What is Communist Internationalism?

marx_and_engelsCentral to communism is a sense of solidarity, a kinship based on humanity that knows no class distinctions. It is a radical form of the “fraternity” enshrined in the French Revolution’s “Liberté, égalité, fraternité.” Writing in 1845, Friedrich Engels cast doubt on the ability of the bourgeoisie to form an international movement, given the bourgeoisie of any particular country would be too beholden to their own unique special interests. The masses who sell their labor, however, “have one and the same interest, one and the same enemy, and one and the same struggle” and therefore only they “can destroy nationality” and “bring about fraternization between the different nations” (The Festival of Nations in London). In the 1848 Communist Manifesto, Engels and Karl Marx distinguish the communists in part by their emphasis on “the common interests of the entire proletariat, independently of all nationality” (Chapter 2). Nevertheless, they noted that “the struggle of the proletariat with the bourgeoisie is at first a national struggle. The proletariat of each country must, of course, first of all settle matters with its own bourgeoisie” (Chapter 1). Both supported the independence movements in Poland and Ireland at the time, believing autonomy essential for true solidarity.

198px-d092.d098.d09bd0b5d0bdd0b8d0bd._d09fd0b5d182d180d0bed0b3d180d0b0d0b42c_d18fd0bdd0b2d0b0d180d18c_1918_d0b3d0bed0b4d0b0Marx and Engels did not conceive of the First International as a means of promoting international communism, believing that “the simple feeling of solidarity based on the understanding of the identity of class position suffices to create and to hold together one and the same great party of the proletariat among the workers of all countries and tongues” (Engels 1885, On The History of the Communist League). The Second International collapsed into irrelevance in 1916 with the outbreak of World War I, as socialist parties tended to follow the nationalist groundswells in their respective countries. It was not until 1919, with the formation of the Third International—better known as the Communist International (Comintern)—by Vladimir Lenin. Lenin argued passionately for independence movements in the Russian Empire because the “fusion of nations” on a “truly democratic, truly internationalist basis” was impossible without the right to secede (1915, The Revolutionary Proletariat and the Right of Nations to Self-Determination). At the Second Congress of the Communist International in 1920, he called for a “union between revolutionary proletarians of the capitalist, advanced countries, and the revolutionary masses of those countries where there is no or hardly any proletariat, i.e., the oppressed masses of colonial, Eastern countries.” He observed that European imperialism had placed millions of people into bondage, exploiting them and their resources. He judged correct a modified slogan issued by the Communist International: “Workers of all countries and all oppressed peoples, unite!” (1920, Speech Delivered at a Meeting of Activists of The Moscow Organization of the RCP(B)).

The high-water mark of international socialist solidarity occurred during the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939. This included not only Soviet military aid but a large number of foreign volunteers in the International Brigades, organized by the Communist International to help the democratically-elected Popular Front resist the nationalist, fascist rebellion assisted by Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany. In the 1970s as well, the Soviet Union and Cuba intervened in Angola, providing critical support to a revolutionary government that had just won a war of independence against Portugal and faced opposition from apartheid South Africa and its ally, the United States. Other Soviet military interventions—such as in Hungary in 1956 and in Czechoslovakia in 1968, against anti-government protests—put into question the claim articulated by Rosa Luxemburg in 1915 that “socialism gives to every people the right of independence and the freedom of independent control of its own destinies” (The Junius Pamphlet, Chapter 7). In addition to the usual reactionary chaos of voices, ready to repudiate communism as much for its successes as its failures, prominent left-wings critics within and without communist countries have sought to maintain a moral commitment against tyranny. All would agree, presuming their honesty, that the lives taken and resources plundered by the few communist states in history pale in contrast to the casualties and loot the advanced capitalist countries, in their respective imperial stages, can call claim to.

320px-occupy_may_day_2015_281712896148729Today the communist countries have either collapsed, retreated into isolationism, or liberalized economically and/or politically enough to smooth operation within the capitalist global economy. The idea of a global communist movement fell into torpor in the 1990s. With the gradual elimination of any state prone to development outside Western hegemony through a progress of regime change wars, it would be reasonable to assume any contemporary communist government is living on borrowed time. Yet, something remarkable is happening: for the first time since the dawn of the 20th century, the ideas of Marx and Engels are finding welcome audiences within the advanced capitalist countries. Deepening class stratification, stagnant wages, and vanishing job security have provoked class consciousness and an upsurge in social democratic politics once deemed too “radical.” It is dubious that such politics will be able to challenge the constellation of organized interests in the very heart of Western imperialism, especially in the absence of grassroots movements centered around labor issues, civil rights, and so on. Consequently, the populist clamor for change will turn more radical. Whether such energies are sufficiently marshaled into a relevant political force remains to be seen. The point is that the potential exists for radical left-wing movements to grow and overthrow the capitalist, white supremacist status quo.

But what happens the day after the revolution? Will the left-wing radicals of the core countries be satisfied with a sort of nationalist socialism, an egalitarian ideology qualified on patriotic fervor and identity? Nothing would be more cancerous to any attempt at building communism. Nationalism, after all, was the adhesive that held together the rotting, reactionary monarchies of Europe in World War I. It is the foundation for the infamous U.S. military-industrial complex predicated on a foreign policy of waging war instead of pursuing peace. It is the natural territory of the far-right, the means by Nazis as well as U.S. Republicans have directed working class people to go against their interests. It is nationalism that is inspiring disaffected, bitter white men to sublimate their insecurity and prejudices into bloody massacres. Any meaningful communist movement must take as one of its starting points and cardinal directions the elimination of distinctions based on race, ethnicity, or nationality in addition to class.

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How Successful Would a Sanders Presidency Be?

320px-bernie_sanders_2820033841412_24d8796e44_c029While it is still early days, the two frontrunners for the 2020 Democratic nomination are former Vice President Joe Biden and Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont. (As of this writing, only Sanders has formally announced, although it seems likely Biden will soon join the race.) Polling has Biden and Sanders polling roughly the same among primary voters in New Hampshire. The two politicians respectively embody the two warring wings of Democrats. Biden, a U.S. Senator from 1973 to 2009, has been a leading party notable since the 1990s, leaving him with a record of much of the same decisions and policies for which Hillary Clinton was criticized from the left in 2015 and 2016. Sanders, with momentum still behind him from that insurgent 2016 run for the nomination, has the name recognition and the integrity to mobilize left-leaning Democrats to his bold, system-altering economic reforms. With every day bringing new public outrage about broken institutions and relative deprivation to past generations, it is entirely feasible that a Sanders nomination or even a Sanders presidency could be a reality. While Republicans are (in some cases begrudgingly) lining up to hold their noses and re-elect Donald Trump, smart money suggests Trump will do more harm than good to his chances once he’s back on the campaign trail. The more challenging hurdle for Sanders may be getting his party to unite behind him given the fractured state of the Democrats.

Let us imagine that Sanders does muster a grassroots political revolution over the arrayed forces of reaction and privilege. How successful would he actually be? Most Sanders supporters would dismiss the question as too hypothetical, too negative; just because something will be difficult does not mean it should not be tried. This is more than naïve idealism; this is the life-impulse that gets human beings out of bed in the morning. Nevertheless, people building a better world should not proceed blindly or ignorantly. It is worth examining how some previous recent presidents elected with a mandate of ambitious reform and reconstruction fared in carrying out their subversive agendas. Franklin Delano Roosevelt created a social welfare government, its economy still capitalist but its society supported by more government benefits and regulation. Ronald Reagan was the product of a conservative counterrevolution to the New Deal as well as civil rights, decades in the making. Barack Obama won with a groundswell of support in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, but despite having campaigned as a reconstructive candidate, once in the White House maintained the non-ideological technocratic management style of his predecessors. Most recently, Donald Trump scored an authentic populist victory over the Beltway establishment, but those parts of his platform that most appealed to his angry right-wing base have floundered: building a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, a full-on ban on Muslim immigration, prosecuting Hillary Clinton for real and imagined crimes and misdemeanors, and so on. The evidence would certainly suggest that, even in the best-case scenario where President Sanders has the support of most of his party as well as a majority in Congress, four years of gridlock would be more likely than eight (or even four) years of radical reforms.

