Barcelona en Comú

…the city as horizon for radical democracy

By Manuela Zechner On March 4, 2015

Post image for Barcelona en Comú: the city as horizon for radical democracyBarcelona en Comú, the municipal movement formerly known as Guanyem, has opened up a new set of intertwining horizons for radical democracy in the city.

Image: people signing the Guanyem manifesto (via Guerrilla Translation).

With all eyes on Syriza, Podemos and the Troika, the focus of attention among the left these days is the possibility to reclaim democracy at the state — and,inshallah, at the supranational — level. Yet at the same time, somewhat less visibly, there is a new cycle of struggles for democratic governance unfolding at the level of the city.

One such municipal movement and platform is Barcelona en Comú (Catalan for ‘Barcelona in Common’, formerly Guanyem Barcelona). Pioneering new ways and words for approaching the city as common(s), Barcelona en Comú opens possibilities for a politics rooted in everyday experiences, social relations and spaces of reproduction.

A story of intertwining horizons

In 2011, the 15M movement exploded the political horizon in Spain and inaugurated a cycle of struggles around spaces and institutions that have been growing and transforming ever since. This story consists of many episodes and sub-scenes and its ‘making of’ is far beyond a linear story. The mobilizations have produced some internationally visible effects, such as the occupation of squares or the recent success of Podemos, the radical left party that emerged in early 2014 and won five seats in the following European Parliamentary elections, now the strongest force in opinion polls. The two-party system that had Spain in its paralyzing grip since Franco is now done.

In the spring and summer of 2014, drawing from the social intellect and processes that fueled the post-15M struggles and experiments in radical democracy, a strategy to win municipal elections was being imagined in Catalonia: “Guanyem Barcelona.” By the summer, this civil society and social movement-shaped platform had launched is call to fight the corrupt austerity politics of the ruling Partido Popular (PP) and the local Catalan government.

The murmurs quickly became a steady roar, and within just over a month, Guanyem collected 30.000 signatures to support the project. Hundreds of people joined the platform and got involved in its working groups, envisioning a long and complex process. As the model proliferated across the peninsula, similar “Ganemos” structures soon emerged in Malaga, Madrid and other cities. Once the signatures confirmed that there was enough backing for a grassroots-shaped candidacy, representatives of the platform in Barcelona got to work and proceeded to register the new political party.

Yet here comes a small curious side-plot. The party register lies with the ministry of the interior. Handing in their paperwork, Guanyem were met with a surprise: an obscure Catalan city councilor had registered the name “Guanyem Barcelona” two days ahead of them. The man soon appeared with an offer: let me be in charge of coordinating all platforms in Spain and I will hand back the name. This was ludicrous not just because it is blackmail but also because the local Guanyem/Ganemos initiatives are autonomous.

There was also ample evidence for the illegitimacy of this registration — the man had given up a false address, Guanyem had papers from previous dealings with solicitors that mentioned their name — so the real Guanyem filed an appeal. While this kind of sabotage is not uncommon in the Spanish political landscape, the odds seemed to be against the desperate city councilor. Yet the interior ministry, run by the PP, sided with him and rejected Guanyem’s claim.

So Guanyem re-launched itself as “Barcelona en Comú” in February 2015, having now grown into a full-fledged municipal movement. Their confluence with a series of local left parties has been assured and the collectively drafted electoral program is currently open for evaluation and online feedback. Ready for a hot spring, Guanyem is now Barcelona en Comú, entering a new phase with new challenges.

Methodology and organization

There’s a lot to tell about the methodology of Barcelona en Comú, as its radical democratic approach comes with a host of tools, techniques, mechanisms and structures for enabling municipal politics from below. Amongst those are various levels of assemblies (neighborhoods, thematic areas, coordination, logistics, media, communication, etc.) and online platforms (for communicating, voting, working). The initiative’s organigram looks more like a washing machine or a particle accelerator than a flat or vertical hierarchy.

That’s quite appropriate, because politics and organization are spun around on a daily basis here, reconsidered and reconfigured in an intense experiment in collective thinking and acting. All of that happens without prescriptions, instructions, funding or lobbies but with lots of heads, hands and feet at work: not your typical ‘smart’ and regulated participatory process.

Starting without a recipe, however, does not mean that the initiative is not inventing its own terms, conditions and practices. The most inspiring example of such innovation is the Guanyem code for Political Ethics, which was discussed, annotated and ratified at an open working weekend in October 2014 — with some 300 people present and many more following and commenting online. This ethics code outlines the platform’s basic compromises as concerning representation, auditing, accountability, financing, transparency, professionalization and corruption, and applies to anyone working within it.

At the level of policy proposals, thematic working groups (health, migration, culture, tourism, work, economy, urbanism, gender, local governance, education, information) have taken on the task of formulating position papers that feature minimum criteria and proposals for each area. These will be negotiated with the other parties (ICV, EuIA, Podem Barcelona, Procés Constituent und Equo) that joined Barcelona En Comú in a common candidature.

Barcelona En Comú is also an experiment in creating, accessing and valorizing common infrastructures and resources. It has very few material resources at its disposal, but it manages to create new forms of access to existing resources, opening doors to council infrastructures with new legitimacy and collective claims, as well as valorizing grassroots and self-run social and political infrastructures. This gives the ‘common’ in its name a very concrete significance.

A laboratory of social intelligence

Since its inception, Guanyem Barcelona has grasped the role of neighborhoods as protagonists of change. It is clear that Guanyem learned much from movements such as the PAH — the Platform of People Affected by Mortgages, Spain’s strong and popular housing movement which also emerged from Barcelona — that have built their strength through processes of networked proliferation of local groups, each of which is singular in its political leaning, social-affective texture and style. Neighborhood groups are a crucial space for developing analyses and mobilizing the collective strength to enable feedback and contagion effects between local processes and the platform’s thematic groups as well as its coordination committees.

In the winter of 2014-’15, each of the neighborhood groups worked on a diagnostic document concerning their area. These were drawn up in open meetings and analyze problems and propose measures at the local level. In the document from my neighborhood, Poble Sec, the domains addressed were urbanism; health; economy; work, precarity, inequality and poverty; information society; governance and participation; culture; migration; housing; tourism; and education.

Proposals range from the re-appropriation of public space to the opening of health centers and services for old people, to supporting small local businesses and forms of solidarity economy, creating an adult education center and more free WiFi spots, encouraging participatory planning and translation, supporting self-run cultural and social spaces, generating more council housing and changing the areas’ planning permissions, and so on.

These local assemblies are spaces of encounter between people from divergent walks of life, bringing together different levels of expertise and experience — local and technical knowledge being worth the same. They constitute an immense gathering and reshaping of knowledge driven notably by an ever more downwardly mobile middle class. This is both a strength (there is huge potential in the mobilization of these knowledges and social fabrics) and a risk (it will be a challenge to maintain a plurality of subject positions and escape the “tyrannies” of the middle class).

Interplays of proximity and difference

The current political-institutional crisis forces us to re-imagine the political and social as spaces of collective action. The city is a space of experience and acting we know and participate in daily, not only symbolizing but also embodying our social common. While it’s the key layer between the square and the parliament, between the 15M and Podemos, its importance is not just a matter of scale: politics in the city has a potential to propose radical new methodologies for thinking proximity and difference in organizing. It has the power to explode binaries and contradictions between the street and the state, the micro and the macro, and even the local and the global.

With the focus on the municipal, to take back institutions (social rights, infrastructures, democratic mechanisms), spaces (vital, social and representational) and autonomy (over social wealth, territories, the everyday) becomes something very tangible and concrete. What would we like our school, our square, our homeless shelter to be like — not any homeless shelter, but the one here, in our street? There is immense power in proximity and situated knowledges in the city, making the question of self-determination concrete without necessarily passing through issues of identity, be it national or subcultural.

