Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

September 28, 2014

When the Nation Magazine grew weary of Reconstruction

Filed under: african-american,liberalism,slavery — louisproyect @ 5:53 pm

A few days ago I had been consulting Douglas Blackmon’s “Slavery by Another Name”, a very fine history of post-Civil War forced labor, as part of a long-term research project to rebut Charles Post’s thesis on slavery as “precapitalist” when I came across a revealing reference to the Nation Magazine. As I have pointed out in the past, the magazine was a primary source of arguments on behalf of winding down Reconstruction. I had completely forgotten about the passage but was reminded of it today when a Facebook thread on Eric Alterman’s opposition to BDS prompted the query why the magazine puts up with him. In my view, the Nation has been problematic from its inception, lurching from abolitionism to articles attacking moves to make the KKK illegal. For a fuller discussion, I’d refer you to a piece I wrote in 2003: http://www.columbia.edu/~lnp3/mydocs/american_left/tainted_nation.htm

Douglas Blackmon:

A new national white consensus began to coalesce against African Americans with shocking force and speed. The general white public, the national leadership of the Republican Party, and the federal government on every level were arriving at the conclusion that African-Americans did not merit citizenship and that their freedom was not able enough to justify the conflicts they engendered among whites. A growing body of whites across the nation concluded that blacks were not worth the cost of imposing a racial morality that few in any region genuinely shared. As early as 1876, President Ulysses S. Grant, commander of the Union army of liberation, conceded to members of his cabinet that the Fifteenth Amendment, giving freed slaves the right to vote, had been a mistake: “It had done the Negro no good, and had been a hindrance to the South, and by no means a political advantage to the North.” “The long controversy over the black man seems to have reached a finality,” wrote the Chicago Tribune, approvingly. Added The Nation: “The Negro will disappear from the field of national politics. Henceforth, the nation, as a nation, will have nothing more to do with him.” That the parent had once sacrificed enormously to rescue the less favored child only made its abandonment deeply more bitter.

August 5, 2014

Rick Perlstein accused of plagiarism

Filed under: conservatism,liberalism,revolutionary organizing — louisproyect @ 3:47 pm

Rick Perlstein

Last Sunday the NY Times Book Review section featured Frank Rich’s glowing review of Rick Perlstein’s “The Invisible Bridge” on the front page, a sure sign that you have made it. The bridge in the title is a reference to the period between 1973 and 1976, when the Republican Party was transitioning from Gerald Ford (who was far to the left of Barack Obama) to Ronald Reagan.

Now only two days later Perlstein is embroiled in a plagiarism controversy that pits him against Craig Shirley, the author of the 2004 “The Reagan Revolution”. Once again, from the NY Times:

In two letters to Mr. Perlstein’s publisher, Simon & Schuster, Mr. Shirley’s lawyer, Chris Ashby, cited 19 instances of duplicated language and inadequate attribution, and demanded $25 million in damages, a public apology, revised digital editions and the destruction of all physical copies of the book. Mr. Shirley said he has since tallied close to 50 instances where his work was used without credit.

The basic line of defense by Simon and Shuster, Perlstein’s publisher, is that he only paraphrased Shirley; moreover, he cited Shirley 125 times in the books’ endnotes that departing from tradition appears only on Perlstein’s website and not in print. This observation from Frank Rich might indicate the source of Perlstein’s problems: “Perlstein is an obsessive researcher who often relies (and fully credits) the writers who did the investigative spade work before him. He doesn’t break news.”

They claim that putting the endnotes online was designed to keep the book’s length within reasonable limits. Even now, it is 856 pages long. Perlstein says, ““My notion is that people will read this book with their iPhones open.” I must confess that there is about as much possibility that I will buy this book as an IPhone. Frank Rich writes:

True to form, Perlstein doesn’t condescend to this conservative icon but seeks to understand him. He does as good a job as anyone at working through the psychological and intellectual puzzles attending a charismatic public figure whose own family often found the private man opaque.

Seeking to understand Reagan? Working through the intellectual puzzles? Really? I’d think there’s about as much of a challenge there as analyzing a Hallmark greeting card.

This is Perlstein’s 3rd book on the rise of modern conservatism. His first was on the Young Americans for Freedom, a group I belonged to briefly in high school mostly as a way of annoying my classmates who were all for JFK. My cousin Louis R. (we were both named after our grandfather) and I formed a chapter that like other YAF chapters supported Goldwater rather than Nixon in 1960. My cousin remained conservative over the years while I bolted from the conservative ranks in 1961 as a Bard freshman when I learned that all the cool kids were liberals. Peer pressure also seems to work in reducing crack addiction as well, they say.

Perstein interviewed Doug Henwood and me for the first book titled “Before the Storm”. Doug went through a brief conservative stint at Yale where I assume that being on the right was more acceptable than at Bard, the “little red whorehouse on the Hudson” as Walter Winchell put it. I succumbed to peer pressure while Doug succumbed to the objective reality that capitalism sucked.

I met Perlstein once around 15 years ago when he had started writing “Before the Storm” through Scott McLemee who I was friendly with at the time. He struck me as a very bright but cynical young man, not the sort that would have made the mistake of getting involved with revolutionary politics.

I generally don’t pay much attention to what Perlstein writes since it falls more in the category of MSNBC/Salon.com punditry than the articles I differ with on the hard left. What is the point, after all, of slamming MSNBC for not covering Israel’s brutality in Gaza? (Then again, they are covering it after a fashion.)

I did have a go at him ten years ago after he wrote an exceedingly longwinded article for the Boston Review titled “How Can the Democrats Win?”, a question that he answered: “it must tend to the work of economic equality.” Maybe if Perlstein had spent some time in a revolutionary movement like McLemee, he would have understood what a utopian notion that was. Economic inequality has deepened under successive Democratic Party administrations. That is not a function of them hating the poor or not worrying enough about losing votes. It is a function of the iron laws of capital accumulation. Less time reading Karl Rove and more time reading Karl Mark would have helped Perlstein understand that.

My reply to Perlstein, which can be read in full here, offered an alternative reading of American history, one that tried to put the Democratic Party into context:

Turning now to your recommendations to the Democratic Party leadership:

Any marketing executive will tell you that you can’t build a brand out of stuff the people say they don’t want. And what do Americans say they want? According to the pollsters, exactly what the Democratic Party was once famous for giving them: economic populism.

All I can say is that this not quite the Democratic Party I am familiar with, at least in broad historical terms. Keep in mind that the Democratic Party was originally the party of the Southern Bourbons. While Arthur Schlesinger Jr. portrays Andrew Jackson as some kind of plebian democrat, he owned slaves and saw his role as promoting the interest of the same class he belonged to. The Republican Party emerged as a revolutionary opposition to the Democrats and only withdrew from the task of uprooting racial supremacy in the South when Northern liberals, particularly those grouped around Godkin’s Nation Magazine, persuaded party bosses that they were encouraging developments in the USA that might turn out like the Paris Commune. David Montgomery details all this in “The Death of Reconstruction”.

I myself stumbled across this sordid tale while preparing a critical review of the Nation around the time that Hitchens had become a turncoat and Marc Cooper was perfecting his own redbaiting skills. I learned that hostility to radicalism was not an invention of Katrina vanden Heuvel, but something rooted in the magazine’s hoary past. On December 5th 1867, the Nation wrote:

It must now be confessed those who were of this way of thinking [namely that the Radical Republicans were going too far], and they were many, have proved to be not very far wrong. It is not yet too late for the majority in Congress to retrace its steps and turn to serious things. The work before it is to bring the South back to the Union on the basis-of equal rights, and not to punish the President or provide farms for negroes or remodel the American Government.

After the “great compromise” that ended Reconstruction, challenges to the big bourgeoisie were mounted not from within the Republican or Democratic Parties but from 3rd party efforts like the Populists. Then, as today, efforts were mounted to either co-opt or destroy these movements. If you compare the programs of the Democratic and Republican Parties from the period of the end of Reconstruction to FDR’s election as a *balanced budget* realist, you’ll find about as much to choose between as George W. Bush and John Kerry. (I must say that for all your eagerness to assert that “beating George W. Bush at the ballot box in November…is imperative to the future health of the United States”, you don’t seem at all that interested in explaining why. That is, unless you think that “staying the course” in Iraq is part of that future health. But what can I say, I am one of those unrepentant 1960s radicals who never would have voted for Humphrey, to the everlasting dismay of Todd Gitlin I suppose.)

After FDR’s election, New Deal legislation was enacted not because he was a populist or even wanted to win elections. Change came because workers sat-in at factories, marched on Washington and generally raised hell. I guess you might say that that describes my attitude in general. I am for raising the more hell the better.

From what I can gather, the charges against Perlstein are bogus just as they were against Chris Hedges. Craig Shirley is not happy that his book is being cited against his hero Reagan. That was the same kind of vendetta mounted by the New Republic against Hedges, who they regarded—rightly—as an enemy of the DLC politics they package under new ownership.

In terms of his latest book, I doubt that I will ever read it, especially since given the time to read an 850 page book, there are tomes on the history of Ukraine and at least a dozen others that take precedence. But I will offer some brief thoughts on how to understand the march to the right that preoccupies Perlstein.

Referring to traumas that began taking place as the Vietnam War wound down, Perlstein writes “One of my favorites, lost to everyday historical memory, was the near doubling of meat prices in the spring of 1973, when the president’s consumer advisor went on TV and informed viewers that “liver, kidney, brains, and heart can be made into gourmet meals with seasoning, imagination, and more cooking time.” I remember this vividly since I organized a Militant Forum in Houston for the housewives who were involved in the local meat boycott. The Supreme Court had decided to legalize abortion in January 1973 and a ceasefire had been signed that same month, even though the Vietnam War would continue until the North Vietnam liberated Saigon. The winding down of the woman’s liberation movement, at least the part of it that was fighting for abortion rights, and the antiwar movement left the SWP in a confused and rudderless state. We had assumed that the sixties radicalization would continue unabated until the workers would enter the fray with their heavy battalions.

That is not the way things turned out. Instead of responding to objective reality, the SWP flailed around looking for the next new thing that would lead to increasing its influence and size. At the time, it struck me that the meat boycott had very limited possibilities but who was I to tell the Emperor that he was naked?

It took me nearly 10 years to figure out where the SWP had gone wrong. If its leader Jack Barnes had broken with sectarianism and moved toward a more open and transparent party-building approach that would have resulted in a different kind of left, it is very likely that the march to the right would have been slowed down considerably and that the ruling class rather than the left would have been on the defensive.

