Twenty years since Clinton’s welfare “reform”

NASHVILLE, :  US President Bill Clinton clinches his fist during a 27 October speech on welfare reform at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tennessee. The US general election is two weeks away on 05 Novemeber.  (ELECTRONIC IMAGE) AFP PHOTO Paul J. RICHARDS (Photo credit should read PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images)

23 August 2016

Twenty years ago yesterday, on August 22, 1996, President Bill Clinton signed bipartisan legislation that ended the federal guarantee of welfare assistance to the poor.

The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 was the first repeal of a major provision of the 1935 Social Security Act, which made relief to the old, the disabled, the jobless, single mothers and poor children a federally funded and guaranteed “entitlement.” Eligibility for what would become Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) was expanded in 1962.

Instead of providing a safety net of minimal benefits, the new Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program (TANF), which replaced AFDC, imposed a lifetime limit of five years, plus mandatory work and school requirements. The federal government sent a fixed amount of money, in the form of block grants, to the states, which were free to impose even harsher eligibility restrictions and cut off benefits once the money ran out, no matter how many people were left destitute.

As a result, millions of poor people lost all cash assistance and were bereft of any income. While AFDC benefits were always woefully inadequate, TANF assistance in all states currently provides less than half the income deemed necessary by the government to avoid poverty. In one-third of the states, the benefits are less than 20 percent of the official poverty level.

The 1996 law also cut food assistance to the poor. The tightening of eligibility for food stamps, now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), has had devastating consequences. As a result of the lowering of maximum benefits enacted at that time, a working household of three people today receives nearly $400 less a year—or $33 a month—than it would have received had the “reform” not been enacted.

So draconian were Clinton’s measures, they were denounced by Senator Patrick Moynihan, a Democrat who had been reviled for joining the Nixon administration and initiating the first efforts to cut back on social programs. Moynihan denounced both parties for “making cruelty to children an instrument of social policy.”

In announcing that he was “ending welfare as we know it,” Clinton cynically claimed that his bill would help welfare recipients find work and attain economic self-sufficiency. That was a lie. The measure freed up billions for corporate tax cuts and military programs, while forcing millions of workers into low-wage, part-time jobs. The funneling of the desperately poor into the labor market contributed to the suppression of wages that continues to this day.

The corporate-controlled media has marked the anniversary by hailing its “success” and fondly recalling the bipartisan support for the measure. Media commentators suggest that the cross-party cooperation that succeeded in destroying welfare should be a model for laying siege to even more basic entitlement programs such as Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.

A series of recent reports has detailed the human impact of Clinton’s cuts:

  • The number of US children living in families with monthly incomes below $2 per person per day doubled from 1996 to 2011, according to a 2013 analysis published by the National Poverty Center.
  • While 76 families received cash assistance through AFDC for every 100 poor families with children in 1995, by 2014, only 23 percent received TANF cash assistance. Because fixed benefit levels lost value due to inflation, cash payments for a family of three in July 2015 were at least 20 percent below their 1996 level in 35 states and the District of Columbia.
  • A 2015 review of the law by the National Bureau of Economic Research concluded that “declines in welfare benefits arising from leaving welfare often cancel out the earning increases, leaving income relatively unchanged.” In addition, “a significant number of single-mother families appear to have been worse off and to have higher deep poverty rates,” defined as living below half the federal poverty line.
  • During the first decade of welfare “reform,” incomes fell by 18 percent for the poorest tenth of children of single mothers, and the share of children living in deep poverty rose from 2.1 percent to 3.0 percent—from 1.5 million to 2.2 million—according to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities. While the percentage of children in deep poverty was reduced to 2.6 percent in the following decade, this was largely due to the temporary extension of unemployment benefits and food stamps after the Great Recession, which has largely dried up.
  • The cancellation of welfare payments to legal immigrants through the imposition of long-term residency requirements led to a fall in high school graduation rates by as much as 17 percent, according to a recent article in the Washington Post.

In destroying welfare, President Clinton had the enthusiastic backing of his wife, Hillary Clinton, who is now the Democratic candidate for US president. The ex-president emphasized her role in a 2006 op-ed piece in the New York Times titled “How We Ended Welfare, Together.” In the article, Clinton boasted that welfare rolls had been reduced from 12.2 million to 4.5 million in the first decade of his “reform.”

The destruction of the federal welfare system was part of a social counterrevolution by the American ruling class initiated in the last years of the Democratic administration of Jimmy Carter in the late 1970s and escalated during the Reagan years of the 1980s. It marked the complete abandonment of the policy of liberal reform associated with Roosevelt’s New Deal in the 1930s and Johnson’s War on Poverty in the mid-1960s.

The Clintons were leading figures in the Democratic Leadership Council, which renounced such reforms and helped transform the Democratic Party into the leading party of Wall Street.

Following the debacle of Hillary Clinton’s pro-corporate health care “reform,” the Democrats suffered a rout in the 1994 mid-term elections, which gave the Republicans, under the leadership of arch reactionary Newt Gingrich, control of both houses of Congress. The response of the Clintons was to shift further to the right.

The tossing of millions of welfare recipients into destitution was a calculated effort to curry favor from the ruling elite and reactionary sections of the upper middle class. In the current presidential campaign, Clinton’s wife has adopted a similar strategy, except even more reactionary.

The war on the poor, with its denunciations of “generations of dependency” and demands for “personal responsibility,” coincided with a bipartisan program of unlimited government welfare for corporate America and the super-rich. These were the days of “irrational exuberance” on Wall Street, the Clinton administration’s repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act and other Depression-era banking regulations, the destruction of millions of better-paying manufacturing jobs, the growth of financialization, and the rise of a new financial aristocracy to the pinnacle of the American economy.

