Capitalism Is Doomed — Without Alternatives, So Are We

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‘Though it appears as if rumors of capitalism’s imminent demise have been greatly exaggerated,’ writes Johnson, ‘there is good reason to believe that its remarkable ability to adapt and evolve in the face of frequent (self-induced) shocks has reached a breaking point.’ (Image: OpenClipArt)

In 1946, George Orwell pondered the fragility of the capitalist order.

Reviewing the work of the influential theorist James Burnham, Orwell presaged several concepts that would later form the groundwork for his best-known novel, 1984.

“Not only is the best of capitalism behind us, but the worst of it may lie just ahead.”

In his book The Managerial Revolution, Burnham envisioned, as Orwell put it, “a new kind of planned, centralised society which will be neither capitalist nor, in any accepted sense of the word, democratic. The rulers of this new society will be the people who effectively control the means of production.”

“The real question,” Orwell adds, “is not whether the people who wipe their boots on us during the next fifty years are to be called managers, bureaucrats, or politicians: the question is whether capitalism, now obviously doomed, is to give way to oligarchy or to true democracy.”

While Orwell was wary of Burnham’s worldview and of his more specific predictions, he agreed that the relationship between capitalism and democracy has always been, and always will be, a precarious one.

“For quite fifty years past,” Orwell noted, “the general drift has almost certainly been towards oligarchy.”


Pointing to the concentration of political and economic power in the hands of the few and acknowledging “the weakness of the proletariat against the centralised state,” Orwell was far from optimistic about the future — but he was quite certain that the economic status quo would eventually give way.

Recent events, and the material circumstances of much of the world’s population, have prompted serious examinations of the same questions Orwell was considering seven decades ago. And though it appears as if rumors of capitalism’s imminent demise have been greatly exaggerated, there is good reason to believe that its remarkable ability to adapt and evolve in the face of frequent (self-induced) shocks has reached a breaking point.

Widespread discontent over stagnant incomes and the uneven prosperity brought about by neoliberal globalization has, in 2016, come to a head in striking fashion; Donald Trump, Brexit, and the rise of far-right parties in Europe have many questioning previously sacred assumptions.

“Is the marriage between liberal democracy and global capitalism an enduring one?” asked Martin Wolf, a formidable commentator in one of the world’s leading business papers, the Financial Times.

This was no rhetorical softball; Wolf is genuinely concerned that the winners of globalization have grown complacent, that they have “taken for granted” a couple that was only tenuously compatible to begin with. He also worries, rightly, that they have downplayed the concerns of the “losers.”

Wolf concludes that “if the legitimacy of our democratic political systems is to be maintained, economic policy must be orientated towards promoting the interests of the many not the few; in the first place would be the citizenry, to whom the politicians are accountable.”

Not all members of the commentariat share Wolf’s willingness to engage with these cherished assumptions, however. Indeed, many analysts have reserved their ire not for failing institutions or policies but for the public, reviving Walter Lippmann’s characterization of the masses as a “bewildered herd” that, if left to its own devices, is sure to usher in a regime of chaos.

“It’s time,” declared Foreign Policy‘s James Traub, channeling the sentiments of Josh Barro, “for the elites to rise up against the ignorant masses.”

Apologists like Traub and Barro — just two among many — speak and write as if the leash previously restraining the “herd” has been loosened, and that the resulting freedom has laid bare what elitists have long believed to be the case: To use Barro’s infamous words, “Elites are usually elite for good reason, and tend to have better judgment than the average person.” They point to the rise of Donald Trump as evidence of an intolerable democratic surplus — evidence, in short, of what the masses will do if granted a loud enough voice.

Aside from being conveniently self-serving, this narrative is also false.

Far from loosening the leash, elites have consolidated power to an unprecedented extent, and they have used their influence to undercut democratic movements and hijack public institutions. The resulting concentration of wealth and political power is jarring, and it puts the lie to the farcical notion that elites are a persecuted minority.

But, in the midst of these anti-democratic diatribes, fascinating and important critiques of a rather different nature have emerged.

“Far from loosening the leash, elites have consolidated power to anunprecedented extent, and they have used their influence to undercut democratic movements and hijack public institutions.”

Instead of urging us to align Against Democracy, to use the name of a recent book by the libertarian political philosopher Jason Brennan, many are arguing that it is capitalism, and not the excesses of the democratic process, that has provided figures like Trump a launching pad.

In his book Postcapitalism, Paul Mason argues that the rapid emergence of information technology has corroded the boundaries of the market; “capitalism,” he insists, “has reached the limits of its capacity to adapt.” And its attempts to reach beyond these limits have fostered an economic environment defined by instability, crippling austerity for the many, and rapid accumulation of wealth for the few.

According to Oxfam, the global 1 percent now owns as much wealth as the bottom 99 percent. CEO pay has continued to soar. And though post-crisis reforms have carried soaring promises of stability, the financial sector is still far too large, and many of the banks harmed by the crash they created are back and nearly as powerful as ever.

Mason summarizes: “According to the OECD, growth in the developed world will be ‘weak’ for the next fifty years. Inequality will rise by 40 per cent. Even in the developing countries, the current dynamism will be exhausted by 2060.”

“The OECD’s economists were too polite to say it,” he adds, “so let’s spell it out: for the developed world the best of capitalism is behind us, and for the rest it will be over in our lifetime.”

Sociologist Peter Frase, in his new book Four Futures, implicitly agrees with many of Mason’s key points, but he then takes up the task of looking further ahead, of contemplating possible futures that hinge largely upon how we respond to the crises we are likely to face in the coming years.

