Sunday, January 31, 2010

"It is about what is happening now"

Legacy of Lumumba is
discussed in Stockholm

STOCKHOLM, Sweden—About 30 people attended a January 20 presentation and discussion at the Malcolm X-Café Pan Africa here, sponsored by the Afro-Swedes Organization.

“We all think of Haiti tonight. Why is it that Haiti is poor, and France and other countries are rich?” said Kitimbwa Sabuni, who chaired the event. “We might get some answers tonight, as we will discuss colonial revolution, imperialism, and the murder of Patrice Lumumba.” Sabuni introduced the speaker, Dag Tirsén, from the Communist League.

Tirsén described the mass movement that lead to the independence of Congo from Belgium on June 30, 1960, which was part of a broader wave of struggles for national independence throughout Africa at that time.

Although not officially scheduled to speak, Lumumba, who was prime minister, took the podium at the independence ceremonies. His speech, broadcast on radio, electrified the population as he spoke the unvarnished truth about the fight for independence and the exploitation of Congo by the imperialist powers.

“The Belgian and other imperialists wanted to maintain their control over the country and its riches,” Tirsén said, “and they found that Lumumba was an obstacle to that.”

When soldiers in the Congolese army rose up against their Belgian officers, Lumumba carried through their demands. This included the removal of the Belgian Lt. Gen. Emil Janssens, replacement of Belgian officers with Congolese, and pay increases.

After Belgian occupation of the mineral rich Katanga, Lumumba made the fatal error of asking the United Nations for help to stop the aggression. Seeing an opportunity to intervene, Washington voted for sending UN troops in the Security Council.

Dag Hammarskjöld , then secretary-general of the United Nations, played an key role in forming the imperialist intervention. He was a former Swedish cabinet minister as well as a member of one of the Swedish ruling families with interests in Africa, including in the LAMCO mine in Liberia.

“It was Hammarskjöld that came up with the plan of how to get rid of Lumumba and place the blame on internal African disputes,” said Tirsén.

When the chief of staff Joseph Mobuto seized power in a coup, “UN troops from Ghana were forbidden by Hammarskjöld to protect Lumumba outside his residence” Tirsén said. After Lumumba was captured, Swedish UN troops stood by at the Katanga airport as he was beaten. Lumumba was tortured and killed shortly thereafter.

“This story about Congo is not about history, it is about what is happening now, as more and more Swedish and other imperialist troops are sent to Afghanistan. At the same time the rights of workers here are under attack as the capitalist crises worsens,” Tirsén said.

The presentation was followed by a lively debate and question period.

“You talked about the Congolese bourgeoisie. But as I see it, you have the imperialists, and you have their henchmen,” said Samson Tomas, one of the participants.

“I heard an expert on Haiti that said the problems there were because of corruption and incapable governments,” said Sabuni. “Can governments in Third World countries get more power today, or is it the same as in Lumumba’s time?”

“The whole system has to be changed,” said Tirsén. “When there is a crack in it, people can organize and move forward like Lumumba and his organization tried to do.” Tirsén pointed to the example of the Cuban Revolution, where working people took power out of the hands of the U.S. backed dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista.

“That is the kind of leadership you need, including in Sweden,” Tirsén said.

State of the Union 2010 (take 5)

U.S. rulers prepare
deeper social cuts

Workers face more economic uncertainty

January 27—As President Barack Obama readies his State of the Union speech, marking the first year of his presidency, neither capitalist party, the Democrats or Republicans, has any solutions to the grinding economic and social crisis. Workers face growing uncertainty.

The day before Obama’s speech, USA Today reported that the number of people on welfare rose for the first time in 15 years, when then-president William Clinton vowed to “end welfare as we know it.” Welfare programs that at one time aided more than 14 million people were slashed by Clinton. In fiscal 2008 3.8 million people received welfare payments. In 2009 this rose to 4 million.

More than 37 million people received food stamps last year, an 18 percent increase, while the number of people collecting unemployment benefits more than doubled, to about 9.1 million. On January 25 Wal Mart-owned Sam’s Club announced layoffs of 11,000 workers, mostly part-time employees. The next day Verizon said it was cutting 10,000 jobs.

In Obama’s speech, according to initial press reports, is a three-year spending freeze on education, nutrition, national parks, air traffic control, and farm subsidies. Exempt from the freeze are the Pentagon and Homeland Security budgets.

While White House officials say that Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security could also be exempt, the New York Times notes that the freeze is meant to signal that Obama “is willing to make tough decisions.”

On January 19, the White House tentatively agreed to issue an executive order to create a bipartisan commission to propose changes—a code word for cuts—in federal entitlement programs including Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. The commission would deliver its recommendations after this fall’s congressional elections.

While laying the ground for deeper attacks on the rights, entitlements, and living standard of workers and farmers, Obama claimed that he will “fight for the middle class” and the “American Dream.” Initial reports on his proposal do not include any serious plan to create jobs. Instead, he is proposing a variety of tax credits that would allegedly ease the pressure of the economic crisis.

Massachusetts election
Obama and the Democratic Party suffered a defeat January 19 when Republican Scott Brown beat Democrat Martha Coakley in a special election for the U.S. Senate seat in Massachusetts held by liberal icon Edward Kennedy until his death.

A big part of Brown’s victory was his opposition to the so-called health-care reform, which found an echo among many workers who sense that the “reform” would be used to restrict medical care. Brown had no concrete proposals for his own “reform” except to proclaim that “we can do better.”

Brown also campaigned against civilian trials for alleged terrorists and for “an across the board” tax cut to create jobs.

Obama rallied behind Coakley to no avail. During a January 17 day of campaigning for the Democratic candidate, Obama didn’t mention the health-care bill once.

In his victory speech, Brown did not mention the Republican Party except to say he will work with both parties.

After the election Brown told the Wall Street Journal that he thought that Obama is “doing a great job with North Korea, a nice job with Afghanistan.”

But prominent liberal columnist Paul Krugman criticized Obama January 26. In a column titled “Obama Liquidates Himself,” Krugman wrote, “A spending freeze? That’s the brilliant response of the Obama team to their first serious political setback?”

