A Student Jubilee! Liberate 41 Million Americans From Crushing Loan Debt

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‘It is time to forgive this debt and set our students and their families free,’ write the authors. ‘We propose a Student Debt Jubilee which will forgive all $1.3 trillion in American student loan debt.’ (Image: via youtube)

President Obama’s proposal for tuition-free community college education, and the broader discussion which it has inspired, confirms our belief that it is time for a comprehensive solution to a $1.3 trillion problem: student debt in the United States.

We strongly support the concept of tuition-free public higher education, and are encouraged by renewed arguments in its favor. But we must also confront what has been done to the last several generations of students. They have been forced to take on debt that is crippling to them, to our economy and our society.

A student debt “jubilee” would reflect both the values upon which this nation was founded, and the economic principles which have sustained it through its greatest periods of growth and prosperity.

It is time for a truly transformative idea:  Let’s Abolish All Student Loan Debt in America.

If you agree, click here to take action.

Jubilees Then and Now

The Liberty Bell represents our nation’s core values, combining personal freedom with community action. The words inscribed on the Bell – “Proclaim liberty throughout the land, and to all the inhabitants thereof” – are from the Book of Leviticus and refer to a Biblical “Year of Jubilee,” when all debts were periodically forgiven by the nation’s rulers.

Those Jubilee years – proclaimed at 49 year intervals for over 4,000 years – were both moral and practical in nature. On one hand, they were an acknowledgement that prolonged and excessive debt was an unconscionable burden. That morality is woven into the ethical foundation of Western civilization, which accepts the notion of fair debt but rejects indebtedness which is usurious or impinges on human freedom.

But they were also an economic necessity, preserving social harmony while ensuring uninterrupted production. The practical value of debt forgiveness has been explored by scholars who note that it reinforces social cohesion and prevents large groups of people from falling into poverty or oppression.

These goals remain as important today as they were in ancient times. A vibrant middle class is the engine of a functioning economy. A sustainable future is impractical without it.

While “Jubilee Years” were created long ago, the concept lives on today in different forms. Most modern Western societies have drawn on similar moral and practical arguments to end usury, indentured servitude, and slavery. Bankruptcy laws extend a kind of individualized “jubilee” to people who are over-burdened with debt. (Ironically, student debt is exempted from most forms of bankruptcy relief.)

Now we face a new moral challenge.  We need a new and transformative movement, one which echoes the struggles of recent history while drawing its inspiration from ancient traditions. Our massive student debt burden is a moral and ethical challenge. This debt draws upon the as-yet unearned wealth of each new generation, mortgaging tomorrow’s wealth and inhibiting the prosperity of the future.

How did we get here?

The Rise of Student Debt

There was a time in living memory when many Americans could obtain public higher education at little or no tuition cost. Today a college degree has become prohibitively expensive for many, while millions of others are required to borrow extensively in order to meet its soaring costs.

Rather than address the cost of education, the root cause of the problem, the government became the primary lender for student debt,  a move which contributed to runaway costs and crippling indebtedness. As a result, student debt is now the second-largest form of personal debt in this country, exceeding credit card debt and trailing only home mortgages.

Student debt is a dark betrayal at the heart of the American promise, and it must come to an end.

The statistics paint a clear picture: Student debt has soared, and continues to rise. The total amount owed is now $1.3 trillion. Approximately 41 million Americans now carry student debt, a figure which rose 40 percent between 2004 and 2012. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the average amount owed for each graduating borrower has risen from less than $10,000 in 1993 to more than $30,000 in 2014 (in inflation-adjusted dollars). This debt has disproportionately affected lower-income Americans, but has affected households at all but the very highest income levels.

It gets worse. Unscrupulous “educators” and loan servicers in the private sector have exploited unwary students and their families. For the last six years, debt-burdened college students have entered the worst employment environment for young people and graduates in modern history. Politicians who have been too timid to tax hedge fund billionaires the same way they tax their personal assistants are ironically using the money from debt-burdened students and their families to offset the loss.

Social factors make the burden even greater.  Upward social mobility is at record lows for the United States, and continues to fall. We pride ourselves on being a nation where “anyone who wants to work hard can get ahead,” but the statistics belie that statement. Education seems to be the last avenue of advancement for lower- and middle-class American young people, many of whom are faced with a terrible choice: either accept their economically disadvantaged lot in life, or assume a crushing debt on the hope that tomorrow’s earnings will eventually offset today’s burden.

This is not a moral system. It is our nation’s Faustian bargain with the future, forcing students and their families to mortgage their hopes and dreams because society is no longer willing to provide them with an education. That is a moral abdication and it has led to a form of indentured servitude for young college graduates, many of whom entered the worst job market in decades.

A Moral – and Practical – Solution

Student debt doesn’t just represent a breakdown in our social conscience. It also reflects a loss in our longstanding economic judgment. The entire society benefits from well-educated citizens, who provide it with better employees, brighter visionaries and leaders, artistic enrichment, and wiser participants in a collaborative democracy.

It is time to forgive this debt and set our students and their families free. We propose a Student Debt Jubilee which will forgive all $1.3 trillion in American student loan debt. Here’s how it can work:  Most student loan debt (approximately 86 percent) is held by the Federal government. That means it is actually owned by the very people who owe the debt.  That debt will can be forgiven by government action. The remainder is held by private lenders and will be the subject of future proposals.

Many people’s first reaction will be: We can’t afford it. While we will provide more detail on the funding process soon, the answer is a simple one:  Yes, we can.

First, let’s reflect on our priorities. The Jubilee would cost less than the 2001 tax cuts, which  primarily benefited the wealthiest among us – and is only slightly more than the ten-year cost of offshore tax loopholes for corporate America.  For another perspective, astudy published 18 months ago showed that the costs of the war in Iraq had already exceeded $2 trillion.

