Doonesbury cartoonist Garry Trudeau attacked for criticizing Charlie Hebdo


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]

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 declares: “The goal of the 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.


How the Trans Pacific Partnership Signals the Death of the Republic

The deal’s proponents cannot see they are selling out U.S. sovereignty to foreign and multinational corporations.

The United States shall guarantee to every State in this Union a Republican Form of Government.    — Article IV, Section 4, US Constitution

A republican form of government is one in which power resides in elected officials representing the citizens, and government leaders exercise power according to the rule of law. In The Federalist Papers, James Madison defined a republic as “a government which derives all its powers directly or indirectly from the great body of the people . . . .”

On April 22, 2015, the Senate Finance Committee approved a bill to fast-track the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a massive trade agreement that would override our republican form of government and hand judicial and legislative authority to a foreign three-person panel of corporate lawyers.

The secretive TPP is an agreement with Mexico, Canada, Japan, Singapore and seven other countries that affects 40% of global markets. Fast-track authority could now go to the full Senate for a vote as early as next week. Fast-track means Congress will be prohibited from amending the trade deal, which will be put to a simple up or down majority vote. Negotiating the TPP in secretand fast-tracking it through Congress is considered necessary to secure its passage, since if the public had time to review its onerous provisions, opposition would mount and defeat it.

Abdicating the Judicial Function to Corporate Lawyers

James Madison wrote in The Federalist Papers:

The accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive, and judiciary, in the same hands, . . . may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny. . . . “Were the power of judging joined with the legislative, the life and liberty of the subject would be exposed to arbitrary control, for the judge would then be the legislator. . . .”

And that, from what we now know of the TPP’s secret provisions, will be its dire effect.

The most controversial provision of the TPP is the Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) section, which strengthens existing ISDS  procedures. ISDS first appeared in a bilateral trade agreement in 1959. According to The Economist, ISDS gives foreign firms a special right to apply to a secretive tribunal of highly paid corporate lawyers for compensation whenever the government passes a law to do things that hurt corporate profits — such things as discouraging smoking, protecting the environment or preventing a nuclear catastrophe.

Arbitrators are paid $600-700 an hour, giving them little incentive to dismiss cases; and the secretive nature of the arbitration process and the lack of any requirement to consider precedent gives wide scope for creative judgments.

To date, the highest ISDS award has been for $2.3 billion to Occidental Oil Company against the government of Ecuador over its termination of an oil-concession contract, this although the termination was apparently legal. Still in arbitration is a demand by Vattenfall, a Swedish utility that operates two nuclear plants in Germany, for compensation of €3.7 billion ($4.7 billion) under the ISDS clause of a treaty on energy investments, after the German government decided to shut down its nuclear power industry following the Fukushima disaster in Japan in 2011.

Under the TPP, however, even larger judgments can be anticipated, since the sort of “investment” it protects includes not just “the commitment of capital or other resources” but “the expectation of gain or profit.” That means the rights of corporations in other countries extend not just to their factories and other “capital” but to the profits they expect to receive there.

In an article posted by Yves Smith, Joe Firestone poses some interesting hypotheticals:

Under the TPP, could the US government be sued and be held liable if it decided to stop issuing Treasury debt and financed deficit spending in some other way (perhaps by quantitative easing or by issuing trillion dollar coins)? Why not, since some private companies would lose profits as a result?

Under the TPP or the TTIP (the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership under negotiation with the European Union), would the Federal Reserve be sued if it failed to bail out banks that were too big to fail?

Firestone notes that under the Netherlands-Czech trade agreement, the Czech Republic was sued in an investor-state dispute for failing to bail out an insolvent bank in which the complainant had an interest. The investor company was awarded $236 million in the dispute settlement. What might the damages be, asks Firestone, if the Fed decided to let the Bank of America fail, and a Saudi-based investment company decided to sue?

Abdicating the Legislative Function to Multinational Corporations

Just the threat of this sort of massive damage award could be enough to block prospective legislation. But the TPP goes further and takes on the legislative function directly, by forbidding specific forms of regulation.

Public Citizen observes that the TPP would provide big banks with a backdoor means of watering down efforts to re-regulate Wall Street, after deregulation triggered the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression:

The TPP would forbid countries from banning particularly risky financial products, such as the toxic derivatives that led to the $183 billion government bailout of AIG. It would prohibit policies to prevent banks from becoming “too big to fail,” and threaten the use of “firewalls” to prevent banks that keep our savings accounts from taking hedge-fund-style bets.

