Noam Chomsky: The United States is totally isolated

The iconic philosopher on America’s broken education system and the lasting influence of the Monroe Doctrine

Noam Chomsky: The United States is totally isolated
Noam Chomsky (Credit: AP/Nader Daoud)
This article originally appeared on Jacobin.

JacobinWe’re pleased to publish another interview with Professor Noam Chomsky. In this recent conversation with Dan Falcone, a Washington DC–based high school history teacher, Chomsky builds on our last interview, discussing everything from Scott Walker to the Monroe Doctrine, from Citizens United to for-profit colleges. We hope you’ll share it widely.


I wanted to stay on the topic of education and ask you about language, terminology, and definitions in the social sciences. So for example, I’ve noticed in my curriculum that there’s a tendency to have terms with a real definition and then a code definition. Terms like foreign aid, independence movements, partition, and democracy.

Two terms that I know are of particular interest to you are anarchism and libertarianism. Could you discuss the varying definitions of those two terms, anarchism and libertarianism? Maybe the American definition versus the European, and why that’s important for education to sort out?
There’s hardly a term in social science, political discourse, academic professions, and the scholarly professions where there’s anything remotely like clear definitions. If you want a clear definition, you have to go to mathematics or parts of physics.

Definitions are basically parts of theoretical structures. A definition doesn’t mean anything unless it’s embedded in some theory of some explanatory scope. And in these areas, there really are no such theories. So the terms are in fact used very loosely. They have a strong ideological component.

Take, say, democracy. The United States, I’m sure in your school, they teach as the world’s leading democracy. It’s also a country in which about 70 percent of the population, the lower 70 percent on the income scale, are completely disenfranchised.

Their opinions have no detectable influence on the decisions of their own representatives. Which is a good reason to believe, a large reason, why a huge number of people don’t bother voting. They know that it’s a waste of time. So is that a democracy? No, not really.

And you could say the same about almost any other term. Sometimes it’s almost laughable. So for example, in 1947, the US government changed the name of the War Department. They changed it to the Defense Department — any person with a brain functioning knew that we’re not going to be involved in defense anymore. We’re going to be involved in aggression. They didn’t have to read Orwell to know that. And in fact, religiously, every time you read about the war budget, it’s called the defense budget. And defense now means war, very much as in Orwell. And pretty much across the board.

Anarchism is used for a very wide range of actions, tendencies, beliefs, and so on. There’s no settled definition of it. Those who use the term should be indicating clearly, as clearly as you can, what element in this range you’re talking about. I’ve tried to do that. Others do it. You know, anarcho-syndicalism, communitarian anarchism, anarchy in the sense of let’s get rid of everything, the old kind of primitive anarchism, many different types. And you’re not going to find a definition.

Libertarianism has a special meaning predominantly in the United States. In the United States, it means dedication to extreme forms of tyranny. They don’t call it that, but it’s basically corporate tyranny, meaning tyranny by unaccountable private concentrations of power, the worst kind of tyranny you can imagine.

It picks up from the libertarian tradition one element, namely opposition to state power. But it leaves open all other forms of — and in fact favors — other forms of coercion and domination. So it’s radically opposed to the libertarian tradition, which was opposed to the master servant relation.

Giving orders, taking orders — that’s a core of traditional anarchism, going back to classical liberalism. So it’s a special, pretty much uniquely American development and related to the unusual character of the United States in many respects.

America is to quite an unusual extent a business-run society. That’s why we have a very violent labor history. Much more so than comparable countries, and attacks on labor here were far more extreme. There are accurate libertarian elements in the United States, like protection of freedom of speech, which is probably of a standard higher than other countries. But libertarianism is designed in the United States to satisfy the needs of private power.

Actually, it’s an interesting case in connection with the media. The United States is one of the few countries that basically doesn’t have public media. I mean, theoretically, there’s NPR, but it’s a highly marginal thing and is corporate funded anyway. So there’s nothing like the BBC here. Most countries have something or other. And that was a battleground, especially when radio and television came along.

The Founding Fathers actually were in favor of different conceptions of freedom of speech. There’s a narrow conception which interprets it as being a negative right, meaning you should be free of external interference. There’s a broader conception which regards it as a positive right: you should have a right to impart and access information, hence the positive interpretation. The United Nations accepts the positive interpretation, and theoretically, the US does too.

If you look at the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, I think Article 19 says that every person must have the right to express themselves without constraint and to impart and receive information over the widest possible range. That’s the positive right.

That was a battleground in the 1930s and 1940s. Particularly right after the Second World War, there were high level commissions taking both sides. And the position that won out is what was called corporate libertarianism, meaning corporations have the right to do anything they want without any interference.

But people don’t have any rights. Like you and I don’t have the right to receive information. Technically, we can impart information if we can buy a newspaper, but the idea that you should be a public voice that people, to the extent that this society’s democratic and participatory, was eliminated in the United States. And that’s called libertarianism. Meaning mega-corporations can do what they like without interference.

IN THE EVER-GROWING FIELD OF REPUBLICAN PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATES IS WISCONSIN GOV. SCOTT WALKER. HE’S ADVOCATING LOCAL CONTROL OF SCHOOLS IN AN EFFORT TO UNDERMINE PUBLIC EDUCATION. WITH HIS ANNOUNCEMENT TO RUN FOR PRESIDENT, I’M REMINDED OF THE RECALL IN WISCONSIN A FEW YEARS AGO AND ITS RELATION TO THE CITIZENS UNITED CASE. CAN YOU DISCUSS THE RAMIFICATIONS OF THE CITIZENS UNITED CASE AND THE IMPACT ON TEACHERS AND EDUCATION, AND THE OVERALL MEANING OF THAT DECISION ON THE SOCIETY?

The Citizens United decision should be considered in the context of a series of decisions, starting with Buckley v. Valeo back in the ’70s, that determined that money is a form of speech. You and I can speak in the same roughly equal loudness, but you and Bill Gates can’t speak in the same loudness in regards to money. So that was a big deal, that there can’t be any interference with the use of money, for example — funding.

Now there were restrictions in the laws on campaign funding, but they’ve been slowly eroded. Citizens United pretty much dispensed with them. There’s still some limitations but not much. So exactly what its impact was is pretty hard to judge. But it’s part of a series of decisions which have led to a situation in which, if you want to run for president, you have to have several billion dollars. And there’s only certain sources for several billion dollars. If you want to run for Congress, pretty much the same. House of Representatives, you have to have a huge campaign funded.

Technically, you could decide, “I’m going to run for president.” That’s a meaningless freedom. It doesn’t mean anything. And the effect is pretty striking. The impact of money on politics goes way back — you know, Tom Ferguson’s Golden Rule? It’s the best work on this topic; he’s a very good political scientist, and has done work, very good work, on the impact of campaign funding on both electability, but also more significantly on political decisions. And he traces it back to the nineteenth century. And the impact is quite substantial — it goes right through the New Deal and on to the present.

But now it’s in the stratosphere. That’s why 70 percent of the public is totally disenfranchised. They don’t contribute to campaign funding, so they’re out. And if you sort of go up the income/wealth scale, you can detect greater levels of influence, but it’s not really significant until you get to the very top, maybe a fraction of 1 percent or something, where decisions are basically made.

It’s not 100 percent, so you find some deviation. There are times when public opinion is powerful enough so that it does matter, but these are overwhelming tendencies. The effect on education, of course, is obvious. It means that the concentrated power of the business classes will determine educational as well as other policies. That’s why you’re getting charter schools, cutting back of funding for state colleges, the corporatization of the universities. I mean, it’s across the board.

