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Friday, May 11, 2018

Is There a Future for Social Democracy?

Karl Marx was right! That was the valuable lesson that Thomas Piketty unwittingly delivered with his celebrated book, Capital in the Twenty-first Century.1 While Piketty should be credited with bringing inequality back into the popular spotlight, his most significant contribution was the powerful empirical proof that the historic trajectory of capitalism was, in the final analysis, to reward the owners of capital and beggar those who produce it.

For the post-World War II generations, a different “truth” was fostered. The period of relative prosperity (roughly defined as the growth of broad-based living standards in close step with robust productivity growth) that endured into the early 1970s was believed to be a new, permanent feature of capitalism. Attached to this belief was a confidence that the policy tools afforded by the economic doctrines of John Maynard Keynes would guarantee that this prosperity would continue.

But this “truth” was challenged by the explosion of inequality that began and persisted over the subsequent forty years and beyond.

Looked at from the perspective of Piketty’s data, centuries of growing global inequality is broken only by the Great Depression and the later post-war interlude, what the French call les trente glorieuses-- the 30 presumably happy years of economic levelling. In light of the historic arc, they are exceptions to the rule.

In the decade before World War II, there was a dramatic collapse of economic growth and a shifting of resources to the various governments’ temporary employment-maintenance programs. These two factors slowed the persistent concentration of wealth channeled toward the highest tiers. The 1930s were a time of desperate efforts to restore collapsing mass demand and to answer the utter despair of the unemployed through projects that were, in effect, modestly redistributive. Throughout the world, preparing for and conducting war soon replaced these projects, substituting military spending and the military absorption of the unemployed (and their subsequent slaughter) for the earlier welfare-centered economic stimulation.

But the post-war period was an entirely different matter. A proper explanation of the post-war anomaly remains contested.

It is only in recent years (and bolstered by the work of Piketty and his colleagues) that the notion of capitalism’s fundamental tendency toward inequality seeped back into the mainstream and commanded attention. The recent memory of post-war “prosperity” leads many to falsely view the most recent era of mounting inequality, tattering social safety nets, crumbling infrastructure, forced austerity, debt, and falling living standards as a mere “correction” of the profligacies and inefficiencies of the earlier period. To Piketty’s credit, his unequalled research into the historical long-term global tendencies of capitalist economies demonstrates the opposite. Twenty-first century capitalism and its massive inequalities constitutes the capitalist norm and not a correction.

Piketty and Social Democracy

If it is true that, except under temporary, extraordinary circumstances, capitalism uniformly produces and reproduces wealth and income inequality, then Piketty’s findings present the social democratic left with great, seemingly insurmountable challenges. Understanding social democracy, broadly speaking, as an ideology that accepts capitalism as either reformable or as a possible institutional platform for the gradual transformation of the social order into something different, the prospects for its success would seem dim at best2. Capital’s overwhelming domination of today’s political institutions and the monopolization of the channels of mass influence would likely foreclose any new gains from collaborating with or conceding capitalism.

The last quarter of the twentieth century and our twenty-first century experience find social democracy declining nearly everywhere in both effectiveness and popular legitimacy. With its “golden era” coinciding with the post-war “golden era” of crisis-free economic growth, social democracy not only failed to advance a substantive agenda after the crisis-ridden decade of the 1970s, but actually surrendered the gains won in the past.

Toward the end of the last century, the traditional hosts of social democratic ideology-- the US Democrats, the UK Labour Party, the French, Italian Socialists (and Communists), and most similar parties-- cast the classic tenets of social democracy into history’s dustbin, embracing the dominance of markets, private-over-public initiatives, growth over redistribution (“a rising tide lifts all boats”), the inefficiency of the public sector, and homage to the market as a rational and moral calculator.

As the public soon found most social democratic thinking a cheap imitation of conservatism, the traditional social democratic parties sought a new “progressivism” based upon promoting civil inclusion over aggressively fighting for economic and political inclusion. Unlike economic inclusion, civil inclusion-- the embracing of individual diversity and civil tolerance-- does not address economic inequality; it requires no change in the balance of power between capital and labor; it makes no consequential demands or sacrifices on the rich and powerful; and it requires no redistribution of material assets.

The economic crisis that began in 2007-2008 demonstrates emphatically the inadequacy of such a narrow approach. Millions of people were and are directly or indirectly wounded by the economic chaos generated by a global financial collapse and by its collateral damage. Social democracy had no answer and was justly rewarded for its policy bankruptcy. The traditional bearers of the banner were drastically diminished in popular support, in some cases, reduced to irrelevancy.

Understandably, an effort was made to invigorate social democracy by shoring up its economic program, adopting a critical stance toward markets-- especially financial markets, advocating regulation of capital, imposing progressive taxation, strengthening the social nets-- in short, returning to elements of the social democratic agenda of the post-war “golden era.”

In the face of the discrediting of the traditional parties, new parties, political alliances, or formations arose-- like SYRIZA, PODEMOS, and the Bernie Sanders movement.

But the twenty-first century was not the 1950s with its war reconstruction, the Marshall Plan, massive increases in military spending, Cold War compacts, its unleashed wave of consumerism, strong unions, and most importantly, a powerful revolutionary current to which social democracy could leverage its offer of moderation toward capital. There is no useful role for social democracy in the eyes of 21st century capitalists.

Twenty-first century capital-- absent a life-and-death struggle against socialism-- is merciless and ruthless, offering no compromise or social compact with social democracy. The youthful leaders of SYRIZA learned this lesson when they sought to reason with the custodians of European capital. They experienced the harsh aggression of financial predators, reducing SYRIZA militants to compliant middle-managers of Greek capitalism.