416af55c-0e5b-4555-93ad-4328cee1c637_1.b6b314186c6245341321083e1b430508Political scientist Stephen Skowronek documented this phenomenon in his 1993 book The Politics Presidents Make: Leadership From John Adams to George Bush. Unlike many other works that fixate on the individual personalities and choices of the presidents, Skowronek examined the “institutional logic of political disruption.” He observed that, as the office of the president evolved as an institution, the ability for its occupants to disrupt the old order and articulate a new consensus has shrunk. It is no coincidence, he argues, that the two most successful political revolutions in U.S. history—the Jeffersonian repudiation of federalism in 1800 and the rise of Jacksonian populism in 1829—occurred when the U.S. was young, before organized interests and institutions able to check the presidency matured. As Skowronek puts it: “The ‘rise’ of the presidency as an instrument of government has delimited its political range as an instrument of reconstruction.” It may seem absurd that the modern President of the United States, who has the power to assassinate virtually anyone by drone strike or invade most countries independent of Congressional approval, should be thought of as having constricted power. Yet even these actions must meet certain parameters. It is acceptable to authorize a drone strike on a suspected ISIS militant, but it would be unacceptable to summarily execute a banker responsible for wrecking the global economy. It is fine to bomb a low-income country with a regime hostile to Western business interests in the name of “humanitarian intervention,” but it would unthinkable to bomb the human rights-abusing, ironclad authoritarian regimes that defend our strategic interests abroad and/or provide us with important resources. The question is not so much “What can the President do?” so much as “Can the President actually do what he/she wants to do?” To paraphrase Marx, “Human beings make history, but they do not make it as they please.” To better understand what the walls and ceilings on when it comes to a future reconstructive president, we should look at some past examples.

280px-fdrfiresidechat2Franklin Delano Roosevelt won the 1932 presidential election in a landslide, the stock market crash of 1929 and the Great Depression setting the stage for a wave of economic populism. While hardly from humble origins, Roosevelt embraced his role as a reformer. For him, the “new” in the New Deal would mean that a “new order of things designed to benefit the great mass of our farmers, workers, and businessmen would replace the old order of special privilege in a Nation that was completely and thoroughly disgusted with the existing dispensation.” In many ways, this evoked the anti-aristocratic appeals of Jeffersonian and Jacksonian democrats, but by the 20th century class tensions had taken on a distinctive character. Thanks to industrialization and the trade union movement, it was organized, agitating factory workers as well as farmers taking on bankers and industrialists to combat economic inequality and unfair labor practices. Midterm elections in 1934 and his own re-election in 1936 illustrated how much popular support FDR possessed. Popular support, however, was often not enough. In 1934 business leaders and conservative Democrats founded the American Liberty League to marshal opposition to the New Deal. FDR did not personally dominate the Democratic Party the way its founder Andrew Jackson had done. In 1934 the Supreme Court ruled that the National Recovery Administration, a New Deal agency, was unconstitutional, even though many of its provisions would be incorporated into the still-enforced Wagner Act, which guarantees the rights of private employees to form unionize, collectively bargain, and strike. It is doubtful the New Deal would have been successful as it was had it not been for the key support of the coalition of farmers organizations, labor unions, and small business owners that rallied behind FDR. When Japan attacked the U.S. in 1941, domestic opposition to Roosevelt diminished as the country was gripped by patriotism. Roosevelt would not live to see the transformation of the U.S. under his successors Truman and Eisenhower into what the latter called the “military-industrial complex,” with the Pentagon and arms manufacturers emerging as powerful new organized interests in their own right. In the end, the New Deal was only partially successful: it increased the capacity of the government to provide social services to its citizens and also brought important new regulation to the private sector, but power stayed narrowly concentrated politically and economically among a narrow group of elites. What’s more, World War II and the Cold War directed national attention away from improving domestic conditions to an aggressive foreign policy of “pursuing U.S. interests,” i.e. consolidating and enforcing its hegemonic influence across the globe.

This influence would be especially felt in South Asia as a series of presidents following in the moderate liberal mold presided over the growing U.S. military presence in Vietnam. The U.S. was a bellicose force around the world, intervening directly or indirectly on almost every continent; several generations of U.S. citizens lived in the shadow of nuclear Armageddon. Meanwhile, government action on equal rights for African-Americans, women, and other repressed communities continued slowly. By the 1960s enough opposition to imperialist foreign policy and insufficient progress on social justice culminated in growing unrest. The presidency of Richard Nixon was meant to constrain this strife, but ultimately it brought the office to its weakest point. It was Jimmy Carter, however, that Skowronek lists as the “disjunctive” president of this period, who attempted to garner enough authority via popular support to reform the moderate liberal consensus as a moderate liberal himself. Unsurprisingly, in an election where voters wanted change, they chose to elect Ronald Reagan as the figurehead of an right-wing movement consisting of big business, war haws, and evangelical Christians.

158px-president_reagan_poses_at_the_white_house_1984The most significant domestic accomplishment of the Reagan presidency was the slashing of federal spending through tax cuts for the wealthy, meant to “trickle down” to low-income groups. The top tax rate was dramatically lowered from 70 percent to 50 percent. At the same time, Reagan satisfied the military-industrial complex by raising defense spending and resuming a more aggressive, pro-intervention foreign policy. But when it came to repealing significant civil rights legislation like the Voting Rights Act or privatizing New Deal programs like Social Security, the Reagan presidency did not seriously pursue these lofty conservative goals. Racial equality had reached a level of cultural acceptance that a return to segregation was unthinkable; the “compromise” had to be to hem most African-Americans into violent dilapidated neighborhoods. As to “entitlements,” voters tended to enjoy programs that helped supplement their health insurance costs or allowed them to enjoy some financial security in retirement. To the conservative intelligentsia, such programs for the “general welfare” opened the door to dangerous possibilities of public ownership and universal health care. Moreover, it was hoped that sharp reductions in spending on “entitlements” would offset the large loss in revenue the government suffered as a result of the tax cuts, threatening to increase the deficit.

Unfortunately for Reagan and the conservative movement behind him, programs like Social Security and Medicare had become third rails for organized interests, such as the AARP. Even if most U.S. citizens were unsatisfied with the old moderate liberal consensus, they did not want to give up their retirement benefits or unemployment insurance, especially in the midst of the deep recession of the early 1980s. Reagan had more success in taking on and defeating the labor movement, which had largely atrophied and become more docile since the New Deal era. During the Cold War, unions like the AFL-CIO had taken pains to join in on anti-communist hysteria and distance itself from the labor agitation of the past. Consequently, they had no zealous base to call on when Reagan and his supporters worked to weaken and bust labor laws and other protections for workers against the avarice and abuse of their employers. Still, the clock was not wound back all the way; legislation like the Wagner Act remains on the books, although recent Supreme Court decisions suggest the war on labor protections goes on.

Reagan was also a marked departure from more successful reconstructive presidents like Andrew Jackson and Abraham Lincoln because he was not so much driven by a personal vision as he was an actor serving as the “face” of the new order. There was a popular perception that he was an senile cretin with a penchant for naps, and that it was powerful figures behind the scenes, well-known personalities of U.S. conservatism—Secretary of State Alexander Haig, Secretary of the Treasury James Baker, et al.—that were making real decisions in conjunction with allies in multinational corporations and right-wing think tanks. For example, escalations in military spending not only satisfied the bellicose worldview of conservative Cold War warriors but was also good business for those many industries with a stake in building fighter jets, aircraft carriers, etc. Reagan’s purpose was not so much as to galvanize the public to support his proposals, as FDR did when taking on his political enemies, but to serve as an eloquent cipher for the enormous bureaucratic, military, and financial institutions that had come to dominate the political landscape. As a former movie star, he was the exemplar of what has become a feature of modern U.S. elections: the shallowness of personality-focused public relations spin, with emphasis on individuals and their relatability instead of issues.

320px-obama2c_bush2c_and_clinton_discuss_the_2010_haiti_earthquakeGeorge H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush would all refine the model set by Reagan. None of these men mastered the “vision thing,” as George H.W. Bush called it, but the latter too at least were proficient at the celebrity-style of presidential politics. Politically, they would be defeated in their more ambitious proposals (health care reform for Clinton, privatizing Social Security for Bush) and largely settled into their role as managers. Clinton did not hesitate to take on “welfare reform” and “law and order” when Republicans won a landslide in the 1994 midterm elections, gutting what remained of the social safety net for poor people and deepening harassment and unjust incarceration of African-Americans. Widely considered incompetent when he first took office in 2000, George W. Bush saw domestic opposition dry up after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, but his major accomplishments—the PATRIOT Act and its legacy of mass surveillance, the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, starting two wars with no exit strategies—could have only happened against the backdrop of the 9/11 attacks. By the time of the 2008 financial crisis Bush had largely squandered the goodwill and relative carte blanche he had been allowed in executive action. In the bailing out of the very institutions that had caused widespread unemployment and foreclosures, the collective U.S. government revealed itself as more beholden to organized interests (at least, those with the most resources) than to their constituents. In many ways, the conditions were eerily reminiscent of the U.S. political environment in 1932, with public outrage at political and financial elites at a fever pitch. Indeed, on November 2008, TIME magazine published an issue whose cover was Barack Obama edited into an image of FDR in a car, a cigarette holder poised between smiling teeth.

