Friday, February 17, 2017
Monday, February 6, 2017
Since the military build-up leading to the First World War, petroleum production has been the figurative, if not literal, motor for economic growth. Modern machines of war demonstrated the future. The imperialist powers recognized the crucial role of motorized vehicles, airplanes, and naval vessels and their thirst for oil in modern warfare, as well as anticipating the many important peacetime uses to come. At the same time, these same powers foresaw that securing sources of crude oil would be an essential, if not the essential, key to achieving and maintaining a dominant position in the global economy.
It is not far-fetched to view the post-First World War victor’s settlement, especially regarding the peoples of the Middle East, as significantly driven by considerations of future energy resources. The secret Sykes-Picot agreement likely had as its unspoken goal the guarantee of access to petroleum in the Middle East by both France and the British Empire. The conquest and oversight of oil reserves and the anti-Communist crusade became two essential pillars of twentieth-century imperialism.
US oil companies joined the European imperialists in sourcing Middle Eastern oil to complement domestic production. And the acquisition of sources of oil played no small part in the Second World War. All three Axis belligerents-- Germany, Italy, and Japan-- lacked sufficient petroleum access to sustain their imperial designs. The course of their aggression was shaped, to a great extent, in order to accommodate their thirst for oil.
In the Cold War era, the US took responsibility for securing oil for itself and its allies, installing Iran and Israel as Middle Eastern gendarmes. The oil issue became particularly acute with the collective organization of oil-rich nations into the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries in 1960, a development coming to a head with the oil embargo of the early 1970s that debilitated the advanced capitalist economies. This blow coincided with the beginning of a decline of US domestic oil production, sending shock waves through the US ruling class. A further shock struck with the loss of the Shah’s policing of the Middle East as a result of the Iranian Revolution.
Thus, the US entered the last two decades of the twentieth century facing shrinking domestic oil supplies and Middle East instability, two developments prompting more imperialist attention upon the affairs of oil-producing nations.
The Iraq-Iran War, beginning in 1980, further destabilized the region; US imperialism sided with Iraq out of fear that the Iranian revolution would spread throughout the Middle East, jeopardizing oil security.
And in 1991, the US undertook a massive military intervention in Iraq to protect the government of Kuwait, a reliable oil source threatened by an Iraqi invasion. US imperialism then recognized both Iran and Iraq as major threats to imperialist dominance of the region.
The Twenty-first Century
With the demise of the Soviet Union, the US enjoyed an unprecedented freedom of action. At the same time, US rulers faced growing dependence on foreign petroleum resources-- the US imported twice as much crude oil as it produced domestically at the turn of the new century. The Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela was perceived as a threat to a once reliable source of petroleum products. Long-compliant allies in the Cold War sought their own independent arrangements with oil producers, stoking inter-imperialist rivalries. The explosive growth of the People's Republic of China and its dramatically expanded energy needs stressed global oil production.
A panicky US ruling class looked to different paths to ensure access to resources for its mighty military machine and to assuage a restive public rocked by energy-price volatility. On one front, the US began to explore moving away from traditional sources of oil imports. Capitalist Russia enjoyed vast petroleum reserves and production capacity rivaling Saudi Arabia. And capitalist Russia was also in need of foreign investment. Two factors blocked this route (see Bloomberg Businessweek, 1-16/1-22-17, An Oily Reset in US-Russia Relations): first, Russian nationalization of some of its private oil business, and, two, the beginning of a revolution in domestic energy extraction (fracking and shale production). US allergy to supporting nationalization and the emergence of promising technologies (not to be shared with an imperialist rival) soon closed the opening to Russia in the eyes of many policymakers.
On the other hand, a substantial sector of the US ruling class favored achieving oil security through military intervention and under the guise of human rights and democratization. Tested in the Cold War, this strategy of imposing US capital’s will upon other nations by posturing as high-minded saviors proved even more effective after the demise of the Soviet Union as a counterforce. Before, imperialism promised to bring civilization to its victims; today, it is human rights and democracy.
The twenty-first century overt and covert interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Iran, Egypt, Syria, and possibly Turkey can all be seen, through the lens of the politics of oil, as related to securing or protecting petroleum resources. Because of active resistance to US domination, because of the strategic importance of oil, the US has been at continual war in the region since 2001 under the tattered banner of fighting terrorism.
Matters began to change in the last decade, with US domestic oil production nearly doubling between 2010 and 2014. In the last few years, US oil production has reached levels in line with the world’s largest producers, Saudi Arabia and Russia. For the first time in decades, the US is again exporting extracted energy products. In fact, many experts expect the US to become a net energy exporter in the next decade.
The return of the US as an energy competitor has predictably shifted US foreign policy. The Obama administration began to sour on leading the way in regime change in the Middle East as US energy production ramped up domestically. ENI, the Italian oil company led the call for regime change in Libya, backed up by the Italian and French governments. ENI’s relations with Gaddafi had worsened. The US joined, but did not lead the intervention. Obama later spoke of regret at being drawn into the schemes leading to the overthrow of the Gaddafi government.
Similarly, the US intervention in Syria was modest in contrast to the massive military expedition in Iraq eight years earlier. The Obama administration refrained from establishing a “no fly” zone, a military maneuver expected to open the way to the defeat of Syria’s military.
US relations with Iran improved during the later years of the Obama administration as well, despite Iran’s independent foreign policy.
These developments signal the change brought on by the US shift from a voracious consumer of Middle Eastern oil to becoming a potential rival for markets.
This shift is further demonstrated by US relations with the two largest oil producers in the world: Saudi Arabia and Russia. During the later years of the Obama administration, officials and a compliant press ginned up a new Cold War against Russia. Sanctions, saber-rattling, and hysteria brought tensions far beyond the actual points of contention. An energy-hungry, resource-poor EU has grown dependent upon Russian energy supplies, particularly natural gas. As the US is fast achieving energy independence and beginning the export of liquefied natural gas, the battle for the European market is intensifying and driving hostility with Russia.
Similar tensions arose between the US and its long-term ally, Saudi Arabia. The growth of the US as an energy producer certainly alarmed the Saudi regime. With the threat of a former customer becoming a rival, and with the effects of dramatic increases in global production, Saudi leaders reacted. While they may not have precipitated the collapse of world oil prices in 2014, they did nothing to stop it. They made no effort to lobby OPEC for price-supporting cutbacks.
