Bernie Sanders, and the Unexpected Socialist Revival

CULTURE
Bernie Sanders proved socialism isn’t dead—and some young people are even open to the banished ideas of Karl Marx.

Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore / Flickr

Since his grassroots presidential campaign took the world by storm last year, Sen. Bernie Sanders has been widely credited with bringing socialism back into the mainstream of American politics and introducing an entire generation to left-wing politics. As a major presidential candidate who unabashedly identified as a democratic socialist, Sanders essentially resurrected an idea that has been considered off limits in our political discourse for many decades: that there is an alternative to capitalism and the status quo.

This radical idea has become less taboo in recent years, and today an increasing number of millennials say they reject capitalism, while a majority of Americans support “socialistic” policies like universal health care (for the first time in a long time, single-payer is gaining mainstream momentum). Clearly, Sanders deserves the credit he has received for shifting the Overton window and reintroducing a form of left-wing class politics to America. It is safe to say that no single person has done more to revive the American left than the Vermont senator.

But Sanders’ political rise did not happen in a vacuum, and it’s unlikely he would have achieved much success had the social and economic conditions not been ripe. Though the 75-year old senator played an essential role in demystifying socialism to the public and instilling a radical spirit in the progressive movement, the current resurgence of class politics on the left has been in the works for many years, going back to the 2007-08 financial crisis.

It hasn’t been white-haired socialists who have provided the foundation for this resurgence, but young people who grew up in the era of neoliberalism. This was evident last week, when progressive millennials flocked to Chicago for the biannual Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) convention, where delegates came together to vote on various resolutions for the party. In the past year, the DSA has tripled its membership, and what is particularly telling about this growth is that the average age of DSA members has dropped by half virtually overnight, from 64 in 2015 to just 30 today.

This trend has led to a cottage industry of think pieces speculating about why millennials have embraced old school leftists like Sanders and British Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, but it is hardly a great mystery. Millennials came of age during the worst capitalist crisis in 80 years and live in a time when income and wealth inequality have reached historic levels — as evidenced by the fact that the eight richest men in the world (seven of whom are white American men) own as much wealth as the bottom 3.6 billion people.

Millennials inhabit a planet that faces ecological collapse, and most grasp the threat of climate change on a visceral level. Young people are also crippled by record levels of debt and despite being better educated than their parents earn 20 percent less than baby boomers did at this point in their lives. Finally, millennials have grown up in a time when moneyed interests have completely infiltrated the political process, creating an oligarchic form of government that serves the economic elite rather than the majority.

In other words, millennials are increasingly ambivalent about capitalism because it is a system that has failed their generation. Not surprisingly, this has led to a significant number of young intellectuals who have also rediscovered the works of Karl Marx, the great diagnostician of capitalism’s ills. Around the same time that the Occupy Wall Street protests erupted around the country in 2011, Bhaskar Sunkara founded Jacobin, the left-wing quarterly that has grown rapidly over the past five years, publishing the work of many millennial Marxists.

Of course, it is one thing to call yourself a socialist (or a “democratic socialist”) in America, and another thing entirely to identify as a Marxist. For the past century Karl Marx has been the ultimate intellectual bogeyman in the United States. For the majority of Americans who have no first-hand familiarity with the 19th-century thinker and his work, the term “Marxism” is synonymous with Stalinism and totalitarianism.

As with the millennial embrace of an elderly democratic socialist, this Marxist revival has predictably confounded many liberal and conservative critics, who assume that youngsters simply don’t know their 20th-century history. “That Marxism is not viewed with a similar horror as Nazism is one of the greatest failings of contemporary education,” tweeted Claire Lehmann, editor of the libertarian-leaning publication Quillette magazine, last month.

One of the greatest failings of contemporary education, one might counter, is that critics of Marxism know next to nothing about Marx or Marxism, other than the fact that some unsavory historical figures identified themselves with the term. This is obviously not a new phenomenon, and more than 50 years ago the American sociologist C. Wright Mills attempted to provide an objective account of Marx’s ideas in his 1962 book, “The Marxists,” meant to counteract the propaganda efforts of Cold Warriors. Mills’ book is just as useful today when it comes to explaining why Marx remains relevant in the 21st century. (Some might argue he is even more relevant today than in the mid-20th century, as capitalism has conquered the globe). In order to uncover what makes Marx’s work so valuable, Mills makes an important analytical distinction between the philosopher’s methodology/model and his theories:

model is a more or less systematic inventory of the elements to which we must pay attention if we are to understand something. It is not true or false; it is useful and adequate to varying degrees. A theory, in contrast, is a statement which can be proved true or false, about the casual weight and the relations of the elements of a model. Only in terms of this distinction can we understand why Marx’s work is truly great.

