Beyond Piketty – and Capital

08/08/14 0 COMMENTS

August 8, 2014

The Official Web Site of Paul Street

 

“I am Not a Marxist”

When the “Public” Broadcasting System Newshour’s Paul Solman sat down with the overnight academic rock-star Thomas Piketty at the height of the latter’s celebrity in the United States (US) last spring, Solman’s first question was about his politics:

Solman: “Capital, capitale, the name of Karl Marx’s famous work, so are you a French Marxist?”

Piketty: Not at all. No. I am not a Marxist. I turned 18 when the Berlin Wall fell, and I traveled to Eastern Europe to see the fall of the communist dictatorship….I had never had any temptation for communism or, you know, Marxism.” [1]

The celebrated French economist Piketty may have invited comparisons with the great anti-capitalist Marx by writing a bestselling tome titled Capital in the 21st Century (NY: Belknap, 2014), using Marx-like (or Marx-mimicking) phrases like “the central contradiction of capitalism” and “the fundamental laws of capitalism,” and arguing that economic inequality is deeply rooted in the institutional sinews of the profit system. But in his surprise spring and summer US bestseller Capital in the Twenty-First Century (New York: Belknap, 2014) Piketty tells us that Marx was wrong. While he admits that “Modern economic growth and the diffusion of knowledge… have not modified the deep structures of capital and inequality,” he argues that they “have made it possible to avoid the Marxist apocalypse.” (Piketty, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, p.1, emphasis added).

In the introduction to his magnum opus, Piketty says that he “belongs to a generation that came of age listening to news of the collapse of the [Soviet bloc] communist dictatorships,” something that “vaccinated [him] for life against the conventional but lazy rhetoric of anticapitalism….” He says he “ha[s] no interest in denouncing inequality or capitalism per se – especially since social inequalities are not in themselves a problem as long as they are justified, that is, ‘founded upon common utility,’ as article 1 of the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen proclaims.” (Piketty, 31, emphasis added)

Savage Inequalities Right Out of Capitalism

But what justifications of “common utility” can possibly be found in the extraordinary level of the socioeconomic disparity the profits system has brought into being today? Just here in the US, where 16 million children languish below the federal government’s inadequate poverty level, the top 1% owns more wealth than the bottom 90% and a probably comparable share of the nation’s “democratically elected” officials. Six Walmart heirs have more wealth between them than the bottom 40%. Between 1983 and 2010, the Economic Policy Institute has calculated, 74% of the gains in wealth in the U.S. went to the richest 5%, while the bottom 60% suffered a decline.

This savage inequality comes courtesy of the class-based socioeconomic regime called capitalism, a defining aspect of which is its constant underlying tendency towards the concentration of more wealth in fewer hands – a tendency Piketty demonstrates with more than two centuries of brilliantly compiled and analyzed data. It also comes from forms of elite business-class agency that Piketty does not come close to thoroughly examining. Last May, the left economist Jack Rasmus rightly took Piketty to task for missing two leading explanations for dramatically increased inequality in the US since the 1970s: “the manipulation of global financial assets and speculative financial trading” and the “reducing of labor costs across the board.” Focusing almost exclusively changes in the tax system (the third leading explanation by Rasmus’ account), Piketty ignores both the remarkable proliferation and de-/non-regulation of financial instruments (credit default swaps and other complex derivatives and financial “innovations”) and the “top-down class war” (former UAW president Douglass Fraser) that corporations have waged on unions, wages, job benefits, and the social safety net over the last four decade. These are critical omissions.[2]

An Alternative System?

Does the misery and collapse of the Soviet Union/bloc really discredit Marxism or other forms of “anticapitalism”? “One can debate the meaning of the term ‘socialism,’” Noam Chomsky noted in the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse, “but if it means anything, it means control of production by the workers themselves, not owners and managers who rule them and control all decisions, whether in capitalist enterprises or an absolutist state.”[3] Bearing that consideration (true to Marx) in mind and adding in the question of who controls the economic surplus, the US Marxist economist Richard Wolff reasonably describes the Soviet experiment as a form of “state capitalism.” Under the Soviet model, “hired workers produced surpluses that were appropriated and distributed by…state officials who functioned as employers. Thus, Soviet industry was actually an example of state capitalism in its class structure.” By calling itself socialist – a description of “Marxist” Russia that US Cold Warriors and business propagandists eagerly embraced, for obvious reasons – the Soviet Union “prompted the redefinition of socialism to mean state capitalism.”[4]

In a mostly flattering review of Piketty’s book, the Brooklyn-based Marx fan and political-economic commentator Doug Henwood remarked that “the USSR…for all its problems, was living proof that an alternative [to capitalism] economic system was possible.”[5] Alternative post-capitalist systems are indeed achievable, but Henwood’s statement on Soviet Russia is dubious in light of the Soviet Union’s class structure and demise.

The nature and collapse of the Soviet tyranny might with reason be seen as discrediting the “lazy anti-capitalism” of say, the old (Stalinist) French Communist Party. But, as Henwood wrote in his Piketty review, and here we must concur, “Anticapitalist rhetoric need not be lazy.” Marx’s certainly wasn’t. Neither is that of numerous subsequent radical thinkers and activists like, say, Chomsky or Wolff.

“Dark Prophecy”?

What is “the Marxist apocalypse” that we have “avoided” in Piketty’s view? Piketty means the growing division of Western industrial society between a wealthy bourgeoisie on one hand and a vast ever more miserable property-less proletariat, leading to working class socialist/communist revolution – what he calls “Marx’s dark prophecy.” (Capital in the Twenty-First Century, p.9).

Piketty is correct that the European and North American socialist revolutions that many leftists dreamed of didn’t happen in the late 19th or early 20th centuries. Neither did proletarian immiseration on the scale that Marx predicted – at least not in the core Western countries at the center of capitalist development. But why call Marx’s dialectical divination “apocalyptic” and “dark”? Piketty’s word choices strongly suggest elite bias: it’s always been the ruling classes who have most particularly found radical anticapitalists’ ideas catastrophic, for obvious reasons. For socialist, communist, and left anarchist revolutionaries of the mid and late-19th century, the overthrow of private capital and its amoral profits system and the replacement of the capitalist ruling class by the democratic reign of the associated producers and citizens in service to the common good was hardly an apocalypse. It was for them the dawning of the end of the long human pre-history of class rule, ushering in the possibility of a world beyond exploitation and the de facto class dictatorship of privileged owners. It was a “true realm of freedom” beyond endless toil and necessity and “worthy of …‘human nature.’” (Marx, Capital, v.3, p.820). “In the place of the old bourgeois society, with its classes and class antagonisms,” Marx and his indispensable comrade Frederick Engels proclaimed in their 1848 Communist Manifesto, “we shall have an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.”

The Capitalist Apocalypse That Is

Another, more genuinely dark question arises.   Have we really “avoid[ed]” Marxist, well, capitalist apocalypse in the years since Marx wrote? Forget for a moment the cataclysmic global wars, imperial policies, abject plutocracy, and misery of the 20th and early 21st centuries, terrible problems that Marxist and other radical intellectuals reasonably root to no small degree in the system of class rule called capitalism. Never mind the global pauperization that has spread like something out of the Communist Manifesto in the neoliberal era, however much the rich nations may have avoided Piketty’s “Marxist apocalypse.”

Put all that aside for a moment, if you can, and reflect on the growing environmental catastrophe that now poses a genuine threat of human extinction. Marx suggested two stark alternatives in the Manifesto: “either…a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes.” Can there be any serious doubt in the current age of accelerating and catastrophic climate change that the very “modern economic growth” that Piketty praises for having kept “the Marxist apocalypse” at bay threatens to bring about “the common ruin of the contending classes” – indeed the degradation and final destruction of life on Earth – because it is taking place under the command of capital? More than merely dangerous, uncomfortable, and expensive, anthropogenic global warming (AGW) threatens the world’s food and water supplies. It raises the very real specter of human extinction if and when terrible “tipping points” like the large-scale release of Arctic methane (a potential near-term context for truly “runaway” warming) are passed. The related problem of ocean acidification (a change in the ocean’s chemistry resulting from excessive human carbon emissions) is attacking the very building blocks of life under the world’s great and polluted seas. Thanks to AGW and other forms of toxic human intervention in global ecology we most add drastically declining biodiversity – a technical phrase for the massive dying off of other species – to the list of “ecological rifts” facing humanity and other living and sentient beings in the 21stcentury.

The findings and judgments of the best contemporary earth science are crystal clear. As the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research (UK) concluded last year: “Today, in 2013, we face an unavoidably radical futureWe either continue with rising emissions and reap the radical repercussions of severe climate change, or we acknowledge that we have a choice and pursue radical emission reductions.” Sadly, however, the Tyndall scientists failed to radically confront the social-systemic cancer behind AGW. The deeper disease is capitalism, for whose masters and apologists the answer to the venerable popular demand for equality has long been “more.”[6]The answer is based on the theory that growth creates “a rising tide that lifts all boats” in ways that make us forget about the fact that a wealthy few are sailing luxuriantly in giant yachts while most of us are struggling to keep afloat in modest motorboats and rickety dinghies.

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

“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.”

But growth is more than an ideology and a promise to cover inequality under the profits system. It is also a material imperative for investors, managers, workers, and policymakers caught up in the disastrous competitive world-capitalist logic of what the Marxist environmental sociologist John Bellamy Foster calls “the global ‘treadmill of production.” Capitalism demands constant growth to meet the competitive accumulation requirements of capital, the employment needs of an ever-expanding global class or proletarians (workers dependent on wages), the sales needs of corporations, and governing officials’ need to legitimize their power by appearing to advance national economic development and security. This system can no more forego growth and survive than a person can stop breathing and live. It is, as the eco-socialist Joel Kovel notes, a system based on the “eternal expansion of the economic product,” and the “conver [sion of] everything possible [including the air we breathe, the water we drink, the soil and plants] into monetary [exchange] value.”

“The Earth we live on,” Kovel notes, “is finite, and its ecosystems have evolved to accommodate to that finitude. Therefore, a system built on endless growth is going to destroy the integrity of the ecosystems upon which life depends for food, energy, and other resources.” [7]

Consistent with this harsh reality, the system’s leading investors have invested massively in highly wasteful advertising, marketing, packaging and built-in-obsolescence. The commitment has penetrated into core processes of capitalist production, so that millions toil the world over in the making of complex electronic (and other) products designed to lose material and social value (and thus to be dumped in landfills) in short periods of time.[8]

Along the way, U.S. capital has invested huge amounts of fixed capital in the existing fossil fuel-addicted energy system – “sunk” capital investments that make giant and powerful petrochemical corporations and utilities all too “rationally” (from a profit perspective) resistant to a much needed clean energy conversion. And there are more than enough fossil fuels left underground to push the planet past livability before carbon capital’s drillers and frackers run out – something to keep in mind in light of a recent report that methane released from melting permafrost has opened a gigantic crater in Siberia’s Yamal peninsula [9]. Talk about a “specter haunting Europe” (Marx and Engels, 1848) and indeed the whole world.

The same irrational systemic imperatives that drive capitalism into recurrent cycles of boom and bust turn the profits system into a cancerous threat to human existence. The extermination of the species is practically an “institutional imperative” (Noam Chomsky[10]) for the state-capitalist ruling class that imposes the lethal triumph of “exchange value” over “use value” (a key dichotomy in Marx’s analysis) atop the malignant rat-wheel of endless accumulation.

“The World’s Principal Long-Term Worry”

The Jacobin growth and equity advocate Piketty (he reports that high economic and demographic growth rates tend historically to reduce inequality) is not completely unconcerned with the problem. In a brief sub-section of his book, he writes the following: “The second important issue on which [capital accumulation] questions have a major impact is climate change and, more generally, the possibility of deterioration of humanity’s natural capital in the century ahead. If we take a global view then this is clearly the world’s principal long-term worry.” Piketty’s statement comes on page 567, like a tiny afterthought near the end of Capital in the 21st Century, in the volume’s mere three pages that focus on the leading specter haunting humanity in the 21st century, brought to us courtesy of capital. A “global view” would seem to be the view to take when it comes to planetary ecology, but “deterioration of natural capital” is econospeak for eco-cide.

According to the conservative Marxian Meghnad Desai more than a decade ago (in a book provocatively claiming that Marx would have predicted and welcomed the collapse of the Soviet Union), Marx felt that a real and viable socialism would only come after capitalism had exhausted its limits and was no “no longer capable of progress.”[10A]Whatever the accuracy of Desai’s claim regarding Marx (questionable since the mature Marx told Russian radicals they could skip the capitalist stage on the path to socialism), the ecological limits to “progress” under the profits system (private and/or state versions) were passed decades ago. It’s “[eco-] socialism or barbarism if we’re lucky” (Istvan Meszaros): a revolutionary red-green transcendence of continuing bourgeois class rule or a capitalist eco-apocalypse that is right out of Marx.

One can label this stark conclusion as a form dysfunctional “catastrophism” – a nasty term hurled by some Marxians (including the aforementioned Henwood[11]) at those who (like Chomsky) warn of the ever more imminent environmental….well, catastrophe. But to paraphrase and adapt Che Guevera, it’s not my fault if reality is now eco-socialist. “The Earth,” as the young Buddha was reported to have said, “is my [our] witness.”

“Capitalism is Awful but There is Nothing We Can Do About it”

The “catastrophist” matter of capital-o-genic eco-cide aside, what does the neo-Jacobin Piketty recommend in the way of solutions, so as to bring inequality back into the proper bourgeois-revolutionary boundaries of “common utility”? Proclaiming that that the standard liberal-domestic tax, spending and regulatory agenda is now ineffective in the face of capital’s planetary reach, he advocates a measure that is beyond the grasp of any currently existing national or international body: “a global tax on capital”– something Piketty candidly calls “a utopian idea” (Capital in the 21st Century, 515). Only such a worldwide levy “would contain the unlimited growth of global inequality of wealth,” Piketty writes.

Given the monumental logistical and political barriers to the implementation of such a tax, it’s hard not to see Piketty’s heralded Capital as feeding popular pessimism about the existence of any alternatives to the United States’ drift into what former New York State Tax Commissioner James Wezler calls “a plutocratic dystopia characterized by wealth inequality approaching that of ancien régime France.”[12] Piketty feeds the “de facto mental slavery” (David Barsamian[13]) of our time: the widespread sense of powerlessness and isolation shared by millions of citizens and workers and the intimately related idea that there’s no serious or viable replacement for – and nothing much that can be done about – the dominant order.

Given all this and more, including its oversized and tedious nature, why was Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century such a hit with relatively well-off, highly “educated” and supposedly “left”-leaning US liberals this last spring and summer? Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, got to the heart of the matter last May, at the peak of the Piketty craze. In an email to Columbia University journalism professor Thomas B. Edsall, Baker wrote that “a big part of the appeal is that it allows people to say capitalism is awful but there is nothing that we can do about it.” The author of a comprehensive domestic policy agenda for reducing inequality, Baker told Edsall “that many people will feel that they have done their part after struggling through a lengthy book on economics, and now they can go back to their vacation homes and say it’s all a shame.”[14]

It takes a lot more time and energy to read Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century than it does to vote for Barack Obama. Still, it’s hard to miss the parallel here. Like poking a ballot card for the first half-white US president, purchasing (and maybe even working their way through some or all of) Piketty’s book seems to help some liberals think they’ve made a contribution to solving the world’s injustices even while it asks them to do nothing of substance to fight inequality and justifies that nothingness by suggesting that nothing much can be done anyway.

Alternative Reading

For readers interested in deeper anti-capitalist substance and more than  Pikettyan powerlessness, there is no lack of first-rate writing on how to construct a radically transformed and democratized America Beyond Capitalism – title of an important book by the University of Maryland economist Gar Alperovitz. Alperovitz advocates giving workers and communities stakes and self-management through the expansion and support of significantly empowered employee stock ownership and other programs and policies (including highly progressive tax rates and a 25-hour work week) designed to replace the current top-down plutocracy with a bottom-up “pluralist commonwealth.”

Another “utopian” proposal is MIT engineering professor Seymour Melman’s call – developed in his 2001 book After Capitalism and other works—for a nonmarket system of workers’ self-management. Also important: left economist Rick Wolff’s Democracy at Work: A Cure for Capitalism,combining a Marxian analysis of the current economic crisis with a call for “worker self-directed enterprises”; David Schweikert’s After Capitalism,calling for worker self-management combined with national ownership of underlying capital; Michael Liebowitz’s The Socialist Alternative,taking its cue from Latin America’s leftward politics to advance a vision of participatory and democratic socialism; Joel Kovel’s The Enemy of Nature (arguing that solving the current grave environmental crisis requires a shift away from private and corporate control of the planet’s resources); and Michael Albert’s prolific writing and speaking on behalf of participatory economics (“parecon”),inspired to some degree by the “council communism” once advocated by the libertarian Marxist Anton Pannekeok. In his book Parecon: Life After Capitalism (2003), Albert calls for a highly but flexibly structured model of radically democratic economics that organizes work and society around workers’ and consumers councils – richly participatory institutions that involve workers and the entire community in decisions on how resources are allocated, what to produce and how, and how income and work tasks are distributed.

