Search This Blog

Sunday, December 20, 2015

After State Monopoly Capitalism?

Few review articles are as satisfying as the recent Paul Krugman examination of Robert Reich’s new book, Saving Capitalism: For the Many, Not the Few, in the New York Review of Books (December 17, 2015). To begin with, it was gratifying to find the stark candor behind the title of Reich’s book. “Saving capitalism” assuredly implies that capitalism is on the ropes—in danger of expiring—an implication that I both believe and welcome.

Robert Reich, Paul Krugman, and another colleague, Joseph Stiglitz share lofty accomplishments in academic economics and constitute the intellectual triumvirate informing the non-Marxist left in the US. Although they do not agree on everything, they share a core set of beliefs in the viability of capitalism and its need to reform. It is unusual to see Krugman and Reich suggesting such blatant urgency.

The felt urgency turns on the dramatic increase of economic inequality in major capitalist countries, particularly the US. Krugman stresses that inequality was an issue that Reich and he “were already taking seriously” twenty-five years ago. That may be, but I think it’s fair to say that neither was taking the growth of inequality seriously as a structural feature of capitalism until the important work of Thomas Piketty two years ago.

Krugman takes us on an intellectual journey, outlining in clear, non-technical terms how he, Reich, and other non-Marxist economists modified their understanding of the causes of inequality growth (not simply inequality, but its growth) over the last several decades. Where Krugman arrives is nothing short of amazing: he, no doubt unwittingly, describes an evolved capitalism resembling the capitalism that Marxists described well over half of a century ago.

Decades ago, liberal, mainstream economists believed that rising inequality in the US sprang from a poor match between technological requirements and workers’ skill sets—what Krugman calls “skill-based technological change” (SBTC). Education was seen as the great leveler, restoring wealth and income to those falling behind. But with the correlation between levels of education and compensation broken today, all reject SBTC as an adequate explanation and the key to arresting the growth of inequality. The growth of debt-laden college graduates working in call centers surely shatters that illusion. Or as Krugman smartly puts it: “…hedge fund managers and high school teachers have similar levels of formal training.”

But economists fell back on another technological example: robots and other productivity-enhancing devices replacing workers. But Krugman makes short shrift of this explanation:

if we were experiencing a robot-driven technological revolution, why did productivity growth seem to be slowing, not accelerating?

if it were getting easier to replace workers with machines, we should have seen a rise in business investment as corporations raced to take advantage of the new opportunities; we didn’t and in fact corporations have increasingly been parking their profits in banks or using them to buy back stocks.

Krugman thus dismisses a technological explanation for the growth of inequality.

Instead he urges that we consider the centerpiece of Reich’s study: monopoly power.

It is the concentration of economic power in the hands of fewer corporate players that accounts for growing economic inequality, according to Krugman and Reich: “…it’s obvious to the naked eye that our economy consists much more of monopolies and oligopolists than it does of the atomistic, price-taking competitors economists often envision.”

So why did it take Reich and Krugman so long to arrive at this juncture, a place that Lenin visited over a hundred years ago? Marxist writers like Paul Baran and Paul Sweezy devoted an entire influential book to monopoly capitalism nearly fifty years ago.

Krugman apologetically-- “an intellectual and a policy error”--attributes the mainstream economic neglect of monopoly to an influential paper written by Milton Friedman in 1953 that emphatically dismissed the effects of monopoly power on significant economic behavior.

Thus, non-Marxist economists and their political allies have scorned the concept of monopoly power until recently, a concept that Marxists have made a centerpiece of their analyses for most of the twentieth century. What is “obvious to the naked eye…” now informs the theories embraced by our left-leaning reformers.

But Krugman and Reich reveal another crucial linkage—that between economic power (monopoly power) and political power (“And this ties the issue of market power to political power”). They see monopoly power as sustained, protected, and expanded by political actors. At the same time, they see political actors as selected, nourished, and guided by monopoly power. This creates a troubling conundrum for those seeking to reform capitalism. Reich’s conclusion, in Krugman’s words:

Rising wealth at the top buys growing political influence via campaign contributions, lobbying, and the rewards of the revolving door. Political influence in turn is used to rewrite the rules of the game—antitrust laws, deregulation, changes in contract law, union-busting—in a way that reinforces income concentration. The result is a sort of spiral, a vicious circle of oligarchy.

Putting aside the clashing metaphors of circles and spirals, this statement reasonably captures the mechanism behind the socio-economic formation Marxists call State Monopoly Capitalism.  For Marxists, concentration necessarily begets monopoly capitalism, which subsequently completely fuses with the state, creating a mutually reinforcing synthesis. The state rules in the interest of monopoly capitalism while policing the economic terrain to maximize the viability and success of monopoly capital. Monopoly capital legitimizes the state and selects and imposes its overseers. Nothing demonstrates the intimacy more than the crisis bailouts of mega-corporations (“too big to fail”) and the increasing establishment of international governing bodies and trade agreements. Nothing demonstrates monopoly capital’s political dominance more than the decisive role of mega-corporate money in the two-party political process.

With the recognition of the vital link of monopoly capital and the state, Krugman and Reich reach an understanding on a parallel with those Marxist theorists who characterized the post-World War II era as one of state monopoly capitalism. While some features of that characterization were and are sometimes disputed (see, for example, Politico-Economic Problems of Capitalism, Y. Varga, 1968), most Marxists would enthusiastically welcome the two economists to their camp on this important issue.

But unlike Marxists, who see the overthrow of capitalism as the final answer to the wedding of monopoly power to political power, Krugman, Reich and their liberal and social democratic colleagues are left with the conundrum that follows inescapably from their conclusions about the source of inequality. The economic reforms that they envision to retard the growth of inequality are altogether blocked by the massive political power stacked against them. And that political power is stacked against reform because political power is the purchase of monopoly power. In other words, their findings confirm that monopoly has the political process locked up and that lock will ensure that monopoly will continue to grow along with inequality.

Krugman clearly recognizes this conundrum and casts serious doubts over Reich’s wistful glance back at the past and faith that a New Deal-like solution will magically emerge from the amorphous “populism” of candidates from both parties (he mentions Ted Cruz!).

Of course Krugman is right in dismissing Reich's nostalgic answer, but he can offer no alternative.

