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The Bricmont and Johnstone Faux Pas: Wrongly Blaming Israel for US Policy on Syria

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By Stephen Gowans

In a counterpunch.org article titled “The People Against the 800 Pound Gorilla” Jean Bricmont and Diana Johnstone argue that “genuine, material or economic U.S. interests in going to war [against Syria] are … hard to find”; that US foreign policy is not based on moral concerns; and that the real basis for war—ruling out the former two explanations—must therefore be pressure from Israel.

They dismiss as unsatisfying the explanations of “many” of their Marxist friends who, they say, “ insist that every war is driven by economic interests,” and that “this latest war [is] to be waged because big bad capitalists want to exploit Syrian gas, or use Syrian territory for a gas pipeline, or open up the Syrian economy to foreign investments…”

In place of this Marxist straw man (which friend of theirs believes that every war is driven by economic interests?) they offer the view that the latest war is to be waged because big bad Zionists “have frightened themselves into believing that the very existence of another power in the region, namely Iran, amounts to an existential threat” to Israel. This view, they say, is mistaken, but history, it seems, is an “ocean of human folly.” The policies of governments often make no sense (to Bricmont and Johnstone anyway) because decision-makers are continually misjudging their true interests, or are forced to act against them.

The Bricmont and Johnstone case for Israeli pressure as the basis for US policy on Syria is astonishingly weak. It leads with anecdotal evidence about, “An American friend who knows Washington well [who] recently told us that ‘everybody’ there knows that, as far as the drive to war with Syria is concerned, it is Israel that directs U.S. policy.” The opinion of an unnamed friend is, of course, evidence of nothing, but what his opinion is, and it is astonishing that analysts of Bricmont’s and Johnstone’s calibre would begin their argument with an “everybody knows” claim.

Adding not a whit to their case, the duo continue by relating that “James Abourezk, former Senator from South Dakota,” holds the same view. So what?

Next, they cite newspaper headlines which point out that Israel and its partisans back war on Syria, and finish with a New York Times report that “Administration officials said the influential pro-Israel lobby group AIPAC was already at work pressing for military action against the government of Mr. Assad, fearing that if Syria escapes American retribution for its use of chemical weapons, Iran might be emboldened in the future to attack Israel.”

Other lobby groups are also working to influence US policy, but we don’t take this as proof that they dictate US policy.

Besides, it would appear that an attack on Syria is no longer imminent despite the urging of Israel, which would seem to fatally undermine the Bricmont and Johnstone thesis. I could at this point stop. The pair’s argument fails to stand up against the facts, and there’s nothing more that needs to be said. However, let’s press on, to show why their argument fails and to reply to their critique of the “Marxist” view.

To sum up their argument:

• Some people in Washington say US policy is based on pressure from Israel.
• Newspaper headlines confirm that Israel wants the US to wage war on Syria.
• AIPAC is pressing for military action.

Rather thin gruel.

In part II of their argument the duo sets out to refute two alternative explanations of why the United States wants to wage war on Syria. The aim is to show that these explanations fail to account for US policy as convincingly as does their Israel-tells-Washington-what-to-do argument.

Since I agree that moral concern is not the basis of US foreign policy, I’ll focus on the critique of the Marxist viewpoint (or what they present as it), and then show that one Marxist viewpoint is a better explanation of the data than is their Israelis-are-running-the-show hypothesis, which, as already shown, failed the moment Washington decided not to send cruise missiles hurdling toward Damascus in favor of a Russian-brokered plan to have Syria destroy its chemical weapons.

To topple their Marxist straw man, Bricmont and Johnstone argue “People who think that capitalists want wars to make profits should spend time observing the board of directors of any big corporation: capitalists need stability, not chaos, and the recent wars only bring more chaos.”

It’s true that businesses need stability. But so too do governments need peace and workers need paycheques, but governments will go to war and workers will go on strike if they can’t have peace or a paycheque on acceptable terms. Likewise, businesses will lock out workers—and deny themselves the tranquil digestion of profits—if they think they can arrive at better terms by doing so. First and foremost, businesses need profits—and they only need stability if it serves their primary profit-making goals.

In developing their case against the view that US policy on Syria is driven by economic interests, Bricmont and Johnstone note that, “Wars have been waged for all kinds of non-economic reasons, such as religion or revenge, or simply to display power.” And indeed wars have been waged for reasons apart from or in addition to economic concerns. But we’re not talking about all wars. We’re talking about the wars the United States wages, and specifically, Washington’s threatened war on Syria. Washington clearly has no religious reason for waging war on Syria, and we would be hard pressed to identify a reason for revenge. As to the fighting of wars to display power, it could be pointed out that economic interests often lurk behind non-economic goals. What purpose would a display of power serve? The psychological satisfaction of doing so, or to gain some material advantage, or both? There’s no reason why economic and non-economic reasons can’t both be implicated in decisions to wage war. A display of power could serve the purpose of intimidating a country into yielding favorable terms to investors in the first country, while at the same time satisfying the leaders of the country that displays its power. And what is the objective of exercising power? I would say that the US state exercises power not for the sake of exercising power, but to protect or advance the interests of the citizens who dominate state policy.

A genuine Marxist account of US policy toward Syria—and not the straw man Bricmont and Johnstone construct—might make the following points:

A. US foreign policy is disproportionately shaped by a class of owners of productive property who use their command of economic resources to structure the decisions governments make and to place their representatives in key positions in the state. AIPAC may be a powerful lobby, but its influence pales in comparison to the think tanks, foundations, and lobby groups that represent the common interests of the ruling class of owners, and is a hill against the Himalaya of capital flight and strike, and mass media pressure, businesses can engage in to influence governments.

B. US foreign policy is ultimately aimed at protecting and advancing the profit-making interests of the class that dominates state policy.

C. The US state has at its disposal an array of instruments for prosecuting the foreign policy interests of the country’s ruling class, including foreign aid, “democracy” promotion, economic warfare, diplomatic isolation, the creation of fifth columns, threats of military intervention, and war.

D. The US state will try to shape the policy environment in foreign countries by using any of these instruments alone or in combination.

E. The target countries subjected to the more extreme of these foreign policy instruments (economic warfare and military intervention) have three characteristics in common: (i) They limit US profit making interests through one or more of: restricting foreign investment; pursuing infant industry protection policies; mandating public ownership; subsiding domestic firms; differential treatment of foreign firms and investors; expropriating productive property. (ii) The country is not, as South Korea was, allowed to pursue such policies to build its economy to compete against a rival communist country; (iii) The country poses little or no retaliatory threat to the United States and its allies.

Where does Syria fit in? [1] The Syrian government exhibits a predilection for independent, self-directed, economic development. This is expressed in state-ownership of important industries, subsidies to domestic firms, controls on foreign investment, and subsidization of basic commodities. These measures restrict the profit-making opportunities of US corporations, banks and investors.

