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'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Friday, January 29, 2010

Ellsberg Remembers Zinn 

A moving personal tribute by Ellsberg for his dear friend. Over the past year, the left has lost several prominent male figures with roots in the New Left of the 1960s: Europeans like Peter Gowan, Giovanni Arrighi, Chris Harman and Daniel Bensaid and Americans like Ronald Takaki and, now, Howard Zinn. With the emergence of more women on the left as a consequence of the women's liberation movement, we shall soon sadly experience their departure as well.

All of these figures deserve the praise that has accompanied their deaths, but, perhaps, it is time for reflection as well. Recently, Diana Block, an American radical of the 1970s and 1980s, wrote a moving autobiography entitled, Arm the Spirit, published by AK Press. I posted a two part review of it here last April and May. In it, Block relates her experiences of personal empowerment against the backdrop of political failure. She encourages readers to ponder to what extent she, and those that she worked with, succeeded, and to what extent they failed, and, even more importantly, why they were unable to persuade more people to rally in support of their vision of society.

It is a central question for these radicals, especially American ones like Zinn, Takaki and Block, as the Europeans, Gowan, Arrighi, Bensaid and Harman, are manifestations of a culture that encourages more self-reflection. Block, to her credit, confronted it as best she could, and it would have been mesmerizing to hear or read what Zinn had to say about it as well. Perhaps, he did, and I missed it. I concede that I have not followed his statements and writings avidly. My impression, however, is that Zinn, like most others of his era, evaded the question by treating as a problem of inadequate education. If we just keep telling people why bigotry, militarism, poverty and, yes, even capitalism, are bad, they will eventually figure it out.

Well, maybe so. But it didn't happen during Zinn's lifetime, and his insistence upon support for Democratic presidential candidates, while emphasizing the necessity of social movements to push them into doing the right things (much like his contemporary, Takaki), did not spark the popular imagination. Indeed, the Open Letter to Barack Obama that he, and many other activists and academics, signed in the summer of 2008 helped to motivate me to abandon the electoral process entirely, and post an ongoing critique of it under the label Vote or Die. If it wasn't obvious at the time, it is now evident that the letter represents an abject capitulation of the left in the face of the most rigorous rationalization of the global economy by finance capital since the late 1970s and 1980s. Interestingly, Ellsberg was not an initial signatory of the letter posted on the The Nation website, although I can't say as to whether he added his name afterwards.

As I said, perhaps Zinn addressed this subject in the final years of life, and was unable to get people to listen. If so, I'd be very interested in what he said or wrote, if anyone visiting this site can direct me to places where his remarks can be found. Because, if we really want to show respect for people like Zinn and others of his generation, we should seek to understand and learn from their failures as well as celebrate their personal bravery, integrity and accomplishments. Otherwise, we risk reducing the significance of their lives to the sterility of an innocuous personality cult.

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Wednesday, January 27, 2010

RIP, Howard Zinn 

Here's the Times' obituary... Also, here's the statement he made recently in The Nation, mentioned in the NYT piece.

I' ve been searching hard for a highlight. The only thing that comes close is some of Obama's rhetoric; I don't see any kind of a highlight in his actions and policies.

As far as disappointments, I wasn't terribly disappointed because I didn't expect that much. I expected him to be a traditional Democratic president. On foreign policy, that's hardly any different from a Republican--as nationalist, expansionist, imperial and warlike. So in that sense, there's no expectation and no disappointment. On domestic policy, traditionally Democratic presidents are more reformist, closer to the labor movement, more willing to pass legislation on behalf of ordinary people--and that's been true of Obama. But Democratic reforms have also been limited, cautious. Obama's no exception. On healthcare, for example, he starts out with a compromise, and when you start out with a compromise, you end with a compromise of a compromise, which is where we are now.

I thought that in the area of constitutional rights he would be better than he has been. That's the greatest disappointment, because Obama went to Harvard Law School and is presumably dedicated to constitutional rights. But he becomes president, and he's not making any significant step away from Bush policies. Sure, he keeps talking about closing Guantánamo, but he still treats the prisoners there as "suspected terrorists." They have not been tried and have not been found guilty. So when Obama proposes taking people out of Guantánamo and putting them into other prisons, he's not advancing the cause of constitutional rights very far. And then he's gone into court arguing for preventive detention, and he's continued the policy of sending suspects to countries where they very well may be tortured.

I think people are dazzled by Obama's rhetoric, and that people ought to begin to understand that Obama is going to be a mediocre president--which means, in our time, a dangerous president--unless there is some national movement to push him in a better direction.

Structural Adjustment (Part 2) 

Ben Bernanke, the Chair of the Federal Reserve, is willing to accept 10% or higher unemployment to satisfy the low inflation expectations of participants in the financial markets. Who knew? Next thing you know, someone will be telling me that the Federal Reserve Board exists to protect transnational financial institutions from the consequences of their own excesses. Get out!

During his December confirmation hearing, Bernanke sang from the old Fed songbook, emphasizing the urgency of entitlement reform as a way of reducing the federal deficit: Willie Sutton robbed banks because that’s where the money is, as he put it. The money in this case is in entitlements. In the current social climate, Bernanke's unrepentent orthodoxy has temporarily slowed his confirmation by the Senate. After all, scapegoats are desperately needed, and if the choice is between Senators and congressional representatives up for reelection and appointed figures like Bernanke and Treasury Secretary Geithner, the choice is obvious.

But no one should mistake the theatrics of Congress for an insistence upon a change in policy. Neither Bernanke nor Geithner are going to lose their job. And, in any event, here at American Leftist, we are more concerned about the societal implications of the policies of the Fed and the Obama administration. It is not difficult to piece the puzzle together. Bernanke and the Fed regulate monetary policy in such a way as to preserve the dominant transnational financial players, while the four horsemen of unemployment, foreclosure, state budget deficits and small business failure lay waste to community after community.

Meanwhile, Obama implements an anemic stimulus plan and a cosmetic mortgage modification program. At the very moment that I write this (he's giving the state of the union), he's probably insisting upon a freeze upon domestic expenditures. In the last few days, his proposals for increasing employment have been limited to increasing tax breaks for businesses to hire people, people with children and people saving for retirement. Maybe, he will embrace the pitifully small stimulus proposals pending in the House and Senate. The fact that many state governments are on the verge of insolvency is not important enough to mention.

Surely, by now, you've figured it out. Neither the Fed nor Obama want to do anything that will revive the economy until it has been completely restructured on terms dictated by capital. What does that mean? Put simply, it means rendering the lives of approximately 75% to 85% of the US population so insecure that they will gladly work under any conditions imposed by their employers. More concretely, it means eviscerating the power of labor unions and the government to impose constraints upon the ability of corporations to extract maximum profit, while reducing what remains of pension benefits, Social Security and Medicare, you know all those things that neoliberals have successfully rebranded as entitlements.

Eventually, there will be a reckoning, but, as Ernest Mandel cautions, we should not anticipate a millennialist, utopian outcome. The character of the society that will replace the one in which we now live depends upon us. The representatives of capital within the US political system are making their intentions clear, as they have since this recession began. To date, beyond expressions of populist anger, there appear to be no signs that Americans recognize the necessity of broad based collective resistance. But, perhaps, we need to look a little more closely.

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Monday, January 25, 2010

Structural Adjustment (Part 1) 

President Obama will call for a three-year freeze in spending on many domestic programs, and for increases no greater than inflation after that, an initiative intended to signal his seriousness about cutting the budget deficit, administration officials said Monday.

The officials said the proposal would be a major component both of Mr. Obama’s State of the Union speech on Wednesday and the budget that he will send to Congress next Monday for the fiscal year 2011 that begins in October.

The freeze would cover the agencies and programs for which Congress allocates specific budgets each year, from air traffic control and farm subsidies to education, nutrition and national parks.

But it would exempt the Pentagon, foreign aid, Veterans Administration and homeland security budgets, as well as the entitlement programs that make up the biggest and fastest-growing part of the federal budget: Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.

