paid leave, like every other country on Earth. Those are some of the principles that I believe in, and I think we should look to countries like Denmark, like Sweden and Norway, and learn from what they have accomplished for their working people.

COOPER: Denmark is a country that has a population — Denmark is a country that has a population of 5.6 million people. The question is really about electability here, and that’s what I’m trying to get at. You — the — the Republican attack ad against you in a general election — it writes itself. You supported the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. You honeymooned in the Soviet Union. And just this weekend, you said you’re not a capitalist. Doesn’t — doesn’t that ad write itself?

SANDERS: Well, first of all, let’s look at the facts. The facts that are very simple. Republicans win when there is a low voter turnout, and that is what happened last November. Sixty-three percent of the American people didn’t vote, Anderson. Eighty percent of young people didn’t vote. We are bringing out huge turnouts, and creating excitement all over this country. Democrats at the White House on down will win, when there is excitement and a large voter turnout, and that is what this campaign is doing.

COOPER: You don’t consider yourself a capitalist, though?

SANDERS: Do I consider myself part of the casino capitalist process by which so few have so much and so many have so little by which Wall Street’s greed and recklessness wrecked this economy? No, I don’t. I believe in a society where all people do well. Not just a handful of billionaires.

COOPER: Just let me just be clear. Is there anybody else on the stage who is not a capitalist?

CLINTON: Well, let me just follow-up on that, Anderson, because when I think about capitalism, I think about all the small businesses that were started because we have the opportunity and the freedom in our country for people to do that and to make a good living for themselves and their families. And I don’t think we should confuse what we have to do every so often in America, which is save capitalism from itself. And I think what Senator Sanders is saying certainly makes sense in the terms of the inequality that we have. But we are not Denmark. I love Denmark. We are the United States of America. And it’s our job to rein in the excesses of capitalism so that it doesn’t run amok and doesn’t cause the kind of inequities we’re seeing in our economic system. But we would be making a grave mistake to turn our backs on what built the greatest middle class in the history…

COOPER: Senator Sanders?

CLINTON: … of the world.

SANDERS: I think everybody is in agreement that we are a great entrepreneurial nation. We have got to encourage that. Of course, we have to support small and medium-sized businesses. But you can have all of the growth that you want and it doesn’t mean anything if all of the new income and wealth is going to the top 1 percent. So what we need to do is support small and medium-sized businesses, the backbone of our economy, but we have to make sure that every family in this country gets a fair shake…not just for billionaires.

I am struck by seven ugly things in this give-and-take. First, there is the former CIA employee Cooper’s ridiculous neo-McCarthyite identification of past opposition to the CIA and Reagan administration’s bloody and illegal war on Nicaragua as proof of one’s un-electability. As Robert Naiman noted on the Huffington Post, “Millions of Americans ‘supported the Sandinistas in Nicaragua’ in the 1980s…..Opposing the CIA’s illegal war in Nicaragua was a mainstream, popular position at the time, as shown by the passage of the Boland Amendment by Congress. It’s only in the pro-war, pro-Empire bubble of big US media that having opposed the illegal CIA war on Nicaragua could be portrayed as an electoral liability without any evidence. The big media use of the term ‘electability’ is a convenient carrier for pro-war, pro-Empire prejudice…” Indeed.

Second, there is the inanity of Cooper reducing Sanders’ opening comments on social-democratic policies in “every other major country” to just “Denmark” – and of Sanders’ depressing failure to correct him on that inanity (though it should be noted that Sanders is wrong to claim that “every other major country provid[es] health care to all people as a right,.”)

Third, there is the childishness of Cooper’s suggestion that there is something odd about Sanders not considering himself “a capitalist.” As the historian Laurence Shoup reminds us in his latest book, “The two major classes in the United States today are a numerically small capitalist class and a very much larger working class. The capitalist class is characterized by ownership of large amounts of capital, obtained mainly though investment in and control of organizations that organize production, distribution, and financing of the economy. The working class lacks such ownership and needs to the labor market to secure employment.” The capitalists, Shoup notes, “are a very small percentage of the population.” They are certainly less 2 percent of the population, if that high. It doesn’t get much more basic than that,

Fourth, there is Sanders’ enfeeblement of the meaning of the phrases “socialism” and “democratic socialism.” By any meaningful historical gauge, democratic socialism is about collective property and popular self-governance with workers’ control and real participatory democracy. In Sanders’ diluted Wonder Bread branding, democratic socialism means the existence of decent welfare programs, universal health insurance, and reduced economic inequality in an “entrepreneurial” (capitalist) nation with high voter turnout.

Fifth, there is Sanders’ admission at the end of his second comment that what “this [his] campaign” is about is increasing voter excitement and turnout for the corporate-neoliberal Democratic Party. Translation: Bernie is running to help the militant corporatist Hillary Clinton and the rotten, Wall Street-captive and imperial Democratic Party practice what the formerly left Christopher Hitchens caustically but all-too accurately called (in his 2000 book on the Clintons) “the essence of American politics….the manipulation of populism by elitism.” It’s about sheepdoggery. Sanders said nothing in his response to Cooper about how the struggle for social justice goes beyond major party mass-marketed-big money-big media-candidate-centered and quadrennial electoral extravaganzas. He utterer not a word about how that struggle requires a powerful grassroots popular sociopolitical movement beneath and beyond the periodic, money-drenched, and highly time-staggered elections that pass for “politics” – the only “politics that matters” – in the U.S..

Sixth, there was the absence of any meaningful definition of capitalism. An amoral, sociopathic, accumulation-mad, growth-addicted, and inherently chaotic, eco-cidal system of class rule, capitalism is distinguished by private ownership of the means of production and finance and their operation for private profit. It has a long run default tendency towards the increased concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a few. It is a system unworthy (to say the least) of public rescue. It is actively ruining livable ecology and poses severe and active, ongoing threats to the American middle class (which has been disastrously attacked and weakened by capital in the U.S. over the last four), to the broad working class majority, and indeed to life itself. Lacking any serious, deeply rooted definition or critique of capitalism as an historical political economy, Sanders had nothing substantive to say in properly critical response when Mrs. Clinton said that capitalism built “the greatest middle class in history” (whatever that means) and argued that the system should be “saved from itself.”

These are not small and merely semantic matters. Humanity is currently at a juncture where it either saves itself from the profits system or dissolves into ever deeper barbarism and environmental self-annihilation. The problem with capitalist “growth” isn’t just how its outcomes are distributed. It also and relatedly what that growth is doing does to livable ecology, which amounts to environmental self-annihilation by all serious scientific accounts now. That’s not just a difficulty with “casino capitalism” – the hyper-financialzed neoliberal and global capitalism of the last four plus decades – that Sanders feels save denouncing. It’s a problem with any and all phases and forms of capitalism, including even and indeed especially the anomalously high-growth Keynesian capitalism of the post-World War II era, when U.S.-led world capitalist expansion brought humanity to the precipice of full environmental catastrophe. These are basic facts of species life and death that Sanders cannot or will not publicly acknowledge.