We conclude that the growth of inequality will only be stopped when the program of saving capitalism is put aside for a program that vigorously challenges the capitalist system. We hope that Krugman and Reich will draw the same conclusion in the future.

Zoltan Zigedy

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Where Did You Get the Money, Anne?

Without a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, we may never know to what extent cultural and intellectual life in the US was shaped by schemes and resources associated with powerful US Cold War elites. Thanks to scholars like Francis Stonor Saunders (The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters), Hugh Wilford (The Mighty Wurlitzer: How the CIA Played America), and a handful of resourceful academics, we can piece together a shameful story of knowing and unwitting collaboration with Cold War goals across and deep within the elite academic community; we know of the widespread compromise of key, influential figures in the media to the wishes of the Cold Warriors; and we better understand why some cultural and intellectual trends seemed to flourish while others were left to wither.
At the same time, we have learned more of the repression of dissent from the Cold War consensus. Facts have been uncovered that show that “McCarthyism” was more than a momentary lapse in democratic values. The post-war repression left scars that persist, thought patterns that remain frozen, intellectual and cultural roads that continue to be blocked.
For those who study this history, twentieth century intellectual pillars like Robert Conquest, George Orwell, and Isaiah Berlin are now diminished in stature. Their witting engagement with and sponsorship by secret services and the covert promotion of their ideas shatter any claim to the intellectual integrity of their widely influential work. While this tarnishing of Cold War icons is accepted by most academic specialists, the kept mainstream media continues to herald the “truths” disseminated by similarly kept Cold War intellectuals.
With the Cold War long over, the enduring chant of anti-Soviet demonology continues, but with a new generation of intellectual charlatans conjuring the demons.
The current flock of professional anti-Communists is equally adept at turning from its defamation of the Soviet Union to defaming capitalist Russia. It really comes down to serving up whatever its masters demand.
Timothy Snyder (Bloodlands) and Anne Applebaum (Gulag: A History, Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944–1956) are two of the new breed of intellectuals who espouse views that uncannily coincide with the ideological needs of our ruling elites. As I wrote in March of last year, the two brought their arsenal of invective to smear the deposed Ukraine president Yanukovych, hail the violent, extreme-right opposition, and plant the evil Russians in their apologies for the Ukrainian coup.
While Snyder’s academic credentials convey “expert” standing on his pronouncements, Anne Applebaum has parlayed a master’s degree in international relations and a career in journalism to a widely celebrated place as the leading “scholar” of Soviet-era repression. It’s fair to see her as heir apparent to Robert Conquest, owning the privilege of making ex cathedra judgments of everything Eastern European.
August publications like The New York Review of Books welcome her every thought on Soviet history or modern Eastern Europe, as does nearly every other Western medium. Curiously, none pauses to weigh-- not to mention, to acknowledge—Ms. Applebaum’s marital tie to one of Poland’s more prominent anti-Russian, right-wing, and controversial politicians, Radoslaw Sikorski. Sikorski’s racist outbursts, his extravagant life style, and his virulent anti-Russian screeds cast no shadow over his spouse’s exalted status in the West.
Sikorski’s recent scandals involving corruption and financial mismanagement are widely reported in Poland, but unaddressed in the West. In the US, the Polish power couple (Applebaum has taken Polish citizenship) is viewed as a paragon of liberalism and integrity.
But thanks to the tenacious research of an expatriate US citizen named John Helmer, evidence has emerged that suggests that Applebaum, like her intellectual forbearers, has tasted of the forbidden fruit. Polish law requires that officials and spouses report incomes, reports that are publicly accessible. According to Sikorski’s 2014 report, Ms. Applebaum earned around $800,000 from non-Polish sources in 2013. Generously allowing for income from book royalties, her WaPo and Newsweek columns, and a salary from the Legatum Foundation in London, that leaves several hundred thousand dollars unaccounted for (Helmer estimates $565,000).
It doesn’t take much imagination to see the workings of a hidden hand, a hand grateful for Applebaum’s slavish support and promulgation of US and NATO foreign policy objectives in Ukraine and other Eastern European countries.
Wikileaks noted this interesting bump in income (Sikorski reported his wife’s earnings as $20,000 the prior year). Applebaum responded to Wikileaks with out-of-character discomfit and the intensification of her anti-Russia hysterics. She tweeted: “Wow! Assange now using fake/libellous slander from John Helmer, who fled US after being recruited by the KGB in 80s.”
There is nothing like a dose of red-baiting to deflect the question.
Whether Applebaum can explain this sudden bounty is uncertain. But one thing is certain: the Western media will never allow it to derail the war-mongering propaganda blitz targeting Russia.

Zoltan Zigedy

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

The Pathologies of Capitalism

Capitalism owes its resilience to its ability to devise novel tactics to deflect, distort, and deflate mass resistance. Even with the casualties of global capitalism mounting, capitalism’s fixers have channeled public dissatisfaction and disappointment into private diminished self-worth and self-destructiveness.
London Review of Books reviewer, Katrina Forrester, aptly captures this insidious ploy: when faced with oppression and exploitation “Don’t join a union, pop a pill.” In her perceptive review of William Davies’ The Happiness Industry: How the Government and Big Business Sold Us Wellbeing (22 October 2015) she exposes the wide spread practice of defining rebellious behavior or negative attitudes as psychological disorders. “...if you’re not happy, wish things were different, or find it hard to adapt to the conditions of modern life, you may be diagnosed as suffering from a mental illness.”
More and more often, academics and therapists have accepted the notion that depression or dysfunctional behavior is a mark of mental problems regardless of the causes of the behavior or attitude. They “…think of unhappiness as a pathology, a psychological or mental state amenable to behavioral and medical intervention. This is the logic that underpins the growth of the ‘happiness industry.’” Thus, for example, when an Iraqi mother loses two sons fighting a foreign occupier, when her personal security is constantly threatened, and living conditions continue to deteriorate, her unhappiness is pathological. It is not the horrid conditions of her life (conditions which could have been avoided or can be altered), but her “negative” feelings that must be changed.
As Forrester points out, “Many people are unhappy for good reasons, which the new therapeutic practices of the happiness industry largely ignore.”
She goes on:
Where once the solution to unhappiness at work was social reform and collective action, now it’s individual uplift and “resilience”; when we want to resist, we don’t join a union but call in sick. If you lose your job and feel demoralized at the prospect of looking for a new one, that too might be a diagnosable condition.
Forrester reports that in the UK some have taken to rebranding unemployment as a psychological disorder with claimants’ “attitude to work” used as a determinant of benefit worthiness.
While appreciative of the book under review, Forrester faults the author for his weak answer to the happiness industry. Rather than recognizing that happiness-obsession serves capitalism by trivializing capital’s destructive nature, William Davies sees it as somehow a threat to democracy. By touting “democratizing” the work place, Davies joins all social democrats in assiduously avoiding placing capitalism’s pathologies at capitalism’s doorsteps. And Forrester sees this flaw clearly: “Happiness and depression are tied up with capital in ways far more concrete than Davies allows.”
Pathological Blowback
It is no secret that whites have often been the most socially compliant demographic group. Middle-aged white people are today inclined to cling to the dominant ideological narrative, to support the ruling class “verities.” But they are paying a heavy price for the trust that they have placed in wealth and power.

