State of Resistance: California in the Age of Trump

ELECTION 2016

The battle begins now.

Photo Credit: ilozavr / Shutterstock

For the past two decades, California has been on the cutting edge of social and economic change in America. Now, with Donald Trump about to enter the Oval Office, the Golden State is poised to take on a new role: leader of the anti-Trump resistance.

California’s frontline position in opposing Trump is not merely a reflection of its deep-blue politics. On many of the flashpoint issues expected to define Trump’s presidency, California has a tremendous amount at stake. As the new administration tries to reverse the significant gains made on immigrant rights, climate change, criminal justice and workers’ rights, to name a few subjects, many of the fiercest battles in the country will be fought up and down the state.

Can California lead the resistance to Trump’s right-wing agenda and continue to be in the vanguard of advancing progressive change? Yes – and in fact, the two are inextricably linked, both tactically and symbolically. In the months and years to come, California must become like the best sports teams, capable of playing defense and offense at the highest level.

Why California Must Lead

No state rivals California either in the dimensions of its population or economy. At just under 40 million people, California has more residents than the nation’s 20 least densely populated states put together. Its economy is the sixth-largest in the world, trailing only the U.S., China, Japan, Germany and the United Kingdom.

California is also home to several of the nation’s most powerful and influential industries, including high tech and entertainment. Both Silicon Valley and Hollywood wield enormous economic clout, and are key shapers of consumer habits and cultural norms.

Why is this significant? Because California has the ability to exert enormous pressure on everything from markets and mores to politics and policy, a position it has ably demonstrated in its leadership role in addressing climate change, despite federal inaction.

Size and economic strength by themselves are not enough. But over the past 20 years, California has acquired another key comparative advantage: It has developed some of the most innovative social movements in the country – and exported them to cities across the U.S. These movements have secured rights for immigrants, boosted worker pay, protected LGBTQ Californians and pushed the state forward on addressing climate change. They will be called upon to use their organizing prowess to hold the line against Trump even as they continue to push the envelope of social and economic justice in California and beyond.

California advocates have succeeded in large part by mobilizing an incredibly diverse set of stakeholders. This will pay big dividends now, as very disparate groups of people – immigrants, Muslims, African-Americans, the poor, women, communities already suffering the effects of climate change – see their interests threatened by the Trump administration. The experience of working together across racial, ethnic, geographic and class lines will lend itself to the creation of even broader alliances – so broad that California could be a key base for the biggest and most diverse progressive coalition the nation has ever seen.

Flashpoint Issues

While California’s anti-Trump coalition will need to develop the capacity to fight many battles at once, one initial front will surely be immigration. If Trump makes good on his campaign promises, hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants will be faced with deportation, many of them DREAMers protected by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA).

The economic, social and human costs of disrupting the lives of so many Californian families are staggering. Recognizing this, state and local leaders have vowed to resist efforts targeting immigrants, setting the stage for high-stakes confrontations with the new administration.

No less dramatic will be the battles over climate change. Governor Jerry Brown has vowed to oppose any efforts to roll back the state’s pioneering environmental policies (including a promise to have California launch its own satellites to gather information on global warming!), and he will be joined by a broad-based group of business leaders and activists.

Another flashpoint will be workers’ rights. Fast-food CEO Andrew Puzder is likely to be the new labor secretary: He is on the record as opposing increases in the minimum wage and expansion of overtime pay and is clearly no ally of those who seek to rein in the abuse of independent contractors and gig-economy workers. In California, the nation’s strongest labor movement, together with community and business allies, has enacted some of the most far-reaching worker protections in the country; we will need to stand firm on what we’ve won and stand strong against an assault on labor rights.

More broadly, unions face an existential crisis under a President Trump. Just last year, the Supreme Court heard a key case initiated out of the Golden State, Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, in which anti-labor advocates sued to eliminate the ability of unions to collect dues for collective bargaining. Down one justice, the Court deadlocked – but since a tie sets no national precedent, another version of the same sort of case is widely expected to come up once Trump fills the open seat. Californians will have to be among those opposing any Court nominee likely to ignore worker, minority or women’s rights.

Another bone of likely contention: Trump can also be expected to push hard on a law-and-order agenda that will fly in the face of efforts to reform the criminal justice system. After recognizing its own disastrous infatuation with over-incarceration, California has embraced recent initiatives to reduce the sentences of nonviolent offenders and to ban labor market discrimination against former felons. This will be another policy battleground and will provide the opportunity to showcase a national counter-example to Trump’s fear-driven attempt to strengthen law enforcement at the expense of civil rights.

The Challenges Ahead

While California is well positioned to lead the charge against Trump, the success of these efforts is not inevitable. The challenges ahead include the risks of factionalism, the rise of extremism and the need to craft a new relationship with business forces.

When Richard Nixon was elected president in 1968, left-of-center political forces fragmented badly, expediting the rise of conservatism, which in turn has dominated national politics ever since. California’s progressive movement does not appear to be headed in this direction, but Trump has proven himself a master at dividing and conquering, and he will no doubt pursue the same strategy as president. He will also attack on many fronts, creating a strain on resources and the possibility of destructive in-fighting.

And although California may currently vote progressive, it is also no stranger to extremism. The descendants of the John Birch Society are alive and well, the Tea Party has its Golden State adherents and it’s worth recalling that Rush Limbaugh got his talk-radio start in Sacramento. With Trump in the White House, the right in general and the politics of hate in particular may well get a boost. The inland and rural regions of California have been the traditional breeding grounds for white nationalism, but the alt right is also operating in the state’s urban population centers.

