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Monday, August 30, 2010

Liberal Remorse: The Nation Forum

The August 30/September 6, 2010 issue of The Nation magazine features a forum entitled “Debating Obama,” keynoted by Eric Alterman, with responses by six other writers. The forum reflects a sense among The Nation editors - and no doubt most of the readers of the leading liberal/progressive publication - that matters did not go quite as expected after the inauguration of the youthful, well-spoken Democratic President, Barack Obama. In fact, Alterman puts it plainly: “Few progressives would take issue with the argument that, significant accomplishments notwithstanding, the Obama presidency has been a big disappointment.” Alterman goes on to say: “… if one examines the gamut of legislation passed and executive orders issued that relate to the promises made by candidate Obama, one can only wince at the slightly hyperbolic joke made by late-night comedian Jimmy Fallon, who quipped that the president’s goal appeared to be to ‘finally deliver on the campaign promises made by John McCain.’”

There is more than a little expression of betrayal in this statement.

But could it be that the disappointment and sense of betrayal is misplaced? Could it be that liberals and progressives misread the moment, misjudged the locus of power, and, indeed, totally misunderstood the mechanism of capitalist rule in the US? Could it be that the Obama election was little more than an adjustment to corporate rule, an adjustment from a failed regime that threatened to rip the fabric of contrived consensus to one more likely to strike a path offering the appearance of change and a new direction while preserving the interests of those holding power? Could it be that, in the clatter of the usual campaign rhetoric, most change-starved voters heard a message that they wanted to hear, ignoring the huge corporate funding and same cast of characters orchestrating the campaign?

This is not an understanding yet agreeable to the liberal and progressive establishment, though it was the conclusion that I, and too few others, drew during the presidential campaign. In response to a euphoric celebration of the Obama victory, I wrote the following shortly after the election:

At the top [of the Obama team] is a superstructure of solidly established, old-guard politicos who have yet to propose one idea that departs too far from the limited toolbox of neo-classical economics and imperial foreign policy. Yes, there is talk of green initiatives, a friendlier relationship with labor, support for social liberalism, and a vague, dangerously tame reform of health care. But this group has shown no new thinking on the catastrophic economic crisis. Moreover, their timidly progressive pronouncements differ little from the false hope promised by the Clinton and Carter Democratic Administrations that precede this one. .. Below this elite center of power is an electorate overcoming racism, demonstrating a decisive rejection of the Bush administration, and starved for real change.... Change will come from the efforts of those organized oppositionally to force new initiatives and not from those relying on the good will of ruling elites. To ignore this historical truth is to risk the disillusionment and alienation of all of those who have advocated change with their vote. (November 22, 2008)

And now, disillusionment is widely apparent.

A little over four months after the inauguration, I wrote again on this topic, comparing the euphoria and subsequent sourness of the venerable I. F. Stone on the Kennedy presidency. Stone, like today’s liberals, embraced JFK with star-struck infatuation. His return to reality was both bitter and filled with disappointment. My comments:

Typical of jilted lovers, many will turn against Obama with a bitter sense of betrayal. This is both naive and misplaced. Like Kennedy, Obama is neither an agent for change nor a closet reactionary. Like Kennedy, Obama is the executive of a vast structure welded to interests that have little in common with the interests of the majority of US citizens. Admirers of Kennedy will recall the enormous forces arrayed against change in his time: the Joint Chiefs of Staff, defense contractors, the CIA, Southern politicians, etc. Detractors will, with equal passion, note how little Kennedy did to challenge these forces. Likewise, those still taken with Obama fever will point with disgust at the obstructionist Republicans, the "Blue Dog" Democrats, the "disruptive" left, and other evil forces, as though they are not always a part of the two-party carnival.

It is not Obama, but this corrupted, broken two-party system of governance that betrays our aspirations. It is not designed for change, but to smother it. Never in the history of this undemocratic "democracy" have the wants and needs of the citizens been so distant from the intent of the ruling elites. This reality cannot be laid at Obama's feet.

The only antidote to the rot of this system is political independence within, but especially outside, of the existing two parties. There is simply no reason that activists engaged in Democratic Party circles cannot work outside - independently, uncompromisingly and vigorously - on progressive, advanced issues, with no concern for ruffled feathers. To fail to do so, betrays any commitment to real change. (May 30, 2009)

Indeed, the predictable disappointment has set in, witnessed by the Nation forum. It would appear from the “debate” that the fault lies not with Obama, not with liberal self-delusion, but with the system: “It doesn’t matter what Obama dreams of. The far more important fact is that the system is rigged, and it’s rigged against us,” to quote Eric Alterman.

