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Monday, December 23, 2019

The New Conservatives and their False Promises

Marx famously wrote that history repeats itself “the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.” But sometimes, even an encore leaves many people dumbstruck.

Most commentators who fill up the opinion pages of the national media of record are touting the failure of the UK Labour Party in the recent elections as a portent of the “disaster” that would await the Democrats should they nominate Bernie Sanders or Sanders-lite to run against President Trump. That, they believe, would be the farce that Corbyn’s loss portends.

But there are a few thoughtful heads, wiser thinkers, in the media who better understand history’s often more subtle messages. For Gerald Seib, the executive Washington editor of The Wall Street Journal, and his colleague, Stephen Fidler, a UK veteran of the Financial Times and Reuters, the victory of Boris Johnson recalls another parallel: the electoral victory of Donald Trump. And they find many signs that the parallels are overflowing with meaning and that they count as more than just interesting coincidences.

Seib and Fidler’s article, U.K. Vote Shows Remake of Conservatism (WSJ 12/14-15/2019), argues that we have entered a new era, engaging new constituencies, realignments, philosophies, and policies:

Boris Johnson’s big election victory this week drove another nail into the coffin of the brand of conservative politics Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher first rode to power four decades ago…[The] movement in the West now has become markedly more populist and nationalist, and appeals to a distinctly more working-class constituency. Fiscal restraint, once a cardinal tenet of conservatism, matters less; rewriting the rules that have governed the global economy matters more.

The article portrays a right-anchored movement in the process of shifting towards a narrow, more insular, protectionist nationalism, spurning globalism, unrestrained by fiscal austerity and market dogma, and courting the working class with promises of change and contempt for liberal elites. Like Thatcher and Reagan in the past, Trump and Johnson are now prominent figureheads of this New Conservatism, but rising stars are in, or share, power in Hungary, Italy, and Poland. Even outside Europe, India’s Modi, Japan’s Abe, Brazil’s Bolsonaro, and Chile’s Piñera embrace many features of the New Conservatism.

Seib and Fidler are perceptive in seeing Trump and Johnson as more than an aberration, a fleeting mutation of corporate Republicanism and market-crazed Conservatism. They point to their opportunistic playing to a base of petty-bourgeois and working-class voters who have been bled by the ruling class’s global restructuring and crushed by its finale, the collapse of 2007-2009:

Both capitalized on blue-collar and middle-class resentment of the financial and political elites, who, in such voters’ views, were oblivious to the way global economic trends were cutting against workers in the heartland. Brexit was the symbol of those grievances in Britain; in the U.S., trade relations with China and Mexico were the symbols Mr. Trump used. 

Seib and Fidler note that Trump and Johnson “juiced their policy offers with promises of freer public spending to address middle- and working-class voters’ anger over the sacrifices they had been forced to make since the financial crash…” Johnson, they contend, “was stealing the traditional clothes of the left-wing Labour Party,” promising “spending on the nation’s public-health services, schools, policing and infrastructure.” Trump, defying a pillar of twentieth century Conservatism, “has overseen a rise of the U.S. federal budget deficit to roughly a trillion dollars annually, but can do so because low interest rates make such borrowing less painful. Mr. Johnson has relaxed the purse strings with a similar advantage.”

The Seib-Fidler thesis is that, since the collapse of 2007-2009, some on the right have drawn lessons and constructed a new political approach, turning away from internationalism, globalism, austerity, and unfettered markets. They are shrewdly and opportunistically marketing this turn as relief for a damaged, dissatisfied, and angry working class and petty bourgeoisie. Of course, there remain conservatives still wedded to the market fundamentalist, globalist approach of Reagan/Thatcher-- what many have called, for better or worse, “globalization” and “neo-liberalism”-- but the New Conservatism is clearly on the rise. 

Liberals will cry that Seib and Fidler have downplayed the role of xenophobia in the appeal of the New Conservatives and the Johnson vote. No doubt racism and anti-immigrant sentiment play a role. But the Ipsos Mori polls show that while around 40% of voters thought that immigration was the most important issue facing voters during the 2016 Brexit referendum, that number was down to around 10% before the recent election.

Ironically, while the Reagan/Thatcher consensus swept over the political world in the last thirty or more years, it has now nested firmly in social democracy and political liberalism; the victory over Keynesian fiscal interventionism by the “Third Way” converts and the “New Democrats” makes them, now, the most committed defenders of free markets, international institutions, balanced budgets, austerity, and unprotected, decentered labor markets. Because the center-left parties of the advanced capitalist countries so readily accepted and embraced the market-fetishist ideology of the late-twentieth century, they are now boxed into a corner rigidly defending the very philosophy that brought great harm to working people, a philosophy now increasingly in the rear-view mirror of the New Conservatives.

