Category Archives: National Security Agency

The Shifting US Political Landscape: A Dawning New Consciousness Against Politically Engineered Wealth Inequality

The US presidential primary campaign has brought into sharp relief social shifts that have transformed the political landscape and confused ideological allegiances. These shifts reflect a changed consciousness among voters about politically engineered wealth inequality. That voters across the country flatly reject the neoliberal policies that pass for conventional wisdom among both Reaganite Republicans and Clintonite Democrats is a much more important story than calculations of possible delegate counts at national conventions.

These shifts have fractured the Republican social coalition built under Nixon and Reagan between business and social conservatives. In states where Republicans gained majority control in 2010 as a result of the Tea Party vote, legislatures have been moving to restrict social freedoms embraced in the rest of the country. In North Carolina, the state rushed through a bill in the dead of night to prevent local towns creating ordinances protecting the rights of transgender people to use the bathrooms of their choice, and also removed general protections against discrimination on religious and racial grounds. In Georgia, on the other hand, the governor vetoed a similar bill because of pressure from big business groups.

Washington Post correspondent Dana Milbank explains: “Corporate America is traditionally conservative, reluctant to react to social controversy and divisive issues. But as public sentiment shifts dramatically on gay rights and as pro-equality millennials become a large bloc of consumers, business is shedding its reticence. … When the Georgia legislature took up legislation giving religious groups the right to deny services to gay people, corporations by the dozen voiced their objections. Disney and Netflix said they would stop filming in Georgia, and the NFL said the bill would jeopardize Atlanta’s hopes of hosting the Super Bowl.”

By moving further to the right on social issues, a third of the Republican electorate has isolated the pro-business elite, who have now lost control of their party’s apparatus. While the party leadership consistently lowered taxes on the super-rich and its legislators and lobbyists achieved affluence, it delivered nothing but job losses and uncertainty to their working-class white voters. This is what Donald Trump was able to exploit in his demagogic anti-immigrant appeals to the Republican base. According to the Pew Research Center, between 2008 and 2012 “more lower-income and less-educated white voters shifted their allegiance to Republicans. These voters had fled the Democratic Party and were angry at Mr. Obama, whom they believed did not have their interests at heart. But not all of them were deeply conservative; many did not think about politics in ideological terms at all … For many blue-collar Republicans, anger against Mr. Obama now extended to their own party’s leadership, whom they viewed as not only failing to stand up to Mr. Obama, but also as colluding with him to make their lives worse.”

At the same time, the international role of the US has blown back into its political life. Glenn Greenwald argues that when Trump advocates waterboarding for terrorists he is merely stripping away the pretense over what the US has actually done. Tom Engelhardt reflects that while Washington seems unable to function effectively, the so-called war against terror has transformed the public acceptance of domestic surveillance and authoritarian rule to the extent that it has created “something like a new system in the midst of our much-described polarized and paralyzed politics.  The national security state doesn’t seem faintly paralyzed or polarized to me.  Nor does the Pentagon. … In this ‘election’ season, many remain shocked that a leading candidate for the presidency is a demagogue with a visible authoritarian side and what looks like an autocratic bent. All such labels are pinned on Donald Trump, but the new American system that’s been emerging from its chrysalis in these years already has just those tendencies. … a Trumpian world-in-formation has paved the way for him.”

On the Democratic side, the strong showing of the Sanders campaign has brought new social layers into political activism, in opposition to the party establishment and union bureaucracies. The overwhelming and enthusiastic support he has received from millennial youth has a huge significance, according to University of Massachusetts professor Richard Wolff. It means that “a fundamental shift in American politics is underway,” he says.  “The fact that he has done as well as he has done, getting an excess of 40 percent or even closer to half the votes in so many states and winning as many states as he has is an unspeakable change in American politics and will have enormous ramifications for the future.”

He has also energized rank and file trade unionists to buck their leaders’ reflexive support for the candidate most favored by the party establishment. A group calling themselves “Labor for Bernie,” formed last June, have succeeded in helping Sanders win the endorsements of more than 80 union locals and four national unions, including the postal workers, communications workers, and nurses’ unions. Labor Notes reports: “The Food and Commercial Workers came out for Clinton in January. But a month later, Northern California UFCW Local 5, whose 28,000 members work in grocery and food processing, endorsed Sanders. The executive board vote was 30 to 2, according to Mike Henneberry, the local’s director of communications and politics. He said the local hasn’t gotten any pushback from the International. ‘For us, it was not a very difficult decision,’ he said. ‘Compare an individual who’s been supporting workers since he was mayor of Burlington with someone who’s been on the board of Walmart’.”

