Friday, August 28, 2015

Reflections of late August: 1919’s Red Summer

The Lynching of Will Brown, Omaha, Nebraska. 1919

Woodrow Wilson, five months into his presidency and after having run on an anti-war platform, plunged America into the great catastrophe of World War I. Different historical narratives exist regarding that decision. Wilson eventually mustered 4,800,000 US soldiers into service, 2,800,000 of them by draft, after a nationwide campaign undertaken with a new public propaganda tool, the Committee on Public Information, created by Wilson with the help of journalist George Creel.

One effect of the war was a shortage of labor in the industrial north of the United States. A great migration of southern blacks took place to the large cities of the north to fill jobs on the railroads and in factories. At the end of the war, amidst a mass demobilization of US troops and a reduction in armaments manufacturing, came unemployment. What had been a shortage of labor was now a surplus. Coincident with these events were the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, which had taken place in 1917, and new black civil rights activism in the US in the wake of Marcus Garvey, the 10-year-old NAACP and other organizations and the new prominence of important black intellectuals, artists and writers of the Harlem Renaissance.

Many politicians and newspapers treated activists as enemies of the state by conflating the emergent black civil rights movement with Bolshevism. The New York Times was amongst the worst offenders with a July 28, 1919 headline titled “REDS TRY TO STIR NEGROES TO REVOLT; Widespread Propaganda on Foot Urging Them to Join I.W.W. and 'Left Wing' Socialists.”

At the end of the war, suspicion of an ascendant Germany was being replaced by the “red scare.” While politicians, carnival barkers and reckless newspaper media promoted this hysteria, tensions were breaking out between whites and blacks as black communities were placed in a state of siege by mob attacks on the part of jobless whites, Klan members and their sympathizers. From opened archives we know that Woodrow Wilson in private conversation, stated, “the American Negro returning from abroad would be our greatest medium in conveying bolshevism to America,” a direct reference to men who had just served their country in the deadliest war of the modern era. (See Cameron McWhirter, Red Summer). 

It can also be noted that this was the era of the racist, pro-KKK film "Birth of a Nation" by Wilson's friend and cinematographer, D.W. Griffith. Wilson invited his cabinet and close friends to the White House for a private screening of the film.

In the summer of 1919 riots broke out with white mobs attacking blacks, but unlike past eras, many blacks resisted and fought back. Even in Washington DC, where President Wilson maintained racially segregated federal offices, violence erupted after repeated attacks on black homes, against individuals on streetcars, and in workplaces elsewhere in the city. The DC Police refused to intervene. The NAACP sent a telegram to President Wilson, condemning the attacks and urging intervention. As the attacks went unabated, riots broke out.

Lynching would go on for a number of years. The Red Scare would continue. Newspapers, the mass media of the day, would continue to carry water for those promoting hysteria and attacking the labor and civil rights movements, while brave souls of American history forged new paths.

"She says, You can’t repeat the past. I say, You can’t? What do you mean, you can’t? Of course you can.'” - Bob Dylan, Summer Days.

Friday, April 17, 2015

What the Greek Crisis Might Reveal about Global Capitalism

Writing under the pseudonym Tyler Durden (Fight Club fans will recognize that name), the primary author at Zero Hedge has offered an interesting perspective on what the brutally realistic options are for the newly elected Syriza leaders if the party is to represent the democratic aspirations of the Greek people.  Durden places emphasis on the complexity of the current situation and posits, rightly I think, that the Greek people have yet to be presented with a clear picture of what a Euro-member austerity world looks like, compared with a Euro-Exit world.

Zero Hedge offers an insider's view of financial markets and is written by Wall Street traders, under pseudonym, to protect their identities.  What I find most interesting is that Durden’s analysis is very similar to that of Marxian Economists such as Leon Panitch, who have been studying Greece closely and in some cases advising the new Syriza government.

Durden leaves us with his strongly held opinion that Greece will exit the Eurozone financial system. While it is not yet clear that this is a certainty, the inflexible and condescending postures of the IMF leaders and German Finance Minister seem to be pushing Greece closer to the “Grexit” scenario.

The fact that Greece had been ruled by a handful of plutocrat families, who for years were the primary beneficiaries of IMF and Eurozone policies - avoiding taxes and reaping the benefits of debt schemes - seems to have been forgotten.  The moral logic of standard IMF policy is being unwaveringly adhered to in Europe with Germany acting as the moral and fiduciary guardian.

