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Thursday, January 21, 2016

Journalists or Courtesans?

If there is an honest, unfettered, or unsullied investigative reporter or commentator working for the major—even minor—US commercial press, would he or she please stand up?
This past several weeks have demonstrated that the so-called “free press” may well be free of overt US government dictate, but it nevertheless hues faithfully to the US government line on foreign policy matters. The words that flow from the official US spokespersons are dutifully recorded and slavishly reported as news copy by every domestic reporter or pundit holding a press badge and assigned to cover a branch of government.
Consider the outrageous rebuff of Seymour Hersh who has won well over a dozen of the most prestigious US journalism awards, including the Pulitzer and five Polk prizes. Responsible for the My Lai and Abu Ghraib atrocity revelations, Hersh has been effectively blacklisted from publishing in the US since 2013. His accounts of the Syrian war and the US assassination of Osama bin Laden were published overseas in the London Review of Books, since his former primary publisher, The New Yorker, and other US outlets refused to accept them. Amazingly, no groups of journalists, journalist organizations, or “freedom of the press” advocates have risen in protest against this muzzling of one of their most esteemed colleagues. Collective letters protesting alleged media repression in socialist countries or countries critical of US policy appear regularly in the New York Review of Books and as paid ads in the New York Times; yet these same indignant journalists, pundits, and academics have remained overwhelmingly silent when it comes to Seymour Hersh.
Even more outrageous is the lack of any serious effort by the mainstream press to confirm or refute Hersh’s claims. His counter narrative to the Obama Administration’s well publicized and embarrassingly self-serving account of bin Laden’s death would be easily assessed by following the threads developed by Hersh. Instead, the press interviewed a handful of government officials and camp followers and left the official story intact.
Even more egregious, some independent investigations of Hersh’s Sarin-gas claims have surfaced that suggest strongly that he might be right in laying the gassing of civilians at the doorstep of US allies in the anti-Assad crusade. Both a UN agency and a Turkish legislative body have challenged the sensational claims of alleged Syrian government barbarity that prop the US argument for regime change. However, no major US media outlet has actively acknowledged this challenge—a shameful affront to journalistic integrity.
The Blair/Ghadaffi Phone Transcripts
A few weeks ago, Tony Blair, former UK Prime Minister, released transcripts of two phone conversations that he had with Muammar Ghadaffi on February 25, 2011. Despite their significant bearing on the early moments of the Libyan rising that led to Ghadaffi’s assassination and overthrow, US media barons and their sycophant employees chose to trivialize the importance of the calls.
Ten days after the date that the West marks as the major start of the Libyan uprising, Tony Blair placed an anxious call to the Libyan leader, self-admittedly at the behest of the Obama administration and the NATO allies. It is just as clear, with hostilities at an early stage, that Blair is threatening Ghadaffi on behalf of his sponsors. He begins innocuously enough, decrying violence and calling for a peaceful outcome. He then adds that Ghadaffi must “engage with the international community, including American and European…” Why that engagement is essential is not clear. But it soon becomes so…
Five hours later, Blair is back on the phone with a message from his masters: “…if you have a safe place to go you should go there because this will not end peacefully and there has to be a process of change, that process of change can be managed and we have to find a way of managing it.” He goes on: “the violence needs to stop and a new constitution needs to take shape… I repeat the statement people have said to me, if there is a way that he can leave he should do so now. I think this can happen peacefully but he has to act now and signal that he wants this to happen.” [my italics]

Blair could not be clearer. He is demanding that the leader of a sovereign country step aside and allow the US and European powers unilaterally and without the consent of the people of Libya to determine the future of Libya. Moreover, Blair clearly backs the demand with the threat of violence—“…this will not end peacefully.” Sane people would count this as tantamount to a coup.
For his part, Ghadaffi asks Blair to come and see the situation himself. He denies that the situation is either dire or unstable. But he does affirm strongly that his opposition is Al Qaeda—that is, extreme fundamentalists. He asks Blair if he supports them: “…are you supporting terrorism?” Exasperated with the threat, Ghaddafi concludes: “…we have no problem, just leave us alone. If you are really serious and you are looking for the truth, get on a plane and come see us.”
Of course Blair and those pulling his strings were not “looking for the truth’ anymore than the Western media are seriously looking for the truth.
Less than three weeks later, the UN declared the infamous “no fly zone” that allowed NATO forces to launch an air war against Ghadaffi’s forces. US and NATO planes, along with covert fighters from the Gulf States, crippled loyalist forces and violently turned the war against Ghadaffi just as Blair said they would.
And today, Libya is a broken, ungovernable state, a haven for jihadists, just as Ghadaffi said would happen.
A pity the courtesans of the US media show no interest in “looking for the truth.”
Adrift in the Persian Gulf
Two shallow draft riverine craft operated by the US military were boarded and held by Iranian security forces near Farsi Island the day of President Obama’s state of the union address and days before a radical shift in US-Iranian relations.
Any reasonably alert reader of US news accounts of this encounter would be curious about nearly every detail and subsequent explanation offered. The fact that two specialized military craft favored by US special operations and used extensively for command, control and reconnaissance, were boarded in Iranian territorial waters near Iran’s largest naval base might cause some wonder.
The fact that the riverine craft are designed to operate in shallow river or coastal waters, but found their way over two hundred miles from the Saudi shore and in the middle of the Persian Gulf surely warrants some further wonder.
The military’s first explanations of these bizarre circumstances blamed engine failure and drift for the embarrassing presence of two boats and ten US personnel in unauthorized waters.
Of course, it’s hard to imagine that both boats suffered engine failure at the same moment and no relief was mobilized to render assistance. Before anyone asked embarrassing questions (not that the lapdog press would), Defense Secretary Ash Carter offered another tale: navigational failure caused the boats to go off course (way off course!).
But should anyone press this explanation (no one did), they might notice that the boats are equipped with sophisticated navigation, radar, and communication systems; and the likelihood that both of the boats would make the same error, go undetected, and proceed radically off course is about the same as a commercial air craft leaving New York’s LaGuardia airport and heading east rather than west.
So the military (CENTCOM) returned to a version of the first account, stating emphatically that mechanical failure of one boat’s diesel engine caused the two to stop for repairs while travelling from Kuwait to Bahrain. Of course that leaves the question of why the shallow draft boats needed to be hundreds of miles from the Saudi coast in the middle of the Persian Gulf, far away from the most direct and appropriate route to their destination.
But the bumbling explanations caused no consternation among the willfully gullible capitalist press. Instead, they reported earnestly the xenophobic ranting of election-season politicians about imaginary offense to US virtue.
Apart from Glenn Greenwald at The Intercept, no significant media figure cast a doubt on the Pentagon’s ever changing fairy tale, another demonstration of the utter spinelessness of the US media.