Over the last seven-and-a-half years, the Obama administration has intensified this social counterrevolution, slashing the wages of autoworkers, shifting the burden of health care and pensions onto the backs of workers, and funneling trillions to Wall Street and trillions more to the Pentagon to wage nonstop war.

Various pseudo-left and Democratic Party advocates of identity politics characterize Clinton’s welfare “reform” as a racist measure. Typical is a recent piece in the New Republic titled “The Racist Roots of Welfare Reform.”

This only serves to conceal the class character of the Democratic Party-led attack—whose victims include all races and nationalities, the majority being poor whites. In opposition to all such reactionary attempts to divide the working class, the Socialist Equality Party and our presidential and vice presidential candidates, Jerry White and Niles Niemuth, fight for the unity of the working class in a struggle against the capitalist system, the source of war, poverty and repression.

Jerry White

WSWS

Mexico’s Zapatista Movement May Offer Solutions to Neoliberal Threats to Global Food Security

Posted on Aug 21, 2016

By Levi Gahman / The Solutions Journal

    Zapatista women meeting in 1996. (Julian Stallabrass / CC BY 2.0)

The battle for humanity and against neoliberalism was and is ours,

And also that of many others from below.

Against death––We demand life.

Subcomandante Galeano/Marcos

One of the biggest threats to food security the world currently faces is neoliberalism. It’s logic, which has become status quo over the past 70 years and valorizes global ‘free market’ capitalism, is made manifest through economic policies that facilitate privatization, deregulation, and cuts to social spending, as well as a discourse that promotes competition, individualism, and self-commodification. Despite rarely being criticized, or even mentioned, by state officials and mainstream media, neoliberal programs and practices continue to give rise to unprecedented levels of poverty, hunger, and suffering. The consequences of neoliberalism are so acutely visceral that the Zapatistas called the 21st century’s most highly lauded free-trade policy, NAFTA, a ‘death certificate’ for Indigenous people.1 This is because economic liberalization meant that imported commodities (e.g., subsidized corn from the U.S.) would flood Mexican markets, devalue the products of peasant farmers, and lead to widespread food insecurity. As a response, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN), primarily Indigenous peasants themselves, led an armed insurrection in Chiapas, Mexico on January 1, 1994—the day NAFTA went into effect.

The Zapatistas, primarily Indigenous Ch’ol, Tzeltal, Tzotzil, Tojolobal, Mam, and Zoque rebels, were rising up against 500 years of colonial oppression. For this piece, I draw from my experiences learning from them, not ‘researching’ them. Importantly, I neither speak for the Zapatistas nor do my words do them justice. In a sense, then, this piece is nothing other than a modest ‘suggestion’ that the Zapatistas may offer us some ideas about solutions to the problems of the food systems we find ourselves in.

The emergence of the EZLN dates back to November 17, 1983, when a small group of politicized university militants arrived in the Lacandon jungle of Chiapas to form a guerrilla army. Their efforts, which were being supported by an intricate network of solidarity organizations with links to Marxist revolutionaries and Catholic liberation theologists in the region, were subsequently transformed by the Indigenous communities they encountered upon arriving. The success of the Zapatista uprising was thus the culmination of nearly 10 years of covert organizing that unfolded under the guidance of Indigenous people within the jungles and highlands of southeastern Mexico. And during the early morning hours of New Year’s Day 1994, thousands of masked insurgents from the EZLN stepped out of the darkness to say ‘¡Ya Basta! ‘ (Enough!) to the repression and misery that colonialism and capitalism had thrust upon them.

The stunning manner in which the Zapatistas presented themselves to the Mexican government, as well as the world, saw them descend upon several towns, cities, prisons, and wealthy landowners. During the revolt, EZLN guerillas liberated political prisoners, stormed military barracks, occupied government offices, set fire to trumped-up files that unfairly criminalized Indigenous people, and announced Zapatista ‘Women’s Revolutionary Law.’ In the rural countryside, Zapatista soldiers also reclaimed dispossessed land by kicking affluent property-owning bosses off plantation-likeencomiendas that had been historically expropriated from impoverished Indigenous farmers. The skirmishes and exchange of bullets between the EZLN and federal army lasted a total of only 12 days, after which a ceasefire was negotiated.

Since that time, and despite an ongoing counter-insurgency being spearheaded by the Mexican government, the Zapatista’s ‘solution’ to the problem of neoliberalism, including the food insecurity and poverty it exacerbates, has been resistance. And for the Zapatistas, resistance is comprised of revitalizing their Indigenous (predominantly Maya) worldviews, recuperating stolen land, emancipating themselves from dependency upon multinational industrial agribusiness, and peacefully living in open defiance of global capitalism. This ‘solution’ has subsequently enabled them to build an autonomous, locally focused food system, which is a direct product of their efforts in participatory democracy, gender equity, and food sovereignty.

Food sovereignty (an intensely debated concept) loosely described means that people are able to exercise autonomy over their food systems while concurrently ensuring that the production/distribution of food is carried out in socially just, culturally safe, and ecologically sustainable ways. For the Zapatistas, food sovereignty involves agro-ecological farming, place-based teaching and learning, developing local cooperatives, and engaging in collective work.

These practices, which are simultaneously informed by their Indigenous customs, struggles for gender justice, and systems of nonhierarchical governance and education, have thereby radically transformed social relations within their communities. And it is these aspects of the Zapatista Insurgency that illustrate how collective (anti-capitalist) resistance offers novel alternatives to the world’s corporate food regime.

Autonomous Education and Decolonization

Here you can buy or sell anything—­except Indigenous dignity.

