6 Ways We Can Begin to Rein in Facebook’s Immense Power Over Media and Our Society

How can we protect ourselves from Zuckerberg’s algorithms?

Photo Credit: Frederic Legrand – COMEO / Shutterstock.com

Mark Zuckerberg is really, really sorry.

Last year he dismissed as “crazy” the critics who said “fake news” delivered by Facebook might have given the election to Donald Trump. Last week he said he regretted it.

On Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, he apologized for what Facebook has wrought.

On Monday, a senior Facebook executive repented some more, reporting that $100,000 from Russian-sponsored troll farms bought 4.4 million page viewsbefore the 2016 election. “We understand more about how our service was abused and we will continue to investigate to learn all we can,” said vice president Elliot Schrage.

The Facebook leadership, like the U.S. government and the rest of us, is belatedly facing up to what Zuckerberg once denied: the social harms that can be inflicted by digital platform monopolies. The contrition and the voluntary remedies, notes Quartz, are “designed to head off looming regulations.”

What Is To Be Done

Facebook came to dominate social media with an ingenious interface that enables users to escape the Wild West of the open internet and join a sentimental community of family and friends, knitted together by likes, links, timelines, photos and videos.

Along the way, the company employed a scalable and amoral business model: use alogorithms of people’ personal data to mix messges of “promoted posts” with family messages and friendly momentos. Its an automated system that is profitable because it requires relatively little human intervention and can be used by anyone who wants to influence the behavior of Facebook users.

When the Russia government wanted to use the platform to confused and demoralize Democratic voters and promote favorite son Donald Trump, Facebook was ready, willing and able to monetize the opportunity. As sociologist Zeynep Tufekci has explained, “Facebook’s Ad Scandal Isn’t a ‘Fail,’ It’s a Feature.”

The question is, what can government and civil society do to protect the public interest from a $300 billion monopoly with 2 billion users? “Facebook is so gargantuan,” says Siva Vaidhyanathan, director of the Center for Media and Citizenship at the University of Virginia, “it’s exceeded our capability to manage it.”

One tool is traditional antitrust laws, created in the late 19th century and early 20th century to control railroads, the oil industry and electrical utilities. The reformers, in the Progressive era and the New Deal, passed legislation like the Sherman Anti-Trust Act and the Glass-Steagall Act to prevent and break up concentrations of economic power.

The problem is that since the 1970s, antitrust law has been interpreted through the lens of University of Chicago “free-market” economics. In this view, the test of a monopoly is the short-term harm it does to consumers; i.e., does it raise prices?

If a monopoly doesn’t raise prices, the Chicago School claims, it’s not doing any harm. As a result, most of the legal precedents in antitrust law, developed over the last 40 years, are ideologically hostile to the notion of a “public interest.”

To deal with 21st-century platform monopolies, antitrust law needs to be revitalized or reinvented. A host of new monopoly critics, including economist Barry Lynn, journalist Matt Stoller, law professors Jonathan Zittrain and Frank Pasquale, and elected officials such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), propose to do just that.

As Pasquale, a law professor at the University of Maryland, said, “We need to have institutions that guarantee algorithmic accountability.”

Six Remedies

1. FCC regulation

Jeff John Roberts of Fortune compares Facebook to the highly regulated TV broadcast networks, “at a time when Facebook has become the equivalent of a single TV channel showing a slew of violence and propaganda, the time may have come to treat Facebook as the broadcaster it is.”

In the immediate aftermath of the Las Vegas shooting, a Facebook search yielded a page created by a chronic hoaxer who calls himself an investigative journalist for Alex Jones’ Infowars. “To Facebook’s algorithms, it’s just a fast-growing group with an engaged community,” notes Alex Madrigal of the Atlantic.

Roberts:

“Just imagine if CBS inadvertently sold secret political ads to the Chinese or broadcast a gang rape—the FCC, which punished the network over a Super Bowl nipple incident, would come down like a ton of bricks.”

This would require rewriting the Federal Communications Act to include platform monopolies. Not impossible, but not likely, and probably not the right regulator regime to diminish Facebook’s monopoly power over information.

2. Mandatory FEC Disclosure

One solution is to use existing institutions to force full disclosure of buyers of political ads, a requirement Facebook successfully resisted in 2011.

Last week, Democrats in the House and Senate sent a letter to the Federal Election Commission urging it to “develop new guidance” on how to prevent illicit foreign spending in U.S. elections.” The letter was signed by all of the possible 2020 Democratic presidential aspirants in the Senate, including Warren, Sherrod Brown (Ohio), Cory Booker (N.J.), and Kamala Harris (Calif.).

Another Democratic proposal floated in Congress would require digital platforms with more than 1 million users to publicly log any “electioneering communications” purchased by anyone who spends more than $10,000 in political ads online. The FEC defines electioneering communications as ads “that refer to a federal candidate, are targeted to voters and appear within 30 days of a primary or 60 days of a general election.”

But such measures probably would not have prevented—or called attention to—the Russian intervention in 2016, because the Russian-sponsored ads usually played on social divisions without referencing a federal candidate, and buyers could have evaded the reporting requirement with smaller payments.

Such measures address the symptoms of Facebook’s dominance, not the causes.

3. Empower Users

Luigi Zingales and Guy Rolnik, professors at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, have a market solution: empower Facebook users to take their friends and their “likes” elsewhere. They propose giving Facebook users something they do not now possess: “ownership of all the digital connections” that they create, or a “social graph.”

Right now Facebook owns your social graph, but that is not inevitable.

“If we owned our own social graph, we could sign into a Facebook competitor — call it MyBook — and, through that network, instantly reroute all our Facebook friends’ messages to MyBook, as we reroute a phone call.”

The idea is to foster the emergence of new social networks and diminish the power of Facebook’s monopoly.

Such a reform alone isn’t going to undermine Facebook. In conjunction with other measures to create competition, it could be helpful.

4. Make Data Ephemeral                        

Facebook’s data collection is a form of surveillance that endangers dissent, says internet entrepreneuer Maciej Ceglowski.

Last January, opponents of President Trump organized the Women’s March on Facebook, and several million people participated.

“The list of those who RSVP’d is now stored on Facebook servers and will be until the end of time, or until Facebook goes bankrupt, or gets hacked, or bought by a hedge fund, or some rogue sysadmin decides that list needs to be made public.”

To ensure privacy and protect dissent, Ceglowski says, “There should be a user-configurable time horizon after which messages and membership lists in these places evaporate.”

Again, this is a small but worthwhile step. If Facebook won’t implement it voluntarily, it could be compelled to do so.

5. Break up Facebook

But Ceglowski has a more audacious idea: break up Facebook into different companies for social interaction and news consumption.

The problem, he said in an April 2017 talk, is the algorithms Facebook deploys to maximize engagement and thus ad revenue.

“The algorithms have learned that users interested in politics respond more if they’re provoked more, so they provoke. Nobody programmed the behavior into the algorithm; it made a correct observation about human nature and acted on it.”