We realize that a “student debt jubilee” will cost money. But it will also stimulate economic growth, by injecting more money into the overall economy, and that growth will provide more tax revenue for the government.  There will also be a major expansionary effect, as young Americans liberated from debt are able to buy homes, start businesses and pursue their dreams. And in the future our economy will benefit from a better-educated population.

Going Forward

As we address today’s student debt, we must also ensure that tomorrow’s college students aren’t forced into excessive debt. We must therefore see to it that residents of every state have access to tuition-free public higher education. This is not a radical notion, or even a new one.  President Obama’s plan for free community college stands on firm footing.  The University of California was tuition-free until the 1960s, for example, and free higher education was available in New York City for well over a century.  Germany has just joined the growing list of nations which offer their citizens a cost-free college education.

We are pleased that the President’s community-college proposal has sparked a new debate about four-year education as well. But tomorrow’s free tuition, should we achieve that goal, will not relieve the crushing debt burden of the past.

We are not naive. We know that this idea will meet with bitter resistance from those who argue that it “rewards the undeserving” or encourages irresponsible borrowing. (Paradoxically, many of those who will make those arguments remained silent as Wall Street was rescued and tax breaks were offered to undeserving financial speculators.) There are those who will argue that the idea is fiscally irresponsible, despite the fact that it will have a positive economic impact in the long-term.

We also know that, while the concept is simple, it will require more thought and discussion. That’s why we will continue to explore and expand upon this proposal until we have reached our goal. This is a new idea to most people. It represents a fundamental shift in our moral universe, just as other such struggles – for workplace rights, women’s rights, and civil rights – have in the past. It is an idea whose time has come.  But these shifts don’t come easily. They take time, and debate – and an organized movement.

We hope you will join us.

If you agree, click here to take action.

“Public sentiment is everything.  With public sentiment, nothing can fail.  Without it, nothing can succeed.”  — Abraham Lincoln

Richard (RJ) Eskow is a senior fellow at Campaign for America’s Future.

Mary Green Swig is a senior fellow of the Advanced Leadership Initiative at  Harvard University and co-founder of the National Student Debt Jubilee Project.

Steven Swig is a senior fellow of the Advanced Leadership Initiative at Harvard University and co-founder and President Emeritus of the Presidio Graduate School in San Francisco.

 

http://www.commondreams.org/views/2015/01/27/student-jubilee-liberate-41-million-americans-crushing-loan-debt

The Killing of America’s Creative Class

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A review of Scott Timberg’s fascinating new book, ‘Culture Crash.’

Some of my friends became artists, writers, and musicians to rebel against their practical parents. I went into a creative field with encouragement from my folks. It’s not too rare for Millennials to have their bohemian dreams blessed by their parents, because, as progeny of the Boomers, we were mentored by aging rebels who idolized rogue poets, iconoclast cartoonists, and scrappy musicians.

The problem, warns Scott Timberg in his new book Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class, is that if parents are basing their advice on how the economy used to support creativity – record deals for musicians, book contracts for writers, staff positions for journalists – then they might be surprised when their YouTube-famous daughter still needs help paying off her student loans. A mix of economic, cultural, and technological changes emanating from a neoliberal agenda, writes Timberg, “have undermined the way that culture has been produced for the past two centuries, crippling the economic prospects of not only artists but also the many people who supported and spread their work, and nothing yet has taken its place.”

 

Tech vs. the Creative Class

Timberg isn’t the first to notice. The supposed economic recovery that followed the recession of 2008 did nothing to repair the damage that had been done to the middle class. Only a wealthy few bounced back, and bounced higher than ever before, many of them the elites of Silicon Valley who found a way to harvest much of the wealth generated by new technologies. InCulture Crash, however, Timberg has framed the struggle of the working artist to make a living on his talents.

Besides the overall stagnation of the economy, Timberg shows how information technology has destabilized the creative class and deprofessionalized their labor, leading to an oligopoly of the mega corporations Apple, Google, and Facebook, where success is measured (and often paid) in webpage hits.

What Timberg glances over is that if this new system is an oligopoly of tech companies, then what it replaced – or is still in the process of replacing – was a feudal system of newspapers, publishing houses, record labels, operas, and art galleries. The book is full of enough discouraging data and painful portraits of artists, though, to make this point moot. Things are definitely getting worse.

Why should these worldly worries make the Muse stutter when she is expected to sing from outside of history and without health insurance? Timberg proposes that if we are to save the “creative class” – the often young, often from middle-class backgrounds sector of society that generates cultural content – we need to shake this old myth. The Muse can inspire but not sustain. Members of the creative class, argues Timberg, depend not just on that original inspiration, but on an infrastructure that moves creations into the larger culture and somehow provides material support for those who make, distribute, and assess them. Today, that indispensable infrastructure is at risk…

Artists may never entirely disappear, but they are certainly vulnerable to the economic and cultural zeitgeist. Remember the Dark Ages? Timberg does, and drapes this shroud over every chapter. It comes off as alarmist at times. Culture is obviously no longer smothered by an authoritarian Catholic church.

 

Art as the Province of the Young and Independently Wealthy

But Timberg suggests that contemporary artists have signed away their rights in a new contract with the market. Cultural producers, no matter how important their output is to the rest of us, are expected to exhaust themselves without compensation because their work is, by definition, worthless until it’s profitable. Art is an act of passion – why not produce it for free, never mind that Apple, Google, and Facebook have the right to generate revenue from your production? “According to this way of thinking,” wrote Miya Tokumitsu describing the do-what-you-love mantra that rode out of Silicon Valley on the back of TED Talks, “labor is not something one does for compensation, but an act of self-love. If profit doesn’t happen to follow, it is because the worker’s passion and determination were insufficient.”

