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Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The Clash of Egos

What the voters wanted was unquestionably significant change. What they were promised was change. Whether change will come from the Obama administration is - at best - questionable….

And every indication is that the Obama administration will continue down the path of advancing imperial interests and privileging corporate America.”
ZZ’s Blog, 11-06-08

"Has Obama betrayed his progressive promise? Obama never made a progressive promise. The idea of Obama as a water-bearer for liberal or progressive reform came not from Obama's mouth, but from the sheer wishes and dreams of the left…"

In fairness, Obama has betrayed no one. His vast centrist following and the Democratic Party old-guard have shown no fear of Obama's perceived "progressive" agenda, an agenda that appears to be more and more in the minds of a self-deluding left. ZZ’s Blog, 12-09-08

Liberals and the celebrity left are in a catfight over their relationship to the Obama Administration and it’s not a pretty thing. Chris Hedges stirred the pot recently with an interview of Cornel West on Truthdig, augmented with his own angry voice, denouncing Obama: The Obama Deception: Why Cornel West Went Ballistic. The interview circulated widely on the internet, generating discussion and controversy like few other internet commentaries.

Hedges postures the Obama “deception” as a Shakespearean tragedy and West depicts it as a personal affront. While many of my left brothers and sisters have hailed this personal mea culpa and attack on Obama as welcome, joining those sending the interview far and wide, they have only added to the tiresome finger pointing that advances our struggles very little.

West earns no thanks for placing the character flaws of the current President, as he reveals them, at the center of the political universe. It is especially embarrassing that he cites the personal slights – the absence of inaugural tickets, missing handshakes, unreturned phone calls, official jabs – as the fulcrum of his argument.

It really is not about Cornel West.

At one point, Hedges senses that the interview has gotten too personal. He writes: “But there was also the betrayal on the political and ideological level.” Yet a few lines later, he returns to the personal: “Obama and West’s last personal contact took place a year ago at a gathering of the Urban League when, he says, Obama ‘cussed me out.’”

In its essence, the interview is an indulgence in Cornel West’s personal pique -- a People magazine-style profile breathlessly hanging on the words of one of our “stars.” If Obama had proved to be everything that the “hopey-changey” left had forecast, West’s complaints would now be viewed as they are: an irrelevant exercise in self-indulgence. This interview is unbecoming of Chris Hedges, who has shown a deep understanding of the issues and has put his own body on the line to stop the war and fight corporate power.

Predictably, The Nation magazine – the most prominent periodical on the left and an early champion of the Obama-as-savior perspective – unleashed its star TV-commentator upon the Hedges/West interview (Cornel West v. Barack Obama, The Nation blog). Melissa Harris-Perry grasped the opportunity afforded by West’s “ballistic” personal tirade and lunched on West’s celebration of self-worth. She wrote: “I can tell the difference between a substantive criticism and a personal attack. It is clear to me that West’s ego, not the health of American democracy, is the wounded creature in this story.”

While establishing her own modest, tepid criticisms of the Obama administration, she further charges West with an unholy alliance with TV personality Tavis Smiley, a counter-charge of the same irrelevance as West’s outburst.

What do we ask of those who promoted the mistaken view that Barack Obama was the second-coming of FDR? Do we want a public tirade denouncing Obama? Do we expect a period of self-flagellation or contrition? Should those who eagerly signed onto “Progressives for Obama” be taken to the woodshed?

None of these options shows even a measure of political maturity. The battle then, and the battle now, is a battle of ideas and not personalities. Revealingly, the exchange between Hedges/West and Harris-Perry says little about the way forward. Absorbed in a clash of celebrity egos, they are more intent on settling scores than mapping a way to mount a counter-offensive to the relentless advances of monopoly capital.

A left constructed on wishful thinking and opportunistic campaign promises is little better than a right based upon fantasy and eighteenth-century dogma. But it is not helpful to promote the cult of personality that has become so prevalent in our culture.

In today’s climate, charges of “betrayal” or “deception” are hollow. They reflect a misreading of the history and social role of monopoly capital and its bankrupt two-party system; they obscure the deep mechanisms that sustain the capitalist system. We desperately need acts of resistance and not web battles between our luminaries.