More recently, a sprightly and highly readable Occupy-inspired volume published by a major US publishing house, HarperCollins, is titled IMAGINE Living in a Socialist America (2014). It includes essays from leading intellectuals and activists and provides practical reflections on how numerous spheres of American life and policy – ecology, workplace, finance/investment, criminal justice, gender, sexuality, immigration, welfare, food, housing, health care/medicine, education, art, science, media, and spirituality – might be experienced and transformed under an American version of democratic socialism.

Imagine the lively, inspirational, and forward-looking Imagine and not Piketty’s lumbering, backwards-looking, and pessimism-inducing Capital in the 21st Century (which offers little in the way of solutions and comes up very short on the problem) as the surprise bestseller of 2014. It’s not too late: order your copy here: http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/imagine-frances-goldin/1115888725?ean=9780062305572.

Author and historian Paul Street’s latest book is They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (order at http://www.paradigmpublishers.com/Books/BookDetail.aspx?productID=367810) Street is the author of “Part I: What’s Wrong with Capitalism?” in IMAGINE Living in a Socialist USA.

Selected Endnotes

1. “P”BS Newshour, May 12, 2014, http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/piketty-takes-on-inequality-in-capital/

2. As Marx would certainly note with no small disdain. See Jack Rasmus, “Economists Discover Inequality But Have Yet to Explain It,” Jack Rasmus: Predicting the Global Economic Crisis (May 13, 2014), http://jackrasmus.com/2014/05/13/economists-discover-income-inequality-but-have-yet-to-explain-it/.

3. Noam Chomsky, What Uncle Sam Really Wants (Berkeley, CA: Odonian Press, 1991), 91.

4. Richard Wolff, Democracy at Work: A Cure for Capitalism (Chicago: Haymarket, 2012), 82). For a brilliant left-anarchist historical perspective on the Soviet model (and the broader evolution of capitalist class relations in the workplace), see the formerly radical Stephen Marglin’s classic essay, “What do Bosses Do?,” pp. 13-54 in Andre Gorz, ed., The Division of Labor: The Labour Process and Class Struggle in Modern Capitalism (Humanities Press, NJ, 1976). The Soviet “model” was hardly without real accomplishments.  It succeeded in significantly modernizing Russia (the nation that more than any other defeated Hitler’s fascist regime) outside the pure Western capitalist model of privately owned means of production, distribution, transportation, finance, and communications. This was the main reason for U.S.-led Western hostility of the “Soviet specter,” not (following the doctrinal U.S. Cold War line) Russia’s alleged commitment to global revolution, something it abandoned with the exile of Trotsky in the 1920s. On Western/US Cold War complicity in the false description of the USSR as socialist, see Chomsky, Want Uncle Sam Really Wants, 92: “The world’s two major propaganda systems did not agree on much, but they did agree on using the term socialism to refer to the immediate destruction of every element of socialism by the Bolsheviks. That’s not too surprising. The Bolsheviks called their system socialist so as to exploit the moral prestige of socialism. The West adopted the same usage for the opposite reason: to defame the feared libertarian ideals [of workers’ control and true popular governance] by associating them with the Bolshevik dungeon, to undermine the popular belief that there really might be progress towards a more just society with democratic control over its basic institutions and concern for human needs and rights. If socialism is the tyranny of Lenin and Stalin, then sane people will say: not for me. And if that’s the only alternative to corporate state capitalism, then many will submit to its authoritarian structures as the only reasonable choice.”

5. Doug Henwood, “The Top of the World,” Book Forum, April/May 2014, http://www.bookforum.com/inprint/021_01/12987 It is interesting to compare this description of the Soviet model as proof that “an alternative system was possible” with Henwood’s dismissal of Mike Albert’s Parecon – the most elaborate attempt in recent post-Cold War times to develop a comprehensively non-and anti-capitalist economic vision (including non-hierarchical work relations) – as an unhelpful “off-the-shelf utopia.” See Doug Henwood, “A Post-Capitalist Future is Possible,” The Nation, March 13, 2009, http://www.thenation.com/article/post-capitalist-future-possible#. Parecon is a dysfunctional dreamland but the Soviet state-capitalist tyranny shows “that an alternative economic system was possible.”

6. Tyndall Center for Climate Change Research, “The Radical Emission Reduction Emission Reduction Conference, December 10-11, 2013,” http://www.tyndall.ac.uk/radical-emission-reduction-conference-tyndall-centre-event-confronting-challenge-climate-change; Richard Smith, “Beyond Growth or Beyond Capitalism,” Real World Economic Review, issue 53, June 26, 2010, reprinted with revisions at Truthout (January 15, 2014), http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/21215-beyond-growth-or-beyond-capitalism

7. John Bellamy Foster, “Global Ecology and the Common Good,” Monthly Review (February 1995), read online at http://clogic.eserver.org/3-1&2/foster.html; Joel Kovel, Chapter 2: “The Future Will be Ecosocialist Because Without Ecosocialism There Will be No Future,” in Francis Goldin, Debby Smith, and Michael Steven Smith, IMAGINE Living in a Socialist USA (New York: Harper Collins, 2014), 27-28.

8. John Bellamy Foster and Brett Clark, “The Planetary Emergency,” Monthly Review (December 2013),http://monthlyreview.org/2012/12/01/the-planetary-emergency

9. Terrence McCoy, “Scientists Maye Have Cracked the Giant Siberian Crater Mystery – and the News Isn’t Good,” Washington Post, August 5, 2014, http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2014/08/05/scientists-may-have-cracked-the-giant-siberian-crater-mystery-and-the-news-isnt-good/; Katia Moskia, “Mysterious Siberian Crater Attributed to Menthane,” Nature (July 31, 2014), http://www.nature.com/news/mysterious-siberian-crater-attributed-to-methane-1.15649

10. “I do not want to end without mentioning another externality that is dismissed in market systems: the fate of the species. Systemic risk in the financial system can be remedied by the taxpayer, but no one will come to the rescue if the environment is destroyed. That it must be destroyed is close to an institutional imperative.” Noam Chomsky, “Is t he World Too Big to Fail?” TomDispatch (August 20, 2012), www.tomdispatch.com/blog/175581/best_of_tomdispatch%3A_noam_chomsky,_who_owns_the_world_ On the permafrost crater in Siberia, see Nature (July 31, 2014), http://www.nature.com/news/mysterious-siberian-crater-attributed-to-methane-1.15649

10A. Meghnad Desai, Marx’s Revenge: The Resurgence of Capitalism and the Death of State Socialism (New York: Verso, 2002).

11. See the horrid ecological chapter by Eddie Yuen in Sasha Lilley, David McNally, James Davis, Eddie Yuen, and Doug Henwood, Catastrophism: The Apocalyptic Politics of Collapse and Rebirth (PM Press, 2012). For a measured and brilliant response to Yuen, see Ian Angus, “The Myth of ‘Environmental Catastrophism,’” Monthly Review (September 1, 2013), http://monthlyreview.org/2013/09/01/myth-environmental-catastrophism/

12. Wezler is quoted in Thomas B. Edsall, “Thomas Piketty and His Critics,” New York Times, May 14, 2014), http://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/14/opinion/edsall-thomas-piketty-and-his-critics.html?_r=0

13. Noam Chomsky, Power Systems: Interviews with David Barsamian (New York: Metropolitan, 2013), 34.

14. Edsall, “Piketty and his Critics.”

 

Israel, Gaza, and the False Face of Barack Obama

08/08/14 0 COMMENTS

First published on Counterpunch, August 8, 2014.

 

False face must hide what the false heart doth know….To show an unfelt sorrow is an office
Which the false man does easy” — William Shakespeare, Macbeth, 1.7.83; 2.3.136-37

If there’s one thing I’ve learned over many years of following the political career of United States’ President Barack Obama it is to never underestimate his false-faced cynicism. Examples could fill volumes. Here I highlight a small number of instances relating to recent, ongoing, and terrible events in the Middle East.

“Trying to Put Iraq Back Together”

During the 2008 presidential campaign, Obama repeatedly told voters that “it’s time to stop spending billions of dollars a week trying to put Iraq back together and start spending the money putting [the US of] America back together” (Janesville, Wisconsin, February 15, 2008). The candidate was far too knowledgeable and intelligent to have honestly believed that the US was engaged in a benevolent nation-building project in Iraq. He was too smart not to have understood that the criminal US invasion of that country had killed hundreds of thousands and destroyed vast swaths of social and technical infrastructure and fanned the flames of violent sectarian conflict there. (The horrible consequences of the US invasion are evident in current news reports from devastated Iraq – reports that rarely if ever acknowledge Washington’s critical role in the crippling of Mesopotamia.)

His statement was a cynical ploy for votes from citizens who had long been lied about the real nature and purposes of US foreign policy.

“The Streets of Fallujah”

In late 2006, the all-but-declared presidential candidate Obama made a remarkable statement in support of his claim in a speech to the Chicago Council on Global Affairs – a speech where he falsely claimed that most US citizens supported US “victory” in Ira. He proclaimed that “The American people have been extraordinarily resolved. They have seen their sons and daughters killed or wounded in the streets of Fallujah” (Barack Obama, “A Way Forward in Iraq,” Chicago Council on Global Affairs, November 20, 2006).

It was an extraordinarily cynical, cold-blooded selection of locales. Obama certainly knew that Fallujah was the site of colossal U.S. war crimes, including the indiscriminate murder of thousands of civilians, the targeting of ambulances and hospitals, and the practical leveling of an entire city in April and November of 2004. Obama certainly knew also that majority US public opinion was opposed to the one-sided “Iraq War” (the ongoing US imperial assault on Iraq) when he spoke.

“One President at a Time” (2008-09)

Two months after he was first elected to the White House but before his Inauguration, the powerful US-funded and US-equipped military state of Israel unleashed its lethal force on the open-air Israel-imposed prison called the Gaza Strip. Palestinians of Gaza. Israel’s grossly “disproportional response” to alleged provocations by the Palestinian group Hamas included the bombing of hospitals, ambulances, playgrounds, and schools. Israeli forces engaged in “the shooting of civilians holding white flags, the deliberate and unjustifiable targeting of UN shelters and the killing of over 300 children while the Israeli Army had at their disposal the most precise weaponry in the world.” I quote here from a 2009 United Nations Human Rights Council fact-finding report on “the Gaza War” of 2008-09 – the “Goldstone Report.”

What did the supposedly antiwar man of peace who had just ascended to the highest war-making office on Earth have to say about these outrages? The Palestinians and their many supporters in the Middle East and around the world watched in disgust as the famously wordy President-Elect stood curiously mute in relation to Israel’s dreadful massacre of civilians. Obama claimed that “institutional constraints” prevented him from commenting on “the Gaza War.” The US can only have “one president at a time,” Obama said. Meanwhile, however, he gave regular proto-presidential speeches on the US economy and forthrightly condemned the terrible Islamic terrorist action that took place in Mumbai, India, in late November of 2008. As Noam Chomsky noted at the time:

“To [Israel’s] crimes Obama’s response has been silence – unlike, say, the terrorist attacks in Mumbai, which he was quick to denounce, along with the ‘hateful ideology’ that lies behind it. In the case of Gaza, his spokespersons hide behind the mantra that ‘there is one president at a time,’ and repeated his support for Israeli actions when he visited the Israeli town of Sderot in July [2008]: ‘If missiles were falling where my two daughters sleep, I would do everything in order to stop that.’ But he will do nothing, not even make a statement, when US jets and helicopters with Israeli pilots are causing incomparable worse suffering to Palestinian children (emphasis added).” (Noam Chomsky, “Elections 2008 and Obama’s Vision,” Z Magazine, February 2008)

Even worse, the New Yorker’s Seymour Hersh disclosed that US “smart bombs” and “other high-tech ordnance” used in the attack on Gaza were re-supplied after “the Obama team let it be known that it would not object.” (S. Hersh, “Syria Calling,” New Yorker, April 6, 2009).

“To Touch the Muslim Soul” (Cairo 2009)

Five months after his first Inauguration, Obama gave a much-ballyhooed speech “to touch the Muslim soul” in Cairo. He called for Arab governments to “normalize” relations with Israel in accord with the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative (API). The call was transparently cynical, however, for it ignored key Israel action required by the plan. The API, approved by 22 Arab League nations, offered “normalization” only in exchange for Israel’s withdrawal to its pre-1967 borders, the sharing of Jerusalem between Israel and a new Palestinian state, a fair resolution of the Palestinian refugee crisis in accord with international law, and more. But so what? The freshly elected “new” top false man from Washington simply ignored Israel’s obligation under the initiative. This was consistent with his deafening silence on Israel’s crimes against Gaza and with his deletion of Israel from his Inaugural Address call for leaders around the world “to unclench your fist.”

When the UN Goldstone report came out in September of 2009, the Obama White House used its power to bury the document, smearing it as (in the words of US UN Ambassador Susan Rice) “unbalanced” and “deeply flawed.” Palestinian rights activist Sonja Karkar was later struck by how empty Obama’s promise of “change” already seemed to Palestinians people: “If you would only give us more than words. Perhaps from where you stand, Mr. President, you don’t hear how hollow they sound…Yet, it is in that very same hollow space that more and more people can hear the keening sounds of silence from Gaza and the rapidly fading echoes of your ‘Yes we can.’” (“Letter to Obama,” ZNet, October 13, 2009)

The US fist has hardly unclenched under Obama. He may have been tasked with winding down Washington’s failed ground wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (the same job would have fallen to a President McCain), but he has drastically expanded the scale, intensity, and scope of US drone warfare (the killer of 951 civilians in Pakistan alone under Obama) and the presence of US Special Forces troops around the world. Obama kept the US imperial “machine set on kill” (Allan Nairn).

“Nothing More Shameful Than Attacking Sleeping Children”

During the most recent “Gaza fighting” (“mainstream” US media’s deceptive term for Israel’s latest one-sided and mass-murderous assault on the Gaza prison strip), Israel has killed more than 1900 Palestinians, 70 percent of them civilians, including hundreds of children. Israel’s crimes have again included the bombing and shelling of schools, hospitals, ambulances, and UN shelters. Gaza’s main power plant was bombed (as usual), “sharply curtailing the already very limited electricity and worse yet, reducing still further the minimal availability of fresh water” (Noam Chomsky). The openly criminal savagery has occurred in full view of the world, most of which is appalled by the vicious, even sociopathic carnage inflicted on the defenseless and trapped people of Gaza by the “Most Moral Army in the World”: US planes, tanks, and helicopters with Israeli pilots and commanders.

Israel is creating a “no man’s land” in Gaza, shrinking the outdoor prison by more than 40 percent. The Daily Beast’s Jesse Rosenfeld reports that

“This narrow strip of land that used to be called ‘the Gaza Strip,’ already one of the more densely populated places on Earth, is growing dramatically smaller. The Israeli military, relentlessly and methodically, is driving people out of the 3-kilometer (1.8 mile) buffer zone it says it needs to protect against Hamas rockets and tunnels. According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the buffer zone eats up about 44 percent of Gaza’s territory… Apartment blocks are fields of rubble, and as I move through this hostile landscape the phrase that keeps ringing in my head is ‘scorched earth.’” (“Israel Creates ‘No Man’s Land in Gaza,” Daily Beast, July 28, 2014).

“The world stands disgraced” – so said United Nations Relief and Works Agency Commission-General Pierre Kraehenbuehl after Tel Aviv bombed a UN shelter filled with more than 3000 refugees on July 30th. Many of the 16 killed were women and children. The usually restrained Secretary-General of the UN Ban Ki-moon has condemned Israel’s latest sociopathic attack on Gaza “in the strongest possible terms…Nothing,” the Secretary-General added, “is more shameful than attacking sleeping children.” Ban Ki-moon noted that the precise location of this school had been communicated to the Israeli military authorities 17 times.

Unfelt Sorrow: No Honest Broker

Thanks to publicly available images of open Israeli state crimes that have shocked the world, including many in the US, Obama has had to make sounds of humanitarian concern this time. At an August 1st press conference, Obama said it was “heartbreaking to see what’s happening in Gaza.” He said he “want[ed] to see everything possible done to ensure Palestinian civilians aren’t killed.”   A White House spokesperson said “We are extremely concerned that thousands of internally displaced Palestinians who have been called on by the Israeli military to evacuate their homes are not safe in UN designated shelters in Gaza.”

