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.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

New book: C.L.R. James: You Don't Play With Revolution

You Don't Play With Revolution: The Montreal Lectures of C.L.R. James

CLR James and David Austin (Editor)
Edition: pb
ISBN: 9781904859932
Publisher: AK Press
Release Date: 2009-10-15

Revolution is a serious business, and C.L.R. James knew more than most. Our brand-new collection presents eight never-before-published lectures by the celebrated Marxist cultural critic, delivered during his stay in Montreal in 1967 and 1968. Ranging in topic from Marx and Lenin to Shakespeare and Rousseau to Caribbean history and the Haitian Revolution, these lectures demonstrate the staggering breadth and clarity of James' knowledge and interest.

Strikingly little information exists today about the period of time James spent working with West Indian intellectuals and students in Canada in the late 1960s, but the research of editor David Austin demonstrates the critical role these encounters played in the development of James' more mature critical theory. Readers just beginning to delve into James work will find this collection accessible and engaging, an ideal introduction to a complex and multi-faceted body of scholarship. Also included are two seminal interviews produced with James during his stay in Canada, selected correspondence from the time period, and an appendix of essays on James' work, which includes the seminal Marty Glaberman essay, "C.L.R. James: The Man and His Work.".

You Don't Play With Revolution also includes a preface by Robert A. Hill, co-founder of the C.L.R. James Study Circle and historical advisor to the new James archive at Columbia University, and a lengthy historical introduction by David Austin.

C.L.R. James (1901-1989) was born in Trinidad and was a prominent anti-colonial scholar and cultural critic throughout his life. With Grace Lee and Raya Dunayevskaya, he helped define and popularize the autonomist Marxist tradition in the United States and Canada.

David Austin is founder and trustee of the Alfie Roberts Institute, an independent research institute based in Montreal.

“I’m not a racist. I just don’t believe in mixing the races that way”

HOUSTON—The refusal of a judge to issue a marriage license to an interracial couple in Hammond, Louisiana, has outraged many.

Beth Humphrey, a 30-year-old Hammond resident who works for a marketing company, called Keith Bardwell, justice of the peace in Tangipahoa Parish, October 6 about getting a marriage license.

Humphrey is white. The man she planned to marry, 32-year-old welder Terence McKay, is Black.

The justice’s wife asked if the couple was interracial and told her that Bardwell would not sign the license if they were.
“We are used to the closet racism, but we’re not going to tolerate that overt racism from an elected official,” Humphrey told CNN.

“I don’t do interracial marriages because I don’t want to put children in a situation they didn’t bring on themselves,” Bardwell told the press.

“I’m not a racist. I just don’t believe in mixing the races that way,” he told AP, adding that he had “piles and piles of black friends. They come to my home, I marry them, they use my bathroom. I treat them just like everyone else.”

“I simply can’t believe he can do that. That’s blatant discrimination,” Humphrey told the Hammond Star Tribune. Humphrey and McKay got a certificate signed October 9 by another justice and married. “This doesn’t take care of the problem,” Humphrey told CNN. Bardwell has “been in his position for 34 years. So, it doesn’t take care of the problems that we have to deal with on a daily basis.”

The couple has support from many in Hammond as indicated by letters in the papers. David Hyde, a 51-year-old musician in Hammond, told the Militant, “We need to organize some protests of this outrage.”

In 1908 Louisiana officials adopted statutes declaring that “concubinage between the Caucasian or white race and any person of the Negro or black race” is a felony subject to imprisonment from one month to one year, with or without hard labor.

In 1921 the state prohibited “Negro and white families” from living in the same dwelling place and in 1932 added that “no person or corporation shall rent an apartment house or other like structure to a person who is not of the same race as the other occupants.”

That same year the state prohibited “Negroes and Indians” from marrying each other. In 1952 the state prohibited marriage between whites and “persons of color,” stiffening the penalty to up to $1,000 and/or five years imprisonment. The Louisiana statutes were voided by the 1967 Supreme Court verdict in the case Loving v. Virginia.

In 1958 Richard Loving, a bricklayer who was white, and Mildred Jeter, Black and Native American, married in Washington, D.C., because interracial marriage was illegal in Virginia, where they lived.

