Posts Tagged ‘United States’

In late 2010 a revolt of the poor and unemployed  broke out in Tunisia. Within a few short months the rebellion had spread, with earth-shattering effects,  to Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain, Libya, Syria, Oman, Iraq and other countries. This inspired the movement of square occupations in Spain and Greece, and even spread to the USA with the occupation of the capitol building in Madison, Wisconsin and later the Occupy movement.

Something similar, but on a much bigger scale, took place after the First World War. In February 1917 hordes of Russian soldiers joined the workers of the cities in revolt and overthrew the Tsar. The Soviets, councils of directly-elected workers, peasants and soldiers, grew in strengthA-tank-is-dismantled-in-B-006. In November the world’s first successful socialist revolution was consummated as the soviets, led by the Bolshevik Party, seized power from the short-lived bourgeois government. The effect was electric: within months a million German, Austrian and Hungarian workers were on strike against the war. This initial revolutionary wave battered against the German and Austro-Hungarian Empires, but was beaten back.

In October and November 1918 the assault began again with renewed force. German sailors refused to go out on a suicide mission, and 1918NovMutinyKiel$Fragen300pxwinstead seized control of the ships from their officers. The sailors marched with the red flag into coastal cities and revolution spread uncontrollably throughout Germany. Soviets controlled Berlin and most major cities. The war ended and the Kaiser fled to Holland. The Austro-Hungarian and German Empires followed the Russian Empire into oblivion.

Civil war was raging in Russia. Britain, France, the USA, Japan and other countries intervened with thousands of troops and staggering amounts of money to prop up the White Armies who fought to restore the old regime. But British workers refused to carry weapons destined for use against Russian workers. French sailors in the Black Sea, sent there as muscle for the Whites, took over their ships, raised the red flag, shelled the Greek troops that tried to stop them, and set sail for home.

In 1919 and 1920 civil war conditions in parts of Europe mirrored on a smaller, more dispersed scale the civil war in Russia. Bavaria and Hungary became socialist Soviet republics and had to fight with bullets for every month of their short lives. Germany saw years of battles, uprisings and coups.

In Italy the “Biennio Rosso” saw revolutionary land seizures in the south and factory occupations in the north. In Spain general strikes, struggles on the farms and bombings and shootings defined the “Bolshevik Triennium” of 1918-1920. A radical peasant government came to power in Bulgaria, shoving aside the old military-aristocratic rulers.

South Africa, Australia, Argentina and Peru saw strikes and social conflicts on a huge scale. The United States saw the Seattle general strike,

A leaflet from the Seattle General Strike, 1919

A leaflet from the Seattle General Strike, 1919

the Boston Police strike and the colossal steel strike in Pennsylvania and Indiana. In Canada syndicalist workers took over Winnipeg.

The May Fourth movement in China saw mass protests of young people and gave birth to the Chinese Communist Party. Communist revolutionaries took power in Mongolia.

In England massive strikes took place alongside mass army mutinies. One mutiny saw British soldiers establish a “soviet” in a French coastal town. Strikes in Glasgow reached such intensity that crowds of workers battled police in George Square – and won. Union leader Willie Gallacher downed a police chief with a perfect punch to the jaw. Against the soldiers’ soviet and against Glasgow the British government had no alternative but to send in tanks and troops.

The British Empire stood on the edge of an abyss. Faced with revolution in Egypt, it resorted to killing thousands of people. In India, a general strike led a British officer to massacre hundreds of peaceful protestors in Amritsar.

Ireland

Amazingly, many of those who write about Europe in this period leave Ireland out of this story or else deny that there was much connection. On the other hand most Irish historians entirely ignore the international context to Irish events. But Ireland is in fact a very good case study in this global revolutionary wave, having all the key elements: local and national general strikes, massive industrial and agrarian unrest, syndicalist militancy, mass demonstrations, civil disobedience, factory occupations, imperialist and anti-imperialist violence, a movement for self-determination and a civil war.

The Leaders of the Labour Movement

In the 19th century the capitalist class transformed the world. In Europe and North America industrialisation created massive cities, concentrated working classes and a new abundance of wealth. As the century went on free enterprise gave way inevitably to gigantic monopolies. Capital chased new markets and resources, and the flag and the gun followed, subjecting all the world to the rule of the few advanced capitalist countries.

The working class internationally was becoming more and more organised and militant. Their industrial and political rise brought to prominence a privileged layer of leaders, bureaucrats and politicians who were more interested in compromise than struggle, who believed (conveniently for them and their cosy positions) that progress toward socialism and working-class emancipation must be slow, gradual and within the framework of the bosses’ laws and in the political arena dominated by the rich.

In the years before the outbreak of the First World War trade union membership and power grew impressively, driven by the “New Unionism” of militant tactics and socialist politics, in defiance of the growing bureaucratic stagnation. In England this found its expression in the “Great Unrest”; in Ireland it appeared in the form of 1907 Belfast strike and in the 1913 Dublin lockout.

Then came the war. Bloody fighting raged on the frontlines, consuming millions of human lives, but in the hungry cities and villages an oppressive peace reigned between the worker and the boss.

The labour movement split in two with the declaration of war. The majority of the leaders of the socialist, labour and social-democratic parties all over Europe sided with their own governments in the war.

In 1917 Paul Lensch, a German social-democratic parliamentarian, wrote of “World-Revolution” – but not with the meaning you might expect. For him the World War was not the prelude to world revolution – it was the world revolution! It represented “the overthrow of the English world domination by the Germans”. He compared this to the overthrow of the Roman Empire by “the Germans” 1500 years before. The idea of the right of peoples to independence was just “individualistic international anarchy”. Germany would triumph, “and then will dawn a new epoch for humanity.” And after all, Lensch makes clear, the more Germany wins in the war, the more spoils there will be to divide between labour and capital.[1]

Lensch stated the case more nakedly and blatantly than others dared. However this was the basic attitude of most of the labour leaders of all the combatant countries. Exceptions included the Bolsheviks in the Russian Empire and the far weaker labour movement in Ireland. But the British Labour Party, the French Parti Socialiste and the vast majority of the leaders of the German SPD betrayed the pledges they had made to resist war through general strike action. Their country was exceptional and had great things to offer the world – by conquering it. Victory (which they all saw as inevitable for their side) would bring the spoils of the war home to the working class.

Leadership in Revolution

The extent of enthusiasm for the war has been greatly exaggerated. In any case the apparent pro-war consensus was shattered in the closing years of the war, especially from 1917 onward. As we have described, the working class rose up repeatedly with tremendous energy and organisation. But they were saddled with an utterly bankrupt leadership, the same that had led them into the war.

In November 1918, hundreds of thousands thronged the streets of Berlin and soviets ruled many cities. From one balcony the revolutionary socialist Karl Liebknecht was declaring a soviet socialist republic; from another balcony nearby the social-democrat Ebert was

Street fighting in Germany, 1919

Street fighting in Germany, 1919

anxious to steal a march on Liebknecht, and declared a republic. The masses still trusted their old leaders, and thought they offered the surest path toward socialism; in reality, social-democrats like Ebert, Scheidemann and Noske were making deals behind the scenes with bosses and proto-fascist militias to stave off revolution even at the cost of thousands of lives. In this way the advocates of “gradual” reforms toward socialism handed over the initiative to the far right and prepared the way for the triumph of fascism in Germany.

In Italy likewise the Socialist Party failed to take the initiative when, in 1920, workers ruled thousands of factories. Again, the initiative passed to the right. Mentally unstable and sadistic individuals formed death squads and spent their nights high on coke beating up and killing socialists and workers’ leaders. Funded by industrialists, with a vanguard of special forces veterans, these “combat groups” used brute force to beat the life out of the Italian revolution. Their leader, an ex-socialist crank named Mussolini, became the fascist dictator of Italy, the first in the world, in 1922.

Austrian Social-Democratic leader Otto Bauer described the great demonstrations that rocked Vienna day after day in 1919: “Every newspaper brought news of the struggle of the Spartacists in Germany, every speech gave information of the glorious Russian Revolution, which by one stroke had put an end to all exploitation. The masses who had recently witnessed the downfall of a strong empire had no suspicion of the strength of the Capitalist Entente. They imagined that revolution would spread like wildfire through the victorious countries. ‘A dictatorship of the proletariat!’–‘ All power to the Soviets!’–nothing else was heard in the streets […] Peasants had also returned home from the trenches full of hatred for war and militarism, for the bureaucracy and for the plutocracy [… ] Together with the proletariat they imagined that the political revolution must needs bring with it a revolution with respect to property ownership.” (http://www.marxists.org/archive/james-clr/works/world/ch04.htm)

CLR James points out that the same Otto Bauer who describes so vividly this revolutionary situation did everything he could to dampen and defuse it. The Social-Democrats, brought into a new government, refused guns to the Hungarian Soviet Republic, arrested the Austrian Communist leaders and shot down workers who protested demanding their release. Absurdly conservative, the Austrian social-democratic leaders refused to be so bold as to call for freedom for the oppressed nationalities of the Austro-Hungarian Empire until after that Empire had collapsed, and self-determination was an established fact!

In James’ words, the post-war years saw “the new Socialist order striving to be born all over Europe, and a thin scum of bureaucrats with the ear of the masses holding up the historical process and throwing humanity a generation back.” (http://www.marxists.org/archive/james-clr/works/world/ch04.htm)

History doesn’t move at a pace set by comfortable labour bureaucrats. When revolutionary situations arise, you can’t wish them out of

The triumph of fascism meant the death-blow to the trade-union and socialist movements

The triumph of fascism meant the death-blow to the trade-union and socialist movements

existence and go back to the slow accumulation of inoffensive reforms. A year of defeats can undo a half-century of slow methodical organisation. A year of decisive, strong, revolutionary leadership, as demonstrated in 1917 in Russia, can end with the working class in power. On the other hand, given half a chance, the bosses play their trump card, fascism, which uses ultra-nationalism, male action-hero attitudes and violence to crush the power and organisation of the working class.

The Verdict on the World Revolution

This was the dark, tragic side of the World Revolution. Its successes are obvious: they include establishing the world’s first workers’ state and planned economy in the USSR, ridding the world of four rotten monarchies, self-determination and universal suffrage in many countries, and ending the war. But its failures, which are the responsibility of the social-democratic leaders of the day, led to the triumph of counter-revolution. In Germany, Italy and Spain this took the form of fascism.

Within a hungry, backward, isolated Russia the reaction took shape as Stalinism. This represented a privileged layer of managers and bureaucrats who maintained their power by slaughtering and starving peasants, national minority groups and all those who stood for the real tradition of the Russian Revolution. They forever stained the name of Marxism, socialism and communism by covering their crimes with a paper-thin layer of justification in the language of the revolution.

Historical phenomena aren’t 90-minute feature films. They don’t end neatly with an unambiguous triumph for a clearly-defined set of sympathetic characters. Fanciful historians always counterpose to the hardship and suffering of revolution some imaginary form of government called “liberal democracy”. The countries they refer to, France

The slaughter of revolutionaries by reactionary army officers, captured in this contemporary cartoon

The slaughter of revolutionaries by reactionary army officers, captured in this contemporary cartoon

and Britain, were viciously class-divided societies which ruled over vast empires whose subjects enjoyed few democratic rights and suffered famines comparable to those that happened under Stalin.

In any case an advanced capitalist society is not an appropriate “control” from which to judge the success of a revolution in a vast semi-feudal empire. We have no such “control” in the colossal experiment that is revolution.

Ireland

Pivotal moments in Irish history tend to mirror global events. The 1798 rebellion was fought under the slogans of liberty, equality and fraternity. The 1948 Republic of Ireland Act came, not by accident, during the period of a great international strike wave, the establishment of the welfare state, independence for India and the Chinese revolution. The 1968 Civil Rights movement in Northern Ireland took its inspiration from the struggles of African-Americans.

Similarly, in the revolution of 1917-1923 strange words like “Bolshevik” and “Soviet” acquired immense significance. In the chapters to follow we will show how the Irish Revolution mirrored the World Revolution in its successes and its failures, in the wasted potential for the socialist transformation of society, and in the role of leadership.

In Ireland, too, a “thin scum” of labour leaders held back history through subordinating the working class to nationalism. Thus the Irish Revolution on the one hand shows the enormous power and potential of the masses led by the working class. On the other hand it shows how when a revolutionary situation arises, it’s not good enough for the working class to be led by alarmed, conservative bureaucrats and naive, well-meaning improvisers. Those who want to see a socialist world must organise themselves before time into a conscious revolutionary organisation, win the trust of the working class through being the most determined and skilful fighters, and grow through uncompromising political debate and discussion.