“It’s appalling on every level,” Krugman charged. “It’s bad economics, depressing demand when the economy is still suffering from mass unemployment.”

Spirit of bipartisanship?
Some conservatives, however, are pleased with Obama’s proposals.

“Republicans, in a spirit of bipartisanship, should praise the president for beginning to come to his senses about too much government spending (and for acknowledging at the same time that national security spending can’t be frozen),” wrote Weekly Standard editor William Kristol.

Other conservatives are worried that if the Republicans make gains in November, they won’t do any better than Obama in dealing with the crisis.

Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan noted that Brown’s election victory is not as significant as it may seem. Brown’s “constituents,” Noonan said, “couldn’t care less about the fortunes” of the Republican Party.

Twelve days before the election, Noonan wrote a column titled, “The Risk of Catastrophic Victory: Obama is in the midst of one. Can the GOP avert one of their own?”

Noonan warns that the Republicans could win a majority in Congress in November, and still “be left unable to lead when their time comes.”

Working-class answers to crisis

President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union address January 27, marking the first year of his presidency. For the working class and farmers 2009 has been a year of escalating war, rising unemployment, more deportations, a decline in quality and access to health care, attacks on Constitutional rights and protections, housing and farm foreclosures, and a deteriorating standard of living. Blacks and other oppressed nationalities have fared worse than others.

The capitalist government in Washington, and on the local level, has no answers to the deepening economic and social crisis that is devastating the lives of millions of workers worldwide. The newly elected Republican senator from Massachusetts, Scott Brown, has taken the spotlight for a moment after winning the office previously held by Democratic Party politician Edward Kennedy. But what are Brown’s proposals to reverse the effects of the economic crisis on working people? Like other politicians in the two capitalist parties, he has none that will benefit workers.

The only answers to the devastation that working people face are those that directly cut into the capitalists’ profits and ultimately challenge the dictatorship of capital. The crisis of unemployment, for example, can only begin to be addressed by a massive public works program to repair infrastructure, build schools, hospitals, affordable housing, and other socially needed projects—putting millions to work.

The ruling families of the United States and other capitalist nations use the power of their state to defend their system and their profits no matter what the consequences for us. That is why working people need a proletarian dictatorship to replace the rule of capital.

The introduction to Malcolm X, Black Liberation, and the Road to Workers Power aptly explains, “Only the conquest, and exercise, of state power by the working class and expropriation of finance capital can lay the foundations for a world based not on exploitation, violence, racial discrimination, class-based pecking orders, and dog-eat-dog competition, but on solidarity among working people that encourages the creativity and recognition of the worth of every individual, regardless of sex, national origin, or skin color.

“A socialist world.”

Obituary: Howard Zinn

The people's historian

Alan Maass pays tribute to a historian who helped make history.

HOWARD ZINN, an activist and author for half a century and probably the best-known voice of the U.S. left, died January 27 at the age of 87.

Howard was a fixture of countless struggles for justice and equality in the U.S. over many long decades. He was as determined in his 80s as he was many years before as a witness and participant in the great battles of the civil rights movement and the fight against the Vietnam War.

He died of a heart attack in Santa Monica, Calif., where he was enjoying a few days' vacation. But according to friends, he was also looking forward to his next speaking event in a week's time--to a packed audience, as always.

Howard is best remembered for A People's History of the United States, which taught millions about the hidden tradition of protest, resistance and rebellion in America. A People's History has sold over 2 million copies--it's almost unique in the publishing world for continuously selling more copies each year than it did the year before.

In 2004, Howard and coauthor Anthony Arnove produced a companion volume--Voices of a People's History of the United States, which compiled speeches, articles and essays, poetry and song lyrics from those who were a part of the struggles chronicled in A People's History. Voices brought the words of Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, Eugene V. Debs, Fannie Lou Hamer and many, many more to a new generation.

In December, Voices was brought to film in a magnificent two-hour program seen by millions of people on The History Channel. Selections from the book were performed by a remarkable cast of actors like Morgan Freeman, Matt Damon and Marisa Tomei; musical artists like John Legend and Bruce Springsteen; and poets like Staceyann Chin.

Besides A People's History and Voices, there were so many other books. SNCC: The New Abolitionists reported from the front lines of the civil rights struggle in the early 1960s. A range of writings over decades, from Vietnam: The Logic of Withdrawal to Terrorism and War, challenged militarism and imperialism.

Zinn also showed off his talents as a playwright--among his plays were Emma, about anarchist Emma Goldman, and Marx in Soho, which brought Karl Marx back to life in modern-day Soho in New York City to reflect on the relevance of socialist ideas today.

"His writings," Noam Chomsky wrote in a passage quoted by the Boston Globe, "have changed the consciousness of a generation, and helped open new paths to understanding and its crucial meaning for our lives."

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BUT CHOMSKY rightly went on to add: "When action has been called for, one could always be confident that he would be on the front lines, an example and trustworthy guide."

If Howard gained his greatest renown as a historian, his own life displayed the same courage and commitment as the struggles that he chronicled--he lived his life as a part of the fight for a better world.

Howard was born in 1922 in New York City, the son of working-class Jewish immigrants. After attending school, he went to work in the Brooklyn Navy Yards, where he was an agitator on the shop floor from the start.

He joined the Army Air Force during the Second World War and served as a bombardier--a mission in 1945 involved one of the first uses of napalm. The experience informed his opposition to war in the years after--as he often pointed out in speeches, the stated claim that the "good war" was about defeating fascism was in conflict with the U.S. government's ruthless pursuit of political and business interests.

After the war, Howard was able to attend New York University on the GI Bill, studying history. In 1956, he was hired to be a professor at Atlanta's Spelman College, a historically Black women's college.

The civil rights movement was brewing as he and his wife Rosyln arrived in the South. Howard was a witness to its battles, serving as an adviser to young student activists, some of whom went on to form the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. But he was also a participant in sit-ins and marches.

After being fired for championing the protests of Spelman students against the conservative college administration, Howard came north to teach at Boston University.

