Search This Blog

Thursday, June 16, 2022

Sinking in the Economic Quicksand

In late November of last year, I wrote of the dangers of stagflation-- stagnant or declining growth and price inflation-- suggesting that the global economy was heading for a history-repeating reckoning: “The crisis of the 1970s bears some similarities with today’s turmoil.”

In January, I explained the source and persistence of inflation, thusly:

…the Federal Reserve engaged in a massive inflation of financial assets to fend off the deflationary pressures inherited from the 2007-9 catastrophe, presenting investors and bankers with the gift that kept on giving: perpetual asset inflation and an assurance that the Fed would always have their back… It is a misconception to see inflation as only arising in 2021. The first signs of fast-rising consumer inflation were indeed in 2021, but artificially induced asset inflation had preceded this for nearly a decade.

At the end of May, I wrote that these projections were proving to be accurate and ominous and the available tools placed policy makers in a tenuous situation:


The raging inflation that emerged late in 2021 places the masters of the capitalist economic universe in a policy vice. To stem inflation, they must raise interest rates, which invariably dampens economic growth. But economic growth has already slowed-- indeed, turned negative in the US for the first quarter of this year. With so many economic indicators declining or going negative, rising interest rates will only accelerate the slowdown of consumer spending, productivity, wage growth, investment, and social spending, while increasing debt and its costs.

Since then, Jamie Dimon, the head of the US’s largest bank and a celebrity financial pundit, has declared before investors and analysts that it is time to prepare for an economic “hurricane”: “That hurricane is right out there down the road coming our way. You just have to brace yourself.” His counterpart at Goldman Sachs, David Solomon, sees a reasonable risk of a recession. And Solomon’s predecessor at Goldman Sachs and Elon Musk also joined in pointing to the growing danger of recession. Talk of a “soft landing” -- avoiding a deep recession-- has dissipated.

It’s fair to say that today a majority of economists, politicians, even TV stock market cheerleaders expect continued inflation and likely recession-- a cruel brew for all, but especially the working class.

As mid-year approaches, the foretold crisis appears even more inevitable and more severe.

While the growth figures for the second quarter won’t be in for several weeks, the Atlanta Federal Reserve optimistically projects US Gross Domestic Product (GDP) to grow by a mere .9% (annualized). Couple that with the 1st quarter drop of 1.5% and we technically already are in recession.

Both the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and the World Bank have recently drastically lowered their global growth estimates for 2022, by a third and more than a quarter, respectively.

Stock markets continue to deflate, losing trillions of dollars in nominal value. US equity markets have lost value for ten of the last twelve weeks. As of Monday, June 13, the Standard and Poor’s market index fell 21% from its January high, officially becoming what investors call a bear market, associated with recessions. Equity losses affect most those who are farther up the economic ladder; they create a negative wealth effect, discouraging spending on the part of the upper income, wealthiest sector. A bear market also applies pressure on middle and lower strata retirement funds, especially for those employed in the public sector.

Inflation continues to rise unabated, hitting another four-decade high with a May annualized growth of 8.6%. Prognosticators thought that the slight drop in April might signal a peak, but the May acceleration put an end to their wishful thinking.

Galloping inflation again took a big bite out of real average hourly wages, with the average dropping .6% from April to May, or 3% for the last twelve months. The 3% May-to-May comparison actually amounts to a 3.9% drop in real average weekly earnings, given a drop in the hours worked.

For the first time this year, consumer spending is down, dropping .3% from April to May. Consumer spending-- by far the largest component of total national economic growth-- was the last bastion of optimism available to the few remaining academic and media pollyannas.

The first signs of a deteriorating housing market are appearing, with mortgage demand at the lowest level in 22 years. For the week of June 5th, applications for home mortgages were down 7%, and 21% against the same week in 2021. And refinancing was down 75% against the same week a year ago.

A revealing, but seldom explored, set of statistics addresses the US economy from the perspective of the capitalist or the investor. Non-farm business sector labor productivity dropped 7.3% in the first quarter, the most since the 3rd quarter of 1947. And unit labor costs increased 12.6%, the highest increase since the 3rd quarter of 1982.

These two results describe the costs of the commodity--labor-- in terms of how much the capitalist pays for that commodity relative to what the capitalist acquires from the use of that commodity, a rough measure of the rate that labor is exploited. Further, taken together, they are an indicator of profit expectations when taking account of the cost of the commodity, labor. Put simply, when labor productivity drops and the cost of labor to the capitalist rises, profits are expected to drop.

In the first quarter of 2022, even though workers worked 5.4% more hours, they produced 2.3% less (reflected in the 7.3% productivity decline). At the same time, their hourly compensation, not adjusted for inflation, rose 4.4%.

So, capitalists paid workers more, worked them longer hours, while the workers produced less. This is not a happy result for the capitalist class.

How could this happen?

With an extremely tight, competitive labor market, capitalists are paying more to acquire and retain workers-- they are hoarding labor, just as they might any other commodity-- even though they are getting less production from them. This has and will result in lower profits.

The Wall Street Journal notes on June 13 (Weaker Earnings Pose New Threat to Markets): “...recent days have cast doubt on the durability of corporate profit growth, further darkening the outlet for stocks. Companies from Target to Microsoft Corp. have warned that their results will be lower than expected, while analysts have trimmed earnings forecasts across industries.”

As in previous downturns with sinking labor productivity, the capitalist class will respond with layoffs in an attempt to discipline labor, to squeeze more from the workers. The resulting unemployment, absent a fighting labor movement, will undermine labor's bargaining power, tend to restore the rate of exploitation, and increase capital’s share of the economic product.

Forced unemployment will surely be the coming corporate response to falling profit.

Though the strategy will remain behind a veil of official obfuscation, the captains of industry and the lieutenants of capital understand the mechanism. A revealing article in the June 14th edition of The Wall Street Journal tells us that: “Federal Reserve officials are beginning to signal that higher unemployment rates might be a necessary consequence of their efforts to damp inflation by raising interest rates.”

A commentator cited in the article advised his clients: “We should prepare ourselves for projections intended to communicate the Fed’s resolve to reduce inflation by targeting a higher level of unemployment.”

Once again, pundits are discussing the mythical “natural rate” of unemployment. The WSJ reminds us that a decade ago, the “natural rate” was seen as between 5 and 6% (it currently is 3.6%). Prepare for more unemployment!

So workers are working more for less, with their wages eaten away by galloping inflation. A recession is here or looming on the near horizon. They have depleted their savings and are maxing out their credit cards. And rising unemployment is imminent.

In the US, neither political party offers any relief for workers. The Republicans preach the ugly, stale, and counterproductive sermon of austerity. The Democrats pretend that everything is or will soon be better.

Both parties obsess over symbols, cultural choices, and manners, while the material foundations of social life rapidly deteriorate. Both parties worship at the altar of individualism and herald the singular value of free choice, while the conditions necessary for informed choices and wise decisions are swept away by a cynical, corrupted capitalist media. Both parties place the claims of capital ahead of the urgent needs of the working masses and oppressed peoples.

With economic storms battering the people for the third time in twenty-two years, as inequality continues to expand, as the quality of life is threatened and vulgarized, as stresses erupt in violence and nihilism, as war continues to be the constant of daily life, one must wonder if this is the time for new ideas, new approaches-- out with the old, in with the new.

Are the dominant political parties and organizations in the capitalist world up to these challenges? Are the old social democrats or their new incarnations addressing these catastrophic crises? Do the rising populists of the right or left offer solutions or distractions?

Time is running out.

Greg Godels

Sunday, June 5, 2022

The Peace Question and Imperialism

The war in Ukraine is a propaganda war, with all of the belligerents, sponsors, and their allies churning out-- through an abjectly subservient media-- masses of lies and disinformation. In this regard, they resemble other wars, but with an added dose of shamelessness.