The US State Department complains that Syria has “failed to join an increasingly interconnected global economy,” which is to say, has failed to turn over its state-owned enterprises to private investors, among them Wall Street financial interests. The State Department is aggrieved that “ideological reasons” continue to prevent the Assad government from liberalizing Syria’s economy. As a result of the Ba’athists’ ideological fixation on socialism, “privatization of government enterprises is still not widespread.” The economy “remains highly controlled by the government.”

The Wall Street Journal and Heritage Foundation are equally displeased. “Hafez al-Assad’s son Bashar, who succeeded him in 2000, has failed to deliver on promises to reform Syria’s socialist economy.”

Moreover,

The state dominates many areas of economic activity, and a generally repressive environment marginalizes the private sector and prevents the sustainable development of new enterprises or industries. Monetary freedom has been gravely marred by state price controls and interference.
[...]

The repressive business environment, burdened by heavy state intervention, continues to retard entrepreneurial activity and prolong economic stagnation. Labor regulations are rigid, and the labor market suffers from state interference and control.

…systemic non-tariff barriers severely constrain freedom to trade. Private investment is deterred by heavy bureaucracy, direct state interference, and political instability. Although the number of private banks has increased steadily since they were first permitted in 2004, government influence in the financial sector remains extensive.

The US Library of Congress country study on Syria refers to “the socialist structure of the government and economy,” points out that “the government continues to control strategic industries,” mentions that “many citizens have access to subsidized public housing and many basic commodities are heavily subsidized,” and that “senior regime members” have “hampered” the liberalization of the economy.

Examine every other country that is currently, or was recently, on Washington’s regime change hit list: Cuba, Zimbabwe, North Korea, Libya, Iraq, Iran, and Venezuela. All pursue, or pursued, policies that are, or were, inimical to US free enterprise. The less than wholly positive attitude of target countries toward US free enterprise can be quickly gleaned by perusing the CIA’s Factbook or the Wall Street Journal/Heritage Foundation Index of Economic Freedom. Indeed, if there’s an 800 pound gorilla in the room, it’s the economic policies of the countries the United States targets for regime change. The problem is, the gorilla is invisible to just about everyone but policy makers and policy shapers. Most leftists haven’t the slightest idea it exists and therefore look in the wrong places for explanations of US foreign policy.

But what of countries that aren’t targeted for regime change? Do they pursue policies that are congenial to US free enterprise? Yes. An excellent counter-example is Myanmar. [2] Only three years ago, the resource-rich country was practicing economic nationalism, and was under a punitive regime of US economic sanctions and subject to diplomatic isolation. Now, Washington has suspended its sanctions on Myanmar and nominated its first ambassador to the country in 23 years.

Why?

The Obama administration says it’s because of the profound political changes Myanmar has brought about over the last year, including the release from house arrest of Aung San Suu Kyi, who now sits in Myanmar’s parliament. But the real reason has more to do with the country’s military rulers turning away from economic nationalism and throwing their economy’s doors open wide to ownership by outsiders.

Announcing the easing of US sanctions, then US secretary of state Hilary Clinton went directly to the heart of the matter, after making obligatory remarks about Myanmar travelling the road to democracy. “Today we say to American business: Invest in Burma (Myanmar)!”

When Myanmar’s military took power in a 1962 coup, it nationalized most industries and brought the bulk of the economy under government control, which is the way it stayed until three years ago. Major utilities were state-owned and health-care and education were publicly provided. Private hospitals and private schools were unheard of. Ownership of land and local companies was limited to the country’s citizens. Companies were required to hire Myanmar workers. And the central bank was answerable to the government.

But three years ago, Myanmar’s government began to sell off government buildings, its port facilities, its national airline, mines, farmland, the country’s fuel distribution network, and soft drink, cigarette and bicycle factories. The doors to the country’s publicly-owned health care and education systems were thrown open, and private investors were invited in. A new law was drawn up to give more independence to the central bank, making it answerable to its own inflation control targets, rather than directly to the government. To top it all off, a foreign-investment law was drafted to allow foreigners to control local companies and land, permit the entry of foreign telecom companies and foreign banks, allow 100 percent repatriation of profits, and exempt foreign investors from paying taxes for up to five years. What’s more, foreign enterprises would be allowed to import skilled workers, and wouldn’t be required to hire locally.

With Myanmar signaling its willingness to turn over its economy to outside investors, President Obama dispatched Hillary Clinton to meet with Myanmar’s leaders, the first US secretary of state to visit in more than 50 years. William Hague soon followed, the first British foreign minister to visit since 1955. Other foreign ministers beat their own paths to the door of the country’s military junta, seeking to establish ties with the now foreign investment-friendly government on behalf of their own corporations, investors, and banks.

Another counter-example is Bahrain. Bahrain’s government is based on the hereditary leadership of the al-Khalifa family, yet Washington has undertaken no serious effort to promote democracy in the country, and does nothing to discredit the country’s de jure hereditary leadership while at the same time denouncing North Korea’s de facto equivalent. It refuses to support “pro-democracy” protestors in Bahrain as it has in Syria, and has turned a blind eye to the Bahraini government’s violent crackdown on protestors. Part of the explanation for why US foreign policy treats Bahrain indulgently and Syria harshly, is that Bahrain is a neo-liberal’s wet dream, pursuing policies straight out of Milton Friedman, while Syria is far closer to the opposite pole. Bahrain also hosts the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet.

Additionally, we should note that US hostility to Syria, and the goal of bringing about a change of regime in Damascus, antedates AIPAC’s pressing Washington to bomb Syria. If AIPAC didn’t exist, would US policy toward Syria be different? It’s difficult to see how it would be. Bricmont and Johnstone think that Washington’s Syria policy makes no sense, and that genuine, material or economic U.S. interests in going to war against Syria are hard to find. That might be because they’re not looking hard enough. And pace the pair, US policy makes perfect sense within the framework of a Marxist analysis. Given Israel’s reprehensible behaviour, blaming the Zionists for the odious aspects of US foreign policy may be emotionally satisfying, but it’s hardly good analysis.

1. The discussion of Syria’s economic policy is excerpted from Stephen Gowans, “Syria’s Uprising in Context”, what’s left, February 10, 2012, http://gowans.wordpress.com/2012/02/10/syrias-uprising-in-context/
2. The discussion of Myanmar’s economic policy is excerpted from Stephen Gowans, “Myanmar Learns the Lesson of Libya”, what’s left, May 20, 2012, http://gowans.wordpress.com/2012/05/20/myanmar-learns-the-lesson-of-libya/

Written by what's left

September 18, 2013 at 9:22 pm

Posted in Israel, Marxism, Syria

The far right has a ready answer. Does the left?

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By Stephen Gowans

“The search for scapegoats has started,” observes German magazine editor Michael Naumann, alluding to growing anti-immigrant sentiment throughout Europe. The Swedes “elected an anti-immigrant party to Parliament for the first time, and the French are busy repatriating Roma” while “Germans continue to debate a best-selling book blaming Muslim immigrants for ‘dumbing down society’.” (1) Complaints are heard in England that England is no longer for the English, while a paroxysm of Islamophobia marks a US campaign to block a Ground Zero mosque, which is neither a mosque nor at Ground Zero. Naumann’s point is taken, but he misses the reality. The search hasn’t just begun, it’s complete.

