“Capitalist democracy”: A Contradiction in Terms

When I was a graduate teaching assistant at the University of Maine, a student once informed me that she “cares about capitalism more than democracy.”

I found this frank admission rather striking. Perhaps even more unnerving was the fact that none of the other students in the class challenged her view. But then, sadly, my students’ political views generally ranged from right-wing to indifferent with nothing in-between. (This was in Maine’s notoriously conservative second district, mind you.)

Many people assume the words “capitalism” and “democracy” are synonymous. Indeed, this was the central thesis of Milton Friedman, the architect of free-market fundamentalism, in his 1962 book, Capitalism and Freedom.

But those who assume capitalism and democracy are one and the same —and, furthermore, are compatible with one another — would be sadly mistaken. There is in fact nothing remotely democratic about capitalism.

And this is not even a “radical” interpretation of the term. Just consider the following dictionary definition of “capitalism” from Merriam-Webster:

An economic system characterized by private or corporate ownership of capital goods, by investments that are determined by private decisions, and by prices, production, and the distribution of goods that are determined mainly by competition in a free market.

Wikipedia goes on to enumerate the characteristics of capitalism as including “private property, capital accumulation, wage labor, voluntary exchange, a price system and competitive markets.”

Neither definition includes anything at all about popular rule or majoritarian decision-making. And this is no accident or mere oversight. It is, indeed, largely by design. The U.S. was never intended to be a democracy. The revered “Founding Fathers” were the reigning — and slave-owning — bourgeoisie of their time. They despised the concept of democracy and popular-rule.

Thus the constitution they drafted, despite its much-touted system of “checks and balances,” actually does more to hinder popular democracy than to facilitate it. They enshrined a series of barriers (the Electoral College, the Senate, the institution of slavery, the mass disenfranchisement of women and the poor from voting, etc.) to protect their wealth, property, and privilege from the “masses.”

As historian, Richard Hofstader, observed in his 1948 book, The American Political Tradition and the Men Who Made It, in the minds’ of the Founding Fathers, “liberty was linked not to democracy but to property.” They feared democracy would confer “unchecked rule by the masses,” which was “sure to bring arbitrary redistribution of property, destroying the very essence of liberty.”

Things remain largely unchanged in modern times. As political scientists Benjamin I. Page and Martin Gilens conclude in an influential 2014 article, genuine democracy remains elusive for working-class Americans.

They write:

Multivariate analysis indicates that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence. The results provide substantial support for theories of Economic-Elite Domination … but not for theories of Majoritarian Electoral Democracy.

Page and Gilens recently turned their findings into a book with the apt title, Democracy in America?

But one need not be an academic to understand that the U.S. is not — and never has been — a democracy. Just consider the one place the vast majority of us spend most of our waking lives: Our jobs.

The capitalist workplace is a benevolent dictatorship — at best. And believe me, I have had plenty of jobs where even the pretense of benevolence was in short supply.

Workers have no control over the nature of the work they perform, the conditions of that work, the hours or schedule they work, or the products or services they produce or provide. And, at the end of the day, workers cannot claim any ownership of the fruits of their labor. The products workers create belong exclusively to the boss or company. As a result, workers become completely alienated from the work they do.

This is the essence of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels’ concept of class struggle.

Furthermore, none of the First Amendment rights apply to the private sphere of the workplace. Workers must spend the day obeying orders and carrying out degrading tasks (cleaning the store bathroom, for instance) or risk getting fired.

Workers are routinely subjected to round-the-clock surveillance, video monitoring, and drug-testing. They are often strictly forbidden from discussing certain topics with their coworkers (politics, chief among them). Poultry workers are forbidden from using the bathroom during their shift. As a result, many have resorted to wearing diapers on the job. Keep that in mind the next time you are scarfing down a bucket of KFC.

And while it seems like highly draconian working conditions like these should be patently illegal, the unfortunate truth is the worker protection laws in this country are weak and rarely enforced.

It’s not just you. Your job really does suck.

Immigrant workers (approximately 17.1 percent of the U.S. labor force) find themselves in an especially precarious position. Those who are in the country “illegally” are less likely to speak up about cruel working conditions or illegal practices such as wage-theft, for fear of being deported.

To make matters worse, workers’ exploitation does not end when they clock out for the day. Employers have become increasingly scrupulous of workers’ personal lives, hobbies, and political activities outside of work. They can monitor employees’ social media posts or political donations. Many corporate employers coerce (or outright threaten) their staff with termination if they do not vote a certain way.

And those who are self-employed or who work from home have not managed to escape the tyranny of the capitalist workplace. They have merely brought that tyranny and conformist rigidity into their own homes.

“At-will” employment means an employer can legally fire an employee for any reason at all. For that matter, the boss does not even need a reason.

Sure, a worker is “free” to quit her job if she really hates it. This is the typical libertarian response to socialist critiques of the capitalist workplace.

But this argument overlooks the fact that the worker would still need to find employment somewhere else — in another capitalist workplace just as bereft of democracy as the previous one.

And therein lies the crux of the dilemma: Working-class people are not free so long as they face the prospect of “work-or-starve.” No valid conception of freedom can justify such a power imbalance between one small segment of society that produces nothing over the majority who produce most of society’s wealth.

As Marx understood, there is nothing natural about such a system of inequality.

“Nature does not produce on the one side owners of money or commodities,” Marx wrote in volume one of his three-part economic treatise, Capital, “and on the other men possessing nothing but their own labour-power. This relation has no natural basis, neither is its social basis one that is common to all historical periods.”

Naturally, most Americans want more democratic rights and freedoms. Programs of social uplift like universal health care, a living wage, the Green New Deal, fully-funded childcare, free college tuition and expanded voting rights are incredibly popular among voters. This, no doubt, accounts for the popularity of democratic socialists like Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

But, as left-wing columnist, Paul Street observes in his latest contribution for CounterPunch, “Public opinion on numerous key issues is largely irrelevant under American capitalism.”

Sure, we can vote once every two to four years for politicians from one of two capitalist parties. (Indeed, the U.S. is unique among industrial democracies for its complete lack of a labor party.)

But the simple act of voting is a considerably low barometer for determining the degree of popular democracy present in a country.