These and other US “condemnations” of some of Israel’s more egregious war crimes against Palestinian humanity would seem a bit more genuine if they didn’t come at the same time as the Administration directs the Pentagon to release more weaponry to Israel. And if they weren’t accompanied by the usual US statements of sympathy for Israelis (who have lost a grand total of three civilians in the latest “Gaza fighting”) combined with the customary claims that Hamas is largely responsible for Palestinian civilians deaths, the standard sham expressions of distress for Palestinians “caught in the crossfire,” and the regular strong backing for Israel’s “right to defend itself.” What crossfire? Where? And of course, as far as the US is concerned, “Palestinians…have no right to defend themselves, surely not when Israel is on good behavior, keeping to the norm of quiet-for-quiet: stealing their land, driving them out of their homes, subjecting them to a savage siege, and regularly attacking them with weapons provided by their protector….Palestinians,” Noam Chomsky notes, “are like black Africans, the Namibian refugees in the Cassinga camp for example, all terrorists for whom the right of defense does not exist.” (Noam Chomsky, “Outrage,” ZNet, August 2, 2014)

The Administration’s expressions of worry for Palestinian lives are right out of Shakespeare’s Macbeth: “False face,” the great playwright noted, “must hide what the false heart doth know.” (Macbeth, 1.7.83) “To show an unfelt sorrow,” Shakespeare added “is an office Which the false man does easy” (Macbeth, 2.3.136-37).

Obama is not naïve or stupid. He knows very well that the US is actively helping Israel in its racist and sociopathic war on Gaza by: sharing raw signals intelligence with the Israeli military; “continually replenishing Israel’s ammunition; diplomatically supporting Israel’s economic blockade of Gaza; exporting vast supplies of weapons and munitions and other military technology to Israel each year; opposing the designation of Palestine as a “nonmember observer state” in the UN (thereby preventing Palestinians from enlisting the International Criminal Court in its struggle against Israel’s theft of their land. As Juan Cole notes, “The US cannot serve as honest broker in Israel-Palestine negotiations because its government is overwhelming committed to and identified with Israel, including in this war. That is why President Obama keeps mouthing propaganda like that Israel has a right to defend itself (it doesn’t enjoy an absolute right of that sort– its defense has to be proportionate and within international law).” (J. Cole, “Top 5 Ways US is Israel’s Accomplice in War Crimes in Gaza,” Informed Comment, August 4, 2014).

Nothing is more shameful than attacking sleeping children – nothing except perhaps giving others ordnance, weapons, and intelligence data with which to attack sleeping children and providing blank check diplomatic and political cover for the murderers and acting throughout like you’ve got nothing to do with the horror.

Marrowless Men: “Look Man, I’m a Politician”

Shakespeare again: “Thy bones are marrowless, thy blood is cold.” (Macbeth, 3.4.93). The condemnation applies not just to Obama but to almost the entirety of the US elite political class and imperial establishment, most of which is deeply committed and captive to the savage racist and sociopathic occupation and mass-murder state Israel has become. A recent Daily Beast article is titled “Even Left Wing Democrats Can’t Quit Israel.”   Reporter Tim Mak notes that:

“Despite grassroots outrage at Operation Protective Edge, left-wing members of the House and Senate won’t criticize Israel’s ongoing incursion into Gaza. Much of the American left is critical of Israel, particularly since its incursion into Gaza. But in the halls of Congress, even progressive Democrats beloved by grassroots activists are loath to criticize the Jewish State’s ongoing military offensive.”

“A Pew Research poll released Monday showed that a plurality of Democrats across the country, 35 percent, and liberals, 44 percent, said that Israel had ‘gone too far’ in its response to its conflict with Hamas. Meanwhile 47 percent of Democrats told Gallup that Israel’s actions during the current conflict were “unjustified…But these opinions are nearly impossible to find in Congress. Democrats, when asked a question about Israeli operations in Gaza, had two standard responses: irritation, or else a statement of their broad support of Israel, without going into specifics. It was as if the very mention of Israel turned the question into a hostile interview.”

“ ‘Look, man, I’m a politician, with multiple constituencies. Why should I alienate one just so that you can write a story?’ Democratic Rep. Keith Ellison angrily told The Daily Beast. Ellison, a stalwart progressive, was the first Muslim-American elected to Congress.”

“Ellison cited a Thursday op-ed he had written that was critical of the Gaza blockade, but became noticeably agitated when asked to expand on his views. In particular, he did not want to address whether Israel had gone too far during its current operations in the Gaza Strip.”

“Sen. Bernie Sanders, a darling of the left who identifies as a democratic socialist, was curt. His tone changed suddenly when the topic shifted from the Veterans Administration bill that he had been shepherding through Congress to Israel’s operation in Gaza.”

“ ‘That’s not where my mind is right now,” he told the Beast.”(T. Mak, Daily Beast, July 30, 2014)

This is yet another reminder to seriously progressive citizens never to look for “leadership,” moral or otherwise, from politicians. Howard Zinn would have appreciated Rep. Ellison’s remark. “Except for the rare few,” Zinn noted seven years ago, “our representatives are politicians, and will surrender their integrity, claiming to be ‘realistic.’ We are not politicians, but citizens. We have no office to hold on to, only our consciences, which insist on telling the truth. That, history suggests, is the most realistic thing a citizen can do” (H. Zinn, “Are We Politicians or Citizens?” The Progressive, May 2007).

Paul Street is the author of The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (Paradigm, 2010). Street’s latest book is They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm, 2014, http://www.paradigmpublishers.com/books/BookDetail.aspx?productID=367810). Street can be reached at paul.street99@gmail.com

“Mainstream” News as Mobster Dinnertime

08/08/14 0 COMMENTS

Imagine growing up in a household ruled by a violent, psychotic father – a man who bullies, beats, and otherwise abuses everyone in his family. When he isn’t throwing his weight around at home, he and a handful of thugs under his command are busy robbing, assaulting, torturing, and even killing others in the community. He causes suffering and spreads fear and silence within and beyond his domicile.

He justifies this behavior with claims of benevolent intent.  It’s necessary to use force and intimidation, he says, to protect others against evil, including their own. He’s a vicious sociopath and a malignant narcissist, not to mention a murderer.

Imagine that every night the people living in this family gather for dinner under his fake-benevolent supervision.  During supper, people talk about the day’s events and other topics in a very careful way.  They make sure not to say anything real about the father’s transgressions.  They steer clear of his terrible role in their lives and the broader community.

His wife reports that her wrist is continuing to heal, but she still can’t shake those nasty headaches.  There’s no mention of the fact that her wrist was broken and her brain concussed when he slammed her to the kitchen floor in an angry rage last month.

His daughter reports that her anxiety medicine worked a little today but she still couldn’t focus in school.  She can’t mention that her underlying depression comes from growing up in a terrorized home.

His son fakes a smile as he claims to have enjoyed beating up “a punk who’d been bugging me” in the playground. He can’t admit that he abhorred the violence he inflicted.  He would never mention that he bullies others because of the fear and violence imposed by his father at home.

The father inveighs against the supposedly self-inflicted poverty of a family across the street. “Why don’t those bums get off their asses and make some real money?” he says.  Nobody in his house dares to mention that the neighboring family has been impoverished ever since he had two of his henchmen put its main breadwinner in a coma for failing to pay back a loan on time.

Deleting “Homeland” Oppression

This terrible dinner-time scenario is a bit like what it’s like to watch US “mainstream” (corporate state) media coverage of current events.  Terrible events regularly flash across the screen, accompanied by vapid commentary that offers no serious and honest reflection on context and causation. Such reflection would violate longstanding, deeply embedded prohibitions on mentioning the elephants in the room: the United States’ unelected and interrelated dictatorships of money, empire, white supremacy, patriarchy, and eco-cide.

Thus, we are fed a regular television news diet of terrible violence and crime in the nation’s black ghettoes and Latino barrios – a staple item on evening television news across metropolitan America. The causes of the violence are a non-story. Reporters never make elementary connections between the carnage that is all too common in the nation’s most disadvantaged communities and the savage abandonment and oppression of those communities by the business class and its growing police state. Chronic structural unemployment, shredded social services, under-funded and authoritarian schools, discriminatory hiring practices, racial profiling by police and prosecutors, persistent residential hyper-segregation by race and class, the ubiquitous felony-branding and incarceration of blacks and Latinos — these and other serious problems plaguing the nation’s poorest neighborhoods are not “news.” Violence and crime in those neighborhoods (symptoms of officially unmentionable injustice and oppression) are the only stories that matter.

An analogous omission mars the nightly news’ local weather reports. Delivered with the latest high-tech graphics, they tell of new record meteorological extremes—stifling heat waves, terrible droughts, giant rain and snow falls, high-intensity storms, deadly floods, shocking forest and brush fires, and deep-freeze “polar vortexes” resulting from altered northern jet streams. The reports are detailed and often sensational, like the crime news. But the cause of what’s being reported – the “new” extreme weather “normal” – is a non-story. Television weatherpersons never connect their news to Earth scientists’ finding that endless economic growth based on the relentless, wasteful exploitation of carbon-rich fossil fuels have warmed the world’s climate to a degree that raises the specter of human extinction in the not-so-distant historical future. Anthropogenic (really capital-o-genic) climate change is the weather news’ elephant in the room, the giant explanatory factor that simply can’t be mentioned.

Political dysfunction and related US governmental gridlock and “do-nothing”-ness is another staple item in US media news and commentary.  The rooting of that dysfunction and policy failure in the power of the investor class (which delights and invests in and profits from “paralyzed” politics and government) is a non-news story in the “mainstream” coverage and commentary. It is a forbidden topic. Also taboo is the stark chasm between (a) the relatively progressive and social-democratic policy preferences of most US citizens and (b) the regressive and plutocratic policies handed down to the populace by “democratically elected” office-holders who are captive to “the 1%.” – a reflection of the unmentionable fact that the US political system is paralyzed only when it comes to helping the working class majority of people, not when it’s about serving the economic elite.

Uncle Sam as Innocent Bystander

Turning abroad, the “border crisis” created by the arrival of tens of thousands of unaccompanied child refugees from the Northern Triangle of Central America is reported without reference whatsoever to the critical role of past and present US imperial policy in making decent life impossible in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras (for details and sources, see Paul Street, “Deleting the Imperial Perpetrator,” teleSur English/ZNet, July 19, 2014, http://zcomm.org/zcommentary/deleting-the-imperial-perpetrator/). You’d think the US was little more than a befuddled and innocent bystander to the misery in these nations.

The latest outbursts of chaos and bloodshed in Iraq are reported in “mainstream” US media as if they are utterly unrelated to a US invasion that killed more than a million Iraqis, collapsed the nation’s infrastructure, and intentionally aggravated religious and ethnic divisions in Mesopotamia. That devastating US attack and occupation came on top of a previous one-sided and mass-murderous US-imperial assault (the so-called Persian Gulf War), followed by more than a decade of US-led economic sanctions that killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children.  But, as far as dominant media is concerned, it’s got nothing to do with good old Uncle Sam, who has no imperial ambitions and just wants peace and stability around the world.

The violence in Ukraine is reported by “mainstream” US media as being all about the imperialism of Moscow.  There’s no reference to Washington’s role in replacing Ukraine’s previous government with a regime allied with Western and US interests and including fascist elements.  It’s got nothing to do with the US, benevolent protector of those freedom-loving Ukrainians.

The barely reported melting of the planet’s icecaps and the catastrophic warming of the planet is never connected to US policy and power in “mainstream” US media. So what if the US is the world’s leading per-capita Greenhouse Gas-emitter, the greatest historical contributor to accumulated global-atmospheric carbon, and the global headquarters of Big Carbon political and ideological power, including the climate change denial industry?  It’s got nothing to do with us/the US.

Israel’s ongoing, almost unimaginably evil and intentionally mass-murderous attack on Palestinian civilians trapped in the open-air prison of Gaza this summer is another case in point. Given the sinister savagery and open criminality of the assault, carried out in full view of the world (replete with body part-strewn footage from Palestinian schools, playgrounds, and hospitals), US “mainstream” media has had no choice but to acknowledge some humanitarian criticism of Israel’s conduct.  What can’t receive serious attention, however, is of course, the criminal role of the United States. So what if Israel and the US are a single co-joined military entity and everything Israel does takes place with tacit US consent? Here, again and as usual, it’s got nothing to do with that good old well-intentioned “honest broker” Uncle Sam.

“We Are Good” So “Why Do They Hate Us?”

That “crazy, scary world” out there that flashes horror across US television screens has nothing to do with us/the US. For “the United States is good.  We try to do our best everywhere.”  So proclaimed then US Secretary of State Madeline Albright in 1999 – yes, the same Madeline Albright who told CBS News three years before that more than half a million dead Iraqi children was a “price worth paying” for the advance of inherently noble US foreign policy goals.

“We are good.” Every modern US President (none perhaps with more audacity than Barack Obama) and Secretary of State has said and still routinely says things along the same psychotic and nationally narcissistic “American exceptionalist” lines. They do so without facing any more criticism from US “mainstream” media than Soviet rulers faced from PravdaIzvestia, and Soviet state television (“mainstream” Soviet media) when they described their nation and its Eastern European satellites as “great socialist people’s democracies.”

No wonder so many US-of-American are befuddled by the anger the US evokes around the world (particularly now in the Muslim world), childishly clueless when it comes answering the pathetic question “Why Do They Hate Us?” In the US, and indeed across much of the West, “mainstream” media and in the reigning intellectual culture the record of ongoing US criminality is airbrushed out from official history and the mass culture even as it occurs.  It is instantaneously tossed down George Orwell’s “memory hole.” As Harold Pinter noted in his acceptance of the 2005 Nobel Prize in Literature, dominant Western cultural authorities behave as if US imperial violence does not exist and never has. “Even while it was happening,” Pinter said, it never happened.  It didn’t matter.  It was of no interest.” Pinter was speaking of the Cold War era. Nothing has changed in this regard since the collapse of the Soviet Union.  It’s very much the same today.

When Salaries Depend on Playing Along

“It is difficult to get a man to understand something,” Upton Sinclair once noted in an oft-quoted statement, “when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” No doubt, some of the talking and writing media heads enlisted in the project of airbrushing Uncle Sam out of the global criminal record (no small act of distortion and deletion) know very well that “good” Washington’s role in the world is very different than what they report. They also know that telling even small truths about US imperial arrogance and criminality could cost them their jobs and future employment prospects. It is difficult to get a reporter to reveal his or her understanding of the real US role in the world when his or her salary depends on that reporter not revealing that understanding.  She knows that the Mafia don at the head of her dinner table will lock her up in the attic without a meal if she breaks the rules on acknowledging his wrongdoing.

More Ammunition, Please

Which is not to say that viewers can’t put a few truthful things together from “mainstream” coverage. Madeline Albright’s “price worth paying” comment on CBS in 1996 is one example of imperial psychosis slipping through the bubble to some degree.  Another example for me at least came on the evening of July 30, 2014, when CNN broadcast terrible footage of an Israeli rocket assault whose targets included an ambulance in Gaza. Right after the chilling clip, the CNN newsreader noted with stone face that Israel had recently requested “more ammunition” from the United States – yes, more ammunition so that (any half-perceptive viewer could deduce) Israel could kill more Palestinian children and ambulance drivers.

The request was honored. The US quickly agreed to provide Israel more ordnance so it could butcher more families in Gaza. It did so without much attention from “mainstream” US media.

 

Top Threat to Peace on/and Earth

Things are different beyond the US media bubble. Washington’s real role in the world is well understood outside the United States, by a global citizenry that ranks the US as by far and away the leading threat to peace on Earth – and to a livable Earth.  It does so with good reasons, including the Orwellian nature of the US “mainstream” media.

Paul Street’s next book is They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm, 2014, http://www.paradigmpublishers.com/books/BookDetail.aspx?productID=367810

Beyond Mental Slavery

08/08/14 0 COMMENTS
First published on TeleSur English, August 1, 2014.
The greatest obstacle to democracy and popular activism for the common good in the current New Gilded Age United States (US) is the widespread sense of powerlessness and isolation shared by countless citizens and workers. It’s the pervasive sense drummed into millions that we are all on our own.  It’s also the intimately related idea that there’s no serious or viable alternative to – and nothing really that can be done about – the dominant order. This “no alternative” sense is the “de facto mental slavery” (David Barsamian’s term) of our time.
 
“Beyond My Ability to Imagine”
 
Which brings me to the saddest essay I’ve read in a long time. It was published on the progressive US Website TomDispatch two months ago under the ironic title “Why Don’t the Unemployed Get Off Their Couches?” Its author, former United States (US) State Department whistle-blower Peter Van Buren, reflected on the epic economic inequality and related mass joblessness that have spread like a plague across the US in recent years. He bemoaned the fact that eight Americans (four Walmart heirs plus the two Koch brothers, Bill Gates, and Warren Buffett) “earned” more money between them last year than “3.6 million American minimum-wage workers combined. The median pay for CEOs at America’s large corporations rose to $10 million per year,” Van Buren observed, “while a typical chief executive now makes about 257 times the average worker’s salary…Overall,” Van Buren added, “1% of Americans own more than a third of the country’s wealth.”
 
