Bolivia: Anatomy of a Coup

192px-morales_20060113_02To understand recent events in Bolivia, it is necessary to have historical context. No event occurs in isolation from the past. With such information we can interpret the present, especially when we should be critical of the representation of events featured in Western media. Armed with the history, we see the coup against Evo Morales not as a spontaneous revolt brought on by constitutional zeal, but the latest intervention against a socialist leader in the form of a U.S.-endorsed coup, with control over natural resources and geopolitics at the center of it all. Just as indigenous rebels were suppressed in the colonial past to guarantee the smooth flow of treasure from Latin America, so too has Morales and his supporters been toppled so gas and lithium could move cheaply into factories owned by Western multinational corporations. The mainstream political left has been slow to admit it, but even presidential candidates are calling it a coup.

180px-potosi_mines_287162578429From the 16th to the 19th centuries the Spanish Empire controlled most of the New World, with the wealth of Latin America enriching the monarchy in Madrid. Silver was one of the continent’s top exports, especially a huge deposit at Potosí in modern Bolivia. In a little over a century and a half, the silver stolen by Spain from Latin America totaled three times the total European reserves. Ultimately, most of the loot went to the empire’s creditors, the patrician moneylenders of the era. Today, Bolivia still has the resources, but none of the wealth. According to the 2018 Human Development Index, an annual report by the United Nations Development Programme, ranks Bolivia with Vietnam and Palestine in terms of life expectancy, education, and quality of life. Eduardo Galeano, in his seminal work Open Veins of Latin America, quotes an old lady from Potosí: “The city which has given most to the world and has the least.”

To those who study development and underdevelopment, the idea of “rich countries with poor people” is nothing new. Hundreds of billions of dollars leave Sub-Saharan Africa every year, either through the repatriated profits of multinationals or illegal deposits in offshore tax havens and Swiss bank accounts, and yet the continent contains some of worst poverty and weakest institutions in the world. So too does Latin America. According to the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, the proportion of Latin Americans living in extreme poverty increased from 9.9 percent in 2016 to 10.2 percent (62 million people) in 2017. Fundamental social protections and fair wealth distributions remain as elusive today as they did in the colonial period.

160px-pongo_0436bThis is especially true for the indigenous people of Latin America, who also have historically been excluded from political power since colonialism. As in the United States, social conflict exists along racial as well as class lines. The “indios” of Latin America are associated not just with poverty but also witchcraft, anathema to right-wing Latin Catholicism. Bolivia is unique among Latin American states in having around three dozen indigenous groups totaling around half the country’s population. White Bolivians make up just 14 percent of the population, centered in the commercial city of Santa Cruz de la Sierra, which produces approximately 35 percent of Bolivia’s gross domestic product. In the 1960s, the famous communist revolutionary Che Guevara felt inspired to fight in the mountains of Bolivia against the government of Rene Barrientos, a right-wing general who had seized power with CIA backing in 1964. By then, tin had supplanted silver as Bolivia’s prized export. Notably, Bolivia did not smelt the minerals it produced; this was done in the industrial heartlands of the Midwestern U.S. and northern England. By blatantly thieving the resources of poorer nations, the capitalist powers fueled their own post-war economic boom, with the surplus wealth shared with the U.S. or British worker. For the Bolivian working class and the indigenous population, there was no investment in social services or poverty reduction, just human suffering. The so-called “Golden Age of Capitalism” for the West came at the expense of the continued exploitation of Latin resources and the repression of Latin peoples.

4531933336_6f38b13f24_bIt was not until 1982 that Bolivia knew something other than military dictatorships and coups, with civilian rule finally being restored. Bolivians, however, did not control their own economy; hyperinflation had reached elevated levels, scaring off foreign investors. As it so often did in the region, the World Bank stepped in, attaching preconditions to its economic assistance. Following a program of structural adjustment, Bolivia privatized its hydrocarbon industry, its telecommunications system, its railways, and its national airlines. In late 1999, riots broke out in the city of Cochabamba over the privatization of the water system. A consortium who took control of the system began charging $20 a month for access to water, ignorant that most Bolivians only earned around $100 a month. The “Cochabamba Water War” led to the privatization being reversed.

