Krugman Needs New Sunglasses

30/09/14 0 COMMENTS

First published on TeleSur English, September 27, 2014.

Prepare for an Alien Invasion

Just because someone has a PhD, a Nobel Prize, a prized Princeton professorship, and a regular columnist position at The New York Times doesn’t mean they’re really all that clever.

Take the leading US liberal and partisan Democrat Paul Krugman, blessed with all of those things. Over the last few years, the science fiction fan Krugman has jokingly proposed an interesting idea for pulling the US economy out of stagnation: prepare for an alien invasion.

In 2011, Krugman told CNN about a Twilight Zone episode in which “scientists fake an alien threat in order to achieve world peace,” adding that “this time…we need it…to get some fiscal stimulus.”

“If you…look at what took us out of the Great Depression,” Krugman said in 2012, “it was Europe’s entry into World War II and the US buildup…So if we could get something that could cause the government to say, ‘Oh, never mind those budget things; let’s just spend and do a bunch of stuff.’… My fake threat from space aliens is the other route,” Krugman said before a laughing crowd. “I’ve been proposing that.”

But how smart or funny was it, really, for Krugman to use the futuristic imagery of an alien invasion to make the case for replicating the stimulus that military spending provided to end the Great Depression? Home- and human-made existential threats to survival were sufficient to the task.  How about saving the planet for livable habitation by putting millions to work on ecological retrofitting and clean energy? Tackling climate change and other environmental ills in a meaningful way means putting many millions of people to work at all skill levels to design, implement, coordinate, and construct the environmental retrofitting of economy and society – the ecological reconversion of production, transportation, office space, homes, agriculture, and public space.

WWII analogy? Sure. Fine. As Noam Chomsky argued in 2010, ”Surely the US manufacturing industries could be reconstructed to produce what the country needs, using its highly skilled work force—and what the world needs, and soon, if we are to have some hope of averting major [environmental] catastrophe. It has been done before, after all. During World War II, industry was converted to wartime production and the semi-command economy. . . ended the Depression.”

No mythical extraterrestrial menace required. “Spaceship Earth” presents its own urgent social and ecological justifications for massive public works programs and investments.

The Aliens Already Here: They Live

If we want to reference science fiction to make the case for the progressive change we’d like to see, then let me nominate my own personal favorite science fiction (and horror) film: John Carpenter’s They Live(1987). In Carpenter’s brilliant, outwardly campy spoof, the space invaders are already here, wearing corporate suits and changing the climate (“acclimatizing us to their atmosphere”) in the name of free enterprise. America is ruled by aliens disguised as members of the business and professional elite. The extraterrestrials colonize America and the Earth, dismantling the nation in the name of “the free market.” They speak in hushed tones to one another through small radios installed in Rolex watches that symbolize their elevated status. In a vast underground complex, they speak in outwardly idealistic terms of their real objectives – ruthless economic exploitation for the galactic Few sold as “growth” and “development” for the earthly Many. Mobile across the galaxy, they ship resources off-planet and manipulate Earthly citizens through subliminal forms of thought control encoded in advertisements and other corporate mass media content.

“They’re free enterprisers,” a leading human resister of the alien occupation explains. “We are like a natural resource to them,” a different resister elaborates. “Deplete the planet and move on to another. They want benign indifference. They want us drugged.”

Some humans are cultivated for co-optation, rewarded for collaboration with fancy jobs, money, and consumer goods. They are invited to sumptuous banquets where aliens dressed as business chiefs regale them with the latest data on the robust “per capita income growth” enjoyed by earthlings who cooperate with the extraterrestrials’ “quest for multi-dimensional expansion.”

Resistance is futile and there is no alternative, so you might as well play ball with the capitalists/aliens to enjoy the rewards. So the collaborationist story goes, encouraged by ubiquitous media messages selling personal consumerism, fashion, and narcissistic self-display as the meaning of “the good life.”

Those who cannot be co-opted or numbed by dominant media and consumer gratifications are designated “terrorists” and “communists who want to bring down the government.” They face violent repression by a heavily armed high-tech police state, whose tools of surveillance and repression include airborne spy cameras that prefigure the low-flying drones currently being prepared for use inside the United States.

Along the way, the aliens’ economic system generates unprecedented levels of carbon dioxide and methane, heating the environment in ways that fit their own home climate but threaten life on Earth.

The capitalist aliens are opposed by a revolutionary human cadre that has developed special sunglasses that decode the deadening messages of the alien-run corporate mass media and reveal the repulsive nonhuman identity of the privileged. When the glasses are donned, billboards, magazines, newspapers, and television programs are shown to express hidden meanings, telling humans to “obey,” “consume,” “watch tv,” “sleep,” “conform,” “submit,” “buy,” and “work eight hours.” Bills of money are shown to say “this is your god,” while billboards are seen to proclaim “no thought,” “do not question authority,” and “no imagination.”

The cadre oversees a campsite of poor, working-class Americans. Sitting behind a threadbare church in the shadow of Los Angeles’s downtown financial district, the camp captures the rising poverty and joblessness of the reckless get-rich-quick Reagan years and harkens back to previous episodes of mass homelessness in American history.

The campsite is brutally cleared by a militarized Los Angeles Police Department early in They Live, Reviewing this scene recently, I was struck by how closely it presaged the police-state clearances of the Occupy Movement’s many US encampments in the fall of 2011.

The cadre struggles to escape detection and repression as it seeks to break into the all-powerful media to tell ordinary Americans what they have discovered about who is running and ruining the country behind the façade of democracy. The movie ends when its two working class heroes (one black, the other white) penetrate corporate media headquarters to disable the aliens’ great satellite cloaking mechanism, exposing the privileged Few’s repulsive extraterrestrial identity and sparking a great popular rebellion

Cheap and Easy?

I was moved to reflect on They Live when I read a Krugman column published two days before the giant Climate March in Manhattan last Sunday.  Krugman accused left “antigrowth” thinkers and activists of dysfunctional “climate despair.”  He cited with approval a recent International Monetary Fund (IMF) working paper purporting to show that we can save the world from global warming by moving off fossil fuels and on to renewable energy sources at no great cost to economic growth. “Saving the planet would be cheap,” Krugman wrote, adding that “it might even be free….The idea that economic growth and climate action are incompatible may sound hardheaded and realistic,” Krugman concluded, “but it’s actually a fuzzy-minded misconception. If we ever get past the special interests and ideology that have blocked action to save the planet, we’ll find that it’s cheaper and easier than almost anyone imagines.”

Krugman and the IMF are right that economic growth can continue to take place in a world that has gotten off fossils fuels and switched to wind, water, and solar energy.  In the first section of this essay, indeed, I suggested the potential growth-stimulating impact of a major public investment in a post-carbon economy.

But Krugman’s commentary is deeply flawed. It misrepresents the “left” position on growth.  As a perceptive commenter on Krugman’s column notes, for example, the European “degrowth” movement is actually “NOT against economic growth and development. It is against grossly consumptive and mindless economic growth and development – which is what we have today.”

I would add: what we have today, under corporation capitalism, dedicated to the relentless generation of false needs and waste in service to profit.

I would also add that many of us on the eco-Left believe that societies can and must grow in ways more than economic: expand equality, increase democracy, boost community, augment health, raise  happiness, enlarge caring, swell sustainability, amplify creativity and imagination, and multiply love.  Here the issue is re-defining growth, not rejecting it.

Second, Krugman (like most economists, liberal or “conservative”) habitually talks about economic growth as a positive good in and of itself, ignoring not only its giant ecological downside under capitalism but also its longstanding role in providing an ideological cloak for the stark socioeconomic inequality that concerns him. As Herve Kempf has noted, the Western “oligarchy” has long sold the pursuit and promise of material growth as “the solution to the social crisis,” the “sole means of fighting poverty and unemployment,” and a “means of getting societies to accept extreme inequalities without questioning them. . . . Growth,” Kempf explains, “allow[s] 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,” 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.” And that’s why the assurance of growth is a critical promise made by Carpenter’s alien invaders to their human subjects in They Live.

Third, Krugman’s notion of a cheap and easy transition to a post-carbon future collapses when we get serious about confronting “the special interests and ideology that have blocked action to save the planet.”  Make no mistake: getting real about that means fierce popular confrontation with Big Carbon, a critical component of the currently reigning corporate plutocracy with vast capital assets sunk in the fossil fuel economy.  It means a dedicated mass movement against a key part of the nation’s “unelected dictatorship of money,” which is intimately connected to a Deep State that regularly resorts to repression to crush popular movements for democracy and the common good. A classic recent example of this repression is the Occupy Movement, dismantled by a coordinated federal campaign under a Democratic administration and with the participation of hundreds of cities under the direction of Democratic Party mayors.  I find it hard not to accept the accuracy of the following conclusion from Chris Hedges, sounding a bit like one of John Carpenter’s radical cadre in They Live during a panel session (titled The Climate Crisis: Which Way Out?) preceding last weekend’s historic People’s Climate March in New York City, “Republicans appeal to one constituency. The Democrats appeal to another. But both parties will do nothing to halt the ravaging of the planet…When we begin to build mass movements that carry out repeated [necessary] acts of civil disobedience… the corporate state, including the Democratic Party….will use the security and surveillance apparatus, militarized police forces…to shut down…dissent with force…as …during the Occupy movement. The corporate elites, blinded by their lust for profit…will not veer from our path towards ecocide unless they are forced from power.”

Nothing cheap and easy about that, but survival and getting to where humanity can grow (in ways more than economic) beyond fossil fuels depends on it.

It’s one thing – low-cost and laidback – to read and report environmentally hopeful capitalist research from the IMF from a privileged perch in Princeton.  It’s another and by no means casual and inexpensive thing to take the risks involved to form and join a mass movement dedicated to expelling Big Carbon from ecocidal power.

Paul Krugman needs a pair of John Carpenter’s magical sunglasses. There’s no such thing as a free revolution.

“Heart of Darkness”: Obama’s Orwellian Chutzpah at the United Nations

29/09/14 0 COMMENTS

First published on ZNet, Septemeber 26, 2014

If They Were Serious

What if Barack Obama and the US foreign policy establishment and US corporate media were actually serious about ending the dire threats – real and/or merely perceived – posed by Islamist terrorism to US citizens and “interests” at home and abroad? How would they proceed?

They would do five basic things.

First, they would undertake a serious and public discussion about why the United States faces widespread and bitter hatred in the Middle East and Muslim world. That would mean acknowledging Washington’s longstanding murderous and petro-imperial role in the Middle East – a role that many journalist and authors (myself included) others have documented at great length over many years.

It is not a pretty story. In Iraq alone, it seems likely that the number of unnatural deaths caused by US attacks and sanctions since 1990 exceeds 2 million and may go as high as 3.3 million (including 750,000 children).

In his 2004 book Imperial Hubris: Why The West is Losing the War on Terror the CIA’s former top al Qaeda expert Michael Scheuer tried to advance the elementary observation that al Qaeda (of which the new Islamic State of Iraq and Syria [ISIS] is a spin-off) hate the US not because of who it is (purportedly a land of freedom, democracy, religious toleration, and women’s rights) but because of what it does in the Middle East.

Scheurer’s warning went absurdly unheeded. “Anti-American” Islamic jihad lives on, tied now to an actual territorial Middle East caliphate, and fueled by a US imperial jihad – a veritable effort to construct something like a US caliphate through sheer murderous power of force – in the region after 9/11. Once again, the US public is told that the vicious Islamist enemy is driven to “hate us” because of “who we are” (supposedly free, democratic, and tolerant) when in reality the problem factor is what “we” (US policymakers) do in and to the Middle East.

It’s long past time to admit that it’s about what “we” do.

Second, Washington and the Administration would very publicly acknowledge that its claims to advance democracy, freedom, and humanitarian development have always been and remain little more than deceptive cover for the real objective behind the United States’ heavy and enduring military and political presence in the Middle East: control of the region’s vast and strategically hyper-significant oil resources.

Third, Washington and Obama would very publicly tell Israel that the US will no longer support its murderous, criminal, and racist policies of occupation and apartheid and that the US will take away the $3.1 billion it grants each year to the Israeli Defense Forces and invest that money instead in the reconstruction of Gaza.

Fourth, the US establishment through Obama would apologize in a very public and sincere way for the many millions of Arabs and Muslims the US has murdered, tortured, crippled, displaced, orphaned, sickened and otherwise grievously injured over more than seven decades of US military and political intervention in the Middle East.

Fifth, the US imperial establishment would announce that Washington’s military interventions in the Arab and Muslim worlds are coming to an end and that the US will take the taxpayer dollars saved to “pay reparations to the victims and repair the damage from the many American bombings, invasions, and sanctions.” (I quote here from William Blum. Rogue State: A Guide to the World’s Only Superpower [2005]).

A Darkly Flawed Call to Arms

If these things were done, the endlessly invoked Islamist terror threat would disappear. But, of course, such actions are unthinkable for the US imperial establishment, as Obama moves into his third day of air warfare in Syria. Thus the world yesterday (I am writing on the morning of Thursday 25, 2014) heard Obama at the United Nations (UN) “issue…a fervent call to arms against the Islamic State – the once reluctant warrior now apparently resolved to waging a twilight struggle against Islamic extremism for the remainder of his presidency.” (New York Times, 9/25/2014, A1).

