When the world was reinvented: Harry Truman, Joseph Stalin & the end of World War II

Historian Michael Neiberg tells Salon about the perils of the postwar era & the limits of the what great men can do

When the world was reinvented: Harry Truman, Joseph Stalin & the end of World War II

Winston Churchill, Harry S.Truman, and Josef Stalin pose in Potsdam, Germany, July 23, 1945. (Credit: AP)

Up until the second decade of the 20th century, Europe had been home to magnificent feats of cultural brilliance, architecture splendor, and a central hub of cosmopolitan ideas. By May 1945, however, following the surrender of Nazi Germany, most of the continent lay in ruins. Food and fuel were extremely scarce. Britain was on the verge of bankruptcy. Germany, meanwhile, had been reduced to a giant pile of rubble.

Millions of refugees roamed the continent in search of a future that looked extremely bleak: They were often hungry, homeless, and stateless. For some, there wasn’t even a single relative left alive to try and pick up the pieces with. The greatest war mankind had ever witnessed threatened to wipe out western civilization, and replace it instead with a utopian barbarism that had no time for human empathy.

In July 1945, three of the world’s leading statesmen from the Allied side — Harry Truman, Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin — all met up in a quiet Berlin suburb: The aim of the Potsdam Conference was to negotiate a lasting global peace to a conflict that had essentially begun in 1914. If Europe was to have any sort of lasting stability — economically, politically, and militarily — it needed an immediate solution. All the delegates arrived determined to learn from the mistakes their predecessors had made when the Treaty of Versailles was signed in Paris in 1919.

In Potsdam: The End of World War II and the Remaking of Europe,” the historian Michael Neiberg captures in a dramatic fashion the numerous twists and turns of what was to become the most historic and important diplomatic meeting in 20th century global geopolitics.

I caught up with Neiberg recently to ask him about the book. Over an hour long interview, we discussed the limits of “the great man theory” of history;  debated the pros and cons of the Pax Americana vision that emerged from the Bretton Woods Conference in 1944; we were both equally surprised that the Holocaust never even got a passing mention among the delegates of Potsdam. What follows is a lightly edited and condensed transcript of that conversation.

How much did the shadow of the Paris Peace Conference of 1919 loom over Potsdam in 1945? 

Well it was the First World War that had shaped all of these men. So at Potsdam they were trying to figure out what had gone wrong in Paris 26 years earlier. They were also asking what were the basic fundamental mistakes that those who had gone before them had made? And they did a pretty good job: they had reset the boarders of Europe so that the political/ social/ ethnic lines matched up pretty well. They had more or less fixed the problem about what to do with Germany, settling the reparations issue, albeit in a controversial way, by dividing the country up. But fundamentally, they understood this was a problem that stretched back not just to 1939, but to 1914.

This book argues for some limits to be called on the so called “great man” theory of history. And yet many powerful and important men appear in it. What do you mean by this? 

History is always a mixture of what the individual can do and what circumstances constrains them to do. For a historian, Potsdam is almost like a laboratory. Because the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt brought in Harry Truman. And the British election in the middle of the conference removed Winston Churchill and brought in Clement Attlee.

So you had people who, (a) never thought they were going to be in that position; and (b) lacked the kind of world presence/dominance that their predecessors had. And yet everyone who watched Attlee and Truman made the same observation: The change in personalities didn’t change the fundamental economic, geopolitical, and historical reality.

A New York Times reporter, Ann O’ Hare McCormick, wrote at the time that Berlin was like a graveyard. I would also add to that: The graveyard was setting the limits on what the undertakers could do. That’s not to say that individuals aren’t important in history — I think they are — but it’s important to understand the way that larger structural factors shape just what those individuals can do.

The Bretton Woods Conference of 1944 reflected many American post-war goals: namely global free trade and the creation of worldwide markets. Many on the left, especially today, would argue that Bretton Woods actually created a global economy where many vulnerable countries lost their autonomy and merely became slaves to a new world order — where global institutions like the World Bank and the IMF dictated their terms. Would you agree with this thesis? 

Well, there are two things going on here. Firstly, American officials at the time were drawing parallels of 1944 to 1919: When Woodrow Wilson went to Europe with a lot of ideals, but with very few instruments of power. And Bretton Woods is one way Americans wanted to fix that. Secondly, the United States had an awareness that it was the only county that had the economic resources to rebuild Europe in the post-war era. This is where the Marshall Plan essentially came from. There was obviously an enormous amount of self-interest here too.

Many economic historians argue that the reason Bretton Woods came apart a couple of decades later was because it had served its purpose. At the end of the Second World War, the United States was the only economy that was capable of doing something like the Marshall Plan, as well as building parts of China, and being able to offer money to the Soviet block, even though they turned it down.

The British economist John Maynard Keynes famously used the words “swindle” to talk about Bretton Woods. So everybody understood that it was going to benefit the United States tremendously. That said, Americans argued that it was the only way to avoid the economic crisis that had drastically occurred during the 1930s. And it was the memory of Versailles that was driving that.

How to deal with Germany was obviously a crucial aspect of  the Potsdam conference. Was there a general consensus among the Big Three?  

The real problem in 1945 regarding Germany was, (a) who is really to blame for this? Is it the German people? That is to say: If you devastate Germany are you in fact punishing the wrong people. And, (b) what is best way going forward to try and re-build a peaceful Europe?

Again you have to go back to Versailles in 1919, where the Allies devastated Germany. However, they also left Germany strong enough to do something about it. And that was a fundamental mistake. So what they did at the end of the Second World War was to apply hard power — they divided Germany, reduced the size of it, occupied it, and kept the army down.

But they also applied liberal solutions too: They tied western Germany into the international economy, and into a wider alliance like NATO, which allowed it to have a military force. But at the same time they didn’t allow Germany to operate that military force independently.

What was the reasoning behind this?

They thought that if you give Germany enough time, hopefully enough Germans can come to the fore who won’t believe [the Nazi ideology] that their parents and grandparents believed. And that worked. Germany may be the most dominant power in Europe today; but most Europeans — outside of Athens of course — aren’t particularly worried about Germany as they might have been in, say, the 1930s.

But presumably you have an interest as a historian in understanding why the Germans voted for the Nazi party in the first place? 

Well it’s a tough question to deal with because you are contrasting rationality with emotion. Did the Germans vote for the Nazis because the Germans are a wicked evil people? Or did they vote for the Nazis because the economic and political circumstances made Germany such a pariah that they really had no other choice?

And all of the leaders of Potsdam were wrestling with that question, and also asking: What is the best way to go forward?

There was something called The Morgenthau Plan [proposed by the Secretary of the Treasury, Henry Morgenthau, in 1944], which argued for making the central government of Germany almost powerless. It wanted to take away the industrial power and utterly devastate it. But there were others, mostly the British in fact, who said, no, what you want to do is to rebuild Germany, and by extension, they can then run the economy of Europe. Questions many asked at the end of both World Wars included: What is the fundamental problem? Is it German people? Is it their form of government? Or is it an economic problem?

Is this is a distinctly American way of looking at international relations, though, because they had a certain distance from the emotive elements of the war in the eastern front. And I guess the Russians didn’t, right?

Yes, I think so. Americans are more likely to say, look, this is the government’s fault, not the people’s. The Russians had a very different approach to that. When 20 million of your citizens have just been killed by a country that remains on your boarder, things are, naturally enough, going to look very different.

Why was the conversation about the Holocaust so carefully avoided in Potsdam? Was anti-semitism an issue and did this come from the Soviets?

Actually, it seems the anti-semitism was predominantly created in the American State Department, where there was a real desire to avoid talking about what happened to the Jews across Europe. It appears that each country had its own vested interest for not talking about what happened. For the Russians, Stalin was quite clear: He didn’t want the suffering of any Soviet citizen taking precedent over any other Soviet citizen. His view was that 20 million people died, therefore they were not going to be separating their suffering apart from the other deaths. There is a certain logic in that, I suppose. The British didn’t want to talk about it of course because of Palestine. They saw Palestine as a British issue, and they really wanted to avoid the United States and Russia at Potsdam advising them on what they ought to do.

Is there lessons of Versailles also coming into the equation once again here too?

