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Thursday, July 11, 2019

Rising Above the Walking Dead, Action Heroes, and Other Nonsense

This year’s Fourth of July, Independence day, didn’t need President Trump’s chest-thumping, military orgy of bogus patriotism to further vulgarize what has long been an embarrassment of ugly jingoism and national myth-making by politicians and media pundits. Most US workers enjoy the mandatory fireworks, cook outs, and the day off, but partake little of the official babble.

But this year, we were blessed with two meaningful “entertainments” 
book-ending the early-summer holiday. 

On July 2, Amazon Prime released for streaming Mike Leigh’s powerful film, Peterloo. While its theatrical releases in the UK and US were earlier, US subscribers to Amazon Prime could now watch the entire 154-minute historical depiction of the massacre of Lancashire workers gathered at St. Peter’s Field on the outskirts of Manchester (Peterloo takes its name from irony-- the military slaughter at Waterloo four years earlier). In the aftermath of the bloody, costly Napoleonic Wars, an economic downturn and protectionist Corn Laws forced unemployment and impoverishment upon the workers of the UK. 

With a long history of petitioning authority (from the peasant risings to the chartist movement), English workers sought to organize meetings to appeal for suffrage, repeal of the Corn Laws, and other reforms. Some 60,000 petitioners-- men, women, and children-- gathered at St. Peter’s Field to hear famed orator Henry Hunt speak on the matter of reform.

Fear and the size of the peaceful crowd led the magistrates, the manufacturers, and the government authorities to unleash the militia and the military on the unarmed crowd, resulting in many deaths and several hundred casualties. Like most unprovoked attacks on protesters, officialdom, fearing the wrath of the people, followed up with further repression of the victims and the reformers.

All movies are political, despite what the art-for-art's-sake crowd says. Some are consciously political, some are unintentionally political; some are politically clumsy, some politically nuanced. But all reflect the politics of their creators and the contextual politics of their times. In an era of fear and simplistic moralizing, of zombies and action heroes, Peterloo is a refreshing, thoughtful tribute to conscious, nuanced political filmmaking. 

The movie explores the layers of commitment and understanding that inform mass action. It exposes the role of various political tendencies in shaping the climactic moment and its outcome. Like Claude Berri’s wonderful, but neglected film version of Zola’s Germinal, Peterloo forces the viewer to think about the political alternatives available to the oppressed. It is impossible to watch either movie without carrying on an internal debate (or, better, a comradely discussion with others) over the larger questions of the effective routes to social justice. 

Equally, Peterloo does not spare us the damage of misleadership. Viewed by the masses as a kind of biblical savior, the self-assured, wealthy, patronizing Henry Hunt is depicted as man-not-of-the-people. As Paul Foley reminds us in The Morning Star: “Rory Kinnear’s Henry Hunt, while being a great orator, is condescending towards working people in general and the north of England in particular. It is a timely reminder that, as with Hunt, liberal social democrats will always sell working people short.” (A comment that conjures the Democratic Party “saviors” who are currently vying for Presidential brass wing)

It is unlikely that tales of zombies and DC comic heroes would inspire a poet like Percy Bysshe Shelley who, when he learned of Peterloo, wrote of the martyred:

“Rise like lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number —
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you —
Ye are many, they are few.” (quoted in The Morning Star review)

On the other side of the Fourth of July holiday (July 6), Turner Classic Movies screened the incomparable The Battle of Algiers as part of its Essentials series. Hosted by Ben Mankiewicz and the amazing Ava Duvernay (When They See Us), TCM brought the seldom shown Gillo Pontecorvo 1966 masterpiece back to a broad national audience. Duvernay’s passionate enthusiasm for the film pushed Mankiewicz to declare that it was his favorite film, a claim from which he tactfully backed away. 

Depicting the Algerian national liberation struggle, focusing on the city, Algiers, between 1954 and 1957, The Battle of Algiers captures the intense resistance of the Algerian people to their French colonial masters in a vivid, black-and-white documentary style. With one exception, the participants are non-actors, several of whom were actual participants in the national liberation front, the FLN. 

The film both graphically and honestly deals with the theme of revolutionary violence. A fictional leader, Ben M’Hidi, captured and showcased to the press by French paratroopers, is grilled by reporters on the FLN’s use of violence against French civilian colonists. Explaining that FLN violence was a response to colonial violence, Ben M’Hidi went further, pointing out the asymmetry of a subjugated people fighting a mighty modern army: “Let us have your bombers and you can have our women’s baskets [in which the FLN plants bombs].”  No better answer has ever been devised to the ubiquitous charge of “terrorism” lodged by cruel, cynical imperialist masters whether they be the South African apartheid regime, the Israeli IDF, or the US expeditionary forces. 

Pontecorvo also addresses the question of historic immunity, linked by many today with the legacy of Nazi persecution of the Jews. The para colonel Mathieu, the figure who visits the most vicious, draconian tactics on the FLN, was a resistance hero against the Nazis. Despite his experience of Nazi inhumanity, he is fully capable of exhibiting his own inhumanity against another people; he is capable of savagery, just as descendants of death camp victims are capable of injustices against Palestinians today. 

Pontecorvo boldly shows that the “civilized” French people were capable of the most brutal torture, including waterboarding, electro-shock, and forced contortions. Like every other “civilized” imperialist country, France went into official denial, banning the film until 1971 (France similarly banned Henri Alleg’s autobiographical account of his torture at the hands of the paras, La Question). It is not possible to ignore the parallels of national denial of torture by the US in Vietnam and Iraq or by Israel in Palestine.

The Battle of Algiers-- a fictional artifact-- underscores a truth that imperialists must relearn again and again: an oppressed people cannot be dominated indefinitely. Though the French appear to destroy the FLN movement, the film ends with another rising of the people, a more effective, more popular rising, that succeeds in driving the French from Algeria, a lesson that the US has yet to absorb with its interminable wars of aggression.

