Crimea: a divisive, dangerous assault


Originally posted on People and Nature:

The Russian military action in Crimea is dividing working people, socialists in Ukraine are warning. The threat of war will exacerbate Ukraine’s economic crisis – which is already driving the new neo-liberal government in Kyiv to attack living standards.

Struggles over social issues could be the starting-point for countering the poisonous effect of pro-Russian separatism on one side and extreme Ukrainian nationalism on the other. But radical socialists in Kyiv and in eastern Ukrainian cities emphasise that, in the immediate future, launching such struggles will not be easy.

Putin’s war 

Putin is absolutely right on one point: the western powers’ protests at the Russian action in Crimea are completely hypocritical. Putin said at his 4 March press conference that, when western leaders told him the action was

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Salon misses the point: Feinstein’s speech on the CIA is a big deal


The crisis in relations between the CIA and the Senate Intelligence Committee has blown up with Sen. Diane Feinstein’s speech in the Senate last week, accusing the CIA of breaking the law and the constitution. The clash has put an unwelcome spotlight on the role of the White House, where Obama is refusing to intervene while still backing CIA director John Brennan.

Feinstein, chair of the Committee and until now the security agencies’ staunchest defender, has concluded the CIA is bent on intimidating the committee and is determined to evade Congressional oversight. The antagonism has been building for some years while the senate committee compiled a report on the CIA’s use of torture under the Bush administration.

She confirmed publicly that the CIA had been monitoring computers used by senate staff, and that documents detailing evidence of torture had been removed from the network. The Guardian reported: “In her speech, Feinstein described repeated attempts by the CIA to frustrate the work of Senate investigators, including providing the committee staff with a ‘document dump’ of millions of non-indexed pages, requiring years of work to sort through – a necessity, Feinstein said, after former senior CIA official Jose Rodriguez destroyed nearly 100 videotapes showing brutal interrogations of detainees in CIA custody.”

Without naming him, Feinstein said CIA acting general counsel Robert Eatinger had been closely involved in the torture program. Eatinger had reported her staff’s removal of a CIA document from a classified facility to the Justice Department, a move she called an intimidation tactic, but late last week the senate struck back by removing him as general counsel and confirming his replacement.

The CIA has always carried out dirty tricks abroad, but is constitutionally prevented from spying within the US. Its operatives have always acted under the assumption there would be no consequences for illegal actions, while Americans have been led to believe that their undercover operations were necessary for defense against the country’s enemies. The security agencies were emboldened by Bush after the 9/11 attack – the impact of which is now wearing off – to abandon international and constitutional legalities.

Ray McGovern, a former CIA analyst who publicly criticized the intelligence used to justify the invasion of Iraq, told Amy Goodman: “People always say, ‘After 9/11, everything changed.’ Well, it did change. The president, on the evening of 9/11, said, ‘I don’t care what the international lawyers say. We’re going to kick some ass.’ … Well, they took some prisoners in Afghanistan, and the first person tortured was John Walker Lindh, an American citizen.”

The legislature is finally responding to five years of obstruction from the agency over reporting the extent of torture it carried out because the spying has been turned on them, after senate aides discovered internal memos contradicting Brennan’s official rebuttal of the Intelligence Committee’s findings. However, the committee’s demand that the senate report be published represents a threat to the CIA’ s ideological justification for its activities.

Is the clash mere “hypocrisy, posturing, face-saving and obfuscation,” as Natasha Lennard claims in Salon? Or is Washington Post correspondent Eugene Robinson closer to the mark when he says: “This is not just a bunch of rhetoric. It’s a very big deal.”

Whatever Feinstein’s motives – and we can agree with Edward Snowden when he calls her hypocritical – by campaigning to make public the activities of the security agencies, other members of the senate committee like Mark Udall and Ron Wyden are challenging authoritarians within those agencies who want to override popular sovereignty.

