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Thursday, December 1, 2022

Free Market Follies

This is not the first era of capitalist excess that forces normally lapdog journalists and the compliant mainstream commentariat to cast scorn and derision over one of their “entrepreneurial” icons. But surely this is one of the more ridiculous and revealing exposures of market hubris.

After failing to obtain fresh financing, the cryptocurrency exchange, FTX, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection on Friday, November 11. Like an overripe watermelon falling on hot pavement and spewing seeds and pulp in every direction, FTX’s troubles splashed before the public, revealing a noxious slurry of corruption, arrogance, class chauvinism, and spinelessness.

We learn that a privileged 30-year-old son of two Stanford law professors managed to create a firm in 2019 recently valued at $32 billion and also said to have amassed a personal worth of $26 billion before FTX’s collapse. Affecting t-shirts and shorts and going by the hip moniker, SBF, Sam Bankman-Fried was Peter Pan to his small executive group of “Lost Boys” and his FTX Neverland. Playing Wendy to SBF’s Peter Pan in this drama is a 28-year-old math prodigy-- the daughter of two MIT economics professors-- Caroline Ellison. They, and their co-executives, played out their fantasy in a luxurious mansion in the Bahamas (You can get a taste for SBF’s maturity and acumen in this post-crash YouTube interview which appears to have him splashing in the bathtub or in the surf, judging from the background noises).


SBF and his playmates “earned” their treasures through trading magical cryptocurrencies and investing in allied companies. To most of us, cryptocurrencies were and are baffling. In the US and most of the rest of the world, we already have a currency (dollars, renminbi, euros, etc.) or, if we don’t like our currency, we can exchange it for another. Why create another shadowy, tech-based means of exchange?

My own ignorant prejudice was that cryptocurrencies were possibly of use to criminals-- drug dealers, organized criminal syndicates, anyone hiding ill-begotten money. 

Similarly, tax evaders might welcome an arcane, semi-private money with no blank spaces specified on the tax return. Maybe militant, intensely principled anti-tax libertarians are embracing cryptos.

 Or cryptocurrencies might merely be the latest piece of financial engineering designed to capture speculative wealth on the upswing, as hipsters joined the herd of quick-wealth seekers pressing values skyward. Whether tulips, derivatives, or cryptocurrencies, manias have been sure-fire methods of amassing wealth for those who leave the game before the bubble bursts.

Anyone following the financial press must have surely noticed that journalists and commentators were decidedly ambiguous about crypto, neither embracing nor challenging crypto’s legitimacy.

But it wasn’t a burst of the crypto bubble that shattered SBF’s Neverland, though that may be forthcoming (the crypto universe has lost roughly 72% of its value). Instead, it was the apparent revelation that FTX had funneled large sums of customers' cash to the allied investment company, Alameda Research. 

Believe it or not, Wall Street has rules, though certainly not to protect the general public, the productive economy, or the petty investor. But moving billions of dollars outside of intended investment purposes violates the rich peoples’ club’s sense of fair play. 

Apparently, FSX’s Neverland was unsupervised. While some veteran investors walked away from the “opportunity” to invest in FSX, while some corporate leaders were skeptical in spite of SBF’s youthful wit, charm, and idealism, celebrities and politicians were eager to endorse the risky venture. No one-- including the young entrepreneur’s family and circle of associates-- found anything extraordinary about a small, insular, conceited clique growing a business from zero to tens of billions of dollars in less than three economically rocky years!

His shaky regard for business “ethics” and corporate legality makes the fawning adulation of SBF even more problematic for his admirers. He was, after all, the second largest individual contributor to the Biden presidential campaign after George Soros. And he supported numerous other liberal causes as well.

Behind SBF’s liberal largesse is a “philosophy” popular with the rich and powerful called “effective altruism.” In its most crude, accessible form, it urges the wealthy to accumulate enormous sums of money in order to give more generously to charitable causes. In its simplified form, it appears little different from the paternalistic philanthropy of the old robber barons who built libraries, museums, and endowed some schools to justify their extreme exploitation of the working classes. For many, effective altruism will ring true of an apologia for securing unconscionable amounts of wealth by giving a bit of it away.

But in this era of extremes, of market fundamentalism, of commodification of everything from public services to ideas, academic philosophers have risen to the challenge of providing a more secure, intellectually satisfying, outwardly rational justification for acquiring obscene wealth.

And they have stepped to the intellectual plate in the twenty-first century.

Now moral and political philosophers have always performed the role of justifying or explicating the dominant moral, legal, and political ideas of their time. Some have said and some can say that they mirror the ideas espoused by their ruling classes. On occasion, a few philosophers have misjudged the moment and paid with their lives by anticipating the emerging ideas of their era-- for example, Socrates or Giordano Bruno.

After World War II, moral and political philosophers in the Anglo-American tradition were unabashedly occupied with defending the core ideas of Western liberalism. 

At the height of the Cold War, for example, the UK philosopher, Isaiah Berlin, was acclaimed for his windy, but far less-than-convincing special pleading for what Marx would call “bourgeois rights.” Later, John Rawls would dominate the field with his sophisticated, rigorous defense of Western social democracy-- an impressively expanded opus based on his earlier paper (1958), Justice as Fairness. His was the most ambitious attempt to ground Western capitalism and its bourgeois democratic superstructure on a rational foundation.

With the end of the Cold War, Anglo-American political and moral philosophy had little to do but celebrate and navel gaze. A new generation of moral philosophers explored the less-than-weighty questions of sentiments, emotions, and feelings and the other immediate concerns-- like animal rights, identity, and individual regard-- of the petty bourgeoisie.

In our current moment of absurdity, of unprecedented inequality and wealth concentration, a small, but influential group of philosophers has emerged to provide a patina of social justice to the bloated wealth accumulated by Bezos, Soros, SBF, and their ilk.