Like so many other militantly left political films, The Battle of Algiers has been largely relegated to art-house showings. Yet its profound capture of people’s resistance has not been lost on the agents of counter-revolution. In August of 2003, in the course of the occupation of Iraq, the Pentagon offered its fighters a showing of The Battle of Algiers explaining, as its flyer announced:

How to win a battle against terrorism and lose the war of ideas. Children shoot soldiers at point-blank range. Women plant bombs in cafes. Soon the entire Arab population builds to a mad fervor. Sound familiar? The French have a plan. It succeeds tactically, but fails strategically. To understand why, come to a rare showing of this film.

Thanks to Turner Classic Movies (and Ava Duvernay), a wider audience could now understand how a poor, long suffering people can defeat a far greater power determined to impose its will.

In the midst of another extreme-climate summer, offering little more than shallow political theater, corrupted journalism, the constant frightful encounters with the walking dead, and the moralizing adventures of superheroes, what a treat to digest these two important, sophisticated, and fulfilling movies!

Greg Godels

Wednesday, July 3, 2019

The US Economy at Mid-Year

On the face of it, a 3.1% 2019 first-quarter increase in US Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is a pretty impressive performance, especially after a drop in the last quarter of 2018 to a less impressive 2.2% growth rate. Couple that with the best January-through-June stock market performance since 1997 and it is understandable that the Trump administration is making the celebration of a healthy economy the centerpiece of its re-election push. But, as I’ve stressed before, the stock market numbers, GDP growth, and even employment rates are often less than reliable measures of the health of the economy, even less so of the economic status of working people. 

But even by market-adulation standards, the 3.1% growth rate is deceptive, masking serious looming issues. A full .56% contribution to the rate comes from inventory build-up, an ominous sign that production is substantially outpacing sales. In addition, the biggest component of 1st-quarter growth was, as usual, consumer spending. But consumer-spending growth retreated by over 50% from the last quarter of 2018. 

A big contributor to 1st-quarter growth was fixed nonresidential investments. Business investments recovered somewhat in 2018 after a long investment drought thanks to favorable tax laws, repatriated profits, and the need to counter growing aggregate worker compensation from a tightening labor market. Early in 2018, corporate leaders and economic commentators began to notice and fear the effect upon profits of compensation growth and sluggish global markets.

In an attempt to counter wage pressure, US capitalists accelerated their acquisition of labor-saving capital and intensified the labor process (increased labor exploitation). As a result, for the first time in 32 straight quarters, labor productivity rose in 2018 above the previous years of sub-2% growth (only to falter again in 2019). 

While cheerleaders were loudly celebrating a healthy economy, both profit-squeeze and declining demand were eating away at the US economy: in the last quarter of 2018, profits fell .4%; in the first quarter of 2019, the decline increased to 2.6% (BEA). 

While the anointed economic “experts” populating most newspapers boasted of prosperity, the serious analysts in capital’s mouthpieces-- The Economist, Bloomberg News, The Financial Times, Barron’s, The Wall Street Journal, etc.-- shuddered. They understood that the decline in profitability-- capital’s engine-- outweighs the cosmetic metrics favored by capital’s Pollyannas. 

For some time, the European, Japanese, and Chinese economies have been mired in stagnation or slowing growth, but the US economy has been puttering along against that tide. That “success”-- fueled by tax policy, military spending, and bullying trade policy-- has now run its course.

The important US auto industry declined every month in the first half of 2019 against the same month last year. June sales dropped a stunning 6% against June, 2018. GM plans to close 5 plants and Ford is scheduling a 20% layoff of its European workforce in July.

US existing home sales-- equally economic drivers-- have fallen on an annual basis for 15 months, and homeownership, after two years of improvement, declined in the first quarter of 2019.

Where there are sales, house-flipping has returned with a vengeance to 2006 (pre-crisis) levels at 10.6% of all sales, spurring class and race-busting urban gentrification.

Steel mill closings are part of a US manufacturing-output decline over the first four months of 2019.

On the dominating financial front, US corporate debt at 46% of GDP is the highest on record. The low interest-rate environment existing since the worst days of the crisis has seduced corporations into promiscuous borrowing. The Federal Reserve is caught in a precarious position of trying to restore interest rates to historical levels in an effort to tame borrowing while fearing that higher interest rates will sink over-leveraged corporations. Trump stands on the sidelines screaming for low interest rates to brighten prospects for his immediate political future. 

The Fed is warning of risky, highly leveraged corporate debt which rose 20% last year to $1.1 trillion (with falling credit standards). A downturn could devastate this market and spark a financial meltdown. 

The low-interest environment has spawned an explosion of global debt: where total debt was 225% of worldwide GDP in 2000, it has reached 325% of total global GDP today. The lowest level of investment-grade bonds now total over $2 trillion.

The heralded burst of international trade that came to be called “globalization” is receding in importance as a factor in the global economy. The period in the 1960-1970s when the WWII “losers,” especially Japan and the Federal Republic of Germany, rose up to compete vigorously with US monopolies managed to nearly double global trade as a percent of world GDP. The percentage of trade to global GDP multiplied again from the mid-1990s until the 2008 crash-- this time, from the development of new logistical technologies and a massive injection of disciplined, skilled, low-wage labor into the global labor market from Asia and Eastern Europe.  

The conditions for continued intense trade growth have now been exhausted in the post-crash world. Since 2012, the change in world merchandise trade volume has vacillated between 1 to 5% growth, actually falling into negative territory in the first six months of 2019. Shipping companies have looked to other areas of investment while orders for new ships-- the vessels of global trade-- have sunk to a 15-year low.  

Some will blame Trump’s trade policies on the decline in trade, but that confuses cause with effect. Economic nationalism as a policy has gained its hold on sections of the ruling class and desperate voters worldwide because of the failure of the globalist project. Its failure to deliver in the wake of the 2007-8 crash produced a hunger for an alternative. Turning to national interest Über Alles at a time of economic chaos is a capitalist commonplace with many historical precedents. In fact, I projected at the time of the crisis that the collapse would likely generate “centrifugal forces” which have since threatened to break up alliances, trade agreements, international institutions (like the EU), and common policies.