A recent study, Rising morbidity and mortality in midlife among white non-Hispanic Americans in the 21st century, shows that whites, especially less educated whites, between the ages of 45 to 54 have suffered a dramatic increase in mortality since 1999. The authors, Professors Case and Deaton, argue that much of this increase is caused by an over four-fold increase of drug and alcohol overdoses, an over 50% increase in suicides, and an over 25% increase of chronic liver disease. Further, they have related this abuse to mental-health problems and problems in handling personal difficulties, especially economic stresses.

Case and Deaton speculate that increased mortality may have caused 488,500 deaths that could have been avoided between 1999 and 2013—what the anti-Soviet Kremlinologists of the Cold War era would label “unnecessary deaths.”
While there is much alarm in the mainstream academic and social work community, there are few theories about how such mass “unhappiness” could occur and about how to arrest it.
But is it really that difficult to discern the causes of this mental health epidemic?
Should it be a surprise that white people who came of age during and after the Reagan era of fanatical US boosterism, who experienced the period where all social questions were settled with the mantra “Are YOU better off now?”, and who endured a time when personal “success” trumped social relations and social responsibilities, would now find disappointment, even despair in the unrelenting crises of the twenty-first century?
Capitalism fostered an ever-present trend of alienation, isolation, and subjectivism that accelerated dramatically over the last forty years. Extreme competitiveness for jobs, status, and power nurtured the virus of selfishness and insensitivity. In the Hobbesian State of Nature that ensued, many were consumed by ruthless competition—the struggle for success. Those who were “losers”—and there must be losers, if there are winners—were stripped of their self-worth.  
With the promise of boundless prosperity and the ideology of self-advancement rocked by two devastating economic crises in the first decade of the twenty-first century, those most committed to this faith were devastated. Harsh realities caught up with the fairy tales spun by capitalism’s apologists. For those seeing no options, alcohol, drugs, and suicide became an answer.  
But causes of this epidemic are not found in the soul or mind, but in capitalism. And solutions are not found on the therapist’s couch, in self-help sessions, the drug store or the bottle, but in creating a world where everyone has a welcoming, useful, and satisfying place. That place will never be found where capitalism reigns.

Zoltan Zigedy

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Why Donald? Why Bernie?

People on the left believe that systems are corrupt. People on the right tend to believe that the system (at least as they understand its design) is just fine, and it's individual people who are too corrupt or too weak to propel it towards its full greatness. Thus partisans of the right lean more toward a version of Thomas Carlyle's view that history is about great men (and now women, too), which elevates biography to the level of supreme importance, while partisans of the left care less about the outsider's life story than his criticism of power and how he will challenge it. These differing conceptions dictate how the candidates present themselves and even how they would govern, should one of them become president.” Michael Tomasky, Very Improbable Candidates, New York Review of Books, 11-05-15.

In his recent article, Michael Tomasky explores the questions challenging most of the mainstream political commentators: What explains the dramatic ascendancy of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders in their respective primary campaigns? What accounts for poll numbers far exceeding rivals expected to cruise through the primary season?

For my part, I argue, as I have in the past, that both parties are so thoroughly owned by corporations and the wealthy that the chances of a real oppositional movement emerging from within the Democratic Party and through the two-party electoral process are slim-to-none. The chances of a renegade Republican emerging are somewhat greater, but still slight. A far more reliable indicator of primary prospects can be found in counting the campaign contributions and gauging the sentiments of the corporate-friendly party leaders. To steal a movie catch-phrase, the key is to follow the money. After all, the fuel for winning national political office is cash, and more and more decisively with every election cycle. Thus, victory is decided by those who have it. I stand by my projections: thoroughly corporate-friendly candidates will emerge in the end, as they have in the past.

In the case of Bernie Sanders, Tomasky would agree that Sanders’ chances are slim: “Then, on March 1, comes Super Tuesday, which consists mostly of southern states... Barring unusual circumstances, it's difficult to see how Sanders could amass the delegates needed to win the nomination.”

But what does stand behind the Sanders/Trump phenomena? What accounts for the unexpected success of Sanders’ economic populism and Trump's re-visioning of Know-Nothing philosophy?

Clearly longer term trends are at play. Opinion polls show that the public's sentiment that "things are going in the right direction" has been steadily and persistently trending downward since 1998. Similarly, approval rates for Congress have shown a dramatic decline since 2005. Not surprisingly, confidence in key economic institutions like banks has also collapsed.

More recently, a Wall Street Journal/NBC poll shows sharp shifts in political ideology within and a stark polarization between the political parties. At the high water of Reaganism (1990), only 39 per cent of Democrats described themselves as somewhat liberal or very liberal, with a strong majority falling into the former category. Some will remember that the word “liberal” became an epithet during that era of high-Reaganism.

Today (2015), 55% of Democrats see themselves as somewhat liberal or very liberal, with the split nearly 50/50 between the two categories. Clearly, liberalism-- whatever the word now means to respondents-- has regained currency within the Democratic Party.

Similarly, the percentage of self-described Republicans embracing the conservative label has risen from 48% to 61% in 25 years. As with the Democrats, the more staunch (in this case, very conservative) sentiment has grown more dramatically, increasing from 12% to 28% of Republicans since 1990.

