Category Archives: Socialism

How to move forward politically

As I’ve written before in this blog, I agree with Micah White that rather than just demonstrating or expressing our opinions, those of us interested in real change in a leftward direction need to actually gain political power. Unless we’re talking violent revolution, which I’m not, this means winning elections, starting, White suggests, at the local level. Go to micahmwhite.com for more on White’s ideas, or read his book The End of Protest.

Now you can also read a long but fascinating article by Seth Ackerman entitled “Blueprint for a New Party” on jacobinmag.com. Ackerman lays out the difficulties repressive Americana ballot access requirements present for third parties and suggests ways around them that could also mitigate the “spoiler” aspect of third parties. He even navigates the legalese of Citizens United and related laws, showing how they could actually help a left third party fundraise. Highly recommended for those interested in real change.

The death of Fidel Castro

Castro outlived his vigorous, effective years, and was at the center of the Cuban Missile Crisis, but these aren’t reasons to forget his positive contributions to social justice. No world leader is perfect, and Fidel admittedly imprisoned thousands, executed hundreds, and kept Cuba under a tight rein, but this is what it took to counter the evils of capitalism in a capitalist-dominated world and US-dominated hemisphere. Overthrowing the US-supported, Mafia-infested Batista dictatorship was inspired by a desire to benefit the Cuban majority and took tremendous courage. Ditto for opposing US persecution for so many years. Though he ruled longer than any other world leader except Queen Elizabeth II, I don’t think personal power was Fidel’s main objective; preserving the social and economic equality of the revolution was. Little by little, capitalism is creeping back in Cuba, but that doesn’t mean the goals of the revolution were wrong, or that they can’t be achieved — hopefully less violently and more democratically — in more places in the future.

My personal connection to all this, apart from my being a confirmed socialist, is twofold. I first became aware of the Cuban revolution, which took place in 1959, a year after the fact when I asked a friend at the girls’ boarding school I attended what the words “26 julio” inscribed on her pencil case meant. She explained that it was the name of the revolutionary movement that had overthrown Batista. This wasn’t the only thing that made Buella different, and a year later she committed suicide. Bucking the tide isn’t easy.

Second, I was 18 years old, a freshman in college, in October 1962, when the Cuban Missile Crisis occurred. I believe that events that occur in one’s young adulthood can affect your thinking for the rest of your life. The Great Depression marked my parents, who always “saved for a rainy day,” and the Cuban Missile Crisis turned me into the opposite: “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we may be dead.” All that hiding under desks in preparation for possible Soviet bombers may have inspired these feelings, too, but the fear was more focused and intense in ’62. My parents were also strongly affected by World War II, as I was by the Vietnam War, which taught me to completely mistrust my own government — a lesson I’ve never unlearned.

Some of the news stories today seem to blame Castro for the Cuban Missile Crisis. No. He accepted the Russian missiles because of the threat the US posed to Cuba (the Bay of Pigs, over 600 attempts on his life, and a ridiculously long economic blockade). The US government can never allow a socialist government to succeed, especially in its own backyard. It also backed death squads in El Salvador and crushed the Nicaraguan revolution via economic blockade and the contras, who bombed newly built schools and hospitals and killed civilians right and left. And Vietnam…

To me, on balance, Castro and Ho Chi Minh are heroes. Viva la Revolución!

A socialist’s thoughts on the eve of the 2016 election

The majority of Americans find nothing to like in either major-party presidential candidate this year, and many are asking themselves how we got to such a low point. By not taking a critical look at our undemocratic political system and doing something about it earlier, I’d say. It’s never too late, however. Lance Selfa’s article “From political revolution to lesser-evilism” in the current issue of International Socialist Review (isreview.org) has some good analysis of the contest “between the billionaire blowhard Donald Trump and the hawkish neoliberal Democrat Hillary Clinton.” As he says, “It’s worth pondering how we got here and what that history might portend for the future of American politics…

