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Tuesday, December 29, 2009

GM Workers Get an Unwelcome Holiday Bonus

General Motors assembly line workers are scheduled to receive a dubious “gift” in the coming year. Thanks to GM management, the Obama administration’s automobile task force and the collaboration of the United Auto Worker’s union leadership, General Motors will run auto plants on three shifts, twenty-four hours a day in 2010. Beginning on January 4, the Kansas City (Fairfax) plant will inaugurate the three-shift scheme.

According to The Wall Street Journal (In Risky Move, GM to Run Plants Around Clock, Kevin Helliker, 12-22-09), long standing industry standards engage the assembly line for two shifts with sufficient time for cleaning, maintenance, and restocking before the start of a new daily production cycle. Among industry experts, the two-shift regimen is believed to be the most efficient production technique; two shifts, operating 250 days a year, is considered 100% of capacity according to these experts. But the Administration’s auto czars, while negotiating the $50 billion investment infusion of public funds, pressed GM to operate at 120% of capacity.

“Do these guys understand the business?” asked an industry analyst quoted in the WSJ.

Functions formerly done while the line was down will now be performed while the production line runs, albeit at a slower speed. GM managers and union officials have reportedly agreed to make up for these slowdowns with “overspeeding” at other times, an odd euphemism for old-fashioned industrial speed-up.

In essence, the GM/auto czar scheme eliminates the industry accepted maintenance shift, replacing it with a production shift and conducting the maintenance work while production continues.

GM is increasing the workforce by a third by drawing workers from closed plants, but expects to increase weekly car production by forty per cent.

Fully a third of the new employees will come from the closed Janesville, Wisconsin plant. The Wisconsin State Journal (12-28-09) reports the toll this displacement takes on workers:

In some cases, the distance has torn families apart. Bill Hollingsworth, a clinical psychotherapist at the Janesville Psychiatric Clinic, is working with seven families strained by out-of-state job transfers. He said marriages separated by hundreds of miles have brought loneliness and fears that spouses are being unfaithful. In some cases, the distance has triggered depression, alcoholism and drug abuse.

"There's a lot of insecurity," Hollingsworth said. "A lot of mistrust."
Many people interviewed for this story spoke of long-distance marriages splitting up… "GM doesn't realize what it's done to the actual families," Carol Muchow said. "I know it's triggered divorces. I know there's going to be more."

The WSJ – not from compassion, but from “efficiency” - notes that “[in] all industries… midnight-shift workers are prone to above-average rates of on-the-job errors, absenteeism, and illness”. Unspoken here is that with “on-the-job errors” and “illness” come injuries, deaths, broken families and marriages, and social and cultural deprivation.

Looming over these changes is the threat – always present – of plant closings or shifts of production. In 2006, Kansas City offered a $146 million bond issuance to GM if they would bring production of a mid-sized vehicle to Fairfax. Where free trade agreements gave corporations an opportunity to stage global labor races to the bottom, these same corporations employ this competition to extort deals and concessions domestically. Ironically, GM extorted deals from the public coffers in 2006 and begged for public funds in 2009. Could there be any more dramatic proof of the fusion of the state and monopoly capital? Could there be a more clear demonstration of the utter bankruptcy of class collaboration on the part of union leaders?

It could not be clearer that the GM/auto czar scheme is not about workers, their families, their fair share, their health, their security, or their futures, but about profits. Increased exploitation, speedup, harmful working conditions, and job insecurity are the consequences of this new scheme. In contrast to other auto producing countries that linked public bailouts to sustaining employment, the current Administration insisted that auto companies close plants, cast aside workers and, in this case, subject workers to draconian conditions and increased exploitation. In contrast to other worker organizations in other countries facing the economic crisis, the UAW leadership eschewed militancy and opted for improving the profitability of capital. The WSJ cites the Fairfax union chairman as giving “his card to anyone driving the new Buick Lacrosse, one of the plants products. ‘I tell them to call me if they have any troubles or questions,’ he said.” Does he report problems to GM management? Does he scold workers over any reported problems? Does he represent GM or the workers?

It is understandable if GM workers feel that they are the “collateral damage” in the economic wars to restore capitalist profitability. On one hand, they must assume the cost of the massive bailout shoveled to GM by an Administration that they did much to elect. On the other hand, they are forced by that same Administration to accept unemployment, increased exploitation and severe working conditions. The only answer is a militant fight back. Unfortunately the current UAW leadership has neither the spine nor vision to organize that struggle.

Zoltan Zigedy

Saturday, December 19, 2009

A Holiday Story

A fantasy in the spirit of Charles Dickens:

In February of 2009, with his poll numbers and public expectations exceptionally high, President Obama announces that he supports the House health care reform bill with the most co-sponsors: HR 676, the universal, single payer plan. He notes that this has always been his answer to fixing the broken, for-profit system that now fails patient needs and burdens our economy. Immediately, the health care industry and big Pharma go into full attack mode, condemning the bill as "socialism". Obama meets with Democratic House leadership and emphasizes that “the American people need this bill and we will give it to them. This victory will pave the way for an overwhelming victory in the 2010 elections!”

House conservative Democrats join Republicans in attacking the House bill, citing industry generated polls and conservative pundits in arguing that the “American people do not want a government plan, but one that leaves health care in the hands of the private market.” The health care industry and its friends rush multi-million dollar attack ads into play, much as they did during the Clinton administration.

In the early spring, Obama holds a town hall meeting, nationally televised, in which he brings together, from around the country, hundreds of people who have been victimized by lack of insurance, poor insurance, coverage denials, and obscene health care costs. In a major address, Obama cites the tens of thousands who die every year from a lack of insurance coverage. He declares this as criminally tragic as the September 11 attacks. Also, he emphatically states that placing petty concerns above delivering adequate health care to all is unpatriotic.

That same week, House leader Nancy Pelosi publicly announces that HR 676 must be passed and she will hold Democrats feet to the fire with all the resources available to the Democratic Party, including election funding, committee seats, and primary challenges. CNN reports live on a conference of pollsters, health care providers, doctors, nurses, and economists who discuss the bill thoroughly, followed by a full endorsement. National media coverage is extensive. The Sunday morning gasbags devote their shows to the bill, grilling opponents in light of the Administration offensive.

As the Senate takes up a health care bill, progressive Democrats call for a rally in support of the bill to take place in DC in the summer. They pressure the House leadership to endorse the rally. The AFL-CIO, NOW, MoveOn, and all other liberal groups endorse the rally.

While seemingly endless debate goes on in the Senate, hundreds of thousands pour into DC to hear a wide range of speakers, musicians, and Congressional leaders in support of the Senate counterpart bill introduced by Senator Sanders. The crowd stirs with the spreading rumor that the President may well appear. Near the end, the crowd roars as President Obama briefly appears, thanking the demonstrators.

The Democratic Senate leadership, stiffened by the unprecedented rally, announces that they will bring the bill quickly to the floor. Senator Reid – the Senate Democratic leader announces that this bill is as significant as any legislation since the Voting Rights Act. He wants his place in history to be identified with this vote. Administration staffer, Rahm Emanuel, reportedly caucused with Senate Democrats and says: “I don’t give a s*** about Lieberman. And Ben, you better get your ass on board or there will be hell to pay. You can’t even imagine the hell we’ll bring down on you. I want this f***in’ bill passed with ALL the D’s supporting it”. Emanuel denies this report.

The Republicans and a few Democrats howl in indignation. Fox news vilifies the House and Senate Democrats with wild charges of socialism and fascism. Harry Reid speaks in the Senate, holding a copy of the Constitution: “Maybe you folks in the Republican Party should read this. Americanism has never been to side with the bullies, and the insurance industry, their rich executives, big Pharma, and their consultants and lobbyists are bullies, forcing their profits ahead of the needs of the American people.” The media is shocked by his bold leadership.

Desperate Republican leaders announce a filibuster with the intent of forestalling a majority vote. The President goes on television with a sober, reasoned plea to have the bill passed. When asked by the press about the threatened filibuster, Obama replies with a wry smile: “Bring it on!”

As the Republican filibuster continues into the fall with Republican Senators droning on and on to an empty Senate chamber, public anger grows and grows. Late night comedians devote most of their shows to parodies of Senators quoting Glen Beck and Rush Limbaugh. Constant picket lines of doctors, nurses, and victims of the broken US health care system surround Senate office buildings. Media commentators question this tactic, blaming the Republicans for bringing legislation to a halt. Polls show Republican favorable ratings at an all time low.

Senator Reid is quoted as chiding a Republican colleague: “Don’t stop now. Keep it up until the interim elections!” Senator Reid denies saying this.

Late in November, Republican leaders huddle, recognizing that continuing to filibuster will destroy any chances of survival after the November 2010 elections. They quickly agree to call it off.

In early December, the Senate passes its version of Medicare for all by a vote of 51 to 25, with many Republicans nervously abstaining.

President Obama goes on national television, thanking all of those who worked so tirelessly and intensely to achieve an efficient, universal, and comprehensive health care plan that will rival any system in the world. He assures the American people that all the failings of the current system, referring to World Health Organization’s parameters, will be reversed and the US will become a widely admired leader in delivering the best health care to its people. He promises to sign a final bill before Christmas, stating that he hopes that the new legislative act will serve as a long overdue, but welcome gift to us all. “Happy holidays!”, he concludes.