Robinson notes the expansion of the security state: “Look at how the CIA’s role has expanded to include what most of us would consider military operations, including flying and firing armed drones. Look at the breathtaking revelations about the NSA’s collection of phone-call data. Look at how the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, in a series of secret rulings, has stretched the Fourth Amendment and the Patriot Act beyond all recognition.”

The paralysis of Congress by the Republicans has created a political space for the extension of executive power and security agencies to assert their will against the legislative bodies charged with representing the people’s interests. However, Snowden’s revelations have changed the political context by alerting the public to the extent of state surveillance in the US and worldwide. Feinstein’s speech is significant not so much because of the constitutional principles involved but because, despite her previous support of the NSA, her accusations resonate with the public which has become aware of the fact that repression abroad will come home to be used against Americans.

Now the crisis has reached the White House. Although Obama is trying to stay aloof, senators on the Intelligence Committee are challenging him to defend legislative oversight and to declassify the committee’s report. His administration is also refusing to hand over documents in its possession which relate to the torture program.

Some of my readers have asked why I would make so much of this conflict. After all, the senate and the security agencies are all part of the same capitalist state, they say; differences between them are merely tactical, they agree on the fundamentals of capitalist rule.

But these conflicts are one form in which the class struggle is being fought out in America today, a struggle to defend popular sovereignty. Far from being autonomous, state bureaucracies reflect the tensions within society, refracted through the particular configuration of the US state. Increasingly, protest is uniting political demands with economic issues, since divisions within the political elite are preventing legislation that might ameliorate growing poverty.

Even “managed democracy” needs to maintain the illusion of reflecting the popular will.  While still dominated by the corporate elite, the state’s fragmentation is undermining its legitimacy in the eyes of Americans.

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To Save Its Skin, CIA Throws American Democracy Under the Bus


A major conflict over access to secret documents has erupted between the CIA and members of the Senate Intelligence Committee which, in theory, oversees it. The battle makes “House of Cards” look like a kindergarten squabble.

The issue is torture: the CIA wants to suppress the history of its involvement in illegal interrogations during the Bush administration, and has hit out at the Intelligence Committee, which is investigating this history, by monitoring the computers used by its staff. The dispute has escalated to the point where the constitutional separation of powers, congressional oversight of the intelligence agencies, and the independence of Congress appear to be in question.

By seeking to control this narrative, the CIA is not only defending its turf, but also its legitimacy in the eyes of the public. Extreme interrogation techniques like waterboarding, ended by Obama when he took office, have been marketed by politicians, the media, and Hollywood as essential to the defense of the nation. To justify past and future illegal actions by the agency, they require Americans to buy into this account.

The CIA’s  role is also supported by the ideological conflation of US geopolitical interests with the defense of democracy around the world, which binds together the security agencies with Congress and the administration. There are certainly those on legislative committees willing to excuse anything the intelligence community does.  An admission that the agency went beyond the bounds of international and constitutional law and functioned no differently from the dictatorships it is supposed to guard against would seriously undermine its domestic image.

The Intelligence Committee spent several years working on a 6,000-page report, still classified, about the CIA’s detention and interrogation program after 9/11. The New York Times says the committee’s study appears to be “a withering indictment of the program and details many instances when C.I.A. officials misled Congress, the White House and the public about the value of the agency’s brutal interrogation methods, including waterboarding.”

According to McClatchy: “The report details how the CIA misled the Bush administration and Congress about the use of interrogation techniques that many experts consider torture, according to public statements by committee members. It also shows, members have said, how the techniques didn’t provide the intelligence that led the CIA to the hideout in Pakistan where Osama bin Laden was killed in a 2011 raid by Navy SEALs.”

CIA director John Brennan responded in June last year by challenging the principal conclusion of the investigation– that “enhanced interrogation” had resulted in little valuable intelligence.  Then, in December, Sen. Mark Udall revealed he was aware of an internal CIA review highly critical of the interrogation program that contradicted Brennan’s rebuttal, but that had not been handed over to the senate committee.