Self-referential claims to territory are hard to sustain in the face of the heterogeneity of interests, needs and lifestyles that shape the post-industrial city. At its best, the city is a multi-layered and agonistic convivial space that can do without sovereignty or identity, the strength of its local processes being that they build commons without losing sight of others and elsewheres.

The city’s social and historical DNA

What does it mean to think the city as a process driven by difference, and to trust that it can be collectively reclaimed? The city has much to do with the history of democracy, going back to the ancient Greek polis, but also with the history of colonialism as enabling large centers of states, and with the development of capitalism in the growth of the modern city. The city has long served as a technology for making difference productive, from the crudest to the most subtlest of ways: how to think the city — and democracy — beyond patriarchal, colonial and capitalist genealogies?

Three social and historical processes are key in this regard: displacement and eviction from the land, the history of colonialism and slavery, and the subjugation of women. Beyond intersectionalist box-ticking, these are inevitable starting point for imagining a radically different city — an experiment that tries to get closer to the root of the problem with democracy and the city.

The first of these points concerns the hegemonic claims that cities have held over the rural: the contradiction between city and countryside is no less strong than the one between labor and capital. Here we enter the problem and perspective of ecology, but also that of class: with industrialization, cities have become spaces of relation and life whose capacity of equality and sustainability have been ever decreasing. The need to re-imagine the ecology of the city goes far beyond smart-city models and urban gardens. In Barcelona, there is a multitude of cooperatives and initiatives concerned with sustainable design, agriculture, recycling, squatting land, alternative trade networks — they can be a starting point for addressing this level.

Secondly, we must face the question of citizenship in relation to the city anew, attempting to redefine social rights in relation to social reproduction and the post-industrial city. Other models of rights and responsibilities, departing from shared vital spaces and commons, are key here (such as the Latin American buen vivir, taking up affirmations that nature and community too are subjects of rights). Even if at present questions of rights and citizenship are the state’s business, it’s not too early to initiate a re-thinking of the political subject starting from the webs of relation, interdependency and difference of our cities.

This brings us to the third interrelated point: grasping the city as a space of social reproduction and the role of care and commons therein, and rethinking the subject of politics. On the one hand,  it also means rethinking the urban subject more generally, thinking access to rights beyond andocentric and anthropocentric models that privilege wage-labor and individual, independent human subjects.

Towards an intersectionality of struggles

Even if precarity and unemployment have steadily eroded the supposed normality of stable wage labor, we are still far from valorizing the reproductive labors and commons that sustain the city. In this regard, ‘Cuidadania‘ is a neologism that Spanish feminist movements have put into circulation to re-frame citizenship (‘ciudadania’) as a matter of care (‘cuidado’). The city is a battlefield par excellence for this. On the other hand, it obviously concerns the need to break with politics as a club of privileged subjects — not just a matter of quotas but of transforming political culture more generally.

Addressing these overlapping levels requires not just debate and good policies but also a careful labor of mobilization and composition in order to produce what, with Angela Davies, we might call an intersectionality not of identities, but of struggles. The municipalist movements face this challenge both with respect to their own composition — who is speaking for whom, can this be more than a rebellion of disenchanted white middle classes? — as well as to which issues will be prioritized.

Here it needs to be clear that politics is not a moral playing field and that strategic decisions do not always look as pure as some would wish. However, priorities must not be betrayed in the long run: En Comú will certainly face situations similar to those presently faced by Syriza. Its success will be down to the strength of its transversal composition, its ethical frameworks and the movements.

What is exciting about Barcelona en Comú is that it understands not just how to think strategically but also in terms of process and relations. For the transformations necessary for producing radical change — change that works on the root of problems — need to be relational. As David Harvey puts it:

The question of what kind of city we want cannot be divorced from that of what kind of social ties, relationship to nature, lifestyles, technologies and aesthetic values we desire. The right to the city is far more than the individual liberty to access urban resources: it is a right to change ourselves by changing the city. It is, moreover, a common rather than an individual right since this transformation inevitably depends upon the exercise of a collective power to reshape the processes of urbanization.

That is why the right methodology for working in and on the city is one based in process and ethics, starting from difference and productive heterogeneity, able to do without unitary identity, moralism and monocultures of knowledge. Barcelona en Comú sets out some key coordinates for this work while at the same time building transversal connections. It has, irrevocably and regardless of eventual electoral results, opened up yet another swath of horizon.

Manuela Zechner is a researcher, cultural worker and translator.

Why Iran’s rise is a good thing

Story highlights

  • Hillary Mann Leverett: Middle East less stable than at any point in modern history
  • United States needs constructive ties with all major regional states, including Iran, she says

Hillary Mann Leverett, co-author of “Going to Tehran: Why America Must Accept the Islamic Republic of Iran,” served at the National Security Council under Presidents Clinton and Bush. She is CEO of Strategic Energy and Global Analysis (STRATEGA), a political risk consultancy. The views expressed are her own.

(CNN)In September 2002, then-former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told a U.S. congressional committee “there is absolutely no question whatsoever” that Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was developing nuclear weapons at “portable manufacturing sites of mass death.” Once Hussein had nuclear weapons, Netanyahu warned, “the terror network will have nuclear weapons,” placing “the security of the entire world at risk.”

Fast forward to this week, and Netanyahu was back, this time as prime minister, to make virtually identical claims about Iran. Yet not only has the U.S. intelligence community disagreed with Netanyahu’s assessment of Iranian nuclear intentions, so does Israel’s, according to leaked documents. Indeed, more than 200 retired security officers have publicly criticized Netanyahu as a danger to Israel’s security. Sadly, Netanyahu’s presentation reinforces caricatures regularly advanced by American and Gulf Arab pundits — caricatures of Iran as aspiring Middle Eastern hegemon, bent on overthrowing an otherwise stable regional order. It’s a misguided perspective that is actually hurting the United States.

In Netanyahu’s view, America should only improve relations with an Iran that stops its regional “aggression,” its support for “terrorism,” and its “threat[s] to annihilate … Israel.” In other words, America should not improve relations with an Iran whose regional influence is rising.

In reality, Iran’s rise is not only normal, it is actually essential to a more stable region. As nuclear talks with Tehran enter a decisive phase, rapprochement with a genuinely independent Iran — not a nominally independent Iran whose strategic orientation is subordinated to U.S. preferences — is vital to halting the decline of America’s strategic position.

Washington has long worked to consolidate a highly militarized, pro-American Middle Eastern order. Yet these efforts — pursued across Democratic and Republican administrations and intensified after 9/11 — have clearly failed. As a result, the Middle East today is less stable, more riven with sectarian and ethnic conflict, and more violent than at any point in its modern history. And America, in a textbook illustration of “imperial overstretch,” has made itself weaker, both regionally and globally.

America’s quest for Middle Eastern hegemony has failed for many reasons.

For a start, seeking dominance impels Washington to replicate, in multiple venues, its Faustian bargain with imperial Iran from 1953 until the last shah’s overthrow in 1979, providing substantial and effectively open-ended support to governments acting against the desires of their own publics. While American elites argue that America benefits from such arrangements, they are ultimately unsustainable, as Iran’s 1979 revolution demonstrated.

A determination to dominate the Middle East keeps locking Washington into these kinds of relationships; for its own sake, the United States needs to stop trying to be the Middle East’s hegemon. That means embracing a regional balance of power — not the chimera of American dominance misleadingly labeled as “balance,” but an actual balance in which major regional states, acting in their own interests, constrain one another.

Under any political system, Iran would be a significant regional actor, due to its geostrategic location, hydrocarbon resources, and large, educated population. But the Islamic Republic — which Iranians built themselves as a participatory Islamist system representing their interests, not those of rulers beholden to foreign powers — has a legitimacy America must accept to foster a truly stable Middle East.

