Most US states saw jobs losses in March


By Ed Hightower
24 April 2015

The US Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics report on state and regional unemployment for March 2015 shows a deteriorating economic situation. Despite modest job growth nationally, nonfarm payroll employment declined in 31 states and the District of Columbia last month. Only 18 states saw an increase in employment.

In particular, states and regions that once benefited from a boom in domestic oil production are now hemorrhaging jobs as a result of the oil price decline. States with the largest over-the-month job losses were Texas (25,000), Oklahoma (12,900) and Pennsylvania (12,700).

In percentage terms, the largest over-the-month declines in employment occurred in Oklahoma (0.8 percent), followed by Arkansas, North Dakota, and West Virginia (0.6 percent each).

The rapid job losses in Texas—America’s second most populous state with 27 million residents, with an economic output equivalent to Spain—has generated concerns in major economic and political circles. March 2015 is the first time in 53 months that the state of has showed a net loss of jobs.

JP Morgan Chase economist Michael Feroli was among many analysts who predicted a severe loss of oil-related jobs in the state in late 2014, earning him the ire of then-President of the Dallas Federal Reserve who last month, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, publicly dismissed such predictions with contempt.

Referring to the March jobs report, Feroli said if the national economy had lost jobs in the same proportion as Texas did, the US would have lost 304,000 jobs last month, an amount associated with a full-blown recession.

The slump in oil prices threatens jobs in other industries, including steel and automobile manufacturing. The steel sector closely followed the boom in shale oil and natural gas production over the past several years when higher oil prices prevailed. Globally, the industry has undergone a restructuring over the last quarter century that is almost without parallel, forcing prices down and destroying jobs and productive infrastructure.

On Friday, United States Steel Corporation sent layoff notices to 1,404 workers involved in producing pipe and tube products used in the oil and gas sector. The layoffs could come as early as June for 579 employees at a plant in Lone Star, Texas, 166 at a factory in Houston, 255 at a mill in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, and 404 managers in the company’s tubular operations.

Since March, US Steel has announced plans to idle its Granite City, Illinois, factory that employs 2,000 workers, a tubular steel facility in Ohio employing 614 workers, as well as layoffs and closures in Pennsylvania and Minnesota.

Ford Motor Company announced Thursday that it will idle 700 workers at the Michigan Assembly Plant in the Detroit suburb of Wayne starting June 22, citing decreased demand for more fuel-efficient vehicles. The facility produces a number of vehicles in this category, including the Ford Focus, Focus ST, Focus Electric, C-Max hybrid and C-Max Energi plug-in hybrid.

Sales of the Ford Focus fell 14.5 percent in March, and sales of the C-Max Hybrid were down 22 percent during the same period and by 31 percent during the first quarter. General Motors has announced similar plans for facilities making its more fuel-efficient models.

The United Steelworkers and the United Auto Workers unions accept without question the destruction of tens of thousands of jobs by the corporate giants, with the USW predictably blaming foreign steelmakers for “dumping” steel.

The report on state unemployment further exposes the Obama administration’s lies about the supposed economic “recovery.” It dovetails with poor economic figures in recent months, including retail sales, industrial production and home building, all of which point to a deepening economic downturn.

Flush with more than $1.3 trillion in cash—and benefiting from virtually free credit poured into the financial markets by the Federal Reserve—major corporations are not investing in expanding production. Instead they are pouring billions into stock buybacks and dividends to benefit wealthy investors, and to fuel a wave of mergers and acquisitions that will destroy even more jobs. Meanwhile the workers who remain are subjected to unrelenting demands for lower wages and benefits and higher levels of exploitation.

Financial news outlets are now referring to “mega-mergers.” A case in point is this month’s takeover by energy giant Shell of the smaller firm BG in a $70 billion deal. ExxonMobil is also widely expected to make a bid for BP. Both the Shell-BG mega-merger, as well as any acquisitions by rival ExxonMobil, will serve to boost profits not through new investment in infrastructure, but through layoffs, closures and the lowering of labor costs.

While better-paying jobs in the US manufacturing sector are evaporating, what little job growth there is consists largely of low wage service sector work. In one sign of the deteriorating conditions for workers in these industries, a study by the University of California’s Center for Labor Research and Education released April 13 found that a majority of spending on public assistance programs goes to households headed by someone who is working.

“When companies pay too little for workers to provide for their families, workers rely on public assistance programs to meet their basic needs,” Ken Jacobs, chair of the labor center and co-author of the new report said in a press release.

Thus, at the state and federal level, the US government subsidizes companies that pay poverty wages, to the tune of $153 billion per year.

According to the report, workers in a diverse range of occupations systematically rely on public assistance, and in staggering proportions, including frontline fast-food workers (52 percent), childcare workers (46 percent), home care workers (48 percent) and even part-time college faculty (25 percent).

While Wall Street executives are making record bonuses, four out of 10 bank tellers in New York City are forced to rely on some form of public assistance because their wages are too low to survive.

Obama, Republicans push anti-China trade pact


By Patrick Martin
23 April 2015

Both the US Senate and House of Representatives have begun action on legislation to grant President Obama Trade Promotion Authority, also known as “fast-track” authority, which would enable the US government to finalize the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade agreement with 11 other countries in Asia and the Americas.

The Senate Finance Committee on Wednesday, in a 20-6 vote, approved the measure and sent it to the Senate floor, where it will likely face stronger opposition in advance of a vote in the coming weeks. Five Democrats and one Republican on the committee voted “no.”