There, he was part of the early movement against the Vietnam War. In 1968, as liberation fighters launched the Tet Offensive, Howard visited the North Vietnamese capital of Hanoi with another leading activist, Rev. Daniel Berrigan. In the U.S., Howard helped publicize the Pentagon Papers--a damning indictment of U.S. war plans leaked by military insider Daniel Ellsberg. His lean frame was a familiar sight on the speakers' platform at antiwar protests on Boston Common and around the country.

Howard's commitment to protest continued throughout his life, whether the cause was opposing U.S. wars in the Middle East, challenging the criminal injustice system, defending the rights of union workers, or speaking up for the victims of government repression. He was selfless with his time, answering countless invitations from many different movements and struggles.

At the heart of it was Howard's understanding that it was possible to achieve justice, but only if ordinary people fought for it. As he put it in a speech a year ago that was published at [1]:

We are citizens. We must not put ourselves in the position of looking at the world from [the politicians'] eyes and say, "Well, we have to compromise, we have to do this for political reasons." We have to speak our minds.

This is the position that the abolitionists were in before the Civil War, and people said, "Well, you have to look at it from Lincoln's point of view." Lincoln didn't believe that his first priority was abolishing slavery. But the anti-slavery movement did, and the abolitionists said, "We're not going to put ourselves in Lincoln's position. We are going to express our own position, and we are going to express it so powerfully that Lincoln will have to listen to us."

And the anti-slavery movement grew large enough and powerful enough that Lincoln had to listen. That's how we got the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th and 14th and 15th Amendments.

That's been the story of this country. Where progress has been made, wherever any kind of injustice has been overturned, it's been because people acted as citizens, and not as politicians. They didn't just moan. They worked, they acted, they organized, they rioted if necessary.

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IN A country with a long record of violently suppressing resistance and then erasing it from the history books, the importance of what Howard contributed can't be overstated. As Nation columnist and contributor Dave Zirin wrote in tribute to Howard:

With his death, we lose a man who did nothing less than rewrite the narrative of the United States. We lose a historian who also made history.

Anyone who believes that the United States is immune to radical politics never attended a lecture by Howard Zinn. The rooms would be packed to the rafters, as entire families, black, white and brown, would arrive to hear their own history made humorous as well as heroic. "What matters is not who's sitting in the White House. What matters is who's sitting in!" he would say with a mischievous grin. After this casual suggestion of civil disobedience, the crowd would burst into laughter and applause. Only Howard could pull that off because he was entirely authentic.

Howard was an inspiration to all of us on the left, especially in the times when we were fighting difficult battles and not winning many. His writings taught us that the resistance to oppression lives on--and that the struggles of ordinary people have the potential to change the world.

They also taught us something else: that every high point of struggle is only possible because of the smaller battles that came before it--ultimately, that it matters what individuals do now to oppose injustice and to organize for the future.

The words that end Howard's autobiography, You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train, are the best tribute to his extraordinary life:

To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness.

What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places--and there are so many--where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of the world in a different direction.

And if we do act, in however small a way, we don't have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.

  1. [1]
  2. [2]

A historian who made history

Nation columnist Dave Zirin honors the author of A People's History of the United States and a fighter in many struggles over half a century.

HOWARD ZINN, my hero, teacher and friend, died of a heart attack on Wednesday at the age of 87. With his death, we lose a man who did nothing less than rewrite the narrative of the United States. We lose a historian who also made history.

Anyone who believes that the United States is immune to radical politics never attended a lecture by Howard Zinn. The rooms would be packed to the rafters, as entire families, black, white and brown, would arrive to hear their own history made humorous as well as heroic.

"What matters is not who's sitting in the White House. What matters is who's sitting in!" he would say with a mischievous grin. After this casual suggestion of civil disobedience, the crowd would burst into laughter and applause.

Only Howard could pull that off because he was entirely authentic. When he spoke against poverty, it was from the perspective of someone who had to work in the shipyards during the Great Depression. When he spoke against war, it was from the perspective of someone who flew as a bombardier during the Second World War, and was forever changed by the experience. When he spoke against racism, it was from the perspective of someone who taught at Spelman College during the civil rights movement, and was arrested sitting in with his students.

And of course, when he spoke about history, it was from the perspective of having written A People's History of the United States, a book that has sold more than 2 million copies and changed the lives of countless people.

Count me among them. When I was 17 and picked up a dog-eared copy of Zinn's book, I thought history was about learning that the Magna Carta was signed in 1215. I couldn't tell you what the Magna Carta was, but I knew it was signed in 1215. Howard took this history of great men in powdered wigs and turned it on its pompous head.

In Howard's book, the central actors were the runaway slaves, the labor radicals, the masses and the misfits. It was history writ by Robin Hood, speaking to a desire so many share: to actually make history instead of being history's victim. His book came alive in December with the debut of The People Speak on The History Channel, as actors, musicians and poets brought Zinn's book to life.

Howard was asked once whether his praise of dissent and protest was divisive. He answered beautifully:

Yes, dissent and protest are divisive, but in a good way, because they represent accurately the real divisions in society. Those divisions exist--the rich, the poor--whether there is dissent or not. But when there is no dissent, there is no change. The dissent has the possibility not of ending the division in society, but of changing the reality of the division. Changing the balance of power on behalf of the poor and the oppressed.

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WORDS LIKE this made Howard my hero. I never thought we would also become friends. But through our mutual cohort, Anthony Arnove, Howard read my sports writing, and then gave his blessing to a book project we called A People's History of Sports in the United States.

We also did a series of meetings together, where I would interview Howard on stage. Even at 87, he still had his sharp wit, strong voice and matinee-idol white hair. But his body had become frail. Despite this physical weakness, Howard would stay and sign hundreds of books until his hand would shake with the effort.

At our event in Madison, Wis., Howard issued a challenge to the audience. He said, "Our job as citizens is to honestly assess what Obama is doing. Not measured just against Bush, because against Bush, everybody looks good. But look honestly at what Obama's doing, and act as engaged and vigorous citizens."