In place of the globalist project, the new nationalists hope to revive the US economy by bullying rival economies to the advantage of their respective corporations and capitalists. In the case of the US, they see deregulated markets as failing to respect US power and dominance. They have cast off the fantasy of market partnership for an economic struggle of winners and losers (with each nationalist regime convinced that it will be a winner).

Make no mistake, the current battles between the globalists and the economic nationalists will generate no authentic champions for working people. Neither Trump and his European cohorts nor the free marketeers defending the old consensus can offer little more than temporary relief from the deeper ills afflicting capitalism. 

Apart from tariff policies and other bullying, US oil and gas imperialism is another feature of the new economic nationalism. With US oil production matching or exceeding every other global producer, and with natural gas extraction growing dramatically, the economic nationalists foresee the US now competing successfully for markets. The conventional explanation of the US aggression against oil-producing states must now be retired. The US is no longer solely obsessed with commanding and dominating existing oil producers-- US intervention is not simply about the oil in the way it has been in the past. That is, it is not simply acquiring oil resources that motivates US aggression, but commanding oil markets as well.

Thus, the US is also out to wreck competing oil and gas producers by sanctions, disruptions, and destruction. The US corporations want the markets in order to peddle their own energy resources. The long trail of wrecked, dysfunctional, and economically strangled global oil producers attests to this new motivation and serves US energy corporations well. 

I have been writing often of this shift of US imperial design for over two years. Nothing demonstrates the intent of the new energy imperialism as does the Department of Energy’s recent renaming of US natural gas as “Freedom Gas” and the product as “molecules of freedom.” This silly branding is part of the campaign to win Europe and other gas-dependent markets from Russia and Iran/Qatar. Even though US liquified “freedom gas” is 20% more expensive than Russian gas, the Trump administration bullied Germany’s Angela Merkel to agree to two new LNG terminals in Germany. Her admission that LNG from the US would not break even for at least a decade demonstrates the aggressive face of the new US energy imperialism.

US gas producers have stoked anti-Russia sentiment to draw Poland and the Baltic states into their LNG market nexus. US LNG annual exports to Portugal and Spain grew from a tiny base to nearly 20 and 30 billion cubic feet, respectively, between 2016 and 2017.

And US crude oil exports soared after the crisis in the Straits of Hormuz. US oil shipping nearly doubled in the aftermath of the mysterious “attacks” in the Persian Gulf. President Trump underscored the attractiveness of foregoing the Straits and buying from the US. Rather than taking the “dangerous journey,” Japan and PRChina should be reminded that “the US has just become (by far) the largest producer of energy in the world.”

Economic nationalism will not save the US or any other country from the failures of capitalism.

It is useful to be reminded that the celebrated US economy has left a quarter of all citizens with no retirement savings at all, according to a Federal Reserve survey. Forty-four percent fear that their retirement will not be enough. Seventeen percent state that they will not be able to meet all of their bills in the month of the survey. A quarter of those surveyed skipped medical care in 2018 because they were unable to pay. And nearly 40% state that they lacked the cash to cover a $400 expense. No wonder household debt hit $13.3 trillion last year, a level unseen since before the crash. It is impossible to craft a picture of a healthy or beneficent economy from this data.

Not surprisingly, Black workers have been hit hardest by the bogus recovery. While all workers have improved their median weekly earnings by 5.3% since the beginning of the recession in 2007, African-American workers have barely gained at all, improving their weekly earnings by only 1.6%.

Neither sanctions, tariffs, and other forms of bullying nor an aggressive imperialist energy policy will counter the contradictions ripening within global capitalism. In November of 2018, I wrote: “Next year will bring stagnation, if not economic decline, for the global as well as the US economy. Inevitably, capitalism will attempt to place the burden of the system’s failure onto the backs of working people.” I stand by that projection.
Greg Godels

Friday, June 21, 2019

Tarnishing Martin Luther King’s Legacy

“What is now happening… in the course of history, happened repeatedly to the theories of revolutionary thinkers and leaders of oppressed classes fighting for emancipation. During the lifetime of great revolutionaries, the oppressing classes constantly hounded them, received their theories with the most savage malice, the most furious hatred and the most unscrupulous campaigns of lies and slander. After their death, attempts are made to convert them into harmless icons, to canonize them, so to say, and to hallow their names to a certain extent for the “consolation” of the oppressed classes and with the object of duping the latter…”

The words quoted above could well express the popular legacy of singular peoples’ leaders like Eugene Debs, Mother Jones, Paul Robeson, or Martin Luther King Junior. However, they were not written about them, but for Karl Marx. They were offered by Vladimir Lenin over a century ago.

But Lenin’s words do not fully measure the ruthlessness of the US ruling class’s profound racism and anti-Communism. US elites and their loyal servants cannot tolerate for more than a moment the “danger” of venerated, respected African American leaders who refuse to bow before the altar of mindless, ritualized anti-Communism. It is not enough to dilute their thinking, minimize their actions, and sanitize their reputations, they must be “scandalized,” to paraphrase the Negro spiritual popularized by Paul Robeson.

It was in contempt of these slanders that the aging intellectual giant W.E.B. Du Bois publicly announced his application for membership in the Communist Party, packed his bags, and moved to Ghana.

In the wake of his assassination, the legacy of ML King followed the path outlined by Lenin: his early, conciliatory speeches were widely quoted; politicians and celebrities pointed approvingly of his commitment to nonviolence; and he was “canonized” with a national holiday.

But his outspoken criticism of the war in Vietnam, his focus on poverty and working class issues, and his revealed respect and willingness to work with Communists could not go unchallenged.

King’s impassioned Riverside Church speech against war and imperialism became a touchstone for the anti-war movement in the era of endless wars.