As Marx once noted on the efficacy of elections, “The oppressed are allowed once every few years to decide which particular representatives of the oppressing class are to represent and repress them.”

And even if one were to focus solely on elections as a signifier of participatory democracy, the U.S. still lags significantly behind most other democratic nations. Our elections do not take place on a weekend or holiday; prisoners and felons are barred from voting; onerous voter ID laws make voting inaccessible to elderly and poor citizens; and the GOP’s decades-long campaign of selectively re-drawing congressional district lines has made it all but impossible to unseat many representatives–most of them Republicans.

To top it off, the Constitution does not even guarantee every citizen the right to vote.

In other words, we cannot merely vote our way to socialism — a fact even Sanders acknowledges. Only a massive, organized working-class movement oriented around overthrowing capitalism can bring about a real systemic shift in making America a true democracy.

No doubt, the history of working-class struggle has resulted in considerable victories which have broadened the scope of constitutional freedoms to include more people (women, African Americans, LGBT people, people with disabilities).

But, as Erik Olin Wright observes in his contribution to the essay collection, The ABCs of Socialism, “[I]f freedom and democracy are to be fully realized, capitalism must not merely be tamed. It must be overcome.”

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Bogus “Russiagate” Story Finally Implodes


Maddow

The following piece was originally published in the Portland, Maine monthly, the West End News.

Robert Mueller’s long-awaited investigation is finally over and for Democrats it is like waking up to a stocking full of coal on Christmas Day. That is because the decidedly anti-climactic conclusion to “Russiagate” more or less exonerates Donald Trump.

(At least on the matter of “colluding” with Russia, anyway. I think there is ample evidence that Trump’s many efforts to block Mueller’s investigation constitute obstruction of justice.)

The “Russiagate” conspiracy theory has completely collapsed. Trump is not a Russian “stooge” (witting or unwitting), nor has he somehow been “compromised” by Vladimir Putin.

As Mueller’s report plainly states:

“The investigation did not establish that members of the Trump campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.”

But then, the ludicrous premise behind Russiagate — that Trump is a Manchurian Candidate-style Russian agent, installed by the Kremlin through covert interference in the 2016 presidential election — was always more farfetched and convoluted than the mythology story arc of The X-Files.

Yet the U.S. media — including stalwart journalistic institutions like the New York Times, the Washington Post, and NPR — obsequiously and uncritically regurgitated the baseless lies and empty talking points that Russia “stole” the 2016 election on behalf of Trump. It is the same careless stenographic reporting these same media outlets used to sell the American public the Iraq War 16 years ago.

Sadly, the press has learned nothing.

For two years now Russiagate and its complicated array of characters and former White House cabinet members has dominated the print and television news. Night after night, talking heads on CNN and MSNBC breathlessly assured us that Mueller “knows everything” — that he has “the goods” on Trump’s illegal, unconstitutional activities that will bring about his downfall. Mueller was going to save us from this rogue, brazenly criminal president.

But it was always silly for the left to invest its hopes in the likes of Mueller (a Republican and former director of the FBI), James Comey, John Brennan, and James Clapper. The CIA, FBI, NSA, and other affiliated alphabet-soup government agencies are no friends of the left — and historically they never have been. They are agents of the state. They are professional liars who do everything they can to mislead the public, subvert democracy, and undermine and destroy activists, socialists, communists, and social justice organizations.

Could William Barr, the attorney general, simply have misrepresented Muller’s findings…? It is quite possible.

But, as Branko Marcetic observes in Jacobin:

“[T]hose still holding on to a flicker of hope that Mueller will emerge on horseback, thick stack of papers in hand, with details and conclusions running counter to Barr’s summary need to get a grip. If there was something there, it would have leaked a long time ago.”

From the beginning, the chief allegations of Russiagate have consisted of suspicion, speculation, and classified information from anonymous sources — a practice journalist Glenn Greenwald, one of the most outspoken Russiagate critics on the left, considers “shoddy,” and “unreliable.”

Those on the left like Greenwald who have been skeptical of the Russian narrative from the beginning have been marginalized by the corporate media, dismissed as “fringe radicals,” and often viciously smeared and attacked as Russian apologists. The furious demonization and silencing of serious journalists like Greenwald, Matt Taibbi, and Aaron Matte eerily mirrors that of the few voices opposing the U.S. invasion of Iraq back in 2002-2003.

And the risks this time around are no less significant.

The Russiagate story has now intensified and fiercely ratcheted up tensions between the world’s two largest nuclear-armed countries. It is as if we have been thrust back into the Cold War. The-Green-New-Deal-hating liberal elite, Jonathan Chait even published an absurd story in New York Magazine claiming that Trump has been an undercover Russian agent since 1987.

The irony of Russiagate is twofold:

For all the talk of Trump’s alleged coziness with Vladimir Putin, he has actually been far more hawkish and antagonistic toward Russia than Barack Obama. Back in February, Trump abruptly withdrew the U.S. from the longstanding Russian nuclear arms pact known as the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty (INF). He has renewed sanctions on Russia. And Trump has sought military intervention in two of Russia’s key allies — Syria and Venezuela.

The other irony is Russiagate has diverted attention away from the actual culprit of election interference in 2016: The Electoral College.

The proponents of Russiagate are correct in one respect: The presidential election was stolen. Hillary Clinton won 3 million more votes than Trump, yet thanks to the slave-owning Founding Fathers’ thoroughly undemocratic Electoral College, Trump, who never intended or probably even desired to be president, is sitting in the Oval Office. This marks the second time in the last 16 years that the candidate who won the popular vote nonetheless still lost the election.

The Electoral College — along with the Senate, the Supreme Court, and the rest of the bourgeois capitalist state — should be abolished. Imagine if the left had spent the last two years organizing toward that end, rather than tilting at Russian windmills.

And therein lies the great tragedy of this whole pathetic, epic media fail. Leftists initially responded to Trump’s unfathomable election with massive marches throughout major cities, local peace vigils, protests, and the spontaneous airport occupations against Trump’s racist Muslim travel ban. The Women’s March on Washington marked Trump’s first day in the White House. It was the single largest day of protest in U.S. history.