In order to provide a façade of legal legitimacy for his technically criminal air war, Obama has recently (just two days ago) introduced the world to a new terror cell we’d never heard of before. It’s called “the Khorason Group,” said to be based in Syria and to pose an “imminent danger” to the US and the West. What a convenient creation, transparently advanced at the last minute to make Washington’s attacks on Syrian territory appear consistent with international law.

The only language the Islamic State terrorists and their “network of death” understand, Kill List Obama told UN delegates, his eyes flashing anger, is “the language of force.” The brutality of the ISIS, Obama added, “forces us to look into the heart of darkness.” An interesting choice of phrases, taken from Joseph Conrad’s racially loaded turn-of-the-20th century novel about a “civilized” white ivory trader’s trek down the Congo River into “barbarian” Central Africa.

What about Israel’s recurrent slaughter (with US weapons and ordnance) of hundreds of Palestinian children in Gaza, of its regular exercises in “mowing the lawn?” Does that make us look into “the heart of darkness?”

What about when the US bombs a houseful of civilians in pursuit of one presidentially targeted terrorist, killing dozens in pursuit of a single official enemy? Does that focus the world on “the heart of darkness” and “the language of force”?

How about the public beheadings that are routinely carried out for even petty crimes by “our partner” in the new War on Terror Saudi Arabia? Any “heart of darkness” there?

How about the death of more than 500,000 children thanks to US-led “economic sanctions” during the 1990s? That’s the number of dead Iraqi minors that CBS’s Leslie Stahl famously asked US Secretary of State Madeline Albright about in 1996. The Madame Secretary did not bother to dispute the appalling number. She said “we think the price [the giant juvenile death toll in Iraq that is] is worth it” – for the advance of inherently noble US foreign policy goals. As Albright explained three years later, “The United States is good. We try to do our best everywhere.”

Talk about “the heart of darkness.”

That heart finds its top global arterial pumping station in the US Pentagon, where post-9/11 planners came up years ago with an interesting term for “collaterally” killed Arab and Muslim victims of US military operations: “Bug-splat.”

Want to see a “network of death” and “the language of force”? Look at a map of US military bases and forces in the Middle East and around the world. The US maintains more than 1000 military installations across more than 120 “sovereign” nations, maintained by a Pentagon budget that accounts for nearly half the world’s military spending. US Special Forces under Obama operate in 134 countries, nearly double the number under George W. Bush.

“Where Might Makes Right”

For good measure, the US President at the UN yesterday warned nuclear Russia that it “would pay for its bullying of Ukraine” (New York Times). Obama denounced Moscow for holding “a view of the world where might makes right.”

Never mind that the West, led by the US, has provoked the dangerous “new Cold War” crisis in Eastern Europe. It has done so by violating early pledges that NATO would not expand eastward and by making bids to recruit new NATO members among former members of the Warsaw Pact and former provinces of the former Soviet Union. It seems almost redundant to add here that no nation on Earth exhibits a stronger commitment to the notion that “might makes right” than the US, with its giant global Empire and its astonishing death toll.

You’ve Got to Hand it To Him

A final insult to honesty at the UN came when Obama claimed that he and the US were in the vanguard of the global struggle against climate change – as if his administration has not greenlighted escalated oil drilling and fracking in the name of so-called national energy independence. As if the US under Obama hasn’t done everything it could to undermine international effort to develop and enforce binding global carbon emission reductions.

Like I’ve always said about Obama, you’ve really got to hand it to him: he’s sure got Orwellian chutzpah.

Paul Street can be reached at

“We Own the World”

27/09/14 0 COMMENTS

Originally published on TeleSur English, September 20, 2014.

A “Routine” U.S. Coast Guard “Mission” in “the Gulf”

Just when I thought the news couldn’t get any stranger three weeks ago, I saw the following Associated Press (AP) headline on Yahoo News: “U.S. Coast Guard Fires on Iranian Boat in Gulf.”

The Coast Guard? My initial reaction was naïve. “What,” I thought, “is the Iranian Navy doing in the Gulf of Mexico?”

Then I caught myself, realizing that the “gulf” in the story had to be the Persian Gulf, more than 5000 miles from the eastern coast of the U.S.

Of course.  On Wednesday, August 27, 2014, the AP reported, U.S. Coast Guard patrol boat Monomoy fired “in self-defense” on an Iranian dhow in the Persian Gulf.

A dhow is not a military vessel.  “Dhows,” the AP reported, “are traditional wooden boats common to the region that are typically used for trade.”

The Pentagon claimed that someone on the dhow had aimed a weapon at the Monomoy while the Coast Guard ship was performing “a routine maritime mission” in “the Gulf”

The Persian Gulf, that is.

“Off the Coast of China, That is”

Imagine, if you will, the response in Washington and the U.S. media if a Russian or Chinese military vessel of any kind, much less a Russian or Chinese “coast guard” ship, were on “a routine maritime mission” off any U.S. coast.  No shots would be required to spark a firestorm of U.S. rage at the affront to (U.S. of) “American sovereignty.”

I am reminded of something Noam Chomsky wrote two years ago, commenting on U.S. plans (subsequently carried out) to conduct major naval exercises just off China’s coast:

“There is …concern [in Washington] about the growing Chinese military threat. A recent Pentagon study warned that China’s military budget is approaching ‘one-fifth of what the Pentagon spent to operate and carry out the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan,’ a fraction of the U.S. military budget…China’s expansion of military forces might ‘deny the ability of American warships to operate in international waters off its coast,’ the New York Times added.”

“Off the coast of China, that is; it has yet to be proposed that the U.S. should eliminate military forces that deny the Caribbean to Chinese warships. China’s lack of understanding of rules of international civility is illustrated further by its objections to plans for the advanced nuclear-powered aircraft carrier George Washington to join naval exercises a few miles off China’s coast, with alleged capacity to strike Beijing.”

“In contrast, the West understands that such U.S. operations are all undertaken to defend stability and its own security. The liberal New Republic expresses its concern that ‘China sent ten warships through international waters just off the Japanese island of Okinawa.’ That is indeed a provocation — unlike the fact, unmentioned, that Washington has converted the island into a major military base in defiance of vehement protests by the people of Okinawa. That is not a provocation, on the standard principle that we own the world” (emphasis added).

The hypocritical “double-standard” is self-evident. Beneath the contradiction lay the consistent single-standard U.S.-imperial maxim: “we own the world.”

Oil, Imperially Understood

What, you might ask, are U.S. military ships of any kind (much less “coast guard” cutters) doing in the Persian Gulf, nestled above the Indian Ocean? It’s about fossil fuels. The Persian Gulf basin is home to roughly two-thirds of the planet’s known petroleum reserves. The gulf borders six nations among the world’s top eleven oil producers – Saudi Arabia (#2), Iran (4), Iraq (7), United Arab Emirates (8), and Kuwait (11).  The region’s status as the world’s energy heartland has long given the region utmost strategic significance to U.S. imperial planners.  According to the 1980 U.S. Carter Doctrine, the regular and large-scale shipment of Persian Gulf oil is “a vital interest of the United States.” Arguing that this critical “national interest” was endangered by the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan (undertaken in December of 1979) and the Iranian Revolution, U.S. President Jimmy Carter told Congress that the U.S. would employ “any means necessary, including military force,” to keep Persian Gulf petroleum flowing.

But it’s about more than keeping the oil and gas coming to the U.S. Washington has long paid rapt attention to the Persian Gulf because of U.S. planners’ desire to control other rich nations.  In 1945, as the U.S. was replacing the United Kingdom as the leading imperial power in the Middle East, the U.S. State Department noted that the region’s unmatched oil reserves were a “a stupendous source of strategic power, and one of the greatest material prizes in history.” That “prize” has long been understood by U.S. planners to be “a lever of ‘unilateral world domination,’” giving its master “veto power” over other industrial states and “funneling enormous wealth to the U.S. in numerous ways.”  U.S. policymakers have long prized domination of Middle Eastern oil as a bargaining chip with more oil-dependent regions like Western Europe and East Asia, the leading challengers to U.S. economic power.

Owning the oil-rich Middle East is about owning the world. And that helps U.S. explain why Washington’s obsession with the region survives the United States’ claim to be approaching “national energy independence” (an admittedly meaningless phrase) and the nation’s emergence last June as (according to the International Energy Agency) “the world’s biggest producer of oil and natural gas liquids.”


When Carter proclaimed his doctrine, the U.S. had relatively few forces in around the Persian Gulf. By February 1998, however, seven years after the one-sided imperial slaughter of Iraqis known in U.S. History texts as “The First Persian Gulf War,” and seven years into U.S.-led “economic sanctions” that killed at least half a million Iraqi children, the Pentagon had installed 35,000 military personnel in the Persian Gulf region.  U.S. soldiers, Marines, and airmen stood ready for action in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Diego Garcia, and Turkey. The deployment included more than 300 combat aircraft and 30 ships, including two giant aircraft carriers – the USS George Washington (with a crew of 5,500) and USS Independence (5,000).

Along with Washington’s massacre and murder of Iraqis and the United States’ long and transparently petro-imperial history of arming, funding, and otherwise supporting brutal and absolutist Middle East regimes and the racist anti-Arab/anti-Muslim occupation and apartheid state of Israel, this U.S. military presence in close proximity to Muslim holy sites helped explain the al Qaeda attacks of September 2001. Like earlier al-Qaeda actions, 9/11 was clearly and explicitly directed at Washington’s provocative imperial foothold in the region. It was a classic case of what CIA analysts had already identified forty-seven years before as imperial “blowback.”

The jetliner attacks were used by Washington as a pretext for the launching of a long and deadly U.S. jihad on the Muslim world.  Washington’s brazen post-9/11 attempt to create an American caliphate in the Middle East included the arch-criminal U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq, an action that was among other things an attempt to extend U.S. global hegemony by deepening Washington’s grip on the global oil spigot.

The madness continues. An unlucky thirteen years later, the U.S. has assembled a massive force of eight ships and more than 100 aircraft in the Persian Gulf for an air campaign against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in Iraq, itself a form of post-9/11 blowback. Obama addressed the nation last week, announcing his intention to bomb, missile- and drone-assault both Iraq and Syria to “degrade and ultimately destroy” ISIS.

Our Head-Choppers (Good) and Theirs (Bad)

The President is undertaking his escalation with majority support from a U.S. public nudged out of its opposition to further war by videos showing ISIS beheading two U.S. journalists somewhere in the Middle East.  It matters not that Washington threatened the parents of one of the killed journalists (James Foley) with prosecution if they tried to raise money to purchase his life.  It matters not that one of Washington’s key allies in the war on ISIS – Saudi Arabia (possibly the most reactionary government on Earth) – is a nation where execution by public beheading is a frequently carried out state policy.

The Obama administration claimed that the killing of Foley (a killing whose possible prevention the administration obstructed) was ISIS’s first “terrorist attack against our country.”  The claim might seem odd since the murder took place thousands of miles away from U.S. soil, but the world must always be reminded that Uncle Sam owns it.

Yes, it’s true: that Washington’s “good friend” Saudi Arabia severs heads with impunity; that Washington’s ally Israel recurrently blows hundreds of Palestinian children to bits with self-righteous gusto; and that Washington’s terrorist attacks on the Middle East have killed, maimed, and displaced millions across the region. But so what?  As George H.W. Bush proclaimed in the wake of the U.S. “turkey shoot” called Operation Desert Storm, “What we say goes.”  There can be no troubling questions for the world’s leading Mafia don.

As usual, it is largely about petroleum, As the incisive U.S. Left commentator Glen Ford notes, ISIS threatens to “consume the kings, Emirs and Sultans the U.S. depends on to keep the Empire’s oil safe” The U.S. prefers to dominate the region through proxies (including Saudi Arabia, the Arab Emirates, and Israel) and divide-and-rule. “The problem is,” Ford notes, “the Pentagon’s proxies are evaporating, in flight, or – in the case of Arab Iraq – growing ever more dependent on Iran and (who would have predicted it?) Russia, which is assisting in reconstituting the Iraqi air force.”

A Dangerous Illusion

“But,” you might still ask, returning to my opening incident, “the Coast Guard?” It turns out the U.S. Coast Guard (USGC) is more than a “U.S. coast guard.”  According to the USCG’s mission statement three weeks ago:  “For over two centuries the U.S. Coast Guard has safeguarded our Nation’s maritime interests in the heartland, in the ports, at sea, and around the globe” (emphasis added). (Follow this link for a detailed history of the USCG’s involvement in the “first Persian Gulf War.”)

It makes sense when you think about it.  The United States is the first nation in the world to be literally born as empire – a self-described “infant empire” and “empire of liberty” from the very beginning. Emerging after WWII as world history’s first truly global superpower and emboldened by the collapse of the Soviet deterrent in the early 1990s, its imperial planners see the Black Sea (where U.S. warships currently provoke nuclear Russia), the South China Sea, the Persian Gulf and…name the international water as all part of the U.S. coast at the end of the day.

That’s how it is when you think you own the world.  Perhaps the U.S. Coast Guard should join with NASA to take up positions in outer space.

Such global chutzpah is not without risk. As the late U.S. historian and foreign policy critic Gabriel Kolko reminded us more than once, Washington planners’ conceited belief that they can neatly manage the world’s affairs in U.S. and world interests from the banks of the Potomac has always been a great and dangerous illusion, with disastrous consequences at home and abroad. “What we say goes” is a lethal fantasy, full of hazard for (United States-of-) Americans themselves.  Those who think and act like they possess the planet must always be on the watch for those eager to give them their comeuppance.  Meanwhile Mother Earth is giving Homo sapiens no small just deserts for its U.S.-led petro-capitalist over-exploitation of her fossil fuels, so concentrated in the Middle East: an epic deterioration in the quality of life and the species’ life chances in coming years.

