Showing posts with label socialism. Show all posts
Showing posts with label socialism. Show all posts

1.16.2019

what i'm reading: occupy nation by todd gitlin

Occupy Nation: The Roots, the Spirit, and the Promise of Occupy Wall Street is a history and ethnography of Occupy Wall Street, and the Occupy movement. Author, sociologist, and longtime leftist activist Todd Gitlin has written an account of how a social movement was born, grew, and died. After reading it, I felt utter despair at our ability to create a more democratic political system, and a more just economic system. I'm pretty sure that's not what Gitlin was going for!

It's easy to forget how present the Occupy movement became -- how quickly it spread, the attention it drew, how it forced a change in the terms of the debate. Hundreds of thousands of people in nearly 1,000 cities around the globe took part in Occupy demonstrations. The expression "the 99%" entered a common vocabulary. Occupy focused public and media attention on income inequality in a way I had not seen in my lifetime. Together with the Fight for 15, Occupy made labour and economic issues truly visible for the first time in many decades.

Gitlin does a good job of situating Occupy within the context of other progressive movements in the US, and to some extent, globally. I was most interested in his analysis of Occupy's inner workings. How did the movement grow? How was it governed? How were ideas put forward, how were actions chosen, who created the strategy, and how was it carried out? That's what I found so depressing. Occupy was strangled by its own ideals.

Occupy organizers wanted to create a participatory (as opposed to representative) democracy; they had a strong commitment to a leaderless structure where all voices were equal. It was meant to be a "prefigurative" movement -- a movement that reflects the world it wants to build.

Occupy's commitment to participatory democracy helped it quickly spread and grow, as people felt included and heard. But movements need goals, agendas, strategies. Movements need mechanisms to build consensus, to break bottlenecks, to ensure participation while still moving forward. And movements need leaders. Leaders arise very naturally in all situations; processes are needed to allow those leaders to lead, while still ensuring constant communication and participation at every level.

The "interminable meetings of fractious and dogmatic Occupiers" (as a Kirkus review puts it) eventually became unsustainable. There was no direction or plan for moving forward. There were too many ideas for forward movement, but no road taken.

None of this means Occupy was useless or accomplished nothing. I've written a lot about that and I don't want to repeat it all here. Occupy was an incredibly positive phenomenon. But it was unsustainable.

It's easy to create change from the top down -- to impose a strong will on others -- at least for a short period of time. But change from the ground up, a true grassroots movement, is infinitely more time-consuming and exponentially more difficult to build. It's also incredibly fragile, especially if the movement insists on being democratic and inclusive.

After reading this book, I felt, and certainly not for the first time, that building a new social system is all but impossible.

Of course, reform is possible. We can force reforms onto the present system, tiny bits of social democracy grafted onto a grossly capitalist system -- social security, public education, minimum labour standards. Everything that comprises the social safety net is such a reform. But reform is always too weak. Reforms leave too many people out, and they prop up a corrupt and unjust system. And as we know, those reforms can be withdrawn, or weakened so badly that they might as well not exist.

Moving from a nominally representative democracy to authoritarianism of any stripe is so easy. The playbook perfected in the 20th century has never gone out of fashion. Lies, propaganda, scapegoating -- create and sustain fear -- suppress the opposition -- repeat repeat repeat. The recipe is so effective, because it asks so little -- follow me blindly -- and apparently is very satisfying to large numbers of people.

Moving from that nominally representative democracy to something truly democratic and responsive to the needs of the people can never be accomplished through reforms. But is reform all we can get?

I know how almost everyone reading this answers that question. And I hate when I answer it the same way. Gitlin's book reinforced that dreaded answer for me. The answer I (try so hard to) refuse to believe.

1.04.2019

harry leslie smith -- rest in power, and thank you

Harry Leslie Smith, who sometimes called himself "the world's oldest rebel," died in late November 2018. I was unable to acknowledge his passing on wmtc at the time.

Smith, a writer and an activist, was a steadfast critic of neoliberal policies, especially the austerity agenda. He spoke out constantly and consistently for a more generous, more just, and more inclusive society -- in short, for the preservation of social democracy.

His obituary in The Guardian quotes him:
I am one of the last few remaining voices left from a generation of men and women who built a better society for our children and grandchildren out of the horrors of the second world war, as well as the hunger of the Great Depression.

Sadly, that world my generation helped build on a foundation of decency and fair play is being swept away by neoliberalism and the greed of the 1%, which has brought discord around the globe. Today, the western world stands at its most dangerous juncture since the 1930s.
Smith was at his most eloquent when speaking against war-for-profit and in support of peace. In 2013, he wrote "This year, I will wear a poppy for the last time". It's a brilliant and heartbreaking piece. I will print it below; I hope you will read the whole thing.

Smith gave his initials HLS new meaning with his Twitter name, @harryslaststand. Last year, Smith tweeted this. Then as now, it brings tears to my eyes. An incredible honour, and something that helped me through the ordeal.


This year, I will wear a poppy for the last time
Harry Leslie Smith

I will remember friends and comrades in private next year, as the solemnity of remembrance has been twisted into a justification for conflict

Over the last 10 years the sepia tone of November has become blood-soaked with paper poppies festooning the lapels of our politicians, newsreaders and business leaders. The most fortunate in our society have turned the solemnity of remembrance for fallen soldiers in ancient wars into a justification for our most recent armed conflicts. The American civil war's General Sherman once said that "war is hell", but unfortunately today's politicians in Britain use past wars to bolster our flagging belief in national austerity or to compel us to surrender our rights as citizens, in the name of the public good.

Still, this year I shall wear the poppy as I have done for many years. I wear it because I am from that last generation who remember a war that encompassed the entire world. I wear the poppy because I can recall when Britain was actually threatened with a real invasion and how its citizens stood at the ready to defend her shores. But most importantly, I wear the poppy to commemorate those of my childhood friends and comrades who did not survive the second world war and those who came home physically and emotionally wounded from horrific battles that no poet or journalist could describe.

However, I am afraid it will be the last time that I will bear witness to those soldiers, airmen and sailors who are no more, at my local cenotaph. From now on, I will lament their passing in private because my despair is for those who live in this present world. I will no longer allow my obligation as a veteran to remember those who died in the great wars to be co-opted by current or former politicians to justify our folly in Iraq, our morally dubious war on terror and our elimination of one's right to privacy.

Come 2014 when the government marks the beginning of the first world war with quotes from Rupert Brooke, Rudyard Kipling and other great jingoists from our past empire, I will declare myself a conscientious objector. We must remember that the historical past of this country is not like an episode of Downton Abbey where the rich are portrayed as thoughtful, benevolent masters to poor folk who need the guiding hand of the ruling classes to live a proper life.

I can tell you it didn't happen that way because I was born nine years after the first world war began. I can attest that life for most people was spent in abject poverty where one laboured under brutal working conditions for little pay and lived in houses not fit to kennel a dog today. We must remember that the war was fought by the working classes who comprised 80% of Britain's population in 1913.

This is why I find that the government's intention to spend £50m to dress the slaughter of close to a million British soldiers in the 1914-18 conflict as a fight for freedom and democracy profane. Too many of the dead, from that horrendous war, didn't know real freedom because they were poor and were never truly represented by their members of parliament.

My uncle and many of my relatives died in that war and they weren't officers or NCOs; they were simple Tommies. They were like the hundreds of thousands of other boys who were sent to their slaughter by a government that didn't care to represent their citizens if they were working poor and under-educated. My family members took the king's shilling because they had little choice, whereas many others from similar economic backgrounds were strong-armed into enlisting by war propaganda or press-ganged into military service by their employers.

For many of you 1914 probably seems like a long time ago but I'll be 91 next year, so it feels recent. Today, we have allowed monolithic corporate institutions to set our national agenda. We have allowed vitriol to replace earnest debate and we have somehow deluded ourselves into thinking that wealth is wisdom. But by far the worst error we have made as a people is to think ourselves as taxpayers first and citizens second.

Next year, I won't wear the poppy but I will until my last breath remember the past and the struggles my generation made to build this country into a civilised state for the working and middle classes. If we are to survive as a progressive nation we have to start tending to our living because the wounded: our poor, our underemployed youth, our hard-pressed middle class and our struggling seniors shouldn't be left to die on the battleground of modern life.

10.14.2018

how the media (invisibly) props up capitalism and other hidden biases

I recently read these somewhat old, but still relevant, letters to the New York Times Book Review.
Cost of the Crash
To the Editor:

In his review of “Crashed,” by Adam Tooze (Aug. 12), Fareed Zakaria asserts that “the rescue worked better than almost anyone imagined.” He notes there was no “double-dip recession” and growth returned “slowly but surely.” But this misses what was the major criticism of the “rescue.” It merely hit the re-set button — keeping the big banks solvent. Meanwhile, the stimulus did little to put people back to work. It was not the double-dip recession that critics feared but a long sluggish recovery that failed to affect the majority of the people.

