Friday, October 30, 2009

A one-sided class war is going on

Is Capitalism Really on Its Last Legs?

Interview with Michael D. Yates and Fred Magdoff
by Mike Whitney

Mike Whitney: In your new book, The ABCs of the Economic Crisis: What Working People Need to Know, you allude to right-wing think tanks, like the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute, which promote a "free market" ideology. How successful have these organizations been in shaping public opinion about capitalism? Do you think that attitudes are beginning to change now that people understand the role that Wall Street and the big banks played in creating the crisis?

Michael D. Yates: Corporate America began to wage what turned out to be a one-sided war against working people in the mid- to late-1970s, when it became apparent that the post-World War Two "Golden Age" of U.S. capitalism was over. As profit rates fell, businesses began to develop a strategy for restoring them. This strategy had many prongs, and one of them was ideological, that is, a struggle for "hearts and minds," to use a military term now being applied to Afghanistan. The presumed failure of Keynesian economics, marked by the simultaneous existence of escalating inflation and unemployment, gave the ideological struggle its foundation. Maybe there had been too many restrictions placed on the market, and these restrictions (minimum wages, health and safety regulations, laws facilitating union organizing in labor markets; public assistance in the form of money grants, housing subsidies, and the like; restrictions on the flow of money internationally) had led to results opposite those that liberal Keynesians had thought most likely. If these complex arguments could be tied to simple clichés, like "get the government off our backs," "the unions have gotten too powerful" (with always a hint that they are too radical thrown into the argument), and "welfare queens" (with that always popular whiff of racism), they could provide ideological cover for what was really a matter of corporate economics, namely the making of money.

This ideological attack bore fruit quickly. President Carter appointed Paul Volcker to chair the Federal Reserve Board of Governors, and Volcker, under the guise of fighting inflation, immediately began to snuff the life out of working-class communities by forcing interest rates up to nearly 20 percent. Today, Volcker is treated like a hero by Democrats and above reproach (though ignored by President Obama's more right-wing economic advisors), which shows just how far to the right economic discourse has moved. What Carter began, Reagan completed, firing the Air Traffic Controllers and putting the nail in labor's coffin.

Behind the scenes in all of this and growing in strength for the next twenty years (funded by wealthy business leaders) or so were the right-wing think tanks you mention. Just as retired generals go to work for military contractors and defeated politicians become lobbyists, government economic advisors get jobs at Heritage or the American Enterprise Institute or the Cato Institute. The staffs of these ideological centers churn out endless position papers and studies, which find their way into our newspapers and the offices of our congresspersons. A gigantic network of professors, journalists, politicians, lobbyists, and, today, a television network (Fox) bombard us with right-wing propaganda. That all of this has been successful is seen by the fact that the shibboleths of neoliberalism -- such as the needs for privatization of public entities, the free reign of markets, the obviousness of the success of welfare reform, the evils of raising the minimum wage -- are all commonplaces today.

While the public now knows that something is rotten, I am not sure that neoliberal ideas are so under attack that they will lose their sway. I think that the tenacity of these ideas owes something to the lack of an ideological alternative, which, in turn, is due to the abject failure of organized labor to provide one. For example, we need universal health care. Labor, however, has not consistently argued in favor of this or supported it at all. Now Congress is poised to enact healthcare legislation that might well be worse than the profit-driven system we have all come to hate. Labor should refuse to support this legislation, but I doubt it will. Then, when the new healthcare plans fail to deliver the goods, the right-wing will be lying in wait, ready to pounce and say, "See, we told you so. The government always makes things worse." In other words, until there is a radical ideology to replace right-wing thinking, the latter is unlikely to lose its drawing power.

Fred Magdoff: Although these institutions were very successful, along with a number of other forces, in shaping public attitudes toward the economy, the reality of the current severe economic conditions are causing many, including some economists, to rethink their views of how "efficiently" markets function in the real world (as opposed to their ideological make-believe world) and that some different approaches may be needed. People seem to understand that the "big players" played a major role in the crisis, but most of the anger has been placed on the outrageous salaries of the top echelon. Of course, this is just "chump change" compared to the massive amounts that are transferred to the wealthy through the speculative casino that our economy has become.

Mike Whitney: Socialism has a huge public relations problem. Wouldn't you agree that socialism has been effectively discredited in the U.S. media and that even now -- with unemployment soaring at 10 percent and more than 300,000 foreclosures per month -- the average American worker still believes in the virtues of capitalism? How do you explain this phenomenon?

Michael Yates: Part of my answer here can be seen in my response to your first question. Socialism has, indeed, been discredited here, partly due to its rejection by its natural supporter, namely the labor movement. The CIO expelled in the late 1940s and early 1950s the left-wing forces who built the great industrial unions. When it did this, it abandoned the worker-centered ideology that might have laid the basis for support here for at least the kind of social democracy we find in the Scandinavian nations. This left the ideological field to the enemies of social democracy and socialism.

Of course, we cannot ignore the long and inglorious history of police-state repression of those persons and organizations that championed socialism. Our government has never hesitated to arrest, imprison, and even kill the enemies of capitalism. So it has been dangerous to be a radical here, though not so much today when radical ideas aren't taken seriously and there are no powerful radical organizations left.

Suppose that after the Second World War, the left in the labor movement had grown, and the left-led unions had continued to successfully organize workers and win good collective bargaining agreements. Suppose that they had built upon their impressive worker education programs, made inroads in the South, and fought hard against U.S. imperialism and the Cold War. We might have a much different political terrain on which to fight today.

Two other factors that must be considered in the attachment of the working class to capitalism are racism and imperialism. In the past, employers routinely pitted white workers against black, and one weapon they used was to associate black workers (and the civil rights movement) with communism (it was interesting to note in this connection the attempts to make Obama out to be a radical socialist). The claim that black union supporters were reds helped to solidify white support for capitalism. By the same token, anti-imperialist struggles in the poor nations of the world (often former colonies of the rich countries) were typically led by political radicals. These could be made out to be anti-American, and then those in the United States who allied themselves with these struggles could also be labeled anti-American, despite the fact that they might also be supportive of policies that would benefit working people. The schools and the media could be counted on not to try to set anyone straight on any of this.

Now, having said this, I must also say that, to the extent that left forces in the United States identified themselves uncritically with the former Soviet Union and its extremely undemocratic political system, they sometimes played into the hands of those opposed to socialism. And I must also admit that socialist forces were, at their strongest, never powerful enough here to force their best ideals permanently into the consciousness of the working-class majority. Finally, in the past, the success of capitalism in the United States allowed for some sharing of the wealth with workers, and this, too, made people less willing to entertain radical ideas.

Old and deeply ingrained ideas die hard, and unless there are forces at work to develop new ones and unless there is at least widespread experimentation with new ways to organize production and distribution, little is likely to change, even in the face of economic catastrophe such as so may working men and women are facing right now. Quite the contrary, workers might be persuaded that actions detrimental to their long-term self-interest need to be taken, such as, for example, draconian measures against immigrants.

Fred Magdoff: There is no question that the term socialism has a public relations problem. But while it's true that most people don't fully understand the basic workings of the capitalist system nor what socialism is, there are indications that many people are ready to talk about alternatives -- and that includes socialism. The positive public response to Michael Moore's movie, Capitalism, is one indication. But a Rasmussen poll last spring found that only 53% of Americans say that capitalism is better than socialism. For adults under 30, 37% preferred capitalism and 33% preferred socialism. It's not clear what the poll results really mean. But it does indicate that people are willing to hear about and talk about alternatives to capitalism.

Mike Whitney: In a chapter titled "Neoliberlism" you focus on the disparity of wealth in the US today. Here's an excerpt:

By 2006 the top 1 percent of households received close to a quarter of all income and the top 10 percent got 50 percent of the income pie. In 2006, the 400 richest Americans had a collective net wealth of $1.6 trillion, more than the combined wealth of the bottom 150 million people. This degree of income and wealth inequality was last seen just before the beginning of the Great Depression. (50)

Let's ignore the moral issue for now, and focus on the supply/demand question. Is it possible for an economy to produce sufficient demand when more and more of the wealth and income goes to the upper 5 or 10 percent of the population?