Seventh, there is the apparent agreement of both Sanders and Clinton with the thoroughly deceptive. U.S. Chamber of Commerce-promoted myth that small business provides “the backbone of the U.S. economy.” Small and medium-sized business do no such thing. The U.S, economy is hitched above all and by far and away to the fortunes and designs of big monopoly and finance capital, as Mrs. Clinton and her self-described “good friend” Mr. Sanders both certainly know. Consistent with his misplaced paean to small business, Sanders called in Vegas for the break-up, not the nationalization (the obvious and longstanding, actually socialist position) of the nation’s giant financial institutions.

The watered-down nature of Sanders’ status as a “self-described socialist” (self-described indeed!) was further demonstrated when he said in Las Vegas that the United States was being turned into “an oligarchy as a result of Citizens United.” The revolting Citizens United ruling is of course a horrific and authoritarian low-point in the odious history of plutocratic jurisprudence. But no remotely thoughtful leftist should share the senator’s continuing obsession with a 2010 Supreme Court decision that was made long after the onset of neoliberal capitalism restored abject and unabashed plutocracy in the U.S. (not that actual plutocracy had ever gone away in the U.S.). And here he might want to revisit the high court’s horrible 1976 Buckley-Valeo decision which absurdly established big plutocratic political money as “free speech.”

The deeper reality is the underlying conflict between capitalism (seriously understood as an inherently wealth- and power-concentrating system of class rule) and popular self-governance. “We must make our choice,” U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louise Brandeis 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.” If Sanders actually believes that the contemporary version of this problem in the U.S. dates from Citizens United (I doubt that he does), then he is very badly mistaken. The regressive and de-regulated, post-Keynesian/”post-Fordist” neoliberal era that has brought us to the current New Gilded Age dates from at least the middle 1970s. It’s guiding authoritarian and “free market” doctrine is, as Shoup has recently reminded us, “capital’s default position, the direction that the system always pushes toward, taking into account the level of class struggle from below.”

The most remembered line of the debate was Bernie’s statement that “the American people are sick and tired of hearing about [Hillary Clinton’s] damn e-mails.” Here Sanders further demonstrated his sheepdog commitment to the dollar-drenched and neoliberal party of Robert Rubin, Bill and Hillary Clinton, and the arch-neoliberal Barack Obama. A left candidate who was serious about defeating the Clinton machine would hardly be in the business of helping provide Hillary cover on her criminal and classically neoliberal use of a private corporate e-mail server for public sector (the State Department no less) communications. He would not have allowed himself to be badly outflanked on his portside by Mrs. Clinton on gun control and the NRA.

And, no small point, he would not have let Hillary – a reigning historical She-Wolf of neoliberal capitalism (second in that regards perhaps only to Margaret Thatcher) – get away scot-free with her deeply deceptive description of herself in Vegas as a lifelong true-“progressive” friend of working people and the poor. The historical record does not remotely match her claim, as Sanders certainly knows:

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

* As early members of the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), the co-strategists and operatives Bill and Hillary Clinton helped trail-blaze the development of the neoliberal “New Democrat” movement, which pushed the Democratic Party to abandon its last lingering commitments to labor unions, racial and social justice, and environmental protection.

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

* Hillary said the following in her role as the head of the Clinton administration’s failed corporatist health reform initiative to a leading national physician and health care activist when he told her in 1993 that Canadian-style single-payer health insurance (a key part of Bernie Sanders’ campaign platform) was supported by more than two-thirds of the U.S. populace and was certified by the Congressional Budget Office as the most cost-effective plan on offer: “David [Himmelstein], tell me something interesting.” Along with the big insurance companies the Clintons deceptively railed against, the “co-presidents” Bill and Hillary Clinton decided from the start of their 1990s reign to exclude the popular health care alternative – single payer – from the national health care “discussion.” (Obama, for whom Sanders expresses great admiration, would do the same exact same thing in 2009).

* As Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton called the arch-corporatist, regressive, anti-worker, secretive, authoritarian, and eco-cidal Trans-Pacific Partnership (which she now claims to oppose, just as Bill Clinton once deceptively claimed to oppose the North American Free Trade Agreement) “the gold standard in trade agreements” for “open free, transparent, fair trade, the kind of environment that has the rule of law and a level playing field.”

This and much more is consistent with the fact that Hillary Clinton “operates in a world awash in money and connections and a very privileged place” (the New York Times last spring) while fraudulently posing as a “populist” who is “in touch” with the concerns of everyday working Americans and who is bothered that “the deck is stacked” in favor of the rich. She has given speeches to leading Wall Street firms (and the Chicago Mercantile Exchange) for more than $200,000 each – more than four times U.S. median household income – as part of her effort to build a preemptive “money machine” meant to block rivals from making serious primary and caucus challenges.

Any leftist who has paid the slightest serious attention to U.S. politics since the early 1990s should have heard loud alarm bells ringing when Hillary Clinton described herself in Vegas as “a progressive…[b]ut a progressive who likes to get things done [and who] know[s] how to find common ground… even dealing with Republicans [with whom she]… found ways to work together.” Sound familiar? It should. It is straight out of the spurious, fake-progressive, arch-authoritarian, and neoliberal Bob Rubin-Bill Clinton-Barack Obama-DLC-Hamilton Project-Brookings Institute-Council of Foreign Relations playbook, written by and for the nation’s unelected and interrelated dictatorships of money and empire. The key phrase is “likes to get things done” – a way of consigning the basic and reasonable social-democratic programs and economic justice measures long and irrelevantly supported by most Americans to the realm of non-viable, pragmatically unrealistic, “extremist: and “do-nothing” fantasy.

Sanders clearly went into last week’s debate with no intention of calling out Mrs. Clinton on the coldly callous disingenuousness of her progressive and populist pretensions, which are richly consistent with Hitchens’ dictum. The nominally socialist candidate’s silence in this regard matches Dixon’s description of him. It fits Sanders’ early promise not to be a “spoiler” who “helps the Republicans” by damaging the Democrats’ front-runner.

I won’t bother to go into any great length on Sanders’ and Clinton’s hopelessly imperial, militarist, and American- exceptionalist comments in Las Vegas on U.S. foreign relations.. I don’t have time or space here to properly examine those horrible remarks, which were all-too predictably consistent with the debate’s sponsorship by Lockheed Martin and with its opening with the singing of the Star Spangled Banner by the leather pants-clad Sheryl Crowe. I will note, for what it’s worth, that Sanders described the U.S. invasion of Iraq (supported by War Hawk Hillary) as a strategic “blunder” but not as what it also and more significantly was: a pitiless petro-imperialist and arch-neoliberal crime that massacred a million Iraqis and maimed and displaced millions more. This is what passes in the reigning narrow spectrum of elite U.S. foreign policy debate as the sentiment of a “dove”: the notion that monumental and mass-murderous U.S.-imperial crimes like the U.S. “crucifixion of Southeast Asia” (Noam Chomsky) in the 1960s and 1970s and the invasion and occupation of Iraq were at worst strategic mistakes.

