“That’s Politics”: the Sandernistas on the Master’s Schedule

08/08/15 0 COMMENTS

Counterpunch,  July 31, 2015

“You Had Your Input”

More than seven years ago, then United States Vice President Dick Cheney had an interesting response when ABS News’ Martha Raddatz told him how recent polls showed that two-thirds of the U.S. populace thought the U.S. war in (on) Iraq was “not worth fighting.”

Cheney smiled as he replied, “So?”

“So…you don’t care what the American people think?” Raddatz pressed.

“No,” Cheney elaborated: “I think you cannot be blown off course by the fluctuations in public opinion polls.”

Justifying Cheney’s blunt remarks shortly afterwards, White House spokesperson Dana Perino was asked if the citizenry should have “input” on U.S. policy. “You had your input,” Perino proclaimed. “The American people have input every four years and that’s the way our system is set up.”

As Steven Kull, director of Program on International Policy Attitudes, noted four days after Cheney’s remarks, the preponderant majority of Americans disagreed with this undemocratic sentiment. A remarkable 94 percent of U.S. citizens said that government leaders should pay attention to the views of the public between elections – a massive repudiation of the authoritarian notion that elections are the only time when the citizenry’s opinion should have influence.

“You Have the Right to Change Things”

The problem continues when Democrats hold down the White House no less than when Republicans do. Speaking to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in the summer of 2012, five months before the last presidential election, US Vice President Joe Biden (D) told his hosts to “remember…what this organization at its core was all about. It was about the franchise. It was about the right to vote. Because when you have the right to vote, you have the right to change things.”

Really? Millions of Black and other Americans utilized the franchise (what Biden said the NAACP “was all about”) to vote for Biden’s boss in the name of progressive change. They got something very different. Staffed with agents and allies of the rich and powerful, the first “hope” and “change” Barack Obama administration gave the nation a great tutorial on who really rules America beneath the charade of popular governance. Beyond its monumental bailout of financial overlords, its lack of mortgage relief for the unjustly foreclosed and debt-burdened, and its refusal to nationalize and cut down the financial institutions that paralyzed the economy, it further defied majority progressive U.S. opinion and advanced the corporate agenda by passing an explicitly Republican-inspired health reform bill that only the big
paulstreetinsurance and drug companies could love; cutting an auto bailout deal that rewarded capital flight and raided union pension funds; undermining desperately needed global carbon emission reduction efforts at Copenhagen (2009) and Durban (2011); refusing to advance serious public works programs (green or otherwise); green-lighting offshore and Arctic drilling and numerous other environmentally disastrous practices; rolling over Bush’s regressive tax cuts for the rich; freezing federal wages and salaries; cutting a debt ceiling deal that was all about cutting social programs; disregarding numerous promises to labor (remember the Employee Free Choice Act?) and other popular constituencies; failing to embrace the remarkable Wisconsin public worker rebellion even in its major party-electoral phase; acting to crush (while trying to co-opt) the Occupy Movement; keeping the U.S. imperial “machine set on kill” (Alan Nairn), much to the bottom line satisfaction of the nation’s opulent “defense” contractors.

And what does Obama hope to make the signature policy accomplishment of his second term? The Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) – a classically neoliberal so-called free trade agreement that has been under secret construction by multinational corporate lawyers and business-captive government officials for at least a decade. This arch-corporatist measure is all about strengthening corporations’ ability to protect and extend their intellectual property rights (drug patents, movie rights, and the like) and to guarantee that they will be compensated by governments for any profits they might lose from having to meet decent public labor and environmental (and other) standards (something certain to discourage the enactment and enforce of such standards). It’s about multinational corporations “getting special deals for businesses that they would have difficulty getting through the normal political process” and “set[ting] up a new legal structure that goes outside existing system in the United States and elsewhere” with “investor-state dispute settlement tribunals” that will guarantee “a real bonanza for business” (economist Dean Baker). It’s quite contrary to technically irrelevant public opinion.

No wonder Obama has done everything he can to keep the details of the TPP under wraps. It is also no wonder that Obama pressed Congress (successfully this summer) to give him “fast-track authority” to force a yay or nay Congressional vote on the TPP, with no time for careful consideration and no chance for revisions. Under fast-track rules, there’s no chance for delays or alterations. The pact must be voted up or down in a very short time-frame.

A Poor Substitute for Democracy

Biden might want to examine the NAACP’s history and the history of progressive change in the U.S more closely. The nation’s pioneering civil rights organization formed and worked around many issues, including ant-lynching, legal defense and desegregation, not just voting rights. At the same time, the Vice President badly exaggerated the power of the ballot box when it comes to winning progressive change in U.S. history. As Noam Chomsky noted nearly eleven years ago, the national presidential election obsession misses the significantly greater relevance of social movements:

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

The Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), the Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCLC), the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and the anti-Vietnam War movement hardly waited for election dates and the sympathy of politicians to “change things.” They undertook powerful non-electoral direct actions like the sit-down strike wave of 1936-1937, the courageous lunch counter sit-ins and Freedom Rides of 1960-62, and the many mass mobilizations for peace that occurred in the 1960s and early 1970s. Slaves and abolitionists didn’t wait for the 1864 presidential election to force President Abraham Lincoln’s hand (along with the military victories of the Confederacy) on emancipation.

“The really critical thing,” the great American radical and historian Howard Zinn noted after George W. Bush was first installed in the White House, “isn’t who’s sitting in the White House, but who is sitting in—in the streets, in the cafeterias, in the halls of government, in the factories.”

As Zinn elaborated in an essay on and against the “election madness” he saw “engulfing the entire society including the left” in the year of Obama’s ascendancy, “The election frenzy seizes the country every four years because we have all been brought up to believe that voting is crucial in determining our destiny, that the most important act a citizen can engage in is to go to the polls…” Zinn acknowledged that he would likely support one major-party candidate over another “for two minutes – the amount of time it takes to pull the lever down in the voting booth.” But then he said the same thing as Cheney, but with a very different meaning: so? “Before and after those two minutes,” Zinn wrote:

“our time, our energy, should be spent in educating, agitating, organizing our fellow citizens in the workplace, in the neighborhood, in the schools. Our objective should be to build, painstakingly, patiently but energetically, a movement that, when it reaches a certain critical mass, would shake whoever is in the White House, in Congress, into changing national policy on matters of war and social justice…. We should not expect that a victory at the ballot box in November will even begin to budge the nation from its twin fundamental illnesses: capitalist greed and militarism…Yes, two minutes. Before that, and after that, we should be taking direct action against the obstacles to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness …. Historically, government, whether in the hands of Republicans or Democrats, conservatives or liberals, has failed its responsibilities, until forced to by direct action: sit-ins and Freedom Rides for the rights of black people, strikes and boycotts for the rights of workers, mutinies and desertions of soldiers in order to stop a war. Voting is easy and marginally useful, but it is a poor substitute for democracy, which requires direct action by concerned citizens.”

Campus Town Blues

All of which brings me to the nominally socialist Bernie Sanders and his disproportionately white and middle-class fans and supporters. Many of those fans and supporters would undoubtedly express disgust at Cheney’s and Perino’s authoritarian comments. Still, living in a bright blue “liberal”-Democratic campus/company town full of professional and Caucasian Barack Obama and Bernie Sanders fans – Iowa City, Iowa, home of the University of Iowa – I can’t help but notice a curious commonality between many liberals’ and progressives’ take on what passes for meaningful democratic politics and Cheney and Perino’s take seven years ago (along with Biden’s take four years ago). Here as in other liberal locations across the country, liberal and “left” folks flocked to the campaign events of Obama in 2007 and 2008. Iowa’s progressive and liberal Democrats did the pre-scheduled once-every-four-years two-hour thing (the Iowa presidential Caucus) and then (eleven months later on the calendar of “that’s politics”) the two-minute thing (voting in the general presidential election) for him in the name of hope and change. The strictly time-staggered rituals were repeated by most of them on the appointed dates four years later.

Now many of Iowa’s remarkably Hillary-averse (good for them) progressive and liberal Democrats are fired up and “feeling the Bern” – right on the quadrennial schedule – for the nominally democratic-socialist Bernie Sanders’ campaign. Sanders is drawing big and enthusiastic throngs in Iowa, New Hampshire, Madison, Wisconsin, and elsewhere. Some in the crowds think (unrealistically) “Bernie” has a serious shot at the Democratic presidential nomination. Others seem to believe (just as unrealistically) that Sanders will push presumptive Big Money candidate Hillary Clinton (who Sanders calls a “good friend”) “to the left.” Yet whatever they think can be accomplished by the Bernie campaign, most of them seem to believe that the easy politics of participating in the “personalized quadrennial extravaganza” constitutes a more meaningfully democratic form of popular “input” into the shape of their society and policy than the difficult day-to-day political work of building popular movements. Where were they when the Occupy Wall Street movement – a very significant popular rebellion against the richly bipartisan oligarchy – broke out in New York City and then in hundreds of U.S. cities coast to coast? When the Black Lives Matter movement broke out in response to an escalating string of racist police murders last year? When protests occurred against Obama’s bombing of Libya and his plans to attack Syria? With few exceptions, most of them were missing in action, consistent with the reigning political culture’s privileging of the four-year-two hour (in caucus states)-four minute (primary and general election) presidential candidate spectacle over Chomsky’s “urgent task” and Zinn’s “critical mass.”

Three years and three months ago I joined a crowd of radical and populist Occupy protesters who chanted, “We are the 99 Percent” as they marched past the Iowa City Farmers’ Market on the way to a downtown rally.  Hundreds of liberal white middle- and upper-middle- class people (including many strong supporters of Barack Obama) were shopping for pricey local and organic foods at the Saturday market.  They glanced warily and wearily at our ragged procession. They offered no shouts of encouragement or applause. They made no raised fists or thumbs up signs.  None of them joined in, despite friendly invitations. There was no love for a populist movement in the streets from a very liberal campus town’s mostly university-based professionals, consistent with skeptical and cynical chatter I’d been hearing from those elites about Occupy picking up in the local coffee shops and food coop. The Farmers’ Market crowd clearly did not feel one with us as part of “the 99%.”

Many from Farmers’ Market crowd are now part of the Bernie Sanders crowd.   Marching with people in the streets and occupying public space in opposition to the nation’s savage class inequalities and richly bipartisan plutocracy (deeply entrenched in the Obama White House) did not strike them as a meaningful, reasoned, or proper form of politics.  Supporting a presidential candidate who is running for the nomination of one of the two reigning Wall Street-captive U.S. political parties and who is very careful to tailor his oratory to middle class sensibilities is another matter. The Farmers’ Market people feel safe with that. I have little doubt that most of them will fall dutifully into line when Sanders tells them to give their support to his “good friend” the arch-corporatist military hawk Hillary Clinton.

It isn’t just Occupy where I haven’t seen many of my local community’s large number of liberal and progressive “Sandernistas” (Jeffrey St. Clair’s clever term) joining in. The same could be said for the brief local civil rights movement that started and sputtered after a local country sheriff’s deputy unnecessarily shot to death a young Black man (John Deng) in downtown Iowa City in the summer of 2009, when (in 2007) Iowa peace activists occupied the Cedar Rapids offices of Iowa Senators Tom Harkin and Chuck Grassley to protest those “representatives”’ support of Iraq war funding), and last year when young marchers hit the streets of Iowa City to protest racist police murders across the country.

Right on Schedule

Along with others on the “radical Left,” I have written and spoken a fair bit on what I dislike about the 2015 Sanders sensation. My topics have included:

* The profound limits of Sanders’ progressivism when it comes to the Pentagon system, which eats up 57 percent of U.S. federal discretionary spending, accounts for nearly half of all military spending on Earth, and (by the way) carries the single largest institutional carbon footprint on the planet.

* Sanders’ record of supporting Bill Clinton and Barack Obama’s brazen U.S. militarism and imperialism in Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Africa, the Middle East, and Ukraine and vis-a-vis Russia and China.

* Sanders’ failure to acknowledge basic and fundamental budgetary, moral, and cultural contradictions between the progressive domestic policy agenda he supports and the United States’ murderous and expensive global empire.

* Sanders’ soul-chilling defense of Israel’s repeated assaults on Palestinian children and other civilians in Gaza.

* Sanders’ role in helping put fake-populist lipstick on the plutocratic pig that is the dismal dollar-drenched Democratic Party and the U.S. major party and elections system.

* Sanders’ advance announcement that he will back the right-wing Democrat Hillary Clinton (the real meaning of his recurrent statement that he will “not be a spoiler”) in the general election – this without any hint that he might demand anything for “the middle [working?] class” in return for his support.

* Sanders’ reluctance to criticize the corporatism (not to mention the imperialism) of the nation’s top Democrats (even John Edwards did that in 2007 and 2008) and his refusal to forthrightly call out the Clinton machine as a socio-pathological outrage.

* Sanders’ obsession with the Supreme Court’s admittedly terrible 2010 Citizens United decision – a fixation that omits how thoroughly capitalism had already incapacitated democracy in the U.S. long before that horrible ruling was handed down.

* The duplicity and deception in Sanders’ claims to “fight the military industrial complex” (false) and to have been an “independent” politician for the last three decades (he’s been a de facto and damn near de jure Democrat since at least 1990).

I have yet, however, to fully articulate what may depress me most about the Sandernistas. It is their tendency to accept the masters’ incredibly constrained and impoverished schedule and focus for “politics.” Despite Sanders’ own laudable stump-speech statement that “it wouldn’t matter who the next U.S. president was” in the absence of a great popular movement ready to fight corporate plutocracy, many of his fans eagerly accept the deadly notion “that the most important act a citizen can engage in” it to participate in the nation’s very intermittently scheduled presidential and other major party and candidate-centered elections. Wrong. The most important act a citizen engage in is to work steadily to build and use popular organizational and direct action pressure and power for fundamental reform and revolutionary change around issues that matter. Ultimately the goal is “the radical reconstruction of society itself” (what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. called near the end of his life “the real issue to be faced” beyond superficial matters): citizen rule, not merely citizen “input.” Zinn’s 2008 statement (published at the height of Obamania) bears repeating: voting is easy and marginally useful, but it is a poor substitute for democracy, which requires direct action by concerned citizens.

Four Thoughts on Alternatives

For the First Female U.S. President

“But what’s your alternative, mister radical know-it-all smarty pants?” I’ve gotten this question via email and “social networks” more than once this year. I try to fashion a polite and serious response with four basic components. I begin at the very secondary level of candidate-centered presidential politics by reminding my Sandernista correspondents of the existence of the Green Party candidacy of Jill Stein, who combines calls for single payer health insurance and a Green New Deal with demands for major cuts in the U.S. military empire. I look forward to the minor satisfaction of protest-voting (without illusion) for Ms. Stein “to become the nation’s first female president” (no, it won’t happen – I know) in 2016. It will take me two minutes.