For anyone surprised by this decision, may I humbly suggest that you read my previous posts here and here and here. The contours of Obama's utopian vision of the future are now coming sharply into focus. His intention is to transform the US into a country in which the populace is taxed almost exclusively to finance the activities of financial speculation and militarism, while reserving a pool of readily available patronage through law enforcement and surveillance expenditures. With the passage of time, the social democracy of the period between the 1930s and 1970s, imperfect as it was, will take on the hue of idyllic fantasy, something that future generations will consider implausible.

One can only marvel at Obama's perverse audaciousness, his historic election by a progressive, center-left, coalition, and then his prompt implementation of an economic program centered around bailing out transnational financial institutions and deficit reduction, all the while increasing the scope of US military operations in the Middle East and Central Asia. Obama, it seems, has a profound contempt for the docility of the American electorate, believing it to be an irreversible characteristic. Hence, his alignment with the global ambitions of finance capital and the military industrial complex.

I guess we shouldn't be shocked, because, beyond the level of policy, where he revealed himself, if you made the effort to pay attention to what he really said, Obama displayed a visceral distate for the necessity of engaging the public during his presidential campaign. Many of his events were large, impersonal mass rallies, marked by the latest reiteration of his stump speech. He considered the rough and tumble of charge and countercharge, and the residue of populism that remains in the electoral process, as being beneath him. If people were excited by Obama, one cannot say that Obama was excited by them. He had the sort of ambivalent relationship with his public that marked the concert tours of Bob Dylan in the mid-1960s. By contrast, Hillary Clinton seemed to genuinely enjoy her contact with the public as the campaign proceeded towards its conclusion (which, need I say, shouldn't be taken as an endorsement of the mendacity that came with it).

Nothing has happened since Obama became President to alter his cynical, elitist perspective about Americans. He is so distant from the public, and indeed, even the Congress, that his pronouncements have an oracular quality. Congressional representatives and Senators vainly beseech him to get more involved in the process. As during the campaign, his references to the economic distress of millions of Americans are perfunctory. One suspects that he considers it an irritance to have to address the subject at all, as it distracts attention from his real ambition, to reconstruct the US into a perfected neoliberal model for the rest of the world to emulate. He's not about to let the messiness of real life get in the way.

UPDATE: Oh, my goodness, how did I miss this?

It is the growth in the so-called entitlement programs — Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security — that is the major factor behind projections of unsustainably high deficits, because of rapidly rising health costs and an aging population.

But one administration official said that limiting the much smaller discretionary domestic budget would have symbolic value. That spending includes lawmakers’ earmarks for parochial projects, and only when the public believes such perceived waste is being wrung out will they be willing to consider reductions in popular entitlement programs, the official said.

"By helping to create a new atmosphere of fiscal discipline, it can actually also feed into debates over other components of the budget,” the official said, briefing reporters on the condition of anonymity.

And my friends argued that I was too cynical when I said that the White House wants to get rid of the Democratic majority in Congress so that it cut Medicare and Social Security.

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Saturday, January 23, 2010

Vote or Die (Part 7) 

Somebody gets it:

Thus, if you're committed to human emancipation, if you're committed to radically rethinking economic and social organization, Trotsky's worry is that you cannot accomplish this within the parameters of parliamentary procedures under capitalism.

Here's the argument for why this might be the case. Holders of economic power can make use of this power outside of the electoral arena. Capitalists can make threats. They lay off politically active workers that are 'trouble makers', they can move their operations to other places, they can close factories, they can threaten democratically-elected governments with disinvestment, layoffs, etc. They may purchase and privately control and own media institutions. Economic power is not relinquished without a fight. And even when regulations and limits are imposed upon capitalists, they will relentlessly deploy their economic power to game the system and find ways to get the limits and regulations repealed. Witness the slicing and dicing of the regulatory apparatus put in place in the 1930s over the period from 1973-present. It took a while, but their incessant pressure and efforts eventually paid off.

It is also crucial to point out here that the struggle to reconfigure economic power via electoral institutions never occurs on a level, fair playing field. This struggle always occurs within a social formation already organized around concentrations of class power. Moreover, even when a progressive left-wing government is elected, it runs up against the entrenched extra-electoral power of capitalists. An instructive case study here is socialist head of state Salvador Allende in Chile circa 1970-73.

Allende was elected by a broad coalition of center-left and left-wing parties in Chile amidst uproar from the landed elites and ruling classes in Chile. When Allende tried to reform economic institutions and put land reform into law, his efforts were stonewalled and sabotaged by economic elites who used their power to "go on strike", lay off workers, suffocate the economy and try to bring the country to its knees.

Multinational corporations in Chile such as the International Telephone and Telegraph Company (ITT) set to work quickly to fight against Allende, and they weren't interested in trying to win the battle over electoral terms (a battle, the company's owners realized, they'd have little way of winning in the face of a broad popular mandate for Allende's policies). We now know from memos circulated amongst elites in ITT and the American-owned Kennecott Copper Company that their goals were to "“to strangle the Chilean economy, sow panic, and foment social disorder in order to encourage and create the opportunity for the armed forces to step in and replace Allende". Also- their influence convinced the US and related institutions like the World Bank to impose an economic blockade on Chile to help the destabilization effort.

The point of this is that all of these efforts were effective against a democratically-elected representative government precisely because of the concentrations of economic power under capitalism. Admittedly, "dictatorship" somewhat overstates the case, but the Allende case makes the point that this stranglehold on productive, economic power by a small class must be challenged for democracy to be possible.

Faced with this problem, Obama has responded by turning his economic policy over to Wall Street, his foreign policy over to the Pentagon and his health care program to pharmaceutical and health insurance companies. Confronted with the same challenge in Venezuela, Chavez persuaded the populace to change the constitution and distributed the benefits of the country's oil wealth throughout the society, provoking an unsuccessful 2002 coup and a 2004 recall referendum. Evo Morales has pursued a similar approach in Bolivia. Chavez has won numerous elections in Venezuela with substantial pluralities (all greater than the margin of Obama's 2008 victory), and Morales recently won reelection with a nearly 2 to 1 margin. Both rose to power with the assistance of social movements that challenged the existing political structure by giving expression to the grievances of marginalized people.

Chavez and Morales are, it seems, bent upon proving Trotsky wrong (and, by extension, his nemesis, Kautsky, the turn of the century German Social Democrat who advocated socialism by recourse to parliamentary democracy, correct), while Obama, consistent with Trotsky's analysis, but contrary to his intention, has adopted a strategy of pragmatic accommodation with the dominance of capital within the US political system. LIke DeGaulle, both Chavez and Morales will eventually confront the dilemma of their succession, and the survival of a political movement reliant upon charismatic leadership, no matter how long they delay it. Conversely, just as Obama has carried out a seamless transition of many of the policies of the Bush presidency into his own, so will his successor. While, unlike Chavez and Morales, there is a limit upon how many terms Obama can serve, there are no such limits upon the capital friendly policies that have characterized his presidency to date.

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Thursday, January 21, 2010

UPDATE: Vote or Die (Part 6) 

After my initial post this morning, hurriedly put up while getting my son ready for day care, I have some more thoughts about the Supreme Court's decision giving corporations free rein in the US political system: First, it appears that people within the Obama administration, especially Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, have no problem with the prospect of a Congress controlled by Republicans after the 2010 election, or, alternatively, a Congress controlled by Republicans in league with conservative Democrats. Through such a Congress, Obama can successfully hunt down the great white whale of US politics, the destruction of Social Security and Medicare as we know it through entitlement reform, all the while positioning himself as someone defending us against the even greater predations of the Republicans. Today's Supreme Court decision creates an opportunity to get more candidates elected who will implement an accelerated, more merciless evisceration of social welfare policies adopted between the 1930s and the 1970s.

