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Archive for August 2011

Libya: Imperialism and the Left

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By Stephen Gowans

While the class character of regimes under siege by Western powers is often explored in analyses of imperialist interventions and is frequently invoked to justify them, it neither explains why capitalist imperialist powers intervene nor stands as a justification for their actions.

The relevant consideration in explaining why interventions occur is not the political orientation of the government under siege, nor its relations with its citizens, but whether it accommodates the profit-making interests of the dominant class in the intervening countries. Does it welcome foreign investment, allow repatriation of profits, demand little in the way of corporate income tax, open its markets, and offer abundant supplies of cheap labor and raw materials? Or does it impose high tariffs on imports, subsidize domestic production, operate state-owned enterprises (displacing opportunities for foreign-private-owned ones), force investors to take on local partners, and insist that workers be protected from desperation wages and intolerable working conditions?

Much as it might be supposed that imperialist interventions target worker and peasant-led governments alone, this is not the case. Regimes that promote national bourgeois interests by denying or limiting the profit-making interests in their own countries of the dominant class of other countries are routinely targeted for regime change, especially if they are militarily weak or have pluralist political systems that afford space for destabilization and political interference. Since the effects are the same in imperialist countries of a local regime, say, expropriating a foreign-privately-owned oil company, no matter whether the company is turned over to local business people, the state, or the company’s employees, it is a matter of supreme indifference to imperialist countries whether the expropriation is carried out by communists, socialists or radical nationalists. Whether you’re inspired by Marx and Lenin, 21st century socialism, or the actually-existing capitalist policies that the United States, Germany and Japan followed to challenge Britain’s industrial monopoly, if you’re going to mess with the profit-making opportunities of an imperialist country’s capital class, it will mess with you.

Gaddafi was faulted by the US State Department for his “increasingly nationalistic policies in the energy sector” and for trying to “Libyanize” the economy. (1) He “proved to be a problematic partner for international oil companies, frequently raising fees and taxes and making other demands.” (2) And his pro-Libya trade and foreign investment policies were irritants to Western banks, corporations and major investors as they surveyed the globe for lucrative profit-making opportunities.

Equally likely to be targets of imperialist designs are capitalist rivals that compete for access to investment and trade opportunities in third countries. They too may become the objects of destabilization, economic warfare, and military encirclement.

This is evidenced in one of Nato’s roles: to contest spheres of exploitation. The organization’s secretary-general Anders Fogh Rasmussen, explaining why Nato countries need to spend more on their militaries, remarked that: “If you’re not able to deploy troops beyond your borders, then you can’t exert influence internationally, and then that gap will be filled by emerging powers that don’t necessarily share your values and thinking.” (3) You can interpret this to mean that when it comes to Africa and the Middle East—which are likely the regions Rasmussen alludes to–the alliance’s raison d’être is to keep North Americans and Western Europeans in, the Russians, Chinese and Brazilians out, and the natives down. But however you interpret it, it’s clear that the alliance’s secretary general doesn’t understand Nato to be an organization of mutual self-defense, but an instrument to be used by developed countries to compete with emerging ones.

Concerning the validity of interventions by Nato countries, here too reference to the class character of targeted governments misses the point. It is not a regime’s class character, nor how it treats its citizens, that explains the reasons for intervention against it, but the class character of the countries that intervene. This in turn illuminates whether the intervention is valid or not.

The principal Nato countries are all incontestably class societies in which major corporations, banks and ultra-wealthy investors wield out-sized influence over their societies. Their representatives and loyal servants hold key positions in the state, including and especially in the military and foreign affairs, and the corporate rich have access to resources that allow them to lobby governments far more vigorously than any other class or interest can. Accordingly, the foreign policy of these countries reflects the interests of the class that dominates them.

It would be exceedingly odd were this not so. Profit-making concerns don’t melt away when corporate CEOs, corporate lawyers and bankers are assigned to key foreign policy posts in the state; when they develop foreign policy recommendations for governments in elite-consensus-making organizations, like the Council on Foreign Relations; or when they lobby presidents, premiers, and cabinet secretaries and cabinet ministers.

For this reason, US and Nato interventions, while billed as humanitarian for obvious PR reasons, are at their heart, exercises in protecting and advancing the interests of the class that dominates foreign policy. This is clear enough in the business pages of major newspapers.

In recent days, the business section of The New York Times announced that “The scramble for access to Libya’s oil wealth begins.” Eric Reguly, a business columnist with The Globe & Mail, the newspaper of Canada’s financial elite, echoed the point.