Finally, some business leaders, lured by tax cuts, deregulation and union-busting, will be supportive of the Trump agenda even if they are repulsed by the anti-immigrant and anti-trade rhetoric. Other business leaders have a more balanced perspective, recognizing that a strong and sustainable economy requires that wages rise, racial inclusion occurs and the planet is protected. Progressives will have to figure out where alliances are possible and effective. This is particularly important in California, where some “business Democrats” often side with corporate lobbies on critical environmental and labor legislation. While several such elected officials found themselves unelected in 2016, others may be emboldened by Trump and his brand of scorched-earth capitalism. This could pose a serious risk to progressive priorities, even with the Democratic super-majority in the state legislature.

Looking Forward

As Trump and his allies wage war on all fronts, a weariness may set in – and along with it a tendency to take refuge in California’s different political reality. That would be a very costly mistake. Not only must California help the country fight back, it must not take its own prolific advances for granted.

After all, it was only two decades ago that we were convulsed by our own anti-immigrant hysteria in the form of Proposition 187, a law that sought to strip all services, including education, from undocumented immigrants. It passed with an overwhelming majority, and the state soon followed with an electoral attack on affirmative action and aggressive efforts to criminalize black and Latino youth. And even as the nation voted for Obama in 2008, California voted for Proposition 8, stripping the rights of same-sex couples to marry.

We’ve come out of our political morass, not just because time has passed and demographics have shifted, but also because of a new hard-fought and hard-forged politics and social compact. With the nation now experiencing its own “Prop 187 moment,” we have a responsibility to help others avoid our own mistakes and accelerate the country’s path to a more inclusive future.

We will also need to lead by example. For all of California’s political progress, we still have one of the highest levels of inequality in the country, some of the most polluted communities, huge shortages of affordable housing, a massive homeless population, ongoing police brutality and one of the nation’s highest number of people caught up in the criminal justice system.

Even in the Trump era, California can tackle these problems – but it will require old relationships and new allies, solid institutions and innovative strategies, long-standing-values and a fresh and compelling vision of our future. All this will require a clarity of purpose, a level of passion and strength of resolve that few of us have been called on to summon.

So get ready. The battle begins now.

 

 

 

Dr. Manuel Pastor is Professor of Sociology and American Studies & Ethnicity at the University of Southern California where he also directs the Program for Environmental and Regional Equity and co-directs USC’s Center for the Study of Immigrant Integration. His most recent books include Just Growth: Inclusion and Prosperity in America’s Metropolitan Regions (Routledge 2012; co-authored with Chris Benner) Uncommon Common Ground: Race and America’s Future (W.W. Norton 2010; co-authored with Angela Glover Blackwell and Stewart Kwoh), and This Could Be the Start of Something Big: How Social Movements for Regional Equity are Transforming Metropolitan America (Cornell 2009; co-authored with Chris Benner and Martha Matsuoka). 

Chinese Billionaire Says US Wasted Trillions on Wars and Wall Street

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Alibaba founder Jack Ma said the U.S. should stop blaming other countries for stealing jobs and, instead, invest in ‘your own people’

"In the past 30 years, America had 13 wars spending $2 trillion," said Alibaba founder Jack Ma. "What if the money was spent on the Midwest of the United States?"(Photo via CNBC)

“In the past 30 years, America had 13 wars spending $2 trillion,” said Alibaba founder Jack Ma. “What if the money was spent on the Midwest of the United States?” (Photo via CNBC)

Speaking at the World Economic Forum in Switzerland on Wednesday, Chinese billionaire Jack Ma accused the United States of spending too much money on foreign wars and risky financial speculation and not enough money “on your own people.”

The founder of the world’s largest retailer, Alibaba, was addressing a question posed by CNBC‘s Andrew Ross Sorkin about the U.S. economy in relation to China.

In response, Ma said the U.S. should stop blaming other countries and look at its own spending priorities:

“It’s not that other countries steal jobs from you guys,” Ma said. “It’s your strategy. You did not distribute the money and things in a proper way.”

“It’s not that other countries steal jobs from you guys. It’s your strategy. You did not distribute the money and things in a proper way.”He said the U.S. has wasted over $14 trillion in fighting wars over the past 30 years rather than investing in infrastructure at home.

Ma said that when Thomas Friedman published the 2005 pro-globalization tribute The World is Flat, taking advantage of the world economy seemed like “a perfect strategy” for the U.S.

“We just want the technology, and the IP, and the brand, and we’ll leave the other jobs” to other countries like Mexico and China, he said, according to Business Insider. “American international companies made millions and millions of dollars from globalization.”

“The past 30 years, IBM, Cisco, Microsoft, they’ve made tens of millions—the profits they’ve made are much more than the four Chinese banks put together,” he continued. “But where did the money go?”

“The money goes to Wall Street. Then what happened? Year 2008 wiped out $19.2 trillion in U.S. income,” he said. What’s more, he added, “In the past 30 years, America had 13 wars spending $14.2 trillion…no matter how good your strategy is you’re supposed to spend money on your own people.”

“What if the money was spent on the Midwest of the United States?” he asked. “What if they had spent part of that money on building up their infrastructure, helping white-collar and blue-collar workers? You’re supposed to spend money on your own people.”

While he did emphasize that globalization is a good thing, according to CNBC, Ma reportedly noted that it “‘should be inclusive,’ with the spoils not just going to the wealthy few.”

Ma’s critique came weeks after he attended a meeting in New York City with President-elect Donald Trump, who has threatened to impose punitive tariffs against the Asian superpower.

When asked about that conversation, the internet tycoon “said the consequences of a trade war between the world’s biggest and second-largest economies would be too grave for both countries to bear and they should do everything to avoid it,” reported the South China Morning Post, which Ma owns.

“It’s so easy to launch a war. It’s so difficult, almost impossible sometimes, to terminate that war,” he said. “The Iraq war, the Afghanistan war, are those finished?”