Marx’s model, argues Mills, “is what is great; that is what is alive in marxism. [Marx] provides a classic machinery for thinking about man, society, and history. That is the reason there have been so many quite different revivals of marxism. Marx is often wrong, in part because he died in 1883, in part because he did not use his own machinery as carefully as we now can, and in part because some of the machinery itself needs to be refined and even redesigned. . . . Neither the truth nor the falsity of Marx’s theories confirm the adequacy of his model.”

Marx’s model looked at the structure of society as a whole, as well as that “structure in historical motion,” and the German philosopher and economist employed this model to examine and reveal the dynamics of capitalism. This largely explains why there has been a renewed interest in Marx’s work in recent years, especially among millennials who have lived their entire lives under a global capitalist order. Marx’s model of looking at the world, along with his exhaustive analysis of capitalism, helps us to understand our own contemporary reality and where we are headed.

While Marx’s model is essential to understanding modern society, another fundamental aspect of Marxism is, of course, the merging of theory and practice. As Marx famously declared, “Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.”

This remains the ultimate goal for millennial Marxists and socialists. Although capitalism has never been more globally dominant than it is today, this has also engendered social and economic conditions that are ripe for left-wing political movements. As the Marxist economist Richard Wolff recently said during an interview on Fox Business:

Socialism is in a way the shadow of capitalism. Nothing guarantees the future of socialism so much as capitalism, because socialism is capitalism’s self-criticism.

Are Democrats turning to an alliance between neocons and neoliberals?

 If so, it’s a terrible strategy

An alliance with Bush-era neocons on the Russia scandal is pushing Democrats hard right on foreign policy. Sad!

Last week, former Republican congressman and MSNBC host Joe Scarborough made headlines when he announced on “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert” that he was leaving the Republican Party. A week later the conservative pundit wrote a column for the Washington Post elaborating on his decision.

“I did not leave the Republican Party. The Republican Party left its senses,” explained Scarborough. “President Trump’s Republicans have devolved into a party without a cause, dominated by a leader hopelessly ill-informed about the basics of conservatism, U.S. history and the Constitution.”

“Neither Lincoln, William Buckley nor Ronald Reagan would recognize this movement,” the former congressman continued. “It is a dying party that I can no longer defend.”

Scarborough’s criticism of his former party is more than a little ironic, considering he was a frequent apologist for Trump throughout the campaign season, but the host has nevertheless been praised by many Democrats for his “principled” decision to “put his country first.” Though it has already been a year since the Republican Party officially embraced Trump by nominating him as their candidate, it is, as they say, better late than never.

Scarborough is just one of many conservative pundits who have garnered liberal adulation for rejecting the unhinged Republican president. Since Trump was elected president last year a who’s-who of top conservative figures have been embraced by Democrats and the “liberal media” for their opposition to Trump and his reactionary brand of populism.

Indeed, though he has divided the country, President Trump has been a great unifier of neoliberal Democrats and neoconservative Republicans, who have come to see Russian plots against America at every turn. Neocons like Max Boot, David Frum, Bret Stephens and Bill Kristol are among the top Republican hawks who have become liberal darlings in the Trump era. Frum, the former George W. Bush speechwriter and coiner of the infamous phrase “axis of evil,” has become many liberals’ favorite neocon pundit on social media, while Stephens — a prominent climate-change denier — was hired earlier this year as a full-time columnist for the ostensibly liberal New York Times editorial page (not surprisingly, the Times was forced to issue a correction for his debut column defending climate-change skepticism).

At the center of this alliance is not just a mutual antipathy for President Trump but a hostility towards Russia that recalls the paranoid years of the Cold War. Last week this hawkish alliance was made official when a new “bipartisan” group called Alliance for Securing Democracy was formed. This new advocacy group will be led by Laura Rosenberger, a former State Department official in the Obama administration, and Jamie Fly, a former national security adviser to Sen. Marco Rubio. Top Obama-era officials and Bush-era neocons will sit on the board of directors, including Clinton adviser Jake Sullivan, former ambassador to Russia Mike McFaul, Bush-era Homeland Security Secretary Mike Chertoff and none other than Bill Kristol, America’s leading chicken-hawk (who is known best for how wrong he has been in nearly all of his predictions).

Glenn Greenwald summed up this new Trump era alliance in a recent article on The Intercept, noting that “on the key foreign policy controversies, there is now little to no daylight between leading Democratic Party foreign policy gurus and the Bush-era neocons who had wallowed in disgrace following the debacle of Iraq and the broader abuses of the war on terror.”