Similarly, although the leadership of the SEIU service employees’ union have endorsed Hillary Clinton, the largest public sector union in New Hampshire came out for Sanders. Clinton only supports a minimum wage of $12 while the union is campaigning for $15.  “I never thought I would see involvement like there was when Obama ran,” said SEIU Local 1984 vice president Ken Roos. “But people were stopping me in the hall at work, or even in the street—they would say, ‘Bernie’s the man, we gotta go for Bernie.”

The political class is swinging behind Clinton to suppress this movement from below. Sanders’ victories, however large, are ignored by the media, or explained away as only appealing to liberals in predominantly white states. When Sanders won over 70 percent of the primary vote in Washington and Hawaii, and 82 percent in Alaska, CNN described the states as “largely white and rural.” However, a third of Alaska’s population is nonwhite, 15 percent being indigenous Americans, while Hawaii has never had a white majority. The huge turnout for caucuses in Washington state also brought in many nonwhite voters. Sanders press secretary Erika Andiola told Democracy Now: “Bernie’s supporters are very, very pumped up. You know, they’re very excited about going out to caucus. And it’s a lot of young people, it’s a lot of new voters. … [In Yakima county in Washington state] about 45 percent to 50 percent of the community there is Latino—very diverse county. Bernie had a rally there. We had 7,000 people turn out. We ended up winning the county by 75 percent or 76 percent.”

Regardless of who wins the nomination for the Democrats or the Republicans, these social changes and the new anti-plutocratic consciousness among voters of both parties will shape the outcome of the presidential election in November. That will pit the popular result against the entrenched deep party and state systems that Obama was unable to budge and which voters across the spectrum are rejecting.


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Filed under 2016 Election, Bernie Sanders, Democratic primaries, donald trump, Fight for 15, Hillary Clinton, National Security Agency, political analysis, Uncategorized

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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Filed under CIA, Edward Snowden, Mark Udall, National Security Agency, Obama, political analysis, US policy

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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Filed under Chris Hedges, Edward Snowden, fast-food workers, low-waged, National Security Agency, political analysis, poverty, US policy

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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Filed under Affordable Care Act, austerity measures, debt limit impasse, Edward Snowden, fast-food workers, National Security Agency, Neoliberalism, Obama, Obamacare, populism, Republicans, Tea Party movement

Uniting to Resist the Squeeze of the Plutocratic State: Fighting the NSA, Unfair Wages, and the Destruction of the Social Safety Net

Thousands demonstrated in Washington and across the US yesterday to protest NSA spying on citizens’ phone calls and electronic communications. A very broad coalition crossed political lines, reflecting a genuine popular movement. Although the “Stop Watching Us” rally was ignored by the mass media, an excellent account of it was carried by Russia Today.

The protest united organizations as diverse as the American Civil Liberties Union, the Green Party, Color of Change and Daily Kos to the Libertarian Party, FreedomWorks and Young Americans for Liberty, as well as individuals like Chinese artist/activist Ai Weiwei and journalist Glenn Greenwald; a punk band, YACHT, performed their song “Party at the NSA/Twenty-twenty-twenty-four hours a day!”

Banners and speeches thanked Edward Snowden for revealing the extent of government surveillance, and a statement from him was read to the crowd by Jesselyn Radack, director of the Government Accountability Project: “Today, no telephone in America makes a call without leaving a record with the NSA. Today, no Internet transaction enters or leaves America without passing through the NSA’s hands.” He denied that surveillance was anything to do with countering terrorism:  “It is about power, control, and trust in government; about whether you have a voice in our democracy or decisions are made for you rather than with you. We’re here to remind our government officials that they are public servants, not private investigators,” he said.

Snowden’s revelation that the US is also spying on foreign leaders’ personal phone calls has created more than diplomatic embarrassment. The international relations of the US have been weakened and its Anglophone accomplices in surveillance (the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand) isolated at a time when these connections are central to the institution of new trade agreements, such as the Trans Pacific Partnership which gives transnational powers to US corporations. These negotiations are now unlikely to be completed before the end of the year deadline because other states in Southeast Asia and the Americas are pushing back against the terms of the agreement that undermine their national sovereignty. In addition, the government shutdown and impending debt ceiling standoff has called into question the dollar’s facilitation of world trade.