Iran has gained influence in Iraq, Lebanon, Afghanistan, Syria and Yemen by backing political structures that, in Tehran’s judgment, will produce governments committed to foreign policy independence. Washington needs cooperation with just such an Iran against common foes like the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, and to balance counterproductive policies of America’s regional allies.

Washington’s self-damaging drive for Middle Eastern hegemony is inextricably linked to its unconditional support for an increasingly extreme and unrepresentative Israel.

A myth prevails that America’s bond with Israel flows from “shared democratic values” and response to the Holocaust. In fact, Washington only started providing Israel with significant military assistance and diplomatic impunity after the 1967 War, when Israel seized pivotal territory from Egypt and Syria, two Soviet allies opposed to American regional dominance. For the remainder of and after the Cold War, U.S. officials calculated that ensuring Israel’s military superiority over its neighbors helped America pursue hegemony over the Middle East, even as occupying millions more Palestinians clearly made Israel less democratic. (The U.S. government’s own demographic data show that the number of Arabs under Israeli control — in “Green Line” Israel, Gaza, the Golan Heights, East Jerusalem and the West Bank — exceeds that of Israeli Jews, making the Israeli state a minority regime for the people it governs).

A state representing all these people would not occupy Arab populations or seek ever greater freedom of military initiative in its neighborhood. Israel’s pursuit of these policies — facilitated by U.S. guarantees of its “qualitative military edge” — conditions Washington’s commitment to keeping over 100 million Arabs under U.S.-backed autocracies and puts America on a war footing with an Iran unwilling to join this inherently unstable regional order.

The reality is that Israel’s concern about Iranian nuclearization is not that Tehran will use (at the moment nonexistent) nuclear weapons against a nuclear-armed Israel. Instead, as then-Defense Minister Ehud Barak explained in 2012, it is that a nuclear Iran would “restrict our range of operations.”

But this is precisely what a truly stable balance of power requires. America needs constructive relations with all major regional states, including Iran, so that they constrain one another’s reckless impulses.

Philip Levine (1928–2015): A poet of working class life and struggle

By Dorota Niemitz and Matthew Brennan
5 March 2015

The poet Philip Levine died on February 14, at the age of 87, in Fresno, California. Levine’s poetry is often associated with depictions of industrial working class life and struggle, particularly in and around Detroit.

Born in Detroit in 1928 to Russian-Jewish immigrant parents, Levine himself was a factory worker for more than a decade, beginning at the age of 14. Among the factory and industrial jobs he held in the Detroit area were ones at the Cadillac Engine, Chevrolet Gear and Axle, and Wyandotte Chemical factories.

Phillip Levine, September 2006, photo by David Shankbone

In his early teens Levine was initially inspired by poetry after reading Wilfred Owen’s anti-war poem Arms and the Boy. He later enrolled in the English department at Wayne State University, and became interested in Keats, Whitman, Hardy, William Carlos Williams and Hart Crane. He noted the connection between his work life and his growing artistic aspirations in an interview with Studs Terkel. “I was working in factories and also trying to write. I said to myself, ‘Nobody is writing the poetry of this world here; it doesn’t exist.’ And it didn’t. You couldn’t find it. And I sort of took a vow to myself … I was going to write the poetry of these people.”

In 1953 Levine enrolled in the University of Iowa Writing program, studying under the poets Robert Lowell and John Berryman. He considered Berryman his “one great mentor” in poetry, and speaks movingly of him in his autobiography The Bread of Time. Pursuing an academic career, he eventually became a professor of literature at Fresno State University in 1958, a position he held until he retired in 1992.

Levine’s published body of poetry spans from 1961 (On The Edge) to 2009 (News of the World). Some of his more well-known books of poetry include Not This Pig (1963), They Feed They Lion (1974), The Names of the Lost (1976),A Walk With Tom Jefferson (1988), and The Simple Truth (1995). He won a Pulitzer Prize for this last work. Capping a long list of literary awards received over his lifetime, he was named the Poet Laureate of the United States for 2011–2012.

Levine’s poetry and poetic style, at its best, captured the complexity and beauty behind the harsh exterior of social life for working people. Often his poems depicted daily urban American life through both chaotic and mundane images—the factories, smog and soil, the smell of bread, eggs and butter, grease and sweat, fevered children, snowstorms, cluttered diesel truck cabins, an assembly press malfunction, a winter-beaten garden, or a mother’s work clothes. He could tell a genuinely moving story and evoke honest imagery without sliding into sentimentality.

Back-breaking work, dreams, drudgery and love could find sudden, unexpected intersection in his poems. Take for instance, parts of “What Work Is,” or “Of Love and Other Disasters:”

We stand in the rain in a long line
waiting at Ford Highland Park. For work.

You know what work isif you’re
old enough to read this you know what

work is, although you may not do it.
The sad refusal to give in to
rain, the hours wasted waiting,
to the knowledge that somewhere ahead
a man is waiting who will say ‘No,
we’re not hiring today,’ for any
reason he wants. You love your brother,
now suddenly you can hardly stand
the love flooding for your brother,
who’s not beside you or behind or
ahead because he’s home trying to
sleep off a miserable night shift
at Cadillac so he can get up
before noon to study his German (…)

– from “What Work Is”

The punch press operator from up north
met the assembler from West Virginia
in a bar near the stadium
how the grease ate so deeply into her skin it became
a part of her, and she put her hand,
palm up, on the bar and pointed
with her cigarette at the deep lines
the work had carved. “The lifeline,”
he said, “which one is that?” “None,”
she said (…)”

- from “Of Love and Other Disasters”

Levine’s appeal was also due in part to the accessibility and directness of his free-verse poems, which relied on familiar, accurate, and authentic language –all the more impressive in an era (the 1960s through early 1990s) when postmodernism and its impenetrable jargon began to find significant influence in literature and art.

Memory, nostalgia, grief and anger were central, for better and worse, to Levine’s narrative approach. Most often his characters live in all three spaces of time across a poem. People and places that no longer exist are brought back to life in the present, and their dreams are projected onto the future, or up against the lack of a discernible future.

His best poems often emphasize tension between visual motifs—such as everyday objects, people or well-known places—and the non-visual elements they evoke in the sounds or feelings of a place or time. In “Those Were The Days” he writes about young boys imagining a hearty breakfast served on silver plates on a sunny day, before being dragged back into reality by their mother, without the food, putting on their galoshes and heading off to school in freezing November rain.

In “Salt and Oil” the elements of the poem’s title become opposing symbols for capturing the “unwritten biography of your city … There is no/ photograph, no mystery/ only Salt and Oil/ in the daily round of the world,/ three young men in dirty work clothes/ on their way under a halo/ of torn clouds and famished city birds./ There is smoke and grease, there is/ the wrist’s exhaustion, there is laughter,/ there is the letter seized in the clock.”

His compassion and humane treatment of his subjects are Levine’s strongest qualities, with his sympathies almost always clearly directed toward the exploited, overworked and weary people of his poems. In the haunting “Detroit, Tomorrow” for instance, Levine describes a mother who contemplates “how she’ll go back to work today” after her only child has been killed (“You and I will see her just before four/ alight nimbly from the bus, her lunch box/ of one sandwich, a thermos of coffee, a navel orange secured under her arm …”).

Or in “Among Children,” from a classroom of 4th grade schoolchildren in Flint, Michigan, he considers their fathers working in spark plug factories or water plants, their mothers waiting in old coats, and worries what the future brings (“You can see already how their backs have thickened, how their small hands, soiled by pig iron, leap and stutter even in dreams”).

One could easily list a dozen other poems evoking very human qualities in Levine’s poetry.

However, while his ability to movingly render the lives of “everyday people” and the grinding nature of work is admirable, those of his poems that move onto political and historical terrain point to some of Levine’s weaknesses. Here a tendency toward pessimism and resignation emerges most clearly.

