Israel’s Control of Palestinian Lives


My pet cat here in Gaza has more freedom than the Palestinians, such is the subhuman treatment meted out to them.

An Israeli army armoured personnel carrier (APC) moves along Israel’s border with the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip on July 25, 2014
Photo Credit: AFP

As Israeli air force bombs fell over Gaza City one recent evening, Snowy, the white cat that has charmed me into hosting him in my garden, ducked down in shock, as I did. Snowy is one of a growing population of cats in the Gaza Strip that help deter rodents in residential areas. Israel‘s grip on what is allowed in or out of Gaza includes restrictions on equipment and supplies essential for municipal hygiene services. Gaza has become a heaven for rats.

If Snowy understood human speech, I would have responded to his angry yowls of shock at the bombing by reminding him of the silver lining for him in Gaza. For years now, he has been unwittingly upgraded compared to the subhuman treatment of the people. Snowy may have to scavenge for food, but Israel has been rationing Gaza’s supplies – and its aspirations for a dignified future – for years. As the cat freely roams around the neighbourhood, my movement in and out of Gaza is heavily restricted, when it exists at all.

The simmering cauldron that is Gaza has now boiled over, with horrifying consequences. But this is not a war of equals, as some suggest. Israel remains an occupying force that controls Palestinian lives against their will. Palestinians who do not enjoy the same opportunities, dignity and conveniences of civilian life as people in Israel cannot suddenly be considered as equals in a disproportionate conflict.

This is the third war on Gaza, and arguably the most vicious, in less than six years. When friends and family call from all over the world, including Israelis and Jewish friends of other nationalities, I am embarrassed to utter a single word of distress next to the tragedies that are unfolding all around us. I cannot forget footage of a young boy who whispered for water as he was perhaps dying on a stretcher with his abdomen torn open. Significant parts of the Gaza Strip have been for days out of water and electricity.

The proportion of children among civilian deaths remains at around 20% since the beginning of this war. This is surely an indicator of the lack of Israeli remorse or reconsideration of its military tactics for the past three weeks.

For years, Israel has not only shunned Gaza politically but has painted its people as aliens with whom no one outside could relate to any more. Israel’s governments have unfairly indoctrinated their public that Gaza is a hostile place full of hostile people. It became permissible to level any degree of punishment on Gaza. While no unanimity prevails in Gaza on the firing of rockets towards Israel, a great deal of consensus exists that Gaza has been pushed too far, to a point where such actions are seen by more and more as a measure of last resort. Gaza got tired of being suffocated and pushed around without any hope for a better future.

Now, Israel is crushing Gaza in what it calls self-defence, but which feels to people here like an Israeli attempt to discipline us never to make the mistake that we are worthy of a decent and peaceful life. The mostly timid international community has been blinded to the cumulative effects of Israel’s policy and has inadequately challenged its alienation and incarceration of Gaza. This failure to appreciate how explosive the underlying causes are sows the seeds for another round of violence.

The international community should be commended for either supporting recent Palestinian reconciliation or, at least, not standing in its way. However, it can no longer view itself as a spectator as the new Palestinian government of national consensus struggles to fend off Israeli threats and actions. Europe and the US are urged to be active participants in helping Palestinians succeed in advancing a government that aims, at least in part, to devise a political programme that builds bridges with the world.

In preparing for presidential and parliamentary elections, the Palestinian Authority is urged to add a prominent item to its ballot sheet. It is whether voters in Gaza and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, support peaceful resolution with Israel. The results will only reiterate the obvious: Palestinians are not seekers of violence, but are aggressively and methodically pushed and cornered into it.

 

Nearly one quarter of US children in poverty

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By Andre Damon
23 July 2014

Nearly one in four children in the United States lives in a family below the federal poverty line, according to figures presented in a new report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

A total of 16.3 million children live in poverty, and 45 percent of children in the US live in households whose incomes fall below 200 percent of the federal poverty line.

The annual report, titled the Kids Count Data Book, compiles data on children’s economic well-being, education, health, and family support. It concludes that, “inequities among children remain deep and stubbornly persistent.”

The report is an indictment of the state of American society nearly six years after the onset of the financial crisis in 2008. While the Obama administration and the media have proclaimed an economic “recovery,” conditions of life for the vast majority of the population continue to deteriorate.

The report notes that the percentage of children in poverty hit 23 percent in 2012, up sharply from 16 percent in 2000. Some states are much worse. For almost the entire American South, the share of children in poverty is higher than 25 percent.

These conditions are the product of a ruthless class policy pursued at all levels of government. While trillions of dollars have been made available to Wall Street, sending both the stock markets and corporate profits to record highs, economic growth has stagnated, social programs have been slashed, and public services decimated, while prices of many basic items are on the rise. Jobs that have been “created” are overwhelmingly part-time or low-wage.

“We’ve yet to see the recovery from the economic recession,” said Laura Speer, associate director for policy reform and advocacy at the Annie E. Casey Foundation, who helped produce the report. “The child poverty rate is connected to parents’ employment and how much they are getting paid,” added Ms. Speer in a telephone interview Tuesday.

“The jobs that are being created in this economy, including temporary and low-wage jobs, are not good enough to keep children out of poverty,” she added.

The Kids Count report notes, “Declining economic opportunity for parents without a college degree in the context of growing inequality has meant that children’s life chances are increasingly constrained by the socioeconomic status of their parents.” The percentage of children who live in high-poverty communities has likewise increased significantly, with 13 percent of children growing up in communities where more than 30 percent of residents are poor, up from 9 percent in 2000.

Speer added that, given the significant run-up in home prices over the previous two decades, “the housing cost burden has gotten worse.” She noted that the share of children who live in households that spend more than one third of their annual income on housing has hit 38 percent, up from 28 percent in 1990. In states such as California, these figures are significantly higher.

“In many cases families are living doubled up and sleeping on couches to afford very expensive places like New York City,” she added. “Paying such a large share of your income for rent means that parents have to decide between whether or not to pay the rent or to pay the utility bills. It’s not a matter of making choices over things that are luxuries, it’s choosing between necessities.”

The report concludes, “As both poverty and wealth have become more concentrated residentially, evidence suggests that school districts and individual schools are becoming increasingly segregated by socioeconomic status.”

In most of the United States, K-12 education is funded through property taxes, and there are significant differences in education funding based on local income levels. “Kids who grow up in low-income neighborhoods have much less access to education: that’s only been exacerbated over the last 25 years,” Speer said.

The Kids Count survey follows the publication in April of Feeding America’s annual report, which showed that one in five children live in households that do not regularly get enough to eat. The percentage of households that are “food insecure” rose from 11.1 percent in 2007 to 16.0 percent in 2012. Sixteen million children, or 21.6 percent, do not get enough to eat. The rate of food insecurity in the United States is nearly twice that of the European Union.

According to the US government’s supplemental poverty measure, 16.1 percent of the US population—nearly 50 million people—is in poverty, up from 12.2 percent of the population in 2000.

The Kids Count report notes that the ability of single mothers to get a job is particularly sensitive to the state of the economy, and that the employment rate of single mothers with children under 6 years old has fallen from 69 percent in 2000 to 60 percent ten years later. This has taken place even as anti-poverty measures such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) have been made conditional on parents finding work.

The report noted that enrollment in the federal Head Start program, which serves 3- and 4-year-olds dropped off when the “recession decimated state budgets and halted progress.” It added that cutbacks to federal and state anti-poverty programs, as well as health programs such as Medicare and Medicaid, are contributing to the growth of poverty and inequality.

With the “sequester” budget cuts signed by the Obama administration in early 2013, most federal anti-poverty programs are being slashed by five percent each year for a decade. “Programs like head start, LIHEAP [Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program], and other federal programs are really a lifeline in a lot of families,” Speer said.

Since the implementation of the sequester cuts, Congress and the Obama administration have slashed food stamp spending on two separate occasions and put an end to federal extended jobless benefits for more than three million long-term unemployed people and their families. These measures can be expected to throw hundreds of thousands more children into poverty.

Chomsky: The System We Have Now Is Radically Anti-Democratic


A fascinating, wide-ranging interview on major issues facing the public.

Noam Chomsky
Photo Credit: The Real News Network

CHRIS HEDGES, INVESTIGATIVE JOURNALIST: Let’s begin with a classic paradigm which is throughout the Industrial Revolution, which has been cited by theorists from Marx to Kropotkin to Proudhon and to yourself, that you build a consciousness among workers within the manufacturing class, and eventually you lead to a kind of autonomous position where workers can control their own production.We now live in a system, a globalized system, where most of the working class in industrial countries like the United States are service workers. We have reverted to a Dickensian system where those who actually produced live in conditions that begin to replicate almost slave labor–and, I think, as you have written, in places like southern China in fact are slave [labor]. What’s the new paradigm for resistance? You know, how do we learn from the old and confront the new?

NOAM CHOMSKY, LINGUIST AND POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, I think we can draw many very good lessons from the early period of the Industrial Revolution. It was, of course, earlier in England, but let’s take here in the United States. The Industrial Revolution took off right around here, eastern Massachusetts, mid 19th century. This was a period when independent farmers were being driven into the industrial system–men and women, incidentally, women from the farms, so-called factory girls–and they bitterly resented it. It was a period of a very free press, the most in the history of the country. There was a wide variety of journals, ethnic, labor, or others. And when you read them, they’re pretty fascinating.

The people driven into the industrial system regarded it as an attack on their personal dignity, on their rights as human beings. They were free human beings who were being forced into what they called wage slavery, which they regarded as not very different from chattel slavery. In fact, this was such a popular view that it was actually a slogan of the Republican Party, that the only difference between working for a wage and being a slave is that working for a wage is supposedly temporary–pretty soon you’ll be free. Other than that, they’re not different.

And they bitterly resented the fact that the industrial system was even taking away their rich cultural life. And the cultural life was rich. You know, there are by now studies of the British working class and the American working class, and they were part of high culture of the day. Actually, I remembered this as late as the 1930s with my own family, you know, sort of unemployed working-class, and they said, this is being taken away from us, we’re being forced to be something like slaves. They argued that if you’re, say, a journeyman, a craftsman, and you sell your product, you’re selling what you produced. If you’re a wage earner, you’re selling yourself, which is deeply offensive. They condemned what they called the new spirit of the age: gain wealth, forgetting all but self. Sounds familiar.

And it was extremely radical. It was combined with the most radical democratic movement in American history, the early populist movement–radical farmers. It began in Texas, spread into the Midwest–enormous movement of farmers who wanted to free themselves from the domination by the Northeastern bankers and capitalists, guys that ran the markets, you know, sort of forced them to sell what they produced on credit and squeeze them with credit and so on. They went on to develop their own banks, their own cooperatives. They started to link up with the Knights of Labor–major labor movement which held that, as they put it, those who work in the mills ought to own them, that it should be a free, democratic society.

These were very powerful movements. By the 1890s, you know, workers were taking over towns and running them in Western Pennsylvania. Homestead was a famous case. Well, they were crushed by force. It took some time. Sort of the final blow was Woodrow Wilson’s red scare right after the First World War, which virtually crushed the labor movement.

At the same time, in the early 19th century, the business world recognized, both in England and the United States, that sufficient freedom had been won so that they could no longer control people just by violence. They had to turn to new means of control. The obvious ones were control of opinions and attitudes. That’s the origins of the massive public relations industry, which is explicitly dedicated to controlling minds and attitudes.

The first–it partly was government. The first government commission was the British Ministry of Information. This is long before Orwell–he didn’t have to invent it. So the Ministry of Information had as its goal to control the minds of the people of the world, but particularly the minds of American intellectuals, for a very good reason: they knew that if they can delude American intellectuals into supporting British policy, they could be very effective in imposing that on the population of the United States. The British, of course, were desperate to get the Americans into the war with a pacifist population. Woodrow Wilson won the 1916 election with the slogan “Peace without Victory”. And they had to drive a pacifist population into a population that bitterly hated all things German, wanted to tear the Germans apart. The Boston Symphony Orchestra couldn’t play Beethoven. You know. And they succeeded.