Subcomandante Marcos/Galeano

The relationship and obligation the Zapatistas have to the land is rooted in their Indigenous perspectives and traditions. And because exercising autonomy over their land, work, education, and food is crucial to the Zapatistas, their methods of teaching and learning are situated in the environmental systems and cultural practices of where they, and their histories, are living. This is evident in the grassroots focus they maintain in their approach to education, as well as how they consider their immediate ecological settings a ‘classroom.’2

Local knowledge of land and growing food is so central among their autonomous municipalities that each Zapatista school often sees promotores de educación (‘education promoters’) and promotores de agro-ecología (‘agro-ecology promoters’) coming from the same community as their students. Zapatista education is therefore emplaced within the geographies where people live. This holistic ‘place-based’ focus results in both children and adults viewing themselves as active participants in, and essential parts of, local food systems.

In order to understand food security, Zapatista students are frequently taught hands-on agro-ecological techniques outside the classroom. This means they learn how to apply sustainable farming techniques while participating in the planting/harvesting of organic crops. This area of experiential and localized education stresses the importance of working the land in order to attain the skills needed to achieve food sovereignty for future generations. It also provides an overview of how transgenic modifications and privatizations of seeds/plants/life are deemed to be overt threats to, and blatant attacks upon, their culture.

This perspective is held because the Zapatistas are ‘People of the Corn,’ a reality passed down from their Maya origin stories.3 And given that their autonomous education is anchored in defending, protecting, and preserving their Indigenous histories, languages, and ancestral territories, the Zapatistas effectively practice decolonization—the re-establishment and repatriation of Indigenous land, life, and realities—in every aspect of their teaching and learning.

In practical terms, the Zapatistas are decolonizing their food system through applied/experiential learning, communal subsistence farming, collectivizing harvests, refusing chemicals, and equitably distributing labor. This approach thereby provides communities the ability to eschew the profit-motives promoted by capitalist conceptions of ‘productivity,’ in favor of foregrounding their local Indigenous notions of knowledge and nature.4

Through their refusal to participate in the commodification and privatization of learning and land, the Zapatistas have created an integrated system of education and food security that functions as a solidarity economy. This means their efforts in both food and knowledge production/distribution are guided by an ethical imperative that takes into consideration the health and well-being of individuals, communities, and ecologies alike.

Given what the Zapatistas have created in rural Chiapas, one is left to wonder how local food systems might look if Indigenous peoples’ perspectives and (anti-capitalist) placed-based education were implemented into our own communities.

Womens Struggle and Gender Equity

Cuando Una Mujer Avanza, No Hay Hombre Que Retrocede

(‘When a Woman Advances, No Man is Left Behind’)

Women do two-thirds of the world’s work, produce roughly 70 percent of its food, and are responsible for over 80 percent of its domestic (socially reproductive) labor. Despite this, they earn only about 10 percent of the world’s income, control less than 10 percent of all its land, own less than one percent of the means of production, and comprise nearly two-thirds of all its part-time and temporary worker positions.5 In disaggregate, the vast majority of these statistics apply to women who are rural, working class/poor, racialized/Indigenous, not ‘formally educated,’ and living in the Global South.6 It thus appears that capitalist exploitation has both a pattern and preferred target. Interestingly, all of these descriptors directly apply to Zapatista women, yet, it seems someone has forgotten to tell them…because they do not seem to care.

One of the most groundbreaking aspects of the Zapatista insurgency has been the strides it has made in destabilizing patriarchy. This social transformation has largely been born out of the indefatigable work ethic and iron will of the Zapatista women. Given their recognition that any struggle against colonialism and capitalism necessitates a struggle against patriarchy, Zapatista women implemented what is known as ‘Women’s Revolutionary Law’ within their communities. The conviction they maintain regarding equality was poignantly captured in a communiqué written by Subcomandante Marcos (now Galeano) released shortly after the 1994 rebellion, which states: “The first EZLN uprising occurred in March of 1993 and was led by the Zapatista women. There were no casualties—and they won.”7

Broadly speaking, Women’s Revolutionary Law solidifies the recognition of women’s rights to self-determination, dignity, and having their voices heard. More specifically, the laws mandate that women be equitably represented in the guerrilla army (i.e., the EZLN), the Juntas de Buen Gobierno (‘Councils of Good Government’), efforts in land recuperation (agro-ecological projects/work outside of the home), and the development of food/artisan/craft cooperatives.8 These laws have restructured everyday life throughout Zapatista territory, as it is now not uncommon to see women involved in the public sphere (work outside the home), in addition to seeing men participate in socially reproductive labor (i.e., ‘women’s work’).

Women’s Revolutionary Law has also merged with the way in which the land and local environment is viewed and tended to. As a result of up-ending rigid patriarchal notions of what type of work women ‘should do’ and ‘could not do,’ as well as undermining regressive ideas that men are less capable of performing emotional labor, household chores, and nurturing children, Zapatista communities now have women exercising more influence over decisions being made surrounding food security and agro-ecological projects.9

In recently attesting to the gender equity the Zapatistas are advancing towards, Peter Rosset, a food justice activist and rural agro-ecological specialist, commented on the impact of Women’s Revolutionary Law by stating:

Yesterday a Zapatista agro-ecology promoter was in my office and he was talking about how the young Indigenous women in Zapatista territory are different from before…

…he said they no longer look at the floor when you talk to them—they look you directly in the eye.10

In light of the emphasis the Zapatistas place on justice via both recognizing women’s struggle, as well as men’s responsibility to perform socially reproductive/emotional labor, one cannot help but further wonder what agricultural production would look like if gender equity was promoted within the global food system.

Final Thoughts

When viewed in its geopolitical context, the Zapatista insurgency has opened up space for a wide range of alternative ways of re-organizing societies, economies, and food systems. Consequently, what the Zapatistas prove through their resistance (i.e., efforts in autonomous education, decolonization, and gender equity) is that a recognition of Indigenous people’s right to self-determination, in conjunction with anti-capitalist collective work and movements toward food sovereignty, can indeed provide viable alternatives to the world’s neoliberal food regime as well as revolutionize the struggle for food security.

