Stock market panic risks new financial crisis

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By Andre Damon
12 February 2016

Global stock markets formally entered a bear market Wednesday, as the MSCI All-Country World Index fell by 1.3 percent, with the index down 20 percent from its high last May. Yesterday, after further losses in Asia, European markets closed down, with the German DAX falling by nearly 5 percent, the Spanish IBEX down by nearly 5 percent, and the US DOW off by 250 points.

The selloff accelerated in early trading Friday, with the Japanese Nikkei falling by more than 5 percent at the opening bell.

The stock sell-off both reflected and helped catalyze a broader crisis of confidence in financial markets, amid a rapid deceleration of the global economy, a sell-off in emerging market debt, a downward spiral in commodities prices, and the seeming perplexity of central banks as to how to deal with a renewed outbreak of panic eight years after the 2008 financial crisis.

The global selloff continued in the US after congressional testimony by Federal Reserve chairwoman Janet Yellen, who made no explicit statement that the Federal Reserve would change its plans to continue raising the benchmark federal funds rate over the next year.

Yellen did, however, say that the Federal Reserve would not rule out cutting interest rates below zero if economic conditions continued to deteriorate. If this were to happen, the Fed would follow the Bank of Japan, which late last month announced a surprise interest rate cut, and Sweden, which Thursday cut its benchmark interest rate further into negative territory.

These moves, coupled with a generalized flight to safety, have led to a massive jump in the proportion of bonds with a negative yield. According to figures from JPMorgan, the share of government bonds with a negative yield, once only considered a theoretical possibility, have reached 25 percent. All told, negatively-yielding assets have hit $5.5 trillion worldwide.

The deepening sell-off, and the seeming inability of central banks to formulate any coherent response to the panic, have triggered a general crisis of confidence, not only in the health of the financial system, but in the ability of central banks and governments to offset the crisis through radically expansionary monetary policy: their panacea for every economic ill since 2008.

A Citigroup executive summed up the sentiment in a comment to Reuters: “One of the new themes in markets is that (quantitative easing) has damaged the banks and that therefore it exacerbates the risk-off environment.”

In other words, the panicked sell-off expresses growing fears in financial markets that the vast quantities of cash pumped into the financial system since 2008 have done nothing to improve its underlying health, and may have sown the seeds for a crash on an even greater scale.

This time, however, with central banks having expended so much of their “ammunition” on seeking to keep financial assets afloat for years, there are increasing fears that they will be powerless to respond to a new financial panic.

In particular, the explosive growth in negative-yielding financial assets means that banks, whose core business involves borrowing long-term and lending short-term, will be put under even further financial stress if central banks continue to lower interest rates.

These fears have hammered the banking sector. The S&P 500 financials index has dropped by 18 percent since the start of the year, making banking by far the worst-affected sector, facing an even more rapid selloff rate than that of the beleaguered energy and transport industries.

And that is saying something. The energy and materials sectors have seen share value declines of over 31 percent over the past year, with “companies going Chapter 11 or trading at 50 cents on the dollar,” one portfolio manager told Bloomberg.

Meanwhile the global shipping and transport sector is facing business conditions that, in the words of Nils Andersen, the CEO of Maersk, the largest transportation company in the world, are “worse than in 2008.” The company’s share value, which was down by more than 50 percent in the past year, fell a further 8 percent Wednesday.

Meanwhile the prospects that US economic growth would somehow offset the slump in global output receded further this week, as US corporations posted sharply reduced earnings and outlooks. Earnings for S&P 500 companies fell 4.5 percent in the fourth quarter, and are expected to fall 6.3 percent this quarter. “The general feeling is that the U.S. economy is nearing a peak and there is not much left as far as trends to be talked about,” one hedge fund manager told Reuters.

The fall-off in real economic activity can be expected to further dampen oil prices, which have hit 13-year lows of $27 per barrel, and has triggered a further round of sell-offs in commodity related stocks, with “investors … liquidating because they need the cash,” as one chief investment officer told Reuters.

Eight years since the 2008 financial crash, it is clear that the capitalist governments and central banks have been unable to address any of its underlying causes. Instead, they have poured cash into financial markets, triggering a feedback loop of speculation and parasitism in the form of mergers and consolidations, which have sharply cut back production and led to mass layoffs.

The end result has been only a further acceleration of the growth of social inequality, with the fantastic enrichment of the parasitic financial oligarchy financed by the wholesale destruction of productive activity and the vast impoverishment of the working class.

In other words, the conditions that gave rise to the 2008 financial crisis have been reproduced once again in even sharper form, and risk a similar outcome.

 

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2016/02/12/econ-f12.html

Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace dramatized in a new television series

By Joanne Laurier
11 February 2016

Leo Tolstoy’s titanic novel War and Peace has received a new adaptation by the BBC and is now airing globally. Directed by British filmmaker Tom Harper, the serialized television production stars American actor Paul Dano and British actors Lily James, James Norton, Jim Broadbent and Stephen Rea in leading roles as part of a large, predominantly UK cast.

Tolstoy, one of the greatest of the great Russian fiction writers of the 19th century, was born in 1828, three years after the Decembrist Revolt in which a group of officers rose up in one of the first open struggles against tsarism. He died November 20, 1910, five years after the 1905 Revolution in Russia and seven years before the October Revolution. Tolstoy’s other great works includeAnna Karenina (1877) and Resurrection (1899).

His epic War and Peace, first published in its entirety in 1869, is set during the period of the Napoleonic wars (1803-1815) and the French invasion of Russia. It follows the members of several Russian aristocratic families as they seek to survive the confusing, frenzied, bloody times.