The CIA angrily reacted to Udall’s claim as a major breach of security, the New York Times says, and agency officials “began scouring the digital logs of the computer network used by the Senate staff members to try to learn how and where they got the report. Their search not only raised constitutional questions about the propriety of an intelligence agency investigating its congressional overseers, but has also resulted in two parallel inquiries by the Justice Department – one into the C.I.A. and one into the committee.”

Apparently what happened was that some months after Brennan made his official statement, while working in a CIA database senate aides discovered the draft of an internal review of interrogation materials ordered by former CIA Director Leon Panetta that confirmed the senate committee’s conclusions. The aides simply “printed the material, walked out of the CIA facility with it and took it to Capitol Hill,” according to McClatchy. The CIA then confronted the committee with the security breach, leading staff members to conclude that the agency were recording their use of computers in the CIA’s high-security research room.

On Tuesday last week, Sen. Mark Udall sent a letter to Obama that implied the president had known the CIA was interfering with their investigation but had not acted to stop it. He wrote: “As you are aware, the CIA has recently taken unprecedented action against the Committee in relation to the internal CIA review.” He called the action “incredibly troubling” and stated it jeopardized the constitutional separation of powers.

Brennan denied everything, calling Udall’s accusations “spurious” and “wholly unsupported by the facts,” and lashed out by suggesting the senate committee itself was guilty of wrongdoing.

TV journalist Rachel Maddow called it “death of the Republic stuff.” “The whole separation of powers thing almost pales in comparison to the seriousness of the allegation that a nation’s own spy services have been turned against its own government. Particularly, where that government is supposed to be overseeing the spy services.”

Following closely from Edward Snowden’s revelations of how the NSA evaded congressional oversight, this new scandal can only intensify the determination of elected representatives to assert control of the rogue agencies. “The CIA tried to intimidate the Intelligence Committee, plain and simple,” Udall told reporters Wednesday, according to Roll Call. “I’m going to keep fighting like hell to ensure that the CIA never dodges congressional oversight again.”

The scandal also spotlights Obama’s reluctance to prosecute CIA torturers and to keep top Bush administration officials in place, despite their clear rejection by the American public in 2008 and 2012.

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Ukrainians, Russians and Europeans against Putin’s war


Originally posted on People and Nature:

Ukrainians, Russians and Europeans were on the streets today protesting against the Putin regime’s attack on Ukraine. It’s the only shaft of light I can see in a dark sky overshadowed by the danger of war, with 6000 Russian troops reportedly on Ukrainian territory in Crimea, some of them surrounding Ukrainian bases.

Russia

In Moscow, anti-war demonstrators were detained in large numbers. Each

Nikolaev march

Demonstration in Nikolaev. Photo: nikvesti.com/ Ukrainska Pravda

time protesters assembled on Manezhnaya square in the city centre, more were arrested. Novaya Gazeta, the liberal opposition paper, reported 265 arrests and counting just after 16.00 Moscow time.

Voices on the Russian radical left were unequivocal. “It is necessary to call a spade a spade: what’s happening in Crimea these days is a classic act of imperialist intervention on the part of the Russian state”, said the Open Left group in a statement published in English here.

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We the People Over the Deep State Goliath: Americans Reassert Popular Sovereignty Against the Plutocratic-Security Complex


Veteran radical journalist Chris Hedges successfully argued for the proposition that “Edward Snowden is a hero” at the Oxford Union on February 21. Of course, he is absolutely right to praise Snowden’s moral courage. But he painted a picture of a “solitary individual” standing up for his principles against a potentially all-powerful corporate state, neglecting the intention of Snowden’s revelations, which was to alert the public to the extent of NSA surveillance and engage them in discussing placing limits on it.

Prior to the debate, Hedges published an essay in Truthdig in which he writes that Snowden’s personal risk was heroic because we live in a “dual state” (using the terminology of the German political scientist Ernst Fraenkel) where “civil liberties are abolished in the name of national security. … The outward forms of democratic participation—voting, competing political parties, judicial oversight and legislation—are hollow, political stagecraft. … Those who challenge the abuses of power by the prerogative state, those who, like Snowden, expose the crimes carried out by government, are made into criminals.”