Universities, for example, are increasingly going to a business model in which what matters is not educational attainment, but the bottom line. So if you can get temporary, cheap, dispensable labor, like adjuncts and grad students, that’s preferable to tenured faculty. And of course by other measures, it’s not that preferable, but this is a business model.

At the college level, there’s a huge growth of these private colleges, most of which are total scams. They’re not private, they get maybe 80–90 percent of their funding from the federal government through Pell Grants and other things. And they’re very profitable. So during the recession, they stayed extremely profitable. All their corporate profits went down, but their stock stayed high.

They have a huge drop-out rate, enormous. Corinthian Colleges, one of the biggest for-profits, just had a big scandal. They made promises that they’d recruit deprived populations. So they’ll heavily recruit in, say, black areas, with all kind of inducements to what you can become if you take on a huge debt and go here. Kids end up with an enormous debt and very few of them even graduate. It’s just a major scam. And meanwhile, the community colleges, which can serve these communities, they’re being cut back.

And that’s very natural in a business-run society. After all, business is interested in profit and power; not a big surprise. And so therefore why have public education, when you can use it as a way to profit? It’s very much like the health care system. Why is the United States about the only country without any national health — without any meaningful national health care? Well, it’s the same thing. It’s extremely inefficient, very costly, and very bad for the patient, about twice the per capita costs of comparable countries, with some of the worst outcomes.

I don’t know if you’ve tried to get health insurance, but it’s an unbelievable process. My wife just did it, and we spent days trying to get on the computer networks, which don’t work, and then you call the office and then you wait for an hour and finally you get somebody that doesn’t know what you’re talking about and if you do it, it fails. And we finally had to end up after days of this, going to an office, a physical office out in the suburbs, a small office, where you can actually talk to a human being, and then figure it out in five minutes.

Alright, that saves money for the government and the insurance companies, but it costs money to the consumer. And in fact, that’s not counted, so economists, for ideological reasons, don’t count costs to users. Like if you think there’s an error on your bank statement, say, and you call the bank, you don’t get somebody to talk to. You get a menu, a recorded menu, and then comes a whole routine, and then maybe if you’re patient, minutes later, you get somebody to talk to. Saves the bank a lot of money, so it’s called very efficient, but that’s because they don’t count the cost to you, and the cost to you is multiplied over the number of consumers — so it’s enormous.

If you added those costs, the business would be extremely inefficient. But for ideological reasons you don’t count the cost to people, you just count the cost to business. And even with that, it’s highly inefficient. All of these — it’s not because people want it. People have favored national health care for decades. But it doesn’t matter. What the people want is essentially irrelevant.

Education is simply part of it. So sure, when Scott Walker talks about going down to the local level, it’s put in the framework of, “I’m for the common man.” What he means is that at the local level, businesses can have a lot more power than they can at the state level or at the federal level. They have plenty of power at the higher levels, but if it’s a local school board, the local real-estate people determine what happens. There’s as little resistance as you can possibly get down at the lower levels. It would be different if it was a democratic country where people were organized, but they’re not. You know, they’re atomized.

That’s why the right wing is in favor of what they call states’ rights. It’s a lot easier to take over a state than the federal government. Pretty easy to take over the federal government too, but a lot easier when you get to the state level.

And all of this is veiled in nice, appealing terminology about we’ve got to favor the little guy and send freedom back to the people and take it away from power, but it means exactly the opposite — just like libertarianism.

DO YOU SEE A LOT OF PROPAGANDA EFFORTS IN TERMS OF UNDERMINING TEACHERS, MAYBE IN REGARDS TO PENSIONS OR JOB SECURITY, TO HAVE “NEIGHBOR TURNING AGAINST NEIGHBOR”?

It’s unbelievable. In fact, what Walker did, or his advisers, was pretty clever. They unionized the teachers, firemen, policemen, and people in the public sector who had benefits. And what they concealed, and what you know, is the fact that the benefits are paid for by the recipients. So you pay for the benefits by lowering your wages. That’s part of the union contract. You defer payment and take a slightly lower wage and get a pension. But that’s suppressed.

So the propaganda which was directed at the workers in the private sector said, “Look at these guys. They’re getting all kinds of benefits and pensions, security, and you’re being thrown out of your job.” Which is true. They were being thrown out of their jobs. And of course the unions had already been beaten down to almost nothing in the private sector. And this propaganda was able to mobilize working people against people in the public sector. It was effective propaganda. I mean, a total scam, but effective.

It’s pretty interesting to see it work in detail. You get a lot of insight. So you remember in 2008, when the whole economy was crashing, we could have gone into a huge depression, mostly because of the banks and their corruption and so on. But there was one huge insurance company, AIG, the biggest international insurance company, which was collapsing. If they would have collapsed, they would have brought down with them Goldman Sachs and a whole bunch of big investment firms, so the government wouldn’t let them collapse.

So they were bailed out, a huge bailout. And it was really malfeasance, if not criminality, on their part that led to all of this, but they were bailed out, and Timothy Geithner had to keep the economy going. Right after that, right at that time, the executives of AIG got huge bonuses. That really didn’t look good, so there was some publicity about it, bad publicity. But Larry Summers, the former secretary of treasury, a big economist, said, you have to honor the contracts. And the contract said that these guys have to get a bonus.

Right at that same time, the state of Illinois was going bankrupt, it claimed. And so they had to stop paying pensions to teachers. Well, you didn’t have to honor that contract. So yeah, for the gangsters at AIG who practically brought the economy down, you got to honor that contract, because they got to get their multimillion dollar stock options. But for the teachers who already paid for the pensions, you don’t have to honor that one.

And that’s the way the country runs. That’s what a business-run society looks like in case after case. And it’s all consistent and perfectly sensible and understandable.

SHIFTING TO A FOREIGN POLICY QUESTION, I REMEMBER RECALLING BEING GIVEN THE TRADITIONAL ACCOUNT OF THE MONROE DOCTRINE AS A YOUNG STUDENT OF HISTORY, AND IN MY FORMATIVE YEARS, HEGEMONIC TERMS OR IMPERIALISTIC PHRASEOLOGY IN THE CLASSROOM WASN’T COMMON. IT WAS EXCLUDED FROM MY HISTORY INTRODUCTION ALL THE WAY THROUGH HIGH SCHOOL.

ANYWAY, A LITTLE WHILE BACK, SECRETARY OF STATE JOHN KERRY ANNOUNCED THAT “THE ERA OF THE MONROE DOCTRINE IS OVER.” IT MIGHT HAVE BEEN JUST RHETORIC, AND RECENTLY VICE PRESIDENT BIDEN ANNOUNCED THAT A $1 BILLION AID PACKAGE WOULD BE DELIVERED TO CENTRAL AMERICA.

THAT PROMPTED SEVERAL SCHOLARS LIKE ADRIENNE PINE, AN ACADEMIC FROM AMERICAN UNIVERSITY, TO EXPRESS CONCERNS — HER AREA OF EXPERTISE IS HONDURAS AND GUATEMALA, AND SHE WAS ARGUING THAT THIS “AID PACKAGING” WOULD GO TO CORRUPT GOVERNMENT OFFICIALS IN THOSE COUNTRIES AND IT WOULD DO LITTLE TO ENHANCE DEMOCRACY OR HELP PEOPLE.

Well, this whole story is quite interesting. The meaning of the Monroe Doctrine, we were taught, was to protect the country from European imperialism. And that’s perfectly defensive. But the actual meaning was stated very clearly by Secretary of State Lansing, Woodrow Wilson’s secretary of state. It’s a wonderful example of an accurate description — he presented a memorandum to President Wilson in which he said, here’s the real meaning of the Monroe Doctrine.