I am not exactly sure when I wrote this, but it was my attempt to go back to nearly the beginning of “The Invisible Bridge” to propose a different way of organizing the left. Nobody can be sure if it would have made a decisive difference but we know now that the “Marxism-Leninism” of the SWP and its Maoist competition led to a total collapse of the left that has resulted largely in an unchallenged two-party assault on the American people and third world societies across the planet.

The Speech that Jack Barnes Should Have Given in 1974

Comrades, 1974 is a year which in some ways marks the end of an era. The recent victory of the Vietnamese people against imperialism and of women seeking the right to safe and legal abortion are culminations of a decade of struggle. That struggle has proved decisive in increasing both the size and influence of the Trotskyist movement as our cadre threw their energy into building the antiwar and feminist movements. Now that we are close to 2,000 in number and have branches in every major city in the US, it is necessary to take stock of our role within the left and our prospects for the future.

In this report I want to lay out some radical new departures for the party that take into account both our growing influence and the changing political framework. Since they represent such a change from the way we have seen ourselves historically, I am not asking that we take a vote at this convention but urge all branches to convene special discussions throughout the year until the next convention when a vote will be taken. I am also proposing in line with the spirit of this new orientation that non-party individuals and organizations be invited to participate in them.

A) THE TRADE UNION MOVEMENT

While our political work of the 1960s was a necessary “detour” from the historical main highway of the socialist movement, it is high time that we began to reorient ourselves. There are increasing signs that the labor movement is beginning to reject the class collaborationist practices of the Meany years. For example, just 4 short years ago in 1970, various Teamsters locals rejected a contract settlement agreed to by their president Frank Fitzsimmons and the trucking industry. They expected a $3.00 per hour raise but the contract settled for only $1.10. The rank and file went out on a wildcat strike that Fitzsimmons and the mainstream press denounced. Fitzsimmons probably had the student revolt on his mind, since he claimed that “Communists” were behind the teamster wild-cat strike. Nobody took this sort of red-baiting to heart anymore. The burly truck-drivers involved in the strike were the unlikeliest “Communists” one could imagine. The trucking industry prevailed upon President Richard Nixon to intercede in the strike at the beginning of May, but the student rebellion against the invasion of Cambodia intervened. The antiwar movement and the war itself had stretched the US military thin. National guardsmen who had been protecting scab truck- drivers occupied the Kent State campuses where they shot five students protesting the war. In clear defiance of the stereotype of American workers, wildcat strikers in Los Angeles regarded student antiwar protesters as allies and invited them to join teamster picket lines. The wildcat strikes eventually wound down, but angry rank and file teamsters started the first national reform organization called Teamsters United Rank and File (TURF).

It is very important for every branch to investigate opportunities such as these and to invite comrades to look into the possibility of taking jobs in those industries where such political opportunities exist. What will not happen, however, is a general turn toward industry that many small Marxist groups made in the 1960s in an effort to purify themselves. Our work in the trade unions is not an attempt to “cleanse” the party but rather to participate in the class struggle which takes many different forms. We are quite sure that when comrades who have begun to do this kind of exciting work and report back to the branches that we will see others anxious to join in.

B) THE ENVIRONMENTAL MOVEMENT

We simply have to stop observing this movement from the sidelines. There is a tendency on the left to judge it by the traditional middle-class organizations such as the Audubon Club. There are already signs of a radicalization among many of the younger activists who believe that capitalism is at the root of air and water pollution, etc. Since the father of the modern environmental movement is an outspoken Marxist, there is no reason why we should feel like outsiders. Our cadre have to join the various groups that are springing up everywhere and pitch in to build them, just as we built the antiwar and feminist groups. If activists have problems with the record of socialism on the environment based on the mixed record of the USSR, we have to explain that there were alternatives. We should point to initiatives in the early Soviet Union when Lenin endorsed vast nature preserves on a scale never seen in industrialized societies before. In general we have to be the best builders of a new ecosocialist movement and not succumb to the sort of sectarian sneering that characterizes other left groups who regard green activists as the enemy.

C) THE ANTI-IMPERIALIST MOVEMENT

This will strike many comrades as controversial, but I want to propose that we probably were mistaken when stood apart from all the various pro-NLF committees that were doing material aid and educational work. We characterized them as ultraleft, whereas in reality those activists who decided to actually identify with the Vietnamese liberation movement were exactly the kind that we want to hook up with. In the United States today there are thousands of activists organized in committees around the country who are campaigning on a similar basis for freedom for the Portuguese colonies in Africa, against neo-colonialism in Latin America, etc. Nearly all of them are Marxist. Their goals and ours are identical. While we have had a tendency to look down our noses at them because many of the insurgencies they were supporting were not Trotskyist, we have to get over that. For us to continue to regard the revolutionary movement in a Manichean fashion where the Trotskyists are the good forces and everybody else is evil is an obstacle not only to our own growth, but the success of the revolutionary movement overall. This leads me to the next point.

D) RELATIONS WITH THE REST OF THE LEFT

One of the things I hope never to hear again in our ranks is the reference to other socialists as our “opponents”. Let’s reflect on what that kind of terminology means. It says two things, both of which are equally harmful. On one hand, it means that they are our enemies on a permanent basis. When you categorize another left group in this fashion, it eliminates the possibility that they can change. This obviously is not Marxist, since no political group–including ourselves–is immune from objective conditions. Groups can shift to the left or to the right, depending on the relationship of class forces. The SWP emerged out of a merger with other left-moving forces during the 1930s and we should be open to that possibility today.

The other thing that this reflects is that somehow the SWP is like a small business that competes for market share with other small businesses, except that we are selling revolution rather than air conditioners or aluminum siding. We have to get that idea out of our heads. We are all struggling for the same goal, which is to change American society. We only disagree on the best way to achieve that.

Unfortunately we have tended to exaggerate our differences with other small groups in such a way as to suggest we had a different product. This goes back for many years as indicated in this quote from a James P. Cannon speech to the SWP convention nearly 25 years ago. “We are monopolists in the field of politics. We can’t stand any competition. We can tolerate no rivals. The working class, to make the revolution can do it only through one party and one program. This is the lesson of the Russian Revolution. That is the lesson of all history since the October Revolution. Isn’t that a fact? This is why we are out to destroy every single party in the field that makes any pretense of being a working-class revolutionary party. Ours is the only correct program that can lead to revolution. Everything else is deception, treachery We are monopolists in politics and we operate like monopolists.”

Comrades, we have to conduct an open and sharp struggle against this kind of attitude. The differences between the SWP and many other left groups is not that great and we have to figure out ways to work with them on a much more cooperative basis. For example, La Raza Unida Party in Texas shares many of our assumptions about the 2-party system and they are open to socialist ideas, largely through the influence of the left-wing of the party which has been increasingly friendly to the Cuban Revolution. We should think about the possibilities of co-sponsoring meetings with them around the question of Chicano Liberation and socialism. The same thing would be true of the Puerto Rican Independence movement in the United States, which shares with us a positive attitude toward the Cuban revolution. In terms of the Marxist movement per se, we have to find ways to work more closely with the activists around the Guardian newspaper. While many of them continue to have Maoist prejudices, there are others who have been friendly to our work in the antiwar movement. The idea is to open discussion and a sure way to cut discussion off is to regard them as “opponents”. Our only true opponents are in Washington, DC.

This new sense of openness to other groups on the left has organizational consequences that I will now outline.

E) REDEFINING OUR ORGANIZATIONAL PRINCIPLES

Much of our understanding of “democratic centralism” has been shaped by James P. Cannon’s writings. Although the notion of 500 to 1500 people united ideologically around a homogenous program has a lot to recommend itself, it can only go so far in building a revolutionary party. This was Cannon’s contribution. He showed how a small band of cadre dedicated to Trotsky’s critique of Stalin could emerge as a serious force on the American left.

Although this will sound like heresy to most of you, I want to propose that Cannon’s writings are a roadblock to further growth, especially in a period when Stalinism is not a hegemonic force. In reality, Lenin’s goal was to unite Russian Marxism, which existed in scattered circles. Our goal should be identical. Despite our commitment to Trotsky’s theories, we are not interested in constructing a mass Trotskyist movement. That would be self-defeating. Many people who are committed to Marxism are not necessarily committed to Trotsky’s analysis of the Spanish Civil War, WWII, etc. We should take the same attitude that Lenin took toward the Russian left at the turn of the century. We should serve as a catalyst for uniting Marxists on a national basis.

Are we afraid to function in a common organization with Castroists, partisans of the Chinese Revolution, independent Marxists of one sort or another? Not at all. We should not put a barrier in the way of unity with the tens of thousands of Marxists in the United States, many who hold leading positions in the trade union and other mass movements. The only unity that interests us is the broad unity of the working people and their allies around class struggle principles. Our disagreements over historical and international questions can be worked out in a leisurely fashion in the party press. In fact we would encourage public debates over how to interpret such questions in our press, since they can make us even more attractive to people investigating which group to join. It is natural that you would want to join a group with a lively internal life.

This question of ‘democratic centralism’ has to be thoroughly reviewed. Although the Militant will be running a series of articles on “Lenin in Context” this year, which explores the ways in which this term was understood by the Bolsheviks and then transformed by his epigones, we can state with some assuredness right now that it was intended to govern the actions of party members and not their thoughts. The Bolshevik Party, once it voted on a strike, demonstration, etc., expected party members to function under the discipline of the party to build such actions. It never intended to discipline party members to defend the same political analysis in public. We know, for example, that there are different interpretations of Vietnamese Communism in our party. We should not expect party members to keep their views secret if they are in the minority. This is not only unnatural–it leads to cult thinking.

F) CONCLUSION

As many of these proposals seem radically different from the principles we’ve operated on in the past, I want to make sure that all disagreements–especially from older cadre who worked side by side with James P. Cannon–are given proper consideration. The last thing we want is to railroad the party into accepting this new orientation. Since a revolution can only be made by the conscious intervention of the exploited and oppressed masses into the historical process, its party must encourage the greatest expression of conscious political decision-making. There are no shortcuts to a revolution. And there are no shortcuts to building a revolutionary party.