The eight-hour miniseries opens in 1805 in St. Petersburg, as Napoleon’s victories and his army’s conquest of significant portions of western Europe are having an increasing impact on Russian life. Many of the central characters are introduced at an upper crust social gathering. Among them is Pierre Bezukhov (Dano), awkward but amiable, and initially a supporter of the French leader: “Napoleon’s a great man! He stood above the revolution, he put an end to its abuses and kept all that was good about it! You see good in revolution, sir? The equality of all citizens, freedom of speech, liberty, equality, fraternity, these are ideas we could learn from in Russia.”

Pierre looks on with disgust at the room’s “overfed aristocrats.” The illegitimate son of a wealthy count, he will soon become the object of intrigue for the sinister Prince Vassily Kuragin (Rea), who makes an unsuccessful attempt to suppress the will that names Pierre the inheritor of his father’s vast estate.

Paul Dano and James Norton in War and Peace

Another guest at the party is Pierre’s friend Andrei Bolkonsky (Norton), the intelligent and ambitious son of retired military commander Prince Nikolai Bolkonsky (Broadbent). Also present are the Rostovs, a noble, but down-on-their-luck Moscow family that includes a vivacious daughter Natasha (James), a quiet niece Sonya (Aisling Loftus) and a son Nikolai (Jack Lowden), who has just joined the army commanded by the veteran General Kutuzov (Brian Cox) (“He’s about the only man in Russia who knows what the war’s about and that includes our glorious Emperor.”). Nikolai’s parents (Greta Scacchi and Adrian Edmondson) are depending on their son to reverse the family fortunes.

Russia is in alliance with the Austrian Empire at this point (in the Third Coalition against Napoleon) and a restless, unhappy Andrei (“I can’t bear this life”)––whose young wife is pregnant––and Nikolai set off for the front. Meanwhile, Kuragin maneuvers Pierre into marrying his morally loose but beautiful daughter Helene (Tuppence Middleton). Her incestuous relationship with her dissolute brother Anatole (Callum Turner) is one indication of her manipulative, deceitful character.

Thus the stage is set for the various personal and political stratagems, unions and disunions, as the epoch of war heads toward its denouement following Napoleon’s fateful invasion of Russia in 1812 and the declaration of war by a reluctant Tsar Alexander I (Ben Lloyd-Hughes). On the eve of the invasion, Napoleon (Mathieu Kassovitz) brags that he has 600,000 men while the Russian army has only one-third that number and lies in shambles.

The mini-series

War and Peace has been adapted by Andrew Davies, best known for his reworking for television of such classics as Pride and Prejudice (1995), Vanity Fair (1998) and Sense and Sensibility (2008). He also wrote the popular British political thriller serial House of Cards (1990). His work on the current production results in a credible condensation of Tolstoy’s massive, complex story, some 1,400 pages and more than half a million words long.

Visually graceful and aided by numerous accomplished performances, this large-scale, high-quality production is, on the whole, a gripping experience.

Lily James as Natasha Rostova

The series paints a picture of a Russian aristocracy in which petty and selfish motives predominate. Andrei Bolkonsky goes off to war primarily to escape a vapid, stuffy life. Nikolai Rostov has other motives: his gambling debts have nearly bankrupted his family. He considers it more honorable to turn soldier than remain in the clutches of a nasty, egotistical mother and kindly, but ineffectual, father. In the end, under pressure from his parents, Nikolai breaks his engagement to the impecunious Sonya in favor of a more advantageous liaison.

Andrei Bolkonsky’s sister, the modest Marya (Jessie Buckley), shows her spiteful landlord coloring when she deals with the serfs on the family estate who refuse to help the household escape from the invading French army. Bellows one angry peasant: “The French will set us free and give us land! What have you ever done for us?”

Unfortunately, the production seems to side with Marya and her self-centered concerns. She is soon rescued from the legitimate wrath of the peasants by the timely appearance of Nikolai and his regiment. It is the one major scene that points to the fact that this parasitical social layer lives off the exploitation and enslavement of the peasantry.

Pierre, the moral conscience of War and Peace, tries to be honest when he sadly admits that “my life is one mistake after another … I wanted to change the world for the better, help my fellow men and look at me a fat, drunken aristocrat who makes a bungle out of everything.” To make amends for what he considers his mistakes, Pierre becomes obsessed with assassinating Napoleon.

In a relatively modest way, the mini-series does provide some sense of the great events that shaped the Tolstoy novel—namely, the aftermath of the world-altering French revolution. The depiction of the Battle of Borodino in September 1812, the bloodiest single day of the Napoleonic wars, with some 70,000 Russian and French casualties, is one of the series’ strongest sequences. Here, at least for a moment, the aristocratic lifestyle is left behind and we see something of the horror of war: men cut in half, doctors sawing off legs, the misery of the wounded and dying. And later there are the horrific consequences for Moscow’s population.

Pierre Bezukhov (Dano) as French prisoner

A duality exists in Tolstoy’s work between sharp condemnations of the aristocratic life and his acceptance of the inevitability of that life. In his remarkable 1908 tribute to the novelist, Leon Trotsky observed that, despite everything, Tolstoy continued to place in the center of his artistic attention “the one and the same wealthy and well-born Russian landlord” as though outside this universe “there were nothing of importance or of beauty.”

The mini-series tends to adopt the same standpoint, which is far less defensible given the subsequent course of Russian and world history. Trotsky noted that at the end of the novel, Tolstoy showed Pierre Bezukhov, “the restless seeker of truth,” as “a smug family man,” and “Natasha Rostova, so touching in her semi-childlike sensitivity,” as “a shallow breeding female, untidy diapers in hand.” The present series does the same, only more so. The final scene grates with its complacency and suggestion that contented family life offers some consolation for the massive destruction and loss of life.