He said the Monroe Doctrine was established in our interest. The interests of other countries were an incident, not an end. So it’s entirely for our interest. But Wilson, a great exponent of self-determination, said he thought this argument was “unanswerable,” but it would be impolitic to make it public. That’s the meaning of the Monroe Doctrine. And it is. It’s exactly the way it’s been used.

This is supposed to be our hemisphere. Everybody else stay out. We didn’t have the power to implement it in 1823, but it was understood how it would work. John Quincy Adams, the great grand strategist and the intellectual author of Manifest Destiny, explained in the accredited — I think he probably wrote the Monroe Doctrine when he was secretary of state — he explained it was really directed at Cuba.

Cuba was the first foreign policy objective for the US. We wanted to take over Cuba. And the Monroe Doctrine was supposed to keep the British out. And it was discussed, and they understood that they couldn’t do it because Britain was too powerful.

But Adams explained that over time, Britain would become weaker, and the United States would become more powerful, and over time, he said, “Cuba will fall into our hands by the laws of political gravitation, the way an apple falls from the tree.” Which is exactly what happened through the nineteenth century when relations of power shifted, the United States became more powerful and was able to kick Britain out of one place after another.

In 1898, the United States invaded Cuba. The pretext was to liberate Cuba. In fact it was to conquer Cuba and prevent it from liberating itself from Spain, which it in fact was about to do. And then comes the Platt Amendment, and Guantanamo and all the rest of the story.

That’s the Monroe Doctrine. Why is it changing? It’s changing because Latin America has liberated itself. The United States is practically being kicked out of the hemisphere. That’s extremely important. For the last roughly fifteen years and for the first time in its history, the Latin American countries have begun to integrate slightly to free themselves from imperial control to face internal problems, and if you look at the hemispheric conferences, the United States is increasingly isolated.

At the Santiago conference in 2012, the OAS conference, it never reached any decisions because they have to be reached by consensus, and the US and Canada blocked every decision. The major ones were on Cuba. Everybody wanted it admitted, but the US and Canada refused. And the other was drugs. The other countries want to end this crazy US drug war which is destroying them, and the US and Canada refused.

Well, there was another conference coming up in Panama, just a couple months ago. And Obama recognized‚ or an adviser recognized, that unless he did something, the US would simply be kicked out of the hemisphere. So they moved towards normalization of relationswith Cuba. And here, it’s presented as a wonderful benign gesture, bringing Cuba out of its isolation.

Fact is, the United States is totally isolated. In the world, it’s completely isolated. The votes in the UN on the embargo are like 180–2, the United States and Israel. And in the hemisphere, it was on the verge of being tossed out. So they make the gestures that are silly — they have to say those sort of things, or end up being thrown out of the hemisphere.

And we can’t intervene at the previous levels — there’s plenty of intervention, but not at the level before. As for giving money toHonduras and Guatemala, it means giving money to murderers ruling governments that were installed by US power. The Honduras government was thrown out by military coup in 2009. This is Obama now. And they were a military government, ran a kind of a fake election, which almost nobody recognized except the United States, and it’s become a horror chamber.

If you take a look at the immigrants coming across the border, you’ll notice most of them are from Honduras. Why? Because Honduras, thanks to Obama, is a horror chamber. They’re giving money to Honduras, this military regime which has probably the worst human rights record in the hemisphere. Guatemala has been a horror story ever since 1954, when the US went in.

So that’s the history, but not the sanitized history.

 

Noam Chomsky is Institute Professor (retired) at MIT. He is the author of many books and articles on international affairs and social-political issues, and a long-time participant in activist movements.

 

http://www.salon.com/2015/07/29/noam_chomsky_the_united_states_is_totally_isolated_partner/?source=newsletter

Is America Undergoing a Major Political Sea Change?

 Inside the Rise of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump

The political spectrum doesn’t want more conventional thinking.

Photo Credit: http://www.facebook.com/PDARunBernieRun/photos

America’s political center, if it ever really existed, appears to be shrinking.

On the left, Bernie Sanders’ issue-oriented presidential campaign of economic justice is drawing the crowds and generating the most passion, eclipsing his more moderate competitors. And on the right, Donald Trump’s loud promises to use his dealmaking moxie to fix the country, with a dose of racist comments thrown in, has pushed him to the top of the polls in 2016’s early states.

There’s no shortage of pundits writing off their surges. Surely, you’ve heard them all, which amount to saying that when the campaign gets serious, they will seriously falter. The latest analyses from this past weekend’s polling noted that both were doing well in two of the whitest states—Iowa and New Hampshire—but not in bigger, more diverse ones. So now these hallowed presidential proving grounds prove nothing?

But there is one explanation you won’t find among the politicos who are parsing the interior numbers in polls—such as the negative approval ratings, or appeal by race and gender. That explanation is that the political spectrum is changing, or stretching toward its blunter extremes, which also accounts for the muted enthusiasm for both party’s leading establishment candidates, Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush.

A shifting electorate is the last thing many pundits want to confront. The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza, pointing to four recent polls, merely says Hillary should worry about her rising unpopularity. He does not touch the deeper question: is she out of tune with what’s engaging the public now? His colleague, Phillip Bump says she’s lagging among whites in Iowa and New Hampshire, but climbs back up in later states where she appeals to non-whites. Sanders and Trump aren’t doing that, he said.

At Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball, another go-to site for reporters to get zeitgeist quotes, the reflex is to dismiss both Trumps and Sanders for different reasons, rather than probe how the electorate may be shifting. Trump’s surge, according to associate editor Geoffrey Skelly, is because he’s well-known, loud, in a crowded field, and keeps getting press coverage. Even worse, the GOP idiotically tied participation in its upcoming presidential debate to how candidates are polling, he said, where Trump will be “attacked from all sides.”

One can go very far in political analysis by being cynical. But that does not mean you’ve got your finger on a changing pulse. Politico’s  piece on Trump’s latest rise in New Hampshire and Iowa points to the politics of anger, especially against Washington power-brokers, which includes the GOP’s congressional majority.

“Just 16 percent among all Republicans (15 percent of Republican registered voters… [and] 50 percent of Democrats (51 percent of Democratic registered voters) feel that they are [well] represented in the nation’s capital,” it reported. “Among independents, just 27 percent feel well-represented.”

What are people angry about? Who is giving voice to their problems, or offering solutions? CNN says the top concerns facing voters are the economy (44 percent), health care (20 percent) and terrorism (12 percent). If those numbers are accurate, it is not surprising that Sanders and Trump, on the left and right, have captivated voters because they are speaking outside the safe centrist political box.

Trump’s bragging that most of politics comes down to being the best negotiator has an appeal when the Republican-controlled Congress is bumbling at best. His slaps at immigrants are ugly, but there have always been racists in modern Republican ranks. Today’s GOP is not the party of Lincoln, nor is it Teddy Roosevelt’s anti-corporate reformers. Most of their 2016 candidates have been recycling Ronald Reagan’s rhetoric or predictable policies benefitting the upper classes.

While it remains to be seen what broad new agenda will emerge on the right, it is not surprising that the cliché-ridden remedies spouted by a field of predictable candidates isn’t creating much excitement, even as they try to out-do each other on the far right. Trump’s rise strongly suggests something in the GOP’s base is shifting.

Bernie Sanders’ surge is more easily traced, and also shows shifting voter sensibilities. His messaging has been saturated with specifics, from his speeches to e-mails. On Monday morning, he sent out a long missive seeking $3 donations that listed 12 issue areas and his solutions: jobs, jobs, jobs; raising wages; wealth and income inequality; reforming Wall St.; campaign finance reform; fighting climate change; health care for all; protecting our most vulnerable; expanding opportunity and equality; dismantling structural racism; college for all; war and peace. This is not political fundraising as usual.