Van Buren might have added that the 1% owns more than wealth than the bottom 90% of US Americans and six Walmart heirs have between them as much wealth as more than 40% of the US populace (millions have no or negative net worth).
 
Van Buren went through a list of reasons that mass unemployment is deeply embedded in the currently US socioeconomic terrain. There is, he rightly noted, a brutal disconnect between the small number of good (remunerative) jobs the US economy is generating and  the vast number of US citizens searching for decent employment.
 
It’s not a pretty story. And, as Van Buren rightly noted, it helps explain why liberal French economist Thomas Piketty’s tome Capital in the 21st Century – a book Van Buren does not seem to understand very well[1] – became a “surprise bestseller” in the US last spring. Piketty’s book shows that economic inequality is rooted in the institutional sinews of capitalism and that this is no less true in the US than anywhere else.
 
But the real downer in Van Buren’s essay came at the end, in his concluding paragraph.  After saying that we should raise the US minimum wage and “maybe appoint Thomas Piketty to the board of directors of Walmart,” Van Buren epitomized the “mental slavery” of our “neoliberal” (hyper-capitalist) times: the belief that there is no real alternative to the existing system of top-down class rule:
 

“What most likely lies ahead is not a series of satisfying American-style solutions to the economic problems of the 99%, but a boiling frog’s journey into a form of twenty-first-century feudalism in which a wealthy and powerful few live well off the labors of a vast mass of the working poor. Once upon a time, the original 99% percent, the serfs, worked for whatever their feudal lords allowed them to have. Now, Walmart ‘associates’ do the same. Then, a few artisans lived slightly better, an economic step or two up the feudal ladder. Now, a technocratic class of programmers, teachers, and engineers with shrinking possibilities for upward mobility function similarly amid the declining middle class. Absent a change in America beyond my ability to imagine, that’s likely to be my future – and yours.” (“Why Don’t the Unemployed Get Off Their Couches?” TomDispatch.com, June 3, 2014)

Van Buren did not merely say that he saw progressive change as unlikely. He said he found it beyond his ability to imagine.  Perhaps he should have put down Piketty’s giant volume and picked up some other, more radical and forward-looking books. 
 
I’ve got a reading list for Peter Van Buren.
 
Reforms
 
“One commonly hears that carping critics complain about what is wrong, but do not present solutions,” Chomsky noted in in his 2006 book Failed States.  “There is,” Chomsky added, “an accurate translation for that charge: ‘they present solutions and I don’t like them.’”
Consistent with Chomsky’s observation, there is no shortage of good progressive policy ideas to check and roll back the plutocratic reach of the corporate and financial elite. A short list of well-known proposals includes the “Tobin” financial transactions tax; the Employee Free Choice Act (which would re-legalize union organizing in this county); regular and serious hikes in the minimum wage; increased regulation, downsizing and even nationalization of the leading financial institutions; full employment as a matter of federal policy; a significantly reduced work week; the removal of private money from public elections and the full public financing of those elections; seriously progressive taxation; single payer health insurance; renegotiation of NAFTA and other “free trade” deals to include significant labor and environmental protections; national and international measures to control carbon emissions; green jobs public works programs; an expanded social safety net; a shift from mass incarceration, the “War on Drugs,” and military empire to investing in schools, antipoverty programs, and broader human welfare; and the restoration of civil liberties through the repeal of NDAA, the Patriot Act, and other repressive measures. No “demand” is more urgent and necessary than the call for large-scale public green jobs programs, connected to a wider program for the conversion of the US economy to environmental sustainability – one that (among other things) drops reliance on fossil fuels. I could go on.
  
America Beyond Capitalism
 
“At this point,” Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett argued in their important book The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger (2010) “creating the political will to make society more equal is more important than pinning our colours to a particular set of policies to reduce inequality…Political will,” Wilkinson and Pickett added, “is dependent on the development of avision of a better society which is both achievable and inspiring.”
There is no lack of first-rate thinking on how to construct a radically transformed and democratized America Beyond Capitalism – title of an important book by the University of Maryland economist Gar Alperovitz. He advocates giving workers and communities stakes and self-management through the expansion and support of significantly empowered employee stock ownership programs and other programs and policies (including highly progressive tax rates and a 25-hour work week) designed to replace the current top-down plutocracy with a bottom-up “pluralist commonwealth.”
 
Alperovitz is a founder of the University of Maryland’s Democracy Collaborative (DC), which focuses on community wealth-building through the creation of worker co-ops and worker-owned companies that build structures that reflect workers’ and communities’ stakes in the design and purpose of economic enterprises. The Evergreen Cooperatives in Cleveland, Ohio, embody the DC model. They reference the more well-known Mondragon Cooperative Corporation in Spain, a successful conglomerate of worker-owned cooperatives that employs 85,500 workers in areas ranging from medical technology to the manufacture of home appliances and running a giant credit union. The United Steelworkers union has become “a strong advocate of worker ownership, and is actively working to develop new models based on the Mondragon Cooperative,” with which it has recently undertaken a joint initiative. Alperovitz thinks that Mondragon-like experiments could become seeds of a future post-capitalist economy.
 
Another “utopian” proposal is MIT engineering professor Seymour Melman’s call – developed in his 2001 book After Capitalism and other works—for a nonmarket system of workers’ self-management. Also important: left  economist Rick Wolff’s Democracy at Work: A Cure for Capitalism, combining a Marxian analysis of the current economic crisis with a call for “worker self-directed enterprises”; David Schweikert’s After Capitalism, calling for worker self-management combined with national ownership of underlying capital; Michael Liebowitz’s The Socialist Alternative, taking its cue from Latin America’s leftward politics to advance vision of participatory and democratic socialism; Joel Kovel’s The Enemy of Nature (arguing that solving the current grave environmental crisis requires a shift away from private and corporate control of the planet’s resources); and Michael Albert’s prolific writing and speaking on behalf of participatory economics (“parecon”), inspired to some degree by the “council communism” once advocated by the libertarian Marxist Anton Pannekeok. In his book Parecon: Life After Capitalism (2003), Albert calls for a highly but flexibly structured model of radically democratic economics that organizes work and society around workers’ and consumers councils – richly participatory institutions that involve workers and the entire community in decisions on how resources are allocated, what to produce and how, and how income and work tasks are distributed.
 

A recent Occupy-inspired volume published by a major US publishing house, HarperCollins, is titled Imagine: Living in a Socialist America (2014). It includes essays from leading intellectuals and activists and provides practical reflections on how numerous spheres of American life and policy – ecology, workplace, finance/investment, criminal justice, gender, sexuality, immigration, welfare, food, housing, health care/medicine, education, art, science, media, and spirituality – might be experienced and transformed organized under an American version of democratic socialism.

Imagine the forward-looking Imagine and not Piketty’s giant, dull, data-packed and backwards-looking historical reflection (which offers little in the way of contemporary solutions and comes up very short on the problems) as the surprise bestseller of 2014.
 
The Duty of Struggle
Moving off the rule of capital in the US is not just desirable. It also necessary – an imperative for survival in the current era of deepening environmental catastrophe. As Kovel notes in Imagine,volume, capitalism is based on the “eternal expansion of the economic product” and the “conver[sion of] everything possible [including the air we breathe, the water we drink, the soil and plants] into monetary value….The Earth we live on,” Kovel observes “is finite, and its ecosystems have evolved to accommodate to that finitude…a system built on endless growth is going to destroy the integrity of the ecosystems upon which life depends…”
 
There are no guarantees of success, of course. But we have a duty to struggle. “We have to be prepared, on the basis of our moral insight,” Mario Savio said in late 1994, “to struggle even if we do not know that we are going to win.” Perhaps we have only a 20%, or worse, a 1% chance of success, of creating a just, sustainable, and democratic nation and world no longer lethally occupied by the “unelected dictatorship of money.” Failure to believe in the worthiness of collective struggle for a decent and democratic future beyond that plutocratic occupation takes our odds down to zero.
 

We lose nothing by believing. By not believing, we lose everything – quite literally everything given current environmental projections, which suggest that “we are really facing the prospect of species destruction for the first time in human history” (Noam Chomsky). As Marxist philosopher Istvan Meszaros put things in 2001, “We are running out of time…The uncomfortable truth of the matter is that if there is no future for a radical mass movement in our time, there can be no future for humanity…”

No boiling frogs here. It’s not about the crystal ball. We are obligated to imagine a just and democratic world beyond Van Buren’s “21st century feudalism” (capitalism, really) and then to fight for that world. The people are ready to fight for that world and win – as I will show in a subsequent commentary.
 
 

Paul Street is author of They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm, 2014, http://www.paradigmpublishers.com/books/BookDetail.aspx?productID=367810and author of the Section 1, “What’s Wrong With Capitalism?” in Imagine Living in a Socialist USA (http://www.harpercollins.com/books/9780062305572)

Note

[1] Van Buren’s characterization of Piketty’s thesis as “a rising tide lifts all Yachts” inverts the economist’s core historical connection between heightened inequality and slow growth.  Van Buren also falsely credits Piketty with attributing part of contemporary inequality to employers’ “crushing of unions.”  Piketty actually ignores union issues and labor/capital conflict (“class struggle” in Marxist terms) to a remarkable (and problematic) degree.

Single Standard Media Doublethink

08/08/14 0 COMMENTS

First published on ZNet, July 31, 2014. Watching the talking cable television heads on the glowing telescreen in my hotel room in Madison, Wisconsin this morning (Tuesday, July 30, 2014), I was momentarily struck by a foolish question. How, I wondered, do they handle the Orwellian absurdity of the news they report? I was watching Chuck Todd go back and forth with other corporate media big shots on the supposedly left cable network MSNBC. They all eagerly approved the White House’s “tough new economic sanctions” against Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Russia must be punished, responsible commentators agree with the US president, because Moscow “violates Ukraine’s national sovereignty,” uses violence to “prevent Ukraine from determining its own destiny,” and murders European air travelers en masse. It’s a shame, one expert told Todd, that France insists on selling naval hardware to the dastardly Kremlin regime. Todd clearly shared the sentiment. Russia must pay for its perfidy. Forget, for a moment, the critical role that the West and particularly Washington have played in removing Ukraine’s democratically elected president and otherwise precipitating and fueling the Ukraine crisis and the “new Cold War” with Moscow. Never mind Washington’s brazenly imperial, oil- and gas-soaked ambitions and political-economic agenda in Ukraine and around the world. Forget Russians’ legitimate national and historical concerns about the creation of a US-allied EU and NATO state on their country’s western border (imagine how US-of-Americans would respond to the creation of a Chinese-allied province on the US Canadian or Mexican border). Never mind the absence of any solid evidence for Washington’s claim that the Malaysian Airlines jetliner shot down over eastern Ukraine we felled by “Putin’s missile.” Or the distinct possibility that MH17 was blown out of the sky by Ukrainian forces. Acknowledging that Putin is an authoritarian and imperial brute atop a thuggish oligarchy, put all that aside. Reflect on how none of the talking heads comment on the (one would think) curious fact nobody with any power in Washington is calling for sanctions on the racist and apartheid state of Israel, which has engaged this sinister July in the arch-criminal murder of hundreds of Palestinians trapped in the under-siege open air-prison of Gaza. I heard one talking head on MSNBC accuse Russia of killing 300 Ukrainians. That number (whatever its source) is one- fourth the latest Palestinian death count (1200 as of this writing). Most of those killed by Israel this month are civilians. The dead included a large number of children and women bombed in their homes, in schools, in playgrounds, and parks. The war criminals in Tel Aviv have even targeted hospitals and ambulances. A recent commentary by Pablo Escobar bears the clever title “Crime (Israel) and Punishment (Russia).” It explicitly grasps the Orwellian dreadfulness of what I’m talking about. By Escobar’s darkly clever account:

‘So Obama, Merkel, Cameron, Hollande and Renzi – let’s call them the Fab Five – got on a video conference call to muster their courage and “increase pressure” asking for a cease-fire in Gaza. Later in the day, Bibi delivers his answer, in plain language: He remains dead set on achieving his version of a Final Solution to Gaza with or without “pressure.” So what’s left for the Fab Five after having their illustrious Western collective behinds solemnly kicked? They decide to dump Gaza and instead SANCTION RUSSIA! AGAIN! How brilliant is cable television talking.’

‘Spectacular non-entity Tony Blinken, who doubles as deputy national security adviser to Obama, was keen to stress to Western corporate media that the unruly Eurotrash mob is now “determined to act”. No, not against Israel because of Gaza; against Russia because of Ukraine. Such a lovely Orwellian symmetry; the extended Two Minutes Hate from Israel towards Gazans morphs into the extended Two Minutes Hate from the “West” towards Russia, mirroring the extended Two Minutes Hate from Kiev towards Eastern Ukrainians.’

‘Not even Hollywood could come up with such a plot; Israel gets away with unlawful premeditated mass murder of civilians, while Russia gets framed for an airborne mass murder of civilians that has all the makings of being set up by the Kiev vassals of Russia’s Western“partners”.‘ (RT, July 29, 2014, http://rt.com/op-edge/176548-crime-israel-punishment-russia/)

The temptation is strong to accuse Washington and its loyal press and broadcast corps of holding a moral “double standard” here. But as Noam Chomsky has noted more than once, “There is a double standard only if the intentions are humanitarian.” Sadly enough, US policy is guided by “the familiar single standard of pursuit of power interests with little concern for human consequences” (“The ‘Single Standard’ in Kosovo,” The Nation, January 3, 2000,http://www.thenation.com/article/single-standard-kosovo#). There’s no genuine moral contradiction in US policy and media coverage/commentary regarding Israel (crime) and Russia (punishment) because there’s no genuine humanitarian morality behind the policy and the coverage follows in customary fealty to the policy. People really or allegedly harmed by forces who stand in the way of Washington’s imperial interests and ambitions – by, say, Putin’s Russia in Eastern Europe, by the socialist government of Venezuela, or by Islamist “insurgents” in Iraq or Palestine – are officially “worthy victims.” Their real and alleged suffering matters and must be redressed, punished, and even avenged. Millions who are killed, crippled, maimed, starved, sickened, displaced, and traumatized by US forces and/or by other forces allied with the US Empire are officially “unworthy” and largely invisible victims in US doctrine and media. Their suffering does not merit significant attention or redress. Examples include Indochinese under mass-murderous US assault in the 1960s and 1970s, the Black victims of US-allied South African apartheid through the 1980s, more than half a million Indonesians killed by a US-sponsored dictatorship in the 1960s, thousands of Chileans and Argentinians butchered by US-sponsored right-wing dictatorships in the 1970s and 1980s, 300,000 Central Americans killed by US-funded/-trained/-equipped paramilitaries and death squads in the 1980s, East Timorese islanders massacred on a genocidal scale by the US ally Indonesia in the mid- 1970s, the millions of Iraqis killed by US invasions and US-led sanctions since 1991, and the millions of Palestinians who have suffered for decades under racist occupation and apartheid at the hands of US ally Israel. US dominant corporate media has been advancing this “double,” really single standard in its coverage of “foreign affairs” for as long as I’ve been watching television (that’s more than half a century) and since well before that – a reflection of that media’s longstanding status as a key propagandistic lynchpin in the reigning and interrelated structures of US empire and inequality. It’s nothing new. It’s what you’d expect when – as the Madison-based US foreign policy critic Allen Ruff wrote me recently, “the dominant media system is what it is… when its fundamental function is to uphold and reproduce the existing order…[when its operatives behave like] court stenographers regurgitating the official line rather than critical journalists.” That’s why the question I asked myself as I gazed at cable television “news” this morning was foolish or at least naive. Cutting through the official foreign policy line and using basic critical faculties to expose evil and deception on the part of the powerful is not what US corporate “journalists” are remotely about. They are about mastering the art of what Orwell called “doublethink,” nicely summarized by Chomsky as “the ability to have two contradictory ideas in your mind at the same time and to believe both of them. That’s the peak of irrationality,” Chomsky adds, “and that virtually defines the elite intellectual community.” (“The Chomsky Sessions, II,” ZNet, September 17, 2011).   It also characterizes US “mainstream”[1] media. Paul Street is a regular commentator for Telesur English. His next book is They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm, 2014). Note

  1. During the Cold War era, we never called the Soviet Union’s state television and radio or its main newspapers Pravda and Izvestia Russia’s “mainstream media.” I see no reason why we should consider U.S. corporate media outlets any more “mainstream” than Pravda or Izvestia when they are just as dedicated as the onetime Soviet outlets to advancing the doctrinal perspectives of their host nation’s reigning elite—and far more effective.

