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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

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

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

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Searching for the “White Working Class”

The Wall Street Journal calls them the “forgotten Americans.” Others see them as racist and xenophobic. Then aspiring-President Obama characterized them in 2008 in the following way: "And it's not surprising then that they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations." Whether they are forgotten, dismissed, or demonized, the “white working class” has been discovered this election season.

As with any new species, researchers are scrambling to probe, dissect, and analyze white workers; pundits are spinning theories about their habits and dispositions; and politicians are searching for keys to unlock their votes.

Arguably, no social segment has been under the sociological microscope this intensely since US elites and their intellectual courtiers “discovered” African Americans some sixty years ago. Class, like race, must force itself on to the stage before notice is taken.

In the case of the “white working class,” the surprising success of Bernie Sanders on the left flank and Donald Trump on the right flank-- successes that, in part, are believed to owe something to white workers-- sparked the new interest.

Even a decade ago, it was widely believed that there was no working class in the US-- only a vast middle class and the poor. Fostered by social scientists, mainstream politicians, and union functionaries, the fiction prevailed that, apart from the very rich, everyone was either middle class or poor. Of course this illusion began to shatter in the wake of the 2008 crash and the ensuing economic stagnation. Likewise, the rebellion against corporate, cookie-cutter candidates in the 2016 primary fights exposed a class division that poorly fit the harmonious picture of one big class with insignificant extremes at the margin.

Whatever else the 2016 electoral campaigns have revealed, they surely have shattered the illusion that the US is largely a classless society.

But US elites and their opinion-making toadies struggle to find the “white working class.” Some accounts refer to them as “white males without a college degree,” still others, “middle-aged white males.” The Brookings Institute takes a small, but confused step closer to insight, by adding “the additional qualification of being paid by the hour or by the job rather than receiving a salary.”

Vulgar, crude characterizations reach heights of stereotypicality and ignorant simplicity: “Moreover, the political stuff they like – bombastic attacks on Mexicans, Muslims, and Megyn Kelly – can turn off minorities and college-educated whites, particularly women.”

Just as the mass media has fostered caricatures of African-Americans, the media and cultural/entertainment corporations craft an unflattering image of white, working class citizens. Where Black people are saddled with imagery of violence, idleness, promiscuity, and criminality, white workers are portrayed as bigoted, socially, culturally and intellectually backward, superstitious, and conservative.

One would never know from “hood” movies, talk radio hysteria, and the crime-obsessed news readers, that most African Americans are a significant part of the working class, maintain stable households, and work diligently for a better life.

Similarly, most white workers are neither gun fanatics nor Bible-thumpers. Most white workers do not attack gays, abuse their spouses and children, raze mosques or lynch Black People. 

Nonetheless, both caricatures are part of the baggage borne by elites, including liberal elites.

The common perception dished by the mass media is that white workers constitute the electoral base for Donald Trump, when the truth is that the median household income for Trump’s primary voters was $72,000. In truth, the nativist, anti-immigrant sentiments associated with Trump are more typical of the white petty-bourgeoisie than the white working class.

Certainly media elites, pundits, and politicians do not want to talk about the latent rebelliousness of the white working class-- a large majority of white workers believe that the country is heading in the wrong direction, an opinion that should not surprise anyone given the fact that the median household income in the US has declined by 7% since 2000. Unfortunately, the current crisis of political credibility shows that they, like most of the rest of the population, have yet to find a way out.

Social scientists have begun to acknowledge the toll that corporate pillage has taken on the working class, very dramatically of recent in the case of the white working class. Death rates, especially from alcoholism, drug use, and suicide have risen sharply among white workers. The institutions that formerly traded a measure of privilege to white workers for their compliance and docility have now abandoned them. The Democratic Party, for example, is so thoroughly corrupted by corporate money that there is little more than gestures for the causes of workers of every ethnicity.

Yes, there is an element of lost privilege that fuels white working class anger and despair. At the same time, the economic advantages that separated white from Black workers in the past are diminishing in many sectors and afford a rare opportunity to unite workers against their common foe. Until the left and workers’ organizations undertake that task, working class rebellion may well succumb to false friends and bombastic demagogues.