Obama would prove far more reminiscent of Reagan than FDR. He spent his political capital on a signature issue, this time health care rather than tax cuts. “Obamacare” would be a far cry from the sort of public health insurance that exists in most industrialized countries, with no “public option” but instead mandating the purchase of private health insurance plans. Unlike FDR, who used workers’ groups to challenge his opponents, Obama willingly sat down and compromised with the private interests that control the health care industry, from the insurers to the pharmaceutical companies. In a sense, this was a capitulation with no war, and while “Obamacare” represented an improvement over what came before, it showed how weak the presidency had become in taking on private interests. It was the interests themselves making policy rather than politicians imposing it on them. Obama’s 2008 campaign was innovative in its use of social media to win small-scale donations and increase voter turnout, but there was a deliberate choice to not use this sophisticated communications operation to turn his supporters into a legion of incendiaries and instigators pushing for a radical agenda. In his candidacy, some of the most fervent Obama supporters were in the far-left ranks of the party; by the end of his presidency, he had made it hip to be square again. In a word, his legacy would be best described not as “reformist” but rather “compromising.”

198px-obama_28242230450829Obama would show this flair for compromise by his softening on a number of campaign promises, such as holding to account officials who had authorized the use of torture (“Look, we tortured some folks,” he would famously admit) as well as closing our prison outside U.S. legal protections in Guantanamo Bay. Rather than breaking with the old order as many expected, Obama sought to patch it up, to tinker around the margins rather than threaten the status quo. Despite his “steady hands” and aversion to controversy, Obama’s identity as an African-American would prove intolerable to a large segment of the conservative electorate, ironically inspiring the sort of right-wing revolt that logic said his mild manner would not engender. The idea that a non-white (and, according to some conspiracy theories, non-Christian and non-American) “radical” could hold the White House suggested to the far-right that the identity of the U.S. (or, at least, their racist interpretation of it) was in crisis. This, along with the changing demographics of the country and growing inequalities wrought by globalization, culminated in an explosion of unexpected furor and energy behind a much more aggressively reconstructive president than Obama, Donald Trump. Unlike Obama, who used his charisma to sell policies or win votes, Trump was a demagogue, not shy about encouraging his followers from fighting with their many enemies, sometimes literally.

As noted previously, the most headline-grabbing Trump proposals that he fed to his alt-right base have largely been stultified. His vows to “drain the swamp” in Washington, D.C. were disproved by his decision to populate his cabinet with the military officers and former investment featured so commonly in other Republican and Democratic administrations. The restrictions placed on the office of the president and presidential actions have (mostly) won out over Trump. When Trump supporters blame the “deep state,” a (fictional) shadow government, for frustrating their hero, they are rather lazily playing on the cliché canard of an all-powerful secret society common in popular culture, a variation on the Illuminati. The reality is that there are indeed forces at work seeking to preserve the status quo because it is stable and profitable, but they do not hide in the shadows. Identifying them is as simple as answering the classic question: Cui bono? Who benefits? It is the multinational corporations whose profits have soared while wages have stayed stagnant; it is the bankers whose bonuses grow fatter with every risky speculation that puts the integrity of the global economy at hazard; it is the generals and admirals whose budgets are regularly increased despite the absence of any rival superpower who could equal us in conventional warfare; and it is the high-tech industries that supply the generals and admirals (and increasingly police officers) with bigger and better toys. They are not as omnipotent as the imaginary “deep state,” as the disappointing conclusion of the Mueller report demonstrates. Nevertheless, there are perfectly legal means for them to influence politics, from determining media coverage to legalized bribery via lobbying. Corporations are people, after all, and money is speech.

320px-bernie_sanders_by_lorie_shaull_24Bernie Sanders is no Bolshevik. As he himself has said, “How radical do you have to be to do what every other major country in the world does?” His proposals are consistent with the reforms pursued by the moderate liberals who preceded Reagan: domestic programs funded through regressive taxation, with the wealthiest taxed the most, to aid the neediest and most vulnerable. Yet, if mainstream media coverage is anything to go by, universal health care or stimulus spending to address climate change are unrealistic, dangerous, unthinkable. If Sanders somehow manages to defeat a litany of challengers as well as Trump (and neither is certain), it can only be expected that the efforts to ridicule and vilify his agenda will intensify. For a sample of what to expect, consider the amount of scrutiny and criticism that has been directed to the leader of the British Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, a representative of that party’s left-wing. Corbyn has so far endured smear campaigns painting him as unpatriotic and anti-Semitic. The right-wing leaders of the party have tried to replace him (unsuccessfully, as they lack popular support) and recently a number of them quit to start their own centrist party. Even though the governing Conservative Party is at war with itself over Brexit, Labour is itself divided over accepting a reconstructive platform. It would be reasonable to assume the Democratic Party would react the same were Sanders its leader, be it as nominee or president. Yet, whereas British culture prides itself on restraint, U.S. culture is as subtle as a redneck firing a semiautomatic weapon atop an ATV. The hysteria that would accompany a Sanders presidency would likely make the present state of affairs seem sane and civil, as unfathomable as that might be. Such a prediction, however, would be consistent with Skowronek’s thesis and the empirical trend of U.S. presidential politics.

What is to be done? If the case of FDR and the New Deal is any example, an army of organized left-wing activists will be required to come together to resist elite attacks on reformist proposals. Sadly, the unions in the U.S. are a shade of what they used to be, although that is starting to change. Rather than maturing into social movements, left-wing responses to the present crisis—from Occupy Wall Street to the Women’s March—have adopted festival atmospheres, lighting up for a brief moment and then petering out before the serious work gets done. While social media has increased the ability of activists to organize and be heard, it also promotes the idea that posting online will itself be a catalyst for change. Collective action and civil disobedience are historically what have gotten the goods, not petitions and hashtags. Unfortunately, most U.S. citizens still begrudgingly “trust the process,” that the system will reverse its decline on its own. It is likely that they underestimate the powers of institutional inertia they are up against.

Lies, Spin and Video Tape: How PR Changes Political Reality

covington-native-elderIn “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” Marvin Gaye notes that you should “believe half of what you see, son, and none of what you hear.” Skepticism can be healthy, especially when it comes to critically thinking about those ideas or values held as “common sense” or “received wisdom.” Other times, however, skepticism can be dangerous, especially when it comes to things that contradict our own biases. The United States has already witnessed in recent memory President Donald Trump dismissing reality when it contradicts his interests, attacking “fake news” and promoting “alternative facts.” This brand of “post-truth politics” has intensified to the point that even clearly obvious conclusions drawn from empirical evidence—such as the crowd size at Trump’s 2017 inauguration—may be “interpreted” differently, although what interpretation you draw from that event largely coincides with your own political beliefs and personal prejudices.

Just this year alone, two videos have made shockwaves in U.S. politics. The first came in January, when footage was posted online showing white teenagers from Covington Catholic high school in Kentucky wearing pro-Trump “Make America Great Again” mocking Nathan Phillips, a Native American elder and activist, outside the Lincoln Memorial. The image of one particular teenager, Nick Sandmann, sneering with utmost confidence in the face of Phillips, was poised to become as iconic as others in U.S. history. There was outage on social media, as this incident seemed to embody everything dangerous and immoral about the state-sanctioned racism promoted by Trump and his Republican allies. Here was evidence that white children in this country were feeling emboldened to illustrate their bigotry and hated by chanting at and herding around a solitary old man. That Phillips is Native American also invoked the decades of cruelty and deceit employed by the U.S. government in the forced relocation and ethnic cleansing of indigenous peoples stretching back to the earliest days of our history.

sandmann-guthrie_810_500_75_s_c1A counter-narrative soon formed. Right-wingers began claiming that the video was “edited” to make the teenagers look bad, that “context” was needed to understand what happened. The argument was that the teenagers were abused by Black Israelites, a religious group known for being provocative, and so the teenagers were simply standing up for themselves. This does not justify, however, why Sandmann and others leering at and harassing Phillips, who is independent of the Black Israelites. Sandmann’s family hired a PR firm and went on a media tour, claiming that he was “praying” while smirking at Phillips in a confrontational matter. Of course, Sandmann made himself out to be the victim when, just days before, he was widely acknowledged as an aggressor.

