January 29, 2015
Originally posted on Ukraine solidarity campaign солідарність України кампанія:
Zbigniew Marcin Kowalewski
Zbigniew Kowalewski a prominent Polish socialist and former leader of Solidarnosc in Lodz in 1980-81, he has written widely on Ukrainian history and society. Many of his writings on Ukraine can found online at: Zbigniew Kowalewski. This article was first published in Polish in Le Monde Diplomatique – Edycja polska, No. 12 (106), December 2014, and in English in International Viewpoint, January 27, 2015.
Seventy-five people were killed on the Maidan in Kiev on February 20, 2014. The following day, Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski insists: “If you do not sign the agreement, you will have a state of war and the army in the streets. You will all be dead.” The foreign ministers of France and Germany echo his words. The trio ofUkrainian opposition leaders eventually fold under the pressure. Although they they are very afraid of the reaction of the Maidan, they accept a…
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January 27, 2015
Vijaya Kumar Marla
Youth and Capitalism
a guest post by Vijaya Kumar Marla
Paper submitted for the Workshop on ‘Hegemony, Civil Society and Democracy’ held at Chandigarh, 6th, 7th and 8th, February 2015.
The world has come a long way in the last 3 decades. The Leftist movements worldwide were plunged in despair, with the disintegration of the socialist block. Capitalism and more specifically, Neo-liberal New World Order appeared triumphant. The Thatcher-Regan duo delared that ‘There Is No Alternative. (TINA)”. The only glimmer of hope was Cuba and Fidel Castro declaring that ‘I will be the last communist on this earth’. His vehement defense of Socialism and Marxism-Leninism had raised the spirits of communists worldwide.
In a few years, Venezuela had elected a leftist government, which declared its defiance of US domination. The slogan of TINA was met with SITA (Socialism Is The Alternative). Since then, more than half a dozen leftist governments have been elected in Latin America. The imperialist propaganda machine began propagating the message that in these countries which have elected leftist governments, will not last long and that these rogue states will be disciplined. But it had not happened. In the last 15 years, these leftist governments had embarked up on policies that are aimed at ending US hegemony in Latin America and also delinking themselves from the grip of neo-liberalism. Countries such as Venezuela and Bolivia had many successes on the Human Development front. They were experimenting with what they call, “Bolivarian Socialism” of the 21st Century, a clear break away from what was practiced as socialism in the 20th Century in Soviet Union and China (before their reforms). This new phenomenon was not confined to Latin America.
Rise of youth movements
Just 2 years ago, we thought that the younger generation is not interested in struggle against capitalism and that they don’t care about what is going on around them. At least, this is what the neo-liberal propaganda was about. It appeared as if the younger generation was happy and content with the gadgets provided by modern technology. But reality had bitten the youngsters on their backs. The neo-liberal restructuring of world’s economies in the last 3 decades had brought about high economic disparities, rising inflation, reduction of welfare and more importantly, rising unemployment in country after country. Realization dawned on the young people that they have no place in this world and all avenues for their survival are being closed.
Youth revolts had erupted in the Arab countries and in Brazil, Turkey and even in Iran. What was significant about the struggles in the Arab countries was that the demands were a clear break away from religious fundamentalism and were essentially about social and economic issues. More and more young Muslim women had taken center stage in these struggles. It is a welcome development. Another significant development is the leading participation of trade unions and the spirit of solidarity between the young agitators and the workers. Though ultimately, there was not much of success in the Arab struggles and the US was successful in diluting the impact of the struggles by fostering new lackey governments in Egypt and Libya, the very fact that such a movement had taken place is very significant and it will have a great impact on the future struggles in the Arab World.
The Occupy movement that erupted in USA was a rude and unpleasant surprise for the US oligarchs. What is more significant is that a new wave of radical movements have overtaken Europe. Youth struggles against unemployment, austerity and high cost of education had exploded in country after country in Europe. Where is today’s youth revolt heading? What are the key debates developing within the movements? What are the prospects for, and responsibilities of, the Left in this time of crisis and resistance?
Impact of neo-liberal restructuring on the younger generation
Perhaps more than any other section of society, young people around the world have been made to bear the brunt of the capitalist crisis. Throughout Europe, youth unemployment is at epidemic levels.
For one thing, the politics of popular protest emerged as the only possible way out of the crisis facing young people and workers. This in itself is a big advance. A radicalization rooted in a deep economic crisis suggests that today’s struggles will begin to challenge capitalism itself in a much more profound way.
Today’s students are more directly connected to the working class, and their grievances in relation to campus life are more oriented on questions of the political and economic priorities of society as a whole, rather than on questions specific to campus life. It is not difficult to understand why the new movements have consciously reached out to the organized working class. Every working class family feels the brunt of unemployment in their family. Having sacrificed their everything in the hope that their sons and daughters will grow up to a better off life, now they see no light at the end of the tunnel. The jobs simply are out of their reach.
As for social media, everyone agrees that these new technologies and means of communication certainly have made an impact. The very same toys that the youngsters could be content with, such as Smart phones, Face book, Twitter and Skype playing idle chit-chatting endlessly as was made to believe by the ruling elite, had been now turned by the youngsters into weapons for raising mass awareness and help mobilization of protestors. Police repression was instantly captured on cell phones and transmitted to networks, thus bringing international focus to the struggles. This is an entirely new phenomenon and will have wider repercussions on future struggles.
