Europe never existed. It was a story made up to deal with the legacies of war  

Has Europe lost its hold on our collective imagination?

Is European unity an unsustainable myth?
Is European unity an unsustainable myth? Photograph: Laszlo Balogh/Reuters

When I was a teenager in Dublin in the early 1970s, the phrase “We’re into Europe!” gained a peculiar currency. It was half-jokey but not really sardonic. You used it for good things that promised even better things – when a girl you fancied smiled at you or your team scored the first goal.

It came from what was (in retrospect quite amazingly) a popular TV show calledInto Europe that the state broadcaster put on to educate the populace of a peripheral nation that was going to join the European Economic Community in 1973. I remember documentaries about farm consolidation in Denmark or students sitting around some castle in Germany discussing “What does it mean to be European?” It seemed terribly exciting that we, too, would soon be able to discuss that question with the same earnest enthusiasm. We were into Europe.

But what did “Europe” mean in this sense? It was not a physical place. Ireland had, after all, always been part of Europe. And the EEC was not, in any case, Europe – it was a small fraction of the continent. But it wasn’t a mere set of trading and institutional arrangements either. It was a story, an imaginative fiction of the kind that Yuval Noah Harari evokes in his book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. He makes the point that the capacity to believe in fictional constructs is a defining element of what makes us human, because without it we cannot co-operate with people we do not know: “At the heart of our mass co-operation networks, you will always find fictional stories that exist only in people’s collective imagination… There are no gods, no nations, no money and no human rights, except in our collective imagination.”

One of these enabling fictions is “Europe”. It is a story that most of the central and western nations of the continent agreed to tell themselves and each other in order to deal with the legacies of the second world war and the cold war. And like all stories, it sustained itself, if not exactly with belief, then at least with a willing suspension of disbelief. The question now is whether it still exists at all, whether “Europe” has lost its hold on our collective imagination. All the evidence suggests that it has.

In a remarkable outburst reported last week by the Observer, the Italian prime minister, Matteo Renzi, denounced the failure of his fellow EU leaders to agree on more than a voluntary plan to deal with the thousands of refugees and migrants landing on his country’s shores: “If this is your idea of Europe, keep it for yourself… you do not deserve to call yourself Europe. Either we have solidarity or we waste our time!”

In recent weeks, too, the appeals by leaders of Syriza in Greece to “our shared European values” have come to seem not just desperate but naive. It is as if the Greeks were appealing to medieval codes of chivalry or expecting Premier League footballers to respect 19th-century Corinthian values. “Europe” and “European values” seem, even as rhetorical gestures, entirely hollow. They are evoked now only to underline their absence.

One by one, the elements of the Europe story have fallen away. Democracy? European leaders, especially the Germans, have been openly canvassing the idea of “regime change” in Athens. The free movement of people? Hungary is planning to build a fence along its border with Serbia and David Cameron is hoping to build a metaphorical fence around Britain. The welfare state? The recent elections in both Finland and Denmark suggest that even in its Nordic heartland, it is no longer seen as a European value but as a national, even an ethnic, possession, to be kept for “our people” alone.

Solidarity? Who now believes that the average person in Frankfurt or Helsinki sees the pensioner rummaging in a bin in Thessaloniki as a fellow citizen? Thresholds of decency? Formulaic expressions of sympathy aside, there is little sense that the European Union as a whole finds it intolerable that hundreds of thousands of Greeks are living without electricity or that millions have no access to public health care.

The “ever closer union” envisaged by the EU’s founders has been replaced in effect by a deeply incoherent mixture of one-size-fits-all thinking and double standards. On the one hand, there is the absolute insistence that there can be no challenge to the technocratic formula for solving the eurozone crisis: austerity plus massive bank bailouts plus privatisation and the dismantling of social and labour protections.

On the other, there is a sharp moral and political divide between the creditor states and the debtor states, with a supposedly virtuous, prudent and righteous core beset by a feckless, reckless periphery. Or, if viewed from that periphery, between victimised citizens and a European political elite bent on punishing them for sins they did not commit on their own.

There is no “collective imagination” of the crisis – in one Europe, it is respectable, hard-working people being exploited by chaotic layabouts from the hot south; in the other, it is hard-pressed and equally hard-working people being sucked dry to feed foreign banks. The stories Europeans are telling themselves about what’s going on around them are not just different but mutually exclusive and mutually antagonistic.

Nor is this collapse of the collective imagination just a product of the eurozone crisis. It has deeper roots. The idea of “Europe” that animated the EU depended on the conflicts that gave it birth. The Second World War, fascism and the Holocaust created a deep appreciation of the fragility of peace, democracy and human rights. The Cold War made it imperative for western democracies to compete with communism on its own terms by showing that market economies could deliver, not just prosperity, but social justice, equality and security.

But the Cold War ended, the rivalry with communism ceased, and the generation of leaders with memories of the Second World War – the likes of Helmut Kohl and Helmut Schmidt, François Mitterand and Jacques Delors – passed on. With them has gone the urgency of imagining a European story, not as an abstract fable, but as a necessary alternative to the other European stories of Hitler and Stalin.

Their benign fiction also had a powerful subtext – the need to contain Germany. It is not accidental that it was Schmidt, who was 14 when Hitler came to power, who issued what he called “a serious and carefully considered warning” to his compatriots three years ago: “If we Germans allow ourselves to be seduced into claiming a political leading role in Europe or at least playing first among equals, based on our economic strength, an increasing majority of our neighbours will effectively resist this. The concern of the periphery about an all too powerful European centre would soon come racing back. The possible consequences of such a development would be crippling.”