Sanders and his loyalists are being similarly schooled in the realities of the Democratic Party and US capitalism in the twenty-first century. The Democratic Party is owned by monopoly capital, and monopoly capital has no intention of surrendering its property rights to anyone else.

The Last Gasps of Social Democracy?

The hope for finding an effective strategy between resignation to capitalism and revolutionary socialism will always inspire utopian schemes. Social democracy will always survive for those frightened by the prospect of eliminating the scourge of capitalism, but appalled by its pillage of working people. Despite the failings of the latest incarnations, there are new theories waiting in the wings, new models of social democracy.

Beyond his celebrated book, Thomas Piketty has championed a social democratic agenda to address the persisting inequalities deeply embedded in capitalism. In a new book, Chronicles, he returns to these inequalities in the context of current events as addressed in a collection of columns he wrote for Libération and Le Monde. To his credit, he still adheres closely to his central thesis: “During the postwar decades, we mistakenly believed that we’d moved on to a new stage of capitalism, a sort of capitalism without capital. In reality, it was only a passing phase… In the long run, patrimonial capitalism is the only kind that can exist.”3

But if “patrimonial” capital (i.e., capital that persistently churns out inequality) is “the only kind that can exist,” how can there be enduring capitalism without obscene inequality? That-- put simply-- is the paradox of Piketty.

Indeed, that is the paradox of social democracy.

To anyone who has read Capital in the Twenty-first Century, Piketty’s answer to inequality is a colossal disappointment: We must have a global wealth tax. Magically, therefore, we could have both capitalism and less inequality. Of course Piketty does not tell us how we can overpower or coax “patrimonial” capitalism into accepting such a tax.

His answers in Chronicles, written specifically to address the crisis in the European Union, are more specific: The EU should be “federalized, tighter, centralized” so that the existing debt and tax structures could then also be federalized. To his way of thinking, a more tightly structured, integrated, and centrally ruled EU could overcome national disparities and-- not surprisingly-- institute a union-wide wealth tax!

But this answer is even more paradoxical. Would anyone believe that a union constructed to institutionalize, to protect and promote “patrimonial” capital would, by strengthening and centralizing that union, be more inclined to have its predatory character tamed? Would the EU, constructed upon the pillars of free markets, privatization, and the sanctity of profits, be more likely to surrender the fruits of free markets, privatization, and the sanctity of profits if given even greater power?

Clearly, there is more “wish list” in Chronicles than policy map. He joins the ranks of the neo-utopians4 who hope for a revival of social democracy through strategies that call for capital to concede its domination simply through moral suasion or dazzling intellect. Other neo-utopians like Yanis Varoufakis share Piketty’s commitment to globalism and supranational organizations, but with little acknowledgement that these policies and institutions are the product of powerful elites indisposed to heed the wise council of intellectuals. The EU, like the global market, is a construct born from the womb of Piketty’s “patrimonial” capitalism. The midwives will not surrender to clever ideas or an appeal for political “democratization.”

The State and Modern Monetary Theory

Others believe that they have found the social democratic holy grail in Modern Monetary Theory.5 William Mitchell and Thomas Fazi advocate this approach in their recent book, Reclaiming the State.6 Interestingly, they take the opposite tack to Piketty. Rather than calling for a strengthening of supranational institutions towards a global taxing body, they advocate a return to state projects free of supranational fetters. For Mitchell and Fazi, “reclaiming the state” is a necessary condition of reviving the social democratic project.

The title’s subscript gives away the game: “A Progressive Vision of Sovereignty for a Post-Neoliberal World.” It is not a vision for a post-capitalist world or a socialist world, but for a “post-neoliberal world,” a world like the world before the dominance of the unfettered, market-dominated, deregulated, private-ownership-worshiping capitalism that emerged in the 1970s. There is more than a hint of nostalgia for that earlier time, with the sincere hope that Modern Monetary Theory would open the door to radical reforms of capitalism-- capital controls, a new international framework, job guarantees, nationalization of “natural monopolies” and banks, the outlaw of non-productive financial transactions, and other measures.

In truth, the Mitchell and Fazi book is impressive. The first section, The Great Transformation Redux: From Keynesianism to Neoliberalism-- and Beyond, is a serious and well researched description of the course of capitalism from the end of World War II to the present. The authors fully recognize the important changes that events, parties, and persons made in that critical period. They also address some of the theories purporting to explain the changes without advocating strongly for one over another. For those reasons alone, the book is strongly recommended. No understanding of today’s capitalism is possible without a comprehensive understanding of the seventy-five years that preceded it.

But the history offered, though richly recounted, lacks a central motif, an underlying logic, linking and explaining developments. It is not enough to string together a list of factors that may, to a greater or lesser degree, shape the dramatic changes between the confident economic celebration of the fifties and sixties and the intractable problems of the 1970s. Despite a number of suggestive hints, the question “but why?” looms over the analysis. Without a deeper explanation, the account courts becoming a naked “just-so” story.

But more seriously, there is virtually no reference to the Soviet Union, the clash of post-war ideologies, the Cold War, or the threatening growth of the socialist world in size and influence (there is no citation for the Soviet Union in the index-- or to socialism for that matter). To discuss the post-war period without referencing the impact of Communism is like explaining the decline of the Roman Empire without reference to the rise of the Goths or of Christianity; it’s like explaining the US revolution without referencing the rivalries between Britain and France; or it’s like an explanation of the US Civil War without mention of slavery. It is at best incomplete; at worst, distorted.