For that reason, it is difficult to discern how the war is being conducted or who has the military advantage at any time. Like all modern wars, atrocity stories abound and losses are wildly exaggerated.

But what separates this war from wars in the recent and not-so-recent past is the near-absence of an organized anti-war movement. It is more than a curious oddity that there are few actions in the streets or campaigns of influence or resistance to stop the mayhem of this brutal war. Sure, there are generic appeals to cut military budgets or oppose war philosophically, but little action to stop this particular war. In spite of the so-called “fog” of war, everyone knows that soldiers and civilians alike are dying in significant numbers, that bodies are ripped apart, homes destroyed, and people dislodged from their homes. No amount of “fog” can hide this.

Of course, there are a few prominent voices-- Pope Francis, even Henry Kissinger-- who have called for a cessation of fighting and negotiations. And Communists and trade unionists in Italy, Greece, and Turkey have blocked NATO weapons shipments, staged demonstrations, and picketed embassies.

But in most cities, states, and countries, there are few actions directed against the war in Ukraine. And most surprisingly, the leftists in Europe and the Americas, usually leading the way against war, are largely silent. They haven’t even minimally demanded that their own countries stay out of this war.

Instead, they have tacitly or openly sided with one belligerent or another. I have written and spoken on different occasions against taking sides in the conflict. Moreover, I have sought to place the war in the context of classical imperialism and suggested that the left’s support of either belligerent or its sponsors is misplaced, akin to the collapse of left opposition at the beginning of World War I. In that case, the left succumbed to narrow nationalist appeals. In this case, the left is succumbing to a muddled concept of imperialism and anti-imperialism.

Rather than repeat the argument, it might be useful to look at how and why leftists justify their support for one side or the other and refrain from adding their voice to the cause of peace in Ukraine.

It is easy to dismiss those who uncritically support Ukraine.
Apart from the rabid nationalists of the “Glory to Ukraine” crowd, who welcome the conflict and hope to draw the Western capitalist countries into a crusade against Russia, there are those who simplistically see the war as a naked aggression with no back story. From ignorance of the post-Soviet Ukrainian history of corruption, reaction, Western meddling and aggression, or from willful collaboration with US and NATO intrigue, these new Cold Warriors seek a Russian defeat and have no interest in an immediate peaceful settlement or concern about the mayhem.

Against them are the more measured comrades who, remembering the Cold War standoff between the US and its allies and the Soviet Union and its allies, conflate today’s Russia with the Soviet Union. They recognize how the Soviet Union constituted a pole of resistance that countered and sometimes reversed the Cold War imperialist alliance’s designs on the world. US imperialism, the dominant imperialist power at the time, was effectively checked by the Soviet Union from 1945 until the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991. These anti-imperialists see Russia, in its war on Ukraine, as a similar emerging pole against US imperialism and see Russia’s invasion as an expression of a break-up of the absolute military and economic US dominance of the world established after the departure of the Soviet Union. For them, a multipolar world is in birth.

There are shards of truth in this view, but Russia is not the Soviet Union. It does not share its ideology; rather, its motives replace Soviet internationalism with an aspiring great power nationalism. While it exploits cracks in US global hegemony, it does not offer an alternative vision or unconditional assistance to the victims of capitalism and imperialism. In that regard, Russia is no Cuba, either.

Russia’s foreign policy is capitalist opportunism: friends with Turkey or Israel one moment, in conflict the next moment. Russia aligns with Saudi Arabia when it's economically profitable, while fighting Saudi proxies in Syria. There are no consistent principles guiding it. Nor can there be for a country that rejected socialism for capitalism. Those who see Russian foreign policy and alliances as progressive are very selective in their examples.

Russia’s leaders readily embrace the capitalist ethos and reject the Soviet project, though they appeal, when needed, to Soviet symbols and traditions when useful.

It may be true that the Russian invasion ultimately will achieve the goals sought by its ruling class. And it may be true that these gains will come at the expense of US imperialism and its ruling class, but how does that move us any closer to a world of peace and social justice? The rivalries remain, the goals of the respective ruling classes remain uncertain and unstable, despite their claims of peace-loving and democracy-seeking; and the danger of conflict remains high or even higher.

There are others who envision the war-- insofar as Russia is challenging US power-- as a blow for those on the bottom of what we might envision as the imperialist “pyramid” -- the developing countries. Jenny Clegg, for example, writing in The Morning Star, sees the development of “competitors” to US dominance as establishing the first steps toward a multipolar world. She correctly notes that multipolarity “is not a policy but an emerging objective trend…”

Further, she sees unequal exchange between the highly developed countries and the developing countries as the principal contradiction-- the contradiction defining imperialism and anti-imperialism.

While this center-periphery distinction was popular and influential among independent Western “Marxists” in the era when the working classes in the center-- the West-- were generally tamed by social democratic opportunism, it was neither particularly insightful nor of continued relevance. Marx went to great lengths to show that exchange, under capitalist relations of production, was not generally unequal-- values exchange for values. But those same relations of production always produce and reproduce inequality. The locus of inequality-- capitalist exploitation-- is embedded in the capitalist system, not in the thievery of unequal exchange.

As Lenin elaborated, uneven development is a feature of relations between people, social institutions, firms in the same industry, between industries, and between countries, and even continents. It is not unequal exchange that accounts for the uneven development, but differences in the pace of development, cultural and social practices, political and other institutions, and most importantly, especially in the epoch of imperialism, the stunting effects of colonialism, neo-colonialism, and their legacy.

In the last half-century, technological developments have freed capitalists to move, access, and service the material productive forces-- factories, transportation networks, resources-- in order to gain access to formerly inaccessible labor markets, cheapening labor in general. At the same time, this development created rising living standards in some developing countries, while lowering them in some advanced capitalist countries.

Consequently, some capitalist countries-- like India, Turkey, Brazil, Indonesia-- have become powerful rivals to the late-twentieth-century great powers.

The concept of “unequal” exchange as an explanation for the inequality between developed and developing countries (and for the difference between imperialism and anti-imperialism) fails because it implies that should exchanges become equal, that same inequality between states would evaporate. Even more importantly, it suggests that equal exchange-- and not an end of capitalism-- would signal the demise of imperialism.

To understand imperialism as a conflict between advancing and lagging development based upon the unequal terms of economic activity-- a kind of organized thievery-- is to misunderstand the nature of exploitation under capitalism. Intense competition between players-- big and small-- for markets, resources, labor, and capital are the essence of capitalism and imperialism. There is no sharp line between this competition and war.

Clegg wants us to believe that in a multipolar world, with US power diminished, establishing equal exchange will bring forth a period of civil, well-behaved, respectful competition. She insists that this contrast with today’s dangerous world is captured by the distinction between competition and rivalry, a distinction that I think few will find satisfying. In an aside, she explains: “competition is not the same as rivalry-- think competing in a race as opposed to deliberately tripping over your rival in that race.” To think that sporting competition doesn’t evolve commonly into no-holds-barred conflict and into violence is surely out of touch with the history of both sports and international politics in the twentieth century.

From the reliance on the now intellectually fashionable and prominent rational choice or game theory to the behavior of capitalist enterprises, from the constant haggling over borders, sea lanes and territorial waters to establishment of military and economic alliances, there is little evidence that capitalist countries are striving for a fair economic playing field with fixed, transparent, and respected rules. "Win-win" is not part of the capitalist vocabulary.

Clegg writes of “the old-- US hegemonic power” as having “been in relative decline” and the “new-- a more equal distribution of wealth and power” as developing, albeit slowly. While one might happily concede that aspects of US power and influence have been challenged and dampened, while one might add that the US shows many signs of economic, political, and social decline, it does not follow, nor is it likely, that any “new distribution of wealth and power” will be more equitable or just. And most importantly, even if wealth and power were more equitably distributed between countries, there is little reason to believe it would be more equitably distributed within those countries. Clegg’s multipolarity can make no such promises to the working classes.

