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Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Well There Is No Reason to Read The Nation Anymore…

Alexander Cockburn has died. Nearly thirty years ago, I began borrowing copies of The Nation magazine from a friend in order to read Cockburn’s weekly column. In a publication then notable for its determination not to completely surrender to Cold War hysteria, Cockburn stood out as a stubborn and fearless champion of reason and fidelity to leftist values—not the values that pass as leftist today, but genuine values of internationalism and advocacy for those on the bottom.
Later I learned of Cockburn’s familial roots: his father was the estimable Claud Cockburn who wrote for the UK Daily Worker, was a partisan reporter on the Republican side during the Spanish Civil War, and served as a thorn in the side of the puffed-up English upper classes for most of his life.
Claud authored the novel that served as the basis for the obscure, but delightful John Huston movie, Beat the Devil, a cinematic parody that relentlessly poked fun at nearly every stereotype and prejudice.
Alexander’s writing carried the same level of disdain for self-satisfaction and smugness. Cockburn, the elder,  famously remarked that one should “Never believe anything until it has been officially denied.” Alexander Cockburn’s writing reflected even broader truths: Never believe anything uttered by your nation’s public officials or their media hand maidens. And always regard with a measure of respect the claims of their opponents. This motto would serve the journalism profession far better than the usual hypocritical nonsense about fairness and objectivity. It would also well serve a public that readily identifies the media lies when it is itself the specific target, but exhibits a blind, groundless, and sheep-like trust of the media on other matters (think of Syria!).
In that spirit, Alexander Cockburn’s column pierced the inflated egos of wind bags, charlatans, and courtiers from Henry Kissinger through the financiers Jamie Dimon and Robert Diamond, the subjects of his final column.
I don’t know that Alexander considered himself a Marxist, though he acknowledged that his father flirted with and perhaps embraced the views of the old Moor. Certainly Alexander came closer than any other contemporary writer in English, despite his occasional eccentricities, to the acerbity and intolerance for hum-buggery of our beloved KM.
As The Nation moved away from its legacy of popular front progressivism and anti-anti-Communism and towards drawing-room liberalism, Cockburn became more of an internal critic. He began to take shots at Nation writers and columnists who were more comfortable reporting conversations at dinner parties than in reporting on Appalachia or big city ghettos. He rightly called out writers whose views seemed to unerringly march in lock step with the Democratic Party leadership.
Though The Nation editors would deny it, his punishment was to see his popular column reduced from every issue to every other issue.
Nonetheless his column persisted despite the magazine’s further ideological acceptance of the tighter and tighter Democratic Party leash. In recent years, the taming of The Nation forced me to discontinue my twenty-five-year subscription when I concluded that even Cockburn could not hold me.
But a ten-dollar desperate renewal offer (the way of all print magazines starving for support) brought me back recently, a happy move since it delivered me Alexander Cockburn’s last column. But o how far The Nation has sunk! The funeral issue contained three tortured and embarrassingly pandering defenses of Obama’s grossly misnamed Affordable Care Act (four if you count Katha Pollit’s lame cheer-leading in her column: “Obamacare(s) for Women”), all a transparent call to vote for Obama in the fall election. Poor Alexander Cockburn’s last column was sandwiched between these crude political ads.
The rest of the issue included a bizarre “vindication” of right-wing scumbag David Frum (his mother was a feminist!), a pathetically and needlessly “scholarly” critique of Charles Murray’s scurrilous attack on working class white males, and a Princeton professor’s paean to Jurgen Habermas’ vapid pontifications on the meaning and future of the European Union.
Pity poor Eric Foner, who joins Cockburn with an article in such dreary company.
Needless to say, I will not be renewing my Nation subscription (unless the price comes down even further!). I’ve had enough and, with Cockburn gone, I can catch the occasional significant article from friends on the ‘net.
I will miss Alexander Cockburn—more than a little. I regret that I never followed him closely on Counterpunch, but I trust that its archives are full of his sterling and stirring writing. I’m sure collections of his essays and articles will soon appear. I look forward to reading them. I hope others will as well.

Zoltan Zigedy

Monday, July 23, 2012

No Time for Illusions

No, I didn’t get it quite right. More than two years ago, I wrote:

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, “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 lay off 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. (“The Class War: Where Things Stand,” 2-14-2010)

Today, it is a bitter mockery that Peugeot announced two days before the French national holiday and only shortly after the Socialist Party sweep of French elections that the company would lay off 8,000 workers. At the bottom of a severe downturn, a virulently conservative president, Sarkozy, and his minions feared that the French labor movement and its friends would pounce if public bailout funds were offered to companies responding to the crisis with layoffs and plant closings. Yet Peugeot now feels confident that it can close a plant and reduce employment at another plant even with a “socialist” government in power. Hollande, the new Socialist President of France pronounces the move “unacceptable;” the French unions are indignant.