 

Acknowledgements

I offer my gratitude to the Zapatistas for accepting me into their school as well as the Mexico Solidarity Network for enabling it. I also thank Schools for Chiapas and the Dorset Chiapas Solidarity for sharing photos, as well as The University of the West Indies Campus Research and Publication Committee (Trinidad and Tobago) for their support.

References

  1. Marcos, S & de Leon, JP. Our Word is Our Weapon (Seven Stories Press, New York, 2002).
  2. Anonymous Zapatista. Personal communication, Fall 2013.
  3. Ross, J. ¡Zapatistas!: Making Another World Possible: Chronicles of Resistance, 2000–2006 (Nation Books, New York, 2006).
  4. Lorenzano, L. Zapatismo: recomposition of labour, radical democracy and revolutionary project in Zapatista! Reinventing Revolution in Mexico (eds Holloway, J & Pelaez, E), Ch. 7, 126-128 (Pluto Press, London, 1998).
  5. Robbins, RH. Global Problems and the Culture of Capitalism (Allyn & Bacon, Boston, 2007).
  6. Benería, L, Berik, G & Floro, M. Gender, Development and Globalization: Economics as if All People Mattered (Routledge, Abingdon, 2015).
  7. Marcos, S. The First Uprising: March 1993. La Jornada (January 30, 1994).
  8. Klein, H. Compañeras: Zapatista Womens Stories (Seven Stories Press, New York, 2015).
  9. Marcos, S. Zapatista Women’s Revolutionary Law as it is lived today. Open Democracy [online] (July 2014).https://www.opendemocracy.net/sylvia-marcos/zapatista-women%E2%80%99s-re….

10.  Rosset, P. Zapatista Uprising 20 Years Later. Democracy Now! [online] (January 2014).http://www.democracynow.org/2014/1/3/zapatista_uprising_20_years_later_how.

Russian Threat Is Good for Business, U.S. Defense Contractors Tell Investors

Posted on Aug 19, 2016

As the media and politicians work to cast Russia as a great threat to Americans, the arms industry is pressuring NATO member states to spend at least 2 percent of their gross domestic products on weapons and defense systems.

Lee Fang reports at The Intercept:

Retired Army Gen. Richard Cody, a vice president at L-3 Communications, the seventh largest U.S. defense contractor, explained to shareholders in December that the industry was faced with a historic opportunity. Following the end of the Cold War, Cody said, peace had “pretty much broken out all over the world,” with Russia in decline and NATO nations celebrating. “The Wall came down,” he said, and “all defense budgets went south.”

Now, Cody argued, Russia “is resurgent” around the world, putting pressure on U.S. allies. “Nations that belong to NATO are supposed to spend 2 percent of their GDP on defense,” he said, according to a transcript of his remarks. “We know that uptick is coming and so we postured ourselves for it.”

Speaking to investors at a conference hosted by Credit Suisse in June, Stuart Bradie, the chief executive of KBR, a military contractor, discussed “opportunities in Europe,” highlighting the increase in defense spending by NATO countries in response to “what’s happening with Russia and the Ukraine.”

The National Defense Industrial Association, a lobby group for the industry, has called on Congress to make it easier for U.S. contractors to sell arms abroad to allies in response to the threat from Russia. Recent articles in National Defense, NDIA’s magazine, discuss the need for NATO allies to boost maritime military spending, spending on Arctic systems, and missile defense, to counter Russia.

Many experts are unconvinced that Russia poses a direct military threat. The Soviet Union’s military once stood at over 4 million soldiers, but today Russia has less than 1 million. NATO’s combined military budget vastly outranks Russia’s — with the U.S. alone outspending Russia on its military by $609 billion to less than $85 billion.

And yet,  the Aerospace Industries Association, a lobby group for Lockheed Martin, Textron, Raytheon, and other defense contractors, argued in February that the Pentagon is not spending enough to counter “Russian aggression on NATO’s doorstep.”

Continue reading.

—Posted by Alexander Reed Kelly.

http://www.truthdig.com/eartotheground/item/us_defense_contractors_tell_investors_russian_threat_is_good_for_20160819

The Illusion of Freedom By Chris Hedges

Posted on Aug 18, 2016

By Chris Hedges

  A Donald Trump campaign rally. In the 2016 presidential contest, a frustrated white working class has been receptive to anti-democracy messages. (Carlos Osorio / AP)

The seizure of political and economic power by corporations is unassailable. Who funds and manages our elections? Who writes our legislation and laws? Who determines our defense policies and vast military expenditures? Who is in charge of the Department of the Interior? The Department of Homeland Security? Our intelligence agencies? The Department of Agriculture? The Food and Drug Administration? The Department of Labor? The Federal Reserve? The mass media? Our systems of entertainment? Our prisons and schools? Who determines our trade and environmental policies? Who imposes austerity on the public while enabling the looting of the U.S. Treasury and the tax boycott by Wall Street? Who criminalizes dissent?

A disenfranchised white working class vents its lust for fascism at Trump campaign rallies. Naive liberals, who think they can mount effective resistance within the embrace of the Democratic Party, rally around the presidential candidacy of Bernie Sanders, who knows that the military-industrial complex is sacrosanct. Both the working class and the liberals will be sold out. Our rights and opinions do not matter. We have surrendered to our own form of wehrwirtschaft. We do not count within the political process.