For Frase, not only is the best of capitalism behind us, but the worst of it may lie just ahead.

Central to Four Futures are what Frase calls the “[t]wo specters…haunting Earth in the twenty-first century” — “the specters of environmental catastrophe and automation.”

Rather than attempting to predict the future, Frase — guided by Rosa Luxemburg’s famous words, “Bourgeois society stands at the crossroads, either transition to socialism or regression into barbarism” — lays out potential, contingent scenarios. And while Mason’s book exudes optimism about the advancement of information technology and automation, Frase is more cautious.

“To the extent that the rich are able to maintain their power,” Frase writes, “we will live in a world where they enjoy the benefits of automated production, while the rest of us pay the costs of ecological destruction—if we can survive at all.” And, “To the extent that we can move toward a world of greater equality, then the future will be characterized by some combination of shared sacrifice and shared prosperity, depending on where we are on the other, ecological dimension.”

It comes down, in short, to who wins the class struggle. “I am a very old-fashioned Marxist in that way,” Frase remarked in a recent interview.

None of the futures Frase maps out are inevitable, the result of historical forces that are beyond our control. He is contemptuous of those who cling to “secular eschatology”; capitalism’s collapse, he notes, will not likely be the result of a single, revolutionary moment.

In expressing this view he aligns with Wolfgang Streeck, who has argued that capitalism is “a social system in chronic disrepair,” and that while “we cannot know when and how exactly capitalism will disappear and what will succeed it,” we can know that a system that depends on endless growth and the elimination of all restraints will eventually self-destruct.

The disappearance of capitalism, though, as Orwell understood, does not necessarily imply the emergence of an egalitarian society, one in which resources are shared for the benefit of the many. But while few agree on precisely how to establish the framework for such a society, there are, Mason and Frase argue, policies that can move us in the right direction.

Both, for instance, support the idea of a universal basic income, which, in Frase’s words, would “create a situation in which it possible to survive without depending on selling your labor to anyone who will pay for it,” making automation a path to liberation, not destitution. And Mason rightly argues that, in order to avert catastrophic warming, we must radically reduce carbon emissions.

But the usual political obstacles remain, as does the fact that the “winners” are not likely to hand over their gains, or their positions of power and influence, without a fight. We cannot, then, passively rely on amoral forces like technology to bring about the necessary change.

“Technological developments give a context for social transformations,” Frase writes, “but they never determine them directly; change is always mediated by the power struggles between organized masses of people.”


The future is necessarily disobedient; it rarely conforms to even the most meticulous theoretical anticipations, to say nothing of our deepest desires or fears.

But one thing is clear: The future of capitalism and the future of the planet are intertwined. The health of the latter depends on our ability to dismantle the former, and on our ability to construct an alternative that radically alters our course, which is at present leading us toward catastrophe.

“One thing is clear: The future of capitalism and the future of the planet are intertwined.”

Whether the path to which we are ultimately confined is one that leads to a utopian dream or a dystopian nightmare is contingent upon our ability to connect the struggles that currently occupy the left — those fighting for the right to organize are confronting, at bottom, the same forces as those working to prevent the plunder of sacred land.

There are reasons to be both hopeful and pessimistic about the prospects of these struggles.

The campaign of Bernie Sanders, and the movements that emerged before it and alongside it, revealed that there is a large base of support for social democratic changes that, if enacted, would move us in the right direction.

The obstacles, however, are immense, as is the arithmetic: As Bill McKibben has noted, “The future of humanity depends on math,” and the climate math we face is “ominous.”

But, as Noam Chomsky has argued, the debate over the choice between pessimism and optimism is really no debate at all.

“We have two choices,” he concludes. “We can be pessimistic, give up and help ensure that the worst will happen. Or we can be optimistic, grasp the opportunities that surely exist and maybe help make the world a better place. Not much of a choice.”

Jake Johnson is an independent writer. Follow him on Twitter: @wordsofdissent

Clinton: The Silicon Valley Candidate

By refusing to release the transcripts of her paid speeches to Wall Street bankers, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton cast doubt on her independence from the crooks who run the financial system.  By contrast, Clinton’s program for “technology and innovation policy” has been an open book since June 2016.  What she publicized is as revealing – and as disturbing – as what she tried to keep secret.

Clinton paints her tech agenda in appealing terms.  She says it’s about reducing social and economic inequality, creating good jobs, and bridging the digital divide. The real goals – and beneficiaries – are different.  The document is described as “a love letter to Silicon Valley” by a journalist,[1] and as a “Silicon Valley wish list” by theWashington Post.[2]

On the domestic side, Clinton promises to invest in STEM education and immigration reform to expand the STEM workforce by allowing green cards for foreign workers who’ve earned STEM degrees in the US. The internet industry has been lobbying Congress for years to reform US immigration policy to gain flexibility in hiring, to ease access to a global pool of skilled labor, and to weaken employees’ bargaining power.[3]

Clinton’s blanket endorsement of online education opens new room for an odious private industry.  With buzzwords like “entrepreneurship,” “competitive,” and “bootstrap,” Clinton wants to “leverage technology”: by “delivering high-speed broadband to all Americans” she declares it will be feasible to provide “wrap-around learning for our students in the home and in our schools.”[4] Absent an overt commitment to public education, this is an encouragement to online vendors to renew their attack on the U.S. education system – despite a track record of failure and flagrant corruption. Still more deceitful is Hillary’s lack of acknowledgment of a personal conflict of interest.  According to a Financial Times analysis, after stepping down as Secretary of State in 2013, Hillary accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars for speeches to private education providers; her husband Bill has “earned” something like $21 million from for-profit education companies since 2010.[5]

Clinton’s proposal for access to high-speed Internet for all by 2020 would further relax regulation to help the Internet industry to build new networks, tap into existing public infrastructure, and encourage “public and private” partnerships. These are euphemisms for corporate welfare, after the fashion of the Google fiber project – which is substantially subsidized by taxpayers, as cities lease land to the giant company for its broadband project at far below market value and offer city services for free or below cost.[6] Clinton’s policy program also backs the 5G wireless network initiative and the release of unlicensed spectrum to fuel the “Internet of Thing.” (IoT). 5G wireless and IoT are a solution in search of a problem – unless you are a corporate supplier or a business user of networks.  This is an unacknowledged program to accelerate and expand digital commodification.

