Idiots of Empire: From the “Freedom Budget” to Bernie Sanders

22/06/15 0 COMMENTS

ZNet, June 19, 2015

A Jeffersonian New Dealer Who Hated Ronald Reagan
My paternal grandfather, may he rest in peace, was, along with many millions of other Americans past and present, an idiot – an idiot of Empire. Don’t get me wrong.  William Paul Street (1907-2000) wasn’t stupid. Far from it.  He was the clever and well-spoken son – one of a large number of brothers and sisters – of an itinerant Missouri Methodist preacher. The family would travel from town to town, down around Hannibal, Missouri, and other parts of Mark Twain’s America in the years before World War I.  The preacher (my great-grandfather) had received his religious conversion while attending a tent revival meeting to which he had been sentenced as punishment for committing the crime of playing baseball on Sunday.

My grandfather knew his New Testament inside and out.  He knew his Mark Twain and his John Steinbeck and his John Dewey.  He also knew how to live off the land through hunting and fly fishing.

Reflecting the ministerial upbringing, my grandfather was a fine public speaker.  He even won an oratorical prize during high school, the first sign of a skill that would serve him well years later in his teaching career. He had a fine baritone speaking, singing, and preaching voice that commanded attention. He never lost his Missouri drawl.

But such skills did not free him from the experience of wage labor.  Lacking the money for college at first, he worked in a General Motors plant in St. Louis in the late 1920s. He toiled on an agricultural labor gang in rural Missouri. He paid his way through college by working as a janitor at Northern Illinois Teachers State College (NITSC – later to become Northern Illinois University) in DeKalb. Illinois in the 1930s.  There he met my grandmother Lina Luhtala, daughter of Finnish steelworkers and secretary to the college’s president.  He went on to get a doctorate (Ed.D) at Northwestern University and became an Education professor in the college whose bathrooms and hallways he had formerly cleaned.  During WWII, he worked summers and weekends in DeKalb’s Del Monte cannery (where I would work four decades later) to help pack food rations or U.S. troops.

My grandfather was an ardent and intensely moral New Deal Democrat – an identity he maintained until his death at the age of 93 in 2000.  His Democratic Party liberalism and pro-labor sympathies and his encouragement of editorial freedom at NITSC’s student newspaper (The Northern Star) got him absurdly labelled a “red” by the college’s ridiculous president Leslie Holmes – a charge that encouraged him to move to the University of Kentucky in the early 1960s.  During the middle-1960s, he was heavily involved in Lyndon Johnson’s short-lived War on Poverty.  He held an administrative post in the program in the poorest section of Appalachian Kentucky.

Two decades later, my grandfather was appalled by what he called “the false Christianity” of U.S. President Ronald Reagan and the religious right.  He could hardly stand to look at Reagan on the television.  When I did an oral history of him in the middle 1990s, he spoke in support of “Thomas Jefferson’s opposition to the establishment of a wealthy aristocracy.”  That “Jeffersonian” sentiment was part of why I received more money in the will of my widowed working class aunt Liz Munson (Luhtala) than I did (as the only child son of a deceased only child son) from my paternal grandfather. That and the Protestant moralism that compelled William Paul Street to leave most of his inheritance to the Salvation Army and the Lutheran Church.

Vietnam and the Moral and Economic Absurdity of Cold War Liberalism
William Paul Street’s Achilles Heel was the same as Lyndon Johnson’s and as that of countless other Cold War liberals and even a contingent of U.S. Cold War socialists.   It was the American Empire.  Looking back on his life when I interviewed him in the 1990s, he bemoaned two terrible facts.  First, he’d been “too young to fight in World War I.” Second, unlike his younger brother Harold, who went on to become an FBI agent and then a wealthy lawyer and Republican in Michigan, he’d been “too old for WWII.” In fact, at age 35 in 1942, he was not technically too old.  As the father of a child with significant health problems (my father was afflicted with a rare blood disease), however, his enlistment was discouraged.

Still, reflecting perhaps a certain of guilt about his military non-“service,” Dr. William Paul Street aligned his loyalties strongly with the US military across the long Cold War era.   It would never have his crossed my mind that U.S. foreign policy during or after each of the last century’s World Wars might have been motivated by anything but the most noble, democratic and benevolent of aims.

(My guess is that the same could be said of my maternal grandfather, Ursa Freed.  Ursa was a noted architect in Aberdeen, South Dakota.  [He once helped design new construction at the notorious Sioux Indian reservations at Pine Ridge.] Grandpa Freed (who died before I was born) really was too old – and [by my mother’s recollection] too alcoholic – for fighting in WWII.  His son Connie was in the U.S. Army even before Pearl Harbor, however.  After the Japanese attack, Ursa told Connie in a letter that he “envied” his son’s coming participation in the next Great War.  The following June, Ursa received a short government telegram informing him that Connie was missing in action. Connie never saw more than brief and fatal moment of military action. He was almost immediately killed by French fascist forces off the coast of North Africa.)

I learned from my mother that my father (David Street, who became a left-liberal sociologist at the University of Chicago in 1963) and his father “did not speak for two years” in the late 1960s “because of Vietnam” – that is, because of my grandfather’s firm commitment to the mass-murderous US war on Southeast Asia.  “We made a promise to the government of South Vietnam,” my grandfather would tell my father (by my mother’s recollection), “and it would be wrong to renege.”  The “Vietnam War” – a curious name for a one-sided assault on a poor peasant nation by the most powerful military-industrial state in world history – was necessary, William Paul Street believed, to defend “freedom” against Soviet-directed “communism.”

As I discovered going through my paternal grandfather’s files after he died, he was no mild or passive supporter of Kennedy, McNamara, Johnson, and Nixon’s assault on Southeast Asia.  William Paul Street was an avid public War Hawk. He was a faculty spokesman for Johnson’s criminal Vietnam policy in public debates held with antiwar SDS activists on the University of Kentucky (UK) campus.  No administrators at UK were going to accuse him of Communist leanings!