The mainstream media subsequently fell over itself rushing to claim Sandmann was indeed the real victim and to throw Phillips under the bus. This, they claimed, was an error of rushing to judgment, of not knowing all the facts before conclusions were made. Unlike Trump’s 2017 inauguration, where the crowd sizes were obviously small, the case of Phillips and the MAGA hat-wearing teenagers boiled down to something that had to be interpreted: the motivations of Sandmann and the other teenagers. Since some people were arguing that the motivation of the teenagers was not to target Phillips but to “defend” themselves from the words of the Black Israelites, the media backed down. It did not matter that the teenagers did Tomahawk chops at Phillips, that they yelled at him, or treated him with contempt and condescension, despite him being completely separate from the Black Israelites. It is pretty obvious that the kids from Covington Catholic saw and treated Phillips with the same disdain they had for the Black Israelites, the sort of arrogant disdain that only those in power can illustrate to the powerless.

feinsten_green_new_dealMore recently, a video has surface of Democratic Senator Diane Feinstein of California showing some disdain of her own, in this instance to a group of grade-school students who came to her office to ask she support the Green New Deal. Organized by the Sunrise Movement, the students noted how their generation stands to deal with the worst effects of global warming, and that the Green New Deal represented bold and dramatic action to address the issue. With smugness to rival Sandmann, Feinstein lectured the students on the length of her service, her legislative achievements, dismissing their activism. Again, the initial social media reaction was anger: Here was a group of children choosing to be civically engaged, to act on an issue important to them, and instead their engagement was treated as a nuisance by a careerist politician uninterested in anyone unable to donate to her campaigns or influence her vote. Just as the video of Sandmann and Phillips was emblematic of contemporary racism in the U.S., Feinstein talking down to a group of activist students manifested the irresponsiveness and ego prevalent among Democratic establishment elites to grassroot calls to adopt more left-wing policies.

CaptureThis time, it was centrists and moderates who claimed that the video was “edited,” that additional “context” was needed. Sure enough, it was revealed that the Sunrise Movement had indeed edited down the video—because they had to conform to Twitter requirements on video length. They uploaded and shared the full video on Facebook, but this fact was ignored. The “alternative fact” was that Sunrise Movement was a dangerous group trying to make Democrats look bad in pursuit of their own personal agenda, which would have the end result of helping Trump and the Republicans win in upcoming elections. (It does not seem to matter to these people that the Green New Deal is itself a Democratic proposal, and so far, the only credible one that actually offers solutions to climate change and the disastrous consequences it will have on the world.)

The full unedited video does not all change Feinstein’s demeanor toward the children; it is undeniable that rather than employing tact or admitting her role in failing to address climate change, she became defensive and angry at being questioned on the issue. Some have pointed to her offering an internship to the kids as a point in her favor; of course, to those of us who are not naïve, she was briefly dangling a carrot in addition to the verbal stick she was using in blithely waving them off. It is also rather telling that Feinstein (or her communications team) went to Twitter to do damage control by saying the students were heard “loud and clear,” although this was obviously not Feinstein’s language (bodily and in words) when she actually met and talked with the students.

In both cases, the appeal to “more context” and making it an issue of interpretation forced the media to retreat, to go from presenting something as obviously one way to a more neutral “it’s complicated,” or in some cases to another full-throated “we were wrong to rush to judgment.” For the media, the need to appear fair and balanced as well as not to alienate political insiders who give them access drives them to call their own news “fake” and then patiently wait for it to disappear from the news cycle. For them, the surge in clicks and viewers when the story first broke and the goodwill they earn in protecting the powerful more than makes up for the damage done to their credibility.

In each incident the footage came not from journalists themselves, but from activists or regular people on the ground. Cell phone cameras mean that elites cannot control where and when cameras are pointed, so when video gets out that is damaging, a common PR ploy is to doubt the veracity of the footage and the people responsible for it. Then comes the appeal to “facts” that aren’t clear or to ulterior motives and hidden agendas. The more powerful the people under attack, the more concentrated the counter-narrative becomes, until at last the masses are doubting what they saw with their own eyes.

More videos like these will emerge in the extremely near future. This is certain because the contempt in the two videos—whether it be racist hatred from smug white people, or careerist conceit toward “non-experts”—is indeed widespread in our society. Just because PR tactics have down watered these videos and their powerful messages does not mean that the underlying sickness is not there; it just means that the symptoms are being covered up. An increasing number of U.S. citizens are waking up to the rot within our culture and the corruption within the establishment, and the suave maneuverings of spin doctors and communications directors cannot hold the masquerade forever.

 

 

Controlling the Message, Controlling the World: From Vietnam to Venezuela

320px-protestas_en_venezuela_-_2_feb_2019_280429In 1973, the Chilean Armed Forces—with support from the U.S. government—overthrew the democratically elected left-wing Unidad Popular (Popular Unity) administration of President Salvador Allende. Now, in 2019, another U.S.-backed coup is taking place in Latin America, this time against President Nicolas Maduro and the Chavismo movement. We now know from declassified documents that U.S. involvement in the 1973 Chilean coup runs very deep indeed, not just regarding CIA covert operations but instructions from then-President Richard Nixon to “make the [Chilean] economy scream” and to isolate Allende’s government diplomatically. With the U.S. imposing new sanctions on Venezuela (essentially banning it from profiting from its one major export, oil) as well as recognizing National Assembly President Juan Guaido as “interim president” (Guaido swore himself in and has no constitutional claim to the office), it is plain to see history repeating itself, with the U.S. using the same dirty tactics as before.

299px-the_president27s_news_conference2c_23_march_1961Despite the parallels to Chile in 1973, it is also useful to look farther back to another episode of U.S. intervention, the Vietnam War. In 1949, the “loss of China” to the Chinese Communist Party created a great deal of concern in the core capitalist countries, especially the U.S. In the 19th century, China had gone from the largest economy in the world to being exploited by the major empires of the time (primarily by the British Empire, but later an Eight-Nation Alliance including the U.S.). In the Western mentality, then, China “belonged” to the West, and its declaration of independence from Western domination represented a significant, preventable “loss.” This was all the more poignant because the U.S. and its allies had just fought a war to defeat Japanese imperialism in East Asia so as to restore Western hegemony in the region. There emerged a fear that if several countries shook free from Western control that this would lead the entire region to do so: the so-called “domino theory.” Hence, the U.S. became increasingly more involved in Vietnam in the 1950s and 1960s, fearful that the Vietnamese national independence movement, the Viet Minh, would take “French Indochina” out of the Western sphere of control and inspire similar efforts in other countries. (This contradicted the 1941 Atlantic Charter, drafted in part by the U.S., which had claimed self-determination and self-government were U.S. objectives.)

320px-27ranch_hand27_runThe Vietnamese War is often described as a North Vietnamese victory because it achieved Vietnamese reunification under a socialist government. In terms of viewing Vietnam as an alternative model for development outside U.S.-approved policy prescriptions, however, no one would describe Vietnam as a good one. Quite deliberately, the U.S. destroyed not just Vietnam but the neighboring countries of Laos and Cambodia, leaving somewhere between 1 million and 4 million dead civilians. Over 40 years after the war, Agent Orange still permeates the local ecosystem, causing cancer, birth defects, and extreme neurological disorders among the region’s population (the U.S. sprayed more than 75 million liters of various herbicides over the three countries between 1961 and 1971). The countries of Indochina have yet to fully recover, but they were not economic powerhouses to begin with; again, the fear was that development outside U.S. hegemony would spread to more resource-rich countries like Burma, Malaysia, and especially Indonesia. In 1967, when the military dictator Suharto seized power in Indonesia and started massacring communists (described in the 2012 documentary The Act of Killing), the true “threat” to U.S. empire was largely removed.