Of course this is a fantasy. We do not have the health care bill that we could have had. In fact, almost nothing in this fantasy is true. The President didn’t get behind the House bill with the most co-sponsors, the Democratic leadership didn’t fight hard for real change, there were no tough back room threats, the media didn’t give serious advocates a megaphone, there was no attempt by political leaders to engage and rally the base, political leaders did not show courage, and Democrats did not call the Republican bluff.

While I wish my liberal friends and soft-left comrades a safe and warm holiday season, I ask that they try, in the New Year, to understand why things went so awry. I ask that they turn away from the comforting notion that we live with an economic and political system that can deliver democracy, justice, and equality by our simple participation in the permitted rituals. I ask that, in the New Year, they desist from finding scapegoats for this disaster that should shame us all: whether it be Obama’s betrayal, Blue Dog treachery, or that rotten renegade, Lieberman. It’s the system. Seriously, it’s the system…

Happy Holidays!

Zoltan Zigedy

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Action against Cuba

Despite the election of a new President, US government hostility towards Cuba continues unabated. The New York Times (“US Contractor Seized”, 12-12-09), in an article written by Marc Lacey and Ginger Thompson, quotes US officials as announcing that “A US government contract worker, who was distributing cell phones, laptops and other communications equipment in Cuba on behalf of the Obama administration, has been detained by authorities here [Havana]…” The contractor “was employed by Development Alternatives, Inc., which had at least $391,000 in government contracts last year. Based in Bethesda, Md., the company is a kind of do-it-all development company that provides services to the US government in countries around the world.” according to the authors.

In fact, this little known company received a three-year $43 million dollar contract for work in Pakistan last year, according to Business Week. With offices in DC, Jordan, Mexico, Palestine, Pakistan and Europe, this quiet, “do-it-all” corporation has had projects in many of the world’s hotspots: Afghanistan, Albania, El Salvador, Ethiopia, Haiti, Iraq, Palestine, Pakistan, and Zimbabwe. Its major fund sources are USAID, The Millennium Corporation (a well funded US government international “aid” corporation set up in 2004 and dedicated to promoting “good governance and economic freedom”), the Department of Defense and the Department of Labor.

While The New York Times understates dramatically both the funding and government dependence of DAI, it does reveal an interesting aspect of the story. The detainment occurred on December 5 with no public disclosure by the Cuban government. The fact that US officials felt compelled to announce the detainment, confessing the detainee’s activities and his employment, suggests that there will likely be more exposed in the days to come.

The detainment comes at a particularly sensitive time for the Obama administration. They have made a cause célèbre of a young Cuban blogger, Yoani Sanchez, who has become a darling of the US media with her accounts critical of life in Cuba. Obama has personally submitted answers to her inquiries on her blog, drawing extraordinary attention to her efforts (One would hope that this would give pause to the thousands of liberal US bloggers who cannot get the courtesy of a response from the President for their postings). Given that the detainee was admittedly distributing cell phones, laptops, and “other communications equipment”, this likely signals a calculated US campaign to utilize the internet – tweets, blogs, etc. – to destabilize Cuba, a tactic already exposed in the US intervention in the Iranian post-election demonstrations. Such a campaign would surely cast a shadow on the credibility of the Sanchez blog.

The shift of anti-Cuba covert activity to DAI and the Millennium Corporation is possibly a result of the stunning corruption of past USAID funding to de-stabilize Cuba. The same New York Times article notes that of the $74 million in USAID contracts designated for anti-Cuba activities in the prior decade, the Government Accounting Office reported in 2006 that nearly all went directly into the pockets of Miami-based gusanos. No doubt a good bit of these public funds went to finance anti-Cuba political candidates.

This violation of Cuba’s internal affairs by the US government comes on the heels of a curious public letter signed by 60 African-American notable figures calling ostensibly for the release of an Afro-Cuban prisoner and his case’s elevation to the status of “political prisoner”. No details or documentation of the case, the individual, or the circumstances are offered in the letter, other than a web link to an open letter by a Brazilian professor who repeats the charges, again with little detail. Stranger still, the letter makes the wholesale charge that Afro-Cubans are “the most oppressed citizens” in Cuba. It also speaks of the “brutal harassment” of Afro-Cubans. None of these claims are illustrated or substantiated.

Professor Nascimento – the Brazilian author of the open letter – writes, in a similar vein, of “those most marginalized in Cuba”. Once more, no evidence, anecdotal or otherwise, is given for this charge.

Cuba, like any ethnically diverse country, is not immune to racism. The Cubans would be the first to admit that vestiges of the virulent pre-revolutionary racism could not be rooted out in only a few generations. Yet this once popular charge has largely receded since Cuba’s unprecedented sacrifices for the liberation of the former Portuguese colonies, Namibia and South Africa. A figure of the stature of Nelson Mandela, who singled out Cuba’s embracing of tens of thousands of Africans who resided in the country for education and refuge during these struggles, attested to the unique role of Cuba in fighting racism and forging a society antithetical to its ugly manifestations. The Cuban medical missions to Africa, as well as other continents offer a gesture of international solidarity unknown in our time. One certainly does not hear these allegations from African leaders.

There is something oddly skewed about intellectuals of a country that will not allow its citizens to travel to Cuba to explore matters for themselves attacking the internal affairs of Cuba without mentioning that perverse fact in their public statement. While US government contractors are assigned to go to Cuba to meddle in Cuba’s affairs, prominent African-Americans, with- undoubtedly - honest concerns, are forbidden by law to verify those concerns.

These developments mark a continuation, if not escalation, of the provocative, hostile Cold War waged against Cuba since its revolution.

Zoltan Zigedy

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Heads in the Sand

Herbert Aptheker, the pre-eminent Marxist historian of US slavery and long-time leader of the Communist Party USA, fervently argued in a popular lecture that if you wanted to end slavery, you had to end slavery! His point was that before the Civil War many opponents of slavery opted for measures – ending the slave trade, negotiating with the slave-owners, limiting slavery’s expansion, moralizing, etc. – that fell far short of simply insisting upon its immediate and complete termination. For Aptheker, the institution of slavery might have continued for decades, perhaps a century, without the firm determination of the abolitionists – Garrison, Douglass, and most emphatically, John Brown – to destroy this violent and morally corrupt practice.

Today, the occupation and aggressive war in Afghanistan offers a similar challenge: if you want to end this war, as 59% of the US people favor, you must end this war!

For anyone true to the passionate resolve of the abolitionists, the recent announcement by President Obama to send an additional 30,000 troops to fight in Afghanistan is an escalation of this imperial adventure that can only be answered with the demand: Stop the war!

Now is not the time to dissect the delusional journey of much of the left that portrayed President Obama as the Pied Piper of progressivism. Surely the works of Obama’s henchmen – Geithner, Summers, Baucus, and Gates - on the economy, health care and war have aroused the left from this comfortable dream. By any measure, the trajectory of the Administration, admittedly better than that of Bush in some respects, is still fully in step with the interests of Wall Street, corporate board rooms, and imperial designs.

Yet some continue to burrow their heads deeper in the sands. The current issue of The Nation attacks the Senate filibuster as the barrier to progressive change. “A great lie of politics is that all the legislators are ‘bought’ by special interest donors”, the editors proclaim. It is instead this undemocratic tactic that impedes the tide of reform, they say. Perhaps all legislators are not “bought” – I know of no one who could prove that each and every one of them is “bought” – but how else do these august liberals explain how the majority of the legislators continually vote and govern contrary to the wishes of their constituents as expressed in poll after poll? Does the filibuster explain the abominable health care bill now under consideration by the Senate? Is the filibuster the obstacle to ending the aggressions in Iraq and Afghanistan? Of course not. The filibuster issue is merely a lame cover for the corruption and dishonesty of our Democratic legislators. Three years ago our practical and tactically wise liberal friends told us that change would come if we elected a Democratic Administration, a House majority and 60 Democratic Senators. But with no substantial change in sight, it is now the filibuster obstacle. What will be the next lame excuse for disappointment?

Perhaps most appalling in this season of caution and easy self-delusion is the role of the current Communist Party USA leadership. Faced at the mid-November National Committee meeting with a resolution condemning the Afghanistan occupation and aggression and calling for an “immediate and unconditional withdrawal of all U.S. forces, including military troops, contractors and mercenaries from Afghanistan”, the body deferred consideration of this resolution to a special “enlarged” meeting held on December 2, the day after President Obama’s escalation announcement. At that meeting, the resolution was soundly rejected with only two votes recorded in support. No amendments, clarifications, or adjustments were made to the resolution. It was simply rejected. This is not the militancy or principle of the twentieth-century CPUSA, a Party that weathered vicious slanders, repression, and physical danger to defend a working class, internationalist perspective. This is not the Party of W.Z Foster, E. Flynn, Ben Davis, Claudia Jones, W.E.B. Du Bois, W. Patterson, H. Winston, or Gus Hall. While Chairperson Sam Webb has moved further and further from the Party’s traditions, jettisoning more and more of the principles of Marxism-Leninism, the Party’s leading bodies have remained eerily silent. Before, one could only wonder if their silence indicated consent or distance. With this shameful vote, they are stripped of their innocence; they must bear the responsibility for staining the Party’s record of unswerving internationalism.

