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Thursday, July 10, 2014

The Shame of Iraq Once More

As the Sunni Jihadists of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham conquer city after city in northern Iraq and as black-clad soldiers from Shiite military muster to repel them, it is tempting to blame the chaos there on ancient religious hatreds. But the strife in Iraq today is less the mystifying product of of primordial grievances than the predictable result of very modern power politics.
The US shouldn't repeat the mistake made two decades ago, when a generation of Western leaders explained away the wars that ripped Yugoslavia apart as the result of primeval ethnic hatreds. Then as now, such resignation is an easy way to avoid hard thinking. Hatreds Bred by Power Politics, Daniel Benjamin (Wall Street Journal, June 28-29, 2014)

Benjamin, a former US State Department coordinator, is right on both counts: politics fundamentally drives the crisis in the Middle East and simplistic, but convenient explanations for the catastrophic events supplant any real analysis.

Apologists in both Parties and the supplicant media want to pass off the blame to the victims of the quagmire that the US and its allies have created in the Middle East. They insist that it is not a malignant foreign policy designed to advance US corporate interests and install puppet governments lurking behind the violence and chaos, but tribal and religious animosities, disdain for “human rights,” and ignorance of “democratic” values that thwart the “civilizing” mission of the US and the EU. Just as US ruling elites evaded the lessons of defeat in Vietnam, their twenty-first century counterparts revive the same chauvinistic, self-serving explanations for the hatred and mass slaughter they perpetrate.

To his credit, Benjamin insists on more nourishing explanations. As an insider and participant in shaping US policy, he knows better; he knows that interests-- economic and politic interests-- play the decisive role in shaping the events now spinning out of control in Iraq. He concedes, regarding “the demons of sectarianism,” that “[a]t key points, the US has even unintentionally abetted them...” [My italics] While this confesses far more than most of the US foreign policy commentariat wants to admit, it falls far short of the truth.

As I argued in a previous article (The Shame of Iraq, ZZ's Blog June 22, 2014), Western nations, especially the US and Israel, have devoted enormous resources and attention towards re-directing a decidedly post-World War II secular trend in the Middle East by courting religious fundamentalism. They have, with some success, quashed secular movements and promoted religious zealotry in its place. It is not difficult to discern their motive: in the calculus of imperialism, encouraging backwardness-- ethnic and religious frictions-- often overwhelms the struggle for economic independence and social justice that usually finds fertile soil in secularism.

That I did not make this point clearly was underscored by several critical comments received. It was not my intention to portray Nasserism, the early Ba'ath Party, the brief leadership in Iran of Mosaddegh, or even the Peoples Democratic Party of Afghanistan as paragons of national sovereignty, unity, or socialism. Nevertheless, they were part of a healthy anti-imperialist, pro-independence movement worldwide, a movement that gathered momentum after World War II. In Central and South America, this trend was associated with leaders like Peron, Goulart, Bosch, Fidel, and Arbenz. While they were not all untarnished exemplars of social progress or even radical democracy, they all sought to eke out an independent path for national development, a path that drew the attention and ire of the US and its allies. Similarly, Nkrumah, Kenyatta, and a host of African leaders joined Nehru and Sukarno in Asia in using the opportunity offered by the Cold War stand-off to escape subservience to Western capitalism. In most cases, the escape was thwarted through assassination, CIA coup, covert corruption, or division. In the Middle East, the primary tool was the fueling of the ever present, but dormant, ethnic or religious sectarianism.

With the demise of the Soviet Union, that opportunity is gone and the road to political and economic independence is far rockier.

In understanding the Iraq debacle, context-- historical context-- is everything, a truth that the former State Department official, Daniel Benjamin, fully understands. Scornful of the patently nonsensical explanations that begin and end with alleged Middle Eastern pathologies, he insists that “The spark behind today's fires sprang from the 1979 Iranian Revolution.” Certainly, the Iranian Revolution is a handy scapegoat for those unwilling to fully expose the critical role of the US in fueling, igniting, and stoking the “fires” burning throughout the Middle East.

Yes, the overthrow of the Shah, both a reliable puppet and guardian of US interests, unleashed a firestorm of fundamentalist zeal. But it is impossible to imagine the religiously fomented revolution without grasping the decades of violent and complete repression of the secular Iranian left, beginning with the US- and UK-instigated coup against the moderate, secular and democratic Prime Minister, Mohammed Mosaddegh, in 1953.

While Benjamin insists that we ask credible questions about the Iraqi catastrophe, he purposely directs us away from credible answers.

Nothing exposes the complete bankruptcy of US policy in the Middle East more dramatically than the widespread “surprise” accompanying the sweeping offensive of ISIS across a huge segment of Iraq. Despite decades of intense scrutiny and the most sophisticated technologies, US security services were caught completely off guard by the speed and success of the offensive. Equally embarrassing and “surprising” was the complete collapse of the US-trained, financed, and armed Iraqi military faced off against ISIS.

But US policy makers were equally “surprised” by the treachery of their fundamentalist surrogates who launched an attack on the US in 2001 after undermining a revolution in Afghanistan.Of course, they were also "surprised" by the chaos in Libya after the US and NATO waged war on Gaddafi, creating destruction, death, and instability. They are “surprised” that their sponsorship of an insurrection against Assad in Syria has drawn mercenary armies bent on creating a fundamentalist Caliphate (ironically, challenging the US puppet government in Iraq). They will be “surprised” when the puppet government in Afghanistan also collapses in the next few years.

At the same time, US rulers, wrapping themselves around the banners of human rights and democracy, readily accept the greatest abusers of human rights and of democracy, countries like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Colombia, in their crusades against “terror.”

What does this callousness to peace and stability, this unprecedented hypocrisy, tell us?

Surely, it leaves no doubt that US policy in the Middle East, like its policy toward Cuba, Venezuela, and many other countries, is disconnected from high-minded values. Instead, it is deeply embedded in US interests, not the wholesome interests of the US people, who consistently show their disapproval of US intervention in polls, but the interests of US corporations and their courtesans.

One can only wish that this truth could permeate the nearly impenetrable corporate media filter that denies access to all but inane entertainments and surreal politics.

But that doesn't excuse the quiescence and inaction of the broad US left. Even if most cannot bring themselves to utter the word “imperialism,” they must surely see the pattern of violence and destruction that is the constant companion of US policies. They cannot escape the human toll of unrelenting, perpetual war since the phony “war on terror” was birthed. They cannot ignore the contradiction of massive resources devoted to destruction and domination while infrastructure, services, and welfare starve for funding in the US.

The only plausible explanation for this ubiquitous meekness in confronting imperialism is a groveling subservience to the electoral fortunes of the Democratic Party. I say “groveling” because no other word could capture an allegiance that only stiffens in the face of a Democratic Party leadership that is completely contemptuous of the Party's “left” and even more contemptuous of the left in general.

If the Democratic Administration that enjoyed a rousing mandate from US voters, inherited a congressional majority, and spoke of urgent change, fails to deliver a cessation of aggression, then there is little prospect for it doing so in the future. Therefore, remaining mute in the face of the murderous Iraqi debacle, not voicing an objection to US engagement is tantamount to groveling before morally corrupt Democratic Party elected officials.
Certainly some have spoken up, organized, demonstrated, but too few to challenge the media fire wall. We need more to join with UNAC or the ANSWER coalition into assembling local actions. Or for those whose ideological purity is threatened by rubbing elbows with different shades of the radical left, organize your own rally. But public renunciation of the march of imperialism cannot be set aside for electoral opportunism.

