Search This Blog

Sunday, September 22, 2019

Inching Towards Armageddon

Gerald Seib, The Wall Street Journal’s chief political commentator, is right about the attack on the Saudi Arabian oil facilities: “In any case, the timing is deeply suspicious.” But hampered by his ties to officialdom, his suspicions take him only to the Iranians and their allies. Like all those drawing a salary from the monopoly entertainment industry, Seib cannot, by choice or by diktat, color outside the establishment lines.

Of course Seib is not alone in pointing fingers at the Iranians; the entire US foreign policy/intelligence cabal can only see Iran’s hand in the attack. They are determined to gin up enthusiasm for some kind of military adventure against Iran. That unanimity alone is cause to be “deeply suspicious.”

As for timing, what sense does it make for the Iranians to stir up trouble when Trump had just fired John Bolton, the most violently anti-Iranian policy maker in his administration, when Trump had alluded to a possible deal with Iran and dangled $15 billion bait before the Iranian leadership? Little sense indeed-- and “deeply suspicious timing.”

While liberals will choke before applauding any of Trump’s foreign policy initiatives, his bizarre confidence in “deal-making” has pulled the US back from more than one bloodletting venture planned by the policy hawks and the generals. Certainly the attack on Saudi Arabia played into the hands of the belligerent factions that stood with Bolton (and Pompeo) on the road to war. They benefit from the attack.

With a close election and a history of crying “Iran is evil!” at every opportunity, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu would have sought to benefit from the attack. 

And the US domestic oil industry-- now the largest producer in the world-- definitely benefits from the attack. Violence and instability in the Middle East, the traditional oil spigot, only makes the US a more attractive source, as Trump has bluntly advertised. With the Strait of Hormuz a risky bottleneck and Saudi Arabian facilities ablaze, cautious customers might be well advised to buy US energy resources guaranteed by a trillion-dollar military. 

At the same time, energy insiders have exposed the explosive crisis facing the fracking-driven US oil industry. Caught in the scissors of massive overproduction and collapsing earnings, the industry is facing a cold, calculating Wall Street, calling in the enormous debt accumulated over the years. Wall Street financing allowed the industry to survive the 2014 Saudi Arabian attack on the US shale revolution, but now finance capital wants to see a return. The unprecedented rise in oil prices in the aftermath of the attack certainly helps the US industry, as a back page article in The Wall Street Journal concedes: “Frackers Seek to Profit on Saudi Oil Attack” (9-17-19).

For over two years, I have been arguing that US imperialism is shaped more and more by the explosive growth of US energy production. New and greater markets for oil and liquified natural gas play a larger role in shaping US foreign policy. Rather than using US might to dominate and safeguard energy production, US foreign conduct is today directed toward disrupting competing sources. The chaos in the Middle East (and the intervention in Venezuela) certainly further that agenda.

Apparently, the Russians stand to benefit as well. President Putin suggests that maybe Saudi Arabia, with the third largest defense budget in the world, should spend some money on Russian air-defense systems like their touted S-400. Clearly, the Saudi defense system, based on the most sophisticated and costly US defense systems, failed to stop the attack, a great embarrassment to the US and the Saudis. 

US officials, including the Joint Chiefs of Staff, scrambled to explain the failure. They argued that the multi-billion-dollar systems were focused on threats from the Houthis in Yemen. Of course that claim contradicts the long-standing, fundamental charge that Iran is the principal danger to the region. To deflect attention from the defense failure, the US and the Saudis must instead maintain that they were bushwhacked by the Iranians. Any alternative explanation would point to an enormous intelligence and military-hardware failure. Surely the poor, backward Houthis could not outsmart the best and brightest of the Western defense establishment. The illusion must be maintained.

Liberals, and even many on the left, have failed to grasp the current imperialist paradigm. We witness the clash and competition of big and little imperialist powers. The Cold War paradigm is now obsolete. And in its place are postures, maneuvers, and actions by many rivals to gain advantage over or escape the dominance of others; we live in an era of escalating inter-imperialist conflict between capitalist countries of every size and political persuasion. 

We have to go back over a hundred years to find a real, existing parallel to the events transpiring on and around the Arabian peninsula.

Like the events in Sarajevo in 1914, we may never clearly identify a “villain.” Nor will it really matter. It may soon be overshadowed by the war and destruction that comes in its wake.