Many activists and commentators have placed a great emphasis on the role that social media can play in the new movements of today, creating horizontal networks of activists that bypass formal organizations and leadership. While the talk of online “horizontal networks” replacing the need for traditional organization sounds good, it’s simply not true. Any ongoing struggle requires painstaking organization, meetings, discussions, and debates over which way forward. Hence the General Assemblies and the working groups in the Occupy movement in every American city. Moreover, the basic cause of the discontent that produces social struggle is not social media. Each struggle has decades of conscious and painstaking effort by activists in organizing workers, peasants and youth. It is on this basic organizational infrastructure that the new popular movements were based. Why people back a cause is based on many factors and relates to what is happening in the offline world.
Political impact of the youth struggles
One distinguishing factor is that many of the protest movements of the past decade have been defined by the involvement of what is called “the modest middle class”, who have often been beneficiaries of the systems they are protesting against but whose positions have been eroded by neoliberal economic policies that have seen both distribution of wealth and opportunities captured by a tiny minority. As people have come to feel more distant from government and economic institutions, a large part of the new mass forms of dissent has come to be seen as an opportunity to demonstrate ideas of “citizenship”. Civil Society has come to mean something entirely different from what the bourgeoisie defines it.
Ideology and the organized left
Marxist theoretician Eric Hobsbawm said of the Occupy Movement, ‘if there is no party, then there’s no future.’ The struggles cannot remain spontaneous and unorganized. Naturally, an organizational form emerged, surprisingly quickly out of these youth protest movements such as SYRIZA in Greece and PODEMOS in Spain. These organizations had been founded by Leftist intellectuals with close links to the workers’ movements and they had captured the imagination of the masses in their respective countries. Now both these movements are on the threshold of power and we find similar awakening in Portugal, Italy, France, Slovenia and Holland. What is without doubt is that the very political picture of Europe is going to change for good. But at the same time, one should not underestimate the rise of neo-fascist parties in country after country in Europe. It clearly shows that the ruling class is desperate to cling to power and fascism is their last resort.
Though the forces of the organized left are weak, they must be ready to meet this challenge. Now, with the emergence of sustained mass struggles that are beginning to pose a concrete alternative to the status quo, left-wing political alternatives have the potential to grow to an extent unseen in decades.
A look at the developments in the Indian context
As Antonio Gramsci had said, “when the old system is in its death throes and a new alternative system fails to materialize, then, all kinds of grotesque deformations of Capitalism, such as fascism and religious fanatism will raise their head.” This is exactly what we are witnessing after the recent Parliamentary elections. The BJP and its Sangh Parivar want to turn this country in to a Hindu country. Plans are put in place to attack the minorities and Dalits and backward castes, in the name of “safeguarding Hinduism.” There is every danger that this dispensation holding power at the Center can rapidly deteriorate in to a fascist dictatorship. The pronouncements and actions of BJP, RSS, VHP and other Sangh organizations are increasingly turning offensive, undermining the very foundations of secularism and democracy.
Modi had come to power riding on the wave of euphoria created by big-biz media and the support of corporates. Added to this is the miserable failure of the UPA dispensation to stem the rising inflation, corruption and stagnation of industrial and agricultural sectors. The discontent over UPA worked to the advantage of BJP. Modi had promised to bring back black money and distribute Rs. 15 lakhs to each and every Indian, within 100 days of coming to power. Now it is proven that such a miracle is not going to materialize. Added to this is the propaganda that 10 crore jobs will be created by making India the manufacturing hub of the world. But the fact is that modern industry is no longer a job creator on mass scale and if you want to build up world class industrial infrastructure, you cannot create jobs on a mass scale. Morover, you require 90 crore crores to build up the industrial infrastructure and even that is going to create a meager 50 lakh jobs. Presently, India’s share of world’s FDI is a paltry 2%. If Modi wants to realize his promise of making India the world’s manufacturing hub, he has to attract about 900 times the present FDI inflows and 6 times the total FDI in the world for 7 years. He had opened his innings by attacking the rights of the working class and officialising land grabs in the name of development. To cover up their false promises, the BJP forces are trying to fan communal tensions and thus divert attention from their failures.
It is more than apparent that the youth of this country are simmering with anger and frustration. With almost 2/3 of the country’s working age youth facing some form of unemployment, underemployment or partial unemployment as well as seasonal unemployment, the young voters believed in the ‘acchhe din’ promise of BJP and voted them to power. But it will not be long before their hopes will be dashed. In fact, neither the party in power at the center nor any other party ruling in the states can escape the wrath of the youth. Neo-liberalism thrives on increasing exploitation of workers and armies of unemployed workers. Creating large scale employment is against the class interests of the ruling elite.
The Unemployment connundrum
It is estimated that to clear the backlog of unemployment, we have to create 2 crore jobs every year for the next 10 years. About 13 lakhs of youth are joining the ranks of unemployed every month. Heavy industry is no longer a large scale employment generator. It is only through the creation of high-tech rural employment that we can solve the large scale unemployment that is facing the youth. In India, today only 20% of professional graduates are able to get some sort of employment, that too at ridiculously low wages. The position of graduates is much worse. Only 10% among the can hope to get some job.
But the fact is that a developing country such as India has a very small formal sector. About 92% of the workforce is employed in the informal sector, with little or insignificant impact of modern technologies. The increased precariousness of their jobs, often as contract jobs, makes it ever harder for them to seek improvements in their pay and working conditions; it in fact degrades the living conditions day by day.