It is easy to say that Sanders, like Elizabeth Warren before him, is pulling the Democrats closer to their progressive heart. But Sanders would not be as successful as he has been if Democrats in the electorate were not embracing his message. As one of Iowa’s leading pro-Democrat bloggers, BleedingHeartland.com, wrote this weekend, “Bernie Sanders continues to draw the largest crowds in Iowa–including roughly 1,200 people in West Des Moines on Friday—and polls indicate that he is cutting into Hillary Clinton’s lead among likely Democratic caucus-goers.”

Clinton still led Sanders by 29 points, 55 percent to 26 percent, with Martin O’Malley at 4 percent and Jim Webb at 2 percent, it reported, citing the latest polls. But “his message is resonating with a sizable part of the Democratic base, as anyone could see on Friday night during his town-hall meeting at West Des Moines Valley High School. I challenge any Democrat to find one substantive point to disagree with in Sanders’ stump speech. Many people who attend his events are already ‘feeling the Bern.’ My impression is that the undecideds who show up walk away giving him their serious consideration. I doubt anyone leaves a Sanders event thinking, ‘I could never caucus for that guy.’”

BleedingHeartland continued, “Listening to Sanders on Friday, I was again struck by the senator’s distinctive way of speaking. He packs a lot of facts and figures into his remarks without sounding wonky. He conveys a lot of passion without raising his voice often. Compared to many candidates, he says very little about his children and grandchildren. Still, his feelings about family come through loud and clear when he contrasts Republican ideas about ‘family values’ (a ‘woman shouldn’t be able to control her own body’) with what family values should mean (for instance, a mom and dad having paid time off from work so they can get to know their new baby). Although the Sanders stump speech is overly long—pushed well past the one-hour mark by many interruptions for applause—he keeps his listeners’ attention. Even my 12-year-old was still engaged….”

Next years’ presidential caucuses are a long way off, and the November election is even further away. It’s easy for pundits to dismiss Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, for different reasons, with respect to their eventual prospects. But doing so can overlook what’s happening now, which is the assumed frames, views and mood of the electorate are shifting, or stretching, or changing, and favoring the blunt and unconventional.

Steven Rosenfeld covers national political issues for AlterNet, including America’s retirement crisis, democracy and voting rights, and campaigns and elections. He is the author of “Count My Vote: A Citizen’s Guide to Voting” (AlterNet Books, 2008).

 

http://www.alternet.org/election-2016/america-undergoing-major-political-sea-change-exploring-shocking-rise-bernie-sanders?akid=13338.265072.UrDWuB&rd=1&src=newsletter1040052&t=1

The dark side of American politics

hillary-clinton-winking-AP-640x480

29 July 2015

An “Editor’s Note” published on page two of Tuesday’s New York Times confirms that the supposed “newspaper of record” in the United States served as the instrument for a politically-motivated dirty trick directed at the presidential campaign of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Last Thursday’s online edition of the Times, and its Friday print edition, claimed that the inspectors general of the State Department and the intelligence agencies had requested a “criminal investigation” into whether Clinton “mishandled sensitive government information” in the private email account through which she carried out communications during her four years at the State Department.

The front-page report, under a three-column headline, touched off a media firestorm over the weekend, with suggestions that the launching of a criminal probe into Clinton’s email practices could doom her campaign. The issue dominated the Sunday talk shows on all the television networks and was virtually the sole topic of discussion on ultra-right talk radio and Fox News.

In the Tuesday “Editor’s Note,” the Times admitted that its account was false. There was no request for a “criminal investigation,” or for an inquiry into Clinton’s own conduct. Instead, the request was a “security referral” into “whether sensitive government information was mishandled” in a handful of emails that passed through Clinton’s mail server. There was no allegation of potentially criminal conduct and no specific reference to Clinton’s personal role.

However, although the Times maintained that the July 23-July 24 article “was based on multiple high-level government sources,” the newspaper did not report which of these sources supplied the false information about Clinton. This is certainly a relevant and newsworthy issue: either key Obama aides, or top officials of the Justice Department, State Department or intelligence agencies, have leaked a report targeting the frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016. The two scenarios are not, of course, mutually exclusive, given Obama’s intimate ties with the intelligence apparatus.

If Obama loyalists were the source, that would suggest subterranean divisions within the Democratic Party wing of the political establishment. That this may be the case is reinforced by Obama’s public musing, during his ongoing trip to Africa, that if it were not for the constitutional prohibition, he could run for and win a third term in the White House, a clear suggestion that he finds the current Democratic presidential field lacking.

If Justice, State or CIA/NSA officials were the source of the leak, this would indicate significant opposition within the apparatus of the state itself either to Clinton’s campaign in particular, or to the prospect of any Democrat succeeding Obama in the White House. This would be even more important to report to the American people, since it would constitute a deliberate—and illegal—intervention into the US elections by agencies and officials who are accustomed to manipulating the political process in countries around the world.

The record of the Times over the last two decades reinforces the likelihood of the second scenario, in which Friday’s article was a deliberate provocation emanating from the intelligence agencies. Again and again, from the fabrications of Judith Miller about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction to more recent charges of Syrian government gas attacks, Russian missiles shooting down a Malaysian jetliner and Chinese military hackers invading US government computer systems, the Times has been a conduit for entirely unsubstantiated claims, emanating from undisclosed sources, that promote the interests of sections of the military-intelligence apparatus.

The Times gives no accounting of the source of the attack on the Clinton campaign because it is not an independent publication in any genuine sense, but rather the house organ of factions within the US financial and political elite and military/intelligence establishment that use its pages to manipulate public opinion in support of their desired policies.

The bogus report of a Clinton “criminal referral” is only one of a series of incidents that suggest that the 2016 presidential campaign is becoming the focal point for an extraordinary escalation of political tensions within the US ruling elite.

In the past week alone, Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, positioning himself as the most right-wing of the Republican presidential hopefuls, publicly denounced Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell as a liar. One of Cruz’s rivals for the Christian fundamentalist bloc, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, blasted the six-nation nuclear agreement with Iran, claiming that President Obama “will take the Israelis and march them to the door of the oven.”

These statements follow a series of increasingly provocative and bigoted comments by billionaire Donald Trump targeting the 2008 Republican presidential nominee John McCain and many of Trump’s 2016 rivals. Trump currently leads opinion polls of likely Republican primary voters and has held the largest rallies of any of the Republican candidates.

What these episodes suggest is that the underlying social conflicts within the United States are beginning to overload a political system that is rotted through and through. The two officially recognized political parties, the Democrats and Republicans, are controlled by corporate interests and increasingly removed from the real concerns of the great mass of the American people.

There is mounting discontent over protracted economic slump, declining living standards and ever-deepening social inequality. Neither capitalist party has anything genuine to offer to working people. Both are seeking to divert and channel the rising social anger, the Democrats through the “left” demagogy of Bernie Sanders, the Republicans through increasingly vitriolic attacks on scapegoats such as immigrant workers.

It is impossible to predict, more than 15 months before Election Day, how the deepening crisis of American imperialism, and of world capitalism as a whole, will be reflected through the medium of the US presidential election campaign. Suffice it to say that there will be twists and turns and sudden political shocks, foreshadowing the entry of the American working class into mass struggles against the capitalist system.