In the first post-Obama election in which the reverberations of the Great Recession are still being felt, the base voters of both major parties delivered black eyes to their respective party establishments. The gaping economic chasm between rich and poor, which the 2007–2008 recession accentuated, fuels a growing political polarization,” though almost everyone agrees “that there’s too much money in politics, and that money buys special favors for special interests in Washington.” Rather than thinking about how to regulate political contributions, this leads many voters – who also see how little Congress has gotten done lately – to reject “the bipartisan Washington political establishment.” Striking a “pose as someone too rich to be bought, Trump tweaks Hillary Clinton and her husband Bill for turning their Clinton Foundation into an influence-peddling hedge fund for foreign investors,” while Bernie Sanders’ ‘political revolution’ focused on “getting money out of politics and limiting the influence of Wall Street and ‘millionaires and billionaires.’” Sanders, Selfa notes, directed “popular resentment toward its true sources – corporate America and its political servants, while Trump directed it at scapegoats like immigrants, Muslims, and foreign governments.

Their success speaks to something about the shifting political coalitions the two capitalist parties represent. For more than a generation, the GOP has depended on solid support based in twenty states of the South, the Plains, and the mountain West. The Republican mantra of tax-cutting economic conservatism and support for conservative social issues such as opposition to abortion, generally held the various GOP interest groups and voters together. The conservative political positions that the Republicans promote regularly garner the support of only about a quarter to a third of the US electorate. But our fundamentally undemocratic system of government – in which states can restrict voting rights in ways that disproportionately affect racial minorities and the poor; where the US Senate delivers the same representation to conservative Wyoming as to more liberal California, with almost eighty times Wyoming’s population; and where corporate money largely governs who gets elected – is tailor-made for an unpopular minority to set the country’s political agenda.”

The appeal of that agenda is decreasing, Selfa says, noting that the “average GOP voter is a middle-aged affluent white person (probably male) in a country that’s increasingly less affluent, less white, and less religious, where the majority of the population and electorate are women…The GOP relies on mobilizing a shrinking base, which has led its key political operatives to turn every election into a death match against nefarious forces ‘taking away’ the idealized 1950s version of the United States conservatives uphold. Trump and his closest rival, Senator Ted Cruz, played different versions of this hand during the primaries, and Trump succeeded because he openly tapped into two ever-giving founts of the US right – racism and xenophobia – and used them not only to win votes, but also to batter a GOP establishment he branded as ‘losers.’ Trump’s victory signifies the ‘chickens coming home to roost’ in a Republican Party whose operatives and media infrastructure have fed their most committed partisans a steady stream of nonsense about the president’s birth certificate and Obamacare ‘death panels’ for years…

In contrast, Sanders ran into a brick wall of Democratic Party officialdom that never wavered in its support for Hillary Clinton. That Sanders came as close as he did was testament to his enunciation of a number of themes, from economic inequality to health care for all to political reform, that the most committed Democrats believed their party should have championed but hasn’t. In the past, the Democrats could run on the memory of reforms like Social Security and Medicare that benefitted millions. Today’s Democrats present themselves as efficient and ‘inclusive’ managers of a neoliberal order that’s delivered next to nothing to the party’s base for a generation. The Sanders phenomenon was the latest in a series of political expressions of discontent with that economic and political status quo – from Occupy Wall Street to Black Lives Matter – in the wake of the Great Recession. Sanders found his greatest support among voters younger than forty-five, who’ve known nothing but declining living standards, the last eight of them under a Democratic administration of which Clinton was a part.”

Here Selfa brings up a May Nation roundtable discussion, in which historian Rick Perlstein asked, “What are the prospects for a realignment of American politics? On the Democratic side, practically nil. The presidential front-runner – the one with the endorsements of 15 out of 18 sitting Democratic governors, 40 out of 44 senators, and 161 out of 188 House members – is running a campaign explicitly opposed to fundamental transformation…If, by some miracle, Bernie Sanders entered the White House in January, he would do so naked and alone – in command of a party apparatus less prepared ideologically, institutionally, and legislatively to do great things than at any other time in its history.”