In 2003 similar protests over the privatization of hydrocarbons led to the fall of the pro-neoliberal government and, in 2005, the historic election of Evo Morales, the first indigenous president in Latin American history. Morales was a former cocalero, a grower of the coca leaf, who entered political organization just as indigenous movements across the Andes were demanding greater representation. Ironically, it was the U.S. itself that fueled these movements with the forcible expansion of its “War on Drugs” into South America and the resulting criminalization of the coca plant. Elsewhere, in Peru, the right-wing, anti-communist Alberto Fujimori government oversaw the forced sterilization of around 300,000 poor, indigenous women, one of the largest such operations since the days of Nazi Germany. While rarely mentioned in the West, such a human tragedy provides a timely reminder how exclusion can so easily lead into ethnic cleansing and even systemic genocide of marginalized populations.

With mines closing and coca farming banned, indigenous Bolivians developed powerful grassroot networks for improved social and political inclusion. The Movement for Socialism in Bolivia was one such network, and Morales used its popular strength to launch a series of reforms based around (1) taking natural resources into public ownership and (2) using the wealth to invest in education, health care, and other social programs. Indeed, whatever else one thinks of Morales, it is undisputed under his administration poverty was significantly reduced for the majority of Bolivians. Morales lowered poverty by 42 percent and extreme poverty by 60 percent between 2006 and 2019, according to a report by the Center for Economic and Policy Research.

320px-evo_morales_chapareMorales was part of a “pink tide” sweeping through Latin America in the early 21st century. Hugo Chavez, a self-proclaimed socialist like Morales, had also come to power via the ballot box in 1998 with a similar anti-U.S., anti-neoliberal agenda. Like Chavez, Morales was a charismatic figure with an anti-imperialist message who had to instantly contend with U.S.-backed reactionary elites. Unlike Chavez, Morales did not take the profits of the 2000s commodities boom and spend it lavishly, running budget deficits as Venezuela did. Instead, Bolivia had a budget surplus every year between 2006 and 2014. Morales embraced a “socialism lite” that saw much more gradual nationalizations and more market-friendly policies. Earlier in 2019, Nicolas Maduro barely hung onto power as another U.S.-backed coup attempt sparked and fizzled. Meanwhile, Evo Morales went into a presidential election to serve a fourth term as president of Bolivia.

Morales had won his two previous elections with majorities around 60 percent, but in 2019 the vote was much closer. Morales had tried and failed to get a referendum passed that would have enabled him to circumvent a constitutional term limit (written and ratified under Morales himself) but had decided to run again anyway. When opposition members disputed results that gave Morales the victory, the Organization of American States stepped in to investigate the integrity of the election. The O.A.S., under U.S. direction since the Cold War, had been a staunch critic of Castro’s Cuba and Chavez’s Venezuela, albeit muted on the human rights abuses of pro-U.S. dictatorships. Now it added Morales’ Bolivia to its list of rogue Latin states. The message advanced by the opposition and repeated in the Western press was that Morales’ violation of the constitutional term limits had sparked a national revolution against tyranny.

juventud-sczIt seems a tall tale to think that ordinary Bolivians would care so much about term limits that they would send their country into anarchy and possible civil war. If there was such public indignation, it was not represented by the close result of the earlier referendum vote. What was actually represented during the post-election crisis was the anti-indigenous racism and class antagonism of the wealthy Santa Cruz elites. Luis Fernando Camacho, a leader of the Santa Cruz autonomy group, has ties to a far-right paramilitary group with a history of targeting indigenous Bolivians. These are not the masses, but the local commercial bourgeoisie, the white descendants of white colonizers. They would gladly foment civil war, as their Venezuelan counterparts have tried to do, if it would mean the chance to enhance their fortunes with the blessing of Washington behind them. The rich whites of Bolivia live the anxiety of rich whites in the U.S.: exploited non-whites organizing and agitating for immense political, social, and economic reform.

It is worth remembering to those who would paint Morales’ eventual resignation as an organic act of democratization that this only happened after the military intervened. Given the long record of military coups supported by the U.S. in Latin American against left-leaning governments (Paraguay 1954, Brazil 1964, Chile 1973, Argentina 1976, etc.), it seems absurd that anyone would believe what happened in Bolivia was not a coup. More than that, it seems naïve in the extreme to believe that it was not a coup with support from the U.S. government with the goal of forcibly dismantling socialism.