Did Bernie get in some decent, progressive jabs Vegas? Sure. It was neat that he scoffed when Hillary claimed (absurdly) that she would be tougher on Wall Street than he would. It was funny and correct when he said that “Wall Street regulates Congress, Congress doesn’t regulate Wall Street.” “Casino capitalism” is in fact a nightmare, of course, and it was entertaining to hear Sanders rail against it in the nation’s biggest casino town. If I were in the audience I would have applauded when Sanders said that climate change, not Russia, Iran, China (the ridiculous Jim Webb’s obsession) or even the (unmentionably U.S.-manufactured) Islamic State pose the single greatest threat to American national security.

Sanders received understandable and deserved applause when he denounced contemporary savage economic inequalities and advocated decent things like single-payer health insurance, genuinely progressive taxation, free college tuition, paid maternal and family leave, and big federal jobs programs. These are things that, as the corporate media never admits, a great majority of the United States’ invisibly progressive citizens have long supported. Along with the astonishing depth and degree of economic inequality in the U.S. today, that is why I have been unsurprised by the large crowds Sanders has drawn to his rallies and by the large number of small campaign donations he has received. Droves of progressive and liberal voters understand correctly that Sanders stands closest among all major party presidential candidates to actual if technically irrelevant public opinion on domestic social and economic policy.

Still, the larger reality beneath the harmony in Vegas was Sanders’ loyal service to Hillary and the Democratic Party’s Hitchensian mission (“the manipulation of populism by elitism”) and the accuracy of Bruce Dixon’s early description of the longtime de facto Democrat Bernie Sanders as a “sheepdog” for his closeted real party and thereby for the underlying capitalist empire that party serves in accord with its longstanding role as one of “two wings of the same bird of prey” (Upton Sinclair, 1904).

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

The Not-So Golden Age: a Radical and Eco-Socialist Take on Post-WW II America and “the Anthropocene”

23/12/15 0 COMMENTS

Counterpunch, October 16, 2015

Some Darkness Behind the “Sun-Washed Days”

There is a tendency among senior and middle-aged liberal and progressive United States intellectuals to sentimentalize the post-World War II “golden age” of American and Western capitalism between 1945 and the early to middle 1970s.   The inclination is understandable. During those “sun-washed days” (liberal author and former New York Times columnist Bob Herbert), economic inequality declined, significant Civil Rights victories were achieved, jobs were plentiful, the endlessly invoked middle class swelled, wages and consumption rose, the welfare state expanded, college was open and affordable for an unprecedented number of working class young adults, a new youth counterculture flourished, popular music reached new creative heights, the sexual revolution took off, and U.S. astronauts walked on the moon. American society was riding high, it seemed, underpinned by a relatively “high-functioning” and “reasonably egalitarian” (Herbert) capitalism operating at its regulated, “Fordist,” and Keynesian best, prior to the neoliberal “globalized capitalism” that has brought us over four decades to a savagely unequal and arch-plutocratic New Gilded Age – a time when the top 1% owns more wealth than the bottom 90% of the U.S. populace along with a wildly disproportionate share of the nation’s not-so “democratically elected” officials.

The nostalgia of many for post-WWII America is less than surprising. I share it to no small degree, thanks to my many fond grade-school memories of growing up on the streets of 1960s Chicago. Still, there’s a host of reasons to temper one’s progressive nostalgia for the “golden” post-WWII era. The downwardly redistributive trend of American and Western capitalism during the period was remarkably contingent, temporary, qualified, and – in retrospect – short lived The “reasonably egalitarian” direction of the “thirty glorious years” (the French phrase for “the golden age”) reflected an anomalous moment in the history of a rapacious profits system that was never removed from its position atop U.S. society and reverted to its default long-term inegalitarian and authoritarian tendencies once the moment passed. Between 1930s and the 1970s, it is true, a significant reduction in overall economic inequality (though not of racial inequality) and an increase in the living standards of millions of working-class Americans occurred in the U.S. This “Great Compression” occurred thanks to the rise and expansion of the industrial workers’ movement (sparked to no small extent by communists and other leftist militants); the spread of collective bargaining; the rise of a corporate-liberal New Deal (later “Fair Deal” and “Great Society”) welfare state; and the democratic domestic pressures imposed by World War II and subsequent U.S. social movements. Still, core capitalist prerogatives and assets were never dislodged, consistent with New Deal champion Franklin Roosevelt’s boast that he had “saved the profits system” from radical change. U.S. capital never lost its way or its dominant role in American society. U.S. politics remained “the shadow cast on society by big business,” as Dewey prophesized it would so long as power rested with “business for private profit through private control of banking, land, industry, reinforced by command of the press, press agents, and other means of publicity and propaganda” (Dewey, “The Need for a New Party,” New Republic, March 18, 1931).

The gains enjoyed by ordinary working Americans were made possible to no small extent by the uniquely favored and powerful position of the U.S. economy (and empire) and the historically extraordinary profit rates enjoyed by U.S. corporations after the war, when the U.S. was briefly home to more than half the world’s industrial production. When that remarkable position and those profits were inevitably challenged and rolled back by resurgent Western European and Japanese economic competition in the 1970s and 1980s, egalitarian “golden” time trends were naturally reversed by capitalist elites who had never lost their critical command of the nation’s core economic and political institutions. They undertook a Great U-Turn (Bennett Harrison and Barry Bluestone) from the top down – a change of direction that was really U.S. capitalism returning to its historical wealth- and power-concentrating norm. Middle and working class Americans have paid the price ever since and Democratic presidential candidates now try to outdo each other in claiming to feel, and present progressive solutions to, their pain (though overwhelmingly preferring the phrase “middle class” to “working class”).

Perverted Priorities

At the same time, the levelling economic tendencies of the “golden age” are easily exaggerated. Across the postwar period, the radical U.S. historian Howard Zinn noted in his forgotten classic Postwar America: 1945-1971, the bottom tenth of the U.S. population – 20 million poor Americans – experienced no increase whatsoever in their share of the nation’s income (a paltry 1%). Corporate profits and CEO salaries rose significantly across the 60s boom as steep U.S. poverty remained firmly entrenched in “the world’s richest nation.” As Zinn elaborated:

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

As the nation spent billions to put Cold War space travelers on the moon, millions of 1960s Americans remained ill-clad, ill-fed, and ill-housed. The median U.S. family income in 1968 was US$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. As A. Phillip Randolph and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. noted in the summary of their October 1966 Freedom Budget for All Americans, “In a time of unparalleled prosperity, there are 34 million Americans living in poverty. Another 28 million live just on the edge, with incomes so low that any unexpected expense or loss of income could thrust them into poverty…Almost one-third of our nation lives in poverty or want.” Raised in a troubled middle-class family that did not turn a blind eye to the savage ironies of the “golden age,” I remember the ubiquitous sight (for those who sought it out and refused to look away) of mass poverty in urban ghettoes and rural Appalachia during this “sun-washed” time with great clarity.