Yes, it is – and it’s called “capitalism,” with its accompanying phony democracy, ownership of the media, and measurement of all things by profit.

Sadly, the wave of disappointment has not brought forth a deeper understanding and new resolve. The participants largely endorse Alterman’s sketch of the ills of the system: the influence of money, the Bush legacy, the dysfunction of political institutions, the power of finance, and the corruption of the media. All true, but hardly new or alien to the evolution of the system. One searches in vain for an over-arching theory that explains and connects these features of our present predicament. There is not even a modest indictment of capitalism in this debate – not to mention an advocacy of socialism.

Instead, we are offered a shallow and diverse set of remedies ranging from mandatory voting to reforming the Senate rules, including the predictable, but tragically complacent call to stay the course. To her great credit, Barbara Ehrenreich cuts through the fog of liberal hand wringing to serve up a moving indictment of government’s role as a “handmaid to corporate power.” Her palpable anger at the state of the nation leads her to announce that “these are revolutionary times.” One only wishes that her brief essay offered a course of action to match these “revolutionary times.” One hopes that we will hear more from her.

One can find little to inspire from the other discussants who serve up the following lame variations on “change that you can believe in” and resignation to Administration impotence:

●“One hopeful hypothesis… Obama is taking the best deal on the table today, but one expects that once he is re-elected in 2012… he will build on the foundations laid during his first term to bring about the fundamental “change” that is not possible in today’s environment.” (Eric Alterman)

●“From the legacy of Bush-era incompetence and corruption to the partisan discipline of the GOP and the Roberts Court to the influence of lobbyists, one marvels that the president has accomplished anything at all.” (Michael Kazin)

●“Operating in a dysfunctional environment dominated by a minority party that thinks its road back to power is to block everything and bring the president to his knees, Obama and his congressional allies have had remarkable success… far more than the bitter cauldron of partisan rancor and ideological fervor would ordinarily allow.” (Norman Ornstein)

●“…Obama may well be the most progressive alternative possible in our current reality.” (Salim Muwakkil)

●“President Obama and his unwieldy party have managed to enact major reforms… that are the most far-reaching and economically redistributive social accomplishments since the New Deal.” (Theda Skocpol)

●“Don’t give up… Don’t believe in silver bullets… Deal with fixing Senate rules first…” (Chris Bowers)

Unlike with Ehrenreich, the sentiments expressed in these comments show no sense of outrage or urgency about the problems facing millions of citizens. Instead, there is complacency, a distance from the everyday tragedy of unemployment, foreclosure, and an uncertain future faced by even more people today than in the Great Depression.

With their apology for the new Administration, the academics in the forum display an unpardonable distortion of the history of the New Deal era. They fail to acknowledge the similar forces holding back reform in that era: intransigent corporate and political opposition, a hostile Supreme Court, and demagogues and false prophets. The Roosevelt Administration overcame these obstacles thanks to pressure from a militant, revolutionary left and the determination and commitment of unswerving progressives. Where are the Perkins’s, Wallace’s, Wagner’s, Connery’s, and Hopkins’s in the Obama Administration? To hold the Obama Administration to a lower standard is to demean the dogged effort and sacrifice readily assumed by those courageous liberals. None succumbed to the seduction of lobbyists. None weighed their future careers before the task at hand. Perhaps these scholars think the KKK and the Liberty League and the other native fascists were less of a threat then than the tea-baggers of today.

One yearns in this forum for some call to action – perhaps an endorsement of the October 2 march in Washington supported by the NAACP and the AFL-CIO – or even a commitment to revitalize the too long dormant anti-war movement. One looks for alarm at the Obama stealth commission patiently waiting for the November electoral dust to clear before pillaging Medicare and Social Security. But we find none of these progressive initiatives.

The cure for the hangover from the Obama-high is honesty and action, not remorse or more hope. The realities of our political system are transparent and have been for over a generation: the two-party system is broken and lurching ever further from any credible vision of democracy. More importantly, we are facing an unprecedented social, political and economic crisis that is in many ways even more challenging than the Great Depression. We have to be honest enough to see that we have not measured up to these challenges. We have to be bold enough to risk radical solutions worthy of the moment.