320px-20170809_bolivia_1505_crop_uyuni_srgb_283798006393129Before the coup, Morales was in the process of industrializing lithium production in Bolivia. The country contains the world’s largest salt flat, the Salar de Uyuni, believed to have 50 to 70 percent of the world’s known lithium reserves. Lithium has become a valuable commodity with the development of lithium ion batteries and a greater global turn to renewable energy sources. Typically, valuable minerals like lithium are extracted in their crudest raw forms from underdeveloped countries to be processed in the developed Western hegemons, just as silver and tin ore was smelted in Pittsburgh and Liverpool. To prevent this, Morales began investing heavily in creating all the necessary industrial capacity within Bolivia to process lithium. Assuming Morales eventually brought the lithium industry into public ownership (which would be consistent with his socialist principles, plus the social movement that produced him), Bolivia would no longer be dependent on Western countries to sell lithium ion batteries (and other lithium products) directly in the international marketplace. With the money obtained from that, the country could further invest in other domestic industries, building them up to compete with the very same Western-based corporations that once looted them. Bolivia was trying to gain independence from the U.S.-dominated world economy and having more luck than Venezuela. The consequence was yet another coup in a part of the world where they occur all too commonly. To this day, there has not been a full reckoning with how the U.S. has and continues to actively hinder democratization in Latin America as well as benefits from and contributes to its underdevelopment.

So far, U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders has stood alone among Democratic candidates in not only addressing the situation in Bolivia but also for identifying Morales’ downfall as a coup. While we should have no illusions that we will see a truly anti-imperialist foreign policy resulting from this election or any near-future election, we should nevertheless embrace the opportunity to support a candidate who recognizes the anti-democratic character of recent events in Bolivia. Furthermore, we should pause and consider the likely many indigenous Bolivians who will suffer due to reprisals and further political violence once the far-right opposition consolidates its hold on power. We are already seeing signs that the current de facto government is drawing up lists of political enemies and courting Catholic extremists rather than extending the olive branch to trade unions and indigenous political groups. This is not a turn toward pluralism at all, but the restoration of a white Latin aristocracy whose anger is fully directed at native Bolivians.

Phony War

logo_codOn October 25, video game publisher Activision released the sixteenth installment in the Call of Duty video game series, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. This version is a “reboot” of the original Modern Warfare, released back in 2007, the best-selling video game of that year. The 2007 edition was a seminal shift for first-person shooters, which had based their themes and moods on cinematic WWII depictions like Saving Private Ryan. Modern Warfare instead represents war as it exists today. Like its predecessor, this most recent Modern Warfare aspires to give players realistic, recreational simulations of special forces raids, drone strikes, and shoot-outs. Critics have documented the jarring choice of representing war in a video game, where difficult issues are ignored or neglected at the expense of entertainment. Critics should go further: The Call of Duty games are acting as forms of propaganda, representing real-life historical events and places, some associated with U.S. atrocities, as something other than they were. This goes beyond the normalization of state violence and its supporting industries, to the revision of the U.S. war record in recent decades.

americas-army-3_2119177The link between the Pentagon and the entertainment industry is well-known. As documented by Nick Turse in The Complex: How the Military Invades Our Everyday Lives (2008), the U.S. military encourages a quid pro quo relationship with the entertainment industries. With Hollywood, the Pentagon provides access to genuine hardware and expert consultants so those blockbuster war movies look authentic, while major studios provide the military with the best recruitment ads money can buy. Similarly, games like Call of Duty emphasize all the “cool” aspects of being a soldier—like charging headlong into a firefight or sniping targets with state-of-the-art weapons—when this is hardly representative of the actual experience for most military personnel, especially those who never see combat. (Of course, no one would buy a video game about desalinating water in Kuwait.) By putting players (most of whom are boys and young men in the 18-35 demographic) in the boots of Navy SEALs, Army Rangers, or CIA intelligence operatives, the games show only a limited aspect of what the military does, one wrapped up in the joy of murder without consequences. The idea that games like Modern Warfare could be considered “training” is laughable; they are, without doubt, meant to provide a sanitized “fun” version of war for their players. The only way these games are challenging is in issues of hand-eye coordination; they do not aim to make players pose hard questions about war, only to experience a scripted imitation of dramatic combat. Yet this imitation is not meaningless; the script contains choices, strategies employed by designers, meant to constitute the U.S. military for players.