Zoltan Zigedy

Friday, January 8, 2016

Tottering on Another Brink

In June of 2015, I wrote:
Broadly speaking, the three key factors of fixed business investment, productivity and, corporate profits have been trending downward for three to four years. First-quarter 2015 fixed investments fell 3.4%, not surprisingly, output per hour (productivity) fell by 3.1%, and earnings were expected to barely move. These three interdependent and fundamental indicators underscore the critical weaknesses in the US economy. Capitalism has wrung as much sweat as it can from workers, managers are reluctant to invest in new or advanced means of production, and US corporations are experiencing a decline in the rate of profit.
Since then, the “three key factors” gauging the health of the US economy have only worsened: Capital expenditure in the third quarter fell by 3.8%, productivity on an annualized basis was only up .4% for the third quarter, and profits suffered the largest (annualized through the third quarter) decline since the 2008 downturn.
In addition, the US manufacturing activity index (Institute for Supply Management) has fallen to its lowest level since June of 2009 and industrial production has declined for the third straight month through November (the just released December data from ISM affirm the first consecutive monthly contraction of the index of manufacturing activity since 2009).
Capacity utilization has dropped to 77%, the lowest in two years. Before 2007 and the onset of the economic crisis, it stood at 80%.
I wrote in June of the stock market inflation generated by mergers and acquisitions, stock buy-backs, and the obscenely low cost of borrowing. The wealth effect of that inflation—its psychological effect on spending—has receded. Market losses account for most of the $1.2 trillion in erased wealth in the third quarter, as reported by the Federal Reserve.
The rout of junk bonds (high-risk, high-yield bonds) in 2015 only adds to insecurity. While junk bonds only totaled $709 billion at the onset of crisis in 2008, they totalled $1.3 trillion when investors began to abandon them. Consequently the ratio of high-yield debt to corporate earnings is close to a new high. A faltering equity market is dampening investor euphoria.
I warned in June:

Today, there are 65 venture capital investments of over $1 billion each (CB Insights says there are 107), drawing funds from yield-hungry retirement funds, mutual funds, and hedge funds. Whatever the number, all agree that the total capitalization of these investments in firms that are little more than start-ups approaches or exceeds the capitalization of the similar “dot com” firms that blew up in 2000.
But new start-ups hit powerful head winds in 2015, especially in the tech/internet sector. As The Wall Street Journal reports: “Technology and Internet companies that went public in the US raised $9.5 billion in 2015, down from $40.8 billion in 2014… the number of IPOs in the sector dropped by more than half, to 29 from 62.”
Clearly, “yield-hungry” investors have miscalculated, as reflected by the current sharp fall of the NASDAQ equity market.
Of course, the US economy is also decidedly rocked by global developments: the PRC economy is shaky at best, the EU is stagnant, Canada is slowing, and the Russian and Brazilian economies are in sharp decline.
While consumer spending has buoyed the US economy, lifting GDP into positive territory, the well-spring of capitalism—profitability—continues to pose the critical problem. The third quarter of 2015 suffered the largest annualized decline in profits since the 2008 downturn. Third quarter profits were down 1.1% from the second quarter and 4.7% from the same quarter in 2014, demonstrating a persistent downward trend.
Interviewed in Barron’s (December 21, 2015), David Levy of the Jerome Levy Forecasting Center perceptively opined: “…But the one thing that has actually caused the economy to weaken a little is sagging profits. We’ve heard people use the expression ‘profit recession’, but there is no profits recession without a real recession. I see signs of things slowing as a result of that profits decline…”
It confounds me that progressive economists, many Marxists, and even Communist Parties continue to locate the source of the ongoing, and now deepening, capitalist crisis in “overproduction” or declining consumption or demand. These notions are remnants of an earlier pre-monopoly era or the influence of Keynesian thinking on Marxism and the broader Left. The “overproduction” that is relevant to capitalist crisis is the overproduction of capital which cannot find a profitable home without gumming up the accumulation process.
The demand-based theories serve as the centerpiece of social democratic crisis theory. Yes, corporate revenue and consumer spending are now stagnant or declining—not as leading indicators, but as consequences of a general economic slowdown brought on by the prospect of fewer profit opportunities. But it is a fall in the growth of profits or a decline in the rate of profit that causes capitalists to apply the brakes. If markets demonstrate greater profitability (by awarding capitalists a greater share, for example), capitalists will continue to invest, fuel the economic engine, even in the face of the stagnant or declining revenues of the moment. Of course falling revenues will eventually further retard the rate of profit. But it is profit that propels capitalism or sinks it in its absence.
For Marxists, it is not simply the numbers that explain the future, but the trends or patterns. Clearly the trends are negative. With central bank tools largely exhausted, it is difficult to imagine an easy escape from deepening crisis; it is difficult to see the coming year as bringing anything other than economic hardship.
Given the rise of the extreme right and the absence of a militant left in most countries, the economic crisis threatens to pose formidable political obstacles. And given the ubiquitous deadly conflicts and increasing inter-imperialist hostilities, the new year demands a heightened commitment to peace and social justice. That commitment must go beyond the tinctures and band aids served up currently by liberals and social democrats.