Michael Yates: If a certain amount of output is produced, an equal amount of income is generated. So, conceptually, there could be enough demand to buy the output, no matter that the incomes generated are getting more unequally distributed. It certainly has been the case that the rich people now getting such a large share of the pie spend gobs of money. And rich foreigners spend a great deal of money in the United States as well. However, the rich also save a lot of money (the more they get, the more they save), and this money does not enter immediately into the spending flow. Working people, on the other hand, can be counted on, by virtue of the limited income that they command, to spend all of their income. Therefore, the more income the rich have, the more savings there will be, and, unless some way is found to convert all this saving into spending on newly-produced goods and services, the more likely it is that there will be a crisis caused by not enough spending (and its corollaries of unsold goods and services and unemployed labor). If we understand that growing inequality is the normal trajectory of capitalist economies, a trajectory only mitigated by the power of organized working people to win a bigger share of the pie for themselves and to compel the government to intervene in the marketplace on their behalf, then it is correct to say that capitalist economies are crisis-prone for this reason alone.

Growing inequality also creates other potential problems for the system. Sometimes it can generate a political crisis, a crisis of legitimacy so to speak. The rich exert tremendous political power, and this power grows as those at the top command a larger and larger share of a society's income. To the rest of us, the game looks increasingly rigged, with us having little chance to improve our circumstances through individual efforts. More inequality also has harmful social and economic consequences that we don't normally think of. Recent research has shown that, if we compare two entities (two states in the United States, for example) with equal average incomes but different degrees of inequality, then the place with more unequal incomes will also have higher rates of infant mortality, arrest and imprisonment, school dropouts, low infant birth weights, and many other measures of social well-being. Growing inequality actually kills some of us, makes some of us sicker, and puts some of us in jail.

I want to add an important point. To say that capitalist economies are crisis-prone, because of a tendency toward income inequality or whatever other reason, is not the same as saying that these economies are on their deathbeds, no matter how severe a crisis may be. It is possible for an economy to exist in a crisis or a prolonged period of slow growth (stagnation) without it being ready to collapse. In the end, it is political struggle, that is, class struggle, that truly destabilizes an economy and generates conditions in which it is possible to imagine the birth of a new system.

Fred Magdoff: It is one of the many contradictions of the system. If ordinary folk are paid well they can buy a lot of stuff and help keep the system going. So from the point of view of the system as a whole, higher paid workers would help the economy. However, there is only one driving force for individual capitalists -- and that's to make as much money as possible. What might be better for the overall economy can be of no concern to the individual trying to maximize profits. For an analogy, let's take a look at ocean fishing. Almost every fish species is being fished to the point at which the population crashes. It would make sense for all of the companies operating the large trawlers to cooperate and fish less in order to preserve the resource on which they depend. So what's good for their long-term future is sacrificed as each individually tries to maximize their catch and therefore profits.

Mike Whitney: Here's another excerpt from the book: "In 2006, the financial sector employed about 6 percent of the workers but 'produced' 40 percent of the profits of all domestic firms"(56). A few paragraphs later you add that "Making money without actually making something turned out to be the largest growth sector of the U.S. economy from the early 1980s to the present crisis." This seems to imply that as manufacturing and other parts of the "real" economy have become less lucrative, the trading of paper assets has become Wall Street's new profit-center, the Golden Goose. What impact has the "financialization" of the economy had on ordinary working people?

Michael Yates: I think that an answer here has two parts. First, it was the neoliberal "revolution" begun in the 1970s that did immense harm to working people. For example, unionization rates began to fall dramatically in the 1980s, as Reagan began his "magic-of-the-marketplace" assault on the working class. Real wages (the purchasing power of our paychecks) began to stagnate in the 1970s and are not much higher today than then. Relatively high-wage public employment began to endure a long period of privatization, which also damaged working-class living standards. The move toward "free trade" did workers here no good, as manufacturing began to flee our shores for low-wage havens abroad. None of these things had to do with financialization per se.

Second, however, once the neoliberal attack on working-class living standards took hold and incomes began to flow upward, those with a great deal more money began to look for ways to put this money to work. The corporations that they owned also had higher profits, and they did the same. The United States has always had a robust financial sector, though, in the past, it was not the tail that wagged the dog as far as our system of production and distribution was concerned. Neoliberalism brought with it a deregulation of international movements of money and goods and services. (It is important to note that we see neoliberalism as a political response to capital's quest for restored profits beginning in the mid-1970s when the post-World War Two economic boom ended and the slow growth – stagnation -- common to mature capitalist economies reasserted itself.) These, in turn, required a certain amount of financial innovation, to reduce, for example, the risks of fluctuations in currency exchange rates and sharp changes in political conditions that could threaten investments. From these innovations came still more, until finance began to take on a life of its own. And while neoliberalism and direct corporate actions inside workplaces did reduce costs and raise profits, they did not create nearly enough capital spending opportunities (investment) to absorb the growing individual savings and business profits. Finance of one kind or another then began to be seen as a place to dispose of surplus and make still more money. Leveraged buyouts, stock market speculations, real estate "investments," all took off from the 1980s on, absorbing money that could not find enough opportunities in the real economy of production. As these things happened, financial "innovation" exploded, with all of the alphabet soup of financial instruments we describe in our book.

This explosion of finance proved detrimental to working people in a number of ways. Leveraged buyouts inevitably resulted in the hollowing out of what were often perfectly viable businesses. Companies were saddled with debt, assets were stripped and sold, and workers were furloughed by the tens of thousands. The inflation of asset values gave rise to the notion that it was the job of managers to increase the share price of their businesses -- in any way possible. Businesses came to be thought of as mere collections of assets rather than entities that produced things. Asset inflation gave rise to asset speculation and the development of ever more complex financial instruments, all leading sooner or later to financial bubbles and the inevitable bursting of the bubbles.

As we have seen, the bursting of financial bubbles has had tremendously negative impacts on working people: shuttered workplaces and unemployment to name but the primary ones. The last bubble, in real estate markets, was harmful to workers not only after it burst but also as it was developing. In the aftermath of the bubble, Alan Greenspan, former Chairman of the Fed Board of Governors, directed Fed policy to pressure interest rates down to very low levels. This helped to push loose money into real estate. As house prices began to rise, banks and brokers started to encourage working people to do two things: borrow money against the appreciated value of their homes; and buy homes, either as first-time buyers or as purchasers of more expensive homes (after selling old ones). Working people were eager to do both because they saw houses as sources of cash to compensate for stagnating household incomes and as a form of wealth that could help secure them against the hazards of ill health, lost pensions, or college-age children needing money for school. Working-class households began to take on large amounts of debt, making themselves more vulnerable, even as they thought they were making wise financial decisions.

Ironically, those who saw their incomes rise so high because of neoliberalism were now, in effect, loaning money to those who didn't fare so well. As banks accumulated mortgages, farsighted Wall Street swindlers saw golden opportunities to develop a slew of new financial instruments based upon the packaging and repackaging of mortgages into new and exotic instruments. Greenspan played their shill, arguing that they had uncovered the secret of hedging infallibly against risk. From here it was but a short step to the criminal schemes of Countrywide and a host of other financial institutions. The billions of dollars made were used not only to finance a new gilded age of revoltingly lavish consumption but to corral the most tractable politicians money could buy.

Fred Magdoff: Financialization of the economy created the possibilities for people to take on more and more debt -- credit cards, new cars, second mortgages, etc. It was the selling of a lifestyle way beyond people's ability to pay for it, plus the easy access of loans that created the bind that many people find themselves in today. In essence, it allowed people to live beyond their means. They were encouraged to take on debt as their house values seemed headed up forever, and the great rise in foreclosures and bankruptcies is the unfortunate result of the financialization of the economy. Also, those people who had retirement money in individual accounts or with pension systems and thought that they had become very wealthy now found themselves with much less to rely upon.

Mike Whitney: In the last couple of decades, consumer debt has skyrocketed, as you note, "doubling from 1975 to 2005, to 127 percent of disposable income" (60). Have we gone as far as we can without deleveraging and paying down debts? What happens to a credit-dependent economy when the consumer can no longer increase his or her debt load? Is this just the beginning of a decades-long down-cycle?

Michael Yates: Certainly no entity -- not a person, a family, a business, even a government -- can take on rising levels of debt (relative to income) indefinitely. Sooner or later, the piper has to be paid. Working-class consumers took on large amounts of debt, to compensate in part for stagnating wages and incomes, and, it is important to note, to pay for health problems and other household traumas. This meant that the burden of the debt rose, since income wasn't rising as fast as the debt, and also because the interest rates charged on credit cards and subprime mortgages were so high. We at Monthly Review have been decrying the rise of consumer debt for many years, and we said that the debt chickens would come home to roost sooner of later.