Yes. In Paris in 1919 every country that had a grievance came to to lay it out for the Big Three. But at Potsdam in 1945 they decided that wasn’t going to happen. Their main priority was to deal with the issue of Germany and Poland. This surprised me enormously when I started doing the research for this book. I just automatically expected that they would have talked about the concentration camps, and about the barbarity of the thing they had just defeated. But they didn’t.

How important was the discussion of the Manhattan Project at Potsdam, in terms of how it would shape the paranoia and fear that would stoke Cold War politics for the coming decades? 

It appears Truman tried to present the subject of the atomic bomb very casually.

He was saying: We have this new weapon and we are going to use it on Japan. But it seems quite clear that the knowledge of the atomic bomb scared the Soviet leaders the most. They knew despite their victory, and all of their sacrifice, the atomic bomb could negate everything. It was the American use of two nuclear weapons, though, rather than anything that happened at Potsdam, that really reinforced Soviet paranoia about their own security. This began a cycle of real mistrust during the Cold War. And of course it forced Stalin to increase the speed and tempo of Soviet research also.

How important was the fate of the Russian casualties in World War II in accelerating the paranoia of Cold War politics? 

The talk of just how much the Russians actually suffered only got multiplied during the Cold War. And the Americans and the British tended to downplay what World War II did to Russia. The figure of 20 million people is almost impossible for a British person or an American to get their heads around.

The numbers are just mind boggling. Every time Poland was brought up, Stalin would slam his fists and say: Did your armies liberate Poland, Mr. Churchill? Basically what Stalin was getting at was this: It was our blood that made Poland possible, so don’t come in here and tell us what kind of Poland it’s going to be. The Americans and British didn’t like it. But they really had no choice but to accept it.

In kitsch we trust: lies, euphemisms and politics

By Chris Wright On May 8, 2015

Post image for In kitsch we trust: lies, euphemisms and politicsCollateral damage, regime change, right-to-work: nice words covering up nasty truths, depoliticizing social reality and camouflaging power structures.

Artwork by Kenneth Tin-Kin Hung

In a popular video on YouTube, George Carlin aims his caustic wit at the dread political scourge of euphemisms. “I don’t like words that hide the truth. I don’t like words that conceal reality. I don’t like euphemisms, or euphemistic language,” he kicks off his rant.

Our “public discourse” is, and to some extent always has been, polluted by an epidemic of euphemisms. This category overlaps with the category of political correctness, but it typically serves rightwing, not leftwing, ends. It also overlaps with kitsch, the category that Milan Kundera brilliantly analyzes in The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Kitsch is “the absolute denial of shit, in both the literal and the figurative senses of the word; kitsch excludes everything from its purview which is essentially unacceptable in human existence.”

The essence of this definition applies equally to euphemisms. Both kitsch and euphemisms serve to shield us from unpleasant truths — in other words to disguise reality.

Kitsch is everywhere where fake prettiness — or pretty fakeness — silences authenticity. It is at social gatherings, cocktail parties, academic conferences; it saturates interactions between salespeople and customers, and inspires the decor of every shop in the mall. It is the impulse that sustains the tourism industry. It is the regulating principle of institutional norms, whether in the intellectual, the political, the cultural, or the business world.

Kitsch is what coheres a consumer capitalist society, with its ubiquitous product-advertisements and self-advertisements (for the self has become but a product to be sold). In fact, power-centers in any advanced society will impose a regime of political and ideological kitsch on the population, for power has to lie in order to extract some semblance of consent from its subjects.

Kitsch, in short, while pretending to exalt all that is wonderful and pleasant in life, manifests the anti-human. Where social atomization happens, so does kitsch. Where power happens — and bureaucracy, and the state, and “the free market,” and atomizing totalitarian tendencies of whatever sort — so does kitsch. And in the realm of political kitsch, the use of euphemisms is indispensable.

George Carlin mentions a few. Consider the evolution of the old, honest, direct World War I concept “shell shock”. In World War II shell shock morphed into the more innocuous term battle fatigue, then during the Korean War it was called operational exhaustion, only to become post-traumatic stress disorder in the Vietnam era, or simply PTSD now. So, from shell shock to… an acronym.

This history exemplifies the role of power-structures in the ideological sphere, namely, to squeeze the life out of life — and out of language, and out of dissent, and out of anything that can potentially disrupt the smooth functioning of institutional relations. This is as true of academia as of politics. The imperative is to propagate appealing myths at all times; but if it proves necessary to acknowledge the existence of something negative, at the very least change its name so that it becomes inoffensive and boring. (Ideally, put a positive spin on it as well, so the bad thing magically becomes good.) Eradicate every vestige of humanity; that is the imperative.

We can all easily think of examples. Torture is enhanced interrogation; slaughtered children are collateral damage; a coup d’état is regime change; terrorism we carry out is counterterrorism; invasion of another country is self-defense; destroying a country is stabilizing it; and imposing reactionary regimes on hapless populations is spreading democracy.

Job-destroyers are job-creators; the right-to-scrounge is called the right-to-work; the destruction of public education is “education reform”; destroying social programs and the welfare state is “austerity”; massive corporate welfare is the free market; workers’ mutually destructive competition for jobs and wages is a flexible labor market; renting yourself to a corporation is finding employment; police terrorism is called unnecessary force. The list could go on for pages.

But it isn’t only current political realities that are whitewashed. Rather, a country’s entire history is effaced, replaced with a mess of kitsch and euphemisms. This may be a truism, and we may know it, but it remains very difficult to extricate ourselves from all the subtle wordplays and techniques of indoctrination that have been used to make us think well of our society and its history.

For instance, the recently published book The Half Has Never Been Told, by Edward Baptist, at times may well strike the reader with the force of revelation, while simultaneously embarrassing him for having overlooked the truths it brings to light. Why do we use such bland terms as plantations and slaveholders? Because they’re euphemisms — though we don’t even know it.

Plantations were simply slave-labor camps, and we should follow Baptist in consistently calling them such. (The word “plantation” is actually appealing, quaint, pretty, conjuring images of a lovely countryside ruled benevolently by a paternalistic lord.) “Slaveholders” were enslavers, and we should call them such. Slaves were constantly tortured; that was part of their daily routine, to force them to work harder and submit to white supremacy. Half the country was a torture machine for slave labor, while the other half financed and profited from it.

The kitsch exists on a broader scale too. As Baptist makes clear — and as we all should have explicitly recognized long ago — slavery was not some marginal, economically backward thing; it was the very foundation of the modern American economy and the global industrial economy. It was an astonishingly efficient and effective way of producing cotton, such that from the perspective of economic logic it was irrational for slavery to be made illegal. Nothing is more modern than slavery and the economically productive dehumanization it entails.

The funny thing about kitsch, though, is that sometimes the truth is buried in it, peeking out ironically, only requiring a bit of excavation. Barack Obama, Marco Rubio and their ilk are right: America is an exceptional country. No other country was founded on, or owes its prosperity to, wholesale genocide of the native population together with centuries of enslavement of human beings. (It’s exceptional in other ways too, though they probably aren’t what Obama has in mind.)

It’s hard to look at one’s own country semi-objectively, because one is immersed in a miasma of kitsch and euphemisms. They are absolutely everywhere; they are the air we breathe as citizens, workers, and consumers. But if we can cut through the thick poisonous atmosphere of deceit and indoctrination, we may find that everything is upside down, and appearance is the opposite of reality.

We may find that in our society, as in a stagnant pond, the scum floats to the top. We’ll realize, with the historian Albert Prago, that “in an amoral society, the amoral man is best qualified to succeed.” Perhaps we’ll learn to look with contempt on the leaders and the “successful” — the institutionally obedient, the non-questioners, and the greedy, the vulgarly ambitious, the rich — and admire the downtrodden for their struggles and their stoic survival.

So, whenever a person in a position of authority opens his mouth, we should ask: “What is the reality that is being kitschified here?”

Chris Wright is a doctoral candidate in U.S. labor history, and the author ofWorker Cooperatives and Revolution: History and Possibilities in the United States and Notes of an Underground Humanist. Visit his website here.

 

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Pentagon, DEA and Private Companies Conspiring to Track Everything You Do

Guess what the malware software is really for?