The Democratic establishment’s apparent shift to the right on foreign policy, along with its newly formed alliance with Republican hawks, is part of an overall trend that reveals how out of touch the party elite have become with the base. Indeed, while leading Democrats have adopted a Cold Warrior mentality, the party’s base has actually shifted further to the left. A majority of Democrats today, for example, have a favorable opinion of “socialism” and support  progressive policies like universal health care. This makes it all the more ironic — and maddening — that senior figures in the Democratic Party have started to sound more like heirs of Joseph McCarthy than Franklin D. Roosevelt, as displayed by a recent tweet from former DNC chair Donna Brazile declaring that “the Communists [i.e. Russians] are now dictating the terms of the debate.”

In a Bloomberg poll released last week, it was revealed that Hillary Clinton is even more unpopular today than the historically unpopular President Trump. According to Bloomberg, many Clinton voters said they “wished Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont had won the Democratic nomination, or that they never liked Clinton and only voted for her because she was the lesser of two bad choices.” The survey had another interesting find: of the many issues facing America, 35 percent of people consider health care to be the most important, followed by issues like immigration, terrorism, and climate change. Only 6 percent of respondents said that the United States’ “relationship with Russia” is the most important issue facing the country.

These findings indicate two things: First, that most Americans care much less about the Russia scandal than the political establishment does; and second, that Clinton’s brand of neoliberalism is politically toxic. In that light, the Democratic establishment’s current strategy of embracing the center and aligning with neoconservatives to “secure democracy” against Russia is reckless and extremely shortsighted. ​​​​​​​The Republican Party “left its senses” long before Trump came around, and in uniting with Republican chicken-hawks, leading Democrats seem to be leaving their senses too.

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.

CNN’s “The Nineties”: Empty nostalgia for a decade we should let die

CNN delves into a decade of pat neoliberalism and hollow spectacle and, unsurprisingly, comes up with nothing

CNN’s “The Nineties”: Empty nostalgia for a decade we should let die
The Nineties (Credit: CNN)

To anyone who came of age in the 1990s, the current cultural ascent of fidget spinners is likely to induce an acute pang of recognition — equal parts wistful nostalgia, anxiety and woozy terror. The ‘90s were, as any certified “Nineties Kid” can attest, a decade marked by a succession of asinine schoolyard fads.

One can imagine an alternative timeline of the decade that marks time not by year, but the chronology of crazes: the Year of the Beanie Baby, the Year of the Tamagotchi, the Years of the Snap-Bracelet, the Macarena, the Baggy Starter Jacket, the Painstakingly Layered “The Rachel” Hairdo, and so on. What’s most remarkable about our culture’s whirring fidget spinner fetish is that it didn’t happen sooner; that this peak fad didn’t emerge from among the long, rolling sierra of hollow amusements that defined the 1990s.

Surveying the current pop-culture landscape, one gets the sense that the ‘90s— with all its flash-in-the-pan fads and cooked-up crazes — never ended. On TV, “The Simpsons” endures into its 28th season, while David Lynch and Mark Frost’s oddball ABC drama “Twin Peaks” enjoys a highly successful, and artistically fruitful, premium-cable revival. The Power Rangers, Ninja Turtles, Transformers and Treasure Trolls have graduated from small-screen Saturday morning silliness to blockbuster entertainments.

Elsewhere, the “normcore”/“dadcore”/“lazycore” fashion of singers like Mac DeMarco has made it OK (even haute) to dress up like a “Home Improvement”-era Jonathan Taylor Thomas. And Nintendo recently announced its latest money-printing scheme, in the form of the forthcoming SNES Classic Mini: a handheld throwback video game platform chock-full of nostalgia-baiting Console Wars standbys like “Donkey Kong Country,” “F-Zero” and “StarFox.” Content mills like BuzzFeed, Upworthy and their ilk bolster their bottom line churning out lists and quizzes reminding you that, yes, the show “Rugrats” existed.

To quote a nostalgic ’97-vintage hit single, which was itself a throwback to ‘60s jazz-pop, it’s all just a little bit of history repeating.

It’s natural to languish for the past: to trip down memory lane, get all dewy-eyed about the past, pine for the purity of the long-trampled gardens of innocence, and go full Proust on the bric-a-brac of youth that manages to impress itself on the soft, still-maturing amber of the adolescent mind, even if that stuff was total crap like Moon Shoes or a Street Shark or Totally Hair Barbie doll or a bucket of Nickelodeon-brand goo called “Gak.” The 1990s, however, offered a particularly potent nostalgia trap, something revealed watching CNN’s new TV documentary miniseries “event,” fittingly called “The Nineties.”