320px-mpoty_2012_flag-draped_coffin_joint_base_pearl_harbor-hickamThe Vietnam War was only a failure for the U.S. government because of the substantial number of U.S. military personnel killed there, as well as its inability to regulate the mass media in its coverage of the war. Simultaneously, there was a great deal of unrest in Western societies over civil rights, economic justice, equality for women, and more. By 1968, the Joint Chiefs of Staff (the senior military leaders who advise the U.S. government) were concerned about whether there were sufficient forces to address widespread “civil disorder” in the country. Therefore, the “Wise Men” who counseled President Lyndon Johnson urged him to start pulling out. (Notably, however, the 1968 My Lai massacre of hundreds of Vietnamese by soldiers of the 23rd Infantry Division was covered not by the mainstream media, but by freelancer Seymour Hersh). Since the end of the Vietnam War, the U.S. has generally avoided “putting boots on the ground” in its interventions; the image of flag-draped coffins or dead U.S. soldiers being dragged through streets has become a regular public relations nightmare for almost every U.S. president since. This has led to an increasing use of assassinations with drones combined with age-old tactics like sending “military advisers” to our proxies and allies.

320px-army.mil-2007-06-26-111327Most notable, however, is the uniformity with which the modern mass media covers U.S. foreign policy (or in other words, our wars). Starting with the first Gulf War, the Department of Defense began “embedding” journalists with U.S. forces so the military could better control what reporters saw, heard, and learned. As in politics, the media surrendered their impartiality and traded favorable coverage for access. Shots of bombs falling on Baghdad make for great ratings, but you can only get them if the Pentagon tells you when and where to point the camera. Finally, being shoulder-to-shoulder with ordinary soldiers persuaded journalists to cover the military in good faith; if they did anything wrong, it must have been a few “bad apples,” not a product of official policy. Thus, the U.S. military personnel are represented as the protagonists, whereas the people of Iraq are either shadowy antagonists or, more often, bit players in a war for control of their own country. In John Pilger’s 2010 documentary film, The War You Don’t See, former CBS news anchor Dan Rather stated that the U.S. government made “stenographers out of [the media]” and that journalists dampened criticism to appear patriotic, especially in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

320px-100_0074r_281741170481229The 9/11 attacks did create a spike in U.S. nationalism, but let us also remember the degree to which the U.S. entertainment industry has collaborated with the Pentagon to redeem militarism and national chauvinism after the Vietnam War. Such a relationship, of course, goes back to Frank Capra’s Why We Fight film series, commissioned by the U.S. government as World War II propaganda, and ha continued through the Vietnam War, with John Wayne’s 1968 movie, The Green Berets, the classic example of anti-communist pro-interventionist media evangelism. The Pentagon supplied everything from authentic uniforms to attack helicopters. Some recent examples of these are obvious, such as 2013’s Lone Survivor or 2014’s American Sniper (glorifying a U.S. Navy SEAL marksman). In 2017, however, it was learned over 1,1000 TV shows had some form of assistance from the U.S. armed forces in their production, from Ice Road Truckers to Army Wives (the CIA had collaborated in 60 film and TV shows since 1947, at least officially). Ironically, the popularity of the 2019 Russian WWII action movie T-34 has been described in the U.S. media as “propaganda” full of “big, dumb, computer-generated jingoism” that is differentiated from similar Hollywood films because, it is argued, the state-sponsorship is larger and more apparent. Another significant difference, omitted in U.S. reviews, is that T-34 dramatizes the existential struggle of the Soviet people for their own existence against Nazi Germany, whereas a film like American Sniper centers on the inner conflict reaped by Chris Kyle in his reaping of souls. We are meant to feel sympathetic for the invader and the aggressor, as is true even of ostensibly anti-war films like Full Metal Jacket and Platoon. While it may be propaganda, T-34 at least celebrates the Soviet triumph after the brutal, genocidal war of annihilation launched on them by Hitler. Lone Survivor and American Sniper, however, seek to depoliticize U.S. invasions and focus on the courage and sacrifice of the U.S. soldier. In the same way that the German armed forces of WWII became disassociated from Hitler and the Nazi Party by Western military historians, the U.S. entertainment industry fuels militarism and jingoism outside the political sphere.

In this way the U.S. public (journalists included) are conditioned to depoliticize their coverage of conflicts and to especially gravitate to “human interest” stories from the armed forces. The stories of Afghani and Iraqi civilians, however, are not told, just as they were not told during the Vietnam War. Even more importantly, the conditions and conflicts in these regions of the world are never explained; it is simply taken for granted that the “ignorant masses” could not find these countries in an atlas, much less be interested in their history. The reality, however, is the public cannot know; the amount of information already freely available online is a hazard to elites. To disseminate the very information that could lead the people to develop nuanced views and opinions on foreign policy is simply not in elites’ interest. Thus, we are presented with a tight and simple narrative with “good guys,” “bad guys,” and then the U.S., always on the side of the “good guys.” Given the complexity and confusion of life in our own country, it is little wonder that our view of the world has all the intricacy of a Saturday morning cartoon.

In the case of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez, Nicolas Maduro, and their movement are characterized as socialist demagogic authoritarians who have brought the country to economic disaster. There is no mention of the “Lost Decade” of the 1980s or the extensive corruption scandals of the 1990s, creating the very breakdown of the status quo that made the rise of Chavez possible. Pre-Chavez Venezuela is presented as stable and prosperous, and while it certainly was before the 19980s, like most capitalist countries in the underdeveloped world, the majority of its population lived in poverty, while only a privileged few enjoyed the benefits of the country’s oil riches. Chavez’s cardinal crime was to direct those riches toward helping the poor, which even his critics admit he did. Complaints about authoritarianism and the quashing of dissent ring hollow when the U.S. just conducted a major sales deal with Saudi Arabia, a repressive monarchy that only just months ago had one of its most prominent critics, journalist Jamal Khashoggi, killed in Turkey. It is also risible to expect either Chavez or Maduro to have diversified the economy, fulfilled their promises to help the poor, and heal the country’s social divisions while the Venezuelan opposition was simultaneously attempting to overthrow their democratically-elected governments (with not-so-clandestine U.S. support). Yet this is implied in U.S. media coverage as the path they should have taken, and no alternative view is investigated or offered. The question is never whether the U.S. intervention is just or unjust, but is only debated in pragmatic terms: Is it affordable? What is the exit strategy? How does it poll with the electorate?

In 2008, Democratic candidate Barack Obama proudly touted his opposition to the 2003 Iraq War. His opposition, however, was not against military aggression per se but that the war was “rash” and “based not on reason but on passion.” He made a point of saying he was not opposed to wars, only “dumb wars.” In 1968, the idea of a “smart war” would have been contentious in the U.S. The most intelligent option, obviously, would be to avoid war altogether, especially given the possibility of nuclear apocalypse. Such a view threatened the very military-industrial complex that characterizes the U.S. economy; it would hardly make sense to construct and sell so many military jets if doing so was not seen as a national priority. In the 1980s, even as it entered terminal decline, the Soviet Union once more became the international bogeyman, rationalizing ever-increasing Pentagon budget increases. Nothing changed with the collapse of the Soviet Union; the supposed sophistication of underdeveloped countries and non-state actors meant that NATO, SETO, and the dozens of aircraft carriers had to stay. In fact, more were needed, as were military commands in Sub-Saharan Africa, etc., ad nauseum.

While having inexplicably giving intervention in Syria a pass, Trump has embraced playing “world police” in Venezuela. There is the obvious explanation that Venezuela is a major oil exporter while Syria is not, but it is also probable that Trump takes some delight in the ideological anti-communist nature of the coup attempt, given the most strident opposition to his far-right politics and the alt-right have come from the radical left. It is likely, however, that positioning himself as the alternative to socialism will do little other than validate the stark dichotomy of “socialism or barbarism” Rosa Luxemburg once put to her readers. Unfortunately, whatever the developments in U.S. politics, the real victims here are the ordinary people of Venezuela. Whether Maduro goes or stays, the classes at war within the country will not be pacified, especially with the U.S. stoking the fires until it gets the outcome it wants: a return to the plunder of Venezuelan resources to fuel U.S. industries while most Venezuelans wallow in misery.