Wilson set up a counterpart to the Ministry of Information called the Committee on Public Information. You know, again, you can guess what it was. And they’ve at least felt, probably correctly, that they had succeeded in carrying out this massive change of opinion on the part of the population and driving the pacifist population into, you know, warmongering fanatics.

And the people on the commission learned a lesson. One of them was Edward Bernays, who went on to found–the main guru of the public relations industry. Another one was Walter Lippman, who was the leading progressive intellectual of the 20th century. And they both drew the same lessons, and said so.

The lessons were that we have what Lippmann called a “new art” in democracy, “manufacturing consent”. That’s where Ed Herman and I took the phrase from. For Bernays it was “engineering of consent”. The conception was that the intelligent minority, who of course is us, have to make sure that we can run the affairs of public affairs, affairs of state, the economy, and so on. We’re the only ones capable of doing it, of course. And we have to be–I’m quoting–“free of the trampling and the roar of the bewildered herd”, the “ignorant and meddlesome outsiders”–the general public. They have a role. Their role is to be “spectators”, not participants. And every couple of years they’re permitted to choose among one of the “responsible men”, us.

And the John Dewey circle took the same view. Dewey changed his mind a couple of years later, to his credit, but at that time, Dewey and his circle were writing that–speaking of the First World War, that this was the first war in history that was not organized and manipulated by the military and the political figures and so on, but rather it was carefully planned by rational calculation of “the intelligent men of the community”, namely us, and we thought it through carefully and decided that this is the reasonable thing to do, for all kind of benevolent reasons.

And they were very proud of themselves.

There were people who disagreed. Like, Randolph Bourne disagreed. He was kicked out. He couldn’t write in the Deweyite journals. He wasn’t killed, you know, but he was just excluded.

And if you take a look around the world, it was pretty much the same. The intellectuals on all sides were passionately dedicated to the national cause–all sides, Germans, British, everywhere.

There were a few, a fringe of dissenters, like Bertrand Russell, who was in jail; Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, in jail; Randolph Bourne, marginalized; Eugene Debs, in jail for daring to question the magnificence of the war. In fact, Wilson hated him with such passion that when he finally declared an amnesty, Debs was left out, you know, had to wait for Warren Harding to release him. And he was the leading labor figure in the country. He was a candidate for president, Socialist Party, and so on.

But the lesson that came out is we believe you can and of course ought to control the public, and if we can’t do it by force, we’ll do it by manufacturing consent, by engineering of consent. Out of that comes the huge public relations industry, massive industry dedicated to this.

Incidentally, it’s also dedicated to undermining markets, a fact that’s rarely noticed but is quite obvious. Business hates markets. They don’t want to–and you can see it very clearly. Markets, if you take an economics course, are based on rational, informed consumers making rational choices. Turn on the television set and look at the first ad you see. It’s trying to create uninformed consumers making irrational choices. That’s the whole point of the huge advertising industry. But also to try to control and manipulate thought. And it takes various forms in different institutions. The media do it one way, the academic institutions do it another way, and the educational system is a crucial part of it.

This is not a new observation. There’s actually an interesting essay by–Orwell’s, which is not very well known because it wasn’t published. It’s the introduction to Animal Farm. In the introduction, he addresses himself to the people of England and he says, you shouldn’t feel too self-righteous reading this satire of the totalitarian enemy, because in free England, ideas can be suppressed without the use of force. And he doesn’t say much about it. He actually has two sentences. He says one reason is the press “is owned by wealthy men” who have every reason not to want certain ideas to be expressed.

But the second reason, and the more important one in my view, is a good education, so that if you’ve gone to all the good schools, you know, Oxford, Cambridge, and so on, you have instilled into you the understanding that there are certain things it wouldn’t do to say–and I don’t think he went far enough: wouldn’t do to think. And that’s very broad among the educated classes. That’s why overwhelmingly they tend to support state power and state violence, and maybe with some qualifications, like, say, Obama is regarded as a critic of the invasion of Iraq. Why? Because he thought it was a strategic blunder. That puts him on the same moral level as some Nazi general who thought that the second front was a strategic blunder–you should knock off England first. That’s called criticism.

And sometimes it’s kind of outlandish. For example, there was just a review in The New York Times Book Review of Glenn Greenwald’s new book by Michael Kinsley, and which bitterly condemned him as–mostly character assassination. Didn’t say anything substantive. But Kinsley did say that it’s ridiculous to think that there’s any repression in the media in the United States, ’cause we can write quite clearly and criticize anything. And he can, but then you have to look at what he says, and it’s quite interesting.

In the 1980s, when the major local news story was the massive U.S. atrocities in Central America–they were horrendous; I mean, it wasn’t presented that way, but that’s what was happening–Kinsley was the voice of the left on television. And there were interesting incidents. At one point, the U.S. Southern Command, which ran–you know, it was the overseer of these actions–gave instructions to the terrorist force that they were running in Nicaragua, called the Contras–and they were a terrorist force–they gave them orders to–they said “not to (…) duke it out with the Sandinistas”, meaning avoid the Nicaraguan army, and attack undefended targets like agricultural cooperatives and, you know, health clinics and so on. And they could do it, because they were the first guerrillas in history to have high-level communications equipment, you know, computers and so on. The U.S., the CIA, just controlled the air totally, so they could send instructions to the terrorist forces telling them how to avoid the Nicaraguan army detachments and attack undefended civilian targets.

Well, this was mentioned; you know, it wasn’t publicized, but it was mentioned. And Americas Watch, which later became part of Human Rights Watch, made some protests. And Michael Kinsley responded. He condemned Americas Watch for their emotionalism. He said, we have to recognize that we have to accept a pragmatic criterion. We have to ask–something like this–he said, we have to compare the amount of blood and misery poured in with the success of the outcome in producing democracy–what we’ll call democracy. And if it meets the pragmatic criterion, then terrorist attacks against civilian targets are perfectly legitimate–which is not a surprising view in his case. He’s the editor of The New Republic. The New Republic, supposedly a liberal journal, was arguing that we should support Latin American fascists because there are more important things than human rights in El Salvador, where they were murdering tens of thousands of people.

That’s the liberals. And, yeah, they can get in the media no problem. And they’re praised for it, regarded with praise. All of this is part of the massive system of–you know, it’s not that anybody sits at the top and plans at all; it’s just exactly as Orwell said: it’s instilled into you. It’s part of a deep indoctrination system which leads to a certain way of looking at the world and looking at authority, which says, yes, we have to be subordinate to authority, we have to believe we’re very independent and free and proud of it. As long as we keep within the limits, we are. Try to go beyond those limits, you’re out.

HEDGES: But that system, of course, is constant. But what’s changed is that we don’t produce anything anymore. So what we define as our working class is a service sector class working in places like Walmart. And the effective forms of resistance–the sitdown strikes, you know, going back even further in the middle of the 19th century with the women in Lowell–I think that was–the Wobblies were behind those textile strikes. What are the mechanisms now? And I know you have written, as many anarchists have done, about the importance of the working class controlling the means of production, taking control, and you have a great quote about how, you know, Lenin and the Bolsheviks are right-wing deviants, I think, was the–which is, of course, exactly right, because it was centralized control, destroying the Soviets. Given the fact that production has moved to places like Bangladesh or southern China, what is going to be the paradigm now? And given, as you point out, the powerful forces of propaganda–and you touched upon now the security and surveillance state. We are the most monitored, watched, photographed, eavesdropped population in human history. And you cannot even use the world liberty when you eviscerate privacy. That’s what totalitarian is. What is the road we take now, given the paradigm that we have, which is somewhat different from, you know, what this country was, certainly, in the first half of the 20th century?

NOAM CHOMSKY, LINGUIST AND POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I think it’s pretty much the same, frankly. The idea still should be that of the Knights of Labor: those who work in the mills should own them. And there’s plenty of manufacturing going on in the country, and probably there will be more, for unpleasant reasons. One thing that’s happening right now which is quite interesting is that energy prices are going down in the United States because of the massive exploitation of fossil fuels, which is going to destroy our grandchildren, but under the, you know, capitalist morality, the calculus is that profits tomorrow outweigh the existence of your grandchildren. It’s institutionally-based, so, yes, we’re getting lower energy prices. And if you look at the business press, they’re, you know, very enthusiastic about the fact that we can undercut manufacturing in Europe because we’ll have lower energy prices, and therefore manufacturing will come back here, and we can even undermine European efforts at developing sustainable energy because we’ll have this advantage.

Britain is saying the same thing. I was just in England recently. As I left the airport, I read The Daily Telegraph, you know, I mean, newspaper. Big headline: England is going to begin fracking all of the country, even fracking under people’s homes without their permission. And that’ll allow us to destroy the environment even more quickly and will bring manufacturing back here.

The same is true with Asia. Manufacturing is moving back, to an extent, to Mexico, and even here, as wages increase in China, partly because of labor struggles. There’s massive labor struggles in China, huge, all over the place, and since we’re integrated with them, we can be supportive of them.

But manufacturing is coming back here. And both manufacturing and the service industries can move towards having those who do the work take over the management and ownership and control. In fact, it’s happening. In the old Rust Belt–you know, Indiana, Ohio, and so on–there’s a significant–not huge, but significant growth of worker-owned enterprises. They’re not huge, but they’re substantial around Cleveland and other places.

The background is interesting. In 1977, U.S. Steel, the, you know, multinational, decided to close down their mills in Youngstown, Ohio. Youngstown is a steel town, sort of built by the steelworkers, one of the main steel-producing areas. Well, the union tried to buy the plants from U.S. Steel. They objected–in my view, mostly on class lines. They might have even profited from it. But the idea of worker-owned industry doesn’t have much appeal to corporate leaders, which means bankers and so on. It went to the courts. Finally, the union lost in the courts. But with enough popular support, they could have won.

Well, the working class and the community did not give up. They couldn’t get the steel mills, but they began to develop small worker-owned enterprises. They’ve now spread throughout the region. They’re substantial. And it can happen more and more.

And the same thing happened in Walmarts. I mean, there’s massive efforts right now, significant ones, to organize the service workers–what they call associates–in the service industries. And these industries, remember, depend very heavily on taxpayer largess in all kinds of ways. I mean, for example, let’s take, say, Walmarts. They import goods produced in China, which are brought here on container ships which were designed and developed by the U.S. Navy. And point after point where you look, you find that the way the system–the system that we now have is one which is radically anticapitalist, radically so.

I mean, I mentioned one thing, the powerful effort to try to undermine markets for consumers, but there’s something much more striking. I mean, in a capitalist system, the basic principle is that, say, if you invest in something and, say, it’s a risky investment, so you put money into it for a long time, maybe decades, and finally after a long time something comes out that’s marketable for a profit, it’s supposed to go back to you. That’s not the way it works here. Take, say, computers, internet, lasers, microelectronics, containers, GPS, in fact the whole IT revolution. There was taxpayer investment in that for decades, literally decades, doing all the hard, creative, risky work. Does the taxpayer get any of the profit? None, because that’s not the way our system works. It’s radically anti-capitalist, just as it’s radically anti-democratic, opposed to markets, in favor of concentrating wealth and power.

But that doesn’t have to be accepted by the population. These are–all kinds of forms of resistance to this can be developed if people become aware of it.