Patrick Martin

 

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2015/07/29/pers-j29.html

German economics minister rushes to exploit business opportunities in Iran

Der SPD-Bundesvorsitzende Sigmar Gabriel sitzt am 17.03.2013 auf dem SPD-Landesparteitag in Salem (Mecklenburg-Vorpommern) auf dem Podium. Neben den Neuwahlen des Landesvorstands bereiten die 95 Delegierten bei dem zweitägigen Treffen die Bundestagswahl vor. Foto: Jens Büttner/dpa (Qualitäts-Wiederholung) +++(c) dpa - Bildfunk+++

By Johannes Stern
27 July 2015

Rarely in recent years have the foreign travels of a leading German politician caused such a stir as the visit earlier this month to Iran by the German Vice Chancellor and Minister for Economic Affairs Sigmar Gabriel (Social Democratic Party, SPD). With the ink barely dry on the recently-negotiated nuclear program agreement with Iran, Gabriel was already bound for Tehran in the company of a high-level business delegation.

Berlin’s foray into one of the most strategically important and resource-rich countries in the Middle East—Iran has the fourth largest oil and second largest gas reserves in the world—is part of German imperialism’s return to the world stage. Significantly, the visit took place the same week as the federal government enforced a brutal austerity program on Greece and German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier visited Cuba with a delegation.

Gabriel’s trip to Iran was so sudden and his related objectives so obvious that even a number of media outlets, which otherwise regularly beat the drum for a more aggressive German participation in world affairs, felt compelled to comment critically on the expedition.

The Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper called it “embarrassing” and warned: “Now the impression has been given that Germany is mainly concerned about its business interests. Arriving late is stupid, but sometimes flying off too early is a lot more stupid.”

The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung also referred to Gabriel’s trip as “quick off the mark, if not over-hasty.” The paper’s columnist wrote that it might perhaps “help German industry to once again secure a foothold in this market after the long years of sanctions.” It was, however, “an ambiguous signal” in relation to German foreign policy, according to FAZ.

Criticism of Gabriel’s delegation even came from within the government’s own ranks: “I’m worried about the declaration that Iran is one of our friends,” said Roderich Kiesewetter (Christian Democratic Union, CDU), the CDU/Christian Social Union (CSU) alliance representative in the foreign affairs committee of the Bundestag (federal parliament). He added that Iran could only be “our friend and a stability factor in the region,” when it “actually recognises Israel’s right to exist.” Former SPD parliamentarian and German-Israeli Society president Reinhold Robbe stated that Gabriel gave the impression “that Germany sets its economic interests above everything else.”

The arrogant bluster of Gabriel certainly helped to confirm this “impression.” Soon after his government plane landed at Mehrabad international airport in Tehran, he told German reporters: “Traditionally we have good relations [with Iran], and many companies want to build on existing contacts. And the chance for this will emerge when the agreement enters into force early next year. It will be the first major step, but there will certainly be many more that will have to be taken.”

The business representatives in his entourage were even less able to restrain their enthusiasm for the new opportunities opening up for the export and commodity-hungry German imperialism. President of the Association of German Chambers of Industry and Commerce (DIHK) Eric Schweitzer said, “German industry is highly regarded in Iran,” and continued: “During the reign of the Shah, Iran was Germany’s second most important export market outside Europe. Many want to follow up on that.”

DIHK head of foreign trade Volker Treier proclaimed, “The Iranian economy is geared more towards industry than one might assume. With its 80 million inhabitants and a strong industrial base, the country is predestined to be an export market for German companies.”

The German business press is also enthusiastic about the development. The monthly Manager Magazin gushed that, in addition to “a highly qualified workforce,” there are “a lot of raw materials” available in Iran. The country is seen as “a sleeping giant” that has “substantial pent-up economic demands as a result of sanctions in recent years.”

German imperialism and German capital consider the Iran nuclear agreement, brokered in part through the efforts of German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, as an opportunity to build on their traditionally close relations with Iran and increase their economic and political influence across the whole region.

Die Welt writes that “the opportunities opening up for German companies in Iran are outstanding.” Relations between businesses from both countries are recognised to have “grown over decades,” and “some German companies have been involved in the heartland of the former Persian empire for more than 100 years.”

According to official sources, some 80 German companies are currently operating directly through branches in Iran, and about 1,000 other enterprises have representatives there. Among the largest German concerns on site are Henkel, Siemens and Bayer. Following the sharp decline in economic relations over recent years, the value of German exports had already increased by almost a third to €2.4 billion (US$2.6 billion) in 2014.

The DIHK now expects a doubling of German exports within the next two years to around €5 billion (US$5.5 billion). The Federation of German Industries (BDI) even assumes that German companies could be exporting goods worth more than €10 billion to Iran in the near future.

Following a joint meeting with Iranian oil minister Bijan Namdar Zanganeh on Monday, Gabriel announced that Germany and Iran will resume the operation of a joint economic commission beginning in 2016. Iranian President Hassan Rohani expressed hope that Berlin would play a “positive role” in the development of relations between the two countries and also between Europe and the entire Middle East, “just as it had done in the nuclear program negotiations.”

What Rohani and the Iranian regime describe as “positive” means in fact the complete submission of the country to the plundering of imperialist powers 35 years after the Iranian revolution.

Commenting under the headline “The Great Race,” the Süddeutsche Zeitungsuggested that Germany “is not the only country that wants a careful return to normality.” It pointed out that, although Gabriel was the “first high-ranking western politician in Iran” since the nuclear deal, several other EU foreign ministers had already paid visits to Tehran. France had already sent “a 130-strong business delegation to Iran in February 2014,” in which oil giant Total, plant builder Alstom, the Orange telecommunications group and French automakers were represented.

China is also regarded as an obvious competitor. Anton Börner, head of the BGA foreign trade association, predicts that it will probably be “difficult” for the German business community to “once again become Iran’s largest trading partner.” According to Börner, Chinese companies that have exploited the past years of sanctions “to establish themselves in Iran” would “fight to maintain their position, when the sanctions are withdrawn.”

Commenting on increasing competition from Asian countries, Volker Treier said: “Chinese and Korean companies in Iran have now taken our place in the sun.” He said the Chinese now had “a trade volume of US$50 billion in their business with Iran. We won’t be able to get near such a scale of investment.”

The fact that leading German business representatives are again claiming their right to “a place in the sun” has far-reaching historical implications. When the imperialist forces of the so-called “late emerging German nation” first aspired to achieve “a place in the sun” (words subsequently used in Chancellor Bernhard von Bülow’s address to the German parliament on December 6, 1897), the phrase mainly referred to the possession of colonies in Africa and the Middle East, and the development of a unilateral global policy which twice led to disaster in the 20th century.

As in the past, the renewed grandstanding of German imperialism on the world stage will exacerbate tensions with the US. Although not openly discussed in public, the rush of German businesses to stake claims in Iran is driven by an attempt to forestall potential American competition, which will be excluded from the country prior to the US Congress’s vote on the nuclear program agreement. An Iran dominated by German imperialism or German-led European imperialism would also be a direct geo-strategic challenge to US imperialism, which has concluded the nuclear deal primarily in order to defend its own hegemony in the region.

 

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2015/07/27/iran-j27.html

10 Brutal Ways the American Safety Net Is Being Shredded

FDR’s New Deal is in trouble in 2015.

On the 80th anniversary of the Social Security Act of 1935, which established the social security system in the United States, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal is on life support as the American middle class continues to be squeezed and millions of Americans struggle with poverty.

The U.S. desperately needed a New Deal 3.0 after the crash of September 2008 and a program of aggressive reforms. Instead, most of the welfare that followed the Panic of 2008 has been corporate welfare rather than programs to help America’s embattled poor and middle class. Overall, the U.S. has been moving away from the New Deal when it should be reinvigorating it. Below are 10 ways in which the New Deal (and by extension, LBJ’s Great Society) continues to be under attack in the United States.