There is no denying the authoritarian nature of NSA surveillance, the vicious prosecution of whistleblowers, the outsized political influence bought by right-wing billiionaires, and killing of civilians by drone strikes. But despite the vast enterprise set up in the name of Homeland Security to suppress dissent, other whistleblowers and leakers continue to reveal what the security state is doing. Why would they do this? Only because they are not acting as isolated heroes; their bravery channels the commitment of Americans to their constitutional rights, their strong attachment to the ideal of democracy. Their moral imperatives are social, not individual.

A new report published in the German Bild am Sonntag reveals that, based on information provided by a “high-ranking NSA employee in Germany,” and not on any of the documents released by Snowden, the NSA responded to an order to refrain from spying directly on president Angela Merkel’s phone by intensifying its monitoring of other high-level officials in her government. As Glenn Greenwald points out, this means there is already at least one more NSA source prepared to risk his or her career to disclose the agency’s secrets.

It seems to me that by focusing on the authoritarian elements in the US, Hedges has prematurely written off society’s strengths. The political theorist he cites, Ernst Fraenkel, based his analysis on his direct experience of the Weimar Republic and the rise of Nazi authoritarian rule within the German state. Comparisons of the present situation of the U.S. with Weimar, which have been made recently by commentators ranging from Glenn Beck to Noam Chomsky, overlook major differences in the two societies: principally that Germany did not have a strong democratic tradition established through a revolution against European powers.

Authoritarian trends within US society certainly exist; but there is a continuing struggle between state coercion and democratic forms of popular participation. Hedges implies that the US surveillance state is part of a self-enclosed apparatus in a polar opposition to society. But to sustain their moral authority, ideals of legitimacy also penetrate state institutions. Edward Snowden, for example, was part of the US surveillance state just as much as the heads of the CIA or FBI, but became a whistleblower because of the contradiction between his experience of the actuality of surveillance and its justification with the misuse of democratic ideals. He began to question his own role when, as Hedges himself narrates, “he had watched as senior officials including Barack Obama lied to the public about internal surveillance.”

State entities need to preserve their moral justification even when political groups within them are misusing their authority to extend their own power – if we truly lived in a dual state, for example, the Christie scandal and the Walker prosecutions would not even be publicly known.

Mike Lofgren, a former GOP congressional staff member with the House and Senate Budget Committees, gives an insider’s view of the same phenomenon, the “hybrid entity of public and private institutions ruling the country … connected to, but only intermittently controlled by, the visible [constitutional] state.” He writes: “In terms of its scope, financial resources and sheer global reach, the American hybrid state, the Deep State, is in a class by itself. That said, it is neither omniscient nor invincible. The institution is not so much sinister (although it has highly sinister aspects) as it is relentlessly well entrenched. Far from being invincible, its failures, such as those in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, are routine enough that it is only the Deep State’s protectiveness towards its higher-ranking personnel that allows them to escape the consequences of their frequent ineptitude.”

Moreover, as Juan Cole points out, the “Deep State” is internally divided, and much more responsive to the exercise of public political power than it appears.  Cole also argues that the vast expansion of the security apparatus was a time-dependent effect of the impact of the September 11 attacks, and this influence is already beginning to wane.

The public has asserted its political power in diverse ways: Obama has had to abandon cuts to social security from his budget; had to back off from military intervention in Syria; and had to make at least a verbal commitment to NSA reform. The election of de Blasio in New York from an overt campaign against inequality signifies a marked shift in the popular mood – his new administration is already taking steps to reverse the plutocratic drive to commandeer society’s education resources.

The rapid escalation of minimum wage demands at the local level stems from years when wages have been held down and pressure on living standards has built up. Politically, the national Democratic leadership is being outflanked by a grass-roots surge of low-waged workers and community activists. Josh Eidelson reports that in Los Angeles, a City Council committee is studying nearly doubling the minimum wage for hotel employees to $15.37, while in Seattle, newly-elected mayor Ed Murray spoke confidently of a $15 minimum for the city’s public and private sector workers.