A follow-up to CNN’s previous history-of-a-decade events (“The Sixties,” “The Seventies” and “The Eighties”) and co-produced by Tom Hanks, the series provides some valuable insight into the nature of ’90s nostalgia. The two-part series opener, called “The One About TV,” threads the needle, examining the ways in which television of the era shifted the standards of cultural acceptability, be it in Andy Sipowicz’s expletive-laden racism, Homer Simpson’s casual stranglings of his misfit son or the highbrow, Noel Coward-in-primetime farces of “Frasier.”

To believe CNN’s procession of talking heads, damn near every TV show to debut after midnight on Jan. 1, 1990, was “revolutionary.” “The Simpsons” was revolutionary for the way it hated TV. “Twin Peaks” was revolutionary for the way it subverted it. “Seinfeld” ignored (or subtracted, into its famous “Show About Nothing” ethic) the conventions of the sitcom. “Frasier” elevated them. “Will & Grace,” “Ellen” and “The Real World” bravely depicted gay America. Ditto “Arsenio,” “Fresh Prince” and “In Living Color” in representing black America. “OZ” was revolutionary for its violence. “The Sopranos” was revolutionary in how it got you to root for the bad guy. “Friends” was revolutionary because it showed the day-to-day lives of, well, some friends. If the line of argumentation developed by “The Nineties” is to be believed, the TV game was being changed so frequently that it was becoming impossible to keep up with the rules.

Despite seeming argumentatively fallacious (if everything is subversive or game-changing, then, one might argue, nothing is), and further debasing the concept of revolution itself, such an argument cuts to the heart of ‘90s nostalgia. In pop culture, it was an era of seeming possibility, where it became OK to talk about masturbation (in one of “Seinfeld’s” more famous episodes) or even anal sex (as on “Sex & the City”), where “Twin Peaks” and “The Sopranos” spoke to the rot at the core of American life. “The Nineties” paints a flattering, borderline obsequious portrait of Gen-X ’90s kids as too hip, savvy and highly educated to be suckered in by the gleam and obvious propaganda that seemed to define “The Eighties.” (The ’90s kid finds a generational motto in the tagline offered by Fox’s conspiratorial cult sci-fi show “The X-Files”: trust no one.)

What “The Nineties” misses — very deliberately, one imagines — is the guiding cynicism of such revolutions in television. Far from being powered by a kind of radical politics of inclusivity, TV was (and remains) guided by its ability to deliver certain demographics to advertisers. In the 1990s, these demographics splintered, becoming more specialized. Likewise, entertainment streams split. The bully “mean girls” watched “90210,” the bullied watched “My So-Called Life,” and the kids bullied by the bullied watched “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” Then on Thursday night, everyone watched “Seinfeld.”

This parade of prime-time cultural revolutions betrayed the actual guiding political attitude of the decade: stasis. The second episode of “The Nineties” turns to the scandal-plagued political life of Bill Clinton. “A new season of American renewal has begun!” beams Clinton, thumb pressed characteristically over a loosely clenched fist, early in the episode. For the Democrats, Bill Clinton seemed like a new hope: charming, charismatic, hip, appearing in sunglasses on Arsenio to blow his saxophone. But like so many of TV’s mock-insurgencies, the Clinton presidency was a coup in terms of aesthetics, and little else.

Beyond his sundry accusations of impropriety  (Whitewater, the Paula Jones and Monica Lewinsky sex scandals, etc.), Clinton supported the death penalty, “three strikes” sentencing, NAFTA, “don’t ask, don’t tell” and countless other policies that alienated him from his party’s left-progressive wing. Clinton embodied the emerging neoliberal ethic: cozying up to big banks and supporting laissez-faire economic policies that further destabilized the American working and middle classes, while largely avoiding the jingoist militarism, nationalism and family values moralism of ‘80s Reaganomics. Clinton’s American renewal was little more than face-lift.

“The Simpsons,” naturally, nailed this devil-you-know distinction in a 1996 Halloween episode, which saw the bodies of Bill Clinton and then-presidential rival Bob Dole inhabited by slithering extraterrestrials. Indistinguishable in terms of tone and policy, the body snatching alien candidates beguiled the easily duped electorate with nonsensical stump speeches about moving “forward, not backward; upward, not forward; and always twirling, twirling, twirling towards freedom.”

A 1992 book by the American political scientist Francis Fukuyama summed up the ’90s’ neoliberal approach to politics. In “The End of History and the Last Man,” Fukuyama posited that the collapse of the Soviet Union following the Cold War had resolved any grand ideological and historical conflicts in world politics. Liberal democracy and capitalism had won the day. Free market democracy was humanity’s final form. History — or at least the concept of history as a process of sociological evolution and conflict between competing political systems — had run its course.