In a revolutionary crisis such a party would be posed as an alternative leadership, capable of leading the masses to a historic breakthrough. The Arab Spring, events in Egypt, Turkey and Brazil during the summer, and the developing crisis and struggle on the peripheries of Europe and in the USA, show that talking about revolutions is not just a matter for history buffs. A revolutionary party of the working class is the key missing ingredient in all these situations.  The reader can take what lesson they want from the chapters that follow, but for the author the lack of organised revolutionary leadership is as obvious in Ireland in 1919 as in Greece in 2013.


[1] Paul Lensch, Three Years of World-Revolution, Constable, London, 1918

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What Changes Has the Working Class Undergone?

Like goods and services ideas don’t tend to fall from the sky. Why are some people deceived into thinking that “we are all middle class now”?

The working class has undergone immense changes in the last 30 years. These changes have not transformed the working class into something else – its essence, working for labour, has not changed. But historical trends that we will detail below have changed the working class in important ways.

Neo-liberalism

After the Great Depression and World War Two capitalism went through a “golden age”: rising living standards and productivity smoothed out the sharp conflicts between rich and poor that defined the 1930s.

In the 1970s there arose a conflict – between democracy and workers’ rights on the one hand, and profitability for big business on the other. This came to a head in most advanced capitalist countries. Victory for big business in this conflict (through Reaganism in the US and Thatcherism in the UK, for example) defined the world we live in today.

International Division of Labour

The massive deindustrialisation of Europe and America and the industrialisation to a spectacular level of China and other countries has led to an international division of labour, with the dirtier, poorer-paid jobs going to countries where people have no democratic or workers’ rights.

So on the one hand, trade unions and social-democratic parties won huge gains for working people in the advanced capitalist countries of Europe and America in the middle decades of the 20th century. On the other hand, these gains have not been enough. Businesses don’t like democracy or workers’ rights, and if left to their own devices they’ll pack up and leave for somewhere more repressive and backward. This race-to-the bottom is the reason why China and other heavy-handed states with poor populations have boomed industrially.

For a sketch of the world economy today we should look at the two most crucial economies, those of the US and of China, in comparison. China, on the basis of the Communist Party’s planned economy through which it overcame warlordism, foreign domination and economic backwardness, is a colossus of industrial production.

To list just a few examples:

  • Cement production: 2,000 million tonnes to the USA’s 68.4. Since 2005, China’s output has doubled, while the USA’s has nearly halved.
  • Car production: 18.5 million to the USA’s 8.6
  • Steel production: in 2011, 683 to the USA’s 86.2. In 2007 this stood at 98.1 for the USA and 495 for China.

Meanwhile in indicators of consumption, the US outstrips China spectacularly. In 2008 every 2.25 watts used in China was overmatched by over 11 used in the USA.

The interrelations of the world economy are defined by this nexus of production and consumption. The US sustains China through being a market for its goods; China sustains the US by buying up its currency massively. Other countries to a greater or lesser extent fit into this picture as either producers or consumers.

The implications of this for our observations on the working class are clear: it is bigger and more powerful and more concentrated than ever. It is more like the “traditional” view of class than ever. You would not think it if you took a superficial look around Dublin or London. But if you look a little deeper the signature of today’s working class is everywhere. Who made the clothes I am wearing? Some of the two million garment workers in Bangladesh. Who made the cars that line the roads? Workers on the eastern seaboard of China.

Again we remind ourselves that goods do not fall from the sky. They are built by the labour of working-class people and, for the sake of profit not of rationality, transported absurd distances.

Shopping centres are generally boring places for me. But they become interesting when I really think about the commodities around me. I imagine the exotic places these mountains of mundane objects came from, and the incredible people whose hands made them – an unspeakably great mass of humanity who will someday stand organised, will demand their desires and interests, and shake the world to its foundations.

Financialisation

Back in Europe and the US, since the 1980s the banks and financial institutions have exploded in size and influence. This led directly to the great financial crash of 2007-8. The essence of this age of the domination of finance was the attempt to smooth out, by means of illusions won by gambling, the essential conflict between the capitalists and the working class, revealed by the crisis of profitability of the 1970s.

It was only by financial trickery that decent living standards could be maintained in an economy based on “services”, stripped of manufacturing, whose essential role in the world economy was to be a market. But if you’re a boss, how do you turn a working class into a buying class without paying them higher wages than you can afford? Capitalism “solved” this problem as it usually “solves” problems: by storing up a greater crisis for the future through creating enormous bubbles of imaginary wealth.

Since the predictable crisis hit, the role of governments has been to turn national and regional economies into creaking props for this failed system. The more wealth they pump into the banks, the more the bankers gamble or hoard.

Imagine a dam is built above a city. It is poorly-built using shoddy materials. The dam begins to give way, and the city council steadily dismantle the city brick-by-brick and plank-by-plank in an effort to build up material to fortify the slowly-collapsing dam. This farcical and terrifying situation is what we’re living in. The substantial – jobs and public services – are being sacrificed to save an insubstantial and fake world of fictional wealth whose time has passed and which has nothing to offer humanity.

Alongside the financialisation of the world economy came the collapse of Stalinism. The Soviet Union and its satellite states in Eastern Europe fell in a great revolutionary wave. While these were planned economies which, especially in the Soviet Union, achieved economic miracles impossible under capitalism, they were ruled over by bureaucratic tyranny. As well as denying the people basic freedoms, this led to the economies stagnating and collapsing. The result was the restoration of capitalism, which was a social, economic, cultural and even a demographic disaster.

Effects on the working class

The historical stages that passed in the last 40 years or so, which I have just briefly outlined, made fools of the two dominant trends in the workers’ movement of the 20th century, in strangely similar ways.

Social Democratic and Labour parties rested cosily on the achievements of the post-war boom, and on that basis became so bureaucratised and conservative that when the 1970s came and all the gains of that boom were under attack from big business they could not make an effective fight. Thatcher claimed that her greatest achievement was New Labour – the transformation of Britain’s Labour Party into a sad imitation of a bosses’ party, which is mirrored all over the world.

Stalinism was equally complacent and conservative. It was no more prepared for historic change, for the accumulation of contradictions which can tear down empires. Without the Stalinist states of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, their sister parties in the West were utterly discredited and left without an anchor in the world.

It is this context which has shaped and defined the working class as it exists today.

Both of these trends in the working-class movement, formerly all-powerful, deserved their fate because the historic period which had sustained them passed. But in dying, following on from defeats such as the miners’ strike and the PATCO dispute, they dragged the working class down with them. The 1980s and 1990s were demoralising experiences which struck the international working class with one blow after another.

Moreover the social-democratic and labour parties retain a zombie-like existence, retaining a prestige among workers based on their past, and making the odd radical noise. This fools people into supporting them as the “lesser evil”. Supporting them and being betrayed by them can further depress working people – making them pessimistic and cynical instead of radicalising them.

A similar bureaucratic obstacle exists in the leadership of the trade union movement. This problem is particularly sharp in Ireland. A time of relative prosperity in the late 1990s and 2000s, a brief historic episode, allowed for a system known as social partnership, whereby scraps are thrown to the working class in exchange for the trade unions becoming tame and timid organisations.

This experience weighs on the working class of today. The memory of Stalinism and social democracy are obstacles on the road of the people toward socialist ideas and mass action. When the crisis hit in 2007-8 and working people were suddenly under attack from all angles, they did not begin from scratch. The working class started with memories of past betrayals and defeats still weighing them down, and with a legacy of disorganisation and complacency inherited from the boom. Every minute of the 1990s and 2000s the workers’ movement grew weaker, and every minute the stranglehold of the bankers and bosses grew stronger. This explains the slowness of the turn toward radicalisation and struggle in most countries.

To briefly summarize the changes we have just outlined:

  • The working classes in the Advanced Capitalist Countries work less in manufacturing, and more in services. This is in an economy that is unsustainable in and of itself, but has been artificially sustained pre-2007 by financial trickery and post-2007 by a massive transfer of wealth from society to the super-rich.
  • The failures of Stalinism and of social democracy and the triumph of neo-liberalism have left a heavy burden of defeatism and demoralisation on the shoulders of the working class globally. It is further weakened by a general disorganisation, retreat, complacency and death of fighting spirit that took place in the last few decades. These factors are holding the working class back from struggle today.
  • The working class is bigger, more developed and more powerful than ever. This fact can be obscured by the international division of labour and by the fact that the working class has low morale and consciousness at the moment. But like the heights of the Celtic Tiger, this apparently all-conquering and eternal reality is merely an episode, an aberration.

So these are the changes: international division of labour, demoralisation and massive potential strength. What basis is there really to claim that there is no working class? As many British people work in call centres today as at one point worked in mines.

What basis is there to think that the colossal working class of today will fail to make its mark on the 21st century? Greater potential for class struggle and revolution exists today than existed 100 years ago, at a time when a far smaller part of the world was industrialised and capitalist, and the working class was a fraction of the size it is today. Revolutionary events greater than those of the 20th century will unfold in the 21st. The further development capitalism has undergone in the meantime promises a greater chance of victory for socialism: wider and deeper foundations now lie ready in most of the world’s countries.

Computational scientist Stephen Emmott has written a book in which he predicts disaster and possible extinction due to population growth and humanity’s unsustainable relationship with nature. On the one hand these predictions are hard-headed and convey the seriousness of the situation as regards the environment and the organisation of human society. On the other hand amid all his “realism” he leaves out of consideration most of humanity.

Achieving a democratic socialist society with a planned economy is the only way we could even begin to address the challenges he outlines through a changeover to green energy and enforcing conservation and efficiency as opposed to the profit-driven chaos of capitalism. Yet he doesn’t even approach such an idea. Instead he concludes, and these are his exact words, “We’re fucked.”

I don’t believe we’re fucked. I know from history that constant radical change is the rule, not the exception. I know the massive progressive power that is unleashed in those moments, revolutions, when the masses intervene actively and consciously in historic events. Once the working class collectively and democratically controls all means of production, distribution and exchange, our species will not only save the environment from complete destruction, but begin to raise civilisation to a higher level.

It would be strange to imagine a future in which for some reason today’s working class fails to leave a decisive stamp on world history. There are obstacles – dictatorship, reactionary ideas, sectarianism, the bitter memory of past defeats. But human beings will look out for their interests; this great mass of human beings, the global working class, has a common interest against the bosses of this world, and is potentially the most powerful force that has ever existed. If even limited sections of this class become conscious, organised and militant, this will be enough to change the course of history. These simple facts trample over all relative obstacles.

Here’s a link to a clip from a new HBO series, “The Newsroom”, which someone has posted to youtube under the name “The most honest three minutes in television history, EVER”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=uOTnwBR2ugY#at=24

To put it simply enough, the first half of it was good and thought-provoking and progressive in the questions it poses. The second half, from “we used to be” onwards, was sentimental nonsense founded in nostalgia not reality.

The first half asks difficult questions of the mainstream American consensus. The second half flees in panic from the unpleasant truths the first half hinted at, into a comforting foam of the kind of total ignorance it pretends to criticize.

Characteristic of the first half are specifics – literacy, life expectancy, etc. Characteristic of the second half are generalisations, without reference to ANY specifics at all to back them up – “we didn’t scare so easily”, “We put our money where our mouth was”. What does this mean?!? Whoever wrote this script can refute the contention that America is the greatest country in the world, and back it up with facts. When he moves on to saying that America used to be the best country in the world, however, the writer has to rely on a load of empty talking.

The Bright Side

In one way there’s a dialectical truth in all this. American capitalism passed through a stage that was in a huge number of ways profoundly progressive in the 1940s, 50s and 60s. Full employment, a boom, a dramatic rise in living standards. Americans today are living in the hollowed-out shell of the engine that once carried out these great achievements. We have to assume this is the past golden age the actor is talking about.

Nostalgia for this progressive period explains why the John F Kennedy assassination is remembered with such passion by so many – it’s implicitly identified as the moment when everything “went bad”. Of course this is rarely backed up by any actual argument or data. Kennedy was as cynical and murderous as the next US president you might pick out of a hat – look at Cuba, look at Vietnam. The event is just taken over as an effective symbol.

