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Monday, January 2, 2017

Obama’s Legacy


I thought it was a good idea.

In the midst of Trump-panic and electoral finger pointing, The Nation magazine offered a special issue devoted to assessing the Obama Presidency. Providing a bit of historic context to the Trump victory would, I should hope, dampen the hysteria embraced by US liberals in place of sober analysis.

The Obama Years (The Nation, January 2/9 2017) does have its moments of insight, but far too many of the contributing liberal/soft-left writers tried desperately to polish the dull finish of the Obama stewardship. Most sought to retroactively apply a glow by comparing the Obama years with a yet-to-be experienced Trump reign.

Bizarre comparisons abound: Marilynne Robinson found Lincoln in the Obama legacy, while Patricia J. Williams detected a bit of Frederick Douglass in Obama’s character. Eric Alterman announced that “Obama was the coolest guy in the room.”

Obama defined a new “progressive patriotism” for John Nichols. Katha Pollitt opined under the headline--How Good We Had It-- without a hint of irony. She offers a weak attempt at a clever epigram with “...too many Americans weren’t ready for a black president, even if they voted for him.” Didn’t they know he was Black?

Faint praise indeed from Laila Lalami: “...I’ve never doubted that Obama tried to put his country’s interest above his own.”

In a lengthy appraisal of Obama’s foreign policy, Andrew J. Bacevich charts Obama’s course from “callow rookie to seasoned veteran.” He finds the mature Obama in the carefully staged valedictory interview delivered to trusted journalist Jeffrey Goldberg (The Obama Doctrine, The Atlantic, 4-2016 [my commentary is here]). Unfortunately, the mature Obama that Balevich sees as rejecting the “foreign-policy establishment” only found himself after he had surrendered to conventional thinking for over seven years. Remember the talk of the real Obama who would be unleashed in his second, lame-duck term?

Robert Barosage agrees that the Obama epiphany came belatedly, if at all: “Although Obama grew skeptical of the Washington “playbook” on foreign policy, he failed to offer an alternative.” He questions whether Obama was “transformational,” since transformational “presidents do more than simply govern well. They challenge and change the direction of the country.” Barosage continues by recounting the disappointments and policy shortfalls that kept Obama from being “transformational.” 

Following Harvard professor Theda Skocpol, Barosage recommends envisioning Obama rather as a “pivotal” President. That is, on “his watch, the United States began to recognize its corrosive inequality, the power of big money to rig the rules, and the way the deck was stacked against the vast majority.” But surely this is a howling non sequitur. Obama didn’t bring about any of these realizations, they simply happened while he governed.

It is far better to understand Obama as a “transitional” President. He was the choice favored by a majority of the ruling class to clean up the mess left by the Bush administration, a thoroughly discredited regime both nationally and internationally. With a raging economic crisis, failed wars, and barely measureable poll numbers, a fresh face, a face that promised renewed confidence from “hope and change,” Barack Obama was the prescription. 

The Obama story was as distant from the Bush narrative as the two-party dictatorship would allow. Race, youth, and eloquence separated him from his predecessor. Never mind that, excepting race, these traits were of little serious consequence.

Like President James Carter, after the Nixon fiasco, Obama was meant as a transition back to political credibility, a purifier of a political stench.

As such, Obama was a trusted cheerleader for the existing order. Christopher Hayes, in his lead article, unwittingly admits this when he notes that the “story that Obama kept telling was the story of meritocracy and social mobility.” Of course, it was a Black man who could make this story credible at a time when both merit and social mobility were disappearing. 

Hayes relates an interview with Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid in which Hayes pressed him on the message of the Democratic Party. Reid obliged: “I want everyone in America to understand, if Harry Reid can make it in America, anyone can… That’s what America is all about.”

Obama, similar to Reid and other political elites, sought to keep this mythology alive. Is it any wonder that a significant portion of the devastated US industrial working class abandoned the Democrats after the Obama era?

The thoughtful Eric Foner concludes the Nation chronicle of the Obama years with useful insights:

Obama’s 2008 campaign, which mobilized millions of people new to politics, served as an illustration of the symbiotic relationship between popular movements and political action. Unfortunately, even before Obama assumed office, it became clear that he had little interest in building upon the popular upsurge that helped to elect him.

Foner offers a counter-narrative to Obama-worship that simply ignores Obama, the figure, and focuses upon the forces erupting around him that he, opportunistically, rode to power. For Foner, the popular social forces are far more indicative of what is possible and worthwhile than the personalities that ride those social forces in and out of the Presidency. Rather than heap unwarranted praise on Obama, Foner traces the often-tortured path that the popular urge for change takes through US institutions. 

Thus, Foner sees manifestations of the urge for change that are springing up at the close of the Obama era as more worthy of discussion:

For a while after the end of the Cold War, it seemed like we were condemned to live in a world where the only alternatives to unregulated capitalism were religious fundamentalism or xenophobia and racism. Then the financial collapse of 2008 drove a stake through the heart of neo-liberalism, the dominant ideology of the past generation (although its ghost still walks the earth, including the corridors of the Obama administration). The great achievement of the Sanders campaign was to step into the vacuum and begin to offer a new vision. The election of Donald Trump, while disastrous in so many ways, is yet another illustration of the bankruptcy of neoliberalism. It is also an opportunity for the left to forge a new set of policies to promote political, social, and economic equality.

While the current political moment is indeed an opportunity to restore what Foner calls the “American Radical Tradition,” it is wishful thinking to imagine that the popular thirst for change will be satisfied with the final demise of “the dominant ideology of the past generation.” It is not the “bankruptcy of neoliberalism” (“unregulated capitalism”) alone that opened the door to Trump, but the bankruptcy of the two-party system that disallows a social democratic insurgency or a third-party opening to the left. 

Moreover, it is not the latest incarnation of capitalism (neoliberalism) that is demonstrating its bankruptcy, but it is capitalism itself that stands accused.

With his stress on social movements, Foner knows that the existing political institutions, including both major parties, have resisted the “American Radical Tradition” at every juncture. Radicalism must always be sparked and nurtured independently and outside of the two-party system. Foner’s academic work attests to the fact that real social change-- including the New Deal, the Great Society, etc-- never comes when insurgents accept the limitations imposed by capitalist political organizations. 