Where the New Conservatives revamped their views in the wake of the 2007-2009 crisis, most liberals and social democrats stood pat, keeping the same cards they were dealt by the Reagan/Thatcher “revolution.”

As voters turn against the old consensus that brought economic chaos unseen since the Great Depression, they seek change wherever they can find it. In the US, they thought they could find it by electing Barack Obama. That choice proved to be ill-founded, further entrenching elite rule and austerity (sequestration!). Consequently, Trump got a chance.

Establishment Democrats (Corporate Democrats) believe that Trump, too, will fail. Of course they are right-- there are only empty promises and fake solutions in the New Conservatism. But the Democratic Party leaders are foolish, if they think that Trump’s failure will bring an exodus back to a Democratic Party serving up Reagan/Thatcher-lite, a party chained to corporate-first, trickle-down economics, to fiscal austerity, to a desiccated welfare state, to making the market the final arbiter of all economic decisions.

Clearly, the Democratic Party leadership prefers to attack Trump for his lack of fidelity to Presidential mythology or through contrived fables like RussiaGate, while avoiding real policy changes that would win over an electorate thirsting for change. The results will likely be disastrous for those in need of urgent solutions. But Party bosses would rather see Trump win than surrender their staunch defense of capital über alles.

Similarly, the legacy of Margaret Thatcher, conveyed through the past leadership of Tony Blair, is so firmly rooted in the Labour Party that many of its leading figures would rather have seen insurgent Corbyn lose than surrender that legacy.

Progressives should seriously weigh whether center-left parties, even rebranded social democratic parties, offer or will convincingly press a program that addresses the carnage inflicted by an increasingly dysfunctional capitalism and that could draw working people from the false hope offered by the New Conservatism. When the old politics is thoroughly discredited, a new politics is in order. The new politics should be constructed around the path to socialism, the only road that takes working people away from betrayal and demagoguery.

Greg Godels

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

A Decade Ends: Does It Leave a Legacy?

Will we remember the victory in Syria as a long overdue turning point in the struggle against imperialism and, perhaps, capitalism? Does the defeat of US and NATO machinations and their surrogate combatants in Syria inspire the people of the Middle East to transcend the divisive limits of sectarian grievances and cultural manipulation? Are we seeing the decline of artificially stoked and cruelly fueled national and religious divisiveness and a turn toward economic justice?

Certainly some respected, insightful commentators believe that the Middle East is experiencing unexpected, major realignments (Hallinan) and a decline in sectarian conflict (P. Cockburn).

Patrick Cockburn suggests that the decline of sectarianism is accompanied by “uprisings against corruption,” though he says far too little about the connection.

In fact, the US and Israel have used sectarian divides to combat progressive, nationalist, secular, and even socialist-oriented governments in the Middle East since the 1950s. Secular Arab nationalism, Nasserism, Ba’ath socialism, Palestinian liberation all posed a threat to Israeli apartheid and expansionism and US and European oil imperialism. By stirring the pot of tribal, religious sectarian, and national differences, they were largely successful in reducing the Middle East to a cauldron of disunity, endless conflict, and social backwardness. For most of the latter part of the twentieth century social questions of economic well-being and class justice were deflected. Instead of addressing the basic needs of the people, Middle Eastern rulers were drawn into tragic conflicts over religious, tribal, and national identity. Exploiting these conflicts were the foreign imperialist powers.

But matters may be differently now. 

With the Saudis-- the well-heeled missionaries of religious, social, and political backwardness-- smarting from energy rivalry with their US sponsor and bloodied by a losing war in Yemen, their influence in the neighborhood is reduced. Israel, likewise, is mired in a political crisis and now facing a nearly unified Syria with a powerful ally in Russia, an ally seemingly committed to being a counter to US dominance of the region. And Turkey is racked with its own political instability and increasingly tenuous membership in NATO.

These factors, along with US and NATO imperialism’s defeat in Syria, disrupt decades of senseless, internecine conflict and are allowing neglected questions of the people’s well-being and living standards to rise to the forefront. 

The recent and current anti-government risings in Sudan, Algeria, Lebanon, Iran, and Iraq are a response to the long-ignored class and democracy issues that have been overshadowed by sectarianism. Sparked by aloof policies and fueled by both government indifference and massive poverty and want, millions are fighting to depose those who hold power. 

While Patrick Cockburn writes of corruption, it is more than simply bad government that stokes these rebellions. People are opposed to rulers selected by systems designed by the Great powers to legitimize a sectarian balance or to install rule by those trusted by outside forces. They are tired of the concentration of wealth in the hands of elites or the raging torrent of wealth channeled to Western corporations. They are weary of food and power shortages, underemployment and unemployment, sectarian patronage, and poor infrastructure and housing. They are reacting to the widening class divide in these societies. These insurgencies are all suggestive of an emerging class consciousness, a growing anger at those hoarding the wealth and monopolizing undeserved political power. 