Schmidt was right – and he was also ignored. No one watching the German finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, in recent weeks can have picked up the slightest hint of anxiety about being “first among equals”. There is only the absolute certainty that, whatever the evidence to the contrary, Greece can and must be beaten until it learns to become more German.

In the technocratic mindset that has filled the vacuum where “Europe” used to be, the old story is just a sentimental romance. But there’s always a story – the old fable of democracy, solidarity and decency hasn’t been replaced by simple dull reality. What has taken its place is a narrative that poses as hard-headed realism but that is actually much more fantastical than the one that was constructed by the postwar generation. It has a wildly improbable plot in which years of austerity magically produce economic growth; mountains of public debt are paid off by shrinking economies; unaccountable experts know more about other countries than their own elected governments; and everyone lives happily ever after. The good are rewarded. The bad are punished but they repent in the end and return to the fold. There’s certainly a lot of imagination in this story. But its ability to sustain a collective enterprise among 28 stubbornly individual nations is negligible.

It is not entirely true, of course, that no one at all believes the old story of Europe. The last true believers are on rickety boats in the Mediterranean, trying to make their way to an imagined continent of compassion, solidarity and security. If they ever get to shore, they will find at best a grudging welcome. But those who purport to share their belief in what Europe means badly need some of their desperate optimism.

http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/jul/05/europe-fictional-construct-legacies-of-war?CMP=fb_gu

 

Greece needs a Plan C: for the commons and communality

By Jerome Roos On July 4, 2015

Post image for Greece needs a Plan C: for the commons and communalityWhatever the outcome of the referendum, tough times are ahead. To survive, Greek society will need to reinvigorate the commons and communal solidarity.

Image: A solidarity kitchen in Greece. The poster in the back reads “Free Food for All” (by Marko Djurika).

As the Greek debt crisis enters its dramatic apotheosis — with an unprecedented default on the IMF last Tuesday, hundreds of thousands of anti-austerity protesters taking to the streets on Friday, and a historic referendum scheduled for Sunday — concerns are growing over the state of the Greek economy.

The decision by the European creditors and the European Central Bank to basically cut off Greece’s banking system from continued emergency support has forced the government to close all private banks and impose far-reaching capital controls. As a result, Greek companies can no longer pay foreign suppliers and are already starting to run short on food, pharmaceuticals and other key imports. Some pensioners are struggling to obtain their much-needed cash.

Sunday’s referendum, for all its flaws and limitations, marks a triumph for democracy. Still, it won’t bring an immediate end to the turmoil. Whatever the outcome, tough times are ahead. After nearly six years of brutal austerity, the Greek economy is devastated while the “welfare state” remains anemic and dysfunctional. Unemployment and misery are rife. Needless to say, none of this will change overnight. Indeed, as the creditors intensify their vicious campaign of financial asphyxiation, things are likely to get significantly worse.

A rupture with endless austerity, debt servitude and the straitjacket of the single currency would certainly restore a degree of autonomy and improve Greece’s economic prospects in the long run. But it would also come at a very high immediate cost. Both the government and Greek society would need to be highly organized and well-prepared to weather the stormy transition it would entail.

It should therefore be emphasized that the referendum is not a panacea. A friend of a friend described it as a choice between “poverty with servitude” and “poverty with freedom.” Moreover, this choice has to be made under the intense pressure of the creditors’ financial blackmail and the media’s campaign of fear andoutright lies. It is hard to imagine more adverse circumstances for the NO camp.

The problems are further compounded by the lack of clarity about the consequences of either choice. What will happen in case YES wins? Will the government resign? Will we see a return to an unelected technocracy? And what in case of a NO vote? Will Tsipras really continue negotiating in good faith with the creditors? Will the creditors even trust him to reach an agreement and carry out further reforms? Or will they force Greece out of the euro? These are all monumental questions — none of which have been properly answered.

All we know is this: over the past couple of years, the debate within Syriza on how to resolve the crisis has essentially revolved around two poles: the government’s original plan A — to end austerity within the eurozone — and the more radical alternative originally proposed by the party’s left faction, whose Plan B envisions a unilateral default and Grexit as a way out of the misery. We also know that the latter plan has gained more and more support from Syriza cadres (even those close to Tsipras) as the negotiations with creditors stalled.

The two plans always appeared to be diametrically opposed to one another. In truth, the strong dichotomy between them obscures a shared premise. Ultimately, both Plan A and Plan B revolve around the belief that, if only the government can succeed in executing its chosen top-down program, recovery will be swift and things will quickly go back to the way they were before.

This is a dangerous illusion. With or without Grexit, for the majority of Greeks (as for the majority of Europeans and Americans) there will be no going back to the halcyon days of credit-fueled consumerism. Both Plan A and Plan B — however successful either may be — will still be accompanied by future hardship and deprivation. Plan A would result in endless austerity, forever, while Plan B would produce an extremely painful short-term shock to the economy.

In the medium-term, debt cancellation and currency devaluation would likely have a positive effect on economic recovery and social well-being. Still, neither Greece’s dysfunctional state apparatus nor its uncompetitive economy will be able to fully restore the status quo ante, or even meet the needs and desires of the millions of workers, pensioners and unemployed youth who have been dispossessed and immiserated over the course of the crisis. Besides facing a structural crisis of its own, Greek capitalism will always be inserted into the European and world economy under highly disadvantageous terms.