The TPP would also restrict capital controls, an essential policy tool to counter destabilizing flows of speculative money. . . . And the deal would prohibit taxes on Wall Street speculation, such as the proposed Robin Hood Tax that would generate billions of dollars’ worth of revenue for social, health, or environmental causes.

Clauses on dispute settlement in earlier free trade agreements have been invoked to challenge efforts to regulate big business. The fossil fuel industry is seeking to overturn Quebec’s ban on the ecologically destructive practice of fracking. Veolia, the French behemoth known for building a tram network to serve Israeli settlements in occupied East Jerusalem, is contesting increases in Egypt’s minimum wage. The tobacco maker Philip Morris is suing against anti-smoking initiatives in Uruguay and Australia.

The TPP would empower not just foreign manufacturers but foreign financial firms to attack financial policies in foreign tribunals, demanding taxpayer compensation for regulations that they claim frustrate their expectations and inhibit their profits.

Preempting Government Sovereignty

What is the justification for this encroachment on the sovereign rights of government? Allegedly, ISDS is necessary in order to increase foreign investment. But as noted in The Economist, investors can protect themselves by purchasing political-risk insurance. Moreover, Brazil continues to receive sizable foreign investment despite its long-standing refusal to sign any treaty with an ISDS mechanism. Other countries are beginning to follow Brazil’s lead.

In an April 22nd report from the Center for Economic and Policy Research, gains from multilateral trade liberalization were shown to be very small, equal to only about 0.014% of consumption, or about $.43 per person per month. And that assumes that any benefits are distributed uniformly across the economic spectrum. In fact, transnational corporations get the bulk of the benefits, at the expense of most of the world’s population.

Something else besides attracting investment money and encouraging foreign trade seems to be going on. The TPP would destroy our republican form of government under the rule of law, by elevating the rights of investors – also called the rights of “capital” – above the rights of the citizens.

That means that TPP is blatantly unconstitutional. But as Joe Firestone observes, neo-liberalism and corporate contributions seem to have blinded the deal’s proponents so much that they cannot see they are selling out the sovereignty of the United States to foreign and multinational corporations.

For more information and to get involved, visit:

Flush the TPP

The Citizens Trade Campaign

Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch

Eyes on Trade


Ellen Brown is an attorney, chairman of the Public Banking Institute, and author of 12 books. In her latest book, The Public Bank Solution, she explores successful public banking models historically and globally. She is currentlyrunning for California State Treasurer on a state bank platform.

Chasing shadows: Europe’s misguided war on smugglers

By Carlos Delclós On April 25, 2015

Post image for Chasing shadows: Europe’s misguided war on smugglersBy declaring war on the smugglers, the EU is not just ignoring the root causes of the Mediterranean drownings, but threatening to make matters worse.

Photo by Ahmed Jadallah.

There are tears that burn and tears that heal. There are tears that are recurring because we forget why we cried them, or never knew to begin with. They come back in waves. Finally, there are the crocodile’s tears, which he sheds as he consumes his victims. They are not unreal, but they come back as shadows.

Take, for instance, the weeping of the European Commission after every spectacular disaster in the Mediterranean. For two decades, reports of capsized boats and deaths by the dozens or hundreds have been followed by somber statements from European leaders and calls for “urgent” action. This emphasis on urgency, often echoed by activists and human rights organizations, can be useful in forcing political decisions that address the most immediately distasteful aspects of a systemic problem. But by reducing that problem to a seemingly manageable scale, it can also sideline necessary considerations of its root causes. And that, in turn, can lead to bad ideas.

When nearly 400 people died en route to Lampedusa in October of 2013, Europe’s urgent response was spearheaded by the Italian government via the Mare Nostrum operation. This search-and-rescue program was recently scrapped and replaced by Operation Triton, following arguments that Mare Nostrum encouraged irregular migration by making it safer. Smaller in scope, Triton is oriented not towards protecting lives, but towards surveillance and border protection. The result of this change, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), has been a dramatic increase in deaths, while the flow of arrivals has increased only slightly according to figures from the Italian Ministry of the Interior. As sociologists have argued for years, more securitization has made migration more dangerous and done nothing to reduce the flows of people.