1. Income Inequality Is Going from Bad to Worse

FDR firmly believed that capitalism cannot function well without a strong middle class, and even auto magnate Henry Ford agreed with him: Ford famously said that American workers needed to be paid a decent wage in order to be able to afford his products. And during the post-FDR America of the 1950s and 1960s, having a robust middle class was great for a variety of businesses. But in 2015—with the gains of the New Deal having been imperiled by everything from union busting to the outsourcing of millions of American jobs—income inequality in the U.S. is a huge problem. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development recently released a report on income inequality among OECD members and found that the U.S. was among the worst offenders. The U.S., Mexico and Turkey had some of highest income inequality of OECD countries, while Denmark, the Czech Republic, Finland, Iceland and Belgium fared much better. OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría commented that “high inequality is bad for growth,” and he’s absolutely right.

2. Republicans Yearn for Social Security Privatization

Although President Dwight D. Eisenhower was a Republican, he supported elements of the New Deal and saw the need for a strong social safety net: in fact, Eisenhower expanded social security, and in 1954, he bluntly asserted that any oligarchs who would “attempt to abolish social security, unemployment insurance and eliminate labor law and farm programs” were “stupid.” But in the 21st century, Republicans have been going after social security with a vengeance. The privatization of social security was proposed by President George W. Bush in 2004, and far-right Republicans, the Tea Party and wingnut lobbying groups like the Club for Growth have been doubling down on the idea of privatizing social security. GOP presidential hopeful Jeb Bush called for social security privatization at a town hall meeting in New Hampshire in June, and he also favors raising the social security retirement age to 69 or 70, which would be especially bad for blue-collar workers who have spent decades in physically demanding jobs.

3. The 1% Continue to Dodge Taxes

FDR had no problem asking the ultra-wealthy to pay their fair share of taxes: the U.S.’ top marginal tax rate rose to 94% in the early 1940s, when the country entered World War II. Taxes for the ultra-rich didn’t go down much under Republican Eisenhower, who lowered the top tax rate to 91% in the 1950s—and after that rate decreased to 28% under President Reagan, it rose to 39.6% under President Clinton and decreased to 35% under President George W. Bush. Looking at the last 80 years of tax history, one sees a clear pattern: the American middle class does much better when the 1% pay their fair share of taxes. And even though the Tea Party tries to paint Barack Obama as a soak-the-rich president, their assertion is laughable because Obama extended the Bush tax cuts and hasn’t been nearly as forceful as FDR or Eisenhower when it comes to taxing the 1%.

4. The Minimum Wage Is Much Too Low

One of the important elements of the New Deal was FDR’s strong belief in a national minimum wage. FDR began to push for a federal minimum wage after taking office in January 1933, saying, “By living wages, I mean more than a bare subsistence level. I mean the wages of a decent living.” And Congress enacted one in 1938, when the U.S.’ first federal minimum wage was set at 25 cents per hour. But in recent years, the federal minimum wage (which was raised to $7.25 an hour in 2009) has not kept up with inflation. Economist Robert Reich has proposed raising the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour, which he sees as a crucial part of economic recovery. And in some cities, including Los Angeles and Seattle, city councils have raised their local minimum wages to that amount. But at the federal level, an increase to even $10.10 an hour (President Obama’s proposal) is a steep uphill climb when both houses of Congress are dominated by far-right Republicans who hate the poor with a passion.

5. Infrastructure Continues to Deteriorate

The New Deal was great for the U.S.’ infrastructure thanks to programs that built or strengthened everything from roads to water and electric systems to municipal power plants. But in recent years, the American infrastructure has been seriously decaying—and a major wake-up call came on May 12, when an Amtrak train derailed in Philadelphia and eight passengers were killed. But the nation’s railways are only one of the ways in which the U.S.’ infrastructure has deteriorated. According to Ray LaHood (former secretary of transportation for the Obama Administration), 70,000 bridges in the U.S. are now structurally deficient. That is in addition to all the roads that are in desperate need of repair. And when it comes to high-speed rail travel, the U.S. lags way behind Europe (where one can get from London to Brussels in just under two hours or from Madrid to Barcelona in less than three hours).

6. Union Representation Has Reached Historic Lows 

One of the most important pieces of New Deal-era legislation was the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, a.k.a. the Wagner Act, which did a lot to advance labor unions in the U.S.: by the mid-1950s, around 35% of America’s labor force was unionized. But according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), a mere 11.1% of salaried U.S. workers (factoring in both the public and private sectors) were union members in 2014. Among private-sector workers, the number was a paltry 6.6%. And the decline of unions has been encouraged bad working conditions: according to the Economic Policy Institute, executives at large companies earned, on average, 296 times as much as their average workers in 2013 compared to only 20 times as much in 1965. But as much as labor unions have declined in the U.S., Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (a GOP presidential hopeful for 2016) and his fellow Republicans would like to see them decline even more. Walker recently set a disturbing precedent in that state when he supported anti-union legislation that prohibits private-sector unions from requiring members to pay union dues; Walker has, in essence, made Wisconsin a northern “right to work” state. And it’s safe to say that Walker, based on his actions in Wisconsin, would be among the most anti-union presidents in U.S. history.

7. “Too Big to Fail” Is Bigger Than Ever

Unlike many of today’s extreme-right Republicans and neoliberal corporatist Democrats, FDR was not afraid of offending the banking sector. FDR said of the banksters of the 1930s, “They are unanimous in their hate for me, and I welcome their hatred.” One of the New Deal achievements that banksters detested was the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933, which mandated a strict separation of commercial and investment banking and was designed to prevent another major Wall Street calamity like the crash of 1929. Glass-Steagall served the U.S. well for many years: although there were some tough recessions in the mid-1970s, early 1980s and early 1990s, none of them cut as deep as the Great Depression. But the repeal of Glass-Steagall in 1999 was a major blow to the New Deal and paved the way for the crash of September 2008, clearly the most devastating financial event in the U.S. since 1929. Unfortunately, there was no real banking reform after the 2008 calamity, and as Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders points out, JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America and Wells Fargo are now “80% larger” than they were in 2007. Critics of the banking sector propose bringing back Glass-Steagall, including Reich (who warns that another major Wall Street crash “is not unlikely”) and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren. And Sanders has proposed New Deal-like legislation that would break up the U.S.’ largest banks.

8. Medicare, An Expansion of the New Deal, Is a Major GOP Target

Medicare, which established a single-payer health care system for Americans 65 and older, was not part of the New Deal per se: Medicare came into being in 1965 as part of Democratic President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society (which was very much an extension of the New Deal). And the program proved to be so popular that even Republican President Richard Nixon (who was considered an arch-conservative in his day) expanded Medicare in both 1969 and 1972. But these days, far-right GOP wingnuts in the House of Representatives—especially Rep. Paul Ryan, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee—have repeatedly called for drastic Medicare cuts and for replacing traditional Medicare with a privatized voucher program. In June, a variety of pro-Medicare groups (including the Alliance for Retired Americans and the Medicare Rights Center) sent a joint letter to the House criticizing representatives who wanted to cut $700 million from the Medicare program.

9. Home Ownership Is Becoming Increasingly Difficult for Many Americans, and the Rent Is Too Damn High

Before the New Deal, five-year or 10-year mortgages were the norm in the U.S., and were unaffordable for most Americans. But FDR saw home ownership as a crucial part of building a strong middle class: between the Federal Housing Administration, the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation and the introduction of 30-year fixed-rate mortgages—all of which came about under FDR—home ownership in the U.S. gradually increased. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, home ownership in the U.S. went from 45% in 1920 and 47% in 1930 to 55% in 1950, 61% in 1960 and 62% in 1970. But the Crash of 2008 has been terrible for American homeowners, resulting in countless foreclosures, and banksters have been allowed to acquire and rent out many foreclosed homes. The private equity firm Blackstone Group had, as of late 2013, bought almost 40,000 homes in the U.S. in order to rent them. To make matters worse, all those post-2008 foreclosures have caused rents to skyrocket all over the country. And the more one pays in rent, the harder it is to save for a down payment on a home. To quote Jimmy McMillan, the rent is too damn high.