In Congress, Tea Party ideologues have done more than split the Republican party; they have also disrupted Obama’s efforts to rationalize the US state while containing domestic dissent within the established political system. Despite the acquiescence of the political elite, Obama has been unable to negotiate a “Grand Bargain” with Republicans that trades minor tax increases on the rich for cuts in Social Security and Medicare. Robert Reich comments that Washington’s political discourse has been framed entirely “around the size of government and the budget deficit – thereby diverting attention from what’s really going on:  the increasing concentration of the nation’s income and wealth at the very top, while most Americans fall further and further behind.”

The plutocratic campaign to avoid taxes, defund the state, and minimize regulation has jeopardized the US’s role in maintaining the conditions for international capital accumulation. But this crisis pales in comparison to its impact on the domestic situation. As Jo Comerford and Mattea Kramer pointed out, “Deep in the politics of the shutdown lies another truth: that it was all about taxes — about, to be more specific, the unwillingness of the Republicans to raise a penny of new tax revenue, even by closing egregious loopholes that give billions away to the richest Americans.  Simply shutting down the tax break on capital gains and dividends (at $83 billion annually) would be more than enough to triple funding for Head Start, domestic violence protection, the Women, Infants, and Children nutrition program, and cancer care at the NIH.”

The media obsession with the Tea Party has masked the fact that real poverty has increased, especially in the South and West. The middle class has been hit by job cuts and mortgage defaults and is sinking into the ranks of the poor.  Millenials are jobless or low-waged and unable to pay back huge student loans. Meanwhile, CEOs’ compensation is skyrocketing while the average wage has plateaued. According to a new study, based on a federal meals program as a proxy for poverty, a majority of students in public schools throughout the American South and West are low-income for the first time in at least four decades. “Children from those low-income families dominated classrooms in 13 states in the South and the four Western states with the largest populations in 2011,” reported the Washington Post. “A decade earlier, just four states reported poor children as a majority of the student population in their public schools. But by 2011, almost half of the nation’s 50 million public-school students — 48 percent — qualified for free or reduced-price meals. In some states, such as Mississippi, that proportion rose as high as 71 percent.”

Resistance doesn’t make the headlines, but is building in different forms. The low-waged campaign for a $15 minimum wage is, of necessity, not an economic strike struggle, but is aimed at mobilizing public opinion against highly-paid CEOs, leveraging the rhetoric of the Occupy movement. The overwhelming support for Bill DeBlasio in the New York mayoral election is a sign of the popular reception of politicians who – at least rhetorically – address the actual problems faced by voters and oppose the enrichment of the one percent. Unrepentant Marxists like Louis Proyect have questioned his character, but this focus misses the significance of the support he is getting for an openly left populist platform. No doubt he will make compromises with the financial class, as anyone with connections to the Clintons would, but his support for fast-food workers in New York City does more than burnish his populist credentials. It also gives major legislative encouragement to the broadening of their campaign.

The Nation comments: “… de Blasio’s appearance Wednesday outside a downtown Burger King signaled a potentially new moment for both city politics and Fast Food Forward, the coalition behind New Yorkers fast-food worker campaign. As the mayor-apparent of New York City, de Blasio is not just some scrappy, local pol offering a thumbs up to a worthy cause; he is a rising political power with a broad mandate and potentially national platform (indeed, de Blasio is now one of the highest-ranking elected officials to embrace the fast-food workers’ movement).”

Another signal of the popular mood is the viral internet response to comedian Russell Brand’s BBC interview, not only because of his articulation of the estrangement the public feels from the parliamentary process, but also because of his spirited deconstruction of the arguments of the interviewer, Jeremy Paxman. Brand insisted that voting had not stopped the corruption of politicians or the jeopardy of the planet and that the political system had created a disenfranchised public that it failed to serve. “It is not that I am not voting out of apathy. I am not voting out of absolute indifference and weariness and exhaustion from the lies, treachery and deceit of the political class that has been going on for generations,” he said. He placed the blame for voter apathy on a system that no longer heard or addressed the vast majority of people, suggesting that politicians were only interested in “serving the needs of corporations” and that an administrative system based on the “massive redistribution of wealth” should replace the status quo.