Second, the only institutions capable of raising large sums of money to finance campaigns to compete with corporate funded candidates are labor unions. Admittedly, this has always been true, but now, the proportion of individual donations in comparison to labor contributions and corporate contributions will be graphed with individual donations near the bottom, labor union ones somewhere between the bottom and the middle and corporate ones in excess of both. As a result, corporations will not only be dominant, but the decisive voice in relation to attempts to implement progressive policies to constrain them will rest with the unions. Upset that Andy Stern of SEIU and Richard Trumka of the AFL-CIO abandoned single payer and the public option during drafting of health care reform legislation? Dissatisfied that neither of them are willing to challenge US militarism and demand that the government redirect Pentagon expenditures towards the fulfillment of domestic needs? Better learn to love it, because the Supreme Court has made them the godfathers of US progressivism, such as it is.

Lastly, we can also reasonably conclude that the many of the members of the US Senate, regardless of party, are pleased with the decision, because they confirmed Bush appointees Roberts and Alito, two justices whose votes were necessary for the Court's 5-4 decision, in the face of siginificant opposition. Some of this opposition emphasized their judicial records in support of corporations and more repressive measures of social control. But a majority of the Senate, including quite a number of Democrats, had no problem with it, and why should they? Now, they can defend their incumbency against potential threats with even larger sums of corporate largesse.

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Vote or Die (Part 5) 

Sweeping aside a century-old understanding and overruling two important precedents, a bitterly divided Supreme Court on Thursday ruled that the government may not ban political spending by corporations in candidate elections.

The ruling was a vindication, the majority said, of the First Amendment’s most basic free speech principle — that the government has no business regulating political speech. The dissenters said allowing corporate money to flood the political marketplace will corrupt democracy.

You are now free to vote for choices put forward by corporations, and exercise your democratic rights. Of course, this has always been true to a significant extent, but any pretense to the contrary has been stripped away. Just as the First Amendment gives you the right to buy your own printing press, and compete with the consolidated, transnational media, it also gives you the right to campaign, or support like minded candidates, against those financed by enormous sums of corporate capital. There's a reason why the David versus Goliath story is so compelling: the giants usually prevail.

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Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Vote or Die (Part 4) 

Within about a half and hour or so, we are likely to discover that Democrat Martha Coakley has lost the Massachusetss Senate race to Republican Scott Brown. As Coakley's campaign unravelled as a consequence of her ineptitude and public dismay at the corporate friendly policies of the Obama administration, liberals at DailyKos and firedoglake, among other places, engaged in increasingly vitriolic exchanges, with some believing that Coakley's defeat would serve as a wake up call to the national Democratic Party, while others asserted that it would destroy any prospect of progressive change.

If you spend any time following the raucous debate, it gets tiresome pretty quickly. A few participants are willing to acknowledge that Obama signalled his willingness to serve the interests of capital when he took no action to challenge the cloture rule in the Senate, the rule that requires 60 votes to cut off debate. By doing so, Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid empowered conservative Democrats and moderate Republicans by making it necessary to obtain their support to get any legislation to the White House for signature. It was all very convenient, a ready made excuse as to why it was necessary to escalate the war in Afghanistan, continue to bail out the banks and transform health care reform into a government subsidization of the insurance industry and pharmaceutical companies.

Hence, the public would just have to learn the virtues of generational patience, and accept that it will take not just years, but decades, to accomplish all those things that they expected from an Obama presidency. But, for those of us to the left of liberals, to the left of the American electoral process, the Coakley-Brown race is a textbook example of how the system is rigged against any meaningful participation by many Americans. If Brown wins, health care reform is either killed, or passed in an even more menacing form, while if Coakley wins, you get health care reform passed with a few fig leafs, such as the recent deal between the White House and the AFL-CIO on the so-called Cadillac plan tax, that do not alter its regressive features. One can anticipate similar outcomes in relation to other future measures designed to address the current economic downturn. Given that the Congress is firmly in the hands of the Lieberman/Nelson/Baucus axis, it hard to even identify any differences that would result in foreign policy as a result of the election of either candidate.

Liberals understood this very clearly, as appeals for support for Coakley took on more and more hysterical tones. If Brown won, they screamed, Republicans would return to power and destroy the country. Voters who refused to respond to the rhetorical horsewhipping administered by Democratic activists deserved what they will get. Left unanswered, of course, was whether voters deserve what they are currently getting from Obama and the Democratic majority in Congress. Coakley supporters were left with such emotional appeals, because there have nothing to substantively say that would persuade voters that Coakley, and by extension, Obama, have any intention of challenging the plutocracy that controls the government.

Perhaps, such fearmongering will work just enough to carry Coakley through to victory, and put off the day of reckoning until next November. Obama and Reid could respond to a Coakley defeat by getting progressive legislation through the Senate with just 51 votes, and thus, reinvigorate a moribund liberalism with a record of populist accomplishment, but that's about as likely as the prospect of the US military abandoning the control over Haiti that it has seized in response to the earthquake. If given a choice, the middle class looks likely to gravitate to a party that celebrates its exercise of power for the benefit of capital, as opposed to a party that dresses its corporate friendly policies in the garb of an ersatz populism. One wonders whether the collapse of the Obama presidency will plant the seeds of a direct action political movement based upon the recognition that the electoral process is no longer capable of addressing the needs of the populace. If so, it will take awhile for the seeds to germinate.

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Friday, January 15, 2010

Remembering Daniel Bensaid 

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Catastrophe in Haiti 

You've probably encountered many of the same reports that I have:

Haiti's president tonight issued a desperate appeal for international aid following the earthquake that has devastated his country, as fears grew that the death toll could rise above 100,000.

René Préval said the damage caused by the magnitude 7.0 tremor was "un­imaginable" and appealed for help, describing hearing the screams of those trapped under collapsed buildings while he and his wife stepped over bodies lying in the streets.

"Parliament has collapsed. The tax office has collapsed. Schools have collapsed. Hospitals have collapsed. There are a lot of schools that have a lot of dead people in them. All of the hospitals are packed with people. It is a catastrophe," said Préval.

With chaotic scenes in and around the capital, Port-au-Prince, officials said it was impossible to gauge accurately the scale of the disaster, but the country's prime minister, Jean-Max Bellerive, told CNN that the final death toll could be well over 100,000. "I hope that is not true … But so many, so many buildings, so many neighbourhoods are totally destroyed, and some neighbourhoods we don't even see people, so I don't know where those people are."

The people of Haiti are in desperate need of humanitarian assistance. Here are three possibilities that have been brought to my attention by friends and family for anyone interested in making a donation to facilitate Haitian relief efforts, First, the National Nurses United:

More than 1,500 registered nurses from across the U.S. have responded in less than one day to the call by the nation’s largest organization of registered nurses for volunteers to provide assistance to residents of earthquake devastated Haiti —leading the RNs to now issue an urgent appeal for the public to support these efforts with donations of funds to support travel costs and medical supplies on their upcoming emergency nursing mission.

Press and nurses are invited to a conference call Thursday morning at 10:00 a.m. Pacific Time for an overview of the efforts and their logistics, including the details on the first teams of nurses traveling to the area. Press can call in for the briefing at (866) 320-4709 using the access code 143135, or gather with local nurses and representatives in Boston, Chicago, Houston, Las Vegas, Oakland, Los Angeles, and Miami.

The relief efforts are being coordinated by the Registered Nurse Response Network (RNRN), a project of the 150,000-member National Nurses United (NNU), formed last month through the unification of the California Nurses Association/National Nurses Organizing Committee, United American Nurses and Massachusetts Nurses Association. RNRN/NNU is hoping to have nurse volunteers on the ground in Haiti within the next few days and is coordinating with Haitian nurses on the effort.

Details are still being worked out, but those able to support the efforts of these nurses can get involved via:

www.NationalNursesUnited.org to sign up to volunteer or donate

@NationalNurses on twitter or by following: #haitiRN

Call the RNRN hotline: 1-800-578-8225

Support the RNRN/NNU disaster relief effort in Haiti by sending checks c/o California Nurses Foundation, 2000 Franklin St., Oakland, CA 94612. Charitable contributions will be used to pay for travel/related costs and medical supplies for volunteer RNs on their emergency nursing mission in Haiti.

RNRN sent hundreds of nurse volunteers to the Gulf region following Hurricane Katrina. RNRN has also sent volunteers to Sri Lanka after the South Asia tsunami and to help following huge Southern California wildfires. RNRN is affiliated with National Nurses United, AFL-CIO, the national union and professional association for registered nurses.