The fact is, when creativity becomes financially unsustainable, less is created, and that which does emerge is the product of trust-fund kids in their spare time. “If working in culture becomes something only for the wealthy, or those supported by corporate patronage, we lose the independent perspective that artistry is necessarily built on,” writes Timberg.

It would seem to be a position with many proponents except that artists have few loyal advocates on either side of the political spectrum. “A working artist is seen neither as the salt of the earth by the left, nor as a ‘job creator’ by the right – but as a kind of self-indulgent parasite by both sides,” writes Timberg.

That’s with respect to unsuccessful artists – in other words, the creative class’s 99 percent. But, as Timberg disparages, “everyone loves a winner.” In their own way, both conservatives and liberals have stumbled into Voltaire’sCandide, accepting that all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds. If artists cannot make money, it’s because they are either untalented or esoteric elitists. It is the giants of pop music who are taking all the spoils, both financially and morally, in this new climate.

Timberg blames this winner-take-all attitude on the postmodernists who, beginning in the 1960s with film critic Pauline Kael, dismantled the idea that creative genius must be rescued from underneath the boots of mass appeal and replaced it with the concept of genius-as-mass-appeal. “Instead of coverage of, say, the lost recordings of pioneering bebop guitarist Charlie Christian,” writes Timberg, “we read pieces ‘in defense’ of blockbuster acts like the Eagles (the bestselling rock band in history), Billy Joel, Rush – groups whose songs…it was once impossible to get away from.”

Timberg doesn’t give enough weight to the fact that the same rebellion at the university liberated an enormous swath of art, literature, and music from the shadow of an exclusive (which is not to say unworthy) canon made up mostly of white men. In fact, many postmodernists have taken it upon themselves to look neither to the pop charts nor the Western canon for genius but, with the help of the Internet, to the broad creative class that Timberg wants to defend.

 

Creating in the Age of Poptimism

This doesn’t mean that today’s discovered geniuses can pay their bills, though, and Timberg is right to be shocked that, for the first time in history, pop culture is untouchable, off limits to critics or laypeople either on the grounds of taste or principle. If you can’t stand pop music because of the hackneyed rhythms and indiscernible voices, you’ve failed to appreciate the wonders of crowdsourced culture – the same mystery that propels the market.

Sadly, Timberg puts himself in checkmate early on by repeatedly pitting black mega-stars like Kanye West against white indie-rockers like the Decembrists, whose ascent to the pop-charts he characterizes as a rare triumph of mass taste.

But beyond his anti-hip-hop bias is an important argument: With ideological immunity, the pop charts are mimicking the stratification of our society. Under the guise of a popular carnival where a home-made YouTube video can bring a talented nobody the absurd fame of a celebrity, creative industries have nevertheless become more monotonous and inaccessible to new and disparate voices. In 1986, thirty-one chart-toppers came from twenty-nine different artists. Between 2008 and mid-2012, half of the number-one songs were property of only six stars. “Of course, it’s never been easy to land a hit record,” writes Timberg. “But recession-era rock has brought rewards to a smaller fraction of the artists than it did previously. Call it the music industry’s one percent.”

The same thing is happening with the written word. In the first decade of the new millennium, points out Timberg, citing Wired magazine, the market share of page views for the Internet’s top ten websites rose from 31 percent to 75 percent.

Timberg doesn’t mention that none of the six artists dominating the pop charts for those four years was a white man, but maybe that’s beside the point. In Borges’s “Babylon Lottery,” every citizen has the chance to be a sovereign. That doesn’t mean they were living in a democracy. Superstars are coming up from poverty, without the help of white male privilege, like never before, at the same time that poverty – for artists and for everyone else – is getting worse.

Essayists are often guilted into proposing solutions to the problems they perceive, but in many cases they should have left it alone. Timberg wisely avoids laying out a ten-point plan to clean up the mess, but even his initial thrust toward justice – identifying the roots of the crisis – is a pastiche of sometimes contradictory liberal biases that looks to the past for temporary fixes.

Timberg puts the kibosh on corporate patronage of the arts, but pines for the days of newspapers run by wealthy families. When information technology is his target because it forces artists to distribute their work for free, removes the record store and bookstore clerks from the scene, and feeds consumer dollars to only a few Silicon Valley tsars, Timberg’s answer is to retrace our steps twenty years to the days of big record companies and Borders book stores – since that model was slightly more compensatory to the creative class.

When his target is postmodern intellectuals who slander “middle-brow” culture as elitist, only to expend their breath in defense of super-rich pop stars, Timberg retreats fifty years to when intellectuals like Marshall McLuhan and Norman Mailer debated on network television and the word “philharmonic” excited the uncultured with awe rather than tickled them with anti-elitist mockery. Maybe television back then was more tolerable, but Timberg hardly even tries to sound uplifting. “At some point, someone will come up with a conception better than middlebrow,” he writes. “But until then, it beats the alternatives.”

 

The Fallacy of the Good Old Days

Timberg’s biggest mistake is that he tries to find a point in history when things were better for artists and then reroute us back there for fear of continued decline. What this translates to is a program of bipartisan moderation – a little bit more public funding here, a little more philanthropy there. Something everyone can agree on, but no one would ever get excited about.

Why not boldly state that a society is dysfunctional if there is enough food, shelter, and clothing to go around and yet an individual is forced to sacrifice these things in order to produce, out of humanistic virtue, the very thing which society has never demanded more of – culture? And if skeptics ask for a solution, why not suggest something big, a reorganization of society, from top to bottom, not just a vintage flotation device for the middle class? Rather than blame technological innovation for the poverty of artists, why not point the finger at those who own the technology and call for a system whereby efficiency doesn’t put people out of work, but allows them to work fewer hours for the same salary; whereby information is free not because an unpaid intern wrote content in a race for employment, but because we collectively pick up the tab?