A falling price of oil advantaged the Saudis, who had one of the lowest costs of production among producers and harmed the new US producers, who had a much higher break-even point. Indeed, the price drop slowed, even reduced US production, but at great cost to the Saudis. Despite having efficient production, their reserves are diminishing. But more importantly, their social costs, budget balance, and the maintenance of foreign exchange reserves require a much higher price for oil. Saudi Arabia has achieved all the trappings of a modern, wealthy state thanks almost entirely to oil. But that state cannot be supported without high oil prices, a massive surplus over their low cost of production. Moreover, the costly war that Saudi Arabia has pressed in Yemen has helped drain reserves and expand the budget. It is not lost on the Saudis that the Obama administration was less than enthusiastic about this adventure.
Consequently, the Saudis surrendered going into the new year, working a deal to cut production in the OPEC states and with other producers, raising the price of oil.
It should be clear, then, that the approaching oil independence of the US, the changing role of the US from consumer to producer, and the attention to markets-for-oil over sources-for-oil profoundly influences US strategic policies, including the weakening or souring relations with other major oil-producing nations like Saudi Arabia and Russia. Oil self-sufficiency also accounts for the reluctance, on the part of the Obama administration, to resolve the profound Middle Eastern antagonisms created by US intervention. Instability among oil-producing nations only secures the US a better opportunity to penetrate new markets and a higher margin over relatively high costs of production.
While it is too early in the Trump administration to be confident, the appointment of Rex Tillerson, the CEO of Exxon/Mobil, to direct State Department policy would seem to suggest a significant change. As the world’s largest multinational energy company and one of the largest corporations in the US, Exxon/Mobil has enormous interests in nearly every energy-producing country. With extensive investments in Russia, it feels neither bound nor moved by diplomatic or political niceties; the Obama-era sanctions on Russia cost Exxon/Mobil hundreds of millions of dollars.
Tillerson’s direction of foreign policy will likely return to embracing, protecting, and securing oil-producing countries while seeking enemies elsewhere to appease the military-industrial complex. The most recent US casualty in Yemen, a death dramatically acknowledged by Trump, would seem to support a friendlier approach to Saudi Arabia. The hysterical pre-emptive attack on better relations with Russia would likewise seem to suggest that improved links with Russia are seen by a prominent section of the ruling class as imminent and to be contested.
Some may see a contradiction in Obama, the internationalist, having moved towards a nationalist foreign policy, or in Trump, the nationalist, opting for an internationalist Secretary of State; but they are contradictions only if the decisive control of the state by monopoly capitalism is neglected. Ultimately, the dominant interests of monopoly capital always defeat professed principles.
The disparate interests of the smaller domestic drillers of shale oil and the large multinationals like Exxon/Mobil are reflected in US foreign policy. The upstart domestic drillers need higher prices, modest capital investments, and growth to insure profits; the giant international oil companies need massive capital investments for development of new reserves and continual cost cuts to guarantee profits.
Trump’s new regime reminds us that bourgeois politics is not about personalities or civility, but about differing visions of service to monopoly capital. The politics of oil underscores this truth. Further, the politics of oil tells us that inter-imperialist rivalries are coming to a boil.
Saturday, January 21, 2017
The 2016 election taught many lessons, few of which have penetrated the talking heads of the mainstream media. Most of what we could learn has been lost in the frenzy of the most outrageous political maneuvering witnessed in decades.
One of the more notable lessons is the diminished role of campaign money in determining this Presidential election outcome. Trump spent a third less than Clinton in this election (Washington Post: $932 million versus $1.4 billion). Some have made much of this discrepancy, along with the fact that Trump largely ignored the advice of his hired consultants and advisors. Of course, Clinton’s money actually bought over 3 million more votes in the nationwide count. And the mass media enthusiastically provided Trump with uncountable dollars’ worth of free coverage (Remember CBS CEO Les Moonves’s comment on Trump’s loud mouth, Berlusconi-like antics during the primaries: “I've never seen anything like this, and this is going to be a very good year for us… Man, who would have expected the ride we're all having right now? ...Who would have thought that this circus would have come to town?”)
Nonetheless, the Trump election undeniably showed that it is possible to mount an impactful campaign outside of the conventional rules of the game, especially when a substantial portion of the electorate has soured on the rules of the game.
It was this fact-- the fact that there was a new mood emerging, especially among those most devastated by the continuing economic crisis -- that was underestimated or missed by the punditry and is still largely ignored.
While the Trump election was a surprise, something new is clearly in the air. I wrote nearly a year ago:
The Sanders and Trump successes suggest that voters are not appeased by the thin gruel offered by the party elites this go-round. But something more profound is occurring—a refusal to settle for the usual charade. Moreover, party loyalty is unusually thin this time, challenging party leaders’ ability to count on a transfer from one candidate to another. What the pundits call “unpredictability” is actually the exercise of a new level of political maturity and independence. A recent Pew Research Center poll (December 8-13, 2015) bears out the mood of voter alienation: 62% of all respondents maintain that “the federal government does not do enough for middle-class people.” Thus, the notion that anti-government sentiment runs deep in the populace is a media-inspired illusion. Instead, people want better government. (A Moment Charged with Possibility 2-11-16)
We now know, thanks to Wikileaks, that the Democrats had no intention of allowing an insurgent like Sanders to address the “new mood” of the electorate. Instead, they chose to covertly ensure the nomination of the candidate of more-of-the-same-- Hillary Clinton. In undermining Sanders, Democratic Party elites guaranteed that Trump would be perceived as the only authentic “outsider” candidate.
I wrote last year, in April, that the failures of the traditional support system for the “working class and poor people-- unions, religious institutions, the Democratic Party, ethnic organizations, etc.-- explains, in no small part, the desperate turn to Trump. Tepid, aloof liberalism breeds desperate options, like the outlandish Trump, when conditions deteriorate sharply and no radical options appear available.”
Thus, a careful assessment of the Trump victory should ascribe a role to working class disaffection with business-as-usual politics, but without a simplistic blanket condemnation of the working class, without a calloused dismissal of white workers as wholly racist, misogynist, or xenophobic.
