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Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Jeffrey Epstein, Chinatown, and Eyes Wide Shut

“Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.” This final comment in the brilliant 1974 film Chinatown was more than a crude slur on Asian “inscrutability.” After a long, tense interval of murder, deception, ruthless power, and near resolution, Jake Gittes’s colleagues are urging him to withdraw and accept the defeat that comes with the recognition that further action is futile.

Jack Nicholson masterfully plays a supremely self-confident and successful private detective in late-1930s Los Angeles. Forced out of his work-a-day life as a cop, Nicholson’s character becomes a paragon of business success-- money, nice clothes, cars, and all the trappings of a smug, comfortable, and knowing petty-bourgeois. The ensuing tale depicts the shattering of his smugness, his intensifying discomfort, and the utter destruction of his grasp on his world. 

Midway through his journey, Jake (Nicholson) encounters Noah Cross (John Huston), a man of boundless money and power. Jake believes that his own boundless cleverness and wit can match Cross. In his deliberate, no-nonsense manner, Cross imperiously tells Jake that he has no idea with whom and with what he is dealing in his investigation.

Chinatown proves that Cross is right.

Most critics praise this marvelous movie, citing its consummate neo-noir realization, its technical excellence and innovation. Many see a political undercurrent: the ruthless manipulation of events by power and for the acquisition of wealth in pre-war Los Angeles. The wonderful Robert Towne script skillfully melds events from Los Angeles’ history and his own fictional counter-history to construct a counterpoint of exploitation and corruption, easily interpreted as a critique of unfettered capitalism and unscrupulous capitalists.

But unnoticed by many critics, the complex sexual mystery surrounding Noah Cross’s daughter, Evelyn Cross Mulwray (Faye Dunaway), unfolds a more shocking critique of capitalism: When Jake extracts a confession from Evelyn Mulwray, she jarringly tells Jake that her daughter is also her sister, her sister is also her daughter, challenging him and the viewer to understand fully what she means. Noah Cross-- the arch-capitalist-- impregnated his own daughter. The film’s fatalistic ending underscores the harsh reality that Noah Cross’s depravity will go unpunished. The rules do not apply to the Noah Crosses of the world. “It’s Chinatown, Jake.”

Does today’s US news of the real Jeffrey Epstein reveal a facsimile of the fictional Noah Cross? Is Epstein an obscenely rich, ruling-class, trusted insider-- once a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and the Trilateral Commission-- supplying depraved sex to his elite colleagues? Is he, are they, beyond the reach of the laws that apply to the rest of us? 

Is this an extreme aberration from the norms of our “betters” or are the revelations merely a peek behind the curtains, the curtains that conceal the decadent rot of a dying socio-politico-economic system?

These questions intrigue, though they are far from answered by our media, long devoted to hiding the depths of elite depravity. The glimpse of Harvey Weinstein’s Hollywood degeneracy similarly identifies a long-standing elite immunity, though it quickly led to a sacrificial witch hunt, a supposed “cleansing” of the witches. Lost in the media circus was the complicity of the entertainment establishment, including the self-righteous Hollywood liberals who surely had some knowledge of Weinstein’s debauchery just as Epstein’s financial colleagues must have known. In an industry fueled by gossip, it defies credibility that awareness of Weinstein’s proclivities was not widespread.

It is both unforced and enforced blindness that emerges from Stanley Kubrick’s last film, the aptly titled Eyes Wide Shut (1999). Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman play a young couple who believe that they have arrived, enjoying the security and confidence that come with petty-bourgeois success. By virtue of his status, Dr. William Harwood (Cruise) enjoys access to the social world of the rich, powerful, and famous. Or, at least, he and his wife believe they do.

As he stumbles into an unknown world of violence and sexual exploitation, he recognizes that forces are at play that he never imagined. Those forces operate arrogantly and with impunity. They are larger than and outside of what he has experienced. Like Jake in Chinatown, the esteemed Dr. Harwood’s ego is bruised, his smug worldview is shattered.  

The young, wide-eyed arrivistes have not arrived at a good place. Instead, they have glimpsed a shadowy world of the ruling class, a world so dangerous that it forces them to close their eyes in dread. 

Where some critics found an arresting erotic mystery in Eyes Wide Shut, they may have missed its powerful political dimensions.

