Archive | October 23rd, 2015

Culture of Cruelty: the Age of Neoliberal Authoritarianism



George Orwell’s nightmarish vision of a totalitarian society casts a dark shadow over the United States. As American society has moved from a welfare to a warfare state, the institutions that were once meant to limit human suffering and misfortune and protect the public from the excesses of the market have been either weakened or abolished.[1] With the withering, if not evisceration, of the social contract, the discourse of social responsibility has been removed from the principles of democratic reform. Relegated to an object of disdain by right-wing extremists, the legacy of democratic principles now withers under a social order marked by a hardening of the culture and the emergence of an unprecedented survival-of-the fittest ethos. This is a mean-spirited ethos that rails against any notion of solidarity and compassion that embraces a respect for others. The consequences of this emerging authoritarianism speak to a different experience of total terror in the 21st century.

The basic elements of this new neoliberal authoritarianism can be seen clearly in the ongoing and ruthless assault on the social state, unions, higher education, workers, students, poor minority youth, and any vestige of the social contract. Free market policies, values, and practices with their emphasis on the privatization of public wealth, the elimination of social protections, and the deregulation of economic activity now shape practically every commanding political and economic institution in both countries. Markets now use their economic and ideological resources to weaponize and militarize all aspects of everyday life, increasingly held in place by a culture of fear, a pedagogy of repression, a banal celebrity culture, game show aesthetics, and a politics of precarity, control, and mass surveillance. A world of shadows, secrecy, and lawlessness now characterizes a deep state that is ruthless in its pursuit of wealth and power and indifferent to its plundering of both humanity and the planet. Terror is all nearly all-encompassing and disguises itself in the normalization of greed, the exaltation of the spectacle of violence, and corporate controlled consumer-soma machine that inoculates the public with an addiction to instant gratification. We don’t see the work camps or death camps that characterized the catastrophes of mid-century totalitarian regimes. But as a generation of black youth can attest, you don’t have to be in jail to feel imprisoned, especially when it is increasingly difficult to take to take control of one’s life and means in a meaningful way.

We live at a time when politics is nation-based and power is global.[2]Global markets now trump the national rendering the political culture and institutions of modernity obsolete. The financial elite now float beyond national borders and no longer care about the welfare state, the common good, or for that matter any institution not subordinated to the dictates of finance capitalism. Hence, the ruling elites make no concessions in their pursuits of power and profits. The social contract of the past, especially in the United States, is now on life support as social provisions are cut, pensions are decimated, and the certainty of a once secure job disappears. Many neoliberal societies are now governed by politicians and financial elites who no longer believe in social investments and are more than willing to condemn young people and others–often paralyzed by the precariousness and instability that haunts their lives and future–to a savage form of casino capitalism.

The mantras of deregulation, privatization, commodification, and the unimpeded flow of capital now drive politics and concentrate power in the hands of the 1 percent. Class warfare has merged with neo-conservative polices to engage in permanent warfare both abroad and at home. There are no safe spaces free from the rich hoarders of capital and the tentacles of the surveillance and punishing state. The basic imperatives of casino capitalism-extending from eliminating corporate taxes and shifting wealth from the public to the private sector to dismantling corporate regulations and insisting that markets should govern all of social life have become the new common sense. Any viable notion of the social, solidarity, and shared democratic values are now viewed as a pathology, replaced by a survival of the fittest ethic, the celebration of self-interest, and a notion of the good life entirely tied to a vapid consumerist ethic.[3]

With the return of the new Gilded Age, not only are democratic institutions, values, and social protections at risk in many countries, but the civic, pedagogical, and formative cultures that make them central to democratic life are in danger of disappearing altogether. Poverty, joblessness, low wage work, and the threat of state sanctioned violence produce among many populations the ongoing fear of a life of perpetual misery and an ongoing struggle simply to survive. Insecurity coupled with a climate of fear and surveillance dampens dissent and promotes an ethical tranquilization fed daily by the mobilization of moral panics, whether they reference the violence of lone domestic terrorists, immigrants swarming across borders, or gay people seeking marriage certificates.

Underlying the rise of the authoritarian state and the forces that hide in the shadows is a politics indebted to promoting historical and social amnesia. The new authoritarianism is strongly indebted to what Orwell once called a “protective stupidity” that negates political life and divest language of its critical content.[4] Neoliberal authoritarianism has changed the language of politics and everyday life through a malicious public pedagogy that turns reason on its head and normalizes a culture of fear, war, surveillance, and exploitation. That is, the heavy hand of Orwellian control is evident in those dominant cultural apparatuses that extend from schools to print, audio, and screen cultures, which now serve as disimagination machines attacking any critical notion of politics that makes a claim to be educative in its attempts to enable the conditions for changing “the ways in which people might think critically.”[5]

Higher education represents one area where neoliberalism wages war on any field of study that might encourage students to think critically. One egregious example was on full display in North Carolina where Republican Party members who control the Board of Governors decimated higher education in that state voted to cut 46 degree programs. One member defended such cuts with the comment: “We’re capitalists, and we have to look at what the demand is, and we have to respond to the demand.”[6] This is more than an example of crude economic instrumentalism, it is also a recipe for instituting an academic culture of thoughtlessness and a kind of stupidity receptive to what Hannah Arendt once called totalitarianism. In Wisconsin, Governor Scott Walker has worked hard to eliminate tenure at Wisconsin’s public universities as well as eviscerate any vestige of shared governance.[7] He also cut $200 million from the state higher education budget, which is not surprising given his hatred of public education.

Both of these examples point to a new breed of politician waging war on higher education, critical pedagogy, the public good, and any viable notion of the social state. Like many of their politically extremist colleagues, they reflect a crudely harsh authoritarian era that exhibits zero tolerance for economic, social, and racial justice and “infinite tolerance for the crimes of bankers and government embezzlers which affect the lives of millions.”[8] Under such conditions, material violence is now matched by symbolic violence, as made evident by the proliferation of images, institutions, and narratives that legitimate not only the manufactured ignorance of market-driven culture and its corollary worship of wealth, celebrity, and a political and consumer culture that craves instant gratification but also what might be called an expanding politics of disposability.

Rendered redundant as a result of the collapse of the welfare state, a pervasive racism, a growing disparity in income and wealth, and a take-no-prisoners market-driven ideology, an increasing number of individuals and groups– especially young people, low income groups, and minorities of class and color — are being demonized, criminalized or simply abandoned either by virtue of their inability to participate in rituals of consumption due to low paying jobs, poor health or pressing family needs. What Joao Biehl has called “zones of social abandonment” now accelerate the disposability of the unwanted.[9]The injuries of class are now compounded by injuries directed at immigrants, gays, poor minorities, and women. Daily debasements create a perpetual climate of fear, insecurity, and a range of illnesses extending from heart attacks, suicide, and mental illness to imprisonment. For example, poor minority and low-income youth, especially, are often warehoused in schools that resemble boot camps, dispersed to dank and dangerous work places, incarcerated in prisons that privilege punishment over rehabilitation, or consigned to the increasing army of the permanently unemployed. Human misery and systemic violence are now built into the nervous system of America. No one is compelled to stare; there is no shock of recognition; no inclination to act against a perceived injustice. There is just the fog of resignation, complacency, and normalcy waiting to be ruptured by the rage that comes with people being humiliated, exploited, assaulted, bound, and gagged for too long.

People who were once viewed as facing dire problems in need of state intervention and social protection are now seen as a problem threatening society. With successive waves of get-tough on-crime policy, the war on poverty has become a war against the poor. Even the plight of the homeless is defined less as a political and economic issue in need of social reform than as a matter of law and order. Yet criminalizing the homeless for crimes such as falling asleep in public “does nothing to break the cycle of poverty or prevent homelessness in the future.”[10] If mass incarceration is one index of an emerging the punishing state, another register is when government budgets for prison construction eclipse funds for higher education.

Already disenfranchised by virtue of their age, young people are under assault in ways that are entirely new because they now face a world that is far more precarious than at any other time in recent history. Not only do many of them live in a space of social homelessness in which austerity and a politics of uncertainty lock them out of a secure future, they also find themselves inhabiting a society that seeks to silence them as it makes them invisible. Victims of a neoliberal regime that smashes their hopes and attempts to exclude them from the fruits of democracy, young people are now told not to expect too much. Written out of any claim to the economic and social resources of the larger society, they are increasingly told to accept the status of being “stateless, faceless, and functionless” nomads, a plight for which they alone have to accept responsibility.[11] Increasing numbers of youth suffer mental anguish and overt distress even, perhaps especially, among the college bound, debt-ridden, and unemployed whose numbers are growing exponentially. Many reports claim that “young Americans are suffering from rising levels of anxiety, stress, depression and even suicide. For example, “One out of every five young people and one out of every four college students … suffers from some form of diagnosable mental illness.”[12]

The politics of disposability with its expanding machineries of civic and social death, terminal exclusion, and zones of abandonment represent a dangerous historical moment and must be addressed within the context of a market driven society that is rewriting the meaning of common sense, agency, desire, and politics itself. Post-2008 recession, the capitalist dream machine is back with huge profits for hedge fund managers, major players in the financial service industries, and the denizens of the ultra-rich. In these new landscapes of wealth, exclusion, and fraud, the commanding institutions of casino capitalism promote a winner-take-all ethos and aggressively undermine a more egalitarian distribution of wealth via corporate taxation. In addition, the financial elite defund crucial social services such as the food stamp programs for poor children, attack labor unions, gay rights, women’s reproductive rights, while waging a counter revolution against the principles of social citizenship and democracy. In this instance, the war on the poor, women, black youth, immigrants, and labor is part of the war on democracy, and signifies a new thrust toward what might be called the authoritarian rule of corporate sovereignty and governance.

Politics and power are now on the side of legally protected lawlessness as is evident in the state’s endless violations of civil liberties, freedom of speech, and many constitutional rights, mostly done in the name of national security. Lawlessness wraps itself in government dictates. As is evident in such policies as the Patriot Act, the National Defense Authorization Act, the Military Commissions Act, and a host of other legal illegalities. These would include the “right of the president “to order the assassination of any citizen whom he considers allied with terrorists,”[13] to use secret evidence to detain individuals indefinitely, to develop a massive surveillance apparatus to monitor every audio and electronic communication used by citizens who have not committed a crime, to employ state torture against those considered enemy combatants, and block the courts from prosecuting those officials who commit such heinous crimes.[14] In reading Orwell’s dystopia, what becomes clear is that his nightmarish future has become our present and there is more under assault than simply the individual’s right to privacy.

Power in its most oppressive forms is deployed not only by various repressive government policies and intelligence agencies but also through a predatory and market-driven culture that turns violence into entertainment, foreign aggression into video games, and domestic violence into a goose-stepping celebration of masculinity and the mad values of unbridled militarism. At the same time the increasing circulation of public narratives and public displays of cruelty and moral indifference continue to maim and suffocate the exercise of reason and social responsibility. What we have been witnessing in the United States since the 1980s and the Reagan-Thatcher disavowal of all things social is a kind of hardening of the culture marked by an increasing indifference to matters of empathy and an erasure of ethical considerations.

Evidence of such cruelty is everywhere. We see it in the words of West Virginia Republican lawmaker, Ray Canterbury, who added a requirement to a bill –without irony–intended to end child hunger in which school children would be forced to work in exchange for free school meals. As he put it, “I think it would be a good idea if perhaps we had the kids work for their lunches: trash to be taken out, hallways to be swept, lawns to be mowed, make them earn it.”[15] Newt Gingrich has made a similar argument; one that is even crueler, if that is possible. At a 2011 speech given at Harvard University, he argued that it was time to relax child labor laws, which he called “truly stupid.”[16] It gets worse. He linked this suggestion to the call for “getting rid of unionized janitors…and pay local students to take care of the school. The kids would actually do work, they would have cash, they would have pride in the school, they’d begin the process of rising.”[17] This policy suggestion is more than “Dickensian,” it is draconian and suggest a deep disrespect for working people and a lack of knowledge regarding what school janitors actually do. Gingrich mimics a neoliberal ideology that separates economic actions from social costs. He seems to be clueless about whether nine and thirteen- year olds could perform work that is often black breaking, brutalizing, and sometimes dangerous, including tasks such as working with hazardous chemicals, fixing basic plumbing work, and cleaning floors and toilets. To impose this type of work on poor children who allegedly need it to teach them something about character borders on insanity. At the same time, Gingrich seems to clueless about keeping poor children in school and no qualms about putting school janitors out of work as if they don’t need to make a living wage to pay hospital bills and “put food on the table for their own children.”[18]

Neoliberalism has produced a broad landscape of cruelty, precarity, and disposability.   We see and hear it in the words of Republican presidential candidate, Donald Trump, who infamously stated that Mexican immigrants are rapists and drug dealers. Or in the words of a hedge fund operator who claimed that homeless shelters generate poverty because they bring people into a web of dependency. More recently, there was the egregious case of Martin Shkreli, the 32-year-old chief executive of Turing Pharmaceuticals who raised by 5000 percent a drug used by patients affected with HIV and Cancer. The price of a pill went from $13.50 to $750.00, imposing an enormous financial hardship on patients requiring the drug to fight potentially deadly infections. Shkreli who has been quoted as saying he likes money more than people responded initially to criticism of price gouging with a quote from an Eminem song. In a verse that now passes for public exchange, he tweeted: “And it seems like the media immediately points a finger at me. So I point one back at em, but not the index or pinkie.”