The same could be said for the Party’s economic policy leadership. The on-line People’s World prominently features a December 4, 2009 posting of an article by John Case defending the independence of the Federal Reserve and its leader, Ben Bernanke. According to Case, “The Fed should get the increased resolution authority it needs to take ownership of failed banks, but it should stay focused on monetary policy, not investment policy, as [Senator] Dodd's proposal recommends. And Bernanke should stay chair. He has learned much from his mistakes - as could we all”. This is an absurdly naïve view of the function of the Federal Reserve, its non-existent “independence”, and Bernanke’s sordid role in funneling public funds to saving banks that are now swollen with reserves, reluctant to lend, paying huge salaries and benefits and embarking again on risky ventures. Case’s views have polluted economic discussion in CP organs for a long time, bringing a confused, but decidedly conventional Business Week perspective to economic discussions. One might look at this as an oddity, an eccentric indulgence of pretension and arrogance except for the fact that Case’s ranting enjoys the spotlight of CPUSA economic commentary. Some have said that he speaks only for himself, but the silence of others entrusted with CPUSA economic policy says otherwise. If these views – utterly alien to the working class movement – stand unaddressed and not refuted in the Party’s public forums, then one must assume that they reflect the views of the leadership, the Economics Commission, and even the membership. To sidestep these responsibilities is to reduce the meaning of Party membership to the level of membership in a country club.

At this critical juncture – a unique conjunction of political and economic crisis and ill-fated foreign policy – we desperately need the probing, challenging, and skeptical – albeit liberal – voice that The Nation has offered at times in the past. Nor can we meet these challenges without a bold, battle-hungry Communist Party.

Zoltan Zigedy

Sunday, November 29, 2009

No Rich, No Poor

Charles Andrews' book, No Rich, No Poor, occupies a special place among the many books on socialism and radical social theory. Though it is a bold argument for moving beyond capitalism towards a “new commonwealth”, the book is refreshingly free of cant, straightforward, and laudably clear and direct in its statement. There is no fat in Andrews’ presentation, but he spices his account with many pertinent and engaging facts and examples.

Andrews argues that capitalism has failed “common people”, especially in the last 35 years. He marshals ample evidence to demonstrate this truth, emphasizing mostly the explosive growth of income and wealth inequality.

The locus of this failure, Andrews finds in the mutation of the industrial process from labor intensive to labor saving. For Andrews, technological change has shaped the division of labor, leaving human labor unneeded, simple, or substantially cheapened in value:

Automated new machines and processes based on the sciences crowd out industrial labor. Capitalist corporations cannot make money on millions of people whose developed skill is human work, broadly based in a high level of culture, education, and social understanding – all requiring broadly decided allocation of resources directly for human development. Such resources would be at the expense of profits that were invested in equipment and facilities. People cannot be owned like a machine. Except in small supplemental amounts, corporations cannot “invest in people,” neither directly nor through toleration of taxes on their revenues and profits. The very phrase “invest in people” and its partner “human capital” express the contradiction that is the problem.

In short, modern industrial capital doesn’t need educated, creative, skilled workers and the way of life – what many today call “middle class” – that would sustain these attributes; it needs mules. While this is far from a complete or, I believe, flawless account of capitalism’s failings, it is a compelling story, a story that would resonate with many working people.

Andrews is less clear on why this trend in what he calls “industrial labor” is not sustainable. Nor does he develop a complete theory of change – what Marxists would call “class struggle”. Instead, he offers a program and a narrative, an approach in the fine old tradition of Edward Bellamy, William Morris, and H.G. Wells. This tradition, often crudely dismissed as “utopian”, offers a speculative account of how socialism, in Andrews case “the New Commonwealth”, will be achieved. Andrews’ program hinges on three principles:

• Eliminate rich and poor.
• Establish the inalienable right to a job.
• Change corporations into “institutions of genuine economic service”.

He readily concedes that his programmatic goals require a new political order, a radical transformation of our political institutions—a democratization of the state in the most profound sense. He offers three conditions sufficient for this to be achieved: the extreme distance between existing rulers and the ruled, wide spread consent for change, and an organization committed to change and agreeing on a worthy program. He sees these conditions maturing in an – dare I say – inevitable manner. He resorts to the fashionable and seductive, but fundamentally circular, term “tipping point” to cement this inevitability. I think it’s fair to say that Andrews views the crash of 2008 as one such tipping point.

While I might quibble over aspects of Andrews’ presentation – for example his account of “the major turning points of history” or his labor-process account of capitalism’s fundamental contradiction – I think this would miss the point of the book. No Rich, No Poor is a popular polemic aimed at bringing the idea of socialism to a mass audience long accustomed to heaping scorn on the word.

What separates Andrews’ book from other appeals for socialism is his calculated avoidance of the language associated in the past with the struggle for socialism. There are few references to Marx, Marxism, Communism, class, or even socialism. Instead, he couches his argument in a language less likely to generate the knee-jerk negative sentiments that have been so fervently grinded into working class consciousness by a self-serving capitalist class. I believe it is apparent that Andrews has a good understanding of and respect for the Marxist tradition, but chooses this route to sidestep the deeply ingrained prejudices that blind people to their own best interests.

Now some may see Andrews’ approach as opportunistic, sugar-coating truths that should be presented baldly and forcefully. My colleagues and I at Marxism-Leninism Today forego the sugar and offer the bitter truth as we see it. Nonetheless, I think there is a commendable place for a general introduction to these ideas that remains faithful to the spirit and partisanship of working class empowerment.

No Rich, No Poor is a visionary account and not a deeply theoretical tome. At a time when too much of the Communist movement, especially in Western Europe and the US, is mired in self-examination and defensive retreat, it is a refreshingly clear and welcome statement of the ideal of socialism. As William Morris writes at the conclusion of News from Nowhere: “Yes, surely! And if others can see it as I have seen it, then it may be called a vision rather than a dream.”

I will be ordering several copies as holiday gifts for friends who have had their fill of empty Democratic Party promises and labor movement accommodation. No Rich, No Poor is available at

Zoltan Zigedy

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Exorcising Demons and Scoundrels

Thank God it has come and gone. The anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall threatens to become a regular ritual celebrating the triumph of capitalism and the bankruptcy of socialism. The ruling ideology needs landmarks and symbols to reassure that capitalism is both good and enduring to those barred by an invisible wall from entering the elite club of wealth and power. The 1989 opening of the barrier between East and West Berlin serves as such a symbol and, accordingly, is celebrated with much acclaim by the elites and their media lapdogs. They are confident that the louder and more extravagantly they celebrate, the more the rest of us will buy the old Cold War myths of socialist slavery and capitalist freedom. Tragically, many buy it.

But thank God there are some out there who expose the myths, though they lack the megaphone to pierce the bleating of the corporate media. I cannot praise enough the recent, brilliant postings by Stephen Gowans. The first (1) corrects the history and tallies the accomplishments of the departed German Democratic Republic. And the second (2) uses recent polling results to reveal the views that count the most: the folks who actually lived, worked, raised families and experienced the realities of Eastern European socialism. Their views are scorned and dismissed by our public pontificators in favor of the “dissidents” – most of whom weigh their own privileged opportunities that would be bestowed in a capitalist society over any consideration of the common good. The citizens' concerns are belittled as insignificant before the higher values of unlimited travel, intellectual license, and shallow “success” as defined by Western vulgarians.

Significantly, the citizens of former socialist countries value security, health care, employment, education, cultural engagement and the other basics that socialism guaranteed over the abstract right to travel unrestrained from Kharkov to Paris, especially when they see no prospects of ever attaining the means to exercise that right. The Ivy League graduates in business suits that populate urban condos and suburban mansions scoff at their concerns, ridiculing them as unsophisticated and trivial. Of course they’re trivial to those privileged by wealth and power to have no need for them!

It is shameful to see the political elites scurry to Berlin, along with the media pack, to toast the demise of a system that delivered more social good with more justice and humanity than the system that replaced it. It is just my opinion, of course, but the Pew and GlobeScan polls cited by Gowans, show that many, if not most, of the citizens of Eastern Europe – armed with the experience of both systems – agree with me.

Hypocrisy abounds, especially in the US. Our fearless media has earned a deserved reputation of finding some credibility in every pronouncement emanating from a corporate or government source. Conversely, they have succeeded in burying their heads deeply in the sand to avoid any inconvenient truth like the sentiments of Eastern Europeans. After all, what do they know about the relative merits of capitalism and socialism when compared with Merkel, Brown or Obama? Class-based journalism reigns.

Today’s news brings the revelation that 49 million US citizens experienced hunger – what the Bureau of Euphemism calls “food insecurity” - in 2008, a rise of 13% over 2007. With one out four children knowing hunger last year, it might be worthy of note that even the poorest socialist country succeeded in eliminating hunger within a decade. But what is the fate of millions of the hungry or unemployed when compared to the complaints of a poet in Cuba, a feudal lord in Tibet, or a businessman in Venezuela? The former remain voiceless while the latter command the big media stage.

But it’s not just the media that carries the water for a system that leaves bodies strewn across the landscape from hunger, war, lack of health care and neglect; there are also those in the lofty reaches of academe who willingly embrace the task of legitimizing capitalism, its culture, and its history. They are not merely anticommunist professors, but professors of anticommunism. To excel at this task, one has to be willing to not only condemn Communism, but to swear that there was actually nothing – not the tiniest value or virtue- in the movement or its instantiation in power.