“The oil industry’s biggest players, meanwhile, are salivating to reclaim their old concessions and nab new ones, all the more so since their own oil production has been in decline. The vast Ghadames and Sirte basins, largely off limits to foreign oil companies since Col. Gadhafi swept to power 42 years ago, are especially attractive. So is Libya’s offshore area.

“Who will get the prizes? The (National Transitional Council) has already said it will reward the countries that bombed Col. Gadhafi’s forces. ‘We don’t have a problem with Western countries like Italians, French and U.K. companies,’ Abdeljalil Mayouf, a spokesman for the rebel oil company Agogco, was quoted by Reuters as saying. ‘But we may have some political issues with Russia, China and Brazil.’”

Reguly’s column ran under the headline, “They bombed and therefore they shall reap.” They shall reap, too, in another way. “The head of the Transitional National Council, Mustafa Abdel-Jalil, explicitly promised to reward those nations that backed Libya’s revolt with contracts in the state’s postwar reconstruction.” (4) This is the charmed circle of aggressive imperialism.

Billions of dollars are sucked out of taxpayers and into the pockets of arms manufacturers to build a war machine. The war machine is pressed into service against countries whose governments have denied or limited the profit-making opportunities of the imperialist country’s corporations, banks and major investors (many of whom have interests in arms manufacturing), causing significant damage to the victim countries’ infrastructure. Comprador regimes are installed, which throw their country’s doors wide open to the intervening country’s exports and investments and invite the intervening country to set up military bases on their territories. At the same time, the new regimes funnel reconstruction contracts to the intervening country to rebuild what its war machine has destroyed. So it is that the capitalist class of the intervening country profits in three ways: From defense contracts; new investment and export opportunities; and post-war rebuilding. A peaceful resolution of Libya’s civil war would have disrupted this charmed circle. Is it any wonder, then, that Washington, Paris, and London ignored all proposals for a negotiated settlement?

An alternative explanation might be offered. While the major oil and engineering companies of the leading Nato countries will profit from Gaddafi’s downfall, the motivation to intervene was nevertheless independent of crass commercial concerns, and was humanitarian at its core.

But if this were so you would have to explain how it was that Nato’s humanitarian concern was uniquely invested in a country in which there are still Western oil-industry-profit-making opportunities to be had, while Nato remained unmoved by humanitarian concern over the plight of Shiite Bahrainis whose peaceful protests were violently suppressed by an absolute monarchy — with the help of the tanks and troops of three other absolute monarchies, including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

A third contributor to the violent suppression of the Bahraini revolt, Qatar, deserves special mention. It is celebrated in the Western press for its contribution to the Libyan rebels in arms, warplanes, training, diplomatic recognition, and (in the Qatar-state-owned Al Jazeera) propaganda–a real friend of democracy in its struggle against dictatorship and repression. The New York Times referred to Al Jazeera as an “independent news channel” (5) though it is not clear what Al Jazeera is independent of. The Times has never, to my knowledge, referred to the state-owned media of countries under imperialist siege as “independent,” this laudatory and impossible adjective (all media are dependent—whether on the state or private investors) is reserved for media that have adopted a perspective that is pleasing to the interests of The New York Times’ board of directors and major owner.

Bahrain—a paragon society for Western investors—has already disgorged its profit-making opportunities to Western oil companies. It is also home to the US Fifth Fleet. It is therefore a de facto extension of the US economy, indeed, of US territory, and so its government can do whatever it likes, so long as it continues to keep Wall Street happy. Bombing, sanctions, destabilization and International Criminal Court indictments are reserved for governments that “raise fees and taxes” on US oil firms and try to nationalize their economies, a clear red-line in an imperialist time.

In the view of one sector of the left, imperialist interventions are supportable so long as they lead to the toppling of a capitalist regime, irrespective of its succession by another. Of course, the outcome of any successful imperialist intervention against a bourgeois nationalist regime is its replacement by a comprador one. This hardly amounts to an advance.