Gross Inequality All Too “Normal” Under Capitalism

08/08/14 0 COMMENTS

First published on TeleSur English, July 27, 2014

I recently read a call for increased economic equality from an interesting source.  The author of the appeal was Bill Gross, Chief Investment Officer and co-founder of the Pacific Investment Management Company (PIMCO), a $14 billion global capital investment firm headquartered in California.  Forbes lists Gross as the world’s 778th richest billionaire.  His net worth is $2.4 billion and he “earns” $200 million a year.  “You could hire 2,000 schoolteachers for that money,” says William  Popejoy, a former financial executive who has been a Pacific Investment Management Co. trustee for more than two decades.

 

“Not Normal”

In a July 15, 2014 USA TODAY Op Ed titled “Invest in Normalcy for All,” Bill Gross claimed to be bothered by the fact the United States is currently as unequal as it has been any time since the 1920s. He noted with disappointment that the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) ranks the US 31st among 34 nations examined for income equality.  The US is “surpassed only by the likes of Chile and Turkey,” Gross complained.  Gross is disturbed (or claims to be) that US corporations are enjoying record after-tax profits equaling 10% of US gross domestic product (GDP) – “exceeding the levels of the Roaring [19]20s” – while US wages have fallen from 57% of GDP in 1970 to 43% of GDP today.

This inequality, Gross writes, is “not normal.”  It is also, he argues, bad for business since it stifles mass consumption and innovation. The US, Gross maintains, needs to become “more normal” by reversing “the enduring loss of purchasing power by workers relative to inflation and corporate profits.”  It can and must do this, he argues, by raising the minimum wage, increasing the collection of taxes from corporations, eliminating the “carried interest” tax reduction scheme for wealthy individuals, and “promoting worker education to assist in learning the skills required by a 21st century economy.”

Gross supports these things in the name of capitalism.  In a section of his commentary titled “CAPITALISM IN DANGER,” he writes the following in support of what he calls “the Henry Ford solution”[1]:  “Minimum-wage law increases, while seemingly anti-capitalistic and undemocratic, might be necessary for the common good – workers and corporations alike.”

 

Some Things Left Out

One could say quite a lot more than Gross does when it comes to understanding and reducing economic inequality in the US.  What about wealth inequality, which is even more extreme than – and just as significant as (if not more important than) – than disparity today? (The richest 1% of the US has more much shared net worth than the bottom 90% of the US.) The re-legalization of serious union organizing in the US (organized labor has long been the nation’s most effective anti-poverty program)? Giant public works programs to employ millions of structurally unemployed “surplus Americans” in socially useful and ecologically necessary work?  Restrictions on capital flight and mobility? Renegotiation of neoliberal “free trade” (investor rights) agreements to include critical labor and other social protections for working people? The break-up and tightened regulation or even the nationalization of the United States’ arch-parasitic “too-big-to-fail” financial institutions (who repeatedly crash the economy at vast public expense)?  Substantive democratizing political and electoral reform (like the full public financing of public elections, proportional representation in legislative races, the elimination of legal barriers to third and fourth parties) to roll back the current abject US plutocracy?  Serious (single-payer) health insurance reform (Improved Medicare for All) to make high-quality health care a socially affordable right for all? Lifting the regressive cap up on the Social Security payroll tax and taxing capital gains to fund Social Security and health care? The slashing of rampant, ransom-like corporate welfare and the re-direction of the money saved to social expenditures?  A restoration and expansion of the shredded social wage and safety net? Work-sharing to dry up the reserve army of unemployed to enhance workers’ bargaining power, spread wages and benefits, and roll back the scourge of overwork? An end to the privilege-preserving funding of public schools on the basis of local property wealth? Free K-college public education? Slashing the giant Pentagon budget (itself a giant subsidy to high-tech corporations) and the re-direction of resources from military Empire to social needs? Dramatically increased worker voice and participation in the direction of enterprises?

All of this and more would be eagerly embraced by a significant majority of US citizens.

And where are all those skilled US jobs for which US workers supposedly lack the training, anyway? (See Paul Street, “Seven Things,” ZNet-Telesur, July 10, 2014,http://zcomm.org/znetarticle/seven-things/)

 

Different Beliefs

I could go on. But the main problem with billionaire Gross’s commentary isn’t about policy.  It’s about history.  It’s also about the nature of capitalism, the socioeconomic regime that Gross mistakenly conflates with democracy and “the common good.”  It is Gross’s assumption that gross inequality is “not normal” (a) under capitalism and (b) in US history.

You don’t have to be a Marxist or other kind of anti-capitalist to understand that capitalism is all about socioeconomic disparity. As the liberal economist Lester Thurow noted 18 years ago:

“Democracy and capitalism have very different beliefs about the proper distribution of power. One believes in a completely equal distribution of political power, ‘one man [sic] one vote,’ while the other believes that it is the duty of the economically fit to drive the unfit out of business and into extinction. ‘Survival of the fittest’ and inequalities in purchasing power are what capitalist efficiency is all about. Individual profit comes first and firms become efficient to be rich. To put it in its starkest form, capitalism is perfectly compatible with slavery. Democracy is not.” (The Future of Capitalism [NY, 1996], 242, emphasis added).

My dusty old copy of Webster’s New Twentieth Century Dictionary defines capitalism as “the economic system in which all or most of the means of production and distribution…are privately owned and operated for profit, originally under fully competitive conditions: it has been generally characterized by a tendency toward concentration of wealth and, its latter phase, by the growth of great corporations, increased government controls, etc.”

 

The “Golden Age” was the Real Anomaly

What’s “not normal” about inequality of wealth and income under this amoral system of class rule? If there’s one immutable fact to take away from the liberal French economist Thomas Piketty’s instantly celebrated volume Capital in the 21st Century (2014) it is that wealth, left to its own devices, inexorably concentrates in capitalist economies.  Proving this thesis with more than two centuries of data, Piketty shows that there is nothing inherent in the workings of “free market” capitalism to block, much less roll back that tendency. The only things that have reduced inequality under the bourgeois system have been (a) extraordinary crises like the Great Depression and the last century’s two world wars and (b) political/policy interventions on behalf of downward redistribution.

With inequality in the rich nations currently approaching “levels equal to those observed in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries,” Piketty observes that “wealth [capital] is once again flourishing.  Broadly speaking,” he demonstrates, “it was the wars of the twentieth century that wiped away the past to create the illusion that capitalism had been structurally transformed” (Capital in the 21stCentury, p. 118).  “Modern economic growth and the diffusion of knowledge,” Piketty shows, “have not modified the deep structures of capital and inequality – or in any case not as much as one might have imagined in the optimistic decades following World War II” (p.1, emphasis added).

It was the so-called Golden Age of western capitalism (1945-1970) following the Great Depression and the two cataclysmic world wars – a period of significant downward wealth and income distribution in the core (rich) nations of the world capitalist system – that marked the real anomaly in the history of capitalism.  The sweeping re-concentration of wealth and income over the last four decades of hyper-capitalist “neoliberalism” have been a return to the systemic norm.

 

The Shadows of Dewey and Marx

This is no less true in the United States than in any other rich nation.  Three years into the Great Depression, itself fueled by the shocking levels of US inequality during the 1920s, the great American philosopher John Dewey observed that U.S. politics were little more than “the shadow cast on society by big business.” He predicted that things would stay that way as long as “business for private profit” controlled the nation’s means of finance, production, and communication.

It might seem that Dewey spoke too soon. Between the 1930s and the 1970s, a significant reduction in overall economic inequality (though not of racial inequality) and an increase in the standard of living of millions of working class Americans occurred in the United States.  This “Great Compression” occurred thanks to the emergence and expansion of the industrial workers’ movement (sparked to no small extent by Communists and other left militants), the spread of collective bargaining, the rise of a relatively pro-union New Deal welfare state and the democratic domestic pressures and progressive taxation required by the epic global struggle with German and Japanese fascism (WWII). As the liberal US economist Paul Krugman has noted:

“America in the 1950s was a middle-class society, to a far greater extent than it had been in the 1920s—or than it is today. . . . Ordinary workers and their families had good reason to feel that they were sharing in the nation’s prosperity as never before. And, on the other side, the rich were a lot less rich than they had been a generation earlier. . . . Somehow, Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman managed to preside over a dramatic downward redistribution of income and wealth that made America far more equal than ever before. . . .The postwar generation was a time when almost everyone in America felt that living standards were rising rapidly, a time in which ordinary Americans felt that they were achieving a level of prosperity beyond their parents’ wildest dreams.”

By the early 1950s, the claim was even seriously advanced in Readers’ Digest that post-WWII America had replaced capitalism and its old class distinctions with “mutualism,” “industrial democracy,” “distributism,” “productivism,” and/or “economic democracy.” [2] This was quite naïve. Core capitalist prerogatives and assets – Dewey’s “private control” and “business for profit” – were never dislodged, consistent with New Deal champion Franklin Roosevelt’s boast that he had “saved the profits system” from radical change.

The gains enjoyed by ordinary working US-Americans were made possible to no small extent by the uniquely favored and powerful position of the US economy and the remarkable profit rates enjoyed by US corporations in the post-WWII world.  When that position and those profits was significantly challenged by resurgent Western European and Japanese economic competition in the 1970s and 1980s, the comparatively egalitarian trends of postwar America were reversed by capitalist elites who had never lost their critical command of the nation’s core economic and political institutions.

Working class Americans have paid the price ever since. For the last four decades, wealth and income have been sharply concentrated upward, returning to pre-Great Depression levels, marking a New or Second Gilded Age that is traceable to a number of regressive and plutocratic policies that have nothing to do with any shift right in the populace and in fact run contrary to technically irrelevant US public opinion.  (The top 1% owns 40% of the nation’s wealth and a probably larger share of its “democratically elected” officials.)

Along the way, US capitalists/corporations have globalized their production and sales operations like never before. US workers’ purchasing power is far less critical to US capital’s calculation today than it was during Henry Ford’s time or in the “golden age.” At the same time, mass US consumption today fuels employment prospects for workers in other countries (China especially). With numerous leading “American” companies drawn to the “emerging middle-class markets” and low-cost workforces in South and East Asia (among other sales and investment locations), there is now and has for decades been a big difference between what is good for “American” companies (capital) and what is good for US workers and the US economy.  This harsh reality questions the relevance of “the Henry Ford solution” (see note 1).

In the US as in other nations, gross inequality is a core and all-too “normal” component of capitalism understood over the longue durée.  As the new academic rockstar Thomas Piketty (who makes a big point of not being a Marxist), admits, Karl Marx got it right: inequality is deeply rooted in the institutional sinews of capitalism. So, many on the eco-socialist left (this writer included) argue, is environmental catastrophe – the ruination of livable ecology that is ever more undeniably evident today.  This problem of capital-o-genic eco-cide (no small matter) does not enter into Bill Gross’s sense of what’s wrong (“not normal”) with contemporary US capitalism.  Sadly, it does not figure much either in Piketty’s reflections on capital in the 21st century – a problem to which I will return in a subsequent commentary.

I do not pretend to know exactly why the super-wealthy hyper-capitalist Bill Gross took to the pages of USA TODAY to call for more “normal” equality under US capitalism. Maybe he really believes that his bourgeois system of socioeconomic management is endangered by current shocking levels of US disparity.  Maybe he’s also or just trying to sound egalitarian to counter those who criticize his ostentations salary and opulence. Whatever, I can assure him that nothing remotely close to economic equality (of either outcome or “opportunity”) or for that matter democracy will ever be achieved in the “shadow cast on society” by reigning private capital – a shadow that in the current “neoliberal” era has turned into “a dark cloud enveloping society and the political system.  Corporate power, now largely financial capital,” Noam Chomsky reminded us three years ago, “has reached the point that both political organizations, which now barely resemble traditional parties, are far to the right of the populace on the major issues under debate.”

Also beyond the reach of a society haunted by Dewey’s shadow and Chomsky’s dark cloud is the salvation of livable ecology – a topic to which I shall turn in a future Telesur commentary.

Paul Street’s latest book is They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm, 2014, http://www.paradigmpublishers.com/books/BookDetail.aspx?productID=367810)

Notes

1. This refers to US automaker Henry Ford’s determination that US workers needed to be paid enough money to buy back the products they made (the “five dollar day” by Ford’s calculation in the early 20th century) so to avoid the problem of over-production/under-consumption.

2. See Frederick Lewis Allen, The Big Change: America Transforms Itself, 1900-1950 (NY: Harper, 1952), 249

Age of Liberty, Age of Slavery

28/07/14 0 COMMENTS

Paul Street, Black Agenda Report (July 22, 2014)

Greg Grandin, The Empire of Necessity: Slavery, Freedom, and Deception in the New World (New York: New Press, 2014)

After recently reviewing a left historian’s study of race and slavery in the New World during the so-called Age of Liberty (Paul Street, “The White United States’ Real Founding Father: Lord Dunmore,” ZNet/Telesur English, July 4, 2014), I hardly expected to be doing the same thing again anytime soon. But then something happened. I ran by chance across US Latin American historian Greg Grandin’s remarkable book The Empire of Necessity: Slavery, Freedom, and Deception in the New World (New York: New Press, 2014). Sometimes clichés ring true: once I started reading it, I couldn’t put it down.

Grandin’s volume is a fitting follow-up to the book I discussed in my earlier review – Gerald Horne’s The Counter-Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States of America (New York University Press, 2014). Horne’s book culminates in the American “revolution” of 1776 – an event he shows to have been driven largely by the white North American elite’s sense that a symbiotic combination of black resistance and British policy left the colonists no choice but to secede from the British Empire if they wanted to preserve and expanding their profitable slave system.

It wasn’t just the mostly southern slaveholders among that elite that feared for the future of black chattel slavery under continued British rule. As Horne notes, the northern Yankee and New England mercantile elite was heavily invested in North American slavery at numerous levels.

The Savage “Retribution” of “an Anti-Slavery Republican”

Grandin picks up the story of the American “revolution’s” intimate, hypocritical, and perverse relationship with slavery just shy of three decades after the US Declaration of Independence. The critical incident around which his book turns occurred in the South Pacific, off a remote island near the coast of what is today Chile on February 20, 1805. That’s’ when Captain Amasa Delano – an economically challenged Massachusetts seal-hunter and a descendent of the New England’s original Indian-slaughtering Puritan settlers – climbed aboard The Tryal, a distressed Spanish ship carrying dozens of black Africans who appeared to be obedient slaves. They weren’t. In reality, they were engaged in an elaborate deception, having revolted earlier and killed most of the ship’s crew and its Spanish Catholic officers along with the Latin American slave-owner (Alejandro Aranda) who had purchased them on the Atlantic coast (in Montevideo, in contemporary Argentina) and dragged them across the arid South American pampas and over the treacherous Andes mountains only to stick them back in another slave ship on the Pacific. The Tryal was a floating and crippled slave insurrection.

The insurrection’s Black and Muslim leaders, Mori and his son Babo, hoped that the Tryal’s surviving captain Bennito Cerreno could garner food, water, and other assistance from Delano, without giving away his captivity. After that, they expected Cerreno to return them to their West African homeland – no small order.

Earlier, before Delano arrived, Mori had asked Cerreno if there was anywhere he and his fellow Africans might live with liberty in the New World. Cerreno lied when he replied in the negative, for he was surely aware that slaves had recently rebelled against their French masters and established a free Black republic in Haiti.

Delano was an “anti-slavery Republican.” He was the product of a New England town (Duxbury, Massachusetts) whose pro-Independence Protestant preachers “told him that one’s fate was not predestined, that man had reason and free will that gave him the power to make of himself what one would” (Grandin, Empire of Necessity, 258). Such thinking inspired the name of Delano’s ship, which he made himself after a series of unsuccessful voyages in search of fortune: The Perseverance.

So, did the New England sea captain extend these ideas to Mori, Babo, and the rest of the West African rebels aboard the aptly named Tryal – to the slaves who now struggled, persevered heroically to employ their reason and free will on behalf of their own freedom? He did not. Quite the opposite! When Delano (a distant relation to future US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt) finally figured out that the slaves were actually in charge of the ship, his heart went out to his fellow Caucasian, the Spaniard Benito Cerreno and his remaining crew. Sensing potential for profit in seizing the Tryal (a “prize…worth tens of thousands of pesos”) and a chance to rally his disaffected crew, Delano sent his subordinates aboard the Tryal to bloodily crush the rebellion. He “reminded his men of the ‘suffering conditions of the poor Spaniards’ at the hands of the slaves” and told them that if they “failed to retake the vessel, ‘death must be their fate.’”

Delano’s “command to capture the Tryal, with its double promise of doing good and making money, helped unite a fractured crew.” By Grandin’s account in a chapter bearing the curious title “Retribution”:

“At 10 p.m., Delano got word that the Tryal was taken. He and Cerreno waited until the next morning to board…Babo’s body was among the bales of yerba maté, as were the corpses of six other West Africans… The rest were chained tight, hands to feet…They had been tortured. Some had been disemboweled and were writhing in their viscera. Others had had the skin on their backs and thighs shaved off…This had been done with the Perseverance’s skinning knives, which, Delano wrote, ‘were always kept exceedingly sharp and as bright as a gentleman’s sword.’” (Grandin, 221-223)

“Retribution” seems an odd word choice. The slaves aboard the Tryal had done nothing to Delano and his crew other than to (quite understandably) try to deceive them in pursuit of the human freedom that Delano cherished – for himself. “Retribution” for what, then? For acting to determine their own destiny and asserting their humanity? For challenging the savage white supremacism on which the slave system and trade depended – a system and trade upon which “radical” New England relied for its prosperity? As the historian Lorenzo Greene noted 46 years ago, slavery “formed the very basis of the economic life of New England; about it revolved, and on it, depended, most of her other industries” (79-80).

