'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

A Belated Five Year Anniversary 

Just the other day, I was thinking that it seems like I've been posting here for quite awhile. Yesterday, I entered the subterranean passages of Blogger, and searched for my first post. Turns out that it was appeared here on April 9, 2005, over five years ago. What was it about? The occupation of Iraq? The mendacity of the Republican majority in Congress? The mendacity of the Democratic minority in Congress? Lewis Libby? Arnold Schwarzenegger? The ongoing subsidization of one of the most enormous transfers of wealth in history?

None of the above. After being invited by Joe Wezorek, the creator of this blog, to post here after having participated avidly in the comments section, I sent him a post about . . . the death of Pope John Paul II: How Does a Secular Leftist Respond to the Pope's Death. Reading it again after five years, I am struck by how I emphasized one of my enduring themes, the capacity of people to think and act for themselves:

This is the terrain upon which the record of this Pope and this Church must be confronted. By rejecting the Church's insistence that people, if left to their own devices in their own communities, will invariably abuse and exploit one another, we can say that, on the contrary, people can intelligently use contraception, while expressing a profound respect for life as we show compassion for all around us. We can assert that our open acknowledgement of homosexuality and the civil marriage of gays and lesbians will not impair the Church's ministry. We can persuasively contend that a vibrant, diverse culture, and all of its artistic creations, even the most abrasive and confrontational, enrich our lives in every respect, even spiritually.

Over the course of time, such a perspective lead me to a recognition of anarchism and an embrace of its identification of hierarchical social relations within capitalism as the source of much of the world's violence and oppression. It was the end of a long journey, with only the final stages documented on this blog. In my 20s and 30s (the 1980s and 1990s), I could best be described as an anti-imperialist liberal, a liberal who considered the technological transformation of that time favorably, if not inevitable, with the hope that it would result in a vibrant economy that would result in the downsizing of the US military around the world. If only we could elect a Democratic President, and there would be no tactical nuclear weapons or troops on the ground in Central Europe, no more aid to the Contras and support for pluralistic, economically independent countries in Eastern Europe and the former republics of the USSR.

Yes, I was rather naive, wasn't I? Upon his election in 1992, President Clinton instead proceeded to exploit all the opportunities for expansion of the reach of the American Empire. Shock therapy in the East reduced the countries that had just liberated themselves from the autocracy of really existing socialism to dependent creditors of transnational banks and investors centered in Western Europe and the US. With NAFTA, Clinton shattered the remaining power of the American working class while simultaneously opening Mexico to US investment, intensifying the flow of undocumented immigrants. He was extraordinarily successful because of his emphasis upon economic coercion instead of military force. Or, as the amoral academics would say, he emphasized soft power instead of hard power. Because of this, Chalmers Johnson was on the money when he said that Clinton was a better imperialist than his successor.

But the most disturbing aspect of the 1990s was the willingness of liberals to not only accept Clinton policy, but celebrate it in the name of political expediency. With a lot of liberals having become middle to upper middle class during the Reagan era, they now had no trouble espousing socially progressive economic views while supporting a Democratic President that was privileging capital over the proletariat to a degree not experienced since Grover Cleveland. Not surprisingly, they also supported US air strikes against what remained of Yugoslavia, appeasing liberals by characterizing it as a humanitarian intervention to protect the Kosovars from genocide and ethnic cleansing. But, after Clinton had rendered the Serbs prostrate, neither he nor his liberal supporters expressed any concern, much less took any action, to stop the ethnic cleansing of Serbs by Kosovars. With the opening of the Serbian economy to foreign investment and a new, state of the art military base, Camp Bondsteel in Kosovo, US policy objectives had been achieved. And, anyway, as Thomas Friedman, always at the ready to advocate for collective punishment when it doesn't involve Americans or Israelis, said, the Serbs were getting exactly what they deserved. Both the air war in Kosovo and Serbia and the Iraqi sanctions foreshadowed subsequent interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan. Meanwhile, the people of Balkans remain amongst the poorest on the European continent.

As the sun set on the Clinton presidency, the United States was the world's preeminent economic and military power. His economic advisors, Robert Rubin and Larry Summers, along with Federal Reserve Board Chair, Alan Greenspan, freed speculative capital from the chains of the US regulatory system. There was no longer any separation between investment and commercial banking, and transnational firms were now free to create a proliferation of exotic financial instruments for investors for distribution all over the world. Meanwhile, these same instituitons, through the US controlled World Bank and International Monetary Fund, forced countries all around the world to reduce spending on essential public services like health, education and welfare, so as to create conditions favorable to speculative investment. And, then, seemingly out of nowhere, the lightening bolt struck in Seattle in November 1999.

