The 2016 elections: American democracy in shambles


21 October 2016

In the aftermath of the final presidential debate on Wednesday, the US media is in an uproar over statements made by Republican candidate Donald Trump that he might not recognize the result of the November 8 election.

Asked by debate moderator Chris Wallace from Fox News whether he would “absolutely accept the result of this election,” Trump replied that he would “look at it at the time,” and would “keep you in suspense.” On Thursday, Trump climbed down on his remarks somewhat, saying that he would “accept a clear election result.” However, arguing that Clinton “is the most corrupt and dishonest person ever to seek office,” he added that he would reserve the right “to contest or file a legal challenge in the case of a questionable result.”

Trump’s comments at the debate are in line with previous statements that the election is rigged by the media in favor of Clinton, and his assertions, which clearly have racist overtones, that millions of Americans, particularly in urban centers, are voting illegally. He is pitching his appeal to conditions that will develop after the elections, seeking to channel social anger and hostility to the entire political system in an extremely right-wing direction.

From the media and dominant sections of the political establishment, the response has been universal condemnation of Trump for besmirching the purity of American democracy. The Washington Post proclaimed that “respecting the will of the voters has since the end of the Civil War allowed for a peaceful transition of power that has made this country the envy of the world.” The New York Times added that Trump has turned from “insulting the intelligence of the American voter to insulting American democracy itself.”

Republican Senator and former presidential candidate John McCain issued a statement declaring that a concession to the victor in an election is “an act of respect for the will of the American people, a respect that is every American leader’s first responsibility.” And Vice President Joe Biden, donning the mantle of sanctimonious outrage, said in a speech on Thursday, “If you question, if you assert that a democratic election is fixed, you are attacking the very essence of the notion of whether we have a democratic system.”

These statements from newspaper editorial boards and leading politicians reek of hypocrisy. They also express a nervousness whose causes extend far beyond the comments of Mr. Trump. The political representatives of the ruling class are rushing to the defense of a political system that is increasingly seen as illegitimate by broad sections of the population.

From a historical standpoint, it must first of all be pointed out that until the middle of the 20th century every election in the United States was “fixed,” insofar as large portions of the population were barred from voting. Women were only given the right to vote in 1920. The systematic disenfranchisement of African Americans in the South—through poll taxes, Jim Crow segregation and other measures—was only ended in the mid-1960s, a byproduct of the immense social struggles of that period. And it was only in 1971 that the age of eligibility for the franchise was lowered from 21 to 18. Until then, young men could be drafted to fight and die in wars at the order of a commander-in-chief they could not vote for.

For the past four decades, democratic forms of rule have been under systematic attack, in line with the extreme growth of social inequality. A turning point came with the campaign to impeach Bill Clinton over a sex scandal in 1998 and 1999, followed by the theft of the election in 2000. To the extent that the 2000 elections are mentioned at all in the present discussion over Trump’s comments, it is to praise Al Gore’s “respect for the process” in accepting the Supreme Court decision to hand the election to George W. Bush.

In fact, the 5-4 decision by the highest court in the country to halt the recounting of ballots in Florida installed in office an individual who lost the popular vote and, if all the ballots had been fairly counted, the electoral vote as well. In one of the decisions culminating in this travesty of democracy, the Supreme Court asserted that the American people have no constitutional right to vote for the president of the United States. The rigging of the 2000 election was carried out, not in the back room of a county courthouse, but by the highest court in the land.

In early December 2000, in advance of the decision in Bush v. Gore, WSWS editorial board chairman David North noted that the decision would reveal “how far the American ruling class is prepared to go in breaking with traditional bourgeois-democratic and constitutional norms.” In the end, the blatantly political action by Supreme Court was met with no serious opposition from the Democratic Party and Gore, or from the media and political establishment as a whole. The outcome, as the WSWS wrote at the time, “revealed the lack of any significant constituency within the ruling elite for a democratic adjudication of the presidential election.”

The ruling class has demonstrated its contempt for democracy through its actions over the past decade and a half. The attacks of September 11, 2001 were followed, under Bush and then Obama, by a raft of anti-democratic measures justified by the “war on terror”: the Patriot Act; warrantless mass surveillance; indefinite detention without trial; torture and “extraordinary rendition”; drone assassination, including of US citizens; the establishment of the Department of Homeland Security and the Northern Command, a military jurisdiction to oversee the increasing domestic use of the military. To this list must be added a militarized police force that kills more than 1,000 Americans every year.

