Category Archives: We are the 99 percent

Book Review: “Corbynism, A Critical Approach” Part Two


Jeremy Corbyn has become the symbol for everything the British establishment loves to hate. The media mounts sustained attacks on him, the army uses his image for target practice, and Labour centrists smear his record with accusations of antisemitism. On the ideological front, academics Matt Bolton and Frederick Harry Pitts have recently produced a highly critical account of Corbyn and the Corbyn movement, in which their interpretation is sustained by an apparently “Marxist” logic.

Part Two: Socialists must “hold the centre”

The authors accuse Corbyn of ignoring the “messiness” of real politics, “the calculated compromises necessary to achieve something concrete in a contradictory world,” in favour of an abstract morality manifested in a history of protests. However, as party leader, Corbyn has had to engage in many calculated compromises, such as holding a free vote on military intervention in Syria to appease shadow cabinet ministers, for example, and has had to navigate a difficult political terrain when aiming to unify Brexit-supporting and remaining constituencies. He has succeeded in holding together different wings of the party with moderate but practical policies that aim to reverse some of the most egregious aspects of privatization and welfare austerity. When he advocates more radical political alternatives aimed at encouraging popular democracy and involvement, he prefers practical examples like Preston and the “people’s Uber” pioneered in Barcelona over ideological purity.

Corbyn’s strength lies in his ability to communicate his ethical socialist beliefs to the public in a way that connects them with the political fight against austerity. The inclusivity of his message enables him to make a human connection with crowds at rallies and events. He does not perform well in parliament, on the other hand, since its procedures rely on making facile debating points rather than engaging with substance, a form of discourse modelled on institutions of ruling class privilege like Oxford, Cambridge, and the independent public schools. His political room for manoeuvre in parliament is limited by the hostility of many centrist Labour MPs, and even if a Labour government were to be elected in the near future, many of them would probably keep their seats. But this does not make him a prisoner of the parliamentary party. For him, the cabinet’s collective responsibility means fighting for policies decided by party conference, although his opponents had no compunction about resigning from the shadow cabinet.

As party leader, he can leverage his support from the membership in a way that previous left leaders like Bevan and Benn could not. At the same time, Labour MPs all believe in a certain amount of redistribution of wealth to alleviate social problems, and that creates a political space for Corbyn to keep the PLP together, since British capitalism now subsists on extraction of rents (in the broad sense) from the population through privatised industries and the financial sector. So, while the reforms proposed in Labour’s 2017 manifesto may be modest, the threat of halting or even reversing this flow of wealth to the rich alarms the establishment, even more than Corbyn’s foreign policy which would end the enrichment of the arms industry from dictatorships throughout the world, especially Saudi Arabia.

Bolton and Pitts’ pessimistic prognosis is that socialists must “hold the centre” to resist the advance of fascism and national populism. Only through the “structures of formal democracy” can the labour movement carry out its traditional activities. What is missing from their entire analysis is any sense of labour as a combative force in struggle with capital and its representatives, a movement that fought and fights for democratic rights even when outlawed by the state. In the 2017 election campaign Corbyn was able to shift the centre ground of politics to the left, something the authors perversely attribute to the Brexit vote, and his radical democratic instincts impel him to turn the party away from the arcane procedures of parliament towards local communities from which, he says, all progress originates. The authors concede none of this: for them, the “abstract, intangible forms of capital” remove all agency from socialists, since fighting to make the super-rich pay their taxes would illegitimately persecute those who are only the personalizations of money, capital and commodities. Demands for accountability for those who made the decision to cut costs on the Grenfell Tower refurbishment so drastically that they made it a death trap would not be acceptable to them. Socialists can only be spectators of “the fateful objectification of human activity in a reality that increasingly enslaves us.” This is their “Marxist” justification for accepting the neoliberal argument that there is no alternative to accepting the domination of the financial markets.

Labour’s immediate challenge is to establish itself as a clear alternative to both a Tory Brexit and the disenfranchising of neglected communities, navigating divisive political pressures exerted on the leadership by the media and sections of the parliamentary party. This depends on the politically empowered and knowledgeable party membership being able to develop policy through their connections to social movements. As Corbyn told a rallyin 2019, “What’s different now about Labour is that the members are much more involved in their communities, and it’s those members that will write the manifesto for the future.” This prospect is deeply disturbing to most of the PLP, who want to preserve the division between the political arena and extra-parliamentary struggle that facilitates their domination of the party. It also frightens the ruling establishment, for whom any tactic is justified to prevent the election of a government that might reverse the transfer of wealth and power to the rich.

How could Corbyn achieve his platform in the face of such opposition from the establishment? The plain fact is that the dominant class has little inherent strength and depends on its control of the state and the grip of ideology to sustain its rule. Corbyn challenges this ideology by asserting the imperative of community solidarity, of inclusion rather than the division of Brexit and racism. Above all, he is able to channel popular dissent in a way that enables it to express itself in a creative struggle for policies of social change. This undermines the ruling elite’s historical strategy of using the elective legitimacy of parliament to contain and manage pressure from below, while strictly limiting popular influence on the actual conduct of government. Whatever limitations Corbyn may have as a politician, what is important is the fact that he has broken through the exclusion of the party membership from decision-making and released their energies in order to transform the relation of the party to the public and to the state.

Under a Tory government British society faces deepening austerity and a sharp growth in absolute poverty with its imposition of Universal Credit on benefit recipients, which can only be made worse by Brexit. The crisis it has induced threatens to break up the imperial British state, which has always depended on external advantage for its internal stability. However, social radicalisation has found an outlet and focus in a social democratic party that, for historical reasons, has provided the only practical conduit of organised political opposition to an austerity state. Rather than Bolton and Pitts’ faith in the institutions of “internationalist liberalism” to resolve the contradictions of a globalized economy, a Corbyn-led Labour government would be an inspiration for anti-austerity movements across Europe and the US, acting as an antidote to the rise of rightwing populist parties. Corbyn’s outreach to socialist tendencies battling the existing conservative leaderships of left parties and conservative Democrats in the US lays the foundation for democratizing international institutions like the IMF, the World Bank, and the EU itself.