Not Really About Bernie

Second, I tell my correspondents that the main thrust of my critique of the Sanders sensation isn’t actually about their beloved Bernie. It’s about U.S. electoral politics and political culture and Sandernistas’ entrapment in “that’s politics’” narrow ideological, organizational, and (of special significance in the present essay) temporal confines. I remind my correspondent of Sanders’ own suggestion that it “wouldn’t matter who the next president was” without grassroots organization for progressive change beneath and beyond – before and after – elections. (A progressive Democrat friend in Iowa City recently said the following to me after I expressed my sense that, while nothing is certain, Hillary Clinton is very likely to become the Democrats’ presidential nominee: “Say it ain’t so! We’re screwed!! Bernie’s our only and last hope!” It’s hard to imagine a more graphic statement of citizen fecklessness – as if the people cannot defend and advance our collective interests and defend and advance the common good in the absence of political candidates who ride in to save us like shining white knights in armor).

Right Here in Iowa, Presidential Ground Zero

Third, I ask my critic to focus on some issues that concern them nationally or on the (very important) state or local levels and to search out already existing organizations that are trying to mobilize dedicated citizen involvement around those matters. There is, of course, no shortage of important issues around which to center one’s noble impulses for progressive activism and citizen “input.” I like to give the example of my current home state Iowa, which happens to be ground zero for the quadrennial national presidential election madness thanks to the first-in-the-nation primary/Caucus scheduled for the first Tuesday in January of 2016) (the campaign staffers and journalists are all over the state now, right on schedule). Here in Iowa, we’ve got some of the most polluted rivers and streams in the nation, thanks to corporate agriculture’s chemical addiction and stranglehold over local and state politics. We’ve got a newly minted drone war air base just outside Des Moines. We’ve got one of the worst racial incarceration disparities in the U.S. We’ve got widespread mistreatment and exploitation of workers (including a large proportion of immigrant laborers). We’re confronting corporate and state government plans to build a giant eco-cidal pipeline (the Bakken Pipeline) to carry fracked oil through seventeen Iowa counties from North Dakota to a port on the Mississippi River in Illinois. There’s currently a welcome effort to pass a minimum wage ordinance at the county level in Johnson County, Iowa.

I am often astonished at how little attention Iowa progressives seem ready to give to such key matters in their own state compared to the interest and engagement they show when it comes to the national presidential extravaganza that bivouacs in their state for six or so months before the actual election year once every four years. Here they go, along with campaign staffers and reporters from all over the country, running to a rally for national politicians like Dennis Kucinich, Howard Dean, John Edwards, Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, or Bernie over local rivers that are unfit for swimming and fishing, past local jails and prisons that contain a grotesquely disproportionate share of the state’s Black population, and over the paths of a proposed pipeline that will cause horrific damage to the local environment and planetary ecology. “Isn’t it exciting? CNN was there!” (Which reminds me of something: if he hadn’t decided to undertake his late-life presidential quest, Sanders could likely have become the governor of Vermont and redeemed single-payer health insurance in that state. That would arguably have been an arguably significant progressive accomplishment with positive national implications.)

There’s no absence of decent grassroots and progressive organizations to join and support in Iowa. The recently formed Center for Worker Justice in Eastern Iowa does excellent and courageous work on the minimum-wage question, wage-theft, immigrant workers rights, and on numerous other work and labor-related issues. At the state level, Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement (CCI) works diligently and heroically on and against water pollution, the Bakken pipeline, wage-theft problems, and numerous other issues. Iowa Veterans for Peace and the Catholic Worker chapter in Des Moines protest and provide policy alternatives on military issues within and beyond Iowa.

An especially urgent task now for activists here and across the nation is to knit together groups and activists working on one or two “single issues” and at various geographic levels. At the end of the day, they are all up against the same great concentrations of organized wealth and power – the same unelected dictatorships of money, power, inequality, and empire. If they are going to seriously fight and ultimately overthrow those dictatorships, I think, they (like the Sandernistas) will have to deepen their radicalism in terms of tactics, strategy, and vision.

The Politics of Changing Electoral Politics

Fourth, I suggest that my correspondent join others in demanding a radically new kind of electoral and party politics in the U.S. – voting and party systems beyond the current money-soaked plutocracy. Here we confront the need for fundamental, constitutional change in the rules of the game of U.S. politics (something much deeper than repeal of the Citizens United decision that Sanders’ denounces again and again on the campaign trail), including (but not limited to) the full public financing of elections and proportional representation to permit vibrant and policy-relevant third and fourth parties. Going beyond the insulting and authoritarian notion that the U.S. citizenry gets its deserved “input” into policy for two minutes in a narrow-spectrum voting booth once every two or four years means embracing social movement politics beneath and beyond – and before and after – Big Money-big media- major party-candidate-centered election spectacles. But there’s no reason that social movements should not demand changes in electoral politics to make such politics democratic and thus actually deserving of passionate citizen engagement. “The way our [political] system is set up” (Dana Perino) right now is a bad, ever more transparently oligarchic joke. Until that and more changes, progressive electoral efforts are unlikely to win much if anything that matters.

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

Deleting Crimes at the New York Times: Airbrushing History at the Paper of Record

08/08/15 0 COMMENTS

Counterpunch, July 24, 2015

I never cease to be fascinated by the breathtaking ease with which the “liberal” New York Times and other major U.S. media outlets airbrush out of history the disastrous and criminal role Uncle Sam has played and continues to play in the world.

Take last Wednesday’s Times. On the first page and above the fold there appears a story that notes with understated horror the recent state-building successes of Islamic State (IS). The IS, Times reporter Tim Arango writes, “uses terror to force obedience and frighten enemies.” It is “transforming into a functioning state that uses extreme violence – terror – as a tool.” It is “providing relative stability in a region troubled by war and chaos while filling a vacuum left by failing and corrupt government that also employed violence – arrest, torture, and detention.” And, Arango learned from “a small but growing group of experts” who are “challenging the conventional notion [holding that the IS’s] evil ensures it eventual destruction.” One of these “experts” is John McLaughlin, deputy director of George W. Bush’s Central Intelligence Agency from 2000 to 2004. “Evil,” McLaughlin told Arango, “isn’t always defeated.”

Two pages later and below the fold Times readers learn that a Chilean judge has recently ordered the arrest of seven former Chilean military officers in the savagely horrific 1986 killing of a 19-year old U.S. student named Rodrigo Rojas. In early July of that year, Rojas and an engineering student, Carmen Gloria Quintana, were captured by a military patrol while photographing a national strike against Chile’s then ruling right wing military dictatorship. Chilean soldiers beat Rojas and Quintana badly, doused them with gasoline, and then set them on fire. The students’ charred bodies were dumped in a ditch on the outskirts of Santiago, Chile’s capital. Quintana survived, badly disfigured. Rojas died. According to the Times, “The killing strained relations with the Reagan administration, at a time when it was beginning to press the [Chilean] regime for democratization.”

Notice the complete absence of any attention to the U.S. role in creating both of these stories. As no Times news article would ever acknowledge, the abominable fundamentalist Sunni-Salafist IS – with its horrifying snuff films, its genocidal practices towards Shiite Muslims, Christians, and “polytheists,” and its arch-reactionary social codes imposed through whippings, limb-chopping, beheadings, stoning, eye-gouging, the shooting of children for minor infractions, and its sexual enslavement of women – is, among other things, a predictable “blowback” consequence of the brazenly criminal, mass-murderous United States invasion and occupation of Iraq between March of 2003 and 2011. “Had the United States and its satellites not initiated their war of aggression in Iraq in 2003,” John Pilger has noted, “almost a million people would be alive today; and Islamic State, or ISIS, would not have us in thrall to its savagery.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As for the second story in last Wednesday’s Times, the reporter failed to note that the vicious Pinochet dictatorship took power in a US.-supported and US-assisted coup nearly thirteen years before some of its henchmen beat and burned Rodrigo Rojas and Carmen Gloria Quintana. The fascist Pinochet regime killed many thousands of Chileans with the active support of Washington, which backed, trained, and funded the right-wing murder and repression of students, workers, peasants, and intellectuals across Latin America during the 1970s and 1980s as during earlier decades. The killing started on September 11, 1973 – Latin America’s 9/11 – when the Chilean military murdered the nation’s democratically elected and moderately Marxist president Salvador Allende and initiated a long campaign of mass torture and execution that continued well into the Reagan years. Among the Pinochet regime’s many atrocities, one even in occurred in the U.S. national capital. In 1976 a Chilean hit squad assassinated exiled diplomat Orlando Letelier in Washington.

The beatings and burnings of Rojas and Quintana may (or may not) have “strained [Chile’s] relations with the Reagan administration.” But more than a year after the atrocity, the U.S. delegation to the United Nations General Assembly voted alongside Chile, Paraguay, Indonesia and Lebanon against a resolution condemning Chile’s violations of human rights. Ninety-four nations voted in favor of the resolution, including every one of Washington’s allies and all the democracies of Latin America. The co-sponsors included Mexico, Italy, France, Spain, Denmark and the Netherlands. The United Kingdom spoke on behalf of the European Community in favor of the resolution. Still, the US defied this wide consensus and voted with Pinochet.

Last year, the Guardian reported that the Reagan administration was so worried that leftwing protests against Pinochet in 1986 (the year Rojas was killed) would overthrow the regime that it considered offering asylum to the Chilean dictator. “Documents recently discovered in US archives,” the Guardian noted, “reveal that a mission headed by US army general John Galvin went to Chile in 1986 to assess the growing street protest and guerrilla efforts to upend the unpopular Pinochet regime…As the US began to understand the depth and passion of the opposition, fears of civil war forced Reagan officials to look for alternatives including, as one document stated, ‘An honorable departure for President [Pinochet], who would be received as a guest of our [US] government.’”

This is all precisely the kind of difficult, criminal, and imperial historical context that you can count on not being considered part of “all the news that’s fit to print” in the United States “national newspaper of record,” the New York Times.

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

Happiness v. Property: From Jefferson and Franklin to Cuba and the United States

08/08/15 0 COMMENTS

ZNet, July 18, 2015

The most famous phrase in Thomas Jefferson’s 1776 Declaration of Independence includes the statement that “all men” possess the “unalienable right” to “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Conventional history and wisdom says that Jefferson replaced the third word of John Locke’s trinity – “life, liberty, and property” – with “the pursuit of happiness.” The trinity appeared in Locke’s Two Treatises on Government (1689). But, as numerous researchers have noted over the years, Jefferson likely derived the expression from other sources, including perhaps Locke’s own use of the words “pursuit of happiness” in a 1690 essay titled On Human Understanding.

At the same time, academics and others have reminded us, Jefferson meant something other than the pursuit of property by “the pursuit of happiness.”  Like his compatriot Benjamin Franklin, Jefferson tended to downplay protection of property (the clear leading aim behind the U.S. Constitution) as a legitimate goal of government. (For his part, Franklin viewed property as a “creature of society” that should be taxed to finance “civil society.”)

The prolific American historian and author Garry Wills thinks Jefferson was influenced by the following passage from the Scottish philosopher Adam Ferguson’s Essay on the History of Civil Society (1767): “If, in reality, courage and a heart devoted to the good of mankind are the constituents of human felicity, the kindness which is done infers a happiness in the person from whom it proceeds, not in him on whom it is bestowed…” It is possible also that Jefferson was informed by 17th-century cleric and philosopher Richard Cumberland, who wrote that promoting the well-being of our fellow humans is essential to the “pursuit of our own happiness.”

It is important in our time to note not merely the difference but also the basic conflict between “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” on one hand and the pursuit of property (broadly understood here to include wealth, capital, goods, and money) on the other hand. In their groundbreaking book The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger (2009), the British health researchers Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett showed that that numerous key measures and indications of human well-being and (conversely)  human dysfunction – life expectancy, mental illness, healthy body weight, disease rates, friendships, social cohesion, trust levels, educational performance, literacy, violence, racial and ethnic conflict, child abuse, status-seeking, soulless consumerism, civic engagement, teenage pregnancy, domestic violence, incarceration, environmental destruction – are affected less by how wealthy a society is than by how unequal it is. Societies with a bigger gap between the rich and the poor do far more poorly on all of these measures and traits than do more equal societies. They are worse off for everyone in them, including even many among the relatively well-off.  By contrast, more equal societies produce healthier, happier people than do less equal societies whether comparisons are made between “rich nations” (i.e., egalitarian Norway vs. the hierarchical United States) or between “poor nations” (egalitarian Cuba vs. hierarchical Brazil).[1]

Which brings us back to the nation that Jefferson and Franklin helped bring into being. The United States today is the most unequal among so-called advanced nations by far, with a wealth distribution closer to hyper-unequal Africa and Latin America than to Western Europe and Japan. The top tenth of the U.S. top 1 percent has more net worth than nearly the bottom 90 percent of the U.S. population. The U.S. is a militantly capitalist nation in which the relatively unlimited pursuit of property wealth on the part of a super-opulent, accumulation-addicted corporate and financial Few has combined with “free market” (really corporate and state-capitalist) forces to produce insecurity, poverty, and low upward mobility for a large struggling and precariously situated segment of the populace. Not surprisingly, the ever more openly oligarchic and plutocratic U.S. (“the best democracy money can buy”) scores higher than its other “advance nation” counterparts when it comes to each of Wilkinson and Pickett’s negative indicators.

This is property and wealth of a certain historical kind – “modern” capitalist property and wealth (only in its infancy in the US when Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence) – working against the pursuit of happiness for the broad citizenry. We aren’t talking merely about “property in contrast to” and “as opposed to” happiness but rather about “property as actively opposed to happiness.”

The happiness price for property-chasing is most obviously paid by the property-less and property-poor Many, who face chronic insecurity, exploitation, and poverty thanks to the wealth, power, and machinations of the super-propertied Few. When life and liberty are under constant assault by richer and power victors in the great capitalist property chase, the pursuit of happiness is a daunting hunt for millions of the non-affluent. Even among extremely and relatively well-off people, however, discontent and alienation results from the seemingly endless pursuit of property, wealth, goods, and money. One of the more durable and consistent findings of social psychology is that an increase in material well-being yields diminishing happiness returns once people make the basic leap beyond material poverty and insecurity. The biggest boost in life satisfaction that people ever derive from an increase in their economic standing comes by far when they move from poverty to basic security in food, clothing, and shelter. After that, the psychological benefits trail. Worse, the chasing of more, of more wealth, property, goods and money often becomes a source of personal and spiritual emptiness, isolation, and estrangement.  It is no paradox that significant numbers of wealthy people the world over suffer from alienation, anxiety, depression, addiction, and other mental and emotional maladies.

All of that no doubt is why I was (at first counter-intuitively) struck after a recent trip from the “wealthy” United States to impoverished Cuba by the much greater visible happiness and vibrancy of people in the second nation. In terms of per-capita income and wealth, the North American superpower (my “homeland”) is obviously far “better off.” Cuba is a small and “backwater” island nation by comparison. Paint is peeling off many of the buildings in Havana.  Many structures there seem to be crumbling and in various states of disrepair. Sidewalks and streets are full of cracks and potholes. The average Cuban wage is roughly $30 a month, or 20 cents an hour. Technical infrastructure is very limited. People drive ancient (but remarkably well-preserved) General Motors cars from the 1950s, vehicles that can’t get more than 9 miles a gallon, along with old Russian cars (Ladas were the most common brand I saw) that Cubans also miraculously manage to keep running in the 21st century. There is a very narrow range of basic consumer goods in local stores. Hotels, restaurants, and cellphones are beyond most Cubans’ means. And yet a remarkable number of the people I saw and met there seemed positively happy.