When a monopoly controls the algorithms of engagement, commercial power is converted into political power.

“Decisions like what is promoted to the top of a news feed can swing elections. Small changes in UI can drive big changes in user behavior. There are no democratic checks or controls on this power, and the people who exercise it are trying to pretend it doesn’t exist.”

So government has to step in, he says.

“Just like banks have a regulatory ‘Chinese wall’ between investment and brokerage, and newspapers have a wall between news and editorial, there must be a separation between social network features and news delivery.”

Just as the government broke up the Standard Oil monopoly in the early 20th century and the Bell telephone monopoly in the 1970s and 1980s, splitting up a monopoly firm to reduce its power is a time-tested remedy.

6. Think Big

Most important is political imagination. The ascendancy of free-market thinking since the heyday of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher has transformed citizens into consumers and failed civil society in the process. The rise of income inequality is one result. The emergence of unaccountable platform monopolies is another.

Facebook, the website, is the creation of Zuckerberg and clever programmers. But their enormous power is the result of a selfish and short-sighted ideology that privatizes public space at the expense of most people.

With the Democrats incorporating anti-monopoly ideas into their “Better Deal” platform and right-wing nationalists such as Steve Bannon talking about regulating internet giants “like utilities,” the free-market ideology has lost credibility and there is a growing demand for action. As the Roosevelt Institute puts it, “Let’s Reimagine the Rules.”

The urgency of reining in Facebook is that if the public does not control its surveillance and engagement technologies, those techniques will be used to secretly manipulate, if not control, the public sphere, as they were in the 2016 election.

“Either we work with government to regulate algorithmic systems,” says Pasquale of the University of Maryland, “or we will see partnerships with governments and those running algorithmic systems to regulate and control us.”

Controlling Facebook, in other words, is a matter of self-protection.

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More than 52 million Americans live in economically distressed communities

By Sandy English
28 September 2017

A new analysis of Census data shows that the so-called economic recovery under the Obama administration was an unmitigated catastrophe for the 20 percent of the American population that live in the poorest areas of the United States and that gains of jobs and income have gone overwhelming to the top 20 percent richest areas.

The 2017 Distressed Communities Report,” published by the Economic Innovation Group (EIG), analyzes the census data for 2011-2015 for people living in each of the nearly 7,500 American zip codes according to several criteria.

The EIG’s Distressed Communities Index (DCI) considers the percentage of the population without a high school diploma, the percentage of housing vacancies, the percentage of adults working, the percentage of the population in poverty, the median income ratio (the percentage of median income that a zip code has for its state), the change in employment from 2011 to 2015, and the change in the number of businesses in the same period.

The report divides the findings for zip codes into five quintiles based on these indicators, rated from worst- to best-performing: distressed, at risk, mid-tier, comfortable, and prosperous.

The results show that distressed communities—52.3 million people or 17 percent of the American population—experienced an average 6 percent drop in the number of adults working and a 6.3 percent average drop in the number of business establishments.

“Far from achieving even anemic growth from 2011 to 2015,” the report notes, “distressed communities instead experienced what amounts to a deep ongoing recession.”

Further, “fully one third of the approximately 44 million Americans receiving SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or food stamps) and other cash public assistance benefits (such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF)) live in distressed communities.” The report notes that most distressed communities have seen zero net job growth since 2000.

Residents in these zip codes are five times more likely to die than those in prosperous zip codes. Deaths from cancer, pregnancy complications, suicide, and violence are even higher. “Mental and substance abuse disorders are 64 percent higher in distressed counties than prosperous ones, with major clusters in Appalachia and Native American communities where rates exceed four or five times the national average,” the report continues.

One other important and alarming fact which the report highlights is that over a third of the distressed zip codes contain so-called “brownfield” sites—areas which are polluted or contaminated in some way. Not only do these have impacts on real estate and business development, they present a whole array of health hazards to the very poorest Americans.

Distressed communities can be found all over the United States but are concentrated in the South: 43 percent of Mississippi’s zip codes are distressed, followed by Alabama, West Virginia, Arkansas and Louisiana. According to the report, [the South] “is home to a staggering 52 percent of all Americans living in distressed zip codes—far above its 37.5 percent share of the country’s total population.”

After this, the Southwest and Great Lakes region have the largest share. In the Northeast, most distressed communities tend to be found in urban areas and in the South, primarily in rural areas.

The biggest cities with the largest numbers of distressed zip codes are Cleveland, Ohio, Newark, New Jersey, Buffalo, New York, Detroit, Michigan and Toledo, Ohio. Mid-sized cities with the highest number of distressed zip codes include Youngstown, Ohio, Trenton, New Jersey, Camden, New Jersey, Gary, Indiana, Hartford, Connecticut and Flint, Michigan.

Urban counties with the highest number of distressed zip codes include Cook County in Illinois, with Chicago at its center, Los Angeles County in California, Harris County in Texas, with Houston at its center, and Wayne County in Michigan, encompassing Detroit. Most of these urban areas were once industrial centers and home to the industrial working class.

Zip codes that have a majority of minorities living in them are more than twice as likely to be distressed as zip codes that are majority white. “In total,” the report notes, “45 percent of the country’s majority-minority zip codes are distressed and only 7 percent of them are prosperous.” At the same time there are numerous distressed communities that are almost completely white. A quarter of the total distressed population is under 18.

The report found that the economic benefits of the recovery after the 2008 recessions have gone to the top quintile of zip codes, where the wealthier layers of the population live, including not only the very rich but also the upper middle class.

These areas, which the DCI terms prosperous, and make up roughly 85 million Americans or 27 percent of the US population, have for the most part the economic wherewithal to finance higher levels of education, have the lowest housing vacancy, highest percentage of working adults, and have had the lion’s share of job and business expansion.

“The job growth rate in the top quintile was 2.6 times higher than nationally from 2011 to 2015, and business establishments proliferated three times faster than they did at the national level,” the report notes. “Prosperous zip codes stand worlds apart from their distressed counterparts, seemingly insulated from many of the challenges with which other communities must grapple. The poverty rate is more than 20 points lower in the average prosperous community than it is in the average distressed one.”

The report makes much less of an analysis of the other three, middle quintiles, the at risk, mid-tier, and comfortable categories, but it does note some factors that address the overall trends nation-wide. “A remarkably small proportion of places fuel national increases in jobs and businesses in today’s economy. High growth in these local economic powerhouses buoys national numbers while obscuring stagnant or declining economic activity in other parts of the country.”

One of the more telling aspects of the report is that extreme poverty in the US is presided over by both capitalist parties: Democratic and Republic politicians have equal numbers of distressed communities in their constituencies. Democrats, in fact, “represent six of the 10 most distressed congressional districts.”

