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Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Labor at the Crossroads?

Does the labor movement in the US have a pulse? Given the unrelenting drop in union density (the percentage of workers organized into unions), many have concluded that labor is in decline both as an effective weapon for workers and as a social force in US politics.
It is easy to forget that some of the largest industrial unions arose from small, but determined organizing committees that faced brutal company resistance. Despite these obstacles, they grew into powerful forces shaping the political and social agenda both in industrial cities and on the national scene within little more than a decade. Unions birthed by the modest Committee for Industrial Organization in the mid-1930s sprung into powerful instruments for social change. It was a long standing tenet of labor advocacy that workers could not be organized and gains made during a period of high unemployment and diminished profits. And yet some of the US’s most militant unions came into being and won in the throes of the Great Depression. In the period immediately after World War II, labor was often the decisive factor in approving and electing officials, largely through its pervasive influence on the Democratic Party.
Today, the labor movement remains yet the most resource-laden, influential element in a progressive movement itself relatively powerless and adrift owing to the failing strength and near-dormant militancy of labor.
The United Autoworkers Union (UAW), one of the pillars of the industrial union movement of the 1930s, dramatically reflects this failing. Autoworkers today at one of Detroit's big-three auto companies can start at a wage as low as $14 an hour, an hourly rate conceded in 2007. At that time, the UAW agreed to a two-tier wage and benefit system that left new employees with roughly half of the package earned by existing workers. Today, over 30,000 UAW big-three employees are stuck in low wage hell (tier 2) out of a unionized work force of roughly 80,000 unionized employees (Bloomberg Businessweek). At Chrysler, a new hire makes a bit more ($15.78/hour), but more than half the workers are stuck at tier 2. At the same time, Bloomberg reports that Chrysler earned an adjusted net profit of $2.4 billion in 2014 and GM and Ford are expected to earn $7 billion and $6 billion this year, respectively. Profits are robust, but wages are dismal.
But matters are even worse with the UAW-represented auto parts companies. According to the Wall Street Journal, new hires at American Axle and Manufacturing Holdings Inc make as little as $10/hour, reportedly comparable to what a local Wal-Mart pays in Three Rivers, Michigan. It is not uncommon for UAW workers at parts manufacturers to make in the $11-12/hour range.
In the last decade, the average hourly wage for parts-manufacture workers was down 23%; the average hourly wage for auto-manufacture workers was down 22%.
For the most part, UAW workers' compensation is on a par or little better than non-union auto workers in the US.
Given this bleak recounting of the UAW's failure to deliver for workers, two questions rush to mind:
1. How did a once militant, democratic, independent, and socially engaged union-- a model of class awareness and struggle-- reach a point where it can deliver a contract leaving workers with little more income than workers at the local Wal-Mart?
2. How will such a union maintain and grow in size and influence if it can promise to achieve no more than declining wages and benefits and parity with non-union shops?
For those of us who see a strong, fighting labor movement as necessary for developing any kind of vibrant and effective progressive movement, answering these questions is unpleasant, but essential.
The decline of militancy began with the purges, the legal restraint, and the raiding of the most powerful industrial unions, a blow inflicted in the early Cold War. And the UAW was at the cutting edge of class collaboration, redbaiting, and the expulsion and raiding of militant unions, beginning with the election of the social-democrat, Walter Reuther as president in 1946.
The vanguard of the trade union movement lost its most militant, class-conscious leaders to anti-Communist inquisitions, at the same time it was battered by the constraints of Taft-Hartley legislation, and met corporate power with a fragmented movement.
In its place, a careerist, bureaucratic leadership faced the future with an historic compromise: a Cold War compact that traded labor peace and support of imperialism for wage and benefit increases roughly commensurate with the rise in productivity. The US ruling class gladly conceded this policy in order to receive US labor's blessings in its brutal assault on class-oriented workers' organizations throughout the rest of the world. The crass, opportunistic labor leaders guiding much of organized labor enthusiastically retired the strike weapon and replaced it with a lame notion of “bargaining” that appropriately fit the naive embrace of labor-management collaboration. Accordingly, be-suited labor negotiators sat across tables from be-suited corporate negotiators in a friendly ritual of trading minor concessions and counter-concessions.
Into the last quarter of the twentieth century, US corporations faced dramatic challenges to profitability. Unsuccessful military adventures and rampant inflation from profligate military spending and competition from lower wage rivals employing cutting-edge technologies drove the ruling class to sever its unspoken deal with US labor leaders. The rulers unilaterally reneged on their commitment to “sharing” the fruits of labor. Instead, they launched an all-out war on labor while insisting that labor must surrender its previous gains to improve US competitiveness. Even today, few labor leaders will acknowledge that they have been betrayed by their former partners. With no imagination, no ideology, US labor leaders continue to plead with their “partners” for some accommodation, some willingness to return to benign bargaining.
The excellent labor historian, Roger Keeran, explains this development in the UAW as follows:

The peak of the red-baiting assault on labor occurred in 1947 with Taft-Hartley and the 1948-49 CIO expulsion of the so-called red unions.   So, what happened between then and the first significant concessions by the UAW at the bargaining table in the 1980s? Of course the losses of the Cold War expulsions and anticommunism was the main explanation, but there were a couple of other things.  For nearly 30 years, the Big Three did not face serious competition, and thus could raise wages and increase benefits by passing the cost to consumers.  This changed with the rise of competition from Japanese and European auto makers, who by the late 70s had rebuilt their factories devastated by World War II and were beginning to make inroads in the American market.  Secondly, for years the UAW and others were able to live on the reputation and the gains produced by the militant years. But the earlier militants, even the non-Communist ones, were eventually superseded by leaders with no experience and no stomach for struggle.  For awhile, these leaders were able to pull some rabbits out of hats by trading previous gains in some areas for small wage gains.  
Soon they ran out of hats.
Many commentators acknowledge this one-sided class war, but few place its cause in the sell-out of class struggle prompted by Cold War perfidy.
The Other Side of the Coin
The class collaboration spawned by the McCarthyite purges created another toxic byproduct: the unrequited fealty of the labor movement to the Democratic Party. Before the purges, the left core of industrial unionism had a close, but critical relationship with the Democratic Party. The new born industrial unions played a large role in revitalizing the Democratic Party in urban areas, providing the troops and organization for Democrats to return to power given an opportunity afforded under the banner of the New Deal. To some extent, New Deal Democrats recognized the debt owed to organized labor and very often responded with a generally pro-labor agenda.
But with the ruling class betrayal of the unspoken post-war pact came a similar betrayal of labor on the part of the Democratic Party. By the election of Barack Obama only a handful in the Democratic Party leadership carried forward the New Deal perspective. Nor does the Party pay more than lip service to labor and its agenda.
Yet top labor leaders continue the charade of a partnership with capital and the Democratic Party. They defend the imperative of corporate “competitiveness” by generously sacrificing the membership's wages and benefits; they donate millions of the membership's collective resources to re-elect Democrats who scorn labor's needs.
We desperately need a fighting union movement, larger and more militant than what we have inherited. Clearly the “partnerships” that have been fostered only result in a toothless, shrinking, and aimless movement. Without a new direction, there will be no need for a union like the UAW that can promise workers no more than what comparable workers make in the non-union sector, that forge no radical alliances, that provide no independent leadership, that offer no hope for real change.
But history shows that there are alternatives. The history of the UAW, the CIO and its predecessors show what a few dedicated organizers and leaders can accomplish. And history shows what a militant, class-conscious, class-partisan union movement can mean to the fight for change.
Many thanks to Roger Keeran for his helpful comments on an earlier draft.