Clinton’s international plans are equally manipulative. She will press for “an open Internet abroad,” that is, for “internet freedom” and “free flow of information across borders.” Despite the powerful appeal of this rhetoric, which she exploited systematically when she was Secretary of State, Clinton actually is pushing to bulwark U.S. big capital in general, and U.S. internet and media industries, in particular.  Secretary Clinton’s major speech on Internet freedom[7]in 2010 came mere days after Google’s exit from China, supposedly on grounds of principle, making it plain that the two interventions – one private, one public – were coordinated elements of a single campaign.  Outside the United States, especially since the disclosures by Edward Snowden in 2013, it is increasingly well-understood that the rhetoric of human rights is a smokescreen for furthering U.S. business interests.[8] Reviving this approach is cynical electioneering rather than an endeavor to advance human rights or, indeed, more just international relations.

This in turn provides the context in which to understand Clinton’s vow to support the “multi-stakeholder” approach to Internet governance.  “Multi-stakeholderism” endows private corporations with public responsibilities, while it downgrades the ability of governments to influence Internet policy – as they have tried to do, notably, in the United Nations.  By shifting the domain in this way, the multi-stakeholder model actually reduces the institutional room available to challenge U.S. power over the global Internet.  It was for this very reason that the Obama Administration recently elevated multi-stakeholderism into the reigning principle for global Internet governance:  On 1 October, the U.S. Commerce Department preempted (other) governments from exercising a formal role.

This is, once again, the preferred agenda of Silicon Valley.[9] Aaron Cooper, vice president of strategic initiatives for the Software Alliance, a Washington trade group representing software developers, crowed in a Washington Post interview, “A lot of the proposals that are in the Clinton initiative are consistent with the broad themes that [we] and other tech associations have been talking about, so we’re very pleased.”[10]

To build up her policy platform in this vital field, Clinton has assembled a network of more than 100 tech and telecom advisors.[11] The members of this shadowy group have not been named, but they are said to include former advisors and officials, affiliates of think-tanks and trade groups, and executives at media corporations.  Apparently, just as with respect to Wall Street, the public has no right to know who is shaping Clinton’s program for technology.  Equally clearly, however, it is meant to resonate with Apple’s Tim Cook, Tesla CEO Elon Musk, and Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz – all of whom have publicly rallied to her campaign.[12]

Some might choose to emphasize that the Republican candidate, Donald Trump, has not even bothered to hint to voters about his tech and information policy. Fair enough. Clinton’s program, though, is both surreptitious and plutocratic. It’s not that she’s not good enough – it’s that she’s in the wrong camp.  England’s Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn’s “Digital Democracy” program offers a better entry point for thinking about democratic information policy, as it includes publicly financed universal internet access, fair wages for cultural workers, release to open source of publicly funded software and hardware, cooperative ownership of digital platforms and more.  That would be a start.


[1] Noah Kulwin, “Hillary Clinton’s tech policy proposal sounds like a love letter to Silicon Valley,” recode, June 28, 2016.

[2] Brian Fung, “Hillary Clinton’s tech agenda is really a huge economic plan in disguise,Washington Post, June 28, 2016.

[3] Schiller, D. & Yeo. S. (Forthcoming, Fall 2016) Science and Engineering Into Digital Capitalism, in Tyfield, D., Lave, R., Randalls, S., and Thorpe, C. (Eds.), Routledge Handbook of the Political Economy of Science.

[4] “Hillary Clinton’s Initiative on Technology and Innovation,” The Briefing, June 27, 2016.

[5] Gary Silverman, “Hillary and Bill Clinton: The For-Profit Partnership,” Financial Times, July 21, 2016.

[6] Kenric Ward, “Taxpayers subsidize Google Fiber in this city with bargain land leases,”, August 16, 2016; Timothy B. Lee,”How Kansas City taxpayers support Google Fiber,” arstechnica, September 7, 2012.

[7] Hillary Rodham Clinton, Secretary of State, “Remarks on Internet Freedom,” January 21, 2010, The Newseum, Washington, DC.

[8] Dan Schiller, Digital Depression.  Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2014: 161-69.

[9] Heather Greenfield, “CCIA Applauds Hillary Clinton’s Tech Agenda,” Computer & Communications Industry Association, June 28, 2016.

[10] Brian Fung, “Hillary Clinton’s tech agenda is really a huge economic plan in disguise,” Washington Post, June 28, 2016.

[11] Margaret Harding McGill & Nancy Scola, “Clinton quietly amasses tech policy corps,” Politico, August 24, 2016; Steven Levy, “How Hillary Clinton Adopted the Wonkiest Tech Policy Ever,” Backchannel, August 29, 2016 ; Tony Romm, “Inside Clinton’s tech policy circle,”Politico, June 7, 2016.