Paul Street’s latest book, just released, is They Rule: the 1% v. Democracy.

And Then Came Sharpton: Keeping Black Americans in Their Place

18/09/14 0 COMMENTS

First published on ZNet, September 14, 2014, and Black Agenda Report on September 17, 2014.

The Black residents of Ferguson, Missouri, a predominantly Black St. Louis suburb, were injured and insulted in at least eight key ways this summer.

First there was the execution-style murder of Michael Brown, gunned down with his hands in the air by a white Ferguson police officer.

Second, the Ferguson police left Brown’s body lying in the street in a pool of blood for hours.

Third, there was the initial police story that Brown had been shot after fighting with a white officer and “reaching for his gun” – a narrative that did not match what eyewitnesses saw.

Fourth, there was the para-militarized, Israeli-style government response to the initial protests. Ferguson and St. Louis County cops donned helmets, shields, flak vests, gas masks, and shields, using armored vehicles as they dispersed crowds with tear gas and rubber bullets. SWAT team members brandished high-powered assault rifles, aiming military-issue weapons at unarmed civilians. Numerous protesters were injured and arrested.

Fifth, there was the long mysterious delay in releasing the name of Michael Brown’s killer, Darren Wilson.

Sixth, there was the Ferguson police department’s inflammatory decision to release a video of Brown stealing a snack from a local convenience store (in what the police called a “strong arm robbery”) on the day he was killed. The release was obviously intended to change the media narrative in favor of the police – as if petty theft merited summary execution. The video’s distribution to media was doubly provocative since it came while Officer Wilson’s name was still shrouded in official secrecy. A murderer’s identity was protected while his victim’s minor crime was broadcast across the nation!

Seventh, Ferguson endured the stammering, authoritarian lectures from the state’s ridiculous Governor Jay Nixon, followed by curfew directives and deployment of the National Guard.

 How We Gonna Police”

Eighth, there was the sending in of the fake Civil Rights leader, Democratic Party shill, White House stooge, and MSNBC talk show host Rev. Al Sharpton to lecture Black Ferguson residents on proper decorum in the wake of racist police shootings. The former paid FBI Mafia informant played his system-serving role with aplomb. Listen to the following passage from the fifth and sixth paragraphs of Sharpton’s much-ballyhooed oration at Mike Brown’s funeral:

“I got a call from the grandfather, Reverend Tomb. Called me and said there’s a man, Mr. McSpadden on the phone. Said his grandson was killed in Ferguson, Missouri. I said, ‘Where is Ferguson, Missouri?’ He says, Right outside of St. Louis. …… I told his grandfather, I don’t care what happened, but whatever we can do I’ll be there to do it….That night, violence started. We were here Tuesday. And we went in front of that old courthouse with big Mike and the mother, and they had to break their mourning to ask folks to stop looting and rioting. Can you imagine their heartbroken? Their son taken, discarded and marginalized? And they have to stop mourning to get you to control your anger, like you’re more angry than they are? Like you don’t understand that Michael Brown does not want to be remembered for a riot. He wants to be remembered as the one that made American deal with how we gonna police in the United States…. This is not about you!” (emphasis added)

What They Police

Forget for a moment that the charlatan’s opening comments were all about him (“I got a call…I don’t care what happened….I’ll be there”). Never mind that Reverend Al has no idea how Michael Brown would have liked to “be remembered.” And disregard the fact that many Black Ferguson residents had their own stories to tell about mistreatment at the hands of “their” town’s nearly all-white police force.

The worst thing in the Sharpton passage just quoted is the shame the onetime mob snitch tried to foist on those who rose up in rebellion (what Sharpton wrote off as selfish “looting and rioting”) against the racist structures and practices that remain prevalent across the United States in the supposedly post-racial Age of Obama. The Ferguson Uprising was about more than individual selfishness. It was about more than Michael Brown, another one of the Black Americans who is killed on average every 28 hours by a police officer, security guard, or self-appointed vigilante.

And it wasn’t just about “how we gonna police in the United States.” It was also about what government authorities (“we”?) police in the US. What they police is, among other things, persistent harsh racial segregation and intimately related racial inequality so steep that the median wealth of white US households is 22 times higher than the median wealth of black US households.  The Black joblessness rate remains more than double that of whites – as usual. The Children’s Defense Fund (CDF) reports that an astonishing 40 percent of the nation’s Black children are growing up beneath the federal government’s notoriously inadequate poverty level. Roughly 1 in 5 Black and 1 in 7 Hispanic children live in “extreme poverty” – at less than half the poverty measure – compared to just more than 1 in 18 White, non-Hispanic children. This radical race disparity both reflects and feeds a four decades long campaign of racially disparate hyper-incarceration and criminal marking.  More than 40 percent of the nation’s 2.4 million prisoners are Black. One in three black adult males carries the crippling lifelong stigma (what law Professor Michelle Alexander has famously termed “the New Jim Crow”) of a felony record.

Why Place Matters

Among other things, contemporary US policing is about keeping Blacks in their place in more ways than one. The St. Louis region is the seventh most segregated metropolitan region in the US. It has a residential “segregation indice” of 72.3, meaning that nearly three-fourths of the region’s Blacks would have to move to be geographically distributed exactly like whites. Such extreme residential segregation is relevant because place of dwelling is strongly connected to social and economic status and opportunity. As sociologists Douglas Massey and Nancy Denton noted in their important 1998 book American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass, “housing markets…distribute much more than a place to live; they also distribute any good or resource that is correlated with where one lives. Housing markets don’t just distribute dwellings, they also distribute education, employment, safety, insurance rates, services, and wealth in the form of home equity; they also determine the level of exposure to crime and drugs, and the peer groups that one’s children experience.” By concentrating poor and working class Black people in a certain restricted number of geographical places you reinforce Blacks’ persistently disproportionate presence in the lowest socioeconomic places[1].

None of this has changed to any significant degree because a small number of Black Americans have moved into highly visible high places.

 Blame the “Self-Pitying” Victim

But back to Reverend Al’s funeral oration. After putting the “rioters and looters” in their supposedly selfish and irresponsible place, Sharpton ripped on Black Americans for “our disrespect for each other…Our killing and shooting and running around gun-toting each other…..Now we get to the 21st century, we get to where we got some positions of power,” Sharpton added, “and you decide it ain’t black no more to be successful. Now you wanna be a nigga and call your woman a ho, you lost where you come from…..Nobody gonna help us if we don’t help ourselves,”

“Sitting around feeling sorry for ourselves,” Sharpton added for good measure, “won’t solve our problems. Sitting around having ghetto pity parties rather than organizing and strategizing and putting our differences aside.”

As if the emergence of some Black Faces in High Places – Obama in the White House, Sharpton pontificating on MSDNC, Clarence Thomas handing down right-wing opinions (written for him by Anton Scalia) from the Supreme Court, Colin Powell and Condi Rice helping George W. Bush invade Iraq, Susan Rice helping Obama bomb Libya and Iraq and Syria – changes anything in Black working and lower class experience under persistent US racial apartheid and inequality.

As if rich and middle class whites got where they got purely through heroic self-help and tough love, with no assistance from government no benefits of class and race privilege – and with no transfer of wealth and income from people of color.

As if millions of Black Americans wouldn’t welcome serious opportunities for middle-class “success.” As if white folks wouldn’t be struggling with white-on-white violence and endemic crime and poverty if they were penned up in jobless, opportunity-bereft, and police-occupied white ghettoes and prisons after 300 plus years of white chattel slavery and reverse white Jim Crow.

As if engaging in days and nights of street battle with the forces of white supremacist order and marching in the street under the banner “No Justice, No Peace” is “sitting around feeling sorry for ourselves.”

Testament of Hope

There’s nothing wrong and much good and necessary about organizing and strategizing and community self-help. But advocating such things in the absence of serious criticism of contemporary racism, capitalism and militarism – what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., called “the triple evils that are interrelated” – will not solve Black America’s problems. “The black revolution,” the actual Civil Rights and social justice leader Dr. King wrote in a posthumously published 1969 essay titled “A Testament of Hope” – embracing a very different sort of hope than that purveyed by Obama in 2008 – “is forcing America to face all its interrelated flaws – racism, poverty, militarism, and materialism. It is exposing evils that are rooted deeply in the whole structure of our society. It reveals systemic rather than superficial flaws and suggests that radical reconstruction society of society itself is the real issue to be faced.”

Those words – words you never hear via “mainstream” media during annual King Day celebrations – ring as true and urgent as ever today. You’ll never hear them from Reverend Al. or from Barack Obama, the ultimate example of how, according to Sharpton, “we got some positions of power.”

Symbolic and nominal power, that is. The United States remains a white supremacist state at home and abroad. It is a nation where paths to celebrity and riches are open to a certain small number of “good Blacks” like Obama and Oprah, who make lucrative careers out of pleasing rich and powerful whites and not offending broader white sentiments and sensibilities. Meanwhile, racism – deeply and institutionally understood – lives on, with terrible consequences that endure all too invisibly beneath celebrated examples of Black ascendency into the elite. Sharpton’s rise is qualified by the requirement that he recurrently wade back into ghetto trenches to quell the flames of rebellion and inflict the bourgeois gospel on racialized US capitalism’s “homeland” victims.

Paul Street’s latest book, just released, is They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy.


  1. The misery inflicted on many millions of poor and working class Blacks by this persistent “American apartheid” is commonly identified with classic ghetto swaths in big cities like Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, St. Louis, Cincinnati, Milwaukee, and Detroit.  In reality, however, concentrated Black poverty, joblessness, and related racial apartheid is pervasive in numerous smaller US jurisdictions. If you want to talk to heavily segregated and deeply poor, criminally marked, and police-abused Black Americans, you don’t have to go major metropolises. You can visit smaller cities and towns like East St. Louis, Illinois, Benton Harbor, Michigan (containing astounding hyper-segregated Black misery in close proximity to lush Lake Michigan resorts and the sprawling modern headquarters of the Whirlpool Corporation), Flint, Michigan, Michigan City, Indiana, Gary, Indiana, Inkster, Michigan, Rock Island, Illinois, and Camden, New Jersey.  You can also travel to predominantly Black suburbs adjacent to big cities like Maywood and Bellwood, Illinois (extensions of Chicago’s vast West Side ghetto), numerous suburbs south of Chicago, and Ferguson (north of St. Louis, whose main black ghetto is on its North Side).

Deadly Drums of War and Oil

12/09/14 0 COMMENTS

The nation and world are in dire straits as US president Barack Obama prepares to address “the homeland” (a revealingly imperial term) tonight (I am writing on the morning of Wednesday, September 10, 2014). As Obama acknowledged on ABC’s “This Week With George Stephanopoulos,” 95% of the nation’s income gains went to the nation’s top 1% between 2009 and 2012. The nation’s median household income has dropped by more than $4000 since 2000. 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.

All of this and more feeds the United States’ status as by far and away the industrialized world’s most unequal and poverty-ridden nation – a curious designation for the self-described Land of Opportunity (LOO), home to what Obama called in 2006 “a prosperity that’s unmatched in human history” (a “prosperity” the future president attributed to the United States’ embrace of “private property” and “the logic of the marketplace”). More than 16 million children – 22% of all US children  languish below the federal government’s inadequate poverty level, the US 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%. One in seven US citizens rely on food banks (half of those people are employed, incidentally) while a small US minority enjoys radical opulence in heavily guarded mansions and luxurious apartments and suites at home and abroad. Former New York State Tax Commissioner James Wezler worries, with reason, that the US is becoming “a plutocratic dystopia characterized by wealth inequality approaching that of ancien régime France.”

These terrible facts reflect more than three decades of deliberately engineered upward wealth and income distribution: a ruthless state-capitalist concentration of riches and power that has brought us to a New Gilded Age of abject oligarchy and (more on this below) the brink of environmental catastrophe.

Economic inequality, the first of what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., called “the triple evils that are interrelated,” is alive and well. It has, in fact, thrived over the four-plus decades since King’s assassination (or execution).

It doesn’t help that the US accounts for nearly half the world’s military spending. It uses vast taxpayer largesse to pay for giant cost-plus “defense” contracts with high-tech US corporations and maintain more than 1000 military installations spread across more than 100 “sovereign” nations. The US deploys Special Forces in 134 countries, one of many Pentagon expenditures that help keep the United States’ much bemoaned (by the right) “welfare state” among the weakest in the industrialized world.

One does not have to wonder long what Dr. King – a bust of whom sits in Orwellian irony behind Kill List Obama in the Oval Office – would think. Exactly one year before his assassination (or execution) in Memphis, Tennessee King warned that “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”

As the Ferguson. Missouri police shooting and popular rebellion ought to remind us, the nation’s savage inequalities are still heavily racialized. Racist structures and practices remain insidiously prevalent across the far-from “color blind” and “post-racial” United States. Democratic Party shill and civil rights charlatan Al Sharpton told mourners in Ferguson that legitimate Black protest should be about “how we gonna police in the United States.” The more fundamental question is what government authorities (“we”?) police in the United States. And what they police and enforce is, among other things, persistent harsh racial segregation and intimately related harsh racial inequality. The median wealth of white US households is 22 times higher than the median wealth of black US households. This stark disparity both reflects and feeds a four-decades-long campaign of racially disparate hyper-incarceration and criminal marking. More than 40 percent of the nation’s 2.4 million prisoners are Black. One in three black adult males carries the crippling lifelong stigma (what law professor Michelle Alexander has famously termed “the New Jim Crow”) of a felony record.