Zoltan Zigedy

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Capitalism, Environmental Crisis, and Socialism

A hundred years from now, humans may remember 2014 as the year that we first learned that we may have irreversibly destabilized the great ice sheet of West Antarctica, and thus set in motion more than 10 feet of sea-level rise.

Meanwhile, 2015 could be the year of the double whammy — when we learned the same about one gigantic glacier of East Antarctica, which could set in motion roughly the same amount all over again. Northern Hemisphere residents and Americans in particular should take note — when the bottom of the world loses vast amounts of ice, those of us living closer to its top get more sea level rise than the rest of the planet, thanks to the law of gravity... (Washington Post, March 16)

The latest findings on climate change reported by the Washington Post mark another step on the path toward environmental catastrophe. Apart from philistines, apocalyptists, and other celebrants of ignorance, people understand that the growing degradation of our planet promises pain in the short run and disaster beyond. When humans first emerged on the planet, the environment, the climate, and other features of the natural world presented seemingly insurmountable obstacles to survival. The pre-history and early history of humankind was a tenuous struggle to construct bulwarks against natural calumny and a desperate effort to exploit nature's meager offerings.

Nearly two hundred thousand years after the appearance of homo sapiens, circumstances have turned full circle. Humanity has found the means to dominate nature (though far from in a humanitarian way), but with seemingly little regard for the sustainability of the human project. Today, the formerly vulnerable species threatens to render the earth inhospitable to itself, a kind of mindless suicide by the only species that genuinely claims to own a mind.

For those determined to avoid this suicidal path, locating the cause and finding solutions is an urgent task.

Is “Progress” or “Growth” the Enemy?

It is fashionable in some quarters to locate the cause of the environmental crisis in the insatiable lust for “progress,” a term as elusive as it is imprecise. Harking back to the sixties and the “counter-culture” era, many envision a world where consumerism and the fetish for the new are banished in favor of a simpler life style and intellectual, spiritual, or artistic values. There is much to admire in a commitment to modest consumption and arrested acquisitiveness.

However admirable this may be as a personal choice, it is extremely short-sighted social policy. Certainly, the upper-middle classes of the developed countries could benefit the environment by exiting the insane competition for larger houses, more luxurious cars, and the latest techno-gizmo. Unquestionably, the mindless quest for more and better is neither admirable nor sustainable. But before we condemn progress or growth, we must recognize that more is at stake in rejecting progress or growth than thwarting rampant consumerism in the US and Europe or the vulgar excesses of the upper classes.

Apart from consumption madness, billions of the world's population lack even the basics of sustainable life. They barely survive in the midst of poverty, disease, and inadequate shelter, food and water. Until the material means to rectify the sorry, inhuman plight of billions is available, progress and growth must be an imperative. To callously deny them a future out of scorn for hyper-consumerism is petty and, paradoxically, selfish. They cannot be made the scapegoat for Western privileged waste and excess. Those who so easily condemn progress or growth are shamefully blind to the inequities of class, race, and nationality.


Prospective solutions come in many forms and many shades. Individual solutions are useful and defensible provided that they do no deny the disadvantaged the opportunity to achieve standards of living reasonably commensurate with the standards of the more privileged. For example, asking people without access to modern appliances to curtail usage of inefficient technologies is both irrational and unjust. Equality of sacrifice in the face of vast economic inequities cannot be the solution to environmental degradation. While recycling, re-use, and other personal conservation projects are necessary and meaningful, they are incapable of sufficiently slowing the global expansion and exhaustion of resources. Nor do individual, personal solutions offset the major sources of environmental destruction: corporations and governments.

Conventional policy solutions cluster around market-based and regulatory approaches to the environmental crisis.

Most environmental activists see the failure of either market-based or regulatory measures as a failure of political will. They believe that politicians and political movements have yet to recognize the dire consequences we face by ignoring the environmental crisis. While this may be true, it fails to recognize the acute limitations of market-based and regulatory solutions and the impossibility of their effectiveness in a global capitalist economy.

The political will is not absent because of ignorance, but because the political system is owned and nourished by the capitalists. Moreover, the global economy-- overwhelmingly a capitalist economy-- is fueled by profits and profits alone. And profits are sustained and expanded by turning everything material or immaterial into a commodity. As a commodity, nature's resources hold no value other than what can be attached to the pursuit of profit.

It is the exploitation of human and natural resources-- labor and nature's bounty-- that is the grist for profit's mill. And capitalism puts profits ahead of nature as well as ahead of people. Both history and the logic of capitalist accumulation and expansion demonstrate the inevitability of waste and destruction. Only when environmental degradation impedes the process of accumulation and profit expansion will the capitalist system respond to the crisis; environmental scientists tell us that will be too late.

And that is precisely the point acknowledged by Naomi Klein in her recent book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate. Klein's anti-capitalism, like so many versions associated with the social democratic, soft-left, has been somewhat fuzzy, vacillating between rejecting the neo-liberal incarnation of capitalism and something elusive, but more daring. But her current thinking is sharper, though still short of an endorsement of a coherent vision of socialism. She concedes: “But because we have waited as long as we have, and we now need to cut our emissions as deeply as we need to, we now have a conflict not just with neoliberalism, but a conflict with capitalism because it challenges the growth imperative.” (quoted in Monthly Review, Notes from the Editors, March, 2015). For this, Klein has been criticized widely by her liberal readers still anchored in fealty to capitalism.

The editors of Monthly Review perceptively point out that “Klein’s argument here is irrefutable. To be sure, in criticizing neoliberalism for removing the tools needed to address climate change she deftly avoids the issue of whether capital as a system could ever have seriously mitigated the problem.” (op. Cit.)

Capital cannot mitigate the problem.

The MR editors go on to persuasively argue:
Klein is realistic and radical enough to realize that her recognition of this necessity, together with her readiness to act on it, puts her and the entire left climate movement that she represents in conflict with capital as a system—and not just with its most virulent form of neoliberalism. It is, as she says, a “two stage argument,” and we are now in the second stage. There is no avoiding the fact that the logic of capital accumulation must give way if we are to have a reasonable chance of saving civilization and humanity. (op. Cit.)

