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Friday, December 26, 2014

Some End-of-the-Year Thoughts

Congratulations to the Cuban patriots (the Cuban Five), the remaining three of whom were finally released from US jails for the “crime” of making the world a safer place from US imperialism (How extensive and racially and economically selective must a prison system be before we can refer to the installations as concentration camps?) All fair-minded people should rejoice at the moving reunion of these internationalists with their families and their countrymen and women!
Before we are overwhelmed by adulation for President Obama's role in the release of the remaining Cuban Five, a fawning process that has begun in earnest, we should remind the adulators that it is bad form to praise someone for doing what he or she should have done long before. Nothing has really happened to precipitate a change in US-Cuban relations at this moment except the passing of Obama's final national election cycle-- a fact that suggests that Obama's welcome moves are more political expediency than any serious change of heart. Those who sense faux-liberal stroking in anticipation of the forthcoming election season are probably on solid ground. The U-turn regarding policy towards Cuba demonstrated recently on the editorial pages of the New York Times also point to a strategic shift in the thinking of key elements of the US ruling class.
John Pilger, by way of Michael Munk's always interesting blog, lastmarx, asks what became of Malaysian flight MH17, which crashed in the Eastern Ukraine. After the July disaster, the Western media proceeded to blame Eastern Ukrainian resistance fighters and Russia without a shred of hard evidence beyond “unnamed” Western intelligence “sources” (How do journalists acquire access to intelligence sources yet remain uncompromised?).
Despite recovering black boxes, debris and bodies, the Western investigators have been strangely silent since August. No evidence has come forth apart from Russian sources. No indictments from the notorious International Court of Justice (from which the US refused to honor its jurisdiction in 1986 despite having a permanent judge and frequently imposing jurisdiction on others). Compare this to the Western-induced hysteria surrounding earlier incidents like Korean Airlines 007, a media frenzy that demonized the Soviets for years. Even the crazed General Breedlove-- Pilger calls him NATO's “Dr. Strangelove”-- has remained relatively silent. Could it be that the facts are pointing the wrong way?
The 2014 Brazen Hypocrisy award goes to President Barack Obama for his two-faced appeal to the right of self defense. Esteemed Cuban blogger Manuel A. Yepe lauds research by Brandon Turbeville that recovers a statement from November 2012 by the self-righteous Peace Prize Winner. President Obama, in defense of Israeli aggression, argued: “... there is no country on Earth that would tolerate missiles raining down on its citizens from outside its borders.” Of course this is unabashed hypocrisy for a leader who daily signs off on drone, cruise missile, and bomb attacks on Iraq, Syria, Pakistan, Somalia, or Yemen, a glaring contradiction that Yepe credits Turbeville for exposing.
Certainly there are plenty of candidates for the Hypocrisy Award, most of whom nest in US seats of power: the recent sanctions imposed by a serial human rights violator (the US) against Venezuela for imaginary “human rights” violations count as first degree hypocrisy. Imagine a government that spies on ALL of its citizens, tortures foreigners, and allows militarized police forces to kill unarmed citizens punishing Venezuela and lecturing the rest of the world about good behavior.
Or consider the hypocrisy of ferreting out other countries deficient in democracy-- a favorite activity of US media pundits-- while never mentioning Japan, a country ruled by one party, the Liberal Democratic Party, since 1955 with less than four years of respite. Many of those dubbed “dictators” would be jealous.
And then there's the shameless Henry Blodget, the blue-blood, consummate Wall Street insider, who has been banned for life from the securities industry for fraud. Addicted to the celebrity spotlight, Blodget regarded the claim that the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea hacked a US entertainment company as a sufficient basis for declaring the alleged  hack “effectively an act of war….” Blodget's panic arises from his concerns that the DPRK might “get into the money”: “'It’s not just they get some credit card numbers which we’ve been seeing forever. But they actually get into the money' at large corporations and banks” (Yahoo Finance, 12-19-14).
Truly, we swim in a sea of hypocrisy.
But hypocrisy is only tolerated because we refuse to hold public figures and the media accountable for their statements; as Gore Vidal put it, we reside in the “United States of Amnesia.” He drew attention to an adult population narcotized by shallow entertainments and denied any sense of history or continuity. Actually, Martha Gellhorn said it much earlier (1953) when she noted the “consensual amnesia” rampant in the US.
It is wrong, however, to blame the US people for the cowardice and lack of accountability of the media and academia. We cannot blame collective ignorance on the victims when it is the product of the massive, suffocating machinery of capitalist disinformation and vulgar culture.