This opportune school of philosophy has become associated with a young, earnest Oxonian professor named William MacAskill. MacAskill has promoted two key ideas: earning to give and longtermism

MacAskill’s quick ascent to the higher rungs of one of the world’s most celebrated schools of philosophy, and his media celebrity no doubt is owed to his project to give elites a moral justification for their fantastic wealth. 

Earning to give differs from the previous acclaim heaped on philanthropic benefactors in two ways. 

First, unlike prior moral praise for the wealthy, earning to give does not envision charity as supererogation-- a philosopher's term for morally commendable acts outside of obligation-- but locates philanthropy firmly in the realm of obligation, of duty: it is a duty for the rich to part with their wealth to benefit humankind. 

Mogul Andrew Carnegie did not have to fund libraries, yet he did it out of a good heart-- so goes the conventional view. But MacAskill contends that duty compels Carnegie to dispose of his wealth for the greater good. In this sense, MacAskill is making a strong case that the rich aren’t doing the rest of us any favors with their charity because they are morally obligated to do good with their wealth. We owe them no thanks for doing what they must.

The second aspect of earning to give is the accompanying duty to accumulate as much wealth as possible in order to maximize giving. It is not enough to give generously; one must make every effort to get more to give more. Thus, MacAskill justifies the capitalist maxim revealed by Marx to “Accumulate! Accumulate!” by attaching it to the effective altruistic demand to “Give more! Give more!”

It is a sign of the backwardness of our times that few in intellectual circles question the brazen elitism, the abandonment of democratic process latent in earning to give. When did it become a commonplace, an axiom, that social justice should be placed in the hands of the rich and powerful? Should the disposal of society’s wealth be decided by the fortunate few or democratically by the people through their elected representatives? It should be apparent that earning to give-- as a means of meeting the peoples’ social needs-- is inherently undemocratic.

But there is more: MacAskill and his circle have also contrived the clever, but misguided concept of longtermism. Effective altruism asks rich benefactors to look beyond the range of classical utilitarianism, beyond giving to alleviate the inequalities and injustices of the here and now. 

Instead, MacAskill’s theory requires all acts of effective altruism to consider how each act might impact future generations. Thus, if the five dollars that could feed a starving family today might be repurposed to help fund an NGO that will help thousands in the future, then that is where the five dollars should go. Longtermism effectively expands our moral concerns well beyond the eight billion inhabitants of our world today to the possibly infinite number of global citizens that the future will produce. The eight billion-- as an immediate concern-- are accordingly diminished. In fact, they are erased from the philanthropic calculus of the obscenely wealthy. 

Longtermism grants Jeff Bezos or George Soros and their counterparts the right to ignore the damage left in the wake of twenty-first century capitalism-- the vast inequality, poverty, insecurity, and war-- in order to “service” the needs of trillions of hypothetical and potential humans who may come into being in the limitless tomorrows. This clever, but ultimately cynical philosophical gambit trivializes the common-sense responsibility that moral and political philosophy has acknowledged-- for literally thousands of years-- as existing between each of us and our brothers and sisters.

Quite simply, longtermism is an evasion of that responsibility that we each owe to one another. It allows the very rich to maintain their gated communities, to step over the real, existing homeless, to justify obscene wealth inequality while pretending to lead morally exemplary lives. After all, they are looking after the interests of the trillions yet to be born!

We arrive at this destination precisely when we have intellectually disconnected the idea of wealth accumulation from its roots in exploitation. Too few of us think of the very rich as securing their vast wealth by exploiting the labor of others. The exploitation of workers seems very old fashioned, very nineteenth century. We have abandoned any notion that masses of private riches are really socially generated and socially owned wealth-- commonwealth-- to be allocated democratically for the good of all. That would be the unfashionable notion of socialism.

We assume that great wealth is the desert of the few; they have “earned” it. So we accept such bizarre, desperate ideas as effective altruism as a credible road to social justice, as a legitimate moral and political posture. Let us praise the rich for endowing chairs of effective altruism, funding foundations to plan for an unknown future, and creating forward looking NGOs that anticipate tomorrow’s problems, while sidestepping the horrors of today.

A philosophy that promotes this cynicism coexists within a social order that legitimizes financial toys and encourages adolescents to play with them. 

Pray we survive. 

Greg Godels

Sunday, November 13, 2022

After the Election: The Road Ahead?

Without saying it in so many words, The Wall Street Journal summarized the results of the November 8 mid-term election: The US electorate feared the Republicans more than they disliked the Democrats.

Historically, a major party with an incumbent president overseeing a painful economy and with the President polling negatively receives a big hit from the electorate. That didn’t happen this year.

As the WSJ puts it more diplomatically:
Voters were in a sour mood that usually signals that they are ready for change in Washington and state capitals. But in many cases, they were not looking for the change that Republican candidates were offering.
Some of the movers-and-shakers in the social democratic movement seem to agree. Writing in Jacobin, they observe:
A major factor in Democrats’ stronger-than-expected showing nationally appears to be the rock-bottom expectations of their voters. An NBC exit poll captured a deep sigh of resignation at the ballot box, with Democrats winning among voters who “somewhat disapprove” of Joe Biden’s job performance. Overall, more than seven in ten voters said they are “dissatisfied” or “angry,” according to exit polls conducted by Edison Research.
Such results suggest that Democratic voters weren’t inspired to vote for their candidates; they just couldn’t tolerate the alternatives.
And why would voters feel otherwise? They had just suffered through a vicious, but hollow campaign that raised and spent an obscene amount of money (supposedly a quarter of a billion dollars in Pennsylvania, over 30 dollars per person in Georgia on the respective Senate races). Republicans portrayed Democrats as socialists while Democrats responded by calling Republicans “fascists.” Neither side had the foggiest understanding of socialism or fascism.

Democrats were convinced that they could run on little more than the abortion issue and trashing ex-President Trump, even financially supporting Trump’s candidates in some primaries, convinced that they could more easily defeat them in the general election.