US and European post-war social, political, and economic history arguably is the history of relations with Communism, domestically and internationally. Yet it is a commonplace for left and leftish academics to largely ignore the role of the Soviet Union, the Socialist world, and Communist Parties as though they were a mere sideshow.

The US and Western European left, especially in the universities, never accepted the reality that theory and practice were necessarily and inescapably located in political space by their proximity to twentieth-century Leninism. Consequently, the non-Leninist left failed to grasp the impact of state-sponsored anti-Communism in determining that space.

The left never appreciated that Western social democracy was not triumphant in the post-war decades, but permitted to taste political power by a capitalist ruling class in need of allies in the struggle against Communism.

To this day, non-Leninist theorists struggle with the contradiction that a social democratic program could be implemented in a state that is itself wholly captured by the capitalist class. A compromise with social democracy is made possible when the capitalist state is itself engaged in a life-or-death struggle with socialism. Accordingly, radical social democratic reforms that limit capital’s penetration, that retard or redress the march of inequality, or that shift the balance of power are only possible when the capitalist ruling class sees capitalism gravely under siege, a condition that social democracy, by its very definition, is unwilling to pursue to the demise of capitalism.

Mitchell and Fazi correctly identify supranational formations, institutions, and organs as obstacles to social change. Unlike Piketty and Varoufakis, they recognize that the EU, the IMF, the World Bank, the multilateral trade agreements, etc., are fundamentally created to strengthen the stranglehold of monopoly capital on the state. They are not impartial arbiters or equal-opportunity tools for shaping a progressive destiny.

They also grasp that a part of the globalization myth-- the claim that the state was in fatal decline-- is nonsense. Heavily promoted by academic leftists in the 1990s and into the twenty-first century, the rise of US exceptionalism, the US project of policing and dominating the world, and the 2007-2008 collapse, marked “paid” on the notion that the state was receding in power and significance. It’s noteworthy that as early as 1998, Linda Weiss demonstrably refuted this once fashionable position with her The Myth of the Powerless State.

Mitchell and Fazi fall on the right side of history with their defense of the resilience and centrality of the capitalist state.

But it is a capitalist state.

It is one thing to reclaim the state as the nucleus of capitalist social, political, and economic relations; it is quite another to reclaim the state from the tentacles of monopoly capitalism. Mitchell and Fazi succeed in achieving the former, but fail to open a path to the latter.

They are not alone in seeing Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) as a tonic for social democracy.7 They, like other liberals and social democrats, lament an opportunity lost when public policy is dictated by debt scolds. (“Debt scolds” are alarmist economists and policy makers who believe that debt is always dangerous, if not evil.)

Conservative Monetarists have fostered the notion that growing debt leads invariably to serious economic mayhem, a notion that constitutes a myth of tragic proportions in the eyes of Modern Monetary theorists. Put crudely, the Monetarist fear springs from a category mistake-- the conflation of contemporary state budgets (those not legitimized by precious metal reserves) and accrued debt with the budget and debts of an ordinary household. Unlike an individual household, a state’s central bank faces no natural or institutional limit on the issuance of credit and the incurrence of debt. The fears of the debt scolds are, therefore, unfounded.

And, they argue, embracing MMT can, as a result, break the stranglehold that debt-rating agencies, financial speculators, Monetarist pundits, and market-obsessed politicians have on government spending and social democratic programs.

But Mitchell and Fazi, like other MMT advocates, mistake the debt rating agencies, the financial speculators, the Monetarist pundits, and the market-obsessed politicians for honest intellectual brokers. They are not swayed by the avenues available to advance social democratic reforms. Their interest is in solely growing profits.

Clearly that point is driven home by the failure of prominent economists like Nobel laureate Paul Krugman who have loudly advocated against the austerity and fiscal abstinence of the Monetarist debt scolds for well over a decade. And to no avail. In the teeth of the gale winds unleashed by the 2007-2008 crash, capitalist policy makers steered the course of austerity, espousing a deep fear of debt-- every increase in government spending threatened catastrophe. Never mind that their fears were never realized.

The adherents of the continuing centrality of the state and MMT surely underestimate the death grip that the capitalist class has on all aspects of the state, especially over policy. Whether government spending may cross a dangerous threshold or not, whether MMT offers new life to the social democratic program, today’s capitalist rulers show no inclination to allow their hired politicians and servile journalists to engage or promulgate challenging ideas.

The growth of inequality (and the extreme concentration of wealth), the monopolization and subsequent conformity of the media, the continual erosion of the institutionally limited bourgeois democratic system, the deterioration of public education, and the other marks of the tightening grip of elites constitute a disappearing opportunity for social democracy.

It is not that social democracy will wane; it will always offer a promise to those too timid for revolutionary change. But it will offer, at best, a rear guard action to an increasingly powerful capitalist ruling class. It may retard the gains, slow the rot, but it will offer no reversal of capitalism’s course. That can only come from a revolutionary movement for socialism.

Taking issue with a venerated, sincere, but short-sighted advocate of the working class, Karl Marx mounted a measured defense of the value of trade union action to secure higher wages:

The general tendency of capitalistic production is not to raise, but to sink the average standard of wages, or to push the value of labour more or less to its minimum limit. Such being the tendency of things in this system, is this to say that the working class should renounce their resistance against the encroachments of capital and abandon their attempt at making the best of the occasional chances for their temporary improvement? If they did, they would be degraded to one level mass of broken down wretches past salvation…

...the working class ought not to exaggerate to themselves the ultimate working of these everyday struggles. They ought not to forget that they are fighting with effects, but not with the causes of these effects; that they are retarding the downward movement but not changing its direction; that they are applying palliatives, not curing the malady…

They ought to understand that, with all the miseries that it imposes on them, the present system simultaneously engenders the material conditions and the social forms necessary for an economic reconstruction of society. Instead of the conservative motto: “A fair day’s wages for a fair day’s work!” they ought to inscribe on their banner the revolutionary watchword: “Abolition of the wages system!” 8

Piketty and others have likewise shown that the “general tendency of capitalistic production is…” to increase inequality, paraphrasing Marx. Like trade union activism for higher wages alone, social democracy can only succeed in “...retarding the downward movement but not changing its direction; ...applying palliatives, not curing the malady…”

Instead of futilely seeking to turn the clock back to before “neo-liberalism,” our modern day warriors for social justice must embrace the revolutionary slogan: “Abolish capitalism!