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Yet another report has surfaced describing how tools created by the companies selling software that can damage and hack into people’s computers are being deployed by U.S. security services. While the coverage surrounding this story focuses primarily on federal agencies it’s important to step back for a moment and view the big picture. In particular, looking at who builds, operates, and profits from mass surveillance technology offers insight into the nature of the global panopticon.

A report published by Privacy International as well as an article posted by Vice Motherboard clearly show that both the DEA and the United States Army have long-standing relationships with Hacking Team, an Italian company that’s notorious for selling malware to any number of unsavory characters.

Federal records indicate that the DEA and Army purchased Hacking Team’sRemote Control System (RCS) package. RCS is a rootkit, a software backdoor with lots of bells and whistles. It’s a product that facilitates a covert foothold on infected machines so intruders can quietly make off with sensitive data. The aforementioned sensitive data includes encryption keys. In fact, Hacking Team has an RCS brochure that tells potential customers: “What you need is a way to bypass encryption, collect relevant data out of any device, and keep monitoring your targets wherever they are, even outside your monitoring domain.” Note: Readers interested in nitty-gritty details about RCS can check out the Manuals online.

It’s public knowledge that other federal agencies like the FBI and the CIA have become adept at foiling encryption. Yet this kind of subversion doesn’t necessarily bother high tech luminaries like Bruce Schneier, who believe that spying is “perfectly reasonable” as long as it’s targeted. Ditto that for Ed Snowden. Schneier and Snowden maintain that covert ops, shrouded by layers of official secrecy, are somehow compatible with democracy just so long as they’re narrow in scope.

But here’s the catch: RCS is designed and marketed as a means for mass collection. It violates the targeted surveillance condition. Specifically, a Hacking Team RCS brochure proudly states:

“’Remote Control System’ can monitor from a few and up to hundreds of thousands of targets. The whole system can be managed by a single easy to use interface that simplifies day by day investigation activities.”

Does this sound like a product built for targeted collection?

So there you have it. Subverting encryption en masse compliments of Hacking Team. The fact that there’s an entire industry of companies just like this should give one pause as there are unsettling ramifications regarding the specter of totalitarian control.

Corporate America is Mass Surveillance

Throughout the Snowden affair there’s a theme that recurs. It appeared recently in a foreword written by Glenn Greenwald for Tom Engelhardt’s bookShadow Government:

“I really don’t think there’s any more important battle today than combating the surveillance state [my emphasis]. Ultimately, the thing that matters most is that the rights that we know we have as human beings are rights that we exercise.”

There’s a tendency to frame mass surveillance in terms of the state. As purely a result of government agencies like the CIA and NSA. The narrative preferred by the far right is one which focuses entirely on the government (the so-called “surveillance state”) as the sole culprit, completely ignoring the corporate factions that fundamentally shape political decision making.

American philosopher John Dewey once observed that “power today resides in control of the means of production, exchange, publicity, transportation and communication. Whoever owns them rules the life of the country,” even under the pretense of democratic structuresi.

There are some 1300 billionaires in the United States who can testify to thisfact. As can anyone following the developments around the secretive Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Dewey’s observation provides a conceptual basis for understanding how business interests drive the global surveillance apparatus. Mass surveillance is a corporate endeavor because the people who inevitably drive decisions are the same ones who control the resources. For example, the backbone of the internet itself consists of infrastructure run by Tier 1 providers like Verizon and Level 3 Communications. These companies are in a perfect position to track users and that’s exactly what they do.

Furthermore when spying is conducted it’s usually executed, in one form or another, by business interests. Approximately 70 percent of the national intelligence budget end up being channeled to defense contractors. Never mind that the private sector’s surveillance machinery dwarfs the NSA’s as spying on users is an integral part of high tech’s business model. Internet companies like Google operate their services by selling user information to the data brokers. The data broker industry, for example, generates almost $200 billion a year in revenue. That’s well over twice the entire 2014 U.S.intelligence budget.

From a historical vantage point it’s imperative to realize that high tech companies are essentially the offspring of the defense industry. This holds true even today as companies like Google are heavily linked with the Pentagon. For decades (going back to the days of Crypto AG) the private sector has collaborated heavily with the NSA’s in its campaign of mass subversion: the drive to insert hidden back doors and weaken encryption protocols across the board. Companies have instituted “design changes” that make computers and network devices “exploitable.” It’s also been revealed that companies like Microsoft have secret agreements with U.S. security services to provide information on unpublished vulnerabilities in exchange for special benefits like access to classified intelligence.

In a nutshell: contrary to talking points that depict hi-tech companies as our saviors, they’re more often accomplices if not outright perpetrators of mass surveillance. And you can bet that CEOs will devote significant resources towards public relations campaigns aimed at obscuring this truth.

A parting observation: the current emphasis on Constitutional freedom neglects the other pillar of the Constitution: equality. Concentrating intently on liberty while eschewing the complementary notion of equality leads to the sort of ugly practices that preceded the Civil War. In fact there are those who would argue that society is currently progressing towards something worse, a realityby the way that the financial elite are well aware of. When the public’s collective misery reaches a tipping point, and people begin to mobilize, the digital panopticon of the ruling class will be leveraged to preserve social control. They’ll do what they’ve always done, tirelessly work to maintain power and impose hierarchy.

NOTES:

i The Later Works of John Dewey, 1925-1953, Volume 9: 1933-1934, Essays, Reviews, Miscellany, and A Common Faith, Southern Illinois University Press, 2008, page 76.

 

Bill Blunden is the author of several books, includingThe Rootkit Arsenal” andBehold a Pale Farce: Cyberwar, Threat Inflation, and the Malware-Industrial Complex.” He is the lead investigator at Below Gotham Labs.

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The nobodies have lost their best chronicler

By Raúl Zibechi On April 27, 2015

Post image for The nobodies have lost their best chroniclerThe Uruguayan writer Raúl Zibechi commemorates his friend and compatriot Eduardo Galeano, who passed away this month after a long battle with cancer.

Spanish original published by La Vaca, translated by Leonidas Oikonomakis.

Whoever listens to the heartbeats coming from below will feel their pains, share their smiles and tears. Whoever makes the effort to understand them without interpreting them, to accept them without judging them, can win a place in the hearts of those below.

Eduardo Galeano traveled the most diverse geographies of Latin America by train, on the back of a mule and on foot, moving around by the same means as those from below. He wasn’t trying to mimic them but rather to do something more than that: to experience, underneath his own skin, the feelings of others — in order to revive them in his texts and help them escape anonymity.

Eduardo was a simple man, committed to the common people, to the nobodies, to the oppressed. His loyalty lay with the people of flesh and bones, with the men and women who live and suffer. It was a loyalty much deeper than ideological attachment, which can always change depending on the interests of the moment. The pains from below, he taught us, cannot be negotiated, nor can they be represented. They cannot even be explained even by the best writer. And the same goes for their hopes.

Among Eduardo’s many lessons, it is necessary to hold on to his meticulous attachment to the truth. He stumbled upon these truths far away from the worldly noise of the media, inside the hungry eyes of the indigenous girl, in the worn feet of the farmer, in the innocent smile of the female street vendor — where the nobodies speak their truths every single day, without witnesses.

He never had a minor doubt about exposing those responsible for the poverty and the hunger, as  he did in his chronicles on the crisis of Uruguayan industry as the 20-year-old editor of the weekly Marcha, one of the first and most important exponents of critical and engaged journalism in Uruguay. In those chronicles he would denounce the powerful by name, surname and characteristics. Without taking back his word — because, as he liked to say, “the media prostitute the word.”

But it was his reporting on the struggles and the resistances of those below that left an early, indelible mark. Like his piece entitled “From rebellion and beyond,” in March 1964, which reported on the second march of Uruguay’s sugarcane workers. His gaze stopped at doña Marculina Piñeiro, who was so old that she had forgotten her own age, and to the more than 90 children that had surrounded her with admiration. “They wanted to beat us into submission through hunger. But what would we lose with hunger? We are used to it,” he was told by the wife, mother, and granddaughter of sugarcane workers.