Finally, there are those on the left who have carried on a lifelong struggle against US imperialism and can only see an enemy of our enemy as our friend. There are few people on the righteous left now alive who can remember a time when the US was not the leading great power and the anchor for the capitalist alliance against socialism, socialism as a legitimate political current, as a rival to global capitalism, and as a pole rallying the forces of anti-imperialism.

Therefore, it is hard to envision the world not benefitting from the defanging of US imperialism, from its fall as a great power. No great power in our time has caused more deadly mischief. But that surely displays a weak understanding of capitalism and its stages of development.

There were nationalist leaders in various countries under the boot of British imperialism in the interwar period who welcomed the rise of Hitler and Tojo, greeting them as possible saviors from hundreds of years of suppression by the British Empire, the leading imperialist of the time.

Subhas Chandra Bose, for example, an Indian nationalist leader who was once president of the Indian National Congress, was so deeply committed to overthrowing British rule in India that he actively and unapologetically collaborated with the Nazis and Japanese in World War II. This myopia is an extreme version of the blinders worn by many anti-imperialists who fail to understand the logic of imperialism and its unbreakable link to capitalism.

Chandra Bose demonstrates the hollowness of narrow nationalism and obsessive self-regard over viewing the world through the lens of class and class solidarity.

The struggle against US imperialism, like the struggle against its predecessor, the British Empire, will ultimately be resolved at home when the people finally refuse to continue paying the price for their rulers’ grand designs. Of course, those oppressed by imperialism play an equally important role, that of resisters; though imperialism like rust, never sleeps. It is an imperative, a demand made by capitalist accumulation-- if it is defeated in one place, it will surely find another place to satisfy its lust. This dynamic only finally ends when our world finds socialism. The wishful thinking of a benign capitalism with all participants peacefully on an even playing field is just that-- a wishful thought.

Multipolarity-- a notion first discussed by bourgeois academics looking for tools to understand the dynamics of global relations-- has been adopted by a segment of the anti-imperialist left. While it assuredly describes an actual trend emerging, as Jenny Clegg acknowledges, it has often been presented as an anti-imperialist stage shifting the world balance of forces in the direction of a better world.

I have argued that this is a retreat from classical imperialism as understood by VI Lenin and his followers. In the context of an unstable world in ideological disorder and suffering untold crises, there are no guarantees that the poles that emerge or challenge the post-Cold War super-pole are a step forward or a step back simply because they are alternative poles. Undoubtedly, any resistance that weakens the asymmetry of power that the US holds should be welcome. But we should not presume that every opponent will become a force for stability, justice, and peace. Knowing what we know about the history of capitalism from its first expansionist era accumulating involuntary human capital to exploit the riches of the new world should chasten our expectations about new rivals to US imperialism.

With the fall of the Soviet Union as a backdrop and the uncertainty left in its wake, we should be cautious about anointing any new candidates for the role of arch-rival not only to US imperialism, but to all imperialism as well as its genesis, capitalism.

While the left futilely disputes the victim and the victimizer, working people are dying unnecessarily, suffering horrific wounds, homelessness, and despair-- all the products of modern war. Working class lives should not be proxies in ideological debates. Events will decide who has the correct understanding of imperialism, but history will not be kind to those who failed, in the meantime, to oppose the war and to seek a peaceful solution.

Greg Godels

Saturday, May 28, 2022

Report Card on a Failing Economic System

On Friday, May 6, the Federal Reserve released data showing that consumer credit (debt) has been accelerating since the fourth quarter of last year, with revolving credit (largely credit card debt) speeding up at an even greater pace since the third quarter of 2021. Total consumer credit grew by an annualized rate of 7% in the fourth quarter of last year, increased to 9.7% in this year’s first quarter, and expanded to 14% in March.

At the same time, revolving credit-- the debt largely incurred through credit cards-- grew 8.3% in the third quarter and 12.7% in the fourth quarter of 2021, and then 21.4% in the first quarter of this year, and an astonishing 35.3% in March!

Clearly, the US economy’s reliance on consumer spending is more and more dependent upon consumer debt, especially the credit card. For months, the business press has been hailing the continued expansion of consumer spending-- a huge contributor to overall economic growth-- as the one bright spot in the news. Now we see that consumer spending is built on the sands of consumer debt.

Likewise, personal savings (as a percentage of disposable personal income) in April, 2022 reached a low unseen since September of 2008, a sure sign that people are dipping into savings to make ends meet.

And subprime-- low credit score-- loans are failing. Subprime car loan and lease delinquencies hit a record high in February.

To make matters worse, the Federal Reserve has, after more than a decade of unprecedented near-zero Federal funds target interest rates, raised the rate by half a percentage point, the greatest one-time increase in 22 years. Without a doubt, this will translate into higher credit card interest rates going forward, applied to a broad, rapidly growing mass of consumer debt.

Thus, the consumer is turning to the credit card-- incurring debt-- precisely when the cost of using the card is rising.

Higher interest rates are exploding mortgage rates-- and dampening the over-heated housing market-- in some cases, doubling this year. Because of rising mortgage rates, new home sales fell 16.6% in April from March, yet prices of homes continue to rise: the median existing home price rose 14.8% from April, 2021 to April 2022. While it’s dramatically costlier for the homebuyer to finance a new home, the price of a house continues to rise alarmingly-- a perfect, classic housing-market bubble on the verge of bursting!

But the plight of the consumer gets worse: inflation continues to drive the cost of living for the average consumer higher and higher. For eight months, the annualized rate of inflation has been rising, culminating in an 8.5% rate in March and 8.3% rate in April-- rates rarely seen in the last 40 years. Food prices alone-- the most critical consumer goods for the least advantaged-- are up 10.8% for the year ending in April, 2022, the greatest 12-month increase since November, 1980.

When inflation raised its ugly head last year, pundits and the Federal Reserve dismissed it as temporary, an anomaly caused by dislocations following the Covid pandemic. In response, I wrote:

Despite the admonitions of the central bankers and financial gurus, inflation seldom self-corrects. It rarely runs its course. Instead, inflation tends to gather momentum because all the economic actors attempt to catch up and get ahead of it.

Today, the central bankers and financial gurus agree that inflation will be around for some time, eroding the buying power of the average worker.

Despite the dire accusations in the business press that increases in worker compensation is driving inflation, the truth is the opposite. The average worker’s hourly income-- adjusted for inflation-- has dropped by 2.6% from last April! Whatever gains are made, they are soon devoured by inflation.

Nor does the future portend well. US economic growth (GDP) sunk by 1.5% in the first quarter of 2022. As they did with the inflation crisis, pundits are shrugging this off as a self-correcting aberration. Yet, it is hard to imagine that the shrinking incomes, expanding debt, and fierce inflation will not take its toll on consumer confidence and spending, the factors that contribute far-and-away the most to US growth.

A powerful indicator of roadblocks ahead for growth was the first-quarter collapse of labor productivity. Thus, labor productivity dropped by an astonishing 7.5% in the nonfarm business sector, the largest decrease since the third quarter of 1947-- nearly 75 years ago! This collapse was brought on by a 5.5% increase in hours worked and a 2.4% drop in economic output (this is a broad measure of hours worked, including employees, proprietors, and unpaid family workers).

Companies continue to compete for employees and hire new employees, while the economic product shrinks, a formula-- under capitalism-- for future slowing accumulation, a coming decline in the rate of profit. Some of the US’s largest retailers are reporting a decline in earnings.

This employment boom arose especially in the technology sector, where tech start-ups round up capital, borrow heavily, and hire furiously on the faith that profits will come later. Risk taking, future high return-seeking venture capitalists and the extremely low cost of borrowing, combine with a young, educated, competitive workforce to create the perfect conditions for inflated expectations and recklessness. With interest rates rising and uncertainty growing, the tech bubble is now leaking-- hiring freezes, layoffs, and austerity are occurring or in the offing.