Republicans relied on their conventional toolbox of baiting-- crime, race, reds under the bed-- and economic management.

While Democratic candidates and spin doctors touched none of the most critical issues facing US voters-- a host of urgent matters like a failing, low-income economy, health care costs, exploding costs of food and housing, massive debt, ineffective and costly education, immigration reform, inequality, and, most importantly, an expanding US/NATO/Russia war in Ukraine-- they correctly gauged that many centrist voters were fed up with Trumpite rhetoric and bombast, and voters were enthusiastic about rejecting him.

Likewise, they were correct about alarm over the Supreme Court anti-abortion decision. The number of voters who thought that abortion was the most important issue grew three-fold to 10% from the last two elections.

The Democrats held their ground despite losing one of their most reliable allies in recent elections: suburban women.

Their cavalier presumption of Black and Latino voters continues to cost Democrats, especially among younger Black voters. The AP VoteCast survey shows that “Younger Black voters moved a substantial 22 percentage points toward Republicans in 2022.” How much longer can the Democratic leadership ignore the pressing needs of African Americans and other minorities and the widening inequalities that they suffer?

The five prominent progressive co-authors of the Jacobin article, Eight Lessons from the Midterm Election, correctly recognize the growing gap between the needs and desires of most US voters and the program that the Democratic Party leadership and its electoral machine will accept. Further, they argue that where Democrats put forth a more people-oriented program, they fare better.

True enough.

But the article’s authors fail to equally recognize that even on the rare occasion when the campaign promises are more progressive, they tend to evaporate after the election. And more often than not, Democratic “progressivism” is opportunism of the moment.

For example, Fetterman, the Senate winner in Pennsylvania, was a strong anti-fracker when that suited his audience, but a pro-fracker when it suited his political ambitions. His support for health care never took him to strong advocacy of Medicare for All, but left him in the rhetorical twilight zone of “healthcare is a human right”. And then there is the centerpiece of economic comparative advantage: marijuana production. His trajectory is not an uncommon story among Democratic Party “progressives” (I cringe when I remember how Reaganaut liberal-baiting made Democrats cravenly give up the word “liberal” for “progressive”).

It is challenging to imagine that this election will change much. With the presidency, the House of Representatives, and a very slim advantage in the Senate, the Democrats accomplished very little. And, as was true of the Obama years when they owned a super-majority for two years, they sought to do far less than they promised. Thus, in power for ten of the last fourteen years, the Democratic Party has clung to centrist policies that offered no serious opposition to corporate power.

And yet the hardships facing the US people are far greater than they were when Obama took office in 2008. In the face of economic setbacks and burgeoning inequality, the Democrats have answered the call of monopoly capitalism while asking the people to sacrifice-- largesse for one class, austerity for the other.

It certainly seems that the urgent fight to overcome desperation, inequality, austerity, and war will now only come with masses in the streets, rather than in the voting booth.

Greg Godels

Tuesday, November 1, 2022

When “No” means “Yes” to War

At a time when divisions and confusion in the anti-war, anti-imperialist movement have made many activists bystanders to the war in Ukraine, CodePink has boldly led the way in denouncing the war and calling for negotiation. Unlike some groups that buried the war question in a laundry list of grievances, causes, and injustices, CodePink focuses laser-like on the danger of escalation and possibly nuclear war.

Thus, when I got an email from CodePink on October 25 with “Finally!” on the subject line, I fully expected to learn of a new and important development in the peace movement.

I wasn’t disappointed. 

The hard-working peace warriors of CodePink announced-- with some measure of pride-- that “After months of grassroots activism, 30 Democrats in Congress have signed on to Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal's letter to President Biden calling for a ceasefire and diplomatic settlement to the war in Ukraine.”  Thirty members of the House Democratic [self-styled] Progressive Caucus had signed on to-- an admittedly tepid-- statement departing from the Biden Administration’s rabid instigation of war in Ukraine. 

With a growing call for negotiation from unlikely public figures like Henry Kissinger, Jeffrey Sachs, and Elon Musk, with a mid-September Quincy Institute poll showing that most US citizens (57%) support negotiations to end the war, with 57 Republicans voting in May against an additional $40 billions of military aid to continue the war, and with Republican leadership suggesting that, should they win the interim election, they might not support further US military aid to continue the war, one would welcome “Progressive” Democrats seizing the opportunity to help bring this dangerous war to an end. 

Despite a complete and total lack of confidence in the Democratic Party and a belief in its limitless appetite for political opportunism, I decided to celebrate CodePink’s efforts by forwarding the group’s email to my comrades and friends in the Pittsburgh Anti War Committee; we had only recently staged demonstrations in Pittsburgh to call for an end to the war. Democrats breaking away from their party’s shameful role in sparking the war and fueling its escalation certainly deserved acknowledgement and praise.

But the celebration ended within 36 hours when the leadership of the “progressive” Caucus rescinded the letter. Caucus chair Jayapal and some who signed the letter unceremoniously and cravenly blamed staff members for releasing the letter while declaring continued loyalty to the Administration’s war huckstering.

I was compelled to apologize for misleading my comrades. It was not the first time I underestimated the spinelessness of the Democratic Party.

While the “progressive” Democrats shamed themselves, the Democratic Administration chose that moment to reveal their reckless nuclear policy. The Defense Department announced that the “Pentagon’s Strategy Won’t Rule Out Nuclear Use Against Non-Nuclear Threats,” as Bloomberg headlined. Further, Bloomberg writer Anthony Capaccio claimed that the “Defense strategy shuns limits on use once embraced by Biden.”

Earlier, the monopoly capitalist media vilified Putin for suggesting that Russia would use nuclear weapons under certain circumstances, a suggestion that Putin recently pulled back. Yet not a word of alarm or condemnation over an explicit policy of potentially using nuclear weapons when there is no counterpart nuclear threat, a serious escalation of the tension in Ukraine.  

