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Monday, February 22, 2010

Ukraine: Five years after the “Orange Revolution”

Five years ago, my colleague, Louise Michel, and I posted several articles on MLToday divulging the intrigues behind the Ukraine Presidential elections. Michel placed the celebrated “Orange Revolution” in the context of the other orchestrated “color” revolutions organized and encouraged by NGO’s funded by EU governments and the US. Michel and I “sought to expose the enormous amount of money and resources flowing into these countries from such noble sounding institutions as the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), the International Republican Institute (IRI), the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs (NDI), and many others”. “It was apparent to [me]” she wrote, “that these ‘popular risings’ were far from spontaneous, but rather highly manipulated, and compatible with US foreign policy objectives”. She recounted “AP reporter Matt Kelley's revelations about more than $65 millions worth of US influence peddling in the Ukraine…” Michel argued persuasively that the contested election and the subsequent new election were more properly viewed as a coup, rather than victory for democracy. She cited a New York Times writer, C.J. Chivers, who “exposes some of these machinations… [T]he Times article really chronicles how the Ukraine government's decision to halt the highly orchestrated, well funded opposition demonstration in Kiev were thwarted by the surreptitious, behind-the-scenes maneuvers of high ranking security and military officials within the government. They used their influence to undermine the government response.”

Michel’s careful scrutiny of the mainstream media dug up another suggestive revelation of the phoniness of the “democratic” revolution:

How deeply did this corruption and perfidy go? Very deeply, if a recent communication in the New York Review of Books (2/10/05) is to be believed. Peter Savodnik — identified as the political editor of The Hill newspaper in Washington, DC — writes to "share with your readers a story I've come across here in Washington that may be of interest."

And indeed it is.

"Last month", he goes on, "between the first and second rounds of voting in the Ukrainian presidential election, Lytvyn [the powerful speaker of the Ukrainian Parliament and former chief of staff for Kuchma] made a brief, low profile trip to Washington, where he met with Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, Senators Richard Lugar and John McCain, and Representative Henry Hyde…"

"In any event, the Americans apparently thought Lytvyn might be able to help Viktor Yushchenko win some key support in the Rada.... Interestingly, on December 1[2004], Lytvyn permitted the Rada to hold the no-confidence vote against Prime Minister Yanukovich's government [Yushchenko's opponent]; this proved to be a critical development that was soon followed by the Supreme Court's ruling that the runoff was invalid because of fraud."

Soon after the new President took office, the “democratic” victory had become a colossal farce. I wrote: “The showdown with Russia over establishing world market prices for natural gas was portrayed widely as a victory for the Western-friendly President Yushchenko. Apparently, the Ukrainian people disagree. Buoyed by poll figures leading up to the March parliamentary elections that show the formerly elected and then unelected Presidential candidate’s bloc leading over both of the "Orange" stars, the current parliament voted 250 to 50 to fire the Prime Minister and his cabinet.” The script written by Western powers was not setting well with the Ukrainian people.

And a year after an election result agreeable to Western imperialist powers, Yushchenko, chastened by confrontation with Russia over natural gas prices, proposed an approach embarrassing to his Western sponsors. I wrote:
Today’s news (January 14, 2006) brings the latest desperate move on the part of puppet-President Yushchenko: faced with the ominous threat to his power spawned by the natural gas fiasco, he now proposes nuclear power as an alternative to the countries dependency upon Russian natural gas. "We must change our ... policy on the use of uranium for peaceful purposes.... We must cooperate with international allies on a serious political and economic level, so that we can have a full cycle of processing and production of nuclear fuel ..." stated Yushchenko on national TV. Of course this is exactly the policy that has created hysterical Western threats to the DPRK (North Korea) and Iran. As Yushchenko spoke, Bush was declaring Iran a "grave threat" because it announced the resumption of its nuclear reactors and its own nuclear enrichment program.

The hypocrisy of allowing Ukraine to develop a nuclear program while threatening Korean and Iranian programs was apparent even to Western news services who noted: "Mr. Yushchenko’s call could put his Western allies in an awkward position as they seek to balance the desire to help Ukraine shed Russian influence with concerns about nuclear weapons proliferation and their campaign to contain Iran’s nuclear ambitions" (cited on

The hypocrisy is blatant on all sides. Imperialism intervened in Ukraine’s internal affairs, engineering a coup masking as a democratic revolution. And the designated “liberators” proved to be incompetent, corrupted, and unpopular.