The persistent stark disparity reflected among other things what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. called the “perverted priorities” of a national government captive to corporate and military power. Zinn was struck by the irony in “the billions spent by the United States government to propel astronauts to the moon while millions went hungry.” A New York Times report on the first moon launch quoted a doctor who tried to serve poor people living in the shadow of the John F. Kennedy Space Center (the launch site). He noted that while Washington invested in the massively expensive lunar project, “right here …I treat malnourished children with prominent ribs and pot-bellies.” A much bigger share of the misdirected federal budget went to the giant new post-WWII U.S. military empire and especially to the massively expensive and mass- murderous “Vietnam War” – the one-sided imperial war of “golden Age” America, the wealthiest nation in history, on predominantly peasant societies in Southeast Asia. The enormous cost of that colossal crime – paid without any effort to raise taxes on the wealthy, whose sons naturally avoided combat “service” – helped strange in its cradle the so-called war on poverty that was briefly declared by liberal “Great Society” U.S. president Lyndon Johnson. The Freedom Budget – a progressive Keynesian plan to end poverty in ten years without questioning the basic structures of capitalism and imperialism – never had a chance. Dr. King died while trying to build a movement against mass poverty and economic inequality and exploitation as well as racial injustice. The people’s struggle to bring the millions of poor into the economic mainstream was defeated before the onset of the neoliberal era. The “golden age” approached its inglorious end with the execution and/or assassination of King, who near the end of his life wrote that post-WWII America was flirting with “spiritual death” and gravely plagued by “the triple evils that are interrelated…racism, poverty, and militarism…evils that are rooted deeply in the whole structure of society.” King also presciently worried that “golden age” America U.S. was in danger of becoming a police state.

The Anthropocene/Capitalocene Takes off

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

*The actual deepening of racial (white over black) U.S. inequality and the related persistence of harsh racial segregation even as overall socio-economic disparity fell in the nation – a critical factor reality behind the remarkable explosion or urban racial violence that took places across the U.S. in the middle and late 1960s.

*The birth of the racially hyper-disparate and mass-incarcerationist “war on drugs,” designed and first waged in the name of “law and order” under the late 1960s backlash presidency of Richard M. Nixon.

*The conservative “post-WWII labor-capital bargain” whereby the nation’s newly consolidated mass-production unions relinquished concern for workers’ control, workplace democracy, and social-democratic transformation (including national single-payer health insurance) in return for money and benefits for members only and automatic dues collection or labor bureaucrats – a deal that capital significantly revoked after 1970 without any giveback on what labor surrendered. (The “bargain” included the expulsion of Left cadres who had sparked resurgent industrial unionism during the 1930s and 1940s. and the triumph of a highly dysfunctional and authoritarian model of employment-based health insurance.)

*The marginalization or radicals and their ideas.

*An explosive growth of finance capital, rooted largely in the expansion of mortgages, pensions, and international trade.

*The birth of a bourgeois identity politics that has provided populace-dividing service to the corporate and financial elite across the subsequent neoliberal era.

*The criminal and mass-murderous U.S. imperial wars on Korea, Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, which killed more than 6 million Asians between 1950 and 1975.

*The massive expansion of the U.S. Pentagon system and Empire, replete with pervasive and often deadly, mass-murderous U.S. military and political interference in dozens of not-so “sovereign” nations around the world under the cover of the “Cold War”– a manufactured conflict that brought the world to the very edge of nuclear holocaust in the fall of 1962.

*The atomizing spread of private television and automobile ownership, the ecologically toxic explosion of regional and interstate highway construction, and the related advent of large-scale white suburban residential and commercial sprawl.

Last but not at all least and intimately related to all of the above, the post-WWII “golden age” brought a remarkable material and cultural explosion of wasteful mass consumerism (spreading to the working class) and the related vast expansion of U.S.-led global “free trade” and production, with multinational corporations (MNCs) initiating their global expansion. The unprecedented national and American-sponsored global economic expansion of the post-WWII era produced a foreboding sense of environmental crisis by the end of the “golden time” – a crisis rooted in capitalism that Rachel Carson, Barry Commoner and other left environmentalists tried to warn the world about at the height of the post-WWII boom.

It has been clear to Earth scientists that the history of our planet has been set now for some time in a new geologic epoch called “the Anthropocene.” It is an era in which, in the words of the leading experts Will Steffen, Paul Crutzen, and John McNeil, “Human activities have become so pervasive and profound that they rival the great forces of Nature and are pushing the earth into planetary terra incognita. The Earth is rapidly moving into a less biologically diverse, less forested, much warmer, and probably wetter and stormier era.” According to Steffen and Crutzen, it is a “no analogue state” in which “the Earth system has recently moved well outside the range of natural variability….”

The new Earth period bearing its species’ mark and name is nothing for homo sapiens to be proud of! The unprecedented changes introduced by humanity are ecologically unsustainable for decent life on the planet. Thanks to the Anthropocene, the world is not now in middle of “its sixth great extinction event, with rates of species loss growing rapidly for both terrestrial and marine ecosystems. The atmospheric concentrations of several important greenhouse gases have increased substantially, and the Earth is warming rapidly,” Steffen, Crutzen, and McNeil note.

As scientists have long warned, the nightmare threat isn’t about anthropogenic global warming marching along slowly in a linear fashion, with the planet getting a little hotter year by year.   It’s about non-linear “tipping points” producing abrupt and irreversible climate change with catastrophic outcomes. The most recent reports from the prestigious and normally restrained Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) suggest very strongly that the Earth is approaching such tipping points – the melting of polar ice and Arctic permafrost, the acid-bleaching of global coral reefs, and the drying out of the Amazonian rain forest – at a pace and in ways that had not been anticipated.

When did the Anthropocene begin? As Ian Angus notes in the September 2015 issue of Monthly Review, all indications from the latest research point to a massive quantitative acceleration of human economic activity including “an explosive growth of fossil fuel use” (James Hansen) creating a qualitative transformation in homo sapiens’ impact on earth system trends (levels of carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide, methane, stratospheric ozone, surface ocean temperature, ocean acidification, marine fish capture, coastal nitrogen, tropical forest depletion, land domestication, and terrestrial biosphere degradation) around 1950. The leading Earth scientists increasingly see this “Great Acceleration” as not a new stage but instead as the actual onset of the Anthropocene. The Industrial Revolution of the 19th century pales before the gigantic expansion of world economic activities and the related third technological revolution launched during the post-WWII “golden age” when it comes to altering Nature in ways that place prospects for a decent future at serious risk and even raise the real specter of human extinction. The post-WWII period, the leading Marxist environmentalist John Bellamy Foster noted 21 years ago, brought “a qualitative transformation in the level of human destructiveness.” Sadly, the “sun-washed” days of Baby Boomers’ youth were fueled by oil, coal, and gas, not solar, wind, and water.

A compelling case has been made by Jason Moore and other left environmentalists that it is more historically appropriate to understand humanity’s Earth-altering assault on livable ecology as “the Capitalocene.” After all, it is only during the relatively brief period of history when capitalism has existed and ruled the world system (since 1600 or thereabouts by some academic calculations, earlier and later by others) that human social organization has developed the capacity and inner, accumulation- and commodification-mad compulsion to transform Earth systems. Moore maintains that human destruction of livable ecology is best explained by changes that capitalism’s endless pursuit of profit, accumulation, and empire have wreaked on the environment – changes he dates broadly from “the long sixteen century” starting in 1450). His critique of bourgeois climate thought’s historically unspecific and class-blind use of anthros as an undifferentiated entity is important and powerful. Still, recent evidence suggests that, while capitalism is many centuries old, it was during the post-WWII era of U.S.-led global monopoly-corporate and emergent multinational capitalism that humanity forever and dramatically impacted Earth systems in ways that pose grave and fundamental threats to life on the planet.