For still another sector, the character of the besieged government is all that matters. The character of the intervening state, by contrast, matters not at all – not its domination by corporate, banking and investor interests; not its record of pursuing wars of conquest; and not its resort to fabrication to justify its aggressions. For these leftists, such as they are, the targeted government is reprehensible, while their own is either angelic or well-meaning. In this frame, Gaddafi’s attempts to crush an uprising is understood to be on a more barbaric plane than, say, the war on Iraq, which created a humanitarian catastrophe on a scale Gaddafi’s repressions could never match. What manner of delusion leads one to believe that the United States and Britain, the architects of rapacity and slaughter on a global scale, are (a) angelic and well-meaning, (b) motivated in their foreign policy by humanitarianism, and (c) are playing a constructive role in Libya?

The most pusillanimous of leftists are those who condemn the brutalized and brutalizers equally. They take a comfortable though craven moral stance, but their condemnation of targeted governments is irrelevant. Since the character of governments under siege has nothing whatever to do with the reasons for the intervention, and does not, in the case of capitalist imperialist interventions, justify it, there can be one reason alone for singling out the victim for equal condemnation in the context of his assault: a desire for respectability and a penchant for knuckling under to mainstream opinion, not challenging it and offering an alternative, counter-hegemonic, explanation.

Suppose you live next door to an ill-mannered, thoroughly dislikeable woman who has managed to alienate everyone you know. One day her husband beats her. You can condemn the husband for beating his wife, and say nothing of his wife’s character. Why would you? It doesn’t excuse the husband’s behavior. Or you can condemn both equally, noting that as much as you deplore wife-beating, you also deplore the victim for her bad manners and irksome ways. To do the latter is unsupportable and anyone who did this would be deservedly rebuked. Yet left fence sitters do the same when they insist on condemning the governments of countries that capitalist imperialist countries intervene in to show that they don’t support the crimes of which those governments are accused. Worse, they refuse to even investigate the veracity of the accusations, and then challenge them if they fail to stand up to scrutiny, for fear of being denounced as apologists. Instead, they simply accept the accusations as true, even though similar accusations against other victims on similar occasions have been shown to be fabrications (Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, for example.) This is apologetics of another kind, on behalf of the left fence sitters’ own ruling class. It keeps them on safe ground. They can say later, as so many did in connection with the Iraqi WMD scam, “We didn’t know. I’m shocked, shocked!, that the government deceived us.”

However, the analogy suggests that interventions only happen in countries where governments behave in reprehensible ways, and this isn’t the case. Certainly, the impression produced by the propaganda assault that accompanies interventions is one of targeted regimes being thoroughly detestable and their demise consequently to be wished for, even if the intervention that brings it about is undertaken for the wrong reasons. And leftists, if they’re to be taken seriously in the court of respectable mainstream opinion, are expected to genuflect before the depiction of targeted countries as criminal lest they be accused of being apologists for dictators, or useful idiots. But it sometimes happens that the crimes of which targeted regimes are accused are not crimes at all, or if they are, are mild ones at worst.

The narrative used to explain the need for intervention in Libya is that a peaceful uprising of democracy-loving Libyans against the Gaddafi dictatorship was about to be crushed in blood. A narrative that navigates closer to the truth is that the uprising, touched off by surrounding events in Tunisia and Egypt, originates in the longstanding rift between a nationalist, government on the one hand, and Islamists and comprador elements on the other. While this fails to explain the uprising in full, it explains a good part of it. Is the repression of reactionary forces that threaten the state a crime? If you’re a Libyan Islamist, monarchist or CIA-backed exile, the answer is yes, just as it is if you’re an ideologue for this particular imperialist intervention. But if you’re Gaddafi, and his nationalist supporters, the answer is no.

Significantly, few people are seriously calling for Nato to mount an operation to protect Bahraini civilians from the violent repression of an absolute monarchy. However much the Khalifa regime’s crackdown on Bahraini protestors is considered a crime, it is not a crime on a large enough scale to warrant a Nato intervention. Indeed, it is difficult to conceive of any justification for a Nato intervention, since Nato countries are only good at undertaking interventions as investments. There has to be a promise of a lucrative payoff for an elite of capitalist masters if the investment in blood and treasure is to be justified: oil concessions free from profit-reducing taxes and fees; new export and investment opportunities; reconstruction contracts. Humanitarianism doesn’t add to the bottom line. But let’s assume for the moment, as the naïve do, that Nato can intervene for selfless reasons, and that this is not, like the lion lying down with the lamb, an impossibility. Why would we call for intervention against Gaddafi but not Khalifa? The reasons why bankers, corporations and major investors who dominate foreign policy in the Nato countries would do this is clear. That leftists do the same raises questions about what is meant by the “left”.