Clearly, if the government and society were well-prepared, Plan B would be superior to Plan A. But merely advocating a rupture is far from enough. In fact, it would be particularly irresponsible if done without the proper preparations — and right now it doesn’t really look like Syriza is properly prepared. Where, then, should we be looking for further options and alternatives?

Undoubtedly, grassroots movements and solidarity initiatives will have a critical role to play as both the crisis and the struggle intensify. Without a fresh upsurge in self-organized popular mobilization in the streets, workplaces and communities, the prospects of positive change will remain grim.

In this respect, it is remarkable how rapidly the radical horizon has shrunk in recent years. During the mass mobilizations of 2010-’12, especially theMovement of the Squares in 2011, the political imagination was still brimming over with original ideas, practices and organizational forms — many of them centered on an anti-capitalist conception of the commons, defined by Silvia Federici and George Caffentzis as:

… autonomous spaces from which to reclaim control over our life and the conditions of our reproduction, and to provide resources on the basis of sharing and equal access; but also bases from which to counter the processes of enclosure and increasingly disentangle our lives from the market and the state.

While we have since seen a remarkable proliferation of such commons — think of solidarity kitchens, social clinics, self-managed workplaces, mutual aid networks, alternative currencies, and so on — the urgency of the negotiations and the preoccupation with the “high politics” of Grexit and debt relief has largely overshadowed the deeper questions raised in these grassroots initiatives: What about the day after? What kind of country do we really want to build together? Can capitalism still fulfill our needs and desires?

These are the questions that would be addressed by an anti-capitalist Plan C: a reinvigorated project of the commons and communal solidarity. In contrast to both Plan A and Plan B, Plan C would be a bottom-up project organized by local communities that would situate itself directly on the terrain of everyday life. Its main contributions would be threefold. First, through solidarity networks and communal support systems, it would enhance popular resilience by securing the means of social reproduction under conditions of extreme precarity.

Second, by creating new and strengthening existing organs of popular power, the commons would collectively act as bases for continued grassroots resistance to further austerity and dispossession. History has shown that, without powerful grassroots movements exerting pressure from below, even left governments are easily led astray by the siren call of domestic and international capital. To prevent this, the still relatively small and dispersed movement of commoners will have to become an organized force of political opposition.

Third, a project of the commons has revolutionary potential insofar as its protagonists manage to reclaim the means of production and reproduction; democratize workplaces, communities and existing political institutions; and contribute to a fundamental transformation of social relations from below. All of this is clearly still a far way off, but Plan C is precisely about cultivating this sense of perspective and direction — taking the struggle far beyond the stale dichotomies of state and market, euro and drachma.

Needless to say, Sunday’s referendum will mark a historic moment for Greece and for Europe. Only a proud and dignified NO can begin to liberate Greek society from the endless suffocation, blackmail and humiliation at the hands of the country’s creditors. But whatever the outcome of the plebiscite may be, the left should not limit its political imagination to the terms of a new bailout agreement or the denomination of the national currency.

Deal or no deal, euro or no euro, one thing is clear: a long fight still lies ahead. As the creditors’ assault intensifies, only a reinvigoration of the struggle from below can save beleaguered Greece — and turn it, once again, into a proud beacon of democracy and solidarity for the rest of the world.

Jerome Roos is a PhD researcher in International Political Economy at the European University Institute, and founding editor of ROAR Magazine. He tweets about the Greek crisis at @JeromeRoos.

A slightly different version of this article (in Greek) appeared in this month’s issue of Unfollow Magazine. Credit for the original idea and inspiration behind the piece goes to Bue Rübner Hansen in Barcelona.

 

http://roarmag.org/2015/07/greece-plan-c-commons-solidarity/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+roarmag+%28ROAR+Magazine%29

US income inequality continued to soar in 2014

102626504-income-inequality

By Andre Damon
2 July 2015

Income inequality in the United States continued to grow in 2014, according to updated figures released last week by University of California, Berkeley economist Emmanuel Saez.

According to Saez’s report, the top one percent of income earners increased their share of total income from 20.1 percent in 2013 to 21.2 in 2014 percent.

The income shares of the highest-earning 10 percent, 1 percent, and 0.1 percent of income earners all grew in 2014. The top ten percent of earners received 49.9 percent of income in 2014, more than any other year besides 2012.

Saez noted that the top 1 percent of earners received 58 percent of income gains during the so-called economic “recovery” between 2009 and 2014. The incomes of the bottom 99 percent grew by just 4.3 percent during that period.

The figures for 2014 mark the first year that real incomes for the bottom 99 percent of earners increased by any significant amount since the 2008 financial crisis. Incomes for the bottom 99 percent grew at a rate of 3.8 percent last year.

Saez wrote that “the incomes of most American families are still far from having recovered from the losses of the Great Recession.” He added that by 2014, the bottom 99 percent of income earners had recovered less than 40 percent of the annual income they had lost during the 2007-2009 recession.

The modest growth in incomes for the bottom 99 percent was dwarfed by the increase in the incomes of the super-rich. The incomes for the top 1 percent of earners grew at a rate of 10.8 percent last year, more than three times faster than the average for the bottom 99 percent.

While the growth of social inequality has dramatically accelerated following the 2008 crash, this is a continuation of a decades-long process. The report notes, “Top 1 percent incomes grew by 80.0% from 1993 to 2014. This implies that top 1 percent incomes captured almost 60% of the overall economic growth of real incomes per family over the period 1993-2014.”