Racism was the second of Dr. King’s “triple evils that are interrelated.” It lives on, with special cover from the existence of some “Black faces in high places” (including the oval office) in the Age of Oprah and Obama.

Meanwhile there’s the question of whether there’ll be anything left for police or anyone else to “serve and protect” in the not-so-distant future. As Noam Chomsky notes in a recent brilliant if depressing and possibly paralyzing reflection:

“The likely end of the era of civilization is foreshadowed in a new draft report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the generally conservative monitor of what is happening to the physical world….The report concludes that increasing greenhouse gas emissions risk ‘severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts for people and ecosystems’ over the coming decades. The world is nearing the temperature when loss of the vast ice sheet over Greenland will be unstoppable. Along with melting Antarctic ice, that could raise sea levels to inundate major cities as well as coastal plains… The IPCC report reaffirms that the ‘vast majority’ of known fuel reserves must be left in the ground to avert intolerable risks to future generations. Meanwhile the major energy corporations make no secret of their goal of exploiting these reserves and discovering new ones…A day before its summary of the IPCC conclusions, The New York Times reported that huge Midwestern grain stocks are rotting so that the products of the North Dakota oil boom can be shipped by rail to Asia and Europe.”

Chomsky could have deepened his dark case by referencing leading left oil and empire analyst Michael Klare’s observation that “ U.S. oil consumption is on an upward trajectory, climbing by 400,000 barrels per day in 2013 alone — and, if current trends persist, it should rise again both this year and next.” As Klare elaborates:

“….oil is back.  Big time….Despite what you may think, Americans, on average, are driving more miles every day, not fewer, filling ever more fuel tanks with ever more gasoline, and evidently feeling ever less bad about it.  The stigma of buying new gas-guzzling SUVs, for instance, seems to have vanished; according to CNN Money, nearly one out of three vehicles sold today is an SUV.  As a result of all this, America’s demand for oil grew more than China’s in 2013, the first time that’s happened since 1999.”

“Accompanying all this is a little noticed but crucial shift in White House rhetoric.  While President Obama once spoke of the necessity of eliminating our reliance on petroleum as a major source of energy, he now brags about rising U.S. oil output and touts his efforts to further boost production.”

The once widespread expectation that the US would be moving quickly on the path to a post-petroleum economy (one of the early promises of the Obama candidacy of 2007-2008) has been swept for now into history’s proverbial dustbin – with consequences that are terrible to contemplate.

If Dr. King were alive today (he’d be 85), he would certainly add Ecocide – itself intimately related to economic inequality (capitalism, essentially) – to his list of the “evils that are interrelated.” Smart people like Rachel Carson and Barry Commoner were warning about the danger in his lifetime. Half a century later the risk is shockingly imminent; it has overtaken nuclear war as the leading threat to human survival.

Surely, then, “our” left (according to the FOX News and talk radio empire and cohort) and “progressive” (some liberals still insist on believing against all evidence both before and since Obama’s first White House election) president is going to try to rescue his frankly failed presidency by getting real about how We the People can meaningfully confront and overcome poverty, mass joblessness, savage economic inequality, ferocious racial disparity, and climate change/ecocide with bold and progressive policy and politics. Surely he is going to honor the memory of Dr. King by calling for: a significant downward distribution of wealth and income; measures to roll back abject plutocracy; the re-building and expansion of the social safety net; the empowerment of worker organizing; a serious confrontation with persistent US racism (deeply and institutionally understood); de-incarceration; the de-militarization of local police, the massive transference of resources from the spiritually fatal war and empire machine to a giant Green Jobs program – a Green New Deal that will put millions to millions to remunerative and socially useful and ecologically (and existentially) essential work: the building of a post-fossil fuel social energy infrastructure relying on wind, water, and solar…an epic, Life-saving reconversion of the US political economy.

Get real.


Obama is addressing the nation tonight to make the case for the US to intensify its commitment to the third of Dr. King’s “triple evils” – militarism – in the Middle East. He will inveigh against the reprehensible barbarism – including videotaped beheadings of US journalists – of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). He will proclaim “America’s” well-intentioned devotion to civilized values: human rights, freedom, and democracy – all those good “American” things that dastardly pre-modern Islamists irrationally hate. He will say nothing about the United States’ brazenly petro-imperial and, well, barbarian, mass-murderous role in the Middle East and the Muslim world. (Beginnings on this topic can start by Googling up “Fallujah 2004,” “Abu Ghraib and torture,” “Bagram Air Force and enhanced interrogation,” “Highway of Death,” “Madeline Albright and 500,000 Iraqi children,” “Nisour Square and Wikileaks,” “Bola Boluk 2009,” “Jeremy Scahill and Dirty Wars” and “Nir Rosen and Death of Iraq.”) He’ll make no reference to the United States’ long oil-driven history of backing brutally repressive and despotic regimes in the region. He won’t mention the beheadings that are regularly carried out by authorities in Saudi Arabia, a key US ally that is home to the most reactionary government on Earth. He won’t mention longstanding US support for Israel’s recurrent murder of Palestinians in Gaza and for Israel’s regime of savage racist apartheid and oppression (which kills and maims on a regular basis between period episodes of IDF “lawn mowing”). He won’t talk about how US interventions, occupations, alliances, murders and neoliberal policies in the region have long pushed Arabs and Muslims into fundamentalism and violence. He won’t acknowledge how US military escalation always fuels jihadist recruitment and rage. He won’t admit the United States’ direct role in building up ISIS in Syria, part of Washington’s campaigns against the Assad regime and Shia Iran. He won’t mention the older role of the US and its allies Saudi Arabia and Pakistan in the building up of al Qaeda, of which ISIS is an offshoot. He won’t mention the price that millions of disproportionately Black poor US children pay for the giant systemic diversion of US taxpayer dollars from social uplift at home to US Empire abroad. He won’t mention the social, public, democratic, and environmental needs that go vastly unmet as the US transfers billions to corporate war masters. He won’t note that the US Empire is dedicated to maintaining US control over a global oil spigot whose output places humanity at ever more imminent risk of self-liquidation. He won’t admit that he is banging the drums of war so that the Washington can try to protect its control over the filling of the deadly drums of oil.

There’s a word for all this: Evil. And there’s only one “solution” – popular organization for revolutionary change, for what Dr. King called near the end of his life “the real issue to be faced” beyond “superficial” matters (like the skin color or gender of a Wall Street-backed political candidate): “the radical reconstruction of society itself.” Awareness that this radical project – quite do-able, for what it’s worth – is now urgently required to preserve chances for a decent future, for survival, might light a fire in the hearts and minds of those who are serious about saving the US, the world, and (dare I say) themselves from spiritual as well as material death.

Paul Street’s latest book is They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy

An Idée Fixe and a Vicious Circle

12/09/14 0 COMMENTS

TeleSur English, September 11, 2014

Unmentionable Blowback

History has a nasty way of repeating itself when its lessons go unprocessed. Take the US Global War on Terror, formally sparked by the al Qaeda jetliner attacks of September 11, 2001. By early 1998, seven years after Washington inflicted a one-sided imperial slaughter of Iraqis known in US History texts as “The First Persian Gulf War” and seven years into a US-led campaign of “economic sanctions” that killed at least half a million Iraqi children, the Pentagon had installed 35,000 military personnel in the Persian Gulf region.  US soldiers, Marines, and airmen stood ready for action in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Diego Garcia, and Turkey. The deployment included more than 300 combat aircraft and 30 ships.  The US Fifth Fleet patrolled the Persian Gulf and the US naval presence included two giant aircraft carriers – the USS George Washington (with a crew of 5,500) and USS Independence (5,000),  each loaded with more than 4.6 million pounds of “air launched missiles, laser-guided bombs, general purpose bombs and ammunition.” According to the Washington Post in February of 1998. “the 100 [US] aircraft based in Saudi Arabia for patrols over southern Iraq” included “two dozen F-15 and F-16 fighter jets [in] Bahrain…12 F-117 stealth fighter jets [in] Kuwait, three B-1 bombers [in] Bahrain and 14 B-52 bombers [on] the island of Diego Garcia.”

Along with Washington’s massacre and murder of Iraqis and the United States’ long and transparently petro-imperial history of arming, funding, and otherwise supporting brutal and absolutist Middle East regimes (the Saudi despotism above all) and the racist anti-Arab/anti-Muslim occupation and apartheid state of Israel, this US military deployment in close proximity to Muslim holy sites helped explain the al Qaeda jetliner attacks of September 2001. Like earlier al-Qaeda actions, 9/11 was clearly and explicitly directed at Washington’s provocative and openly imperial presence in the region. It was a predictable and to some degree predicted form of imperial “blowback.”

None of this could be remotely acknowledged in reigning “mainstream” US political and media culture, which portrayed the 9/11 attacks as being all about Muslim terrorists’ alleged hatred and envy of US “freedom.” A reigning “orientalist” Islamophobia purported to explain the attacks in terms of supposed ingrained “anti-modern” characteristics of Islamic culture and religion. This racist “understanding” was encouraged by a US government that,  as the brilliant Lebanese scholar Gilbert Achcar noted, was “unwilling to give the true answer to the much-asked question: Why do ‘they’ hate us?” As the venerable US foreign policy dissident William Blum noted in 2005:

“The fires were still burning at Ground Zero in New York when Secretary of State Colin Powell declared: ‘Once again…we see terrorists, people who don’t believe in democracy’….Here is the president more than a year after September 11: ‘The threats we face are global terror attacks…And the more you love freedom, the more likely it is you’ll be attacked.’….This idée fixe – that the rise of anti-American terrorism owes nothing to American policies – …postulates an America that is always the aggrieved innocent in a treacherous world, a benign United States government peacefully going about its business but being ‘provoked’ into taking extreme measures to defend its people, its freedom, and its democracy.  It follows …that there’s no good reason to modify US foreign policy, no choice but to battle to the death this irrational international force that hates the United States…(emphasis added).

The Vicious Cycle Recurs

Filtered through this Empire-denying mindset, 9/11 provided – as Osama bin-Laden hoped it would – Washington with a great pretext (the “new Pearl Harbor” that neoconservatives like Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld had dreamed of) to dramatically expand and intensify its  military presence in the Middle East and the Muslim world.  The escalation included the arch-criminal US invasion and occupation of Iraq, an attempt to extend US global hegemony by deepening Washington’s grip on the global oil spigot. Bearing the all-too appropriate acronym “OIL,” “Operation Iraqi Liberation” (quickly changed to “Operation Iraqi Freedom”) was only the most spectacular chapter in what the perceptive US empire critic Tom Engelhardt calls “a kind of American jihadism, …an attempt to establish what might have been considered an American caliphate in the region…In the process,” Engelhardt notes, “the U.S. effectively dismantled and destroyed state power in each of the three main countries [Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya – P.S.] in which it intervened, while ensuring the destabilization of neighboring countries and finally the region itself.”

And so here we are again. By early this August, the US had assembled a massive force of eight ships and more than 100 aircraft in the Persian Gulf for the launching of an air campaign against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), whose beheading of a US journalist in the region was provocatively described by the White House as “a terrorist attack on the United States.” The US re-escalation is underway and likely to expand. At one level, this might seem ironic.  ISIS poses a grave threat not just to the US-sponsored regime in Baghdad (a government that opens Iraq’s abundant oil resources to US petroleum corporations) but also to the Syrian Assad regime, to which Washington is fiercely opposed.  ISIS battles and terrorizes Shia Muslims throughout the region, identified with Iran, the leading US regional enemy state and an ally of Assad.

But the menace posed by ISIS and the resurgence of jihadism across the region is not limited to Syria and Iraq. It also threatens, in the words of the incisive US Left commentator Glen Ford, to “consume the kings, Emirs and Sultans the US depends on to keep the Empire’s oil safe.” With the rise of the new Caliphate, Ford notes, “The pace of (US) imperial decline just got quicker.” The peril ISIS presents to what has always been Washington’s primary concern in the region – the great “strategic prize” of Middle Eastern oil – raises the specter of the US having to re-send large military deployments.

That is something US policymakers do not relish. Smart US planners have learned that direct US military intervention fuels “anti-Americanism” and strengthens the jihadist movement in the long run. The US prefers to dominate the region through proxies (including Saudi Arabia, the Arab Emirates, and Israel) and divide-and-rule. “The problem is,” Ford notes, “the Pentagon’s proxies are evaporating, in flight, or – in the case of Arab Iraq – growing ever more dependent on Iran and (who would have predicted it?) Russia, which is assisting in reconstituting the Iraqi air force.”

A US Frankenstein

The deeper irony is that ISIS, like al Qaeda before it, is largely a US-generated Frankenstein.  It would not have emerged to threaten US power and that of the United States’ proxies in the region had the US not:

  • Invaded Iraq and broken state power there while directly and indirectly killing more than a million Iraqis and displacing millions more.
  • Disbanded the Iraqi army.
  • Stood by while Baghdad was looted.
  • Built military bases all over Iraq.
  • Fueled and exploited sectarian and related ethno-religious divisions in Iraq.
  • Created and left behind in Baghdad the world’s largest embassy, which harbors an army of US military contractors and CIA and other “intelligence” agents.
  • Continued to function as the dominant military power in Iraq through the provision of arms, training, and other “support” to Iraq’s forces.
  • Insisted on US troops’ immunity from Iraqi prosecution for criminal acts.
  • Sponsored an Iraqi regime (Maliki’s) that shut Sunnis out of jobs and political power and shot Sunnis down when they protested.
  • Tortured untold thousands of Iraqis, including current ISIS chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who was captured by the US military in 2005 and “held in a US-run detention camp in southern Iraq called Camp Bucca, where he remained for several years.