 And where right-wing populism threatens-- like the Trump candidacy-- it draws its oxygen from the failure of the left to offer authentic options that address the popular yearning for change.

Those who uncritically thought the Obama Presidency would satisfy that yearning helped pave the way to the Trump victory.

Zoltan Zigedy
zoltanzigedy@gmail.com


Friday, December 23, 2016

Santa Claus Has a Hard Time Finding Way to Harlem Slums



Richard Wright was somewhat of an enigma. Celebrated as one of the great African-American writers of the nineteen forties and fifties, Wright was, according to some, a difficult, demanding character. Others saw him as cautious and fragile. For a Black writer fighting for exposure against a literary establishment thoroughly infected with racism, his sensitivities were understandable.

Like Ralph Ellison, another author to break through to the mainstream, Wright’s career began through his engagement with the left, specifically the Communist Party. As the most militant, leading anti-racist force in the US, the Communist Party nurtured the talents of numerous African-American artists well before they were able to break through the barriers restraining talented Blacks.

Wright and Ellison severed their ties with the Communist Party after their success, but Wright continued to maintain a radical posture towards his homeland despite an accommodation with McCarthyite anti-Communism. After World War II, he left the US taking French citizenship. The famed African-American cartoonist, a fellow expatriate and a Communist, Oliver Harrington, remained close to Wright until his early, suspicious death in 1960.

Wright published the following in The Daily Worker, the newspaper of the Communist Party, on December 27, 1937. It is taken from Earle V. Bryant’s Byline Richard Wright: Articles from The Daily Worker and New Masses.

Santa Claus Has a Hard Time Finding Way to Harlem Slums

“Merry Xmas--Rooms for Rent--White Only”

In a holly-bedecked window on 39 W. 120th Street, in Harlem, the above sign was displayed all day Christmas.

So even Christmas comes to segregated Harlem with irony. It seems that the slogan of”Peace on Earth, Good Will Toward Men” loses some of its magic when it reached the Negro area.

Harlem’s Christmas was poor and quiet. All the brightness and tinsel represented a sacrifice on the part of parents who felt honor-bound to fulfill the expectations of their children. Some way or other Santa Claus found the courage to leave a few paltry toys even in sub-basement flats which violated the Multiple Dwelling Law.

When heads of families were questioned regarding how they found means to create such a gay atmosphere amid squalor, they replied:

“They wanted things so bad we just couldn’t disappoint them. I reckon we’ll be two months catching up with our bills. Lord, I’ll be glad when Christmas is over.”

A survey revealed that the ERB [Emergency Relief Board] officials made no extra allowances for children in large families, and there were but few tables on with turkeys and cranberries were served.

At 18 W. 118th St., four flights up, is a typical Harlem tenant family. Though there was not much food in Mrs. Lily Grover’s home, there was the inevitable Christmas tree. Mrs. Grover’s husband deserted her over two years ago and she is raising her three children in a three-room flat on a $50 per month relief allowance.

After subtracting $25 for her monthly rent, she managed to eke out enough pennies above her other expenses to give one toy to each child. Ernest Grover, 8, Raymond, 5, and Doris, 3, had no conception of the sacrifice which gave them their toys and they were happy.

Mrs. Grover made her children go out of the room before she told of how she made Christmas for them. She did not want them to know how hard it was for Santa claus to stop at their home.

She did not want little Raymond, who has a chronic case of bronchitis, to know that his milk allowance was cut in order for Santa to stop.

“And he’s not getting enough milk now,” said Mrs. Grover. “The only hope for him to recover, so the doctors tell me, is for him to outgrow his bronchitis.”

Though the sun was shining Christmas Day, none of it reached Mrs. Grover’s apartment. The hallways smelled of stale air. Mrs. Grover knows that more than milk is needed in her budget to give Raymond a chance of life. But houses are scarce in Harlem and Mrs. Grover, like a quarter million other Negroes, can’t move out.

The mother was enthusiastic about the high hopes she had for her eight-year-old daughter, Ernet, who has maintained  a B rating in all her grades up to 3B.

“Ernet sings, dances, and speaks on the stage well,” said Mrs. Grover. “But I can’t for the life of me figure out how I can give her the chance I know she needs.”

The newspapers carried slogans of “Peace on Earth, Good Will Toward Men,” and for Mrs. Grover and millions like her that would mean that the conditions of life for one should be the conditions of life for all.

Nearly eighty years later, we are still fighting for the “Good Will Toward Men” that Richard Wright sought for all.

Zoltan Zigedy

Monday, October 24, 2016

Spinning Liberal Tales


It comes as no surprise that The Nation magazine endorses Hillary Clinton for President (10-24-16). As the leading left-liberal publication, The Nation huffs and puffs high-minded principles before surrendering to the Democratic Party establishment. Nonetheless, it’s always interesting to see how they arrive at their submission.

Of course, it’s all about Trump. He’s not on our side. As a statement of the obvious, that conviction is unmatched. But is Clinton on our side?

The Nation’s editors assemble a tortured list of Clinton positives and Trump negatives that stretch the truth, shrug off uncomfortable facts, and hail irrelevancies. She exhibits “grace under pressure,” they tell us. She has been a “forceful advocate of health-care reform” since 1992. And for wild-eyed fantasy: She “is running on the most progressive platform in the modern history of the Democratic Party.” 

Trump’s charge that the elections are “rigged,” on the other hand, is “an assault on the very basis of democratic governance itself.” So the elections are not rigged in favor of the rich, white, and powerful?

With amazing audacity, the editors simply dismiss Clinton’s obscene bond with corporations and foreign tyrants, a bond that is sealed with tens of millions of dollars of barely-concealed quid pro quos. They assert that “progressives will have to continue to push her” away from these rich and powerful benefactors.

As for her super-hawk foreign policy, The Nation concedes that Clinton is wrong on everything from Palestine to Russia and Syria. Though she is seemingly “intent on deepening a New Cold War,” we are invited to “break her hawkish habits,” as though her role in killing tens of thousands is akin to curbing a smoking habit or losing weight.