This might not satisfy the TED Talk connoisseur’s taste for a clever and apolitical fix, but it definitely trumps championing a middle-ground littered with the casualties of cronyism, colonialism, racism, patriarchy, and all their siblings. And change must come soon because, if Timberg is right, “the price we ultimately pay” for allowing our creative class to remain on its crash course “is in the decline of art itself, diminishing understanding of ourselves, one another, and the eternal human spirit.”

 

http://www.alternet.org/news-amp-politics/killing-americas-creative-class?akid=12719.265072.45wrwl&rd=1&src=newsletter1030855&t=9

Jim Rockford Warned Us About Google And Facebook Back In 1978

Why didn’t we listen? The fourth season of The Rockford Files, arguably the greatest television show of all time, features a “futuristic” storyline about a terrible threat. What if a private corporation used computers to gather personal information on hundreds of millions of Americans? Could we trust them with that data?

I know, it’s hard to imagine such a thing ever happening — a private company, collecting private and personal data on ordinary Americans and other people around the world. It sounds far-fetched, right? But Jim Rockford, the toughest and most incorruptible P.I. ever to live in a trailer with his dad, teams up with a younger detective to investigate the suspicious death of an old friend, a private detective named Tooley, in the episode “The House on Willis Avenue.” (This episode is written by the show’s co-creator, Stephen J. Cannell, who also gave us The Greatest American Hero.)

And what Rockford finds in his investigation is baffling — a mysterious set of real estate developments, with lots of suspiciously huge air-conditioning units attached. What’s going on? Turns out that a corporate scumbag, amusingly played by Jackie Cooper, is creating a secret computer system to spy on ordinary Americans and sell the info — or ruin your reputation — for profit. It should be illegal for corporations to spy on ordinary Americans, Rockford protests. You can see the highlights above.

It all leads up to this solemn cue card at the very end of the episode:

Jim Rockford Warned Us About Google And Facebook Back In 1978

The Rockford Files really wants you to know that corporations should not use computers to collect your personal information. Those final words, “Our liberty may well be the price we pay,” seem especially prophetic nowadays.

The other amazing part of the episode is all the parts where Rockford and his temporary sidekick pretend to be computer experts, and spout ridiculously made-up computer jargon, to try and fool people in the facilities they’re sneaking into. Here are the two best examples of that:

http://www.viddler.com/embed/21c50871/?f=1&autoplay=false&player=mini&disablebranding=0;offset=0&autoplay=0

http://io9.com/jim-rockford-warned-us-about-google-and-facebook-back-i-1681231028

Snowden: iPhones Have Secret Spyware That Lets Govt’s Monitor Unsuspecting Users

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The NSA whistleblower’s lawyer says the secret software can be remotely activated to watch the user.

The iPhone has secret spyware that lets governments watch users without their knowledge, according to Edward Snowden.

The NSA whistleblower doesn’t use a phone because of the secret software, which Snowden’s lawyer says can be remotely activated to watch the user.

“Edward never uses an iPhone, he’s got a simple phone,” Anatoly Kucherena told Russian news agency RIA Novosti. “The iPhone has special software that can activate itself without the owner having to press a button and gather information about him, that’s why on security grounds he refused to have this phone.”

Apple has been active in making the iPhone harder for security services to spy on, and the company said that iOS 8 made it impossible for law enforcement to extract users’ personal data, even if they have a warrant. The company has also been active in campaigning for privacy reform after the Snowden revelations,joining with Facebook and Google to call for changes to the law.

But recently published files from the NSA showed that British agency GCHQ used the phones UDIDs — the unique identifier that each iPhone has — to track users. While there doesn’t seem to be any mention of such spying software in any of the revelations so far, a range of documents are thought to be still unpublished.

Snowden opts not to use the phone for professional reasons, but Kucherena said that whether or not to use one was a personal choice, Sputnik News reported.

 

http://www.alternet.org/news-amp-politics/snowden-iphones-have-secret-spyware-lets-govts-monitor-unsuspecting-users?akid=12717.265072.f_pNg2&rd=1&src=newsletter1030792&t=11

Obama’s State of Delusion

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22 January 2015

The delusional character of  address on Tuesday—presenting an America of rising living standards and a booming economy, capped by his declaration that the “shadow of crisis has passed”—is perhaps matched only in its presentation by the media and supporters of the Democratic Party.

The general tone was set by the New York Times in its lead editorial on Wednesday, which described the speech as a “simple, dramatic message about economic fairness, about the fact that the well-off—the top earners, the big banks, Silicon Valley—have done just great, while middle and working classes remain dead in the water.”

The attempt to present Obama’s remarks as a clarion call to combat social inequality runs first of all into the inconvenient fact that the individual supposedly making this call has been the head of state for the past six years. The Times writes as if the policies of the Obama administration—the multitrillion-dollar bailout for the banks, the coordinated assault on wages, relentless cuts to social programs and the social counterrevolution in health care known as Obamacare—have nothing to do with the record levels of social inequality that prevail in the United States.

The Times quotes Obama’s question delivered toward the beginning of the speech: “Will we accept an economy where only a few of us do spectacularly well? Or will we commit ourselves to an economy that generates rising incomes and chances for everyone who makes an effort?”

Anyone listening to the speech with even a passing knowledge of the record of his presidency would immediately respond that, for Obama and for the entire political establishment that he heads, the answer is clearly the former.