For those who want to go beyond the trivial, beyond the wars on the web, the road is clear: look at what our brothers and sisters are at this moment doing in Greece, Portugal and Spain. Faced with the austerity that will soon visit the US, they are in the streets, anchored by militant labor movements that understand the stakes and confront the enemy: capital. It’s time for our own labor movement to go beyond electoral maneuvers and bring the fight to the streets in the US. We should help them figure out how to get there.

Zoltan Zigedy
zoltanzigedy@gmail.com

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

A Phony Anti-War Movement?

In a recent radio commentary, Glen Ford, executive editor of the Black Agenda Report, lashed out at what he calls the “The Phony Anti-War Movement” (BAR, 5-3-11). Based on a comprehensive study conducted by two academic writers, Michael Heaney, of the University of Michigan, and Fabio Rojas, of Indiana University, Ford charges that “many of the folks that turned out in such large numbers to demonstrate against America’s wars when George Bush was president, were really only opposed to Republican wars. Thus, when Barack Obama captured the White House, the so-called anti-war movement largely collapsed.” The study, as well as Ford’s commentary, gives voice to what many of us on the left have felt for some time. In the US, during the Bush administration and prior to the 2008 election, the anti-war movement surfaced, grew, and gathered momentum. Subsequent to the election, the movement appeared to hesitate and immobilize.

Ford, one of the most incisive, principled, and uncompromising commentators on the left, adds that “United for Peace and Justice, UFPJ, the anti-war umbrella group during the height of protest, was behaving more as an arm of the Democratic Party than as principled peace activists. The shallowness of these phony anti-warriors was so obvious, UFPJ was widely derided as United for Peanut Butter and Jelly.” Thus, Ford paints both the leadership and many of the activists associated with the movement as “a cynical gathering of partisan Democrats.”

But are matters quite that simple? Should we cast the anti-war leadership and thousands of activists into the same barrel? Are there more complex reasons for the “sell-out” of the anti-war movement?

Surely many remember the dissolution of the anti-war movement of the sixties and seventies. Contrary to our recent experience, that movement grew massively during the tenure of a Democratic President and dissipated during the rule of the hated Nixon. Many attribute that “collapse” to the elimination of the draft, the winding down of direct US military involvement, and the shrinking of US casualty figures.

We might argue that in both cases – the Vietnam war and today’s endless twenty-first-century wars – the decline of anti-war activity was a victim of personalized, narrow commitment and shallow ideology. The earlier anti-war movement lost young people when their fate decoupled from the prosecution of the war and lost liberals when US surrogates took over combat and the US death toll dropped dramatically. The lessons of this period were not lost on the ruling class; the many wars preceding the “War on Terror” were fought with puppet fighters or the massing of vastly overwhelming power exercised by a volunteer military. The use of unmanned drones and other remote weaponry – favored by the Obama administration - draws on these lessons.

Similarly, our era’s anti-war movement reflected growing military setbacks and rising casualty figures. More than the organizing skills of the official leadership, the imagery of a solitary mother of a dead soldier stalking George Bush energized the movement. Cindy Sheehan was effectively the inspirational leader of the movement. Other family members of US casualties added their voices, dramatizing the horrors of war inflicted upon US families.

Cindy Sheehan, through her activism, grew to understand the role of the US in world affairs, especially the effects of US aggression upon its victims and the interests served by these attacks. She began to see the historical patterns and connections that reveal the real nature of US foreign policy. In short, she acquired an anti-imperialist consciousness.

Sadly, this understanding has not sunk deep roots in the US peace movement since the wholesale destruction of the left in the McCarthy era. Consequently, the bulwark of anti-imperialist resistance has been the distant victims of US intervention and not the folks on the imperialist home front. They have risen when things went badly, when aggression proved costly, when the consequences of US imperialism began to touch people personally. It is only then that opposition to war becomes a mass movement. Undoubtedly this sentiment, when it arises, plays a key role in stopping US predatory wars, but it should not be confused with anti-imperialism.

