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Saturday, January 13, 2018

Looking Back





The year 2017 was not entirely a bad one in the US. We learned that, despite the fact that we have no serious, mass party for socialism, millions of US citizens have a favorable, positive view of socialism. Actually, we first learned that fact from a Gallup poll in mid-2016. To the surprise of many and the alarm of others, Gallup found that over half of 18-29 year olds had a favorable view of socialism. The Wall Street Journal/NBC poll discovered a year later that over half of every age group thought that “To help people, government should do more.” This result is perhaps an even more significant finding since it provides some meaning to what people want when they endorse socialism, as well as what they want even with their fear of the word “socialism.” In that poll, nearly two-thirds of 18-29 year olds agreed with the statement.

The fact that interest in “socialism” is growing dramatically though there is no mass socialist or communist party is a paradoxical reflection on US political life (though not only that of the US). Part of the reason for this paradox, of course, is the enormous effort that US elites, corporations, academic institutions, security services, media, and politicians have made to intensely demonize all but the most benign expressions of socialist thought and organization.

But much blame must be shared by our own left, which has been shattered into a thousand sects, cults, and tendencies and cowed into submission from fear of red-baiting. The Cold War anti-Communist mentality remains deeply embedded in the generations that preceded the more open-minded millennials. Anything-but-Communism (ABC) constitutes an attitude that promotes “respectable” socialisms like utopian cooperatives, socialism through the backdoor of the Democratic Party, trickle-down socialism, armchair academic socialism, socialism of the soul, and a host of socialisms that dissolve into tepid reformism or socialism over the horizon. No wonder the ruling class sleeps well at night.

Death to the NFL!

Another change that came into sharp relief in 2017 was the persistent loss of fan support for professional football. In 2016, TV viewership dropped by 8%. And last year, TV numbers dropped another 9.7%, a precipitous two-year decline!

Given that professional football represents almost everything that is wrong with the US and combines all of the elements, from other sports, that are socially harmful, I would like to think that the NFL decline is inversely proportional to the growth of interest in socialism.

The NFL transmits violence and bullying to our youth. It celebrates the victory of power over weakness, without any respect for compassion, pity, fair play, or empathy. The business-posing-as-a-sport pillages municipal and regional coffers for stadia and amenities while paying little or no taxes. The teams glorify militarism and the cult of the hero. The owners are super wealthy, including a nasty group of right-wing racists. And Black gladiators risk limb and life to fill the owners’ coffers.

It’s no wonder that no other country shows a serious interest in an NFL franchise.

Of course, we must credit the disgusting blacklisting of Colin Kaepernick for some of the decline in interest.

Let’s hope that a similar disconnect from Dr. Phil, celebrity-worship, British royalty, and zombies will bring further interest in socialism in 2018.

2017 was not Pro-Life

For the first time since the early 1960s (before Medicare and Medicaid), life expectancy in the US dropped for two consecutive years. The head of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention attributes the drop to the increase in opioid use, a phenomenon that correlates pretty closely with desperation, poverty, and alienation.

A year ago, when The New York Times reported the 2016 decrease, its sources were puzzled. Yes, they saw the increase in deaths from opioid abuse, but eight out of the top ten causes of death were also up, as was the infant mortality rate. The Times discovered a more revealing datum, a finding that cut to the heart of the matter: a Brookings Institute study found that a man in the lowest 10% of incomes born in 1950 will live fourteen years less than his counterpart with earnings in the top 10%.

Inequality!

Clearly, the Obama jewel, the ACA, has done less than nothing to address this great cause of premature death.

And yet the chief battle of 2017 was a semi-successful struggle waged by the leaders of Labor, the Democratic Party, and a host of “progressive” organizations to save this bloated, corporate-friendly, drug company-sponsored, bureaucratically bewildering sham of a healthcare program.

How far we have fallen!

Deplore the Deplorables

Certainly 2017, like the run-up to the 2016 election, was the climax of willful blindness to the plight of vast numbers of the working class and the working poor in the small towns and cities outside of the major metropolises. Hillary Clinton famously stubbed her presumptive Presidential toe on this neglect when she characterized the group as “deplorables.” For petty bourgeois liberals, a best-selling book gave sustenance to their elitist contempt for the decimated working class in the US heartland. Venture capitalist J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, a memoir of his early years, hit the top of The New York Times best-seller list in both 2016 and 2017. Vance, telling a modern-day Horatio Alger story, titillated the burghers with his tales of abuse, failed character, and backwardness. Vance paints the deplorables as, indeed, deplorable.

A Fordham University professor published a scholarly rejoinder to Hillbilly Elegy at the end of 2017. Based on extensive research and historical backgrounding, Ramp Hollow: The Ordeal of Appalachia tells a story of capitalist exploitation, neglect, and political chicanery that refutes the blame-the-victim anecdotes of Vance. Author Steven Stoll offers context and nuance, compassion and respect, where Vance projects arrogant contempt. Given its unlikely appeal to jaded liberals, Ramp Hollow will likely not make the best-sellers list.

...the First Time as Tragedy, the Second Time as Farce

It is impossible to leave 2017 without reflecting on the new Red-less “Red Scare.” The old Red scare was a mid-century ruling class reign of terror in response to the Soviet victory over fascism and its painfully won respect with the world’s millions. The perceived threat of socialism ascendant brought a hysterical panic in the bastions of capitalism. A tragic, ruthless clampdown followed.

The farcical RussiaGate of 2017 reignites the old Russia fears, but this time against a capitalist rival. The perpetrators of this giant scam count on the public’s faulty memory and mass confusion of a Cold War adversary with the current government of Russia. To any disinterested follower of recent Russian history, Russia looks like a junior version of the US, with similar great power aspirations, hopes of imperial penetration of new markets, and rampant militarism. History teaches, for those not contemptuous of history, that these tendencies are features of every developed capitalist state. Similarly, Russian “democracy” more and more resembles its US counterpart which is dominated by wealthy, powerful elites and sustained by a gutless, fawning media.

We can, however, rejoice that Russian interests often conflict with the most belligerent, arrogant policies of US elites (Syria, for example) in ways that neutralize or forestall US aggression. But only a fool would mistake checking the US internationally with embodying the cause of anti-imperialism.

But vilifying Russia is useful. For US ruling elites, portraying Russia as an enemy prepares the public for confrontations to come. Much as the Maine debacle of 1898 set the stage in the US for a war for Spain’s colonies, the endless tales of Russian intrigue and mischief justify the saber-rattling and aggressive sanctions that follow.

The Democratic Party and the media eagerly join this project for their own purposes. RussiaGate has revitalized cable news and breathed life back into the print media and the news services. Sensationalized stories and fear-mongering are the stock-in-trade of the modern entertainment-oriented monopoly media.

Of course, RussiaGate is tailor-made for a political party suffering huge electoral setbacks despite overwhelming resources, especially if it can link its loss to external factors like Russian interference. The Democrats-- ideologically hollow-- have pulled every trick to link Russia to the sitting Republican President, Donald Trump. Unwilling to project a peoples’ program, the Democrats intend to win the 2018 interim elections by simply attacking Trump and his vaporous Russia connections. For the Democrats, Trump’s propensity towards arrogance, outrageousness, and lies is the gift that keeps on giving. They plan to run on Trump and Trump alone, nothing substantial.  

While most people find their living standards stagnant or sinking, and while climate change, rising inequality, racism, and foreign killing go ignored in the corporate media, the RussiaGate theatrics dominate the news.