Apart from demonstrating the insecurities of the petty-bourgeoisie, Chinatown and Eyes Wide Shut give us a fictional glimpse into the sordid world of the ruling class. Today’s growing disclosures paint an equally sordid, but reality-soaked account of Jeffrey Epstein’s sexual empire and his scandalous immunity from punishment.

Epstein’s story takes us from a college dropout who lies and charms his way into a teaching job at an elite high school, parlaying more lies and charm into a top executive job at a major investment bank, and ending as a member of the super-rich club. Along the way, he becomes a trusted confidant and advisor of those at the top of the wealth and power pyramid. 

If Chinatown screenwriter, Robert Towne, were to write this script, he might suggest that Epstein both ingratiated himself with and collected dirt on the rich and powerful. He might depict a man who offered attractive ways for the super rich to preserve and grow their money while providing discreet, but illicit pleasures as a special perk. He might describe him as someone who befriends and services important public figures, people of the ilk of Donald Trump and Bill Clinton. 

If Robert Towne were to put words into Jeffrey Epstein’s mouth, he might have borrowed Noah Cross’s words and had Epstein tell the Palm Beach prosecutor in 2006 that “he had no idea of who or what he was dealing with…” Towne’s script would have allowed Epstein to escape justice. He or important friends might have informed the US Attorney, Alexander Acosta, of the same thing in 2008; or, Acosta might have been advised that Epstein “belonged to intelligence.”

Of course, it is unlikely that we will ever know the whole truth about Epstein’s activities. 

As with the “scandals” of Robert Kraft or Harvey Weinstein, the media will give us a sensationalized taste, but fail us before the weight of influence and power. Towne and Kubrick were right, there are places we cannot go.
Greg Godels

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

The Plasticity of Human Rights

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the State Department have taken on the task of researching and defining human rights. The Commission on Unalienable Rights will, according to Pompeo, make “an informed review of the role of human rights in American foreign policy” to be “grounded in our nation’s founding principles and the principles of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” Pompeo noted that some evildoers have “hijacked” rights-talk for “dubious or malignant purposes.” In an op-ed piece in The Wall Street Journal, Pompeo stated that “human-rights advocacy has lost its bearings and become more of an industry than a moral compass.”

It should be apparent that Pompeo wants to wrest “human rights” from those who have “hijacked” them, while putting rights-talk in the service of his own and his friends’ political agenda. It should be equally apparent that the media will cast this move as a part of the struggle between the forces of light and of darkness, with different spins on who actually grasps and defends human rights. 

Everyone, apart from Marxists and a few others swimming against the tide, will want to enthusiastically claim rights-talk as his or her own. Human rights, in one form or another, are the centerpiece of nearly all bourgeois visions of the ideal society since the dawn of capitalism. Yet (1) there are good reasons to suspect that the theoretical legitimacy of human rights doctrines falls far short of what its proponents believe it to be. And (2) there is serious reason to doubt that human rights doctrine can be rescued from a long and pervasive abuse by the forces of wealth, power, and reaction against the poor, the weak, and social justice. 

The notion of natural, inalienable, equal, and universal human rights came into common currency with the revolutionary overthrow of the once-dominant idea of feudal privilege. As a weapon in the hands of revolutionaries, rights legitimized human action, human possibilities far beyond the authority of kings and priests. Tyrannical privileges drew their authority from God and inheritance; human rights drew their authority from nature and reason. Liberal democracy stands on the bedrock of human rights. Or, at least, those are the assumptions behind human rights doctrines.

For much of the last four hundred years, the fight to fulfill the human rights promise of inalienability (or, “unalienability,” as some have it), universality and equality have served humanity well, expanding citizenship, voting rights, and civic participation to millions previously denied access by tradition and privilege. The banner of human rights and the language of rights-talk has, accordingly, become ubiquitous. 

However, from the beginning of the widespread acceptance of human rights, its more economically privileged advocates have sought to include the inalienability of existing property relations in the doctrine-- not the universality, equality, and inalienability of the right to property, but simply the inalienability of property. This stealth conflation of a human right to property-- suggesting a common equal, universal, and inalienable right to a share in the wealth of a society-- with the right to acquire unequal, privileged, but inalienable property goes largely unchallenged by celebrated philosophers of the modern era. 