As welcome as these developments are, they bring many potential problems. No popular and clear-sighted leadership has emerged. The demands that spring forth are often simple and negative: “Down with the existing government!” There is no overarching ideological outlook, little programmatic development, and too few acknowledged leaders. The success of the movement in Sudan shows the importance of a Communist Party broadly and deeply embedded in the popular movements. Communists are engaged in all of the other risings as well. There is a basis for hope that these movements will evolve in an anti-capitalist direction.

Objections have been raised that the anti-government risings may weaken the anti-imperialist movement, particularly where existing governments take anti-imperialist positions against the US and Israel or include anti-imperialist forces within a government coalition. These concerns are especially apt when the long history of US manipulation of movements (like Ukraine yesterday, Hong Kong today) is recognized. 

However, solidarity with the people, confidence in the masses, and critical vigilance should be the stance of the revolutionary. All significant change is fraught with risks, laden with uncertainty. Revolutionaries unwilling to venture on an uncharted course are hardly worthy of the name.

While there have been recent setbacks to social democratic and anti-imperialist projects in Central and South America (and staunch resistance in Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela), impressive people’s risings in Haiti, Colombia, Chile, and Ecuador have shaken governments and ruling elites. Like their counterparts in the Middle East, they often lack a clear and decisive leadership, but they, nonetheless, reflect deep-seated and profound class antagonisms and a yearning for real democracy. 

A bitter distrust of the largely corrupt parliamentary systems peddled as “liberal democracy” also spurs the upsurge in direct and militant mass action. Interestingly, this distrust is shared with millions of working people in the advanced capitalist countries who have, out of desperation, cast votes for demagogic “populist” politicians opportunistically herding dissatisfaction away from bankrupt mainstream parties. Though they both spring from similar causes, the “populist” answer will prove as futile as continued support for the traditional parties that chain the people’s fate to capitalist accumulation.

By any measure, there is mass dissatisfaction throughout the world. In some places, it is transforming into direct, physical confrontation with the state and its organs. The frequency and militancy of these actions is striking. Today, it is the remarkable national strikes to deny Macron’s destruction of pensions in France.

In other places, the fight is less developed; people are struggling to identify the enemy; their efforts are confined to narrow electoral space or misdirected toward “fake” solutions. 

Nonetheless, capitalism is presented with an impressive wave of resistance as we enter the next decade. If that wave is to swell, it must be driven by a deeper understanding of the way forward. Old, difficult debates over how national independence, secular unity, and class struggle intertwine are now, again, relevant, urgent and central. It is vital that militants see the fight against imperialism and for a better, more anti-capitalist and democratic life as one and the same. 

In addition, lessons must be drawn from the recent treacherous coup against Evo Morales in Bolivia, lessons that raise the enduring questions of the nature of the state, reform, and revolution. In our time, reform and socialism-oriented movements have proven fragile, especially while facing the determined hostility of the powerful US and its allies. As the Guaidó debacle in Venezuela shows, the US will go to any lengths to create and support anti-reform, anti-socialist elements. For over a hundred years, Marxist-Leninist theory has been the anchor of debates over the path to revolutionary change and for its defense. It would be a good place to begin in order to refresh today’s debates.

All signs point to 2020 becoming an interesting, even promising year for revolutionaries! 

Greg Godels

Monday, November 25, 2019

Is It All about the Oil?

“It’s all about the oil” has been a persistent refrain in response to US Middle East policy for as long as one can remember. Certainly there is much truth in this statement. Since the energy transition from coal to oil and its derivatives, leading imperialist powers have sought to dominate or control global oil resources. And the center of global oil extraction, especially for the US and other powerful capitalist countries, has remained in the Middle East and its periphery. 

When the navy of the then-dominant British Empire shifted from coal-fired, steam-driven warships to dependence on oil, the Middle East became the strategic service station for imperial reach. Accordingly, the status and fate of people, nations, and states in the Middle East became inextricably bound to the interests and the will of the greatest imperial powers. 

After World War I, the British and French hacked and hewed the Middle East into “protectorates” beneficial to their own economic interests. The US, self-sufficient in oil resources, was pushed to the margin-- left to explore the vast underpopulated deserts of the Arabian peninsula. 
Of course the vast expanses of the Arabian peninsula turned out to be the source of vast and cheap oil and natural gas. The Arabian-American Oil Company (ARAMCO) proved providential when US domestic energy reserves began to decline.