50 Years Later, Here Are 3 Big Ways the Summer of Love Is Still with Us

CULTURE
The ideals of the Human Be-In remain woven through American culture.

Members of Jefferson Airplane performing at the KFRC Fantasy Fair and Magic Mountain Music Festival in Marin County, California, United States in June, 1967
Photo Credit: Bryan Costales ©2009 Bryan Costales, licensed CC BY-SA 3.0-Bcx.Org: http://www.bcx.org/photos/events/concerts/ffair/?file=KFRCFantasyFair19670603_7464SBCX.jpg, Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 3.0; Jefferson Airplane, Marin County, CA, 1967

Born of the simple intention to unite people in the name of connection and love, an event on the polo fields of Golden Gate Park half a century ago sparked a cultural paradigm shift unrivaled in the U.S. since World War II. But this time it was the antithesis to war that would reshape America: the Summer of Love.

The impetus for that fateful summer was called the Human Be-In, in a nod to the peaceful sit-ins waged by university students in the preceding years against racial segregation. In the years surrounding the Summer of Love, the frigid prospect of nuclear war loomed, minorities and women were rising up against myriad oppressions and the government was cracking down on mind-altering substances like LSD and cannabis. The Summer of Love and its values of free expression, love, peace, activism, and psychedelic exploration of consciousness were the backlash.

The early acid-rock sounds of Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Big Brother and the Holding Co. and others mixed with the words of boundary-pushing poets and psychedelic pioneers to gather 75,000 or so young people in the park. They spilled out into the five-block radius of the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood with fresh smells, sounds and ideals that came to shape the era’s iconography.

Bill McCarthy, founder of the Unity Foundation, co-produced a 50-year anniversary celebration of the Be-In in San Francisco this week.

“It’s important that we celebrate the past, celebrate the victories, triumphs and challenges of the past, but at the same time look at what’s happening today,” he said. “We’re saying yes, in 1967 this all happened, so let’s rededicate ourselves to that. But let’s also see what’s happening today that can build community, build empathy with people all over the world that are struggling.”

He said given the current political climate, with Trump’s impending inauguration and all that’s bound to come with it, there is more reason than ever to “activate ourselves.” He said when you take the “long view” from 1967 to now, it’s obvious that we’re moving forward.

“The values we treasure and movements we created are still stronger than they ever have been,” he said. “When there’s darkness in the world, the thing that feeds darkness is fear. The last thing we should do right now is be fearful.”

Fifty years since the Be-In, as the digital age re-molds the economy, values and skylines of San Francisco and beyond, the ideals of the Human Be-In remain woven through our culture in ways we rarely pause to acknowledge. From the sounds of activism to the shape of companies to that box of free stuff out on the corner, many hippie dreams are alive and well in 2017.

Annie Oak, founder of the Women’s Visionary Congress, a nonprofit dedicated to exploring altered states of consciousness, says the prevalence of psychedelics in the 1960s and ’70s is directly related to the ideas put forth by young people at the time.

“These substances allowed people to think way outside the box and also question social systems,” she said. “The hippies here really put forward a liberal political consciousness and humanist values that impacted society.”

Here are three modern cultural shifts that have their roots in the psychedelic Summer of Love.

1. Collectivism, from communal living to open-source software. 

Annie Oak says communal living, which is everywhere now, was born in the Summer of Love. So, she says, are collectivist projects like the Haight-Ashbury Free Clinic, which is still in operation, offering medical treatment free of charge.

“These ideas of collectivism really launched larger ideas like the open-source software movement and creative commerce,” she notes. “These are ideas that are commonplace now.”

Michael Gosney has produced Digital Be-Ins over the years at Be-In anniversaries to pay homage to the initial Be-In of ’67 and to look to the future. He was involved in early desktop publishing and digital media in San Francisco in the late ’80s. It was the dawn of personal computers, and his magazine was covering early Macintosh creativity. He describes the publication as a “nexus of artists and tech people coming together.”

Between ’85 and ’92 he observed that psychedelics—which made their debut in modern culture during the Summer of Love—heavily influenced the creation of digital media. He says the software programmers who worked on digital music, animation, photography and video were influenced by psychedelics.

“I noticed the preponderance of psychedelic influence in the programming community with the engineers that were inventing these new tools,” he said. “Psychedelic influence was extremely powerful, and really that’s how people were seeing the vision of digital networks and so forth. It very much came out of the influence of psychedelics.”

2. Activism and alternative media.

The mainstream newspapers in 1967 were not about to promote the Be-In event. An underground, independent zine called the Oracle, produced for free in Haight-Ashbury, was the first to cover what would become the catalyst for the hippie days and cultural revolution.

“The Oracle was the first to write about the Be-In, so it helped launch the alternative press,” Annie Oak of WVC says. “And there were also underground radio stations that helped promote the events, so the whole alternative media movement really was moved along by the Be-In and the Summer of Love.”

Oak notes that the environmental movement was also taking place in Haight-Ashbury at the time. The local community organized in the ’60s against a proposed freeway project that would run through the panhandle portion of Golden Gate park, connecting Golden Gate Bridge with the Peninsula. The community organized in protest on the same polo grounds where the initial Be-In took place, and their uprising eventually killed the freeway project. This was in 1964, but Oak says the power of community organizing was a key motif of the ’67 Be-In and its cultural imprints.

“The freeway was one of the important predecessors of the Be-In activism and gathering that took place also in the polo grounds three years later, and the later protests against the war,” she said. “Timothy Leary kind of set the tone with his famous phrase, turn on, tune in, drop out, which kind of set the tone for the Be-In. But what really happened here is people kind of turned on to activism, and then took over. They took over big sections of our culture and changed it in positive ways.”