The indications are that the corporate-led squeeze on workers and the push of the wealthiest to destroy the social safety net has created the possibility of a renewal of protests along the lines of the Occupy movement, but on a vastly broader scale. The tactics of the old Occupy confined direct participation to those able to spend nights away from home or work. A more extensive and diverse challenge to the plutocratic hijacking of the political system may well appear in the next few months, with the restoration of popular sovereignty at its heart.

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Filed under Edward Snowden, fast-food workers, low-waged, Medicare, National Security Agency, Obama, occupy wall street, political analysis, poverty, Tea Party movement

NSA Stands For Not Suckers Anymore: Americans Rally Against Smooth Talk and Cheap Theatrics

US media are obsessed with Tea Party Republican threats to crash the economy and Ted Cruz’s self-promoting talkathon about Obamacare, while more important news gets buried.  US Senate hearings into abuse of NSA surveillance powers, far from representing popular opposition to the spying, in practice demonstrated nothing but the security agencies’ regulatory capture of Congressional committees. Fuming at their exposure by Edward Snowden, officials said they were finding ways to “counter the popular narrative” in order to keep monitoring citizens’ phone calls. Only Senator Ron Wyden challenged this story: the NSA leadership, he said, “built an intelligence collection system that repeatedly deceived the American people.”

This is the defining feature of US politics today – the diverging trajectories of the public and the executive branch. While the administration is negotiating secret trade agreements that would lock in corporate hegemony over small nations and the US population (such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership or TPP), there is growing domestic opposition to the administration’s plans for far-flung military interventions and its refusal to curb the excesses of big banks.

The lack of international and domestic support for these strategies is what constrains the Obama administration from continuing the course set by George W. Bush. Obama’s speech at the United Nations General Assembly Tuesday was a blunt assertion of neo-imperial ideology, while denying the label of empire.  He said: “The United States of America is prepared to use all elements of our power, including military force, to secure our core interests in the region. … We will ensure the free flow of energy from the region to the world.”

His realpolitik made Bush look like a starry-eyed idealist, while giving his message a liberal tinge by warning that US disengagement from the Middle East would lead to chaos by “creating a vacuum of leadership that no other nation is ready to fill.” This tone-deaf (to other countries) remark seemed intended primarily to bring his Congressional critics into line. Journalist Jeremy Scahill was flabbergasted by the speech, pointing out that Obama “basically stakes out a neo-con vision of American foreign policy and owns it and kind of wraps it in this cloak of democratic legitimacy.”

On the one hand, public disillusion with the US imperial role stems from Americans’ experience of Iraq and Afghanistan. But it is also connected to the revelations of NSA surveillance and growing economic impoverishment at home. Americans see themselves potentially caught in a vise of lost opportunity and lost rights. The administration is seeing pushback from several fronts: from the Occupy movement to whistleblowers like Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden, and even real congressional opposition within the Democratic party, to be distinguished from the sideshow theatrics of the Tea Party extreme right.

Take for instance the success of Democratic senators’ opposition to Obama’s pick for Federal Reserve chair, Larry Summers. Ezra Klein reported in the Washington Post: “Summers really fell because those Senate Democrats — and many other liberals — don’t trust the Obama administration’s entire approach to regulating Wall Street. … Liberals want to see the biggest banks broken apart so they’re easier to oversee and less of a threat to the financial system if they go bust. … The Obama administration simply disagrees that this concentration is, in and of itself, a problem.”

Harold Meyerson makes clear that these political divisions have their source in a profound social distrust of corporations and the financial sector. He explains that “the abject failures of the market economy” are creating a “growing conflict between those Democrats who have hitched their wagons to Wall Street [like Cory Booker and Rahm Emanuel]… and those … who believe government’s role is in advancing the interests of the middle class and protecting it from finance. … what Warren & Co. have going for them is millennials’ pervasive disenchantment with the market economics that have plunged them into a nightmare of unemployment and undercompensation.”

The same pervasive disenchantment with the results of neoliberal market economics that led to Occupy Wall Street’s rise two years ago continues to simmer. The campaign of the low-waged for a $15 minimum hourly rate taps into that same sensibility. Their argument is that they are forced to subsist on a pittance while the corporate owners make billions out of their labor. Bill de Blasio’s campaign for New York mayor is also boosted by the same anti-inequality sentiment.