At the same time, the US has given significant high-tech weapons and training to ISIS and allied groups fighting the Assad regime in Syria – weapons and training that have backfired on the US-sponsored regime in Iraq.

“Noble Intentions”

None of this can be seriously acknowledged in the dominant US political and media discourse.  Blum’s “idée fixe”still holds, even if many planners know that military escalation only breeds more jihadis. In the official and public statements and loyal US media reporting and commentary, the rise of ISIS is just all about “thuggish” Islamists’ “irrational” and pre-modern hatred of freedom, decency, and “civilization.”  It’s got nothing to do with US policy – nothing to do with such great examples of US-led “western civilization” as Abu Ghraib, the US Marines’ radioactive near-levelling of Fallujah, and Washington’s barbaric decimation of Iraq, worse than the horrors the Mongols inflicted on Mesopotamia.

US “mainstream” (corporate) media blames “sectarianism” for the rise of ISIS and the broader spread of jihadism, refusing to pay serious attention to the central US-imperial role in the creation of the monster.  The US is portrayed (consistent with the doctrinal norm) as a well-intentioned but innocent bystander, a frustrated umpire who is at worst bumbling and befuddled – never criminal, barbaric, or imperial.  As Michael Parenti noted seven years ago: “Be it the Vietnam War, the invasions of Grenada and Panama, the intervention against Nicaragua, the Gulf War massacre, and subsequent invasions of Afghanistan, US military undertakings are portrayed as arising from noble if sometimes misplaced intentions.  The media’s view is much the same as the view from the State Department and the Pentagon.”

 And ISIS Knows It

This persistent doctrinal denial of US imperial arrogance and criminality in the Middle East does not bode well. It betokens another chapter in the mutually reinforcing cycle of US escalation feeding Middle Eastern Islamist extremism feeding US escalation. ISIS is aware of the vicious circle.  As Engelhardt notes: ISIS militants share Osama bin-Laden’s sophisticated understanding of how US escalation fuels jihadism:

“Don’t consider [ISIS’] taunting video of James Foley’s execution the irrational act of madmen blindly calling down the destructive force of the planet’s last superpower on themselves.  Quite the opposite.  Behind it lay rational calculation.  ISIS’s leaders surely understood that American air power would hurt them, but they knew as well that, as in an Asian martial art in which the force of an assailant is used against him, Washington’s full-scale involvement would also infuse their movement with greater power.  (This was Osama bin Laden’s most original insight.)”

“It would give ISIS the ultimate enemy, which means the ultimate street cred in its world.  It would bring with it the memories of all those past interventions, all those snuff videos and horrifying images.  It would help inflame and so attract more members and fighters.  It would give the ultimate raison d’être to a minority religious movement that might otherwise prove less than cohesive and, in the long run, quite vulnerable.  It would give that movement global bragging rights into the distant future.”

“ISIS’s urge was undoubtedly to bait the Obama administration into a significant intervention.  And in that, it may prove successful.  We are now, after all, watching a familiar version of the escalation follies at work in Washington.”

Imperial Insanity’s Caveat

Albert Einstein once defined insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”  The definition applies well to US imperial policy in the Middle East.  This observation comes with a critical caveat, however. Numerous powerful corporate and military interests have strong selfish reasons to not really want different results in the Middle East.  It’s not polite to say, but permanent war is profitable to the US Deep State military-industrial-complex, including such giant and powerful Pentagon-subsidized entities as Boeing, Raytheon, and Lockheed Martin. Today, as always, the costs of empire are spread across society as a whole while the benefits accrue to the wealthy corporate and financial few.

Paul Street’s latest book is They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy

Labor Day Reflections: Saying Goodbye to the Piketty Summer

05/09/14 0 COMMENTS

TeleSur English, September 4, 2014

The national United States holiday called Labor Day has for me traditionally been a time for reading on the beach, for saying goodbye to summer, and for reflecting on the history of workers and unions [1].  This recent Labor Day (two days ago) found me nowhere near a beach, but I did manage to spend some time looking for references to workers and unions in the pages of the passing summer’s surprise nonfiction bestseller – liberal French economist Thomas Piketty’s 685-page historical and economic tome Capital in the 21stCentury.

Except for a brief opening reference to South African workers who struck and met deadly police violence in August of 2012, my search was fruitless.  In his instantly heralded volume on the long history of economic inequality’s ebbs and flows (in which he shows that capitalism’s inexorable underlying tendency is towards the increased concentration of wealth) in the world’s richest nations, Piketty gives no discernible role or agency to workers, unions, labor parties, and working class struggle. The deletion is so complete that the index to Capital in the 21st Century doesn’t contain the words and terms “unions,” “trade unions,” “workers,” or “working class.”  That is quite consistent with leading Marxist academician David Harvey’s criticism of Piketty’s “mistaken definition of capital.”  Harvey rightly describes capital as “a process not a thing … a process of circulation in which money is used to make more money often, but not exclusively through the exploitation of labor power. Piketty,” Harvey notes, “defines capital as the stock of all assets held by private individuals, corporations and governments that can be traded in the market no matter whether these assets are being used or not.”

Workers’ absence is quite a glaring omission from Piketty’s subject matter.  If Piketty thinks that labor history and the broader history of the working class and labor-capital struggle holds no bearing on the long duree patterns of wealth and income distribution under the profits system, he is badly mistaken.  You cannot begin to fully understand historical wage and income patterns, the decline of inequality in the rich nations during the middle third of the last century, or the dramatic upward re-concentration of wealth and income over the last four decades (the long, so-called neoliberal era that is correctly understood by Piketty as a return to capitalism’s long-term anti-egalitarian norm) without “factoring in” workers and class struggle. It’s more than pure coincidence that the significant reduction in US inequality which took place between the 1930s and the 1970s took place alongside the emergence and consolidation of an at first militant new mass-production unionism.[2]  And it is not for nothing that the US state-capitalist economic and power elite launched a “one-sided class war” (former United Workers President Douglass Fraser) against workers and unions – a top-down campaign that has reduced US union density (the percentage of US workers enrolled in unions) from over 30 % in the 1960s  to 11.3% (and below 7% in the private sector)  today– as an essential part of their effort to roll back “excess democracy’ and re-concentrate wealth and power since the 1970s.

The deletion of workers, unions, and labor history is hardly the only significant flaw in Capital in the 21st Century. Piketty’s “masterpiece” (conservative French demographer Emmanuel Todd) is excessively long, tedious, and (consistent with its failure to include working-class people and their struggles) dull.  To make matters much worse, Piketty’s “magisterial treatise on capitalism’s inherent dynamics” (elite academician Dani Rodrik) praises Western capitalism’s “modern economic growth” for having averted what he revealing calls “the Marxist apocalypse” (disparity and poverty so great as to usher in a communist revolution) but pays no serious attention to how “modern” growth-addicted capitalism is generating a real-life environmental apocalypse right before our 21st century eyes.

Piketty foolishly sees the failure and collapse of the Soviet dictatorships as events that discredit radical left anti-capitalism – as if serious left radicals have ever thought that the Stalinist Soviet- bloc tyrannies represented a workers’ and peoples’ alternative to bourgeois rule.

Piketty 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.” But what justifications of “common utility” can possibly be found in the extraordinary level of the socioeconomic disparity the profits system generates today? Just here in the US, where more than 16 million children – 22% of all 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 a constant underlying tendency towards the concentration of more wealth in fewer hands. 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 strikingly 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 aforementioned top-down managerial class war and the remarkable proliferation and de-/non-regulation of financial instruments (credit default swaps and other complex derivatives and financial “innovations”). These omissions are part of why David Harvey is correct to observe that Capital in the 21st Century “does not tell us why the crash of 2008 occurred and why it is taking so long for so many people to get out from under the dual burdens of prolonged unemployment and millions of houses lost to foreclosure.”

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.” Piketty feeds the “de facto mental slavery” (David Barsamian) 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 big hit with relatively well-off, highly “educated” and supposedly “left”-leaning, bi-coastal 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.”

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 fake-progressive president, purchasing (and maybe even working through some 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.

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


1. This is not to say that the first Monday in September is the most appropriate day for such reflection, historically speaking. It isn’t.  May First is. For reflections on the reactionary business class considerations behind the official US Labor Day’s dating at the beginning of September rather than May 1st/May Day (the international workers’ day commemorating the Eight Hour Day Struggle in Chicago in 1886), see Ken Layne, “Labor Day is a Scam to Keep You Poor and Miserable Forever,” Gawker (August 30, 2013).  Thanks to Matt Gardner for this source.

2.  For an account of declining inequality in the mid-20th century US that is sensitive to the role of workers and unions, see Paul Krugman, The Conscience of a Liberal (New York, 2007), Chapter 3, “The Great Compression.”

ISIL as a U.S. Frankenstein: Paul Street Interview with Fars News Agency

05/09/14 0 COMMENTS

First published at the Fars News Agency (Tehran), September 3, 2014:

FNA: Kindly explain about the role of US in forming and bringing ISIL into existence. Is this a plot orchestrated by US and its allies? If so, why?

Street: ISIL is in fact a Frankenstein created largely by US imperialism.  Still, it’s too much and far too simple to say that it is plot or a conspiracy orchestrated by the US and its allies.  To say that it is to exaggerate US power and to unduly deny agency to Sunni Islamists. It is also to misconstrue US-imperial aims in the Middle East.  The menace posed by ISIL and the resurgence of jihadism is not limited to Syria and Iraq.  It also threatens, in the words of the incisive US Left commentator Glen Ford, to “consume the kings, emirs and sultans the US depends on to keep the Empire’s oil safe.” With the rise of the new Caliphate, Ford notes, “The pace of [US] imperial decline just got quicker.” And, of course, many ISIL supporters and fighters see the US as a great Satanic enemy.

The peril ISIL poses to what has always been Washington’s primary concern in the region – the great “strategic prize” of Middle Eastern oil – raises the specter of the US having to re-send large military deployments to the world’s energy heartland. And that is something US policymakers do not relish since they know by now that it has the potential to make the situation worse. Smart US planners have learned that direct US military intervention fuels “anti-Americanism” and strengthens the jihadist movement in the long run.  The US prefers to dominate the region through proxies (including Saudi Arabia, the Arab emirates, and Israel) and divide-and-rule. “The problem is,” Ford notes, “the Pentagon’s proxies are evaporating, in flight, or – in the case of Arab Iraq – growing ever more dependent on Iran and (who would have predicted it?) Russia, which is assisting in reconstituting the Iraqi air force.”

Now, to say that ISIL is not simply a US conspiracy or plot is not to deny that it is very much a creation of US policy.  The US, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan pretty much manufactured the global jihadist network in order to bloody the nose of the Soviet Union in the late 1970s and 1980s.  ISIL is of course an offshoot of Al Qu’ida, itself largely a product of that US Cold War policy.  Moving into the current century and millennium, it is highly unlikely that ISIL would have emerged in Iraq if the US had not:

  • Invaded Iraq and broken state power there while directly and indirectly killing more than a million Iraqis and displacing millions more.
  • Disbanded the Iraqi army.
  • Stood by while Baghdad was looted.
  • Built military bases all over Iraq.
  • Fueled and exploited sectarian and related ethno-religious divisions in Iraq.
  • Created and left behind in Baghdad the world’s largest embassy, which harbors an army of US military contractors and CIA and other “intelligence” agents.
  • Continued to function as the dominant military power in Iraq through provision of arms, training, and other “support” to Iraq’s forces.
  • Insisted on US troops’ immunity from prosecution for criminal acts by Iraqi authorities.
  • Sponsored an Iraqi regime (Maliki’s) that shut Sunnis out of jobs and political power and shot Sunnis down when they protested.

At the same time, the US has given significant high-tech weapons and training to ISIL and allied groups fighting the Assad regime in Syria.  As the incisive US commentator Arun Gupta notes on the Web site of teleSur English, the situation is somewhat analogous to US policy in Afghanistan during the 1980s:

“U.S. and Israeli policy toward Syria is a cynical balance of wanting to weaken Assad by aiding the armed opposition to his brutal rule but not trying to strike a decisive blow as that would bring unknown forces to power or resolve the conflict through diplomatic or political means as that would leave Assad in power, representing a victory for Hezbollah and Iran. Rebel sources in Syria claimed in September 2013 they were receiving arms such as anti-tank weapons from the United States that were financed by the Saudis. The armed opposition in Syria consists of a staggering 1,500 groups, however, and most fighters are with Islamist or Jihadi forces such as ISIL or the recognized Al Qaeda affiliate, the Al-Nusra Front. ISIL claimed last year that it was buying anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons from rebels that Washington is allegedly arming.”