These days, the paradigm for scapegoating is provided by the Nazis’ blaming Jews for the ills of the inter-war years, a period of intense capitalist crisis. The parallel is the latest crisis, with its mass unemployment, insecurity, stagnant and shrinking incomes, and in some places, fiscal austerity. The real blame lies with capitalism–a system whose internal dynamics regularly produce wrenching downturns, making life uncertain, challenging and sometimes cold, bleak and humiliating for countless millions. How many people 50 years of age and older live, either without hope of ever again finding work, or in fear they’ll lose their jobs and never work again? How many young people have failed to land a first job, or are forced to navigate an uncertain world of low-paying, part-time, contract or temporary positions? How many are working harder, for less? In times of crisis the desperate, the humiliated, the frightened, look for an explanation for their situation.

They don’t have to look far. The far right has a ready answer—that immigrants are stealing our jobs and freeloading on social services. The first part has a ring of truth to it. Governments, after all, do use immigration policy to manage labor market flexibility, a euphemism for a pool of employees large enough to meet capital’s current demand for labor with a reserve army of job seekers left over. The reserve army–eager to take the place of those who already have work– maintains downward pressure on wages and keeps those with jobs in line. Without keen competition for employment, the price of labor would rise, eating into profits, possibly so much that capitalists would no longer invest, and the system would come to a halt. Labor market flexibility, then, is necessary to the smooth functioning of the system. But because people compete for jobs, any measure which increases the intensity of competition is hostile to their interests. It limits their bargaining power and increases the chances someone else will get the job they hold or want.

In the competition of all against all, those who bear the greatest burden are the workers who fill the ranks of the reserve army, or go from one low-paying job to another, denied any form of economic security. It’s easy for them to blame their plight on the immigrants they see working in jobs they want (though regularly in jobs they would disdain to hold), because it is often with them they compete. It’s true, they also compete against people of the same ethnicity, color and national origin, but don’t hold them to blame. But differences in skin color, accents, cultural practices and religion facilitate the creation of in-group-out-group divisions, making it easy to mark out the competition.

At the same time, the non-immigrant working poor often live side by side with newly arrived immigrants, some of whom have no work, and get by on welfare payments and sometimes criminal activity. Their presence is a source of confusion and resentment to the working poor, who question the wisdom of their governments’ accepting new immigrants–whose upkeep can be subsidized in part by the working poors’ taxes–at a time of economic downturn.

II

Crises, you would think, would provide opportunities to transcend the capitalist system. At these times the system’s problems are encountered the most acutely and therefore the motivation to overcome them ought to be greatest, but crises paradoxically have often led to the rise of far right parties and anti-immigrant sentiment. The reason why is two-fold: The far right’s seemingly plausible explanation for the insecurity many people are forced to bear; and the left. When the left provides a compelling alternative explanation and mobilizes mass energy around it and thereby threatens to take power, charismatic far right leaders are provided with money to rally public support for a nationalist cause and vie with the left for power. When the left fails to offer a compelling alternative explanation, the far right movement remains limited, poorly organized, and largely spontaneous; it’s not needed to protect the system from challenge, and so is left in its inchoate state. The far right isn’t pressed into service and built up as a major force unless the left is strong.

The dominant left response to the recent rise of xenophobic sentiment has been moral suasion and anti-racism demonstrations, a strategy that possibly owes more to satisfying the psychological needs of the practitioners than concern over efficacy. It fails to attack the root cause of the disease, trying to suppress the symptoms instead. Campaigns of anti-racism offer their practitioners cathartic opportunities to express moral indignation (which may be the underlying motivation for carrying them out), but their effectiveness is questionable unless accompanied by an assault on the root causes. The recent wave of anti-immigrant sentiment didn’t arise in a vacuum. Its momentum comes from economic crisis, and if one wants to mobilize the energy that far right explanations attract, a credible solution must be offered to the critical underlying problem: economic insecurity. Against the far right’s explanation that immigration is the cause of joblessness, the left could point out that insecurity is caused by the failure –indeed refusal–of capitalism to offer secure employment to all; that the solution is to transcend the capitalist system; and that where it has been transcended in the past, secure employment has been made available to all, along with guaranteed healthcare, security in old age, subsidized housing, free education, and a raft of other mass-oriented reforms. There is no freeloading in a socialist society. Work is an obligation. But at the same time, employment is guaranteed. Against the pseudo-explanation: immigration is the cause of your problems, must be counterpoised an accurate explanation: capitalism is the cause of your problems; it can’t—won’t—guarantee a secure life for all; socialism can.

The problem is that much of the left, even that part of it that traces its origins to revolutionary Marxism, has given up on both revolution and socialism, defined here as production for use (not profits), governed by a plan (not markets), and carried out in publicly owned (not private) enterprises. Socialism in contemporary usage has come to refer to a mixed economy presided over by an elected government that calls itself socialist. Production is governed by markets, much of the economy remains in private hands, the commanding heights of the economy are brought gradually under public control, and the exploitation of man by man is accepted as necessary, desirable, and the key to efficiency. But markets—which almost everyone now thinks are an unavoidable necessity–inescapably mean recurrent economic crises, unemployment, and inequality. In other words, socialism, as it is defined by 21st century socialists, offers no solution to the economic insecurity that regularly flares up and drives the insecure into the arms of far right campaigns to scapegoat immigrants and foment xenophobia. Sweden, often celebrated as a social democratic paragon and held out as an attractive alternative to Marxist-Leninist-style socialism, has proved no less vulnerable to outbreaks of recession-induced xenophobia than bastions of neo-liberalism have. And that’s because 20th century social democracy and its equivalent, 21st century socialism, don’t transcend capitalism, but embrace it, and therefore accept its destructiveness (in crops, products, factories, and gainful employment eliminated during regular downturns), inefficiencies (capitalism regularly operates below capacity and well below during downturns), wars (to pry open closed markets and secure new investment opportunities) and blighted lives.

No one in Germany “is predicting the rise of a successful right-wing party,” remarks New York Times reporter Michael Slackman, “but that is because the main ingredient is missing: a charismatic leader to rally the public. With such a leader, and some financial support, the prospect could take on a life…” (2) Perhaps. But there is also one other ingredient missing: a compelling left alternative explanation of people’s distress. Without one, there’s no need to find, and provide financing to, a charismatic right-wing leader to transform a spontaneously arising, minority, anti-immigrant movement into a mass movement capable of vying for power to do what far right mass movements have been historically mobilized to do: block the rise of a revolutionary left movement. That the rise of a far right demagogue is unlikely can perhaps be looked at as a good thing (and in one sense it is), but in another sense it is far from good, for it means capitalism is safe, despite what one might think about capitalism’s current tribulations creating an opportunity for change. The opportunity may exist, but who is there to seize it?