HEDGES: Well, you could argue that in the election of 2008, Obama wasn’t accepted by the population. But what we see repeatedly is that once elected officials achieve power through, of course, corporate financing, the consent of the governed is a kind of cruel joke. It doesn’t, poll after poll. I mean, I sued Obama over the National Defense Authorization Act, in which you were coplaintiff, and the polling was 97 percent against this section of the NDAA. And yet the courts, which have become wholly owned subsidiaries of the corporate state, the elected officials, the executive branch, and the press, which largely ignored it–the only organ that responsibly covered the case was, ironically, The New York Times. We don’t have–it doesn’t matter what we want. It doesn’t–I mean, and I think, you know, that’s the question: how do we effect change when we have reached a point where we can no longer appeal to the traditional liberal institutions that, as Karl Popper said once, made incremental or piecemeal reform possible, to adjust the system–of course, to save capitalism? But now it can’t even adjust the system. You know, we see cutting welfare.

CHOMSKY: Yeah. I mean, it’s perfectly true that the population is mostly disenfranchised. In fact, that’s a leading theme even of academic political science. You take a look at the mainstream political science, so, for example, a recent paper that was just published out of Princeton by Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page, two of the leading analysts of these topics, what they point out is they went through a couple of thousand policy decisions and found what has long been known, that there was almost no–that the public attitudes had almost no effect. Public organizations that are–nonprofit organizations that are publicly based, no effect. The outcomes were determined by concentrated private power.

There’s a long record of that going way back. Thomas Ferguson, a political scientist near here, has shown very convincingly that something as simple as campaign spending is a very good predictor of policy. That goes back into the late 19th century, right through the New Deal, you know, right up till the present. And that’s only one element of it. And you take a look at the literature, about 70 percent of the population, what they believe has no effect on policy at all. You get a little more influence as you go up. When you get to the top, which is probably, like, a tenth of one percent, they basically write the legislation.

I mean, you see this all over. I mean, take these huge so-called trade agreements that are being negotiated, Trans-Pacific and Transatlantic–enormous agreements, kind of NAFTA-style agreements. They’re secret–almost. They’re not secret from the hundreds of corporate lawyers and lobbyists who are writing them. They know about it, which means that their bosses know about it. And the Obama administration and the press says, look, this has to be secret, otherwise we can’t defend our interests. Yeah, our interests means the interests of the corporate lawyers and lobbyists who are writing the legislation. Take the few pieces that have been leaked and you see that’s exactly what it is. Same with the others.

But it doesn’t mean you have to accept it. And there have been changes. So take, say–in the 1920s, the labor movement had been practically destroyed. There’s a famous book. One of the leading labor historians, David Montgomery, has a major book called something like The Fall of the House of Labor. He’s talking about the 1920s. It was done. There had been a very militant labor movement, very effective, farmers movement as well. Crushed in the 1920s. Almost nothing left. Well, in the 1930s it changed, and it changed because of popular activism.

HEDGES: But it also changed because of the breakdown of capitalism.

CHOMSKY: There was a circumstance that led to the opportunity to do something, but we’re living with that constantly. I mean, take the last 30 years. For the majority of the population it’s been stagnation or worse. That’s–it’s not exactly the deep Depression, but it’s kind of a permanent semi-depression for most of the population. That’s–there’s plenty of kindling out there which can be lighted.

And what happened in the ’30s is primarily CIO organizing, the militant actions like sit-down strikes. A sit-down strike’s very frightening. It’s a step before taking over the institution and saying, we don’t need the bosses. And that–there was a cooperative administration, Roosevelt administration, so there was some interaction. And significant legislation was passed–not radical, but significant, underestimated. And it happened again in the ’60s. It can happen again today. So I don’t think that one should abandon hope in chipping away at the more oppressive aspects of the society within the electoral system. But it’s only going to happen if there’s massive popular organization, which doesn’t have to stop at that. It can also be building the institutions of the future within the present society.

HEDGES: Would you say that the–you spoke about propaganda earlier and the Creel Commission and the rise of the public relations industry. The capacity to disseminate propaganda is something that now you virtually can’t escape it. I mean, it’s there in some electronic form, even in a hand-held device. Does that make that propaganda more effective?

CHOMSKY: Well, and it’s kind of an interesting question. Like a lot of people, I’ve written a lot about media and intellectual propaganda, but there’s another question which isn’t studied much: how effective is it? And that’s–when you brought up the polls, it’s a striking illustration. The propaganda is–you can see from the poll results that the propaganda has only limited effectiveness. I mean, it can drive a population into terror and fear and war hysteria, like before the Iraq invasion or 1917 and so on, but over time, public attitudes remain quite different. In fact, studies even of what’s called the right-wing, you know, people who say, get the government off my back, that kind of sector, they turn out to be kind of social democratic. They want more spending on health, more spending on education, more spending on, say, women with dependent children, but not welfare, no spending on welfare, because Reagan, who was an extreme racist, succeeded in demonizing the notion of welfare. So in people’s minds welfare means a rich black woman driving in her limousine to the welfare office to steal your money. Well, nobody wants that. But they want what welfare does.

Foreign aid is an interesting case. There’s an enormous propaganda against foreign aid, ’cause we’re giving everything to the undeserving people out there. You take a look at public attitudes. A lot of opposition to foreign aid. Very high. On the other hand, when you ask people, how much do we give in foreign aid? Way beyond what we give. When you ask what we should give in foreign aid, far above what we give.

And this runs across the board. Take, say taxes. There’ve been studies of attitudes towards taxes for 40 years. Overwhelmingly the population says taxes are much too low for the rich and the corporate sector. You’ve got to raise it. What happens? Well, the opposite.

It’s just exactly as Orwell said: it’s instilled into you. It’s part of a deep indoctrination system which leads to a certain way of looking at the world and looking at authority, which says, yes, we have to be subordinate to authority, we have to believe we’re very independent and free and proud of it. As long as we keep within the limits, we are. Try to go beyond those limits, you’re out.

HEDGES: Well, what was fascinating about–I mean, the point, just to buttress this point: when you took the major issues of the Occupy movement, they were a majoritarian movement. When you look back on the Occupy movement, what do you think its failings were, its importance were?

CHOMSKY: Well, I think it’s a little misleading to call it a movement. Occupy was a tactic, in fact a brilliant tactic. I mean, if I’d been asked a couple of months earlier whether they should take over public places, I would have said it’s crazy. But it worked extremely well, and it lit a spark which went all over the place. Hundreds and hundreds of places in the country, there were Occupy events. It was all over the world. I mean, I gave talks in Sydney, Australia, to the Occupy movement there. But it was a tactic, a very effective tactic. Changed public discourse, not policy. It brought issues to the forefront.

I think my own feeling is its most important contribution was just to break through the atomization of the society. I mean, it’s a very atomized society. There’s all sorts of efforts to separate people from one another, as if the ideal social unit is, you know, you and your TV set.

HEDGES: You know, Hannah Arendt raises atomization as one of the key components of totalitarianism.

CHOMSKY: Exactly. And the Occupy actions broke that down for a large part of the population. People could recognize that we can get together and do things for ourselves, we can have a common kitchen, we can have a place for public discourse, we can form our ideas and do something. Now, that’s an important attack on the core of the means by which the public is controlled. So you’re not just an individual trying to maximize your consumption, but there are other concerns in life, and you can do something about them. If those attitudes and associations and bonds can be sustained and move in other directions, that’ll be important.

But going back to Occupy, it’s a tactic. Tactics have a kind of a half-life. You can’t keep doing them, and certainly you can’t keep occupying public places for very long. And was very successful, but it was not in itself a movement. The question is: what happens to the people who were involved in it? Do they go on and develop, do they move into communities, pick up community issues? Do they organize?

Take, say, this business of, say, worker-owned industry. Right here in Massachusetts, not far from here, there was something similar. One of the multinationals decided to close down a fairly profitable small plant, which was producing aerospace equipment. High-skilled workers and so on, but it wasn’t profitable enough, so they were going to close it down. The union wanted to buy it. Company refused–usual class reasons, I think. If the Occupy efforts had been available at the time, they could have provided the public support for it.

This happened when Obama virtually nationalized the auto industry. There were choices. One choice was what he took, of course, was to rescue it, return it to essentially the same owners–different faces, but the same class basis–and send them back to doing what they had been doing in the past–producing automobiles. There were other choices, and if something like the Occupy movement had been around and sufficient, it could have driven the government into other choices, like, for example, turning the auto plants over to the working class and have them produce what the country needs.

I mean, we don’t need more cars. We need mass public transportation. The United States is an absolute scandal in this regard. I just came back from Europe–so you can see it dramatically. You get on a European train, you can go where you want to go in no time. Well, the train from Boston to New York, it may be, I don’t know, 20 minutes faster than when I took it 60 years ago. You go along the Connecticut Turnpike and the trucks are going faster than the train. Recently Japan offered the United States a low-interest loan to build high-speed rail from Washington to New York. It was turned down, of course. But what they were offering was to build the kind of train that I took in Japan 50 years ago. And this was a scandal all over the country.

Well, you know, a reconstituted auto industry could have turned in that direction under worker and community control. I don’t think these things are out of sight. And, incidentally, they even have so-called conservative support, because they’re within a broader what’s called capitalist framework (it’s not really capitalist). And those are directions that should be pressed.

Right now, for example, the Steelworkers union is trying to establish some kind of relations with Mondragon, the huge worker-owned conglomerate in the Basque country in Spain, which is very successful, in fact, and includes industry, manufacturing, banks, hospitals, living quarters. It’s very broad. It’s not impossible that that can be brought here, and it’s potentially radical. It’s creating the basis for quite a different society.

And I think with things like, say, Occupy, the timing wasn’t quite right. But if the timing had been a little better (and this goes on all the time, so it’s always possible), it could have provided a kind of an impetus to move significant parts of the socioeconomic system in a different direction. And once those things begin to take off and people can see the advantages of them, it can become quite significant.

There are kind of islands like that around the country. So take Chattanooga, Tennessee. It happens to have a publicly organized internet system. It’s by far the best in the country. Rapid internet access for broad parts of the population. I suspect the roots of it probably go back to the TVA and the New Deal initiatives. Well, if that can spread throughout the country (why not? it’s very efficient, very cheap, works very well), it could undermine the telecommunications industry and its oligopoly, which would be a very good thing. There are lots of possibilities like this.

HEDGES: I want to ask just two last questions. First, the fact that we have become a militarized society, something all of the predictions of the Anti-Imperialist League at the end of the 19th century, including Carnegie and Jane Addams–hard to think of them both in the same room. But you go back and read what they wrote, and they were right how militarized society has deformed us economically–Seymour Melman wrote about this quite well–and politically. And that is a hurdle that as we attempt to reform or reconfigure our society we have to cope with. And I wondered if you could address this military monstrosity that you have written about quite a bit.

CHOMSKY: Well, for one thing, the public doesn’t like it. What’s called isolationism or one or another bad word, as, you know, pacifism was, is just the public recognition that there’s something deeply wrong with our dedication to military force all over the world.

Now, of course, at the same time, the public is frightened into believing that we have to defend ourselves. And it’s not entirely false. Part of the military system is generating forces which will be harmful to us, say, Obama’s terrorist campaign, drone campaign, the biggest terrorist campaign in history. It’s generating potential terrorists faster than it’s killing suspects.

You can see it. It’s very striking what’s happening right now in Iraq. And the truth of the matter is very evident. Go back to the Nuremberg judgments. I’m not telling you anything you don’t know, but in Nuremberg aggression was defined as “the supreme international crime,” differing from other war crimes in that it includes, it encompasses all of the evil that follows. Well, the U.S.-British invasion of Iraq is a textbook case of aggression. By the standards of Nuremberg, they’d all be hanged. And one of the things it did, one of the crimes was to ignite a Sunni-Shiite conflict which hadn’t been going on. I mean, there was, you know, various kinds of tensions, but Iraqis didn’t believe there could ever be a conflict. They were intermarried, they lived in the same places, and so on. But the invasion set it off. Took off on its own. By now it’s inflaming the whole region. Now we’re at the point where Sunni jihadi forces are actually marching on Baghdad.