Greg Godels

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Let’s Get Clear About Fascism

“Fascist” and “Fascism” are frequently used words today that are both popular and slippery. The prevalence of the words in common parlance is indisputable, but regrettable for three reasons:

●There is no common, shared, ordinary meaning of “fascism.”

●“Fascist” has often become merely an epithet, a term of abuse.

●The use of the expressions has disengaged from their specific history and context.

Today, commentators, both left and right, excoriate their targets with fascist-themed concatenations: “feminazis”, “islamofascists,” “neo-fascists,” “PC fascists,” etc. And, of course, the dinner-table discussion of the liberal intelligentsia inevitably arrives at the burning question: “Is Trump a fascist?” If you Googled “Trump, fascism, fascist” on August 25, you would have gotten nine million, one hundred, fifty thousand results.

A writer for Vox, in pursuit of the ubiquitous Trump/fascism question, consulted five experts-- academics who have studious, decided opinions on fascism-- to shed light on the subject. Every definition either overshoots or undershoots the regimes that constituted fascism in the “classic” period: 1922 until the overthrow of the Estado Novo and Francisco Franco’s death. That is, they fail to apply to every fascist government or they apply to far too many governments of the era that were not fascist.

Another Vox writer asked a Yale philosopher, hawking his new book, for his understanding of fascism. Like many post-Soviet scholars, he sought to contain it within the vessel of “extremism” so that it could be a bedfellow with Communism. His honesty (and scholarship) was betrayed when he attempted to quote the remarks on fascism by the celebrated German pastor Martin Niemöller. The learned professor states that “We should heed the warning of the poem on the side of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, which says, ‘First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out because I was not a socialist…’”

In fact, the Niemöller quote begins: “First they came for the Communists and I did not speak out because I was not a Communist…” The version cited by the Yale professor and the museum is a product of the hysterical US anti-Communism of the 1950s, a period when authorities expurgated Communism and expelled Communists, ironically, a practice shared with the fascist regimes of the “classic” era.

While we can forgive the professor’s historical ignorance, we cannot overlook the fact that the quote is nearly universally distorted in the US, a practice that effectively denies a period in US history exhibiting decided fascistic tendencies.

Has the political exploitation and abuse of the term “fascism” rendered it useless? Is there any credible definition of “fascism” that can be rescued from the confusion? Does it matter?
It does matter because something like “classic” fascism always lurks on the edges of bourgeois politics-- a tool in the ruling class’s tool box. Even after the defeat of fascism in World War II (thanks largely to the sacrifices of the scorned Communists), remnants of the old order embedded in the new governments or fled to more hospitable environments. Ignorance, frustration, and gullibility promise an endless supply of foot soldiers for purveyors of the most base ideas spawned by capitalism and its most malignant culture.

Bourgeois elites keep fascist movements at arm's length until intractable crises of governance call for extreme measures; fascism is a kind of ruling class SWAT team. Twentieth Century bourgeois governments in Italy and Germany had every opportunity to suppress or liquidate their respective incipient fascist movements well before they grabbed power. Instead, they tolerated the movements, using them as a hammer on powerful movements of the working class left. When bourgeois governance was not assured, the shock troops of fascism grabbed political power, guaranteeing the preservation of the capitalist order.

As British Communist leaders Tony Conway, John Foster, Rob Griffiths, and Liz Payne argued in a recent letter published in Communist Review (number 92), the definition of fascism developed by the international Communist movement and introduced in 1935 reflected the experiences “of anti-fascist struggle in a range of countries and a range of different forms. It rejected attempts to define fascism in terms of surface characteristics-- as the despair of a disinherited lower middle class or as a pathology of mass politics that glorified charismatic leaders and stigmatized outsiders.”

The twentieth-century fascism that arose throughout Europe (and in the US with organizations like the anti-Roosevelt, putsch-seeking Liberty League) share many contingent features that fail to explain its ascendency at that particular moment and under those particular circumstances.

The British Communist writers find their definition-- not in a static set of contingent features-- but in a process: “... the developing class contradictions of capitalism in its monopoly phase, a phase of general crisis, of direct political challenge by the working class and of intensifying inter-imperialist conflict… It was a response by finance capital when the existing form of rule, bourgeois democracy, could no longer contain the political class contradictions arising from capitalism in its monopoly stage.”