Zoltan Zigedy

Monday, August 23, 2010

Is It Time for the Shorter Workweek?

There is no lack of rhetoric expounded on the need to dramatically reduce unemployment. Using the most revealing government figures, nearly 17% of the US workforce is unemployed. That figure means that nearly one in five US citizens working before the economic crisis, or joining the workforce since, is, at this moment, idle or under-employed. Counting the involuntary part-time workers and discouraged workers, the total number of US workers seeking work totals nearly twenty million. Though the media and the governing cabal have shown little more than token interest in the staggering human tragedy facing these workers and their families, nearly everyone voices a determination to see unemployment reduced. And while it’s easy to procrastinate on a solution, it must be remembered that the economy needs to generate at least 150,000 jobs a month to keep up with population growth. And therein is the problem: while everyone may want full employment, few have an honest, real plan to achieve it.

Instead, we get lots of talk about “green” jobs, retraining, tax incentives, etc – the usual malarkey that constitutes a stump speech for Democratic Party candidates. Historically, most Democratic leaders and unimaginative, class-collaborationist labor leaders have sought to prompt – “incentivize,” to use the fashionable term – business to hire more workers. This thinking accepts the primacy of the corporate class and seeks to motivate that class by appealing to its selfish motive: profits. For decades, local, state and federal governments have poured billions of taxpayer dollars into the pockets of developers, contractors, service providers and factory owners to entice and cajole them into hiring more workers. Tax incentives to businesses and entrepreneurs have substantially absented the corporate world from its place as fellow taxpayers, leaving the burden on the rest of us.

Despite the persistent execution of this strategy, all economists agree that we have lived through a “jobless” decade. Since the recession, job creation has lagged far behind population growth and the demand for good-paying jobs. That is a fact. The crisis beginning in 2007/2008 only exacerbated this development by shedding millions of jobs. And since the false recovery, job growth has been non-existent, despite the dramatic rise in profits. That, too, is a fact. Only those ideologically wedded to capitalist dogma fail to see this. The strategy is completely bankrupt.

Responding to the crisis, the Obama administration crafted a hybrid plan that sought to both generate recovery and spur job creation with an $862 billion stimulus program. Commendably, the Administration devoted nearly $300 billion for aid to states, unemployment benefits, and food stamps. Offsetting this was a $336 billion financial incentive package of tax cuts, one-time payments, etc., meant as an expensive bone to those economic Neanderthals who still believed that the recovery would come when folks had a few extra bucks in their pockets. This was merely another example of Obama’s oft-repeated desire to appease the flesh-eaters of the right, a useless political gesture that will be paid for by future taxpayers.

Remaining in the package was a total of $230 billion, a not-insubstantial sum, despite the squawking of well-meaning liberal economists who thought the package inadequate. But simple arithmetic would show that this allocation would support over 5-6 million public sector jobs at $35,000 for a year, even with a modest factor for overhead costs. Moreover, including a conservative application of the economic multiplier effect would add thousands of additional jobs and growth in the private sector. Of course, that would amount to direct federal employment, an approach comparable to that adopted during the Roosevelt administration in response to the Great Depression. But from slavish worship of the supremacy of the private sector and the overpowering influence of that sector on the campaign accounts of our leaders, that solution was ruled out of hand by all but the fringes of government and the labor movement.

Instead, the Obama Administration chose to follow the same path that has proven bankrupt for so painfully long: dangle projects with risk-free public subsidies in front of private contractors. While there still are substantial funds unspent, the results have been disappointing by everyone’s account. At the time the program was initiated, few asked how the funds would be dispersed (I did, on my blog. See How Not to Create Jobs). Would the funds simply go into the pockets of contractors who would complete the work with an existing work force? Would much of the effective stimulus be absorbed by profits and not employment? Indeed, the results were disappointing, but only to those who naively believed that contractors or project managers were in the business of creating jobs. They were happy to rake in profits from infrastructure projects or accept subsidies for new enterprises outside the conventional market, provided the government guaranteed the funding and assumed the risk. In this regard, the Administration merely created a duplicate of the wasteful, profit-bloated defense industry --- no new ideas here, but an additional debt on the shoulders of the taxpayer.

Labor history offers us a different solution, an effective solution. After the Civil War, a movement stirred in the US to shorten the working day to eight hours. Eight-Hour Leagues sprang up throughout the country. Labor embraced the eight-hour day movement and the movement strengthened and helped to organize labor. This struggle reached across the oceans and spurred similar movements around the world.