The technology sector is the most vulnerable sector of the capitalist economy because of a long period of easy access to capital and a long incubation period before returns on investment appear. Banks have become impatient for profits from the latest glitzy app, just as they gave up waiting for returns on their investment in promiscuous fracking a few years ago (that is being corrected with the greatly increased demand for energy in Europe as a result of the Ukraine war).

The tech sector's troubles are reflected in equity markets, with the tech-based NASDAQ sinking faster, yet dragging down the S&P index as well. So far this year, as of May 20, the NASDAQ composite has dropped well over a quarter, with the S&P falling 19%, the S&P’s worst start to a year since 1970. With 8 straight weeks of losses, the Dow Jones Industrial Averages has incurred its worst stretch since 1932. For those whose only exposure to the stock market is their 401(k) retirement plans, stock performance is a disaster-- investment advisors and managers have put a greater proportion of their funds into stocks (as opposed to other investment instruments like bonds) than in the past. This will be catastrophic for those planning to retire in the next few years.

Bonds, a usual safe haven when the markets are down, are also down for the year. And bitcoin, the darling of the financial hipsters and the crooks, has lost a third of its value this year.

Nonetheless, investors are buying in the face of a deepening bear market, seduced by the old saw of “buying on the dip” -- buying stocks when they are at the bottom and, therefore, a bargain. Despite the market's abysmal performance in March, individual investors bought a net $28 billion in stocks and ETFs-- a record. This would appear the greatest exercise in wishful thinking since the 2007-2009 crash. Maybe it's an omen!

Certainly, if equity markets continue to lose trillions of dollars of hypothetical wealth (the top six Standard and Poor’s companies lost $3.76 trillion of nominal value through May 20), the negative wealth effect will restrain spending, especially among those in the middle strata and in the bourgeoisie. Bloomberg estimates that global stocks have lost over $11 trillion in value: “Investors continue to reduce their positions, particularly in technology and growth stocks,” said Andreas Lipkow, a strategist at Comdirect Bank. “But sentiment needs to deteriorate significantly more to form a potential floor.”

What does all of this bad economic news mean?

The end of the Cold War brought not a peace dividend, but a gift to the victorious capitalist ruling classes. It was, after all, a struggle between capitalism and socialism, despite what the bogus left thought about Soviet socialism. Without question, the capitalist class understood the Western confrontation with the Soviet Union as an existential battle.

With capitalist triumphalism came decades of super-exploitation of millions of workers thrust into the global labor market. Billionaires abounded, income and wealth inequality exploded, and the resultant accumulated capital sought new and creative destinations. To a large extent, the financial sector enthusiastically accommodated this need by devising innovative, complex instruments, new investment structures, and opaque financial operations.

Capital’s imperative to reproduce itself took it into riskier and riskier places; the growing volume of accumulated capital became more difficult to productively reinvest; investors booked “profits” that were more and more contingent or hypothetical; the euphoria of hyper-accumulation invited greater and greater leverage; and the accumulation mechanism finally crashed under the weight of tenuous, hypothetical, and “fictitious” capital in 2007.

The history of the twenty-first century since the 2000 tech collapse has been one continuous struggle on the part of the Central Banks, international economic organizations, government administrations, and financial institutions to rescue capitalism from the giddy orgy of speculation and overinvestment triggered by capitalist triumphalism.

These actors have attempted to seal off the trash-- bad investments, overvalued, unredeemable bonds, unrecoverable debt-- from the healthier economy, while injecting massive volumes of no- or low-cost (near-zero interest rates) liquidity into a shell-shocked economy.

The raging inflation that emerged late in 2021 places the masters of the capitalist economic universe in a policy vice. To stem inflation, they must raise interest rates, which invariably dampens economic growth. But economic growth has already slowed-- indeed, turned negative in the US for the first quarter of this year. With so many economic indicators declining or going negative, rising interest rates will only accelerate the slowdown of consumer spending, productivity, wage growth, investment, and social spending, while increasing debt and its costs.

This is truly a bleak picture and it's not clear what useful tools remain in the hands of the policy makers to brighten it. The NATO/Russia/Ukraine blunder of a disruptive, grinding war can only worsen global economic conditions for everyone except the arms makers.

We can only hope that people will make the connection: capitalism breeds misery and war.

Greg Godels

Monday, May 9, 2022

No to the Imperialist War!

Amidst echoes of 1914 and World War I, the political left-- far less potent than a century ago-- is split between the contestants in a European war.

As in 1914, the rush to pick sides in the conflict in Ukraine clouds all judgment, conjuring the adolescent emotions engaged while witnessing a schoolyard fight. Some on the left portray Ukraine as an innocent victim of a notorious bully and the bully’s long history of belligerence.

Others, long cognizant of the nefarious role of the US and NATO in bringing perceived rivals, renegades, or defiers to their knees, see Russia as the hapless victim of betrayed promises and existential threats.

Those who rush to Ukraine’s defense without qualification display an ignorance of history and the transparent roles of all the players in the global imperialist chess game. They also succumb to the crudest propaganda campaign since the 2003 exaggerations and fabrications employed to sell the Iraq invasion. Their jump onto the Western imperialist bandwagon is, at best, naive beyond hope, at worst, complicit in the aggressive foreign policy of the US and NATO.

Invoking Ukraine’s right to self-determination would seem to have more credibility. But it is necessary to remember how Western imperialism has often twisted the doctrine to fit its own predatory goals. When Vietnam was moving towards independence, the US and its allies artificially created a Republic of Vietnam in the south, basing US support and long war on defending its right of self-determination against “Communist aggression.” The West used the same ruse with mineral-rich Katanga, Kosovo, and oil-rich Cabinda to name a few. Ukraine lost any pretense of self-determination after it underwent a Western-sponsored coup in 2014. Western imperialism is always anxious to defend the spurious right of self-determination of its clients and puppets.

On the other hand, those opposing the unqualified support of “heroic” Ukraine certainly have a case. The aggressive posture of the US and NATO towards Russia since the fall of the Soviet Union is real, though seldom explored by anyone in the monopoly-media commentariat. Surrounding Russia with NATO member states, bases, war-game simulations, and troop deployments is inexplicable, except by attributing hostile intent. Meddling in the civil and political life through unrequested NGOs and bombarding Russia’s citizens with critical, oppositional messages cannot be seen as friendly acts.

Nonetheless, these acts of aggression fall short of military action and do not justify military action by another party. Saber-rattling is qualitatively different from going to war. An invasion is not a justified response.

Also, the proffered notion that the Russian invasion was actually a defensive action to rescue the Russian-speaking citizens of Eastern Ukraine reeks of the same doublespeak that the US and NATO employ with their putrid doctrine of humanitarian interventionism. The shame of this excuse for imperialist aggression does not validate it for Russian use.

A strong case can be made that the Russian leadership was once again drawn into the ‘Brzezinsky trap.’ US signals before the invasion were remarkably ambiguous. While the US military and State Department were warning of a Russian build-up and imminent invasion, the usual, expected bellicose warnings were not heard from Washington. Typically, when a great power senses that a rival is threatening, it responds with exaggerated threats of its own, military maneuvers, troop build-ups, heightened alerts, etc. Instead, President Biden gave assurances that the US would not be drawn into a war.

Brzezinski, President Carter’s National Security Advisor, devised a scheme to draw the Soviet Union into a long, bloody, fruitless war in Afghanistan by encouraging and supporting Islamic zealots to destabilize a country on the USSR border.

Similarly, George Bush, the elder, allowed his ambassador to give mixed signals about a US response to Saddam Hussein when Hussein contemplated an invasion of Kuwait. Hussein took the bait, precipitating a US invasion of Iraq.