[12]Sen. Hilary Clinton,; Levy Sumagaysay, “Facebook co-founder pledges $20 million to help Hillary Clinton defeat Donald Trump,” The Mercury News, September 9, 2016;  Russell Brandom, “Tim Cook is hosting a fundraiser for Hillary Clinton,Verge, July 29, 2016.

This article originally appeared on Information Observatory.

Dan Schiller is a historian of information and communications at the University of Illinois. His most recent book is Digital Depression: Information Technology and Economic Crisis Shinjoung Yeo is an assistant prof at Loughborough University in London.

The Silicon Valley Candidate

Is the US election rigged?


18 October 2016

The US media and political establishment have been consumed over the past two days with denunciations of Republican candidate Donald Trump’s allegations that the presidential election is “rigged” in favor of his rival, Hillary Clinton.

There is an increasingly racist and fascistic character to Trump’s charges, which combine attacks on the media for pushing allegations of sexual abuse with sweeping claims of vote-rigging, particularly in minority neighborhoods. Trump is urging his supporters to turn out en masse to “monitor” the polls, creating the possibility of violence on Election Day.

As always, Trump’s statements are a mixture of half-truths and lies. While there is no doubt that the media establishment has lined up behind Clinton, Trump is using the “rigged election” claim to lay the basis for declaring the election to have been stolen. He is preparing to use the “stolen election” as the rallying cry for the development of an extra-parliamentary, far-right movement after November 8.

This does not, however, lend the slightest credibility to the self-righteous and hypocritical response of the Democratic Party and the political establishment in general. Their indignation over any suggestion that something could be amiss with the pristinely democratic American electoral system is absurd.

Trump’s charges resonate well beyond the relative minority of his supporters who respond to racist agitation because his claims correspond to the bitter experience of broad masses of people with what passes for American democracy. This is, after all, a country that had a stolen election. The US Supreme Court shut down a vote recount in Florida and awarded the 2000 election to George W. Bush, who had lost the popular vote to Democrat Al Gore.

This was followed by the 2004 election, when George W. Bush was reelected based on disputed voting in Ohio and widespread charges of voter suppression.

The question, however, goes far beyond vote-rigging. Even by the standards of other major capitalist countries, the electoral system in the United States is among the least democratic. The two-party system is institutionalized, enforcing a political monopoly of two right-wing parties entirely beholden to the financial aristocracy—this in a vast and diverse country of 320 million people!

State ballot access and election laws impose prohibitive requirements, including the collection of tens of thousands of signatures, making it virtually impossible for “third party” and independent candidates to mount an effective campaign.

This political duopoly is reinforced by the unrestricted role of corporate money in US elections, corrupting the entire process to a degree, and with a brazenness, unmatched by any other major industrialized country. It is estimated that campaign spending by presidential and congressional candidates this year will hit a new record of more than $7.3 billion. For all practical purposes, to win high office in America one must either have billionaire backers or be a multi-millionaire oneself.

The corporate-owned media does its anti-democratic part, depriving coverage to alternative parties. In this election, Gary Johnson of the Libertarian Party and Jill Stein of the Green Party, who are respectively polling 7 percent and 3 percent nationally, are excluded from the televised presidential debates, not to mention Jerry White, the candidate of the Socialist Equality Party.

The result is a political system that is increasingly unviable because it is unable to address any of the concerns of the vast majority of the population. The fact that barely half of the electorate bothers to vote is a devastating commentary on the US electoral system.

The bitter experience of the Obama administration, brought to power on a wave of popular hatred for Bush and revulsion over his wars and attacks on working class living standards, has further convinced tens of millions of people that neither their needs and concerns, nor their votes, have any impact on the policies pursued by the government. The candidate of “hope” and “change,” mistakenly believed to be an agent of progressive change because of his ethnicity, continued and deepened the policies of war and corporate plunder of his predecessor.

In the current election, the internal rot resulting from decades of economic decay and political reaction, presided over by both parties, has erupted onto the surface, placing a question mark over the survival of the two-party system. One measure of the system’s bankruptcy is the fact that an election cycle in which millions of people cast votes for a candidate who claimed, falsely, to be a socialist and opponent of Wall Street, Bernie Sanders, now presents the people with the “choice” between a billionaire quasi-fascist and a corrupt stooge of Wall Street and the military/intelligence establishment.

The transcripts of Hillary Clinton’s speeches to Goldman Sachs, released by WikiLeaks, show the real relationship that exists between the politicians and Wall Street. They are the paid servants of the financial oligarchs who run the country.

The fundamental and gigantic fraud that dominates the election is the total disconnect between the populist claims of both candidates and the reality of the programs they intend to implement. The real agenda, regardless of which one wins in November, is war, austerity and repression.

Is the election rigged? Of course it is—to produce an outcome acceptable to the ruling class. The entire political system is rigged and fundamentally undemocratic because capitalism is a system of class exploitation in which real political power is concentrated in the hands of a corporate-financial oligarchy.

Barry Grey


Chris Hedges and Robert Scheer on War, Religion and Fighting American Neoliberalism

Posted on Oct 17, 2016

By Emma Niles

A handful of people gathered Monday at a private Los Angeles residence for an old-school salon to discuss contemporary politics with two great thinkers: Truthdig Editor in Chief Robert Scheer and acclaimed journalist and Truthdig contributor Chris Hedges.