Before Occupy came on the scene, public criticism of the super-affluent was taboo. Media commentators and political figures felt obliged to portray them as a shining symbol of capitalism’s success. Occupy’s most lasting legacy is a shift in the national discourse that identifies the antagonism between the “one percent” and the American public, one that surfaced again clearly in the political reaction to Romney’s “47 percent” remarks during the 2012 election.

Many of Occupy’s activists had voted for Obama in 2008 and became disgusted with his administration’s refusal to curb bank predations or to prosecute a single banker. The wildfire spread of occupations – alarming the establishment – brought together many preexisting protest and community campaigns around a common focus. As Rebecca Solnit writes: “Almost as soon as Occupy Wall Street appeared in the fall of 2011, it was clear that the national conversation had changed, that the brutality and obscenity of Wall Street was suddenly being openly discussed, that the suffering of ordinary people crushed by the burden of medical, housing, or college debt was coming out of the shadows, that the Occupy encampments had become places where people could testify about the destruction of their hopes and lives.”

The experimental communities of occupiers were not able to withstand systematic state disruption and the difficulties of maintaining their camps in a hostile environment.  The movement returned to its diverse origins – transformed by the experience but unable to continue general assemblies without the imperatives of communal survival keeping the components of the movement together – leaving intact networks that re-emerged when state institutions failed the community, such as Occupy Sandy.

Writing in CounterPunch, Steven Sherman discusses Occupy’s inherent weaknesses. He writes: “Occupy encampments were already starting to suffer exhaustion when they were swept off the streets by the police after about two months … Movements have been known to meet in union halls, community centers and many other places. You don’t actually need a camp out to have a movement. And yet Occupy did go into a tailspin. … The sense that the movement was growing and growing, that a call for a radically different sort of politics had truly touched a nerve, that ‘we are unstoppable’ has utterly receded.”

But it did not simply fall apart. Author and journalist Nathan Schneider points out: “This was a movement that was systematically torn apart by the security state, by the militarized police forces in cities all across the country. …It was not only brute force. In meeting after meeting after meeting, there were clear infiltrators who were disrupting the discussions and making sure that no sustainable organizing practices could take hold.”

Clearly the movement did not pose a physical danger to society by taking over public spaces. The threat to the ruling elite was primarily ideological, it seems to me. Occupy captured the public imaginary in a way that had not happened since the 1970s, and broke through the structure of social control that had confined dissent to ineffective and contained protests and to the two-party system.

Obama’s public role was to divert resistance into his re-election, leveraging the sentiment Occupy channeled by adopting its rhetoric. It’s a testimony to his political skill that his own role in the 2008 TARP bailout is not more clearly remembered and that he is able to retain his appeal as a symbol of the social movement that elected him.

The suppression of Occupy didn’t destroy this social movement, which is making itself felt in a subterranean way through the political system. The unlikely alliances of Democrats and libertarian Republicans in Congress express, however mutedly, intense public discontent with the way the Obama administration is running the country on behalf of Wall Street and the business classes while the plight of the average American is glossed over with soothing rhetorical phrases.

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Filed under 2012 Election, Bradley Manning, Edward Snowden, National Security Agency, Obama, Occupy Sandy, occupy wall street, political analysis, Rahm Emanuel, US policy

Power to the People or Power to Our Masters? King’s Legacy and Obama’s Presidency

We seem to be living in a bizarro alternate universe where Republican politicians are against another imperial military adventure in the Middle East and Nancy Pelosi is all for it. Donald Rumsfeld – who ten years ago wanted to invade the whole of the region, one country after another – now vocally opposes a strike on Syria.

Obama will seek approval from Congress after losing British support and coming under pressure from the Senate and the House, but his success is by no means certain. Like Cameron’s failure to get backing from British MPs, this signals the undermining of executive power as a consequence of its over-reach over the last ten years. Juan Cole points out that the legacy of the false justification for the Iraq war hung over the British parliament; in Washington, the legacy includes an ongoing military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan and the further revelations of NSA spying.

Obama is prepared to use executive power to launch wars on the other side of the world, but he shows no sign of using it to further the fight against social inequality in the US. This dissonance made Wednesday’s commemoration of the March on Washington an embarrassing travesty: while Martin Luther King preached nonviolence to achieve social change, the president who was elected on the back of the achievements of the civil rights movement channeled the outlook of the military-cyber-industrial complex.