For “the entire left climate movement” to move beyond individual solutions, market-based answers, regulation, rejection of neo-liberalism, and even capitalism, the movement must define and embrace another goal. What would it be?

Only a system that will replace the logic of profit-before-all with the broad interests of humanity can answer the question. Only a system that can supplant the anarchy of production and distribution with rational planning could count as an answer. Only a system that can substitute forward-looking public ownership for individual short-term self-interest will cope with the crisis. And only a system that erases the existing extreme inequalities associated with capitalism and imperialism can meet our need to bring social justice to the disadvantaged.

As reluctant as much of the left is to utter the word, the answer is quite simply: socialism.

The Unseen Elephant in the Room
Lost on most of the environmental movement, including the “left climate movement,” is the role of imperialism in stoking the environmental crisis. According to Wikipedia:
The United States Department of Defense is one of the largest single consumers of energy in the world, responsible for 93% of all US government fuel consumption in 2007... In FY 2006, the DoD used almost 30,000 gigawatt hours (GWH) of electricity, at a cost of almost $2.2 billion. The DoD's electricity use would supply enough electricity to power more than 2.6 million average American homes. In electricity consumption, if it were a country, the DoD would rank 58th in the world, using slightly less than Denmark and slightly more than Syria (CIA World Factbook, 2006). The Department of Defense uses 4,600,000,000 US gallons... of fuel annually, an average of 12,600,000 US gallons... of fuel per day.

Add to this total the electricity and fuel usage of the rest of NATO, Japan, Russia, The Peoples Republic of China as well as those belligerents constantly at war with imperialism and you have uncountable and socially unnecessary waste of natural resources as well as ecological destruction.

Count the hundreds of military bases-- outposts for imperialism-- that devour resources better employed in a war to protect the environment.

Add to this total the unceasing pollution, the destruction of natural and man-made structures, the spoilage of land and water, etc. that accompany the endless use of devastating weapons.

The full effects of militarism and imperial aggression stagger the imagination.

Pentagon estimates of the production and maintenance of one weapons system alone-- the F-35-- have been reduced to over three-quarters of a trillion dollars-- an enormous unmentioned cost to the environment.

Unfortunately, far too many environmentalists are more cognizant of the environmental damage of littering than they are aware of the enormous threat to the environment of imperial design and endless war. Joining the anti-imperialist, anti-war movement, fighting for an end to militarism, is potentially a far more effective way to reverse the ecological wounds that threaten the planet than the entire bundle of liberal and social democratic panaceas that currently dominate the discussion in the environmental movement: Prius, yes, but Predator drones, no.

As the environmental movement matures, it must embrace the socialist option. It must stand resolutely against militarism and its threat to the environment. No other stance will deflect “civilization” from its determined march toward self destruction. Authentic, militant environmentalism comes with partisanship for socialism and anti-imperialism.

Zoltan Zigedy

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Imperialism's Trusted Governess

Her face is on the cover of Bloomberg Businessweek (3/9-3/15/2015) next to a dramatic headline: Putin vs. the Accountant. Her name is Natalie Jaresko. And, if Bloomberg's Brett Forrest is to be believed, she and some of her colleagues may hold the fate of Western Ukraine in their hands. As the Minister of Finance, she must find a way to salvage an economy that is in free fall.
Forrest paints a flattering, sympathetic picture of a feisty expatriate determined to rescue Ukraine economically and from the clutches of the evil Putin. Jaresko is encountered visiting hospitalized Ukrainian troops wounded while attacking the resistance fighters in Eastern Ukraine or, as Forrest prefers: consoling “convalescing veterans of recent battles against Russian forces and their proxies in the Ukrainian East. 'When did you serve?' she asks, moving slowly from room to room.'How were you wounded?'”
Apart from recounting Jaresko's mimicking of the obsequious and opportunistic condescension of veterans displayed universally by Western politicians, Forrest offers a calculated adulation of the Minister that conjures many less laudatory questions and suspicions.
For someone who holds the fate of Ukraine in her hands, Jaresko appears to be somewhat of a carpetbagger. Her appointment to lead the Finance Ministry came before she was granted Ukrainian citizenship, a fact that would only be curious outside of a government where two other cabinet members were also not citizens when appointed: her counterpart in the Ministry of Economy and Trade, Lithuanian Aivaras Abromavicius, and Minister of Health, Georgian Alexander Kvitashvili. Jaresko, a US citizen, has two years to renounce her US citizenship. She and her other imported colleagues were appointed by Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsunyuk, the infamous “Yats” vetted by foul-mouthed US Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, Victoria Nuland.
Obviously the US and the EU had to scramble after they encouraged and supported the coup deposing the elected President in February of 2014. They had to reach outside Ukraine to find reliable clients to support the hastily elected candy baron, Petro Pershenko. The story of the clumsy construction of the post-coup government from non-nationals, careerists, and unstable rightists would make for an entertaining episode of House of Cards if Western journalists had the spine to tell it.
So what has Jaresko done to deserve a phone call from Nuland? Er, Pershenko?
Her credentials begin with a master's degree from the Kennedy School at Harvard, a training ground for those tasked with delivering the US ruling class message to friends and foes alike. Doors opened immediately at the State Department's Soviet Affairs division. She coordinated her work at the State Department with all of the big national and international trade and economic organizations. When Ukraine left the Soviet Union, Jaresko was perfectly suited to operate on the US State Department's behalf at the newly installed US Embassy. Her position-- Chief of the Economic Section-- was a trusted position of a type often calling for close collaboration with covert agencies.
She parlayed that experience into the creation of an “investment“ vehicle for Ukrainian businesses funded by USAID, again a position of great trust and associated in many countries with US influence peddling. Documentation of the modest seed capital from USAID-- $150 million-- can be found here. One would expect that a 30-year-old entrusted with this task surely had the confidence of highly placed officials in the US government.
Her 1995 venture was absorbed by a new investment management firm, Horizon Capital, which she founded in 2006. Journalist John Helmer documents the consistent losses of Horizon Capital in his detailed report on Dances with Bears (12-03-2014). Despite his discovering only two years of modest gains in a decade, both Bloomberg and Forbes laud the success of Horizon Capital.
Helmer also discovers the fallout from Jaresko's divorce from her spouse and business partner. Her former husband, Ihor Figlus, has accused her of saddling him with debt from “improper” loans. Their contentious relationship continues. Helmer comments: “It hasn’t been rare for American spouses to go into the asset management business in the former Soviet Union, and make profits underwritten by the US Government with information supplied from their US Government positions or contacts. It is exceptional for them to fall out over the loot.”
Jaresko's own account of her recruitment bears telling: “...representatives from a headhunting firm hired by the new government, WE partners, visited Jaresko at the Horizon Capital offices. They discussed candidates for various government posts before asking her if she would be willing to serve...” (Bloomberg Businessweek)
While some may find it odd that an independent, sovereign state would engage a US-based (parent company: Korn Ferry) headhunting firm to fill top political posts, Jaresko explains: “I think the president and prime minister wanted me to bring [my] experience.”
Within a week, she was vetted and appointed.
Anticipating skepticism, Bloomberg's reporter, Brett Forrest, notes that “Jaresko's appointment... provides fuel to conspiracy theorists...”
His apologetics continue: “No matter their origin, these ministers-- and the numerous Poles, Germans, Canadians, and other foreigners who've joined the government in senior and mid-level positions-- are pulling the same oar.” Forrest joins a host of Western journalists and commentators who find no contradiction in a rabidly nationalistic government staffed with foreigners.
Despite generous aid from the US, the EU, and the IMF, Ukraine has experienced a 21% loss of industrial production, a 69% drop in the value of the currency against the dollar and a 6.9% decline in GDP in the last year.
Estimates of Ukraine debt go as high as $40 billion. Recently, Jaresko announced that investors should expect a “haircut” which “...will probably involve a combination of maturity extensions, coupon reductions and principal reductions.”
Compare the matter-of-fact reporting of this announcement in papers like The Financial Times or The Wall Street Journal to the hysterical media response to the faintest hint of a possible reduction in Greek sovereign debt. Clearly assuming client status, selling your sovereignty to imperialism, earns generous debt forgiveness.
Despite the media-spun fairy tales about Ukraine's struggle for democracy and independence, the facts challenge that narrative. Behind the curtain of deceit and fabrication is a motley crew of foreign agents, corrupted officials, oligarchs, and neo-Nazis. But one would never know it from the Western media.
Zoltan Zigedy