RussiaGate does serve as a reminder of the thinness of liberal commitment to ‘liberal’ values. In the Red Scare era, liberal devotion to the Bill of Rights collapsed like a house of cards in the face of the McCarthyite onslaught. Today, liberals are leading the charge in an assault on fair play, due process, and the rules of evidence. Innuendo, anonymous sources, and hearsay form the tissue that supports the daily Russia insanity. And the glorification of the odious-- the FBI, CIA, and NSA-- is shameless.

The fact that the celebrated Mueller investigation has produced nothing substantial beyond an obvious fact-- Israel meddles in our elections-- should calm the unhinged. But it doesn’t. The Democrats need both Trump and Russia at least until the November elections.

May we all survive 2018!

Greg Godels
zzsblogml@gmail.com



Thursday, December 28, 2017

Economic Nationalism: What it Means



In the throes of the 2007-2008 economic collapse, I projected that the global economy would be irrevocably and qualitatively marred by the unfolding events. I foresaw a shift in the structure of international relations, a shift away from the so-called “globalization” interlude. Writing in November of 2008:

The economic crisis has reversed the post-Soviet process of international integration – so-called "globalization." As with the Great Depression, the economic crisis strikes different economies in different ways. Despite efforts to integrate the world economies, the international division of labor and the differing levels of development foreclose a unified solution to economic distress. The weak efforts at joint action, the conferences, the summits, etc. cannot succeed simply because every nation has different interests and problems, a condition that will only become more acute as the crisis mounts.

A crisis of the severity of 2007-2008 understandably challenges some earlier verities, but more importantly, it renders some economic roads now impassable. My view was that the era of completely open, free, and secure international exchange fueling dramatic growth in trade was not a new stage of capitalism-- as many wished to argue-- but a phase created by politically contingent factors and spurred by the intensified international competition of the last thirty years of the twentieth century. Moreover, that phase-- unhelpfully called “globalization”-- was both fortuitous and disastrous for the fate of capitalism. I elaborated on this further in April of 2009:

To simplify greatly, a healthy, expanding capitalist order tends to promote intervals of global cooperation – enforced by a hegemonic power – and trade expansion, while a wounded, shrinking capitalist order tends towards autarky and economic nationalism. The Great Depression was a clear example of heightened nationalism and economic self-absorption. Most commentators acknowledge this fact, but attribute it to the predilections of national leaders. It was said that Roosevelt “sabotaged” the London Economic Conference, for example. Earlier, he said: “Our international trade relations, though vastly important, are in point of time and necessity secondary to the establishment of a sound economy.” It is my contention, and I believe essential to a Marxist understanding, that Roosevelt’s reaction was an expression of the logic of capitalism under stress; the structural development that led to intense nationalism throughout Europe, especially in Germany and Italy, and ultimately to war.

The stress of the 2007-2008 economic collapse created “centrifugal forces,” forces pulling apart the institutions, the regulations, and the commitment to an open, unified, and universal global marketplace. In its place would come a growing national partisanship, a commitment to winning-against-adversaries, rather than partnership. This process of “de-globalizing,” of going it alone would gain against both the process and ideology of economic integration.

I believe these projections have been borne out. My February, 2017 article New Developments in Political Economy: The Demise of “Globalization”, makes the case that the trade internationalism of the post-Soviet era is in profound decline. Moreover, emergent and growing nationalism enjoys its vitality from the reaction to the failure of the global order. Events in the months since the article appear only to underscore that claim.

Rising Economic Nationalism

President Trump has substantially called the World Trade Organization (WTO) irrelevant to US trade policies. But skepticism about the WTO precedes his political rise as a nationalist. The once heralded WTO Doha (Doha Development Agenda) was mired in dispute and ineffectiveness from its inception in 2001 and especially after 2008. The annual number of WTO trade disputes has more than doubled since 2008 even though trade growth has been tepid (below global GDP growth for the last 3 years), a sure sign of growing protectionist sentiments. The recent December 10-13 meeting of the WTO was largely a failure. “The trade body’s 164 members didn’t reach full consensus on any of the major objectives it had set itself before the meeting,” in the words of Bloomberg’s Bryce Baschuk and Charlie Devereux, with the EU blaming failure on “destructive behavior by several large countries.”

But the European Union (EU) is itself enduring a burst of economic nationalism. While the popular press and liberal pundits stress the role of xenophobia in Brexit, the economic ills that fueled the growth of nationalism in the UK vote against EU membership are largely neglected. Also, the breadth of the rejection of open market policies throughout the EU are largely missed.

A recent The Wall Street Journal article (12-14-17) affirms my projections made in 2008 and 2009 for the EU:

The financial crisis that erupted in 2008 caused a drop in trade between EU countries, with little rebound since beyond precrisis levels. As Europe’s swoon dragged on, many politicians strove to prop up their economies with fixes that prioritized domestic markets over the EU. (The EU, a Disciple of Free Trade, is Erecting Barriers)

The WSJ author, Valentina Pop, choses the example of Emmanuel Macron, the new French President, to highlight the trend in the EU. Macron ran for office as a passionate advocate for Europeanism and free markets. Nonetheless, he nationalized a shipyard to block its purchase by an Italian firm, he supports limiting foreign employment, and he “gutted” dairy imports from EU countries. Further evidence for the retreat from border-free markets and the embrace of nationalism comes from the growth of trade barriers: legal actions against violators of the EU market openness more than tripled last year.

Earlier this year, the European commission moved legally against Romania and Hungary and, in June, against Poland over economic disputes.

Nothing shows the fraying of the one-global-market consensus and the turn to economic nationalism more than the dispute escalating between the US and Canada and waged though their corporate surrogates, Bombardier and Boeing. Boeing lodged a complaint against Canadian aircraft firm Bombardier with the US Commerce Department. With typical US arrogance, Commerce slapped a 300% tariff on Bombardier planes sold in the US.

Indignantly, the Canadian government cancelled its plan to purchase $5.2 billion of new Boeing fighters to supplement its existing Boeing fighter jets. Instead, it will accept bids in 2019 for a purchase of 88 new fighters, but with the pointed caveat that any bidder causing injury to Canada’s interests would be disadvantaged, a not very subtle slap at Boeing.

Further, as Canada grows increasingly unhappy with renegotiations over NAFTA, the government has turned to the People's Republic of China (PRC) to craft an alternative free-trade agreement (Canadian merchandise exports to the PRC have more than doubled since 2007). Clearly, one of history’s oldest and most intimate trading partnerships is under increasing stress from economic nationalism.

Elsewhere, I have demonstrated the qualitative changes in global energy markets, along with the dramatic intensification of competition and associated hostilities. The shifting energy alliances, the swings in market share, and the political instabilities that are commonplace have spurred the turn to economic nationalism.

What does it Mean?

The hasty conclusion that expansion of global markets along with universal homage to a new global community constituted an irreversible change in capitalist relations is now thoroughly discredited by the realities of imperialist aggression and economic crisis. In fact, the “globalization” moment coincided with the vast inclusion of new economies – the former socialist community – and the absolute hegemony of a capitalist power – the US. History has known other moments, but theorists – including many on the left – were too awed by capitalist triumphalism, drawn to knee jerk anti-Communism, and desirous of facile answers to recognize this continuity with the logic of state-monopoly capitalism. Well before World War I, a similar moment occurred with the massive expansion of markets under the global hegemony of the British Empire, a period followed by economic decline spurring extreme nationalism.

As I stress in the above passage, written in 2009, the normal course of global economic relations in the era of state monopoly capitalism is intense competition, pressure on profitability, accumulation crises, rising nationalism, and conflict. This is the norm in the age of imperialism. This is the logic of late capitalism.