The Finance Committee vote followed an agreement last week between Republicans and a section of committee Democrats on the terms of the TPA legislation after protracted talks between the committee chairman, Orrin Hatch of Utah, and the ranking Democrat, Ron Wyden of Oregon.

The House Ways and Means Committee was to begin work on the legislation Thursday, its chairman, Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, announced. Ryan participated in the talks with Hatch and Wyden and signed off on the deal.

The bill would give the president authority to negotiate trade agreements under provisions for fast-track congressional approval–the House and Senate would each have up-or-down votes without amendments or procedural delays–for the next three years.

As a practical matter, congressional approval of Trade Promotion Authority is both necessary to reach a trade deal and tantamount to approval of it. No country will sign a trade agreement with the United States if Congress can amend it at will or filibuster it. Congress has never rejected such an agreement in a straight up-or-down vote.

The Trans-Pacific Partnership is an economic and trade component of the Obama administration’s pivot to Asia, which involves the mobilization of US military, political and economic assets against the rising power of China. The 11 other nations now engaged in the TPP talks include Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Brunei, Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam, Chile, Peru, Mexico and Canada.

If the 12-nation trading area is established, it will be the world’s largest; comprising 40 percent of the world’s economy- a bigger proportion than is covered by the European Union. Other Asian countries are expected to sign on if the TPP materializes. South Korea has indicated interest and the Philippines, Thailand and Indonesia are also potential candidates.

Discussion of TPP in official Washington has proceeded on two separate tracks, one for the corporate elite and its military-intelligence apparatus, and one for those posturing demagogically–and entirely falsely–as defenders of American workers.

Within decisive circles of the ruling elite, the main discussions have revolved around the strategic value of TPP as a means of putting pressure on China and forestalling its rise to a preeminent economic position in the Asia-Pacific region. The central question is the incorporation of Japan, the world’s third-largest economy, into the future bloc, since without Japan the TPP would be little more than an expanded NAFTA: the US, Canada and Mexico, plus a handful of second-tier Asian economies.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is due in Washington April 28 for talks at the White House. He will also address a joint session of Congress. The Obama-Abe talks are expected to deal with the main roadblocks to completion of the TPP, particularly US-Japanese conflicts over agricultural and automobile trade.

The Washington Post, in an editorial that left no doubt about the real purpose of the TPP talks, called on the Obama administration to make sure the deal is finalized with Japan and Congress. The newspaper declared that “the TPP is about geopolitics as well as economics.” It added, “The key here is Japan. Aging and economically troubled, the Asian giant is looking to forge a deeper political and security commitment with the United States to offset a rising China.”

The editorial concluded with this warning: “If the TPP fails, there won’t be much left of the Obama administration’s pivot to Asia.”

Vice President Joseph Biden made a similar argument April 17, addressing a group of 29 right-wing congressional Democrats, most of whom are expected to back Trade Promotion Authority. “China is a gigantic force sitting on top of all nations smaller, except India, in the region and is able to do what Russia is able to do in Europe with regard to oil,” he said. “They have significant economic power to deny access to their markets or open access to their markets for all of those regional powers.”

Promotion of the TPP is thus tied to the increasingly frenzied efforts of American imperialism to provoke regional conflicts with China and North Korea, effectively a client state of Beijing: with Japan over the Senkaku/Diaoyou islets; with the Philippines and Vietnam, among others, in the South China Sea; on the Burmese border with China; and between India and China.

In the media coverage of TPP, however, such considerations have been overshadowed by the fake-populist posturing of a large section of the congressional Democratic Party, along with Democratic Party-aligned groups, including the AFL-CIO, environmental groups, the Nation magazine and the pseudo-left International Socialist Organization.

These forces are opposing the trade pact on the basis of anti-Chinese chauvinism and American nationalism, seeking once again to promote the lie that US workers’ jobs and wages can be defended at the expense of the jobs and conditions of workers of other countries. Their attempt to divert working class anger over unemployment and wage cuts along reactionary nationalist channels is linked to the promotion of militarism.

On April 15, four congressional Democrats addressed a rally of more than 1,000 union officials and their supporters, chaired by United Steelworkers President Leo Gerard, fresh from his betrayal of the strike by oil refinery workers.

Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts performed her fist-pumping ritual, shouting into the microphone, “No more secret trade deals! Are you ready to fight? No more special deals for multinational corporations! Are you ready to fight?”

Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who may carry out a token challenge to Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination, declared that Congress was “totally owned by billionaires and their lobbyists.”

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, another veteran of countless betrayals of struggles of the working class, both as president of the nearly defunct United Mineworkers of America and now as head of the labor federation, testified against the trade agreement at a hearing Tuesday before the Senate Finance Committee.

Trumka had previously announced a “massive” six-figure ad campaign to lobby Congress against fast-track authority. “We can’t afford to pass fast-track, which would lead to more lost jobs and lower wages,” he declared. “We want Congress to keep its leverage over trade negotiations- not rubber-stamp a deal that delivers profits for global corporations, but not good jobs for working people.”

This demagogic rhetoric covers up the AFL-CIO’s long record of helping corporate America impose “lost jobs and lower wages” on millions of workers. The unions are not defending the interests of the working class, but rather the profits of less competitive sections of the American capitalist class, particularly in manufacturing, which fear they will lose out to foreign rivals in Japan, Mexico and other countries in the TPP talks.

As for the opposition by congressional Democrats, it is largely for show, to keep the campaign dollars flowing from the unions. When push comes to shove, a sufficient number of Democratic votes will likely be found in both the Senate and the House to offset any potential Republican defections.