A few weeks after they returned home they were arrested for violating Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act of 1924. This law forbade those interracial couples that marry out of state from returning as husband and wife. They were sentenced to one year in jail. They received suspended sentences after agreeing not to return to Virginia together for 25 years.

In 1963, as mobilizations led by Black working people against segregation reached a high point, the Lovings decided to fight the reactionary law. They filed a lawsuit that slowly made its way through the courts. The state courts held that Virginia had legitimate purposes “to preserve the racial integrity of its citizens,” and to prevent “the corruption of blood.”

In a 1967 ruling the Supreme Court overturned all the previous decisions upholding the ban. The court said, “The Fourteenth Amendment requires that the freedom to marry not be restricted by invidious racial discriminations. Under our Constitution, the freedom to marry, or not marry, a person of another race resides with the individual and cannot be infringed by the State.”

At the time 16 states banned marriage between people of different races. South Carolina’s constitutional ban wasn’t removed until 1998 and Alabama’s only in 2000.

The spirit of capitalism: drive at your own risk

History Channel-style catastrophe-mongering about dams bursting and bridges collapsing and other a-historical phantoms of middle class sci-fi daydreaming are easily dismissed. Until the major bridge in the city where one lives begins to close for repairs, that is. Another example of the deadly everyday failures of the blind, anarchic mechanisms of the law of value, alas.

28 October 2009

A January study by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), “The 2009 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure,” depicts the advanced decay of roads, bridges, water, and sewerage in the US. The report makes all the more glaring the Obama administration’s steadfast refusal to undertake a major public works program that could put the nation’s unemployed to work.

The study was originally scheduled to be released in March, but ASCE released it early in an attempt to influence the debate over the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. The $787 billion “stimulus package” ultimately allocated only $71.76 billion directly to construction projects, and most of this money has yet to be spent.

The report card gave an abysmal overall score of “D” for the state of American infrastructure, stating that the investment need in infrastructure over the next 5 years is $2.2 trillion, about 30 times what the Obama administration’s stimulus package has invested. The report estimates $903 billion will be provided in this period from government spending at all levels, making the funding shortfall for infrastructure needs over the next five years $1.176 trillion.

Since the report was released in January, economic conditions have likely eroded a substantial portion of estimated government spending on infrastructure. Tax revenues for states, localities, and the federal government have plummeted as millions lose jobs and businesses cut back. States across the country face unprecedented budget shortfalls, which has led to draconian cuts. Various states and cities have closed parks, reduced road maintenance, stalled long term road and rail projects, and put off critical water and sewerage investments.

Many of the states facing the worst economic conditions also have the most decrepit infrastructure. An astonishing 66 percent of California’s major roads are in poor or mediocre condition, and 68 percent of its urban interstates are congested. Of the state’s bridges, 30 percent are structurally deficient or functionally obsolete. According to the report card, “California spends $2 billion less each year on highway maintenance and rehabilitation than is needed.”

The nation’s infrastructure has worsened since 2005, the report concludes. “US surface transportation and aviation systems declined over the past four years, with aviation and transit dropping from a D+ to D, and roads dropping from a D to a nearly failing D-,” it says. “Showing no significant improvement since the last report, the nation’s bridges, public parks and recreation, and rail remained at a grade of C, while dams, hazardous waste, and schools remained at a grade of D, and drinking water and waste water remained at a grade of D-. Just one category—energy—improved since 2005, raised its grade from D to D+.”

For the first time the ASCE report has included levees in its findings, giving them a grade of D-. It states that of the estimated 100,000 miles of levees across the country, many are more than 50 years old, and “the reliability of many of these levees is unknown.” Four years after Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast, a pitiful $1.13 billion in government spending is destined for levees over the next five years, compared to $50 billion dollars in need.

Dams, which provide critical energy and water resources, have been rapidly deteriorating. In 2001, the number of deficient dams was 1,384; by 2007, the number had nearly tripled to 4,095. The number of “high hazard” deficient dams has increased from 488 in 2001 to 1,826 in 2007. “Many state dam safety programs do not have sufficient resources, funding, or staff to conduct dam safety inspections, to take appropriate enforcement actions, or to ensure proper construction by reviewing plans and performing construction inspections,” the report notes.