This is a great reminder to ecosocialists and indeed to anyone and everyone concerned with saving livable ecology that the greatest threat to life on Earth isn’t just the neoliberal and “de-regulated,” so-called free market capitalism of the last four decades. The “golden age” and “thirty glorious years” of Western and U.S.-led global capitalism that launched the current exterminist Anthropocene and/or Capitalocene boasted a dramatically expansive, high-growth, mass-consumerist U.S.-directed profits system operating at its Keynesian and welfare-statist best. It brought us to precisely where some of post-WWII America’s leading left environmentalists (Commoner, Carson, and Murray Boochkin) warned at the time: to the onset of ecological catastrophe – to an unfolding environmental calamity that some prominent leftists still, even at this perilously late date, treat as the dysfunctional obsession of doomsday “catastrophists” and as “just one of many concerns and possibly a diversion from the ‘real’ class struggle” (Ian Angus’s accurate and critical characterization of such horrible reasoning).

Capitalism and Everything Else

Such leftists are fools. As the great left intellectual Noam Chomsky reminded left progressives three years ago, if the global environmental catastrophe being created by anthropogenic climate change “isn’t going to be averted” soon, then “in a generation or two, everything else we’re talking about won’t matter.” The betting windows close on the prospects for a decent and livable future unless humanity wakes up quickly and acts on a giant scale to move off fossil fuels and on to renewable energy sources – a technically viable project. The “usual” struggles over how the pie is distributed, managed, and controlled and by and for whom are going take on a frightful feel when it becomes apparent that the pie is poisoned. Who wants to turn the world upside down only to find that it is riddled with runaway disease and decay? Who hopes to inherit a dying Earth from the bourgeoisie?

There’s a catch, however. The catastrophe won’t be averted under capitalism – the biggest ticket item on the long list of “everything else” that leftists have long opposed. As the Canadian Marxist Sam Gindin noted last year in a review essay that criticized the leading left environmentalist Naomi Klein’s tendency to focus on “neoliberal” and “free market” capitalism more than on capitalism as such in her important book This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate:

“Klein…seems clear enough in the analysis that pervades the book that it is capitalism, yet she repeatedly qualifies this position by decrying ‘the kind of capitalism we now have,’ ‘neoliberal’ capitalism, ‘deregulated’ capitalism, ‘unfettered’ capitalism, ‘predatory’ capitalism, ‘extractive’ capitalism, and so on. These adjectives undermine the powerful logic of Klein’s more convincing arguments elsewhere that the issue isn’t creating a better capitalism but confronting capitalism as a social system.”

“Capitalism does of course vary across time and place, and some of the differences are far from trivial. But in terms of substantive change, we should not overstate the importance of these disparate forms. Moreover, such differences have not increased but contracted over time, leaving us with a more or less monolithic capitalism across the globe….It is not just that any capitalism is inseparable from the compulsion to indiscriminate growth, but that capitalism’s commodification of labor power and nature drives an individualized consumerism inimical to collective values (consumption is the compensation for what we lose in being commodified and is the incentive to work) and insensitive to the environment (nature is an input, and the full costs of how it is exploited by any corporation are for someone else to worry about)….A social system based on private ownership of production can’t support the kind of planning that could avert environmental catastrophe. The owners of capital are fragmented and compelled by competition to look after their own interests first, and any serious planning would have to override property rights — an action that would be aggressively resisted.”

As the Marxist philosopher Istvan Meszaros has observed, updating Rosa Luxembourg for the Capitalocene in the 21st century, “it’s [eco] socialism or barbarism if we’re lucky.”

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

Public Talk: Rahm Emanuel, Laquan McDonald, and the Racist Mass Arrest and Incarceration State

16/12/15 0 COMMENTS

Open University of the Left, Chicago, Illinois, December 12, 2015

Ben Carson and the Vicious, Victim-Blaming Circle of Neoliberalism and Gun Violence

06/11/15 0 COMMENTS

ZNet, October 16, 2015

The presidential candidate Ben Carson should be relegated before long to the dunce-bin of political history. Before he disappears, however, we might take a closer look at his bone-chilling and tone-deaf suggestion that the victims of the recent mass shooting in an Oregon community college were complicit in their own deaths because they failed to rush their heavily armed killer. You don’t have to be a brain surgeon (Carson’s former profession) to see how brain dead and tone-deaf that argument is. But let’s resist the temptation to engage Carson’s “reasoning” by mentioning the obvious barriers to such split-second group action on the part of everyday people. “Never argue with an idiot,” an old saying goes: “you might be confused with one.”

Why mention Carson’s comment at all? Because it is indicative of the vicious, victim-blaming savagery of the neoliberal “personal responsibility” narrative that has taken hold in the United States at the behest of the nation’s ruling capitalist class over the last four decades. Carried to extremes by right-wing Republicans like Carson, this narrative “can imagine,” in the words of the prolific left cultural theorist Henry Giroux, “public issues only as private concerns.”  It works, Giroux notes, to “erase the social from the language of public life so as to reduce” all questions of social inequality and oppression to “private issues of …individual character and cultural depravity.” Consistent with “the central neoliberal tenet that all problems are private rather than social in nature,” it portrays the only barrier to equality and meaningful democratic participation as “a lack of principled self-help and moral responsibility” on the part of the poor and oppressed. Popular and governmental efforts to meaningfully address and ameliorate (not to mention abolish) sharp societal disparities of race, class, gender, ethnicity, nationality and the like are relentlessly portrayed as futile, counterproductive, naïve, and “anti-American.” It all comes down to personal and group irresponsibility on the part of those on the wrong end of structural disparity and oppression. “They did it to themselves” is a central article of American doctrine and not just in the Republican Party.

In the Oregon atrocity, Carson shamelessly applied the same basic viewpoint to community college students and a teacher mowed down by the automatic weapon of a mass murderer. According to Carson, it is your own personal and small-group fault for letting a mass shooting take place in your immediate proximity. Yes, that’s right, rugged and serious Americans, you must  gather your wits, pull yourself up by your boot-straps, and rally yourself and your fellow citizen-patriots to charge straight at the well-armed mass killers in your schools, workplaces, and shopping malls! Get it together, American mass-shooting victims: rise up off your lazy and fearful butts and attack those killers with your bodies! Take some personal responsibility: don’t expect Big Government and its laziness-inducing welfare state to stop those bullets! You certainly must not ask U.S. authorities to do what a conservative-led Australian government did after a shooter wiped out 35 people in Tasmania in April of 1996. Australia undertook a massive buyback of more than 600,000 semi-automatic rifles and shotguns, roughly one-fifth of all firearms in circulation there. It passed strict laws that prohibited private sales, required that all weapons be individually registered to their owners, and required gun buyers to provide a “genuine reason” for “needing” each weapon at time of purchase – and “self-defense” did not qualify. Australia hasn’t had a major gun massacre since. Gun homicides and suicides fell dramatically there in the wake of the new legislation.