But careful assessment is not popular after the recent election. Liberal pundit and darling of the “responsible” left, Paul Krugman, penned a harsh attack on the white working class:
...the fact is that Democrats have been pursuing policies that are much better for the white working class than anything the other party has to offer. Yet this has brought no political reward… The only way to make sense of what happened is to see the vote as an expression of, well, identity politics-- some combination of white resentment at what voters see as favoritism toward non-whites (even though it isn’t) and anger on the part of the less educated at liberal elites whom they imagine look down on them. The Populist Perplex, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 11-26-2016.
Krugman is hardly out of step with mainstream liberals with his barely concealed contempt for the motives of white workers. But compare this statement with what he said eight years earlier when he was shilling for Hillary Clinton against Barack Obama in the midst of their primary competition:
[Princeton colleague Frank] Bartels cited data showing that small-town, working class Americans are actually less likely than affluent metropolitan residents to vote on the basis of religion and social values… Does it matter that Mr. Obama has embraced an incorrect theory about what motivates working-class voters? His campaign certainly hasn’t been based on Mr. Frank’s book [What’s the Matter with Kansas?], which calls for a renewed focus on economic issues as a way to win back the working class. Indeed, the book concludes with a blistering attack on Democrats who cater to “affluent, white collar professionals who are liberal on social issues” while dropping the class language that once distinguished them sharply from Republicans.”... Anyway, the important point is that working-class Americans do vote on economic issues-- and can be swayed by a politician who offers real answers to their problems. Clinging to a Stereotype, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 4-19-2008.
Apart from the blatant hypocrisy exhibited by the marked reversal of Krugman’s views in only eight years, the earlier Krugman gets it right. Economic issues have been decisive in working class vote patterns, especially since the deindustrialization of the 1970s and 1980s and the economic catastrophe of 2007-8. And the earlier Krugman’s judgement that “working-class Americans… can be swayed by a politician who offers real answers to their problems” proved accurate with the campaign of Bernie Sanders. But with the Democratic Party actively burying that option, many workers misguidedly turned to the only other candidate promising to address their interests.
Contrary to the widespread impressions disseminated by media elites, the working-class vote was not overwhelmingly for Trump, nor was the working class vote the backbone of his success. The Electoral College totals swung his way thanks to narrow victories in a few key rust-belt states. Many factors contributed to the Trump victory, but two stand out, especially for a left analysis.
First, there was a discernable shift among many voters in working class strongholds previously giving majorities to Obama to turn in the direction of Trump in 2016. As Krugman noted in his 2008 alert and warning to the Democrats, addressing relevant economic issues is decisive in winning the working class vote. With the Sanders economic program strangled in the cradle, desperate voters saw nowhere to turn but to the false, demagogic hope of putting the industrial toothpaste back into the tube, of creating jobs out of Trump’s magic.
Democratic Party operatives and their media lapdogs have done their most to evade blame for the Party’s abandonment of working people’s interests. Instead, they have painted workers as pathologically bigoted and ignorant, a handy theme reinforced by elite media since the era of TV stereotype, Archie Bunker. Today’s archetypes for the socially dysfunctional (white) worker is found in the best-selling tell-all from a working class “escapee” (Hillbilly Elegy, J. D. Vance). By diverting the spotlight to working class dysfunction, the third-way, New Democrats who dominate the party can escape blame for their willful neglect of the multiracial working class’s increasingly desperate plight.
Second, Trump was a magnet for every backward, reactionary, racist element in the US. They, too, saw the arrogant, abrasive, loud-mouth as someone in whom they could place their hopes. Trump’s aggressive break with the typical politician’s syrupy civility was taken as a sign of contempt for the alien, the different, those perceived as threatening (Ironically, these same hates and fears were, in the past, invested in soft-spoken religious leaders and smooth-tongued conservative gentlemen). Trump engages in the Old South tactic of drawing attention by surpassing all others in race baiting and fear mongering, but it’s important to note that this simplistic tactic only works where an atmosphere of racial friction and fear already exists. It’s just that Trump opportunistically says it the loudest.
The contradiction between Trump’s appeal to workers and his courtship of the extreme right is unresolvable. Nevertheless, it is a common feature of right-wing populism, a political phenomenon emerging strongly in Europe and the US. It takes root where both objective and subjective conditions are ripe for radical change, but a weak or discredited left offers little hope. The extreme right reaches to fill the void with vague populism.
While it is not yet possible to entirely discern how Trump will attempt to resolve this contradiction, it is becoming increasingly clear that he is surrounded by advisors, confidents, and attendants fully committed to a pro-corporate, pro-capitalist domestic agenda, an agenda that, apart from theatrical moments, will leave little for workers.
Trump’s foreign policy is, however, a different kettle of fish. Domestic policy is crafted by many hands. Congress, which is 100% bipartisan for the interests of capitalism over any other interest, will have a big say over where Trump takes it. Moreover, there is space for debating divergent interpretations of the best interests of capital.
But foreign policy is largely crafted through the executive (even war powers have been commandeered by the executive branch). And there is little tolerance for dissidence from the policies of the foreign policy establishment. The tight reign over policy fixed by generations of rabid Cold Warriors continues to be a feature of governing. Many of Trump’s comments on prospective foreign relations challenge both the current consensus and those who police that consensus.
Trump’s deviance from that consensus on relations with Russia, NATO, and other matters explains the brazen intervention of US security services in post-election politics. A massive media campaign was mounted to distract the people from the Democratic Party fiasco and construct a reliable straw man, Russia, to take the blame for the embarrassing loss. The mainstream media shamelessly and nearly uniformly spread the speculative story that Russia had intervened profoundly in the US election. With skepticism rising, the joint US security agencies released an amateurish report, allegedly confirming Russian intervention. Many private security experts remained skeptical. Trump challenged the report.
Within days, government insiders released a second document-- an addendum-- reputedly based on a UK private investigation, alleging outrageous misconduct on Trump’s part and an extensive Russian disinformation campaign. The security agencies admitted sharing the report with Obama and Trump, denied leaking it, and refused to attest to its accuracy. In a recent interview, CIA Director Brennan was said “to give it no particular credence.” He said, instead: “I would have no interest in trying to give that dossier any additional airtime.” That, he says, “...would make no sense at all.”