These numbers go a long way toward showing an increasing divide between the two parties. But even more significantly, they show an increasing desire on the part of the rank-and-file to reshape the respective parties in a more ideological direction. Dissatisfaction with the direction of the country and its institutions has generated both a rightward (in the Republican Party) and leftward (in the Democratic Party) drift, a drift spawned by a distrust of the ideas and candidates offered by the parties' mainstreams.

Given that third parties have not yet stepped up to absorb this dissatisfaction (opinion polls strongly suggest that the electorate would welcome third parties), voters are expressing their unhappiness by supporting candidates like Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump (and other outliers).

For the Republican corporate puppet-masters, Trump presents a real problem. The unhinged insurgency represented by Trump threatens to derail, or at least move to a siding, the deeply embedded, core Republican agenda of unfettered markets, a shriveled public sector, no taxes, and corporate welfare. In its place, Trump offers rabid racism, nativism, and cultural war based on the foggy notion of a lost “America.” Republican leaders know this is a formula for defeat. They are struggling to snatch the nomination away and hand it to a reliable corporate Republican. Jeb Bush was their choice, though he has gained no traction despite an enormous war chest. I trust they'll figure it out.

The leftward pressure felt by the Democratic Party's bigwigs has been historically less of a problem. They have managed voter dissatisfaction by feigning left and driving right. They have endured primary insurgencies (Jackson, Dean, in recent years) knowing full well that the game was rigged by money and superdelegates (approaching 20% of those voting at the convention). They also mastered the tactic of embracing vague leftist postures in electoral campaigns, which are quickly discarded after victory (Obama). These tactics will likely serve them well with the Sanders insurgency.

Nonetheless, the Sanders campaign offers valuable and important lessons for the US left. Running almost exclusively on the issue of economic inequality, Sanders challenges the concept of “liberalism” fostered by the liberal media and Democratic Party elites. Over many years, “liberalism” has come to be associated with “social liberalism”: life-style issues, identity, and tolerance-- all worthy values, but more urgent to those enjoying economic security. “New Deal liberalism,” based on collective prosperity, economic equality, and community benefits, has largely been driven from the political landscape. Contemporary liberalism has been shaped into NPR (National Public Radio) liberalism, a liberalism that assiduously avoids any but the most innocuous critique of the capitalist system, but sincerely wants everyone to find happiness.

But Sanders has touched a popular nerve. He recognizes this as a Piketty-moment, with millions of people left on the outside looking in after the 2008-2009 economic collapse (and the continuing crisis). Millions are disgusted with the poverty and desperation of so many serving as a backdrop to the vulgarities of extreme wealth.

A Pew Social Trends poll shows this change dramatically: between 2009 and 2011-- a span of a mere 2 years-- 19% more respondents in the samples reported “strong” or “very strong” conflicts between the rich and poor. Fully two-thirds of respondents in 2011 reported “strong” or “very strong” conflict. As Pew's Rich Morin reports, “... the issue of class conflict has captured a growing share of the national consciousness.”

Surprisingly, a majority of Republicans share this view with nearly three-fourths of Democrats. Independents trail only slightly, with 68% reporting strong or greater perceived class conflict.

Not surprisingly, Blacks and Hispanics recognized the class conflict in great numbers before and after the twenty-first century Great Crash. Whites, however, showed the greatest jump in recognition of the class divide-- from 43% to 65%. Nearly one-in-four whites in the US were jarred by the effects of a capitalist crisis and its impact on them, their families, and their friends into seeing class antagonism where they never saw it before.

Of several potential “social conflicts in society,” the Pew study shows that the rich/poor divide is perceived as the most acute, well more than conflict between whites and Blacks.

This is the fertile soil for Sanders’ economic-equality campaign. This is the growing class divide fueling Sanders' candidacy.

Another Pew poll shows the willingness of US citizens to find solutions to the growing inequality by redistributing wealth. In a study of attitudes towards the US tax system, respondents placed their feeling that corporations and the wealthy fail to pay their fair share well ahead of their other tax concerns. When asked what bothers them “some” or “a lot” about the current tax system, fully 82% felt bothered that corporations were not paying their fair share and 79% felt the same way about the wealthy paying their fair share. Our friends and neighbors are unquestionably friendly towards taxing corporations and the rich, another chord that Sanders has struck.

It should be obvious from polling results and the Sanders campaign that US political and economic attitudes have shifted substantially in a direction that is potentially favorable to the left. But it should be just as obvious that this opportunity has been willfully squandered by the Democratic Party. In fact, apart from Sanders, the Democratic leadership has shown no interest-- apart from moral suasion and empty rhetoric-- in making the US a more egalitarian society, in taking sides in the class conflict.

On the other hand the independent left-- independent of the two parties-- has a great opportunity to embrace and develop the economic issues that Sanders has touched upon. Tomasky writes in the quote above of a left that “...believe[s] that systems are corrupt...”, that will criticize “power” and “challenge it.” Too much of our left has yet to recognize that the two-party system is among the corrupt systems. Too few of our comrades have drawn the conclusion that the two-party system is an oppressive “power” deserving of criticism and challenge... and not a democratic institution.

Regardless of the success or lasting impact of the Sanders candidacy, the US left must seize the opportunity offered by the rapidly shifting attitudes of the US people. Organizing and educating to focus mass dissatisfaction against oppressive systems and institutions-- especially capitalism-- is the next step.