“The need for help has never been so acute. We need financial support to transport them,” said NNU Executive Director Rose Ann DeMoro. “Nurses will be fundamental to the disaster relief process, to provide immediate healing and therapeutic support to the patients and families facing the devastation from this tragic earthquake,” DeMoro said.

Second, Mercy Corps:

Mercy Corps is deploying an emergency response team to the island nation.

Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, is plagued by hunger and political instability. This disaster will drastically increase the needs of families who had little to lose in the first place.

Families need your help -- food, shelter and other supplies -- in the aftermath of the worst disaster to strike the region in years.

Mercy Corps has a long history of helping earthquake survivors meet their immediate needs and recover what they've lost. We aided families after earthquakes in Peru in 2007, China and Pakistan in 2008, and Indonesia last year.

Lastly, there is also a local (for me), Sacramento area effort, Children's Hope, founded by Leisa Faulkner. Faulkner has traveled to Haiti numerous times and raised funds to support social programs there through Children's Hope:

As you probably have seen today, a huge earthquake (7.3) has hit Haiti just 10 miles southwest of the center of Port-au-Prince (PAP). Children's Hope needs your help. Three of the major centers of our humanitarian work in Haiti are centered in PAP, are still not responsive and we are very concerned for the children and families: the boys home (St. Josephs) is located on Delmas, PAP, Sopudep School (for street children) is in PAP, and "The Lamp" free clinic is in low lying Cite Soleil, PAP. Early reports have many structures down on Delmas, the presidential palace in collapse, and the large local hospital is down. Fear of rising water may further threaten the low laying Cite Soleil, where our clinic "The Lamp" is located. I have not been successful in getting through by phone. We here are sick with worry at early reports like the one below. If you have a few dollars to spare, lives will be saved. We are sending emergency funds starting tomorrow, and then as soon as pledges come in, since the need is urgent. We also really need to raise shipping money for the supplies already donated by a local hospital here (Marshall Hospital of Placerville) to send these supplies to Haiti. If you pledge, please remember to then send the check to Children's Hope. But please pledge now, so we can get new medicines ordered now, and help on the way.

Children's Hope
3025 A Cambridge Road
Cameron Park, CA 95682

Please feel free to post contact information for any other organizations that are involved in the relief effort. Long time readers of this blog know that I'm not a big fan of the American Red Cross. There are, of course, socioeconomic dimensions to this catastrophe that should be explored, and I may do so, but, for now, humanitarian assistance is urgently required.

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Monday, January 11, 2010

INTERVIEW: Black Flame: The Revolutionary Class Politics of Anarchism and Syndicalism 

Last September, Ron Glick and I had the opportunity to interview Lucien van der Walt, a co-author of the recently released book, Black Flame: The Revolutionary Class Politics of Anarchism and Syndicalism, on KDVS 90.3 FM. AK Press, the publisher of the book, and van der Walt have provided me with a transcript of the interview, which I am posting here in its entirety:

RICHARD ESTES: Our first guest today is LUCIEN VAN DER WALT. He is based at the University of Witwatersrand…rand….srand…excuse me, Witwatersrand. Is that right?

LUCIEN VAN DER WALT: Witwatersrand.

RICHARD ESTES: … Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. He teaches, you teach, Development, Economic Sociology and Labour Studies. The reason I invited you to be on the air with us today is because several months ago I had the opportunity to encounter your book that you co-authored with Michael Schmidt, who’s a Johannesburg-based investigative journalist, entitled Black Flame: The Revolutionary Class Politics of Anarchism and Syndicalism.

RON GLICK: I just want to say that this is the first time that we’ve had a live guest from Africa on this programme, which is very exciting.

RICHARD ESTES: It is a first and, in this instance, it is also, I think, noteworthy… Anarchism is something that I think, in terms of the general public perception and understanding, in comparison to other political values and ideas, is not well understood and not well defined in the public consciousness. So, for that reason, I wanted to have you on the air today because I thought your book was extraordinarily well-timed and provides a context for people to engage the subject and to evaluate their own political values in comparison to it. I enjoyed the book very much for that reason. So, thanks for making some time available—and I also want to note that you are also up back in South Africa and I think it’s 2am, is that right?

LUCIEN VAN DER WALT: Ja, no, it’s around about then.

RICHARD ESTES: So…

LUCIEN VAN DER WALT: But thanks for having me on the show, no problem at all.

[DEFINING ANARCHISM AND SYNDICALISM]

RICHARD ESTES: The first thing I want to ask you, because it’s one of the primary subjects of the book, is sort of a simple question…what is it that you believe to be anarchism, and what, in your view, do you consider to be improperly described as anarchism?

LUCIEN VAN DER WALT: Well, as you know, the whole idea of “anarchism,” the whole word, has gathered a lot of connotations over time which have obscured people’s ability to understand it. I mean, in the public mind in the States I imagine it’s pretty similar to a lot of other English-speaking countries: anarchism is seen as chaos, disorder, and so on. But once you get beyond that, there’s a whole lot of things that get thrown into a bit of a grab-bag called anarchism.

Now when you look closely at anarchism, to understand what its core ideas are, you have to look at its history, you have to look at when it emerges. And when you look at its emergence, you have to go back to the 1860s, you find it emerging in the union movement, the workers’ movement, in the socialist movement.

So to answer your question about what we see as anarchism, and this is the central argument in our book, we would understand anarchism as a movement that aimed, through struggle, to create a free, stateless, socialist society based on cooperation and mutual aid, a movement that sees the motor of history as the struggle of ordinary people, working-class people, just ordinary folks, peasants, small farmers…trying to create that world across borders internationally.

That would be the basics of it—a class struggle-based, socialist movement, libertarian in its aims, libertarian in its message, trying to create a sort of a free cooperative, socialist order.

Now, the thing is, “anarchism,” besides the label of chaos and so on, has been used a lot in the academy—and I think this is one of the problems it faces in its perception as compared to, say, Marxism or liberalism—it has been used in the academy to relate to a whole bunch of quite unrelated doctrines ranging from the ideas of Max Stirner, who was an extreme individualist, all the way through to various fairly abstruse philosophies around individual autonomy and so on. I don’t know…does that answer you?

RON GLICK: It just seems to me, that with Marxism you have Marx. So like…

LUCIEN VAN DER WALT: Right…

RON GLICK: …so like there’s this person you can point to. With totalitarianism: Hanna Arendt, and with anarchism? With fascism, Mussolini, and with anarchism there isn’t…certainly, I don’t know where you exactly point to. You also have in the title of the book “syndicalism.” Maybe you could define that for us as well?

LUCIEN VAN DER WALT: Alright, before I get onto that, let me say that if you were looking for your, say, Marx or Engels of anarchism, I think you’d have to look at Mikhail Bakunin, and you’d have to look at Peter Kropotkin. So Bakunin and Kropotkin would be the two main figures.

These would be the two key figures; the key influences on the movement; the people who really…articulate and express and codify a lot of its doctrine. This is not to say that they invented everything—they never claimed to. They codified a lot of ideas that were out there, expressed them; acted as the sort of mouthpiece of the movement. Those would be the two big guys…the Big Two.

Now, in terms of “syndicalism,” right, syndicalism at a minimum means the idea of a revolutionary trade union movement. The idea of syndicalism was that you could essentially use trade unions, rather than the state, rather than political parties, rather than some small group of guerrillas running around the mountains in berets. Actual unions, run by ordinary people in their workplaces, to bring about this new anarchist society.

So in that sense, syndicalism, the idea of revolutionary trade unionism, is a strategy, a strategy developed within the anarchist movement, a strategy that was there from the start.

But, partly because of the connotations attached to anarchism, partly because there is a bit of a tendency, in a lot of the literature, in a lot of activist milieu, in a lot of the union movement, to see syndicalism as something altogether different to anarchism, we’ve had to single out the words a bit there, “anarchism” and “syndicalism,” but we see syndicalism as part of a broad anarchist tradition.