Imagine if we could hold all of the opinion makers and policy pundits accountable for their slavish promotion of the unprovoked invasion of Iraq and the subsequent destabilization of the entire Middle East. Imagine if we could exile them to write for the Metropolis Daily Planet until they reclaimed their integrity. Soon, we would forget the names Friedman, Krauthammer, and the other cheerleaders of imperialism, maybe even the loudmouth, Cheney. Exactly what journalistic crimes must they commit, what disasters must they endorse before their bosses and colleagues turn them out?
Similarly, the economic collapse of 2007-2008, unpredicted and unsolved by the “wise men” of the economics profession, has spawned no new thinking or rejection of the old.
Sadly, most of our public intellectuals have become courtiers and not truth seekers.
We must not ignore the amnesia of the US left. Forgotten is the mass euphoria over the election of Barack Obama in 2008. Virtually all of the liberal and soft left was swept away by the overwhelming Democratic Party victory, affording a two-year window to pass a whole laundry list of legislation benefiting labor, minorities, women, the elderly, undocumented and other components of the Democratic Party coalition. Except for a health care initiative that has failed to live up to anyone's expectations other than insurance companies, none of these promises came to fruition, even to serious consideration. As the Democrats gin up for another Presidential campaign behind Hillary (after she disposes of the Quixote-like campaign of Elizabeth Warren), this miserable performance will be forgotten. With the Obama well running dry, liberal and the moderate left will drill a new Clinton well of hope. Memories are short.
While the signs of mass militancy are positive, most recently from the anger and activism springing from criminal police behavior, the left seems to find diversions and distractions that create speed bumps, if not detours, from clarity and united action.
The energy of the Occupy movement was welcome, but the embrace of the organizing principles of disorganization proved-- once again-- a damper on movement building. Seemingly, every generation must champion group therapy as an antidote to “hierarchies” and “leadership,” alleged features of the “old left,” “the establishment,” “elites” or other evils imagined by self-anointed ideological gurus.
The New Left of the sixties pioneered this posture, shattering enormous mass movements against racism and war into a thousand pieces. The shallow and idealistic emotions conjured by the words “participatory democracy” arise again and again with the same result.
The latest obstacle to ideological clarity and effective action is the amorphous and ideologically confounding “Sharing” Economy movement. The “New” or “Sharing” economy projects occupy two distinct poles.
At one pole are the liberal/left activists who have been shocked by the human carnage of economic crisis, but are afraid of or disillusioned with the socialist option. While many may see capitalism's flaws, they are cowed by the enormous task of defeating and replacing it. Rather than joining Marxists, who are confident and determined to revive the fight for a world without exploitation and without rule by the rich and powerful, they propose that we simply drop out of the global economy, that we live and work outside of it. In collectively owned cooperatives, they propose an alternative to capitalism. But is it really an alternative?
Certainly there is nothing, in principle, wrong with cooperatives. Indeed, they are sometimes an answer for small-holders to improve their destiny against large capitalist enterprises. That is, they can postpone, but rarely derail the laws of capitalist development, the tendency for the large to devour the small.
But it is silly to believe that cooperatives in any way challenge capitalism as we know it today. State-monopoly capitalism-- the merger of the power of the state with the largest, most economically dominant corporations-- will not shudder in the face of the cooperative movement. Nor should it. If cooperatives posed any kind of threat, the mega-corporations would swat them like flies.
Instead, the New Economy (cooperative) movement does offer an alternative-- an alternative to small businesses. Cooperatives, where they exist, compete against small businesses. They mesh a small-business mentality with an immature social consciousness, a program that only succeeds at the expense of those businesses marginally able to survive while leaving the rich and powerful untouched.
At best, the cooperative movement offers a safe haven for the few to hone their entrepreneurial skills in commercial combat against some of our potential allies in the anti-monopoly movement, the under-capitalized, marginal small business owner.
The other pole, however, is more insidious. The “sharing” economy, as exemplified by Uber and other creatively named Google-era projects, does not pretend to be anti-capitalist. While “sharing” poses as a kinder, gentler, freer capitalism, it really counts as a way for a new generation of entrepreneurs to pry open markets long dominated by well ensconced services. At the same time, this well-educated, supremely self-confident cabal have seduced many into believing that predation on these service industries is somehow “progressive.”