The strengthening of a mass social movement in close connection with a Labour party transformed by its roots in the localities offers the possibility of undoing the effects of years of neoliberal governments. The party at the constituency level is becoming increasingly open to the concept of empowering ordinary citizens so they can restore the social values of equality, public service, and cooperative effort for the common good. This is the socialism Corbyn aspires towards.

Matt Bolton and Frederick Harry Pitts, Corbynism: A Critical Approach, Emerald Publishing, Bingley, 2018

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Filed under Brexit, Jeremy Corbyn, Labour Party, marxism, Neoliberalism, political analysis, political economy, populism, Uncategorized, We are the 99 percent

Whatever It Takes in the Fight For 15: Workers Mobilize Against Poverty Level Wages in America



Fast food workers in Raleigh, N.C march along South Wilmington Street to protest outside a Burger King. Photo: MSNBC

The “Fight for 15” campaign has spread rapidly from its beginnings in New York City two years ago. Last Thursday’s civil disobedience strikes affected 150 cities throughout the U.S. – significantly, many of them were in the South, historically hostile to unions. As well as broadening their support, strikers faced jail as a way of showing their determination to achieve a $15 an hour minimum wage.

Obama referred to the movement at a speech on Labor Day in Milwaukee. He said: “There’s a national movement going on made up of fast food workers organizing to lift wages so they can provide for their families with pride and dignity. … If I were busting my butt in the service industry and wanted an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work, I’d join a union.”

As well all the major cities in the North, protesters were arrested in St. Louis, Missouri; Little Rock, Arkansas; Durham, North Carolina; Phoenix, Arizona; New Orleans, Louisiana; Nashville, Tennessee; Atlanta, Georgia; Miami and Tampa, Florida; and Charleston, South Carolina. In Nashville, McDonald’s worker Jamar Black was at a protest outside of a Sonic restaurant. He told In These Times “We’ll do whatever it takes to get to $15. If we have to go to jail, we’re doing that.”

The Huffington Post reported that in Charleston around two dozen fast food workers blocked traffic at the entrance to a freeway, backing up traffic for miles. Police arrested 18 in what were deemed “non-custodial” arrests – but “the fact that it was happening at all in South Carolina took onlookers by surprise … Dave Crossley, a local who came out in support of the protest, marveled at the line of workers bottling up traffic for blocks on Spring Street, chanting for ‘$15 and a union.’ ‘This sort of thing doesn’t happen in Charleston,’ he said.”

Reports indicate that the police were much more careful in their treatment of protesters than in previous strikes, which reflects both public support for the movement and the condemnation of police over-reaction to the protests in Ferguson. For example, Durham police in union-unfriendly North Carolina “followed the city’s protest for upwards of three hours while making no arrests, even as workers sat in a series of increasingly busy intersections. Eventually, the protesters advanced to the corner of West Main Street and Great Jones Street, one of the busier intersections in downtown, where 23 workers wearing red armbands sat down in the middle of the street. The police blocked off traffic around the intersection but did not advance on the protesters for about an hour and a half.”

The LA Times reported that in New York City, “Hours after the morning protest in Manhattan, marchers gathered again on the busy corner of 8th Avenue and 56th Street, where several were swiftly arrested and taken away in a police van after they lay down on the pavement and blocked traffic. … Lunchtime diners at a nearby open-air bar watched the protest and arrests, which lasted no more than half an hour. ‘Good for them,’ one man in a business suit said who was weaving his way through protesters as they chanted and disrupted traffic. ‘Everyone deserves to make a living’.”

Ashona Osborne, who works at Wendy’s in Pittsburgh, told Democracy Now: “We volunteered that we were going to take a nonviolent civil disobedience and sit down, just to make the point to these CEOs and corporates that ‘We’re not playing.’ … This strike that we had, as opposed to our last strike, we had way more people walk off the job and way more people from the public and workers come and join us as we were striking. We started out with about 10 people at 5:00 in the morning. By the time they came about noon, we had over 200 people all striking together as one.”

There is a fusion between the fight for a living wage and other campaigns for social justice, such as the “Moral Mondays” movement in North Carolina and the struggle for immigrant workers’ rights. The larger movement includes activists from Ferguson, Missouri, who decided to travel to New York City on Thursday to join the protests there. Jeanina Jenkins, a McDonald’s employee in Ferguson, said she believes their fight against Michael Brown’s shooting will be on the minds of many striking fast food workers. “We’re fighting for the same thing, basically,” she said. Co-worker Carlos Robinson told the New York Times: “In Ferguson we needed to stand up for what’s right. Here we have to stand up for what’s right. It’s all about rights. … Ferguson gave us a boost because it helped us realize some people really don’t care about you. If you don’t care about yourself and take a stand for yourself you’ll always be at the bottom.”

The change in tactics to civil disobedience was combined with the addition of home healthcare workers to the campaign. The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) has been a major backer of the fast-food strikes; its president Mary Kay Henry said: “Homecare workers … decided to join with fast-food workers yesterday in building the broadest, most powerful movement possible … We looked at [Obama’s speech] at 5:45 yesterday morning in Oakland. And workers who hadn’t had a chance [to see it], because they were working on Labor Day, were incredibly thrilled that the president of the United States is saying that what they’re doing makes complete sense.” She added: “There’s an incredible intersection of the immigrant rights movement and the fast-food workers’ movement. I saw it in Oakland yesterday. Many of the workers were Latino and had immigrated from Central America and Mexico. We’ve seen it across this country as the city organizations get built in local coalition with the immigrant justice movement.”