Modern versions of rights doctrines-- from the earliest constitutions to today’s declarations-- have grafted the ill-fitting right to and protection of property accumulation onto codes featuring such seemingly innocuous and uncontroversial rights as the right to speak freely, to life, to association, to promulgate ideas, etc.

No one saw the weaknesses of human rights theory more clearly than the young Karl Marx. In the article, Bruno Bauer, Die Judenfrage, he wrote:

None of the supposed rights of man, therefore, go beyond the egoistic man…that is, an individual separated from the community, withdrawn into himself, wholly preoccupied with his private interest and acting in accordance with his private caprice…The only bond between men is natural necessity, need and private interest, the preservation of their private property and their egoistic persons.

Thus, for Marx, human rights doctrines are features of a specific era in human history. As such, they bear the weight of preserving and protecting the interests of the dominant classes of that era-- the bourgeoisie-- and are thus charged with the “preservation of their private property and their egoistic persons.” And the notion of radical individualism is deeply embedded in the doctrine as well.

Indeed, in Marx’s entire works rights are seldom mentioned except through derision, as historical artifacts, or in quotes. In contrast, Marx and Marxism locate social justice in the elimination of exploitation, the emancipation of an entire majority class, and the liberation of the oppressed (for a more detailed discussion of the theory of human rights, go here). 

It isn’t until Lenin and his contemporaries brought the right of a nation to self-determination -- in this case, a collective right-- into the Marxist mainstream that human rights played an important role in the Marxist tradition. Interestingly enough, this right-- an arrow to the heart of colonialism and neo-colonialism-- never achieved favor with bourgeois adherents of human rights doctrine. To this day, imperial powers-- the US, NATO, etc.-- deny this right to Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua, and a host of other countries that are dictated policy through aggression, sanctions, and tariffs.

Ironically, imperialist “human rights” advocates deny the right of nations to determine their own destiny by appealing to alleged or imagined human rights violations of individuals or groups. Apparently they possess a calculus that decides when one “inalienable” right is trumped by another. 

Cynically, they have used a twisted, manipulated version of the right of self-determination to forcefully and artificially “balkanize” sections of Europe, the Middle East, Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

From the emergence of rights-talk, bourgeois theorists have limited rights doctrine to what have come to be called negative rights, rights to be free from interference by others. Negative rights create a kind of personal sovereignty over the space surrounding an individual, a space protected from interference by other individuals, institutions, or the state. This set of rights serves capitalism well, showcasing the picture of unrestrained activity, of unleashed freedom and giving imprimatur to boundless choice, while ignoring the physical, material inequalities that determine the ability to exercise those same negative rights, to make choices. The old saw that ‘we all have the right to print a newspaper provided that we have the millions to buy one’ well illustrates the class-bias of negative rights. Everyone has them, few can make use of them.

Negative rights are essentially “rights to do x,” but there can also be positive rights-- “rights to have x.” Examples of positive rights might be a right to a good job, a right to decent housing, a right to medical care, etc. These rights would guarantee universal, equal, and inalienable access to material or emotional well-being. Human rights advocates and human rights organizations in capitalist countries have been unfriendly to positive rights. In fact, they would be hard pressed to identify a human rights campaign designed to protect, promote, or guarantee positive rights.

Consequently, the post-World War II era of human rights advocacy has been decidedly one-sided, commendably advocating for the right to free speech, the right to travel, and other negative rights, but strikingly absent funding or concerted action for positive rights like housing, jobs, education, low cost transit, etc. 

The focus on negative rights over positive rights generally put the money, activism, and moral commitment of human rights organizations in step with US and NATO foreign policy in the Cold War. The most widely recognized human rights organizations were quick to identify allegations of denial of rights in socialist countries, focusing on travel and emigration restrictions or denial of publication, but never elucidating the reasons offered in defense of official actions. Nor did they address the reality of travel, emigration, and publication existing well beyond the means of the vast majority of citizens in capitalist countries. That would have forced advocates to enter the domain of positive rights.

The socialist countries and the former colonies-- the once-called “third world”-- were successful in expanding the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) and subsequent conventions and covenants to include positive rights and collective rights, but they remained largely ignored by the Western human rights establishment-- Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, etc.-- throughout the Cold War and post-Cold War period. 