Another instance of the culture of cruelty can be seen in the high octane and unethical grammars of violence that now offer the only currency with any enduring value for mediating relationships, addressing problems, and offering instant pleasure in the larger culture. This is evident in the transformation of local police forces into SWAT teams, schools modeled after prisons, and in the ongoing criminalization of social behaviors, especially of poor minority youth. Brute force and savage killing replayed over and over in various media platforms now function as part of an auto-immune system that transforms the economy of genuine pleasure into a mode of sadism that saps democracy of any political substance and moral vitality, even as the body politic appears to weaken itself by cannibalizing its own young. Needless to say, extreme violence is more than a spectacle for upping the pleasure quotient of those disengaged from politics; it is also part of a punishing machine that spends more on putting poor minorities in jail than educating them.

As American society become more militarized, “civil society organizes itself for the production of violence.”[19] As a result, the capillaries of militarization feed and mold social institutions extending across the body politics –from the schools to local police forces. In the United States, local police forces, in particular, have been outfitted with full riot gear, submachine guns, armoured vehicles, and other lethal weapons imported from the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan, reinforcing their mission to assume battle-ready behaviour. Is it any wonder that violence rather than painstaking neighbourhood police work and community outreach and engagement becomes the norm for dealing with alleged ‘thugs’, especially at a time when more and more behaviours are being criminalised?

The police in too many cities have been transformed into soldiers just as dialogue and community policing have been replaced by military-style practices that are way out of proportion to the crimes the police are trained to address. For instance, The Economist reported that “SWAT teams were deployed about 3,000 times in 1980 but are now used around 50,000 times a year. Some cities use them for routine patrols in high-crime areas. Baltimore and Dallas have used them to break up poker games.[20]  Such egregious uses of police time as tax payer dollars would appear idiotic if they weren’t so savage.

In the advent of the recent display of police force in Ferguson, Missouri and Baltimore, Maryland, it is not surprising that the impact of the rapid militarization of local police on poor black communities is nothing short of terrifying and yet deeply symptomatic of the violence that takes place in authoritarian societies. For instance, Michelle Alexander exposes the racist nature of the punishing state by pointing out that “There are more African American adults under correctional control today — in prison or jail, on probation or parole — than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the Civil War began.”[21] When young black boys and girls see people in their neighborhood killed by the police for making eye contact, holding a toy gun, walking in a stairway, or for selling cigarettes while “the financial elite go free for a bookmaking operation that almost brought the country to economic ruin,” not only do the police lose their legitimacy, so do established norms of lawfulness and modes of governance.[22]

In terms reminiscent Orwell, morality loses its emancipatory possibilities and degenerates into a pathology in which individual misery is denounced as a moral failing. Under the neo-Darwinian ethos of survival of the fittest, the ultimate form of entertainment becomes the pain and humiliation of others, especially those considered disposable and powerless, who are no longer objects of compassion, but of ridicule and amusement. They populate the stories we are now hearing from U.S. politicians who disdain the poor as moochers who don’t need social assistance but stronger morals. Jeb Bush echoes this argument in his claim that if he were elected president, he wouldn’t be giving black people “free stuff, [23] as if black Americans are on welfare because they are lazy and are “plagued by pathological dependence.”[24] These narratives can also be heard from conservative pundits such as New York Times columnist, David Brooks, who insists that poverty is a matter of the poor lacking virtue, middle-class norms, and decent moral codes.[25] For Brooks, the problems of the poor and disadvantaged can be solved “through moral education and self-reliance…high-quality relationships and strong familial ties.”[26]

In this discourse soaring inequality in wealth and income, high levels of unemployment, stagnant economic growth and low wages for millions of working Americans are willfully covered over and covered up.   What Brooks, Bush, and other conservatives consistently obfuscate is the racist nature of the drug war, police violence, the stranglehold of the criminal justice system on poor black communities, , the egregious effect of “racially skewed patterns of mass incarceration,” mass unemployment for underserved youth, and poor quality education in low income neighborhoods.[27] Paul Krugman gets it right in rebutting the argument that all the poor need are the virtues of middle class morality and a good dose of resilience.[28] He counters: “The poor don’t need lectures on morality, they need more resources — which we can afford to provide — and better economic opportunities, which we can also afford to provide through everything from training and subsidies to higher minimum wages.”[29]

As the claims and promises of a neoliberal utopia have been transformed into an Orwellian nightmare, the United States continues to succumb to the pathology of financial speculation, political corruption, the redistribution of wealth upward into the hands of the 1 percent, the rise of the surveillance state, and the use of the criminal justice system as a way of dealing with social problems. At the same time, Orwell’s dark fantasy of an authoritarian future continues without enough massive opposition. Students, low income whites, and poor minority youth are exposed to a low intensity war in which they are held hostage to a future of low expectations, police violence,   an atomizing consumer culture, a growing anti-intellectualism and religious fundamentalism in American society, corporate and government modes of surveillance, and the burden of extreme debt.

No democracy can survive the kind of inequality in which “the 400 richest people…have as much wealth as 154 million Americans combined, that’s 50 percent of the entire country [while] the top economic 1 percent of the U.S. population now has a record 40 percent of all wealth and more wealth than 90 percent of the population combined.”[30] On a global scale, according to a study by anti-poverty charity Oxfam, it reports that it expects “the wealthiest 1% to own more than 50% of the world’s wealth by 2016.[31] Within such iniquitous conditions of power, access, and wealth, a society cannot foster a sense of organized responsibility fundamental to a democracy. Instead, it encourages a sense of organized irresponsibility–a practice that underlies the economic Darwinism and civic corruption at the heart of a debased politics.

What role might education and critical pedagogy have in a society in which the social has been individualized, emotional live collapses into the therapeutic, and education is relegated to either a private affair or to a kind of algorithmic mode of regulation in which everything is reduced to a desired measureable outcome. How might education function to reclaim a notion of the democratic imagination and the importance of the social under a system that celebrates and normalizes the assumption that individuals are “greedy, self-interested animals [and that] we must reward greedy, self-interested behaviour to create a rational and efficient economic system?”[32]There is more at work here than a pedagogy of repression, there is an ideology of barbarism, one that flirts dangerously with irrationality and removes itself from any vestige of solidarity, compassion, and care for the other or the planet.

Feedback loops now replace politics and the concept of revolution is defined through the culture of measurement and efficiency.[33] In a culture drowning in a new love affair with empiricism and data collecting, that which is not measurable—such as compassion, vision, the imagination, care for the other, and a passion for justice—withers. In its place emerges what Goya called in one of his engraving “The Sleep of Reason Produces Monster.” Goya’s title is richly suggestive particularly about the role of education and pedagogy in compelling students, to be able to recognize, as my colleague David Clark points out, “that an inattentiveness to the never-ending task of critique breeds horrors: the failures of conscience, the wars against thought, and the flirtations with irrationality that lie at the heart of the triumph of every-day aggression, the withering of political life, and the withdrawal into private obsessions.”[34]

What is not so hidden about the tentacles of power that are clumsily tucked behind the vacuous claims to democratic governance manifest in the rise of a punishing state and a totalitarian paranoia in which everyone is considered a potential terrorist or criminal. How else to explain the increasing criminalization of social problems ranging from homelessness and the failure of the poor to pay off court costs to say nothing of arresting students for trivial infractions such as doodling on a desk or throwing peanuts at a bus, all of which can land the most vulnerable in jail. In fact, I have long argued that there is a hard and soft war being waged against young people. The hard war is taking place in many schools, which now resemble prisons in light of their lockdown procedures, zero tolerance policies, metal detectors, and the increasing presence of police in the schools.[35]

The soft war is the war is the war of consumerism and finance. Partnered with a massive advertising machinery and variety of corporate institutions, the soft war targets all youth by treating them as yet another “market” to be commodified and exploited, while attempting to create a new generation of hyper-consumers. The soft war is waged by a commercial culture that commodifies every aspect of kids’ lives, while teaching them that their only responsibility to citizenship is to consume. A more subtle form of this type of repression burdens and normalizes them with a life time of debt and does everything possible to depoliticize them and remove them from being able to imagine a more just and different society. In the United States the average student graduates with a loan debt of $27,000. Debt bondage is the ultimate disciplinary technique of casino capitalism to rob students of the time to think, dissuade them from entering public service, and reinforce the debased assumption that they should simply be efficient cogs in a consumer economy.

If neoliberal authoritarianism is to be challenged and overcome, it is crucial that intellectuals, unions, workers, young people, and various social movements unite to reclaim democracy as a central element in fashioning a radical imagination. Such action necessitates interrogating and rupturing the material and symbolic forces that hide behind a counterfeit claim to participatory democracy. This requires rescuing the promises of a radical democracy that can provide a living wage, quality health care for all, public works, and massive investments in education, child care, housing for the poor, along with a range of other crucial social provisions that can make a difference between living and dying for those who have been relegated to the ranks of the disposable.

The growing global threat of neoliberal authoritarianism signals both a crisis of politics and a crisis of beliefs, values, and individual and social agency. One indication of such a crisis is the fact that the economic calamity of 2008 has not been matched by a shift in ideas about the nature of finance capital and its devastating effects on American society. Banks got bailed out, and those everyday Americans who lost their houses bore the brunt of the crisis. The masters of finance capital were not held accountable for their crimes and many of them received huge bonuses paid for by American taxpayers. Matters of education must be at the heart of any viable notion of politics, meaning that education must be at the center of any attempt to change consciousness, not just the ways in which people think, but also how they act, and construct relationships to others and the larger world.

Politics is an imminently educative task and it is only through such recognition that initial steps can be taken to challenge the powerful ideological and affective spaces through which market fundamentalism produces the desires, identities, and values that bind people to its forms of predatory governance. The noxious politics of historical, social and political amnesia and the public pedagogy of the disimagination machine must be challenged and disassembled if there is any hope of creating meaningful alternatives to the dark times in which we live. Young people need to think otherwise in order to act otherwise, but in addition they need to become cultural producers who can produce their own narratives about their relationship to the larger world, what it means to sustain public commitments, develop a sense of compassion for others, locally and globally.

But the question remains regarding how a public largely indifferent to politics and often paralyzed by the need to survive, and caught in a crippling cynicism can be moved from “an induced state of stupidity” to a political formation willing to engage in various modes of resistance extending from “mass protests to prolonged civil disobedience.”[36] This terrifying intellectual and moral paralysis must be offset by the development of alternative public spheres in which educators, artists, workers, young people and others can change the terms of the debate in American culture and politics. Ideas matter but they wither without institutional infrastructures in which they can be nourished, debated, and acted upon. Any viable struggle against casino capitalism must focus on those forms of domination that pose a threat to public spheres, such as public and higher education and the new media, that are essential to developing the critical formative cultures, identities, and desires that nourish modes of engaged thinking necessary for a the production of critically engaged citizens.

If such a politics is to make any difference, it must be worldly; that is, it must incorporate a critical disposition that both addresses social problems and tackles the conditions necessary for modes of democratic political exchange that enable new forms of agency, power, and collective struggle. Until politics can be made meaningful in order to be made critical and transformative, there will be no significant opposition to casino capitalism.

I want to conclude by pointing to a few initiatives, though incomplete, that might mount a challenge to the current oppressive historical conjuncture in which many Americans now find themselves.[37] In doing so, I want to address what I have attempted to map as a crisis of memory, agency, and education and reclaim what I call a pedagogy of educated hope that is central to any viable notion of change that I am suggesting.

First, there is a need for what can be called a revival of the radical imagination and the defense of the public good, especially higher education, in order to reclaim its egalitarian and democratic impulses. This call would be part of a larger project “to reinvent democracy in the wake of the evidence that, at the national level, there is no democracy—if by ‘democracy’ we mean effective popular participation in the crucial decisions affecting the community.”[38] One step in this direction would be for young people, intellectuals, scholars and others to go on the offensive against a conservative led campaign “to end higher education’s democratizing influence on the nation”[39] Higher education should be harnessed neither to the demands of the warfare state nor the instrumental needs of corporations. Clearly, in any democratic society, education should be viewed as a right, not an entitlement.

Politically, this suggests defining higher education as a democratic public sphere and rejecting the notion that the culture of education is synonymous with the culture of business. Pedagogically, this points to modes of teaching and learning capable of producing an informed public, enacting and sustaining a culture of questioning, and enabling a critical formative culture that advances at least in the schools what Kristen Case calls moments of classroom grace.[40] Pedagogies of classroom grace should provide the conditions for students and others to reflect critically on commonsense understandings of the world, and begin to question, however troubling, their sense of agency, relationship to others, and their relationships to the larger world. This can be linked to broader pedagogical imperatives that ask why we have wars, massive inequality, a surveillance state, the commodification of everything, and the collapse of the public into the private. This is not merely a methodical consideration but also a moral and political practice because it presupposes the creation of critically engaged students who can imagine a future in which justice, equality, freedom, and democracy matter. In this instance, the classroom should be a space of grace—a place to think critically, ask troubling questions, and take risks, even though that may mean transgressing established norms and bureaucratic procedures.