Appearances may suggest to some a different narrative-- enduring prosperity in the mid-twentieth century, peace guaranteed by economic internationalism at the turn of the new century-- but the reality is different, far different. Reality is imposed by crisis. And the upheaval of 2007-2008 exposed the reality of fierce competition and national self-interest.

For some, the rise of nationalism is strictly a political phenomenon anchored in demagogy and ignorance; they see no linkage with the course of capitalism. But the economic base for this phenomenon cannot be denied. Liberal markets produced the crisis and the resulting human suffering sparked a political response.

And ruling classes, faced with pressure on profits from increasingly desperate and cut-throat competition in the unprecedented slow-growth recovery, are inexorably driven towards economic nationalism. While economic nationalism is a natural fit with the far right’s ultra-patriotism, it attracts centrist forces as well. Elements of the US trade union movement and Democratic industrial state politicians have warmed to economic nationalism since the days of bashing Japanese imports. Liberal Senators like Sherrod Brown have quietly worked with President Trump around overturning trade deals like NAFTA-- “strange bedfellows” in the words of The Wall Street Journal.

We do not have to press the parallel too hard to recognize that the economic nationalism of today threatens to spark disastrous wars, as did the rabid economic nationalism of the European powers in the prelude to World War I (and World War II). As in both eras, hostility and tensions are smoldering. And as in that era, war promises to follow, with devastation well beyond the comprehension of a complacent, self-absorbed population. The threat of general war, nuclear war, is possibly greater than any time in my lifetime, excepting the early Cold War years of General Curtis “Dr. Strangelove” LeMay and the US nuclear monopoly.

While extreme right nationalism is a serious political danger, the rise of economic nationalism, a growing policy consensus with capitalist rulers, threatens the very existence of millions, if not the planet.

Greg Godels
zzsblogml@gmail.com


Saturday, December 16, 2017

The More Things Change, the More they Stay the Same


Some fifty years ago, ruling elites throughout the capitalist world settled into their overstuffed chairs and poured drinks to celebrate victory over the aspirations for independence held dear by formerly colonial peoples. In one case-- Ghana-- a popular leader, a venerated leader of African independence and African unity-- was deposed in a 1966 coup sponsored by foreign powers and carried out by national traitors. In the other case-- Guyana-- the most popular political party for decades, the most determined advocate for independence, was subverted and defeated in the rigged elections prior to the 1966 granting of formal independence.


Both Ghana and Guyana were long subjected to colonial rule, Ghana as part of Britain’s African colonial possessions and Guyana as part of the British empire’s Caribbean colonies. As pressures for independence mounted after the Second World War, both countries spawned dedicated and diligent leaders who had earned the trust of the people. Kwame Nkrumah and his Convention People’s Party (CPP) and Cheddi Jagan and his People’s Progressive Party (PPP) had led their respective country’s fight for independence from the beginning, suffering imprisonment, threats, and trials.



Nkrumah and Jagan shared another characteristic as well, a characteristic that made them the pressing target of imperialism: a vision of social development outside of the confinement of capitalism. They knew that centuries of capitalist exploitation proved that escaping colonial domination would require a parallel break with capitalism and its institutions. In fact, Nkrumah wrote a pioneering work on the inevitable economic subjugation of newly liberated peoples who chose to continue on the capitalist road, Neo-Colonialism: The Last Stage of Imperialism. Kwame Nkrumah’s work was both brilliant in its application of Marxism and prescient in anticipating the lingering dependency of the former colonies that choose to remain tangled in the capitalist web.



Dark Days in Ghana



In his 1968 book (Dark Days in Ghana) recounting the circumstances of the coup, Nkrumah noted that many forces were arrayed against his programs from the day of formal independence in 1957. Nonetheless, he and his party were able to implement initiatives to rapidly bring social, cultural, and educational achievements to a high level. By 1961, technical and secondary school enrollment had increased 437.8% and university students 478.8% from pre-independence. In the same period, hospital beds had increased 159.9% and doctors and dentists by 220.5%. Roads increased around 50%, telephones 245.2%, and electrical power generated 38.4%. Ghana had achieved the highest per capita standard of living and highest literacy rate in Africa. And Ghana’s Seven Year Plan was to create a dramatic increase in industry, building upon the increased electrification flowing from the country’s massive Volta dam project.



But Ghana could only move forward if it escaped the raw material trap that nearly all former colonies suffered as the legacy of colonialism and dependency. For Cuba, it was sugar cane, for Chile it was copper, for Guyana, it was bauxite, and for Ghana it was cocoa. Today, of course in Venezuela it is oil. In every case, the colony existed in the past only as a supplier of inexpensive raw materials for the industries of the European colonizers.



In the late 1950s the international price of cocoa rose inordinately. Nkrumah’s party shrewdly taxed the growers to utilize the surplus for social advancement, stabilizing the cost of food and other consumer goods, and supporting the diversification of the Ghanaian economy. But by 1965 the price had collapsed, thus fueling the popular discontent sparked by the enemies of socialism. Raw material prices in the international market became a weapon against socialist development. The parallel with modern day Venezuela, the collapse of oil prices, and the escalation of opposition on all fronts cannot be missed. The economic hardships in Ghana were skillfully transformed into violence. In Nkrumah’s words:



An all-out offensive is being waged against the progressive, independent states. Where the more subtle methods of economic pressure and political subversion have failed to achieve the desired result, there has been a resort to violence in order to promote a change of regime and prepare the way for the establishment of a puppet government.



In addition to manipulating the price of cocoa exports (and Ghana’s import prices of finished goods necessary for industrialization), “..imperialism withheld investment and credit guarantees from potential investors, put pressure on existing providers of credit to the Ghanaian economy, and negated applications for loans made by Ghana to American-dominated financial institutions such as the I.M.F.”



By way of self-criticism, Nkrumah reflects:



We expected opposition to our development plans from the relics of the old “opposition”, from the Anglophile intellectuals and professional elite, and of course from neo-colonists… What we did not perhaps anticipate sufficiently was the backsliding of some of our own party members… who for reasons of personal ambition, and because they only paid lip-service to socialism, sought to destroy the Party.



Corruption proved to be a major problem in Ghana, as it does in every former colony, every emerging nation. The lack of robust democratic institutions-- denied by colonial and neo-colonial domination-- inevitably produces a corrosive contempt for the common good. Nor do the colonial masters leave proper mechanisms for reining in corruption after they reluctantly accepted independence. Countries like Venezuela, Brazil, and Argentina that choose the path of national independence are plagued by this conundrum.



Of course, it is the security services of the imperialist countries that plant the seeds of reaction, nourish the seeds, and organize the harvest. In Ghana, they stirred secessionist sentiments of people in Ashanti, Togoland, and the Northern region. Previously, they had used the secessionist forces in Katanga to destabilize Congo and overthrow the patriot Patrice Lumumba. In our time, ethnic and religious differences were stoked in the former Yugoslavia and throughout the Middle East, including Iraq, Libya, and Syria to destabilize independent governments.



And the monopoly media in the capitalist countries unified around the joint themes that Nkrumah was an unpopular “dictator” and his government was entirely too close to the socialist countries, particularly the Soviet Union. In the aftermath of the coup, a sham event was contrived to demonstrate Nkrumah’s unpopularity.



Much publicity was given in the imperialist press and on T.V., to the pulling down of the statue of myself in front of the National Assembly building in Accra. It was made to appear as angry crowds had torn the statue from its pedestal...But it was not for nothing that no photographs could be produced to show the actual pulling down of the statue… In fact when the statue was pulled down… no unauthorized person was allowed into the area. All those who were there at the time were those brought in by the military… Even the jubilant imperialist press evidently saw nothing strange in publishing photographs of bewildered toddlers, tears running down their checks sitting on a headless statue, while the same imperialist press extolled what it described as a “most popular coup”.