Saez warns that the growth of inequality is not likely to slow down, noting, “Based on the US historical record, falls in income concentration due to economic downturns are temporary unless drastic regulation and tax policy changes are implemented and prevent income concentration from bouncing back. Such policy changes took place after the Great Depression during the New Deal and permanently reduced income concentration until the 1970s.”

He notes, “The policy changes that took place coming out of the Great Recession… are modest relative to the policy changes that took place coming out of the Great Depression. Therefore, it seems unlikely that US income concentration will fall much in the coming years, absent more drastic policy changes.”

In fact, the US government’s response to the 2008 crash has been dedicated to inflating the wealth of the super-rich while driving down incomes for the vast majority of the population. The White House has protected Wall Street executives from legal prosecution, while the Federal Reserve has handed out trillions of dollars in cheap money through “quantitative easing” programs, leading share values to triple on major US exchanges.

Saez notes that a significant contributor to the growth of income inequality has been the growth of the salaries for top earners, particularly top executives. He observes, “The income composition pattern at the very top has changed considerably over the century. The share of wage and salary income has increased sharply from the 1920s to the present, and especially since the 1970s. Therefore, a significant fraction of the surge in top incomes since 1970 is due to an explosion of top wages and salaries.” He adds that, by some estimates, “the share of total wages and salaries earned by the top 1 percent wage income earners has jumped from 5.1 percent in 1970 to 12.4 percent in 2007.”

There are signs that this process is accelerating. The same day that Saez published his report, the Wall Street Journal published a separate survey of executive pay, which found that CEOs at major corporations it surveyed had their pay increase by 13.5 percent in 2014, hitting $13.6 million.

The soaring wealth of the financial elite, driven by surging stock prices and executive pay, is driving demand for luxury goods and housing in major financial centers. Manhattan real estate prices have reached an all time high, with the average home price hitting $1.87 million, according to reports cited by the New York Times Wednesday. The Times noted that real estate developers are scrambling to create enormous multi-million-dollar high-rise apartments, which are being snapped up by members of the financial elite.

Meanwhile, the housing situation for the great majority of the population has only worsened since 2008. Last week a study by Harvard University’s Joint Center For Housing Studies found that the share of the US population that owned a home hit the lowest level in two decades, with the homeownership rate for those aged 35-44 plunging to the lowest level since the 1960s. The report attributed the fall in home ownership to falling incomes for typical US households, noting that median household income in the US remained 8 percent below its level in 2007.

On Thursday, US President Barack Obama plans to unveil what he has called a major new policy initiative in a speech in La Crosse, Wisconsin. The proposal entails new federal rules that would make an additional 3 percent of the US population eligible for overtime pay. If adopted, the change would add a mere $1.3 billion to worker’s wages annually. This is a tiny fraction of the trillions of dollars that have been transferred to the financial elite since the 2008 financial crisis.

To put things in perspective; Obama’s program would transfer less income to working people each year than Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg made in a single day last year.

 

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2015/07/02/saez-j02.html

Political issues in the Greek debt crisis

A European Union (EU) flag, left, and Greek national flag fly near the Parthenon temple on Acropolis hill in Athens, Greece, on Monday, Oct. 31, 2011. Europe's plan to solve the region's debt crisis made credit-default swaps covering Greece "ineffective," Moody's Investors Service said. Photographer: Angelos Tzortzinis/Bloomberg via Getty Images

26 June 2015

By summarily halting talks in Brussels with Greece’s Syriza-led government yesterday after barely an hour, the European Union (EU) made clear that it intends to whip Greece into line and force the government to repudiate any pretense of opposing austerity demanded by the European banks.

On Monday, Syriza had made new concessions, with a €7.9 billion package of pension cuts and other measures, going beyond even the cuts the EU demanded last December as a precondition to reopen the flow of credit to Greece and avert Greek state bankruptcy. Initially, the EU endorsed this proposal as the basis for a deal. Yesterday, however, only days before the June 30 deadline for Greece to receive EU aid needed to repay billions of euros to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), EU officials said that a deal was farther away than ever.

The EU demanded new cuts and informed Greek officials that it would only restart talks Saturday. According to EU documents leaked to the Financial Times, the EU and IMF are demanding deeper pension cuts, and that the retirement age rise from 62 to 67 faster than planned by Syriza. They also want the government to reduce proposed corporate tax increases.

Greece’s creditors are sending an unmistakable signal: insofar as Syriza’s election was based on promises to end EU austerity, they intend to force it into a humiliating series of retreats and capitulations. When Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras warned EU Commission President Donald Tusk yesterday that the EU had to respect the outcome of the January vote in Greece, Tusk bluntly replied that it was “game over,” and talks were broken off.

The EU’s hard line is provoking a deep political crisis in the Greek state and the coalition government of Syriza and the far-right Independent Greeks (Anel). The entire policy of the Greek government since elections in January makes clear that it is not in principle opposed to EU austerity, and Tsipras himself has always insisted that he expects Syriza will reach a deal with the EU. At the same time, he is aware that a full and open capitulation will provoke enormous opposition and social unrest.

There are powerful sections of the Greek bourgeoisie who are not prepared to accept the withdrawal of Greece from the Eurozone. Last week, the Greek central bank said that a deal with the EU must be found at all costs to avert state bankruptcy and maintain access to credit. Should the state go bankrupt and Greek banks lose access to emergency credit in euros, the Greek financial system would collapse, unless Greece abandoned the euro and saved its banks with massive injections of a Greek national currency, the drachma. Backed only by the Greek economy, however, this currency would be expected to plunge against the euro.