Since the demise of the Soviet Union, human rights groups have spawned a crowded field of special interest NGOs (non-governmental organizations), too often overtly or covertly and hypocritically financed by and representing the interests of imperialist governmental bodies. Where allowed, they are to be found, virtually tripping over each other, working in every independent country targeted for “reform” by the US or its NATO allies. Ostensibly, they are charged with bringing human rights or democracy to outliers. In reality, they are well-funded agents for capitalist values and imperialist goals. Western NGO activity directly links to the various “color” counter-revolutions throughout the world. 

Where conquistadors formerly attacked the distant aboriginals to bring civilization and its values to them, the modern NGO conveys capitalist values to the “backward nations” through emissaries of “human rights” and “democracy.”

Like his predecessors, Pompeo will discover the human rights doctrine that best fits his and his colleagues’ political goals. Just as the Obama version of human rights doctrine was shaped to fit the sweet-sounding, but malignant vision of “Humanitarian Intervention,” Pompeo will shape human rights theory to justify the posture of the Trump administration.

It has been that way, it will be that way again.

Greg Godels

Thursday, July 11, 2019

Rising Above the Walking Dead, Action Heroes, and Other Nonsense

This year’s Fourth of July, Independence day, didn’t need President Trump’s chest-thumping, military orgy of bogus patriotism to further vulgarize what has long been an embarrassment of ugly jingoism and national myth-making by politicians and media pundits. Most US workers enjoy the mandatory fireworks, cook outs, and the day off, but partake little of the official babble.

But this year, we were blessed with two meaningful “entertainments” 
book-ending the early-summer holiday. 

On July 2, Amazon Prime released for streaming Mike Leigh’s powerful film, Peterloo. While its theatrical releases in the UK and US were earlier, US subscribers to Amazon Prime could now watch the entire 154-minute historical depiction of the massacre of Lancashire workers gathered at St. Peter’s Field on the outskirts of Manchester (Peterloo takes its name from irony-- the military slaughter at Waterloo four years earlier). In the aftermath of the bloody, costly Napoleonic Wars, an economic downturn and protectionist Corn Laws forced unemployment and impoverishment upon the workers of the UK. 

With a long history of petitioning authority (from the peasant risings to the chartist movement), English workers sought to organize meetings to appeal for suffrage, repeal of the Corn Laws, and other reforms. Some 60,000 petitioners-- men, women, and children-- gathered at St. Peter’s Field to hear famed orator Henry Hunt speak on the matter of reform.

Fear and the size of the peaceful crowd led the magistrates, the manufacturers, and the government authorities to unleash the militia and the military on the unarmed crowd, resulting in many deaths and several hundred casualties. Like most unprovoked attacks on protesters, officialdom, fearing the wrath of the people, followed up with further repression of the victims and the reformers.

All movies are political, despite what the art-for-art's-sake crowd says. Some are consciously political, some are unintentionally political; some are politically clumsy, some politically nuanced. But all reflect the politics of their creators and the contextual politics of their times. In an era of fear and simplistic moralizing, of zombies and action heroes, Peterloo is a refreshing, thoughtful tribute to conscious, nuanced political filmmaking. 

The movie explores the layers of commitment and understanding that inform mass action. It exposes the role of various political tendencies in shaping the climactic moment and its outcome. Like Claude Berri’s wonderful, but neglected film version of Zola’s Germinal, Peterloo forces the viewer to think about the political alternatives available to the oppressed. It is impossible to watch either movie without carrying on an internal debate (or, better, a comradely discussion with others) over the larger questions of the effective routes to social justice. 

Equally, Peterloo does not spare us the damage of misleadership. Viewed by the masses as a kind of biblical savior, the self-assured, wealthy, patronizing Henry Hunt is depicted as man-not-of-the-people. As Paul Foley reminds us in The Morning Star: “Rory Kinnear’s Henry Hunt, while being a great orator, is condescending towards working people in general and the north of England in particular. It is a timely reminder that, as with Hunt, liberal social democrats will always sell working people short.” (A comment that conjures the Democratic Party “saviors” who are currently vying for Presidential brass wing)

It is unlikely that tales of zombies and DC comic heroes would inspire a poet like Percy Bysshe Shelley who, when he learned of Peterloo, wrote of the martyred:

“Rise like lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number —
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you —
Ye are many, they are few.” (quoted in The Morning Star review)

On the other side of the Fourth of July holiday (July 6), Turner Classic Movies screened the incomparable The Battle of Algiers as part of its Essentials series. Hosted by Ben Mankiewicz and the amazing Ava Duvernay (When They See Us), TCM brought the seldom shown Gillo Pontecorvo 1966 masterpiece back to a broad national audience. Duvernay’s passionate enthusiasm for the film pushed Mankiewicz to declare that it was his favorite film, a claim from which he tactfully backed away. 

