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Friday, November 1, 2019

Thirty Years of a Bogus “Liberation”

It is only fitting that Timothy Garton Ash would write an homage for the 30th anniversary of the so-called Velvet Revolution of the once-called Czechoslovak Socialist Republic. It is equally fitting that he publish his tribute in the most prominent US periodical of liberal anti-Communism, The New York Review of Books. Ash, born and educated from privilege, contrived a career by demonizing the post-war socialist governments of Central and Eastern Europe. 

One would, therefore, expect him to gush over the events-- the counter-revolutions-- that restored Central and Eastern Europe into the hands of the capitalists. One would anticipate a regurgitation of the evils of Communism and the yearnings of the enslaved for the freedom and prosperity of the West.

Yes, we get some of that, but more interestingly, Ash whines over the fate of the various anti-Communist “revolutions.” Indeed, he wonders aloud if it is “Time for a New Liberation?” It is hard to please the doyen of the capitalist restoration academy. Perhaps matters didn’t proceed as swimmingly as he had hoped.

Ash centers his essay around a series of cafe, restaurant, coffee shop, etc. meetings with vintage Eastern European counter-revolutionaries and their youthful counterparts of today, protesters of the current state of affairs in Central and Eastern Europe. 

For example, Ash finds himself in a Budapest bar musing with a once-dissident over the rise of Viktor Orbán, the Hungarian prime minister. Orbán was once a darling of the counter-revolutionaries. In fact, Ash’s companion had introduced him thirty years earlier, commending “...him as a shining light of a new, young, liberal generation,” a man who “...studied on a scholarship funded by George Soros at Oxford University and in 1989 was an electrifying speaker at the ceremonial reburying of Nagy” [Nagy was a leader of the attempted 1956 counter-revolution in Hungary]. He is now “...systematically dismantling liberal democracy inside a member state of the European Union.”

But today, states Ash with high drama, “the question that forces itself onto dismayed lips is ‘What went wrong?’”

Ash concedes the supposed lust for “freedom to work, study, and settle down in other European countries” resulted in mass emigration. In less than 30 years, twenty-seven per cent of Latvians left their country; nearly twenty-one per cent of the population vacated Bulgaria. And Ash states, without a hint of irony, that emigration from post-socialist Eastern Germany resumed at the same pace as before the construction of the wall. Today, he points out, the population of Eastern Germany is down to the level of 1905.

Obviously, the philosophers enthusiastically advocating the replacement of supposed “totalitarianism” with Western values had no understanding of the totalitarianism of capitalist markets, especially labor markets. They thought that well trained and educated Easterners, enjoying the generous fruits of socialism, would be somehow bound by their national roots. The liberals of Central and Eastern Europe had no deeper grasp of the economic consequences of cross-border traffic generated by the imperatives of deprivation, oppression, or simply naked self-interest as do today’s liberals of Western Europe and the US. They see emigration and immigration solely as political expediencies without acknowledging their powerful effects upon national economies both depopulated and flooded with new arrivals.

Despite the profound effects of depopulation on national economies, the stagnation that follows emigration, Garton Ash prefers to address the political controversies of immigration to Central and Eastern Europe. Without acknowledging a class dimension to immigration, without suggesting that migrants might work for less, compete in a zero-sum game for entry-level employment under a capitalist regime, he simply dismisses all hesitancy about immigration as ignorant xenophobia. 

It is one thing to characterize the opportunistic manipulation of bourgeois politicians as racist, rabidly nationalistic, but quite another to paint a fearful, weak, and insecure population as fatally infected with these diseases.

But this is the only recourse available to Ash and his fellow Cold War liberal democrats. It is easy to overlook that in the formerly socialist countries the growing sentiments that he abhors were banished from the schools, publicly condemned, even illegal. It is easy to forget that broadly supported solidarity landed thousands of exiles from Chile and other South American countries, South Africa and other African countries, and refugees from many other lands into the socialist countries. Tens of thousands of youth from around the world were educated for free in these countries and mass public campaigns were mounted in support of internationalism, anti-racism, unity, and peace. Surely these efforts count against blaming the rise of racism and xenophobia on the socialist past. 

So why have these countries moved in an illiberal direction? Why have they failed to reach the promised land of bourgeois tolerance and harmony?