“The situation is similar to the Afghanistan War. There have been rumors for decades that the CIA backed Al Qaeda in the 1980s. There is not definitive proof that Osama bin Laden was a CIA asset, but the United States did turn the region into a petri dish for violent religious fanatics known as the Mujahedeen. Some 12,500 foreign fighters ‘were trained in bomb-making, sabotage and urban guerrilla warfare in Afghan camps the CIA helped to set up.’ The United States paid little concern to its monstrous creation as long as it was tangling with the Soviet Union. It’s nearly as blasé about fundamentalists at war with Assad’s Syria. The United States and its allies, especially the Saudis, flooded both conflicts with guns and cash, guaranteeing Syria would also become a lightning rod for Islamist forces….The Saudis want to pummel Assad’s regime as a way to inflict a blow on Iran, which sees itself as the leader of oppressed Shi’a brethren. “

There, of course, two differences with the Afghan situation near the end of the end of the Cold War.  First, the Soviet Union is gone, leaving the US as the only non-Muslim superpower for jihadists to hate, fight, and dream of bringing down.  Second, as Gupta notes, “unlike Al Qaeda, which needed a patron in the form of the Taliban, ISIL is building its own state in [an oil-rich] region of utmost importance to Empire, not a backwater like Afghanistan.”

This is what Ford rightly calls “the Empire reap[ing] the jihadist whirlwind.  It’s Frankenstein Returns, Bigger and Badder than Before.

Of course, here in the US, the “mainstream” (corporate) media just blames “sectarianism,” paying no attention whatsoever to the critical US role in the creation of the monster.  The US is portrayed as portrayed as a well-intentioned but innocent bystander, a frustrated umpire — at worst  bumbling and befuddled.

2) The terrorist group is equipped with the latest state-of-the-art weaponry. This is so extraordinary. ISIL emerged out of nowhere and now is using modern ammunition without US and NATO satellites detecting this. What is going on?

Street: There’s no mystery here.  ISIL has US weaponry given directly to it in Syria and taken from the Iraq government.  The region is flooded with weapons from the US, the world’s leading arms exporter and manufacturer of high-tech weaponry. As I hope my first answer shows, I don’t really think ISIL “emerged out of nowhere.”  For another example of the same basic thing, look at the basket case that US has made out of Libya – another quagmire where a horrific US attack broke state power, fueled rampant sectarianism, and left US weapons in the hands of both sides, including jihadists.

3) US high-ranking officials have repeatedly claimed that they are fighting against ISIL and that they will uproot them soon. We are seeing double-standards again. Now they say “it’s not easy”. Is this a bogus claim? What do you think?

Street: They will not really fight ISIL in Syria, where US policy is to weaken (officially, to topple) the Assad regime, which is if course allied with US enemy Iran.  Now overthrowing Assad happens to be the declared objective of ISIL and other jihadis in Syria. As the leading Middle East war reporter Patrick Cockburn notes, “There is a pretense in Washington and elsewhere that there exists a ‘moderate’ Syrian opposition being helped by the US, Qatar, Turkey, and the Saudis.  It is, however, weak and getting more so by the day. Soon the new caliphate may stretch from the Iranian border to the Mediterranean and the only force that can possibly stop this from happening is the Syrian army.”

The US and its key ally Saudi Arabia are determined to pound the Syrian government as a way to inflict pain on Iran, which stands up for oppressed Saudi Shias who live in dire poverty above spectacular oil wealth in the Eastern Province of the Arabian Peninsula.

US planners are seriously concerned about ISIL in oil-rich Iraq, however.  “The reality of US policy,” Cockburn notes, “is to support the government of Iraq, but not Syria, against ISIL.” The irony, of course, is that one of the reasons that the ISIL has been “able to grow so strong in Iraq is that it can draw on its resources and fighters in Syria” (Cockburn) – fighters who get material and money directly from the US.

I don’t really think this is a “double-standard.”  It is a contradiction in US imperial policy – one that reflects the single standard of imperial divide and rule.

It will not be at all easy for the US to uproot what Obama calls “the cancer” of ISIL.  There’s no guarantee of US success.  There’s much to suggest the likelihood of US failure in trying to control the monster it created. As the late US historian and foreign policy critic Gabriel Kolko used to remind us, Washington planners’ arrogant belief that they can neatly manage the world’s affairs in US and world interests from the banks of the Potomac has always been a great and dangerous illusion, with disastrous consequences at home and abroad.

Confronting Institutional Evil

28/08/14 0 COMMENTS

Z Magazine, September 2014

Look at U.S. House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH), who insists that health care coverage not be expanded in such a way that some people could stop working and still be insured. Boehner and his fellow Republican “sociopaths” want to make sure that millions stay trapped in work they want to escape with the understanding that they can’t survive otherwise—a form of “health care slavery.”

How about those “sociopath” corporate CEOs who take jobs out of the U.S. and send them to cheap labor sites in Mexico and China and who overheat and otherwise pollute the planet?

Don’t forget those Wall Street psychos atop financial institutions like Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan Chase. Those “sociopaths” crashed the national and global economy with wildly reckless practices and financial products. They made sure to get their own firms rescued and returned to obscene hyper-profitability by the taxpayers. The rest of us were left holding the bill and wondering “where’s our bailout?” And then there’s that “sociopath” Barack Obama, with his corporate-neoliberal sell-out of the poor and working people in whose name he campaigned and his arch-criminal Kill List.

I do not doubt that some, perhaps many, of today’s wealth and power elites could be diagnosed as sociopaths. According to reliable research, roughly 4 percent of the population—1 in 25 people—are fundamentally without conscience (Martha Stout, The Sociopath Next Door, 2007). At the same time, it seems likely that psychopathy is more prevalent among the nation’s ruling class than in the general population. Part of what makes and keeps the rich, well, rich is their willingness to put aside moral qualms about such harsh realities. “Modern capitalism,” the Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph E. Stiglitz notes, “has become a complex game and those who win have to have more than a little smarts. But those who win at it often possess less admirable characteristics as well—the ability to skirt the law or to shape the law in their own favor; the willingness to take advantage of others, even the poor; and to play unfair when necessary.” Stiglitz quotes a leading capitalist who says that “the old adage ‘Win or lose, what matters is how you play the game’ is rubbish. All that matters is whether you win or lose.” More importantly, Stiglitz cites a recent experimental study showing that people of higher income are more likely than others to be driven by self-interest, far more likely to cheat, less likely to have misgivings about breaking the rules, and generally more prone to behave in ways that are widely viewed as unethical (Joseph E. Stiglitz, Price of Inequality, 2012).

The nation’s sociopathic 4 percent would appear to be overrepresented among the nation’s economic one percent—as might be expected.

Institutions as Psychopaths

Still, I resist the “sociopath” meme for three reasons. First, even at the elite level, real sociopaths are a small minority. They are hardly numerous enough to account for the multiple and interrelated forms of injustice and oppression imposed on billions by the American System at home and abroad. Second, the problem of socio-pathology is more usefully understood at the institutional level than at the level of individuals—something that helps us understand how a society could come to seem sociopathic even when the preponderant majority of its members are not sociopaths.

The real and most significant problem is how masses of generally decent and caring human beings are induced to behave in outwardly sociopathic ways to adopt sociopathic opinions. How is it that millions of courteous, empathetic folks who would never send a starving child away from their doorstep or kick a dog or curse at a neighbor or steal a candy bar can be induced to oppose the extension of health care coverage to the poor and to support the mass incarceration of casual drug users, bloody assaults on countries whose people never did anything to them, the denial of food and shelter to child refugees from Central America, the election of office-holders who promise to reduce the incomes and benefits of public sector workers, and the like?

The paradox isn’t just about personal values and behavior. When you look at public opinion data, you find that the societal values and policy attitudes of Americans, including many who identify as Republicans, are “more or less social-democratic.” As Noam Chomsky observed in an interview with Rob Kall (a progressive online journalist and commentator concerned about the prevalence of “right wing psychopaths” across the U.S.) earlier this year, “it turns out that among the right wing, the sectors of the population that say ‘get government off our backs’ [also say that]…‘we need more funding for education, more funding for healthcare…more help for…women with dependent children’…When you talk about the population being psychopaths,” Chomsky told Kall, “I don’t think that’s quite true.”

Many otherwise decent Americans have been induced to back plutocratic and regressive agendas by reactionary elites. Right-wing “leaders” have been adept at creating the sense that numerous despicable Others—supposed welfare cheats and other indolent slackers, “illegal” immigrants, “freedom”-hating terrorists, despotic foreign rulers, “Big Labor” bureaucrats, “lazy schoolteachers’” unions, “well-fed” public sector workers, “job-killing” environmentalists, despicable drug addicts, urban “gangbangers,” liberal government bureaucrats, disloyal professors, and (the list goes on)—are threatening and “ruining America.” The right is quite expert at diversion- ary scapegoating.

We can call those elites “sociopaths” and “psychopaths” if we wish. But, as Chomsky rightly told Kall, even that’s not quite right since “it’s the institutions that are psychopaths.” Chomsky was thinking particularly of corporations, whose chief decision-makers operate within a legal and institutional framework that selects, encourages, and even mandates essentially sociopathic behavior like the remorseless ruination of livable ecology and the collapse of the job and housing markets: “Take…a corporate executive. By law, a corporate executive must work to increase the profitability of the corporation, disregarding the effects it has on others. That’s actually a legal principle and that’s psychopathic. That’s one of the reasons…we’re leading the way in destroying the environment, creating a catastrophe…for our own children. Why? Because…the CEOs of corporation are compelled to disregard what the economists call externalities, the effect of a decision on others. The institutional structure is designed to lead to species destruction… And the same thing happens in the financial institutions.

There’s a system in the United States that’s been designed over the past roughly thirty years which underprices risk… The main mechanism…is a government insurance policy…known…‘too-big-to-fail.’ What that means is that if say Goldman Sachs makes a risky transaction…they cover the potential damages [to] themselves but they don’t consider the externality that a failure of their transaction may bring down the whole system…. It doesn’t matter too much to them because…they can run cap in hand to the nanny state who will bail them out…. That underprices risk, guarantee[ing] further crises.… Your taxes go to the big banks to maintain the system. Those institutions are psychopathic. It…is unfair in a way to blame the individuals. They either take part in the institution or they get out. They don’t have any choices within them “Rob Kall, “Chomsky Talks About Psychopaths and Sociopaths,” Op-Ed News, February 15, 2014).

It might seem odd to think of giant institutions as sociopaths. But consider this. In 2003, Canadian law professor Joel Bakan published his widely read volume The Corporation: the Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power. Noting that the U.S. judiciary defined corporations as legal “persons” by the end of the 19th century, Bakan posed an interesting question: what kind of “person” is a modern corporation? His answer: a sociopath, consistent with the corporation’s judicially certified mandate is to pursue relentlessly and without exception its investors’ selfish economic self-interest, regardless of any injury it may cause to others and the common good. Bakan asked the esteemed psychologist Dr. Robert Hare to evaluate the modern corporation against his globally acclaimed diagnostic tool The Psychopathy Checklist. By Bakan’s account, “Hare found there was a close match. The corporation is irresponsible, Dr. Hare said, because ‘in an attempt to satisfy the corporate goal, everybody else is put at risk….

A lack of empathy and asocial tendencies are also key characteristics of the corporation…‘their behavior indicates that they don’t really concern themselves with their victims’; and corporations often refuse to accept responsibility for their own actions and are unable to feel remorse” (Bakan, The Corporation, 2004). “The basis of a corporation,” Chomsky noted years ago, “is limited liability, meaning as a participant in a corporation you’re not personally liable if it, say, murders tens of thousands in Bhopal” (Power Systems, 2003).

Beyond Corporations

Of course, it isn’t just corporations that function as institutional sociopaths and provide amoral institutional protection to elites. Top major party political operatives and officeholders are not held liable for their incessantly deceptive claims and promises or their fealty to big money campaign donors and lobbyists. They are obliged to do and say whatever it takes to win elections. They can forget about staying in the money-soaked business of U.S. politics if they voice serious qualms about the game.

U.S. military commanders are never considered personally liable when they order and direct terrible events like, say, the “Highway of Death,” when U.S. forces savagely massacred tens of thousands of surrendered Iraqi troops retreating from Kuwait in February 1991. No U.S. commanders were held to account for the mass-murderous U.S. assault on the Iraqi city of Fallujah in the spring and fall of 2004, when U.S. Marines targeted hospitals and ambulances and caused an epidemic of child cancer and leukemia by attacking the city with radioactive ordnance.

At the same time, corporations are the central investment-pooling, risk-diluting, and liability-shielding institutions of a broader historical form of organized socio-pathology called capitalism. Capitalism is a class-based socioeconomic system that is about the concentration of wealth and power. It is dedicated to profit for the owners of capital, period, regardless of negative consequences for others and the Earth we all share (see Paul Street, “Capitalism: The Real Enemy,” Chapter 1 in Frances Goldin et al., Imagine Living in a Socialist U.S.A., NY, HarperCollins, 2014). It certainly isn’t about democracy and the common good. 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).

Institutions of the Lie

A third reason to shy away from the “sociopaths” narrative is that the term “sociopath” fails to adequately capture the depth and degree of institutional malevolence most people face today. In his haunting and brilliant book People of the Lie: The Hope for Healing Human Evil (1983), the Christian psychotherapist M. Scott Peck observed that the worst people he met over his career were not mere sociopaths, people without conscience. The real problem people he ran across were something worse: “evil” people who were conscious of their own immorality and concerned to cloak their behavior in a self-righteous aura of moral perfection.