As for the proposals themselves—including tuition assistance for community colleges, tax credits for child care and college education, an increase in the minimum wage and paid maternity leave—they consist of insincere and paltry measures, tailored to the interests of big business, that no one, least of all Obama, expects will pass.

The Times itself acknowledges, “Mr. Obama knows his prospects of getting Congress to agree are less than zero.” White House officials freely admitted ahead of the State of the Union that Obama had no expectations that the measures he proposed would be taken up on Capitol Hill. “We will not be limited by what will pass this Congress, because that would be a very boring two years,” White House senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer told the press before the speech.

Previous State of the Union speeches have produced similar wish lists aimed at generating illusions that Obama sought to advance a “progressive” agenda, proposals dropped as soon as the president completed the obligatory tour of photo-ops and speeches at college campuses.

In his 2014 State of the Union, Obama called for ending tax loopholes for corporations that ship jobs overseas, investing tens of billions in infrastructure projects to create jobs, making pre-kindergarten available to every four-year-old child, regardless of family income, and enacting equal pay for women. Instead, one million people were cut off food stamps, long-term unemployment remained stubbornly high, poverty increased, and wages stagnated.

On the other hand, every major initiative by Obama in domestic policy—the 2009 stimulus program, the 2010 health care reform legislation, the 2010 financial regulatory overhaul, countless budget deals with the congressional Republicans, right up to the executive order on immigration issued a month ago—was dictated by the needs of corporate America, and, in many cases, drafted by corporate lobbyists.

The consequences for working people—record long-term unemployment, a tidal wave of home foreclosures, the slashing of wages in basic industry, the steady decline in living standards over all—were not accidental. They were the deliberate goal of government policy, for both Democrats and Republicans, because mass suffering by the working class was required to obtain the resources needed to bail out the financial aristocracy.

The main purpose of Obama’s remarks was to give the various publications and organizations that orbit the Democratic Party—the Times, the Nationmagazine (whose columnist John Nichols described the spech as a “serious effort to address income inequality”), the trade unions, and the network of pseudo-left organizations that present themselves as “socialist”—fodder for promoting the Democrats in the 2016 elections.

Thus, Obama’s speech was peppered with references aimed at the upper-middle class practitioners of various forms of identity politics (Time magazine, for example, enthused that Obama “made history Tuesday night” by the inclusion in his speech of one word: “transgender”).

Here is how to paint the Democratic Party in progressive colors, he was telling them. Here is how the Democratic Party will seek to fool the American people as it collaborates with the Republicans in enacting ever more right-wing policies over the next two years, combined with endless war abroad and the assault on democratic rights.

The delusions, self-delusions and lies of Obama and his supporters cannot, however, alter the underlying reality of American political life: the unbridgeable gulf between the entire state apparatus and the vast majority of the population. It is notable that Obama’s speech, delivered less than three months after the midterm elections, made no reference to the debacle that the Democratic Party suffered at the polls—due primarily to the collapse in voter turnout produced by six years of right-wing policies from the “candidate of change.”

Perhaps the most striking delusion of all is the belief by the ruling class and its representatives that it can, through a few honeyed and lying phrases, forestall the tidal wave of social opposition that is on the horizon.

Patrick Martin and Joseph Kishore

 

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2015/01/22/pers-j22.html

Delusion and deception in Obama’s State of Union

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By Patrick Martin

21 January 2015

Two weeks ago, the WSWS published its initial review of the results of the year 2014 and the prospects for 2015. We wrote, “In examining the strategies and policies of the ruling elites of one or another country, it would be a mistake to either underestimate their ruthlessness or overestimate their intelligence.”

The State of the Union speech delivered by President Barack Obama Tuesday night confirms this assessment in the case of the United States. The US ruling elite exhibits a determination to stop at nothing in the defense of its wealth and privileges, and pig-headed blindness and stupidity, both on a colossal scale.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of Obama’s hour-long address, riddled with tired clichés and empty rhetoric, was the sheer unreality of the picture he presented of America, totally at odds with the actual experience of tens of millions of working people: mounting social and economic crisis, escalating attacks on democratic rights and the growing danger of world war.

“The shadow of crisis has passed,” Obama claimed, declaring that the US has successfully emerged from the economic slump that followed the 2008-2009 financial crash. “At this moment, with a growing economy, shrinking deficits, bustling industry, and booming energy production—we have risen from recession freer to write our own future than any other nation on Earth.”

No one not hypnotized by the ever-rising share prices on the New York Stock Exchange can accept that as a serious description of American social reality. A few figures released in the past month make this clear:

* Nine million workers are officially unemployed, another six million have dropped out of the labor force, eight million work part-time when they want full-time jobs and 12 million work for temporary employment agencies.

* Real wages have fallen steadily for American workers since 2007, dropping another five cents an hour in December 2014. The real income of the average working-class family is now back to the level of 2000—15 years of stagnation in living standards.

* The US poverty rate has risen from 12.6 percent in 2007 to 14.5 percent in 2013. Nearly half of all Americans and more than half of all US school children are poor or near poor.

* One fifth of American children do not get enough to eat, while the overall rate of food insecurity has jumped from 11 percent in 2007 to 16 percent in 2013. One million Americans will be cut off food stamp benefits this year.

Obama evaded any discussion of such figures, substituting instead the proposal for “middle-class economics,” a term deliberately chosen to conceal the ongoing attack on jobs and living standards of American workers. It is the latest brand-name his speechwriters have concocted for the policy of both capitalist parties, Democratic and Republican alike, of promoting the interests of American corporations and banks against their foreign rivals and the working class at home.