Ash opines: “The origin of many pathologies that Central Europe exhibits thirty years on can be traced back to the ways in which different countries tried to (re)create the private property, and capital, indispensable to a market economy… Restitution-- giving property back to its former owners-- was slow, complicated, and could not address what had been built over forty years of communist rule… At its worst, privatization created a new class of hugely influential post-communist ‘oligarchs’ or robber barons.”

Fair enough.

But only a naïf could believe that privatization would not bring an accumulation of wealth and capital in fewer hands in a relatively short period of time. Only a sheltered academic could entertain a transition to capitalism that would not be accompanied by an explosion of wealth and income inequality, including the rise of “robber barons.” But this is the tonic that Central and Eastern European intellectuals and their Western counterparts sold to a population never exposed to the voracious appetite of the market economy. The concentration of private wealth flows inexorably from private ownership! How could the Ashes, the Wałęsas, the Havels, and their fellow “revolutionaries” not know this!

Jacek Kuroń is one of Ash’s heroes (often called the Havel of Poland). As Ash recounts, in 1989-1990, he “was among the most eloquent defenders of a sharp, ‘shock therapy’ transition to a market economy… he patiently explained to laid-off workers and worried wives why this was necessary… [Later] he bitterly regretted his role as the social democratic salesman of the tough free market reforms.”

Despite the enormous pain inflicted purposely on a generation, Kuroń offered little relief for the suffering. Ash quotes him from 1995:

The real social divide in Poland today is the divide between those who have managed to adapt to the new reality, and are coping, and those who don’t understand it and feel themselves pushed away, rejected by the market economy and democracy. I continue to insist that it is possible to offer something to the rejected ones.

Offer something-- a token-- to the “rejected ones”? Not a divide between the “haves” and “have-nots,” but a division produced by a failure to cope with rapacious capitalism? A flaw in the motivation of the victims?

The callousness of these statements is remarkable, the explicit elitism embarrassing. 

Ash quotes Polish workers, also in 1995, complaining: “We workers started it… but now we are paying the heaviest price.” Indeed, they are paying the price for embracing a vacuous Western concept of democracy dogmatically and artificially attached to the acceptance of capitalism and also for becoming a pawn in the Cold War.

From his many personal interactions with those unhappy with the course of the “revolutions,” Ash offers sources of the discontent. Apart from economic inequality, dissidents disdain “liberalism”-- “the social consequences of free market economics.” Both left and right students embrace the slogan: “There’s no solidarity in liberty;” solidarity went out the window with the fall of socialism.

There is a strong backlash against the elitism of intellectuals and the urban “salon” society. Like in most capitalist countries, the explosive growth in inequality brings condescension toward the ‘losers.’

Ash cites polls suggesting that Central and Eastern Europe do not identify with the ‘West,’ especially since the 2007-2009 crisis of global capitalism. He notes that Orbán and other leaders find more to admire in “Singapore, China, Russia, and Turkey” than their Western counterparts.

For Ash, the “powerful forces of inertia, corruption, and reaction” plaguing Central and Eastern Europe require ”a great reform,” “a profound renewal of liberal institutions and practices.” For this, they need “the party, the program, the leaders to win the next election.”

Surely, this is a facile answer from one who promised a veritable liberal paradise to the millions coaxed into allowing the security and equality of socialism to slip away. Liberal social scientists, theorists, and politicians would like us to forget that nearly all of Central and Eastern Europe was ruled by quasi-fascist, clerical-fascist, military fascist, or fascist regimes before World War II (Czechoslovakia, the country with a functional bourgeois democracy, was dissolved by the “Velvet Revolution”). Their first liberation after World War II brought these countries an escape from poverty, economic backwardness, and the rule of the iron fist. Despite the Cold War rhetoric spewing from the West, socialism brought rising living standards, a sturdy safety net, education, housing, cultural development, relative economic and gender equality, and more democratic institutions and stability than they had ever enjoyed. 

But Cold Warriors could not concede those gains. They held out a promise to the East of liberties and freedoms that elite minorities in the West embrace and enjoy, but without explaining that they were economically out of the reach of the less privileged majority. Travel, leisure, luxury were certainly available in the West, but only for those who had the money. Of course you wouldn’t know that from Western television, cinema, or other media-- an enormous propaganda blitz-- directed Eastward.