Arguably, the dean of this “discipline” was the late Sir Isaiah Berlin, an academic who earned knighthood for his services to the capitalist state. While his philosophical work was both meager and slight, his dogged disparaging of Communism attained for him fame and veneration.

Since his demise, others have scrambled for his mantle. A strong contender for this dubious distinction is the current Professor of European Studies and Isaiah Berlin Professorial Fellow at St. Antony’s College, Oxford and Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institute, Timothy Garton Ash. From his early career roaming around Eastern Europe, to his later career as a journalist, to his current academic station, Ash has unswervingly served the cause of capitalism (he would, of course, recoil from this description, preferring “liberal democracy”) and demonized socialism. In this regard, he is a worthy successor to Berlin, but apparently not yet worthy of knighthood since he has only earned a lesser chivalric title, CMG (Companion, The Most Distinguished order of St. Michael’s and St. George). This title is generally awarded to members of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (James Bond got one!) and poses an interesting juxtaposition with his academic stature.

Ash has peddled anticommunism for many, many years, often choosing the equally rabid anticommunist The New York Review of Books as his soapbox. In the December 3, 2009 addition, he offers a curious argument for establishing the so-called Velvet Revolution in 1989 Czechoslovakia as the historic template for future social change: “The hypothesis is that 1989 established a new model of nonviolent revolution that now often supplants, or at least competes with, the older, violent model we associate with 1789”. Thus, VR, as he calls the new model, explains the many “color” revolutions that have befallen Eastern European and Middle Eastern countries, social movements that coincide almost perfectly with foreign policy goals of the US and Western European powers. To deflect anyone suspicious of this coincidence, he stretches to include South Africa, Chile, and Portugal in this model, an inclusion that those familiar with these prolonged, militant, and left-led “old school” revolutions will find laughable.

With equal elasticity, Ash struggles to find some other content (other than serving imperial interests!) to these new breed “revolutions”, conceding and quoting Francois Furet that the 1989 changes in Eastern Europe stirred “not a single new idea.” Rather, they were a “turning of the wheel back to a real or imaginary better past”. Certainly most practitioners of Ash’s discipline would call this wheel-turning to the past “counter-revolution”, a word that Ash assiduously avoids. And in the end, he relents that “[the] “new idea” is the form of revolutionary change itself, not the content of its ideological aspirations”.

But if they have no content to inspire action, what drives these social movements? Many of us who have studied the heralded protests in Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and Central and South America (these go unmentioned by Ash – perhaps, because they were so transparently coups posing as popular risings) have concluded that they had a social base of privileged elites with decisive help from external agents. Herds of innocuous sounding NGOs have been manufactured to do the work formerly exclusive to foreign intelligence agencies. One cannot help noting the presence of abundant resources – technological, material, and agitational – in the media accounts of the demonstrations and rallies in these otherwise economically poorer countries. Ample evidence exists demonstrating the elaborate training and preparation offered by well-funded NGOs.

Dutifully, Ash scoffs at this explanation: “These are not Western plots, as authoritarian rulers from Russia to China to Iran now claim – supported in their paranoia by a few conspiracy-minded Western observers”. One wonders if Ash had his fingers crossed when he wrote this!

But he goes on: “To be sure, there is often Western involvement, some of it public, some covert, but in no single case can one possibly claim that it has been decisive” [my italics]. And several column inches later, in chiding the Indian government for remaining neutral in regard to turmoil in neighboring countries, Ash argues a different conclusion: “Or will non-Western democracies in time warm to the … enterprise of helping people in less free countries to help themselves? The answer they give may be decisive for the future of VR” [my italics]. Now those of us without Ash’s impressive credentials my find this to be contradictory; on one hand, external intervention has never been decisive, on the other, it may well be the decisive factor in future uprisings. Are we to believe that Western powers, with far more resources and a history of imperial intervention, showed great restraint in Ash’s Velvet-like revolutions, offering non-decisive aid when Western foreign policy goals were clearly within reach? Are we to believe, on the other hand, that the Indian government, less inclined to intervention and less well endowed, is to be faulted by not playing a decisive role in toppling governments not favored by Ash?

When you’ve abandoned any pretense of respecting self-determination, it’s easy to have it both ways.

Ash and the media lapdogs undermine not only their own credibility, but the credibility of their respective professions that pretend to be scholarly and unbiased. Their fawning submission to power and wealth stands in sharp contrast to the work of independent, but avowedly partisan writers like Stephen Gowans.


Zoltan Zigedy

Monday, November 9, 2009

Exploitation Soars, Unemployment Jumps!

This sure is some recovery! The first week in November brought remarkable results for an economy widely held to be on the mend. Earnings of corporations are on the rise, the stock market is perking up, and the Administration is claiming credit for pulling the economy back from the brink and setting it well on the course to health.

But in the other world, the world outside of Wall Street, gated communities, and the political elite, the news is catastrophic, pushing the misery index dramatically higher.


The rate of exploitation, as measured by output per hour of labor has increased by 9.6% in the third quarter of this year, more than four times its average growth over the last 25 years. This increase comes on the heels of a 6.9% rise in the second quarter. Put simply, these numbers mean that for every worker engaged in some form of productive activity, on average, he or she produced almost 10% more in the third quarter of this year over the same quarter last year. Intuitively, this means that the capitalist system has squeezed another dollar in value from workers who produced ten dollars in value last year. Or, put another way, for every hour of labor, workers were forced to do 10% more productive work.

Some might respond that it doesn’t follow that workers necessarily worked harder for these productivity gains. That may well be true in some cases, but we have other Labor Department data that bear on this matter. We also know that total employment is on the decline (see below). In addition, the Labor Department reports that the hours worked were down again for the ninth straight quarter. Combine that fact with a 4% rise in output, and it’s pretty clear that workers were squeezed harder.

Capitalist apologists would be quick to point out - and they always do – that other factors may contribute to productivity increases besides worker effort such as technological innovations and investment in more efficient equipment and techniques. This response evaporates in the face of the dramatic decline in investment brought on by the broad economic crisis.

Of course it would be possible that workers worked harder because they wanted to make more money, producing more because they wanted to earn a commensurately larger compensation. This, however, is belied by the fact that unit labor costs were down 5.2% in the third quarter: every unit of value produced earned the workers 5.2% less than it did in the third quarter of 2008.

We have then a stubborn fact: workers worked a lot harder most of this year than they did last year with a smaller share of the value produced.

This stubborn fact goes unacknowledged and unexplained. It will not be discussed on the Sunday morning talk shows. The media – from The New York Times to the organs of the labor movement – will pass over this fact, often hailing it as a harbinger of recovery. Academic and working economists assign it no special place, no event of great consequence.

It is only in the Marxist tradition that this fact occupies a central role and is properly explained. In fact, it is the fundamental notion in the political economy of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, exposing the primary mechanism of profit generation in the capitalist mode of production. In the end, they argued, increases in the rate of profit come from workers getting a smaller portion of the product of their labor. They labeled this measure the rate of exploitation. From the Marxist perspective, the capitalist class intensifies exploitation – raises its rate – to restore or increase the rate of profit. Indeed, this is axiomatic in the Marxist system.

While mainstream economists strain to explain the rise in profits and the stock market in the face of climbing unemployment and slack consumption, they refuse to attend to the role of labor exploitation in this development.

In our time, this sharp increase in labor exploitation signals two disturbing truths:

1. The relative strength and privilege of capital. Monopoly capital wields sufficient power, unrestrained by the organs of popular sovereignty – the government, to extract dramatically more effort from the working class.

2. The relative weakness of labor. The labor movement lacks sufficient strength, determination, or government influence to at the very least retain a proportionate share of the product of its efforts.

Thus, the burden of the capitalist recovery – profits and stock equity values – is borne squarely by the working class.


It is not just that workers are working harder; fewer are also working. The October official unemployment rate rose to 10.2%, the highest rate since 1983 and only the second time since records have been kept (1948) that the unemployment rate topped 10%! When workers without full-time work or those discouraged from working are counted, the actual rate is 17.5%, a rate nearly equal to or greater than all but the four peak years of the Great Depression. Where the Roosevelt Administration resorted to public jobs programs to restore employment after 1934, the current Administration, guided by its dogmatic neo-liberal economic team, has largely relied upon restoring the health of the private sector with generous bailouts and massive loan guarantees, furthering shifting the burden of recovery onto the future tax obligations of the working class.

The impact upon families of working people – saddled with escalating health care and education costs, massive debt, and uncertainty – is devastating. With nearly one out of five US citizens without a secure, sustainable job, the economic crisis is far from over for the overwhelming majority.

As Doug Henwood has pointed out (Left Business Observer, #122), even with women entering the work force in very great numbers, the percentage of people in the work force (employment/population) has fallen to within striking distance of the level when the Government first kept statistics (1948).

For the unemployed, the prospect of getting a job has diminished to unprecedented levels: the median length of unemployment now stretches to nearly five months. Therefore, the average worker, out of desperation, will likely consider employment at a wage and benefit level well below their former rate. This downward pressure on wages contributes to the willingness of those with employment to accept increased exploitation in order to retain a job. With the unemployed willing to work for less, it is likely that those with jobs will fear for the loss of theirs.