That’s the same exact thing the Japanese journalist Makiko Saito was struck by when she visited Cuba three years ago: the seeming paradox of happy people surrounded by overall poverty and decay. Just like me, she was knocked out by how much more contented, joyful, and alive people seemed in the economically poor nation she had just visited than in the economically wealthy bot more socially and psychologically dead nation in which she resided.

Why might people be happier in a poor and “backward” nation than in a wealth and “advanced” one? Part of it is certainly that basic material and human use value needs are being met by the island’s in-fact socialist government – this despite a crippling six-decade U.S. economic embargo that that explains no small part of Cuba’s overall poverty and material decay.  Education and medical care are free and a government food rationing system guarantees everyone the bare satisfaction of basic needs. Beyond this meeting of fundamental needs – no small matter (recall that humans derive no greater happiness dividend from material gain than elevation from poverty to basic security) – there is socialist (and relatively egalitarian) Cuba comparatively little of the United States’ alienating rat-chase for the soulless more: more consumer goods, more wealth, more purported satisfaction from purchases beyond basic needs, more technological devices with which to insulate oneself from society,  more private property with which to drive others into poverty (one thing that really struck me on returning to the U.S. after four days in Cuba was the ubiquity here of labor-eliminating, joblessness-inducing technologies) and oneself into spiritual death. As the Japan Times noted, reflecting on Makiko Saito’s account of her trip to Cuba, “Maybe the relentless pursuit of economic growth precludes happiness. Happiness is the price you pay, rather than the prize you claim, for prosperity.” The Cubans can’t afford modern disenchantment and depression.

When it comes to the pursuit of property, the “rich” U.S. has state socialist Cuba beat hands down. When it comes to human well-being, “poor” Cuba wins just as decisively. There is, turns out, no irony and no paradox in that contrast. Let us hope Cuban can someday come out from under the embargo without losing the spirit level of social happiness that it enjoys under its version of socialism.

Paul Street is an author in Iowa City, Iowa.

1. Some knowledgeable readers may wonder why I have chosen not to cite the various national and comparative-international studies that have been conducted over the years to measure different and changing levels of human happiness. The most notable such study is the Columbia University-based Earth Institute’s World Happiness Report (2012). The reason is that I do not have a lot of respect for the highly superficial and suspect survey data and methodologies on which such studies are based.  For useful reflections on the problems with this data, see Arianna Huffington, ‘Why I’m Unhappy With Happiness Surveys,” Huffington Post, August 9, 2013. The Earth Institute’s researchers admitted the following in the introduction to their study: “in the end, happiness is an inherently qualitative concept that cannot be translated into quantitative terms with any reliable degree of precision or comparability between people, reflecting ‘the gap between the open-ended nature of many dimensions of life and the bounded scale imposed by questionnaires.’”

Interjections on Bernie Sanders: A Response to David McReynolds

08/08/15 0 COMMENTS

Counterpunch, July 17, 2015

A Response to David McReynolds

I never cease to be amazed by U.S. major party and candidate-centered electoral (and especially presidential) politics’ continuing power to muddle, mystify, and mar liberal, progressive, and even Left hearts and minds. Recently the very clever, decent, and likeable U.S. democratic socialist and pacifist David McReynolds (himself a former Socialist U.S. presidential candidate) published an essay titled “Why Bernie?’ It is a thoughtful reflection in support of Sanders’ campaign to win the Democratic Party presidential nomination – a campaign whose early successes I (unlike McReynolds and from the vantage point of Iowa, ground zero for the “quadrennial electoral extravaganza” in the third year of the four year U.S. election cycle) find thoroughly unsurprising. It is especially provocative coming from a self-described pacifist for reasons that I hope are clear in what follows. What follows is a detailed response through staggered interjection to McReynolds’ defense and support of the Sanders presidential run.

McReynolds: “There has been debate and discussion about the Bernie Sanders candidacy – I’m backing him, here are my reasons why, and the probable limits of his campaign…Back in the 1960’s when Michael Harrington was pushing the argument that we should all go into the Democratic Party, I thought he should have entered the New Hampshire primary, as a socialist, running for the Democratic nomination. I didn’t urge this in a mocking way – I thought it would be very healthy for a democratic socialist to press the flesh, meet ordinary folks, let them see what a socialist looked like, and what socialism stood for. He wouldn’t have won the nomination, but he would have introduced a discussion of socialism into the public dialogue. He was a charming guy, a good speaker, and might actually have helped shift the Democrats away from the their support of the Vietnam War (alas, as followers of socialist history know, Mike’s approach to the Democratic Party was to support the war, until in 1972 he shifted).”

Street: I notice three differences between Harrington and Sanders right off the bat. First, Bernie is not particularly charming; in fact, he’s pretty prickly and outwardly pissed-off (which is fine, but it’s a difference). Second, I seem to recall Harrington in his public presentation always self-identifying as a socialist. Sanders doesn’t generally do that (a point to which I shall return below). Third, while antiwar Leftists might (or might not – I really don’t know the full history here) have had reasons in the early-mid 1960s to think that Harrington might oppose the Vietnam War (my understanding is that his pre-1972 failure was quite predictable in light of his earlier positions vis a vis the early New Left), Sanders has (while opposing “bad wars” like George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq) pretty much advance-aligned himself with the American imperial military project during and before the global war on/of terror. He supported the bombing of Serbia, the bombing of Libya, Israel’s vicious U.S.-equipped attacks on the people of Gaza, the $400 billion F-35 fighter jet project, and more. Beyond some carping about military bloat, he utters barely a word against the planet-cooking Pentagon System, which eats up 57 percent of federal discretionary U.S, spending, accounts for nearly half the military spending on Earth, and maintains more than 1000 U.S. military installations across more than 100 “sovereign” nations.

It is healthy no doubt for “ordinary” Americans to come into contact with a charismatic (charming or not) “democratic socialist” who denounces economic inequality and plutocracy. But it is not particularly healthy for ordinary Americans to be encouraged in the false belief that progressive, even socialist ideals and programs can be meaningfully advanced through U.S. electoral politics and either of the two capitalist political parties (once rightly described by the great American Socialist Upton Sinclair as “two wings of the same bird of prey”). As the International Socialist Organization’s Lance Selfa shows in his carefully researched history of the Democratic Party, “history’s second most enthusiastic capitalist party” (the Democratic organization) has “time and again betrayed the aspiration of ordinary people while pursuing an agenda favorable to big business and U.S. imperial ambitions.” It has also proven itself time and again to be the leading graveyard of grassroots protest and social movements beneath and beyond the nation’s recurrent staggered electoral spectacles, which are deceptively sold to the populace as the only politics that matters. As Noam Chomsky noted eleven years ago:

“The U.S. presidential race, impassioned almost to the point of hysteria, hardly represents healthy democratic impulses…Americans are encouraged to vote, but not to participate more meaningfully in the political arena. Essentially the election is yet another method of marginalizing the population. A huge propaganda campaign is mounted to get people to focus on these personalized quadrennial extravaganzas and to think, ‘That’s politics.’ But it isn’t. It’s only a small part of politics….The urgent task for those who want to shift policy in progressive direction – often in close conformity to majority opinion – is to grow and become strong enough so that that they can’t be ignored by centers of power. Forces for change that have come up from the grass roots and shaken the society to its foundations include the labor movement, the civil rights movement, the peace movement, the women’s movement and others, cultivated by steady, dedicated work at all levels, everyday, not just once every four years…The main task is to create a genuinely responsive democratic culture, and that effort goes on before and after electoral extravaganzas, whatever their outcome.”

McReynolds: “Now we have another socialist doing what I thought then, and still think, is a good idea. Bernie Sanders, whom I met in 1980, and who kindly came down to New York City to speak to a Socialist Party convention (I have lost track of the year), and who put together real coalitions of real people and got elected as Mayor of Burlington, then as the Congressman from Vermont (they only have one member of the House) and then as Senator, is off and running, to huge and enthusiastic crowds.”

Street: I’ve heard a number of Sanders speeches since he announced his presidential candidacy. He does not call himself a socialist. He does not call for socialism. He is not running as a socialist. More importantly, perhaps, he does not criticize or even refer to capitalism or the profit system, the underlying political-economic regime that is wired for the endless upward distribution of wealth and power and also, frankly, for the ruination of livable ecology. This is all very different from Eugene Debs, to say the least. (It may even be somewhat different than Norman Thomas, though here I don’t really know.) Sanders rails against “the billionaire class,” against economic inequality, against the paulstreetRepublicans, against FOX News, against the Citizens United decision, and especially against those terrible Koch brothers. He’s running as a strident populist Democrat. In that regard, he’s not really all that different from Dennis Kucinich in 2003-04, Jesse Jackson in the 1980s and even John Edwards in 2007-08, all of whom struck strong populist chords in efforts to reach the Democratic Party’s “progressive base.” I’ve been struck by how reluctant Sanders has been to mention the corporatized Democratic Party as part of the nation’s oligarchy problem. Crazy John Edwards fulminated consistently against “corporate Democrats as well as corporate Republicans” when he ran in the Iowa Caucus eight years ago. During the first Sanders talk I heard last winter, it was left to a smirking graduate student to remind Sanders and his liberal audience that the dismal dollar Democrats and their power-serving president are as much a part of the ruling class assault on equality, democracy, and livable ecology as the Republicans.

Of course the crowds are big! As Sanders notes, the top 10th of the top 1 percent nearly owns more wealth than the bottom 90 percent of Americans. The Walton family has a bigger net worth than the bottom 40 percent. Poverty and inequality and joblessness and yet overwork work plague the populace, whose not-so democratically elected officials are shockingly beholden to the wealthy few. The media is in the hands of the 1 percent, with deadly results. The Republicans are in fact pathological on numerous levels. The arch-plutocratic Koch brothers are beyond disgusting. The citizenry has been angry about the nation’s savage class disparities and abject oligarchy – America’s “unelected dictatorship of money” (Edward S. Herman and David Peterson) – for many years. I saw Edwards blow the roof of one Iowa town hall after another – to large and enthusiastic crowds – by denouncing the same national plagues in 2007. The Occupy Movement rapidly became a coast-to-coast sensation because of the citizenry’s anger over the New Gilded Age we currently inhabit. Any effective public figure who speaks honestly, knowledgably, and angrily about and against the current reigning corporate and financial oligarchy is going to draw some big and enthusiastic crowds right now.

McReynolds: “I have heard some on the Left criticize Bernie’s determination not to take part in personal attacks on Hillary. I think that is a refreshing stand on his part – I salute him for it.”

Street: It’s way beyond not making personal attacks. I have (in an Iowa City bookstore last winter) heard Sanders call Hillary Clinton “a good friend.” I was taken aback. What kind of democratic socialist is “good friends” with the corporatist and imperialist Hillary Clinton? And what’s so refreshing and salutary about not attacking her? In his bitter but valuable book No One Left to Lie To (a study of the Clintons written in 1999), the late and formerly Left Christopher Hitchens’ volume contained a chapter documenting Mrs. Clinton’s richly triangulation-ist history along with much to suggest that she (like her husband) is a power-mad sociopath.  Especially memorable was Hillary’s response, in her role as head of the White House’s health reform initiative, to Harvard medical professor David Himmelstein, head of Physicians for a National Health Program.  Himmelstein told her about the remarkable possibilities of a comprehensive, single payer “Canadian style” health plan, supported by more than two-third of the U.S. public.  Beyond backing by a U.S. citizen super-majority, Himmelstein noted, single-payer would provide comprehensive coverage to the nation’s 40 million uninsured while retaining free choice in doctor selection and being certified by the Congressional Budget Office as “the most cost-effective plan on offer.”

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

An excellent article by the Left commentator Doug Henwood in Harper’s Magazine last November provides a clever and concise catalogue of Mrs. Clinton’s conservative, corrupt, corporate-neoliberal, and imperial record from her years at Yale Law and the Arkansas governor’s office (held by Bill for all but one 2-year term between 1978 and 1992) through her stints in the U.S. Senate (2001-2009) and atop the Department of State (2010-2013). Henwood’s essay is particularly valuable on how the Clintons during their tenure in Arkansas helped “lay…the groundwork for what would eventually hit the national stage as the New Democrat movement, which took institutional form as the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC).” The essence of the DLC was dismal, dollar-drenched “neoliberal” abandonment of the Democratic Party’s last, lingering commitments to labor unions, social justice, civil rights, racial equality, the poor, and environmental protection in abject service to the “competitive” bottom-line concerns of Big Business. The Clintons helped launch the New Democrat/DLC juggernaut by assaulting Arkansas’ teacher unions (Hillary led the attack) and refusing to back the repeal of the state’s anti-union “right to work” law – this while Hillary began working for the Rose Law firm, which “represented the moneyed interests of Arkansas” (Henwood). Connection with one of the sleazier players among those interests, a Savings and Loan charlatan named Jim McDougal, got them involved in the Whitewater scandal, which involved the Arkansas Governor’s spouse (Hillary) doing legal work at Rose (work about which Hillary lied upon outside investigation) for a shady land speculator (McDougal) who had enticed the governor and his wife (the Clintons) to foolishly invest in a badly leveraged development project.

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

Is it a “personal attack” to recount this history? No, it’s just factual reporting. If Sanders did criticize Hillary on a personal level, it would probably be politically unwise but it would also be pretty darn understandable. While I tend to resist the tendency to describe the nation’s political and economic elites as sociopaths and evil (I have argued in Z Magazine and elsewhere that the nation’s deeper and more relevant socio-pathology and evil is institutional), I have no doubt that both terms are accurately applied to both of the Clintons.

McReynolds: “Others on the Left feel that Bernie is leading voters into the trap of supporting Hillary when he doesn’t, himself, get the nomination. They feel he should run as an independent if he loses the race for the nomination.”

Street: Well, Sanders has repeatedly said he will “not be a spoiler” and will therefore back the mainstream corporate Democrat (HRC in all likelihood) who wins the nomination to run against the Republican nominee in the 2016 presidential election. Having signed up for the Democratic Caucuses and primaries, Sanders cannot practically run as a serious third party candidate in the general election. Anyone who thinks they can talk him into trying to do that (as a write-in candidate perhaps) is being delusional. Sanders makes no secret of his readiness to lock progressive voters down into the standard old Stockholm-Syndrome Lesser Evilist holding cell. In that and other ways, he is part of what the brilliant writers and activists at Black Agenda Report call a Hillary-Bernie “tag team.”

I do think Sanders should have chosen to run outside the two party system – for the governorship of Vermont under the ticket of the Progressive Party. Had he gone that route, he would win that election and then very possibly redeem single payer health insurance (shamefully abandoned by the state’s Democratic governor) in Vermont – something that would qualify as a great progressive triumph.