February 1, 2014

The Hannah Arendt industry

Filed under: Academia,imperialism/globalization,liberalism — louisproyect @ 9:53 pm

Hannah Arendt

During the discussion period following the screening of Margarethe Von Trotta’s “Hannah Arendt” at the New School for Social Research, I took the mike to explain why Arendt’s theories were inadequate to explain genocide. If war crimes, up to and including ethnic cleansing or extermination, were spawned by totalitarianism, what do we make of Thomas Jefferson’s statement that if the American Indians got in the way of nation-building, they should be exterminated? For that matter, what does it say about the New School that its former President—Bob Kerrey—was a war criminal in Vietnam? (Around midnight on Feb. 25, 1969, Kerrey and his men killed at least 13 unarmed women and children.) At this point, Von Trotta and Jerome Kuhn—the head of the New School’s Hannah Arendt Center—began fidgeting in their seats and wearing frowns. Who was this asshole ruining their lovefest? But when I stated that if the USA ever lost a war the way that Hitler did, maybe the Samantha Powers of our world would find themselves in the defendant’s seat just like Eichmann, that was too much for them. They both started speaking over me at once. I caught Von Trotta saying that “this has nothing to do with my film” but of course it absolutely did.

Before the audience was allowed to offer comments, Kuhn spent a good fifteen minutes stroking the egos of the director, her leading actress Barbara Sukowa, and the screenwriter, one Pamela Katz. Von Trotta’s film has become part of a touring dog-and-pony show meant to convince audiences that Hannah Arendt is “one of the most influential philosophers of the 20th century”, as the New School website puts it.

Although I had high regard for Von Trotta’s film, especially for its fairly accurate portrayal of Heinrich Blucher (Mr. Hannah Arendt), who was my professor at Bard College as an undergrad, and Hans Jonas, her long-time friend and an ardent Zionist who was also my professor at the New School philosophy department, I was put off by her reply to a question posed by Kuhn as to why she made the film. She said that when she was younger and part of the German radical movement, it was understandable why she would make a film about Rosa Luxemburg but after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, it was Hannah Arendt who had much more to say about the state of the world—especially knowing what was really happening in the East.

Von Trotta, like the French ex-Maoists, apparently had a Damascene conversion somewhere along the line. I don’t know whose decision it was to include Samantha Power on this daylong celebration of the 80th anniversary of the New School University in Exile or whether in fact it was linked to the film screening, but I strongly suspect that the two events were linked—at least implicitly. Power was speaking at 8pm on “Protecting Scholars and the Right to Free Inquiry”, along with George Rupp, who was my boss at Columbia University before Lee Bollinger replaced him, and Jonathan Fanton, former chair of Human Rights Watch and former president of The New School.

Anybody who has been following Samantha Power’s sordid career would know that she styles herself as a latter-day Hannah Arendt. She wrote the introduction to the latest edition of “Origins of Totalitarianism” and a self-serving April 29, 2004 NY Review article that recruited the dead philosopher for two of Power’s “humanitarian intervention” crusades—the one that took place in Kosovo and one that she wished had taken place in Rwanda.

The article also likens Hamas to “totalitarian movements” like the Nazis, an Orwellian exercise that staggers the imagination. Gerald Kaufman, a British Labor MP and a long-time Zionist, was far more accurate when he stated:

The spokeswoman for the Israeli army, Major Leibovich, was asked about the Israeli killing of, at that time, 800 Palestinians. The total is now 1,000. She replied instantly that ‘500 of them were militants’. That was the reply of a Nazi. I suppose the Jews fighting for their lives in the Warsaw ghetto could have been dismissed as militants.

While Power did not bring up the subject of Iraq in her NY Review article, it is worth mentioning what she thought of the invasion of Iraq during the halcyon days when Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld were trumpeting the victory of democracy in the Middle East. This is from a profile on Power in the April 14, 2003 LA Times that coincided with the publication of her “The Problem From Hell”:

“That’s what’s so great about the fall of Saddam Hussein. Now we can actually put our money and power where our might has been so far. We can demonstrate what we have claimed all along, that this war is about them,” she said, referring to the Iraqi people.

“The hard work is just beginning, in Iraq and also in restoring U.S. credibility as a global actor. I hope the book provides the spirit in which that can be done.”

Did it ever occur to Power that the invasion of Iraq was illegal, unjust and immoral? How does someone putting herself forward as a moral exemplar end up sounding like a White House operative? I guess that Pecksniffian declarations of moral responsibility are a smart career move especially if it goes hand-in-hand with a lust for bombing the impudent natives.

To cover its expenses, the Hannah Arendt Center at the New School relies on generous contributions from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. As anybody familiar with American history can tell you, the academy has been nourished from the beginning by the blood of slaves and working people. Leland Stanford was a robber baron, as was Andrew Carnegie. Andrew W. Mellon’s father was financier to the Carnegie steel company and sonny boy took over the Mellon banks after he died. As Secretary of the Treasury, he advised Hoover to “liquidate labor…liquidate farmers…it will drain the rottenness out of the system” at the very time he was cheating on his income taxes and urging a cut in rates for the 1920s version of the one percent. As Balzac said in the epigraph to “Pere Goriot”: “Behind every great fortune there is a crime”. The Andrew W. Mellon foundation understands why it is important to fund the Hannah Arendt Center since in a period beginning to approximate the Great Depression in terms of longevity, our current economic crisis is causing young people to question the capitalist system. Who better to warn them against “going too far” than a Hannah Arendt, an icon of the Cold War alongside Albert Camus? At least if that version of Hannah Arendt remains unchallenged.

It makes sense that Bard College would have its own Hannah Arendt Center since the president of the college is also committed to the bulldozer expansionism under a humanist camouflage of its New School colleagues. Using millions from currency speculator George Soros’s deep pockets instead of the Mellon fortune, it promotes Arendt’s reputation near and far and allows its director Roger Berkowitz to pontificate on a full-time basis. In a remarkable essay titled “Assassinating Justly: Reflections on Justice and Revenge in the Osama Bin Laden Killing”, Berkowitz claims that “few today question the United States’ right to kill – or at least severely punish – Osama bin Laden” and that it was “wrong for human rights activists to critique the raid as being unjustified”. Really? What would then prevent some Pakistanis from forming a death squad and coming to Washington to wreak vengeance for the 330 drone strikes that have left over 2000 people dead? Of course, this would be considered an act of savagery since it is the USA that is hegemonic rather than Pakistan.

As a member of the National Security Council, Samantha Power took part in deliberations that led to the deaths of these Pakistanis. Why is this considered ethical behavior and that of the Taliban or Hamas unethical? Clearly, we are dealing with a double standard. If there truly were international law, Obama and his underlings would be serving long prison terms for crimes against humanity. And maybe there would be shorter jail terms for their intellectual prostitutes like Roger Berkowitz. (I suppose I should find another word besides prostitute since that after all is an honorable profession by comparison.)

I am not the only person who has figured out what the Hannah Arendt industry is up to. There’s an article by Brooklyn College professor Corey Robin titled “Dragon Slayers” that appeared in the January 4, 2007 London Review of Books that is excellent. (It is behind a paywall but I will be happy to send you a copy on request.)

The article is based on reviews of these three books:

  • Why Arendt Matters by Elisabeth Young-Bruehl
  • Hannah Arendt: The Jewish Writings edited by Jerome Kohn and Ron Feldman
  • Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil by Hannah Arendt

Robin takes exception to Young-Bruehl’s attempt to put radical Islam and the Bush White House on the same plane: “the Republican and Islamist push to submit the private sphere to public scrutiny”, etc. As opposed to such an abstraction, he points out that jihadists are fueled by anger over Israeli treatment of the Palestinians.

Although it is not mentioned in the review, Young-Bruehl has targeted the Bolivarian movement in Venezuela as inimical to human freedom. I wrote about her trip there back in 2007 and noted that she held a meeting with the students at Simon Bolivar University where she had “an intense conversation about why Hannah Arendt had distrusted revolutions that try to solve problems of social injustice without first achieving a stable, constitutional republic.” Yes, that’s what we need to do—distrust revolutions that try to solve problems of social injustice, especially since it might piss off the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and George Soros.

This pretty much sums up Robin’s approach:

Perhaps it was inevitable, then, that the centenary of Arendt’s birth should have devolved into a recitation of the familiar. Once a week, it seems, some pundit will trot out her theory of totalitarianism, dutifully extending it, as her followers did during the Cold War, to America’s enemies: al-Qaida, Saddam, Iran. Arendt’s academic chorus continues to swell, sounding the most elusive notes of her least political texts while ignoring her prescient remarks about Zionism and imperialism. Academic careers are built on interpretations of her work, and careerism, as Arendt noted in her book on Eichmann, is seldom conducive to thinking.

Robin’s reference to the “academic chorus” and “careerism” hit home. Although I never met Hannah Arendt, I got to know her husband Heinrich Blucher and her close friend Hans Jonas fairly well. What you can say about them all is that they stood on their principles. Try as hard as I may, I could not see any of them running a Hannah Arendt Center dedicated to building a cult around a dead philosopher. They were far too thorny in their beliefs to become a cog in the academic bureaucracy.

I guess in some ways it was what I learned from Blucher and Jonas that made me into the person I am today. Although Blucher renounced the Marxism of his youth, he asked me to read and write about Karl Marx’s “Communist Manifesto” in 1963. It was the first time I read a thinker who had been likened to Adolph Hitler during the depths of the Cold War. I also value the education I got from Hans Jonas who would go on to become a foundational thinker for the German Green Movement through essays like “The Outcry of Mute Things” that ends:

The latest revelation—from no Mount Sinai, from no Mount of the Sermon, from no Bo (tree of Buddha)—is the outcry of mute things themselves that we must heed by curbing our powers over creation, lest we perish together on a wasteland of what was creation.

Those are the values I live by, no matter the use that some people try to make of the generation of German exiles who deserve better than being turned into philosophers of the predator drones.

May 23, 2013

Bhaskar Sunkara’s vain hopes

Filed under: liberalism,revolutionary organizing — louisproyect @ 3:32 pm

Bhaskar Sunkara

In the latest Nation Magazine there’s a remarkable article by Jacobin publisher Bhaskar Sunkara that performs a tightrope act that bashes the hoary voice of American liberalism even as it provides it a safety net.

If nothing else, it is a relief to see the awful Melissa Harris-Perry reprimanded for trying to perform a tightrope act of her own as she staked out a position in between the Chicago teachers and Rahm Emanuel, writing at the time of the strike that children were victims of a struggle “between the leaders and teachers who are supposed to have their best interests at heart but who seem willing to allow this generation to be lost.”

I seldom watch MSNBC nowadays but was appalled to see Comrade Harris-Perry advise her viewers a few days ago that the scandals bubbling up around Obama were simply Republican plots to turn minor peccadilloes into Watergate type offenses. It was literally no different than hearing from the White House press secretary.