The 2007 version of Modern Warfare set the game in “the future” of 2011, in the midst of a Russian civil war as well as a fictional war-torn Middle Eastern country. The “bad guys” were Russians and Middle Eastern militants. For the players of these games, killing Middle Eastern men becomes a recurring experience, desensitizing them to what they could very well do if they enlist, given our ongoing embroilment across the Middle East. The vilification of Russia mirrors tension between Washington and Moscow over Russian interventions in the Republic of Georgia and eastern Ukraine. The Call of Duty games certainly did not invent the Russian bogeyman or the Muslim terrorist tropes, but they certainly help to reinforce them. Taking part in raids on Italian terrorists would not feel… right. The game uses enemies that feel familiar as enemies in U.S. pop culture. Yet, even as it plays on these cultural references, it creates a divergence from our world.

medalofhonor4Medal of Honor, a rival series to Call of Duty, featured the Taliban as a playable faction in one of its editions, creating controversy. It did not seem appropriate for U.S. citizens to play as Taliban soldiers killing U.S. military personnel. Call of Duty has thus avoided controversy by changing its universes just a bit from our own. Although Russia is frequently the “bad guy” in scenarios, the Middle Eastern countries are fictional, and their struggles are less historical and contextual and more general “freedom versus dictatorship” material. The game becomes war without the politics or history, an imagined war, hypothetical war, wholly separate from the “complications” of real life. Its this careful, calculated presentation of war that makes the game enjoyable. But it also provides an opportunity for the U.S. military and its operations to be presented in a certain way. The choices made in Modern Warfare are not accidental; they serve to rewrite history, to give new meanings to names and places that already exist.

As Alec Kublas-Meyer notes in his review of Modern Warfare, the game relentlessly shows the grittier features of war, such as the waterboarding (torturing) of human beings, or the deaths of innocents caught in the crossfire. But beyond these general qualities are references to specific events. Kublas-Meyer cites the close parallel between the storming of a U.S. embassy in the game and the real 2012 attacks on U.S. facilities in Benghazi, Libya. Unlike real life, however, in the video game al-Qaeda (or its thinly veiled analog of it) is actually involved in the assault. Rather than an uprising by local militia (like in real life) the attack is part of a coordinated operation by the game’s al-Qaeda equivalent. What was a hawkish fantasy becomes real within the Call of Duty universe, and al-Qaeda is represented as more influential and powerful than it is.

The game also mentions a “Highway of Death,” where Russian forces bombed fleeing civilians. In reality, the “Highway of Death” refers to the 1991 massacre of retreating Iraqis who were fleeing Kuwait for Iraq by U.S.-led coalition forces. The “Highway of Death” is now being associated in young minds with a fictional Russian war crime and not the actual U.S. killings. There’s even a map in the game called “Haditha,” which is a real place in Iraq, and the site of another U.S. massacre, this time of 24 civilians in 2005. It’s not just that, as Kublas-Meyers observes, that the game fails to ask the inherent ethical questions regarding war; it’s that it presents an alternate reality very favorable to the U.S. military-industrial complex as propaganda. Setting aside the morality of war is bad enough, but to reconstitute actual events is literally attempting to create a twisted perception, one that unambiguously advances the agendas of foreign policy hawks and arms contractors. This is propaganda in its purest form.

300px-haditha_massacreGiven the degree to which war pervades our culture, it’s not surprising that it has also found representation in video games. The tradition of “war-gaming” goes back to exercises played by Prussian field officers in early modern Europe. But whereas war games in the Prussian tradition encouraged innovative strategies, games like Modern Warfare encourage an obedience to status quo thinking on war. Certain premises are put forward and must be accepted as an informal ticket of admission: the U.S. military never harms innocents; the enemy commits war crimes, not the U.S. military or its allies; and the consequences, psychological or otherwise, of taking human life is minimal. Just as players shoot the nameless “bad guys” in the game, so too does our society ignore the actual killers trained by the U.S. military, the veterans living with physical or psychological disabilities because of their actions. Worse still, there is the complete erasure of victims of U.S. aggression, as they simply don’t exist within the game. In the case of the aforementioned 2005 Haditha massacre, none of the Marines charged in the killings served jail time. Only one, Frank Wuterich, suffered a rank reduction after six years of prosecution. Modern Warfare adds insult to injury by redefining Haditha as a bit of terrain, not the atrocity that it was. The game is making a very real claim to be representing modern war, yet the atrocities carried out by the U.S. and it allies in recent interventions are completely omitted or revised. Whether a person is a hawk or dove, it should be acknowledged in any representation of war that no side is immune to “collateral damage.” Innocent people suffer as a result of war, yet the war of Modern Warfare is war without civilian casualties, without weddings blown up, women and children shot in the night.