Syriza’s Left Platform faction and the Anel party of Defense Minister Panos Kammenos speak for other sections of the ruling class that have a more nationalist position and are considering a break with the EU and a return to the drachma. They point to the impossibility of repaying Greece’s €300 billion debt as EU austerity shrinks its economy. While a plunge of the drachma’s value would send prices skyrocketing and impoverish workers, it might allow Greece to repay its debts in a cheaper currency and, by slashing real wages, boost its global competitiveness.

Maneuvers are also afoot in the Greek ruling elite to bring down the current government and install a new one that would focus only on imposing a deal with the EU. Yesterday, former Prime Minister Antonis Samaras of the right-wing New Democracy (ND), Greece’s main opposition party that was voted out of office in January, said that Tsipras should form a “transitional government of national consensus.” It would bring together “those who agree with him for a deal with Europe, with our help.”

Enormous risks are posed to the working class, particularly of an intervention by the Greek military. A Syriza-ND regime would be a parliamentary dictatorship, relying on the security forces and the army to impose EU austerity on a hostile population that voted against it in January. As for plans of a return to the drachma, the Greek press has already indicated that they include the mobilization of the army to close Greece’s borders and suppress protests against the collapse of the currency.

Certainly, the recent joint military maneuvers of the Greek and Egyptian armed forces, and the invitations extended to Egyptian coup leader and military dictator General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi by Berlin and Paris are not accidental. They are a threat that, if Syriza or the government that follows it cuts across the interests of global finance capital, it could also find itself, like Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi, the target of a coup backed by the major imperialist powers.

The coming to power of the Syriza government represents an enormous experience for the international working class, bought at a bitter price. Syriza and its supporters convinced themselves that they could reach a negotiated settlement on the issue of EU austerity. As they came to power, they publicly repudiated essential measures to defend against the EU: repudiating the debt, imposing capital controls, and nationalizing the banks and major industries.

Above all, as representatives of layers of the Greek bourgeoisie and affluent middle class, the last thing they could conceive of was mobilizing broad anger against austerity in the working class of Greece and across Europe in struggle against the EU. Rather, they sought to exploit divisions between the major EU powers—Germany, Britain, France, and Italy—to lighten the austerity policies being imposed on Greece. This policy collapsed, as all these regimes supported imposing austerity on Greece.

Syriza’s entire policy was, in the final analysis, based on a denial of the possibility of—and active opposition to—a socialist revolution by the international working class. As it now plays the hand it dealt itself, it is finding itself forced to carry out a humiliating political striptease, imposing the barbaric austerity policies it claimed it was taking power to stop.

Workers must draw the political conclusions of the bankruptcy of Syriza. What has emerged in Greece and across Europe is the failure of capitalism and of the political system. The task the working class faces is to mobilize itself in a revolutionary struggle for state power and for socialism.

Syriza’s supporters would no doubt insist that a revolutionary policy is unrealistic. In fact, it is Tsipras and Syriza who, with their pragmatic improvisations and media gimmicks, proved to have an utterly unrealistic policy. The experience of Greece has shown that it is revolutionary politics, based on a Marxist assessment of irreconcilable conflict of class forces, that proved to give a realistic assessment of the crisis.

Alex Lantier

 

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2015/06/26/pers-j26.html

The social roots of racism in America

racism

23 June 2015

On Monday, President Barack Obama used a podcast interview to argue that racism is in “the DNA” of Americans. In the course of his discussion with comedian Marc Maron, Obama declared, “The legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, discrimination in almost every institution of our lives, you know, that casts a long shadow, and that’s still part of our DNA that’s passed on.”

Obama’s use of the term “DNA,” even if intended as a somewhat poorly chosen metaphor, serves definite political purposes. It facilitates the attempt to present racism as essentially a biological phenomenon—a conception that, like all racialist thinking, is unscientific and reactionary.

The president’s remarks coincide with an escalating campaign in the media to use last week’s tragic shooting in Charleston, South Carolina to filter every question of American society through the prism of race, outside of any social, economic or historical context. The New York Times, in particular, has devoted a significant portion of its opinion pages to polemics on the nature of “whiteness” and “blackness” and the supposedly unbridgeable racial divide in America.

Historically, the conception that racism is rooted in the actual makeup of different races found its most consistent and reactionary exponents among those who proclaimed that blacks were inherently inferior to whites. The Nazis in Germany employed crackpot arguments about a biologically determined divide to justify their program of mass relocation and extermination. Racism and racist policies were explained and rationalized on the basis of the fundamental differences between the races themselves.

Socialists reject these conceptions. Racism exists, and has existed, in the United States. It has, not infrequently, taken horrific forms: bombings, lynchings, segregation. Yet racism can be understood only within its actual social context, as a distorted expression of class relations and social interests.

American racism had its origins in the slave system. The racism of the Old South served the interests of the slave owners in justifying, through the lie of racial inferiority, their own cruel and shameless exploitation of the socioeconomic system upon which the southern plantation aristocracy was based.

The slave-owning class was crushed through a massive social mobilization in the form of the American Civil War, in which, supposed genetic coding aside, 300,000 white people in the North set out to “die to make men free,” in the words of the Battle Hymn of the Republic.