For example, it took six years (2009-15) for the unemployment rate to return to the pre-recession number. The share of income received by the top 1 percent had been 23 percent before the recession. After falling to 18 percent in 2010 it jumped back to 22 percent by 2015. Meanwhile, as late as 2015, the bottom 99 percent of the population had only recovered two-thirds of the income they had lost. Zakaria should have added a few words to his assertion that the rescue worked: It worked for the top 1 percent, not for the rest of us.

MICHAEL MEEROPOL
SPRINGFIELD, MASS.

The writer is an emeritus professor of economics at Western New England University.



To the Editor:

Fareed Zakaria’s review of Adam Tooze’s “Crashed” is an approving account of an approving book. But what was “saved” was “the economy,” not humans.

Yes, the government and others acted to prop up banks. But humans lost twice: Houses and savings were savaged, while banks, their executives, and the rich, as usual, won. And in a further irony, they used taxpayer money to save “the economy” and the banks. Yes, some of it was repaid from those financial institutions, using money deposited in them by humans.

And the endless greed spawned by free market capitalism and lax regulations, which created the crash in the first place, gets mentioned simply in passing.

PHILLIP GORDON
CASTRO VALLEY, CALIF.
These letters brought to mind some concepts that I enjoyed thinking about in library school information school. There were many exercises in illuminating hidden biases and assumptions. In academia-speak, this was sometimes called problematizing or contesting, but I like to think of it more plainly as making the invisible visible. This book review reinforced the dominant view of the economy; the letter-writers challenged the underlying assumptions of the review.

When something is everyday ordinary, commonplace, accepted as normal, it becomes invisible. How can we discuss and analyze, and perhaps challenge, its influence? First we have to make it visible.

Gender roles are the perfect example of this. From the colour of a baby's room, to the toys they play with, the stories they see and hear, and a million other data streams, humans are taught gender roles and expectations. Sure, this has loosened up a bit for some segment of society, but in the overall scheme, it is still largely true. Expectations of gender roles are as invisible as the air that baby breathes. We are thoroughly indoctrinated from the moment we are born. If we want to challenge gender roles, we first have to name the many ways those roles are taught and reinforced. We have to make the invisible visible.

This in turn leads me to think of something Allan and I talk about a lot: how anything progressive or leftist is labeled "political" -- and declared inappropriate in many settings -- while pro-government and pro-military displays are thought to be natural and not political. Military displays at sporting events: neutral. Sitting down during the national anthem: political. Honouring "fallen heroes": natural. Honouring anyone who is a vocal opponent of war: political.

Once you are aware of these hidden biases, you see them everywhere. In one iSchool project, I had to choose a classification system, describe it, then use a different method to classify the same things, and show how assumptions and biases were transformed through the use of a different classification system. I analyzed the way clothing is classified by L.L.Bean, and proposed a gender-free alternative.

I think this hidden bias thing should be a regular wmtc feature, for capitalism, and for war. Or maybe it already is?

(Whoo-hoo, I'm blogging again!)

10.31.2017

the worst part of trump is not trump

The freak show that is the Donald Trump presidency gives us so many things to lament, and mourn, and goggle at. But for one organization, it is a singular gift, valuable beyond all measure: that is the Democratic National Committee.

For me, the worst part of the Trump presidency is not Trump. It is the enormous setback to -- maybe the death of, in my lifetime -- building a progressive alternative in the United States.

Four decades of deindustrialization, job loss, corporate welfare, and ever-widening income inequality has brought progressive economic ideas to the forefront in the US, and has rejuvenated the appetite for making them a reality. The evidence is plentiful, from the fight for a $15/hour minimum wage to the jubilant crowds that greeted Bernie Sanders at every campaign stop. People are hungry for change, and many people are hungry for change from the left.

Fill in the blanks. A vote for ____ is a vote for ____.

And now we have Trump.

Hillary Clinton supporters -- and of course Clinton herself -- blame Sanders and Sanders' supporters for the election of Donald Trump.

While not surprising, this is as misguided as those who blamed Ralph Nader and his supporters for George W. Bush's installation in the White House in 2004. It has been proven beyond any reasonable doubt that both the 2000 and 2004 elections were riddled with fraud and vote-fixing. Florida alone was the product of massive fraud, and the Supreme Court (not the voters) decided the results, something at least one Supreme Court justice regrets. Yet loyal Democrat voters blame Nader -- and they vowed never to let it happen again.

This time, there is plenty of blame to go around, beginning with the corruption and arrogance of the DNC, insisting on running the candidate who was anointed by the party, rather than one who was chosen, you know, by the voters. They did everything they could do rig the results, and when that didn't work, invoked arcane rules that were designed to thwart democracy. When they were caught, the DNC defended their actions. (The lawsuit against the DNC was not dismissed because it lacked merit, but because the judge ruled it was not a matter for the judiciary.)

In the DNC's bubble of unchallenged power, they overlooked one crucial variable: people loathe Hillary Clinton. It doesn't matter why. It doesn't matter if it's based on fact or fiction or how much sexism is or isn't mixed in. Millions of people detest her and would never vote for her, no matter what the choices.

If Sanders supporters chose Trump over Clinton, that's not Sanders' fault. It's Clinton's, and it's the DNC's. But like Homer Simpson, the DNC cannot accept responsibility for any outcome. It's Sanders' fault. It's the fault of you people for wanting to build a movement for economic justice.

Learning all the wrong lessons

Now that we're witnessing the debacle of the Trump White House, the lesson could not be clearer: don't ever dare vote for a third party, or this is what will happen. You must vote Democrat, no matter what. If you dare to start building a viable party on the left, you will move the country even further to the right (even if only in appearance). Millions of anti-Trump voters now believe more strongly than ever that it is their sworn duty to Always Vote Democrat, no matter what. This must be an especially powerful lesson for the young voters who rallied around Sanders.

For decades, Allan and I have referred to "the circus coming to town" as a shorthand for the theatre of  US election campaigns, lending a thin (and getting ever thinner!) veneer of democracy to a corrupt, undemocratic system. This time, the circus never ended. The threat of real change on the left was more feasible than it had been in a long time, so the distraction had to be even bigger and more lurid.

As I was writing this, as if on cue, an Economist/YouGov poll found that 51 percent of Democrat voters now have a favourable opinion of George W. Bush. If Democrat voters feel that way about Bush, any Democrat candidate who can put a sentence together -- anyone who waves the words "woman's right to choose" and "the rights of all families" around -- will get their vote.

The worst part of Trump is not Trump.

The worst part of Trump is the lost hope of building a new party.

* Personal disclosure, to avoid assumptions. Although I am a dual citizen (Canada-US) and am eligible to vote with an absentee ballot, I do not vote in US elections. While I agree with Bernie Sanders' ideas and his platform, I did not support him. Sanders played the role historically assigned to the most left-leaning Democrat in the primaries, used by the party to bring in the progressive vote. There's one in every election. They do their job and are never heard from again. In Congress, Sanders voted with the Democrats 98% of the time.

8.30.2017

rtod: herbert marcuse

Revolutionary thought of the day:
Liberty can be made into a powerful force of domination. Free election of masters does not abolish the masters or the slave -- free choice among a wide variety of goods and services does not signify freedom if those good and services sustain social controls over a life of toil and fear.

Herbert Marcuse, 1898-1979

8.13.2017

join the ndp and vote for niki ashton: deadline aug 17

The deadline to join the NDP and vote for Niki Ashton is August 17.


Last night I saw something that shocked me, and today I did something I've never done before: I joined a political party. And I did it so I can cast my vote for Niki Ashton for leader of the federal NDP.

* * * *

I worked on Saturday, and was very busy, with zero time to check headlines or social media. After work, I was watching the Red Sox trounce the Yankees and idly tapping on my tablet, when I was stopped cold.

Heather Heyer was killed when a Nazi rioter
drove a car into the crowd.
I am not easily shocked. Perhaps I think I am shock-proof. But the spectacle of an angry mob carrying torches and Nazi banners, openly attacking a group of peaceful protesters, hit me like a gut punch.

I've been writing about the collapse of the US empire, the US becoming a third world country, the fascist shift, and so on, for a long time. It's not like the rise of the white supremacists came out of nowhere. And it's no surprise that police and local government allowed this to happen. So on the level of "this happened" -- no, it's not a shock. But emotionally, psychologically, even physically, the force and weight of it hit me. Men holding Nazi banners, chanting about Jews and Muslims. A peaceful protester and two others killed. Right now, in the country of my birth.

And from the White House, silence.

And from Ottawa, silence.

White Supremacists surrounded peaceful protesters
and attacked them with pepper spray and torches.
I have no illusions about the priorities of Canada's oil-rich federal government and the shirtless Prime Minister. But I imagined they had at least the veneer of humanity. Nope. It's more important to please the US than it is to speak out against white supremacy and Nazism. They might be only empty words, but Trudeau won't even speak them.