Greg Godels
zzsblogml@gmail.com
 
1 Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Thomas Piketty, translated by Arthur Goldhammer, 2014

2 Where social democracy doesn’t occur as a movement or party under its own name, it is represented from time to time or as the left wing of another movement or party (eg. UK Labour Party or US Democratic Party).

3 Chronicles On Our Troubled Times, 2017, p. 3-4.

4 In the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels describe utopian socialism as arising when the working class “...offers to them [the advocates of utopian socialism] the spectacle of a class without any historical initiative or any independent political movement.” For practitioners of utopian socialism, “[h]istorical action is to yield to their personal inventive action; historically created conditions of emancipation to fantastic ones; and the gradual, spontaneous class organization of the proletariat to an organization of society specially contrived by these inventors.”

Cooperatives, for example, are among the neo-utopian “fantastic conditions of emancipation” visited on today’s left. Academic leftists are leading neo-utopian spinners of “society specifically contrived by these inventors.”
5 For a clear and concise explanation of Modern Monetary Theory, see Modern Money, Robert Hockett, in Dollars and Sense, March/April, 2018, pp. 7-14. Hockett explains MMT in its social, legal, historical context.
6 Thanks to Tony Coughlan for recommending this important book.

7 Modern Monetary Theory springs from the notion that after the break with the Bretton Woods system tying currencies to gold and the shift to the dollar as a fiat currency in 1971, the issuance of currency becomes solely a matter of central bank decision making. MMT essentially uncouples money from any objective theory of value and makes its creation, its use, and its purpose a matter of convention or social choice.
The grizzled Howard in  the book/movie Treasure of the Sierra Madre as well as Karl Marx would be appalled by this view.
Its proponents overlook the danger of assets bubbles when any reasonable objective measure of value is lost. 


8 Value, Price and Profit, addressed to Workingmen, Karl Marx, 1935, p. 61.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Distractions

For many in the US and Europe, a cynical call for violence posturing as the wrath of the righteous will readily produce a distraction from the urgent issues of our time. Judging by the initial protests of last Friday’s Trump/May/Macron aggression against Syria, far too many have fallen for this hypocritical, dishonest maneuver.

For Theresa May, Conservative UK prime minister, an attack on Syria promises to add to her effort to claw back from the disastrous Brexit vote that wounded her party. Anti-Russia hysteria, unprincipled charges of anti-Semitism lodged against Labour opponent Jeremy Corbyn, and now a missile-administered scolding of Syria’s president, Assad, help her in the polls or, at least, that’s her calculation.

Early in March, Emmanuel Macron’s poll numbers sank to the lowest level since his election. His ongoing attack on French workers and his enthusiasm for bombing Syria are meant to bolster his “tough guy” image. Like May, Macron has little else but austerity to offer workers; hence, manufacturing threats promises to distract.

Trump’s approval rate has taken a nose dive in recent weeks as well. Battered from all sides, Trump needed some love from the war hawks populating both parties. A muscular move against Assad would also signal Trump’s defiance of Putin, the alleged “devil’s handmaiden.”

Of course that didn’t win over the MSNBC/NPR/CNN crowd, the Democrats’ über alles. Schumer and Pelosi saw the trap: the choice between praising Trump for his attack on Syria or rejecting aggression. They, along with most other elected Democrats, performed an exercise of Clintonian triangulation: ‘we want to hit Assad more than anyone, but Trump should have allowed us to call for military action.’

For MSNBC’s Trump-reviling star, Rachel Maddow, Trump bombed Syria for the wrong reasons-- a case of “wagging the dog”-- hoping to distract critics from his domestic problems. She badgers her war-hawk guests to agree that Trump’s war on Assad was not authentic. Implicit is the notion that Trump could have established more credibility by raining greater death and destruction and further baiting the Russian bear.

Easy distraction has led apparently sober, morally-grounded people to overlook the telling coincidence of an alleged outrageous gas attack with the imminent defeat of the so-called rebels in Douma. They see no suspicious connection between Trump’s surprising announcement of US troop withdrawals and a provocation to revoke that decision. And they see no distraction from the contemporaneous cross-border slaughter of unarmed Palestinians by the Israeli military.

They see no calculation in scheduling the bombardment of Syria on Friday, the day before the arrival of the investigators from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) who might bring some light to the charges of chemical weapons’ use. And they are too distracted to be puzzled by the US military plan to destroy the facilities alleged to contain deadly gases and consequently risk harming innocent Syrian civilians.

Never mind that the US and its allies could rely upon no more than cell phone pictures and telephone interviews (so called “public source” information) to evidence the claims of a gas attack. It’s an astonishing fact that even though the “rebels” are supposedly democratically-minded allies who welcome CIA aid, no Western news service dares to actively cover their side by employing reporters on the ground. This has been the case with the US’s Islamic fundamentalist allies since CBS’s Dan Rather faked a visit to Afghanistan decades ago. The commitment of “freedom fighters” to “freedom of the press” seems to be wanting.