That being said, Davies is genuinely skilled at choosing and adapting enduring, classic works. True, his genre of intelligent costume drama is not the be-all and end-all of artistic effort. One might even say that stylish adaptations like War and Peace have a certain soothing effect on an audience (with the exception of the battle scenes). If we were currently flooded with challenging artistic evauations of the status quo, it is unlikely that such series would receive quite the attention they do. However, given the actual state of cultural affairs, this version of the Tolstoy epic attracts attention for its general intelligence and pleasing aesthetic qualities.

Andrei Bolkonsky (Norton) with his unit

To their credit, the makers of the miniseries have tried to capture certain crucial features of the novel. A naturalness and elegance underscore and heighten the emotional intensity. As in Tolstoy’s narrative, there is truthfulness, a lack of pretension and artificiality: the viewer is engaging with real people, who have real, complex lives and feelings.

In dozens of essays the leading Russian Marxists, Plekhanov, Lenin, Trotsky and others, pointed to the great contrast between the immortality of Tolstoy’s artistic achievement and the poverty of his philosophical and social ideas. The novelist was a pacifist, a believer in “non-resistance to evil,” a conservative anarchist, “a moralist and mystic,” in Trotsky’s phrase, and “a foe of politics and revolution.”

Nonetheless, as an indefatigable social critic, an enemy of cruelty and oppression, Tolstoy played an enormous role in undermining the tsarist regime and the entire Russian social order. Reactionary forces in the former Soviet Union have not forgiven him to this day.

In an obituary, Trotsky magnificently paid tribute to the great writer: “Truth in and of itself possesses a terrible, explosive power: once proclaimed, it irresistibly gives rise to revolutionary con­clusions in the consciousness of the masses. Everything that Tolstoy stated publicly… seeped into the minds of the laboring masses … And the word became deed. Although not a revolutionary, Tolstoy nurtured the revolutionary element with his words of genius. In the book about the great storm of 1905 an honorable chapter will be ded­icated to Tolstoy.”

It would be misleading to suggest that Tolstoy’s fierce indictment of Russia’s institutions is sufficiently present in the War and Peace mini-series. However, its honest presentation inevitably communicates elements of the social critique, and also may lead the viewer to investigate Tolstoy’s work further. That would be all to the good.

 

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2016/02/11/wrpe-f11.html

The Coen Brothers’ Hail Caesar!

The “Passion” of a film studio troubleshooter

By Joanne Laurier 

9 February 2016

Hail Caesar!, directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, is a comedy about the film industry set in the early 1950s. The film is essentially a series of vignettes involving the efforts of fictional Capitol Pictures “fixer” Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) to put out various fires at the studio.

Production on “Hail Caesar! A Tale of the Christ” (a film within a film), one of Capitol’s “prestige” pictures, is underway when the movie opens. It is a foolish Ben-Hur– or Quo Vadis– like epic starring Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) as Roman tribune Autolycus, who will ultimately have a sudden, epiphanous conversion to Christianity. (Narrator’s portentous voice: “A new wind is blowing from the dusty streets of Bethlehem!”) Whitlock is unceremoniously drugged and carried off by kidnappers.

Mannix also has to deal with the pregnant, unwed DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson), star of aquatic pictures (i.e., a nod to Esther Williams); acrobatic cowboy singing star Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) who has landed unhappily in a brittle drawing-room melodrama; and aggressive gossip-columnist twin sisters, Thessaly and Thora Thacker (Tilda Swinton), eternally in search of dirt.

Scarlett Johansson in Hail Caesar!

(The historical Eddie Mannix was the general manager and vice president of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, who reported daily to studio head Louis B. Mayer and is famed for covering up the many misdeeds of film stars and other industry personalities. He was reputed to have spied on Mayer for MGM owner Nicholas Schenck in New York, whom the film turns into “Mr. Skank.”)

A devout Catholic, Mannix, who rather too frequently rushes off to confession where he admits to trivial offenses, receives a ransom note demanding $100,000 for the return of Whitlock, in the name of “The Future.” It turns out the star is being held at a Malibu beach-house by a group of Communist Party screenwriters who try to win him to their cause. A “Professor Marcuse,” the venerable sage of the group, also makes an appearance.

Meanwhile, Mannix faces a major life-decision of his own: whether to leave the headaches of the film industry behind for a relative sinecure in the defense industry at aircraft manufacturer Lockheed.

Several confessions and a considerable amount of silliness later, things sort themselves out…

If truth be told, the Coen brothers are best at satire, especially at sending up certain middle class professions, relationships and settings. They are keen observers of social detail, even minutiae. Raising Arizona, The Big Lebowski, Intolerable Cruelty and Burn After Reading, along with the lighter moments inFargo, O Brother, Where Art Thou? and A Serious Man make up their most memorable work.

However, the Coens bear the unmistakable marks of decades of artistic-intellectual stagnation and reaction. Whenever they give vent to their social views, the result is confused and misanthropic (Miller’s Crossing, Barton Fink,Fargo in part, No Country for Old Men, A Serious Man), or simply overwhelmed.

In Hail Caesar! both elements are present: the comic-satirical and the seriously confused.

The film enjoyably mocks Hollywood’s sanctimonious attitude toward its own products, including religious extravaganzas and their empty-headed stars (one is presumably meant to think of either Robert Taylor in Quo Vadis or Charlton Heston in Ben-Hur, or both)—although Clooney is a bit strained in the Whitlock role.

George Clooney

In one amusing scene, Mannix brings in Protestant, Greek Orthodox, Jewish and Catholic clergy to vet the screenplay, and a theological debate breaks out over Christ’s “parentage” and other related matters. (Rabbi: “God is a bachelor and very angry.”) In another sequence, while Mannix is watching the daily rushes, the raw footage includes a title card that reads: “Divine presence to be shot.” To their credit, the Coens also manage to ridicule Clooney’s final penitent speech before Christ on the cross.