His pen was shaped by the everyday lives of the underprivileged, but it wasn’t enough for Galeano to simply portray their pain. He got engaged in painting — with lively colors — the dignity of their steps, and the anger that was capable of overcoming both the repression and the torment. In each and every one of his articles, the people who embodied the suffering and the torment would be at center stage — perhaps because he was obsessed with the indifference of the rest, which he considered “a lifestyle” whose protective layer we should destroy, perhaps that’s why he wrote his articles.

Among the many homages he received in his life, he had the privilege to see  Galeano (his surname) being adopted as a  nickname by the  teacher of theEscuelita Zapatista José Luis Solís López. It is very probable that the teacher was not referring to the author. In any case, Eduardo and Zapatismo met and got to know each other right away, as if they had been waiting for it their entire lives. He did not leave us a program or a list of demands, but rather an ethics of being — being from below and on the left.

Eduardo Galeano was in La Realidad, Chiapas in August 1996. He participated in one of the roundtables of the Intercontinental Gathering for Humanity and against Neoliberalism. He spoke little, was very clear, and said a lot. In those days, and in the days that followed, he planted Galeanos, disseminated Galeanos — so that now there are Galeanos walking around to brandish his dignified and Galeano-like rage. The nobodies of all ages are carrying him in their hearts.

Raúl Zibechi is a Uruguayan journalist, activist and political theorist.

 

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40 Years On: What the Fall of Saigon Can Tell us About the End of Iraq and Afghanistan

FALL OF SAIGON

How to turn a nightmare into a fairy tale

If our wars in the Greater Middle East ever end, it’s a pretty safe bet that they will end badly — and it won’t be the first time. The “fall of Saigon” in 1975 was the quintessential bitter end to a war. Oddly enough, however, we’ve since found ways to reimagine that denouement which miraculously transformed a failed and brutal war of American aggression into a tragic humanitarian rescue mission. Our most popular Vietnam end-stories bury the long, ghastly history that preceded the “fall,” while managing to absolve us of our primary responsibility for creating the disaster. Think of them as silver-lining tributes to good intentions and last-ditch heroism that may come in handy in the years ahead.

The trick, it turned out, was to separate the final act from the rest of the play. To be sure, the ending in Vietnam was not a happy one, at least not for many Americans and their South Vietnamese allies. This week we mark the 40th anniversary of those final days of the war.  We will once again surely see the searing images of terrified refugees, desperate evacuations, and final defeat. But even that grim tale offers a lesson to those who will someday memorialize our present round of disastrous wars: toss out the historical background and you can recast any U.S. mission as a flawed but honorable, if not noble, effort by good-guy rescuers to save innocents from the rampaging forces of aggression. In the Vietnamese case, of course, the rescue was so incomplete and the defeat so total that many Americans concluded their country had “abandoned” its cause and “betrayed” its allies. By focusing on the gloomy conclusion, however, you could at least stop dwelling on the far more incriminating tale of the war’s origins and expansion, and the ruthless way the U.S. waged it.

Here’s another way to feel better about America’s role in starting and fighting bad wars: make sure U.S. troops leave the stage for a decent interval before the final debacle. That way, in the last act, they can swoop back in with a new and less objectionable mission. Instead of once again waging brutal counterinsurgencies on behalf of despised governments, American troops can concentrate on a humanitarian effort most war-weary citizens and soldiers would welcome: evacuation and escape.

Phony Endings and Actual Ones

An American president announces an honorable end to our longest war. The last U.S. troops are headed for home. Media executives shut down their war zone bureaus. The faraway country where the war took place, once a synonym for slaughter, disappears from TV screens and public consciousness. Attention shifts to home-front scandals and sensations. So it was in the United States in 1973 and 1974, years when most Americans mistakenly believed that the Vietnam War was over.

In many ways, eerily enough, this could be a story from our own time. After all, a few years ago, we had reason to hope that our seemingly endless wars — this time in distant Iraq and Afghanistan — were finally over or soon would be. In December 2011, in front of U.S. troops at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, President Obama proclaimed an end to the American war in Iraq. “We’re leaving behind a sovereign, stable, and self-reliant Iraq,” he said proudly. “This is an extraordinary achievement.” In a similar fashion, last December the president announced that in Afghanistan “the longest war in American history is coming to a responsible conclusion.”

If only. Instead, warfare, strife, and suffering of every kind continue in both countries, while spreading across ever more of the Greater Middle East. American troops are still dying in Afghanistan and in Iraq the U.S. military is back, once again bombing and advising, this time against the Islamic State (or Daesh), an extremist spin-off from its predecessor al-Qaeda in Iraq, an organization that only came to life well after (and in reaction to) the U.S. invasion and occupation of that country. It now seems likely that the nightmare of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, which began decades ago, will simply drag on with no end in sight.

The Vietnam War, long as it was, did finally come to a decisive conclusion. When Vietnam screamed back into the headlines in early 1975, 14 North Vietnamese divisions were racing toward Saigon, virtually unopposed. Tens of thousands of South Vietnamese troops (shades of the Iraqi army in 2014) were stripping off their military uniforms, abandoning their American equipment, and fleeing. With the massive U.S. military presence gone, what had once been a brutal stalemate was now a rout, stunning evidence that “nation-building” by the U.S. military in South Vietnam had utterly failed (as it would in the twenty-first century in Iraq and Afghanistan).

On April 30, 1975, a Communist tank crashed through the gates of Independence Palace in the southern capital of Saigon, a dramatic and triumphant conclusion to a 30-year-long Vietnamese struggle to achieve national independence and reunification. The blood-soaked American effort to construct a permanent non-Communist nation called South Vietnam ended in humiliating defeat.

It’s hard now to imagine such a climactic conclusion in Iraq and Afghanistan. Unlike Vietnam, where the Communists successfully tapped a deep vein of nationalist and revolutionary fervor throughout the country, in neither Iraq nor Afghanistan has any faction, party, or government had such success or the kind of appeal that might lead it to gain full and uncontested control of the country. Yet in Iraq, there have at least been a series of mass evacuations and displacements reminiscent of the final days in Vietnam. In fact, the region, including Syria, is now engulfed in a refugee crisis of staggering proportions with millions seeking sanctuary across national boundaries and millions more homeless and displaced internally.

Last August, U.S. forces returned to Iraq (as in Vietnam four decades earlier) on the basis of a “humanitarian” mission. Some 40,000 Iraqis of the Yazidi sect, threatened with slaughter, had been stranded on Mount Sinjar in northern Iraq surrounded by Islamic State militants. While most of the Yazidi were, in fact, successfully evacuated by Kurdish fighters via ground trails, small groups were flown out on helicopters by the Iraqi military with U.S. help. When one of those choppers went down wounding many of its passengers but killing only the pilot, General Majid Ahmed Saadi, New York Times reporter Alissa Rubin, injured in the crash, praised his heroism.  Before his death, he had told her that the evacuation missions were “the most important thing he had done in his life, the most significant thing he had done in his 35 years of flying.”

In this way, a tortured history inconceivable without the American invasion of 2003 and almost a decade of excesses, including the torture and abuse at Abu Ghraib, as well as counterinsurgency warfare, finally produced a heroic tale of American humanitarian intervention to rescue victims of murderous extremists. The model for that kind of story had been well established in 1975.

Stripping the Fall of Saigon of Historical Context

Defeat in Vietnam might have been the occasion for a full-scale reckoning on the entire horrific war, but we preferred stories that sought to salvage some faith in American virtue amid the wreckage. For the most riveting recent example, we need look no further than Rory Kennedy’s 2014 Academy Award-nominated documentary Last Days in Vietnam. The film focuses on a handful of Americans and a few Vietnamese who, in defiance of orders, helped expedite and expand a belated and inadequate evacuation of South Vietnamese who had hitched their lives to the American cause.

The film’s cast of humanitarian heroes felt obligated to carry out their ad hocrescue missions because the U.S. ambassador in Saigon, Graham Martin, refused to believe that defeat was inevitable. Whenever aides begged him to initiate an evacuation, he responded with comments like, “It’s not so bleak. I won’t have this negative talk.” Only when North Vietnamese tanks reached the outskirts of Saigon did he order the grandiloquently titled Operation Frequent Wind — the helicopter evacuation of the city — to begin.