Obviously, the solution is not that Modern Warfare should have U.S. planes bombing civilians as well as Russian planes. And it is also true that video games may just be a dubious medium for considering war critically. Still, Hollywood has produced some anti-war films that also sought to capture war accurately, like Full Metal Jacket and Platoon. While these films were imperfect, especially in their tendency to emphasize sympathy for the U.S. soldiers and not the Vietnamese people, they nevertheless were decidedly opposed to the glorification of war. It is reasonable that a video game publisher could produce an anti-war war game today, but it is doubtful how it would be received by a gaming audience isolated from “real war” like no previous generation. After years of reinforcement that “war is normal,” a message against war and the celebration of warriors would be received as bizarre, a radical idea. After all, that is what “modern warfare” is: the perpetual interventions of the U.S. militarily in the name of “keeping peace” and “restoring order,” as dictated by the interests of the U.S. itself.

Those of us who remember a world before September 11, 2001 probably never imagined the extent to which U.S. military operations would expand in a fleeting period of time. There was a small window between the end of the Cold War and 9/11 when the idea of NATO and global strategic alliances seemed outdated. Now there is an ongoing global military campaign with no end in sight and no clear adversary. Osama bin Laden is dead; the head of ISIS just died. So how many more need to die before the war ends? What final event needs to happen for the “War on Terror” to be finished? The war will never end because its good for business, including the entertainment industry. Games like Call of Duty do not want to ask when the war will end because their makers do not want them to end. It would be like Madden asking its players whether the glamorization of violent contact sports, one that leads to widespread concussions, is really humane entertainment. Since war will exist regardless, video game publishers may as well profit from it, as long as they keep it “culturally appropriate,” a few shades shy of reality.

Unfortunately, it seems unlikely at present that U.S. foreign and military policy will change anytime soon, even if Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren win the White House. While their policies would be disruptive to the economic status quo in this country, their visions for U.S. actions abroad remain murky at best. Ideally, some of their promised generous social spending would be funded through cuts in bloated defense spending, and a less funded war machine might lose some of its luster. It’s worth remembering, though, Warren’s connections to defense lobbyists and Sander’s fierce protection of fighter aircraft assembly in Vermont. Historically, they have been allies, not opponents of the military-industrial complex. Given the tall orders they face in reforming our complex financial system, the idea they could take on the MIC as well seems unlikely. Games like Modern Warfare may just be reflections of a forever war that is here to stay.

May the Best Social Democrat Win

320px-youth_voice_presidential_forum_284878162773329In a recent interview with ABC News, U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders highlighted this distinction between him and rival Democratic presidential candidate, U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren: “Elizabeth, I think, as you know, has said that she is a capitalist through her bones. I’m not.” Sanders claims Warren would just tinker at the margins of the existing economic system, whereas he would seek to replace capitalism itself. In terms of tactics, the candidates are virtually identical, as both are using left-wing populist messages to sell their campaigns as crusades to change the status quo. While Warren has emphasized her “plans,” in substance their policy proposals are remarkably similar. They are also alike in status: U.S. senators who caucus with Democrats and have with similar left-wing voting records. So, are they really all that different?

320px-elizabeth_warren_visits_roosevelt_high_school_284893857431129The most concrete difference between Sanders and Warren is not so much ideological as chronological. Several of Warren’s colleagues have recounted her past as an ardently free marketing-supporting Republican. Sanders, by contrast, has been staunchly on the left his entire political career, and therefore is more appealing to left-wing diehards. Warren’s conversion to the Democratic Party, however, may say more about the two-party system in the U.S. than anything about Warren. Since the late 20th century, the Republican and Democratic parties have been more alike than different, sharing a loyalty to a constellation of established interests. Of the two, the GOP has been the more dynamic, evolving from the evangelicals and economists to conspiracy theorists and nativists. The Democrats, instead, have held onto the mantle of inoffensive centrism firmly in place since the 1980s. It is only recently that taking a more left-wing posture has won support among Democratic leaders, and even by that metric Warren was a relatively early convert to government regulation and a fairer economy. After all, she made her political career by pushing for a more powerful Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which had its opponents within the Obama White House. Friends of Wall Street, like then-Vice President Joe Biden, wanted the CFPB to be toothless. Warren, however, vocalized her belief that the disaster of the 2008 financial crisis demanded a stronger, more centralized oversight over U.S. financial practices.

