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

Sunday, November 29, 2009


From USA Today:

The holiday shopping season may just prove a little merrier than expected.

Investors are betting that upscale shoppers will open their wallets this Christmas season after pinching pennies a year ago. Shares in luxury retailers Tiffany, Saks and Nordstrom all rose Wednesday ahead of the official start of the holiday season today, Black Friday.

"We're resting our (upbeat outlook) on the upper-income consumer, who seems to be holding up pretty well," says Dan Greenhaus, chief economic strategist at Miller Tabak. His thinking: A 64% runup in the Standard & Poor's 500-stock index since March 9 has restored some of the wealth lost in last year's financial meltdown, boosting confidence and spending power among the rich.

"Well-to-do Americans are feeling much less of a crunch," agrees the research firm Penn Schoen Berland.

But it sees a big divide between high- and low-income households. In a survey of 1,002 consumers, Penn Schoen Berland found that those earning more than $70,000 a year plan to increase holiday spending 27% this year. Those earning less than $40,000, by contrast, are slashing spending 14%.

"The vast majority of spending in this country is done by the upper-income consumer," Greenhaus says. "People feel a lot better this Christmas than they did last Christmas."

Here we have the concise expression of the capitalist retail ethos: if you aren't capable of spending a lot of money on conspicuous consumption, you're not a person. Instead, you are only important to the extent that you facilitate the production, delivery and marketing of those products for the wealthy. Or, conversely, in a negative sense, to the extent that you interfere with it, in which case, the police power of the state is called upon to take immediate action.

Of course, the story is a confirmation of what we already know, that Obamanomics is a neo-Reaganite policy designed to transfer even more money from the lower levels of the pyramid to the very top. Wage earners, except those in the upper reaches of income, are subsidizing investors and the institutions that serve them. It calls to mind a headline that accompanied a Nicholas von Hoffman commentary about Steve Forbes' flat tax proposal about 15 years ago: Under a flat tax, only fools will work.

Sadly, the same can be said to be true of Obamanomics, except that, as we all know, we must all work for a wage, no matter how adverse the circumstances, in order to survive. Obama, Summers, Geithner and Co. are cynically relying upon that universal truth to restructure the US economy for the benefit of an elite that compares to the robber barons of the late 19th Century in terms of its exclusivity. Last time around, it resulted in World War I and the Great Depression. Where will it lead this time?

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Saturday, November 28, 2009

The Perils of Plan Mexico 

An excerpt from a typically masterful analysis by Laura Carlsen, director of the Americas Policy Program in Mexico City:

The militarization of Mexico has led to a steep increase in homicides related to the drug war. It has led to rape and abuse of women by soldiers in communities throughout the country. Human rights complaints against the armed forces have increased six-fold.

Even these stark figures do not reflect the seriousness of what is happening in Mexican society. Many abuses are not reported at all for the simple reason that there is no assurance that justice will be done. The Mexican Armed Forces are not subject to civilian justice systems, but to their own military tribunals. These very rarely terminate in convictions. Of scores of reported torture cases, for example, not a single case has been prosecuted by the army in recent years.

The situation with the police and civilian court system is not much better. Corruption is rampant due to the immense economic power of the drug cartels. Local and state police, the political system, and the justice system are so highly infiltrated and controlled by the cartels that in most cases it is impossible to tell the good guys from the bad guys.

The militarization of Mexico has also led to what rights groups call "the criminalization of protest." Peasant and indigenous leaders have been framed under drug charges and communities harassed by the military with the pretext of the drug war. In Operation Chihuahua, one of the first military operations to replace local police forces and occupy whole towns, among the first people picked up were grassroots leaders—not on drug charges but on three-year old warrants for leading anti-NAFTA protests. Recently, grassroots organizations opposing transnational mining operations in the Sierra Madre cited a sharp increase in militarization that they link to the Merida Initiative and the NAFTA-SPP aimed at opening up natural resources to transnational investment.

All this—the human rights abuses, impunity, corruption, criminalization of the opposition—would be grave cause for concern under any conditions. What is truly incomprehensible is that in addition to generating these costs to Mexican society, the war on drugs doesn't work to achieve its own stated objectives.

We know this not only from the relatively recent Mexican experience, but from other places— especially Colombia and the Andean region. As Plan Colombia goes into its tenth year, the cost of drugs on U.S. streets has gone down and regional production has risen. In Mexico, interdictions dropped between 2007 and 2008. The number of arrests went up but seems to have little effect on the hydra-headed cartels. Actual indictment and prosecution rates following arrests are suspiciously not reported. Illegal drug flows to the U.S. market appear to be unaffected overall.

Meanwhile, as noted by Carlsen, the US is providing assistance in the form of Plan Mexico, 1.3 billion dollars directed to U.S. defense, security, information technology and other private-sector firms.

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Thursday, November 26, 2009

The Militarization of South America 

Through recently executed agreements with Colombia, the US has grand ambitions for the military bases it intends to construct there:

With or without nuclear weapons, the bilateral agreement on the seven Colombian bases, signed on 30 October in Bogota, risks a costly new arms race in a region. SIPRI [Stockholm International Peace Research Institute], which is funded by the Swedish government, said it was concerned about rising arms expenditure in Latin America draining resources from social programmes that the poor of the region need.

Much of the new US strategy was clearly set out in May in an enthusiastic US Air Force (USAF) proposal for its military construction programme for the fiscal year 2010. One Colombian air base, Palanquero, was, the proposal said, unique "in a critical sub-region of our hemisphere where security and stability is under constant threat from... anti-US governments".

The proposal sets out a scheme to develop Palanquero which, the USAF says, offers an opportunity for conducting "full-spectrum operations throughout South America.... It also supports mobility missions by providing access to the entire continent, except the Cape Horn region, if fuel is available, and over half the continent if un-refuelled". ("Full-spectrum operations" is the Pentagon's jargon for its long-established goal of securing crushing military superiority with atomic and conventional weapons across the globe and in space.)

Palanquero could also be useful in ferrying arms and personnel to Africa via the British mid-Atlantic island of Ascension, French Guiana and Aruba, the Dutch island off Venezuela. The US has access to them all.