Selfa agrees: “If the Democrats were unwilling to chart a fundamentally different course in 2009 when, in the midst of the greatest economic crisis in generations, the electorate delivered them the legislative and executive branch, they won’t attempt to enact anything approaching Sanders’s New Dealish program…the central contradiction of Sanders’s campaign – popularizing ‘socialism’ but imprisoning that sentiment inside one of the two main capitalist parties – will make that goal more difficult to achieve…The mobilization for Sanders was not, as he and many of his supporters claimed, a ‘movement.’ It was, as were Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition campaigns of the 1980s before it, an electoral campaign waged inside one of the two main political parties of American capitalism. Now, as the Democratic Party moves to capture Sanders’s social media and contributors’ lists, the very real possibility exists that the Sanders campaign will live on as little more than this year’s model of MoveOn.org or Democracy for America.”

Selfa notes that in responding to the Sanders campaign “most of the left – including long-time supporters of political action independent of the capitalist parties – abandoned Marx and Engels’ basic admonition that socialists should seek to build in every country an independent working-class alternative to capitalist parties…Bhaskar Sunkara, editor of Jacobin, contends that ‘Sanders Democrats’ can reform the Democratic Party through ‘a long struggle inside and outside the Party.’ Why should we draw an iron wall between voting and movement building? It only takes five minutes to vote, what harm can it do? Why not cover all our bases, on the electoral and movement fronts? But voting isn’t such a simple act. The short time it takes to vote requires a set of political calculations and rationalizations that affect our political strategy, depending on whom we vote for. The Democratic Party is known as ‘the graveyard of social movements’ because it’s repeatedly succeeded in absorbing [and defanging] grassroots movements. [Because of lack of perceived alternatives,] the Democratic Party has also repeatedly gained working-class and Black votes without wavering from its role as one half of the corporate duopoly ruling in the sole interest of US capital. Any vote cast in favor of Democratic candidates acts to strengthen its rule; and any postponing of the building of viable independent-left alternatives in the name of ‘transforming’ the party from within feeds continued illusions and puts independent politics perpetually out of reach.”

What about the strategy of voting for a real alternative like Green Party candidate Jill Stein – but just in so-called “safe” states to avoid helping Trump? The Greens tried this with candidate David Cobb in 2004 “when George W. Bush faced off against John Kerry in the midst of the Iraq war…Stung since 2000 when liberals accused Green candidate Ralph Nader of ‘spoiling’ the election and allowing Bush to sneak into the White House while losing the national popular vote, the Greens were determined to avoid a repeat. By succumbing to this pressure, the Green Party surrendered the possibility of confronting Bush and Kerry on issues upon which they agreed: continuing the war, occupying Iraq, and shredding civil liberties under the USA PATRIOT Act. By pledging not to campaign, the Green ticket declared its own irrelevance to the national debate.

Nader and his running mate, Green Peter Camejo, mounted an underfunded and understaffed independent campaign that year to offer a left alternative for people who wanted to vote against the war and occupation, against the USA PATRIOT Act, and for gay marriage and national health care. Despite vicious baiting from people on the left and a full-court press by Democrats determined to keep Nader off ballots around the country, the Nader-Camejo ticket won 465,150 votes nationwide, compared to 119,856 for Cobb. Because of Cobb’s non-campaign, the Greens lost their ballot status, including recognition as a political party, in at least seven states. Yet another attempt to build an alternative to the two-party duopoly had succumbed to the siren song of lesser evilism…The safe-state strategy confines independent political action to places where it won’t make a difference – it’s a backdoor way of supporting the Democrats as a lesser evil to the Republicans.

Lesser evilism will reach a fever pitch this fall.” The choice, framed as fascism vs. democracy, will put enormous pressure on anyone opposed to Clinton because of her ties to Wall Street, her hawkishness in defense of imperialism, and so on…Clinton’s long record has shown her to be an enthusiastic servant of the rich and advocate for US empire. Beyond campaign rhetoric, she’s not really a champion of either immigrant rights or civil rights. And while Clinton will appeal for voters to break the glass ceiling and elect the first woman president, her record on women’s rights is hardly inspiring…

At the current writing (June 2016), opinion polls suggest that Trump’s unpopularity runs at historic levels among groups like Latinos and women. Because of that, most liberals and many establishment Republicans think Trump will go down to an historic defeat in November. That may be the case, but it’s less likely that even an anti-Trump landslide will shift US politics in a major way. The main reason is that Republicans currently hold their largest congressional and state-level majorities since the 1920s. It would take a true political earthquake – whose tremors are hard to detect at this time – to reverse that. But even if the GOP melts down, that’s no guarantee that the 2017 political environment will see an end to neoliberal dominance in US politics,” well represented by Hillary Clinton. (“A June Fortune 500 poll found a majority of corporate CEOs, most of them Republicans, saying they planned to support Clinton in November.”)