There were two huge problems with his pro-war position.  The first one was that the policy he supported was a massively immoral imperialist onslaught.  Washington’s “crucifixion of Southeast Asia” (as the early Vietnam War critic Noam Chomsky aptly described it that time) killed from 3 to 5 million Vietnamese, Laotians, and Cambodians between 1962 and 1975, turning Vietnam into a devastated land so that Washington could send an ugly message to the Third World: don’t defy Uncle Sam by trying follow a path of national independence and social equality.  The “war” (the one-sided US-imperial attack) also needlessly slaughtered 57,000 mostly young American men – one of whom might have been my grandfather’s brilliant nephew Bill Street (Harold Street’s son, who would go on to become a heroic Civil Rights and poor peoples’ attorney in Saginaw, Michigan) if Bill (who died suddenly last year) had not been able to parlay his years in the University of Michigan Marching Band into a hitch with the US Army Band after he was drafted. (Bill returned to Michigan as an antiwar activist) During the time when my father and his father were not speaking, a preached named Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke against the war at New York City’s Riverside Church. The Vietnamese, King said,

“must see Americans as strange liberators…the people read our leaflets and receive regular promises of peace and democracy – and land reform. Now they languish under our bombs….as we he herd them off the land of their fathers into concentration camps. They know they must move or be destroyed by bombs. They watch as we poison their water, as we kill a million acres of their crops [with chemical weapons]. They must weep as the bulldozers roar through their areas preparing to destroy the precious trees. They wander into the hospitals, with at least twenty casualties from American firepower for one ‘Vietcong’-inflicted injury. So far we may have killed a million of them – mostly children… What do the peasant think as we ally ourselves with the landlords and as we refuse to put any action into our many words concerning land reform? What do they think as we test out our latest weapons on them, just as the Germans tested out new medicines and new tortures in the concentration camps of Europe? We have destroyed their tow most cherished institutions: the family and the village.  We have destroyed their land and their crops.”

The second big problem with my grandfather’s support for the U.S. war on Vietnam and for the U.S. Empire more broadly was the nation’s giant expenditure of taxpayer dollars on the Indochinese crime and on the US war machine as a whole strangled his cherished liberal War on Poverty in its cradle. It stole federal money that would have been required to fund a serious federal effort to undo poverty in the nation.  As King noted in his Riverside pulpit:

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

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

Social Keynesianism v. Military Keynesianism
This pre-emption of social welfare by warfare, it is important to realize, was very much a central point behind the giant U.S. military budget that Washington kept going after the “Good War” that killed my uncle on his first day in combat.  The (state-) capitalist function of the nation’s giant post-WWII war and empire budget went far beyond lining the pockets of “defense” contractors. Massive spending on empire, war and the preparation for war provides a useful way for government to stimulate demand and sustain the corporate political economy without fueling threats to business class power and the unequal distribution of wealth. Business Week explained in February 1949 the economic elite’s preference for guns over butter when it comes to government stimulus. It observed that:

“there’s a tremendous social and economic difference between welfare pump-priming and military pump-priming….Military spending doesn’t really alter the structure of the economy.  It goes through the regular channels.  As far as a businessman is concerned, a munitions order from the government is much like an order from a private customer.  But the kind of welfare and public works spending that [liberals and leftists favor]…does alter the economy.  It makes new channels of its own.  It creates new institutions.  It redistributes wealth….It changes the whole economic pattern.”

As Noam Chomsky noted in the early 1990s, elaborating on Business Week’s post-WWII reflections in explaining why there would be no “peace dividend” ( no major shift of resources from military to social spending) in the U.S. ever after the demise of the Soviet bloc, the Cold War enemy:

“Business leaders recognized that social spending could stimulate the economy, but much preferred the military Keynesian alternative – for reasons having to do with privilege and power, not ‘economic rationality.’….The Pentagon system[‘s]….form of industrial policy does not have the undesirable side-effects of social spending directed at human needs.  Apart from unwelcome redistributive effects, the latter policies tend to interfere with managerial prerogatives; useful production may undercut private gain, while state-subsidized waste production (arms, Man-on-the-Moon extravaganzas, etc.) is a gift to the owner and managers, to whom any marketable spin-offs will be promptly delivered.  Social spending may also arouse public interest and participation, thus enhancing the threat of democracy; the public cares about hospitals, roads, neighborhoods, but has no opinions about the choice of missile and high-tech fighter planes.”

It was with these sorts of considerations in mind, perhaps, that former and future General Electric President and serving War Production Board executive Charles Edward Wilson warned in 1944 about what later became known as “the Vietnam syndrome” – the reluctance of ordinary citizens to support the open-ended commitment of American troops and resources to military conflict abroad.   “The revulsion against war not too long hence,” Wilson cautioned fellow U.S. industrialists and policymakers in an internal memo, “will be an almost insuperable obstacle for us to overcome.  For that reason, I am convinced that we must now begin to set the machinery in motion for a permanent war economy.” (Quoted in Joel Bleifuss, “INSHORT…Leader of the PAC,” In These Times, December 16-23, 1986, p. 4)

The Freedom Budget (1966) At War With Itself [1]
My grandfather was hardly alone among liberal and progressive Americans in his idiotic failure to confront the at once moral and practical contradiction between the social Keynesian welfare state he (sincerely) supported and the military-Keynesian warfare state and the Vietnam War he also embraced during the middle 1960s.  In the fall of 1966, the civil rights and social justice champions Martin Luther King, Jr., A Phillip Randolph, and Bayard Rustin—and more than 200 prominent academics, religious leaders, trade unionists, and civil rights figures—put forth an ambitious Freedom Budget for All Americans. Their people’s budget built on Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s calls (in 1941) for “freedom from want” (the third of Roosevelt’s “four freedoms”) and (in 1944) for an “Economic Bill of Rights,” including the rights to “a useful and remunerative job,” to “earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation,” to “decent homes,” to “a good education” and to “protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accidents, and unemployment.” It was designed to abolish poverty and provide a decent living within ten years by:

  • Providing full employment for all who are willing and able to work
  • Assuring decent and adequate wages to all who work
  • Providing adequate income to all unable to work
  • Guaranteeing modern health services and adequate education for all
  • Guaranteeing decent homes for every family
  • “Purify[ing] our air and water and develop[ing] our transportation and natural resources on a scale suitable to our growing needs”
  • “Unit[ing] sustained full employment with sustained full production and high economic growth”
  • Updating social security and welfare programs to provide full economic security against old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment

If the Freedom Budget had been successfully adopted and implemented in its time, “a majority of voters would not have responded positively to candidate Ronald Reagan’s challenge to Democratic incumbent Jimmy Carter where the conservative hopeful asked the American people…. Are you better off than you were four years ago?” My grandfather’s nemesis and contemporary Ronald Reagan would not have ascended to the White House. As the socialist scholars Paul LeBlanc and Michael Yates argue in their important book, A Freedom Budget for All Americans: Recapturing the Promise of the Civil Rights Movement in the Struggle for Economic Justice Today (Monthly Review, 2013):

“The history of the United States and the world would have been qualitatively different from the way things have turned out from the 1980s until now….poverty in the United States would have been abolished. Everyone who wanted a job would have had a job… The very young, the elderly, and everyone in-between would enjoy greater care, greater security, greater dignity…. There would be universal health care as a matter of right…quality education…available to all as a matter of right, without students amassing exorbitant debt in the process…decent housing for all…no slums. Our social and economic infrastructure…would have been improved…environmental and ecological concerns would have been incorporated into the re-building of our economy and society…Crime would have diminished….Institutional racism would be gone.”