As anyone who participated in a march, rally, protest, or discussion group since Nov. 9, 2016 can attest, these events were simultaneously marked by a sense of fear, disgust, and outrage, but also a renewed spirit of radical politics and revolutionary action. It really did feel at the time like Trump’s election might be capitalism’s breaking point. Working-class people were angry and mobilized in a way they had not been in years.

But Russiagate (and, to a lesser extent, the 2018 midterm elections) sucked all of the air out of the room. The liberal “Resistance” has all but atrophied into complacency with a false sense that Mueller, the Democrats, impeachment, Michael Cohen or Joe Biden will save us from the Orange Menace.

The last major anti-Trump rally was against Trump’s firing of Jeff Sessions shortly after last fall’s midterm elections. That’s right: Liberals were rallying in support of a racist, white nationalist Trump-appointee. I will let that sink in for readers for a moment…

Meanwhile, the International Socialist Organization (ISO), a revolutionary group I have been a dues-paying member of for the last five years, has been rocked by recent disclosures of a sexual assault incident from 2013 that the organization’s national leaders actively worked to cover up. The future of the ISO is now very much in question.

Worst of all, the left may have inadvertently handed Trump a major boost to his re-election bid. Mueller has effectively proven Trump right (at least, to an extent). Trump can now convincingly make the case that there was “no collusion, no obstruction,” on his part.

Russiagate only adds credibility to his constant attacks on the “fake news,” and “dishonest media,” and his claims that they are only interested in carrying out a zealous “witch hunt” against him. Indeed, working-class Americans, who do not see their own lives or struggles reflected in the pages of the New York Times or on CNN, have every reason to be distrustful of the corporate-owned news media. Russiagate merely gives them one more.

Sadly, it does not appear the media is ready to let go of the Russiagate narrative anytime soon — even as it has crumbled to pieces right in front of them. The press has merely moved the proverbial goal-posts, now calling for the report’s complete publication, or casting doubt on Barr’s summary. Rather than admit they were wrong, figures like Rachel Maddow have simply doubled-down on this absurd conspiracy theory.

As Matt Taibbi writes in a recent piece for Rolling Stone:

Russiagate became a convenient replacement explanation absolving an incompetent political establishment for its complicity in what happened in 2016, and not just the failure to see it coming. Because of the immediate arrival of the collusion theory, neither Wolf Blitzer nor any politician ever had to look into the camera and say, “I guess people hated us so much they were willing to vote for Donald Trump.”



Impeach the Motherf@*#er!

Is this the end of the line for Donald Trump?

Are we witnessing the unraveling of the Trump presidency? This is, indeed, a question left-wing pundits have raised since the Orange One’s shock election two years ago.

And there have been several points throughout the last two years when it really did seem like Donald Trump had finally gone too far. Such moments included Trump’s abrupt firing of FBI director, James Comey; his unambiguous defense of white supremacists in the wake of Heather Heyer’s murder in Charlottesville, Virginia; and Michael Cohen’s frank admission that he engaged in illegal campaign finance spending at the direction of “Individual 1” (Trump), to name just a few.

Yet, Trump has always managed to bounce back after each of these seemingly irreparable moments. Trump is, if anything, the “master of distraction,” as filmmaker, Michael Moore has frequently observed. Another war (or a ramping up of one of the wars the U.S. is already embroiled in), a new set of tariffs, an escalation of violence against immigrants at the border — Trump could utilize any of these maneuvers to swiftly shift the public’s attention away from his myriad criminal activities.

In other words, we have been here before with this president.

Still, there is a sense that things are different this time around. It does seem like the proverbial walls are closing in on the Groper in Chief.

The recent resignation of James Mattis, Trump’s secretary of defense, in response to the president’s abrupt decision to remove most (but not all) U.S. troops from Syria seems, for many Washington pundits, to constitute a dramatic turning point.

Mainstream news outlets are now openly discussing the possibility of Trump being impeached.

“An impeachment process against President Trump now seems inescapable,” Elizabeth Drew writes in a Dec. 27, 2018 op-ed for the New York Times. “Unless the president resigns, the pressure by the public on the Democratic leaders to begin an impeachment process next year will only increase.”

While I would like nothing more than to see the Cheetos-skinned ignoramus defenestrated from the White House, I remain skeptical of the Democratic Party’s willingness to actually initiate impeachment hearings — even if Robert Mueller’s investigation uncovers incontrovertible evidence of unconstitutional criminal wrongdoing.

For one thing, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has, in characteristic fashion, already ruled impeachment out.

“I do think we want to be unified and bring people together,” Pelosi (D-CA) told MSNBC’s Joy Reid during a town hall interview, Friday. “Impeachment is a very divisive approach to take and we shouldn’t take it … without the facts.”

This excuse will be eerily familiar to readers old enough to remember the George W. Bush years, over a decade ago. That was the last time Pelosi was Speaker and the Democrats controlled the House of Representatives. Back then, Pelosi also labelled impeachment “divisive,” and a “distraction,” despite the ample evidence that Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney engaged in war crimes and crimes against humanity.

The Democrats basically regard impeachment as political poison.

Part of this distaste for the impeachment process is likely a hangover from the Republicans’ 1998 effort to impeach Bill Clinton for having an extramarital affair while in office and lying about it to the public. That overzealous maneuver severely backfired on the Newt Gingrich-led GOP and ended up making Clinton appear like the sympathetic victim of a right-wing witch hunt. It also solidified the idea that impeaching a sitting president is a form of “overreach,” if not outright political “revenge.”

(There is also such a stark world of difference between the “crime” of Clinton’s infidelity, and Trump’s far more grievous crimes of tax evasion, obstruction of justice, and possible electioneering, as to make comparisons to the Clinton impeachment laughably absurd.)

But beyond the bitter memories of the Clinton impeachment fiasco over two decades ago, the Democrats have a more cynical reason for wanting to keep Trump around: Frankly, they need him.

Perverse as it may seem, the openly racist, misogynist, nativist, climate-change-denying Trump makes the perfect foil for the Dems —particularly when he childishly shuts down the federal government only days after petulantly claiming he would proudly “own” any such shutdown.