Second, young people and progressives need to develop a comprehensive educational program that would include a range of pedagogical initiatives from developing a national online news channel to creating alternative schools for young people in the manner of the diverse democratically inspired schools such as Highlander under Miles Horton, the Workers College in New York, and a host of other alternative educational institutions. Such a pedagogical task would enable a sustained critique of the transformation of a market economy into a market society along with a clear analysis of the damage it has caused both at home and abroad. What is crucial to recognize here is that it is not enough to teach students to be able to interrogate critically screen culture and other forms of aural, video, and visual forms of representations? They must also learn how to be cultural producers. This suggests developing alternative public spheres such as online journals, television shows, newspapers, Zines, and any other platform in which alternative positions can be developed. In addition, such tasks can be done by mobilizing the technological resources and platforms they already have. It also means working with one foot in existing cultural apparatuses in order to promote alternative ideas and views that would challenge the affective and ideological spaces produced by the financial elite who control the commanding institutions of public pedagogy in North America.

Third, academics, artists, community activists, young people, and parents must engage in an ongoing struggle for the right of students to be given a formidable, and critical education not dominated by corporate values, and for young people to have a say in the shaping of their education and what it means to expand and deepen the practice of freedom and democracy. Young people have been left out of the discourse of democracy. They are the new disposables who lack jobs, a decent education, hope, and any semblance of a future better than the one their parents inherited. Facing what Richard Sennett calls the “spectre of uselessness,” they are a reminder of how finance capital has abandoned any viable vision of the future, including one that would support future generations. This is a mode of politics and capital that eats its own children and throws their fate to the vagaries of the market. The ecology of finance capital only believes in short term investments because they provide quick returns. Under such circumstances, young people who need long term investments are considered a liability.   If any society is in part judged by how it views and treats its children, the United States by all accounts is truly failing in a colossal way.

Fourth, casino capitalism is so widespread that progressives need to develop a comprehensive vision of politics that “does not rely on single issues.”[41] It is only through an understanding of the wider relations and connections of power that young people and others can overcome uninformed practice, isolated struggles, and modes of singular politics that become insular and self-sabotaging. In short, moving beyond this single-issue orientation means developing modes of analyses that connect the dots historically and relationally. It also means developing a more comprehensive vision of politics and change. The key here is the notion of translation; that is, the need to translate private troubles into broader public issues and understand how systemic modes of analyses can be helpful in connecting a range of issues so as to be able to build a united front in the call for a radical democracy.

This is a particularly important goal given that the fragmentation of the left has been partly responsible for its inability to develop a wide political and ideological umbrella to address a range of problems extending from extreme poverty, the assault on the environment, the emergence of the permanent warfare state, the roll back of voting rights, and the assault on

public servants, women’s rights, and social provisions, and a range of other issues that erode the possibilities for a radical democracy. The dominating mechanisms of casino capitalism in both their symbolic and material registers reach deeply into every aspect of American society. Any successful movement for the defense of public goods and democracy itself will have to struggle against this new mode of authoritarianism rather than isolating and attacking specific elements of its anti-democratic ethos.

One important development is that black youth, among other concerned young Americans, are currently making real strides in moving beyond sporadic protests, short-lived demonstrations, and non-violent street actions in the hopes of building sustained political movements. Groups such as Black Lives Matter, Black Youth Project, We Charge Genocide, Dream Defenders, and others represent a new and growing political force that are not only connecting police violence to larger structures of militarism throughout society, they are also reclaiming public memory by articulating a direct link “between the establishment of professional police systems in the United States [and] the patrolling systems that maintained the business of human bondage in chattel slavery.”[42]

Fifth, another serious challenge facing advocates of a new truly democratic social order is the task of developing a discourse of both critique and possibility or what I have called a discourse of educated hope. Critique is important and is crucial to break the hold of commonsense assumptions that legitimate a wide range of injustices. The language of critique is also crucial for making visible the workings of unequal power and the necessity of holding authority accountable. But critique is not enough and without a discourse of hope, it can lead to a paralyzing despair or, even worse, a crippling cynicism. Hope speaks to imagining a life beyond capitalism, and combines a realistic sense of limits with a lofty vision of demanding the impossible. As Ernst Bloch once insisted, reason, justice, and change cannot blossom without hope because educated hope taps into our deepest experiences and longing for a life of dignity with others, a life in which it becomes possible to imagine a future that does not mimic the present. I am not referring to a romanticized and empty notion of hope, but a notion of informed hope that faces the concrete obstacles and realities of domination but continues the ongoing task of “holding the present open and thus unfinished.”[43]

The discourse of possibility not only looks for productive solutions, it also is crucial in defending those public spheres in which civic values, public scholarship, and social engagement allow for a more imaginative grasp of a future that takes seriously the demands of justice, equity, and civic courage. Democracy should encourage, even require, a way of thinking critically about education, one that connects equity to excellence, learning to ethics, and agency to the imperatives of social responsibility and the public good. Casino capitalism is a toxin that has created a predatory class of unethical zombies–who are producing dead zones of the imagination that even Orwell could not have envisioned –all the while waging a fierce fight against the possibilities of a democratic future. The time has come to develop a political language in which civic values, social responsibility, and the institutions that support them become central to invigorating and fortifying a new era of civic imagination, a renewed sense of social agency, and an impassioned international social movement with a vision, organization, and set of strategies to challenge the neoliberal nightmare engulfing the planet. These may be dark times, as Hannah Arendt once warned, but they don’t have to be, and that raises serious questions about what educators, artists, youth, intellectuals, and others are going to do within the current historical climate to make sure that they do not succumb to the authoritarian forces circling American society, waiting for the resistance to stop and for the lights to go out. History is open and as James Baldwin once insisted, “Not everything that is faced can be changed; but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”


[1] This theme is taken up powerfully by a number of theorists. See C. Wright Mills, The Sociological Imagination (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000); Richard Sennett, The Fall of Public Man(New York: Norton, 1974); Zygmunt Bauman, In Search of Politics(Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999); and Henry A. Giroux,Public Spaces, Private Lives (Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 2001).

[2] Zygmunt Bauman and Carlo Bordoni, State of Crisis (London: Polity Press, 2014).

[3] For an excellent analysis of contemporary forms of neoliberalism, Stuart Hall, “The Neo-Liberal Revolution,” Cultural Studies, Vol. 25, No. 6, (November 2011, pp. 705-728; see also David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005); Henry A. Giroux, Against the Terror of Neoliberalism (Boulder: Paradigm Publishers, 2008).

[4] Orville Schell, “Follies of Orthodoxy,” What Orwell Didn’t Know: Propaganda and the New Face of American Politics, (New York, NY: Perseus Books Group, 2007), xviii

[5] Zoe Williams, “The Saturday Interview: Stuart Hall,” The Guardian (February 11, 2012).


[6] Andy Thomason, “As Degrees Are Cut, Critics continue to Decry Dismantling of U. of North Carolina,” The Chronicle of Higher Education (May 27, 2015). Online:

[7] Monica Davey and Tamar Lewinjune , “Unions Subdued, Scott Walker Turns to Tenure at Wisconsin Colleges,” New York Times(June 4, 2015). Online:

[8] Alain Badiou, The Rebirth of History, trans. Gregory Elliott (London: Verso, 2012), pp. 18-19

[9]. Joao Biehl, Vita: Life in a Zone of Social Abandonment (Berkeley: University of California Press,2005).

[10] Bill Boyarsky, “Go Directly to Jail: Punishing the Homeless for Being Homeless,” TruthDig, (September 10, 2015) Online at:

[11]. Zygmunt Bauman, Wasted Lives (London: Polity Press, 2004), p. 76-77.

[12] Therese J. Borchard. “Statistics About College Depression,”World of Psychology (September 2, 2010). Online:; Allison Vuchnich and Carmen Chai, “Young Minds: Stress, anxiety plaguing Canadian youth,” Global News (May 6, 2013). Online:

[13] Jonathan Turley, “10 reasons the U.S. is no longer the land of the free,” The Washington Post, (January 13, 2012). Online:

[14] For a clear expose of the emerging surveillance state, see Glenn Greenwald, No Place to Hide (New York: Signal, 2014); Julia Angwin, Dragnet Nation: A Quest for Privacy, Security, and Freedom in a World of Relentless Surveillance (New York: Times Books, 2014); Heidi Boghosian, Spying on Democracy: Government Surveillance, Corporate Power, and Public Resistance, (City Lights Books, 2013).

[15] Hannah Groch-Begley, “Fox Asks If Children Should Work For School Meals,” Media Matters, (April 25, 2013).

[16] Jordan Weissmann, “Newt Gingrich Thinks School Children Should Work as Janitors,” The Atlantic (November 21, 2011). Online:

[17] Cited in Maggie Haberman, “Newt: Fire the janitors, hire kids to clean schools,” Politico (January18, 2011). Online:

[18] Ibid., Jordan Weissmann, “Newt Gingrich Thinks School Children Should Work as Janitors.”

[19] Catherine Lutz, “Making War at Home in the United States: Militarization and the Current Crisis,” American Anthropologist, (104:3, 2002), pp. (723)

[20] Editorial, “Cops or Soldiers: America’s Police Have Become Militarized,” The Economist (May 22, 2014). Online:

[21]Michelle Alexander, “Michelle Alexander, The Age of Obama as a Racial Nightmare,” Tom Dispatch (March 25, 2012). Online:,_the_age_of_obama_as_a_racial_nightmare/

[22] Matt Taibbi, “The Police in America Are Becoming Illegitimate,”Rolling Stones, (December 5, 2015). Online at:

[23] Alice Ollstein, “Jeb Bush Says Unlike Others, He Won’t Give African Americans ‘Free Stuff’,” ThinkProgress (September 25, 2015).

[24] Charles Blow, “Jeb Bush, ‘Free Stuff’ and Black Folks,” New York Times (September 28, 2015). Online:

[25] See, for instance, David Brooks, “The Nature of Poverty,” New York Times (May 1, 2015). Online:

[26] Sean Illing, “Why David Brooks Shouldn’t Talk About Poor People,” Salon (May 1, 2015). Online:

[27] Ibid., Charles Blow, Jeb Bush, ‘Free Stuff’ and Black Folks.”

[28] For an excellent rebuttal of the politics of resilience, see Brad Evans and Julien Reid, Resilient Life: The Art of Living Dangerously(London: Polity Press, 2014).

[29] Paul Krugman, “Race, Class, and Neglect,” New York Times (May 4, 2015). Online:

[30]David DeGraw, “Meet the Global Financial Elites Controlling $46 Trillion in Wealth,” Alternet (August 11, 2011). Online:$46_trillion_in_wealth

[31] Robert Peston, “Richest 1% to own more than rest of world, Oxfam says,” BBC News (January 19, 2015). Online:

[32] Robert Jensen, Arguing for Our Lives (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 3013), p. 95.

[33] See, for instance, Evgeny Morozov, “The Rise of Data and the Death of Politics,” The Guardian (July 20, 2014).

[34] Personal correspondence with David Clark.

[35] Chase Madar, “Everyone Is a Criminal: On the Over-Policing of America”, Huffington Post (December 13, 2013). Online:

[36] Ibid., Hedges, “The Last Gasp of American Democracy.”

[37]Ibid., Stanley Aronowitz, “What Kind of Left Does America Need?,” Tikkun.

[38] Ibid.

[39] Gene R Nichol, “Public Universities at Risk Abandoning Their Mission,” The Chronicle of Higher Education (October 31, 2008). Online:

[40] Kristen Case, “The Other Public Humanities,” The Chronicle of Higher Education (January 13, 2014). Online:

[41] Ibid.

[42] Kelly Hayes, “ To Baltimore With Love: Chicago’s Freedom Dreams,” Truthout (April 30, 2015). Online:

[43] Andrew Benjamin, Present Hope: Philosophy, Architecture, Judaism (New York: Routledge, 1997), p. 10.

Posted in USAComments Off on Culture of Cruelty: the Age of Neoliberal Authoritarianism

Fukushima: the First Cancers Emerge




The Japanese government  has made its first admission that a worker at the Fukushima nuclear plant developed cancer as a following decontamination work after the 2011 disaster.

The man worked at the damaged plant for over a year, during which he was exposed to 19.8 millisieverts of radiation, four times the Japanese exposure limit. He is suffering from leukemia.

The former Fukushima manager Masao Yoshida also contracted cancer of the oesophagus after the disaster and died in 2013 – but the owner and operator of the nuclear plant, Tepco, refused to accept responsibility, insisting that the cancer developed too quickly.

Three other Fukushima workers have also contracted cancer but have yet to have their cases assessed.

The Fukushima nudear disaster followed the tsunami of 11 March 2011. Three out of four reactors on the site melted down, clouds of deadly radiation were released following a hydrogen explosion, and the nuclear fuel appears to have melted through the steel reactor vessels and sunk into, or through, the concrete foundations.

The tip of an iceberg

But that single ‘official’ cancer case is just the beginning. New scientific research indicates that hundreds more cancers have been and will be contracted in the local population.

A 30-fold excess of thyroid cancer has been detected among over 400,000 young people below the age of 18 from the Fukushima area.

According to the scientists, “The highest incidence rate ratio, using a latency period of 4 years, was observed in the central middle district of the prefecture compared with the Japanese annual incidence.”