Without anti-imperialism at its core, anti-war movements in the US are destined to only activate masses when the horrors of war are brought home. “Successful” assaults on the interests, lives, and dignity of other peoples will likely be met with passivity, even applause, when they are wrapped in the cause of “democracy” or deposing a demonized “tyrant.” We saw this in Angola, Grenada and Yugoslavia. And we see this today in Cuba, Venezuela, Bolivia, Syria, Libya, Peoples Democratic Republic of Korea, Iran and many other countries.

Of course the ultimate source of this profound weakness is a political system – a two-party charade - that resolutely denies that the US is an imperialist power. Indeed, both parties actively and openly advocate for US imperialism. They make no concession to those standing in the way of US corporate interests or seeking their own path of development. While progressives may have hopefully thought they heard Obama and the Democrats say they were anti-war, they really heard that Obama and the Democrats were determined to drop direct and risky military involvement in the costly Iraq occupation and re-direct it to Afghanistan. It was undisguised in the campaign speeches and clearly stated in the Democratic platform. In other words, the Democrats resolved to deliver imperialism at a cost more agreeable to the US public.

With the presumptive “people’s” party fully committed to the imperialist agenda and a corporate media slavishly cheerleading for the same, it is only independent progressives and the left – the political outliers - who can lead the US public away from complicity with imperial aggression. They – and they alone – can provide the leadership that will educate and organize the US peace movement to be more than a response to mounting US casualties, military setbacks, and a useful tool for Democratic Party politicians.

Glen Ford’s scathing condemnation of much of the prominent recent leadership of the peace movement is well deserved. They failed to elevate the anti-war program to include a deeper understanding of imperialist aggression. In the interest of “breadth” and “unity,” they assiduously excluded many causes associated with US intervention or complicity, arguing that these issues might offend feckless liberals and middle class sensibilities. Principles were sacrificed for an elusive broad appeal. Whether the leaders were web warriors masking Democratic Party partisanship or struggle-in-the-streets “radicals” seeking some kind of soulless popular front is irrelevant. They allowed electoral politics to trump resistance; they bet everything on the 2008 election. The “success” of this effort was the creation of a movement shallow in commitment and thin in ideology, a movement easily hijacked by the Democratic Party.

Fortunately, there are organizations, like the United National Antiwar Committee (UNAC) and many national, regional and local committees, which are continuing the battle to end, not just Bush’s wars, but Obama’s wars as well. They share an independence of the two parties as well as a core understanding of the imperialist character of US foreign policy. While others wait for the Administration to have a change of heart, they continue to organize and agitate against policies that are costing thousands of lives to project US capitalism throughout the world. No one is excluded from these organizations or actions, but no one’s resolve against imperialism is muffled, either. When the imperial program is again perceived by the public as failing – which it will – they will be there to build a more militant, principled mass movement. Hopefully, next time will be different.

Zoltan Zigedy
zoltanzigedy@gmail.com

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Crisis of Capitalism: Act II

When, in the last few weeks, insiders and economists like Jeffrey Sachs and David Stockman – not noted for their radical postures – decry the state of the economy and the direction of policies, all of us should take note.

Sachs, one of the fathers of neo-liberal “shock therapy,” recently cited decades-long stagnant wages and obscene levels of inequality: “We’ve reached the greatest income [and] wealth inequality in history… This is a new ‘Robber Baron’ era, of course.” He went on to say “…the people at the top buy the politicians… All of them – all parties. Everyone is in the hands of the super wealthy.” (Interviewed by Aaron Task, Tech Ticker, Yahoo! Finance).

In a similar vein, David Stockman, former director of the Office of Management and Budget under the Reagan Presidency, ripped the “crony capitalism” that has changed “capital markets into a rip-roaring casino that really is not productive for the real main street economy and is generating windfall gains for a very limited number of people to no good purpose…” He sees ordinary folks trying to save in this environment as “savaged” by Federal Reserve and government policies. (Interviewed by Peter Gorenstein, Daily Ticker, Yahoo! Finance).

These gloomy, critical views stand in stark contrast to the generally up-beat, optimistic reports and forecasts that usually flow from policy makers and dominate the media today. For the experts and pundits, the crisis has passed and we are on the way – though, they concede, tentatively – to recovery.