The Freedom Budget was defeated and pushed to the margins of historical memory. Mention it to most Americans and expect blank stares.  One main culprit behind its rapid trip down Orwell’s memory hole was of course my grandfather’s supposedly noble “Vietnam War,” which diverted massive federal resources and national energy away from potential use in a federal campaign against poverty.  A second culprit was the war-accommodating position of many of the Freedom Budget’s key champions, including Rustin, Randolph, Tom Kahn, and Michael Harrington. Unlike my grandfather, these and other leading “democratic socialists” of the time had no special love for Lyndon Johnson’s criminal escalation in Vietnam. Rustin, Randolph, and Harrington felt that the war was immoral and disgraceful. Still, they found it pragmatically necessary to stand back from the furious criticism and protest of the war undertaken by the 1960s New Left.  As LeBlanc told the academic journal Inside Higher Ed two summers ago, they “concluded that the Democratic Party was the pathway to political relevance” and “identified the working class and organized labor movement with the person of the relatively bureaucratic and conservative AFL-CIO President George Meany. And they went along with (or at least didn’t organize opposition to) the Vietnam War, which was promoted by the Democratic Party leadership and fully supported by Meany. …Most Democrats saw the Freedom Budget as too radical, especially given the spending priorities associated with the Vietnam War.”

This key “pragmatic” Randolph-Harrington-Rustin calculation was reflected in the language of the Freedom Budget document.  The authors announced that their proposals could be implemented with “No skimping on national defense” (!) In his introduction to the Freedom Budget, Randolph argued that Vietnam and the Pentagon budget should not be seen as in conflict with anti-poverty spending. “The Freedom Budget, Randolph wrote, “is not predicated on cutbacks in national defense nor on one or another position regarding the Vietnam conflict, which is basically a thorny question to be viewed on its own terms.”  In a Q&A section attached to the document’s summary, the authors argued that their program required no slashing of the Pentagon budget – or even any reduction in the annual increases of that so-called defense budget:

“Q. Does the ‘Freedom Budget’ Assume That National Defense Expenditures Would Not Rise? A. No. For national defense, space technology and all international outlays, the federal budget in 1967 was $64.6 billion.  The ‘Freedom Budget’ assumes this figure would rise to $87.5 billion in 1975. In making this estimate, the Freedom Budget neither endorses nor condemns present military sending policies. It relies on the judgement of informed experts.  Obviously, if the international situation improves and a reduction in military spending is in order, so much more money will be available for social needs.”

No wonder the radical MIT economist Seymour Melman denounced The Freedom Budget as “a war budget.”

Dr. King, an original Freedom Budget champion, would break with its reluctance to take on the Pentagon system. By the spring of 1967, he openly and eloquently linked opposition to the Vietnam atrocity to the struggle for economic justice because of moral opposition to the nation’s criminal, mass-murderous assault on Southeast Asia and from an understanding that a serious federal war on poverty was economically impossible as long as the nation’ privileged hateful spending on the guns and bombs of war over loving investment in the meeting of human and social needs.

The Sanders Silence
Nearly half a century King’s assassination or execution – an operation conducted exactly one year to the day after he spoke out against the Vietnam War in New York City’s Riverside Church – King’s warnings seems hauntingly germane. Forty-seven years after King’s death and despite the disappearance of any credible military rival to the US with the end of the Cold War, the Pentagon budget today accounts for more than half of US federal discretionary spending (symptomatic of “a society gone mad on war”). The US generates nearly half of all military spending on the planet. This giant war and empire (“defense”) expenditure ($1.2-1.4 trillion or more each year) maintains (among other things) more than 1000 US military installations spread across more than 100 “sovereign” nations.

“Financially,” the U.S. peace and justice activist David Swanson writes, “war is what the U.S. government does. Everything else is a side show.” Military outlays on the current U.S. scale carry enormous social, human, and environmental, opportunity costs. They cancel out spending to address massively unmet social, human, and environmental needs.  The trade-offs are disturbing. As Swanson observed last December:

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

If King’s call for funding human needs over warfare finds contemporary echoes in the writing and speeches of peace and justice activists like Swanson today, the cowardice and myopia of Harrington, Randolph, and Rustin (and the different but overlapping cowardice of my Cold War liberal grandfather) lives on in the presidential candidacy of the “democratic socialist” Bernie Sanders.  Like the aforementioned “democratic socialists” of the 1960s, Sanders has decided that the corporate and imperial Democratic Party is the only “pathway to political relevance” (Sanders has sacrificed his prior technically “independent” status to run in the Democratic presidential caucus and primary contest) and has refused to call either for an end to the United States’ leading imperialist campaigns of the day (in the Middle East, Ukraine, and East Asia) or for any steep reductions in the oversized U.S. military budget.  This grand moral and political-economic failure mocks his claim to embrace Scandinavian “socialism,” practiced by countries with comparatively tiny military budgets.

Sanders v. Rustin, Harrington, Randolph – and King
There are three policy and political areas in which Sanders might be thought to deserve higher marks than The Freedom Budget. First, Sanders is calling for significant enhanced progressive taxation of the U.S. rich leading to a downward distribution of wealth and income. This is something the Freedom Budget’s failed to do. They argued instead that poverty could be ended simply by accelerating the expansion of the U.S. economy, yielding a wonderful “growth dividend” for anti-poverty expenditures – something its authors anticipated would result from the increase of effective consumer demand by rising government antipoverty expenditures.

Second, Sanders is not standing down from his longstanding identification of himself as a “democratic socialist” (whatever precisely he means by that term).  He calls again and again for Americans to undertake “a political revolution.” By contrast, the Freedom Budget, while originally developed by people who considered themselves democratic socialists, went out of its way to avoid any identification with socialism or any kind of radical change.  The documents authors were very explicit in this regard: “The ‘Freedom Budget’ does not contemplate that this ‘growth dividend’ be achieved by revolutionary nor even drastic changes in the division of responsibility between private enterprise and government under our free institutions.”