The second “liberation” brought these freedoms and liberties to the East, but with the same unspoken restraints. Thirty years later, disappointment reigns. Frustration with the fruits of a capitalist economy abounds.

To Timothy Garton Ash’s credit, he exposes these disappointments and frustrations. To his shame, he was one of the Cold Warriors who sold the fraud of a new liberation. 

Greg Godels

Monday, September 30, 2019

TelephoneGate and its Discontents

Only a person who embraces her or his historical short-sightedness could be aghast at Trump’s self-serving phone call to the president of Ukraine. Actually, it is not  the people in the US who are shocked and appalled by Trump’s heavy-handed, supposedly “unprecedented” attempt to undermine a political rival; it is the cable TV chatterboxes, the Democratic Party hitmen, and their addicted acolytes who self-righteously recoil from Trump’s brazen, ham-fisted corruption. 

How soon they forget Nixon’s sabotage of the Vietnam peace talks in order to hurt his Presidential rival, Hubert Humphrey. Or Reagan’s deal with the Iranians to hold the hostages and deny James Carter in the 1980 election.

Even more recently, our news media shrugged its collective shoulders at the audacious and successful effort of the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s campaign to derail Bernie Sanders’ 2016 primary run. And, of course, the Fusion GPS “research” organization contracted by the Clinton team and targeting Trump drew not only foreign operatives into the effort, but the corrupted leadership of the intelligence agencies.

Trump brought his customary vulgar directness and child-like simplicity to the phone conversation (“...very bad people…). Lacking any finesse, he directly asks President Zelensky to investigate the role of Biden and his son in Ukrainian affairs, offering the sleazy Rudolph Giuliani as an enabler. For his part, Zelensky shows himself to be the fawning puppet of the US: “We are trying to work hard because we wanted to drain the swamp here in our country…You are a great teacher for us.…”
Sharing the spirit of political retribution with Trump, Zelensky asks “the great teacher” to punish the US Ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovich: “Her attitude towards me was far from the best as she admired the former president and she was on his side.” Tit for tat! Biden for Yovanovich! 

And don’t forget we need more sanctions and Javelin missiles to combat the evil Russians!

It’s more than curious that the purveyors of fast-food news do not identify Zelensky as an Eastern European Trump wannabe. Their dishonest portrayal of Ukraine as a bastion of democracy will not permit them to read the phone-call transcript as revelatory of the legacy of corruption and US intervention in Ukrainian affairs. Zelensky, like his predecessor, owes his position to a US-engineered coup that brought Ukraine firmly into the US sphere of influence. As adamantly as the media wants to portray Zelensky as “Mr. Smith Goes to Kiev,” the transcript suggests a different interpretation.

Lost in the impeachment flurry is the unsightly, corrupt role of presidential aspirant, Joe Biden. Biden has postured as a modest friend of the working man and woman, a commoner drawn to public service. In fact, Biden is a corporate Democrat through and through, with a nasty history of opposing affirmative action and supporting the militarization of the police and the growth of the incarceration industry. His foreign policy views are taken from the chicken hawks and the generals.

Along with Victoria Nuland, Biden was the leading figure in conducting US intervention in Ukrainian affairs during the Obama administration. His fingerprints are on the ouster of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych in February 2014. 

And then a curious thing happened. Two months later, Hunter Biden-- Joe’s ne’er-do-well son-- was appointed to the board of directors of Ukraine’s largest energy company, Burisma Holdings, at a reported $50,000 per month. The head of Burisma had apparently been impressed with Hunter Biden’s deep experience in business, especially the oil and gas business.

But Hunter had no experience in business, any business. He was fresh from expulsion for cocaine use from a very brief and privileged entry into the Naval Reserve, hardly a sterling qualification for a big-time job on the Burisma board.

Could it have been that Mykola Zlochevsky, the founder of Burisma, saw Biden as a free pass for his being on the wrong side of US-written history? Was Hunter Biden’s appointment a down payment on forgiveness for Zlochevsky’s support of the deposed Yanukovych, given Vice President Joe Biden’s key role in shaping US policy toward its client state? 

Certainly those possibilities never occurred to our then apparently somnambulant media. No one saw a hint of impropriety, a scent of influence peddling, or the stench of corruption in the halcyon days of 2014. 