Winning the eight-hour day became the galvanizing issue of all labor struggles for almost a century. Unions were built and contracts won around achieving a shorter working day. The political landscape – from labor’s point of view – was shaped by the eight-hour struggle.

Today, a shorter workweek would offer a victory for labor against the relentless offensive mounted against workers that has stagnated or reduced benefits over decades. Many, if not most, in labor have not known a major victory for working people in their lifetime. But more urgently, a shorter workweek would offer an answer to the persistent and damaging high unemployment brought on by the economic crisis. A mandatory shorter working day and working week, with strict overtime penalties for exceeding those limits, would force employers to hire more workers to maintain the same level of production or to increase it. A federally mandated shorter workweek – a seven-hour workday/thirty-five-hour workweek – would decrease the workweek by over 14% and potentially increase employment by the same amount. Of course, employers would fight such an increase in hiring as a threat to profitability, but the pressure of the market – the shortage of existing labor – would force new employment in order to even maintain existing levels of production or service activity.

Unlike the conventional answers that place the burden of employment recovery squarely on the backs of taxpayers, the shorter-workweek strategy attacks the profits of the employer. Enabling legislation should guarantee no reduction in pay, as well as reducing hours of work. Accordingly, it is from the surplus value of the capitalist enterprise that new employment would be funded. Only a solution that solves the unemployment problem with a shift in the economic balance sheet from capitalist to worker counts as an overdue offensive in the class struggle and a real advance for working people.

Where the bankrupt, ineffective “incentive” model of employment growth is shared by both political parties and acceded to by most of organized labor, the shorter-workweek model would mark an embrace of class militancy, as well as an effective measure with a noble historic precedent. Unemployment did not come from some inexplicable quirk of nature; it came from the ruthless, conscious profit seeking of the corporate class. In a just society, they should pay for its extinction.

The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 governs these matters. It has been amended many times since 1938 to improve the status of labor, but never to change the length of the working day. Maybe the time is now.

Zoltan Zigedy

Monday, August 16, 2010

Human Rights and iPhones

I have read The New York Review of Books off and on for forty years. Generally, I take it to be an easy way to follow trends in US liberal thinking. It stands as a bridge between prominent academics and a self-conscious educated, elite class. For some, it is the source for the last word in cocktail party discussions. For others, it is a channel to drift arcane, scholarly controversies towards a larger audience.

Throughout the forty years, the publication has sustained a narrow ideological range of centrist liberal thought – one conjures a picture of a reader ready to defend the Volvo, The New York Times, and the travel agency against all threats, foreign and domestic.

Running through those forty years like a thick thread is a relentless, rabid streak of anti-Communism. Early on, Robert Conquest railed against the evils of the Soviet Empire, supported by academics of the same Hoover Institute ilk. This surely didn’t separate the NYRB from the many other publications favored by liberal elites.

Later, with détente softening the Cold War hysteria, the NYRB continued to hold to a hard-line, “Scoop” Jackson version of Soviet-US relations, taking up the cause of Soviet Jews and other “dissidents.”

Similarly, those who rejected the “revisionist” US historians - historians who had taken a more measured, less demonizing view of the Communist Party USA - always found a willing partner in the NYRB.

With the departure of the Soviet Union, liberal attention turned away from the Red threat, only to find a new demon to flog in Islamic fundamentalism. Yet throughout the post-Soviet era, the NYRB continued to pound away at anything even vaguely associated with socialism or Communism. Venezuela came in for its share of battering. And of course, Cuba stayed solidly in the cross-hairs of the NYRB stable of writers. The most signal accomplishment of the NYRB in this period was to help elevate an obscure anti-Soviet academic, Anne Applebaum, into a prominent public intellectual devoted to the NYRB anti-Communist mission, a worthy successor to Robert Conquest.

The weapon of choice in attacking everything Soviet or Communist was and is the puffed up, self-righteous liberal ideological pillar: human rights. With US legal segregation removed in the third quarter of the 20th century, the last formal contradiction with 18th century bourgeois rights theory was removed as a thorn in the side of US liberalism. Finally, North Americans and their European friends could, without naked hypocrisy, tout the two-hundred-year-old doctrines that closed the door on feudalism and opened the way for the capitalist order. While new, expanded versions of human rights doctrine were proposed – versions that reflected new concerns, deprivations, and oppressions identified since the 18th century – most US liberals cling to the narrow interpretations constructed with the rise of a comfortable, cosmopolitan bourgeois class and its aspirants. Not surprisingly, the rights recognized by liberals are precisely the rights that they find most useful in their own pursuit of happiness.