Floating Tombs”

Delano wanted his crew to be moved by the “‘suffering conditions of the poor Spaniards’ at the hands of the slaves,” not by the miserable situation of the slaves themselves, whose emaciation and sickness had been plainly evident to him when he first boarded the Tryal. Besides being unavoidable in the course of all too briefly seizing control of the Tryal, the killing of Aranda and much of Cerreno’s crew could have been seen as just retribution in its own small way for the monumental crime of slavery. Grandin’s depiction of Africans’ experience on the Middle Passage to Latin America leaves little doubt as to the mass-murderous evil of the slave trade. Grandin tells of slaves thrown overboard by captains who could no longer afford to feed them; of slaves who could not make it over the Andes being decapitated and thrown down ravines; of ships that entered Latin American ports with hundreds of slaves so near death as to be un-sellable and thus left to wander around until they perished. The slave ships, Grandin notes, were “floating tombs” (40). By Grandin’s account:

“It took almost four months [for a slaver] to make the trip [from the eastern, Indian Ocean side of Africa to Latin America], around the Cape of Good Hope and then running against the South Atlantic’s westerlies, an agonizingly long and lethal voyage…Along the way, Africans died from contagious diseases or from the miseries of crossing the ocean in a claustrophobically small space. Some went blind. Others lost their minds…the holds were never cleaned fast enough to counter the accumulating strata of excrement, vomit, blood, and pus..[so that] the floors of the holds ..‘resembled a slaughter-house.’”(39).

Slavers Singing the “Marseillaise”

As Grandin’s book makes clear, it wasn’t just United States-specific capitalism, nationalism, and bourgeois republicanism that were stained by the sin of slavery. Mori, Babo, and other West Africans who ended up on the Tryal were brought to the New World by a one-armed French Revolutionary pirate named Mordielle. Mordielle:

“was a seafaring Jacobin. He presided over men who wrapped red sashes around their waists, sang the ‘Marseillaise,’ and worked the deck to the rhythms of revolutionary chants. Long live the republic! Perish earthly kings! String up aristocrats from the yardarms! Commanding ships called Le Brave Sans-Culottes, Revolution, and Le Democrat, he patrolled the coast of Africa…harassing the French Revolution’s enemies …Mordielle, true to his republican spirit, preferred to be addressed as citoyen – citizen…not captain” (13).

Mordielle had hijacked a British slave ship jammed with 400 Africans (including Mori, Babo, and others who ended up on the Tryal) off the coast of Western Africa in late 1803. He did not return the stolen Blacks to their homeland in the name of liberté, egalité, and fraternité. Instead, he proceeded across the South Atlantic to Montevideo, where he expected to receive 80,000 silver pesos in return for his prize of “starving slaves who had just spent sixty or so days listening to pirates singing the ‘Marseillaise’” (35). Mordielle was “a Jacobin believer in the rights of man and the liberties of the world who made his living seizing British slaves and selling them to Spanish American merchants…he swore allegiance not to ideals but to the French nation, which had abolished slavery in its colonies in 1794 only to restore it eight years later.” (20-21).

One of the Most Radical of Chile’s Founding Fathers”

After being delivered by Delano to Spanish authorities in what is today Chile, Mori and eight other Tryal rebels were sentenced to death by a Spanish judge – the royal advocate in the city of Concepcion. In his rapidly handed-down ruling, the royal advocate was unmoved by the case presented by a public advocate, who “t[ook] the three most insurgent principles of New World republicanism and tried to extend them to the West Africans: individuals are free, they have a right to revolt against any regime that takes away their freedom, and all men deserve equality before the law” (228). The judge “emphasized the brutality of their crimes” and proclaimed that “the revolt was illegitimate, though he didn’t elaborate on the reasons why, and that the slaves were guilty of waging unjust ‘war’ against Delano and his men” (228) – a curious charge.

The execution by hanging and cremation of Mori and his fellow African insurgents in Concepcion’s town square was a barbarous affair:

“On the morning of the day of their execution, soldiers took them out of their cell and chained them one behind the other in a single column… onlookers fell in behind, ringing bells and burning incense. When the parade arrived in the plaza, with its gallows, the African women and children who had remained on the Tryal were there waiting: Rozas had ordered that they be brought to the city to witness the execution.…the corpses of the nine rebels were cut loose from the gallows and decapitated. Their heads were placed on pikes around the plaza and their bodies burned in a large pyre in its center” (229).

Who was the judge who quickly ordered this savage punishment and dismissed a spirited republican defense of slaves’ right to rebel? Juan Martinez de Rozas, a republican “freethinker and plotter” (226) inspired by the American and French Revolutions. Rozas was, one local Concepcion historian told Grandin, “one of the most radical of Chile’s founding fathers” and “a fierce opponent of slavery” (229, emphasis added). When Grandin asked the local historian if he found it ironic that a revered republican founder of modern Chile had rendered such a harsh judgment on the Tryal rebels, the historian asked him how someone “from the United States” could “ask such a question” (229).

Exceptional (United States of) American Slavery

The local historian had a good point – a better one than Grandin seems to grasp in Empire of Necessity. It is true, as Grandin observes, that what the celebrated North American (US) historian Edmund S. Morgan called “the American paradox” – whereby “the Age of Liberty” was also “the Age of Slavery” – was not limited to the United States. As Grandin reminds us, “the paradox can be applied to all of the Americas, North and South…What was true for Richmond [Virginia] was no less true for Buenos Aires and Lima – that what many meant by freedom was the freedom to buy and sell black people as property.” “It might seem an abstraction,” Grandin adds, “to say that the Age of Liberty was also the Age of Slavery. But consider these figures: of the known 10,148,288 Africans put on slave ships bound for the Americas between 1514 and 1866 (of a total historians estimate to be at least 12,500,000), more than half, 5,131,385, were embarked after July 4, 1776” (8).

That’s accurate enough, but consider this: by 1860, approximately two-thirds of all New World slaves lived in the US. This was a reflection among other things of the North American white settlers’/slaveholders’ 1776 “counter-revolution” (Horne) – a secession that slayed the specter of British Abolition and opened up vast new swaths of land for theft from the continent’s original inhabitants and the deployment of new slave cash-crop production armies. In the US alone among the new Western Hemisphere Republics of the 19th century, slavery flourished rather than faded – until its destruction in the Civil War.

The Great Egalitarian Thrust…”

Near the end of his book, Grandin remarks on the irony of Amasa Delano’s life both before and after the Tryal incident – a life that Delano wrote about in a long memoir published in 1817. “Having been catapulted into the world by the great egalitarian thrust of the American Revolution,” Grandin writes, “Delano found it to be one long parade of mortifications…” (Grandin, 256-57, emphasis added). But as Horne reminds us, the American “revolution” had no “great egalitarian” meaning for the early US republic’s Blacks and indigenes. For them, the US Founders’ victory over London was an authoritarian cataclysm.

The New World upheaval most worthy of the word “revolution” during the Age of Liberty took place in 1804 in Haiti – the new nation Cerreno wouldn’t tell Mori and Babo about. Fittingly enough, it would be treated by 19th century US authorities very much like the US has treated Cuba since the Castro revolution – as a hated pariah state.

Paul Street’s next book is They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm, 2014) order at http://www.paradigmpublishers.com/books/BookDetail.aspx?productID=367810

Deleting the Imperial Predator

25/07/14 0 COMMENTS

Written for teleSUR English, which will launch on July 24 

First published on ZNet, July 19, 2014

“Not Our Problem/Fault”

Recently I heard a fellow (United States of] American say that his “heart goes out to all those unaccompanied [Central American] children” showing up at the US southern border – 74,000 estimated for Fiscal Year 2014.  “But,” the US citizen continued, “it’s not our problem.  We’ve got nothing to do with it.  It’s not our job to fix it.”

“I do have empathy for these kids,” Iowa’s right-wing governor Terry Branstad said the other day. “But,” he added, “I don’t want to send the signal that (you) send your kids to [the US of] America illegally.” The “first thing we need to do,” Branstad feels, “is secure the border.”

So send the hungry and traumatized minors back to where they came from. Like many, perhaps most US-ofAmericans, Branstad sees no US responsibility for all the child migrants.  He doesn’t want to see any of them “dumped in Iowa.”

This dissociative view is encouraged by the dominant corporate US mass media.  The “mainstream” news and commentary has mainly blamed migrant families and the supposedly lax immigration policies of the Obama administration for the recent “surge” of children trying to reach the US from Honduras (home to 28% of the unaccompanied minors), Guatemala (24%) and El Salvador (21%) – Central America’s so-called Northern Triangle.

The message is clear: the US has no obligation to take in or otherwise care for the massive influx of child migrants from Central America.

The message is nonsense, but it is unsurprising. As Laura Carlsen of the Americas Program noted last month, US media points the finger at migrant families “because the alternative…is unpalatable to them.”  As Carlsen explained:

“The alternative is to accept that the Central American and North American Free Trade Agreements have left thousands of youth with no economic opportunities. It is to accept that US security aid for drug wars has armed and aggravated violence in Mexico and Central America. It is to understand the high cost of supporting the Honduran coup and how the Honduran people and the US population continue to pay that price, as out migration has surged over 500% in the past two years and human rights violations, instability and violence are skyrocketing.”(Americas Program, MexicoBlog, June 9, 2014)

 

Hell on Earth

There’s nothing mysterious about why tens of thousands of children from the Northern Triangle are willing to make death-defying journeys across the Mexican and (they hope) the US border. Three-fourths of the population lives below the poverty line in Guatemala, where the World Bank reports that 2.5% of the farms own 65% of the farmland and 88% of the farms control just 16%. Two-thirds of the population lives in poverty in Honduras, where just a fourth of all children finish middle school.  In El Salvador, half of all children live on less than US $1.25 a day.  More than a third of El Salvadoran children have to work for pay.  In rural areas, the percentage rises to 65%.  Children typically begin work at ages 6 and 7, taking jobs on coffee or sugar plantations or as domestic servants and street vendors.

At the same time, murder and rape are endemic and rising across the region.  The Northern Triangle is home to the first (Honduras), second (El Salvador) and fifth (Guatemala) highest homicide rates on Earth.  Violence has surged across each of these countries in recent years, especially in Honduras. “Meanwhile,” Mother Jones’ Ian Gordon reports, “the cost of tortillas has doubled as corn prices have skyrocketed due to increased American ethanol production (Guatemala imports half of its corn) and the conversion of farmland to sugarcane and oil palm for biofuel.”

And then there’s climate change. Much of Central America’s economy depends on the cultivation and export of coffee.  Anthropogenic global warming has caused the rust fungus (hemileia vastatrix, which can “reduce a coffee tree to a drying husk in two weeks”)  to wipe out 40% of Central America’s coffee crop this year. As Mark Robertson explains on the website of the Americas Program:

“The rust fungus (known as ‘roya’ in Spanish) wipes out jobs, and causes extreme desperation…Central American coffee is a high-altitude variety, descended from a few trees brought from the Old World centuries ago. The region had no rust fungus until the 1970s, when climate change began to cause higher temperatures and excess rainfall. Since then, the fungus has appeared in multiple waves, mutating each time. It also mutates from country to country, appearing in different forms. It is thought to have originated in East Africa where — again — climate change is causing devastation.”

 

Uncle Sam’s “Perfect Storm of Suffering”

What’s it got to do with Uncle Sam? Where to begin? Washington’s North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), has flooded Mexico with cheap, subsidized US agricultural imports, devastating campesino communities and forcing millions of Mexican farmers off the land. The United States’ Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) has brought similar misery to the countries immediately south of Mexico. As the venerable U.S. foreign policy critic William Blum notes, reflecting on what he calls the “Yankee blowback” on the southern US border: “These ‘free trade’ agreements – as they do all over the world – also result in government enterprises being privatized, the regulation of corporations being reduced, and cuts to the social budget. Add to this the displacement of communities by foreign mining projects and the drastic US-led militarization of the War on Drugs with accompanying violence and you have the perfect storm of suffering followed by the attempt to escape from suffering.” The intense US-led militarization of the dangerous and dysfunctional “war on drugs” in Mexico has intensified the drug trade and heightened gang violence in the Northern Triangle.

Regarding the climate change that is ravaging coffee production, the U.S. remains far and away the world’s largest carbon-emitter on a per-capita basis. No nation has spewed more accumulated carbon into Earth’s atmosphere in the industrial era than the United States—an historical reality that neither China nor India will breach anytime soon. No nation has invested more heavily and powerfully in the political, ideological, and military promotion and defense of the at once carbon- and growth- addicted profits system than the United States. The U.S. is headquarters of the corporate carbon-industrial-complex’s giant lobbying and propaganda war on the dire findings and warnings of climate scientists. And no national government has done more to deep-six international efforts to reduce global carbon emissions than the one in Washington – a record that has continued with depressing vengeance through the supposedly “green” Obama presidency.

 

Making Central America Safe for United Fruit and Wall Street

Truth fully told, however, Uncle Sam’s central involvement in the impoverishment and torture of Central America more broadly goes back much further in time. In 1903, the US used armed force to carve a new nation out of Columbia: Panama, site of a certain canal Washington wanted built.  Seven years later, US Marines under the command of future General J. Smedley Butler were deployed to overthrow the government of Nicaragua’s dynamic nationalist president Jose Santos Selaya because he had refused to play ball with US business interests.  In 1911, Washington US approved a private-mercenary overthrow of Honduras’ democratically elected government on behalf of leading US banana planter Sam Zemurray.  Zemurray would become the director of the powerful United Fruit Company, which would control a string of Central American presidents – with the help of US military power – through the 1930s.

Over the first three and half decades of the last century, the US undertook regular and recurrent military campaigns and occupations in the Caribbean and Central America.  It did so on behalf of US business interests, with the goal of keeping Latin American social and economic development subordinated to the needs of US capital.  In his 1935 book War is a Racket, the recently retired and highly decorated Butler reflected on his long career disciplining the United States neighbors to the South.“I spent 33 years, four months,” Butler wrote, “as a high-class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street and the bankers…I helped make Mexico…safe for American oil interests…I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefit of Wall Street. I helped purify Nicaragua for the International Banking House of Brown Brothers… I brought light to the Dominican Republic for the American sugar interests… I helped make Honduras right for the American fruit companies…”

In 1954, the US CIA overthrew Guatemala’s president Jacobo Arbenz and installed a more pliant successor.  Arbenz’s crime?  He was “trying to implement a New Deal-style economic program to modernize and humanize Guatemala’s brutal plantation economy” (historian and journalist Stephen Kinzer).  Along the way, Arbenz committed what Washington saw as the unpardonable sins of expropriating uncultivated land owned by United Fruit. There followed “40 years of [US-sponsored] military-government death squads, torture, disappearances, mass executions, and unimaginable cruelty, totaling more than 200,000 victims – indisputably one of the most inhumane chapters of the 20th century” (William Blum, Rogue State: A Guide to the World’s Only Superpower[2005],168).

 

Killing Hope, Again and Again

During the 1980s, Washington turned to Central America to reinvigorate its capacity for exercising “hard [military] power” in the wake of its humiliating debacle in Vietnam.  “All told,” historian Greg Grandin notes, “US allies in Central America during Reagan’s two terms killed over 300,000 people, tortured hundreds of thousands, and drove millions into exile.”  This epic bloodshed took place with lavish funding, training, and equipment from Washington, which had learned to “farm out its imperial violence.”

It was violence of the most brutal sort.  US-backed death squads butchered whole villages, killing women and children in the most primitive and barbarian ways imaginable.  “Over three days” in 1982, Grandin recounts, “soldiers in a small [Guatemalan] village called Dos Erres killed more than 160 people, including 65 children who were swung from their feet so their heads were smashed on rocks” (G. Grandin, Empire’s Workshop: Latin America, the United States, and the Rise of the New Imperialism [2006]) – a typical “pacification” operation.