By that time, Army Captain Stuart Herrington and others like him had already led secret “black ops” missions to help South Vietnamese army officers and their families get aboard outgoing aircraft and ships. Prior to the official evacuation, the U.S. government explicitly forbade the evacuation of South Vietnamese military personnel who were under orders to remain in the country and continue fighting. But, as Herrington puts it in the film, “sometimes there’s an issue not of legal and illegal, but right and wrong.” Although the war itself failed to provide U.S. troops with a compelling moral cause, Last Days in Vietnam produces one. The film’s heroic rescuers are willing to risk their careers for the just cause of evacuating their allies.

The drama and danger are amped up by the film’s insistence that all Vietnamese linked to the Americans were in mortal peril. Several of the witnesses invoke the specter of a Communist “bloodbath,” a staple of pro-war propaganda since the 1960s. (President Richard Nixon, for instance, once warned that the Communists would massacre civilians “by the millions” if the U.S. pulled out.) Herrington refers to the South Vietnamese officers he helped evacuate as “dead men walking.” Another of the American rescuers, Paul Jacobs, used his Navy ship without authorization to escort dozens of South Vietnamese vessels, crammed with some 30,000 people, to the Philippines. Had he ordered the ships back to Vietnam, he claims in the film, the Communists “woulda killed ‘em all.”

The Communist victors were certainly not merciful. They imprisoned hundreds of thousands of people in “re-education camps” and subjected them to brutal treatment. The predicted bloodbath, however, was a figment of the American imagination. No program of systematic execution of significant numbers of people who had collaborated with the Americans ever happened.

Following another script that first emerged in U.S. wartime propaganda, the film implies that South Vietnam was vehemently anti-communist. To illustrate, we are shown a map in which North Vietnamese red ink floods ever downward over an all-white South — as if the war were a Communist invasion instead of a countrywide struggle that began in the South in opposition to an American-backed government.

Had the South been uniformly and fervently anti-Communist, the war might well have had a different outcome, but the Saigon regime was vulnerable primarily because many southern Vietnamese fought tooth and nail to defeat it and many others were unwilling to put their lives on the line to defend it. In truth, significant parts of the South had been “red” since the 1940s.  The U.S.blocked reunification elections in 1956 exactly because it feared that southerners might vote in Communist leader Ho Chi Minh as president. Put another way, the U.S. betrayed the people of Vietnam and their right to self-determination not by pulling out of the country, but by going in.

Last Days in Vietnam may be the best silver-lining story of the fall of Saigon ever told, but it is by no means the first. Well before the end of April 1975, when crowds of terrified Vietnamese surrounded the U.S. embassy in Saigon begging for admission or trying to scale its fences, the media was on the lookout for feel-good stories that might take some of the sting out of the unremitting tableaus of fear and failure.

They thought they found just the thing in Operation Babylift. A month before ordering the final evacuation of Vietnam, Ambassador Martin approved an airlift of thousands of South Vietnamese orphans to the United States where they were to be adopted by Americans. Although he stubbornly refused to accept that the end was near, he hoped the sight of all those children embraced by their new American parents might move Congress to allocate additional funds to support the crumbling South Vietnamese government.

Commenting on Operation Babylift, pro-war political scientist Lucien Pye said, “We want to know we’re still good, we’re still decent.” It did not go as planned. The first plane full of children and aid workers crashed and 138 of its passengers died. And while thousands of children did eventually make it to the U.S., a significant portion of them were not orphans. In war-ravaged South Vietnam some parents placed their children in orphanages for protection, fully intending to reclaim them in safer times. Critics claimed the operation was tantamount to kidnapping.

Nor did Operation Babylift move Congress to send additional aid, which was hardly surprising since virtually no one in the United States wanted to continue to fight the war. Indeed, the most prevalent emotion was stunned resignation. But there did remain a pervasive need to salvage some sense of national virtue as the house of cards collapsed and the story of those “babies,” no matter how tarnished, nonetheless proved helpful in the process.

Putting the Fall of Saigon Back in Context

For most Vietnamese — in the South as well as the North — the end was not a time of fear and flight, but joy and relief. Finally, the much-reviled, American-backed government in Saigon had been overthrown and the country reunited. After three decades of turmoil and war, peace had come at last. The South was not united in accepting the Communist victory as an unambiguous “liberation,” but there did remain broad and bitter revulsion over the wreckage the Americans had brought to their land.

Indeed, throughout the South and particularly in the countryside, most people viewed the Americans not as saviors but as destroyers. And with good reason. The U.S. military dropped four million tons of bombs on South Vietnam, the very land it claimed to be saving, making it by far the most bombed country in history. Much of that bombing was indiscriminate. Though policymakers blathered on about the necessity of “winning the hearts and minds” of the Vietnamese, the ruthlessness of their war-making drove many southerners into the arms of the Viet Cong, the local revolutionaries. It wasn’t Communist hordes from the North that such Vietnamese feared, but the Americans and their South Vietnamese military allies.

The many refugees who fled Vietnam at war’s end and after, ultimately a million or more of them, not only lost a war, they lost their home, and their traumatic experiences are not to be minimized. Yet we should also remember the suffering of the far greater number of South Vietnamese who were driven off their land by U.S. wartime policies. Because many southern peasants supported the Communist-led insurgency with food, shelter, intelligence, and recruits, the U.S. military decided that it had to deprive the Viet Cong of its rural base. What followed was a long series of forced relocations designed to remove peasants en masse from their lands and relocate them to places where they could more easily be controlled and indoctrinated.

The most conservative estimate of internal refugees created by such policies (with anodyne names like the “strategic hamlet program” or “Operation Cedar Falls”) is 5 million, but the real figure may have been 10 million or more in a country of less than 20 million. Keep in mind that, in these years, the U.S. military listed “refugees generated” — that is, Vietnamese purposely forced off their lands — as a metric of “progress,” a sign of declining support for the enemy.

Our vivid collective memories are of Vietnamese refugees fleeing their homeland at war’s end. Gone is any broad awareness of how the U.S. burned down, plowed under, or bombed into oblivion thousands of Vietnamese villages, and herded survivors into refugee camps. The destroyed villages were then declared “free fire zones” where Americans claimed the right to kill anything that moved.

In 1967, Jim Soular was a flight chief on a gigantic Chinook helicopter. One of his main missions was the forced relocation of Vietnamese peasants. Here’s the sort of memory that you won’t find in Miss SaigonLast Days in Vietnam, or much of anything else that purports to let us know about the war that ended in 1975. This is not the sort of thing you’re likely to see much of this week in any 40th anniversary media musings.

“On one mission where we were depopulating a village we packed about sixty people into my Chinook. They’d never been near this kind of machine and were really scared but they had people forcing them in with M-16s. Even at that time I felt within myself that the forced dislocation of these people was a real tragedy. I never flew refugees back in. It was always out. Quite often they would find their own way back into those free-fire zones. We didn’t understand that their ancestors were buried there, that it was very important to their culture and religion to be with their ancestors. They had no say in what was happening. I could see the terror in their faces. They were defecating and urinating and completely freaked out. It was horrible. Everything I’d been raised to believe in was contrary to what I saw in Vietnam. We might have learned so much from them instead of learning nothing and doing so much damage.”

What Will We Forget If Baghdad “Falls”? 

The time may come, if it hasn’t already, when many of us will forget, Vietnam-style, that our leaders sent us to war in Iraq falsely claiming that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction he intended to use against us; that he had a “sinister nexus” with the al-Qaeda terrorists who attacked on 9/11; that the war would essentially pay for itself; that it would be over in “weeks rather than months”; that the Iraqis would greet us as liberators; or that we would build an Iraqi democracy that would be a model for the entire region. And will we also forget that in the process nearly 4,500 Americans were killed along with perhaps 500,000 Iraqis, that millions of Iraqis were displaced from their homes into internal exile or forced from the country itself, and that by almost every measure civil society has failed to return to pre-war levels of stability and security?

The picture is no less grim in Afghanistan. What silver linings can possibly emerge from our endless wars? If history is any guide, I’m sure we’ll think of something.