Following the publication of “The End of History,” Fukuyama became an institutional poli-sci Svengali (John Gray at the New Statesman dubbed him the “court philosopher of global capitalism”), with his ideas holding significant major sway in political circles. The 1990s in America, and during the Clinton presidency, in particular, were a self-styled realization of the “end of history.” In the wake of the Cold War and collapse of the Berlin Wall, the president’s position was largely functionary: enable the smooth functioning of markets, and the free flow of capital. Such was the horizon of political thought.

Fukuyama’s book has been subjected to thorough criticism for its shortsightedness — not least of all for the way in which its central argument only serves to consolidate and naturalize the authority of the neoliberal elite. More concretely, 9/11 and its aftermath are often cited as signals of the “revenge of history,” which introduces new, complicated clashes of world-historical ideologies.

Though it’s often touted for its triumphalism, as a cheerleading handbook for the success of Westernized global capitalism, Fukuyama’s end of history theory is suffused with a certain melancholy. There’s one passage, often overlooked, which speaks to the general content and character of the ’90s (and “The Nineties”). “The end of history will be a very sad times,” he writes. “In the post-historical period there will be neither art nor philosophy, just the perpetual caretaking of the museum of human history. I can feel in myself, and see in others around me, a powerful nostalgia for the time when history existed. Such nostalgia, in fact, will continue to fuel competition and conflict even in the post-historical world for some time to come.”

Our fresh new millennium has been marked, in political terms, by cultural clashes between decadent Western liberalism and militant Islamism (both sides bolstering their positions with the hollow rhetoric of religious zealotry), the abject failure of both the Democratic and Republican parties, the reappearance of white supremacist and ethno-nationalist thinking, the thorough criticism of neoliberalism, and the rise of a new progressive-left (signaled by the popularity of Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders), alongside a similarly invigorated form of moderatism referred to as “the extreme centre.” Amid such wild vicissitudes, the placid neoliberal creep of Fukuyama’s “post-history” feels downright quaint.

This is the sort of modern nostalgia that CNN’s “The Nineties” taps into: a melancholy for the relative stability of a decade that was meant to mark the end of history itself. Not only did things seem even-keeled, but everything (a haircut, a GameBoy game about tiny Japanese cartoon monsters, a sitcom episode about waiting for a table) seemed radical, revolutionary and, somehow, deeply profound. We are, perhaps invariably, prone to feeling elegiac for even the hollowness of A Decade About Nothing. It’s particularly because the 1990s abide in our politicians, our ideologies, our prime-time entertainments, blockbusters movies and even, yes, in our faddish toys, designed to ease our fidgety anxiety about the muddled present, and keep us twirling, twirling back into memory of a simpler, stupider past.

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

How Privatization Could Spell the End of Democracy

ECONOMY
Between Trump and tech, never before have so many powerful people been so intent on transforming government into a business.

Brands: Amazon, Yelp, Uber, Hillary
Photo Credit: Jewish Journal

It’s a hot day in New York City. You’re thirsty, but your water bottle is empty. So you walk into a store and place your bottle in a machine. You activate the machine with an app on your phone, and it fills your bottle with tap water. Now you are no longer thirsty.

This is the future envisioned by the founders of a startup called Reefill. If the premise sounds oddly familiar, that’s because it is: Reefill has reinvented the water fountain as a Bluetooth-enabled subscription service. Customers pay $1.99 a month for the privilege of using its machines, located at participating businesses around Manhattan.

Predictably, the company has already come in for its fair share of ridicule. In Slate, Henry Grabar called it “tap water in a suit”. But while Reefill is a particularly cartoonish example, its basic business model is a popular one within tech. The playbook is simple: take a public service and build a private, app-powered version of it.

he most obvious examples are Uber and Lyft, which aspire not merely to eliminate the taxi industry, but to replace public transportation. They’re slowly succeeding: municipalities around America are now subsidizing ride-hailing fares instead of running public buses. And earlier this year, Lyft began offering a fixed-route, flat-rate service called Lyft Shuttle in Chicago and San Francisco – an aggressive bid to poach more riders from public transit.

These companies wouldn’t have customers if better public alternatives existed. It can be hard to find a water fountain in Manhattan, and public transit in American cities ranges from mediocre to nonexistent. But solving these problems by ceding them to the private sector ensures that public services will continue to deteriorate until they disappear.

Decades of defunding and outsourcing have already pushed public services to the brink. Now, fortified with piles of investor cash and the smartphone, tech companies are trying to finish them off.

Proponents of privatization believe this is a good thing. For years, they have advanced the argument that business will always perform a given task better than government, whether it’s running buses or schools, supplying healthcare or housing. The public sector is sclerotic, wasteful and undisciplined by the profit motive. The private sector is dynamic, innovative and, above all, efficient.

This belief has become common sense in political life. It is widely shared by the country’s elite, and has guided much policymaking over the past several decades. But like most of our governing myths, it collapses on closer inspection.