If the left signs up with Clinton’s national unity campaign against Trump, it will not only be endorsing the lesser evil, but it will be endorsing what the radical Black Agenda Report has tagged the “more effective evil.” Danny Haiphong points this out in arguing ‘Why A United Front Strategy Against Trump is Dangerous Territory for the Left’: ‘Trump has called Mexicans rapists and proposed that a wall be built along the US-Mexican border to prevent migration. In less than eight years, the Obama Administration has deported more migrants than any other president and further militarized the US-Mexican border. Trump has called for a system to identify Muslims in America while the Obama Administration has waged war on Muslims domestically and conducted an extensive drone program against Muslims abroad that’s killed thousands of people, including two US citizens. Few have protested the Obama Administration over these policies, but thousands have come out against Trump’s rhetoric. Trump is indeed evil, but Obama and the Democratic Party remain the far more effective evil.’

The increased space the left has secured to raise real questions about the character of US society will be wasted if Trump is allowed to scare the left back under the Democratic Party umbrella. The true test in the 2016 elections is not whether Trump can be defeated by a united front but whether radical forces in the US can find a way to defeat the plague of lesser evil politics. Building a political alternative to the two parties of capitalism and a social movement that can reverse decades of inequality will remain central tasks for the left, no matter what happens in the 2016 elections.”

So, vote for Green Party candidate Jill Stein wherever you live!

 

Social and political deterioration in the U.S.

I don’t usually find important articles or editorials in my local paper, but this morning I found two. The first, “Causes Found for Higher Death Rates” by Noam Levey of the Tribune Washington Bureau says that recent studies show “higher-than-expected death rates” among middle-aged whites. This symptom of social deterioration – not found in other developed nations – is caused by “stagnant progress against heart disease and other common illnesses,” increased drug and alcohol abuse, and an increase in the number of suicides among whites in their 40s and 50s.

“The problem was worst in several states stretching from Appalachia south and west across the Deep South. Mortality rates were 60% to 76% higher than they would have been if the trends of the 1980s and 1990s had continued in West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas and Oklahoma.

By contrast, the gap between expected and actual mortality rates was smallest in New York, New Jersey, California, Connecticut, Minnesota, Massachusetts and Illinois.

‘There is clearly something going on that is troubling,” said Samuel Preston, a University of Pennsylvania demographer who headed a 2011 National Academy of Sciences panel that looked at life expectancies in high-income countries. ‘It points to a serious national problem.’

Evidence has been emerging for years about worrying life expectancy trends in the United States, as women and men in some parts of the country died younger than their counterparts did a generation ago. The focus on middle-aged whites intensified when a pair of Princeton University economists – Nobel laureate Angus Deaton and Anne Case – published a blockbuster article last year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences showing that since 1999, death rates had increased specifically among non-Latino white Americans ages 45 to 54.

Researchers haven’t found a similar problem among African-Americans and Latinos, though a health gap between whites and nonwhites remains. Nor has the problem emerged among working class residents of Western Europe or other industrialized nations.

‘The question is: Is it the social safety net?’ Case said in an interview. ‘Are working class people more protected in Europe? Is it universal health care?’

To explain the reversal in decades of progress among whites, Deaton and Case pointed to a dramatic increase in deaths attributed to drug poisoning, suicide and alcohol-related liver disease, which killed twice as many working-age whites in 2014 as in 1999.

Commonwealth Fund researchers, working with the same data from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, looked beyond those causes, and also found a marked slowdown in what had been a steady improvement in death rates linked to illnesses including heart disease, diabetes, and respiratory disease. ‘Mortality rates for middle-age whites have stopped declining or actually increased across a broad range of health conditions, including most of the leading causes of death,’ the authors wrote.