The main thrust of Sunkara’s article is to rebuild the kind of coalition that FDR’s New Deal symbolized as a partnership between liberals and radicals:

Which is to say that the left needs a plan—a plan that must incorporate more moderate allies. American radicalism has had a complex and at times contradictory association with liberalism. At the peak of the socialist movement, leftists fed off liberal victories. Radicals, in turn, have added coherence and punch to every key liberal struggle and advance of the past century. Such a mutually beneficial alliance could be in the works again. The first step is to smash the existing liberal coalition and rebuild it on a radically different basis.

What’s missing from this proposal is a sober assessment of the class forces that made New Deal partnerships between the Democrats and radicals possible. Just as the power of the industrial capitalists of the North made a coalition of Republican Party radicals and moderates possible when the Nation was launched as an abolitionist magazine, the New Deal rested on the basis that FDR’s economic program was good for the same bourgeoisie. Consider the make-up of the NRA (the national recovery administration, not the mouth-breathing gun fetishists) at its outset. Hugh Johnson, an adviser to Bernard Baruch who apparently admired Mussolini’s corporatist policies that made the trains run on time, was its first administrator. In 1932 it was in the class interests of the big bourgeoisie to have an “activist” President even if many of its most powerful players had to be dragged kicking and screaming into the fold.

After the recovery of Japan and Germany in the post-WWII period, the prospects for American industry became problematic. Some sectors remained vibrant (computers, farm equipment, finance) while others went down the tubes (auto, steel, textiles). While it is difficult to generalize about the future of American capitalism—a task that I will leave to contributors to Socialist Register—it does seem troubling that Obama counted Ronald Reagan as an inspirational figure. Considering his obvious bid to carve a big hole in two of the major gains of the New Deal and Great Society—Social Security and Medicare—one has to wonder what good is left in the Democratic Party. No matter how many complaints you hear from a John Conyers or a Nation Magazine editorial for that matter, it is doubtful that the liberal wing of the Democratic Party will serve as a speed bump in this mad race to return to the days of McKinley—not to speak of what is really necessary, a spike strip.

Bhaskar points to the gathering forces that might serve as foot soldiers in a campaign to return the Democratic Party to its truly liberal roots:

The present context on the socialist left is one of institutional disarray but critical vibrancy, not unlike the moment that fueled leftist milieus in the early 1960s, when journals like Studies on the Left anticipated the upsurges that were soon to come, but groups like the Socialist Party of America were in terminal decline. Current literary journals like n+1 have taken a turn toward the political through engagement with Occupy Wall Street, while radical thinkers like Vivek Chibber, Doug Henwood and Kathi Weeks are finding broad new audiences for their work. A younger cohort is emerging as well. This generation of Marxist intellectuals is resurrecting debates about the reduction of working time, exploring the significance of new forms of labor, and arguing about the ways a democratic society would harness technological advance to universal material benefit, while avoiding ecological ruin.

As I have the dubious distinction of being old enough to remember the period described above as an active participant, there are dimensions that are missing in Bhaskar’s bird’s eye view of history. To start with, the early 60s owed more to the civil rights movement than journals like Studies on the Left. I first became aware of the left through my girlfriend Elizabeth in 1965 who was the leader of CORE at Bard College. With thousands of young people going South to fight Jim Crow, it was possible for those not quite so committed to feel that history was moving in a progressive direction. Essentially the civil rights movement was a class movement. That being the case, what is the equivalent today? Al Sharpton, reputed to be an FBI snitch, defending Obama’s every reactionary initiative on MSNBC?

It is also important to keep in mind that SDS was a project that grew out of the League for Industrial Democracy, a group founded in 1905 by Upton Sinclair, Jack London and other Debs era figures. In the early 60s the AFL-CIO was solidly behind the Student League for Industrial Democracy, the forerunner of SDS. The labor movement of the early 60s also lent its institutional muscle to the civil rights movement.

Even if this AFL-CIO was capable of fostering the growth of movements that would constitute the shock troops of the 60s radicalization, it was creating the foundations of its own demise through its partnership with the big bourgeoisie. With George McGovern’s loss to Nixon in 1972, the party of the “left” would become transformed into what amounted to Republican Party lite. Every single Democratic candidate since McGovern has run on a program that either explicitly or implicitly targets the very foundations of the New Deal. In effect, the transformation of the Democratic Party mirrors that of the Republican Party in 1877 when it concluded a deal with the Democrats to dump Reconstruction.

If all this sounds bleak, I must apologize. But I believe that the left has to proceed on the basis of an honest assessment of the objective conditions not rosy-hued self-deception. The Occupy movement gave us a sense of new directions in American politics and more surprises might be in store down the road. Our biggest mistake at this point would be to attempt to breathe new life into the maggot-ridden remains of American liberalism as represented through the Democratic Party whose chief leader has shamelessly defended his right to murder American citizens without offering proof of their crimes and who assembles committees on “entitlements” that are run by Peter Peterson’s acolytes. Enough is enough.

April 14, 2013

Statistical survey

Filed under: liberalism,media — louisproyect @ 3:30 pm

Number of times that the term “predator drones” has appeared on an MSNBC show in the last 6 months: 6

Number of times that the term “gun control” has appeared on an MSNBC show in the last 6 months: 373

Number of times that the term “chained cpi” has appeared on an MSNBC show in the last 6 months: 43

Number of times that the term “tea party” has appeared on an MSNBC show in the last 6 months: 404

(Based on a search of Nexis.)

 

March 24, 2013

The New Deal, Leon Trotsky, and the bureaucratic state

Filed under: language,liberalism,racism — louisproyect @ 9:27 pm

Louis Menand

Ira Katznelson

The March 4th 2013 issue of The New Yorker Magazine has an uncharacteristically interesting article by Louis Menand on Ira Katznelson’s new book “Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time” differentiated from the usual dreary rot by Jon Lee Anderson, David Remnick, Hendrik Hertzberg, et al.

The article is behind a paywall unfortunately but I am going to quote the opening paragraphs that should be of particular interest to my regular readers:

In September, 1939, just as the Second World War was beginning, a left-wing Italian shoe salesman named Bruno Rizzi published a book, in Paris, called “The Bureaucratization of the World.” Rizzi brought the book out at his own expense; he couldn’t find a publisher. In early 1940, he was charged by French authorities with racial defamation–there was an anti-Semitic chapter in his book–and he was fined and received a suspended sentence. Remaining copies of the book were confiscated and pulped.

Rizzi hadn’t used his full name on the cover–he identified himself as Bruno R.–and he more or less disappeared from view in the chaos of the war. (He resurfaced afterward.) “The Bureaucratization of the World” might have slipped into oblivion but for one thing: Rizzi had managed to get a copy to Leon Trotsky, who was living in exile in the village of Coyoacan, outside Mexico City. Trotsky read the book and was sufficiently exercised to write an article criticizing it. The article was published, in November, 1939, in a journal called The New International, an organ of the Socialist Workers Party, a Trotskyist organization based in New York City.

Rizzi had argued that under Stalin’s leadership the Soviet Union had a political system that was neither capitalist nor socialist. It was something that Marx had not foreseen: a system that Rizzi called “bureaucratic collectivism.” The Soviet Union was being ruled by a new class of Party functionaries and industrial technicians, who exploited the workers the same way the capitalists had. It had become just like the fascist states of Germany, Italy, and Japan.

What was more, Rizzi said, the United States was headed in the same direction. With Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, a ruling class of government administrators and corporate managers was taking over. Bureaucracy was emerging as the form of government everywhere. “A monstrous new world . . . is being born,” Rizzi wrote, “and born so evil that it is resurrecting slavery after two thousand years of history.” He predicted that the planet would eventually be dominated by seven or eight of these bureaucratic autocracies.

To Trotsky, this was heretical. Even after Stalin signed a non-aggression pact with Hitler and the Red Army invaded Poland, Trotsky’s position was that the Soviet Union was a genuine workers’ state. It had a planned economy and state ownership of property. In his New International article, Trotsky held Rizzi up as a comrade who had got things wrong. What Rizzi failed to understand, Trotsky explained, was that, although Stalin himself was a counter-revolutionary aberration, the Stalinist phenomenon had to be understood dialectically (Marxian for “the opposite of what it appears to be”). Stalinism was only an evil hiccup in the course of history–the course, correctly predicted by Marx and Engels, that led to the classless society.

Like all Marxist theoretical disputes, this was really a dispute over a practical question: Should people on the left continue to support the Soviet Union now that Stalin was an ally of Hitler? Trotsky insisted that they should. (For his pains, he was murdered by a Stalinist agent, in August, 1940.) But many of his American followers disagreed. The dispute split the Socialist Workers Party. One of the editors of The New International, Max Shachtman, resigned (or was expelled; accounts differ) from the Party. The other, James Burnham, also defected and soon rejected Marxism altogether, quickly becoming one of the most hawkish anti-Communist intellectuals in America. After the war was over, he recommended a preemptive nuclear strike against the Soviet Union.

In 1941, Burnham published a book called “The Managerial Revolution.” He hadn’t read “The Bureaucratization of the World,” which, in 1941, was about as out of print as a book can be. But he had read Trotsky’s summary of it–he was Trotsky’s editor, after all–and his argument was basically Bruno R.’s argument. The economies of the major powers, Burnham said, had fallen into the hands of a new elite: the managers, executives, financiers, and stockholders who owned and ran corporations, and the government administrators who regulated them.

Burnham had earlier described the New Deal as “preparing the United States for the comparatively smooth transition to Fascism,” and he folded the United States easily into his picture of a world headed toward top-down managerialism. He thought that the nations farthest along the road were Russia, Germany, and Italy, which suggested that totalitarian dictatorship was managerialism’s natural political form. Rizzi had imagined a world dominated by seven or eight autocratic states; Burnham foresaw three, centered in the areas where advanced industry was already concentrated–the United States, Japan, and Germany. Wars of the future, he said, would be struggles among these superstates for world control.

Burnham, too, had trouble finding a publisher, but, when the book finally appeared, it was a huge success. Time listed “The Managerial Revolution” as one of the top six books of 1941; a critic at the Times named it one of the year’s notable books. A hundred thousand copies were sold in the United States and Britain, and it did even better in paperback. One of its keenest readers was George Orwell, and “The Managerial Revolution” was a major influence on “Nineteen Eighty-Four,” with its three totalitarian monster states.

This discussion of sectarian minutiae would probably make the average New Yorker reader’s eyes glaze over. A more typical article in the latest issue by Lena Dunham that begins “When I was a child, my greatest dream was to find a box full of puppies” had the same effect on me.