One cannot miss the parallel, thirty-seven years later, with the contrived, but dramatic overturning of the statue of Saddam Hussein in Firdos Square, a staged media extravaganza engineered by US authorities to demonstrate Saddam’s unpopularity.



In retrospect, Nkrumah asserts:



In fact, the fault was that, from the very circumstances in which we found ourselves, we were unable to introduce more “dangerous ideas”... What went wrong in Ghana was not that we attempted to have friendly relations with the countries of the socialist world but that we maintained too friendly relations with the countries of the western bloc.



The champions of national independence, especially the advocates for socialism need to heed this lesson, embracing those “dangerous ideas” that drive the revolutionary process forward, strengthening the hand of the revolutionaries and weakening the hand of the opposition. Backtracking and accommodation are not options.



The West on Trial



If Nkrumah’s Ghana is an example of the engineered coup sponsored by imperialism and its toadies, if the 1966 coup is a repeat of Iran in 1953 and a precursor of Chile in 1973, then the rigged election in Guyana was the prototype for the so-called “color revolutions” sponsored by the US and its allies in the period since the demise of European socialism.



As the leading figure in the post-war independence struggle of what was then the colony known as British Guiana, Cheddi Jagan soon realized that aspirations for independence were thwarted not only by the British administration, but more decisively by the US government. After his party’s sweeping victory in the 1953 House of Assembly elections, the British sent troops and suspended the colonial constitution out of hysterical fear of a Marxist takeover.



Writing in his post-mortem account, The West on Trial: The Fight for Guyana’s Freedom, Jagan noted: “…the main cause, I believe, for the suspension of our constitution was pressure from the government of the United States… We were not surprised, therefore that the US government gave its blessing to the British gunboat diplomacy… Ostensibly, the United States was urging the colonial powers to grant independence to colonial territories. But in reality, the independence was nothing more than the nominal transfer of powers to those who either conformed or showed signs of conforming to US policies.”



From the 1961 elections, where Jagan’s PPP won its third consecutive election, gaining 20 of 35 seats, until formal independence on May 26, 1966, the US poured millions of dollars into every imaginable plan to erode the popular support of the PPP. The opposition promised huge investments and loans that would be forthcoming with a pro-capitalist government. The opposition boycotted or refused to collaborate with any and all development programs or social measures, including a budget.



The capitalist media echoed the opposition with a shrill anti-Communist campaign. “All of this was written at a time when it is alleged that we had destroyed the freedom of the press! We did not own our own daily newspaper to counter the distortions and lies of the press. This is a problem which confronts all national governments interested in change,” Jagan remarked.



Violence was sparked and fanned by the opposition, loudly labelling the PPP “authoritarian.” Racialism between African-origin and Indian-origin Guyanese was stoked. The US labor movement’s infamous AIFLD (a collaboration with the CIA) fomented strikes built upon lies and distortions.



Well-connected US columnist Drew Pearson, writing in March of 1964 explained the US involvement:



The United States permitted Cuba to go Communist purely through default and diplomatic bungling. The problem now is to look ahead and make sure we don’t make the same mistake again… in British Guiana, President Kennedy, having been badly burnt in the Bay of Pigs operations, did look ahead.



Though it was not published at the time, this was the secret reason why Kennedy took his trip to England in the summer of 1963… [It was] only because of Kennedy’s haunting worry that British Guiana would get its independence in July, 1963, and set up another Communist government under the guidance of Fidel Castro.



…[T]he main thing they agreed on was that the British would refuse to grant independence to Guiana because of the general strike against pro-Communist Prime Minister, Cheddi Jagan.

The strike was secretly inspired by a combination of US Central Intelligence money and British intelligence. [A]nother Communist government at the bottom of the one-time American lake has been temporarily stopped.



Pearson acknowledges the massive and determined campaign of destabilization that culminated in a US-sponsored coalition of US-friendly parties edging out the PPP in a calculated, delayed independence. The orchestrated campaign of rumor, lies, and promises was whipped into a powerful counterforce to a popular, independent government. In this regard, Guyana was not different from the many so-called “color revolutions” that are brought to a boil by heavily foreign-funded, non-government organizations. The Defunct AIFLD has been supplanted by Solidarity Center, USAID, the National Endowment for Democracy, the Republican and Democratic Institutes, and myriad other acronymic NGOs that serve US foreign policy in a government-funded, surreptitiously government-funded, or privately funded fashion. Their footprints are all over Georgia, Ukraine, and a host of other countries targeted by US foreign policy.



Lessons from the Past



It should be crystal clear that there is nothing new in the meddling of the US and its allies (and other imperialist centers) in the trajectory of smaller, less powerful countries; neo-colonialism and imperialism are the dominant forms of late monopoly capitalism. Nkrumah details twenty interventions in the affairs of African states alone between December 1962 and March 1967. From the Greek war of national liberation in the aftermath of the Nazi defeat to the latest CIA move, the latest sanction, the latest military threat, the US, in particular, has been promoting and forcing dependency at the expense of the national sovereignty of the peoples.



But lessons can be drawn from the long, difficult struggle for national independence, a history of great sacrifice, fierce and selfless battle, but treachery as well. Nkrumah was right: The only absolute guarantee of national independence is to break the chains to capitalism, to choose the path to socialism. Among the best examples of success are the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV), Cuba, and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), all small nations defying the most lethal power ever assembled. When faced with the full brunt of imperialist aggression, the three governments found resolve from their faith in working people, their confidence that working people would unite and fight for a clear, radical vision of social justice, and their refusal to retreat even an inch from principle.


Moreover, borrowing Nkrumah’s words, it is necessary to embrace and press “dangerous ideas,” most necessarily, the idea of command of the state by the agents of change; independence is not possible with the enemies of independence nested in the state.



Nkrumah prefaced his book with excerpts from a letter to him from Richard Wright, the expatriate US author. Wright’s complex, often contradictory relations with progressive movements did not deter him from writing with a feverish intensity:



I say to you publicly and frankly. The burden of suffering that must be borne, impose it upon one generation!  ...Be merciful by being stern! If I lived under your regime, I’d ask for this hardness, this coldness…



Make no mistake, Kwame, they are going to come at you with words about democracy; you are going to be pinned to the wall and warned about decency; plump-faced men will mumble academic phrases about “sound” development; men of the cloth will speak unctuously of values and standards; in short, a barrage of concentrated arguments will be hurled at you to persuade you to temper the pace and drive of your movement…



And as you launch your bold programmes, as you call on your people for sacrifices, you can be confident that there are free men beyond the continent of Africa who see deeply enough into life to know and understand what you must do, what you must impose…



Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.



Greg Godels

zzsblogml@gmail.com


Thursday, November 30, 2017

Eradicating the Bacillus”



In the US, the last few months have seen a host of celebratory salutes to, tributes to, and commentaries on the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. Serious research and thought were reflected in many, reminding us of both the sacrifices and achievements made by the workers of many nationalities who established the first sustained workers’ state, the USSR. Authors and speakers touched on many aspects of the Revolution and its rich legacy of fighting for socialism and ending imperialism.



Needless to say, little (or none?) of the victories of twentieth century socialism spawned by the Russian Revolution found its way into the monopoly media; the fete for the Bolshevik Revolution was held on alternative websites, by small circulation journals, and in small meeting halls and venues. This would neither surprise nor disappoint Vladimir Lenin; rather, it would conjure memories of the difficult and stubborn work of the small, often disputatious Russian Social Democratic Party in the years leading up to the revolutions of 1905 and 1917.