Christian Appy, professor of history at the University of Massachusetts, is the author of three books about the Vietnam War, including the just-published American Reckoning: The Vietnam War and Our National Identity (Viking).

http://www.alternet.org/40-years-what-fall-saigon-can-tell-us-about-end-iraq-and-afghanistan?akid=13039.265072.mGztWa&rd=1&src=newsletter1035438&t=15

Doonesbury cartoonist Garry Trudeau attacked for criticizing Charlie Hebdo

Garry_Trudeau

By Patrick Martin
27 April 2015

Garry Trudeau, the creator of the Doonesbury comic strip, has come under attack from right-wing editorialists and media pundits for publicly criticizing anti-Muslim cartoons appearing in the French magazine Charlie Hebdo, calling them a form of hate speech.

Trudeau’s brief remarks were delivered at Long Island University April 10, where he received the George Polk Career Award for his more than four decades of work as a cartoonist, in the course of which he has frequently had to battle censorship of his outspoken liberal views. Only three years ago, 50 newspapers refused to carry his strip during a week when he bitingly attacked Republican politicians who oppose abortion rights even in the case of rape or incest.

The central point made by Trudeau is that Charlie Hebdo was engaged, not in satirizing the powerful, but in vilifying the most oppressed section of the French population, Muslim immigrants, who face the highest levels of unemployment, poverty, police harassment and imprisonment.

Trudeau was of course horrified by the bloody massacre in January at the offices of Charlie Hebdo, when an attack by two Islamist gunmen left 12 people dead, include most of the magazine’s senior cartoonists. He contributed to an online tribute to the murdered cartoonists. His refusal to go along with the retrospective glorification of the content of the cartoons, despite the enormous wave of media propaganda that has followed, is an act of intellectual and moral courage.

For that very reason, his statement has been vilified as an attack on the victims of terrorism, in a series of columns by right-wing pundits, including David Frum of The Atlantic, Cathy Young of Reason magazine, and Ross Douthat of theNew York Times.

Frum made the most sweeping attack, citing the killings at Charlie Hebdo, the related attack on a kosher bakery in Paris, and a subsequent attack in Copenhagen, Denmark, and declaring, “For this long record of death and destruction—and for many other deaths as well—Garry Trudeau blamed the people who drew and published the offending cartoons.”

The right-wing pundit claims that Trudeau applied “privilege theory” to theCharlie Hebdo massacre, justifying it because the victims were from the white elite, while the gunmen were from the immigrant Muslim underclass. “To fix the blame for the killing on the murdered journalists, rather than the gunmen, Trudeau invoked the underdog status of the latter,” Frum writes.

He goes on to claim that news organizations in the United States that reported on the anti-Islam cartoons in Charlie Hebdo did not reprint them because they were afraid of terrorist attack, drawing the conclusion, “Violence does work.”

Trudeau offered a different explanation for the non-publication of the anti-Muslim cartoons in an interview Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” where he addressed the right-wing attack on his Long Island University remarks. US editors did not reprint the cartoons because they were demeaning and racist, he maintained. If similar cartoons had targeted African-Americans, they would be universally denounced and repudiated.

Douthat and Young both cite Frum’s column approvingly in their own shorter diatribes, echoing his claim that Trudeau had based his remarks on an extreme version of identity politics. These criticisms are baseless slanders, as can be easily demonstrated by looking at what Trudeau actually said. The cartoonist cited the example of the great satirists of the French Enlightenment.

“Traditionally, satire has comforted the afflicted while afflicting the comfortable. Satire punches up, against authority of all kinds, the little guy against the powerful. Great French satirists such as Molière and Daumier always punched up, holding up the self-satisfied and hypocritical to ridicule. Ridiculing the non-privileged is almost never funny—it’s just mean.

“By punching downward, by attacking a powerless, disenfranchised minority with crude, vulgar drawings closer to graffiti than cartoons, Charlie wandered into the realm of hate speech…”

The same issue was raised in a perspective published on the WSWS immediately after the attack on Charlie Hebdo. WSWS Chairman David North rejected the claim by British historian Simon Schama that the French magazine was in the tradition of the great satirists of the sixteenth through the nineteenth centuries, writing:

Schama places Charlie Hebdo in a tradition to which it does not belong. All the great satirists to whom Schama refers were representatives of a democratic Enlightenment who directed their scorn against the powerful and corrupt defenders of aristocratic privilege. In its relentlessly degrading portrayals of Muslims, Charlie Hebdo has mocked the poor and the powerless.

North explained that the orgy of praise for Charlie Hebdo, summed up in the slogan “I am Charlie,” raised at demonstrations in Paris, was an effort to provide an ideological justification for US and French imperialism:

The killing of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists and editors is being proclaimed an assault on the principles of free speech that are, supposedly, held so dear in Europe and the United States. The attack on Charlie Hebdo is, thus, presented as another outrage by Muslims who cannot tolerate Western “freedoms.” From this the conclusion must be drawn that the “war on terror”—i.e., the imperialist onslaught on the Middle East, Central Asia and North and Central Africa—is an unavoidable necessity.

These efforts are doubly hypocritical, given the onslaught on democratic rights, including freedom of the press, in all the Western countries, especially the United States. The Obama administration has targeted more journalists for surveillance and more whistleblowers for prosecution than any other in US history, singling out those who have played major roles in exposing the crimes of the US government, like Bradley (Chelsea) Manning, Edward Snowden, and Julian Assange.

Trudeau is not an avowed opponent of imperialism, but rather a liberal who apparently supports the Obama administration, albeit with some disappointment. That does not detract from the principled character of his public repudiation of the right-wing efforts to whip up anti-Muslim prejudice.

 

The author also recommends:

“Free Speech” hypocrisy in the aftermath of the attack on Charlie Hebdo
[9 January 2015]

 

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2015/04/27/trud-a27.html

Taking back the factory: workers’ control in the current crisis

By Dario Azzellini On April 26, 2015

Post image for Taking back the factory: workers’ control in the current crisis
The economic crisis that began in 2008 has put workers’ control and workplace democracy back on the agenda in the countries of the northern hemisphere.

This is an edited excerpt from Dario Azzellini’s new book, An Alternative Labour History: Worker Control and Workplace Democracy, just out from Zed. Photo: the recuperated Fabrique du Sud in France (by Jean-Luc Bibal).

During the first decade of the current century, factory occupations and production under workers’ control seemed to be limited mainly to South America, with a few exceptions in Asia. It was beyond the imagination of most workers and scholars in industrialized countries that workers would or could occupy their companies and run them on their own. Nevertheless, the crisis that started in 2008 put workers’ control back on the agenda in the northern hemisphere. In the course of the current crisis, factory occupations occurred throughout Europe, especially in France, Italy and Spain, but also in other countries, including Switzerland and Germany, and in the US and Canada. Nevertheless, in most cases the occupation was a means of struggle and not a step toward workers’ control. In some better organized cases workers achieved their demands, in others the occupations were a result of spontaneous indignation over factory closure or mass dismissals and the struggles fell apart without any concrete results.

Compared to other historical moments when factory takeovers and workers’ control were part of offensive struggles, the new occupations and recuperations develop out of defensive situations. However, this has been true since the neoliberal attack on workers in the early 1980s, with very few exceptions like the recent struggles for worker control in Venezuela. As consequence of the crisis, occupations and recuperations are accomplished by workers in reaction to closure of their production site or company, or relocation of production to a different country. Workers try to defend their workplaces because they have little reason to hope for a new job. In this defensive situation, the workers not only protest or resign; they take the initiative and become protagonists. In the struggle and on the production site they build horizontal social relations and adopt mechanisms of direct democracy and collective decision-making. The recuperated workplaces often reinvent themselves. The workplaces also build ties with nearby communities and other movements.

This description already includes certain criteria not necessarily shared by all workers’ takeover of companies. While in fact it is fundamental to recognize the diversity of situations, contexts and modalities of workers’ controlled companies, it is nevertheless important to understand workers’ control or recuperation of workplaces as a socio-political operation and not as a mere economic procedure. Therefore, it is necessary to have some basic criteria when discussing recuperated companies. Some well-intentioned authors calculate 150 recuperated workplaces under worker control in Europe (Troisi 2013). A closer look shows that very few of these can really be considered “recuperated” and under worker control. That count includes all workers’ buyouts of which most at best adopted the structure and functioning of traditional cooperatives. Many, if not most, have internal hierarchies and individual property shares. In the worst cases we find unequal share distribution according to the company’s social hierarchy (and therefore economic power) or even external investors and shareholders (individuals and major companies). Such reckoning reduces the concept of recuperation to the continued existence of a company originally destined to close and merely changing ownership from one to many owners, some of whom work in the company. Companies following these schemes can hardly be considered “recuperated” in that they do not provide a different perspective on how society and production should be organized.