That was a pathetically over-conciliatory statement in a time when America’s “free enterprise system” generated giant economic disparities and crushing poverty for millions upon millions of Michael Harrington’s “other Americans. Across the whole postwar period, Howard Zinn noted in his forgotten classic study Postwar America: 1945-1971, the bottom tenth of the U.S. population – 20 million poor Americans – experienced no increase whatsoever in the share of the national income (a paltry one percent). Corporate profits and CEO salaries rose significantly across the 60s boom as steep U.S. poverty remained firmly entrenched in “the world’s richest nation.” As Zinn elaborated on middle and late 1960s America:

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

As the nation spent billions to put astronauts on the moon, millions of 1960s Americans remained ill-clad, ill-fed, and ill-housed. The median U.S. family income in 1968 was US $8,362, less than what the Bureau of Labor Statistics defined as a “modest but adequate” income for an urban family of four. The Bureau found that 30 percent of the nation’s working class families were living in poverty and another 30 percent were living under highly “austere” conditions. “Affluence,” historian Judith Stein notes, “was as much as an ideology as a description of U.S. society” in the 1960s.

Third, Sanders is campaigning fairly hard on environmental issues, specifically (good for him) on climate change, arguably the single gravest threat to a decent future at present.  While the Freedom Budget made reference to environmental concerns, ecology was a secondary concern for its authors. And much worse, the Freedom Budget’s Keynesian commitment to economic growth (as opposed to the downward redistribution of wealth, income, and power) as the solution to poverty aligned it firmly western capitalism’s longstanding assault on livable ecology.  As Le Monde’s ecological editor Herve Kempf noted in his aptly titled book How the Rich Are Destroying the Earth (2007), “the oligarchy” sees the pursuit of material growth as “the solution to the social crisis,” the “sole means of fighting poverty and unemployment,” and the “only means of getting societies to accept extreme inequalities without questioning them. . . . Growth,” Kempf explained, “would allow the overall level of wealth to arise and consequently improve the lot of the poor without—and this part is never spelled out [by the economic elite]—any need to modify the distribution of wealth.” Growth, the liberal economist Henry Wallich explained (approvingly) in 1972, “is a substitute for equality of income. So long as there is growth there is hope, and that makes large income differentials tolerable.”

Still, Sanders doesn’t deserves all that much credit for being more progressive than the 1966 Freedom Budget on these three scores.  Reflecting the significant upward distribution of wealth and income that has occurred since the onset of the neoliberal era in the 1970s, any and all serious progressives, not to mention democratic socialists, advocate progressive taxation in the U.S. today.  How could they not in a time when (as Sanders likes to note on the campaign trail) the top 1 percent owns more wealth than the bottom 90 percent of the nation (thanks in part to regressive measures passed since the 1960s)?

At the same time, climate change had not emerged as a leading existential and ecological issue in the middle 1960s.  If you took Randolph, Harrington, and Rustin and dropped them in the current era, it is very likely that they would be calling for a Green New Deal to put millions to work on wind, water, and solar power and green infrastructure in general.

As for being willing to be identified publicly as a democratic socialist, that’s much easier today – after the end of the Cold War and four plus decades of crisis-prone neoliberal capitalist misery and upward wealth distribution consistent with the long-term essence of capitalism.  At the same time, Sanders does not explicitly attack the profits system as such, preferring to direct his populist ire at greedy billionaires like the Koch brothers and the dastardly Republican Party.  One does not hear (Eugene) Debsian denunciations of American or global capitalism fall from the lips of Bernie Sanders as he barnstorms and blusters – largely against the Koch brothers and the Republican Party – across Iowa and New Hampshire.

Meanwhile there is Sanders’ damning silence on the Pentagon System, shared with my publicly pro Vietnam War liberal grandfather and the more privately anti-Vietnam War socialist leaders of the Freedom Budget.  As Swanson has noted about Sanders’ 12-point policy platform, which includes calls for major investments in infrastructure and related efforts to reverse climate change:

“All wonderful stuff. Some of it quite courageous outside-the-acceptable stuff. But what do you spend on reversing climate change? And do you also keep spending on the single biggest contributor to climate change, namely the military? What do you invest in infrastructure? It’s not as though Sanders doesn’t know about the trade-offs…he blames ‘the Bush-Cheney war in Iraq’ for costing $3 trillion. He says he wants infrastructure instead of wars. But routine ‘base’ military spending is $1.3 trillion or so each and every year. It’s been far more in recent years than all the recent wars, and it generates the wars as Eisenhower warned it would. It also erodes the economy, as the studies of U-Mass Amherst document. The same dollars moved to infrastructure would produce many more jobs and better paying ones. Why not propose moving some money? Why not include it in the list of proposals?”

No doubt many of Sanders’ supporters will claim that it is political suicide, “pragmatically” speaking, for Sanders to take on the giant military-industrial complex that “Bernie really doesn’t like.”  But it is highly questionable whether he really does in fact dislike the Pentagon system given his long record of supporting numerous U.S. military actions. Swanson understandably observes that Sanders is at least “partly a true believer in militarism” who “wants good wars instead of bad wars (whatever that means).” And it is both moral and practical political-economic anti-poverty suicide not to call for a massive re-direction of U.S. taxpayer resources away from the spiritual death of endless global war to the meeting of human and social needs at home and abroad.

There’s another point: if you can’t make a viable run for the U.S. presidency while opposing the Pentagon system, then why should a serious “democratic socialist” make a serious bid for the U.S. presidency at all? It would be far better, both morally and practically, to focus instead on building a mass grassroots popular movement against the interrelated evils of capitalism, corporate-financial plutocracy, militarism, ecocide, racism, and sexism.  That’s the path that was taken by Dr. King, who very politely but firmly declined when progressive electoralists tried to entice him to run for the U.S. presidency. It’s also the path that has done the most to win progressive victories in U.S. history.  As the great radical American historian Zinn told Socialist Worker in early 2001, “There’s hardly anything more important that people can learn than the fact that the really critical thing isn’t who is sitting in the White House, but who is sitting in–in the streets, in the cafeterias, in the halls of government, in the factories. Who is protesting, who is occupying offices and demonstrating – those are the things that determine what happens.”

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

1. The subsection relies heavily and throughout on Paul LeBlanc and Michael Yates, A Freedom Budget for All Americans: Recapturing the Promise of the Civil Rights Movement in the Struggle for Economic Justice Today (Monthly Review, 2013).

“Progressive” Obama: He’s Melting, He’s Melting – TPP Wipes Away the Last Shreds of Illusion

21/06/15 0 COMMENTS

Counterpunch, June 19-21, 2015


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. Obama rose to power in Washington with remarkable, record-setting financial backing from Wall Street and K Street election investors. Those elites are not in the business or promoting or tolerating politicians who seek to challenge the nation’s dominant domestic and imperial hierarchies and doctrines. “It’s not always clear what Obama’s financial backers want,” the progressive journalist Ken Silverstein noted in a Harpers’ Magazine report titled “Obama, Inc.” in the fall of 2006, “but it seems safe to conclude that his campaign contributors are not interested merely in clean government and political reform…On condition of anonymity,” Silverstein added, “one Washington lobbyist I spoke with was willing to point 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?’”