HEDGES: And the Iraqi army is collapsing.

CHOMSKY: The Iraqi army’s just giving away their arms. There obviously is a lot of collaboration going on.

And all of this is a U.S. crime if we believe in the validity of the judgments against the Nazis.

And it’s kind of interesting. Robert Jackson, the chief prosecutor, a U.S. justice, at the tribunal, addressed the tribunal, and he pointed out, as he put it, that we’re giving these defendants a “poisoned chalice”, and if we ever sip from it, we have to be treated the same way, or else the whole thing is a farce and we should recognize this as just victor’s justice.

HEDGES: But it’s not accidental that our security and surveillance apparatus is militarized. And you’re right, of course, that there is no broad popular support for this expanding military adventurism. And yet the question is if there is a serious effort to curtail their power and their budgets. They have mechanisms. And we even heard Nancy Pelosi echo this in terms of how they play dirty. I mean, they are monitoring all the elected officials as well.

CHOMSKY: Monitoring. But despite everything, it’s still a pretty free society, and the recognition by U.S. and British business back 100 years ago that they can no longer control the population by violence is correct. And control of attitude and opinion is pretty fragile, as is surveillance. It’s very different than sending in the storm troopers. You know, so there’s a lot of latitude, for people of relative privilege, at least, to do all sorts of things. I mean, it’s different if you’re a black kid in the ghetto. Yeah, then you’re subjected to state violence. But for a large part of the population, there’s plenty of opportunities which have not been available in the past.

HEDGES: But those people are essentially passive, virtually.

CHOMSKY: But they don’t have to be.

HEDGES: They don’t have to be, but Hannah Arendt, when she writes about the omnipotent policing were directed against the stateless, including ourself and France, said the problem of building omnipotent policing, which we have done in our marginal neighborhoods in targeting people of color–we can have their doors kicked in and stopped at random and thrown in jail for decades for crimes they didn’t commit–is that when you have a societal upheaval, you already have both a legal and a physical mechanism by which that omnipotent policing can be quickly inflicted.

CHOMSKY: I don’t think that’s true here. I think the time has passed when that can be done for increasing parts of the population, those who have almost any degree of privilege. The state may want to do it, but they don’t have the power to do it. They can carry out extensive surveillance, monitoring, they can be violent against parts of the population that can’t defend themselves–undocumented immigrants, black kids in the ghetto, and so on–but even that can be undercut. For example, one of the major scandals in the United States since Reagan is the huge incarceration program, which is a weapon against–it’s a race war. But it’s based on drugs. And there is finally cutting away at the source of this and the criminalization and the radical distortion of the way criminalization of drug use has worked. That can have an effect.

I mean, I think–look, there’s no doubt that the population is passive. There are lots of ways of keeping them passive. There’s lots of ways of marginalizing and atomizing them. But that’s different from storm troopers. It’s quite different. And it can be overcome, has been overcome in the past. And I think there are lots of initiatives, some of them being undertaken, others developing, which can be used to break down this system. I think it’s a very fragile system, including the militarism.

HEDGES: Let’s just close with climate change. Like, I read climate change reports, which–.

CHOMSKY: Well, unfortunately, that’s–may doom us all, and not in the long-distance future. That just overwhelms everything. It is the first time in human history when we not only–we have the capacity to destroy the conditions for a decent survival. And it’s already happening. I mean, just take a look at species destruction. Species destruction now is estimated to be at about the level of 65 million years ago when an asteroid hit the earth and ended the period of the dinosaurs, wiped out huge numbers of species. Same level today, and we’re the asteroid. And you take a look at what’s happening in the world, I mean, anybody looking at this from outer space would be astonished.

I mean, there are sectors of the global population that are trying to impede the catastrophe. There are other sectors that are trying to accelerate it. And you take a look at who they are. Those who are trying to impede it are the ones we call backward: indigenous populations, the First Nations in Canada, you know, aboriginals from Australia, the tribal people in India, you know, all over the world, are trying to impede it. Who’s accelerating it? The most privileged, advanced–so-called advanced–educated populations in the world, U.S. and Canada right in the lead. And we know why.

There are also–. Here’s an interesting case of manufacture of consent and does it work? You take a look at international polls on global warming, Americans, who are the most propagandized on this–I mean, there’s huge propaganda efforts to make it believe it’s not happening–they’re a little below the norm, so there’s some effect of the propaganda. It’s stratified. If you take a look at Republicans, they’re way below the norm. But what’s happening in the Republican Party all across the spectrum is a very striking. So, for example, about two-thirds of Republicans believe that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and all sorts of other things. You know. So it’s stratified. But there’s some impact of the propaganda, but not overwhelming. Most of the population still regards it as a serious problem.

There’s actually an interesting article about this in the Columbia Journalism Review which just appeared, current issue, the lead critical review of journalism. They attribute this to what they call the doctrine of fairness in the media. Doctrine of fairness says that if you have an opinion piece by 95, 97 percent of the scientists, you have to pair it with an opinion piece by the energy corporations, ’cause that’d be fair and balanced. There isn’t any such doctrine. Like, if you have an opinion piece denouncing Putin as the new Hitler for annexing Crimea, you don’t have to balance it with an opinion piece saying that 100 years ago the United States took over southeastern Cuba at the point of a gun and is still holding it, though it has absolutely no justification other than to try to undermine Cuban development, whereas in contrast, whatever you think of Putin, there’s reasons. You don’t have to have that. And you have to have fair and balanced when it affects the concerns of private power, period. But try to get an article in the Columbia Journalism Review pointing that out, although it’s transparent.

So all those things are there, but they can be overcome, and they’d better be. This isn’t–you know, unless there’s a sharp reversal in policy, unless we here in the so-called advanced societies can gain the consciousness of the indigenous people of the world, we’re in deep trouble. Our grandchildren are going to suffer from it.

HEDGES: And I think you would agree that’s not going to come from the power elite.

CHOMSKY: It’s certainly not.

HEDGES: It’s up to us.

CHOMSKY: Absolutely. And it’s urgent.

HEDGES: It is. Thank you very much.

Chris Hedges, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, writes a regular column for Truthdig every Monday. Hedges’ most recent book is “Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle.”

http://www.alternet.org/media/noam-chomsky-tells-chris-hedges-how-our-ruling-elite-leading-america-catastrophe?akid=12034.265072.WHH2Dd&rd=1&src=newsletter1011911&t=13&paging=off&current_page=1#bookmark

 

Marinaleda: the village where people come before profit

by Jen Wilton on July 15, 2014

Post image for Marinaleda: the village where people come before profit

The thriving Spanish town of Marinaleda runs on the principles of mutual aid and direct action. In a country paralyzed by debt, is this an alternative?

By Liam Barrington-Bush and Jen Wilton

In the south of Spain, the street is the collective living room. Vibrant sidewalk cafes are interspersed between configurations of two to five lawn chairs where neighbors come together to chat over the day’s events late into the night. In mid-June the weather peaks well over 40 degrees Celsius and the smells of fresh seafood waft from kitchens and restaurants as the seasonably-late dining hour begins to approach. The scene is archetypally Spanish, particularly for the Andalusian region to the country’s south, where life is lived more in public than in private, when given half a chance.

Specifically, this imagery above describes Marinaleda. Initially indistinguishable from several of its local counterparts in the Sierra Sur southern mountain range, were it not for a few tell-tale signs. Maybe it’s the street names (Ernesto Che Guevara, Solidarity and Salvador Allende Plaza, to name a few); maybe it’s the graffiti (hand drawn hammers-and-sickles sit happily alongside encircled A’s, oblivious to the differences the two ideologies have shared, even in the country’s recent past); maybe it’s the two-story Che head which emblazons the outer wall of the local sports stadium.

Marinaleda has been called Spain’s ‘communist utopia,’ though the local variation bears little resemblance to the Soviet model most associate with the phrase. Classifications aside, this is a town whose social fabric has been woven from very different economic threads to the rest of the country since the fall of the Franco dictatorship in the mid 1970s. A cooperatively-owned olive oil factory, houses built by and for the community, and a famous looting of a large-scale supermarket, led by the town’s charismatic mayor, in which proceeds were donated to food banks, are amongst the steps that have helped position Marinaleda as a beacon of hope.

The currency of direct action

As the Spanish economy continues its post-2008 nosedive, unemployment sits at 26 percent nationally, while over half of young people can’t find work. Meanwhile, Marinaleda boasts a modest but steady local employment picture in which most people have at least some work and those that don’t have a strong safety net to fall back on.

But more than its cash economy, Marinaleda has a currency rarely found beyond small-scale activist groups or indigenous communities fighting destructive development projects: the currency of direct action. Rather than rely exclusively on cash to get things done, Marinaleños have put their collective blood, sweat and tears into creating a range of alternative systems in their corner of the world.

When money hasn’t been readily available — probably the only consistent feature since the community set out on this path — Marinaleños have turned to one another to do what needs doing. At times that has meant collectively occupying land owned by the Andalusian aristocracy and putting it to work for the town, at others it has simply meant sharing the burden of litter collection.

While still operating with some degree of central authority, the local council has devolved power into the hands of those it serves. General assemblies are convened on a regular basis so that townspeople can be involved in decisions that affect their lives. The assemblies also create spaces where people can come together to organize what the community needs through collective action.

“The best thing they have here in Marinaleda, and you can’t find this in other places, is the [general] assembly,” says long-term civil servant for the Marinaleda council, Manuel Gutierrez Daneri. He continues: “Assembly is a place for people to discuss problems and to find the solutions,” pointing out that even minor crimes are collectively addressed via the assembly, as the town has no police or judicial system since the last local cop retired.

In his time as mayor, Juan Manuel Sánchez Gordillo has managed to leverage considerable financial support from the state government, a feat which Gutierrez Daneri attributes to the town’s collective track record for direct action. “If you go ahead with all of the people behind you, that is very powerful,” he says.

As a result, the small town boasts extensive sports facilities and a beautifully-maintained botanical garden, as well as a range of more basic necessities. “For a little village like this, with no more than 2,700 people, we have a lot of facilities,” says Gutierrez Daneri.

British ex-pat Chris Burke has lived in Marinaleda for several years, and he explains that access to the public swimming pool only costs €3 for the entire summer. Burke recounts Mayor Sánchez Gordillo saying to him, “The whole idea of the place being somewhere good to live is that anyone can afford to enjoy themselves.” Burke adds pragmatically, “You can’t have a utopia without some loss-making facilities.”

From occupation to cooperation

In 1979, Sánchez Gordillo was first elected as the town’s mayor. He led an extensive campaign to change Marinaleda’s course, which began with hunger strikes and occupying underutilized land.

Manuel Martin Fernandez has been involved in la lucha (the fight) since the beginning. He explains how through the general assembly process the community decided something had to be done to stem the flow of migration from the town. They began a weeks-long occupation of a nearby reservoir to convince the regional government to allocate them enough water to irrigate a tract of land.

After this proved successful, they then went on to occupy 1,200 hectares of the newly irrigated land, which at that time was owned by an aristocratic family. In 1991, the plot of land was officially expropriated and turned over for local use. “It took 12 years to obtain the land,” Martin Fernandez explains, calling their victory “a conquest.”

Today, extensive fields of olives, artichokes, beans and peppers form the backbone of the local cash economy. The land is collectively managed by the cooperative El Humoso and a canning facility has been set up on the edge of town. “Our aim was not to create profits, but jobs,” Sánchez Gordillo told British author Dan Hancox, explaining why the town chose to prioritize labor-intensive crops to create more employment for local people.

Like most agricultural employment, whether in the fields or the factory, work in Marinaleda is both seasonal and varied from year to year. But unlike many small agricultural towns, Marinaleda shares the work amongst those who need it.