In a first screening for thyroid cancer among 298,577 young people four years after the disaster, thyroid cancer occurred 50 times more among those in the most heavily irradiated areas, than in the general population, at a rate of 605 per million examinees.

In a second screening round of 106,068 young people conducted in April 2014 in less irradiated parts of the prefecture, the cancer was 12 times more common than for the main population.

Thyroid cancer is commonly developed as a result of acute exposure to radioactive iodine 131, a product of nuclear fission. Because iodine concentrates in the thyroid gland, thyroid damage including cancer is a characteristic marker of exposure to nuclear fallout.

Exposure to iodine-131 presents a high risk in the immediate aftermath of a nuclear accident owing to its short half life of 8 days, making it intensely radioactive. It is estimated to have made up about 9.1% of the radioactive material released at Fukushima.

There’s many more cases on the way!

The paper’s authors note that the incidence of thyroid cancer is high by comparison with the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986 at the same time following exposure – and warn that many more cases are likely to emerge:

“In conclusion, among those ages 18 years and younger in 2011 in Fukushima Prefecture, approximately 30-fold excesses in external comparisons and variability in internal comparisons on thyroid cancer detection were observed in Fukushima Prefecture within as few as 4 years after the Fukushima power plant accident. The result was unlikely to be fully explained by the screening effect.

“In Chernobyl, excesses of thyroid cancer became more remarkable 4 or 5 years after the accident in Belarus and Ukraine, so the observed excess alerts us to prepare for more potential cases within a few years.”

Scientific studies of Chernobyl victims have also found that the risk of developing thyroid cancer has a long, fat tail – in other words, there is no significant fall in risk over time among people exposed to iodine-131.

According the the US’s National Cancer Institute, summarising the findings in 2011,

“The researchers found no evidence, during the study time period, to indicate that the increased cancer risk to those who lived in the area at the time of the accident is decreasing over time.

“However, a separate, previous analysis of atomic bomb survivors and medically irradiated individuals found cancer risk began to decline about 30 years after exposure, but was still elevated 40 years later. The researchers believe that continued follow-up of the participants in the current study will be necessary to determine when an eventual decline in risk is likely to occur.”

Did WHO underestimate the Fukushima radiation release?

The authors of the Fukushima study also suggest that the amount of radiation released may, in fact, have been more that the World Health Organisation’s and other official estimates:

“Furthermore, we could infer a possibility that exposure doses for residents were higher than the official report or the dose estimation by the World Health Organization, because the number of thyroid cancer cases grew faster than predicted in the World Health Organization’s health assessment report.”

Another consideration – which the authors do not enter into – is the effect of the other radioactive species emitted in the accident including 17.5% Caesium-137 and 38.5% Caesium 134. These longer-lived beta-emitters (30 years and two years respectively) present a major long term hazard as the element is closely related to potassium and readily absorbed into biomass and food crops.

Yet another radiation hazard arises from long lived alpha emitters like plutonium 239 (half life 24,100 years) which is hard to detect. Even tiny nano-scale specks of inhaled plutonium entering the lungs and lymphatic system can cause cancer decades after the event by continuously ‘burning’ surrounding tissues and cells.

The paper: Thyroid cancer detection by ultrasound among residents aged 18 years and under in Fukushima, Japan: 2011 to 2014 is published in Epidemiology.

Posted in JapanComments Off on Fukushima: the First Cancers Emerge

Naziyahu: ‘Palestinians Killed The Dinosaurs’




Nazi Prime Minister Benjamin Naziyahu claimed today that Palestinians were responsible for the extinction of the dinosaurs.

In an interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper this morning, the hardline conservative leader was asked to defend his recent comments which claimed Palestinians were responsible for the Holocaust.

“Well it wouldn’t be the first time they tried to drive a group to extinction,” Naziyahu responded. “The Holocaust, the Armenian genocide, Rwanda. Even the end of the Dinosaurs. Whenever a group is threatened with annihilation, you better believe the Palestinians are behind it.”   Mad Nazi ‘Shoah’

A puzzled Anderson Cooper pressed Naziyahu on his most outrageous claim, asking “I doubt Palestinians were involved in any of those things. But do you seriously believe they killed the Dinosaurs? Human beings didn’t even exist 65 million years ago. And most scientists believe the Dinosaurs were killed by an asteroid. I mean, how is that even possible?”

“Anderson I’m not saying the Palestinians actually hunted down each individual dinosaur to extinction,” Naziyahu replied, “Of course that didn’t happen. That’s ridiculous. That makes no sense at all.

“What I am saying is that Palestinian Hamas fighters traveled back in time to 65 million years ago and set off a large series of explosives that knocked the Earth off its orbit and straight into the path of an oncoming asteroid.

“This operation was intended to wipe out the Dinosaurs, so that humanity could rise and Islam could take over the planet. Reptiles don’t believe in God, Anderson. So if you want to create an Islamic Caliphate you have to get rid of the reptiles. That’s just logic 101.

“This was no laughing matter. It was a barbaric act that destroyed an entire civilization. Millions of innocent Dinosaur families perished as a result of Hamas’s disgusting actions. Women. Children. Even unborn eggs. All were burnt to a crisp when Islamic time travelers rammed Earth into that asteroid.

“And that’s why keeping nuclear weapons out of the hands of Muslims is so important. They’ve destroyed life on Earth before, so we know they’ll do it again.”


Posted in Palestine Affairs, ZIO-NAZI1 Comment

I$raHell and the Rotten Soul of the West




The rotten soul of the Western political establishment is never more exposed than when it comes to the issue of Palestine. It is here where the hypocrisy, double standards, and political cowardice that is its truth is at its most extreme.

Bad enough that the Palestinian people have been forced to endure a decades-long negation of their human, natural, and national rights; the injustice they have suffered is compounded tenfold by the complicity of the West in denying their rightful status as an oppressed people struggling against a cruel and vindictive oppressor. Stripped of all of the embroidery and obfuscation that has been allowed to distort the contours of this struggle, here lies the root of the issue and the biblical suffering that has and continues to flow from it.

This conflict is not and never has been about Israel’s right to exist or Israel’s security. It is not and never has been about Hamas or its Charter. It is not even about a two state or a one state solution – at least not anymore it is not. It is about whether we take a stand on the side of an oppressed people or with their oppressor.

In this regard we must give thanks to Malcolm X for washing the bullshit from our eyes: “If you aren’t careful the newspapers will have you hating the people being oppressed, and loving the people doing the oppressing.”

Make no mistake, the political mainstream and its media echo chamber know exactly what is going on in Palestine, and they are well aware of its root cause. Yet, regardless, they continue to provide Israel with their unstinting and unwavering support. Even more, they genuflect at the feet of this apartheid state.

The desperate acts of violence that have erupted over the past few weeks in Jerusalem and across the occupied West Bank – mostly in the form of random stabbings and acts of violence against any Israeli anywhere – do not denote evil on the part of those responsible; instead, such desperate acts reveal the extent of the despair which the Palestinians have endured and continue to endure as a direct result of their oppression. Theirs is an extreme but understandable response to the brutal negation of their dignity, rights, even humanity at the hands of a state that has never viewed them as anything other than an inconvenient fly in the milk of their pure ethno and religiocentric state to be crushed and crushed repeatedly.

The wanton, systemic, and systematic cruelty endured by an entire people follows the egregious logic of the campaign of ethnic cleansing that gave birth to Israel in 1948. It describes a moral sickness that, if anything, has grown increasingly acute in the decades since.

A Third Intifada is incontrovertible evidence of the abject failure of the international community to impose a just settlement for a people whose abandonment is a crime, consigned to a fate akin to the Australian aborigines and Native Americans, with the best they have long been expected to expect life on a reservation.

The Palestinians’ stubborn refusal to accept such a fate, even in the face of brutal and unremitting pressure to break, describes a level of sustained tenacity that has been Herculean in scope. For as ugly as their resistance has been, it is nothing when compared to the oppression that has given rise to it.

The prison imprisons the guards as much as it does the inmates, and the chains that bind the Palestinians also bind the people of Israel. Not for a minute in a given day does the word Palestine or Palestinian not intrude on their consciousness – though sadly not conscience in the case of most – reminding them of a people who remain unbowed, despite their immiseration, just a few miles from the affluence which they take for granted. Hatred of another is the handmaiden of hatred of self, with Israel an example of how the projection of hatred on a national level eats away at said nation’s own foundations.

Terrorism and terrorist are the most value-laden words in our language today. We use them to identify the violence of those we revile and whose cause we consider unworthy and unjust. As such there is not such thing as a Palestinian terrorist or Palestinian terrorism. What there is, and in abundance, is Palestinian desperation and Palestinian despair. Attacks carried out against Israeli civilians are an awful thing; however for a people who’ve been consistently denied their own humanity they have become the only thing left by which to command the attention of an international community whose silence is a lethal weapon in the hands of their oppressor.

BDS is the greatest and most effective weapon in the arsenal of international solidarity with the Palestinians. From small and marginal beginnings in 2005, BDS has grown exponentially to the point where it now strikes fear in the breast of Israel and is the only international lifeline that the people of Gaza and living throughout the West Bank have to hold on to. Its continuing growth and effectiveness is therefore a non-negotiable condition of the struggle against both Israel’s intransigence and the West’s hypocrisy, without which the status quo would have ended a long time since.

We have passed the stage where objectivity is an acceptable response to apartheid, ethnic cleansing, and the monument to injustice erected in the name of exceptionalism. The cause of the Palestinian people is the cause of humanity in our time.

Posted in Palestine Affairs, USA, Europe, ZIO-NAZIComments Off on I$raHell and the Rotten Soul of the West

Guns and Capitalism: a Love Story




It’s telling that in February 2008 I wrote an op-ed for an Illinois newspaper titled, “What Makes Someone a Campus Murderer?” The commentary then was prompted by the shooting deaths at Northern Illinois University (NIU) of five people and 21 injured at the hands of a former student.

At the time, I recalled my visit to the DeKalb, Illinois campus in the days after the violence. As a student there years earlier, I knew Cole Hall where the shootings took place quite well. I remember the blustery, frigid winter weather that day as I drove into town. It felt bleak, and suitably appropriate to the blizzard of grief then sweeping through that Midwestern campus.

Even though the NIU incident was hardly the first school shooting incident, there was the sense that something uniquely out of the ordinary had happened. How could it be otherwise? As routine as gun violence is in this country, there is something especially grotesque about some suicidal person’s desire to indiscriminately gun down innocent people, driven by whatever murky grievances inflame their broken minds.

The Roots of Violence

Since 2008 there have been several other equally appalling massacres. Unfortunately, what is more shocking now is perhaps not the rarity of these mass killings, but their regularity. What is at the root of such tantrums of “insane” deadly public violence? Unless we believe that such evil, destructive behavior is somehow inexplicable, as some religious moralists might conclude, there is always an explanation.

Lurking in the stories of many individual murderers, as neurologist Jonathan Pincus, MD, writes in his book, “Base Instincts: What Makes Killers Kill,” is predictably some combination of mental illness, neurological damage, and child abuse. In fact, poverty or losing a job or other stressors of living in the world will not in themselves typically cause someone to become a murderer, unless—and this is critical—the seed of some corrosive psychology already exists in that individual. The psychology writer Alice Miller and others have written much about the social consequences of early childhood trauma, identifying the emotional wounds that often simmer unresolved in the pathology of violent adults.

As Miller describes in her essay, “The Roots of Violence,” the need or impulse to kill it is not a result of a malleable “human nature” per se, but results from damage inflicted upon the developing brain. “People whose integrity has not been damaged in childhood, who were protected, respected, and treated with honesty by their parents, will be—both in their youth and in adulthood— intelligent, responsive, empathic, and highly sensitive,” writes Miller. “They will take pleasure in life and will not feel any need to kill or even hurt others or themselves. They will use their power to defend themselves, not to attack others.”

In other words, murderers are made, not born.

But murderers are also not made in a vacuum. Mass gun violence represents a phenomenon whose understanding requires social context. In addition to a history of child abuse, violent and murderous behavior in adults is also frequently linked to substance abuse and chronic exposure to a violent environment, as Jeffrey Swanson, a Duke University behavioral scientist notes in a recent Salon interview.

Tellingly, says Swanson, the crime rate in the United States is not that different from other countries in Western Europe, the United Kingdom, Japan and Australia. But the homicide rate is dramatically higher. One obvious reason is the easy availability of guns. Consider a recent incident in New York City in which two young women were wounded and another killed outside a Manhattan nightclub. A late-night altercation inside the club led security guards to expel one young man from the premises. Angered, this individual retrieved a gun from his car, and then tried to reenter the club. He was prevented from doing so. Instead, a short while later he drove by the club, shooting at the entrance and killing an innocent bystander. It was reported the shooter was targeting the security guards he had scuffled with.

Such incidents in countries where the prevalence of guns is less than in the United States are just less likely to end in gun-related bloodshed. But in the United States an otherwise petty incident is far more likely to escalate into gun violence or murder. Is this entirely unexpected? According to government data, the United States has 4.4 percent of the world’s population, but over 40 percent of all civilian-owned guns. In 2013 there were approximately 357 million firearms in this nation of 319 million people.