Obama is playing his part in the charade, highlighting opposition among congressional Democrats while declaring them wrong on the issue. Like Warren and Sanders, Obama claims to be defending the interests of working people. “I would not be doing this trade deal if I did not think it was good for the middle class,” he said in an interview Tuesday with MSNBC.

He went so far as to claim that his six-year record in office was proof that any trade deal would be good for working people–as though the slashing of wages in the auto industry, the destruction of millions of decent-paying jobs, and an economic “recovery” based on low-wage, part-time labor, enforced by drastic cuts in social benefits, had never happened.

Both factions in the ruling class “debate,” the advocates of “free trade” and the advocates of protectionism, represent sections of the capitalist class. Both are implacably hostile to the interests of working people.

The Big Shift Needed for Humanity to Protect the Earth: Restore the Commons

On Earth Day, let’s talk about making the commons the organizing principle of social, economic and cultural life.

Photo Credit: Garry Knight/Flickr

At a time when ecological destruction is more dire than ever, the work of protecting the planet depends on dreamers just as much as of scientists, activists, public officials and business leaders.

Earth Day, when millions of people voice support for environmental causes, is the perfect time to recognize this. While it’s critical to wrestle power away from those who believe that corporate profits are all that matter, we won’t achieve a sustainable, just future without serious attention to imagining a different kind of world. That’s why it’s great to see artists playing an increasingly active role in the climate justice movement today.

What bold blueprints for a green planet will arise if we unleash the full power of our idealism and ingenuity? What visions of new ways to lead our lives would turn the public’s indifference about climate change into enthusiasm for building a society that is more sustainable and fair for all?

The focus for most people’s dreams would be the familiar places they love—neighborhoods, cities, suburbs, villages and countryside. Think what could happen if we declared these places commons, which belong to all of us and need to be improved for future generations. Citizens would stand up, lock arms with their neighbors and demand new political and economic directions for our society. They would open discussions with business leaders, government officials, scientists and design professionals on how to create resilient, equitable, greener communities. But the conversation wouldn’t stop there. We’d plan for less carbon and waste and poverty, but also for more fun and joy and conviviality—which are equally strategic goals.

The chief obstacle to taking action on climate change and global inequality is fear of the economic sacrifices involved for people who are relatively well off today. The decline in the West’s material consumption could be more than compensated for by a richer life filled more human connections and natural splendor. We can look forward to a world with more congenial gathering places like parks, plazas, museums, playing fields, ice cream parlors and cafes—lots and lots of cafes. Millions of acres and hectares of pavement would be torn up and transformed into gardens, performance spaces, amusement parks and affordable housing.

Cities would be greener. Suburbs would be livelier. Rural communities would be more robust. You’d see folks of all ages, incomes, and ethnicities as well as social and political inclinations sharing the same spaces, talking with one another even if not always agreeing. In short, the world would be a lot more interesting for everyone. I can’t think of many folks—from free market zealots to ardent political organizers, religious fundamentalists to confirmed hedonists—who wouldn’t jump at the chance to experience more pizzazz and spirit of community in their lives.

But the biggest change we’d see if the commons became the organizing principle of social, economic and cultural life would be felt in our own hearts and imaginations. These days, most of us experience modern life as a fragmented and alienating, which makes us retreat into ourselves as a defensive posture. We feel a growing sense of loneliness—quiet desperation in Thoreau’s phrase—that renders us passive and withdrawn at a time when it’s more important than ever to reach out.

Creating stronger, friendlier, more engaged communities is not a sideshow in the urgent cause of saving the planet. It is a central strategy. Because when people connect, roll up their sleeves and get down to work protecting the places they care about, anything is possible. There’s a whole world of people out there ready to dream big and then put it into action.

Jay Walljasper is a writer and speaker who explores how new ideas in urban planning, tourism, community development, sustainability, politics and culture can improve our lives as well as the world.

US troops arrive in Ukraine

US troops arrive at western Ukraine training camp


By Patrick Martin
22 April 2015

After a convoy across Eastern Europe from their base in Vicenza, Italy, nearly 300 soldiers from the US 173rd Airborne Brigade arrived in Ukraine Monday, to begin training members of the Ukrainian National Guard. They took up positions at a camp in Yavoriv, a few miles outside of the city of Lviv, the main center of western Ukraine.

The Ukrainian troops working with the Americans include members of the Azov Battalion and other units notorious for their links to neo-Nazi groups. They have marched with modified swastikas and other insignia modeled on the Waffen SS forces that fought alongside Ukrainian nationalists against the Soviet Red Army during World War II.

Operation Fearless Guardian, as the six-month US-Ukraine exercise is called, began with welcoming speeches in the pouring rain delivered by Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, US Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt and other officials. The US is paying the $19 million cost of the exercise as part of a billion-dollar commitment to building up the Ukrainian military against Russia.

More than 180 journalists attended the opening ceremony—a propaganda contingent nearly the size of the American military force—indicating the political context of the training mission, which pits US imperialism and NATO against Russia in an increasingly tense military-diplomatic confrontation.

Poroshenko claimed that the conflict with pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine was “not only a battle for independent Ukraine, it is also a battle for freedom and democracy in Europe and worldwide.” He hailed Fearless Guardian as the largest joint US-Ukrainian military exercises ever held on Ukrainian soil, declaring, “I am sure the exercises we are launching here today will be effective in reinforcing and stabilizing the situation.”

The Ukrainian president pointed to the other NATO countries participating in the exercises, including 75 British troops who are already there, 200 Canadians scheduled to arrive this summer, as well as hundreds more soldiers from neighboring Poland.

Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said that American soldiers would share the lessons of their military operations fighting insurgencies in Afghanistan and Iraq, which could be put to use against pro-Russian separatists. “The US special task force has experience received in operations worldwide, and we want to use this experience,” he said.

US and Ukrainian officials briefed the press about the training program, which will involve three Ukrainian battalions, each working for two months with their American trainers, bringing the total number of Ukrainian troops engaged in the exercise to 900.

US brigade operations officer Major Jose Mendez said, “We will be conducting classes on war-fighting functions, as well as training to sustain and increase the professionalism and proficiency of military staffs.”

A spokesman for Ukrainian’s anti-terrorist operations command (ATO), Andriy Lysenko, said that the US troops would transfer a large quantity of military equipment in the course of the exercise, including uniforms, bullet-proof jackets, helmets, night-vision devices and communications gear.

He indicated that in addition to artillery and small-unit tactics, the training would include “tactical reconnaissance and information warfare, which includes contacts with civilians in the conflict zone and measures to counter the enemy’s information aggression.” This suggests that the US side will discuss how to deal with a hostile local population, such as that encountered by US forces in Iraq and Afghanistan and by Ukrainian troops in the eastern districts of Donetsk and Luhansk.

A detailed account of the training mission, published Tuesday in the Wall Street Journal, claimed that the US side would push for decision-making during military operations at the small-unit level, as opposed to what the newspaper described as “a top-down command structure” in place in Ukraine because of Soviet-era military training.

This suggests that the US trainers will favor the more aggressive methods of the Azov battalion and other fascist-led units. There have been repeated conflicts during the fighting in the east, because the fascist units opposed any negotiated settlement with the pro-Russian separatists, while the Poroshenko government was concerned over possible international backlash against a too-blatant display of neo-Nazi regalia.

A spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin warned that the entry of NATO forces into Ukraine could destabilize the precarious ceasefire.

The role of the neo-Nazis has become a subject of public discussion in Canada, even before Canadian troops arrive in Ukraine for training. Some 200 soldiers from the Petawawa Garrison in Ottawa Valley will be sent to Ukraine during the summer.

At a briefing last week, Defense Minister Jason Kenney admitted that there had been discussion in the military staff about how to avoid training extremists during the exercise in Ukraine. “We’re not going to be in the business of training ad hoc militias,” he claimed. “We will only be training units of the Ukrainian National Guard and army recognized by the government of Ukraine.”

Since the neo-Nazi outfits like the Azov Battalion have been incorporated into the National Guard and are recognized by the Poroshenko regime, this assurance means nothing. A former Canadian diplomat, James Bissett, told the Canadian media, “These militias are being merged with Ukraine’s military so we won’t be able to determine who we are training.” He went on to describe the fascists as “unsavory groups that Canadian soldiers should not be associated with.”

Far from disavowing the fascist militias, Poroshenko is completely dependent on them, not merely to fight the pro-Russian forces in the east, but to serve as the shock troops for his government as it imposes right-wing austerity policies on the Ukrainian working class as a whole, as demanded by the European Union and the International Monetary Fund.

Ukraine’s defense ministry has named Dmitri Yarosh, head of the fascist Right Sector party, as an adviser to the military chiefs.

Meanwhile, the head of the Central Investigation Department of Security Service of Ukraine (SBU), Vasily Vovk, told Ukraine’s ICTV channel that there were no fascist or ultra-right parties in Ukraine at all, only individuals. “We have no information available about any kind of radical far-right parties, organizations or groups,” he claimed. “Ultra-radical groups and organizations are neither registered, nor identified.”

Vovk was attempting to walk back a statement he made April 18, noting that a group calling itself the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) had taken responsibility for the murders of pro-Russian journalist Oles Buzyna and pro-Russian former member of parliament Oleg Kalashnikov, who were both assassinated last week in Kiev.


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The Richest 0.01 Percent of Americans Gave 42 Percent of Political Donations in 2012

It should come as no surprise that policymakers look after the ultra-wealthy instead of the rest of us.

The top 0.01 percent of Americans gave nearly 42 percent of all political donation dollars in the 2012 election cycle.
Photo Credit: 

Forget the top one percent, the top 0.01 percent of Americans gave nearly 42 percent of all political donation dollars in the 2012 election cycle. Just over 30,000 individuals contributed nearly half of all money. It is no coincidence that this proportion has increased steadily as economic inequality has increased. In 1990 when I was born, the figure was just under 13 percent. If we expanded the scope to the full one percent, you can be damn sure they gave the overwhelming majority of dollars in recent years.

Candidates devote 80 percent of their time to begging rich people for money. Any extremist Republican can get a billionaire sugar daddy. The world’s eighth richest man can summon the entire Republican primary field to kiss his ring. Millionaires are now complaining about being ignored in favor of billionaires. The average member of Congress is a millionaire.

It should come as no surprise that policymakers look after the ultra-wealthy instead of the rest of us. This trend of increasing economic and political inequality shows no sign of abating. Inequality is incompatible with democracy and it has created a plutocracy. Republicans like Marco Rubio are even proposing abolishing capital gains taxes in an all-out assault on those who actually earn their income.

Government of the rich, by the rich, for the rich, brought to you by the Supreme Court. Honest Abe must be spinning in his grave over what his party has become.

Libya’s boat refugees and “humanitarian” imperialism


By Johannes Stern and Bill Van Auken

21 April 2015

The horrific death toll of African and Middle Eastern refugees and migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean to Europe is a damning indictment of all the major imperialist powers, and most particularly the United States.

The American president, Barack Obama, and his former secretary of state, Hillary “We came, we saw, he died” Clinton, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, have blood up to their elbows. They set the present catastrophe in motion through brutal wars for regime change waged under the hypocritical and discredited banner of “human rights.”