The states showing the worst trends have high rates of poverty as well as some of the highest rates of smoking and obesity in the country. They also historically have had among the weakest health care systems, with high rates of people lacking insurance and having poor access to medical care.

The deterioration of the American political system over many years of political corruption, fixed elections, and politicians ignoring the wishes of their constituents – at least as reflected in nationwide polls – has led to both extremely low voter turnout and a latching on to anything that seems to promise change. Eugene Robinson, in an editorial in today’s Washington Post, focuses on the latter phenomenon, as evidenced in voter enthusiasm for only two of the current presidential candidates: Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. Robinson, alarmed, describes Trump as “a populist tycoon, with zero experience in government, who vows to round up and expel 11 million people” and Sanders as “a self-declared socialist” completely out of the recent mainstream of the centrist Democratic Party.

“As individuals,” Robinson says, “Sanders and Trump are hardly cut from the same cloth; one rails against billionaires and one is a billionaire. Their supporters probably wouldn’t mix well at a cocktail party. But there’s a reason these are the only two candidates who regularly fill basketball arenas with passionate, standing-room-only crowds: both call for fundamental change. There are even specifics on which Trump and Sanders agree. Both denounce free-trade agreements, such as NAFTA and the new Trans-Pacific Partnership, saying they depress U.S. wages and send jobs to other countries. Sanders supports universal single-payer health care, which he describes as ‘Medicare for all.’ Trump wants to repeal the Affordable Care Act – a position every Republican candidate is required to take – but has also been a consistent supporter of universal care, though he doesn’t specify how he’d bring it about. Trump and Sanders are also both skeptical of the establishment consensus about America’s role as the world’s policeman. Sanders would use military force only as a last resort, while Trump would let Vladimir Putin take charge of cleaning up the Syria mess if he wants to.

Perhaps most significant of all, Trump and Sanders both portray traditional politicians as bought and paid for by powerful monied interests. Sanders rails against big banks, powerful corporations, and wealthy plutocrats who bend the system to their will. Trump speaks from personal experience, blithely telling audiences how he regularly wrote big checks to politicians in both parties to buy access and influence.

The system is rigged, these insurgents say. Your elected leaders are working for themselves and their puppet-masters. They couldn’t care less about you. Sanders’ solution is a grass-roots ‘political revolution.’ Trump, to the extent he offers concrete proposals, seems to promise the muscular use of presidential power. But both have touched a raw nerve, and our political parties had better pay attention.

As the caucuses and primaries begin, the RealClearPolitics poll averages show that 36% of Republicans favor Trump and an additional 10% support other candidates who’ve never held elective office. On the Democratic side, 37% of Democrats say they favor Sanders. These numbers show that there are huge numbers of Americans whose voices aren’t being heard, voters who are tired of half-measures and unkept promises.

 

What revolution could look like

In his latest book, Wages of Rebellion: The Moral Imperative of Revolt (2015), Chris Hedges urges us to rebel against the corporate imperial system killing us and our earth-home to profit a small elite. Seeing us beginning to fall off the proverbial cliff, he says “we’ll have to make hard decisions about how to ensure our own survival and yet remain moral beings. We’ll be called upon to fight battles, some of which we’ll have no hope of winning, if only to keep alive the possibility of compassion and justice. We’ll depend on others to survive…The greatest existential crisis we face is to accept what lies before us – for the effects of climate change and financial instability are now inevitable – and find the resilience to fight back. When the unraveling begins, it will be global…any sanctuary will be temporary.”

Hedges and others he quotes, including E.M. Forster, William Faulkner, and Edward Said, see Herman Melville’s novel Moby Dick as a metaphor for the hubris and ultimate destruction of Western “civilization,” in particular, American corporate culture, now fighting a losing battle with nature. “Like Ahab and his crew,” Hedges says, “we rationalize our collective madness, bowing slavishly before the enticing illusion provided by our masters of limitless power, wealth, and technological progress…To emotionally accept the impending disaster, to attain the visceral understanding that the power elite will not respond rationally to the devastation of the ecosystem, is as difficult to accept as our own mortality.” Mutiny, “the only salvation for the Pequod’s crew,” will be “our only salvation.”

