How long will Europeans accept austerity?

Europe is not ready to revolt. Or, possibly more accurately, given the 43 percent participation rate, Europeans simply see the European Parliament as irrelevant. Given the little power it has, and the anti-democratic structure of European Union institutions, many saw the election as simply as an opportunity to cast a protest vote.

Yet despite the hand-wringing over the advance of far Right parties (and I am not suggesting that is not worrisome), Europeans continued the general pattern of voters in the global North of alternating between their mainstream parties. The two main blocs, the E.U.’s center-right and center-left groupings, comprising almost all of the major parties, combined for almost 54 percent of the vote, and if we throw in the more than eight percent won by the third-place liberal grouping (for North American readers, European liberals are roughly equivalent to libertarians), the parties of austerity won a solid majority.

The combined total is about ten percentage points less than than won by the three largest groupings in the previous election in 2009, but still a comfortable majority.

Strasbourg, France

Strasbourg, France

The Left made some advances, too, albeit falling short of some expectations.

The fourth-place Green alliance and sixth-place European United Left combined for 13 percent of the vote, considerably more than far Right parties garnered, despite the strong showings of the United Kingdom Independence Party, France’s National Front and the Danish People’s Party. In Greece, Syriza (the Coalition of the Radical Left) came in first place. In Spain the United Left and Podemos — a four-month-old party organized by the “Indignados,” Spain’s Occupy movement — combined for 18 percent of the vote, and Left parties in Portugal did about as well.

Keeping the devil you know

Nonetheless, those who did not bother to vote formed a majority of the E.U. electorate. And those who did vote voted for more of the same, even if in most countries the one major party was swapped for the other major party. More of the same surely isn’t appealing, as the E.U. unemployment rate is 11.8 percent, barely off the 12 percent peak of March 2013. Inequality, although less severe than in the United States, has been rising for three decades. Moreover, the three largest blocs, plus a small right-wing bloc that includes Britain’s Conservative Party, are committed to the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, a “free trade” agreement being negotiated in secret between the U.S. and the E.U. with the warm approval of multi-national corporations on both sides of the Atlantic.

The lack of democracy in E.U. institutions is not a happenstance; the intention of them is imposition of a U.S.-style régime. There was and is no vote on the mandatory budget constraints national governments must abide by nor the policies of the European Central Bank. When loans are made to Greece by E.U. institutions, the money does not go to Greeks, it passes right through the Greek government and into the hands of French and German banks.

Thus it is no surprise to hear that of E.U. negotiators’ 127 closed meetings concerning the Transatlantic Partnership talks, at least 119 were with large corporations and their lobbyists, information known only because of investigatory work done by a public-interest group, Corporate Europe Observatory.

European food safety and privacy laws are squarely in the crosshairs of U.S.-based multinational corporations. European capitalists are one with their U.S. counterparts that trade rules should be “harmonized” — which means “harmonized” with the lowest standards. This is only one aspect of the larger project of neoliberal austerity to which Europe’s center-left parties are as committed as its center-right parties, as the French voters who put François Hollande into office have found. In Germany it was none other than the Social Democratic Party, through its “Agenda 2010” legislation, that instituted austerity there. The so-called German “miracle” rests on a decade of wage cuts for German workers.

You can only do so much in a voting booth

The large number of abstentions and decreased vote totals for major parties are symptomatic of Europeans becoming fed up with economic stagnation, high unemployment and the relentless austerity being imposed on them by unaccountable, undemocratic supranational institutions. But only in a handful of countries, where austerity has pushed down the hardest, have sizable opposition movements coalesced.

Those voters who could be bothered to vote for the European Parliament are not yet exhausted with their political and economic systems, mostly remaining content to alternate between major parties. Although the vote totals for the extreme Right were, overall, not as dramatic as press reports have portrayed them, nonetheless the strong increase in those votes is cause for concern, especially as Britain’s Conservative leadership increasingly appears inclined to adopt UKIP talking points and France’s Union for a Popular Movement does the same with National Front talking points.

When there is not an active Left to provide an alternative to institutional decay, the Right will fill the vacuum with scapegoating, programs to weaken anything that counters corporate power, paeans for a return to a mythological past, and the potential for nationalistic violence, a threshold already trampled by Greece’s Golden Dawn. But change in capitalist systems does not derive from parliamentary maneuvers, it comes from organized, militant popular movements.

We do not yet live in dictatorships; there remain cracks, seams and fissures in political systems that enable reforms. These can be significant reforms such as those won in the 1960s and, in the United States, in the 1930s. But those democratic spaces are closing — the ever more powerful spying apparatuses, militarized police, top-down rules imposed through “free trade” agreements and subsidies lavished on the already wealthy do not fall out of the sky. Moreover, reforms can and are taken back and are better seen as means to larger goals, not ends in themselves.

An intensified race to the bottom is all that is on offer by the governments and institutions of the world’s mature capitalist countries. There is no tweak of policy, nor exchange of one corporate party for another corporate party, that can solve the structural crisis of the global economic system. The European Parliament elections are interesting as a barometer of public opinion, but not for much else. An increasing number of people (although hardly a decisive number as yet) are signaling discontent but also that while they are beginning to decide what they don’t want, what they do want is much more inchoate. Nature abhors a vacuum.

A tale of two elections: Venezuelan accountability and U.S. irregularities

There were two widely watched national elections earlier this month. In one, a popular incumbent won for the fifth time in a voting system called “the best in the world” by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter. The other election featured widespread attempts at voter suppression with many localities using computer systems with no paper backup that do not confirm the results.

The incumbent in the first example is nonetheless routinely referred to the corporate media as a “dictator” while the second country is portrayed by the same corporate media as “the world’s greatest democracy” that has the right to dictate to other countries.

The first example, as you have by now surmised, is Hugo Chávez of Venezuela. Just for the record, here are the results of his presidential contests:

  • December 1998: Elected president with 56.2 percent of the vote.
  • July 2000: Re-elected president with 59.8 percent of the vote under a new constitution.
  • August 2004: Retained presidency by defeating a recall referendum with 59.3 percent of the vote.
  • December 2009: Re-elected president with 62.9 percent of the vote.
  • November 2012: Re-elected president with 55 percent of the vote (81 percent of those eligible voted).

If we were to count elections to the parliament, state and local elections, and various referendums, President Chávez and his United Socialist Party of Venezuela have won 15 of 16 elections since 1998. The lone exception was a ballot on constitutional changes that lost by two percentage points – and his reaction was simply to accept the results. Accepting a narrow defeat and allowing an opposition that bitterly hates you and everything you stand for to place a recall referendum on the ballot — it would seem that President Chávez needs to work much harder to become a “dictator.”