A nasty irony is that the culture and politics of neoliberal capitalism – carried to absurd extremes in the Republican Party and in Carson’s comment on the Oregon atrocity – are great driving forces behind the generation of a rising number of people so deranged as to murder on a mass scale and equipped to do so. Whence this rising internal cadre of homicidal sociopaths in the U.S.? Why are guns and above all automatic weapons suitable for mass killing so widely and absurdly available in the United States, well within the reach of the large crop of murderous people this society appears to produce on an increasing scale? Why does this society and culture worship deadly and sociopathic violence? In a recent widely read essay, Giroux argued that the real culprit behind the current ongoing epidemic of mass shootings in the U.S. (the Washington Post recently reported that 294 such shootings took place in the first 270 days of 2015) is the neoliberal state-capitalist and military-imperialist U.S. social order:

“Unbridled self-interest, an empty consumerist ethos, and war-like values…produc[e] an indifference to the common good, compassion, a concern for others …[and a]withering of public life….American society is driven by unrestrained market values in which economic actions and financial exchanges are divorced from social costs, further undermining any sense of social responsibility….A wasteful giant military-industrial-surveillance complex fueled by the war on terror along with America’s endless consumption of violence as entertainment and its celebration of a pervasive gun culture normalizes the everyday violence waged against black youth, immigrants, children fed into the school to prison pipeline, and others considered disposable…a society saturated in violence gains credence when its political leaders have given up on the notion of the common good, social justice, and equality, all of which appear to have become relics of history in the United States…Americans are obsessed with violence. They not only own nearly 300 million firearms, but also have a love affair with powerful weaponry such as 9MM Glock semi-automatic pistols and AR15 assault rifles. Collective anger, frustration, fear, and resentment increasingly characterizes a society in which people are out of work, young people cannot imagine a decent future, everyday behaviors are criminalized, inequality in wealth and income are soaring, and the police are viewed as occupying armies. This is not only a recipe for both random violence and mass shootings; it makes such acts appear routine and commonplace.”

That is an all-too-accurate indictment. I would add that the National Rifle Association and its mission of turning every American household into a neo-feudal bastion of heavily armed self-defense are perfectly matched to the proto-fascistic project of neoliberalism.  In the extreme-capitalist/neoliberal anti-vision of life, there is, as Margaret Thatcher once said, “no such thing as society.” As Thatcher, widely heralded in U.S. political culture, elaborated: “Too many people have been given to understand that if they have a problem, it’s the government’s job to cope with it. ‘I have a problem, I’ll get a grant.’ ‘I’m homeless, the government must house me.’ They’re casting their problem on society. And, you know, there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families…People must look to themselves…It’s our duty to look after ourselves and then, also to look after our neighbor. People have got the entitlements too much in mind…”

The NRA dream – a 9mm Glock and AR15 in every American home – is perfectly suited to the atomistic ideology of neoliberalism. It’s an ideal match for the notion that society is nothing more than a collection of competitive, disconnected, and individual market actors with no solidaristic obligations and egalitarian commitments beyond self, family, and (sometimes)  neighbor. The mutually paranoid, automatic rifle-brandishing ethos of “Don’t tread on me” fits the project of keeping social and democratic popular sentiments at bay. The gun industry and lobby is part of the ideological weaponry of capitalist neoliberalism as well as the supplier of the actual material weaponry to those consumed with the neoliberalism-fueled impulse to murder on a mass scale.

The blood-drenched (at home and abroad) neoliberal world view should not be confused with anti-statism.  Beneath its “free market” pretensions and its blather against “Big Government,” it is only opposed to what the left sociologist Pierre Bourdieu called “the left hand of the state”:  the parts of government, won by past popular movements, that protect and advance the interests of workers, the poor, and the common good. Those are the “entitlements” properly marked for rollback, starving, and elimination in the neoliberal world view. The “right hand of the state” – the parts of government that work to redistribute wealth and power yet further upward, fight wars, and discipline the working and lower class majority – is to remain big, well-fed, and powerful. Those and other unmentionable ruling class entitlements stay intact and indeed grow, with government’s repressive functions expanding in accord with the misery and chaos imposed on the working and lower classes by the relentless “free market” rollback and slashing of opportunities and supports.  Rampant “homeland” gun violence, fanned and fueled by Hollywood and the NRA – and by the psychosis-inducing marginalization and ruthless disposability of an ever-rising share of “surplus” and “precariatized” Americans – provides yet another systemically self-fulfilling pretext for the expansion of a militarized police state that functions (under the guise of “security”) for the nation’s unelected and interrelated dictatorships of money, empire, white-supremacism, patriarchy, and eco-cide.

Paul Street’s latest book is They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm, 2015).

 

Hope in Abandonment: Cuba, Detroit, and Earth-Scientific Socialism

06/11/15 0 COMMENTS

Counterpunch, October 9, 2015

In their historic 1848 Communist Manifesto, the great radical thinkers Karl Marx and Frederick Engels offered a curious dialectical celebration of rapacious industrial capitalism. To be sure, Marx and Engels had no illusions about the evil of that system. They observed that “the bourgeoisie” (the capitalist investors and manufacturers of the mid-19th century) undertook “the subjection of Nature’s forces to man” not to benefit humanity but to selfishly accumulate profits in accord with their soulless reduction of “personal worth” to “exchange value.” The venal capitalists “left remaining no other nexus between man and man than callous ‘cash payment,’…drown[ing society and culture] …in the icy water of egotistical calculation.” For economic exploitation “veiled” under feudalism “by religious and political illusions,” the founders of modern communism wrote, the bourgeois system “substituted naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation…In place of the numerous indefeasible chartered freedoms,” the profits system “set up that single unconscionable freedom – Free Trade.”

There was no freedom for working people behind and beyond factory walls, Marx and Engels knew. “As privates of the industrial army,” they wrote, wage-earners were “placed under the command of a perfect hierarchy of officers and sergeants. Not only are they slaves of the bourgeois class, and of the bourgeois State; they are daily and hourly enslaved by the machine, by the overlooker, and, above all, by the individual bourgeois manufacturer himself. The more openly this despotism proclaims gain to be its end and aim, the more petty, the more hateful and the more embittering it is.”

Still, the originators of “scientific socialism” were cheered by the emergence of a vast industrial laboring class toiling in the factories, shipyards, mines and mills that capitalism created. Competitively compelled to “constantly revolutioniz[e] the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production,” the Manifesto argued, capitalists generated their own gravediggers – the “embitter[ed]’” proletariat, the natural agent of socialist and communist revolution. “Not only has the bourgeoisie forged the weapons that bring death to itself [ultimately liberating forces of production too great to be channeled into bourgeois confines in Marx’s analysis]; it has also called into existence the men who are to wield those weapons — the modern working class – the proletarians.”