So, if the report had no credence, if it made “no sense” to give it “more airtime,” why was it shared with the President and President-elect and leaked to the press in the first place?
The answer should be obvious to all but the gullible and kept corporate press: The memorandum was meant, on the part of the security agencies, as a threat to Donald Trump, a reminder that wandering off the establishment reservation is not tolerated.
The media’s failure to challenge this “memorandum,” its veracity, its timing, its source, and its leak is a new low in groveling before power. To think that the head of the CIA, the most formidable intelligence apparatus in the world, had a hand in confronting Trump with a document that Brennan claimed “he had no way to assess the allegations contained in the dossier of political opposition research…” (Wall Street Journal, 1-19-17) is outrageous (Brennan even claimed that he hadn’t read it). That the CIA held no interest or lacked the ability to confirm a dossier written by a former member of the close-knit intelligence community is preposterous. That the security agencies promoted a dossier that bore “no credence” and that they released it for any other reason than to intimidate Trump is unbelievable.
Of course, this would not be the first time that security agencies scared the hell out of politicians challenging establishment shibboleths. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover famously kept extensive files on virtually all political players and would frequently leak embarrassing information to media friends whenever he felt it was necessary to bring dissenters back into the fold. Among many other political maneuvers, the CIA notoriously overstated Soviet capabilities in order to influence US Cold War policies, elections, and funding. And beyond any dispute, the intelligence and foreign policy communities constructed an argument of lies to support the 2003 invasion of Iraq. We are asked to trust them today? And the too-often uncritical, gullible media believes them today?
In the wake of contemporary revelations of torture protocols and comprehensive spying on everyone, apparently witting opinion makers have now found the intelligence community to be wholly reliable and trustworthy. They surrender their critical faculties to the professional liars and plotters. Even George Orwell would be aghast!
We assuredly have every reason to fear the policies of President Trump and his supporters.
But based on recent events, we equally have every reason to fear the brazen power and intrusion of clandestine security agencies and the unreliability of the fawning, supine corporate media.
Monday, January 2, 2017
I thought it was a good idea.
In the midst of Trump-panic and electoral finger pointing, The Nation magazine offered a special issue devoted to assessing the Obama Presidency. Providing a bit of historic context to the Trump victory would, I should hope, dampen the hysteria embraced by US liberals in place of sober analysis.
The Obama Years (The Nation, January 2/9 2017) does have its moments of insight, but far too many of the contributing liberal/soft-left writers tried desperately to polish the dull finish of the Obama stewardship. Most sought to retroactively apply a glow by comparing the Obama years with a yet-to-be experienced Trump reign.
Bizarre comparisons abound: Marilynne Robinson found Lincoln in the Obama legacy, while Patricia J. Williams detected a bit of Frederick Douglass in Obama’s character. Eric Alterman announced that “Obama was the coolest guy in the room.”
Obama defined a new “progressive patriotism” for John Nichols. Katha Pollitt opined under the headline--How Good We Had It-- without a hint of irony. She offers a weak attempt at a clever epigram with “...too many Americans weren’t ready for a black president, even if they voted for him.” Didn’t they know he was Black?
Faint praise indeed from Laila Lalami: “...I’ve never doubted that Obama tried to put his country’s interest above his own.”
In a lengthy appraisal of Obama’s foreign policy, Andrew J. Bacevich charts Obama’s course from “callow rookie to seasoned veteran.” He finds the mature Obama in the carefully staged valedictory interview delivered to trusted journalist Jeffrey Goldberg (The Obama Doctrine, The Atlantic, 4-2016 [my commentary is here]). Unfortunately, the mature Obama that Balevich sees as rejecting the “foreign-policy establishment” only found himself after he had surrendered to conventional thinking for over seven years. Remember the talk of the real Obama who would be unleashed in his second, lame-duck term?
Robert Barosage agrees that the Obama epiphany came belatedly, if at all: “Although Obama grew skeptical of the Washington “playbook” on foreign policy, he failed to offer an alternative.” He questions whether Obama was “transformational,” since transformational “presidents do more than simply govern well. They challenge and change the direction of the country.” Barosage continues by recounting the disappointments and policy shortfalls that kept Obama from being “transformational.”
Following Harvard professor Theda Skocpol, Barosage recommends envisioning Obama rather as a “pivotal” President. That is, on “his watch, the United States began to recognize its corrosive inequality, the power of big money to rig the rules, and the way the deck was stacked against the vast majority.” But surely this is a howling non sequitur. Obama didn’t bring about any of these realizations, they simply happened while he governed.
It is far better to understand Obama as a “transitional” President. He was the choice favored by a majority of the ruling class to clean up the mess left by the Bush administration, a thoroughly discredited regime both nationally and internationally. With a raging economic crisis, failed wars, and barely measureable poll numbers, a fresh face, a face that promised renewed confidence from “hope and change,” Barack Obama was the prescription.
The Obama story was as distant from the Bush narrative as the two-party dictatorship would allow. Race, youth, and eloquence separated him from his predecessor. Never mind that, excepting race, these traits were of little serious consequence.
Like President James Carter, after the Nixon fiasco, Obama was meant as a transition back to political credibility, a purifier of a political stench.
As such, Obama was a trusted cheerleader for the existing order. Christopher Hayes, in his lead article, unwittingly admits this when he notes that the “story that Obama kept telling was the story of meritocracy and social mobility.” Of course, it was a Black man who could make this story credible at a time when both merit and social mobility were disappearing.
Hayes relates an interview with Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid in which Hayes pressed him on the message of the Democratic Party. Reid obliged: “I want everyone in America to understand, if Harry Reid can make it in America, anyone can… That’s what America is all about.”
Obama, similar to Reid and other political elites, sought to keep this mythology alive. Is it any wonder that a significant portion of the devastated US industrial working class abandoned the Democrats after the Obama era?
The thoughtful Eric Foner concludes the Nation chronicle of the Obama years with useful insights:
Obama’s 2008 campaign, which mobilized millions of people new to politics, served as an illustration of the symbiotic relationship between popular movements and political action. Unfortunately, even before Obama assumed office, it became clear that he had little interest in building upon the popular upsurge that helped to elect him.