The Dark Side

The character portrayed is of course not black, gay (as far as we can tell) or a woman. Nor is he from Latin America or South-East Asia. This means his view on this socially repressive and rampantly imperialist age is skewed.

This is the dark side of sentimentality for the post-war “golden age” – it’s a straight white man’s golden age. Good points about how there used to be a welfare state, workers’ rights, a sense of community and greater democratic accountability, start to shade into an otherwise inexplicable nostalgia for a period of rampant racism and sexism.

Two ways to respond to change

There’s a reason this kind of nonsense sentimentality strikes a chord with people. Reality is constant change, and capitalism brings about constant, revolutionising change to the world. There are two ways to respond to the change capitalism imposes on humanity.

1) a sad, tragic, depressing response of trying to salvage or reinstate the positive things that capitalism has destroyed, usually defined by a selective and sentimental remembering of the past. Running after anachronisms and past  fleeting moments is a journey through fog that might lead you anywhere except where you want to go. One in this position we might call an anachrophile – a lover of obselete things.

2) a positive and uplifting response of identifying the incredible foundations that capitalism has laid and planning to build on them. This is the basis of scientific socialism or Marxism. The massive advances in technology and social organisation which capitalism has brought about in the last two hundred years or so have massively improved the condition of humanity.

Capitalism is a vessel we have to shrug off now as it’s fulfilled its progressive role and is increasingly a burden, not an aid – strangling democracy, the economy and the environment just to sustain the wealth of an insignificant minority of the population. Those who want to turn back the clock to an earlier phase of capitalism are fooling themselves.

To give one example to illustrate this point:

The Corporation drives the small farmers off the land and turns them into propertyless wage-labourers. What is the solution to this injustice?

1) The anachrophile might say that the small farmers should wish the Corporation never existed, so they could return to being small farmers.

2) The Marxist will recognise that the Corporation has superior technical equipment and capital that can reduce the amount of time people have to spend in work and drudgery – so he says that the wage-labourers need to strive for the future, not the past. They need to take over the Corporation and run it democratically, using its capital and resources to provide a better life for all concerned.

Nature of Television

The mass media are very good at sending out vague or mixed messages. In this way they can give viewers of many political persuasions the illusion that they are hearing something that supports their particular views. So where this clip first provokes and cuts deep, it must then soothe, unite, fudge together and promise hugs for everyone. The refreshing denial that America is the greatest country in the world must be balanced by an outpouring of sludge about a fictional golden age.

(Spoilers follow.)

Come and See is a Russian film about the Nazi occupation of Belarus during World War 2. The forests and marshes of that country made it an ideal territory for partisan guerrilla warfare, and a brutal conflict developed between an iron-fisted German occupation and tens of thousands of Belorussian fighters living in the wilderness.

We follow an innocent kid named Flyora who joins the partisans. The film invites him and us to come and see the horror of this war and of Nazism.

It’s a fact that usually gore and violence are an ineffective way of making a film audience feel horror. Filmmakers have to try harder than showing us our innards. Come and See does this amazingly well.

When Flyora returns home to find that the people of his village have all been massacred, we see only one fleeting glimpse – which

come and see 2Flyora doesn’t see – of a heap of corpses behind a barn. We do see his empty house with his sisters’ dolls lined up on the wooden floor, and we hear the buzzing of flies. Later an agonizingly long shot follows Flyora and Glasha wading up to their mouths through thick, filthy mud, in a frenzy trying to get to an island where there might be survivors. We follow every moment. We don’t see the massacre, and we barely see the corpses. We get a deeper feeling of horror through not seeing the event itself.

Later in the film, of course, we do see the Nazis wiping out a whole village. The film is based on survivors’ eyewitness accounts and this is apparent in the little details that accompany this massacre. One Nazi soldier has white swastikas and bones painted all over his helmet; he jumps around the place yelling joyously like he’s high. We see him again and again. Music plays from a speaker on top of a van. As the Nazis set fire to a hall full of people, a Ukrainian collaborator who’s a bit of a daredevil and a showman makes a flamboyant escape from a bell tower over the burning roof before an “audience” of Nazi soldiers gearing up for a massacre. As the Germans leave town they carry a senile old woman out of a house on her bed and leave her, bed and all, on a heap of rubble. She doesn’t know what’s going on as her village burns.

come and seeFlyora is our witness to this horror. We see his face twisted with fear. The superb young actor Alexei Kravchenko conveys absolute horror in his eyes.

What’s most striking of all is that the Nazis don’t do all this with the standard film-Nazi sternness and discipline. Nor is there any of the sophisticated sadism of the standard movie-Gestapo type. They are not stern, furious or fanatical. They’re a hooting, laughing unit of several hundred young men who have been given the best training and the best weapons and freedom to kill. They are having the time of their lives throughout the massacre.

Oskar_Dirlewanger

Oskar Dirlewanger, leader of a Nazi penal brigade that killed 30,000 Belorussian civilians

This does not come from the filmmakers’ imaginations. In 1942-1943 the Nazis formed a Battle Group for Belarus that killed an average of two hundred civilians a day. Wiping out villages was everyday stuff. The most  lethal unit was led by Oskar Dirlewanger. This alcoholic, drug addict, necrophiliac and child molester had fought in the Freikorps, a private army of war veterans set up to kill communists and terrorize the German working class in the aftermath of World War One when revolution was in the air. German capitalism found a lot of use for such characters in 1918-1923; it found a use for them again when it made a bid for world domination. In the Second World War Dirlewanger was put in charge of a unit made up of criminals, murderers and the clinically insane. This unit ended up killing at least 30,000 civilians.

Of course, most of the units that were given kill quotas and sent out to surround and exterminate villages were not made up of addicts and thugs. There is no excuse. If you put an army into a country where the people don’t want to be conquered, vicious massacres and total disregard for human life follow on from the situation regardless of the individual traits and histories of the soldiers. The people who mowed down villages full of their fellow human beings were “ordinary” young men.

Oskar Dirlewanger was moreover not just a bad personnel choice – he and those like him were made necessary by a German strategy which was to subjugate, terrorize and decimate the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. In Belarus they needed to wipe out the partisans and the surest way of doing this, as they saw it, was to wipe out the population that supported the partisans. It’s really very hard to grasp the absolute horror of the logic of the Nazi war. The Nazis, like the Japanese and the Italians, were trying to build in a few short years the kind of empires that France, Britain and the USA had built over decades and centuries. All the violence and brutality in the history of those empires was to be concentrated into a few short years and very consciously and deliberately applied.

A scene near the end of Come and See captures the misery of this war. The Nazis are on the run and one has dropped a portrait of Hitler in a muddy puddle. Flyora takes aim at the portrait lying in the water and fires, again and again. As he fires, old newsreel footage plays backwards. Reverse-explosions take place and buildings de-crumble from bricks and clouds of dust into proud edifices. Soldiers and tanks swarm backwards over battlefields. Storm troopers march backwards down a street.

This sequence shows Flyora’s emotions after his ordeal. But it also reminds us that, fuck, no matter how badly he wishes it, you can’t change what’s happened. The millions who are dead will stay dead. The whole world of the Jewish communities of Eastern Europe will never return. Warsaw, which lost half its population in the war, was rebuilt but the city that was is now gone forever. Not one of the individuals or communities that perished for no reason will return. We can never restore the world after such darkness and destruction has fallen on it.

It’s easy to treat the Nazis as a trope or a cliche or a cartoon, because that’s how we often come across them. It’s easy at a massive distance to be ironic and glib about the Nazis. The brilliance of Come and See is how it brings you right back into it, with such intensity and proximity that you have to vow that you will work so that this utter darkness will never fall on the world again.

I’m going to start this post with a pretty long quote. It’s shocking and scary and makes me very angry but also very resolute.

A CEO of a major agri-business corporation said the following to author Andrew Harvey in the early 1990s. You can find this quote on Progressive Commentary Hour podcasts or in Harvey’s book “The Hope” which is on Google books.

Rio [climate change summit] will accomplish absolutely nothing because you do-gooders are so naive about the real world. Most of you that I have met truly believe that if the CEOs – like me for instance – really knew what harm their corporate policies were doing, they would rend their Armani suits, fling out their Rolex-wreathed arms, burst into tears and change. This is madness, it shows how little you dare to know about what is really going on. And how can you even begin to be effective until you understand what you’re up against?

Let me tell you what you’re up against. You’re up against people like me. I know exactly what my company is doing, and what devastation it is causing to thousands of lives. I should know, I’m running it. I know and I do not care. I’ve decided I want a grand, gold-plated lifestyle and the perks and jets and houses that go with it, and I will do anything – bend the law, have people removed, bribe local government officials, you name it, to get what I want. I know, too, that none of my shareholders care a rat’s ass what I do or how I do it, providing I keep them swimming in cash.

[…]

The [left-wing activists] that I meet are frankly bliss-bunnies, about as useful in the real world as a rubber ball would be in a war.”

[…]

This blissful bunnyhood of seekers and the offensive self-righteousness of activists make it very easy for people like me to control the world. I know too, by the way, that the dark forces I play with are also playing with me. […] I’m willing to pay that price in return for the pleasure of being able to afford this restaurant. In return for being able to ring up the President of the United States on my personal phone in front of houseguests just to impress them. Am I getting through to you?

 

I’ve done a couple of posts on how billionaires justify having more wealth than they could possibly ever use. It’s important to argue hard and refute this nonsense because it goes out into the world backed up by a lot of resources and it convinces a hell of a lot of people.

But now and then, as above, the wealthy and powerful let their guard down and are totally frank about what’s going on in the world and what role they play. Our arguments against capitalism are not directed at the capitalists themselves because there is a general tendency among groups of people to believe what it suits them to believe.

The Problems

The human race faces environmental destruction that could lead to extinction. The vast majority of us as a species suffer poverty and exploitation. Almost a billion are hungry. Imperialist wars plague the world. The most highly-developed parts of the world are in an economic crisis which seems absolutely intractable. As a species we have the material and intellectual means to solve all of these problems. However, we live in a society where the rich control the lion’s share of the wealth and invest only on the basis of profit. A state which is supposed to lessen the bad effects of this in fact more often helps the rich.

This rich class is, in general, aware of its crimes and is indifferent.

The Solution

We need to work towards imposing the democratic control of workers over the land, factories, banks, transport systems, natural resources and governments. If we fail to do this and then to plan the economy toward ecologically friendly ends, nothing resembling civilisation is likely to survive the 21st century.

How We Get There

Many have already realized the need for socialism. But among them there are many that say that the “old” ideas of “Vanguardism” are

A poster for Syriza, the Greek anti-capitalist broad coalition party

A poster for Syriza, the Greek broad anti-capitalist alliance

outdated, failed examples of “Toy Bolshevism”, and that we need alternative structures for socialist organisations. It is an interesting debate and worth engaging with. Syriza, a broad coalition of left-wing forces that has gathered huge support in Greece, is often held up as a model.

http://www.irishleftreview.org/2013/01/21/crucible-irish-engagement-greek-crisis-greek-left/

Broad “pluralistic”, “meeting-place-of-ideas” kind of parties are nothing new, nothing objectionable to anybody on the left, and – most importantly – nothing you can summon up on the spot! This side of the argument, that there should be a broad mass left workers’ party that may not have the perfect programme, but embraces lots of workers and young people, is not part of any argument. Practically everyone accepts that these things should exist and would be beneficial.

The other side of the argument is the part I want to dispute. This is the assertion that relatively small, centralized, highly-organised and politically homogeneous revolutionary parties should not exist.

There is a variance of positions on this ranging from objection to certain features of revolutionary parties (http://www.irishleftreview.org/2013/01/09/structure-democracy-irish-left-call-discussion/) to total exasperation at those parties and a barely-expressed wish that they would dissolve, pool their members and resources, and form a Syriza that everyone can enjoy.

In Ireland this question is particularly keen because the only two discernibly socialist and significantly-sized parties (http://socialistparty.net/ http://www.swp.ie) see themselves as revolutionary vanguard parties in the Leninist sense. To others on the left this is a constant source of irritation…

http://spiritofcontradiction.eu/rowan-duffy/2012/10/25/why-i-joined-the-ula

…because they have no organisation of their own and unfortunately enjoy very little success in trying to build one. Which is of course not really the fault of the Socialist Party or Socialist Workers’ Party!