All parties confirm voting process in Venezuela

What most stands out in Venezuelan elections is the transparency of the electronic voting system. Voters in Venezuela make their selections on computers in which party and independent observers participated in 16 pre-election audits, according to a report by the Carter Center. The center’s report further states:

“One of the key aspects of the security control mechanisms involves the construction of an encryption key — a string of characters — created by contributions from the opposition, government, and [National Electoral Council], which is placed on all the machines once the software source-code has been reviewed by all the party experts. The software on the machines cannot then be tampered with unless all three parties join together to “open” the machines and change the software. In addition, each voting system machine has its own individual digital signature that detects if there is any modification to the machine. If the voting count is somehow tampered with despite these security mechanisms, it should be detectable … because of the various manual verification mechanisms.” [page 5]

As an added precaution, each voter has a fingerprint on file, with a voter having to provide a fingerprint to avoid anyone attempting to vote more than once, and this system is also encrypted to guarantee secrecy. Finally, there measures to ensure accuracy in the vote count, including printouts of all votes and an automatic audit. The Carter Center reports:

“The voting process permits voters to verify their ballots through a paper receipt generated by the voting machine. A comparison of a count of the paper receipts and the electronic tally at the end of the voting day with the presence of voters, political party witnesses, domestic observers, and the general public is conducted in a large sample of approximately 53 percent of the voting tables, selected at random. Additionally, party witnesses receive a printout of the electronic tally from every machine. The [National Electoral Council] gives the party a CD with the results of each machine and publishes them on the website so that all of these results can be compared. The human element is therefore still important.” [page 7]

The opposition coalition that supported President Chávez’s main opponent, Henrique Capriles, approved the voting lists and electoral process ahead of the vote; the opposition campaign therefore had no basis to contest the results afterward and indeed conceded soon after the polls closed. It took only “minutes” for the vote to be announced, based on 90 percent of the vote total, according to a commentary by a Venezuelan journalist writing for the business publication Forbes magazine.

One would not expect to see an article praising Hugo Chávez’s government in a publication like Forbes, which proudly refers to itself as a “capitalist tool.” So all the more noteworthy is this commentary by Venezuelan journalist Eugenio Martinez:

“[I]t may be time for the greatest democracy in the world to take a lesson from Venezuela on how to develop and administer an efficient electronic voting system spanning across all stages of the electoral process.”

Controversy in U.S. presidential elections

We can contrast that with the U.S. election, in which it took days for many local races to be known; the Florida vote for president wasn’t decided until the following weekend. A week after the election, the winners of six congressional races could not be determined.

U.S. elections are rarely without controversy, and the last four presidential elections have featured significant attempts to suppress the vote, controversies concerning unverifiable voting machines, hours-long lines at polling places sometimes due to manipulations in the distribution of voting machines and even (in 2000) a sacking of an election office to prevent a re-count from being conducted.

That 2000 sacking occurred in Miami when a mob organized by Republican Party operatives stormed the election office, physically preventing the vote count from continuing in an area expected to vote for Al Gore, the Democratic Party presidential candidate. The 2004 election saw the first widespread use of electronic voting machines. And in 2012, many states with Republican governments passed laws aimed at keeping groups of people, particularly African-Americans, from being able to vote, and on election day there were widespread reports of shortages of machines in areas expected to vote heavily for Democrats, leading to long lines while nearby areas expected to vote Republican had no lines at all. Similar problems also occurred in 2004 and 2008.

In contrast to Venezuelan voting machines which can be checked, many U.S. voting machines are not equipped with any way to confirm the results — and the machines use private, proprietary software belonging to the manufacturers of the machines that is not accessible to election officials, nor do they provide printouts for confirmation. The 2004 presidential election was noteworthy for the extraordinary 5.5 percentage-points disparity between exit polls and the announced results.

In the U.S., the presidential vote is actually 51 separate votes because each state plus the District of Columbia distill their individual totals into the electoral college. Statistically, it would not be unexpected that two might report a result that is a small amount outside the polls’ margin of error, with the divergences evenly distributed. In 2004, seven states reported results that were so far beyond the margin of error that the odds of any one happening are less than one percent, according to a study by the group US Count Votes. The odds of seven outliers (all in one direction, for George W. Bush) to such an extent is one in ten million!

The study then broke down discrepancies between exit polling and official results, and found that in jurisdictions in which paper ballots were used, the aggregate discrepancy was within the margin of error (and thus statistically unremarkable), while the aggregate discrepancy for electronic machines was far outside the margin of error, sufficiently so to conclude that an impartial investigation be conducted (which was not done).

A separate watchdog group, Election Defense Alliance, said of these unexplained discrepancies and other problems following the 2008 election:

“The central process of our elections is the counting of our votes. Yet we now have electronic machines that count our votes out of view [of U.S.] citizens — in other words, in secret. … In the presence of large exit polls discrepancies, there is no way to know whether or not extensive fraud has been committed without an extensive investigation, including access to the voting machines. After three consecutive national elections manifesting large exit poll discrepancies well beyond the margin of error, and all in the same direction, it is way past time that we find a way as a nation to ensure that our elections are conducted fairly.”

The three largest manufacturers of voting machines in the U.S. at that time each had strong connections to the Republican Party, and machines of each were involved in problems with the 2004 vote, according to exhaustive accounts chronicled in the book Fooled Again by Mark Crispin Miller.

The 2012 presidential vote aligned very closely with polling; perhaps sufficient safeguards have begun to be implemented. But the shortage of machines in areas with heavy concentrations of Democratic voters in several Republican-controlled states demonstrates that clean elections remain an aspirational goal. The attempted voter suppression may have backfired, as most of the voting-suppression laws were overturned by courts and news reports were full of African-Americans and others determined to vote to defy those who didn’t want them to do so.

Enthusiasm in Venezuela a contrast to U.S. voters

The sanctity of the vote itself aside, the U.S. election was mostly a sterile affair of voting against the other candidate; neither Barack Obama nor Mitt Romney could generate much excitement. Certainly there were millions of people in Venezuela motivated by opposition to Hugo Chávez, but there were many more who voted for the incumbent enthusiastically. A reporter writing before the election for the online news site Venezuelanalysis wrote:

“Talking to people at the Merida rally, I was impressed by the depth of political consciousness and variety of opinions among the crowd as to why they supported Chavez’s re-election. For some, Latin American integration was the reason, for others, free healthcare. For many, their main reason for supporting Chavez, as one middle-aged couple put it to me, was that ‘he’s the president who has most given power to the people’ while another man told me, ‘he’s the president who has awoken the people of Venezuela and fellow peoples.’ Another young woman told me her reason was quite simply ‘I love him.’ …

Indeed, the young woman who told me that ‘love’ was the reason she voted for Chavez wasn’t being tricked by some populist image or last minute spending burst. She came from a poor family which used to live in a shanty house near where the Merida rally took place. Now she is about to graduate as a doctor in the government’s integral community medicine program, and would have been excluded from the Venezuela’s traditionally elite medical system. Her shanty house had also been transformed into a dignified home through the community driven ‘homes for shanties’ program, part of the government’s mass housing construction mission. It’s transformations like these that have earned Chavez such strong support, as much as it pains the international media to say so. Indeed, according to corporate media sources, gaining the support of the popular majority through directing government policy toward their needs seems to be a bad thing for ‘democracy.’ ”

President Chávez is often accused in the corporate media, by no means only in the United States where the most vigorous opposition to the Bolivarian Revolution originates, of “buying” votes. Yet the presidential campaigns of President Obama and former Governor Romney spent approximately US$2 billion while an additional $1.7 billion was spent on congressional races, according to The Center for Responsive Politics. A handful of billionaires, most notably but not limited to oil barons David and Charles Koch and casino magnate Sheldon Adelson accounted for tens, perhaps hundreds, of millions of dollars each thanks to the a string of decisions in the U.S. Supreme Court that equate money with speech, capped by the Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission decision.

