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Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Let’s Get Clear About Fascism

“Fascist” and “Fascism” are frequently used words today that are both popular and slippery. The prevalence of the words in common parlance is indisputable, but regrettable for three reasons:

●There is no common, shared, ordinary meaning of “fascism.”

●“Fascist” has often become merely an epithet, a term of abuse.

●The use of the expressions has disengaged from their specific history and context.

Today, commentators, both left and right, excoriate their targets with fascist-themed concatenations: “feminazis”, “islamofascists,” “neo-fascists,” “PC fascists,” etc. And, of course, the dinner-table discussion of the liberal intelligentsia inevitably arrives at the burning question: “Is Trump a fascist?” If you Googled “Trump, fascism, fascist” on August 25, you would have gotten nine million, one hundred, fifty thousand results.

A writer for Vox, in pursuit of the ubiquitous Trump/fascism question, consulted five experts-- academics who have studious, decided opinions on fascism-- to shed light on the subject. Every definition either overshoots or undershoots the regimes that constituted fascism in the “classic” period: 1922 until the overthrow of the Estado Novo and Francisco Franco’s death. That is, they fail to apply to every fascist government or they apply to far too many governments of the era that were not fascist.

Another Vox writer asked a Yale philosopher, hawking his new book, for his understanding of fascism. Like many post-Soviet scholars, he sought to contain it within the vessel of “extremism” so that it could be a bedfellow with Communism. His honesty (and scholarship) was betrayed when he attempted to quote the remarks on fascism by the celebrated German pastor Martin Niemöller. The learned professor states that “We should heed the warning of the poem on the side of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, which says, ‘First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out because I was not a socialist…’”

In fact, the Niemöller quote begins: “First they came for the Communists and I did not speak out because I was not a Communist…” The version cited by the Yale professor and the museum is a product of the hysterical US anti-Communism of the 1950s, a period when authorities expurgated Communism and expelled Communists, ironically, a practice shared with the fascist regimes of the “classic” era.

While we can forgive the professor’s historical ignorance, we cannot overlook the fact that the quote is nearly universally distorted in the US, a practice that effectively denies a period in US history exhibiting decided fascistic tendencies.

Has the political exploitation and abuse of the term “fascism” rendered it useless? Is there any credible definition of “fascism” that can be rescued from the confusion? Does it matter?
It does matter because something like “classic” fascism always lurks on the edges of bourgeois politics-- a tool in the ruling class’s tool box. Even after the defeat of fascism in World War II (thanks largely to the sacrifices of the scorned Communists), remnants of the old order embedded in the new governments or fled to more hospitable environments. Ignorance, frustration, and gullibility promise an endless supply of foot soldiers for purveyors of the most base ideas spawned by capitalism and its most malignant culture.

Bourgeois elites keep fascist movements at arm's length until intractable crises of governance call for extreme measures; fascism is a kind of ruling class SWAT team. Twentieth Century bourgeois governments in Italy and Germany had every opportunity to suppress or liquidate their respective incipient fascist movements well before they grabbed power. Instead, they tolerated the movements, using them as a hammer on powerful movements of the working class left. When bourgeois governance was not assured, the shock troops of fascism grabbed political power, guaranteeing the preservation of the capitalist order.

As British Communist leaders Tony Conway, John Foster, Rob Griffiths, and Liz Payne argued in a recent letter published in Communist Review (number 92), the definition of fascism developed by the international Communist movement and introduced in 1935 reflected the experiences “of anti-fascist struggle in a range of countries and a range of different forms. It rejected attempts to define fascism in terms of surface characteristics-- as the despair of a disinherited lower middle class or as a pathology of mass politics that glorified charismatic leaders and stigmatized outsiders.”

The twentieth-century fascism that arose throughout Europe (and in the US with organizations like the anti-Roosevelt, putsch-seeking Liberty League) share many contingent features that fail to explain its ascendency at that particular moment and under those particular circumstances.