No word is invoked more frequently or more fervently by apostles of privatization than efficiency. Yet this is a strange basis on which to build their case, given the fact that public services are often more efficient than private ones. Take healthcare. The United States has one of the least efficient systems on the planet: we spend more money on healthcare than anyone else, and in return we receive some of the worst health outcomes in the west. Not coincidentally, we also have the most privatized healthcare system in the advanced world. By contrast, the UK spends a fraction of what we do and achieves far better results. It also happens to provision healthcare as a public service. Somehow, the absence of the profit motive has not produced an epidemic of inefficiency in British healthcare. Meanwhile, we pay nearly $10,000 per capita and a staggering 17% of our GDP to achieve a life expectancy somewhere between that of Costa Rica and Cuba.

A profit-driven system doesn’t mean we get more for our money – it means someone gets to make more money off of us. The healthcare industry posts record profits and rewards its chief executives with the highest salaries in the country. It takes a peculiar frame of mind to see this arrangement as anything resembling efficient.

Attacking public services on the grounds of efficiency isn’t just incorrect, however – it’s beside the point. Decades of neoliberalism have corroded our capacity to think in non-economic terms. We’ve been taught that all fields of human life should be organized as markets, and that government should be run like a business. This ideology has found its perverse culmination in the figure of Donald Trump, a celebrity billionaire with no prior political experience who catapulted himself into the White House by invoking his expertise as an businessman. The premise of Trump’s campaign was that America didn’t need a president – it needed a CEO.

Nowhere is the neoliberal faith embodied by Trump more deeply felt than in Silicon Valley. Tech entrepreneurs work tirelessly to turn more of our lives into markets and devote enormous resources towards “disrupting” government by privatizing its functions. Perhaps this is why, despite Silicon Valley’s veneer of liberal cosmopolitanism, it has a certain affinity for the president. On Monday, Trump met with top executives from Apple, Amazon, Google and other major tech firms to explore how to “unleash the creativity of the private sector to provide citizen services”, in the words of Jared Kushner. Between Trump and tech, never before have so many powerful people been so intent on transforming government into a business.

But government isn’t a business; it’s a different kind of machine. At its worst, it can be repressive and corrupt and autocratic. At its best, it can be an invaluable tool for developing and sustaining a democratic society. Among other things, this includes ensuring that everyone receives the resources they need to exercise the freedoms on which democracy depends. When we privatize public services, we don’t just risk replacing them with less efficient alternatives – we risk damaging democracy itself.

If this seems like a stretch, that’s because pundits and politicians have spent decades defining the idea of democracy downwards. It has come to mean little more than holding elections every few years. But this is the absolute minimum of democracy’s meaning. Its Greek root translates to “rule of the people” – not rule by certain people, such as the rich (plutocracy) or the priests (theocracy), but by all people. Democracy describes a way of organizing society in which the whole of the people determine how society should be organized.

What does this have to do with buses or schools or hospitals or houses? In a democracy, everyone gets to participate in the decisions that affect their lives. But that’s impossible if people don’t have access to the goods they need to survive – if they’re hungry or homeless or sick. And the reality is that when goods are rationed by the market, fewer people have access to them. Markets are places of winners and losers. You don’t get what you need – you get what you can afford.

By contrast, public services offer a more equitable way to satisfy basic needs. By taking things off the market, government can democratize access to the resources that people rely on to lead reasonably dignified lives. Those resources can be offered cheap or free, funded by progressive taxation. They can also be managed by publicly accountable institutions led by elected officials, or subject to more direct mechanisms of popular control.

These ideas are considered wildly radical in American politics. Yet other places around the world have implemented them with great success. When Oxfam surveyed more than 100 countries, they discovered that public services significantly reduce economic inequality. They shrink the distance between rich and poor by lowering the cost of living. They empower working people by making their survival less dependent on their bosses and landlords and creditors. Perhaps most importantly, they entitle citizens to a share of society’s wealth and a say over how it’s used.

But where will the money come from? This is the perennial question, posed whenever someone suggests raising the welfare state above a whisper. Fortunately, it has a simple answer. The United States is the richest country in the history of the world. It is so rich, in fact, that its richest people can afford to pour billions of dollars into a company such as Uber, which loses billions of dollars each year, in the hopes of getting just a little bit richer. In the face of such extravagance, diverting a modest portion of the prosperity we produce in common toward services that benefit everyone shouldn’t be controversial. It’s a small price to pay for making democracy mean more than a hollow slogan, or a sick joke.

Noam Chomsky on Trump: The worst is yet to come

This administration’s legislative agenda is uniquely cruel, even for the far right

Noam Chomsky on Trump: The worst is yet to come
(Credit: AP/Nader Daoud)
This article originally appeared on AlterNet.