Dana Milbank noted the corporate atmosphere of the event: “The original march was a challenge to the established order. The sequel was a rally of the powerful, including three presidents. There were special entrances for ‘ticketed guests.’ There was a $132-per-person ‘I Have a Dream’ brunch at the Willard Hotel (with ‘commemorative Martin Luther King keepsake’).”

Obama berated the desire for government support as “denying agency in our own liberation,” but told ordinary citizens that just by being good citizens (or businessmen paying a fair wage) they were changing the world for the better. He praised the original marchers in terms of dutiful citizenship but minimized the legacy of civil disobedience. “Everyone who realizes what those glorious patriots knew on that day, that change does not come from Washington but to Washington, that change has always been built on our willingness, we, the people, to take on the mantle of citizenship – you are marching,” he declaimed.

In contrast to King, who sought to inspire his supporters to empower themselves through political struggle, Obama recast protest as obeying the law rather than questioning the basis of its fairness. By divorcing social issues from government he urged citizens to leave politics to the political elite – a “trust us” message that buttresses the role of centralized executive power and furthers the agenda for a security state.

The genius of Martin Luther King lay in his ability to connect all the strands of the movement for social justice and simultaneously inspire and give it direction. He had realized how the struggle for civil rights could be translated into a mass political movement that put pressure on the Kennedy administration. The confrontations he led in Alabama were aimed at impacting the political consciousness of the nation.

The 1963 March on Washington is remembered today as a march over civil rights, but it was originally planned by union activists to protest growing unemployment and discrimination against African-Americans in northern cities. It was only after Bull Connor used attack dogs and high-pressure hoses against children in Birmingham that civil rights got national attention and rose to the top of the agenda.

According to historian Taylor Branch,  “[King] took a stupefying risk in Birmingham to allow not only high school students, but elementary school students, to take the place of a dwindling number of adult volunteers who were discouraged. And instead of 10 or 15, which is what the daily quota had finally dwindled down to be, they had over a thousand students march, downtown Birmingham, and were met with dogs and fire hoses on May 2nd and May 3rd. It was a stupefying gamble in his career … before that breakthrough, the sides were in gridlock over segregation in America. … After Birmingham, everybody was raising questions.”

King’s leading role in transforming the political discourse is made clear in a phone call that was recorded by the FBI, cited in a New York Times book review. “ ‘We are on the threshold of a significant breakthrough, and the greatest weapon is the mass demonstration,’ King told his close friend Levison… Because of Birmingham, King went on, ‘we are at the point where we can mobilize all of this righteous indignation into a powerful mass movement,’ and even the mere threat of a march on Washington might so ‘frighten’ President Kennedy that he would send a meaningful civil rights bill to Congress.”

King’s articulation of his dream – that all men are created equal – was a triumph of imagination, an ideal that succeeded in strengthening and encouraging civil rights campaigners who daily confronted jail or death, making it a moral imperative by couching it in the language of the Declaration of Independence and of the Gospels. This language spanned the racial divide to inspire whites as well as blacks and isolate segregationists.

His speech was addressed directly to those who had come “fresh from narrow jail cells,” the “veterans of creative suffering.” He told them to “continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive. Go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, go back to South Carolina, go back to Georgia, go back to Louisiana, go back to the slums and ghettos of our Northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed.”

The substance of King’s rhetoric, and what still resonates today, is the ideal of justice that mobilized the tremendous sacrifices involved in carrying out this campaign of civil disobedience in the most difficult conditions in 1963. The substance of Obama’s rhetoric, on the other hand, is support for the status quo. He seeks to undermine popular sovereignty by telling citizens to go about their business without protesting the authority of the executive to authorize NSA surveillance, the jailing of whistleblowers, and force-feeding foreign nationals imprisoned in Guantanamo.

King’s dream persists not because of the grandiose ceremonies last week, but because of the struggles of ordinary workers throughout the country for a living wage, and the struggle of Chicago teachers to defend the right to education. It lives in the actions of whistleblowers like Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning, and the growing popular resistance to the security state and military intervention in Syria. The ideal of justice is alive in the people, and that is why freedom will ring.

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Filed under African Americans, Bradley Manning, chicago teachers, Edward Snowden, Homeland Security, Martin Luther King, National Security Agency, Obama, political analysis