Diana Johnstone and Jean Bricmont lambasted significant sections of the European left for failing to vigorously oppose the Nato intervention in Libya’s civil war and in many cases for supporting it. (6) But this is like faulting sheep for grazing on grass. While regrettable, there is nothing strange or unprecedented about people who consider themselves to be of the political left, even socialists, siding with their own government’s imperialist eruptions. It has been happening since at least WWI. Lenin offered an explanation — and whether you find his explanation compelling or not the phenomenon he set out to explain cannot be denied. A sector of the left regularly sides with its own government’s imperialism, while another sector finds ways to subtly support it while professing opposition. The only sector of the Western left, with one or two exceptions, that can be counted upon to reliably oppose imperialism, and to have some kind of sophisticated understanding of it, are the Leninists.

Max Elbaum points to the phenomenon in his book about the 1960s New Communist Movement, Revolution in the Air. “Late-sixties activists,” he writes, “felt a powerful political and emotional bond” with the Leninist wing of the socialist movement. During WWI, this wing broke decisively “with those socialists who supported the war, or at least did little or nothing to oppose it.” They were drawn to Leninism because, like the original followers of Lenin, “they too had spent years in frustrating fights with more prestigious left forces that had dragged their feet—or worse—in the antiwar campaign.”

Elbaum credits democratic socialism’s refusal to vigorously oppose the US war on Vietnam with building support for the New Communist Movement. “Though today’s democratic socialists don’t talk about it much,” writes Elbaum, “the U.S. social democrats played a sluggish or even backward role in the anti-Vietnam War movement.” The official US affiliate of the Socialist International, the Socialist Party, “actually supported the war” and “was all but absent from antiwar activity.” Editor of Dissent, Irving Howe, among the most prominent of US social democrats, “long opposed the demand for immediate withdrawal from Vietnam.” Michael Harrington, perhaps the most widely known US social democrat, never offered a full-throated denunciation of the war. According to his sympathetic biographer, Maurice Isserman, Harrington referred to the war as if it were a force of nature rather than a product of human agency (a tragedy, like a hurricane or earthquake, rather than an instrument of US imperialism) for fear of alienating “his closest and long-standing political comrades who were supporting the slaughter…” Harrington regarded his pro-war social democratic colleagues not as backward, reactionary collaborationists but as “good socialists with whom he differed on peripheral issues.” (7)

Internationally, democratic socialists acted in ways that provoked disgust. “French Socialists, while in power had conducted the colonial war in Algeria—complete with torture. The Harold Wilson-led Labour Party government in Britain backed US Vietnam policy despite its misgivings.” And “social democrats worldwide were among the most vocal supporters of Zionism and opponents of Palestinian self-determination.”

Sound familiar?

In the late-sixties, writes Elbaum, “it seemed only natural to identify with the tendency that had fought against similar social democratic backwardness during an earlier imperialist bloodletting.”

So too in 2011.

1. Steven Mufson, “Conflict in Libya: U.S. oil companies sit on sidelines as Gaddafi maintains hold”, The Washington Post, June 10, 2011.
2. Clifford Kraus, “The scramble for access to Libya’s oil wealth begins”, The New York Times, August 22, 2011.
3. Stephen Fidler and Alistair MacDonald, “Europeans retreat on defense spending”, The Wall Street Journal, August 24, 2011.
4. Steven Lee Myers and Dan Bilefsky, “U.N. releases $1.5 billion in frozen Qaddafi assets to aid rebuilding of Libya”, The New York Times, August 25, 2011.
5. David D. Kirkpatrick and Kareem Fahim, “Inside a Libyan hospital, proof of a revolt’s costs”, The New York Times, August 25, 2011.
6. Jean Bricmont and Diana Johnstone, “Who will save Libya from its Western saviours?” http://www.counterpunch.org, August 16, 2011.
7. Max Elbaum, Revolution in the Air: Sixties Radicals turn to Lenin, Mao and Che, Verso, 2006, p. 46

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August 28, 2011 at 10:16 pm

In Libya, Lies and Imperialism on the Verge of Victory

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By Stephen Gowans

Nato’s mandate in Libya was to protect civilians, not to take sides in a civil war between secular nationalists on one side and Al Qaeda Islamists and CIA backed-exiles on the other. (1) But all pretence that the organization was neutral was swept aside in the Western media’s celebration of the rebel march into Tripoli.