There is a Constitutional right to bear arms in the United States. But there is also a kind of unbridled, corrosive violence at the root of American society, one whose exclamation point now is the widespread access to lethal weapons. In fact, the headline incidents of mass killings are just the tip of the iceberg of gun violence in the United States. As The Washington Post reports, nearly 10,000 people have been killed in gun violence incidents in the United States so far just this year.

Some people want to put the onus for worsening levels of gun violence largely on inner-city gangs. But reality is more complex. In fact, guns have proliferated in many poor, inner city communities as a consequence of the politically motivated “War on Drugs.” It’s a consequence of decades of law-and-order grandstanding of both Democrats and Republicans.

As Temple University historian Heather Ann Thompson explains in a 2014 essay in The Atlantic, “This new drug war created a brand-new market for illegal drugs—an underground marketplace that would be inherently dangerous and would necessarily be regulated by both guns and violence.”

In many urban minority communities, the War on Drugs translates into an everyday reality of racially driven police harassment, surveillance, and killings. Instead of treating substance abuse as a public health issue, says Thompson, it has become a cudgel for law enforcement to brutalize inner city communities.

Individualism Gone Astray

In a sense, widespread gun violence in society represents the celebrated individualism of American life turned in on itself. In a society where bonds of community, the fabric of the social infrastructure, including public mental health resources, exist at minimal levels for many, should we be surprised that many people fall off the edge of this make-believe version of the good society?

“When violence becomes an organizing principle of society, the fabric of a democracy begins to unravel suggesting that America is at war with itself,” writes Henry A. Giroux of McMaster University in a recent CounterPunch essay. Giroux is right. We live in a society defined and sustained by violence. The very same week as the Oregon shootings the U.S military targeted air strikes at a hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan that killed at least 22 people and injured dozens more.

Apparently, we’ve become so inured to the permanent war economy—to the militarization of foreign policy—that wars can now be declared over even when they’re not over. With a military budget that equals half of all military expenditures for the rest of the world combined, our militaristic global presence sends the message that violence is the ultimate solution to any dispute. This is a message that invariably seeps into the subsoil of the American psyche and culture.

Certainly the Second Amendment right to bear arms does not preclude reasonable weapons regulations. But, of course, guns are already subject to many regulations. Contrary to the boilerplate paranoia of the National Rifle Association (NRA), measures to prevent “off the books” gun sales to individuals with violent histories are not inherent “gun rights” issues, any more than new “smart” technology innovations might be that prevent weapons from being fired without identity verification.

“A gun is only a tool, as good or as bad as the man using it,” declared actor Alan Ladd as the gunman Shane in the classic 1950s western film. So also is the measure of a society wallowing in a mire of endless violence, divided by extremes of wealth and poverty, and fundamentally designed to enrich the one percent or less who own the bulk of the nation’s industries and resources. Indeed, the latter reality constitutes a form of economic violence against the country’s working majority, whose impoverished social safety net and deteriorating socioeconomic conditions serve as provocative backdrop to the American epidemic of gun violence.

It might be noted that even in the 1930s, at the height of the Great Depression, the streets remained relatively safe from civilian gun violence, at least more so than today. Even in the 1940s, the world aflame in the violence of war, estranged misfits were not walking into schools to recklessly shoot down innocent people. But such comparisons only speak to the corrosive, soul-destroying effects over time of an archaic capitalist social order on the human condition. The last hundred years constitute one of the most violent centuries in the history of humanity. Is this fact not relevant to any discussion of gun violence as a public health issue?

In a sense, the specter of gun violence in the United States is a reflection of an atomized, militaristic society living on the fumes of democracy, desensitized to violence and human suffering, and now coughing up the phlegm of alienation and a sometimes deadly bitterness among the ranks of the most marginalized citizens.

If there is an antidote to this toxic reality, it will in the long run be found less in new gun laws or regulations, but in the radical vision of a new kind of society. This is a vision of genuine mass democracy as best embodied in the historic ideals of the socialist movement. The antidote remains as always the fresh air of social solidarity, of human relations rooted in values of cooperation and caring, and ensuring that every child’s social and developmental needs are met from the beginning of life.

Posted in USAComments Off on Guns and Capitalism: a Love Story

F*** a Wage, Take Over the Business: A How-to with Richard Wolff




This is Andrew Smolski for CounterPunch with acclaimed economist Richard Wolff, author of such works as Capitalism Hits the Fan,Democracy at Work, and most recently Capitalism’s Crisis Deepens. The interview was conducted over Skype on Oct. 10th, 2015. I would like to thank Dr. Wolff for the time he spent explaining important aspects of capitalist economy and communist firms.

In this interview, we discuss wages, a pertinent current topic with the ongoing struggle for $15/hr, stagnating worker incomes, and what will be TPP’s further attack on wages in the United States. More importantly, what began as a discussion of wages quickly developed into a much broader critique of the current system’s political economy, and a way to fundamentally alter the way we produce, distribute, and consume. It is not enough to bargain with capitalists. We must instead look to how workers can take over the means of production and employ them for the benefit and wellbeing of all.

Please, take the time after reading this interview to check out the flyer for his newest work, as well as visiting Dr. Wolff’s webpage and the webpage for his non-profit 501(c)(3) organization, Democracy at Work,

Lastly, you can read a prior Q&A that we did for CounterPunch discussing similar topics: A Q&A with Richard Wolff”.


A = Andrew Smolski / R = Richard Wolff

A: Marx famously said that “labor power is a commodity; neither more nor less than sugar”. Marx went on to say that a worker sells their labor power to produce a wage in order to live. Dr. Wolff could you explain what Marx meant by labor power and wage?

R: The way Marx understood the economic core of capitalism by focusing on what he took to be, perhaps, the single most important relationship among those that together constitute the economic system. And that particularly prioritized relationship is that between the employer and the employee. In Marx’s concept, that is a relationship fundamentally of exchange.

The key opening aspect of the relationship between employer and employee has to do with an exchange they make. The employer gives something in exchange for the employee giving something. What the employer gives is a wage or a salary, a quantity of money that the employee will obtain and be able to use to buy goods and services that he/she wants and needs to live. In return the employee gives to the capitalist what Marx calls “labor power”. What he means is the capacity to work. That’s what the employee literally gives to the employer, their capacity to work, for the employer to then use as the employer sees fit. This is just as the worker uses the wage as he/she sees fit.

That then leads to the second relationship between employee and employer, which follows their exchange. The employer says to the worker, “Having purchased your labor power, I’m now going to put it and you”, because there is no separation between a worker and his/her capacity to work, “I’m going to put this labor power I’ve purchased from you to work. I’m going to use it in the particular way I wish to. And that is, to put you, the worker, together with means of production that I provide, the tools and equipment, and the raw material I also provide. And, I’m going to give you precise instructions on how you use the tools and equipment on one hand to transform the raw materials on the other hand into a finished product.”

The last relationship of the three key ones that bind the employer to the employee is the relationship at the end of the process. When the production is completed, when the employer has gotten from the employee his/her capacity to work, and that means literally the application of brains and muscles to transform raw materials into a finished product, the employer then owns the product. Once the employee takes their self out of the work place, go back to whence he/she came, their home, their residence, and they leave behind the product of their brain power and their muscle power, the product instantaneously belongs to the employer, even though it was produced by the employee. So that the employee must accept that the relationship between the two of them is that the employer, you, gets what I, the employee, produced. I then go home, spend the wages gotten from the employer for work, in order to enable me to go back the next morning, presumably fed, clothed, sheltered, etc. to do all this again.

So, for me, and for Marx, because I think Marx captured this beautifully, the central relationship of a modern capitalist economy is this exchange, then production, then separation, that is then involved in the connection between the employer and the employee.

A: Marx was able to explain a lot from the employer-employee relationship (alternatively capitalist-proletarian/worker/laborer). In what way was Marx’s explanation of this relationship distinct from a neoclassical or Keynesian economist’s explanation?

R: It couldn’t be more different. In order to explain that, let me first explain what Marx concludes from the inferences he draws from the way he set up the relationship. It goes like this. When the employer bargains with the employee and they finish discussing the kind of work they’ll do, the kind of machines the employee will work with, the kind of product that is to be made, the conditions under which its done, they end up having that famous part of the conversation in which the employee asks, “How much are you going to pay me?” Then, the employer and the employee have to reach an acceptable agreement. Let’s just say for the sake of simple argument that they agree on $20/hr. That will be the wage for the work that is done.

Marx’s argument at this point is absolutely crucial. The employer is only interested in this whole business of having a relationship with another person, called an employee, in order to come out at the end of this with more money than he/she went in at the beginning. That is why we call the employer a CAP-I-TA-LIST. Because he/she uses a quantity of capital, money, throws it into the production process, which includes the relationship with the employee, with a single overriding goal of emerging with more money at the end of the process than he/she threw into it at the beginning. Let me use a simple illustration.

If the employer has $100, and uses $20 to buy raw materials, $20 for the tools and equipment, and then $60 to pay the wages to the worker. So, 20-20-60, that’s the employer’s $100. The capitalist is only doing this, because the end product, which belongs to him/her as employer, can be sold for more money than $100. If that isn’t the case, then the capitalist has no incentive to commit his/her wealth, money, 100 bucks, to the production process. The capitalist would be better off not taking the risks, because there are always risks in production, holding on to the money or lending to somebody at interest. He/she wouldn’t put it into production, unless he/she got more at the end, what is typically called by Marx “surplus” [Wolff’s side note: the German wordmehr that Marx used was translated into surplus, which can have varied meanings in English; nevertheless, the point is to clarify the value above the cost of production]. The bourgeois economic term for this is profit. The capitalist is going to have a profit from investing his/her $100 in production, because he/she will get more.

Marx asks, where does this more come from? Let’s use the example of a chair. You need tools and equipment like a hammer and a saw, etc. You need raw materials, you know the planks of wood. And then, the human brain and muscle transforms the tools and equipment and the wood into a finished chair. So, Marx’s argument is that the value of the wood reappears in the chair, it’s just the form that has been changed. And ditto the form of the saw, and the hammer, are likewise transferred overtime to the product. Let’s say that the chair has in it $20 worth of wood, and $20 worth of saw, hammer, and other tools. The capitalist has paid $60 to the workers for their work.

Now we get to the key question for Marx. How much value do the workers add when they transform wood, saw, hammer into chair? Here comes the crucial difference between Marx, on the one hand, and everybody else on the other hand. Marx’s analysis goes something like this. The workers add more value during the time they work than the employer pays them for working. In other words, that’s where the surplus comes from, the more at the end of the production process for the capitalist, the profit. Its precisely this relationship between worker and employer, and now we see why Marx gives that relationship such a priority, because there is the secret of profit. There in that relationship is a fundamental situation in which the worker produces more while he/she works than the employer pays them to come there and do the work.

Now, let me translate this into simple English. When you sit there with the employer and he/she says, “Ok, I’m going to pay you 20 bucks an hour”, you know what Marx is here theorizing, even if it’s not conscious. You know that the only reason the employer is going to give you $20 for every hour you work is if that hour produces more than $20 worth of stuff for him/her to sell. Because if it didn’t, there’d be nothing in it for the capitalist. There’s got to be more than the capitalist gets from you, the worker, than he/she gives you because there’s no other rationale in Marx’s view to account for why this is done. The inference Marx then draws is stark.

Workers are exploited! Why? Because they produce more by their labor than they get. In production workers add more value to the tools, equipment, and raw materials they use up than they are paid for doing so. Therefore, a worker who says to himself/herself, “I will never work for an employer who doesn’t pay me what I’m worth”, is a person who doesn’t understand capitalism. You will NEVER get paid what your worth, because that is the foundation of this system. The capitalist, because he/she has the money to put you to work in the first place only does it if he/she gets more from you than he/she lays out for the process. Which is why if you follow Marx, you have the mass of workers paid more or less what they need to get by, while the growth built into this system accrues to the employer. Or to say the same thing in simple English, the rich get richer and everybody else doesn’t.

So, that’s how Marx sees the whole process.

Based on this, you couldn’t have a starker differentiation than the Marxist and neoclassical views on the employer-employee relationship. In the neoclassical and Keynesian canons, or systems of analysis that they use, there is no such thing as exploitation. So, we’re not talking about subtle differences. We’re not talking about nuisance, or shadings of analysis. We’re talking about fundamental it’s there or it isn’t there.

In neoclassical economics here’s how it works [Wolff’s side note: Keynesian economics isn’t all that different. It’s best understood as a variant of neoclassical economics.]. The world appears altogether different. The worker is understood to be one of the partners in a production relationship. The employer is understood to be another partner in the relationship. And in this view, the worker brings his/her contribution, brain power and muscle power, to the process, and the employer brings his/her contribution, variously described as entrepreneurship or managerial talent or some similar characteristic. The output is then divided with the proper reward given to each contributing partner.

The worker’s get back out of the joint product the wage, and the employer gets back the profits. And so, this is a world of fairness, a world of shared output, in which everybody more or less gets out of the process a reward corresponding to what they contribute. If profits go up it is explained, because the clever owner/manager/board of directors did a fine job, right. And this is appropriate because if they got more it’s because they contributed more.

Marx in response to this heaps ridicule. He says the logical flaw is that these morons [Wolff’s side note: Marx didn’t have much respect] need to infer that because the capitalists get money, profits, they must have contributed something. The whole point says Marx is to understand that they don’t. They didn’t contribute crap, zilch, nothing! And the mystery is only that the workers accept that a portion of what they produce goes to somebody who didn’t produce anything at all.