The strikes are not directed at obtaining concessions from one particular company or store, but are aimed at changing the political climate so as to make it unacceptable for corporations earning billions of dollars to keep wages at poverty levels. This includes challenging the legal strategies used by corporations to avoid liability for labor conditions. The movement achieved an important success in this respect by winning a decision by the National Labor Relations Board that McDonald’s could be treated as a joint employer with its franchise holders in labor complaints, opening the way for major pressure on the corporation’s practices.

Most new jobs created in the U.S. today are low-waged, but workers in these jobs are becoming more militant and political in their fight against multi-billion dollar corporations. Washington Post correspondent Harold Meyerson pointed out that: “even though the campaign has yet to win a union contract for a single worker, it already has to be judged a signal success. By highlighting the abysmal incomes of millions of hardworking Americans, it has prodded governments to phase in minimum wage increases in a growing number of cities and states. … The fast-food workers’ campaign, then, may be viewed … as the second act of a broader workers’ movement kicked off by the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations of 2011. Occupy never developed a strategic focus that went beyond occupying, but it nonetheless focused the nation’s attention on the widening chasm separating the 1 percent from everybody else. The fast-food campaign … has staged enough high-profile actions, with a compelling economic and moral message, to win real gains for workers, whether those workers stand to ever become union members or not.”

The gains that have already been made have built workers’ confidence in their own ability to fight and their strength as a class. Alliances with community activists to build an inclusive movement are creating a new form of labor struggle, in the teeth of antagonistic courts and Republican-dominated state legislatures. Much greater conflicts are in store as the movement challenges the basis of corporate profits and their political and legal influence.

Ferguson McDonald’s worker Jeanina Jenkins said that Michael Brown’s shooting had made her think about the reasons why it had happened. “These corporations make billions of dollars each year,” she said, “and if it wasn’t for the workers they wouldn’t have a company to run. … I want to make a history that’s going to change not only us but change the world.”

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Filed under African Americans, fast-food workers, Ferguson, Fight for 15, immigration, low-waged, Obama, poverty, strikes, We are the 99 percent

Justice for Michael Brown, Justice for the 99 Percent.


Students at Howard University show solidarity with Michael Brown

Students at Howard University show solidarity with Ferguson protesters

After a week of protests following the police shooting of an unarmed black teenager in Ferguson, an inner suburb of St. Louis, the Missouri governor declared a state of emergency in the township. Eighteen-year-old Michael Brown was shot multiple times after surrendering with his arms in the air.

Some 200 protesters defied the resulting curfew, mostly younger African-Americans, who were unresponsive to older members of the community who urged them to go home. Their lives have become bound up with getting justice for Brown – they say that it was murder and the white policeman who shot him should be in jail. They feel that without the police being subject to the rule of law, their own lives are being treated as worthless.

Brandon Sneed was among those who stayed on the street. He told a Washington Post reporter that he was defying the curfew because “there is no justice.” “We are all Mike Brown,” he said. “By that I mean all people. We are the 99 percent. But the 1 percent rule the world.” Another protester, Timothy Booker, held an American flag upside down. “After Trayvon Martin, everybody turns the flag upside down because it shows there is no justice,” he said. “George Zimmerman got away with murder. The justice system is backward. So we turn the flag upside down.”

The initial protests after Brown’s death on Saturday a week ago were peaceful, but were met with a heavy-handed response from police in riot gear. On Sunday night a gas station near the site of the killing was torched and looted; in the following evenings, police in military-style uniforms, some carrying high-powered sniper rifles and wearing balaclavas, were accompanied by armored vehicles blocking the main street. They warned demonstrators to get out of the road or face arrest, before firing teargas, rubber bullets and wooden baton rounds into the crowds.

The Guardian reported on Tuesday night: “For 40 minutes, the protesters defied the threat. Some hung out of car windows, while others raised their arms aloft and repeated what has become their defining slogan: ‘Hands up, don’t shoot.’ A police helicopter swooped around the dark sky above, shining a bright spotlight on the faces of the almost entirely African American crowd.”

The slogan rapidly spread across the country as demonstrations against police violence transformed the universal symbol for surrender into a symbol of defiance and protest.

Protests continued on Wednesday, when local politicians and journalists covering the ongoing demonstrations were arrested. Wesley Lowery, a reporter for The Washington Post, was arrested with another journalist in a McDonalds. Lowery, who is black, made it clear he was not resisting arrest, but was slammed against a wall and cuffed. “That is probably the single point at which I’ve been more afraid than at any point.” Lowery said after. “More afraid than the tear gas and rubber bullets, more afraid during the riot police. I know of too many instances where someone who was not resisting arrest was assaulted or killed.”

As images reminiscent of police attacks on 1960s Civil Rights marches flooded the media, Obama appealed for restraint and Missouri governor Jay Nixon transferred command for maintaining order in Ferguson to the state highway patrol, led by an African American captain. “We all have been concerned about the vision that the world has seen,” Nixon said. According to the Guardian, he admitted that Ferguson had come to resemble a “war zone.”

The results of minimizing the police presence were immediate. The Washington Post reported, “A stunning change in tone radiated through the suburban streets where protests had turned violent each of the last four evenings … [Highway Patrol Captain Ronald] Johnson spent a considerable amount of time talking to media, explaining that the decision to tone down the show of force was deliberate, a calculation he said was made by St. Louis County police officials.  … The protesters remained angry about Brown’s killing — but unlike Wednesday night when they furiously demanded the release of family members being detained, the scene was not tense.”

However, on Friday morning sharp conflicts between the state administration and local authorities surfaced. In an effort to smear Brown’s reputation, Ferguson police chief Thomas Jackson named him as the prime suspect in a convenience store robbery that occurred just before the shooting. The Washington Post reported: “Police dramatized the allegation, releasing security camera photos showing a person they identified as Brown towering over and menacing the store clerk, images that were circulated nationwide. Yet, despite the implication that Brown was stopped because of the robbery, Jackson later appeared to reverse himself, saying at a second news conference that the confrontation ‘was not related to the robbery.’ Instead, he said, Brown was stopped because he and a friend were walking in the street.”