The report finds that many drinking water systems—pipes, purification plants, and resources—are approaching or beyond service life, unreliable, and insufficient for growing needs. Thousands of ancient water mains and pipes will rupture over the next few months as cold weather stresses their aged cast iron to the breaking point. The report notes that leaking pipes “lose an estimated 7 billion gallons of clean drinking water a day.” At least $11 billion annually is needed to address these problems.

Waste water received a grade of D- for persistent problems of aging equipment and lack of investment. Clogged, broken, or insufficient drainage leads to 850 billion gallons of sewer overflow discharge per year, and as much as 10 billion gallons of raw sewage is released per year from sanitary sewer overflows, according to an EPA report from 2004.

It is ironic that much of the infrastructure falling apart in 2009 was put in place during the nation’s last great economic crisis, the Great Depression of the 1930s. Then, the Democratic president, Franklin Roosevelt, put in place significant public works programs associated with names like the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Tennessee Valley Authority, and the Works Progress Administration. The aim was to forestall revolutionary change by putting millions to work.

While the social need for infrastructure is just as great as it was in the 1930s, the Obama administration insists that for the jobless crisis only “market solutions” can be considered.

Discreet charms of the petty-bourgeoisie

Socialism and "animal rights"
by Paul D'Amato

To compare the condition of animals to groups of humans that are oppressed is to view the latter through a paternalistic lens, rather than a lens of human liberation.

October 26, 2009

OUR SOCIETY engages in practices that are cruel toward animals. The spread of capitalism worldwide has seriously shrunk or destroyed the natural habitat of thousands of species, and the routine mistreatment of animals that are raised and used for testing or for food is well-documented.

Capitalism treats animals as a means to an end--as things to be squeezed for as much value as can be gotten out of them. Animals on factory farms are packed together by the thousands, confined in spaces that allow them little movement, and deprived of fresh air and sunlight. Animal waste falls through slats into a collection area below, creating noxious gases. The conditions in these compounds are so toxic that if the exhaust system shuts down, animals quickly begin to die off.

These factory farms are not only harmful to non-human animals. Workers at processing plants labor at breakneck speeds slaughtering animals. One worker at Smithfield Foods' Tar Heel, N.C., plant complained that he is routinely splashed with backed-up hog feces and urine, and that "the human beings are treated like machines."

According to the Web Site Sustainable Table, "Man-made lagoons on industrial farms hold millions of gallons of liquid waste, from which contaminants can leach into groundwater." Smithfield, the world's largest pork producer, whose massive hog operations have wiped out small farmers in the U.S., Eastern Europe and Africa, was fined $12.6 million for a toxic spill at a Virginia facility that was twice as big as the Exxon Valdez.

These are all practices that many of us would like to see changed. There is a clear connection between how a rapacious capitalism mistreats animals, how capitalism degrades the environment, and how capitalism cruelly exploits human beings.

Nevertheless, seeking more humane treatment of animals is not the same as calling for "animal rights" or "animal liberation."

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WHEN I hear the terms "animal rights" and "animal liberation," some pretty strange scenarios run through my head. Does a mountain lion that kills a deer have a right to a trial by a jury of its peers? Should cows have freedom of assembly, speech and religion? Would my cat be liberated if I tossed him out of the house and stopped feeding him?

An animal rights activist might dismiss my attempt at humor, but there is a point to it. Non-human animals don't possess the biological and physical attributes that would allow them to engage in the activities and behaviors we associate with "liberation" and "rights."

Ben Dalbey, in an unpublished essay, describes a video, produced by an organization concerned with protecting farm animals, that depicts "Maxine's Dash for Freedom":

"Maxine" is described in this Farm Sanctuary having "escaped" from a New York City slaughterhouse. She was then "rescued" by police and firefighters, who found her wandering the streets, taken to an animal shelter, and then taken by the Farm Sanctuary to greener pastures.