I watched the spectacle in Charlottesville, Virginia, and I felt sick. Not a figurative "this makes me sick," but a literal churning stomach, cold chills of fear, tears in my eyes. Wondering, What's next? Wondering, where are hundreds of thousands of Americans in the streets, shouting a huge, loud, collective NO! ?

* * * *

Some people think it's funny that the Nazis used
"tiki torches". I'm not laughing.
Despite the very justified focus on the current POTUS, the US has been moving in this direction for a long time. The spectacles we saw at Trump rallies did not materialize overnight, without context. An oligarchy completely unresponsive to the needs of its people, an economy based on the transfer of wealth from poorest to richest, no meaningful work, no social system for education, housing, and, until recently, health care -- a populace armed to the teeth, like its government -- xenophobic scapegoating -- and the legacy of racism that has never stopped, never even taken a breather: all this gave birth to what we're seeing now. I've seen some people on Facebook imagining (fantasizing) that if Hillary Clinton was POTUS, this might not be happening. One could just as easily fantasize that it would have happened the moment she was elected. The powderkeg would still exist, and the catalyst wouldn't be far behind. The Democrats certainly had no plans to reverse the course of the last 30 years.

The truth is, in the US, there was no choice. There's the party of cats or the party of cats.

Of the many things that attracted me to Canada, one of the strongest was the presence of an actual, viable third party, a party that more closely represented my values. But in recent years, the NDP has been disappointing, to put it mildly. The party was using the same playbook that ruined the Democrats, moving farther and farther to the right, hoping to capture the so-called centre -- a strategy sure to lose before it even gets started. It's been depressing. My activism has never been around party politics and elections, and the NDP's rightward shift pushed me even further away.

But people's movements have surged in recent years. People are fighting back. Occupy, Idle No More, Black Lives Matter, The Fight for Fifteen -- activism around climate change -- the popularity of Bernie Sanders' platform -- union fightbacks -- all taken together, have created a groundswell. A context where real change might suceed. Where we might have hope.

And right now, in Canada, we do have hope. At last, there is someone running for NDP leadership who wants to recall the party to its roots: Niki Ashton.

From Ashton's website:
I am running because I believe we need a clear vision. We need fundamental change. We need to build the NDP as a movement for social, environmental, and economic justice.
The way forward for the NDP is clear. We must work tirelessly for true reconciliation with Indigenous people, for the protection and preservation of our environment, for working Canadians, for women, for people living with disabilities, for racial justice, for justice for transgender and non-binary people, for LGBTQ+ justice, and for the right to be who you are, and to love who you want to love. 
We must build a political movement that connects with the many Indigenous, racialized, student, environmental and labour movements that are driving progressive political change. We must move ahead with a positive agenda that tackles rising inequality and climate change. We must build a movement that has the strength of the people at its core. We must unite, and build people-centred policy as our foundation. As a party, we need to embrace the thousands of activists across this country who have paved the way for our movement. Their fight is our fight, and together, we are stronger.

I want people to know that we are in their corner, with every decision we make. I want Canadians to feel at home in the NDP because they see themselves reflected in the values and principles we fight for every single day.

It is time to be bold.
It is time to create the Canada we know is possible — we must accept nothing less.
It is time to address inequality in a real way, with real action.
I know we can do this.
I know that together, we can build a movement.
Today I realized that I must help Ashton build that movement. I need to exercise whatever power I have, to vote for Ashton for leader and to urge others to do the same.

August 17 is the last day to join the NDP in time to vote in the leadership election. You can do so here, from Ashton's own page, to show that you joined in order to support her.

Thanks to all my activist friends whose words and actions led me to this change! Solidarity always.

It's time!




7.06.2017

the politics of the hardboiled detective novel

I love these old covers!
Last year, I blogged about a wonderful essay by Raymond Chandler called "The Simple Art of Murder", written in 1950. Reading that, I realized that I knew the work of both Chandler and Dashiell Hammett -- the originators of the hardboiled detective genre -- only through film adaptations. I hadn't read any of their novels. To remedy that, I borrowed several titles by each from the library.*  (I also plan to read some of the giants of the noir novel, having seen the classic film adaptations of their work: James M. Cain, James Ellroy, Jim Thompson.)

I read Hammett's Red Harvest and The Maltese Falcon, and Chandler's The Big Sleep and The Long Goodbye. If I didn't have so much other reading pressing on me, I would have read many more. I loved everything about these books.

The writing is simple but vivid and evocative. The characters are interesting and multi-dimensional. The twisting plots are full of surprises. And above all, the protagonists -- the detectives -- are the perfect anti-heroes.

In detective movies and TV shows, the character of the detective him- or herself is paramount. If I like the detective, I'll follow him anywhere. If the detective rubs me the wrong way, it's a no-go, no matter how good the writing or acting or plots might be. Philip Marlowe (Chandler) and Sam Spade (Hammett) are as good as they get. It didn't even bother me that as I read, I could only see Humphrey Bogart in these roles. The casting of those famous films was perfect; my mental image of Bogart, who I love, only added to the enjoyment.

In his seminal essay, Chandler describes his detectives like this.
But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective in this kind of story must be such a man. He is the hero, he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor, by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world. I do not care much about his private life; he is neither a eunuch nor a satyr; I think he might seduce a duchess and I am quite sure he would not spoil a virgin; if he is a man of honor in one thing, he is that in all things. He is a relatively poor man, or he would not be a detective at all. He is a common man or he could not go among common people. He has a sense of character, or he would not know his job. He will take no man’s money dishonestly and no man’s insolence without a due and dispassionate revenge. He is a lonely man and his pride is that you will treat him as a proud man or be very sorry you ever saw him. He talks as the man of his age talks, that is, with rude wit, a lively sense of the grotesque, a disgust for sham, and a contempt for pettiness. The story is his adventure in search of a hidden truth, and it would be no adventure if it did not happen to a man fit for adventure. He has a range of awareness that startles you, but it belongs to him by right, because it belongs to the world he lives in.

If there were enough like him, I think the world would be a very safe place to live in, and yet not too dull to be worth living in.
In an interesting bit of self-consciousness in The Big Sleep, Chandler has Marlowe describe his own role, and the hardboiled novel itself.
I'm not Sherlock Holmes or Philo Vance. I don't expect to go over ground the police have covered and pick up a broken pen point and build a case from it. If you think there is anybody in the detective business making a living doing that sort of thing, you don't know much about cops. 
I also loved the politics of these books. Of course hardboiled detective novels are not political per se, but Hammett's and Chandler's work have a clear, consistent political and social point of view. Spade and Marlowe are working class guys, and the reader sees everything through their working-class eyes.

In fact, class consciousness underpins everything in these novels. Throughout, there is a deep empathy for the working person, the underling, the regular Joe or Jane, and a consistent assumption that the odds are always stacked against them. Spade and Marlowe's work takes them into both dark underworlds and opulent mansions. They are equally themselves anywhere -- because they are men of integrity, without pretense -- but only the mansion will elicit scorn and contempt. The sad underworlds are more likely to evoke pity, and an understanding of why ordinary people may be driven to make bad decisions in an unjust world. Even in the criminal underworld, it's the little guy who takes the fall, while the rich and powerful do the damage and enjoy the good life.

There's a special place for the police in these novels, and it is not on a pedestal. Spade and Marlowe harbor a deep distrust of the police, and believe that in order to find justice, one must work outside the system, because the system is always corrupt.

In a world where the working class is always on the defensive, a man with a bit of power might just be tempted to overcompensate -- and we usually see police through this lens. Cops must be distrusted because they do the bidding of the ruling class. A good cop must prove himself to be one; he doesn't get the benefit of the doubt. Good cops are rare, but in this world, good men and women of any station are always rare.

Towards the end of The Big Sleep, a decent police captain explains:
I'm a copper. Just a plain ordinary copper. Reasonably honest. As honest as you could expect a man to be in a world where it's out of style. That's mainly why I asked you to come in this morning. I'd like you to believe that. Being a copper I like to see the law win. I'd like to see the flashy well-dressed muggs like Eddie Mars spoiling their manicures in the rock quarry at Folsom, alongside of the poor little slum-bred hard guys that got knocked over on their first caper and never had a break since. That's what I'd like. You and me both lived too long to think I'm likely to see it happen. Not in this town, not in any town half this size, in any part of this wide, green and beautiful U.S.A. We just don't run our country that way.

The edition in our library.
Some might find these books sexist, as women are often portrayed as deceitful and dangerous, but that's not my reading. The women of Chandler and Hammett are not helpless ragdolls in need of rescue; they're not dependent on men for identity or status. They are free agents -- free to love, free to act on lust, to lie, to murder, but always free to make their own choices. The women of the hardboiled mystery are not be trusted -- just like the men. Both men and women do stupid things under the influence of love or lust, Marlowe and Spade included.

Men and women, working class or ruling class, guilty or innocent -- character traits cross all lines. There is honour and deceit on all sides. There is abuse of power everywhere. There is deep sorrow, and there is addiction. Indeed, I came to see alcohol almost as a character in these books.