Presidential candidate Jill Stein is the fly in The Nation’s ointment. She is all the progressive things that Ms. Clinton is not. She stands against the corporate, war-mongering tide and not with it. Here, The Nation engages in a remarkably clumsy dance around the Stein option, laying alleged failings of the Green Party at her feet: “...her cause has not been helped by the Green Party’s reluctance, or inability, to seek, share, and build power, with all the messy compromise this often entails. Instead of the patient-- and Sisyphean-- task of building an authentic grassroots alternative, the Greens offer a top-down vehicle for protest.”

But isn’t building an “authentic grassroots alternative” exactly what the Stein candidacy is all about? Isn’t Stein reaching out to The Nation readers, Sisyphus, or anyone else interested in changing the bankrupt political scene in order to build precisely the power that the editors claim to want to see? The apparent truth is that The Nation would like Jill Stein to go away and take her principled positions with her, clearing the way for a heavy dose of lesser-of-two-evil scare tactics.

The most-tenured Nation columnist, Katha Pollitt, bats clean-up on the magazine’s Hillary team. She relishes the opportunity, entitling her column The Case for Hillary. In offering her brief, she gives a list of 12 reasons, beginning with reproductive rights: “I’m putting this first because they’re crucial to everything you care about…” [my italics]. Everything we care about? As important as reproductive rights are, does Pollitt really believe that reproductive rights trump all concerns? Did she consider African American mothers whose sons have been murdered by police? Did she even weigh the daily slaughter of hundreds if not thousands throughout the world at the hands of US weapons or the weapons of its surrogates? Does poverty, lack of health care, and inferior education count in her reproductive-rights calculus?

Pollitt, like far too many upper-middle class white liberals, is blind to class and race. Those from other classes or races are not part of “us,” and the concerns of the “other,” though real, are not significant barriers to the “simple human happiness” that she argues flows from reproductive rights. Like the Evangelicals standing on the other side of the abortion barricades, she is incapable of imagining anything more important to others than that battle. She, like the right-wing fanatics, trivializes all other wrongs.

Against the Big Lie

Pollitt’s defense of Ms. Clinton reaches disturbing dimensions when she raises oft-repeated lies about Communist sectarianism leading to the empowerment of Hitler. She references a supposed moment when “...German communists scorned the weak-tea socialists in the 1932 election with the slogan ‘After Hitler, us.’” Like other similar red-baiting slanders that circulate on the left in every election cycle, this one bears little or no relation to the truth. Defenders of lesser-of-two-evilism assert that the German Communists stood in the way of working class anti-fascist unity, that they welcomed Hitler’s rise, that they spurned joint action. These charges are meant to apply supposed lessons from history to the politics of our time, suggesting that independent militancy and principles stand in the way of unity against the specter of extremism. If disaffected voters would throw their votes at the feet of the slightly-lesser-evil, like the German Communists should have done, we could avoid the specter of a greater evil.

While there are many for-hire historians who will affirm these claims, they are based on fiction.

The “1932 election” that Pollitt cites was, in fact, five critical elections: a first-round presidential election in March, the second and final round, the important Prussian Landtag election in April, a Reichstag election in July, and another-- the last relatively legitimate Reichstag election-- in November.

One surely unimpeachable perspective on these elections was that of journalist Carl von Ossietzky. Ossietzky was a prominent and respected left-wing commentator associated with the left wing of social democracy and often critical of the Communists (KPD). From a family of fallen aristocrats, Ossietzky’s anti-fascist credentials and integrity were impeccable-- he received the Nobel Prize in 1935 and died in a Gestapo prison hospital in 1938.

In his newspaper columns in Die Weltbühne, Ossietzky tells a story far removed from the fantastic anti-Communist narrative. In the lead-up to the first round of the Presidential elections, the Social Democratic Party, despite being Germany’s largest party at the time, chose not to run a candidate against both the reactionary incumbent President, von Hindenburg, and Adolf Hitler. It argued that the party’s stance was not pro-Hindenburg, but anti-fascist, a splitting of hairs that did not impress Ossietzky: “It is not that fascism is winning, but that the others are adapting it… A passing insult tossed by the demagogues of the Berlin Sports Palast jerks ten Socialist deputies from their seats, and forces them to prove themselves as fatherland-lovers… the initiative lies with the right.” Ossietzky writes: “Readers continually ask me for whom one should vote on March 13th. Is there really nothing better, they ask, than pursuing this fateful and discouraging policy of the ‘lesser evil’?”

He goes on:
As a non-party man of the left I would have been happy to vote for an acceptable Social Democrat… Since there is no Social Democratic candidate then I will have to vote for the Communist… It must be emphasized that a vote for Thälmann means neither a vote of confidence for the Communist Party, nor major expectations. To make left-wing politics it is necessary to concentrate strength where a man of the left stands in the battle. Thälmann is the only one; all the others are various shades of reaction. That makes the choice easier.

The Social Democrats say: “Hindenburg means struggle against fascism.” From which source do the gentlemen draw this knowledge?

It is nonsense to describe Thälmann’s candidature as simply a gain of numbers. Thälmann will probably receive a surprisingly high number of votes… The better that Thälmann does, the clearer it will be what a success could have been won with a united socialist candidate…

Within a week of his election, Hindenburg-- designated the “anti-fascist” candidate by the Social Democrats-- called for the banning of all left-wing party-affiliated mass organizations. Before nine months passed, the Reich President had appointed Adolf Hitler Chancellor and handed rule to the Nazis. Ossietzky knew at that time what a colossal mistake it was for the Social Democrats to refuse to run a candidate, to support Hindenburg, and to refuse to support Thälmann: “Invisible hands are at work in the web and woof of official policy, trying to bring Hitler, thrown out through the front door, in again up the back stairs.”

In January of 1933, immediately after von Schleicher was deposed as Chancellor and prior to Hindenburg appointing Hitler, the German Communists suggested a united general strike; the Social Democrats rejected the offer to collaborate.