McReynolds: “Let’s have a little sense of history here – independent candidates for President might help throw the election to one or the other major party candidate but they have absolutely no chance of winning election. Go back to the Henry Wallace campaign in 1948, to the later efforts by Barry Commoner, John Anderson, Ralph Nader. (I leave aside the campaigns of the truly minor party candidates, of which I was one, and of which Norman Thomas was the most distinguished example, because such campaigns were not aimed at winning the office but at providing a platform for dissenting views). These were good men but the enthusiasm of their supporters did not reflect the reality of American politics. In 1948 I  was a student at UCLA, the Cold War had just begun, Henry Wallace has been a Vice President under Roosevelt, and his supporters (at least those on campus) were convinced he might win – in the end he didn’t carry a single state (though I think he helped push Truman to the left on domestic issues)…Bernie is not running as a spoiler, but as a serious candidate, reflecting that part of the Left which is, in my view, most important – it is not locked into any of the small ‘officially Left groups’ but it is there, a sometimes almost invisible left in the labor movement, among the elderly, the youth, the people who know our politics is rotten and really want a change.”

Street: “Spoiler” is a deceptive and unduly pejorative term for Nader, Jill Stein, and others who have tried run for the presidency outside the corporate-captive two party duopoly. Speaking about lessons of history, maybe really addressing and changing “our” “rotten” politics and society is not about running as a “serious” (or silly) candidate for president under the existing U.S. electoral regime. The best thing that can be hoped from Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign is that it might remind people yet again that, in the words the great radical American historian Howard Zinn, “the really critical thing isn’t who is sitting in the White House, but who is sitting in – in the streets, in the cafeterias, in the halls of government, in the factories.” As Zinn elaborated in a 2008 essay on “the election madness engulf[ing] the entire society, including the left” with special intensity in the year of Barack Obama’s ascendancy:

“The election frenzy seizes the country every four years because we have all been brought up to believe that voting is crucial in determining our destiny, that the most important act a citizen can engage in is to go to the polls and choose one of the two mediocrities who have already been chosen for us. …Would I support one candidate against another? Yes, for two minutes – the amount of time it takes to pull the lever down in the voting booth…But before and after those two minutes, our time, our energy, should be spent in educating, agitating, organizing our fellow citizens in the workplace, in the neighborhood, in the schools. Our objective should be to build, painstakingly, patiently but energetically, a movement that, when it reaches a certain critical mass, would shake whoever is in the White House, in Congress, into changing national policy on matters of war and social justice…. Let’s remember that even when there is a ‘better’ candidate (yes, better Roosevelt than Hoover, better anyone than George Bush), that difference will not mean anything unless the power of the people asserts itself in ways that the occupant of the White House will find it dangerous to ignore…..”

Now, to the candidate’s credit, Sanders’ current stump speech shows some solid understanding of this very basic and critical point (though he does not address “matters of war”). He has been saying that corporate plutocracy is so entrenched that it wouldn’t matter who the next U.S. President was without a mass grassroots movement for social and economic justice and ecological sustainability. Of course, that raises the question of why he is focusing people’s energies on a vitality-sucking run as a major party presidential candidate in the latest of “these personalized quadrennial extravaganzas” that Chomsky has described with reason as “yet another method for marginalizing the populace.”

McReynolds: “Bernie has been properly criticized for not being perfect on all issues. I agree with that, he is not perfect. He has a record of supporting some of the worst aspects of the Military/Industrial complex, and, while not nearly as uncritical a supporter of Israel as some think, he has been silent when he should have spoken out. I urge my friends in the Jewish peace movement to reach out to Bernie and try a serious dialogue (not shouting) about why the US links to Israel should be ended (or at least weakened).”

Street: “Not perfect” strikes me as quite an understatement in light of Sanders’ foreign policy record. Bearing in mind that Sanders has supported U.S. client state Israel’s repeated mass murder of Palestinians trapped in the Israel-imposed open air apartheid prison of Gaza, McReynolds should reconsider this statement after going to a quiet place to read aloud the name of some of the 504 children Israel slaughtered with U.S. weapons last summer. Recalling the democratic socialist Michael Harrington’s failure to oppose the U.S. “crucifixion of Southeast Asia” (Chomsky’s phrase at the time) in the middle and late 1960s, think of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. looking at photographs of burned and murdered Vietnamese children in Ramparts Magazine in 1965. The dead Gaza children’s names are listed here.

Beyond that grave moral question (also relevant to Sanders positions on U.S. military actions in Serbia, Afghanistan, and Libya), Sanders’ ambitious “homeland” agenda is undermined in a practical political-economic sense by his silence on Empire. This is no small and peripheral matter. It is not an afterthought that only slightly qualifies the overall excellence of Sanders’ candidacy. It’s a huge and central problem, for Sanders’ ambitious and genuinely progressive domestic and environmental agenda cannot possibly be enacted without the conversion of the military industrial complex to peaceful and sustainable production and infrastructure. The veteran peace activist Bruce Gagnon notes, progressive social and environmental policy “victory won’t be within their grasp unless we can talk about the US imperial war project that is draining our nation, killing people all over the world, and helping to increase climate change as the Pentagon has the largest carbon footprint on the planet.  Sure taxes on Wall Street speculation will help some, but until we get our hands on the Pentagon’s pot of gold nothing really changes around here.”

McReynolds: “The peace movement should also dialogue with Bernie. He should not get a free pass from any of us.  And it is urgent that the “Black Lives Matter” movement meet with Bernie. But let’s be real – the candidate who can prove right on every one of the issues which concerns us is not going to have a very wide base of support.”

Street: I’m really not sure why this passage puts the onus on peace and racial justice activists to initiate discussion with Sanders. Those activists are not purporting to run for the White House. Sanders is. If he’s serious about peace (not likely) and racial justice (probably), then it’s on him to reach out to movements. But here’s another and perhaps more important thought: if you really have to sacrifice the issues of peace and/or racial justice in order to win mass support in a U.S. presidential race, then maybe “serious” U.S. presidential politics isn’t a particularly useful avenue for morally serious Left activism. The great democratic socialist Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was asked by antiwar and antiracist progressives to consider running for the U.S. presidency in 1967. He turned them down since (among other things) he was unwilling to take the moral short-cuts involved in that kind of politics.

McReynolds: “Bernie is dealing with what I think are the real issues – the control the 1% has over the country, the obscene power of money in our elections, the massive disparity between the handful of the ultra-rich and the millions who live in genuine poverty. I’m delighted Bernie is doing so well – much better than I had thought he would.”

Street: Why does the imperial warfare state – the Pentagon system that accounts (to repeat) for more than half the nation’s discretionary federal spending and creates the largest single institutional carbon footprint on Earth – not count among “the real issues”? Why not here give Sanders credit for speaking out strongly against anthropogenic global warming, arguably (actually) the single biggest issue of our or any time? And why the surprise at how well Sanders is doing? His big crowds and energy should be absolutely no surprise (for reasons explained XX paragraphs above). The same was true of John “Two Americas” Edwards in Iowa in 2007.

McReynolds: “There are a couple of practical questions. If he doesn’t get the nomination, what will he have accomplished? He will have done something very important, and God help the left sectarians who don’t understand this: he will have made it possible to discuss socialism. He will have made it respectable to use the term. He will have shown there is a mass of people willing to hear a genuinely radical attack on the current corporate structure.”

Street: Here McReynolds gives way too much credit and praise to his friend Bernie Sanders. “Socialism” (rather vaguely understood) has been rising in popularity for some time now in the U.S. The causes include the end of the Cold War, the horrendous performance of U.S. and global capitalism, and even the FOX News’ ironic dissemination and dilution of the term and its meaning. Occupy showed the existence of a “mass of people willing to hear a genuinely radical attack on the current corporate structure.” At the same time, again, Sanders isn’t really talking about socialism (or, for that matter, about capitalism) on the campaign trail. His critique of corporate and financial power is populist, not socialist or radical.

McReynolds: “And what happens if Bernie doesn’t get the nomination and Hillary does? I do not personally dislike Hillary – I’ve never met her. But she has no principles other than power.” 

Street: “If Bernie doesn’t get the nomination” – that’s a good one! For a democratic socialist and pacifist like McReynolds, wouldn’t it be enough to know that someone (a) is a warmonger (Hillary is an open Hawk) and (b) “has no principles other than power” to dislike that person? I’ve never met Hillary either. I hope I never do! I’ve certainly learned more than enough about to cultivate a healthy dislike. (Obama, by the way, I met. Couldn’t stand him.)

McReynolds: “I think it will be profoundly outrageous if, in November, the choice is between a Bush and a Clinton.”

Street: Nothing is certain, but those are certainly the Dollarocracy betting odds. Welcome to the oligarchy, comrade. Bernie’s not going to fix it. Let’s hold a new Constitutional Convention to draft a new governmental charter for popular sovereignty (the U.S. Founders’ ultimate nightmare) in the U.S.

McReynolds: “Those of us in the ‘lucky states,’ where the electoral votes are already sure to go one way or the other, can vote our conscience (as I voted Green in New York when Obama ran, and as I will vote Green in 2016) …Whoever the Democratic candidate is, they will be as sure to carry New York as the Republican candidate will carry Texas. But, in swing states, conscience is not so easy to satisfy – because the next President will have Supreme Court nominations to make, and in this country, those nominations are deeply important.”

Street: So lucky McReynolds get to protest-vote for Jill Stein (she of the urgently needed and many sided Green New Deal) but I (in Iowa) don’t. I’d like to see leftists who make the “safe state/contested state” argument move to a contested state and actually mark a ballot for a corporate war Democrat. I can’t do it, personally; conscience won’t let me. But the more relevant point goes to Zinn and Chomsky: “before and after those two minutes, our time, our energy, should be spent in educating, agitating, organizing our fellow citizens in the workplace, in the neighborhood, in the schools” (Zinn). Far better to spend the lion’s share of one’s activist energies on “the urgent task” of social movement-building beneath and beyond the quadrennial personalized major party “electoral extravaganzas, whatever their outcome” (Chomsky).

McReynolds: “So yes, in this imperfect world I happily support the man who is not perfect on every issue, but very good on some key ones – and that is Bernie Sanders, a decent, smart, and very serious fellow. So serious that he has even taken to using something on his hair to keep it from flying off in all directions.”

Street: See my comments above on “not perfect.” Harrington had better hair. Debs had none at all. I agree that Bernie seems decent and (very) smart for the most part, but I just can’t shake all those names of murdered Palestinian children that appear in the back of my mind every time I think of Sanders. They just don’t go away. But it’s not really about supporting any specific man or woman, any candidate or politician. We are citizens, not politicians and it’s about issues, institutions, and (as Sanders seems to sense, to his credit) grassroots organization beneath and beyond leaders and elites.

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

We are Citizens, Not Politicians: Reflections on Greece

08/08/15 0 COMMENTS

Counterpunch, July 14, 2015

“We who protest the [Iraq] war,” the late radical American historian Howard Zinn wrote in 2007, “are not politicians. We are citizens. Whatever politicians may do, let them first feel the full force of citizens who speak for what is right, not for what is winnable, in a shamefully timorous Congress. It is not easy, in the corrupting atmosphere of Washington, D.C., to hold on firmly to the truth, to resist the temptation of capitulation that presents itself as compromise…Except for the rare few…our representatives are politicians, and will surrender their integrity, claiming to be ‘realistic.’ We are not politicians, but citizens. We have no office to hold on to, only our consciences, which insist on telling the truth.”

I am reminded of Zinn’s words by the ongoing tragedy and farce in Greece. Could there be a more graphic lesson in the wisdom of his counsel? Nine days ago, in a historic referendum vote, 61 percent of the Greek public voted against capitulation to the brutal demands of the neoliberal “Troika” (the European Commission, the European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund). They hurled a resounding NO at the European elite’s demand that they agree to deepen their long finance-imposed austerity by slashing 8 billion Euros worth of public funds (including major pension cuts) so their nation’s banks to keep receiving enough “bailout” money to keep paying off the outrageous “debt” that Greece “owes” its “creditors.” The referendum was called in what seemed like a bold act of democracy by Greece’s Prime Minister Alexander Tsipras, whose “radical left” (the Western media claims) Syriza Party swept into office last January on a promise to reject austerity and fight back against economic blackmail. The vote occurred with widespread understanding that rejecting the Eurogroup’s latest austerian “bailout” could lead to Greece’s exit from the Eurozone – a potentially positive development since (among other things) for Greeks since “Grexit” might permit the country to increase exports and thereby shrink its deficits by devaluing its currency.

A mere four days after this historic vote, Tsipras went back to the Troika, hat in hand, and made a beggar’s offer. In return for a three-year bailout of 50 billion euros, Greece would accept a 50 percent increase in pensioners’ health care costs, a major gashing of public sector wages, the complete privatization of numerous key public facilities, and paulstreetan increase in the nation’s consumption’s tax. The new proposal gave the Eurogroup 13 billion Euros, a 62 percent increase over the “deal” the Greek people had just rejected. It was a shocking U-Turn, an egregious and even grotesque capitulation, granted in the name of (what else?) “realism” and reflecting the triumph of “winnable” over right. It is guaranteed to prolong the deep economic depression that has plagued Greece for many years.

Just today (I am writing on Monday, July 13), the Eurozone ministers signed off on the humiliating sell-out, a stark betrayal of the Greek popular will expressed last Sunday and in the Greek election last January. The champions of the neoliberal mantra “there is no alternative” (TINA) have broken out the champagne. Tsipras hailed the “agreement” for “prevent[ing] the financial asphyxiation and the collapse of the [Greek] financial system” and exulted that a European Union “growth package” (bridge loan) will – get this – “create market confidence, so that investors realize that fears of a Grexit are a thing of the past – thereby fueling investment.” How’s that for some fake-left neoliberal razzle-dazzle? It’s enough to make Tony Blair, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama blush.

There are any number of excuses (citing difficult circumstances) that can and will be made for Tsipras’s surrender. The deeper truth, nicely captured by the Left commentator John Pilger, is that Tsipras and his recently fired finance minister Yanis Varoufakis have been running with austerity offerings to Europe’s neoliberal masters ever since they were elected on a pledge to fight austerity and odious debt. As Pilger notes:

“The leaders of Syriza are revolutionaries of a kind – but their revolution is the perverse, familiar appropriation of social democratic and parliamentary movements by liberals groomed to comply with neo-liberal drivel and a social engineering whose authentic face is that of Wolfgang Schauble, Germany’s finance minister, an imperial thug. Like the Labour Party in Britain and its equivalents among those former social democratic parties still describing themselves as ‘liberal’ or even ‘left.’ Syriza is the product of an affluent, highly privileged, educated middle class, ‘schooled in postmodernism.’”

What would an actually radical and democratic Greek government genuinely committed to popular sovereignty have done after gaining office last January 25th? “The day after,” Pilger writes, such a government “would have stopped every euro leaving the country, repudiated the ‘illegal and odious’ debt – as Argentina did successfully – and expedited a plan to leave the crippling Eurozone. But there was no plan. There was only a willingness to be ‘at the table’ seeking ‘better terms.’”