US officials from President Reagan on down lauded the direct agents of this genocidal carnage as “freedom fighters.”  Washington praised its Third World Fascist killers as heroes in the “democratic” struggle against international communism.  Elites in both of the nation’s two imperial political parties did so with knowledge of the atrocities committed, including the “large-scale killing of Indian men, women, and children” (to quote a 1982 CIA memo on the Guatemalan “civil war”). The actual US enemy in Central America was popular and national self-determination in pursuit of basic social and democratic goals like land reform, decent wages, labor rights, adequate nutrition, clean water, education, health care, civil liberties, and a democratic political process. The popular enemy was defeated, for the most part.  As Noam Chomsky noted in the early 1990s:

“Returning to Central America, a decade ago there were glimmerings of hope for constructive change.  In Guatemala, peasants and workers were organizing to challenge one of the most primitive oligarchies on the face of the earth.  In El Salvador, Church-based self-help groups, unions, peasant associations and other popular organizations were offering a war for the general population to escape grinding poverty and repression and to begin to take some control of their lives and fate.  In Nicaragua, the [US-imposed and US-backed] tyranny that had served as the base for US power in the region was overthrown in 1979…the [deposed Somoza regime’s] National Guard was driven out and new popular forces were mobilized…there was hope for a better future…The Reagan Administration and its liberal Democratic and media accomplices can take credit for having reduced these hopes to ashes.  That is a rare accomplishment, for which history will assign them their proper place, if there is ever is an honest accounting.” (N. Chomsky, Deterring Democracy [1991], 72-73)

The White House claimed that the popular forces (“the insurgency”) were defeated (“contained”) by “political initiatives” of US-sponsored “reform,” but a US expert stationed in El Salvador was more honest. The “horrible lesson of the 1980s,” he reflected, “is that terrorism works.”  In a similar vein, a US RAND Corporation analyst who produced a 1991 Defense Department report on US Central American policy later wrote something interesting about the US military advisers and intelligence officers he knew to have been involved in the US war in El Salvador. Those operatives, Benjamin Schwarz observed in the Atlantic Monthly, knew that the  US-favored outcome was “not the result of reform but the consequence of the murder of the thousands of people…[of] 40,000 political murders” (“Dirty Hands,” Atlantic Monthly, December 1998, emphasis added).

In 2008 and early 2009, Honduras’ democratically president Manuel Zelaya raised the specter of national self-determination and social justice by doing things like “raising the minimum wage, giving subsidies to small farmers, and instituting free education. The coup [that overthrew him on June 28, 2009] – like so many others in Latin America – was led by a graduate of Washington’s infamous School of the Americas” (Blum)  The hope-killing Honduran junta was quietly and deceptively backed by the “change”-promising Obama Administration, which has funded, equipped, and worked with the coup regime ever since. The White House refuses to acknowledge that a coup ever took place so that US sponsorship can continue without legal and humanitarian hassle.

But for this long and ongoing record of US intervention on behalf of savage inequality, mass poverty, violence, environmental degradation and authoritarian rule in Central America, tens of thousands of severely distressed children from the Northern Triangle would hardly be washing up on the Yankee Empire’s southern border. Sadly, however, few of these basic facts of living history are being mentioned in the “mainstream” US discussion of the unaccompanied minor migrant crisis.  As a result, only a minority of US-of-Americans get it that, as Blum concludes, “the United States does indeed have a moral obligation [to take in and otherwise assist the young refugees] because so many of the immigrants are escaping a situation in their homeland made hopeless by American intervention and policy.”

Those who most require a public awareness campaign are not the migrant families and Central American communities. They are US citizens, who need to be educated about the impact of “their” government’s economic, military, climate, and drug policies on their neighbors to the South and especially on the children of Central America.

Paul Street’s next book is They Rule: The 1% v. Democracyhttp://www.paradigmpublishers.com/books/BookDetail.aspx?productID=367810

Seven Things

25/07/14 0 COMMENTS

Written for teleSUR English, which will launch on July 24

First published on ZNet , July 10, 2014

“It’s a Little Private”

Sometimes the smallest news items speak volumes, if you let them.  Last April, for example, a 10-year-old girl named Charlotte Bell was at the White House for its annual “Take Your Daughter and Son to Work Day.”  During a ceremony in the White House East Room, Charlotte raised her hand to say something to Michelle Obama, who was taking questions from a raised platform.  Charlotte walked up to the First Lady and said that her dad had been out of work for three years and needed a job.  Charlotte handed Mrs. Obama an envelope containing her father’s resumẻ.

The First Lady was taken aback but recovered well. She said, “Oh my goodness” took the envelope and gave Charlotte a big hug.  Then Mrs. Obama sat down and delivered a coup de grace.  “It’s a little private,” she said, “but she’s trying to help her Dad.”  At the end of the ceremony, the First Lady started to leave without the envelope. Charlotte made her pick it up.

The First Lady had, I think, two reasons for privatizing (so to speak) the matter of Charlotte Bell’s father’s long-term unemployment.  The first was a matter of political calculation.  The latest US job growth numbers had been “disappointing” and the Republicans had used the data to accuse Barack Obama yet again of economic mismanagement (as if the US president single-handedly determined US employment levels from one month to the next). Polls showed that President Obama faced widespread disapproval of his performance in “handing the economy.”  In that context, Mrs. Obama hardly wished to give publicity to another US citizen – e pluribus unum (one of many) – having trouble finding decent work (or any work at all) in “the world’s richest nation.”

The second reason for Mrs. Obama to call father Bell’s long-term joblessness a “private” matter is less obvious but more important.  The First Lady, I strongly suspect, was expressing her internalization of the dominant bourgeois and national common sense holding that one’s poverty and/or lack of remunerative employment in the purported great US “land of opportunity” reflects one’s own personal failure and inadequacy. Joblessness is understood as a symptom of individual and even moral failure in the reigning US ideology.

Surplus People and the Rational Irrationality of Capitalism

Here’s a useful translation for Michelle Obama’s “It’s a little private” comment: “Oh my goodness, this poor little girl has a lousy daddy; she sure is a dear to try to help out her sad sack of a father out while we all keep quiet about the millions of Americans who have been turned into surplus people by contemporary US capitalism.”

Charlotte Bell’s father may or may not be lazy, dissolute, dishonest, and/or whatever terrible thing one might want to call him.  I doubt he is any of these things, but I do not claim to know anything substantive about his personal or employment history.

I do, however, know seven things beyond the shadow of a doubt.  I know first of all that capitalism – what Michelle’s husband like to calls “the free enterprise system” (making sure to remind us that this system has brought us “a prosperity that’s unmatched in human history”[1]) – generates mass structural unemployment by its very nature, irrespective of what the US president or Charlotte’s father (or anyone else) wants. As sociologists Charles and Derber and Yale Magrass noted two years ago:

“An economic neutron bomb is exploding in the nation…an explosive…that has the peculiar characteristic of killing people while preserving property…[since] money can be made without [US] workers…At the heart of this problem is the calculation by elites that they can make more profit by radically reducing reliance on US workers and US infrastructure, using instead foreign workers or replacing workers with robots or other new technology, while relying on infrastructures in other nations…In the end, this reflects something deeply irrational but central to US capitalism.  The core concern of corporate elites is profit, not jobs.  And if more profits can be made by shifting production abroad, elites will take that path….This reflects the way globalized corporate capitalism works today and shows that the very problems it creates cannot be fixed within capitalist boundaries.” [2]

The problem of surplus labor, hence “surplus people,” is nothing new in the history of capitalism. The profit system has been rendering workers redundant, de-skilling and displacing labor for centuries.  Capitalism has always generated and relied on what Karl Marx called a “reserve army of labor” – a significant mass of unemployed and under-employed people whose often desperate existence helps the employer class keep the “active [employed] army” of workers profitably disciplined through the threat of replacement and the fear of being thrown into to the vast miserable lumpen-proletariat. Capitalism is not a full-employment program – quite the opposite.

The End of (United States of) “American [Labor Market] Exceptionalism

The second thing I know for certain is that a deep sea change has taken place in the US labor market over the last four plus decades – a change that makes it absurd to blame US individuals for their joblessness or under-employment. What’s new in US workers’ job prospects during the ongoing Neoliberal era (1970s to the present) is a fundamental transformation in the relationship between the US labor supply and employers’ demand for workers in the United States. In the US from its origins through the 1960s, the majority white working class enjoyed – over the long run (and with all due respect for terrible depressions in the 1870s, 1890s, and 1930s) – a “remarkable run” (Richard Wolff) of remunerative employment and rising real wages.  The keys to this worker-favorable situation were the remarkable productivity and profitability of US capitalism (a reflection among other things of exceptional national advantages including abundant natural resources, vast scale, giant ocean borders, and a conducive climate) and a chronic shortage of labor relative to available land and employers’ needs (US Southern cotton growers solved their labor shortage with black slavery and [after the Civil War] neo-slavery).

This comparatively favorable situation for (white) working class Americans (rarely if ever mentioned in discussions of “American exceptionalism”) came undone in the 1970s and 1980s.  As real, high-productivity competitors to US capitalism revived in Europe and Japan, the demand for US workers fell thanks in part to the computerization and automation of work and the export of millions of formerly “American jobs” to countries where workers could paid far less. As the left US economist Richard Wolff notes, “The export of US manufacturing jobs took off… followed by the export of service-sector jobs – so-called outsourcing – a trend that has continued to the present” (with help from investor-rights “free trade” agreements).  Along with this came the entry of millions of women into the workforce and a giant new wave of immigration to the US, mainly from Latin America, primarily Mexico and Central America (where significantly US- and global capitalism-imposed misery drove millions to seek jobs in the north). Under these new labor market pressures, the “American Dream” of steady work and a constantly rising standard of living collapsed for the US working class majority – a twist of fate that the dominant neoliberal ideology has told working people to blame on themselves, personally and privately. [3]

The Job Gap

The third thing I know beyond doubt is that there are many more Americans seeking work than there are decent or even low-wage jobs job openings in the US today.  Conventional conservative and neoliberal US wisdom holds that people are unemployed or under-employed because they are too lazy and unmotivated to work, to move to where “good jobs” are, and/or to upgrade their skills in accord with employers’ needs.  The ideology blames the jobless themselves, considering  them too indolent, too slothful, too “welfare”-coddled, and/or just too plain stupid to “pull themselves up by their bootstraps.”  But where are all these good jobs in the US (home by the way to the stingiest welfare state amongst rich nations)? As former US State Department official Peter Van Buren, author of Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99 Percent, recently noted on TomDispatch.com:

“Move to where to do what? Our country lost one-third of all decent factory jobs – almost six million of them – between 2000 and 2009, and wherever ‘there’ is supposed to be, piles of people are already in line. In addition, many who lost their jobs don’t have the means to move or a friend with a couch to sleep on when they get to Colorado. Some have lived for generations in the places where the jobs have disappeared. As for the jobs that are left, what do they pay? One out of four working Americans earn less than $10 per hour. At 25%, the U.S. has the highest percentage of low-wage workers in the developed world. (Canada and Great Britain have 20%, Japan under 15%, and France 11 %.)…One in six men, 10.4 million Americans aged 25 to 64, the prime working years, don’t have jobs at all, a portion of the male population that has almost tripled in the past four decades. They are neither all lazy nor all unskilled, and at present they await news of the uncharted places in the U.S. where those 10 million unfilled jobs are hidden.”

For many Americans, even finding low-paid retail work is next to impossible. Van Buren provides a chilling factoid from Washington DC – capital city of the US “land of opportunity” (“this magical place,” as Barack Obama once descried the US):

“How hard is it to land even a minimum-wage job? This year, the Ivy League college admissions acceptance rate was 8.9%. Last year, when Walmart opened its first store in Washington, D.C., there were more than 23,000 applications for 600 jobs, which resulted in an acceptance rate of 2.6%, making the big box store about twice as selective as Harvard and five times as choosy as Cornell….Telling unemployed people to get off their couches (or out of the cars they live in or the shelters where they sleep) and get a job makes as much sense as telling them to go study at Harvard.”[4]

Think about that: the unemployed of the nation’s capital are more likely to be admitted to Harvard than to be hired at Wal-Mart, a company that functions as a giant sales platform for multinational and “American” corporations that have systemically moved production jobs out of the US to lower-wage regions of the world capitalist system. There’s some shining context for Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz’s recent observation that “we have 20 million Americans who would like a full-time job and can’t get one.” [5]

Okay, former manufacturing workers and frustrated Wal-Mart applicants: go get some training and higher education to develop those high skills that employers are in such great need of, right? In the spring of 2014, Van Buren notes, the US graduated more than 1.6 million Americans with brand new bachelor’s degrees.  Many of those graduates (many of whom are carrying significant college tuition debt) are already working in low-wage, non-benefit jobs (Starbucks baristas, waiters/waitresses, bar-tenders, telemarketers, retail clerks, and so on), joining the vast army of savagely under-employed – a great mockery to the widespread notion that the main labor market problem facing the US economy is a “skills gap.”

Patching Up the Drunk Driver, Leaving the Guy He Hit Bleeding in the Street

The fourth thing I know for sure is that no tiny part of the current abysmal state of the US job market can be traced to the parasitic shenanigans of the nation’s grotesquely opulent financial elite. The nation’s financial overlords crashed the national and global economy, throwing millions out of work and destroying ordinary households’ savings and lives across the land, in 2007 and 2008.  They perpetrated this deed through the proliferation of reckless financial “weapons of mass destruction” that pumped billions of dollars into the already overstuffed coffers of the upper-reaches of “the 1%” as they generated a bubble whose inevitable bursting created an epic economic mess whose consequences live on today.

The fifth thing I know without a hint of uncertainty is that the federal government under the fake-progressive presidency of Barack Obama44 [5A] (a record-setting recipient of Wall Street election funding in 2008) has followed in the footsteps of George Bush43 by rescuing the reckless financial few who threw millions out of home and job while exacting no real penalty on those wildly irresponsible elites and offering the working class majority nothing (or close to itP to compensate them for their losses. Along the way, Bush and Obama have “given people everywhere” what William Greider called in the spring of 2009 “a blunt lesson about power, who has it and who doesn’t.”  US citizens have “watched Washington run to rescue the very financial interests that caused the catastrophe.  They [have] learned that government has plenty of money to spend when the right people want it”[6] – and little for the rest, the so-called “99 percent,” left to ruefully ask, “where’s our bailout”?

Stiglitz prefers an at once legal and medical metaphor. Noting that the “too-big-to-fail” financial institutions were able to “pay back” the federal government the bailout money they got after the crash only because of a “shell game” whereby the US Federal Reserve lent them hundreds of billions of dollars at zero interest. As Stiglitz recently told Bill Moyers:

“What we did was analogous to we take the perpetrator, the guy who was the drunk driver to the hospital, but we leave the guy that has been hit on the street. And then we say, oh, by the way, you [leading financial institutions] don’t have to pay for any damage that you’ve done. So even after [the Wall Street firms] paid back the government the real question is who’s responsible for all the damage that’s been done to our economy? The people have lost their jobs…that lost their homes? The banks haven’t paid back a cent of that liability. And that’s a real corporate responsibility.”[7]

Ironically enough, Charlotte Bell’s dad worked on the Obama campaign in 2012 and had recently sought policy work in the corporatist, Wall Street-captive Obama White House.

No Shortage of Necessary Work

The sixth thing I know to be indisputably true is that there is no shortage of important tasks for the United States’ millions of “surplus people” to perform in return for decent wages in a time when humanity is faced with the urgent ecological necessity of drastically reducing Greenhouse gas emissions. Stanford engineering professor Mark Jacobson and University of California-Davis research scientist Mark Delucchi have shown that humanity could convert to a completely renewable-based energy system by 2030 if nations would rely on technologies vetted by scientists rather than promoted by industries. Jacobson and Delucchi’s plan to have 100% of the world’s energy supplied by wind, water, and solar (WWS) sources by 2030 calls for millions of wind turbines, water machines, and solar installations. “The numbers are large,” they write, “but the scale is not an insurmountable hurdle: society has achieved massive transformations before. During World War II, the U.S. retooled its automobile factories to produce 300,000 aircraft, and other countries produced 486,000 more. In 1956, the U.S. began building the Interstate Highway System, which after 35 years extended for 47,000 miles, changing commerce and society.”[8]

Those who worry about the conflict between concern for jobs and concern for the environment in public opinion might want to reflect on the fact that many millions of workers would be employed in the socially and ecologically useful (indeed necessary) work of manufacturing, operating, and maintaining “millions of wind turbines, water machines, and solar installations,” along with numerous other tasks related to the environmental reconversion of the US and global economy that much of life  (including humanity) requires.

As Derber and Magrass note, “Surplus people…are ‘surplus’ only within a system that has made them so.  A more rational and sustainable economy, organized on the basis of human need and social rationality, could employ all Americans.”[9]

It’s More Than a Little Public

The seventh thing I know with supreme confidence is that it is completely dysfunctional to keep the question of how the profit system generates mass structural unemployment and under-employment “private” – removed from full and honest public conversation.  The joblessness and under-employment that capital imposes masses of people is a giant, fundamentally public issue with gigantic implications for the common good. It deserves broad public discussion on the path to saving livable ecology and providing socially useful, economically remunerative, and environmentally essential employment for millions who are ready and willing to work for themselves and others.