Zoltan Zigedy

Sunday, December 20, 2015

After State Monopoly Capitalism?

Few review articles are as satisfying as the recent Paul Krugman examination of Robert Reich’s new book, Saving Capitalism: For the Many, Not the Few, in the New York Review of Books (December 17, 2015). To begin with, it was gratifying to find the stark candor behind the title of Reich’s book. “Saving capitalism” assuredly implies that capitalism is on the ropes—in danger of expiring—an implication that I both believe and welcome.

Robert Reich, Paul Krugman, and another colleague, Joseph Stiglitz share lofty accomplishments in academic economics and constitute the intellectual triumvirate informing the non-Marxist left in the US. Although they do not agree on everything, they share a core set of beliefs in the viability of capitalism and its need to reform. It is unusual to see Krugman and Reich suggesting such blatant urgency.

The felt urgency turns on the dramatic increase of economic inequality in major capitalist countries, particularly the US. Krugman stresses that inequality was an issue that Reich and he “were already taking seriously” twenty-five years ago. That may be, but I think it’s fair to say that neither was taking the growth of inequality seriously as a structural feature of capitalism until the important work of Thomas Piketty two years ago.

Krugman takes us on an intellectual journey, outlining in clear, non-technical terms how he, Reich, and other non-Marxist economists modified their understanding of the causes of inequality growth (not simply inequality, but its growth) over the last several decades. Where Krugman arrives is nothing short of amazing: he, no doubt unwittingly, describes an evolved capitalism resembling the capitalism that Marxists described well over half of a century ago.

Decades ago, liberal, mainstream economists believed that rising inequality in the US sprang from a poor match between technological requirements and workers’ skill sets—what Krugman calls “skill-based technological change” (SBTC). Education was seen as the great leveler, restoring wealth and income to those falling behind. But with the correlation between levels of education and compensation broken today, all reject SBTC as an adequate explanation and the key to arresting the growth of inequality. The growth of debt-laden college graduates working in call centers surely shatters that illusion. Or as Krugman smartly puts it: “…hedge fund managers and high school teachers have similar levels of formal training.”

But economists fell back on another technological example: robots and other productivity-enhancing devices replacing workers. But Krugman makes short shrift of this explanation:

if we were experiencing a robot-driven technological revolution, why did productivity growth seem to be slowing, not accelerating?

if it were getting easier to replace workers with machines, we should have seen a rise in business investment as corporations raced to take advantage of the new opportunities; we didn’t and in fact corporations have increasingly been parking their profits in banks or using them to buy back stocks.

Krugman thus dismisses a technological explanation for the growth of inequality.

Instead he urges that we consider the centerpiece of Reich’s study: monopoly power.

It is the concentration of economic power in the hands of fewer corporate players that accounts for growing economic inequality, according to Krugman and Reich: “…it’s obvious to the naked eye that our economy consists much more of monopolies and oligopolists than it does of the atomistic, price-taking competitors economists often envision.”

So why did it take Reich and Krugman so long to arrive at this juncture, a place that Lenin visited over a hundred years ago? Marxist writers like Paul Baran and Paul Sweezy devoted an entire influential book to monopoly capitalism nearly fifty years ago.

Krugman apologetically-- “an intellectual and a policy error”--attributes the mainstream economic neglect of monopoly to an influential paper written by Milton Friedman in 1953 that emphatically dismissed the effects of monopoly power on significant economic behavior.

Thus, non-Marxist economists and their political allies have scorned the concept of monopoly power until recently, a concept that Marxists have made a centerpiece of their analyses for most of the twentieth century. What is “obvious to the naked eye…” now informs the theories embraced by our left-leaning reformers.