Coming just three months before his assassination, his less well-known Freedomways speech denouncing anti-Communism and honoring Communists like Neruda, Picasso, and Dubois existed as a profound irritant to the guardians of capitalism.

Consequently, attempts to tarnish King’s reputation have escalated in recent years. The most recent and, arguably, the most scurrilous is a new article by Professor David Garrow, published in a conservative UK magazine.

The Pulitzer Prize-awarded Garrow has researched some FBI records declassified in recent months from their depository in the National Archives. Apparently, Garrow found both reports and summarized and partial transcripts of tape recordings made from wiretaps of locations occupied by King (residence, hotels, SCLC headquarters) and other documents. The original tapes and full transcripts will remain unavailable until 2027.

Garrow’s self-described “pain-staking work” fixated on two aspects of the FBI’s quasi-legal or Robert Kennedy-approved surveillance: King’s sex life and his association with Communists. Judging from the article, Garrow shows little historian’s interest in the other interactions of King with his associates, officials, the media, or the public that might be revealed from these files. Nor does he demonstrate a hint of skepticism over the reliability, bias, or accuracy of transcripts or summaries. The hushed, provocative tone of Garrow’s sensational revelations lull the reader into forgetting that the eaves-droppers who made the transcripts were drawn from J. Edgar Hoover’s stable of nearly all-white, conservative, often racist and surely rabidly anti-Communist agents. It is easy to overlook that the reports and summaries were not primary sources; by Garrow’s own admission, they were one or two removes from both the original tapes and the full transcripts.

Moreover, Garrow’s editing and interpretation place us further removed from the primary sources.

Garrow’s interpretative skills are challenged by his incredible spin on an excerpt from an FBI report that deplores King’s sexual activities because they “‘leave him highly susceptible to coercion and possible blackmail.’” Garrow tags this with his own bizarre understanding: “presumably by knowledgeable Communists” [my emphasis]. Are we to believe that the FBI thinks that King is both a closet Communist and a potential object of Communist blackmail? The fact that the FBI tried to coerce and blackmail King to kill himself little more than a year after the referenced memo renders Garrow’s presumption absurd. The FBI wanted to compromise King; they were not protective of others compromising him.

Garrow incredibly and boldly asserts that the FBI “would not have had any apparent motive for their annotations to inaccurately embellish upon the actual recording and its full transcript, both of which remain under court seal and one day will confirm or disprove the FBI’s summary allegation.” FBI employees would need a remarkable ability to anticipate that their notes, summaries, and reports would one day end up in the National Archives for this defense to make any sense at all. Hoover’s 1963 G-men hardly feared that their often illicit and illegal activities would one day be revealed to the public. As for motive, wouldn’t Hoover’s well-established hatred of King be enough?

But more significantly, transcribers of the tapes need not have purposely embellished the transcripts, though conservative, white, racially-backward agents may well have meant to portray King in the worst possible light. They may simply have been unable to unscramble, interpret, or weigh the nuances of the original tapes. Garrow gives us no assurances that the transcribers (or the summarizers)-- likely only marginally familiar with African American language subtleties, slang, or humor-- were reliable conveyors of what they were hearing. Any competent historian would note these reservations.

The most sensational of Garrow’s claims-- the charge that grips our scandal-mongering press-- is that King stood by and laughed while an associate raped a woman in his presence. A casual reader would assume that this claim carried the same evidentiary weight as the summaries or partial transcripts that he cites.

That would be a mistake.

The rape claim is from “a newly-released summary document from [Assistant FBI Director] Sullivan’s personal file on King,” according to Garrow. But the term “summary document” is misleading. The document is a rambling, heavily annotated, and edited narrative allegedly compiled by Sullivan and collected in the 1975 Church Committee review of FBI documents. The claim that King witnessed and laughed at the rape is written in long hand by an unidentified person below the typed allegation of a rape. Garrow cites a contiguous typed reference to an FBI document as though it reinforces the provenance of the salacious charge against King. But there is no reason to believe that it is connected to the scribbled libel that appears to be an afterthought.

It must be stressed that Garrow does not offer a reference to a transcript or a tape for what appears to be Sullivan’s personal attempt to construct an indictment of King. We have no reason to expect a future tape confirming or denying his ugly claim. To be fair to King’s legacy, one must underscore that Sullivan initiated and executed the vile anonymous letter to King suggesting that he commit suicide and threatening exposure if he didn’t. Garrow fails to do so.

To shore up his demonstration of King’s FBI-attested promiscuity and add some National Enquirer spice to his account, Garrow reports the escapades of former baseball pitcher, Don Newcombe, who, like Elvis Presley after him, offered unsolicited celebrity snitching to the President and the FBI. Newcombe had a story about King that merits attention only because it adds scandal.

Close King associate Stanley Levison earns a central place in Garrow’s saga. FBI surveillance of Jack O’Dell and Levinson have served for decades as the basis for red-baiting charges that King was a Communist or crypto-Marxist.

With regard to the Communist connection, Garrow surprisingly discards his hard-and-fast confidence in FBI surveillance. He asserts that “FBI documents emphasised how ‘as of January, 1957, Stanley Levison and Roy Bennett were to become inactive in CP financial operations’” [my emphasis].

But this does not fit the Communist-influence narrative. He scolds the FBI for making too little of Levison’s generous personal contributions to King:
The FBI’s failure ever to cite those figures in its warning memos to Kennedy, coupled in March 1964 with its failure to emphasise Levison’s simultaneous large gifts to King, inexplicably rendered its “secret member” allegation against Levison far less powerful than could have been the case. To have a reported “secret member” writing some of King’s speeches, as the FBI highlighted to Kennedy, was one thing, but the remarkable dollar amounts Levison was bandying about could have made for a much more striking portrayal than the FBI ever painted.

Apparently, the rabidly anti-Communist Hoover FBI was insufficiently vigilant to suit Garrow’s taste. Garrow leaves no innuendo untouched.