They elaborate:
It is important, we argue, to sustain this definition today. It roots fascism within monopoly capital as a product of capitalism’s contradictions. Fascism is not a sociological product of ‘mass society’-- a form of ‘totalitarianism’ that enabled the Cold War propagandists of finance capital to equate fascism with communism. It arises when, in face of working class challenge, finance capital can no longer rule in the old way… [my emphasis]

The common thread of twentieth-century fascism-- its rise, its growth, its sustenance, its assumption of power-- was the relative threat of working class power, usually in the form of a revolutionary Communist party. That thread separates fascism from the xenophobic, anti-democratic, revanchist movements and regimes of the nineteenth century and their counterparts of today.

Conway, Foster, Griffiths, and Payne explain: “Today this definition still provides us with essential guidance. We are in a period of intensifying crisis for finance capital and of rising inter-imperialist tensions. In places across the world, but not generally, the challenge of the working class and its allies does threaten imperialist rule. It does so in parts of Latin America, newly in parts of Africa. Elsewhere potential threats exist…”

Potential threats are different from an imminent clash with fascism over governance, over the fate of bourgeois democracy. Nonetheless, vigilance and preparation are wise.

Fascist movements are always lurking in the shadows or, sometimes, emboldened into the light by the political successes of vulgar demagogues like Joseph McCarthy, Richard Nixon, George Wallace, Ronald Reagan, or Donald Trump in the US. All of these figures were/are lightning rods for fascist movements, all pressed the boundaries of bourgeois democracy.

They also exploited an electorate grown disappointed, even cynical by the failures of their more ‘liberal’ or social democratic counterparts. They flourished in the soil of insecurity, fear, disillusionment, and neglect. The ascent of these demagogues was, in fact, the product of a capitalist system that failed to offer its citizens an effective answer to sharpening contradictions.

But they were not on the verge of overthrowing bourgeois democracy. They were not fascists.

US Communists mistakenly saw 1950s McCarthyism, with all its fascistic trappings, as a precursor to fascism. The Communist Party paid a price in credibility and support for this mistaken assessment, a mistake which it later admitted. Crying fascist wolf can cost the left dearly and deflect from pressing a progressive agenda.

The danger of fascism is always possible under capitalism, though the unwarranted, premature alarm can be a distraction from the business at hand: defending working class interests and winning socialism.

Greg Godels

Friday, August 23, 2019

What Happened to Jeffrey Epstein?

Writing about Jeffrey Epstein on July 30, I predicted: “Of course, it is unlikely that we will ever know the whole truth about Epstein’s activities.” 

I went further to explain: “As with the ‘scandals’ of Robert Kraft or Harvey Weinstein, the media will give us a sensationalized taste, but fail us before the weight of influence and power... there are places we cannot go.”

And one place we cannot go further is to the facts behind Jeffrey Epstein’s death in the Federal Manhattan Correctional Center (MCC).

From the shocking announcement on the morning of August 10 that Epstein had died violently in his cell, the monopoly media has cried “conspiracy theory!” By now, after official conspiracies have been exposed again and again, the cry should sound hollow, but the media moguls trust that the public has a short memory. They count on people forgetting the Gulf of Tonkin fraud, the trumped-up Grenada invasion, the Iran-Contra affair, the bogus Papal-shooting Bulgarian connection, the Iraqi WMD fiasco, and many other well-documented official conspiracies. 

By Sunday, the day after the announcement, The Atlantic magazine had an article that already dismissed any alternative explanation for Epstein’s death even though authorities had released little information and drawn no conclusions: “Baseless speculation abounded after the accused sex trafficker died, but criminal-justice scholars point instead to a broader suicide problem.”

Similarly, Danny Cevallos, a legal analyst for MSNBC, opining in The Los Angeles Times on the same day, heads off all speculation with “Forget the conspiracy theories. Here’s why it’s likely that Jeffrey Epstein killed himself.” Citing a number of off-the-wall tweets from no one in particular and some non-specific prison suicide data, Cevallos dismisses “conspiracy.” Case closed.

Even Andrew O’Hagan, editor-at-large of the London Review of Books in far-away London and commenting on the LRB blog, could not resist rushing to judgement: “When guilty men kill themselves.”