The USAF proposal contradicted the assurances constantly issued by US diplomats that the bases would not be used against third countries. These were repeated by the Colombian military to the Colombian congress on 29 July. That USAF proposal was hastily reissued this month after the signature of the agreement – but without the reference to "anti-US governments". This has led to suggestions of either US government incompetence, or of a battle between a gung-ho USAF and a State Department conscious of the damage done to US relations with Latin America by its leaders' strong objections to the proposal.

Even as the US expands its military operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the Pentagon is already contemplating future conflicts in South America and Africa. Apparently, the Pentagon assumes that the US will not be able to obtain resources from these regions through commerce, recourse to the old imperialist methods of violence will be required. By contrast, China is taking a different, investment and trade oriented approach in regard to both continents, as indicated here and here. One can only hope that both South America and Africa find a way to evade the militarism of the US and the mercantilism of China and forge their own path to economic development.

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Tuesday, November 24, 2009

We're Not Violent, How About You? 

If you watch this video, and many others available on YouTube and elsewhere, it becomes evident that UC students and UC police just barely avoided a violent incident during the occupation of of Wheeler Hall last Friday.

According to George Cicariello-Maher:

At around 6am on Thursday morning, UCPD became aware that Wheeler Hall, a prominent and massive building at the very heart of the Berkeley campus, had been occupied by more than 40 protesters. Police quickly gained access to the lower floors of the building, arresting three occupiers, who were immediately and vindictively charged not with trespassing, but with felony burglary. By 6:30a.m., an already surprising number of supporters, in the dozens, had received word of the occupation and gathered on the west side of Wheeler to show their support. By mid-morning, the number had increased to hundreds. As the crowd grew, UCPD responded with a mutually-reinforcing combination of aggression and fear: aggressively smashing into the growing crowds to install metal barriers where caution tape had proven insufficient, and calling desperately for backup first to Berkeley PD, then to the Alameda County Sheriff’s Department, and finally to Oakland PD.

Around 1pm, the skies opened up in a downpour that might have, in other conditions and other situations, dispersed the crowd entirely. But instead, umbrellas popped up like mushroom caps, tents were erected, and plastic bags distributed as makeshift ponchos as the crowd of hundreds persisted. Had the police gained access to the occupiers during the storm, the day would have ended much differently. But as it turned out, the occupiers held strong, the skies cleared, and as evening fell, the crowds began to swell further. One demonstrator confessed nostalgia at the sight of the umbrellas, and the reminder they offered of another seminal moment in trans-sectoral unity: that of the 1999 anti-WTO demonstrations in Seattle that sparked the alter-globalization movement.

The occupiers, visible through a series of windows on the west side of Wheeler, relayed their demands to the gathering crowds by megaphone:

Rehire all 38 AFCSME custodial workers recently laid off;

Drop all charges and provide total amnesty to all persons occupying buildings and involved in student protests concerning budget cuts;

Maintain the current business occupants of the bears lair food court and enter into respectful and good faith negotiations;

Preserve Rochdale apartments leased to Berkeley student cooperative for $1 a year in perpetuity.

It became clear that the police and university administration were in no mood to negotiate on these terms: this much they communicated non-verbally with their pepper spray under the door, with their battering rams and wedges, and verbally with their promises of violence, as occupiers were told to “get ready for the beatdown.” Some of the occupiers, overtaken by the unmistakable candor of such threats, sought a last-minute compromise that would allow them to leave unscathed.

For a while it seemed as though such negotiations had failed dismally. Demonstrators outside could hear the police making a final offensive to smash down the door, and the occupiers could be seen as dusk fell, back to the window, visible only in outline with their hands raised to be arrested. But the atmosphere was tense, and the swelling crowd had no plans to let the police carry the arrestees out without a fight. Hours earlier, tactical groups had been preemptively dispatched to all possible exits from the network of underground tunnels that connect Wheeler to the neighboring buildings. Students who, by all outward appearance, could have been members of sororities or fraternities, demanded to know where bodies were most needed to maintain a strong and impermeable perimeter.

But, in the end, the administration allowed the occupiers of Wheeler to walk out of the building under their own control. During the course of the protests, though, the students discovered the duplicity of some of the faculty:

As with all massively important political moments, the rancid stench of opportunism was never far off, emanating from some student leaders and faculty alike. While many faculty members performed admirably during the standoff (some, like Professor of Integrative Biology Robert Dudley even being arrested for their efforts), some skillfully substituted their own voices and their own demands for those of the students engaged in the occupation.

Particularly egregious in this respect was Democratic Party “framing” strategist and self-styled movement guru George Lakoff. Visibly angered by the occupiers’ refusal to leave Wheeler voluntarily (without any of their demands having been met, of course), Lakoff seized the megaphone to spew the morally bankrupt argument that since the students knew they would be met with police violence, they would themselves be responsible for creating that violence if they chose to remain. No more repulsive a phrase was uttered that day. And were this not sufficient, Lakoff was even heard lying repeatedly to the occupiers, insisting that there had been no police violence, no rubber bullets, and no injuries outside the building, all in an effort to manipulate those inside into abandoning the occupation.

In speaking with more than a dozen of the occupiers, one sentiment above all was expressed regarding the role of many faculty that day: a deep sense of betrayal. As one occupier told me: “we asked the faculty to mediate and to negotiate with the administration as a way to get our demands out, but apparently they interpreted this as a call to negotiate with us so that we would leave the building.” In fact, many of those mediating--be they faculty, ASUC officials, and leaders of student organizations--were self-appointed and drawn almost unanimously from the ranks of those who had opposed the tactic of occupation to begin with. And this would show: according to many of the occupiers, these mediators, in focusing their attention on calming the crowds outside and encouraging the occupiers to leave, had effectively performed a “policing function” that protected the administration from the protesters.

Ali Tonak, a UC Berkeley graduate student, summarizes the feeling that many expressed:

"They have a warped understanding of how power works. They think that calming people outside was keeping the people inside safe, when it was really the opposite: the only thing that was keeping the folks inside safe was people being rowdy outside. In the end, the negotiators were doing the job of the state."