Zoltan Zigedy

Sunday, June 22, 2014

The Shame of Iraq

The close of the Second World War saw the rise of Arab nationalism, a movement that promised to unite much of the Middle East around independence and social advancement. The imposition of a Jewish theocratic state in the midst of Arab homelands no doubt accelerated this movement, as did later imperialist meddling such as the Suez intervention of 1956.
Both Nasserism and the Ba'ath Party were early vehicles of a growing nationalism centered on an Arab identity. Nasser's engagement with non-alignment in the Cold War, his secularism, his advocacy of land reform and Egyptian socialism resonated with the Arab masses. Similarly, the pan-Arab Ba'ath Party organized around unity, independence, and socialism-- all with a decidedly secular tone. Islam, rather than the basis for identity, was second to ethic national identities that proudly offered Islam to the world as a gift from the Middle Eastern peoples. This secular trend grew rapidly, resulting in a unified United Arab Republic in 1958, a development that was soon terminated by a coup in Syria.
Of course there were counter trends, reactionary trends in the Arab world that worked against the progressive, secular movement. Centered on the oil-driven dynasties, these forces, frightened by Arab nationalism, aligned themselves with the imperialists, and were vigorously anti-socialist. They offered an ideology counter posing rigid Islamic fundamentalism to secular nationalism. Of course their Western partners shared their hostility and were eager to exploit their influence and resources against Arab nationalism.
The opportunities were forthcoming with the humiliating defeats of Arab military power by the Israeli armed forces. Tarnished by these defeats, afflicted with corruption, and covertly impaired by Western and Israeli security services, the leaders of Arab nationalism began to lose support among the Arab masses.
Israel and its Western imperialist friends contrived a strategy of encouraging fundamentalism and religious sectarianism as an alternative to the Middle Eastern Enlightenment. Once the lightening rod for Arab unity and secular progressivism, the Palestinian Liberation Organization fell victim to this strategy when the Israelis disparaged the leadership of Yasir Arafat, rebuffing his concessions and mocking his weaknesses. At the same time, they sought to vitalize the influence of the religious-based Hamas among Palestinians. This strategy, like so many similar strategies, backfired when Hamas launched the Intifada that struck back effectively against the Israeli occupiers. Envisioned as a classic divide-and-conquer maneuver, the courtship of Islamic fundamentalism underestimated the deeply ingrained hostility to imperial intrigue. It was one thing to undermine Arab unity and secularism, but quite another to scorn Arab independence.
The US embraced the same tactics in its support for Islamic fundamentalism in Afghanistan. As an answer to the assumption of power by a secular, anti-imperialist, socialist movement and its support by the Soviet Union, the US, along with its Gulf allies, raised, armed, and assisted a merciless, sectarian fundamentalist insurgency openly contemptuous of the human rights that the West pretends to cherish.
The backfire-- or “blowback” as some have dubbed it-- came quickly and often, culminating in the deadly coordinated attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in September of 2001. Thousands of innocent civilians in the US died because US policy makers, through ignorance and irresponsibility, sponsored religious zealots against the tide of democratic, secular, and progressive movements in the Middle East. While the tactic succeeded in turning back the tide of secularism in the Middle East, the tacticians failed to understand that their erstwhile Islamist allies deplored imperial manipulation as much as they hated secularism. In other words, they weren't the dupes that their “masters” wanted them to be. As the divide-and-conquer strategy collapsed, generating anti-Western violence, the Western puppeteers could only react in panic: “Terrorists!” The liberal apologists for this dangerous game offered their own term of derogation: “Islamo-fascists!”
And nothing was learned from the unholy alliance.
Once again, policy makers thought they could ride the tiger of religious sectarian intolerance and create a loyal satrapy to US interests. The US fabricated outlandish excuses to invade Iraq in 2003, though not so outlandish as to nonetheless seduce nearly the entire US intelligentsia, as Frank Rich recently recounted in a nastily angry, bitter article in New York magazine (The Stink of Baghdad, June 2-8, 2014). Rich reminds us of the hysterical reaction to absurd claims about the dangers supposedly latent in the regime of Saddam Hussein.
Cobbled together by League of Nations mandate, the British had established the country as a semi-colonial kingdom that lasted until its independence in 1958. Its brief life as a republic was afflicted with internal ethnic, religious, and political divisions. Through brutal repression of these many divisions, Hussein was able to establish a reasonably stable country, a country to be counted as one of the most outwardly secular in the Middle East at the time of the US's unprovoked massive invasion.
With the senseless slaughter of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, the shearing of a fragile social fabric, and the wholesale destruction of the country's infrastructure, the US invaders and their compliant allies succeeded in sowing chaos and instability never before seen in a land once celebrated as the cradle of civilization. Quite an accomplishment for the twenty-first century super power heralding itself as the paragon of democracy and human rights!
The vandals could not leave without creating a mock democracy to accompany a massive military and security apparatus constructed to hold the bloody mess together. In 2006, the US vetted potential leaders and permitted the Iraqi parliament to “choose” the hand-picked prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki. In the last week, President Obama now wants to fire him; rather, he wants the parliament to fire him and select another hand-picked prime minister. This process passes for democracy, with the scribes populating the major media in the US.
In the last month, the massive military/security apparatus has crumbled in the face of a well coordinated offensive by a ruthless, dedicated band of zealots seemingly more welcome in some parts of Iraq than the former invaders. The only thing that the warring factions in a once stable country can agree upon is their animosity towards those who pretended to liberate them from the Saddam Hussein regime.
It is a supreme-- but cruel-- irony that a country with a tenuous hold on nationhood, a country still barely beyond the legacy of colonialism, a country enjoying a rare period of secular culture and stability, was pushed back into barbarism and destructive sectarianism by a supposedly enlightened, advanced country flexing its muscles under the absurd banner of a “War on Terror.”
There is not a Hall of Shame large enough to accommodate the talk-show propagandists, witless syndicated columnists, and mindless news anchors who cheer-leaded the Iraqi debacle; but surely Thomas Friedman, the New York Times columnist, deserves a seat near the front row. His enthusiasm and repeated mistaken projections of final victory are well documented. One of his most recent columns tells us that our attention should shift from the bloody confrontation currently bringing death and displacement to Iraq to the conflict of “the extremists vs. the environmentalists in the Middle East” (The Real War of Ideas, NYT, 6-10-14). Demonstrating his ignorance again and again, he announces that he has uncovered the environmentalists' secret: “The environmentalists think of this region [the Middle East] without borders...” He seems to overlook the important fact that all of the existing borders are largely irrational products of colonial governance, borders designed to exploit tribal and religious animosities to the benefit of colonial masters. For Friedman, history and context are nothing weighed against his latest conversation in a whirlwind tour of a region.
For another journalistic scoundrel deeply implicated in the Iraq debacle, we can turn to John Burns. In the words of Michael Munk: “As chief of the NYTimes Baghdad bureau during much of the war, [John] Burns was a notorious cheerleader for the invasion and occupation. He now blames his failure to understand how 'deeply fractured' Iraqi society was. I guess you failed to notice, John, that it wasn’t fractured before the invasion, and as Naureckas observers, 'Is it typical for countries to respond to unprovoked military invasions by becoming strong, stable democracies?'”
Burns, without a hint of contrition, now says: “I think the mistake we made was–I'm talking here about myself as well as some of my colleagues, not just at the New York Times but many publications–was not to understand how deeply fractured that society was, how strongly held those animosities were, and how they would not likely relent under any amount of American tutelage and encouragement.” (quoted by Naureckas above)
This is exactly the wrong conclusion to draw, a conclusion exposing both dishonesty and servility to US government policy. Iraq was not, as Munk reminds us, a fractured society until the US fractured it.
Moreover, Libya was not a fractured society, nor was Syria a fractured society, until the US joined with others in fracturing them. It was no coincidence that, like Iraq, both were among the most secular countries in the Middle East with relatively high standards of living, high educational levels, and developed social safety nets. Today, Libya is largely ungoverned and ungovernable, a failed state. And Syria is in the throes of an ugly civil war stoked by the US, EU, and the Gulf states.
Put simply and clearly, Iraq is not an honest mistake, as Burns would have it, but an instance of a systematic, aggressive foreign policy designed to divide and conquer the Middle East, a policy designed to use religious fundamentalism and tribalism, formerly on the wane, as an instrument against independence, nationalism, and social progress. It is the foreign policy of imperialism.
It is not only the policy of Bush, as Democratic Party stalwarts want us to believe. It is not only the incompetence of Obama, as the Right shouts. It is not the over-reach of super patriots or chicken hawks. It is not only an arrogant, unrestrained military, as many pretend. It is the willful, unwavering program of a US ruling class determined to shape the Middle East to meet the interests of elites and corporations in the US and with its allies.
The failure to face this truth guarantees that the Iraqi debacle and many more like it will bring shame to the self-styled democracies and the hypocritical bastions of human rights.
Zoltan Zigedy