Oak notes the irony that because of the proposed freeway project, which would have displaced many residents, the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood harbored lower-income residents like students and minorities. As the years passed following the Summer of Love, the neighborhood became an iconic tourist destination. Today, as wealthy techies have been drawn to the city for its iconic allure, lower-income residents are priced out.

“Haight-Ashbury sort of personified the transition between the beat generation—the poets and jazz hipsters that were embracing a lot of the black jazz culture—and the hippies, who then kind of came into what was then a black neighborhood,” Oak says. “And, to some degree, later that movement ironically gentrified the neighborhood, and a lot of the black community then left. It was a very complex form of gentrification, and that gentrification is still happening.”

Bill McCarthy of Unity Foundation said in planning the Be-In anniversary this year he had a conversation with author and historian Dennis McNally about how the mainstream media of the time co-opted the Summer of Love.

“[McNally] was saying… the media created the hippie and created this—how we should look at the culture, and that was part of the downfall,” McCarthy said. “And to that I said, well, Dennis, the beautiful thing now is we can create our own media. We’re not saddled by ABC, NBC, CBS, whatever anymore. We have our own media vehicles.”

3. Cannabis legalization and psychedelic science are influencing mainstream medicine.

Two years prior to the Summer of Love, the psychedelic beloved by many young people who associated LSD with spiritual enlightenment and creative expression was criminalized, like cannabis before it. Retaliating against the Summer of Love and the progressive concepts it launched, President Richard Nixon waged the racist, violent (and ultimately failed) war on drugs that vilified psychedelics and cannabis in the public eye for decades.

Cannabis and most psychedelics remain federally illegal to this day, though the pendulum is starting to swing back. Eight U.S. states have legalized weed for adult use, and this decade the first U.S. government-approved human trials assessing psychedelics in tandem with psychotherapy treatment are showing overwhelmingly positive results. Most of the studies are sponsored by the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), a nonprofit group founded by Rick Doblin in 1986.

Doblin said the Summer of Love set society on a path toward important cultural shifts.

“Since the iconic Summer of Love, 50 years ago, marijuana has gone from being a heavily demonized drug used by rebellious youth to a medicine, with one of the largest growing demographics being elderly people,” he said. “Psychedelics now are being investigated as tools used in scientific research for therapeutic uses, a catalyst of spirituality, art and creativity, acceptance of death and we are now facing their legitimization and acceptance as medical tools.”

In addition, MAPS is conducting studies of MDMA’s potential to help treat post-traumatic stress disorder, researching the use of ibogaine for opiate addiction and “implementing ayahuasca research for PTSD and broadening psychedelic harm reduction outreach for more widespread acceptance into our culture,” Doblin said. Similar to the path of cannabis in culture, he predicts psychedelics will first be accepted medicinally, then for their broadened spiritual and cultural uses.

“One day people will take for granted that psychedelics are legal, are highly prized, and help people make positive contributions to society,” he said.

April M. Short is a yoga teacher and writer who previously worked as AlterNet’s drugs and health editor. She currently works part-time for AlterNet, and freelances for a number of publications nationwide. 

http://www.alternet.org/culture/50-years-later-here-are-3-big-ways-summer-love-still-us?akid=15118.265072.82O0Sv&rd=1&src=newsletter1070698&t=14

Eight billionaires control as much wealth as the bottom half of the world’s population

Oxfam issues report on eve of Davos conference

davos-meeting-inequality

17 January 2016

Eight billionaires, six of them from the United States, own as much combined wealth as the bottom half of the world’s population, some 3.6 billion people, according to the latest report on global inequality from the British-based advocacy group Oxfam.

The report was released Monday, on the eve of the annual World Economic Forum in the mountain resort of Davos, Switzerland, at which many of the ultra-rich will converge this week. The Oxfam document contains a range of figures that highlight the staggering growth of social inequality, showing that the income and wealth gap between a tiny financial elite and the rest of the world’s people is widening at an accelerating rate.

New data made available to Oxfam reveals that wealth is even more concentrated than the organization had previously believed. Last year, Oxfam reported that 62 people controlled as much wealth as the bottom half of humanity. In its latest report, the charity notes that “had this new data been available last year, it would have shown that nine billionaires owned the same wealth as the poorest half of the planet.”

Oxfam writes that since 2015, the richest 1 percent of the world’s population has owned more than the rest of the world put together, and that over the past quarter century, the top 1 percent has gained more income than the bottom 50 percent combined.

“Far from trickling down, income and wealth are being sucked upwards at an alarming rate,” the report states. It notes that the 1,810 dollar billionaires on the Forbes 2016 rich list own $6.5 trillion, “as much wealth as the bottom 70 percent of humanity.”

Over the next 20 years, some 500 people will hand over to their heirs more than $2.1 trillion, an amount larger than the gross domestic product of India, a country of 1.3 billion people.

Oxfam cites recent research by the economist Thomas Piketty and others showing that in the United States, over the past 30 years the growth in incomes of the bottom 50 percent has been zero, while the incomes of the top 1 percent have risen by 300 percent.

The same process is taking place in the world’s poorest countries. Oxfam notes that Vietnam’s richest man earns more in a day than the country’s poorest person earns in 10 years.

The report points to the systematic character of the siphoning of global wealth to the heights of society. The business sector is focused on delivering “ever higher returns to wealthy owners and top executives,” with companies “structured to dodge taxes, drive down workers’ wages and squeeze producers.”

This involves the most barbaric and criminal practices. Oxfam cites a report by the International Labour Organisation estimating that 21 million people are forced labourers, generating $150 billion in profits every year. The world’s largest garment companies all have links to cotton-spinning mills in India that routinely use the forced labour of girls.