Ossietzky urged unity between Communists and Social Democrats as early as April of 1932. After the Nazis made major gains in the important Prussian Landtag election, Ossietzky saw only two effective responses: either the Social Democrats invite the KPD into the existing Prussian government (something that they had refused to do) or the two parties form a united front. The KPD had already raised the second option one day after the election. The Central Committee called for “mass meetings of the workers in every factory and every mine… in all trade unions…[to] compile a list of joint demands, elect action committees and strike committees composed of Communist, Social Democratic, Christian, and non-party workers…”  

Despite the negative portrait painted of KPD tactics by liberal commentators, the German people showed their growing confidence in the KPD in the two Reichstag elections. Of the three major parties, only the KPD made gains in both elections, adding nearly 30% to its deputies while the SPD lost nearly 16%. Clearly, the KPD’s militant anti-fascism was growing in popularity with the working class.

It is probably too much to hope that liberals will retire the red-baiting canard of Communism ushering in fascism, any more than there is hope that partisan Democrats will cease blaming Ralph Nader for their pathetic surrender to the right in the 2000 election.

Clearly, the lesser-of-two-evils approach will not go away anytime soon, though it has failed to halt the many decades of the rightward drift of the political center. Could it be that those who own the two parties are sponsoring this persistent shift to the right in order to gauge just how long liberals, labor, and the left will tolerate it without making a break with the Democratic Party establishment?

One would do well to put aside Cold War textbooks and liberal smugness and take a long look at the dynamics of oppositional politics in the Weimar era leading up to Hitler’s ascension to power. There are lessons from that period beyond desperately collaborating with bourgeois and reactionary parties. The severe economic crisis of that time was only answered by a demagogic and extreme nationalist movement and by the militantly anti-capitalist, revolutionary movement. 

The Social Democratic Party chose a different path: it sought to manage capitalism along with its bourgeois parliamentary counterparts. They failed. Disaster ensued.

Zoltan Zigedy

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Karl Marx: The Most Worldly Philosopher



Karl Marx turns up in the most unlikely places. Two and a half decades after most US and European public intellectuals gleefully announced Marx’s ideas henceforth irrelevant, The Wall Street Journal offers a surprisingly measured discussion of his thought under the title The Most Worldly Philosopher (10-1&2-2016). The author, Jonathan Steinberg, an emeritus fellow of Cambridge and professor at the University of Pennsylvania, closes with: “Marx left a legacy of powerful ideas that cannot be dismissed as an obsolete creation of a vanished intellectual climate…” and that stimulated “...the growth of Marxist parties and the millions who accepted that ideology over the course of the 20th century. That was worldly philosophy indeed.”

I would like to believe that the WSJ editors, who displayed the following banner over the full-page article, are enjoying a droll moment in this pathetic electoral season: “The oppressed are allowed once every few years to decide which particular representatives of the oppressing class are to represent and repress them.” The welcome quote, attributed to Marx by Lenin (more likely a paraphrase of Engels), is never permitted into the conversation by our lesser-of-two-evil friends who screech every four years that this is the election that changes everything.

Professor Steinberg uses the opportunity afforded by a review of a current book on Karl Marx by Gareth Stedman Jones to share some of his own views on Marx. And, judging by some of his attributions to Jones’ book, that’s a good thing. Stedman Jones, like so many of his academic contemporaries, once counted himself a kind of Marxist, but only while Marx remained in fashion. With changing times, identities quickly fall in line, a sorry reflection on the integrity of the discipline of the humanities in academe. It’s no wonder that few students are fighting for a humanities-rich curriculum.

While no follower of Marx’s ideas, Steinberg shows a healthy respect for them and a willingness to differ with them honestly; there are no Black Book of Communism tallies of the “victims” of Marx’s ideas; no denigration of the personal lives and morality of Marxists; and no paeans to the glory of capitalism that one would expect in The Wall Street Journal.
Confronting Ideas

Steinberg offers a collection of challenges to Marxism that, while neither new nor original, have been at the core of many intellectual critiques:

The so-called “transformation problem.” Steinberg writes that “Eugen von Böhm-Bawerk, one of the main figures in the Austrian School of economics, declared that it [Marx’s Capital] failed to produce ‘a satisfactory theory of the relation between values and prices’...” The period after Marx’s death, after the publication of volume three of Capital, coincided with the decline of classical political economy and the rise of economics based upon formal and mathematical reconstructions of immediate economic relationships and a grounding of market relations in psychological dispositions and attributed individual choices.

Many Marxists (including Engels), perhaps overly impressed with the professed rigor of the new economics, took up the challenge, constructing “proofs” of the quantitative relation between Marx’s value calculations and real-world prices. That debate between “proofs” and “counter-proofs” continues to obsess academic Marxists to this day, particularly among those trained in bourgeois economics.

But Marx sought only to demonstrate a reasonably approximate quantitative relationship between commodity values and commodity prices. Values and prices are like the contrast between shared moral standards (values) and a common legal system (real-world jurisprudence); it is not necessary to show a formal derivation or rigid correlation between a moral value and a counterpart law in order to know that one is grounded in the other. Indeed, it would be absurd to argue that legal systems are not decisively shaped by underlying moral codes, but rather that they have a remarkable independent existence based solely upon judicial whimsy or individual preference. Arguing in this fashion is the legacy of a discredited positivism.

The search for a rigorous proof that prices can be derived from values is a scholastic exercise that occupies academics, but is of little relevance to the Marxist project. That values underlie prices is as certain as the belief that the moral prescription against unwarranted killing is the basis for all laws against murder. Imagine, in the same vein, that the scientific status of psychology were shackled to a formal demonstration of the relation between psychological dispositions and physical behavior. Psychology as a discipline would disappear. And if Böhm-Bawerk and his foolishness were heeded, Marxism as a science might disappear as well!

The so-called “immiseration thesis.” Steinberg writes: “In 1899 even Eduard Bernstein, one of Engel’s closest colleagues, attacked the so-called immiseration theory, which claimed the working class was destined to get poorer and the concentration of industry greater.”