At bottom, the hardboiled mystery, at least as practiced by the masters, is a study in power. The upper class, the criminals, the cops, the guards -- everyone is trying to get power, to use it, and to keep it. Only an honest man or woman cares more about doing the right thing than about power.

That's why class consciousness permeates everything: because the playing field is grossly tilted. The ruling class and their minions always have a giant head start. That's why the detective needs to stand up for the little guy. It's also why the detective hero must be wily and super-smart, why he needs to work outside the system, why he must often consider the means against the ends. He is a justice warrior amid an universal imbalance of power.

* Working in a library has greatly expanded my reading. More on that another day.

11.30.2016

what i'm watching: before the flood: good information but ultimately a weak message

Tonight we watched "Before the Flood", Leonardo DiCaprio's film about climate change, which I had heard such good things about.

It's well done, and is chock full of appropriately terrifying and depressing information. But in the end, the film delivers yet another "it's up to each of us" message, focusing on individual actions, rather than systemic solutions.

Early in the film, we hear that discussions of climate change used to focus on individual solutions -- change your light bulbs, bring your own coffee mug -- but now we know that's not enough. Yet in the end, the film concludes: "Consume differently: what you buy, what you eat, how you get your power." Vote for people who promise to do something.

After seeing miles of gray, dead coral reef, rainforest devastation in Indonesia, and the monstrosity of the tar sands, "consume differently" is an empty platitude. And how you get your power? Most of us have no choice about that.

Sure, eat less meat, carry your own coffee mug, take public transit, if the option exists in your area. You'll create less landfill, you'll make more conscious choices, and you might inspire others to do the same. Just don't think that you're making a dent in climate change. A dent? Not even a scratch.

"Before the Flood" might actually produce the opposite of its intended effect. Upon seeing this film, I think many or most viewers would feel that climate change is so huge, so widespread, and so advanced, that there is nothing we can do, so we should just live our lives, and try not to think about it. The optimistic NASA scientist interviewed towards the end of the film says that if we all stopped using fossil fuel, the earth will be able to heal. So if the impossible happens, we'll be OK? Not a lot of hope there.

Tar sands, fracking, palm oil production, deepwater drilling -- all of this is driven by profit and an economic system that demands so-called growth. In other words, the root cause is capitalism. It will never be more profitable to conserve and protect than it is to extract and destroy. So until our world is motivated by something other than profit, the destruction will not end.

The one thing that may achieve our goal is barely mentioned: massive, sustained protest. The kind of protest we are seeing right now in North Dakota, on a much larger scale. Because, as Mario Savio said, there is a time.
There is a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can't take part; you can't even passively take part, and you've got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you've got to make it stop. And you've got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you're free, the machine will be prevented from working at all!


I thought of Mario Savio tonight. Although my heart and soul are against the gears, and always have been, I cannot say that I put my body upon the gears. I can only say I support the people who do, and I am ready to do so when the time comes.

11.29.2016

fidel castro, 1926-2016

More than any ruler I can think of, Fidel Castro defies our insistence on seeing leaders as solely either good or evil. As this excellent assessment in Social Worker (UK) puts it, "History must judge him both as the freedom fighter whose defiance humiliated US imperialism and as the ruler of a repressive, unequal society."

Castro was an inspiration to freedom fighters the world over, including Nelson Mandela. Mandela, we should remember, was formerly branded as a communist terrorist, and later lionized as a cuddly hero, without having changed his tactics or beliefs.

I'm told that coverage of Castro's death by US-based media focused on the celebrations of Miami's Cuban exile community, which is exactly what I'd expect. Remember the images of Arab children celebrating the 9/11 attacks -- images that turned out to be several years old?

I don't doubt that wealthy Cubans, whose unchallenged power and prestige was toppled by a socialist revolution, despise the man who brought them down. But the mainstream US's enduring hatred for Castro has nothing to do with sympathies for the Cuban ruling class. Castro is the world leader who the US couldn't assassinate, couldn't buy off, and couldn't control. Patrice Lumumba, Salvador Allende, Mohammad Mossadegh, Jacobo Arbenz, Ho Chi Minh, Joao Goulart, Juan Bosch, Jean Bertrand Aristide -- if you don't know the names, look them up. You can go back as far as Queen Liliuokalani. Castro was the one that got away.

Castro was also a dictator. Cuba suppressed dissidents, segregated and brutally punished LGBT people, and had virtually no free speech. Saying "So-and-so did that, too!" is not an appropriate response. For a socialist to rationalize oppression because it originated on the left is shameful and indefensible.

At the same time, this is still true.


The best eulogy of Fidel Castro that I've seen was written by the great Eduard Galeano, in his 2010 book Mirrors. Here's an excerpt, courtesy of Raiot.
His enemies say he was an uncrowned king who confused unity with unanimity. And in that his enemies are right.

His enemies say that if Napoleon had a newspaper like Granma, no Frenchman would have learned of the disaster at Waterloo. And in that his enemies are right.

His enemies say that he exercised power by talking a lot and listening little, because he was more used to hearing echoes than voices. And in that his enemies are right.

But some things his enemies do not say: it was not to pose for the history books that he bared his breast to the invaders’ bullets,
he faced hurricanes as an equal, hurricane to hurricane,
he survived 637 attempts on his life,
his contagious energy was decisive in making a country out of a colony,
and it was not by Lucifer’s curse or God’s miracle that the new country managed to outlive 10 U.S. presidents, their napkins spread in their laps, ready to eat it with knife and fork.

And his enemies never mention that Cuba is one rare country that does not compete for the World Doormat Cup.

And they do not say that the revolution, punished for the crime of dignity, is what it managed to be and not what it wished to become. Nor do they say that the wall separating desire from reality grew ever higher and wider thanks to the imperial blockade, which suffocated a Cuban-style democracy, militarized society, and gave the bureaucracy, always ready with a problem for every solution, the alibis it needed to justify and perpetuate itself.

And they do not say that in spite of all the sorrow, in spite of the external aggression and the internal high-handedness, this distressed and obstinate island has spawned the least unjust society in Latin America.

And his enemies do not say that this feat was the outcome of the sacrifice of its people, and also of the stubborn will and old-fashioned sense of honor of the knight who always fought on the side of the losers, like his famous colleague in the fields of Castile.

5.01.2016

james connolly, sid ryan, and marxism 2016


This is The Proclamation.

The Proclamation was read by Padraig (Patrick) Pearse outside the General Post Office in Dublin on April 24, 1916. This marked the beginning of the Easter Rising.

Rather less dramatically, a copy of the Proclamation has hung on my office wall since our trip to Ireland in 2001. It has lived large and present in my revolutionary heart since the early days of my fascination with Irish history.

Last week I had the pleasure of hearing the entire Proclamation read out loud by Toronto labour activist Mike Seaward. It was nothing short of thrilling to hear these stirring words ring out - words to live by. For the men who wrote them, they were words to die by.

The reading of the Proclamation kicked off the 2016 Marxism conference special event, commemorating 100 years since the Easter Rising, almost to the day. This was followed by Canadian labour leader and activist Sid Ryan, spinning out Irish history in sparkling prose and stunning detail, without a scrap of paper in front of him. Sid was followed by Carolyn Egan, a leader in the Canadian women's and labour movements, and my comrade in both the International Socialists and the War Resisters Support Campaign. Carolyn highlighted some of the more radical and revolutionary ideals of the ongoing battle for Irish independence, and connected those back to our current times.

The Easter Rising was many things. It was the first crack in the British Empire. It was the culmination of 600 years of oppression under British rule, and 600 years of armed insurrection against it. It was the wild utopian yearnings of poorly trained rebels, a death sentence for the men who signed it. It is a touchstone for every Irish nationalist, to this day.

The Easter Rising might have been an obscure moment in history, as so many rebellions are. The British government itself ensured the Rising's significance with one giant blunder: the execution of the leaders. With those murders, public opinion turned from irritation or indifference to wild anger and support.

At Marxism 2016, Sid Ryan and Carolyn Egan held a Marxist lens to this largely nationalist rebellion. It isn't difficult to do so, embodied by James Connolly, the great Irish thinker and socialist revolutionary.

James Connolly was an extraordinary leader. His counterpart in American history might be Frederick Douglass. Both rose from extreme poverty (in Douglass' case, slavery), had no formal education, and became extraordinary thinkers and orators. Both were radical, egalitarian, open-minded, and committed to justice. Both supported women's rights. Both understood that the struggle was bigger than their people, not Black against White or Irish against British, but the people against the ruling class. Both men rejected any solution that was in reality only a change of masters.

I won't try to recreate the talk here; I'm hoping it will be posted on the IS's YouTube channel. Unfortunately for me, this was the only talk I was able to attend at Marxism 2016. I also participated on a panel called "Union Organizing in a Time of Precarity," with two labour-activist friends.