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Boot-licking Journalism

Growing up at the high-water marks of Cold War hysteria in the US led me to a heightened skepticism of the independence and objectivity of the media. We were made to believe myths that Communist government ownership constituted a denial of freedom of the press while diverse private ownership of the sources of information in the West guaranteed access to the truth. Few of us reflected on the fact that the UK government media monopoly, the BBC, seemed to present a more nuanced, tolerant, even sane picture of current events than did our US lap-dog “free” press. At the same time, the sharp move towards theocracy in the US-- “In God we Trust” on currency and “Under God” affixed to the Inquisition-like pledge of allegiance-- was met by a docile, compliant media.
Any doubts that were voiced-- and few were at the time-- about the biases of the press and electronic media were radically amplified when the Cold War began to recede, a measure of sanity returned, and revelations exposed the corruption and opportunism of most of the media's journalistic stars and watchdogs. Truly, it was one the most embarrassing chapters in the fable of US press freedom. Of course the myth remained intact thanks to the major media's concerted effort to restrict the truth to the marginal footnotes of historical research and the fringe media.
Some liberal commentators concede the horrors of the past, but insist that press freedom rebounded, especially after the end of the Cold War. Nothing could be further from the truth. Today's media is as servile to government and capital as at any time in US history. The concentration of media corporations coupled with the centrality of profitability and the narrow band of dissent offered by the two-party system result in a uniformity and conformity in the media that would be the envy of any banana republic.
We can thank media critics like Extra!-- the magazine of Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting-- for serious disclosure of the most egregious abuses of independence and objectivity (At one time, the same could be said for the Columbia Journalism Review-- not so today). And, yes, there are numerous media critics on the internet and with the small circulation media. But they often overlook the commonplace banality of media's slavish conformity to the government line and corporate dictate. While we all enjoy reading about the big lies, it is the everyday boot-licking that holds the US myth together.
Sleight of Hand
On May 29, the Los Angeles Times published a news story reporting Edward Snowden's NBC News interview. The author, Richard Serrano casually writes that “The disclosures have sparked outrage in some countries...” Have they? Where? And why? Serrano relies on the readers gullibility to slip in what appears to be a reasonable assumption, but an assumption nonetheless. While the reader will likely find the claim believable, no reason is actually given to believe the claim. Could it be that Serrano means that US officials are outraged?
In the same article, Serrano reports accurately that Snowden claimed he was a “spy” for US security agencies, using aliases and working undercover. Serrano adds: “Those agencies routinely issue aliases for Americans working overseas, and his work for them [CIA, NSA] was previously known.” Serrano is dismissive of the revelations because they were “previously known.” Once again, by whom? How is the fact that someone unnamed knew about Snowden's previous clandestine work relevant to reporting on the interview? Serrano's claim about the “routine” use of aliases leaves the interesting, newsworthy question of who works for the agencies and why and when do they need aliases unanswered. There is not a hint of distrust of US security agencies’ motives. He only injects the comment in order to minimize the importance of Snowden's interview and not to share any newsworthy information.
Serrano cannot resist stirring antipathy towards Snowden. His editors can't either.
In an Associated Press dispatch the same day, Peter Leonard writes dateline Donetsk, Ukraine that “While there is no immediate indication that the Kremlin is enabling or supporting combatants from Russia...Moscow may have to dispel suspicions that it is waging a proxy war...” Why does Moscow need to dispel suspicions when there is admittedly no evidence for those suspicions?
Following good journalistic practices, Leonard seeks to locate the Ukrainian crisis in a context, in recent events. Unfortunately, he slants that context to coincide with the US/EU interpretation of those events. He notes the “election” of a billionaire candy mogul to the Ukraine's presidency without mentioning that Eastern Ukraine strongly opposed the election and rejects Popochenko's legitimacy. Instead, he innocuously states: “He replaced the pro-Moscow leader who was driven from office in February.”
[D]riven from office? By referendum? By the Supreme Court? By Parliament?
Or, as the historical record would confirm, by violent street actions that physically threatened the former president. Demonstrations richly endowed with Western funding. Actions encouraged by the West and betraying a recent agreement brokered with the EU. But to cast doubt on the legitimacy of what could justifiably be called a coup would cast the so-called “pro-Moscow insurgency” in a different light.
Leonard goes on to explain the sequence of events: “That ouster led to Russia's annexation of the Crimean Peninsula in southern Ukraine, which triggered the sanctions, and a violent pro-Moscow insurgency in the east.” Describing Ukrainian events in this deceptive way is akin to describing the US Revolutionary War as a violent pro-French insurgency spawned by the defiance of Parliament's trade policies. Interpretation is posing as reportage.
Surely it is notable that the previous violence in Kiev's Maidan Square-- Molotov cocktails, street fighting, baiting security forces-- are characterized blandly (“driven from office,” “ousted”) while defensive acts on the part of anti-Kiev activists resisting the military and police in Eastern Ukraine are characterized as participating in a “violent...insurgency.”
Like the entire Western media, Leonard characterizes the opposition in Eastern Ukraine as “pro-Russian” (a recent picture in the Wall Street Journal characterized two armed men in fatigues pausing for a smoke as “pro-Russian,” as though the caption writer could read that allegiance from their faces). The truth is that the May 11 referendum, which, whether the West likes it or not, appeared to express a strong sentiment for the establishment of independent, peoples' republics, counts as the best available indicator of the most current views of the Eastern populace. Without contrary evidence, responsible journalism would designate the opposition as “anti-Kiev” or “pro-independence” rather than in the fashion of US State Department handouts. Not surprisingly, Western journalists have resisted the tendency of consistently calling the actions and actors on the other side as “pro-US.” To do so would betray their sanctimonious posture as serving only the interests of the Ukrainian people.
Leonard paints a lurid picture of the leader of the Chechen region of Russia. Amid reports that some wounded fighters in the Eastern Ukraine were from Chechnya, Leonard describes the Chechen leader as “ruthless” and linked to “extrajudicial killings, torture and other abuses.” While some may find this an appropriate description for Bush and Obama, we would be surprised and shocked to find these charges in a news article with no evidence proffered.
Wounded Chechen nationals do not make a conspiracy... except in the writing of Mr. Leonard: “Mr. Kadyrov [the leader in Chechnya] has derided allegations that he dispatched militias to Ukraine, but undermined his claim with veiled threats.” So we are to understand that an agent’s implied threat subverts a claim of innocence. With this twisted logic, a threat of self-defense would be tantamount to an admission of aggression. Of course if a media slavishly subservient to the official line of the US State Department leaves readers disposed to mistrust any and every statement emanating from the East, then such a leap would appear warranted.
By the profoundly low standards of US journalism, a Washington Post article datelined May 29 from Yarze, Lebanon established a new low. The aptly named Liz Sly twists events prior to the Syrian election beyond recognition. The reigning assumption held by Western reporters portrayed Syrian refugees as fleeing the evil Bashar Assad. Thus, it came as a shock when refugees in Lebanon flocked in overwhelming numbers and with enthusiastic Assad partisanship to the Syrian embassies in order to vote ahead of the domestic elections. Despite police thuggery and long lines, Syrians spent long hours to cast votes. Most observers conceded that it took on the appearance of an Assad election rally. As Sly affirms: “...desperate people fought to gain admission to the embassy grounds... Roads were clogged for miles by people arriving in buses, in cars and on foot... Many voters were diehard Assad supporters who showed up in convoys, honking horns, waving the president's picture and shouting slogans.”
Undeterred by what appeared to contradict the State Department line on the sentiments of Syrian refugees, Ms. Sly wrote: “Syrians thronged their embassy in Lebanon on Wednesday to cast ballots for President Bashar Assad, offering a forceful affirmation of his tightening grip on power after three years of conflict.” Never mind that Sly never explains how she determined the refugees' vote prior to the vote tally. But how does the refugees' enthusiasm for Assad --while presumably residing safely in a separate country-- affirm “his tightening grip on power”? What power does he have over them in Lebanon?
But there is more... a “rumor” serves to address the question: “The large turnout was spurred in part by a widespread rumor that those who do not vote will not be allowed to return home...” So we must believe that those who do not show up will not be able to return to Syria, but those who do and choose to vote for one of the two other candidates will not be similarly punished by Assad. This is indeed a strange twist. Moreover, if the refugees are really anti-Assad, but intimidated by his “tightening grip,” why would they want to improve his electoral fortunes by voting for him?
Sly concedes that “Syrians did not say this would be the case, but with all voters having to submit their identity papers to the embassy for registration, it is feasible that the government will know who voted and who did not.” But this is absurd. Certainly the government could know who voted if they simply record the names that are on identity documents, but how could they possibly know who didn't vote from an amorphous community of refugees? And surely it makes sense to ask for identity papers to keep Lebanese citizens (and US and Israeli agents!) from voting in a Syrian election. Sly witnessed a common sense procedure and not a conspiracy.
Astoundingly, Sly contradicts herself twelve paragraphs further: “The rules for voting were lax, with many people casting multiple ballots.” Casting multiple ballots? Lax rules? Would that not make it impossible for Syrian officials to determine who will be allowed to repatriate and who will not? Does consistency matter to Liz Sly?
Should we be surprised at Liz Sly's sly attempt to swap a demonization of Syria's Assad for an inconvenient truth?
Not really. Liz Sly was the Washington Post writer who brought to world attention the plight of the unfortunate gay woman in Damascus who was supposedly brutally oppressed by the Assad regime. On June 7, 2011 she wrote 'Gay Girl in Damascus' Blogger Detained, a news article that merged claims from a blog post with what appeared to be independently gathered facts in a way that suggested that youthful, attractive Syrian-American, Amina Arraf, was grabbed off the street along with 10,000 other Damascus citizens by the evil Assad forces. On June 8, the Washington Post retracted the story and on June 10, a 40-year-old US citizen confessed that the person, the story, and the blog were a hoax that he concocted. The damage had been done-- liberals recoiled from Assad's brutality-- few saw the retraction.
One might think that such an egregious flouting of journalistic ethics would cost her credibility dearly, but not while she serves US officialdom so loyally.
Just Another Day of US Journalism
May 29 was little different from any other day in the hustle of news in the Western media-- no better, no worse. It is important that we do not minimize these sins by laying them only at the authors' doorsteps. Editors and management accept and encourage this servility to the US government line, endorsing biased articles that belong on the op-ed pages and not in the news section. It is the institutional acquiescence that makes a mockery of a free, independent, and objective media.
It is the nuances-- the word play-- that infect nearly every news article in our press: the lost subjects (“It is believed that...” It is thought that...” By whom?), the anonymous sources (“Many believe...”, “Some say...”), the stealth use of the passive voice (“hundreds were killed in the confrontation” Who killed them?), the simple, slanted labels (“pro-Russian,” “anti-American,” “insurgents,” “militants,” “opposition”), the speculative leaps, and the tortured logic.
Mindful that these sins are castigated in high school journalism classes, their ubiquitous commission in the monopoly mass media signals an unprincipled, opportunistic obedience to power and wealth, a calculated fealty to the seats of power matching the worst days of the Cold War.