This movement and the interests of the plutocracy are on a collision course. But although the legal system discriminates in favor of corporations and security agencies are working diligently to suppress dissent, the more determined popular resistance becomes, the more likely state entities will be subverted from within. Their role is by no means settled in advance.

The state cannot rule through force alone. It would be a mistake to overestimate its strength when the American public has not been defeated or cowed, but up until now has been diverted from fighting for its economic interests by either liberal rhetoric or racism. While mindful of the dangers of a turn to authoritarian rule, we need to recognize that the society we live in is not at present a “dual state” but is in a transitional moment: the struggle for democracy is ongoing.

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UAW may have lost the vote at Volkswagen, but Republican fear of unions is exposed


The Union of Auto Workers’ bid for recognition at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee, was narrowly defeated last week by 712 votes to 626, a difference of 6.5% of the vote – hardly the stunning defeat reported by the mainstream media. Volkswagen management, under pressure from its corporate headquarters, had agreed to remain neutral in the campaign, unlike most US corporations who attempt to prevent unionization at all costs. If the UAW had succeeded, VW would have been the first foreign auto plant in the South to be unionized.

What was noteworthy about the election was the unprecedented high-profile intervention by Republican politicians, who pulled out all the stops to defeat the bid. Their panic over the possibility of a pro-union vote signifies the erosion of the Republican party’s southern strategy of using racism to suppress unionization and the social safety net while keeping workers voting against their economic interests.

Economic expansion in the South has led to increased support for unions and worker self-confidence. As Steven Pearlstein commented in the Washington Post, “incomes in the region still lag those of the North and West, while unemployment rates in many states are higher than the national average. And those once-grateful and -docile workers are beginning to notice – even in right-to-work states such as Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama and South Carolina, where union membership grew by 19 percent or more last year – the fastest rates in the country.”

Not only did right-wing billionaire Grover Norquist post billboards in the town depicting the UAW as having destroyed Detroit, Republican senator Bob Corker called a press conference on the eve of the vote specifically to claim that VW would manufacture a new mid-size SUV in the Chattanooga facility if the UAW was defeated – tying the possibility of jobs to rejecting the union. VW immediately denied any connection between the vote and the decision where to build the new model. Tennessee state legislators attacked VW as promoting an “un-American” labor campaign and threatened to withhold tax incentives for the company’s expansion if the union was recognized.

Obama was moved to retort that the Tennessee politicians were “more concerned about German shareholders than American workers,” according to Reuters. But that is a cheap piece of xenophobia: VW itself was in favor of union recognition, since that would have enabled it to set up a “works council” similar to those at their other factories. What the politicians wanted to buttress was the cheap labor strategy of the Southern elite – which is why they are also so opposed to affordable health care, expansion of Medicaid, and a living wage in the region.

Union leaders bitterly denounced Republican interference, but statements by anti-union workers in the factory showed that right-wing depictions of the UAW as an outside group coming in to impose bureaucratic control over the workforce and jeopardize their jobs had resonated with sections of the workforce and plant management. Union activists in the plant told labor correspondent Mike Elk of In These Times that they had seen “multiple low-level supervisors and salaried employees at the plant wearing ‘Vote No’ T-shirts in the days leading up to the union election,” even though they were not eligible to join.

Mike Jarvis, an hourly worker and member of the anti-union “No 2 UAW” campaign, told the Washington Post that many workers had been persuaded to vote against the deal by the terms of a neutrality agreement negotiated between VW and the UAW, which they understood as the union brokering a deal not to bargain for wages above what was offered by VW’s competitors in the United States. “We got people to realize they had already negotiated a deal behind their backs—[workers] didn’t get to have a say-so,” he told reporters.