Along the way, they make a point as well (by casting a single black actor as an extra) about the insignificant presence of African Africans in mainstream Hollywood at the time.

The co-directors’ special gifts are on display in their amiable quasi-recreation of the various film types or styles. Johansson, Ralph Fiennes as the effete Laurence Laurentz, Heather Goldenhersh as Mannix’s super-efficient and earnest secretary Natalie, and Frances McDormand as the legendary but accident-prone editor C.C. Calhoun (based on a real figure at MGM), all hit exact notes in relatively small parts. Ehrenreich is rather sweet as the singing cowboy.

Mannix is the pivotal figure here, and Brolin, as usual, offers a remarkable, precise characterization. The semi-comic parallels between the studio “fixer” and the Son of God are fairly obvious. Like Christ, Mannix takes the sins of Capitol Pictures and its personnel on his shoulders. He is also “tempted by the devil,” the Lockheed merchant of death, who proudly shows him a photo of the recently detonated H-bomb as an inducement—and offers him cigarettes (Eddie is desperately trying to quit!). And, in the end, Mannix too proves to be a “savior.”

Where Hail Caesar! weakens considerably, or even falls down, is in its treatment—comic or otherwise—of the more substantive issues. The film is set in 1951 at the height of the Cold War and the anti-communist witch-hunts. (Baird makes an oblique reference to “naming names” at one point.) The Coens seem to be registering, in their own excessively mild and diffuse manner, a protest at the purges.

The group of Communist screenwriters is not presented as some sort of monstrous cabal, but, on the other hand, whatever points are being made about the rather ineffectual group are unclear or blunted. The writers bandy about phrases such as “the system,” “the dialectic” and the “exploitation” of the masses. They claim (and this is underlined as especially ludicrous) to have worked out a scientifically accurate and certain view of the future course of events.

But what is the attitude of the filmmakers toward all this? Are they simply ridiculing the “Marxist” terminology, half-agreeing with it or covertly sympathizing? An indication they are flying blind on these questions is the presence of a Herbert Marcuse stand-in, entirely inappropriate in this setting or crowd. All one senses in the final analysis is that while the Coens are hostile to the blacklist, their overall stance is non-committal and light-minded. And by “light-minded” we do not mean satirical or humorous, but shallow.

Hail Caesar! portrays the Hollywood studio set-up itself in too genial or amiable a fashion, an industry capable of extraordinary viciousness and darkness. The real Mannix, for instance, was alleged to have had underworld connections and covered up numerous violent crimes. There have also been claims that he was mixed up in the murder of actor George Reeves, his wife’s former lover in 1959.

All in all, the Coens’ Hail Caesar! is in its element when it is spoofing the film industry, religion and American institutions generally. The film is at its flabbiest when it turns its attention to Hollywood’s blackest hour.

 

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2016/02/09/hail-f09.html

Whose lives matter? The limitations of Bernie Sanders

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  • February 7, 2016

Our only hope for a radical internationalist movement lies in the self-organization of working-class people. It certainly will not come from Bernie Sanders.

As the next US presidential election creeps closer, a significant segment of the American left — including the Democratic Socialists of America, Socialist Alternative, and the socialist publication Jacobin — has thrown its support behind the presidential campaign of Bernie Sanders. While perhaps predictable, these stances are symptoms of an American left that is both devoid of a practical strategy for radical change and ethically bankrupt with regard to the principles of solidarity.

The principles at stake are not fringe concerns. If anything, they are basic litmus tests of any individual’s commitment to socialism and human dignity. The fact that Sanders fails these tests raises an important question: Why is a large swathe of the left promoting a candidate who is neither anti-imperialist, nor anti-border, nor even socialist?

REASONS TO REMAIN SKEPTICAL

In terms of his actual policy proposals, Bernie Sanders is a milquetoast social democrat at best. He is not an anti-capitalist; he believes in the private ownership of the means of production and production for profit. In a socialist system, the means of production are owned and controlled by the working class. Sanders more-or-less explicitly rejects this vision, arguing instead for a US version of Scandinavian social democracy: a single-payer healthcare system, free higher education, a decent minimum wage, and Keynesian economic stimulus to support employment.

These policy issues are the basic positive proposals put forth by the Sanders campaign, and they have earned him the support of many US socialists. There are good reasons to remain extremely skeptical of Sanders’ candidacy, however.

First, Sanders is an imperialist whose foreign policy is more akin to that of Barack Obama than any anti-interventionist leftist. In his platform-defining speech, Sanders calls for a new “organization like NATO to confront the security threats of the 21st century.” In Congress, Sanders has been a vocal supporter of the appallingly wasteful F-35 program, opting to designate even more funding for the US military despite an ostensible commitment to cut defense spending.

Sanders is also a long-time supporter of Israel, even going so far as to approve of Israel’s unprovoked 2014 assault on Gaza, which killed over 1,600 Palestinian civilians. In October, the Sanders campaign ejected a group of activists from a campaign event for holding up a vague pro-Palestinian sign. If this were not enough, Sanders clearly states that he approves of and would continue Obama’s drone targeted assassination program, which has killed over 3,300 people in Pakistan alone since 2004.

Even beyond the question of imperialism, Sanders demonstrates an almost complete lack of internationalist principle. Sanders described open borders as “a Koch brothers proposal …which says essentially there is no United States,” contending that open borders would flood the country with immigrants who would wreck the job market and take ‘American’ jobs. This sort of rhetoric should be familiar to any leftist — it is exactly the same as that used by right-wing nativists to justify violence and discrimination against migrants.

The fact that Sanders buys into such nativist fantasies is particularly appalling. In doing so, he lends credence to a narrative that displaces working class anger from capitalism, which is actually responsible for poverty and unemployment, onto working people from other countries. In effect, Sanders implies that he would be more than happy to continue the disastrous immigration policies of the Obama administration, which has broken previous records by deporting over two million people.