Why get rid of such a thoroughly inept political adversary who routinely makes criticism of him so friggin’ easy? Basically anybody — Joe Biden, George W. Bush, John McCain, my cat, Zooey … anybody! — looks like a refined president compared to Trump.

Thus, it would be a mistake for the left to pin its hopes on removing Trump from office on the “dismal dollar-drenched Dems,” as leftist writer, Paul Street dubs the party. And even if Trump were impeached, that would leave us with … President Mike Pence — a Christian evangelical zealot and white nationalist. Not exactly an improvement, if you ask me.

This is not to suggest pursuing impeachment is a “waste of time,” or even a “distraction” as some on the left have suggested.

No doubt, impeaching Trump — or, perhaps more likely, forcing him to resign from office in shame as Richard Nixon did — would be something of a victory for the left. Ideally, removing Trump from the White House would send a clear message to then-President Pence that he cannot merely follow, willy-nilly, in Trump’s criminal footsteps, lest he suffer the same fate.

The problem, however, rests in the bourgeois “Founding Fathers'” constitution, itself.

At the end of the day Trump, loathsome as he is, is not really the problem. Trump is merely a symptom of the disease — the disease of capitalism. Trading one capitalist president for another amounts to little more than a cosmetic reform. The whole system needs to be impeached.

And we cannot accomplish this task through elections alone. It will take massive protests, demonstrations, teach-ins, and a broad, multi-racial, multi-ethnic, multi-gender working-class movement to truly alter the structures of our racist, sexist, capitalist society.

As Street observes, though the United States prides itself as the “world’s greatest democracy,” few of our nation’s institutions can accurately be called “democratic.” The U.S. is essentially an oligarchy.

“Impeaching or otherwise removing [Trump] won’t alter that basic reality,” Street writes in a recent column. “The United States doesn’t need a new and 46th president as much as it needs a democracy, a new constitution, a new organizing of institutions — including its frankly absurd and plutocratic election and party systems.”

Corporate Media: The Real Enemy of the People

simpsons-newspaper

On Aug. 16, 350 daily newspapers banded together to denounce Donald Trump’s ongoing war on the press, which he has derided as perpetuating “fake news,” and as the “enemy of the people.”

In a coordinated series of editorials, newspapers throughout the country defended the role of a “free and independent” press in a “democratic” society, and repudiated Trump’s McCarthy-esque attacks on the media.

“[I]t’s important for journalists to continue to report on the business of the government,” wrote the editors of the Bangor Daily News on Aug. 16, “and for editorial boards, like this one, to condemn attacks by the president and others in positions of power. News organizations don’t serve governments. They serve you, the public.”

The BDN editorial continues:

They are the only way you know when your government isn’t working as it should. They are the only independent way to know what elected officials are doing. Often, if the government doesn’t like journalists, it’s probably because they’re doing their job right.

The Boston Globe, which put out the initial call for a coordinated defense of the media, similarly wrote of Trump’s attacks on press freedom:

The press is necessary to a free society because it does not implicitly trust leaders — from the local planning board to the White House. And it’s not a coincidence that this president — whose financial affairs are murky and whose suspicious pattern of behavior triggered his own Justice Department to appoint an independent counsel to investigate him — has tried so hard to intimidate journalists who provide independent scrutiny.

Collectively, these incisive editorials make a powerful case for the role of the vaunted fourth estate and the First Amendment. If only the media actually carried out any of these watchdog functions.

There is a reason I put the words “free and independent press” in quotation marks. That is because, sadly, the United States does not actually possess any such thing. We have a corporate-owned and controlled news media.

Incredibly awkward as it is to find myself agreeing with the racist, misogynistic, white supremacist apologist Trump, his accusations that the mainstream news media are the “enemy of the people” are not all that far from the truth. The unfortunate reality is the corporate media are the enemy of working-class people.

At the very least, the U.S. press has a troubling yet consistent history of echoing and prioritizing the views and stories of the wealthy business elite over those of working-class Americans. Consider for instance: Compare the size of the “Labor” section in your average daily newspaper to that of the “Business” section. It’s a pretty short experiment. Newspapers do not have a “Labor” section. (But remember: “The media are liberal.”)

Despite its lofty rhetoric, the corporate media do not serve “the public.” They serve their shareholders.

Six multinational corporations own 90 percent of the print, television, and digital news Americans consume: Comcast, Disney, 21st Century Fox, Time Warner, CBS, and Viacom. In June, Time Warner merged with mobile phone service giant, AT&T in an unprecedented $85 billion consolidation deal approved by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

The right-wing, Sinclair Broadcast Group owns or operates 193 television stations throughout the country, making it one of the largest telecommunication companies in the nation. (Sinclair is the parent company of local CBS affiliate, WGME 13.)

A handful of billionaires, meanwhile, own most of the United States’ daily newspapers. This list includes Amazon founder, Jeff Bezos (the Washington Post); News Corp’s Rupert Murdoch (The Wall Street Journal, the New York Post, and British tabloid, The Sun); former New York mayor, Michael Bloomberg (Bloomberg Media); the billionaire Cox Family (Atlanta Journal-Constitution); John Henry, owner of the Boston Red Sox (the Boston Globe); Patrick Soon-Shiong (Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune); and Mexican billionaire, Carlos Slim Helu, owns a 17 percent share in the New York Times.

The Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram, the Kennebec Journal, and the Waterville-based, Morning Sentinel are collectively owned by Maine Today Media. Rockland businessman, Reade Brower purchased MTM from hedge-fund manager, S. Donald Sussman, in 2015. Brower currently owns six of Maine’s seven daily papers along with several weeklies.

Given the media’s labyrinthine model of overlapping and ever shifting corporate ownership, it stands to reason media outlets will generally promote center-right, pro-business viewpoints. Despite the right’s longstanding tirades against a mythical “liberal media,” the mainstream press typically does more to echo government talking points rather than challenge them. It is more lapdog than watchdog.

As a result of this uncritical coverage, the major media outlets passively accepted the Bush administration’s lies justifying the Iraq War in 2003. They failed to foresee the 2008 housing crisis and the subsequent Great Recession, despite warnings from prominent economists. They unanimously championed the $700 billion taxpayer bailout of the “too big to fail” Wall Street banks that recklessly gambled with customers’ money and sent the global economy into a tailspin. And they are virtually silent on the single greatest existential threat facing the human race: Climate change.