Now it is acknowledged that “NATO warplanes had flown overhead for days, bombing targets in the capital and its surroundings to clear the (rebel’s) path to Tripoli” (2); that “intensification of American aerial surveillance in and around the capital city (was) a major factor in helping to tilt the balance after months of steady erosion of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s military”; that “coordination between NATO and the rebels…had become more sophisticated and lethal in recent weeks”; that “Britain, France and other nations deployed special forces on the ground inside Libya to help train and arm the rebels”; and that the rebels had become “more effective in selecting targets and transmitting their location, using technology provided by individual NATO allies, to NATO’s targeting team in Italy.“ (3)

In effect, the rebels—aided by Nato special forces—acted as Nato’s army. It was a Nato regime change operation all along, with Libyan rebels as pawns. Gaddafi won’t be swept from power by a popular uprising, but by nine parts Nato bombs and special forces and one part Libyan rebels from the east.

Some will rationalize Nato’s violation of its UN mandate by pointing to the probable outcome: the toppling of a dictator. But Nato has little concern for the type of government a country has, so long as it is open to exploitation by Western banks, corporations and investors.

One need only contrast the Nato war on Libya with the West’s muted response to the violent suppression of a popular uprising in Bahrain to see this is so.

British Prime Minister David Cameron, who has played a key role in the Nato war on Libya, greets Bahrain's crown prince in May, soon after Bahraini authorities, with the help of Saudi tanks and troops, violently suppressed a popular uprising . Photograph: Kirsty Wigglesworth/AP

The Khalifa tyranny’s killing of its own people—with the help of Saudi tanks and troops–merited no punitive action by Nato and no indictments from the International Criminal Court. On the contrary, Bahrain’s absolutist monarch, King Hamid, was invited by Queen Elizabeth II to the royal wedding in April, while British Prime Minister David Cameron welcomed “Crown Prince Sheikh Salman bin Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa to London in May, greeting him on the doorstep of No 10 (Downing Street) with a firm handshake and bringing a whole new meaning to the phrase ‘blood on our hands’.” (4)

Why the double standard?

Significantly, Bahrain—home to the US Fifth Fleet–is a virtual wet dream for Western investors, boasting no restrictions on repatriation of profits, no corporate income taxes (except on oil companies), absent regulation, no restrictions on foreign investment, and no minimum wage.

Libya, on the other hand, provoked Washington’s ire by practicing “resource nationalism” and amending labor laws to “Libyanize” the economy, as a leaked State Department cable revealed.(5) Gaddafi’s insistence on screening foreign investment, imposing performance requirements on foreign investors, and demanding that Libyans have a 35 percent stake in the country’s economy, did little to help his cause in Washington, London and Paris, even if it did help Libyans enjoy the highest standard of living in Africa.

It appears as if Gaddafi’s days are numbered. But we shouldn’t delude ourselves that this represents an advance of democracy. All that has happened is that a local dictatorship, one which at least had the merit of promoting Libya’s independent economic development, is about to be succeeded by a puppet government answerable to a dictatorship of foreign corporations, banks and investors.

1. For Al Qaeda involvement in the uprising see particularly, David Pugliese, “DND report reveals Canada’s ties with Gadhafi”, The Ottawa Citizen, April 23, 2011 and Rod Nordland and Scott Shane, “Libyan shifts from detainee to rebel, and U.S. ally of sorts”, The New York Times, April 24, 2011.
2. Kareem Fahim, “Instead of a bloody struggle, a headlong rush into a cheering capital”, The New York Times, August 21, 2011.
3. Eric Schmitt and Steven Lee Meyers, “Surveillance and coordination with NATO aided rebels”, The New York Times, August 21, 2011.
4. Mehdi Hasan, “Let them eat doughnuts: the US response to Bahrain’s oppression”, The Guardian (UK), July 11, 2011.
5. Steven Mufson, “Conflict in Libya: U.S. oil companies sit on sidelines as Gaddafi maintains hold”, The Washington Post, June 10, 2011.

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August 22, 2011 at 4:07 pm

Posted in Bahrain, Imperialism, Libya, NATO

Socialism’s Agenda Time

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By Stephen Gowans

From 1928, when the Soviet Union laid the foundations of its socialist economy, until the late 1980s, when Gorbachev began to dismantle them, the Soviet economy grew without pause, except during the period of the Nazi war machine’s scorched-earth invasion. Unemployment and later economic insecurity became ills of the past.