I must say that I was surprised that debt could be broadened and deepened for so long. The ingenuity of creditors in extending loan periods and devising so many new forms of debt has to be admired for its audacity. Then, the ways in which these debts were packaged and sold so that more debt could be extended were truly breathtaking. Unfortunately, consumers ultimately couldn't pay and all hell broke loose.

Now, with so much unemployment, workers are truly strapped. They will not be borrowing so much or spending so much anytime soon. (One interesting recent development is that, as some households have defaulted on debts or simply stopped making payments, consumer spending has showed a bit of an upward tick!) So the question arises: what spending will fuel a sustained recovery? It won't likely be consumer spending. Capital spending was stagnating to begin with and was the root cause of the crisis. There are no new "epoch-making" innovations on the horizon that would generate the amounts of investment that were brought forth by the automobile. U.S. exports seem a very unlikely demand support. That leaves the government.

In a capitalist economy, especially one like the United States with its lack of a history of generally accepted public spending, it seems very unlikely that public spending will make up for shortfalls in aggregate demand. Already, there are widespread entreaties (and not just from the far right) urging the federal government to wind down in spending programs -- well before, I might add, the economy has recovered. As we see it, the United States is, indeed, in for a long period of stagnation, a "down cycle" as you put it.

Fred Magdoff: This is one of the major constraints on the system. The economy is in a process that economists call "deleveraging," which is just another way of referring to somehow getting rid of debt. Some are able to pay off what they owe, a few are able to renegotiate down some of their debt, many are losing their homes, and some are going bankrupt. Until this works its way out, and a lot of debt is shed one way or another, there will be a drag on the "consumer" portion of the purchases. This is particularly significant to the U.S. economy because it is so dependent on consumer purchases -- in 2007, these absorbed approximately 70% of the goods and services produced.

Mike Whitney: The ABCs of the Economic Crisis: What Working People Need to Know is as lucid and compelling summary of the financial crisis as any I have read. In the closing chapter you state that capitalism is undergoing a "crisis of legitimacy"; that "the system can never deliver what is needed for us to realize our capacities and enjoy our lives"; and that, "instead of private gain," the purpose of society and the economy is "to serve the needs of people, by providing the necessities of life for all, without promoting excessive consumption (consumerism) while protecting earth's life support systems." All of the things that kept capitalism in check -- progressive taxation, crucial regulations, and the power of unions -- have either been reversed, repealed, or greatly eroded. More and more people are beginning to see the greed which governs the system, and it scares them. But is the country really ready for structural change or will the vision of an economy which "serves the needs of its people" be dismissed as "pie-in-the-sky" Utopianism?

Michael Yates: Well, first thank you Mike for the kind words. They are much appreciated. Typically, the best we have been able to hope for from the public in the United States has been an amorphous populism: people are willing to say that the system is corrupt and that it is biased in favor of the rich. But proposals for change, much less a radical transformation of the economic system, are rare commodities.

I think things would be different, however, if we had a real labor movement, one that was rooted in communities, broad in its composition, and not afraid to have principles and stand by them come hell or high water. This should be the lesson that progressives learned from the right-wing. The talking heads of Fox may seem insane to us, but they and their intellectual gurus almost never deviate from the set of reactionary principles with which they began to transform the "common sense" of the nation.

We suggest at the end of our book that we ought to ask ourselves if a return to the pre-economic crisis status quo is what we want. In the best of times, there is plenty of unutilized labor, a degraded environment, poverty, dead-end jobs, and much more that is not so desirable. So we chose a number of alternative outcomes to what we have now that we think have mass appeal, from universal healthcare to basic food guarantees. However, as you say, these might well -- and I think will -- cause people to react with a pie-in-the-sky indifference. What might make working men and women stand up and take notice would be for these goals to have a mass-based advocate, one that would make these goals matters of rigid principle and begin to fight for them through mass actions.

We might think that the right-wing ideologues we see on television are insane. Yet, come hell or high water, they stick to their guns. Their political and economic adherents have wielded tremendous power for a long period of time, and even today, when they seem to be losing their grip on the national "common sense," they can still mobilize the faithful. The left needs to take a lesson from this.

More particularly, the labor movement must take a firm and rigid stand on issues like national health care, food security, environmental degradation, full employment, good and cheap housing, U.S. war-making and imperialism, racism, and a host of others. Then it must educate members rigorously and constantly about such principles. Most importantly, it must begin to actively fight to achieve them, activating its millions of members and allies, wherever it can find them. It is through action, bold and unafraid, that people's minds will get changed and a new "common sense" developed.

Having said this, I think it is clear that the labor movement, as currently constituted, is not up to the tasks at hand. Too many unions are moribund, stuck in the failed labor-management cooperation mindset of the past and run by people too old and infirm to do much of anything. So, not only will we have to have a worker-led opposition to the status quo, fighting to change it radically, but this opposition will have to be built on a new basis. There are some hopeful signs, such as the development of community-based worker centers, mainly in immigrant communities. These may be models for the labor movement of the future.

Fred Magdoff: Just getting what should be the most reasonable reforms through Congress is a major effort, which usually fails or is corrupted in the process. Look what's happening with health care "reform." Even if a "public option" is finally part of the bill, it will be a bill that helps some people, but is primarily a boon to the health care industry, which will get a lot of new revenue. It's not a bill designed with the single purpose in mind: how can we supply medical care for everyone at reasonable cost. Rather it's a bill designed with significant input from the for-profit sector that will end up supplying them with extra profits. It is clear that government-run systems (and there are a variety of ways to do this) are far cheaper and more efficient and can actually cover everyone. So, it seems as though piecemeal reform is a) very difficult to obtain and b) can be reversed as the power of the wealthy increases. A system is needed that can break the power of the wealthy and create a real political and economic democracy in order to be able to meet the basic needs for all the people.

Michael D. Yates and Fred Magdoff are co-authors of The ABCs of the Economic Crisis: What Working People Need to Know. Mike Whitney lives in Washington state. He can be reached at . The first half of this interview was first published in his blog on 28 October 2009.

A Stella D’Oro Balance Sheet

Mariano Silva looks at the impact of the heroic but unsuccessful battle waged by Stella D'oro workers to defend their pay, benefits and jobs.
October 30, 2009

THE STRUGGLE of workers at the Stella D'oro factory in the Bronx, the most important labor fight in New York City over the last 14 months, has seemingly come to a sad end.

The new owners of the cookie company, Lance, Inc., closed the Bronx factory in early October and shipped the equipment to a non-union plant in Ohio, leaving 136 workers out of a job and depriving the Bronx of yet another source of stable union jobs.

Lance's decision to shut the plant came this summer, after the Stella workers--members of Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union (BCTGM) Local 50--won an 11-month strike against the plant's previous owners with a favorable decision from the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).

The plant's owner at the time--the private equity firm Brynwood Partners--was forced to reinstate strikers and provide back pay for its violations of federal law. However, after the NLRB ruling, Brynwood announced it would either close the plant or seek to sell it. In early September, both threats came true when Lance, Inc., bought the company and immediately announced that the Bronx plant would be closed.

The NLRB's finding of illegal conduct by Brynwood arose from management's distortions about alleged "massive financial losses" at the factory. Brynwood claimed, while refusing to provide proof, that the company had lost $1.5 million in profits and more than $5 million in sales, and used these claims to demand concessions.

Brynwood's contract offer was an insult: a pay cut of up to 25 percent; the elimination of vacation, holiday and sick days, the freezing of pensions and increased contributions to health care coverage. Management's stonewalling at the bargaining table and its attempt to unilaterally cut wages and benefits led to the 11-month strike.

The strike provided New York with a spectacular example of working class and community solidarity as it stretched on through last winter and spring.

None of the 136 workers crossed the picket line, and a community-based strike support committee organized a consistent outpouring of support and continuous mobilizations. A core group of Stella D'oro workers led the way in opposing any concessions and opening they way to building a broad-based support campaign. Their efforts should be a lesson for the broader labor movement.

Yet despite verbal recognition by many labor and political leaders of the importance of the struggle to the city's union movement, the broader layers of organized labor didn't come to the defense of Stella workers. While the core group of workers and supporters deserve immense credit for their militancy and commitment over many months, the final mobilizations for Stella workers saw fewer and fewer people turning out, whether at the plant or City Hall.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

A KEY factor in building support for Stella workers was the relative roles of the strike support committee and Local 50.