What has changed in two years?

In the depths of the crisis, fear gripped Peugeot and most of the rest of the corporate world. The threat of devastated profitability or even insolvency brought them to their knees. Without generous help from outside, from the public trough, and with the public agreement to take on the risk of pending corporate failure, Peugeot and its corporate brethren might have collapsed.

But now the same corporate behemoths exploit the public debt incurred in their rescue. They recognize the vulnerability of the French government to the circling financial buzzards and pick this moment to shed workers, reduce costs, and increase profitability. They are gambling that French unions will place their fate in the hands of the new French government which will not have the resolve to thwart Peugeot’s plans. I suspect they are right.

Surely, some must see a parallel with the Obama Presidential campaign and the accompanying Obama-mania that gripped the US in 2008. Like the US electorate, French citizens were euphoric over the prospects of moving beyond an embarrassingly incompetent, right-wing vulgarian. And like their US counterparts, many French voters invested unjustified hope in a candidate never demonstrating an ability to separate national interests from corporate interests. Once again voters cast aside reality for the thin promise of vague change.

Hollande, like Obama, devoted his first days to assuring business interests and European Union rulers that he had no intention to rock the boat too vigorously --- even though the boat is sinking.

When the moment is opportune, French “Socialist” Party leaders, their SYRIZA counterparts in Greece, and social-democratic candidates throughout the world step up to offer voters an easy option: class partisanship with no class struggle. Theirs is a make-believe world of advocacy, communication and compromise, a world where corporations and markets are resolutely tamed in parliamentary chambers through speeches and resolutions. Their history in this regard is hardly encouraging.

Just as European parliamentary elections have taken on more and more of the flavor of US two-party campaigns, the trajectory of European politics takes on more and more of that of the US. Thus, the Obama presidency offers a preview of what to expect from his European counterparts: a refreshed ruling class leadership offering more “progressive” style than substance.

After Obama’s election in the US, the “movement” unleashed for change was quickly dismantled and the new administration asserted continuity with ruling class policies, but served up with better articulation and a friendlier face to liberals and labor. As for the campaign promises of peace, labor law reform, health care reform, tax fairness, etc, they were unfulfilled or compromised.

Europeans who choose the easy detour of social democracy will relive the experience of US workers over the last nearly four years of Democratic Party governance. Wages for production and non-supervisory workers in manufacturing, when adjusted for inflation, are down 3.2% from March of 2009. At the same time, output per worker hour has exploded: where compensation has been essentially flat for the last nine years, output has grown by over 30%, rising most dramatically since 2009. For those of us still embracing the Marxist analytical tools, these facts signal a dramatic increase in the rate of exploitation under the watchful eyes of US social democrats and their liberal friends.

At the same time, wages for Mexican workers are rising. And in the Peoples’ Republic of China, wages rose 5% in 2009, 16% in 2010, and 20% in 2011. Already in the first half of 2012 wages for urban households rose 13% against the same time frame last year. So much credence for the myth of slave-labor conditions in China depressing US standards, a view so dear to backward labor leaders and media commentators. It should be transparently obvious that it is not the PRC government or Chinese workers who threaten US workers’ living standards, but corporations and their own government who both associate worker sacrifice with economic recovery.

And pity US steelworkers. With non-farm productivity growth (growth of exploitation) off for the first quarter of 2012 and threatening profit growth, steel manufacturers are looking to squeeze workers even harder. ArcelorMittal, the world’s largest steel producer is proposing to cut all wages and benefits by 36% and eliminate retiree health care for anyone hired after the expiration of the old United Steelworkers of America (USWA) contract on August 31. According to the USWA, ArcelorMittal hopes to cut $350 million per year from the labor costs incurred by 12,544 union workers, an amount that would transfer smoothly to share holders and top managers. While there is little indication of a plan to fight these moves, one of the USWA’s lead negotiators was quoted by The Wall Street Journal: “We’re very frustrated with the tone in negotiations.”

With ArcelorMittel enjoying $1.1 billion in profits in 2011, the union should be showing more militancy than a mere concern about the “tone” of negotiations. But don’t look for the “friend of labor” US President to show even a word of sympathy for the workers’ cause. Nonetheless, he and his Democratic Party colleagues will readily welcome the money and support of the USWA. Unlike their corporate counterparts, US unions insist on little in return.