In fact, Uber and the sharing model are a step back to proto-capitalism, a return to the putting-out"system, where providing the labor and resources is the responsibility of others and not the capitalist. Uber, for example, uses the human capital (drivers) and fixed capital (their cars) of its “employees” to undermine services that are capital intensive (taxis, insurance, benefits, maintenance, fuel, etc) and available to even the most disadvantaged (subsidized public transportation). Like charter schools and package-delivery services, they cherry-pick the most profitable, least risky, or least costly niches of a service and leave the rest for someone else (most often, the public sector). In that way, they most resemble the hyper-exploitative cottage industries of the pre-industrial era. Like those industries, they rely upon sweated labor and forgo all worker protections.
Of course not all those embracing the sharing model begin as predators. Many see the internet as creating new opportunities for matching people and services. But centuries of capitalism teach us that every entrepreneur afforded the opportunity of matching people with services has leaped at the opportunity to commercialize it. Elite universities and business schools have not purged that tendency from their students.
Whether it is cooperatives or the “sharing” model of entrepreneurship, those looking for answers to the rapaciousness and vulgarity of our society must look elsewhere.
We will come no closer to achieving social justice and democracy until we understand the malignancy of capitalism. There are no other diagnoses.
Zoltan Zigedy

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Is There Life After Social Democracy?

Labour's problems aren't very different from those of other Western social democratic parties... In this sense we are experiencing not merely a crisis of the British state but also a general crisis of social democracy” (Labour Vanishes, Ross McKibbin, London Review of Books, November 20, 2014).
McKibbin's summary assessment of social democracy is both keen and cogent. Social democracy, the political expression of twentieth-century anti-Communist reformism, has arrived at a juncture that challenges its vision as well as its political vitality. In McKibbin's words: “Over the last twenty or thirty years the great social democratic parties of Germany, Austria, Scandinavia, Australia and New Zealand (and now France) have bled support...” One could add, though in a less dramatic way, the ersatz US social democratic party, the Democratic Party.
In a real sense, social democracy drew its energy from its posture as an alternative to Communism. For various reasons-- fear of change, anti-Communist demonology, ignorance, imagined self-interest-- many of those disadvantaged by capitalism took refuge in the tame, gradualist, and militantly anti-Communist parties claiming space on the left. By advocating an easy parliamentary approach, charting a cautious, non-confrontational road, and enveloping the effort with civility, social democratic thinkers believe they can win popularity and smooth the sharp edges of capitalism.
After the founding of the Soviet Union and the birth of international Communist parties-- many of them mass parties-- the old Socialist International hewed to a reformist line that separated it from Communism while posing as advocates on the side of the workers and for socialism. Parliamentary successes followed from the adoption of moderation and the condemnation of Communism, a lesson learned only too well by practical leaders.
The model for social democracy after the Bolshevik revolution was undoubtedly the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD). Assuming power after the abdication of the Kaiser, the SPD swiftly suppressed the revolutionary zeal of the masses and established a parliamentary regime. By suppressing Communism, the SPD sought to accommodate the hysterical fears of the bourgeoisie and the petty bourgeoisie, a tactic destined to permeate social democratic thinking to this day. Despite being the largest party bloc in the Reichstag until July of 1932, neither appeasement of the right nor “responsibly” overseeing a capitalist economy under great duress would rescue the SPD and Germany from the rise of Nazism. Social democrats are fond of blaming the SPD's failure on the militant left or right-wing extremism, but they willfully ignore the blatant fact-- equally true today-- that people turn away from centrist parties when they fail to keep their promises. Ruling Germany became more the goal of the SPD than ruling it well and in the interest of Germany's working people.
With Communists' resistance to fascism earning the respect and trust of the people, as it did throughout most of Europe, social democracy fared poorly after the War. It is well established today that where European social democratic parties were prepared to distance themselves loudly and forcefully from collaborating with Communists, “friends” in the US were only too happy to give them covert and overt aid. The CIA and the host of other acronymic entities created by the US government to subvert anti-capitalist and pro-labor activities worldwide found willing collaborators in social democratic parties, especially among those who clearly identified Communist success with social democratic failure. It was not long before the opportunism of anti-Communism infected the entire social democratic movement: In 1951, the Socialist International formally dissociated itself from Communism, characterizing it as terrorist, bureaucratic, imperialistic, and freedom-destroying. Articles 7, 8, 9, and 10 of the Frankfort Declaration excommunicate Communism, condemning it to the netherworld with all of the fervor of the Inquisition.
But opportunism begets opportunism. By 1959 any pretense of socialism was erased from the grandfather of social democratic parties, the SPD. With the Godesberg program, the SPD effectively renounced a commitment to socialism, replacing it with vague notions of social justice and allusions to democratic advances. German social democracy thus made its peace with capitalism, under the banner of anti-Communism, and would, henceforth, pledge to never stray from the path of reform.