If it was a trap and the Russian leadership fell for it, then not only was the invasion not justifiable, but it was tragically misguided. The result, to date, has generated greater military, economic, and public pressure on the Russian Federation, a situation that Russian leaders said they wanted to forestall with their action.

Thus, defending Russia’s invasion, despite the context, is defending the indefensible.

Many want to portray Russia as “anti-imperialist,” given its commendable acts of opposition to US aggression in countries like Syria, Cuba, or Venezuela. But as I explained in an earlier article, that is not a helpful way of understanding Russia’s role in the imperialist system and certainly not consistent with V.I. Lenin’s theory of imperialism. Those who harbor this illusion-- whether from Cold War nostalgia or a misreading of Lenin’s writings-- are attempting to detach today’s Russia from its capitalist economic base and deny that its rulers act on behalf of its capitalist class.

It is possible to grant that Russia objectively acted against US imperialism in militarily aiding Syria while also asserting that the conflict in Ukraine is an imperialist war. That is, the battle raging in Ukraine is, in the final analysis, fought over the material interests of capitalist ruling classes, not the interests of the people of Ukraine or Russia.

The great tragedy is that the broad left-- the historical foil to war and imperialism-- remains divided, confused, and inactive while a bloody, destructive war rages, threatening to expand and escalate. As the war continues with no resolution, the only winner is US imperialism.

In sharp contrast, over 40 Communist Parties have signed a joint statement --No to the Imperialist War in Ukraine!-- affirming that the war in Ukraine is an imperialist war and that the people “have no interest in siding with one or another imperialist or alliance that serves the interests of the monopolies.” The statement recognizes that ending the conflict-- “the meat grinder of imperialist war” -- is the foremost task and goes further to “demand the closure of military bases, the return home of troops from missions abroad, to strengthen the struggle for the disengagement of the countries from imperialist plans and alliances such as NATO and the EU.”

One signatory-- the Greek Communist Party-- has led the way by protesting at the US and Russian embassies, organizing mass demonstrations against the war, and leading the effort to stop NATO weapons shipments. Italian labor organizations have also resisted NATO arms shipments.

To the magazine’s credit, the editor of Monthly Review, the influential US left publication demonstrates a similar understanding:

At present, we are once again seeing “an old-style struggle for power” in the form of a war in Ukraine, which has taken on a “ghostly character” because of the presence of thermonuclear weapons on both sides of what… is essentially a “proxy war” between two capitalist states: the United States (along with the whole of NATO) and Russia.

By bringing the threat of nuclear war into sharp focus, editor John Bellamy Foster shows the folly of those caught in the blame-game, those immobilized by the allure of war pornography spread by monopoly capital’s powerful propaganda machine, and underscores the urgency of stopping the war now.

To perhaps the surprise of some, Pope Francis has brought clarity to the war in Ukraine, in earthy, but direct language. Supposedly, he told the Russian Orthodox Patriarch that the Russian church leader should not be “Putin’s altar boy.” While this brought glee from those supporting “Glory to Ukraine” at all costs, he followed up with the charge that the cause of the war might be the “barking of NATO at the door of Russia,” an apt metaphor. The Pope's blunt analysis supports his commitment to ending the war above all other concerns. He has offered to visit all belligerents and negotiate, the sane way to end hostilities.

While Pope Francis’s position as peacemaker may seem unremarkable, it must be placed against the backdrop of the “just war” concept that has allowed Catholics and church leaders in the past to tailor the Church’s message to please right-wing regimes, war makers, and xenophobia, while appearing doctrinaire.

A recent commentary in The Wall Street Journal explores the Church’s historic relationship to the concept. Francis seems to prefer a just peace to a just war, forestalling its expansion and flirtation with nuclear war.

We can but hope that these sane voices can unite a divided left into vacating the debate hall and returning to the streets to protest an imperialist war and the elites that profit at the expense of the masses. We cannot repeat the mistakes of 1914.

Greg Godels

Saturday, April 30, 2022

Fascism After a Hundred Years

2022 marks 100 years since fascism first came into power.(1) At the end of October, 1922, King Victor Emmanuel III ceded the Prime Ministership of Italy to Benito Mussolini, the head of the National Fascist Party, effectively passing political power on to the fascists.

Italian fascism began as a motley nationalist movement, with few definitive left or right features, united only in its support for Italy entering the First World War.

In the aftermath of the war, the fascist movement was shaped as a reaction to the development of a revolutionary left. With industrial workers occupying factories, rural workers rebelling against landowners, and revolutionary socialists vying for leadership of the workers’ movement, Italian capitalists and big landowners struck a deal with the fascisti to serve as a paramilitary assault force-- squadristi-- against the revolutionary left. The Bolshevik Revolution, as a recent historic social cataclysm, loomed over Italian elites, conjuring their worst nightmare.

Without the conjunction of a successful socialist revolution in a major country, a militant working class inspired by the example, and a ruling class desperate to forestall a Bolshevik-like revolution, Italian fascism might have remained a minor cult, dissipating with the restoration of a stable post-war liberal order.

No doubt the rich and powerful of Italy thought that they could use the fascists for their own purposes. But they were willing to deliver political power to the fascists and allow them to restructure the state for the prize of eliminating the revolutionary threat.

It was this desperate fear of both the reordering of property relations and the destruction of class dominance that created the unique moment in 1922 when fascism went from a movement to a political party to a ruling order.

And it was this historically new fusion of capital and other forms of property with a uniquely modern absolutism, nationalism, and populism that defined Italian fascism after 1922.

Of course, there were ultra-right, ultra-nationalist movements before the rise of fascism.

In France, for example, after the defeat in the Franco-Prussian War and the fall of the Paris Commune, many French elites sought a restoration of France’s “glory.” The burst of nationalism took many forms: revanchism (or revenge on Germany), anti-Semitism (blaming Jews for the tarnished “glory”), Bonapartism (the demand for a strong leader), and monarchism (the restoration of the monarchy).

The movement to restore an imagined glorious France coalesced around a military leader named Georges Ernest Boulanger, noted for his persistent devotion to going to war with Germany and settling accounts. Boulangisme thrived for a few years, adding elements of populism to its nationalist agenda, even attracting many former leftists.

Superficially, Boulangisme resembles later fascist movements, and a few bourgeois historians see it as such. But it lacked the two vital features that are characteristic of fascism and its time. First, there was no imminent anti-capitalist revolutionary threat posed to the existing order demanding a ruling class reaction. And second, the ruling class perceived no existential danger sufficient to discard republicanism-- bourgeois democracy.

In January of 1889, Boulanger’s opportunity arose, but his hesitation and the opposition of most of the ruling class and its agency thwarted a coup.

It is instructive that Boulangisme has gone down in history as a footnote to the nineteenth century.

The Bolshevik revolution and the rise of revolutionary Communist and Workers’ Parties created the conditions for an extremist movement like National Fascism in Italy to be adopted by the Italian ruling class, while the Boulangisme movement is lost to historical obscurity. Reaction becomes fascism only when revolutionary socialism mounts an existential threat to capitalism.

The rise of Nazism fully underscores this dynamic that we came to generically call “fascism.” The rise of ultra-nationalist, revanchist sects led by World War I veterans was commonplace in post-war Germany. The Nazi phenomenon competed successfully in rising above others with its audacity and a significant element of populism captured in its name: national socialism.

As in Italy, the rise of Communism inspired some capitalists, including a group of leading industrialists, to sponsor Nazism’s activity as a hedge against an aroused working class and the prospect of revolution. Until the Great Depression struck Germany, its rulers successfully suppressed the Nazi Party (the party was banned and Hitler imprisoned in its effort to copy Italian fascism’s insurrectionary march on Rome) and the party received less than 3% of the vote in the 1928 federal election.