He also had no fear to express his political convictions loudly and proudly. I asked him about the prospects today for radical politics, and he said:

Let's talk about socialism...I think it's very important to bring back the idea of socialism into the national discussion to where it was at the turn of the [last] century before the Soviet Union gave it a bad name. Socialism had a good name in this country. Socialism had Eugene Debs. It had Clarence Darrow. It had Mother Jones. It had Emma Goldman. It had several million people reading socialist newspapers around the country...

Socialism basically said, hey, let's have a kinder, gentler society. Let's share things. Let's have an economic system that produces things not because they're profitable for some corporation, but produces things that people need. People should not be retreating from the word socialism, because you have to go beyond capitalism.

Howard Zinn taught millions of us a simple lesson: Agitate. Agitate. Agitate. But never lose your sense of humor in the process. It's a beautiful legacy, and however much it hurts to lose him, we should strive to build on Howard's work and go out and make some history.

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State of the Union 2010 (take 4)

How the Democrats blew it

Lance Selfa

The Democrats' failures to help ease the pain of the jobs crisis or promote real health care "reform" have created a political vacuum that the Republicans are trying to fill.

IN TWO consecutive national elections, in 2006 and 2008, voters handed the Democratic Party landslide victories. When Barack Obama took the oath of office for the presidency a little over one year ago, the Democrats held the strongest governing majority that either major party had had since the 1970s.

One year later, in the wake of Republican Scott Brown's victory in a special Senate election in Massachusetts on January 19, the Democratic Party is reeling.

Its large congressional majorities are still intact, yet party leaders seem like headless chickens, running around. They appear to accept the Republican spin that losing a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate is tantamount to losing any ability to move their agenda forward. They seem unable to figure out what to do with the health care legislation that has defined much of their work for the last year.

On health care, the Democrats now face a rotten choice, if their statements to the press are any indication: They could pass a bill that is stuffed with giveaways to the medical-pharmaceutical-insurance complex. Or they could pull the plug on the entire effort, and then have to spend the 2010 election year explaining why they wasted months on a bill that they ended up scrapping.

That they could pass a genuine health reform bill without corporate giveaways isn't even up for discussion.

Having given the Democrats a huge opportunity to move the country away from the right-wing Republican dominance of the Bush-Cheney years, voters are now not sure they want to return the Democrats to power in the 2010 elections. The latest Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll put the "generic ballot" preference for which party should control Congress at a tie between Democrats and Republicans. Only months ago, Democrats held a near double-digit lead.

If the Democrats lose Congress and effectively turn President Obama into a lame duck for the remainder of his first term, it would mark perhaps the biggest political collapse since the Great Depression wiped out big Republican majorities in Congress in the early 1930s.

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What went wrong?

WHILE A Democratic debacle in 2010 isn't a foregone conclusion, it's certainly a possibility. How did this happen?

The first part of the explanation is, of course, the recession. Since Democrats "own" Washington, they are certain to be first in line to receive blame from voters looking for help from rising unemployment, poverty and foreclosures. If voters perceive that "the government" isn't doing enough, and "the government" is run by Democrats, then they're the ones who will pay the price.

But if the Democrats were perceived as trying to help ordinary people while the Republicans stonewalled any relief, wouldn't the public at least give the Democrats credit for trying? If they launched a bold jobs program or proposed a genuine national health program, they would have at least provided an answer to critics who charge them with ignoring the public's needs.

Whether because they underestimated the seriousness of the recession or because they're political cowards, Obama and his administration kept their request for an economic stimulus bill early last year to less than $900 billion--and trimmed it further to attract more conservative votes. At that time, independent economists were calling for a stimulus measure focused primarily on creating jobs that was in excess of $1 trillion.

Instead, to win more "bipartisan" support, the administration limited the amount of money allocated to jobs creation and explicitly ruled out direct government jobs programs modeled on the 1930s-era Works Progress Administration. It dedicated far too much of the stimulus, upwards of one-third of the total, to a variety of tax cuts and credits to individuals and business that were useless in creating jobs.

On the health care bill, the White House pursued a strategy of involving industry "stakeholders" in writing the legislation. As a result, the proposals that emerged contained a number of unpopular provisions, from the mandate for all people to buy health insurance, to taxing health care benefits for those with good benefits packages, to cutting billions of dollars from Medicare.

Because of these concessions--all offered as the cost of continuing to do business with the medical-industrial complex--a majority of Americans turned against health care reform.

Just how damaging were these concessions, which many Democrats, health industry policy wonks and business analysts considered necessary? Findings from an AFL-CIO poll of voters in the Massachusetts special election found union members divided their votes equally between Brown and Democratic candidate Martha Coakley--in a state where the Democratic candidate normally wins two-thirds or more of union votes.

Pollster Guy Molyneaux told the Wall Street Journal that he found "pretty strong evidence" that union workers may have been concerned about the "Cadillac benefits" tax. AFL-CIO spokesperson Karen Ackerman went so far as to call the union vote for Brown a "working-class revolt." She continued: "What happened in Massachusetts is that working families did not see the Democratic candidate as being on their side."

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What about Obama?

THEN THERE'S President Obama, who is proving himself to be the same cautious politician he was before he found that calls for "hope" and "change" moved crowds during his 2008 primary and general election campaigns.

Despite his campaign's positioning as the outsider against the "establishment" choice (Hillary Clinton), Obama was and is a figure tightly bound to big business forces in the Democratic Party.

Investigative journalist Ken Silverstein documented the creation of Obama's money and political machine a few months before he announced his intention to run for president: "On condition of anonymity, one Washington lobbyist I spoke with was willing to point out the obvious: that big [Wall Street] donors would not be helping out Obama if they didn't see him as a 'player.' The lobbyist added: 'What's the dollar value of a starry-eyed idealist?'"

In 2008, Obama out-raised and outspent the Republicans and John McCain, winning particularly crushing margins in donations from the financial sector. Given this information, it doesn't take a genius to see why Obama and his economic team have been reluctant to really crack down on the Wall Street barons who helped to wreck the economy.

Yet what has seemed most bewildering about Obama--and most demoralizing to his most fervent supporters--is his failure to "lead" in the way that they thought he would. This may be one of Obama's personality traits, but its root is Obama's commitment to what writer Kevin Baker called "business liberalism"--President Bill Clinton's formula.