But moving out from under the rule of odious debt and the financial class that imposes austerity on Greece and other nations raises the question of taking steps beyond capitalism – an ambition that Tsipras’ “radical” former finance minister Varoufakis explicitly rejected two years ago in a Guardian essay titled “How I Became an Erratic Marxist.”

The Tsipras surrender takes us back to an old truth: we are citizens, not politicians. Politicians dissemble, pose, hedge, play-act, and capitulate the popular will in the name of “realism.” They rarely escape the corrupting atmosphere of money and power, the inducements to forfeit their honor at the altar of concentrated wealth and power.

At the same time, the Greek drama reminds us in its own way that (as I argue in a forthcoming essay titled “Beneath the Billionaire Class”) the 1% does not rule alone. We must never forget the critical hierarchical role and position of the technical, managerial, and professional elites – those Mike Albert and Robin Hahnel have dubbed “the coordinator class” – in the maintenance and justification of inequality and oppression. The point holds even when the coordinators in question call themselves Marxist (“erratic” or not). Academically certified middle class technocrats who have approvingly read Capital, the Grundrisse, and Theories of Surplus Value will not save us.

What is most required in Greece right now is not so much more and better Left politicians but grassroots bottom-up popular organization, activism, and education to counter the depressing hegemony of capital and neoliberal politics. “For a liberatory and feasible alternative to develop in Greece,” Pete Bohmer notes, “it is necessary for Greek social movements, for grass roots activists and for the left inside of Syriza to challenge and confront austerity and austerity policies and to be involved in popular education about the meaning of leaving the Eurozone and possible economic alternatives.”

The Zinnian lesson applies (naturally enough) to the United States as well, where tens of thousands of white middle class progressives are flocking to hear the “socialist” Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders’ fulminations against the savage class inequalities and abject plutocracy of New Gilded Age America. Anyone who thinks that Sanders is some kind of white knight riding into miraculously deliver us from capitalist or even neoliberal evil and misery is living in a candidate-/election-mad and politician-centered dream world. As Sanders has been saying (to his credit), corporate and financial rule is so deeply entrenched in the U.S. today that it wouldn’t matter all that much who the next U.S. President was without a mass grassroots movement for social and economic justice, democracy, and ecological sustainability. We are citizens (and workers), not politicians.

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

Beneath the Billionaire Class: The 1% Does Not Rule Alone

08/08/15 0 COMMENTS

teleSur English, July 15, 2015

My most recent book is titled They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy. It details the deadly social, economic, political, and environmental costs of the nation’s corporate and financial aristocracy and the numerous interrelated ways in which that economic super-elite rules American “democracy” – with horrific consequences at home and abroad.

Still, I can’t escape the sense that many U.S. left progressives let “lesser” elites – professionals, managers, administrators and other “coordinator class” Americans – off the hook of our critique of class inequality. Whether it’s the non-electoral Occupy Movement speaking for “the 99%” against “the 1%” in 2011 or presidential candidate Bernie Sanders railing against “the billionaire class” in Iowa and New Hampshire this year, we pay far too little attention to privileged elites beneath the ranks of the super-rich.

In the wake of Occupy’s emergence, the U.S. left writers Barbara Ehrenreich and  John Ehrenreich called the top U.S. income hundredth “the actual, Wall Street-based elite” and referred to the professionals and managers as merely “annoying pikers” in comparison to “the 1 percent.”

There were three basic problems with the Ehrenreichs’ formulation.  First, leaving aside the fact that the top hundredth income percentile includes no small number of managers and professionals, the real “Wall Street-based elite” is more accurately placed in the 0.1 and .01 percentiles.  As Sanders has been saying, the “top tenth of the top [U.S.] 1 percent” owns nearly as much wealth as the bottom U.S. 90 percent.  Six Wal-Mart heirs possess as more as the poorest 42 percent.

Second, the privilege and power of the coordinator class is no less “true,” “real,” substantive, or vital to contemporary hierarchy than that of the financial super-elite. In the U.S. as across the world capitalist system and even in non- and even anti-capitalist workplaces and bureaucracies, ordinary working people suffer not just from the private, profit-seeking capitalist ownership of the workplace. They also confront what ZNet founder Mike Albert calls the “corporate division of labor” – an alienating, de-humanizing, and hierarchical subdivision of tasks “in which a few workers have excellent conditions and empowering circumstances, many fall well below that, and most workers have essentially no power at all.”  The inequalities between these jobs are not merely about money and benefits.  They also reflect vast differences in the autonomy and pleasure of work, along with differences in information, status, training, knowledge, confidence, and voice on the job.  Over time, this pecking order hardens “into a broad and pervasive class division” whereby one class – roughly the top fifth of the workforce – “controls its own circumstances and the circumstances of others below,” while another (the rest, the working class super-majority) “obeys orders and gets what its members can eke out.” The “coordinator class…looks down on workers as instruments with which to get jobs done.  It engages workers paternally, seeing them as needing guidance and oversight and as lacking the finer human qualities that justify both autonomous input and the higher incomes needed to support more expensive tastes.”

The problem is not limited to capitalism. A shift in ownership from private to public does not undo the problem of hierarchical labor processes and workplaces. In centrally planned state-socialist economies like that which prevailed in the old Soviet Union, this coordinator class ruled without capitalists.  Members drawn from its elite ranks became the authoritarian ruling class of “really existing socialist” nations. And coordinators reign without capitalists (though within the broader framework of capitalism) in numerous public bureaucracies and large non-profit institutions in the U.S. and other nations today

Third, the power of the super-wealthy corporate and financial few depends on the system-sustaining roles played by the “annoying pikers” beneath the “actual elite.”  It is true that the coordinators “occupy a much lower position in the class hierarchy” (Ehrenreich and Ehrenreich) than “the 1%.” But without the managers and professionals (those the late U.S. working class journalist Joe Bageant called “the catering classes”), the “1%”s system could not work (which is “why,” Bageant noted “they must be purchased at a higher rate than the proles”).  Among the many services they provide the super-rich, they are the elite that most ordinary working-, lower-, and lower middle-class Americans come into contact with in the workplace, school, and local community. They are a potent buffeting force, keeping the most fortunate and powerful members of the privileged classes – the Ehrenreichs’ “genuine elite” – off the popular radar screen except in extraordinary circumstances like when Occupy broke out.

Three years and three months ago I joined a crowd of radical and populist Occupy protesters who chanted “We are the 99 Percent” as they marched past the Iowa City Farmers’ Market on the way to a downtown rally.  Hundreds of liberal white middle- and upper-middle- class people (including many strong supporters of Barack Obama) were shopping for pricey local and organic foods at the Saturday market.  They glanced warily and wearily at our ragged procession. They offered no shouts of encouragement or applause. They made no raised fists or thumbs up signs.  None of them joined in, despite friendly invitations. There was no love for a populist movement in the streets from a very liberal campus town’s mostly university-based professionals, consistent with skeptical and cynical chatter I’d been hearing from those elites about Occupy local middle-class coffee shops and the natural foods coop. The Farmers’ Market crowd clearly did not feel one with us as part of “the 99%.”

This lack of solidarity was unsurprising. It made perfect sense.  Most of the Farmers’ Market shoppers probably came from the nation’s top 25%. Some of them were certainly from Iowa City’s top 10 percent. Tenured professors at a major research university (Iowa), doctors and administrators at the university’s prestigious research hospital, and principals and senior teachers at elementary and high schools may not be “masters of the universe” like Jamie Dimon (or even masters of the Iowa City real estate market like the prosperous local millionaire developer Mark Moen).  Still, they inhabit a very different world, a very different slice of U.S. society, than do the marginally and precariously situated people – the members of the “precariat” – I was marching with in the streets in the fall of 2011.

Many from the Farmers’ Market crowd are now part of the Bernie Sanders crowd.  They are visible at rallies for the populist Democratic Party presidential candidate Bernie Sanders.  They cheer when Sanders denounces “the billionaire class” and tells the loathsome Koch brothers and the Waltons (the Wal-Mart heirs) “Enough, you can’t have it all!” Marching with people in the streets and occupying public space in opposition to the nation’s savage class inequalities and richly bipartisan plutocracy (deeply entrenched in the Obama White House) did not strike them as a meaningful, reasoned, or proper form of politics.  Supporting a presidential candidate who is running for the nomination of one of the two reigning Wall Street-captive U.S. political parties and who is very careful to tailor his campaign speech to middle class sensibilities is another matter. (The “democratic socialist” Sanders never says “socialism” and never directly criticizes capitalism or US imperialism, preferring to attack the Republicans, the Koch brothers, the Citizens United decision, and those nasty billionaires). The Farmers’ Market people feel safe with that. I have little doubt that most of them will fall dutifully into line when Sanders tells them to give their support to his “good friend” the militantly corporatist military hawk Hillary Clinton.

Citizens and activists who know that “the future is in the streets” (to quote the 88-year-old environmental activist David Brower as he watched the great anti-WTO protests in Seattle in November of 1999) would do well to always remember that “the 1%” does not rule alone any more than it relies only on the Republican Party to advance its agenda.

Paul Street is an anti-capitalist author and coordinator class defector in Iowa City, IA

Postscript (July 16, 11 AM):  In some ways, the coordinators are the worst to deal with. You can often have a decent argument, debate, or conversation  with a real 1-percenter (or .1 or .01 percenter)  because he commonly doesn’t mind all that much if you are right…he’s still rich as Hell and can buy you 20 times over!  When you dare call a coordinator class member’s wisdom and authority into question, watch out because you are challenging their whole claim to privilege and position. The results can be quite unpleasant.

Bernie Out of the Closet: Sanders’ Longstanding Deal with the Democrats

27/07/15 0 COMMENTS

CounterPunch, July 21, 2015

I am glad that the left intellectual and activist Chris Hedges does not support the Bernie Sanders campaign for the Democratic Party presidential nomination. As Hedges explained in a recent interview on the Ralph Nader Radio Hour, Sanders’ candidacy lends undeserved credibility to the thoroughly corporatized Democratic Party. Sanders has pledged that he will support the corporatist military hawk Hillary Clinton in the 2016 general presidential election. Sanders stirs up legitimate progressive energy and popular anger and then “funnels it back into a dead political system,” Hedges observes. Sanders fails to confront the American Empire and military state, and, Hedges adds, has unforgivably “abandoned the Palestinians and given carte blanche to Israel.”

I agree on all scores. Hedges’ reasoning is consistent with my own recent writings on interviews on the Sanders presidential sensation. I do, however, want to raise one quibble with Hedges on Sanders’ history – a difference that makes Hedges’ case against Sanders even stronger. “I don’t understand,” Hedges told Nader: “He [Sanders] fought the Democratic establishment in Vermont his entire career. Now he has sold out to it.”

Sanders’ 1990 Deal with the Dems

Sanders did not “f[i]ght the Democratic establishment in Vermont his entire career.” As the left University of Vermont philosopher Will Miller noted in a 1999 essay recounting left peace activists’ occupation of then U.S. Congressman Bernie Sanders’ Burlington, Vermont office to protest Sanders’ support of the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia and the ongoing U.S. War on Iraq, Sanders sold out to the corporate and war Democrats as early as 1990.

Between 1981 and 1988, it is true, Sanders “presented himself to the left outside of Vermont as the leader of the third party movement, vanquishing the two major parties in every Mayoral election.” But in 1988, Sanders got a lesson on the perils of third party politics when he ran for federal office. In the election for Vermont’s seat in the House of Representatives, the independent Sanders and Democrat Paul Poirer divided the majority vote and the contest went to a Republican. Sanders responded by drifting right and cutting a deal with the Vermont Democrats: the party would permit no serious candidate to run against him while he blocked serious third party formation in Vermont and adopted positions in line with the national corporate war Democrats. Miller’s up-close account merits lengthy quotation:

“Bernie – out of office for the first time in eight years – went to the Kennedy School at Harvard for six months and came back with a new relationship with the state’s Democrats. The Vermont Democratic Party leadership has allowed no authorized candidate to run against Bernie in 1990 (or since) and in return, Bernie has repeatedly blocked third party building. His closet party, the Democrats, are very worried about a left 3rd party forming in Vermont. In the last two elections, Sanders has prevented Progressives in his machine from running against Howard Dean, our conservative Democratic Governor who was ahead of Gingrich in the attack on welfare.”

“The unauthorized Democratic candidate in 1990, Delores Sandoval, an African American faculty member at the University of Vermont, was amazed that the official party treated her as a nonperson and Bernie kept outflanking her to her right. She opposed the Gulf build-up, Bernie supported it. She supported decriminalization of drug use and Bernie defended the war on drugs, and so on…”

“After being safely elected in November of 1990, Bernie continued to support the buildup while seeking membership in the Democratic Congressional Caucus – with the enthusiastic support of the Vermont Democratic Party leadership. But, the national Democratic Party blew him off, so he finally voted against the war and returned home – and as the war began – belatedly claimed to be the leader of the anti-war movement in Vermont.”

“Since 1991 the Democrats have given Bernie membership in their Congressional Caucus. Reciprocally, Bernie has become an ardent imperialist. Sanders endorsed Clinton in 1992 and 1996. In1992 he described Clinton as the ‘lesser of evils,’ (a justification he used to denounce when he was what the local press called an ‘avowed socialist’). By 1996 he gave Clinton an unqualified endorsement. He has been a consistent ‘Friend of Bill’s’ from since 1992. One student I know worked on the Clinton Campaign in 1996 and all across Vermont, Bernie was on the stage with the rest of the Vermont Democratic Party Leadership, while the unauthorized Democratic candidate for his Congressional seat was kept out in the audience.”

During the 1990s, the not-so “independent” Congressman Sanders voted for and/or otherwise supported:

* Economic sanctions that killed more than a million Iraqi civilians

* Every U.S. bombing of Iraq from 1992 on

* The sending of U.S. military units to Kuwait and Saudi Arabia to threaten Iraq because “we cannot tolerate aggression”

* The objectively racist and mass-incarcerationist Federal Crime bill.

* Every US intervention since elected to Congress–Iraq, Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Liberia, Zaire (Congo), Albania, Sudan, Afghanistan and Yugoslavia.

Many of Sanders’ liberal fans might be surprised to learn that he voted for a National Rifle Association (NRA)-supported bill to restrict lawsuits against gun manufacturers and against the Brady Bill.

The “leftist” Congressman Sanders liked to send out mailings sends out mailings to veterans that supported the US having “the strongest military in the world” and praised soldiers as sacrificing “for the freedom of Americans.” Sanders repeatedly failed to invite antiwar veterans’ groups to his many veterans events in the state.

By Miller’s account, the “independent” and “leftist” Congressman Sanders’ political trajectory stood well to the right of Black House Democrats like Maxine Waters and Ron Dellums, “who moved paulstreetcontinuously to their left during their Congressional careers.” Sanders, by contrast, “got where he is now by a lurch to the right. He promises working people, the aged, the poor, and the ‘vanishing middle class’ that he will defend them while he repeatedly blocks the building of the anti-capitalist political movement and party that might actual make such promises legitimate.” When a Vermont leftist questioned Representative Sanders in public about his failure to help build a left-progressive alternative to the capitalist party duopoly, Sanders said he was now too busy with his Congressional work to worry about such things.