Monday, March 9, 2015

A Make-Believe Interview with Walt Whitman

Walt Whitman is thought by some to be the US's greatest poet, certainly the most acclaimed expression of the nation's better spirit. What follows is a fictional interview with Whitman, with the quotes drawn from his 1871 Democratic Vistas ( Obviously liberty is taken with the context, though not with the text.

Mr. Whitman, would you care to comment on the current state of affairs existing in the US?
I say we had best look our times and lands searchingly in the face, like a physician diagnosing some deep disease. Never was there, perhaps, more hollowness at heart than at present, and here in the United States. Genuine belief seems to have left us. The underlying principles of the States are not honestly believ'd in, (for all this hectic glow, and these melodramatic screamings,) nor is humanity itself believ'd in. What penetrating eye does not everywhere see through the mask? The spectacle is appaling. We live in an atmosphere of hypocrisy throughout.
What, in your opinion, stands behind the “hollowness at heart”?
From deceit in the spirit, the mother of all false deeds, the offspring is already incalculable. An acute and candid person, in the revenue department in Washington, who is led by the course of his employment to regularly visit the cities, north, south and west, to investigate frauds, has talk'd much with me about his discoveries. The depravity of the business classes of our country is not less than has been supposed, but infinitely greater. The official services of America, national, state, and municipal, in all their branches and departments, except the judiciary, are saturated in corruption, bribery, falsehood, mal-administration; and the judiciary is tainted. The great cities reek with respectable as much as non-respectable robbery and scoundrelism. In fashionable life, flippancy, tepid amours, weak infidelism, small aims, or no aims at all, only to kill time. In business, (this all-devouring modern word, business,) the one sole object is, by any means, pecuniary gain. The magician's serpent in the fable ate up all the other serpents; and money-making is our magician's serpent, remaining to-day sole master of the field.
Our country seems bent on expanding its influence far and wide, imposing its will on others. How do you view this?
I say that our New World democracy, however great a success in uplifting the masses out of their sloughs, in materialistic development, products, and in a certain highly-deceptive superficial popular intellectuality, is, so far, an almost complete failure in its social aspects, and in really grand religious, moral, literary, and esthetic results. In vain do we march with unprecedented strides to empire so colossal, outvying the antique, beyond Alexander's, beyond the proudest sway of Rome. In vain have we annex'd Texas, California, Alaska, and reach north for Canada and south for Cuba. It is as if we were somehow being endow'd with a vast and more and more thoroughly-appointed body, and then left with little or no soul.
And your vision for the US?
The true gravitation-hold of liberalism in the United States will be a more universal ownership of property, general homesteads, general comfort -- a vast, intertwining reticulation of wealth. As the human frame, or, indeed, any object in this manifold universe, is best kept together by the simple miracle of its own cohesion, and the necessity, exercise and profit thereof, so a great and varied nationality, occupying millions of square miles, were firmest held and knit by the principle of the safety and endurance of the aggregate of its middling property owners.
But surely other writers and thinkers share your vision of more “universal ownership” and the “safety and endurance of the aggregate”...
But at present, (judged by any higher scale than that which finds the chief ends of existence to be to feverishly make money during one-half of it, and by some "amusement," or perhaps foreign travel, flippantly kill time, the other half,) and consider'd with reference to purposes of patriotism, health, a noble personality, religion, and the democratic adjustments, all these swarms of poems, literary magazines, dramatic plays, resultant so far from American intellect, and the formation of our best ideas, are useless and a mockery. They strengthen and nourish no one, express nothing characteristic, give decision and purpose to no one, and suffice only the lowest level of vacant minds.
Is your vision attainable? Can it be more than a vista?
It is to the development, identification, and general prevalence of that fervid comradeship, (the adhesive love, at least rivaling the amative love hitherto possessing imaginative literature, if not going beyond it,) that I look for the counterbalance and offset of our materialistic and vulgar American democracy, and for the spiritualization thereof. Many will say it is a dream, and will not follow my inferences: but I confidently expect a time when there will be seen, running like a half-hid warp through all the myriad audible and visible worldly interests of America, threads of manly friendship, fond and loving, pure and sweet, strong and life-long, carried to degrees hitherto unknown -- not only giving tone to individual character, and making it unprecedently emotional, muscular, heroic, and refined, but having the deepest relations to general politics. I say democracy infers such loving comradeship, as its most inevitable twin or counterpart, without which it will be incomplete, in vain, and incapable of perpetuating itself.
But the people do not seem attuned to your vision. They seem absorbed in other matters. Do you envision a change of disposition?
It really seems to me the condition, not only of our future national and democratic development, but of our perpetuation. In the highly artificial and materialistic bases of modern civilization, with the corresponding arrangements and methods of living, the force-infusion of intellect alone, the depraving influences of riches just as much as poverty, the absence of all high ideals in character -- with the long series of tendencies, shapings, which few are strong enough to resist, and which now seem, with steam-engine speed, to be everywhere turning out the generations of humanity like uniform iron castings -- all of which, as compared with the feudal ages, we can yet do nothing better than accept, make the best of, and even welcome, upon the whole, for their oceanic practical grandeur, and their restless wholesale kneading of the masses -- I say of all this tremendous and dominant play of solely materialistic bearings upon current life in the United States, with the results as already seen, accumulating, and reaching far into the future, that they must either be confronted and met by at least an equally subtle and tremendous force-infusion for purposes of spiritualization, for the pure conscience, for genuine esthetics, and for absolute and primal manliness and womanliness -- or else our modern civilization, with all its improvements, is in vain, and we are on the road to a destiny, a status, equivalent, in its real world, to that of the fabled damned.
You seem wary of destiny, empire, and indifference to a common identity.
Even to-day, amid these whirls, incredible flippancy, and blind fury of parties, infidelity, entire lack of first-class captains and leaders, added to the plentiful meanness and vulgarity of the ostensible masses -- that problem, the labor question, beginning to open like a yawning gulf, rapidly widening every year -- what prospect have we? We sail a dangerous sea of seething currents, cross and under-currents, vortices -- all so dark, untried -- and whither shall we turn? It seems as if the Almighty had spread before this nation charts of imperial destinies, dazzling as the sun, yet with many a deep intestine difficulty, and human aggregate of cankerous imperfection, -- saying, lo! the roads, the only plans of development, long and varied with all terrible balks and ebullitions. You said in your soul, I will be empire of empires, overshadowing all else, past and present, putting the history of old-world dynasties, conquests behind me, as of no account -- making a new history, a history of democracy, making old history a dwarf -- I alone inaugurating largeness, culminating time. If these, O lands of America, are indeed the prizes, the determinations of your soul, be it so. But behold the cost, and already specimens of the cost. Thought you greatness was to ripen for you like a pear? If you would have greatness, know that you must conquer it through ages, centuries -- must pay for it with a proportionate price. For you too, as for all lands, the struggle, the traitor, the wily person in office, scrofulous wealth, the surfeit of prosperity, the demonism of greed, the hell of passion, the decay of faith, the long postponement, the fossil-like lethargy, the ceaseless need of revolutions, prophets, thunderstorms, deaths, births, new projections and invigorations of ideas and men.
So you fear arrogance and locate greatness in humane values and a renewal of ideas. Does not our electoral system, our system of checks and balances give us some guarantee that we will not succumb to willful arrogance and ensure the emergence of new ideas?
Did you, too, O friend, suppose democracy was only for elections, for politics, and for a party name? I say democracy is only of use there that it may pass on and come to its flower and fruits in manners, in the highest forms of interaction between men, and their beliefs -- in religion, literature, colleges, and schools -- democracy in all public and private life... I have intimated that, as a paramount scheme, it has yet few or no full realizers and believers. I do not see, either, that it owes any serious thanks to noted propagandists or champions, or has been essentially help'd, though often harm'd, by them. It has been and is carried on by all the moral forces, and by trade, finance, machinery, intercommunications, and, in fact, by all the developments of history, and can no more be stopp'd than the tides, or the earth in its orbit. Doubtless, also, it resides, crude and latent, well down in the hearts of the fair average of the American-born people, mainly in the agricultural regions. But it is not yet, there or anywhere, the fully-receiv'd, the fervid, the absolute faith.