As for the electoral process, Supreme Court decisions have undermined the Voting Rights Act and sanctioned state laws requiring photo IDs and other restrictions aimed at disenfranchising poor, elderly and minority voters. Some 6 million citizens (one out of every 40 eligible voters) are barred from voting due to previous felony convictions. The Citizens United decision in 2010 abolished restrictions on big business financing of candidates and their political action committees. It is estimated that more than $7 billion has been spent on the 2016 elections, all told, twice what was spent in 2012.

Everything is done to prevent independent and third-party candidates from having their names appear on the ballot, including requirements that they gather tens or even hundreds of thousands of signatures. Many states will not even count write-in votes. Meanwhile, the media works to ensure that the official “debate” remains safely confined to the narrow framework acceptable to the ruling class.

“American democracy” is a hollowed-out shell, overseen by two parties that are controlled by the financial oligarchy and the military. The experience of the Obama administration—which came to power promising “change you can believe in”—has only demonstrated to millions of people that their vote has no impact on the policies of the ruling class.

The protracted decay of American democracy has culminated in the election of 2016, a contest between a millionaire scion of the Clinton dynasty and a billionaire real estate speculator and reality television star.

Trump himself is a product of a diseased social and political system, the legitimate heir of the “war on terror.” As for Clinton, she is merely another expression of the same disease, running her campaign on the basis of the same scandal-mongering used by the Republicans against her husband, combined with McCarthyite smears that have a long and noxious history.

The Democrats’ stock response to any question about leaked emails exposing Clinton’s ties to Wall Street is to change the subject to the completely unsubstantiated claim that it is all the handiwork of Russian President Vladimir Putin. While Trump has said that he might not accept the election as legitimate, if Clinton is defeated the Democrats will declare that it is the result of Russia’s interference in the electoral process.

Behind the whole rotten process, the fundamental issues are covered up or ignored. The reality of American “democracy” can perhaps be summed up in the fact that, three weeks before November 8, the American military has launched a massive military escalation in the Middle East, and there is no significant discussion about the consequences in an election that is supposedly the principal means through which the population can affect policy.

The crisis of democracy is a product of the decay of American capitalism, overseen by a ruling class that is determined to advance a policy of war abroad and austerity at home—a policy that requires ever greater attacks on democratic forms of rule. Whatever happens on November 8, it will resolve nothing, and only set the stage for a protracted political crisis that can be resolved only through the independent intervention of the working class on the basis of a revolutionary socialist program.

Joseph Kishore

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

In secret Goldman Sachs speeches, Clinton explains why the rich should rule


By Tom Carter
17 October 2016

In one question-and-answer session on October 24, 2013 at Goldman Sachs, with CEO Lloyd Blankfein in attendance, an audience member asked the current Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton the following question: “And Mike Bloomberg had 30 billion other reasons than to take office. Do we need a wholesale change in Washington that has more to do with people that don’t need the job than have the job?”

Clinton’s answer was revealing. “That’s a really interesting question,” she said. “You know, I would like to see more successful business people run for office. I really would like to see that because I do think, you know, you don’t have to have 30 billion, but you have a certain level of freedom. And there’s that memorable phrase from a former member of the Senate: You can be maybe rented, but never bought. And I think it’s important to have people with those experiences.”

Clinton’s response is an open defense of the aristocratic principle: the rich should rule. By virtue of being very wealthy, the rich have the leisure time to pursue a political career. Moreover, they supposedly have immunity from being bribed, since they are already so wealthy. Finally, they have the “experience in business” necessary to preside over a social system that benefits the social layer which appropriates all the profits from business and finance. These are sentiments that any 18th or 19th century aristocrat would recognize and embrace.

Clinton merely echoes, in a more crude form, the patrician arrogance of Robert Gascoyne-Cecil, 3rd Marquess of Salisbury (1830-1903), whose views were summed up by historian Barbara Tuchman:

He did not believe in political equality. There was the multitude, he said, and there were the “natural” leaders. “Always wealth, in some countries birth, and in all countries intellectual power and culture mark out the man to whom, in a healthy state of feeling, a community looks to undertake its government.” These men had the leisure for it and the fortune, “so that the struggles for ambition are not defiled by the taint of sordid greed… They are the aristocracy of a country in the original and best sense of the word… The important point is that the rulers of a country should be taken from among them,” and as a class they should retain that “political preponderance to which they have every right that superior fitness can confer.”