Human rights organizations and campaigns exploded with the course of the Cold War and its aftermath. Nearly all reflected a naïve cultural crudeness and historical myopia, imposing standards on others that ignored historically and culturally shaped practices enjoying popular support or consensus. Many, if not most, received overt or covert support from Western governments that shaped the focus and intensity of their human rights campaigns. Neither the will of the people nor the taint of government manipulation was daunting to these campaigns.

The human rights organization favored by The New York Review of Books is Human Rights Watch, an organization that grew out of Helsinki Watch, the old Cold Warrior set up to ferret out human rights violations in the Soviet Union. Today, enjoying a generous $44 million budget, with nearly all revenue coming from the US and Western Europe, the organization has offices throughout the world and generous salaries for its directors. Its deputy director for the Americas, Daniel Wilkinson, was thrown out of Venezuela some years ago for aiding the foreign policy initiatives of the Bush administration.

In a recent article in NYRB entitled “The New Challenge to Repressive Cuba,” Wilkinson takes up the cause of Cuban bloggers who, by his account, are challenging “repressive” Cuba. But where are they mounting this challenge, since he concedes that few in Cuba read the blogs? Clearly, their audience is drawn from those who follow the bloggers in the US and Western Europe, those likely to draw a negative opinion of Cuban life apart from any direct exposure to the facts. There is not even a feeble attempt in the article to substantiate the picture drawn by “dissident” bloggers. Their claims stand as unvarnished “truths.” It would be as though a human rights campaign were mounted solely on the basis of the blogs of our own hysterical tea-baggers. In reality, Wilkinson presents not a report on Cuban conditions, but second- and third-hand anecdotes of those in opposition to the Cuban system. This is the work of a politically driven prosecutor and not an unbiased human rights advocate.

And who are the bloggers? Only those who write critically of the Cuban government are worthy of his attention. While he claims that there are over a hundred “unauthorized” bloggers operating from Cuba, Wilkinson only shows interest in the “at least two dozen who are openly critical of the government.” The remainder remains voiceless and its opinions are ignored. Wilkinson, like most of the corporate media, focuses on Cuba’s celebrity dissident, Yoani Sanchez, known as Generation Y. With the help of US and Western European media attention, Sanchez has established a huge following outside of Cuba, estimated by Wilkinson at a million visitors a month; her blog is translated into fifteen languages. It is not unlikely that Sanchez has a greater media exposure – a wider range of influence – outside Cuba than any Cuban “official” publication. Wilkinson (or Sanchez) never ask or explain how this could be or what this means. But surely – short of divine intervention – such a following is not possible without the overt or covert help of others of more than modest means. Only the most gullible would not suspect the hand of those committed to changing the socialist governance of Cuba. It is one thing to stand in open opposition to the Cuban government and quite another to hypocritically hide behind a posture of unbiased support for human rights.

To many of us, especially those of us blogging critically of our own government, the celebrity of the handful of Cuban bloggers so often hailed by the human rights establishment stands in sharp relief to our own lack of attention from those same advocates. They seem to have a profound blindness to the criticisms and human rights violations voiced on thousands of blogs in the US and Western Europe. Those same advocates fail to acknowledge the marginalization of opinion by a monopoly capitalist media as de facto censorship in the US and Western Europe. Moreover, our experience with this de facto censorship teaches that one does not become an overnight, world-wide media sensation without the help of a hidden hand.

Lurking in the shadows of the Wilkinson assault on “repressive” Cuba is the conceit of great-power chauvinism. Wilkinson willfully underplays the material shortcomings of a tiny island country saddled with a blockade that has hindered its development and a legacy only fifty years free from the most exploitative of colonial relations with the US. While the Cuban government has readily admitted that it lacks the means to bring its citizens fully into the Internet era, Wilkinson seeks to add this shortcoming to the human rights balance sheet.

One can only marvel at a “human rights” advocate who so cavalierly poses the interests of an admitted “at least two dozen” bloggers before the will and interests of the Cuban people. Do they share Wilkinson’s and the bloggers’ views? We do not know. Not only because our government will not let us travel there, but also because Wilkinson never bothers to ask them. It is possible – I believe it is extremely likely – that most Cubans are not only content with, but energetically supportive of, their government. This most basic of human rights –the right to have a government legitimized by popular consent – seems to elude the deputy director of Americas Watch. No doubt he scoffs at any popular government that does not agree with his own narrow vision of procedural democracy. Political diversity does not appear to be an element of Wilkinson’s notion of human rights.