In response to the massive number of deaths in the Mediterranean between April 13 and 19, many have been quick to call for the return of a humanitarian search-and-rescue program like Mare Nostrum. Yet even this program, though undoubtedly more humane than Triton, was unable to prevent thousands of deaths at Europe’s southern border during its period of operation. The fact of the matter is that the border is doing exactly what it is intended to do, namely channel and protect the accumulation of global capital in the North by filtering and excluding the people from the South through bureaucracy and the selective application of violence.

It is thus misleading and counterproductive to treat the horrific deaths in the Mediterranean as the result of an uncaring administrative decision. What they are is a disturbing manifestation of the European status quo. Not a deviation, but a moment of truth in which we see that the world’s deadliest North-South border (28,000 deaths since 2000 according to the IOM) is situated in the world’s most unequal North-South border zone.

What framing the moment as an emergency does is produce a state of exception that opens the way for oppressive, reactionary legislation. European leaders seemed to have this in mind on April 23, when the Commissioner for Migration, Home Affairs and Citizenship Dimitris Avramopoulos announced, “Our response is clear and unequivocal. Europe is declaring war on smugglers.” He went on to announce member states’ broad support for the ten-point action plan on migration that was proposed three days earlier. Aside from promising to carry out more search-and-rescue activities, the plan allocates more funds to FRONTEX (the EU’s border control agency), extends European authority into third countries and suggests a possible military mission to capture and destroy smugglers’ boats.

This sudden shift of focus from a politically damaging humanitarian disaster to a discussion about shadowy networks of smugglers is a common rhetorical device in political discussions about irregular migration. It allows politicians to adopt a moralistic discourse that depicts people who migrate as helpless victims preyed upon by a dark and criminal enemy. But the reality is hardly so clear-cut. As Patrick Kingsley points out in a recent article for The Guardian:

“Smugglers do not maintain a separate, independent harbor of clearly marked vessels, ready to be targeted by EU air strikes. They buy them off fishermen at a few days’ notice. To destroy their potential pool of boats, the EU would need to raze whole fishing ports.”

It seems unlikely that European leaders are unaware of this: journalists, migration analysts and human rights organizations have argued for years that the criminalization of people smuggling may be doing more to globalize harm than prevent it. Ultimately, smugglers are simply part-time players in a transnational informal economy created around and sustained by the European Union’s failure to provide safe, legal and affordable pathways for people to seek asylum or simply try out a life in a new setting. By declaring war on them, European leaders are not just ignoring the root causes of the thousands of deaths each year in the Mediterranean, but actually threatening to make things worse by adding more of the violence and instability that is driving more and more people in the region to take increasingly desperate measures.

Carlos Delclos is a sociologist, researcher and editor for ROAR Magazine. Currently he collaborates with the Health Inequalities Research Group at Pompeu Fabra University and the Barcelona Institute of Metropolitan and Regional Studies at the Autonomous University of Barcelona.

Majority of US public aid recipients are from working families


By Zaida Green
25 April 2015

A recent report by the University of California, Berkeley, shows that 73 percent of people enrolled in welfare programs are from working families, surviving on poverty-level wages. An earlier study by the UC Berkeley reported that 25 percent of all workers in the United States relied on some form of public aid.

Titled The High Public Cost of Low Wages, the study reports that of the 29 million families that depended on SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) for food assistance in the period 2009- 2011, 10.3 million had working family members, but still needed assistance. Some 34.1 million workers and their family members were dependent on Medicaid for health care and did not receive health insurance from their employers. Overall, some 56 percent of combined state and federal assistance goes to working families.

The authors point out that data in the study does not include the impact of the Medicaid expansion contained in the Obama administration’s Affordable Care Act. Both state governments and the federal government will share these costs.

The report noted that despite the official claims of an economic recovery, the wages and benefits for most American workers have continued a “decades-long stagnation.” In fact, inflation-adjusted wages for the bottom decile of wage earners were 5 percent lower in 2013 than they were in 1979. During the same period, real median hourly wages of American workers overall were just 5 percent higher.

Between 2003 and 2013, the real wages of the bottom 70 percent of households, i.e., those with an annual income at or under $83,000, either stagnated or declined. According to the US Census Bureau, the real median household income in 2013 was 8 percent lower than in 2007.

The overwhelming majority of jobs that have been created in the wake of the 2008 financial crash are low-wage or part-time and offer few if any benefits. Compared to the start of the recession, the number of full-time jobs in the US has decreased, while the number of part-time jobs has increased by 2 million.