It used to be that the role of a revolutionary Marxist party was to set forth an alternative explanation to the dominant ideology, one that would supply an essential ingredient to the project of transcending capitalism at a time of crisis. People’s troubles with unemployment, under-employment and poverty, it would be explained, are systemic, not personal or immigrant-related; they are remediable, not inevitable. Freedom from the ills of capitalism, it would be shown, is possible and realistically achievable through collective action. Nationalism, xenophobia and social democracy would be revealed to be pseudo-solutions, offering the illusion of change but no real redress of capitalism’s ills. No longer. Nowadays, everyone has shifted to the right. Liberals are conservatives, social democrats are liberals, and communists are social democrats, if not liberals in practice with a vaguely radical rhetoric.

With a void having opened up in the space once filled by alternative left explanations, the current capitalist crisis is proving to be a fertile ground for the growth of far right pseudo-explanations of what are properly systemic problems. With the left having embraced markets, and thereby all that markets imply (regular crises, unemployment and inequality), it no longer has a solution to offer for market-induced plights. Having capitulated, it has reduced itself to the role of uttering pious expressions of benevolence.

III

Many people who were once communists drew strength from the knowledge that communism represented a mass movement. Perhaps it remained marginal (or more aptly, suppressed) in their own country, but it had been embraced by a substantial fraction of the world’s people and seemed to be getting stronger. With the demise of communism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, and China’s journey down the capitalist road, all that changed. Now, really-existing socialism had all but disappeared, hanging on, sort of, in a few outposts: Cuba, where parts of the socialist model had to be dismantled to survive, and North Korea, where the Juche philosophy supplanted formal adherence to Marxism-Leninism. Communism now seemed largely discredited, and to cling to it, was to mark oneself as peripheral and locked in the past.

Desperate to reconnect to a mass movement, many embraced the only mass working class movement they could find, which in many Western countries, was social democracy. But the corruption that had led the Bolsheviks to break away from social democracy to form the communist movement in 1917 had intensified, and by the time the Soviet Union was dismantled, social democracy had nothing anymore to do with socialism; it had become capitalism with a friendly face, and at times, not so friendly.

In Marx’s and Engel’s day, there were periods when a meeting of every socialist in Europe could have been easily held in a mid-sized hall. Until 1917, the Bolsheviks—whose ideas and organizational forms would eventually guide the economic and political organization of a majority of the world’s population–remained a political party of limited significance without a mass following. The need to be connected to a popular movement—and the practice of linking up with a cause on the basis of its popularity and not the ideas and aims that inspire it– would have led many latter day communists to shun Marx, Engels and the Bolsheviks had they been contemporaries.

One reason Marxism-Leninism commands little authority nowadays is that it seems to have been rejected by its practitioners. Glasnost and Perestroika and the eventual dismantling of communism in the Soviet Union, followed by communism’s collapse in Eastern Europe, and the turn to capitalism in China and Vietnam, appear to be admissions that Marxism-Leninism doesn’t work and that capitalism is both inevitable and the end of history. Cuba’s recent decision to expand its private sector by cutting loose 500,000 state employees—and Fidel Castro’s remark to Atlantic journalist Jeffrey Goldberg that “The Cuban model doesn’t even work for us any more” (3)—seems to underscore the point. All this, however, misses a few significant points.

First, communism arose under inauspicious circumstances. It took root where capitalism was weak, and therefore without the strength to smother the infant in its cradle. In 1917, Russia’s Tsarist ruling class was demoralized by war and the capitalist class too small, weak and disorganized to put down revolutions in March and October. But capitalism being too weak to block the rise of revolution meant that the revolution would have to take hold in a country where the working class was small and the industrial base–necessary to progress toward a communist society of plenty–was rudimentary at best. Lenin believed his revolution would spark working class revolutions in Germany and elsewhere in Western Europe, and that the working class in those countries would come to the Bolshevik’s aid, providing the necessary capital Russia would need to build its own socialist society. He judged wrong. While the Kaiser’s rule was overthrown in Germany, the Social Democrats–who disagreed with Bolshevik’s revolutionary methods and refused to break decisively with capitalism and its rulers –came to power. Revolutions elsewhere were stillborn or not in the cards. After a period of waiting, the Bolsheviks realized that if socialism were to come to Russia, they would either have to first shepherd the country through a long period of capitalist development, actively intervene in Western Europe to foment revolutions there, or undergo a program of rapid industrialization and forced agricultural collectivization at home. After a period of conflict about which path to pursue, the Bolsheviks decided to build socialism in one country. This decision was reinforced by the expectation that the capitalist powers would attack the Soviet Union within a decade, and that an industrial base was urgently needed to build a modern military for self-defense.

Second, communism had not a moment’s rest from attempts by the capitalist countries to destroy it. Blockades, sanctions, trade embargoes, sabotage, subversion, diplomatic isolation, military intervention, war (both hot and cold) and ideological warfare were pressed into service with the aim rolling back—and ultimately destroying– communism. The chances of communism surviving the onslaught were far from sanguine. Attributing the demise of really-existing socialism to internal failings, and ignoring seven decades of efforts to exterminate the communist challenge—a practice of both the right and left–is a peculiar form of blindness. As William Blum observes: “It’s as if the Wright brothers’ first experiments with flying machines all failed because the automobile interests sabotaged each test flight. And then the good and god-fearing folk of the world looked upon these catastrophes, nodded their heads wisely, and intoned solemnly: Humankind shall never fly.” (4)

Third, it wasn’t because communist countries rejected markets that they failed. It was because they backed off of Marxist-Leninist principles, and conciliated with capitalism, that they collapsed. Poland, for example, ran into trouble because it failed to collectivize agriculture and provided implacable enemies of socialism, including the Catholic Church, space to operate. Rather than using agricultural surpluses to pay for industrialization, Polish communists subsidized food prices and emphasized light industry and the production of consumer goods and foot the bill by borrowing heavily from Western banks. Burdened with debt, the government was eventually forced to allow Western banks to dictate economic policy. The banks demanded the government remove its food subsidies to pay interest on its debt. This led to spikes in food prices, sparking strikes and ultimately the development of a working class strike movement. The strike movement was hijacked by anti-socialist ideologues linked to the Catholic Church and the CIA who eventually managed to force the government to step down when it became clear that the Soviet Union, under the leadership of Mikhail Gorbachev, would not intervene.

Gorbachev was dismantling the Marxist-Leninist basis of the Soviet state and experimenting with market mechanisms in response to a slow-down in the Soviet economy. The slow-down had a number of causes. The Soviets had been forced to adopt a policy of self-sufficiency to protect the country from the possibility of imperialist countries manoeuvring to strangle it economically by cutting off its access to vital raw materials. This led to a situation where the Soviets paid more to extract some raw materials internally than they would have paid had they imported them. Another factor was an increase in raw materials costs. As easy to reach mines were depleted, deeper mine shafts had to be dug, and longer distances had to be travelled to reach new mines.