But the economic downturn stressed the German bourgeois parties that had no answer to the economic collapse, to the ensuing unemployment and worker militancy, and to a Communist Party growing in size and influence.

The Nazi Party, drawing greater support from a desperate ruling class and a déclassé petty bourgeoisie, was seen as a bulwark against revolution. As desperation rose, the bourgeois parties threw their support behind an aging ultra-nationalist former general friendly to Hitler, Erich von Hindenburg, electing him president of the republic.

It was only a matter of time before Hindenburg, no friend of republicanism, would hand the chancellorship to Hitler, following the example of the Italian king.

These two European examples of the rise of ultra-nationalist “saviors” of bourgeois rule constitute the template of classical fascism. Throughout Europe in the inter-war period, other responses to the revolutionary left led to other extreme-right regimes defending the ruling elites against an ascendant workers’ movement. Such rightist movements were led by Bonapartist figures like Mannerheim, Pilsudski, Horthy, Salazar, and Franco. While none follow strictly the route to power or the character of rule of classical fascism, they share the essential feature of defending bourgeois rule against the revolutionary left while disposing of bourgeois democracy to ensure their success.

Whether one chooses to call Francoism (1939-1975 in Spain) or Pinochetism (1973-1990 in Chile) “fascist” or “quasi-fascist” is a quibble, since they both share with classical fascism the destruction of bourgeois democracy in response to the perceived threat to the capitalist order.

Fascism Today

Since the demise of the Soviet Union and the decline or dissolution of mass Communist Parties in most countries, ruling classes have neither sought nor supported the overthrow of bourgeois democracy because of an existential threat from the left. Nonetheless, a broad spectrum of leaders and commentators from right to left have attached the term “fascist” to other political figures or movements. In the extreme, “fascist” or “fascism” has simply become an epithet to demonize an opponent.

More subtly, “fascism” is said to be a right-wing, nationalist, and/or racist movement resembling some of the features of some of the fascist movements of the twentieth century. This approach is especially common with academics, liberals, center-left politicians, or others who refuse to concede the critical place of anti-Bolshevik, anti-Communist ideology at the core of classical fascist thinking and its operational utility in garnering the sponsorship of the bourgeoisie.

Typically, theoreticians-- academic and otherwise-- develop a checklist of features distilled from a superficial examination of Nazism ripped from its historical context. Chauvinism, political violence, conservative social values, a cult of personality, etc., are all contingent features of historical fascism; but none alone or taken together were incompatible with or absent from the preceding Weimar Republic or other prior historical eras that witnessed the rise of ultra-nationalist movements. It was the fear of revolution and a compliant bourgeois ruling order that served as the necessary elements to bring fascism to power.

Of course, it is important to recognize as extremely dangerous the nostalgia for historical fascism, as exhibited by the American Nazi Party, the National Socialist White Peoples’ Party, and the many other US “Nazi” organizations that have been spun off. In the same way, the current Ukrainian cult around 20th-century fascist Stepan Bandera is extremely dangerous. With the passage of time distancing the Ukrainian people from the sordid history of the OUN and Nazi collaboration, the promotion of ultra-nationalist groups by opportunist politicians and Western interventionists is not only dangerous, but criminal. They will occupy the same place in hell reserved for the US, NATO, and Israeli imperialists that unleashed fanatical, ultra-conservative jihadists on the world.

Misunderstanding fascism, its origins, and its logic can disable the left. Western leftists have drawn lessons-- both good and bad-- from the united, anti-fascist front adopted by the Communist International in the mid-1930s.

Communists then understood the nature of fascism, connecting it to the vulnerability of capitalism and its goal: “ bury Marxism, the revolutionary movement of the working class…”. Led by the veteran anti-fascist Georgi Dimitrov, Communists resolved to put aside differences with other working-class organizations-- principally social democracy-- to combat the threat from fascism and the growing danger of world war. This became an elastic tactic, expanding to advocate unity with any non-working-class elements who stood staunchly against fascism:

…when the scattered proletarian detachments, at the initiative of the Communists, join hands for the struggle against the common enemy, when the working class, marching as a unit, begins to act together with the peasantry, the lower middle classes and all democratic elements, on the basis of the People’s Front program, then the offensive of the fascist bourgeoisie is confronted with an insurmountable barrier. (Dimitrov, G., Against Fascism and War, p. 103)

It is clear from this excerpt from Dimitrov’s essay People’s Front that a popular front is broad, indeed. But it is also clear that it is defensive and tactical, meant to stave off the fascist threat.

Yet, Dimitrov also intimates in other passages that the United Front tactic may be a transitional form leading to overthrowing capitalism and a corrective to Communist isolation from the masses.

It was this ambiguity that carried over into the post-World War II era and led many Communist and Workers’ Parties to adopt popular frontism as a strategic approach or as a stage in the transition to socialism. Whether it took the form of an anti-monopoly front or party, a broad labor party, or opportunistically, a “historical compromise” or “Common Program” with bourgeois parties, like the strategy of the self-destructed Italian Communist Party or the now nearly spent French Communist Party, popular frontism became a widely accepted strategy, especially with the Western left. The debate over this strategy continues to this day within the Communist movement.

But it was the application of the united-front tactic against fascism that has proven most problematic since the decline of the social democratic left and the rise of a new fundamentalist right after the economic crisis of the 1970s. In the US and the UK, Reagan and Thatcher were the embodiment of the right turn toward ultra-nationalism, chauvinism, vulgar individualism, deregulation and privatization. Given the gains made by the socialist countries, the victory in Indochina, the growing popularity of socialism in emerging countries, and even a revolution in the West (Portugal), some sensed a “whiff of fascism” in this rightward turn, a right reaction to a growing threat from the left.

After the fall of the Soviet Union-- the bulwark of socialism-- and the accompanying disarray of the Communist Parties, the rightward turn accelerated, realigning the Western bourgeois political parties. New Democrats, New Labor, New Social Democrats moved farther right to accommodate the rightward turn, rather than fight it.

Rather than rebuilding a vital left around the interests of working people, rather than standing apart from the rightward drift, rather than filling the void left by the capitulation of the tradition center-left, many leftists painted the right as fascist, seemingly justifying laying the socialist project aside and joining with the bourgeois parties in defeating the most extreme elements of the right. The historic left project of defeating capitalism and replacing it with a peoples’ economy was to be deferred until the right (the fascist right!) was dead and buried. This was sold as revisiting the 1930s United Front against Fascism.

With the rise of right-wing populist parties and toxic personalities like Orban, Trump, and Johnson, the “fight against fascism” reached its zenith. Much of the twenty-first-century reshuffled left embraced electoral alliances with bourgeois institutions and political parties against right-wing populism under the banner of uniting against the right. In every case, this strategy helped entrench insipid center-right politicians at a moment of political crisis and growing popular anger and alienation.

This analysis and strategy are wrong on many accounts.

Most importantly, it misrepresents fascism, ripping the ideology from its historical roots founded in a desperate life-and-death struggle with the revolutionary left. Today’s left is far remote from posing an existential challenge to the capitalist system and will remain so if it continues to organize against the phantasm of an imminent fascist threat.

Secondly, the current iteration of bourgeois democracy has been corrupted and drained of democratic content to the extent that while it presents a formidable obstacle to any popular revolutionary surge, it is a well-oiled pathway for the dictates of ensconced ruling classes. That is not to deny that all the bourgeois factions engaged in the electoral game “play” the system to retain power with little regard for the procedural “rules” heralded by bourgeois democratic institutions. It is not necessary to discard bourgeois democracy to thwart change in our corrupted political environment.

Thirdly, the populist right has made no serious effort to create the kind of ideologically-bound squadrista typical of historical fascism. As Diana Johnstone wrote recently in response to the charge that Marine Le Pen, the French right-wing populist, would “confiscate power” and never give it up:

And how would she do that? Her party is not very strong and entirely based on electoral politics. There is no militia organized to use force for political purposes (as in the case of real historic fascists). There are plenty of counter-powers in France, including political parties, hostile media, a largely left-leaning magistrature, the armed forces (linked to NATO), big business and finance which have never supported Le Pen, the entertainment industry, etc., etc.