And answer to the lobbyist’s question came less the three years later: priceless. In his book Confidence Men: Wall Street, Washington, and the Education of a President (2011), the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Ron Suskind tells a remarkable story from March of 2009. Three months into Obama’s presidency, popular rage at Wall Street was intense and the leading financial institutions were weak and on the defensive. The nation’s financial elite had driven the nation and world’s economy into an epic meltdown in the period since Silverstein’s essay was published – and millions knew it. Having ridden into office partly on a wave of popular anger at the economic power elite’s staggering malfeasance, Obama called a meeting of the nation’s top thirteen financial executives at the White House. The banking titans came into the meeting full of dread only to leave pleased to learn that the new president was in their camp. For instead of standing up for those who had been harmed most by the crisis – workers, minorities, and the poor – Obama sided unequivocally with those who had caused the meltdown.

“My administration is the only thing between you and the pitchforks,” Obama said. “You guys have an acute public relations problem that’s turning into a political problem. And I want to help…I’m not here to go after you. I’m protecting you…I’m going to shield you from congressional and public anger.” For the banking elite, who had destroyed untold millions of jobs, there was, as Suskind puts it, “Nothing to worry about. Whereas [President Franklin Delano] Roosevelt had [during the Great Depression] pushed for tough, viciously opposed reforms of Wall Street and famously said ‘I welcome their hate,’ Obama was saying ‘How can I help?’” As one leading banker told Suskind, “The sense of everyone after the meeting was relief. The president had us at a moment of real vulnerability. At that point, he could have ordered us to do just about anything and we would have rolled over. But he didn’t – he mostly wanted to help us out, to quell the mob.”

The massive taxpayer bailout of the super fat cats would continue, along with numerous other forms of corporate welfare for the super-rich, powerful, and parasitic. This state-capitalist largesse was unaccompanied by any serious effort to regulate their conduct or by any remotely comparable bailout for the millions evicted from their homes and jobs by the not-so invisible hand of the marketplace. No wonder 95 percent of national U.S. income gains went to the top 1% during Obama’s first term.

A Tutorial on Power

It was a critical moment. With Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress and an angry, “pitchfork”-wielding populace at the gates, an actually progressive President Obama could have rallied the populace to push back against the nation’s concentrated wealth and power structures by moving ahead aggressively with a number of policies: a stimulus with major public works jobs programs; a real (single-payer) health insurance reform; the serious disciplining and even break-up or nationalization of the leading financial institutions; massive federal housing assistance and mortgage relief; and passage of the Employee Free Choice Act, which would have re-legalized union organizing in the U.S. But no such policy initiatives issued from the White House, which opted instead to give the U.S. populace what William Greider memorably called “a blunt lesson about power, who has it and who doesn’t.” Americans “watched Washington rush to rescue the very financial interests that caused the catastrophe. They learned that government has plenty of money to spend when the right people want it. ‘Where’s my bailout,’ became the rueful punch line at lunch counters and construction sites nationwide. Then to deepen the insult, people watched as establishment forces re-launched their campaign for ‘entitlement reform’ – a euphemism for whacking Social Security benefits, Medicare and Medicaid.”

Americans also watched as Obama moved on to pass a health insurance reform (the so-called Affordable Care Act) that only the big insurance and drug companies could love, kicking the popular alternative (single payer “Medicare for All”) to the curb while rushing to pass a program drafted by the Republican Heritage Foundation and first carried out in Massachusetts by the arch 1 percenter Mitt Romney. As Obama later explained to some of his rich friends at an event called The Wall Street Journal CEO Council a month after trouncing Romney’s bid to unseat him: “When you go to other countries, the political divisions are so much more stark and wider. Here in America, the difference between Democrats and Republicans–we’re fighting inside the 40-yard lines…People call me a socialist sometimes. But no, you’ve got to meet real socialists. (Laughter.) You’ll have a sense of what a socialist is. (Laughter.) I’m talking about lowering the corporate tax rate. My health care reform is based on the private marketplace.” He might have added that his “health care reform” was dreamed up by Republicans, consistent with some of his elite supporters’ likening of the Obama White House to the presidency of Dwight Eisenhower.

A year and a half before this tender ruling class moment, the American people watched Obama offer the Republicans bigger cuts in Social Security and Medicare than they asked for as part of his “Grand Bargain” offered during the elite-manufactured debt-ceiling crisis. It was at that point that hundreds of thousands of mostly younger Americans had received enough of Obama’s “blunt lesson about power” to join the Occupy Wall Street Movement, which sought progressive change through direct action and social movement-building rather than corporate-captive electoral politics. (We will never know how far Occupy might have gone since it was shut down by a federally coordinated campaign of repression that joined the Obama administration and hundreds of mostly Democratic city governments in the infiltration, surveillance, smearing, takedown and eviction of the short lived movement – this even as the Democrats stole some of Occupy’s rhetoric for use against Romney and the Republicans in 2012.)

We Were Warned

Liberal intellectuals who have claimed to be “surprised” and “disappointed” by Obama’s corporatist record have either been disingenuous pretenders or bamboozled fools. Obama’s allegiance to the American business elite was evident from the get go. It was well understood by the K Street insiders that Silverstein interviewed in the fall of 2006. It was grasped by the liberal journalist and New Yorker writer Larissa MacFarquhar in the spring of 2007. “In his view of history, in his respect for tradition, in his skepticism that the world can be changed any way but very, very slowly,” MacFarquhar wrote after extensive interviews with candidate Obama in May of 2007, “Obama is deeply conservative. There are moments when he sounds almost Burkean…It’s not just that he thinks revolutions are unlikely: he values continuity and stability for their own sake, sometimes even more than he values change for the good.”

MacFarquhar cited as an example of this reactionary sentiment Obama’s reluctance to embrace single-payer health insurance on the Canadian model, which he told her would “so disruptive that people feel like suddenly what they’ve known for most of their lives is thrown by the wayside.” Obama told MacFarquhar that “we’ve got all these legacy systems in place, and managing the paulstreettransition, as well as adjusting the culture to a different system, would be difficult to pull off. So we may need a system that’s not so disruptive that people feel like suddenly what they’ve known for most of their lives is thrown by the wayside.” So what if large popular majorities in the U.S. had long favored the single-payer model? So what if single payer would let people keep the doctors of their choice, only throwing away the protection pay off to the private insurance mafia? So what if “the legacy systems” Obama defended included corporate insurance and pharmaceutical oligopolies that regularly threw millions of American lives by the wayside of market calculation, causing enormous disruptive harm and death for the populace?