As the dominant imperialist power after World War II, the constabulary for the capitalist world, the US took on the task of guaranteeing that oil would be safe and within reach throughout the capitalist world and outside the reach of its Cold War foes and their allies. This necessitated a powerful and agile military. Since oil and gas are transported by sea and pipeline, the US military was ensconced in bases globally, and the US enlisted heavily armed deputies at key positions in the midst of energy-rich areas (pre-revolutionary Iran, Israel, Saudi Arabia, etc.). 

The US (and its closest, most trusted NATO allies) did not serve as a global gendarmerie for free; rather, they extracted a tribute from the oil-producing countries and their peoples. With colonial fetters rapidly breaking after World War II, imperialism established new modes of dominance over the world’s raw materials, including energy resources. Neo-colonial relations replaced total dominance with economic dominance. Despite nominal political self-rule, resource-rich “independent” countries were still the captive of US corporations and their European counterparts. US and European corporations “participated” in the development and ownership of gas and oil resources.  

Because oil and gas are so central to modern economies, imperialist powers display a keen interest in ensuring low, stable prices. Thus, the US and other imperialist countries have invested heavily in oil and gas extraction throughout the world, while installing, when necessary, friendly governments in resource-rich countries. 

Of course even the most empire-friendly governments have sought more of the fruits of resource extraction from their lands. Saudi potentates, among others, have restructured deals, formed production alliances (e.g., OPEC), and exerted their power over global supplies for political purposes. Notably, OPEC producers punished Western countries for their support of Israel with an oil embargo in 1973. 

The 1973 oil embargo proved to be a turning point for imperialism’s relations with the oil-producing states of the Middle East. Differences within imperialism restrained the considered US use of military power to “...forcibly seize Middle Eastern oilfields in late 1973.” Taking advantage of these differences, the Saudis and other countries were emboldened to nationalize their industries and command a measure of independence from Western imperialism. In some cases, the dramatic increase in oil dollars flowing into the oil-producing states’ coffers led to equally dramatic improvements in the lives of citizens (Libya, for example). In other cases, oil dollars only enriched the elites. And, in the case of the Saudis, the enormous bounty of oil-revenue went to promote Wahhabism and an ultra-conservative sectarianism against progressive and radical secular movements in the Middle East and elsewhere.
The US and Israel were successful in channeling Saudi money and resources in support of their own foreign policy objectives, notably by marginalizing, even combatting non-sectarian Arab nationalism, socialism, and anti-imperialism in Palestine, Afghanistan, and many other states. From the rise of Nasserism until today, imperialism and the most reactionary Islamic conservatism have used sectarianism to counter, even destroy, progressive movements. Oil money has subsidized that effort. 

Since the victory over imperialism and sectarianism in Syria, we are beginning to see the encouraging rise of class-oriented, non-sectarian struggles in other countries like Sudan, Lebanon, and Iraq. The setbacks to Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies in Yemen have also paved the way for a higher, more advanced level of struggle with less of the pernicious confusion of tribal and sectarian division. While there is always a danger of imperialism using the new militancy for its own purposes, it is operating from a weakened position.

US Oil Imperialism Today

“I always said, if you are going in, keep the oil.” -- Donald Trump

Commentators were abashed by Trump’s audacity when he linked involvement in Syria with expropriating Syrian oil. Most were embarrassed that Trump publicly exposed that oil thievery so easily ties in with US foreign policy goals. They preferred to mask US objectives behind an almost comical alarm that ISIS would rise again without US presence. This thin excuse stood in sharp contrast to the fact that the entire US military engagement combating ISIS was through air power.

So, is the US meddling in Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Libya, and other countries to steal, secure, or expropriate energy sources? Are these instances of the century-old imperialist plunder of global energy sources?

Certainly US imperialism and its allies continue to serve monopoly capitalist concerns in their quest to exploit global resources. But that is not the entire story today. 

Thanks to the fracking, shale oil revolution, the US is also an intense competitor with global energy producers. This is a new twist that is now shaping US imperialist policy, moving it in other directions. With the US today exceeding the oil and gas production of all other countries, it is less committed to securing, commandeering, protecting, or exploiting global energy resources and more directed toward garnering a greater market share of worldwide sales. 

The war-- and it is war-- for more markets for US energy supplies favors the US when other suppliers are threatened, made less reliable, or more costly by wars, political upheavals, or other causes of chaos. Where US post-war, Cold War oil politics were directed toward stability, low, constant prices, and secure transit, the US benefits today from global instability, volatile prices, dangerous sea routes, and thwarting pipeline infrastructure.

The endless US wars, the stirring of big-power hostility, saber-rattling in sea lanes, blatant military action against stable energy-producing states, and inflated threats of terrorism and banditry all contribute to favoring energy supplies from a politically and economically stable state with the most powerful and far-reaching military in history-- the US.

It is important to place US-induced chaos in the perspective of no real, existing imminent threat from any major power or from so-called “terrorism.” Nearly all of the global chaos is simply manufactured and sustained by imperialism.