The numbers, the reports from the Government’s Labor Department, are stark, yet they fail to convey the pain, the misery, the desperation that underlies increasing exploitation and expanding unemployment. Their impact will appear later in poverty figures, suicides, broken families, crime statistics, child malnutrition, avoidable illnesses and deaths, and other measures of neglect and human suffering.

It is irresponsible and dishonest not to locate their cause in policy decisions. It doesn’t have to be this way.

The decisions taken by the new Administration, decisions taken to address a profound economic crisis, did not have to place the burden upon the vast majority of our fellow citizens. History shows other responses: Roosevelt’s second term – also hailed as an endorsement of transformational change and a rebuke of past approaches – strove to place many of the resources of government directly for the benefit of those most harmed by economic catastrophe. But this is not the approach that this Administration chose. Instead it hewed to the corrupted line that extending a helping hand to corporate USA – the perpetrators of the crisis – would pull everyone up, a bankrupt return to the cynical approach of the Reagan gang.

Looking forward, this approach will only encourage more corporate irresponsibility and more pain for the vast majority. We, on the left, cannot continue to shirk our duty to speak loudly for a new policy that will put the future of working people at the top of the agenda. It is time to return to a vigorous oppositional stance and cast aside the misplaced, naïve trust in the Democratic Administration. The season of childish fantasy is over.

Zoltan Zigedy

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Support the Ford Workers!

Confronting corporate power directly constitutes the sharpest, most challenging, and most politically advanced form of political struggle, of class struggle. At a time of compromise, half-steps, modest aspirations, and low expectations, these moments are unfortunately rare. One such moment occurred with the determined, courageous efforts of the single-payer advocates in their effort to retire profit-driven insurance corporations from the field of health care provision. In the face of the predictable demonology of “socialism” and “government involvement”, they have fought a relentless struggle – including civil disobedience – to put patients before profits. Single-payer, in its HR676 incarnation, attacks corporate dominance by financing health care from taxes on the rich as well as kicking out the private insurance companies. Where the compromised public option feeds the rapacious insurance industry and burdens the working class, single-payer is a direct assault on the interests of the ownership class, an assault benefiting the vast majority of US citizens. While victory is hardly assured, their efforts will continue to gather momentum long after any tepid, corporate-friendly legislation is passed by the Congress.

Now we have the stirrings of another – long overdue, but heartily welcome – counterattack in the war against corporate dominance. The union workers at Ford Motor Company have voted overwhelmingly to reject a concessionary proposal offered by Ford and urged by the United Autoworkers leadership.

Nationwide, over 70% of the Ford UAW membership voted against contract concessions that were demanded by the auto giant. The UAW top leadership which has negotiated and urged ratification of decades of concessions met a fierce resistance from the rank-and-file and local leaders. The head of the UAW’s Ford division was booed and heckled at local meetings in Michigan and President Ron Gettelfinger’s former local rejected the proposal by over 80% despite his personnel appearance and appeal. The happy message of “win-win” class collaboration fell on deaf ears this time. By rejecting these concessions, workers chose a different path – the path of class struggle.

Knowing full well of the relative advantages it enjoys, Ford argued that it deserved the same deal that the UAW accepted for its bankrupt competitors, GM and Chrysler. The US government granted each of the other two domestic auto makers a bailout in return for a promise to close plants, layoff employees, and shed brands and dealerships. The UAW sweetened the deal further by granting further concessions on its 2007 contract with GM and Chrysler. In fact, the UAW had accepted two sets of concessions to Ford since the 2007 contract, and this third group of demands spurred the membership’s overwhelming rejection. This is in stark contrast to the French auto bailouts that required the domestic producers to retain jobs in order to receive government aid. In the case of France, a rabid conservative President Sarkozy was faced down by a militant labor movement and popular support. In the case of the US, a corporate-coddling government and a collaborationist union leadership kicked autoworkers in the teeth.

Cynically, Ford and the UAW International leaders agreed to schedule the concession ratification before the declaration of Ford’s third quarter earnings so they could best make the case for “making Ford competitive” against the crippled competition. Nonetheless, the UAW members soundly rejected the contract concessions even before Ford announced net third quarter earning of over a billion dollars, the most since 2006.

Nothing shows the bankruptcy of the business union model better than this crass fealty to the corporate interests of The Ford Motor Company. Nothing shows an awakening rank-and-file militancy better than the overwhelming rejection of this offensive proposal.

After years of urging concessions that have stripped benefits and hourly wages, the UAW top leadership is now faced with a membership in open rebellion against its no-struggle policies. The membership recognizes, far better than the top officials, that it is now time to stop the retreat and use the power of working people to improve their future. For too long the union’s top leaders have acted as a kind of third party linking the position of the workers to the continued prosperity of the corporations and “selling” that bankrupt notion to the members. The union belongs to the members and this vote demonstrates that they want it back. This is a banner moment for working class consciousness and anti-corporate action. The top leadership of the union should heed this or step aside.

For the left, this is a re-affirmation of the centrality of the labor movement in its confrontation with wealth and power. The action of tens of thousands of autoworkers rocks the corporate agenda far more than high-sounding electoral rhetoric or parliamentary horse-trading. As these early sprouts of emerging labor independence mature, the left must help nurture this movement into a powerful social force, a force worthy of the UAW’s legacy. For some on the left, this requires shedding the illusions and comfortable ties with the top leadership of the labor movement. The reality is that the contradiction between the needs of working people and a complacent, corporate-accommodating leadership will grow ever more apparent.

Zoltan Zigedy

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Bringing Chiquita Brands to Justice

The history of Latin America, particularly its domination by the US, is inseparable from the machinations of the United Fruit Company. The interventions of the UFC are the legends of anti-imperialists in the South, especially its most esteemed writers and intellectuals. No corporate entity has demonstrated a more callous disregard for the independence of Central and South American countries, using bribes, extortion, subsidies, and coup-mongering to influence domestic politics to its advantage.

In its latest incarnation as Chiquita Brands International, the company was caught red-handed funding Colombian terrorists, the notorious Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia, a collection of right-wing paramilitaries responsible for the assassination and disappearance of tens of thousands of Colombians perceived as in opposition to the big landowners and corporations. From the umbrella organization’s inception in 1997, Chiquita funded the paramilitaries through its Colombian subsidiary, Banadex, S.A. In 2007, a US District Court confirmed this connection and payments to AUC totaling $1.7 million through 2004. Testimony showed that one shipment alone – off-loaded from a Chiquita ship – put 3000 assault rifles and ammunition into the hands of the terrorists.

The matter was forced to the attention of US courts because of the September 2001 designation by the US government of AUC as a terrorist organization, a fact too obvious for even the Bush administration to deny.

Court proceedings indicate that Chiquita executives were aware of the collaboration with the terrorists at least by 2002. Moreover, despite a Justice Department finding and the advise of outside counsel, the firm continued to fund AUC from April 24, 2003 until February 4, 2004. In order to avoid disclosure and face personal incrimination, the executives agreed to a $25 million settlement of fines to the US Justice Department.

Interestingly, the current Attorney General, Eric Holder, legally represented Chiquita Brands before the US District Court, a dubious credential for his appointment as the top judicial officer in the US.

As matters were left after the settlement, Chiquita was, of course, instructed to desist in its support for the terrorists. But, according to a Colombian newspaper account (El Espectador, September 5, 2009), the Columbian Attorney General’s office has disclosed evidence that Chiquita has, through closely allied companies, continued to finance terrorist organizations in Colombia from 2004 through 2007.

The Colombian prosecutor’s office contends that Chiquita Brand engaged two cover firms, Invesmar SA (through Colombian subsidiary, Banacol SA) and Olinsa, to continue the engagement with AUC. Testimony has been taken from one judicially protected terrorist leader that Banacol SA paid around 3 billion Colombian Pesos to his group. He affirmed that he served as a liaison with Chiquita Brands and that they agreed to an arrangement of three cents on the dollar for the paramilitaries from every box of bananas produced.

An accounting examination by the Attorney General’s Office of the Banacol SA confirmed a voluntary diversion of funds to the terrorist groupings.

Olinsa was set up in 2005 with an extremely generous loan from Chiquita Brands at interest rates well below those prevailing in Colombia. Nearly all of its business is conducted with Chiquita Brands. Ninety-four per cent of Olinsa’s shares are held by an ex-employee of Chiquita Brands, according to the accounting report of the Attorney General’s office.

These two firms, strongly suspected of continuing support for AUC, are demonstrably linked to Chiquita Brands International (other related firms are also under investigation). As the investigation continues, all agree that testimony by US Chiquita executives would be decisive in concluding the matter. Unfortunately, this is hindered by the confidentiality agreement secured with the settlement of the $25 million fine.

It would be most helpful if the US Attorney General, Eric Holder, would re-open the case in the US in light of the findings of the Colombian Attorney General. Surely, the evidence suggesting the continued aid by Chiquita Brands to AUC warrants cooperation on the part of the US authorities. If the support continued after the 2007 settlement, it constitutes both contempt for US law and flagrantly criminal activity on the part of the corporation.

For Attorney General Holder, cooperating with the Colombian investigation is not only a legal duty, but a test of his commitment to equal justice given his former role as counsel for Chiquita Brands. Any reluctance to follow the leads opened by Colombian authorities will surely risk the taint of prejudice in favor of his former client.

Every effort should be made to bring the Chiquita investigation to the attention of elected officials and the Justice Department.