There's a lot about James Connolly online, but this piece by Ella Whelan is powerful and poignant, and in my view the most accurate: James Connolly: We Only Want the Earth: What We Can Learn from the Easter Rising, by Ella Whelan. I noticed this beautiful emblem from the IWW bears that line from one of Connolly's poems. I love that my hero of Irish history organized with the revolutionary group that lives in my heart.



The Proclamation:
POBLACHT NA H éIREANN
THE PROVISIONAL GOVERNMENT
OF THE
IRISH REPUBLIC
TO THE PEOPLE OF IRELAND

IRISHMEN AND IRISHWOMEN: In the name of God and of the dead generations from which she receives her old tradition of nationhood, Ireland, through us, summons her children to her flag and strikes for her freedom.

Having organised and trained her manhood through her secret revolutionary organisation, the Irish Republican Brotherhood, and through her open military organisations, the Irish Volunteers and the Irish Citizen Army, having patiently perfected her discipline, having resolutely waited for the right moment to reveal itself, she now seizes that moment, and supported by her exiled children in America and by gallant allies in Europe, but relying in the first on her own strength, she strikes in full confidence of victory.

We declare the right of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland and to the unfettered control of Irish destinies, to be sovereign and indefeasible. The long usurpation of that right by a foreign people and government has not extinguished the right, nor can it ever be extinguished except by the destruction of the Irish people. In every generation the Irish people have asserted their right to national freedom and sovereignty; six times during the past three hundred years they have asserted it in arms. Standing on that fundamental right and again asserting it in arms in the face of the world, we hereby proclaim the Irish Republic as a Sovereign Independent State, and we pledge our lives and the lives of our comrades in arms to the cause of its freedom, of its welfare, and of its exaltation among the nations.

The Irish Republic is entitled to, and hereby claims, the allegiance of every Irishman and Irishwoman. The Republic guarantees religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens, and declares its resolve to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation and of all its parts, cherishing all of the children of the nation equally, and oblivious of the differences carefully fostered by an alien Government, which have divided a minority from the majority in the past.

Until our arms have brought the opportune moment for the establishment of a permanent National Government, representative of the whole people of Ireland and elected by the suffrages of all her men and women, the Provisional Government, hereby constituted, will administer the civil and military affairs of the Republic in trust for the people.

We place the cause of the Irish Republic under the protection of the Most High God, Whose blessing we invoke upon our arms, and we pray that no one who serves that cause will dishonour it by cowardice, inhumanity, or rapine. In this supreme hour the Irish nation must, by its valour and discipline, and by the readiness of its children to sacrifice themselves for the common good, prove itself worthy of the august destiny to which it is called.

Signed on behalf of the Provisional Government:

THOMAS J. CLARKE
SEAN Mac DIARMADA    THOMAS MacDONAGH
P. H. PEARSE     EAMONN CEANNT
JAMES CONNOLLY     JOSEPH PLUNKETT

4.30.2016

rtod: we only want the earth

On the 100th anniversary of the Easter Rising, these Revolutionary Thoughts of the Day are brought to you by the great Irish socialist, James Connolly.
The day has passed for patching up the capitalist system; it must go. (1910)

This speech, from 1897, is recreated in the excellent Ken Loach film "The Wind that Shakes the Barley":
If you remove the English army tomorrow and hoist the green flag over Dublin Castle, unless you set about the organisation of the Socialist Republic your efforts would be in vain. England would still rule you. She would rule you through her capitalists, through her landlords, through her financiers, through the whole array of commercial and individualist institutions she has planted in this country and watered with the tears of our mothers and the blood of our martyrs. England would still rule you to your ruin, even while your lips offered hypocritical homage at the shrine of that freedom whose cause you had betrayed. Nationalism without Socialism – without a reorganisation of society on the basis of a broader and more developed form of that common property which underlay the social structure of Ancient Erin – is only national recreancy.

This recalls what I recently posted: yoko ono was right.
The worker is the slave of the capitalist society. The female worker is the slave of that slave. (1915)

And from Connolly's poem "Song of Freedom," 1907.
“Be moderate,” the trimmers cry,
Who dread the tyrants’ thunder.
“You ask too much and people fly
From you aghast in wonder.”
’Tis passing strange, for I declare
Such statements give me mirth,
For our demands most moderate are,
We only want the Earth.

6.21.2015

a 150-year-old solution

I stumbled on this letter to the New York Times Book Review from a few weeks ago. It's in response to a review of two books about precarious work - one about technology threatening jobs of even the most educated people, and another about the rise of unpaid labour.
Barbara Ehrenreich’s chilling review of Martin Ford’s “Rise of the Robots” and Craig Lambert’s “Shadow Work” (May 17) is the best evidence-based response I’ve seen to all the headlines announcing that a recovery is “just around the corner.” But if it isn’t, and unemployment and part-time employment can only get worse, what can be done? Ehrenreich concludes that “the best that the feeble human mind can come up with at the moment” is a guaranteed annual wage.

Actually, one human mind came up with another solution over 150 years ago, and that was to share the work among all able-bodied people, with society making sure that all the skills required to serve everyone’s needs are widely distributed. In this way, everyone would have a job as well as more free time to do the things that most people cannot do until they retire. With the rich sharing their excessive wealth with others and taking on productive jobs, this could be done — especially today — without lowering anyone else’s living standards.

That person’s name was Karl Marx.

Bertell Ollman, Manhattan

The writer is a professor of politics at New York University.

11.29.2014

what i'm reading: this changes everything by naomi klein, one of the most important books you'll ever read

This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, by Naomi Klein, is incredibly difficult to write about. I've been putting sticky notes beside important paragraphs as I read, and my copy now looks like an art project, bristling with coloured paper squares. I can say without exaggeration that this is one of the most important books you'll ever read.

In her clear, readable prose, Klein demonstrates exactly what is destroying our planet: unregulated, unchecked capitalism, brought to you by the scourge of our era: neoliberalism. (US readers may be more familiar with the term neoconservatism.)

In her 2007 book The Shock Doctrine, Klein showed us how corporate interests exploit crises to enact policies that enrich a small elite, using the holy trinity of neoliberalism: privatization of the public sphere, deregulation of the corporate sector, and lower corporate taxation, paid for with cuts to public spending. Now Klein widens her lens to demonstrate how that same orientation actively prevents us from taking the necessary steps to halt and reverse climate change, and with it, the impending destruction of a habitable Earth.

To reverse warming, reverse course

Klein succinctly and precisely diagnoses the root problem. In order to challenge climate change, in order to reverse a course that threatens billions of lives and is ultimately suicidal for humanity, radical change is required. We must stop living as if infinite growth is possible on a finite planet. This goes way beyond separating our trash into different bins and using more efficient light bulbs. It means dismantling the fossil-fuel industry, powering our entire society with renewable energy sources (it is possible!), and ultimately, abandoning the idea of growth as the basis for our economies.

Tackling climate change means, ultimately, dismantling neoliberalism itself.
A belief system that vilifies collective action and declares war on all corporate regulation and all things public simply cannot be reconciled with a problem that demands collective action on an unprecedented scale and a dramatic reining in of the market forces that are largely responsible for creating and deepening the crisis.
This means rethinking the false notion of "free" trade. Ontario, for example, would be decades ahead in wind and solar production, not to mention good, green jobs, but for the crippling mandates of free-trade agreements. "Free" deserves scare quotes.
Not only do fossil fuel companies receive $775 billion to $1 trillion in annual global subsidies, but they pay nothing for the privilege of treating our shared atmosphere as a free waste dump.
Klein reminds us that if free-trade regulations block our ability to disrupt our dependence on fossil fuels, then those regulations must be rewritten. And so it goes for any number of policies that express the neoliberal ideology, which, as Klein writes, "form a ideological wall that has blocked a serious response to climate change for decades."

Of course, nothing is free; the question is who pays the price. The price may be unemployment, or jobs that can't sustain a decent life, or overcrowded classrooms, or a generation condemned to poverty-stricken old age. The price may be flammable drinking water, or whole villages beset by rare cancers. The neoliberal agenda wreaks its havoc in ways seen and unseen. Shell's Arctic oil rig ran aground when it braved impassable winter weather, attempting to beat a timeline that would trigger additional taxes. In Montreal, the MM&A rail company received government permission to cut the number of staff on its trains from five to a single engineer: thus the Lac-Megantic disaster. However measured, it's a price paid by ordinary people, while corporations wallow in profit.

Less carbon means more democracy

In turn, dismantling neoliberalism would mean rethinking our governments, too, as democracies driven by lobbyists, corporate donors, and industry interests - valuing profits over people - pave the way for policies that are killing us all. Can a society where this can happen be rightly considered democratic?
...the most jarring part of the grassroots anti-extraction uprising has been the rude realization that most communities do appear to lack this power; that outside forces - a far-off central government, working hand-in-glove with transnational companies - are simply imposing enormous health and safety risks on residents, even when that means overturning local laws. Fracking, tar sands pipelines, coal trains, and export terminals are being proposed in many parts of the world where clear majorities of the population has made its opposition unmistakable, at the ballot box, through official consultation processes, and in the streets.