Foner offers a counter-narrative to Obama-worship that simply ignores Obama, the figure, and focuses upon the forces erupting around him that he, opportunistically, rode to power. For Foner, the popular social forces are far more indicative of what is possible and worthwhile than the personalities that ride those social forces in and out of the Presidency. Rather than heap unwarranted praise on Obama, Foner traces the often-tortured path that the popular urge for change takes through US institutions.
Thus, Foner sees manifestations of the urge for change that are springing up at the close of the Obama era as more worthy of discussion:
For a while after the end of the Cold War, it seemed like we were condemned to live in a world where the only alternatives to unregulated capitalism were religious fundamentalism or xenophobia and racism. Then the financial collapse of 2008 drove a stake through the heart of neo-liberalism, the dominant ideology of the past generation (although its ghost still walks the earth, including the corridors of the Obama administration). The great achievement of the Sanders campaign was to step into the vacuum and begin to offer a new vision. The election of Donald Trump, while disastrous in so many ways, is yet another illustration of the bankruptcy of neoliberalism. It is also an opportunity for the left to forge a new set of policies to promote political, social, and economic equality.
While the current political moment is indeed an opportunity to restore what Foner calls the “American Radical Tradition,” it is wishful thinking to imagine that the popular thirst for change will be satisfied with the final demise of “the dominant ideology of the past generation.” It is not the “bankruptcy of neoliberalism” (“unregulated capitalism”) alone that opened the door to Trump, but the bankruptcy of the two-party system that disallows a social democratic insurgency or a third-party opening to the left.
Moreover, it is not the latest incarnation of capitalism (neoliberalism) that is demonstrating its bankruptcy, but it is capitalism itself that stands accused.
With his stress on social movements, Foner knows that the existing political institutions, including both major parties, have resisted the “American Radical Tradition” at every juncture. Radicalism must always be sparked and nurtured independently and outside of the two-party system. Foner’s academic work attests to the fact that real social change-- including the New Deal, the Great Society, etc-- never comes when insurgents accept the limitations imposed by capitalist political organizations.
And where right-wing populism threatens-- like the Trump candidacy-- it draws its oxygen from the failure of the left to offer authentic options that address the popular yearning for change.
Those who uncritically thought the Obama Presidency would satisfy that yearning helped pave the way to the Trump victory.
Friday, December 23, 2016
Richard Wright was somewhat of an enigma. Celebrated as one of the great African-American writers of the nineteen forties and fifties, Wright was, according to some, a difficult, demanding character. Others saw him as cautious and fragile. For a Black writer fighting for exposure against a literary establishment thoroughly infected with racism, his sensitivities were understandable.
Like Ralph Ellison, another author to break through to the mainstream, Wright’s career began through his engagement with the left, specifically the Communist Party. As the most militant, leading anti-racist force in the US, the Communist Party nurtured the talents of numerous African-American artists well before they were able to break through the barriers restraining talented Blacks.
Wright and Ellison severed their ties with the Communist Party after their success, but Wright continued to maintain a radical posture towards his homeland despite an accommodation with McCarthyite anti-Communism. After World War II, he left the US taking French citizenship. The famed African-American cartoonist, a fellow expatriate and a Communist, Oliver Harrington, remained close to Wright until his early, suspicious death in 1960.
Wright published the following in The Daily Worker, the newspaper of the Communist Party, on December 27, 1937. It is taken from Earle V. Bryant’s Byline Richard Wright: Articles from The Daily Worker and New Masses.
Santa Claus Has a Hard Time Finding Way to Harlem Slums
“Merry Xmas--Rooms for Rent--White Only”
In a holly-bedecked window on 39 W. 120th Street, in Harlem, the above sign was displayed all day Christmas.
So even Christmas comes to segregated Harlem with irony. It seems that the slogan of”Peace on Earth, Good Will Toward Men” loses some of its magic when it reached the Negro area.
Harlem’s Christmas was poor and quiet. All the brightness and tinsel represented a sacrifice on the part of parents who felt honor-bound to fulfill the expectations of their children. Some way or other Santa Claus found the courage to leave a few paltry toys even in sub-basement flats which violated the Multiple Dwelling Law.
When heads of families were questioned regarding how they found means to create such a gay atmosphere amid squalor, they replied:
“They wanted things so bad we just couldn’t disappoint them. I reckon we’ll be two months catching up with our bills. Lord, I’ll be glad when Christmas is over.”
A survey revealed that the ERB [Emergency Relief Board] officials made no extra allowances for children in large families, and there were but few tables on with turkeys and cranberries were served.
At 18 W. 118th St., four flights up, is a typical Harlem tenant family. Though there was not much food in Mrs. Lily Grover’s home, there was the inevitable Christmas tree. Mrs. Grover’s husband deserted her over two years ago and she is raising her three children in a three-room flat on a $50 per month relief allowance.
After subtracting $25 for her monthly rent, she managed to eke out enough pennies above her other expenses to give one toy to each child. Ernest Grover, 8, Raymond, 5, and Doris, 3, had no conception of the sacrifice which gave them their toys and they were happy.
Mrs. Grover made her children go out of the room before she told of how she made Christmas for them. She did not want them to know how hard it was for Santa claus to stop at their home.
She did not want little Raymond, who has a chronic case of bronchitis, to know that his milk allowance was cut in order for Santa to stop.
“And he’s not getting enough milk now,” said Mrs. Grover. “The only hope for him to recover, so the doctors tell me, is for him to outgrow his bronchitis.”
Though the sun was shining Christmas Day, none of it reached Mrs. Grover’s apartment. The hallways smelled of stale air. Mrs. Grover knows that more than milk is needed in her budget to give Raymond a chance of life. But houses are scarce in Harlem and Mrs. Grover, like a quarter million other Negroes, can’t move out.
The mother was enthusiastic about the high hopes she had for her eight-year-old daughter, Ernet, who has maintained a B rating in all her grades up to 3B.
“Ernet sings, dances, and speaks on the stage well,” said Mrs. Grover. “But I can’t for the life of me figure out how I can give her the chance I know she needs.”
The newspapers carried slogans of “Peace on Earth, Good Will Toward Men,” and for Mrs. Grover and millions like her that would mean that the conditions of life for one should be the conditions of life for all.
Nearly eighty years later, we are still fighting for the “Good Will Toward Men” that Richard Wright sought for all.