Marx enjoys driving home the contrast by noting that in the early days of capitalism you might kind-of understand how capitalists came to be so self-deluded, because the capitalist was typically the man/woman/family that started a business, and they were in there every day and they were literally contributing something. But, nowadays Marx noted most capitalist work is done by huge corporations, where the people making the decisions, typically the board of directors, so 15 or 20 people sitting at the top of a corporation who have absolutely nothing to do with production [Wolff’s side note: Marx said most of this in the late 19th century, so we are already a century into what Marx was discussing]. These people have never been on the assembly line, they’ve been in the office, they’ve never been in the store, they don’t know the details and they aren’t expected to. They sit at the top and they gather into their hands all the profits and decide what to do with them, but their connection to production is so remote that it would be hard to explain, exonerate, or excuse their contributions. Not to mention there are 100,000 workers in a corporation and 15 individuals making all the decisions.

It’s pretty clear that something is going on here that smells a lot more like what Marx is talking about than some big partnership. And so, that is the fundamental disagreement. So for neoclassicals there is no exploitation, there is no conflict, this is a partnership that works well and is fair, etc. etc. For Marx, then, there’s a conclusion that never comes to neoclassicals. This for Marx, on the face of it, is outrageous, unjust, unequal, and therefore not sustainable in the long run, because for Marx it is only a matter of time for people to understand, as Marx himself did and help others to understand, what the situation is, and therefore sooner or later workers will say, “Why do we need capitalists? Because if organized production ourselves we would not only pay ourselves the 20 bucks, but we would be in charge with what is done with the surplus”, which is the value we add in production over and above the $20 we get, “which would be ours collectively, and we would become our own board of directors. And that would be a system far better for us than turning over that surplus to other people who are with a different interest from us. We wouldn’t treat it the same way, because we are the people in charge and we wouldn’t participate in self-exploitation.”

So, the conclusion for Marx is revolution. You need to get rid of capitalism in order to replace the capitalist-labor relationship, wage labor in the way I’ve described it, with an altogether different system that is more egalitarian, more democratic, and more just, because the workers in each enterprise would become their own board of directors. That’s actually understood by people even if they’ve never heard of Karl Marx. You can see it in the fact that all over the world today, and true for the last 300 years, there are businesses that have organized themselves not as a capitalist corporation, but as what Marx would’ve called a communist organization. That is, it is a community of workers who set up a business and own and operate it themselves.

But, because of the hostility of capitalists to all of this, the people who’ve organized their enterprises this way have had to come up with bland, unfrightening names. The most popular one is a “workers cooperative”. It sounds downright warm and cuddly. And that actually allows you to push in a direction that will hopefully not scare the status quo into repressing you, by having the clever disguise of a different name. I even know some worker coops that refer to what they are doing as entrepreneurial innovation. Because by putting the adjective entrepreneurial in front of it, it’s more of a protective disguise. I think it’s charming, and I think Marx is giggling it whatever place he remains as he watches the human race agonizingly, hesitantly coming to terms with what he figured out in 1860.

A: In this explanation, which is a very thorough and well thought out explanation, there is no such thing as a wage that includes surplus value. That can’t exist because this is automatically a matter of exploitation.

R: Ok, well, careful. In a normal capitalist situation, yes. Is it conceivable that workers in a capitalist enterprise develop a union so powerful and a commitment to struggle so intense that they could and would drive up their wage until there was literally nothing left in the way of a surplus for to capitalist to grab? The answer is hypothetically sure. But that’s the end of that company. That capitalist will close down the business because he/she is not getting anything out of it. That would leave the option for workers to reopen the business after the capitalist closes it as a worker coop. There’s two things to say about that.

One, it already happens around the world. It’s happening right now in the United States. Typically how it happens in the United States is as follows. The capitalist decides he/she can make much more money closing his/her enterprise in Cincinnati or Chicago or San Francisco or Texas or wherever it is, and reopening it in Shanghai, China, because the wages in Shanghai are much, much lower than they are in the United States. He/she says goodbye to the workers on Friday and says, “Don’t come in on Monday, because there won’t be work here in Monday, I’m closing the place down.” The workers then have a choice; they can go home and feel terrible, kick the dog, abuse the wife, or whatever other anomic reaction, or they can get together with the other workers and say, “We are going back on Monday, and we’re going to sit in that factory, or office, or that store and resume it, running it as a worker coop.” And that happens. So, we actually see what can happen.

The second thing to say, is that the workers wouldn’t do it either [i.e. pay a wage that includes all of the surplus value]. Any business or any enterprise needs to not only pay its workers, but also take care of other expenses. Even if there’s no capitalist to get the profits to live the high life that capitalists typically do, which will save you on some of the surplus that was used for those purposes, but there’s other parts of the surplus to be used for other purposes. For example, you may be in a bad neighborhood where you’re afraid that over night when you close your business, nasty people will come take your tools or furniture. And what you might need to do is to pay somebody to stand around the place, a night watchman let’s call it. Well that might be necessary for a group of workers who’ve taken over an enterprise to do. So now, they have to produce more value than they pay themselves to take care of the night watchman. He has to have a jeep to go around the enterprise, a lovely uniform that makes him/her look intimidating, and everything else that goes with this activity. Likewise, they have to pay taxes to the government, typically.

So, they have to make more than they pay themselves to cover what we call the expenses. That is, to secure the conditions for the enterprise to function on a normal basis. They would still have to do that. So it’s always been a crazy nonsense of right-wingers to criticize the viability of a worker coop with the stupid remark [note: done in dopey satirical voice], “O, well then the workers will just give themselves all the money.” Workers are not that stupid. And its ignorant person that attributes that stupidity to workers. Workers typically know better than the capitalist what all the conditions are that they’re going to have to keep in place, and so they know collectively they will produce more than they pay themselves in order to cover the other expenses.

What they won’t have is a capitalist to sustain! What they won’t have is the shareholders to pay dividends to! They won’t have the fancy landscaped office for the capitalist to have more secretaries than he/she needs! None of that will be necessary!

Those funds would be available to improve the working and living conditions of the workers.

A: So, and to clarify, then surplus value is not just what goes to the capitalist in profits, but includes expenses. Then it is not just exploitation producing surplus value.

R: There will always be a surplus. To use the word value here you have to be careful. Value applies when the market, when there’s buying and selling and things have value. Human beings have produced food, clothing, and shelter, for example, for thousands of years. But they didn’t have value because they didn’t go through a market exchange process. They didn’t have any money. You know, we lived in tribes and clans in society for many more years without markets, without things having value in an exchange process, than we have had with it. So, you’ve gotta be careful here to remember your history.

So, things only have value if the market is the way things go from the producer to the consumer. Most of the history of the human race there weren’t any markets. They weren’t going to do it that way. I’ll give you an example. In a village, this person maybe grew the wheat, that one raised the chickens, and that one baked the bread, and the other one made shirts; and then, or maybe two or three times a year, the elders in the community, the people over 40 years of age, got together and says, “Let’s see, you the shirt maker, you hand them out to these people. Three shirts to a family with three people. Six shirts to a family with six people.” You know, it was distributed by the arrangement of the elder. Or the arrangement of the priest. Or the arrangement of an elected official. A hundred ways that human beings distributed the goods and services that they collectively produced.

It was a very, very special set of circumstances that had humans at a certain point go, “No, this is how we’re going to do it.” You who produce it, you go to a certain place at a certain time. We’re going to call that place the market. And in the market, you exchange with other people, “You give me three of what you make for two of what I make Jack, or Mary, or whatever it is.” And then they bargain. From there things have a value. The value of this shirt is three oranges or two pounds of cheese.

Anyway, your basic point is correct. Workers always produce more than they themselves get to live off of. That’s been true a thousand years ago, and its true today. All that capitalism is, is one particular way to arrange that process. It doesn’t have to be arranged that way. I can give you two examples.

In a slave economic system, here’s how it works. One group of people are masters. They own not only the land, the equipment, and the raw materials, but they actually own the laborers too, because slaves are people owner by another person. So, in that system the slave produces everything, the master takes everything, because it’s the product of a person he/she owns. But, then the master has an epiphany or realization that if he/she doesn’t give something back to the slave this arrangement won’t survive. The master takes a portion of what the slave produces and gives it back to the slave in the form of the food, clothing, shelter that the slave will consume in order to be able to continue. The slaves end up producing more than they themselves get, and the person getting the more are the masters. They get everything and keep what they don’t give back to the slave. Ok, that is one way to arrange the production process.

In feudalism we called the producer a serf and the owner is called the King, lord of the manor, etc. etc. The serf works three days a week and keeps the fruits of his labor. The other three days of the week the serf gives whatever he/she produces to the Lord. On the seventh day the serf goes to Church in order to be told by some priest that this was the best way for them to live. Which for a thousand years in Europe they believed. Then capitalism came along overthrew slavery, overthrew feudalism, and installed simply another way of organizing this production process.

Marx said that capitalism, slavery, and feudalism were all the same in that all three were exploitative. What he meant was that the people who produce the surplus aren’t the ones who get it, and aren’t the ones who get to decide what to do with it. In the case of slavery, the producer is a slave, but the ones who get and decide what to do with the surplus are the masters. In the case of feudalism, the serfs do the work, but the ones who get and decide what to do with the surplus are the Lords.

And here comes Marx’s biggest achievement. He said capitalism is like slavery and feudalism because its exploitative. It’s just a change of form of exploitation, because in capitalism, and this is what he shows in Capital, the workers produce a surplus that the employer gets and decides what to do with it. So, Marx reaches a distinct conclusion that what we need in the world and what will give us finally the liberty, equality, and democracy we’ve always wanted is a system without exploitation. By which he meant, a system in which the workers who produce the surplus will be the ones who decide what to do with it. Because they’ll get their own surplus and distribute it. And that is the breakthrough humans have fought for and until now not achieved, a system that makes the economy finally a community of people working together, which is why he called it COMM-U-NISM.

By the way it has nothing to do with the State, or the importance of the State. You’ll notice that up until this point where I’ve explained it to you the word State never appeared, it wasn’t relevant, and it isn’t in Marx either. It’s an understanding of what you opened this with, namely the relationship between employer and employee.

A: So, within this…

R: By the way, Andrew if I could interrupt. If any of this strikes you as interesting, novel, comprehensive, clear, that isn’t, I mean, those are nice words and I appreciate if they’re in your head about me. But it isn’t about that, and it isn’t about me. We live in a culture that has systematically repressed this way of thinking, this way of analyzing for 150 years. That’s why when someone who has looked at it and read it, as I have, articulates it, it comes a little bit like a bombshell, or a little like “Wooh!”, even when relatively well worked out. Only because in our culture it has been repressed. It’s sad. It’s about our culture, not the logic of the argument.

A: Ok, well then this brings us to question that I didn’t send you. But, would you suggest then that what is repressed is an idea of solidarity, and then bringing back into the discussion whether the economy is about us working together to produce so we can have dignity, wellbeing? Or is the economy just a matter of profit? And then is that a moral question? Or is it a question of efficiency?

R: Those things are never clearly separated. If someone tells you they are easily separable, then go to talk to somebody else. That would be my advice. Sure its moral, and it’s a question of efficiency, if you assume those things have a reasonably broad definition. But for my money, absolutely.

This is a society that we live in that suffers from unbelievable extremes of wealth and poverty [Wolff’s side note: nowadays, everybody knows it too, so it isn’t even controversial]. We have a differentiation amongst us of wealth and access to resources that is staggering, that mirrors ancient pharaohs in Egypt and things like that. I live in the middle of New York City and I am immediately surrounded by it. It takes me 10 minutes by subway to go to a place where apartments start at $5 million each, and then to a place where the person you are talking to can’t think $5 million because it is so far outside of his/her frame of reference. That’s like talking to the guy dragging the stones up to make the pyramids and then to the pharaoh who commands them to do it. They are just so far apart.

We have a politics that is so obviously bought and paid for by the rich in this society that it is no longer controversial in our country to say so. The democracy we have is purely formal. You know, once a year we go into a booth and vote for a person whose name we barely know and about whom we have no security of what he/she will do. It’s all a game. Which is why half of the population in most countries don’t even bother anymore, because they don’t see the point or the purpose of it.

So, it seems to me kind of straight forward that we have SERIOUS problems of morality and justice.

And then, when it comes to efficiency, you must be kidding me. We just went last week [note: 10/05/2015-10/09/2015] through another tale as old as capitalism, that yet another company, having spent years fighting against regulations of what it does, having staved that off for many years of profitable functioning, and finally the regulations are passed. I’m talking about Volkswagen here. So, they installed in their cars a device that when you are testing for pollution that it should less than what you actually did in the way of pollution if you ran the car. The effrontery, the grotesque billions of dollars they made while fouling the air we all breath in order to make another piece of profit. They said they were an efficient car producer. Bullshit! They weren’t efficient. Or rather, the efficiency was achieved by not counting the costs of the visits to the doctor of countless asthma patients, emphysema patients, people who died of lung diseases before they should have, all because of the air pollution this company imposed contrary to legal regulations.