This truth, emotionally difficult to accept, violates our conception of ourselves as a free, democratic people. It shatters our vision of ourselves as a nation embodying superior virtues and endowed with the responsibility to serve as a beacon of light to the world. It takes from us the “right” to impose our fictitious virtues on others by violence. It forces us into a new political radicalism. This truth reveals, incontrovertibly, that if real change is to be achieved, if our voices are to be heard, corporate systems of power have to be destroyed. This realization engenders an existential and political crisis. The inability to confront this crisis, to accept this truth, leaves us appealing to centers of power that will never respond and ensures we are crippled by self-delusion.

The longer fantasy is substituted for reality, the faster we sleepwalk toward oblivion. There is no guarantee we will wake up. Magical thinking has gripped societies in the past. Those civilizations believed that fate, history, superior virtues or a divine force guaranteed their eternal triumph. As they collapsed, they constructed repressive dystopias. They imposed censorship and forced the unreal to be accepted as real. Those who did not conform were disappeared linguistically and then literally.

The vast disconnect between the official narrative of reality and reality itself creates an Alice-in-Wonderland experience. Propaganda is so pervasive, and truth is so rarely heard, that people do not trust their own senses. We are currently being assaulted by political campaigning that resembles the constant crusading by fascists and communists in past totalitarian societies. This campaigning, devoid of substance and subservient to the mirage of a free society, is anti-politics.

No vote we cast will alter the configurations of the corporate state. The wars will go on. Our national resources will continue to be diverted to militarism. The corporate fleecing of the country will get worse. Poor people of color will still be gunned down by militarized police in our streets. The eradication of our civil liberties will accelerate. The economic misery inflicted on over half the population will expand. Our environment will be ruthlessly exploited by fossil fuel and animal agriculture corporations and we will careen toward ecological collapse. We are “free” only as long as we play our assigned parts. Once we call out power for what it is, once we assert our rights and resist, the chimera of freedom will vanish. The iron fist of the most sophisticated security and surveillance apparatus in human history will assert itself with a terrifying fury.

The powerful web of interlocking corporate entities is beyond our control. Our priorities are not corporate priorities. The corporate state, whose sole aim is exploitation and imperial expansion for increased profit, sinks money into research and development of weapons and state surveillance systems while it starves technologies that address global warming and renewable energy. Universities are awash in defense money but cannot find funds for environmental studies. Our bridges, roads and levees are crumbling from neglect. Our schools are overcrowded, decaying and being transformed into for-profit vocational centers. Our elderly and poor are abandoned and impoverished. Young men and women are crippled by unemployment or underemployment and debt peonage. Our for-profit health care drives the sick into bankruptcy. Our wages are being suppressed and the power of government to regulate corporations is dramatically diminished by a triad of new trade agreements—the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership and the Trade in Services Agreement. Government utilities and services, with the implementation of the Trade in Services Agreement, will see whole departments and services, from education to the Postal Service, dismantled and privatized. Our manufacturing jobs, sent overseas, are not coming back. And a corporate media ignores the decay to perpetuate the fiction of a functioning democracy, a reviving economy and a glorious empire.

The essential component of totalitarian propaganda is artifice. The ruling elites, like celebrities, use propaganda to create false personae and a false sense of intimacy with the public.

The emotional power of this narrative is paramount. Issues do not matter. Competency and honesty do not matter. Past political stances or positions do not matter. What is important is how we are made to feel. Those who are skilled at deception succeed. Those who have not mastered the art of deception become “unreal.” Politics in totalitarian societies are entertainment. Reality, because it is complicated, messy and confusing, is banished from the world of mass entertainment. Clichés, stereotypes and uplifting messages that are comforting and self-congratulatory, along with elaborate spectacles, replace fact-based discourse.

“Entertainment was an expression of democracy, throwing off the chains of alleged cultural repression,” Neal Gabler wrote in “Life: The Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality.” “So too was consumption, throwing off the chains of the old production-oriented culture and allowing anyone to buy his way into his fantasy. And, in the end, both entertainment and consumption often provided the same intoxication: the sheer, endless pleasure of emancipation from reason, from responsibility, from tradition, from class and from all the other bonds that restrained the self.”

The more communities break down and poverty expands, the more anxious and frightened people will retreat into self-delusion. Those who speak the truth—whether about climate change or our system of inverted totalitarianism—will be branded as seditious and unpatriotic. They will be hated for destroying the illusion. This, as Gabler noted, is the danger of a society dominated by entertainment. Such a society, he wrote, “… took dead aim at the intellectuals’ most cherished values. That theme was the triumph of the senses over the mind, of emotion over reason, of chaos over order, or the id over the superego. … Entertainment was Plato’s worst nightmare. It deposed the rational and enthroned the sensational and in so doing deposed the intellectual minority and enthroned the unrefined majority.”

Despair, powerlessness and hopelessness diminish the emotional and intellectual resilience needed to confront reality. Those cast aside cling to the entertaining forms of self-delusion offered by the ruling elites. This segment of the population is easily mobilized to “purge” the nation of dissenters and human “contaminants.” Totalitarian systems, including our own, never lack for willing executioners.

Many people, maybe even most people, will not wake up. Those rebels who rise up to try to wrest back power from despotic forces will endure not only the violence of the state, but the hatred and vigilante violence meted out by the self-deluded victims of exploitation. The systems of propaganda will relentlessly demonize those who resist, along with Muslims, undocumented workers, environmentalists, African-Americans, homosexuals, feminists, intellectuals and artists. The utopia will arrive, the state systems of propaganda will assure its followers, once those who obstruct or poison it are removed. Donald Trump is following this script.

The German psychoanalyst and sociologist Erich Fromm in his book “Escape From Freedom” explained the yearning of those who are rendered insignificant to “surrender their freedom.” Totalitarian systems, he pointed out, function like messianic religious cults.

“The frightened individual,” Fromm wrote, “seeks for somebody or something to tie his self to; he cannot bear to be his own individual self any longer, and he tries frantically to get rid of it and to feel security again by the elimination of this burden: the self.”