As the days passed, unattributed “explanations” begin to pile up:

  • The facility was underfunded, understaffed, even “rat infested... with raw sewage… horrible conditions” (The Guardian)
  • Epstein’s lawyers had the suicide watch removed
  • The two assigned guards fell asleep
  • The guards falsified their reports
  • The mandatory cellmate went missing

Taken together, they count as a remarkable combination of circumstances, especially in light of earlier accounts of the operation of the MCC. For example, writing in 2017, The New York Times writer Joseph Goldstein portrays the MCC as a harsh, but efficient facility, a jail “less hospitable than Guantánamo Bay… The highest risk half-dozen inmates — or at least the ones facing the most severe charges — are housed in conditions so isolating that some have blamed them for deteriorating eyesight.”

Goldstein was writing at a time that the infamous drug lord, El Chapo, was about to enter pretrial incarceration in MCC. El Chapo had escaped incarceration on other occasions and Goldstein’s account stood as a reassurance that no monkey business would be tolerated there. Previous inmates Bernie Madoff and Ramzi Ahmed Yousef, the man behind the first World Trade Center bombing, were proof of that expectation.

Goldstein describes the intense security, including intrusive cameras and constant surveillance. Both the severe 10 South unit and the SHU are particularly attended well: “The 10 South unit is reached by a stairway from the ninth floor, a secure area known as the ‘Special Housing Unit,’ which has its own stringent security measures.” Apparently, Epstein was kept in the SHU. And if not, why not?

By August, 2019, the media descriptions had moved in a different direction, painting a picture of a Barney Fife-like operation where Epstein could leave his cell for 12 hours, retiring to a private room with attorneys and others (NYT).

With the media exile of our greatest investigative reporter, Seymour Hersh, no one has stepped up to actually investigate procedures and conditions at MCC. No one has taken an interest in challenging how an inmate’s lawyers could secure a release from suicide watch through the Bureau of Prisons bureaucratic procedures: 

Termination. Based upon clinical findings, the Program Coordinator or designee will:
(1) Remove the inmate from suicide watch when the inmate is no longer at imminent risk for suicide, or
(2) Arrange for the inmate's transfer to a medical referral center or health care facility.

No one has assessed the likelihood of the coincidence of both assigned guards falling asleep at the same time while the assigned cellmate has mysteriously disappeared, in the case of the most high-profile prisoner residing in MCC.

Epstein’s trial was projected for next summer, about the time of the respective Democratic and Republican Conventions, a time when any scandalizing plea-bargaining would be revealed. Doesn’t this whet the appetite of any of the few remaining investigative journalists in the US?

Call it conspiracy talk if you like, but Jeffrey Epstein’s death is convenient, too convenient. The possibility of securing the truth through a public trial-- even if it was remote-- is now foreclosed. Are there wealthy, powerful people now breathing a sigh of relief?

Greg Godels

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Discovering Debt

By many measures, the US media-- television, the Internet, radio, and the remaining newspapers and news magazines-- have done a remarkable job of keeping the US public alienated from its own interests.

Nothing demonstrates this credulity gap more dramatically than the contradiction between the continuing positive measures of consumer sentiment, like the Consumer Confidence Index, and the drastically deteriorating economic status of the majority of US consumers. Apparently, most of the economically distressed working class suffer silently, while believing the glowing media reports of steady economic growth and record-breaking market success. While bills accumulate, paychecks stagnate, debt climbs, and savings are stressed, mindless distractions and cheerful entertainments lull the masses into unwarranted optimism, accepting individually-felt economic distress as individual shortcomings. 

By now the shocking late-May Federal Reserve study revealing that nearly 40% of US citizens could not sustain an unexpected $400 hit without borrowing the money from someone, selling something, or ignoring the bill, has moved beyond media attention, not to be revisited by the media’s army of talking heads. But the media cannot continually disguise the brutal fact that roughly half of what arguably counts as the working class lives precariously.  Eventually, the pitchforks must come out.

If further motivation was needed, a recent article in The Wall Street Journal-- not the liberal darlings, The New York Times or the Bezos Washington Post, but the Murdoch Wall Street Journal-- should provide it. In a lengthy piece entitled Middle-Class Debt Swamps Families (8-01-09), authors Anna Maria Andriotis, Ken Brown, and Shane Shifflett document the enormous debt on the backs of the majority of US consumers, piling up in the face of stagnant income growth.