The committee took advantage of growing discontent spurred by the economic crisis and upcoming local elections to hold meetings throughout the city, building a broad base of support for the union. All of the major newspapers, including the notorious anti-labor rag, the New York Post, had generally favorable coverage of the struggle. Actions included solidarity pickets in Queens and Manhattan as well as a boycott campaign.

But most of this work was carried out by a group of militants from the factory and the support committee. The unions in New York City could and should have made the struggle at Stella a rallying point in the fight to save jobs amid a terrible economic crisis.

There were debates among Stella workers about how to step up the struggle. Members of the United Electrical Workers union (UE) came and held workshops, trying to spread the lessons of the successful Republic Windows & Doors strike and occupation in Chicago last year, where workers forced Bank of America to fund severance packages for laid-off workers. But Local 50, a small and under-funded union local, decided not to take such steps.

As a result, after the announcement of the plant's closure, there was increasing concern among Stella workers about how to cut their losses and at least ensure that severance payments would be forthcoming were the plant to close. Many of the workers were close to retirement, or single mothers with family constraints, and others were undocumented.

In the absence of a broader base of support and a consensus on what it would take to win, many of these legitimate concerns came to the fore. As one worker said at an October 16 rally, "It wasn't clear yet what they're paying. People don't want to break the law yet. They're not denying us our pay."

However, the decision not to occupy the plant and to seek severance payments shouldn't be seen as a shortcoming of Local 50 members. They set an inspiring example with their long and 100-percent solid strike for nearly a year. The real failings in this struggle were on the part of the broader labor movement, which never turned its rhetoric of support into the kind of pressure that could have made a difference.

Efforts to get the plant reopened are continuing. At a demonstration on October 16, Local 50 President Joyce Alston declared, "We want Brynwood Partners to know that we're not stopping. This is going to continue. In over 30 years of negotiating contracts, these people are the most arrogant, egotistical people I've ever dealt with."

A key issue is whether Brynwood will make good on pension and health care benefits that are due to workers beyond the cash payouts it has offered.

In line with this call for ongoing struggle, further rallies have been called, including one targeting Goldman Sachs for receiving a bailout and failing to help workers. There have also been threats of legal action based on the tax breaks that were given to Stella D'oro by the city of New York--which has done nothing to pressure Brynwood or Lance to keep the plant open.

Whether these late-game tactics can bring back the plant is a big question. Lance, Inc. has already walked away with tens of millions in profits, the plant equipment and the union jobs of 136 hard-working and committed working-class fighters.

The labor movement in New York and across the U.S. should draw the right lessons from this fight--that in this economic crisis, struggle and solidarity are more important than ever for workers to win.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

I. F. Stone

IF Stone: An Iconic Radical Journalist

by Stephen Lendman / October 19th, 2009

Born Isador Feinstein in 1907, his brother Louis said he changed his name at age 30 because “he didn’t want to turn a reader off who might be anti-Semetic, right away, to avoid anti-Semitism in his work.” Most people called him Izzy, and when he died in 1989, biographer DD Guttenplan said “he had (so) transformed (himself) from America’s premiere radical journalist into a respectable icon of his profession” that all four major television networks announced his passing.

ABC’s Peter Jennings called him “a journalist’s journalist.” The New York Times featured his death on its front page (usually reserved for the rich and powerful) in a Peter Flint obituary titled, “IF Stone, Iconoclast of Journalism, Is Dead at 81.” A quintessential muckraker, he described him as “the independent, radical pamphleteer of American journalism hailed by his admirers for his scholarship, wit and lucidity” over a career spanning 67 years.

He quoted Stone saying: “I tried to bring the instincts of a scholar to the service of journalism; to take nothing for granted; to turn journalism into literature; to provide radical analysis with a conscientious concern for accuracy, and in studying the current scene to do my very best to preserve human values and free institutions.” In the spirit of author Finley Peter Dunne (1867-1936), he “comfort(ed) the afflicted and afflict(ed) the comfortable,” in a way few others matched or kept doing for so long.

In a 1987 interview, he deplored what he called the ascendancy of “right-wing kooks (and) the ugly spirit (of Reagan’s not so subtle message that) you should go get yours and run.” Late in life he learned classical Greek to be able to read untranslated works and write The Trials of Socrates after more than a decade of study. He criticized the accepted Plato view that he died for exhorting his fellow Athenians to be virtuous. According to Stone, he was seen as a security threat at a time Athenian democracy was imperiled.

In Izzy on Izzy, he called himself an “anachronism… an independent capitalist, the owner of my own enterprise, subject to neither mortgage or broker, factor or patron… standing alone, without organizational or party backing, beholden to no one but my good readers.”

They were many, loyal, and included Ralph Nader who called him “the modern Tom Paine — as independent and incorruptible as they come (as) journalism’s Gibraltar and its unwavering conscience.”

Stone called himself “a newspaperman all my life,” publishing a paper (the Progress) at age 14, working for a country weekly, and then as correspondent for two city dailies (the Haddonfield Press and Camden Courier-Post). Beginning as a high school sophomore, he did this into his third year of college (at the University of Pennsylvania), then quit because “the atmosphere of a college faculty repelled me.” At the same time, he worked afternoons and evenings at the Philadelphia Inquirer “doing combination rewrite and copy desk (work), so I was already an experienced newspaperman making $40 a week — big pay in 1928.” He did everything “except run a linotype machine.”

In the 1920s as a teenager, he became radicalized, mostly from reading Jack London, Herbert Spencer, Peter Kropotkin (a noted Russian anarchist and early communism advocate), and Karl Marx. He joined the Socialist Party and was elected to its New Jersey State Committee “before I was old enough to vote.” He did publicity for Norman Thomas (1894-1968) in the 1928 presidential campaign, but then “drifted away from left-wing politics because of the sectarianism of the left.”

He also believed that party affiliation was incompatible with independent journalism, and he wanted to be “free to help the unjustly treated, to defend everyone’s civil liberty, and to work for social reform without concern for leftist infighting.”

Remembering them “with affection,” he praised his employers for never forcing him to compromise his conscience, even as an anonymous editorial writer. From 1932-1939, that was his job for the Philadelphia Record and New York Post, both strongly pro-New Deal papers at the time. In 1940, he came to Washington as The Nation’s editor and remained until his death, working as reporter and columnist for PM, the New York Star, New York Post and New York Compass.

In the 1950s, during the Cold War and McCarthy era, no daily paper (or The Nation) ran his byline, so when the Compass closed in 1952, he launched his own four-page IF Stone’s Weekly in 1953 and wrote: “Early Soviet novels used a vivid phrase, ‘former people,’ about the remnants of the dispossessed ruling class. On the inhospitable streets of Washington these days, your editor often feels like one of the ‘former people.’ ”

Earlier from its 1946 inception until 1949, he was a regular on Meet the Press, first on radio, then TV. No longer, nor was he seen again on national television for another 18 years because his muckraking threatened the powerful.

It’s never easy starting out on your own, but Stone succeeded by what he called “a piggy-back launching” from the PM, Star, and Compass mailing lists as well as people who had bought his books. From them, he got 5,000 subscribers at $5 each. During McCarthy’s heyday, he got a second-class mailing permit, and was on his way after “working in Washington for 12 years as correspondent for a succession of liberal and radical papers.”

Biographer Myra MacPherson (from All Governments Lie!) said he “went from a young iconoclast in the 1930s to an icon during the Vietnam War. In the fifties, he spoke to mere handfuls who dared surface to protest Cold War loyalty oaths and witch-hunts. A decade later, he spoke to half a million who massed for anti-Vietnam War rallies. (Deservedly) He became world famous.”

Earlier, he supported Progressive Party nominee Henry Wallace in the 1948 presidential election campaign, civil liberties for everyone, including communists, and advocated for peace and co-existence with the Soviets. He fought the loyalty purge, FBI, House Un-American Activities Committee, Senator Pat McCarran’s virulent anti-communism as Senate Judiciary Committee and Internal Security Subcommittee chairmen, and Joe McCarthy.

He wrote the first article against the Smith Act for its 1940 use against Trotskyites and other leftists with suspected subversive leanings.

His idea was to make the Weekly radical by providing information readers could check out on their own. He “tried to dig the truth out of hearings, official transcripts and government documents, and to be as accurate as possible.” He wanted every issue to provide facts and opinions unavailable elsewhere in the press. He felt like “a guerilla warrior, swooping down in a surprise attack on a stuffy bureaucracy where it least expected independent inquiry.”