Ferguson police released the images despite the objections of state and federal authorities, concerned that it would heighten tensions in the community. They may have been encouraged to do so by the county prosecutor, Robert McCulloch, who was angered at the governor’s decision to take control of the scene away from St. Louis county police. “It’s shameful what he did today, he had no legal authority to do that,” McCulloch told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “To denigrate the men and women of the county police department is shameful.”

In a remarkable display of anger, St. Louis Representative William Lacy Clay attacked McCulloch on Friday. He accused McCulloch of attempting to influence a potential jury by the release of the robbery video at the same time the officer’s name was released. “Bob McCulloch tried to taint the jury pool by the stunt he pulled today. I have no faith in him, but I do trust the FBI and the justice department,” he said. The county executive is also leading a push to remove McCulloch from the investigation into Brown’s death because of bias.

Confrontation returned to the streets again after midnight on Friday, when police showed up in riot gear. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that several hundred protesters had been peaceful but faced off with the police, “some officers pointing guns at the crowd, some protesters pointing cameras at police. Police told the crowd over a loudspeaker to disperse immediately. … After several minutes, police turned and left, but as they retreated, they sprayed smoke bombs and threw sound cannons at the crowd.” This only served to incite the angrier elements in the crowd further.

It was after these incidents that governor Nixon declared a state of emergency at a public press conference. “The governor’s extraordinary action came as the attorney for a key witness described the shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown as an execution-style slaying. … But after his opening remarks, Nixon quickly lost control of the crowd, with the images being recorded for a national television audience. ‘You need to charge that police [officer] with murder!’ one person yelled. Others demanded to know how the curfew would be enforced. ‘Going to do tear gas again?’ someone asked. When Nixon began answering that ‘the best way for us to get peace’ was for everyone to go home and get a good night’s sleep, another resident interrupted him, shouting: ‘We don’t need sleep! We need justice!’ ”

Many commentators have remarked on the effects of the militarization of local police using the Pentagon’s used equipment. Although this is important, especially to journalists who are illegally prevented from covering protests, in Ferguson it is combined with the re-segregation of the community by white flight. While the residents of the suburb are overwhelmingly African American, the police force is overwhelmingly white. It closed ranks in the face of public protests, refusing to release the name of the officer who shot Michael Brown or any details of the shooting for days after the event, underlining its alienation from the community and exacerbating the long-standing racial tensions between them.

According to the New York Times, “As African-Americans moved into [St. Louis] and whites moved out, real estate agents and city leaders, in a pattern familiar elsewhere in the country, conspired to keep blacks out of the suburbs through the use of zoning ordinances and restrictive covenants. But by the 1970s, some of those barriers had started to fall, and whites moved even farther away from the city. These days, Ferguson is like many of the suburbs around St. Louis, inner-ring towns that accommodated white flight decades ago but that are now largely black. And yet they retain a white power structure.”

Like Anaheim in California, where unarmed Manuel Diaz was shot dead while running away from police, political control of public order is retained by a white elite even though the residents are overwhelmingly nonwhite. Jim Crow segregation has been replaced by economic segregation, white flight, and the appropriation of resources from society by the super-rich.

However, the creeping militarization of the police is now challenged by the growing political self-consciousness of minority American youth. Their resistance has exposed disarray among the St. Louis state agencies and indicates an awareness of the need for an inclusive movement against oligarchy in America. As Brandon Sneed said, “We are the 99 percent. But the 1 percent rule the world.”

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“We Hold These Truths to be Self-Evident”: Edward Snowden Reminds Us of the Purpose of Government


Edward Snowden has won worldwide popular support for his self-described “moral decision” to reveal how the US intelligence services monitor its own citizens’ as well as all countries’ emails and phone calls.

Americans accusing him of treason should dust off their copy of the Declaration of Independence, where the second paragraph states: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. –That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”

As Snowden goes into his fourth week of being stateless and stranded in Moscow Airport thanks to the Obama administration’s persecution, we cannot lose sight of his clear moral courage, political maturity, and the vision of citizens in the United States and around the world who have embraced Snowden as a hero for our times.

In his remarks at the airport, reported by The Guardian, Snowden praised Venezuela, Russia, Bolivia, Nicaragua and Ecuador for “being the first to stand against human rights violations carried out by the powerful rather than the powerless” and for “refusing to compromise their principles in the face of intimidation.”

“The government and intelligence services of the United States of America have attempted to make an example of me, a warning to all others who might speak out as I have,” he said. “I have been made stateless and hounded for my act of political expression.”

The public reaction in Latin America is extremely important to help Snowden gain political asylum from governments prepared to stand up to US diplomatic and economic pressure. US progressives should stand in solidarity with the anti-colonial sentiments of the global South and condemn their own government’s efforts at persecution.

A Quinnipiac poll released last week notes a clear shift in the US public’s mood since Snowden began his revelations: “by 45 percent to 40 percent, respondents said the government goes too far in restricting civil liberties as part of the war on terrorism. That was a reversal from January 2010, when in a similar survey 63 percent said anti-terrorism activities didn’t go far enough to protect the US from attacks, compared with 25 percent who disagreed.” This is huge, because sacrificing liberties for security is the ideological underpinning of the national security state.

By a clear majority of 55 to 34 percent across political affiliations, interviewees considered Snowden a whistleblower and not a traitor. Peter Brown, the poll’s assistant director, said: “The massive swing in public opinion about civil liberties and governmental anti-terrorism efforts, and the public view that Edward Snowden is more whistle-blower than traitor, are the public reaction and apparent shock at the extent to which the government has gone in trying to prevent future terrorist incidents … The verdict that Snowden is not a traitor goes against almost the unified view of the nation’s political establishment.”