Another observation from the voting data, and one of the few that looks at conditions beyond the bottom and top quintiles, is worth quoting in full:

“President Trump accumulated a 3.5 million vote lead in counties that fell into the bottom three quintiles of well-being (equivalent to 9.4 percent of all votes cast in these counties). A vast array of factors determined voting patterns in the 2016 election, but it stands that the ‘continuity’ candidate performed better in the places benefiting most from the status quo, while the ‘change’ candidate performed better in the places one would expect to find more dissatisfaction.”

Broader figures and the historical view of wealth distribution in the US—that one percent of the population control 40 percent of the wealth or the decades-long decline in the percentage of the national income that goes to the working class—are not brought out in the report but the data add to a complete picture of social conditions across the United States, the character and geographical distribution of social and economic conditions in a country of more than 320 million.

The portrait provided by the EIG report is not simply one of increasing misery and poverty for the bottom 20 percent, and not only one in which only a minority of Americans are achieving anything like “prosperity,” but of growing and explosive dissent among tens of millions.

It exposes as a bare-faced lie the claim that President Obama made at the end of his second term, that “things have never been better” in America.

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2017/09/28/pove-s28.html

Why identity politics and class politics can’t be separated

Some liberals are eager to detach identity politics from economic populism. But economic justice is social justice

09.23.20173:00 AM
During last year’s Democratic primary race between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, the disagreements between the two candidates were most apparent when it came to the economy. While Sanders built his campaign around economic issues like income and wealth inequality, campaign finance and free trade, Clinton often downplayed the importance of economic issues and even tried to characterize Sanders’ focus on things like inequality and Wall Street corruption as an unhealthy obsession.

“Not everything is about an economic theory, right?” said Clinton at one point during a speech to her supporters. “If we broke up the big banks tomorrow — and I will if they deserve it, if they pose a systemic risk, I will — would that end racism? Would that end sexism? Would that end discrimination against the LGBT community? Would that make people feel more welcoming to immigrants overnight?”

“No!” replied the triumphant crowd, as if their candidate had just delivered a devastating coup de grâce to her opponent.

Of course, no one — not least Sanders — had ever made the absurd claim that breaking up big banks or addressing any other economic problem would magically end racism or sexism or any other kind of bigotry. This was a deliberate attempt by Clinton to smear her opponent — who had much more credibility on economic justice than she did — as being out of touch with the concerns of women, people of color and the LGBTQ community. More importantly, though, it was an attempt to separate the economic realm from the social and cultural realms, which made it easier for Clinton to prove her progressive bona fides.

As an economic centrist who had long taken big donations (or speaking fees) from Wall Street and corporate America, Clinton lacked credibility with progressives when it came to economic issues. Thus she tried to discredit Sanders as an “angry white male” who couldn’t grasp the real concerns of women and people of color (even though Sanders is a Jew who grew up in 1940s America and has an equal if not better record than Clinton on social issues like LGBTQ equality).

Ultimately, Clinton and other corporate Democrats were trying to muddy the waters with these disingenuous arguments in order to create a false tension between economic populism and social liberalism. Only a straight white male like Sanders, the logic went, could become so fixated on economic issues like income and wealth inequality, because he did not experience racism, sexism or homophobia on a daily basis. This argument was based not only on a cynical version of identity politics that gave greater importance to a candidate’s race or gender than his or her politics, but on a false dilemma between class politics and identity politics. Furthermore, it implied that the social democratic policies advocated by Sanders — e.g., Medicare for All, raising taxes on the wealthy, increasing the minimum wage, strengthening Social Security, defending labor unions, etc. — would disproportionately benefit white males.

This implication is, as many progressives pointed out at the time, utterly untrue. In fact, women and people of color would almost certainly benefit more from Sanders’ populist economic agenda, as they are disproportionately affected by the economic injustices it was designed to counteract. Sanders made this point during his campaign last year when he observed that African-Americans were hit the hardest during the financial crisis, losing half their collective wealth after being unfairly targeted by the big banks (along with other minority groups) with subprime mortgages during the buildup of the housing bubble.

That economic justice and racial justice are deeply intertwined was given further credence last week when a new study was released by the Institute for Policy Studies revealing that median black household wealth in the United States will fall to zero by 2053 if current trends continue, while the median white household wealth is on path to climb to $137,000.

“By 2020 median Black and Latino households stand to lose nearly 18% and 12% of the wealth they held in 2013, respectively, while median White household wealth increases 3%,” write the authors. “At that point — just three years from now — White households are projected to own 85 times more wealth than Black households and 68 times more wealth than Latino households.”

These stunning numbers display how much the economic problems that Sanders highlighted during his campaign impact the very people he was unfairly accused of ignoring. They also demonstrate how class politics and identity politics are closely linked, and that the dichotomy or binary opposition between them, as created or perceived by certain liberals, is spurious.

After Clinton lost to Donald Trump last November, Sanders argued that the Democratic Party must adopt a populist economic agenda in order to come back strong from 2016. This predictably set off a backlash from neoliberals, who accused Sanders of being a “white male brogressive” who wanted to put women, minorities and LGBTQ people “on the backburner for economic populism.” One critic even opined that Sanders wanted to “defend white male supremacy.”

The fact that Sanders’ economic populism would help the very people he is accused of putting on the “backburner” demonstrates the sheer lunacy of these attacks. If Sanders were advocating completely jettisoning identity politics for economic populism, of course, it would be another story. But only confused liberals see class politics and identity politics as incompatible and invariably at odds with each other. The senator was actually making the opposite point: “To think of diversity purely in racial and gender terms is not sufficient,” wrote Sanders. “Our rights and economic lives are intertwined.” Rather than calling for the Democratic Party to drop identity politics, he was making the point that race, gender and class are interconnected, and that economic justice is social justice.

Sanders was, however, rejecting the cynical form of identity politics that — as Briahna Joy Gray puts it in her excellent Current Affairs essay “How Identity Became a Weapon Against the Left” — wields identity to “neutralize political pushback.” The kind of identity politics, in other words, that Clinton frequently deployed during her campaign to counter legitimate criticisms — exemplified by the time she suggested that she couldn’t be a part of the “establishment” because she is a woman.

Over the past few decades, as economic inequality has skyrocketed to pre-Great Depression levels and communities of color have seen their wealth decline, the economic and corporate elite have co-opted the language of diversity and weaponized identity to defend the economic status quo. But the same people neoliberals claim to represent are the ones who suffer most under the status quo. As the authors of the aforementioned study write, “without a serious change in course, the country is heading towards a racial and economic apartheid state.” Economic populism offers an alternative, and a politics of class solidarity is the way to achieve this alternative.

CONOR LYNCH
Conor Lynch is a writer and journalist living in New York City. His work has appeared on Salon, AlterNet, Counterpunch and openDemocracy. Follow him on Twitter: @dilgentbureauct.

Capitalism: The Nightmare

TD ORIGINALS
A worker in a costume representing world capitalism during a 2017 May Day rally in Jakarta, Indonesia. (Dita Alangkara / AP)

The neoliberal, arch-capitalist era we inhabit is chock-full of statistics and stories that ought to send chills down the spines of any caring, morally sentient human. Nearly three-fourths (71 percent) of the world’s population is poor, living on $10 a day or less, and 11 percent (767 million people, including 385 million children) live in what the World Bank calls “extreme poverty” (less than a $1.90 a day). Meanwhile, Oxfam reliably reports that, surreal as it sounds, the world’s eight richest people possess among themselves as much wealth as the poorest half of the entire human race.