That contemporary worker-controlled companies almost always have the legal form of cooperatives is because the cooperative form is the only existing legal form of collective ownership and collective administration of workplaces. Usually, however, these are based on collective ownership, without any option of individual property; all workers have equal shares and equal voice. It is an important and distinctive characteristic that they question private ownership of means of production. They provide an alternative to capitalism based essentially on the idea of a collective or social form of ownership. Enterprises are seen not as privately owned (belonging to individuals or groups of shareholders), but as social property or “common property” managed directly and democratically by those most affected by them. Under different circumstances, this might include, along with workers, participation by communities, consumers, other workplaces, or even some instance of the state (for example in countries like Venezuela or Cuba). That workers’ control the production process and are decisive in decision-making, usually also turns them into social and political agents beyond the production process and the company (Malabarba 2013, 147).

All following examples of factories recuperated during the crisis correspond to these modalities.

Pilpa – La Fabrique du Sud

Pilpa was an ice cream producing company with 40 years of history in Carcassonne, near Narbonne, in southern France. It used to belong to the huge agricultural cooperative 3A, which sold its ice cream as different famous brands, among them the large French grocery store chain Carrefour. In September 2011, the plant was sold by 3A due to financial difficulties. The buyer, ice cream manufacturer R&R (belonging to US investment fund Oaktree Capital Management) was only interested in owning the famous brand names to add value to R&R (which would be sold by the investment fund in April 2013). In July 2012, R&R announced Pilpa would close and production relocated, with dismissal of 113 workers. The workers resisted, occupied the plant and started organizing a solidarity movement. Their goal was to save the production site (Borrits 2014).

The workers set up 24-hour surveillance to prevent the owner from dismantling the factory and removing the equipment. In December 2012 the workers gained a court declaring the proposed R&R job protection plan and workers’ pay out “inadequate.” While R&R formulated a new proposal, 27 workers decided on a plan to turn the former Pilpa into a worker owned and worker controlled cooperative under the name “Fabrique du Sud” (Factory of the South).

The new owner of R&R finally agreed in late spring 2013 to pay all workers between 14 and 37 months’ gross salaries and €6,000 for job training. Moreover it agreed to pay the cooperative more than €1 million in financial and technical assistance for job training and market analysis and hand over the machines for one production line, with the condition that Fabrique du Sud would not operate in the same market. The municipality of Carcassone agreed to buy the land upon which the factory is built (Borrits 2014). As former Pilpa worker and Fabrique du Sud founder, Rachid Ait Ouaki, explains, it was not a problem to agree not to operate in the same market:

“We will produce ice cream and yogurt, both eco-friendly and of higher quality. We will use only regional ingredients – from milk to fruit – and also distribute our production locally. At the same time, we will keep prices for consumers low. We will not be producing 23 million liters annually as Pilpa did, but only the 2-3 million liters we can distribute locally. We also have only 21 of the original workers who joined the cooperative, since we have to put even more money into it, including raising our unemployment benefits through a program for business creation, and not everyone wanted to take that risk.”

As in other cases, the cooperative is the legal form the worker controlled company had to take. Decisions are made by all the workers together and benefits will be distributed equally among the workers, once production starts in early 2014.

From Maflow to Ri-Maflow

The Maflow plant in Trezzano sul Naviglio, industrial periphery of Milan, was part of the Italian transnational car parts producer Maflow, which advanced in the 1990s to one of the most important manufacturers of air conditioning tubes worldwide with 23 production sites in different countries. Far from suffering consequences of the crisis and with enough clients to keep all plants producing, Maflow was put under forced administration by the courts in 2009 because of fraudulent handling of finances and fraudulent bankruptcy. The 330 workers of the plant in Milan, Maflow’s main production facility, began a struggle to reopen the plant and keep their jobs. In the course of the struggle they occupied the plant and held spectacular protests on the plant’s roof. Because of their struggle Maflow was offered to new investors only as a package including the main plant in Milan. In October 2010 the whole Maflow group was sold to the Polish investment group Boryszew. The new owner reduced the staff to 80 workers. 250 workers passed to a special income redundancy fund. But even so the new investor never restarted production and after the two years required by the law preventing him from closing a company bought under these circumstances, in December 2012 the Boryszew group closed the Maflow plant in Milan. Before closing it removed most machinery (Blicero 2013, Occorso 2013 and Massimo Lettiere).

A group of workers in redundancy had kept in touch and was unwilling to give up. Massimo Lettiere, former Maflow worker and union delegate of the leftist and radical rank and file union Confederazione Unitaria di Base (CUB) explains:

“We went on organizing assemblies from the Boryszew take-over. In some of the assemblies we talked about the possibility of taking the plant and doing some work inside. We did not know exactly what kind of work we could do, but we understood that after so much time of redundancy, the next stage would be unemployment. Therefore we did not have any option and we had to try it. In the summer of 2012 we had already done some market studies and determined that we would set up a cooperative for recycling of computers, industrial machines, and domestic and kitchen appliances.”

When the plant was closed in December 2012, the workers occupied the square in front of their former factory and in February 2013 they went inside and occupied the plant, together with precarious workers and former workers of a nearby factory shut down after fraudulent bankruptcy:

“To stand and wait for someone to give you a hand is worthless. We must take possession of the goods that others have abandoned. I am unemployed. I cannot invest the money to start a business. But I can take a factory building that has been abandoned and create an activity. So our first real investment for the project is activity and political action. We made a political choice. And from there we started working.”

In March 2013, the cooperative Ri-Maflow was officially constituted. Meanwhile the factory building passed to the Unicredito Bank. After the occupation Unicredito agreed to not request eviction and permitted them free use of the building. The 20 workers participating full time in the project completely reinvented themselves and the factory, as Lettiere describes:

“We started building a broader network. We had the cooperative ‘Ri-Maflow’ with the goal of recycling as the economic activity. In order to gather money we built the association ‘Occupy Maflow’, which organized spaces and activities in the plant. We have a flea market in one hall, we opened a bar, we organize concerts and theater… we have a co-working area with offices we rent. With all that we started having a little income and we could buy a transporter and a pallet carrier for the cooperative, refit the electricity network and pay us some €300-€400 each a month. It was not much, but added to €800 unemployment you have almost a normal salary…

In 2014 we want to work on a larger scale with the cooperative. We have two projects we already started and both are linked to questions of ecology and sustainability. We have built alliances with local organic agricultural producers, opened a group for solidarity shopping and have contacted the agricultural cooperatives from Rosarno, Calabria, Southern Italy. They are cooperatives paying fair wages. Three or four years ago there was a rebellion of migrant workers in Rosarno. They stood up against exploitation. We buy oranges from these cooperatives and sell them and we produce orange and lemon liqueur. We are also connected with a group of engineers from the Polytechnic University to make huge recycling projects. It might take some years until we get all necessary permits. We chose this kind of activity for ecological reasons, reduction of waste etc. and we have already started recycling computers, which is easy, but we want to do it on a bigger scale.”

What can seem like a patchwork to traditional economists is in fact a socially and ecologically useful transformation of the factory with a complex approach based mainly on three premises: “a) solidarity, equality and self-organization among all members; b) conflictive relationship with the public and private counterparts; c) participation in and promotion of general struggles for work, income and rights” (Malabarba 2013, 143).