Professor Steinberg, like Bernstein and others, misinterpret Marx on this point. In Capital, Theories of Surplus Value, and Wage-labor and Capital, Marx is unequivocal: “A notable advance in the amount paid as wages presupposes a rapid increase of productive capital… Therefore, although the comforts of the laborer have risen, the social satisfaction which they give has fallen in comparison with these augmented comforts of the capitalist, which are unattainable for the laborer, and in comparison with the scale of general development society has reached… Since their nature is social, it is therefore relative.”[my italics]

Marx clearly sees workers’ misery as relative to the advances of living standards in higher reaches of society. When productivity advances, working class living standards may advance as well, though less so, relative to the gains of the capitalist class. The immediate period after the Second World War was one such time when productivity advances brought a general, but unequal rise in the standard of living. Liberals and social democrats celebrate this era as the golden age of capitalism-with-a human-face, conveniently ignoring the relative impoverishment of the working class, the increase in the exploitation of workers.

However, for most of the last four decades, the impoverishment of the working class has been both relative and absolute, with workers’ standards of living stagnant or declining. Thus, we are living in a period even more dire, more miserable than Marx’s prediction.

The engine for the relative impoverishment of the working class is the growth of what Marx called the “reserve army of the unemployed” (unemployment), a process that diminishes the bargaining power of labor as a result of a readily available and desperate labor source. This pressure on working class standards of living has been muted dramatically in our time by the mass incarceration of potential workers (vastly over represented by minorities) throughout the last decades. While the mass imprisonment of over two million people forcibly reduces the potential unemployment (“reserve army”) and its accompanying pressure on wages and benefits, it represents recognition by the ruling class of the explosive, even revolutionary possibilities of many young, rebellious people without hope of employment in the late twentieth-century de-industrialized economy. Thus, they have been kept out of the “reserve army” through imprisonment.

Historical materialism. Professor Steinberg is perplexed by Marx’s view that the socio-economic conditions within which people are immersed largely determine the parameters of their behavior. Or as Marx so simply and more eloquently put it in the Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte: “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.” Steinberg quotes the more cryptic, but concurring statement to the same effect in the preface to Capital.

But, Steinberg ponders: “When, if ever, would workers know what was happening to them? If the preface to “Das Kapital” is right-- that humans act out laws of economics without awareness or intent-- how will the system change?”

The Professor confuses the recognition of historic processes with surrender to fatalism.

As the quote from the Eighteenth Brumaire affirms, workers will change the system when the historically evolved socio-economic conditions are ripe, and not before. The nineteenth-century English Luddites fought fervently, but futilely against capitalism’s devastation of their living conditions. But nascent industrial capitalism emerged with the vitality to crush a sincere movement associated with the old order. Twenty-first century capitalism, like the order clung to by the Luddites, is the old order, a decaying, untenable system carrying on a successful, but doomed struggle against its demise. Marx argued that as the system exhausted its potential, the socio-economic conditions sufficient for the workers to overthrow it would also arise.

It is precisely when the conditions for revolutionary change are apparent that workers may “know what is happening to them.” To insure that workers understand and seize the revolutionary moment, Marx-- and especially Lenin-- emphasized the need for a revolutionary party, a party of Communists. That party will bring forward the ideas of a new order.

Marxist Humanism. Professor Steinberg alludes to the “vast literature” on what has come to be called “Marxist Humanism.” Spurred by the publication and popularization of Marx’s early, unpublished notebooks (Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844), many leftists fashioned an idealized Marx believed to be the embodiment of liberal values. At the height of the Cold War, anti-Communist leftists embraced the tentative thinking of a youthful Marx-- a Marx three years removed from his graduate degree, filled with social reformism, still new to the working class movement and only recently seriously studying political economy-- and represented it as the true Marx.

Central to the “humanist” turn was the key concept of “alienation,” a term that Marx borrowed from Feuerbach. For the young Marx, the term served as a provisional expression marking the social distances standing in the way of individuals achieving their “nature.” As a crude philosophical tool, the concept cried out for the elaboration and refinement realized by the mature Marx. Historical materialism replaced the veiled teleology of “species-being.” Concepts like “class” and “exploitation” replaced the vagueness and generality of “alienation.” As Dirk Struik explains: ‘When we study Marx’s exposition [in the Manuscripts] in detail, we find the beginning of his mature analysis of capitalist society…” [my italics] Only the beginning!

But many writers, like Erich Fromm and Herbert Marcuse, grasped the opportunity to shape “alienation” into a class-free concept serving as an expression for every form of social separation-- from the most trivial offense to the most dreadful cruelties. Liberals heralded the new Marxism since it elevated the ennui of the pampered bourgeoisie to the level of the greatest injustices of class and race. Accordingly, the capitalist exploitation nexus was lost in a sea of social alienations. Today’s politics of the personal owes much to this contorted, unbridled abuse of the concept of alienation.

The Marxism of “the millions who accepted that ideology over the course of the 20th century,” as Professor Steinberg so felicitously put it, was not the Marxism of misspent youth or failed romance, but the Marxism of low wages, brutal working conditions, and bloody wars. Inspired by the mature Marx, the struggle against these conditions and for a new social order was true “Marxist humanism.”

These and other criticisms of Marxism-- based sometimes on honest mistakes, more often upon willful distortion-- remain a constant to be challenged. But that is surely a tribute to the timeless relevance of Marxism.
 

Zoltan Zigedy 
zoltanzigedy@gmail.com


Saturday, September 17, 2016

Behind the “Socialist” Masquerade


Ashley Smith recently wrote an essay (Anti-imperialism and the Syrian Revolution) ostensibly about Syria and imperialism but more properly understood as a rekindling and re-statement of anti-Communist “leftism.” Smith, an ideologue of the International Socialist Organization, unveils his true target when he inveighs against the “Stalinists”: “Stalinist groups like the Workers World Party, Party for Socialism and Liberation, and Freedom Road Socialist Organization…”

Not content with these examples, Smith, in McCarthy-like fashion, feels the necessity to name further names. He sees the UK’s Stop the War coalition as also duped by the Stalinists, along with the US United National Anti-War Coalition (UNAC). Jill Stein of the Green Party and her Vice Presidential partner, Ajamu Baraka, are similarly infected with the “Stalinist” virus.

Laughably, he ominously links the recent bold, fact-finding mission to Syria organized by the US Peace Council to the “American Communist Party,” an association meant to conjure up the specter of Stalin; but it is an untenable association with a moribund CPUSA that has long distanced itself from “Stalinism” and the Soviet legacy with a fervor equal to the US Trotskyist groups.