[TRADE UNIONISM AND ANARCHISM TODAY]

RICHARD ESTES: Ron brought up this question of syndicalism because one of the questions I found interesting in the book…there’s, I think, a couple of chapters that address the relationship of anarchism to the unions, you know, union movements broadly defined. And here in the United States, basically trade unionism, trade union movements generally, have been facing a great deal of difficulty over the last several decades. And so, when I was reading those passages in the book, one of the things that came to my mind is the strategies and tactics associated with anarchism and syndicalism, are they still viable today, and if so, how?

LUCIEN VAN DER WALT: Alright, well, part of the reason we placed emphasis on unions was that in the historic anarchist movement, from its emergence back in the 1860s, unions were a central part of its strategy—for most anarchists, syndicalism was the way to go.

Not only focussing on unions, but certainly seeing unions as absolutely central, and it’s through trade unions that anarchism made many of its biggest impacts historically. For example you had a situation in Argentina in the 1910s when there were two major union federations. These were the two big centres in the country and they were both different variants of anarchism and syndicalism.

So this is the kind of influence it had in the past. If you would, imagine what it would be like in the States if, say the AFL-CIO was an anarchist or a syndicalist organisation. But this wasn’t actually that uncommon. So the emphasis on unions partly reflects the historical reality in which, certainly into the 20s and 30s, anarchists and syndicalists led, founded, major union federations around the world.

The question, though, is how do you actually get back to that? You spoke about strategy and tactics? Well, the strategy of syndicalism is quite straightforward. You run a sort of militant, radical, participatory, democratic, transformative trade unionism, you tie it up to other social movements in communities, you tie it up to social justice issues, issues such as racial prejudice and so on.

But, tactics, how do you actually get there? How do you actually get to that position of influence?

Now, at one level, the potential is there in that trade unionism, even in the States, continues to be an absolutely central force—and in the States itself, the AFL-CIO has seen a bit of a turnaround recently with, in figures I saw earlier this year, over a million new members being recruited. Once you look outside the States, you look at places like Brazil, South Africa, or South Korea, you see trade unionism playing not just a central role, but actually expanding its influence all the time.

Okay, but on another level, how do you actually link that to the anarchist movement? And this is a very tricky thing.

There is a lot of debate on that, and the book gets into a lot of it. I don’t claim to have a magical formula here. What I would say, looking historically at anarchism, unions were absolutely critical. Looking at the present, I’d say that unions still have that potential to be critical.

But how to fit those two together? That’s the trick and I think a lot will depend on context, a lot will depend on programme, a lot will depend on what people who find themselves part of an anarchist tradition actually do.

RICHARD ESTES: So would it be fair to say that people today, who might have a view that unions have become too sclerotic, are too difficult to transform, and that anarchism should move in a different direction, would be advocating a perspective that is either misguided or is potentially suicidal?

LUCIEN VAN DER WALT: Well, I think there again we have to look at context. One of the things that happened during the 20th century was the rise of quite centralised forms of trade unionism. So, trade unionism that was anarchist, or syndicalist, would be a unionism that was very flat, very participatory, a unionism that allowed for quite a development of a counter-culture, a proletarian counter-culture.

Now, in the 20th century, as unions have become more centralised, more entangled in the state, more tied to political parties, the amount of space in those unions to actually change them seems to often be quite narrow. I mean, if we look at the South African case, we see that while the unions’ official policy is actually quite far to the left, there is actually not always that much space within the union to contest what that “left” would mean. So these issues of intolerance and centralism are going to play a critical role.

What I would say is: look at the historical experience. It would be vital to find ways to get an anarcho-syndicalist or anarchist programme back into the union and it won’t be easy. It’s certainly going to take a lot of creativity, a lot of activity.

Right now, that may not be on the agenda; that may not even be practical for people in a lot of circumstances. Right now, people may be investing their energy better into community organising, into alternative institution-building, but in the long term, I think it would be absolutely impossible to get the sort of change anarcho-syndicalism, or anarchism in general, has aimed at without some sort of link into the unions.

How exactly to do that, I think it’s difficult to be prescriptive, but I think as a strategic objective it would be absolutely crucial.

[ANARCHISM AND CENTRALISATION]

RON GLICK: It seems that what you’ve described as the rise of an anarchist philosophy comes in response to the centralisation of capital in the emergence of the industrial revolution. And here we are now in the age of global capital and centralisation of that power with things like the Fortune 500 and, you know, global capital can move around and move around so quickly and easily. Is, is it really viable? It seems like this is an idea, a philosophy that has never really been able to compete successfully with more centralised power structures.

LUCIEN VAN DER WALT: Well I think, I think it’s important to bear in mind that anarchism wouldn’t necessarily be opposed to any centralisation as such. The question would be what is the form of centralisation that you are actually aiming at. Now, if you’re going to build a movement from below upwards, a movement based on participation, assembly, inevitably you’re going to end up having delegates and you going to end up having coordinating structures.

In that sense, anarchism can pose a form of centralisation and I don’t think that’s a bad thing at all, but it’s important that that would be a federalist, non-coercive centralisation from below. And I think it can coordinate…potentially, anarchist movements could coordinate in a way that would be as efficient, but yet far more participatory than the centralisation we see on the part of capital and the state.

[GLOBALISATION: THEN AND NOW]

Now, to move on from that, your question around globalisation, your question around the rise of large companies, and so on: could anarchism pose…could it respond to, could it engage with this new world order?

I think one of the key points we wanted to make in this book is that anarchism did emerge very much in concrete circumstances that are not much different than ours. If you look at the period from the 1880s into the 1920s, the 1930s, we’re actually talking about a period of very deep globalisation—a period in which capital movement internationally, while slower, was at least as extensive as it is today, in which international trade was actually freer than it is today.

So, you might think of anarchism as a movement which has got a lot to offer to contemporary anti-globalisation, counter-globalisation activists, because it operated, in its period of greatest influence, the 1880s to the 1920s, in a world that wasn’t actually that different than what we have now.

[THE SOVIET UNION AND COMMUNISM]

RICHARD ESTES: One of the things I think is an important subject is there’s a contrast between anarchism and, I guess the right way to say it would be State Socialism, or Marxist-Leninism that’s put into practice. What, precisely, are the points of contention between that Marxist-Leninism and anarchism in relation to understanding class relationships, and to what extent is anarchism a different model than the State Socialist model that was attempted in the 20th century?

LUCIEN VAN DER WALT: I think that this is actually quite crucial. The Marxist tradition, while it is not a homogenous tradition, the actually-existing, the actually organised Marxist movement of the 19th and 20th centuries, was one very much dominated by a centralist vision—the vision that got its expression in Soviet Union, or the People’s Republic of China.

And in anarchism’s birth, anarchism’s emergence in the 1860s, it was very much, a reaction not just against capitalism, not just against the state, but against what the anarchists like Bakunin saw as an incipient, centralised, authoritarian model of state socialism.

Now, the differences are at the level of the understanding of society, and there’re differences at the level of the vision and the strategy. I want to talk about the vision and the strategy more.

Generally speaking, classical Marxism, whether it was in the original social democratic, or later in its Leninist form, saw the state as the engine of transformation. The basic idea was that you would take over the state, you would use the state to transform society from above. You would create your socialist citizens from above: even if people weren’t ready, they could be compelled to become ready. The revolution wouldn’t necessarily need to move at the speed of the slowest soldier. Rather, the vanguard of the class, at least the self-defined vanguard, would seize power and move to put in socialism from above.

Now, the anarchist model was very different from that, whereas Marxism-Leninism saw the building of a highly centralised, quite militarised party organisation with the aim of capturing state power, the anarchist tradition, including syndicalism, stressed the participatory model—that was based on participation, it was based on intellectual emancipation, it was based in training people in the here-and-now to run society in a democratic, participatory way in the future.

I mean, this was the idea that your means would have to match your ends. The way you organise now is going to shape what you get in the future. If you build a centralised, militarised party organisation aiming to seize state power and implement socialism from above, you’re being perfectly consistent.

If, on the other hand, you want to create a democratic, horizontal society, well, you would actually have to start to do that now.