With one exception: James Risen, writing in The Intercept, claims that he, in fact, anticipated the dust-up about Joe and Hunter way back in 2015 when Risen was a writer for the august New York Times. Risen assures us, however, that Joe Biden’s intervention in Ukraine affairs had nothing but the most noble motives, an assertion that proves that some NYT writers actually found the paper’s editorial line to be credible. 

Astonishing: Risen and others can actually defend Biden’s role in Ukraine without acknowledging that he and other US officials were actively and effectively interfering in the internal affairs of a sovereign country, a despicable sin that has singularly, but one-dimensionally occupied the US media obsessively for the last two years. Interference is only interference when it is alleged against the US or by a self-perceived foe of the US. That's the kind of twisted logic employed by a government intoxicated with its own sense of moral infallibility and sold by a compliant media.

“Still,” Risen assures us, “when Joe Biden went to Ukraine, he was not trying to protect his son — quite the reverse.” Why would anyone think differently? Tell that to the insightful David Rovics: A Biden Ballad.

Would it come as a surprise if the “whistleblower” in this sordid affair turned out to be-- not a disgruntled intelligence officer afraid of retribution-- but the highest echelon of the intelligence apparatus bent on keeping Zelensky securely under its thumb and on board with its anti-Russia program?

Whistleblower protection was supposedly meant to protect the employees, not the employers! It is undoubtedly abused in this case.

An examination of the nine-page “whistleblower” letter and appendix directed to the Senate and the House intelligence committee chairpersons reveals a remarkable access to numerous high-level “officials,” a wealth of intelligence information, and impressive analytical and research resources. The brief would constitute a difficult, herculean task for any low- or mid-level intelligence officer following the lead of hearsay or water-cooler gossip. Likely, the secret service leadership has contrived a composite “whistleblower” to exploit the anonymity guaranteed by existing legislation.

Unlike the Watergate “deep throat” leaker whose identity obsessed the media for decades, news people have a puzzling lack of interest in uncovering the anonymous “whistleblower.” Maybe they know there really isn’t one?

The “whistleblower” document is a point-by-point response to any counter-narrative that some, including many skeptics on the left, might construct to the bi-partisan, “color” revolution, regime-change program of US imperialism. It is, in essence, an expression of US unilateralism and the US’s attempts to isolate its rivals. Trump is the target of the exercise only because his own narrowly focused, personal objectives clash with the ruling class’s perception of its own interests and the calculated mythology of US moral authority; his MAGA vision is at odds with the global vision embraced by most of the ruling class establishment.

For the “news”/entertainment industry, an impeachment process is Christmas come early. The corporate moguls well know the jacked-up ratings that have followed past presidential impeachment hearings and the high drama of political maneuvers that ensue. They have stoked the fires of outrage to pressure a Democratic Party leadership reluctant to follow the impeachment path. 

Like RussiaGate, TelephoneGate is a two-edged sword aimed at the populace. On one edge, it attempts to conjure Trump criminality without suggesting that his behavior represents the general lawlessness of the capitalist class. And on the other edge, it promises to distract US voters from the real crisis facing  most citizens. With impeachment unfolding over the next year, TelephoneGate will accomplish that task.

Even a cursory examination behind the media curtain demonstrates that the sordid affair tarnishes all who have participated: Trump, his team, Biden and his DNC promoters, Biden, the younger, the intelligence establishment, the political cabal, the monopoly media, and the rest of that for which the disingenuous Trump and his junior partner Zelensky use the nonetheless useful term, “the swamp.” For well over a decade, confidence in the swamp and the institutions populated by the swamp rats has sunk in every opinion poll. 

Over the next months, we will be asked to pick sides in a contest with charlatans and scoundrels dominating both sides. There will be no winners beyond the charlatans and the scoundrels. 

If, paraphrasing the oft-quoted Marx in The Eighteenth Brumaire, the Nixon impeachment was a tragedy and the Clinton impeachment was a farce, what is the Trump impeachment?

Greg Godels 

Sunday, September 22, 2019

Inching Towards Armageddon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Greg Godels

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Let’s Get Clear About Fascism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Greg Godels

Friday, August 23, 2019

What Happened to Jeffrey Epstein?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Greg Godels

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Discovering Debt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Home ownership is now beyond the reach of younger workers. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Greg Godels