But Krugman and Reich reveal another crucial linkage—that between economic power (monopoly power) and political power (“And this ties the issue of market power to political power”). They see monopoly power as sustained, protected, and expanded by political actors. At the same time, they see political actors as selected, nourished, and guided by monopoly power. This creates a troubling conundrum for those seeking to reform capitalism. Reich’s conclusion, in Krugman’s words:

Rising wealth at the top buys growing political influence via campaign contributions, lobbying, and the rewards of the revolving door. Political influence in turn is used to rewrite the rules of the game—antitrust laws, deregulation, changes in contract law, union-busting—in a way that reinforces income concentration. The result is a sort of spiral, a vicious circle of oligarchy.

Putting aside the clashing metaphors of circles and spirals, this statement reasonably captures the mechanism behind the socio-economic formation Marxists call State Monopoly Capitalism.  For Marxists, concentration necessarily begets monopoly capitalism, which subsequently completely fuses with the state, creating a mutually reinforcing synthesis. The state rules in the interest of monopoly capitalism while policing the economic terrain to maximize the viability and success of monopoly capital. Monopoly capital legitimizes the state and selects and imposes its overseers. Nothing demonstrates the intimacy more than the crisis bailouts of mega-corporations (“too big to fail”) and the increasing establishment of international governing bodies and trade agreements. Nothing demonstrates monopoly capital’s political dominance more than the decisive role of mega-corporate money in the two-party political process.

With the recognition of the vital link of monopoly capital and the state, Krugman and Reich reach an understanding on a parallel with those Marxist theorists who characterized the post-World War II era as one of state monopoly capitalism. While some features of that characterization were and are sometimes disputed (see, for example, Politico-Economic Problems of Capitalism, Y. Varga, 1968), most Marxists would enthusiastically welcome the two economists to their camp on this important issue.

But unlike Marxists, who see the overthrow of capitalism as the final answer to the wedding of monopoly power to political power, Krugman, Reich and their liberal and social democratic colleagues are left with the conundrum that follows inescapably from their conclusions about the source of inequality. The economic reforms that they envision to retard the growth of inequality are altogether blocked by the massive political power stacked against them. And that political power is stacked against reform because political power is the purchase of monopoly power. In other words, their findings confirm that monopoly has the political process locked up and that lock will ensure that monopoly will continue to grow along with inequality.

Krugman clearly recognizes this conundrum and casts serious doubts over Reich’s wistful glance back at the past and faith that a New Deal-like solution will magically emerge from the amorphous “populism” of candidates from both parties (he mentions Ted Cruz!).

Of course Krugman is right in dismissing Reich's nostalgic answer, but he can offer no alternative.

We conclude that the growth of inequality will only be stopped when the program of saving capitalism is put aside for a program that vigorously challenges the capitalist system. We hope that Krugman and Reich will draw the same conclusion in the future.

Zoltan Zigedy

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Where Did You Get the Money, Anne?

Without a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, we may never know to what extent cultural and intellectual life in the US was shaped by schemes and resources associated with powerful US Cold War elites. Thanks to scholars like Francis Stonor Saunders (The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters), Hugh Wilford (The Mighty Wurlitzer: How the CIA Played America), and a handful of resourceful academics, we can piece together a shameful story of knowing and unwitting collaboration with Cold War goals across and deep within the elite academic community; we know of the widespread compromise of key, influential figures in the media to the wishes of the Cold Warriors; and we better understand why some cultural and intellectual trends seemed to flourish while others were left to wither.
At the same time, we have learned more of the repression of dissent from the Cold War consensus. Facts have been uncovered that show that “McCarthyism” was more than a momentary lapse in democratic values. The post-war repression left scars that persist, thought patterns that remain frozen, intellectual and cultural roads that continue to be blocked.
For those who study this history, twentieth century intellectual pillars like Robert Conquest, George Orwell, and Isaiah Berlin are now diminished in stature. Their witting engagement with and sponsorship by secret services and the covert promotion of their ideas shatter any claim to the intellectual integrity of their widely influential work. While this tarnishing of Cold War icons is accepted by most academic specialists, the kept mainstream media continues to herald the “truths” disseminated by similarly kept Cold War intellectuals.
With the Cold War long over, the enduring chant of anti-Soviet demonology continues, but with a new generation of intellectual charlatans conjuring the demons.
The current flock of professional anti-Communists is equally adept at turning from its defamation of the Soviet Union to defaming capitalist Russia. It really comes down to serving up whatever its masters demand.
Timothy Snyder (Bloodlands) and Anne Applebaum (Gulag: A History, Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944–1956) are two of the new breed of intellectuals who espouse views that uncannily coincide with the ideological needs of our ruling elites. As I wrote in March of last year, the two brought their arsenal of invective to smear the deposed Ukraine president Yanukovych, hail the violent, extreme-right opposition, and plant the evil Russians in their apologies for the Ukrainian coup.
While Snyder’s academic credentials convey “expert” standing on his pronouncements, Anne Applebaum has parlayed a master’s degree in international relations and a career in journalism to a widely celebrated place as the leading “scholar” of Soviet-era repression. It’s fair to see her as heir apparent to Robert Conquest, owning the privilege of making ex cathedra judgments of everything Eastern European.
August publications like The New York Review of Books welcome her every thought on Soviet history or modern Eastern Europe, as does nearly every other Western medium. Curiously, none pauses to weigh-- not to mention, to acknowledge—Ms. Applebaum’s marital tie to one of Poland’s more prominent anti-Russian, right-wing, and controversial politicians, Radoslaw Sikorski. Sikorski’s racist outbursts, his extravagant life style, and his virulent anti-Russian screeds cast no shadow over his spouse’s exalted status in the West.
Sikorski’s recent scandals involving corruption and financial mismanagement are widely reported in Poland, but unaddressed in the West. In the US, the Polish power couple (Applebaum has taken Polish citizenship) is viewed as a paragon of liberalism and integrity.
But thanks to the tenacious research of an expatriate US citizen named John Helmer, evidence has emerged that suggests that Applebaum, like her intellectual forbearers, has tasted of the forbidden fruit. Polish law requires that officials and spouses report incomes, reports that are publicly accessible. According to Sikorski’s 2014 report, Ms. Applebaum earned around $800,000 from non-Polish sources in 2013. Generously allowing for income from book royalties, her WaPo and Newsweek columns, and a salary from the Legatum Foundation in London, that leaves several hundred thousand dollars unaccounted for (Helmer estimates $565,000).
It doesn’t take much imagination to see the workings of a hidden hand, a hand grateful for Applebaum’s slavish support and promulgation of US and NATO foreign policy objectives in Ukraine and other Eastern European countries.
Wikileaks noted this interesting bump in income (Sikorski reported his wife’s earnings as $20,000 the prior year). Applebaum responded to Wikileaks with out-of-character discomfit and the intensification of her anti-Russia hysterics. She tweeted: “Wow! Assange now using fake/libellous slander from John Helmer, who fled US after being recruited by the KGB in 80s.”
There is nothing like a dose of red-baiting to deflect the question.
Whether Applebaum can explain this sudden bounty is uncertain. But one thing is certain: the Western media will never allow it to derail the war-mongering propaganda blitz targeting Russia.