A WIDER POLITICAL SHIFT

More than anything, Sanders’ success is symptomatic of an ongoing political shift in the United States. Popular support for “Third Way” neoliberal politics, as exemplified by the Clintons, is crumbling. The Occupy and Black Lives Matter movements have begun to reintroduce radical thought into the American political consciousness. In particular, young people are starting to recognize that capitalism is a deeply flawed system, and they are looking for alternatives.

Now is the time to articulate a coherent vision for radical change and organize in working-class communities so that we stand a chance of actualizing that vision. Organizing for Sanders, however, is not a realistic way to build a radical movement in the United States.

The arguments in support of the Sanders campaign remain remarkably unconvincing. In a recent Jacobin article, Nivedita Majumdar argues that the Sanders campaign can be used as a tool for organizing around the idea of socialism. She chides Bernie’s critics on the left for being “insular” and “apolitical,” seemingly more concerned with the social pressures of work within small activist groups than becoming politically relevant. However, as Lance Selfa points out, the strategy of organizing within the Democratic Party in hopes of building a larger movement has never been successful, despite repeated attempts by left reformists to that end.

Majumdar’s stance is based on an analysis of the American left that presumes an almost crippling weakness. She argues that revolutionary transformation is simply “not on the table,” which leads her to endorse Sanders despite his many flaws. The problem with this analysis is that it accepts defeat before the struggle has even begun. If the American left is so weak that we must be content with supporting any left-liberal candidate, how exactly do we plan to build support for the radical changes we actually need? We cannot build support for a socialist future by misleading the public about what socialism is. We cannot hope to win if we accept the premise that revolutionary change is impossible.

The American socialist left seems to be aware of many of Sanders’ limitations: his lack of genuine socialist politics, his imperialism, and his unjustifiable stances on immigration. The question, then, is why so many socialists choose to support his campaign anyway. If one’s stance on the means of production, NATO, the Israeli occupation, drone strikes and border controls are all negotiable, what positions are non-negotiable?

It is hard to believe that these shortcomings should be ignored simply because Sanders has social democratic convictions. By choosing to support Sanders, the reformist left suggests that it is acceptable to advocate for policies that seriously harm people of color, from undocumented migrants in the United States to innocent civilians in the Middle East.

A QUESTION OF LEFT STRATEGY

As much as it poses an ethical dilemma, the Sanders campaign presents the American left with a question of strategy. Reformist participation in electoral politics is appealing because the route to power appears to be a question of running a successful election campaign. If Sanders can succeed, the argument goes, why not a real socialist party in the near future?

The problem with this line of thought is that the United States is constitutionally undemocratic — its political system was explicitly designed to thwart radical change. Through the Senate, representatives of just 11 percent of the nation’s population — concentrated in some of the country’s most rural, conservative states — can veto any national legislation. Any meaningful reforms would face immediate constitutional challenges in the Supreme Court, which is made up of lifetime legacy appointees whose politics are liberal at best and reactionary at worst.

Participation in US electoral politics is therefore not a realistic strategy to bring about radical social change. It is easy to believe that we can gradually transition to socialism by winning a series of elections. It is much harder to realize that this route will never deliver the change we desire, because that realization requires us to pursue strategies beyond the ballot box.

Rather than channeling popular anger into institutionalized politics, we need to articulate a vision for the radical reconstruction of the political and economic structures of society. We have to devote ourselves to the hard work of organizing in working-class communities, building power in the streets and in workplaces rather than the halls of Congress. More than anything, we have to recognize that the radical left is at its strongest as a grassroots movement and at its weakest when it tries to bargain with institutional powers.

We cannot succumb to an opportunistic streak that is more than willing to sacrifice vital principles for legal expediency and electoral fantasies. It is painful to see this tendency in today’s left, despite the myriad lessons offered by Syriza’s recent failures. A left that values minor economic gains over humanity is not worthy of the name — it is a left that has defeated itself before even beginning to struggle.

What we need now is a movement that is both rigorously internationalist and capable of victory. Our only hope for such a movement lies in the collective self-organization of working-class people. It certainly will not come from Bernie Sanders.

 

Ben Reynolds is a writer and activist based in New York. His commentary has appeared in CounterPunch and other forums.

 

https://roarmag.org/essays/whose-lives-matter-bernie-sanders/

American capitalism has failed us

We’re overworked, underemployed and more powerless than ever before

Denmark, Norway and Sweden are all thriving under democratic socialism. Why is it so difficult for us to embrace?

American capitalism has failed us: We're overworked, underemployed and more powerless than ever before
(Credit: Kim Seidl via Shutterstock/samdiesel via iStock/Salon)

[This is a joint TomDispatch/Nation article and appears in print in slightly shortened form in the new issue of the Nation magazine.]

Some years ago, I faced up to the futility of reporting true things about America’s disastrous wars and so I left Afghanistan for another remote mountainous country far away. It was the polar opposite of Afghanistan: a peaceful, prosperous land where nearly everybody seemed to enjoy a good life, on the job and in the family.

It’s true that they didn’t work much, not by American standards anyway. In the U.S., full-time salaried workers supposedly laboring 40 hours a week actually average 49, with almost 20% clocking more than 60. These people, on the other hand, workedonly about 37 hours a week, when they weren’t away on long paid vacations. At the end of the work day, about four in the afternoon (perhaps three in the summer), they had time to enjoy a hike in the forest or a swim with the kids or a beer with friends — which helps explain why, unlike so many Americans, they are pleased with their jobs.

Often I was invited to go along. I found it refreshing to hike and ski in a country with no land mines, and to hang out in cafés unlikely to be bombed. Gradually, I lost my warzone jitters and settled into the slow, calm, pleasantly uneventful stream of life there.