The British Communist writers find their definition-- not in a static set of contingent features-- but in a process: “... the developing class contradictions of capitalism in its monopoly phase, a phase of general crisis, of direct political challenge by the working class and of intensifying inter-imperialist conflict… It was a response by finance capital when the existing form of rule, bourgeois democracy, could no longer contain the political class contradictions arising from capitalism in its monopoly stage.”

They elaborate:
It is important, we argue, to sustain this definition today. It roots fascism within monopoly capital as a product of capitalism’s contradictions. Fascism is not a sociological product of ‘mass society’-- a form of ‘totalitarianism’ that enabled the Cold War propagandists of finance capital to equate fascism with communism. It arises when, in face of working class challenge, finance capital can no longer rule in the old way… [my emphasis]

The common thread of twentieth-century fascism-- its rise, its growth, its sustenance, its assumption of power-- was the relative threat of working class power, usually in the form of a revolutionary Communist party. That thread separates fascism from the xenophobic, anti-democratic, revanchist movements and regimes of the nineteenth century and their counterparts of today.

Conway, Foster, Griffiths, and Payne explain: “Today this definition still provides us with essential guidance. We are in a period of intensifying crisis for finance capital and of rising inter-imperialist tensions. In places across the world, but not generally, the challenge of the working class and its allies does threaten imperialist rule. It does so in parts of Latin America, newly in parts of Africa. Elsewhere potential threats exist…”

Potential threats are different from an imminent clash with fascism over governance, over the fate of bourgeois democracy. Nonetheless, vigilance and preparation are wise.

Fascist movements are always lurking in the shadows or, sometimes, emboldened into the light by the political successes of vulgar demagogues like Joseph McCarthy, Richard Nixon, George Wallace, Ronald Reagan, or Donald Trump in the US. All of these figures were/are lightning rods for fascist movements, all pressed the boundaries of bourgeois democracy.

They also exploited an electorate grown disappointed, even cynical by the failures of their more ‘liberal’ or social democratic counterparts. They flourished in the soil of insecurity, fear, disillusionment, and neglect. The ascent of these demagogues was, in fact, the product of a capitalist system that failed to offer its citizens an effective answer to sharpening contradictions.

But they were not on the verge of overthrowing bourgeois democracy. They were not fascists.

US Communists mistakenly saw 1950s McCarthyism, with all its fascistic trappings, as a precursor to fascism. The Communist Party paid a price in credibility and support for this mistaken assessment, a mistake which it later admitted. Crying fascist wolf can cost the left dearly and deflect from pressing a progressive agenda.

The danger of fascism is always possible under capitalism, though the unwarranted, premature alarm can be a distraction from the business at hand: defending working class interests and winning socialism.

Greg Godels

Friday, August 23, 2019

What Happened to Jeffrey Epstein?

Writing about Jeffrey Epstein on July 30, I predicted: “Of course, it is unlikely that we will ever know the whole truth about Epstein’s activities.” 

I went further to explain: “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... there are places we cannot go.”

And one place we cannot go further is to the facts behind Jeffrey Epstein’s death in the Federal Manhattan Correctional Center (MCC).

From the shocking announcement on the morning of August 10 that Epstein had died violently in his cell, the monopoly media has cried “conspiracy theory!” By now, after official conspiracies have been exposed again and again, the cry should sound hollow, but the media moguls trust that the public has a short memory. They count on people forgetting the Gulf of Tonkin fraud, the trumped-up Grenada invasion, the Iran-Contra affair, the bogus Papal-shooting Bulgarian connection, the Iraqi WMD fiasco, and many other well-documented official conspiracies. 

By Sunday, the day after the announcement, The Atlantic magazine had an article that already dismissed any alternative explanation for Epstein’s death even though authorities had released little information and drawn no conclusions: “Baseless speculation abounded after the accused sex trafficker died, but criminal-justice scholars point instead to a broader suicide problem.”

Similarly, Danny Cevallos, a legal analyst for MSNBC, opining in The Los Angeles Times on the same day, heads off all speculation with “Forget the conspiracy theories. Here’s why it’s likely that Jeffrey Epstein killed himself.” Citing a number of off-the-wall tweets from no one in particular and some non-specific prison suicide data, Cevallos dismisses “conspiracy.” Case closed.