Now, five years later, The Wall Street Journal makes a candid admission. In a front page feature, writer Richard Bourdeaux exclaims that “Rent-a-crowd entrepreneurs find people fast to cheer or jeer for $4 an hour.” This is the face of the new Ukrainian democracy. “’We’ll do business with any political party. Ideology doesn’t matter to us’ says the 21 year-old web design major at Kiev Polytechnic Institute. ‘It matters less to most students’, he adds grinning. ‘They have become tired of politicians. They will rally only for money.’”

As comrades at the City of Future paper ( in Kharkov point out, Simonenko, the candidate of the Communist Party of Ukraine received 22.4% of the presidential vote in 1999, but only 5% in 2010. With the privatization of the state sector, public ownership has been reduced to 12% of economic enterprises (the state sector accounted for 90% of enterprises in 1990) and the role and influence of money in determining outcomes, the corruption of political life, and the distortion of democracy has increased dramatically. Contrary to media mythology, the ascent of capitalism stifles democracy. Today in Ukraine, a candidate for president must post roughly US$300,000 to even run for office. Following the US model, candidates must gather signatures to achieve ballot status, regulations that effectively undermine minority party candidacies. The massive 2004 intervention in Ukrainian political life by Western imperialist powers has produced its intended result – not an infusion of democracy, but a decided shift to the right. Even much of the left has shifted rightward in a response the new rules of the political game. Rather than promoting democracy, foreign intervention – expressed through the “Orange revolution” – has shaped a sham, money-driven pseudo-democracy dominated by powerful elites.

Ironically, matters have come full circle. The once demonized Victor Yanukovych won election in 2010, defeating the former darlings of Western imperialism. Julia Tymoshenko – a caricature of vulgar nationalism and Sarah Palin-style populism – held out her concession, hoping for another Western-backed, manipulated challenge to the elections. This time it didn’t come.

As I promised four years ago, “[w]e continue to hold Ukraine under our Marxist microscope…” in order to expose the cynicism of Western “democrats” and the degradation of democracy by capitalism.

Zoltan Zigedy

Sunday, February 14, 2010

The Class War: Where Things Stand

The singular contribution that Marxism offers to the theory of the working class movement is the idea of exploitation as well as a way to gauge its intensity. Prior to the pioneering efforts of Marx and Engels, those sympathetic to the miserable conditions of working people brought on by the rise of industrialization pointed to the grinding poverty and short, brutal lives of employees and urged reforms and relief. They failed to locate these conditions in the very logic of capitalism. They failed to find the source of these conditions in the relation between capital and wage-labor.

Marx and Engels brought the concept of exploitation to the fore as both a rich and robust moral concept and as an objective, measurable centerpiece of working class political economy. Exploitation, in its most intuitive and simplified sense, is the appropriation of the product of labor by those not engaged directly in producing those products. Stealing, of course, is a kind of appropriation as well, and a kindred notion to exploitation, but exploitation differs by existing in a socio-economic system that permits and even encourages its practice. A clear and transparent example of exploitation is the extraction of coal from a tract of land. The workers produce the end product, but the owner of the land, by virtue of the institution of private ownership, appropriates that product in its entirety, paying the workers the least amount adequate to coax them to take the risk and supply the effort. In such a pure example, it is apparent that the compensation of the workers is largely independent of their necessity and sole role in creating a useful product. It is equally clear that the owner may very well add no effort to the product’s creation though commanding its disposition – possessing the product – solely by virtue of a contingent social relationship: ownership of land. The amount paid to workers is determined independently of their role in production; the less the owner pays for the production of a given quantity of commodities, the greater the rate of exploitation.