How does that staggering amount of money not constitute buying votes and offices?

Uneven progress for Bolivarian Revolution

The point here isn’t that Venezuela is perfect or a paradise — it is neither. But President Chávez’s Bolivarian Revolution has repeatedly received Venezuelans’ approval to continue progress toward what he calls “21st century socialism.”

That process is aimed explicitly at putting an end to the neoliberalism that has imposed so much misery and putting power into the hands of local communities so that people can make the decisions that affect them. Doing so is bitterly opposed by the former rulers of Venezuela, who were the leading backers of opposition candidate Henrique Capriles; by industrialists and financiers throughout the advanced capitalist countries; and by the numerically minuscule capitalist elites of regional countries.

The Bolivarian Revolution is a sometimes chaotic process that does not advance in a straight line; aspects of its are opposed by some leaders inside President Chávez’s government. Although nationalization of the state oil company receives most of the attention, the bedrock of the revolution are the formations of small cooperatives in a variety of industries; the creation of “social production companies” in which existing enterprises were to create co-management structures and create chains of supply with cooperatives; shuttered enterprises that are expropriated by the workers who re-start production; and experiments in “co-management” with workers’ participation conducted in large state-owned resource enterprises.

The last of these initiatives has suffered setbacks for a variety of reasons, including resistance from existing managements. A need for modernization and resistance from unions has also contributed to setbacks in creating workers’ co-management of the large state-owned resource enterprises. Considerable differences of opinion on the appropriate forms of management and ownership of enterprises continues not only among working people but among officials in the government.

Dario Azzellini, in a chapter covering Venezuela in the book Ours to Master and to Own (the source for the preceding two paragraphs), summarizes the progress of the Bolivarian Revolution:

“The transformation and democratization of the economy has proved the most difficult. The administration of most companies is neither under workers’ nor community control. Surrounded by a capitalist system and logic, it has been extremely challenging to establish collective production processes. Questions over the distribution of work and the resulting gains are particularly conflictive. However, where workers have succeeded in gaining control of their workplace, it can be observed that they have usually developed ties with the surrounding communities, abolished hierarchical structures, made themselves accountable to the workers’ assembly, and in most cases introduced equal salaries and increased the number of employed workers.” [page 397]

Professor Azzellini concludes that “The search for an alternative economy is thus firmly on the agenda.” We need not look any further to discover the solution to the puzzle of Venezuela being falsely painted as a “dictatorship” when it has elections much more transparent and fair than those of the United States.

Two-party lesser evilism rooted in winner-take-all system

It would be nice to vote for somebody we like as opposed to the “lesser evil.” Two-party systems are not to be found in any law, yet variations of them are prevalent among capitalist countries.

Countries as disparate as Britain, France, Germany and Spain have two dominant national parties, although nowhere is such a system as entrenched as in the United States, where there is not the limited space for small parties found elsewhere. The reason for such a constricted choice in the U.S. does not lie in its constitution (which makes no mention of parties), nor even in the iron-gripped dominance of its large corporations (although the Republican/Democratic split tends to replicate the industrialist/financier rivalry among capitalists).

Political parties don’t exist in a vacuum. They can exist only in a political system, the two basic types of which are legislatures or parliaments based on single-seat districts and those based on proportional representation. What sort of party system a given country has is more dependent on what kind of representative body it has than on any other factor.

A legislature based on districts each with one representative is a closed system. (This includes the U.S. Senate, which, because of its staggered terms, is effectively a single-seat system in which the district is an entire state.)

When there are two entrenched parties contesting for a single seat, there is no space for a third party to emerge. The two parties are necessarily unwieldy coalitions; they must be so because they will have to contain room for people and ideas across long portions of the political spectrum. (That does not mean that all factions’ desires are incorporated into the party’s positions or are even heard).

A faction of one of these two parties might gain the upper hand at one time, especially if it is linked with an ideology promoted by an energetic bloc of capitalists, but in this instance the party will become too narrow and rigid. The other major party will inevitably benefit and eventually the factionalized party will have to loosen the grip of its dominant faction and revert to becoming a coalition if it intends to compete successfully nationally in the future. This natural elasticity provides an additional stability to a two-party system.

Campaigns for elections in single-seat districts can be conducted on larger national issues or on the basis of an important local issue, but the tendency is for these elections to become contests between personalities. If the personality representing the other party is objectionable, or the other party is objectionable, then voting is reduced to the “lesser of two evils.”

Voting for a party or an individual becomes a sterile exercise in ensuring the other side doesn’t win. From the point of view of the candidates and parties, the safest strategy is one of peeling away voters from the only other viable candidate, thereby encouraging platforms to be close to that of the other viable candidate, promoting a tendency to lessen differences between the two dominant parties.

With little to distinguish the two parties, the importance of personality becomes more important, further blurring political ideas, and yet third choices are excluded because of the factors that continue to compel a vote for one of the two major-party candidates. In turn, such a system sends people to representative bodies on the basis of their personalities, encouraging those personalities to grandstand and act in an egocentric manner once they are seated.

These personalities are dependent on corporate money to get into and remain in office, and the parties they are linked to are equally dependent — the views of those with the most money are going to be heard more than other views. Corporations are the dominant institutions in advanced capitalist countries, and the accumulated wealth and power of those who lead and profit from them are able to disseminate their preferred ideologies through their influence over society’s other institutions, including educational, military and religious.

Leaders from corporate and other institutions, to be viable candidates, will seek office through one of the two dominant parties, thereby transmitting corporate ideology back into them, while also bolstering them by linking their personal “credibility” to the parties.

Compounding those tendencies, if the district boundaries can be redrawn any which way periodically, the two parties can work together so that both have “safe” seats. Elections cease to be competitive, and if you live in a district in which voters who consistently favor the other party are the majority, you are out of luck.

The two parties compete fiercely to win elections — they represent different groupings within the capitalist class who have a great deal of money at stake. This is a closed competition, however: They act as a cartel to keep corporate money rolling in and other parties out.