This was the slick and slimy, unnamed Obama – granted undue progressive credibility thanks in part to the simple color of his skin – that the Black political scientist Adolph Reed, Jr. warned people about in The Village Voice at the beginning of the future president’s political career (in the Illinois state senate) in January of 1996:

“In Chicago, for instance, we’ve gotten a foretaste of the new breed of foundation-hatched black communitarian voices; one of them, a smooth Harvard lawyer with impeccable do-good credentials and vacuous-to-repressive neoliberal politics, has won a state senate seat on a base mainly in the liberal foundation and development worlds. His fundamentally bootstrap line was softened by a patina of the rhetoric of authentic community, talk about meeting in kitchens, small-scale solutions to social problems, and the predictable elevation of process over program — the point where identity politics converges with old-fashioned middle-class reform in favoring form over substance. I suspect that his ilk is the wave of the future in U.S. black politics, as in Haiti and wherever else the International Monetary Fund has sway.”

Things Democratic Presidential Candidates Have to Say

It is true that Illinois state senator Obama publicly embraced single-payer health care insurance speaking before the Illinois AFL-CIO in late June of 2003. But he didn’t really mean it. It was just fake-progressive rhetoric related to his upcoming campaign for an open U.S. senate seat in Illinois, pronounced before he realized that he had a serious near-term shot at the U.S. presidency (something that became clear only in the summer of 2004) – an ambition that required the jettisoning of such policy commitments in pursuit of Wall Street backing.

Five years later, candidate Obama’s top economic advisor, the neoliberal University of Chicago economist Austan Goolsbee, told Canada’s ambassador to the U.S. to disregard Obama’s populace-pleasing criticisms of the corporatist North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).  The criticisms were just campaign oratory geared toward winning working class votes in the Midwest Rustbelt, Goolsbee told the Canadian diplomat. As Goolsbee explained, Obama was just saying the populist-sounding stuff Democratic presidential candidate have to declare in order to get nominated and elected. His anti-NAFTA language it was not to be taken seriously as a threat to the corporate globalization agenda that U.S. and Canadian elites – and Barack Obama – shared.

“To Change the World”

Which brings us to Barack Obama’s ongoing campaign to win Congressional approval for the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) – a classically neoliberal so-called free trade agreement that has been under secret construction by multinational corporate lawyers and corporatist government officials for at least a decade. The measure has taken on what New York Times White House correspondent Peter Baker calls “special meaning for a president eager to change the world. It [is] a way to leave behind a positive legacy abroad, one that could be measured, [Obama] hope[s], by the number of lives improved rather than [as with his military actions in the Middle East] by the number of bodies left behind.”

The TPP would join the United States along with 11 other nations along the Pacific Rim, including Canada, Mexico, Japan, Vietnam, Malaysia and Australia in a “free-trade zone” covering nearly 40 percent of the world’s economy. The first Black “Eisenhower Republican” President is allied with Congressional Republicans and big business groups in claiming that the TPP will open up foreign markets to American goods and “level the playing field by forcing Asian competitors to improve labor and environmental standards.”

Labor unions, environmental groups, food safety activists, civil libertarians, civil rights groups, and a good number of Congressional Democrats know that’s all manipulative business propaganda. The measure isn’t really about trade or improved standards, they are quite aware. As the liberal economist Paul Krugman has noted, whatever benefits may nor may not befall the U.S. economy from “free trade” between the TPP’s projected signatory nations have “already been realized.” 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 enforce of such standards. The progressive economist Dean Baker explained things well last December:

“TPP and [the TransAtlantic Trade and Investment Pact – TTIP] are about getting special deals for businesses that they would have difficulty getting through the normal political process. For example, oil and gas companies that think they should be able to drill everywhere may be able to get rules that prevent national or state governments from restricting their activities. This could mean, for example, that New York State would have to compensate potential frackers for the ban that Governor Cuomo imposed last week…Similarly, the financial industry will be looking to roll back the sort of regulations put in place through Dodd-Frank and similar legislation in other countries. Again, if governments want to ensure that their financial system is safe, they may have to pay the banks for the privilege….The pharmaceutical industry and entertainment industries will get longer and stronger patent and copyright protection. And the food and pesticide industries will be able to able to limit the ability of governments to impose safety and environmental regulations.”

“Best of all, these trade deals will set up a new legal structure that goes outside existing system in the United States and elsewhere. All the businesses that didn’t think German or British courts could be trusted to give them a fair deal can turn to the investor-state dispute settlement tribunals established as part of these trade pacts. These tribunals will effectively make their own law. The trade deals allow no appeal back to U.S. courts or the courts of any other country that is included….In short, these trade deals are a real bonanza for business.”

No wonder Obama has done everything he can to keep the details of the TPP and TTIP under wraps. When you realize that the TPP would “affect the lives of millions of Americans, their jobs, their quality of life” (as Diana Johnstone recently noted on CounterPunch), the secrecy is astounding: U.S. Congress persons 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!

It is also no wonder that Obama wants 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. “The idea,” Baker noted, “is that with the bulk of the business community promising large campaign contributions to supporters and threatening to punish opponents, most members of Congress would find it difficult to vote no.”

A Rare Moment

Last Friday, the US House voted no on “fast-track” in an indirect way. It was a stunning rebuke and embarrassment for Obama, who lobbied hard for TPP along with corporate America. As the sage left-liberal commentator William Greider noted, “After 25 years of losing out to Wall Street and corporate interests, the party’s faithful constituency base managed to take down their Democratic president and his sweetheart deal with the big money. The left-liberal policy groups and grassroots activists agitating for change stood their ground against the power elites and, for once, they triumphed.” The Eisenhower Republican did not help his case with his characteristically arrogant and self-righteous approach to Congressional Democrats. “Lots of people in the [Democratic] party warned Obama that he was heading into a buzz saw with his Trans-Pacific Partnership,” Greider writes. “He ignored them. Even worse, he got a little nasty with those resisting his proposal—leading voices like Senator Elizabeth Warren. Surrounded by advisers from Citigroup and Goldman Sachs, he scolded labor…”

Peter DeFazio, an Oregon Democrat, was deeply insulted. “He’s ignored Congress and disrespected Congress for years,” DeFazio told reporters, “and then comes to the caucus and lectures us for 40 minutes about his values and whether or not we’re being honest by using legislative tactics to try and stop something which we believe is a horrible mistake for the United States of America, and questions our integrity. It wasn’t the greatest strategy.”