Along the way, such a public discussion would save a large number of US citizens from depression and suicide.  They have shamefully been made to feel individually responsible for what is actually a social problem rooted in economic change based on the anti-social imperatives of capital.

Paul Street is an independent Left political commentator, author and historian in Iowa City, IA.  His next book is They Rule: The 1%v Democracy (Paradigm Publishers, 2014)

 

Notes

1. Barack Obama, The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream (New York: Crown, 2006), 149-150.

2. Charles Derber and Yale Magrass, The Surplus American: How the 1% is Making Us Redundant (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2012), 3-6.

3. Richard Wolff, Democracy at Work: A Cure for Capitalism (Chicago: Haymarket, 2012), 37-42.

4. Peter Van Buren, “A Rising Tide Lifts All Yachts,” TomDispatch.com (June 3, 2014), http://www.tomdispatch.com/post/175851/tomgram%3A_peter_van_buren%2C_a_rising_tide_lifts_all_yachts/#more

5. “Stiglitz Calls for Fair Taxes,” Moyers & Company (May 30, 2014), http://billmoyers.com/episode/joseph-e-stiglitz-let%E2%80%99s-stop-subsidizing-tax-dodgers/

5A Paul Street, “The Pretender,” ZNet (June 8, 2014), http://zcomm.org/znetarticle/the-pretender/

6.  William Greider, “Obama Told Us to Speak But is He Listening?” Washington Post, March 22, 2009, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/03/19/AR2009031902511.html

7. “How Tax Reform Can Save the Middle Class,” Moyers & Company (June 6, 2014), http://billmoyers.com/episode/full-show-how-tax-reform-can-save-the-middle-class/

8. Mark Jacobson and Mark Delucchi, “A Plan for a Sustainable Future,” Scientific American (November 2009), http://www.stanford.edu/group/efmh/jacobson/Articles/I/sad1109Jaco5p.indd.pdf

9.  Derber and Magrass. The Surplus American, 3.

The White United States’ Real Founding Father: Lord Dunmore

25/07/14 0 COMMENTS

Written for teleSUR English, which will launch on July 24

First published on ZNet, July 4, 2014

Gerald Horne, The Counter-Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States of America (New York University Press, 2014)

How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty amongst the drivers of Negroes?

Samuel Johnson, 1775 

 

“The Moral Equal of Our Founding Fathers”

On March 8, 1985, the right-wing United States President Ronald Reagan spoke in glowing historical terms about the Contras, the murderous counter-revolutionary force funded, trained, and equipped by the US to overthrow the popular Sandinista revolution and government in Nicaragua. “They are our brothers, these freedom-fighters,” Reagan told the Conservative Political Action Conference, “and we owe them our help. They are the moral equal of our Founding Fathers,” Reagan added, “and the brave men and women of the French Resistance.”

Reagan’s comments irked liberal and left-liberal US opponents of Reagan’s Central American policy.  That policy involved the US providing training and funneling money, weapons, and other supplies to right-wing death squads across the region. The death toll was staggering: more than 70,000 political killings in El Salvador, more than 100,000 in Guatemala, and more than 30,000 murdered in the US proxy “contra war” on Nicaragua.

 “He Has Excited Domestic Insurrection Amongst Us”

It was absurd, of course, for Reagan to identify the Third World-fascist Contras with the anti-fascist French resistance.  But what most rankled many US liberals and progressives was the belief that Reagan had badly maligned the United States’ purportedly noble Founders by associating them with reactionary terrorists doing the CIA and White House’s illegal and dirty work in Central America.

This liberal/left indignation was historically naïve. Reagan was (unwittingly) on to something when he linked the bloody and noxious Contras to the rich and powerful white North Americans (the “Founding Fathers”) who led the early US republic’s break-off from Britain.  Forget for a moment that popular democracy even for whites was the Founders’ worst nightmare and that they crafted a government designed to make sure that the common people, those with little or no property, could not exercise any real power (for details, see Paul Street, “Democracy Incapacitated,” Z Magazine, July/August 2014, 28-30). Recalling that slavery was the main source of capital accumulation and proto-national wealth in late colonial British North America, look at this curious, rarely noted line in the Declaration of Independence’s (DOI’s) list of grievances against King George: “He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavored to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes, and conditions.” Here the “royal brute” was accused of advancing social upheaval from the bottom up (“domestic insurrection”) in the New World – an instructive complaint, symptomatic of the “American Revolution’s” counter-revolutionary nature.

Rebellious Slaves and the Balance of Terror

The reference to North America’s indigenous people as pitiless barbarians who slaughtered without distinction was vicious slander.  More than misrepresenting Indian culture and warfare, it anticipated Orwell by projecting onto Native Americans the genocidal practices the white North American settlers repeatedly used against the indigenes they ruthlessly murdered again and again

But go deeper. The reactionary reality of the DOI emerges more clearly when you realize what many of the leading North American colonists hoped to do with the land they wanted to seize from Jefferson’s “merciless Indian savages.” As the prolific historian Gerald Horne suggests in his recent book The Counter-Revolution of 1776Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States of America (New York, 2014), the (seemingly minor) line in the DOI quoted above reflects a central, fundamentally counter-revolutionary motivation behind the fateful decision to break off from England: a sense that the slave system on which North American fortunes depended could not survive except through secession from the British Empire.

As Horne shows, the expansion of a largely slave-based colonial economy across the New World during the 17thand 18th centuries had caused a serious problem for England, Spain, and France.  Slaves came to outnumber Europeans in the colonial world. Africans in the Americas took notice of their demographic preponderance and recurrently revolted against their masters, forcing Old World authorities to invest ever-rising resources in repression.  The colonizers tried to lure and (mainly through impressment) force enough Europeans to the colonies to sustain a balance of racial power and terror that would suppress slave rebellion.  They failed.

To make matters worse from the Europeans’ perspective, Africans in the New World were empowered by increasing rivalry between the colonial empires. Great conflicts in Europe developed between the colonizers: the War of the Austrian Succession (1740-1748) and the Seven Years War (1756-1763). These wars became global affairs in which colonial holdings switched hands between the great powers. They could not be waged in the Caribbean and South America without giving weapons to Blacks, and Black soldiers had to be freed if they were to going to bear arms in European wars.

By the mid-18th century, as intra-European warfare further eroded the profitability of colonial enterprises, the colonial powers were looking for ways to accommodate their Black populations. In the Caribbean, Blacks were incorporated into colonial regimes. European rivalry had given rise to a new class of free Blacks Africans eager and equipped to fight in well-ordered military units against slavery and its remnants wherever they could be found. Hard-line resident British planters in Barbados shut down their operations and moved to North America, where the white/black ratio was less threatening.

The Path to Slaveholder Secession

White North American slave-owners and northern merchants who profited from the lucrative slave economy owners were not pleased with these developments. They experienced numerous slave revolts even in their part of the British Empire.  Examples included major Black rebellions in Manhattan (1712, 1741) and South Carolina (the Stono Uprising, a mass 1739 uprising that included the massacre of dozens of settlers) – only the best known incidents. White North American colonists across the 18th century reported numerous incidents of slaves poisoning their masters, plotting insurrections, taking over ships, and setting fires.  “Black insurrectionists” were commonly said to be in league with the hated imperial rivals France and Spain. Horne notes that “one historian has observed as early as the 1760s that ‘every white person in the eastern counties [of Virginia] knew of a free person that had been killed by a slave’ [and that]…‘individual whites had nightmares about waking up amid slaves or feeling the first spasms of a stomach contorted by poison’” (Horne, The Counter-Revolution of 1776, p. 237).  Between 1756 and 1763, the white settlers of North America “endured a remarkable spate of slave plots driven by the flux brought by the Seven Years War” (Horne, 237).

The settlement of that war played a pivotal role putting the US colonist-Founders on the road to secession (“Independence”). After its victory over France – following a war in which “London made extensive use of armed Africans” in the New World (Horne, 187) – the British government decreed a limit to the colonists’ territorial expansion on the North American mainland. The royal Proclamation of 1763 conflicted with the colonists’ insatiable lust for fertile land to plant and harvest cash crops with Black slaves – land inhabited by Jefferson’s “merciless Indian Savages.”  Had the settlers been forced to remain within England’s confines, they feared, Black population growth would generate a “Caribbean” situation in North America. Their dread of black rebellion was enhanced by the constant influx into North America of black slaves infected with the “Caribbean virus” (resistance) – this thanks to the liberalization and dramatic expansion of the global slave trade in the 18thcentury.

There followed two further great steps on the path to the North American slaveholders’ secession – to American Independence. In the famous June 1772 Somerset case (Somerset v Lewis of 1772, 98 ER 499), the British court ruled that chattel slavery violated English common law. The application of Somerset to the thirteen British colonies would have meant an end to the slave machine that fed the coffers of the Yankee mercantile elite and fueled the wealth of New England (see below) while it created a wealthy landed aristocracy in Virginia, the Carolinas, and Georgia. The British judge responsible for the decision (William Murray Mansfield) became a special target of white colonists’ denunciation over the next four years.

The next landmark came in November 1775, when Lord Dunmore, the royal Governor of Virginia, offered to liberate and arm North American slaves to squash the anti-colonial rebellion under way since the Tea Act of 1773.  With this action, Dunmore “entered a pre-existing maelstrom of [colonial] insecurity about slavery and London’s intentions” (Horne, 222). Across the future US South in the spring of 1775, elite colonists were consumed with fears of a slave insurrection allied with the British, Spanish, and/or Native Americans. “Lord Dunmore’s proclamation effectively barred any possibility of rebel reconciliation with London” (Horne, 234) as the colonists “now confronted Africans armed by London” (Horne, 237).

The Somerset decision and Dunmore’s edict irrevocably joined London with Abolition in the minds of the white colonists. The latter provided the decisive white rallying point for what historian Thelma Wills Foote accurately called “a white settler revolt” and “the white American War for Independence” – fought in no small measure to preserve and expand black chattel slavery.  Independence emerged from “the state of the mind of the rebels” who already by early 1775 “coming to believe that a London-African combine was mounting against them, leaving secession – a unilateral Declaration of Independence – as the only way out” (Horne, 227, emphasis added). Two months before Dunmore issued his proclamation, rebels in South Carolina hung and cremated a free black man, Thomas Jeremiah, for saying that if England sent troops to repress the colonists he would join them.  Over the objections of South Carolina’s royal colonial governor, Jeremiah was tried and found guilty of “exciting the Negroes to an insurrection” (Horne, 226). “Even before the Dunmore proclamation,” Horne shows, “colonists were up in arms in light of alleged attempts by the crown to incite the Africans against them.”

When Dunmore issued his edict, there was no turning back from white independence, leading Horne to ironically but properly call Lord Dunmore a leading US “Founding Father.”

It is hardly surprising that North American slaves identified the cause of Freedom with London, not the rebels.  Tens of thousands of those slaves and a large number of free blacks naturally “joined the redcoats” (Horne, 246).

Exceptional White Triumph in North America

The colonists’ triumph over London “brought about the reassertion of slaveowner control over the enslaved black population in the new republic” (Foote, quoted in Horne, 244). The North American slave system tightened and expanded in subsequent years.  The color line between white and black was drawn with harsher lines than ever before in the “land of liberty.” Horne reflects on immediate and long-term consequences that does not jibe very well (to say the least) with the dominant national sense (shared even by many left historians) of the American Revolution as a democratic, forward-leaning development:

“there is a disjuncture between the supposed progressive and avant-garde import of 1776 and the worsening of conditions of Africans and the indigenous that followed upon the triumph of the rebels. Moreover, despite the alleged revolutionary and progressive impulse of 1776, the victors went on from there to crush indigenous politics, then moved overseas to do something similar in Hawaii, Cuba, and the Philippines, then unleashed its counter-revolutionary force in 20th-cetury Guatemala, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Indonesia, Angola, South Africa, Iran, Grenada, Nicaragua and other tortured sites too numerous to mention” (Horne, 248).

The white North American settlers’ counter-revolution was a great slavery success – at least until the Civil War, when another white secession and military necessity compelled Abraham Lincoln to follow in Lord Dunmore’s footsteps by liberating and arming black slaves.

The “American paradox” (US historian Edmund Morgan’s term), whereby “the Age of Liberty” was also “the Age of Slavery,” was not limited to colonial North America and the United States.  As the historian Greg Grandin reminds us, “the paradox can be applied to all of the Americas, North and South…What was true for Richmond [Virginia] was no less true for Buenos Aires and Lima – that what many meant by freedom was the freedom to buy and sell black people as property” (Greg Grandin, Empire of Necessity: Slavery, Freedom, and Deception in the New World, New York, 2014, emphasis added). But consider this: of the 10 to 16 million Africans who survived the brutal Middle Passage to the New World, two-thirds ended up in Brazil or the West Indies. But by 1860, approximately two thirds of all New World slaves lived in the US South. In the US alone among the new Western Hemisphere Republics of the 19th century, slavery flourished rather than faded – until its destruction in the Civil War.

Part of the explanation for that disjuncture is the natural reproduction of slaves under the “paternalist” regime of the US South.  Another aspect is the remarkable expansion of cotton slavery across the US South in the first half of the 19th century, intimately related to the eaely industrial revolution in England and Europe.  A final piece is the white settlers’/slaveholders’ Counter-Revolution of 1776.  The break-off slayed the specter of British Abolition and opened up vast new swaths of land for genocidal theft from the continent’s original inhabitants and the deployment of new slave cash-crop production armies.

Northern Investment in Slavery 

It wasn’t just the slave-owners of the southern North American colonies and early US who had a strong vested interest in the survival and expansion of slavery. “Freedom”-loving New England, in many ways the spiritual and ideological cradle of Independence, was thoroughly embroiled in the system of black bondage.  As the historian Lorenzo Greene noted 46 years ago, slavery “formed the very basis of the economic life of New England; about it revolved, and on it, depended, most of her other industries.” Grandin elaborates on the New England economy at the end of the 18th century:

“The expansion of slave labor in the South and into the West was still years away, but slavery as it then existed in the southern states was already an important source of northern profit, as was the already exploding slave trade in the Caribbean and South America.  Banks capitalized the slave trade and insurance companies underwrote it. Covering slave voyages helped start Rhode Island’s insurance industry, while in Connecticut some of the first policies written by Aetna were on slaves’ lives.  In turn, profits made from loans and insurance policies were plowed into other northern businesses.  Fathers who made ‘made their fortunes outfitting ships for distant voyages’ left their money to sons who ‘built factories, chartered banks, incorporated canal and railroad enterprises, invested in government securities, and speculated in new financial instruments’….The use of slave labor in the North was ending [by the late 1790s], but throughout New England there were merchant families and port towns – Salem, Newport, Providence, Portsmouth, and New London among them – that thrived on the [slave] trade.  Many of the millions of gallons of rum distilled annually in Massachusetts and Rhode Island were used to obtain slaves, who were then brought to West Indies and traded for sugar and molasses, which were boiled to make more rum to be used to acquire more slaves.  Other New Englanders benefitted more indirectly, building the slave ships, weaving the ‘negro cloth’ and cobbling the shoes to dress slaves, or catching and salting the fish used to feed them in the southern states and Caribbean islands (Grandin, Empire of Necessity, 79-80)

“Our Revolution…Alarmed at One Common Danger”

Ronald Reagan is hardly the only US president to have been fond of wrapping his administration in the supposedly glorious legacy of the US Founders and their “American revolution.” Barack Obama’s first Inaugural Address asked Americans to remember how “In the year of America’s birth, in the coldest of months, a small band of patriots huddled by dying campfires on the shores of an icy river. The capital was abandoned. The enemy was advancing. The snow was stained with blood. At a moment when the outcome of our revolution was most in doubt, the father of our nation ordered these words be read to the people: ‘Let it be told to the future world … that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive…that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet [it].”

For this writer at least, it was disturbing to hear the nation’s first black president citing the white War for Independence as an example of how “we” Americans united against “one common danger.” The new republic’s snows and soils and forests and tobacco, rice, and cotton fields had long been stained with the blood and tears of Native Americans and black slaves. Many North American slaves, free blacks, and indigenous people found and acted on good reasons to favor the British over the colonists in the war between England and the rising new racist and settler-imperialist slave state. England, after all, had put some limits on the pace at which the North Americans could steal the land the ruin the lives of the nation’s original inhabitants and turn western frontiers into sites for the ruthless exploitation of enslaved blacks.  The British promised freedom to slaves who turned against their masters during the imperial settlers’ war of national slavery liberation. Sadly, the fate and struggle of the early republic’s black and red victims foretold the future struggles of Asians, Latin Americans, and Middle Easterners caught on the wrong side of the United States’ “freedom”-loving guns, alliances, and doctrines as the “infant empire” grew to toxic and deadly maturity and lethal senility.

Historian and journalist Paul Street is the author of many books, including They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy(Paradigm, 2014, http://www.paradigmpublishers.com/books/BookDetail.aspx?productID=367810)

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