Glenn Greenwald has pointed out that Democrats are the most vociferous in condemning Snowden, whereas they would have condemned Bush if the revelations had come under his presidency. “I can tell you that, by far, the most vehement and vicious attacks on our reporting and the stories that we’ve been writing come not from Republicans, but from Democratic partisans, both in politics and in the media,” Greenwald told Democracy Now.

Not only have they bought into the security state’s ideological justifications, many Democrats also conflate the executive wing with the state’s social functions, claiming that the state is essential to protect minorities and achieve social justice.  The official left has been coopted by Obama into supporting “their” president as the best alternative to Republicans.

Activist Jessica Bernstein pointed out: “During a recent interview on KPFA, Norman Solomon, former congressional candidate and co-founder of RootsAction, questioned why MoveOn, the largest online progressive group, has not taken action, asking, ‘Where are their clarion calls to defend and support Edward Snowden? Or for that matter Bradley Manning? They’re not happening’. … Solomon points out that when MoveOn began 15 years ago, it was largely around an anti-war platform, but if one were to look at what has happened on a policy level since, there has been a tremendous avoidance of not only anti-war efforts but almost any issue that does not function in tandem with the agendas of the Democratic National Committee.”

Some Obama supporters defend the government by citing Greenwald’s support for libertarian positions, reiterating some Washington insiders’ argument that libertarianism is akin to Confederate white supremacy, and aims to undermine the federal government whose intervention has been responsible for protecting the rights of minorities. “Confederate Libertarianism may oppose both big banks and Federal authority, but it is not doing so in the cause of social justice,” argues rootless_e in comments on an In These Times article defending PRISM.

This misguided analysis ignores the fact that it took great social movements to achieve steps toward social justice in the US, using all available political freedoms to challenge Jim Crow laws and force federal intervention in the South. The actual experience of living social movements today is that the federal state intervened to curtail these freedoms by using NSA and Homeland Security monitoring of cellphones and emails as a tool to suppress the Occupy movement, when open expression of hostility to big banks and the plutocracy threatened to gain mass support.

Political commentator Josh Marshall argues that Snowden is substituting his personal judgment for those of legislators who were democratically elected to make decisions about the US intelligence apparatus. He says: “… for all its faults, the US military is the armed force of a political community I identify with and a government I support. … I think a military force requires a substantial amount of secrecy to operate in any reasonable way.”

However, it has become clear that sections of the judiciary, acting in concert with the Supreme Court and the executive, have been secretly revising the laws that govern the US intelligence apparatus, with no input whatsoever from democratically-elected representatives. The New York Times reported that FISA judges have broadened the use of the “special needs” doctrine, intended as a narrow exception from privacy laws to allow drug testing of railway workers, to exempt NSA monitoring from the Fourth Amendment’s requirement of a warrant for searches and seizures.

And government officials have consistently lied to legislators. According to the Washington Post: “On three occasions since 2009, top Justice Department officials said the government’s ability to collect business records in terrorism cases is generally similar to that of law enforcement officials during a grand jury investigation. That comparison, some lawmakers now say, signaled to them that data was being gathered on a case-by-case basis, rather than the records of millions of Americans’ daily communications being vacuumed up in bulk.”

“[Republican congressman Jim] Sensenbrenner, who had access to multiple classified briefings as a member of the Judiciary Committee, called the practice of classified briefings a ‘rope-a-dope operation’ in which lawmakers are given information and then forbidden from speaking out about it. … Referring to public testimony from officials, Sensenbrenner added: ‘How can we do good oversight if we don’t get truthful and non-misleading testimony?’.”

Whistleblowers like Snowden and Bradley Manning are now regarded as heroes by many Americans, in sharp contrast to the fury of the Obama administration and the political establishment. The government’s emphasis on secrecy that has led it to carry out the largest number of prosecutions of leakers in history stems from its alignment with major corporations and the security apparatus.

However, its overreach in prosecuting Manning and charging Snowden under the Espionage Act has backfired and eroded its own legitimacy with the public, who are still deeply committed to government of, for, and by the people.

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Filed under Edward Snowden, Homeland Security, National Security Agency, occupy wall street, political analysis, Supreme Court, US policy, We are the 99 percent

Edward Snowden: Will NSA spying revelations end the left’s uncritical support for Obama?


The Obama administration’s decision to charge Edward Snowden with treason marks a watershed moment for Democratic supporters. There are signs of a weakening of Obama’s hold on the left: House minority leader Nancy Pelosi was booed from the floor by progressive activists at the Netroots Nation conference when she accused Snowden of breaking the law. One man shouted: “You suck!”

Far from encouraging public discussion of the balance between security and privacy, as he claims, Obama wants to suppress the leaks that informed the electorate, for the first time, about the extent of the National Security Agency’s monitoring of their phone calls and emails. The Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald has relentlessly disproved claims that there is effective legal oversight of this spying and has documented the legalistic sophistries employed to avoid statutory regulation.

Greenwald comments on alleged oversight: “There are some legal constraints governing [the NSA’s] power to examine the content of those communications, but there are no technical limits on the ability either of the agency or its analysts to do so. The fact that there is so little external oversight is what makes this sweeping, suspicion-less surveillance system so dangerous. It’s also what makes the assurances from government officials and their media allies so dubious.”

This has undercut Obama’s repeated assurance that the public has nothing to fear from being subject to extensive surveillance. In practice, the important decisions about whether or not to monitor the content of conversations are left to NSA analysts, the reports show, under blanket authorization from FISA judges. Greenwald writes: “What has been ‘harmed’ [by Snowden’s disclosures] is not the national security of the US but the ability of its political leaders to work against their own citizens and citizens around the world in the dark, with zero transparency or real accountability.”