In reality, we don't know whether "Maxine" escaped, got lost, was let go by a human, or fell off the truck, because she can't tell us. All she does in the video is sit in her cage and chew straw. It is the humans from the Farm Sanctuary who have imparted to "Maxine" a human name, a "will to live," and an ability to "escape" from the slaughterhouse, which she does not have.

What is clear in the video is that "Maxine" demonstrates a "will" not to get onto the truck that will take her to the farm sanctuary. Here, because it is a human who always has and always will decide what is best for Maxine, her "will" is ignored. She--like all cows--must be pulled by ropes, prodded and enticed with food to go where the humans want her to be, whether that is the slaughterhouse or the Farm Sanctuary.

Though there is a basic biological continuity between all living things, there is also a qualitative difference that separates humans from other animals.

Animals have evolved and adapted to particular ecological niches, each possessing certain physical and behavioral attributes that allow them to survive in a particular habitat. Human beings have evolved certain attributes--a large brain, upright gait, dexterous hands, and, along with that, language and technology--that allow them to adapt to different environments by making those environments adapt to their needs. All species evolve and change, biologically speaking; only humans evolve culturally and socially.

Indeed, the only reason we can have this discussion about animals is because we have something they don't have--language. The fact is that dogs cannot domesticate us. By extension, they cannot "liberate" themselves or demand "rights" from us, either; they can't even formulate what a right or a demand is, Chicken Run notwithstanding.

Hence, realistically, when anyone speaks of rights or liberation for other animals, what they are really talking about is how humans behave toward animals. Human beings are, to a large extent, arbiters of the fate of other animals (for good or ill), a fact that sets us sharply apart from them.

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I SAW a poster the other day that read: "racism=speciesism=sexism."

Speciesism is "a prejudice or attitude of bias towards the interests of members of one's own species, and against those of members of other species," says Australian animal rights activist Peter Singer, whose 1975 book Animal Liberation is credited with starting the modern animal rights movement. Those who believe that the needs and interests of the human species take precedence over those of other species is a "speciesist."

Animal "equality," in this scenario, is not equality between other animals and humans (obviously, we could grant cows the right to vote and to bear arms, but it wouldn't matter much), but "equal" treatment by humans of humans and animals.

All living things are "speciesist." The web of life on our planet consists of different species struggling to survive, many by eating other species. The fact that human beings have the capacity, unlike any other species, to create a hierarchy of being, and make decisions about what living thing is legitimate or not legitimate to eat, is itself proof that there is a qualitative divide between human beings and other animals.

In his essay "All Animals are Equal," Peter Singer urges "that we extend to other species the basic principle of equality that most of us recognize should be extended to all members of our own species."

The equation of racism and sexism with the treatment of animals is to trivialize the former.

Consider some of the campaigns organized by the group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA).

Its 2008 "Wrong Meeting" video shows a hooded Klansman attending a kennel club meeting to talk about "breeding to achieve a master race"--equating the breeding of dogs with the Klan's white supremacism. A few years earlier, the group ran a "Holocaust on your plate" campaign that compared the Nazi Holocaust during the Second World War to the slaughter of animals for food.

Non-human animals are helpless and, as I pointed out earlier, incapable of organizing and fighting for their rights. To compare the condition of animals to that of women, Blacks and other groups for freedom and equality is to view the latter through a paternalistic lens, rather than a lens of human liberation.

The astonishing logic of the idea that "all animals are equal" is revealed in a statement by Susan Rich, PETA's outreach coordinator. When questioned about who she would rescue in a lifeboat if the choice were between a baby and a dog, she answered: "I might choose the human baby or I might choose the dog."

Sometimes, the peculiar "speciesism" of the animal rights advocates comes through--that is, the elevation of other species over humans. For example, PETA co-founder Ingrid Newkirk said in 1990, "Humans have grown like a cancer. We're the biggest blight on the face of the earth."

EarthFirst! co-founder Dave Foreman made a similar point in a 1991 interview for Sports Illustrated: "If it came down to a confrontation between a grizzly and a friend, I'm not sure whose side I would be on. But I do know humans are a disease, a cancer on nature. And I also know I am far more interested in the plight of the spotted owl than I am in a logger in Oregon. I have a problem with glorifying the downtrodden worker."