Monday, October 24, 2016
It comes as no surprise that The Nation magazine endorses Hillary Clinton for President (10-24-16). As the leading left-liberal publication, The Nation huffs and puffs high-minded principles before surrendering to the Democratic Party establishment. Nonetheless, it’s always interesting to see how they arrive at their submission.
Of course, it’s all about Trump. He’s not on our side. As a statement of the obvious, that conviction is unmatched. But is Clinton on our side?
The Nation’s editors assemble a tortured list of Clinton positives and Trump negatives that stretch the truth, shrug off uncomfortable facts, and hail irrelevancies. She exhibits “grace under pressure,” they tell us. She has been a “forceful advocate of health-care reform” since 1992. And for wild-eyed fantasy: She “is running on the most progressive platform in the modern history of the Democratic Party.”
Trump’s charge that the elections are “rigged,” on the other hand, is “an assault on the very basis of democratic governance itself.” So the elections are not rigged in favor of the rich, white, and powerful?
With amazing audacity, the editors simply dismiss Clinton’s obscene bond with corporations and foreign tyrants, a bond that is sealed with tens of millions of dollars of barely-concealed quid pro quos. They assert that “progressives will have to continue to push her” away from these rich and powerful benefactors.
As for her super-hawk foreign policy, The Nation concedes that Clinton is wrong on everything from Palestine to Russia and Syria. Though she is seemingly “intent on deepening a New Cold War,” we are invited to “break her hawkish habits,” as though her role in killing tens of thousands is akin to curbing a smoking habit or losing weight.
Presidential candidate Jill Stein is the fly in The Nation’s ointment. She is all the progressive things that Ms. Clinton is not. She stands against the corporate, war-mongering tide and not with it. Here, The Nation engages in a remarkably clumsy dance around the Stein option, laying alleged failings of the Green Party at her feet: “...her cause has not been helped by the Green Party’s reluctance, or inability, to seek, share, and build power, with all the messy compromise this often entails. Instead of the patient-- and Sisyphean-- task of building an authentic grassroots alternative, the Greens offer a top-down vehicle for protest.”
But isn’t building an “authentic grassroots alternative” exactly what the Stein candidacy is all about? Isn’t Stein reaching out to The Nation readers, Sisyphus, or anyone else interested in changing the bankrupt political scene in order to build precisely the power that the editors claim to want to see? The apparent truth is that The Nation would like Jill Stein to go away and take her principled positions with her, clearing the way for a heavy dose of lesser-of-two-evil scare tactics.
The most-tenured Nation columnist, Katha Pollitt, bats clean-up on the magazine’s Hillary team. She relishes the opportunity, entitling her column The Case for Hillary. In offering her brief, she gives a list of 12 reasons, beginning with reproductive rights: “I’m putting this first because they’re crucial to everything you care about…” [my italics]. Everything we care about? As important as reproductive rights are, does Pollitt really believe that reproductive rights trump all concerns? Did she consider African American mothers whose sons have been murdered by police? Did she even weigh the daily slaughter of hundreds if not thousands throughout the world at the hands of US weapons or the weapons of its surrogates? Does poverty, lack of health care, and inferior education count in her reproductive-rights calculus?
Pollitt, like far too many upper-middle class white liberals, is blind to class and race. Those from other classes or races are not part of “us,” and the concerns of the “other,” though real, are not significant barriers to the “simple human happiness” that she argues flows from reproductive rights. Like the Evangelicals standing on the other side of the abortion barricades, she is incapable of imagining anything more important to others than that battle. She, like the right-wing fanatics, trivializes all other wrongs.
Against the Big Lie
Pollitt’s defense of Ms. Clinton reaches disturbing dimensions when she raises oft-repeated lies about Communist sectarianism leading to the empowerment of Hitler. She references a supposed moment when “...German communists scorned the weak-tea socialists in the 1932 election with the slogan ‘After Hitler, us.’” Like other similar red-baiting slanders that circulate on the left in every election cycle, this one bears little or no relation to the truth. Defenders of lesser-of-two-evilism assert that the German Communists stood in the way of working class anti-fascist unity, that they welcomed Hitler’s rise, that they spurned joint action. These charges are meant to apply supposed lessons from history to the politics of our time, suggesting that independent militancy and principles stand in the way of unity against the specter of extremism. If disaffected voters would throw their votes at the feet of the slightly-lesser-evil, like the German Communists should have done, we could avoid the specter of a greater evil.
While there are many for-hire historians who will affirm these claims, they are based on fiction.
The “1932 election” that Pollitt cites was, in fact, five critical elections: a first-round presidential election in March, the second and final round, the important Prussian Landtag election in April, a Reichstag election in July, and another-- the last relatively legitimate Reichstag election-- in November.
One surely unimpeachable perspective on these elections was that of journalist Carl von Ossietzky. Ossietzky was a prominent and respected left-wing commentator associated with the left wing of social democracy and often critical of the Communists (KPD). From a family of fallen aristocrats, Ossietzky’s anti-fascist credentials and integrity were impeccable-- he received the Nobel Prize in 1935 and died in a Gestapo prison hospital in 1938.
In his newspaper columns in Die Weltbühne, Ossietzky tells a story far removed from the fantastic anti-Communist narrative. In the lead-up to the first round of the Presidential elections, the Social Democratic Party, despite being Germany’s largest party at the time, chose not to run a candidate against both the reactionary incumbent President, von Hindenburg, and Adolf Hitler. It argued that the party’s stance was not pro-Hindenburg, but anti-fascist, a splitting of hairs that did not impress Ossietzky: “It is not that fascism is winning, but that the others are adapting it… A passing insult tossed by the demagogues of the Berlin Sports Palast jerks ten Socialist deputies from their seats, and forces them to prove themselves as fatherland-lovers… the initiative lies with the right.” Ossietzky writes: “Readers continually ask me for whom one should vote on March 13th. Is there really nothing better, they ask, than pursuing this fateful and discouraging policy of the ‘lesser evil’?”
He goes on:
As a non-party man of the left I would have been happy to vote for an acceptable Social Democrat… Since there is no Social Democratic candidate then I will have to vote for the Communist… It must be emphasized that a vote for Thälmann means neither a vote of confidence for the Communist Party, nor major expectations. To make left-wing politics it is necessary to concentrate strength where a man of the left stands in the battle. Thälmann is the only one; all the others are various shades of reaction. That makes the choice easier.