Mike Burton, an hourly worker who created the website for No 2 UAW, said many workers objected to the UAW having initially sought unionization based on what it said was having a majority of cards signed favoring a union. “We were only given one choice [of a union],” he told Mike Elk. “When you are only given one choice, it’s BS. It would be nice if we had a union that came in here and forthright said, ‘Here is what we can offer.’  I am not anti-union, I am anti-UAW,” he said. “There are great unions out there, and we just weren’t offered any of them.”

Elk points out that the neutrality agreement may have weakened the UAW’s campaign by preventing one-on-one meetings with workers at their homes, a standard organizing tactic used to build trust with workers and answer questions about individual needs and concerns. Moreover, as he reports, “Many activists I spoke with during my two trips to Chattanooga said that when they saw the UAW being continually blasted on local talk radio, newspapers and billboards, they wanted to get involved to help build community support. However, they say that the UAW was lukewarm in partnering with them. … Community activists said they had a hard time finding ways to coordinate solidarity efforts with the UAW, whose campaign they saw as insular rather than community-based.”

The successes of the movement against low pay in the fast-food industry and at Walmart have all been based on alliances between unions and community groups. By eschewing such partnerships, and failing to engage the broader community, the UAW may have facilitated the right’s portrayal of them as outsiders. As one community organizer told Mike Elk: “There’s no way to win in the South without everyone that supports you fighting with you. Because the South is one giant anti-union campaign.”

But the Republican intervention has raised many questions about the politicians’ role. The Washington Post commented: “many of the plant’s workers are themselves conservatives – and have started to wonder why the politicians who represent them oppose their right to organize.” The report quotes John Wright, a test driver at the plant who identifies as a right-leaning independent, who said he was puzzled when Corker came back to Nashville to voice opposition to the UAW. “I can’t for the life of me understand why the Republicans and big money are coming against us so bad. To me, they’re attacking the average worker,” he said. “To have politicians think that there’s nothing more important than coming down and picking on the little guy because he wants a union, there’s a national debt we’ve got to control, we have foreign policy things that we elect them to go up there to do, but you have to fly home for an emergency meeting because I want a union?”

Republican politicians’ fear of unions will not go unnoticed as Southern workers join the minimum wage struggle. They have had a valuable lesson about the contradictions in Republican rhetoric and the vulnerability of the political elite to worker organization and political independence.

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Take Note, Plutocrats: Populism is Not Just a Spectre – It’s Rule by the People, for the People.


A spectre is haunting the world’s plutocracy – the spectre of populism. According to Politico, “Economists, advisers to the wealthy and the wealthy themselves describe a deep-seated anxiety that the national – and even global – mood is turning against the super-rich in ways that ultimately could prove dangerous and hard to control.”

Their fears are well justified. The billionaire elite in the U.S. is virulently opposed to Obamacare and the expansion of Medicaid, it is incensed by calls to increase the minimum wage, and through its proxies in Congress it has stopped an extension of long-term unemployment benefits. Anything that retards its wholesale looting of society’s wealth is anathema to it, including the Obama administration’s attempts to alleviate the worst effects of the economic downturn.

The plutocrats can maintain their hold on power only through their ideological grip on a large section of the American public – and challenges to that grip make them increasingly nervous.

Venture capitalist Tom Perkins, who made his money from Hewlett-Packard defense contracts, wrote in the Wall Street Journal: “Writing from the epicenter of progressive thought, San Francisco, I would call attention to the parallels of fascist Nazi Germany to its war on its ‘one percent,’ namely its Jews, to the progressive war on the American one percent, namely the ‘rich’.” He was echoed by real estate mogul Sam Zell: “The one percent are getting pummeled because it’s politically convenient to do so,” he said, adding that the one percent simply “work harder” than everyone else.

Juan Cole points out how their outlook and that of congressional Republicans is totally out of step with the U.S. public: “What is odd, and damning of the current American political system, is that the Republican Party’s major platform positions are roundly rejected by the American people. That is, they are ideologically a minority party. And yet they manage to win elections. … We are a center-left country and the majority of Americans takes the same stance as I on most controversial issues. It is the House of Representatives that is extreme, far more right wing than the country it says it represents.”