Of course, this isn't surprising. Participants within radical social movements always quickly discover that many of their purported allies are more interested in exploiting them for their own advantage than assisting them in the pursuit of their aspirations. The unctuous role of George Lakoff, as described by Cicariello-Maher, is entirely predictable. As someone who advocates for the notion of evolutionary change through the Democratic Party, he no doubt immediately recognized the threat presented by the occupation.

First, there was the possibility of mobilizing large numbers of students around the concept of confrontation not just with the university, but with the mainstream politics of accomodation practiced by the national Democratic Party, as personified by President Obama. Second, these students, as a politically non-aligned group in relation to electoral politics, would be able to more successfully reach broad sections of the general public disaffected by the bipartisan, neo-Reaganite policies pursued at the state and national level. Lakoff must have been especially alarmed at the appearance of unionized UC staff in support of the occupation.

Accordingly, it was essential that the ongoing protests and the spreading recognition that the fee increase was part of a larger, varied tapestry of neoliberal policies of austerity imposed by Obama, Schwarzenegger and a state legislature under Democratic control must be contained. Forced to choose between a vibrant, confrontational, personally empowering movement, willing to engage in numerous forms of creative direct action, and the defense of the existing social order, Lakoff, and other faculty members as well, naturally selected the latter. Strategies of containment and the declaration of false victories, designed to drain away the energy of movement participants and persuade those outside of it that the issues of contention have been resolved, have been effective over the last 30 years. It remains to be seen, though, whether they will remain effective during a period of economic crisis that is adversely affecting not just the poor, but much of the middle class.

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Monday, November 23, 2009

The Neoliberal Restructuring of California State Government 

With last week's 32% increase in fees for students of the University of California, the regressive transformation of California state government is almost complete. State workers such as myself, a predominately middle and lower middle class group, remain on furlough three days a month by order of the Governor. In effect, the Governor has imposed a 15% pay cut on us. People that rely upon existing programs face delays and longer lines at state offices, regardless of the urgency of their requests. (Photo Credit: Andrew Stern)

Meanwhile, school districts across the state are scrambling to cut their budgets in response to reduced funding from the state, while home care workers are challenging cuts to their slightly above minimum wage salaries in court. As I summarized in early August:

If you are a judge in California, you get to decide if you are going to take a 4.6% pay cut. If you are a state worker, one of these same judges empowered the Governor to cut your pay 15%. If you are a lower middle income worker with a family, you face the prospect of losing heath coverage for your children, while others lose the opportunity to qualify for it. If you are an in home health services provider, the Governor and the Legislature decided to try to cut your already meagre salary by approximately 17%, while reducing the number of people entitled to receive such assistance.

Now, the students are in the line of fire. The fee increases are particularly egregious when one discovers how generous the UC Board of Regents have been in awarding salary increases and fringe benefits to high level administrators. Consider, for example, the new President, Mark Yudof:

The University of California says its incoming president will skip the residence favored by former presidents and live in a 6,800-square foot Oakland home instead.

Mark Yudof is scheduled to start in his new job next month after leading the University of Texas since 2002.

In the past, UC presidents and their families lived near the university system's Berkeley campus in a 13,000-square foot home now in need of millions of dollars in repairs.

The 63-year-old Yudof and his wife are set to live in a new home that will cost the university more than $11,000 per month.

That comes on top of a salary and benefits package for Yudof that puts his annual compensation at more than $925,000. Yudof's predecessor earned $436,000 per year in total compensation.

Or, the newly hired Chancellor of UC Davis, Linda Katehi:

Many UC employees are infuriated by recent high salary hires of senior administrators when up to 170,000 UC workers face mandatory furloughs and pay cuts.

Although UC's president said all salaries are being frozen or cut during this budget crisis, State Senator Leland Yee (D-San Francisco) insisted top administrators are out of control, handing out hundreds of thousands of dollars in inflated bonuses and salaries to senior staff.

"Unfortunately what's going on in the UC [system] is that there's no accountability whatsoever," said State Sen. Yee. "They are a state institution, a public institution. But because of the way the constitution is structured, it gives them that independence."

According to Yee, the independence allows the system to hire academics like Linda Katehi as UC Davis' new chancellor.

"She's an inventor whose own work in the field of engineering has led to 16 patents," said UC President Mark Yudof.

Katehi -- a renowned researcher and the former Vice Chancellor of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign -- will receive a $400,000 salary at UC Davis; a 27 percent increase over her predecessor.

Katehi will also receive free university housing, an $8,900 yearly automobile allowance, a $100,000 relocation allowance and a faculty position and low-interest home loan when she eventually leaves the chancellor's office.

Katehi's husband -- who holds a Ph.D in chemical engineering -- will also be considered for a job at UC Davis.

Apparently, in the first circle of hell, UC administrators are somewhere just below the managers of Wall Street brokerage houses when it comes to increasing their wealth while the rest of us struggle during one of the worst recessions in the last 150 years. But, to fully grasp the severity of the situation, there are two additional pieces of the puzzle that must be added.

Last month, after a special session, the Governor and the Legislature agreed to place an 11.1 billion, that's right, billion, dollar water bond on the ballot for possible approval in November 2010. Leaving the serious environmental issues aside, as it appears that the passage of the bond will facilitate projects that will result in the further degradation of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, there is the insescapable fact that it will increase the debt service obligations of the state. Even without the passage of the bond, these obligations are substantial:

Currently the state has more than $130 billion of outstanding bond debt. A little more than half, $66.4 billion, has been sold to investors. The state will pay $5.75 billion to service that debt this fiscal year, or 6.7 percent of general fund revenues. The state treasurer's office projects that those debt payments could more than double, growing to $13.54 billion by 2018, or more than 10 percent of revenues. That's an astounding number.

Hence, there is a sinister synergy. Generally, as the state has become increasingly reliant upon the issuance of bonds to finance its operations, more and more of its tax revenue is being collected to distribute to wealthy bond purchasers who do not have to pay California state tax upon their interest income. In other words, there is a regressive redistribution of income from the broad tax base to wealthy bond purchasers. As the percentage of state revenue required for debt service increases, we can anticipate even more draconian cuts in state services going forward.