“The Citizenry Moaned Audibly”

Miller’s essay appeared after he and fourteen other peace activists were arrested for “trespassing” in Sanders’ Burlington office. Seeking to control the public relations damage, Sanders hijacked a regularly scheduled town meeting in Burlington to advance his position on behalf of Bill Clinton’s criminal war on Serbia. By Miller’s observation:

“A general town meeting had already been scheduled for the following Monday, so he turned it to a ‘town meeting on Kosovo.’ Apparently, Bernie Sanders had forgotten what a Town Meeting is…Sanders as the self-appointed moderator/boss opened the evening with naked self-justification: ‘It is a very complex situation’… followed by the ritual of demonization of Milosevic – a technique he has perfected over the last eight years on Saddam Hussein of Iraq. Then he presented the false dilemma that the only alternative to bombing is doing nothing. Sanders said his situation was the same as that of Joschka Fischer’s of the Green Party, Germany’s Foreign Minister, who has outraged his Green Party membership by supporting the bombing his coalition government is carrying out as part of NATO. “

“Back in Vermont the assembled citizenry moaned audibly.”

After the 9/11 attacks, “Bomber Bernie” (as Burlington peace activists dubbed Sanders) voted for the initial 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Terrorists that has been cited as the legal justification for U.S. military interventions and endless U.S. “global war on terror” – including the invasion of Iraq (which Sanders opposed along with most Democrats in Congress in 2002 and 2003). He voted for a non-binding resolution expressing support for troops at the outset of the invasion of Iraq. In March 2006, he opposed efforts to bring articles of impeachment against the open arch-war criminal George W. Bush since “the Republicans control the House and the Senate.”

Senator Sanders as a de facto Dem

When Sanders decided to make a bid for an open U.S. Senate seat in 2005, his longstanding service to the corporate Democrats won him the critical endorsement of Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY), Chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. Schumer’s backing meant that no Democrat running against Sanders could receive financial help from the party. Sanders was also supported by Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada) and Democratic National Committee Chair and Chairman and former Vermont Governor Howard Dean, who described Sanders as an “ally who votes with the Democrats ninety eight percent of the time.” Then-U.S. Senator Barack Obama campaigned for Sanders in Vermont.

As when he was in the U.S, House, Senatorial candidate Sanders made a curious deal with the Vermont Democratic Party: he agreed to be listed on their primary ballot but to decline the nomination should he win, which he did.

The “independent” Sanders has enjoyed a special agreement with the Democratic leadership in the U.S. Senate. He votes with the Democrats on all procedural matters in exchange for the committee seats and seniority that would be available to him as a Democrat. (He can break this rule in some exceptional cases if Democratic Senate Whip Dick Durbin agrees, but the request is rarely made.) Sanders is free to vote as he wishes on policy matters, but he has almost always voted with the Democrats.

Consistent with this party loyalty, Sanders refuses to seriously or substantively criticize his “good friend” and Democratic presidential primary “rival” Mrs. Clinton – a militantly corporatist and militarist right-wing Democrat. Sanders has backed Obama’s numerous murderous military actions and provocations around the world, from Libya, Syria, Somalia, Afghanistan, Yemen, and Iraq to China, Ukraine, and Russia. Sanders has said repeatedly that he will not be a third- party “spoiler” in the general election and thus will direct his primary delegates and voters to line up behind Hillary, Inc. in 2016. In his presidential campaign speeches, Sanders has been unwilling to mention the corporatized Democratic Party as part of the nation’s oligarchy problem. Presidential candidate John Edwards fulminated consistently against “corporate Democrats as well as corporate Republicans” when he ran in the Iowa Caucus eight years ago. Sanders, by contrast, focuses almost completely on corporate Republicans.

“But he’s a socialist,” many leftists exult. I’ve heard a number of Sanders speeches since he announced his presidential candidacy. He does not call himself a socialist. He does not call for socialism. He does not criticize or even refer to capitalism or the profit system, the underlying political-economic regime that is wired for the endless upward distribution of wealth and power and the ruination of livable ecology. Sanders rails against “the billionaire class,” against economic inequality, against the Republicans, against FOX News, against the Citizens United decision, and especially against those terrible Koch brothers. He’s running as a strident populist Democrat. In that regard, he’s not really all that different from Dennis Kucinich in 2003-04, Jesse Jackson in the 1980s and even Edwards in 2007-08, all of whom struck strong populist chords in efforts to reach the Democratic Party’s “progressive base.”

Out of the Democrats’ Closet

None of this is a departure from Sanders’ earlier career since 1989. As the shaggy-haired Mayor of progressive Burlington during the Reagan years, Sanders may have been a Sandinista-supporting left politico willing to challenge the two party duopoly. But Bernie cleaned up his too-radical act after his 1988 defeat. He went to “liberal” Harvard’s imperialist Kennedy school and came back to work in tandem with the corporate and militaristic Democrats under the guise of an “independent” and third party political identity. He’s been on the not all-that-left wing of the dismal dollar Dems ever since.

It’s all very different than the story Sanders tells campus town progressives on the campaign trail. According to that narrative, he has joined with the Democrats only this year and because of his pragmatic calculation that third party candidates cannot succeed under the U.S. party and electoral system. In reality, however, the Democrats have been Sanders’ “closet party” (Miller) for the last fifteen years. He’s really just coming out of the closet now for the presidential race, in a Clinton-welcomed effort to help give the Democrats a much-needed fake-populist makeover for the 2016 elections. The great Socialist Party presidential candidate Eugene Debs (whose poster hangs in Sanders’ Senate office) would not be impressed.


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

False Flag Change: History, Racism, Obama, and the Confederate Flag

12/07/15 0 COMMENTS

CounterPunch, July 10, 2015; ZNet, July 9, 2015,

As the reigning corporate United States media and politics culture responds to a terrible racist atrocity by questioning the political correctness of the Confederate Flag and logo across the South, it is a good time to reflect on the different levels at which race and racism operate in post-Civil Rights America. One level appears at the nation’s discursive and symbolic surface.  It is about language, imagery, personnel, and representation. It has a lot to do with the color of faces in high and/or publically viewed places and positions.

Recent calls and acts to remove the Confederate Flag and emblem from public and commercial spaces in the U.S. South are excellent example of race running at this surface level.  The flag and logo have long been seen by many Americans, including now (in the wake of the Confederate symbol-waring Dylan Roof’s murder of nine Black parishioners in a historic Black church in Charleston, South Carolina) the nation’s first technically Black president, as too undeniably connected to slavery and Jim Crow oppression to keep a respectable place in mainstream U.S. culture.

The Deeper Racism Lives On
A different level of race and racism has to do with how the nation’s daily capitalist institutions, social structures, and ideologies function.  Here we are talking about how labor markets, the financial sector, the real estate industry, the educational system, the criminal justice complex, the military state, the corporate system, and capitalism more broadly capitalism work to deepen, maintain, and/or reduce racial oppression and inequality.
At the first, surface and symbolic level, racism has experienced significant defeats in the United States since the rise of the Civil Rights Movement in the middle and late 1950s.  Public bigotry has been largely defeated in the nation’s corporate-crafted public culture.  Prejudiced whites face public humiliation when they voice openly racist sentiments in a nation that took “Whites Only” signs down half a century ago.  Favorably presented Black faces are visible in high and highly public places across the national media and political landscape. The United States, the land of slavery, put a Black family in the White House six years and eight months ago. The new attack on the Confederate Flag is another moment in this long Civil Rights revolution over public-symbolic racism.

At the deeper, more covert institutional and societal level, however, racism is alive and well.  It has not been liquidated beneath the public and representational surface – not by a long shot. It involves the more impersonal and (to be fair) the more invisible operation of social and institutional forces and processes in ways that “just happen” but nonetheless serve to reproduce Black disadvantage in the labor market and numerous other sectors of American life. These processes are so ingrained in the social, political, and institutional sinews of capitalist America that they are taken for granted – barely noticed by the mainstream media and other social commentators. This deeper racism includes widely documented racial bias in real estate sales and rental and home lending; the funding of schools largely on the basis of local property wealth; the excessive use of high-stakes standardized test-based neo-Dickensian “drill” and grill curriculum and related zero-tolerance disciplinary practices in predominantly black public schools; the concentration of black children into over-crowded and hyper-segregated ghetto schools where a highly disproportionate share of the kids are deeply poor; rampant and widely documented racial discrimination in hiring and promotion;  the racist “War on Drugs” and the related campaign of racially hyper-disparate mass black incarceration and criminal marking. (The technically color-blind stigma of a felony record is “the New N word” for millions of Black Americans subject to numerous “new Jim Crow” barriers to employment, housing, educational and other opportunities.)

A Card Table Analogy
A critical and underestimated part of the grave societal racism that lives on beneath the selection of a Black Supreme Court Justice or a Black Secretary of State, the election of a Black U.S. President, or the taking down of the Confederate Flag from a Southern state capitol is the steadfast refusal of the white majority nation to acknowledge that the long (multi-century) history of Black chattel slavery – the vicious racist and torture system the Confederacy arose to defend and that the Confederate Flag celebrates – and its Jim Crow aftermath are intimately related to the nation’s stark racial disparities (see below) today. The refusal stands in cold denial of basic historical reality. Consider the following analogy advanced by the Black American political scientist Roy L. Brooks nearly two decades ago:

“Two persons – one white and the other black – are playing a game of poker. The game has been in progress for some 300 years. One player – the white one – has been cheating during much of this time, but now announces: ‘from this day forward, there will be a new game with new players and no more cheating.’ Hopeful but suspicious, the black player responds, ‘that’s great. I’ve been waiting to hear you say that for 300 years. Let me ask you, what are you going to do with all those poker chips that you have stacked up on your side of the table all these years?’ ‘Well,’ said the white player, somewhat bewildered by the question, ‘they are going to stay right here, of course.’ ‘That’s unfair,’ snaps the black player. ‘The new white player will benefit from your past cheating. Where’s the equality in that?’ ‘But you can’t realistically expect me to redistribute the poker chips along racial lines when we are trying to move away from considerations of race and when the future offers no guarantees to anyone,’ insists the white player. ‘And surely,’ he continues, ‘redistributing the poker chips would punish individuals for something they did not do. Punish me, not the innocents!’ Emotionally exhausted, the black player answers, ‘but the innocents will reap a racial windfall.’”

Seen against the backdrop of Brooks’ living “racial windfall,” there is something significantly racist about the widespread mainstream “post-racial” white assumption that the white majority United States owes Black American nothing really in the way of special, ongoing reparation for the steep and singular Black disadvantages that have resulted from centuries of overt, explicitly racist, and truly brutal oppression and exploitation.

Forget for a moment that American capitalism is still permeated with institutional and societal (and still no tiny degree of cultural) racism.  Put aside the basic and important fact that the game is not being played fairly, with genuinely color-blind, “post-racial” rules. As Brooks’ card table metaphor reminds us, even if U.S. capitalism was being conducted without racial discrimination (as both players in Brooks’ analogy seem to falsely assume), there would still be the question of “all those poker chips” that whites – yes, rich whites in particular – have “stacked up on [their] side of the table all these years.”

Brooks’ surplus “chips” are not quaintly irrelevant hangovers from “days gone by.” They are living, accumulated weapons of racial inequality in the present and future. As anyone who studies capitalism in a smart and honest way knows, what economic actors get from the present and future so-called “free market” is very much about what and how much they bring to that market from the past. And what whites and blacks bring from the living past to the supposedly “color-blind” and “equal opportunity” market of the post-Civil Rights era (wherein the dominant neoliberal authorities and ideology purport to have gone beyond “considerations of race”) is still and quite naturally and significantly shaped by not-so “ancient” decades and centuries of explicit racial oppression.
Given what is well known about the relationship between historically accumulated resources and current and future success, the very distinction between past and present racism ought to be considered part of the ideological superstructure of contemporary white supremacy.

Priceless: The Half Barely Told
There’s no way to put a precise dollar amount on the value added to American capitalism by the Black human beings who provided the critical human raw material for the giant whipping machine that was British North American and US chattel slavery.  Their blood-drenched contribution was, to quote the old MasterCard commercial, priceless. As the historian Edward Baptist has suggested in his brilliant volume The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Rise of American Capitalism (Basic Books, 2014), Americans’ tendency to see slavery as a quaint and archaic “pre-modern institution” that had nothing to do with the United States’ rise to wealth and power is deeply mistaken. Contrary to what many abolitionists thought in the 19th century, the savagery and torture perpetrated against slaves in the South was about much more than sadism and psychopathy on the part of slave traders, owners, and drivers.  Slavery, Baptist demonstrates was an incredibly cost-efficient method for extracting surplus value from human beings, far superior in that regard to “free” (wage) labor in the onerous work of planting, tending, and harvesting cotton. It was an especially brutal form of capitalism, driven by ruthless yet economically “rational” torture along with a dehumanizing ideology of racism.

It wasn’t just the South, home to the four wealthiest US states on the eve of the Civil War, where investors profited handsomely from the forced cotton labor of Black slaves. By the 1840s, Baptist shows, the “free labor North” had “built a complex industrialized economy on the backs of enslaved people and their highly profitable cotton labor.”  Cotton picked by southern slaves provided the critical cheap raw material for early Northern industrialization and the formation of a new Northern wage-earning populace with money to purchase new and basic commodities. At the same time, the rapidly expanding slavery frontier provided a major market for early Northern manufactured goods: clothes, hats, cotton collection bags, axes, shoes, and much more. Numerous infant industries, technologies and markets spun off from the textile-based industrial revolution in the North.  Along the way, shipment of cotton to England (the world’s leading industrial power) produced fortunes for Northern merchants and innovative new financial instruments and methods were developed to provide capital for, and speculate on, the slavery-based cotton boom. All told, Baptist calculates, by 1836 nearly half the nation’s economy activity derived directly and indirectly from the roughly 1 million Black slaves (just 6 percent of the national population)  who toiled on the nation’ southern cotton frontier.

Geographical section aside, The Half Has Never Been Told shows that “the commodification and suffering and forced labor of African Americans is what made the United States powerful and rich” decades before the Civil War. The US owes much of its wealth and treasure precisely to the super-exploited labor of Black chattel in the 19th century. Capitalist cotton slavery was how United States seized control of the lucrative the world market for cotton, the critical raw material for the Industrial Revolution, emerging thereby as a rich and influential nation in the world capitalist system by the second third of the 19th century:

“From 1783, at the end of the American Revolution to 1861, the number of slaves in the United States increased five times over, and all this expansion produced a powerful nation…white enslavers were able to force enslaved African American migrants to pick cotton faster and more efficiently than free people. Their practices transformed the southern states into the dominant force in the global cotton market, and cotton was the world’s most widely traded commodity at the time, as it was the key material during the first century of the industrial revolution.  The returns from cotton monopoly powered the modernization of the rest of the American economy, and by the time of the Civil War, the United States had become the second nation to undergo large-scale industrialization.” (emphasis added)

After short-lived and half-hearted reformist and democratic experiments under northern Union Army occupation during the Reconstruction era (1866-1877), Black cotton servitude was resurrected across what became known as the Jim Crow South. The last thing that Black ex-slaves wanted to do after slavery was go back to work under white rule in Southern cotton fields. But, as the historical sociologist Stephen Steinberg noted thirty-four years ago, “Though the Civil War had ended slavery, the underlying economic functions that slavery had served were unchanged, and a surrogate system of compulsory paid labor developed in its place…ex-slaves…were forced to struggle for survival as wage laborers, sharecroppers, and tenant farmers in southern agriculture. Once again, black paid the price and carried the burden of the nation’s need for cheap and abundant cotton.” Untold thousands of Black Americans died at the hands of white terrorists and authorities, both private and public, to keep Black lives yoked to cotton toiling for a pittance or worse under white owners during the long Jim Crow era – this for the sake of national U.S. capitalism, not just regional exploiters. With all due respect to that great Canadian Neil Young, it was never just about “Southern [white] Man.”