Obama, the security agencies, and former Republican officials agree on the same talking points: mass surveillance follows the law and is overseen by the three branches of government. As well as claims for its alleged effectiveness in stopping terrorist attacks, this is simply propaganda intended to secure public support for spying. Even the New York Times was moved to comment editorially on Obama’s remark that the FISA court made internet monitoring “transparent.” “Perhaps the court is transparent to him and the intelligence agencies,” it wrote, “but it is utterly opaque to the public. All decisions by the court are top secret. The court has refused to release its interpretations of federal law, even in summary form, and without identifying details.”

Until Snowden’s revelations, most members of Congress had little idea about what was happening. Democratic Rep. Loretta Sanchez said after a classified briefing last Wednesday that she and other Congressional representatives were “astounded” by what they had learned. Lawmakers who sit on committees supposedly overseeing the security agencies are caught up in their conspiratorial mentality. Dana Milbank writes in the Washington Post that at a public hearing on NSA spying, after praising security officials, legislators “yielded the floor for an hour so the officials could make statements about how responsible and restrained they’ve been. The congressional overseers of the intelligence agencies quite clearly are captivated by — if not captives of — the people they are supposed to be supervising … it’s a mystery why more lawmakers don’t question the intelligence officials’ just-trust-us assurances.”

Obama’s transformation from upholder of civil liberties to the commander-in-chief responsible for continuing and expanding state spying indicates how the intersection of the trajectory of the militarized US state with that of the Democratic party’s political elite has strengthened its sense of technocratic superiority over the uninformed public. Obama and the security agencies consider themselves perfectly justified in misleading the American people in the name of national security – in case they object when they find out.

Daniel Ellsberg believes Edward Snowden’s revelations to be far more important than the Pentagon Papers.  He says: “Obviously, the United States is not now a police state. But given the extent of this invasion of people’s privacy, we do have the full electronic and legislative infrastructure of such a state. … what is not legitimate is to use a secrecy system to hide programs that are blatantly unconstitutional in their breadth and potential abuse. Neither the president nor Congress as a whole may by themselves revoke the fourth amendment – and that’s why what Snowden has revealed so far was secret from the American people.”

In a modern world, citizens are sucked into a web of consumer use of smartphones and the internet and the development of technologies to process information about their browsing activities. On the one hand, it has created and fulfills new needs; on the other, it provides the opportunity for digital surveillance. Undoubtedly, most Americans don’t want to think they are being spied on. But they believe they are safe if they are innocent, which is why there have not been large-scale demonstrations against the NSA’s activities. They believe they are still assured of their rights by the Constitution, and that the executive branch’s violation of the Constitution is justified by “national security.” The threat of “terrorism” has the effect of keeping citizens the passive recipients of safety provided by the state. Citizens are reduced to the role of consumers whose lives are totally monitored.

However, even some establishment commentators have their misgivings. Washington Post writer Eugene Robinson remarked: “It’s one thing if the NSA looks for patterns in the data that suggest a nascent overseas terrorist group or an imminent attack. It’s another thing altogether if the agency observes, say, patterns that suggest the birth of the next tea party or Occupy Wall Street movement.” Of course, Homeland Security agencies have already been active in suppressing Occupy Wall Street, in a politically-directed campaign which not only monitored phone calls and social media, but coordinated law enforcement and judicial agencies.

Greenwald has vociferously criticized Obama supporters who opposed Bush’s national security state but have now become the biggest proponents of NSA surveillance.  Political commentator Dana Milbank has noticed this as well: “progressive lawmakers and the liberal commentariat have been passive and acquiescent toward the secret spying programs, which would have infuriated the left had they been the work of a Republican administration. … There are a few Democrats who have upheld the party’s tradition of championing civil liberties — such as John Conyers (Mich.), who is introducing a bill with conservative Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.) to curtail the program, and Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), who with Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) introduced legislation backed by eight senators requiring more disclosure of secret court rulings.But the Conyers bill is likely to go nowhere in the House, and Reid was cool to the Merkley proposal …”

The upshot is that Obama’s grip on the left has been weakened but not broken because mass political movements have not yet emerged. Although he is losing trust from the general public, delegates to the Netroots conference tended to blame the surveillance scandal as a legacy from the Bush administration. They are clinging to wishful thinking about Obama in order to avoid recognizing his responsibility for extending and legitimating the security state.

Obama was able to head off and then derail the social movement which mobilized to sweep Bush from office. But there are other movements in America today that won’t be diverted by his political rhetoric, like the campaign among the low-paid for a living wage. Conflict between these movements and government spying has the potential to undermine and divide the cohesion of the secret surveillance apparatus itself. Julian Assange warned that the US government will lose if it tries to take on the tech-savvy people now calling its actions into question. “Edward Snowden is one of us. Bradley Manning is one of us. They are young, technically minded people from the generation that Barack Obama betrayed,” he said.

And inevitably new whistleblowers will emerge: the Constitution is a potent ideal that vitalizes the fight for rights and freedoms.

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Filed under Edward Snowden, Homeland Security, low-waged, National Security Agency, Obama, occupy wall street, political analysis, We are the 99 percent

Obama called to pay his political debts by the low-waged


Obama made a major speech at the National Defense University last Thursday, in which he stated that the United States cannot continue waging an endless global war on terror, and called on Congress to allow Guantanamo to be closed. “A perpetual war – through drones or special forces or troop deployments – will prove self-defeating and alter our country in troubling ways,” he said.

Although the speech called for a return to American values and the rule of law, appearing to make concessions to liberal critics, Obama’s rhetoric repeated Bush’s claim of a just war of self-defense, and appeared to broaden the scope of drone strikes. It contained no commitment to any practical limits on executive power to target individuals for extra-judicial killing.

Glenn Greenwald explains in detail how the purpose of the speech “was to comfort progressives who are growing progressively more uncomfortable with his extreme secrecy, wars on press freedom, seemingly endless militarism and the like … to see Barack Obama as they have always wanted to see him, his policies notwithstanding: as a deeply thoughtful, moral, complex leader who is doing his level best, despite often insurmountable obstacles …”

Obama wants to retain the support of the liberal left while continuing the militarization of the state he inherited from Bush. Essentially, he was arguing for the rationalization of the legacy of Bush’s war on terror, by closing Guantanamo and bringing the detainees into the US justice system.