This is the world we live in. The totalitarian systems of the past used different symbols, different iconography and different fears. They rose up out of a different historical context. But they too demonized the weak and persecuted the strong. They too promised the dispossessed that by subsuming their selves into that of demagogues, or parties or other organizations that promised unrivaled power, they would become powerful. It never works. The growing frustration, the ongoing powerlessness, the mounting repression, leads these betrayed individuals to lash out violently, first at the weak and the demonized, and then at those among them who lack sufficient ideological purity. There is, in the end, an orgy of self-immolation. The death instinct, as Sigmund Freud understood, has a seductive allure.

History may not repeat itself. But it echoes itself. Human nature, after all, is constant. We will react no differently from those who went before us. This should not dissuade us from resisting, but the struggle will be long and difficult. Before it is over there will be blood in the streets.

http://www.truthdig.com/report/item/the_illusion_of_freedom_20151227

The Louisiana flooding—a failure of American capitalism

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17 August 2016

The widespread flooding in southern Louisiana, the byproduct of unprecedented rainstorms over the weekend, is a demonstration that American society is no more prepared for a significant natural disaster in 2016 than it was 11 years ago this month, when Hurricane Katrina made landfall in roughly the same area.

So far, 11 people are reported to have been killed and many thousands rendered homeless. As the Associated Press noted, “a catastrophic 48-hour torrent of rain … sent thousands of people in Louisiana scrambling for safety and left many wondering how a region accustomed to hurricanes could get caught off guard so badly.”

The flooding in the Louisiana is the latest in a long series of similar disasters to strike what is supposedly the richest country in the world. As always, the impact of natural phenomena—whether it is hurricanes, floods, tornados, hurricanes or earthquakes—reveals the stark reality of social life. Millions of people, living day to day and paycheck to paycheck, do not have the resources to deal with the financial shock caused by such events. Politicians make hollow promises and empty gestures. The media shines a brief light on people who are generally neglected and ignored. And after the immediate cause subsides, those who have been devastated are left to fend for themselves, while nothing is done to prepare for the next disaster.

While thousands of state residents, including many from New Orleans and other cities not directly affected by the flooding, flocked to the disaster zone to volunteer their services in rescuing and caring for victims, the governmental response was completely inadequate.

The Louisiana state government and the local parish (county) governments were overwhelmed by extent of the emergency and the widespread social need. At least 40,000 homes have been damaged, most of them significantly. Some 30,000 people had to be rescued, many from their vehicles as they sought to flee the flood zone.

In contrast to hurricanes, where shelters are opened in advance, there were few such facilities prepared for the impact of an unnamed low-pressure system that caused record rainfalls of up to 22 inches. By Tuesday, however, more than 11,000 people were jammed into the shelters that were hastily made available by local authorities.

State government offices were closed Monday in at least 27 parishes, nearly half of the state, and even the governor’s mansion in Baton Rouge had to be evacuated temporarily as water began to enter the basement, the state government’s emergency headquarters. Tens of thousands of state residents are without electric power, and repair efforts were hampered by roads blocked by water.

The area hit by the flooding is largely rural, with some suburban and exurban development outside Baton Rouge and New Orleans. Louisiana is one of the poorest US states, and has been devastated by budget cuts under both Democratic and Republican state administrations. Roads and bridges are in poor repair—as evidenced by the large number of motorists trapped by flood waters—and emergency services, other than the National Guard, part of the US military, are badly underfunded.

The Obama administration has done little more than the Bush administration after Katrina. There were no plans for Obama to interrupt his vacation on Martha’s Vineyard, although he will leave the island briefly to campaign for Hillary Clinton. He made the obligatory declaration of a federal disaster area, covering four parishes on Monday, expanded to 12 parishes on Tuesday. Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, said that the declaration would eventually apply to about 30 parishes, half the state.

Only a relative handful of the residents of the affected area have federal flood insurance—far fewer proportionally than in New Orleans, 10 percent compared to 40 percent. Most of the flood victims will be wiped out, with their homes and property deluged, forced to rebuild from scratch at their own expense. Once again, as during Katrina, working people are being left to their own devices, with no real social safety net to support them.

The Obama administration mobilized trillions in resources when the financial aristocracy faced disaster on Wall Street in 2009. It spends lavishly on the military-intelligence apparatus, nearly a trillion dollars every year. But aid for the flood victims in Louisiana will be doled out stingily, just as it has been for those hit by flooding in West Virginia, Maryland and Texas, or by other weather events such as tornadoes, drought and mudslides.

The pathetic federal response also exposes the fraudulent character of the “war on terror,” now approaching the 15th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. Vast resources have been squandered on “counterterrorism,” the build-up of the forces of the state and emergency planning. But when a genuine emergency hits—one, moreover, that was fully predictable—the enormous state apparatus yawns and turns its back.

There is an additional element in the latest natural disaster. More than any previous such event, it is linked directly to climate change. A report on the New York Times web site Tuesday noted that the weekend downpour in Louisiana was the eighth event in the past 15 months that exceeded scientific predictions of events occurring only once every 500 years, or with a 0.2 percent probability.

Dr. David Easterling, an official of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration who spoke with the Times, said reports that as much as 31 inches of rain have fallen on parts of Louisiana in the past week were “pretty staggering,” the type of event that would occur only once every 1,000 years. The article continued, “Dr. Easterling said that those sorts of estimates were predicated on the idea that the climate was stable, a principle that has become outdated.”

July was the warmest month ever recorded, following a June that was the warmest June on record. The higher the air temperature, the greater the capacity of the air to store water vapor, and the greater potential downpour in the event that water vapor turns into rain.

How would a society based on rational planning and social need, rather than private profit, respond to such a crisis?