Dolores Valderrama Martin has lived in Marinaleda her entire life and she has worked at the Humoso canning factory for the past 14 years. From the upstairs office she explains that if 200 people are looking for work, but they only need 40 workers, they will bring everyone together. “We gather all of these people who are directly affected,” she says. “We make groups of 30 to 40 people and each group works for two days.”

While the cooperative is formed of nine separate entities, Valderrama Martin says they collectively decide on important issues like the allocation of work. They may even take the issue to a general assembly for wider input from the town. But she cautions, “When there is no work they are unemployed, like anywhere else.”

Most of the town decries the relative lack of work, but the wider social security net built on the principles of direct action and mutual aid have meant that unlike other parts of the country, two months’ wages can go a long way to keep you afloat for the year. At the core of this is the town’s approach to housing, which offers one of the clearest examples of how collective effort can fill the void left by a stagnant cash economy.

The houses that community built

When many young people think about making their first foray into the housing market, money is inevitably the biggest obstacle. State of the economy aside, a down payment is always a sizable sum, even in relatively tame markets, and is increasingly unattainable for what has been described as ‘the jilted generation.’

But high on the list of maverick decisions spearheaded by Mayor Sánchez Gordillo, using a combination of state housing subsidy for building materials, free labor for construction and land given by the town, housing has been partly removed from the free market in Marinaleda. Instead, community members come together with architectural plans provided by the council to build a block of houses, with no sense in advance which home will belong to which family.

The houses — some 350 units in total, with twenty new builds underway at the time of our visit — become part of a housing cooperative. Needless to say, when citizens are only left paying €15 per month for mortgages, this has a massive knock-on impact on work requirements.

The direct action economy

While capitalism frames our relationships as a series of self-interested economic transactions, Marinaleda relies on a model of mutual aid, as locals work together to meet shared needs, with far less money circulating. While it can be easy to forget, money is simply a way of facilitating action, which creates an incentive for people to do tasks that they otherwise may not have any interest in doing.

Direct action, on the other hand, is rooted in common interests and explores the practicalities of what needs doing, based on who is there to do it. Direct action eliminates the consumer-provider divide, making cash an unnecessary intermediary in getting things done, as those who want something done, and those doing it become one-in-the-same.

While Marinaleda has its flaws, it reminds us that alternative economic models are not only possible, they already exist. A striking piece of graffiti on Marinaleda’s main road depicts a dream-catcher, super-imposed with a hammer and sickle. The accompanying message implores us, “Catch your dreams — utopia is possible.”

This article was originally published at Contributoria.

Liam Barrington-Bush is an activist, facilitator, and author of Anarchists in the Boardroom. He tweets as @hackofalltrades, blogs at morelikepeople.org and posts stuff on the more like people Facebook page.

Jen Wilton is a freelance journalist, researcher and photographer based in London, UK. Her interests include social movements, sustainable energy, alternative economies and Latin America. She tweets as @guerillagrrl and blogs at Revolution Is Eternal

Equality and the Fourth of July

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4 July 2014

The Fourth of July celebrates the adoption of the Declaration of Independence, signed by representatives of the 13 colonies to proclaim their separation from the King of Great Britain on this day, 238 years ago.

The Declaration of Independence marked a major turning point in history, not only for the people of what would become the United States of America, but for the entire world. In announcing their irrevocable break from the British monarchy, the founders sought to realize in practice the great progressive conceptions of the Enlightenment.

Equality was central to the principles proclaimed in the summer of 1776. “We hold these truths to be self-evident,” the document sets out in its second paragraph, “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Commenting on the radicalism of the American Revolution, historian Gordon Wood has noted, “Equality was in fact the most radical and most powerful ideological force let loose in the Revolution,” which had an appeal “far more potent than any of the revolutionaries realized” and “tore through American society and culture with awesome power.” The notion of equality became deeply embedded in the consciousness of the people, with reverberations that continue to the present day.

That the Revolution in the New World posed a danger to aristocratic privilege and arbitrary power everywhere was understood very clearly by those who led it and by those who opposed it. The War of Independence, Marx would later note, sounded the tocsin for the French Revolution and all the great democratic revolutions of that era.

The American Revolution was a bourgeois democratic revolution. Neither it nor those who led it could transcend the social conditions of the day. As such, the historical event could not live up to the ideals that its greatest proponents laid out. Nevertheless, the American Revolution—and, in particular, the Declaration of Independence—resonated in every subsequent progressive episode in American history. Indeed, it was to “the proposition that all men are created equal” that Abraham Lincoln would refer four score and seven years later when he delivered his famous address on the battlefield at Gettysburg, in the midst of the Civil War to abolish the barbaric institution of slavery—the Second American Revolution.

The social, political and cultural state of present-day America makes a mockery of the principles that are recalled and celebrated on July 4.

Inequality is the defining feature of American life. The aristocratic principle has been reborn. If the current rulers could, they would reestablish titles and ranks of nobility, the official proclamations of privilege—and no doubt there are some who are already conspiring to do so.

The cancer of inequality infects every ruling national institution—the White House, led by a president who has become, solely on the basis of his political career, a multi-millionaire; the Congress, which is populated by scores of multi-millionaires; and the Supreme Court, in which eight of the nine justices are multi-millionaires. In short, all three branches of the federal government are controlled by individuals who are themselves part of the richest 1 percent of American society.

And then there is the media, in which those who dish out the propaganda that serves the interests of the state and the corporate-financial elite are paid millions of dollars annually for their faithful service.

The American aristocracy has grown rich largely through financial fraud. Six years ago, it sparked a global economic crisis through its manic speculation. Yesterday, the Dow Jones Industrial Average surpassed 17,000 for the first time in its 118-year history. The financial traders celebrated the comments of Fed Chairman Janet Yellen, who proclaimed on Wednesday that the spigots funneling cash into the markets would remain open. The orgy of excess comes on top of social devastation and decline for the vast majority of the population. The words used by the great Tom Paine to describe the aristocracy on the eve of the French Revolution of 1789 (which was inspired by the American example) come to mind: “They pity the plumage and forget the dying bird.”

The aristocratic principle is present in every aspect of American policy. Globally, it finds expression in unrelenting militarism, a criminal foreign policy based on plunder and conquest. With increasingly reckless abandon, the American ruling class has launched a series of wars, leaving disaster and chaos in its wake. More than ten years after the invasion of Iraq laid waste to one of the most advanced societies in the Middle East, US troops, drones and military aircraft are once again heading back—even as the Obama administration stokes war with Russia over Ukraine and China over energy-rich regions in the South Pacific.

High levels of social inequality are incompatible with democracy. This is demonstrated in the unprecedented assault on the democratic principles that flowed from the Declaration of Independence and were embodied in the Bill of Rights, such as due process, freedom of speech and the press, the prohibition against unreasonable searches and seizures, the separation of church and state.

Whatever remains of democratic institutions are threatened by a colossal military-intelligence-police apparatus. Within the ruling establishment, the most basic democratic conceptions no longer exist. The president proclaims the right to assassinate American citizens without due process, and this does not produce any serious objection from within the state apparatus. Nearly 2 million Americans languish in prisons.

Today, the massive growth of social inequality is the focus of increasing public attention. There are vague, insubstantial and insincere calls for “something” to be done, while some among the wealthy speak nervously of “pitchforks” on the horizon. But these “somethings” amount to nothing. In all the official discussions of social inequality, there is virtually no mention of the fundamental cause of inequality: capitalism.

The fact is that nothing can be or will be done within the framework of the existing political and economic system to reverse the ever-more extreme concentration of wealth in the United States.

 

Joseph Kishore

Journalist Glenn Greenwald speaks in California

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By Tom Carter
24 June 2014

Glenn Greenwald’s recent speeches on the West Coast exhibited many of the strengths—and some of the same limitations—as his recent book No Place to Hide (reviewed here). Greenwald is currently touring the United States to promote his book.

Last Thursday, he spoke at the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center in Los Angeles. He was greeted by a standing ovation in the sold-out auditorium, with one organizer estimating attendance as high as 850. Many people stood in the aisles and crammed the balconies.

When Greenwald speaks in the first person about the struggle that he conducted alongside National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden and a small group of other journalists to expose the NSA’s illegal activities, it is easy to see why he has attracted a substantial following. In Los Angeles, the mere mention of Snowden’s name evoked spontaneous applause from the audience, which consisted mostly of young people.

As a journalist and critic, Greenwald is at his best when defending Snowden against the deceitful attacks by the Obama administration and various media personalities.

In his speech in Los Angeles, Greenwald pointed out that NSA director James R. Clapper, who was caught lying to Congress about the NSA’s spying, is guilty of perjury—no less a felony crime than anything that Snowden is accused of doing. Those who are invoking the “rule of law” in relation to Snowden have nothing to say about the Obama administration’s refusal to prosecute Clapper.

Greenwald repeatedly mocked President Obama for the official lies about the NSA and his promises to “rein in” surveillance. He contrasted the “marketing and branding” of Obama with “who he really is,” i.e., the most ferocious persecutor of whistleblowers in American history.

Greenwald devoted special attention to the US media’s presentation of Snowden, including the baseless accusations that Snowden was a “Russian spy” (or, at one point, a “Chinese spy”), reports that Snowden was a “fame-seeking narcissist,” and the argument that NSA surveillance on the American population has anything to do with the so-called “war on terror.” The vast majority of what is published by the mainstream media is factually untrue, Greenwald said, attacking the official lineup of talking heads as “actors who play journalists on TV.”

He defended Snowden’s decision to disclose NSA surveillance as a “pure act of conscience.” Snowden, Greenwald said, “did not want to live the rest of his life knowing that he was confronted with this great injustice, and he had the opportunity to do something about it, and he did nothing.”

Greenwald denounced the media campaign to portray Snowden, Julian Assange, Chelsea (Bradley) Manning and other dissenters as somehow psychologically sick or pursuing subjective personal motives. “What is more psychologically healthy,” Greenwald asked, “going along with the government’s crimes or exposing them?”

Greenwald spoke passionately about the harmful effects of surveillance on the individual. He pointed out that the harm of surveillance is not merely that private communications are intercepted by the government, but that many people, if they believe they are being monitored, simply will not express their private thoughts in the first place.

Some of the most thoughtful passages in Greenwald’s book address these issues. In one passage, Greenwald quotes from an artist who was targeted during the period of blacklists in Hollywood, describing “the dynamic of oppressive self-censorship that comes from the sense of being watched.” Greenwald denounces “the pernicious controlling power of ubiquitous surveillance and the self-censorship that results…”

“Mass surveillance,” Greenwald writes in his book, is “inherently repressive, even in the unlikely case that it is not abused by vindictive officials to do things like gain private information about political opponents. Regardless of how surveillance is used or abused, the limits it imposes on freedom are intrinsic to its existence.”

Privacy, Greenwald argues, is essential for creativity, expression, exploration, contemplation, identity, freedom—and dissent. Referring to the NSA, he said, “Any structure built by human hands can be torn down and replaced by other human hands.”

Notwithstanding these welcome sentiments present in his writings and speeches, Greenwald is at his weakest when he attempts to draw broader political conclusions from the exposures he has helped to make.

At one point during his speech in Los Angeles, Greenwald posed the question, “Why hasn’t anything changed?” He acknowledged that the NSA was continuing to engage in all of the practices that he had exposed, with no significant section of the American political establishment demanding an end to them. If anything, mass surveillance is becoming more and more entrenched.

Greenwald appeared unable to answer his own question. As possible “avenues for change,” he listed a vague “coalition of other countries” that would in the future pressure the US government to discontinue its mass surveillance. Another option, according to Greenwald, was that “tech companies” and “pressure on the US government” from “tech company billionaires” would lead to reforms.

(Perhaps included on Greenwald’s list of progressive tech company billionaires is eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, who recently financed Greenwald’s new media company First Look Media to the tune of $250 million.)