While the authors employ the slippery term “middle class,” their conclusions apply mainly to the bottom 90% of US citizens-- the working class and a section of the petty bourgeoisie. Where their numbers are aggregates or averages of aggregates, their conclusions understate the debt burden of the working class; the upper reaches of the US population are relatively debt-free, unlike the majority.

The housing bust of 2007-2008 radically and painfully reduced the growth of mortgage debt. Nonetheless, non-housing debt, especially student loan and automobile borrowing, has grown dramatically since the collapse. The cause of this rise is apparent: median household income today is only slightly higher than it was in 1999. Indeed, it has grown only marginally since the 1970s. It is not extravagance nor faulty planning that accounts for the dramatic rise in debt, but growing costs and greater financial demands on the family.

The average loan for a car is up 11% ($32,187) in a decade. The cost of housing has risen 290% over three decades, with lower priced home prices rising even faster, and college tuition has climbed 311% in the same period.

Average per capita health care expenditures have climbed 51% in the last 27 years. 

The average credit-card debt has reached $8,390 in 2019, up 9% since 2015. Consumers have met higher costs and stagnant incomes with heavy borrowing. The consequences of this debt frenzy would be even more dire if interest rates were not relatively low since the 2007-2008 downturn. However, the lower rates provide a false sense of safety, taking less interest from disposable income than previously.

The WSJ writers concede that debt crisis is exacerbated by obscene income and wealth inequality. They note that since 1989 a third of asset growth has gone to the top 1%, while the middle 20% of households have experienced only a 4% increase in assets in the same period.

The calculus is really quite simple: working people suffer income stagnation, sluggish asset growth, and escalating costs of living. Therefore, they must make up the difference by borrowing money; household debt must grow.

Home ownership is now beyond the reach of younger workers. 

A financial specialist for the Atlanta Federal Reserve office puts it bluntly: “What we may have to prepare for in the future is that buying a new home, and in some markets even buying an existing home, may become a luxury.”

The Wall Street Journal article does not signal a change of heart by the paper’s extremely conservative, pro-capitalist owners. Nor does it mark a rare moment of compassion for millions of US workers.

Instead, the authors are expressing a real fear that the ballooning debt will explode and threaten the capitalist system. The hardships imposed by the stagnant income/bloated-debt regimen threatens to provoke a challenge to the entire system, a movement that can’t be dampened by the two-party polka. They understand that younger households are reaching well beyond their budgets to buy new homes and accepting lengthier terms on car purchases (nearly a third of car buyers roll their debt over into another purchase). And, most importantly, they understand that finance capital will eventually call this enormous debt in with possibly catastrophic results. The capitalist moloch cannot feed on hypothetical profits. So what is to happen when struggling debtors cannot pay?

No celebration of job creation or GDP growth masks the dire fragility of working class living standards. The consumption growth that sustains the US economy rests on the rotting piers of consumer debt. 

It is hard to find answers in the Democratic Party beauty contests that are posing as debates. Most candidates are profoundly committed to the corporate-friendly “a rising tide lifts all boats” philosophy. They rail against the Trump tax cuts for the rich and, perhaps, support a higher minimum wage, but put their faith in market solutions. The few with modest “New Deal” social democratic programs, fail to recognize that should they squeeze finance capital, they threaten to throw the system that they defend into a tailspin. It’s what Marxists call a contradiction.

Capitalism produces contradictions. That’s why we need socialism.

Greg Godels

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Jeffrey Epstein, Chinatown, and Eyes Wide Shut

“Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.” This final comment in the brilliant 1974 film Chinatown was more than a crude slur on Asian “inscrutability.” After a long, tense interval of murder, deception, ruthless power, and near resolution, Jake Gittes’s colleagues are urging him to withdraw and accept the defeat that comes with the recognition that further action is futile.

Jack Nicholson masterfully plays a supremely self-confident and successful private detective in late-1930s Los Angeles. Forced out of his work-a-day life as a cop, Nicholson’s character becomes a paragon of business success-- money, nice clothes, cars, and all the trappings of a smug, comfortable, and knowing petty-bourgeois. The ensuing tale depicts the shattering of his smugness, his intensifying discomfort, and the utter destruction of his grasp on his world. 