Zoltan Zigedy

Saturday, May 24, 2014

The Con Man and the Big Con

One can too easily blame capitalism for debasing the culture and intellectual life of the US. The profit motive has surely placed commercial success ahead of artistic merit. Independent purveyors of art and ideas have been either co opted and absorbed by monopoly corporations or ground to a pulp attempting to compete with corporate-sponsored rivals. Culture has become corporate culture, despite the democratizing relief sometimes offered by the Internet.

From producer to consumer, arts and entertainment corporations are the ever-present intermediaries for successful production and realization of cultural commodities. Their goal is profit and not artistic merit.

Similarly, the humanities have been marginalized through the marketization of higher education. The ever present mantra of “running everything like a business” has deeply infected the process of learning, thus sending philosophy, political studies, literature, history and other humanities to the dustbin. That which cannot pay its way deserves no place in the university, say administrators wedded to best business practices. Consequently, the appreciation for and vibrant generation of the humanities is stunted by the dominance of the “practicality” of the sciences and business. Higher learning becomes learning for a purpose, namely, getting ahead.

But the arts and independent thought are threatened by other factors as well. While even those friendly to capitalism will give a reluctant acknowledgment of the economic factors that diminish culture and humanistic pursuits, few accept the significant role of politics in stunting culture and learning. Of course many will readily agree that right wing zealots chip away politically at the liberal values that are believed to be the foundation for cultural and intellectual enrichment. They will eagerly concede that pornography police and music censors retard the free flow of ideas. But they, nonetheless, celebrate the US democratic spirit that continues to nourish the spring of cultural production and intellectual innovation.

Accordingly, they forget, or purposely overlook, the insidious role of Cold War repression that befell intellectual and cultural life in the US from the late 1940s through the early 1960s, with loud echoes today. For nearly a decade and a half, intellectual conformity on class, race, and Communism was rigorously enforced through punishment or fear, especially in the sensitive areas of culture and ideas (the battle of ideas is not merely in academia or among the men and women of letters but in the unions and mass organizations, where a vibrant incubation of radical ideas was replaced with a tepid, mediocre, and intolerant uniformity). Thousands of cultural and intellectual workers lost their jobs, were shunned, or blacklisted. Tens of thousands were frozen with fear and determined to assiduously avoid anything controversial.

Artists and intellectuals grew timid: ironically, some of the best popular cinema of the otherwise mediocre era was offered by ex-Communists who had made their mea culpas and thus earned the right to tackle edgy themes (for example, A Face in the Crowd (Kazan), Sweet Smell of Success, and The Big Knife (Odets). The best of television, a then-new medium seemingly happy to wallow in mediocrity, came from deeply covert writers who had been expelled from Hollywood. When vibrant African American music in the form of a subversive Rhythm and Blues stood to crack the cultural barriers, US entertainment corporations co-opted and whitened the music while transforming it into mildly titillating Rock and Roll (RCA and Elvis Presley), a safer alternative.

The false radicalism of Abstract Expressionism was promoted by a deeply conservative coterie of wealthy art impresarios intent upon overshadowing any subversive messages borne by representational art (see How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art, Guilbaut). And mildly mocking satire of upper-middle-class and suburban mores a la New Yorker magazine became the gold standard of popular literature.

Youth rebellion, thought to be a biological imperative, found expression in the middle-class angst of the “beat” generation or through revisiting frontier toughness through the cult of the motorcycle. “Alienation” replaced “exploitation” as the theme of critiques of industrial society.

Moral and political philosophy shunned social criticism for the fetish of linguistic analysis while the social sciences fell under the sway of the paradigm of the self-interested, rational individual.