Without re-visiting the old ideological wars (Trotsky has been dead for 76 years, Stalin for 63 years, and the Soviet Union for 25 years), it is nonetheless useful to point out a common characteristic shared by US Trotskyist organizations: they invariable live and breathe anti-Communism. Since the Cold War began, they traded on their distance from the “enemies” of Western Imperialism. The grip that these groups often had on middle class youth was predicated on the denial of Red connections. For a university student, the McCarthyite stigma of Communism could be evaded by joining an anti-Communist organization that proclaimed that its anti-Communism was even more radical than Communism!

US Trotskyism is part of the “Yes, but…” left. Yes, Communism, Stalinism, Maoism, Marxism-Leninism, etc. etc. are bad, but we’re not like that! Like you, we’re against them, too! We’re the unthreatening, friendly advocates for change… In the Cold War period and after, this was a safe tactic to appear radical without poking the bear of repression. Of course it didn’t always fool those entrusted with thwarting even the most lame rejection of capitalism.

Communists victimized by Cold War repression often joked that a US socialist was someone without the guts to be a Communist. The easy assimilation of much of the Trotskyist intellectual apparatus into the anti-Communist hierarchy and the subsequent entry of many into ruling circles certainly underscores the opportunism of this tactic.

Since the demise of the Soviet Union, US Trotskyism has been in crisis. With the departure of a foil of sheer evil, the appeal of anti-Communist radicalism has lost its punch. Apart from the intellectual Neanderthals serving Eastern European reaction (sponsored by the New York Review of Books, The Washington Post, and a few other inveterate anti-Communist organs), the epithet “Stalinist!” means little in current discourse.

Ashley Smith hopes to revive its relevance for the twenty-first century. He sets out to buttress Trotskyism as a thin and tortured alternative to the anti-imperialism of the “Stalinists.” As with his Cold War predecessors, Smith hopes to trade on distancing Trotskyism from the rivals or antagonists of US and European Imperialism. In the absence of a Soviet Union, capitalist Russia will suffice as the source of evil. And Syria’s Assad will play the role of the bloodthirsty despot-- a mini-Stalin-- in this Trotskyist fantasy. Smith offers an unvarnished choice: “Which side are you on? Do you support the popular struggle against dictatorship and for democracy? Or are you with Bashar al-Assad’s brutal regime, his imperial backer Russia, his regional ally Iran and iran’s proxies like Hezbollah from Lebanon?”

It is breathtaking how simplistically, but presumptuously Smith characterizes the Syrian tragedy. It is equally astonishing to recognize how wrong he gets it.

To be so blind to sources of information apart from Western reporters in Beirut, Amman, and Ankara, to rely principally upon a London-based, unfiltered, and non-independent anecdote collector like the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, and to credit US and European sponsored “revolutionaries” implies an indifference to the pursuit of truth.

Whatever grievances Syrians may have had against Assad, it is hardly credible to hail an armed struggle that began literally weeks after the alleged peaceful demonstrations that Smith praises. No insurrection has ever proceeded so swiftly and effectively against security services and a modern army without outside assistance. We now know from revelations exposed by the US media’s fixation on the Benghazi fiasco that the CIA was vigorously engaged in shipping weaponry to Syria from stockpiles snatched from its Libyan venture. We know that regimes on the Arabian Peninsula were equally vigorous in supplying military equipment and recruiting volunteers.

Even US and Western European sources concede that the most numerous and most effective anti-Assad fighters are not democrats or reformists, but radical fundamentalists driven by religious fervor and feudal ideology, hardly the idealistic revolutionaries portrayed by Smith. In fact, US and European advisors complain of the difficulties of vetting anti-Assad forces sufficiently credible to receive advanced weapons. The few recipients of US supplied anti-tank missiles have displayed a troubling propensity to pass them on to the worst of the worse jihadist.

Smith shows an enormous conceit, from his secure perch, joining Western politicians in intuiting the sentiment of the Syrian people. Cavalierly dismissing the Syrian elections, he-- along with the Western media-- somehow divines that most Syrians hate Assad and that the opposition overflows with democratic, progressive sentiment. Where we have evidence of an independent vote-- for example, the May, 2014 national election vote of Syrian refugees in Lebanon-- the Washington Post’s rabid anti-Assad reporter, Liz Sly, conceded that uncoerced refugees supported Assad.

One has to notice that, unlike previous chapters of the so-called “Arab Spring,” there are no embedded Western reporters recording the march of democracy or the defeat of tyranny. Cannot CNN find any democrats in the Syrian opposition? Are there no freedom-loving fighters for NBC reporters to interview?

Of course the Assad regime’s invitation to allow Western reporters goes cynically unaccepted. To find on-the-spot reporting from Syrian battle zones, one has to turn to Lizzie Phelan, an independent UK journalist whose frequent front line footage appears most often on RT (her recent 20-minute cab ride through Aleppo gives a decidedly different picture of the city from that rendered by Western media reporting a Syrian “Stalingrad” from afar).

Smith does not hesitate to embrace the Libyan debacle as a pro-democracy revolution as well. One would think that the disastrous destabilization of Libya would serve as a sobering tonic for Smith’s fantasies. As with Syria, the pro-democracy revolutionaries were largely a figment of the imagination of US and European politicians and journalists, a group that our erstwhile “socialist” seems happy to join. But that is not just my opinion or the opinion of other “Stalinists.” On Wednesday, September 14, the UK parliament’s cross-party Foreign Affairs Committee released a report on the UK’s 2011 intervention in Libya. According to The Wall Street Journal, the committee found that the engagement was “based on ‘serious erroneous assumptions and an incomplete understanding’... [and] failed to identify that the rebels included a significant Islamist element and that the [Gadhafi] threat to civilians was overstated.” (my italics) It is striking that the UK government can shed its illusions, but Ashley Smith clings to his.