AlterNet

Renowned linguist and author Noam Chomsky believes today’s Republican Party is “more dangerous than ISIS,” whether or not Trump voters will ever be willing to admit it. According to one May 31 poll, 68 percent think America is on the right track.

Chomsky, on the other hand, believes the country has been on the wrong track since it adopted a neoliberal economic model several decades ago — and things are about to get a whole lot worse.

During the opening of the first zero net energy building at UMass Amherst on April 13, Chomsky began his lecture by explaining why the despair that has ravaged Trump country is a phenomenon unique to America.

“[There’s been] a dramatic increase in mortality among middle-aged white Americans without college degrees, beginning in 1999, recently documented by [Princeton professors] Anne Case and Angus Deaton,” he said.

Case and Deaton found the pattern has spread nationwide in the past two decades, with no end in sight.

“It’s a phenomenon unknown apart from war and pestilence,” Chomsky said. “They have an updated current analysis where they attribute the increase in mortality to despair and loss of status of working people under the neoliberal miracle, which is concomitant [with] heightened worker insecurity.

Thus, during the 2016 presidential election, “the same sectors of the population that are suffering increased mortality turned for rescue to their bitter class enemy, out of understandable, but self-destructive desperation.”

Trump’s 2018 budget, introduced in late May, would prove especially damaging to his working-class voters, due to its deep cuts to social programs. In its most recent analysis, the Congressional Budget Office found that the GOP’s American Health Care Act would strip 23 million Americans of their health insurance over the next decade.

“The consequences for working people are now being exhibited behind the facade of Trump/Bannon/Spicer bluster before the cameras,” said Chomsky. “This is the systematic enactment of the [Paul] Ryan legislative programs, which are unusually savage even for the ultra-right.”

On June 1, Neil Gorsuch joined his Supreme Court colleagues for their first group photo.

“There’s probably worse to come, as further blows to working people are authorized by the Trump/Roberts Court,” noted Chomsky. “Now with Gorsuch on board, who will probably decide to destroy public sector unions on fraudulent libertarian grounds.”

Why Trump Was Inevitable — But Recovery Isn’t

Or, Why the Great Leaders Theory of History is Wrong

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Every weekend, I read countless variations on the same theme. “If only we could remove him from power…things would change.”

It’s what I call the Great Leaders Theory of History. That is, Great Leaders make all the difference, are all that really matters in a society, hence, the trick is removing bad ones, to make room for good ones. It’s wrong — because it’s backwards.

Let’s think very clearly and analytically about society, leadership, and human prosperity for a moment.

Great Leaders are made. They don’t just magically appear. By structural and institutional conditions. Bad leaders are an effect before they are a cause — an effect of people who are ready to self-destruct. They don’t arise in a vacuum. Hitler didn’t come to power ex nihilo, from the void — nor did Trump. Just as a demagogue rising in a collapsing, hyperinflationary Germany was on the cards, so too Trump was inevitable.

Why? Because the American social contract is broken. A social contract is unlike a legal contract in one important way. It can be ripped up. In what way is the American social contract broken? In the truest way of all: Americans do not expect — or get — minimally good lives anymore. Their life expectancy, income, savings, and so on, down to nearly every last indicator of well being, are all falling.

What do people whose lives are getting worse do? They rip up the social contracts that are failing them. That is rational. It is what maximizes their (falling) payoffs, rewards which have become only punishments. Hence it is a truism of history. It is what we usually call “revolution”. It is what the French did in 1789, what the Bolsheviks, Maoists did — and now what the Trumpists have done. They have ripped up the social contract that failed them. Trump is just the tiny hand tearing the paper.

Many so much so that they have turned into the rich world’s extremists, and now reject the idea of society altogether. Like the modern GOP, they do not “believe” in the idea of a government at all. Yet that way lies absolute collapse into anarchy Somalia — or relative collapse into autocracy like Turkey. I put believe in quotes because government is not really a belief, but a process.

When we employ the Great Leaders Theory of History, we fail to see all the above. We ignore the great and simple truth that a society’s historic leaders are made by its structural and institutional conditions. And by ignoring this truth, simply yearning for Great Leaders to save us, we remain paralyzed and blind — and vulnerable to Caesars, whether they are named Julian or Vladimir.

Angry, unhappy people demand bad leaders, who tear up social contracts. Happy, healthy, sane people don’t. Thus we must produce better followers today if we want better leaders tomorrow. What does “better followers” mean? It means people who aren’t ready to self destruct. Who can think beyond hyperrational, narrow self interest, partisan politics, aren’t ruled by greed, anger, and hate, whose lives aren’t one long sequence of disinformation, pain, and reaction. You can hardly blame people with lives like that for turning into Trumpists — and just blaming them is besides the point entirely.