Now these same media outlets are dutifully echoing the CIA’s completely unverified claims that Russia “stole” the 2016 presidential election, thus raising the specter of a new Cold War between the world’s largest nuclear powers.

Given this recent track record, is it any wonder a majority of Americans — on both the right and the left — distrust the media?

“What is typically presented as news analysis,” writes Amy Goodman in the introduction to her 2009 essay compilation, Breaking the Sound Barrier, “is, for the most part, a small circle of pundits who know so little about so much, explaining the world to us and getting it so wrong. While they may appear to differ, they are quibbling over how quickly the bombs should be dropped, not asking whether they should be dropped at all.”

And the problem is not limited to the patently ridiculous right-wing cranks on Fox News.

Numerous studies by the media watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR) find that National “Public” Radio (NPR) relies on the same narrow, elite circle of white, wealthy, male news analysts as the cable news networks it is supposed to serve as an alternative to. In fact, libertarian billionaire, David Koch, sits on the board of NPR, perhaps in a classic example of keeping one’s “friends close and your enemies closer.”

This is not to suggest the left should abandon corporate media, entirely. This is simply not realistic under capitalism. Nor, for that matter, should we substitute popular conspiracy theories for the fact-based world as the right has opted to do. Indeed, there is a great danger in “Russiagate” becoming the left’s version of “Benghazi.”

But socialists need their own media outlets to promote and advance our view of the world — and, more importantly, how we believe we can change it.

Newspapers like Socialist Worker are part of a long tradition of socialists writing, printing, and circulating their own papers produced by and for working-class readers. These papers aim to both spread socialist ideas and empower readers with local and national news of the latest strikes, protests, walk-outs, and antiwar rallies.

To be clear, Trump’s attacks on the media are concerning. Historically, the first task of any would-be dictator has been to undermine and later forcefully shutdown the free and open press. The fact that the U.S. news media can in no way be described as “free” or “independent” does not make Trump’s anti-journalism rhetoric any less disconcerting. And this is to say nothing of the chilling, misogynistic death threats cable TV anchors like MSNBC’s Katy Tur have received from Trump supporters.

Yet there is a bitter irony — if not hypocrisy — to the press’ sudden condemnation of Trump.

Many of the same corporate media outlets that now blast the president and the “constitutional crisis” he has brought about are the same ones that offered free, uncritical coverage of his campaign, snobbishly dismissing the possibility of a candidate so obviously inept, shallow, and ignorant ever actually getting elected president. In many respects, the media created Trump. He is their Frankenstein’s monster. And now, just as in Shelley’s classic novel, he has violently turned against his creator.

“Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed,” George Orwell wrote. “Everything else is public relations.”

 

Editor’s note: Red Flag does not support or endorse any WordPress-sponsored advertisements that may appear on readers’ screens. This is another reason why workers, including writers, need to own the means of production–or in this case, the Internet.

If you like this essay feel free to share it widely (Facebook, Twitter, all that stuff…). Adam Marletta can be reached at adamd.marletta@gmail.com.

Thanks for reading!

 

How Not to Talk About Climate Change

System Change, Not Climate Change Pic

Two recent letters to the editor in the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram illustrate the limits of the conventional thinking on climate change and how we can most effectively fight it. Both are worth examining if the left is to move beyond this myopic — and, frankly, erroneous — understanding of the climate crisis.

Len Frenkel of South Portland, echoes the environmental movement’s longstanding concept of employing individual acts to mitigate climate change. (“As warming threatens planet, humans will have to make sacrifices,” 07/31/2018.)

“There are many actions that we, as individuals, can take without our government’s involvement,” Frenkel writes. “But they will be severe and very unpopular. We need to drastically reduce our carbon footprints.”

He continues:

… We can choose to fly for vacations and trips, or not. We can choose to buy unnecessary stuff, or not. We can choose to have second homes, or not. We can choose to eat animal foods, or not. We can choose to have another consumer child, or not. We can choose to travel to entertainment centers, or not. All of these human activities, which are so popular in industrialized nations, are very serious contributors to the greenhouse gases that cause runaway climate change.

This individualist orientation to combating climate change has long been the main focus of the environmental movement — however, that has changed considerably in recent years as the environmental left has undergone something of a radicalization.

It was, nonetheless, the main argument in Al Gore’s 2006 documentary film, An Inconvenient Truth. After expertly and candidly explaining the science of climate change, and highlighting the dangers of rising sea levels, increased “superstorm” hurricanes, and melting ice caps, Gore’s proposed solution is merely for viewers to change their light bulbs, recycle more, drive less, and purchase carbon offsets.

These are all fine, altruistic actions, no doubt. I would certainly never discourage anyone from undertaking any of them. But given the global scale of the climate crisis, the unfortunate reality is individual actions, while no doubt well intended, are essentially worthless in reducing the threat of climate change.

As Martin Lukacs writes of the obvious limits of these small-scale solutions in a 2017 op-ed for The Guardian, “Would you advise someone to flap towels in a burning house? To bring a flyswatter to a gun fight? Yet the counsel we hear on climate change could scarcely be more out of sync with the nature of the crisis.”

Furthermore, the individualist approach to climate change assumes that all Americans share the same carbon footprint — and, as a result, we are all equally to blame for the climate crisis. But that is simply not the case. One hundred corporations — most of them fossil fuel companies like ExxonMobil, Chevron, BP, and Shell — are responsible for 71 percent of global CO2 emissions, since 1988, according the Carbon Majors Report.

This handful of greedy corporations — and, more specifically, the system of capitalism which places short-term profit above the ecosystem that supports all life on the planet — bears most of the responsibility for despoiling the Earth, and threatening the continued existence of the human race — not working-class people like you and me.

(And while we are holding the guilty parties responsible, the anti-science/anti-intellectual Republican Party, and its decades-long propaganda project of denying the very existence of anthropogenic, or human-induced global warming, also shares a great portion of the blame. We have lost precious decades of proactive environmental action due to the Republicans’ deliberate misinformation campaign.)