Although real choice is blocked, the illusion of competition is maintained and there is enough room to allow safety valves to work when needed, such as the removal from office of an unpopular office-holder. All this makes for a remarkably stable system: One U.S. government has fallen in 220 years.

More democratic is a parliamentary system, which in almost all cases comes with some form of proportional representation. The two notable exceptions are Canada and Britain, where members of parliament are elected from single-seat districts. Both have a third national party that consistently wins seats, but nonetheless usually produce single-party governments. This system retains some of the drawbacks of a single-seat congressional system, with the additional weakness that governments in both countries often take office with less than a majority of the vote.

One common parliamentary system is a combination of some seats representing districts and some seats being elected on a proportional basis from a list either on a national basis or from large political subdivisions. This allows voters to vote for a specific candidate and for a party at the same time. There is more scope for smaller parties here, and this type of system generally features several viable parties, depending on what threshold is set for the proportional-representation seats.

There can be two dominant parties in this type of system — Germany is an example — but the major parties often must govern with a smaller party in a coalition or even in a clumsy coalition with each other (thus, Germany’s tendency to produce periodic “grand coalition” governments). Parties in a coalition government will run on separate platforms and maintain separate identities — the next coalition might feature a different lineup.

Some countries fill all parliamentary seats on the basis of proportional representation. Each party supplies a list of candidates equal to the number of available seats; the top 20 names on the list from a party that wins 20 seats gain entry. This is a system that allows minorities to be represented — if a party wins 20 percent of the vote, it earns 20 percent of the seats.

If the cutoff limit is set too high (as is the case in Turkey, where ten percent is needed), then smaller parties find it difficult to win seats and voters are incentivized to vote for a major party — thus even in this system it is possible for only two or three parties to win all seats and a party that wins less than 50 percent of the vote can nonetheless earn a majority of seats because the seats are proportioned among only the two or three parties whose vote totals are above the cutoff.

A low cutoff better represents the spectrum of opinion in a country and allows more parties to be seated. Governments of coalitions are the likely result of such a system, which encourages negotiation and compromise. A party needs to earn five percent of the vote in many of these systems, but cutoffs are set as low as two percent.

Such a system in itself doesn’t guarantee full participation by everybody; a national, ethnic or religious majority, even if that majority routinely elects several parties into parliament, can exclude a minority, as happens in, for example, Israel. The most open legislative system must be augmented by a constitution with enforceable guarantees for all.

Still another variant on parliamentary representation are multiple-seat districts in which districts are drawn large. Voters cast ballots for as many candidates as there are seats — a minority group in a district should be able to elect at least one of their choice to a seat. This is a system that also has room for multiple parties, and with several viable parties in the running, votes are likely to be distributed in a way that no single party can win all seats in a given district. Ireland uses such a system.

One way to ensure that multiple parties will be seated might be to limit the number of candidates any party can run to a number lower than the total number of seats — more than one party is then guaranteed to win representation.

All the systems above are based on the traditional concept of one vote for one seat. But there is no need to limit ourselves to tradition. There are voting systems that enable the casting of multiple votes. One of these is “cumulative voting.” This is a system in which each voter casts as many votes as there are seats on a legislative body. A voter can vote for as many candidates, or cast all her votes for a single candidate, as she wishes. If the voter has five votes, he can cast all five votes for a preferred candidate, or split them among as many as five candidates if he so wishes. This is a system that enables a minority to earn representation if that minority — racial, ethnic, political or some other basis — votes cohesively.

Cumulative-voting proponents argue that this method encourages the creation of coalitions, encourages attention to issues because community groups can organize around issues and elect candidates that represent those interests, and encourages high turnouts. This is a complicated system, and probably appropriate only on the local level. A few U.S. cities do use this system.

Another alternative voting system is instant runoff. Here, voters cast a ballot by voting for as many candidates as they wish, ranking each candidate. First votes are tabulated and if there is a candidate who earns a majority of votes, the winner is seated. If not, the candidate with the fewest first votes is eliminated, and the second votes on ballots that voted for the eliminated candidate are now added to the first votes on the other ballots. If there is still not a winner, there are more rounds, each time with the lowest vote-getter eliminated, until a candidate has a majority. This system works the same way for multiple-seat elections.

The advantage of this system is that it encourages voters to cast ballots for the candidate they truly support, as their first choice, without the need to vote only for the “lesser evil.” A voter could still choose the “lesser evil” as the second choice to block the worst choice from winning. It also ensures that there is some level of majority support for the winning candidate rather than a simple plurality. Australia uses such a system, but with an added unnecessary, undemocratic requirement mandating that all candidates be ranked (otherwise the ballot is voided). Instant runoff can be democratic only with full freedom of choice.

That any representative system truly reflect the diversity of a society in all possible ways is the important thing, and that what can be accomplished at local levels or through direct democracy be decided there.

No matter what system is used, however, a true political democracy can only exist when there is economic democracy and a measure of equality — any economic system in which a handful dominate through their immense wealth will be corrupt and undemocratic. Otherwise, we are ultimately tinkering around the edges.

Solo geniuses who scorn the society that provides the shoulders they sit on

By Pete Dolack

The lone inventor is an archetype of long standing. The image remains, but, particularly in the United States, the image of the inventor has morphed from Thomas Edison and his cluttered laboratory to the hard-charging entrepreneur who single-handedly builds businesses.

The change in imagery mirrors the emphasis on wealth in U.S. popular culture, and the tendency to either defer to or scorn people based on perceptions of their wealth. Such imagery also serves as a particularly enticing carrot to dangle in front of those who aren’t millionaires, allowing them to entertain ideas that, if only they work hard enough, they too can accumulate fortunes.

Nobody creates a product, builds a company or makes a scientific discovery all on their own. There are engineers who design the product’s physical form, assembly-line workers who assemble the product and advertising agencies who create the demand for the product. For scientific discoveries, there are public investments in equipment or laboratory facilities, and scientific discoveries are often the basis for new products. For any of these, there are schools and universities, often paid for with public money, that provided the education that developed the skills of the creator or discoverer.

Then there is the social structure that enabled the millionaire to become wealthy through an invention or the creation of a popular product or through rising to the top of a large corporation or simply through being a popular entertainer or athlete. (We’ll set aside for now the fact that inheritance is the path most often trod to wealth.)

It appeared that the foundation of financial success was going to become a focus of the otherwise intellectually arid presidential campaign between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. For one day last week (prior to the movie-theater massacre in Aurora, Colorado) the two campaigns traded barbs over a speech President Obama made the previous week in Roanoke, Virginia, in which he pointed out that business leaders often ignore the social capital behind their success. He said:

“There are a lot of wealthy, successful Americans who agree with me — because they want to give something back. They know they didn’t, look, if you’ve been successful, you didn’t get there on your own. You didn’t get there on your own. I’m always struck by people who think, well, it must be because I was just so smart. There are a lot of smart people out there. It must be because I worked harder than everybody else. Let me tell you something, there are a whole bunch of hard-working people out there.