The decades following the Civil War saw economic development at a dizzying pace, including the massive expansion of cities and industrialization on a hitherto unknown scale. These processes came together with the growth of the workers’ movement and militant strikes. Many of those who had led the fight against slavery—the great abolitionist Wendell Phillips is one example—became active in the labor movement.

In the South, where sharecropping replaced slavery, the last two decades of the 19th century saw the emergence of populist movements that drew the support of millions of agricultural workers, white and black.

It was under these conditions that legal segregation was enshrined by the Supreme Court (in the 1896 case of Plessy vs. Ferguson) and racist violence was actively encouraged and promoted. The Ku Klux Klan had as its goal not only the terrorizing of blacks, but—inextricably tied to this—the defeat of all efforts to unify black and white workers on the basis of their common class interests.

The social progress of African-Americans in the subsequent period would have been impossible without the workers’ movement, including the Russian Revolution and the great industrial struggles of the 1930s and subsequent decades.

In the first decades of the 20th century, the socialist-minded workers and intellectuals who spearheaded the organization of the industrial unions courageously fought against the racism that was encouraged by the corporations and the old AFL craft unions. However, these efforts, particularly in the South, were compromised by the unions’ political alliance with the Democratic Party, at that time the party of segregation and white supremacy.

In the 1960s, the deepening crisis of American capitalism exploded in the civil rights movement, the ghetto rebellions, a wave of militant strikes, and the mass movement against the Vietnam War.

The response of the ruling class to these upheavals was to once again turn to the promotion of race as the fundamental category in American society. This was accompanied by the elevation into positions of power and privilege of a section of the African-American population through race-based policies such as Affirmative Action. African-Americans became CEOs, mayors, congressmen, judges, police officers and—with the election of Obama—the president of the United States.

While the new type of race-based politics differed in form from the old racism of the Southern slavocracy and the white supremacists, it came to serve a similar function—to obscure the basic class questions and block the development of a unified movement of workers of all races on the basis of their common class interests.

The integration of the politics of race into the framework of bourgeois rule has coincided with a massive assault on the social conditions of the working population. Among those most affected by the growth of poverty and social misery are the poorest sections of African-Americans, who are without a doubt economically far worse off than they were in the 1960s.

What is striking in the statements of Obama and recent editorials and columns in the New York Times is the degree to which supposedly “left” or “liberal” political forces are seeking to promote what can only be called a fundamentally racialist understanding of racism. They are engaged in creating and developing arguments that go very far toward legitimizing intellectually the arguments of the racists themselves.

With social inequality and class divisions now at levels not seen since the 1920s, the media, the political establishment and the various identity politics-based organizations that orbit the Democratic Party never pass up an opportunity to reinforce the supposed massive racial divide in America. Hence the endless calls for a “national conversation on race.”

Totally absent from these “conversations” is any consideration of the social conditions confronting the great majority of the population. Inconvenient truths such as the decay of cities like Baltimore and Detroit, despite having been governed by African-Americans for decades; the growth of poverty in predominantly white areas; or the consequences of the policies of the Obama administration are simply ignored.

These class issues cannot be discussed because to raise them would highlight what millions of workers of all races are coming to understand: that racism and racial politics are ideological props for a bankrupt and diseased social order—capitalism.

Andre Damon

 

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2015/06/23/pers-j23.html

The mass killing in Charleston, South Carolina

dylann-roof-g-320

19 June 2015

The mass killing of six women and three men at an African American church in Charleston, South Carolina Wednesday evening is a horrific event that speaks to a deeply dysfunctional and diseased society.

The alleged gunman, 21-year-old Dylann Roof, of Columbia, South Carolina, was apparently motivated by racist and right-wing nationalist sentiments. He reportedly told those he was about to shoot in cold blood, “You rape our women and you’re taking over our country, and you have to go.”

On his Facebook profile page, Roof included a photograph of himself wearing a jacket with badges representing the flags of apartheid-era South Africa and Rhodesia. According to the Anti-Defamation League, the 1928 South African flag in particular has been adopted around the world in right-wing circles “as a symbol of white supremacy.”

The response of the political establishment in general has been hypocritical and empty to an obscene extent. Whatever the immediate political or psychological driving forces behind Roof’s alleged action, such a killing emerges in a specific political and social context.

The most obvious hypocrisy came from leading political figures in South Carolina. Various individuals associated with the South Carolina Republican Party have been exposed as members of the blatantly racist Council of Conservative Citizens (CCC), the descendant of the old White Citizens Council, the “respectable” version of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1950s and 1960s.

South Carolina’s Republican Governor Nikki Haley declared Thursday that the state’s “heart and soul…was broken” by the mass killing. In 2014 she defended the flying of the Confederate flag at the statehouse on the grounds that “not a single CEO” had complained to her.

In his statement, President Barack Obama expressed on Thursday his “deep sorrow over the senseless murders” in Charleston. Obama continued, “Any death of this sort is a tragedy. Any shooting involving multiple victims is a tragedy.” The president suggested that “At some point, we as a country will have to reckon with the fact that this type of mass violence does not happen in other advanced countries.”

Yes, but at which point exactly? Obama, like his predecessors George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, has had to make this sort of ceremonial appearance following a killing rampage on numerous occasions. If the president needs reminding about what has occurred during his administration alone, one could point to the April 2009 massacre of 13 people at a civic center for immigrants in Binghamton, New York; the attempted assassination of Rep. Gabby Giffords and the killing of six other people in Tucson, Arizona in January 2011; the mass killing at an Aurora, Colorado movie theater in July 2012; the murder of six people and wounding of four others at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin in August 2012 by a white supremacist; the killing of 26 people, including 20 children, in Newtown, Connecticut in December 2012; and there are many more.