No one could seriously compare the disorganized, fumbling crew that made an unwelcome visit to the Capitol on January 6, 2021 to the organized, disciplined 30,000 Blackshirts who marched on Rome a hundred years ago.

The exaggerated “threat of fascism” reflects a lack of confidence that the people of the advanced capitalist countries will embrace true, qualitative, revolutionary changes, that the anti-capitalist left can compete for the loyalty, votes, and actions of working people. Instead of building a bold movement for socialism, the timid, despairing left chooses an unrequited affair with center forces in a quixotic struggle against a far-off, hazy foe.

This is not to minimize the harm that the unrelenting rightward march of the bourgeois parties in the advanced capitalist countries has brought on working people over many decades. But that rightward push must be met in the battleground of ideas with bold, aggressive proposals that go beyond a rear-guard defense; it must advance the interests of working people; and it must provide a vision beyond the resignation that there is no alternative to the tune-up of a bankrupt capitalist system.

If we win working people to such a vision, a day will undoubtedly come when we will truly encounter the ugly face of fascism.

(2)  For an entertaining, but remarkably sophisticated account of the rise of fascism and its logic, there is nothing better than to watch Bernardo Bertolucci’s film, 1900. This 5 ½ hour epic captures the class dynamics from Italian fascism’s roots to its defeat in 1944. Forgive the silly historical compromise ending that Bertolucci undoubtedly developed from the Italian Communist Party’s 1976 program.

Thursday, April 14, 2022

Truth Lost in the Muck

If the Pew Research Center polling is to be believed, a remarkable-- perhaps unprecedented-- change in US attitudes occurred between January and the end of March. In January, forty-nine percent of the US population thought that Russia was a mere competitor to the US. Another seven percent saw Russia as a partner. Today, seventy percent see Russia as “an enemy”! 

Where Republicans have tended in the past to carry over Cold War attitudes to the twenty-first-century Russian Federation, Democrats with a very unfavorable opinion on Russia now surpass Republicans with a similar view. Seventy-two percent of Democrats or those leaning Democrat see Russia unfavorably, with sixty-six percent perceiving Russia as “a major threat to the US.”

Interestingly, those who are older, better educated, and liberal are more likely to “see Russia as an enemy.”

While a shrill, uncritical media have amplified official hysteria over the February 24 invasion, Pew research shows that the negative view of Russia as a “major threat” has trended up for most of the last decade and a half. After the 2016 election, Democrats’ fears of Russia increased sharply and, of course, again now, with the invasion.

Whatever one thinks about the Russian invasion-- and one can credibly both deplore the invasion and the ensuing growing risk of escalating war while denouncing the US and NATO provocations and aggressions that preceded it-- the manufacturing of hatred for Russia orchestrated by US officialdom and the media demonstrates an enormous power to move public opinion with little regard to reality or responsibility. 

Russia has no military bases near US borders and has neither attacked or threatened to attack US personnel or property. Yet, the US government and NATO have portrayed Russia as a potential or actual enemy for most of this century. 

Beginning with the 2016 election of Donald Trump, the Democrats have elevated Russia to the source of all their failings or setbacks, leading the charge on damning everything Russian. Russia has become the great meddler: Russia meddled in the elections; it supported Trump; it spread disinformation and peddled influence. For leading Democrats, electoral victory was only denied because of Russia.

Of course, all the charges of Russian meddling proved false or insignificant. From embarrassing leaks of campaign shenanigans, from alleged Internet bot farms to Russian collusion with Trump, the Democratic Party claims were debunked or shown of little consequence. Nonetheless, the media charged ahead, legitimizing, exaggerating, and fabricating. Only those playing close attention or following alternative media would know that Russia-blaming was bogus, unworthy of note.

US rulers, self-anointed as guardians of the capitalist world order, have never forgiven Russia for its decisive role in defeating the US proxies in the Syrian war, prompting another example of a relentless media campaign misrepresenting interests, motives, and facts.

The media not only docilely parrots State Department and Defense Department explanations of Russia’s ill intentions, but dutifully masks the machinations of the new US Cold Warriors. For years, the US has encouraged the expansion of NATO, closing in on Russian borders, and arming hostile anti-Russian states surrounding Russia. The US military has staged war games near Russia and violated its airspace. The cable news commentariat and Sunday morning blowhards have neither noted this trend nor warned of its consequences.

Against the backdrop of this crude, unbalanced propaganda campaign, it should come as no surprise that a Russian invasion-- regardless of the history and circumstances-- should generate another round of demonization and hysteria. But the dimensions of the current media blitz-- a relentless depiction of the noble, heroic Ukrainians versus the brutal, inhuman Russians-- transcend all proportion.

Even a doctrinaire liberal obsessed with legalisms, like Professor Richard Falk, is surprised by the extreme, rabid vitriol directed at the Russians: “There have been other horrific events in the period since the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s, including Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan, Myanmar, and Palestine yet no comparable clamor for criminal justice and punitive action.” While Falk accepts the conventional depiction of “clear criminality” on the part of the Russians, he is equally appalled at the “pure geopolitical hypocrisy on the other side.”

And hypocrisy it is. Writing on the same day (April 8) as Falk, Nick Turse recounts a US bombing of a city in Iraq in 2015 that “killed at least 85 civilians, may have injured 500 or more people, and reportedly damaged 1,200 businesses and 6,000 homes…”

Almost seven years after the attack, Hawija has never recovered, according to the new report. “The airstrike killed breadwinners and destroyed many workplaces and so cost many people their livelihood; because people’s homes had become uninhabitable, they became displaced; damage to the electricity network reduced civilians’ access to clean (and thus safe) drinking water,” it states. “This demonstrates how one single airstrike can cause reverberating civilian harm effects that last years, even generations.”

Both the horrific attack on Hawija-- one of countless civilian atrocities inflicted by the US military and its allies over many years and many wars-- and the recent FOIA revelations cited by Turse got or get none of the attention brought on by allegations of civilian casualties afflicted in today’s war in Ukraine. The US media has been silent, skeptical, or matter-of-fact over charges of civilian casualties inflicted by US or allied forces, even when the incidents were conceded by the US military!

Any careful reader or viewer of US media accounts of alleged Russian criminality must note that there is no independent investigation of the charges made or welcomed. The word of Ukrainian authorities is simply taken, with no hesitation or attempt made at securing secondary confirmation. The words “alleged,” “claimed,” or purported” -- hedge words associated with good journalism-- never appear before the reports made by Ukrainian officials.

On the other hand, claims by the Russian Ministry of Defense or other Russian authorities are nearly always followed by something like “Those claims couldn’t be confirmed independently.” Clearly different scales of evidence are being used.

Enormous pressure has been exerted on the more deliberate European leaders who have been hesitant to join the sanctions frenzy stirred by the US, UK, NATO, and Eastern European ultra-nationalists. For Italy, the charges by Zelensky of a massacre in Bucha, Ukraine were, without further substantiation, sufficient to move Italy to reduce its reliance on Russian oil and gas. Only Germany, Austria, and Hungary in the EU continue to resist imposing further hardships on their people to advance NATO’s militaristic aims.

Ukraine’s president, Zelensky, has attained rock-star status in the West with a tour of venues from parliaments to the Grammys, adding his TV-honed skillful appeals to the politician-concocted, media-transmitted message that Russia is the enemy of mankind. No Western talking head ever casts any doubt on Zalensky’s political legitimacy in the wake of the 2014 coup.

With NATO, Ukraine, and Russia arming at a maddening pace and the threat of an expanding war increasing exponentially, the shameless, truth-bending role of the media is irresponsible, if not criminal.