 

 

Trump is Racist: The Imagined “Border Crisis” and Controlling the Discourse

320px-Inauguration_GOP_RacistIn a recent interview 60 Minutes presenter Anderson Cooper asked incoming Democratic Congressmember Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez: “Is President Trump racist?” Ocasio-Cortez responded in the affirmative, resurrecting a persistent controversy about the claim. Apparently, because President Trump does not explicitly use slurs and denies any bigotry, the argument is more interpretive than empirical. Yet there is no denying that the Trump campaign and the present administration have used tactics meant to dehumanize the people of Central America, especially vulnerable and persecuted groups seeking refuge from their wealthy and (ostensibly) benevolent northern neighbor. The decision to portray these refugees as uniformly violent and criminal based on nothing more than their ethnicity and geographic origin is, simply, racism, albeit cloaked in its usual insidious and suggestive forms. Notably, when right-wing movements outside the U.S. played on prejudices for populist support in Europe prior to the rise of Trump (such as with Geert Wilders in the Netherlands or the British National Party in the United Kingdom) there was little hesitation within Western institutions to label them as racist, Islamophobic, and otherwise socially reactionary. Once this global trend manifested in the U.S. in the guise of Trump, Steven Bannon, and the “alt-right,” racist ideology gained a level of credibility and legitimacy as the “people’s choice.” As people do not like being told many of them are racist, the idea that Trump and his followers hold racist beliefs and engage in racist behavior by necessity becomes “controversial.”

320px-CBP_Border_Patrol_agent_reads_the_Miranda_rightsTo its credit, the U.S. media has done well in pointing out that the entire concept of a “border crisis” is a right-wing fantasy. Illegal border crossings are on the decline and arrests for that crime at the Mexican border have been beneath 0.5 million annually since 2009. The explanation for the “border crisis” issue lies with another statistic: Latinos make up more of the United States’ demographic changes than any other group, with the U.S. set to become a “minority majority” country by the mid-21st century. Due to the diversification of the country’s demographics, the long-standing majority—Protestants of mostly Central and Western European descent—have reacted with the same resentment as expressed in those same Central and Western European countries today. Despite the “melting pot” rhetoric, U.S. identity revolves around a specific racial and religious make-up just as “being German” or “being French” does, these themselves being social inventions. It is true that the U.S. is a “nation of immigrants,” but that phrase belies the enormous power differential between those immigrants who settled the colonies in its early history (going on to become its first elites) to those much larger groups of immigrants who came during and after the industrialization of the U.S. It also elides the long history of nativist politics in the U.S. as exemplified by the Know Nothing Party of the mid-19th century or the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act. That Trump and his movement represents the latest iteration of politicized racism in the U.S. is obvious.

In a certain sense, Trump and his movement (as well as similar movements in the U.S.) represent a preternatural predilection for xenophobia, the fear of strangers. The etymology of the word “barbarian” literally means “all that are not Greek,” and as a word the ancient Romans adopted it to refer to cultures outside the Greco-Roman world. The Romans borrowed much from Greek culture, which itself incorporated much of the knowledge from interactions with peoples in Asia Minor and North Africa. Differences in beliefs and norms led each culture to view the other as “uncivilized” and thus “less than” their own (even if they had some good achievements). These cultures, however, were not “strangers,” at least not in the sense of the unknown; it was knowledge of their “strangeness” that made them “uncivilized.” “Barbarians” were not inherent threats, at least not at the zenith of Greek and Roman power; on the contrary, it was first the Greeks and then the Romans who imposed their own cultures across the Mediterranean through domination and colonization. When “barbarians” became threats, it was as military ones, sacking Rome when the empire had devolved into weakness and bloat.

187px-Slave_sale_posterModern xenophobia is far more intolerant than that of the past. This change has arisen out of the several ways Western cultures have (often forcefully) absorbed different ethnic groups into their societies. Western imperialism created colonies precisely to establish flows of trade between metropoles and peripheral possessions, and from these flows came people. Obviously, there was the literal trade of people: the institution of chattel slavery. It was with the African slave trade that the concepts of “whiteness” and “blackness” were born, byproducts of justifying and rationalizing an economic practice that made a white minority (the slaveowners) dependent on the black majority (the slaves) living and working among them. From this reality also came the persistent fear among slaveowners that their slaves would rise up, seizing power as well as freedom. To prevent this, slavery laws created the systems and structures by which slaves would remain subjugated, while Western cultures (especially the U.S.) socialized its white majority to accept racism as scientifically correct and morally just. This marked a departure from a “fear of strangers in strange lands” to “fear of the stranger who lives among you.” Prior to this period, European Jews were the targets of this brand of persecution through discrimination and pogroms, despite the extensive efforts made by most Jewish communities to assimilate. Whereas the Jews were ghettoized, African slaves lived on the estates and plantations of their masters, their full exclusion from white daily living not an option. In the U.S. South in particular, slaves formed the bedrock of the economy, that made the lifestyles of rich whites possible. Thus, it was not just primal suspicion that informed this strain of racism, but a compulsion to normalize an undeniably brutal and immoral custom through the promulgation of racist ideas.

As mentioned, European Jews found some places of safety from general mistrust and hostility until the 20th century, when they became the scapegoats of a complex system of international politics (World War I) and finance capitalism (the Great Depression), both of which had failed catastrophically in the 1910s and 1920s. Elites supported and encouraged anti-Semitic and other far-right nationalist movements in lieu of left-wing forces agitating for their abolition. Obviously, this resulted in an ideology that dehumanized Jews to such an extent that the only “solution” to the “threat” of their existence was total annihilation. The same logic was applied to other social “undesirables” in the same scientific and righteous language as that used in the U.S. to validate slavery as ultimately serving some greater good. The difference was that bondage rather than death was the “cleansing” force where slavery was concerned.

Thankfully, slavery in the U.S. and Nazi Germany were defeated, but unfortunately, their cultural legacies persist in the U.S. The Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman in a 1997 essay, “The Making and Unmaking of Strangers,” writes about “anthropoemic” versus “anthropophagic” forms of xenophobia. In the former, strangers must be exiled and ostracized, while in the latter, strangers must be destroyed. The ghettoization of the Jews or the relocation of Native Americans to reservations represents the former type while the systemic murder of Jews during the Holocaust or the ethnic violence of the Yugoslav Wars illustrate the other. Notably, the sort of xenophobia used by Trump and his supporters is one that views undocumented migrants as a cancer harming the U.S. from within. Therefore, undocumented migrants must be barred entry (no matter how valid their claims to refugee status) and those migrants already in the U.S. must be “excised” through detentions and deportations. Their makeshift “ghettoes”—old Wal-Mart stores filled with pages for holding children—are temporary, not permanent, and will only house them until they can be sent back to struggles of life and death. For some children, detention in the U.S. has already ended in death, including on Christmas.

320px-Ursula_28detention_center29_180617-H-BP911-638_284283174001229The rounding up and caging of human beings in a manner similar to animals is disturbing, but it also comes out of the far-right fantasy of contemporary concentration camps for the “threats” to the “white race.” In 1967, the Marxist philosopher Guy Debord wrote about recuperation, the process by which the ruling class appropriates subversive thoughts and symbols into conventional imagery. Thanks to the dependence of U.S. media networks on White House access, broadcasters give a platform to Trump to essentially sanction the far-right canard of a “border crisis” that endangers the U.S. Indications that approving this conspiracy theory has led to the bolstering of other similar misbeliefs, including the Nazi perception of Jews or the idea that blacks are seeking homicidal revenge on whites. We are not living in the world described in The Turner Diaries, a popular novel among the U.S. far-right, where white Christians live in a society controlled by Jews and where violent African-American and Hispanic-American gangs roam the streets. Yet, if a person ignorant of the larger world were to consume only the messages promoted by Trump and his surrogates on outlets like Fox News or The Daily Caller, they might well believe they are living in that world. Thanks to the panopticon of mass and social media many U.S. citizens live with, it is possible to get such an incorrect view, and from there to depart to other dangerous delusions.

The “border crisis” is not important because it pertains to an ongoing government shutdown, which may well be the longest ever in U.S. history, but also because as a larger issue to continues to shape and define the future of those refugees detained at the border and who continue to come for lack of any better alternative. Children have already died, and there is every reason to believe that such a policy will produce more tragedies, not less. In the long-term, the “border crisis” also matters because the very fact it is being covered so uncritical is a victory for racism as embodied by Trump and his movement. It is a manufactured issued based on irrational hatred toward people who, as I have explained elsewhere, are fleeing their homes because of U.S. policies.

Ocasio-Cortez is correct, and it is something that voices on the U.S. left should not be afraid to say: Trump is a racist, as his words and deeds have shown. Even if he was so much of a dupe as to not realize it, Steve Bannon charted a path to the nomination greased with far-right grievances and talking points. Trump’s appearance on The Alex Jones Show was no accident; his equivocating on who the antagonists were at Charlottesville in August 2017 was a deliberate move not to alienate his support among white supremacists. Using network airtime to sell a “border crisis” that does not exist save in the U.S. imagination as a racist fever dream serves the same function. That Trump is prepared to hold the government hostage and waste billions of dollars on a wall (or even increased border security at all) is offensive given the plethora of genuine issues, social and economic, clamoring for attention. In the name of “civility” (more accurately “courtly etiquette”) the present Democratic leadership is loath to declare a Republican administration locked into a fundamentally racist policy. It presents, as the professional pearl-clutchers say, a “lowering of the discourse.” What is truly more degrading to the national discourse is the continuation of a discourse around immigration that keeps on dehumanizing non-whites as some sort of “threat.”