Following each killing, one portion of the media, looking to Scripture for its inspiration, asserts that the tragedy proves the existence of “evil” and presumably Man’s Fallen Nature; another, more officially liberal-minded, claims that gun control will somehow mysteriously solve everything; a third sighs over the “senselessness” of it all and collectively shrugs its shoulders. The cluelessness of the official punditry is one indication of the moral and political bankruptcy of the American social order.

There is, of course, an irrational element in each of these tragic episodes, including the most recent one. Roof apparently let one elderly woman live because, he told her, “I need someone to survive,” indicating that he planned to kill himself, “And you’ll be the only survivor.”

But the claim by the media that such mass killings are incomprehensible is a self-serving lie. The commentators, along with Obama and the political officialdom, cannot and will not “reckon with” the phenomenon because even to begin probing the various massacres would be to lift the lid on the reality of American life and, above all, the atmosphere of unrelenting violence and aggression that has been generated by two decades or more of almost nonstop war.

The alleged actions of Roof, who was obviously unbalanced and disoriented and came under the influence of pro-Confederate and white supremacist propaganda, have a racist coloring. But, changing what must be changed, is there much of a difference in terms of social type between the Charleston suspect and the young killers at Columbine High School in 1999; or Seung-Hui Cho, the South Korean immigrant, who murdered 32 people and wounded 17 others on the Virginia Tech campus in April 2007; or James Eagan Holmes, the Aurora, Colorado shooter, and the various others?

What psychological and sociological features do the various perpetrators share in common? A highly advanced state of social alienation, great bitterness at other human beings, self-hatred, isolation, general despondency and the recourse to extreme violence to solve their real or imagined problems.

These tendencies recur too often and too devastatingly to be mere personal failings; they clearly come from the broader society. They reflect a terrible malaise, the mentality of individuals living perpetually under a dark cloud, who have no hope for the future, who can only imagine that things will get worse. Only look at the Facebook photograph of Dylann Roof if you want some idea of this bleakness and despondency!

The generation to which Roof belongs, unlike any other in American history, has known nothing but the combination of war and the building up of immense social inequality. If one sets aside with contempt the media’s fantasy version of American life, in which things have never been better—and, after all, don’t young people have Facebook, Twitter and iPhones?—no generation in modern times has experienced such harsh and discouraging circumstances. Capitalism, the subordination of every aspect of life to the drive for profit and personal wealth by the corporate elite, is at the heart of the problem.

The American ruling elite would have us believe that endless war, belligerence, aggression and threats of new, more catastrophic wars, part of the drive for US global domination, have no consequences. Violence and killing on the part of the American military or intelligence apparatus is a daily occurrence. US officials and politicians, mafia-like, blandly discuss “killing” alleged terrorists or “eliminating threats” to “America’s national interests.” Murder, whether by drone or other efficient modern means, has become routinized, banal. The president, as we know, meets with his advisers every Tuesday, to go over “kill lists.”

Someone like Roof, if he turns out to be the culprit, has known nothing but this expanding and escalating violence all his life. And not only violence overseas. Police in the US have been given a green light to open fire and kill innocent civilians. Only two months ago, in North Charleston, South Carolina, less than 10 miles from the scene of Wednesday night’s mass killings, a local police officer murdered Walter Scott in cold blood with five bullets in the back.

The crisis of American society is reaching a breaking point. It cannot go on like this. Roof’s is the unhealthy, twisted response of an infinitesimal portion of his generation. Masses of young people and masses of working people will respond to the crisis in a rational, progressive manner, by turning against the criminals and liars in power and their rotten economic and social system.

David Walsh

 

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2015/06/19/pers-j19.html

“The genocide continues”: Kamp Armen under threat

By Joris Leverink On June 3, 2015

Post image for “The genocide continues”: Kamp Armen under threatIn Turkey the cultural genocide of minority groups continues. Now, a Gezi-like resistance movement tries to turn the tide and build a common future.

The spirit of resistance has taken root in Tuzla, a wealthy, beachside suburb on the Anatolian side of Istanbul. Getting off the bus, an hours’ drive from the Bosporus a series of spraypainted signs direct one past gated communities and celebrity villas to a hidden plot of land where once the songs and laughter of hundreds of Armenian children brought live to a now derelict and partially demolished school building.

‘Welcome to Camp Armen’ reads a sign at the entrance in both Turkish and Armenian. A narrow driveway covered by flags from Nor Zartonk a political association founded by Armenians which fights for minority rights in Turkey – and flanked by walls covered in political slogans leads to site where for almost one month people have successfully resisted the destruction of the former Tuzla Armenian Orphanage.

On May 6 – a mere two weeks after the 100th commemoration of the Armenian genocide – bulldozers arrived at the site of the abandoned school building and immediately set to work in demolishing the structure. One entire wing was leveled before local activists who had been warned by sympathetic construction workers that were building a villa next door arrived on the scene and threw themselves in front of the machines to try and safe what was left of the school.

Camp Armen being demolished.

A threat to the state

The Tuzla Armenian Orphanage, or Camp Armen as it was commonly known, was built in 1963 on a plot of land newly bought by the Gedikpasa Armenian Church. It was started as a summer school where Armenian language and culture was kept alive. The children carried rocks and sand from the nearby seashore, and helped with the construction of the building itself. Trees were planted and a vegetable garden was created.