Greece: Vio.Me from industrial glue to organic cleaners

Vio.Me in Thessaloniki used to produce industrial glue, insulant and various other chemically produced building materials. Since 2010 the workers agreed to be sent on unpaid leave every four to six weeks. Then the owners started reducing the workers’ wages, but assured them it was only a temporary measure and they would soon be paid the missing salaries. The owners’ main argument was that profits had fallen 15 to 20 percent. When the owners did not keep their promise to pay the unpaid back wages, the workers went on strike demanding to be paid. As a response to their struggle the owners simply gave up the factory in May 2011, leaving 70 unpaid workers behind. Later the workers found out that the company was still making profits and the “losses” were due to a loan that Vio.Me formally granted to the mother firm Philkeram Johnsosn. In July 2011 the workers decided to occupy the plant and take their future in their own hands (see chapter 10 on Greece for more details on Vio.Me in? context). As Vio.Me-worker Makis Anagnostou, Thessaloniki explains:

“When the factory was abandoned by the owners we first tried to negotiate with the politicians and the union bureaucracy. But we understood quickly that the only thing we were doing was wasting our time and slowing down the struggle. It was a difficult time; the crisis was showing sudden and intense effects. The suicide rate among workers in Greece rose a lot and we were worried that some of our fellow workers might commit suicide. Therefore we decided to open our labor conflict to society as a whole and the people became our allies. We discovered that the people we thought could not do anything in reality can do it all! Many workers did not agree with us or did not continue the struggle for other reasons. Among those of us who we took up the struggle, the common ground for our work is equality, participation and trust.”

Vio.Me became known internationally and inspired several other workers’ occupations in Greece, even if none was successful at keeping the workplace and/or production. The case best known internationally was the state-owned public broadcasting company, ERT (Ellinikí Radiofonía Tileórasi). After the government announced on June 11, 2013 that all public TV and radio stations would be closed (to be restructured and reopened with fewer workers, fewer rights and lower wages) workers and employees occupied the radio and produced their own program until they were brutally evicted on September 5.

The Vio.Me workers restarted production in February 2013.

“Now we produce organic cleanser not the industrial glue we produced before. Distribution is informal, we sell our products ourselves at markets, fairs and festivals, and a lot of products are distributed through the movements, social centers and shops that are part of the movements. What we did last year is basically keep the factory active. We cannot yet say we have had a very positive outcome regarding production, distribution and sales. Earnings are quite low and not enough to maintain all the workers. Therefore some workers have lost faith, or got tired and left Vio.Me. Recently our assembly decided unanimously to legalize our status by building a cooperative.”

Common challenges for workers’ recuperations

Contemporary occupied or recuperated workplaces often face similar challenges, among are a lack of support by political parties and bureaucratic unions or even their open hostility, rejection and sabotage by the former owners and most other capitalist entrepreneurs and their representations, missing legal company forms matching with the workers’ aspirations and missing institutional framework, obstruction by institutions and little or no access to financial support and loans, even less from private institutions.

The general context contemporary recuperated factories have to face is not favorable. The occupations are taking place during a global economic crisis. Starting new productive activities and conquering market shares in a recessive economy is not an easy task. Moreover, the capital backing available for worker-controlled companies is also less than for capitalist enterprises. Usually an occupation and recuperation of a factory takes place after the owner has abandoned factory and workers, either he literally disappeared or he abandoned the workers by firing them between one day and the next. The owners owe the workers unpaid salaries, vacation days and compensations. The owners often start before the closure of the plant to remove machinery, vehicles and raw material. In such a situation, with the perspective of a long struggle without or with little financial support and uncertain outcome the most qualified workers, and often also younger workers, leave the enterprise, hoping for better options or to find a new job. The remaining workers have to acquire additional knowledge in various fields to be able to control not only the production process in a narrow sense, but also to administer the entire company, with all that implies. But once the workers take over the factory, the former owner suddenly reemerges and wants “his” business back.

Contrary to the common belief that capitalists only care about business no matter how it is done and with whom, worker-controlled businesses face not only capitalism’s inherent disadvantages for those following a different logic, but often constant attacks and hostilities by capitalist business and institutions as well as the bourgeois state. Worker-controlled companies that do not bend totally to capitalist functioning are considered a threat because they show that it is possible to work differently.

Common features of workers’ recuperations

The few known existing cases of workers’ recuperations described have huge differences. Some factories have modern machinery and are fully functional from the technical point of view. Others have been literally looted by the former owner and have to start from scratch. Some factories have encountered support from local authorities, others from unions. The common features are not a checklist for the authenticity of recuperated factories. The common features described are a repertoire of characteristics that are not necessarily all fulfilled by all recuperated factories.

All recuperation processes and recuperated factories are democratically administered. Decision-making is always based on forms of direct democracy with equality of vote among all participants, be it through councils or assemblies. These direct democratic mechanisms adopted by worker-controlled companies raise important questions, not only about individual enterprises, but about how decisions should be made throughout the whole of society. In doing so, it challenges not only capitalist businesses, but also liberal and representative “democratic” governance.

Another obvious common feature is the occupation. It means to commit an act considered illegal and therefore enter into a conflict with authorities. It is a direct action by the workers themselves. They are not “representatives” nor do they wait for a representation –a union or party– or even the institutions of the state to solve their problem before they spring into action. As Malabarba correctly states: “The action has to be turned upside down: first the initiative, you occupy, and then you get in touch with the institutions that failed more or less consciously” (Malabarba 2013, 149).

This is also confirmed by the Latin American experience. In Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay and Venezuela the workers have always been ahead of parties, unions and institutions regarding practical responses. Expropriations, nationalizations, laws, financial and technical support etc. always followed the workers’ initiative and as a reaction to their direct action and struggle. The same is true for the productive activity developed by the recuperated workplace: strictly following the law, waiting for all legal authorizations and paying taxes would simply mean the activity would never start.

Most factories have to reinvent themselves, often the prior productive activity cannot be carried out in the same way (because the machines have been taken away by the owner, because it was a highly specialized activity with very few customers, whom the workers do not have access to, or because the workers decide it for other reasons). In all better documented cases we find that ecological aspects and questions of sustainability became central, be it an orientation on recycling, as in both Italian factories, the change from industrial glue and solvents to organic cleaners in Vio.Me in Thessaloniki, or the two factories in France switching to organic products and using local and regional raw materials and also distributing their products locally and rgionally. The problematic is seen by the workers in a larger context regarding the future of the planet, as well as on a smaller scale related to health threats for workers and surrounding communities. The importance of ecological aspects is part of the new society envisioned by the workers as are the democratic practices.

The struggle of the workers and the occupied or recuperated workplace becomes also a space in which new social relations are developed and practiced: Affect reliability, mutual help, solidarity among the participants and solidarity with others, participation and equality are some characteristics of the new social relations built. New values arise or at least different values than those characterizing the capitalist production process arise. Once the workers decide, for example, safety on the job becomes a priority.

The recuperated factories usually develop a strong connection with the territory. They support the neighborhood and get support from the neighborhood. They interact with different subjectivities present in the territory and develop joint initiatives. Also connections to different social movements and social and political organizations are built and strengthened. All factories mentioned in this chapter have direct relations with social movements and especially the new movements that were part of the global uprising since 2011. This is an evident parallel to Latin America where successful factory recuperations are characterized by having a strong foothold in the territory and close relations with other movements.

The anchorage in the territory helps also to face another important challenge: changing forms of work and production have radically diminished the overall number of workers with full time contracts, as well as reducing the number of workers in each company. While in the past job and production processes automatically generated cohesion among the workers, today work has a dispersive effect since often workers of the same company work with different contracts and with a different status. Generally more and more workers are pushed into precarious conditions and into self-employment (even if their activity depends totally on one “employer”). How can these workers be organized and what are their means of struggle? This is an important question the left must deal with to achieve victory over capital.

Ri-Maflow and Officine Zero in Italy have built strong ties with the new composition of work by sharing their space with precarious and independent workers. In the described case of Toronto, Canada, we can see a different approach to counteract the dispersive effect of work. The workers of the recuperated factories recognize themselves in each other and consider themselves part of a broader movement. The Kouta Steel Factory Workers in Egypt sent a letter in support of the Greek Vio.Me workers when they heard about their struggle. Makis Anagnostou from Vio.me declares: “The goal of the Vio.me workers is to create a European and international network with many more factories under worker control”. There is good reason to believe that this goal will become reality.

This chapter was excerpted from An Alternative Labour History: Worker Control and Workplace Democracy, edited by Dario Azzellini and published byZed Books. Excerpt via Occupied Times.

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