At least three more boats packed with refugees from North Africa and the Middle East were reported to be in distress in the Mediterranean on Monday, with a minimum of 23 more people said to have drowned.

This adds to the many hundreds of people, perhaps 1,400, who have lost their lives over the past week in a desperate bid to escape military violence by the US and its European allies, civil wars stoked by Washington and the European Union, and pervasive poverty exacerbated by the machinations of imperialism in the region.

On Monday, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi said distress calls had been received from an inflatable life raft carrying 100 to 150 migrants and a second boat with some 300 people aboard. The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) said a caller reported that 20 people died when one of the vessels sank in international waters.

In a separate incident, at least three migrants, including a child, died when a boat, apparently coming from Turkey, ran aground off the Greek island of Rhodes. Video footage showed the wooden boat, with people crowded on the deck, heaving in the Aegean Sea just off the island. Eyewitnesses told the local radio station that there were many Syrians, but also people from Eritrea and Somalia.

The latest drownings follow the deaths of close to 950 people on Sunday in the sinking of a refugee boat off of Libya. According to the Italian Coast Guard, the completely overloaded boat capsized about 130 miles off the Libyan coast.

“We were 950 people on board, including 40 to 50 children and 200 women,” a survivor from Bangladesh told the Italian news agency ANSA. Many people were trapped in the hold of the ship and drowned under horrible circumstances. “The smugglers had closed the doors and stopped them leaving,” said the man.

Over 500 more people died the previous week in two separate sinkings of boats attempting to reach Europe across the Mediterranean.

Since the beginning of the year, at least 1,700 people attempting to immigrate to Europe have died in transit, 50 times the number for the same period last year. According to the IOM, the number of people dying in the attempt to reach the shores of Europe rose by more than 500 percent between 2011 and 2014.

Of course, 2011 was the year that the US and its NATO allies, principally France and Britain, launched their war for regime change in Libya, under the fabricated pretext that they were intervening to prevent a massacre by the government of Muammar Gaddafi in the eastern city of Benghazi.

This “humanitarian” mission initiated a six-month US-NATO bombing campaign that killed at least 10 times the number who died in the scattered fighting between government troops and armed rebels that had preceded it. This imperialist intervention, which utilized Islamist militias with ties to Al Qaeda as its proxy ground forces, left Libya descending rapidly into chaos and destruction.

Nearly two million Libyan refugees—more than a quarter of the population—have been forced to flee to Tunisia to escape an unending civil war between rival Islamist militias and two competing governments, one based in Tripoli and the other in the eastern city of Tobruk. According to the web site Libya Body Count, some 3,500 people have been killed just since the beginning of 2014—three years after the US-NATO intervention.

The escalating barbarism in Libya has included mass executions. The latest, made public in a video released Sunday by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), was of some 30 Ethiopian migrants. This follows by less than two months the similar mass beheadings of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians at the hands of ISIS, which has seized Libya’s eastern port city of Derna as well as parts of the city of Sirte.

There were no such mass sectarian murders in Libya before the US-NATO war for regime change, nor for that matter did Al Qaeda-linked Islamist militias exist as any more than a marginal force. These elements were promoted, armed and backed by massive airpower after the major imperialist powers decided to topple and murder Gaddafi and carry out a new rape of Libya.

The disastrous consequences of this predatory neocolonial intervention are now undeniable. It is only one in a growing number of imperialist wars and interventions in the oil-rich Middle East and North Africa that have destroyed entire societies and turned millions into refugees. These include the wars in Iraq, Syria and now Yemen, as well as interventions by the imperialist powers or their regional proxies in Mali, Somalia and Sudan.

According to Amnesty International, the escalating conflicts in Africa and the Middle East have “led to the largest refugee disaster since the Second World War.” Amnesty estimates that 57 million people have been forced to flee worldwide in the last year, 6 million more than in 2012.

The American press, led by the New York Times, writes of refugees fleeing poverty and violence in the Middle East and North Africa without so much as mentioning the actions of the United States and its European allies that have caused the humanitarian catastrophe. What is unfolding in the Mediterranean is not a tragedy; it is an imperialist war crime.

In defense of Diego Rivera’s Detroit Industry frescoes

“Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in Detroit,” at the Detroit Institute of Arts

By Tim Rivers and David Walsh
21 April 2015

“Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in Detroit,” at the Detroit Institute of Arts, March 15-July 12, 2015 The current exhibition at the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA), “Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in Detroit,” treats the 11 months the famed Mexican artists spent in the city, between April 1932 and March 1933.

The exhibition contains much that is fascinating and even sublime. However, the overall approach taken by the curators, which exalts art concentrated on the “self,” is troubling and, in some places, wrongheaded and even reactionary.

Diego and Frida Rivera, Frida Kahlo, 1931

Rivera (1886-1957) and Kahlo (1907-1954) were married in August 1929, and spent much of the years 1930 to 1933 in the US, in response, in part, to an anti-communist witch-hunt in Mexico. A socialist and supporter of the October Revolution, Rivera had been expelled from the Communist Party of Mexico in 1929 for speaking out in opposition to Stalin.

While in Detroit, Rivera painted his magnificent Detroit Industry frescoes, which remain the centerpiece of the DIA. The murals depict industrial production in all its facets, with workers at the center of the imagery, as well as the natural and social processes that culminate in modern human life. This complex work directs the viewer to many of the great dramas and dilemmas of the 20th century.