Even Andrew O’Hagan, editor-at-large of the London Review of Books in far-away London and commenting on the LRB blog, could not resist rushing to judgement: “When guilty men kill themselves.”

As the days passed, unattributed “explanations” begin to pile up:

  • The facility was underfunded, understaffed, even “rat infested... with raw sewage… horrible conditions” (The Guardian)
  • Epstein’s lawyers had the suicide watch removed
  • The two assigned guards fell asleep
  • The guards falsified their reports
  • The mandatory cellmate went missing

Taken together, they count as a remarkable combination of circumstances, especially in light of earlier accounts of the operation of the MCC. For example, writing in 2017, The New York Times writer Joseph Goldstein portrays the MCC as a harsh, but efficient facility, a jail “less hospitable than Guantánamo Bay… The highest risk half-dozen inmates — or at least the ones facing the most severe charges — are housed in conditions so isolating that some have blamed them for deteriorating eyesight.”

Goldstein was writing at a time that the infamous drug lord, El Chapo, was about to enter pretrial incarceration in MCC. El Chapo had escaped incarceration on other occasions and Goldstein’s account stood as a reassurance that no monkey business would be tolerated there. Previous inmates Bernie Madoff and Ramzi Ahmed Yousef, the man behind the first World Trade Center bombing, were proof of that expectation.

Goldstein describes the intense security, including intrusive cameras and constant surveillance. Both the severe 10 South unit and the SHU are particularly attended well: “The 10 South unit is reached by a stairway from the ninth floor, a secure area known as the ‘Special Housing Unit,’ which has its own stringent security measures.” Apparently, Epstein was kept in the SHU. And if not, why not?

By August, 2019, the media descriptions had moved in a different direction, painting a picture of a Barney Fife-like operation where Epstein could leave his cell for 12 hours, retiring to a private room with attorneys and others (NYT).

With the media exile of our greatest investigative reporter, Seymour Hersh, no one has stepped up to actually investigate procedures and conditions at MCC. No one has taken an interest in challenging how an inmate’s lawyers could secure a release from suicide watch through the Bureau of Prisons bureaucratic procedures: 

Termination. Based upon clinical findings, the Program Coordinator or designee will:
(1) Remove the inmate from suicide watch when the inmate is no longer at imminent risk for suicide, or
(2) Arrange for the inmate's transfer to a medical referral center or health care facility.

No one has assessed the likelihood of the coincidence of both assigned guards falling asleep at the same time while the assigned cellmate has mysteriously disappeared, in the case of the most high-profile prisoner residing in MCC.

Epstein’s trial was projected for next summer, about the time of the respective Democratic and Republican Conventions, a time when any scandalizing plea-bargaining would be revealed. Doesn’t this whet the appetite of any of the few remaining investigative journalists in the US?

Call it conspiracy talk if you like, but Jeffrey Epstein’s death is convenient, too convenient. The possibility of securing the truth through a public trial-- even if it was remote-- is now foreclosed. Are there wealthy, powerful people now breathing a sigh of relief?

Greg Godels

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Discovering Debt

By many measures, the US media-- television, the Internet, radio, and the remaining newspapers and news magazines-- have done a remarkable job of keeping the US public alienated from its own interests.

Nothing demonstrates this credulity gap more dramatically than the contradiction between the continuing positive measures of consumer sentiment, like the Consumer Confidence Index, and the drastically deteriorating economic status of the majority of US consumers. Apparently, most of the economically distressed working class suffer silently, while believing the glowing media reports of steady economic growth and record-breaking market success. While bills accumulate, paychecks stagnate, debt climbs, and savings are stressed, mindless distractions and cheerful entertainments lull the masses into unwarranted optimism, accepting individually-felt economic distress as individual shortcomings. 

By now the shocking late-May Federal Reserve study revealing that nearly 40% of US citizens could not sustain an unexpected $400 hit without borrowing the money from someone, selling something, or ignoring the bill, has moved beyond media attention, not to be revisited by the media’s army of talking heads. But the media cannot continually disguise the brutal fact that roughly half of what arguably counts as the working class lives precariously.  Eventually, the pitchforks must come out.