Tied to that was the idea in anarchism that, if this new society meant anything, it would have to be something that ordinary people created. By definition, you could not create a horizontal society from above. You can’t, as Martin Buber says somewhere, take a young oak sapling, strip off its bark, strip off the leaves, use it as a club, and later stick it in the ground and hope that it is going to turn back into an oak tree.

So, in terms of stressing a democratic approach, in terms of stressing a non-authoritarian approach, in terms of making democracy not a tactic, but absolutely central, anarchists broke with what they saw as the tendency in Marxism to sacrifice people to goals rather than seeing people’s emancipation as the goal in-and-of itself.

[MARXISM, ANARCHISM, CAPITALISM, AND THE SPANISH REVOLUTION]

RON GLICK: To me, the intersection between Marxism, anarchism and capitalism is the Spanish Civil War. Could you explain the dynamics going on there and how that affected the growth of one system over another?

LUCIEN VAN DER WALT: Sure. I just want to mention one thing about the relationship between anarchism and Marxism which plays out in this situation, which is that there’s a bit of an overlap. Anarchists do take something from Marxism and that’s, above all, Marxist economics. So there, there’s a bit of an overlap. We would be exaggerating if we set them up as entirely separate systems.

However, the differences harden over time, especially once you get the rise of the Soviet Union. Now, the Soviet Union, the formation of the Soviet Union, beginning from 1917 onwards, is absolutely central to the rise of Marxism in the 20th century. Before then, Marxism is not the mass movement it sort of becomes later.

Before then, Marxism is essentially a movement in Europe. It is not a movement that has any real traction in the rest of the world. Once the Soviet Union is established, the Communist Parties have really got a very powerful force in their corner.

Now, when you get to Spain, in 1936 there is essentially an attempted military coup. Francisco Franco, who’s a general who is influenced by the ideas of fascism, particularly Mussolini-style fascism, rather than Hitler-style Nazism, tries to seize power. He’s thrown back by a left coalition, which includes a large anarchist proportion, as well as the Spanish Communist Party.

Now civil war breaks out, which is why most people remember the events from ’36 to ’39 as the Spanish Civil War. What happens in the areas where anarchists are strong, is a large-scale application of the anarchist vision. What I mean is people self-managing factories, self-managing land, implementing social reforms, trying to implement the anarchist vision.

But within that left camp which is fighting against Franco’s camp, a civil war starts to break out between the Communists and the anarchists, and the Soviet Union’s calculation, then under Josef Stalin, is that a revolution in Spain (which the anarchists are actually doing) has to be stopped.

At one level, it would challenge the hegemony that the Communist International is trying to create in the workers’ movement—anarchism in Spain is vastly, vastly more influential than Communism. At another level, Stalin, seeing the interests of “socialism” as equivalent to the interests of the Soviet Union, believes that a revolution there would essentially destabilise the relations he’s trying to set up with Britain and France.

So, what this actually means, in practice, is besides the civil war against Franco and his forces, the anarchists find themselves under attack from Stalin, the Communist Party in Spain, and, by the time that the left, liberal coalition—the Republican forces, as they’re usually called—are defeated by Franco, the revolution that the anarchists had tried to put into place, has already been destroyed by other left forces, foremost amongst which is the Communist Party.

RON GLICK: This reminds me somewhat of what happened with the razing of the Warsaw Ghetto, where Stalin didn’t want this independent group to gain any traction against the Nazis, and wouldn’t arm them.

LUCIEN VAN DER WALT: I mean, I think part of the problem is that what Bakunin and Kropotkin feared—which was that “socialism” would become a tool of a new ruling elite and of state policy—had become a reality by the 1920s and the 1930s.

Before the Soviet Union was founded, Marxism was simply another movement out there. Guys you would know in the union, guys you would know in the political sphere—people you would engage with.

But from then on Marxism finds itself in a position where, on the one hand, Marxist-Leninist parties are playing an incredibly progressive role in all sorts of areas—for example, in the States, playing a very important role in championing black rights, in organising in the Deep South, and so on. But, on the other hand, they’re being continually constrained by the realpolitik, by the power calculations of the Soviet leadership.

And you see this pattern play out again and again and again. So this is, to me, part of the tragedy of Marxism-Leninism—on one hand, it achieved a great many good things, but on another hand, this subordination of particular struggles to the interests and politics of the Soviet Union.

That has been something which…which essentially crippled it from the start as a people’s movement.

[ANARCHISM AND CONTEMPORARY IMMIGRATION]

RICHARD ESTES: Lucien, I have a question regarding a subject that I don’t recall really being very prominent in your book, but I have a feeling that it might be an important one in relation to anarchism in the contemporary social environment. One of the primary features of the kind of globalisation process that we’ve experienced in the last thirty or forty years has been a tremendous, almost exponential increase in immigration—both sanctioned by states as well as unsanctioned—and extraordinary, transnational movements of peoples around the world. What is the anarchist perspective about that immigration process, and does it potentially present opportunities for anarchism that didn’t previously exist?

LUCIEN VAN DER WALT: Right. Well, from the 1920s to the 1970s, when the world economy is characterised by quite closed national economies, whether it’s the Soviet model of central planning, or the Keynesian model in the West of demand-management, or import-substitution models in the “global south”—or the third world, or the colonial/postcolonial world, or whatever we want to call the other countries—building a vision of an international workers’ movement is actually quite abstract, in the sense that wage levels were determined very much by national conditions, in that people’s identities, their movement, all sorts of things were set up by very particular national experiences.

Now, with the deregulation of population movements and the international migration that you’re talking about, you really do start to get international connections on a scale you haven’t seen for a hundred years.

At one level this can, of course, pose huge problems in terms of backlashes against immigrants (for example, in South Africa, we had huge riots last year). On the other hand, it creates that potential for arguments around class as a unifying force to have much larger interest.

And, I mean, a third level is also a sort of circulation of political traditions that you get as a result. You get people coming into Western countries, who bring in very radical traditions that are very energising; traditions of struggle that are very impressive, traditions of struggle that are very much able to get things going again in places where they’ve stopped.

So, I think it’s got a lot of threats, but it’s also got a lot of potential in terms of people’s identities, in terms of the political project that would resonate with people.

[CLASS POLITICS AND OTHER FORMS OF OPPRESSION]

RICHARD ESTES: One other thing I was wondering about too. You have a chapter towards the end that addresses issues of race and gender in regard to anarchism. Is the anarchist explanation for racial and gender divisions in society really adequate in the sense that it seems to reduce those divisions down to primarily being a class-based cause? Aren’t there other causes and other influences there that need to be incorporated into an anarchist analysis?

LUCIEN VAN DER WALT: Well, I think here we come to an important aspect of the whole anarchist explanation, and we can tie it back to the question you posed earlier around Marxism.

Now, Marxism, as you know, one part of its power is its very simple explanation…you can essentially reduce everything to economics. Economics is defined as the heart of society, and therefore anything that happens in society has an economic basis.

Now, the anarchists did try, in general, to move away from that reductionism. But certainly it was characteristic of anarchist theory that class, while not necessarily always primary, is always central to explain social phenomena, such as race and gender.

Saying “central not primary” in the sense that…what this would mean in terms of race and gender would be that, for the classical anarchist movement…certainly it would be that issues of class expressed through the state, expressed through capital, expressed through labour market competition, would help explain the question of, say, racial prejudice.

But that wouldn’t be the only explanation…that would be central, but there are a lot of other factors there which would have an independent logic, which you can’t reduce. If you look at that chapter again, you’ll see that the approach wasn’t simply on reducing issues to class issues, but also seeing their roots in culture; their roots in prejudices that people have; their roots, even in pre-capitalist formations…

RICHARD ESTES: That’s my last question, adequacy …

LUCIEN VAN DER WALT: But, in terms of adequacy I’m not entirely…it’s a difficult thing to say what’s adequate or not, but certainly the argument that was made was that class was central, but not the sole explanation. That was the general tendency.

Is this a good argument? Well, I think it’s a good argument.