Brookings Institution fellow Benjamin Wittes commented: “It was an effort to align himself as publicly as possible with the critics of the positions his administration is taking without undermining his administration’s operational flexibility. To put it crassly, the president sought to rebuke his own administration for taking the positions it has — but also to make sure that it could continue to do so.”

Whatever his original intentions, he has accepted and articulated the ideology of the security state. Washington Post correspondent Greg Sargent noted that “Obama defined his own role — that of commander in chief — as one that requires him to ultimately compromise core values and principles if he deems it necessary to maintain security. … ‘These decisions must be made, given my responsibility to protect the American people,’ he said — implicitly prioritizing security in the end above all as necessary to his role.”

Significantly, Obama was repeatedly challenged from the floor by CodePink activist Medea Benjamin, who called on him to use his presidential power to close Guantanamo immediately. She was eventually removed by security personnel while shouting several further questions, including: “Will you apologize to the thousands of Muslims that you have killed? You are commander-in-chief. You can close Guantanamo today! You can release those 86 prisoners.” Clearly discomfited, Obama was applauded by a section of the audience when he said: “The voice of that woman is worth paying attention to” (although he did nothing to prevent her being removed).

Benjamin told Democracy Now: “What you didn’t see [on the event’s video] is what was happening behind the scenes, of the Secret Service, the FBI, the people from the base coming over and saying, ‘You must come with us immediately, or you’ll be under arrest,’ and trying to grab me. And I was saying, ‘Don’t touch me. I’ll scream. You don’t want to make a scene in front of the president. You will regret this if you do it.’ And they were really confused about what to do.”

Their confusion reflected Obama’s reaction to being publicly challenged from the liberal left.  Increasingly, his failure to use his presidential power on behalf of the Democratic party’s traditional constituency is coming under fire from his frustrated supporters and he risks more vocal public opposition from the constituency that got him elected.

In the legislative branch, the government is hamstrung by the tea-party dominated Congress. But that doesn’t stop Obama from exercising executive privilege in favor of military control of global resources and enforcing government secrecy by prosecuting whistle-blowers and hackers. He uses the powers of his office to shield corporations and law enforcement, but appears paralyzed when it comes to altering the trajectory of the security state or assisting the struggles of the 99 percent.

The Washington Post recently pointed out: “Obama has been willing to push the bounds of executive power when it comes to making life-and-death decisions about drone strikes on suspected terrorists or instituting new greenhouse gas emission standards for cars. But at other times he has been skittish. When immigration activists first urged him to halt deportations of many illegal immigrants, for instance, Obama said he didn’t have the authority to do so. He eventually gave in after months of public protest and private pressure from immigrant and Hispanic advocates … Obama has forced changes in state-level education policy in a way past presidents have not. His Race to the Top program awarded billions of dollars in federal grants to select states that agreed to seek reforms based on administration standards.”

The marked contrast between Obama’s rhetoric and what he is prepared to use executive power for is straining his supporters’ credibility. After Thursday’s speech, Juan Cole commented: “He will continue to target journalists for intrusive surveillance until, he said, Congress passes a shield law (why can’t he just issue an executive order that journalists are not to be targeted)? … Obama could unilaterally put enormous pressure on Israel to change its policy of stealing Palestinian land and resources simply by declining to use his veto at the UN …”

Now the movement of the low-waged for a $15 minimum wage and an end to wage theft has intensified and is also making demands on the president they elected. Hundreds of non-union workers employed at the Smithsonian museums, the Old Post Office and Ronald Reagan buildings and Union Station in Washington, DC, went on strike Tuesday to draw attention to their low pay, demanding that Obama take executive action to improve labor standards for workers who are employed by private companies to do jobs backed by public spending.

The Congressional Progressive Caucus had earlier pledged support for their campaign, after hearing that the federal government indirectly employs nearly 2 million “low-wage” workers, defined as those making less than $12 an hour or $24,000 a year. A study by the labor-funded think tank Demos concluded that the federal government employs more low-wage workers than Walmart and McDonalds combined.

A minimum wage is set by the Service Contract Act for workers employed by government contractors in certain low-wage positions, such as janitors, food service workers and security guards. But those who work in concession spaces leased in federal buildings or museums are not covered. At the hearing, advocates called on President Obama to issue an executive order raising the act’s minimums and expanding it to cover more workers.

However, In These Times reports DC Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton told workers at the hearing that Obama could change the system immediately by adjusting the point system used to award federal contracts, giving extra points to companies that pay better wages.

A convergence of Obama’s liberal critics and the movement of the low-waged, calling on him to honor his political debts, signifies that he cannot for long maintain his balancing act between the plutocracy for whom he acts and his social support. That means it will be harder for him to put a liberal face on the cuts in entitlements he proposes in order to strike a “grand bargain” with Republicans, creating a political space for concerted opposition to the plan from within the Democratic party itself; this in turn will legitimize other movements of resistance.

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Filed under African Americans, health care, low-waged, Obama, political analysis, poverty, US policy, Walmart, We are the 99 percent

Forget the Faustian Cliff Deal: Fight for a Living Wage


The last-minute deal to end the “fiscal cliff” settles very little. Congressional Republicans agreed to a small increase in taxes on individuals making more than $400k, while Democrats were able to extend the protections of the social safety net, like unemployment benefits, for two more months. Come February, the American electorate will have to go through another round of this perverse game of chicken with the “debt ceiling” debate.

According to Talking Points Memo, “a key provision of the fiscal cliff deal only buys down the sequester for two months, meaning deep cuts to domestic and defense spending will take effect at the end of February, right when the debt limit will have to be increased.”