Depicting the Algerian national liberation struggle, focusing on the city, Algiers, between 1954 and 1957, The Battle of Algiers captures the intense resistance of the Algerian people to their French colonial masters in a vivid, black-and-white documentary style. With one exception, the participants are non-actors, several of whom were actual participants in the national liberation front, the FLN. 

The film both graphically and honestly deals with the theme of revolutionary violence. A fictional leader, Ben M’Hidi, captured and showcased to the press by French paratroopers, is grilled by reporters on the FLN’s use of violence against French civilian colonists. Explaining that FLN violence was a response to colonial violence, Ben M’Hidi went further, pointing out the asymmetry of a subjugated people fighting a mighty modern army: “Let us have your bombers and you can have our women’s baskets [in which the FLN plants bombs].”  No better answer has ever been devised to the ubiquitous charge of “terrorism” lodged by cruel, cynical imperialist masters whether they be the South African apartheid regime, the Israeli IDF, or the US expeditionary forces. 

Pontecorvo also addresses the question of historic immunity, linked by many today with the legacy of Nazi persecution of the Jews. The para colonel Mathieu, the figure who visits the most vicious, draconian tactics on the FLN, was a resistance hero against the Nazis. Despite his experience of Nazi inhumanity, he is fully capable of exhibiting his own inhumanity against another people; he is capable of savagery, just as descendants of death camp victims are capable of injustices against Palestinians today. 

Pontecorvo boldly shows that the “civilized” French people were capable of the most brutal torture, including waterboarding, electro-shock, and forced contortions. Like every other “civilized” imperialist country, France went into official denial, banning the film until 1971 (France similarly banned Henri Alleg’s autobiographical account of his torture at the hands of the paras, La Question). It is not possible to ignore the parallels of national denial of torture by the US in Vietnam and Iraq or by Israel in Palestine.

The Battle of Algiers-- a fictional artifact-- underscores a truth that imperialists must relearn again and again: an oppressed people cannot be dominated indefinitely. Though the French appear to destroy the FLN movement, the film ends with another rising of the people, a more effective, more popular rising, that succeeds in driving the French from Algeria, a lesson that the US has yet to absorb with its interminable wars of aggression.

Like so many other militantly left political films, The Battle of Algiers has been largely relegated to art-house showings. Yet its profound capture of people’s resistance has not been lost on the agents of counter-revolution. In August of 2003, in the course of the occupation of Iraq, the Pentagon offered its fighters a showing of The Battle of Algiers explaining, as its flyer announced:

How to win a battle against terrorism and lose the war of ideas. Children shoot soldiers at point-blank range. Women plant bombs in cafes. Soon the entire Arab population builds to a mad fervor. Sound familiar? The French have a plan. It succeeds tactically, but fails strategically. To understand why, come to a rare showing of this film.

Thanks to Turner Classic Movies (and Ava Duvernay), a wider audience could now understand how a poor, long suffering people can defeat a far greater power determined to impose its will.

In the midst of another extreme-climate summer, offering little more than shallow political theater, corrupted journalism, the constant frightful encounters with the walking dead, and the moralizing adventures of superheroes, what a treat to digest these two important, sophisticated, and fulfilling movies!

Greg Godels

Wednesday, July 3, 2019

The US Economy at Mid-Year

On the face of it, a 3.1% 2019 first-quarter increase in US Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is a pretty impressive performance, especially after a drop in the last quarter of 2018 to a less impressive 2.2% growth rate. Couple that with the best January-through-June stock market performance since 1997 and it is understandable that the Trump administration is making the celebration of a healthy economy the centerpiece of its re-election push. But, as I’ve stressed before, the stock market numbers, GDP growth, and even employment rates are often less than reliable measures of the health of the economy, even less so of the economic status of working people. 