Sadly, the mobilization of the great mass of the population—in the US and internationally—was not listed anywhere among Greenwald’s possible “avenues for change.” Indeed, Greenwald’s focus on the individual psychological consequences of surveillance tends to suggest that he considers the majority of the population to be hopelessly brainwashed by the media and the NSA surveillance programs he describes.

In the place of mass struggles, Greenwald sees the electrifying “acts of conscience” of heroic individuals such as Snowden, Manning, Assange and others as the main path to progress. The working class does not appear to have any progressive role to play.

In this light, it is no coincidence that Greenwald’s speaking tour was organized in coordination with Haymarket Books, which is affiliated with the International Socialist Organization (ISO). Greenwald has spoken several times at ISO conferences, and his praise for these conferences has been featured prominently in the organization’s promotional material.

Greenwald’s analysis of the roots of what he describes as the “surveillance state” was limited in his speeches to denunciations of the “warped minds” of NSA leaders. He did not attempt to make any connection between the growth of the police-state apparatus and attacks on democratic rights, social inequality, historical context, militarism or war. (In his book, at least, Greenwald takes up some of these issues briefly.)

Glenn Greenwald has performed an invaluable service to working people all around the world by helping Snowden to expose the global surveillance complex that has been built up behind their backs. Personal courage was certainly involved in these exposures. In the face of calls for his prosecution, the seizure and detention of his partner, and a police raid on the newspaper he was working for, Greenwald has earned his popularity as a critic of the propaganda that passes for journalism in the 21st century.

 

The story of the unsung heroes: Black Bloc Brazil

by Esther Solano Gallego on June 23, 2014

Post image for The story of the unsung heroes: Black Bloc Brazil

Despised by many, hailed by some: the Black Bloc in Brazil uses its “performative violence” to draw attention to the everyday struggles of millions.

Article by Esther Solano Gallego and Paulo Rogério Lugoboni Filho. Illustration by Luciano Cunha, creator of O Doutrinador.

It was in the first weeks of the massive anti-government protests that started in June 2013 and shook Brazilian society to its very foundations that the Black Bloc made its first appearance on the protest scene. Demonstrations took place in dozens of cities across the country, but the black-clad youngsters who covered their faces and linked arms at the front-line of the marches, ready for any confrontation with the security forces, made their appearance mainly on the streets of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro.

While being denounced by some for their violent tactics, actively looking for confrontations with the police and smashing banks and other symbols of global capitalism, those joining the Black Bloc in a protest could also count on some support from fellow protesters. During last year’s education crisis in October, which drew thousands of indignant teachers to the streets, the Black Bloc was present to protect them from the police violence.

In response, the SEPE Teacher’s Union declared its unconditional support for the Black Bloc, claiming that many have been protected by the masked youngsters from the excessive use of force by the police. Even though the SEPE has now retracted its support for the Black Bloc, and popular opinion has turned against it due to its negative depiction in the mainstream media, this strategy of radical anti-authoritarianism is still alive and kicking on the streets of Brazil today.

Despite the disproportional attention paid to the Black Bloc’s violence in the mainstream media, it is in fact still a largely marginal phenomenon. Even in a metropolis like São Paulo, where protest marches tend to draw in thousands of supporters, the Black Bloc usually does not consist of more than fifty to a hundred people.

Another flaw in the mainstream media’s reporting on the Black Bloc is its false presentation as an organization with a command structure, internal hierarchy and a clear agenda, whereas in fact it is nothing more than a tactic in which a group of like-minded people naturally flock together to resist the violence of the state, bound by the unconditional solidarity that lasts only as long as the protest itself, after which every individual goes their own way. In the words of some black bloc participants, the tactic has been described as a performance, a form of direct action that uses symbolic violence as a way to call for public debate.

Why so violent?

Ever since the Black Bloc entered the protest scene in Brazil, three crucial questions have intrigued observers and government officials alike: what motivates these people to take their anger to the streets; how do they justify the use of violence; and why do they not engage in peaceful protests?

Due to the explicit distrust that the majority of Black Bloc supporters have towards the media, especially the mainstream channels, it is really hard for society at large to obtain access to the ideologies and reasoning that guide their actions on the streets. The key, and most provocative, element that causes a big fuss in public opinion is the use of violence as a legitimate tool of protest. The arguments given by Black Bloc participants to justify their sometimes violent direct actions are essential to understanding all the dimensions of that phenomenon. Still, the ideological motivations and reasoning behind these actions is not well understood by the great majority of the population, whose only contact with the Black Bloc is through the mainstream media.

After talking with a number of Black Bloc participants, we can affirm that there exists a huge convergence between the beliefs of the protesters and the specific tactics generally used by the Black Bloc. Behind the heterogeneous profiles of these youths one can notice a common denominator; a collective idea that defines their shared points-of-view. First, there is the conviction that purely peaceful protests are not bringing any tangible results, and, as such, are inefficient.

In the words of one protester: “If we want peace, we have to fight for it. Peaceful protests are meaningless. The government doesn’t care! They only listen to violence.” This argument is closely related to the general discontent with the political institutions of the country. On top of this, there exists an intense anger towards the police and towards the military task forces in particular. “The military are murderers,” one protester told us. “They kill all the time and we can’t react. Military pigs!”

“Indignation” is the term that most frequently comes up when talking with the youths that are trying to explain the meaning of the Black Bloc to them. The feeling of indignation is instigated by the general discontent of the people with the political powers that are perceived as corrupt and absent in those sections of society where their presence is most urgently required.

The lack of high quality basic services, the difficult urban life, the disinterested stance of the political establishment, the uncertainties of the future, and the dismantlement of the public sector in contrast with the rise of the private sector are some of the examples continuously cited throughout the conversations we had with protesters. In this sense, the perception that today’s youth has of government and, in a broader sense, their perception of the current socio-economic system, closely mirrors public opinion.

Direct action

The Black Bloc is defined by its participants as a form of direct action. But what does this mean? In this particular case, the direct action of the Black Bloc can be seen as a form of both symbolic and performative violence against the symbols of corporate and state power. It is intended not to injure people but to still draw attention to the protests and provoke a social and institutional reaction. McDonald’s restaurants are vandalized, banks are left with broken windows, and government buildings are defaced: it all forms part of a collective tactic based on a theatrical display of confrontation with the powers-that-be.

Violence, in this way, can be considered a form of expression. It communicates to power a message that purely peaceful protests cannot, challenging the government and forcing it to bring about meaningful change. The bourgeois protests, or coxinhas, which are often entirely peaceful, have in the eyes of many failed to achieve any positive results for the population at large. For some, then, the use of performative violence — not oriented towards people but to property and, only in defensive battles, against the police — becomes necessary. One protester framed the violent protests as a warning signal to the government, which still refuses to address the protesters’ claims: “If violence isn’t used, you don’t get attention. They do not see our revolt.”

In this way, the use of performative violence is justified as a political instrument. According to these youths, the historical protests of June have not brought about any positive results or structural changes. Therefore, in order to advance to the next stage of the struggle, the form and content of the struggle needs to be radicalized by putting direct action at the heart of the movement’s tactics. This radicalization of the protests is a natural consequence of the refusal of public officials to engage with the popular will. Having reached the point at which the government clearly felt comfortable to simply ignore the peaceful marches of millions, performative violence is now perceived to be the only way for legitimate popular demands to be heard.

That said, the spectacular dimension of the protesters’ violence is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, the theatrical appeal of the violent protests for the mainstream media provides the protesters with a stage on which to display their message to a wider audience. On the other hand, it reinforces the media’s craving for the spectacle and thereby risks further marginalizing purely peaceful protests.

It is not uncommon for a protest where the Black Bloc makes its appearance to have an equal number of journalists, both from the mainstream channels and independent outlets, present on the scene. “We only gave attention to violent protests. That’s what matters,” admits Bruno Paes de Manso, a blogger for Estadão, one of the country’s largest newspapers. “The media creates a monster and then it doesn’t know what to do with it. We legitimize that violence. The peaceful protests don’t matter, they don’t sell and they can’t be turned into the front page of a newspaper.”

Now, with the FIFA World Cup-circus descending upon Brazil, the country’s resistance movement has the opportunity to showcase its grievances on a truly global stage. Different social forces are emerging in the face of this opportunity, and the tactics of the Black Bloc are becoming more and more popular. Even while being depicted in the media as a criminal organization, the Black Bloc gains strength inside the movement, mainly among those mobilizing against the tournament.

The battle at the doorstep

In the wake of the first birthday of the Marches of June, diversity of tactics now appears to have become a significant part of the political process in Brazil, capable of drawing attention to demonstrations that haven’t reached as wide an audience as last year’s mobilizations. This, in a sense, symbolizes a break-through with respect to the lethargic political reaction to last year’s protests — one that may yet prove to be a turning-point for Brazilian politics insofar as the development of a truly democratic society is concerned.

Perhaps most importantly, the rise of the Black Bloc forces us to confront the question of violence in a broader, more structural sense. Why do we pay such tremendous attention to some broken windows, while no one is talking about the 50.000 annual homicides, or the equal amount of women who are raped every year in Brazil? Does the theatrical violence of the Black Bloc truly deserve more attention than the tragedies of everyday life in the favelas? One explanation is that the performative violence of the Black Bloc has brought the battle to the doorstep of those who are pulling the strings, whereas the very real violence against the poor and marginalized occurs at the fringes of society, safely hidden away from the public gaze in areas where the cameras of the mainstream media rarely venture.

Whether one agrees with Black Bloc tactics or not, we have to admit that they successfully draw attention to the very real indignation that slumbers below the surface of Brazilian society. We can debate how successful the use of performative violence can be in achieving one’s long-term goals of radical social transformation, but we cannot deny a person’s right to resist in whatever way they see fit. When violence is the only face of the state that people experience, no wonder it’s through violence that they resist.

Esther Solano Gallego is Professor of International Relations at the Federal University of São Paulo.

Paulo Rogério Lugoboni Filho is a student in International Relations at the Federal University of São Paulo

Luciano Cunha is a Brazilian author, cartoonist and graphic designer. His latest creation is the anti-hero O Doutrinador (‘The Indoctrinator’), who — dressed in black, sporting a Sepultura t-shirt, carrying a machine gun and with his face covered by a gas mask to avoid identification — has set out on a mission to rid the country of its corrupt politicians. In less than a year the comic has drawn a lot of attention from infuriated Brazilians who in some way feel connected to the anti-hero’s mission. The popularity of O Doutrinador has sky-rocketed in the past year, drawing attention not only from those who support Cunha’s work, but also from government figures who attempt to muzzle him via lawsuits, violating his freedom of expression and trying to kill his creative liberty. We at ROAR are therefore very excited to feature a series of unique drawings by Cunha to illustrate our Brazil coverage in the coming weeks. O Doutrinador can be found on Facebook, YouTube, and his personal website.

Economy slumps, Wall Street booms

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20 June 2014

The Federal Reserve on Wednesday cut its projection for US economic growth in 2014 and scaled back its annual growth estimate in the longer term to about 2 percent—far below the post-World War II average of 3.3 percent. It is an outlook that promises no relief for the vast majority of the population from six years of unemployment, falling wages, and cuts in education, health care and other vital social programs.

The Fed’s assessment amounted to an admission that slump and falling living standards for the masses of people are here to stay.

The bleak assessment was in line with two other economic reports released in recent days. Last week, the World Bank cut its projection for global growth this year to 2.8 percent from its earlier estimate of 3.2 percent, and downgraded its prediction for the US from 2.8 percent to 2.1 percent. On Monday, the International Monetary Fund revised downward its projection for US growth from 2.8 percent to 2.0 percent.

The IMF said unemployment in the US would not return to normal levels until the end of 2017 at the earliest.

Wall Street responded to the Fed’s assessment and policy statement Wednesday with a celebratory rally, pushing the Standard & Poor’s 500 stock index to a new record high and boosting the Dow by 98 points. The reason is not hard to fathom.