US determination to reign over energy markets was decisive in warding off the Saudi price attack of 2014. With production costs half or less of those for US shale, the Saudis, through both calculated collective inaction and overproduction, drove the price of oil down from historic highs, hoping to cripple the vastly expanding US shale market. Saddled with debt piled up from exploration and the high initial costs of rigs, the emerging US shale industry struggled in the face of collapsing prices. But Wall Street came smartly and decisively to the rescue; the loans are only beginning to be called in today. 

With oil-producing Libya a failed state, with oil-producing Iran expelled from commerce, with the Persian Gulf becoming a war zone, with oil-producing Venezuela sanctioned from markets, with Boko Haram disrupting Nigerian oil production, with giant oil-producing Russia forced into a new Cold War, with the Saudis about to sell chunks of ARAMCO to US and other capitalist investors, and now with Donald Trump keeping Syrian oil out of global markets, the US is busy hustling its oil as the most reliable and readily available. 

The same could be said for the US efforts to expand its markets for liquified natural gas. The manic desire to depict Russia as an existential threat looming on the borders of Eastern and Central Europe is meant to stigmatize Russia as a dangerous partner and undermine its standing as the chief supplier of inexpensive, pipeline-supplied natural gas to Europe. Accordingly, the US hopes to kick open the door to that market by establishing LNG terminals in the most anti-Russian states. Similarly, the chaos in the Straits of Hormuz and Iran-bashing have cast a shadow over the reliability of the US’s biggest LNG competitors: the vast Iranian and Qatar gas fields.

In this competition for global energy markets, the US relies upon economic sanctions as its weapon of choice, especially shutting down trade activity of its energy rivals.

Where imposing stability on a capitalist world dependent upon energy imports was the former goal of US imperialism, overproduction of energy from revolutionary technologies has set new goals. Because the US lusts after the traditional markets for oil and natural gas, US imperialism is content to live with, to even foster global instability. It is no accident that endless destructive wars, global hotspots, threats, and hostilities are features of the twenty-first century. 

Bolstering energy exports and arms sales makes the US the biggest troublemaker in a volatile, ultra-competitive capitalist world. 

US energy imperialism makes an already unstable world even more dangerous.

Greg Godels

Friday, November 1, 2019

Thirty Years of a Bogus “Liberation”

It is only fitting that Timothy Garton Ash would write an homage for the 30th anniversary of the so-called Velvet Revolution of the once-called Czechoslovak Socialist Republic. It is equally fitting that he publish his tribute in the most prominent US periodical of liberal anti-Communism, The New York Review of Books. Ash, born and educated from privilege, contrived a career by demonizing the post-war socialist governments of Central and Eastern Europe. 

One would, therefore, expect him to gush over the events-- the counter-revolutions-- that restored Central and Eastern Europe into the hands of the capitalists. One would anticipate a regurgitation of the evils of Communism and the yearnings of the enslaved for the freedom and prosperity of the West.

Yes, we get some of that, but more interestingly, Ash whines over the fate of the various anti-Communist “revolutions.” Indeed, he wonders aloud if it is “Time for a New Liberation?” It is hard to please the doyen of the capitalist restoration academy. Perhaps matters didn’t proceed as swimmingly as he had hoped.

Ash centers his essay around a series of cafe, restaurant, coffee shop, etc. meetings with vintage Eastern European counter-revolutionaries and their youthful counterparts of today, protesters of the current state of affairs in Central and Eastern Europe. 

For example, Ash finds himself in a Budapest bar musing with a once-dissident over the rise of Viktor Orbán, the Hungarian prime minister. Orbán was once a darling of the counter-revolutionaries. In fact, Ash’s companion had introduced him thirty years earlier, commending “...him as a shining light of a new, young, liberal generation,” a man who “...studied on a scholarship funded by George Soros at Oxford University and in 1989 was an electrifying speaker at the ceremonial reburying of Nagy” [Nagy was a leader of the attempted 1956 counter-revolution in Hungary]. He is now “...systematically dismantling liberal democracy inside a member state of the European Union.”

But today, states Ash with high drama, “the question that forces itself onto dismayed lips is ‘What went wrong?’”

Ash concedes the supposed lust for “freedom to work, study, and settle down in other European countries” resulted in mass emigration. In less than 30 years, twenty-seven per cent of Latvians left their country; nearly twenty-one per cent of the population vacated Bulgaria. And Ash states, without a hint of irony, that emigration from post-socialist Eastern Germany resumed at the same pace as before the construction of the wall. Today, he points out, the population of Eastern Germany is down to the level of 1905.