True, growth slowed beginning in the 1970s, but the major culprits were the diversion of budgets and R&D to the military to counter threats of US and NATO aggression, and growing resource extraction costs, not the alleged inefficiencies of public ownership and central planning, as is now widely believed. (1)

In fact, Soviet socialism—while it existed–worked better than capitalism in producing economic growth.

From 1928 to 1989, GDP per capita grew in the USSR by a factor of 5.2, compared to 4.0 in Western Europe and 3.3 in the major industrial offshoots of Western Europe—the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

And importantly, Soviet growth happened without the recurrent recessions—and their attendant pain in unemployment, hunger, and despair–that were routine features of the capitalist economies over the same period.

Indeed, while capitalism was mired in a major depression during the 1930s, leaving hundreds of millions without work, the Soviet economy was expanding rapidly, absorbing all available manpower. And while the dual ills of inflation and unemployment ran rampant in the stagflation crisis that roiled the capitalist economies during the 1970s, the Soviet economy expanded without interruption and without inflation or joblessness.

But that’s not what we’re told today. The received wisdom—rooted not in reality but Cold War propaganda—is that the Soviet economy collapsed under the weight of it inefficiencies, and that the demise of the USSR proves that an economic system based on public ownership, central planning and production for use, is unworkable. Even many Marxists believe this, touting the merits of “market socialism” as the only workable alternative.

And yet the Soviet economy’s record of peacetime expansion and full employment remained unblemished until Gorbachev began to experiment with the very same market socialism that many Marxists now embrace.

Hence, Soviet socialism’s reputation for being unworkable is underserved. A slow-down in economic growth—having as much to do with US efforts to cripple the USSR by embroiling it in a ruinous arms race as it did with internal problems–has been transformed into a myth about economic collapse.

Myths work both ways. While they can turn successes into what appear to be failures, then can also turn failures into what appear to be successes.

So it is with capitalism. With a major bank bailout needed to rescue it, the US economy in recession on Main Street, European economies falling like dominoes under the weight of stagnation and mounting debt, and long-term unemployment stuck at alarmingly high levels with no sign of improvement, few people are pointing out the obvious: capitalism isn’t working. Had the Soviet economy’s record been as bad, it would have long ago been judged, not as inefficient, but as an inhumane disaster—a pox on humanity to be eradicated as quickly as possible.

And yet, in a period of deep crisis for capitalism, many of the Marxist organizations that you would think would be hammering home the point that surely, we can do better than capitalism, aren’t. Instead—with notable and inspiring exceptions–they’re talking about other things—about how the main battle is against “the Right”, by which is meant Republicans and Conservatives, and how socialism won’t be on the agenda for another 500 years.

Another 500 years?

There’s a self-fulfilling prophesy here. Socialism doesn’t boil up spontaneously and come knocking at the door asking politely to be put on the agenda. Like any agenda item, someone has to put it there. If socialism is always deferred to a distant future, no matter how deeply capitalism sinks into crisis, no matter what toll capitalism needlessly takes on the lives of hundreds of millions, no matter how pressing the need for socialism’s arrival, it will never show up on the agenda – not in 500 years, not in 1,000.

The future—as mass unemployment, worsening economic malaise, and austerity make clear–has arrived.

Surely we can do better than capitalism. The time to put socialism on the agenda is now.

1. For discussions of Soviet economic performance see: Robert C. Allen. 2003. Farm to Factory: A Reinterpretation of the Soviet Industrial Revolution. Princeton University Press, 2003; David M. Kotz. “The Demise of the Soviet Union and the International Socialist Movement Today”. Paper written for the International Symposium on the 20th Anniversary of the Former Soviet Union and its Impact, Beijing, April 23, 2011; and Roger Keeran and Thomas Kenny. “A Rejoinder to Erwin Marquit’s Critique of Socialism Betrayed”. Nature, Society, and Thought, vol. 17, no. 3. 2004.

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August 8, 2011 at 10:45 pm

Posted in Socialism, Soviet Union

Cuba: Still Making It Tough To Screw Others

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By Stephen Gowans

New York Times reporter Damien Cave has written an article about changes that will allow Cubans to buy and sell their homes.

Cave seems to criticize the plans because they’ll likely outlaw real-estate-related social parasitism, limit “opportunities for profits and loans,” and prohibit foreign ownership.

Havana, 2011. Stephen Gowans.

“The plan outlined by the state media,” he writes, “would suppress the market by limiting Cubans to one home or apartment and requiring full-time residency.”