Small farmers are also being driven into poverty: in the 1980s, cocoa farmers received 18 percent of the value of a chocolate bar, compared to just 6 percent today.

The extent of corporate power is highlighted in a number of telling statistics. In terms of revenue, 69 of the world’s largest economic entities are now corporations, not countries. The world’s 10 largest companies, including firms such as Wal-Mart, Shell and Apple, have combined revenue greater than the total government revenue of 180 countries.

Although the authors avoid any condemnation of the profit system per se, the information provided in their report amounts to a stunning verdict on the capitalist system. It highlights in facts and figures two central processes delineated by Karl Marx, the founder of modern socialism.

In Capital, Marx explains that the objective logic of the capitalist system, based on the drive for profit, is to produce ever greater wealth at one pole and poverty, misery and degradation at the other. In the Communist Manifesto, he explains that all governments are but the executive committee for managing the affairs of the capitalist class.

This is exemplified in the tax policies and other “business-friendly” measures undertaken by governments around the world. The Oxfam report notes that technology giant Apple is alleged to have paid a tax of just 0.005 percent on its European profits.

Developing countries lose around $100 billion a year as a result of outright tax dodging and the exemptions granted to companies. In Kenya, $1.1 billion is lost to government revenue every year because of exemptions, an amount nearly twice the country’s annual health budget.

Government tax policies work hand in hand with tax dodging and criminality. The report cites economist Gabriel Zucman’s estimate that $7.6 trillion of global wealth is hidden in offshore tax havens. Africa alone loses $14 billion in annual revenues because of the use of tax havens: enough to pay for health care that would save the lives of four million children and employ enough teachers to ensure that every African child went to school.

There is one significant omission from Oxfam’s discussion of accelerating inequality. It makes no mention of the critical role of the policies of the world’s major governments and central banks in handing over trillions of dollars to the banks, major corporations and financial elites through bank bailouts and the policies of “quantitative easing” since the eruption of the global financial crisis in 2008.

A discussion of these facts would raise uncomfortable political issues. The report opens by favourably citing remarks by US President Barack Obama to the UN General Assembly in 2016 that a world in which 1 percent of the population owns as much as the other 99 percent can never be stable.

But the very policies of the Obama administration have played a key role in creating this world. After rescuing the financial oligarchs from the results of their own criminal actions with massive bank bailouts, the Obama administration and the US central bank ensured their further enrichment by providing a supply of ultra-cheap money that boosted the value of their assets.

Under Obama, the decades-long growth of inequality accelerated, along with the descent of the ruling class into parasitism and criminality. He paved the way for the financial oligarchy to directly seize the reins of power, embodied in the imminent presidency of casino and real estate billionaire Donald Trump, to whom Obama will hand over the keys to the White House on Friday.

The overriding motivation behind the Oxfam report is fear of the political consequences of ever-rising inequality and a desire to deflect mounting anger over its consequences into harmless channels. It advances the perspective of a “human economy,” but maintains that this can be achieved on the basis of the capitalist market, provided corporations and governments change their mindsets.

The absurdity of this perspective, based on the long-discredited outlook of British Fabianism, which has dominated the thinking of the English middle classes for well over a century, can be seen from the fact that the report is directed to the global financial elites gathered at the Davos summit this week, with a call for them to change their ways.

The bankruptcy of this outlook is demonstrated not only by present-day facts and figures, but by historical experience. A quarter century ago, following the liquidation of the Soviet Union, the air was filled with capitalist triumphalism. Freed from the encumbrance of the USSR, and able to dominate the globe, liberal capitalist democracy was going to show humanity what it could do.

And it certainly has, creating a world marked by ever-rising inequality, the accumulation of wealth to truly obscene levels, oppression and anti-democratic forms of rule, criminality at the very heights of society, and the increasingly ominous prospect of a third world war.

This history brings into focus another anniversary: the centenary of the Russian Revolution. Despite its subsequent betrayal at the hands of the Stalinist bureaucracy, the Russian Revolution demonstrated imperishably, and for all time, that a world beyond capitalism and all its social ills and malignancies is both possible and necessary. Its lessons must inform the guiding perspective for the immense social struggles that are going to erupt out of the social conditions detailed in the Oxfam report.

Nick Beams

WSWS 

Bad times make great art?

 Worlds of light and shadow: The reproduction of liberalism in Weimar Germany

The claim that good art comes from hard times is the height of delusionally entitled thinking

Bad times make great art. Worlds of light and shadow: The reproduction of liberalism in Weimar Germany

Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis” (1927) (Credit: Kino International)

On election night a murmur started just as the last gasp faded, “Well at least we can expect some great art.” At first the sentiment was a fatalistic one-off, a brave face, a shy hope that something good would come from the dark days forecast for the Trump presidency. It didn’t take long for the statement to acquire a predictive tone, eventually a waft of desperation was detectable and, ultimately, shrill fiat.

The art of protest is provocative, no question. It’s often brave, usually fierce, sometimes compelling and occasionally inspirational. But is the appeal of the books, films, poetry, painting, television and sculpture produced in response to tyranny, oligarchic pomposity or a fetishistic prioritization of the bottom line universal or simply reactive? How durable is the art birthed from protest? The following essay is the second in a series for Salon exploring the question Do bad times really inspire great art?

On Nov. 6 of this year, just two days before the presidential election, aging American punks Green Day took the stage at the MTV Europe Music Awards to perform their 2004, Bush II-era modern pop-punk staple, “American Idiot.”

Singer Billie Joe Armstrong snarled in the vague direction of then-presidential hopeful, now president-elect Donald J. Trump, asking the audience of largely Dutch citizens possessing close to zero influence on the American political conversation, “Can you hear the sound of hysteria? The subliminal mind-Trump America.”