And yet consent seems beside the point. Again and again, after failing to persuade communities that these projects are in their genuine best interest, governments are teaming up with corporate players to roll over the opposition, using a combination of physical violence and draconian legal tools reclassifying peaceful activists as terrorists.

....Only two out of the over one thousand people who spoke at the panel's community hearings in British Columbia supported the project. One poll showed that 80 percent of the province's residents opposed having more oil tankers along their marine-rich coastline. That a supposedly impartial review body could rule in favor of the pipeline in the face of this kind of overwhelming opposition was seen by many in Canada as clear evidence of a serious underlying crisis, one far more about money and power than the environment.
When reviewing the proposed solutions to climate change, Klein skewers the chimeras that don't and can't work, from the corporate boondoggle known as cap-and-trade, to various technological fixes that would take our fantasy of controlling nature to bizarre new heights.
Indeed, if geoengineering has anything going for it, it is that it slots perfectly into our most hackneyed cultural narrative, the one in which so many of us have been indoctrinated by organized religion and the rest of us have absorbed from pretty much every Hollywood action movie ever made. It's the one that tells us that, at the very last minute, some of us (the ones that matter) are going to be saved. And since our secular religion is technology, it won't be god that saves us but Bill Gates and his gang of super-geniuses at Intellectual Ventures.
Klein also heaps contempt on the so-called partnerships between large environmental organizations and the fossil-fuel industry, which are something like the partnership between the pig and Oscar Mayer. As Klein puts it, "the 'market-based' climate solutions favored by so many large foundations and adopted by many greens have provided an invaluable service to the fossil fuel sector as a whole."

Already changing everything: Blockadia

This Changes Everything illuminates an impressive array of activism, introducing most readers, I'm guessing, to a new expression: Blockadia. Blockadia represents the global, grassroots, broad-based networks of resistance to high-risk extreme extraction. From Greece to the Amazon to New Zealand to Montana to British Columbia, the resistance is in motion. Taking many forms - the divestment movement pressuring institutions to sever economic ties with the fossil-fuel industry, the towns declaring themselves "fracking free zones", the civil disobedience that physically slows the building of pipelines while court challenges continue - Blockadia is creating space for public debate and the possibility of change.

In many places, Blockadia is led by people from indigenous communities. Not only are indigenous peoples often the first victims of climate destruction - witness, for example, the off-the-chart cancer rates of First Nations people living downstream from Canada's tar sands - but their worldviews may form the basis of our way forward. On a Montana reservation where young Cheyenne are learning how to install solar energy systems - cutting residents' utility bills by 90% while learning a trade, creating an alternative to a life spent working for the coal industry - a female student makes this observation:
Solar power, she said, embodied the worldview in which she had been raised, one in which "You don't take and take and take. And you don't consume and consume and consume. You take what you need and then you put back into the land."
I despair. But it doesn't matter.

I want everyone to read this book, and because of that, I hesitate to share this unfortunate truth: ultimately, This Changes Everything filled me with hopelessness and despair. I wouldn't say it made me pessimistic, as I am optimistic about humankind's ability to change ourselves and our systems, if we choose to. Rather, the book filled me with outright hopelessness, because I don't believe we will even have the opportunity to make that choice. The forces aligned against the necessary changes are massive, and massively powerful. Untold profits depend on the system not changing, and what's more, gargantuan profits are being reaped off the destruction itself. The oligarchs who profit from climate change are associated with the most powerful tools of violence ever known - the mightiest armies and the greatest amorality.

Adding to the difficulty, our society clings to what Klein calls "the fetish of centrism": of the appearance of reasonableness, of "splitting the difference, and generally not getting overly excited about anything". This is the illogic that dictates we must "balance" the interests of the petroleum industry with our need for clean water, or the profits of real estate developers with the human need for shelter. This fetish of centrism allows the government and its partners in the media to label as "extremists" people who want to protect water and land from catastrophic oil spills.

Added to this, huge numbers of ordinary people, led by corporate media and astroturf faux activists, align themselves against their own interests, stoked by fears of imagined foes (be they communists, immigrants, or feminists) and cling to notions of a supposedly free market, which in reality is heavily subsidized by taxpayers. This global market is anything but free: the risk is socialized in every way possible, but the returns are strictly privatized.

If you've read Jared Diamond's Collapse, you are familiar with the concept that societies don't always do what's best for them. Societies make choices that ultimately chart their own demise. I do not despair of our ability to remake our world, but I know that the forces aligned against us will stop at nothing to prevent us from doing so. The most powerful people on the planet can shield themselves from the effects of climate change until it is too late for the rest of us.

And yet... and yet. I feel hopeless, my feelings don't matter.

What matters is this: we have little time, and we must try. Resistance movements have changed cultures. Resistance movements have brought mighty empires to their knees, have ended deeply entrenched systems: slavery, colonialism, apartheid. For centuries, there was something called the Divine Right of Kings, a concept which must have seemed permanent and immutable. Now it does not exist. Capitalism, as currently practiced, is killing our planet - killing us. We cannot shrug our shoulders.

If you agree - and more importantly, if you disagree - read this book.

11.07.2013

more moyers: democracy and plutocracy don't mix

I found the preceding rtod post buried in Blogger drafts, something Allan saved there years ago. I never got around to posting it, but I never had the heart to delete it, either.

If you're not familiar with Bill Moyers, he is an American independent journalist, producer, and public intellectual. Earlier in his career, Moyers served as White House Press Secretary under the Johnson administration, but he's better known for the many shows he has produced and hosted on PBS.

Moyers has always been liberal, but over the past decade, he has become increasingly radicalized as he reacts to the excesses of endless war and unchecked capitalism. (That's my own observation. I've never heard Moyers describe himself as radicalized, and I doubt he would.)

The thing about Moyers is he rarely thinks or speaks in sound bites. To follow him, you must be willing to read or to listen at length. In that sense, he reaches a small minority. On the other hand, the more that minority - i.e., us - understands these issues, the stronger it becomes.

I encourage you to read or listen to the Moyers' 2010 Howard Zinn Lecture in its entirety. Moyers writes from a US context, but in our global economy, these ideas are relevant to everyone on the planet. Here's a good excerpt.

* * * *

Between 2001 and 2008, about 40,000 US manufacturing plants closed. Six million factory jobs have disappeared over the past dozen years, representing one in three manufacturing jobs.

. . . .

They found that from 1950 through 1980, the share of all income in America going to everyone but the rich increased from 64 percent to 65 percent. Because the nation’s economy was growing handsomely, the average income for 9 out of l0 Americans was growing, too – from $17,719 to $30,941. That’s a 75 percent increase in income in constant 2008 dollars.

But then it stopped. Since 1980 the economy has also continued to grow handsomely, but only a fraction at the top have benefited. The line flattens for the bottom 90% of Americans. Average income went from that $30,941 in 1980 to $31,244 in 2008. Think about that: the average income of Americans increased just $303 dollars in 28 years.

. . . . .

Matt Krantz reports in USA TODAY that "Cash is gushing into company’s coffers as they report what’s shaping up to be a third-consecutive quarter of sharp earning increases. But instead of spending on the typical things, such as expanding and hiring people, companies are mostly pocketing the money or stuffing it under their mattresses." And what are their plans for this money? Again, the Washington Post:
Sitting on these unprecedented levels of cash, U.S. companies are buying back their own stock in droves. So far this year, firms have announced they will purchase $273 billion of their own shares, more than five times as much compared with this time last year… But the rise in buybacks signals that many companies are still hesitant to spend their cash on the job-generating activities that could produce economic growth.
That’s how financial capitalism works today: Conserving cash rather than bolstering hiring and production; investing in their own shares to prop up their share prices and make their stock more attractive to Wall Street. To hell with everyone else.

Hear the chief economist at Bank of America Merrill Lynch, Ethan Harris, who told the Times:
There’s no question that there is an income shift going on in the economy. Companies are squeezing their labor costs to build profits.
Or the chief economist for Credit Suisse in New York, Neal Soss:
As companies have wrung more savings out of their work forces, causing wages and salaries barely to budge from recession lows, “profits have staged a vigorous recovery, jumping 40 percent between late 2008 and the first quarter of 2010.”
Just this morning the New York Times reports that the private equity business is roaring back:
While it remains difficult to get a mortgage to buy a home or to get a loan to fund a small business, yield-starved investors are creating a robust market for corporate bonds and loans.
Now, most people know what plutocracy is: the rule of the rich, political power controlled by the wealthy. Plutocracy is not an American word and wasn’t meant to become an American phenomenon – some of our founders deplored what they called “the veneration of wealth.” But plutocracy is here, and a pumped up Citigroup even boasted of coining a variation on the word— “plutonomy”, which describes an economic system where the privileged few make sure the rich get richer and that government helps them do it. Five years ago Citigroup decided the time had come to “bang the drum on plutonomy.”