Nothing reveals the distance of the upper classes from the realities of working class life like the current media fascination with the book Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance. Writing as one of their own, J.D. Vance-- a principal at an investment firm-- relates his unhappy working class childhood to book club liberals and country club conservatives. 

Feeding the stereotypes, Vance exposes a dysfunctional childhood spared from ruin by an enlistment in the Marine Corps, a stint at Ohio State University, and a climb to the summit, Yale Law School. Looking down from the rarified air of Yale, he feels qualified to speak of “the anger and frustration of the white working class” and the hunger to “have someone tell their story.” The thirty-one-year-old investment executive’s rags-to-riches tale urges “people to hold themselves responsible for their own conduct and choices. ‘Those of us who weren’t given every advantage can make better choices, and those choices do have the power to affect our lives…

There are echoes in Vance’s biography of the many “hood” oracles that depict Black life as, without exception, dysfunctional and unbearably ugly. But in this case, it is white, working class life that is soaked in alcoholism and threatened by senseless violence.

This profile, like the book title’s derogation of white workers as “hillbillies,” is deeply offensive to anyone growing up in a working class family or community. Vance’s addicted mother and sometimes absent father are neither exceptional nor common in white working class families anymore than they are unique to or absent from families of different ethnicities or socio-economic classes. To believe otherwise is to feed the ugly monsters of racism and class arrogance, the twin beasts nurtured by every ruling class.

Growing up in working class communities, we see the ravages of exploitation, the divisiveness of racism, and the despair of joblessness and poverty. Of course, these occasion harmful, counterproductive behavior. They wreck the lives of many. But they are not remedied by self-help bromides the likes of which Vance advances. 

Capitalism produces and reproduces wholesale misery that may no longer fall as unevenly as it has in the past. While African American workers are continually and relentlessly victimized by racist practices and denied access by exclusionary craft unions, capital today offers white workers little reward for supporting or tolerating racist policies. The twenty-first century global economic turmoil has devastated workers’ standards of living regardless of race or “choices.”

The future lies in the hands of those who reject divisive, elite-fashioned stereotypes and unite to face their common enemy.

Zoltan Zigedy

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Sorry, There is No Fix

Lawrence Summers is a super-star of bourgeois economics. He has held leading positions at the World Bank, the US Treasury Department, and most recently in the Obama Administration. Besides teaching and administrative posts, he has consulted and worked for financial institutions. His advice has been sought by governments and corporations. And he doesn’t shy away from contrarian positions.

Since the 2008 crash, mainstream economists have retracted their worst fears to now characterize the event as an unusually sharp downswing in the business cycle. Of course economists were then scrambling to explain the virtual collapse of the financial sector, the panic, and the evaporation of trillions of nominal dollars.

At the time, there was a general despair, a widespread sense of impending doom. But with fading memory, economists have reconstructed the event as a severe, but manageable (and managed) periodic adjustment to the normal course of capitalism.

In the wake of the crash, commentators have acknowledged a slow “recovery,” but nonetheless concur that the global economy is back on course.

Summers dissents from this view, as he should.

For Summers, stubbornly weak productivity, long-term low, negative interest rates, sluggish growth, deflationary episodes and other economic shortcomings are signs of something chronically wrong with the global economy, something more systemic than the ordinary business cycle. He sees the economy caught in a rut (to borrow an expression from a Bloomberg Businessweek article), a rut of “secular stagnation.” Now “secular stagnation” is an old term Summers appropriates from Great Depression era economist Alvin Hansen, who saw the period after the 1929 crash as one of chronic economic malaise.

In a period of serious intellectual denial, injecting Hansen’s observation into the current discussion is a radical move. It challenges the notion that the economy is healthy; it challenges the notion that the economy is self-correcting (given a little tune up!); and it challenges the notion that the current course of monetary manipulation (ultra-low interest rates) will be sufficient stimulus to overcome the inertia of eight years of low, faltering growth.  

Summers, instead, argues that “secular stagnation” is the new normal-- a kind of stunted-growth equilibrium. For the world economy, this means insufficient growth to raise living standards, attack inequality, support investment, and maintain and improve infrastructure. As for capturing and describing the current state of the global economy, Summers’ snapshot is not too far off the mark: global economic activity has been tepid since the twenty-first century crash.