Thus, Frenkel’s blanket austerity prescription is misguided. It is the rich, the corporate CEOs, and the fossil fuel companies that should curb their unnecessary consumption — not working-class citizens. Bourgeois elites like Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg, and Bill Gates, who criss-cross the planet on a near hourly basis in their fleet of private jets, are the ones who can most afford to do without. Working-class people, on the other hand, must commute to work in order to just survive.

The subtitle of Naomi Klein’s landmark 2014 book, This Changes Everything, puts it best: Capitalism vs. The Climate.

While this understanding that capitalism, not humanity at large, caused the climate crisis may have once seemed radical, it has become much more prevalent on the left in recent years, particularly among young climate activists. This trend is highly encouraging and should be built upon.

However, as Frenkel’s editorial demonstrates, there is still much work to be done to build an eco-socialist left capable of both understanding the roots of climate change, and how to best halt the trend of a rapidly warming planet.

But if Frenkel places misguided faith in small-scale solutions to save the planet, William Vaughan, Jr.’s response letter, also published in the PPH (“Our behavior won’t change, so let’s not pretend it will,” 08/06/2018) dismisses any prospects of hope, entirely.

“Mr. Frenkel writes as if there is some chance we will stop flying, stop buying unnecessary things, and so on,” Vaughan writes. “But there is no evidence any of that is happening, or will happen.”

“… And since we will do nothing,” he continues in his pessimistic letter, “children and grandchildren around the world, as well as many other species, will pay the price for our inactions.”

Vaughan concludes:

“Better to face the music than to hope or pretend there is some chance our behavior will significantly change before it is too late. It never has and it never will.”

Well, shit… I guess it is a good thing I do not have any kids of my own… Perhaps we should all just shoot ourselves, now and get it over with?

While Frenkel and Vaughan are both correct to be alarmed about — even, in fact, to despair over — climate change and the fate of the human species, outright fatalism such as Vaughan’s contributes nothing to the environmental conversation. The left gains nothing by drowning in pessimism — if not, indeed, nihilism.

This does not mean we should be pollyannish about the environmental crisis unfolding in front of our eyes. We should be frank about how dire the situation is. Klein is correct: “We are almost at midnight on the climate clock.”

But Vaughan is flat out wrong that “we will do nothing,” to change “our” behavior. Hundreds of people throughout the globe are currently engaged in environmental activism, protests, collective projects, and lectures aimed at halting the continued warming of the planet. Millennials, in particular, are deeply concerned about climate change and routinely rank it as one of their most pressing issues.

Likewise, there is nothing inherently static, greedy, self-centered or risk adverse about human nature, as Vaughan suggests. And, for that matter, it is not “human nature” that is to blame for climate change. It is capitalism — a system that runs quite counter to humans’ natural inclination for sociability, cooperation, and collective action.

If Frenkel’s letter is frustrating in its myopic approach to mitigating global warming, Vaughan’s leaves readers downright enraged over its flippant, pessimistic tone.

But Frenkel is right in one respect: We do have a choice. We can ditch capitalism as an economic system and save the planet, or we can ditch the planet and save capitalism. The wealthy elite have already made it painfully clear which option they prefer. Now it is up to us to ensure they do not get their way.

 

Editor’s note: Red Flag does not support or endorse any WordPress-sponsored advertisements that may appear on readers’ screens. This is another reason why workers, including writers, need to own the means of production–or in this case, the Internet.

If you like this essay feel free to share it widely (Facebook, Twitter, all that stuff…). Adam Marletta can be reached at adamd.marletta@gmail.com.

Thanks for reading!

The Socialist Insurgent

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Upsets  Rep. Joseph Crowley In NY Primary
Campaign posters for Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez who defeated ten-term Rep. Joseph Crowley in the Democratic primary for New York’s 14th district, on June 26.

Three Takeaways from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Primary Victory.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s recent defeat of ten-term Democratic Party establishment insider, Joseph Crowley in the New York Democratic primary for the 14th district is a welcome sliver of good news in these otherwise trying Trumpian times. Ocasio-Cortez’s June 26 win is a stunning victory against a seemingly invulnerable Democratic apparatchik who has long been eyed as a potential speaker of the house.

The 28-year-old Latina, a self-described democratic socialist and member of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), sailed to victory on a Bernie Sanders-inspired platform of free college tuition, universal health care, and, perhaps most boldly, calling for the abolition of the renegade police agency, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

Much has already been written about Ocasio-Cortez since her primary win. (She is all but assured victory in the general election this November.)

Here are three key takeaways:

Socialism is Back, Baby!

For the first time in my life we are witnessing the emergence of a potential socialist movement. Sen. Sanders deserves credit for solidifying it, but the early incubations were apparent during Occupy Wall Street in 2011, which was primarily driven by a nascent anti-capitalist sentiment.

Young Americans, in particular, are more open to socialism and socialist ideas than at any other time since the early part of the 20th century. A recent poll finds a majority of Americans under the age of 30 reject capitalism. A YouGov poll from November 2017 found 44 percent of millennials would prefer living in a socialist country over a capitalist one. Since Trump’s election, socialist groups like the DSA have seen an immense surge in membership and meeting attendance.

And it does not take an advanced degree in sociology to understand why working-class people are turning to socialism and the ideas of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels to better understand the world. As Paul D’Amato writes in the introduction to his 2014 socialism primer, The Meaning of Marxism:

[N]eoliberalism has lost its luster. Nobody believes anymore that a rising tide of corporate profits lifts all boats. More and more people are acutely aware of the fact that the wealth at the top comes at the expense of the labor and health of the vast majority. In spite of decades of media pundits and politicians telling us that we are to blame for our poverty, low wages, and lack of social opportunities, more and more people understand that the system is set up deliberately to benefit a tiny minority.

How these newly radicalized young people define “socialism” is another matter. Ocasio-Cortez’s own admittedly bland and generic conception of socialism is a little too vague and moralistic for my taste. (Then again, Ocasio-Cortez is a politician, and her wide-net definition of socialism may well be intentional.)