Gasp!

Cave seems ruefully pessimistic that budding entrepreneurs—both Cuban and foreign—will have much chance to get rich flipping Cuban properties. “Some Cubans expect rules forcing buyers to hold properties for five or 10 years,” he writes.

“Others say the government will make it hard to take profits off the island, through exorbitant taxes or limits on currency exchange.”

And Cave points to one Cuban who “cannot imagine a real open market,” anticipating, instead, that the government will set a per square foot price.

Finally, there’s a “thorny” issue that threatens to dampen the zeal of even the most ambitious social parasite: Evictions are outlawed.

How’s anyone to get rich on the backs of others under this plan?

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August 3, 2011 at 2:41 pm

Obama Better than Bush? Yes, But for Who?

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By Stephen Gowans

The view of the New York Times and its columnist Paul Krugman is that the Obama presidency isn’t proceeding the way it was supposed to. The president has failed his liberal Democratic supporters and capitulated to the Republicans.

Here’s their charge sheet:

Obama failed to end the Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthy, failed to create a government-run health insurance system, and failed in his negotiations with Congress on raising the debt-ceiling to shelter Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.

And in a yet-to-be approved deal to avoid default of the US government’s debt, Obama agreed to automatic cuts in social programs and defense spending if a bipartisan panel fails to agree on a deficit-reduction package, or its recommendations are rejected by Congress. Conspicuously missing are tax increases on the wealthy as one of the automatic triggers.

The ultra-wealthy will continue to avoid paying their share of taxes, loaning their spare cash, instead, to Washington, to be repaid in full with interest — an attractive deal for the rich, a swindle for everyone else. The upward redistribution of wealth continues as strongly as it ever did under Bush, the only difference being that Bush admitted the ultra-wealthy were his “base,” while Obama doesn’t.

On foreign policy, Obama’s record is no better. He has failed to close Guantanamo Bay, stepped up the war in Afghanistan, extended the war to Yemen, and wages war in Libya without Congressional authorization — which is only slightly worse than the fact that he’s waging war on Libya. What’s more, he has failed to prosecute his predecessor for authorizing the use of torture, arguing pathetically that he prefers to look forward, not backward.

All this means that for liberal Democrats, Obama is a clear disappointment. But that sure doesn’t mean they won’t vote for him. And Obama knows it. Liberal Democrats, progressives and even Communists are so terrified of the Republican Party right-wing, that they’ll vote for anyone to the left of it, even if “to the left”, means a long way toward right.

Which leaves Obama plenty of room to manoeuvre to advance the agenda of his ultra-wealthy backers. Michael Moore and others lambasted Ralph Nader for his third party presidential bid. It allowed Bush and his pro-war, pro-wealthy agenda to come to power, they charged. Okay, so now that a Democrat has succeeded him, what’s different?

To be fair, this kind of political dynamic isn’t unique to the United States. In Canada, a left-wing party with Marxist-Leninist roots greets every election campaign with the same rallying cry: Let’s stop the Conservatives. By which is meant: Vote for whoever can stop the Tories, even if it means a vote for the Liberals, whose record, policies, and class affinities are virtually indistinguishable from those of the Conservative bogeymen.

And in Britain, the Communist Party of Britain backs Labour against the Conservatives.

Which means that the parties of the nominally liberal wing of the business establishment can count on the support of everyone to left of conservatives, even while trampling all over them.

That liberal Democrats in the United States would quickly become disappointed with Obama can hardly be a surprise except to the politically naive and to those who put their brains in park and let wishful thinking take the wheel.

It was always clear that a president backed by corporate money and surrounded by a cabinet of ruling class partisans was going to advance the corporate agenda and champion the privileges of the ultra-wealthy. After all, that’s who bankrolled his presidential bid, and is bankrolling his re-election bid.

Trouble is, desperate for some kind of respite from the depressing string of defeats the left has endured (or inflicted upon itself) no one on the left wanted to hear this.

Neither did anyone else for that matter. The day after Obama was elected, a TV news crew showed up at my son’s school. A small group of students, my son included, was assembled and asked what they thought of Obama’s election. All gushed about how inspired they were and how relieved they were that the Bush era had come to a close, to be succeeded by a new, more hopeful, day. Except my son. He pointed out that it was unlikely that an Obama presidency would be much different from a McCain one. Obama was backed massively by corporate money, and he would depend on Wall Street to get re-elected. The piece aired with comments from all the students …but one.