Four years on, thinking I should settle down, I returned to the United States. It felt quite a lot like stepping back into that other violent, impoverished world, where anxiety runs high and people are quarrelsome. I had, in fact, come back to the flip side of Afghanistan and Iraq: to what America’s wars have done to America. Where I live now, in the Homeland, there are not enough shelters for the homeless. Most people are either overworked or hurting for jobs; housing is overpriced; hospitals, crowded and understaffed; schools, largely segregated and not so good. Opioid or heroin overdose is a popular form of death; and men in the street threaten women wearing hijab. Did the American soldiers I covered in Afghanistan know they were fighting for this?

Ducking the Subject

One night I tuned in to the Democrats’ presidential debate to see if they had any plans to restore the America I used to know. To my amazement, I heard the name of my peaceful mountain hideaway: Norway. Bernie Sanders was denouncing America’s crooked version of “casino capitalism” that floats the already rich ever higher and flushes the working class. He said that we ought to “look to countries like Denmark, like Sweden and Norway, and learn from what they have accomplished for their working people.”

He believes, he added, in “a society where all people do well. Not just a handful of billionaires.” That certainly sounds like Norway. For ages they’ve worked at producing things for the use of everyone — not the profit of a few — so I was all ears, waiting for Sanders to spell it out for Americans.

But Hillary Clinton quickly countered, “We are not Denmark.” Smiling, she said, “I love Denmark,” and then delivered a patriotic punch line: “We are the United States of America.” Well, there’s no denying that. She praised capitalism and “all the small businesses that were started because we have the opportunity and the freedom in our country for people to do that and to make a good living for themselves and their families.” She didn’t seem to know that Danes, Swedes, and Norwegians do that, too, and with much higher rates of success.

The truth is that almost a quarter of American startups are not founded on brilliant new ideas, but on the desperation of men or women who can’t get a decent job. The majority of all American enterprises are solo ventures having zero payrolls, employing no one but the entrepreneur, and often quickly wasting away. Sanders said that he was all for small business, too, but that meant nothing “if all of the new income and wealth is going to the top 1 percent.” (As George Carlin said, “The reason they call it the American Dream is because you have to be asleep to believe it.”)

In that debate, no more was heard of Denmark, Sweden, or Norway. The audience was left in the dark. Later, in a speech at Georgetown University, Sanders tried to clarify his identity as a Democratic socialist. He said he’s not the kind of Socialist (with a capital S) who favors state ownership of anything like the means of production. The Norwegian government, on the other hand, owns the means of producing lots of public assets and is the major stockholder in many a vital private enterprise.

I was dumbfounded. Norway, Denmark, and Sweden practice variations of a system that works much better than ours, yet even the Democratic presidential candidates, who say they love or want to learn from those countries, don’t seem to know how they actually work.

Why We’re Not Denmark

Proof that they do work is delivered every year in data-rich evaluations by the U.N. and other international bodies. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s annual report on international well-being, for example, measures 11 factors, ranging from material conditions like affordable housing and employment to quality of life matters like education, health, life expectancy, voter participation, and overall citizen satisfaction. Year after year, all the Nordic countries cluster at the top, while the United States lags far behind. In addition, Norway ranked first on the U.N. Development Program’s Human Development Index for 12 of the last 15 years, and it consistently tops international comparisons of such matters as democracy, civil and political rights, and freedom of expression and the press.

What is it, though, that makes the Scandinavians so different?  Since the Democrats can’t tell you and the Republicans wouldn’t want you to know, let me offer you a quick introduction. What Scandinavians call the Nordic Model is a smart and simple system that starts with a deep commitment to equality and democracy. That’s two concepts combined in a single goal because, as far as they are concerned, you can’t have one without the other.

Right there they part company with capitalist America, now the most unequal of all the developed nations, and consequently a democracy no more. Political scientists say it has become an oligarchy — a country run at the expense of its citizenry by and for the super rich. Perhaps you noticed that.

In the last century, Scandinavians, aiming for their egalitarian goal, refused to settle solely for any of the ideologies competing for power — not capitalism or fascism, not Marxist socialism or communism. Geographically stuck between powerful nations waging hot and cold wars for such doctrines, Scandinavians set out to find a path in between. That path was contested — by socialist-inspired workers on the one hand and capitalist owners and their elite cronies on the other — but it led in the end to a mixed economy. Thanks largely to the solidarity and savvy of organized labor and the political parties it backed, the long struggle produced a system that makes capitalism more or less cooperative, and then redistributes equitably the wealth it helps to produce. Struggles like this took place around the world in the twentieth century, but the Scandinavians alone managed to combine the best ideas of both camps, while chucking out the worst.

In 1936, the popular U.S. journalist Marquis Childs first described the result to Americans in the book Sweden: The Middle Way. Since then, all the Scandinavian countries and their Nordic neighbors Finland and Iceland have been improving upon that hybrid system. Today in Norway, negotiations between the Confederation of Trade Unions and the Confederation of Norwegian Enterprise determine the wages and working conditions of most capitalist enterprises, public and private, that create wealth, while high but fair progressive income taxes fund the state’s universal welfare system, benefitting everyone. In addition, those confederations work together to minimize the disparity between high-wage and lower-wage jobs. As a result, Norway ranks with Sweden, Denmark, and Finland among the most income-equal countries in the world, and its standard of living tops the charts.

So here’s the big difference: in Norway, capitalism serves the people. The government, elected by the people, sees to that. All eight of the parties that won parliamentary seats in the last national election, including the conservative Høyre party now leading the government, are committed to maintaining the welfare state. In the U.S., however, neoliberal politics put the foxes in charge of the henhouse, and capitalists have used the wealth generated by their enterprises (as well as financial and political manipulations) to capture the state and pluck the chickens. They’ve done a masterful job of chewing up organized labor. Today, only 11% of American workers belong to a union. In Norway, that number is 52%; in Denmark, 67%; in Sweden, 70%.