Scheer opened the conversation by delving into war, the topic Hedges has spent much of his life covering. “In terms of my own journalistic career, the turning point was the Vietnam War,” Scheer said. As a journalist, he said, “My experience with war was sporadic. I could always leave,” although he noted that “the wounds don’t go away.” Then Scheer turned the conversation to Hedges’ “graduate education in war.”

Hedges told how he studied politics as a teenager before moving to South America to become a war correspondent. His most formative life experience wasn’t living in a fascist country—it was growing up in Roxbury, a neighborhood in Boston that, he explained, introduced him to institutional racism. “You can’t understand America if you don’t understand white supremacy,” Hedges said.

His time as a foreign correspondent left its mark, however. One of his first journalistic stints was in El Salvador, where he spent half a decade. “When you spend five years covering a war, it messes you up,” he said. “There were journalists who stayed longer than five years, but none of them were alive.”

Hedges spent decades reporting in various war-torn countries, and he developed a nervous tic and post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of living in constantly stressful environments. “The sickness of war had become my own sickness,” he said. Finally, he became a foreign correspondent for The New York Times, where he broke numerous stories over the years. Ultimately, he was let go from the Times after a commencement speechhe gave garnered extreme criticism. Although he felt anxious about losing his job, Hedges realized that he “didn’t need The New York Times to tell me who I was.”

Hedges ventured into the broader topics of truth-telling and journalistic ethics. “Truth and news are not the same thing,” he said.

Scheer then steered the conversation to religion, and Hedges described what he sees as a form of the afterlife: He uses his voice for his late father’s words. “That, to me, is resurrection.”

“Without religion, we don’t have a ready weapon of accountability,” Scheer added. “Right now, what we teach in these universities is that careerism trumps everything.”

Hedges noted that many aspects of modern religion are problematic. “I think the Christian right is [composed of] heretics. I don’t think they’re Christians,” he said. “Jesus was a pacifist … [but] in the name of tolerance, [most Christians don’t] fight the battle they should fight.”

Hedges talked about teaching college courses in prisons. In one class, he led a handful of male prisoners in a play-writing workshop, which culminated in the creation of a play titled “Caged,” which Hedges is trying to bring to the stage in New York City.

The conversation broadened. “How do we stay compassionate in the face of constant global tragedy?” someone in the room asked. Hedges replied that he tries to maintain a constant relationship with the oppressed; this, he believes, keeps him accountable, despite his own privilege as a white male American.

The discussion turned to the current election. Hedges said we are watching the rise of fascism through neoliberalism in America. Trump is “imbecilic, idiotic, self-destructive, morally repugnant,” he said, and it says something about our country that Hillary Clinton “is only four points ahead” in the polls. Clinton, he said, “is basically Mitt Romney in drag.”

So how does the average American combat neoliberalism, if our current political process is such a shambles? For Hedges, it comes down to large-scale movements—such as the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, the Dakota Access pipeline protestsand social justice movements that originated in Ferguson, Mo. “We can’t underestimate the power of living in truth,” Hedges said, “even though it’s outside of the formal mechanisms of power.”

These movements have the power to influence the political elite, he continued. “The only things they have to offer you in this election is fear,” Hedges concluded. “The moment you stop being afraid, they become afraid.”

An audio version of the full conversation will soon become available on KPFK. Various moments of the salon were captured using Evrybit—check out the multimedia story below:


Democrats focus on sex scandal as conflict with Russia escalates


The great diversion:

15 October 2016

With media coverage in America dominated by allegations of sexual assault against the Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, one would never know that the United States is on the verge of a massive escalation of operations against Syria and is preparing for a military conflict with Russia.

Friday’s wall-to-wall coverage of Trump’s alleged sexual transgressions featured a speech full of moralistic outrage by First Lady Michelle Obama, a veteran of the cutthroat Chicago political machine. She melodramatically declared that a leaked tape of Trump making lewd remarks had “shaken me to my core.”

The entire media spectacle serves as a smoke screen for far-reaching plans by the present administration, with the full support of Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, to implement deeply unpopular policies without public scrutiny. It serves as well to bury any discussion of substantive issues in the election campaign.

Behind a nearly total media blackout, the White House National Security Council held a closed-door meeting Friday to review the US military’s campaign in Iraq and Syria. The only major media advance report on the meeting, carried by Reuters on Thursday and then quickly dropped, noted that US officials were weighing “air strikes on Syrian military bases, munitions depots or radar and anti-aircraft bases.” Asked about the meeting at a press conference Friday afternoon, deputy White House press secretary Eric Schultz refused to even acknowledge that it was taking place.

The meeting was held just one day after the US military dramatically escalated its role in the conflict in Yemen, launching cruise missile strikes against sites controlled by the Houthi militia. This followed less than a week after the US-backed Saudi military bombed a Houthi funeral in Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, killing at least 140 civilians and wounding more than 500 others.

Within hours of the meeting of Obama’s war council, NBC Nightly News led its Friday broadcast with an exclusive report, citing unnamed intelligence officials, that the White House is “contemplating an unprecedented cyber covert action against Russia in retaliation for alleged Russian interference in the American presidential election.”

This vague report sets a bellicose tone for scheduled discussions between US Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, on Saturday.

Britain, France and Germany, meanwhile, are agitating for military escalation in the five-year proxy war to topple Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. On Tuesday, UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson declared Russia a “pariah” state and called for anti-Assad and anti-Russian demonstrations at the Russian Embassy in London.

Johnson is hosting a meeting with Kerry and European foreign ministers on Sunday to consider “more kinetic options, the military options” in the war in Syria.

Russian officials, for their part, threatened retaliation against any US strikes against Syrian government targets. “Any missile or air strikes on the territory controlled by the Syrian government will create a clear threat to Russian servicemen,” Russian Defense Ministry spokesperson General Igor Konashenkov said last week.