Hitler and his closest associates were also very concerned with the welfare of animals. He personally ushered through a Law on Animal Protection in 1933 that read in part, "It is forbidden to unnecessarily torment or roughly mishandle an animal." Luftwaffe chief Herman Goering, who was head of the German Humane Society (!), issued a ban on vivisection (later modified), announcing that violators would be placed in concentration camps. Goering also restricted hunting, and forbid the boiling of live lobsters.

His concern for killing living things did not extend to Jews, Gypsies, gays, communists and Slavs.

Of course, many young activists who gravitate to animal rights activism don't do so because they elevate animals above people, or have contempt for the working class, but because they are concerned about how capitalism degrades all living things. Such a concern is not to be pooh-poohed.

But in order to put that concern in the right perspective, we need to insist on the essential differences between human beings and other animals, and reject the idea of "animal liberation."

Monday, October 26, 2009

From the Multiplex to the Vatican: Karl Marx "Returns"

.... Astro Boy also encounters a cadre of comical, Karl Marx-quoting "revolutionary" robots. It's hard to know what to make of these "red" robots, but the movie's more comprehensible political messages are a real drag -- they add a level of "sophistication" that, in fact, is utterly hackneyed. Must all representatives of officialdom in the movies be evil, even in a cartoon? Will kids be anything but confused by the fact that the government's violent killer robot is named "the Peacekeeper"?
Editor's note: discussion of whether Astro-Boy is "Marxist" can be found here and here. Roger Ebert's review indicates pretty clearly that this is just move Hollywood "saviour-mongering" that supposedly communist movies like The Matrix saddled us with. --JR


The Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, has reportedly recently concluded that Marx’s criticism of capitalism highlights the “social alienation” felt by a “large part of humanity” that still remains excluded from economic and political decision making. The paper also opined that Marx’s work remained quite relevant today as humans seek a ‘new harmony’ between their needs and the environment.

Marx’s theories, the paper went on, can help explain the issue of income inequality in capitalist societies, posing the question: “If money as such does not multiply on its own, how are we to explain the accumulation of wealth in the hands of the few?”

One could, perhaps, see it as an attempt at a larger inclusion, in a sense. Accepting the hitherto unacceptable seems to be in vogue. Thus, the Vatican last year erected a statue of Galileo, centuries after persecuting the astronomer for his views on the movement of the Earth around the Sun.

And more recently, a leading Church official declared Darwin’s theory of evolution to be compatible with the faith. And the same paper which spoke of Marx also has had words of praise for Oscar Wilde, the playwright who was hounded out of England for his homosexuality. Maybe it’s just a bad time to be a capitalist, and a good era to be a heretic!

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.

U.S. capitalism: working perfectly, thanks

Why We Need to Give This Rotten System the Heave-ho
by Chris Townsend

Fred Magdoff and Michael D. Yates.
The ABCs of the Economic Crisis: What Working People Need to Know.
Monthly Review Press, 2009.

Books that start out with quotes from Shakespeare's Macbeth make me nervous.
Like many of my fellow workers, I have attended far more rock concerts
-- or pro wrestling matches -- than hard-to-figure-out plays. As a
largely self-taught worker I am frequently reminded that many authors
often create more chaos when they make attempts to "explain" things to
workers. Used bookstores overflow with the too long, too complicated,
and just plain too boring efforts of well intended writers who presume
to try to tell workers why it is they work very hard for very little, or
just how things "really" work.

Thankfully, this book is no such dust collector. Veteran Monthly Review
authors Fred Magdoff and Mike Yates have taken great care with their
current release: The ABCs of the Economic Crisis: What Working People
Need to Know
. Right off the bat they keep the volume handy in size and
length. A worker with a busy life can actually absorb the content as I
did, while riding the subway and going outside for a last few rays of
autumn sunshine at lunchtime. The average chapter is about ten pages.
The book throughout is fast-paced yet detailed, understandable, and at
times entertaining. A chuckle is needed I suppose when pondering the
sheer magnitude of the jam we all find ourselves in today.