In the U.S., oligarchs maximize their wealth and keep it, using the “democratically elected” government to shape policies and laws favorable to the interests of their foxy class. They bamboozle the people by insisting, as Hillary Clinton did at that debate, that all of us have the “freedom” to create a business in the “free” marketplace, which implies that being hard up is our own fault.

In the Nordic countries, on the other hand, democratically elected governments give their populations freedom from the market by using capitalism as a tool to benefit everyone. That liberates their people from the tyranny of the mighty profit motive that warps so many American lives, leaving them freer to follow their own dreams — to become poets or philosophers, bartenders or business owners, as they please.

Family Matters

Maybe our politicians don’t want to talk about the Nordic Model because it shows so clearly that capitalism can be put to work for the many, not just the few.

Consider the Norwegian welfare state. It’s universal. In other words, aid to the sick or the elderly is not charity, grudgingly donated by elites to those in need. It is the right of every individual citizen. That includes every woman, whether or not she is somebody’s wife, and every child, no matter its parentage. Treating every person as a citizen affirms the individuality of each and the equality of all. It frees every person from being legally possessed by another — a husband, for example, or a tyrannical father.

Which brings us to the heart of Scandinavian democracy: the equality of women and men. In the 1970s, Norwegian feminists marched into politics and picked up the pace of democratic change. Norway needed a larger labor force, and women were the answer. Housewives moved into paid work on an equal footing with men, nearly doubling the tax base. That has, in fact, meant more to Norwegian prosperity than the coincidental discovery of North Atlantic oil reserves. The Ministry of Finance recently calculated that those additional working mothers add to Norway’s net national wealth a value equivalent to the country’s “total petroleum wealth” — currently held in the world’s largest sovereign wealth fund, worth more than $873 billion. By 1981, women were sitting in parliament, in the prime minister’s chair, and in her cabinet.

American feminists also marched for such goals in the 1970s, but the Big Boys, busy with their own White House intrigues, initiated a war on women that set the country back and still rages today in brutal attacks on women’s basic civil rights, health care, and reproductive freedom. In 1971, thanks to the hard work of organized feminists, Congress passed the bipartisanComprehensive Child Development Bill to establish a multi-billion dollar national day care system for the children of working parents. In 1972, President Richard Nixon vetoed it, and that was that. In 1972, Congress also passed a bill (first proposed in 1923) to amend the Constitution to grant equal rights of citizenship to women.  Ratified by only 35 states, three short of the required 38, that Equal Rights Amendment, or ERA, was declared dead in 1982, leaving American women in legal limbo.

In 1996, President Bill Clinton signed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, obliterating six decades of federal social welfare policy “as we know it,” ending federal cash payments to the nation’s poor, and consigning millions of female heads of household and their children to poverty, where many still dwell 20 years later. Today, nearly half a century after Nixon trashed national child care, even privileged women, torn between their underpaid work and their kids, are overwhelmed.

Things happened very differently in Norway.  There, feminists and sociologists pushed hard against the biggest obstacle still standing in the path to full democracy: the nuclear family. In the 1950s, the world-famous American sociologist Talcott Parsons had pronounced that arrangement — with hubby at work and the little wife at home — the ideal setup in which to socialize children. But in the 1970s, the Norwegian state began to deconstruct that undemocratic ideal by taking upon itself the traditional unpaid household duties of women.  Caring for the children, the elderly, the sick, and the disabled became the basic responsibilities of the universal welfare state, freeing women in the workforce to enjoy both their jobs and their families. That’s another thing American politicians — still, boringly, mostly odiously boastful men — surely don’t want you to think about: that patriarchy can be demolished and everyone be the better for it.

Paradoxically, setting women free made family life more genuine. Many in Norway say it has made both men and women more themselves and more alike: more understanding and happier. It also helped kids slip from the shadow of helicopter parents. In Norway, mother and father in turn take paid parental leave from work to see a newborn through its first year or more. At age one, however, children start attending a neighborhood barnehage (kindergarten) for schooling spent largelyoutdoors. By the time kids enter free primary school at age six, they are remarkably self-sufficient, confident, and good-natured. They know their way around town, and if caught in a snowstorm in the forest, how to build a fire and find the makings of a meal.  (One kindergarten teacher explained, “We teach them early to use an axe so they understand it’s a tool, not a weapon.”)

To Americans, the notion of a school “taking away” your child to make her an axe wielder is monstrous.  In fact, Norwegian kids, who are well acquainted in early childhood with many different adults and children, know how to get along with grown ups and look after one another.  More to the point, though it’s hard to measure, it’s likely that Scandinavian children spend more quality time with their work-isn’t-everything parents than does a typical middle-class American child being driven by a stressed-out mother from music lessons to karate practice.  For all these reasons and more, the international organization Save the Children cites Norway as the best country on Earth in which to raise kids, while the U.S. finishes far down the list in 33rd place.

Don’t Take My Word For It

This little summary just scratches the surface of Scandinavia, so I urge curious readers to Google away.  But be forewarned. You’ll find much criticism of all the Nordic Model countries. The structural matters I’ve described — of governance and family — are not the sort of things visible to tourists or visiting journalists, so their comments are often obtuse. Take the American tourist/blogger who complained that he hadn’t been shown the “slums” of Oslo. (There are none.) Or the British journalist who wrote that Norwegian petrol is too expensive. (Though not for Norwegians, who are, in any case, leading the world in switching to electric cars.)