More specifically, there is also a redistribution of income from state workers, students and recipients of existing state services to UC administrators and the judiciary. If the water bond passes, this redistribution will become even more pronounced as they find themselves subsidizing new water projects for the benefit of agribusiness and southern California developers. In the absence of a shockingly good economic recovery, it is hard to see the future here as anything but bleak. And, even more alarmingly, it appears that the debt service noose is about to strangle the federal government as well.

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Saturday, November 21, 2009

The Honduran Coup Never Happened (Part 6) 

As mentioned here earlier in the week, the US now seeks international acceptance for the results of the Honduran election under the coup regime, after having run out the clock on Zelaya. The pretense for such acceptance is the temporary departure of Robert Micheletti as President.

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Friday, November 20, 2009

Students Resist UC Fee Increases and Staff Layoffs 

Yesterday, after protests in Los Angeles where the police used pepper spray and tasers upon angry students, the Regents of the University of California ordered a 32% increase in fees over the next year. Undergraduate tuition will rise from $7,788 to $10,002 a year. Here is one account of the protests from one of the participants:

i went to the strike at berkeley Wednesday, then bused to ucla for the night and next day.
the whole campus was a police state about 100 cops there clenching their batons and tasers the whole time.
student protests were peaceful the whole time

i was tased, pepper sprayed, and arrested all on different occasions for interrupting their pig line and facing the uc regent in the face and calling out the filthy racist thief-- tried to spit in his face. a bunch of us chased after the uc regents and other corrupt officials to their cars and tried to block them from leaving, until they separated us with the threat of tear gas. i was among MANY others tased and pepper sprayed, in fact, a woman next to me passed out because she was sprayed directly in her face! the spray reached my arms (have burns) and lightly on my eyes and throat and are red and harsh.
however, there was apparently one other arrest since the time they got me.

got charged for resistance cause i was the only one who got past their line taking the regent to his van cause im tiny and prob didnt see me (hella stealth action) then went right up to the uc regents face. i kicked a pig in the face when they picked me up from behind and SLAMMED ME ON THE FLOOR. it was a natural reaction, i couldnt see cause they shoved my face in the dirt and i panicked because i thought they were gonna tase me again. two officers picked me up by the feet and upper body then cuffed me and dragged me to the building where the regents were.

Protests also took place on campus at UC Davis and UC Santa Cruz. Meanwhile, students have barricaded themeselves inside Wheeler Hall today at UC Berkeley. From the standpoint of the political and economic establishment, the protests must be suppressed with a firm hand, because, if the students, faculty and staff of the UC system succeed in extracting concessions, they may spread to many other disaffected people.

Nothing must be allowed to shatter the consensus in support of neoliberal policies that require us to subsidize the bailout of transnational financial institutions through the imposition of austerity. Students involved in these actions are being charged with misdemeanors, and, in some instances, possibly even felonies, as there are reports that some of the students already arrested in relation to the Wheeler Hall one have been charged with burglary. Criminal charges are being brought for the purpose of creating grounds for the administration to expel the students. But what sort of educational institution seeks to admit the brightest, the most motivated and the most politically engaged so that it can thereafter proceed to expel them?

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Wednesday, November 18, 2009

SEIU: No Dissent in the Labor Movement Allowed (Part 3) 

From BeyondChron:

The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) held a boisterous picket line in San Francisco [on Monday night], but their chants targeted a surprising adversary: labor leaders and their political allies. While California Democratic Party Chair John Burton (labor’s greatest California ally), State Senator Mark Leno and leaders of UNITE HERE, the Sailors, Plumbers, Building Trades, and Police and Fire unions, were inside the Plumbers Union Hall honoring the National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW), SEIU was outside denouncing NUHW – and by implication its supporters – as corrupt. Last week, SEIU informed Burton that it would end its $1 million annual donation to the state Party unless he withdrew his support for NUHW, which he refused to do.

SEIU’s threat to labor hero Burton, and its reported statement to the United Teachers of Los Angeles (sponsor of tonight’s NUHW fundraiser) that it would seek to organize charter school teachers in retaliation for UTLA’s pro-NUHW stance, reflects a union increasingly at odds with the labor movement. In July, 25 international union leaders condemned SEIU’s raids on UNITE HERE, and new AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka has since vowed to defend UNITE HERE against SEIU attacks. SEIU is now isolated, viewing fellow unions and pro-labor politicians as adversaries, and its scorched earth campaign against its former California health care leadership is coming at a steepening internal and political cost.

Things got worse last night:

One night after withdrawing its support for the California Democratic Party and picketing progressive politicians and labor leaders in San Francisco, SEIU threw eggs at those attending an event honoring NUHW in Los Angeles. Among those hit were the Vice President of the United Teachers of Los Angeles, the union whose support for NUHW led SEIU to threaten to organize teachers in charter schools (not that SEIU has any staff available to implement such a threat).

SEIU is seeking to impose its model of business unionism upon American workers by any means necessary. At a time when organized labor should be coming together to resist the global neoliberal onslaught, SEIU has chosen to go in a different direction. One gets the impression that Andy Stern welcomes the remorseless restructuring of the economy because he believes that SEIU is best positioned to organize increased numbers of low paid service workers.

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Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Honduran Coup Never Happened (Part 5) 

The end game: US recognition of the results of an upcoming "election" in Honduras conducted under martial law. Readers of this blog anticipated it within weeks after the coup. In effect, we now have the Obama Doctrine in Central and South America. The US will respect the democratic process only so long as the victors do not challenge the control over their countries exercised by the US through local oligarchies. After the electoral sham of Afghanistan, I guess we shouldn't be surprised. By comparison, Ahmadijedad is looking like more and more like a respectable, democratically elected figure every day. Meanwhile, resistance on the ground is ongoing.