Menand, who is a literature professor with an interest in pragmatism, uses the Trotsky-Burnham debate as a background to introduce Katznelson’s latest book that makes the case that after the death of Roosevelt, “a belief in the common good gave way to a central government dominated by interest-group politics and obsessed with national security.”

Katznelson takes issue with the standard hagiographies, including Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.,’s unfinished “The Age of Roosevelt” (1957-60), William E. Leuchtenburg’s “Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal” (1963), and David M. Kennedy’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Freedom from Fear” (1999). For Katznelson, the notion that FDR was some kind of great democratic leader had to be revised. A dispassionate and critical view of the historical record would tend to put him much closer to the Orwellian nightmare.

Katznelson describes a sorry record at odds with Schlesinger’s worshipful treatment, as Menand’s capable summary reveals. To start with, the New Deal rested on a racist foundation as well as a barrier to trade union rights and economic reform:

But there was a worm in this fruit. During the entire period that Roosevelt was President (and well beyond it), seventeen states mandated racial segregation, and almost every senator and congressman from those states was a Democrat. Katznelson argues that the members of this Southern bloc were “the most important ‘veto players’ in American politics.” They maintained what he calls a “Southern cage” around New Deal legislation.

Southern Democrats were almost unanimously supportive of progressive economic policies, but they were, in one respect, solidly reactionary. They were vigilant to resist any threat to what they sometimes euphemistically referred to as the Southern way of life but more often called, quite proudly, white supremacy. “The colored race will not vote, because in so doing . . . they endanger the supremacy of a race to which God has committed the destiny of a continent, perhaps of the world,” Senator Claude Pepper, of Florida, said in 1937. And Pepper was a liberal. In 1950, he lost his seat to the conservative Democrat George Smathers, who campaigned against him by calling him Red Pepper.

The South was the most impoverished region of the country, and the Depression made conditions there worse. Katznelson says that the average annual income for all Americans in 1937 was $604; in the South, it was $314. The gross annual income of the average Southern farmer was $186. Almost a tenth of the population was illiterate. Southern Democrats were therefore happy to have railroads, public utilities, the financial industry–and, as Katznelson puts it, “other Northern-controlled capitalist firms”–regulated. As representatives of a region whose economy was mainly agricultural, they were also happy to support measures to help farmers. And since their principal goods, cotton and tobacco, were manufactured for export, they were eager to promote free trade. They were additionally pleased, in light of their economic circumstances but also in light of their history, to vote for programs that effectively redistributed wealth from the industrial North to the rural South.

Southern Democrats affected New Deal legislation in several ways. They carved out exceptions in bills regulating business–such as bills setting a minimum wage–for farming and domestic service, since that was work performed in the South predominately by African-Americans. They retarded the growth of the labor movement and tried to block efforts to unionize in the South, suspecting, rightly, that unions were motors of racial integration. They defeated anti-lynching legislation by arguing, first, that lynching was technically illegal already and, second, that, since people are regularly murdered elsewhere in the United States, a federal anti-lynching law would be discriminatory.

Most significant, though, they insured that the administration of New Deal policies was decentralized. They pried open the tax-levy coffers in Washington, but exercised strict control over how and to whom that money trickled down in their states. They tried to expand the regional economy without undermining apartheid. As the South has always done, they asserted the claim of states’ rights at just the point when the shoe started to pinch, and not a moment before.

The Dixie states benefited heavily from arms manufacturing in the South during WWII. At the end of the war, the military-industry state that operated in partnership with the USSR and that was administered by people like Harry Magdoff took on a new political coloration. The assembly lines continued to turn out tanks and planes but now the target would be Communism and decolonized states with the temerity to be aligned with the Kremlin.

Southern Democrats stoutly supported the Truman Administration’s military buildup, much of which was concentrated in the South. By the time Eisenhower took office, in 1953, $52.8 billion of the nation’s $76.1 billion budget was being spent on defense. Southerners also supported the granting of broad, nonspecific authority to the new Central Intelligence Agency, congressional investigations of subversives, and the creation of the Federal Employee Loyalty Program.

That program, established by executive order in 1947, assigned the F.B.I. and other agencies to undertake investigations of employees suspected of disloyalty. Over the next nine years, more than five million federal employees were screened. Twelve thousand resigned, and an estimated twenty-seven hundred were fired. (No espionage was ever discovered.) Beyond these cases–this is the subject of Landon R. Y. Storrs’s convincing account in “The Second Red Scare and the Unmaking of the New Deal Left” (Princeton)–the loyalty program had a chilling effect on government workers who regarded themselves as in the tradition of New Deal progressivism. Reform, planning, and organizing started to look un-American.

We tend to understand the rise of the national-security state as an overreaction to Cold War tensions, but the pieces were put into place during Roosevelt’s Presidency. The two War Powers Acts (December, 1941, and March, 1942) gave Roosevelt, as Katznelson puts it, “more power over American capitalism than he had achieved even during the New Deal’s radical moment.” Truman inherited a big government with enormous power already vested in the executive. When he was persuaded by advisers like Dean Acheson and Paul Nitze that the Soviet threat was real and that it demanded heightened military preparedness–ultimately, an arms race–the system was ready to accommodate him. He didn’t have to reinvent government.

While it is difficult to figure out whether Menand is speaking for himself or for Katznelson, there’s a happy ending to all this. The Democrats reinvented themselves “as the party of civil rights and individual liberties.” In 1964, in the wake of the Civil Rights Act, five Southern states backed Goldwater instead of Lyndon Johnson. With Richard Nixon’s embrace of a “Southern Strategy” 4 years later, the realignment was virtually complete. The Democrats then tried to figure out a way to win a national election without the backing of Southern states. They seemed to have found it in 2008, a success repeated in 2012.

Maybe Menand hasn’t been reading a newspaper or been on the Internet lately but a case can be made that Obama is the most Orwellian president we have ever had, even more so than Nixon. If there is strong if not febrile opposition to the president in the South from White voters, this does not mean that the national-security state dictates of the post-WWII period have abated. Obama’s use of drones, his attacks on civil liberties, the stiff sentences meted out against whistle-blowers during his presidency, his secret kill lists, his nauseating flattery of the Zionist apartheid state, his failure to prosecute any of the banksters responsible the ruining of the lives of millions of working class families, etc. are exactly the sort of thing that Orwell had in mind when he wrote “1984”.

In fact, we should avoid all temptations to downgrade Orwell on the basis of guilt by association with all the scum that have carried on in the recent past about how great he was and how they are trying to carry on in his tradition, especially Christopher Hitchens and Paul Berman. It is worth having a look at the sort of thing that Orwell was saying in his 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language”:

In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness.

Euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness? Surely Orwell was foreshadowing this sort of thing:

This is the journey we continue today. We remain the most prosperous, powerful nation on Earth. Our workers are no less productive than when this crisis began. Our minds are no less inventive, our goods and services no less needed than they were last week or last month or last year. Our capacity remains undiminished. But our time of standing pat, of protecting narrow interests and putting off unpleasant decisions – that time has surely passed. Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America.

–Barack Obama, 2009 Inauguration Speech

While I would have been an unrepentant Marxist during the New Deal, there is one thing that you could say about FDR. He (or his speechwriters) would never have written such stultifying vapor. Here is a reminder of what convinced voters to pull the lever for FDR even when unemployment remained punishingly high.

We had to struggle with the old enemies of peace–business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking, class antagonism, sectionalism, war profiteering.

They had begun to consider the Government of the United States as a mere appendage to their own affairs. We know now that Government by organized money is just as dangerous as Government by organized mob.

Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me–and I welcome their hatred.

I should like to have it said of my first Administration that in it the forces of selfishness and of lust for power met their match. I should like to have it said of my second Administration that in it these forces met their master.

– Address Announcing the Second New Deal, October 31, 1936

January 25, 2013

Email I just received as a Goldman-Sachs alumni

Filed under: capitalist pig,journalism,liberalism — louisproyect @ 2:49 pm

January 24, 2013

Arianna Huffington and Lloyd Blankfein Discuss Our Common Goal: Empowering Entrepreneurs and Creating Jobs

Lloyd Blankfein and Arianna Huffington, editor-in-chief of The Huffington Post, today co-authored an opinion piece to coincide with the 43rd annual meeting of the World Economic Forum being held in Davos. Our Common Goal: Empowering Entrepreneurs and Creating Jobs examines how entrepreneurship is driving growth around the world and the role of women entrepreneurs, in particular.

This week, politicians, writers, activists, and non-profit leaders are gathered in Davos, Switzerland for the 43rd annual meeting of the World Economic Forum. While the issues to be addressed range from health care to regulation to the environment, the two of us share a common interest in one particular topic — economic growth and job creation. While many European countries are struggling with double-digit unemployment, and America’s recovery continues to limp along at best, many of us gathered in Davos will draw important lessons, not just from one another — amidst the well-intentioned talk and catchy phrases — but from the individuals around the world who are building growth and creating opportunity every day, often overcoming extraordinary obstacles.

Visit GoldmanSachs.com to read the op-ed in full…

September 11, 2012

Progressives for Obama, version 2.0

Filed under: liberalism,New Deal,Obama,parliamentary cretinism — louisproyect @ 7:39 pm

On March 25, 2008 Tom Hayden, Bill Fletcher, Jr., Barbara Ehrenreich, and Danny Glover issued a statement launching “Progressives for Obama” that included a number of endorsers with impeccable Marxist credentials such as Robin D.G. Kelly, Immanuel Wallerstein and Francis Fox Piven. Meanwhile Bill Fletcher Jr. was a one-time member of the Freedom Road Socialist Organization, a “New Communist Movement” (NCM) group that survived the 1980s implosion of Maoism described by Max Elbaum in “Revolution in the Air”. For most NCM groups, working in the Democratic Party was a tactic while for their Trotskyist adversaries it was rank class-collaborationism. Since the inspiration for the New Communist Movement was the “heroic” CPUSA of the 1930s and 40s, it was natural for them to keep an open mind about the Democrats even if the CPUSA itself was widely dismissed as “revisionist”.

Tom Hayden

The statement put forward the notion that pressure applied from below would work to move Obama to the left in much the same way that CIO activism in the 1930s acted on FDR:

However, the fact that Barack Obama openly defines himself as a centrist invites the formation of this progressive force within his coalition. Anything less could allow his eventual drift towards the right as the general election approaches. It was the industrial strikes and radical organizers in the 1930s who pushed Roosevelt to support the New Deal.