Oddly enough, the “authoritarian” Assad government welcomes Western journalists, though they-- excepting a CBS news reporter-- prefer the friendly confines of hotels in Beirut, Ankara, and Amman where they have easy access to press releases from the US embassy.

An affinity for distraction leads very many major media corporations to place complete, unthinking trust in UK-based reportage from the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. It goes unnoted that the Observatory is a one-man show performed by an Assad-hating shopkeeper in Coventry who refuses to share his methodology, but admits to relying on his friends and acquaintances in Syria. Amnesty International, with its usual smug casuistry, judges the Observatory to be reliable, though it bases its evaluation on the same indirect, patchy evidence.

Anywhere but in Syria, these claims, based on second- and third-hand reports, anecdotes, and social media, would fail any and all journalistic smell tests. Imagine NBC News basing coverage of violence in Chicago on the network of contacts of an amateur sleuth in San Francisco.

Film critic Louis Proyect interjects, in an oddly timed article on Counterpunch, that a website dubbed Bellingcat “is perhaps the only place where you can find fact-based reporting on chemical attacks in Syria.” A quick look at the website will reveal some more UK-based amateur sleuths assembling second- and third-hand accounts and social media reports.

True to his film critic credentials, he likens the Syrian “rebels” to “the Arab version of John Steinbeck’s Joad family,” a bizarre innocuousness for the Douma-based, brutal Jaysh al-Islam that former Secretary of State John Kerry once characterized as a sub-group of ISIL. Promptly, the Obama administration was forced to “correct” Kerry, who was ignorant of the head-choppers’ rehabilitation.

Proyect chose the exact moment-- when the honest left was scrambling to mount some public opposition to war on Syria-- to attack the left for its skepticism of the official account, an historically justifiable skepticism given such devastatingly consequential deceptions as the Tonkin Gulf resolution and the 2003 weapons-of-mass-destruction fiasco. The military and the security services lie. Skepticism is the only antidote to gullibility.

The one NGO that actually claims direct reportage in Syria, the opposition-based Violations Documentation Center in Syria (VDC) has had its Douma office attacked numerous times by Jaysh al-Islam, forcing its active reporters out of the area.

Unmentioned by the tunnel-vision media, strong circumstantial evidence, Red Crescent confirmation, Kurdish accusations, and a near self-confession has pointed to Jaysh al-Islam employing chlorine gas in April of 2016.

In our era of Entertainment-Tonight-style distractions, of Trump’s sex life, of twitter-duels, of anonymous sources and calculated leaks, a principled, wise statement is a rare and welcome event. Tulsi Gabbard, the Representative from Hawaii addressed Trump with the following:
The people of Syria want peace more than anything else in the world. Attacking Syria will not bring their war-torn country any closer to peace. U.S. military action against Syria will simply escalate and prolong the war, resulting in more senseless death, destruction, and suffering...

If you are truly concerned about the suffering of the Syrian people, then you must do all you can to bring about peace. A US military attack against Syria will expand and escalate this war, increasing their suffering and causing more death, more refugees, and fewer resources to invest in rebuilding our own communities right here at home…

I call upon you to resist the loud calls of war and instead wield the power of the Presidency to help bring peace to the people of Syria, their devastated country, and the region.

Gabbard’s appeal is a stroke of sanity and maturity in a frightening rush to war lubricated by an unprecedented campaign of mass distraction, by the marketing of a Marvel-comic foreign policy.

Greg Godels 

zzsblogml@gmail.com



Friday, April 6, 2018

Stirring the Energy Pot

Since February of 2017, I have written frequently about changes in the global political economy of energy and the effects of those changes on imperialist rivalries and accompanying political trends: New Developments in Political Economy: The Politics of Oil (2-6-17), US Imperialism: Changing Direction (6-25-17), More on Energy Imperialism (7-26-17), Economic Nationalism: What It Means (12-28-17).

The broad gist of these articles was that (1) the era of global economic integration was severely challenged by the 2007-2008 shock; (2) a technological revolution in energy extraction moved the US-- the leading imperialist power-- towards energy independence; (3) the failure of OPEC and others to rein in US energy production and the continuing sluggishness of growth and trade prodded the US towards a further goal of energy dominance through competition in energy markets; (4) without the burden of dependence on stable, secure international energy sources, US imperialism stepped back from its role as the primary promoter and guarantor of global integration and stability; (5) intensifying competition in the context of stagnant growth fostered the politics of economic nationalism and the promotion of national self-interest in contrast to the politics of globalism.

Since the British navy and other navies converted from coal to oil-burning vessels in the early 1900s and with the burgeoning dependence of modern militaries on oil, securing energy sources has been a strategic centerpiece of imperialist strategy.

It is not too great of an exaggeration to see German expansion in World War II as accelerated by a thirst for reliable energy supplies (Romania, Soviet Union). And the denial of energy resources to the Japanese militarists similarly prodded aggression in Southeast Asia.

For the US, declining domestic production and increasing reliance on foreign oil, particularly from the Middle East, led to greater attention to security and stability in the Middle East. The US established a powerful gendarmerie to police the region: the Shah’s Iran, Israel, and the Arabian petrostates. Billions of dollars of military hardware bolstered these watchdogs at various times in an effort to guarantee stable supplies of oil. US security services worked overtime to install stable regimes in all of the petrostates and their neighbors. US dominance was sealed with the establishment of the dollar as the petroleum-trading currency. The dominance was so complete that the US was able to use low petroleum prices as a weapon against the Soviets during the Cold War.

But matters have changed radically with the technology-enabled explosion of oil and natural gas production in the US.