He added, “Russian air defense system crews are unlikely to have time to determine in a ‘straight line’ the exact flight paths of missiles and then who the warheads belong to. And all the illusions of amateurs about the existence of ‘invisible’ jets will face a disappointing reality.” Konashenkov’s reference to ‘invisible’’ jets was a warning that the advanced Russian S-400 air defense systems are capable of downing fifth-generation fighters with stealth capabilities, such as the American F-22 and F-35.

Should US air strikes against Syrian targets lead to the downing of American fighters by Russian forces, the White House will come under immense pressure to retaliate, potentially setting off a chain reaction that could result in the first use of nuclear weapons since World War II.

In evident preparation for such an eventuality, Moscow sent nuclear-capable Iskander-M missiles to the Russian Baltic city of Kaliningrad on October 8. From Kaliningrad, the missiles can strike targets, including NATO bases, across Poland and the Baltic republics.

Pointing to the dangers posed by these developments, Numan Kurtulmus, the deputy prime minister of Turkey, warned this week that if the war in Syria continues, “America and Russia will come to a point of war.” He added that the “proxy war” in Syria has led the world to the “brink of the beginning of a large regional or global war.”

The war in Syria is just one flashpoint in what military strategists are increasingly warning will be an “inevitable” conflict with major military powers. Last month, the Atlantic Council, a Washington think tank, published a report titled The Future of the Army, which made clear that the US military’s primary concern is preparing to fight “major and deadly” wars between “great powers,” entailing “heavy casualties” and “high levels of death and destruction.”

At an October 4 meeting of the Association of the US Army in Washington, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Milley said war between the US and global powers such as Russia and China was “almost guaranteed.” At the same conference, Gen. William Hix, a top Army strategist, declared that a conflict “in the near future” with a country like Russia or China would entail a level of violence “that our armies have not seen on a scale probably since Korea, if not in World War II.”

These developments make it clear that the threat to humanity of a war between nuclear-armed powers is greater now than at any time since the height of the Cold War. The sharp escalation of military tensions recalls the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, which nearly led to full-scale war between the US and the Soviet Union.

At that time, the press was eagerly following every detail of the showdown between the US and the USSR, while the Kennedy administration was intently seeking a diplomatic solution to the crisis. Now, the White House, driven by an unstable domestic situation and growing threats to its global dominance, is taking increasingly reckless measures, while the press virtually ignores the danger of a clash between the United States and Russia.

The media silence on the war threat is coupled with a drive, led by the Clinton campaign, the Democratic Party and the New York Times, to paint the fascistic Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump as an agent of Russian President Vladimir Putin. By framing the November 8 election as a struggle against Russian subversion and the “dictator” Putin, Hillary Clinton is seeking to create the conditions for claiming a popular mandate for military escalation and a confrontation with Russia should she capture the White House.

Both big-business parties, despite their tactical differences, fully support the US war drive, while the Libertarian and Green candidates are largely ignoring the war danger. The Socialist Equality Party alone has put opposition to war at the very heart of its campaign in the 2016 elections.

Andre Damon

Werner Herzog’s Lo and Behold: Reveries of The Connected World

Exploring the origins and impact of the Internet

By Kevin Reed
8 October 2016

German filmmaker Werner Herzog’s new documentary Lo and Behold: Reveries of The Connected World was released in August at select theatres across the US and for home viewing from various on-demand services. The movie—which examines the origins and implications of the Internet and related technologies such as artificial intelligence, robotics, the Internet of Things and space travel—has received generally favorable reviews following its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in late January.

Lo and Behold

The work is divided into ten segments with titles like “The Early Days,” “The Glory of the Net” and “The Future,” with Herzog serving as narrator. Through a series of interviews, the director stitches his disparate topics together to explain something about how the Internet and World Wide Web were created and then to paint a troubling picture of the globally interconnected landscape.

The movie begins with a visit to the campus of the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), the birthplace—along with the Stanford Research Institute—of the Internet. The first interviewee is Leonard Kleinrock, one of the research scientists responsible for the development of the precursor of the Internet called ARPANET (Advanced Research Projects Agency Network of the US Defense Department). At age 82, Kleinrock is obviously thrilled at the opportunity to describe how the first-ever electronic message was transmitted between two points on the network.

As he opens a cabinet of early Internet hardware called a “packet switch,” Kleinrock describes in detail the events of October 29, 1969 at 10:30 pm. As the UCLA sender began typing the word “login”—and checking by telephone with his counterpart at Stanford University—only the first two characters of the message were successfully transmitted before his computer crashed. Despite this seemingly failed communication attempt, Kleinrock explains that “Lo” was an entirely appropriate word for the accomplishment. “It was from here,” he says, “that a revolution began.”

With Herzog occasionally interjecting off-camera during the interviews, the director’s goal seems clear enough. He wants the audience to share his sense of wonder and amazement at the transformative impact of the Internet. This is reinforced by equally intriguing interviews with several others who participated in the birth of the Net. The enthusiasm—and clarity on complex topics—expressed by these pioneers leaves one with a desire to hear more of their stories of discovery and progress.

As the film goes on, however, it emerges that Herzog has another plan; he abandons any historically logical accounting of the Internet and begins eclectically focusing on its various byproducts and offshoots, limitations and negative consequences. Herzog’s interview with Ted Nelson—a philosopher and sociologist credited with theoretically anticipating the World Wide Web and coining the terms “hypertext” and “hypermedia”—becomes the starting point for these wanderings.