The United States, self-described homeland and headquarters of freedom and democracy, is no exception to the harshly unequal global reality. Six of the world’s eight most absurdly rich people are U.S. citizens: Bill Gates (whose net worth of $426 billion equals the wealth of 3.6 billion people), Warren Buffett (Berkshire Hathaway), Jeff Bezos (Amazon), Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook), Larry Ellison (Oracle) and Michael Bloomberg (former mayor of New York City). As Bernie Sanders said repeatedly on the campaign trail in 2016, the top 10th of the upper 1 percent in the U.S. has nearly as much wealth as the nation’s bottom 90 percent. Seven heirs of the Walton family’s Walmart fortune have among them a net worth equal to that of the nation’s poorest 40 percent. Half the U.S. population is poor or near-poor, and half lacks any savings.

Just over a fifth of the nation’s children, including more than a third of black and Native American children, live below the federal government’s notoriously inadequate poverty level, while parasitic financiers and other capitalist overlords enjoy unimaginable hyper-opulence. One in seven U.S. citizens relies on food banks in “the world’s richest country.” Many of them are in families with full-time wage-earners—a reflection of the fact that wages have stagnated even as U.S. labor productivity consistently has risen for more than four decades.

Failure by Design

These savage inequalities reflect government policy on behalf of “the 1 percent” (better, perhaps, to say “the 0.1 percent”). U.S. economic growth since the late 1970s has been unequally distributed, thanks to regressive policy choices that have served the rich and powerful at the expense of ordinary working people. As Joshua Bivens of the Economic Policy Institute showed in his important 2011 study, “Failure by Design,” the following interrelated, bipartisan and not-so-public policies across the long neoliberal era have brought us to a level of inequality that rivals the Gilded Age of the late 19th-century robber barons era. These policies include:

● Letting the value of the minimum wage be eroded by inflation.
● Slashing labor standards for overtime, safety and health.
● Tilting the laws governing union organizing and collective bargaining strongly in favor of employers.
● Weakening the social safety net.
● Privatizing public services.
● Accelerating the integration of the U.S. economy with the world economy without adequately protecting workers from global competition.
● Shredding government oversight of international trade, currency, investment and lending.
● Deregulating the financial sector and financial markets.
● Valuing low inflation over full employment and abandoning the latter as a worthy goal of fiscal and economic policy.

These policies increased poverty and suppressed wages at the bottom and concentrated wealth at the top. They culminated in the 2007-09 Great Recession, sparked by the bursting of a housing bubble that resulted from the deregulation of the financial sector and the reliance of millions of Americans on artificially inflated real estate values and soaring household debt to compensate for poor earnings.

After the crash, the government under both George W. Bush and Barack Obama bailed out the very financial predators who pushed the economy over the cliff. The Obama administration, populated by Goldman Sachs and Citigroup operatives, left the rest of us to wonder “Where’s our bailout?” as 95 percent of the nation’s new income went to the top 1 percent during his first term.

Ordinary Citizens Have No Influence Over Their Government

All of this and much more is contrary to technically irrelevant American public opinion. But so what? You don’t have to be a leftist to know that the United States’ political order is a corporate and financial plutocracy. Three years ago, liberal political scientists Martin Gilens of Princeton University and Benjamin Page of Northwestern University determined that the U.S. political system has functioned as an oligarchy over the past three-plus decades, in which wealthy elites and their corporations rule. As Gilens explained to the liberal online journal Talking Points Memo, “Ordinary citizens have virtually no influence over what their government does in the United States.”

Shock Profits

Most of this results from the normal, business-rule-as-usual operation of the American political process. Sometimes—as during “natural disasters” such as Hurricanes Katrina, Harvey and Irma—crisis moments allow wealthy interests to rack up huge profits almost overnight while much of the population is too shocked and distracted to respond. As Susan Zakin notes in the Los Angeles Review of Books, “Handing out billions for hurricane reconstruction will shore up [Donald] Trump’s faltering support on Wall Street and among major corporations profiting from a bonanza expected to top $100 billion.” Katrina provided precisely such a business opportunity to corporate America. So did the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

‘Isn’t It Beautiful?’

At the same time, Houston, for instance, is a much bigger scene of devastation than it would be but for business-rule-as-usual. The city was recklessly built up by and for elite financial and real estate interests and their governmental tools without the slightest concern for environmental sustainability and resilience. As Zakin notes:

[W]ithout a zoning code, [Houston is] a case study in urban sprawl. Houston was built on a dry (read: low-lying) lakebed that’s laced with bayous. The bayous are lined with concrete, steel and sheet metal, which is functional when it rains a little, but a contender for the luge event when it rains a lot, even in posh neighborhoods like River Oaks. Doing what it takes to prevent flooding, widening bayou channels, managing growth, putting in green space, might impede the only truly important flow: money. Houston’s city fathers have resisted any effort to plan for climate change, because, well, it doesn’t exist. As if that weren’t enough, parts of Houston are sinking, some as much as 2.2 inches a year.

It’s an epitome of the deadly “free market” chaos favored by arch-capitalist political actors such as the right-wing billionaire Charles Koch and his friend, the “libertarian” Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz. In his recent, widely read book, “Conscience of a Conservative,” Flake writes with fondness about the time he met the eminent neoliberal University of Chicago economist Milton Friedman:

We picked him up at the airport, and while we were driving to a suburb of Phoenix we went through what could only be described as suburban sprawl. Someone in the car with us, remarking on this landscape, said, ‘Man, it looks like there was no planning at all.’ Friedman just nodded his head and said, ‘Yes, isn’t it beautiful?’ … [I]t wasn’t government coercion that had brought it into being. It was the invisible hand of the free market. Planning requires control, control empowers government, and empowered government = disempowered individuals.

Houston is the “petro-metro,” a major capital of the petrochemical industry and home to numerous toxic waste sites. As a result, the city’s floodwaters are loaded with hazardous materials.

How beautiful.

The “free market” madness rolls on. Like the melting polar ice, which opens up new business opportunities for oil drilling and ship travel even as it reduces earth’s ability to reflect sunlight back into space, the devastation resulting from extreme weather is both a consequence of the rule of big corporations (the real masters of the “free market” since the early 20th century in the U.S.) and a perverse opportunity for quick corporate profits.

On Aug. 15, 10 days before Hurricane Harvey hit Texas, Donald Trump, himself a global real estate baron, wiped out an Obama-era executive ordermandating that federal reconstruction grants take account of sea-level rise and related aspects of climate change.