The Socialist Workers’ Party in Britain

The result of all this is that, particularly after the fragmentation of the British Socialist Workers’ Party, a lot of people are giving a lot of stick to the idea of a revolutionary party. “Why,” I’ve heard them ask, “Would you organise a party along the lines of an organisation set up a hundred years ago in a semi-feudal autocracy?”

As if the reason for the SWP’s downfall was too much Bolshevism! Most of its members are very admirable but the fact is the SWP has always had a consistently poor analysis and an inability to admit its own mistakes. Its strategy and tactics have always been dishonest and sectarian, with a proliferation of false banners (People Before Profit, Right to Work, Students Against Fascism, €nough!, Unite the Resistance in the last few years in Ireland alone). The Comrade Delta affair was disgusting in its own right but was a lightning-rod for members’ grievances on many other issues and with the party generally. (http://sovietgoonboy.wordpress.com/  http://www.leninology.com/)

Given a long period of Capitalist stability and the constant pressure toward opportunism, sometimes overcompensated for by a cosmetic ultra-left turn, you can see why organisations go bad. In the case of the Healyites, you can see why they go spectacularly bad.  None of this is specific to a revolutionary party.

“Toy Bolshevism”

What are the essential elements of the criticism of the revolutionary party sometimes expressed with the term “Toy Bolshevism”?

  1. A fear of centralisation leading to authoritarianism, in the vein of the right-wing historians who would, if they could, examine Lenin’s shite for the seeds of Stalinism.
  2. A view that revolutionary parties have been impotent and unsuccessful in achieving any significant victory for workers. Apart from Russia of course. And, closer to home, the poll tax. And, even closer, the water charges. And Gama. And the household tax…
  3. A view that the activity of revolutionary parties seems pointless. That instead of the incremental bread-and-butter work of politicising, fundraising, supporting campaigns and strikes, demonstrations, stall and paper sales, there should be… Here falls a strange silence. Or else plans about productive enterprises to finance a mass workers’ party and a “left media” to spread its message. Which of course would be wonderful.
  4. The idea that the members of a revolutionary party have a grandiose sense of their own importance, that they imagine themselves storming Leinster House in the short term, that they count on “an insurrectionary movement from Mars” falling into
    Communist insurrection on Mars? I think there's a videogame where that happens

    Revolution on Mars? I think there’s a videogame where that happens

    their laps. In fact such parties are aware of their own weaknesses organisationally and numerically and in terms of their influence on the class. They are nowhere near the finished product, anymore than society as a whole is ripe for insurrection. But they are in the process of fashioning the necessary party and see it as a very urgent task. This is why they recruit, sell papers, educate, maintain their independence, defend their programme and participate in other forms of what independent lefts often judge to be “sectarian” activity.

Often, however, the objections seem to point to a longing for a more laid-back kind of party. One that is less centralized and which demands less challenging activity of its members, and which would be more broadly appealing politically. One which could be all this but still make a massive difference to the situation now if not sooner!

Problems of a “less revolutionary” revolutionary party

In many countries worker militancy has been sapped, traditional organisations such as trade unions and labour parties destroyed or won over by the right. The only forces to survive the onslaught of capitalist triumphalism in the ‘90s and ‘00s were the revolutionary parties. This tells us two things.

Firstly, it illustrates the weaknesses of more broad-left parties, which are useful in an upswing of labour struggle but which change not just in size but in substance in periods of demoralisation. This if nothing else is an argument for a solid, organised revolutionary party.

Secondly, it explains why people on the left have such strong objections to revolutionary parties. The difficulty of building new mass workers’ parties, which the so-called “Toy Bolsheviks” have always given their all to, has provoked a certain sourness. “Here we are five years into the crisis, and still no significant left alternative!”

People often fail to see that this is a consequence of matters such as the smashing of the British trade unions under Thatcher in the UK, and twenty years of social partnership in Ireland. There being no serious avenues of struggle and a defeatist leadership, demoralisation has been a strong element of the mood in Ireland. But a misdiagnosis of the problem sees people on the Irish left claim that if the Trots loosened up a little and did X, Y and Z, they would grow massively. But hang on. Making your politics more chilled-out and becoming more flaky, disorganised and unable to act in a concerted manner – how would this help to further the cause of workers?

An old-school analogy

The ancient Greek generals knew that a small number of soldiers organised and trained to fight in a phalanx, a tight formation of spears and shields, could see off an enemy many times its size. It was an unstoppable collective machine. Its power was in its organisation, training and weaponry. If a general could somehow gather unstoppably huge numbers of people, in some exceptional circumstance, of course he could win battles without the need for training or strong organisation. But such an army, once panicked and routed, is hard to rally, will be cut down by the enemy in an everyone-for-themselves rout, and leave only traumatised and depressed survivors and many who surrender. A phalanx suffers during a rout but is on the whole solid, and is prepared to weather adversity, withdraw tactically, and remain intact for the next advance.

Basically what we need is a couple of syntagmas in Syntagma Square

Basically what we need is a couple of syntagmas in Syntagma Square

In the same way a centralised, revolutionary party is capable of punching above its weight in society. It makes its decisions democratically with full freedom of debate, but once the decision is made it works in a united fashion to achieve its goals. It has a full-time apparatus to allow it to intervene effectively. I don’t pretend that there are any revolutionary parties in the world today that function in such a well-organised fashion but parties that aspire to the Leninist idea of the revolutionary party have strong elements of the phalanx about them and are constantly trying their hardest to grow in numbers and to improve in organisation.

Conclusion

Remember the quote I posted at the start of this article. “Am I getting through to you?” asks the CEO. He certainly got through to me. Faced with the horrors wrought on the world by capitalism and the extremely powerful interests that keep it that way, military analogies such as the above are absolutely appropriate and are in no way grandiose.

A party which has a flaky approach to politics and organisation will not impress the working class or give the impression that it cares or understands keenly enough. Such a party is not up to the everyday challenges of the class struggle because it cannot intervene effectively. Nor is it up to the task of challenging the likes of our CEO who simply laugh at ineffectual “bliss-bunnies”.

The key task for anyone who wants to change the world is to build organisations – thinking machines with maximum discussion on all subjects from everyday campaigning to philosophy, and at the same time fighting machines to advance the power and confidence of ordinary people and to provide leadership at crucial moments. We are of no use on our own, each of us. The benchmark for your success as a socialist activist should be how well you build, qualitatively and quantitatively, a revolutionary organisation.

 

The danger of “bureaucratisation” is constantly hyped by the critics of the revolutionary party and grossly inappropriate references to Stalinism are frequently made. But even if this danger were to begin with historically relevant and then magnified a thousand times greater than they paint it, it would not be as great a danger as the danger that every one of us might someday die without having dispossessed and humiliated that CEO and fixed the horrors he and his class are responsible for. Read over the quote again. It might almost have been fabricated by some frustrated activist who wanted to provoke complacent leftists into action. “Am I getting through to you?”

In March 2013 ads started appearing on buses in Dublin for a movie called Red Dawn. This is a re-make of a 1980s action movie in which America is invaded by Russia and a bunch of young people form a guerrilla insurgency.

What was to me an obvious – and brilliant – idea did not occur to Hollywood. This was to re-set the film in a country that had, ten years earlier to the month, been invaded and then seen a load of people form insurgent groups. There really was no need to cook up a load of nonsense about a North Korean invasion of the USA, which is of course what the studio did.

The film Hollywood definitely, definitely didn't make

Setting the Red Dawn remake in Iraq in 2003 – The film Hollywood definitely, definitely didn’t make

I just watched a documentary called Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People. It goes into how Hollywood consistently shows Arabs as irrational, violent, lecherous people.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5Kz2TJNE1V4

This of course serves a political function. American movie audiences can rest easy and write off most visible resistance to US power as just outbursts of irrational rage and jealousy and “hate.” In this way Hollywood explains away all global opposition to US power, blaming it on the deficiencies of angry victim peoples.

Red Dawn came out at a key moment and given the very strong links between Hollywood and the Pentagon maybe this shouldn’t surprise us. There’s nothing wrong with fantasy (eg. the North Korean invasion scenario) but when popular fiction as a whole turns toward the same fantasy it starts looking like something sinister is going on.

2011 videogame Homefront also shows a North Korean invasion of the US.

With zero sense of irony, studios show what actually happened in Iraq as some terrible dystopia that might happen to Americans

With zero sense of irony, studios show what actually happened in Iraq as some terrible dystopia that might happen to Americans

2013 movie Olympus Has Fallen shows North Korean terrorists seizing the White House and demanding reunification. In case this doesn’t terrify audiences, of course they also plan to incinerate the whole US in a nuclear holocaust. Cos that’s the kind of thing they’d do.

After over a decade of extremely threatening language beginning with Bush’s threat to invade at any time, and after the US provided concrete examples by invading Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, the US today has thousands of nukes in South Korea pointed northwards and tens of thousands of troops on manoeuvres around the borders of North Korea. North Korea meanwhile has zero nukes. It recently launched a satellite, which is a completely different thing.

And US popular culture churns out movies and games showing a North Korean invasion of the United States!

It comes straight from the headlines, of course. North Korea has apparently suddenly taken to “provocative” “bellicose” “sabre-rattling” “brinksmanship”. If you actually read the statement of the North Korean government it’s no more provocative than anything you hear from the US or South Korea. If you actually look at the last ten years the US has pushed more sanctions on North Korea and repeatedly threatened it physically and verbally.

But never mind – Hollywood has warmed us up to believe that North Koreans, like Arabs, are just racially irrational and violent, prone to outbursts like unleashing a nuclear war despite having no means of nuking anyone and infinite possibility of being nuked to rubble several times over.

Bill Frezza writing in our old billionaire-worshipping friend Forbes magazine, amid a lot of claptrap about how terrible the Greeks are and how “we” should let them go Communist as a punishment, throws in this sickening line:

“And frankly, a psychopathic family dynasty ruling a nation of stunted zombies hardly makes North Korea a proper Communist exemplar.”

http://www.forbes.com/sites/billfrezza/2011/07/19/give-greece-what-it-deserves-communism/

Not only is the North Korean government bad, not only are there massive problems in North Korean society… but North Koreans are “frankly” a load of stunted zombies. There you have it.

The newspapers play their part, as usual, coming out with pictures of North Koreans starving on the streets and other North Koreans in labour camps. 2 million people are in prison in the US, many of them performing slave labour for private companies. Goldman Sachs made $300 million last year speculating on food prices and causing people to starve.

Where are the “EXCLUSIVE!” front-page pictures and media denunciations of this atrocity? Where are the big-budget movies and the threats of invasion? I remember the last time there was an occupation of Wall Street. NYPD didn’t like it.

Lastly, where is the connection drawn between sanctions and starvation? Almost nowhere.

Imagine for a minute that silly scenario of a North Korean military machine poised to invade the USA, somehow. We must imagine then that the USA is a weak, poor outcast nation and that North Korea is a massive world power, presumably with its own massive film industry whose products are watched the world over, like those of the US today.Homefront-2-1

Imagine what these big-budget North Korean films would look like. Imagine how they would portray Americans. War-hungry Christian zealots who believe the world is about to end. The marching white peaked hoods of Ku-Klux-Klansmen. Outcasts who go to school, mall or cinema and start shooting people for fun. Fat lazy men who sit in front of the TV all day.

A Gulag Archipelago of orange-suited slave-prisoners from ethnic minority backgrounds and secret prisons where unspeakable tortures await the enemies of the state. The cheerful, gung-ho massacre of Iraqis, Afghans and Pakistanis. An economy that’s tanked and a political class that thinks the solution is catastrophic cutbacks.

 

 

You can see that these hypothetical North Korean Spielbergs would have a lot of material to work with. Like the crimes and atrocities of the North Korean state, these scary American characters and vistas of US atrocity are based on reality, but they would be used for propaganda purposes to demonize the American people. The Bill Frezzas of this world would portray the people of the US as obese racist fanatics bristling with guns.

You see, people, whether from the USA or North Korea, generally care about each other and need a damn good reason to allow slaughter and bombing to take place. The threat of US bombs, nukes and troops of course allows the North Korean dictatorship to rally North Koreans to its side. The media-created nuclear monster that is substituted for the real, living, breathing society of human beings that is North Korea is likewise used to scare perfectly rational people into supporting the US war machine. In either case, the real enemy is not in some foreign land but at home, hiding its own viciousness behind a painted monster.