240px-36_vikingo.svg_If Warren was never that radically right, Sanders has never been that radically left. When asked for a concrete model the U.S. should adopt, he has pointed to Scandinavian states such as Denmark, Sweden, and Norway. In 2013 The Ecomomist (hardly an anti-capitalist publication) sung the praises of “the next supermodel,” the so-called “Nordic model” of free market capitalism coupled with large states with large budgets. The magazine notes that Denmark and Norway permit privately-owned corporations to run public hospitals, while Sweden has a universal system of school vouchers. This “enhanced Thatcherism” is offset by high spending on social services funded by high taxes, which The Economist maligns: “Too many people—especially immigrants—live off benefits.” For the free market advocate, the Nordic countries “waste” too much on generous welfare states. Nevertheless, there is still clearly a class system, one in which impoverished non-Nordic people have to subsist on government assistance. In the end, Sanders’ example of countries to emulate are the capitalist countries of Europe, where labor movements and social democratic parties established Keynesian mixed economy welfare states. Such states existed across Western Europe after WWII thanks to powerful labor movements as well as a litany of social democratic politicians.

Sanders describes himself as a “democratic socialist,” but he is more accurately a social democrat. The similarity of those terms invites confusion and requires some historical context. In 1848, Europe was hit with several liberal revolutions demanding the distribution of political rights (such as voting for all men without concern for property or income). It was these uprisings that most directly inspired Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels to make their communist call to action. What they advocated, however, was not democracy, but class domination of another sort: the establishment of a dictatorship of the proletariat that would seize the means of production and destroy the bourgeoisie before abolishing class entirely, along with the state. Communism is inherently anti-democratic because it presumes a stateless as well as classless society. Social democrats, therefore, have departed from the revolutionary aspects of Marxism and have embraced parliamentary politics and legislative reform. These methods have invited sacrificing ideological purity for courting public support, as best demonstrated by the rush of many social democratic parties to support the wars of 1914—1918 across Europe, many of them entering into coalitions with centrist and even conservative political parties.

sozialdemokratische_partei_deutschlands2c_logo_um_1930Everything changed with the foundation of the first socialist state, the Soviet Union, in October 1917. The bullet had showed itself more effective than the ballot box. Violent revolution threatened not just the pro-capitalist politicians but the social democratic ones as well, and out of self-interest they gravitated to anti-communist policies. This was most historically evident in the case of the German Social Democratic Party, who used the police to crack down on the German communists and their paramilitary street-fighting squads. There was also the “threat” of Soviet diplomacy and the institution representing global communism under Soviet guidance, the Communist International. In a world order of competing superpowers, many governments felt pressure to align with one state or the other, for economic if not security reasons. The wealthier, most industrialized countries tended to be capitalist democracies, and to be accepted into that bloc required opposition to Moscow. After the 1980s paradigmatic shift to neoliberalism and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the capitalist democracy became the norm, the “end of history,” as Fukuyama called it. If the crisis of 2008 meant the beginning of the end for neoliberalism we know it, then the future is looking less like unchartered territory and more like a return to the social democratic models of post-war Europe.

Sanders and Warren are both presenting visions for reform that would extend democracy into the economic life of U.S. citizens (such as by strengthening labor unions and granting employees partial corporate ownership), but would fundamentally preserve strong private companies, including the increasingly narrow of multinationals who dominate most trade and industries. A large state with generous social services is not socialism; in fact, having such a large state with extensive influence over society and the economy is considered a feature of fascism. This why the Soviet Union condemned the social democratic parties of 1920s Europe as “social fascists,” or as “the moderate wing of fascism.” Sanders and Warren would probably both like to create a neo-corporatist framework of tripartial coordination between employers, unions, and state entities, not unlike those that emerged in post-World War II Europe, including in Scandinavia. This would be preferable to the depletion of social welfare programs in the U.S. to fund the ever-growing military-industrial complex, but it would not be a means to socialism. It would be the enlargement of the state, when an aim of socialism is to abolish it. A dictatorship of the proletariat, by contrast, would have a purpose other than existing for itself in the provision of needs and services. Its function would be to realize the ambition of abolishing property and ending exploitation. Neither Sanders nor Warren present a path for getting to that goal because that is not their goal; the aim is merely to alleviate the worst abuses of capitalism than abolish capitalism itself.