“If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen. The Internet didn’t get invented on its own. Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet.

“The point is, is that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative but also because we do things together. There are some things, just like fighting fires, we don’t do on our own. I mean, imagine if everybody had their own fire service. That would be a hard way to organize fighting fires.”

There is nothing in the above quote that should strike any rational U.S. citizen as controversial. President Obama made the requisite genuflection to “American exceptionalism” — an ultra-nationalistic slogan used within the United States to portray the country as superior to all others in all categories, a vapid capitulation to xenophobia that is mandatory for any major office-holder. But in this specific context, “this unbelievable American system” is not out of place since the subject at hand is the ability to amass wealth. Having made the ritualistic genuflection, the president felt free to acknowledge that government investment is behind many a private fortune (or perhaps he accepts he has to do something to recapture the populist image he crafted in 2008 after spending most of first term thumbing his base in the eye).

Government research, after all, did create the Internet; President Obama did not mention that government research created the World Wide Web, perhaps because it was European, rather than U.S., money that created that. Private businesspeople simply found ways to get rich off what others invented. Thus we have the spectacle of Microsoft founder Bill Gates becoming for a time the richest person on Earth because his company aggressively wields its monopoly status in personal-computer operating systems while making inferior products at the same time the people who invented the Internet and its architecture earned no fortunes.

Mr. Gates’ billions enables him to be a prime mover behind the privatization of education and compels the corporate mass media to portray him as a genius whose every word is a golden pearl. The inventors of the Internet and its architecture — although it is their work in government laboratories that made possible the Silicon Valley moguls’ fortunes — are obscure. Indeed, we would have to do research to learn their names.

There are many examples of industries similarly booted up by government investment — among them, cellphones, GPS technology and medical equipment. That is a simple fact; it is only the pervasiveness of capitalist ideology that makes such a statement in any way controversial. The Obama administration bends over backwards to benefit business: Showering subsidies on them, giving bailouts with no strings attached, promoting their interests with “free trade” agreements with a variety of countries, and discarding most of his promises to ease the extreme tilt against employees in labor relations.

Indeed, one of the very first people President Obama picked to staff his administration was Lawrence Summers, one of the leading ideologues of neoliberalism. Mr. Summers has distinguished himself in various ways, including in imposing austerity on Russia and other countries from posts at the World Bank and the U.S. Treasury Department. He once infamously, while the World Bank’s chief economist, wrote in an internal memo that Africa was “vastly UNDER-polluted” (emphasis in original) and “I think the economic logic behind dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest wage country is impeccable and we should face up to that.”

So said the person whom President Obama picked to be his lead economic adviser. During the 2008 campaign, the public’s exhaustion with George W. Bush and Dick Cheney and their administration’s unilateral foreign policy led to Barack Obama becoming the embodiment (realistically or not) of a widely desired change. At the same time, the disapproval of a significant number of capitalists over the narrowness of the Bush II/Cheney administration in promoting the interests of a handful of industries (in particular energy) instead of pursuing more general business interests and a desire for a White House that would be less quick to alienate allied countries led to an unusual split among elites who normally overwhelmingly prefer Republicans.

The interests of powerful capitalists and the interests of the rest of the country are far from aligned, and it should come as no surprise that the interests of capitalist elites are dominant in the Obama administration. The capitalist elites who backed him desired a calm, steady hand at the helm of empire, and that is what they have received: Military interventions are coordinated with allied capitalist countries, the fig leafs of United Nations resolutions are obtained, Nato allies are treated as partners (albeit junior partners) and not as flunkies to be ordered about; a soothing public demeanor to mask harsh policies; and conducting the arm-twisting of foreign governments behind closed doors. Those elites are dependent on selling their products in stable foreign markets.

It is precisely the concept of “American exceptionalism” that provides a crucial ideological underpinning for unending interference in the affairs of other countries. All presidents have to carry out the duties of the belief in “American exceptionalism” and could do not do so without a firm personal belief in it themselves. A president or any other high government official can (and does) convince themselves of their duty to act on the “exceptionalism” but all that is exceptional is that it happens to be the United States that is the center of the capitalist system and possesses the military muscle to maintain it.

The “duty” carried out in the name of this “exceptionalism” is a “duty” to assert the interests of multi-national corporations. That the country voted by a solid majority to put an end to wars and corporate domination was of no consequence.

Having low expectations for the president, I did not expect “change,” although the extent of the willingness of the Obama administration to give almost nothing to its base is a surprise. For some time, it is has been apparent that the main theme of the re-election campaign would be “You have to vote for us, the Republicans are even worse.” But it is useless to see this in terms of “selling out” or “ineptitude” or “softness.” The Obama administration is simply reflecting the dominant sources of power within the U.S., and that is not going to change without a countervailing mass movement.

Governments around the world are at the mercy of the largest capitalists within the advanced capitalist countries; interests that are distilled into the pressures applied by financial markets. A country at the center of the world capitalist system, the United States, experiences such pressures primarily from its domestic capitalists, although those capitalists’ business interests are intimately tied with peer capitalists around the world in today’s global economy. Most countries experience market pressures as external forces.

As an example, let us briefly examine South Africa in its first years after the apartheid system was overthrown in a negotiated process forced by a massive international popular movement backing the African National Congress. During the long years of struggle by the ANC and pitiless repression by the National Party, the apartheid-era rulers in South Africa, the guiding document of the ANC was its “Freedom Charter.”* The charter, adopted after democratic consultations in 1955, calls for the right to work; to decent housing; freedom of thought; and nationalization of mines, banks and “monopoly industry” and land distribution so that all South Africans can share in the wealth of their country.

Although the ANC had the moral authority to carry out its program, its negotiators tragically (and unwittingly) gave up all economic control, forfeiting their ability to carry out any aspect of their program, with the result that, two decades later, the economy is firmly in the hands of its numerically minuscule White business elite (which is tied to international markets) and South Africa remains among the world’s most unequal countries. The country’s eyes were on the political talks between Nelson Mandela and F.W. de Klerk, in which the ANC decisively was the victor against the National Party’s attempts to dilute its loss of government control.

But in the parallel economic talks, which drew little attention, the ANC gave everything away. The central bank would be independent of government (as financiers demanded), National Party government finance officials would remain in office and the ANC government would sign on to everything demanded by the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and all international trade agreements. Having done so, the ANC took office handcuffed, and having tied themselves to financial markets, those markets applied further discipline by attacking the South African economy at the first sign of anything that displeased them. From pleasing markets and giving financiers repeated assurances, it proved a short path to President Mandela’s successor, Thabo Mbeki, imposing austerity — a 180-degree turn from the Freedom Charter.