Particularly around political strategy. Often questions of race and gender are simply reduced to people’s attitudes, without asking the question of where the attitudes come from. By stressing class, you’re also able to look at the role that class-based movements, such as trade unions, can play in securing advantages for black folk, for women, and so on.

At a second level, it also enriches your understanding of class politics, because if you reduce class, if you reduce working class organisation, to the issue of wages and working conditions, to sort of pork-chop issues, then you are actually going to miss a lot of the anarchist project, which is about emancipating people from all forms of social and economic inequalities.

So, ideally, what you would want to do is not end up with an economic reductionism. You would want to end up with a radical class politics that is feminist, that is anti-racist, that brings these things together in the form of popular movements that are simultaneously anti-capitalist, simultaneously deeply opposed to issues of gender and racial oppression and national oppression. So you’d like to try to synthesize these into a single coherent struggle.

RON GLICK: You’re listening to KVVS, 90.3 FM. Lucien, we had a big protest here [University of California] on campus yesterday about tuition and pay cuts, and certainly issues of class and, so we’re going to have some people come on, but I wanted to ask you one more question and then…

[ANARCHISM AFTER SEATTLE]

RICHARD ESTES: I want to ask you one closing question. What year was that thing in Seattle…do you remember…was that 2000, 2001?

RON GLICK: That was 1999…

RICHARD ESTES: 1999. There was this big anti-globalization protest, and was it a GATT meeting or a…

RON GLICK: It was WTO…

RICHARD ESTES: Yeah, a WTO meeting in Seattle, it was called “the Battle for Seattle.” There was group that were described as anarchists…are you familiar what happened there, and how does that fit in?

RON GLICK: I think you’re alluding to the “Black Bloc” by the way…

RICHARD ESTES: Just for clarification…

LUCIEN VAN DER WALT: Well, I think one of the interesting things that’s been happening over the last twenty years is the re-emergence of a significant anarchist current. One of the expressions has been a range of anarchist activity in the “anti-globalisation,” or “counter-globalisation” movement.

And the one that the grabbed media attention, I think, was this Black Bloc, which as I understand was essentially groups of people wearing black and balaclavas and trying to push protests in the direction of riots and so on. Now, I’m less concerned with whether that was a good tactic or not, than with the significance, the overall significance of that development.

The overall significance is this: that anarchism, over the last two or three decades, has been reviving as a very important force in many contexts…it’s equivalent to the rebirth of an open Marxism in the 1960s.

Anarchism, as a pole of attraction over the last few years, is becoming extremely powerful and, in this sense, this is partly what our book is trying to do: as the new anarchist movement emerges internationally as a movement that starts to get a significant influence, it’s important to debate and clarify the issues, which is why we’ve pulled together a book which, is a mixture of theory and history and philosophy.

Ja, I think I’ll leave that there.

[ANARCHISM AND POSTMODERNISM]

RICHARD ESTES: Let me ask you one last question; it may be an overly theoretical question, so feel free to be, you know, dismissive of it. But it comes to mind in light of the remarks you just made. One of the things I tend to encounter quite frequently is this tendency among what I would call, I guess, the Marxist-Leninist and parliamentary socialist left to ascribe a lot of the current problems, politically, that they experience to postmodernism, which they seem to broadly define as this sort of excessive relativisation of class and culture to the point where there is no such thing as a meaningful class or cultural identity, or they’re all the same, which I personally believe is a gross distortion of postmodernism from my own readings. But, in any event, they seem to be ascribing a great deal of blame to it in terms of their own predicament, and really criticizing it quite severely. While, as you’ve noted, anarchism seems to have thrived, it seems to have done quite well, during this very same postmodern period. So, I guess my question is: Do anarchists really share this perspective that more parliamentary socialist and Marxist-Leninists have about postmodernism? Or do they relate to it in an entirely different way?

LUCIEN VAN DER WALT: Well, I think there’s two things here.

The one is that one of the strengths of postmodernism is its focus on a more open-ended view of society and a more open-ended view of history. If you look at classical Marxist-Leninism it ended up with a very, very mechanical, narrow, reductionist view of how things work, to the extent you could virtually read off people’s identities solely from their occupation, and their political views solely from their source of income. So that’s a strength, and I think anarchists would appreciate that…in that anarchism is a much more open model, although it makes class central, it’s a much more open than a Marxist model.

However, I do think that anarchism, historically, was very much a movement, a modernist movement that stressed rationalism, that stressed conscious human control of events, one that did see things as having a fixity, as having a stability, as having a pattern and a purpose far beyond anything that postmodernism would conceive. So, I would certainly say that someone like Bakunin or Kropotkin would be very, very critical of postmodern relativism.

On the one hand, it’s also very, very moralistic actually, anarchism. It stresses morals. I’m not saying “moralistic” in a bad sense. On the other hand, it’s very much enamoured of the idea of rationality as a tool to change society.

RICHARD ESTES: Well, LUCIEN VAN DER WALT, we really appreciate you making this time available to us today, and if people are interested in the book, it’s entitled Black Flame: The Revolutionary Class Politics of Anarchism and Syndicalism. It’s available through AK Press so you can check out akpress.org to find out more about it.

RON GLICK: And do you have a website or anything that you’d like to give out? In South Africa?

LUCIEN VAN DER WALT: I think you could just Google my name…you’ll come up with a bunch of stuff. There is a blog at AK Press, but it’s got an extremely long URL. So I don’t actually remember the whole thing. Just Google my name and you’ll come to my own website.

RON GLICK: Well, thanks so much. It’s really been an interesting discussion…and get some sleep.

LUCIEN VAN DER WALT: No, thanks very much for having me and thanks for the questions. It’s been absolutely brilliant!

RICHARD ESTES AND RON GLICK: Thank you!

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Friday, January 08, 2010

Depleted Uranium in Iraq 

From New America Media:

Forget about oil, occupation, terrorism or even Al Qaeda. The real hazard for Iraqis these days is cancer.

Cancer is spreading like wildfire in Iraq. Thousands of infants are being born with deformities. Doctors say they are struggling to cope with the rise of cancer and birth defects, especially in cities subjected to heavy American and British bombardment.

Here are a few examples. In Falluja, which was heavily bombarded by the US in 2004, as many as 25% of new- born infants have serious abnormalities, including congenital anomalies, brain tumors, and neural tube defects in the spinal cord.

The cancer rate in the province of Babil, south of Baghdad has risen from 500 diagnosed cases in 2004 to 9,082 in 2009 according to Al Jazeera English.

In Basra there were 1885 diagnosed cases of cancer in 2005. According to Dr. Jawad al Ali, director of the Oncology Center, the number increased to 2,302 in 2006 and 3,071 in 2007. Dr. Ali told Al Jazeera English that about 1,250-1,500 patients visit the Oncology Center every month now.

Not everyone is ready to draw a direct correlation between allied bombing of these areas and tumors, and the Pentagon has been skeptical of any attempts to link the two. But Iraqi doctors and some Western scholars say the massive quantities of depleted uranium used in U.S. and British bombs, and the sharp increase in cancer rates are not unconnected.

Robert Fisk has previously written on this subject in relation to the 1991 Gulf War and the Bosnian conflict in 1996:

Only a few weeks earlier, a team of UN scientists – sent to Kosovo under the set of UN resolutions that brought Kfor into the province – had demanded to know from Nato the location of DU bombings in Kosovo. Nato refused to tell them. Nor was I surprised. From the very start of the alliance bombing campaign against Serbia, Nato had lied about depleted uranium. Just as the American and British governments still lie about its effects in southern Iraq during the 1991 Gulf War. US and British tanks had fired hundreds of rounds – thousands in the case of the Americans – at Iraqi vehicles, using shells whose depleted uranium punches through heavy armour and then releases an irradiated aerosol spray.

In the aftermath of that war, I revisited the old battlefields around the Iraqi city of Basra. Each time, I came across terrifying new cancers among those who lived there. Babies were being born with no arms or no noses or no eyes. Children were bleeding internally or suddenly developing grotesque tumours. UN sanctions, needless to say, were delaying medicines from reaching these poor wretches. Then I found Iraqi soldiers who seemed to be dying of the same "Gulf War syndrome" that was already being identified among thousands of US and British troops.