The resources of the society, including manpower, skilled emergency responders and basic necessities like shelter, clothing and food, would be fully mobilized and available in vast quantities as soon as required. Advance planning would ensure that regions particularly susceptible to such disasters, like the low-lying, swampy terrain of southern Louisiana, would receive special attention. And every effort would be made to adapt the technological processes of society to the scientific understanding of the driving forces of climate change, by reducing fossil fuel use and other emissions contributing to global warming.

Such a response would be the mirror opposite of the chaotic, unplanned and thoroughly indifferent response of American capitalist society to the latest natural disaster. It would only be possible under a socialist, planned economy controlled democratically by the working class.

Patrick Martin

WSWS

The social roots of unrest in Milwaukee, Wisconsin

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16 August 2016

Once again deeply rooted social anger has boiled over in an American city against police violence. This time protests erupted in the Sherman Park neighborhood of Milwaukee, Wisconsin following the killing of 23-year-old African American Sylville K. Smith by an as yet unidentified African American police officer Saturday afternoon.

Approximately 100 people gathered Saturday night to protest near where Smith was killed. The night ended with a handful of nearby businesses looted as well as a gas station, a bank branch and an auto parts store torched. A handful of cop cars and other vehicles were damaged or destroyed. The police arrested 31 people during protests Saturday and Sunday night.

At the request of Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke, a prominent African American backer of Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker has mobilized the National Guard. At least 100 members have been placed on standby to respond to protests if deemed necessary by city officials, adding to the 150 specially trained Milwaukee Police Department (MPD) officers and regular police patrols.

This marks the second time since 2014 that Walker has put the National Guard on notice for deployment in response to protests against police violence in the city. The National Guard, a branch of the military, has been used to put down popular protests in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014 and Baltimore, Maryland in 2015.

While the killing of Smith is the immediate cause of the protests in Milwaukee, it is clear that broader issues are involved—bound up not with racial divisions, but a one-sided class war waged by the American financial elite. Like so many cities in the United States, Milwaukee has been devastated by decades of deindustrialization and financialization, which has produced the highest levels of inequality since the 1920s. The factories that provided decent wages and benefits for tens of thousands of workers have all but disappeared.

The city lost three-quarters of its industrial jobs between 1960 and the 2010. The disappearance of manufacturing employment had a particular impact on black male workers in the city. From 1970 to 2010, the employment rate for black men aged 16 to 64 in the metro Milwaukee region fell precipitously, from 73.4 percent to only 44.7 percent.

The city’s overall poverty rate in 2014 was 29 percent, nearly double the national rate. Children and youth aged 18 and under were the worst affected, with more than 42 percent growing up poor. More than 43 percent of the population in the Sherman Park neighborhood lives below the poverty line.

It is fitting that President Barack Obama visited the Sherman Park area in 2012 where he spoke at the Master Lock factory, one of the few remaining industrial facilities in the area. Obama hailed Master Lock as a great example of the “insourcing” of low wage manufacturing jobs. In its more than seven years in office, the Obama administration has not proposed a single initiative or program that would begin to address the staggering levels of social inequality, poverty and unemployment in the United States.

The growth of poverty and inequality, the eruption of social anger and the build-up of the police forces are interrelated components of the same class dynamic. Whatever the role racism may play—a 2011 analysis of traffic stop data found that African American drivers were more than seven times as likely as white drivers to be pulled over by the MPD—the war waged by the American ruling class has been directed at the working class of all races.

In considering the issue of police violence, it is once again necessary to stress that the majority of those killed by police in the United States are white. As for the conditions that are fueling social anger, these transcend race as well. The majority of poor in the United States are white, and white workers have suffered some of the most disastrous declines in conditions of life over the past several decades. One only needs to cite the stunning rise in mortality rates among working class whites in recent years.

As for African Americans, one of the most significant if very little noted facts of American life is the extraordinary growth of social inequality within the African American population over the past four decades. A black family in the top 1 percent of the US population has a net worth 200 times the average black family, and the top 10 percent controls 67 of the wealth held by all African Americans.

In politics, African Americans have been elevated to positions of power by both the Democrats and Republicans—Obama, Loretta Lynch, Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell being some of the most notable. Many major American cities have had black mayors and city councils are populated by African American politicians.

Those promoting racial politics speak for this social layer of more privileged sections of the middle class and for sections of the ruling class itself whose interests are thoroughly hostile to those of African American workers and youth.

A genuine fight against police violence must proceed from an understanding of certain basic facts.

First, that police violence is the product not of racial animosity of “white America” against “black America,” but rather is a reflection of the nature of the state as an instrument of class rule. The build-up of police power, which is a component part of a vast apparatus of repression, from the military to the spying agencies, will be used against all social opposition to the policies of the financial aristocracy.

Second, all factions of the political establishment are committed to the defense of the police. In the 2016 elections, Trump and the Republicans are running on a program of “law and order” and calls for criminalization of opposition to police violence (expressed most ruthlessly by Milwaukee County Sheriff Clarke at the Republican National Convention last month).

Meanwhile Hillary Clinton and the Democrats hail the police while sickeningly and hypocritically exploiting the family members of the victims of police violence to promote racial identity politics. She is committed to continuing and extending the policies of the Obama administration—which means escalating the assault on the working class, expanding war abroad and doing nothing to halt the reign of police violence in the United States.

The fight against police violence means a fight against the society that creates it. It requires a political struggle to unify all sections of the working class, of all races, in a common fight against unemployment, poverty, inequality and the capitalist profit system.

Niles Niemuth

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2016/08/16/pers-a16.html

International bond markets turn “surreal” as speculation grows

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By Nick Beams
15 August 2016

The value of negative-yielding bonds reached more than $13.4 trillion last week amid growing concerns that the actions of major central banks in pumping billions of dollars into the global financial system via various forms of “quantitative easing” are creating the conditions for a financial disaster.