How do we make such followers? It’s pretty simple, isn’t it? A society must give everyone the possibility to live a genuinely good life. Whether it is as mayors or CEOs or investors, or even just brothers and cousins and neighbors and friends. Then organizations, whether they are cities, towns, corporations, families, and so on, are less likely to rip up the social contract, reject the idea of society, and turn to demagogues. But if a society cannot make happy, healthy, sane people, then of course the result will just be the vicious cycle of angry people demanding bad leaders.

Here’s the takeaway. All the above is a way to say: what working societies really need are thousands of tiny genuinely good leaders. Not one “Great Leader”. A good leader is just someone with a powerful positive agenda and vision for a human organization — as big as a society or as small as a family. If we are mayors or CEOs or investors or neighbors and so on who can do the above in small ways, we are good leaders in a little way. And we are doing more than enough.

(If you wanna put it more formally: good leaders produce better followers who prevent society from demanding the wrong Great Leaders. Go ahead and put it in an differential equation if you want.)

A good leader, no matter how small, is worth far more than a great leader, no matter how bigly. Why? Because the former must precede the latter. Without thousands of tiny good leaders, societies don’t ever really go anywhere at all, no matter how many bombastic great leaders they have.

Great Leaders don’t make history. They just make headlines. History is really made by thousands of invisible tiny leaders. People who change organizations, whether families, cities, towns, or corporations, in small and often unremarkable ways. When those invisible leaders are good, people are sane and wise enough to follow paths that lead them to human possibility. When those leaders are bad, people are reduced to following the path of human folly.

It is up to all of us to be tiny but good leaders today. And to forget the Great Leaders Theory of History. That backwards theory is just another entry now in a long catalogue of American intellectual failures, from neoliberalism to segregation. It’s really just another to way say: they did it. The bad people. But they didn’t. Not alone. We did this. In us is the lack of a thousand tiny good leaders.

And only we can undo it.

Umair
June 2017

View story at Medium.com

Noam Chomsky: Neoliberalism Is Destroying Our Democracy

How elites on both sides of the political spectrum have undermined our social, political, and environmental commons. 

For 50 years, Noam Chomsky, has been America’s Socrates, our public pest with questions that sting. He speaks not to the city square of Athens but a vast global village in pain and now, it seems, in danger.

The world in trouble today still beats a path to Noam Chomsky’s door, if only because he’s been forthright for so long about a whirlwind coming. Not that the world quite knows what do with Noam Chomsky’s warnings of disaster in the making. Remember the famous faltering of the patrician TV host William F. Buckley Jr., meeting Chomsky’s icy anger about the war in Vietnam, in 1969.

It’s a strange thing about Noam Chomsky: The New York Times calls him “arguably” the most important public thinker alive, though the paper seldom quotes him, or argues with him, and giant pop-media stars on network television almost never do. And yet the man is universally famous and revered in his 89th year: He’s the scientist who taught us to think of human language as something embedded in our biology, not a social acquisition; he’s the humanist who railed against the Vietnam War and other projections of American power, on moral grounds first, ahead of practical considerations. He remains a rock star on college campuses, here and abroad, and he’s become a sort of North Star for the post-Occupy generation that today refuses to feel the Bern-out.

He remains, unfortunately, a figure alien in the places where policy gets made. But on his home ground at MIT, he is a notably accessible old professor who answers his e-mail and receives visitors like us with a twinkle.

Last week, we visited Chomsky with an open-ended mission in mind: We were looking for a nonstandard account of our recent history from a man known for telling the truth. We’d written him that we wanted to hear not what he thinks but how. He’d written back that hard work and an open mind have a lot to do with it, also, in his words, a “Socratic-style willingness to ask whether conventional doctrines are justified.”

Christopher Lydon: All we want you to do is to explain where in the world we are at a time—

Noam Chomsky: That’s easy.

CL: [Laughs]—When so many people were on the edge of something, something historic. Is there a Chomsky summary?

NC: Brief summary?

CL: Yeah.

NC: Well, a brief summary I think is if you take a look at recent history since the Second World War, something really remarkable has happened. First, human intelligence created two huge sledgehammers capable of terminating our existence—or at least organized existence—both from the Second World War. One of them is familiar. In fact, both are by now familiar. The Second World War ended with the use of nuclear weapons. It was immediately obvious on August 6, 1945, a day that I remember very well. It was obvious that soon technology would develop to the point where it would lead to terminal disaster. Scientists certainly understood this.

 

CONTINUED:

https://www.thenation.com/article/noam-chomsky-neoliberalism-destroying-democracy/