But it was not simply fear and intimidation that drove the vapidity of culture and thought in the high season of anti-Communism. The best and brightest of Cold War liberals readily collaborated with the US government's security forces and propaganda offensives. As Frances Stoner Saunders thoroughly documents (The Cultural Cold War), the CIA's front organization, The Congress for Cultural Freedom, purchased or captured in its net some of the most illustrious intellectuals in the US and the world. Recruitment and manipulation of writers, editors, journalists, academics exerted a strong influence on the direction of intellectual and cultural life for decades. It would be naïve not to believe-- and contrary to what has been uncovered-- that these same government tentacles had not reached into the US labor movement and numerous NGOs.
It is a pity that no one has taken on the daunting task of assembling all of the glimpses, hints, testaments, and documents that have allowed us to peek behind the curtain of secrecy and deception shielding the vast apparatus of thought control employed by US rulers. What we know about the co-option of a student organization like NSA, a labor front like AIFLD, a publishing house like Praeger, or public intellectuals like Isaiah Berlin, Mary McCarthy, Clement Greenberg, or Arthur Schlesinger Jr. suggests that the instruments of influence stretch far and wide and ensure limits to discussion, debate, and artistic expression.

A Swamp of Gullibility: The Case of Paul De Man

It was in the context of reflecting upon the Cold War clamp-down on US culture and intellectual life that I approached Evelyn Barish's new book, The Double Life of Paul De Man. From the mid-sixties until his death in 1983, De Man acquired a scholarly, intellectual reputation that secured him a position as one of the most influential intellectuals in the Western world. His students and colleagues in the intellectual school popularly known as “deconstructionism” held prestigious positions at many academic centers, influenced most of the humanities, and succeeded in penetrating into popular culture. Deconstruction-- as an intellectual current-- has the curious distinction of being nearly incomprehensible to the uninitiated, yet purporting to be a devastating critique sweeping away all that comes before it.

Not long after de Man's death, an admiring student of his discovered evidence that de Man collaborated with the Nazi occupiers in his native Belgium, contributing pro-Nazi and anti-Semitic articles to Belgium's leading newspaper. This revelation rocked the academic community and beyond, raising questions about de Man's integrity and fitness to retain his celestial place in the liberal arts heavens. De Man loyalists sought to cast the collaboration as an aberration and, perhaps with some merit, as irrelevant to the value of his work. As with other fascists or collaborators-- Martin Heidegger, Herbert von Karajan, Werner von Braun, etc.-- it may be possible to separate their life's work from their work with the devil (possible, but difficult).

Critics like David Lehman in his 1991 book, Signs of the Times: Deconstruction and the Fall of Paul de Man, offered no such life line to de Man and deconstruction. He argues forcefully that deconstruction is as tainted by hum-buggery as de Man is flawed as a human being.

But like the Western debate over Heidegger's past, sides were drawn, but no minds were changed.

Now comes Ms. Barish's book which shows that Paul de Man was thoroughly a cad, a thief, and, with few exceptions, cavalier with the truth. While Barish indulges in annoying flights of psychological speculation, while she gets some minutiae wrong, she marshals a most convincing case that de Man neglected a wife and children, falsified official documents, stole from investors, lied about academic credentials (even about his own paternity), failed to pay debts-- the list of crimes and misdemeanors goes on and on... Those curious of the myriad, lurid details should buy the book; they will find it more bizarre than fiction.

Predictably, the Barish book drew many responses. At one extreme, de Man friend and Sterling Professor Emeritus of Comparative Literature at Yale (succeeding de Man as Sterling professor) and Andrew W. Mellon Scholar at Princeton, Peter Brooks, brought his scholarship to bear on the book in a review published in The New York Review of Books. Notable for its prickliness, the review challenges Barish's “scholarship” but fails to engage or correct any of the substantive claims at play. Nor do Brooks’ scholarly sensitivities note that the NYRB published several de Man articles previously, perhaps a fact that might be seen as tainting the editors' objectivity.

Robert Alter, writing in The New Republic, saw the Barish book as demonstrating that de Man was simply a “total fraud,” a conclusion with which those of us less concerned with scholarly niceties might concur. Carlin Romano, writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education, similarly recoils from de Man's demonstrated moral corruption.

Harvard Professor Susan Rubin Sulieman, writing in the New York Times concedes that de Man is a “con man,” but cannot resist the academic urge to cast a long shadow by scolding Barish over her scholarly standards. Her sense of moral proportion seems to be overshadowed by her outrage over professional standards.

Writing in The New Yorker, Louis Menand details de Man's sins with a school-boy relish, while attempting to separate his turpitude from the intellectual views associated with his work. Menand writes, in defense of deconstructionism:
We could say that deconstruction is an attempt to go through the looking glass, to get beyond or behind language, but a deconstructionist would have to begin by explaining that the concepts “beyond” and “behind” are themselves effects of language. Deconstruction is all about interrogating apparently unproblematic terms. It’s like digging a hole in the middle of the ocean with a shovel made of water.

... go through the looking glass...”? “...digging a hole in the middle of the ocean with a shovel made of water...”? Is this nonsense or an example of the elevated, urbane wit so long associated with The New Yorker?

Chickens Coming Home to Roost

While writers milk the de Man affair for its full entertainment value, and academics debate the damage to the deconstructionist program, critical questions are quietly passed over: How did de Man, the con man, slip through the filters of some of the world's most prestigious universities? How did Bard, Harvard, Cornell, and Yale allow this man who never completed a baccalaureate snooker the gatekeepers on his journey to claiming one of the most prestigious academic chairs in the US? More broadly, how were the celebrated New York intellectuals, especially Mary McCarthy and Dwight McDonald, seduced into sponsoring de Man into the highest intellectual circles?

In her fashion, Barish speculates on the personalities and psyches of those taken in by de Man in order to supply an explanation. But such an explanation would reduce the rise of Paul de Man to an unprecedented, finally inexplicable historic accident.

A better answer is found by returning to the historical context of Paul de Man's journey. De Man arrived and maneuvered his way into a position to launch his career at the peak of the Cold War repression in the US. Academics and intellectuals were not expanding horizons nor inviting fresh currents. Rather, they were circling the wagons and banning controversial ideas. This was, of course, fertile soil for opportunists, people who could read the signs and conform.

It is important to remember that de Man's chosen field of literature and literary criticism underwent a radical transformation coincident with the rise of anti-Communist hysteria in the US. Formerly, critics sought to understand literature in broadly open ways, groping for social, cultural, historical, and personal factors that would inform the meaning of texts. A prominent exponent and acknowledged leader of this school was V. L. Parrington. While not a Marxist, Parrington's “ interpretation of American history was highly influential in the 1920s and 1930s and helped define modern liberalism in the United States..." (Wikipedia) Parrington's Pulitzer Prize winning book “... dominated literary and cultural criticism from 1927 through the early 1950s...,” according to a source cited in the same article. At that time a Marxist, Granville Hicks, wrote a critical appreciation of Parrington's work for Science and Society in 1938 (The Critical Principles of V L Parrington), concluding that “...if he were alive, Parrington would be fighting for democracy. Certainly his work is a powerful weapon on that side.” Apparently, too powerful for the malignant 1950s.

Moderately progressive views such as Parrington's were squelched in this time of toadyism:

Trilling was one of the most important "hard-liners" in the CIA's Congress for Cultural Freedom. 

Today, Parrington is largely forgotten, thanks to Cold Warriors and academic opportunists. And in his place, the “New Critics” arose in the late 1940s to rescue literary texts from a fulsome, rich interpretation, especially an interpretation that might even remotely suggest Marxism. From that time on, everything was text and only text. Like the shift from representational art to Abstract Expressionism, the movement to “new criticism” was a Cold War gambit masquerading as a new, daring approach to culture, a safe officially sanctioned rebellion that barred the door from seditious art and interpretation.