Some of his most well-known poems—“They Feed They Lion” and “Animals Are Passing From Our Lives,” about racial tensions and the 1967 Detroit Riots, or “Francisco, I’ll Bring You Red Carnations” about events in the Spanish Civil War—are among his least effective.

Some of this can be explained in Levine’s world outlook. Throughout most of his life he identified himself as an anarchist. He dedicates numerous poems and essays to vignettes and to anarchist figures of the Spanish Civil War—a struggle he considered the most important of the 20th century. Many of these are captured in The Names of the Lost and in a chapter of his autobiography (“The Holy Cities”).

The themes of the more “political poems”—heroic individualism, defiance in the face of long odds, idealist notions of a better world—are generally passive and even demoralized. They lack a conception of the material and social basis of the revolutionary struggle. The poem “To Cipriano, In The Wind” is an apt illustration. Cipriano is the name of the Italian dry cleaner who inspired Levine’s turn toward anarchism as a youth. The poem is a discouraged longing for that particular idealism as it fades away in old age. Another poem, “The Communist Party,” about a CP meeting in Detroit in the late 1940s, illustrates a certain lack of seriousness with which he approached questions of history.

“Were we simply idealists?
What I’m certain of is something essential
was missing from our lives, and it wasn’t
in that sad little clubhouse for college kids,
it wasn’t in the vague talk, the awful words
that spun their own monotonous music:
“proletariat,” “bourgeoisie ,” “Trotskyist.

There is an underlying element of retreat and defeat—of an individual “screaming in the wind”—in many of Levine’s poems, even in some of the warmer compositions. In a Paris Review interview towards the end of his life he stated as much, despite his hatred of imperialist oppression. “Those who have dominated our country most of my adult life are interested in maintaining an empire,” he said, “subjugating other people, enslaving them if need be, and finally killing those who protest so that wealthy and powerful Americans can go on enjoying their advantages over others. I’m not doing a thing about it. I’m not a man of action; it finally comes down to that. I’m not so profoundly moral that I can often overcome my fears of prison or torture or exile or poverty. I’m a contemplative person who goes in the corner and writes. What can we do?”

Large historical issues of the 20th century—the significance of the Russian Revolution and the subsequent betrayals of Stalinism, the global crisis of capitalism, the transformation of the trade unions into adjuncts of big business and the capitalist state, the dead-end of nationalism—would be difficult to navigate for even the sharpest of artists. Levine’s anarchism left him virtually powerless to bring these issues to life in his poetry.

His focus on the details of life in and around working class neighborhoods led one cultural critic to dub Levine the “large, ironic Whitman of the industrial heartland.” This description is somewhat misleading, however. It is indisputable that over the course of a lifetime Levine captured the episodes, dreams, daily routines, tragedies, disputes and complex interactions of working class lives in moving fashion. But his overall outlook is often shrouded by the view that life will never get any better. He is less of a fighter and optimist than Whitman, but Levine was no less sympathetic to his subjects than that poetic giant who preceded him by more than a century. He should be read and remembered for trying to give voice to the largely “voiceless” in industrial America.

Surveillance Valley: Why Google Is Eager to Align Itself With America’s Military Industrial Complex


Is it wise for us to hand over the contents of our private lives to private companies?

The following is an excerpt from Yasha Levine’s ongoing investigative project,Surveillance Valley, which you can help support on KickStarter.

Oakland, California: On February 18, 2014, several hundred privacy, labor, civil rights activists packed Oakland’s city hall.

It was a rowdy crowd, and there was a heavy police presence. The people were there to protest the construction of a citywide surveillance center that would turn a firehouse in downtown Oakland into a high-tech intelligence hub straight out of Mission Impossible — a federally funded project that linking up real time audio and video feeds from thousands of sensors across the city into one high-tech control hub, where analysts could pipe the data through face recognition software and enrich its intelligence with data coming in from local, state and federal government and law enforcement agencies.

Residents’ anger at the fusion surveillance center was intensified by a set of internal documents showing that city officials were more interested in using the surveillance center monitor political protests rather than fighting crime: keeping tabs on activists, monitoring non-violent political protests and tracking union organizing that might shut down the Port of Oakland. It was an incendiary find — especially in Oakland, a city with a large marginalized black population, a strong union presence and a long, ugly history of police brutality aimed at minority groups and political activists.

But buried deep in the thousands of pages of planning documents was another disturbing detail. Emails that showed Google — the largest and most powerful corporation in Silicon Valley — was among several other defense contractors vying for a piece of Oakland’s $11 million surveillance contract.

What was Google doing there? What could a company known for superior search and cute doodles offer a controversial surveillance center?

Turns out, a lot.

Most people still think that Google is one of the good guys on the Internet, that it’s a goofy company that aims only to provide the best and coolest tools on the web — from search, to cool maps to endless email space to amazing mobile maps and a powerful replacement for Microsoft Office.

But the free Google services and apps that we interact with on a daily basis aren’t the company’s main product. They are the harvesting machines that dig up and process the stuff that Google really sells: for-profit intelligence.

Google isn’t a traditional Internet service company. It isn’t even an advertising company. Google is a whole new type of beast that runs on a  totally new type of tech business model.

Google is a global for-profit surveillance corporation — a company that tries to funnel as much user activity in the real and online world through its services in order to track, analyze, and profile us: It tracks as much of our daily lives as possible: who we are, what we do, what we like, where we go, who we talk to, what we think about, what we’re interested in. All those things are seized, packaged, commodified, and sold on the market.

It’s an amazingly profitable activity that takes bits and pieces and the most intimate detritus of our private lives — something that never really had any commercial value and turns it into billions of pure profit. It’s like turning rocks and gravel into gold. And it nets Google nearly $20 billion in annual profits.

At this point, most of the business comes from matching the right ad to the right pair of eyeballs at jus the right time.  But who knows how the massive database Google’s compiling on all of us will be used in the future?

What kind of intel does Google compile on us? The company is very secretive about that info. But here are a few data points that could go into its user profiles, gleaned from two patents Google filed a decade ago, prior to launching its Gmail service:

  • Concepts and topics discussed in email, as well as email attachments
  • The content of websites that users have visited
  • Demographic information—including income, sex, race, marital status
  • Geographic information
  • Psychographic information—personality type, values, attitudes, interests
  • Previous searches users have made
  • Information about documents users viewed and edited
  • Browsing activity
  • Previous purchases

If Google’s creepy for-profit surveillance for you, then there are Google’s deep ties to the NSA and the U.S. military-surveillance complex.

Googles ties to military-intelligence industrial complex go back to 1990s, when Sergey Brin and Larry Page were still run of the mill computer science PhD students at Stanford. Their research into web search and indexing, which they spun off into a private company in 1998, was part of a Stanford project partially funded by DARPA, a research and development appendage to the DoD. The two nerdy inventors even gave the DoD’s research arm a shout out in a 1998 paper that outlined Google’s search and indexing methodology.

Computer science research is frequently funded with military and defense money, of course. But Google’s ties to the military-intelligence world didn’t end after they Brin and Page privatized their research and moved their startup operation off campus. If anything, the relationship deepened and got more intimate after they left Stanford.

Google’s intel and military contracting started with custom search contracts with the CIA and NSA in the early 2000s (the CIA even had a customized Google’s logo on its Google-powered intranet search page) and hit a much more series phase in 2004, with Google’s acquisition of a tiny and unknown 3-D mapping startup called Keyhole.

Google purchased the company in 2004 for an undisclosed sum and immediately folded the company’s mapping technology into what later became known as Google Earth. The acquisition would have gone unnoticed if it wasn’t for one tiny detail: Keyhole was part owned by the CIA and NSA.