Speaking of Symbols…
Perhaps people who care about racial justice should talk about down the United States Flag as well as the Confederate one. As the Black historian Gerald Horne has shown in his provocative book The Counter-Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States (NYU Press, 2014), the nation that invented the Star Spangled Banner (SSB) broke off from England largely because of its propertied elite’s reasonable fear that North American Black chattel slavery could not survive and expand under the continued rule of the British Empire. The Declaration of Independence contained no criticism of North American slavery (though it did accuse King George of “excit[ing] domestic insurrections amongst us”).  The U.S. Constitution sanctioned and defended the vicious institution of slavery. Exactly 76 years after U.S. independence was declared and 9 years before the Confederate Flag was first flown, the great Black escaped slave and abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass reflected on “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?”As Douglass answered in the shadow of the SSB:”

“a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy — a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages.”

Reading Douglass’s famous and bitter oration again as I do each year on July 4th, I was reminded of Patrick Campbell’s painting New Age of Slavery, which was inspired by the police killings of Mike Brown and Eric Garner and went viral last December:


Think also of the millions of Native Americans and persons abroad who have died and suffered subjugation under the “hollow mockery” of the SSB.

At the same time, if the Confederate Flag is going to come down, should Confederate names and symbols perhaps also disappear from other public spaces in the region? As the New York Times noted recently, “Black people across the South live on streets named for heroes of the side of the Civil War that opposed the end to slavery.” The region is rife with Confederate war memorials, along with numerous public and private buildings, parks, and other places bear the names of former rich slave-owners and Confederates. What about the offensive presence of that vicious Indian-killer and southern slaver Andrew Jackson on the U.S. $20 bill, or for that matter the wealthy slave-owner George Washington on the $1 bill and the liberal slave-owner Thomas Jefferson (the great revolutionary who worried about “domestic insurrections” in North America) on the US Nickel?

“History Belongs in a Museum”
Symbols aside, Baptist’s book and other recent volumes documenting the centrality of cotton slavery to the United States’ emergence as a powerful player in the world system raise the question of what Black America is owed today for the richly capitalist crime of slavery.  What sort and amount of reparations are due in light of the fact that the United States owes its rise to wealth and power to Black slaves who suffered unimaginable misery and ordeal under the torments of cotton slavery between the American Revolution and the American Civil War?
As Baptist muses with irony, “if the worst thing about slavery was that it denied African Americans the liberal rights of citizens, one must merely offer them the title of citizen – even elect one of them president – to make amends.  Then the issue will be put to rest forever.” If we look honestly at the scale and (more importantly) the pivotal historical significance of the wealth stolen from African Americans, we are talking about reparations and that is something that America appears to be institutionally and ideologically incapable of addressing in a forthright and substantive way. We raise the question of reparations – yes, the “R word” that can’t be uttered in polite “post-racial” company.

Take down the Confederate Flag?  “Fine. Should have been long ago.”  Deal truthfully and significantly with – and advance compensation for – the profits made, the crimes committed, and the long and living price imposed on Black Americans by the multiple-centuries system of Black chattel slavery that the Confederacy fought to defend and indefinitely prolong?  “Forget it. Get real.  Get over it.  Move on. Nothing more to see here.  Put the flag in a closet and stop whining.”

Driving in my car a couple of weeks ago I heard some older white authority figure (I did not catch his name or title) in Charleston say (in a deep South Carolina) accent that the Confederate banner should come down because “it’s a piece of history and there’s a place for history. History,” the elite Caucasian intoned, “belongs in the museum.”

For some right-wing folks, taking down the Confederate Flag is a way of pushing the all-too living historical relevance of slavery and Jim Crow further down Orwell’s memory hole. That history is too transparently related to contemporary racial oppression in a time when Black Americans are locked up en masse and murdered by police on an all too regular basis.

For many milquetoast liberal and progressive civil rights sorts (including Black middle- and upper-class Urban Leaguers and NAACP members), it should be added, the flag issue is an all-too safe and welcome diversion from the difficult grassroots struggle and work required to take down the contemporary racist police, apartheid, and mass incarceration state – living and substantive legacies of chattel slavery.

Symbolic Change, Cloaking, and White Self-Congratulation
It is tempting, perhaps, to see contemporary America’s split race decision – progressive victory on the surface level of race and continuing defeat on the deeper societal, institutional, and historical level of race – as a case of glass half-empty versus glass half-full. “Let’s celebrate the victory on Level 1 racism and build on that triumph to move forward against Level 2 racism”… right?  Not so fast. It’s more complicated than that. For, perversely enough, the deeper level of racism may actually be deepened by Level 1 Civil Rights victories insofar as those victories and achievements have served to encourage the great toxic illusion that, as Derrick Bell once put it, “the indolence of blacks rather than the injustice of whites explains the socioeconomic gaps separating the races.” It’s hard to blame millions of white people for believing that racism is dead in America when U.S. public life is filled with repeated affirmations of the integration and equality ideals and paeans to the nation’s purported remarkable progress towards achieving it and when we regularly celebrate great American victories over Level 1 racism (particularly over the open racial segregation and terror of the South). As the black law professor Sheryl Cashin noted in 2004, five years before the existence of a first black U.S. president, there are [now] enough examples of successful middle- and upper-class class African-Americans “to make many whites believe that blacks have reached parity…The fact that some blacks now lead powerful mainstream institutions offers evidence to whites that racial barriers have been eliminated; [that] the issue now is individual effort . . . The odd black family on the block or the Oprah effect — examples of stratospheric black success,” Cashin wrote, “feed these misperceptions, even as relatively few whites live among and interact daily with blacks of their own standing.” One of the many ways in which Obama’s presidency has been problematic for the causes of racial justice is the way it has proved to be something of a last nail in the coffin for many white Americans’ already weak willingness to acknowledge that racism is still a major problem for Black Americans.

This is something that Martin Luther King, Jr. anticipated to some degree. “Many whites hasten to congratulate themselves,” King noted in 1967, “on what little progress [black Americans] have made. I’m sure,” King opined, “that most whites felt that with the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, all race problems were automatically solved. Most white people are so removed from the life of the average Negro,” King added, “here has been little to challenge that assumption.” (Note the importance of segregated experience in the observations of both professor Cashin and Dr. King. The media image of black triumph and equality trumps the reality of persistent racial inequality in white minds so easily thanks in part to the simple fact that whites have little regular contact with actual, ordinary black Americans and little understanding of the very different separate and unequal ways in which most Blacks’ experience life in the United States. This is one of many ways in spatial and residential segregation – still quite pronounced in the U.S. – matters a great deal.)

“A Reminder of Systemic Oppression and Racial Subjugation”
Like the election and re-election of President Obama, the takedown of the Confederate Flag carries with it the risk of providing deadly “post-racial” cloaking for the nation’s deeper societal, institutional, and ideological racism.  How appropriate in that regard it is to hear the deeply conservative and neoliberal Obama (for whom the notion of reparations is both ideologically and pragmatically unthinkable) call in his funeral oration at the stricken Charleston church for the final takedown of the Southern slave confederacy’s flag and symbol:

“For too long, we were blind to the pain that the Confederate Flag stirred into many of our citizens. (Applause).  It is true a flag did not cause these murders.  But as people from all walks of life, Republicans and Democrats, now acknowledge, including [South Carolina’s right wing and objectively racist] Governor [Nikki] Haley, whose recent eloquence on the subject is worthy of praise…(Applause)…as we all have to acknowledge, the flag has always been represented more than just ancestral pride (Applause).  For many, black and white, that flag was a reminder of systemic oppression (Applause)…and racial subjugation (Applause).  We see that now.  Removing the flag from this state’s capital would not be an act of political correctness.  It would not be an insult to the valor of Confederate soldiers.  It would simply be acknowledgement that the cause for which they fought, the cause of slavery, was wrong (Applause).  The imposition of Jim Crow after the Civil War, the resistance to civil rights for all people, was wrong.  It would be one step in an honest accounting of America’s history, a modest but meaningful balm for so many unhealed wounds. It would be an expression of the amazing changes that have transformed this state and this country for the better because of the work of so many people of goodwill, people of all races, striving to form a more perfect union. By taking down that flag, we express God’s grace. (Applause)”

In his oration, Obama said that the murdered minister and state senator Clem Pinckney “embodied the idea that Christian faith demands deeds and not just words.”

Obama was right, of course, to observe that the Confederate Flag represents slavery, Jim Crow, and opposition to the great Civil Rights Movement that arose more than half a century ago. But what, really, are the “amazing changes” that have pushed the U.S. towards a “more perfect union,” racially speaking, in recent decades? Obama was referring mainly to the rise of a certain number of Black faces into high and public places, none more notable than his ascendency into the White House. But beneath the surface change, as Obama knows all too well, the Black poverty and unemployment rates remain double that of the white rates and Black median household wealth has fallen to less than one twentieth of white media household wealth.  Blacks make up more than 40 percent of the nation’s globally and historically unmatched population of prisoners and a third of Black men are marked with the crippling lifelong stigma of a felony record. A shocking 38 percent of Black children are growing up at less than the federal government’s notoriously inadequate poverty level. The poverty rate among Black children is more than twice as high as that of white children.

White America repeatedly congratulates itself over its readiness to shed open public bigotry and make symbolic statements against racism like electing a Black president (though it should be noted that Obama has never won a majority of the national white electorate despite his best efforts to not seem “too Black” and concerned with racial justice) and taking down the Confederate Flag.  Meanwhile, these savage racial disparities persist and even deepen thanks to the underlying societal, institutional, historical, and political-economic racism that churns on behind the curtain of an officially color blind and, yes, politically correct media and politics culture.

In her speech calling for the removal of the Confederate Flag (which she called “a deeply offensive symbol of a brutally oppressive past” for “many”) from the grounds of the South Carolina state capital, that state’s right wing Republican Governor Nikki Haley said that “we have made incredible progress in South Carolina on racial issues.” There is surely some basis for that statement at the surface level, in the racial composition of the state’s legislature and evening broadcast news teams and the like.  But underneath all that, damn near half (44%) of South Carolina’s Black children are growing up in officially poor families, compared to roughly a sixth (16%) of the state’s white children.  While Blacks make up 28 percent of South Carolina’s population, they comprise 62% of the state’s 22,000 prisoners.  The state’s Black poverty rate (28%) is nearly three times as high as its white population’s poverty rate (10%).

Such glaring racial disparities reflect the long living legacy and price of chattel slavery, inextricably intertwined past and present with the nation’s amoral profits system. Slavery may perhaps qualify as the nation’s “Original Sin,” as Obama called it from the pulpit in Charleston, but it was, as Baptist shows, an integral, highly profitable, and driving force in the so-called free market system – capitalism – that Obama has upheld as the source of the United States’ supposed “unmatched prosperity.” And today, as in the nation’s early development, America’s not-so “color blind” capitalism remains inseparably bound up with deeply entrenched and egregiously under-acknowledged structures, institutions, and ideologies of racial oppression and inequality.

Obama’s Curious Case for Keeping the Confederate Flag Flying
Listening to Obama’s Charleston speech and hearing my fellow Caucasian Americans talk about the supposed over-ness of U.S. racism and the purportedly ancient and “long ago” nature of slavery and Jim Crow – and hence about the supposed personal and cultural responsibility of Blacks themselves for their position at the bottom of the nation’s steep class hierarchies – I almost wonder if the Confederate Flag ought not stay put.  After all, the President says the flag is “a reminder of systemic oppression and racial subjugation.”   He says that taking it down is a “modest balm for unhealed wounds.”  Constantly barraged with reactionary neoliberal messaging on how poor and working class people and especially poor and working class people of color supposedly created their own difficult situations in the “land of the free” (the ever more savagely unequal and openly plutocratic nation that happens to be leading prison state and military force in world history), Americans of all colors could use some good reminders of “systemic oppression and racial subjugation.” They need to be reminded of such oppression both in the past and in the present – and of the intimate relationship between past oppression and racial subjugation and present systemic oppression and racial subjugation.

The Real Issue to be Faced
When it comes to “deeds and not just words,” moreover, they don’t need a symbolic “modest balm.” “A nation that will keep people in slavery for 244 years,” the great democratic socialist Martin Luther King, Jr. noted in 1967 (as violence erupted across the nation’s largely jobless northern ghettoes) “will ‘thingify’ them – make them things. Therefore they will exploit them, and poor people generally, economically. And a nation that will exploit economically will have to have foreign investments and everything else, and will have to use its military might to protect them. All of these problems are tied together.” That all being no less true 48 years later, and with capitalism now bringing livable ecology to the edge of ruin, the people need deep systemic change along the lines of what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called the “real issue to be faced” beyond “superficial” matters (like the color or gender of a president): “the radical reconstruction of society itself.”

Paul Street’s latest book is They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm, 2014). Street can be reached at paul.street99@gmail.com

Obama’s Good Republican Week

12/07/15 0 COMMENTS

teleSur English, July 7, 2015

I’ll never forget the night of January 3, 2008.  It was the evening of the Iowa Democratic Party Presidential Caucus. Iowa City High School’s cafeteria was packed. Old-timers couldn’t remember a bigger Caucus crowd.

The Democratic voters (well, caucusers) had come to put the deeply conservative Barack Obama over the top in the name of liberal and progressive values of equality, democracy, sustainability, social justice, and peace – meanings they were encouraged by Brand Obama’s slick and deceptive marketers to project on to blank branding sheets of “Hope” and “Change.” And all I could think was “liberal fools.  You have no idea what this thoroughly neoliberal and imperial politician is about!” Obama rose to power in Washington with remarkable, record-setting financial backing from Wall Street and K Street election investors who were not in the business of promoting tolerating politicians who seek to challenge the nation’s dominant domestic and imperial hierarchies. “On condition of anonymity,” journalist Ken Silverstein noted in the fall of 2006, a Washington lobbyist he interviewed “point[d] out the obvious: that big donors would not be helping out Obama if they didn’t see him as a ‘player.’” The lobbyist added: ‘What’s the dollar value of a starry-eyed idealist?”