Capitalist Climate-astrophe

Meanwhile, speaking of climate change, anthropogenic—really, capitalogenic—global warming threatens to turn the venerable popular struggle for a more equal distribution of wealth into a fight over the slicing up of a poisoned pie. The signs of climate catastrophe are unmistakable. Record-setting wildfires raged on the nation’s West Coast, and a devastating drought plagued much of the nation’s northern Great Plains as Houston was sunk in epic, chemically polluted flooding and Irma bore down on Florida. Like Hurricane Sandy (which filled New York City subway tunnels with storm surge on the eve of the 2012 elections), the Indian and Pakistani heat waves of 2015, Hurricane Katrina (2005), the Alberta, Canada, wildfires of 2016 and numerous other recent, lethal, meteorological episodes, this extreme weather is intensified by the spiking balminess of the planet.

The warming is fueled by capital-captive humanity’s excessive release of carbon dioxide resulting from the profit system’s rapacious extraction and burning of fossil fuels and its reliance on animal agriculture. Carbon accumulates in the atmosphere, trapping heat and melting the world’s glaciers and permafrost, which holds vast reserves of carbon-rich methane. As the ice caps retreat, less sunlight gets reflected back into space and more of it heats the planet toward a point where it becomes uninhabitable.

Extreme weather is just the tip of the melting iceberg. If not reversed, global warming will destroy the human species through famine, dehydration, overheating, disease and resource wars. It has us on the path to hell.

‘A Death Knell for the Species’

Trump has taken advantage of the nation’s plutocratic political dysfunction to become a kind of one-man ecological apocalypse. The fossil-fueled hurricanes, drought and wildfires of 2017 have hit the U.S. at a time when the White House is occupied by an openly ecocidal billionaire whose election rang what Noam Chomsky called an environmental “death knell for the species.” Trump has pulled the United States out of the moderate Paris climate accord. He has removed all references to climate change from federal websites and chose a fellow petro-capitalist climate change denier dedicated to crippling the Environmental Protection Agency to lead that department. Trump’s secretary of state is the former longtime CEO of Exxon Mobil Corp., history’s most powerful fossil fuel corporation—a company that buried and then organized propaganda against its own scientists’ warnings on carbon’s impact on the climate. Trump’s proposed budget calls for a 16 percent cut to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which monitors all things climate- and weather-related.

This is ecocidal petro-capitalist madness on steroids.

After Harvey nailed Houston and before Irma hit Florida, Trump held a chilling ecocidal rally in front of an oil refinery in North Dakota. He boasted of how he had exited the “job-killing” Paris agreement (“It was so bad”) and approved the planet-cooking and supposedly job-creating Dakota Access and Keystone XL pipelines.

“I also did Keystone,” Trump said. “You know about Keystone. Another other one, big one—big. First couple of days in office, those two—48,000 jobs.”

Trump said the White House was going to make North Dakota’s current terrible drought vanish because “we’re working hard on it and it’ll disappear. It will all go away.”

The president also asserted that the thousands of Americans who protested the Dakota Access pipeline within and beyond the Standing Rock Indian Reservation last year had no idea why they were against it.

It may have been his most absurd speech yet.

The System Is Working

Like so much else in U.S. government policy, Trump’s anti-environmental actions are contrary to majority-progressive public opinion. Who cares? It’s one more in a long line of examples showing that “We the People” are not sovereign in the failed, arch-plutocratic and militantly capitalist state that is the 21st century United States.

Many Americans find this difficult to process because they have been taught to foolishly conflate popular self-governance with capitalism—what the George W. Bush White House called “a single sustainable model for national success.”

This is a great lie. My old copy of Webster’s New Twentieth Century Dictionary defines capitalism as “the economic system in which all or most of the means of production and distribution … are privately owned and operated for profit, originally under fully competitive conditions: it has been generally characterized by a tendency toward concentration of wealth and, [in] its latter phase, by the growth of great corporations, increased government controls, etc.”

This definition does not mention any of the things routinely and inaccurately identified with capitalism in the dominant U.S. political and intellectual discourse: democracy, freedom, trade, job creation, growth and/or a “free market” that is characterized by widespread competition and/or little or no government interference. Capitalism is about profit for the owners of capital—period. They attain this through any number of means. The most damaging include:

● Seizing others’ land and materials.
● Slavery (the leading source of capital accumulation in the United States before it was outlawed in 1863–65).
● Firing workers or replacing them with technology.
● Undermining the value and power of labor by “de-skilling” workers by reducing the amount of knowledge and experience they need to do their jobs.
● Abject authoritarian tyranny in the workplace, where Marxist economist Richard Wolff reminds us that most working-age adults spend the majority of their waking hours.
● Outsourcing work to sections of the world economy with the lowest wages and the worst working conditions.
● Hiring and exploiting unprotected migrant workers.
● Slashing wages and benefits, or cheating workers out of them.
● Purely speculative investment.
● Forming monopolies and using them to raise prices.
● Dismantling competing firms, sectors and industries.
● Deadly pollution and perversion of the natural environment.
● Appropriating public assets.
● Military contracting and war production.
● Working to shape political and intellectual culture and policy in capital’s favor by funding political campaigns, hiring lobbyists, buying and controlling the media, manipulating public relations and propaganda, investing in the educational system, offering lucrative employment and other economic opportunities to policymakers and their families, holding key policymaking positions, and threatening to withdraw investment from places that don’t submit to capital’s rules while promising to invest in places that do.

When capitalism is understood for what it is really and only about—investor profit—there is nothing paradoxical about its failure to serve working people and the common good, much less the cause of democracy. If corporate and financial sector profits are high, the system is working for its architects and intended beneficiaries: capitalists. Its great corporations (now granted the legal protection of artificial personhood) are working precisely as they are supposed to under U.S. common law, which holds that (as Michigan’s Supreme Court ruled in Dodge v. Ford Motor Company in 1919), corporate “managers have a legal duty to put shareholders’ interests above all others and no legal authority to serve any other interests.”

The Growth Ideology

Environmental ruin lies at the heart of the system, intimately related back to class rule. As Le Monde’s former ecological editor Herve Kempf noted in his aptly titled 2007 book, “How the Rich Are Destroying the Earth,” the oligarchy sees the pursuit of material growth as “the solution to the social crisis,” the “sole means of fighting poverty and unemployment” and the “only means of getting societies to accept extreme inequalities without questioning them.”

“Growth,” Kempf explained, is meant to “allow the overall level of wealth to arise and consequently improve the lot of the poor without—and this part is never spelled out—any need to modify the distribution of wealth.”

Trump was channeling this deadly “growth ideology” in North Dakota. Sadly, growth on the current carbon-fueled capitalist model has put humanity—not to mention thousands of other sentient beings on earth—on the path to near-term (historically speaking) extinction. We are currently at 410 carbon parts per million in the atmosphere—60 ppm beyond what scientists identified as a hazardous point years ago. We are on pace for 500 ppm—a level that will destroy life on earth—by 2050, if not sooner.