Zoltan Zigedy

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

A Response to Valentin Zorin and Anonymous

Two commentators on the recently posted account of the Pittsburgh G-20 actions demand a deeper and more thoughtful discussion of the state and prospects of the left in the US. Anonymous speaks with insight of the shortcomings and obstacles plaguing the US left, pointing to the many mechanisms employed by US rulers to thwart any labor or socialist militancy. Anonymous, briefly, but effectively, exposes the resourceful opponents of social change as well as noting the unfortunate diversions that serve to dilute developing struggles. At the risk of simplification, this correspondent reminds us of the often quoted sympathy of Che Guevara who consoled the US left over the difficulties of working “in the belly of the beast”.

With a small dose of sarcasm and a large dose of skepticism, Valentin Zorin challenges the US left to face some unpleasant, humbling facts. Though a Russian, Zorin has earned the right to speak directly and candidly to the US left. Arguably the doyen of Soviet-era journalists commenting on the US, he has lived among us and encountered the leading figures in the history of the Cold War. Today, he is respected for his insights on the US and active on Voice of Russia radio.

Zorin is right to point to the absence of a revolutionary party in the US at a critical time when dissatisfaction and frustration have reached a flashpoint. This is a harsh, but merited criticism that we simply cannot side-step. With Anonymous, I could construct an elaborate and detailed explanation of the forces arrayed against the revolutionary left in the US, not least of which is a security service far more advanced and technologically adept than any other in history. The rest of the world knows this only too well.

Historical, demographic, even geographical factors play a role as well. Despite our revolutionary heritage, forces have shaped the US into a nation ravaged by an unprecedented radical individualism that has successfully foreclosed collective action. No nation, no era has become so completely self-absorbed. The expression of this with the left is the aching desire for a knight on a white horse – an FDR, a Kennedy, or an Obama in our time- that would carry the burden of change while we, as Zorin puts it, “tend to our garden”. Collective action is demeaned, while we patiently wait for our Lenin. We see this in the qualitative leap that the anti-war movement took after Cindy Sheehan’s bold, but individual confrontation with George W. Bush. We see it today in the hope that Michael Moore’s new movie, Capitalism: A Love Story will raise the masses to a new consciousness… but without the hard, collective work of organization and joint action.

And, yes, the gardens we tend are rather large and luxuriant. As a Marxist, I object to the uncritical, unscientific term “middle class” for all those beneath the very rich and above the very poor. Nonetheless, the privileges of empire and the benefits of US hegemony afford most US citizens a comfortable, agreeable way of life that we believe rivals anyone else in the world. Though the economic crisis is challenging this view, millions have yet to feel its sharp edge and care little for its victims.

Our citizens are narcotized by a media that would shock George Orwell and other oracles of “totalitarianism”. No ruling class has mastered so skillfully the manipulation of consent to serve the interests of monopoly capitalism, wealth, and power. The two-party electoral system has absorbed all political energy into an empty ritual held periodically, pitting one snake oil salesman against another.

But do not view this as “American Exceptionalism”. For those living outside our borders, it is surely a foretaste of what capitalism will bring them in the future. The once-thriving multi-party systems of many European nations are inexorably morphing into the insidious two-party circus (France, Italy). US cultural and social values are spreading throughout the world like a virus, even deeply penetrating the former socialist countries and the People’s Republic of China.

Nevertheless, Zorin’s challenge persists. While all these factors extenuate, they do not change the brutal fact that the US left is far from adequate to meet the needs of the moment, or far into the future.

We can draw some solace from the fact that the US empire is an empire in decline. US imperial aggression has, despite enormous resources and sophistication, failed to prevail. The once staggering economic engine is running decidedly slower. Debt has become not only the currency of finance but the pillar of sinking living standards. If there is an American Century, this is not it.

So for those of us on the Marxist left, the challenge is to thrust ourselves into these new realities. It is important to recognize that our role must be cast in a larger picture. Generations of revolutionaries have never seen revolution. Those who have that good fortune enjoyed the efforts that preceded them. From the early Christian movements and the early Roman slave revolts to the handful of revolutionaries gathering in Mexico to venture on to Cuba, there is no way to anticipate the impact of the actions of a few dedicated to radical change.

But Zorin says: “It’s already too late. Finis”. Perhaps, but I think that this is a far too hasty conclusion. I am reminded of Lenin’s scolding of those who, after the brutally suppressed 1905 revolution, fell into despair, inaction, and “tending their gardens”. Of course things changed dramatically with the slaughter of the First World War.

It would be foolish to press this analogy too vigorously. The US is not Czarist Russia. Nor has the US left yet overcome the rank revisionism and craven opportunism that swept the left in Europe and the US, including many Communist Parties, after the disappearance of the Soviet Union. Without clarity on this matter, a revolutionary movement has no chance of gaining traction.

Yet one legacy of the Soviet-era continues with genuine Marxist-Leninists: Internationalism. While US Marxists may be small in number and relatively ineffectual, they proceed with the knowledge that they are part of a world movement sharing both victories and setbacks. The crisis of the world economy brings this point home dramatically, with Marxists around the world playing an increasingly important, though not yet decisive role in shaping the response.

Surely Zorin understands the need for revolutionary patience and persistent organizing. In his own country – Russia - recent studies show that the average male now has a life expectancy of 60 years, dramatically down from the Soviet era and on a par with impoverished, sub-Saharan Africa. Demographically, this is a catastrophe – in terms of literally millions of unnecessary deaths – that rivals great famines and major wars. The Cold War calculators would place the blame for this devastation – holocaust, if you will – squarely on the back of the prevailing social system – in this case, capitalism. Yet despite, this blow to the Russian people, and despite a substantial Communist Party, this has not sparked a revolutionary upsurge. As in the US, the forces of crisis containment, distraction, and calculated obfuscation hinder this development. Capitalism has demonstrated great resiliency throughout the world.

Zorin raises the specter of US fascism. Of course this is a danger. Yet the fascistic 25% of the population has always been lurking in the body politic. During the great gains of the left during the New Deal, the Liberty Lobby, the Black Legions, the reactionary movement around the media celebrity, Father Coughlin, and the KKK enjoyed their greatest following. That was and remains a constant on the US scene. Unfortunately, much of the US left has posed confronting this evil as the sole task, cuddling up to the soulless Democrats in a twisted, misguided application of Popular Front policies. This has only added to the bleak landscape of left politics that Zorin correctly identifies.

So going forward, we – and our international comrades – have the daunting task of restoring revolutionary Marxism to the stature enjoyed in the twentieth century. There is much to digest, much to learn, and much to do. Admittedly, the US presents unique challenges, but we, and our friends abroad, should not underestimate the impact of a small revolutionary movement on the currents of US politics. The history of our twentieth century Communist Party shows many instances of its influence on major shifts in the trade union movement, the civil rights movement and the struggles against US aggression. If we are to help direct the course of this decaying empire, we must amplify these efforts.

Zoltan Zigedy

Monday, September 28, 2009

Some Reflections on the G-20

Six days of G-20 actions in Pittsburgh highlight the strengths and weaknesses of the left, but also the raging hypocrisy of those who rule.

Though the G-20 was rejected by other cities, the City and County officials of this Western Pennsylvania metropolis leaped at the chance to welcome 19 national leaders for the public spectacle of determining the destiny of the world in the period ahead. Long the target of democratic forces, the G-meetings expose the elitism and arrogance of the most powerful nations in a way that cries out for protest. Flaunting the credible though flawed, more democratic mechanism – The United Nations – G-meetings send the clear and shameless message that the wealthier countries and their ruling classes are in full control of the world’s affairs. While little more than wining, dining, signing off on previously determined policies and vague statements is accomplished, its all done with feudal-like ceremony and conspicuous pomp.

The Pittsburgh elites saw this circus as an opportunity to show case the “new” Pittsburgh – a glitzy Potemkin village hiding the devastated, neglected neighborhoods and towns of this once industrial giant. Today’s Pittsburgh – out-of-sight of the world’s leaders – is a depopulated, low income, aging city weighted down by decades of debt accumulated from ill-conceived, but highly profitably development schemes. The tax base has been scooped out to retain extortionate corporate giants and to lure new businesses that seldom come. The formerly well-paying manufacturing and mining jobs have disappeared only to be replaced with low-paying, benefit-lacking, service sector employment. Decades of political leadership rigidly wedded to corporate obeisance have left the region with a broken infrastructure, decrepit public services, and crippling poverty. If anything, Pittsburgh is a lesson in the destructiveness of unfettered corporate governance. The loss of good-paying industrial jobs has been most devastating to the African-American community: the city is one of the most segregated in the US with African-American poverty, infant mortality, crime, and abject poverty rivaling any city in America.

The city spared no expense in polishing the downtown buildings, streets, and public spaces where world leaders or the media might cast a critical eye. But, more than anything, Pittsburgh committed to an unprecedented show of force to confront anyone bent on crashing the party: nearly twenty-million dollars and 6,500 police (most imported) and National Guard. Despite the natural security advantages of the so-called “Golden Triangle” – a confined area at the convergence of two rivers – the heavy-handed security arrangements insured that downtown Pittsburgh was essentially a ghost town for two and a half days. The fears generated by the hysterical media (demonstrators will hurl bags of excrement, wield weapons, assault by-standers, etc. etc.) along with the barriers, choke points, and security check points virtually guaranteed that no visitor would cast an eye upon the peasants dependent upon downtown employment. Pittsburghers got a harsh taste of what life must be like in Baghdad or Kabul.