Apart from the lyrics not making a lot of sense, it also had no effect whatsoever on the outcome of the election. However well-meaning, Armstrong and Co. would have been just as effective by writing “DO NOT VOTE FOR DONALD TRUMP” on a piece of paper, cramming it in a bottle, and chucking it into the ocean, or by whispering “Trump is bad” into a hole.

The clear lesson: punk is dead. And not only that, but it’s been poisoned, drowned, hanged, beaten, stabbed, killed, re-killed and killed again, like some slobbering Rasputin-ish zombie. So when people claim, desperately, that Trump’s America will somehow lead to a resurgence in angry, politically charged guitar music, it’s all I can do to keep my eyes from rolling out of my head.

* * *

To claim that good art — that is: stuff of considerable aesthetic merit, which is maybe even socially advantageous — comes from hard times is the height of delusionally entitled thinking, as if mass deportations and radicalized violence are all in the service of a piece of music. Of course, even the idea of what qualifies as “good times” must be qualified. Given that Trump won the election, it stands to reason that for a majority of Americans (or at least for a majority of electoral college representatives) the prospect of a Trump presidency is a beneficial thing, which will usher in a new epoch of prosperity and big-league American greatness.

There may be truth, or at least the ring of truth, in the idea that objects of artistic value can be produced under the pressure of hardship. While it may be true that an artist like, say, the late Leonard Cohen was able to mine the fathomless quarries of heartache and longing for his music and poetry, it is also true that Cohen was blessed with socio-economic privilege, both in the form of family inheritances and grants from a liberal Canadian government that supported (and continues to support, in various respects) art and artists. His heart may have been hard, but the times weren’t.

At the cultural level, good art tends to emerge from good times. It’s not even about having a well-managed social welfare state (though that, of course, helps). Rather, it seems to be a matter of liberal attitudes reproducing themselves in certain contexts, leading to greater degrees of freedom and greater gains in artistic production and sophistication.

So forget Green Day for a second. Take, as an example, the Weimar Republic of Germany’s interwar period. It was a short-lived heyday of liberalism and representative democracy, flourishing smack between two periods of staunch authoritarianism: bookended by the post-unification German Empire on one side, and Nazi Germany on the other. It was in this context that some of the twentieth century’s most compelling art was created.

* * *

It’s tricky to even think about Weimar Germany without being ensnared by the sickly succour of cliché. You know: leggy chorus girls high-kicking in all-night cabarets, gays and lesbians fraternizing freely, women in short hair lighting cigarettes while the zippy strains of jaunty jazz wafts hither and yon on in a smoky hall — a populace caught in full thrall of freedom. Fritz Lang’s 1922 film “Dr. Mabuse, The Gambler,” the opening titles of which describe it as “A Picture of the Times,” depicts Berlin’s underworld as equally rococo in its bourgeois elegance, and chaotically debased. As the proprietor of an illegal casino puts it, summing up the free-spirited ethos of the era, “Everything that pleases is allowed.”
Emerging from the horror of the First World War, and the 1918 November Revolution that saw the imperial government sacked, the nation’s consciousness was in a state of jumble and disarray. But it was an exciting  jumble, full of possibility. The philosopher Ernst Block compared Weimar Germany to Periclean Athens of the fifth century BCE: a time of cultural thriving, sovereign self-governance, and increased social and political equality. Germany became a hub for intellectualism, nurturing physicists like Einstein and the critical theorists of the Frankfurt School. Art indulged experimentalism and the avant-garde, united less by common aesthetic tendencies and more by shared socialist values. It was era of Otto Dix, Bertolt Brecht, the Bauhaus group, Arnold Schoenberg and a new, expressionist tendency in cinema.

Robert Weine’s 1919 film “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” embodied the spirit of this new age. It told the story of a small community preyed upon by the maniacal carnival barker Dr. Caligari (Werner Krauss), whose newest attraction is a spooky-looking sleepwalker named Cesare (the great German actor Conrad Veidt). By cover of darkness, Caligari controls Cesare, using him to commit a string of violent crimes. With its highly stylized sets, and comments on the brutality of authority, the film presented a whole alternative vision of the world. Both stylistically and thematically, “Caligari” imagined the splintering of the postwar German psyche, presenting a sense that reality itself had been destabilizing, and was reconstituting itself in jagged lines and oblique curlicues. The movie’s lasting influence is inestimable.

In his landmark work of cultural analysis, “From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of the German Film,” film critic Siegfried Kracauer described the “collapse of the old hierarchy of values and conventions” in Weimar-era Germany. “For a brief while,” Kracauer writes, “the German mind had a unique opportunity to overcome hereditary habits and reorganize itself completely. It enjoyed freedom of choice, and the air was full of doctrines trying to captivate it, to lure it into a regrouping of inner attitudes.”

Certainly, German cinema of the era often explicitly figures authoritarian characters attempting to seduce the public: from Weine’s madman Dr. Caligari, to Lang’s huckster Dr. Mabuse. For the reforming national consciousness, authority served as a kind of siren song, luring the public out of the rowdy cabarets and nightclubs and back on the straight and narrow. By the early 1930s, attitudes seemed to be shifting. In Fritz Lang’s classic thriller “M,” from 1931, police sniff out a serial killer in part by trying to determine a psychosexual basis for his crimes. It was at once a strike against the unfettered sexual libertinism of the Berlin cabarets, and a sinister intimation of Nazism, which was notoriously marked by its pseudoscientific quackery about the biological basis of criminality and depravity. The hallmarks of Weimar — its authoritarian disenthrallment, its slackening attitudes toward sexual repression, its intoxicating cosmopolitanism — were curdling.