Zoltan Zigedy

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

The Pathologies of Capitalism

Capitalism owes its resilience to its ability to devise novel tactics to deflect, distort, and deflate mass resistance. Even with the casualties of global capitalism mounting, capitalism’s fixers have channeled public dissatisfaction and disappointment into private diminished self-worth and self-destructiveness.
London Review of Books reviewer, Katrina Forrester, aptly captures this insidious ploy: when faced with oppression and exploitation “Don’t join a union, pop a pill.” In her perceptive review of William Davies’ The Happiness Industry: How the Government and Big Business Sold Us Wellbeing (22 October 2015) she exposes the wide spread practice of defining rebellious behavior or negative attitudes as psychological disorders. “...if you’re not happy, wish things were different, or find it hard to adapt to the conditions of modern life, you may be diagnosed as suffering from a mental illness.”
More and more often, academics and therapists have accepted the notion that depression or dysfunctional behavior is a mark of mental problems regardless of the causes of the behavior or attitude. They “…think of unhappiness as a pathology, a psychological or mental state amenable to behavioral and medical intervention. This is the logic that underpins the growth of the ‘happiness industry.’” Thus, for example, when an Iraqi mother loses two sons fighting a foreign occupier, when her personal security is constantly threatened, and living conditions continue to deteriorate, her unhappiness is pathological. It is not the horrid conditions of her life (conditions which could have been avoided or can be altered), but her “negative” feelings that must be changed.
As Forrester points out, “Many people are unhappy for good reasons, which the new therapeutic practices of the happiness industry largely ignore.”
She goes on:
Where once the solution to unhappiness at work was social reform and collective action, now it’s individual uplift and “resilience”; when we want to resist, we don’t join a union but call in sick. If you lose your job and feel demoralized at the prospect of looking for a new one, that too might be a diagnosable condition.
Forrester reports that in the UK some have taken to rebranding unemployment as a psychological disorder with claimants’ “attitude to work” used as a determinant of benefit worthiness.
While appreciative of the book under review, Forrester faults the author for his weak answer to the happiness industry. Rather than recognizing that happiness-obsession serves capitalism by trivializing capital’s destructive nature, William Davies sees it as somehow a threat to democracy. By touting “democratizing” the work place, Davies joins all social democrats in assiduously avoiding placing capitalism’s pathologies at capitalism’s doorsteps. And Forrester sees this flaw clearly: “Happiness and depression are tied up with capital in ways far more concrete than Davies allows.”
Pathological Blowback
It is no secret that whites have often been the most socially compliant demographic group. Middle-aged white people are today inclined to cling to the dominant ideological narrative, to support the ruling class “verities.” But they are paying a heavy price for the trust that they have placed in wealth and power.

A recent study, Rising morbidity and mortality in midlife among white non-Hispanic Americans in the 21st century, shows that whites, especially less educated whites, between the ages of 45 to 54 have suffered a dramatic increase in mortality since 1999. The authors, Professors Case and Deaton, argue that much of this increase is caused by an over four-fold increase of drug and alcohol overdoses, an over 50% increase in suicides, and an over 25% increase of chronic liver disease. Further, they have related this abuse to mental-health problems and problems in handling personal difficulties, especially economic stresses.