The week’s events kicked off with a jobs rally and march from Monumental Baptist Church in the city’s predominantly African-American Hill District neighborhood to the storied Freedom Corner, a landmark of civil rights activism. Around five hundred marchers echoed probably the week’s most militant and focused demands for social and racial justice with a strong anti-capitalism voice. Like this rally, other events held at the Church reflected the widest diversity of all of the many held during the week. The rally enjoyed endorsements from both the Steelworker’s union (USW) and the United Electrical Workers Union (UE), representatives of which spoke at the concluding rally along with other union leaders and the indomitable Pennsylvania State Senator, Jim Ferlo, who castigated President Obama for his disdainful dismissal of the anti-G-20 movement.

The police presence at the rally was only a foretaste of the Storm trooper tactics to be displayed later in the week after the “guests” arrived. Police made a provocative and thorough photographic record of the participants and leaders, a practice that accompanied all of the mass events to follow. Pittsburghers can be assured that these photos and other reports and records will be retained and researched. If the city didn’t have a “Red Squad” before, it has one now.

The Authorities

Led by the Secret Service, the local security apparatus exacerbated tensions by denying permits to assemble and march until the very last minute and only with ACLU legal prodding. Clearly they hoped to dampen participation and thwart planning. The huge police presence received training modeled after counter-insurgency tactics with units organized in platoon-sized groups fitted with full body armor and armed with assault rifles and shotguns. They maintained a steady helicopter presence above the skies of this city under siege. Before the actual meetings, police conducted raids on city gathering places as innocuous as urban gardens. We visited one such garden placed under constant surveillance by a well-placed camera fitted just for the G-20 meeting.

Their security plans became apparent as the week proceeded: they located any gathering, surrounded the participants, and ordered dispersal with the slightest provocation. This tactic guaranteed confusion and confrontation. Repeatedly, participants reported that they were unable to exit when dispersal orders were issued.

The authorities engaged a new weapon in Pittsburgh: a Long Range Acoustic Device (LRAD) that sends a loud, 150 decibel sound into crowds, leaving victims confused and disoriented. This weapon, used by the US in Iraq, is ironically the same device recently employed against the Brazilian Embassy sanctuary to dislodge the elected president, Zelaya, who was deposed by a military coup. Agents of repression think alike.

The Ghost of Alexander Berkman

Like their Yippie and Weatherman predecessors, the anarchists were the specter that haunted respectable Pittsburgh. For months, the media, especially the local talk radio, made every effort to conflate anarchists with terrorists, portraying them as feces-throwing, window breaking nihilists hiding in abandoned buildings, patiently waiting for the right moment to strike. Veterans of the left have encountered the black-garbed, bandana-wearing youth at demonstrations for many years. To my admittedly jaded mind, many, if not most, are the sons and daughters of the upper reaches of the middle-class playing at revolution. Like their predecessors, they refuse to accept the discipline of Marxist or labor-led struggle. And like their predecessors, some will mature politically and some will move on –disappointed with the backwardness of the masses – to take their places in the capitalist hierarchy. Nonetheless, they cut a rakishly revolutionary figure and have an understandable appeal with some angry youth.

In Pittsburgh, they planned an un-permitted march to disrupt the G-20 on Thursday. Gathering at a Pittsburgh park, several hundred anarchists and sympathizers drew an even greater force of police for the moment of which the media had prepared everyone. Preempting the march, the police declared the gathering illegal and demanded that the crowd disperse. In short order, the LRAD weapon was employed (some say, for the first time in the US), sending the crowd to re-organize a few blocks away, only to be gassed and sent scattering. The police, supported by helicopter surveillance, attempted to corral any remaining groups by surrounding them with massive forces. Police tactics moved mobile units in a chess game to block both the advance and withdrawal of any groups, tactics that virtually guaranteed confrontation and an excuse to make arrests. Rocks were thrown, some windows broken, and dumpster barricades were constructed, but resistance was no match for gas and rubber bullets. The TV-ready confrontation exhausted both sides by nightfall with little more damage and casualties than the aftermath of a Pittsburgh Steeler victory rally. Nonetheless, the residence of several Pittsburgh neighborhoods got a taste of what the authorities have in store for any vigorous resistance movement.

The action plan of the security forces was calculated and provocative and the sight of massive, storm trooper-like maneuvers left many by-standers alarmed. What they saw as kids-at-play was met with enormous, repressive force. The reckless use of gas in the narrow streets and alleyways of Pittsburgh neighborhoods troubled many. Was this the face of Pittsburgh’s future? It is the height of foolishness to think that the tactical police will simply go back to business as usual after this repressive exercise. The toothpaste is out of the tube.

The Battle for the University

The G-20 planners organized few glitzy events outside of the high-security “Green Zone” constructed downtown. One was a reception near the University of Pittsburgh. Essentially an Oscar-like fashion show for the G-20 celebrities and the media, organizers had no intention of allowing ordinary folks that are normally drawn to such extravaganzas. University students – idled for two days by the G-20 – quite naturally gathered to get a glimpse of the People Magazine-worthy dignitaries. But the police – battle-hardened by the afternoon skirmish with the anarchists – would have none of it, pressing the students away from the event and demanding that they disperse. The heavy-handedness of the police was met by some resistance, but resulted largely in panic, fear, and some arrests.

Undoubtedly many students – seeing the face of police thuggery for the first time - were moved to join the Friday march in solidarity with those abused and arrested Thursday evening.

After the close of the G-20, students gathered again near the site of Thursday’s action and were again attacked by the police. For the most part, the 400 students gathered Friday night were more social than political. Nonetheless they were subjected to the LRAD weapon, batons, and rubber bullets. The violent police assault resulted in 110 arrests, including members of the media. The police could not resist one more strike against civility and Constitutional guarantees.

The Media

Sensationalism drew the media like a moth to a light. The local media bought the official public relations effort in its entirety, bombarding people with a catalogue of benefits that would surely befall the city with the hosting of the G-20. Pittsburgh media has always ignored the critical reports of the city’s decline, showcasing the profit-driven promises of developers and consultants who have driven the region into unprecedented debt. Neighborhood needs, public services, minority set-asides, and good paying jobs have always been overshadowed by the grandiose urban revivals imposed by the city’s wealthy and their political minions. The old legacy of a few dominant families, like the Mellons and Scaifes, telling people how to think has never been completely shed.

Pittsburgh media dwelled incessantly on the security needs for the world’s leaders, demonizing the arrival of anarchists and the potential for terrorism. During the week of political action, they trivialized the resistance events, singling out the most obscure and off-beat of demands in a crude attempt to render all participants marginal and frivolous. In gatherings, they showed a particular interest and fascination with the masked activists, hoping to paint the thousands committed to peacefully advocating a host of serious issues as bent upon some nefarious act of vandalism or outrage.

In one rare instance, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette broke through the wall of hypocrisy, describing fairly, fully, and with some outrage the police assault on the University of Pittsburgh students on Friday night. No doubt this was because the rioting police assaulted and arrested one of their own: a young reporter. That made all the difference.


Leo Gerard, the President of the Steelworkers (USW) union, seemed to be everywhere, speaking on many occasions and with passion about the sins of the G-20. The union’s endorsement of events, including the opening and closing marches was significant and commendable. A few other unions made notable contributions; most were not involved. Yet there was little mass participation by labor in the week’s events. In a city and region famous for its concentration of organized labor, rank-and-file labor participation would have made a truly qualitative difference in the impact of the G-20 protests. With thousands of members and retirees in the area, it is hard to believe that any great effort was made to mobilize members in support of these events.

The wide gap between official endorsement and member participation points to the long period of labor’s dependency on electoral strategy and faithfulness to the Democratic Party. The machinery of mass action has grown rusty from disuse and desperately in need of repair. The bodies and voices of the rank-and-file were sorely missed at the G-20. Without some official distance between the labor movement and the Democratic Party, members are understandably reluctant to protest an event hosted by President Obama. Needless to say, with few exceptions, Democratic Party leaders were nowhere to be found amongst the anti-G-20 folks.

The Big Finale

Friday’s concluding march brought thousands to the streets of Pittsburgh in a show of resistance unseen in this city since the highpoint of anti-Vietnam War activities. Eight, perhaps nine, thousand marchers trekked to the heart of Pittsburgh to hear speakers positioned at the City-County Building, before marching on to the city’s Northside. This final, permitted march brought together all the causes advocated over the six days of protest in a peaceful, joyful celebration of dissent from the G-20 agenda.

Thanks to the energy and determination of the event’s sponsor – The Thomas Merton Center, a long-time catalyst for social justice – and its indefatigable organizer - Pete Shell - the Friday march was a success on ever level. Despite further intimidating police presence, there were no clashes (rumors abounded that the police planned to stage a provocation, a suspicion reinforced by the staging of mounted police and a mass of riot police near the City-County Building).

For the final march and throughout the week, Shell made a conscious effort to center the events around issues of peace, equality and economic justice, a task made difficult by the diverse, and sometimes conflicting, agendas of the many participants. The lack of focus has plagued all G-protests and, though no threat to unity, has blunted the critique of the undemocratic, corporate-friendly essence of the G-20.