The Midwife of Socialism as Angle of Death

While Engels’ and above all Marx’s radical critique and analysis of capitalism remains remarkably relevant in the current era, subsequent history has not been terribly kind to their dialectical romance with industrial capitalism or to their faith in the eventual emancipating power of modern industry. Socialism on Marx’s radical-democratic model – or on any other kind – has not emerged out of working class movements in any of the most “advanced” industrial-capitalist nations of the world – in England, on the European continent, Japan, China, or in the United States. The industrial working class has joined and formed recurrent remarkable social and political movements in different times and places but it has not proved revolutionary in the sense anticipated with “scientific” certainty by the young Marx and Engels. The classic zones of bourgeois and industrial revolution have remained captive to capital and bourgeois rule, thanks in no small part to their privileged position atop the world capitalist and imperial state system.

Socialism of a kind very different from the radical and democratic sort embraced by Marx emerged during the last century not in the heartlands of capitalism, industrialism, and bourgeois revolution but in the mostly pre-industrialized, pre-capitalist, peasant-based, and autocratic nations of Russia and China. In the Soviet Union and empire, an authoritarian form of state socialism undertook the work of industrialization, reproducing Western capitalism’s class-based corporate and top-down division and command of labor though (no small differences) without capitalists and private corporate for-profit ownership of leading economic institutions and with the state in charge of the economy and the provision of basic social goods.

At the same time, modern mass-production/mass-consumer industrialism has proven itself less the midwife of socialism (democratic or otherwise) than a cancerous threat to life on Earth. The two great industrial and superpower rivals of the second half of the 20th century – the state-capitalist United States and the bureaucratic-collectivist and state-socialist Soviet Union – both engaged in colossal assaults on livable ecology. The leading environment-and health-mauler has by far and away been the western, U.S.-led bourgeois system of mass consumption and built-in obsolescence, always far more technologically “productive” (and destructive) than the now defunct Soviet system. This planet-wrecking socioeconomic regime has expanded its reach like never before across the entire planet in the neoliberal and post-Cold War age. Still, the vanguard/command model of industrial state socialism that prevailed in Stalinist Russia and the Soviet empire for many decades also engaged in significant fossil-fueled ecological criminality to advance its own model of Nature-attacking hyper-accumulation. Mao’s “communist” revolution ended up as the state-command dispossessor, assembler, and discipliner of a giant industrial proletariat created for monumental world-capitalist exploitation and eco-cidal, fossil-fueled mass production directed largely by giant multinational US and other Western corporations in China’s vast industrial frontier (the world’s leading zone of capitalist surplus value creation and accumulation since the 1980s.)

Together, with Western and Japanese state capitalism far in the lead, the great industrial powers of the last century and the current have brought humanity to the precipice of true environmental catastrophe courtesy of the industrial Greenhouse Effect (discovered by French and British physicists during Marx’s lifetime). Earth scientists today warn with increasing urgency and an army of terrible data that the modern, carbon-burning industrial civilization that Marx and Engels embraced in their own dialectical way in the mid-19th century (albeit long before the full “Anthropocene”-defining environmental ravages of capital were remotely evident) now raises the very real specter of human extinction. It is a curious climatological version of what The Communist Manifesto said befell societies where necessary revolutions failed to occur: “the common ruin of the contending classes.” (One plausible thesis holds that the remarkable growth and productivity dividend that the heedless drilling and burning of oil, gas, and coal afforded the West in the last two centuries has been a critical factor permitting capital to avoid the working class revolution that the two young Communists prophesized.)

Teeming With Life

Hope for survival – for that is what is at stake – seems to reside in spaces abandoned by the great industrial capitalist and socialist powers of the last century. In a recent Counterpunch essay, journalist Gary Leech recounts how the island nation of Cuba has “redefined socialism” in the wake of the decline of its former protector the Soviet Union. Over the past two decades, Leech shows, Cuba has moved towards a more participatory system that also happens to be an outstanding model of environmentally sustainable and healthy, permaculturalist economics:

“In the 1980s, Cuba more closely reflected the state socialist model that ultimately failed in the Soviet Union….But with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the disintegration of the socialist trading bloc, Cuba had to become more creative if it was to survive both literally and figuratively as an island of socialism in an ocean of capitalism. And it was the creative survival strategies that emerged during the 1990s that have helped to redefine socialism in Cuba today….The collapse of the Soviet Union, in conjunction with a corresponding tightening of the five-decades-long US blockade, meant that Cuba could no longer import sufficient food or oil. The country responded to the shortage of petroleum-based pesticides and fertilizers by becoming the world’s leader in organic agriculture. It responded to the shortage of fuel by becoming a leader in urban agriculture to diminish the need to transport food great distances to markets. As a result, more than 80 percent of the country’s agricultural production is now organic… [and produced by] smaller worker-owned cooperatives. The new cooperatives not only increased production, they also constituted a shift away from state socialism by empowering workers who previously had little or no voice in the running of their workplaces….This emerging worker democracy through cooperatives not only existed in agricultural production, it also occurred in the selling of products…”

“The shift to a more ecologically sustainable agricultural production has resulted in healthy organic food being the most convenient and inexpensive food available to Cubans. Because of the US blockade, processed foods are more expensive and not readily available. This reality stands in stark contrast to that in wealthy capitalist nations such as the United States and Canada where heavily-subsidized agri-businesses flood the market with cheap, unhealthy processed foods while organic alternatives are expensive and more difficult to obtain. The consequence in the United States is high levels of obesity, diabetes and heart disease.”

Thanks in no small part to these remarkable innovations on an island abandoned by 20th century Soviet industrial socialism and embargoed by US-led 20th and 21st century state capitalism, Cuba stands out among all nations (rich and poor) in a critical way. The makers of the United Nations Human Development Index (HDI) have found that Cuba is the only country on the planet to combine a standard of living and quality of life consistent with “high human development” with a globally sustainable carbon footprint. A report by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) includes a graph that shows two features for the nations of the world: the HDI (including measures of life expectancy, poverty, literacy, health care, and the like) and “ecological footprint” – the energy and resources consumed per person in each country. Only Cuba received a passing grade in both areas.

As the University of British Columbia notes,

“In 2006, the WWF declared Cuba to be the only sustainable nation based on ecological footprint and human development index.  The majority of food grown in Cuba is produced without chemicals.  Good bugs fight bad bugs in the fields.  Their soils – like their communities – are teeming with life….Today, Cuba’s agricultural cooperatives provide 80 percent of the food produced in Cuba and her system of urban agriculture is a model for the world. Building on the success of her agricultural cooperatives, Cuba is now taking bold new steps to build a more cooperative, just and people-centred economy.”

Call it Earth Science-friendly socialism – or maybe even earth-scientific socialism.