Agriculture in the developed economies is based on capitalist methods and it is increasingly unsustainable. Anyway, hardly 2% of the total workforce is engaged in agriculture in these countries and the profits are captured by multinational corporations. The ruling class in India wants to introduce similar capitalist agricultural practices and want to drive out 50% of India’s population away from agriculture and drive them to cities. Imagine what kind of a catastrophe awaits us if 50% of India’s population are deprived of their land and thrown into cities!
We have to evolve strategies to create Hi-Tech jobs in rural areas, by modernizing small scale industry and traditional craft based production. To sum up, India’s millions of technically trained youth have to be deployed for India’s development, not to earn profits for MNCs.
We are going to witness mass scale protests of youth for livelihoods in the coming days, with disenchantment setting in among the youth and workers. But the moot question is “is the Left in this country equipped to meet this challenge?”
The renewal of Indian Left – an urgent task
The Indian Left, mainly the mainstream parties (CPI (M), CPI, …) have to come out with alternatives (specific to India’s conditions) to the neo-liberal economic system. Unless they do that, they will surely sink into the quagmire of ideological confusion and class compromise.
Anyway, it not too late for the Indian Left to learn a few much needed lessons from the recent developments in West Bengal, Kerala and the rest of the country. This requires that we critically reconstruct an Indian path to socialism from below, abandon the reformist approach and understand that a revolutionary and democratic transformation of society can only be achieved by organized mass struggles of workers, agricultural labour, youth and other oppressed peoples. Can the Left ever manage to combine parliamentary practice with active mass struggles? This has always been asserted in successive National Conferences of both the CPI and CPI(M), but largely abandoned in practice.
The Left parties can reverse their decline and strengthen themselves only through candid self-criticism and by returning to mass work over the coming years. The Left can see any hope only if it enunciates a clear revolutionary vision of social transformation by going back to the basic tenets of Marxism, offers a radical alternative to neoliberal economic and destructive social policies to suit the present conditions, follow innovative and relevant political mobilisation strategies, and widens its appeal by participating in struggles on issues that deeply concern the toiling masses.
To do this, the Left needs to update its analysis of Indian society and evolve a contemporary vision of development and relate this to its political programmes and policies. This calls for a number of changes, including a shift away from a literal belief in the inevitable development of the productive forces and the idea of a “two-stage” revolution. Equally necessary is a rejection of the presumed inevitability and intrinsic desirability of industrialisation, especially along the classical Western pattern, which can lead to slippage into an “industrialisation at any cost” position.
As it was emphasized above, all is not lost. We can learn from the experiences and victories of the Left forces in Latin America and Europe and struggle for a revival of Left in India.
The necessity for a new kind of Left is all the more pertinent in the present situation, what with the reactionary and communal forces winning the reins of power. There will surely be an intensification of struggles against oppression and the tyranny of big capital. In most of the struggles that had taken place in the recent past, the Left was conspicuous by its absence. The possibility of the emergence of newer formations and coalitions in the coming days, need to be kept open. Those who have steered the Left so far failed to show any vision; now they have lost all credibility as well. If the present attitude of the Left leaders continues in the same fashion, there is every danger that the Left as a force will disappear from the Indian political scene. There is an urgent need to reinvent a new Left. This must be done on a firmly Marxist foundation.
I want to conclude with an oft cited quotation of Prof. Micheal Lebowitz:
In the famous book, ‘Alice in Wonderland’, the Cheshire Cat tells Alice, “If you don’t know where you have to go, any road will take you there.” But Lebowtz says, “in the case of Marxists, if you don’t know where you have to go, no road will take you there!”
The Left in India has to reinvent itself, shedding old outdated concepts and age-old biases and evolve a new culture of openness and active dialogue with the toiling masses. We have to have a vision about our goals and program. Otherwise, NO ROAD will take us to our goal.
(Vijaya Kumar Marla is the director of the All India Progressive Forum, an organization initiated by the Communist Party of India.)
January 26, 2015
In the conclusion to the Sol Dollinger interview, he speaks about:
–His youth, going from an orphanage to the WPA
–Genora’s family background
–Genora’s role in the trade union movement following the Flint strike
January 25, 2015
Alex Tsipras and Pablo Iglesias
Over the past several days I have read over twenty articles about Syriza to help me prepare this one. As is often the case when I write something, it is as much to help clarify my own thinking as it is to inform my readers. My main point in writing this is to emphasize the need to understand Syriza in its own terms rather than to see it through categories drawn from the past, particularly those that are part of the Trotskyist lexicon.
The obvious challenge is to understand Syriza’s role in the class struggle when its program falls short of the usual expectations of a socialist government. At the risk of making the World Socialist Website sound more important than it really is, it is worth citing them since it is very good at applying litmus tests to “fakes”, “opportunists”, and the like. In a January 6 article written by Robert Stevens, the leading economists of Syriza are portrayed as tools of finance capital:
John Milios, SYRIZA’s chief economist, is a graduate of Athens College, the most prestigious private school in Greece. In an interview with the Guardian, in which he is described as the son of parents “with distinctly non-leftist views,” Milios states, “I never had any affiliation with Soviet Marxism.”