Clinton’s argument that her own wealth entitles her to govern America is an argument also made repeatedly by Donald Trump, who touts his own billions as a reason he will remain immune to “special interests.”

The “former member of the Senate” to whom Clinton was apparently referring was John Breaux, a Louisiana Democrat who held office from 1987 to 2005. Considered one of the most conservative Democrats ever to take office, Clinton’s role model went on to pursue a lucrative lobbying career at the firm Squire Patton Boggs. His name is synonymous with Washington’s corrupt “revolving door.”

On Saturday, WikiLeaks published the transcripts of three lavishly paid speeches given by Clinton at gatherings held by Goldman Sachs, dating from June 4, October 24 and October 29, 2013. All three feature a mix of groveling before the financial malefactors who hired her to speak and gloating over her own wealth.

In one of her secret Wall Street speeches, Clinton frankly admitted that she has a “public position” and a “private position.” The private position is expressed in “backroom discussions,” while the “public position” consists of the lies she tells to the rest of the population.

The fact that Clinton addressed the notorious investment bank in the first place highlights the extent to which the American corporate, financial and political establishment is drenched in corruption and criminality. In April 2011, the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations released a report entitled “Wall Street and the Financial Crisis: Anatomy of a Financial Collapse.” This report exhaustively documented that the financial crash of 2008 and the recession that followed were the product of fraud and illegality on the part of mortgage lenders and banks such as Goldman Sachs, with government regulatory bodies as well as credit rating agencies serving as accessories.

Forty percent of the 639-page report, or some 240 pages, were devoted to the fraudulent and deceptive practices of Goldman Sachs. The report presented documents, emails, internal communications and other evidence showing that the largest US investment bank had sold billions of dollars in subprime mortgage-backed securities to investors, vouching for their value, even as it was betting that the investments would fail. Goldman made billions and CEO Blankfein and other top executives pocketed millions in bonuses by accelerating the collapse of the financial system.

Michigan Senator Carl Levin, the chairman of the Senate subcommittee, famously described how the investigation had uncovered “a financial snake pit rife with greed, conflicts of interest and wrongdoing.”

“Using their own words in documents subpoenaed by the subcommittee,” Levin said, “the report discloses how financial firms deliberately took advantage of their clients and investors, how credit rating agencies assigned AAA ratings to high-risk securities, and how regulators sat on their hands instead of reining in the unsafe and unsound practices all around them. Rampant conflicts of interest are the threads that run through every chapter of this sordid story.”

So when Clinton was hobnobbing with Goldman Sachs CEO Blankfein in 2013, while investigations of wrongdoing by Goldman and the other Wall Street banks were still ongoing, she was consorting with a man who belonged in prison. In 2011, Levin had recommended that the Justice Department criminally prosecute Blankfein for his fraudulent and deceptive conduct, and the Senate subcommittee charged that he had perjured himself in testimony in 2010 regarding his bank’s role in the financial crash. Nevertheless, no charges were brought, and in 2013 Clinton was accepting upwards of $225,000 per speech from Blankfein’s firm.

Hillary and Bill Clinton have accumulated a total of $153 million in speaking fees since Bill Clinton left the White House. Only the very naive could believe that these vast sums were paid for the speeches themselves. They were payment for services rendered to the American financial aristocracy over a protracted period.

Clinton’s Wall Street speeches deserve to be widely read. They provide an invaluable first-hand education in the sheer cynicism of the American ruling class. While the Obama administration publicly insisted that the Dodd-Frank reforms of 2010 were “strict regulations” that would ensure that the 2008 crash would “never happen again,” Clinton privately told her Goldman audience not to worry, that these cosmetic reforms had to be passed for “political reasons,” to provide the appearance that the government did not “sit idly by and do nothing” as people lost their jobs, homes and life savings.

When Blankfein snidely asked Clinton how, should he decide to run for president, he should conduct his campaign, Clinton responded with her own cynical joke. “I think you would leave Goldman Sachs and start running a soup kitchen somewhere,” Clinton replied, to the merriment of the assembled guests.