Case and Deaton speculate that increased mortality may have caused 488,500 deaths that could have been avoided between 1999 and 2013—what the anti-Soviet Kremlinologists of the Cold War era would label “unnecessary deaths.”
While there is much alarm in the mainstream academic and social work community, there are few theories about how such mass “unhappiness” could occur and about how to arrest it.
But is it really that difficult to discern the causes of this mental health epidemic?
Should it be a surprise that white people who came of age during and after the Reagan era of fanatical US boosterism, who experienced the period where all social questions were settled with the mantra “Are YOU better off now?”, and who endured a time when personal “success” trumped social relations and social responsibilities, would now find disappointment, even despair in the unrelenting crises of the twenty-first century?
Capitalism fostered an ever-present trend of alienation, isolation, and subjectivism that accelerated dramatically over the last forty years. Extreme competitiveness for jobs, status, and power nurtured the virus of selfishness and insensitivity. In the Hobbesian State of Nature that ensued, many were consumed by ruthless competition—the struggle for success. Those who were “losers”—and there must be losers, if there are winners—were stripped of their self-worth.  
With the promise of boundless prosperity and the ideology of self-advancement rocked by two devastating economic crises in the first decade of the twenty-first century, those most committed to this faith were devastated. Harsh realities caught up with the fairy tales spun by capitalism’s apologists. For those seeing no options, alcohol, drugs, and suicide became an answer.  
But causes of this epidemic are not found in the soul or mind, but in capitalism. And solutions are not found on the therapist’s couch, in self-help sessions, the drug store or the bottle, but in creating a world where everyone has a welcoming, useful, and satisfying place. That place will never be found where capitalism reigns.

Zoltan Zigedy

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Why Donald? Why Bernie?

People on the left believe that systems are corrupt. People on the right tend to believe that the system (at least as they understand its design) is just fine, and it's individual people who are too corrupt or too weak to propel it towards its full greatness. Thus partisans of the right lean more toward a version of Thomas Carlyle's view that history is about great men (and now women, too), which elevates biography to the level of supreme importance, while partisans of the left care less about the outsider's life story than his criticism of power and how he will challenge it. These differing conceptions dictate how the candidates present themselves and even how they would govern, should one of them become president.” Michael Tomasky, Very Improbable Candidates, New York Review of Books, 11-05-15.

In his recent article, Michael Tomasky explores the questions challenging most of the mainstream political commentators: What explains the dramatic ascendancy of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders in their respective primary campaigns? What accounts for poll numbers far exceeding rivals expected to cruise through the primary season?

For my part, I argue, as I have in the past, that both parties are so thoroughly owned by corporations and the wealthy that the chances of a real oppositional movement emerging from within the Democratic Party and through the two-party electoral process are slim-to-none. The chances of a renegade Republican emerging are somewhat greater, but still slight. A far more reliable indicator of primary prospects can be found in counting the campaign contributions and gauging the sentiments of the corporate-friendly party leaders. To steal a movie catch-phrase, the key is to follow the money. After all, the fuel for winning national political office is cash, and more and more decisively with every election cycle. Thus, victory is decided by those who have it. I stand by my projections: thoroughly corporate-friendly candidates will emerge in the end, as they have in the past.

In the case of Bernie Sanders, Tomasky would agree that Sanders’ chances are slim: “Then, on March 1, comes Super Tuesday, which consists mostly of southern states... Barring unusual circumstances, it's difficult to see how Sanders could amass the delegates needed to win the nomination.”

But what does stand behind the Sanders/Trump phenomena? What accounts for the unexpected success of Sanders’ economic populism and Trump's re-visioning of Know-Nothing philosophy?

Clearly longer term trends are at play. Opinion polls show that the public's sentiment that "things are going in the right direction" has been steadily and persistently trending downward since 1998. Similarly, approval rates for Congress have shown a dramatic decline since 2005. Not surprisingly, confidence in key economic institutions like banks has also collapsed.

More recently, a Wall Street Journal/NBC poll shows sharp shifts in political ideology within and a stark polarization between the political parties. At the high water of Reaganism (1990), only 39 per cent of Democrats described themselves as somewhat liberal or very liberal, with a strong majority falling into the former category. Some will remember that the word “liberal” became an epithet during that era of high-Reaganism.

Today (2015), 55% of Democrats see themselves as somewhat liberal or very liberal, with the split nearly 50/50 between the two categories. Clearly, liberalism-- whatever the word now means to respondents-- has regained currency within the Democratic Party.

Similarly, the percentage of self-described Republicans embracing the conservative label has risen from 48% to 61% in 25 years. As with the Democrats, the more staunch (in this case, very conservative) sentiment has grown more dramatically, increasing from 12% to 28% of Republicans since 1990.

These numbers go a long way toward showing an increasing divide between the two parties. But even more significantly, they show an increasing desire on the part of the rank-and-file to reshape the respective parties in a more ideological direction. Dissatisfaction with the direction of the country and its institutions has generated both a rightward (in the Republican Party) and leftward (in the Democratic Party) drift, a drift spawned by a distrust of the ideas and candidates offered by the parties' mainstreams.

Given that third parties have not yet stepped up to absorb this dissatisfaction (opinion polls strongly suggest that the electorate would welcome third parties), voters are expressing their unhappiness by supporting candidates like Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump (and other outliers).