* * *

Weimar poses a number of compelling questions around the subject of historical and cultural Golden Ages. Such rigidly compartmentalized, epochal thinking leads inevitably to collapse. How, after all, can a “Golden Age” be defined without presuming its emergence from, and collapse back into, periods of relative darkness and doom? It recalls Karl Marx’s thinking on historical stages, outlined in volume one of “Capital,” and the idea that each historical period carries within it the seeds of its successor. And it is force, according to Marx, that serves as “the midwife of every old society pregnant with a new one.”

In the case of Weimar, the sense of expanded liberty was undercut in several respects. While the upper and middle classes grew in prosperity, the working poor were afflicted by hyperinflation, and by and large unaffected by new gains made in left-wing modernist painting, cabaret culture and avant-garde cinema. Sexual libertinism bred syphilis outbreaks. Old-stock Germans balked at the moral and aesthetic degeneracy of the new art movements. For such people, Weimar was regarded less like Periclean Athens and more like the ancient African port of Carthage: fit to be sacked, razed, and have its earth salted so that no memory of it could possibly proliferate.

It speaks to a certain historical tendency. To revise Marx, it’s not just that a given society is pregnant with the next one, but that it’s pregnant with resentments and reactions. With Weimar, expanded cultural and political liberalism emerged as a reaction to the authoritarianism of imperial Germany, with the even fiercer authoritarianism and violence of Hitler’s regime emerging as a response to that. Stereotypes of left-leaning artists cavorting in cabarets found their negative image, their doppelgänger, in nationalist thugs roving the streets.

This is not to say that it wasn’t a period of growth and advancement, artistically and otherwise. Rather, it’s a historical reminder that even periods that usher in all manner of artistic and cultural headway need to be relentlessly qualified. It’s not that good times don’t make for good art. It’s that, really, there’s never been such a thing as a distinctly, determinedly, wholly unequivocally “good time.” Even the most shimmering epochs exist in contradiction, conflict and often out-and-out hypocrisy. Like the backdrop of “Caligari,” ours has always been a world of light and shadow. Something to keep in mind as the world stumbles into what’s shaping up to be a new Periclean Golden Age of American Idiocy.

John Semley lives and works in Toronto. He is a books columnist at the Globe & Mail newspaper and the author of “This Is A Book About The Kids In The Hall” (ECW Press).

Trump press conference: The oligarchy rules

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12 January 2017

Donald Trump’s press conference Wednesday morning was an hour-long demonstration of oligarchic arrogance and contempt for democratic principles that has no parallel in modern American history.

The occasion for the press conference was the president-elect’s announcement of plans to put the Trump Organization, his main business entity, under the management of his two sons, Donald Jr. and Eric. The senior Trump would step down from all formal management roles while retaining his status as the principal owner.

These arrangements have been denounced by former government ethics officials as a travesty of longstanding norms: every US president in the modern period, no matter how wealthy, has been compelled to place all his assets in a blind trust to prevent overt conflicts of interest.

The event was dominated, however, by the issue of alleged Russian hacking of the Democratic National Committee and the Clinton campaign during the 2016 elections, with many questions relating to a document containing unverified allegations that the Russian government collected compromising material on Trump with an eye to future blackmail.

While the Democratic Party has chosen to center its critique of Trump on material provided by its allies in the CIA, the real assault on the public embodied in the incoming administration was visibly demonstrated at the news conference.

A significant portion of the event was given over to Trump’s legal advisor, who declared that the “business empire built by President-elect Trump over years is massive,” and proceeded to explain why conflict-of-interest statutes do not apply to Trump. She assured the American people that Trump “is not exploiting the office of the presidency for his personal benefit.”

Trump aides piled up hundreds of manila folders allegedly comprising documents showing the various arrangements to be made with respect to the Trump Organization. While the president-elect boasted of his wealth and success, he reiterated that he is exempt from conflict-of-interest rules (due to an obscure 1978 law passed to retroactively legitimize the free pass given to billionaire Nelson Rockefeller when he was appointed vice president by Gerald Ford in 1974).

Trump was not just citing a legal technicality. He was declaring the complete immunity of the capitalist oligarchy from the laws and regulations that apply to the general population. All laws and democratic principles are subordinate to oligarchic privilege.

Insisting that he had the right to do whatever he wanted, Trump at one point declared: “As president, I could run the Trump organization, great, great company, and I could run the company—the country. I’d do a very good job [at both], but I don’t want to do that.”

The Freudian slip, mixing up “company” and “country,” was the most revealing moment in the press conference. For Trump, the “country” and the “company”—and, more broadly, the oligarchy—are one and the same.

Particularly significant during the news conference was Trump’s menacing of the press. He flatly refused to take a question from CNN reporter Jim Acosta, accusing the network of being “fake news” because it was the first news outlet to report on the document claiming that Russia had obtained compromising material on him. Trump also made an ominous threat against the Buzzfeed website, which published the document online, declaring, “They’re going to suffer the consequences. They already are.”

There was a heavy-handed atmosphere of bullying throughout the event, which had a fascistic smell to it. There is no question that the administration is prepared to use extreme levels of violence abroad and within the United States against what it perceives to be its main threat, the working class.

The personnel of Trump’s cabinet shows—in such figures as billionaire asset stripper Wilbur Ross, multi-millionaire fast food magnate Andy Puzder, former Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson, and billionaire heiress and charter school advocate Betsy DeVos—that the new administration will be one of unrelenting war against the working class, destroying jobs, social services such as education and Medicare, and any remaining restrictions on the exploitation of labor.

Behind it all is an overpowering element of decay, nepotism and social filth—a new low, even by the tawdry standards of American capitalist politics. It represents the establishment in the United States of government of, by and for the financial oligarchy.