Midway through his journey, Jake (Nicholson) encounters Noah Cross (John Huston), a man of boundless money and power. Jake believes that his own boundless cleverness and wit can match Cross. In his deliberate, no-nonsense manner, Cross imperiously tells Jake that he has no idea with whom and with what he is dealing in his investigation.

Chinatown proves that Cross is right.

Most critics praise this marvelous movie, citing its consummate neo-noir realization, its technical excellence and innovation. Many see a political undercurrent: the ruthless manipulation of events by power and for the acquisition of wealth in pre-war Los Angeles. The wonderful Robert Towne script skillfully melds events from Los Angeles’ history and his own fictional counter-history to construct a counterpoint of exploitation and corruption, easily interpreted as a critique of unfettered capitalism and unscrupulous capitalists.

But unnoticed by many critics, the complex sexual mystery surrounding Noah Cross’s daughter, Evelyn Cross Mulwray (Faye Dunaway), unfolds a more shocking critique of capitalism: When Jake extracts a confession from Evelyn Mulwray, she jarringly tells Jake that her daughter is also her sister, her sister is also her daughter, challenging him and the viewer to understand fully what she means. Noah Cross-- the arch-capitalist-- impregnated his own daughter. The film’s fatalistic ending underscores the harsh reality that Noah Cross’s depravity will go unpunished. The rules do not apply to the Noah Crosses of the world. “It’s Chinatown, Jake.”

Does today’s US news of the real Jeffrey Epstein reveal a facsimile of the fictional Noah Cross? Is Epstein an obscenely rich, ruling-class, trusted insider-- once a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and the Trilateral Commission-- supplying depraved sex to his elite colleagues? Is he, are they, beyond the reach of the laws that apply to the rest of us? 

Is this an extreme aberration from the norms of our “betters” or are the revelations merely a peek behind the curtains, the curtains that conceal the decadent rot of a dying socio-politico-economic system?

These questions intrigue, though they are far from answered by our media, long devoted to hiding the depths of elite depravity. The glimpse of Harvey Weinstein’s Hollywood degeneracy similarly identifies a long-standing elite immunity, though it quickly led to a sacrificial witch hunt, a supposed “cleansing” of the witches. Lost in the media circus was the complicity of the entertainment establishment, including the self-righteous Hollywood liberals who surely had some knowledge of Weinstein’s debauchery just as Epstein’s financial colleagues must have known. In an industry fueled by gossip, it defies credibility that awareness of Weinstein’s proclivities was not widespread.

It is both unforced and enforced blindness that emerges from Stanley Kubrick’s last film, the aptly titled Eyes Wide Shut (1999). Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman play a young couple who believe that they have arrived, enjoying the security and confidence that come with petty-bourgeois success. By virtue of his status, Dr. William Harwood (Cruise) enjoys access to the social world of the rich, powerful, and famous. Or, at least, he and his wife believe they do.

As he stumbles into an unknown world of violence and sexual exploitation, he recognizes that forces are at play that he never imagined. Those forces operate arrogantly and with impunity. They are larger than and outside of what he has experienced. Like Jake in Chinatown, the esteemed Dr. Harwood’s ego is bruised, his smug worldview is shattered.  

The young, wide-eyed arrivistes have not arrived at a good place. Instead, they have glimpsed a shadowy world of the ruling class, a world so dangerous that it forces them to close their eyes in dread. 

Where some critics found an arresting erotic mystery in Eyes Wide Shut, they may have missed its powerful political dimensions.

Apart from demonstrating the insecurities of the petty-bourgeoisie, Chinatown and Eyes Wide Shut give us a fictional glimpse into the sordid world of the ruling class. Today’s growing disclosures paint an equally sordid, but reality-soaked account of Jeffrey Epstein’s sexual empire and his scandalous immunity from punishment.

Epstein’s story takes us from a college dropout who lies and charms his way into a teaching job at an elite high school, parlaying more lies and charm into a top executive job at a major investment bank, and ending as a member of the super-rich club. Along the way, he becomes a trusted confidant and advisor of those at the top of the wealth and power pyramid. 

If Chinatown screenwriter, Robert Towne, were to write this script, he might suggest that Epstein both ingratiated himself with and collected dirt on the rich and powerful. He might depict a man who offered attractive ways for the super rich to preserve and grow their money while providing discreet, but illicit pleasures as a special perk. He might describe him as someone who befriends and services important public figures, people of the ilk of Donald Trump and Bill Clinton. 