The Mechanism Unveiled

While the complexities of a modern capitalist society tend to obscure the relations of exploitation, a deep capitalist crisis serves to expose these relations. With growth slumping, investment meager, and wages and benefits stagnant, the unquenchable thirst for profits requires an intensification of exploitation to restore the system’s health. If profit is the life blood of the capitalist organism, exploitation is its nutrient. We see the rising rate of exploitation in the current US economy with the dramatic growth of labor productivity. Beginning early in 2009, worker’s output per man hour accelerated dramatically, advancing by 5.1% in the fourth quarter over the previous year. Nearly all of this increase can be attributed to layoffs, resulting in fewer workers producing as much or more than in the prior year. The mass layoffs of the last two years retarded and reversed the declining productivity of 2008 and spurred an explosion of productivity growth in 2009.

The rate of exploitation, as expressed today in productivity growth, serves as the best indicators of the condition of the working class and its prospects. Increasing exploitation reflects capitalist aggression, the failings of the labor movement and the politicians it sponsors, and the unlikelihood that any great effort to improve employment is forthcoming. Political leaders and corporate managers are reluctant to deny the market economy the one lever that has successfully restored profitability and corporate health. A glance at the last recession earlier in the decade reveals the same pattern: economic decline followed by layoffs and a jump in labor productivity, restoring profitability. Commentators then wrote of the “jobless” recovery. Today we are experiencing the same process in a far deeper recession. As long as layoffs remain the mechanism for gains in productivity, profit restoration and corporate recovery, unemployment will remain high. Only a new level of labor militancy and anti-corporate fight back will install a recovery for the people ahead of a recovery for capitalism. The bankruptcy of shoring up capitalism to promote the people’s needs – the ideology of social democracy and labor-management cooperation - has been demonstrated over the last decade.

The Other Side of the Coin

Exploitation is equally intensified by paying less in wages and benefits for the same effort, a process made easier by labor capitulation and the fear of job loss. In late January, Ford announced that it will hire 1,200 union workers, many at “at significantly reduced wages” (The Wall Street Journal, 1-26-10). The 2007 contract with the UAW allows the Big Three domestic automakers “to fill jobs vacated by older workers who leave or retire with new hires earning a little more than $14 an hour, about half what veteran workers are paid. Newer workers also get reduced benefits”. The “second tier” workers will have a 401(k) retirement plan rather than a traditional pension. Bob King, the heir apparent to the UAW Presidency, confirmed that “[t]here will be new people hired at Ford.” Since the 2007 UAW contract gives existing workers priority, the hiring of new, entry-level employees is retarded by desperate workers laid off around the country, but willing to uproot and relocate where jobs are available. Nonetheless, industry experts expect the mass hiring of low wage workers to be a significant factor in employment by 2015.

The same depression of wages and benefits – an increase in exploitation – is ravaging the public sector. The Chicago Transit Authority secured concessions from the unions in 2007, but are back again with even greater demands upon the workers. The CTA threatens to layoff more than 1,000 workers unless deep cuts in wages and benefits are made. A transport workers’ concessionary proposal has been ignored by management. The Chicago Sun-Times (1-29-10) reports that Chicago Federation of Labor President, Dennis Gannon, has urged the transport unions to accept in whole the management proposal to “save 1,100 jobs…” Once again, the long standing philosophy of labor-management cooperation proves ineffective and thwarts the fight back to rally workers and the public to defend living wage jobs.

This failure to marshal a resolute and militant struggle against corporate aggression – a legacy of the destruction of labor’s left in the Cold War – is confirmed by the latest Labor Department figures. In the last twelve months, inflation adjusted wages and benefits in the private sector fell by 1.3%, the worst performance since the government began to record data in 1983. At the same time, US corporations succeeded in reducing 2009 health care cost increases to the second lowest yearly figure in the decade by cutting their contribution or shifting workers to less comprehensive health plans.

Can a capitalist economy recover without forcing the burden of recovery on the backs of working people? At a time when corporate profits are improving and management salaries are exceeding historic levels is it inevitable that workers must endure great sacrifices for the economy to bounce back?

Another Way

On January 18, 2010, The New York Times reported that the French government – led by the conservative President, Nicolas Sarkozy – demanded that the firm Renault “maintain employment at its French factories.” Meeting with the head of Renault, Carlos Ghost, Sarkozy extracted a commitment that “Renault is a French company, a socially responsible citizen, attached to its industrial and technological roots.” Of course the French car companies do not want to do this; they would prefer to shift production to low-wage countries and layoff French workers. Nor does Sarkozy, an avowed fan of the US neo-liberal, free market model, want to make these demands upon the industry. But all know that any retreat from guaranteed employment will bring French workers into the streets and into occupancy of the factories. They know that the public will rally around the French workers.