Obviously, the philosophers enthusiastically advocating the replacement of supposed “totalitarianism” with Western values had no understanding of the totalitarianism of capitalist markets, especially labor markets. They thought that well trained and educated Easterners, enjoying the generous fruits of socialism, would be somehow bound by their national roots. The liberals of Central and Eastern Europe had no deeper grasp of the economic consequences of cross-border traffic generated by the imperatives of deprivation, oppression, or simply naked self-interest as do today’s liberals of Western Europe and the US. They see emigration and immigration solely as political expediencies without acknowledging their powerful effects upon national economies both depopulated and flooded with new arrivals.

Despite the profound effects of depopulation on national economies, the stagnation that follows emigration, Garton Ash prefers to address the political controversies of immigration to Central and Eastern Europe. Without acknowledging a class dimension to immigration, without suggesting that migrants might work for less, compete in a zero-sum game for entry-level employment under a capitalist regime, he simply dismisses all hesitancy about immigration as ignorant xenophobia. 

It is one thing to characterize the opportunistic manipulation of bourgeois politicians as racist, rabidly nationalistic, but quite another to paint a fearful, weak, and insecure population as fatally infected with these diseases.

But this is the only recourse available to Ash and his fellow Cold War liberal democrats. It is easy to overlook that in the formerly socialist countries the growing sentiments that he abhors were banished from the schools, publicly condemned, even illegal. It is easy to forget that broadly supported solidarity landed thousands of exiles from Chile and other South American countries, South Africa and other African countries, and refugees from many other lands into the socialist countries. Tens of thousands of youth from around the world were educated for free in these countries and mass public campaigns were mounted in support of internationalism, anti-racism, unity, and peace. Surely these efforts count against blaming the rise of racism and xenophobia on the socialist past. 

So why have these countries moved in an illiberal direction? Why have they failed to reach the promised land of bourgeois tolerance and harmony?

Ash opines: “The origin of many pathologies that Central Europe exhibits thirty years on can be traced back to the ways in which different countries tried to (re)create the private property, and capital, indispensable to a market economy… Restitution-- giving property back to its former owners-- was slow, complicated, and could not address what had been built over forty years of communist rule… At its worst, privatization created a new class of hugely influential post-communist ‘oligarchs’ or robber barons.”

Fair enough.

But only a naïf could believe that privatization would not bring an accumulation of wealth and capital in fewer hands in a relatively short period of time. Only a sheltered academic could entertain a transition to capitalism that would not be accompanied by an explosion of wealth and income inequality, including the rise of “robber barons.” But this is the tonic that Central and Eastern European intellectuals and their Western counterparts sold to a population never exposed to the voracious appetite of the market economy. The concentration of private wealth flows inexorably from private ownership! How could the Ashes, the Wałęsas, the Havels, and their fellow “revolutionaries” not know this!

Jacek Kuroń is one of Ash’s heroes (often called the Havel of Poland). As Ash recounts, in 1989-1990, he “was among the most eloquent defenders of a sharp, ‘shock therapy’ transition to a market economy… he patiently explained to laid-off workers and worried wives why this was necessary… [Later] he bitterly regretted his role as the social democratic salesman of the tough free market reforms.”

Despite the enormous pain inflicted purposely on a generation, Kuroń offered little relief for the suffering. Ash quotes him from 1995:

The real social divide in Poland today is the divide between those who have managed to adapt to the new reality, and are coping, and those who don’t understand it and feel themselves pushed away, rejected by the market economy and democracy. I continue to insist that it is possible to offer something to the rejected ones.

Offer something-- a token-- to the “rejected ones”? Not a divide between the “haves” and “have-nots,” but a division produced by a failure to cope with rapacious capitalism? A flaw in the motivation of the victims?

The callousness of these statements is remarkable, the explicit elitism embarrassing. 

Ash quotes Polish workers, also in 1995, complaining: “We workers started it… but now we are paying the heaviest price.” Indeed, they are paying the price for embracing a vacuous Western concept of democracy dogmatically and artificially attached to the acceptance of capitalism and also for becoming a pawn in the Cold War.

From his many personal interactions with those unhappy with the course of the “revolutions,” Ash offers sources of the discontent. Apart from economic inequality, dissidents disdain “liberalism”-- “the social consequences of free market economics.” Both left and right students embrace the slogan: “There’s no solidarity in liberty;” solidarity went out the window with the fall of socialism.

There is a strong backlash against the elitism of intellectuals and the urban “salon” society. Like in most capitalist countries, the explosive growth in inequality brings condescension toward the ‘losers.’

Ash cites polls suggesting that Central and Eastern Europe do not identify with the ‘West,’ especially since the 2007-2009 crisis of global capitalism. He notes that Orbán and other leaders find more to admire in “Singapore, China, Russia, and Turkey” than their Western counterparts.