I met my brother the other day
I gave him my right hand
And just as soon as ever my back was turned
He scandalized my name

Garrow’s account follows a host of other post-mortem smears constructed long after any primary witnesses or participants can respond. Sometimes the claims are salacious (King, Robeson, Aptheker), sometimes revisionist (Shostakovich, Brecht). But in all cases, new “evidence” is discovered or new informants conveniently appear with revelations never subjected to legal adjudication or measured evidentiary standards. In this case with King, none of his alleged intimates ever came forward during his lifetime to expose his supposed indiscretions. Thus, one must either leave the questions as unsettleable personal matters, affirm the charges on the basis of celebrity-mongering rumor, innuendo, or vendetta, or, as with Garrow, trust that the FBI is an objective source with no special animus or motivation, even with regard to hostilely targeted figures on the left.

Of course Garrow differs: “But the FBI’s allegation that King ‘looked on, laughed and offered advice’ as a forcible rape took place right in front of him makes that stance [dismissing the “evidence”] unsupportable by anyone.”

Before our NSA age of wholesale spying on virtually everyone, government intrusion into citizens’ personal lives was viewed as morally reprehensible, and evidence garnered, accordingly, as fatally tainted. Garrow exploits the fact that those standards have been swept away.

The danger of our times, of course, is trial by innuendo in the court of yellow journalism, guilt by association and rumor, slander by anonymous sources, settling vendettas, and the ugly politics of smear. Clearly, Garrow doesn’t share these fears:

King’s far-from monogamous lifestyle, like his binge-drinking, may fit albeit uncomfortably within his existing life story, but the suggestion—actually more than one—that he either actively tolerated or personally employed violence against any woman, even while drunk, poses so fundamental a challenge to his historical stature as to require the most complete and extensive historical review possible.

For Garrow, the record is already settled, only to be conclusively affirmed in 2027.
This is a tragic and strange tale of history as promissory note, history as lurid voyeurism, history through the eyes of the state’s police.

Sadly, Garrow’s academic colleagues have been slow to redress this tragedy.

Greg Godels
FBI investigation file numbers 1-100-18429 and 1-105-10677

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Where Hope Collides with Reality

The electoral failure of Center and Center-left parties in Europe and the US has brought forth a tentative turn to the left and a modest renaissance of the “socialist” option. With the marginalizing of Germany’s Social Democratic Party, France’s Socialist Party, and Italy’s Democratic Party by voters angry at the parties’ rightward turn, it was inevitable that some shocked party leaders would consider a new, somewhat leftward direction. Whether that sentiment is genuine or will be implemented is yet to be seen. Consistent with that sentiment, the Labour Party in the UK and Spain’s Socialist Party have made popular gains based on a left posture. In most cases, the content of the changes reverts back to the mid-twentieth century social democratic formulae.

In the US, the reaction to Hillary Clinton’s defeat in the 2016 election generated both left rhetoric and a significant, moderate social democratic faction within the Democratic Party. Driven by energetic and youthful veterans of the Bernie Sanders campaign (so-called “Sandernistas” gathering around Democratic Socialists of America), the new-found left in the Democratic Party is seeking to transform the party. Its limited, but surprising electoral successes serve to underscore their program for revitalizing the Democratic Party.

Opponents of this leftward tendency from both within and outside the Democratic Party have attacked it, resorting to everything from crude red-baiting to derision. The less scurrilous objections revolve around electability-- the supposed disconnect with mass sentiment.

Most recently, that argument draws upon a comparison with the failed 1972 Democratic Presidential run of Senator George McGovern, defeated handily by Richard Nixon. As Gerald Seib, The Wall Street Journal’s Executive Washington Editor, reminds us: “Richard Nixon, a Republican figure [was] as despised on the left as President Trump is now.”

Seib relies upon the odious Dick Morris-- a former close confident of the Clintons-- to underscore the danger: “The election of 2020 is showing distinct signs of being similar to that of 1972.” Morris adds that the Sanders and Warren “candidacies [are] energized by the same kind of rage as animated that of McGovern in 1972.”

For Seib and others, “[t]he question is whether Democrats are about to repeat that unhappy history.” Seib skillfully draws parallels between the leftward tilt of the Democratic Party before 1972 and the rise of a left within today’s Democratic Party. He calls upon top Obama advisor, David Axelrod, to affirm the comparison. However, “Mr. Axelrod thinks that Democratic voters’ top priority this time isn’t likely to be ideology, but rather the ability to defeat Mr. Trump.” Axelrod counts on the oft-repeated warning that electability must outweigh any and all ideological considerations, the same mantra that drove the center and right forces in the 1972 Democratic Party to oppose McGovern.

Similarly, the former communications director for the Democratic National Committee, Brad Woodhouse, doesn’t fear the rise of the party’s left: “I don’t think the discussion we’re having in my part of the Democratic Party has lurched way far to the left… Our primary electorate has tended to favor more establishment, more pragmatic, more mainstream candidates. I trust our primary process to sort this out.” Like Axelrod, Woodhouse is not overly concerned with the left-leaning candidates and their ideology.

Establishment figures submit that the McGovern comparison demonstrates that a similar left candidate today would be overwhelmingly rejected by voters. They see the 1972 election as foretelling that Sanders and the Sandernistas are out-of-touch with the electorate.

Democratic elites are taking no chances. They are counting on the primary process to sink any insurgency from the left. The fact that nearly 25 candidates have stepped forward avoids any head-to-head face-off between Sanders and, say, the establishment’s Joe Biden. The sheer number of candidates guarantees that delegate counts will be diluted going into the convention, allowing for the moderate, centrist candidates to throw their votes behind a “safe” Joe Biden after the first ballot.

Normally in an election against an incumbent, a party tries to discourage a multi-candidate blood-letting. But for this election, the Democrats are threatening to mount open, retaliatory opposition to only one candidate-- the most radical candidate, Tulsi Gabbard. They are counting on a diffusion of votes and superdelegates to stop Sanders.