Renault, like Peugeot-Citroen, received government bailout money from the French people under the condition that they would maintain employment; “The companies pledged in return to protect French jobs.” The industry minister stressed that “The state will have its say. When a French car is destined to be sold in France, it should be made in France.” This is, of course, in sharp contrast to the US President, allegedly a progressive and friend of labor, whose policies dictated that US auto companies would close plants and layoff workers in exchange for bailout money. The difference, quite clearly, is the militancy and class consciousness of labor. French unions, unlike their US counterparts, have consistently and without relent, refused class collaboration.

Politicians, media pundits, industry experts, and the EU competition commissioner have cast dire predictions that supporting employment, wages, and salaries in France will result in a weak, uncompetitive economy. Ironically, France showed the best economic growth of all EU member states in the fourth quarter of 2009.

We Can Do Better

Weakened by years of close and servile collaboration with management, most US unions and the AFL-CIO hierarchy are in a difficult position. The atrophy of labor militancy has backed leadership into the corner of choosing concessions or job loss. Labor’s political “friends” have betrayed labor’s cause without retribution to the point that they no longer fear labor’s still significant strength. The only way out of this corner is mobilizing the membership, the unemployed, and its many allies in a determined campaign to stand up to the corporate offensive and expose the political charlatans who pose as friends. As always, this begins with bringing people to the streets.

Zoltan Zigedy

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Looking Back and Going Forward

One year ago, President Obama took office. His assumption of the highest executive office was met with relief by most (nearly 80% of citizens polled in October 2008 thought the country was heading in the wrong direction) and high expectations by many.

Quite naturally, those who opine on the big national media stage used the occasion of the anniversary to record an assessment of the first year. Judgment was heightened by the result of the special election for the Senate seat in Massachusetts of the deceased incumbent, Edward Kennedy, a result that, by all accounts, was an ominous and severe setback for the Democratic Party.

With equal vigor, the Democratic Party mainstream, uncomfortable with anything even vaguely threatening to corporate interests, points to a non-existent leftish tilt as responsible for their failings. Indiana Senator Evan Bayh, ever anxious to speak for Party moderates, decried the Democrats “overreach” and failure to find consensus “with independents and moderates”. With all the seriousness that a scolding Democratic Leadership Council icon can muster, he warns of a “catastrophe of biblical proportions” unless Democrats mend their ways. Like so many of his Party colleagues, Bayh is more comfortable with sermons than realistic or effective policy proposals. He advocates a “positive populism” that will miraculously create jobs and prosperity while reducing government spending, a prescription akin to advocating diets for the starving. In his world this makes sense, only emphasizing the irony of his remark that “Washington is out of touch with mainstream America” as expressed to The Wall Street Journal (1-26-10)

But this seems to be the message that Obama and his team are hearing, given his emphasis on reducing the deficit. Not only will he freeze non-defense related federal spending, already eviscerated during the Bush years, but he will enact a stealth budget slashing strategy recently rejected by the Congress. A commission – to be established beyond the bounds of democratic engagement or transparency - would make wholesale recommendations for spending cuts and present them as a package to Congress to be voted up or down. With little debate and no possibility of amendment the package-strategy would provide cover for those politicians
facing potential outrage in their home states or districts. They will argue that they had no choice but to accept or reject the whole policy even with some unpopular aspects. There is no question that the ultimate target of this devious strategy is Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. We find here an example of the Obama pattern – now a finely honed tactic – of “faking left and going right”.

Despite Obama’s best rhetorical flourishes, there is absolutely to connection between deficit austerity and job creation. Every economist concedes this point. In fact, most would recognize an inverse relationship between reduced government spending and improved employment. Indeed, the great lesson of the last profound and persistent struggle against unemployment – The Great Depression – demonstrates the utter folly of a policy of deficit reduction in the face of mass job loss. Roosevelt’s drive for a balanced budget in 1937 sent the economy into a sharp descent while sharply reducing employment. It took a return to massive public employment to stabilize the US economy. That lesson is lost on an Administration dogmatically committed to private, market-based solutions.