Baker, in a Harper's article that compared Obama to President Herbert Hoover, explained that "business liberalism" is:

a chimera, every bit as much a capitulation to powerful and selfish interests as was Hoover's 1920s progressivism. [It] espous[es] a "pragmatism" that is not really pragmatism at all, just surrender to the usual corporate interests.

The common thread running through all of Obama's major proposals right now is that they are labyrinthine solutions designed mainly to avoid conflict. The bank bailout, cap-and-trade on carbon emissions, health-care pools--all of these ideas are, like Hillary Clinton's ill-fated 1993 health plan, simultaneously too complicated to draw a constituency and too threatening for Congress to shape and pass as Obama would like. They bear the seeds of their own defeat.

Obama's penchant to reach for compromise and "bipartisanship" is exactly the opposite of what is required today, Baker wrote, which is "one of those rare moments in history when the radical becomes pragmatic, when deliberation and compromise foster disaster."

What goes for Obama goes ditto for other congressional Democratic leaders. As Harvard University social policy expert Theda Skocpol told the New York Times, "Even in the majority, Democrats still have many ties to business interests and quietly look for excuses to avoid doing things that offend them. Not being able to act without 60 votes is a ready excuse."

You might have thought that the near-meltdown of the world economy in the panic of 2008 would have caused even some of the Clintonites that Obama hired--like Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner or top economic adviser Lawrence Summers--to reconsider their pro-business agenda of the 1990s.

But instead, it appears that the crisis provided them with the opportunity to spend a vast amount of money--more than Clinton ever did--without really changing their neoliberal policy assumptions.

Call it "Keynesian neoliberalism," but it amounts to putting trillions of taxpayers' dollars at the disposal of private business, and trying to "incentivize" it to carry out social policy. It hasn't worked--either in the bailout of the banks or several attempts to stem the mortgage crisis. The banks and big corporations have been happy to take the money, but they haven't committed to lending money, saving homes or hiring workers.

No wonder more and more Americans see the Obama administration as a bankers' administration--in the same way that they came to see the Bush-Cheney regime as an "oil and gas" administration.

A September 2009 Economic Policy Institute poll asked a national sample of registered voters to say who they thought "been helped a lot or some" from the policies that the administration had enacted. The result: 13 percent said the "average working person," 64 percent who identified "large banks," and 54 percent who said "Wall Street investment companies."

The administration's perceived coddling of Wall Street is so ingrained in the public eye that Obama's more recent proposals to tax bank profits and his more "populist" rhetorical tone seem like phony posturing.

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Headed for a train wreck?

JUST ABOUT every observer predicts that the Democrats are going to have a tough time in the upcoming midterm elections. It's no longer folly to consider the possibility of the discredited Republican Party returning to power in Congress.

Obama still has a reserve of goodwill in the American population to tap. His approval rating stands at about the same place Ronald Reagan's did at the same point in his administration, which likewise assumed power during a deep recession. If Obama and the Democrats change their approach and begin producing "change" that more people can perceive, then they might limit their losses in November.

The problem for Obama and the Democrats is that these changes of perception, or even real improvements in the economy, may not happen fast enough to save them. So we could be looking at a Republican comeback by the end of this year.

A Republican victory wouldn't mean that the majority of the population has suddenly come to accept the loopy conspiracy theories of Fox News' Glenn Beck or to believe that Obama is trying to jam a socialist agenda down their throats.

But in an atmosphere of economic devastation, with the perception that the government isn't doing enough to help, it's easy for millions of people to vote for the Republicans to show their displeasure with the Democrats who are running the government.

The duopolistic (two-party) nature of mainstream American politics constantly reduces complex reality to these kinds of choices. No doubt a substantial minority of the population (as much as one-quarter of the electorate) fully endorses the right-wing opposition to Obama that the "tea parties" represent.

But most people who aren't so ideologically committed to a right-wing program could end up voting for the conservatives for more mundane reasons.

First, there are usually only two choices. The Democrats' failures have created a political vacuum that the Republicans and tea partiers are trying to fill. Second, when the Democrats haven't delivered--and worse, look like they're not sure what they're doing--why should anyone vote for them?

Under the U.S. two-party system, the Democrats play the role of offering an electoral outlet where workers, the poor and oppressed groups such as women, racial minorities and LGBT people feel like they can make themselves heard. But the Democrats' nature as a big business or capitalist party means they are constantly forced to attack their "base," thereby undermining their own support.

If working people end up opposing health care reform because it's going to cut Medicare and raise their taxes--and if the people who are in favor of health care reform can't convince them that there's a tangible benefit in it for them (and not one that only takes effect in 2014!)--then Democrats shouldn't be surprised when their "base" refuses to turn out to vote, or when independent voters desert to the Republicans.

The Massachusetts election showed both phenomena. Voter turnout in heavily Democratic Boston was down 35 percent from the 2008 election, and one out of five Obama voters voted for Brown.

If there isn't an alternative to the Democrats coming from the left--whether in the form of a third party challenge, or a strike or social struggle, or even the unions standing up and saying "we're not going to take this anymore"--then opposition to the Washington status quo will fall by default to the right.

= = = = = = = = = = = = = = = =

Columnist: Lance Selfa

Lance Selfa is the author of The Democrats: A Critical History [2], a socialist analysis of the Democratic Party, and editor of The Struggle for Palestine [3], a collection of essays by leading solidarity activists. He is on the editorial board of the International Socialist Review [4].

The right kind of "Right to Work"

Over 900 attend Right to Work conference

by Viv Smith

Trade unionists, students, unemployed workers, pensioners and migrant workers came together in a show of solidarity and unity today.

Over 900 people packed into the national Right to Work conference in Manchester.

Delegates spoke about the many challenges facing the working class and the attacks that are already underway on jobs, wages and conditions.

People also discussed the threat posed by the Nazi British National Party and the racists in the English Defence League.

Activists from the Stop the War Coalition, Campaign Against Climate Change, Unite Against Fascism and the National Shop Stewards Network were among those at the conference.

Over 300 people spoke across eleven workshops and two plenary sessions. The message was one of defiance and hope.