I can tell you these stories until you’re bored by the details. So, it seems to me the burden is on the system’s defenders to defend it. Not on critics like me who argue, “Jesus Christ! We could and should do better.”

Let me put it to you another way, this is a country, the United States, which says it is democratic. If the word means anything, then it means something like the following. If you are affected by a decision then you have the right to participate in making it. That’s the premise. If we call a person someone a mayor of a city, or a governor of a state, or president of a country, or someone that, Lord knows, affect our lives, we at least have the right to vote for that person being in that position. Ok, keep that in mind.

What is the place where most adults in the United States spend most of their life? Answer, workplace. 5 out of 7 days of the week from 9 in the morning to 5 in the afternoon, you’re at work. And then if you aren’t at work, you are driving to or from work, dressing for work. Work is the center of adult life of our people. When you go to work, here’s what we do in this “democratic” country. We avoid democracy. We give up democracy. Why?

Most Americans work in a corporation, a form of capitalist enterprise. A tiny group of people, the board of directors, typically 15 to 20 people, they make all the decisions governing where you work, what you produce, how you produce, and what is done with the profits you help to produce. Whose on the board of directors? Who are these 15-20 people? Answer, they are elected once a year by shareholders under the system of one share, one vote. If you own one share, then you have one vote. If you own a million shares, you get a million votes. And if you have no shares, then you get no votes!

Fact, 1% of shareholders in the United States own two-thirds of shares. Therefore, 1% of shareholders dominate and select the board of directors of American corporations [Wolff’s side note: 1% of shareholders is less than 1% of the population as a whole]. They’re called major shareholders. They’re big banks, big pension funds, various wealthy individuals, they’re big corporations, that’s who own the shares.

So, what do we know?

The mass of people in any corporation own no shares at all. The workers General Motors, General Electric, Microsoft, you name it, they don’t own any shares. Therefore, they have no votes at all. Meanwhile, whether or not they have a job, what they produce on their job, what technology is killing them on the job, and what is done with the profits their labor helped to produce, are all decisions made by people over whom they have no control. They have no participation whatsoever.

The place that most adults spend most of their lives is a place from which democracy has always EXCLUDED. Therefore, to call the United States a democracy is a mistake. To justify the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan, or the bombing of Syria, on the grounds that we are bringing to them democracy is an ignorant arrogance that leaves me speechless, especially once you understand the absurdity of what is being claimed here.

So, these are fundamental questions of morality and efficiency woven together and they confront anyone who would want to defend capitalism with what at least a reasonable person would have to admit are basic challenges.

A: Ok, we have moved from a focus on wages to a focus on how ending exploitation should be the point of struggle. And to end exploitation we need democracy. Yet, we encounter a contemporary situation where exploitation has increased and democracy diminished. How does this create the conditions for more capitalist crisis?

R: If you have capitalism working in the way I’ve described, this grotesquely undemocratic way of organizing life in most enterprises, then you immediately have a fundamental social contradiction between this undemocratic organizing of the economy and this peculiar political tradition of universal suffrage. What capitalism is create, basically, a small minority of people sitting at the top of the economic pyramid, the boards of directors of mega corporations, a tiny 1% of the people who very wealthy who have unspeakable privileges. And yet, those privileges are vulnerable.


Because in our system, the majority of the people prevail in the political arena. The majority of votes, roughly speaking, wins! That creates the following terrifying danger for the people at top. Sooner or later people are going to understand in our system that the damage you suffer in the capitalist economy can be offset or reversed if you use your majority in the political system. You can use the fact that the mass of workers, utterly disenfranchised economically, can use politics to undue the effects.

So, for example, let’s pass a tax system politically that taxes the people at the top so they lose nine-tenths of what they have. And we distribute it to everybody else in one form or another. That’s always a possibility. That means that the people at the top have to take steps, urgent steps, to prevent that from happening. And they always have. For example, they create a voting system that gives an enormous amount of power to money. So they can use the money, because that’s what they have a lot of, to offset the population having the votes and no money. They make the candidates and political parties dependent on the money to have the images on the television to persuade people. They need all of that.

It also breeds in capitalist a deep suspicion and hostility to the government. And that is for no complicated reason. It’s because the government in a system of universal suffrage is elected by masses of people, which for the big folks at the top is exactly the problem. They don’t want the government to have power. Because if it does, it will reflect what the mass of people want, and that is to undo through government action the results of what capitalism does through exploitation.

Now follow the logic. You have to keep the government poor. You have to keep the government small. You have to keep the government dependent on the rich. You have to do all those things. Ok, that means one of the things you don’t allow the government to do is to have economic power over capitalists. That would be the worst conceivable lever for masses to get back at you. Here then is the problem. Capitalists are organized in lots of different enterprises. They depend on each other, but aren’t centralized. This produces chaos. Let me give you an example.

General Motors wants to produce more cars, so they will need more iron and steel to make the cars. But, if iron and steel producers haven’t increased their productive capacity, they can’t make the extra iron and steel. Therefore, there has to be lots of coordination between the enterprises. But coordination is a problem, because they are also competitors. You see, General Motors would like there to be more producers of iron and steel, because more competition will drive down the cost and then General Motors could by the iron and steel more cheaply. So, you can’t have good coordination between General Motors and iron and steel producers, because neither of them trusts the other as far as they can spit.

Well then, how are you going to get the coordination?

The answer is, hypothetically, you could turn to the government. You could say, “Hey, you’re the government, you’re separate, you aren’t competing with us, you aren’t buying and selling from us. So, how about we give you the right coordinate so our decisions work out.” But of course they can’t do that, because that would create a powerful government, which they don’t trust for reasons based on what if the masses got a hold of that powerful government. They don’t believe the government could be limited to just coordinating them in the way they want. They fear that it could be used by the masses to impose their will on the system. So, they impoverish the government, or at least most of it.

So, what’s left is the market. And we live with that. That’s why for capitalism over the last 300 years has never gone long without an economic downturn. Every 3 to 7 years we have a recession or a depression, a downturn, a crisis. We have 50 words for this because it’s such a common phenomenon. We’ve spent the last 150 years trying to figure out what we need to do to capitalism to stop it from being so unstable. Keynesian economics were by far the most important efforts to try and do it. So, we now all practice Keynesian monetary and fiscal policy. We are now living in the wake of the collapse of ’08, proving what we should’ve known all along, that we don’t know how to stop crisis. We have failed.

That capitalism is caught up in such a craziness that in can’t allow the institutions that might coordinate it, because they are too afraid of them. So, they end up putting the society, and themselves, at risk through this instability due to the absurd contradiction so undemocratic an economic system and a political system based on universal suffrage [Wolff’s side note: notice the irrationality of putting also themselves at risk]. There is NO solution to these contradictions. That was Marx’s point. Once you understand the crazy was this system has evolved itself then you come pretty quickly to the solution that what we need is not another law, not another regulation.

We need system change! We’ve got to get out of a system that is riven with these socially destructive and immensely costly contradictions. And one way to do that, the way I would prefer, is to overcome the contradiction by finally making the economic system democratic so it isn’t at odds with a political system that is at least trying to be democratic. We end up in this crazy arrangement where the absence, the cultivated absence of democracy inside the enterprise is constantly making a joke out of the effort to have a democracy in the residential community in the realm of politics.

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They Profit, We Die: The Perils of Chemical-Intensive Agriculture




Our food system is in big trouble. It’s in big trouble because the global agritech/agribusiness sector is poisoning it, us and the environment with its pesticides, herbicides, GMOs and various other chemical inputs. The Rockefeller clan exported the petrochemical intensive ‘green revolution’ around the world with the aim of ripping up indigenous agriculture to cement its hegemony over global agriculture and to help the US create food deficit regions and thus use agriculture as a tool of foreign policy.

This was only made possible and continues to be made possible because of lavish funds, slick PR, compliant politicians and scientists and the undermining and capture of regulatory and policy decision-making bodies that supposedly serve the public interest.

For example, writing in the British newspaper The Guardian earlier this year, Arthur Nelson noted that as many as 31 pesticides with a value running into billions of pounds could have been banned in the EU because of potential health risks, if a blocked EU paper on hormone-mimicking chemicals had been acted upon.

The science paper that was seen by The Guardian recommends ways of identifying and categorising the endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs) that scientists link to a rise in foetal abnormalities, genital mutations, infertility and adverse health effects ranging from cancer to IQ loss. Nelson writes that Commission sources say that the paper was buried by top EU officials under pressure from big chemical firms which use EDCs in toiletries, pesticides, plastics and cosmetics, despite an annual health cost that studies peg at hundreds of millions of euros.

The paper’s proposed criteria for categorisations of EDCs was supposed to have enabled EU bans of hazardous substances to take place last year. According to The Guardian, Commission officials say that under pressure from major chemical industry players (acting via SANCO), such as Bayer and BASF, the criteria were blocked. In their place, less stringent options emerged, along with a plan for an impact assessment that is not expected to be finalised until 2016.

Angeliki Lyssimachou, an environmental toxicologist for Pesticides Action Network Europe (PAN), is quoted by Nelson as saying:

“If the draft ‘cut-off’ criteria proposed by the commission had been applied correctly, 31 pesticides would have been banned by now, fulfilling the mandate of the pesticide regulation to protect humans and the environment from low-level chronic endocrine disrupting pesticide exposure.”

Lisette van Vliet, a senior policy adviser to the Health and Environment Alliance, blamed pressure from the UK and German ministries and industry for delaying public protection from chronic diseases and environmental damage:

“This is really about whether we in the EU honestly and openly use the best science for identifying EDCs, or whether the interests of certain industries and two ministries or agencies from two countries manage to sway the outcome to the detriment of protecting public health and the environment.”

new study by Sebastian Stehle and Ralph Schultz of the University of Koblenz-Landau explains that prior to authorisation, a highly elaborate environmental risk assessment is mandatory according to EU pesticide legislation. However, no field data-based evaluation of the regulatory acceptable concentrations (RACs), and therefore of the overall protectiveness of EU pesticide regulations exists.

Based on a comprehensive meta-analysis using peer-reviewed literature on agricultural insecticide concentrations in EU surface waters and evaluated associated risks using the RACs derived from official European pesticide registration documents, the review found that 44.7 % of the 1,566 cases of measured insecticide concentrations (MICs) in EU surface waters exceeded their respective RACs.

The meta-analysis challenges the efficacy of the regulatory environmental risk assessment conducted for pesticide authorisation in the EU and indicates that critical revisions of related pesticide regulations and effective mitigation measures are urgently needed to substantially reduce the environmental risks arising from agricultural insecticide use.

The situation is the US is possibly even worse, Christina Sarich recently reported that 34,000 pesticides are currently registered for use in the US by the Environental Protection Sgency (EPA). Industrial agriculture (75% of all land used in the US to grow food or raise animals) relies on these chemicals to grow food.

Sarich states that drinking water it is often contaminated by pesticides, and more babies are being born with preventable birth defects due to pesticide exposure. Chemicals are so prevalently used, they show up in breast milk of mothers. Illnesses are on the rise too, including asthma, autism and learning disabilities, birth defects and reproductive dysfunction, diabetes, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases and several types of cancer. Sarich says that their connection to pesticide exposure becomes more evident with every new study conducted.

Moreover, pollinating insects have been decimated by chemical herbicides and pesticides, which are also stripping the soil of nutrients. As a result, for example, there has been a 41.1 to 100% decrease in vitamin A in 6 foods: apple, banana, broccoli, onion, potato and tomato. Both onion and potato saw a 100% loss of vitamin A between 1951 and 1999.

And elected politicians and ‘public servants’ are allowing this to happen. In 2014, the authors of the report ‘The record of a Captive Commission’ (by Corporate Europe Observatory) concluded that the outgoing Barraso II European Commission’s trade and investment policy revealed a bunch of unelected technocrats who cared little about what ordinary people want and negotiate on behalf of big business. For agriculture, the Commission had a one-sided relationship with agribusiness on GMOs and pesticides. Far from shifting Europe to a more sustainable food and agriculture system, the opposite had happened, as agribusiness and its lobbyists continued to dominate the Brussels scene.

The report continued by saying that Consumers in Europe reject GM food, but the Commission had made various attempts to meet the demands from the biotech sector to allow GMOs into Europe, aided by giant food companies, such as Unilever, and the lobby group FoodDrinkEurope. The authors noted links between these concerns and the top echelons of the Commission.

Aggressive lobbying by BASF had led to authorisation for GM Amfora potato commercial cultivation. According to the report, conflicts of interest in favour of the biotech industry within the European Food and Safety Agency (EFSA) had led to disputed and heavily criticised scientific advice being offered on the matter. The report noted that the industry had also been exerting strong pressure to prevent action by the EU on endocrine disruptors and pesticides.

These problems are not confined to Europe and the US; they are global. Spiralling cancer rates in Argentina linked to the use of glyphosate spring to mind. In Punjab, India, pesticides have turned the state into a ‘cancer epicentre‘. Moreover, Indian soils are being depleted as a result of the application of ‘green revolution’ ideology and chemical inputs. India is losing 5,334 million tonnes of soil every year due to soil erosion because of the indiscreet and excessive use of fertilisers, insecticides and pesticides. The Indian Council of Agricultural Research reports that soil is become deficient in nutrients and fertility. As smallholders the world over are being driven from their land and the chemical-industrial farming model takes over, the problems continue to mount.