But that stop-the-left-at-all-costs stance is also the explanation of the 1972 election sweep. Democratic treachery, and not mass antipathy, best explains McGovern’s resounding defeat.

While McGovern and his team made harmful blunders and moved persistently rightward during the course of the campaign, betrayal by Democratic Party elites contributed most to his defeat. George Meany and other top labor leaders held back support. Big city mayors like Chicago’s Richard Daley either cut-- worked against-- or gave only tepid support to McGovern. 

New York Times
WASHINGTON, July 17, 1972—The harsh opposition of George Meany to the Presidential candidacy of Senator George McGovern is creating widespread confusion, deep cleavages and spreading dissension within organized labor.
CHICAGO, August 24, 1972-- Timed to coincide with Senator McGovern's peace overtures to Mayor Daley, the luncheon was designed to open communication with campaign contributors friendly to the Mayor. Only two representatives of the regular Democratic organization showed up, and, a source close to the situation reported, they were there only to observe and report back to the Mayor.

Certainly the South was moving away from the Democrats and out of the traditional coalition, but, as the 1976 election shows, the Democrats were gaining liberal, suburban bedroom communities. 

While the McGovern candidacy makes for an easy, but misleading comparison for Democratic Party leaders bent on smothering the left, the truth is that they are so completely owned by corporate interests that they would rather risk defeat than accept a candidate minimally challenging to their capitalist sponsors.

It is worth noting that in the McGovern era, the Democratic Party had a sizeable bloc of leaders still wedded to New Deal politics, still associated with Lyndon Johnson’s reforms. Yet McGovern was too radical for them.

Now, after several decades of a persistent rightward drift, the Democratic Party establishment is far more hostile to left ideas and far more dependent upon Wall Street and other capitalist institutions for support.

It is not a question of whether voters are ready for left politics. Rather, it is a matter of whether the Democratic Party’s corporate masters will allow left politics to live in the house that they own. I think the answer is that they will not. The left may visit, but it can’t stay.

This, of course, raises the question of where does the left go. In the US, the failure to secure deep roots for an independent, principled, internationalist, and revolutionary socialist movement that is not totally absorbed with two-party electoral politics means that genuine left politics must suffer through the next 17-18 months of the two-party circus with a guaranteed unsatisfying outcome. And with the distractions of the backwash of the absurd RussiaGate, impeachment-mania, twitter wars, and celebrity missteps, the fate of ordinary Venezuelans, Iranians, Palestinians, and many desperately poor and exploited here will be left to the crazed Trump policy team, a group that the Democratic Party is shamefully reluctant to tackle.

But it’s never too late to plant the seeds of a new politics-- a politics that we need and not the one we have.

The political soil needs to be prepared by drawing lessons from the past. Certainly the McGovern campaign of 1972 speaks to the corruption of the Democratic Party and its leadership. Answers will be found elsewhere.

But there are useful lessons from the European experience as well. The trajectory of the powerful Italian Communist Party (PCI) of the 1970s-- by membership, the largest CP and, arguably, the largest left party in Western Europe-- affords a useful lesson, a caution. By committing without reservation to the course of bourgeois politics-- parliamentarianism, coalitions or alliances across classes, “responsible” governance-- the CPI exposed a Paradox of EuroCommunism and Social Democracy. Writing in 1981, two US academics, Larry and Roberta Garner, took note of “the limits of structural reformism” as exhibited by the PCI in 1978.

Despite their sympathies and hopes for the PCI, they noted that the reformist defense of workers before capitalism’s ravages requires that “moves to bolster the public or national interest must become moves to bolster the functioning of the capitalist firm… Moves that narrow capital’s profit margins, that reduce capital’s ‘space,’ run the risk of precipitating failures or flight within the capitalist sector… Specifically, structural reforms-- if they are genuinely structural-- weaken capitalism and contribute to a crisis… Individual firms fail, large firms have lowered profits, reinvestment does not take place, and, finally, deliberate political actions are taken by capital, such as flight abroad and investment strikes.”

Thus, under the weight of the crisis endured by capitalism in the mid-1970s, the PCI felt compelled to “call for restraint in pressing the traditional working class demands” that are portrayed as contributing to the crisis and jeopardizing job security and capitalist growth. 

In other words, the PCI was caught between advancing the “national interests”-- determined by sustaining capitalism’s health and capacity to supply jobs and benefits-- and advancing the cause of the working class at the expense of capitalism. The PCI, under crisis conditions, could deliver neither the short-term interests of the working class (structural reforms that burdened capitalism) nor the long-term interests of the working class (socialism). The party’s commitment to bourgeois institutions denied it an escape from this contradiction. As the Garners note, pressing forward with structural reforms would mean that the PCI would be blamed by its petit-bourgeois coalition partners for deepening the crisis. To not do so would disaffect its working class constituency.

Today there is neither socialism nor the PCI in Italy.

This should bring to mind the governance of SYRIZA in Greece. The “left” party folded its boasted militancy and joined the mavens of austerity to guarantee the survival of capitalism, while shirking the duty to defend the working class from its enemy. They choose reviving a dying capitalism over hastening its demise.

Managing capitalism, as the Greek Communists insist, betrays the working class and blocks the path to socialism. The tragic collapse of the once powerful PCI demonstrates the fate of social democratic movements that plan to dance with multiple partners and to sing different tunes.

History provides many invaluable lessons. They are ignored at our peril. They allow us to move forward without any illusions. They remind us to choose our political friends and our tactics carefully.

Greg Godels

Friday, May 17, 2019

The Problem with Labor

Labor leader Leo Gerard recently wrote an article, The Untold Story of Trump’s ‘Booming’ Economy, that circulated widely on the Internet. Gerard is the President of the United Steel Workers of America, an industrial union once a leading force in the pre-Cold War, center-left CIO, the last major expression of labor militancy in the US.