So you think...
For America, type of progress, and of essential faith in man, above all his errors and wickedness -- few suspect how deep, how deep it really strikes. The world evidently supposes, and we have evidently supposed so too, that the States are merely to achieve the equal franchise, an elective government -- to inaugurate the respectability of labor, and become a nation of practical operatives, law-abiding, orderly and well off. Yes, those are indeed parts of the task of America; but they not only do not exhaust the progressive conception, but rather arise, teeming with it, as the mediums of deeper, higher progress.
Do you find this progress embedded in those steering the ship of state, directing our institutions, or commanding our economy?
The best class we show, is but a mob of fashionably dress'd speculators and vulgarians. True, indeed, behind this fantastic farce, enacted on the visible stage of society, solid things and stupendous labors are to be discover'd, existing crudely and going on in the background, to advance and tell themselves in time. Yet the truths are none the less terrible.
Is it possible that a better world lies ahead? Perhaps one more democratic and-- in your words-- a world with “a vast, intertwining reticulation of wealth”?
We see, as in the universes of the material kosmos, after meteorological, vegetable, and animal cycles, man at last arises, born through them, to prove them, concentrate them, to turn upon them with wonder and love -- to command them, adorn them, and carry them upward into superior realms -- so, out of the series of the preceding social and political universes, now arise these States. We see that while many were supposing things established and completed, really the grandest things always remain; and discover that the work of the New World is not ended, but only fairly begun.
Whitman's Democratic Vistas is a collection of rambling, often disjointed observations about the US and democracy made nearly a century and a half ago. While it hopes for future progress toward noble goals, it well anticipates a process of decay, democratic erosion, and the ill-effects of “the demonism of greed” fostered by “business.”
His expression of mindless conformity-- “generations of humanity like uniform iron castings”-- is a memorable turn-of-phrase. His term “scrofulous wealth” leaves little doubt of his contempt for accumulation. And the wonderful words “hollowness of heart” are arguably a counterpart to the idea of “alienation.”
Is there any doubt that “universal ownership” and “safety and endurance of the aggregate” count as an approach toward the idea of socialism?
Yes, the interview is fake. Yes, it rips quotes out of context. But it highlights thoughts that demonstrate the unfortunate continuity of US decadence, the course of a young nation traveling on the rails of capitalism. Whitman's fears have been unfortunately exceeded today.
Zoltan Zigedy