Maybe Obama himself bought into this formula since he put the burden of change on the grass roots in his 2012 speech to the Democratic Party convention:

As citizens, we understand that America is not about what can be done for us. It’s about what can be done by us, together, through the hard and frustrating but necessary work of self-government.

So you see, the election four years ago wasn’t about me. It was about you. My fellow citizens – you were the change…

If you turn away now – if you buy into the cynicism that the change we fought for isn’t possible…well, change will not happen. If you give up on the idea that your voice can make a difference, then other voices will fill the void: lobbyists and special interests; the people with the $10 million checks who are trying to buy this election and those who are making it harder for you to vote; Washington politicians who want to decide who you can marry, or control health care choices that women should make for themselves.

Only you can make sure that doesn’t happen. Only you have the power to move us forward.

Immune to Obama’s charisma from the get-go, the NY Times’s Maureen Dowd had little use for the “you were the change” nonsense:

We were the change!

We were the change? Us?

How on earth could we have let so much of what we fought for slip away? How did we allow Mitch McConnell, Karl Rove, the super PACs, the Tea Party, the lobbyists and the special interests take away our voice?

“Only you can make sure that doesn’t happen,” the president chastised us. “Only you have the power to move us forward.”

We’re so lame. We were naïve, brimming with confidence that we could slow the rise of the oceans, heal the planet, fix the cracks in the Capitol dome.

After four years of White House catering to Wall Street banksters, Guantanamo, drone attacks on civilians, death lists that include American citizens, unparalleled deportations, and generally what looks like George W. Bush’s third term, selling Obama 2012 is about as daunting a prospect as opening a pork store in a Hasidic neighborhood.

As an eager albeit clumsy propagandist for the Democratic Party, Tom Hayden stepped into the breach with a challenge to Obama-haters everywhere: support the sleazy incumbent or be found guilty of “white blindness”.

Why Obama’s achievements are dismissed or denied by many on the white liberal-left is a question worth serious consideration. It may only be a matter of legitimate disappointment after the utopian expectations of 2008. It could be pure antipathy to electoral politics, or a superficial assessment of how near impossible it is to change intransigent institutions. It could be a vested organizational interest in asserting there is no difference between the two major parties, a view wildly at odds with the intense partisan conflicts on exhibit every day. Or it could even be a white blindness in perceptions of reality on the left. When African American voters favor Obama 94 percent to zero, and the attacks are coming from the white liberal-left, something needs repair in the foundations of American radicalism.

Tim Wise, who was one of the endorsees of the 2008 pro-Obama declaration, has a virtual monopoly on ferreting out “white blindness” so one hopes for poor Tom Hayden’s sake that Wise does not contact a good intellectual property lawyer.

Singled out as a “white blindness” miscreant is Harper Magazine editor Thomas Frank who had the temerity to conclude that Obama will never pursue a second New Deal because “that is precisely what Obama was here to prevent.” Frank, of course, is symptomatic of the wholesale disillusionment with Obama that Hayden is trying to dismiss. Like Hayden, Frank had a special place in his heart for FDR and devoted much energy and ink trying to advise Democrats how to get their mojo back. Once it became clear that Obama had no use for such advice (his chief aide, now Mayor of Chicago declaring war on the teacher’s union, dismissed anything coming out of “the professional left”), people like Thomas Frank decided that fighting back was the only thing that made sense. Tom Hayden, on the other hand, argued in the words of David Byrne that it was necessary to stop making sense.

Jason Schulman

Michael Hirsch

Proceeding from the ridiculous to the not quite sublime, we consider now an article written for the excellent Jacobin Magazine by two long-time DSA members, Jason Schulman and Michael Hirsch titled “Beyond November”, which starts off on a high note and then plummets downwards at lightning speed.

Marx wrote in The Civil War in France that every few years workers got to decide which members of the ruling class were to misrepresent them. How right he was. And is. That is uncontestable.

The rest of the article amounts to a contesting of exactly what Marx wrote, an exercise in advanced dialectics I guess.

Just to cover their left flank, Hirsch and Schulman write just the sort of thing designed to raise Hayden’s dander:

The prospects of selling Obama as the preferred candidate are daunting, if worth doing at all. With his proliferation of the national security state, his refusal to put juice behind the Conyers 
jobs bill, his water-carrying for the insurance companies and destruction of any near-term possibility for single-payer health care, his failures on card check and other labor law reforms, his refusal to treat Wall Street as a criminal enterprise, his embrace of reactionary education philosophies, his incursive black-ops foreign policy, and his ten o’clock scholar’s embrace of gay marriage, his is an administration not to praise but to damn.

Well, hurrah for damning. Where do I sign up?

Apparently our two intrepid leftists have a bait-and-switch scheme up their sleeves because they end up finding reasons to vote Democrat, even if it falls within the category of damning with faint praise. As an unrepentant Marxist, I won’t settle for anything less than pure damning—Dante 9th circle style.

After describing 3rd party election campaigns like the Greens as being based on a “prayer” rather than a “plan”, they make the hoary case for being practical:

The Democrats as a coalition are hegemonic because they provide a service, finite as it is, that is indispensable for institutions, whether they be unions, social service providers, or community-based organizations.

The article concludes with a call for reelecting Obama—if you read between the lines:

Allowing Obama to be reelected without any critique from the Left – even one that is purely propagandistic, as the Green and Socialist parties will offer – only ratifies his centrist approach of cottoning to and co-opting the Right while neutering the Left and any possibility for substantial social gains. We can do better.

In other words, it is okay to vote for Obama just as long as you make sure to make the record that he is something of a pig.

Maybe Michael Hirsch felt constrained to deemphasize the need to actually vote for Obama in 2012—the official position of the Democratic Socialists of America, the group he has been long associated with—because Jacobin’s editors are quite a bit to the left of the DSA, even if a few are members. If you go to the DSA website, you can find a position paper on the 2012 elections that makes the “lesser evil” case quite openly even while renouncing it. That’s the art of dialectics, after all:

In light of the threat that would be posed to basic democratic rights by Republican control of all three branches of the federal government, most trade union, feminist, LGBTQ and African- American and Latino organizations will work vigorously to re-elect the president. And in swing states such as Pennsylvania, Ohio, Virginia, Wisconsin and elsewhere, many DSA members may choose to do the same. But DSA recognizes that an Obama victory, unaccompanied by the strengthening of an independent progressive coalition able to challenge the elites of both parties, will be a purely defensive engagement in lesser-evil politics.

This is the same argument I have been hearing since 1968, a year after I joined the Trotskyist movement. Ironically, I became disillusioned with the Democratic Party three years earlier, just after graduating Bard College.

I was too young to vote in 1964 but if I had been old enough I surely would have voted for Lyndon Johnson. I was not that concerned with Vietnam since it was still a very much low intensity affair but the idea of Barry Goldwater’s finger on the H-Bomb trigger scared the bejeezus out of me.

He told audiences, “Some others are eager to enlarge the conflict. They call upon the U.S. to supply American boys to do the job that Asian boys should do. We are not about to send American boys nine or ten thousand miles away from home to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves. We don’t want to get . . . tied down to a land war in Asia.”

It turned out he had plans to escalate the war all along. I spent most of 1966 staring at the evening news on television trying to figure out what the fuck was going on. How could a “peace” candidate turn out to be such a warmonger?

Within a year I got educated into class politics through new members classes in the Young Socialist Alliance and particularly “Socialism on Trial”, which amounted to the court proceedings in the trial of SWP leaders in 1941 for violation of the Smith Act. James P. Cannon testified on the party’s attitude toward Roosevelt’s New Deal:

Q: What is the position of the party on the attempt of Roosevelt to improve the social system in this country?

A: How do you mean, “improve the social system”?

Q: To set capitalism into motion again, after the depression of 1929.

A: Well, all these measures of the New Deal were made possible in this country, and not possible for the poorer countries of Europe, because of the enormous accumulation of wealth in this country. But the net result of the whole New Deal experiment was simply the expenditure of billions and billions of dollars to create a fictitious stability, which in the end evaporated.

Now the Roosevelt administration is trying to accomplish the same thing by the artificial means of a war boom; that is, of an armament boom, but again, in our view, this has no possibility of permanent stability at all.

Q: With reference to the misery and suffering of the masses, what would you say as to the existence of that factor in the United States?

A: In our view, the living standards of the masses have progressively deteriorated in this country since 1929. They haven’t yet reached that stage which I mentioned as a prerequisite of an enormous upsurge of revolutionary feeling, but millions of American workers were pauperised following 1929; and that, in our opinion, is a definite sign of the development of this prerequisite for the revolution.

There’s not much that I retain from my ill-spent youth in the Trotskyist movement but I’ll take James P. Cannon over Tom Hayden’s circumlocutions and Hirsch-Schulman’s “dialectics” any day of the week. Hopes for Obama launching a new New Deal are all the more vain in light of the fact that the original was a con job to begin with. And that’s that.

April 9, 2012

British liberals versus Karl Marx; Marx wins by a TKO

Filed under: economics,liberalism,Red Plenty,ussr — louisproyect @ 6:12 pm

Francis Spufford

John Lanchester

The heavyweight champ

For someone deemed so obsolete and irrelevant, Karl Marx has a way of getting under the skin of liberal intellectuals 193 years after his birth. For example, John Lanchester—a British novelist and nonfiction writer born in 1962—spends 6016 words (!) trying to drive a stake through the heart of Marx’s ideas in an essay titled Marx at 193 that appears in the left-leaning London Review of Books:

The most obvious mistake in his version of the world is to do with class. There is something like a classic Marxian proletariat dispersed through the world. But Marx foresaw that this proletariat would be an increasingly centralised and organised force: indeed, this was one of the reasons it would prove so dangerous to capitalism. By creating the conditions in which labour would be sure to organise and assemble collectively capitalism was arranging its own downfall. But there is no organised global conflict between the classes; there is no organised global proletariat.

About a month before this article appeared, Crooked Timber—a group blog hosted by liberal academics also obsessed with burying Karl Marx—advised its readers that Francis Spufford’s new mixture of fact and fiction (faction in more senses than one) titled “Red Plenty” is “a mosaic novel that simultaneously speaks intelligently to the Soviet calculation debate, and has engaging characters.” Like Lanchester, two years his senior, Spufford writes both novels and nonfiction and is British. Since both Lanchester and Spufford were too young to be part of the sixties radicalization when socialist revolution had more of a palpable reality than it does today, one suspects that there might be a generational thing going on. Or Oedipal, if you are into Freud.