In truth, our modern-day Pollyannas mistake the first act for the entire play. While our economy may not be on the edge of a precipice, the problems that placed the world economy near collapse have only been displaced, pushed forward or swept aside. Even an arch advocate of capitalism such as Vincent Reinhard, senior fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, understands this: “After a severe financial crisis, we [tend to] get a severe recession, slower recovery and subpar expansion… Denial is a standard feature of financial crises…" (Interviewed by Stacy Curtin, Daily Ticker, Yahoo! Finance).

A closer look at the economy – an up-to-date report card from a Marxist perspective – is surely in order.

Gross Domestic Product

The broadest conventional measure of national and international economic performance remains GDP growth. Laden with the assumptions fundamental to the continued functioning of the capitalist economic engine, it valorizes all that is considered important to the ownership class and its continued accumulation of capital. Conversely, if an enormous human asset, such as the addition of one year of life span, were added to every person in the US, that value would not show up in the annual GDP figures except insofar as it generated commercial economic activity. Yet, as biased as the GDP growth figures are, their trend does reflect something real – the prospect of capitalism’s sustainability.

The first quarter figures for 2011 show a tepid US annual GDP growth of 1.8% from January through March. Pundits posture this as an aberration, a momentary stumble; but the trend line from the last quarter of 2009 is decidedly downward, in step with the drying up of stimulus funds. Nonresidential fixed investment has followed the same downward trajectory since its highpoint in the second quarter of 2010, even with spending on equipment and software leaping 11.6% this past quarter.

Likewise, export growth rates – touted by the experts as a leading force of recovery -- show the same downward trend from the level reached in the last quarter of 2009. Despite the Federal Reserve’s shrinking-dollar policy to sustain the rate of export growth, it is now falling below earlier levels of growth. Given that refined oil-based products account for the second largest component of export value and that the dollar value of these exports is highly inflated by the rising cost of oil, export growth calculated in dollars is exaggerated in the official numbers.

Further suggestive of foul weather ahead, the February GDP report for Canada – the US’s leading export destination by far – demonstrated an actual decline of .2%. It is hard to imagine robust export growth ahead, with a stagnant Canadian economy.

The growth rate of government spending – the sole factor preventing the economy from falling over the cliff at the height of the crisis – is now in negative territory and falling rapidly. The debt hysteria gripping local, state and federal officials produced budget cuts that are only now beginning to affect the GDP and other key economic indicators. Their influence on key factors – employment, incomes, consumer spending, etc. – will be felt more dramatically and negatively in the months and years to come.

Consumer spending continues its modest growth from its decline in the depths of the crisis. Its sustainability is in question, however, given that wages failed to keep up with inflation in the first quarter of 2011. This suggests that consumer debt and shrinking savings will again be the source of consumption growth, a condition ominously reminiscent of the pre-crisis period.

Internationally, GDP growth shows the same downward trend in nearly all the developed capitalist world, particularly the European Union. For those countries that have surrendered their sovereignty to the International Monetary Fund and the European Union – Greece, Ireland, and Portugal – the decline is far more dramatic. In the case of Greece, compliance with the austerity hawks has been catastrophic, with four successive quarters of losses greater than an annualized rate of 5%. PRChina and many emerging markets, on the other hand, have sustained high growth rates for diverse reasons, ranging from rational planning to irrational investment bubbles.

Profits, Productivity and Employment


Profit growth in the US – the fuel for a capitalist economy – has sprung back sharply from its nadir in the last quarter of 2008. Accelerating rapidly from that point, growth has stabilized over the last year at a rate commensurate with the pre-crisis period. Pundits hail the growth of profits in the manufacturing sector, a factor that has now reached about 90% of its pre-crisis level of production. But they fail to ask how profit growth can be so strong with less production and capacity utilization well below pre-crisis levels. The answer lies in a sharp increase in the rate of labor exploitation, expressed as intensified labor productivity. Labor productivity drove the explosion of profits after the 2008 collapse, settling at a level above historic averages. Put bluntly, the restoration of profitability came at the expense of an increasingly sweated, shrunken workforce.