Monday, February 23, 2015

Unemployment: A Report Card for Capitalism

Marx suggests in his articles for the Neue Rheinische Zeitung collected as Class Struggles in France, 1848-1850 that the first order of business for the working class is to secure jobs, “but behind the right to work stands the power over capital; behind the power over capital, the appropriation of the means of production, their subjection to the associated working class and, therefore, the abolition of wage labour, of capital and of their mutual relations." It is through the struggle for a place in the capitalist system-- however lowly-- that the means for survival are won and the conditions are met for further challenges to the dominance of capital and even the very system of capitalism. But in a system of private appropriation and with labor as a commodity, life for those without capital begins with securing employment.
Because labor is a commodity, because labor must be a commodity in order for an economic formation to be capitalist, the right to a job cannot be enshrined in a capitalist constitution. Only socialist countries have or can endow everyone with the right to a job. That is why the right to a job is not included in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. A weak “right to work” (participate in the labor market), a right to “free choice of employment” (compete in the labor market), and a right “to protection against unemployment” (vague, nonspecific prophylaxes or amelioration) are there instead (Article 23). Without recognizing the right to a job, the Universal Declaration effectively turns a blind eye to the ravages of unemployment and the indignities and injustices of the buying and selling of human productive effort.
That is one reason that the USSR and other socialist countries abstained from ratifying the Declaration in 1948.
Without unemployment, the capitalist system would suffer persistent pressure on the rate of profit. When the commodity-- labor power-- becomes scarce, capitalists must pay more to secure it, as they would for any other commodity. And since labor remains the largest cost component of most productive capitalist enterprises, labor-cost inflation erodes capitalist profits. Capitalism and the system's beneficiaries will not, therefore, tolerate full employment. This is the nasty little truth that apologists and media windbags dare not speak.
Economists hide this truth by euphemistically coining terms like “marginal” or “frictional” unemployment or inventing obscurantist concepts like the “Non-Accelerating Inflation Rate of Unemployment” that set an increasingly low standard for “full” employment. By linguistic sleight-of-hand, the economics establishment offers cover for capitalist accumulation by ordaining an “acceptable” level of unemployment.
At the same time, this same establishment understands that unemployment is the greatest challenge to the stability of the capitalist system. The frequent sharp rises in unemployment brought on by dislocations, the business cycle, or systemic crisis dramatically increase the levels of social discontent and raise voices that question the system. For those who hold the reins of power, for those whose job is to contain dissatisfaction with capitalism, managing unemployment is essential.
From that perspective, the unemployment rate is arguably the best barometer of the health and viability of the capitalist system. Consequently reports of unemployment rates and trends are politically charged and subject to great differences in interpretation.
The official unemployment rate... amounts to a Big Lie.”
Recently, the political manipulation of the unemployment rate came under attack from an unlikely source. Jim Clifton, chairman and CEO of Gallup, the polling organization, challenged the notion that the “official” rate of unemployment bore any relation to the realities of unemployment. Indeed, he called the rate a “Big Lie.” It's worth examining his argument closely:
None of them will tell you this: If you, a family member or anyone is unemployed and has subsequently given up on finding a job -- if you are so hopelessly out of work that you've stopped looking over the past four weeks -- the Department of Labor doesn't count you as unemployed. That's right. While you are as unemployed as one can possibly be, and tragically may never find work again, you are not counted in the figure we see relentlessly in the news -- currently 5.6%. Right now, as many as 30 million Americans are either out of work or severely underemployed. Trust me, the vast majority of them aren't throwing parties to toast "falling" unemployment.
There's another reason why the official rate is misleading. Say you're an out-of-work engineer or healthcare worker or construction worker or retail manager: If you perform a minimum of one hour of work in a week and are paid at least $20 -- maybe someone pays you to mow their lawn -- you're not officially counted as unemployed in the much-reported 5.6%. Few Americans know this.
Yet another figure of importance that doesn't get much press: those working part time but wanting full-time work. If you have a degree in chemistry or math and are working 10 hours part time because it is all you can find -- in other words, you are severely underemployed -- the government doesn't count you in the 5.6%. Few Americans know this.
There's no other way to say this. The official unemployment rate, which cruelly overlooks the suffering of the long-term and often permanently unemployed as well as the depressingly underemployed, amounts to a Big Lie.
Though Clifton invokes the always suspect “Great American Dream” in his polemic, he fully appreciates the challenge unemployment mounts to the system's legitimacy:
And it's a lie that has consequences, because the great American dream is to have a good job, and in recent years, America has failed to deliver that dream more than it has at any time in recent memory. A good job is an individual's primary identity, their very self-worth, their dignity -- it establishes the relationship they have with their friends, community and country. When we fail to deliver a good job that fits a citizen's talents, training and experience, we are failing the great American dream.
We owe Clifton a thanks for speaking a rare and uncomfortable truth. And we must admire his bitter remonstrations against those who hide, distort, or slant capitalism's bad performance:
When the media, talking heads, the White House and Wall Street start reporting the truth -- the percent of Americans in good jobs; jobs that are full time and real -- then we will quit wondering why Americans aren't "feeling" something that doesn't remotely reflect the reality in their lives.
Capitalism's Report Card
Many liberal economists would agree with Clifton that the official rate understates unemployment. Like Clifton, some will concede that those marginally attached to the work force or discouraged from the work force should be counted along with those who have looked for work in the four weeks prior to the survey. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) extends the survey period to the prior twelve months to capture those unemployment figures. Using those numbers and the numbers of those working part-time for economic reasons, the unemployment rate rises to over 11%.
But it is worth questioning how the BLS defines the labor force. They simply count those as employed who work at some time in their survey period and count as unemployed those who show in their records as looking for work. They add the two up to constitute the labor force. They make no effort in this survey to determine the relationship to employment of the tens of millions of people in the US population not counted as in the labor force because they are neither somewhat employed nor present in the unemployment roles.
Have those left aside given up looking because they could find no job in the years prior to the last twelve months? Are they forced out because they can no longer afford child care or must care for relatives? Does neglected health due to lack of insurance preclude working? Are they victims of racial, gender, or age discrimination?
BLS does not ask and we do not know.
We do know, however, that the labor participation rate, relatively stable for two decades, has dropped precipitously since the 2007-2008 crisis. Roughly five to six million fewer people now count as engaged in the work force at any given time today than did eight years ago. Such a sharp drop in such a short time cannot be explained simply by changes in retirement patterns or work-force entry. Thus, it is not unreasonable to view this shift away from gainful employment negatively in our score card for capitalism.
If we were to count this loss in the labor force with the other sources of unemployment, US unemployment (and underemployment) would move to the vicinity of 15%.
But we can take a longer, deeper view. We can ask pointed questions about those engaged in certain categories of socially useless, even destructive forms of employment as well as those completely isolated from the conventional labor force.
For example, the million-and-a-half military personnel and the three-quarters of a million Defense Department employees constitute unproductive workers whose absorption would present a hurdle to the private sector. High youth unemployment and the expense of education have driven thousands of less advantaged youth to the military as an alternative to unemployment, thus serving as a safety valve to the social volatility of idleness.
Homeland Security and other security agencies have enjoyed bursts of employment thanks to the bogus war on terror. These agencies, too, constitute unneeded public-sector job creation that masks potential unemployment.
And of course there is the weapons industry, a massive private-profit-generating behemoth that engorges itself on public funds, stands apart from market forces and risks, and belches death-dealing instruments. Spawned by a desperate, but post-war fear of economic depression, US ruling elites embraced this perverse form of public-sector Keynesian demand-creation as a companion to Cold War hysteria. Military production drives and is driven by US jingoism. US imperialism and the military-industrial complex constitute a dialectical unity. While millions are employed by this juggernaut, capitalism would struggle to find work for them in a peace-friendly economy.
Undoubtedly the most insidious technique of hiding unemployment is the unfettered, soulless operation of the criminal justice system. Even the English workhouse answer to unemployment in the early eighteenth century was arguably more humane than the US judicial-penal complex,  complex. Inmates in state and federal punitive facilities (not including county and local jails) grew from 329,821 to 1,406,519 from 1980 to 2001! In the same period, the crime rate was relatively stable or declining. In 2010 the number of adults warehoused in so-called correctional facilities totaled almost 2,300,000.
The 2013 incarceration rate was six times the rate of 1925. Given the absence of virtually any social services or welfare, the high incidence of poverty, and the squalor of US urban areas in 1925, it is difficult to explain the explosion of incarceration in our era of relatively tame criminality without searching for political expediencies.
Half a million guards and administrators shepherd this population; another half a million churn the gears of questionable justice; and a million police harvest the inmates from the streets. Like the military-industrial complex, the police-judicial-prison industry removes millions from productive activity and warehouses hundreds of thousands of those potentially counted as unemployed. Whether the inmates turn to crime because they have no jobs or not, they effectively are dropped from the labor force. Moreover, nearly 5,000,000 US citizens are on parole or probation, a circumstance that lowers the prospect for employment dramatically. Certainly thousands, if not millions, of these people fall into that statistically ignored area beyond the BLS labor-force boundary. They, too, must be counted as part of the hidden unemployed.
Understanding that unemployment is the Achilles’s heel of the capitalist system, it is not surprising that the official rate is so highly politicized. But it is misleading to accept the official rate or even the useful corrections without also exposing the concealed institutional places where employment is linked to destructive, anti-social activities or where potential workers are forcibly excluded from the work force.
When carefully studied, capitalism's score on providing jobs is abysmal. Reformers who envision a capitalism divorced from militarism and its institutions, but robust with useful jobs, are naïve. The struggle against militarism, in the end, must take the road of a struggle against imperialism and its parent, capitalism --- a revolutionary and not reformist path. Only with socialism will alternative jobs be guaranteed.
Similarly, caging those who have been ill-equipped to fit into a savagely competitive employment scramble only foretells a similar fate for those who pose other challenges to the system. Liberals and reformers miss this point entirely. Nor do they have a plan to incorporate those warehoused by the judicial-penal system into the private capitalist economy.
As Marx anticipated, the quest for a decent job marks the first step in the journey to socialism.