A year before Google bought the company, it had received a substantial investment from In-Q-Tel, the venture capital fund run by the CIA on behalf of the military and intelligence community. The exact amount that In-Q-Tel invested into Keyhole is classified, but its new spook backers didn’t sit idle — they became intimately involvement in running the company. This was no secret. The CIA publicly discussed its hands-on approach, bragging in its promotional materials that the agency “worked closely with other Intelligence Community organizations to tailor Keyhole’s systems to meet their needs.” And the CIA guys worked fast: Just a few weeks after In-Q-Tel invested in Keyhole, an NGA official bragged that its technology was already being deployed by the Pentagon to prepare U.S. forces for the invasion of Iraq.

This close collaboration between Keyhole/Google Earth and the U.S. National Security State continues today.

Over the years, Google’s reach expanded to include just about every major intel and law enforcement agency in the United States. Today, Google technology enhance the surveillance capabilities of the  NSA, FBI, CIA, DEA, NGA, the U.S Navy and Army, and just about every wing of the DoD.

If you take a look at the roster of Google’s DC office — Google Federal — you’ll see the list jammed with names of former spooks, high-level intelligence officials and assorted revolving door military contractors: US Army, Air Force Intelligence, Central Intelligence Agency, Director of National Intelligence, USAID, SAIC, Lockheed.

Take the CV of Michele R. Weslander Quaid, Google’s Chief Technology Officer of Public Sector and “Innovation Evangelist.”

After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Weslander Quaid felt a patriotic duty to help fight the War on Terror. So she quit her private sector job at a CIA contractor called Scitor Corporation and joined the official world of US government intelligence. She quickly rose through the ranks, serving in executive positions at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (sister agency to the NSA), National Reconnaissance Office and at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. She toured combat zones in both Iraq and Afghanistan in order to see the tech needs of the military first-hand. All throughout her intel career, she championed a “startup” mentality and the benefits of cloud-based services. Which made her a perfect candidate to head up Google’s federal contractor-lobbying operation…

In the past few years, Google has aggressively intensified its campaign to grab a bigger slice of the insanely lucrative military-intelligence contracting market.

It’s been targeting big and juicy federal agencies — the U.S. Naval Academysigned up for Google Apps, the U.S. Army tapped Google Apps for a pilot program involving 50,000 DoD personnel, Idaho’s nuclear labwent Google, the U.S. Department of the Interior switched to Gmail, and the U.S. Coast Guard Academy went with Google, too. Google even entered into a partnership with the NGA, a sister agency to NSA to launch its very own spy satellite called GeoEye-1 — a spy satellite that it would share with the U.S. military intelligence apparatus.

In some cases, Google sells its wares to government intel agencies directly — like it did with the NSA and NGA. It’s also been taking the role of subcontractor: selling its tech by partnering with established military contractors and privatized surveillance firms like SAIC, Lockheed and smaller boutique outfits like the Blackwater-connected merc outfit called Blackbird.

In short: Google’s showing itself willing to do just about anything it can to more effectively hitch itself to America’s military-intelligence-industrial complex.

Google has also been hard-selling its intel technology to smaller local and state government agencies as well — which is why Google was trying to bid on a police surveillance center in Oakland, California.

A company that monopolizes huge swaths of the Internet, makes billions by surveilling and profiling its users and is very deliberately angling to become the Lockheed-Martin of the Internet Age?

Should we be so trusting towards Google? And is it so wise for us to hand over the contents of our private lives — without demanding any control or oversight or care?

Excerpted from Yasha Levine’s ongoing investigative project, Surveillance Valley, which you can help support on KickStarter.

Rojava: only chance for a just peace in the Middle East?

By Jeff Miley On March 3, 2015

Post image for Rojava: only chance for a just peace in the Middle East?The democratic confederalism of Rojava is an attempt to transcend borders and build a participatory alternative to the tyrannical states of the region.

By Jeff Miley and Johanna Riha. Photo by Erin Trieb.

Since the descent into civil war in Syria, revolutionary forces have seized control of the Kurdish region of Rojava. The mainstream media has been quick to publicize who the revolutionary forces in Rojava are fighting against — the brutality of Islamic State (IS) — but what they are fighting for is often neglected. In December 2014, we had the chance to visit the region as part of an academic delegation. The purpose of our trip was to assess the strengths, challenges and vulnerabilities of the revolutionary project under way.

Rojava is the de facto autonomous Kurdish region in northern Syria. It consists of three cantons: Afrîn in the west, Kobani in the centre, and Cizîre in the east. It is, for the most part, isolated and surrounded by hostile forces. However — despite the brutal war with IS, the painful embargo of Turkey and the even more painful embargo of Barzani and his Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq — systems of self-governance and democratic autonomous rule have been established in Rojava, and are radically transforming social and political relations in an emancipatory direction.

As Saleh Muslim, co-president of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) representing the independent communities of Rojava, explained in an interview in November 2014:

[We are engaged in the construction of] radical democracy: to mobilize people to organize themselves and to defend themselves by means of peoples armies like the Peoples Defense Unit (YPG) and Women’s Defense Unit (YPJ). We are practicing this model of self-rule and self-organization without the state as we speak. Democratic autonomy is about the long term. It is about people understanding and exercising their rights. To get society to become politicized: that is the core of building democratic autonomy.

At the forefront of this politicization is gender equality and women’s empowerment, with equal representation and active participation of women in all political and social circles. “We [have] established a model of co-presidency — each political entity always has both a female and a male president — and a quota of 40% gender representation in order to enforce gender equality throughout all forms of public life and political representation,” explains Saleh Muslim.

The revolutionary forces in Rojava are not fighting for an independent nation state, but advocating a system they call democratic confederalism: one of citizenry-led self-governance through the formation of neighborhood-level people’s councils, town councils, open assemblies, and cooperatives. These self-governing instruments allow for the participation of diverse political, ethnic, and religious groups, promoting consensus-led decision-making. Combined with local academies aimed at politicizing and educating the population, these structures of self-governance give the populace the ability to raise and solve their own problems.

During our nine day trip to Cizîre canton, we visited rural towns as well as cities, where we met with representatives and members of schools, cooperatives, women’s academies, security forces, political parties, and the self-government in charge of economic development, healthcare, and foreign affairs.

Throughout the visit, we witnessed discipline, revolutionary commitment and impressive collective mobilization of the population in Cizîre. Despite the isolation and difficult conditions, a perseverance and even confidence seemed to dominate the collective mood among representatives and members of all the diverse groups we met. This collective optimism and willingness to sacrifice was in the pursuit of an admirable ideological program and genuine steps towards collective emancipation. We were particularly struck by the emphasis on education, politicization, and a consciousness-raising of the general population in accordance with a grassroots democratic transformation of social and property relations.

An obvious and striking strength of the revolution clearly on display throughout our trip were the strides towards gender emancipation. Our meetings with government representatives, members of academies, women’s militias, and people’s councils all demonstrated that women’s empowerment is not mere programmatic window-dressing but is in fact being implemented. This, in the context of the Middle East and in sharp contrast to both the IS as well as the KRG, was most impressive.

Another feature of the programmatic agenda we found admirable was the insistence by the revolutionary government in Rojava that it is committed to a broader struggle for a democratic Syria, and in fact a democratic Middle East, capable of accommodating cultural, ethnic and religious diversity through democratic confederalism. In this vein, we witnessed proactive attempts by the revolutionary forces to include ethnic and religious minorities into the struggle underway in Rojava, including the institutionalization of positive discrimination, quotas, and self-organization of minority groups, such as the Syriac community, which even formed their own militias.

Listen to Jeff Miley’s talk on Rojava and the Kurdish revolutionary movement

That said, the integration of the local Arab population into the revolutionary project remains a critical challenge, as does coordination and the formation of alliances with groups outside of the three cantons. Extra-Kurdish coordination and alliances are certainly prerequisites for ensuring the survival of the revolution in the medium and long term and are especially critical if democratic confederalism is to spread across Syria and the Middle East.