I have written little about the political reality in North Korea and I offer no detailed commentary on the ongoing crisis there. Unfortunately it amounts to a serious enough task just to ask people to treat the situation rationally and to think of North Koreans as human beings and of North Korea as a society not a nightmare.

 

Notes

A word on the preposterously-titled movie Olympus Has Fallen. The use of the phrase “Olympus” to describe the White House is a bit creepy, isn’t it? Olympus was the mountain on which the gods lived in Greek mythology. See also the hilarious solemn urgent enunciation with which characters talk about “the President of the United States”. From 24 to Air Force One, Hollywood routinely depicts action-hero presidents battling conspirators and terrorists. In all cases the office of the President of the United States” is treated as something sacred.

In the Stalinist dictatorships there was a cult of personality around individual leaders – in the archaic institutions of US democracy, the office of president is treated as a holy institution. For example, an entire city is blown up in The Sum of All Fears – but never mind! They managed to get the President out on time!

Forbes is a magazine and website whose purpose is described in its motto, “The Capitalist Tool.” The purpose of this particular tool is to allow rich people to win any battle with their conscience. Forbes puts out a steady stream of articles whose audience is the rich, whose purpose is to arm them with the arguments that explain why it’s OK to have more wealth than you could possibly earn or use in your lifetime.

It’s no surprise that such a magazine exists. That’s the magic of capitalism; if a small number of very rich people want a balm for their conscience, then they’ll get a Forbes. If a large number of people – let’s say 29,000 children every single day – want not to die of hunger or preventable diseases, but they have no money, well then the market isn’t interested.

The latest example is an article by Wendy Milling entitled “Without Question, Capitalism is Supremely Moral” (http://www.forbes.com/sites/realspin/2013/03/21/without-question-capitalism-is-surpremely-moral/). It is notable for its naivety on the one hand and its viciousness on the other, which are very closely related.

Naivety

“Being born in unfortunate circumstances does not prevent a person from becoming successful. It just doesn’t. […] Upward mobility is a reality that is easily observed in the countless rags-to-riches stories that dot Americana. People have risen from the slums to become wealthy.”

Yes, “people” have risen from the slums to become wealthy. “People” have also been born with eight limbs. “People” have become Olympic Gold medallists. “People” have become serial killers. “People” can fly over the city of Rome in a helicopter and then sit down with a piece of paper and draw every detail of the city flawlessly from memory. Go onto Youtube any day and find yourself a hundred examples of things “people” have done. What Milling actually means is that a statistically insignificant minority of “people” from the slums get rich.

The vast majority of people born into slums have not become wealthy. Even the vast majority of people born into middle-class communities have not become wealthy. The vast majority of people born into wealthy families, however, have money, opportunity, support and contacts to develop their talents, and they stay rich.

Imagine me walking for days into the middle of a steaming equatorial jungle, then setting yellow tape around a five-foot square piece of clear grass and saying, “Look at my five-foot square piece of grass, this proves that we are not in a heavily wooded area!” That’s a precise analogy for Milling’s argument.

We also need to take issue with her talking about people “born in unfortunate circumstances.” The majority of our species are “born in unfortunate circumstances”! Half of us earn less than two dollars a day. And most of the remainder are unemployed or in jobs that won’t set the world on fire pay-wise. Capitalism doesn’t just fuck over a small number of people “in unfortunate circumstances” who we have to look after. “Unfortunate circumstances” are nothing less than the conditions of real life. The wealthy are removed from the conditions of real life, which is why they swallow garbage like this article.

Directly following the passage we just quoted comes:

“The only true impairment is a lack of motivation, and that is not the responsibility of an economic system, or government, to fix.”

Now in refuting this argument I’m not going to push it to ridiculous extremes. It goes pretty far in that direction without any help from me. The only impairment to success is lack of motivation. Just think about that. So when the recession hit Ireland and hundreds of thousands of people lost their jobs it must have been due to… Hundreds of thousands of people suddenly losing their motivation! This is not a caricature, it is the logical implication of what she says.

Of course I’m talking about people as workers – but you’ll forgive me because that’s what the majority of people are. Maybe what Milling is talking about is success in business rather than success in finding and holding down a job, which is enough of a challenge for most of us.

At least at school they told us if you wanted to set up a business you needed “land, labour and capital” as well as some cloudy, undefined thing called “enterprise”, which I believe is a personal quality close enough to “motivation.” Forbes has printed an article which insists that the only reason why everyone in the world is not a successful businessperson is because the vast majority of us are lazy.

What about the factors that already motivate people to desire to get rich? What about hunger, misery, poverty, Christmas, advertising, a popular culture that presents average people as losers, drudgery of work, children, pressure from family and partners… It’s very difficult to imagine anyone lacking the motivation to be “successful”, ie, to have money.

There are people who are utterly demoralised by generations of poverty and unemployment; there are a small layer of people who work comfortable jobs for comfortable pay, who have no desire to change anything. These are the closest thing that exists to what Milling imagines is a chronic condition afflicting the vast majority of our species who have not “succeeded.”

Viciousness

In an article that focuses on a “moral argument” for Capitalism, it’s interesting how horrible and anti-human most of Milling’s ideas are. For a start, if everyone has an equal shot at getting rich, what does that say about those of us who aren’t? That is, at least 95% of the human race?

As Forbes itself points out, most of the world’s billionaires are from the USA. Most of those are white. Now let’s, just for a second, look at the world through Milling’s eyes and just ignore slavery, sexism, all power relations, thousands of years of human history and capital accumulation, the massive differences in opportunity between the rich and the rest and between one country and another, the vastly different economies and societies that exist in the world, and the exploitative relationship between worker and capitalist. Are you seeing what I’m seeing? Milling’s world view can’t explain why white males remain the richest people in the world. If capitalism provides equal opportunities for everyone and the only variable is motivation, then white people must be more motivated than everyone else. Men must be more motivated than everyone else. Milling should write for Stormfront, not Forbes.

As always throughout history, one group of people being more powerful than another forces the powerful group to come up with “moral” reasons why this should be the case. European domination of the world in the 19th century gave birth to pseudo-“scientific” racism. Likewise the spectacular monopoly of wealth in the hands of the 1% leads to a theory of “enterprise” and “motivation” that is evil in its own right, as well as logically shading into racism.

Milling continues:

“The moral obligation of government is to provide equality under the law.”

This paradoxically means that the government has to apply vicious moral double-standards. How can you treat two people as legally equal when one has very little money and another has many times more than they need? If one has a relatively easy life and the other has a frustrating, bitter, difficult life? If a millionaire mugs someone it’s obviously a different story than if someone whose parents have been unemployed for thirty years mugs someone.

A capitalist, who by definition owns a lot of money, is socially a different species from a worker, who has to rent out their body in order to get money. “Equality under the law” is like a racing track, on which one contestant gets a racing car and the other nine get only their own two feet. But it’s OK, because they all have to race an equal distance.

No, Capitalism is not “Supremely Moral” but if Milling is anything to go by it is Supremely Moralistic. In trying to outline a moral vision that justifies capitalism, of course Milling ends up doing the opposite and just showing how cruel and wrong the system is. Justifying capitalism demands a worship of power, a worship of the accomplished fact, a removal of all things from context. It demands a hatred of the weak.

It’s similar to medieval Europe, when the priests and monks preached to the peasants that the wealth of the nobles was justified because the job of the nobles was to protect them… from other nobles. Or under Hinduism, in which anyone who’s rich or powerful must have been unbelievably good in a previous life. Well, at least they had a bit of imagination. Not like today’s priests of Capital, Forbes, who just come out with a mix of the naive and the nasty.

 

This is going to be a morbid and gruesome little blog post. I need to write it, though, to redress the balance.

The Monopoly on Mass Killings?

I have a google alert down for the word “socialism” – basically google e-mails me every day with links to every article that mentions the word in its title. The majority are letters to local American newspapers warning that Obama and liberals are bringing socialism to the USA.

When I engage in debate with this type of American I invariably get accused of ignoring “the fact that Marxist regimes killed some one-hundred million people during the twentieth century and the beat goes on in N. Korea.” That figure of 100 million is, of course, stupidly, impossibly high.

Figures such as Leon Trotsky and Che Guevara, who fought wars and killed large numbers of people in the course of those wars, are described as sociopaths, psychopaths, sadists, murderers – charges that the same accusers would never throw at any American general, CIA chief or wartime president with a body-count ten or a hundred times higher.

Victims of the Bengal famine of 1943. An atrocity comparable to Stalin's Ukrainian famines, yet rarely acknowledged

Victims of the Bengal famine of 1943. An atrocity comparable to Stalin’s Ukrainian famines, yet rarely acknowledged

Blatant lies work when selectivity doesn’t – I recently read an article which said that Lenin killed “millions of people” during his life-long “reign” over… Poland.

Apparently to refute the methods of Marx and the ideas of Socialism, all you need to do is recite lists of X million killed in China, X million killed in Russia… under systems not remotely resembling Socialism or Marxism. Round up tens of millions, never round down, and never, ever engage with actual Marxist ideas.

But let’s allow for the sake of argument that since the Chinese and Russian dictatorships arose out of attempts to build genuine workers’ states, their crimes and disasters do somehow reflect indirectly on Socialism. They don’t but let’s assume that they do just so that we can bring some perspective to the claim that “Communism”/ “Collectivism”/ ”Leftism” have the monopoly on mass killing.

And let’s play this sick little game by the same rules as those who invented it: anyone killed by a capitalist regime or by famine or disease under a capitalist regime goes down on the capitalist score-card. There’s no use protesting that “that was because of dictatorship not because of capitalism” or “those were special circumstances” or “that was an accident” or “they couldn’t have prevented that” – I agree that it’s not fair, but I didn’t write the rulebook here, you did.

Bloodlands

I’m reading a very good book at the moment called Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin by Timothy Snyder. It examines the mass killing policies that the two dictators inflicted on a swathe of Eastern Europe from 1933 to 1945. It’s really harrowing and it shows the viciousness and cruelty of both states.

Nazi Germany, of course, was Capitalist. The state played a big role in the economy but the rich remained in control. Anyway, who funded the Nazis and helped them to power? Who benefited from the slave labour of millions of Jews and other prisoners? Fascism, worldwide, is the last resort of the Capitalist class when faced with revolution. Hitler was not only incidentally Capitalist, but essentially Capitalist.

But the Nazis are not the only Capitalist mass killers. I want to see a sequel to Bloodlands. How about Bloodlands: Indochina Between Japan, France and the USA? This book would examine the estimated 1-3 million people killed by the American war

Aftermath of a Napalm attack in Vietnam, early 1970s

Aftermath of a Napalm attack in Vietnam, early 1970s

machine in the 1960s and ‘70s as it struggled to prop up a series of horrible dictators in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. It would also look at the occupations by (Capitalist) France and “Capitalist) Japan from the 19th century to 1945. The USA not only committed mass killings, but mass deportations and concentration camps; mass destruction of forests and the poisoning of land for generations through unexploded ordinance and pesticides; and bombing on an unimaginable scale.

How about Bloodlands: South Asia Between Britain and Japan? Britain’s deliberate, man-made famine in Bengal, which killed 3.5 million people in 1943, could be the centrepiece of this work. However it would also examine the notorious atrocities of the Japanese, and the bloodbath of British rule in India. It could conclude with the rape of Indonesia in which Japan and Britain collaborated at the end of the war. Maybe the murder of a million Communists by Suharto twenty years later could round it off.

Bloodlands: Latin America under the USA would be one of the most gruesome. US interventions, direct or indirect, in Panama, Granada, Dominican Republic, Cuba, Guatemala, Brazil, Colombia, Bolivia, Chile, Argentina and Uruguay far outweigh the brutality of the Stalinist repressions in Czechoslovakia (1968) and Hungary (1956). In almost every case all that happened was that the majority of the people chose a government that US big business didn’t like, and as a consequence either US invasion or US support for fascists and crooks meant hundreds of thousands were killed in bloody civil wars.

The death toll continues because US intervention left behind a legacy of violence that continues to kill unbelievable numbers of people every year. This plus poverty, inequality and the cocaine business. And remember the rules of the game: the capitalist client states of the USA in Latin America are presiding over spectacular murder rates, so let’s tack those on to the total. The media like to pretend it’s only happening in Venezuela, and that it’s happening there due to anti-poverty programmes, but no author has yet shown me how literacy and better housing increase murder rates. In any case, the rich in Venezuela actually own a greater share of the economy today than they did in 1998. Venezuela is still Capitalist. Add ’em to the list.