This doesn’t mean, of course, that the mainstream capitalist media had no commentary on the Russian Revolution. They did.



And it was relentlessly and uniformly negative. No warm words of any kind were spared for Russian workers of 1917 and their cause. In fact, in a year when the media and its wealthy and powerful collaborators decided to resurrect the spectre of Soviet Russia in a new, hysterical anti-Russia campaign, moguls mounted a lurid, anti-Communist campaign unseen since the Cold War.



The New York Times unleashed their rabid neo-McCarthyite commentator (Communism Through Rose-Colored Glasses), Bret Stephens, to spew his venom and unsparingly and gratuitously denounce anyone that he could even remotely connect with the Revolution, from those wearing “Lenin or Mao T-shirts” to Lillian Hellman. Progressives, Jeremy Corbyn, and, predictably, Bernie Sanders are condemned, part of the “bacillus” yet to be “eradicated,” to reference his clumsy, vulgar paraphrase of Winston Churchill. They, like any of us who find any merit at all in the Soviet experience, are “fools, fanatics, or cynics.”



Then there was the nutty Masha Gessen-- the favorite of NPR’s resident bootlicker to wealthy patrons, Scott Simon-- who analyzes the Soviet experience in a strange brew of mysticism and psycho-babble. Even The Wall Street Journal reviewer of her new book (The Future is History) concedes that she “puts forth a[n]... argument full of psychospeak about ‘energies’ and an entire society succumbing to depression.” He goes on: “She begins with the dubious assertion that one of Soviet society’s decisive troubles derived from the state prohibition against sociology and psychoanalysis, which meant the society ‘had been forbidden to know itself.’”



“Dubious” assertion? Or whacky assertion?



But Gessen will always be remembered for embracing the term “Homo Sovieticus,” a term that will undoubtedly prove attractive to those mindlessly active in the twitter universe.



For reviewing Gessen’s book, reviewer Stephen Kotkin had the favor returned with a glowing review in The Wall Street Journal of his book, Stalin: Waiting for Hitler 1929-1941. Joshua Rubenstein-- himself the author of another catalogue of Stalin’s evil, The Last Days of Stalin-- engages the usual verbal histrionics: “despotism,” “violent and catastrophic,” “ruthlessness and paranoia,” “draconian,” “remarkable cruelty,” “calamitous,” “crimes,” “ideological fanaticism.” These, and other shrill descriptions, pile up in a mere ten paragraphs. Rubenstein clearly reveals his anti-Soviet bias when he describes Soviet aid and assistance to the elected Spanish anti-fascist government in 1936 as an “intervention.” The interveners were the Italian and German fascists; the Soviets were, unlike the Western “democracies,” the only opponents of intervention.



Kotkin’s service to the WSJ and the anti-Soviet cause were rewarded with a long op-ed piece in the Journal in the weekend Review section (November 4-5, 2017). The Princeton and Stanford professor tackled the topic, The Communist Century, with great vigor. He sets the tone with the dramatic claim that ...communism has claimed at least 65 million lives, according to the painstaking research of demographers.”



The victims-of-Communism numbers game was elaborated and popularized by Robert Conquest, a writer whose career overlapped on numerous occasions with the Cold War propaganda efforts of the UK Information Research Department, the US CIA, and the CIA’s publishing fronts. Conquest owned the estimate of 20 million deaths from the Soviet purges of the late 1930s. At the height of the Cold War, this astounding figure met no resistance from “scholars” at elite universities. Indeed, every schoolgirl and schoolboy in the crazed, rabid 1950s “knew” of the tens of millions of victims of Stalin’s purges.



Unfortunately for Conquest (though he never acknowledged it) and the many lemming-like academic experts, the post-Soviet archives revealed that his numbers were vastly inflated. In fact, they had no relationship whatsoever to the actualities of that nonetheless tragic period.



Kotkin’s claimed 65 million victims of Communist misdeeds should, accordingly, be taken with less than a grain of salt, though it is curiously and mysteriously well below the endorsed estimate of his mentor, Martin Malia. Malia, the author of the preface to the infamous Black Book of Communism (1994), endorsed that sensationalized book’s claim that 94 million lives were lost to Communism. Some contributors to the Black Book retracted this claim, noting that it was arrived at by an obsession with approaching the magic number of 100 million victims. They subsequently “negotiated” (or manufactured) a tally between 65 and 93 million. Such is the “rigor” of Soviet scholarship at elite universities.



Kotkin, like most other anti-Communist crusaders, gives away the numbers endgame, the purpose behind blaming uncountable victims upon Communism. For the arch-enemies of Communism like Conquest and the participants in the Black Book, it is imperative that Communism be perceived as equally evil with or more evil than Nazism and fascism. This charge of moral equivalence is targeted at the liberals who might view Communism as a benign ally in the defense of liberal values or social reforms. No one has done more to promote this false equivalency than Yale professor Timothy Snyder with his shoddy, ideologically driven book, Bloodlands.



Of course, the Washington Post also has its resident guardians of anti-Soviet dogma in Marc Thiessen and the incomparable Anne Applebaum. Applebaum has enjoyed a meteoric career from graduate student to journalist covering Eastern European affairs to the widely acknowledged leader of anti-Soviet witch-hunters. Her marriage to an equally anti-Communist Polish journalist-turned-politician further strengthened her role as the hardest charging of the hard-charging professional anti-Communists. Her consistent work denouncing everything Soviet has earned her a place on the ruling class Council of Foreign Relations and the CIA’s “active measure,” the National Endowment for Democracy.



She “celebrated” the Bolshevik Revolution on November 6 with a several-thousand-word Washington Post essay raising the feverish alarm of a return of Bolshevism (100 years later, Bolshevism is back. And we should be worried.) Applebaum repeats a favorite theme of the new generation of virulent anti-Communists: the events of November 1917 were a coup d’etat and not a revolution. Of course, this claim is hard to square with another favorite theme-- the Bolsheviks numbered only two to ten thousand followers. How do you reconcile such a tiny group “overthrowing” the government and the security forces of the fourth most populated empire in the world?



The Bolsheviks lied. Lenin was a liar. Trotsky was a liar. “So were his comrades. The Bolsheviks lied about the past… and they lied about the future, too. All through the spring and summer of 1917, Trotsky and Lenin repeatedly made promises that would never be kept.” Further, Lenin’s henchmen used the “tactics of psychological warfare that would later become their trademark” to mesmerize the population. That same easily charmed population was to later fight for socialism against counter-revolutionary domestic reaction and foreign intervention in a bloody five-year war (1917-1922), the same supposedly easily tricked population that laid down their arms and refused to fight for the Czar or his “democratic” successors. This neat picture of perfidy surely exposes a belief in both superhuman, mystical powers possessed by Lenin and an utter contempt for the integrity and intelligence of the Russian masses.



But it is not really the historical Bolsheviks who are Applebaum’s target, but today’s “neo-Bolsheviks.”



And who are the “neo-Bolsheviks”?



For Ms. Applebaum, they are everyone politically outside of her comfortable, insular world of manners and upper-middle class conservatism. First and foremost, she elects to smear the social democrats in Spain and Greece, along with Jeremy Corbyn, who may consider “bringing back nationalization.” Similarly, their US counterparts “on the fringes of the Democratic Party” (Bernie Sanders!) are condemned because they embrace “a dark, negative version of American history” and “spurn basic patriotism and support America’s opponents, whether in Russia or the Middle East.” (Sadly, my social democratic friends will likely not allow these ravings to shake their confidence in Applebaum’s equally inane pronouncements on Communism.)