The State of the Union speech made a brief reference to the monstrous growth of economic inequality, where “only a few of us do spectacularly well,” but Obama passed over in silence the connection between the growth of the fortunes of the super-rich and his own policies. Skyrocketing wealth for the few and mounting social misery for the many are not merely coincidental. They are product of a deliberate policy, spearheaded by the Obama administration, of handing trillions of dollars to the banks while orchestrating a coordinated attack on jobs, living standards and social programs.

Equally unreal was Obama’s depiction of the state of American democracy. “As Americans, we respect human dignity, even when we’re threatened,” he said, “which is why I’ve prohibited torture, and worked to make sure our use of new technology like drones is properly constrained.”

The formal prohibition of torture, however, has been combined with a lengthy rearguard action against the Senate Intelligence Committee report on CIA torture, in the course of which Obama blocked any prosecution of the torturers. The White House is directly implicated in illegal activities, including the CIA’s spying on the US Senate and its efforts to withhold documents implicating the highest levels of the state in clear violations of national and international law.

As for “constraints” on the use of drones, there are none. The Obama administration has declared that the president has the unlimited right to order the assassination of any person on the planet, including American citizens, using drone-fired missiles, without any judicial review and without regard to US and international law.

Similarly, Obama claimed that “our intelligence agencies have worked hard … to increase transparency and build more safeguards against potential abuse.” In fact, the NSA, CIA, FBI and other intelligence agencies carry out unlimited surveillance on the population of America and the world, vacuuming up all electronic communications, telephone and Internet, and creating massive databases and political dossiers.

In the 13 years since the 9/11 attacks, the threat of terrorism has been used as the pretext for building up the structure of a police state in America. This process will only accelerate in the wake of the rise of Islamic State of Iraq and Syria and the attacks in Paris January 7. Obama declared, “We will continue to hunt down terrorists and dismantle their networks, and we reserve the right to act unilaterally, as we’ve done relentlessly since I took office.”

This was only one of the many occasions in the State of the Union speech where the US president asserted his willingness to use force to insure the primacy of American imperialism over all its rivals. Half his speech was devoted to such threats, including against Russia, a nuclear-armed power, over Ukraine, and against Iran, where Obama, for the second time in five days, threatened to go to war to destroy the country’s nuclear technology program.

Perhaps the bluntest assertion of American supremacy came when Obama discussed negotiations over trade practices within the Asia-Pacific region (including China and Japan, the world’s second-largest and third-largest economies). “We should write those rules,” Obama declared, as though no other country mattered.

While Obama claimed that he had brought the US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to a close, reducing the total troop deployment in the two countries from 180,000 to 15,000, this represents a shift in focus to a more extensive, not scaled-back, imperialist intervention. The US Special Operations Command (SOCOM) deployed forces to 133 countries in 2014, more than two thirds of the globe.

Obama concluded his speech with an appeal to the Republican Party, which now controls a majority of seats in both the House of Representatives and the Senate, for bipartisan collaboration over the next two years. He warned against “always looking over your shoulder at how the base will react to every decision.”

This language was chosen, not so much to urge the Republicans to resist the pressure of their ultra-right Tea Party faction, as to urge the Democrats to get on with devising bipartisan attacks on the working class, regardless of the popular reaction among workers, particularly the poorest and most oppressed who, if they go to the polls, generally vote for the Democratic Party.

Obama proposed a handful of measures aimed at sustaining the threadbare pretense that the Democrats still adhere to policies of liberal reform—free tuition for community college students and a child care tax credit for working families, to be paid for by increased taxes on the wealthy and the banks. But no one in official Washington takes these seriously for a minute. They are window dressing, while the policy of the US ruling elite moves further and further to the right.

Aside from the delusional character of the speech, perhaps the most distinctive characteristic of Obama’s remarks was the fact that, for the vast majority of the population, it was a non-event. Obama stands at the head of a state apparatus that, increasingly, is talking to itself.

 

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2015/01/21/sotu-j21.html

Toni Negri: from the refusal of labor to the seizure of power

By ROAR Collective On January 18, 2015

Post image for Toni Negri: from the refusal of labor to the seizure of powerFrom the refusal of labor to the seizure of power, the Italian militant and theorist talks to ROAR about class struggle in the contemporary metropolis.Editor’s Note: A few months ago, ROAR attended the annual Euronomade gathering in Passignano, which brought together dozens of activists and thinkers in the Italian post-workerist tradition. This year, Euronomade invited the Marxist geographer David Harvey to participate in the event alongside a number of other guests, including Michael Hardt and Srećko Horvat.

We sat down with the legendary Italian militant and theorist Antonio Negri to talk about the recent convergence between his work and Harvey’s, the centrality of the metropolitan terrain to contemporary social struggles, the fate of the global uprisings of 2011, the state of the movements in Europe today, and the significance of new political forces like Syriza and Podemos.

The interview was taken by Lorenzo Cini and Jerome Roos, with special thanks to Tommaso Giordani for the translation.

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In recent years, there appears to be somewhat of a convergence between your approach and Harvey’s. What do you consider to be the most important overlaps in your work? And what do you see as the main differences or tensions?

It seems to me that there is a very clear and explicit convergence between Harvey’s positions and those of my own current of thought, most clearly on the contemporary transformation of productive labor, of living labor — that is, of labor capable of generating surplus value. If I may use Marx’s language from The Fragment on Machines, I would say that there is substantial common ground between Harvey’s work and my own in the analysis of the transformation of the forms of value, that is to say, in the step from value as connected to the structures of large-scale industry to the current situation, in which society is wholly subjected to the logic of capital — not only in the productive sphere, but also with regards to reproduction and circulation.