Many of these jobs are in the service industries, particularly retail stores and restaurants. According to the UC Berkeley report, nearly half of all fast-food workers, child-carers, and home health aides, and a quarter of part-time college faculty, are enrolled in at least one public assistance program.

The wages of these jobs often sink below $10.30 per hour. Federal law permits employers to pay tipped workers, such as those working in restaurants, a sub-minimum wage of $2.13 per hour. The federal minimum wage is $7.25, well below the official poverty line for a family of two. Many of these workers are forced to work multiple jobs just to stay afloat.

Workers employed part-time at colleges and universities often must search for other sources of income during the summer months between academic terms. Some states ban adjunct professors and other teachers from claiming unemployment benefits during this time.

The majority of fast-food workers are employed part-time, working 30 hours per week. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics puts the average wage of a fast-food worker at $9.03 per hour, amounting to an average annual income of just $14,000. However, even full-time employment is not enough to supplement the meager wages in the industry. The families of more than half of fast-food workers rely on welfare programs. One in five lives in poverty.

Though tens of millions of families depend on welfare benefits to survive, the ruling class is carrying out ruthless attacks on these vital social programs.

SNAP’s budget will be slashed by $8.7 billion over the next decade. The TANF (Temporary Assistance to Needy Families) program itself is a product of reactionary “welfare reform,” imposing arbitrary time limits on child care benefits and requiring adults to find employment in order to continue receiving aid past a certain time period.

While mass layoffs, austerity, and savage attacks on the standard of living have defined the “economic recovery” for the working class, a tiny financial elite has seen their coffers balloon. Between 2003 and 2013, the net worth of the world’s billionaires more than tripled from $1.4 trillion to $5.4 trillion. The wealth of the world’s billionaires set a new record this year, at $7.05 trillion.

The author also recommends:

The face of food stamp cuts
[18 April 2014]

Obama’s drone warfare: Assassination made routine


25 April 2015

Perhaps the most extraordinary aspect of President Obama’s announcement Thursday that two hostages of Al Qaeda, an American and an Italian, were killed in a US drone missile strike in Pakistan is the lack of any significant reaction from official political circles or the media.

There was a certain amount of tut-tutting in the press and expressions of sympathy for the family of Dr. Warren Weinstein, the longtime aid worker in Pakistan who was kidnapped by Al Qaeda in 2011 and killed by the US government in January 2015.

But there was no challenge to the basic premise of the drone missile program: that the CIA and Pentagon have the right to kill any individual, in any country, on the mere say-so of the president. Drone murder by the US government has become routine and is accepted as normal and legitimate by the official shapers of public opinion.

Obama’s own appearance Thursday was chilling. He made perfunctory expressions of regret, but only because the latest victims of US drone strikes included an American and an Italian who were being held hostage. It was a transparently poor acting performance, convincing no one but the editors of theNew York Times, who praised Obama’s “candor and remorse.”

After blaming the deaths of Weinstein and Giovanni Lo Porto on “mistakes” made because of “the fog of war,” Obama declared, “But one of the things that sets America apart from many other nations, one of the things that makes us exceptional, is our willingness to confront squarely our imperfections and to learn from our mistakes.” He had decided to admit responsibility for the deaths because “the United States is a democracy, committed to openness, in good times and in bad.”

What a farce! Far from admitting “mistakes,” Obama, the political front man for the military-intelligence apparatus, was making clear that the drone assassination program would continue and no one would be held accountable for the latest atrocity.

Today’s America is “exceptional” only in the degree to which the entire ruling elite has embraced a policy of reckless violence around the globe that includes murder, torture and aggressive war. The United States is run by criminals.

A major test of any American president is readiness to approve state killings in his or her capacity as the political representative, not of the American people, but of a cabal of generals and CIA assassins. How much longer before such actions are carried out not just in remote parts of Afghanistan or Yemen, but in major urban centers of major countries, including, ultimately, the United States itself?

The drone strike in Pakistan’s Shawal Valley that killed Weinstein and Lo Porto is part of an unending campaign of death and destruction. Obama did not even have to sign off on this particular missile strike, since he has given the CIA blanket authority to conduct such operations in the predominately Pashtun-populated Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan.