In keeping with the policy of central banks and governments around the world, the Fed made clear that it intends to continue pumping virtually free and unlimited credit into the financial system for at least another year. Fed Chair Janet Yellen went out of her way at a press conference following the close of the central bank’s two-day meeting to reassure the bankers and speculators that she would keep the benchmark federal funds interest rate at its present zero-0.25 percent level for months to come, and that extraordinarily low interest rates would continue indefinitely.

This is precisely the policy—a vast public subsidy to the financial aristocracy—that over the past five years, since the low point of the crisis that erupted in September 2008, has enabled the stock market to nearly triple in value, boosting the fortunes of bankers and CEOs to record levels, even as the real economy remained mired in slump and the living standards of the overwhelming majority of the population declined. The income of a typical US household fell 8.2 percent between 2007 and 2012.

The Fed, as expected, pared back its monthly bond purchases (its so-called “quantitative easing” program) by another $10 billion. In her remarks to the press, Yellen stressed that even after QE had ended, interest rates would remain near zero.

She went further, stating that the stock market—whose astronomical rise is entirely detached from the dismal state of the real economy—was “not overvalued.” In other words, as far was Wall Street was concerned, the fix was in.

Two days before, IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde had urged the Fed to keep rates at their current level beyond mid-2015, when the financial markets believe small rate hikes are likely to begin. Warning of the fragility of the financial system, she implied that the central banks had to keep the flood of virtually free money flowing to the banks and hedge funds.

The justification given by Yellen, Lagarde and their like for what is essentially a systematic policy of redistributing wealth from the bottom to the very top is the need to create jobs and reduce unemployment. This is a fraud.

They know full well that pumping cash into the financial system does not lead to an expansion of productive investment and decent-paying jobs. There is no requirement that the bankers and big investors who benefit from this diversion of public funds use their windfalls to build factories or schools. For the past six years, government bailouts and central bank subsidies have gone to fatten the bank accounts and stock portfolios of the super-rich and finance ever more reckless and criminal forms of financial manipulation.

To cover the resulting debts incurred by governments, brutal austerity programs are imposed, destroying social services, jobs, wages, pensions and the living standards of the working class. Between 2007 and 2012, US government spending and public investment fell by almost 8 percent, the largest decline in more than half a century. Corporate investment has been minimal.

Alongside the massive diversion of social wealth to the financial elite, the IMF, World Bank and Fed continue to demand the gutting of past social reforms and protections for workers, in the name of “job creation” and “competitiveness.” Calling for cuts in government subsidies that hold down food and energy costs and privatization of state-owned industries, the World Bank in its June 10 Global Economic Prospects report stated: “In a world where external financial conditions are expected to tighten and remain challenging, future growth must increasingly be driven by domestic efforts to boost productivity and competitiveness.”

The same quasi-criminal and socially destructive methods that characterize the financial operations of the ruling elite find expression in the warmongering foreign policies of imperialist governments. Lagarde warned this week that the collapse of Iraq—the product of US war and subversion in that country, Libya, Syria and throughout the Middle East—could drive up oil prices and further derail the US economy.

Workers in the US are already being hammered by rising food and energy prices fueled by the inflation of stock prices and other financial assets and the crises precipitated by US policy in places such as Ukraine and Iraq. The national average price of gasoline is the highest for this time of year since 2008. More than half of all US states have reported rising gas prices. Retail beef, pork, poultry, egg and milk prices are all up sharply from last year.

Last week, the IMF warned that the inflation of real estate prices in a number of major countries was increasing the risk of another financial crash. But the very policies the IMF promotes—starting with the infusion of cash into the banking system—produces asset bubbles that must inevitably implode.

This contradiction reflects the dead end of the system which all of these institutions of the ruling class defend—capitalism. It is a system that has produced a vast sea of human misery and oppression, along with the stagnation and decay of man’s productive forces, exacerbated by the plundering of social resources to finance soaring stock markets, record corporate profits and the personal fortunes of a numerically minuscule financial aristocracy.

One statistic, often cited but nonetheless extraordinarily revealing and damning, encapsulates the irrationality and bankruptcy, moral and historical, of the capitalist system: 85 billionaires today have as much wealth ($1.68 trillion) as the bottom half of the world’s population—3.5 billion people.

This situation is not sustainable, either economically or politically. More and more workers, in the US as well as internationally, are coming to the realization that there is no way out within the framework of the existing system—one that barely conceals its single-minded focus on the further enrichment of the few at the expense of the many.

Barry Grey

Rio de Janeiro: a story of occupations and evictions

by Vik Birkbeck on June 17, 2014

Post image for Rio de Janeiro: a story of occupations and evictions

The Homeless Worker Movement occupied a building in Rio, helping to shelter thousands — but in the run-up to the World Cup they were violently evicted.

 

Illustration by Luciano Cunha, creator of O Doutrinador.

It’s been five years since Brazil celebrated its selection by FIFA to host the ongoing 2014 World Cup. The announcement was made in great style on Copacabana Beach, packed with thousands jumping, dancing and in many cases partying all night — in what many would consider to be true Brazilian style. FIFA clearly thought that this was the safe choice in its gradual march around the globe, bringing recalcitrant nations and continents into its orbit. Brazil, after all, is the prototype football-crazy nation, where the whole country grinds to a halt to watch its squad in action. So who could possibly imagine that four years later millions of people would be marching through the streets not only of Rio and São Paulo but also Brasília, Belo Horizonte, Recife, Salvador, Goiania, shouting Não Vai ter Copa! (‘There won’t be a World Cup!).

The original impetus for the massive demonstrations of 2013 was a nationwide rise in bus fares, but with the upcoming Confederations Cup, FIFA’s dress rehearsal for the World Cup, public attention quickly focused on the vast sums being invested in stadiums and the infrastructure for the tournament. The “FIFA standard” of the new stadiums was contrasted with the recurrent problems of public transport, health and education. The double whammy of also being selected to host the 2016 Olympics engendered a wildly ambitious restructuring and development plan in Rio de Janeiro.

On December 5, 2009, the Strategic Plan of the City Government announced by Mayor Eduardo Paes presented as one of its core aims the reduction of the total surface area occupied by favelas (shanty towns) by 3.5%, purportedly because they were located “in areas at risk of landslides or flooding, conservation areas, or areas of public utility.” But as a banner carried by a protesting victim of this eviction policy read: “When rich people live in the South zone, it’s called a noble area, when poor people live there it’s called an area at risk.”

Graffiti on the walls of Metro Mangueira by the Moroccan-French artist Pleks Kustom (photo by author).

Even the beloved Maracana stadium, an international icon of Rio’s identity, had to be entirely reconstructed in line with FIFA directives. In the process the geral — the cheap standing area occupied by Rio’s most ardent football fans — has been abolished, effectively excluding the poorer part of the population from attending games. Watching live football is now the privilege of the “whites”, the upper and middle-class spectators who are able to pay more for the right to watch the game sitting down. In the process of reconstructing Maracana, the developers hit on a perfect scheme for earning more money by knocking down the surroundings as well to make space for a massive parking lot and shopping mall.

The destroyed surroundings of the stadium included Friedenreich School, one of Rio’s best municipal schools (in a country which ranks 78th for quality of education); Lanagro, Rio’s only laboratory for analyzing foodstuffs (while Brazil has the highest consumption of pesticides in the world and all corn and soy plantations are genetically modified); the Olympic-standard Celio de Barros athletics complex and Julio de Lamare water-sports complex (both newly reconstructed at vast expense for the 2007 Pan-American Games and used for training Rio’s Olympic athletes); Metro Mangueira, a poor community built 34 years ago by the construction workers of the Rio underground, hence its name; and finally Aldeia Maracanã, a multi-ethnic indigenous community created in 2006 around the abandoned 19th century building, which had long been associated with indigenous culture and which housed the Indian museum for over twenty years.

Metro Mangueira is emblematic of the many evictions carried out or planned in the lead-up to the World Cup and the Olympics. It was once an orderly, close-knit community and, although poor, the houses were solidly built by construction-workers. In October 2010, employees of the City Council started informing the inhabitants that their community was “at risk”, marking their houses with crosses and numbers, reminiscent of the Nazi practices in Jewish ghettos. The 107 families who accepted were moved to Cosmos, some 45 miles away, causing enormous hardship for those with jobs or schools nearby. The City Council tractors then moved in to demolish the newly abandoned homes, leaving huge holes and piles of broken masonry, opening the community to drug dealers, prostitution and a plague of rats and mosquitoes.

As a result, the official explanation used to justify the eviction became a self-fulfilling prophecy. With families and individuals occupying the ruins and rubble of the demolished homes, the area was soon transformed into a risk zone. Finally, at the beginning of 2014, with the World Cup in sight, the demolition trucks moved back into the community. Instead of a real option for those about to be evicted, the city council proposed to register them in the federal programme Minha Casa, Minha Vida (My House, My Life) which subsidizes low income families to acquire houses. Although federal, this program is administered by city councils in each state. There have been no new public housing developments in the central area of Rio, so the register is just a piece of paper. Popular resistance to the demolition of Metro Mangueira lasted several days and led to a large contingent of military police attacking young and old alike with pepper spray, bombs and rubber bullets.

Resistance during the final eviction of Metro Mangueira (photo by Paula Kossatz).

Before the advent of Google Maps, maps of Rio de Janeiro depicted the older, more traditional areas of the city and the newer expansions towards Barra and Recreio while the rest of the area was apparently uninhabited space. Google maps dealt a serious blow to this bucolic image of the Cidade Maravilhosa (‘Wonderful City’) by revealing that all available space in the urban area — hills, valleys, rough ground — was occupied by favelas. The reaction of much of the elite was a sense of betrayal, but it’s impossible to sweep these satellite images under the carpet. Suddenly everyone was forced to admit the favelas‘ existence.

After the draconian austerity measures and structural reforms imposed by the IMF during the debt crisis of the 1980s, the favelas had spread rapidly as more and more people were driven to the cities by the expansion of industrial agriculture. In their new urban dwellings, the inhabitants lingered in a sort of limbo-state, as an auxiliary labor force at wages insufficient to adequately feed their families, let alone pay for housing. Signs of the acute housing crisis in Rio are reflected in the number of people — even entire families — sleeping in the streets in the city center, while new favelas continuously spring up in every available space.

So when at the beginning of April 2014 some of the leaders of the Movement of Homeless Workers identified a large building and surrounding yard and out-houses which used to belong to the former telephone company Telerj, and which had been abandoned for nearly twenty years, they quickly set about occupying the area. Thousands of families invested their minimal resources into buying planks to construct huts in the area which in the space of a week was occupied by ten thousand people. Although the occupants of the Telerj building included pregnant women, elderly people and thousands of children from babies to adolescents, no real attempt was made to identify the occupants or investigate their necessities.

TV Globo, Brazil’s biggest television network, was quick to denounce the “invaders” as criminals, flying over the area for aerial shots of the “invasion.” The telephone company that took over from Telerj — Oi — had never occupied the building, which was going to be sold to the city government and which was destined for the ‘My House, My Life’ program. However, with the impasse of the occupation, the “owners” soon appeared and a suit for reintegration of the property was rushed through the courts. On Wednesday, April 9, Mayor Eduardo Paes announced that the occupation had been carried out by organized professionals, implying criminal intent, and declared that the area should be “disoccupied” and returned to its owners. The mayor went as far as stating that “really poor people who need houses don’t stake out their plots with planks and construction materials.”

Rubble is all that remains of the Metro Mangueira community (photo by author).