Arriving in New York in 1948, Paul de Man's brand of charm, salon wit, and shameless opportunism fit perfectly into the intellectual milieu of the emerging Cold War. A European, without the baggage of Communism or leftism, but emitting vague hints of participating in the Resistance, proved attractive to Cold War liberals. But when he packed up and left Bard College for Harvard ahead of bill collectors and scandal, his fortunes took another even more significant turn. Harvard's heralded Humanities Six class gave de Man a taste of the flavors enjoyed at the US's elite universities. The gift of the New Critics' method of “close reading” became the foundation for his meteoric career. Add European exoticism, a profound rejection of inter-subjective meaning, and convey this package in a dense, impenetrable language, and you have a ticket to stardom for an incorrigible con man. Paul de Man punched the ticket.

Intellectual life in the US was irreparably damaged by the stifling, suffocating atmosphere imposed by Cold War hysteria. Cultural and intellectual watchdogs collaborated with administrators to master promoting the illusion of a free and open society while blocking any potential challenges to the bourgeois canon. Central to that task was the project of creating and shaping ersatz rebellion, of channeling the natural skepticism and contrariness of young minds towards benign expressions of revolt. Paul de Man became a willing participant in that game, molding deconstruction into an instrument for thumbing one's nose at an ambiguous, amorphous establishment. A difficult, frustratingly opaque language coupled to a defiant rejection of the most basic category of understanding-- meaning-- seduced initiates into the world of deconstruction. While it challenged no center of real power, deconstruction tasted, smelled, and looked like rebellion. Thus, it joined a long list of carefully constructed cultural and intellectual manifestations that absorb the rebelliousness of youth while producing a harmless release of energies.

Many believe that with the loosening of the repressive noose popularly called McCarthyism, the US returned to openness and freedom of expression. However, that is a misleading perspective. Openness and freedom of expression mean nothing when intellectual and cultural ideas were purged and remain forgotten or uncritically scorned. Openness and freedom of expression mean nothing when intellectual and cultural workers have had their spines surgically removed to the point that they cannot muster the courage to call out frauds and poseurs.

Though hardly revolutionary, V.L. Parrington's ideas and those of many similarly purged, remain lost to a new generation, while the ideas of the discredited Paul de Man and those of other intellectual opportunists and charlatans continue to circulate through the universities and in prestigious journals. The same could be said in the arts and many other intellectual pursuits where the limits of debate are not stated, but inherited. This is the legacy and cost of hysterical, unrestrained anti-Communism.

Zoltan Zigedy

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Beyond Piketty: The Democratic Conundrum

In a country where sports stars are offered as role models and actors aspire to political office, celebrity intellectuals are a rarity. Thus, the meteoric rise of economist Thomas Piketty to celebrity status comes as a surprise. The English language edition of his book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, sold out swiftly while reaching best-seller stature, a unique achievement for a book originating from an academic press. Possessing charm, wit, and youthful good-looks, Piketty toured the US, generating demand from myriad talk-show hosts and magazine interviewers.
A month before its release, sensing that Piketty had something fresh to offer, I wrote:
Piketty's argument is a welcome antidote to the paucity of explanatory theory presented by the liberal and social democratic punditry. The controversy stirred by Piketty's argument well before its English-language availability is a sure sign that he offers something beyond the conventional... Closer examination of Piketty's interesting thesis must await publication of the book. (ZZ's Blog, Tuesday, February 11, 2014)
Little did I suspect that Piketty-mania would spawn a sustained discussion penetrating the highest reaches of the mass media. Piketty's argument has shattered the navel-gazing of academic economists, while demonstrating an intuitively obvious fact in a way that even the most thick-headed pundit can understand: capitalism produces and reproduces inequality. Unfortunately, Piketty timidly hesitates to draw an equally compelling conclusion: the only way to eliminate unjust inequality is by eliminating capitalism. It's as though a researcher has discovered the cause of cancer, but is reluctant to endorse its cure.
My own thoughts on Piketty's provocative, stimulating book are posted on Philosophers for Change.
The Piketty phenomenon overshadows what may well be an even more provocative, suggestive study by two US professors, Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page. Their paper, Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens (forthcoming in Perspectives on Politics), offers results that could shake the complacency of political theory in much the way that Piketty's book rocked bourgeois economics. Unfortunately, Gilens and Page lack Piketty's panache and insist upon writing in the arid, formal style of academic political science. Consequently, few have commented upon it, notably excepting a column by Margaret Kimberley aptly entitled Democracy is Dead in the inestimably incisive Black Agenda Report.
Democracy or “Democracy”?
For the apologists for capitalism, “democracy” is the sure and sole path of escape from the grip of economic inequality-- capitalism's tendency to produce and reproduce wealth and income disparity. Outside of the revolutionary left, liberals and social democrats promise to harness the legislative system and existing political institutions to tame, regulate, reform, or manage the capitalist system. They argue for a strategy that would engage citizens, coalitions, and interest groups in lobbying and electoral politics in order to shift the balance of power into alignment with the people's will. Taking the existing political institutions as adequate for change, as sufficiently democratic, they opt for a road that will supposedly trump economic power with people's power through bourgeois democracy.
It is to test this perspective, and ones like it, that researchers Gilens and Page ask the following pertinent questions:
Who governs? Who really rules? To what extent is the broad body of U.S. citizens sovereign, semi-sovereign, or largely powerless? (p. 3)
They are querying whether “democracy” as we know it is really democratic: Does it generate or realize the will of the people? Or does it only give the appearance?
As they acknowledge and document, these are questions that have animated scores of philosophers, social scientists, and political activists. But in this case, Gilens and Page actually engage an empirical study to determine what others have only speculated. The results of their study are telling:
The central point that emerges from our research is that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence. (p. 3)
As with Piketty's findings, these results cohere with what any honest observer of recent history would expect. They are consistent with what a Marxist analysis predicts. It is only the social science establishment that continues to believe that bourgeois democratic institutions function democratically. Gilens and Page make this point in academese: “...a good many scholars – probably more economists than political scientists among them– still cling to the idea that the policy preferences of the median voter tend to drive policy outputs from the U.S. political system.” (p. 5).
Credit the authors for calling out the various schools of thought that provide intellectual cover for the myth of the US as the world's model for democracy. The smug intellectual foundation that supports US intervention in places where US elites claim a surfeit of democracy crumbles under the weight of hypocrisy.
Without a shred of irony, Gilens and Page offer the following caveat to their picture of the failure of US democracy:
...the preferences of economic elites (as measured by our proxy, the preferences of “affluent” citizens) have far more independent impact upon policy change than the preferences of average citizens do. To be sure, this does not mean that ordinary citizens always lose out; they fairly often get the policies they favor, but only because those policies happen also to be preferred by the economically elite citizens who wield the actual influence. (p. 22)
In other words, average citizens do see their desires heeded provided that they want the same thing as elites! It is only in that case that bourgeois democracy works for the average citizen.
What Does This Mean?
Gilens and Page are showing us that elites wield a veto over US political institutions. The collective will of the majority cannot trump the will of the privileged minority. Nor does the collective will organized into interest groups: “...existing interest groups do not serve effectively as transmission belts for the wishes of the populace as a whole.” (p. 22) Thus, unions and other mass organizations fail today to effectively advance the political interests of the majority against wealth and power when those interests are in conflict.
Couple this empirical conclusion with Piketty's findings and we are presented with a seeming inescapable conclusion: growing inequality and the diminishing power of the majority are inevitable. The remedies for inequality can not be realized when the interests and will of the majority are locked out of democratic discourse. The path towards economic justice is blocked by undemocratic institutions only posturing as democratic.
While Gilens and Page refrain from explaining the causes of the failings of US democracy, they are not difficult to adduce.
The US two-party system that consistently bends towards money and influence surely explains much of the corruption of democracy. As grass-roots organizing has been supplanted with costly media campaigns, the power of wealthy contributions has been amplified accordingly. The two US political parties have long since scorned the mass participatory model for a model constructed solely around fund raising and regular electoral campaigns. Aided by a legal system that establishes near insurmountable barriers to third-party efforts, the two parties are largely insulated from any external shocks to their narrow field of operation. At the same time, corporate interests control the internal life of both parties.
Aiding and abetting the two-party system, the mass media in the US are nearly entirely owned and directed by monopoly corporations. The limits of discourse are shaped by both the interests of wealth and power and the programs of the two parties. No fresh air enlivens the public debate except on the fringes. Under these conditions, the interests of the majority and arguments for those interests are marginalized.
A Way Out?
Surely, the Gilens and Page study offers compelling reasons that continuing on the same road will not lead to significant change in favor of poor and working people, the vast majority of US citizens. Those who insist upon data-driven, fact-based evidence now have what they want; they must face more than impressions, more than speculation, but ugly facts: capitalism tends to generate inequality and choke off the democratic process.
What road is the same road? The dead-end road?
The road that brings failure leads through the two-party system, particularly the false friend, the Democratic Party. Those who remain faithful to securing change through the Democratic Party must ask themselves and others how that has worked for most of our lifetimes. If it had worked well, Piketty, Gilens, and Page would not have raised the alarms that their works bring forth.
And those who hold out hope for changing the Democratic Party must surely see the unlikelihood of that prospect after six years of a disappointing Democratic administration. Surely, the euphoria of 2008 is now replaced with a justified skepticism.
Instead, advocates for change must add their endorsement and support to third-party movements and extra-electoral action. They must fight to overcome the barriers to democratic expression in the US and the inertia fostered by the occasional electoral circus. Public demonstration of advocacy energizes political life and counters the passivity of purposely narrow electoral participation. Agents of change must understand that defining electoral life merely as marginal campaign engagement and dutiful voting serves well the ruling elites. The lack of a vocal, militant, and disruptive peace and anti-war movement, for example, has given US militarism a free hand throughout the world.
The potentially most game-changing mass group-- organized labor-- cannot lead us to a new road without undergoing substantial change. Business unionism, class collaboration, partnership-- call it what you like-- has shortchanged working people, contributing to the erosion of US democracy. The Gilens and Page study shows that economic elites like monopoly corporations do not compromise their interests-- they insist on and get what they want through the US political system. With both enormous economic resources and unfettered political clout, US corporations are not inclined to “negotiate.” They are equipped for and disposed toward class struggle, even if the trade union leadership is not.
Only through a radical change in the ideology and tactics of organized labor will an answer to expanding inequality and shrinking democracy be found.
History shows that the socialist option-- a movement to sweep unjust inequality away by strangling capitalism-- serves as an ever useful prod to “liberalizing” bourgeois democracy and engaging social justice. The progressive gains laid claim to by the Democratic Party in the US were forced upon the political agenda by Communists, socialists, and other radical critics of the capitalist order. Republican and Democratic leaders are not inclined to fault or correct capitalism without organized anti-capitalist pressure. From the New Deal to the War on Poverty, concessions to the masses, to democracy and social justice, were accepted to counter the internal or external influence, pressure, or leadership of a radical left.
The revitalization of the movement for socialism, therefore, counts as a vital and urgent component of the fight for social justice and democracy.