If Robert Towne were to put words into Jeffrey Epstein’s mouth, he might have borrowed Noah Cross’s words and had Epstein tell the Palm Beach prosecutor in 2006 that “he had no idea of who or what he was dealing with…” Towne’s script would have allowed Epstein to escape justice. He or important friends might have informed the US Attorney, Alexander Acosta, of the same thing in 2008; or, Acosta might have been advised that Epstein “belonged to intelligence.”

Of course, it is unlikely that we will ever know the whole truth about Epstein’s activities. 

As with the “scandals” of Robert Kraft or Harvey Weinstein, the media will give us a sensationalized taste, but fail us before the weight of influence and power. Towne and Kubrick were right, there are places we cannot go.
Greg Godels

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

The Plasticity of Human Rights

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the State Department have taken on the task of researching and defining human rights. The Commission on Unalienable Rights will, according to Pompeo, make “an informed review of the role of human rights in American foreign policy” to be “grounded in our nation’s founding principles and the principles of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” Pompeo noted that some evildoers have “hijacked” rights-talk for “dubious or malignant purposes.” In an op-ed piece in The Wall Street Journal, Pompeo stated that “human-rights advocacy has lost its bearings and become more of an industry than a moral compass.”

It should be apparent that Pompeo wants to wrest “human rights” from those who have “hijacked” them, while putting rights-talk in the service of his own and his friends’ political agenda. It should be equally apparent that the media will cast this move as a part of the struggle between the forces of light and of darkness, with different spins on who actually grasps and defends human rights. 

Everyone, apart from Marxists and a few others swimming against the tide, will want to enthusiastically claim rights-talk as his or her own. Human rights, in one form or another, are the centerpiece of nearly all bourgeois visions of the ideal society since the dawn of capitalism. Yet (1) there are good reasons to suspect that the theoretical legitimacy of human rights doctrines falls far short of what its proponents believe it to be. And (2) there is serious reason to doubt that human rights doctrine can be rescued from a long and pervasive abuse by the forces of wealth, power, and reaction against the poor, the weak, and social justice. 

The notion of natural, inalienable, equal, and universal human rights came into common currency with the revolutionary overthrow of the once-dominant idea of feudal privilege. As a weapon in the hands of revolutionaries, rights legitimized human action, human possibilities far beyond the authority of kings and priests. Tyrannical privileges drew their authority from God and inheritance; human rights drew their authority from nature and reason. Liberal democracy stands on the bedrock of human rights. Or, at least, those are the assumptions behind human rights doctrines.

For much of the last four hundred years, the fight to fulfill the human rights promise of inalienability (or, “unalienability,” as some have it), universality and equality have served humanity well, expanding citizenship, voting rights, and civic participation to millions previously denied access by tradition and privilege. The banner of human rights and the language of rights-talk has, accordingly, become ubiquitous. 

However, from the beginning of the widespread acceptance of human rights, its more economically privileged advocates have sought to include the inalienability of existing property relations in the doctrine-- not the universality, equality, and inalienability of the right to property, but simply the inalienability of property. This stealth conflation of a human right to property-- suggesting a common equal, universal, and inalienable right to a share in the wealth of a society-- with the right to acquire unequal, privileged, but inalienable property goes largely unchallenged by celebrated philosophers of the modern era. 

Modern versions of rights doctrines-- from the earliest constitutions to today’s declarations-- have grafted the ill-fitting right to and protection of property accumulation onto codes featuring such seemingly innocuous and uncontroversial rights as the right to speak freely, to life, to association, to promulgate ideas, etc.

No one saw the weaknesses of human rights theory more clearly than the young Karl Marx. In the article, Bruno Bauer, Die Judenfrage, he wrote:

None of the supposed rights of man, therefore, go beyond the egoistic man…that is, an individual separated from the community, withdrawn into himself, wholly preoccupied with his private interest and acting in accordance with his private caprice…The only bond between men is natural necessity, need and private interest, the preservation of their private property and their egoistic persons.

Thus, for Marx, human rights doctrines are features of a specific era in human history. As such, they bear the weight of preserving and protecting the interests of the dominant classes of that era-- the bourgeoisie-- and are thus charged with the “preservation of their private property and their egoistic persons.” And the notion of radical individualism is deeply embedded in the doctrine as well.