But as it stands, it’s just a snapshot-- a perhaps accurate observation-- and not a theory. Of course it’s a far more accurate depiction of the world economy than that of most of his colleagues who see recovery unfolding. To assert a theory, Summers needs an independent variable-- a cause or set of causes-- that account for the prevalence of “secular stagnation.” He needs an explanatory account that reveals how “secular stagnation” came to plague the global economy.

He believes he has located that independent variable, the cause of “secular stagnation,” in an insufficient demand for goods and services and an accompanying propensity to save rather than invest.  

Explanations of this sort are not new, either. They became common after the Great Depression and under the influence of John Maynard Keynes’ work. Since that time, Say’s Law, the purported universal law that the supply of all goods and services will find a market-clearing level of demand, has been discarded by nearly all economists (of course Marx challenged Say’s Law nearly a century before! And Malthus before him!). Academic economists, as well as many latter-day Marxists, fell under the spell of “underconsumptionism”-- the view that capitalist crises are generated by an imbalance between what the economy produces and what its consumers want or can afford. Accordingly, they attributed economic downturns to the lack of sufficient demand to support existing supply or the growth of supply.

Further, adherents to this theory attributed the post-World War II decades of relative economic stability to capitalist managers “solving” the problem of imbalance through various mechanisms: the welfare state, military spending, a contract between capital and labor, capitalist planning, state intervention, etc. All of these presumptive solutions to economic disruptions (or capitalist crisis) pre-suppose that the problem to be solved is insufficient demand.

This theory is attractive on several accounts. First, it is easy to understand: it recognizes a potential disparity within capitalism between the productive potential of the economy and the purchasing potential of consumers who are also exploited workers, a disparity that intuitively looks like a plausible problem for capitalism’s smooth operation.

Secondly, it is agreeable to all those who defend capitalism: for every shortfall in demand, there is a potential policy prescription that can inject demand into the economy in keeping with any and every political stripe. From war and military spending to massive government welfare or infrastructure spending, for fascism to left social democracy, there exists a remedy to insufficient demand. Until the stubborn “stagflation” of the 1970s, nearly all the politico-economic/ideological wars were fought over the best, most efficient, or socially just solutions to the problem of demand (including, I repeat, among many Marxists).

Thirdly, the “underconsumptionist” theory locates dysfunction-- crisis-- on the surface of the capitalist system and not in its deep structure. The analytic tools of bourgeois economics frame the dynamics of the system strictly in terms of the interaction of supply and demand. And these tools are most convenient and self-assuredly orthodox.  

A Marxist Alternative

Marxism searches deeper into the structure of capitalism for its well spring; Marxism rejects the tools of bourgeois economics; Marxism understands capitalism, not as a system that might suffer disruptions, but one that must encounter crisis.

Thus, Marx and subsequent Marxist thinkers probed deeper into the capitalist mechanism to locate the fundamental process that powers capitalist production and reproduction. He discovered that fundamental process in accumulation, the socially and legally sanctioned distribution of a growing quantity of society’s wealth into the hands of those possessing or controlling the material means of production. Capitalism runs smoothly if and only if the process of accumulation functions well. Essential to its function is a robust exploitation of workers, the creators of society’s wealth; that is the “how” of accumulation. And, of course, the “what” of accumulation is profit or surplus value; that portion of society’s expanding wealth that ends up in the hands of the capitalists.  

Thus, in our necessarily simplified account of accumulation and its central role in Marx’s theory of crisis, the harbingers of crisis are to be found in weak profits or impediments to exploitation. Unlike the episodic, periodic, and random economic disruptions caused by economic “overheating,” imbalances, corruption, or non-economic factors, systemic crises originate in the accumulation process. The necessity of capitalist crisis springs from the limitless acquisition of profits invariably outstripping the limited opportunities for investment and the further generation of profits. As Maurice Dobb explained, paraphrasing Marx: “...precisely because capitalist production is production for profit, 'overproduction of capital' becomes possible in the sense of a volume of capital accumulation which is inconsistent with the maintenance of the former level of profit.”