Zoltan Zigedy

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Empire Follies

Remember Saddam Hussein? Muammar Gaddafi? They were, like others before them, labeled international pariahs, thanks to Western officialdom's demonization and an unrelenting media campaign painting them as evil incarnate. A careful observer may have noticed the contradictory shifts in elite opinion about these characters coincident with US and European interests. When Hussein was killing Iraqi Communists he wore a white hat. Similarly, when Gaddafi cooperated with Western oil interests, like the Italian Eni company, he wasn't such a bad chap.
After making the top of the US/NATO wanted posters, both were summarily executed, one quasi-legally and the other butchered by “freedom-loving” bandits.
The curious thing about the demise of these tyrants, supposedly hated by their own people, is that their respective countries collapsed into sectarianism, death, and despair as a result of the Western campaigns. What were once among the most secular and socially and economically advanced countries in the Middle East and Africa are now failed states, with violence, inadequate health and welfare services, and deteriorating living conditions touching almost every life. Of course no Western humanitarian democrat will take any responsibility for this catastrophe. It's a pity they can't blame Saddam or Gaddafi.
Today, the top wanted poster, the top name on the hit list is owned by Kim Jong-un, the current leader of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK). Kim, the grandson of Kim Il-sung, the founder of the DPRK and a figure revered as a resistance leader against the Japanese occupiers, is the third generation of a family holding the leading post. Western opinion-makers invariably mock this penchant for hereditary secession, while conveniently overlooking over 80 years of hereditary rule in trusted ally, Saudi Arabia. The other Husseins, the family that has ruled Jordan since its independence, are never derided by the Western press, either. They, too, have been compliant friends of US and European leaders.
The DPRK has long followed a self-reliant, go-it-alone path that its leaders call Juche.
During the Soviet era, the DPRK maintained formal, but distant relations with the socialist community, insisting on blazing its own path. Many sympathetic observers saw this approach to Marxism-Leninism as excessively voluntarist, that is, overly confident in men and women's ability to master objective conditions, material impediments.
That said, the foreign policy of the DPRK has been a consistent application of Juche philosophy.
At the same time, DPRK posture toward other countries has been shaped profoundly by the experiences of the mid-century Korean War. The near total destruction of the northern part of the Korean peninsula by the US's air power and scorched earth policy left the DPRK with a determination to find a deterrent to a repeat of that catastrophe. They found that deterrent in the crash development of a nuclear-weapon capacity. Given the US and NATO's attempt to reorder the world in the Western image since the demise of Soviet power that decision seems, in retrospect, to be both wise and effective.
Despite the fact that the DPRK has remained at peace for over sixty years, the US government and its servile, spineless media have maintained an unrelenting campaign of slander and bellicosity.
Not unlike the fear-mongering and fantasies concocted against socialist Cuba, the DPRK has been depicted as a land of prisons and deprivation. Much of the hysterical imagery comes from defectors, in particular, Shin Dong-hyuk. Shin's story was compiled in a book by Washington Post writer, Blaine Harden, with the ominous title: Escape from Camp 14: One Man's Remarkable Odyssey From North Korea to Freedom in the West. The book was favorably reviewed by nearly every major journal. A member of the United Nations' first commission of inquiry into human rights abuses of North Korea reportedly cited Shin as the world's "single strongest voice" on the atrocities inside North Korean camps.
DPRK officials answered by releasing a video of Shin's father and family members denouncing him as a falsifier, a fugitive from a rape charge.
Of course NO ONE in the toady capitalist media placed any credibility in this claim. Nor did any Western journalists seriously listen to the other defectors who challenged details claimed by Shin. The story is too good, too spectacular to question.
Unfortunately, it isn't. And unfortunately, nothing short of a confession would convince the shabby Western media, the UN, or the predisposed human rights groups. They got that confession on January 16 when Shin reported that portions of his harrowing tale were fiction. Sheepishly, he withdrew from further public comment, anticipating that further exposure would come forth.
The UK Independent reported: “Human rights activists said this could significantly set back the campaign to indict Kim for crimes against humanity.” One would hope so! One would hope that the fact that the primary source for demonizing Kim admitted to lying might encourage human rights groups to actually rethink the campaign. Could it be that some human rights groups are as corrupted as the major Western media that foisted the Shin farce on the public?
With scant evidence, the US and European commentariat constantly reminds us that the DPRK is a bleak, gloomy landscape populated by starving, freedom-hungry people. A Singapore commercial photographer, Aram Pan, had read and heard these harsh judgments. As reported by the conservative UK Daily Mail last May:
When a man from Singapore had his wish to visit North Korea granted, he braced himself for the scenes of 'barren lands' and 'really, really sad people' that he had seen via a BBC Panorama documentary.
But what he found blew his mind - for all the right reasons.
Inside the communist enclave in 2013, photographer Aram Pan witnessed bustling markets, men and women enjoying themselves at a Western looking water park and miles and miles of crops ready for harvest, shattering all of his illusions about what a holiday to North Korea would entail.
Though expecting to find it difficult to get into the supposedly secretive state, Mr Pan explained: “I sent several mails and faxes to multiple North Korean contacts, all of which are easily available online if you do a search. Then one day someone actually replied and I met their representative. It was a lot easier than I expected.”
After two visits, the incongruity of official and media accounts and what he actually saw troubled Mr. Pan:
Coming back from my second trip, many things still puzzle me. I've travelled from Pyongyang to Hyangsan to Wonsan to Kumgangsan, to Kaesong and back. The things I've seen and photographed tell me that the situation isn't as bad as I thought.
People seem to go about their daily lives and everything looks so incredibly normal. Some of my friends tell me that everything I've seen must be fake and all that I've photographed are a massive mock up.