Indeed, in Marx’s entire works rights are seldom mentioned except through derision, as historical artifacts, or in quotes. In contrast, Marx and Marxism locate social justice in the elimination of exploitation, the emancipation of an entire majority class, and the liberation of the oppressed (for a more detailed discussion of the theory of human rights, go here). 

It isn’t until Lenin and his contemporaries brought the right of a nation to self-determination -- in this case, a collective right-- into the Marxist mainstream that human rights played an important role in the Marxist tradition. Interestingly enough, this right-- an arrow to the heart of colonialism and neo-colonialism-- never achieved favor with bourgeois adherents of human rights doctrine. To this day, imperial powers-- the US, NATO, etc.-- deny this right to Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua, and a host of other countries that are dictated policy through aggression, sanctions, and tariffs.

Ironically, imperialist “human rights” advocates deny the right of nations to determine their own destiny by appealing to alleged or imagined human rights violations of individuals or groups. Apparently they possess a calculus that decides when one “inalienable” right is trumped by another. 

Cynically, they have used a twisted, manipulated version of the right of self-determination to forcefully and artificially “balkanize” sections of Europe, the Middle East, Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

From the emergence of rights-talk, bourgeois theorists have limited rights doctrine to what have come to be called negative rights, rights to be free from interference by others. Negative rights create a kind of personal sovereignty over the space surrounding an individual, a space protected from interference by other individuals, institutions, or the state. This set of rights serves capitalism well, showcasing the picture of unrestrained activity, of unleashed freedom and giving imprimatur to boundless choice, while ignoring the physical, material inequalities that determine the ability to exercise those same negative rights, to make choices. The old saw that ‘we all have the right to print a newspaper provided that we have the millions to buy one’ well illustrates the class-bias of negative rights. Everyone has them, few can make use of them.

Negative rights are essentially “rights to do x,” but there can also be positive rights-- “rights to have x.” Examples of positive rights might be a right to a good job, a right to decent housing, a right to medical care, etc. These rights would guarantee universal, equal, and inalienable access to material or emotional well-being. Human rights advocates and human rights organizations in capitalist countries have been unfriendly to positive rights. In fact, they would be hard pressed to identify a human rights campaign designed to protect, promote, or guarantee positive rights.

Consequently, the post-World War II era of human rights advocacy has been decidedly one-sided, commendably advocating for the right to free speech, the right to travel, and other negative rights, but strikingly absent funding or concerted action for positive rights like housing, jobs, education, low cost transit, etc. 

The focus on negative rights over positive rights generally put the money, activism, and moral commitment of human rights organizations in step with US and NATO foreign policy in the Cold War. The most widely recognized human rights organizations were quick to identify allegations of denial of rights in socialist countries, focusing on travel and emigration restrictions or denial of publication, but never elucidating the reasons offered in defense of official actions. Nor did they address the reality of travel, emigration, and publication existing well beyond the means of the vast majority of citizens in capitalist countries. That would have forced advocates to enter the domain of positive rights.

The socialist countries and the former colonies-- the once-called “third world”-- were successful in expanding the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) and subsequent conventions and covenants to include positive rights and collective rights, but they remained largely ignored by the Western human rights establishment-- Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, etc.-- throughout the Cold War and post-Cold War period. 

Since the demise of the Soviet Union, human rights groups have spawned a crowded field of special interest NGOs (non-governmental organizations), too often overtly or covertly and hypocritically financed by and representing the interests of imperialist governmental bodies. Where allowed, they are to be found, virtually tripping over each other, working in every independent country targeted for “reform” by the US or its NATO allies. Ostensibly, they are charged with bringing human rights or democracy to outliers. In reality, they are well-funded agents for capitalist values and imperialist goals. Western NGO activity directly links to the various “color” counter-revolutions throughout the world. 

Where conquistadors formerly attacked the distant aboriginals to bring civilization and its values to them, the modern NGO conveys capitalist values to the “backward nations” through emissaries of “human rights” and “democracy.”

Like his predecessors, Pompeo will discover the human rights doctrine that best fits his and his colleagues’ political goals. Just as the Obama version of human rights doctrine was shaped to fit the sweet-sounding, but malignant vision of “Humanitarian Intervention,” Pompeo will shape human rights theory to justify the posture of the Trump administration.

It has been that way, it will be that way again.

Greg Godels