Italian workerism [operaismo] already developed such an analysis in the late 1970s, suggesting, at the time, new forms of struggle that would deploy themselves within the larger social sphere, because we had understood that the social had become a locus of value production. Already in those years, we identified the crucial shift in the locus of surplus production: a shift away from the factory and towards the wider metropolis. And this same shift appears to me to have become central to Harvey’s work. This is the essential point: from here, both the question of surplus extraction and the question of the transformation of profit into rent have become central in the critical analyses of contemporary capitalism that Harvey and I have developed.

What, then, are the differences? I believe it’s simply a question of genealogy, of the theoretical trajectory that has brought us to this shared analysis. I have reached these conclusions starting from the analysis of the transformation of the nature of labor, which is, in fact, the concept on which the entire workerist approach was based. In other words, I began from the workerist concept of the refusal of labor. With this idea, we meant two things. On the one hand, we took it as a rejection of the law of value as the fundamental norm of the capitalist order. On the other hand, we interpreted it in a more constructive way, as a call for the acknowledgment of new forms of productivity of work beyond the factory, at a wider social level. From this Marxian analysis of the internal transformation of labor, we arrived at the same conclusions at which Harvey arrived — and on which he developed a more thorough empirical analysis.

Starting from what you just said about the concept of productive labor, we would like to reflect with you on the forms and content of contemporary struggles. In your book Commonwealth, co-authored with Michael Hardt, you have written that today the metropolis is to the multitude what the factory was once to the working class. In light of this change of paradigm, does it seem accurate to you to identify in the recent uprisings that have erupted in countries like Brazil and Turkey a set of struggles linked to questions about the production and reproduction of metropolitan life, instances of a new class struggle conducted at the metropolitan level?

Yes, very much so. Both the Turkish and the Brazilian struggles are clearlybiopolitical struggles. How, then, can we link this biopolitical dimension to the new forms of labor we discussed before? This is a question with which Michael Hardt and I have been dealing ever since 1995, when we began working onEmpire. It appeared to us that if labor becomes social labor, if production and capitalist oppression were swallowing up the social sphere, then the question ofbios became an essential one. The set of struggles developing around the welfare state was becoming one of the central aspects of class struggle. This discovery became even more important once we understood that productive labor was not only (or even mainly) a material activity, but also (and mostly) an immaterial one. That is, an activity linked to caring, affection, communication, and what we can loosely call ‘generically human’ processes and activities.

It was this attention to the ‘generically human’ that helped us understand how the productive process had become fundamentally a biopolitical process. Consequently, the more politically significant struggles became those that deployed themselves on the biopolitical terrain. What did this mean in more concrete terms? We did not have an exhaustive and final answer. Yes, we had some intuition that one had to fight against, for example, the privatization of healthcare and education, but at the time we did not manage to fully grasp what was later revealed to us by the formidable struggles of 2011. It was those struggles that revealed the full articulation of the biopolitical discourse, that is, the new character of contemporary struggles. And it becomes very clear that the metropolis is its essential setting. This does not mean that it will always be so, but today it is certain that the metropolis is the crucial locus of this struggle.

The metropolitan strike in Paris in 1995 was essential in making me understand this. A city as complex and articulated as Paris completely supported the struggle, which blocked the city in its entirety, starting from transportation. That struggle expressed in a paradigmatic sense the cooperative and affective elements of the forms of conflict and knowledge that were emerging on the metropolitan stage in those years. It is not a coincidence that these aspects, linked to cooperation and to affective production, are still central in contemporary metropolitan struggles, which are fully biopolitical struggles.

The cycle of struggles that began in 2011 briefly hinted at the possible birth of a new constituent process. Today it seems that many of these movements are confronted with what you and Michael Hardt have called a ‘thermidorian closure,’ bringing about the re-establishment of the old regime. What is your analysis of the current state of these struggles, and what could have been done differently to prevent the present outcome?

To start with, we need to establish some differences. The Spanish mobilization, for example, has a force and a degree of political originality that is still evident today, and constitutes an important phenomenon that must also be seen as partly emerging from the tormented history of Spain in the twentieth century, from the civil war, through the incomplete democratic transition, to the failure of the Socialist Party.

On the other hand, there is a much more ambiguous phenomenon such as Occupy, which appears to be a mobilization of the so-called middle classes more than an expression of the cognitive working class. And yet, beyond these obvious weaknesses, even Occupy displayed an important degree of originality, especially in terms of the struggle developed on the issue of debt and financial capital.

Finally, there is the Arab process, which has monopolized our attention for a long time, and which — unfortunately — has had an absolutely tragic ending. Strictly speaking, the only ‘thermidorean’ outcome has been the Tunisian one, where an apparently democratic but substantially falsified order has now been established. For the rest, we have witnessed merely the beginnings of revolution, that is, a taking of the Bastille more than anything else. At any rate, I believe that this extremely articulated revolutionary process has many days ahead of itself and is, at the moment, still completely open.

So far, this revolutionary process has revealed the presence in the Arab world of new forces of freedom, of cognitive labor, that have tenaciously opposed the old military and feudal regimes. There is, however, still an enormous problem in Egypt, Syria, Libya, and Iran, and it is the problem of the “medieval” nature of these states — states that are extremely reactionary and repressive. Thus I have the impression that the seed of revolt planted in 2011 in various Arab states resembles, in some ways, the European 1848: a moment of anticipation of a revolutionary process. I hope, however, that it does not have the same consequences that it had in Europe, where it also produced nationalist thought and practice, which eventually fueled the rise of fascism and national socialism.

In spite of this fear, I still strongly believe in a progressive dynamic of history, and I am confident that events of revolutionary rupture will, in the future, manage to break the feudal and reactionary political and social order of many Arab countries.

Let’s discuss the struggles in Europe today. Taking our cue from an article you wrote together with Sandro Mezzadra just before the European elections of 2014, and a follow-up piece you just published ahead of the Greek elections, we wanted to ask you whether you see the European dimension as the only one in which the movements can possibly act to advance a project of the common as a genuine alternative to the present capitalist crisis.