Among those with whom Milios has met are Schäuble. Elaborating on his role, Milios said recently: “[I] will continue to be constantly present in the formulation of Greek and international public opinion… institutionally participating in crucial meetings with international bodies (IMF, government agencies of other countries, financial centres, etc.) as I have done to date…”
In an interview with a Greek newspaper, Milios said of “the international contacts” he meets regularly, “believe me, ‘out there’ a very delicate handling is required.”
For people like Robert Stevens, there is never any need for “delicate handling” since he is not involved with power relationships. When you are playing with toy soldiers, it is always easy to achieve a victory. For people who call cyberspace home, anything is possible including scenarios involving dual power, workers militias and insurrection with scenario being the operative word.
While the British SWP has lost a lot of its credibility in the past couple of years over its handling of a rape case, it is still an important anti-Syriza platform built on orthodox Trotskyist foundations. While not so nearly as strident as WSWS, it draws a contrast between Syriza’s “reformism” and its own “revolutionary” stance as well as that of Antarsya, the small left coalition in Greece that its co-thinkers belong to.
In a July 4 2013 article titled “Left reformism, the state and the problem of socialist politics today”, Paul Blackledge described Syriza’s goal as seeking “progressive reforms through parliamentary channels”, something that left him cold since “there is nothing particularly novel about this.”
The essential problem, no matter the best intentions of Syriza’s leaders who Blackledge at least accepts as being genuinely opposed to austerity, is that once you are put in the position of administering the capitalist state, everything turns to shit:
It is their parliamentary statism, however mediated, that tends to trap left reformist parties like Syriza within capitalist relations in ways that pressure them to come into conflict with and, unless successfully challenged from the left, eventually undermine the radicalism of their own base.
Blackledge takes about 5,000 words to keep making a point that could have been made in less than a dozen, namely that Marxists are only interested in revolution, not winning bourgeois elections. It is permissible to run candidates but only with the understanding that winning an election is out of the question, something analogous to the neighborhood dog that could not be cured of the habit of chasing cars. What would the poor dog do if he actually caught one?
The poor, benighted, left-reformist Syriza members have been thrust into the most unfortunate position of having caught the car. If Greece had simply been muddling along like most of northern Europe, its vote totals would have remained in the comfort zone of Antarsya, around one percent. But a jobless, hungry, and hopeless Greek population did the unthinkable. It voted to elect a radical party to create jobs, reduce hunger and offer some hope. Syriza has not promised to nationalize industry, institute planning and a monopoly on foreign trade but it has declared its intentions through the Thessalonica Program, part of which is specifically geared to the jobless, hungry and hopeless:
- Free electricity to 300.000 households currently under the poverty line up to 300 kWh per month per family; that is, 3.600 kWh per year. Total cost: €59,4 million.
- Programme of meal subsidies to 300.000 families without income. The implementation will take place via a public agency of coordination, in cooperation with the local authorities, the Church and solidarity organizations. Total cost: €756 million.
- Programme of housing guarantee. The target is the provision of initially 30.000 apartments (30, 50, and 70 m²), by subsidizing rent at €3 per m². Total cost: €54 million.
- Restitution of the Christmas bonus, as 13th pension, to 1.262.920 pensioners with a pension up to €700. Total cost: €543,06 million.
- Free medical and pharmaceutical care for the uninsured unemployed. Total cost: €350 million.
- Special public transport card for the long-term unemployed and those who are under the poverty line. Total cost: €120 million.
- Repeal of the leveling of the special consumption tax on heating and automotive diesel. Bringing the starting price of heating fuel for households back to €0,90 per lt, instead of the current €1,20 per lt. Benefit is expected.
None of this lives up to Blackledge’s revolutionary expectations. Why bother with something as piddling as a housing guarantee when the goal is proletarian dictatorship? Maybe the fact that Blackledge is a professor at Leeds Beckett University with a good future ahead of him and a roof over his head leads him to dismiss such “reforms”.
Of course the real question is whether Syriza can deliver such reforms given the relationship of forces that exist. Germany, its main adversary, has a population of 80 million and a GDP of nearly 4 trillion dollars. Greece, by comparison, has a population of 11 million and a GDP of 242 billion dollars, just a bit more than Volkswagen’s revenues. Given this relationship of forces, it will be a struggle to achieve the aforementioned reforms. To make them possible, it will be necessary for the workers and poor of Greece to demonstrate to Europe that they will go all the way to win them. It will also be necessary for people across Europe to demonstrate their solidarity with Greece so as to put maximum pressure on Germany and its shitty confederates like François Hollande to back off. But if your main goal in politics is to lecture the Greeks about the need for workers councils, armed struggle and all the rest, you obviously have no need to waste your time on such measly reforms.
Part of the problem for much of the left is its inability to properly theorize the conditions of class struggle in a post-Soviet world. In Latin America and southern Europe, states are struggling to improve the lives of their citizens but without abolishing capitalism. In an interview with Stathis Kouvelakis for Jacobin magazine, Sebastian Budgen asked what Greece would look like if Syriza won the election, adding, “We all know that socialism in one country doesn’t work. To what extent would a left social democracy in a poor, backward European country with no access to international lending, excluded from the Eurozone be able to change things? What kind of society would that be like?”
First of all, in the picture you gave of the situation, the summer of 2015, given the situation you have described, it will be the start of the Greek default. Because it is this summer that some big payments will have to be made concerning the Greek debt, and in a situation of Greek default and of a following exit or expulsion from the Eurozone, a whole series of difficulties will have to be faced.