Neoliberal pundits, especially the Brits, are always beating up on the Scandinavians in books, magazines, newspapers, and blogs, predicting the imminent demise of their social democracies and bullying them to forsake the best political economy on the planet. Self-styled experts still in thrall to Margaret Thatcher tell Norwegians they must liberalize their economy and privatize everything short of the royal palace. Mostly, the Norwegian government does the opposite, or nothing at all, and social democracy keeps on ticking.

It’s not perfect, of course. It has always been a carefully considered work in progress. Governance by consensus takes time and effort.  You might think of it as slow democracy.  But it’s light years ahead of us.

Ann Jones has a new book published today: They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return from America’s Wars — the Untold Story, a Dispatch Books project in cooperation with Haymarket Books. Andrew Bacevich has already had this to say about it: “Read this unsparing, scathingly direct, and gut-wrenching account — the war Washington doesn’t want you to see. Then see if you still believe that Americans ‘support the troops.’” Jones, who has reported from Afghanistan since 2002, is also the author of two books about the impact of war on civilians: Kabul in Winter and War Is Not Over When It’s Over.

Wall Street donors account for 40 percent of super PAC funds in US election

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By Barry Grey
4 February 2016

The 2016 US election campaign has exposed deep-seated popular alienation from the entire political establishment and growing anger over the domination of US society and politics by Wall Street. Democratic contender Bernie Sanders, who calls himself a democratic socialist, has capitalized on this sentiment by basing his campaign on denunciations of the “billionaire class” and an electoral process dominated by corporate money.

New figures on the funding of so-called “super PACs,” the nominally independent “political action committees” that are the main vehicles for corporate bribery of would-be officer-holders, shed light on the degree to which the political system is controlled by big business in general, and Wall Street in particular.

Statistics compiled from Federal Election Commission reports by the Center for Responsive Politics, an election watchdog group, and the Wall Street Journal show that cash from major banks and investment, real estate and insurance firms accounts for more than $116 million of the $290 million raised thus far in the current election cycle by super PACs and other independent campaign organizations. That amounts to 40 percent of the total.

In the second half of 2015, super PACs backing the various presidential candidates took in $100 million. Of this, $81.2 million came from the financial industry.

The weight of finance capital in funding the campaigns of both Democrats and Republicans has grown by leaps and bounds, particularly since the 2010 “Citizens United” Supreme Court ruling that lifted all limits on corporate campaign donations via super PACs.

In the 2012 election, donations from the financial services sector comprised 20 percent, or $169 million, of the $845 million raised for the entire election cycle by super PACs and other independent campaign groups. Thus, as a share of total super PAC money, financial capital’s role has doubled in this year’s election cycle.

This compares to the “mere” $2.4 million of super PAC money donated by Wall Street in the 2004 election. Already in the 2016 election, the total from banks and financial firms is 70 times the level 12 years ago.

Former President Jimmy Carter felt obliged, in an interview Wednesday on BBC Radio 4’s “Today” program, to denounce the US campaign finance system as “legalized bribery.” Carter, who was elected in 1976 and defeated in his reelection bid by Ronald Reagan in 1980, said, “As the rich people finance the campaigns, when candidates get in office they do what the rich people want. And that’s to let the rich people get richer and the middle class get left out.”

A Wall Street Journal article published Sunday provides details on Wall Street funding for various presidential candidates. The super PAC supporting Republican Senator Marco Rubio received over half of its money in the second half of 2015 from financial industry contributors. The two biggest donors were hedge fund billionaires Paul Singer (net worth of $2.1 billion) and Ken Griffin ($6.6 billion), who gave $2.5 million each in the last two months of the year. Hedge fund billionaire Cliff Asness and Florida mega-investor Mary Spencer each donated $1 million.

Half of the $5 million raised by the super PAC supporting Republican Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey came from Wall Street, including a $2 million donation in December by hedge fund mogul Steven Cohen (net worth of $11.4 billion) and his wife, who also gave a combined $2 million to the super PAC in the first half of 2015.

The super PAC backing Republican Senator Ted Cruz of Texas received at least $11 million from billionaire hedge fund founder Robert Mercer and $10 million from private equity firm founder Toby Neugebauer.

The super PAC backing former Florida Governor Jeb Bush raised $10 million of its $15 million for the second half of 2015 from Maurice “Hank” Greenberg, the former CEO of American International Group, the mega-insurance firm that was bailed out by the US government in 2008 to the tune of $182 billion. As of the end of September 2015, half of Bush’s top donors were employed by major financial firms, including Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley and Barclays, where Bush previously worked as a consultant making $2 million a year.

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the Democratic front-runner, is no slouch when it comes to Wall Street bribes. Of the $25 million raised by the super PAC supporting her in the second half of 2015, $15 million came from financiers. Nearly half of that came from billionaire investor George Soros (net worth of $24.5 billion).

Soros gave the pro-Clinton super PAC, Priorities USA Action, $6 million in December, bringing his total in donations to $7 million. Priorities USA Action also received $3 million from entertainment industry investor Haim Saban (worth $3.6 billion) and his wife, who also gave $2 million earlier in the year.

These figures were compiled from incomplete Federal Election Commission filings, as most of the candidates and their associated super PACs had not filed with the FEC as of early Sunday evening. The deadline to do so was midnight Sunday.

The New York Times reported this week that a super PAC associated with the political network of the right-wing Republican Koch brothers (net worth of $44.3 billion each), reported Sunday that it had raised $11 million. The Koch brothers’ umbrella political organization, Freedom Partners, announced Saturday at its annual winter conference in California that it spent $400 million in 2015 to fund political and “philanthropic” organizations. That put the Koch political network at less than half of the two-year spending goal of $1 billion it announced last year.

Among those at the closed-door conference were two supporters of senators Rubio and Cruz, offering their obeisance in the hope of getting cash from the billionaire arch-reactionaries.

 

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2016/02/04/fund-f04.html