Rather than listening to Evan Bayh, his corporate cronies, and the baying hounds of the know-nothing media, Obama and his team might consult with the people. He might begin with the latest Wall Street Journal/NBC poll (1-20-10).

Around 57% of US citizens think the economy will stay the same or decline over the next 12 months. This is hardly an endorsement of the policies crafted by Bernanke, Geithner, Summers, and the rest of the Obama economics team. If Obama were listening to the people, they would be gone. Nonetheless, the DC political cabal is hanging tough with Bernanke and Geithner. Since June, 2009, the percentage of people confident in Administration economic goals and policies has steadily declined, settling at about 35% in January. This should come as no surprise given policy makers’ near total neglect of the 16 million under or unemployed in the US while urgently rendering life support to the unappreciative financial sector.

In October of 2008, before Obama’s inauguration, only a bit more than one in ten US citizens felt the country was going in the right direction, a reflection of the overwhelming disgust with the Bush era. Immediately after the inauguration, that number rose to over 40%, bolstered by the great hope and faith that so many had placed in Obama and the Democrats. In January, 2010, the number had dropped to the mid-thirties, reflecting growing disappointment with the Administration.

Contrary to the wide spread, media induced belief that the country is being overrun by wild-eyed, Obama haters, 72% of the poll respondents found Obama to be “likeable and easygoing”, 59% “inspirational and exciting”. This result demonstrates the vast exaggeration of the tea-bagger movement as representative of the attitude of most US citizens. It further suggests to what extent the corporate media was complicit in pumping up the phenomena. On the other hand, the poll does show a decided unhappiness with the direction Obama has taken: only 38% agree with position on issues and 40% believe he will achieve his goals. Less than a third believe he is “changing business as usual in Washington”.

Despite the symbolic impact of the election of the first African-American President, 78% of those polls believe that race relations in the US have stayed the same or gotten worse.

Lest it appear that disappointment with Obama translates into support for Republicans, one need only turn to US attitudes towards health care reform: 55% of respondents disapprove of Obama’s handling of the issue, while 64% disapprove of the Republican approach! Clearly neither party offers the answers to health care that the people want. Of the options available – including the popular single-payer solution- both parties chose a course out-of-step with the people’s desires and, I might add, the people’s needs.

It should be even more obvious that both parties are trapped in a box dictated by corporate interests, a box that allows only limited policy options, failing both the test of popular desires and needs. Obama’s recent, extraordinary meeting with Republican bigwigs seems a calculated attempt to rally the other party to defend that box. When he stated: “I know many of you individually. And the irony, I think, of our political climate right now is that, compared to other countries, the differences between the two major parties on most issues is not as big as it's represented”, he spoke a truth that defined his own approach as well as the basis for the crisis in the two-party system. It is precisely this identity of outlook and interest that Obama persistently and enthusiastically pursues with his tiresome, ineffective, but dogged call for “bi-partisanship”.

It fails, and it will fail, because the Republican Party is under constant and unrelenting pressure from its right. The evangelicals, the anti-immigrant cabal, the anti-abortion crowd, the anti-gay fanatics, the racists, the war-mongering nationalists, and, yes, the tea-baggers are organized, vocal and independent of the Party leadership. They make nearly non-negotiable demands on the Republican Party. And the party complies.

This lesson has escaped liberals, progressives, and many on the left who consistently work and support Democratic candidates who neither share nor swear to a progressive agenda. Moreover, they refuse to call out politicians in the Democratic Party who stray from a progressive course out of some perverse sense of loyalty or twisted appeal to unity. In my view, this is unprincipled and opportunistic. But even if some see this as too harsh of a judgment, surely this past year demonstrates that complacent trust is ineffective. The dynamic of Obama’s first year shows that one cannot simply work for the election of a “better” candidate and put aside the critical activism that can shape that candidates political course. We would do well to study the strategic approach of the demonic right. We’d do even better putting our energies into building a left-of-center third party.

Zoltan Zigedy