But the “neo-Bolsheviks” exist on the right as well! She identifies them as those rightists who “scorn Christian Democracy, which had its political base in the church and sought to bring morality back to politics…” “If some of what these extremists [on the right] say is to be taken seriously, their endgame-- the destruction of the existing political order, possibly including the U.S. Constitution-- is one that the Bolsheviks would have understood.” In Applebaum’s bizarre world, there are Bolsheviks of both the left and right lurking under our beds! Safety is only found in the bosom of Christian democracy, that post-war artifact cobbled together by the Western powers to counter the parliamentary rise of Communism.



The anti-Communist graffiti artists, the professional defacers of the Soviet legacy, are legion. Books and commentaries by others, like Victor Sebestyen, Serhii Plokhy, Douglas Smith, Svetlana Alexievich, Amy Knight, and Catherine Merridale, join the authors reviewed here in churning out new grist for the anti-Communist, anti-Soviet mill.



With many Soviet sources now available, the practice of Cold War defamation has become a riskier business, an enterprise possibly bringing embarrassment to the most outrageous fabricators. Accordingly, the most sophisticated among the new generation of Cold Warriors have turned in a new direction: the 1930s famines in then Soviet Ukraine. With little risk of exposure and eager cooperation from the virulently anti-Communist, extreme nationalists now installed to govern Ukraine, they have started a new victim-numbers race to rally the cause of anti-Communism, a new narrative of Red wickedness.


Applebaum is right about one thing. There is evil in the air.



But it is the vicious slander of everything Red, especially the legacy of the Soviet Union.



Greg Godels (Zoltan Zigedy)

zzsblogml@gmail.com


Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Inescapable Contradictions


Marxists favor the term “contradiction.”
A discussion of “contradiction” as a Marxist technical term can become quite tangled and obscure, particularly when the discussion proceeds to Hegelian philosophy. But some clear and simple things can be said about contradictions without delving deeply:
  • Marxists use the term to indicate a conflict between elements, social forms, forces, processes, or ideas that expresses a fundamental opposition rather than a conflict that arises by accident or happenstance.
  • Contradictions are not resolvable without an equally fundamental or qualitative change in the antagonists or their relations (Mao Zedong, in his writings, chooses to allow for conflicts [“contradictions”] that are non-antagonistic as well).

Thus, the conflict between dominating and dominated social classes (the capitalists and the working class, for example) represents a contradiction since opposition is fundamental to the nature of the classes and cannot be resolved without a radical and qualitative change in their relations. The dominated class must become dominant or it must eliminate the relationship of domination.

In Marxist revolutionary theory, the class contradiction is the most important contradiction, the contradiction that informs social analysis and socialist strategy.

But other contradictions exist in capitalist society, in politics, in economics, in culture, in foreign policy, and in virtually every aspect of life under capitalism. When class contradictions become particularly acute, they manifest in the sharpening of contradictions in every other aspect of the dominant social form. When the contradictions, the underlying conflicts, result in dysfunctionality, Marxists recognize a systemic crisis.

Contradictions Abound!

Today, in the US, in the wake of the greatest economic downturn since the Crash of 1929, contradictions are found in every aspect of public life. The increasingly apparent class contradiction is exemplified by growing inequality, poverty, and social chaos. The explosive opioid epidemic (recognized only because it has crossed the racial and class “railroad tracks”) generates initiatives from all factions of bourgeois politics. Pundits cry out for punitive action or enhanced social service support, sometimes both. But they fail to locate the causes of the epidemic, causes that are located under the surface of bourgeois society. They fail to recognize that desperate acts accompany desperate circumstances. Wherever poverty and social alienation increase, anti-social, harmful behavior rises as well.

The contradiction between a brutal, uncaring, social regimen and the most fragile, the most marginalized people is as old as class society and the thirst for wealth. The economic ravage of the small towns and cities scattered across the Midwest attest to this contradiction. Capitalists exploited the workers for their labor until they could wring no further profit; then they tossed them aside and left them with no good jobs and no hope. Crime and other destructive behaviors will only increase, unless the contradiction is resolved with a departure from the profit-based system, an alternative profoundly alien to the two major political parties.

They, too, are fraught with contradictions. Both the Democratic and Republican Parties score low in poll approval (see, for example, CNN Poll: Views of DemocraticParty hit lowest mark in 25 years); since 2008, both have failed to advance their programs even when enjoying complete legislative and executive dominance (2009-2010, 2017-); and both parties are afflicted with dissension and division.

The fundamental contradiction in US politics arises from the fact that the two dominant political organizations, the Democratic and Republican Parties, are capitalist parties, yet they pretend to represent the interests of the 70-80% of the US population that have nothing in common with the capitalist class and its loyal servants. While the two parties have skillfully posed as popular while unerringly serving elites, the economic crisis, endless wars, and growing inequality have unmasked their duplicity.

Consequently, factions have broken out in both parties. The Republicans have sought to contain the nativists and racists, the religious zealots, and the isolationists and nationalists within the party while maintaining a corporate agenda. The Democrats have similarly attempted to hold the social liberals, the neo-New Dealers, the social democrats, the environmentalists, and the minorities in a party fundamentally wedded to promoting capitalism and market solutions. Neither strategy can escape the contradictions inherent in a system of two capitalist parties.

The Tea Party movement, Trump, and the Bannonites threaten to shatter the Republican Party. The slick corporate Republicans have lost their magic, unloading vitriol on the vulgar, crass Trump, who deviates from the corporate consensus. The Republican infighting exposes the damage in the party.

The Democrats are exposed as well by the fissure between the Sanders followers and those who are so fearful of working people and wholly beholden to Wall Street and corporate money that they can’t even co-exist with Sanders’ mild reformism. The schism is so great that fundraising has nearly collapsed. And the revelations of DNC collusion with Clinton’s campaign confirmed by Donna Brazile, a long-time ranking insider, demonstrate the rigid, undemocratic nature of the organization. The fact that Brazile also improperly fed debate questions to Clinton only serves to highlight the corruption of the Party and its leaders.

While both Parties are expert at diversion and deflection, the depth of the political crisis, the sharpness of the contradictions, have generated levels of hypocrisy and hysteria unseen since the height of the Cold War. After the debacle of the Clinton Presidential campaign, the Democrats, in collusion with many elements of the security services and most of the monopoly media, mounted a shrill anti-Russia campaign. Crudely, they have relied on the emotional remnants of anti-Sovietism to lodge a host of unsubstantiated charges and a campaign of guilt-by-association. To anyone awake over the last half century or so, the charge of “meddling in the US election” is laughable for its hypocrisy. Have we forgotten Radio Free Europe or Radio Marti? Or a host of other examples?

The high flyers of the stock market-- the social media giants-- added ridiculous claims of Russian sneakiness to appease the powerful investigative committees and deflect from their own profitable, but vile and socially harmful content.

Reminiscent of the worst days of the so-called McCarthy era, the targeted party-- in this case the Republicans-- recoiled from the struggle for truth and tried to out-slander the Democrats. Today, they are ranting about an obscure, meaningless uranium deal swung by the Democrats with the wicked Russians.

The first fruits of the farcical Mueller Russian fishing expedition-- the Manafort indictment-- say nothing about Russia and everything about the corruption infecting US political practices. At best, we will discover that Ukrainian and Russian capitalists are just as corrupt as our own.

Other cracks in capitalist institutions signal intractable contradictions. Both the widespread charges of sexual impropriety in the entertainment industry and the tensions between the players and owners in professional football are symptoms of weaknesses in two of capitalism’s most effective instruments of consensus. Both sports and entertainment are critical mechanisms of distraction that dilute political engagement.