Unlike beat reporters for major dailies or wire services, he was immune to the pressures they faced. He said Washington has lots of news. If information on some are blocked, go get others because “The bureaucracies put out so much that they cannot help letting the truth slip from the time to time.” And by asking tough questions, a whole lot can be learned that as an independent can be published freely without fear of employer retribution.

It’s why no bureaucracy likes independent journalism, especially radical muckrakers digging out the most sensitive material it wants suppressed. The fault Stone found with most newspapers wasn’t the absence of dissent. It was the absence of real news, the timidity of journalists to write it, and the power owners held over them.

“Their main concern is advertising. The main interest of our society is merchandising. All the so-called communications industries are primarily concerned not with communications, but with selling.” Most newspaper owners are businessmen, not journalists. “The news is something which fills spaces left over by advertisers.”

Most publishers aren’t just hostile to dissent, they suspect any opinions likely to antagonize readers, consumers, and mainly advertisers. As a result, most newspapers “stand for nothing. They carry prefabricated news, prefabricated opinion, and prefabricated cartoons.” Even the best papers are timid. They don’t question the Cold War, arms race, or stand up for civil liberties and the rule of law. Only a few “maverick” dailies are around making it “easy for a one-man four-page Washington paper to find news the others ignore, and of course opinion they would rarely express.”

Journalism was a “crusade” for Stone. What Jefferson symbolized for him was being “rediscovered in a socialist society as a necessity for good government.” During the height of the McCarthy era, he felt like a pariah but believed he stood for and was preserving the best of America’s traditions. It inspired what he did to the end.

DD Guttenplan’s American Radical: The Life and Times of IF Stone

Guttenplan described him as a journalistic “irritant to power for his uncanny ability to seize on the most inconvenient truths and for his vociferous opposition to the existing order.” After becoming radicalized, he was brash, forthright, anti-fascist, pro-labor, a supporter of New Deal politics, and a passionate activist for the oppressed, disadvantaged, and social justice.

In his preface, Guttenplan described the fateful December 12, 1949 moment when Stone went from prominence to a non-person in American politics and his profession. It was during an interchange with the AMA’s Dr. Morris Fishbein on Meet the Press, an ardent foe of universal single-payer health insurance he denounced as “socialistic.” Quoting Stone, Guttenplan wrote: “Dr. Fishbein, let’s get nice and rough. In view of his advocacy of compulsory health insurance, do you regard Mr. Harry Truman as a card-carrying communist, or just a deluded fellow-traveler?”

After that, he slowly vanished, was never again on Meet the Press, couldn’t get his passport renewed after a year in Paris as foreign correspondent for the Compass, and when it closed in 1952 was blacklisted as a reporter. As he put it at age 40: “I feel for the moment like a ghost.” And as Guttenplan wrote: “For some time he live(d) in a kind of internal exile (sitting) in (a) Washington, DC… rented office waiting for the phone to ring (and) after three years (getting no) visitor apart from building maintenance workers and the mailman… (so he gave) up the office… work(ed) from home,” and launched the IF Stone Weekly as a platform to produce radical commentaries for his readers… “slowly, almost imperceptibly, his audience return(ed)” to its final year 1971 peak 70,000 circulation level.

According to Guttenplan, Stone “rode into battle not as a paladin of the powerless or a gadfly, but as an insider, a confidential agent of the (left-wing) ‘party within a party’ that served” progressive politics in the 1930s. He later broke with Harry Truman and supported Wallace. The FBI followed him everywhere, investigated him for five years, and accumulated 6,000 pages in his file, threefold its size for Al Capone. His phone was tapped and his mail intercepted on suspicion he was a Soviet spy, that was, of course, untrue.

By 1970, he was invited in from the cold and given a special George Polk Award in journalism. He got honorary degrees from American University, Brown, Colby, and others, including a baccalaureate and doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania where he dropped out before graduating.

His numerous awards included:

§ Newspaper Guild of New York Honors Page One Must for his book, Underground to Palestine — written before his views about Israel changed after the 1967 war;
§ The Eleanor Roosevelt Award;
§ the National Press Club Journalists’ Journalist Award
§ ACLU Award;
§ the Professional Freedom and Responsibility Award of the Association for Education In Journalism & Mass Communications;
§ Columbia University Journalism Award; and
§ on March 5, 2008, The Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University announced an annual IF Stone Medal for Journalistic Independence award and an IF Stone Workshop on Strengthening Journalistic Independence.

In his name, the annual Izzy Award is presented to “an independent outlet, journalist, or producer for contributions to our culture, politics, or journalism created outside traditional corporate structures.”

Three of Stone’s great quotes were: One of several versions of his saying, “All governments are run by liars and nothing they say should be believed.”
“The only kinds of fights worth fighting are those you are going to lose, because somebody has to fight them and lose and lose and lose until someday, somebody who believes as you do wins….”
“You’ve really got to wear a chastity belt in Washington to preserve your journalistic virginity. Once the secretary of state invites you to lunch and asks your opinion, you’re sunk.”
Not Stone. His honor and integrity weren’t for sale.

In a June 19-25, 2009 Counterspin interview, Guttenplan said Stone was never ideologically rigid, and would always change his views in light of new information. He: never pretended to be a liberal. He was an unashamed radical, and in a way, the most important way in which he matters is he shows us, he reminds us what’s possible. He reminds us what the left can do. He reminds us what our country can do. He reminds us what our government can do if we keep on its back and we make sure it delivers on its promises.

And he showed how good journalism can make a difference, the kind so lacking then and now with no IF Stone around to write it.

He “challenged power by using power’s own record against itself.” And after his hearing failed, he relied increasingly on documents to prove what he famously said: “All governments lie, but the truth still slips out from time to time,” and it’s up to good journalists to find and report it. Stone did, what the powerful wanted suppressed in his Weekly and numerous books, including (a treasured signed used copy this writer owns of) his Hidden History of the Korean War.

Published in 1952, Monthly Review co-founders Leo Huberman and Paul Sweezy wrote in the preface:
“This book….paints a very different picture of the Korean War — one, in fact, which is at variance with the official version at almost every point.” Stone’s investigations into official discrepancies led him “to a full-scale reassessment of the whole” war.

First published, in part, in the Compass and two articles in France’s L’Observateur, its publisher, Claude Bourdet explained in his article titled, “The Korean Mystery: Fight Against a Phantom? ”If Stone’s thesis corresponds to reality (and it did), we are in the presence of the greatest swindle in the whole of military history… not a question of a harmless fraud but of a terrible maneuver in which deception is being consciously utilized to block peace at a time when it is possible."

Stone called it international aggression. So did Huberman and Sweezy writing in August 1951 (14 months into the war): “….we have come to the conclusion that (South Korean president) Syngman Rhee deliberately provoked the North Koreans in the hope that they would retaliate by crossing the parallel in force. The northerners (who wanted a unified Korea, not war) fell neatly into the trap.”

Truman was the instigator who took full advantage when they did, as Stone believed in writing: "we said we were going to Korea to go back to the status quo before the war but when the American armies reached the 38th parallel they didn’t stop, they kept going, so there must be something else. We must have another agenda here and what might that agenda be?"

The same one, he later learned, we had in Vietnam that made him outspoken against it. He was the only journalist asked to speak at the first nationwide November 15, 1969 “Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam War,” that half a million to Washington one month after a global event was held.

He matched his anti-war spirit with his support for the disadvantaged, the oppressed, social equity, and above all accuracy and truth, and used his journalism as a “crusade” to produce it. He wrote: “I was heartened by the thought that I was preserving and carrying forward the best in America’s traditions, that in my humble way I stood in a line that reached back to Jefferson. These are the origins and the preconceptions, the hopes and the aspirations” behind all his writings and the legacy that’s now ours.

On June 17, 1989, he died of heart failure in Cambridge, MA and is buried there at Mount Auburn Cemetery, leaving behind his wife, Esther, of 60 years, and three children, Celia, Jeremy and Christopher. He once told his wife that “if (he) lived long enough (he’d) graduate from a pariah to a character, and then if (he) lasted long enough, from a character to public institution.” He omitted a legend, a committed radical, consummate independent, and ideological hero symbolizing what Public Affairs’ Peter Osnos called his “stubborn tenacity, ferocious independence, and extraordinary will” in pursuing truth.

Or as Guttenplan ended his book: “IF Stone wrote not to create a sensation, or to promote himself (or his ‘brand’), but to change the world. We read and work – and wait.”