10. Wingnut Attacks on Food Stamps Never End

The American food stamps program started on a pilot basis under FDR’s secretary of agriculture, Henry A. Wallace, in 1939 but became permanent when LBJ signed the Food Stamp Act of 1964 into law as part of his Great Society. In recent years, the U.S.’ economic decline has been so painful that, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the number of Americans poor enough to quality for food stamps was 46.2 million in 2014 compared to only 17 million in 2000. Food stamps, as envisioned under the New Deal and the Great Society, are designed to be a stepping stone for the poor—and the benefits (which presently average $127.91 per month per person, according to USDA figures) are hardly lavish. But that has not prevented Republicans in Congress from repeatedly proposing dramatic food stamp cuts during the Great Recession. And in Wisconsin, Gov. Scott Walker has been trying to punish and shame food stamp recipients by subjecting them to drug-testing.

Alex Henderson’s work has appeared in the L.A. Weekly, Billboard, Spin, Creem, the Pasadena Weekly and many other publications. Follow him on Twitter @alexvhenderson.

http://www.alternet.org/economy/10-brutal-ways-american-safety-net-being-shredded?akid=13331.265072.iZeSe-&rd=1&src=newsletter1039872&t=1

How to make $7 billion in 45 minutes

Jeff Bezos, CEO and founder of Amazon, at the introduction of the new Amazon Kindle Fire HD and Kindle Paperwhite personal devices, in Santa Monica, Calif., Thursday, Sept. 6, 2012. (AP Photo/Reed Saxon)

25 July 2015

On Thursday, Amazon, the online retail giant, announced that, contrary to analysts’ predictions and after months of financial losses, it had turned a profit in the second quarter.

The stock market responded with euphoria. Amazon’s share price surged by 18 percent in a single day, adding $40 billion to the company’s market capitalization. With 154,000 employees, Amazon overnight became the world’s largest retailer by market capitalization, surpassing Wal-Mart, with 2.2 million employees.

The market response was conditioned by the fact that stocks have been registering significant losses in the US in the past week, with earnings reports of major companies falling short of expectations amidst growing signs of slump in the United States and internationally.

These include a continuing sharp fall in the prices of commodities such as oil and iron ore, along with declining growth rates in China and a number of emerging markets, and ongoing stagnation in Europe. The International Monetary Fund earlier this month predicted the worst year for global growth since 2009, and last week the US Federal Reserve Board, in its semiannual Monetary Policy Report, painted a grim picture of the state of the US economy.

The signs are mounting—the stock panic in China, extreme volatility on US markets—that the disconnect between a stagnant real economy and a booming stock market, which has prevailed in the US since the beginning of the stock market recovery in the spring of 2009, may well be setting the stage for a new financial meltdown even greater than that of 2008.

In the meantime, multibillionaires such as Amazon CEO Jeffrey Bezos continue to milk the economy. For Bezos, Thursday’s trading was, to put it mildly, lucrative. He made $7 billion in 45 minutes.

Now the seventh-richest man in the world, Bezos saw his wealth surge to $43 billion. For all the hype surrounding the company he founded 20 years ago, Bezos got his billions by sweating his workers, monopolizing the market and capitalizing on a decades-long financial bubble.

Employees in Amazon’s fulfillment centers are paid $11-12 per hour. They are subject to grueling and humiliating conditions. They are regularly searched and foremen record how many times they use the restroom.

A 2011 report in a Pennsylvania newspaper noted that the company would not open the doors to ventilate one of its warehouses even when temperatures reached 110 degrees, for fear of theft. When workers started passing out, the company stationed ambulances outside for them.

Amazon now accounts for a bigger share of online sales than the next dozen competitors. It has used its enormous market power to strong-arm small publishers and authors, recently announcing unilaterally that it will start paying authors of e-books by the page view, instead of by the download, resulting in sharply reduced commissions. Bezos purchased the Washington Post with $250 million of his personal funds in 2013.

It is worth making some comparisons. The amount of money Bezos made Thursday is:

* Equivalent to what 300,000 US workers earning the median income earn in an entire year.

* Forty-seven times larger than the annual budget for the National Endowment for the Arts.

* Three hundred and eighteen times the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department’s deficit, which is being addressed by shutting off water to tens of thousands of households.

* More than two-thirds of the annual funding of America’s free and reduced-price school lunch program.

* Enough to provide every one of America’s 15.8 million hungry children $450 per year in food assistance.

The accumulation of such personal wealth amid the vast social misery that prevails in the United States can only be called obscene. But such an assessment would be news to the US media, which salutes every milestone hit by the Dow or NASDAQ with rapture and depicts the members of America’s billionaire oligarchy as geniuses and innovators.

There is something deeply dysfunctional about an economic system in which the announcement of a $92 million profit—the first-ever quarterly profit reported by Amazon—triggers $40 billion in share purchases in a matter of minutes.

The continual diversion of vast amounts of money into the stock market is a symptom of an underlying economic crisis of immense proportions. Every dollar that goes into speculating on a stock like Amazon, with a price-to-earnings ratio of nearly 1,000, is a dollar not used for productive investment.

While the real economy in the US has grown by only 13 percent since the depth of the recession in 2009, all three major American stock indexes have more than tripled. This year, NASDAQ for the first time surpassed the heights it reached just before the collapse of the dot.com bubble in 2000.

Meanwhile, the US economy shrank at an annual rate of 0.2 percent in the first quarter of this year. The falloff in economic activity was led by a collapse in business fixed investment, which fell by 2 percent. Investment in nonresidential structures fell by 18 percent.

The sharp fall in investment came despite the fact that US corporations are hoarding some $1.4 trillion in cash and similar assets, the largest such figure on record, amassed as a result of years of record profits amid falling wages and an influx of cheap money from the world’s central banks.

Instead of using this cash to hire workers and build factories, corporations are diverting it to raise dividends, buy back shares, hike executive pay and carry out mergers and acquisitions, all at record levels. Earlier this year, the Wall Street Journal reported that major US corporations in 2013 spent 36 percent of their operating cash to buy back their own shares, more than double the rate a decade before.

This speculative frenzy has been driven by six years of near-zero interest rates and money printing by the Federal Reserve, whose policies underlie the enormous overvaluation of companies such as Amazon.

The performance of the US stock market has decoupled from economic growth to such an extent that any indication of genuine recovery in the real economy generally prompts a market sell-off, while signs of economic slump tend to send the markets higher.

This state of affairs is an expression of the crisis and decline of American capitalism, which has for nearly four decades responded to declining profit margins in manufacturing by turning ever more decisively to financial parasitism.

The US ruling class and the capitalist system over which it presides have no answers to the social crisis in America. For every problem, they have the same solution: impoverish workers and use the money to gamble on the stock market. If workers don’t like it, there are always the police to keep them in line.

Andre Damon

 

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2015/07/25/pers-j25.html

The PAH: defending the right to housing in Spain

By Timothy Ginty On July 23, 2015

Post image for The PAH: defending the right to housing in SpainIn Spain, where the government bails out banks, the Platform for People Affected by Mortgages (PAH) bails out families and defends their right to housing.