Two factors opened the door to profit restoration: a weak, class-collaborationist labor movement, unwilling to confront capital, and the high rate of unemployment sowing fear throughout the workforce – what Marx called “the reserve army of labor.” With little organized fight for a larger share of the surplus and generalized fear of job loss among the working class, intensified exploitation was readily available to the capitalist class.

Nonetheless, the trend in labor productivity, like the trend in profitability, is downward, suggesting strongly that the crisis has failed to wring from the economy the long-term tendency for the rate of profit to decline–the theoretical basis for the Marxist theory of crisis.

With private sector labor productivity losing momentum, capital has turned to the service sector, primarily public goods and services, as a target for countering slowing profitability and surplus accumulation. The current attack on public employees’ rights, wages, salaries and benefits marks this tactical shift. With weak unions, disunity and nearly non-existent class consciousness, the private labor market is virtually elastic – capitalism can dictate the terms and conditions of labor. State-monopoly capital cannot tolerate a relatively inelastic public sector labor market with high union density, firm contracts and stable standards of living alongside a nearly enslaved private sector. Hence, it has launched an all-out assault on public sector workers, organized by capital’s minions in both political parties. While they cannot outsource police, firemen, and other face-to-face employees, they can break their unions. Of course, this initiative is done under the transparent ruse of debt reduction.

Another alarming sign emerging from the profit picture is the return of financials as the leading force in US profit growth. While non-financial profits lost steam at the end of 2010, profits from the financial sector jumped dramatically. By the end of 2010, financial profits achieved the same percentage of total domestic profits as they did in 2005. Clearly, speculation and financial maneuvers have ominously returned to the main stage in the US economy. For example, hedge funds have been increasing their CDS bets against Japanese debt, doubling the notional value of swaps made over the last year. Millions were made with the recent natural disaster and nuclear crisis. Debt speculation is an active agent in amplifying the volatility of European debt.

While supporters and critics of Administration policies wring their hands over the persistently high rate of unemployment, massive layoffs -- reducing the labor force dramatically faster than economic activity – was the key factor in restoring profitability and increasing asset value as expressed by equity markets. It would be na├»ve not to see unemployment as a capitalist tool of capitalist recovery, a tool that the ownership class is reluctant to surrender.

Much has been made of recent drops in the official monthly unemployment rates. Critics are quick to correctly note that these declines also reflect people who have left the workforce, people who are “discouraged” and statistically disappeared.

Perhaps a more realistic measure of the employment consequences of the crisis comes from examining the employment-to-population ratios and the labor participation rates compiled by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The ratio of US employed to the total population has lost 4.5 points from its pre-crisis peak – a workforce loss of 13 to 14 million workers. When we add back those displaced but receiving unemployment compensation, we find a loss of 1.9 points in the labor participation rate, revealing 5 to 6 million workers officially disappeared – left without jobs or unemployment benefits. For these casualties of the crisis, savings, family support, food banks, social security, meager government aid, or the street are their only means of support. Unlike the politically biased official unemployment rates that obscure as much as they reveal, these grim BLS calculations offer little to celebrate.

Nor does the future of US employment appear bright. Over the last decade, US based multi-national corporations have added over two million jobs overseas while eliminating nearly 3 million here, a trend that will likely continue.

Running on Empty


Since the depths of the crisis over two and a half years ago, US policy makers have sought to stabilize and revive the critically wounded capitalist system. First, they offered a transfusion to the financial sector by injecting trillions of publicly obligated dollars into its lifeless body. Secondly, federal authorities cut away the gangrenous tissue infected by financial speculation – over a trillion dollars’ worth of fetid securities -- and placed it in the vaults of the Federal Reserve and Treasury, where it rests to this day. Thirdly, lawmakers agreed to an $800 billion stimulus package meant to restart the economy’s feeble heartbeat. After all these treatments, the economy remains in critical condition.