For Ash, the “powerful forces of inertia, corruption, and reaction” plaguing Central and Eastern Europe require ”a great reform,” “a profound renewal of liberal institutions and practices.” For this, they need “the party, the program, the leaders to win the next election.”

Surely, this is a facile answer from one who promised a veritable liberal paradise to the millions coaxed into allowing the security and equality of socialism to slip away. Liberal social scientists, theorists, and politicians would like us to forget that nearly all of Central and Eastern Europe was ruled by quasi-fascist, clerical-fascist, military fascist, or fascist regimes before World War II (Czechoslovakia, the country with a functional bourgeois democracy, was dissolved by the “Velvet Revolution”). Their first liberation after World War II brought these countries an escape from poverty, economic backwardness, and the rule of the iron fist. Despite the Cold War rhetoric spewing from the West, socialism brought rising living standards, a sturdy safety net, education, housing, cultural development, relative economic and gender equality, and more democratic institutions and stability than they had ever enjoyed. 

But Cold Warriors could not concede those gains. They held out a promise to the East of liberties and freedoms that elite minorities in the West embrace and enjoy, but without explaining that they were economically out of the reach of the less privileged majority. Travel, leisure, luxury were certainly available in the West, but only for those who had the money. Of course you wouldn’t know that from Western television, cinema, or other media-- an enormous propaganda blitz-- directed Eastward.

The second “liberation” brought these freedoms and liberties to the East, but with the same unspoken restraints. Thirty years later, disappointment reigns. Frustration with the fruits of a capitalist economy abounds.

To Timothy Garton Ash’s credit, he exposes these disappointments and frustrations. To his shame, he was one of the Cold Warriors who sold the fraud of a new liberation. 

Greg Godels

Monday, September 30, 2019

TelephoneGate and its Discontents

Only a person who embraces her or his historical short-sightedness could be aghast at Trump’s self-serving phone call to the president of Ukraine. Actually, it is not  the people in the US who are shocked and appalled by Trump’s heavy-handed, supposedly “unprecedented” attempt to undermine a political rival; it is the cable TV chatterboxes, the Democratic Party hitmen, and their addicted acolytes who self-righteously recoil from Trump’s brazen, ham-fisted corruption. 

How soon they forget Nixon’s sabotage of the Vietnam peace talks in order to hurt his Presidential rival, Hubert Humphrey. Or Reagan’s deal with the Iranians to hold the hostages and deny James Carter in the 1980 election.

Even more recently, our news media shrugged its collective shoulders at the audacious and successful effort of the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s campaign to derail Bernie Sanders’ 2016 primary run. And, of course, the Fusion GPS “research” organization contracted by the Clinton team and targeting Trump drew not only foreign operatives into the effort, but the corrupted leadership of the intelligence agencies.

Trump brought his customary vulgar directness and child-like simplicity to the phone conversation (“...very bad people…). Lacking any finesse, he directly asks President Zelensky to investigate the role of Biden and his son in Ukrainian affairs, offering the sleazy Rudolph Giuliani as an enabler. For his part, Zelensky shows himself to be the fawning puppet of the US: “We are trying to work hard because we wanted to drain the swamp here in our country…You are a great teacher for us.…”
Sharing the spirit of political retribution with Trump, Zelensky asks “the great teacher” to punish the US Ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovich: “Her attitude towards me was far from the best as she admired the former president and she was on his side.” Tit for tat! Biden for Yovanovich! 

And don’t forget we need more sanctions and Javelin missiles to combat the evil Russians!

It’s more than curious that the purveyors of fast-food news do not identify Zelensky as an Eastern European Trump wannabe. Their dishonest portrayal of Ukraine as a bastion of democracy will not permit them to read the phone-call transcript as revelatory of the legacy of corruption and US intervention in Ukrainian affairs. Zelensky, like his predecessor, owes his position to a US-engineered coup that brought Ukraine firmly into the US sphere of influence. As adamantly as the media wants to portray Zelensky as “Mr. Smith Goes to Kiev,” the transcript suggests a different interpretation.

Lost in the impeachment flurry is the unsightly, corrupt role of presidential aspirant, Joe Biden. Biden has postured as a modest friend of the working man and woman, a commoner drawn to public service. In fact, Biden is a corporate Democrat through and through, with a nasty history of opposing affirmative action and supporting the militarization of the police and the growth of the incarceration industry. His foreign policy views are taken from the chicken hawks and the generals.

Along with Victoria Nuland, Biden was the leading figure in conducting US intervention in Ukrainian affairs during the Obama administration. His fingerprints are on the ouster of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych in February 2014. 

And then a curious thing happened. Two months later, Hunter Biden-- Joe’s ne’er-do-well son-- was appointed to the board of directors of Ukraine’s largest energy company, Burisma Holdings, at a reported $50,000 per month. The head of Burisma had apparently been impressed with Hunter Biden’s deep experience in business, especially the oil and gas business.