Bloodlands: Africa under Imperialism would be the bloodiest of all. The six million killed in the last 15 years in the Congo in resource wars would be just a drop in the ocean. From the mass-murders of the Belgian Congo to the famines in the Horn of Africa; from the blood diamond wars of West Africa to the German genocides in Angola; from the concentration camps of British South Africa to the disemboweling of Libya in 2011. And the many, many people killed by Gaddafi himself would have to go onto the capitalist scoreboard as well, I’m afraid; the “Great Libyan Arab Jahamariya” redistributed nationalised oil wealth, but remained capitalist.

Those with a taste for gory histories of mass killing and famine have for too long confined their sadism to “Communist” countries. They are missing out on oceans of blood that have been shed under Capitalism. They also confine their researches in time as well as place. Equally big famines took place in Russia and China before the revolutions; equally vicious repressions took place before “Communism”; and in China, an even more vicious and undemocratic state has taken hold since the restoration of Capitalism. Today China, the world’s most successful Capitalist state, is also one of the most oppressive.

Why should a single person starve in a world with the agricultural capacity to feed 12 billion and highly-developed transport technology? Answer: the free market which only listens to the highest bidder. And this kid here isn't the highest bidder

Why should a single person starve in a world with the agricultural capacity to feed 12 billion and highly-developed transport technology? Answer: the free market which only listens to the highest bidder. And this kid here isn’t the highest bidder

Drowning the Debate in Blood

Take a look back over the mass killings and atrocities we’ve just described. If such horrors as happened and happen in those lands had taken place in the USSR, we’d have shelves full of books about them and they would be rightly remembered as an indictment of Stalinism. We’d have hatchet jobs of LBJ, Nixon, Kissinger and Churchill in every bookshop shelf currently occupied by Robert Service’s ludicrously hostile Trotsky. But the fact that human beings starve and fight for resources in countries of plenty and in a world of abundance, while Goldman Sachs makes $300 million gambling on the price of food and driving it up — and on top of this, the complete absence of any solution from the political establishment — well, it doesn’t bat an eyelid or make the learned academics question capitalism.

George Orwell, a revolutionary socialist whose works are so often quoted as if he was a fervent pro-capitalist, made the point that whoever controls the present controls the past. The only reason why Marxist ideas are supposed to have this taint of blood on them, and is contrasted to some idealistic notion of a “liberal democracy” that has never existed, is because Capitalism itself is unchallenged, and gets to set the consensus. In the face of this it is hard to maintain objectivity and a dialectical, all-sided approach.

Next time anyone spouts this nonsense about “Communism”, “Socialism”, “Leftism” and “Collectivism” at you, just think about how unbelievably naive they are. Pity them. And don’t go on the defensive. Attack. How is the blowing-up of entire villages in Pakistan and Afghanistan justified? Why’s it OK that Africa, a continent rich in natural resources, is stuck in worsening poverty, violence and famine because the people don’t own those resources?

Orwell went on to say that whoever controls the past controls the future. I disagree. The future does not belong to those who control the narrative about the past – it’s one weapon in their arsenal, but not an all-powerful one. A new challenge to Capitalism on a global scale is already in its early stages, recovering from twenty years of capitalist hegemony. As we reclaim the political arena, reclaim the workplace, reclaim the streets and reclaim the communities, we will reclaim history too.

 

I remember seeing a statistic in my Junior Cert geography book that hit me so hard I haven’t forgotten it. It’s that 50,000 people die in road accidents in the USA every year – which compares to 58,000 US soldiers killed in the war in Vietnam. It gives a gruesome new meaning to Che Guevara’s slogan of “many Vietnams” – for the US there’s a “Vietnam” a year in terms of lives lost on the roads. The cause isn’t Imperialism, it’s private car ownership, poor public transport, shitty roads and alcohol abuse.

There’s a tendency to overlook the fact that at least a million, maybe two or three million, South-East Asians died in the Vietnam War too. A lot of Americans see the war as a “loss of innocence” and as a great national trauma. All of this is true but the problem is you get wrapped up in viewing the whole thing as an American “experience”. We who watch Hollywood movies forget what the war was objectively: a fight for independence and social revolution in which millions of rebel peasants and civilians were killed by an imperialist war machine that was propping up a bloodthirsty puppet government. Tune in soon for a further development of this point, but while we’re on the subject of wars:

Imagine for a second that instead of spending well over $4 trillion on wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, the US Government had invested that money into providing cheap or free public transport throughout the US. Instead of killing hundreds of thousands of people they would have saved the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. Instead of a stagnant, then a collapsing economy, they would have had huge numbers of people working at valuable jobs. Instead of destroying Iraq’s society and infrastructure (what was left after the sanctions) and giving a blank cheque to the Karzai mafia, the US could have used its massive resources to do what private enterprise was not doing. That is, to develop a productive as opposed to a speculative economy. If Capitalism was working in its own best interests, that’s what it would have done.

But Capitalism can’t think. It’s a brainless, chaotic, contradictory system. The market, apparently such a brilliant pricing mechanism, can’t match need with potential. Instead what you have is a bought-off political system funded by the rich launching horrific wars for oil. You have a flight of capital to poor countries and dictatorships, the growth of an economy based on speculation, and the totally predictable collapse of that economy, leaving behind debt mountains. In the case of the US and Eurozone, not just debt mountains but whole debt planets. Which the bought-off politicians then insist justifies further attacks on workers and the further dismantling of society.

 

Never has our species had as much potential as today and never has it apparently been rushing so enthusiastically into mass murder, economic suicide and environmental destruction. If we can break the rule of capital over society and plan the allocation of wealth rationally we will have some job reversing this bloody headlong rush. But once we do, the way will be opened for the rational use of the wealth of society to create a safer and more prosperous life for all.

 

 

 

Here’s some gruesome homework exercises for ye.

1.Which of the following organisations has been responsible for the most civilian deaths in the last twelve years? Number the following organisations with 1 signifying the most civilian deaths and 4 signifying the least.

A)     Al-Queada

B)     The United States Military

C)     The Irish Republican Army

D)     The Health Service Executive

 

2. Between 1960 and 1990, which bloc of states accounted for more state-sponsored political imprisonment, torture, execution, rape and disappearance?

a)      Soviet satellites in Eastern Europe (Stalinist)

b)      US client states in Latin America (Capitalist)

 

3. Which two of the following countries each saw the state breaking strikes by massacring dozens of workers in the last two years?

a)      Cuba

b)      Kazakhstan

c)      South Africa

d)      North Korea

 

4. What nation today has the highest percentage of its population in prison?

A)     The United States of America

B)     The Russian Federation

C)     The People’s Republic of China

 

5. Stalinist Russia in the late 1930s saw the highest rate of incarceration in history. What other country in history is only marginally behind this record?

a)      Nazi Germany, early 1940s

b)      The Republic of Ireland, mid-1950s

c)      United States of America, early 2010s

 

6. Are those who argue that Capitalism and Democracy go hand in hand

a) deluded

b) naive

c) politically compromised

There’s a country in this world in which the government can lock you up indefinitely and kill you without trial. If it comes to a trail it can fix them using secret evidence and “expert” witnesses whose testimony and identities stay hidden. This government can and does spy on its people. Its brutal, corrupt security forces keep people in fear by conceiving, funding and organising, then miraculously foiling “terrorist plots” and bribing, convincing and threatening deranged or deluded people to take the fall. Protestors are brutally beaten off the streets. Peaceful activists are hounded and harassed.

In the whole world, this country has the largest percentage of its people in prison and also the largest absolute number of prisoners. It stands side by side with the Stalinist USSR in the 1930s for the highest rates of imprisonment in human history. This country has launched wars of aggression based on deliberate lies which have killed hundreds of thousands of innocent people and laid waste to whole nations. It blows up villages to punish one or two people who have stood against its will. It abducts and tortures its perceived enemies, flying them around the world with aid from dozens of other states including my own, Ireland.

Its economy has tanked, with massive deindustrialisation and a spectacular over-reliance on finance and credit turning it from a powerhouse to a basket case in a few decades. Now it borrows unbelievable amounts of money to keep itself from collapsing and its political elites have absolutely no way to tackle this problem. Meanwhile unemployment soars and tent settlements accumulate. A huge chunk of the population has to choose between housing and healthcare.

You’ve probably guessed that this poverty-stricken, dreary, repressive and divided land is the United States of America.

Things have gotten so bad for Americans economically, socially and politically, that cracks are beginning to show. While obviously the conditions the majority are living in are terrible, the potential is opening up for serious changes for the better.

Outsiders can sometimes get a distorted impression of events in another country and magnify the importance of some things while minimizing others. But the radicalisation that’s taking place in America is unmistakeable.

Occupy and the Tea Party

Let’s take a balance sheet of Occupy on the left and the Tea Party on the right. Yes, Occupy had faults: a certain world-defying naivety – which is a positive fault, because you can learn a lot from it. This movement has receded. But the Tea Party got massive corporate funding and didn’t get physically destroyed by the police… and it still receded. The conservative “Restoring Honor” rally in Washington in 2010 was dwarfed by the progressive “Restoring Sanity” rally and a massive trade union demonstration in the same year.

Young American radicals believed in Obama in 2008 and were betrayed. Then they believed in Occupy in 2011-12 and learned a lot of lessons. The next outburst of anger will be more mature and effective, and like the last two, it will echo across the world.

Nostalgia is poison

The last great period of radicalisation in America was of course in the 1960s and ’70s. If today we’re seeing the opening of another period of radicalisation, my guess is it’ll be much more significant and effective. The “New Left” of the 1960s, despite rising to magnificent heights, alienated the white working class with its focus on alternative lifestyles that stressed self-indulgence and individualism rather than sacrifice and collective action. A complacent and conservative labour movement meanwhile shunned the black civil rights struggle.

The strangely complementary utopianism and conservatism of Occupy did reflect some of the hippy baggage of the left. But the openness to ideas and to political parties and trade unions that was evident in the US Occupy movement signals that, if this is any indication of what the future holds for America, then the disproportionate nostalgia for the deeply-flawed radicalism of the 1960s will dissipate.

As well as the Occupy movement the US has seen the massive Wisconsin struggle, the Chicago teachers’ strike, the fast food workers’ movement in New York City and the strike at 1000 Wal-Mart stores. Remnants of Occupy in Minnesota are taking direct action against evictions. A resurgence for the labour movement occurring alongside a political ferment generally could lay the basis for a strong movement with massive appeal and working-class credibility.

Socialism vs Capitalism

Kshama Sawant, a member of the Trotskyist organisation Socialist Alternative who won 29% of the vote in Seattle in November, is herself evidence of a massive change of mood. She reports that while two years ago you wouldn’t have heard people talking about Capitalism very often, there’s much more discussion and insight today. Webster’s online dictionary reports that its two most frequent searches in 2012 were Capitalism and Socialism.

Those right-wingers who have been condemning free healthcare as Socialism have done a massive favour to Socialists. While obviously the understanding of the word “Socialism” is still very mixed and confused in the US as elsewhere, the American right has helped to redefine it as a concept. In most Americans’ minds it seems now to conjure up not an image of a Stalinist Gulag, but of a state-funded hospital. This is of course a much more accurate image so we should thank Glenn Beck and the rest of them.

There’s political paralysis at the top and massive ideological ferment at the bottom, and those at the top are bringing in ever more clumsy dictatorial methods to crush dissent. I’m not predicting revolt tomorrow but nobody can deny that it must be an exciting time to be a Socialist in the US.

International effects

And consider how Americanized Irish society and culture are. Occupy spread to five or six cities here in a click of the fingers once it kicked off in America. It was a weaker movement here of course but the fact remains. And remember how big the demonstrations against the Iraq War were here in 2003.

It’s possible that in the years of crisis Irish people’s attention has turned to Europe rather than the US. It’s correct of course that we should look at massive actual struggles in Greece and Spain rather than potential struggles in the US. But a century of listening to US music, watching US films and TV and reading US authors can’t be undone so quickly. Imagine if a serious socialist/left movement got off the ground in America, what an electrifying effect that would have in other countries.

Ruairi Quinn at a Labour Party Press Conferenc...