Werner Herzog in 2007 (Photo: Erinc Salor)

As a student at Harvard University, Ted Nelson began working in 1960 on a computer system called Project Xanadu that he conceived of as “a digital repository scheme for world-wide electronic publishing.” Nelson also wrote an important book in 1974 entitled Computer Lib/Dream Machines, a kind of manifesto for hobbyists on the social and revolutionary implications of the personal computer.

Although it is left unexplained in the film, the Internet is the technical infrastructure upon which the World Wide Web was developed beginning in 1989. Ever since the widespread adoption of the World Wide Web, Nelson has been a public critic of its structure and implementation, especially HTML (Hypertext Markup Language). He has called HTML a gross oversimplification of his pioneering ideas and said that it “trivializes our original hypertext model with one-way, ever-breaking links and no management of version or contents.”

Why is it that HTML and the World Wide Web emerged as the dominant graphical layer of the Internet as opposed to a competing set of ideas? Is it possible that a solution more comprehensive, expressing more completely the potential of the technology and more effective and useful could have been adopted instead?

One aspect of the rapid global adoption of the World Wide Web—originally created by Tim Berners-Lee in 1989 at CERN in Switzerland—was the open access policy of its inventor. As Berners-Lee, who is also interviewed in the film, has explained, “Had the technology been proprietary, and in my total control, it would probably not have taken off. You can’t propose that something be a universal space and at the same time keep control of it.” However, while the non-proprietary nature of Berners-Lee’s creation was a significant factor in its success, it does not automatically follow that the core technology of the World Wide Web represented an advance over the ideas represented by others such as Ted Nelson.

These are important and complex questions that have been repeated again and again in the evolution of the information revolution of the past half-century, the further exploration of which would point to fundamental problems of modern technology, i.e. the contradiction between “what is possible” versus “what is required” within the economic and political framework of global capitalist society.

Showing little interest in exploring these matters more deeply, Lo and Behold goes on to present Nelson—a gifted but socially awkward man—as something of a high-tech Don Quixote. Herzog concludes the interview with the quip, “To us you appear to be the only one around who is clinically sane.”

Lo and Behold

Having made nearly forty documentaries in his five-decade career, Herzog is accomplished at gaining access to people with compelling stories to tell. The interview with Elon Musk, founder of Tesla Motors and SpaceX, raises important points. A consistently outspoken opponent of artificial intelligence, Musk makes the following warning: “[I]f you were running a hedge fund or private equity fund and all I want my AI to do is maximize the value of my portfolio, then AI could decide to short consumer stocks, go long on defense stocks, and start a war. Ah, and that obviously would be quite bad.”

This possible scenario under capitalism is not explored any further. While the US military is never specifically mentioned, it is remarkable that the only reference to war in the course of a 98-minute critical look at modern technology comes from a billionaire entrepreneur. Above all, Musk’s comments show that the new technologies by themselves bring no fundamental change to the class relations within capitalist society; indeed the Internet and artificial intelligence in the hands of the ruling elite enable a further and accelerated integration of financial parasitism and imperialist war.

Given that Lo and Behold is sponsored by Netscout Systems, a major corporate supplier of networking hardware and software, it is possible that such topics were off limits. However, the lack of a broader or coherent critical perspective is not something new for Werner Herzog.

While he made some interesting and disturbing fiction films in the 1970s (The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, Aguirre: The Wrath of God and Stroszek in particular), the end of the period of radicalization had an impact on Herzog, as it did on other New German Cinema directors like R. W. Fassbinder, Wim Wenders and Volker Schlöndorff. There was always an overwrought element in Herzog’s work and an emphasis on physical or spiritual excess, without much reference to the content of the action.

In media interviews about his latest film, Herzog has been careful to explain that he does not blame technology itself for the aberrations depicted. “The Internet is not good or evil, dark or light hearted,” he says, “it is human beings” that are the problem. Following the advice of experts, Herzog suggests that people need some kind of “filter” to help them use the technology appropriately.

Leaving things so very much at the level of the individual does not begin to get at the source of the contradiction between the positive and destructive potential of modern technology. This contradiction, so clearly demonstrated during World War II with nuclear technology, is itself an expression of the alternatives facing mankind of socialism versus barbarism.

Lack of an understanding about—or refusal to acknowledge—the deeper social and class interests embedded in the forms of human technology leads to only two possible conclusions: (1) the utopian idea that technology develops automatically without wars and crisis toward the improvement of mankind, or (2) the dystopian belief that technological advancement always develops without any hope of revolutionary transformation of society in the direction of an existential threat to humanity. While Herzog and his producers believe they have provided a balanced perspective between these two, in the end, Lo and Behold comes down on the latter side.


Clinton’s Paid Speeches Leaked

In lucrative paid speeches that Hillary Clinton delivered to elite financial firms but refused to disclose to the public, she displayed an easy comfort with titans of business, embraced unfettered international trade and praised a budget-balancing plan that would have required cuts to Social Security, according to documents posted online Friday by WikiLeaks.

The tone and language of the excerpts clash with the fiery liberal approach she used later in her bitter primary battle with Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont and could have undermined her candidacy had they become public.

Mrs. Clinton comes across less as a firebrand than as a technocrat at home with her powerful audience, willing to be critical of large financial institutions but more inclined to view them as partners in restoring the country’s economic health.