“We were making cheese, yoghurt and butter. There was always something to do,” remembers Garabet Orunüz, who spent his youth in the camp. “This was our home, and we were doing everything with our love. We were enjoying it.”

For twenty years the camp provided a home for Armenian children. Some of them were orphans who spent several years living at the camp, and some of them were from Anatolia, from small villages were there was little or no chance to be educated in the traditions of their people, who came just to spent the summer months.

In 1983 the camp was closed because of rumors that at the camp Muslim children were converted to Christianity and a slander campaign in which the school was pictured as a training ground for terrorists. The property rights of the land were returned to the formed owner based on a 1974 high court ruling which stated that minority foundations cannot own property.

This racist policy came into effect after the military coup of 1971. Minority foundations came to be seen as a threat to the unity of the state, and it was made illegal for them acquire any real estate, either through purchase or inheritance. The line was drawn at 1936, when a new law forced all minority religious foundations to register their property. All the properties acquired by these foundations after 1936 were declared illegal under the 1974 ruling, and either confiscated by the state or returned to their former owners – as was the case with the plot where the Armen Camp had been built.

A photo of Camp Armen with a number of the students

Lessons learned

One of the most famous students of the school was Hrant Dink, the Turkish-Armenian editor and journalist who was assassinated in Istanbul in 2007. Dink was very dedicated to the camp where he spent a large share of his youth and also met his wife, Rakel Dink. Before his death he had plans to make a documentary and write a book about the camp, but he never managed to realize this. In response to the seizure of the land he wrote the following:

They seized the fruit of the sweat of the 1500 children who grew up here. They stole our child labor. They could still have my blessing if only they had continued our place as an orphanage for poor children, a camp for the needy or challenged youngsters of whatever identity. But grabbed by a handful of villains as it is, I deny them the blessing of my labor.

Between 1983 and now the building has remained vacant, except for a single warden who lived on the property to protect it from thieves and vandals. In that time it has changed owners half a dozen times – increasing the value of the land with every sale – but none showed any particular interest in it. Until one month ago, when the current owner of the land, Fatih Ulusoy, decided to demolish the school and use the plot to construct sixteen villas.

As soon as the news broke that the school was under threat, a call for solidarity was shared via social media. Activists, campaigners and sympathizers rushed to the scene where they managed to convince the operator of the bulldozer to lay down his work. They then occupied the building, and set up tents in the former garden of the school. An average of twenty people is guarding the site around the clock, but on weekends these numbers rise as many people come and show their solidarity.

“We didn’t give the park, and we won’t give our school!”, is written on one of the banners, in a clear link to the Gezi Park resistance that kicked off in Istanbul two years earlier. The occupiers claim they have learned a lot from the Gezi resistance, in terms of organization, tactics and solidarity. Özgür Atlagan, one of the activists, explains: “We reacted so quickly because of the experience that we acquired during Gezi. Everything we do here, cooking, cleaning, organizing forums, they are the habits that we learned in the park.”

The resistance seemed to be successful when Ulusoy publicly announced that he would return the land title to the Gedipasa Armenian Church. This announcement was widely covered in the media as a victory for the Armenians and their sympathizers, and the ruling AKP didn’t waste any time in claiming that they had played a key role in the negotiations. However, more than one week after the deadline, the title deeds have still not been transferred, and activists on the scene are afraid their case is being used for propaganda in the upcoming elections.

“The genocide continues”

Genocide continues

“The genocide continues!” reads one of the largest banners hanging from the school’s walls. Just two weeks before the occupation of Camp Armen started this very same banner was used by the activists of Nor Zartonk at the 100thcommemoration of the Armenian genocide. When Alexis Kalk, a founding member of the organization, was asked by one of his comrades which banner to bring to the school site, he only thought for one second before replying: “the one about the genocide!’

“For us, the Armenians who live in Turkey, the genocide really continues. There are many different tools that can be used in a genocide; economic pressure; cultural degradation; forced assimilation. This country has never been punished for the crimes it committed, and so it doesn’t hesitate to repeat them again.”

Garabet Orunüz, the old student of the school couldn’t agree more. In his view the closure of the school back in 1983 was part of what he calls a ‘cultural genocide’. “What was the place for us? Our home. What were we learning from there? Our language, our religion, our culture. So, when they close this place they deprived us of all these things. This is a cultural genocide.”

The hopes and dreams of all those who have a part in the resistance have one thing in common, and that is that they would all like to see the school being restored in its original function. As a place were cultures and traditions are being kept alive, and not exclusively Armenian. The plan is to turn the school into part orphanage, part summer school for children from all different religious and ethnic backgrounds across Turkey to come together, learn to respect each other and make the hate and racism that has been guiding the actions of the rulers of this country for so long history.

The different backgrounds of the occupiers — there are Armenians as well as Turks, Kurds, Alevis and a number of foreigners — and the amount of solidarity they received from groups as diverse as the Anarchist federation, the Kazova workers and the Jewish community, gives rise to the thought that in resisting this latest chapter of the ongoing cultural genocide one of the most important aims has already been achieved. Once again, just like two years ago during the occupation of the Gezi Park there is unity in resistance, solidarity across socially constructed boundaries and a shared belief that despite a divided past there is hope for a common future.

The struggle at Camp Armen continues.
Stay up to date on the latest developments via their website or Facebook page.

Joris Leverink is an Istanbul-based freelance journalist, editor for ROAR Magazine and columnist for TeleSUR English.

 

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