According to figures compiled by Tradeweb for the Financial Times, the mass of bonds, corporate and government, with sub-zero yields rose by $300 billion in the course of the week. The escalation seems to have been sparked, at least in part, by the decision of the Bank of England to resume bond buying with purchases of £60 billion worth of government debt over the next six months in a bid to boost the markets following the Brexit vote to quit the European Union.

The decision sent yields plunging as bond prices rose—the two move in an inverse relationship to one another—with the yield on 30-year UK bonds now down to a record low of 1.3 percent, compared to 2.3 percent just three months ago.

The UK central bank was unable to find sufficient sellers for all the bonds it wished to purchase last Tuesday, indicating that bond market investors and speculators expect still further central bank action and even higher bond prices.

The international bond market is increasingly taking the form of a speculative bubble. A negative yield means that demand for a bond is so great and its purchase price so high that any purchaser would incur a loss if he held the bond to maturity. The investor is purchasing the bond in the expectation that its price will rise even further and he will be able to make a profit by selling it at a later date.

The demand for German government debt is so high that it now has on issue €160 billion of zero coupon bonds. These bring no interest and have been purchased solely in the expectation that their price will continue to rise.

Significant profits have already been made as the international bond market, once regarded as providing stability for the global financial system, increasingly resembles a multitrillion-dollar casino.

The soaring price of long-term British government debt means that the rate of return on 30-year bonds over the past 12 months is 31 percent. The rise in price of so-called “gilts” has been so rapid that the yield on the longest-dated bond, which matures in 2068, has almost halved since the day of the Brexit referendum, falling from 2 percent to 1.06 percent. The price of the bond has risen by 53 percent so far this year—the kind of rise normally associated with highly speculative stock, not long-term debt issued by the British government.

Mike Amey, the manager of sterling portfolios for the one of the world’s largest bond-trading companies, Pimco, described the speed of the move as “eye-popping.”

A senior investment officer at Prudential Fixed Income, Gregory Peters, told the Financial Times the situation had become “surreal.” He said, “It’s clear that central banks are dominating markets. There’s a race to the bottom.”

It appears that trading in bond markets has assumed the form of a mania, as everyone seeks to maximise immediate profits with no concern for what could be the consequences. “There’s too much acceptance of this,” Peters warned. “We’re talking about it in a cavalier way, but that’s not appropriate. It’s extremely distortive, and if we see a pick-up on the fiscal side, or inflation, it will look less comfortable sitting in this negative-yielding universe.”

The concern is that any action taken by governments to boost their economies through increased spending, or any unexpected spike in inflation, could send bond yields rising and prices falling. This would leave speculators who bought in at the top of the market, in the expectation that bond prices would climb still higher, with major losses.

The amounts involved are massive. Earlier this month, Fitch Ratings estimated that if yields went back to the levels of 2011, when they were already at historically low levels as a result of the quantitative easing programs following the 2008 financial crisis, total market losses could be as much as $3.8 trillion.

The official rationale for the quantitative easing policy was that lower interest rates were necessary to stimulate investment and consumer spending by lowering the cost of borrowing, thereby preventing the global economy from falling into a full-scale depression. But almost eight years of financial stimulus have failed to lift the real economy, with investment rates remaining well below where they were before the financial crisis. In the US, for example, the latest data on gross domestic product shows investment dropping by 9.7 percent in the second quarter.

In a comment published in the Financial Times on Friday, Eric Lonergan, the macro fund manager at M&G Investments, wrote that the policy of the central banks had been based on a false theory. There was, he noted, no empirical evidence to show that consumers tended to increase spending as a result of lower interest rates, and that when interest rates were very low, households tended to save more because of concerns about the future direction of the economy. Corporate investment was similarly unresponsive to lower rates.

“Investment decisions have financial consequences over many years, and are more influenced by beliefs about future growth and attitudes to risk than by overnight rates set by central banks,” he wrote.

“Companies have in the past few years responded to very low borrowing costs by engaging in relatively low-risk financial engineering such as share buybacks, potentially crowding out productive risk-taking.”

Lonergan did not say so openly, but his remarks pointed to the underlying cause of falling investment despite lowered borrowing costs—the persistent tendency of the rate of profit to fall. This decline was in evidence even before the crisis of 2008, and has increased since.

In the US, where the stock market has reached record highs because of low interest rates, profitability is worsening, with S&P 500 firms reporting weakening overall profits for four quarters in the row.

The only major area where falling interest rates have had a significant impact on the real economy is in housing, where ultra-low rates have fuelled the formation of housing bubbles in a number of leading economies, creating the risk of a new collapse in the housing mortgage market, as happened with the bursting of the subprime bubble eight years ago.

But the world’s major central banks are now caught in a trap produced both by fundamental trends in the global capitalist system and the results of their own policies. The US Fed would like to bring about a return to a more normal interest rate regime, while in the UK, Bank of England Governor Mark Carney declared that he was “not a fan of negative interest rates,” even as he introduced policies that sent British rates lower.

Such is the extent of speculation resulting from the quantitative easing regime that any return to even a semblance of normalcy threatens to set off a financial crisis that would go far beyond that of 2008.

Last week, the Swiss-based financial corporation UBS issued a research note citing several factors that could set off a major sell-off in the US Treasury market. Among the factors it listed were higher growth and inflationary expectations. But a return to these conditions is supposedly the aim of official policy.

As a comment in the Financial Times noted last month, any policy switch to loosen the austerity agenda that is devastating the lives of workers the world over would “herald a stampede” from the best performing sectors of global markets and prompt a rush for the exits, as investors moved to sell off their holdings.

WSWS