The response to the publication of these speeches by so-called “socialist” Bernie Sanders exposes the utterly fraudulent character of his entire presidential bid. While he postured during the Democratic Party primaries as a proponent of a “political revolution” against the “billionaire class,” Sanders now functions shamelessly as a sideshow for the Clinton campaign, browbeating his (now much smaller) audiences with admonitions to vote for the preferred candidate of the “billionaire class” he claimed to oppose.

During his run for the Democratic nomination, Sanders repeatedly called on Clinton to release the transcripts of her Wall Street speeches, which she refused to do. He charged that the speeches would show her subservience to the bankers. Now, transcripts have been leaked to the public, completely substantiating his accusations. His silence only underscores the depth of his political treachery and dishonesty.

Meanwhile, emails published by WikiLeaks to and from Clinton’s campaign chairman, John Podesta, reveal the consummate cynicism with which Hillary Clinton sought to portray herself as a champion of “everyday Americans,” small businesses, unionized workers, minorities and women. Having no connection whatsoever to any popular movement or any policies that have benefited the bottom 90 percent of American society, Clinton relies on a network of “community leaders,” union bureaucrats, academics, celebrities and media “surrogates,” who use empty demagogy and identity politics to market her brand to voters.

In one particularly Machiavellian email, one of Clinton’s aides discussed adding a “riff” of demagogic statements against Wall Street in a speech to Deutsche Bank in 2015, “precisely for the purpose of having something we could show people if ever asked what she was saying behind closed doors for two years to all those fat cats.”

“I wrote her a long riff about economic fairness and how the financial industry has lost its way,” the aide wrote. “Perhaps at some point there will be value in sharing this with a reporter and getting a story written. Upside would be that when people say she’s too close to Wall Street and has taken too much money from bankers, we can point to evidence that she wasn’t afraid to speak truth to power.”

In another email, Podesta frankly noted that Clinton hated the phrase “everyday Americans,” but Podesta urged her to use it anyway. “I know she has begun to hate everyday Americans, but I think we should use it once the first time she says I’m running for president because you and everyday Americans need a champion,” Podesta wrote.

The cynicism of Clinton’s campaign knows no bounds. Her staff actually worked to help Donald Trump secure the Republican nomination, believing that Clinton would have a better chance of defeating Trump in the election than a more conventional Republican candidate. The media was encouraged to “take him seriously,” and Clinton was urged to single Trump out for criticism in order to “help him cement his front runner status” among the Republican primary candidates.

Around 11,000 out of 50,000 emails obtained by WikiLeaks have been published. The Clinton campaign’s response to these exposures has been to blame Russia, in line with the Obama administration’s campaign of saber-rattling against the Putin administration. In an interview last weekend on Fox News, Podesta suggested that the emails were not authentic, while simultaneously (and inconsistently) arguing that the emails were acquired by “the Russians,” who are supposedly attempting to deliver the election to Donald Trump.

On Friday, Podesta taunted WikiLeaks editor Julian Assange with a picture of a number of uniformed chefs preparing a luxurious private dinner for the Hillary Victory Fund. “I bet the lobster risotto is better than the food at the Ecuadorian Embassy,” Podesta wrote as the caption to the photograph on Twitter, referring to the fact that Assange has been a de facto prisoner at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London since he sought asylum there in June 2012. Assange immediately replied, “Yes, we get it. The elite eat better than the peasants they abuse.”


Taking the struggle forward in Columbus

Will Myers and Haley Swenson write from Ohio’s capital city on a surge of protests against police violence–and the questions about strategy now facing the movement.

Protesters speak out in the Columbus City Council room (People's Justice Project)

Protesters speak out in the Columbus City Council room (People’s Justice Project)

IN SPITE of the movement-withering heat of election season, Columbus, Ohio–the political center of a swing state–has seen an upsurge in the struggle for Black lives.

The demand for justice for Tyre King and Henry Green, two of the most recent victims of the Columbus Police Department, was at the heart of two simultaneous direct actions that upset business as usual in Ohio’s capital city on September 26.

One protest–organized by the People’s Justice Project (PJP), a nonprofit organization that is part of the Ohio Organizing Collaborative–took over a city council meeting, leading all council members to exit their own meeting.

The other demonstration, called by the Ohio State University Coalition for Black Liberation (OSU4BL), a campus-based coalition of student and alumni, stopped traffic on a major street near the OSU campus during the evening rush hour.