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Sunday, November 15, 2009

The Second Reagan Revolution (Part 3) 

The critical aspect of Obama's intention to become a deficit hawk, signalled before he entered the White House, when he emphasized the importance of entitlement reform, is, as recognized by Gaius, the generational restructuring of the federal budget further away from social services and even more weighted towards the military industrial complex, financed by a system of increasingly regressive taxation. Such a restructuring is consistent with what is transpiring in the economy, with massive job losses and small business closures. Both the government and the economy are being reorganized to the benefit of a narrow capital class of large corporate enterprises. If it requires trillions of dollars of unprecented subsidy one year, and deficit reduction the next, so be it. In other words, policies are as changeable as the wind as long as they remain consistent with the ultimate goal, the concentration of power within a small global elite.

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Thursday, November 12, 2009

40 Years of Sesame Street 

As people who visit this site frequently know, I'm a cinephile as well as a leftist, which is why I periodically review films from an aesthetic, sociological and ideological perspective. I purposefully select provocative movies that prompt us to examine our relationship to the world around us, and the prospects for transforming it. For me, film was the preeminent art form of the 20th Century in this regard, because, in addition to the creativity that the medium affords, it reached a mass audience.

Film, in addition to other forms of artistic expression, such as literature, art and photography, inspires us to simultaneously imagine alternatives even as we confront the cruelties, that we encounter in our everyday lives. All have played prominent roles in the ignition of social unrest that overturned abusive practices, and, in some instances, the elites that engaged in them.

Perhaps, my attitude about this is an urban, metropolitan thing which serves the purpose of giving an ideological veneer to the intimate, voyeuristic pleasures of cinema. I still recall marching in a heavy rain on an April day in San Francisco after the 2003 invasion of Iraq. After arriving at Dolores Park in the Mission District, I looked across the street, and observed a young woman reading an alternative newspaper sized program for the upcoming San Francisco International Film Festival at the end of the month. Having already ordered tickets for particular screenings myself, I wondered, how many other protesters will find their way over to the Kabuki along with us in a few weeks time? Quite a lot, I concluded. The cross pollination of politics and culture that so defines the Mission, indeed, much of northern California, was crystallized in that moment.

So, with that in mind, you will not be surprised to discover that I allow my young two and a half year old son to watch television and DVDs. Not all the time, mind you, but I'm not a hippie or Waldorf type when it comes to television. It is part of the modern world, and an inescapable part of our culture, although I do draw the line at Disney. All of which is a long way round to acknowledging the 40th anniversary of Sesame Street on Tuesday. In advance of it, a blog entry on the SFGate website prompted a spirited discussion as to whether Sesame Street had become outdated.

Many commented on the aesthetics of the program, complaining, possibly overcome by nostalgia, that it was far better when they were kids, and perhaps, it was. But, for me, this misses the point. I have no memories of earlier programs because I was nearly nine years old when it first aired, and, having already graduated to Sergio Leone spaghetti westerns at the drive-in with my father, never watched it. Of course, I only recently discovered it because of my son, and, in comparison to other programming, it fairs pretty well.

Above everything else, the most important thing about Sesame Street is that it is urban. You wouldn't think that it would be such a big deal, but it is. As with children's books, most programming has an idyllic, utopian dimension contrary to the grittier realities of everyday life. Clifford, in a departure from the books written by Norman Bridewell, is set on an island, the characters of Super WHY live in a village like environment evocative of The Hobbit and the activities of Bob the Builder occur in the mountainous confines of Sunflower Valley. Curious George is an exception, but he lives in the New York City of the Algonquin Round Table. Admittedly, Sid the Science Kid lives in the new suburbia built in the last 10 years, injecting some social realism, especially through his multicultural friends, and, surprise, surprise, it was created by Jim Henson Productions in collaboration with KCET in Los Angeles.

Nature, it seems, or rather our fantastical, romaticized view of it, is more playful, nurturing and reassuring than the man made metropolis. But not according to Sesame Street. Here, people (even if presented as friendly monsters), not anthropomorphized animals, are front and center. Here, the characters find purpose as part of a larger community, one which is richly textured through its racial and economic diversity, and induce our children to do the same. Overall, the neighborhood is clearly working class, one in which the hierarchy of current American society is absent. Interestingly, unlike Super WHY, which urges children to immediately go to the library and look in a book to solve problems, conveniently maintaining a separation between more upper middle class and upper class children and less advantaged ones who live elsewhere, Sesame Street emphasizes the importance of community involvement and folklore.

If someone proposed Sesame Street today, I doubt that it would receive sufficient funding to be produced for television. It celebrates the uniqueness of the African American and Latino social experience, along with the white one, and consciously emphasizes immigration as an essential aspect of our culture. According to the Sesame Street ethos, life is more delightful when we aspire to understand the differences and similarities of those around us, and succeed in doing so. For some adult viewers such as myself, there is, however, something bittersweet about the program's invocation of an urban America that predates gentrification. It reminds me of the midtown Sacramento neighborhood in which I grew up in the mid-1970s. To its credit, Sesame Street remains true to the ideals that inspired its creation.

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Tuesday, November 10, 2009


For more information, please consider reading this article by Kelly B. Vlahos.

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Monday, November 09, 2009

The Prophet and the Proletariat 

Last week, Chris Harman died. Harman was a Marxist-Leninist of the Trotskyist kind, with sufficient integrity and intellectual fortitude to buck established orthodoxy, and a member of the Socialist Worker's Party known for its active intervention in British politics and social life. He died while in Egypt, providing praiseworthy support to the burgeoning labor movement there in opposition to President Hosni Muburak. In this obituary, Michael Rosen recalls how he was inspired by a new Marxism in the 1960s, a Marxism that repudiated Stalinism.

I'm not going to pretend that I'm very familiar with him and his work, as are, not surprisingly, many of the people over at Lenin's Tomb. The rememberances of Harman and his political influence are quite moving, an influence attained because of the rigor of his analysis and his personal commitment to socialism. I recommend that you click on the link that I have provided, and read them. Some of you may have read his recently reissued book, A People's History of the World, which is readily available in this country, unlike his numerous articles and pamphlets, although some can be found on the Internet, here and here and here.