Some have argued, likewise, that Sanders is really more of a New Deal Democrat than a socialist. Indeed, Sanders’ hawkish foreign policy positions are quite at odds with those of his avowed hero, Eugene Debs — who famously went to prison in 1918 for speaking out against the first world war.

Still, a political tradition as old as socialism is bound to have developed a variety of strains, divisions, and sub-genres throughout its existence. Even within a room of 100 DSA members, one is unlikely to find a common understanding of the term “socialism.” While socialists of all stripes should definitely engage in comradely yet forthright debates over what sort of world we are fighting for, we must not become too sectarian or even “ultra-leftist” over who can and cannot call herself a “socialist.”

For the time being, I would propose that if you believe in workers’ rights, universal health care, ending poverty and you oppose the oppression of women, people of color, LGBTQ folks, immigrants, and other marginalized groups, then we are on the same side and you are welcome among socialists.

Class Struggle Still Gets the Goods.

While the out of touch, know-nothing punditocracy puzzles cluelessly over Ocasio-Cortez’s surprise upset, her win is no mystery to the working-class voters of New York’s racially diverse 14th district. Like Sanders in 2016, Ocasio-Cortez spoke to working-class voters’ actual lived experiences. Unlike Crowley and the rest of the Democratic elite, Ocasio-Cortez understands working people’s struggles with unaffordable health care, skyrocketing rents, and jobs that do not pay a living wage or offer paid sick days.

As Ocasio-Cortez states flat-out in her authentic campaign advertisement, “Women like me aren’t supposed to run for office. I wasn’t born to a wealthy or powerful family.”

Perhaps most refreshing is Ocasio-Cortez’s refusal to play into the prevailing concept of so-called “identity politics,” in which race and class are constantly pitted against one another. “I can’t name a single issue with roots in race that doesn’t have economic implications,” she said in an interview with The Nation magazine, “and I cannot think of a single economic issue that doesn’t have racial implications. The idea that we have to separate them out and choose one is a con.”

But we are not dealing with rocket science, here. Ocasio-Cortez won because she spoke directly yet eloquently to working-class voters about the issues that affect them. In contrast to Crowley who, like Hillary Clinton two years ago, merely ran on his tenure and supposed “expertise,” — his pragmatic ability to “get stuff done” — Ocasio-Cortez had a clear, tangible message that resonated with voters. As one Sanders campaign sign aptly put it: “Finally, a reason to vote.”

But the Democratic Party still refuses to learn this rather elementary lesson (i.e. that class struggle gets the goods). This brings us to my third and final observation:

“Taking Over” the Democratic Party is a Pipe Dream.

The question over the left’s relationship to the capitalist, Wall Street-captive Democratic Party will become a central one as the working class continues to organize. Activists are already feeling intense pressure to muzzle their “radical” calls for abolishing ICE and instituting Medicare for all and obsequiously fall in line and vote for local Democrats in this fall’s midterm elections. That pressure is only going to increase as the 2020 presidential election looms closer and the left’s primary impetus becomes defeating Trump — even if that means electing a pro-business, corporate shill like Joe Biden, Kamala Harris or, yes, Hillary Clinton.

The fact is, the left has been attempting to “take over” or “take back” the Democratic Party for decades. Progressive candidates like Jesse Jackson, George McGovern, Dennis Kucinich and, more recently, Bernie Sanders, have waged spirited, inspiring campaigns to try to “push” the party into a more radical direction.

But not only has the Democratic Party apparatus swiftly shut down all of those campaigns — it has succeeded each time in absorbing the campaigns back into the “proper channels,” of Establishment politics. This is precisely what happened to Sanders’ campaign in 2016. The Vermont senator set out to spark a “political revolution,” only to end up endorsing and campaigning for — and rigorously shutting down left-wing opposition to — Clinton.

And this is the role of the Democratic Party. As Lance Selfa makes clear in his book, The Democrats: A Critical History, the Democratic Party has long been used by the ruling class to undermine, re-direct, and at times simply crush genuine working-class movements. Little wonder the Democratic Party is often referred to as the “graveyard of social movements.”

Therein lies Ocasio-Cortez’s dilemma. She has signed on with a party that is fundamentally opposed to everything she stands for. Indeed, the Democratic National Committee (DNC) is already hard at work re-writing the party’s national campaign platform in order to make it harder for self-identified “democratic socialists” like Ocasio-Cortez and Sanders to run for office on the Democratic ticket.

As the saying goes, “with friends like these…”

The working class needs its own political party — one completely independent of the two capitalist parties. There was a time when I believed the Green Party could serve this role. But the Green Party in Portland has all but imploded, due to its lack of party discipline and chaotic, anarcho-liberal orientation. Thus, a viable working-class party does not yet exist. It is up to us to create one.

None of this is meant to detract from Ocasio-Cortez’s inspiring primary win. Going forward, she and her supporters should use their influence to steer debates and legislation within the halls of power. But we must understand that Ocasio-Cortez’s victory within a party completely hostile to her entire progressive platform comes with certain built-in limitations.

As Selfa writes:

The many efforts of the inside-outside strategy [as it is known] … have not pushed the Democratic Party in a liberal direction. All liberal intra-party challenges, from Jackson’s to Kucinich’s, ended with their leaders delivering their supporters over to the more conservative Democrats against whom they had mounted their challenges in the first place.

… The real impact of these inside-outside challenges is, to paraphrase Jackson, to “keep hope alive” in the Democratic Party. These campaigns help to extinguish third-party movements. For those who want to build a genuine and credible left in the United States, there is no substitute for the slow and painstaking work of building movements on the ground, and of building a political alternative to the Democrats.

Editor’s note: Red Flag does not support or endorse any WordPress-sponsored advertisements that may appear on readers’ screens. This is another reason why workers, including writers, need to own the means of production–or in this case, the Internet.

If you like this essay feel free to share it widely (Facebook, Twitter, all that stuff…). Adam Marletta can be reached at adamd.marletta@gmail.com.

Thanks for reading!

 

It IS Happening Here: Reunite Families, Deport Trump

Rogers-Immigrant-Children-Featured
An editorial cartoon by Rob Rogers, formerly of the Pittsburgh-Post Gazette. Rogers, a long time editorial cartoonist for the paper, was fired recently for his work criticizing President Donald Trump.

