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Thursday, May 27, 2021

Chile, after nearly fifty years of despair

On May 15 and 16 of this year, the people of Chile began a process to overturn the nearly 50-year interruption of the nation’s social and economic development. With the election of a representative body to a forthcoming Constitutional Convention, Chilean voters may finally break away completely from the nightmare imposed by the military-fascist regime of Augusto Pinochet.

The Chilean military’s coup in 1973 broke what was then the longest streak of formal parliamentary rule in any South American country. The international left viewed the Popular Unity coalition government, led by the Socialist and Communist Parties and elected in 1970, as an experiment testing the viability of the parliamentary road to socialism. The Chilean ruling class and the US government also saw it the same way and were determined to crush it.

With the socialist experiment destroyed by the coup and fascist rule installed, Chile became a laboratory for the most aggressive policies of market fundamentalism: privatization, deregulation, and the absolute administration of economic life by profitability. Under the direction of the so-called Chicago School of political economy, Chile became the dream of die-hard free-marketeers: a veritable Hobbesian state-of-nature.

The experiment failed, by bourgeois measures and even more so as measured by every misery index of the people's well-being.

Tragically, the debt incurred in unwinding the worst aspects of the disastrous policy exceeded the debt incurred by the Allende government in expanding the social benefits of the people in 1970-1973.

Since Pinochet’s departure, Chile has been in a limbo between the restraints on change imposed by the undemocratic 1980 Pinochet Constitution and the pressure for democracy and social advance pressed by the social movements.

Finally, with the May 15-16 election of a Constitutional Assembly, and the opportunity to construct a new, progressive Constitution and move beyond the 48 years of retarded development and backwardness, the future of Chile appears brighter. Especially significant in this election was the strong showing by the coalition led by the Chilean Communist Party, garnering the second-most delegates to the convention.

While this is a step forward, one must never forget the costs to the Chilean people of nearly half a century of the effects of fascist repression and unfettered economic exploitation. 

And one must never forget the ugly, brutal role of the US government in destroying the Popular Unity experiment, a role that the US continues to play in undermining independent developments in Venezuela, Cuba, Bolivia, Ecuador, Brazil, and virtually every other country in the Americas. 

Recently, a reminder of the sweeping, decisive, and unconscionable intervention of the US government and US institutions in Chile came from the records of a partisan of Chilean democracy, a first-hand observer and victim of the machinations of the shameful servants of US imperialism. 

Geoffrey Fox joined eleven other Chicagoans, including trade unionists Abe Feinglass, Ernie DeMaio, and Frank Teruggi, Sr (his son, Frank Jr was murdered by the Pinochet junta) on a fact-finding visit to Chile in February of 1974.  

Cramming interviews, meetings, and even clandestine contacts, the group experienced the full horror of the Pinochet butchery. As one military officer told them: “We have moved from the stage of mass slaughter to the stage of selective slaughter.” 

Upon his return, Fox penned a detailed, first-hand report of the findings. A vice-president of his own American Federation of Teachers (AFT) local, he naturally thought that the national union’s publication, The American Teacher, would be a ready recipient for an article chronicling the harsh fate of teachers under Pinochet.

And indeed, he was right. The editor, a long-standing defender of labor rights, David Elsila, gladly received Fox’s article and pressed for its publication. The article was typeset and all but printed.

But Fox and Elsila underestimated the reach of the Cold War anti-Communist consensus, from its core in the upper reaches of government through the security establishment, the educational system, the media, and the labor union leadership. The Cold War chill brought all of these institutions into compliance with US foreign policy goals (imperialist designs!). 

After purging the left from trade union work and expelling the left-led unions, the center-right labor leadership agreed to an unholy alliance with the US ruling class. In exchange for slavishly following, even promoting, US foreign policy, the labor chiefs sought to achieve an era of cooperation between capital and labor. It was a small price to pay for capital to grant nominal increases in wages and benefits, while getting labor subservience in quelling labor insurgencies in other regions of the world. Militancy and solidarity were surrendered for labor peace, a result satisfactory to both complacent labor leaders and the guardians of capitalism, but a shameful betrayal of the international working class.