For those of us in the US, unfamiliar with his work, as am I, there is one article of particular interest, published in 1994: The Prophet and the Proletariat. Here is an excerpt from the conclusion (and, it is well worth reading the article in its entirety for the richness of the political, social and historical analysis that precedes it):

It has been a mistake on the part of socialists to see Islamist movements either as automatically reactionary and 'fascist' or as automatically 'antiimperialist' and 'progressive'. Radical Islamism, with its project of reconstituting society on the model established by Mohammed in 7th century Arabia, is, in fact, a 'utopia' emanating from an impoverished section of the new middle class. As with any 'petty bourgeois utopia', its supporters are, in practice, faced with a choice between heroic but futile attempts to impose it in opposition to those who run existing society, or compromising with them, providing an ideological veneer to continuing oppression and exploitation. It is this which leads inevitably to splits between a radical, terrorist wing of Islamism on the one hand, and a reformist wing on the others. It is also this which leads some of the radicals to switch from using arms to try to bring about a society without 'oppressors' to using them to impose 'Islamic' forms of behaviour on individuals.

Socialists cannot regard petty bourgeois utopians as our prime enemies. They are not responsible for the system of international capitalism, the subjection of thousands of millions of people to the blind drive to accumulate, the pillaging of whole continents by the banks, or the machinations that have produced a succession of horrific wars since the proclamation of the 'new world order'. They were not responsible for the horrors of the first Gulf War, which began with an attempt by Saddam Hussein to do a favour for the US and the Gulf sheikdoms, and ended with direct US intervention on Iraq's side. They were not to blame for the carnage in Lebanon, where the Falangist onslaught, the Syrian intervention against the left and the Israeli invasion created the conditions which bred militant Shiism. They were not to blame for the second Gulf War, with the 'precision bombing' of Baghdad hospitals and the slaughter of 80,000 people as they fled from Kuwait to Basra. Poverty, misery, persecution, suppression of human rights, would exist in countries like Egypt and Algeria even if the Islamists disappeared tomorrow.

For these reasons socialists cannot support the state against the Islamists. Those who do so, on the grounds that the Islamists threaten secular values, merely make it easier for the Islamists to portray the left as part of an 'infidel', 'secularist' conspiracy of the 'oppressors' against the most impoverished sections of society. They repeat the mistakes made by the left in Algeria and Egypt when they praised regimes that were doing nothing for the mass of people as 'progressive'--mistakes that enabled the Islamists to grow. And they forget that any support the state gives to secularist values is only contingent: when it suits it, it will do a deal with the more conservative of the Islamists to impose bits of the shariah--especially the bits which inflict harsh punishment on people--in return for ditching the radicals with their belief in challenging oppression. This is what happened in Pakistan under Zia and the Sudan under Nimeiry, and it is apparently what the Clinton adminstration has been advising the Algerian generals to do.

But socialists cannot give support to the Islamists either. That would be to call for the swapping of one form of oppression for another, to react to the violence of the state by abandoning the defence of ethnic and religious minorities, women and gays, to collude in scapegoating that makes it possible for capitalist exploitation to continue unchecked providing it takes 'Islamic' forms. It would be to abandon the goal of independent socialist politics, based on workers in struggle organising all the oppressed and exploited behind them, for a tail-ending of a petty bourgeois utopianism which cannot even succeed in its own terms.

The Islamists are not our allies. They are representatives of a class which seeks to influence the working class, and which, in so far as it succeeds, pulls workers either in the direction of futile and disastrous adventurism or in the direction of a reactionary capitulation to the existing system--or often to the first followed by the second.

But this does not mean we can simply take an abstentionist, dismissive attitude to the Islamists. They grow on the soil of very large social groups that suffer under existing society, and whose feeling of revolt could be tapped for progressive purposes, providing a lead came from a rising level of workers' struggle. And even short of such a rise in the struggle, many of the individuals attracted to radical versions of Islamism can be influenced by socialists--provided socialists combine complete political independence from all forms of Islamism with a willingness to seize opportunities to draw individual Islamists into genuinely radical forms of struggle alongside them.

Radical Islamism is full of contradictions. The petty bourgeoisie is always pulled in two directions--towards radical rebellion against existing society and towards compromise with it. And so Islamism is always caught between rebelling in order to bring about a complete resurrection of the Islamic community, and compromising in order to impose Islamic 'reforms'. These contradictions inevitably express themselves in the most bitter, often violent, conflicts within and between Islamist groups.

Seven years before 9/11, Harman provided a thoughtful, nuanced examination of the emergence of political Islam, and the manner in which it generated internal and external conflicts, among people, among classes, among nations, even among its own adherents. His article was groundbreaking because of his refusal to evaluate radical Islam as if it emerged independently of pre-existing social conditions, as many have done in the US and Europe, Samuel Huntington foremost among them.

Unlike Huntington, Harman came to the same conclusion that Retort did 11 years later, namely that radical Islam is a contemporary phenomenon, explainable by reference to current social, economic and political conditions. Writing with the benefit of hindsight after 9/11, Retort recognized that the modernity, if not postmodernity, of radical Islam was such that it was partially characterized by the innovative use of modern communications technology by its adherants. Far from an expression of those trapped within an antiquated culture incapable of adapting to neoliberal capitalism, they have displayed a facility for exploiting its emergent features as a means of assymetrical oppositon.

Harman's final comments provided a pathway that prevented much of the left from falling into the abyss of torture and perpetual warfare that many within the US, some liberals and leftists included, did after 9/11:

On some issues we will find ourselves on the same side as the Islamists against imperialism and the state. This was true, for instance, in many countries during the second Gulf War. It should be true in countries like France or Britain when it comes to combatting racism. Where the Islamists are in opposition, our rule should be, 'with the Islamists sometimes, with the state never.'

But even then we continue to disagree with the Islamists on basic issues. We are for the right to criticise religion as well as the right to practise it. We are for the right not to wear the veil as well as the right of young women in racist countries like France to wear it if they so wish. We are against discrimination against Arab speakers by big business in countries like Algeria--but we are also against discrimination against the Berber speakers and those sections of workers and the lower middle class who have grown up speaking French. Above all, we are against any action which sets one section of the exploited and oppressed against another section on the grounds of religion or ethnic origin. And that means that as well as defending Islamists against the state we will also be involved in defending women, gays, Berbers or Copts against some Islamists.