“Oh sure,” it will be said, “Obama’s just a handmaiden of the establishment, but even if he’s only a little better than a Republican president, he’s still a little better.” And a little better can, as Noam Chomsky once said, make a big difference. I guess that’s true, depending on what your goal is. If your goal is to keep public pensions intact for another three years instead of one, little differences do count.

But there’s a point at which goals can go from difficult to reach but achievable to so modest that setting them amounts to capitulation. What’s more, it’s doubtful that the Democrats are even a little better.

The view on the left that they are comes from the belief that the Democrats and Republicans differ only in the degree to which they’re willing to make concessions to labor to buy social peace. Democrats will go further, we’re told.

But there’s another view, which liberals, progressives and timid radicals impatiently dismiss as “ultra-left.” It says that because they’re widely but erroneously supposed to be the party of the common man, the Democrats can go further in advancing the agenda of the ultra-wealthy—and do. The reason why is that once in office the common man goes to sleep.

Ultra-left or not, this view seems to more closely fit the facts than the competing view that the Democrats are friendlier to the average person (if only to serve ruling class purposes) compared to the Republicans.

Commenting on the difference between Labour and Conservative governments in Britain, the radical sociologist Albert Szymanski once remarked that Labour “followed the same sort of conservative economic policies vis-a-vis balancing the budget, reducing the trade deficit and resisting workers’ demands for wage increases as the Conservative and Liberal governments that came before and after.” But the “main difference between the two types of governments was that a Labour prime minister was better able to get the working class to accept” sacrifices that benefited banks, investors and corporations. (1)

In other words, if you want to pacify labor and the left while ramming through measures that advance the interests of capital at the expense of everyone else, bring in a Labour or Democrat or (in Canada) NDP government. Sure, they’re more apt to guarantee social peace, but only because voters think they’re in their corner.

So, what did Bush do that Obama hasn’t done?

Obama, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning president, escalated Bush’s war agenda, but faced no concerted public opposition. Parts of the antiwar movement have been in hibernation since Obama stepped over the White House threshold. The Communists are heartened that Obama initiated a troop withdrawal from Iraq (seemingly oblivious to the reality that he needed to transfer troops from Iraq to Afghanistan where the occupation was going badly.)

While Guantanamo Bay was an embarrassment under Bush, its continued operation is not even remarked upon under Obama. And nowadays, the United States is prepared to carry out extra-judicial assassinations of its own citizens. Even Bush didn’t go that far.

Bush was scorned for lying about WMDs to justify an illegal war on Iraq, but Obama lies about the reasons for war on Libya. No one even maintains the pretence it’s about protecting civilians anymore—except when NATO covers up the war crime of bombing civilian infrastructure, claiming the heinous deed was necessary to protect civilians. There has hardly been a peep of protest. On the contrary, liberals, progressives and many leftists have fallen into step with the peace president on Libya.

Of course, in reality, Obama isn’t the peace president. He’s the pacifying president. And it seems a great injustice, to consistency at least, that the Nobel committee didn’t award its peace prize to Bush. After all, Obama’s contribution to peace is no greater than Bush’s was. Indeed, it’s marginally worse.

Today, 25 million US citizens want full time jobs but can’t find them. By agreeing to cut spending when the US economy is stagnant (its annualized rate of growth for the first half of the year is no better than US population growth), Obama will add to the Himalaya of idleness that has gripped his country, courtesy of capitalism, but exacerbated by a lack of political will to significantly palliate the problem.

And why palliate it? There’s no restiveness on the streets and an expanding reserve army of labor offers the welcome promise (to Obama’s real base) of downward pressure on wages, benefits and working conditions. Profits will soar – as they have been.

True, it can always be said that McCain would have encroached even further on working class interests, and that the Tea Party’s strength is a factor, but as Krugman points out, Obama has staked out positions even further to the right than the average Republican is comfortable with. And it’s doubtful that McCain could have got even half as far as Obama in stepping up the war and agreeing to budget positions that are indulgent to the wealthy and harsh to the poor without provoking pressure from below.

Obama is a failure? For the vast majority of US citizens, yes. But not for an elite of owners and high level managers of income producing property. Which is the way it was always supposed to be.

Albert Szymanksi, The Capitalist State and the Politics of Class, Winthrop Publishers Incorporated, 1978. P. 268.

Written by what's left

August 1, 2011 at 11:49 pm

Posted in Liberals, Obama

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