Ocasio-Cortez has already shown that it is possible to seize the narrative around an issue, as she recently did with raising tax rates on the wealthiest Americans. While more economic populism is needed in the Democratic Party, there has not been enough leadership in fighting back against the racist attitudes that underpin much of the mainstream discourse. Democrats should be more vocal and assertive in laying their opposition to Trump, his movement, and his wall as not just “bad policy” but the politics of racism, division, and fear. Until that happens, a milquetoast party can only expect milquetoast enthusiasm, no matter the public appetite for opposing Trump’s racism.

The Democratic Civil War: It’s About Policy, Not Personalities

CapturePolitical blogger and journalist Matthew Yglesias has offered his own take of the present tensions within the Democrats between the centrist and progressive wings of the party. In his view, the irascibility between the two factions boils down to “who gets to be in charge” and not about determining policy. I strongly disagree with this view, as the argument that the Democratic Party establishment has genuinely tried to accommodate left-wing reformers rings hollow. Not only has the Democratic Party failed to address myriad calls for bold policy proposals, but in several important ways it has (and continues) to actively oppose and frustrate the Democratic left. By claiming that the ongoing divide among Democrats is reducible to personality actually reaffirms the establishment talking point that left-wing Democrats are motivated less by genuine grievances and are caught up in a cult of personality around Bernie Sanders and/or an irrational, visceral dislike of Democratic elites like Hillary Clinton or Nancy Pelosi.

The problem is that Bernie Sanders is actually not all that charismatic. With his thick accent and penchant for finger-wagging, he does not come across as naturally eloquent or statesman-like. Unlike Barack Obama, Clinton, or Pelosi, you won’t find many memes of him sporting sunglasses and swaggering. In fact, he’s more well-known for unkempt hair and cheap suits covered in crumbs from his last meal. His bombastic speaking-style is old-fashioned, reminiscent of politicians inflaming audiences with fiery and passionate rants. Today, the preferred style is the calm and composed fluency of the non-ideological expert and technocrat, as embodied by Obama and Clinton, meant to assure people that the candidate is a safe pair of hands, a statesman and not a firebrand. There’s also the obvious fact that Sanders is old. When you actually look at his social attributes, he fails pretty much every test of what it takes to be a media-friendly, easily-marketable political candidate in U.S. politics. Hence, he was pretty much discounted before 2016.

Yet Sanders became the most popular politician in the United States. He achieved this not because of personality but because of principles. If Sanders were to walk away from his left-wing stances tomorrow, do a U-turn and embrace a Third Way platform, his support would evaporate. In an age where politicians reject ideology in favor of “whatever works” (or, more accurately, whatever is most expedient at the time), it is refreshing to have a politician who touts a clear vision and can credibly say they have stuck to that vision throughout their career, even when it would have better for them to have “gone along to get along” and towed the party line. When a politician like Hillary Clinton attempts to promote herself as a progressive when her record proves otherwise (especially in an age where such information is readily available to everyone), many people see through the spin and, quite rightly, their intelligence is insulted.

It should be noted that, as the Sanders campaign picked up steam, Clinton did publicly acknowledge that policies and legislation she supported in the past (like tougher crime bills that disproportionately targeted people of color, or gutting social welfare meant to help vulnerable communities) were mistakes, and she amended her platform to placate some left-wing demands. Yet these steps only came grudgingly, and it was plainly obvious that she viewed such demands as unreasonable obstacles to her nomination. There were also plenty of signs that she thought she could ignore activists, be it in her selecting a garden-variety centrist like Tim Kaine as her running mate or the cynical attempts by her campaign to appeal to young voters by framing her as “your abuela” or using emojis to have a “conversation” about the serious issue of crippling student loan debt. These were all blatantly obvious marketing ploys meant to sell Clinton, and many voters — increasingly informed consumers who recognize when they’re being manipulated — believed that their legitimate grievances were being discounted. It wasn’t strictly Clinton that was the problem (although, like all politicians, she has to own her record and her legacy). It was that her campaign was trying to run a business-as-usual campaign in a year of unprecedented populist unrest in the U.S. and across the world.

What’s more, it came out that the DNC had tried to put in the fix to make Clinton’s pathway to the nomination all the more easier. Many people seem to forget that this is what ended the careers of long-standing Democratic elites like Debbie Wasserman-Schultz and Donna Brazile. In his tweets, Yglesias laments that Sanders promotes a “dyspeptic, cynical view of the Democratic Party as an institution.” What he omits is that the DNC has done plenty to legitimate that view, both before and since the 2016 election. Sanders tapped into resentment among many left-wing Democrats that the DNC takes their votes for granted; by no means did he create that unhappiness. It’s been there since the Third Way wing of the party secured control in the 1990s. With non-ideological technocratic centrism failing to inspire people in a time of great upheaval and uncertainty about the future, that fundamental disagreement about direction (not personality) is what explains the fragmented state of the Democratic Party.

Yglesias claims that the Democratic establishment has sought to “accommodate insurgent policy demands” by adopting Medicare for All or raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour. The reality is that the Democratic leadership has long and vocally opposed Medicare for All, and policy institutes associated with the Democrats are only just now entertaining highly compromised versions of the bill. Clinton surrogates roundly opposed adding support for a $15 minimum wage to the 2016 platform. Just last year, DNC chair Tom Perez appointed an opponent of the measure to the DNC finance committee. You do not need to be a pundit as famous as Yglesias to realize that every concession made post-2016 to the progressive wing of the party smacks of unenthusiastic and unwilling allowances purely meant to mitigate the potency of left-wing criticisms. The attitude that progressives should be grateful for the crumbs tossed to them from the banquet table of DNC elites goes to show why left-wing activists remain dissatisfied.

Speaking of Perez, recent developments indicate that the DNC is eager to make many of the same mistakes it did in 2016. Right now, Perez is an ugly war with the leaders of state Democratic parties to acquire their voter information to use nationally. The DNC wants this knowledge so it (and party-affiliated super PACs) can continue in its approach of figuring out how to manipulate voters to get their votes. In probably the best example of the DNC’s current technocratic style, Clinton’s 2016 campaign infamously relied on an algorithm named Ada to guide her to victory. Instead of doing traditional politics, learning about the public mood and their actual needs and concerns, the DNC thought it could create a win using mathematical modeling and statistics. As a result, the Clinton campaign took support in the Rust Belt for granted, and did not see the populist wave that propelled Trump to power coming. At a time when the DNC should be looking at ways to make itself more accountable and transparent, it appears as though Perez and the centrist wing he represents want to continue a top-down model where they figure out how to sell the policies they want, rather than a bottom-up approach where they hear what voters want and then adopt those proposals accordingly. In other words, it does not appear that the DNC has learned much of anything from 2016 at all.

Yglesias is not entirely wrong that personality matters; he is just wrong in how it matters. Again, it’s not a matter of charisma or style, but of substance and records. Clinton could not spin her way out of her Third Way legacy, and her attempts to use spin or to downplay her past votes and positions only served to undermine her. Politicians since Nixon have seemed to ignore the fact that the public is prepared to forgive almost anything if a politician forcefully and earnestly admits they were wrong and the damage they did; it’s when they try to be slick and sidestep both the mistake and its consequences that the public (usually smarter than what politicians presume) turn even more against them. Clinton and the seemingly irremovable Democratic leaders like Schumer and Pelosi have to own what they have done in the past, and understand that if their records make them unpopular now, it’s not a personal attack but the result of the choices they made. Those choices do not have to define them forever, but they will continue to define them as long as their attitude is that the people are wrong and they are still correct.

Vladimir Lenin wrote that a revolution cannot occur just because “the lower classes no longer want to live in the old way; it is also necessary that the upper classes should be unable to live in the old way.” Contrary to what Yglesias would have us believe, the upper class within the Democratic Party have failed to recognize that many among the rank-and-file will no longer support the DNC’s conventional practices. Unless they are prepared to admit that the present conflict within the party goes beyond image and is a matter of substance, that conflict is likely to continue on into the 2020 election and beyond. As history shows, institutions neglect their constituent bases at their own peril.