But every experiment so far in the history of social transformation has happened in a hostile international environment. And here, the notion of time and temporality is absolutely crucial. Politics is essentially about intervening at a particular moment and displacing the dominant temporality and inventing a new one. Of course, strategically, socialism in one country is not viable. And social transformation in Europe will only happen if there is an expanding dynamic around this.
So my answer would be the following: it will certainly be tough for Greece, but still manageable if there is a strong level of social support for the objectives put forth by the government and political level.
Greece, with a left-wing government moving in that direction, will provoke an enormous wave of support by very large sectors of public opinion in Europe, and it will energize to an extent that we cannot imagine the radical left in countries where you have the potential for it to intervene strongly.
Spain is the most obvious candidate for an extension of a Greek type of scenario, but I think that, even if it seems at present unlikely, France is also a potentially weak link in the EU, if the wind from the south blows sufficiently strongly.
In conclusion I would offer these thoughts. The left internationally must become involved with solidarity on behalf of Syriza for two reasons. First, it will help give the government added leverage to carry out the reforms so necessary for a population so tormented by austerity that an epidemic of suicide has overtaken the country. If this is “reformism”, I am all for it.
Secondly, we are trying to build a worldwide anticapitalist movement on new foundations. The difference between “revolutionaries” like the British SWP and WSWS.org on one side and Syriza and Podemos on the other could not be clearer. We do not think that the term “reformist” does such mass, inclusive and nonsectarian formations justice. When left parties win elections in Venezuela or Greece, it makes a real difference in the lives of the people. For example, Venezuela’s poverty rate dropped from 48.6 percent in 2002 to 29.5 percent in 2011.
This obviously had a lot to do with the government’s use of oil sales revenue to fund social programs. With the decline of oil prices, it will be more difficult to sustain such programs but this is more a function of the dominance of capitalist property relations than government intent.
To some extent, the ortho-Trotskyist politics of the WSWS and the British SWP has some validity. As long as a nation is imbricated within a world system based on commodity exchange, it will not be able to transcend market relations. This is as true of Cuba as it has been of Venezuela as it will be of Greece.
However, to confront the capitalist system on a world scale, we need a new movement that reflects 21st century realities. New parties that combine street-level activism with bold electoral initiatives and that communicate electronically across borders without respect to narrow doctrinal questions on the USSR will become more and more the norm. As an auspicious recognition of the ties that will bind such new movements, we turn to Pablo Iglesias’s speech to Syriza:
We must finally work together – in Europe and for Europe. It’s not necessary to read Karl Marx to know that there are no definitive solutions within the framework of the nation-state. For that reason we must help each other and present ourselves as an alternative for all of Europe.
Winning the elections is far from winning power. That’s why we must bring everyone who is committed to change and decency together around our shared task, which is nothing more than turning the Universal Declaration of Human Rights into a manual for government. Our aim today, unfortunately, is not the withering away of the state, or the disappearance of prisons, or that Earth become a paradise. But we do aspire, as I said, to make it so that all children go to public schools clean and well-fed; that all the elderly receive a pension and be taken care of in the best hospitals; that any young person—independently of who their parents are—be able to go to college; that nobody have their heat turned off in the winter because they can’t pay their bill; that no bank be allowed to leave a family in the street without alternative housing; that everyone be able to work in decent conditions without having to accept shameful wages; that the production of information in newspapers and on television not be a privilege of multi-millionaires; that a country not have to kneel down before foreign speculators. In one word: that a society be able to provide the basic material conditions that make dignity and happiness possible.
These modest objectives that today seem so radical simply represent democracy. Tomorrow is ours, brothers and sisters!
January 24, 2015
Exactly four years ago, as my wife and I were in the final week of our vacation in South Beach, we were pleasantly surprised to hear a female voice with a distinctly Scottish burr piping up just behind us on the sidewalk as we were going out for breakfast. “Is that Lou?” The voice belonged to Jess MacKenzie, the long-time partner of Ernie Tate, a veteran of the Trotskyist movement who had the audacity like me to vacation in a spot that in our youth would have been regarded as a decadent bourgeois swamp.
It turned out that Ernie and Jess were staying in a hotel right next to the apartment building where we had paid for a month-long sublet. I had run into Ernie and Jess at Left Forums once or twice and knew him as a Marxmail subscriber but beyond that mostly by reputation. In 1967, not long after I had joined the Socialist Workers Party in New York, members were still buzzing about how Ernie had been beaten up by Gerry Healy’s goons in London while selling a pamphlet critical of the cult leader outside one of their meetings. Since that incident loomed large in my mind even after decades had passed, I introduced my wife to him as the guy who Gerry Healy’s goons had beaten up. This prompted Ernie to remark genially but firmly that he preferred to be described as a leader of the British antiwar movement.
January 23, 2015
Credit: Sam Hodgson for The New York Times
Today’s NY Times has extensive coverage on the arrest of Sheldon Silver, a powerful Democratic Party politician who like so many of his ilk going back to the days of Tammany Hall exchanged political favors for big cash bribes. Of particular interest to me was his crooked deals with figures at Columbia University and Bard College, my long time employer and alma mater respectively, two places that like to preen themselves as paragons of democracy, freedom and the American way. Of course, the American way has always been about corruption rather than democracy and freedom.