With an approaching interim election, have the Democrats given the anti-imperialist left any reason to vote for them?

Margaret Kimberley-- writing in The Black Agenda Report– said this about the Congressional Progressive Caucus’s opportunism:

This fiasco is yet another reminder that the left in this country had better start speaking up for themselves. The democrats are the party of war and will not allow even a tiny expression of dissent. Some of the letter signatories have fallen on their swords, yelled loud mea culpas and joined in condemning themselves. Others are silent after having stepped out only to be stepped upon.

No one should think that help is coming from Washington. The U.S. involvement in Ukraine will end with negotiations or with a hot war. That determination will not be made by Pramila Jayapal or anyone else in congress who calls themselves progressive.

Democrats are welcome to join us, but we must cancel this war without relying on the Democratic Party leadership. They are the problem.

Greg Godels

Thursday, October 20, 2022

Ruling Class Angst

There is a profound difference between the economic crisis of 2007-2009 and the evolving crisis of 2022. In 2007, capitalists feared the collapse of their own enterprises, but they had no doubt that the system was salvageable, albeit at costs that might prove difficult to impose. They knew that if the politicians could be won over to endorsing Wall Street’s prescriptions, if the people kept their pitchforks tucked away, and if the capitalists, in their greed, could be kept from devouring each other, then there was a good chance that an elite economic version of an “EMS” rescue team could save capitalism from further decline. Sure, the executives at Lehman Brothers, Bank of America, AIG, and many other firms had every right to fear for the future of their companies. But few capitalists imagined an existential threat to the system; few failed to believe in a way out.

This time is different.

Stagflation is a different kind of beast and that beast has the bourgeoisie, its friends, and its hangers-on terrified. The problem is that economic “science,” as they know it, only offers one possible escape and it has dire economic and political consequences. Once they recognized that inflation was not simply a momentary speed bump (as I predicted nearly a year ago), Central Bankers and economic gurus who have studied the 1970s-- the long, painful decade of stagflation-- prescribed a drastic remedy of slamming on the brakes of economic growth to contain inflation. Some nonetheless fear a long period of inflation and stagnant growth.

The 1970s taught that cheerleading, patience, and half-measures would not work. The Whip Inflation Now (WIN) campaign, price controls, and other approaches failed until the then-Federal Reserve chair, Paul Volker, boldly imposed draconian interest-rate increases that threw the economy into deep recession. Inflation tamed. Lesson learned. 

Certainly, no political regime wants to be associated with income-and-wealth-devouring inflation. But neither would it want to suffer through a job-devouring, wage-declining recession. Voters and subjects seek to punish the politicians in office when either situation arises. 

Thus, politicians and rulers are caught on the horns of a dilemma. If they ignore inflation, they pay a political price. If they attack inflation and bring on economic decline, they also incur the wrath of the electorate or their subjects. Either option taken constitutes a deep threat to the incumbent party or the ruling regime. 

Recently, some politicians have chosen to ignore the lesson that bourgeois economists have drawn from the 1970s bout with stagflation. Turkish president Erdogan decided to defy the convention by coercing the country’s central bank into lowering interest rates in the face of growing inflation, betting that the benefits of economic growth would outweigh any increase in inflation. He was wrong. Inflation has soared with devastating results on the people’s living standards and security.

Even more recently, the newly selected Conservative UK prime minister, Liz Truss, out of sheer arrogance or a profound economic ignorance, offered a budget based upon promoting growth (predictably through tax cuts for the rich!) and ignoring the anti-inflation moves of the Bank of England (BOE). Financial markets immediately reacted violently, forcing the BOE to go on a corrective bond-buying spree, and earning a rare rebuke of European government policy from the International Monetary Fund. Once again, the lesson of the 1970s stagnation crisis was harshly driven home.

With an interim election only weeks away, the ruling party in the US fears a severe beatdown from the angry electorate, devastated by sharp price increases imposed by profit-hungry monopoly corporations, declining incomes, and exploding interest payments on loans. At best, President Biden can only browbeat his Saudi allies for sustaining high energy prices in a global market disrupted by US corporate interests and US-instigated war, while the Federal Reserve slams on the economic brakes.

Liberal and social democratic labor leaders, party leaders, and pundits correctly object to the frequent blaming of inflation upon “greedy” workers or bloated union contracts. Even a cursory glance at the Bureau of Labor Statistics demonstrates that throughout this inflationary period income growth trailed and did not lead the growth in prices. That said, what do they think caused this persisting inflation? What can they offer in response to the bitter pill prescribed by bourgeois economists and the Central Banks?

Hell bent on saving capitalism from itself, some liberal and left thinkers like Dean Baker and Richard Wolff see price controls, ration cards, or public commissions as possible approaches (I refute these solutions here). Even if these fixes were likely to be enforced by governments thoroughly captured by capitalism, it would be unlikely that they could even be adopted in today’s volatile political atmosphere. The impending severe crisis cannot be met by wishful bromides or failed tactics.

More seriously, some on the left point to “financialization” as the cause of capitalism’s ills today. While the much-abused term begs many questions, it does describe one side of the restructuring of roles assumed by the leading capitalist countries as a response to the previous, 1970s version of stagflation. That is, so-called “financialization” was the new role of some advanced capitalist countries that deindustrialized after the stagflation of the 1970s. The flight of industry to low-wage countries was part of the answer to 1970s stagflation, stabilizing global capitalism and restoring the rate of profit for most of the next two decades. 

“Financialization” was the accompanying new role for those capitalist countries that surrendered their industries to emergent low-wage countries.

The stagflation of the 1970s caused the demise of the Keynesian consensus that had come to dominate economic policy since the Great Depression. That toolbox contained nothing to fix what was over a decade of roaring inflation. Indeed, many orthodox economists blamed the Keynesian tools for creating the conditions that led to that round of stagflation. In any event, it was the “financialization” era that superseded 1970s stagflation and was then believed to restore capitalist accumulation after its assault by stagflation. Therefore, it’s difficult to envision “financialization” as both a solution and cause of stagflation. 