‘Inclusive Capitalism’

“Capitalist democracy” is an oxymoron and a mirage. So is the curious notion of “inclusive capitalism”—a term taken up by the corporate right wing of the Democratic Party, including Hillary Clinton’s closest economic advisers, in 2015. This is the Orwellian name of a global “coalition” set up in 2014 by Lady Lynn Forester de Rothschild for super-wealthy elites to advance a “caring capitalism” that “works better for the broad base of society.” Lady Rothschild’s Coalition for Inclusive Capitalism started with what former Rep. Cynthia McKinney described as “a Working Group comprised of such luminaries of social justice as Sir Evelyn de Rothschild of E.L. Rothschild [a financial firm owned by a family worth an estimated $2 trillion], Dominic Barton from McKinsey and Company [$1.3 billion], Ann Cairns [annual salary of $5 million] of MasterCard, Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles of HSBC, Paul Polman [paid 10 million euros in 2014] of Unilever, along with CEOs of various pension plans and philanthropic foundations, like the eponymous Ford and Rockefeller foundations.”

According to one British media report, the Coalition for Inclusive Capitalism’s opening conference boasted a “guest-list … estimated to hold one-third of the world’s investable assets, around £18tr [nearly $25 trillion].”

One of the coalition’s leading speakers and champions is the great arch-neoliberal, former U.S. President Bill Clinton (with a net worth of $80 million)—a right-wing Democrat who did every bit as much to advance the Wall Street “free market” and globalist agenda as Ronald Reagan.

‘We Must Make Our Choice’

One does not have to be a Marxist or other variety of radical to acknowledge basic differences and conflicts between capitalism and democracy. D and capitalism have very different beliefs about the proper distribution of power,” liberal economist Lester Thurow noted in the mid-1990s. “One [democracy] believes in a completely equal distribution of political power, ‘one man, one vote,’ while the other [capitalism] believes that it is the duty of the economically fit to drive the unfit out of business and into extinction. … To put it in its starkest form, capitalism is perfectly compatible with slavery. Democracy is not.”

More than being compatible with slavery and incompatible with democracy, U.S. capitalism arose largely on the basis of black slavery in the cotton-growing states (as historian Edward Baptist has shown in his prize-winning study, “The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism”) and is, in fact, quite militantly opposed to democracy.

“We must make our choice,” the late Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis is reputed to have said or written: “We may have democracy in this country, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we cannot have both.” This statement was unintentionally but fundamentally anti-capitalist. Consistent with the dictionary definition presented above, the brilliant, liberal, French economist Thomas Piketty has shown that capitalism has always been inexorably pulled like gravity toward the concentration of wealth into ever-fewer hands. In the U.S., as across the Western world, the tendency was briefly and partially reversed by the Great Depression and World War II, producing the long “middle class” Golden Age of 1945-1973. But that was an anomalous era, a consequence of epic economic collapse and two global wars. Capitalism has returned to its longue durée inegalitarian norm over the last four-plus decades.

And even before the onset of the neoliberal period, capitalism at its comparatively egalitarian and high-growth, post-WWII Keynesian best had already pushed livable ecology into crisis. It tipped the world into what leading earth scientists have designated a new geological era: The Anthropocene—a period when “human activities have become so pervasive and profound that they rival the great forces of Nature and are pushing the earth into planetary terra incognita … a less biologically diverse, less forested, much warmer, and probably wetter and stormier era.” The not-so-Golden Agebrought what sociology professor John Bellamy Foster called “a qualitative transformation in the level of human destructiveness.” If this ecological destructiveness isn’t tamed very soon, nothing that progressives and the left care about is going to matter much: Who wants to turn a poisoned world upside down?

Can environmental catastrophe be averted under capitalism? Not likely. Shifting from fossil fuel reliance and other unsound environmental societal habits and practices—built-in obsolescence, mass consumerism and the endless pursuit of quantitative economic growth, accumulation and “cheap nature” resource appropriation—requires a level of coordinated social and public intervention so extreme that it is incompatible with continued capitalist control of the means of production, investment and distribution. It requires an empowerment of ordinary people and a radical rehabilitation of the concept of the natural and social commons—things that very likely cannot be attained under the continued rule of capital. Stark as American activist Joel Kovel’s formulation may sound, I suspect he is right: “The future will be eco-socialist, because without eco-socialism there will be no future.”

Paul Street
Contributor
Paul Street holds a doctorate in U.S. history from Binghamton University. He is former vice president for research and planning of the Chicago Urban League. Street is also the author of numerous books,…

Obama adviser Samantha Power calls for crackdown on social media

Internet censorship and government war plans

21 September 2017

The meeting of the United Nations General Assembly in New York is taking place under the shadow of the accelerating drive of the major powers, spearheaded by the United States, toward World War III. This found its most noxious expression in the fascistic speech delivered to the assembly on Tuesday by Donald Trump, in which the US president threatened to “destroy North Korea” and attack Iran and Venezuela.

Trump devoted a significant portion of his tirade to a denunciation of socialism and communism, reflecting the fear within the US ruling elite of the growth of social opposition and rise of anti-capitalist and socialist sentiment in the working class.

Another major focus of the assembly is the mounting campaign of the US and European governments to crack down on the exchange of information and views on the Internet. British Prime Minister Theresa May, French President Emmanuel Macron and Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni all used the pretext of fighting terrorism and “fake news” to call for more drastic measures by the major technology firms to censor the Internet, which Gentiloni called a “battlefield for hearts and minds.”

This attack on free speech is a central part of the response of the crisis-ridden capitalist ruling elites to the growth of global geo-political tensions and economic instability, and the political radicalization of broad masses of workers and youth.

In the US, the drive for Internet censorship has been spearheaded by the so-called “liberal” wing of the political establishment, concentrated in the Democratic Party, whose chief media organ is the New York Times. On the eve of the UN assembly, the Times published an unambiguous brief for censorship of the Internet in the form of an op-ed column by the ambassador to the UN under Barack Obama, Samantha Power.

Under the headline “Why Foreign Propaganda Is More Dangerous Now,” and on the pretext of combating Russian disinformation and subversion, Power calls for the use of “professional gatekeepers” to police public discourse on the Internet.

Power, a leading proponent of “human rights” imperialism, looks back nostalgically at the Cold War as a golden age of news dissemination, when “most Americans received their news and information via mediated platforms.” She continues: “Reporters and editors serving in the role of professional gatekeepers had almost full control over what appeared in the media. A foreign adversary seeking to reach American audiences did not have great options for bypassing these umpires, and Russian disinformation rarely penetrated.”

It is worth considering who is writing these lines. First as a key policy advisor to Obama, then as Washington’s representative to the United Nations, Power was a leading architect of the disastrous US-led destabilization operation in Libya that shattered that country’s society. She is a key propagandist of the American-instigated civil war in Syria, which has led to hundreds of thousands of deaths and the greatest refugee crisis since the Second World War.

Power longs for the time when, as was the case during the Korean War and the earlier part of the Vietnam War, the monopoly of the major broadcasters over public discourse could be used to keep the criminal policies of US imperialism under wraps.