This is very painful for me, but if you don’t pay college fees there will be no money in the ATMs. We don’t control our own chequebook. But it’s OK, because I’m a Social Democrat. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In Autumn 2008 Ireland’s economy was going down the tubes, banks were being nationalized and massive state intervention in the “free” and “unfettered” market was happening on a massive, unprecedented scale. Naturally a lot of us thought that free market ideology, which had reigned supreme for so long, was now fatally undermined and discredited. After the biggest international bank rescue in history, how could people go back to the same ridiculous old dogma that got us into this mess?

Four years later, the government looks on “a return to the international financial markets” as the moment of our supreme economic redemption, like the Hebrews in EU/IMF Babylon dreaming of Israel. Low wages, privatisation and withered public spending are seen as the fundamental bedrock of growth and prosperity. Cutbacks are painful but okay because at some point they will “release our innate entrepreneurial spirit.” We’ve all got to “share the pain”, all except those who have billions to burn. They must be treated like gods so as they don’t run away with all their money to some country even more craven and slavish. Labour ministers tell us that, deep down in their hearts, they are Social Democrats; but right now Ireland is not in control of its cheque book, and if we want money in the ATMs we’d better do as we’re told.

A general turn to the left, even towards narrow, useless Keynesian policies, has not been a feature of the response to the crisis. There has been no substantial reckoning with the ideology and the economics that got us into this mess. The same people are telling us more or less the same lies. There has in fact been a hardening and a reinforcing of the same old nonsense. “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them,” Albert Einstein says, but never mind him. What do “the markets” say? “In the current market environment there is no room for using a Keynesian-type expansionary fiscal policy to boost demand in countries with low growth – the markets will simply not accept such a strategy,” says an analyst for Deutsche Bank- which is probably the job Einstein would have been mercilessly headhunted for had he been born in 1980.

Fundamentally, most people’s opinions about free market ideology did in fact turn around overnight at the onset of the crisis. But the ideas in people’s heads, unfortunately, don’t determine history. On the eve of the crisis 50% of US corporate profits were not based on making stuff and selling it but on financial activities, ie gambling. In the Neil Armstrong pioneer spirit white picket fence ‘50s and ‘60s this figure was only 10-15%. The financial sector has ballooned in size in the last few decades, and has unimaginable wealth and power concentrated in its hands.

Now, remember what the financial sector is: a collection of rabidly profit-hungry institutions and individuals bent on playing with numbers in impossibly complex ways to bring in profits, without regard for the health of the economy, the environment, the poor saps who have to work real jobs for a living, etc. Nothing could be more offensive to these people than a progressive and fair policy. They want governments to round up all the money they, “the markets”, pissed away on bad gambles and pay it back. Who cares about schools and hospitals? They want water, electricity, transport, land and much else sold off for speculation. They want wages driven down to keep pace with the fall in output. The IMF, a private financial institution, and the ECB are included in this.

And they have the power to enforce what they want. If a government acts against their interests, they can speculate against its currency and bring a nation to its knees overnight. If a country has gotten itself into trouble by following their dogma they can threaten to take away funding.

The real shocker in the “no money in the ATMs” scenario, so beloved of Labour’s Ruairi Quinn, is that those making it don’t realize its implications. They are top-level members of a political class that brought a country to the point where such a crazy scenario is plausible. It backfires. They mean to say, “This is how bad things are, so you’d better accept cutbacks and new taxes and charges.” What comes out is: “This is how badly we fucked it up. Now we’re asking you to trust us when we slam a new tax onto you.” Just like the old “we don’t control our cheque book” argument. If we don’t control our chequebook, what’s the point of ministers, exactly? It’s the logic of a creeping dictatorship.

It’s a rotten bargain from our point of view, but there’s a good reason why people are swallowing it. That reason is fear in the face of power.  Free market ideology has been thoroughly discredited. Meanwhile everyone’s coming around to the conclusion that austerity is making the crisis worse, not better. We have four years’ worth of evidence. But these discredited ideas are still not only hanging on, they’re somehow dominant.

It’s not, as Gay Byrne puts it, that we are being ruled by “mad people in Brussels.” The people calling the shots are not mad or stupid. They are simply pursuing their own interests, and because of their control over the financial system, they can do so at our expense.

The unions and some think tanks are calling, very gently, for Keynesian solutions. But Keynesian and austerity-junkie logic are strangely similar. Both rely on the same assumption. Enda Kenny says that if we cut enough, we will stimulate the private sector and it will start investing and we will recover. Paul Krugman says if we invest enough, we will stimulate the private sector and it will start investing and we will recover. Same assumption: that the rich will solve this crisis if we just create the right conditions for them.

Never mind that the last few decades have been an era of historically high profits plus historically low productive investment. Never mind that private investment has collapsed spectacularly in the last few years, by tens of billions in Ireland alone. Never mind that the richest 10% in Ireland have grown 4% richer while the rest of us were being hit hard. These policies are being pursued because they suit those in power, and if society as a whole tries to hit back, they will use that power to punish us.

It’s not a question of marshalling clever arguments to convince world leaders to cop on. If the ideas in people’s heads defined history, the people most responsible for this crisis would be hanging from streetlights, burnt to a crisp. As it happens, they’re attending Bilderberg group meetings, telling elected governments what to do, and are still rolling in cash. The only way out is mass civil disobedience, a refusal to cooperate in organized robbery, and the total breaking of the power of the banks, financial institutions and the capitalist class.

English: One of the first steps taken on the M...

Footprint from the first moon landing- humans haven’t gone back since 1972, prompting some soul-searching on the death of Neil Armstrong. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The recent death of Neil Armstrong, the first man to step onto the surface of the moon, is kind of an embarrassing reminder to modern Capitalism. The spectacular achievements of past generations are bringing about a sense of nostalgia, regret and even a kind of shame throughout Europe and America. I could pick quotes from this newspaper or that- “Tributes and a lament for lost era”, says the Irish Times– but an e-mail sent to me by a friend of mine captures the mood best:

Neil Armstrong epitomises the (possibly mythical) “greatest generation” – survive the depression for an appetiser, defeat fascism for a main course, then finish up with splitting the atom, discovering the sequence of DNA, walking on the moon, containing communism and setting in place decades of relatively egalitarian prosperity.

What the fuck have WE done lately!

Now, I don’t agree with my friend’s view of history. But this perception is obviously based on a lot of truth, and I think his e-mail captures the mood and sense of shame at the death of Armstrong perfectly.

This sense is ultimately that the human race/ Western Civilization/ America/ White People (the entity represented by the “We” so beloved of college debaters) reached a kind of peak with 1969 and the moon landing. Since then, we’ve been on a slide backwards, a turn inwards; the decadent children of heroes, forever in their shadows, more interested in small steps and giant leaps up the property ladder than onto the surface of the moon.

This sense of shame and nostalgia are becoming widespread among those provoked into deep thoughts by the worldwide crisis of capitalism. An article by Mike Lofgren in The American Conservative bemoans

the present regime of downsizing, offshoring, profits without production, and financialization… in the 1950s the country eked out higher average GDP growth rates than those we have experienced in the last dozen years.

Lofgren talks about how the rich are abandoning conservative values with an “inverted Marxist” belief in the free market. In the forties, even a Yale man had to hump a backpack through battlefields, but

Now the military is for suckers from the laboring classes whose subprime mortgages you just sliced into CDOs and sold to gullible investors…

Amid American trade Unionists there seems to be a habit of demanding “mid-century” conditions for workers. Michael Moore’s Capitalism: A Love Story has a moving clip of Dr Jonas Salk, who invented the polio vaccine but refused to patent it (“Would you patent the sun?”). Today, as Moore makes clear, the Salks and Armstrongs are headhunted by financial institutions and their genius is set to work making rich old men even richer through gambling.

Like Ostalgiya (nostalgia for the Stalinist past in Eastern Europe) there’s some elements of this sense of generational shame that are totally correct and some that are spectacularly wrong.

 

What’s Right

Here’s the reply I sent to the question, “What the fuck have WE done lately!”:

Forty years of financialisation, deindustrialisation and credit binge 🙂 not much else.

To set against the myth, however, this was the generation that super-exploited Latin America as well as parts of Asia and Africa, the generation responsible for bloody proxy wars the world over.

BUT, and it’s a big but, the “greatest generation” periodization is very useful because it points out that since the 60s, early 70s, when the post-war boom ran out of steam, I’d say Capitalism has been essentially decadent […]

We’ve had huge leaps forward in electronics and mobile phone technology, to be fair. Also (in many countries) attitudes towards people of minority races and sexual orientations, and obviously the position of women, have vastly improved.

I’d have to add that Capitalism didn’t give us these great advances in social attitudes- people had to fight for them, tooth and nail, for decades, and they still do have to fight.

The spectacular explosion of finance capital at the expense of real capital investment; the flight of capital from social democracies to brutal anti-worker autocracies and poverty-stricken hells where they’ll work for anything; the massive extension of credit to cover all this up- this massive shift in Capitalism since the free-market reaction of the ‘70s and ‘80s is covered well elsewhere. This, in a nutshell, is what this sense of generational shame and angst comes from. And shame at Thatcherism and Reaganism really is the only appropriate feeling.

 

What’s Wrong

But there’s other elements that can creep into this whole idea. Firstly, this kind of romanticizing of the past is always ridiculous. Romanticizing is what happens when you refuse to take a scalpel to the past and separate, as far as you can, the good from the bad. Also, the past comes to us heavily burdened with lies and distortions.

I’ll give as an example my friend’s decision to talk about “containment of Communism” in the list of the achievements of the “greatest generation”. Neil Armstrong flew 78 combat missions in the Korean War. Woohoo, containing Communism. Or you could say that he was part of an international counter-revolution that partitioned Korea, slaughtered its people, “contained” only the desire of the majority for socialism and independence, and laid North Korea under siege, creating the mad, horrible, backward dictatorship that exists there today.

http://www.marxists.org/archive/pablo/1950/09/korea.htm

It does say a lot about economics that we saw the moon landing in the sixties while the following decades saw stagnation on the space frontier. But let’s not forget that it was primarily a very spectacular propaganda stunt. I see the moon landing as an extremely wasteful gesture with little scientific or economic payoff. It was part of a pissing contest, pure and simple, between Stalinism and the USA. “We came in peace for all mankind,” reads the plaque. I don’t know, they should put one of those plaques at Mai Lai or the Bay of Pigs.

This kind of talk about the past always takes on a “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” feeling. We get that a ponderous, pretentious, sweeping narrative of virility and decadence; the replacement of the Legions with foreign mercenaries; the abandoning of the pantheon for weak, liberal Christianity; the temptations of “Oriental” luxury; mad, cruel Emperors and ravaging hordes of barbarians… Superimpose this narrative on today and you get a crazy ultra-conservative vision.

Remember that Marine Le Pen likes to pose as a scourge of the bankers, that the BNP laments the deindustrialisation of Britain… The turn from industry to finance can be presented as a loss of “virility” and national pride. And who is responsible? The hummus-eating, sandal-wearing pretentious elites, the same ones who opened the gates to the immigrants! Breivik’s dreaded dictatorship of “Cultural Marxists”!

This is all just to make the point that these generational discussions and talk of the good-old-days can take on a brainless, ultra-conservative character as well as having the potential to be actually informative discussions. In Ireland it’s not so much of an issue because we have no Golden Age to hark back to. But in Europe and the USA, see Michael Moore, it can be an easy precedent for Socialists or what the Americans call “progressives” to refer to.

There are obvious and massive limitations to this harking-back-to-the-past tactic. Let’s not forget that, as well as the subjection of women, workers were, then as now, a majority economically separate from, inferior to, and dependent on the rich. In other words, it was Capitalism, and it was shit for most people.

To cut myself short, because I and plenty others have made these arguments before, I’ll say that in addition to not being desirable these “good old days” are totally unattainable today. I’m not saying this to depress you, I’m saying it to point out that we need to be much more ambitious if we want to end the dictatorship of the financial markets and create a better life for all.

Why and how?

Tune in over the next few days for my next article examining these questions and more.

English: British versions of the Harry Potter ...

Great books- but are they worth $1 Billion? (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In 2007 Forbes magazine gushed:

“While inheriting a billion dollars is still the easiest way to land on our list of the world’s wealthiest, it certainly isn’t the most common. Almost two-thirds of the world’s 946 billionaires made their fortunes from scratch, relying on grit and determination, and not good genes.”

Fifty of them, it goes on to say, are school or college dropouts.

The unwritten argument the magazine is making is obviously its usual billionaire-worshiping. It’s a propaganda claim. It would be interesting to investigate this and find out the reality behind this very unlikely statistic, for someone who has the time and resources. For me, here and now, I’ll just ask a few questions.