"Something has changed," Michael Bradley, Right to Work committee member, told the conference.

"Our side has begun to hit back.

"The bosses will try to divide us in the coming months, using arguments like ‘British jobs for British workers’, pitting local people against asylum seekers and demonising Muslims.

"We have to unite locally and nationally. At the heart of our unity is militant activity on the ground."

Delegates reported from a number of campaigns and disputes.

They included Vestas workers who had occupied against job losses, Fujitsu workers who are taking part in the first national strike in the IT sector and migrant cleaners fighting for union organisation.

Raymond, a Unite union member, who put forward a statement on moving forward after the conference, said, "Today has been inspirational and a huge success.

"But we have to be more than inspired – we need to leave here today intent on building unity on our side.

"The bosses are not as confident as they would like to be. They want to launch an offensive on our class, but we have shown that where we organise and fight back we can win.

"By tapping into networks and building solidarity – like workers have done at Fujitsu, Vestas, Tower Hamlets College and the Leeds refuse workers, we can drive back the attacks."

The statement (available » here ) was passed unanimously.

Proposals to build for and support the steel workers’ protest on 13 February, the march for public services in London on 10 April and for a protest outside the Tory Party spring conference were unanimously accepted.

Next week’s Socialist Worker will carry a full report of the conference.

© Socialist Worker (unless otherwise stated). You may republish if you include an active link to the original.

State of the Union 2010 (take 3)

Austerity Now
by Chris Maisano

A couple months ago, I wrote a post titled "The Coming Liberal Austerity Program." Well, it's not just coming anymore. It's here.

In response to the Republican victory in the special election in Massachusetts and the deficit paranoia that has gripped the right-wing and orthodox economists, President Obama announced that he will pursue a three-year spending freeze in domestic discretionary federal spending, excluding of course "security-related" spending on the military even though it accounts for over 50% of all discretionary spending. We have to "fund the troops," after all. Those of you with long memories may recall that candidate Obama appropriately rejected John McCain's profoundly stupid call for a spending freeze during the 2008 campaign, but then again this administration doesn't seem willing to make good on campaign promises that don't involve placating bankers or dropping more bombs on people in the Middle East.

Joke: Obama as FDR
File under: Cruel Jokes

Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid are also excluded from cuts, but as an anonymous administration official noted, "by helping to create a new atmosphere of fiscal discipline, it can actually also feed into debates over other components of the budget." The long-term implications of this statement are obvious, and disturbing. After cutting education, nutrition, national parks, and God knows what else (but probably not the military), the plan is to move against those nasty "entitlement" programs that the political class and the right hate so much. It took a Democrat to destroy welfare, and it seems as if another Democrat is preparing the groundwork for a final offensive against the New Deal. And to think that just last year, the media had crowned BHO as the new FDR. Psyche!

But most troubling in the shorter term is the possibility that this freeze may also apply to federal aid to state and local governments, which to date has prevented the recession from turning into a full-blown depression. The early reports in the press are not clear on this point (if anyone has some more information on this, please share it). The fiscal assistance that states received from Washington under President Obama's stimulus package is scheduled to end on December 31, 2010. In the absence of further relief, states would be forced to make painful budget cuts that the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities estimates "will take nearly a full percentage point off the Gross Domestic Product" and "cost the economy 900,000 jobs" on top of the millions of jobs that have already been lost during the course of the recession. I don't want to see what kind of social catastrophe would result from the implosion of state and local governments across the country. The thought that this could potentially happen, and soon, is chilling.

As Paul Krugman said on his blog, "this looks like pure disaster," not just economically but politically as well. You can bet that Republicans and "moderates" will just keep calling for more cuts, while the Democratic base drifts further into demoralization. I can't see how a move toward austerity will significantly help the Democrats' electoral chances this fall. If anything, it will provide further encouragement to Democratic voters to stay home. Ideologically, it provides validation for the conservative economic paradigm at a time when the last shovelfuls of dirt should be falling on its grave.

So after one year of the Obama administration, the picture is clear. If you are Wall Street, the military, the health insurance or pharmaceutical industries, a conservative Democrat, or even a Republican, the administration will bend over backwards to accommodate you. Everyone else gets a kick in the teeth. One can only hope that at least some of the millions who supported Obama and are becoming disillusioned with his administration will become radicalized in some fashion. If not, this country's politics is likely to become even uglier than it already is.

Chris Maisano is a member of the Young Democratic Socialists New York City chapter. He studied at Rutgers and Drexel University and currently works as a librarian at a large public library branch in Brooklyn. This article was first published in The Activist on 26 January 2010 under a Creative Commons license.

State of the Union 2010 (take 2)

Obama: I am not a radical or a Bolshevik

January 30, 2010

Louis Proyect

Perhaps nothing encapsulates the essence of the Obama administration better than his encounter with the Republicans in Baltimore yesterday where he tried to paper over his differences with the labor-hating and racist politicians.

Pressed by Mike Spence, the verbose Representative from Indiana who puts Joe Biden to shame, why he failed to adopt Republican-style tax cuts, Obama defended himself by referring to the key role of tax cuts in his stimulus package:

The package that we put together at the beginning of the year, the truth is should have reflected, and I believe reflected what most of you would say are common-sense things. This notion that this was a radical package is just not true. A third of them were tax cuts. And they weren’t — when you say they were boutique tax cuts, Mike, 95 percent of working Americans got tax cuts. Small businesses got tax cuts. Large businesses got help in terms of their depreciation schedules.

I mean, it was a pretty conventional list of tax cuts.

Do you see how he denied that there was anything “radical” about his package? This kind of pleading reminds me of nothing more than the ex-Communists testifying before HUAC or Senator McCarthy trying to establish their True American bona fides even though they signed a petition against General Franco in 1938. But that was never good enough for the witch hunters. They would only be assuaged if the hapless former Communist named names. In Obama’s case, the only way to save himself is to go the whole hog and adopt the Republican Party’s full program, something he apparently has embarked upon.