Planning had its own problems. Enterprises hung on to employees to ensure they had sufficient staff to meet planned production targets. This led to over-staffing, and to the less than efficient deployment of manpower. The Soviet commitment to full employment also meant that retrofitting factories—in order that they could continue in operation with layoffs avoided—was favored over building new factories based on new technology. As a result, the industrial base became a patchwork of new grafted onto old.

At the same time, the need to keep pace with NATO put a severe strain on the Soviet economy. Despite its rapid growth, the Soviet economy was still much smaller than that of the United States. To come anywhere close to matching NATO expenditures, the Soviets had to allocate a crushingly large percentage of their GDP to the military. Although necessary for self-defense, this was wasteful, since it diverted resources away from the productive investments that were needed to raise living standards. US cold warriors figured that if they could stall the growth of the Soviet economy by locking the Soviet Union into an arms race, they could weaken attachment to Marxism-Leninism, both among the Soviet citizenry and in the Kremlin. With living standards failing to converge on those of the advanced capitalist countries, Eastern Bloc populations might sour on the socialist model and look longingly to the West. At the same time, it might occur to Soviet leaders that their only hope was to compromise on Marxism-Leninism and open up the Soviet economy to market mechanisms and the world capitalist economy.

There were other strains. In order to win allies and expand socialism to other countries, the Soviets shipped aid to countries and movements struggling to free themselves from colonialism. Most of these countries were desperately poor, and profited from transfers and subsidies from the Soviet Union, while returning little in exchange. For example, the Soviets bought Cuban sugar and nickel at above world prices, getting little in return from Cuba. Cuban military intervention in southern Africa on behalf of the liberation movements there–ultimately paid for by the Soviet Union–and the intervention in Afghanistan on behalf of a modernizing and secular revolutionary government, put further strain on the Soviet economy. In the end, Gorbachev decided to pull troops out of Afghanistan, cut Cuba loose, and not intervene to protect Warsaw Pact allies from counter-revolutionary movements. He also moved the Soviet Union toward a Scandinavian-style social democracy. Far from invigorating the Soviet economy, the attempt to make over the USSR pushed the economy into collapse. As the economy imploded, the economies linked to it through the socialist community fell like dominos. By embracing capitalist methods, Gorbachev had turned a set of manageable problems into a catastrophe. Communism’s collapse was not due to public ownership, central planning, and production for use, but the abandonment of socialist practices in favour of markets and capitalist methods. The problem wasn’t that there was too much socialism; there was too little.

IV

The capitalist class in imperialist countries is a formidable enemy. Except for the period of the Great Depression and the chaotic aftermath of the two world wars, it has not been weakened, demoralized and disorganized—a condition that would need to prevail if revolutions were to come about. What’s more, both world wars led to a stronger, more confident, and assertive class rule based in US finance and industry. The opportunities for Marxist-Leninists to lead new revolutions were, therefore, limited. At the same time, the space for socialist countries to develop was systematically impeded by a United States immeasurably strengthened by WWII, whose rulers committed themselves to wiping the communist foe from the face of the earth, a campaign that carries on today in efforts to bring down the Cuban and North Korean systems. (By comparison, the Soviet Union was immeasurably weakened by the same war.) That the communist movement should be bloodied, bruised and knocked to the mat should come as no surprise. The opponent was formidable. But does that mean the towel must be thrown in? It would appear that for communists who were accustomed to being linked to mass movements, the answer is yes. But the movement of revolutionary socialists has been tiny and peripheral before. Had there not been a core of revolutionaries who remained dedicated to Marxist-Leninist principles and refused to sacrifice fundamental principles for immediate gains and popularity, the first attempt at building socialism would never have come off. Capitalist crises and war are inevitable and recurrent. Opportunities for transcending capitalism and liberating mankind from its scourges are therefore, inevitable and recurrent as well. When they arrive, a Marxist party capable of offering an explanation of people’s unhappiness, showing that another way is realistically achievable, and revealing the pseudo-solutions of nationalism, religion and social democracy to be dead-ends, can lead a renewed attempt to move humanity forward.

1. Michael Slackman, “Rightwing sentiment, ready to burst its dam”, The New York Times, September 21, 2010.
2. Ibid.
3. Jeffrey Goldberg, “Fidel: ‘Cuban Model Doesn’t Even Work For Us Anymore’” theatlantic.com, September 8, 2010. http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2010/09/fidel-cuban-model-doesnt-even-work-for-us-anymore/62602/
4. William Blum, “The Anti-Empire Report,” September 2, 2009. http://killinghope.org/bblum6/aer73.html

REFERENCES

Robert C. Allen, Farm to Factory: A Reinterpretation of the Soviet Industrial Revolution, Princeton University Press, 2003.

Bahman Azad, Heroic Struggle, Bitter Defeat: Factors Contributing to the Dismantling of the Socialist State in the USSR, International Publishers, New York, 2000.

Roger Keeran and Thomas Kenny, Socialism Betrayed: Behind the Collapse of the Soviet Union, International Publishers, New York, 2004.

Melvyn P. Leffler, The Specter of Communism: The United States and the Origins of the Cold War, 1917-1953, Hill and Wang, New York, 1994.

Irwin Silber, Socialism: What Went Wrong? An Inquiry into the Theoretical and Historical Sources of the Socialist Crisis, Pluto Press, 1994.

Albert Szymanski, Class Struggle in Socialist Poland With Comparisons to Yugoslavia, Praeger, 1984.

Albert Szymanski, “Crisis and Vitalization: An interpretive essay on Marxist theory,” in Rhona F. Levine and Jerry Lembcke (Eds.), Recapturing Marxism: An Appraisal of Recent Trends in Sociological Theory, Praeger, 1987.

Written by what's left

September 25, 2010 at 10:33 pm

A sober view of Iran

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By Stephen Gowans

The view of many parts of the Western left on the disputed presidential election in Iran and subsequent upheavals seems to have been influenced by an understandable distaste for the obscurantist and misogynistic elements of Islam and a dislike of theocracy. Romantic illusions about popular uprisings have also figured in the positions Western leftists have taken. But romantic illusions and distaste for Islam have no place in a sober analysis of what has transpired in Iran.