In the excerpts from her paid speeches to financial institutions and corporate audiences, Mrs. Clinton said she dreamed of “open trade and open borders” throughout the Western Hemisphere. Citing the back-room deal-making and arm-twisting used by Abraham Lincoln, she mused on the necessity of having “both a public and a private position” on politically contentious issues. Reflecting in 2014 on the rage against political and economic elites that swept the country after the 2008 financial crash, Mrs. Clinton acknowledged that her family’s rising wealth had made her “kind of far removed” from the struggles of the middle class.

The passages were contained in an internal review of Mrs. Clinton’s paid speeches undertaken by her campaign, which was identifying potential land mines should the speeches become public. They offer a glimpse at one of the most sought-after troves of information in the 2016 presidential race — and an explanation, perhaps, for why Mrs. Clinton has steadfastly refused demands by Mr. Sanders and Donald J. Trump, her Republican rival, to release them.

Mrs. Clinton’s campaign would not confirm the authenticity of the documents. They were released on Friday night by WikiLeaks, the hacker collective founded by the activist Julian Assange, saying that they had come from the email account of John D. Podesta, Mrs. Clinton’s campaign chairman.

In a statement, a Clinton spokesman, Glen Caplin, pointed to the United States government’s findings that Russian officials had used WikiLeaks to hack documents in order to sway the outcome of the presidential election, suggesting that the leak of Mr. Podesta’s emails was also engineered by Russian officials determined to help Mr. Trump. Mr. Caplin noted that a Twitter message from WikiLeaks promoting the documents had incorrectly identified Mr. Podesta as a co-owner of his brother’s lobbying firm.

But Clinton officials did not deny that the email containing the excerpts was real.

The leaked email, dated Jan. 25, does not contain Mrs. Clinton’s full speeches to the financial firms, leaving it unclear what her overall message was to these audiences.

But in the excerpts, Ms. Clinton demonstrates her long and warm ties to some of Wall Street’s most powerful figures. In a discussion in the fall of 2013 with Lloyd Blankfein, a friend who is the chief executive of Goldman Sachs, Mrs. Clinton said that the political climate had made it overly difficult for wealthy people to serve in government.

“There is such a bias against people who have led successful and/or complicated lives,” Mrs. Clinton said. The pressure on officials to sell or divest assets in order to serve, she added, had become “very onerous and unnecessary.”

In a separate speech to Goldman Sachs employees the same month, Mrs. Clinton said it was an “oversimplification” to blame the global financial crisis of 2008 on the U.S. banking system.

“It was conventional wisdom,” Mrs. Clinton said of the tendency to blame the banking system. “And I think that there’s a lot that could have been avoided in terms of both misunderstanding and really politicizing what happened.”


John Podesta, Mrs. Clinton’s campaign chairman, on the campaign plane last month.CreditDoug Mills/The New York Times

And she praised a deficit-reduction proposal from President Obama’s fiscal commission that called for raising the Social Security retirement age, saying that the commission’s leaders “had put forth the right framework.”

Such comments could have proven devastating to Mrs. Clinton during the Democratic primary fight, when Mr. Sanders promoted himself as the enemy of Wall Street and of a rigged economic system.

Several of the most eye-popping passages ultimately express more nuanced explanations of her views. When Mrs. Clinton describes herself as “far removed” from average Americans and their finances, she had just finished describing her growing appreciation for how “anxiety and even anger in the country over the feeling that the game is rigged.” And she reminds the audience that her father “loved to complain about big business and big government.”

The Clintons have made more than $120 million in speeches to Wall Street and special interests since Bill Clinton left the White House in 2001. Mrs. Clinton typically earned $225,000 for speeches, though she sometimes donated her fees to her family foundation.

“I kind of think if you’re going to be paid $225,000 for a speech, it must be a fantastic speech,” Mr. Sanders said during the primary, “a brilliant speech which you would want to share with the American people.”

As her race against Mr. Sanders — who now campaigns for Mrs. Clinton — grew unexpectedly contentious and close, Mrs. Clinton sought to portray herself as deeply skeptical of Wall Street and eager to punish its wayward leaders.

“I believe strongly that we need to make sure that Wall Street never wrecks Main Street again,” Mrs. Clinton said in January. “No bank is too big to fail, and no executive is too powerful to jail.”

As she sought to burnish her image as an advocate of working America, Mrs. Clinton declared her opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, Mr. Obama’s 12-nation trade pact, and distanced herself from Nafta, which her husband signed into law.

But in a 2013 speech to a Brazilian bank, Mrs. Clinton took a far different approach. “My dream,” she said, “is a hemispheric common market, with open borders, sometime in the future.”

Some of her paid remarks embrace the view that the public can benefit when Wall Street partners with government. When it comes to writing effective financial regulations, Mrs. Clinton said, “The people that know the industry better than anybody are the people who work in the industry.”

Foreign hackers — authorized by Russian security agencies, according to national security officials — have successfully penetrated the operations of the Democratic Party and its candidates over the past year. They broke into the email servers of the Democratic National Committee, revealing embarrassing internal messages in which party leaders who were supposed to be neutral expressed their preference for Mrs. Clinton even as she was campaigning against Mr. Sanders. And Mr. Assange is an avowed critic of Mrs. Clinton who has made clear that he wishes to hurt her chances of winning the presidency.

Half of all registered voters said it bothered them “a lot” that Mrs. Clinton had given numerous paid speeches to Wall Street banks, according to a Bloomberg Politics poll in June.

Asked in an interview that month if the practice was self-defeating, given the anger over income inequality, Mrs. Clinton responded that her predecessors as secretary of state had given paid speeches, too.

“I actually think it makes sense,” she said. “Because a lot of people know you have a front-row seat in watching what’s going on in the world.”