Basically Silver made millions of dollars for making connections between those in the business world and politics. In other words, he was a high-class pimp. The NY Times put it this way:
Sheldon Silver, the speaker of the New York Assembly, exploited his position as one of the most powerful politicians in the state to obtain millions of dollars in bribes and kickbacks, federal authorities said on Thursday as they announced his arrest on a sweeping series of corruption charges.
For years, Mr. Silver has earned a lucrative income outside government, asserting that he was a simple personal injury lawyer who represented ordinary people. But federal prosecutors said his purported law practice was a fiction, one he created to mask about $4 million in payoffs that he carefully and stealthily engineered for over a decade.
Mr. Silver, a Democrat from the Lower East Side of Manhattan, was accused of steering real estate developers to a law firm that paid him kickbacks. He was also accused of funneling state grants to a doctor who referred asbestos claims to a second law firm that employed Mr. Silver and paid him fees for referring clients.
“For many years, New Yorkers have asked the question: How could Speaker Silver, one of the most powerful men in all of New York, earn millions of dollars in outside income without deeply compromising his ability to honestly serve his constituents?” Preet Bharara, the United States attorney for the Southern District of New York, asked at a news conference with F.B.I. officials. “Today, we provide the answer: He didn’t.”
The Times identified Robert N. Taub, the director of the Columbia University Mesothelioma Center, as having a mutually beneficial and certainly illegal relationship with Silver.
It seems that Silver was on the payroll of Weitz & Luxenberg, a law firm that advertises its ability to win claims on behalf of mesothelioma victims so many times per hour on cable TV stations that you are practically driven to stick knitting needles into your eardrum for relief.
With his finely honed knack for making ill-gotten gains, Silver racked up $3.9 million in referral fees for cases he steered to Weitz & Luxenberg on behalf of Taub who got $500,000 in state funds in exchange. The Times reports:
Mr. Silver also got the Legislature to issue a resolution honoring the doctor, the complaint says, and helped the doctor’s son Jonathan find a job at a Brooklyn-based social services group that has received state funding with Mr. Silver’s help.
The group, OHEL Children’s Home and Family Services, issued a statement confirming that it had hired Jonathan Taub in 2012, and saying it had “cooperated fully” with prosecutors and been assured that it was “not under investigation and did nothing wrong.”
In another instance, the complaint says, Mr. Silver directed $25,000 in state funding to a nonprofit on which a relative of Dr. Taub’s served on the board of directors. Dr. Taub’s wife, Susan, serves on the board of Shalom Task Force, which promotes healthy marriages. The group received the funding in 2008, records indicate.
Although the Times does not mention Bard College board of trustee Bruce Ratner, the developer responsible for forcing his white elephant Atlantic Yards megaproject down the throats of Brooklynites, it would not surprise me that he ends up under the same kind of spotlight as Dr. Taub and hopefully in the same jail cell.
Silver worked out a deal with another shady law firm run by Jay Arthur Goldberg. Silver steered real estate developers to Goldberg in exchange for a cut of the fees. The Times names Glenwood Management as one of two real estate firms buying Silver’s favors and I’ll bet that Ratner’s Forest City Enterprises will be revealed as the other.
Last March the NY Times reported on the tangled favoritism that connected Ratner to Silver. It seems that an orthodox Jewish charity, just like Mrs. Taub’s Shalom Task Force, was key to greasing the wheels. Silver had a protégé named William Rapfogel who ran the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty, a publicly financed charity whose insurance broker provided $7 million in kickbacks to Rapfogel over the years. Silver funneled millions of dollars to the Met Council and employed Mrs. Rapfogel.
In a move that reeked of Zionist ethnic cleansing of Palestinians, Silver and Rapfogel worked together to keep Puerto Ricans out of an area on the Lower East Side that had undergone “urban removal” in 1967. More than 1,800 mostly Puerto Rican low-income families had been forced to leave their buildings with the understanding that they would be able to return once new public housing had been erected.
Nearly 50 years after the forced removal, the vacant lots remained. It was Silver and Rapfogel’s intention that any new projects would preserve what they called the areas “Jewish identity”, acting through the United Jewish Council of the East Side.
In 1994, Silver and Rapfogel finally figured out the best use for the land. Housing would not even enter the picture. Instead it would be best to house a “big box” store there, like Costco. And who would be brought it in as developer? Bruce Ratner, that’s who.
Once the three men connected over the site’s future commercial possibilities, their bonds strengthened. As was the case with Taub, family favors were the norm. Rapfogel’s eldest son, Michael, a lawyer, went to work for Ratner. The Times summed up the happy coincidence of interests:
In 2006, the Public Authorities Control Board, over which Mr. Silver has significant control, approved Mr. Ratner’s Atlantic Yards project in Brooklyn. Intervention by Mr. Silver and others enabled the project to retain a lucrative tax break, even as that break was actually being phased out.
In 2008, Forest City Ratner, which compared to other developers makes few political contributions, gave $58,420 to the Democratic Assembly Housekeeping Committee, which is controlled by Mr. Silver.
That same year, Mr. Ratner helped raise $1 million for Met Council and was honored at a luncheon given by Mr. Rapfogel and Mr. Silver. “Bruce is responsible for much of the development and growth that’s gone on in Brooklyn and in Manhattan,” Mr. Silver said at the event. “He is a major force in New York City for the good.”
When I read about these corrupt bastards, I can’t help but be reminded of how criminality is embedded in the capitalist system. They keep saying that a true recovery in the USA hinges on a revitalized real estate sector. But it is exactly that sector that led to the 2008 meltdown, just as it did in Spain.