Oddly enough, the disappearance of the Soviet Union and the general decline of a revolutionary movement are not enough to assuage them. Could it be possible that if there was only a single human being committed to socialism living on the planet Earth at some point in the distant future, outlets like the London Review of Books and Crooked Timber would still be writing broadsides against this “irrelevant” movement? What the liberal intelligentsia fails to understand is that Marxism will exist as long as there is capitalism. Capitalism generates its negative critique—Marxism—through the creation of class antagonisms born out of the brutal reality this unnatural social system generates. If Karl Marx had never been born, someone else would have come along to develop an analysis of the capitalist system and a program to eliminate it. That’s the dialectic the liberals cannot understand.

I am currently about 40 percent through with “Red Plenty” and will be posting a critique but in the meantime I want to direct you to the introduction of Part Three where Francis Spufford dispenses with his fictional examination of Soviet characters involved with attempts to modernize the economy through automation and lays out “what went wrong” with the USSR. I have scanned the introduction, which can be read here: http://www.marxmail.org/Red_Plenty_Intro.htm. I want to single out a couple of sections to give you a feel for his approach:

Spufford’s take on Lenin comes out of the Cold War Sovietology playbook:

With almost no industrial workers to represent, the Bolshevik (‘majority) faction of the Russian Social Democratic Party was a tiny, freakish cult, under the thumb of a charismatic minor aristocrat, V.I. Lenin, who had developed a doctrine of the party’s, and by extension his own, infallibility. The Bolsheviks had no chance of influencing events, and certainly no chance at getting anywhere near political power, until the First World War turned Russian society upside down. In the chaos and economic collapse following the overthrow of the Tsar by disorganised liberals, they were able to use the discipline of the cult’s membership to mount a coup d’etat — and then to finesse themselves into the leadership of all those in Russia who were resisting the armed return of the old regime. Suddenly, a small collection of fanatics and opportunists found themselves [sic, should be itself, since “a small collection” is singular, not plural] running the country that least resembled Marx’s description of a place ready for socialist revolution.

Robert Service could not have put it better.

After several decades of Stalin’s forced march, the USSR began to catch up to the industrialized West, so much so that it became possible to consider a stepped-up investment in consumer goods. The term ‘Red Plenty’ alludes to the hopes of its various Soviet characters that they would have just as much as the Americans et al. Spufford writes:

Yet somehow this economy had to grow, and go on growing, without a pause. It wasn’t just a question of overtaking the Americans. There were still people in the Soviet Union, at the beginning of the 1960s, who believed in Marx’s original idyll: and one of them was the First Secretary of the Party, Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev. Somehow, the economy had to carry the citizens of the Bolshevik corporation all the way up the steepening slope of growth to the point where the growing blended into indistinguishable plenty, where the work of capitalism and its surrogate were done at last, where history resumed its rightful course; where the hunting started, and the fishing, and the criticising after dinner, and the technology of abundance would purr in the background like a contented cat.

For Spufford, the USSR of the 1950s and 60s is kind of a funhouse mirror of the United States of the same period—in other words a country aspiring to look like the hit television show “Mad Men”. Socialism becomes more or less equated with a hankering for more, rather than for freedom. Since Spufford is a man of the left, it is not surprising that he is appalled by consumerism, whichever ideology fosters it. He told the Guardian in August 2010:

Our version isn’t costless either. The steel and concrete required to sustain it are created for us elsewhere, out of sight, leaving us free to stroll around our pastel pavilion, on the side of which glimmers the word “Tesco”. Inside are piled, just as Khrushchev hoped, riches to humble the kings of antiquity. But terms and conditions apply.

While I will be on the lookout for any clues that Spufford has entertained the possibility that 21st century socialism will proceed on utterly different foundations than what Henry Miller once called the Air-Conditioned Nightmare, the prognosis seems guarded. The general impression I get from what I have read so far, both in “Red Plenty” and his musings elsewhere, is that of a jaded intellectual who believes that it is better to deal with the devil you know—an understandable stance if you are a college professor in London instead of a Greek pensioner.

Turning now to John Lanchester’s essay, you can at least be grateful to him for providing so many examples of how not to read Marx. It is a kind of clinical study in liberal confusion, mixed with deliberate misrepresentation, starting with the nonsense about the disappearance of the working class as a “centralized” and “organized” force. Perhaps the only thing worth stating at this point is if nobody ever wrote a single word from a Marxist standpoint after Marx’s death, Lanchester’s comments would be valid. However, Marxism continued after Marx’s death—surprise, surprise. While Lanchester refers to David Harvey in his essay (see below), he does not seem to have grasped his key theoretical contribution, namely the ability of capital to decentralize the working class through geographical displacement of its internal contradictions. With respect to it being “organized”, we can only say that this is not Marx’s responsibility—it is ours.

His essay tries for the umpteenth time to refute some of the basic precepts of Capital, especially Marx’s concept of value:

There are obvious difficulties with Marx’s arguments. One of them is that so many of the contemporary world’s goods and commodities are now virtual (in the digital-oriented sense) that it’s not easy to see where the accumulated labour in them is. David Harvey’s lectures on Capital, for instance, the best beginning for anyone studying Marx’s most important book, are of immense value but they’re also available for free on the internet, so if you buy them as a book – you can take in information much more quickly by reading than by listening – the surplus value you’re adding to is mainly your own.

Huh?

There is so much confusion packed into this brief paragraph that it would take a week to draw out and dissect it. To put it briefly (and this is all it deserves), the books, music and videos available for free on the Internet were either created originally through the process of surplus value creation (just ask the NY Times reporter if his work was originally “for free”) or by schnooks like me who want to win friends and influence people on a pro bono basis. If the writers, artists, and film-makers whose stuff gets circulated on Huffington Post never got paid, there never would have been anything to look at (except of course for the bloggers who got conned into writing for free.) How this invalidates Marx’s theory of value is anybody’s guess.

Lanchester also believes that when you carry your own bags at the airport for free, you are proving Marx wrong:

Online check-in is a process which should genuinely increase the efficiency of the airport experience, thereby costing you less time: time you can spend doing other things, some of them economically useful to you. But what the airlines do is employ so few people to supervise the bag drop-off that there’s no time-saving at all for the customer. When you look, you see that because airlines have to employ more people to supervise the non-online-checked-in customers – otherwise the planes wouldn’t leave on time – the non-checked-in queues move far more quickly.

The same thing is true for the CVS pharmacy across the street from me that replaced most of its sales clerks with scanning machines. I ring up my scanned goods and pack them myself. But this is not what CVS is about. Mostly it is about commodities stocked on the shelves that are the products of alienated labor. For example, the paper products Vanity Fair, Angel Soft, and Northern Quilted are all made by Georgia-Pacific, part of Koch Industries. In December 2010, the workers at Georgia-Pacific in Portland, Oregon rallied against their bosses’ greed:

On the cold afternoon of December 4th, fourth generation Georgia- Pacific (G-P) employee Travis McKinney raised his voice above the frigid wind as he stood with close to one hundred of his co-workers, union allies and community supporters in front of the office at the company’s largest distribution center for paper products in Portland, Oregon.

He described to an outraged crowd, management’s cold-blooded refusal to allow him to tend to his daughter’s health: “When I had to take my daughter to the hospital to be diagnosed, the company told me I had to stay and work overtime instead.” Travis was eventually able to get medical help for his daughter – despite G-P’s lack of support – and found that she was autistic.

Doug Stilwell, another G-P employee, spoke at the rally about management’s constant pressure to speed up forklift operations. “There is no safety… ever since they put this computer system in here [to automatically direct workers when to move loads], we’re all taking shortcuts trying to get this stuff down, pushing their paper out. It’s wrong,” said Stilwell.

This is the underlying reality of CVS or American Airlines, another labor-bashing outfit, not me scanning my toilet paper or doing online check-in’s of my suitcases.

Lanchester’s trump card is just as what one might have expected: the welfare state. The fact that we are no longer working 12 hours a day and one step away from the poorhouse makes Marx obsolete:

The contemporary welfare state – housing and educating and feeding and providing healthcare for its citizens, from birth to death – is a development which challenges the basis of Marx’s analysis of what capitalism is: I think he would have looked hard at the welfare state and wondered whether it fundamentally undermined his analysis, just because it is so different from the capitalism Marx saw operating in his day, and from which he extrapolated. Perhaps he would argue that what has happened is that British society in its entirety has become part of a global bourgeoisie, and the proletariat is now in other countries; that’s a possible argument, but not one that’s easy to sustain in the face of the inequalities which exist and are growing in our society. But Scandinavian welfare capitalism is very different from the state-controlled capitalism of China, which is in turn almost wholly different from the free-market, sauve-qui-peut capitalism of the United States, which is again different from the nationalistic and heavily socialised capitalism of France, which again is not at all like the curious hybrid we have in the UK, in which our governments are wholly devoted to the free market and yet we have areas of welfare and provision they haven’t dared address.

How odd to see someone pointing to the welfare states of Europe nowadays when all of them are on a forced march to resemble the United States, with Greece a prime example of the fate that befalls them all—Germany and the Scandinavian countries to follow suit. All of them are under pressure to compete in a global market that is putting immense pressure on the more prosperous countries to drive down the wages of their workers so as to compete with the less prosperous.

It should be understood, however, that the existence of these welfare states is predicated not on the tendency of the bourgeoisie to operate against its own class interests. Historically, they came into being only because they were seen as a way to preempt proletarian revolution. In some ways, German’s Bismarck paved the way for FDR, the Scandinavian and British welfare states and all the rest.

Under Bismarck, the following pieces of legislation were enacted:

  • Health Insurance Bill of 1883
  • Accident Insurance Bill of 1884
  • Old Age and Disability Insurance Bill of 1889

He sponsored such legislation only because the German socialists were building a counter-force to German capitalism that had the potential to eliminate it. Even when he was pushing through welfare-state legislation well ahead of his time, Bismarck made sure to enact anti-socialist laws that resulted in the closing of 45 newspapers.

FDR was not that different. Widely recognized for fighting against the capitalists in order to preserve their own system, he made sure that the only threat to the status quo—the Trotskyists—ended up in prison at the beginning of WWII.

Whatever nostalgia you confront in “Red Plenty” for a fat and happy consumerist America of the 1950s or in Lanchester’s welfare state disappearing before your eyes like a Cheshire cat, the reality we confront is much more like Marx’s 1860s than either liberal is willing to accept. That is their problem, not ours.