No one personified this betrayal more than the assistant to the president of the AFT, Alfred Max Loewenthal. Nearly every AFL-CIO union and the Federation maintained gatekeepers to deny even a hint of radical ideology or militant action to appear within its bounds. More often than not, they were ex-Communists or Trotskyists, who bore extraordinary grudges against the Communist Parties and their left associates. They could be relied upon to vigilantly veto even a whisper of criticism of US imperial policy.

Most notorious of those was Jay Lovestone, an ex-Communist who parlayed his anti-Communism into the leading foreign policy advisor to the center-right in the labor movement and who constituted its conduit to the CIA. It is no exaggeration to view him as the leading Cold War organizer of the US labor movement’s role in its complicity with the CIA in resisting leftist labor movements throughout the world.

The AFT had its own gatekeeper in Al Loewenthal. He came into the labor movement as the leader of an anti-Communist local in the militant United Electrical Workers Union (UE). When a rival, anti-Communist union (IUE) was established to raid UE in the Cold War, Loewenthal enthusiastically joined, rising in the IUE hierarchy before escaping scandal and moving to AFT. 

Loewenthal became an important part of the AFL-CIO anti-Communist, pro-imperialist architecture, serving the notorious CIA collaborating AIFLD.

When Elsila dared to print Fox’s report in the AFT paper, Loewenthal was on it like the rabid watchdog that he was. 

In denying publication to the Fox report on the ruthless repression in Chile, Loewenthal explained:

In essence, what I have written is a criticism-- perhaps also a protest--using the Fox article as a glaring example of the injection of an ideology into A.T. [The American Teacher] which is at variance with AFT and AFL-CIO policy on a current matter.... Even worse, its publication would have made the A.T. the dupe of a Communist strategy on Chile and opened AFT to ridicule.

Elsila mounted an admirable defense, though to no avail. Anti-Communist hysteria always won out in the eviscerated, post-war, Cold War labor movement, as it often does today. He wrote in his appeal:

Fox is a reputable sociologist who has written studies on Latin America; he speaks Spanish fluently; and his trade union credentials include having been elected vice president by his AFT local. The goal of the committee was to determine to what extent workers are suffering under the junta and to report its findings. The commission’s report and Fox’s article are based on interviews with the US ambassador to Chile, junta officials, trade unionists, rank-and-file workers, and others. It is about as comprehensive a report on the status of things today in Chile as one can get.

Of course, none of that mattered to staunch Cold Warriors. Thus, the AFT joined, unknown to its members, in propping up a fascist dictatorship and in taking a stand on the wrong side of the history of the workers’ movement. The members could not be trusted to make up their own minds on the butchery in Chile. 

In place of a report urging solidarity with workers in another land, AFT members got another Cold War saga about Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, a Soviet dissident. Years later, after Solzhenitsyn was no longer useful to the security services, we learned of his ultra-conservatism, his disdain for democracy, and his anti-Semitism. Truth was sacrificed in the interest of US imperial objectives.

Fox and Elsila fought the good fight. Elsila soon left AFT to edit Solidarity, the newspaper of the United Auto Workers (UAW), a union with its own unpleasant Cold War legacy, but a touch more tolerance. Fox continued teaching and writing about Latin America and addressing other progressive themes: his novel on the Paris Commune will be out later this year.

Their story is more than an anecdote about the Cold War. It is not a reminder of the past; rather, it exposes the unseen mechanisms that constantly mesh and turn, burnishing a false depiction of US foreign policy while undermining the bonds of our common humanity. The same institutions that surrendered their independence, sold their integrity for acceptance in ruling circles, and stained international solidarity operate today in enabling US rulers to undermine social progress from Venezuela to Afghanistan and many places in-between and beyond. 