The two actions were some of the most confrontational and confident the city has seen in the history of Black Lives Matter organizing. They show that many people believe justice can’t wait, even during election season, and that Black Lives Matter is a movement with the power to mobilize people in unlikely places.

But for those committed to opposing police violence in Columbus, the newfound strength of the struggle has led to questions about strategy and tactics after the city’s Democratic Party machine tried to corral the movement into a non-threatening source of votes in an upcoming election for Franklin County prosecutor.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

HENRY GREEN was shot seven times on June 6 by plainclothes police officers Jason Bare and Zachary Rosen, who, according to the surviving victim, didn’t identify themselves after jumping out of an unmarked van and confronting the two.

According to police, Green drew and fired his weapon first. For months, police refused to release any details about the shooting, including how many times Green was shot, even to the victim’s mother.

The escalation of resistance to police brutality in Columbus came after 13-year-old Tyre King was shot three times on September 14 by officer Brian Mason. Mason chased King as a suspect in an armed robbery in which $10 was taken. An independent pathologist’s report concluded that it was “more likely than not” that King was shot while he was running away. According to initial police reports, King drew a BB gun that looked like a real gun.

No officers have been charged and no independent investigation is underway in either case. The only person facing criminal charges in either case is 19-year-old Demetrius Braxton, who was with Tyre King the night he was killed.

On September 19, a delegation of faith leaders delivered five demands crafted by PJP to the Columbus City Council, calling on its members to defund the police department in multiple areas:

— Discontinue the Summer Safety Initiative, a supposed anti-gang initiative, and reinvest its budget into community-based violence prevention strategies, trauma services and youth programming.

— Allocate at least half of the $300 million police and safety budget to prevention, intervention and community-controlled policing.

— Reallocate the $33.4 million bond package that the city is floating to pay for police facility improvements and substations, and use the funds instead for trauma recovery services in neighborhoods hardest hit by violence.

— Work with a task force that includes community members, experts in criminal justice reform and violence prevention, and family members of the victims of police shootings to reinvest the funds.

In addition, the delegation called for independent investigations and transparent prosecutions in the deaths of King, Green and all future victims of police.

Given the evidence that initial police reports are filled with misinformation meant to justify police actions rather than accurately inform, the call for independent investigations opens up a necessary alternative to allowing the cops’ story to stand unchallenged.

But even in cases with strong evidence of police wrongdoing, killer cops are rarely prosecuted–so the call for independent investigations is fundamentally limited.

Coupling this final demand with the call for the city council to reallocate tens of millions of dollars from police to low-income communities is an appropriate strategy in a city that dedicates one-third of its budget to police, while nearly 18 percent of residents live below the poverty line. The city’s investment in police militarization has led to disinvestment in public services that most benefit poor and Black neighborhoods.

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ONE WEEK after this initial airing of the PJP’s demands, close to 250 people filed into the next city council meeting to send their message again.

This time, the anti-police violence opponents focused on ending the “Summer Safety Initiative,” which was responsible for the presence of the plainclothes officers who shot and killed Henry Green.

As Green’s mother, Adrienne Hood, wrote in a letter to Columbus’s main newspaper, the Summer Safety Initiative “has a long history of being implemented strategically in gentrifying areas. Poor people and Black people who live in or near neighborhoods targeted for development are not only priced out of their homes, but policed out of their neighborhoods.”

But it was clear that City Council had no intention of addressing community members’ concerns. When protesters interrupted the meeting to ask City Council President Zach Klein to answer to the demand to end the Summer Safety Initiative, Klein evaded the question and threatened to have everyone escorted out.

Ignoring this threat, a group of activists approached the front of the room and unveiled a banner. Police filed in, but made no threats, and the city council members packed up and left the room. For 20 minutes, protesters controlled the council room, their chants of “No justice, no peace, no racist police!” echoing through the building.

At the same time as the city council occupation, hundreds of Ohio State University students, alumni and campus-area community members led by OSU4BL marched through campus to protest police brutality and raise awareness of King’s life and tragic death.

When the crowd reached a major intersection nearby, people entered the street and formed a large square to block traffic in all directions. They held the space for 13 minutes–one minute for each year of King’s life–in the middle of evening rush hour, despite pressure from police and racist jeers from some drivers.