When we do find ourselves on the same side as the Islamists, part of our job is to argue strongly with them, to challenge them--and not just on their organisations' attitude to women and minorities, but also on the fundamental question of whether what is needed is charity from the rich or an overthrow of existing class relations.

The left has made two mistakes in relation to the Islamists in the past. The first has been to write them off as fascists, with whom we have nothing in common. The second has been to see them as 'progressives' who must not be criticised. These mistakes have jointly played a part in helping the Islamists to grow at the expense of the left in much of the Middle East. The need is for a different approach that sees Islamism as the product of a deep social crisis which it can do nothing to resolve, and which fights to win some of the young people who support it to a very different, independent, revolutionary socialist perspective.

No doubt, this is a daunting endeavor. But the fact that it is difficult, and may take many years to achieve, if at all, does not invalidate it. Even an anarchist influenced person such as myself, someone who does not find the residual vanguardism of Harman and the SWP a plausible means for bringing about a radical transformation of society, can agree with his summation of his position: with the Islamists sometimes, with the state never. Indeed, this is fairly good general characterization of how anyone opposed to the hierarchies that inflict so much oppression upon so many should conduct themselves in relation to any people that have profound points of opposition to the state.

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Saturday, November 07, 2009

The Horror 

On Thursday, after eight years in Afghanistan, and six years in Iraq, the US military was attacked in this country by one of its own troops. The war on terror jumped halfway round the world, with a new front opened in Fort Hood, Texas. Neoconservatives justified the invasions and occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq with the slogan, we are fighting them over there, so that we don't have to fight them over here, but, instead, we have discovered that, by fighting them over there, we are now fighting ourselves over here. The toxicity of the enterprise, a combustible mixture of racism, religious intolerance, sexual depravity and violence, cannot be contained.

It is hard to overstate the significance of Army Major Nidal Malik Hasan's killing of 13 people and wounding of 30 others at Fort Hood. Twelve of the dead were US soldiers. The US military is the best known instrument by which this country imposes its will upon much of the rest of the world. Many Americans have a sense of security, albeit a false one, because of their belief in the invincibility of this force. Like the bumper sticker says: These Colors Don't Run. But, on Thursday, the US military was fractured in the most horrific way possible when Hasan opened fire on his fellow soldiers.

There will be attempts to diminish what happened by characterizing Hasan as a crazed, lone gunman, an aberration. And, to a large extent, from what we know so far, that's true. Such a characterization, though, will be insufficient to overcome the crisis of confidence that will inevitably result from his attack. First, the US military isn't supposed to have a lone, crazed gunman, or, if it does, officers are supposed to make sure that they only direct their fire towards the enemy. Second, the effectiveness of the US military, and the unwillingness of the public to object to its actions abroad, can be partially explained by its existence as a multicultural institution, especially when contrasted with its enemies, always cast in fundamentalist hues, whether true or not. The presence of people from different racial, religious and culture backgrounds within an institution shaped by a white, often fundamentalist, leadership, has always been an uneasy marriage, and, the strains are going to become even more severe.

On a more practical level, I have encountered accounts where soldiers have explained their decision to re-enlist because of the bond that they formed with their fellow soldiers while in combat. They dismissed any concerns about why they had been sent and whether they were helping the populace. Instead, they expressed a need to display loyalty to the troops they had fought with during their deployment. In effect, their units became a sort of substitute family. But, the family members are now firing upon each other. As we revisit these occupations from the standpoint on the extreme stress that they have generated among people sent over to police them again and again, some proponents will resume their advocacy of a draft. Good thing we have such a steadfast leader in the White House to make sure that doesn't happen.

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Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Capitalism and the Neurosis of Collection 

Yesterday, I was visiting Lenin's Tomb, and participating in the comments section in response to Roobin's article about actually existing capitalism in the US. His article provided an opportunity for people to expound upon numerous issues related to a contemporary Marxist analysis of historic capitalist development.

During the course of this discussion, someone, who goes under the Internet alias Lovecat, provoked a specific dialogue as to the means by which a society would evolve from being one centered around private property to one in which property is maintained collectively for the use of all. She did so by reference to the following hypothetical example, one that makes whimsical reference to a couple of others who post comments:

Battersea owned some books - or at least he thought he owned them, presumably because he had shopped for them, paid for them and because the law says that if you do that, you own it. However, johng, in removing said books from Battersea's ownership, showed how vulnerable ownership is when the property is possessed. Johng doesn't need to own the books in order to possess them. Any thoughts?

Lovecat provided some additional clarification here:

I would dispute any claim that Battersea attempted to make that he ever owned the books (because property is theft), which means that he is the criminal and you, in liberating said stolen items from his greedy capitalist mitts, were the libertarian socialist. I think that Battersea has learned his lesson.

Humor aside, I discovered that my engagement with these two comments produced some insight as to relationship between capitalism, private property, and, a particular genre of it, personal property, and I thought that I would repost my remarks here in an edited form.

Here they are: As with most forms of personal property, you don't really need to have a book all the time, or even most of the time, that is an essential dimension of this hypothetical. You have to have food and water every day, and a place to rest every day, but not a book. So, if we are talking about the books in question from the standpoint of use, Battersea doesn't need them that often, only when he or she is inclined to read them. Johng could take them from him or her, and maintain them collectively, without any significant diminishment of his or her enjoyment of use, unless, for some odd reason, they were very popular, and unavailable because so many people wanted to read them.

Hence, the hypothetical highlights possession as manifested by the need to collect. Baudrillard addressed the psychology of being a collector in his first book, The System of Objects, and, now, I recognize that it may have an even greater significance than he gave it in 1968. It is now evident that the urge to collect runs wild under capitalism in its current form. And, whereas it may have been limited to the upper classes in the 19th Century, as manifested by the desire of industrialists to purchase artworks and open libraries (the act of collection par excellence), it has now spread across much of the populace, at least in the developed countries.