Stephen Lendman lives in Chicago. Contact him at: Also visit his blog site and listen to The Global Research News Hour on Mondays from 11AM-1PM US Central time for cutting-edge discussions with distinguished guests. All programs are archived for easy listening. Read other articles by Stephen, or visit Stephen's website.

Zizek on communism: "hypothesis" without Marxism

from Jouissance

The intellectual composting of the entire world continues with another Žižek release: First as Tragedy, Then as Farce. This isn't one of his "sustained," or philosophical books as were In Defence of Lost Cases, Parallax View or the seminal Sublime Object of Ideology. Instead this is what would probably be termed a "political intervention." Žižek has never shied away from politics, be it at home in Slovenia, or in the EU and America; indeed, embarrassingly to many of the commentariat, he often manages to churn out prescient journalism and reflections about subjects which local writers can only flail at. So it was with Thatcherism, 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, and most recently Italian politics and the Iranian elections.

Žižek's engagement is not difficult to understand: these are interesting times, and he seems to have a mind which feeds off scandal and intrigue. It will thus come as no surprise that this latest release continues this run, taking on what has become termed the "Credit Crunch," but fusing it with various other concerns uncle Slavoj has had over the past year. For those who witnessed his showing at the SWP's Marxism 2009 conference Žižek's stance in the book will be familiar: he variously advocates a Bartleby politics, a sustained critique of the nation-State-capital triad and a "re-imagining" of communism. He warns us not to fall into the trap of impotent action which serves only reinforce the status quo, in other words, he continues his war against the liberal-Left as the ultimate legitimisers of the Right. Žižek's critique of the Left from the Left is engaged immediately with his now infamous joke about rape... For those who don't get it or don't like it, you're advised to skip page 6.

Like his other recent political "pamphlet," Violence, this latest release is a concise distillation of the various re-occurring themes in Žižek's work, but, unlike that book, First as Tragedy, Then as Farce is less bricolage, and may well be as close to a Žižekian manifesto as we will ever come -replete with self-references, cut-and-paste passages and even a footnote pointing us to Wikipedia. The book is broken into two sections, the first ostensibly re-asserts ideology as the pre-eminent problematic with which we are dealing, even though depression appears "economically determined". The second section picks up the theme Žižek has been debating over the last year or so in various lectures around London: communist possibilities and revolutionary potential.

This books marks the end of any apologism for Žižek about communism, indeed, after several years of noting that the Left must embrace it's troubled past, Stalinist warts and all, we are here enjoined to end Leftist guilt once and for all. Žižek is sick of ruminating on purges and gulags. Instead it is the capitalists and their apologists who need to begin explaining themselves. He suggests the field of politics does not revolve around how communism appears to us here, at the end of history, but how our circumstances appear to the eternal idea of communism. This point, maintained similarly by Badiou and Karatani among others, points us in the direction of once again asserting communism as the currently missing dynamic in global politics. Various thinkers have offered their input into quite what form this assertion takes: David Harvey wants us to join new social movements; Badiou advocates the self-organisation and Jacobinism of French migrant groups; Karatani wants us to join local exchange trading schemes; they all demand a political subjectivity which ruthlessly critiques capital, the State and the nation.

Žižek has been notably silent on his fellow's advocacies, and did bring upon himself Simon Critchley's riposte that he is a magician with a hat, but no rabbit. Here Žižek is clearly trying to give us what rabbit he can, but it is a diffuse one: we are told to drop historical determinations of communism, and do it afresh for our times, but we are also told the present needs a swift dose of Jacobin-Leninism. The part-of-no part is upheld as a site of communist solidarity, but note this is not the proletariat, it seems to be the "no-papers" as they call them in France: illegal migrants (plus slum dwellers and the dispossessed at large); however we can no longer afford to be "subversive" from the stance of the part-of-no-part because as has been well established, capital is its own subversion, and thrives thereon.

The question is thus a territorial one: quite literally where is the space from which to re-assert the communist ideal? As Žižek asks rather than answers, how to "subtract" ourselves from the situation in a way which at once gives space to think and act, which violently disturbs the existing order, and which shows the complicity of perceived opposites in that order?

Perhaps a concrete answer could be proposed: don't simply give Nick Griffin a few minutes on the BBC, let him debate and agree with Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Nick Clegg! Lets put them all one a panel discussing immigration, and lets put some Daily Mail journalists onto that panel. The ambiguous apex is, of course, when they all come up with the same matrix of deportations and internment camps as the cure to the "immigrant question," will the populace see that as de-legitimising the mainstream or legitimising Griffin? Probably both at once. And this is the difficult task: waging the propaganda war which will force people to understand what they are seeing. This is a task which Žižek has little hope for; as he notes, the working class is not completely wrong in seeing migrant workers partly as scabs, reducing their own "native" bargaining power. Žižek suggests that getting worker's populism at large to see capital as the true enemy would be a Real political Event. But in Britain at least, the construction worker's strikes, with their openness to the SWP over the last year, and the anti-EU stance (because it was the EU which allowed the importation of Portugese workers usurping British ones) surely appeal to an in-part correct identification of friends and enemies.

Read full text here.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Satire from Товарищ Х

[ reported by Товарищ Х for Marxist Update ]
PJC Rebukes Cleveland Cadres
Cadres of the victorious Marxist Revolutionary Army of Cleveland were rebuked today for their harsh treatment of prisoner Ben Bernanke (pictured left by a sketch artist at the scene). "The poor guy was near starvation when we found him," said an anonymous source who was part of the People's Justice Committee rescue. According to our source, Bernanke was begging for a scrap of food while his guards laughed and said, "You'll get fatter if we eat. This is a foodless recovery." They later apologized to the PJC saying, "We're sorry. We know that the revolution is not about revenge and that it is all about establishing the rule of the working class for the common good of all. There is no excuse for what we did; but, comrades-- it just never stopped being funny."

Товарищ Х is a political activist and composer who lives in Cleveland, Ohio.

Satire from Товарищ Х

On Earth's Spenders and Vulcan's Savers: Bernanke says a Federation without profit is no Federation at all.

By Товарищ Х Federation Post Staff Writer Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Earth must reduce its budget deficit and Vulcan must encourage more consumption in order to prevent a recurrence of the galactic imbalances that contributed to the financial crisis, Federation Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke said Monday.

Bernanke, speaking at a conference on Vulcan and the financial crisis, attributed the galactic crisis in part to a long-standing pattern in which Vulcans saved too much and spent too little, while on Earth we spent too much and saved too little. As the galactic economy starts to recover, the FR chairman said that "galactic imbalances may reassert themselves."

To keep that from happening, Earth must "increase its planetary acquisition rate," Bernanke said at the conference, sponsored by the Federation Reserve Bank of the Alpha Quadrant. The best way to do that, he added, is to only give money to those you can steal from.

While Humans individually started stealing more during the recession, the planetary government has boosted spending and increased borrowing dramatically. The planetary savings rate combines stealing by individuals, businesses and the government.

"Although we should deploy, as best we can, tools to increase stealing from individuals," Bernanke said, "the most effective way to accomplish this goal is by establishing a sustainable theft trajectory, anchored by a clear commitment to the Rules of Acquisition."

When asked later what action the planet might take to eliminate those imbalances, he stressed finding ways to exploit workers. "Employees are the rungs on the ladder of success. Don't hesitate to step on them" Bernanke said, to which he added is "Exploitation begins at home."

Bernanke has repeatedly urged the Federation, and what he terms the "Hu-mon" administration, to chart a course toward a lower long-term budget deficit, even as he rejected the idea of a stimulus program to try to prop up growth in the short-term saying, "Once you have their money, you never give it back. "

Bernanke usually declines to take a stand on specific tax or spending proposals, saying rather that there is no need to ask when you can take. But he has argued openly for bringing taxes and spending into better alignment over time. In Monday's comments, he made that point more explicitly than before, saying of the restoration of galactic fiscal balance, "If that's what's written, then that's what's written."

Vulcan leaders also have to take action, Bernanke said, to encourage their citizens to spend more. Authorities on planets running trade surpluses, which includes Vulcan, "must act to narrow the gap between saving and investment and to raise planetary demand," he said. "In large part, such actions should focus on boosting consumption."

One step Vulcan could take, he said, would be to strengthen pension systems and planetary spending on health care and education. That in turn could make Vulcans feel less inclined to hoard money and more willing to make purchases.

Bernanke noted that Vulcan policies to contain the crisis and galactic recession seem to be having their intended effect. After you've exploited someone, it never hurts to thank them. That way, it's easier to exploit them next time. In keeping with that rule he said,"Generally speaking, the Vulcan response to the crisis appears thus far to have been effective."