And bang they did. Here are some excerpts from the document “Revisiting Plutonomy;”
Asset booms, a rising profit share and favorable treatment by market-friendly governments have allowed the rich to prosper… [and] take an increasing share of income and wealth over the last 20 years. . . .

…the top 10%, particularly the top 1% of the United States – the plutonomists in our parlance – have benefitted disproportionately from the recent productivity surged in the US… [and] from globalization and the productivity boom, at the relative expense of labor.” . . . 
… [and they] are likely to get even wealthier in the coming years. Because the dynamics of plutonomy are still intact.
I’ll repeat that: “The dynamics of plutonomy are still intact.” That was the case before the Great Collapse of 2008, and it’s the case today, two years after the catastrophe. But the plutonomists are doing just fine. Even better in some cases, thanks to our bailout of the big banks.

As for the rest of the country: Listen to this summary in The Economist – no Marxist journal – of a study by Pew Research:
More than half of all workers today have experienced a spell of unemployment, taken a cut in pay or hours or been forced to go part-time. The typical unemployed worker has been jobless for nearly six months. Collapsing share and house prices have destroyed a fifth of the wealth of the average household. Nearly six in ten Americans have cancelled or cut back on holidays. About a fifth say their mortgages are underwater. One in four of those between 18 and 29 have moved back in with their parents. Fewer than half of all adults expect their children to have a higher standard of living than theirs, and more than a quarter say it will be lower. For many Americans the great recession has been the sharpest trauma since The Second World War, wiping out jobs, wealth and hope itself.
Let that sink in: For millions of garden-variety Americans, the audacity of hope has been replaced by a paucity of hope.

Time for a confession. The legendary correspondent Edward R. Murrow told his generation of journalists that bias is okay as long as you don’t try to hide it. Here is mine: Plutocracy and democracy don’t mix. Plutocracy too long tolerated leaves democracy on the auction block, subject to the highest bidder.

[Read the lecture here.]

rtod

Revolutionary thought of the day:
The Gilded Age returned with a vengeance in our time. It slipped in quietly at first, back in the early 1980s, when Ronald Reagan began a "massive decades-long transfer of national wealth to the rich." As Roger Hodge makes clear, under Bill Clinton the transfer was even more dramatic, as the top 10 percent captured an ever-growing share of national income. The trend continued under George W. Bush – those huge tax cuts for the rich, remember, which are now about to be extended because both parties have been bought off by the wealthy – and by 2007 the wealthiest 10% of Americans were taking in 50% of the national income. ...

You will hear it said, "Come on, this is the way the world works." No, it’s the way the world is made to work. This vast inequality is not the result of Adam Smith’s invisible hand; it did not just happen; it was no accident. As Hodge drives home, it is the result of a long series of policy decisions "about industry and trade, taxation and military spending, by flesh-and-blood humans sitting in concrete-and-steel buildings."

Bill Moyers
October 29, 2010, in the Howard Zinn Lecture Series at Boston University. See the entire speech and following Q&A here.)

10.24.2013

faludi: corporatist pseudo-feminism vs radical change for women and all working people

I would like to draw your attention to an excellent article by Susan Faludi in The Baffler: Facebook Feminism: Like It or Not.

Faludi contrasts the corporatist, individualistic, me-first, privileged, self-centered, pseudo-feminism of "Lean In" with the collective, cross-class activism of some of the original feminists: the "Mill Girls" of Lowell, Massachusetts, who fought for human rights and labour rights for all women. Describing the links between feminism, class struggle, the labour movement, and even the abolitionist movement, Faludi demonstrates how all oppression is interconnected, and how only collective solutions can affect change. She shows how an effective women's movement most be anti-capitalist and anti-corporatist, too.

Faludi dissects and deconstructs the Facebook-based "Lean In" and its corporate partners, peeling back the cheery, self-help facade to reveal the status quo underneath. It isn't pretty.
Lean In Platform Partner Wells Fargo: In 2011, the bank reached a class-action settlement with 1,200 female financial advisers for $32 million. The sex discrimination suit charged that the bank’s brokerage business, Wells Fargo Advisors (originally Wachovia Securities), discriminated against women in compensation and signing bonuses, denied them promotions, and cheated them out of account distributions, investment partnerships, and mentoring and marketing opportunities.

Goldman Sachs (whose philanthropic arm, the Goldman Sachs Foundation, is a Lean In Platform Partner): In 2010, former employees of Goldman Sachs filed a class-action suit against the company, accusing Wall Street’s most profitable investment bank of “systematic and pervasive discrimination” against female employees, subjecting them to hostile working conditions and treating them “like disposable, second-class citizens.”

Lean In Platform Partners Mondelez and Nestl√©: In 2013, an Oxfam investigation in four countries where the two companies outsourced their cocoa farms found that the women working in the cocoa fields and processing plants that the companies relied on “suffer substantial discrimination and inequality.” When women at a cocoa processing factory demanded equal treatment and pay, the investigation noted, all of the female workers were fired. The same companies that “put women first in their advertisements,” Oxfam concluded, “are doing very little to address poor conditions faced by the women who grow cocoa.”
And so on. Lean In's message to women confronted by institutional barriers and the absence of social supports: try harder. Join a Facebook group. Believe in yourself. If it isn't working, you haven't tried hard enough.

Faludi contrasts this with an inspiring history lesson.
In 1834, America’s first industrial wage earners, the “mill girls” of Lowell, Massachusetts, embarked on their own campaign for women’s advancement in the workplace. They didn’t “lean in,” though. When their male overseers in the nation’s first large-scale planned industrial city cut their already paltry wages by 15 to 20 percent, the textile workers declared a “turn-out,” one of the nation’s earliest industrial strikes. That first effort failed, but its participants did not concede defeat. The Lowell women would stage another turn-out two years later, create the first union of working women in American history, lead a fight for the ten-hour work day, and conceive of an increasingly radical vision that took aim both at corporate power and the patriarchal oppression of women. Their bruising early encounter with American industry fueled a nascent feminist outlook that would ultimately find full expression in the first wave of the American women’s movement. . . . .

The Lowell factory owners had recruited “respectable” Yankee farmers’ daughters from the New England countryside, figuring that respectable would translate into docile. They figured wrong. The forces of industrialization had propelled young women out of the home, breaking the fetters binding them to the patriarchal family, unleashing the women into urban areas with few social controls, and permitting them to begin thinking of themselves as public citizens. The combination of newly gained independence and increasingly penurious, exploitative conditions proved combustible—and the factory owners’ reduction in pay turned out to be the match that lit the tinder. Soon after they heard the news, the “mill girls”—proclaiming that they “remain in possession of our unquestionable rights”—shut down their looms and walked out.

From the start, the female textile workers made the connection between labor and women’s rights. . . . The mill workers went on to agitate against an unjust system in all its forms. When Lowell’s state representative thwarted the women’s statewide battle for the ten-hour day, they mobilized and succeeded in having him voted out of office — nearly eighty years before women had the vote. Mill women in Lowell and, in the decades to come, their counterparts throughout New England threw themselves into the abolitionist movement (drawing connections between the cotton picked by slaves and the fabric they wove in the mills); campaigned for better health care, safer schools, decent housing, and cleaner water and streets; and joined the fight for women’s suffrage. Sarah Bagley went on to work for prison reform, women’s rights, and education and decent jobs for poor women and prostitutes. After a stint as the first female telegrapher in the nation (where she pointed out that she was being paid two-thirds of a male telegrapher’s salary), she taught herself homeopathic medicine and became a doctor, billing her patients according to her personal proviso, “To the rich, one dollar—to the poor gratis.”

Increasingly, the mill girls were joined in these efforts by their middle-class sisters. Cross-class female solidarity surfaced early in Lawrence, Massachusetts, after the horrific building collapse of the Pemberton Mills factory in 1860, which killed 145 workers, most of them women and children. (The mills in Lawrence would later give rise to the famously militant “Bread and Roses” strike of 1912, in which female workers again played a leading role.) In the aftermath of the Pemberton disaster, middle-class women in the region flocked to provide emergency relief and, radicalized by what they witnessed, went on to establish day nurseries, medical clinics and hospitals, and cooperative housing to serve the needs of working women. By the postbellum years, with industrialization at full tide and economic polarization at record levels, a critical mass of middle-class female reformers had come to believe that the key to women’s elevation was not, as they once thought, “moral uplift,” but economic independence—and that cross-class struggle on behalf of female workers was the key to achieving it.
You may imagine that the obstacles faced by working women in 2013 and those faced by female factory workers 150 years earlier is an apples-and-oranges comparison. They have more in common than you think. So do the solutions. Read the essay here.

The story of the Mill Girls is one of my favourite pieces of history - women's history, labour history, and the history of radical people's movements. So for me, Faludi's essay contained an amazing bonus: I learned that there is a Lowell National Historic Park! It preserves the historic mill buildings and celebrates the work of our radical foremothers. I had never heard of it before. I hope to make a visit within the next year.