The claim that drone attacks target individuals designated by the US military-intelligence apparatus as “terrorists” is hardly a limitation, given the indiscriminate application of this term to anyone offering significant resistance to US foreign policy, as well as the cynical practice of posthumously applying the label of “enemy combatant” to any military-age male killed by a US drone-fired missile.

Moreover, as events in Syria and Libya demonstrate, yesterday’s anti-American “terrorist” can become today’s “rebel” or “freedom fighter,” the recipient of US cash, military training and weaponry. Similarly, today’s “freedom fighter” or ally in the “war on terror” can become tomorrow’s target for overthrow or assassination.

The CIA recruited Al Qaeda sympathizers for its overthrow of the Libyan regime and murder of Muammar Gaddafi, formerly an ally, and for the ongoing regime-change operation against President Bashar al-Assad in Syria. The latter effort gave rise to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, in which terrorists turned “rebels” were subsequently branded terrorists, in accordance with the twists and turns of US foreign policy.

Obama administration officials have confirmed that the drone missile attack that killed Weinstein and Lo Porto was a “signature strike,” in which targets are not identified by name, but selected on the basis of a pattern of activities supposedly consistent with those of a terrorist group. The CIA carried out a drone missile attack that killed six people, including Weinstein and Lo Porto, based on aerial observation of the comings and goings at the building targeted, without actually knowing who was there or what their relation, if any, was with Al Qaeda or the Taliban.

Such attacks are in flagrant violation of international law. The US is trampling on the sovereignty of Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and other countries where it carries out such strikes.

Drone missile murders are war crimes under the Geneva Conventions, which forbid deliberate attacks on civilians or military operations that recklessly endanger civilians. According to a study by the human rights group Reprieve, US drone missile strikes targeting 41 supposed terrorists killed a total of 1,147 people, including many women and children.

Not a single significant voice in the US political or media establishment has been raised against the elevation of assassination to a major element of American foreign policy. In the 1970s, when the US Senate’s Church Committee held hearings on CIA assassination plots against a handful of foreign leaders, its revelations had the capacity to shock. There was a reaction even at the highest levels of the political establishment, and the White House was compelled to issue an executive order disavowing murder as a tool of government policy.

Today there is no such reaction. On the contrary, earlier this month the Timesrevealed that congressional leaders had put pressure on the White House and CIA for more acts of drone missile murder. Describing discussions about whether to kill or capture a Texas-born Islamist who had joined Al Qaeda in Pakistan, Mohanad Mahmoud Al Farekh, the Times reported: “During a closed-door hearing of the House Intelligence Committee in July 2013, lawmakers grilled military and intelligence officials about why Mr. Farekh had not been killed.” (See: “US targeted second American citizen for assassination”).

The American media is well aware of the drone missile death toll, but covers it up. An article Friday in the Times noted that the White House refuses point-blank to discuss civilian victims of drone missile attacks when they are Pakistani or Yemeni. “When Americans have been killed, however, the Obama administration has found it necessary to break with its usual practice and eventually acknowledge the deaths, at least in private discussions with reporters,” the newspaper wrote.

The lack of any significant protest of the latest revelations of US war crimes is a warning to the working class, both in the United States and internationally. As the WSWS has consistently warned, the war drive of imperialism is inseparably linked to a frontal assault on democratic and social rights.

The struggle against war and in defense of democratic rights requires a turn to the working class, the only social force capable of disarming the ruling elite. That is the purpose of the International May Day Online Rally called by the International Committee of the Fourth International for Sunday, May 3. We urge all readers and supporters of the WSWS to register for the rally today.

Patrick Martin

“Montage of Heck” captures the contradictions of Kurt Cobain — and the America that shaped him

Smells like doomed genius: 

Yes, it’s Courtney-approved, but this documentary is a moving and powerful portrait of Kurt Cobain’s America

Smells like doomed genius: "Montage of Heck" captures the contradictions of Kurt Cobain -- and the America that shaped him

“Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck” (Credit: Sundance Institute)

I remember coming to work on the morning Kurt Cobain was found dead, and feeling puzzled that a younger writer at our San Francisco alternative weekly – who would go on to become a prominent newspaper and magazine editor in New York – was so upset that she sat at her desk all day crying. I could psychoanalyze myself at Cobain-like depth, but the reasons I didn’t get it were basically stupid and defensive. Of course I knew Cobain’s music, and I understood that his death was a big story. But I was also deeply committed to my own disillusionment, to never being taken by surprise. I had already been through the first wave of punk rock, the worst years of AIDS, the deaths of a lot of people less famous than him. I would have rejected Cobain’s status as generational icon even more forcefully than he did – which, in retrospect, looks a lot like deep yearning, thinly wrapped in snobbery. His combination of suburban angst, drug addiction and mental-health issues was an old story, wasn’t it? Just another “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide,” a song David Bowie wrote in 1972. Nothing to cry about.