But even by market-adulation standards, the 3.1% growth rate is deceptive, masking serious looming issues. A full .56% contribution to the rate comes from inventory build-up, an ominous sign that production is substantially outpacing sales. In addition, the biggest component of 1st-quarter growth was, as usual, consumer spending. But consumer-spending growth retreated by over 50% from the last quarter of 2018. 

A big contributor to 1st-quarter growth was fixed nonresidential investments. Business investments recovered somewhat in 2018 after a long investment drought thanks to favorable tax laws, repatriated profits, and the need to counter growing aggregate worker compensation from a tightening labor market. Early in 2018, corporate leaders and economic commentators began to notice and fear the effect upon profits of compensation growth and sluggish global markets.

In an attempt to counter wage pressure, US capitalists accelerated their acquisition of labor-saving capital and intensified the labor process (increased labor exploitation). As a result, for the first time in 32 straight quarters, labor productivity rose in 2018 above the previous years of sub-2% growth (only to falter again in 2019). 

While cheerleaders were loudly celebrating a healthy economy, both profit-squeeze and declining demand were eating away at the US economy: in the last quarter of 2018, profits fell .4%; in the first quarter of 2019, the decline increased to 2.6% (BEA). 

While the anointed economic “experts” populating most newspapers boasted of prosperity, the serious analysts in capital’s mouthpieces-- The Economist, Bloomberg News, The Financial Times, Barron’s, The Wall Street Journal, etc.-- shuddered. They understood that the decline in profitability-- capital’s engine-- outweighs the cosmetic metrics favored by capital’s Pollyannas. 

For some time, the European, Japanese, and Chinese economies have been mired in stagnation or slowing growth, but the US economy has been puttering along against that tide. That “success”-- fueled by tax policy, military spending, and bullying trade policy-- has now run its course.

The important US auto industry declined every month in the first half of 2019 against the same month last year. June sales dropped a stunning 6% against June, 2018. GM plans to close 5 plants and Ford is scheduling a 20% layoff of its European workforce in July.

US existing home sales-- equally economic drivers-- have fallen on an annual basis for 15 months, and homeownership, after two years of improvement, declined in the first quarter of 2019.

Where there are sales, house-flipping has returned with a vengeance to 2006 (pre-crisis) levels at 10.6% of all sales, spurring class and race-busting urban gentrification.

Steel mill closings are part of a US manufacturing-output decline over the first four months of 2019.

On the dominating financial front, US corporate debt at 46% of GDP is the highest on record. The low interest-rate environment existing since the worst days of the crisis has seduced corporations into promiscuous borrowing. The Federal Reserve is caught in a precarious position of trying to restore interest rates to historical levels in an effort to tame borrowing while fearing that higher interest rates will sink over-leveraged corporations. Trump stands on the sidelines screaming for low interest rates to brighten prospects for his immediate political future. 

The Fed is warning of risky, highly leveraged corporate debt which rose 20% last year to $1.1 trillion (with falling credit standards). A downturn could devastate this market and spark a financial meltdown. 

The low-interest environment has spawned an explosion of global debt: where total debt was 225% of worldwide GDP in 2000, it has reached 325% of total global GDP today. The lowest level of investment-grade bonds now total over $2 trillion.

The heralded burst of international trade that came to be called “globalization” is receding in importance as a factor in the global economy. The period in the 1960-1970s when the WWII “losers,” especially Japan and the Federal Republic of Germany, rose up to compete vigorously with US monopolies managed to nearly double global trade as a percent of world GDP. The percentage of trade to global GDP multiplied again from the mid-1990s until the 2008 crash-- this time, from the development of new logistical technologies and a massive injection of disciplined, skilled, low-wage labor into the global labor market from Asia and Eastern Europe.  

The conditions for continued intense trade growth have now been exhausted in the post-crash world. Since 2012, the change in world merchandise trade volume has vacillated between 1 to 5% growth, actually falling into negative territory in the first six months of 2019. Shipping companies have looked to other areas of investment while orders for new ships-- the vessels of global trade-- have sunk to a 15-year low.  