They are so far to the right that a Coca-Cola ad aired during the Superbowl featuring “America the Beautiful” sung in different languages evoked howls of outrage from tea-party politicians who posted racist comments on Twitter.

Within the Republican party itself there are fractures over immigration that reveal tensions between this kind of xenophobic rhetoric and corporate interests; the party’s difficulties stem from its need to use racist messages to preserve a declining white electoral base that itself depends on state support, while advocating cuts in state spending that would benefit only the super-rich.

Popular resistance to cuts in education, healthcare, and benefits is what is worrying the plutocrats. Whether Republican or Democrat, the public is determined not to lose social security benefits or other entitlements, and the low-waged have embarked on a popular campaign to increase the minimum wage to a living wage.

This mood of resistance was reflected in Obama’s fifth State of the Union address. What was remarkable about it was the contrast between the grand themes of hope and change that characterized his election campaigns, and the limited nature of his proposals for executive action rather than legislation to address social issues. He maintained a difficult balancing act between corporate and public sentiment, acknowledging unsustainable inequality in America but advocating a neoliberal prescription for economic growth through the fast-tracking of the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement that can only lead to the loss of more jobs.

Obama’s executive order raising the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour for federal contractors clearly aimed to contain a vigorous movement within an electoral framework. However, his speech also serves to encourage a growing trend of lightning strikes and walkouts, inspired by the ideal of a $15 minimum that is closer to a living wage.Josh Eidelson has been reporting in Salon about the series of one-day strikes organized by the union-backed “Good Jobs Nation” campaign to force Obama’s hand on the issue. “As recently as this month, the co-chairs of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, who’ve rallied repeatedly with the strikers, told Salon the White House had been unresponsive to their pleas. ‘If we had never done this,’ said [Smithsonian McDonald’s worker] Alexis Vasquez, ‘we would have continued making $8.25 for the rest of our lives’. But the move announced today falls short of what Demos and Change to Win have urged. … Given that ‘the issues are still there,’ said Joseph Geevarghese [deputy director of the Change to Win union federation], including contractors’ alleged failure to follow the wage laws already on the books, ‘I think we’re going to see continued worker unrest going forward’.”

Obama’s plan for a “grand bargain” to rationalize state expenditure in which he could trade cuts in social security for token increased taxes on the rich was stymied by the grip of the tea-party Republicans on Congress. As the Washington Post reported, his address attempted to restore confidence in his presidency, as he faced “a tricky task: winning over a nation that has grown less trustful of his leadership after a year in which the federal government was partially shuttered for 16 days and the administration botched the rollout of Obama’s health-care law.”

Juan Cole assessed his presidency as politically passive, accepting the international role bequeathed him by the Bush administration and the Pentagon. “In the end, Obama seems to see himself as primarily a domestic president. That position is remarkable because the Tea Party Congress won’t actually let him do much domestically. … He says the right things about conventional uses of the military, but in his actions he is a Covert War hawk.” He said little about NSA spying apart from a throwaway statement about reform – and even that was forced on him by Edward Snowden’s revelations.

While Snowden is undoubtedly the person who changed the political dialog in 2013, this year’s heroes will be those like 22-year-old fast food worker Naquasia LeGrand who are fighting to change the lives of those at the cutting edge of poverty wages. She gave a spirited interview to comedian Stephen Colbert where she voiced the determination of the low-waged to get a better deal from the billionaires: “It’s not just me who is going through this. It’s all of us going through this. That’s what makes a union. Americans coming together to make a difference and have a voice together. … there is no reason why I should have a second job when these multi-billion dollar companies have the money to pay me in the work that I do.”

This is the kind of talk that has the plutocracy losing sleep at night. It is fueling more and more campaigns at the state level, such as in Oakland, CA, where a union-community coalition aims to put a measure on the ballot in November 2014 that would increase Oakland’s minimum wage from $8 an hour to $12.25, with future increases tied to inflation, and at least five annual sick days for all workers.

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