There is no mention in Wilkinson’s article of the generous budget set aside by the US Congress (not to mention the secret and quasi-governmental budgets) for the express purpose of overthrowing the Cuban government. There is no comment on the activities of the US Interest Section in Havana directed towards fomenting and subsidizing opposition. One would never know that many of the so-called “political prisoners” were prosecuted for acts that any judicial system would count as acting to overthrow the government and in the interest of a foreign power. In Wilkinson’s eyes, they are political prisoners. And yet, he cannot even mention the plight of the five Cuban patriots judicially railroaded in the US for acts that would be hailed by any true human rights advocate as thwarting terrorism. Hypocrisy on stilts…

Wilkinson ends his “challenge” to Cuba with a truly pathetic paean to the iPhone attributed to Yoani Sanchez, Generation Y: “I had the desperate desire to grab [the Spanish journalist’s] iPhone and run off with it to hide in my room and surf all the sites blocked on the national networks. For a second, I wanted to keep it so I could enter my own blog…”

If this is the cutting edge of the struggle for human rights, it is no wonder that they ran Wilkinson out of Venezuela.

Zoltan Zigedy

Monday, August 2, 2010

IMF Debt Hypocrisy: Sticking It to the Hungarians

For decades, left critics of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) have maintained that the IMF is merely a tool for enforcing the interests of financial elites, especially those in the US. Predictably, this view has been scornfully dismissed by those in power and their media lackeys who posture the institution as the benefactor of needy countries. The persistent history of the IMF’s extortionate funding, linked to austere cuts in social spending, is simply dismissed as pressing fiscal responsibility on countries lacking the spine to address their profligacy. Such are the myths that sustain faith in global capitalism.

But a close look at the IMF in action reveals the politics lurking behind its high-sounding mission statements. Consider the recent encounter between the IMF (and EU representatives) and the newly elected Hungarian government. After the conservative Fidesz Party won the April elections, leaders showed a spark of economic populism by refraining from deep cuts in social spending to reach its European Union-established goal of a deficit of 3.8% of GDP. Instead, Fidesz ministers planned to enact a financial transaction tax that would lower the deficit with additional revenues. This did not please IMF representatives, despite the fact that Hungary had been the poster child for fiscal responsibility by pulling itself back from the brink of insolvency through four years of extreme, painful cuts in government spending. The social democratic Hungarian Socialist Party – the previous ruling party – imposed extreme austerity on the public sector in order to curry favor with the IMF, a prize that was won in late 2008 with the awarding of a $26 billion loan. When the brakes were applied, the deficit (expressed as a percentage of GDP) shrank from nearly 10% in 2006 to under 4%, an extremely painful process, but one that exceeds in intensity the experience of any other European government. In short, Hungary currently comes closest of any of its European neighbors to the guidelines established by the EU and the IMF for fiscal responsibility.

Nonetheless, when the Hungarian government negotiated with the IMF and EU in mid-July in order to draw the remainder of the 2008 loan, the IMF abruptly withdrew from the meeting charging that Hungary was doing too little to reduce its deficit. Honest observers could not help but be puzzled by this action, given Hungary’s stellar performance in jumping through IMF hoops. Immediately, the currency, the forint, dropped in value, the Hungarian stock market dropped 3%, and the cost of insuring the debt leaped up. Clearly, financial markets were punishing Hungary for being good. One banking executive, quoted in The Wall Street Journal, commented that things are going to “get pretty ugly.” The European commissioner for economic and monetary affairs threatened that Hungary’s “excessive debt by next year will require tough decisions, notably on spending.” But most telling, the IMF chief for Hungary, Christoph Rosenberg, described the measures offered to lower the deficit, particularly the bank tax, as “ad hoc,” according to the same WSJ article (7-19-10).

Why should the IMF care how the Hungarians lower their deficit? More to the point, why is one policy prescription for curing the deficit – imposing government austerity – legitimate and yet another prescription – raising bank taxes – dismissed summarily as “ad hoc”?