Zoltan Zigedy

Saturday, October 17, 2015

US Imperialism’s Failed Tactics

US imperialism and its allies learned a hard lesson from their unsuccessful adventure in Vietnam. Escalating US troop involvement to nearly half a million serving at the war’s peak, drawing on forced enlistment (conscription) to rotate nearly three million personnel serving throughout the war, and incurring over 200,000 casualties proved to be a politically destabilizing, consensus-challenging endeavor.
Military planners recognized that unless they were able to generate a broad consensus for war or guarantee a short, decisive duration, the draft risked a politically volatile backlash. Consequently, they opted for developing a volunteer army and a war-friendly culture to legitimize its use.
But they drew an even more important conclusion. Where imperialism fought a foe defending its homeland, the costs were usually far too great for the US public to tolerate. Certainly US engagement in the world-wide, anti-fascist war of 1939-1945 enjoyed unwavering popular support. But US forces never fought on Japanese soil and only briefly in a crippled Germany.
When engaged in supporting a rump regime in Korea, the US military achieved, at best, a stalemate. The same boots-on-the-ground approach in Vietnam collapsed before a people deeply resentful of US occupiers.
After Vietnam, imperialist war planners devised a tactic of relying more and more upon surrogates. Understanding that local populations furiously opposed foreign occupiers, the US sought to impose its objectives by creating and supporting mercenary forces who could claim, at least tenuously, to local status. From supporting UNITA or FNLA in Angola to creating, arming, and aiding the Contra movement in Nicaragua, the US preferred waging aggression with surrogate forces. An effective, massive propaganda effort “legitimized” the client armies as “freedom fighters.”
Probably the most successful use of the post-Vietnam tactic was in Afghanistan, where US covert services armed a reactionary tribal opposition to destabilize a secular, modern government and, as a result, gave a decisive, strong impetus to an emergent Islamic fundamentalist war against secularism of all kinds. The jihadist movement found its legs, its confidence as surrogates against an urban-based Afghanistan government supported by the Soviet Union, then a bulwark against US imperialism.
After the demise of the Soviet state, the US cautiously employed its “professionalized” and volunteer military in Iraq, Afghanistan, and once more in Iraq. Still, military planners hoped to quickly train a surrogate force and just as quickly evacuate US ground forces, leaving client states with militaries sufficiently armed and motivated to crush any domestic resistance to a US-friendly regime.
While the tactic held the promise of minimizing domestic resistance by using a compliant media to construct the false narrative of democratic change and humanitarian intervention and while the tactic hoped to generate tolerable US casualties and minimal material costs, resistance movements once again proved to be far more determined, and stability far more elusive, than the best minds of the military or covert services imagined.
Fourteen years in Afghanistan and twelve years of propping up a client state in Iraq, manufacturing a failed state in Libya, and sparking a devastating civil war in Syria are testament to a failed policy.
More importantly, the failure is part of a continuous, irreversible decline in US imperialism’s ability to impose its will in a world of stiffening anti-imperialist resistance and growing inter-imperialist rivalries.
Nothing underlines this new reality more than the latest events in Afghanistan and Syria.
Despite a massive concentration of weaponry, superior pay, and the best US training, the Afghan surrogate army suffered its worst defeat ever at the hands of the Taliban in the siege and occupation of Kunduz. All reports indicate that the Taliban forces were inferior in numbers and weapons and that the US-trained government forces had little stomach for the fight.
US officials have been obliged to announce a delay in the exit of troops from Afghanistan in the face of this defeat. President Obama has decided to pass on the Afghanistan quagmire to the next President, just as President Bush passed it on to him.
Russian engagement in Syria has inadvertently exposed the lies and failures of US actions in that country. Since the Obama administration began encouraging and assisting the overthrow of Syrian President Assad, the government and the lapdog media have claimed the existence of a democratic, moderate opposition. From late in 2011, US and UK military leaders began planning armed action against Assad. A surrogate army (the Free Syrian Army) was projected as an alternative to the fundamentalist jihadists seeking a feudal-theological state (Qatar and other Gulf states intervened, pretending no such distinctions). Weapons were diverted from Libya and CIA training began in earnest with a projected military force numbering in the tens of thousands.
After the ISIS threat emerged, the US and the other interventionists further pretended that its client fighting forces were equally engaged against ISIS and the many other groups fighting Assad who were designated “terrorist” by the West.

In reality, the US “freedom fighters” were virtually non-existent or collaborating enthusiastically with the jihadists. Their sole target was Assad.
The Obama government has conceded that of thousands vetted by the CIA program only a few hundred remain on the war front. Most have shared their weapons with or joined the jihadists or left Syria with the thousands of immigrants. The half-billion-dollar program is a disaster, with the US administration pledging to pass the remaining weapons and resources on to existing fighting groups in Syria.
The spectrum of the Western media reports that, especially since the Russian intervention, there is extensive cooperation, coordination, and joint action between all elements of the Syrian anti-Assad forces—so much for the ruse of an independent force in opposition to fundamentalism.
As the Wall Street Journal reports: “…the Homs Legion of the Western-backed Free Syrian Army… together with the Islamist group Ahrar al-Sham and Nusra Front [Syria’s al-Qaeda affiliate] has formed joint command in Northern Homs.” The Washington Post has identified a similar unholy alliance of jihadist and “moderates” that was crafted into a Nusra-led Army of Conquest. Only the most gullible continue to believe that there is a significant difference between Western-backed “freedom fighters” and their jihadist allies.
Western liberals can make believe that US involvement in Syria is for some greater good, but the facts speak clearly. As with Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, tens of thousands are dead, infrastructure is devastated, and the social fabric is irreparably torn simply because imperialist powers seek more compliant, more subservient states. The facts expose the lie that the US and NATO seek the values of democracy, freedom, or the other values that prove so persuasive to those apologizing for self-interested regime change.
Anti-imperialists can draw a small consolation from these tragic, morally repellent aggressions: the US tactics have failed to achieve their goal of creating global fealty to US interests.