If further motivation was needed, a recent article in The Wall Street Journal-- not the liberal darlings, The New York Times or the Bezos Washington Post, but the Murdoch Wall Street Journal-- should provide it. In a lengthy piece entitled Middle-Class Debt Swamps Families (8-01-09), authors Anna Maria Andriotis, Ken Brown, and Shane Shifflett document the enormous debt on the backs of the majority of US consumers, piling up in the face of stagnant income growth.

While the authors employ the slippery term “middle class,” their conclusions apply mainly to the bottom 90% of US citizens-- the working class and a section of the petty bourgeoisie. Where their numbers are aggregates or averages of aggregates, their conclusions understate the debt burden of the working class; the upper reaches of the US population are relatively debt-free, unlike the majority.

The housing bust of 2007-2008 radically and painfully reduced the growth of mortgage debt. Nonetheless, non-housing debt, especially student loan and automobile borrowing, has grown dramatically since the collapse. The cause of this rise is apparent: median household income today is only slightly higher than it was in 1999. Indeed, it has grown only marginally since the 1970s. It is not extravagance nor faulty planning that accounts for the dramatic rise in debt, but growing costs and greater financial demands on the family.

The average loan for a car is up 11% ($32,187) in a decade. The cost of housing has risen 290% over three decades, with lower priced home prices rising even faster, and college tuition has climbed 311% in the same period.

Average per capita health care expenditures have climbed 51% in the last 27 years. 

The average credit-card debt has reached $8,390 in 2019, up 9% since 2015. Consumers have met higher costs and stagnant incomes with heavy borrowing. The consequences of this debt frenzy would be even more dire if interest rates were not relatively low since the 2007-2008 downturn. However, the lower rates provide a false sense of safety, taking less interest from disposable income than previously.

The WSJ writers concede that debt crisis is exacerbated by obscene income and wealth inequality. They note that since 1989 a third of asset growth has gone to the top 1%, while the middle 20% of households have experienced only a 4% increase in assets in the same period.

The calculus is really quite simple: working people suffer income stagnation, sluggish asset growth, and escalating costs of living. Therefore, they must make up the difference by borrowing money; household debt must grow.

Home ownership is now beyond the reach of younger workers. 

A financial specialist for the Atlanta Federal Reserve office puts it bluntly: “What we may have to prepare for in the future is that buying a new home, and in some markets even buying an existing home, may become a luxury.”

The Wall Street Journal article does not signal a change of heart by the paper’s extremely conservative, pro-capitalist owners. Nor does it mark a rare moment of compassion for millions of US workers.

Instead, the authors are expressing a real fear that the ballooning debt will explode and threaten the capitalist system. The hardships imposed by the stagnant income/bloated-debt regimen threatens to provoke a challenge to the entire system, a movement that can’t be dampened by the two-party polka. They understand that younger households are reaching well beyond their budgets to buy new homes and accepting lengthier terms on car purchases (nearly a third of car buyers roll their debt over into another purchase). And, most importantly, they understand that finance capital will eventually call this enormous debt in with possibly catastrophic results. The capitalist moloch cannot feed on hypothetical profits. So what is to happen when struggling debtors cannot pay?

No celebration of job creation or GDP growth masks the dire fragility of working class living standards. The consumption growth that sustains the US economy rests on the rotting piers of consumer debt. 

It is hard to find answers in the Democratic Party beauty contests that are posing as debates. Most candidates are profoundly committed to the corporate-friendly “a rising tide lifts all boats” philosophy. They rail against the Trump tax cuts for the rich and, perhaps, support a higher minimum wage, but put their faith in market solutions. The few with modest “New Deal” social democratic programs, fail to recognize that should they squeeze finance capital, they threaten to throw the system that they defend into a tailspin. It’s what Marxists call a contradiction.

Capitalism produces contradictions. That’s why we need socialism.

Greg Godels