In many ways, Gerard’s article is a notable compendium of indicators that track the status of US working people over the last half century. His essay lists many telling facts and figures that document the economic decline of the millions who constitute the working majority of the population.

Gerard shows that workers labor longer and make less with fewer perks and greater insecurity. They are stressed, unhealthy, and commanding fewer rights. At the same time, the wealthy are growing more prosperous. In a word, one that Gerard cannot seem to find in his vocabulary, workers suffer growing “exploitation.”

Certainly, President Gerard’s “untold” story has been told many times before. But as a concise, authoritative chronicler of the dire straits of most working people, Gerard may be without peer. However, as a leader of the struggles of working people, Gerard is without answers.

Just as he cannot utter the word “exploitation,” the Steelworkers President cannot pronounce the word “capitalism.” The enemies of the people are, in his words, “...the system: the Supreme Court, the Congress, the president... [I]t is the system, the American system, that has conspired to crush them [workers].”

But Gerard does not mean to indict the system as an institution, as an institution corrupted, and chronically aligned against workers. He does not charge that corporations, capital, or capitalism own these institutions.

Rather, he means that a Republican-dominated Supreme Court, a Republican Congress, and a Republican President have conspired to keep the workers down.

Of course, this flies in the face of the history of the last five decades that has seen Democratic Congresses and Democratic Presidents join the cause of eviscerating the social gains and material conditions of US workers.

To acknowledge this fact would require Gerard to look beyond the Republican Party as arch villain and recognize that the Democratic Party also contributes to the anti-worker trend. He would need to challenge the facile, deceptive Democratic Party claim of partisanship for the cause of labor. This he cannot do.

Instead, it’s the fault of the right-wingers. If only we could return to a non-existent age when institutions were friendly to labor. “Just like the administration and the Supreme Court, right-wingers in Congress grovel before corporations and the rich,” Gerard exclaims.

It’s hard to square Gerard’s disdain for corporations with the fact that USW recently mobilized busloads to defend the US Steel Corporation against indignant citizens facing life-threatening pollution. When the corporation’s pollution-control equipment was damaged in a fire, allowing dangerous pollution to spew forth in the environs of the company’s Clairton works, Gerard’s union brought counter-demonstrators to confront the angry neighbors forced to choke on the pollutants. Indeed, the union has sought partnership over confrontation since it surrendered to Cold War imperatives.

The union also joined “right-wingers” in the Trump administration to defend corporate interests in last year’s tariff battles. They unhesitatingly joined steel corporations in their racist attacks on Chinese competition and, before that, competition with Japanese steel makers. So much for “grovel[ing] before corporations.”

Nowhere in his essay does Gerard mention the role of workers’ solidarity, union militancy, or activism in defending the gains of workers. Nowhere does he mention the workers’ greatest weapon against corporate power and for improving their conditions, the strike. Nowhere does he address the responsibility of union leaders to rally workers and their friends and neighbors to directly confront corporate power in the workplace and in communities, as well as in the courts and in the election booths.

After the Cold War purge of the left in the labor movement, labor leaders-- sanitized of the militancy and partisanship that Communists and Socialists brought to the movement-- made an unholy pact with capital. They traded class confrontation, international solidarity, and democratic demands for class collaboration, international betrayal, and a junior corporate partnership. As the Cold War drew to a close, capital discarded the partnership and mounted an unbridled offensive against workers. With a complacent union leadership, allergic to confronting their corporate “partners” and with no taste for a fight, the result was the rout that Gerard documents so well.

Of course it didn’t have to go this way. To imagine a different outcome one only has to study the history of the old left-led industrial unions of the CIO. When the USW, the ILWU, the UE, the UAW, the UMW, and the other CIO unions embraced class struggle unionism, they organized millions, energized their members, mounted relentless assaults on their employers, and won unprecedented gains. That history is ably recounted in the still eminently relevant, Labor’s Untold Story.

When Trump is gone, capital and rapacious corporations will remain. The promise of change will be hollow if unions fail to return to the fighting legacy of their forebears. That is the “untold” story that union leaders need to embrace.

Greg Godels

Saturday, May 4, 2019

Three Words that Need to be Retired

Words can be tyrannical. They can dictate the tenor, the direction, and the limits of political discourse, even political action. 

Contrary to the simplistic positivist account, words are elastic, they take on different meanings in different contexts, with different communities, from different motives, and at different times. Users can manipulate, distort, or shape usages to fit particular ends or effects. The coinage of new words-- like the creation of brands-- can persuade or influence. Indeed, words can become a political weapon, possibly unrecognized as such by its victims.

In his own fashion, Marx warned of the tyranny of words. He seldom couched his theories in the linguistic mode, preferring, broadly speaking, to write directly about the referents of words, as was common before the linguistic turn in philosophy. 

Nonetheless, it is sometimes useful to recast some of his thought into an argument about the role of words. This tactic is particularly of value in explicating his wonderfully rich and suggestive Fetishism of Commodities, Section 4 at the end of the first chapter of Volume one of Capital. Marx felt it necessary to devote an entire section to this often misunderstood idea after the publication of the first edition and in subsequent editions. Much could be said about this topic, but, suffice it to say that, in ordinary discourse, the word “commodity” and words denoting various commodities exert an almost hypnotic effect over our thinking, obscuring the complex of historically and materially determined relations that constitutes the deeper analysis of commodities found in Capital’s chapter one. But there are other fetishisms as well...

“Terrorism” and its associated words should be retired. To most of us, they conjure a vicious, brutal attack upon defenseless, innocent victims. Acts of terrorism are thought to be senseless and cruel, the product of a callous disregard for the lives of its victims. In this sense, “terrorism” aptly describes the slaughter of colonized peoples in Africa, Asia, Australia, and the Americas. 
The word is tailor-made for the plight of the indigenous peoples of these lands and their experience at the hands of European colonizers. 