Zoltan Zigedy 

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Getting Serious about Politics

Economic relations clarify politics just as politics can return the favor. In truth, it is impossible to fully understand one without an understanding of the other, and especially without a grasp of their inter-relationship. No doubt that explains the wisdom of the classical economists (and Marx and Engels) in describing their studies as “political economy.” Similarly, the failure to systematically integrate the two social domains explains the frustration of the modern-day academic economists, even Nobel laureates, who fume about the politicians standing in the way of their ready solutions to the current global economic crisis.

A case in point is the most prominent economist/pundit in the USA, Paul Krugman. Not to call out Krugman—most others share his frustration with US and European policy-makers—but his prestigious podium in The New York Times certainly makes him a handy target. Both in the recent pages of The New York Review of Books (jointly with his wife) and in his New York Times column, Krugman has turned to the political roadblocks standing in the way of his proffered “recovery.” Until recently, Krugman has simply repeated his prescription for recovery again and again. But now—like the Biblical Paul on the road to Damascus—Krugman has had a blinding flash of recognition. In his case, it's the maddening recognition of the political dynamics intimately tied to changing economic policy, the backward politics of political factionalism.

Undoubtedly part of Krugman’s (and other liberals like Robert Reich’s) new-found acknowledgment of the political dimension is the fast approaching Presidential and Congressional election in the US. While they are right to see much at stake, they will assuredly be disappointed with the policy options huckstered by the candidates of the two parties.

Economic crises not only clarify, but they expose politics. As we move deeper into a seemingly intractable global economic crisis, the political landscape is revealed to show clearly where the class interests of the various parties and alignments reside.

And what is exposed is neither pretty nor promising. It would be foolish to think that over forty years of building and strengthening a neo-liberal consensus would arm existing political institutions with the means to tackle a crisis of almost unprecedented ferocity. It borders on insanity to believe that a policy toolbox crafted from a long period of stability and smug confidence in capitalism would be adequate at a time when the foundations are collapsing. Yet, that foolishness and insanity is what we have in 2012.

Politics, Pre-Crisis

A long period of relatively crisis-free development in Europe and the US after World War II sapped Left and Communist Parties of their radical and revolutionary fervor. As mass confidence in capitalism’s promise and sustainability grew, anti-capitalists retreated into parliamentarianism and reformism. At the same time, bourgeois parties—the parties of capitalism—drew ideologically closer together, first around a modest Keynesian welfare state and then, after the severing of the post-war social contract and the subsequent fall of Soviet and Eastern European socialism,  around the neo-liberal agenda. Politics in Europe and the US evolved into an ever-tightening circle of economic consensus celebrating the supremacy of markets and the meager social justice compatible with capitalist accumulation. Bourgeois parties embraced unfettered capitalism and individual self-reliance, differing only on the pace of privatizing and dismantling former social safeguards. And radical parties, even Communist Parties, “mutated” or dissolved in order to be included in the tightening circle of common ideology. In the US, the two dominant parties competed more and more over the same terrain, limiting differences mainly to life style and cultural matters. In Europe, multi-party parliamentary systems were evolving inexorably into the two-party charade so well established in the US.

To the surprise of many, this happy festival of capitalist triumphalism was rudely interrupted by a global economic crisis of an intensity unseen since the early decades of the last century. Unfortunately, the left is as ill equipped to address this crisis as are its bourgeois opponents.

An Awakening?

After nearly four years of relentless economic instability and severe pain for a growing majority of the citizenry, surely it is time to question the viability of capitalism. With all signs pointing to another severe relapse amplifying the destruction of the 2008-2009 collapse, certainly the idea of a radical departure from capitalist social and economic relations is in order.

But to address the crisis, we must move dramatically away from the thinking that characterized the post-war “golden age” of capitalist development, an era that seduced the US and European left into the comfortable bed of class collaboration and reformism.

Some view the electoral turn in Europe to the “socialists” of Francois Hollande in France or the strong parliamentary showing of the SYRIZA coalition in Greece as a sign of a left rebirth. Many, both in the amorphous, ideologically muddled US left or with the European Green/pale-red parties, place their hopes in this development. 

Events will show this to be a false path, a path that invests in attempting to prop up the very system that has rained destruction, poverty, and pain on the vast majority of the world’s population. Certainly Hollande’s election and SYRIZA’s strong showing in Greece mean something. They represent a first attempt, a cautious and tentative attempt, to move away from the rigid discipline of markets and financial fealty. They represent the timid and fearful votes of a broad and self-satisfied middle stratum that, despite its profound injuries from the crisis, still harbor hopes of returning to the pre-crisis era. They express the false promise of a painless process that presumably will rein in predatory capitalism by negotiation and reasonableness. And, tragically, they represent a dead-end road leading to even further devastation of living standards and increased unemployment and poverty.