Zoltan Zigedy

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Communist Unity and Its False Friends

To paraphrase de Maistre, every political party has the leadership it deserves. It is confidence in the wisdom of this maxim that keeps me from commenting extensively on the continuing effort to retreat from Marxism-Leninism on the part of Chairman Sam Webb and the rest of the Communist Party USA top leadership. As the membership continues to shrink-- discounting internet “friends” and “likes”-- one can only marvel at the dogged loyalty of most of the remaining membership, a loyalty perhaps leftover from times when the Party was under attack from all sides. But the Party is under attack from no one today, especially since the Party's entire body of work coincides with working selflessly for Democratic Party election victories while slavishly following (off-electoral season) the leadership of the AFL-CIO.
Apparently changes are afoot in the CPUSA as it approaches its June National Convention. There will be leadership change. Unfortunately, it does not promise to be accompanied by a shift in ideological perspective. Nonetheless, some will entertain an unfounded “hope” in a new direction, a hope that will immobilize dissent.
There is also talk of dropping references to “Communism,” the final barrier, if the Webbites are to be believed, to the CPUSA becoming a party with mass support.
For an honest, critical discussion of the latest musings of Sam Webb, go here: Houston Communist Party.
Apart from its continual decline, the CPUSA counts as a small voice, but an authoritative voice, to the US left on matters pertaining to the World Communist Movement. Recently, Sue Webb, who represented the CPUSA at the International meeting of Communist and Workers Parties held in Lisbon in November of last year, gave a report of that meeting, highlighting the CPUSA’s and other parties' assessments and views on the current situation and the way forward.
Much of Sue Webb's commentary is a thinly-veiled attack upon the Greek Communist Party (KKE) under the guise of supporting diversity and independence in the world movement. At the same time, she exploits differences between Parties to justify the CPUSA's exodus from Marxism-Leninism.
Now the KKE needs no one to defend its honor or its positions; it is supremely capable of supporting both. However, it is important for all Communists and friends of Communism to examine carefully and critically the views represented in Lisbon. Sue Webb's commentary fails to reach those standards.
She disparagingly suggests that the KKE obstinately and unreasonably thwarted a final, unifying statement: “The Greek party's criticisms were so strong that it rejected and blocked issuance of any consensual final statement summarizing the thinking of the conference. In doing so, the Greek party and its supporters from a few other countries clearly went up against the thinking and policies of the overwhelming majority of parties represented at the meeting.”
At the same time, she heralds the diverse roads taken by various Parties and their relative autonomy from a single path, citing Lenin copiously as well as her Party's reliance upon "our own experiences and conditions of struggle.” In other words, she faults the KKE for not acceding to the will of others by drawing upon its “own experiences and conditions of struggle.” Apparently, she finds no inconsistency in touting the old Euro-Communist line of national Communism while chiding the KKE for its principled, independent stance in the Lisbon meeting.
The charge of instigating disunity is particularly spurious when the KKE's big role in revitalizing the international meetings, conferences, and exchanges is recognized.
Lost in Sue Webb's simplistic account is the singular contribution that the KKE brings to any discussion of the path to socialism. Without judging the merits of its every conclusion, one must respect the deep analysis that the KKE has made of the collapse of mass European Communist Parties since the Second World War. While most Parties have wrestled with the lessons of the loss of the Soviet Union and the Eastern European socialist community, few explore the theoretical consequences of the near-complete self-destruction of powerful mass Communist Parties in Italy, France, and Spain as thoroughly as does the KKE. The process of evisceration of Marxism-Leninism in non-ruling Communist and Workers Parties began well before the fall of Soviet power. It is the KKE that draws the most profound lessons from this experience. Webb ignores it entirely.
Failure to grapple with the lessons of the collapse of Eastern European socialism and the failure of Euro-Communism leads to a one-sided, distorted map of the road ahead.
It is in this context that the KKE challenges the position that there are “stages” between capitalism and socialism. After World War Two, many Parties projected an anti-monopoly stage in the transition to socialism. Still others sought to construct a stage built on a “democracy of a new type,” a system of rule that was neither bourgeois nor socialist. These strategies entailed a focus upon parliamentary struggle and collaboration with all non-monopoly capitalist forces. The Italian “Historic Compromise” was the symbolic culmination of this perspective, engaging a strategy that opened the door to the bourgeoisification of the Italian Communist Party (PCI) and consequently its inevitable demise.
One of the ideological salesmen of this approach, Giorgio Napolitano, demonstrates, with the trajectory of his life, the cruel tragedy of the PCI's failure: once a member of a university fascist youth group, Napolitano engaged with the resistance, joined the PCI, assumed a leading role in its new direction, and today reigns as the President of the Italian bourgeois Republic. With measured civility and dignity, he legitimized the government of the buffo-fascist, Silvio Berlusconi. His many honors, decorations, and prizes testify to his service to capitalism.
In an interview in 1975, Napolitano, then the economic spokesperson for the PCI, deftly danced around hard questions posed by Eric Hobsbawn: “I believe that in any country the process of socialist transformation as well as socialist regimes have to be founded on a broad basis of consensus and democratic participation... My argument about the principles and forms of democratic life to be upheld in the context of an advance to socialism and the construction of socialist society refers more concretely to the countries of Western Europe in which bourgeois democracy was born, where representative institutions have a more or less strong tradition and diverse democratic,ideological, cultural and political currents have operated more or less freely... [and] which are characterized in varying degrees... by the presence of sizable intermediate groups between the proletariat and a big bourgeoisie controlling the basic means of production.” Only a mere thirty years after Communists played a key role in the fall of anti-democratic European despotism, Napolitano vigorously celebrates the dubious Euro-tradition of bourgeois democracy while catering opportunistically to the interests of the middle strata. Unfortunately, these illusions still linger with many Communist Parties. It is this failed perspective that is vigorously opposed by the KKE.