The mythology that markets know best is intimately linked with the mythology that the economy should be entrusted to financial elites and those elites’ intellectual servants, neoclassical economists. The mythology of the solo genius justifies massive inequality because the “solo genius” single-handedly created a popular product and thus single-handedly brought prosperity upon the land. For such selfless services, the solo genius must be compensated with fantastic wealth.

The “magic of the market” takes care of the compensation. For a young, growing company, the preferred route is the initial public offering. The IPO does indeed shower riches upon the founder, a small circle of his or her insiders, and the investment banks who take care of the details. If that money comes out of the wallets of everyday investors, well that’s the market for you. This system reached near-perfection in the Facebook IPO earlier this year. The key to an IPO is to price the stock high enough so that the money largely accrues to the insiders (who possess most of the stock through pre-IPO awards) but not so high that the stock price plummets afterward (making the scam too obvious) nor so low that a significant post-IPO stock-price rise means that some money was lost to investors.

Thus Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg wound up with $18 billion, Facebook’s investment bankers and insiders received substantial windfalls and all those who bought in after the opening bell are out of luck. The stock price never has returned to its opening-day level. Oh well, a “long-term hold” as they say in financial-analyst circles.

Facebook’s current popularity is undeniable, but what of value did Mr. Zuckerberg create? Perhaps Facebook will be an exception, but Internet sites tend to be cyclical fads. What was once popular can rapidly become passé. Does he, or anyone, really deserve $18 billion for a few years of work? Did he work tens of thousands of times harder than the average employee of a U.S. company? Remember, what he, and other Internet moguls, created was built on the creation of people who didn’t get rich or famous, and who created it through public investment — that is, in a government facility.

It would seem that the carrot of a multibillion-dollar payoff is not necessary for technical progress. People invent, people create works of art, people write, people aspire every day without outlandish renumeration. Often without it at all. Inventions are made routinely in government laboratories, in university laboratories and in corporate laboratories — and in each of these, it is the government, university or corporation and not the inventor who owns the rights to the invention. Many others toil on their own to create an invention, with only slim chances of making a fortune out of it. Some of these people undoubtedly are motivated by the potential for enrichment, but the overwhelmingly majority will never see it — either they will fail, or their success will lead to little or no money.

Why should one person amass $18 billion and so many other get nothing? Why should a lucky handful of people amass billions of dollars and then get to claim they did it all on their own with no help at all? President Obama’s reference to “this unbelievable American system” is true here in the sense that a few people are able to amass fantastic riches. But it is glaring inequality that enables the accumulation, and the accumulation comes on the backs of employees. Without a system that does not simply tolerate, but celebrates and causes, massive inequality, the superrich whom Governor Romney is so fast to promote as solo geniuses who had no help (no surprise as this is the myth he spins for himself) would not be the superrich.

Without the infrastructure that government provides in the form of educational institutions, a court system that adjudicates commercial disputes, means of coercion such as police and the military to suppress dissent at home and abroad, an ever larger basket of subsidies, “free trade” agreements that promote corporate interests above human rights, and a transportation infrastructure such as expressways that are mostly free, billionaires would not be able to become billionaires. And yet they continually whine that “government” is in the way.

In a better world, government would be the product of public demand and benefit. Instead, it is the reflection of the arrayed social forces within a given society — in an advanced capitalist country, that is its most powerful industrialists and financiers. The constant chatter of government “getting in the way” of business interests and of entrepreneurial geniuses single-handedly creating wealth should be laughed at for the joke those mythologies are.

* This and the next two paragraphs based in part on Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, pages 194-217 [Metropolitan Books, 2007]

Wisconsin’s recall election proves no substitute for a social movement

By Pete Dolack

Walking home on election night in 2008, my partner and I waded into a street celebration. Young people, primarily, had taken over an entire block to joyously celebrate Barack Obama’s trouncing of John McCain. Veteran activists that we are, we talked to many of the celebrants, cautioning them that the work of progressive change had only begun: If there is no strong pressure from President Obama’s supporters, he would be taken off the hook and feel himself free to not do what he said he would do.

Neither of us believed the president-elect would follow through on most of his campaign platform, and the fact that the strong anti-war movement that mushroomed during the Bush II administration had been silenced by United for Peace and Justice’s deft channeling of it into the John Kerry presidential campaign and its unwillingness to work with any coalitions to its Left should not have been far from activist minds. The hopes of Obama voters for an end to wars waged for imperialist plunder and for meaningful “change” soon met the traditional graveyard of U.S. social movements, the Democratic Party.

And so it was in Wisconsin last week. Yet again, an energetic, grassroots movement, motivated by a sense of urgency, was diluted, rendered “respectable” and converted by political and union leaders into an election campaign. And thereby lost their biggest battle. Are they to lose the war, too?

Before we tackle that question, let’s analyze the battle. Given the legitimate questioning of electronic voting machines that do not print records that can confirm the results, it is understandable that some question who really won the Wisconsin recall vote. But it is necessary to point out that the 53 to 47 percent victory of Scott Walker over Tom Barrett, although wider than expected, does fall within the margin of error of the many polls that consistently had Walker ahead. We should accept the result as legitimate, and analyze seriously a bitter defeat for all working people.

Union leaders’ fear of Madison’s energetic resistance

One of the groups critical to the uprising in Madison, the Wisconsin state capital, were graduate students organized into the Teachers Assistants’ Association. The TAA is centered on the University of Wisconsin’s main campus, located blocks from the Wisconsin capitol building. Already anticipating cuts to the university system, the TAA had begun mobilizing for a February 2011 protest. When details of Governor Walker’s draconian program of deep cuts to education and social programs coupled with union-busting measures became known, the sense of urgency increased.

Mike Ludwig, writing in Truthout, has described the birth of a movement that quickly had the world’s eyes on it:

“A public hearing on the legislation was scheduled the next day and the TAA organized a massive turnout. At such hearings, each member of the public is given up to two minutes to speak, and thanks to the tireless TAA and allied groups, a continuous stream of testimonies prevented the bill from going up to a vote. It was the birth of an occupation that would take over the Capitol and stall Walker’s union-busting bill for more than three weeks.”

Teaching assistants and teachers came to that first legislative hearing prepared to stay overnight. An early attempt to evict the Capitol occupiers backfired, solidifying their public support. Demonstrations in numbers that sometimes exceeded 100,000 outside the capitol building were regular occurrences. Support for the capitol occupiers was exemplified in a continual stream of well-wishers from outside Madison phoning in pizza orders to be delivered to the occupiers. Crowds lined the streets of Madison when a procession of farmers riding tractors drove down one of the city’s main streets to the capitol. African-American and Hispanic high school students from Wisconsin’s biggest city, Milwaukee, and people from small towns across the state were on board.

Sadly — but not surprisingly — union leaders saw this inspiring solidarity as a threat to be contained.

Talk of a general strike was in the air — something that has not happened in the United States since the 1930s. Although some organizers believed that there was too little infrastructure in place for a general strike to be realistic at the time, there were other steps that could have been taken to ratchet up the pressure on Governor Walker and his Big Business funders.