The Social Democrats say: “Hindenburg means struggle against fascism.” From which source do the gentlemen draw this knowledge?
It is nonsense to describe Thälmann’s candidature as simply a gain of numbers. Thälmann will probably receive a surprisingly high number of votes… The better that Thälmann does, the clearer it will be what a success could have been won with a united socialist candidate…
Within a week of his election, Hindenburg-- designated the “anti-fascist” candidate by the Social Democrats-- called for the banning of all left-wing party-affiliated mass organizations. Before nine months passed, the Reich President had appointed Adolf Hitler Chancellor and handed rule to the Nazis. Ossietzky knew at that time what a colossal mistake it was for the Social Democrats to refuse to run a candidate, to support Hindenburg, and to refuse to support Thälmann: “Invisible hands are at work in the web and woof of official policy, trying to bring Hitler, thrown out through the front door, in again up the back stairs.”
In January of 1933, immediately after von Schleicher was deposed as Chancellor and prior to Hindenburg appointing Hitler, the German Communists suggested a united general strike; the Social Democrats rejected the offer to collaborate.
Ossietzky urged unity between Communists and Social Democrats as early as April of 1932. After the Nazis made major gains in the important Prussian Landtag election, Ossietzky saw only two effective responses: either the Social Democrats invite the KPD into the existing Prussian government (something that they had refused to do) or the two parties form a united front. The KPD had already raised the second option one day after the election. The Central Committee called for “mass meetings of the workers in every factory and every mine… in all trade unions…[to] compile a list of joint demands, elect action committees and strike committees composed of Communist, Social Democratic, Christian, and non-party workers…”
Despite the negative portrait painted of KPD tactics by liberal commentators, the German people showed their growing confidence in the KPD in the two Reichstag elections. Of the three major parties, only the KPD made gains in both elections, adding nearly 30% to its deputies while the SPD lost nearly 16%. Clearly, the KPD’s militant anti-fascism was growing in popularity with the working class.
It is probably too much to hope that liberals will retire the red-baiting canard of Communism ushering in fascism, any more than there is hope that partisan Democrats will cease blaming Ralph Nader for their pathetic surrender to the right in the 2000 election.
Clearly, the lesser-of-two-evils approach will not go away anytime soon, though it has failed to halt the many decades of the rightward drift of the political center. Could it be that those who own the two parties are sponsoring this persistent shift to the right in order to gauge just how long liberals, labor, and the left will tolerate it without making a break with the Democratic Party establishment?
One would do well to put aside Cold War textbooks and liberal smugness and take a long look at the dynamics of oppositional politics in the Weimar era leading up to Hitler’s ascension to power. There are lessons from that period beyond desperately collaborating with bourgeois and reactionary parties. The severe economic crisis of that time was only answered by a demagogic and extreme nationalist movement and by the militantly anti-capitalist, revolutionary movement.
The Social Democratic Party chose a different path: it sought to manage capitalism along with its bourgeois parliamentary counterparts. They failed. Disaster ensued.
Saturday, October 15, 2016
Karl Marx turns up in the most unlikely places. Two and a half decades after most US and European public intellectuals gleefully announced Marx’s ideas henceforth irrelevant, The Wall Street Journal offers a surprisingly measured discussion of his thought under the title The Most Worldly Philosopher (10-1&2-2016). The author, Jonathan Steinberg, an emeritus fellow of Cambridge and professor at the University of Pennsylvania, closes with: “Marx left a legacy of powerful ideas that cannot be dismissed as an obsolete creation of a vanished intellectual climate…” and that stimulated “...the growth of Marxist parties and the millions who accepted that ideology over the course of the 20th century. That was worldly philosophy indeed.”
I would like to believe that the WSJ editors, who displayed the following banner over the full-page article, are enjoying a droll moment in this pathetic electoral season: “The oppressed are allowed once every few years to decide which particular representatives of the oppressing class are to represent and repress them.” The welcome quote, attributed to Marx by Lenin (more likely a paraphrase of Engels), is never permitted into the conversation by our lesser-of-two-evil friends who screech every four years that this is the election that changes everything.
Professor Steinberg uses the opportunity afforded by a review of a current book on Karl Marx by Gareth Stedman Jones to share some of his own views on Marx. And, judging by some of his attributions to Jones’ book, that’s a good thing. Stedman Jones, like so many of his academic contemporaries, once counted himself a kind of Marxist, but only while Marx remained in fashion. With changing times, identities quickly fall in line, a sorry reflection on the integrity of the discipline of the humanities in academe. It’s no wonder that few students are fighting for a humanities-rich curriculum.
While no follower of Marx’s ideas, Steinberg shows a healthy respect for them and a willingness to differ with them honestly; there are no Black Book of Communism tallies of the “victims” of Marx’s ideas; no denigration of the personal lives and morality of Marxists; and no paeans to the glory of capitalism that one would expect in The Wall Street Journal.
Steinberg offers a collection of challenges to Marxism that, while neither new nor original, have been at the core of many intellectual critiques:
The so-called “transformation problem.” Steinberg writes that “Eugen von Böhm-Bawerk, one of the main figures in the Austrian School of economics, declared that it [Marx’s Capital] failed to produce ‘a satisfactory theory of the relation between values and prices’...” The period after Marx’s death, after the publication of volume three of Capital, coincided with the decline of classical political economy and the rise of economics based upon formal and mathematical reconstructions of immediate economic relationships and a grounding of market relations in psychological dispositions and attributed individual choices.
Many Marxists (including Engels), perhaps overly impressed with the professed rigor of the new economics, took up the challenge, constructing “proofs” of the quantitative relation between Marx’s value calculations and real-world prices. That debate between “proofs” and “counter-proofs” continues to obsess academic Marxists to this day, particularly among those trained in bourgeois economics.
But Marx sought only to demonstrate a reasonably approximate quantitative relationship between commodity values and commodity prices. Values and prices are like the contrast between shared moral standards (values) and a common legal system (real-world jurisprudence); it is not necessary to show a formal derivation or rigid correlation between a moral value and a counterpart law in order to know that one is grounded in the other. Indeed, it would be absurd to argue that legal systems are not decisively shaped by underlying moral codes, but rather that they have a remarkable independent existence based solely upon judicial whimsy or individual preference. Arguing in this fashion is the legacy of a discredited positivism.