In February 2009, after the Spanish government had shown itself incapable of enforcing Article 47 of the Spanish Constitution — declaring that “all Spaniards have the right to enjoy decent and adequate housing” — a citizens’ assembly was held in Barcelona to establish the Platform for People Affected by Mortgages, or the PAH (Spanish: Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca), a social movement which would wait for neither government action nor market corrections for this right to be enforced.

The PAH’s immediate aims are simple — the prevention of the systematic eviction of tens of thousands of debtors across Spain — but its larger dream is bolder: the achievement of the socio-economic conditions in which the human right to housing may be secure.

It is the ceaseless energy of this grassroots platform, its repertoire of organizing tactics, and its ability to bring disaffected and disadvantaged people together that has made it so popular amongst Spain’s mass of indignados and so feared by its minority class of bankers, developers and investors whose interests are secured by the casta suits of the governing PP and the opposition PSOE — or the PPSOE, as one PAH organizer put it.

It is this movement of people which we in the international left should look to for both inspiration and instruction in the fight against austerity. And it is for this reason that this article has been written: to paint us a portrait of the PAH and to give us a glimpse at how it operates — how it feels, how it looks, how it speaks — in its oldest branch of Barcelona.

No one left behind

Most people’s first encounter with the PAH will be through its weekly welcome assemblies held in Barcelona’s tightly-knit barrio of Hostafrancs, where upon entry you’ll be greeted with a friendly smile and, if you’re a first-timer to the meetings, you’ll be given a paper rose made with a Catalan flag tied to its stem. As you adjust to the sweaty heat generated from the  80 or so people squashed into the PAH headquarters, all waving their hand-held fans to keep the heat at bay, you might notice that a good deal of the participants and a large majority of the organizers are women.

On a letter printed and placed onto the doors of the assembly hall, a PAH participant thanks her new friends for providing the warmth and love that only a mother knows, for helping her to help herself and then to help others, for bringing dignity and hope back into her life. These are the elements — dignity, respect, mutual-aid — which define a welcoming assembly, and are seen by the PAH to be absolutely integral to the participants’ struggle to reclaim their right to housing.

Tears are not uncommon in these assemblies, especially when the veterans are invited to stand up to tell the newer participants of a recent victory they’ve had: their stories are always moving, the responses always touching, and you see that the PAH really is a family, a place where the pain and gain of one is felt by all.

For those most in need of emotional support there is a smaller closed assembly where people may come to tell their story in an open environment of mutual respect and listening, where people may come to see that others are experiencing and feeling the very same as they do, where they can see that the guilt is not theirs, that they can still hold their heads high.

If the heart of the PAH is the welcoming assembly, then the head must be its actions and coordinating assembly, which meets once a week to keep the gears of the movement oiled. But before this assembly even begins to discuss the host of actions the movement has in gestation, it must decide on the day-to-day responsibilities of the attendees. Everyone present is asked to contribute to one small but essential part of the PAH — one pair to help out with cleaning, another to update the calendar, someone else to record minutes, another to keep track of time while someone else moderates — and all are rotated every week.

For anyone schooled in more bureaucratic forms of social and political groups, this process — which is as true of the more routine tasks as those duties with more responsibility — may seem tedious and unimportant, but it is of course the process which matters here; the process of participation, of mutual support and of self-organization which define the PAH as an organization where everyone has a role to play, where everybody leads and none are left behind.

Tom Joad’s inheritors

Once into gear the assembly can cover much ground, and within a couple of hours of one particular meeting the group had already discussed three major campaigns. First was the Citizens’ Legislative Initiative, or the ILP, a major joint campaign between the Barcelona PAH, the Alliance Against Energy Poverty and the Observatory for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which has gathered around 140,000 signatures in Catalonia calling for emergency measures to combat the social crisis created by mortgage evictions and utilities cut-offs.

The ILP draws on a mechanism allowing citizens’ proposals to be voted on by Catalan parliament, requiring 50,000 signatures to be effective, meaning that the Barcelona ILP has nearly tripled the required amount of petitioners. The ILP, which will be voted on today, July 23, proposed five measures which could stem the flow of around 50 families per day from their houses to the streets or to precarious housing. They demand that any remaining debt of the evictees be liquidated, allowing them a second chance to rebuild their lives.

They furthermore demand that empty apartments held by banks be used as emergency housing for evictees, while for those facing eviction they demand the right to a ‘social rent’, which means that indebted homeowners may pay only what they can pay, and that cut-offs of water, gas and electricity must end immediately, with the state stepping in to assure access if the companies cannot respect the rights of their customers. If the ILP passes parliament this July, the PAH and its social partners will have scored a truly enormous victory for thousands and thousands of families across Catalonia.

It will be an important victory because the PAH knows that their fight is one which must also confront the myriad of factors that compound Spain’s housing crisis, including the squeeze of rising energy bills arriving in the mail from private utility companies (‘monstrous’ organizations, as one PAH organizer described them) and the cuts in healthcare and education that have accompanied previous cuts in wages and benefits. Meanwhile, the explosion of ‘flexible’ contracts means that credit is impossible to get by for many, endangering people’s ability to pay their monthly rents or mortgage payments on time.

What’s more, this crisis exists in a global context where international investment and financial companies like Blackstone (see the video #BlackstoneEvicts) and Goldman Sachs buy up tens of thousands of empty apartments at heavily discounted prices from banks. One of the largest deals secured by Blackstone involved some 40,000 apartments in Catalonia alone, with a real value somewhere near 6.4 billion euros, which were purchased for the sum of 3.6 billion euros: if the banks can give Blackstone a discount, the PAH asks, then why can’t they give the people one?

This is why the PAH has begun organizing alliances with similar movements in the UK, the US and soon perhaps in Brazil, where the Movement of Workers without Roofs is facing the same investment banking foes as its counterparts in Spain. The fight being fought from Barcelona’s barrios, from London’s New Era Estate, from the US boroughs, from anywhere where “there’s a fight so hungry people can eat,” Tom Joad’s inheritors will be there.

The PAH’s Obra Social

But far away from the negotiations with the banks, from the political labyrinth of the Catalan parliament, from the long hard work of building national and international alliances, the bread and butter of the PAH remains the prevention of eviction and homelessness.

When all efforts of the debtor fail, when all negotiations and offers are rejected, after lies are told and myths are spread to scare people into making strangling payments (that, for example, the debt may be paid by the children; that, for instance, a migrant might be forced to return to their home country for a failed mortgage), then the PAH’s Obra Social (Social Work) will step in to ensure that the family will not end up on the street — sleeping, perhaps like so many thousands of others in Barcelona, in the ATM vestibules of the very banks that evicted them.

The Obra Social is the body which — when the bank is not prepared to find alternative housing for the tenant, when there is no room at anyone’s inn — will help the evicted family occupy one of the thousands of empty apartments owned by the banks. But to say that the banks actually ‘own’ these empty flats is, as one PAH organizer put it, entirely misleading, for it was the Spanish people who bailed out these banks during the crisis, and it is therefore the Spanish people who own these properties.

The PAH has a simple slogan: the government bails out banks, our platform bails out people. Here the shibboleth of private property becomes particularly naked and grotesque when, as in Spain, you have one of Europe’s greatest number of empty apartments and its greatest rate of evictions. Can we still imagine a world where this does not occur, where human rights finally come to trump contractual rights? The members of the PAH certainly can.

Timothy Ginty is a freelance writer completing a master’s degree in World History at the University of Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona. You can read his blog, Lives and Times, here.

:::::::::::::::::::::

To learn more about the PAH, the documentary Seven Days with the PAH (Siete Días en la PAH), is available (with English subtitles) here, and you can download the book Vidas Hipotecadas (in Spanish) here.

 

 

http://roarmag.org/2015/07/pah-human-right-housing-spain/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+roarmag+%28ROAR+Magazine%29