The DIA show contains full-sized cartoons, the preparatory drawings for the murals, as well as documentary videos, paintings and drawings by both Rivera and Kahlo from before, during and after the time the artists spent in Detroit. The cartoons, in particular, are spectacular, but fragile. They have not been seen for thirty years.

A brief video of Rivera at work is riveting. The great care, precision and enthusiasm with which he and his collaborators carried out the mural work are evident. Often working eighteen hours at a time, the Mexican artist lost a great deal of weight in the course of the Herculean physical and mental effort.

Another video clip shows workers in soup lines, and then, on March 7, 1932, Dearborn police and Ford company thugs attacking the Hunger March of 3,000 unarmed, unemployed people as they approached the Ford Rouge Plant. Four workers were shot to death in the infamous incident, a fifth died of his injuries three months later and 60 more were wounded in the bloody attack.

The funeral procession five days later, estimated at 60,000 people, shook the city’s foundations as chorus after chorus of “The Internationale” echoed for miles. That took place only weeks before Rivera and Kahlo arrived.

Emiliano Zapata, revolutionary peasant leader, Diego Rivera, 1932

A series of works illustrates Rivera’s art prior to his stay in Detroit. There is the iconic portrait of Emiliano Zapata, the revolutionary peasant leader, and a lithograph of a peasant, “Boy with Dog,” from 1932. The unforgettable paintings “Flower Day” from 1925 and “Flowered Barge” (1931) in his mature, glowing, monumental style, appear as well. “Sawing Rails,” done in Moscow in 1927, and “Soviet Harvest Scene” are also on display.

Frida Kahlo’s “Portrait of Eva Frederick” from 1931 is appealing and shows the influence of Rivera. Her painting “Frieda and Diego Rivera, 1931” uses a flattened, primitive approach. Kahlo’s “Window Display on a Street in Detroit” (1932), the first painting she completed in Detroit, is quite touching.

Flower Day, Diego Rivera, 1925

Rivera’s pieces, “Juanita Rosas,” “Self-Portrait” and “Nude with Beads,” all from 1930, and “Friend of Frida,” from 1931, along with Portraits of Edsel Ford and DIA director William Valentiner, responsible for Rivera’s coming to Detroit, are included as well.

On May 24, 1932, Valentiner wrote in his diary with deep respect and admiration: “Today Rivera made a sketch of me in profile, with finest red and black chalk. While other artists usually waste a lot of paper, he used only one sheet. With the greatest assurance he drew the outlines with fine and even lines. It was at its best after half an hour, when the sketch was finished… Contrary to other great artists, he immediately brings out the likeness between the portrait and the model. With his mathematically inclined mind he immediately hits upon the right proportions.” (Margaret Sterne, The Passionate Eye, The Life of William R. Valentiner)

Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in Detroit, 1933, DIA archives

Unfortunately, as noted above, the remarkable character of many of the works in “Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in Detroit” does not compensate for the exhibition’s real and significant weaknesses, which tend to compromise and undermine its important material.

At the center of the difficulties lies the organizers’ unjustifiable attempt to elevate Kahlo’s artistic stature and, more generally, to make the case for art that primarily explores the individual artist’s “anguish and sense of suffering,” in the words of a DIA press release. This effort is in line with contemporary identity politics and upper-middle class self-absorption. This inevitably involves, implicitly or explicitly, diminishing or dismissing the significance of theDetroit Industry frescoes and its subject matter.

To understand why the frescoes are so offensive to contemporary art museum officials and critics alike, one has to grasp the driving forces in Rivera’s artistic life in the early 1930s, which animated the painting of the murals. The Mexican painter was inspired by great events, especially the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the Mexican Revolution of 1910-1920, in the production of his most important works.

North Wall, Detroit Industry Murals by Diego Rivera, 1932-33

It will come as a revelation, and one hopes an inspiration, to many who attend the exhibition that there is a history and tradition of revolutionary art. It has proved possible in the past to develop the highest forms of creative expression wedded to the aspirations, struggles, sufferings and trials of the masses. Rivera and his work were perhaps the greatest demonstration of this possibility in the field of fine art in the 20th century.

Leon Trotsky, whose supporter Rivera became for a number of years, wrote in 1938: “In the field of painting, the October revolution has found her greatest interpreter not in the USSR but in faraway Mexico… Nurtured in the artistic cultures of all peoples, all epochs, Diego Rivera has remained Mexican in the most profound fibres of his genius. But that which inspired him in these magnificent frescoes, which lifted him up above the artistic tradition, above contemporary art, in a certain sense, above himself, is the mighty blast of the proletarian revolution. Without October, his power of creative penetration into the epic of work, oppression and insurrection, would never have attained such breadth and profundity.” (“Art and Politics in Our Epoch”)

Leon Trotsky, Rivera and Andre Breton in Mexico

Rivera defended Trotsky against the vicious attacks of Stalinism and was instrumental in the Russian revolutionary’s obtaining asylum in Mexico in 1937. They collaborated, together with André Breton, on an important “Manifesto for an Independent Revolutionary Art.” The omission of Trotsky’s name from the exhibition can hardly be an accident.

One of the extraordinary videos on display at the DIA shows a mass of workers battling police, as well as Rivera and Kahlo in front of a banner advertising works by Lenin and Marx in English. “There remained one thing left for me to prove,” said Rivera, speaking of his trip to the US. “My theory of revolutionary art would be accepted in an industrial nation where capitalists rule.” An overhead view of the DIA courtyard when the murals were opened to the public in March 1933 shows the space packed wall to wall.

Both in the mural work and in the video footage, a powerful sense of the industrial working class in Detroit emerges. Museum-goers perhaps used to the often demoralized and irrationalist outpourings of postmodernism, racial politics, feminism and other trends in recent decades will be struck by the massive and creative force of the working class.