Obama and his big business and Congressional Republican allies are coming back for a second try. One thing you can count on: the campaign finance money spigot that flows from the corporate class to the nation’s not-so democratically elected officials is fixed in the “on” position. If anyone cares, a recent CBS-New York Times poll finds that “Americans [are] skeptical of [so-called] free trade.  Nearly two-thirds [63%] favored some form of trade restrictions, and more than half opposed giving the president [fast-track] authority to negotiate trade agreements that Congress could only vote up or down without amendments.”

Washington runs on corporate campaign cash, not public opinion, it is true. Still, this might be one of those rare moments when something approximating democracy prevails in the nation’s dollar-drenched government. As the incisive Georgetown University labor historian Joseph McCartin (himself a onetime Obama enthusiast) told The Guardian, “This is the first time Congress considered a trade deal since we as a country became much more cognizant of surging inequality and the crisis in middle-class jobs. The old playbook of the president being able to get the votes at the last minute doesn’t seem to apply anymore.”

The Icy Waters of Neoliberal Calculation

Whether the Eisenhower Republican in the White House – properly identified neatly two decades ago as a “vacuous to repressive neoliberal” (Reed) – and his corporate allies can still salvage a deal is anyone’s guess. Whatever occurs, I am afraid I must concur with the left economist Robert Urie last weekend on CounterPunch:

“As of the moment of this writing the certainty surrounding passage of ‘fast-track’ authority is waning. What has been unleashed by the push to pass the TPP is impetus toward completion of the capitalist/corporate coup begun in the 1970s. Investor State Dispute Settlement-like mechanisms [shadowy institutions that write global trade rules in accord with corporate interests] exist from past trade agreements and are already being used. Growing catastrophes for global labor and the environment will be at best incrementally inconvenienced by a political setback for ‘fast-track.’ And while ending ‘fast-track’ is a possibly necessary diversion, the capitalist coup and its institutional facts will remain the problem. The next President from either political party will push the same high-capitalist program and the most likely lesson learned from a defeat of ‘fast-track’ will be to better hide the grab for increased corporate power, not to reverse it.”

That’s the depressing reality of the world capitalist system. In the short-term, however, let us appreciate the final crumbling of the myth of a progressive Barack Obama phenomenon and presidency. The myth is perishing in the icy waters of neoliberal calculation – kind of like the Wicked Witch of the West who screamed “I’m Melting, I’m Melting” as Dorothy doused her with a bucket of water near the end of The Wizard of Oz. What a pathetic but predictable finish for Obama: a president elected in the name of progressive “hope” and “change” seeking to “leave behind a positive legacy” by pushing a noxiously authoritarian and eco-cidal “free trade” measure on behalf of the nation’s unelected dictatorship of money over and against public opinion and the common good.

The sooner Obama breaks the ribbon on his presidential library – to be suitably housed at the arch-neoliberal University of Chicago – the better. In the meantime, I would like just one former “Progressive for Obama” member to offer a formal apology for the abject foolishness they exhibited in support of this deeply conservative corporatist Democrat – and for the venom with which so many liberals attacked those of us on the actual Left [1] who tried to warn U.S. “progressives” and the world about the cold corporate and imperial reality of Obama, Inc. from the start.

Now, of course, the magic wand of fake-populist candidate deception has been passed on to the militant neoliberal corporatist Hillary Clinton. In November of 2012, as Secretary of State, she said that the TPP “sets the gold standard in trade agreements to open free, transparent, fair trade.” Currently, however, she is compelled by the dictates of the quadrennial campaign season to pretend to be skeptical about the authoritarian measure. No doubt, Leftists who protest when she moves forward on “the high capitalist program” as U.S. President will be absurdly denounced as sexists by many of her liberal defenders just as Obama’s Left critics have been falsely called racists by many of his liberal fans. Such are the sinister uses of identity politics for the globalist bourgeoisie. Plus ca change, plus c’est la mệme chose.

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


1. Please see the sub-section titled “Insistent Left Warnings” on pages 176-177 in the sixth chapter (titled “We Were Warned”) of my 2010 book The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (Paradigm, 2014)

Race Violence, Gun Violence: Reflections on Obama’s Charleston Comments

20/06/15 0 COMMENTS

ZNet, June 20, 2015

One of the many rich and predictable (and predicted) ironies of the “post-racial” and neoliberal Barack Obama White House has been that the “first Black President” that many U.S. liberals and progressives proudly voted for in the name of racial progress has been remarkably reluctant to speak in honest and forthright ways on and against the depth, degree, and central relevance of anti-Black racism in American life. Obama’s special remarks to the press on the terrible fatal shooting of nine Black Americans at the storied Black Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina are a depressing case in point. Obama led in his remarks with the race-neutral gun-control issue. That’s where the main focus of his anger was by far.

“I’ve had to make statements like this too many times. Communities like this have had to endure tragedies like this too many times…We don’t have all the facts, but we do know that once again, innocent people were killed in part because someone who wanted to inflict harm had no trouble getting their hand on a gun…Now is the time for mourning and for healing. But let’s be clear. At some point, we as a country will have to reckon with the fact that this type of mass violence does not happen in other advanced countries. It doesn’t happen in other places with this kind of frequency….And it is in our power to do something about it. I say that recognizing the politics in this town foreclose a lot of those avenues right now. But it’d be wrong for us not to acknowledge it, and at some point, it’s going to important for the American to come to grips with it and for us to be able to shift how we think about the issue of gun violence collectively.”

The problem here is that the Charleston tragedy is first and foremost a racial – a racist – incident. It was an act of explicit racial hatred and terror carried out by a very specifically racist psychotic who wore patches of the flags of apartheid South Africa and white-ruled Rhodesia and who absurdly told the shooting’s sole survivor that Black people were “raping our women” and “taking over the country.” Yes, the gun madness in this country is insane. More than 30,000 people are killed with firearms each year in the U.S. It’s disgusting and the proto-fascistic right wing National Rifle Association bears no small part of the blame. But the nine gun-violence deaths in Charleston were above all else about racial hatred and terror. The demented white-supremacist Dylann Roof’s hideous crime is much more like the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing that killed four Black schoolgirls in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963 than it is like the Sandy Hook school-shootings or the Aurora, Colorado Batman movie shootings – or any other of those other numerous cases where young psychotic white men have gone on shooting rampages that mainly killed fellow Caucasians.

Does anyone doubt that Roof would have resorted to a bomb or to arson or to some other method of mass homicide to act on his venomous racial hatreds if he were denied access to firearms? And what exactly did Obama mean when he said that “Communities like this have had to endure tragedies like this too many times”? Did he really mean to fold Black Charleston in with white suburban Newtown, Connecticut and Aurora, Colorado as yet another terrible mass gun-violence tragedy? Has there been a previous one-time gun massacre of a large number of Black people (I do not mean the ongoing string of racist police shootings spread across each year) by a white racist during Obama’s time in the White House? (I am unaware of any such previous incidents)

Obama in his comments did make an historical reference to the 1963 Birmingham bombing and showed some elementary understanding of the Charleston killings’ racial character.