Indeed, colonial genocide of native peoples might well serve as the ostensive definition of “terrorism.” What makes these acts so morally despicable is the gross asymmetry between the might of the colonizers and the powerlessness of their resisters.

But since the Second World War, the meaning of “terrorism” has been completely turned on its head by capital’s stable of idea-shapers. Western governments and the Western media have turned the resisters into “terrorists.” The Mau Mau risings in Kenya, the Hukbalahap resistance in the Philippines, the FLN in Algeria, the ANC in South Africa, the PLO in Palestine, and virtually all other national liberation movements have been slandered as terrorists by the colonizers, occupiers, and aggressors and their allies. Despite the overwhelming asymmetry of power and resources, the victims of that power are labelled “terrorists” for feeble, often desperate attempts at resistance.

In the brilliant movie, The Battle of Algiers, a telling moment comes when the fictional leader of the FLN, Ben M’Hidi, is captured. At a press conference, an indignant French reporter asks Ben M’Hidi how he can justify acts of “terrorism” against colonials. He replies, “Is it less cowardly to drop your napalm on our defenseless villages? ...Let us have your bombers and you can have our women’s baskets [in which the FLN plants bombs].”

Director Gillo Pontecorvo’s point is a profound one. In a war of liberation, the resistance must fight with the weapons available or submit to the oppression of their aggressors. In the best of circumstances, the balance of power still overwhelmingly favors the oppressor. The oppressed have their determination.

Similarly, Native Americans who fought against their genocide at the hands of US land thieves and the US military were called “savages” by the government and press of that time. Today, they would be called “terrorists.”

The US government has abused the term further by promiscuously using “support for terrorism” as a charge levelled at a whim to justify sanctions, blockades, and aggression, a charge levelled or withdrawn based on whether those charged are in or out of favor.

A further reason to retire the word “terrorism.”


When “globalization” became a popular word, it was never clear what people meant by it. Some saw globalization as a new stage of capitalism: post-imperialist, post-nation-state, or on a course returning to a kind of new mercantilism. All those claims seem silly now, with imperialism caught in perpetual wars, a new burst of populist nationalism, and global trade struggling to reach levels attained before so-called “globalization.”

Even capitalist elites concede that it is time to retire the word.

Others, including many labor leaders, saw globalization as a job-sucking aberration of capitalism inspired by political mis-leadership and corporate over-reach. Lacking a class-struggle perspective, they failed to see that what they called “globalization” was really a continuation of a process that dated back to antiquity: the division of labor, in this case, a malignant global division of labor. 

In pursuit of profit and supported by revolutionary advances in the productive forces, capital was able to find cheaper sources of the commodity, labor power. They happened to find sources outside the old imperialist nexus, leaving the advanced capitalist countries with job growth only in finance capital, the professions, and the low-paying service industries, while locating manufacturing in low-wage countries.

By coining or embracing the misleading term “globalization,” labor and political fabulists were able to distract workers from the real source of job loss: the capitalist system. For that reason alone, “globalization” should be retired.

The Middle Class

All efforts to objectively and materially anchor the concept of social class have failed except for that of the Marxists. For Marxists, classes are grounded in a division based upon social relations dictated by the material production of society’s wealth. In the capitalist mode of production these social relationships produce a sharp division between those who purchase labor power and those who sell it. This division identifies two classes, appropriately named the “capitalist class” and the “working class.”

Of course there are grey areas-- strata-- at the edges of the two classes, varying in size and importance at different times, places, and under different conditions. Between the working class and the capitalist class, Marx identified a stratum which he dubbed the “petite” or “petty bourgeoisie.” This social stratum is comprised of people exhibiting some social relations of both classes, but subjectively identifying with the bourgeoisie while having a tenuous hold upon this intermediate status. 

Examples of this strata in today’s world of mature, monopoly capitalism are some doctors, lawyers, and small business people, as well as a coterie of courtiers, parasites, and entertainers to the bourgeoisie.

In the most wealthy countries of North America and Europe the petty bourgeoisie is large, even growing in size and wealth. It constitutes a buffer and political base for the much smaller bourgeoisie.

Historically, many social scientists have conveniently used the term “middle class” to designate the petty bourgeoisie, without doing great injustice to the Marxist distinctions.

But today, charlatans in the US union leadership, the capitalist media, and the political parties use the term differently. They describe everyone occupying the huge space between the hyper-rich (the so-called 1%) and the poor as “middle class.” 

Such a broad, wide-ranged notion of class is an affront to rigor and clarity. It blurs distinctions that reveal the social, political, and economic character of the capitalist system. It artificially and unrealistically ties the class interests of the working class with the apologists, advocates, and beneficiaries of the capitalist system. It masks processes that are impoverishing working people and enriching the capitalist class and much of its petty bourgeois appendage.

With this definition, the retail clerk and the laborer are in the same social class with the small business owner and the salaried mid-, even upper-level manager, sharing the same interests.

By consigning nearly everyone to a nebulous middle class, politicians, bankrupt union leaders, and media lapdogs paint a picture of harmonious common interests shared by everyone but the very rich and the very poor. There is no class friction except possibly at the extremes. Everyone shares in the bounty, shares a common world-view, and strives for the same goals, though some are more “successful” than others. Those outside the harmonious “middle class” and the “extremely successful”-- that is to say, the poor-- appear as somehow misfits, saddled with poor motivation and social dysfunction, worthy of society’s charity.

This Panglossian best of all possible worlds serves capitalism well, obscuring genuine class differences and conflict, while masking the need for working class struggle.

It is time to retire this misleading usage of the term, “middle class.”

The tyranny of words is insidious, especially when so much popular “communication” is limited to 140 characters. Social media encourages brevity, with little room for elucidation or nuance. Hence, millions pounce on words that seem witty, fashionable, or clever. Wit, fashion, and cleverness have never been the measure of clarity or truth.

More ‘subversive’ or ‘misleading’ words in future postings!

Greg Godels