The ever-expanding charges of sexual abuse within the giant entertainment monopolies are spreading to other workplaces, like the government and the news media. While the media are aggressively pursuing the prominent actors, directors, producers, government officials, and other high profile suspects, they wittingly ignore the contradiction that underlies these offenses. In most cases, the malignant behavior grows out of the power asymmetry of employer to employee. Invariably, in these instances, the employee’s reluctance to resist, to come forward, to fight back springs from the fear of retaliation, loss of employment, blacklisting, etc. In other words, it is not akin to other sexual abuses that come from misuse of physical power. Instead, these crimes are possible because of economic power, the power afforded by capitalist economic relations. Indeed, these crimes and similar exercises of employer power exist in many more workplaces and far beyond the world of celebrities. Of course, the corporate media are unwilling to explore the general question of employer abuse that extends beyond celebrities to millions of powerless victims.

Similarly, the conflict over standing for the national anthem is a battle between employees-- admittedly among the highest paid in the world-- and their employers, the owners of the professional football teams. When Houston Texans owner Robert C. McNair called the players “inmates” it was a not too subtle, vulgar reminder to the players that they are subservient to the owners. What emerged as a legitimate protest against the blacklisting of quarterback Colin Kaepernick has been reshaped by management into a battle over workplace rights and the terms and conditions of employment, a fundamental class contradiction.

Who Rules the World?

As long as capitalism has existed in its mature, monopoly form, it has demonstrated an inherent, relentless global predatory tendency, a form of exploitation that Lenin dubbed “imperialism.” For most of the twentieth century, imperialist governments were obsessed with smashing the leading anti-imperialist force, the socialist countries, while, at the same time, maintaining-- often with force-- colonial and neo-colonial relations with other nations and nation-states. Thus, the leading contradiction of that era was the opposition between the socialist community, along with its allies in the national liberation movements, and its capitalist adversaries (most often led by the US) and their military blocs (NATO, SEATO, etc.). In mid-century, the capitalist offensive took the virulent form of fascism.

With the demise of the Soviet Union and the dissolution of the socialist community, the US and its most powerful allies declared global victory. Far too much of the unanchored left accepted this declaration, failing to see the various and varied resistance to US and capitalist hegemony springing up throughout the world as fundamentally and objectively anti-imperialist. Far too many disillusioned leftists retreated to vague, moralistic, and decidedly class-blind notions of human rights or humanitarianism, a “leftism” that squared all too neatly and conveniently with the decidedly self-serving concept of “humanitarian interventionism” concocted by the ideologues of imperialism.

But what many foresaw as an “American 21st Century” proved to be an illusion. The basic contradiction between the US and anti-imperialist forces of resistance and independence and the historic contradiction between US imperialism and its imperialist rivals operate as profoundly as they have at any time in the history of imperialism. The dream of “Pax Americana” dissolved before endless wars and aggressions and the emergence of renewed, new, and undaunted oppositional centers of power.

The long-standing Israeli-US strategy of goading and supporting anti-secular, anti-socialist, and anti-democratic movements in emerging nations, especially in predominantly Islamic nations, has failed, even backfired. Though recruited to stifle anti-capitalist movements, these politically backward forces have turned on their masters to stand against occupation and aggression.

The imperialist reaction to these developments has left failed states, environmental disaster, economic chaos, and disastrous conflict in its wake.

In addition, US and NATO destruction has generated a refugee crisis of monumental proportions, flooding the European Union with immigrants and fueling both a surge of anti-immigrant sentiment and the ensuing growth of nationalist politics. Anti-EU and anti-US sentiment grow accordingly.

While the US has not lost its ability to wreak havoc and destruction, it has clearly failed to secure the stability that it had long sought in order to cement the global capitalist order.

Indeed, there are significant sectors of the ruling class that now benefit from the chaos. The military-industrial sector is undergoing a dramatic revival of production and arms sales thanks to the fear and chaos stoked since the end of the Cold War, particularly with newly invented fears of Russian design and aggression along with constantly rising tensions.

The US energy sector, revitalized by new technologies, is now looking to wrestle markets from their traditional suppliers. Many of the sanctions against Russia and the isolation of Qatar and Iran are about capturing natural gas markets in Europe. In this regard, US capitalism benefits from instability and hostility in the Middle East and Africa, where volatility in energy production can only redound to the more stable US suppliers, protected by US military might. The conflict in Nigeria, continued chaos in Libya, the tension between former Iraqi and Kurdish allies, the confounding and disruptive moves by the traditionally staid Saudis, the destabilizing of Venezuela, and, of course, the sanction war with Russia all advantage US energy production.

This contradiction between the post-Cold War avuncular role of the US in guaranteeing the pathways toward global corporate profits and the contrary role of accepting a multi-polar world and forging US policy solely to advantage US capitalism is intensifying. It is a product of the failure of the US to impose what Kautsky (1914) called “ultra-imperialism,” the illusion of collaborative imperialism.

By employing the Marxist conceptual tool of “contradiction,” we are afforded a coherent picture of the crisis facing the capitalist order, particularly in the US. The picture is revealed to be one impervious to the theoretical programs (or anti-programs) favored by the social democrats or anarchists who dominate the US left (and much of the European left). Without a revolutionary left, the forthcoming debates will only be between defending the idealized “peaceful” global order of a stable, regulated capitalism or those salvaging an inward-looking, vulgar nationalism; it will only be between those dreaming of a mythical kingdom of class harmony with a generous net to capture the most disadvantaged and those leaving fate to market forces. All are roads that have long proved to be dead ends.

The intensifying contradictions of capitalism call for another option: a revolutionary movement for socialism.

Greg Godels
zzsblogml@gmail.com

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

A Nobel Prize for a Return to Reality?


University of Chicago professor Richard Thaler won the 2017 Nobel Prize in economics for telling economists something that everyone else already knew. One of the pioneers of what has come to be called “behavioral economics,” Thaler has put forward the earthshaking, profound claim that people do not always, or consistently, act rationally.

Now why would this seemingly commonsensical observation deserve a Nobel Prize? Why would anyone believe otherwise?

Until the catastrophic collapse of the global economy in 2007-2008, a significant portion of US academic social sciences was constructed on the assumption that public, political, and economic behavior could be understood through the prism of individual self-interest and the presumption of rational choice. Though the crash cast a shadow over the absolute dominance of that assumption in the field of economics, it remains the methodological pillar of great swaths of social scientific research today. The crisis was a much needed reminder of the folly of investing “rationality” in economic life.

Thaler’s Nobel recognition will put little more than a dent in the long-reigning ideological disposition to see the individual as fundamental to scientific analysis, along with the individual’s self-acquired interests and rationally-determined goals. Anglo-American social scientists will continue to embrace individual rational choice as the centerpiece of their explanatory framework, as the fundamental building blocks for understanding human behavior.

The Story Behind the Story

The idea of the importance of individuals, interests, and reason in explaining human action is not a new one. Aristotle’s conceptual model-- the practical syllogism-- sought to expose the logic of human action, basing it upon individual ends or desires and the knowledge of how to attain those ends and desires. But Aristotle did not believe that reason and interests determined human action with the force of logic. Instead, he wondered why, in real experience, they did not produce the expected results, why people acted differently from what was, in fact, their best interests. He was convinced that individual self-interest, reason, and knowledge were not sufficient to explain how people behaved. The break in the chain of goal-setting and deliberation was, he surmised, weakness of the will (ἀκρασία). In this regard, Aristotle anticipated Thaler by over two thousand years.