Yet, it should come as no surprise. In 2003, a similar overwrought, frenzied media campaign behind the US invasion of Iraq rallied a majority with a very thin tissue of lies at its foundation. In retrospect, it is difficult to remember even one journalist, outside of the fringes of the mainstream or with the alternative media, who dared to challenge the official, US government narrative. It should have been a profound refutation of the notion that we have a free and independent press. 

And recent Western media coverage of wars in Afghanistan, Lebanon, Gaza, Somalia, Yemen, Libya, and Syria show the same slavish obeisance, the same conformity, underscoring the myth that capitalist journalism and objectivity belong in the same room.

Of course, the fusing of the private press and the government opinion-makers reaches its highest stage in the US. Moreover, it is not a new phenomenon, but one that has evolved with the concentration of media assets into complex monopoly-entertainment corporations.

Even farther back, during the Korean War, the flow of war “information” was contaminated with the taken-at-face-value, tainted statements of generals and politicians, as documented by I. F. Stone’s nearly-forgotten classic, The Hidden History of the Korean War, 1950-1951. Through a careful reading of news releases, press conferences, and date-lined reports, Stone was able to find the inconsistencies, the exaggerations, and the prevarications that passed for the official account of that war.

As perhaps the US’s foremost and most fearless liberal investigative reporter, Stone continued to puncture the smug, self-satisfied journalism of his and our era. He was one of the very few voices to challenge the Gulf of Tonkin fabrications that led to the massive escalation of the Vietnam War.

In response to a speech by President J. F. Kennedy before the American Newspaper Publishers Association after the Bay of Pigs debacle, Stone wrote:

Now it seems that no truly patriotic American, especially a newspaperman, is supposed to tell the truth once our government has decided that it is more advantageous to tell a lie. This is the real meaning of President Kennedy’s appeal to the American Newspaper Publishers Association for self-censorship in the handling of the news. (When the Government Lies, Must the Press Fib? -- May 3, 1961)

If Stone were alive today, he would be sickened by the utter servility of our media to power and wealth.

Greg Godels

Sunday, April 3, 2022

War in Ukraine: Will There be a Winner?

While debates rage unproductively over which side to support in the Ukraine war, the larger questions of who will ultimately gain and who will lose are becoming clearer.

Making matters most difficult is the fog of tricked-out misinformation flowing from all sides, reminding us of how capitalism has corrupted, vulgarized, and juvenilized the occupation of journalism.

At times in the twentieth century, there was a small, elite cell of adventuresome journalists who would draw satisfaction from risking life and limb to offer eye-witness accounts counter to the official narrative. A careful reader could allow for class bias, editorial meddling, and euphemism to construct a credible, independent picture of events or incidents.

Today, the number of independent journalists in that tradition can be counted on the digits of one or two limbs.

No one is sneaking into Mariupol to check on Ukrainian atrocity claims or sampling Russian death notices to challenge official numbers. Reports of military encounters are simply taken from government press releases or news conferences from the Ukrainian Ministries, NATO, or the Russian Ministry of Defense. The mainstream media is surfacing no Seymour Hershs or David Halberstrams. If they arose today, they would be summarily banished to celebrity chasing. Consequently, little is reported of high confidence, neither atrocity nor heroism.

To make matters worse, the swarm of “expert” commentators make little effort to place events in any context, historical or otherwise. We don’t know where the level of fighting, military progress and competence, civilian casualties, or physical destruction stand in relation to other recent wars or confrontations (for example, US or NATO wars) or in relation to reasonable expectations. We only have unsupported generalities and emotional, unsupported charges of “genocide,” “brutality,” or “war crimes.”

Nevertheless, we can avoid succumbing to wild media exaggerations while also drawing some useful conclusions from facts that are uncontested.

It is uncontested that Russia has, after a month of fighting, revised its plan, downscaling its goals. The Russian government has so stated. That fact implies that its initial plan was not successful, which implies, in turn, that the government misjudged the military balance of forces. The Ukrainian resistance was stronger, the Russian attackers were weaker, or both.

We can only speculate whether Russian military leaders thought that they would be met as liberators, that internal allies would rise up, that the West would offer no assistance, or that the Ukrainian military was decisively weaker than it proved to be. In any case, the war continues, with thousands, perhaps ten of thousands, dead and millions driven from their homes.

You don’t have to fall for the Western media circus that, like the skillful British propagandists of the 1914 War, depict the adversary as bloodthirsty rapists, pillagers, and child killers, to recognize that the public relations campaign for the hearts and minds of the West has been won by the US, NATO, and Ukraine.

The Blinken/Nuland State Department has successfully used a compliant media to shepherd the more level-headed, practical, and hesitant politicians in Germany, France, and Italy into joining the ultra-nationalist Eastern European Russia-haters in a crusade against Russia. Europe is now more militantly aligned against Russia than at any time since the height of the Cold War. Military budgets are swelling and economic, social, and diplomatic ties with Russia have been severed, with the US energy sector and war-making industry the biggest winner.

If US policy was to bait Russia into intervention-- and I think it was-- then the trap succeeded.

Whatever security goals the Russian government sought, the best that they will get are treaty guarantees that have no more gravitas with successive Ukrainian governments than the vague assurances of the past. A poor country armed with aged Soviet weaponry is now armed to the teeth with many of the latest and most effective NATO instruments of war.

Understandable concerns over the growing influence of ultra-nationalist Stepan Bandera admirers and the thugs and gangs that embrace Bandera’s World War II Nazi collaboration will now only grow with their further acceptance and integration into Ukrainian resistance to the invasion. The invasion has actually legitimized their role in fighting the Russian invaders, deflecting from their history of terrorism-- the opposite outcome from that projected by the Russian government in its explanations.

An already dubious democracy, Ukraine has stepped back, outlawing eleven opposition parties, including the Communist Party. It has condoned the harassment of Russian speakers and charged many with sabotage and betrayal.

War has eroded Russian civil liberties as well, with anti-war activists harassed and arrested.

The US’s favored war-by-other-means strategy-- comprehensive sanctions-- has cost Russia dearly, beginning with the killing of the Nord Stream II pipeline. Weaponizing sanctions to accomplish foreign policy goals has become a highly effective way for the US to impose its will. The US government manufactures warrants for sanctions for reasons often beyond ridiculous (the charge of “terrorism,” for example, is made and then instantly withdrawn with no evidence of changed behavior). Those sanctioned may even include parents or children of “bad” actors, a cruel application of kin punishment.

What is truly astonishing is how the US administration secured the collaboration of European leaders in approving sanctions against Russia that actually harm Europe more than Russia! Undoubtedly, this kind of distorted “unity” will rebound badly on both the US and the EU.

It must be noted that imperialist war always immediately benefits the participating leaders by distracting from their failings and rallying support around patriotic appeals. In this regard, Putin, Zalensky, Biden, and the other NATO leaders all drank from the cup of imperialist opportunism.

In the short run, Putin appears to be the determined defender of Greater Russian interests, Zalensky the heroic underdog facing the Russian Bear, and Biden the indignant defender of the cause of self-determination. But Putin and Zalensky have fat in the fire, necessitating an endgame before casualties, costs, or opposition grow too much. Only Biden benefits from an extended war, though his NATO allies may wake up to their sacrifices for US foreign policy aims.

As a wave of inflation follows the latest wave of COVID, threatening to further hammer the global economy and further erode living standards, attention is drawn from the failure of bourgeois politicians to offer all but the lamest of solutions to a war promising little but pain for the world’s workers.

Thousands rally in Athens against the imperialist war in Ukraine and against Greece’s involvement in an action organized by the Communist Party of Greece

As always, imperialist war only benefits the weapons purveyors and the predatory corporations, while bringing tragedy to the working classes. We must refuse to participate in our own destruction

Greg Godels