From the perspective of the ruling classes, the ascendancy of the French socialists and SYRIZA in Greece signals the passing of the baton to new forces with a mandate to manage capitalism (Just as the Obama candidacy signaled a similar passing in 2008). 

Their electoral successes point to the recognition that a new direction is both desired and warranted, though one that remains securely in the capitalist camp. In the words of Giorgos Marinos, a leader of the Communist Party of Greece, “… the reformation of the political scene is being promoted which is supported by the bourgeois class, the European Union and other imperialist mechanisms to more effectively manage the capitalist crisis in capital’s favor, to impede the class struggle…” As long as much of the left in both Europe and the US fail to see this, they turn away from any real exit from this profound crisis of the capitalist system.

Both Hollande and his socialists as well as SYRIZA propose to refuse the austerity medicine demanded by central bankers, international lenders, and EU politicians and, instead, focus on economic growth in France and Greece. While this proposal may have resonated with voters, it will never advance beyond a mere campaign slogan. It can’t.

To believe that austerity can simply be willed away is foolish or disingenuous. The austerity imposed in Europe is an economic imperative driven by the weaknesses of the European Union that allow predatory capitalism to exploit the most vulnerable of the Union’s members. Finance capital is the enforcer of this austerity and finance capital must be brought to its knees to escape the austerity. There is nothing in the French Socialist program or the SYRIZA platform that even hints at how this could or should be done.

Austerity has a political dimension, but at its heart it is both an economic mechanism to restore and expand profitability and an expression of the economic dominance of financial markets. To not grasp this point, to not understand that austerity emanates from a source deep in the capitalist system, is to have failed to draw any lessons from the last four years. Only a frontal assault on capitalism, a program to dismantle an economic system that invariably concentrates greater and greater wealth into fewer and fewer hands, answers this challenge.

Already, before the celebration of the Socialist Party’s sweeping victory has even expired, financial predators are focusing on France. Officials are warning of a “debt spiral,” while others in government are nervously reassuring financial markets that France will meet its deficit goals. One financial expert quoted by The New York Times noted: “So far the markets have been kind to France… but…France remains ‘the lucky peripheral.’” Not for long. And the Socialists have no answer.

Escaping the Debt Dilemma

It is no exaggeration to state that effective political responses to the crisis have yet to mature sufficiently in the US and Europe. Conservative and social democratic forces dominate the political landscape, while showing no program to escape the clutches of finance and monopoly capital. This undoubtedly will change as these capitalism-friendly parties fail to turn away the capitalist onslaught.

In Europe, principled revolutionary parties like the Greek Communist Party (KKE) will win more and more Greeks and Europeans to militant anti-capitalism and breathe life to the socialist option. They offer an answer to the debt dilemma.

During the most recent Greek parliamentary elections, the KKE was the target of a scathing attack for refusing to join with SYRIZA in a potential coalition government. “Leftists” in Greece, as well as outside the country, dishonored the party’s independence and trampled on its principles with irresponsible assaults on its position. Greek Communists adamantly refused to cooperate with a government that would both seek to preserve capitalism and fail to safeguard the interests of working people. History will show this stand marks the way forward, despite the electoral losses spawned by fear and confusion.

In the US, dismal two-party politics continues to grind down working people with no respite in sight. Both parties vie for and receive campaign money from the financial sector and the other major monopoly corporations. Both parties will duly reward this generosity.

Once again, as in the run-up to the 2008 election, the financial sector is pouring money into the Obama coffers (at a pace even greater than in the earlier campaign). And despite campaign rhetoric and the predictable liberal fear tactics and apologia, he will, once again, live up to the expectations of his campaign donors. The next five months promise an orgy of media spending on Orwellian images and slogans. No answer to the debt dilemma and the global crisis will come out of this low drama. Ironically, prominent liberal economist, Robert Reich concedes as much in a recent post on his website. Faced with abysmal economic data and the threat of a perceived bad economy to Obama's re-election prospects, Reich argues that there is little the administration could do to change matters: ironic and pathetic

As in Europe, a peoples’ answer will come with the emergence of an anti-capitalist advocate for socialism, a Communist or Workers Party, a formation that challenges the core of capitalist social and economic relations. Giorgos Marinos of the KKE says it succinctly and well: “There are more than enough forces to manage the system. What the people need are real communist parties that will not manage the capitalist barbarity in the name of the “government left” and in the name of “realistically” accepting the negative correlation of forces. In this way you pave the way for the forces of capital and precious time is wasted, for which the working class and the popular strata will pay a high price.”

Yes, working people are paying a high price and we need to get on with the business of giving the people real Communist Parties.

Zoltan Zigedy