It is no accident that Ashley Smith’s long essay makes only a passing mention of workers or class. Like most US Trotskyist organizations, ISO draws support significantly from the petty-bourgeoisie. Thus, the question of workers and their fate never arises in his argument. There is no notice taken of the Syrian General Federation of Trade Unions, a supporter of Assad, an opponent of class collaboration, a leader in Arab trade unionism, and a pillar of the class struggle trade unionism of the World Federation of Trade Unions. There is no attention to either the opinions of workers or the effect of a violent insurrection upon the working class. These issues are of little count for one who calls for all to “collaborate with Syrian revolutionaries” who exist only in the minds of political romantics.

Rather than concern himself with the fate of Syria’s working class, Smith prefers to repeat the US and European media’s obsession with civilian-targeted barrel bombs and poison gasses, claims that have defied objective verification. But he exceeds Western fear-mongering by attributing the entire UN estimate of 400,000 deaths in the war to “Assad’s massacre.”

Recently, a delegation organized by the US Peace Council visited Syria and met with a number of Syrians, their organizations, and even oppositionists. They left the US with the notion that Syrians should decide the fate of Syria. They returned with the same notion, but even more strongly felt. But, in addition, they returned with the view that events in Syria are far more complicated than the simplistic picture presented by the US State Department. They returned with the idea that peace in Syria would not be secured through the intervention of foreign powers or by supporting media-manufactured fantasies. Unfortunately, many on the left like Ashley Smith and some in the more conservative peace groups do not want to hear the Peace Council report, preferring to embrace the self-serving constructions of the regime-changers.

Zoltan Zigedy
zoltanzigedy@gmail.com

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Wall Street Hates Trump, too



What does it mean when The Wall Street Journal, the popular mouthpiece for the right wing of the US ruling class, joins The New York Times (its left-wing counterpart) in vicious attacks on the Republican Presidential nominee?

WSJ staff writer Andy Pasztor’s Trump story was featured on the Friday, September 2 edition front page and continued by occupying the entire page facing the paper’s opinion section. Provocatively headlined Donald Trump and the Mob, the article sought to tie Trump, the developer, to Mafia linked contractors, with a sidebar recounting Trump’s employment of the sleazy, corrupt lawyer, Roy Cohn.

It is hardly unusual for developers associated with both parties to engage questionable contractors, a category of employment notorious for insider connections, corrupt deals, and, yes, unsavory characters. Thus, the WSJ piece stands out because it highlights behavior that usually gets a pass by the paper, especially for Republicans. The thin charges, largely based solely on association, stand out for their failure to make Trump seem any different from innumerable businessmen/politicians who slither through election cycles with barely a whisper from the mainstream media.

As for the employment of the late Roy Cohn-- a truly despicable creature-- it never bothered the conscience of the WSJ when he worked for Joe McCarthy, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, or a host of equally heralded right-wing politicians. So, why the outrage now with Trump?

Is there any doubt that when The Wall Street Journal coalesces with The New York Times and The Washington Post to demonize a candidate, the resulting united front speaks to more than a mere coincidence of opinion? Does even the most jaded observer think that unanimity among representatives of all factions of US elites-- the most powerful forces in US affairs-- does not signal a wholesale rejection of Trump? A repudiation of any charge that he currently represents ruling class interests?

Supporters of Hillary Clinton’s campaign refuse to address this fact. They refuse to acknowledge that she, rather than Trump, enjoys the broad and deep support of nearly the entire class composed of the most rich and powerful. They refuse to confront the meaning of a campaign that paradoxically aligns the mouthpieces and moneybags of US elites solidly behind the Democratic Party candidate. Marxists would call it a “contradiction” and search for its meanings. “Left-wing” apologists for the Clinton candidacy simply ignore it.

The peculiar choices offered voters are lost in the clamor of personal attack, the clash of shallow issues, and the orgy of fund-raising. Barring any new, dramatic, and sleazy revelations, debate stumbles, or blunders, Hillary Clinton will likely win the election in November. After the celebration of Trump’s defeat, liberals and organized labor will wake up to the reality that they have not moved their agenda one step. At best, they will avoid losing what they believe Trump threatens. That may satisfy many. But for those hoping to change the US for the better, this awakening should be sobering. Apart from permanent war, growing inequality, deteriorating living standards, intensifying racism, what will this election bring the next generation? What can reformers build upon?

Even more alarming, this election stands as the low point of an unrelenting process, a process of both a diminishing of the differences between the two parties and a continual rightward drift of the political center. Since late in the Carter administration, the Democratic Party leadership has sought to occupy the political space only minimally to the left of the Republicans. Recognizing this, corporate Republicans have steered their agenda rightward, seeing an opportunity to dismantle any and all remnants of the New Deal and the War on Poverty. If this election cycle does deviate in any way from this trend, it is in the promise to continue the process primarily through the agenda of Clinton rather than the vague and shifting positions of Trump. That is, of course, the basis for ruling class support for Clinton.

We have witnessed this process take us through a cast of worsening, ever more outrageous characters: a petty Cold-War demagogue, a self-righteous moralist, a theatrical con artist, a dishonest backslapper, a crusading alcoholic, and the two integrity and candor challenged candidates belched up in this election cycle.

Those who will celebrate the Clinton victory (like those who were ecstatic over Obama’s victory) will bear responsibility for the continued course of this process, the process of the corruption and trivialization of two-party politics.

The electoral fear-mongering grows thin, as the lesser-of-two-evils stance enables more and more evil. Scapegoating those who are trying to find a way out of the two-party trap remains the sport of those too cynical or lazy to look at options, too complacent to recognize the futility of trying to drag a corporate-owned Democratic Party toward popular change. Decades of self-righteous prattle warning of ultra-right dangers has not slowed the rightward drift of US politics one iota, whether Democrats win or not.

Surely if Marxists have anything to contribute to understanding bourgeois politics, it is to pull the curtain back and expose how it functions. What we see is not a pretty sight.

Zoltan Zigedy
zoltanzigedy@gmail.com

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Police: Palace Guards and Counter-Insurgents

Thanks to the ubiquity of cell-phone cameras, police racism is now apparent to even the most disinterested citizen. The recorded police murders of African Americans at work, in their cars, committing minor traffic violations, or at leisure, are widely known. The unwarranted shootings of unarmed African American youth, women, elderly, or the impaired, have been seen via the media by nearly everyone. There is no longer much public denial of the existence of police violence against Black people.