The New

Writing in The Washington Post (The US is about to be the world’s top crude oil producer. Guess who didn’t see it coming, 3-7-18), Charles Lane reminds us of how matters were before: “During his 2006 ‘addicted to oil’ State of the Union address, President George W. Bush bemoaned imports from unstable parts of the world and called for replacing 75% of Middle East oil imports by 2025.” Bush, like his father, spent great efforts-- lives and wealth-- policing and bullying those “unstable” oil producers.  

Energy writer James Blas explains in Bloomberg Businessweek (The New World Order of Energy Will Be American, 1-29-18) how matters are now, how the US no longer has to “tiptoe around oil supplying nations” whether they are “friends” (Saudi Arabia) or “adversaries” (Venezuela). Instead, “energy dominance” is on the agenda.

Blas notes that the US won the battle for dominance started by Saudi Arabia in 2014 when the Saudis drove the price of West Texas crude oil down to as low as $26 a barrel through massive overproduction, expecting to cripple US shale production. Thanks to huge investments, the shale oil companies survived the attack, cut costs, and roared back. Today growth is faster than pre-2014 when prices for oil were actually much higher. And imports are now below 2.5 million barrels a day, the lowest level since record-keeping began in 1973 (imports were 12 million barrels per day in 2008).

Thanks to geo-political “flare-ups” (generally US-instigated instability), US exports at one point in 2017 hit 2 million barrels a day, mainly to Canada and the People's Republic of China (PRC). Exports are fully expected to grow even more in the future.

Venezuela is Illustrative of the US’s growing interest in disrupting oil markets to its advantage. Through disinvestment and sanctions, Venezuelan oil production dropped nearly 30% last year. Similarly, the US-NATO destruction of Libya has succeeded in disabling its oil industry. The wreckage of the Libyan energy industry means that oil prices would have to reach $78.10 per barrel for the industry to break even. With prices trending well below that number, there clearly is little chance for the Libyan industry to recover, invest, or add to the country’s sovereign wealth.

With massive corruption and an expensive war to finance, Saudi Arabia now needs $70 a barrel to merely break even. Hoping to escape from dependency on an oil regimen, the Saudis had planned a public offering (a sell-off to private interests) of its national oil company, ARAMCO. In the current unfavorable competitive environment, that move has been postponed time and time again.

Formerly a price dove-- the world’s advocate for low oil prices-- the Saudis are now desperate to achieve higher prices. Their escape plan from their losing hand in oil competition-- Vision 2030-- is endangered by modest prices. To reduce supply and increase both demand and prices, the Saudis are a strong advocate for sanctions against Iran, as are powerful energy interests within the US ruling class.

The new, competitive environment has brought forth new, unexpected alliances. Russia-- a frequent foe of Saudi foreign policy-- has recently signed a comprehensive energy agreement with Saudi Arabia. For its part, Russia is offering to take a substantial position in any future IPO of ARAMCO, boosting its prospects (along with a similar offer from the PRC). Saudi Arabia, in return has agreed to invest in Russian LNG projects and Eurasian drilling. It appears that Russia and the PRC are looking to guarantee security, stability, and cooperation among the energy-producing states, a role that the US has now abandoned with its pursuit of energy dominance and a role that is a necessary condition for peace in the region.

Because emerging US oil dominance (and sanctions: war by other means) threatens to disrupt the reliability and stability of existing petro-suppliers, the PRC has begun to negotiate crude-oil futures contracts in renminbis rather than petro-dollars.

Natural Gas

Much of the growing US animosity that is so apparent in US-Russia-PRC relations revolves around competition in the natural gas market. Through political fantasies, sanctions, threats, saber-rattling, and contrived affronts, the US has made every effort to wean Europe away from Russian natural gas, especially the expansion of pipelines to Europe promising consistent supply and favorable prices.

Some Eastern European countries, mired in historic anti-Russia enmity, have welcomed US liquefied natural gas (LNG) shipments, constructing new receiving facilities. They accept inconvenience, inefficiency, and higher prices as the cost of the politically motivated anti-Russia campaign. The US is trying to browbeat the rest of Europe into giving preference to US LNG.

But the big prize is the PRC, the fastest growing natural gas market in the world. Both Russia and the US are fighting to supply natural gas: Russia has a pipeline project (GAZPROM) sales agreement to supply 1.3 trillion cubic feet a year, while the US (Cheniere Energy) has contracts to supply 1.2 million tons of LNG per year.

The recently announced selective, very selective US tariffs-- apparently really only against PRC-- likely have a covert motive. US Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross suggested that increased Chinese purchases of LNG might have a happy consequence for tariffs by reducing the US-PRC trade deficit-- another shot fired in the energy wars.

Trade Tariffs

The sharpest edge of US economic nationalism is the emerging establishment and threats of trade tariffs. Short of embargo or out-and-out war, establishing disruptive trade barriers is the most hostile posture towards other nations. In the case of a powerful country like the US, tariffs constitute unabashed arrogance. As perceptive left commentators have noted, the US has always pressed its problems unto its weaker “friends,” but not with this hubris.

Lest anyone think this is a ‘Trump’ problem and not shared by fellow Republicans and Democrats, attention should be paid to what others are saying. When Trump announced the first round of tariffs directed at the PRC, Democratic Senate leader Chuck Schumer was quoted in The Wall Street Journal: “I don’t agree with President Trump on a whole lot, but today I want to give him a big pat on the back.”

And Reuters reported on April 1 that Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren, speaking in Beijing:

The Massachusetts Democrat and Trump foe, who has been touted as a potential 2020 presidential candidate despite rejecting such speculation, has said U.S. trade policy needs a rethink and that she is not afraid of tariffs.