Such a task is as difficult as it is urgent. It is crucial that the revolutionary authorities do everything in their power to assuage Arab fears of a Greater Kurdistan agenda, and include them in this struggle. Avoiding a Kurdish-centric version of history, literature and even the temptation to push for a Kurdish-only language educational system will help prevent the alienation of ethnic and religious minorities.

Revolutionary symbols like flags, maps and posters are particularly important when it comes to integrating ethnic and religious minorities, as well as publicizing the revolution across the world. More inclusive imagery would certainly facilitate the task of winning support and sympathy — both in the Middle East and more globally. References beyond the Kurdish movement were strikingly absent from the symbols we saw. The positive side of the Kurdish revolutionary symbols cannot be ignored and certainly plays a significant role in facilitating the mobilization of the Kurdish population. However, at the same time it is likely to alienate non-Kurds and Kurds who might misidentify the struggle as one for a Greater Kurdistan.

Our biggest concern is that the revolution will be compromised — if not sacrificed — by broader geopolitical games. The current close alliance between the KRG and the United States, and the recent US-led airstrikes in Syria, fuel the suspicions of many, especially Sunni Arabs, that the Kurds are but pawns to yet another imperialist intervention in the region in pursuit of oil.

The politics of divide and conquer employed by the imperialist powers have a long, bloody and effective history in the Middle East and beyond. This sad reality reinforces how crucial it is to build alliances, and to transcend the Kurdish nationalist imaginary within the ranks of the movement. Indeed, one of the principal strengths of IS has been its ability to mobilize militants both locally and globally in seemingly implacable opposition to imperialist powers.

It is especially important for the Kurdish revolution to appeal to the Turkish left, and to encourage them to denounce and fight against the crippling embargo enforced by the Turkish state on Rojava. The effects of and challenges created by the embargo were all too evident with respect to the basic health needs of the population we encountered. Unexpectedly, it was not a lack of medical expertise but rather a lack of medicine and medical equipment that most threatens population health.

The effects of the embargo also reach beyond the immediate needs of the population in Rojava. The environmental toll was evident, most notably in the oil-seeped soil around the rigs. Given the circumstances, it is certainly understandable and indeed inevitable that the revolutionary authorities are nearly exclusively preoccupied with the tasks of providing for immediate energy and food needs of the population while searching for financial assistance to keep the revolutionary project afloat. Nevertheless, the revolution offers a unique opportunity to carefully establish an environmentally sustainable and democratically managed economy.

In the broader context of tyranny, violence and political upheaval rocking many countries in the Middle East, it is highly unlikely that problems can be understood in isolation or solved on a country-by-country basis. One of the best things about the model of democratic confederalism institutionalized in Rojava is that it is potentially applicable to the entire region — a region, it should be recalled, the borders of which were largely drawn in illegitimate fashion by imperialist forces a century ago. The sins of imperialism have yet to be forgotten in the region.

Democratic confederalism, however, is not about dissolving state borders, but transcending them. At the same time, it allows for the construction of a local, participatory democratic alternative to tyrannical states. Indeed, the model of democratic confederalism promises to help foster peace throughout the region, from the Israeli-Palestine conflict, through Turkey, Iraq, Yemen, Lebanon, etc. If only this democratic revolution could spread.

The long siege on Kobani, facilitated by the criminal complicity of the Turkish state, constituted not just an assault on the Kurdish people but on a revolutionary democratic project. The region is being torn asunder in a destructive process protagonized by a variety of reactionary brands of political Islam. The revolutionary project of Rojava, based on democratic participation, gender emancipation, and multi-cultural, multi-religious, multi-ethnic, and even multi-national accommodation, represents a third way — perhaps the only way — for achieving a just and lasting peace in the Middle East.

For these reasons the recent liberation of Kobani should be hailed by progressives, indeed, by all advocates of peace, freedom and democracy around the world.

Thomas Jeffrey Miley is Lecturer of Political Sociology in the Department of Sociology at Cambridge. His research interests include comparative nationalisms, the politics of migration, and democratic theory.

Johanna Riha is an epidemiologist who recently finished her PhD at the University of Cambridge. Johanna was part of an academic delegation that visited Rojava in December 2014. 

This article was originally published at the website of the University of Cambridge, and has been republished here with the authors’ permission.

Netanyahu delivers anti-Iran tirade to US Congress


By Bill Van Auken
4 March 2015

The speech delivered Tuesday by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to an extraordinary joint session of the US Congress consisted of a hysterical anti-Iran tirade and an implicit denunciation of the Obama administration for what was portrayed as an outright betrayal of the security interests of both Israel and the US.

Netanyahu’s appearance, organized behind the back of the White House, marked an unprecedented—and constitutionally dubious—bid by an American political party to bring a foreign head of state before Congress in order to condemn and undermine the policies of a sitting president.

For Netanyahu, who described his trip to Washington as a “historic, even fateful mission,” the political motives were transparent. With Israeli elections just two weeks away and polls showing his support fading, the speech provided Netanyahu with a means of shifting attention from deteriorating economic and social conditions in Israel to the supposed “existential threat” posed by Iran’s nuclear program.

It also gave him the opportunity to be televised accepting multiple standing ovations from the US Congress. Democrats and Republicans proved equally obsequious to the Zionist lobby, rising to their feet at least 15 times during the 39-minute diatribe.

While roughly 55 of the 232 Democrats in both houses of Congress stayed away from the address—not out of disagreement with Israeli policy, but out of loyalty to Obama—the party’s congressional leadership showed up.

The speech was delivered simultaneously with a third session of talks between US Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in the Swiss town of Montreux. The negotiations between Iran and the P5+1—the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany—are proceeding under the pressure of a March 31 deadline to reach a tentative agreement on Iran’s nuclear program.

Netanyahu’s clear aim was to derail any deal with Tehran. US officials had feared he would use the speech to disclose classified information on the negotiations in order to achieve this aim. Instead, the Israeli prime minister relied on crude scaremongering and Islamophobia in what was clearly an attempt to convince Congress to intervene and disrupt the talks.

He portrayed Iran as both a terrorist state and an expanding empire that would resort to nuclear war to achieve its aims.

“We must all stand together to stop Iran’s march of conquest, subjugation and terror,” he said, adding that “the greatest danger facing our world is the marriage of militant Islam with nuclear weapons.”

The deal being negotiated by the Obama administration, he charged, would “inexorably lead to a nuclear-armed Iran whose unbridled aggression will inevitably lead to war.”

No one in either major party or in the corporate media pointed out the hypocrisy that saturated Netanyahu’s speech. The head of the Israeli government, which possesses hundreds of nuclear weapons and refuses to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, charges Iran, a signatory to the pact, with nuclear malfeasance. The Israeli government, which has waged repeated wars of aggression against the Palestinian people and all of its Arab neighbors, while recognizing no restrictions on its borders, accuses Iran, which has invaded no one, of “aggression.”

To promote these lies, Netanyahu equated Iran not only to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), but even to Nazi Germany.

At one point, he turned the attention of Congress to the presence in the gallery of Elie Wiesel, who has made a lucrative career as Washington’s semi-official Holocaust spokesman, and repeated the refrain “Never again.” Wiesel was seated with Netanyahu’s wife, Sara, who finds herself at the center of multiple corruption scandals within Israel itself.

This cheap invocation of the Holocaust to justify a policy of aggressive war against an oppressed country is as fraudulent as it is morally obscene.

President Barack Obama responded to the speech by stating that there was “nothing new” in Netanyahu’s remarks and that he had failed to “offer any viable alternative.”

An unnamed “senior US official” who spoke to the Washington Post was more blunt, declaring, “The logic of the prime minister’s speech is regime-change, not a nuclear speech.” The official added, “Simply demanding that Iran capitulate is not a plan.”

This is the essence of Netanyahu’s policy. His demand that Iran accept the complete dismantling of all of its nuclear facilities—to which it is entitled under international law—cannot be achieved by negotiations, but only through a war to subjugate the country.