For the Republican corporate puppet-masters, Trump presents a real problem. The unhinged insurgency represented by Trump threatens to derail, or at least move to a siding, the deeply embedded, core Republican agenda of unfettered markets, a shriveled public sector, no taxes, and corporate welfare. In its place, Trump offers rabid racism, nativism, and cultural war based on the foggy notion of a lost “America.” Republican leaders know this is a formula for defeat. They are struggling to snatch the nomination away and hand it to a reliable corporate Republican. Jeb Bush was their choice, though he has gained no traction despite an enormous war chest. I trust they'll figure it out.

The leftward pressure felt by the Democratic Party's bigwigs has been historically less of a problem. They have managed voter dissatisfaction by feigning left and driving right. They have endured primary insurgencies (Jackson, Dean, in recent years) knowing full well that the game was rigged by money and superdelegates (approaching 20% of those voting at the convention). They also mastered the tactic of embracing vague leftist postures in electoral campaigns, which are quickly discarded after victory (Obama). These tactics will likely serve them well with the Sanders insurgency.

Nonetheless, the Sanders campaign offers valuable and important lessons for the US left. Running almost exclusively on the issue of economic inequality, Sanders challenges the concept of “liberalism” fostered by the liberal media and Democratic Party elites. Over many years, “liberalism” has come to be associated with “social liberalism”: life-style issues, identity, and tolerance-- all worthy values, but more urgent to those enjoying economic security. “New Deal liberalism,” based on collective prosperity, economic equality, and community benefits, has largely been driven from the political landscape. Contemporary liberalism has been shaped into NPR (National Public Radio) liberalism, a liberalism that assiduously avoids any but the most innocuous critique of the capitalist system, but sincerely wants everyone to find happiness.

But Sanders has touched a popular nerve. He recognizes this as a Piketty-moment, with millions of people left on the outside looking in after the 2008-2009 economic collapse (and the continuing crisis). Millions are disgusted with the poverty and desperation of so many serving as a backdrop to the vulgarities of extreme wealth.

A Pew Social Trends poll shows this change dramatically: between 2009 and 2011-- a span of a mere 2 years-- 19% more respondents in the samples reported “strong” or “very strong” conflicts between the rich and poor. Fully two-thirds of respondents in 2011 reported “strong” or “very strong” conflict. As Pew's Rich Morin reports, “... the issue of class conflict has captured a growing share of the national consciousness.”

Surprisingly, a majority of Republicans share this view with nearly three-fourths of Democrats. Independents trail only slightly, with 68% reporting strong or greater perceived class conflict.

Not surprisingly, Blacks and Hispanics recognized the class conflict in great numbers before and after the twenty-first century Great Crash. Whites, however, showed the greatest jump in recognition of the class divide-- from 43% to 65%. Nearly one-in-four whites in the US were jarred by the effects of a capitalist crisis and its impact on them, their families, and their friends into seeing class antagonism where they never saw it before.

Of several potential “social conflicts in society,” the Pew study shows that the rich/poor divide is perceived as the most acute, well more than conflict between whites and Blacks.

This is the fertile soil for Sanders’ economic-equality campaign. This is the growing class divide fueling Sanders' candidacy.

Another Pew poll shows the willingness of US citizens to find solutions to the growing inequality by redistributing wealth. In a study of attitudes towards the US tax system, respondents placed their feeling that corporations and the wealthy fail to pay their fair share well ahead of their other tax concerns. When asked what bothers them “some” or “a lot” about the current tax system, fully 82% felt bothered that corporations were not paying their fair share and 79% felt the same way about the wealthy paying their fair share. Our friends and neighbors are unquestionably friendly towards taxing corporations and the rich, another chord that Sanders has struck.

It should be obvious from polling results and the Sanders campaign that US political and economic attitudes have shifted substantially in a direction that is potentially favorable to the left. But it should be just as obvious that this opportunity has been willfully squandered by the Democratic Party. In fact, apart from Sanders, the Democratic leadership has shown no interest-- apart from moral suasion and empty rhetoric-- in making the US a more egalitarian society, in taking sides in the class conflict.

On the other hand the independent left-- independent of the two parties-- has a great opportunity to embrace and develop the economic issues that Sanders has touched upon. Tomasky writes in the quote above of a left that “...believe[s] that systems are corrupt...”, that will criticize “power” and “challenge it.” Too much of our left has yet to recognize that the two-party system is among the corrupt systems. Too few of our comrades have drawn the conclusion that the two-party system is an oppressive “power” deserving of criticism and challenge... and not a democratic institution.

Regardless of the success or lasting impact of the Sanders candidacy, the US left must seize the opportunity offered by the rapidly shifting attitudes of the US people. Organizing and educating to focus mass dissatisfaction against oppressive systems and institutions-- especially capitalism-- is the next step.