In mid-2010, the Federal Reserve recognized that these efforts to resuscitate a sickly economy were failing. Despite offering financial institutions and corporations virtually cost-free loans, the economy continued to respond sluggishly. The authorities acknowledged that the huge accumulated federal debt would eventually require higher interest rates to entice purchases of treasury securities to offset that debt. They understood that higher interest rates to secure the purchase of government debt would rebound through our financial institutions, driving all interest rates up and slowing borrowing. With lending drying up, they anticipated that the economy would slow down.

Thus, they sought to backstop this potential setback to recovery by embarking on a massive purchase of US treasury securities to maintain extremely low interest rates and ease any barriers to borrowers – essentially a rear-guard action dubbed Quantitative Easing II. As with the gangrenous financial securities, they purchased nearly $600 billion in government debt and locked it in the Federal Reserve vault, where it joins the garbage accumulated in the speculative frenzy that gave birth to the crisis. They hope to determine what they will do with it and the other “assets” at a later date.

Like most of the moves that flow from economic theories corrupted by wishful thinking and iron-clad confidence in capitalism, the Federal Reserve strategy produced consequences undesired. The huge infusion of dollars to purchase treasury securities cheapened the value of the dollar against other currencies. Imports, which outstrip the value of our exports to other countries, grew more costly to the US consumer; and inflation raised its ugly head, chewing away the living standards of working people. Further, many commodities, like oil, are traded internationally in dollars. With the value of dollars declining, pressure drove suppliers to raise prices to offset the falling buying power of the dollar, creating more inflationary pressure internationally. Moreover, rising interest rates in several countries inflated their currencies against the dollar as well, further affecting the costs of imported goods. These inflationary forces amplify the costs of other products, feeding an inflationary spiral. Despite unfounded optimism purveyed by the authorities and the media, inflation poses a serious threat to the economy and, especially, working class living standards. Those elements of the Consumer Price Index most relevant to working and poor people – fuel, health care, food, childcare, school fees, rent, etc – are those showing the most dramatic increase.

In addition, Federal Reserve policies failed in their mission. Though the cost of funding the US government debt is relatively stable, the cost of borrowing in the consumer arena continues to grow. Interest rates on mortgages, student loans, auto loans, etc. are on the rise. Again, QE II offered little relief to working people.

Prospects

Rather than a recovery, we are in Act II of a severe crisis of capitalism. It is not merely a financial crisis, a severe business-cycle trough or a radical imbalance, but a profound crisis of the capitalist system. Yes, there are imbalances, especially in the global economy. However, they are the effects and not the causes of this deep crisis. The advanced economies are scrambling to find solutions – individually – to the intractable problems of stagnation or decline, inflation, debt, intensified competition and failing economic institutions. These problems have fostered equally intractable political crises. Economic blocs, like the European Union, are under great stress from the diverse interests of the member states.

The emerging economies, on the other hand, are super-heated and threatened by the influx of speculative capital boiling over into severe eruptions of inflation and over-production.

As I argued some years ago, early in the crisis, the ephemeral era of capitalist cooperation – once called “globalization” – is over. Nation-states are going it alone, trying to find solutions to their immediate life-and-death issues, often at the expense of their global “partners.” Where they do find areas of limited cooperation, for example, in the aggression against Libya, their differences surface as well.

Years from now, when sober heads look back on the global crisis, they will recognize that the stability of PRChina, with its publicly owned banks and rational planning, did more to save the global economy from the brink than all of the bankrupt policy antics of the major capitalist powers. But there are more acts to come before the global capitalist economy finds firm ground.

What is missing from the maelstrom is for the working classes of all nations to move to center stage and demand solutions benefiting the vast majority. The Economist magazine, the voice of free markets since Marx’s time, reports that confidence in free markets has sunk by 21 percentage points internationally since 2002. Similarly, the Gallop Poll shows the confidence in banks and Congress is now at an all time low in the US. Only 23% of respondents have “a great deal of” or “a lot of” confidence in banks. The Congress scores even lower: a meager 11% share “a great deal of” or “a lot of” confidence in the US legislative branch. The crisis opens great opportunity to shape the world in a new direction, a direction that would not merely tame capitalism, but remove its destructive forces forever.

Zoltan Zigedy
zoltanzigedy@gmail.com