Systemic crises (e.g. 1929, 2008) usually arrive at a time of hyper-accumulation, with demand and investment bolstered by heightened borrowing. To accommodate a growing mass of capital (accumulated profits) in a context of limited or lower-yielding investment opportunities, greater risk is taken on. Excessive debt, precarious risk, and the prospect of even more debt and risk, is the recipe for a crash, a feature of systemic capitalist crisis. Either risk aversion sets in, leading to stagnation or economic retreat, or debt and risk continue growing toward unsustainable heights.

In the historic instances of systemic crisis, there is no evidence that a crash-- a severe economic decline-- is consistently preceded by or concurrent with a similar marked decline in demand. If the “underconsumptionist” theory were credible, a persistent or sharp decline in demand would be a causal antecedent of the crisis.

There was, however, an oversupply of capital seeking dwindling yield opportunities in the 2007-2008 bust. Many mainstream commentators noted the “search for yield” in the preceding period. It is this pressure on the rate of profit that signals the danger and potential for crisis. Of course the crisis-- the downturn-- reduces demand as a result of declining activity and unemployment; insufficient demand ensues, but does not cause a crisis. Summers’s demand-based causal explanation of what he calls “secular stagnation” fails to fit the facts.

That is not to deny, however, that generating new and greater demand-- stimulus-- plays a role in arresting the worst effects of economic decline. The 2009 stimulus packages (especially the massive investment programs in the PRC) generated enough activity to halt the further decline of global capitalism. However, it failed to correct the flaws in the accumulation process, flaws that are again coming into deepening crisis mode today: declining rates of productivity and profits, negative interest rates driving investors from safe havens, bloated debt (automobiles, student loans), and risky investment.

The history of the New Deal taught that public investment, as a remedy for private sector stagnation, can only substitute for the accumulation process and not restart it. The unexpected downturn of 1937-38 demonstrated that earlier public sector stimulation did not put capitalism back on its feet and, without further public investment, the system would again falter. And only war preparation and the turn to a form of wartime state capitalism absorbed the unemployed and revitalized the accumulation process by war’s end.

Lawrence Summers stands apart from his colleagues who promote a pollyanna-ish story of economic recovery and prosperity. They tout an artificially ginned up stock market and a debt-inflated automobile bubble as signs of success, when the signs indicate the opposite. Mainstream economists hold their breath as profit rates, productivity gains, and employment growth steadily decline.

Summers, the alarmist, knows better. He sees a faltering economy, but his analysis, and prescriptions are faulty. The bromides sidestep the fundamental failure of the global economy, a failure embedded within the system and not resolvable short of replacing the system. Summers’ proposal of massive public investments in US infrastructure, green energy, and education are worthy demands. Rousing a political movement to fight for these demands would be a welcome development. It would take some of the sting out of capital’s imposed hardships as well. But it would not repair the accumulation process. It would not “fix” capitalism.

Zoltan Zigedy

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Soulless Liberalism

Mainstream liberalism and its champions are part of the barren, bleak cultural and intellectual terrain left by decades of right-wing ascendency and left-wing retreat.

Discarding New Deal liberalism and its goal of guaranteeing minimal living standards, a measure of social warfare, and some class mobility, liberalism accepted the supremacy of the market and its blessing of the inevitability of inequality. The new gospel of liberalism announces that economic growth and market forces will provide for all if government only “incentivizes” the private sector. This ideology was embraced by the New Democrats who won the Democratic party during and after the Reagan years.

At the same time, the social base of the Democratic Party shifted, in the post-Watergate era, away from poor and working class voters, its traditional base through most of the twentieth century, toward  professionals and middle strata in urban centers and suburban bedroom communities. Issues that troubled this increasingly dominant and influential segment pushed aside the New Deal and Great Society concerns: housing and de facto segregation, public education and educational inequality, institutional racism and sexism, deeply rooted poverty and its consequent social dysfunctions, jobs, union representation, health care, public assets and services, etc.

In place of these concerns, liberals and the Democratic Party emphasize obstacles that may obstruct the full realization of the “American Dream.” The liberal agenda today addresses “glass ceilings,” lifestyle choices, and other issues that impact the safety, security, and freedom of the middle and upper-middle strata. Those falling below these markers are offered second-class schools, second-class health care, second-class neighborhoods, and second-class services. Modern liberals have shrewdly obscured this shift by creating an artificial class-- the “middle class”-- that purports to include hospital workers, food service workers, and sweatshop workers in the same class with doctors, lawyers, and financial managers. For those left out of this broad, meaningless class, the Democratic Party offers the fruits of volunteerism and charitable giving as expressed in its 2012 platform.