The dishonesty and ideological corruption that drove Loewenthal to serve the forces destroying Chile after 1973 are still infecting the media, the NGOs, the CIA-funded front organizations, the public intellectuals, the security services, the foreign affairs establishment, and, sadly, the labor movement.

The cost to Chile has been incalculable.

Now, maybe, the Chilean people can move forward again.

Greg Godels

Monday, May 17, 2021

Sacrificed at the Altar of Democratic Party Fealty

The COVID pandemic called into question many of the deeply held, foundational beliefs of twenty-first century capitalism. “Universal truths” like the efficacy of just-in-time production, the sanctity of fiscal restraint, the necessity of balanced budgets, and the sin of direct cash handouts were either shattered or unceremoniously discarded. For those able to think beyond the reformist box, the global pandemic challenged the very legitimacy of capitalism.

But perhaps the greatest myth-busting consequence of COVID was the mirror it held up to the US healthcare system or, more accurately, the US health consumer/insurance industry. 

Of course, most US citizens have long expressed a preference, when properly asked, for a universal system shorn of private insurance, like the original Medicare or a publicly financed, executed, and administered system like the Veterans Administration healthcare system.

It is no secret that, despite widespread support, the US public has been denied its choice by politicians shamefully influenced by the campaign contributions, the intense lobbying, and out-and-out graft of profit and “non-profit” networks, insurance and drug companies, and the political heft of others parasitic on a profit-driven system. While the public surely deserves better, it is mired in a system of increasing complexity, blind, confusing choices, and unfettered cost increases. 

The hucksters of private initiative, competition, and choice never explain that profit-seeking always produces and reproduces deception, consumer uncertainty, and unequal outcomes. They have argued persistently against reform because it would reduce the choices available to the “consumer.” This free-market hocus-pocus remains the default argument of the healthcare industry. But they curiously abandon their commitment to real choice when it comes to the Medicare-for-All option. That choice is foreclosed.

So, when the COVID virus struck the US, the ensuing rapid spread of cases, the shortage of hospital facilities, staff, and equipment, and the obscene rise in deaths exposed the lack of a comprehensive, universal, people-first public health system. States scrambled to find individual solutions to common problems; political calculations overrode human suffering; finger-pointing abounded; and states, municipalities, and systems hoarded scarce resources. Waves of new infections overwhelmed the patchwork, disorganized, and incoherent free-market approach.

Thus, a great opportunity was presented by the catastrophic COVID response of the richest country in the world, an opportunity to popularize the advantages of alternatives to an unpopular, failed system clung to by corrupted politicians and profiteers. 

Indeed, many in the single-payer, Medicare-for-All movement seized this tragic, but instructive moment. Many wrote, spoke, and organized around the devastating failure of private, competitive, profit-driven healthcare options. If anything good could come out of an embarrassing systemic failure, they argued, it would be that it underscored the need to move to a national system of universal and comprehensive healthcare delivered equally to all.

But political opportunism infected far too many who saw a chance to link the COVID catastrophe solely to Donald Trump, rather than lay it at the doorstep of a failed system. Of course, it is possible to heap some blame, a lot of blame on Donald Trump while indicting the system as well. Unfortunately, the crushing imperatives of the two-party system and the emotionally unhinged determination to eliminate Trump at all costs came at a price: the systemic failure of the existing, profit-before-people model and its needed replacement were pushed to the neverland of empty promises. The failure to combat COVID was firmly attached to Donald Trump. 

Blind loyalty to the Democratic Party has overshadowed any commitment to principle. Similarly, the fetish of personality, of form over content, has disabled the advancement of issues. Insofar as Trump was a creep, it was more important to heap blame on him for any and every failure of the system. The movement for single-payer was one of many casualties of this everything-and-everybody up against Trump. 

It is a lazy opportunism to attribute long-standing policy failures, like that of the Rube Goldberg US healthcare system, solely to an unhinged blowhard like Donald Trump. A conventional Democrat (like Andrew Cuomo) would (and did!) fare little better within the disastrous US model. 