The viewer must also be struck by the striking parallel, despite the changes over many decades, between present-day Detroit and the situation described in one of the videos of growing popular anger over the mass poverty at one pole of society and the immense wealth at the other, in the midst of the Depression. Many must see this and think, “So it remains today!”

The Industry frescoes are the greatest draw at the DIA and have always held a special place with the most conscious elements of the population in Detroit and beyond. The threat to the DIA two years ago, in connection with city’s filing for bankruptcy protection, aroused popular outrage. On the one hand, DIA officials are obliged to pay nominal tribute to the frescoes, describing the work as a “masterpiece” in their promotional material. On the other hand, the current show contains a sustained and consistent attack on Rivera and his work.

Before the Detroit Industry murals were made public in 1933, right-wing forces and religious bigots were howling for their destruction. Rivera’s artistic response was powerful and enduring. The frescoes depict the emergence of the working class, drawn like minerals from all regions and races and formed in the cauldron of industrial production into the central creative force of a bright future.

Now, however, a new kind of attack is under way, proceeding from within, as it were, from the DIA hierarchy and the art world.

Along these lines, certain aspects of the current exhibition’s organization are significant. The room containing Rivera’s breathtaking cartoons, for example, is followed by one almost entirely devoted to Kahlo’s miscarriage, or abortion, that occurred while she was in Detroit.

Three weeks before Rivera began to paint his murals, his wife entered Henry Ford Hospital. Evidence suggests, according to the exhibition catalogue, that Kahlo induced the loss of her pregnancy on July 4, 1932 by ingesting quinine. A few weeks later, with Rivera’s encouragement, she made the lithograph “Frida and the Abortion, 1932” to memorialize the event.

The end of her pregnancy figures prominently in Kahlo’s work and may have influenced Rivera’s decision to replace an agricultural scene, which appears in the exhibition as a full-sized cartoon, with a healthy infant curled in a plant bulb. This remarkable series of cartoons of the images that surround the infant is at the center of the current show. Root systems extend into rich soils and subterranean aquifers. Plowshares cultivate the surrounding terrain.

The artist said the image represented the museum “as the central organism for the development of the aesthetic culture of the community.” (“Dynamic Detroit–An Introduction,” Creative Art, April 1933). Giant, exquisite female nudes cradle fruits and grain on either side and lovingly watch over the child–the picture of a rich and satisfying future for all.

In any event, the loss of the unborn baby was traumatic for Kahlo and Rivera, but the curators’ decision to raise this personal tragedy to the level of a world-historical event strikes a false, tasteless and disoriented note.

Henry Ford Hospital, 1932, Frida Kahlo

In Kahlo’s “Henry Ford Hospital, 1932” we are confronted with a stricken woman, in a pool of blood, connected by multiple umbilical cords to a fetus, a snail, a pelvis and several other objects. The curator’s argument that somehow this agonizing, intimate experience must supplant the grand conception of a harmonious future for all mankind is deeply disturbing.

This sort of imagery becomes the basis for the claim, for example by the New York Times’ Roberta Smith, that “Kahlo emerges in the final galleries as the stronger, more personal and more original artist.” Kate Abbey-Lambertz headlines her piece at the Huffington Post, “How Frida Kahlo’s Miscarriage Put Her On The Path To Becoming An Iconic Artist.”

One of the foulest efforts to denigrate Rivera, Michael H. Hodges’ “Kahlo trumps Rivera in popular fame,” recently appeared in the Detroit News, a chief organ of Detroit business circles. There is a certain appropriateness here. The new, slightly more sophisticated, assault on the murals is taken up by the newspaper that was at the center of the original attacks.

Baby in a plant bulb from the east wall of the Detroit Industry Murals, Diego Rivera

On March 19, 1933, a News editorial argued that the Rivera murals were “psychologically erroneous, coarse in conception and, to many women observers, foolishly vulgar.” The News further asserted that the work was “un-American, incongruous and unsympathetic,” recommended that DIA director Valentiner be fired and concluded that “perhaps the best thing to do would be to whitewash the entire work and return the Court to its original beauty.”

Hodges’ piece in March 2015 takes a different tack, assembling fashionable and snobbish contemporary attacks on Rivera. The News journalist first notes that in 1932 Rivera was one of the most famous artists in the world. “How times have changed,” he observes, and then carries on: “Kahlo, the subject of the hit 2002 movie ‘Frida,’ has morphed into a pop-culture superstar and feminist icon, her fame today easily swamping Rivera’s. To explain this, curators and art historians point to changing fashions and the compelling nature of Kahlo’s personal narrative, which resonates with our self-obsessed age.

“For Rivera, one-half of the current Detroit Institute of Arts blockbuster… it’s been quite a fall from grace,” he writes.

Hodges calls on none other than the current, soon-to-retire, DIA director Graham Beal to help make his case. Beal terms Kahlo “an international superstar,” adding, “you often have to explain to people–particularly anyone under 40–just who Rivera was and why we should care.” (Who talks like this, using terms like “international superstar?”)

The News article continues: “‘When I first visited here in the early 1970s,’ he [Beal] adds, ‘Rivera looked hopelessly old-fashioned and wrong-headed–realistic, political, and in a way, propagandistic. Her art is much more in keeping with today–highly personal and intimate, full of pain and uncertainty.’”

These comments speak to decades-old processes that are now coming to a head. Wide layers of the so-called intelligentsia, who have become affluent and moved far to the right, no longer feel the need to conceal their social indifference and outright hostility to the working population… and their utter obsession with themselves. It’s repugnant.