So what was the solution for all this “criminal activity”? At dawn on April 11, 1.600 heavily armed military police invaded the area. Sleeping women were kicked awake, huts were knocked down, everyone was sprayed with chemical spray — not from the usual hand-held canisters but from massive cylinders the size of fire extinguishers, which the police carried in backpacks. All members of the press, whether corporate or independent, were expelled from the area and even one of the Globo reporters was arrested by police on the spurious charge that he was “throwing stones.” Occupants allege that four infants succumbed to the chemical spray and rumors circulated that one of the reasons for keeping reporters out was to prevent them from witnessing the fatalities.

The sheer number of people involved, the fact that noone had time to create a real register of the occupants of the building, and the pandemonium that ensued makes it impossible to corroborate the facts. Nonetheless, the photographs and videos of independent reporters on the scene bear witness to the terror of the “disoccupation.” Testimonies of many of those involved reveal that these are people who have already been evicted from other areas in recent demolitions and evictions, while others are victims of the rising prices engendered by the militarization of the favelas.

The occupation and subsequent eviction of the Telerj building, just as the destruction of the Metro Mangueira community, is exemplary of the complete disregard for right to housing of Brazil’s poorest people. On the one hand, entire neighborhoods are demolished to make space for parking lots and shopping malls, and on the other many favelas have been occupied by militarized police forces (UPPs). This means that communities lacking any form of public services are basically placed under permanent curfew, which goes under the dubious title of “Public Security,” and any kind of protest is treated as a criminal uprising.

The contagious spirit of the mass protests that have been rocking Brazil over the past year has also found fertile soil in the favelas, where the death of every young person murdered by police is another rallying cry for popular resistance. As the current wave of anti-World Cup protests shows, the genie is out of the bottle — and it will take a lot more than violent evictions and police repression to silence the awakened and indignant multitude.

Vik Birkbeck is British by birth but is a long-time resident of Brazil. As a media activist she has been filming and photographing popular culture and street movements since the eighties. All the photos in the article are by the author.

Luciano Cunha is a Brazilian author, cartoonist and graphic designer. His latest creation is the anti-hero O Doutrinador (‘The Indoctrinator’), who — dressed in black, sporting a Sepultura t-shirt, carrying a machine gun and with his face covered by a gas mask to avoid identification — has set out on a mission to rid the country of its corrupt politicians. In less than a year the comic has drawn a lot of attention from infuriated Brazilians who in some way feel connected to the anti-hero’s mission. The popularity of O Doutrinador has sky-rocketed in the past year, drawing attention not only from those who support Cunha’s work, but also from government figures who attempt to muzzle him via lawsuits, violating his freedom of expression and trying to kill his creative liberty. We at ROAR are therefore very excited to feature a series of unique drawings by Cunha to illustrate our Brazil coverage in the coming weeks. O Doutrinador can be found on Facebook, YouTube, and his personal website.

They Can’t Represent Us: a riveting defense of democracy

by Jerome Roos on June 16, 2014

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They Can’t Represent Us by Marina Sitrin and Dario Azzellini is a fiery indictment of electoral politics and a riveting defense of real democracy.

 

Marina Sitrin and Dario Azzellini (2014), They Can’t Represent Us: Reinventing Democracy from Greece to Occupy (with a foreword by David Harvey). London and New York: Verso.

A lot of ink has already been spilled on last month’s European elections. Most commentators lament the rise of the far-right; some celebrate the rise of the radical left — but almost everyone has focused their attention on the rearrangement of the deck chairs, missing the grumbling sounds of discontent emanating from below, deep down in the bowels of the ship. As it turns out, only 43% of eligible Europeans actually showed up to vote; the rest couldn’t even be bothered to make the short trip to the polling station. Grand hypotheses are already being staked upon the numbers pulled out of the ballot box, but if numbers still mean anything in this world we should be looking not at the marginal success of leftist parties but at the hundreds of millions who have long since given up their faith in the sham of a democracy we are currently presented with.

The representative institutions of capitalist democracy are facing a profound legitimation crisis. According to the European Commission, 68% of Europeans do not believe that their voice counts in Europe, while a recent Eurobarometer survey revealed that public confidence in the EU has fallen to historic lows. Meanwhile, a major study by the Pew Research Global Attitudes Project finds that the mistrust is far from limited to EU institutions: “compounding their doubts about the Brussels-based European Union, Europeans are losing faith in the capacity of their own national leaders to cope with the economy’s woes.” José Ignacio Torreblanca of the European Council of Foreign Relations remarks that “both debtor and creditor countries basically feel that they lost control of what they are doing,” and concludes that most European citizens “now think that their national democracy is being subverted by the way the euro crisis is conducted.”

The story is the same in the United States, where Gallup’s most recent annual trust poll found that only 19% of Americans trust the government to do what is right “just about always” or “most of the time”, while an overwhelming 81% trust the government only “some of the time” or “never” — a marked deterioration even from the darkest days of George W. Bush’s anti-democratic reign. Just by means of comparison: back in 1960, 73% of Americans still trusted their government to do the right thing always or most of the time. As two leading pollsters for former Presidents Clinton and Carter remark, “this harrowing lack of trust in confidence in politicians and institutions today has been a long time coming … As it stands, our system only serves the elite, not the mass public. And the American people know it.”

This is the crisis of representation facing the so-called capitalist democracies today — and this is the context in which a wave of protest has spread across the globe in recent years. As one Brazilian activist put it during last year’s mass demonstrations, “the mask of democracy is falling.” Now, a timely new book by Marina Sitrin and Dario Azzellini recounts the stories of ordinary citizens around the world as they decided to take matters into their own hands. In They Can’t Represent Us: Reinventing Democracy from Greece to Occupy, the international scholar-activist duo provide us with a unique insight into the bowels of the ship, where a massive democratic mutiny is brewing — occasionally spilling over onto the deck to rearrange some of the chairs, but most of the time simply stirring below the surface, preparing the ground for a radical redistribution of power from below.

In a hard-hitting denunciation of representative democracy, and through a colorful depiction of the countless grassroots alternatives that are already being constructed in communities and workplaces around the world, Sitrin and Azzellini recount the story of the movement of the squares in Greece, Spain and the US, and seek to ground these mass mobilizations in the desire of ordinary people to control their everyday lives and to actively participate in the decision-making processes that affect them. This book, then, is both a fiery indictment of electoral politics and a riveting defense of real democracy — which must by its definition be built on the basis of radical egalitarianism and the direct participation of ordinary citizens in social, political and economic life. Above all, the book is about a radically different approach to running the ship and finding ways to change course before it slams into the dislodged icebergs that loom ominously ahead.

From this vantage point, the year 2011 constituted a rupture. The mass mobilizations and occupations of public spaces from Tahrir to Zuccotti Park cracked open history and allowed a renewed critique of capitalism and representation to finally come to the fore. For a brief moment, at least, the radical imagination ran free. For many, participating in these events was a profoundly transformative experience that was carried over into their everyday lives, where it shot root and began to branch out into new social relations and new forms of political engagement. Today, Sitrin and Azzellini show, hundreds of “laboratories for democracy” are emerging around the world, creating space for ordinary citizens to experiment with alternative forms of social organization, democratic decision-making processes and non-hierarchical ways of relating. In Southern Europe and Latin America, in particular, this project of autonomy has come to pervade the social fabric.

Unlike the occupations themselves, however, the more recent self-managed initiatives that emerged out of them are much less visible and tend to be greatly under-reported by the mainstream media and largely under-appreciated by the institutional left. As a result, the public debate in the United States and Europe today lacks a proper grassroots perspective. Luckily, Sitrin and Azzellini are in an excellent position to provide just that. Having actively participated in the movements themselves, having conducted dozens of follow-up interviews with other participants, and having spent a number of years embedded in previous movements in Argentina and Venezuela, respectively, Sitrin and Azzellini are able to reflect both on their internal functioning and on the global context in which they all arose.

Moreover, Sitrin and Azzellini take the title of their book seriously. Rather than trying to “represent” the voices of the movements, a large part of the book is devoted to the voices of activists and organizers themselves. Through a set of well-selected and carefully curated interview transcripts, they provide the reader with a wonderful insight into the political visions of movement organizers, as well as the many social struggles, political projects and community initiatives that emerged in the wake of the recent ruptures — ranging from efforts to recuperate factories and stop the privatization of water in Greece, to resisting evictions in Spain and “striking debt” in the United States.

Some of these efforts have brought inspiring (partial) victories. At the same time, it is clear that, on the whole, the movements have so far been unable to create a real dent in the top-down distribution of power between the decks. Apart from a number of promising spin-off campaigns, Occupy largely fizzled out, while the movement of the squares in Greece and Spain (despite continued mass mobilizations) has not yet succeeded in halting the austerity drive of their respective governments. In a recent article, the New York-based collective Not An Alternative ultimately blamed the failure of Occupy on the movement’s fetishization of process at the expense of the effort of constructing an alternative political form that could credibly challenge dominant power structures. The California-based Research & Destroy collective similarly lambasts the movement for its inability to match means with ends. These critiques raise an important question: can autonomous movements that emphasize horizontality and self-organization ever really mount a genuine challenge to the capitalist system as such?

Sitrin and Azzellini never really address this question explicitly, but they do touch upon it in what are perhaps the most fascinating and most instructive chapters of their book: the ones on Argentina and Venezuela. Like the US and Europe today, these two Latin American countries experienced a major rupture following a period of rapid neoliberal restructuring. In 1989, a brutal state crackdown on an IMF riot in Carácas — the so-called Caracazo – left thousands dead and set the stage for the proliferation of grassroots movements and the emergence of the Bolivarian process. In Argentina, a spontaneous uprising on December 19 and 20, 2001 ousted President De la Rúa and led to the greatest sovereign debt default in world history, as well as a massive surge in social mobilization, horizontal self-organization and workplace recuperation. These examples show that grassroots movements have a critical role to play in social transformation.

Still, the Latin American chapters leave many burning questions unanswered. Most importantly, there appears to be a tension between the Argentine and Venezuelan cases that is never fully resolved; a tension that arises from the movements’ relation to the state. While the role of the state in Argentina is described in mostly negative terms, with the Kirchners seeking to demobilize the movements through a dual strategy of repression and co-optation, the relationship between state and movements in Venezuela is depicted in a more contradictory light, as one containing both conflictive and cooperative elements. Argentina seems to leave little hope for strategic alliances between autonomous social forces and national-popular parties, while Venezuela’s experience highlights various ways in which progressive forces occupying the state can create space for autonomous movements to construct their own grassroots alternatives from below. What are we to make of these somewhat divergent experiences? What do they tell us in terms of strategy; in terms of matching means with ends?

At this stage in the struggle, such questions are no longer just academic. The rise of the radical left in Greece — and to a lesser extent in Spain — forces activists in autonomous movements to take a stance: either they support left parties wholeheartedly, or they oppose them and insist on radical autonomy and “abstraction” from the state, or they find some kind of intermediate ground, where one may vote for the left and even ally with it on strategic occasions to defend any advances made, while continuing to push against and beyond the state for a post-capitalist world that is to be held in common. It would, perhaps, have fitted the ambitious scope of Sitrin and Azzellini’s book to take up these strategic implications in a proper conclusion (right now, the book ends in the middle of an interview without any concluding remarks from the authors). None of this, however, can detract from the book’s practical importance at this historical juncture. Now, more than ever, we need to keep shining our light on the deepening crisis of representation and the real-world alternatives that are already being constructed from below. Sitrin and Azzellini have easily provided the best account of these grassroots struggles so far.

As for the deeper question — often raised by the communist left — of whether or not the notion of democracy provides a useful starting point and organizing ground for the anti-capitalist struggle, perhaps we should invoke a quote by C. Douglas Lummis, cited by Sitrin and Azzellini in a passage that now rings truer than ever: “‘Democracy’ was once a word of the people, a critical word, a revolutionary word. It has been stolen by those who would rule over the people, to add legitimacy to their rule. It is time to take it back.”

Jerome Roos is a PhD researcher in International Political Economy at the European University Institute, and founding editor of ROAR Magazine.