The new occupant of the White House is the personification of what has been developing over decades: an ever-increasing concentration of wealth at the very top of American society, and the crystallization of a semi-criminal ruling class whose wealth is derived from financial manipulation, not the development of the productive forces.

The Democratic Party bases its opposition to Trump not on the social character of the new administration as a government of the oligarchs, but on disputes over foreign policy, in which the Democrats happily embrace the opportunity to adopt a neo-McCarthyite anti-Russian stance and align themselves closely with the military-intelligence apparatus.

This is because the Democratic Party too is a political instrument of the billionaires, a different variant on the same theme. Indeed, everything that Trump will implement has been prepared by the Obama administration.

There is deep and growing anger among workers and youth. According to the latest poll figures, Trump—the most unpopular president-elect in history—now has a favorable rating of only 37 percent, with the majority of the population viewing him unfavorably. This is before he even takes a single action as president of the United States. Masses of people are in for a shock beyond anything they are prepared for.

There must and will be mass opposition. It will come from the working class, the vast majority of the population that is completely excluded from official political life. To prepare for these struggles, the working class must be politically organized and mobilized, and armed with a revolutionary and socialist perspective.

Patrick Martin

WSWS

Obama’s farewell address: One last round of clichés and lies

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By Niles Niemuth
11 January 2017

President Barack Obama capped his eight years in office with a vacuous and hypocritical farewell address Tuesday night delivered at the McCormick Place convention center in downtown Chicago.

The first-ever presidential farewell address delivered outside of Washington, DC had the atmospherics of an overblown, cheap spectacle. Obama strode onto the stage like a rock star, flanked by oversized American flags, a massive illuminated presidential seal and an introductory soundtrack by the rock band U2.

As with every address Obama has delivered over the last eight years, his speech in Chicago was full of clichés, his rhetoric padded with empty phrases and delivered with a false gravitas, signaled by his trademark pursed lips and affected whisper.

The speech was rife with contradictions, the starkest being the juxtaposition of Obama’s boasting of the great social progress achieved by his administration and his warning of threats to American democracy arising from ever-growing social inequality and economic insecurity.

The president declared: “If I had told you eight years ago that America would reverse a great recession, reboot our auto industry, and unleash the longest stretch of job creation in our history… if I had told you that we would open up a new chapter with the Cuban people, shut down Iran’s nuclear weapons program without firing a shot, and take out the mastermind of 9/11… if I had told you that we would win marriage equality, and secure the right to health insurance for another 20 million of our fellow citizens—you might have said our sights were set a little too high.

“By almost every measure, America is a better, stronger place than it was when we started.”

He made no attempt to explain why, given this impressive record of social progress and foreign policy success, his party was routed in the elections and the billionaire demagogue Donald Trump was preparing to succeed him in the White House.

A basic component of the answer, of course, is the grotesquely false rendering of his record and the state of American society as he leaves office. Hardly a week goes by without a new report on signs of extreme social crisis or ever-more obscene levels of wealth among the financial elite. Just in the past month, studies have been published showing the first decline in US life expectancy in 23 years, plunging pay for young adults, a 72 percent surge in deaths from synthetic opioids, and home ownership rates at historic lows for young people.

Other surveys have documented a $237 billion increase in the wealth of the world’s richest 200 billionaires, driven largely by the US stock market boom under Obama, and an acceleration of the transfer of wealth from the bottom half of the US population to the top one percent.

In boasting of presiding over a record number of consecutive monthly job increases, Obama neglected to mention that 94 percent of the new jobs created in the last eight years have been either part-time or temporary.

Noticeably absent from Obama’s remarks was any mention of the social conditions in the city where he was speaking, which is ravaged by high levels of poverty and unemployment, an epidemic of police killings and violence, and a skyrocketing homicide rate.

He lamented in general terms the growth of social inequality and the dangers it poses to American democracy—that is, the threat of a social explosion in the United States.

“While the top one percent has amassed a bigger share of wealth and income, too many families, in inner cities and rural counties, have been left behind—the laid-off factory worker; the waitress and health care worker who struggle to pay the bills—convinced that the game is fixed against them, that their government only serves the interests of the powerful—a recipe for more cynicism and polarization in our politics.”

As always, he spoke as if none of these social ills had anything to do with the policies pursued by his administration, including severe cuts in social spending on the one side and the bailout of the banks and flooding of money into the stock market on the other.

Another piece of monumental hypocrisy was Obama’s pose of fighting to defend democracy when he has done more to destroy it than perhaps any other US president.

“Democracy can buckle when we give in to fear,” he declared. “So just as we, as citizens, must remain vigilant against external aggression, we must guard against a weakening of the values that make us who we are. That’s why, for the past eight years, I’ve worked to put the fight against terrorism on a firm legal footing. That’s why we’ve ended torture, worked to close Gitmo, and reform our laws governing surveillance to protect privacy and civil liberties.”

This is from a president who has personally authorized the assassination of American citizens and thousands of others around the world with drones-fired missiles, protected and promoted those in the CIA responsible for torture, kept the prison at Guantanamo Bay open, persecuted journalists and jailed whistleblowers, militarized the police, and expanded the illegal surveillance of electronic communications.

Obama also used his farewell address take parting shots at Russia and China, lumping the war against ISIS with efforts to counter both countries, and arguing that aggressive action against the world’s second- and third-largest nuclear-armed powers was the only way to avoid war.

“[T]he fight against extremism and intolerance and sectarianism are of a piece with the fight against authoritarianism and nationalist aggression,” he said. “If the scope of freedom and respect for the rule of law shrinks around the world, the likelihood of war within and between nations increases, and our own freedoms will eventually be threatened.”

Obama spent his eight years in office waging war abroad and war on the working class at home. With Tuesday’s speech, he passed the reins to Trump with a shrug.

WSWS