Washington has itself repeatedly engaged in saber rattling against Iran, with US representatives insisting even this week that should Tehran fail to accept or subsequently violate a nuclear agreement, the military option remained “on the table.”

Since the end of 2013, however, after it was compelled to back down from its threat to launch an air war against the Iranian-backed regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, the Obama administration has shifted its policy toward reaching an accommodation with Iran.

It is this policy, not the danger of nuclear attack, that Tel Aviv sees as an existential threat. The Zionist regime requires a continuous state of war and confrontation to sustain its rule. A deal with Iran would undermine its central claim to legitimacy.

Before the 1979 Iranian revolution, US imperialism relied on the dictatorial regime of the Shah as a pillar of stability and counterrevolution in the Middle East. Elements within the US ruling establishment no doubt harbor the hope that such a relation can be revived. As Netanyahu’s appearance demonstrated, there are sharp divisions within the US ruling elite over how to pursue such a strategy.

In its latest military intervention in Iraq and Syria, Washington has coordinated its actions with those of Iran, which has supplied the Shia-dominated Iraqi regime with substantial military aid. The Wall Street Journal reported Tuesday that in a newly launched operation to retake the Iraqi city of Tikrit, Iran was “throwing drones, heavy weaponry and ground forces into the battle, while the US remained on the sidelines.”

Israel, which has provided logistical support to the Islamist “rebels” in Syria and has tried to forge a de facto anti-Iranian alliance with the reactionary Sunni monarchies of the Gulf, perceives any thaw in US-Iranian relations as a threat to its hegemonic aims in the region, as well as to Washington’s unconditional support for the aggressive policies with which it pursues these aims.

Tel Aviv opposes Iran in large measure because its aid to the Syrian government, to Hezbollah in Lebanon and to Hamas in Gaza, while posing no existential threat to Israel, limits Israel’s ability to militarily impose its dictates on the peoples of the region.

Washington, on the other hand, is pursuing far broader objectives. Its negotiations with Tehran are directed not merely at curbing its nuclear program, but at creating conditions in the region that will facilitate US imperialism’s “pivot” toward escalating military confrontation with both Russia and China.

Speaking in Geneva, Kerry pointed toward this shift, declaring, “Israel’s security is absolutely at the forefront of our minds, but frankly, so is the security of all the other countries in the region, so is our security in the United States.”

Netanyahu’s provocation in the US Capitol has been accompanied by statements from both Democrats and Republicans reaffirming support for Israel, which translates into over $3 billion a year in mostly military aid. In an interview with Reuters Monday, Obama said Netanyahu’s actions would not prove “permanently destructive.”

Such reassurances notwithstanding, Netanyahu’s speech is not the cause of the tensions between Washington and Tel Aviv, but rather a symptom of an increasing divergence of strategic interests between US imperialism and its Israeli client state.

Netanyahu’s war must be stopped now: The real story behind his speech to Congress

While the media covers politics and personalities, a much more dangerous game around Iran unfolds offstage

Netanyahu's war must be stopped now: The real story behind his speech to Congress
Benjamin Netanyahu (Credit: Reuters/Nir Elias)

The media has focused attention on the rude way that Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu made his appearance in the U.S. this week, as though the real issue is hurt feelings between him and President Obama. This is a mistake that misleads many into thinking that the problem is about respect for our president or concern that Netanyahu is using this trip to promote his election chances in Israel, where “standing up to Obama” might enhance his electoral chances when the Israeli public chooses a new Knesset in two weeks. Watch as the media’s next angle becomes a sigh of relief when Netanyahu makes apologetic sounds about that rift.

The real story is far more worrisome.  Netanyahu is here to push the U.S. toward another Middle East war in which the U.S. would be the proxy for what Netanyahu (mistakenly) thinks is Israeli interests. And Americans are going to have to stand up and say “NO” both to Netanyahu and to the militarists in both parties who are all too happy to generate another war, this time against Iran.  If Netanyahu succeeds, it will be a disaster for all Americans, and an even greater disaster for American Jews.

Let me explain.

Netanyahu’s strategy is to frighten the American public with images of a nuclear armed Iran that will, in his estimation, use those arms against Israel. Using Hitler and the Holocaust as his rhetorical foundation, he insists that allowing Iran to develop its nuclear capacities for peaceful purposes will only be a cover for them developing nuclear capacity for armaments that could be quickly assembled. To stop that, he urges the U.S. to escalate sanctions against Iran rather than enter the deal that Obama and Secretary of State Kerry have been trying to negotiate that would allow the Iranians to develop nuclear energy to replace quickly depleting and earth-polluting energy supplies for their rapidly growing Iranian population.

There are many in Iran who don’t trust the U.S.—and they have good reason. The U.S. overthrew the democratically elected government in 1953, then installed the Shah and his brutally repressive regime, and stuck with it even when millions of Iranians were demonstrating against it. The close U.S. relationship with Israel was a sore point for many Muslims, in large part because of the obvious suffering that Israel has caused to the largely Islamic-oriented Palestinian people. And Israel has taken a variety of militaristic steps against Iran, including assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists and cyber warfare against the Iranian regime.

Using quotes from the last prime minister of Iran, who talked about wanting to eliminate the “Zionist regime” from the earth, ignoring that that Iranian prime minister had his supporters severely defeated in the last Iranian elections, ignoring the fact that their supreme leader seeks to avoid confrontation with both Israel and the U.S. and says that it is a sin against Islam for anyone to use nuclear weapons, Netanyahu evokes the great guilt that many Christians feel about the way that Jews were demeaned by Christianity for 1,700 years and then abandoned to the genocidal acts of the Nazis. He uses that as an argument for why the Iranians must be stopped from developing any nuclear capacity, even for transparently peaceful purposes.

The irony here is that the escalation of sanctions at this point would strengthen those in Iran who do not wish to make any accommodations to the U.S., which it quite reasonably sees as mostly doing Israel’s bidding in the Middle East.  If we escalate the sanctions, there are two predictable consequences: A.) The anger that many Iranians feel toward the oppressive regime of the mullahs would be redirected against Israel and the U.S., thereby strengthening the Islamic extremists as national pride replaces concerns about democracy and human rights, and weakening those who, I hope, will someday be able to non-violently overthrow the human-rights denying regime of the mullahs; and B.) Iran would move quickly to escalate its nuclear capacities and turn them toward military use, understanding the deepening sanctions as an act of war that might soon be followed by military attacks either from Israel or the U.S. (in short, actually creating the situation that Netanyahu says he fears, but which does not currently exist).

Now Netanyahu and his cheerleaders in both parties of the U.S. Congress are no dummies. They can see this same plausible outcome. So why would they be advocating it?  Sadly, the answer is that they actually want another war, this time with Iran. For some Israelis, a war led by the U.S. against Iran would be a perfect way to get rid of a state that has been funding Islamic groups closer to Israel like Hezbollah (though Iran has actually been attacking supporters of ISIS—the self proclaimed Islamic State whose barbarism rightly frightens most civilized people). For some American capitalists, the securing of Iranian oil reserves will give Big Oil several more decades of flourishing. For some right-wing Christians, fighting a war to rid the Middle East of Israel’s most significant competitor for regional influence is a way of alleviating their guilt from past failures to save the Jews. And for still other right-wing Christians, a war that decimated Iran would be a major step toward the Apocalypse that they hope will yield a return of their messiah to earth.

We’ve already seen what this kind of a war looks like—we just barely are ending the Iraq war, which cost us a trillion dollars and led to the emergence of the ISIL/Islamic state. The dismantling of the regime in Iran (if not done, as I hope it someday will be, by a powerful internal Iranian movement just as the Soviet Union was dismantled by its own people and not by an invasion by the U.S.) would likely yield power to forces even worse than the current Iranian regime and more likely like the Islamic state in Iraq . It is unwinnable, and it will lead to the loss of many lives, the possibility of terrorism being spread to the U.S. as many people around the world see and resent the U.S. once again intervening in a country that is not intervening here in the U.S.