Fourteen years later, I was with my kids at a beachfront amusement park when my friend Laura Miller, Salon’s book critic, called to tell me that David Foster Wallace was dead. I got out of the roller coaster line to talk to her – Laura knew Wallace, but I didn’t – and one of the first things to swim into my brain, addled as it was by sunshine and a friend’s grief, was Kurt Cobain. At the time, I understood the connection as a personal commandment to have this experience, complete with all the Cobain-like and Wallace-like ironic introspection it might require; I took it as an edict not to insulate myself against the shared emotion, and potential shared meaning, of this moment of collective mourning. It took longer to see that the linkages between Cobain and Wallace go much deeper than that, and that many other people registered the connection in approximately the same way.

For many viewers of Brett Morgen’s extraordinary HBO documentary “Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck,” the most fascinating and powerful elements of the film will be found in the intimate home videos shot by Cobain and Courtney Love in the early ‘90s, before and after their daughter Frances was born. (Frances Bean Cobain is an executive producer of the film, and both its remarkable depth and its limitations derive from the fact that it’s an authorized biography, made with the cooperation of Love, Cobain’s parents and various former friends and bandmates.) That footage is absolutely heartbreaking in its depiction of a loving, flawed, high-spirited and essentially normal young family, a long way from the drug-crazed rock-star fiends favored by the tabloids of that not-so-distant era. Yes, rock fans, you do get to see Courtney naked. Impressive as that is, it’s not half as much fun as hearing her ventriloquize baby Frances complaining that her dad’s band are self-indulgent whiners who aren’t as good as Guns N’ Roses. (Footnote for scholars: Cobain’s obsession with GnR frontman Axl Rose is fascinating, but ultimately aren’t they more alike than different?)

But I watched that amazing material with a sense that by that time the die had already been cast. Love and Cobain were famous and their baby, allegedly born addicted to heroin, was famous too. What they were “really like,” as human beings, was irrelevant. As long as they lived they were going to be famous rock ‘n’ roll fuckups, damaged symbols of a damaged generation. For someone with Cobain’s particular set of neuroses, ailments and vulnerabilities, not to mention his philosophical and aesthetic predilections, that might literally be a fate worse than death. I’m not saying that other outcomes, not involving a shotgun blast to the head, were not possible. But there was no easy or painless exit from the prison-house of celebrity available to Kurt Cobain, and he didn’t much like living in it.

Morgen’s title refers both to an extended audio collage Cobain once recorded on cassette tape – just one example of his explosive, unstoppable cultural output – and to the method of the film itself, which assembles an immense trove of public and private material to illustrate a life spent first in obscurity and then in the unbearable spotlight. He has Cobain’s famous notebooks full of lyrics, journal entries, cartoons and momentary observations, of course, but also home movies of his 3rd birthday party, a collection of family snapshots, recordings of early radio interviews and footage of the first Nirvana shows in Aberdeen or Olympia, with a few dozen people in attendance.

He interviews Wendy O’Connor, Cobain’s overly loquacious mother, Don Cobain, his monosyllabic father, and Tracy Marander, who was Cobain’s first serious girlfriend and the first woman he lived with. (He was a total deadbeat, from the sound of things, but Marander doesn’t seem to regret working for a living while he played guitar and watched TV. Here she is in a movie, all these years later.) Oh, and there’s music – a lot of it, the famous tracks and a bunch of lesser-known ones. You will indeed hear “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” in a number of versions and a variety of contexts – and when we finally get the actual Nirvana recording over the closing credits, well, I’m not saying I cried in grief and joy and anger but I’m not saying I didn’t.