If Marx’s insights gave us nothing else, it is this: there is social cost and social value in all relations, commerce or otherwise.  Neoclassical economic theory has always struggled with this truth, which never seems to fit into its analytical models.  As we once again watch a failure of market economics that puts profits into the pockets of elites while passing their massive, accumulated debts on to working people, we have to take measure of the human cost.

The Syriza leadership seems to be yelling these humane principles into an echo chamber as the EU finance elites talk past them.  The only thing that appears certain now is that whichever decision is taken it will have profound consequences.

Iran: Paranoia, Uncomfortable Facts and Elusive Peace

In their 2007 book, the The Sphinx of Tehran, Yossi Melman and Meir Javedanfar built a narrative around the theory, supported by Israeli intelligence given to Melman, that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was a dangerous fanatic whose ideas were framed around a belief in the “Mahdi” and his imminent return.  The Mahdi is the twelfth Imam, the reason we hear the Iranian variant of Shia Islam referred to as “Twelver.”  This theory postulates that Ahmadinejad believed that increased enrichment of uranium could deliver the bomb to the Iranian arsenal by 2007, when Iran would presumably start a war against Israel.  This is an isolated view and the most extreme interpretation of what has been going on inside of Iran; a view not shared by anyone outside of Israel.

As much as Melman’s book offered a great plot for a Ludlum-like thriller, it was severely criticized in the Middle East Policy Council journal that published a review of the book by Gareth Porter.  Porter criticizes the authors for relying too heavily on verbatim Israeli intelligence viewpoints, without critically analyzing them.  He also finds Melman ascribing too much authority to the Iranian president and for equating political campaign rhetoric with actual policy.  Time has proven this view correct as Ahmadinejad has passed from the scene and both rhetoric and actions have changed.

Other odd facts uncomfortably linger:

The Iranian nuclear program was started under the Shah, with support from the United States.

The Ayatollah, Ruholla Khomeini, considered nuclear weapons to be Haram – forbidden under Islamic jurisprudence - and formally proscribed them.

A preexisting, clandestine nuclear program was then shut down.

Iran has publicly and repeatedly renounced weapons of mass destruction and is a signatory to the Nuclear Non Proliferation treaty, The Biological Weapons Convention and the Chemical Weapons Convention.

Iran does not possess nuclear weapons.

Israel is not a signatory to the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty or the Chemical Weapons Convention and has never allowed the IAEA to inspect its nuclear facilities at Dimona, in the Negev desert.

Mordecai Vanunu publicly revealed the secret Israel nuclear weapons program in 1986, and the world has known of it since then.
Vanunu's Photograph of Israel Nuclear Equipment

What a framework for peaceful settlement of the dispute over Iran’s nuclear program offers is the opening of a possible détente between the US and Iran, but more importantly the possibility of a détente between Iran and Saudi Arabia.  This would require a great deal of commitment from the US, Russia, Turkey and European allies.  Assuming that the narrow minds of religious extremists will continue to perpetuate a doom-driven status quo and that negotiations are therefore useless, demonstrates a lack of imagination and an adherence to the siege mentality of perpetual war. 

Pursuing dialogue and more dialogue, patiently, persistently and rationally, is the only path to peace.

War has become the easy and financially profitable answer to disputes around the world and history has proven that it sits very comfortably within the capitalist system, often serving as a growth engine during recessionary cycles and slumps.  Its social costs are incalculable.

Peace costs much less, but is more difficult to bring about.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Zeus and Sisyphus

In the Albert Camus version of The Myth of Sisyphus the author has Zeus condemn the truth-telling king to a never-ending cycle of hard work, psychologically justified by the illusion of scaling the heights that he would forever ascend.  For Zeus, the ultimate holder of power, Sisyphus’s truth telling was a deceit and contrary to his interests and therefore the king had to be punished harshly.  There is some irony in this retelling of the Hellenic myth given the locus of today’s latest crisis in global capitalism.

The protracted Greek financial crisis is coming to a critical moment and can be seen in the larger context of a failure of the neoliberal economic project in the EU and its devastating consequences in southern European countries.  How can we make this assessment?  By considering the history of the larger sovereign debt crises and the way critical policy decisions are now being made. The “Troika,” (the IMF, The European Central Bank and the European Commission) has now imposed brutal austerity measures - as a condition of survival - on member countries who followed the EU’s free market dictates during the sovereign debt boom but are now suffering its consequences in a new economic cycle.  Greece is the example being set for any member who is confused about the real aims of the EU financial system.