People maintain their own vast libraries of music CDs, movie DVDs, books and photographs, among other things, with the ability to increase them and find what they consider to be rarities by means of the Internet. Growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, I remember that people traveled all over the country to find uncommon vinyl records, books, and, as they called them back then, collectibles, or relied upon others to do so. But Larry McMurtry's other job as a rare book scout doesn't really exist anymore. The Internet has exponentially increased the ability of obssessive collectors to find objects that would have otherwise been considered unattainable.

Such explorations have given birth to a new need, the need for storage, something that most people would have considered incomprehensible say, before the 1960s, except in relation to one's essentials, like clothes, furniture and bedding (and, even here, on a much smaller scale than what we currently possess). Now, it is a frequent preoccupation, a secondary preoccupation invariably derived from the primary feature of neurosis associated with collection. The shocking thing about how personal property generates a neurosis of collection is that many of the items collected, whether they be books, movies, artworks, whatever, are therefter hidden, never to be experienced again, or experienced rarely, after the first encounter. They are literally secreted away from anyone else who might be interested in them.

The capitalist response to this contradiction is to mass produce the items in question so that nearly everyone can collect! Needless to say, the economic inefficiencies are incalculable. The activity of file sharing, referenced by Lovecat elsewhere in the Lenin's Tomb comments thread, is pertinent here. File sharing constitutes a rebellion against contemporary capitalism on the margins, for the reason that she suggested, as it constitutes a collective means of sharing personal property, in effect, collectivizing it, therefore constituting a repudiation of the psychological dependence upon collection.

By overcoming a dependence upon collection, one eliminates an essential aspect of the necessity for private personal property, so much so that it could provoke a radical transformation of capitalism, if not its eventual rejection. Along these lines, files sharing is much more economically efficient, which may explain why culture industries, like music, TV and film, are trying to push people away from actually owning a copy of the work in question, by making it costly and subject to punitive restrictions, and, instead, commercializing filesharing as a substitute, as cable companies aspire to do with video on demand, and Apple has done with the IPod. This is important, because, as Lovecat also observed, file sharing outside the corporate context also abolishes money.

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Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Goldman Sachs: Coming Soon to a Neighborhood Near You 

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Monday, November 02, 2009

The White Woman's Burden 

It happened so quickly that few people caught it. There was Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Pakistan, exposing the hypocrisy of Eurocentric feminism when a group of Pakistani women tried to impose the same standards on the US that the US imposes upon others:

During an interview broadcast live in Pakistan with several prominent female TV anchors, before a predominantly female audience of several hundred, one member of the audience said the Predator attacks amount to “executions without trial” for those killed.

Another asked Clinton how she would define terrorism.

“Is it the killing of people in drone attacks?” she asked. That woman then asked if Clinton considers drone attacks and bombings like the one that killed more than 100 civilians in the city of Peshawar earlier this week to both be acts of terrorism.

“No, I do not,” Clinton replied.

Clinton no doubt scheduled this particular appearance in furtherance of her long standing efforts to elevate the concerns of women around the world, as she has done on many other occasions, but one wonders why she bothers at all.

After all, it is evident that Clinton has no interest in what they have to say if it deviates from her belief that the objectives of feminism and US imperialism harmoniously reinforce one another. I have to concede that she deserves praise for scheduling the event, because she has control over her schedule, and she was undoubtedly well aware of what the Pakistani women was likely to say. We were treated to a rare episode wherein a white woman in a position of political power in the US provided a forum for women of color in a country subject to US military violence. She eschewed the public relations of photo opportunity.

Even so, Clinton's unwillingness to engage the sincere, legitimate concerns of her female Pakistani audience demonstrated the farcical nature of the enterprise. She just could not acknowledge that the deaths of Pakaitanis inflicted by US military operations, many of them women and children, were the equal of those killed by al-Qaeda or the Taliban, without demonstrating the impossibility of integrating the universalist principles of feminism with the pragmatic, often militaristic requirements of empire. Indeed, she could not even acknowledge what everyone knows, that these attacks do, in fact, kill many Pakistani women and children in addition to the men, who are, it seems, considered probable militant Islamic fundamentalists, anway. Nor could she open a dialogue with her inquisitors about whether the US strategy in Pakistan is intensifying the violence, as many Pakistanis believe, instead of quelling it.

Of course, the New York Times attempted to come to Clinton's rescue, but only made things worse by suggesting that the women who participated in the interview had been induced to question Clinton in a harsh, inhospitable manner because they had first seen Pakistani journalists do it:

Mrs. Clinton sat down first with the TV journalists because they set the agenda. So great is their influence that the questions posed to Mrs. Clinton by young people the next day sounded like those the broadcasters had asked — blunt and combative, though just short of rude.

An example came Friday at an interview for the program “Our Voice” when a young woman asked Mrs. Clinton whether she viewed the Predator drone attacks used by the United States in Pakistan’s frontier areas as terrorism.

Oh, that silly woman! We all know how inadequate the Pakistani educational system is. If she hadn't seen Hillary questioned in such a blunt, straight forward manner (undoubtedly much more directly than anyone in the US ever does), she would have continued to wonder about whether she should purchase a new kind of eyeliner. Again, the notion that Pakistani women have the own independent agency, an ability to relate to the world around them, separate from what they are told, either by Hillary or the Pakistani media, apparently never occurred to Marc Landler, the reporter who wrote the story. In fact, it goes beyond feminism into the realm of racism, as Landler suggests that the young people of Pakistan are so stupified that they cannot relate to anything other than what is fed to them by the media.

So, Hillary was left to lecturing the people of Pakistan about their inadequacies, which, at the end of the day, boiled down to a refusal to uncritically celebrate that Pakistan is a vassal of the US. We are therefore induced to conclude that her willingness to be critically questioned by Pakistani women served as a fig leaf, however inadequate, to distract attention from what were just more directives from the Raj. A larger question remains, though. Does the 21st Century Raj, the US, tired of Pakistan, intend to shatter it so that it can reconstructed in a more agreeable form? And, is the US attempting to facilitate such an outcome by intensifying the violence that makes the country even less and less governable? It is impossible to ignore these questions, because, if Hillary travelled to Pakistan to push the country towards fragmentation, she would have conducted herself precisely as she did.

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