After years of mistakenly assuming economic engagement would lead to a more open China, the U.S. government was waking up to Chinese demands for U.S. companies to give up their know-how in exchange for access to its market, Warren said.

“The whole policy was misdirected. We told ourselves a happy-face story that never fit with the facts,” Warren told reporters on Saturday, during a three-day visit to China that began on Friday.

Clearly, broad sections of the US ruling class have joined the trend towards economic nationalism.

The implications for peace or war are stark.

Greg Godels
zzsblogml@gmail.com


Friday, March 23, 2018

Running Amok


Periods of generalized fear and mass hysteria are not new to the United States. In the aftermath of both World Wars, a virulent Red Scare spread near and far. Thousands were caught in an official dragnet aimed at capturing Communists and other dissenters. At the same time, the government and powerful interests terrorized the rest of the population with fear of incrimination and stoked hatred toward those with ‘dangerous’ ideas. Threats were manufactured.

The suddenly shrunken ranks of principled civil libertarians, those yet to be cowed by the hysteria, saw parallels with witch hunts and inquisitions for good reason. They saw fear spawning outrageous claims and ridiculous charges. The fear of nuclear annihilation contributed to the madness of the 1950s, along with the cultural vulgarity of zombies and vampires. Flying saucers, alien invaders, rock and rollers, fluoride, motorcycle gangs, juvenile delinquents, and defiant atheists added to the terror of that time.

Some saw this as sheer insanity, but behind the orgy of fear was a calculated purging of domestic dissent and a stoking of foreign aggression and intervention, both essential for the crafting of a post-war political and foreign policy consensus. The calculation came easy to wealthy and powerful elements who had absorbed the lessons of the post-Civil War South, an era that nurtured outrageously contrived threats attributed to former slaves. The demonization of African Americans in the South during Reconstruction and after served well as the basis for the virulent racism that protected the privileges of the white upper classes. Fear sustained a terroristic, racist ruling class

Therefore, US elites readily recognize the value of fear-mongering as an instrument of persuasion, as an arm-twister, as a lever of consent. They foresee and secure the eager complicity of the corporate media in amplifying these fears.

True to form, the lapdog capitalist media accept their mission of uncritically following the lead of US policy makers in manufacturing conflict in Eastern Europe, in Latin America, Northern Africa, and, most diligently, the Middle East. Media bought and sold the contrived excuses for invading Iraq without a whimper of dissent. The current Western consensus on Syria is grounded from “reporting” bylined Beirut or Ankara, where US embassy press releases are readily and safely available, or from the claims of a London-based “observatory” that incredibly touts reliable sources from afar in every oppositional town or village in Syria.

The foundation for this perversion of objectivity is fear, fear of ill-defined “terrorism,” fear of Islam, fear of brown people. As a result of this madness, the Middle East is fractured.

The historic success of fear-mongering has emboldened US rulers to offer a further set of demons, another source of great evil-- Russia. At a moment of slack political credibility, at a time of lost confidence in the US electoral process, Russia-bashing is serving as a useful distraction. It’s difficult to discern an evil-inspired motive for Russia to want to destroy our rotting political system when its system resembles our own money-driven, elite-dominated, craven media “pseudo-democracy.” Maybe they hope to retaliate for the US intervention in securing political changes throughout Eastern Europe, especially on multiple occasions in Ukraine. Doesn’t anyone remember US diplomat Victoria Nuland crudely selecting the leaders for a US-friendly Ukraine?

Despite no evidence-- credible or otherwise-- that any real damage has been accomplished by Russian perfidy, the millionaire TV news readers and the screeching commentariat have succeeded in turning public opinion around in a short span. Gallup reports that in the winter of 2010, most US respondents (47%) had a “favorable” opinion of Russia. By a small margin, most people had put aside the Cold War craziness. But by the spring of 2017, 70% of the respondents now had an “unfavorable” view of Russia. A remarkable turnaround based on little more than fear-mongering and innuendo.

Russia-bashing has long since moved beyond the charge of political influence that energized it. Like previous US infections of political hysteria, Russia now causes everything from tooth decay to impotence. One could see it only too clearly in a series of copycat headlines that appeared a week or so ago. BBC, Time, CNN, Reuters, The Times, ABC, and a host of other prominent media outlets featured a close variation of the headline Putin Ordered a Passenger Plane to be Shot Down. Some headlines were more shrill than others, some added that he called off the hit, but the lasting impression was that the callous Putin was about to order a commercial passenger plane to be blown up with the death of many innocent people before backing off. For those who bothered to read on, the plane was believed to be directed by a terrorist and heading for the Sochi Olympic games. Action was called off when the threat proved bogus.

Given that the emergency procedure would be and is a commonplace with any competent security service, it is difficult to understand why so many news services chose to highlight such an insignificant Putin anecdote, except to exploit the existing anti-Putin mindset.

No opportunity is missed to further expand the fears of a Russian plan to destroy the US, though no one has exposed a credible motive.

Nearly all previous fright orchestrations have parlayed fear of a foreign “enemy” into a domestic crackdown-- threats from Reds abroad mean threats from Reds at home, for example.

So far, the RussiaGate fanatics have seemingly sought few domestic leftist foes to boil in oil.

That may be changing.

An unlikely witch hunter, the iconic liberal Southern Poverty Law Center, served up a pot-boiler conspiracy theory linking the “Brown” with the “Red”-- the so-called “alt-right” and the anti-imperialist movement. The multipolar spin: how fascists operationalize left wing resentment, authored by Alexander Reid Ross, a geography graduate student at Portland State University, pretends to expose a kind of united front between left and right knitted together by dark forces involving Putin, Rasputin-like Russians, and Russian “soft-power networks.”