She is bitter and resentful over the fact that, despite the best efforts of the corporate-controlled media to sell US operations in the Middle East to the public as anti-terrorist and humanitarian efforts, organizations such as Wikileaks and journalists such as Seymour Hersh have exposed the fact that the United States has cultivated alliances with forces linked to Al Qaeda and ISIS to pursue regime-change in Libya and Syria, totally undercutting the narrative of the “war on terror” that has been used to justify US imperialist policy since 2001.

If Power had her way, Chelsea Manning’s exposure of the murder of journalists and Iraqi civilians by the US military and Edward Snowden’s exposure illegal dragnet surveillance by the NSA would be branded as “fake news” and blocked by technology giants such as Google, Apple and Facebook.

In her Times column, she mourns the passing of the overarching—and thoroughly repressive—anti-communist ideological framework of the Cold War period, writing: “During the Cold War, the larger struggle against communism created a mainstream consensus about what America stood for and against. Today, our society appears to be defined by a particularly vicious form of ‘partyism’ affecting Democrats and Republicans alike.”

Power presents the rise of the Internet, and consequent weakening of control over the flow of information and opinion by state-sanctioned and allied corporate media outlets such as the Times, as an altogether dangerous and negative development. Under conditions where the establishment media is increasingly discredited—“60 percent believe news stories today are ‘often inaccurate,’ according to Gallup”—Power notes, the fact that “two thirds of Americans are getting at least some of their news through social media” is a matter of the gravest concern.

The “growing reliance on new media—and the absence of real umpires,” she writes, have opened up the US to disinformation and subversion at the hands of a demonic Russia, with its all-powerful media outlets RT and Sputnik, and its “trolls, bots and thousands of fake Twitter and Facebook accounts that amplified damaging stories on Hillary Clinton.”

Here we see the coming together of the hysterical, neo-McCarthyite campaign against Russia that has been used by the intelligence agencies, the Democratic Party and their media allies to attempt to whip up a war fever and pressure Trump to take a more bellicose posture toward Moscow with a growing attack on public access to anti-war, progressive and socialist web sites.

Power’s demands for state-sponsored censorship have already been put into practice by Internet giant Google. In the name of combating “fake news” and promoting “authoritative content” over “alternative viewpoints,” Google has implemented changes to its search engine that have slashed traffic to leading left-wing and alternative news web sites by 55 percent. The central target of this attack is the World Socialist Web Site, whose Google referrals have fallen by 75 percent.

By “gatekeepers,” Power means the thoroughly vetted and subservient editorial boards of newspapers such as the Times, which dutifully hide from the American people whatever the CIA and State Department do not want them to know, while dispensing state lies and propaganda in the guise of “news.”

In 2010, then-New York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller spelled out the policy of such “mediated” news outlets with unusual bluntness when he declared that “transparency is not an absolute good.” He added, “Freedom of the press includes freedom not to publish, and that is a freedom we exercise with some regularity.”

More than a quarter century after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, all factions of the US ruling elite are haunted by the realization that socialist politics are, as Hillary Clinton put it in her recently published book, tapping “into powerful emotional currents” within the population. The fact that in the 2016 Democratic primaries, 12 million Americans, mostly young people and workers, voted for a candidate, Bernie Sanders, who called himself a socialist, shocked and unnerved the ruling class.

Unable to advance any policies to address the social grievances of working people or turn away from its foreign agenda of militarism and war, the ruling elite responds to the growth of opposition by recourse to police methods. The escalating corporate-state attack on freedom of speech on the Internet makes all the more urgent the campaign of the World Socialist Web Site against Google censorship. We call on all of our readers and supporters to sign our petition demanding an end to the censorship, send statements of support for our campaign, and actively work to distribute WSWS articles as widely as possible via Facebook and other social media outlets.

Andre Damon

WSWS

Sanders promised a “revolution,” but campaigned as a democratic reformer. Ultimately that may not be enough

Bernie Sanders’ revolution is still alive — but is democratic socialism a realistic goal?

Since Bernie Sanders’ historic presidential run ended last year, the senator from Vermont has attempted to keep his “political revolution” alive in order to bring about lasting change. Though he lost his Democratic primary run against Hillary Clinton more than a year ago, today Sanders is the undisputed face of progressive politics in America, and consistently ranks as the most popular politician in the country. He is in a very good position, then, to promote his cause and continue his political revolution.

Yet even as Sanders has become a household name in America, some uncertainty has lingered about his political revolution and what it truly represents. Is, for example, Sanders a democratic socialist — as he calls himself — or is he more of a social democrat? And just how radical — and revolutionary — is his political revolution? The word revolution does, after all, historically denote the abrupt and often violent overthrow of a government and/or social system.

In one interview with Rolling Stone last year, Sanders was explicitly asked by Tim Dickinson whether he supported an “overthrow of the capitalist system” like one of his political heroes, five-time Socialist Party presidential candidate Eugene Debs. The senator’s response was unequivocal. “No, no, no. Now you’re being provocative,” said Sanders, who went on to lay out what he actually meant by political revolution:

What we have got to do is not only overturn Citizens United, but we have got to move, in my view, to public funding of elections. We have to pass universal legislation that makes everybody in this country who is 18 or older eligible to vote, so we do away with the Republican voter suppression around the country.

This, of course, is what one would call a reformist agenda rather than a revolutionary one — which is essentially what the Sanders campaign was all about. Though Sanders identified as a “democratic socialist” and advocated a “political revolution,” in reality the Vermont senator was more of a social democrat who espoused a bold though decidedly moderate agenda. Sanders did not advocate an overthrow of the government or the collective ownership of the means of production, but a nonviolent popular movement fighting for progressive reforms akin to the New Deal legislation of the 1930s.

And this is ultimately what Sanders meant by a political revolution. Using the Democratic primaries as a launch pad, the senator aimed to create a sustained grassroots movement similar to transformative social movements of the past (e.g., the Civil Rights movement, women’s suffrage, the labor and socialist movements, etc.). “Change never takes place from the top down, it comes from the bottom up,” the senator frequently repeated during his run, suggesting that electoral politics is limited in what it can accomplish.

Whether one believes in reform or revolution (or, indeed, counterrevolution), it is hard to argue with this theory of change. History shows us that social movements drive progress and that political apathy is the lifeblood of the ruling class. This may sound like common sense, but Americans have become so accustomed to the spectator sport that is modern electoral politics that it was actually radical for Sanders to drive this point home last year. And he has continued to do so over the past year. Indeed, last week he made a stop in Naperville, Illinois to give a presentation on his new book, “Bernie Sanders’ Guide to Political Revolution,” and the message was familiar.

“The struggle of American democracy has been to become a more encompassing democracy, to involve more and more people,” said Sanders to group of high school students. ”And none of that happened by accident. It happened because people stood up and struggled and fought to make that happen.”