Matthew Rothschild of the Madison-based monthly magazine The Progressive, who participated in many of these events, said the co-optation of the movement began early:

“Actually, it began to disintegrate the moment the leaders (and who were they, exactly?) decided to pour everything into the Democratic Party channels rather than explore the full potential of the power that was latent but present in the streets back in February and March of 2011. … Procedurally, decisions were made (again, who made them?) in a very undemocratic way. Here we had 100,000 people storming the square but there was no effort to include them in any meaningful — or even symbolic — decision-making process. … We gathered at noon every day, we gathered every night, and we massed on the weekends, but then the decision was made (by whom?) to stop marching and essentially to go back to our home districts and throw all our energies into recalling state senators. I remember being at a protest and being told to do so from the podium.”

Local activist Allen Ruff, quoted in a Truthout analysis written by Arun Gupta and Steve Horn, confirmed that state-level Democrats actively demobilized the movement:

“One got up in the middle of the [capitol building’s] Rotunda when there were a few thousand people present and asked them to walk out to show we are willing to compromise and around 1,200 people left the Capitol with him. At the last big rally in March, with more than 200,000 people present, Democratic [state] Senator Jon Erpenbach, said ‘I don’t want to see you people back here. Go back to your home communities and work on the recall.’ ”

Briefly, the intensity of the movement had driven Wisconsin Democrats to take their lead from the masses of people in the streets; the party’s state senators fled the state in an ultimately failed attempt to block a vote on Governor Walker’s bills. But soon enough, Democratic Party and union leaders asserted leadership, and steered the movement’s energy into the usual directions. People deferred to those party and union leaders, who were afraid of the power of people on display, afraid of a movement that had blossomed out of their control and afraid that they would not look “respectable” in the eyes of establishment power brokers and the corporate mass media. Union leaders, once again, mobilized their memberships to elect Democrats without asking for anything ahead of time.

That channeling involved not only tactics, but message. The early message of linking fightbacks against the entire panoply of neoliberal attacks became narrowed into messages tailored to appear “safe” to Wisconsin’s suburban middle class.

Bruce A. Dixon, writing for the Black Agenda Report, wrote:

“When would-be movements sideline the youthful risk-taking initiative and egalitarian core values that might have sustained them to become political campaigns, they generally don’t even run good campaigns. The crowds on the sidewalks and parking lots in Madison were conducting anti-racism seminars and study groups. But the electoral campaign the whole thing was turned into, even though they had a whole year to plan, neglected to do the labor-intensive ground game of massive voter registration in poor and minority communities. They spent their relatively scarce dollars on media instead, and pursued the easy consultant-class strategy of pursuing the “frequent voters” alone. They didn’t talk about the poor and renters, of which there are many in Milwaukee. They only talked about the middle class. They didn’t talk much about mass incarceration either, even though Wisconsin and Milwaukee consistently have the highest rates of Black imprisonment in the U.S. … They came up with a black candidate for lieutenant governor. But mostly they went from hundreds of thousands of people shivering in the cold, standing outside the people-proof, democracy-proof cages of elite consensus and two-party politics and beginning to feel their own power to decide what to do next to folks campaigning for the candidate and the slate that sucked less.”

The slate that “sucked less” and its union backers may have been eager to “compromise,” but the billionaire funders opposed to them were not.

A money deficit, yes, but an uninspired recall campaign

As a matter of strategy, organizers of the signature-gathering campaign to get the recall vote on to the ballot intentionally avoided naming a candidate. Brendan Fischer, writing in AlterNet a month before the election, reported:

“Their strategy was to make it clear that signing a petition was a choice to recall the governor, rather than a vote in favor of any particular challenger. But that move left Walker opponents without a candidate when signatures were handed in on January 16.”

That decision gave Governor Walker a huge head start. The unions’ preferred candidate lost in a primary to Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, whom the governor defeated in 2010. By the time Mayor Barrett began raising money, Governor Walker had already spent 20 million dollars, according to Mr. Fischer. The challenger had only a month to make his case, but although the recall election inevitably was based on the personality of the governor, Mayor Barrett had not only already been defeated a year and a half earlier, he stood for “austerity lite” instead of providing a clean alternative.

During his 2010 gubernatorial campaign, the centerpiece of Mayor Barrett’s campaign was a 67-page document called “Put Madison on a Diet.” He advocated layoffs, cuts to benefits and cuts to wages as the main routes to trimming more than one billion dollars in state spending per year. This time around, he avoided drawing attention to such plans, but also avoided saying anything of substance. In a June 2, 2012, commentary published in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, he offered platitudes but no concrete programs. Instead he offered a general critique of Governor Walker and issued bland declarations such as “My priority is Wisconsin.” Had somebody though his priority Saskatchewan?

He did, however, offer a hint of his previous program in a debate when he said, “The real test of leadership is whether you can say no to your friends.” That, perhaps, was less than inspiring to those whom he needed to get to the voting booth.

Whatever else can be said of the Republican Party, it does not boast of “standing up” against its base. But nor does the Democratic Party wish to offend its corporate benefactors, without whom it could not survive. We square the circle here: Mass movements are the only possible alternative to corporate power and money (especially as that money and power holds a tight grip on both major parties), but such movements are precisely what Democrats fear most. Union leaderships have become so removed from their rank-and-file members and so entangled with party politics that they are unable to critique the dead end of giving support to Democrats with no demands, hoping that some crumbs will fall their way.

When you guarantee unconditional support, when you keep your mouth shut when you are forgotten after the election, when you desperately suppress any independent mass movement, when you are so comfortable in your bubble that you can’t conceive of doing anything different, when you are unable to differentiate between a crumb and a loaf, you will lose. And you will keep losing.

Union households who voted for attacks on themselves

An analysis of the recall vote is not complete without examining the eyebrow-raising exit-poll finding that 38 percent of union-household members voted for Governor Walker. In 2010, he earned 37 percent of that vote — no substantial change.

More than one-third endorsed a direct assault on their ability to maintain their standard of living. How do we account for that?

In part, answering that question is partly dependent on knowing the breakdown of those voters between public-sector and private-sector union households, a breakdown that does not appear in the results of the exit poll conducted by Edison Research. Governor Walker generally directed his anti-union rhetoric at government workers, although the fierce attack on public-sector unions are an opening gambit — corporate antipathy toward unions does not differentiate. Such attacks are the tip of a well-honed spear aimed at breaking down solidarity among working people.

Capitalist ideology furiously promotes individuality in an effort to atomize society and to justify extraordinary disparities in wealth. We are constantly bombarded with messages that declare you, too, could be rich if only you worked as hard as the chief executive officer does. Many CEOs undoubtedly work hard, but 340 times harder than the average worker? The reality is that only a handful can be rich, because being rich means accumulating money and capital through paying employees much less than the value of what they produce. Therefore, most people are going to struggle economically. How can that be if you work hard every day?