Seeds of the New in the Shell of the Old

Meanwhile, up in the former industrial heartland of the North American superpower, something significantly similar has happened in Detroit – a city viciously disowned and discarded by capital in the world’s leading capitalist state. Over 20 square miles (a space nearly as big as Manhattan) of this former capital city of capitalist mass production (and of mass production unionism) now lay vacant – deserted by capital. On a recent trip to the onetime headquarters of the once dominant American auto industry – now home to concentrated and hyper-segregated mass Black poverty and joblessness on an epic scale – teleSur English’s Maria Sitrin found that “people in Detroit have been taking back their city…creating the new in the shell of the old.” Ordinary working people on the inner-city ground of capitalist abandonment have developed a health-nurturing urban farming and cooperative system that is planting the at once literal and figurative seeds of an alternative economic structure within the rotting urban residue of a profits system that turned Detroit into the ultimate Rustbelt city:

“people have been growing food in abandoned buildings, vacant lots, torn down structures and other cracks in the system. I learned… that the shell of abandoned buildings is good for keeping raised plant beds warm [and]….of students – thousands of them – learning about community, health, care and cooperation in their schools through working in school gardens [and]…of weekly fresh produce recipe swaps amongst dozens of seniors and regular neighborhood community potlucks [and that]…one can buy carrots, tomatoes, and other fruits and vegetables outside gas station stores – organized by teens. Detroit is building the new in the cracks of the old…. Over the past ten years, as the economic crisis deepens and people’s abilities to survive are challenged even more, they are turning to one another and looking around at ways to survive. In this case, the around is on the thousands of vacant lots, often abandoned by business who have long taken the jobs elsewhere, or landowners no longer able to pay taxes or mortgages. Rather than leave the land abandoned and fallow, people have been coming together to make it productive. This is no small task, and with the cooperation of thousands of people the urban farms and gardens in Detroit produce 200 tons of produce each year. The number of urban gardens has gone from fewer than 100 before the year 2000 to over 2000 in 2015. What this means in human terms is that those people who work the gardens eat 2.5 more servings of fruits or vegetables than those who do not….These numbers are especially important considering Detroit is a ‘food desert’ meaning that there are no major food retail outlets selling fresh produce. Those smaller ones that do exist are few and far between, and the produce they have is often terrible… While there is an ever growing number of networks organized by urban farms and gardens with people teaching others strategies for urban gardening, at the same time there are and continue to be many people who just learn themselves and teach one another in their neighborhoods.”

Socialism as the Basis for Sustainability

The synergy between Leech’s Cuba and Sitrin’s Detroit is undeniable and powerful. Faced with material, social, and political desertion (and embargo in Cuba’s case) by top-down, industrialized, and eco-cidal elites, the people themselves stepped in to craft new and healthy, environmentally sustainable bottom up strategies for survival. They have generated their own healthy, life-sustaining means of production and distribution at the most basic level – food. They have done so through methods that stand in harmonious and regenerative – rather than conflictual and extractivist – relations to the Earth we all share. Imagine.

This is not the path laid out in The Communist Manifesto. It’s not really about building on, or mimicking capital’s purported grand industrial triumph, understood as an ultimately welcome dialectical bridge to a world beyond exploitation, private profit, and the necessity of toil. It’s also not about the naïve bourgeois “utopian socialism” that Marx and Engels mocked in their historic document. It’s about people stepping naturally and organically outside of cancerous capitalism, in places abandoned and embargoed by capital, to engage in the hard but useful and cooperative work of building new modes of nourishing, life-upholding production and distribution from the Earthly bottom up.

There is of course an important difference between Cuba and Detroit, one that Marxists will appreciate. The Cuban example has taken place with the participation and encouragement of the Cuban government, consistent with the independent and truly radical-socialist impulses of the 1959 Cuban Revolution [1]. The Cuban permaculturalist Roberto Pérez tells Leech that Cuba laid the basis for an environmentally sustainable society “when the revolution gained sovereignty over the resources of the country, especially the land and the minerals…You cannot think about sustainability,” Perez explains, “if your resources are in the hands of a foreign country or in private hands. Even without knowing, we were creating the basis for sustainability.” This is a critical point. As the New York City-based Marxist writer Louis Proyect noted last May, “capitalism and capitalist politics have to be superseded if humanity and nature are to survive. Once we can eliminate the profit motive, the door is open to rational use of natural resources for the first time in human history. How we make use of such resources will naturally be informed by our understanding that reason governs the outcome and not quarterly earnings. The alternative,” Proyect reminds us, “to this is a descent into savagery, if not extinction.” (The savagery, for what it’s worth, is well underway in the U.S., home to 290 mass shootings in the first 270 days of 2015 and to a global military Empire that regularly murders innocents – most recently 22 patients and doctors at a Doctors Without Borders facility in Afghanistan – abroad on a mass scale). Ecosocialists: do not throw out the anti-capitalist baby with the industrialist bathwater!

The cooperative urban farming movement described by Sitrin in Detroit and in other zones of bourgeois, exchange value-driven capitalist abandonment across the U.S. is occurring in the urban shadows of a nation that remains captive to the world’s most powerful capitalist class and its hidden, unelected and interrelated dictatorships of money, empire, race, patriarchy, and eco-cide. Its geographic positioning, however, makes it in one sense more significant than the wonderful Cuban developments captured by Leech. Detroit, after all, rests in the belly of the beast, the great capitalist and imperial state that continues to do the most by far to yoke the world to the deadly, exterminist, environmentally catastrophist “global treadmill” of mass production, mass consumption, and private, plutocratic accumulation. If we might turn the mass-production enthusiast Leon Trotsky on his eco-industrial head and then set him back on his feet in the United States, it is in this country above all where the duty of popular, permaculturalist and eco-socialist revolution is greatest and where the liberating potential of such revolution for humanity is most advanced

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

Endnote

[1]. Leech notes that Cuba’s shift towards a less statist and more participatory model of socialism through the formation of cooperatives has been misunderstood by U.S. media as a shift to capitalism. “Unlike in capitalist nations,” Leech explains, “Cuba has not simply laid off thousands of public sector workers and left them to fend for themselves as unemployed desperately seeking private sector jobs. The layoffs are a multi-year process and, due to the 2011 economic reforms, many workers will continue to perform the same job. For instance, in many sectors, such as stores, bars, restaurants and transportation, workers have been offered the opportunity to establish cooperatives and to take over their existing places of business….In one such case, five workers in a state-owned restaurant formed a cooperative and now lease the property from the state and run the business as their own. So while they are part of the downsizing of the public sector because they no longer work for the state, they continue to do the same job as previously. In the eyes of many, such a transition actually constitutes a strengthening of socialism rather than a shift towards capitalism because it is empowering workers who now have a meaningful voice in their workplace—something they didn’t have under state socialism and would not have under corporate capitalism…The establishment of small private enterprises constitutes a redefining of Cuban socialism because it liberates workers from the hierarchical structures of state socialism by allowing them to become their own bosses. Further evidence that allowing small businesses and cooperatives to emerge does not necessarily represent a shift to capitalism is the fact that it remains illegal to establish a corporation. Because an individual is only permitted to own one place of business, corporate chains that monopolize production and markets cannot be established so the overwhelming majority of businesses remain locally-owned and rooted in the community…What Cuba is attempting to avoid are the gross inequalities that inevitably result from monopoly corporate capitalism where workers have no meaningful voice in their daily work lives. So while many mainstream analysts in the United States view the shift to small private businesses as a move towards capitalism, such a view ignores the reality that small privately-owned businesses are not unique to capitalism, they existed in societies long before capitalist model came into existence.”

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

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