The clarion call of the marchers – “This is what democracy looks like” – stands in sharp relief to the call to arms of the G-20 organizers. Those participating in opposition might point to the huge gathering of the tools of repression and say with equal vigor: “This is what fascism looks like”.

The best laid plans of the security agencies failed to frighten thousands from participating in G-20 activities. Yet far more can be mustered if we could find a way to bring rank-and-file labor into the streets. Far more would join us if we could better integrate African-Americans, Hispanics, and other minority peoples and their issues into the struggle.

Traditionally, it has been the role of the left – especially the Marxist left – to make these connections, to bring clarity and focus to the issues. But for some time, the left has been split into narrow sectarians and timid apologists for a broken, backward political and economic regime.

Zoltan Zigedy

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Why is Marxism a “Science”?

The claim that Marxism is a science is particularly pertinent in light of the same, but dubious claim made on behalf of modern economics. The economics taught in most universities, alongside physics, chemistry and biology, surely has only a loose claim on that honorific title after its abysmal performance explaining and taming our tenacious economic crisis. Despite all of the formalisms, quantifications, models, and theorems (the trappings of modern science) bloating the books and papers of academic economics, the discipline has a rather weak record in steering economic life towards rationality, efficiency, and, of course, justice. If physics were as mired in conventionality as economics, we would still be searching for phlogiston. Despite the wealth of new data, computational tools, and economic experience, it is not too much of an exaggeration to say that the conceptual toolbox collected by the Classical Economists –Adam Smith and David Ricardo – would have served us as well in understanding and addressing the current economic storm.

But the failing of economics, or sociology, or social psychology, in no way proves that an alternative approach – for example, Marxism - is superior or more scientific.

I was reminded of what makes good science by reading a recent opinion piece written by Richard Dawkins, the distinguished evolutionary biologist, and appearing in The Wall Street Journal (“Evolution leaves God with Nothing to Do”, 9-12/13-09). Though Dawkins ostensible target was the existence of God, I was drawn to his splendid defense of Darwinism and the scientific world-view. We would do well to reflect upon one particular passage:

The laws of physics, before Darwinian evolution bursts out from their midst, can make rocks and sand, gas clouds and stars, whirlpools and waves, whirl-pool shaped galaxies and light that travels as waves while behaving like particles… But now enter life. Look through the eyes of a physicist, at a bounding kangaroo, a swooping bat, a leaping dolphin, a soaring Redwood. There never was a rock that bound like a kangaroo, never a pebble that crawled like a beetle seeking a mate… Not once do any of these creatures disobey the laws of physics. Far from violating the laws of thermodynamics (as is often so ignorantly alleged) they are relentlessly driven by them. Far from violating the laws of motion, animals exploit them to their advantage as they walk. Run, dodge and jink, leap and fly, pounce on prey or spring to safety.

Never once are the laws of physics violated, yet life emerges into uncharted territory. And how is the trick done? …Darwinian evolution, the nonrandom survival of randomly varying coded information.

This passionate defense and crystal clear exposition of the place of Darwinian evolution in the body of science could equally serve as a defense and exposition – with the replacement of a few key words – of Marxism as science. Society, like life, shows a vast array of forms with distinctive patterns of development. Society, like life, changes over time in adaptive ways that spring from seemingly random factors. At the heart of both processes – biological evolution and societal transformation – is the struggle to survive and thrive, a natural process that separates the rocks, gas clouds, and whirlpools that Dawkins mentions from amoeba and social institutions. It was Marx and Engels’ great insight in 1845 and 1846 (in writing The German Ideology) to view social change as an evolutionary pattern generated by this struggle. It was Darwin’s great insight in 1859 (with The Origin of the Species) to see the vast, diverse mass of living things as the result of an intelligible evolutionary process. Where Darwin’s great insight drew upon an enormous survey of the diversity of life, Marx and Engels drew upon an enormous wealth of social and historical data. Both investigations revealed patterns: species evolution in the former case, societal evolution in the other.

This common insight, a centerpiece of all biological sciences, but largely scorned by the social science establishment, stands as the pillar of Marxism’s claim for scientific stature. Before Darwin’s landmark work was published, Marx and Engels identified a social evolution that mapped the continuous development of humans and their social organizations, driven - as with biological evolution - by a struggle with nature. In order to better meet the challenges of nature – climate, scarcity, security, disease, etc. – humans created more and more complex social relations that improved humanity’s chances in the battle for survival. The dramatic increase in the life expectancy of humans from pre-historic times demonstrates vividly this process, a success unmatched by any other biological organism. The biological development of consciousness, self-awareness, and symbolic representation birthed the construction of community and social relations, accounting for this distinct advantage accruing to humans in the survival of the fittest.

For Marx and Engels, the fittest social organizations survived and thrived just as the fittest biological organisms survived over their less adapted rivals. They saw the creation of an economic surplus – a reserve of the means of sustenance - as determinative of a society’s edge in the struggle against nature and rival social organizations. The more that a community could accumulate the material means of survival, the more it could take steps to accumulate even more of these material means and further advance in the struggle for survival. But accumulation is slow and limited in a community lacking both domination and privilege; early egalitarian, peaceful societies tended to seek little more than enough to overcome pangs of hunger, avoid pain and mortality and reproduce. In this regard, they mirrored the behavior of other species. But thanks to the unique features evolved by humans, communities emerged with an evolutionary advantage: they took to plundering and domination. With the material advantages gained by these survival adaptive activities, these societies were able to both expand and protect their privileges; new social structures emerged that elevated the material means – the adaptive sustainability – of a few by dominating the many.

It was this engine of domination and primitive exploitation (little different in the beginning from what we now call “thievery”) that Marx and Engels placed at the center of social evolution. As social scientists, they viewed this coldly as an essential process of social transformation (though as humans, they could not help but vividly paint the pain and degradation of the process). Moreover, they saw this social process as the basis for the creation of divisions of labor – workers, soldiers, etc. – and class differentiation (insofar as this process may mirror a society of bees, it must be remembered that humans generated these divisions socially and not genetically).

Just as with species evolution, some paths of social transformation were unsuccessful or preserved by natural boundaries or isolation, leaving societies sustainable, but frozen in time. But the mechanisms of exploitation and class dominance marched on in others, producing greater and greater accumulated surpluses. Marx and Engels identified the patterns of exploitation – slavery, serfdom, and the purchase of the power of free labor – that established distinct markers in the social evolution of humans. Drawing upon their careful studies of these previous changes, Marx and Engels foresaw a time when the mechanism of exploitation would not only outlive its usefulness in driving social development, but, indeed, become a restraint upon human survival. I would argue that we are well into a period where that projection is a reality. The dominant form of social organization – capitalism – now threatens human survivability on so many fronts – war, environmental chaos, extreme poverty, declining living standards, cultural degradation, loss of community, hollow values – that further transformation is not only desirable, but necessary.

On a final note, Dawkins makes passing, casual reference to the laws of thermodynamics, noting that those who see a conflict between these laws and Darwinism are ignorant. He is referring, with this aside, principally to the Second Law of Thermodynamics – the irreversible increase in entropy within closed systems. Increasing entropy - crudely, the tendency of order to dissolve into disorder – represents a unique law that introduces directionality into physical processes. Where most processes are reversible – water into steam and back into water – the Second Law posits a process that will, in the long run, reduce what we perceive as order or organization into a bland, random disorder: our shoes wear out, our sandcastles deteriorate, our mountains erode, and our muscles weaken. But this randomizing often generates interesting new combinations, such as life itself. This fascinating organic accident bears an equally interesting feature: though life has a fragile hold on its advantage, it succeeds by harnessing random changes to improve its survivability. The evolution of new species has managed to stay a step, a tenuous step, ahead of the increasing entropy in our closed system. All but the ignorant recognize this as both consistent with and dependent upon the Second Law.

Like Darwinian evolution, the Marxist theory of social transformation – commonly called “Historical Materialism” – embraces the Second Law of Thermodynamics, but in this case, by the persistent re-organization of society to battle entropy’s infinite challenges to human survival: disease, starvation, environmental calamities, and self-destruction. As with biological evolution, social evolution is a fragile process that, under the best of conditions, stays a step ahead of the dissolving forces of nature. But in the case of society, it is not random changes selected by fitness to survive, but conscious human constructions selected in their resistance to the challenges of nature and human folly that is determinative.

Engels, writing in the Introduction to the Dialectics of Nature, acknowledged the science of Darwin while foreseeing the enormous possibilities unleashed by an understanding of the science of society:

Darwin did not know what a bitter satire he wrote on mankind, and especially on his countrymen, when he showed that free competition, the struggle for existence, which the economists celebrate as the highest historical achievement, is the normal state of the animal kingdom. Only conscious organisation of social production, in which production and distribution are carried on in a planned way, can lift mankind above the rest of the animal world as regards the social aspect, in the same way that production in general has done this for men in their aspect as species. Historical evolution makes such an organisation daily more indispensable, but also with every day more possible. From it will date a new epoch of history, in which mankind itself, and with mankind all branches of its activity, and especially natural science, will experience an advance that will put everything preceding it in the deepest shade.

It is this deeper search for an understanding of societal evolution that Marx and Engels brought to science. It is this science that is so sorely needed to address the problems of our times.

Zoltan Zigedy