While it is fashionable, since the crisis of 2007-2009, to see the dramatic rise of financial engineering and activity-- centered on the development of the many new financial instruments-- as the sand in the gears of capitalism, there is no reason to believe that it is any more than another adaptive stage in a resilient, but constantly crisis-plagued socio-economic system. 

It is difficult to foresee an easy, relatively painless capitalist solution to stagflation. That is not to discount the durability of capitalism. But the history of the 1970s teaches that any answer comes with enormous pain. We are only beginning to experience the rising costs from interest payments on top of the rising consumer prices. We are only beginning to feel the effects of galloping inflation compounded by stagnant incomes and growing unemployment. We are only beginning to recognize the strain on retirement funds and 401k’s. The lessons of the 1970s are distant and poorly remembered. But they are there for those who wish to heed them.

It should not be lost to anyone studying those lessons that hourly wages in the US adjusted for inflation have remained stagnant since the 1970s. More families now have two or more earners to compensate. Household debt has risen to counteract the loss in earning power. And income and wealth inequality has exploded, topping any other historic period. 

With a lost decade to stagflation and forty subsequent years of a tepid, crisis-ridden “recovery,” it is hard to imagine how people can endure another round of stagflation. It is hard to imagine how people can fail to explore the alternative to the capitalist system that brings so much unnecessary pain and misery.

Of course, part of the reason for ideological stagnation lies with the political parties, institutions, and misleaders that are so deeply invested in seeing capitalism persist. There would be no “social justice” industry-- the tens of thousands of foundations, NGOs, and charities-- without capitalism. Their criticism of capitalism ends, when the subject of socialism arises. Similarly, educators, writers, and media figures cannot risk alienating those who guarantee their stature and incomes. It goes without saying that both major US political parties are entirely invested in capitalism.

Yet their cynicism and hypocrisy would evaporate if it weren’t for the enormous material resources that capitalism makes available to those who safeguard the system's future. That will not change until the masses of the people use the power of their numbers to change it.

Whatever joy we may derive from the ruling class’s fears and anxiety over the current crisis is overshadowed by the hardships yet to disrupt the lives of millions of working people. 

Socialism is the alternative.

Greg Godels

Tuesday, October 11, 2022

Could We Reconsider Socialism?

We swim in a sea of obfuscation, confusion, and fabrication.

We are bombarded by academics, commentators, consultants-- experts of every type-- who build their brands on telling us what our rulers want us to hear. Through calculated ruses, they penetrate our entertainment, even our escapism, with embedded messages that strengthen conformity and consensus.

The purveyors of this conformity-- the messengers-- are given the stolid image of trustworthy tradition or the superficial appearance of daring nonconformity or diversity, depending on the sensibility of the audience, though the message is the same in all cases.

Some on the left like to dress this domination of the field of ideas-- a relentless, ongoing process-- with the sexy Gramscian notion of ruling class “hegemony,” but it has long been a part of the leftist legacy of Marx-- “The ruling ideas of each age have ever been the ideas of its ruling class” -- and recognized, but undoubtedly unspoken even before Marx.

But today’s bourgeois society has utilized previously unimaginable advances in communication and technology to achieve even more unimaginable control over the thinking of the people. This is what Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky so insightfully called “manufacturing consent.”

There is, and will always be, resistance to this conformity-- the attempt at mass hypnosis. From Marx’s time, it has mostly been aimed at the ruling class-- then understood almost universally as the capitalist class and its courtiers. 

But two related events have changed the character of this resistance. First, the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the collapse of its role as an alternative model to capitalism. Since 1991, the idea of a radical departure-- a complete rupture-- with capitalism has been shattered, replaced by tactical attacks on aspects or types of capitalism: disaster-capitalism, neoliberal capitalism, racial-capitalism, carbon-fueled capitalism, and a host of other hyphenated capitalisms. The hyphens tell us that it is not capitalism, per se, that must be rejected, but variants of an otherwise benign economic system. Countless activists and organizations propound anti-capitalism, but never tell us what they think should replace capitalism. The word “socialism” never appears in their narrative.

And second, the retreat of social democracy, which was once understood as a socially more egalitarian alternative to raw capitalism, and yet an alternative that paradoxically retained the capitalist class at the summit of economic and political activity. The once popular social democracy abandoned the program of leveling the effects of capitalism for a promissory note of expanded opportunity and the inherent justice of markets. In place of wealth and income redistribution and welfarism, the new social democracy subscribes to the clever maxim that a rising tide lifts all boats, so let’s unleash the tide and let the boats fend for themselves!

Nothing more clearly demonstrates that classic redistributive social democracy is not merely ill, but in its death throes than the swift, unprincipled, and complete destruction of the Jeremy Corbyn program in the UK Labour Party or the stealth undermining of the progressive wing of the US Democratic Party by party conservatives and the wing’s own ready capitulation.

The left suffers from a foreign policy disconnect as well. Where Marxism and real-existing socialism insisted that capitalism and imperialism were intrinsically tied, the vast majority of the left today drink from the capitalist goblet, associating global social justice with the moral crusades of the advanced capitalist powers. A carefully groomed notion of human rights-- rights anchored in petty bourgeois interests-- and a long-soiled, class-biased, strictly formal concept of democracy seduce the weak-tea left. 

Unfortunately, those seduced by these views side with the US and its allies or occupy the sidelines in aggressions aimed at Cuba, Venezuela, the former Yugoslavia, Iraq, Syria, Libya, and today’s war in Ukraine, among others.