Similarly, the mass Spanish Party, under the leadership of Santiago Carillo, collapsed into near irrelevancy thanks to the fetish of bourgeois democracy and the pandering to non-proletarian strata. Carillo argued that ”... the Communist Party should be the party of freedom and democracy...We must bring into our programme as an integral part, not only the demands of the workers, but also those of all sections of society which are under privileged.” These vacuous, shallow slogans serve the bourgeoisie well, as they do when inscribed in the platforms of modern bourgeois congressional or parliamentary parties. No wonder workers fled the PCE in droves; they understood Marxism far better than did the Party leaders.
Reflections on these tragic miscalculations should lead one to heed the warnings against opportunism issued by the KKE:
It leaves them defenseless against the corrosive work of the bourgeois and opportunist forces which are trying to assimilate the CPs into parliamentarianism, to castrate them and make them a part of the bourgeois political system, with unprincipled collaborations, with participation in governments of bourgeois management which have a “left”-“progressive” label, with entrapment in the logic of class collaboration, with support for imperialist centres, as is happening e.g. with the CPs of the so-called European Left Party, as well as other CPs that are following the same path. (G. Marinos, Member of the PB of the CC , KKE)
In the wake of the deepest global economic crisis since the Great Depression, the idea that Communist and Workers Parties should struggle to lead capitalism out of the weeds-- to better “manage” capitalism-- is an absurd strategy guaranteed to further marginalize the prospects for socialism. If only the Communists (or Communists in alliance with others) can rescue capitalism, why would they do so?
Sue Webb fails to frame the KKE positions in the context of class partisanship, an error that guarantees confusion and misunderstanding. She fails to find a difference between fighting for reforms in the framework of capitalism and refusing to take the side of a bourgeois class, a distinction that the KKE sharply makes. Where reforms benefit working people-- increases and improvements in public education, social welfare, public health, etc,-- Communists fight harder than anyone and accept allies unconditionally. But where workers are asked to stand with the bourgeoisie-- in sacrificing wages and benefits to make their employer more competitive, in boycotting products produced by foreign workers-- Communists urge that workers stand aside.
Sue Webb charges the KKE with discounting emerging economies as rivals to Western imperialism: “the concept of the BRICs countries... or others, such as in Latin America, emerging as challenges to Western imperialism is rejected.” But this is absurd; Communists see these countries as imperialist rivals to Western imperialism. That is, they have their own designs upon the global economy, their own expansionist interests. At the same time, Communists oppose aggression and war on the part of imperialist powers in every case and of every stripe. For example, Communists fervently oppose US intervention in Venezuela; they oppose EU and US meddling in Ukraine. However, they do not support the respective national bourgeoisies. This is in contrast to some “Marxist” organizations that vacillated on or capitulated to regime changes or “democratic” missionary work in countries such as Iraq or Libya.
Sue Webb scoffs at the KKE rejection of the term “financialization.“Identifying financialization as a particular feature of today's capitalism is a hoax, a diversion. Capitalism is capitalism.” One might well ask her: if capitalism is not capitalism, then what is it? I'm sure it’s lost on her that the notion that there is good capitalism and there is bad capitalism is alien to Marxism. Social Democracy and its genetic relatives all attempt to find a good capitalism to ride toward socialism. Of course in every case they have failed-- capitalism doesn't go in that direction.
Profit is the driving force of capitalism; it is impossible to imagine capitalism without profit. And profit-seeking shapes the trajectory of capitalism. Like a rabid predator, capitalists seek profits everywhere-- in the capital goods sector, in the consumer goods sector, in the service sector, and in the financial sector. The fact that the financial sector played a bigger role in profit-seeking in recent times sheds little light on capitalism's fundamental operation. Rather, anointing financial activity as a unique species of capitalism only obfuscates the basic mechanisms of capitalist accumulation. It adds nothing.
That the global crisis first broke out in capitalist financial centers is undeniable. But the fact that the initial eruptions were the result of processes long set in motion is equally undeniable. Social democrats would have us believe that the crisis was caused by aberrant behavior, a feverish fixation on financial maneuvers easily repaired by regulation and reform. This is nonsense. This is not Marxism.
Thus, the term “financialization” is a kind of hoax. A term favored by those too lazy or too afraid to examine the inner workings of a rapacious system.
One does not have to agree with every perspective, every formulation of the KKE to recognize that they are taking the lead on issues facing the World Communist Movement; they are asking the hard questions that challenge old habits, easy assumptions, and unexamined positions. Yes, they challenge convenient beliefs that make for easy interaction with other left forces, but they do so from fidelity to the Communist tradition. Yes, they do not put consensus-for-the-sake-of-consensus ahead of principle. But those of us who want to restore vitality to the Communist movement must show a deep appreciation-- and not contempt-- for their selfless commitment to resurrecting a militant Communism based upon the foundations laid by Marx and Lenin.
For all its self-congratulatory bluster about escaping from dogmatism, sectarianism, and “alien” ideas, Sue Webb's Party is about to sink into oblivion. As with a sinking ship, the CPUSA 's leadership is jettisoning its deck chairs and cabin furniture as fast as the water rises. Gone are the Party archives, the Party newspaper, Party bookstores, Party organizations, education, and even Party meetings. Gone are the Party symbols, the organizational principles, the ideology, and even the greetings of comradeship. In their place are Facebook and Twitter communications, telephone and video conferences, and common cause with liberal groups between the mandatory efforts in support of Democratic Party election campaigns.
Sue Webb says: “The outlook and policies of our party fit well into the mainstream of the world communist movement as expressed at the Lisbon meeting last November.”
Would that it were so! The current CPUSA leadership rejects audacious approaches to reaching socialism while waiting passively for the second coming of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and The New Deal. They draw their strategic line from the desperate, defensive measures necessitated by the rise of fascism eighty years ago, a temporary front with non-working class forces that quickly betrayed that alliance after World War II and the fall of fascism. Sam Webb and his leadership coterie remain locked in the thinking of another time.
Well into the mainstream”? I think not. The World Communist Movement is growing again thanks, in part, to lively, frank conversations about the way forward, as occurred in Lisbon. While consensus remains illusive, the process of discussion is, nevertheless, clarifying and unifying. But for those captured in the web of opportunism, the future is bleak.

Zoltan Zigedy