Товарищ Х is a political activist and composer who lives in Cleveland, Ohio.

Satire from Товарищ Х

Hive Drones Go on Viewscreen to Warn Wall Street
By Товарищ Х
Published: October 23, 2009

WASHINGTON — Striking a droning Hive note, several of Locutus Prime, Obama’s leading worker bees on Sunday issued stern warnings to Wall Street, the center of the financial universe. They said banksters must not resist assimilation now that they have regenerated.

Rahm, Primary Adjunct of the White House Matrix, said unassimilated Americans “have what humans regard as a right to be frustrated and angry” at reports that a year after the hive collective used $700 billion to save major lending institutions from collapse, Wall Street appears poised to hand out another round of hefty bonuses to fund regeneration of its drones.

The Primary Adjunct also scolded banksters for turning around as soon as they regenerated and fighting against the regulations Locutus Prime and his drones in the Congressional Matrix yanked out of their magnetosphincters to distract the unassimilated from thoughts of resistance.

“The risks that they took, took the collective to a place, it was near a depression in the delta quadrant, where no Borg has gone before.”

“They have a responsibility to be part of the solution, not being the obstacle.”

Axelrod, Auxiliary Processor of Locutus Prime, called the banksters' display “offensive.”

“The most offensive thing is we haven’t seen the kind of increase in the stabilization of Omega particles that we should,” he said on “This Week” on ABC.

“If they are allowed to continue, unregulated, Omega will destabilize and cause subspace to be destroyed. Then how shall the warp drive of our economy function?”

Wall Street’s bonuses are not new fodder for outrage among the unassimilated. Resentment, however, has grown in recent months as humans begin to find explanations of the economic necessity for their own privation malodorous.

Jarrett, Secondary Auxiliary Processor of Locutus Prime, said in an appearance on “Meet the Press” that while the bailout and stimulus packages of the last year had stopped the economy from sliding into the gravity well at the center of the quadrant that swallows all jobs, houses and food and coughs up profit for banksters, “the unemployment rate is still much too high.”

“The president will not be satisfied until every single unassimilated American who wants to work has a job,” she said. When asked what the hive collective was considering doing to stimulate enslavement, 2AP Jarrett said all ideas were on the table. But when asked specifically whether the administration would support spending actual money to create actual jobs, she said the full effects of the first recovery package that lined the pocket of the banksters while creating no actual jobs had yet to be felt.

“We’ve only spent a little less than half of the money,” she said.

Describing unemployment, foreclosure and hunger as “lagging indicators,” she added: “Let’s wait and see. Let’s let the recovery bill do its job, and then we’ll see whether employment or something more like enslavement is the right answer."

Dodd, 5 of 100, asked, "What are these people thinking about at these companies?” He then said, "The Senate Banking Matrix is doing its best to cover for them, but it just gets to the place where no unassimilated American believes this crap anymore."
Товарищ Х is a political activist and composer who lives in Cleveland, Ohio.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Zizek: Hollywood Today & the Last Man on Earth

Hollywood Today: Report from an Ideological Frontline
Slavoj Zizek


The Sad Lesson of Remakes

The Dark Knight is a sign of a global ideological regression for which one is almost tempted to use the title of Georg Lukacs’ most Stalinist work: the destruction of (emancipatory) reason. This regression reached its peak in I Am Legend, a recent blockbuster with Will Smith as the last man alive, whose only interest resides in its comparative value: one of the best ways to detect shifts in ideological constellation is to compare consecutive remakes of the same story. There are three (or, rather, four) versions of I Am Legend: Richard Matheson’s novel from 1954; the first film version, The Last Man on Earth (Italian title: L’Ultimo uomo della Terra, 1964, Ubaldo Ragona and Sidney Salkow), with Vincent Price; the second version, The Omega Man (1971, Boris Sagal, 1971), with Charlton Heston; and the last one, I Am Legend (2007, Francis Lawrence), with Will Smith. The first cinema version, arguably still the best one, is basically faithful to the novel. The starting premise is well-known – as the publicity-slogan for the 2007 remake says: “The last man… is not alone.” The story is yet another fantasy of witnessing one’s own absence: Neville, the sole survivor of a catastrophe which killed all humans except him, wanders along desolate city streets – and soon discovers that he is not alone, that a mutated species of the living dead (or, rather, vampires) is stalking him. There is no paradox in the motto: even the last man alive is not alone – what remains with him are the living dead. In Lacan’s terms, they are the objet petit a which adds itself to the 1 of the last man. As the story progresses, it is revealed that some infected people have discovered a means to hold the disease at bay; however, the “still living” people appear no different from the true vampires during the day while both are immobilized in sleep. They send a woman named Ruth to spy on Neville, and much of their interaction focuses on Neville’s internal struggle between his deep seated paranoia and his hope. Eventually Neville performs a blood test on her, revealing her true nature to him before she knocks him out and escapes. Months later, the still living people attack Neville and take him alive so that he can be executed in front of everyone in the new society; before execution, Ruth provides him with an envelope of pills so that he will feel no pain. Neville finally realizes why the new society of the living infected regards him as a monster: just as vampires were regarded as legendary monsters that preyed on the vulnerable humans in their beds, Neville has become a mythical figure that kills both vampires and the infected living while they are sleeping. He is a legend as the vampires once were… The first film version main difference with the novel is a shift in the ending: the hero (here called Morgan) develops in his lab a cure for Ruth; a few hours later, at nightfall, the still living people attack Morgan, who flees, but is finally gunned down in the church where his wife has been buried.

The second film version, The Omega Man, takes place in Los Angeles, where a group of resistant albinos calling themselves “The Family” have survived the plague, which has turned them into violent light-sensitive albino mutants, and affected their minds with psychotic delusions of grandeur. Although resistant, the members are slowly dying off, apparently due to the plague mutating. “The Family” is led by Matthias, formerly a popular Los Angeles television newscaster; he and his followers believe that modern science, and not flaws of humanity, are the cause of their misfortune. They have reverted to a luddite lifestyle, employing medieval imagery and technology, complete with long black robes, torches, bows and arrows. As they see it, Neville, the last symbol of science and a “user of the wheel,” must die. The final scene shows the human survivors departing in a Land Rover after the dying Neville gives them a flask of blood serum, presumably to restore humanity.

In the last version, which takes place in Manhattan, the woman who appears to Neville (here called Anna, accompanied by a young boy Ethan and coming somewhere from the South (Maryland and Sao Paolo are mentioned), tells him that God has sent her to bring him to the colony of survivors in Vermont. Neville refuses to believe her, saying that there cannot be a God in a world with such suffering and mass death. When the Infected attack the house that night and overrun its defenses. Neville, Anna, and Ethan retreat into the basement laboratory, sealing themselves in with an infected woman on whom Neville was experimenting. Discovering that the last treatment has successfully cured the woman, Neville realizes that he has to find a way to pass it on to other survivors before they are killed. After drawing a vial of blood from the patient and giving it to Anna, he pushes her and Ethan into an old coal chute and sacrifices himself with a hand grenade, killing the attacking Infected. Anna and Ethan escape to Vermont and reach the fortified survivors colony. In the concluding voice-over, she states that Neville’s cure enabled humanity to survive and rebuild, establishing his status as a legend, a Christ-like figure whose sacrifice redeemed humanity.

Much as I respect Zizek's knowledge of Hollywood movies, he forgets another version of I Am Legend/The Omega Man, here. More Marxist appraisals of The Dark Knight appear here and here. JR

For communists, religion is not a dinner party

Patiently deciphering religion

Reason, Faith and Revolution by Terry Eagleton (Yale University Press, 2009)

Reviewed by Andrew Johnson

In recent years, there has been quite an outpouring of books on the subject of religion, or more precisely of arguments for and against atheism. Two of the most popular atheist polemics have been The God Delusion by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, and God Is Not Great by journalist Christopher Hitchens. Although the two books are bracketed together, they serve somewhat different purposes. Hitchens, who had previously authored an entertaining attack on Mother Teresa, is interested mainly in turning his formidable store of rhetoric against Islam, although he takes in many other targets on his way; Dawkins seeks to put forward a rigorously materialist scientific worldview as an alternative to religious belief. Which approach the reader prefers is largely a matter of taste.