December 7, 2011

Bull Moose and bullshit

Filed under: liberalism,Obama — louisproyect @ 6:39 pm

In keeping with his cynical bid to restyle himself as some kind of leftist, Barack Obama made a speech yesterday in Osawatomie, Kansas that invoked the legacy of Roosevelt. No, comrades and friends, it was not that Roosevelt—the New Dealer that the soft left hoped he would become—but his fifth cousin Theodore. It didn’t matter that much. That was all people like Salon.com’s Steve Kornacki needed to hear:

His embrace of defiant, populist messaging also represents a final, definitive break with the bipartisan-friendly political style that defined Obama’s rise to power and the first two-and-a-half years of his presidency.

The Nation Magazine’s Ari Berman wrote:

You’re likely to hear elements of this speech over and over as the campaign heats up, as the Obama campaign attempts to stand with the 99 percent and paint Gingrich or Romney as core defenders of the 1 percent. None other than Chuck Schumer, one of the senators who represents Wall Street, told Washington Post blogger Greg Sargent that Democrats would focus on income inequality “like a laser” in 2012.

This is the same Chuck Schumer that the NY Times described as embracing the financial industry’s “free-market, deregulatory agenda more than almost any other Democrat in Congress, even backing some measures now blamed for contributing to the financial crisis.” The December 13, 2008 article added:

He succeeded in limiting efforts to regulate credit-rating agencies, for example, sponsored legislation that cut fees paid by Wall Street firms to finance government oversight, pushed to allow banks to have lower capital reserves and called for the revision of regulations to make corporations’ balance sheets more transparent.

None of this matters to liberals who tend to have a short memory. As long as you toss them a bone, stroke them on the chin, all is forgiven.

Going slightly against the grain, Duke Law Professor Jedediah Purdy (love that name, like a character from an old Bonanza show) urged a note of caution. Compared to the original, the current occupant of the White House is a cheap imitation—more of a mouse than a moose.

Roosevelt’s speech was also much more unapologetically radical than Obama’s. He quoted Abraham Lincoln to say that labor is superior to capital, and praised active “struggle” against unfair inequality: “to take from some … class of men the right to enjoy power, or wealth … which has not been earned by service to … their fellows.” He told his listeners that progress arose from the contest between those who possessed more than they had earned, and others who earned more than they possessed — plainly implying that most of Osawatomie was in the second group, the 99 percent of their day. Where Obama’s speech was basically conciliatory, Roosevelt’s was filled with images of what today would be called class warfare.

I want to return to the question of Roosevelt’s deeds as opposed to his words momentarily. After all, anybody who is familiar with Obama’s campaign speeches in 2008 knows that words are cheap. That being said, if you read between the lines you will realize that we are dealing with the same-old, same-old.

Theodore Roosevelt disagreed. He was the Republican son of a wealthy family. He praised what the titans of industry had done to create jobs and grow the economy. He believed then what we know is true today, that the free market is the greatest force for economic progress in human history. It’s led to a prosperity and a standard of living unmatched by the rest of the world.

At the outset, it should be noted that anybody who uses the buzzwords “grow the economy” at this point is a shameless tool of the ruling class. This cliché smacks of boardroom pep rallies, WSJ editorial page cant, business school lectures and all the rest. I first began to hear them working for Goldman-Sachs in 1987 and wondered what the hell top managers were talking about when they used those words. You grow a geranium, not an economy or a corporation. It invokes the image of somebody in a navy-blue business suit and a power yellow tie standing over a thing called the economy with a watering can. This mystifies the whole concept of how capitalism works. It is not organic like a garden flower, but something that involves exploitation. The proper tool is not a watering can but a blackjack.

With respect to the titans of industry creating jobs, Obama seems to have forgotten what Balzac observed in the epigraph to “Le Père Goriot”: “Behind every great fortune there is a crime”. Oil, steel and rail—three of the biggest capitalized sectors of the American economy during Teddy Roosevelt’s presidency—were the end-result of a scorched earth attack on workers, the land, and native peoples. For Roosevelt, their excesses consisted of monopoly pricing, not Pinkerton attacks on strikers.

Obama’s speech contained a couple of paragraphs that could have been written by Robert Reich or Paul Krugman:

Look at the statistics. In the last few decades, the average income of the top 1% has gone up by more than 25% to $1.2m per year. I’m not talking about millionaires, people who have a million dollars. I’m saying people who make a million dollars every single year. For the top one hundredth of 1%, the average income is now $27m per year. The typical CEO who used to earn about 30 times more than his or her worker now earns 110 times more. And yet, over the last decade the incomes of most Americans have actually fallen by about 6%.

Now, this kind of inequality – a level that we haven’t seen since the Great Depression – hurts us all. When middle-class families can no longer afford to buy the goods and services that businesses are selling, when people are slipping out of the middle class, it drags down the entire economy from top to bottom. America was built on the idea of broad-based prosperity, of strong consumers all across the country. That’s why a CEO like Henry Ford made it his mission to pay his workers enough so that they could buy the cars he made. It’s also why a recent study showed that countries with less inequality tend to have stronger and steadier economic growth over the long run.

When it comes down to concrete proposals, Obama offers up the same tired formulas that Democratic Party “new economy” hacks like Lester Thurow and Michael Dukakis have been offering for decades now:

In today’s innovation economy, we also need a world-class commitment to science and research, the next generation of high-tech manufacturing. Our factories and our workers shouldn’t be idle. We should be giving people the chance to get new skills and training at community colleges so they can learn how to make wind turbines and semiconductors and high-powered batteries.

Actually, the real answer is not training but a guarantee of a job. If you think of jobs as a human right rather than a cog in the competitive machinery to ensure that the USA is Number One, then the dividing line between the ruled and the rulers becomes obvious. Nobody who is attending those white-tie fund-raising dinners for Obama has the slightest interest in guaranteeing that all Americans who want a job can have a job.

Obama probably knows that getting “new skills” does not work, but that did not prevent him from raising false hopes. A July 18, 2010 NY Times article reports exactly how false they are:

In what was beginning to feel like a previous life, Israel Valle had earned $18 an hour as an executive assistant to a designer at a prominent fashion label. Now, he was jobless and struggling to find work. He decided to invest in upgrading his skills.

It was February 2009, and the city work force center in Downtown Brooklyn was jammed with hundreds of people hungry for paychecks. His caseworker urged him to take advantage of classes financed by the federal government, which had increased money for job training. Upgrade your skills, she counseled. Then she could arrange job interviews.

For six weeks, Mr. Valle, 49, absorbed instruction in spreadsheets and word processing. He tinkered with his résumé. But the interviews his caseworker eventually arranged were for low-wage jobs, and they were mobbed by desperate applicants. More than a year later, Mr. Valle remains among the record 6.8 million Americans who have been officially jobless for six months or longer. He recently applied for welfare benefits.

“Training was fruitless,” he said. “I’m not seeing the benefits. Training for what? No one’s hiring.”

Hundreds of thousands of Americans have enrolled in federally financed training programs in recent years, only to remain out of work. That has intensified skepticism about training as a cure for unemployment.

And now for some concluding remarks on Teddy Roosevelt—mostly channeling the spirit of the sorely missed Howard Zinn who debunked him in “People’s History of the United States” just as he did with FDR.

In 1906 after Big Bill Haywood and two other officers of the Western Federation of Miners were imprisoned on trumped up murder charges, Eugene V. Debs wrote an article in “Appeal to Reason” denouncing the decision. This led to Roosevelt sending a copy of the article to his Attorney General, W. II. Moody, with a note: “is it possible to proceed against Debs and the proprietor of this paper criminally?”

Overall, Zinn’s analysis of Teddy Roosevelt is not much different than the one of FDR. The first Roosevelt presidency pushed through some reforms that were intended to preserve the system. Just as FDR worried about the Bolshevik threat, so did Teddy worry about Debs’s socialist party that was far more radical in some ways than the CPUSA. Zinn writes:

The panic of 1907, as well as the growing strength of the Socialists, Wobblies, and trade unions, speeded the process of reform. According to Wiebe: “Around 1908 a qualitative shift in outlook occurred among large numbers of these men of authority.. . .” The emphasis was now on “enticements and compromises.” It continued with Wilson, and “a great many reform-minded citizens indulged the illusion of a progressive fulfillment.”

What radical critics now say of those reforms was said at the time (1901) by the Bankers’ Magazine: “As the business of the country has learned the secret of combination, it is gradually subverting the power of the politician and rendering him subservient to its purposes. . , .”

There was much to stabilize, much to protect. By 1904, 318 trusts, with capital of more than seven billion dollars, controlled 40% of the U.S. manufacturing.

In 1909, a manifesto of the new Progressivism appeared-a book called The Promise of American Life by Herbert Croly, editor of the New Republic and an admirer of Theodore Roosevelt. He saw the need for discipline and regulation if the American system were to continue. Government should do more, he said, and he hoped to see the “sincere and enthusiastic imitation of heroes and saints”- by whom he may have meant Theodore Roosevelt.

Richard Hofstadter, in his biting chapter on the man the public saw as the great lover of nature and physical fitness, the war hero, the Boy Scout in the White House, says: “The advisers to whom Roosevelt listened were almost exclusively representatives of industrial and finance capital-men like Hanna, Robert Bacon, and George W. Perkins of the House of Morgan, Elihu Root, Senator Nelson W. Aldrich … and James Stillman of the Rockefeller interests.” Responding to his worried brother-in-law writing from Wall Street, Roosevelt replied: “I intend to be most conservative, but in the interests of the corporations themselves and above all in the interests of the country.”

Roosevelt supported the regulatory Hepburn Act because he feared something worse. He wrote to Henry Cabot Lodge that the railroad lobbyists who opposed the bill were wrong: “I think they are very shortsighted not to understand that to beat it means to increase the movement for government ownership of the railroads.” His action against the trusts was to induce them to accept government regulation, in order to prevent destruction. He prosecuted the Morgan railroad monopoly in the Northern Securities Case, considering it an antitrust victory, but it hardly changed anything, and, although the Sherman Act provided for criminal penalties, there was no prosecution of the men who had planned the monopoly-Morgan, Harriman, Hill.

While most of us would be happy to see Obama push through even such half-measures, either on a Bull Moose or a New Deal basis, there is no possibility that they will materialize for the simple reason that the American economy is no longer based on the smokestack industries that marked the period of the first half-century of the 1900s. Obama speaks for a ruling class that is either based on fictitious capital or that is all too happy to see manufacturing continue its sorry decline. After all, their purpose in life is not to create jobs but to create profits.

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