Some will blame Trump’s trade policies on the decline in trade, but that confuses cause with effect. Economic nationalism as a policy has gained its hold on sections of the ruling class and desperate voters worldwide because of the failure of the globalist project. Its failure to deliver in the wake of the 2007-8 crash produced a hunger for an alternative. Turning to national interest Über Alles at a time of economic chaos is a capitalist commonplace with many historical precedents. In fact, I projected at the time of the crisis that the collapse would likely generate “centrifugal forces” which have since threatened to break up alliances, trade agreements, international institutions (like the EU), and common policies.

In place of the globalist project, the new nationalists hope to revive the US economy by bullying rival economies to the advantage of their respective corporations and capitalists. In the case of the US, they see deregulated markets as failing to respect US power and dominance. They have cast off the fantasy of market partnership for an economic struggle of winners and losers (with each nationalist regime convinced that it will be a winner).

Make no mistake, the current battles between the globalists and the economic nationalists will generate no authentic champions for working people. Neither Trump and his European cohorts nor the free marketeers defending the old consensus can offer little more than temporary relief from the deeper ills afflicting capitalism. 

Apart from tariff policies and other bullying, US oil and gas imperialism is another feature of the new economic nationalism. With US oil production matching or exceeding every other global producer, and with natural gas extraction growing dramatically, the economic nationalists foresee the US now competing successfully for markets. The conventional explanation of the US aggression against oil-producing states must now be retired. The US is no longer solely obsessed with commanding and dominating existing oil producers-- US intervention is not simply about the oil in the way it has been in the past. That is, it is not simply acquiring oil resources that motivates US aggression, but commanding oil markets as well.

Thus, the US is also out to wreck competing oil and gas producers by sanctions, disruptions, and destruction. The US corporations want the markets in order to peddle their own energy resources. The long trail of wrecked, dysfunctional, and economically strangled global oil producers attests to this new motivation and serves US energy corporations well. 

I have been writing often of this shift of US imperial design for over two years. Nothing demonstrates the intent of the new energy imperialism as does the Department of Energy’s recent renaming of US natural gas as “Freedom Gas” and the product as “molecules of freedom.” This silly branding is part of the campaign to win Europe and other gas-dependent markets from Russia and Iran/Qatar. Even though US liquified “freedom gas” is 20% more expensive than Russian gas, the Trump administration bullied Germany’s Angela Merkel to agree to two new LNG terminals in Germany. Her admission that LNG from the US would not break even for at least a decade demonstrates the aggressive face of the new US energy imperialism.

US gas producers have stoked anti-Russia sentiment to draw Poland and the Baltic states into their LNG market nexus. US LNG annual exports to Portugal and Spain grew from a tiny base to nearly 20 and 30 billion cubic feet, respectively, between 2016 and 2017.

And US crude oil exports soared after the crisis in the Straits of Hormuz. US oil shipping nearly doubled in the aftermath of the mysterious “attacks” in the Persian Gulf. President Trump underscored the attractiveness of foregoing the Straits and buying from the US. Rather than taking the “dangerous journey,” Japan and PRChina should be reminded that “the US has just become (by far) the largest producer of energy in the world.”

Economic nationalism will not save the US or any other country from the failures of capitalism.

It is useful to be reminded that the celebrated US economy has left a quarter of all citizens with no retirement savings at all, according to a Federal Reserve survey. Forty-four percent fear that their retirement will not be enough. Seventeen percent state that they will not be able to meet all of their bills in the month of the survey. A quarter of those surveyed skipped medical care in 2018 because they were unable to pay. And nearly 40% state that they lacked the cash to cover a $400 expense. No wonder household debt hit $13.3 trillion last year, a level unseen since before the crash. It is impossible to craft a picture of a healthy or beneficent economy from this data.

Not surprisingly, Black workers have been hit hardest by the bogus recovery. While all workers have improved their median weekly earnings by 5.3% since the beginning of the recession in 2007, African-American workers have barely gained at all, improving their weekly earnings by only 1.6%.

Neither sanctions, tariffs, and other forms of bullying nor an aggressive imperialist energy policy will counter the contradictions ripening within global capitalism. In November of 2018, I wrote: “Next year will bring stagnation, if not economic decline, for the global as well as the US economy. Inevitably, capitalism will attempt to place the burden of the system’s failure onto the backs of working people.” I stand by that projection.
Greg Godels