The protests against the World Trade Organization were a warning sign that the newly created neoliberal order was too turbulent to be sustainable over the long term. But liberal democracies like the US and those of the EU no longer had any place for social democratic reform. Political figures like Blair, Clinton, Schroeder and Chirac interred the prospect of achieving Social Democracy within representative democratic systems initially advocated by the German SDP at the dawn of the 20th Century. Lenin may have been discredited as a consequence of the authoritarianism of the old USSR, but his condemnations of electoral political processes ring as true today as they did when he made them. One finds an echo of this perspective in my Vote or Die series on the failings of the US political system. But I could never be a Bolshevik. So, I began to engage with the social vision of anarchism, a socialist alternative equally suspicious of the false claims of social inclusion put forward by liberal democrats.

It didn't happen right away, though. In 2000, I hoped that Ralph Nader could garner a sufficient percentage of the vote to obtain federal campaign funds for the Green Party, and thus provide a stronger, institutionalized left alternative to the two major parties. In other words, I still placed too much emphasis upon the political process as the primary means for transforming American society. Given the capture of the Democratic Party by finance capitalists, I wasn't surprised when Democrats provided only token opposition to the Bush program of war, curtailment of civil liberties, centralization of the media and increased subsidization of the wealthy. All, to varying degrees, were at the center of the Clinton project, and, in the aftermath of 9/11, probably would have been pursued in a similar fashion. Greenspan remained at the head of the Federal Reserve with bipartisan support, where, after the bursting of the stock market bubble he blew in the mid to late 1990s, he proceeded to inflate an even larger one in real estate. The bubble generated enough money to be distributed all around, especially in the Congress, until the music stopped in 2007.

In 2004, I took the Trotskyite advice of Tariq Ali, and urged a vote for John Kerry, despite his many flaws, persuaded by Ali's claim that the electoral defeat of the neoconservatives would energize global opposition to US imperialism. Somewhere along the line, Ali and I forgot to notice that there are a lot of Democratic neoconservatives, too, or, even worse, failed to recognize that the term itself is used to deflect attention from the imperial aspirations that have defined the US since its inception. I guess that I still couldn't let go of the glamour associated with the political process, one of the great spectacles ever produced, it puts Cecil B. DeMille to shame. If his most recent New Left Review article is any indication, Ali gets it now, at least as far as the Democratic Party is concerned.

During the period, I paid close attention to developments in South America, more so than liberals and even many leftists, and it was there that I began to perceive an alternative. Bolivia, Venezuela, Brazil and Argentina have all been known for the prominence of direct action social movements that have pushed their countries to the left. Accordingly, I periodically post on events in these countries, but more from a social than a political perspective. Each country has moved left to varying degrees, but none of them have decentralized power and attacked the concentration of wealth necessary to effectively challenge the global capitalist order. I have drawn two lessons from the South American experience. First, that any meaningful change within the US and the world will result from mass, direct action social movements, organized around non-hierarchical collective values, and, second, that such movements will only succeed if they confront the core principles of capitalism, private property, wage labor and commodification.

The collapse of the global financial system in 2007 and 2008 has brought this conflict into sharp relief. Everywhere (with the possible exception of the People's Republic of China), the solution is the same, the expropriation of wealth from the bottom 90% to 95% for the top 5% to 10%, with the expectation that their recapitalization will regenerate the investment capital required to finance the reignition of the global economy. Perhaps, it will work, but the social turmoil associated with the effort will be extreme, so extreme that the social control measures required to contain may be too costly for the system to sustain itself. At this time, anarchism is the only credible socialist alternative, one unencumbered with the autocratic baggage of Marxist-Leninism and the accomodation of Social Democracy. Capitalism took centuries to attain its preemince, so, too, it may take centuries for the prefigurative collective social vision of anarchism to take root. People will have to rediscover their capacity to collectively organize themselves within their communities, and relinquish their attachment to the hierarchies and gratification associated with nationalism, private property and wage labor. It will take many collaborative, visionary projects, and many will fail before such a powerful, entrenched social order is overcome. But is there enough time?

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