 In today’s media world of conveniently conflated ideas, we might easily confuse this process for democracy, but in fact the function of these policies is to serve the narrow aims of the neoliberal economic project centered in the US and northern European countries.  This project may or may not exactly fit in with the aims of democracy in various countries, but that is not a serious consideration when capital flows are at stake, as these are the profit centers of banking elites, not working class people. Go ahead, call me a Socialist.  Then give some consideration to these facts.

Lost in this sad story is the history behind the crisis and its connection to the expansion of global capital through leverage and the sale of debt as a vehicle for capital growth, when profits are most easily made by funding the expeditions of elite investors and financial institutions following the guidelines of the IMF, regardless of its effect on the sovereignty of nations.  No matter that a small group of Greek families managed an oligarchic economy in partnership with big banks and no matter that sovereign debt was seen as a good bet by the banks and that billions were made creating it.  Greece and others were following the rules of the game.

Once the financial crisis of 2008 came about, itself a function of neoliberal economic policies that promote moral hazard, this project was no longer profitable for banking elites.  The capital dried up and the remaining accounts deficit and shrinking Greek economy was juxtaposed with rising interest rates, expanding the debt even further.  Exactly how are Greek workers responsible for this?  The machinations of big banks are not easily understood by voters in general and corporate media does nothing to educate voters so that they understand what unelected policy elites are doing behind the scenes in the “service” of national aspirations.

The Germans for their part, have done a good job of promoting the concept of Schulden; basically, “your debt, your problem,” as The Economist has pointed out.  This kind of false moralism, placing the blame for economic crises created by big banks and financial institutions, on the shoulders of working people and the poor is part of the central myth underlying the presumed integrity of the current system of financial capital.  Contradictions abound, but are buried beneath the linen tablecloths at the World Economic Forum.  The fact that numerous economists from across the spectrum have pointed out that austerity creates the opposite of economic growth, which is a prerequisite for realistic and sustained debt service, is obscured by the banking interests at play.  This is at the expense of serious core economic reform, human rights and democracy.  Did Keynes ever imagine that “economic discipline” meant cutting off food stamps for the poor, allowing taxpaying citizens to go without heat or lose their homes as a result of moral hazard?  Of firing public sector workers and cutting those remaining workers’ wages?   Of saddling workers with higher taxes, while allowing oligarchs to not pay taxes at all?

Media pundits in the service of financial capital can make various Neo-Keynesian arguments for why the Greeks need to accept responsibility for their runaway debt and failure to implement adequate controls and financial reforms “consistent” with those of countries vastly different from them in culture, geography, natural resources and productive capacity.  Most of these arguments are coherent within the context of global capitalism and IMF policy.  They are also based on a false premise: that Greek workers created the crisis.

What about democracy and sovereignty?

The The SYRIZA Statute  (the link is translatable in Chrome), reads like a modern day International, having reach far beyond the shores of Greece. This extraordinary document of principles might seem out of step to most Americans, but can be understood as a profound expression of universal democratic principles and ideals.  That it emerges from Greece, the birthplace of Pericles and the Golden Age, stands in stark contrast to what the purported norms of modern democracy have become.  That capitalism as-it-actually-exists has subsumed and perverted core principles of democracy, is no longer a secret in southern Europe.
Syriza's Thessaloniki Programme is exciting to read but after doing so and then looking at the brutal economic regime being forced on the Greek people, it makes me shed tears.  It seems to have the social character of what may have existed in Spain before the various Republican factions were crushed by Franco.  It is a call to reason, fairness and justice, but finds no kin in the centers of power in Brussels.

Meanwhile, Germany and the northern EU countries appear unconcerned with the rise of fascism in Greece even though a failure of the Syriza project may bring it to the fore.  Greece is not the only country experiencing this phenomenon and France and Germany should be acutely aware of the danger.  That the EU seems to be backing Syriza into a corner to bring about its failure says something profound about the neoliberal economic system that dominates international relations.  Syriza needs all of the help, sympathy and good will they can get from the rest of the world, but actually existing capitalism almost ensures that media companies will keep that sympathy from developing.

Despite the fact that austerity will shrink the Greek economy further and reduce revenues making it impossible to retire a corruptly landed debt, the Troika will force this great nation into squalor.  Zeus is no mood for mercy.

Perhaps a successful and peaceful exit from the eurozone can be made.  Let us hope. This is painful to watch.