Even more self-abnegating was his performance before Marsha Blackburn, the Representative from Tennessee who complained about his sorry health plan that looks like it will die on the vine anyhow. He practically got on his hands and knees to beg the filthy right wing politicians to accept him as a True American:

The component parts of this thing are pretty similar to what Howard Baker, Bob Dole and Tom Daschle proposed at the beginning of this debate last year.

Now, you may not agree with Bob Dole and Howard Baker and Tom — and certainly you don’t agree with Tom Daschle on much but that’s not a radical bunch. But if you were to listen to the debate, and, frankly, how some of you went after this bill, you’d think that this thing was some Bolshevik plot.

And so I’m thinking to myself, “Well, how is it that a plan that is pretty centrist . . . “

No, look, I mean, I’m just saying — I know you guys disagree, but if you look at the facts of this bill, most independent observers would say this is actually what many Republicans — it — it’s similar to what many Republicans proposed to Bill Clinton when he was doing his debate on health care.

What a pathetic display, trying to disabuse these Republicans of the idea that he is not a “Bolshevik” as if anybody outside of the deranged ideological universe of AM talk radio would believe such a thing. What does Obama expect? That these howling hyenas are going to lie down with sheep? That is the fundamental problem of American politics today after all. The Republicans want blood and the Democrats are all too anxious to bare their neck.

It is also obvious that this Columbia University and Harvard educated president does not have a very good grasp of recent American history. Holding up Robert Dole and Howard Baker to this mob is a complete waste of time since the Republican Party has mutated into an ultraright body that is bent on ridding itself of any vestige of centrism, such as the kind that Dole and Baker represented. It is like asking a serial killer to remember what a nice boy he was in kindergarten.

This Republican Party, with its bible-thumping, xenophobic, market fundamentalist base, is not the party of Richard Nixon. Indeed, we would be lucky if the Democrats were as far to the left as Nixon, whose Keynesian economics and support of affirmative action makes most Democrats look reactionary by comparison. As the Republican Party continues to shift to the right, we end up with Democrats trying to stake out a center that also keeps shifting to the right. It is as if liberal politicians in Weimar Germany tried to maintain the center during the rise of Hitler. Come to think of it, with all proportions guarded, that is what we are up against today.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Poem: "Park Bench"


I live on a park bench.
You, Park Avenue.
Hell of a distance
Between us two.

I beg for a dime for dinner--
You got a butler and a maid.
But I'm wakin up!
Say, aint you afraid

That I might, just maybe,
In a year or two,
Move on over
To Park Avenue?

-- Langston Hughes

Online: "A People's History of the World"

Chris Harman

A people’s history of the world


Who built Thebes of the seven gates?
In the books you will find the names of kings.
Did the kings haul up the lumps of rock?
And Babylon, many times demolished
Who raised it up so many times? In what houses
Of gold-glittering Lima did the builders live?

Where, the evening that the Wall of China was finished
Did the masons go? Great Rome
Is full of triumphal arches. Who erected them? Over whom
Did the Caesars triumph? Had Byzantium, much praised in song
Only palaces for its inhabitants? Even in fabled Atlantis
The night the ocean engulfed it
The drowning still bawled for their slaves.

The young Alexander conquered India.
Was he alone?
Caesar beat the Gauls.
Did he not have even a cook with him?
Philip of Spain wept when his armada
Went down. Was he the only one to weep?
Frederick the Second won the Seven Years War. Who
Else won it?

Every page a victory
Who cooked the feast for the victors?
Every ten years a great man.
Who paid the bill?

So many reports.
So many questions.

Questions from a Worker who Reads by Bertolt Brecht

We are the ones we have been waiting for

Haitians organize while gov’t,
imperialists fail to meet needs

Reuters/Ho New
Haitian women clear rubble in Port-au-Prince January 25. Working people are organizing themselves in the face of the social disaster following recent earthquake.

January 27—After a 7-magnitude earthquake devastated their country January 12, examples of Haitian working people organizing to collectively distribute scarce food, set up shelters, and provide security are now being reported. Their actions are taken as Washington and other imperialist powers, as well as the government in Haiti, fail to provide adequate and timely relief.

Although the United Nations estimates that 2 million Haitians require rapid food aid, the UN World Food Program as of January 23 had distributed food to a mere 320,000. New York Times correspondent Damien Cave visited the devastated working-class city of Carrefour just outside Port-au-Prince. There he found “small soup kitchens have sprung up with discounted meals, subsidized by Haitians with a little extra money.”

Cave interviewed three women who said they began cooking for neighbors the day after the earthquake struck and typically serve 100 people before 10:00 a.m. “Smiling and proud, the women said they did not have the luxury of waiting for aid groups in their hilly neighborhood.”

Four thousand homeless people in the Primatur Gardens camp in the capital are surviving under plastic tarps, umbrellas, or just tree shade. They have set up a committee to run the camp, reported the Christian Science Monitor. The committee organizes residents with health-care training to provide rudimentary treatment, maintains a census of who is living there, mobilizes people for regular cleanup, and conducts security patrols.

Joel Jean-Baptiste told the Monitor that the camp is on state property, “but once there was a disaster and the government vanished, it became the right of the people to occupy this property and use it.” Camp resident Magda Jeidy said, “If we waited for our government we’d all die.”

Since the earthquake Haitian President Rene Preval has yet to deliver a national address to the Haitian people. He remains at a temporary government office at a police station in the affluent suburb of Petionville outside the capital. He has not ventured out to visit any camps or hospitals. The Financial Times explained that “Today, every last function of government—from running hospitals to restoring water supplies and handing out food—is in effect in the hands of foreigners.”

Stories continue to surface of the callous indifference the international rescue effort, spearheaded by Washington, has shown to the working-class areas most damaged by the earthquake. When the Haitian government called a halt to the search for survivors in collapsed buildings on January 23, a stunningly low 132 people had been pulled out alive by international teams, many of them foreign diplomatic personnel. In contrast, working people using whatever was at hand have likely saved thousands in impoverished neighborhoods where the international teams never went.

Both Haitian prime minister Jean-Max Bellerive and communications minister Marie-Laurence Jocelyn Lassegue said their estimate of the number dead was 150,000. But no systematic count was done and thousands of corpses were simply hauled away in dump trucks to be buried in mass graves, with no attempt to identify the victims.