Fortunately, there is a small, but dedicated segment of the left that staunchly and consistently opposes Great Power imperialism, though many of them myopically see it as solely the adventures of the US and its NATO allies. They fail to recognize the Leninist thesis that imperialism is the inevitable product of mature capitalism. And all capitalist powers-- big and small-- engage with imperialism; they have no choice in the matter. Whether they have a dominant capitalist sector or a robust public sector, capital will pursue its expansion within the imperialist system and compete with other capitals within that system. Invariably, capital influences states on a local, regional, national or international level, everywhere that capital seeks profit. In the era of imperialism, capital does not influence the state, it typically is the state.  With the demise of the Soviet-centered socialist community, there is no place uninfected by capital. 

The long dominance of US-based capitalism-- just as the long dominance of British capitalism before it-- has led some to believe that the logic of capitalism is not relevant to countries with weaker or fewer monopolies or less integrated finance capital. In a sense, they believe that because the less powerful national capitals fail to compete successfully, because they are restricted in markets, denied financial resources, barred from resources, sanctioned, threatened, or otherwise pressed into a dependent or subordinate role by US capital and its enormous, powerful coercive structures, both the people and their rulers alike-- and their battered capitalist enterprises-- are, therefore, equally victims of US capital.

Indeed, the people are victims, but they are victims of capitalism, not solely US capitalism.

In today’s imperialist game of capitalist competition, US monopoly capital is the big winner, but if they weren’t, someone else would be. And if some other state monopoly capitalist great power replaces the US, everyone else would, in some way or another, be losers. That is the essential feature of capitalist competition since its origin; it is the heart beat of capitalism.

Of course, US capitalism and its predatory ways must be exposed and resisted. The people of Europe must understand that the sacrifices that they are being told to make to maintain a war in Ukraine are extorted by US capitalism’s plan to wrest the European energy market from Russia. 

But the pain that they will experience from tenacious inflation and government-induced recession must be laid at the capitalist system’s doorstep and not only that of the US empire.

The tragedy unfolding in Europe is a consequence of imperialist competition, imperialist alliances, and the instability of capitalism, none of which can be completely overcome without a full-scale attack on capitalism and its replacement with a cooperative, profit-free social system. 

Capitalism, exploitation, and its associated oppression constitute the ultimate source of the misery and suffering that afflict a world that produces unprecedented wealth-- wealth sufficient to eliminate most of that suffering endured by humanity. 

When the left forgets that intimate connection between capitalism, imperialism, and war, it tragically takes sides in the war in Ukraine. Lenin, who best articulated the connection, called for ending all imperialist war or --should it break out-- turning war into civil war to overthrow capitalism; he saw no other choice that served the working class and its interests.

Consider Iran. Today, we may see the recent rising in Iran depicted as a feminist revolution liberating Iranian women from the tyranny of a moral police; we may see the opposition as a sign of the stirrings of oppressed people, both religiously and nationally oppressed; we may rightly warn of the always present stealth hand of hostile outside forces working to create a more pliable regime, specifically the US security services.

Yet there is no complete picture without noting the class question-- the matter of social inequality under capitalism. Today’s Iran has social inequality rivaling the US (World Bank). Iranian figures show the bottom 10% getting 2% of gross national income while the top 10% get 31%. The afflictions of global capitalism such as rampant inflation strike Iran hard.

While economic aggression by the US and the EU affects the Iranian economy and must be opposed, the economic system and its supporters are the ultimate enemy of the people. The left must recognize this reality and applaud and encourage the Iranian people’s resistance to capitalism and all of its symptoms. Solidarity with the working class is not negotiable.

For many decades, the left has experienced a “retreat from class,” to borrow Ellen Meiksins Wood’s deeply insightful words. The left must not misjudge this moment; it must halt the retreat and recognize the enemy: capitalism.

Greg Godels

Wednesday, September 21, 2022

Clinging to the Anthropocene

“Anthropocene” is a twenty-first century word-- not that it never appeared before the current century. But its wide acceptance, its broad usage is a feature of the last two decades or so.

Like its late-twentieth-century counterpart, “globalization,” its currency, its popularity in social policy circles, has far outstripped any common, agreed-upon understanding of its meaning.

In a very broad sense, the word “Anthropocene” could refer to the era when the appearance of homo sapiens made an impact upon the earth. That sense of the word, tracing humans back 300 millennia, is of little popular interest outside of researchers in University anthropology departments.

A more interesting sense of the word refers to the era since World War II when the possibility that humans could destroy all life on the planet became a reality-- more than mere science fiction. The actual possibility-- even likelihood-- of a war with nuclear weapons means that a tiny elite holds within its hands the means to reduce the Earth to a lifeless rock orbiting the Sun.

Thus, “Anthropocene” could take on the explicit meaning of “the age when homo sapiens evolved the necessary and sufficient means to destroy all living things on earth.”

Unfortunately, this danger-- though real and seemingly horrendous to contemplate-- has never generated sufficient alarm in the advanced capitalist countries where the elites wield the power of committing global suicide. Yes, there have been mass movements-- often led by Communists and socialists-- to wrest these powers and eliminate the option, but they have so far failed to remove the danger.

In this century, the word “Anthropocene” has become popularly attached to apocalyptic consequences of environmental anarchism. That is to say, the Anthropocene era could be, and most often is, construed as the age when human inattention and freedom of action has threatened to make life for almost everyone a living hell with regard to environmental consequences.

The Anthropocene era, understood in this way, is the era when human interaction with the material world produces waste, harmful physical properties of productive processes, and a host of other byproducts of human activity that damage or spoil the environment to a degree that threatens how most living things will survive or even whether they will survive.

It’s a fool's errand to weigh whether one threat to life (nuclear holocaust) or the other (environmental catastrophe) is worse or more likely. At the same time, it is irresponsible to recognize one but not the other.

Where Marxists and other critics of capitalism have been in the forefront of the struggle against nuclear war, with few exceptions, we have not been as engaged in the struggle for environmental justice. We have not thoroughly brought to bear the unique and incisive Marxist method upon the issues raised by the growing environmental crisis. We have largely conceded that terrain to the liberals and social democrats.