They were obsessed with the sins of evil others, whose real and/or alleged terrible deeds provided justification for their own crimes. As Peck explained: “The cause [of evil] is not…an absent conscience. There are people…who seem utterly lacking in conscience. Psychiatrists call them psychopaths or sociopaths. Guiltless, they commit crimes…often…with a kind of reckless abandon. There is little pattern or meaning to their criminality; it is not particularly characterized by scapegoating. Conscienceless, psychopaths appear to be bothered or worried by very little—including their own criminality…. They do attempt to hide their crimes, but their efforts to do so are often feeble and careless and poorly planned. They have sometimes been referred to as ‘moral imbeciles,’ and there is almost a quality of innocence to their lack of worry and concern.”

“This is hardly the case with those I call evil. Utterly dedicated to preserving their self-image of perfection, they are unceasingly engaged in the effort to maintain the appearance of moral purity…they dress well, go to work on time, pay their taxes, and outwardly seem to live lives that are above reproach…. The words ‘image,’ ‘appearance,’ and ‘outwardly’ are crucial to understanding the morality of the evil…they intensely desire to appear good. Their ‘goodness’ is all on a level of pretense. It is, in effect, a lie. This is why they are the ‘people of the lie’.” “Actually, the lie is designed not so much to deceive others as to deceive themselves. They cannot or will not tolerate the pain of self-reproach. The decorum with which they lead their lives is maintained as a mirror in which they can see themselves reflected righteously. Yet the self-deceit would be unnecessary if the evil had no sense of right and wrong” (People of the Lie).

The institutional and societal oppression and injustice imposed by the United States’ unelected and interrelated dictatorships of money and empire go beyond mere conscienceless socio-pathology. Those dictatorships regularly and ritually tell themselves and the world that’s it’s all being done for a higher good—in opposition to forces of evil.

“The United States is Good”

The notion that “we” (the U.S.) are inherently benevolent, well-intentioned, freedom-loving, and democratic in “our” foreign policies has long been doctrine in the U.S. imperial establishment. Less than a year after the U.S. military inflicted their shocking carnage on the “Highway of Death,” U.S. President George H.W. Bush proclaimed that, “A world once divided into two armed camps now recognizes one sole and pre-eminent power, the United States of America. And they regard this with no dread. For the world trusts us with power and the world is right. They trust us to be fair and restrained. They trust us to be on the side of decency. They trust us to do what’s right.”

“The United States is good,” Bill Clinton’s Secretary of State Madeline Albright explained in 1999. “We try to do our best everywhere.” Three years before, Bill Clinton explained that the U.S. was “the world’s greatest force for peace and freedom, for democracy and security and prosperity.” These were curious reflections on (among other things) the U.S.-led economic sanctions that killed—as Madeline Albright acknowledged on national television in 1996—more than half a million Iraqi children in the 1990s (Albright added that she “felt the price” of those deaths was “worth paying” for the advance of inherently noble U.S. foreign policy goals).

“More than any other nation,” President Obama announced at West Point in December 2009, “the United States of America has underwritten global security for over six decades. Unlike the great powers of old, we have not sought world domination. We do not seek to occupy other nations. We are still heirs to a moral struggle for freedom.” The Progressive’s Matthew Rothschild gave a historically informed response: “Well, let’s see: The United States led the world to the cliffs of nuclear annihilation during the Cold War. The United States invaded one Latin American country after another, and subverted other governments there covertly. The United States helped overthrow governments in Ghana and the Congo, and supported racist forces in southern Africa. The United States plunged into the Korean War, and then supported one dictator after another in South Korea. The United States killed between two and three million people in Indochina. And the United States supported Suharto in Indonesia, who killed nearly a million people, some at the behest of the CIA, after taking power in 1965. The U.S. also supported Suharto’s invasion of East Timor ten years later, which took another 200,000 lives…. Obama can call that ‘global security,’ if he wants to, but it’s dripping red…. What does having almost 1,000 military bases in more than 100 countries mean, then? The United States has invaded or overthrown dozens of countries in the last six decades, and it doesn’t need to occupy them if it can install a puppet regime instead” (The Progressive, December 2, 2009).

Scapegoating has always been a critical public relations component of U.S. Empire. During the Cold War, Washington’s interventions against popular movements, democracy, social justice, and national self-determination around the world were justified as part of its noble campaign against the supposed “international Communist conspiracy” headquartered in Moscow. Since the collapse of the Soviet bloc, the so-called War on Drugs, the (terrorist) War on (Islamist) Terror, and a steady stream of officially designated new Hitlers (Manuel Noriega, Saddam Hussein, Slobodan Milosevic, Momar Gadhafi, Osama bin-Laden, Hugo Chavez, Mula Omar, Vladimir Putin) have provided substitute good-versus-evil narratives and bad-guy malefactors to rationalize U.S. imperial criminality.

“Responsible Corporate Citizens”

Big Business commanders are no less committed than U.S. commanders-in-chief to the notion that the institutions under their direction are dedicated to magnificent principles. U.S. and other corporations who poison the Earth, destroy eco-systems, undermine democracy, bribe politicians, manipulate citizens, shred jobs, wreck communities, and generally ruin lives (human and other) at home and abroad routinely claim to be acting in the higher and compassionate interests of the greater and common good.

According to Exxon-Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson, head of the world’s second leading institutional and historical agent of anthropogenic climate change (“90 Companies Caused Two-Thirds of Man-Made Global Warming Emissions,” the Guardian 11/20/2013), a well-known corrupter of governments at home and abroad: “We strive to be responsible corporate citizens, and our success along that path is underpinned by our technological expertise, operational excellence, safety performance and unwavering ethical standards.” The leading war contractor, the Boeing Corporation, wants us to know that its “journey as a global industry leader and corporate citizen parallels its nearly 100-year history of building better communities worldwide.” Boeing “contribute[s] toward sustainable growth and systemic impact for our communities and their peoples” in order “to build the capacity of individuals and communities to succeed in a constantly evolving world.” (Some among the large number of Middle Eastern and Southwest Asian people who have seen their lives, locales, and regions devastated by U.S. forces using Boeing-manufactured war planes, drones and helicopters in recent decades would offer some interesting commentary on that statement.)

These are standard statements of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). You can read similar boilerplate on the websites of numerous other Fortune 500 firms. They all want us to know that they care deeply about their fellow humans and the Earth—not just the bottom line. They would not make such grandiose claims if they were simple conscienceless institutional sociopaths, childishly unaware of their transgressions. Like the giant military Empire that serves U.S. corporations at numerous levels, they are stained by the false and narcissistic pride of malignantly narcissistic Evil, requiring them to cover their endless, profit-seeking misdeeds with the fiction of moral purity.

“No Individual Salvation”

In her book The Sociopath Next Door, Martha Stout gives  advice on how to deal with individual sociopaths:

    • Accept that some people literally have no conscience.
    • Suspect flattery. Compliments are lovely, especially when they are sincere. In contrast, flattery is extreme and appeals to our egos in unrealistic ways. It is the material of counterfeit charmand nearly always involves an intent to manipulate.
    • Do not join the game…. Resist the temptation to compete with a seductive sociopath, to outsmart him, psychoanalyze, or even banter with him. In addition to reducing yourself to his level, you would be distracting yourself from what is really important—to protect yourself.
    • The best way to protect yourself from a sociopath is to avoid him, to refuse any kind of contact or communication…The only effective method of dealing with a sociopath is to disallow him or her from your life.
    • Question your tendency to pity too easily.
    • Do not try to redeem the unredeemable.
    • Living well is the best revenge.

If you follow these and other of Stout’s rules, most “sociopaths” will generally disappear from your personal life, like the Wicked Witch of the West after Dorothy doused her with water in The Wizard of Oz. Stout’s counsel applies just as well to those “malignantly narcissistic” individuals Peck calls “evil.” But what about sociopathic/evil institutions? We certainly need to acknowledge their evil and pitiless nature. We should resist any impulse to pity or redeem them. We must distance ourselves from their self-interested efforts to flatter us though advertising and other means. And we should do our best to live well in spite of their endless depredations. But it’s pretty much impossible to avoid all contact with capitalist corporations. They are the ubiquitous, reigning, institutions of our time. They permeate daily life on numerous levels, from the clothes we wear, the food we eat, our modes of transportation, the medicine we take, the news and entertainment we receive, where and how we work, the debt we hold, the prices and interest we pay, the wages and salaries we receive, the air we breathe, and the (plutocratic) nature of “our” (their) political system.

The big corporations and the neoliberal policies and culture they inflict have a richly authoritarian “presence in every aspect of our daily existence… [and have] subsumed our lives” (Oscar Olivera, Cochabamba! Water War in Bolivia, South End Press, 2003) to no small degree. “Capital,” Vandana Shiva noted 11 years ago, has undertaken “the neoliberal commodification and privatization of every dimension of life.” Its corporate globalization project seeks “the ultimate enclosure of the commons—our water, our biodiversity, our food, our culture, our health, our education….” (Olivera)

The modern corporation and the so-called free market corporate state have made “living well” impossible for billions. They are institutionally wired to use their far-flung power to put democracy and livable ecology—a decent future—beyond our grasp. We have no choice but to join the game of outsmarting corporations and, more fundamentally, to join the struggles to place them under popular control and (where necessary) to eliminate them—and to create basic societal and institutional arrangements beyond the capitalist framework that gives rise to giant corporations and feeds other and related institutional complexes of hierarchy and oppression. Here, again, the matter goes beyond the level of the individual. Individual sociopaths and narcissists can usually be dealt with at the personal and individual level. But for institutional evil and socio-pathology on the scale of contemporary corporate state capitalism, there is “no individual salvation” (Olivera). The good news according to Shiva is that—as the people of Bolivia reminded us when they defeated the attempted privatization of their water supply in 2000—“there is one power stronger than the power of money—and that is the power of people.” Is she right? It’s not about the crystal ball. We have no choice but to do everything in our power to make it so.



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

Reflections on a Bernie Sanders Presidential Run

28/08/14 0 COMMENTS

ZNet, August 27, 2014

Should United States Senator Bernie Sanders (Independent, VT) come to Iowa and run in the US presidential 2015-2016 Caucus race here, as many Progressive Democrats are urging? He seems interested. In less than three weeks, “Bernie” will visit three Iowa Cities (Dubuque, Waterloo, and Des Moines) to hold “town halls” in which he will share his ideas on rolling back corporate power, raising the minimum wage, controlling climate change, and other matters.

As a radical who resides in Iowa City, I was at first intrigued by the idea of a Sanders presidential run. Sanders calls himself a “democratic socialist” and could be expected to raise critical and interrelated issues of economic inequality, poverty, plutocracy, corporate rule, and environmental catastrophe. He would do so in a way that will stand to the popular left of Clinton Inc.’s Hillary 2016 machine.

I can certainly understand why many decent and well-intended, left-leaning progressives in Iowa and elsewhere might be excited at the prospect of a Sanders White House bid.

So I will try to be as careful as I can as I explain why I won’t back a Sanders presidential run within or beyond Iowa as the next US big money-big media-major party-candidate-centered quadrennial electoral extravaganza (QEE) builds momentum moving into 2015. It comes down to five considerations.

Eye to Eye

First, I am convinced along with a longstanding US majority that the two dominant corporate- and empire-captive US political organizations (both of which stand well to the right of the majority progressive US citizenry on numerous key issues) do not adequately reflect or capture real, majority-progressive popular sentiments in the US. As Andrew Levine, a Senior Scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, writes on Counterpunch, “our government – and therefore our tax money – enables the crimes we deplore.  And there seems to be nothing that we can do about that. In part, this is because in American politics, at the national and state levels especially, money talks; indeed, money is ‘speech,’ according to our Supreme Court. It doesn’t help either that we have two highly polarized, semi-established political parties that fight each other tooth and nail, though they see eye to eye on nearly everything of political consequence” (emphasis added).

The reigning duopoly is an authoritarian disaster, something the de facto Democrat Sanders will only reinforce if and when he enters the Iowa Caucus, which will require him to drop his technical status (more formal than substantive for some time) as an independent and formally enlist as an open Democrat.

Why Help the Elite Manipulation of Populism?

Second, the Democratic Party has long been a full-fledged rich folks’ party, not to mention a party of war and empire. As such, it will never allow a candidate sincerely committed to progressive and populist domestic policy goals – much less, one who calls himself (however vaguely) a socialist – become its standard-bearer. It will nominate either Hillary Clinton or some other murky corporate Democrat in the summer of 2016. Why help the dismal dollar Dems disguise their oligarchic essence? Why abet their attempt to seem to have had a full and open debate over the issues that concern ordinary Americans? Why assist any effort to make either of the two dominant political organizations that Upton Sinclair accurately described as “two wings of the same [Big Business-dominated] prey” (both now stand well to the right of majority public opinion on numerous key policy issues) seem more democratic and progressive than they really are? Why give succor to those who would wrap vile plutocracy in false rebels’ clothes? Why lend a hand to the corporate-captive Democrats’ effort to play their pivotal role in what the formerly left Christopher Hitchens (in a cleaver book on the first Clinton presidency) called “the essence of American politics…..the manipulation of populism by elitism”?

“Elbow Deep” in Empire and “the Blood of Gaza Children”

Third, I am convinced that it is impossible to deal meaningfully with the nation’s massive economic inequalities or to overcome the poverty of millions at home and abroad without fundamentally challenging United States global Empire. This is a lesson that US progressives have been given over and over again: US Empire and inequality are two sides of the same racist, classist, and authoritarian coin. The lesson was given most dramatically perhaps during the 1960s, when President Lyndon Johnson’s briefly declared “war on poverty” was strangled in its cradle by Johnson and John F. Kennedy’s imperialist and racist war on Southeast Asia. That episode is one of many to remind us that, as Dr. Martin Luther King. Jr, remarked,Injustice anywhereis a threat to justice everywhere.”