The environment, the quality of our food and our health are being sacrificed on the altar of corporate profit. The solution involves a shift to organic farming and investment in and reaffirmation of indigenous models of agriculture as advocated by the International Assessmentof Agricultural Knowledge Science and Technology (IAASTD) report.

Ordinary people want officials to uphold the public interest and be independent from commercial influence. They do not want them to serve and profit from commercial interests at cost to the public’s health and safety. However, what they too often get are massive conflicts of interest (see here the ‘revolving door’ and here ‘the EFSA’s independence problem’) and governing bodies that are beholden to massive corporate lobbying [see here ‘the fire power of the financial lobby’ and here ‘who lobbies most’).

Regulators turn a blind eye to the deleterious effects of products that pose a serious systemic risk to the public (see here ‘the glyphosate toxicity studies you’re not allowed to see’ and here ‘case closed by EFSA on Roundup, despite new evidence’) and also give the nod to products based not on independent research but a company’s statements or secretive studies taken at face value and then deliberately keep the public in the dark (see here ‘Roundup and birth defects’).

What people get are public institutions that serve a corporate agenda (see here ‘the black book on the corporate agenda of the EC’ and hereabout the conflicts of interest that beset decision making and regulatory bodies in India concerning GMOs) and which appear to be setting the stage for the further extension of ‘green revolution’ ideology via the acceptance of corporate-patented GMOs, which spell disaster for soil, environment and health.

As Western junk food and the chemical-intensive agriculture and food processing model that accompanies it destroys health across the planet (see the impact of NAFTA in Mexico here), it is worth bearing in mind what Stuart Newton says (in the report in the link, read from page 9 onwards). Although discussing India, his concerns apply as much to the US, Europe and elsewhere as they do to the subcontinent:

“The answers to Indian agricultural productivity is not that of embracing the international, monopolistic, corporate-conglomerate promotion of chemically-dependent GM crops… India has to restore and nurture her depleted, abused soils and not harm them any further, with dubious chemical overload, which are endangering human and animal health.” (p24).

Newton provides a wealth of referenced data and detailed insight into the importance of soils and their mineral compositions and links their depletion to the ‘green revolution’. In turn, these depleted soils cannot help but lead to mass malnourishment. This in itself it quite revealing given that proponents of the green revolution claim it helped reduced malnutrition. Newton advocates a well-thought out approach to agriculture based on agroecology, a sound understanding of soil and the eradication of poisonous chemical inputs.

Such an approach is required globally if we are to move towards a nutritional, healthy food system that respects soil balance, environmental integrity and ultimately people. Failure to do so will result in the continued destruction of soils, environment, food and human health. And failure to expose and challenge the corruption, lobbying, back-room ‘free trade’ deals and revolving door that exists between agribusiness and decision-making/regulatory bodies will result in these corporations continuing to prosper at everyone else’s expense.

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Let’s Suppose Elections Mattered



Let’s suppose elections really mattered here in the USA. That I, if voting, could say confidently, “He (or she) will represent my position, will act on behalf of our ecosystem, will promote justice. That we could enter a choice, selecting integrity, someone authentic who would take the oath and initiate the entirety of nouns pushed against verbs that formed campaign promises.

If only. If only we the people counted.

And let’s suppose that voters were educated. I don’t mean credentialed, but that each registrant comprehends the material motives for invasions and occupations, understands that in order to garner support for war, there’s a necessity to create an enemy, manipulate fear and hatred, promote patriotism and nationalism. That each knows that policies perpetrated in our names have delivered disasters both foreign and domestic. That each has an awareness of the history of this country, the blood and tears of Native Americans, the horrors of slavery, babies pulled from the arms of their mothers and fathers. And then bits and pieces such as the year (1956) in which “In God We Trust” became the official motto of the US, replacing “E Pluribus Unum,” Latin for the principle: “Out of many, one.”

If only we perceived every person, regardless of race, status, gender, any label assigned to separate or alienate, equal human beings.

Insert: This morning I drank my coffee while reading a NYT article about the career politician and Zionist Joe Biden. Will he or won’t he challenge Hillary and Bernie for the nomination? (I’ve just learned he won’t.) Who cares? It is this that caught my attention:

Mr. Biden, a fierce advocate of Amtrak for his journeys back-and-forth to his home in Wilmington, Del., also noted that he had spent 80 percent of his life on the train.

That’s plenty of time to reflect (or nap) and also glimpse a slice of crumbling America. I wonder if the VP realizes his metal conveyance could well be his tomb. That the tunnels through which his Amtrak trains roar and the bridges they vibrate across troubled and toxic waters are among a plethora of infrastructure catastrophes waiting to happen.

Okay, back to voting: I remember a little story my mother told me when George W. Bush was running for president. She knew someone whose sole explanation for supporting Bush was: “Because he’s cute.” But since both mainstream political parties are manufactured and managed by Wall Street, cute’s about as good or bad a reason as any.


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The Pentagon on Thursday pledged “utmost care” for the remains of fallen soldiers following a report that the remains of at least 274 troops were dumped in a Virginia landfill.

The report, in The Washington Post, revealed that the Air Force used the landfill far more frequently than had previously been acknowledged. The practice was ended three years ago.

“The secretary is aware of this media report and remains committed to the utmost care for our fallen heroes and their families,” George Little, spokesman for Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, said in a statement.

Little added that Panetta supports “the current practice of placing subsequently identified remains at sea, which has been the policy of the department since 2008.”

According to the Post, incinerated partial remains were dumped at a King George County landfill in Virginia. They were cremated between 2004 and 2008.

The report was based on database information at the Dover Air Base mortuary, where the remains of most war dead return. The revelations came after a four-year inquiry by the widow of Sgt. Scott Smith, who was killed in July 2006 as part of a bomb-disposal unit. She kept asking about where his remains were placed and eventually got the answer.

The families of the dead authorized the military to dispose of the remains respectfully and with dignity. They were unaware of the landfill dumping, and Air Force officials told the newspaper they have no plans now to alert the families.

Military policy or regulations did not formally authorize the practice. The mortuary has handled the remains of more than 6,300 troops since 2001.

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Rebuffing Peace Chances in Syria

By Jonathan Marshall 

Seeking to disrupt the lethal cycle of foreign intervention and military escalation in Syria, a group of 55 House Democrats recently sent a letter to President Barack Obama, calling for a change in U.S. policy.

“[I]t is time to devote ourselves to a negotiated peace, and work with allies, including surrounding Arab states that have a vested interest in the security and stability of the region,” they wrote. “Convening international negotiations to end the Syria conflict would be in the best interests of U.S. and global security, and is also, more importantly, a moral imperative.”

No one — except neoconservative die-hards who view diplomacy as the last refuge of wimps — can argue with their sentiment. But previous failed attempts to promote peace negotiations suggest that Syrian rebels want to talk only about the terms of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s surrender — or they won’t talk at all. Unless their foreign backers start turning the screws on these clients, the key players may simply refuse to sit down at the peace table.

The first Geneva conference on Syria was initiated by the United Nations peace envoy Kofi Annan in April 2012. Although the great-power participants agreed on the usual niceties — a transitional government, participation of all groups in a meaningful national dialogue, free elections, etc. — the process foundered quickly when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton insisted that Assad could not participate in the transition government. In August 2011, President Obama had rashly demanded that Assad step down as a precondition for political change in Syria.

Who’s to Blame?

Former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari later blamed the United States, Britain and France for derailing a huge opportunity for peace. Norwegian General Robert Mood, who led a military observer mission into Syria that spring to monitor an abortive cease-fire,said after the breakdown of Geneva I, “it would have been possible to lead Syria through a transition supported by a united Security Council with Assad as part of the transition. . . . The insistence on the removal of President Assad as a start of the process led them into a corner where the strategic picture gave them no way out whatsoever.”

Contrary to the caricature presented in many Western media, the Russians did not then or later insist that Assad remain in power.

Rather, as President Vladimir Putin emphasized in late 2012, Russia’s “position is not for the retention of Assad and his regime in power at any cost but that the people in the beginning would come to an agreement on how they would live in the future, how their safety and participation in ruling the state would be provided for, and then start changing the current state of affairs in accordance with these agreements, and not vice versa.”

Or as two former members of the State Department’s policy planning staff put it, “For Russia, the Geneva process is about achieving a political settlement in Syria, not about great powers negotiating the end of the Assad regime. . . . Russia’s primary objective in Syria is not to provide support for Assad but rather to avoid another Western-backed effort at coercive regime change, and all of Russia’s actions are consistent with that objective. . . .

“Better US-Russian cooperation on Syria depends on demonstrating to Moscow that Assad and his cronies — rather than the opposition, US policy, or other states in the region — are the main obstacle to a settlement and to stability in Syria, as the US has long argued. That requires pushing ahead with a good-faith effort at a political settlement.”

Another Setback

Chances for peace were set back in spring 2013, however, when the political leader of the non-Islamist opposition, Moaz al-Khatib, resigned after failing to get support for a mediated end to the conflict. His interim successor, a Syrian-American named Ghassan Hitto, reportedly enjoyed strong backing from the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood and “distanced himself from Al-Khatib’s willingness to negotiate with elements of the Assad regime in a bid to bring an end to the civil war.” Secretary of State John Kerry, who had replaced Secretary Clinton, was reported to be “sanguine at the news of the resignation.”

In May 2013, Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov agreed to give peace another chance and try to bring the government and opposition to the negotiating table. This time, significantly, Kerry did not demand that Assad step down as a precondition for talks. Then came the huge diversionary controversy over Syrian chemical weapons, with the White House claiming that the Assad regime had crossed the “red line.” Instead of peace, a vast escalation of the war loomed, until Russia helped broker Syria’s agreement to destroy all of its chemical weapons stocks.

Peace efforts suffered another setback that fall when Syrian opposition forces and their backers in Saudi Arabia and Gulf States balked after the UN envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Bahimi, said that Iran should be part of any settlement talks.

The Beirut Daily Star reported that “Many of Syria’s main rebel brigades … rejected any negotiations not based on Assad’s removal and said they would charge anyone who attended them with treason.” A coalition of 19 Syrian Islamist groups called attempts to restart the Geneva talks “just another part of the conspiracy to throw our revolution off track and to abort it.”

In November 2013, under pressure from Washington and London, the main Syrian exile opposition group voted to attend a new round of peace talks — but only if Assad and others with “blood on their hands” were guaranteed to have “no role” in a transition government or Syria’s future — a non-starter.

The pro-Western National Coalition finally yielded and reluctantly agreed in January 2014 to join a new round of talks, but the more powerful Islamist rebel alliance continued to reject them. The negotiations quickly foundered, with Western powers blamingDamascus for refusing to get serious about a transition government, and Syria’s government insisting that it was committed to “stopping the bloodshed.”

The Ukraine Putsch

Soon, the Western-supported putsch against the Russian-backed government of the Ukraine caused a dramatic setback in U.S.-Russian relations, putting all progress in Syria on hold. Seeking to appease neoconservative critics who demanded even tougher interventions in both theaters, President Obama requested huge new sums of money to arm and train Syria’s rebels — and to beef up the U.S. military presence in Central and Eastern Europe.

In January 2015, Kerry finally began warming again to multilateral negotiations, with Russia’s participation. CIA Director John Brennan made the startling announcement that “None of us, Russia, the United States, coalition, and regional states, wants to see a collapse of the government and political institutions in Damascus.”

The French, longtime hardliners against Assad, also came around. Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told a radio station, “The political solution will of course include some elements of the regime because we don’t want to see the pillars of the state fall apart. We would end up with a situation like Iraq.”

These were huge changes in the stance of Western interventionist powers, aligning them closely to Russia’s longstanding position based on the original Geneva principles. But of course these changes came too late. Aside from some modest-sized regions held by Kurdish forces (and thus opposed by Turkey), the Syrian opposition today is dominated by Islamic State and by the al-Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front.

Forcing Russia’s Hand

Continuing military gains by those extreme Islamist forces prompted Putin’s decision to send additional military aid to Damascus and begin for the first time bombing targets in Syria. As usual, domestic U.S. politics forced a reframing of the Syrian issue back into Cold War-era stereotypes as a contest between the United States and Russia. And the French have once again reverted to their intransigent position that “there can be no transition without [Assad’s] departure,” in the words of President Francois Hollande.

Most important, some 75 military factions operating under the umbrella of the Free Syrian Army this month reached an unprecedented political consensus: They rejected plans for a peaceful transition of power put forth by UN Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura. Their political stance confirms that the FSA has become an ally, if not a wholly owned tool, of the Nusra Front.

Pursuing peace remains a worthy — indeed, the only sensible — goal of U.S. foreign policy in Syria. No one should be surprised, however, if Washington’s embrace of that goal comes too late. By pursuing regime change so long and so adamantly, the United States, Western Europe and various Arab powers fostered the rise of the radical Islamist opposition, which has absolutely no interest in peace. Foreign leaders can meet all they want in Geneva, Moscow, or wherever, but facts on the ground will determine the political future of Syria.

If there is to be any hope of an outcome short of a bloodthirsty Islamist victory, it will require a total commitment by foreign powers to halt their supply of money and arms to opposition forces that, for now at least, reject participation in the peace process.

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