What struck me besides the author's desire to get right to the point is
their combined sense of urgency. Workers after all do need to know
these things about how our economy works and why it doesn't work in our
interests. This volume flows from a fast overview of how we arrived at
the current crisis, to just why it is that the current economic crash is
really part of a destructive built-in cycle inherent in our system. I
found myself re-reading some of the chapters as I went along, but only
because I was struck by the clear presentation of recent economic events
to illustrate what are age-old problems and sometimes fairly complicated
economic theories. I frequently remind the members of my union that
"the economic plan" we have here in the United States is working
perfectly. The problem is that "the economic plan" is the bosses' plan,
and not our plan. Here you'll see in stark detail just how the bosses'
rotten plan has done a job on all of us.

My favorite chapter was "Neoliberalism." No word in recent decades has
done more to mystify workers and inadvertently prolong their confusion.
Put a guest speaker up in front of a union audience and I'll guarantee
you that when you get to the "neoliberalism" references there will be a
majority of glazed-over eyes in the room. But here Magdoff and Yates
clear the decks of this mumbo-jumbo with six bullet points and eight
pages of explanation that will leave no one wondering what
"neoliberalism" is. Better yet, this chapter will remind us all of just
how the stage was set for the current economic fiasco. This mess
includes toxic ingredients assembled over several decades, and here you
get a peek into the kitchen to see the prep cooks in action.

"How Did It Happen?" is a chapter that includes what the authors present
as the "Financial Industry Alphabet Soup." These brief descriptions of
all the recent -- and crazy, and corrupt -- financial money-making
schemes may only disappoint because of the way the paragraphs are laid
on a darkened background. I can already see the crappy photocopies of
these four pages being made and used by workers and activists (hopefully
on the bosses' copier) who finally found an understandable Rosetta Stone
for the parasitic inventions of the financial elites. There is also a
table here that explains in wondrous simplicity how big money uses
"leverage" to multiply their profits to astronomical levels. Workers
do, and always will, have some degree of difficulty comprehending how it
is that finance capital generates the huge onrush of profits that it
does, but this section of the book will help many untangle the notion
with ease. If ever there was proof for workers that in this system hard
work does not pay, here it is.

Related ground is covered including the pervasive debt explosion and its
current fallout; the home foreclosure wave; why living standards are
plummeting; the current governmental response, or lack thereof; the
bailout crimes of Bush and now Obama; an offering of some conclusions on
our current all-around mess; a few sensible suggestions regarding some
tangible things we can fight for right now; and finally, an amazing
appendix which presents a detailed "Timeline of the Financial Crisis and
the Great Recession." This ghastly chronicle reminded me that it's
still not too late for the Department of Justice to arrest and prosecute
the tens of thousands of white-collar thieves and fraudsters who have
played a major part in the current train wreck. No chance of that
happening, I know, but it's nice to dream of the day when. . . .

I recommend this book to all workers and progressives as an excellent
effort to explain our current economic gyrations -- and one which
accomplishes much of its mission. That mission is to aid workers and
unionists in their understanding of this destructive economic system.
And most of all, to help them understand that the system is rigged
against them at every turn, is designed to fail at our expense, and
always will fail. This book also takes the reader to the point where we
need to be taking ourselves -- and each other -- as quickly as possible,
where we recognize that the current economic and political set-up has
got to go. This system cannot be tinkered back into place, nor should
it be. Reforms may slow its decay and lessen some of its most
destructive aspects, but reforms cannot save it. It is doomed to its
own set of internal faults and laws, and unless we recognize that and
act decisively to replace it with something better we are inevitably
doomed to be painfully wrung out by it again and again.

At no point while reading this snappy book did I find myself zoning out
and imagining that some think-tank know-it-all in a bow tie was
lecturing me. Most of the book made me feel like I was part of a
discussion in a union meeting someplace. Let's make this book a best
seller and get it into the hands of workers as far and wide as possible.
I'll start by paying for the one that Mike Yates sent me to read and
review, along with four more. I am going to talk to my union about
buying a couple of boxfulls. I challenge you to do the same.

Chris Townsend is Political Action Director for the United Electrical
Workers Union (UE.)