As far as I could make out from years of following the GOP-friendly Obama in Chicago and Illinois (where I worked in social policy and civil rights positions during the late 1990s and early 21st century), Obama’s real ideological orientation was to the right of Richard Nixon.  He was an Eisenhower Republican at leftmost.

When the Caucus process was over, a young lady who had caucused for John Edwards said to me, “but he [Obama] can’t win in the [November 2008 presidential] election.”  I told her, “Oh Obama can win the presidency, alright. You just watch. But when he does, you may find yourself wondering what the point was. The rich will continue to rule and the first Black president is often going to seem like a Republican.”

Flash forward seven years and five plus months, to late June of 2015.  The last week of that month is considered by U.S. pundits to have been “a very good one for the President.” On Friday, June 26th, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld gay marriage – a cause Obama has embraced – in all 50 U.S. states. The day after, Obama gave a stirring funeral oration in the historic Black church where nine Black parishioners had been murdered by a white supremacist. On Thursday, June 25th, the Supreme Court upheld for a second time a critical provision of what Obama and others tout as the shining and signature policy accomplishment of his first administration: the so-called Affordable Care Act.  And the day before that, Obama succeeded in getting Congress to sign off on a critical legislative ingredient – “fast track” trade authority – in his long campaign to push through what he and others tout as the hoped-for signal and shining policy accomplishment of his second administration: the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) Agreement.

It is instructive to ponder the essence of these two grand Obamanian policies. The first, known as “Obamacare,” is based on a plan first designed by the Republican Heritage Foundation in the 1990s. It is a richly neoliberal measure.  It sets up a complex, “market-based” program that leaves the corporate insurance and drug syndicates’ cost-driving profit-taking fully in place, with disastrous consequences for the quality and affordability of U.S. medical care. Obama rushed to pass this brazenly corporatist measure after kicking the popular choice (single payer “Medicare for All,” supported by most U.S. citizens for many years) to the curb.

The second, the TPP, is a sweeping authoritarian and corporatist measure that would cover 40 percent of the world’s economy.  Lawyers and lobbyists for giant multinational corporations have been working it up and promoting it for nearly a decade. Beneath standard propagandistic boilerplate about trade and jobs, the real thrust and significance of the TPP is about strengthening corporations’ ability to protect and extend their intellectual property rights (drug patents, movie rights, and the like) and to guarantee that they will be compensated by governments for any profits they might lose from having to meet decent public labor and environmental (and other) standards, something certain to discourage the enactment and enforcement of such standards. It’s all about what the New York Times calls “investor protection.

No wonder Obama has done everything he can to keep the TPP’s details under wraps. (The secrecy has been remarkable: U.S. Congresspersons and some of their staff can see the TPP’s text only if they agree not to take notes or discuss the details in public.) And no wonder that Obama wanted Congress to give him “fast-track” authority to force a yay or nay Congressional vote on the TPP, with no time for careful consideration and no chance for revisions. Under fast-track rules, there’s no chance for delays or alterations. The pact must be voted up or down in a very short time-frame.

And who did Obama and his Big Business sponsors rely on to pass “fast track” through Congress?  His good “free trade” (investor rights) friends in the Republican Party.  The bill passed over and against the opposition of most of his party’s delegation in both the House and the Senate, with Obama directing no small nastiness at his supposed fellow “progressive Democrats” in Washington. It all happened quietly while the national media was focused on the heavily racialized and bloody Charleston story.

It’s all very consistent with the judgment of the lobbyist Silverstein interviewed in 2006: “what’s the dollar value of a starry-eyed idealist?”  So, of course, is much else in Obama’s Wall Street-friendly record.  Examples include his escalation of the giant taxpayer bailouts of the big financial institutions that wrecked the economy, his shielding of those firms from calls for nationalization and break-up, his refusal to act on his campaign promise to fight for legislation to re-legalize union organizing in the U.S.,  his failure to back the 2011 public worker rebellion in Wisconsin, his repression of the Occupy Movement in late 2011, his torpedoing of desperate efforts to reduce global climate emissions, his embrace of hydraulic fracturing, and his repeated opening of formerly protected waters to offshore drilling. For big capital, the answer to lobbyist’s question has been (to quote the old MasterCard commercial) “priceless.”

Beneath progressive pretentions, Barack Obama the national political phenomenon has never been anything other than a tool of the United States’ corporate and financial ruling class.  This is something that I (and a sturdy cadre of other researchers and commentators) have argued and documented at painstaking length from the beginning.  But surely the TPP takes the cake when it comes to solidifying his legacy once and for all as a died-in-the-wool global corporatist. How any serious liberal or progressive could still cling to the notion of a “progressive” President Obama after his work with big capital, the Republicans, and fellow corporate Democrats to pass the arch-authoritarian, super-corporatist, anti-labor, and eco-cidal Fast Track bill over and against technically irrelevant public opinion and the opposition even of most of his party’s Congresspersons is a chilling kind of mystery.

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

The Birthplace (Greece) v. the Farce (the United States) of Democracy

10/07/15 0 COMMENTS

CounterPunch, July 2, 2015

Democracy is among other things the rule of majority public opinion. Plutocracy is the rule of the wealthy few over and against the popular majority. To understand the different meanings of these two terms, you can consult a dictionary. You can also look at the very different decision-making processes on display regarding major political-economic policies in Greece (the ancient homeland of the Western democratic ideal) and the United States (the self-declared homeland and headquarters of contemporary democracy).

Greece: “The People Must Decide”

Let’s start with Greece. It has been under pressure from international, principally European creditors to slash social and other governmental expenditures in order to qualify for a five-months extension of the “economic rescue program” (bailout) that European authorities have advanced to keep the nation’s financial system solvent. The austerity (“reform”) proposals advanced by the European Commission, the European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund (the “Troika”) include deregulation of the Greek labor market, rollbacks in union power, pension cuts, and an increase in taxes on basic food products. The Troika give Greece until yesterday (I am writing on the morning of Wednesday, July 1, 2015) to accept their terms or face default.

The “reforms” demanded by the European financial power elite promise to further the economic humiliation of a nation that has been struggling for years to meet the outrageous debt payment and austerity commands of its northern creditors. As liberal U.S. economist Paul Krugman explained in the New York Times two days ago, austerity has been a dead end for Greece, denied (thanks to its membership in the Eurozone) the ability to reduce its deficits by devaluing its currency:

“most…of what [Americans have] heard about Greek profligacy and irresponsibility is false. Yes, the Greek government was spending beyond its means in the late 2000s. But since then it has repeatedly slashed spending and raised taxes [as required by the Troika]. Government employment has fallen more than 25 percent, and pensions…have been cut sharply. If you add up all the austerity measures, they have been more than enough to eliminate the original deficit and turn it into a large surplus….So why didn’t this happen? Because the Greek economy collapsed, largely as a result of those very austerity measures, dragging revenues down with it….And this collapse, in turn, had a lot to do with the euro, which trapped Greece in an economic straitjacket. Cases of successful austerity, in which countries rein in deficits without bringing on a depression, typically involve large currency devaluations that make their exports more competitive. This is what happened, for example, in Canada in the 1990s, and to an important extent it’s what happened in Iceland more recently. But Greece, without its own currency, didn’t have that option.”

A letter published yesterday by a number of international academics, including former Archibishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, Slavoj Zizek, and Judith Butler, notes that:

“Over the past five years, the EU and the IMF have imposed unprecedented austerity on Greece. It has failed badly. The economy has shrunk by 26%, unemployment has risen to 27%, youth unemployment to 60% and, the debt-to-GDP ratio jumped from 120% to 180%. The economic catastrophe has led to a humanitarian crisis, with more than 3 million people on or below the poverty line…Against this background, the Greek people elected the Syriza-led government on 25 January [2015] with a clear mandate to put an end to austerity. In the ensuing negotiations, the government made it clear that the future of Greece is in the Eurozone and the EU. The lenders, however, insisted on the continuation of their failed recipe, refused to discuss a write down of the debt – which the IMF is on record as considering unviable – and finally, on 26 June, issued an ultimatum to Greece by means of a non-negotiable package that would entrench austerity. This was followed by a suspension of liquidity to the Greek banks and the imposition of capital controls.”

The Troika’s ultimatum has been rejected by the Syriza government. That government arose on a wave of anti-austerity sentiment fist expressed in years of mass street protests and then organized electorally in the form of the Syriza Party.paulstreet

Telling the democratically elected Syriza government to sign off on the Troika’s “deal” is directing it to commit political suicide. Anti-

austerity has always been Syriza’s political raison d’etre, as the Troika knows quite well. So the ultimatum amounts to something of an attempted coup by the financial command of neoliberal bureaucrats in Brussels, consistent with the European “democracy deficit” that the left historian Tony Judt characterized several years ago as “a sense that that decisions were being taken ‘there’ with unfortunate consequences ‘here’ and over which ‘we’ have no say.”

In the name of popular and national sovereignty and with an honest understanding that rejecting the “reform” and bailout package offered by the Europeans will entail costs, Greece’s 40-year old Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras Syriza decided (imagine) to take the deal to the Greek citizenry. Hours after meeting with European “leaders” at a summit in Brussels last week, Tsipras announced that his government would put the European creditors’ proposals up to a yay or nay popular referendum on Sunday, July 5th. “The people must decide,” Tsipras said. “We should respond to authoritarianism and harsh austerity with democracy, calmly and decisively,” Mr. Tsipras said. “Greece, the birthplace of democracy, should send a resounding democratic message to the European and global community.”

Here’s the ballot measure that will be posed to the Greek people:

“Should the agreement plan submitted by the European Commission, European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund to the June 25 eurogroup and consisting of two parts, which form their single proposal, be accepted? The first document is titled ‘Reforms for the completion of the Current Program and Beyond’ and the second ‘Preliminary Debt sustainability Analysis.’”

“Not approved/NO”


It’s a very basic act of democracy, taking a policy decision that will impact millions of Greek workers and citizens to…well, to millions of Greek workers and citizens.

European financial elites have reacted with shock and horror. The Eurozone finance ministers’ Dutch leader Jeroen Dijsselbloem said he was “very negatively surprised” by the Greek referendum decision. “That is a sad decision for Greece because it has closed the door for further talks where the door was still open in my mind,” Dijsselbloem added.

Germany’s hardline pro-austerity finance minister Wolfgang Schaeuble said the Greek government had “ended the negotiations unilaterally.” The European Commission chief, Jean-Claude Juncker, said he felt “betrayed” by the “egotism” shown by Greece in failed debt talks. He accused Tsipras of playing “liar’s poker.”

“Stunned,” New York Times correspondent James Yardley reported yesterday, “[Tsipras’] fellow European leaders shut down negotiations, capped the lifeline they had been providing Greece’s banks, angrily denounced him as irresponsible and dishonest with his own people, and not so subtly suggested that Greece needed a new government if it wanted to continue drawing economic help.”

Jacob Funk Kierkegaard, a Senior Fellow at the arch-neoliberal Peterson Institute for International Economics, responded to Tsipras’ referendum call by saying that Greece was “joining countries we would normally regards as failed states” (NYT, July 1, 2015).

The Troika has refused to extend the deadline for its latest bailout out offer until the day of the historic Greek referendum. The vote will be held nonetheless, with it being understood that a “No” victory very possibly spells Greece’s exit from the Eurozone, that is, from the European Economic Union. Without the European bailout, Greece will have no choice but to pay pensioners and government employees and others in scrip, creating a parallel national currency.

A “yes” victory would signal national submission to yet more creditor-imposed Greek austerity, the very policy that has failed for five years running. It would also likely lead to the departure of Tsipras. Anti-austerity has always been his political raison d’etre. With Western (European and US) elites scrambling to prevent a “Grexit,” it seems possible that a deal of some sort will still be possible despite European elite’s chagrin at the horror of a democratic vote.

The key point for the purposes of this essay, however, is that decision-making power is largely in the hands of the Greek populace.

The United States: a Different Kind of Failed State

Things could hardly be different in the United States. Look now at the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a sweeping corporatist measure that U.S.President Barack Obama, big business, and top Republicans have been slowly but surely advancing in Washington. It’s a sweeping measure that would cover 40 percent of the world’s economy and negatively impact the lives of millions of Americans, their jobs, their quality of life.

Lawyers and lobbyists for giant multinational corporations have been working it up and promoting it for nearly a decade. Beneath standard propagandistic boilerplate about trade and jobs, the real thrust and significance of the TPP is about strengthening global corporations’ ability to protect and extend their intellectual property rights (drug patents, movie rights, and the like) and to guarantee that they will be compensated by governments for any profits they might lose from having to meet decent public labor and environmental (and other) standards, something certain to discourage the enactment and enforce of such standards. It’s all about what the Times calls “investor protection.”

No wonder Obama has done everything he can to keep the TPP’s details under wraps. The secrecy has been remarkable: U.S. Congresspersons and some of their staff can see the TPP’s text only if they agree not to take notes or discuss the details in public. No wonder Obama wanted Congress to give him “fast-track” authority to force a yay or nay Congressional vote on the TPP, with no time for careful consideration and no chance for revisions. (Under fast-track rules, there’s no chance for delays or alterations: the pact must be voted up or down in a very short time-frame.) And no wonder most of the U.S. population is (all too irrelevantly) opposed to the TPP and fast track.

How about a national citizens’ referendum on these key political-economic measures of great significance for “We the [American] People”? The very notion of such a popular vote is absurd in the U.S. as currently constituted. No such basic act of popular and national sovereignty is remotely conceivable under America’s reigning model of corporate oligarchy.

Meanwhile the unpopular TPP is marching its way through the halls of American so-called popular governance. After some momentary difficulties in the U.S. House, fast-track just sailed quietly through the U.S. Congress while the nation was focused on the gay marriage issue along with terrible racist and gun violence and the Confederate Flag issue in the U.S. South. All indications are that Obama and his Republican allies will succeed in passing the TPP.

Sadly enough, there’s nothing particularly unusual about a global-corporatist measure moving its way through the U.S. government over and against popular opposition. Over the past three plus decades, the mainstream political scientists Martin Gilens (Princeton) and Benjamin Page (Northwestern) calmly reported last Fall, the U.S. political system has become “an oligarchy,” where wealthy elites and their corporations “rule.” Examining data from more than 1,800 different policy initiatives in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, Gilens and Page found that wealthy and well-connected elites consistently steer the direction of the country, regardless of or even against the will of the U.S. majority and regardless of which party holds the White House or Congress. “The central point that emerges from our research is that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy,” Gilens and Page wrote, “while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence.” As Gilens explained to the liberal online journal Talking Points Memo (TPM) last year, “ordinary citizens have virtually no influence over what their government does in the United States.” And that is no small part of why the United States has entered a savagely unequal New Gilded Age in which the top 1 percent owns more wealth than the bottom 90 percent, along with a likely comparable percentage of the nation’s “democratically elected” officials.

Such is the harsh reality of “really existing capitalist democracy” in the U.S. —what Noam Chomsky calls “RECD, pronounced as ‘wrecked.’” Does this perhaps qualify the United States as a “failed state”?

Paul Street’s latest book is They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm, 2014). He can be reached at: paul.street99@gmail.com.

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