Ross expresses his debt to an intellectual godfather, an anonymous self-styled anarchist blogger, “Vagabond,” who devoted 46,000 words in January to a meandering, unhinged attack on the US left for its “crypto-fascism.” Oddly, the acid-tongued Vagabond even castigates his sycophant, Ross, for posting on Counterpunch-- the “red-brown cesspool.”

A sample of Vagabond’s writing captures its ominous, conspiratorial tone:
Now, why should the Stalinoid/Marcyite WWP and the PSL be shunned, apart from their obvious history of genocide denial and support for atrocities, lies in their alliance with fascists. The difference with Ross and the Marcyite parties is that Ross, while unfortunately published by CounterPunch, does not himself collaborate with fascists while the Marcyite parties are active collaborators of Lyndon LaRouche and Duginists.

The supreme irony of this innuendo-laced diatribe is that it is so reminiscent of the language of the attacks in the late 1960s on the National Welfare Rights Organization and the Marxist left by the National Caucus of Labor Committees and its guru Lyn Marcus-- the aforementioned Lyndon Larouche. Like Larouche, Vagabond equates sharing a position on a public issue, any and even the most casual associations, or even attending a meeting or conference with the sin of “active collaboration.” This ‘gotcha’ politics was once solely the posture of the McCarthyite right, but has now become a signature feature with phony ‘antifascists’ like Vagabond and Ross.

Sadly, this charge of “red-brown” alliance seems to have gained traction in some anarchist and ‘antifa’ circles. In contrast to Vagabond’s shrill rants, Ross chooses a slightly more measured tone, referring to the imagined left-fascist connection as “syncretic”-- “syncretic networks,” “syncretic news sites,” “syncretic figures,” “syncretic hub,” etc. Despite the attempt at academic-sounding cosmetics, both authors share the goals of guilt by association, of slandering the left.

Unshorn of the dubious web of ‘associations,’ the argument at the center of the attack-- if it can be dignified by calling it an argument-- is quite simply and transparently invalid:
The ‘fascists’ or ‘alt-right’ supports a multi-polar world

The Russians support a multi-polar world

The left supports a multi-polar world

Ergo, The ‘fascists/alt-right,’ the Russians, and the left are in alliance or, in a “syncretic” relationship.

Repeatedly, Ross (and others) build their case around the allegation that support for a multi-polar world-- a world without one solely dominant power-- is the tell in demonstrating underlying alliances, common networks, or sympathies. It must never occur to those seeing conspiracy that people could support the same end-- a multi-polar world-- for vastly different reasons. It must never occur to Ross, Vagabond, and their ilk (or the Southern Poverty Law Center) that the rational alternative today to a multi-polar world is a unipolar world like the one envisioned by the ruling class of the US. US elites brashly claimed that world for themselves after the demise of the Soviet Union, costing those standing in the way millions of lives.

But it is futile to reason with pathologies.

To add the illusion of seriousness, Ross supplies the reader with a pretentious network ‘map’ that obfuscates more than it clarifies, a Venn diagram that is not a Venn diagram, and a “conceptual model” that is a Venn diagram. The point of this exercise is only to present the Far Right and the Hard Left visually as overlapping or interlinked, just in case the narrative proved too convoluted and tenuous to suggest such a conclusion.

It is a curious picture, displaying a bizarre caricature of the left and singling out only those elements of the left that challenge the current US foreign policy line: active measures against Russia, Assad’s Syria, Iran, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Eastern Ukraine, Venezuela, and others. From Black Agenda Reports’ Margaret Kimberley to ANSWER’s Brian Becker, outspoken anti-imperialists are labeled as part of a “red-brown” network. Workers World Party, Party of Liberation and Socialism, and even the Green Party’s presidential candidate, Jill Stein, are allies of the fascists in this demented picture. The leading anti-imperialist organizations, the ANSWER Coalition and the United National Antiwar Coalition are similarly charged with ‘brown’ affiliation.

Of course the glue that binds these individuals and organizations to the hard right, in the estimation of Ross and friends, is Russia, its foreign policy, and especially its media arms-- RT and Sputnik. An appearance on either medium guarantees the “red-brown” disgrace.

For those in power, for those who crafted the imperialist policies that brought death, destruction, and chaos to the former Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Venezuela, Iraq, Libya, Syria, and a host of other countries troubled by US intervention, an attack on the small, but dedicated “red” US left could not be more welcome.

History has shown that the vaunted liberal US values of fair play, due process, measured judgement, presumption of innocence, etc. are only credible when they are exercised under duress. Civil liberties are of greatest use precisely when they are most unpopular.

History also shows that in the most challenging times, in times of witch hunts and inquisitions, few liberals will step away from their comforts in defense of their values. Liberal fidelity runs thin.

With the endorsement of Ross’s baseless slander of the anti-imperialist and Marxist left, the Southern Poverty Law Center adds another chapter to that liberal history of disappointment, hypocrisy, and spinelessness.
The Southern Poverty Law Center has, on March 14, taken down the Ross posting. It is no longer accessible. In place of it, an “Explanation and Apology” has been posted that is neither an adequate explanation nor a sincere apology for the contemptible views originally posted. As SPLC sees it, “the article did not make the “point as clearly as it could or should have”, an explanation worthy of an adolescent caught in a fib. Further, the apology is extended to “those who believe they have been falsely described in it…”. There is no concession here that they have been falsely described. In my view, this weaselly “correction” only underscores the treason of the liberals in these dangerous times.

Greg Godels

zzsblogml@gmail.com