It’s easy to see that the deal doesn’t defuse the Republican strategy of preventing the normal functioning of government in order to exert leverage on state policy. Another battle is looming in which Republicans will have a stronger hand politically. Paul Krugman’s take is that Obama’s “evident desire to have a deal before hitting the essentially innocuous fiscal cliff bodes very badly for the confrontation looming in a few weeks over the debt ceiling.”

Had we gone over the cliff, taxes would have been restored to Clinton-era levels. But why should there be any popular objection to restoring taxes to the level everybody was paying in the 1990s? The reason is that legislators have masked the real decline in wages over the last 10 years by cutting taxes, and rising prices have squeezed the middle class to the point that a small tax increase would have a major effect on their ability to make ends meet.

Michael Hudson points out the deception behind the political rhetoric over taxes: “The emerging financial oligarchy seeks to shift taxes off banks and their major customers (real estate, natural resources and monopolies) onto labor. Given the need to win voter acquiescence, this aim is best achieved by rolling back everyone’s taxes. The easiest way to do this is to shrink government spending, headed by Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. Yet these are the programs that enjoy the strongest voter support. This fact has inspired what may be called the Big Lie of our epoch: the pretense that governments can only create money to pay the financial sector, and that the beneficiaries of social programs should be entirely responsible for paying for Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, not the wealthy. … The raison d’être for taxing the 99% for Social Security and Medicare is simply to avoid taxing wealth, by falling on low wage income at a much higher rate than that of the wealthy.”

Wages have fallen as capital has creamed off a greater proportion of the national income at labor’s expense.  The key to employers’ ability to hold down wages is the decline of unions. They were able to organize effectively when the mass of Americans worked in factory jobs while the economy was expanding after World War 2. But unions have faced a war of attrition over the last 30 years as structural changes in the economy were accompanied by corporate-friendly legislative restrictions on their bargaining strength. These were political decisions that were aimed at destroying the gains of the New Deal.

Harold Meyerson notes in the Washington Post “how central the collapse of collective bargaining is to American workers’ inability to win themselves a raise. Yes, globalizing and mechanizing jobs has cut into the livelihoods of millions of U.S. workers, but that is far from the whole story. Roughly 100 million of the nation’s 143 million employed workers have jobs that can’t be shipped abroad, that aren’t in competition with steel workers in Sao Paolo or iPod assemblers in Shenzhen. Sales clerks, waiters, librarians and carpenters all utilize technology in their jobs, but not to the point that they’ve become dispensable. Yet while they can’t be dispensed with, neither can they bargain for a raise.”

Outsourcing undermined the unions’ base and this, while facilitated by new technology, resulted from decisions of the US government to open up the domestic economy to world trade. The consequence was a withdrawal of capital from direct manufacturing in the US in favor of the higher-profit areas of marketing and distribution. As manufacturing declined, corporations became increasingly financialized, facilitating the growth of monopolies.

Steve Fraser spells it out in TomDispatch: “Rates of U.S. investment in new plants, technology, and research and development began declining during the 1970s, a fall-off that only accelerated in the gilded 1980s.  Manufacturing, which accounted for nearly 30% of the economy after the Second World War, had dropped to just over 10% by 2011. … The ascendancy of high finance didn’t just replace an industrial heartland in the process of being gutted; it initiated that gutting and then lived off it, particularly during its formative decades.  The FIRE sector, that is, not only supplanted industry, but grew at its expense – and at the expense of the high wages it used to pay and the capital that used to flow into it.”

As well as being weakened by structural changes in the economy, unions have faced an ideological assault. As more and more workers found themselves on temporary assignment, without contracts or benefits, their resentment was leveraged electorally against organized labor by billionaire-funded campaigns aimed at dividing unionized employees from other workers.

Walmart is a model for this turn to absolute exploitation of workers. The company, according to In These Times writer David Moberg, “heavily influences standards for vast swaths of the American economy, from retail to logistics to manufacturing. Over the past few decades, Walmart’s competitive power—a combination of size, technology and cut-throat personnel policies—has played a role in dramatically reducing American retail workers’ average income and unionization level (from 8.6 percent in 1983 to 4.9 percent in 2011).” Walmart now pays less than what a worker needs to reproduce his or her labor-power, offloading the costs of healthcare, housing etc. onto the rest of society. It is a strategy that results in destroying a generation of workers – a form of destruction of capital – devaluing labor.

Low wages and opposition to unions are more than just a means of gaining market share. They are also a way of establishing power over the workforce. Labor historian Nelson Lichtenstein explains: “Wal-Mart’s hostility to a better-paid and healthier workforce is as much an issue of power as it is a question of prices and profits. High wages reduce turnover and awaken employee expectations, transforming the internal culture of the workplace. Decent wages lead to real career and the expectation of fair treatment over a lifetime of employment. That in turn might well lead to demands for a steady work shift, an equitable chance at promotion, retirement pay, and even the opportunity to make one’s voice heard in a collective fashion.” [Nelson Lichtenstein, The Retail Revolution, New York 2009:250]

In 2012, union struggles for a living wage challenged not only the business strategy of companies like Walmart, but also the political strategy of the plutocracy to weaken and destroy unions and dump responsibility for social welfare onto the individual. Moberg notes: “OUR Walmart joins a host of smaller campaigns by workers in other precarious and penurious industries, like logistics, fast food and domestic work. With enough density of membership, service-sector unions can raise standards in local, and ultimately national, markets. For example, in San Francisco and New York, where 90 percent of hotel housekeepers are unionized, average hotel housekeeper wages are $19 to $26 an hour, compared to a national average of $10.10.”

Across the country, low-waged workers in various industries are empowering themselves by fighting back. The Occupy movement’s achievement to raise consciousness of inequality, new approaches to union organizing, and outpourings of solidarity such as the support for victims of Hurricane Sandy, point the way forward for 2013.

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Filed under austerity measures, debt limit impasse, Medicare, Obama, occupy wall street, OUR Walmart, political analysis, Walmart, We are the 99 percent