Nearly all other socialist and social democratic parties followed suit. In place of socialism, the doctrine of social welfare emerged as a tepid surrogate for eliminating exploitation from social and economic relations. Social democracy created an artificial, divisive wall between marginally well-off working people-- the so-called “middle class”-- and their more destitute class brothers and sisters. Instead of expropriating the expropriators, social democracy insists that the burden of pacifying the poor should be borne socially, with much of that burden falling on working class families.
Class, like socialism, was relegated to the dustbin. In its place was the concept of civil society with markets determining social status, compensation, and the distribution of goods and services. Those who lacked the physical or mental assets to compete for the “opportunities” afforded by markets were supposed to be protected by a metaphorical societal “safety net,” a set of programs designed to guarantee a marginal life for those alleged to be lacking competitive skills or spirit. Thus, the cry of “Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité,” so inspirational in the French Revolution, was diluted centuries later to the liberty of markets, the equality of the jungle, and the selfishness of individualism. The only vestige of eighteenth-century humanism remaining in social democratic theory is a shabby, porous net that guarantees that “losers” in the game of life will remain losers.
For decades, the supposed shining star in the social democratic firmament was Sweden. The myth of Swedish “socialism” sustained the few claims to social justice remaining intact with the soft left's assumption of the role of capitalism's handmaiden. Whatever credibility this view might have enjoyed was devastatingly punctured by an article written by Peter Cohen in the July-August 1994 issue of Monthly Review (Sweden: The Model that Never Was). Taking two Pollyanna articles from the previous year to task, Cohen, a long-time resident of Sweden, states emphatically: “Like all European Social Democratic Parties, the SAP [Social Democratic Workers Party] not only accepts capitalism but defends it against any attempt at change. The party has always argued that what is good for Swedish corporations is good for the Swedish working class.”
Cohen presages the fate of the US and European working classes when he explains that the SAP has always accepted that class collaboration “requires the working class to accept cutbacks-- of all types-- when corporate profits decline, and even when they don't.” Cohen outlines the virulent anti-Communism in the SAP that led it to support internment of Communists in WWII and work hand-in-glove with US Cold Warriors, citing its support for Pinochet's government and hostility to Portugal's revolution.
The SAP instituted the so-called “solidarity wage policy,” a cynical leveling of workers' wages within the total wage package. Cohen explains: “The “solidarity wage” does not affect the imbalance of income between workers and capitalists. It only redistributes wages between different groups of workers. It also makes the SAP look like a dedicated defender of the workers' interests.”
Cohen documents the role of the SAP in introducing private schools into the Swedish education system, in pro-capitalist tax “reform,” and in weakening Swedish social insurance (the “safety net”).
He cites the SAP's call (now ubiquitous in all capitalist countries) to retard workers' compensation in the interests of “competitiveness.”
Cohen's remarkable article is uncannily prescient of the evolution of social democracy over the two decades to follow his article, an evolution of closer and closer class collaboration. In his words: “The table manners shown by the strong in the course of their meal may be more attractive in countries with Social Democratic governments, but the digestive process is the same.”
It is tempting to see this development as a mutation of the social democratic ideal, as a departure.
It is not.
Instead, it is the trajectory of social democracy in a world where the specter of Communism has ebbed. Without pressure from the left, social democratic parties shed all pretense of representing the working class against capital and political power. Today, social democratic parties-- like the US Democratic Party-- function under the illusion that Europe and North America are classless societies, while acknowledging the problem of poverty plaguing the so-called “underclass.” Absent an aggressive commitment to resource redistribution, the 2007-2008 economic crisis has caught the moderate left in the vise of either imposing additional burdens on the majority to help the poor or ignoring their increasing desperation. To a great extent, they have chosen to ignore growing poverty while aiding capital in its effort to extract itself from the mire of global crisis. In essence, social democrats believe that capitalism can be steered out of the crisis without seriously modifying the existing relationship between capital and workers.
For workers seduced by social democracy, the romance has proven truly tragic. A partnership with capital combined with a commitment to buffering capital's “excesses” proves to be an extravagant self-deception; capital accepts no such concession. Rather than delivering capitalism with a human face, the architects of anti-Communist reformism have delivered division, concession, austerity, hardship, and imperial aggression.
But even more tragically, the failure of the social democratic project drives far too many people, including disillusioned workers, toward the extreme right, fascism, and neo-Nazism. Throughout Europe and the US, working people thirsting for answers have been betrayed by reformism. Unfortunately, they far too often turn to the right, a turn that conjures eerie images of the rise of fascism between the Wars.
Workers deserve a better option.
Zoltan Zigedy