They latch onto Kahlo because what they read in her art corresponds to their own unease, interpreted in purely existential and individual terms. Rivera’s challenging and carefully conceived imagery of people at work or engaged in epic struggles against war and disease, ignorance and prejudice is compared unfavorably to a series of pictures focusing on one individual’s physical and psychic injuries.

The attack on art that addresses great social questions is relentless. On the audio guide, for example, guest curator Maria Cotera, a Women’s Studies professor at the University of Michigan, asserts that we now know that “the minor is where we find the big ideas” and that “big ideas became deeply personal.” Wall texts celebrate Kahlo’s subjectivism and criticize Rivera for advocating and explaining political principles and big historical and intellectual conceptions.

The curators write, for example, “Her [Kahlo’s] intellectual and artistic interests hinged on defining and representing herself,” while “Diego Rivera wanted his murals to become part of a dialogue about society that supported his intellectual and artistic agendas.”

The line of the exhibition, never stated in an honest manner, is that Rivera may have had some justification for his social art given the conditions of the 1930s, but we have long since transcended the period when art and politics concentrated on the working class. Kahlo’s critique of life is far more profound, “more thorough” than the class struggle conception promoted by Rivera because it is not fixated on changing the external world. Instead, it focuses on the inner being and “deeper” questions such as gender, sexuality, etc.

These views inevitably raise more directly the question of Kahlo’s art and career, a subject far too large for extended treatment here. It is evident that the discovery of Kahlo coincides with the emergence of gender politics and postmodern ideology in the 1970s and 1980s.

As “Made in Her Image: Frida Kahlo as Material Culture,” by Lis Pankl and Kevin Blake, points out: “It is certainly no accident that Kahlo’s popularity rose with the linguistic and cultural turn in the humanities and social sciences. With a greater emphasis on representation and identity politics, the academy found in Kahlo a perfect subject for analysis. Kahlo’s complex ethnicity… artistic autoeroticism, and evident links to gender construction are of much appeal to poststructuralists.”

One cannot place all the blame for the uses to which she and her work are put on Kahlo, but there is certainly some basis in the art itself for the current infatuation. It does violence to the history of art and helps no one to reduce Rivera, a colossal figure who drew upon a profound study of art and conveyed powerfully the impact of the Russian and Mexican Revolutions, to the benefit of Kahlo, a figure identified with extreme subjectivity. Such a readjustment in the artistic-intellectual world’s opinion must give one pause.

The victim of a serious accident at the age of 18 that required her to undergo dozens of surgeries over the course of her lifetime, Kahlo was no doubt a gifted artist, but her work is strikingly dominated by considerations of herself and her difficulties. She produced 143 paintings, 55 of which were self-portraits. Why so many? “Because I am so often alone,” she explained, “because I am the subject I know best.” Yes, but did she truly understand herself? An immense focus is hardly a guarantee that one understands a subject all that well.

There is something static, unchanging, in Kahlo’s self-portraiture, even immature. Of course, she died quite young and she came under various influences, not all of them happy or helpful ones. But in the self-portraits of Rembrandt and van Gogh, for example, one feels an unending intellectual and aesthetic development, the result of a bottomless curiosity about the world, history, society, resulting in an intense and compassionate realism.

A self-portrait is more than a picture of an individual. In its psychological depth and rigorous objectivity, a great self-portrait points beyond itself to something about the human situation in general, and perhaps the artistic personality in particular. Kahlo’s self-portraits are unusual and distinctive, but they tend to refer the viewer always back to Kahlo and her immediate situation. They seem often to be a reminder of her anguished presence more than a window onto something broader. One cannot help but have the feeling these paintings are intended in part to impress and even to shock.

The subject cannot be removed from art, nor should it be, but there is a distinction between dealing honestly and vividly with oneself and one’s circumstances and self-obsession. If a work becomes excessively personal, the universal may be lost in the process.

At a certain point, if the representation becomes too particular, why should anyone else care a great deal? Kahlo was neither the first nor the last person to suffer physical ailments and complications. Pankl and Blake write, “Kahlo’s depictions of bodily pain are the most widely explored elements within her work.”

Art also requires a certain detachment, and the most compelling artistic figures have treated suffering, including their own, with restraint and dignity, not self-pity.

Uncritical admirers of Kahlo are miseducating the public and aspiring artists as well when they suggest, by implication, that wholeheartedly embracing one’s afflictions or perhaps one’s biology by itself is a possible route to artistic greatness. If such were the case, there would be no need for a serious study of art or society, or a concern with the fate of anyone other than oneself. And, indeed, such an outlook helps account for the largely desiccated, angst-ridden and self-centered art that predominates today.

All in all, the DIA’s “Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in Detroit,” a peculiar and contradictory event, raises a host of pressing issues.

Much of the imagery, including video imagery assembled by the curators themselves, tends to direct the museum-goer toward the big events of the 20th century, to the revolutionary role of the working class and, by implication, to a consideration of what point society and the human condition have now reached. After all, the exhibition is being held in an economically devastated city, where tens of thousands of people face the possibility of having their water shut off in the near future!

Yet the show’s organizers and museum officials, along with their media apologists, are waging a ferocious ideological campaign in opposition to such concerns—even at the expense of the DIA’s own centerpiece—in favor of art, in the words of the New York Times ’ Smith, suffused with “existential torment.”

The defense of the Detroit Industry frescoes falls once again, as it did in the 1930s, to the only social force with an interest in the cultural development of the population as a whole and in art that looks at life and reality critically, the working class.