The group then proceeded to march to the OSU student union, where protesters staged a 13-minute-long die-in. The protest concluded with a rally in the same space, where members of OSU4BL spoke about King and other victims of police brutality, and the importance of continuing the movement and building independent political organization.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

FACED WITH this unexpected upsurge of protest while elections for key public offices were approaching fast, Democratic Party leaders in Columbus scrambled to respond.

One week after the occupation of the council room, Zach Klein and every member of city council posed with members of PJP at a press conference on the steps of City Hall. Klein and fellow council members promised to re-evaluate the Summer Safety Initiative–and little else.

On the one hand, the city council’s embrace of PJP organizers shows the power of the direct actions the week prior. Yet there is little reason to believe there is anything behind Klein’s words except damage control and electoral ambition.

Klein, a former Republican and ex-member of the Federalist Society, is the Democratic candidate for county prosecutor, running against a Republican incumbent who has held the office for a decade and a half. The need for votes explains why he would stand with Black Lives Matter protesters.

But it’s clear that Klein and Columbus’ Democratic machine in general can’t and won’t challenge police killing Black people with impunity. After the PJP press conference with Klein, Columbus Mayor Andrew Ginther, also a Democrat, came out against discarding the Summer Safety Initiative, showing quite clearly that even if city council members have sincere hopes of changing policy, other forces will stand in the way.

Years of effort by Columbus activists to get the city to establish a civilian review board for police misconduct haven’t resulted in any progress, even though Columbus has the second-highest rate of police shootings per capita in the country. And Democratic leaders in Columbus have a long history of covering up police brutality.

Supporting a Democrat as a progressive alternative to a Republican on the issue of police brutality is a strategic dead end–that reality is underlined by the fact that in cities with Democratic prosecutors, the police still virtually never face criminal charges for killing people.

Plus, in this coming election, a longtime anti-racist activist in Columbus, Bob Fitrakis, is also running for county prosecutor as a Green Party candidate and with an explicit Black Lives Matter agenda. Unlike Klein, Fitrakis has promised to appoint independent prosecutors in cases of police shootings; to stop jailing individuals for drug-related crimes and provide treatment instead; and ultimately to jail killer cops.

After the friendly press conference with PJP organizers and city council members, a crowd of about 150 marched to the current Republican prosecutor’s office and protested outside–a further symbol of a shift away from the direction of the protest one week earlier that shut down a city council meeting.

PJP organizer Tammy Fournier-Alsaada promised the crowd that activists would not continue to work with the city council if they felt it wasn’t serious about meeting activists’ demands for a changed Summer Safety Initiative.

Meanwhile, other forces in the city have continued meeting to discuss next steps for grassroots organizing in Columbus–with many activists determined to keep the pressure on Columbus officials and ensure that the Democrats’ political ambitions don’t crush the momentum and potential they’ve seen in the past weeks.

What would a revolution look like?

Opinion polls show that more and more people–especially young people–drawn to socialism as an alternative to capitalism. But what is socialism? Is it defined by the program of individual political leaders like Bernie Sanders or something broader than that? Danny Katch, author of Socialism…Seriously: A Brief Guide to Human Liberation, answers a question on everyone’s minds when they first learn about socialism.

Fight for 15 activists demonstrate for a living wage in Milwaukee

AFTER BERNIE Sanders started shaking up mainstream politics with his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, a Vox poll in January found that a majority of Americans thought that the “political revolution” he talked about might, in fact, “be necessary to redistribute money from the wealthiest Americans to the middle class.”

This is a remarkable statement in a country where people are brought up learning that they live in the “world’s greatest democracy.” The reason this mindset has come about is the hard experience of seeing the people in charge of political and social institutions be unwilling or unable to address critical issues like growing inequality and climate change.

Among people under the age of 30, an overwhelming 68 percent agreed that a revolution might be necessary–probably because for them, the political system seems too broken to deal even with issues that strike them as basic questions of common sense and human decency.

For instance, a majority of Americans in the so-called Millennial generation support immigrant rights, the Black Lives Matter movement and transgender people’s right to use the bathroom they prefer.

But they’re stuck in a country seemingly held hostage by an aging white Republican minority that actually thinks Barack Obama is a secret Muslim and that two people with penises can’t really love each other.

This political dysfunction has now been concentrated into a presidential election featuring a “choice” between the two most widely disliked candidates in recent history. As theWashington Post put it in a recent headline, “For millennial voters, the Clinton vs. Trump choice ‘feels like a joke.'”