With the ascendancy of capitalism and its ideological superstructure, the role of individuals, reason, and self-interest took on a new importance. At the heart of the capitalist world view is the notion that the individual should have the opportunity to place satisfaction of his or her wants at the center of her or his world and enjoy the opportunity to strive to realize those goals without the restraint of others (what came to be today’s popular, uncritically embraced concept of freedom). The centrality of rights-talk in the modern era follows inexorably.

At the same time, the capitalist world view required a social component to protect and promote the opportunities afforded to individuals. Individuals cannot pursue every whim without denying some of the whims of others. Conflict would necessarily follow if everyone pursued goals with no consideration of others.

On the face of it, the two ideas-- individual freedom and social constraint-- collide, since one person’s intended actions may, indeed likely will, intersect with the realization of another’s intended action. Hence, it would appear that guaranteeing freedom of action in the particular is not always compatible with guaranteeing everyone the same freedom of action at the same time. Everyone can’t go through the same door at the same time; someone’s freedom of action must cede to the freedom of others.

Reconciling individual freedoms became the great challenge for thinkers in the capitalist era. The solution, exemplified canonically by the work of Hobbes, sought to resolve the conflict between clashing “freedoms” through the mechanism of a contract, agreement, or constitution. Reaching into the toolbox of rationality, defenders of the capitalist ethos argued that rational individuals would see that it was obviously in each and every person’s best interest to accept constraints on individual actions. People would recognize that it was reasonable to surrender complete autonomy to a common good. Thus, the consent of individuals to forego some freedom of action would serve as the bridge between individual choices and the common or general will, between the individual and the social. It would be possible to both avoid the anarchy of unrestrained freedom and to create a civil society, while retaining individualism, rationality, and the core of freedom as much as would be reasonably possible.

While this defense of the capitalist world view raises as many questions as it answers, it met its greatest challenge from the rise of the workers’ movement and the clash of classes. The challenge was best articulated in the work of Marx and Engels. They argued that individual interests and collective or common interests are qualitatively different. They saw classes as having interests over and above individual interests taken alone or in the aggregate. Thus, it is possible for most workers to believe individually that it is in the interest of each and every one of them to sign a labor contract and work in a privately owned coal mine under barely tolerable conditions while it is true that it is in their interest as a class to overthrow the private ownership of that mine and not accept the contract.

How could both be true?

Marx and Engels maintained that from the class perspective, from the perspective of the working class as a social whole, the elimination of the wage system and private ownership of the means of production represents the true interest of the workers. Or, if you like, there is a contradiction between the interests of the workers as individuals and as a class.

This claim is not dissimilar to the classic tenet of informal logic, the fallacy of composition: properties ascribable to each individual in a class of individuals cannot be necessarily ascribed to the class itself; properties of the parts are not transferred as properties to the whole. For example, most of the poor people in the world may be hungry, but the class of poor people is not, in any proper sense, hungry.

The intellectual defenders of capitalism seek to place shared rational choice (a fictitious “vote”) at the center of its explanation of civil society, of the legal, moral, and political edifice consensually constructed to promote individual freedom. Marxists, on the other hand, argue that individual consensus cannot exhaustively account for class interests and the ensuing action and interactions of classes. The realm of the social is, in important ways, autonomous from the realm of the individual. Bourgeois social thinking, grounded in the individual, leaves a host of social phenomena untouched, unexplained.

However, it is not the logical divide between the personal and the social, the gulf between the individual interests and class interests alone that challenges the worldview erected from individualism, self-interest, and rationality. The two centuries following the rise of industrial capitalism saw a growth and development of the working-class ideology with Marxism at its core.

In the aftermath of the Second World War and the Chinese Revolution, the capitalist world view lost its luster as more and more people in more and more places seriously considered the socialist option. Newborn countries freed from the colonial yoke considered socialist development as an alternative to the course recommended by their former colonial masters. The Marxist method that gave priority to class in social analysis found new adherents worldwide. The momentum of Communism threw capitalism into a panic, not only in politics, but in ideology as well.

Foundations and think tanks mounted a war on the growing credibility of the socialist option. Thinkers began to work feverishly to meet the challenge of shoring up the capitalist ideology against the success of class analysis.

As S.M. Amadae demonstrates in her brilliant book Rationalizing Capitalist Democracy: The Cold War Origins of Rational Choice Liberalism (2006), much of the new thinking to legitimize capitalism sprung from Ford Foundation support, along with the RAND corporation and its stable of hired guns (the Ford Foundation played a similar role in supporting the effort on the cultural front as Frances Stoner Saunders documents in her equally impressive book, The Cultural Cold War).

While Amadae is no advocate of socialism, she clearly sees the construction of a scientifically credible theory as an increasingly urgent and conscious effort to arm the capitalist West ideologically against socialism’s growing popularity. Her careful research shows the commitment to re-found anti-Marxist social science on the rock of rational choice theory and its close variants.

Rather than accept the existence of an explanatory framework that goes beyond a universe of individuals, rationality, and narrow interests, the new thinking, as embodied in the pioneering work of Nobel laureate Kenneth Arrow, simply denies that there is any coherent social choice beyond individual choice.

The Arrow argument exhibits an interesting turn.

Arrow demonstrates (1951) mathematically that it is impossible (“the impossibility theorem”) for the rational choice calculus to generate coherent collective preferences from individual preferences. For Arrow, this result supports a skepticism about social goals expressed as collective preferences. While the import of Arrow’s findings might have generated a healthy debate, the elevated emotions of the Cold War era and the ideological needs of the anti-Communist academy promoted the theory-- rational choice theory-- to the head of the class. A theory that “rigorously” dismissed the intelligibility of class interests was too valuable to subject to serious scrutiny.

One might have equally and reasonably objected that any theory that could not account for collective preferences was theoretically defective. One could turn the tables and argue, as Marx would undoubtedly have, that collectives, social phenomena were as real, as objective as individuals. So, a calculus that could not explain class interests was theoretically “skinny;” foundations built on individuals, self-interest, and rationality alone were not sufficiently robust to serve as a foundation for the social sciences. If rational choice theory cannot account for collective preferences, then jettison rational choice theory! But in those feverish times, Western academia-- bourgeois social science-- would not countenance this reductio ad absurdum argument.

From the Arrow moment, rational choice theory spread quickly to other social sciences. Nobel laureates followed in its wake. This theory and its variants served as a basis for “grounding American capitalist democracy. In its guise as ‘objective’ or ‘value free’ social science, it is difficult to appreciate the full import of social choice, public choice, and positive political theory for reconceptualizing the basic building blocks of political liberalism. In light of the Cold War ideological struggle against the Soviets, this enterprise of securing the philosophical basis of free world institutions was critical,” in the words of S. M. Amadae.

Rational choice theory has penetrated deeply into the pores of social science, especially in economics and especially in the US. Its methodological ascendance has established it as a gatekeeper against the inroads of Marxism in Western social theory. Ironically, it has even penetrated into Western Marxism under the guise of “Analytic Marxism;” scholars trained in rational choice theory drew the conclusion that methodological individualism, self-interest, and rationality were incompatible with major tenets of Marxism-- a surprising conclusion to all but Marxists!

The struggle for a new politics based on the rejection of the dominant capitalist ideology cannot be won without critically addressing the failings of rational choice theory. A revolutionary socialist ideology must confront it directly. It has left much of the social sciences in the US a barren, but ideologically pure apologist for capitalism. It contaminates public policy, justifying the explosion of inequality and the obsession with public sector austerity.

Professor Thaler’s award acknowledges its failings in a small way, but leaves the dogma intact.

Greg Godels (Zoltan Zigedy)