And this will be a huge disaster for the Jewish people. Americans will quickly see that the resulting war was brought about by those who wanted to put the supposed (though mistaken) interests of Israel above the interests of Americans. The outcome could well be a new flourishing of anti-Semitism in our society that has, since the end of the Second World War, managed to keep our home-grown anti-Semites out of positions of power. As American casualties increase, and Iranian terrorists strike inside the U.S., the anger will almost certainly explode against Jews, whereas it should be only directed at the militarists who once again lead us into war.

What if Iran actually did develop nuclear weapons? Is there any reason to believe that they would use them against Israel or the U.S.?  The Iranian mullahs are willing to torture and oppress their own people and pursue policies I deplore toward Baha’I and other religious minorities. But they are not a self-destructive lot. They managed to end the hostage crisis in 1980 in a deal cut by America’s militaristically inclined Reagan regime, and they have backed away from wars with other countries. They will continue their attempts at subversion, just as the U.S. continues to try to subvert governments we don’t like (most recently in Venezuela, but in many other places around the globe as well). But they do know full well that a nuclear strike at Israel would lead to Israel using its current stockpile of 200 nuclear weapons to completely wipe out Iran. The mullahs want to preserve their Islamic regime and spread it, not end it in one spasm of death and destruction.

That’s why, even if the Iranians did develop nuclear weapons, they would only be joining a world where the U.S. has ten thousand of these or more, and where India and Pakistan also already have these weapons. The Soviets under Stalin were just as much a threat to our security, talked about “burying the U.S. and capitalism,” but of course never used their nukes because they knew the consequences. It is only the U.S. that has ever used nukes, and that was before we realized others could have them too.

I hope we won’t have to live with that situation. The Obama Administration is moving in the right direction to try to avoid it, creating safeguards and serious inspection regimens for Iran. But they may fail as long as Iranians feel that the U.S. is under the sway of Israelis like Netanyahu. Obama is offering something to the Iranians, but my fear is that it is too little, too late. Netanyahu and the Israelis who support him are not the only paranoid force in the Middle East.

What is really needed is a dramatic break from the way the U.S. (and Israel) have dealt with those whom we believe do or might threaten us. For 5,000 years “the realists” have preached war or other forms of domination and power-over others as the path to security. And it hasn’t worked. Over and over again those who believe that whoever they’ve decided is “the enemy” of the day can only be dealt with by force (economic, diplomatic, cultural but ultimately military) have ended up in devastating wars.

But is there an alternative? We, at Tikkun and our interfaith and secular-humanist-welcoming Network of Spiritual Progressives, have become advocates for a Strategy of Generosity. We’ve developed the details of a Global Marshall Plan that would:

Have the U.S. lead the other advanced industrial countries in each dedicating 1-2 percent of their Gross Domestic Product each year for the next twenty to once and for all end both domestic and international poverty, homelessness, hunger, inadequate education, and inadequate health care and repair the global environment;

Overturn all the trade agreements (and stop the TPP currently being negotiated in secret by the Obama administration) that have favored the interests of Western globalized capitalist firms while undermining local economies and impoverishing tens of millions of small farmers in the global south and east who are then forced off their lands and into the big cities where they live in slums and become attracted to a politics of resentment;

Create local community-based economies outside the control of national governments or large corporations to make sure that this doesn’t turn out to be another pointless give-away program but instead becomes a program of genuine empowerment of local communities around the world.

Approach the peoples of the world with a spirit of humility and a genuine desire to learn from their cultures and experiences. That does not mean suspending our ethical values (we need not tolerate abuse of women or children under the guise of multiculturalism). But it does mean ridding ourselves of the false notion that having more material things and being richer than other societies is somehow a sign of being better or wiser. In fact, we need to open ourselves to the wisdom of those who may be poorer in things but richer in their cultural resources and in building communities in which people care for each other.

The GMP proposed by Tikkun (read the details by downloading the whole proposal here) requires that we engage in this activity not only because it is in our interests, but also because of a genuine caring for the well-being of everyone else on the planet. Fostering that attitude is a precondition for any such program to work. Yet believe it or not, there are tens of millions of Americans who already have this part of them that would love to live in a world based on mutual caring and generosity. Why don’t they create it? Because each of us is beaten down by the voice of “the reality police” that tells us that no one else really wants this kind of world, and hence that it is unrealistic, naïve, foolish, self-destructive, even dangerous. It is these voices inside each of us that keep us from building the kind of world most Americans, and most people on the planet, actually want. Instead, we allow ourselves to be intimidated by the voices of those who say “You don’t really know what these other people are like—they are really hateful, crazy, hurtful and they will do terrible things to you unless you scare them back and get power over them.”

It is this cynical voice that Netanyahu seeks to strengthen in each of us. It is tragic for me as a rabbi to see the representative of a state that claims to be “the Jewish state” talking the language that Hitler popularized, giving Hitler an ultimate victory by popularizing fear and demeaning of others. And of course, as people act according to the logic of that fear, it becomes self-fulfilling, because everyone else thinks that they too have to protect themselves against us, whether that “us” is the U.S., the Western societies, Israel, or U.S. Jews.

That same self-fulfilling dynamic would make the strategy of generosity work if we were to take it seriously. The more the U.S. and other advanced industrial societies acting in a genuinely generous and caring way while abandoning its overt and covert attempts to dominate and control the world, the more that others would respond in kind. This is not Kumbaya-style naivete, but rather a proven fact of history. We’ve seen these kinds of consciousness transformation happen over and over again in the past fifty years—the ending of segregation, the emergence of women’s equality in politics and economics and in family life and social life, the ending of legal discrimination against gays and lesbians, all modern miracles made possible because these people refused to be realistic and instead mobilized for the world they really wanted.  But this can’t happen with a weak backbone—one must be powerfully for love and generosity, not fearfully and apologetically.

That’s why we’ve created the Network of Spiritual Progressives as a “consciousness-change” organization to fight the logic of Hitler and the dominators, to affirm the possibility of a world based on love, kindness, generosity, environmental sanity, economic and political justice, and transcending the tendency to take a utilitarian attitude toward other human beings or even toward the earth itself (“how can I use them or the planet for my purposes”) and instead respond to other human beings as embodiments of the sacred, and to Nature (and the universe) with awe, wonder and radical amazement at the grandeur of all that is. You don’t have to believe in God or be part of a spiritual tradition to be a Spiritual Progressive—you only have to want to build a world based on love, justice, and generosity. And that path is the best path not only for the U.S., but for Israel as well. It has been at war with surrounding Arab states since 1948. It will only be able to move beyond that when it adopts a new consciousness of love, justice and generosity. That, not manipulating the US into a war with Iran, is the path to Israeli security.

So that’s why we at Tikkun put a full page ad in the New York Times on March 2 and in The Hill newspaper on March 3 in time for Netanyahu’s talk to the Congress. We say clearly in those ads: “No, Mr. Netanyahu, the American people do not want a war with Iran, and American Jews do not support your efforts to undermine the Obama Administration’s negotiations with Iran.” More than 2,600 people signed these ads and donated generously to make them possible. I invite you to also sign the ad ( and then to actually join us as members of the Network of Spiritual Progressives ( We will try to take the message to Israeli media as well as U.S. media—but we need your help.

Rabbi Michael Lerner is editor of Tikkun Magazine, chair of the interfaith and secular-humanist-welcoming Network of Spiritual Progressives, and rabbi of Beyt Tikkun Synagogue-Without Walls in San Francisco and Berkeley, California. He welcomes your responses and invites you to join with him by joining the Network of Spiritual Progressives (membership in which also brings you a subscription to Tikkun Magazine).