Thus, any momentum gained by the COVID catastrophe’s discrediting of the US health-service industry is lost to the exigencies of the Democratic Party. We’ve gotten rid of Trump, but we’re stuck with a President who has declared that there will be no change to a universal system on his watch.

Meanwhile, capitalism’s champions are tirelessly carrying forward the fight to defend the for-profit system. Niall Ferguson, the popular conservative public intellectual known for his staunch defense of the British Empire, has written an essay published in The Wall Street Journal, arguing that had only the politicians taken the same tact as their counterparts did with the 1957 “Asian” flu, the US would have had far better outcomes (Ferguson is famous or infamous for his counterfactual histories).

Buried among a barrage of seemingly disconnected data and slippery comparisons is his thesis: “In 1957, the U.S. rose to the challenge of the ‘Asian flu’ with stoicism and a high tolerance for risk, offering a stark contrast with our approach to Covid-19.” 

Ferguson’s recipe of benign neglect (“Eisenhower did not declare a state emergency. There were no state lockdowns and… school closures.”) stands in stark contrast to his detailed touting of the speedy, efficient development of a vaccine in 1957. He feels no logical discomfort in hailing personal risk-taking and institutional diffidence while, at the same time, praising the government’s speedy, effective vaccine development as significant for success in 1957!

We learn that the hospital-beds-per-thousand-people ratio was at an all-time high (9.18 per 1000) in 1957, over three times greater than in 2020. Ferguson also credits this far-greater capacity decisively to the ‘success’ of 1957. Yet he surely knows that it was his beloved Thatcher (and Reagan) who fueled the market fundamentalism behind the shrinkage of available hospital beds in the interest of capitalist ‘efficiency’ and profit. 

Bathed in nostalgia for the fifties (Elvis, teenage boomer affluence, the Beat generation), Ferguson constructs an idealized world of minimal government, stolid Republican leadership, Cold War smugness, and ethnic hierarchies fearlessly confronting a pandemic and offering an alternative (counterfactually) to our own COVID experience.

If Ferguson’s fantastic, idealized model for confronting a deadly pandemic is the best that the left has to fear, then it has little to fear from his conservative ideological corner.

But the opportunism of the center-left is a huge barrier to securing a rational, universal healthcare system. Indeed, crass calculation infects the behavior of the ‘practical’ left on all issues. By answering every call of the Democratic establishment to put aside a burning issue in order to secure the victory of a ‘winning’ candidate, they guarantee that the burning issue becomes a forgotten issue.

Understandably, mass sentiment may run counter to majority interests, given that the masses are constantly bombarded with fast-food news and conformist commentary on media networks. But there is nothing understandable about liberals and ersatz socialists who willingly defer pressing vital initiatives to the service of a soulless Democratic Party. 

With Trump, it was the politics of tone that captured the attention of the center-left and drew its scorn. Beneath his outrageousness and his dismissive violation of political etiquette, there was little more than another pamper-the-rich tax scheme and bilious rhetoric. The ship of state continued on course, serving the rich and powerful, overfeeding the military-industrial complex, and terrorizing any country that defies US dominance. 

And now with Biden, the ship continues with a new pilot, but essentially on the same course. Certainly, there are adjustments, less bluster, less vulgarity. But that only boosts the politics of tone.

Yes, Biden has projected some ambitious, useful, and large-scale initiatives, but with the condition that he must achieve agreement from some of his Republican counterparts. The belief in such a rapprochement is either naive or a calculated ruse. As fear of inflation mounts, the retreat from ambitious action will accelerate. Biden is the new Obama, not the new FDR.

Allowing the Democratic Party to hold good, power-shifting, life-changing initiatives hostage to electoral success is a strategy that has not and will not work for the good of the people. 

History teaches many lessons; we can’t afford to continue to ignore them.

Greg Godels