But the more I think about that logic, the more it doesn't make any sense… would anyone mock up miles and miles of crops as far as my eyes can see and orchestrate thousands of people to seemingly go about their daily lives?
Mr. Pan's pictures can be seen here.
In another shining example of a US ally's firm grip on human rights and democratic principles, the Republic of Korea (ROK), the DPRK's capitalist neighbor to the south, was deporting Korean-American Shin Eun-Mi for “praising” the DPRK in lectures in Seoul. According to Deutsche Welle in an article last week, Ms. Shin, a California native and no relation to Shin Dong-hyuk, “... angered the South Korean authorities when she said a number of North Koreans living in South Korea would prefer to return to their home country because of the frustration with their lives in the South. She also said that many North Koreans were hopeful the communist nation's young leader Kim Jong-Un would improve the quality of life in the hermit state.”
The writer also praised North Korean beer, which she said was better than the South's ‘tasteless’ brews.”
Apparently, preferring the DPRK beer could put you in ROK prison for up to seven years.
Earlier, in December, Ms Shin was attacked by a high school student who threw a home-made explosive devise at her in protest of her speech. You can see the attack here. A conservative journalist immediately raised $17,000 for the terrorist's defense. Local police held Ms. Shin for questioning regarding her speeches, according to the Wall Street Journal. I suppose that's how US allies honor human rights.
Not surprisingly, these counter-narratives, accounts at odds with officialdom, are absent or buried in the back pages of Western media. But in the forefront is the flap over the hacking of entertainment giant Sony's internal data. After the bottom-feeding media squeezed all the scandal and gossip from the now-public data, a wave of indignation swept through the US. Through a tenuous link with another stupid, vulgar movie about to be released by Sony, officials and opinion-makers pointed an angry finger at the DPRK. They hacked Sony, President Obama proclaimed, and the government had the evidence.
Leading internet security companies, normally beholden to a prominent customer like the US government, insisted that the US government was mistaken. They cited many discrepancies that not only made it unlikely that the DPRK was involved, but that it could not have been the perpetrator. An inside job was indicated.
With its usual flippancy, the government countered that they knew differently, but they could not reveal how they knew without jeopardizing national security.
Later, government officials claimed that they had penetrated the DPRK's internet some time ago and to such an extent that the evidence was irrefutable. Oddly, the penetration was not sufficient to warn Sony in advance.
In a fit of pique worthy of a school-yard bully, the US government shut down the DPRK internet for a day or two, while refusing to admit or deny their action. Other sanctions ensued.
By contrast, DPRK officials, often charged with irrational bellicosity, calmly suggested that the two countries establish a joint commission to explore the DPRK's alleged role in the Sony hack. The suggestion was ignored.
An idiotic Sony film, The Interview, was pushed center stage in this dust up. Sony adroitly retired the film which depicts the gory assassination of Kim Jong-un supposedly out of fear that the DPRK would retaliate. Sony executives who travel in the same fantasy-movie world as former President Ronald Reagan sought to gin up the hysterical xenophobic madness of Hollywood's earlier Red Scare abominations: Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Red Dawn 1, and Red Dawn 2. In fact, you would have to reference Red Dawn 2 to conjure even the remotest idea of an improbable DPRK retaliation. Following the script of Red Dawn 2, Sony's bosses undoubtedly foresaw fanatical paratroopers descending upon their studios to punish them for the virtual assassination.
Media mavens swallowed the Sony bait. A campaign emerged to release the vulgar, inane movie and urge attendance as an act of defiance against the DPRK. It was as though we were being asked to tell fart jokes to demonstrate our devotion to freedom of speech.
Everyone involved in this travesty should be embarrassed.
Demeaning the DPRK is a diplomatic obsession. But the DPRK does not take slights or insults lightly. Nonetheless, they have offered to unconditionally repatriate US citizens charged or imprisoned for various illegal acts (Evangelical proselytizers are a frequent violator, determined to bring Christianity to the heathens. Like the missionaries of earlier empires, they serve both masters-- God and imperialism-- to tame the heathens). They have only asked in the past that the US send high ranking officials to facilitate the repatriation. To anyone attuned to diplomatic niceties, this is a gesture designed to bring parties together without either party suffering the appearance of submissiveness. Clearly, the DPRK sought to open conversation or negotiation. In every case, the US has used the occasion to ignore or rebuff the offer. Sometimes a powerless public figure would attend the repatriation. Other times, they would send a lowly government figure.
In November of last tear, the DPRK sought to release the last two remaining US citizens-- a provocateur and a religious zealot. They again asked for a cabinet-level official to receive the prisoners. Instead, the US sent James Clapper, the US national intelligence director. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Clapper made clear that the DPRK officials wanted to discuss serious matters: “The North Koreans seemed disappointed when he arrived without a broader peace overture in hand, he said. At the same time, they didn’t ask for anything specific in return for the prisoners’ release.” But Clapper had nothing. In his words: “They were expecting some big breakthrough. I was going to offer some big deal, I don’t know, a recognition, a peace treaty, whatever. Of course, I wasn’t there to do that, so they were disappointed, I’ll put it that way.”
After a three-hour dinner that followed his arrival, Mr. Clapper presented the officials with a curt letter from the US President written in English greeting the release of the prisoners as “a positive gesture.” “Gen. Kim Young Chol appeared to be taken aback when handed the letter, Mr. Clapper said.”
Is it any surprise that DPRK officials struggle to understand US motives? Are US administrators blunderers or unalterably committed to overthrowing the DRPK government? Decades of hostility would suggest the later.

Zoltan Zigedy

For three very good recent articles on the DPRK, please see:
(on The Interview)
and Framing the DPRK: the US Still Cannot be Rational, forthcoming in Marxism-Leninism Today
(on the DPRK economy)