And Sanders–the only politician who seemed genuine to many young people–has now joined the circus. Not only is he supporting Hillary Clinton against the Republican bigot and buffoon Donald Trump, he’s telling supporters with a straight face that voting for Clinton–the textbook definition of a status-quo candidate–is a way to “continue the political revolution.”

For the millions who enthusiastically supported Sanders, there is an important question to answer in the coming months and years–long after they decide to either support the Green Party’s Jill Stein in November or hold their nose and vote for Clinton or skip voting altogether.

That question is whether they will continue to see revolution as a real thing to work toward–or follow Sanders into reducing it into just another empty advertising slogan.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

THE MOST important changes in U.S. history–from winning independence to ending slavery to winning greater equality for African Americans and others–have come not from voting for one rich guy over another, but by taking to the streets, going on strike, organizing our classmates and workmates, and so on.

Most protest movements don’t become revolutions, of course. That only happens when the grievances of masses of people can neither be effectively addressed nor squelched by those in power, leading much wider layers of the population to decide that the time to act has finally come.

Revolutions are rare enough that most people never see them coming. But they are regular occurrences throughout modern history: from the American and French Revolutions of the late 1700s that broke the power of kings and aristocracies, to the “Arab Spring” uprisings of recent years that unleashed a wave of first hopeful and then horrible changes across the Middle East, with more to come.

Just as geologists would have no idea about the tectonic plates beneath our feet if not for the occasional earthquake, it’s impossible to understand the forces that shape our world without looking at the revolutions that created them.

One of the most important victories for human progress in modern times–the abolition of slavery–was begun with the Haitian Revolution at the end of the 18th century and decisively won by the American Civil War in the middle of the 19th.

Another was the ending of the direct ownership of much of the globe by a handful of countries through colonialism–a struggle whose early sparks came 100 years ago in revolutions in Mexico and Ireland and that, many years later, continued with revolts across Asia and Africa in the decades after the Second World War.

Then there are the great defeated socialist revolutions of the 20th century–most famously in Russia in 1917, the only socialist revolution to create a workers’ state that survived for any length of time.

The Russian monarchy was overthrown in 1917, and the world saw the first steps toward worker-run democracy. But within a decade, the country’s isolation and poverty led to the rise of a new form of dictatorship that worked for the rest of the century to convince most people that socialism was the opposite of democracy.

Unless we think we’ve arrived at the “end of history”–a popular idea among defenders of the status quo that has been proved false many times–there will be more revolutions around the world, quite possibly including in the U.S. If anything, the pace of world events seems to be speeding up these days.

Since we’re all going to be bombarded for the next two months with proclamations that the Trump-versus-Clinton election is a world-historic event, this seems like a good time to look at some actual world-historic events to imagine what a future revolution in the U.S. might look like.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

IN TERMS OF sheer numbers, our side has the decisive edge, as the poet Percy Shelly recognized back in 1819 when he wrote The Mask of Anarchy:

Rise like lions after slumber
In unfathomable number
Shake your chains to earth like dew
That in sleep have fallen on you
Ye are many, they are few.

But in normal times, the few have a lot ways of keeping the many in check–from police repression to working people’s fear of losing their jobs.

Relatively small groups can win important gains–like the protesters continuing to take the streets against racist police violence, or the 39,000 Verizon workers who went on strike last spring to preserve their working conditions and set an example for the whole labor movement.

But the system depends on most people most of the time being unwilling and unable to take such an active role in shaping their own futures.

Then one day, that activist minority is suddenly no longer a minority–often to the great surprise of not only the rulers, but the ruled.

On January 25, 2011, Egyptian revolutionaries expected the usual hundreds to turn out to a protest against police repression. Instead, they were surrounded by tens of thousands, which in the coming days became hundreds of thousands and then millions–including workers in industries like textiles, whose strikes threatened the profits of the elite.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

A REVOLUTION in the U.S. would see not just larger versions of important recent protest movements like Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter, but millions of workers going on strike against Walmart, Amazon and other engines of American capitalism.

A revolution, wrote Leon Trotsky in his beautiful History of the Russian Revolution, is the “forcible entrance of the masses into the realm of rulership over their own destiny.”

Can’t see it happening here? In his book, Trotsky described how when a Russian general launched a coup against the revolution, telegraph workers intercepted his communications and relayed the plans to railroad workers, who made sure the trains carrying his troops never got to their destination.