The IMF walk-out gives the lie to the notion that the organization serves nobly to reward fiscal responsibility with generous help to struggling national economies. Instead, the IMF, central banks, and policy makers use debt levels and rising deficits to extort reductions in socially beneficial spending in the public sector. When Hungary reduced pensions and benefits, raised the retirement age, sliced subsidies, and denied wage increases, it was deemed prudent and deserving of a loan. But when the financial sector was asked to bear some of the burden of deficit reduction, the IMF condemned Hungary’s government and walked away from the negotiating table. IMF officials assuredly knew that Hungary would be punished for its defiance, unleashing the predatory financial sector to batter currency exchange rates, equity values, debt costs, bond ratings, and insurance costs.

Hungary provides a rare, naked exposure of the insidious, hypocritical use of debt extortion to dismantle the hard-won social safety net. Throughout Europe, this strategy has spread like a plague – a plague on working-class standards of life. From Greece to Ireland, from Spain to the UK, from Portugal to France, the financial oligarchy has hammered the fiscal health of nations, raised hypocritical fears of debt and deficit difficulties, and assaulted policies, institutions, and programs benefiting the majority of the citizens. And of course – thanks to a compliant media and parrot-like economic gurus – the unwarranted, but fearsome, threat of unmanageable debt has washed upon US shores.

The end game of this charade is two-fold: First, it seeks to put the burden of debt reduction squarely on the backs of working people. All the debt accumulated by endless wars, bloated militaries and security services, tax relief for the rich, and corporate welfare and bailouts is shifted to the masses. Those sincerely concerned with rising debt should look elsewhere. As Jack Rasmus points out in his new book, Epic Recession, the largest portion of total US debt over the last decade was located in the financial arena; less debt was held in the mortgage and consumer category; roughly the same amount of debt as household debt was found in the non-financial corporate sector; and the least share of all was on government balance sheets. Moreover, household and government debt has shown less growth before 2009 than either non-financial or financial corporate debt. So for those obsessed with the rising debt, their attention could profitably be focused beyond government spending and towards those in the corporate club responsible for the excessive borrowing that enabled the current crisis.

Secondly, the offensive against government support for human needs is a direct attack upon labor costs. By stripping working people of any guarantees beyond the very minimal for survival, the debt ruse creates fear and desperation on the part of unemployed workers, marginally employed workers and those with little or ineffective organization. Without a safety net and in the face of growing uncertainties, employees opt for wage and benefit concessions or accept working conditions far below what they otherwise tolerate. The destruction of collective goods further impoverishes working people along with the extension of their working life through the advancement of the retirement age. If the winning of the 8-hour day was one of the monumental victories in the class struggle under capitalism, the extension of the working lifetime - with the increase in retirement age - is an equally devastating setback. Thus, the debt scam is quite simply the classic logic of increased labor exploitation carried on by means of financial hypocrisy.

It should not be overlooked that the financial weapon wielded by the European (and US) ruling classes demonstrates both the dominant power and continued unfettered, free-wheeling play of the financial sector. Despite all the talk of re-regulation and oversight, financial activity remains arrogantly aggressive and highly speculative. Undoubtedly this underlines the absolute victory of the financial sector – as Lenin predicted – in capturing the leading role in state-monopoly capitalism. Both the crucial part played by the financial sector in electing the US President – the largest contributor to the campaign coffers – and the leadership that the sector’s representatives enjoy crafting economic policy only amplify this point.

For Hungary, the future is ominous. Investors continue to shed government debt and the markets have pressured Hungarian debt to junk-status, though the rating agencies have yet to catch up. Consumers and small businesses are caught in a credit vise that grows worse with the decline of the currency, the forint. Nearly 70% of consumer debt is held in foreign currencies borrowed from foreign banks. Since revenues, wages, and salaries are in forints, the foreign currency debts inflate with the forint’s decline. Certainly this is an additional reason for the IMF’s naked protection of the financial sector. Meanwhile, living standards decline and unemployment is above 10%. In a curious article on Hungary’s increasing misery, The Wall Street Journal reports a growing nostalgia for the socialism of the past. Margrit Ember is quoted: “I’m not saying it was all good… [b]ut under the old system you couldn’t end up in a situation like this.” Istvan Kovacs, an organizer for the Hungarian Communist Workers Party remarks that “its views are enjoying a resurgence.” “I meet more and more people who say things were better under socialism.” According to the WSJ, “his own salary is being garnished because he defaulted on a euro-denominated loan from an Austrian bank.” Yes, Istvan, there is an alternative…

Zoltan Zigedy
August 1, 2010