Zoltan Zigedy

Saturday, October 17, 2015

US Imperialism’s Failed Tactics

US imperialism and its allies learned a hard lesson from their unsuccessful adventure in Vietnam. Escalating US troop involvement to nearly half a million serving at the war’s peak, drawing on forced enlistment (conscription) to rotate nearly three million personnel serving throughout the war, and incurring over 200,000 casualties proved to be a politically destabilizing, consensus-challenging endeavor.
Military planners recognized that unless they were able to generate a broad consensus for war or guarantee a short, decisive duration, the draft risked a politically volatile backlash. Consequently, they opted for developing a volunteer army and a war-friendly culture to legitimize its use.
But they drew an even more important conclusion. Where imperialism fought a foe defending its homeland, the costs were usually far too great for the US public to tolerate. Certainly US engagement in the world-wide, anti-fascist war of 1939-1945 enjoyed unwavering popular support. But US forces never fought on Japanese soil and only briefly in a crippled Germany.
When engaged in supporting a rump regime in Korea, the US military achieved, at best, a stalemate. The same boots-on-the-ground approach in Vietnam collapsed before a people deeply resentful of US occupiers.
After Vietnam, imperialist war planners devised a tactic of relying more and more upon surrogates. Understanding that local populations furiously opposed foreign occupiers, the US sought to impose its objectives by creating and supporting mercenary forces who could claim, at least tenuously, to local status. From supporting UNITA or FNLA in Angola to creating, arming, and aiding the Contra movement in Nicaragua, the US preferred waging aggression with surrogate forces. An effective, massive propaganda effort “legitimized” the client armies as “freedom fighters.”
Probably the most successful use of the post-Vietnam tactic was in Afghanistan, where US covert services armed a reactionary tribal opposition to destabilize a secular, modern government and, as a result, gave a decisive, strong impetus to an emergent Islamic fundamentalist war against secularism of all kinds. The jihadist movement found its legs, its confidence as surrogates against an urban-based Afghanistan government supported by the Soviet Union, then a bulwark against US imperialism.
After the demise of the Soviet state, the US cautiously employed its “professionalized” and volunteer military in Iraq, Afghanistan, and once more in Iraq. Still, military planners hoped to quickly train a surrogate force and just as quickly evacuate US ground forces, leaving client states with militaries sufficiently armed and motivated to crush any domestic resistance to a US-friendly regime.
While the tactic held the promise of minimizing domestic resistance by using a compliant media to construct the false narrative of democratic change and humanitarian intervention and while the tactic hoped to generate tolerable US casualties and minimal material costs, resistance movements once again proved to be far more determined, and stability far more elusive, than the best minds of the military or covert services imagined.
Fourteen years in Afghanistan and twelve years of propping up a client state in Iraq, manufacturing a failed state in Libya, and sparking a devastating civil war in Syria are testament to a failed policy.
More importantly, the failure is part of a continuous, irreversible decline in US imperialism’s ability to impose its will in a world of stiffening anti-imperialist resistance and growing inter-imperialist rivalries.
Nothing underlines this new reality more than the latest events in Afghanistan and Syria.
Despite a massive concentration of weaponry, superior pay, and the best US training, the Afghan surrogate army suffered its worst defeat ever at the hands of the Taliban in the siege and occupation of Kunduz. All reports indicate that the Taliban forces were inferior in numbers and weapons and that the US-trained government forces had little stomach for the fight.
US officials have been obliged to announce a delay in the exit of troops from Afghanistan in the face of this defeat. President Obama has decided to pass on the Afghanistan quagmire to the next President, just as President Bush passed it on to him.
Russian engagement in Syria has inadvertently exposed the lies and failures of US actions in that country. Since the Obama administration began encouraging and assisting the overthrow of Syrian President Assad, the government and the lapdog media have claimed the existence of a democratic, moderate opposition. From late in 2011, US and UK military leaders began planning armed action against Assad. A surrogate army (the Free Syrian Army) was projected as an alternative to the fundamentalist jihadists seeking a feudal-theological state (Qatar and other Gulf states intervened, pretending no such distinctions). Weapons were diverted from Libya and CIA training began in earnest with a projected military force numbering in the tens of thousands.
After the ISIS threat emerged, the US and the other interventionists further pretended that its client fighting forces were equally engaged against ISIS and the many other groups fighting Assad who were designated “terrorist” by the West.

In reality, the US “freedom fighters” were virtually non-existent or collaborating enthusiastically with the jihadists. Their sole target was Assad.
The Obama government has conceded that of thousands vetted by the CIA program only a few hundred remain on the war front. Most have shared their weapons with or joined the jihadists or left Syria with the thousands of immigrants. The half-billion-dollar program is a disaster, with the US administration pledging to pass the remaining weapons and resources on to existing fighting groups in Syria.
The spectrum of the Western media reports that, especially since the Russian intervention, there is extensive cooperation, coordination, and joint action between all elements of the Syrian anti-Assad forces—so much for the ruse of an independent force in opposition to fundamentalism.
As the Wall Street Journal reports: “…the Homs Legion of the Western-backed Free Syrian Army… together with the Islamist group Ahrar al-Sham and Nusra Front [Syria’s al-Qaeda affiliate] has formed joint command in Northern Homs.” The Washington Post has identified a similar unholy alliance of jihadist and “moderates” that was crafted into a Nusra-led Army of Conquest. Only the most gullible continue to believe that there is a significant difference between Western-backed “freedom fighters” and their jihadist allies.
Western liberals can make believe that US involvement in Syria is for some greater good, but the facts speak clearly. As with Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, tens of thousands are dead, infrastructure is devastated, and the social fabric is irreparably torn simply because imperialist powers seek more compliant, more subservient states. The facts expose the lie that the US and NATO seek the values of democracy, freedom, or the other values that prove so persuasive to those apologizing for self-interested regime change.
Anti-imperialists can draw a small consolation from these tragic, morally repellent aggressions: the US tactics have failed to achieve their goal of creating global fealty to US interests.

Zoltan Zigedy