“The fact that this took place in a black church obviously also raises questions about a dark part of our history. This is not the first time that black churches have been attacked, and we know the hatred across races and faiths pose a particular threat to our democracy and our ideals…The good news is I am confident that the outpouring of unity and strength and fellowship and love across Charleston today, from all races, from all faiths, from all places of worship, indicates the degree to which those old vestiges of hatred can be overcome….That certainly was Dr. King’s hope just over 50 years ago after four little girls were killed in a bombing at a black church in Birmingham, Alabama.”

But this was incredibly pale tea, far too lacking in strength to remotely wake this country up from its deep sleep of racial denial. “A dark part of our history”? How about “a living and ongoing nightmare in our present”? Why not call this an act of domestic racial terrorism, rooted in a national culture white supremacism that encourages demented young white men to absurdly think that Blacks are “taking over America” and subordinating whites to “Black rule” in a time when Black median household wealth is less than a twentieth of white median household wealth, when more than a third of Black children live below the federal government’s notoriously inadequate poverty level, when the Black unemployment and poverty rates continue to double those of whites, when a third of young Black men are under the supervision of the criminal justice system, and when Blacks make up more than 40 percent of the nation’s globally unmatched 2.4 million prisoners?

Weak – and secondary.  Obama’s brief and cursory comments on race came after his longer and clearly angry and primary comments on the color-blind and more white-friendly issue of gun control. And that should not be surprising to anyone who has followed “post-racial” Obama’s white-pleasing oratory over the years.
Let’s be clear. At some point, we as a country will have to reckon with the depth, degree, and relevance of anti-Black white societal, institutional, and cultural racism in American life. Electing a “post-racial” Black U.S. President obviously isn’t going to fix the problem. Quite the opposite would seem to be the case, in fact.

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

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

20/06/15 0 COMMENTS

Counterpunch, June 12-14, 2015

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

— Martin Luther King, Jr. 1967

King Cotton

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

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

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

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

The Northern Black Proletariat

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

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

Becoming the Raw Material

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Disturbing Parallels

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

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

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

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

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

A Public-Private System That Kills

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Jim Crow” New and Old

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Nation That Will “Thingify” Poor Blacks

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

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

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

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

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


The Silly Season: Reflections From Iowa

20/06/15 0 COMMENTS

teleSur English, June 12, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We’re coming up to the presidential election’s primary season. Suppose we had a functioning democratic society (laughter). Let’s just imagine that. What would a primary look like, say, in New Hampshire? … The people in a town would get together and discuss, talk about, and argue about what they want policy to be. Sort of like what’s happening here in the Occupy movement. They would formulate a conception of what the policy should be. Then if a candidate comes along and says, ‘I want to talk to you,’ the people in the town ought to say, ‘Well, you can come listen to us if you want…we’ll tell you what you want, and you can try to persuade us that you’ll do it; then, maybe we will vote for you’”….

“What happens in our society? The candidate comes to town with his public relations agents and the rest of them. He gives some talks, and says, ‘Look how great I am. This is what I’m going to do for you.’ Anybody with a grey cell functioning doesn’t believe a word he or she says. And then maybe people for him, maybe they don’t. That’s very different from a democratic society.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Feeding the Frenzy: The Sanders Syndrome Hits Home Court

09/06/15 0 COMMENTS


Weekend Edition June 5-7, 2015


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

— Howard Zinn, April 2008

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

“Enough is Enough”

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

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

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

Democrats, Hillary, and Capitalism Unnamed and Un-blamed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Election Madness”: Some Sage Reflections

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unimpressed by the Urgent Task

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

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

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

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

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

Potential Harm

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

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

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

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

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

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

Privilege-Serving Story Placement at the New York Times

07/06/15 0 COMMENTS

ZNet, June 7, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Enough with the Holy Founders and Their Undemocratic Constitution

06/06/15 0 COMMENTS

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

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

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

“Let the People Be Taught…”

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

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

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

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

Against “the Secret Sigh for a More Equal Distribution”

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

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

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

Checkmating Democracy

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

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

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

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

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

Moves to Amend  

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

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

Serious About Popular Sovereignty

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

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

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

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

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

Theater of the Absurd

03/06/15 0 COMMENTS

TeleSur English, May 25, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nobel Peace Farce

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

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

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

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

The Not-So Nordic Bernie Sanders

03/06/15 0 COMMENTS

Counterpunch, Weekend Edition May 22-24, 2015 

Imperial Omissions

The Not-So Nordic Bernie Sanders


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

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

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

Revealing Comparisons

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

This was a very different approach from that of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who Obama has claimed as a major influence and whose bust sits behind the “first Black president” in the Oval Office. A “democratic socialist” like Sanders, King challenged American Exceptionalism in the summer of 1966, when he noted the greater poverty that existed in the United States compared to other First World states. “Maybe something is wrong with our [capitalist] economic system,” King told an interviewer, observing that there was no or little poverty, slums, and unemployment in “democratic socialist” countries like Sweden. The “beacon to the world” and “city on a hill” had something to “learn from other countries” King was suggesting. The learning process, King felt, meant “question[ing] the capitalistic economy” since “an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”

Against Spiritual Death

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

At New York City’s Riverside Church on April 4, 1967 (one year to the day before he was killed), King described the United States as “the leading purveyor of violence in the world today.” He mentioned some of the horrible things he had learned about US actions in Southeast Asia:

“[The Vietnamese] must see Americans as strange liberators…the people read our leaflets and receive regular promises of peace and democracy – and land reform. Now they languish under our bombs….as we he herd them off the land of their fathers into concentration camps. They know they must move or be destroyed by bombs. They watch as we poison their water, as we kill a million acres of their crops. They must weep as the bulldozers roar through their areas preparing to destroy the precious trees. They wander into the hospitals, with at least twenty casualties from American firepower for one ‘Vietcong’-inflicted injury. So far we may have killed a million of them – mostly children… What do they think as we test out our latest weapons on them, just as the Germans tested out new medicines and new tortures in the concentration camps of Europe?”

King broke with both sides of the American Exceptionalist coin: (A) the notion that the United States is so breathtakingly splendid that it has nothing to learn from the rest of the world and everything to teach others and (B) the notion that the United States is unique among world history’s great powers in the fundamentally benevolent, democratic, humanitarian, and non-(and even anti-) imperial intention and nature of its foreign policies.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bernie’s Imperial Omission

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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