Rather than trying to describe all these people who have lived on and gotten older, and who now find themselves sitting on their couches struggling to describe or explain a guy they used to know who became very famous and then died, I would say that “Montage of Heck” paints a bitter but compassionate portrait of the downscale white America that shaped Kurt Cobain. He was born in 1967, which surely felt more like 1957 in Aberdeen, Washington, than it did in the tumultuous climate of big cities and college towns. O’Connor says she remembers Aberdeen as a wonderful place to raise a family, and that her kids had a happy childhood. Not much later in the film we hear Cobain describe Aberdeen, in a recorded conversation with an old friend, as an “isolated hellhole” dominated by moralistic Reaganite conformity. You don’t get the feeling that teenage Kurt was an easy kid to live with, or someone who naturally made the best out of difficult circumstances. But his inarticulate sense that the society around him was fundamentally inauthentic, and his yearning to transform it or destroy it, molded one of the last and greatest voices of what Casey Kasem used to call the “rock era.”

Teenage alienation and rebellion is of course not a new phenomenon, and is not unique to the depressed lumber towns of the Pacific Northwest (although I imagine that lent it a particular coloration). In the animations Morgen’s team has created to illustrate Cobain’s audio montages, we witness the highly familiar quality of Cobain’s childhood and teen years: His parents were unhappy and got divorced, he smoked a lot of pot and had frustrating sexual experiences, he was an intelligent and creative kid who found school to be soul-deadening and found some release in loud music. There may be no comprehensible answer to the question of why he responded so keenly to these stimuli, which were applied with equal force to millions of other kids of the downward-trending ‘70s and ‘80s. From an early age, Kurt Cobain yearned to make memorable art, escape his surroundings and become famous, and from an early age he contemplated ending his life, with the kind of obsessive, repeated “jokes” that are impossible to gauge from the outside.

If Cobain and Wallace worked in different mediums and different registers, and emerged from different sectors of middle-class white suburbia – indeed, you can only call Cobain’s background “middle class” under the postwar convention that all white Americans who have jobs and cars belong to that class by definition – there is no mistaking the kinship of their unnaturally keen responses. They were 1960s babies who grew up amid Vietnam and Watergate and the gas crisis and Whip Inflation Now and Jimmy Carter in his cardigan talking about our “national malaise,” and who were teenagers and young adults as that malaise and turmoil turned to amnesia and denial and the suicidal, delusional counterrevolution of the Reagan years. America has not recovered from the cultural and political whiplash of those years and probably never will.

All of us who lived through that period bear the scars, and we have all tried to react to it and push forward as best we can. Of course Wallace is not the only important writer of their generation, nor is Cobain the only memorable singer-songwriter. But they are joined by the intensity of their response – “Nevermind” and “Infinite Jest” are highly singular works in totally different traditions, but I think they represent the same scale of achievement and possess a similar cultural resonance – and by the way they touched a deep well of passion, hunger and unease that transcended demographic or generational clichés. It’s by no means irrelevant that they were both white heterosexual men who were deeply aware of the problematic nature of the Great Man archetype, and committed to addressing that issue in their work and their private lives. And it’s certainly not irrelevant that they became overwhelmed by the vicious contradictions of fame in our era — or, to put it more simply, that they could not escape the private demons of mental illness and drug addiction and ended by killing themselves.

As I noted earlier, “Montage of Heck” was made with the cooperation of Courtney Love and several other relatives or intimate friends of Kurt Cobain. (The most prominent omission is Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl.) Among other things, that means the movie does not traffic in any of the pathological conspiracy theories around Cobain’s death, or indeed depict his death in any way. It may whitewash some details of Love and Cobain’s relationship – I wouldn’t know, and don’t especially care – and it certainly depicts the reporters who raked up dirt on the couple, especially Lynn Hirschberg of Vanity Fair, as unscrupulous vultures.

I would agree that the media’s vampirical obsession with the Kurt-and-Courtney story was not journalism’s finest hour, and that it reflected profound anxiety about the youth-culture moment they were seen to represent. But that’s too large a problem to unpack here; I think it’s best to take the Courtney-centric area of the film with a grain of salt and draw your own conclusions. Those are minor issues in a masterful and often deeply moving portrait of a volatile American genius, a portrait that goes far beyond one man, one family and one rain-sodden small town. It depicts the society that nurtured and fed that genius, and that made his unlikely creative explosion possible, as being the same environment that poisoned him — and suggests that the rise and fall were inextricably connected. Kurt Cobain was a canary in the coalmine, as was David Foster Wallace. You and I are still in it, and it’s getting harder to breathe.

“Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck” opens this week in Los Angeles, New York and Seattle, and then premieres May 4 on HBO.