As with all life, human interaction with the world has left a “footprint” on the surrounding environment since hunters and gatherers stripped the prairies, woodlands, and streams of other matter-- organic and inorganic-- for the food and shelter crucial for human survival.

Human gains have often forced changes on the material world, changes that have had consequences to the environment, both good and bad.

It is easy to forget the medieval and later waves of deforestation of Europe, as an example, that left profound changes of climate, shifted migration patterns, and led to social and economic changes.

Human’s adjusting to those changes and nature’s remarkable resilience compensated readily for these usually unforeseen changes.

But as the productive forces developed rapidly and the social relations shifted, impact on the environment grew accordingly. The advancing productive forces that generated and spurred capitalist social relations created, in a relatively short time, a dramatic and profound impact on the environment, an impact that brought harm to humans as well as other living things. The capitalist industrial system created a man-made environment bringing a host of new diseases, spreading old ones, and even changing universal natural processes like the climate.

These environmental consequences threaten to overwhelm nature’s resilience and humanity’s adaptability.

As people attempt to respond to these new and growing threats, it should be expected that Marxists would point to those factors unique to capitalism that bear on and stand in the way of resolving the environmental crisis: capitalist profit, class inequality, imperialist competition, militarism, and war.

Insofar as only socialism can eliminate these features of capitalism, the environmental crisis cannot be resolved once and for all without revolutionary change.

Unfortunately, we have done an inadequate job of introducing these considerations into environmental debates and struggles.

We have failed to show that since profits are the lifeblood of capitalist productive activity, corporations will always place corporate interests above social goods. Environmental safety and corporate profits will always come into conflict.

We have failed to persuade the movement that the poor and working class cannot be asked to sacrifice living standards, to bear the burden of saving the environment, while elites use their wealth to shelter their lifestyles from those sacrifices.

Similarly, we must make a better case that any answer to the global environmental crisis must not demand that less developed countries remain undeveloped, that the cost of environmental soundness not be borne by those who never participated in causing the crisis, while the beneficiaries of capitalism’s environmental abuse self-righteously point to their sacrifices in banning plastic bottles.

Too often overlooked in environmental struggles is the enormous footprint of the US military and other countries’ militaries. The exposure of the linkage of militarism to capitalism and to environmental degradation is a role for the Marxist left.

Is there anything more insanely wasteful and environmentally threatening than imperialist war? The current war in Ukraine is an orgy of pointless wastage of energy resources, of deadly and costly fires, explosions, and destruction. Marxists should make the connections.

What we don’t need are theories inspired less by Marx or Marxism and more by the cachet of Marx fandom among young people and the understandable desperate search for alternatives by those fearful of environmental catastrophe.

According to a zealous article in the Guardian, a new book is forthcoming from Kohei Saito with the enticing title of Capital and the Anthropocene. The allusion to Capital (Marx’s and Piketty’s?) and the invocation of the fashionable “Anthropocene” will surely have many anxious with anticipation. And the tease is that the Japanese version has already sold a half-million copies. Before publication of the popular book in English, an “academic” text is in preparation by Cambridge University Press, we are told.

So why does the Guardian article leave me-- well-- guarded?

The Marx-invoking hype raises my gut suspicions. I remember all too well the hype around the execrable Hardt and Negri book, Empire, published in 2000 by Harvard University Press to great acclaim, promising to explain an era of declining nation-state influence and a “new” transnational empire of international organizations and multinational corporations, an explanation bathed in nearly impenetrable prose. Simplified, Empire was a stylized revisit to Kautsky’s “ultra imperialism”, a modern "refutation" of Leninism.

On the heels of its publication, the US (a nation-state) went on an orgy of invasion and occupation worthy of the era of classical imperialism so aptly described by the “obsolete” V.I. Lenin more than eighty years earlier. So much for the new and fashionable.

Alarming is the Guardian article’s attribution of the idea of “degrowth” to Saito. Degrowth-- halting or reversing the expansion of economic activity-- is a return to Malthusianism-- a doctrine roundly rejected by Marx. Degrowth is a surrender to the idea that humans cannot continue to expand the quality and content of our shared life and have a healthy environment. It negates the optimism of a world of greater, more diverse, and more egalitarian opportunities that come with economic growth.

Degrowth places the blame for environmental destruction, not on capitalism, consumerism, militarism, imperialism, war, and inequality, but on the productive forces that have elevated humanity from a Hobbesian brutish state of nature to the safety and security that many know today and the even higher state that all could know in the future.

Hopefully, Saito has not been confused by the distinction between consumption and consumerism. Tens of millions have been denied adequate consumption-- the minimal material means to thrive, reproduce, and retire comfortably-- by capitalist inequality. At the same time, capitalism promotes consumerism-- the vulgar indulgence in false needs, contrived obsolescence, overindulgence, addictive behavior, and a host of other rapacious marketing traps laid by capitalism. Adequate consumption must be a key feature of environmental justice; consumerism counts as an enormous, unnecessary weight on sustainability

Though the Guardian article alludes to a “non-capitalist” solution, it never mentions “socialism,” a curious omission that again triggers my skepticism.

Let’s hope I’m wrong about the new book.

Greg Godels

Wednesday, September 7, 2022

End the War in Ukraine

War… What is it good for… Absolutely nothing! … written by Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong, famously recorded by Edwin Starr

Today, over fifty years after Edwin Starr’s Vietnam-era song reached number one on the Billboard chart, people are searching desperately to figure out what the six-month war in Ukraine is good for.

Of course, it depends on who you ask.

For the weapons manufacturers in the US, NATO, and Russia, the Ukraine war is a delightful gift. Weapons are pouring into Ukraine and quickly expended. The arms makers enjoy what they must consider a too-rare opportunity to showcase new and inventive systems in actual combat, before the eyes of customers, and against competitive adversaries. The Ukraine war-- thanks to near-hysterical media alarmism-- finds new customers throughout Eastern Europe and beyond.