The unwary reader might expect Terry Eagleton, an atheist and a Marxist, to add to the chorus. Yet, in this new book, he does the opposite of what is expected. What he has instead produced is a witty and often devastating polemic against “Ditchkins” (his portmanteau term for Dawkins and Hitchens). In the course of his argument, Eagleton ranges between theology, philosophy, literary criticism and contemporary politics to damn his antagonists, and more than once traps them in their own categories.

Eagleton’s argument is a complex, multi-layered one, and at points rambles off on tangents. Any summary of his argument therefore risks misrepresenting it. However, Eagleton begins from a sensible starting point, which is the separate domains of religion and science. This is a risky area, since Dawkins, the great exponent of Darwinian evolution, is at his best when deconstructing American creationists and other religious fundamentalists who make scientifically dubious claims. However, as Eagleton points out, most Christians do not regard their faith as being incompatible with science – holding that the validity of the Christian message does not stand or fall on the literal truth of the creation story in Genesis, or whether Jesus really performed miracles.

There is more than reason

What scientific progress has done is to render supernatural explanations of the natural world unnecessary. However, Eagleton argues that this is largely beside the point. Physics does not explain Elvis; and increasingly sophisticated scientific explanations of the natural world do not render metaphysics redundant any more than they render art redundant. The major concerns of theology are with questions such as justice, truth, love, solidarity and what it means to live a good life. No faith in God is necessary to be interested in these questions – Greek philosophers and Indian Jains and Buddhists were exploring them in an atheistic context more than 2000 years ago – but the answers to them cannot be deduced from science. Reason, as Eagleton says, is a necessity; but reason is not all there is.

In recognising that metaphysical propositions cannot be either proved or disproved by science, Eagleton thereby avoids getting bogged down in sterile arguments over the existence or non-existence of God. He knows very well that all of those arguments have been around for centuries, and have never convinced anyone who did not already want to be convinced – Aquinas’ famous proofs of God’s existence already presuppose belief in him, just as Dawkins’ arguments to the contrary will seem feeble to a believer. Eagleton is more interested in why people choose to believe or disbelieve – which is as much an aesthetic question as an intellectual one – and what they mean by it.

Repeatedly, Eagleton accuses Ditchkins of buying his atheism on the cheap. What he means by that is that there are plenty of good reasons for rejecting religion, but his antagonists choose bad ones. As an illustration, he mentions the tendency of Irish people to reject Catholicism based on the shocking history of clerical abuse of children. This he regards as equivalent to renouncing the idea of socialism because of the Stalinist purges. Dawkins and Hitchens both present a lengthy account of crimes committed by organised religion, some of which is inaccurate or overstated – for instance, Dawkins’ curious idea that the conflict in the north of Ireland has been over rival interpretations of Christian doctrine. However, even if we accepted their entire charge sheet, finding a justification for the Inquisition in the teachings of Jesus would be as difficult a proposition as finding a justification for the Gulag in the writings of Marx.

In fact, Ditchkins’ account of the history of religion is so unremittingly grim and lacking in any redeeming features that it should be nothing short of a miracle that huge numbers of people freely subscribe to it. Does religion have nothing going for it at all? Eagleton, a confessed non-believer, who does not spare organised religion responsibility for its crimes in this book, nonetheless outlines at length what he believes would be a positive, emancipatory theology. This can be derived directly from the Gospels, which after all form an account of Jesus’ struggle against organised religion. Jesus appears in Eagleton’s account as almost a guerrilla fighter, contemptuous of the wealthy, the powerful and the hypocritical. Instead of acting as a respectable middle-class vicar, he challenges the authorities and preaches the overthrow of existing social relations. He consorts openly with the lowest elements of Palestinian society – lepers, money-lenders, prostitutes and the heretical sect of Samaritans. In contrast to many centuries of Christian puritanism, Jesus is so relaxed about sexual morality that he says virtually nothing about it.

Scandalous Jesus

And, having established Jesus as a scandalous figure in his own time, it follows that there is much here that does not form an easy fit for conventional organised religion. If it sounds like liberation theology, then that is because it seriously addresses what should be the proper concerns of theology. In this context, Eagleton remarks on Hitchens’ brusque dismissal of Latin American liberation theology, on which subject Hitchens is at one with the most hidebound Vatican conservatives. Eagleton also remarks on Dawkins’ proposed alternative Ten Commandments as a terribly boring, suburban vista – which may be uncharitable, as, in trying to deduce an ethical code from natural science, Dawkins is wrestling with a problem that has confounded the best philosophers, who too often have to fall back on mere utilitarianism.

More generally, Eagleton convicts Ditchkins of a number of interlinked philosophical faults. For materialists, they are remarkably idealist in their view of religious belief as the source of most of the world’s evils. The question of their positivism is not quite so clear. Dawkins, as a distinguished scientist in his own right, is well aware of the provisional nature of scientific knowledge, and certainly knows that scientists disagree with each other all the time – as they would have to for there to be any scientific progress. The air of absolute certainty Dawkins adopts – which stands him in good stead with those laymen who are in awe of scientists – is to a large extent a matter of style, and is less in evidence in Dawkins’ scientific writings. As for Hitchens, he is always more comfortable with concrete political issues than theoretical ones, and his great sweeping statements are not so much a case of dogmatism as of his using rhetorical flamboyance to cover up the gaps in his knowledge.

Finally, Eagleton regards Ditchkins as guilty of a strongly Whig interpretation of history, in which the commitment to reason and hope for progress – without which we would have no socialist movement – is replaced by an ideology of Reason and Progress. It is here that we see Dawkins at his most mid-Victorian, as he takes a rather complacently liberal view of civilisation constantly progressing along with scientific knowledge, a few minor hiccups like two World Wars and the Holocaust notwithstanding, and further progress only held up by man’s inability to shake off primitive superstition. But again, perhaps Eagleton is a little harsh on Dawkins, who is much better when he leaves his speculations on the broad sweep of history for more concrete matters. Though he is a strict Darwinian in his writings on evolutionary biology, Dawkins is by no means a follower of the dubious theories of Social Darwinism, and has often said that the best thing about the human condition is the ability to rise above one’s genetic programming. Dawkins is not an amoralist, as his strong opposition to the Iraq war made clear, whatever problems he may have trying to deduce ethics from science.

Rambunctious anti-religious polemics

Hitchens is another matter, and if Eagleton is a little too harsh on Dawkins at this point, perhaps he could have been harsher on his former comrade. As noted, Hitchens’ rambunctious anti-religious polemics go back a long way, but his current preoccupation is with Islam. It is not implausible to suspect that the urgency of Hitchens’ current need to battle religious obscurantism is intimately connected with his support for recent imperialist wars and his alliance with Washington neoconservatives. Since at least 2001, the pro-war “left” has been loudly insistent on its narrative of Western civilisation versus Islamic barbarism, often with Hitchens setting the tone. Here we see something that Eagleton has touched on in recent articles and especially his polemics against the Islamophobic ramblings of Martin Amis, a sense in which evangelical atheism can replace the evangelical Protestantism of the nineteenth century as a justification for imperialist aggression and the White Man’s Burden. It would have been helpful for him to have developed this theme a little further.

But, as Eagleton would remind us in the Marxist dialectical spirit, both religion and irreligion can be either oppressive or emancipatory – often both at the same time. The evangelical Protestantism that justified Britain’s imperial expansionism also fired the reformers who abolished the slave trade and fought to improve the lot of the poor, following through into the Methodist roots of the British labour movement. At the same time, anti-religious campaigns could be an effective weapon against clerical reaction in Spain, while becoming an aspect of Stalinist totalitarianism in the Soviet Union. (Which is why Hitchens’ strange belief that Stalinism was a religious regime cries out for debunking.) As with any set of intellectual prisms for understanding the world, they are to be judged by the uses to which they are put.

As Eagleton puts it:

“Karl Marx, who as we have seen heard in religion what he called the sigh of the oppressed creature, was rather less naïve. Religion needs to be patiently deciphered, not angrily repudiated. It springs from a realm to which reason should be no stranger. Only if reason is able to acknowledge the a-rational interests and desires from which it draws so much of its force can it prove sturdy enough to prevent those desires from sliding into anarchy, thus overwhelming reason itself.”

And following in this spirit of Marx, the criticism of religion – which requires understanding it rather than simply denouncing it, grasping the ways in which masses of people decode their social existence – remains fundamental for any socialist project, which must seek to fuse the struggle for (lower-case) reason and progress with the subjective drive towards truth, justice and equality, which – like a commitment to reason itself – does not simply spring from reason, but is a subjective moral choice.


Another review of Eagleton's book appears here.