It is, therefore, no surprise that there is a growing distance between liberals and the Democratic Party, on one side, and the vast majority of US working and poor people who have been battered and made insecure by the economic crisis that came to a head in 2008. The 2016 primary elections and the rise of both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump demonstrate this divide, though mainstream liberals are dismissive of both.

A recent column by long-time The Nation columnist, Katha Pollitt (Why Didn’t Bernie Get Me, May 23-30, 2016) illustrates this widening division. It must be said that Pollitt is a long-standing liberal and one who, in the past, often supported the Old Democrats over the new breed. She concedes as much in a February column revisiting her past electoral choices. But as with other liberal pundits, the causes of the past do not fuel the passions of the present.

In an election year that has brought out the pitchforks and has seen insurgents take aim at the heart of the establishment of both political parties, Pollitt is oddly remote from the contests. In the opening paragraph of her commentary, she confesses “...I neglected to read the instructions on my absentee ballot, which clearly stated that it had to be post marked [by?] the day before the actual primary, and thus missed my chance to vote...” Apparently the stakes in the primary were not of any great consequence to Pollitt, at least not enough to focus her attention on casting a vote.

She goes on to explain why Bernie Sanders didn’t get the vote that she didn’t cast. First and foremost, Senator Sanders suffers from the affliction claimed of all those seeking to redirect the Democratic Party: a lack of “electability.” It’s truly a wonder how pundits can always diagnose this affliction in candidates that they do not like. It’s particularly a wonder with Bernie Sanders, who appears to be more “electable” against the likely Republican candidate than Hillary Clinton in virtually every poll taken.

But polls mean nothing, when your gut tells you something different. Especially if you warm up a tasteless stew of age-contempt, Red-baiting and fear-mongering: “I just don’t believe Americans are ready for a 74-year-old self-described socialist with a long far-left CV who would raise their taxes by quite a lot. By the time the Republicans get a hold of him, he’d be the love child of Rosa Luxemburg and the Ayatollah Khomeini, and then it’s hello, President Trump.”

I’m sure this snide remark would get an amused titter at liberal cocktail parties.

But for Pollitt, the real complaint is lack of a commitment to women’s rights. At the same time, she acknowledges that Sanders supports a “laundry list” of “causes dear to the heart of… feminists.” Further, she notes that Sanders “has a good voting record on those issues in Congress.”

So where lie his failings of commitment?

There were all those little tells,” she says. Pollitt’s “tells” are those slights and nuances for which academic liberals have coined the term “micro-offenses.” Though Senator Sanders’ record is unimpeachable, Pollitt is skeptical of his heart. Because his word choice may have been, on occasion, questionable, because his staff may be gender and racially unbalanced, because some of his supporters may be brutish males, Pollitt can’t be sure of his sincerity.

This, coupled with a large dose of Trump-dread, denied Bernie Sanders the vote that Katha Pollitt forgot to cast, despite the fact that “... in important ways his politics are closer to mine [Katha Pollitt’s] than Hillary Clinton’s are, and his campaign for the White House is inspiring.”

This is liberalism without a soul, a personal politics that calculates “micro-offenses” with the same weight as the life-and-death issues that millions of poor and working class women and men face daily.

Katha Pollitt and other liberals, including Bernie Sanders, could further demonstrate that their commitment to women’s rights transcends a narrow, parochial vision or political opportunism by standing with others-- women and men-- against the coup in Brazil that stripped the country’s first woman President, Dilma Vana Rousseff of her position. A cabal of men organized this coup-- no doubt with US encouragement-- to deny her the term of service which she earned in the last elections. This outrage has yet to draw the attention of the US liberal mainstream.

Likewise, the vindictive indictment of Christina Kirchner, the ex-president of Argentina, on trumped-up charges has been largely met with indifference on the part of US liberals and feminists.
Where are you, Katha Pollitt and Bernie Sanders?

Zoltan Zigedy