At the time, The Independent was alone in publicising this sinister new weapon and its apparent effects. Government ministers laughed the reports off. One replied to Independent readers who drew the Ministry of Defence's attention to my articles that, despite my investigations, he had seen no "epidemiological data" proving them true. And of course there was none. Because the World Health Organisation, invited by Iraq to start research into the cancers, was dissuaded from doing so even though it had sent an initial team to Baghdad to start work. And because a group of Royal Society scientists told by the British authorities to investigate the effects of DU declined to visit Iraq.

Tragically, Iraqis will continue to pay the price for the 1991 and 2003 invasions for decades. One hopes that the Iranians will avoid a similar fate.

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Thursday, January 07, 2010

Vote or Die (Part 3) 

Back in 2008, in the months before the general election, I challenged someone who said, despite the poor choices on offer, that we must vote or die. In other words, we had to vote for Obama, despite his obvious contempt for progressive values and aspirations, much less leftist ones. Initially, I did so rather abstractly by describing the US electoral process as one that renders us powerless even as it exploits our involvement to legitimize itself. Afterwards, I more concretely referenced the bailout, with its bipartisan support by both presidential candidates, as an illustrative example of our illusory political alternatives.

Today, I am returning to the subject from a more mundane angle to expose the lack of personal political participation that has been purposefully built into the system. On New Year's Day, Suzanne over at firedoglake complained about the failure of the White House to respond to a single point that she made in a letter that she sent on December 12th. She received a form letter that was addressed to Dear Friend, a letter that condescendingly lectured her about challenges that must be addressed. In her post, she sarcastically demanded that the White House say my name.

We have been subjected to such generic, non-responsive communication from our elected representatives for so long that we have normalized it, reducing it to a minor irritance. On the rare occasions that we do attempt to express our opinions, the receipt of such letters induce a why did I even bother response, a demoralization which appears to be the intention. But there are others that never receive such responses, and frequently obtain direct access to our representatives and their staffs. They are, of course, other elected officials, lobbyists and significant financial contributors. The personalized attention that they receive and the computerized form letters sent to everyone else constitutes the fault line between those who matter and the rest of us who do not. Policies are shaped to their benefit, while our phone calls, e-mails and letters are compressed into mere numbers, so many in support, so many in opposition. In many instances, the actual calculation is irrelevant, as demonstrated by the approval of NAFTA, the invasion of Iraq, the bailout and, most likely, the health care bill currently in conference, and the greater the gravity of the issue, the more irrelevant our quantified opinion.

Suzanne's post struck a nerve with me, because, last spring, after a typically unsatisfactory attempt to bring an issue to my state senator's attention, I pondered, how many times had I ever received a response to a phone call, e-mail or letter that just merely accurately characterized my inquiry? I didn't require that the response actually substantively address my inquiry with any degree of sincerity, intelligence or knowledge. Just that it accurately summarize the nature of my inquiry. Over the last 15 years, which was as far back as I could remember, the answer was, of course, ZERO. I couldn't remember one time that I received a response that indicated that the official's staffer had the slightest idea of what I was talking about. I'd be curious to know whether my experience is aberrational or not. I have written this post based upon the assumption that it isn't.

The implications of such a political process are profound. If our elected officials are either incapable of understanding what we are trying to tell them, or worse, deliberately refusing to do so, why should we participate in such a process? If they can't, or won't, understand us when we seek to communicate with them in plain English, why should we believe that they will comprehend the meaning of our electoral votes? One of the conceits of the progressive blogosphere has been that its ability to shape public opinion and raise campaign funds would shatter this hierarchical form of political participation, but it has been pitilessly revealed as an indulgent romanticism by the Obama administration. Liberal democracy appears to be a form of government that enables capital to communicate with precision, while rendering the perspective of the populace itself more and more diffuse.

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Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Death Squads in Honduras? 

Alarming news from Honduras in the wake of the "election" conducted under the coup regime:

The killings are happening almost faster than they can be recorded.

On Sunday, Dec. 7, a group of six people were gunned down while walking down the street in the Villanueva neighborhood of Tegucigalpa. According to sources, a white van with no license plates stopped in front of the group. Four masked men jumped out of the van and forced the group to get on the ground, where they were shot. The five victims who were killed were:

· Marcos Vinicio Matute Acosta, 39

· Kennet Josué Ramírez Rosa, 23

· Gabriel Antonio Parrales Zelaya, 34

· Roger Andrés Reyes Aguilar, 22

· Isaac Enrique Soto Coello, 24

One woman, Wendy Molina, 32, was shot several times and played dead when one of the assassins pulled her hair, checking to see if anyone in the group was still alive. She was taken to the hospital and survived.

The Honduran independent newspaper El Libertador reports that the group members were all organizers against the coup. According to a resident in the area, "The boys had organized committees so that the neighbors could get involved in the Resistance Front."

This massacre was part of a string of Resistance-related murders during the past few weeks alone. On December 3, Walter Trochez, 25 a well-known activist in the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community was snatched off the street and thrown into a van, again by four masked men, in downtown Tegucigalpa. In the report that he later filed to local and national authorities, Walter said he was interrogated for hours for information on Resistance members and activities, and was beaten in the face with a pistol for refusing to speak. He was told that he would be killed regardless, and he eventually escaped by throwing open the van door, falling into the street, and running away.

And, then, there is this:

The Committee of Family Members of the Detained and Dsiappeared in Honduras, COFADEH, denounces the crime committed Teusday afternoon against the young man Edwin Renán Fajardo Argueta (22), an active member of the Resistance. His body was found this past December 23rd in the afternoon after a constant search by family members and friends worried about his absence as he was supposed to travel on Wednesday to Roatán, Islas de la Bahía, for Christmas with his family.

COFADEH received the information about finding his body in an apartment in the San Rafael neighborhood in Tegucigalpa, in the Villar Rosales Building, where he had lived for a long time. There was a cord found around his neck and a broom stick behind his head and there were signs of violence as everything was strewn about. The act may have occurred between four and five in the afternoon on Tuesday December 22nd.

His killers tried to simulate a suicide but his body was found in a small closet of his apartment bleeding from its nose and his body was dirty like it had been tied up according to the neighbors who saw the scene of the crime. The people responsible for his death took his camera and a computer.

The demons released by John Negroponte back in the 1980s have returned. It would be naive to expect that they will limit themselves to Honduras.

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Monday, January 04, 2010

708 for 5 

According to The Peninsula in Qatar:

Of the 44 Predator strikes carried out by the American drones in the tribal areas of Pakistan in 12 months of 2009, only five were able to hit their actual targets, killing five key Al Qaeda and Taliban leaders, but at the cost of around 700 innocent civilian lives.

According to the figures compiled by the Pakistani authorities, the Afghanistan-based US drones killed 708 people in 44 predator attacks targeting the Pakistani tribal areas between January 1 and December 31, 2009. For each Al Qaeda and Taliban terrorist killed by the American drones, 140 civilian Pakistanis also had to die. Over 90 percent of those killed in the deadly missile strikes were innocent civilians.

Perhaps, the reality of the wars in Afganistan and Pakistan are a little different than reported in this country, and should induce more disquiet than that expressed by Gaius the other day. Beyond the indiscriminate killing of civilians associated with drone strikes, there is also the psychological distress experienced by the people who live in regions subjected to them.

Last summer, I interviewed someone from Voices for Creative Non-Violence who had traveled to Pakistan and spoke with people in the tribal areas. They told him that the drone strikes inflicted tremendous psychological distress upon the populace because the attacks could occur at any time. Hence, they must constantly be aware of whether drones have appeared in the sky, while ensuring that they can reach a place of relative safety. They must always be cognizant of their position in relation to their homes, their families, their fields and probable air strikes. Drones not only kill people, they eradicate any semblence of everyday life, disrupting its routines as well as opportunities for spontaneous play, surprise and affection. In effect, post-traumatic stress syndrome is interwoven into their lives, intensified with each passing day.

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