First, we should be clear that there is not a whit of evidence that the main challenger, Mir Hossein Mousavi, won the election or that the outcome was fraudulently manipulated. On the contrary, an opinion poll carried out three weeks before the election, and paid for by the Rockefeller Foundation (hardly an organization inclined to back the president, Mohammed Ahmadinejad), predicted a clear victory for the incumbent. (1)

Ken Ballen and Patrick Doherty, who conducted the poll, wrote that their survey “showed Ahmadinejad leading by a more than 2 to 1 margin – greater than his actual apparent margin of victory.” The pair’s “scientific sampling from across all 30 of Iran’s provinces showed Ahmadinejad well ahead.” (2)

Proponents of the idea that the vote was stolen point to Ahmadinejad outpolling Mousavi, an Azeri, in areas where Azeris are in the majority. They contend that in a fair vote Mousavi would have won the Azeri-dominated areas. This rests on an implicit assumption that Iranians vote along ethnic lines. But the Rockefeller-sponsored poll found that “Azeris favoured Ahmadinejad by 2 to 1 over Mousavi.” (3)

While Western media coverage, which focussed on Iran’s economic troubles and Iranians’ concerns about tensions with the West, may have led Western audiences to believe the Iranian president was headed for defeat, Ballen and Doherty argue that Iranians favored Ahmadinejad because they saw him “as their toughest negotiator, the person best positioned to bring home a favourable deal – rather like a Persian Nixon going to China.” (4) It didn’t help either in offering a balanced view of Ahmadinejad’s level of support that Western reporters are based in Tehran, where support for Mousavi is strong. This led to Western news reports painting a distorted picture of Mousavi’s popularity.

Some leftists claim the question of whether the election was stolen is irrelevant. (5) This is an implicit admission that there is no cogent evidence the election was fraudulent and an attempt to side-step a critical weakness in support for pro-Mousavi forces. Far from being irrelevant, the validity of the election is highly pertinent. If a majority of Iranians voted for Ahmadinejad – and the balance of evidence says it did – a movement that aims to overturn the electoral choice of a clear majority cannot be considered either legitimate or electorally democratic.

Second, we should be clear on what policies Mousavi favors, and how they differ from those advocated by Ahmadinejad. Mousavi, like the US State Department, Wall Street, and right-wing groups in the West, leans strongly toward free trade, free markets, and free enterprise. He is aligned with Hashemi Rafsanjani, a former president who won the approval of Western politicians and the Wall Street Journal for taking the first tentative steps toward dismantling Iran’s largely state-controlled economy. Rafsanjani is among the richest people in Iran.

While hardly a socialist, Ahmadinejad, who is opposed by the US State Department, Wall Street and right-wing groups in the West, has promoted economic policies that clash with the free market, pro-privatization and pro-foreign investment stances taken by the business elite, both in Iran and in the United States.

The commanding heights of Iran’s economy – the oil, gas, transportation, banking and telecommunications sectors – are state controlled. Private sector activity is limited “to small-scale workshops, farming, and services.” (6) This denies US banks and investors — and Iran’s business elite — major investment opportunities. Mousavi wants to dismantle Iran’s state-controlled economy, and the subsidies, tariffs and price controls that go along with it. Ahmadinejad tends to favour their retention, or at least, is in less of a hurry to get rid of them.

US capital despises Ahmadinejad for multiple reasons. He is opposed politically because he asserts Iran’s right to a self-reliant civilian nuclear power industry. The United States and Europe are willing to allow Iran to have nuclear energy for civilian use, so long as they control Iran’s access to the enriched uranium needed to power it. This would put the West in the position of being able to extract concessions from Iran by threatening to turn off the tap, and provide Western capital with a lucrative investment opportunity. From Iran’s perspective, the offer is unacceptable, because it would place Iran in a dependent position, and because Iran has its own rich sources of uranium it can exploit to its own advantage.

Ahmadinejad is also opposed politically because he backs Hamas and Hezbollah, opponents of Washington’s attack dog in the Middle East, Israel. Both organizations are portrayed as terrorist groups that threaten Israel’s existence, but neither are anywhere near large or strong enough or have sufficient backing to pose an existential military threat to Israel. They do, however, pose the threat of self-defense, which is to say they are capable of inflicting some retaliatory harm on Israel and are therefore seen as impediments to Israel’s free movement in asserting US interests on Washington’s behalf.

Economically, Ahmadinejad earns Wall Street’s disapproval for maintaining Iran’s “high tariff rates and non-tariff barriers,” failing to dismantle “import bans” and leaving “restrictive sanitary and phytosanitary regulations” in place. Neither does his “weak enforcement of intellectual property rights,” “resistance to privatization,” and insistence on keeping the oil sector entirely within state hands, earn him friends among Wall Street investors and bankers. [7]

In Wall Street’s view, Ahmadinejad’s sins against the profit-making interests of foreign banks and corporations are legion. He “halted tentative efforts to reform the state-dominated economy” — begun by Rafsanjani and favored by Mousavi — “and has greatly expanded government spending.” He maintains an income tax rate that, in Wall Street’s opinion, is too high, and controls “the prices of petroleum products, electricity, water and wheat for the production of bread,” provides “economic subsidies,” and influences “prices through regulation of Iran’s many state-owned enterprises.” [8]

Equally troubling to Wall Street is that on Ahmadinejad’s watch, foreign investment has faced “considerable hostility.” “The state remains the dominant factor in the economy.” That means US capital is denied profitable investment opportunities. “Foreign investment is restricted or banned in many activities, including banking, telecommunications, transport, oil and gas.” And when foreign investors are allowed in, ceilings are placed on their share of market. [9]

Banking is another sore spot for Wall Street’s deal-makers. The government keeps banks under tight rein and the insurance sector is dominated by five state-owned companies. Plus, under Ahmadinejad’s administration, Iranian workers have enjoyed considerable rights within their jobs. The state imposes strict limits on the number of hours an employee can work in a single week, and firing a worker isn’t left to the discretion of capital, to meet its profit-making needs. It “requires approval of the Islamic Labor Council.” [10]

With people like Ahmadinejad in power, how is US capital to roam the globe, fattening its bottom line?

The irony is that state-control of the commanding heights of the economy, price controls, strong workers’ rights, and industrial planning, are distant dreams for the US left. And yet parts of it are sympathetic to the Mousavi campaign, even though its aim is to dismantle the economic structures and policies the US left aspires to create for itself.

Zimbabwe provides a parallel case. The economic program of Zanu-PF, which has governed Zimbabwe since its founding, either alone, or in a coalition, is one that has aimed at advancing the welfare of the indigenous majority at the expense of European settlers and their descendants and foreign investors. The means of accomplishing this goal have been the reclaiming of land expropriated by European settlers and affirmative action measures to favour the development of domestic industry and investors. It is not a socialist program, but it has, except for a brief period in the 1990s, rejected the neo-liberal approach of indulging foreign investors at the expense of social welfare and economic independence. Zimbabwe falls very close to the bottom of the Heritage Foundation and Wall Street Journal’s Index of Economic Freedom, along with Iran, and for the same reasons.

The Movement for Democratic Change, Zanu-PF’s main opposition, has, since its inception, embraced the same free trade, free market, free enterprise policies Mousavi favors in Iran. The MDC stands for private property, privatizing state-owned enterprises and throwing Zimbabwe’s doors open to foreign trade and investment, on terms favourable to foreign banks and corporations. It is, quite unambiguously, a party of compradors. And yet because it bills itself as the party of democracy, freedom and human rights, large parts of the Western left embrace its cause as their own.