What does “from scratch” mean in this instance?

All it seems to come down to here is that the billionaire in question did not inherit their billions from their parents. If they inherited millions, or hundreds of thousands, or tens of thousands, is this “starting from scratch”?

Or forget inheritance. If a person grows up in a relatively well-off family that has the ability to put them through school and college without them having to work and disrupt their studies, they’ve got a massive head-start on most of the human race. If the parents have money or, maybe even more importantly, if the parents have the connections that come with having money, then the head-start gets even bigger.

Take even a real rags-to-riches case like that of Joanne Rowling, Harry Potter author. It’s often said that she went from being on welfare to being incredibly rich in a few short years. But she had social welfare to support her while she wrote The Philosopher’s Stone. She also had an excellent education in English, French, German and Classics to stimulate her imagination, and her knowledge shines through on every page of the series. Rowling had head-starts. I have the laptop I’m writing this on not because of the sweat of my brow, but because of head-starts that relied 90% on luck.

So what does Forbes magazine mean by “from scratch”?

Second question: If “grit and determination” are what won these billionaires their billions, then why are there so few of them? (1,210 at the last count, in March 2011.)

Surely there are more far, far more people in the world than this who have “grit and determination.” Maybe if we add “exceptional luck”, “great talent”, “rich parents”,  “willingness to trample on other people” and “not born in a squalid hovel in the Horn of Africa”, we can narrow it down a bit.

Of course Forbes doesn’t comment on the nasty things any of them might have had to do to get there. Profit comes from somewhere, even for the most “ethical” of all businessmen. There’s no getting around the fact that putting up the money for a project does not give you the right to run away with the profits of other people’s labour. Each of these people is standing on the peak of a pyramid of workers, of necessity not getting paid for all the work they’re doing.

But let’s just assume everyone is fine morally speaking, just for the sake of argument. Look at Rowling, she just wrote a book, did she exploit anyone?

Well, there’s a big issue here still. What exactly does she plan to do with her estimated $1 billion? Great books, I loved them. But how is it in any way OK for one person to control so much of the world’s wealth? And Rowling is, as we’ve stressed, on the innocent end of the scale as far as billionaires go.

HSBC had a series of ads in airports and the London Underground where they relate fascinating statistics about the world, mostly propaganda. “Almost two thirds of the world’s billionaires made their fortunes from scratch” was one of them. They should run another ad campaign with the following, for a start:

-Between £13 and £20 trillion sits untaxable in offshore bank accounts.

-In 2008 the assets of the world’s richest 225 people was equal to the income of the poorest 2.5 billion.

-In Europe and the USA almost $5 trillion lies un-invested in the bank accounts of the rich.

But that would be a bit of a downer, wouldn’t it…

1. If we tax the rich, they’ll stop investing. 

They’re not investing anyway! That’s why there’s a recession. Private investment has fallen by tens of billions of euros in a few short years.

But you have a point- just taxing the rich is not enough. We need to stop regarding them as “investors” altogether, since they’re not doing that, and take over the large businesses and assets they own. Then we can plan for a recovery based on massive public investment.

2. We need to honour our debts as a nation. 

The debts of millionaire gamblers have nothing to do with most of us.

We need to take over the banks, open their books and guarantee the savings of ordinary people while writing off the toxic debt of speculators. They can go look for a real job like the rest of us.

3. We need to balance the books, we’ve been living beyond our means.

The crisis didn’t happen just because the government spent too much. It happened because that spending was based on taxes off a massive crazy bubble.

The solution is not to cut spending, but to create a real, sustainable economy to replace that bubble and fund the public services and the rights that we need.

Your plan demands that we sacrifice everything- pay, jobs, services, most means of wealth creation in the country- just to suck up to the same gamblers and politicians who caused this crisis in the first place.

And obviously it’s not working- austerity has blown up the deficit to a huge size and crippled the economy. We need to stop this insanity at once.

4. We need to cut the public sector- it’s wasteful. Only the private sector creates wealth. 

Bullshit. The public sector provides vital services for the majority of people. Transport, healthcare, education- are these not wealth?

Even beyond that, public sector workers spend money in society and sustain loads of small businesses.

5. The innate entrepreneurial spirit of this great country is going to fix this crisis. Just take the pain and don’t rock the boat or you’ll make it worse. 

The economy’s fucked. We’ve got pharmaceutical factories that only employ a small number of people, we’ve got farms like we’ve always had farms, and we have a huge debt hangover from the building boom that was the only motor force in our economy for years. That’s it.

6. But a recovery in the world economy…

The world economy’s fucked too. In the US and Europe there’s little wealth creation and lots of debt. These are the world’s biggest markets, so as our crisis deepens the strain is showing in a massive way in China, Brazil and the main exporters.

Like the Irish economy, the world economy was running for years on unsustainable debt. Like in Ireland, austerity is making it worse. Like in Ireland, the rich aren’t going to fix it for us.

7. But we’re on the road to recovery! The statistics for the first quarter say that X is Y per cent and Z is rising steadily and…

Yeah, yeah, we’ve heard in all before. Every month ye ministers have a few nice statistics to point to, and a few weeks later a new statistic, a report, a ratings downgrade or a bailout blows ye out of the water and reveals to us all that ye were bluffing.

“We’ve turned a corner.” –Brian Lenihan Jr, 2010

What we need for economic recovery- massive investment of the wealth hoarded by the rich- just isn’t happening. If there is a sustained recovery, it will just be a feeble pick-up from a terrifyingly low level, after irreparable damage is done.

8. You’re trying to drive people to despair with your fearmongering about the economy! 

Actually we have a lot of good news to tell.

Developing our farms and fisheries, investing in wind and wave energy, retrofitting every home for sustainability, building loads of new tram and rail lines, developing an industrial manufacturing base in Ireland for the first time- all these things would help the economy massively, and they are possible.

The only obstacle is that the lion’s share of the wealth of society is in a tiny number of hands, and it is invested only for the sake of short-term profit for individuals. That means, right now, that a huge part of it is not invested at all.

If we could democratically plan the economy; if elected, recallable councils on the average worker’s wage controlled every large business and natural resource, then the economy would work according to the long-term profit of all, not the short-term greed of the few.

9. We need to do what the EU and the IMF tell us. We need to stay at the heart of Europe.

The fact that the EU and the IMF are blackmailing us shows that they don’t have our best interests at heart- and if you need further proof, look at the insane austerity measures they want us to take.

They just want us to pay back the European and American banks that lent stupidly and stand to lose if we stop bailing them out.

It’s a classic debt trap, it’s happened to scores of countries in the past and it’s never ended well.

10. We need the international markets to start lending to us again. 

“The markets” are super-rich gamblers who control the money supply and use this control to blackmail peoples and governments. I never voted for them and I’m fu**ed if I’m going to do what they say.

We need to stop relying on private lenders, who will always lend with strings attached, and don’t lend at all if you really need it. Money is a social necessity and the money supply should be controlled democratically, not by these gamblers.

11. But if we don’t do as they say, they will cut off funding and there will be no money in the ATMs!

Any government can print money- what matters is wealth. Workers in our country create hundreds of billions of euros worth of wealth every year.

Under a planned economy, free of the debt and taking over the wealth and the industries currently owned by the rich, we could create a real recovery.

Of course it would not be possible for one country, especially small, unindustrialized Ireland, to “go it alone” on this basis for very long. But all over the world workers face the same crisis and if we succeed in one country, it will be an inspiration to all.

12.This is a lot of utopian rubbish! Me and the people who elected me live in the real world not in cloud cuckoo land.

While you’re running around looking for entrepreneurial spirits and confidence fairies, thinking with the same attitudes that caused this crisis, the rest of us are being hammered by cuts and taxes and charges and layoffs, by attacks on our schools and hospitals.

That’s what the real world looks like. What you’re doing is ruining the economy, not saving it.

You think we can fix the economy without investing the massive wealth that’s currently controlled by the privileged few who you play golf with.

You think obeying people who threaten you is a way to remove the threat, not reinforce it.

You think “we’re all in it together”, even though some of us are living on the street while others own dozens of houses.

Even though the richest in Ireland have gotten fabulously richer over the last few years, while the bottom 90% have suffered, and the bottom 10% have been absolutely smashed.

You’re the utopian. In fact, you’re f***ing crazy.

US propaganda leaflet used in Afghanistan.

Image via Wikipedia

One evil mass-murdering terrorist leader is dead… You know where this is going: when are they going to get the rest?

I’m talking about George W. Bush, Tony Blair, Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, Condoleeza Rice— Obama too, and Clinton– Sarkozy, Berlusconi, Brown, Cameron, the Queen of England (hope the special branch aren’t monitoring this- hi guys! don’t rape or deport me)….

Those who led the wars on Iraq and Afghanistan are self-professed terrorists. Their stated strategy in both invasions was a doctrine of “shock and awe”- bombing the shit out of people then sending in the tanks to wipe up whoever hasn’t surrendered. Incidentally, they have to date killed far more people htan Bin Laden ever did. This isn’t a moral argument that they’re better or worse than him. Terrorism is just warfare on a low budget and not committed by a state. If Bin Laden had all those US tax dollars at his disposal, he’d wreak as much havoc as Bush and Obama have.

Just to clarify: I don’t think the people I listed above should be killed. Waste of time. Worse, it creates a martyr. Instead, organize your unions, agitate against austerity. Defeat their ideas. Likewise, killing Bin Laden is significant in no way except as a propaganda coup.

Again, don’t kill Osama- don’t fucking bother. Defeat his ideas. But the Bush administration showed little interest in WHY 9/11 happened. The USA and its allies have spent the last ten years, it seems, desperately trying to prove everything bin Laden ever said. Bin Laden says “Yanks out of Saudi Arabia and Israelis out of Palestine”— what dya know: they invade Iraq, Afghanistan and now Libya.

Bin Laden once said an interesting thing. Bush was displaying his acute political and social awareness, saying They hate freedom. They love terror. They’re jealous of our Democracy. Bin Laden said in response something like, Will he tell us then why we did not attack Sweden.

Let me repeat, the killing of Osama Bin Laden is insignificant except in one sphere: that of Propaganda.

Blah blah blah, big political coup for Obama. Yeah, two fingers up to the bankers’ president. What I mean is it’s already being employed as a retrospective justification for the meaningless “War on Terror” and more particularly for torture.

Shooting a guy twice in the head is being trumpeted as a vindication of a doctrine, embraced by the entire US political elite. This is the idea that that invading, occupying and remoulding countries, wholesale bombing and arbitrary imprisonment and torture can somehow make the world a safer and more democratic place.

Saddam Hussein being probed for his dental records on international TV (then hanged on Youtube) and Bin Laden shot and dumped off the side of an aircraft carrier (?? fuel for conspiracy theories I’ll read with only a very asmall pinch of salt) are all they’ve got to show for this ridiculous idea.

The triumphalism resulting from this “victory” has brought a lot out of the woodwork of the newspapers. I gotta say I’m shocked. I was very very naive, I guess. We haven’t heard much about that war on an emotion in the last couple of years, right? I kind of thought that not a lot of people believed in that whole narrative anymore. I had a nasty shock reading John Waters’ article on Libya a few weeks ago (http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/opinion/2011/0318/1224292506317.html)

—I didn’t think anyone still had that hollywood view of the whole thing.

But this latest coup has brought back the Hans Zimmer soundtrack and the Jerry Bruckheimer production values to the “War on Terror”. So far I’ve seen the RTE, Evening Herald, Financial Times and Irish Times. The yanks are all hot damn! high-five! rot in hell! – to be expected. In New York, where they lost a lot of people, jubilation was as great as the street parties you’re going to see in Baghdad when Bush dies.

But our media outlets and world leaders all echo this, though maybe with a little more distance and fake dignity. Fact is, the horrific outcome of the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan did not make our best n brightest fundamentally rethink their fucked-up world view– it just made them go quiet. Now this has happened, dropped like an anchor of bullshit in the stormy sea of reality. They have something to cling to again, this and the royal wedding maybe, after a very distressing few years for those who espouse a policy of brainlessness.

But all power to the revolutions now sweeping the Muslim world. No trust in the new dictators or in the imperialist hijackers. Bin Laden’s irrelevant. Those on the streets of those shitty cities who are not going to accept anything less than a new world mean so much more than two bullets to the head of a reactionary nut.