Capitalism, Communism, & Mortality

As global unrest spreads and long-running systems come into question, critical ideologies are once more on the rise. Communism, once declared dead with the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, is once more haunting the Western world specter-like with its persistently relevant critique of capitalism. In the United States, once the bastion of contemporary neoliberalism, young people are increasingly identifying with the “socialist” political label. In the United Kingdom, the British activist Ash Sarkar received a surge in popular support when she proclaimed she was “literally a communist” after an attempt to mischaracterize her as a garden-variety Obama-supporting leftist. These developments have sparked a flurry of editorials across the mainstream Western media reiterating the Cold War-era censures of communism as a “murderous creed,” accountable for much of the human suffering in the 20th century.

catoinstitute.PNGAs a case in point, the libertarian think tank the Cato Institute recently tweeted a link to a July 2018 article by Richard Ebeling, a professor of economics at Northwood University and a former president for the Foundation of Economic Education. In his article, Ebeling writes: “Historians of the communist experience around the world have estimated that as many as 200 million people—innocent men, women, and children—may have been killed in the socialist meat grinders: 64 million in the Soviet Union and up to 80 million in China, with millions more in the other socialist societies around the global.” As a source, he links to another article of his, where he claims (without a source) that “historians” believe as many as 68 million people were killed by the Soviet state in the 75 years of its existence. This is much more than the 20 million deaths ascribed to the Soviet Union in 1997’s The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression. Without citing actual sources (an odd choice for an academic), it’s impossible to know from where Ebeling gets his numbers, but it is hardly important. The most obfuscating influence on knowing the true number of people killed is not the murkiness or limits of the Soviet archives but the ideological compulsion by researchers to hold the Soviet Union and other communist regimes directly culpable for as many deaths as possible.

Far more people have wallowed in anguish under the terror and repression of capitalist countries than have ever done in communist countries. The reason for this is obvious: those countries have forcibly been exerting global hegemony since roughly the 16th century, their advanced development itself a product of their shameless looting of their conquered colonies. The underdevelopment of many contemporary low-income countries was not a reflection of the divide between “civilized” and “uncivilized” peoples, but the outcome of global hegemons securing access to rare and valuable resources at the end of a Maxim gun. Communist states, the first not established until 1917, would have been relative newcomers to the domination and repression practiced from Latin America to Southeast Asia ever since Columbus first “discovered” the New World.

It is not enough, however, to say that capitalist countries also have blood on their hands. It must also be stressed that the circumstances that produced state-directed violence also differed. Communist countries have always been thrust into precarious existences in highly polarized societies surrounded by intensely hostile and more industrialized enemies. It was necessary to establish order internally as well as rapidly develop economically while simultaneously navigating international relations in an unfriendly world. While this has produced authoritarian, unaccountable governments, it also nevertheless produced high levels of human development and standards of living now acutely missed in parts of the post-Soviet world. Indeed, they would be appreciated in much of the modern United States, the paragon of capitalist powers, where a terminal illness diagnosis can only be afforded through crowdfunding Web sites. Friedrich Hayek once said about Pinochet’s Chile that he preferred “a liberal dictator to democratic government lacking liberalism.” For the vulnerable and repressed, a communist dictator could be preferable to a democratic government lacking basic social services and support. Importantly, whereas communist states have all made documented efforts to improve the quality of life in their countries, life in the center of capitalist hegemony is still decided by intersecting hierarchies of class, sex, race, and more determined by the lottery of birth. Obviously, no communist state has achieved utopia, but one must wonder what sort of society would be created if the wealth and power of the United States promoted social welfare instead of seeking to eliminate it. Additionally, what would the world look like if the colonial legacy in underdeveloped countries was not one of clientelism and corruption, but of communal uplift, shared prosperity, and the eventual abolition of all social and economic distinctions? We do not (and may never) know such a world, because we only have the one history has given us.

That history has a very selective existence in Western minds. While many people can identify Joseph Stalin as one of the worst tyrants of the 20th century, often put on par with Adolf Hitler, virtually none know Robert Bulwer-Lytton, 1st Earl of Lytton, the British viceroy of India in 1876. Faced with a severe drought and famine in southern India that year, Lytton adopted a laissez-faire approach, directing crops back toward England rather than contributing to relief efforts. Over five million people died in the famine, made the worse by colonial administrators who simply valued the lucre of imperialist accumulation more than native lives. By the Malthusian logic of the day, the Indian population had a “tendency to increase more rapidly than the food it raises from the soil” (in Lytton’s words), and therefore high mortality was a “natural” consequence of “overpopulation” by the poorest stratum of what was already considered a “backwards” society. Just as liberal philosophers centuries prior had conceived of private property as a “natural” right, thereby legitimating its legal protection, so too did Victorian colonizers conceive themselves as mere bystanders to “natural selection.” Over five million people died in the Great Famine between 1876 and 1878. In India, it would inspire some of the earliest Indian nationalists, but in the West, its memory soon died after the initial public outcry. Instead, the West remembers imperialism as regrettable morally, but beneficial in its long-term “modernization” of the underdeveloped world.

The historian Niall Ferguson is perhaps the quintessential author of imperialist apologia. Imperialism, he claims, “pioneered free trade, free capital movements, and, with the abolition of slavery, free labor.” The lasting positive imperial legacy for him was the integration of India into a global capitalist economy, while overlooking that this integration served the colonizer far more than the colonized. In terms of quality of life, as the 1876 famine illustrates, the economic benefits of free trade were actively denied to the colonized, the colonizer deliberately permitting a catastrophe to worsen in the name of unfettered “market forces.” It is doubtful that the men, women, and children who starved to death in Madras expressed gratitude in their final thoughts for their status as “free labor” when they received rations with less caloric value than that issued to inmates at the Buchenwald concentration camp in 1944. In Western scholarship, the claim that the creation of a classless, stateless society was worth those killed by the Soviet state under Joseph Stalin would be met with scathing mockery; yet Ferguson and scholars like him can claim that the germination of capitalism validates millions murdered by by imperialist governments, and they are taken seriously.

It could be argued that 1876 is too far in the past, a reflection of the worst excesses of imperialism. Yet in 1943 another famine in India, this time in Bengal and Orissa, left around two to three million dead. Scholars like Cormac Ó Gráda have shown how the British government chose policies that placed their own military decisions over the welfare of the Indian people, such as by using shipping for war purposes rather than transporting food. In the recent films lionizing British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, how much reel time is spent on his decision to allow millions of Indian families to widespread misery and impoverishment, which persists to this day? Mortality in India, especially for children, remains very high. As Noam Chomsky has pointed out, if mortality is to be used as a measure of tyranny and repression, as the authors of the Black Book of Communism, India would be the bedrock indictment against the Western world, whose legacy in that subcontinent are more disgraceful than noble. Yet, the West would prefer Ferguson’s version, to hang on to the myth of the humanizing mission of empire, the “white man’s burden” to spread “civilized” (i.e. Western) institutions and beliefs. Today, this perspective continues to guide Western development efforts, with international financial institutions and government aid agencies facilitating “good governance” (i.e. Western institutions and values).

For all the major changes done to the political and economic architecture of non-Western countries by Western powers and their affiliated institutions, we are no closer to reaching a capitalist utopia. In a sense, that is the more damning impeachment of capitalism; even after achieving worldwide dominance, to the extent that its tenets have so saturated Western knowledge to be categorized with laws of nature, the wealth has not trickled down, raising all boats. Instead, wealth continues to be concentrated into the hands of a global ruling class that completely isolates large chunks of the human population from meaningful agenda-setting and decision-making. The accumulated deaths of human history weigh less on a person’s mind today as to how they go on living and laboring under a system that deprives them of a decent quality of life, for themselves and for their families. Increasingly, we will also have to make capitalism reckon not just for the damage done in the past, but how it has destroyed our future through the massive climate change triggered by centuries of unchecked pollution, deforestation, and other environmental ills that threaten the health of our planet.

Sources

Davis, Mike. 2017. Late Victorian Holocausts. Verso Books

Dirks, Nicholas B. 2009. Scandal of Empire: India and the Creation of Imperial Britain. Harvard University Press.

Ó Gráda, Cormac. 2015. “‘Sufficiency and Sufficiency and Sufficiency’: Revisiting the Great Bengal Famine of 1943–44”. Eating People Is Wrong, and Other Essays on Famine, Its Past, and Its Future. Princeton University Press. pp. 38–91.