But Hunter had no experience in business, any business. He was fresh from expulsion for cocaine use from a very brief and privileged entry into the Naval Reserve, hardly a sterling qualification for a big-time job on the Burisma board.

Could it have been that Mykola Zlochevsky, the founder of Burisma, saw Biden as a free pass for his being on the wrong side of US-written history? Was Hunter Biden’s appointment a down payment on forgiveness for Zlochevsky’s support of the deposed Yanukovych, given Vice President Joe Biden’s key role in shaping US policy toward its client state? 

Certainly those possibilities never occurred to our then apparently somnambulant media. No one saw a hint of impropriety, a scent of influence peddling, or the stench of corruption in the halcyon days of 2014. 

With one exception: James Risen, writing in The Intercept, claims that he, in fact, anticipated the dust-up about Joe and Hunter way back in 2015 when Risen was a writer for the august New York Times. Risen assures us, however, that Joe Biden’s intervention in Ukraine affairs had nothing but the most noble motives, an assertion that proves that some NYT writers actually found the paper’s editorial line to be credible. 

Astonishing: Risen and others can actually defend Biden’s role in Ukraine without acknowledging that he and other US officials were actively and effectively interfering in the internal affairs of a sovereign country, a despicable sin that has singularly, but one-dimensionally occupied the US media obsessively for the last two years. Interference is only interference when it is alleged against the US or by a self-perceived foe of the US. That's the kind of twisted logic employed by a government intoxicated with its own sense of moral infallibility and sold by a compliant media.

“Still,” Risen assures us, “when Joe Biden went to Ukraine, he was not trying to protect his son — quite the reverse.” Why would anyone think differently? Tell that to the insightful David Rovics: A Biden Ballad.

Would it come as a surprise if the “whistleblower” in this sordid affair turned out to be-- not a disgruntled intelligence officer afraid of retribution-- but the highest echelon of the intelligence apparatus bent on keeping Zelensky securely under its thumb and on board with its anti-Russia program?

Whistleblower protection was supposedly meant to protect the employees, not the employers! It is undoubtedly abused in this case.

An examination of the nine-page “whistleblower” letter and appendix directed to the Senate and the House intelligence committee chairpersons reveals a remarkable access to numerous high-level “officials,” a wealth of intelligence information, and impressive analytical and research resources. The brief would constitute a difficult, herculean task for any low- or mid-level intelligence officer following the lead of hearsay or water-cooler gossip. Likely, the secret service leadership has contrived a composite “whistleblower” to exploit the anonymity guaranteed by existing legislation.

Unlike the Watergate “deep throat” leaker whose identity obsessed the media for decades, news people have a puzzling lack of interest in uncovering the anonymous “whistleblower.” Maybe they know there really isn’t one?

The “whistleblower” document is a point-by-point response to any counter-narrative that some, including many skeptics on the left, might construct to the bi-partisan, “color” revolution, regime-change program of US imperialism. It is, in essence, an expression of US unilateralism and the US’s attempts to isolate its rivals. Trump is the target of the exercise only because his own narrowly focused, personal objectives clash with the ruling class’s perception of its own interests and the calculated mythology of US moral authority; his MAGA vision is at odds with the global vision embraced by most of the ruling class establishment.

For the “news”/entertainment industry, an impeachment process is Christmas come early. The corporate moguls well know the jacked-up ratings that have followed past presidential impeachment hearings and the high drama of political maneuvers that ensue. They have stoked the fires of outrage to pressure a Democratic Party leadership reluctant to follow the impeachment path. 

Like RussiaGate, TelephoneGate is a two-edged sword aimed at the populace. On one edge, it attempts to conjure Trump criminality without suggesting that his behavior represents the general lawlessness of the capitalist class. And on the other edge, it promises to distract US voters from the real crisis facing  most citizens. With impeachment unfolding over the next year, TelephoneGate will accomplish that task.

Even a cursory examination behind the media curtain demonstrates that the sordid affair tarnishes all who have participated: Trump, his team, Biden and his DNC promoters, Biden, the younger, the intelligence establishment, the political cabal, the monopoly media, and the rest of that for which the disingenuous Trump and his junior partner Zelensky use the nonetheless useful term, “the swamp.” For well over a decade, confidence in the swamp and the institutions populated by the swamp rats has sunk in every opinion poll. 

Over the next months, we will be asked to pick sides in a contest with charlatans and scoundrels dominating both sides. There will be no winners beyond the charlatans and the scoundrels. 

If, paraphrasing the oft-quoted Marx in The Eighteenth Brumaire, the Nixon impeachment was a tragedy and the Clinton impeachment was a farce, what is the Trump impeachment?

Greg Godels