We must be strictly nonviolent, however, according to Hedges, seeking to transform rather than destroy, and creating above all “a radical shift in consciousness…making citizens aware of the mechanisms of power” and “drawing larger and larger numbers of people into acts of civil disobedience.” Hedges believes, rather naively in my opinion, that nonviolent acts of civil disobedience could lead to the “conversion” of our “oppressors.” The revolutionaries will be debtors, the unemployed, and service workers in the developed world and workers in Asia and the global south. “No one knows where or when the eruption will take place,” or “what form it will take. But a popular revolt is coming.

If a nonviolent popular movement is able to ideologically disarm the bureaucrats, civil servants, and police – to get them to defect – nonviolent revolution is possible. But if the state organizes effective and prolonged violence against dissent, it can spawn reactive revolutionary violence, what the state calls ‘terrorism,’” creating nihilistic chaos and/or empowering ruthless, Lenin- and Stalin- (or Hitler-like) “revolutionaries.”

Hedges’ nonviolent creed extends to the protection of private property, because destruction of such property wouldn’t be “living in truth…A resistance movement’s most powerful asset,” he says, “is that it articulates a fundamental truth. As this truth is understood by the mainstream – ‘the 99%’ – it gathers a force that jeopardizes the credibility of ruling elites…if a mass movement is to retain its hold on the majority, it has to fight within self-imposed limitations of nonviolence.” But how can we expect 99% of the population to understand and support every important revolutionary idea? Like, for example, the idea that certain things, like most land, cannot and should not be “owned” by private individuals or corporations. And what if you want to protest some destructive technology by damaging the equipment used to effect it – monkeywrenching à la Edward Abbey? I’m also personally and theoretically, against the idea of offering oneself up for arrest and imprisonment by an illegitimate government. Edward Snowden, one of the greatest heroes of recent time, hasn’t done that, and I won’t either – especially after reading, a chapter later, Hedges’ litany of the tortuous abuses to which US prisoners can be (and are) subjected. Hedges invokes the values of accountability and transparency in his brief for strict nonviolence, but there are other conflicting needs and values that may be as or more important – like the right to resist and the right of self-defense. It seems to me that a variety of tactics by different groups is the answer.

“We are not a people with a revolutionary or insurrectionary tradition,” Hedges writes. “The War of Independence, while it borrowed the rhetoric of revolution, replaced a foreign oligarchy with a native, slave-owning oligarchy. The founding fathers were conservative. The primacy of private property, especially slaves, was paramount to the nation’s founders,” who went on to design a government meant to “thwart the popular will…The few armed rebellions, such as the 1786 and 1787 Shay’s Rebellion and the 1921 armed uprising [of miners] at Blair Mountain, were swiftly and brutally put down by a combination of armed vigilante groups and government troops.” These uprisings expressed local grievances that could have been made more general, but “the universal, radical ideologies and utopian visions that sparked revolutions in Russia and Germany after World War I are alien to our intellectual tradition. ‘Most American violence,’” as Richard Hofstadter observes in American Violence (2012), “‘has been initiated with a conservative bias…unleashed against abolitionists, Catholics, radicals, workers and labor organizers, Negroes, Orientals, and other ethnic or racial or ideological minorities.’” For this reason, Hedges believes, we’ll “have to form a new language, articulating our reality through the ideas of socialism rather than capitalism in an age of diminishing resources.” Turn to socialism only for practical reasons? That not only seems ideologically weak; it ignores the fact that words like “socialism” and “anarchism” are tainted in this country, and will have to be reclaimed. There is also the danger, as Hedges points out, of Nazi-like movements and the scapegoating of minority groups that we’re seeing already (Muslims, “illegal” immigrants, women who want control over their bodies).

Hedges concludes his book with a chapter on the “sublime madness” he believes is necessary to devote oneself to expressing the truth as one sees/feels it, whether in art or other revolutionary action. Unconcerned about “the possibility of success,” he says, “we must refuse to allow our reality to paralyze us;” we must fight for life. Fight – not meekly go to jail, opening oneself to whatever fate this illegitimate, death-dealing system may choose to mete out to us.