Zoltan Zigedy

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

A Cesspool of Hypocrisy

If there were a hypocrisy meter, the Obama administration surely would have achieved unprecedented numbers in recent weeks. With the Putin government announcing and swiftly executing military action in Syria, the US government and its NATO allies went apoplectic, accusing the Russians of destabilizing the Middle East, increasing the threat of terrorism, adding to homelessness, and risking the widening of the war. Of course any sane observer knows that the US has already destabilized the Middle East, fomented terrorism, brought on mass homelessness, and dramatically widened the war, while causing hundreds of thousands of casualties.
The Obama administration and its hyper-patriotic opposition within the ruling class are most indignant because Syria, Iraq, Iran, and the Russian Federation have signed a mutual assistance accord that mounts a real anti-extremist front in the wars raging in Syria and Iraq. Irony of ironies, US meddling in the Middle East has brought two former intransigent enemies-- Iran and Iraq-- together. To the shock of US Geo-political schemers, a client state-- Iraq-- dares to defy its sponsor-- the US-- in forging this agreement. Iran and Russia, both squeezed extortionately by the vise of US/EU sanctions, have defied the school yard bullies to support the Syrian government.
Responding to recent Russian bombings of targets in Syria, Obama denounced the Russian moves as a “recipe for disaster.” No one in the administration has explained how Syria-- or Iraq, Libya, Yemen, or Afghanistan-- could be a bigger disaster.
Obama has accused the Russians of not discriminating between ISIS (ISIL) and the other opponents of the Assad government. He maintains that the Russians are supporting Assad rather than the anti-ISIS effort. At the same time, the US government concedes that the CIA has armed its own surrogates with sophisticated anti-tank weapons (TOW missiles) only useful against Assad's tanks and not ISIS. Hypocrisy!
While Obama maintains a fictitious difference between good and bad elements within the “opposition” and an expressed abhorrence of the violence, the opposition has achieved a “rare” unity in refusing to even attend meetings to discuss negotiations organized by the United Nations, according to the Associated Press. The AP story (Russia Launches New Wave of Air Raids in Syria, Targets IS Posts, Albert Aji and Jim Heintz, 10-04-15) goes on to acknowledge that the Syrian Opposition Coalition statement “was signed by the Salafist-jihadist Ahrar al-Sham as well as some of the rebel units that have received training and weapons from the United States and its allies.” Just how this motley united front of accused “terrorist” organizations and supposed moderates will offer a better life to Syrians after Assad has never been explained by the US government. Skeptics would, with justification, fear a repeat of the Libyan tragedy.
Equipped with the short memory and stunted imagination typical of US journalists, few have reflected upon the telling origins of the Syrian civil war. Of course the official account requires a massive dose of gullibility. It spins a tale of dedicated democrats who, foiled by the Assad government in their peaceful demonstrations, take up arms in a matter of months, even weeks, in 2011. No one in the media questions how this amorphous mass of private citizens is shaped up, armed, and led, in such a short span, against a sophisticated modern military and government security forces. Despite the miraculous appearance of arms from the late Muammar Gaddafi's destabilized Libya, despite the appearance of foreign fighters, US journalists found no cause to look for the hidden hands.
Instead, journalists continue to churn out copy that carefully follows the US/NATO line on all Middle Eastern matters. Consider the aptly named Liz Sly who slyly pumps out dispatches through the Washington Post that resemble rewrites of State Department releases. As with her equally discredited colleagues Judith Miller and Brian Williams, there seems to be no journalistic sins that warrant her consignment to journalistic hell. Sly infamously disseminated the fabricated story “Gay Girl in Damascus”:
On June 7, 2011 she wrote 'Gay Girl in Damascus' Blogger Detained, a news article that merged claims from a blog post with what appeared to be independently gathered facts in a way that suggested that youthful, attractive Syrian-American, Amina Arraf, was grabbed off the street along with 10,000 other Damascus citizens by the evil Assad forces. On June 8, the Washington Post retracted the story and on June 10, a 40-year-old US citizen confessed that the person, the story, and the blog were a hoax that he concocted. (ZZ's blog)
Of course perpetrating a hoax has not stopped Sly from advancing her career. On October 1, 2015, Sly (along with Andrew Roth) wrote from Beirut a story appearing in the Washington Post:
The expanding Russian involvement in Syria threatened to further complicate efforts to secure a negotiated settlement to the 4-year-old war at a time when the influx of refugees into Europe and the endurance of the Islamic State is focusing world attention on the unrelenting bloodshed in Syria.
Negotiated settlement? The “rebels” steadfastly refuse to even discuss a UN-sponsored meeting about negotiations as reported by the Associated Press. How does Russian involvement threaten something that only exists in the mind of Liz Sly?
As for refugees, Sly had previously written a fantastic, tortured story of how refugees in Lebanon voting absentee and en masse for Assad were actually coerced from afar by the nefarious Assad. This wild disparagement of Syrian refugees' sentiments for Assad reveals profoundly Sly's lack of understanding of the roots of the conflict and her determination to view the refugee crisis through the lens of State Department policy goals and not compassion.
Following the lead of US policy makers, Sly and her colleague denounce the Russian bombing targets:
Some of the towns struck are strongholds of a recently formed coalition, Jaish al-Fateh, or Army of Conquest, that includes the Syrian al-Qaida affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra alongside an assortment of Islamist and moderate factions. Among them was a mosque in the northern Idlib town of Jisr al-Shugour, whose capture by the rebel coalition in April underscored the growing threat to the regime.
But notice how she concedes that Russian planes target a coalition-- a diverse ideological “assortment”-- of combatants, a concession that al-Qaida cooperates with the so-called moderates. Surely this acknowledges that the anti-Assad movement is a snake pit of opportunists. And the Russians are to be faulted for not asking for a show of hands within the Army of Conquest?
In light of the recent criminal bombing of a hospital in Afghanistan, a murderous act that NO journalist in the West can lay at the US's doorstep without preceding the fact with a host of mealy-mouthed “alleged,” “suspected,” or “charged” disclaimers, isn't it hypocritical that Sly so easily and assuredly blames the Russians for blowing up a mosque?
Roy Gutman at McClatchy (10-3-15) reports that the Kurds, the only reliable fighters against ISIS, support the Russian effort in Syria: “'We want Russia to provide us air support as well as weapons in our fight against the ISIL militants,' a YPG commander, Sipan Hemo, was quoted as telling the Russian Sputnik news portal. 'We can organize an effective cooperation with Russia on the issue'... Some analysts speculated that the YPG was interested in Russian support because Moscow was unlikely to respond to Turkey's worries that the Kurds' success would fuel a push for independence among its own Kurdish minority.”
Similarly, Iraq's Shiite militia welcome the Russian engagement. The Washington Post reports (10-05-15): “...Iraq's most powerful Iranian-backed Shiite militias said Monday they would welcome Russian airstrikes on IS in the country and accused the U.S. of failing to act decisively against the hardline group.”
As they have in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and so many other countries, US and NATO meddling in Syria has unleashed destructive forces further destabilizing the Middle East.
Sadly, the forthcoming US Presidential elections promise no respite from this cesspool of hypocrisy. All the Republican candidates separate themselves from the administration by advocating more military intervention.
Hilary Clinton, similarly, appeals to the war mongers by advocating a no-fly zone over Syria-- an act that would strengthen ISIS and the Islamists by weakening Assad.
And Bernie Sanders evades the issue.
Zoltan Zigedy

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Hope for a Left Revival?