Now imagine revolutionary workers at Comcast and Verizon blocking the wireless and fiber-optic networks of local police departments attempting to arrest protest leaders or break up Occupy-style encampments.

This is one of the ironies of working-class revolutions: People take over the tools they’ve created for their bosses and use them for the common good.

In Mexico, for example, railroad workers seized the locomotives that were importing machinery and products of industrial capitalism from the U.S., and turned them into a transportation network for Pancho Villa’s revolutionary army.

In a future American revolution, tech workers can take the software that companies use to send employees home on days when business is projected to be slow, and instead track surplus products to direct them to households where they are needed. Airbnb workers can share their database of vacant housing with homeless organizers–if that’s even necessary after the revolution is done taking over the empty second and third homes of rich people.

New leaders emerge in revolutions–not the typical ones who have been groomed for decades by professional handlers, but genuine leaders earn the trust and respect of their communities and who finally get the chance to show the world how much more talented they are than the mediocrities normally in charge.

Toussaint L’Ouverture was a slave who took part in the Haitian Revolution–within months, he rose to become a general who outsmarted and defeated the armies of France, Spain and Britain.

Emiliano Zapata was a horse trainer whose longstanding demands for peasant rights were turned into a national rallying cry by the Mexican Revolution.

While Northern generals wasted the early years of the American Civil War stalling for time, Harriet Tubman used her long experience in the Underground Railroad to sneak into the South as a spy and lead daring raids that freed thousands of slaves.

Perhaps future American revolutionary leaders will emerge from among the women on hunger strike inside immigration detention centers–or the students leading walkouts in their high schools against the endless use of standardized tests.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

EVERY REVOLUTION faces challenges that determine how far it can go–for example, how to create more effective and democratic governing structures than the systems they are trying to replace.

The most important accomplishment of the Russian Revolution was the creation of workers’ councils, known in Russian as “soviets.” The councils, extending from workplaces and neighborhoods up to regional and national bodies, replaced career politicians and the state bureaucracy with a system of instantly recallable delegates. It was able to impose democratic control over previously unaccountable institutions like the military, police and private industry.

These workers’ councils, which have appeared in different forms in many later revolutions, became the heart of the revolutionary vision of socialism–which isn’t about “the government owning everything,” as the right-wing complaint goes, but instead everyone becoming the government.

Socialized medicine, for example, in a future American revolution wouldn’t just mean having better access to health care. It would mean hospitals and clinics being collectively run by doctors, nurses and patients.

Then there is the task of taking on the oppressions based on race, gender, nationality and religion, which are a vital tool used by ruling classes to keep their working majority divided.

There will be many forms of oppression to combat on many different levels in U.S. society–from opening up prisons filled with Black and Latino victims of a racist criminal justice system to finding ways to challenge the ignorant attitudes of potential revolutionaries toward women, Muslims and others.

Finally, every revolution faces the question of how to spread beyond its national borders in order to survive. Haitians ended slavery and won independence from the colonial powers, but they faced a hostile, racist world that punished them for centuries for their revolution. Russia inspired workers around the world, but remained isolated in a capitalist global economy, which doomed the revolution to eventual defeat.

Future revolutions will face similar questions, particularly how to tackle the urgent questions of climate change that can only be accomplished by a dramatic global shift toward sustainable economies and renewable energy.

But where does all this talk about a future revolution leave us today, when revolutions–not the bogus rhetoric about them, but the real kind–seem very far away?

It’s important for people who want to fight for change to understand how vital revolutions are to that process. Revolutions are not only possible, but inevitable in the long run.

The truth is that political systems are almost always “broken” in the sense that they don’t serve the needs of the majority. It’s in the struggles of today against inequality and injustice–never as large as they should be–that individuals and organizations can become more effective organizers and leaders for the hopefully larger fights tomorrow.

Bringing those leaders together in explicitly socialist organization–to share their experiences, learn the lessons of past struggles, absorb Marxist theory that can explain the world and collaborate to provide a left-wing pole of attraction for new groups of people becoming revolutionaries–is a critical part of the socialist struggle today.

But the organizing of today must be guided by a vision of what we’re working toward–those rare but regular revolutionary moments when ordinary people have a chance to change the course of history.

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


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.



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.


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10.  Rosset, P. Zapatista Uprising 20 Years Later. Democracy Now! [online] (January 2014).