There remains, however, a continuing debate on the extent of the violence, its causes, and its meaning.

At one pole are the apologists. Apart from the blatant racists who salute the violence, deniers argue that the incidents are rare or that the violence is only the result of a few “bad apples.” The emerging facts belie the belief that police violence is uncommon. And the “bad apple” metaphor collapses in the face of the insular solidarity of virtually all police forces; “professional” law enforcement and its political overseers refuse to professionally discard the “bad apples.” If the supposed “good” cops will not step up to repudiate the racists, they are racists, too.

In profound opposition to the apologists are the Marxists, who see the police as a structure or institution that is inseparably bound up with service to those who rule. Yes, police serve and protect, but primarily they serve and protect the propertied class and its interests. The reason “protect and serve” rings so hollow to minorities, trade unionists, and other groups is that the police are a part of a larger criminal justice system devised solely to keep order for wealth and power. Police violence, to the Marxist, is not personal, random, or pathological, but systemic.

As a corollary, racist police violence serves to contain a group that has historically challenged power and authority. African American resistance to New World ruling classes begins with the subjugation of Africans, their forced departure from their homelands, and their enslavement as laborers. African Americans fought unsuccessfully to hold onto the gains of Reconstruction, fought against inequities of segregation, struggled for voting rights, for economic and for social rights, and have been in the vanguard of virtually every broad-based US struggle for justice. It is for these reasons that the African American people have suffered a special, targeted relationship with the protectors of ruling-class interests-- the police. The mass insurrections that have frequently erupted in recent decades have spurred the police to serve as a veritable occupying army in Black neighborhoods.

 
“Just the Facts…”

Of course the Marxist charge of systemic police violence and abuse is not an easy pill for many people to swallow, particularly if they live in communities distant from or walled off from urban neighborhoods where the police concentrate their violence.

So, facts are needed. For this, we turn to an unlikely source: a lengthy essay/book review by a conservative academic in The Wall Street Journal. Professor Edward P. Stringham (Is America Facing a Police Crisis?, July 30-31, 2016) notes that opinion polls show that confidence in police is at a 20-year low “among Americans of all ages, education levels, incomes, and races…,” but is even lower for African Americans. All citizens agree overwhelmingly that police should wear body cameras. Such is the general mistrust in police credibility.

To give perspective to the “crisis,” Stringham offers the vital statistics on police killing and police killed. He cites a “victimization” rate of police officers, thought to be risking their lives protecting us, as 4.6 deaths per 100,000 officers. But the “average American faces a nearly identical homicide rate of 4.5 per 100,000 and the average male actually faces a homicide rate of 6.6 per 100,000.” So much for the notion that “protecting” the public is more dangerous than being “protected” by the police.

By contrast, the police kill “134 [disproportionately Black] Americans per 100,000 officers, a rate 30 times the homicide rate overall. Police represent about 1 out of 360 members of the population, but commit 1 out of 12 of all killings in the United States…. In England and Germany, where the police represent a similar percentage of the population as in the US, they commit less than one-half of 1% of all killings.”

Any argument that explains police killing civilians as a response to the dangers incurred in police work falls before the facts.

Stringham goes on to explain that police killings cannot be justified because of a rising crime rate or conversely as the deterrent responsible for the drop in crime.

Even though the hysterically sensationalist media portrays crime as rampant, the truth is far different. In 14 of the past 15, years most citizens surveyed thought that crime was on the rise when the opposite was true. Actually, the homicide rate dropped in the 1990s to the level of today, the same as in the 1950s (4.5 per 100,000). In 1900, the homicide rate was 6 per 100,000 and 9 per 100,000 during prohibition. So, police killings are not a defensive reaction to rising crime.

But neither is the recent drop in crime a reaction to the draconian crime-prevention schemes of the last few decades (zero-tolerance, militarization, mass incarceration). The Canadian criminal justice system experienced virtually the same drop in crime without resorting to any of the medieval tactics served up by the US ruling class.

Thus, police violence is neither justified as a response to rising crime, nor a cause of the drop in crime in the US.

Further, it is not only physical violence that epitomizes the US criminal justice system, but also mass incarceration (again, inordinately afflicting African-Americans). Today, the US leads the world in per capita criminalization of its citizens, jailing at a rate seven times greater than in 1965.

Professor Stringham also points out that New York incarcerated 48 citizens per 100,000 in 1865; now, New York imprisons 265 people per 100,000. It is hardly credible that New Yorkers now pose a threat to society today more than five times greater than 150 years earlier.

The intensification of police repression is not inexplicable, but is coincident with political policy. The Johnson-era Omnibus crime bill of 1968 that expanded and funded policing, militarization, and surveillance, was clearly a reaction to the mass actions and insurrections of the 1960s.

The Clinton administration further escalated police reach and militarization with the 1994 crime bill that funded 100,000 more police and vastly more prisons. To fill the prisons, mandatory sentencing and expanded criminal charges were enacted. In addition, the Clinton administration gave police billions of dollars of military equipment-- assault rifles, grenade launchers, armored vehicles, etc.

Currently, police departments receive $1.6 billion per annum for military equipment from the Department of Homeland Security.

Swat teams-- the special ops of the militarized police-- now conduct 50,000 raids per year.

As Glen Ford recently reported in Black Agenda Report, the Obama Administration has nearly tripled the annual direct military transfer of weaponry from the Pentagon to the police since 2010.

And to what purpose?

The militarization of the police in the US, a process that accelerated from the late 1960s to today, coincides with the intense concentration of wealth for the rich, the stagnation and deterioration of living standards for the rest, and the stripping of personal rights in the United States. The authorities justify police aggression on the basis of contrived wars on crime, drugs, and terrorism. They stoke fears to rally support for the arming of the forces of counter-insurgency against an increasingly angry populace.

Because of their historical militancy, African Americans have been subjected to the brunt of militarized police violence. The suppression of Black youth is the particular focus of law enforcement, a testament to the group’s revolutionary potential. The devaluation of African American lives and their arbitrary murder are part of the ruling-class campaign to intimidate. The police are the agents of the campaign.




Zoltan Zigedy

zoltanzigedy@gmail.com