In the case of the U.S., it would mean that Washington and New York would continue to go on as the hegemons of the world politically and economically, funding highly profitable industries through the exploitation of peripheral underdeveloped countries. A portion of that wealth would be redirected into programs starved off resources or into creating innovative programs considered reasonable and moderate by European standards. Undoubtedly, a great deal of money will still be funneled into arms production (via the Pentagon) and corporate welfare. It would mean a considerable increase in the actual standard of living for many people in the U.S., certainly, and for many U.S. citizens, it would mean the best chance of reforming a corrupt, dysfunctional system whose contradictions and failures become more apparent and outrageous.

As a socialist myself, I recognize that the conditions for revolution do not exist in the United States. Electing a social democrat like Sanders or Warren would be an absolute good when the alternative is the persistence of a status quo that has produced the U.S. as an invader, human rights abuser, and the site of the economic malpractice behind the 2008 global financial crisis. The election of Donald Trump and the public surge of white supremacy accompanying it are just symptoms of societal breakdown as communities feel neglected and oppressed by uncaring elites. Rather than “socialism or barbarism,” we are facing “social democracy or barbarism,” by which social democracy still wins in a landslide. Obviously, the best way to accomplish this is to opt for unity rather than division in face of needing to defeat not only Trump but centrist champion Biden.

At the same time, calls like that by the L.A. Times for Sanders to drop out (before a single Democratic primary vote has been cast) and endorse Warren are absurd. Sanders and Warren must both play to win. While close on policy, their approaches are indeed different, with Warren taking the path of the conventional bridge-builder and hand-shaker (this time it’s selfies) as Sanders maintains his firebrand bravura. Warren’s recent rise in Democratic polls likely draws from moderate voters preferring her to Sanders, especially as questions arise about Joe Biden’s health and his son, Hunter, unethically gaining status in foreign oil and gas companies based on his familial connections. Hunter Biden’s “qualification” was his connection to his father. This sort of “legal corruption” embodies what the aggrieved masses despise: the ruling class enriching itself at the trough of unashamed nepotism and blatant horse-trading.

Assuming Biden continues to struggle in the polls, the race will indeed become increasingly about what separates them. Warren will probably continue to be the more successful candidate, precisely because the Democratic nominee must navigate a process that is still dominated by special interest groups, policy institutes, and political action committees. While Bernie Sanders and his campaigns have been instrumental in mobilizing people on the left like no other political candidate in recent memory (especially working class people), that same grassroots movement has failed to penetrate the institutions who decide who the nominee will be. That nominee will have to work with those institutions if elected, along with a hostile Republican opposition in the Senate and Supreme Court, to pass social democratic reforms that will be dubbed “socialist.” There is already evidence that the Republican Party is liberally using the “socialist” label when attacking Democrats ahead of 2020, citing the policies of Warren and Sanders along with Reps. Ilhan Omar and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

Sanders and Warren represent a real shot at progress in the U.S., at least on economic issues. On important social questions like racial justice, and especially on U.S. foreign policy, there is still a lot of work to be done to pressure them to expand the parameters of what is possible in U.S. politics. We should have no illusions about the need to maintain pressure not only on hostile groups but candidates themselves who claim to be representing the political left. Voters are important during elections, but once the election is over, voters must continue to organize and petition decision-makers to be instruments of popular will.  One of the classic criticisms of social democracy is the “iron law of bureaucracy,” which holds that bureaucratic organizations inevitably give rise to powerful but largely self-serving layers of officials. Electing a social democratic candidate will not be sufficient, even though that itself will be difficult; that will need to be followed by even more energy from the left to oppose right-wing reaction and pearl-clutching by the centrist chattering class. There is still a lot of time left in the primary, however, and not a single vote has been cast. May the best social democrat win.

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.

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.