The search for a rigorous proof that prices can be derived from values is a scholastic exercise that occupies academics, but is of little relevance to the Marxist project. That values underlie prices is as certain as the belief that the moral prescription against unwarranted killing is the basis for all laws against murder. Imagine, in the same vein, that the scientific status of psychology were shackled to a formal demonstration of the relation between psychological dispositions and physical behavior. Psychology as a discipline would disappear. And if Böhm-Bawerk and his foolishness were heeded, Marxism as a science might disappear as well!
The so-called “immiseration thesis.” Steinberg writes: “In 1899 even Eduard Bernstein, one of Engel’s closest colleagues, attacked the so-called immiseration theory, which claimed the working class was destined to get poorer and the concentration of industry greater.”
Professor Steinberg, like Bernstein and others, misinterpret Marx on this point. In Capital, Theories of Surplus Value, and Wage-labor and Capital, Marx is unequivocal: “A notable advance in the amount paid as wages presupposes a rapid increase of productive capital… Therefore, although the comforts of the laborer have risen, the social satisfaction which they give has fallen in comparison with these augmented comforts of the capitalist, which are unattainable for the laborer, and in comparison with the scale of general development society has reached… Since their nature is social, it is therefore relative.”[my italics]
Marx clearly sees workers’ misery as relative to the advances of living standards in higher reaches of society. When productivity advances, working class living standards may advance as well, though less so, relative to the gains of the capitalist class. The immediate period after the Second World War was one such time when productivity advances brought a general, but unequal rise in the standard of living. Liberals and social democrats celebrate this era as the golden age of capitalism-with-a human-face, conveniently ignoring the relative impoverishment of the working class, the increase in the exploitation of workers.
However, for most of the last four decades, the impoverishment of the working class has been both relative and absolute, with workers’ standards of living stagnant or declining. Thus, we are living in a period even more dire, more miserable than Marx’s prediction.
The engine for the relative impoverishment of the working class is the growth of what Marx called the “reserve army of the unemployed” (unemployment), a process that diminishes the bargaining power of labor as a result of a readily available and desperate labor source. This pressure on working class standards of living has been muted dramatically in our time by the mass incarceration of potential workers (vastly over represented by minorities) throughout the last decades. While the mass imprisonment of over two million people forcibly reduces the potential unemployment (“reserve army”) and its accompanying pressure on wages and benefits, it represents recognition by the ruling class of the explosive, even revolutionary possibilities of many young, rebellious people without hope of employment in the late twentieth-century de-industrialized economy. Thus, they have been kept out of the “reserve army” through imprisonment.
Historical materialism. Professor Steinberg is perplexed by Marx’s view that the socio-economic conditions within which people are immersed largely determine the parameters of their behavior. Or as Marx so simply and more eloquently put it in the Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte: “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.” Steinberg quotes the more cryptic, but concurring statement to the same effect in the preface to Capital.
But, Steinberg ponders: “When, if ever, would workers know what was happening to them? If the preface to “Das Kapital” is right-- that humans act out laws of economics without awareness or intent-- how will the system change?”
The Professor confuses the recognition of historic processes with surrender to fatalism.
As the quote from the Eighteenth Brumaire affirms, workers will change the system when the historically evolved socio-economic conditions are ripe, and not before. The nineteenth-century English Luddites fought fervently, but futilely against capitalism’s devastation of their living conditions. But nascent industrial capitalism emerged with the vitality to crush a sincere movement associated with the old order. Twenty-first century capitalism, like the order clung to by the Luddites, is the old order, a decaying, untenable system carrying on a successful, but doomed struggle against its demise. Marx argued that as the system exhausted its potential, the socio-economic conditions sufficient for the workers to overthrow it would also arise.
It is precisely when the conditions for revolutionary change are apparent that workers may “know what is happening to them.” To insure that workers understand and seize the revolutionary moment, Marx-- and especially Lenin-- emphasized the need for a revolutionary party, a party of Communists. That party will bring forward the ideas of a new order.
Marxist Humanism. Professor Steinberg alludes to the “vast literature” on what has come to be called “Marxist Humanism.” Spurred by the publication and popularization of Marx’s early, unpublished notebooks (Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844), many leftists fashioned an idealized Marx believed to be the embodiment of liberal values. At the height of the Cold War, anti-Communist leftists embraced the tentative thinking of a youthful Marx-- a Marx three years removed from his graduate degree, filled with social reformism, still new to the working class movement and only recently seriously studying political economy-- and represented it as the true Marx.
Central to the “humanist” turn was the key concept of “alienation,” a term that Marx borrowed from Feuerbach. For the young Marx, the term served as a provisional expression marking the social distances standing in the way of individuals achieving their “nature.” As a crude philosophical tool, the concept cried out for the elaboration and refinement realized by the mature Marx. Historical materialism replaced the veiled teleology of “species-being.” Concepts like “class” and “exploitation” replaced the vagueness and generality of “alienation.” As Dirk Struik explains: ‘When we study Marx’s exposition [in the Manuscripts] in detail, we find the beginning of his mature analysis of capitalist society…” [my italics] Only the beginning!
But many writers, like Erich Fromm and Herbert Marcuse, grasped the opportunity to shape “alienation” into a class-free concept serving as an expression for every form of social separation-- from the most trivial offense to the most dreadful cruelties. Liberals heralded the new Marxism since it elevated the ennui of the pampered bourgeoisie to the level of the greatest injustices of class and race. Accordingly, the capitalist exploitation nexus was lost in a sea of social alienations. Today’s politics of the personal owes much to this contorted, unbridled abuse of the concept of alienation.
The Marxism of “the millions who accepted that ideology over the course of the 20th century,” as Professor Steinberg so felicitously put it, was not the Marxism of misspent youth or failed romance, but the Marxism of low wages, brutal working conditions, and bloody wars. Inspired by the mature Marx, the struggle against these conditions and for a new social order was true “Marxist humanism.”
These and other criticisms of Marxism-- based sometimes on honest mistakes, more often upon willful distortion-- remain a constant to be challenged. But that is surely a tribute to the timeless relevance of Marxism.