Back in 2011 I read a book titled “Sins of South Beach” that was a memoir written by a former mayor of Miami Beach who went to prison for the same kinds of charges now being made against Sheldon Silver. It was a fascinating account of how an idealistic young politician gets tempted by the devil, in this case not Mephistopheles but real estate developers looking for favors from City Hall.
I had thoughts about writing a book at the time looking at the history of corruption after the fashion of David Graeber’s book on debt. Corruption, like debt, seems to be a permanent feature of class society based on commodity exchange. When the FSLN lost power in Nicaragua, the first thing the formerly dedicated and selfless leaders did was figure out a way to game the system on their way out—the so called Sandinista piñata.
If you want to eliminate corruption, you have to eliminate money. To eliminate money, you have to produce on the basis of use values rather than exchange values. Of course, all of this seems rather utopian at this point, if not trivial in comparison to the other threats to our existence including climate change.
In any case, speaking from a purely reformist perspective, I am tickled pink at the prospects of Sheldon Silver, Dr. Robert Taub and Bruce Ratner going to prison. I hope they put them in cells next to Bernie Madoff as a reminder that connections made through a Jewish old boy’s network are okay just as long as they don’t victimize people who don’t belong to the club, especially Puerto Ricans on the Lower East Side.
January 22, 2015
Recently I watched a couple of documentaries on DVD that were sent to me by publicists in conjunction with NYFCO’s yearly awards meeting. They cover topics that should be of keen interest to my readers. “Ivory Tower” is an examination of the crisis in higher education focusing on the economic trends that are driving it while “The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz” looks at the human tragedy behind and political significance of Obama’s Justice Department’s vendetta against one of the more important figures on the left. Fortunately for my readers both documentaries can be seen for free on the Internet, something that Aaron Swartz’s soul would smile upon.
Although “Ivory Tower” aspires toward PBS type balance, there is little doubt that director Andrew Rossi views the current situation as inimical to the health of the republic and to democracy. On the film’s very useful website, you can find the following:
Through profiles at Arizona State, Cooper Union, and San Jose State —among several others—IVORY TOWER reveals how colleges in the United States, long regarded as leaders in higher education, came to embrace a business model that often promotes expansion over quality learning.
In order to understand how far removed the “business model” university is from past practices, the film provides useful historical background. It would seem that in years past, the American bourgeoisie was far more capable of thinking in long-term social terms than the short-term, profits above all way of doing things.
The Morrill Land-Grant Acts were passed in 1862 during the devastating Civil War, thus proving that guns and butter were not mutually exclusive, at least in a period when capitalism had not entered its decadent old age. This legislation created the basis for the flagship state universities that were clearly geared to the needs of an educated middle class and skilled working class that could serve the needs of a rapidly expanding corporate America.
Next in line was the GI Bill that allowed WWII veterans to go to school for free. Some of the recipients have been rightwing ideologues who like Ayn Rand who drew from Social Security knew a good thing when they saw it: Robert Dole, Clint Eastwood and William Renquist.
As the closing act in a long period of government support for the social underpinnings of capitalist expansion, Lyndon Johnson pushed through the Higher Education Act of 1965 that was designed to make a college degree possible to just about every qualified applicant through the Pell Grant. The film makes clear that the funding that at one time could cover 110 percent of college costs now covers less than half, mainly because Republicans and Democrats alike have acceded to Grover Norquist’s goal of “starving the beast”.
For colleges to successfully follow a “business model”, it is necessary to produce a commodity that will attract the typical consumer. This explains how a school like Arizona State, a typical land-grant college, has morphed into a kind of country club with lavish health clubs and well-publicized poolside drinking parties.
The film also answers a question I have always had about the tendency of places I have taught at (NYU), worked at (Columbia) and received degrees (Bard and the New School) to grow like topsy. The film makes clear that expansion is designed to burnish the reputation of colleges even if it is at the expense of the long-term economic viability of the institution.
Of course, if expansion covers a school’s finances in red ink, there is always a solution—raise tuition fees or in the case of Cooper Union, to charge for tuition and other fees for the first time in the institution’s history. The film features interviews with the students who rose up against the administration and board of trustees as well as the feckless president of the college who is incapable of answering an interviewer’s question about the school’s huge losses in hedge fund investments in an able manner. If for no other reason, this would prompt a board of trustees to fire him. Since the board is made up of lawyers, investment bankers and the usual cast of scoundrels, that is not likely to happen.
“Ivory Tower” can be seen here: http://www.iwannawatch.to/2014/10/ivory-tower-2014/
Additionally, I urge you to read Lance Kirby’s essay at the bottom of this post that hones in on the problem of failing student scholarship. Richard Arum, the co-author of Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, that Lance alludes to in his essay is interviewed in the film.
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Aaron Swartz committed suicide just two years ago on January 11, 2013. At the time there were some in the mainstream media who claimed that it was depression rather than government persecution that was at fault. This was a disgusting lie that “The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz” demolishes. Considering the lengthy prison term that awaited him, it was understandable that he would kill himself even if his lawyer, who was just one of many thoughtful people close to Swartz interviewed in the documentary, feels that he might have been found innocent. Perhaps it was just a desire to be free of the intense pressure of an out-of-control Justice Department that explains his decision.