My mother developed polio as a child. It left her paralyzed from the waist down. She is one of the few remaining polio survivors still alive.

She often reflects on how much more difficult it was to be a person with a disability in the 1950s, prior to any disability rights laws. Indeed, growing up with a physical handicap was like being a non-person.

Teachers were openly cruel and belittling to her. One teacher once chastised her, in front of her classmates, for being a “burden” on taxpayers, who would, she assured my mother, end up having to pay for her living expenses. As a result, the teacher continued her berating lecture, my mom needn’t worry about studying hard and applying herself, academically, since “nobody would hire” her, anyway.

(I suspect many people, including employers, still harbor such views toward the disabled. They merely keep them to themselves. Unless, that is, they are Donald Trump or his ableist supporters.)

After contracting polio, my mother was taken to a rehab facility, where she lived for several months. She was only about 4-years-old, and the experience of being taken away from her parents and home was extremely traumatizing for her. The nurses were wicked to her and the other patients, openly mocking their disabilities. The facility was cold, dark, and antiseptic. My mom cried every night for her salad — a staple of her dinner routine back home.

My mom’s parents, based on the advice of the hospital staff, never called or visited her during her lengthy stay. My mother, for all she knew, had been abandoned — given up as so much defective trash. Indeed, my grandparents, in keeping with the discriminatory attitudes of the time, viewed their daughter’s disability as a source of family shame. My grandfather, in particular, never truly came to terms with it.

I relate my mother’s story because it is the only comparable one I know of to what immigrant families, torn apart by the Trump administration’s egregious, “zero tolerance” crackdown on border crossings, are currently experiencing.

Last week, ProPublica released audio of immigrant children and infants held in a detention center at the border, crying for their parents. As the children scream, “Mami! Papa!” a border patrol agent can be heard, sarcastically replying, in Spanish, “Well, we have an orchestra here. What’s missing is a conductor.”

According to a story by The Intercept’s Ryan Devereaux, the Trump administration has taken more than 3,700 children from their parents, thus far. And, as the headline states, the government has “no plan for returning them.”

A June 19 editorial in Socialist Worker calls the makeshift “desert tent cities,” and “Walmart concentration camps for children,” a “deliberate spectacle of sadism — a moral and humanitarian crisis knowingly orchestrated by Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions to inflict suffering on migrant parents and children…”

Earlier this week, it seemed activists had scored something of a minor victory, with Trump’s abrupt issuing of an executive order mandating immigrant families remain together throughout the detention process. Trump clearly caved to the mounting pressure coming not just from immigrant rights’ activists, but also a newly-emboldened media, and, according to some sources, members of his own family.

However, even this symbolic victory was short-lived. In a pattern that has become all too familiar in this disorganized administration, Trump’s hastily signed executive order was met with confusion on the part of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials, as well as members of the president’s own cabinet who, apparently, had not been briefed about the order.

Many of these immigrants are asylum-seekers fleeing violence and civil unrest in war-torn countries like Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Somalia. These families are desperate victims of U.S. imperialism — which, contrary to liberal opinion, increased under President Barack Obama. To bomb these people’s neighborhoods, and destabilize their countries through military force, and then sanctimoniously lecture them about their disregard for “the law,” as they attempt to flee the criminal violence we have inflicted upon them is a particularly pernicious form of hypocrisy.

In fact, to deny asylum-seekers entrance into the country is a violation of the Immigration and Nationality Act.

Furthermore, capitalists, corporate CEOs, Wall Street traders, and small business owners routinely engage in criminal behavior and justify it as merely the “cost of doing business.” They violate labor and regulatory laws, environmental protections, and commit tax evasion. Based on the right’s apparent reverence for The Law, these criminal capitalists should all be thrown out of the country. Let’s start with Trump.

“The goal of the Trump administration’s state-sponsored kidnapping is to scare potential future migrants and refugees from making the journey,” the Socialist Worker editors write, “as well as to create leverage on congressional Democrats to concede to White House demands for draconian policies against future immigration, legal and illegal.

But the cruelty of the family separation policy isn’t just as a means to these ends. Cruelty itself is the goal — another lurch in the Trumpist project of shifting the mainstream political spectrum so far to the right, that fascism, or something close to it, defines one end, while the other is the tepid liberalism put forward by the Democratic Party and MSNBC.

Yet, as the editorial argues, we cannot wait until the November midterm elections to take action against Trump’s family separations and deportations. Immigrant families certainly cannot wait. The left must mobilize against Trump now.

And, while Trump and his cabinet of swamp monsters certainly make for easy targets, it is important to understand that the United States’ anti-immigrant laws and history of scapegoating “The Other,” have been a bipartisan project for decades. As xenophobic as Trump has been toward immigrants, Obama still holds the dubious distinction of having deported more immigrants than any other president in history.

Thus, when it comes to challenging Trump’s xenophobia, the left’s goal cannot be to simply return to the “status quo,” or the way things were under the previous administration. The entire capitalist system — not just the policies of one or two particular presidents — is to blame. It must be smashed and replaced with one that recognizes the intrinsic value of all people — regardless of their nationality, gender, race, or physical ability.

Socialists ultimately believe in a world without borders, walls, and barriers. We believe no human being is “illegal.” People should be free to live and roam where they please — or perhaps more accurately for a warming planet increasingly characterized by droughts, floods, famines, and forest fires, wherever is most habitable. Indeed, climate change is already playing a role in mass migration throughout the globe, as island and coastal nations find themselves at risk to rising sea levels.

Ripping mothers apart from their children and throwing them in concentration camp surroundings is a cruel, heartless, and inhumane form of punishment. Our short-term goal must be the immediate reunification of families. The longer term project, however, is to create a world without borders — a world where no human being is illegal.

Editor’s note: Red Flag does not support or endorse any WordPress-sponsored advertisements that may appear on readers’ screens. This is another reason why workers, including writers, need to own the means of production–or in this case, the Internet.

If you like this essay feel free to share it widely (Facebook, Twitter, all that stuff…). Adam Marletta can be reached at adamd.marletta@gmail.com.

Thanks for reading!