For bourgeois politicians, the war provides a great distraction from their failings and their corruption. The economic crises raging through Europe are obscured by the flames of war. Thanks to a compliant media, Europe’s leaders are transformed from inept bureaucrats into martial giants defending democracy, self-determination, and national sovereignty.

For the narrow, reactionary nationalists, the Ukraine war is an inspiration. The tribal glory, heroism, and sacrifice of war are the lyrics of nationalism. The decades of fragile European unity organized around partnership in US- led globalism was already stretched to the limits by the disastrous economic crisis of 2007-2009. The economic impact, the political contradictions, the mass displacements are fodder for the growth of right-wing populism and beyond. Further, the existing and emerging tensions between the culturally distinct, unevenly developed nations of Europe are highlighted by the war.

The irredentist impulses suppressed by socialism in Eastern Europe are now inflamed by the Ukraine war. Multiethnic countries with ever-shifting borders use the war to rewrite their history and restore their myths. The destruction of the monuments to Red Army liberation in the Baltics is just one example of war-generated hysteria.

The energy corporations in both the US and Russia have benefitted from the war. The US pressed the war on Ukraine and Europe to free them from their predominant dependence on Russian energy sources and to shift them to the vast fracking-liberated gas and oil supplies held by the US. As I argued nearly six years ago and many times since, energy has been and remains at the center of big power rivalry. In New Developments in Political Economy: The Politics of Oil, the then-intensifying US hostility towards Russia was explained by two factors-- 1. Russian nationalization of some of its energy industry freezing out US investors, and 2. the revolutionary opening of vast US energy resources through fracking. I wrote in January of 2017:

During the later years of the Obama administration, officials and a compliant press ginned up a new Cold War against Russia. Sanctions, saber-rattling, and hysteria brought tensions far beyond the actual points of contention. An energy-hungry, resource-poor EU has grown dependent upon Russian energy supplies, particularly natural gas. As the US is fast achieving energy independence and beginning the export of liquefied natural gas, the battle for the European market is intensifying and driving hostility with Russia.

With the invasion of Ukraine, the US found the cause célèbre to wrest the enormous European energy market from the Russians. Behind the provocations, the contests between Russian-friendly and EU-friendly presidential candidates, the EU and Russian Federation courtships, the 2014 coup, the suppression of the eastern Ukraine, and the Crimean referendum lies energy imperialism.

After six months, the US is winning the “battle for the European market,” but at great costs to Europe. US energy corporations are making profits, while the supplicating EU struggles desperately to shift to alternative energy sources and scrambles to build infrastructure to receive more expensive liquified natural gas and find cheaper oil. Nothing short of an unnecessary war would produce this costly, unpopular result.

While US corporations enrich themselves from energy politics, the beginnings of a popular European blowback are now apparent. In Prague, for example, mass demonstrations are threatening the government over the war “sacrifices” imposed on the people, as energy prices skyrocket. The beneficiary of this popular rising will likely be the populist right, unless the European lame-left can extricate itself from decades of retreat from class partisanship and rank opportunism.

Ironically, the Russian energy sector has actually benefited from the disruption of traditional markets. Russia’s energy corporations have enjoyed incredibly high oil and natural gas prices, thanks to the chaos in the wake of the war. But they have also found new customers to replace the business lost in Europe-- growth in South Asia, Latin America, and other regions has kept Russian oil shipments nearly at the level they were in 2019. Of course, the price commanded by a barrel of oil is much higher today. As a consequence, Russia is earning $20 billion a month in oil sales now, compared to $14.6 billion last year. The US-imposed sanctions war has failed miserably.

But aside from the corporations, the politicians, and the ultra-nationalists, the war is good for no one.

Ukrainians who might have believed that they were fighting for Western “values” of democracy and economic prosperity have seen their country-- the poorest in Europe-- become even more deeply mired in poverty. They have seen the Zelensky regime outlaw opposition political parties, strip labor protections, and criminalize speech and opinion.

Both Russia and Ukraine have acted forcefully against anti-war sentiment. In nearly all imperialist wars, the belligerents’ media serve as faithful lap dogs, recording every “official” announcement of victories and extolling the prowess of their respective fighters. Therefore, media reports must be taken with a grain of salt. In time, victories will become defeats and vice versa.

In this war, the US media has taken sides, marshaling an unparalleled propaganda blitz behind “heroic” Ukraine. The European news media does little better. Consequently, truth in the advanced capitalist countries grows ever-more elusive. The war has done further damage to the already discredited monopoly media.

But the raw, direct human losses from the destructive power engaged by modern warfare are profoundly tragic. While we have no definitive reports, tens of thousands of military personnel surely have died, even more thousands have been wounded, maimed, and mentally scarred. Modern war exacts a nearly equal toll on civilians, regardless of the disclaimers of military apologists. We hear of millions of civilians uprooted from their homes in war zones.

Since the Ukraine war is an imperialist war fought over the energy supplies for one-sixth of global economic activity, it has huge consequences for the global economy. Economic growth, jobs, transportation, utilities, every aspect of life dependent on energy in the EU is jeopardized by the war. The coming winter promises extreme stress on the European population denied access to essential energy supplies.

A global economy already reeling from galloping inflation and stagnant growth undoubtedly will be rocked by the US ruling class’s determination to reset the energy markets. The people be damned.

The war in Ukraine is the logical outcome of the unwinding of globalization, a process that began with the 2007-2009 world economic crisis. As the post-Soviet global infrastructure collapsed, economic nationalism rose in the advanced capitalist countries. Competition intensified and rivalries became more virulent. Inevitably, economic competition leads to confrontation and confrontation leads to war.

The circumstances of war become less important and the deadly outcomes and possible escalations take center stage. Today, the likelihood of a long, bloody war and its potential expansion beyond borders demand action.

As this tragedy unfolds, the only answer-- the working-class answer-- is to pull all stops to end it. We desperately need a militant movement to stop this war.

Greg Godels