Not surprisingly, the senator’s new “guide” to political revolution advocates reforming the system rather than overthrowing it. This is to be expected from a social democrat like Sanders, who believes that it is both possible and preferable to reform our political system and economy through legislative means. But not all of Sanders’ supporters are on the same page. There is a growing subset of progressives who believe that while social democratic reform is a step in the right direction, the end goal should be true democratic socialism — meaning an economic democracy in which workers rather than plutocrats hold power.

This debate between social democrats and democratic socialists was recently on display in the pages of the New Republic and Jacobin Magazine. In the former publication, veteran progressive journalist John Judis wrote an  excellent article on the resurgence of the American left and why he believes it should embrace a social democratic agenda going forward.

The “old nostrums about ownership and control of the means of production simply don’t resonate in 2017,” writes Judis, who contends that social democracy, “while lacking in utopian appeal, does provide a vision that goes very far beyond the status quo in the United States.” The author of “The Populist Explosion” goes on to suggest that American socialists should “do what the Europeans did after World War II and bid goodbye to the Marxist vision of democratic control and ownership of the means of production.”

“They need to recognize that what is necessary now — and also conceivable — is not to abolish capitalism, but to create socialism within it,” Judis concludes.

Responding to Judis’ piece in Jacobin, founding editor Bhaskar Sunkara and Joseph Schwartz, national vice chair of the Democratic Socialists of America, observe that while Judis has good intentions, his reformist vision would ultimately lead progressives “into the dead end of twentieth-century social democracy.”

“History shows us that achieving a stable welfare state while leaving capital’s power over the economy largely intact is itself far from viable,” they write. “Even if we wanted to stop at socialism within capitalism, it’s not clear that we could.”

This is a crucial point that social democrats like Judis must grapple with. Even the French economist Thomas Piketty — an avowed European social democrat — concludes in his bestselling book on inequality, “Capital In the Twenty-First Century,” that the “golden age” of capitalism in the mid-20th century, when inequality levels actually declined, was a historical aberration that is unlikely to repeat itself. While social democrats are often seen as the pragmatists of the left, it is the democratic socialists who recognize the structural forces of capitalism and the inevitable antagonism between labor and capital.

Of course, the question of political pragmatism depends largely on one’s perspective. In the short term, the social democrats who are currently trying to take over the Democratic Party and carry out a progressive agenda in the halls of Congress are certainly more pragmatic than the democratic socialists who obstinately reject the Democrats. The United States has a winner-takes-all voting system that favors two major parties. Until we see electoral reforms that not only eliminate money from politics but create proportional representation  and ranked-choice voting, working with (and within) the Democratic Party seems to be a necessity. This does not mean the left should limit itself to electoral politics, however; as Sanders has argued over the past two years, there must also be a sustained popular movement that pressures elected officials to pass the needed reforms.

This may be the pragmatic way forward in the short term, but in the long run the left must also deal with the question of what comes after the current stage of capitalism and how to create this future. Social democracy cannot be the end goal, lest we repeat what happened at the end of the 20th century. At the present moment it is imperative to work within the system and fight for meaningful reforms. But eventually a true “political revolution” may be necessary to confront capital in the 21st century.

 Conor Lynch is a writer and journalist living in New York City. His work has appeared on Salon, AlterNet, Counterpunch and openDemocracy. Follow him on Twitter: @dilgentbureauct.

The State of Labor on Labor Day

 

Photo by Metropolitan Transportation | CC BY 2.0

The state of labor on Labor Day, 2017, is precarious, and can only be rectified by a Left, that reasserts class politics and takes its lead from a “universalizing” anti-stystemic labor movement.

Severe problems began with the Reagan revolution, which enshrined a ruthless global capitalism and sought to destroy unions. While the GOP and their corporate allies were destroying New Deal worker protections, the Democrats were doing little to stop them. The Clintons’ centrist Third Way took the Democrats out of a New Deal frame and into an embrace of Wall Street and the corporations, cementing the US as the only advanced Western nation with no party of labor.

Outsourcing and robotics, as well as deep cultural divides among workers, have intensified the problem, but they also have political solutions.

Trump, while elected because of the real crisis among workers, has not offered a solution for his white working class base; his extreme anti-union, austerity, and deregulatory policies will hurt them more.

This opens the door to what we call a “universalizing” strategy in which progressives in unions, the Democratic Party and social justice movements – as well as much of the general public that has turned fiercely anti-Establishment –come together to fight the ruling system and create a new New Deal, one that involves new kinds of unions and political policies –and a new labor focus on the Left – through four key new approaches.

1) Union leaders, working with their political allies, must connect better with their own members’ core interests. This means intensely challenging the global corporate power that is hollowing out the working class here, and requires labor working with political allies to rein in corporate power, build public infrastructure and expand social welfare protecting all Americans. If white workers’ core economic interests are protected, they are far more likely to unite across racial and cultural differences for a better standard of life. European unions, even where they represent less than ten percentage of the labor force, as in France, have succeeded for decades in winning support among culturally conservative workers by winning political power and preventing corporate oligarchy. Bernie Sanders attracted many white working class votes, proving that progressive populism here can draw culturally conservative workers, but not enough unions supported him in 2016.

2) As workers are increasingly people of color and female, the labor movement must connect better with other social justice movements, such as civil rights and feminist movements, as well as environmental and peace movements. These movements are all fighting the same systemic nexus of power and can only succeed together. The United Steelworkers has set a model of this by building vigorous alliances between labor and civil rights organizations, showing how to unite racially around shared interests.

3) The Left must move away from its current form of identity politics. We need a strong identity politics – especially in the Trump era where women, people of color, immigrants and other Left “identity communities” are under threat. But since the 1960s, the Left has largely abandoned its focus on labor and class politics, leaving an identity politics stripped of class alliances and awareness. This is a devastating situation for the Left; by giving up on changing capitalism, Left identity politics becomes a strategy for doing better within the capitalist regime, thereby reinforcing it. Only a new strong alliance between identity politics and class politics can create a viable Left; this Labor Day is a crucial moment for the Left to recognize its abandonment of class politics, allowing Trump to capture more and more white workers.

4) Labor must help transform the Democratic Party, especially by connecting with the progressive Sanders wing of the Party and allied social justice movements as well as with the broader population not in unions. Joining with the Sanders “revolution” in politics and on the street, labor can reach a majority of the angry and scared working population by being as systemically disruptive as Trump, but with very different politics, The new politics would make a genuine commitment to creatings good jobs and social protections in healthcare, education, and retirement now being dismantled by Trump and the GOP. Unions need to support a new assertive public sector and universalize its aims toward comprehensive social welfare and universal human rights, as seen in European nations. In the US, service unions such as nurses and teachers, as well as traditional industrial unions like the USW, are moving this way.

This is not utopian but urgent and realistic. Labor is already beginning to take these steps as inequality grows, economic conditions decline, and a new anti-Establishment American majority demands major change. Labor Day is now a pivotal political moment for labor and the entire nation and world.

https://www.counterpunch.org/2017/09/04/the-state-of-labor-on-labor-day/