This is certainly the most timely and important political question today. Currently, in Europe, we are in the lowest phase of the cycle of struggles. I do not believe in the theory that, the worse the political, social and economic situation, the stronger the revolutionary movement. We are faced with a serious economic crisis that has had extremely negative consequences. The capitalist establishment has, for the moment, successfully exploited the regression and the domestication of existing struggles, and has managed with ease to control the post-Fordist productive transformation that hailed the defeat of the Fordist mass worker. Today, we are experiencing the consequences of our defeat in the 1970s, in the absence of a political organization capable of expressing the interests of the contemporary workforce and, more generally, of the contemporary productive society that emerged from that process of capitalist transformation.

However, in this negative situation, we still have to carefully consider if and how capital will be able to overcome the crisis. For example, I tend to agree with Wolfgang Streeck’s analyses, which examine the current crisis in the light of some 1970s literature such as that by Offe, Hirsche, and O’Connor, who saw the crisis of the times as a consequence of the falling rate of profit. This fall, however, is intimately linked to the devaluation of the workforce, to the incapacity of considering the workforce as a central player in development.

It is necessary to be very careful on a number of points. When one says that some instances of the common, certain demands of the struggle for the common can be, and have been, reabsorbed by and into the “management crisis” and into all those mechanisms of management of the common, one often ignores that this absorption into capitalist management is not a creative one. It is not, for example, akin to the assimilation of the working class that occurred in the Fordist and Keynesian paradigm, when this absorption did generate a rise in demand and manifested itself in a strong and energetic economy.

Today, we are faced by a capitalist contraction that leaves even those who operate the contraction breathless. In this context, we have to be extremely attentive, because the very real risk is that of giving a completely pessimistic reading to a situation that, of course, is characterized by an important crisis — but whose outcome is still completely open.

With this last question we would like to reflect with you on the innovation represented by a number of political phenomena that are occurring in some European countries at the moment. Do you see, in Europe today, a political organization capable of starting a constituent process and creating a transnational political project based on the communism of the 21st century — that is, a political project based on the practice of the common? And what do you consider to be the significance, in this light, of new political forces like Syriza and Podemos?

Before answering your question, I must confess that I have developed a problem in recent years. If I am asked to assess the struggles of 2011, I can’t help but concentrate my critical remarks on the question of horizontality — or of exclusive horizontality, at least. I have to criticize it because I think that there is no project or political development capable of transforming horizontal spontaneity into an institutional reality. I think, instead, that this passage must be governed in some way or another. Governed from below, of course, on the basis of shared programs, but always bearing in mind the necessity of having, in this passage, an organized political force capable of constituting itself and of managing this transformation.

I think that the present state of the movement forces us to be self-critical about what happened in 2011, and I think this self-criticism must focus on the question of political organization. We need to acknowledge, for example, that the Lista Tsipras experiment in Italy has been a tragic failure, even if I, together with Sandro Mezzadra and other comrades, welcomed it with faith and hope. However, on the other hand, it should have been clear, from the beginning, that with organized parties such as SEL or Rifondazione Comunista it would have been impossible to find political forms capable of channeling and allowing spontaneous forces from below to affirm themselves.

With Podemos, however, we are probably dealing with something different. Beyond the questionable ideologies around which Podemos constituted itself, I believe that — maybe because of the goodwill of its leaders, or perhaps thanks to the situation in which it finds itself — Podemos is infinitely more powerful than it is organized. It is producing, for the moment, an extremely interesting and active movement that might be capable of contributing to a healthy institutionalization of the struggles.

On this question of struggle at the institutional level and of political organization, I would like to conclude with two more general propositions. The first one is that after 2011 horizontality must be criticized and overcome, clearly and unambiguously — and not just in a Hegelian sense. Secondly, the situation is probably ripe enough to attempt once again that most political of passages: the seizure of power. We have understood the question of power for too long in an excessively negative manner. Now we can reinterpret the question of power in terms of multitudes, in terms of absolute democracy — that is to say, in terms of a democracy that goes beyond canonical institutional forms such as monarchy, aristocracy and “democracy.” I believe that today the problem of democracy is best formulated and addressed in terms of the multitude.

Antonio Negri is an Italian militant and theorist in the post-workerist tradition. He is the author of many books, including his highly influential trilogy with Michael Hardt, Empire, Multitude and Commonwealth.

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On January 28, Toni Negri will be giving a lecture titled From the ‘Operaio Sociale’ to the Multitude: A Marxist Approach to Social Movement Theory? as part of a lecture series organized by the Marxism(s) in Social Movements working group at the European University Institute in Florence.

The event is open to the public.

ABSTRACT:
Widely known to be one of the founding fathers of autonomist Marxism, Prof. Antonio Negri will elaborate on the way in which he has conceptualized the notions of labor, social struggle, and class struggle within contemporary capitalist society in the light of his Marxist framework. In this regard, he will discuss some of his most compelling and debated concepts such as the mass worker, the social worker (“operaio sociale”), the multitude, exodus, and the common/commonwealth, among many others. These concepts are part of one of the most powerful attempts to rethink the political project of critical theory today and to reformulate a Marxist tool-kit in contemporary post-industrial societies. The lecture that Prof. Negri will give at the EUI will also be a good opportunity to open up the discussion on whether and how some of these concepts may be used to enrich the current field of Social Movement Studies.

Discussants:
Daniela Chironi (EUI)
Helge Hiram Jensen (EUI)

 

http://roarmag.org/2015/01/negri-interview-multitude-metropolis/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+roarmag+%28ROAR+Magazine%29

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