Fifteen years have passed since the zenith of capitalist triumphalism, the peak moment of capital's successful penetration of nearly every inhabitable area of the globe. Not unlike the beginning of the last century, the wealthy and privileged saw few storm clouds on the horizon, a future of unlimited accumulation and placid rule. While there were some risings in the hinterlands and some rebelliousness in the air, they were easily suppressed or marginalized.

At the center of this capitalist utopia stood the world's gendarme-- the US Goliath-- with bases, military power, and unmatched technology, ensuring that the world was a secure haven for monopoly corporations. Moreover, the US sought and enforced international dominance. They pledged to bring “democracy” to the world with the same self-righteous hypocrisy and hubris that the earlier imperialists had masked their economic voraciousness behind religious missionary zeal.

But matters went awry in the new century.

The support for religious zealots organized by the US, NATO, and their allies against Middle Eastern secular, independent movements boomeranged. Unlike earlier puppets who were quickly jettisoned when their usefulness was exhausted, Islamic fundamentalists struck their erstwhile masters before they could be betrayed by them. Under the guise of a “war on terror,” a perpetual overt and covert war against Middle Eastern states and populations-- a veritable modern-day crusade-- continues to this day. The US, NATO, the EU, and a motley collection of scavengers cynically used the excuse of terrorism to reconfigure an entire region, destroying stable societies, killing millions, and leaving millions homeless.

At the same time, a global economy resting on the triumph of nineteenth-century bourgeois economic thought and practices began to falter. Faith in the bright future was shaken by the destruction of trillions of dollars of nominal value, a disaster brought on by the foolish speculations of a gang of the oracles of a new era of technological advance.

Before the effects of the so-called “dot-com” crisis subsided, the global economy was struck with another downturn, shaking the capitalist underpinnings like no other blow since the Great Depression. To answer this catastrophe, capitalism spun off millions of workers, stripped wages and benefits, and shredded an already meager social safety net. The wake of the 2007-2008 collapse continues to drown the hopes and aspirations of millions, with even more turbulence on the horizon.

To any sober observer, capitalism is in the throes of a deep, profound, multi-faceted crisis. The celebration of fifteen years ago was a hollow and unwarranted declaration of the unstoppable success of capitalism. War, deprivation, and uncertainty are the legacy of those hailing that moment. Few alive today know a time when the future looked so unsure.

The Basis for a Left Revival?

Years of disillusionment following the decline of the Soviet Union and its Eastern European allies produced an era of navel-gazing and an extreme dilution of the socialist vision for the left, especially in the US and Europe. Murky enemies like “globalization” or “empire” replaced “imperialism” and “capitalism” in public discourse. Gradualist programs, market-centered reforms, and a trivialization of diversity toward micro-identities guided a dispirited left. Revolutionary politics were smothered by a sense that a “humane capitalism” was the best that could be gotten.

Sure, the left rallied around the anti-imperialist project in Latin America, particularly the heroic rise of Hugo Chavez, and later, Evo Morales and Rafael Correa. The broad-based defiance of the North American gendarmerie served to inspire millions who had lost hope. But the leftist “Spring” that swept through the South has yet to spawn a real replacement for capitalist economic relations, not to mention, a rock-solid socialism, such as that in Cuba.

Now with capitalism on the ropes, one might expect a left upsurge. With political and economic crisis-- endless war and near-depression-- one would expect a revitalized left to emerge today.

It hasn't happened.

In Europe and North America, two flawed, failed currents dominate the left ideological landscape: anarchism and social democracy. The anarchist tendency is not the revolutionary anarchism of Bakunin, but a tame version based on the utopian idea that all that stands in the way of a just and fair society is restraint on the freedom of the masses-- authority, and not capitalism, is the ultimate oppressor. For the modern day anarchists, social change lies in radical democracy, removing the encrusted bureaucracies that rule over our society-- civil servants, agencies, union leaders, politicians, etc.

Of course there is some truth in this critique, but without a greater vision, without a plan to replace capitalism, overturning a bureaucracy simply invites another one. And insofar as its enemy is authority, modern anarchism differs little from its anti-government counterpart on the extreme right. The social base for this contemporary strain is, as it was in the 1960s, students and the economically marginalized. The failures of the 1960s New Left are reproduced today in the meteoric rise and quick collapse of the Occupy Wall Street movement and its European counterparts. Its clarion calls, as in the past, are spontaneity and “horizontalism.”

A second dominant strain in our time is social democracy, a posture that traces its origins and draws its life from hostility to Bolshevism. As an antidote to revolutionary socialism, it attempts to awkwardly straddle the divide between working class advocacy and accommodation to capitalism. It offers an evolutionary road map-- a socialism-lite-- that depicts capitalism as gradually eroding and giving way to a growing public sector. Moreover, the mechanisms established to insure capitalist rule are to be somehow harnessed to this end. The social base for social democracy is the ossified union leadership, opportunist politicians, and a neutered, cowed working class made impervious to revolutionary ideology.

For much of the twentieth century, social democracy rivaled Marxism-Leninism. But after decades of advocating market solutions and supporting imperial belligerency, social democracy-- in the form of center-left political parties-- stands discredited and unpopular.

Where successful campaigns of anti-Communism and fear-mongering had taken root, social democratic parties did thrive. However, when periods of deep crisis appear, social democracy invariably fails the working class. We are in such a period now.

The last gasp of social democracy arose with the election of SYRIZA in Greece. Garbed in a militant swagger and an outlaw persona, SYRIZA quickly became both the darling and flag-bearer for the left wing of social democracy. For Die Linke, France's Left Party, Spain's PODEMOS, and other European movements seeking to revive the social democratic corpse, the Tsipras government of open-collared and casual intellectuals promised the rescue of a spent political philosophy.

But as quickly as SYRIZA rose, it crashed and burned, delivering the Greek people a fate even more onerous than that delivered by earlier governments. But more than a failure, the SYRIZA tenure was a fiasco with an ill-considered national referendum giving the party a mandate to resist, only to be followed immediately by a humiliating surrender.