No one knows how many of those who perished would have lived if search missions, food, water, and doctors had arrived sooner. In an op-ed piece in the January 25 Wall Street Journal, three U.S. surgeons who went to Haiti described waiting four days for the U.S. military to permit them to land in Port-au-Prince. They then confronted a mass of patients requiring blood and medicines to fight infection, but said they “received virtually no support from any branch of the U.S. government, including the State Department.”

Cuban medical mission a contrast
Standing in sharp contrast is the way the revolutionary government of Cuba has responded to the social disaster. According to the Cuban newspaper Escambray, Cuban medical personnel, now numbering 700 people, had treated more than 25,000 injured Haitians as of January 26. When the earthquake struck there were already hundreds of Cuban medical volunteers in Haiti as part of a long-term aid program that Cuba’s government has provided for the last 11 years. They in turn have mobilized Haitian medical students and volunteers from other countries to help staff field hospitals and clinics.

The young manager of one Cuban clinic, Junior Enrique López, told National Public Radio that a plane of Cuban doctors arrived the day after the earthquake and two flights have arrived with food, medicine, and other supplies every day since.

In the midst of the crisis, 19 foreign ministers of major capitalist countries and representatives of international aid organizations met January 25 in Montreal to map out a response to the situation in Haiti. Despite the obvious immediate steps needed—from massive aid with no strings attached, to opening the doors of imperialist countries to refugees, to canceling Haiti’s foreign debt—the meeting took no action, except for a call by U.S. secretary of state Hillary Clinton for another meeting at the United Nations in March.

Haitians to be held at Guantánamo
Washington is meanwhile readying the infamous prison camp at its naval base in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, for as many as 12,000 Haitians it expects to capture when they try to enter the United States without visas.

The Department of Homeland Security says about 200 severely injured orphans from the Haiti disaster will be allowed to enter the United States on a “humanitarian parole.” Children already cleared for adoption prior to the earthquake can also enter. But according to the Washington Post, the U.S. embassy in Haiti turned down a Miami doctor trying to get visas for three badly burned children.

Prior to the earthquake, some 55,000 Haitians had their requests for U.S. visas approved, but they remain on a waiting list that could take years. The U.S. Congress limits immigration from Haiti to 25,000 people annually.

Relax, the bailout worked

Major U.S. banks report gigantic profits for 2009

Large U.S. banks reported huge profits for last year, the product of steps taken by Washington to bail them out of the worldwide financial crisis. Proposals by the Barack Obama administration for so-called bank reform and regulation don’t alter the capitalist government’s approach toward these giant financial institutions, which they consider “too big to fail.”

At the same time, millions of working people—considered by Washington not “too big to fail”—face rising long-term unemployment.

Goldman Sachs Group reported a record-high profit of $4.95 billion for the fourth quarter of 2009 and $13.4 billion for the entire year. JPMorgan Chase, the nation’s second-largest bank, said it more than quadrupled that quarter’s profit to $2.38 billion, making $11.7 billion in 2009. Wells Fargo made $2.8 billion in the fourth quarter, even while repaying $25 billion to the U.S. Treasury on its bailout loan.

The massive profits come as the Obama administration continues to serve these banks in numerous ways. Besides funds given to them through the Troubled Asset Relief Program beginning in late 2008, banks can borrow money at close to zero percent interest from the Federal Reserve. They then use these funds to buy Treasury securities yielding 3 percent interest instead of making what they consider uncertain loans to consumers and businesses.

To take advantage of these government policies, investment banks were allowed “to redefine themselves as ‘commercial banks,’ with special access” to Federal Reserve funds, noted the Weekly Standard.

Transferring ‘toxic assets’
“Toxic assets,” for the most part worthless mortgage-backed securities, are being transferred from the banks’ books to the government ledger. The Federal Reserve “holds more than $900 billion in mortgage-backed securities,” reported Crain’s New York Business, with plans to boost this to $1.25 trillion through the end of March.

With Paul Volcker, former chair of the Federal Reserve Board, at his side, Obama announced January 21 what he claimed would be “common-sense” reforms of the banking system. For months Volcker had been shuffled to the background by the White House in favor of Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and others more closely identified with big investment houses. Volcker calls for prohibiting commercial banks from owning or investing in hedge funds and limiting the use of federally insured deposit funds for “speculative” and “risky” investments, such as mortgage-backed securities.

Commercial banks, however, could continue to engage in such trading as long as “they could show regulators that they are doing it for their clients, not their own proprietary accounts,” reported MarketWatch Web site.

Volcker has been calling for reinstating the Glass-Steagall Act, in hopes that legally separating commercial and investment banks will halt the debt-driven frenzy inherent to the workings of capitalism. The U.S. rulers were forced to impose Glass-Steagall in 1933 in response to the wave of bank failures in the early years of the Great Depression. It was repealed under the William Clinton administration in 1999.

In a reflection of how little confidence the capitalists have that they have solved the financial crisis, doubts are being raised in Congress about ratifying a second term for Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke, one of the leading proponents of the government’s use of hundreds of billions of dollars to bail out giant banks and the American International Group insurance company. His term expires January 31. Many in capitalist circles, however, are signaling that changing the head of the Federal Reserve could trigger greater financial calamity. “A prolonged delay would unsettle markets; a rejection could be even worse,” noted the Wall Street Journal.

Meanwhile, the number of workers facing long-term unemployment continues to rise. In December 6.1 million people had been without a job for more than six months, according to the Labor Department. The official unemployment rate in December was 10 percent, 15.3 million workers. But this does not count the 2.5 million persons the government claims are “marginally attached” to the labor force.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

One Step to the Right

Everybody take one step to the right

Obama's State of the Union address has caused a realignment across the political landscape. Sam Webb, Rick Nagin and Richard Trumka and their followers are now all Democrats, the Democrats are all Republicans, and the Republicans are forming the Apartheid Party in preparation for the 2012 presidential race.

This leaves pauperized workers and the unemployed standing together on the left and saying, “bon voyage.” Well... that's a polite French euphemism for many things they are saying in English.