Sanders shows little evidence that he’s gotten the historical message. His foreign policy record is pretty much in line with that of any standard imperial Democrat. And it doesn’t help that neither Sanders nor any other “progressive” in Congress could bring himself to oppose the US Senate’s odious “unanimous” vote of support for US client state Israel during its latest openly criminal, mass-murderous assault on helpless civilians in Gaza. Here’s what Sanders had to say when a reporter from The Daily Beast queried him on Israel’s outrages last July: “That’s not where my mind is right now.”

How seriously are we supposed to take a candidate’s claim of concern for poor people at home (or anywhere else) when he cannot lift a finger against the slaughter of innocents abroad by “US jet planes with Israeli pilots” (Noam Chomsky)? As Levine notes, arguing from the moral perspective of Dr. King, “we have no one worth voting for. Gaza proved that beyond a reasonable doubt. Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Al Franken, the handful of progressives in the so-called Progressive and Black Caucuses, and so on  – every last one of them is elbow deep in the blood of Gaza children”(emphasis added).

Imagine a Functioning Democratic Society

Fourth, I do not think that entering the Democratic presidential Caucus and primary race is the only way to oppose Hillary and other corporate-imperial fake-progressive Democratic presidential candidates in Iowa and New Hampshire. Progressives in those states could simply ignore or more actively resist Democratic campaign events. They could disrupt and protest those events, making statements against the plutocratic and militarist nature of the Democratic Party today and against the farcical, corporate-crafted charade that the US elections process has become. (It’s a charade that is featured for an absurdly long period of time, particularly in Iowa and New Hampshire – the “first in the nation” caucus and primary states).

Alternately, and more positively, progressives could do something along the lines of what leading Left thinker Noam Chomsky suggested to Occupy Boston activists in October of 2011 – hold local people’s caucuses and primaries based on issues, not candidates and their marketing entourage:

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

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

“The Urgent Task”

Fifth, I agree with what Chomsky and the late radical US historian Howard Zinn have written and said about the sort of politics that ought to matter most for serious progressives. As both of these and other left activists and intellectuals have long argued, voting in presidential elections (and primaries and caucuses) is a relatively minor matter within the deeper and more fundamental struggle for a real peoples’ politics. Zinn put it well in March of 2008, as the “election madness engulf[ed] the entire society, including the left” with special intensity in the year of Barack Obama’s ascendancy:

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

As Zinn said in an interview with the Socialist Worker after George W. Bush was first “elected” to the US presidency, “There’s hardly anything more important that people can learn than the fact that the really critical thing isn’t who is sitting in the White House, but who is sitting in-in the streets, in the cafeterias, in the halls of government, in the factories. Who is protesting, who is occupying offices and demonstrating – those are the things that determine what happens.”

Chomsky wrote something similar (and quite a bit more) on the eve of the 2004 elections:

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

“The urgent task for those who want to shift policy in progressive direction – often in close conformity to majority opinion – is to grow and become strong enough so that that they can’t be ignored by centers of power. Forces for change that have come up from the grass roots and shaken the society to its foundations include the labor movement, the civil rights movement, the peace movement, the women’s movement and others, cultivated by steady, dedicated work at all levels, every day, not just once every four years…”

“So in the election, sensible choices have to be made. But they are secondary to serious political action. The main task is to create a genuinely responsive democratic culture, and that effort goes on before and after electoral extravaganzas, whatever their outcome.”

Potential Harm

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

Second, there’s the deepened sense of popular powerlessness that will be engendered when Sanders is defeated if not in Iowa and/or New Hampshire then later on, as he almost certainly will be given the giant financial expense of presidential politics and the inevitable and powerful bias of elite campaign donors and “mainstream” (corporate state) media against any candidate who calls himself a socialist (however vague and mild that candidate’s usage of that term may be) and runs against the over-concentration of wealth. The fact that Sanders will campaign on behalf of policies that most US citizens actually support but will lose will obscure the fact that most of those citizens are progressive. It will fuel the deadly illusion that progressive, social-democratic policies lack majority support and further a sense of futility and isolation among progressive activists.

These impressions are not positively correlated with meaningful popular action of any kind, outside or inside the reigning US elections racket. Quite the opposite.

That’s all worse than “little, if any good” (Levine). It’s harmful for progressive causes and people.

The Liberal “Will to Believe” in Savior Candidates

“As democratic politics have moved from the stump to the airwaves,” the leading US political scientist Jeffrey A. Winters (Northwestern University) noted last April, in a Huffington Post Op-Ed titled “Oligarchy and Democracy in America,” “the cost of campaigns has exploded. And they are overwhelmingly financed by the rich, particularly during the primaries when the choices are narrowed and the agenda gets set. In the end, ordinary Americans still get to vote. But their choices are vetted via a wealth primary (with $30,000 a plate dinners) that starts long before ordinary citizens hear about candidates or issues.”

Let’s face it: the US party and elections systems are hopelessly captive to big money campaign donors and corporate media spinners. Those systems are therefore incapable of meaningfully advancing the progressive social and democratic (and social-democratic) policies and values that most US citizens support. As Levine notes, “in a sham democracy like ours, voting is not how justice is advanced.”

This is a harsh reality that may US progressives simply do want to confront. “Lesser evilism happens,” Levine adds, “when elections are held; it will be no different this November or in 2016.  And progressive hearts will again be set atwitter – by one or another meretricious savior….In liberal circles, the will to believe is irrepressible.  The Obama experience hasn’t stifled it; and even complicity in war crimes and crimes against humanity will not overcome it” (emphasis added).

Why work to help the United States’ frankly oligarchic elections and candidate-as-“savior” arrangement seem like anything different than what it really is – a coldly cynical plutocratic caricature of democracy? Far better to save and invest our energy in a different kind and definition of the politics that matters. Far better to steer clear of the next QEE* to focus instead on developing day-to-day grassroots progressive organizations pushing for fundamental democratic transformation and for transcendence of the nation’s core authoritarian institutions, including its party and elections structures, which are hopelessly ensnared by the nation’s unelected and interrelated dictatorships of money and empire.

The point is not to denounce or reject electoral politics as such, but to advance and advocate (among other things) electoral and party systems that accurately reflect and empower public opinion and thereby merit popular participation.

*Qualification: How to Maybe Make it Useful

There is, I suppose, one caveat to my negative judgment on a Sanders presidential run. The way to make it useful would be for him and others to use his candidacy as an opportunity to bring substantive issues – including the authoritarian fiasco that is the corporate-dominated and militaristic US elections system and political culture – into the public eye, without illusions about his campaign. It could be worthwhile, perhaps, if Sanders exploited his platform to, among other things, note the absurdity of how he is going to get clobbered even though he is advancing policies that most citizens support – and to tell folks to follow Chomsky Zinn’s advice on the real politics that matters most beyond those minutes in the ballot box (or those two hours at the caucus). Along the way, he could (ironically enough) mock the delusions and trickery of US candidate-as-“savior”-centered politics and follow the example of Dr. King by realizing and stating unequivocally that one cannot meaningfully oppose domestic poverty, racism and inequality without meaningfully confronting Empire at home and abroad.

None of that would be easy. Little of it strikes me as likely. But it’s probably the only way to create a Sanders presidential run that would help rather than harm the interrelated struggles for justice, peace, democracy, and environmental sustainability.

In the meantime, maybe progressive Iowa and New Hampshire residents should try to launch some version of the bottom-up people’s caucuses and primaries that Chomsky proposed to Occupy Boston – the way we’d approach presidential and other candidates in “a functioning democratic society.”

Comments On ZNet site:

  1. From Paul Street: I got this from a left activist in Burlington, VT:
    Today at 9:54 AM
    “Paul, Concerning the third point in your Reflections on a BS Presidential Run —Those of us on the left in Vermont, have long known about Bernie’s decidedly schizophrenic self. He’s like the little girl with the curl in the middle of her forehead. When he’s good, he’s very good, consistently good, but for the most part in foreign policy and war and peace issues, he’s horrid. Worse than horrid — completely unresponsive to widespread, consistent, well-argued constituent pressure, and actively immoral. ”
    “It’s not just the Senate Res.498 vote — which, btw, he is defending as a non-vote for (just a non-objection against), but a long legislative history of voting for military funding, supporting Israeli atrocities, and last year fighting (along with the entire congressional delegation and the mayor) for basing the F-35 in Burlington, in the face of every possible objection.”
    “I don’t know if you’ve ever met him, but he is a gruff and imperious personality, intolerant of criticism, experienced at shouting down questioners at the public meetings he calls. I never really understood him before an interaction I had with his chief of staff back when Bernie was supporting the bombing of Kosovo.”
    “I had just written an article for our monthly neighborhood journal on Bernie’s voting for the bombing. I met the chief of staff at the Farmer’s Market, and I said to him, ‘ we have a piece coming out about Bernie’s vote to bomb Kosovo. Do you think Bernie would like to write something for us, explaining his vote? We can publish them together.’ He said to me (I’ve memorized this word for word, and if I ever perform it for you, I can include intonation and emphases):
    ‘If you fucking lefties [note YOU lefties] would get your heads out of your assholes for one second you could see that this is not important. I go to hundreds of meetings, and I can tell you that these things have never been raised once. So, no, Bernie will not write anything for you, because we have more important work to do!’ ”
    “In other words, Bernie simply does not consider war and peace issues important enough for his consideration. As he has told protest groups many times in his office, ‘these are not my issues.’ Then, if they sit down, he will have them arrested.”
  2. “Another (10-year long) anecdote. Sanders used to walk past our 10+ year daily peace vigil across the street from his office (not directed at him — directed at whatever wars were happening) with no indication that he and we were on the same side of anything. Sometimes he would charge through the line head down. If somebody challenged his behavior with a semi-sarcastic ‘Hi, Bernie’, he might grunt something, and keep on charging through to the parking lot behind the church where he parked his car. Often he took a less direct route across the street to avoid us. And of course he never joined us. ”
  3. “He ain’t no peace candidate.”
    1. avatar
    Paul August 28, 2014 2:23 am 

    “In other words, Bernie simply does not consider war and peace issues important enough for his consideration.”

    This is easy enough to test….

    There are tow, and only two, mutually exclusive propositions:

    A – Bernie does not consider whether to vote for US aggression or against US aggression.

    B- Bernie considers whether to vote for or against US aggression

    The tow are mutually exclusive and there are only tow states possible like flipping a coin.

    If Bernie is making no consideration this implies that, based on an analysis of his voting record we should see:

    P(vote for aggression) = 0.5
    P(vote against aggression) = 0.5

    Just like a flipped coin.

    But instead we see:

    P(vote for aggression) = very nearly 1.0

    Therefore, the proposition that he is not consideration regarding his vote can be excluded.

    This leaved the only possibility that he makes a consistent consideration on this issue – and his Chief of Staff is spouting utter bullshit and nonsense.


    I leave it as an exercise to similarly deconstruct through logic that supposedly sublime Golda Meier quote about killing and Arab children that has been bandied about so much – and based on this recent “town hall meeting” Bernie seem to hold with high regard, as shown here:


  1. avatar
    Michael August 27, 2014 4:15 pm 

    In some other countries where voting is mandatory, those who wish to register their discontent and missing trust in elections that simply endorse more of the same, citizens hand in blank or damaged ballots. These numbers, too, are tabulated. Here in the U.S., many, sometimes as many who go to the polls, just don’t vote. In U.S. presidential elections this number can just about equal those who vote. Not much conversation take place about this outside of academic or scholarly research after the election is over.

    Paul’s skepticism is well-founded and a run by Senator Sanders mostly will only suggest the legitimacy of the electoral system in the U.S. as a dissident (barely) participates. If he does pursue his run and in some way makes ideas known that the main presidential politics will not, then he will simply be mostly absent from news reporting. This is feel-good liberalism not at its best.


  2. Ed Lytwak August 27, 2014 3:57 pm 

    “The point is not to denounce or reject electoral politics as such, but to advance and advocate (among other things) electoral and party systems that accurately reflect and empower public opinion and thereby merit popular participation.” That is exactly THE POINT. Representative democracy is the problem not the solution. Street et al. should read Sitrin and Azzellini’s new book “They Can’t Represent Us: reinventing democracy from Greece to Occupy” We need to move to real participatory democracy where people govern themselves rather than having some neofascist stooge or marshmallow socialist rule for and over us. I like Bernie, but Sanders reminds me a lot of Roosevelt someone that is “elected” by oligarch/banker/corporate sham “democracy” to defuse revolution rather than ignite it.


  3. Richard Bluhm August 27, 2014 1:22 pm 

    I’m thinking of what happened to Warren Beaty’s character in the film, Bulworth; of what happened to J.F.K. after indulging in too many “Bay of Pigs” incidents, of what happened to Bobby after the elite swore that a Kennedy would never get in the White House again, of what happened to M.L.K. when his activism was making a difference. I’m also thinking of what happened to my candidate, jill Stein, whose Green New Deal you praise in your new book, “They Rule.” We met her at a park in Denver before the Obama and Romney’s so-called debates. Several hundred of us marched to Denver University at which point Jill and Cherrie were cuffed and disappeared for eight hours. They elite stop at nothing, NOTHING to stay in control. The only glitch is that the vultures need us. They need us to believe their constant stream of propaganda, to serve them, to protect them and to validate them. Lots of us have come to the conclusion that there is no dignity in being spun like tops and played like fiddles.


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