Not to be deterred by the debacle, the admirers of SYRIZA--- the last bastions of social democracy-- spun a web of apologetics, excuses, and obfuscations worthy of the best confidence artists. Where sober-minded observers drew critical lessons, these sycophants chose to deflect and deny.

Writing in the Peoples World (9-11-2015), Sam Webb, recently retired chair of the Communist Party USA, wrote: “Nevertheless Tsipras still hoped that the large ‘no’ vote of the Greek people in a referendum a week before the negotiations began might give German leaders reason to pause, to reconsider their draconian bargaining posture, and maybe, just maybe, consider some form of debt relief.

Or, alternatively that the vote would nudge France and Italy, as well as the International Monetary Fund (IMF), to show some backbone and stand up to the German capitalist juggernaut.” (my emphases)

Nudge”? “Reason to pause”? “Reconsider”? “Maybe, just maybe...”?

Are these the considered negotiating objectives of serious leaders confronting the resolute and naked power of European monopoly capital? Do you “nudge” a bully? Do you chance that “maybe just maybe” a ruling class will show compassion? Webb sees history as not the history of class struggles, but the history of class “nudges.”

And then there is Oscar La Fontaine, the godfather of Germany's Die Linke party, writing on Jean-Luc Melanchon's blog (Melanchon is the leader of France's Left Party): “We have learned one thing [from the SYRIZA debacle]: while the European Central Bank, which claims to be independent and apolitical, can turn off the financial tap to a left government, a politics that is oriented towards democratic and social principles is impossible.

It is now necessary for the European left to develop a Plan B for the case where a member party arrives in a comparable situation.” (my emphases).

Claims to be independent”? Did La Fontaine only recently discover that the ECB is a tool of monopoly capital? Like the cynical Captain Renault in the film Casablanca, La Fontaine is shocked, shocked that the ECB is neither independent nor apolitical! And how dare the ECB deny “a politics that is oriented toward democratic and social principles...” That's not cricket! Like Webb, La Fontaine does not see monopoly capital as the enemy, but as a partner acting unreasonably.

It should be no surprise, accordingly, that La Fontaine's “Plan B” depends upon the EU oligarchs agreeing to disarm the ECB, an outcome as likely as their acceptance of SYRIZA's original plan. Thus, the circle is complete: the Euro-left needs to secure an agreement from the very same forces that “shockingly” denied a moderate agreement in the first place. Could anything be more futile?

Curiously, the former Greek finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis, sees things differently and yet the same! In a long-winded speech in France (Festival of the Roses, 9-23-2015), Varoufakis locates the roots of Europe's problems in its unification: “Why? Because we let our rulers try to do something that cannot be done: to de-politicise money, to turn Brussels, the Eurogroup, the ECB, into politics-free zones.” (my emphasis). So where Germany's La Fontaine faults the European oligarchs for politicizing their decisions, his Greek counterpart faults Europe for de-politicizing its institutions! He goes on incoherently: “When politics and money are de-politicised what happens is that democracy dies. And when democracy dies, prosperity is confined to the very few who cannot even enjoy it behind the gates and the fences they need to build to protect themselves from their victims.

To counter this dystopia the people of Europe must believe again that democracy is not a luxury afforded to creditors and declined to debtors.”

So the debacle arose from a shortage of democracy. And the remedy is for the people of Europe to “...believe again that democracy is not a luxury afforded...” to the few. Varoufakis conveniently deflects the blame that he and his colleagues share for the Greek tragedy onto the people of Europe and their lost belief in democracy. “We do not have to agree on everything. Let us make a start with an agreement that the Eurozone needs to be democratised.”

If only there were more democracy! If only Europe's rulers would see the need to cooperate! And if only the people of Europe would make them act democratically! Smothered by Varoufarkis' petulant burst of disconnected ideas is the simple truth that rulers rule. They rule for their own interests and not to please or recognize supposed oppositional forces like SYRIZA or their ilk.

All three commentators, like many others who fawned after SYRIZA, are now left harboring wild illusions and offering shallow, unimaginative answers to the crises of capitalism.

A Path of Renewal

SYRIZA's harshest critic offers a different answer to the challenge of a wounded, but ruthless capitalism. From surveying most of the left press in Europe and North America, one would not know that the leaders of a Greek political party clearly analyzed the SYRIZA program and accurately predicted its failure. One would not know that only one Greek party now offers the only program even remotely hopeful of resisting the further impoverishment of the Greek people. One would not know that only one political force in Greece gives the Greek people a dignified path forward that does not depend on the “fair-mindedness” of monopoly capital or the condescension of European elites.

That party is the Communist Party of Greece (KKE), a party with both a long history and deep ties with the Greek people.

Shamefully, most of the leaders of the Western left ignore the KKE and its alternative program, a reflection of the deep strains of anti-Communism infecting political thought and the obdurate close-mindedness of the neo-anarchists and social democrats. Thus, the KKE is objectively blacklisted from the Western discussion of a road forward.

With Greek elections coming on September 20, KKE has adopted the campaign slogan: “You have tried them… Now the solution is to be found on the path to overthrow the system, joining forces with the KKE.” This slogan reminds the Greek people and others that finding a solution within capitalism is not only a bad idea, but a proven failure.

KKE is stressing that the people must not give a 'second chance' to the parties that support the path of capitalist development and the EU, the path that brings the memoranda and the anti-people measures. They must not approve the implementation of the new anti-people memorandum with their votes. They must not give a 'second chance' to those who, in the recent past as well, sowed illusions about the ‘humanization’ of capitalism.” With the Greek people's standards of living approaching the tragic levels found after the Second World War, we are witnessing a preview of where the capitalist crisis is taking the rest of the world. For those who are open to seeing it, the collapse of SYRIZA is a demonstration of the futility of finding a way out of the crisis within the system of capitalism. KKE understands this and offers an alternative; not an easy road, but one more promising than following the dead ends traveled in the past.

KKE electoral success this coming weekend will shorten that road immeasurably as well as provide an inspiration for those of us seeking an alternative to the bankrupt model of social democracy.

KKE gains will improve the chances for a real left revival.

Zoltan Zigedy