Third, we should be clear on the role Washington has tried to play in fomenting a color revolution in Iran. It hasn’t been a secret. Consider the headlines. “Bush plans huge propaganda campaign in Iran. Congress asked for $75m to fund program.” [11] “US plotting Velvet Revolution in Iran?” [12] “A bid to foment democracy in Iran. The Bush team unveils a plan to push for Iranian-led reform. Can it really yield a ‘regime change’?” [13] “US to sharpen focus on Iran. The US State Department is creating a special office to…promote a democratic transition in the Islamic republic.” [14] “US and UK develop democracy strategy for Iran.” [15] “Iranians Speak Out on Regime Change Slush Fund”. [16]

Washington’s regime change funding has been used to broadcast US propaganda into Iran; build dissident networks; [17] and to train non-violent, pro-democracy activists to lead street demonstrations in the wake of contested elections. [18]

No one can deny Washington has tried to spark the movement that has rocked Iran. But that hasn’t stopped left supporters of Mousavi from arguing that Washington’s democracy promotion (what a Bush administration official once called “a rubric to get the Europeans behind a more robust policy without calling it ‘regime change’” [19]) hasn’t amounted to a hill of beans. And of course, in principle, this may be true. Just because Washington has spent tens, if not hundreds of millions, of dollars trying to orchestrate a mass overthrow movement to dump Ahmadinejad and Iran’s theocratic rulers, doesn’t mean it worked. The movement may have arisen organically.

However, the question of whether the uprising has been caused by Washington’s interference in Iran’s internal affairs or has nothing whatever to do with it, is largely meaningless, and if it weren’t meaningless, would be irrelevant.

The question is meaningless because it is impossible to disentangle the internal and external factors that have interacted to produce the street protests that have followed Iran’s contested election. It is absurd to suggest that a phenomenon as complex as prolonged street demonstrations could either be unrelated to internal factors, on the one hand, or external factors, on the other. What’s almost certainly true is that the events surrounding the contested election are the product of internal and external forces and of historical circumstance, intermixed, interacting and incapable of being disentangled. Claiming the uprising is wholly due to internal factors and that external factors played no significant role (or vice-a-versa) is tantamount to saying that what makes an automobile run is its engine and that its wheels, frame, gas tank, and so on, don’t matter.

Second, even if you could show the uprising was caused by Washington’s attempts to orchestrate it, or arose solely from internal factors, what difference would it make? The fact remains that Washington did try to meddle in the internal affairs of Iran, to overthrow the government for reasons related to its politics and economic policies, and that it did, is intolerable.

The parts of the US left that place great weight on “movement building” and non-violent pro-democracy activism, steer clear of examining the outcome of color revolution insurrections. Their focus remains sharply circumscribed, fixed on means, and avoiding the question: to what end? To these leftists, it is process, not outcome, which matters. Indeed, outcome, except insofar as it is process itself, is never questioned. It is enough, for them, that large numbers of people assemble to challenge the state. But we should ask of any movement: what does it aim to accomplish? And importantly, what is it likely to accomplish?

One goal of the popular uprising in Iran is to overturn the outcome of the election, on grounds that it is fraudulent. But what if the election wasn’t fraudulent, as the balance of evidence suggests? A movement that seeks to replace Ahmadinejad with Mousavi, even though the majority of Iranians favour Ahmadinejad, can hardly be considered democratic. This is an important point, for many leftists who rally to the cause of non-violent, pro-democracy, movement building, are professedly motivated by pro-democratic sentiments. After all, they call themselves “pro-democracy” activists. But supporting a movement that seeks to overturn the electoral choice of a majority of Iranians isn’t democratic.

We should be clear, too, that tens of thousands of people do not necessarily represent “the people.” The throngs of Iranians that have massed in the streets of Tehran appear to represent a stratum of “university students and graduates, and the highest-income Iranians,” [20] many of whom have studied in the West, picking up pro-imperialist values along the way. They are no more “the people” than the throng of Roman Catholics that mass in front of St. Peter’s Basilica every Easter are “the people,” for being a throng.

Even so, some will say that insofar as the movement seeks to overthrow a theocratic regime (and yet it’s not clear that it wants to do anything more that challenge the state over what is believed to be an electoral fraud) it is progressive in its orientation. But supporting the uprising owing to its progressive content is on the same plane as supporting the regime owing to the progressive content of its economic policies and structures. Which side one supports seems to depend on where one comes down on the question of the state vs. opposition to the state. Because they are philosophically against the state, any state, anarchists predictably come down on the side of the protestors. Hating all states linked to revolutions not aimed at fomenting world socialist revolution (or having departed from such aims), Trotskyites naturally oppose champions of the Iranian revolution and back those who might bring it down. Social democrats and liberals, being incorrigible suckers for any movement that claims fealty to liberal democratic principles, side with the protestors, because the protestors are seen as champions of the best in Western values. They also don’t particularly like Ahmadinejad and are looking for any progressive pretext to vent their spleen over the Iranian president, Iran’s theocratic leadership, and Islam generally. In this, they are great hypocrites, for while they castigate anti-imperialists for negative anti-imperialism (that is, supporting any leader, movement or party opposed by the United States, simply because it is opposed by the United States) they are forever on the look out for seemingly progressive reasons to hook up with State Department crusades against foreign targets. The comforts of being firmly ensconced in the mainstream of public opinion while still getting progressive credits for it is a temptation liberals and social democrats have never been able to resist. That might explain why they’ve been so eager to back the uprising against the Iranian state (action that is well within the mainstream of popular opinion) while failing even to acknowledge the non-violent pro-democracy movement that challenged the Lebanese state (outside the mainstream because the movement was backed by Hezbollah.)

Now, since failing to denounce the Iranian government in unambiguous terms leaves me open to charges of supporting Ahmadinejad, his brand of social democracy, and political Islam generally, I should make a few things plain. I am no supporter of half in-half out economic arrangements. An economy with few restrictions on private capital accumulation and few concessions to social welfare, may, under certain circumstances, be more conducive to economic growth than half in-half out arrangements (of the type Ahmadinejad leans toward), that seek the benefits of socialism without giving up markets and profits. Neither, however, is as responsive to the needs of ordinary people as one based totally on public ownership rather than free enterprise, central planning rather than markets, and rational production for use rather than production for profit. It is this form of society I favour.

As for political Islam, I regard it as a reality, not an ideal. It is, at the moment, the chief anti-imperialist force throughout West and South Asia, having superseded secular, leftist and Marxist movements, which were weakened by political Islam itself. My preference leans to anti-imperialist movements and parties with Marxist orientations, but my preference does not interfere with a sober recognition of reality.