9.21.2013

hedges: "when harper passes right-to-work, you must go on a massive general strike, or you're finished"

Last night, I heard author, journalist, and activist Chris Hedges speak at the Bloor Street United Church in Toronto, sponsored by the excellent Canadian Dimension.

Hedges is a radical intellectual, in the Chomsky vein, also compassionate and fearless, in the mode of Howard Zinn. He touched on many subjects - and credited the work and thoughts of many others. I can only hope to impart a few snippets of the many threads Hedges wove.

"A seismic moment"

Hedges called the recent US debate on Syria a "seismic moment". The Obama administration pulled out all the familiar mechanisms used to sell wars to the public: the ruthless dictator, the weapons of mass destruction, the atrocities. It invoked the Normandy invasion, the liberation of Europe. It did the usual war dance... but none of it worked. The ploys, usually so effective, failed both internationally and domestically, blindsiding the Obama administration.

Hedges compared the distaste for war on Syria to the turning-point in the US's war on Vietnam. Remember, he said, that war enjoyed majority support for 10 years. Only after 10 years - the "quagmire", the middle-class draft - did the narrative shift from myths about war to the brutal facts. And once the myth falls away, the country wakes up from its drunken reverie and sees the war for what it is. Hedges says that shift has occurred in the United States today.

Hedges linked the total invisibility of the underclass in the US to the terror we should all feel about climate change: both are the products of uncontrolled corporate capitalism. At this moment, he said, we either transform our relationship to the natural world, or we die. And he pointed out that Harper has shifted Canada to that same relationship: a government dominated by the interests of the fossil fuel industry.

He spoke of how, after September 11, 2001, the United States "drunk deep of the intoxicating elixir of nationalism," along with heavy doses of nationalism's constant partner, racism. He spoke of the "plague of nationalism" - something I was very moved by in one of Hedges' books, which I wrote about here and here - and how the "virus that gripped the United States after 9/11" was finally broken by the debate on war on Syria. And with that debate, he feels the US may have woken up from its "long drunken revelry of war".

Hedges also noted that the US's plans for Syria would have dropped incredibly huge numbers of bombs, inflicting untold numbers of deaths. As he was a war correspondent for many years and has seen the devastation of war firsthand, Hedges always includes not only the dead, but the permanently wounded, the traumatized, the brain-injured, and the famine, the destruction.

The collapse of the liberal establishment...

Hedges spoke on several points from his book Death of the Liberal Class. The liberal establishment - the media, the church, government regulation, the social safety net - has been destroyed or has been rendered completely ineffectual.

Hedges - whose father was a Presbyterian minister, and who studied at Harvard Divinity School - lambasted the church (as an institution) for not denouncing the radical Christian right as heretics. He noted that one needn't have studied at Harvard Divinity School to know that Jesus didn't preach about how to get wealthy, and never talked about abortion, and that the gospel wasn't about "how to make everything good for me".

The media has been destroyed by corporate ownership and conglomeration, a consequence of deregulation.

The effectiveness of the US labour movement was destroyed by the purposeful purging of radicals from its leadership. And the same is coming any minute now in Canada. Hedges said, "It's amazing. We do everything wrong in the United States, and 10 years later, Canada copies us."

The US, Hedges pointed out, had the most radical labour movement in the world. The birth of organized labour in the US is the bloodiest in modern history. (I love US labour history, so this was exciting for me.) It was through radical politics that the US labour movement pushed back against the robber barons, and through those same movements, always opposed war. Compare organized labour's fierce opposition to the US entering World War I with its stance on the Vietnam War: "these colours don't run" and get the hippies out of the streets.

Hedges touched briefly - quickly, and a bit confusingly, tossing out a long ribbon of names and influences - on the roots of "manufactured consent" (Walter Lippman, Dwight Macdonald, Macdonald's work radicalizing Chomsky), and the "psychosis of permanent war", the state keeping the populace always on edge, always in fear, and the constant need to ferret out enemies both external and internal. There was no popular support in the US for World War I; Woodrow Wilson passed the Espionage and Sedition Acts in order to squelch dissent and make room for the war propaganda.

The liberal class, Hedges notes, is a safety valve. When pressured by radical movements, the liberal class can adjust the system to prevent further suffering of the underclass... and so, they save capitalism. (Think Franklin D. Roosevelt. Think New Deal. That was the closest the US had ever come to revolution... and FDR himself said his greatest achievement was preserving capitalism.)

Hedges said that the greatest difference between Canada and the US - universal health care - exists because in the US, the labour movement is divorced from its radical politics. From the Palmer Raids of the 1920s, up through the McCarthy era of the 1950s, radicals and leftists were systematically purged from the United States. The Hollywood purges are perhaps the most famous, but leftist intellectuals were rooted out and destroyed from every field and facet of American life.

And that, says Hedges, is how you get "freaks like the Clintons," supposedly liberal politicians who laid the groundwork for everything from which we now suffer. NAFTA and other so-called free trade agreements. (Goodbye economy, labour laws, and environmental laws.) The explosion of the prison population. (2.2 million, or 7 million if you count everyone on probation or suspension.) Deregulation of the FCC. (Media conglomeration.) Deregulation of the banking industry. (Robber barons gambling with citizens' money, and everything that led to.) The end of the federal guarantee of welfare. (Seventy percent of those thrown off welfare rolls were children.)

You want freaks? Hedges detailed how Obama, supposedly a liberal, has mounted "a far more grievous assault on civil liberties than George W. Bush did": the NDAA, the kill lists, the indefinite detentions, the unprecedented resurrection of the Espionage Act, the persecution of whistleblowers, the insane sentence for Chelsea Manning. About Manning, Hedges said, "When the true account of the country is written, she will be remembered as one of the most heroic figures in United States history."

Hedges, who covered the revolution in Eastern Europe for many years, said the current surveillance state dwarfs anything dreamed of by the infamous Stasi.

...not be confused with radical movements for change

The collapse of the liberal establishment should not be confused with a dearth of radical people's movements. Hedges noted that Howard Zinn always taught that radical movements never achieve formal positions of power, nor should that be their aim.

He talked about the need to recapture and rebuild the strength of radical movements, rather than put our faith in the political system. (Obama voters, please take note.) Hedges quoted Karl Popper (paraphrased here): The question should not be how to get good people in power, but how to make those in power afraid of the people.

Hedges related an anecdote from Henry Kissinger's biography (with a warning that we shouldn't waste our time reading it!) that sees Nixon in the White House, utterly terrified of the protests going on outside. And that is what we want.

Power, Hedges noted, is the problem. It's not what we should be after. We who care about social justice must accept that our goal is not to put one of our own in power, but to push power from the outside.

During the Q&A portion of the evening, Hedges had an opportunity to expand on this. He said he always votes for a radical party, but "voting is a small part of what I do," quoting Emma Goldman: "If voting changed anything, they'd make it illegal."

To my delight, Hedges talked a bit about how the Democrat party furiously tried to shut down Ralph Nader and the Green Party, and dismissed the ridiculous myth that Nader gave the 2000 election to Bush, mentioning briefly what really happened in Florida. He noted surprise at how many people actually believe that nonsense. Like me, Hedges is unable to say that George W. Bush was elected. He is not afraid of facts.

Mount a resistance

While talking about the differences between Canada and the US, and the relative strength of organized labour in each country, Hedges asked, "Do you have 'right-to-work' laws here yet?" The audience answered that we do not. And Hedges replied: "The minute Harper passes those laws, if you guys don't have a massive general strike, you're finished." He said, "You still have enough organized labour in Canada to mount a resistance."

When asked about the general strike during the Q&A, Hedges said that any and all civil disobedience is important. He mentioned the organizing fast-food workers as an important piece of resistance. "Anything that messes them up is good," he said. "Anything that interrupts the mechanisms of how they make money."

Again invoking the image of a terrified Nixon, Hedges wondered, what would happen if the French government announced that university tuition was now $50,000 per year? We don't have to look all the way to France for the answer: look at Quebec.

"At least they tried"

Hedges spoke a little about the Hedges vs. Obama lawsuit (Chomsky and Daniel Ellsberg are also plaintiffs in the case), and spoke about despair. Climate change. Corporate capitalism. The largest surveillance state in history. Humankind on the cusp of the most catastrophic moment of its history. Hedges, who has four children, could only say that it is incumbent on all of us, especially elders, to stand up, so at least the next generation can say, "At least they tried."

"I CAN'T"

Hedges related some amusing anecdotes about road trips with Cornel West. He noted how we must destroy the Harper Government before it destroys Canada. And he closed with the People's Trial of Goldman Sachs, and linked uncontrolled corporate capitalism to the famine and death he has witnessed around the globe. He ended with a painful memory - he was too choked up to speak - of dying children, corporate capitalism's most vulnerable victims.

But for me, and perhaps for my friends from the War Resisters Support Campaign with whom I was sitting, the most piercing moment came a bit earlier. Hedges said: "Courage is not about saying 'This is wrong,' or 'We shouldn't do this'. The most courageous words we can say are: I can't."