Although I followed the Aaron Swartz story carefully at the time, there is an abundance of eye-opening material that was new to me, starting with how much of a prodigy he was. From an early age, he was fascinated with computers and created his own version of Wikipedia when he was in grade school.
Early on, he became consumed with the problem of copyrighting in an age of universal electronic communications and joined the Creative Commons organization alongside Harvard professor Lawrence Lessig at the age of 15. Lessig is heard throughout the film, including at the very end when he breaks down in tears about the martyrdom of Aaron Swartz.
Despite the impression some may have of an awkward, geeky prodigy failing to fit in except in front of a computer, Swartz had a very normal social life, including relationships with two very attractive and intelligent women who are interviewed throughout.
Not only was his personal life fulfilling, he had embarked on a whole new project to connect his belief in the universal access to digitized information with the need to change society as a whole. He formed an organization called Demand Progress that defended Edward Snowden.
Like Snowden, Swartz was a high-profile target of the Obama White House. Stephen Heymann, the Justice Department lawyer heading up the prosecution/persecution of Swartz who refused to be interviewed for the film, had the audacity to openly admit to Swartz’s defense lawyer and family that the government sought to “make an example” out of him.
While nobody would expect anything much different from the Obama administration, the most appalling behavior was that of MIT, an elite institution supposedly committed to human rights, democracy and all the other usual good things. MIT took the position that it was basically independent of any investigation of Swartz, who had been downloading JSTOR articles across the university’s network. That independence served the prosecution even if it was calculated to protect the reputation of the school. For its part, JSTOR claimed that it had no interest in seeing Swartz prosecuted and refused to press charges.
“The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz” is a deeply moving and highly informative documentary that can be seen in its entirety here:
The Organic Capitalist or Selling Out
by Lancelot Kirby
The twentieth century Marxist thinker Antonio Gramsci is rightly famous for his concept of the organic intellectual, a term he interpreted to mean an individual from the lower classes who would work to critique the dominant culture, or Hegemony, of a society that is influenced by the ruling class as an effective tool for social control.
I contend that there is a flip side to this coin. That, just as an intellectual may arise organically from the lower classes to critique the larger culture, there is also an organic mechanism of capital for neutralizing such threats. The observation is not unique, but so pernicious I felt it deserved to be clarified and brought out into the open.
At one end of the spectrum the potential organic intellectual accepts, while still young, the hegemonic propaganda that a college education is the best way out of poverty. Putting aside the problem of mounting student debt, there is the equally serious problem of the quality of education its self, a problem dealt with at great length by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa in their book Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses. In order to be an effective critic certain skills are essential, such as critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing. The disadvantaged student is limited in her choices as to which university she may attend, and must often sacrifice quality for affordability. Those institutions which are most affordable very often score the lowest in imparting those valuable skills. In large part this is due to the increasing commercialization of higher education. To compete, schools are becoming viewed more as businesses that provide a product. To sell more product means pleasing the consumer, i.e. the student, or more often their parent’s, who want an easy path for their child towards graduation.
One consequence of this process has been the slackening of rigor in courses, and the sense in the student body of entitlement to a degree, since that is what they are in effect paying for. Thus, those individuals who might have the most to say about the current system are effectively silenced without coercion or complaint. The organic intellectual is effectively stillborn because she was never exposed from the start to the proper atmosphere for critique. Nevertheless, in compensation, they will be given what, in capitalist terms, is called an “education”, typically in business or some technical proficiency in the medical or technological fields, and never look back with any sense of loss as they pick the low hanging fruit from capital’s tree. In essence it is little more than vocational training with the pretension of a university degree.
The second progression for organically silencing dissent is far simpler, but not in the least less unsettling for that. It comes under the name of “selling out”, but its subtlety is such that the individual being sold has so completely appropriated the modes of capitalist thinking that the transaction is never even noticed to have taken place. It is truly an invisible hand at work with magical prestidigitation.
In this instance, what amounts to the modern public intellectual for a large segment of the population, the entertainer or comedian, grows in increasing prominence their presence becoming more and more inescapable to the larger social consciousness. At this moment the individual becomes commodifiable. He or she is offered a platform were they may reach an even wider audience than ever before. However, along with this increased influence comes increased affluence. The entertainer has attainedall that they desired, they can entertain and are paid increasingly well to do so. This nascent social critic began as a somewhat disinterested observer critiquing what he or she has seen. With increasing popularity however, they reached the point of commodification. Being absorbed by capital he begins to view capital’s interests as his own. Whereas before he was an outsider looking in, now he is on the inside looking out, and in this natural non-coercive fashion capital thus nullifies the efficacy of dissenters who gain too much influence.
There are perhaps few better examples of this transition than Jon Stewart of The Daily Show. Stewart has repeatedly been called out for his half-hearted criticisms. His childishly naive dictum of “fairness” in giving both sides a serious hearing in his determination not to hurt feelings or ruffle feathers, has repeatedly given credibility to the worst excesses of the US government. This error of false equivalence was revealed no more tellingly than in the disastrous Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear, which became a massive joke at the attendee’s expense. A sad deflation of hopes from a man who was reported to have been an admirer of Eugene Debs.
Organic Capitalism is stealthy, the tools at its disposal almost limitless yet it can be overcome. With an improved standard of education and a higher education put within the grasp of even the most disadvantaged citizens, as well as the simple moral backbone to resist its temptations and see through its lies, such scenarios need not be an inevitability.