And no, I am not sympathetic to Islam. I am an atheist, and am as much offended by Islam’s misogyny, superstitions and absurd rituals as I am by the equal backwardness of Islam’s siblings, Judaism and Christianity. But at the same time, opposition to Ahmadinejad and the Iranian Revolution by Western governments and by supporters of the uprising has nothing whatever to do with Islam and everything to do with politics, economics and class interest. Islam has become in West and South Asia a rallying point, in the absence of strong Marxist movements, for anti-imperialism. Roman Catholicism, as a religious overlay on the anti-imperialism of the Irish Republican movement, never got in the way of support by Western leftists. Strange that Islam interferes with support for the legitimate anti-imperialist struggles of Muslims.

What would the popular uprising achieve, were it successful? It would probably achieve what all other color revolutions have achieved: the replacement of a government that presides over a largely state-owned economy, imposes restrictions on foreign investment, and makes considerable concessions to social welfare, with one oriented toward privatization, removing restrictions on imports and foreign investment, and which makes few concessions to social welfare. The program of parties and movements backed by Western regime change efforts have, in the former Yugoslavia, Belarus, Zimbabwe, and now Iran, featured obeisance to free enterprise, free trade, free market and pro-foreign investment principles. Since Western banks, corporations and investors stand to benefit the most from these policies, it’s not surprising that Western governments have funnelled money to parties and their civil society satellites that champion these causes. Nor is it surprising that in the interests of garnering public support, these parties have portrayed themselves, not as the champions of capitalist and imperialist interests they are, but as beacons for democracy and human rights locked in struggle with backward, incompetent, corrupt, dictatorial regimes.

The besieged governments may not, through reasons of history, culture and the necessities of political survival, embrace the liberal ideals Westerners celebrate. None of them are Marxist in orientation, are dominated by the working class or peasantry, or are working toward socialism. But they have taken stands to resist domination by capitalist imperialism, and their only hope to develop internally in a way that isn’t distorted by the profit-making needs of foreign capital, rather than being responsive to the social welfare needs of their own people, is to continue to resist. If they could be brought down by Marxist oriented movements with socialism on their agendas, the overthrow movement would be well worth supporting. But the reality is that the overthrow movement that has arisen in Iran is neither Marxist nor socialist in aspirations, and its success would likely lead to a government willing to collaborate with foreign capital in ways that would see a regression in the position of the ordinary people of Iran.

For the reasons stated above, support for the uprising in Iran by leftist is mistaken. The uprising is not based in legitimate opposition to a genuinely stolen election, for there is no evidence the election was stolen; it can hardly be called democratic, for it seeks to reverse the decision of a clear majority of Iranians; and it is not in the interests of Iran’s ordinary people, for it seeks to bring to power a government that would collaborate with foreign capital against the interests of ordinary Iranians. The beneficiaries of a successful uprising would be Western banks and investors, which is why Western governments have tried to spark the uprising. High-income Iranians educated in tony Western universities would also benefit. They would secure lucrative positions facilitating the plunder of Iran by Western banks and corporations. Small wonder, then, that they have provided the energy (and Western governments the money, training and propaganda) for the uprising.

1. Ken Ballen and Patrick Doherty, “Ahmadinejad is who Iranians want,” The Guardian (UK), June 15, 2009.
2. Ibid.
3. Ibid.
4. Ibid.
5. See for example The Freedom Road Socialist Party June 28, 2009 Statement on Iran. http://freedomroad.org/content/view/656/1/lang,en/
6. 2009 Index of Economic Freedom. http://www.heritage.org/Index/Country/Iran
7. Ibid.
8. Ibid.
9. Ibid.
10. Ibid.
11. The Guardian (UK), February 16, 2006.
12. Press TV (Iran), November 18, 2008.
13. The Christian Science Monitor, February 17, 2006.
14. CNN, March 2, 2006.
15. Financial Times (UK), April 21, 2006.
16. MRZine, July 15, 2008.
17. The Guardian (UK), February 16, 2006.
18. The Los Angeles Times, September 2, 2008.
19. Guy Dinmore, “US and UK develop democracy strategy for Iran,” Financial Times (UK), April 21, 2006.
20. Mousavi’s greatest support, according to pollsters Ballen and Doherty, comes from this stratum.

Written by what's left

July 1, 2009 at 10:49 pm

Fraser Institute hack: Way off the Marx

with one comment

By Stephen Gowans

The January 30th edition of the state-owned Zimbabwean newspaper, The Herald, featured an article by Herbert Grubel, a professor emeritus of economics at Simon Fraser University at Vancouver and senior fellow at the ultra-right Fraser Institute, reprinted from The African Executive. In his article, titled “Global economic crisis: Can Marxism help?” Grubel argues that Marx was wrong in saying the way out of a capitalist economic crisis is to pay workers more. Instead, he contends, governments should offer workers no income support and allow troubled industries to collapse as the best way to end the global economic crisis quickly.

Grubel’s argument suffers from one fatal mistake and one absurdity.

The mistake is in incorrectly attributing an underconsumption theory of economic slowdown (the idea that workers don’t buy enough to keep the economy afloat because they’re paid less than the value of the goods and services they produce) to Karl Marx. Marx did not favor underconsumption as the explanation of capitalist crises, though many Marxists have and still do. At the same time, many non-Marxists have espoused and continue to promote underconsumptionist views. The idea that capitalism regularly falters because workers aren’t paid enough is neither Marx’s view nor peculiar to Marxists.

Argument based on one fatal flaw and one absurdity.

Herbert Grubel: Argument based on one fatal flaw and one absurdity.

Marx favored the view that capitalist economies regularly lapse into crisis because the rate of profit falls to such a low level that capitalists are no longer prepared to make new investments. One of the leading contemporary proponents of this view, Anwar Shaikh, echoes Grubel’s argument that measures to protect wages and bail out distressed industries are more likely to prolong a period of economic stagnation than jump start an economy. In other words, Grubel is not as far from Marx as he thinks.

But where Grubel parts company with Marx is in proposing that unemployment, shrinking wages and shuttered industries amount to a solution. It does if the problem is saving capitalism, so that it can continue in its accustomed course of lurching from one crisis to another. But if our concern is with the welfare of the greatest number, regularly throwing people out of work, cutting their wages, and subjecting them to cruel hardships, is hardly a solution.

Marx wasn’t interested in prescribing measures to keep capitalism afloat, precisely because he believed capitalism’s crisis-prone nature was inherent in the system itself. Instead, he predicted that the majority would create an alternative system based on public ownership that harnessed the economy to serve their own needs, rather than continuing in the current vein of having to sacrifice themselves, their interests and their welfare to make capitalism work (and capitalists – the patrons of Gruber’s Fraser Institute – rich).

Anyone told they have to work longer hours for less, or endure a prolonged period of unemployment, in order to once again pull the capitalist economy out of yet another slump, might reasonably ask themselves whether the economic system they’re expected to endure such significant sacrifices for, is really worth saving.

Grubel – an ideologue for the capitalist interests that fund the Fraser Institute — absurdly seems to think it is (go figure). Marx didn’t, no more than he thought low pay causes capitalist crises.

Written by what's left

January 30, 2009 at 11:48 pm

Posted in Fraser Institute, Marxism

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