Scapegoats are provided as the answer — not that the is system stacked against you and always will be, nor is the answer that the capitalism system is undergoing a serious structural crisis that is the logical outcome of its highly competitive nature and need for ever more accumulation. A favorite scapegoat are always a society’s minorities or immigrants, and when that line loses effectiveness, the scapegoat becomes public-sector workers. Thus we have the sad spectacle of the current Big Business-led war on teachers, waged across the United States. Government workers in general are demonized as lazy and the recipients of unwarranted largesse.

Another critical strand of capitalist ideology is to foster jealousy. This is a crucial piece of ideological campaigns, in part to create atomization of society (crucial to blocking ideas of solidarity and common economic interests from taking root) but also to facilitate the scapegoating. Carefully targeted, the jealousy is never against the executive or speculator who makes millions of dollars off other people’s hard work, but rather the jealousy is carefully fanned against other working people who have something somebody else does not.

Because government workers — and unions — were the designated scapegoats, their pensions became easy targets. Republican Party operatives went to rural counties and made sure to play up the fact that most people no longer have pensions, while government workers do. Mike McCabe, the executive director of the watchdog group Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, argues that Wisconsin Republicans have forged a “rich-poor alliance” of suburban and rural areas:

“Republicans ask people in places like [rural] Clark County if they have pensions, and the answer is invariably no. ‘Well, you are paying for theirs,’ they tell them. ‘Do you have health insurance? No. Well, you are paying for theirs. Are you getting pay raises? No. Well, you are paying for theirs.’ For years now Democrats have not plausibly made the case that they will deliver better health or retirement security or higher pay to all. Only the state’s few government workers have so benefited from the Democrats’ toil.”

Exit polling seems to back up these claims. Residents of cities with at least 50,000 people voted by a close to 2-to-1 margin in favor of Mayor Barrett, but all other areas voted by wide margins for Governor Walker.

Notice, however, how the question is framed by conservatives: “Why does someone have something you don’t have” (a pension), instead of “Why do you not have something that you should be entitled to but don’t have.” Once the question is framed that way, and anti-government rhetoric is wrapped around it, then it is a short path to making pensions indistinguishable from excessive government spending.

An analysis in the Wisconsin State Journal newspaper contained a noteworthy quotation from the district attorney and Republican Party chairman (the same person holds both posts) of another rural county, Green County. This official had his district-attorney pay cut but, considering his other post, not surprisingly backed Governor Walker. “I was also able to see the other side of the equation. Taxpayers, businesspeople and retired citizens had just as strong feelings about the necessity to control state spending and require state employees to ‘pay their fair share,’ ” the official said.

Once again: Why do those people have something I don’t when I work hard? Nor can such sentiments simply be waved off by virtue of party — one-sixth of Governor Walker’s voters intend to vote for President Obama, according to the exit poll.

Capitalist ideology permeates every every institution. Not simply the corporate mass media, but churches, schools, think tanks, militaries and a host of others incessantly carry similar messages: We “deserve” what we get. The generally unspoken but nonetheless inferred coda to that message is that if what we “deserve”  is not as much as we need in a time of scarcity and cutbacks, then then someone else must not be deserving, either, so we should take away from them. Take it away from them, not have it for ourselves and our neighbors, too.

If you’ve heard this before, you are not hallucinating

There is nothing unique about Wisconsin. Or about the United States. Government workers are the brunt of attacks in Greece. If it is true (I don’t know myself) that the Greek government is over-staffed, government workers there nonetheless have to pay their taxes because their employer certainly isn’t going to fail to collect them, while it is Greek corporations, the wealthy and even some middle class private-sector workers who don’t pay taxes, a significant factor in Greece’s financial crisis.

Voters in two California cities, San Diego and San Jose, one a conservative military town and the other a liberal Silicon Valley town, voted last week by 2-to-1 margins to cut the pensions of public workers despite the fact that those pensions are subject to collective bargaining. In New York, there has been the odd revelation that leaders of a group of construction-worker unions donated half a million dollars to the “Committee to Save New York.” That is odd, because the committee has been bankrolled by millions of dollars by corporate donors and is the leading ally of Governor Andrew Cuomo’s drive to impose layoffs, pay cuts and pension reductions on government workers. That drive continues despite the government workers already agreeing to cuts.

The capitalists pushing the anti-union agenda must be delighted to have unions of private-sector workers joining their attacks on public-sector workers. Talk about short-sighted: Private-sector unions will become targets if public-sector unions are disabled, and construction unions are already routinely scapegoated as responsible for high construction costs. Never mind that real estate is a fantastically profitable business for developers and landlords in and around New York City, where most of the population of New York state resides. Non-union labor has become a more common sight on city construction jobs, but you should not hold your breath waiting for rents or sale prices to be reduced on account of resulting lower labor costs.

All these agendas do not fall from the sky. A handful of billionaires bankrolled Governor Walker’s victories in Wisconsin, and there are plenty of other capitalists who are happy to free-ride on their largesse. Austerity may come in several flavors, but, ultimately, from one source. If so-called leadership offers only austerity-lite “me, too,” the alternative is to become our own leaders.

Greeks and French vote against austerity, but what did they vote for?

By Pete Dolack

The weekend’s election results in Greece and France can be interpreted in different ways. The most obvious reading, and not at all untrue despite its obviousness, is to see them as a continuation of European voters’ rejection of their governments.

Ten of seventeen Eurozone governments have fallen or been voted out in the past fifteen months, and throwing out the incumbents is a natural response to an extended period of economic malaise. So just as Spain voting in its conservative party to punish the socialists’ austerity can’t reasonably be portrayed as a Spanish lurch to the Right — the conservatives, after all, promised to impose more austerity and swiftly became unpopular when they did as they said they would — we should be cautious in proclaiming a French shift to the Left.

Then again, since there is nothing socialist about the French Socialist Party, we have ample reason to avoid saying France has shifted leftward. Europeans clearly are sick of the mindless austerity being imposed on them, but for the most part have not advanced beyond wanting to throw out the incumbents. The surest way to do that is to vote for the main opposition party, but doing so only reinforces the system that is not working.

French voters at least had alternatives to vote for in the first round of their presidential elections, but the Left Front candidate who offered a clear Left alternative to France’s two main parties, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, finished a disappointing fourth with 11 percent of the vote, below what he had been polling. Worse, the far Right candidate, Marine Le Pen, won 18 percent. The Socialist François Hollande and Union for a Popular Movement’s Nicolas Sarkozy earned only about 55 percent of the first-round voting between them — the French demonstrated they are seeking an alternative.

But what alternative? That is as yet unknown. But the strong showings by crypto-fascists in France (Le Pen) and outright fascists in Greece (the Golden Dawn party) demonstrate the danger inherent in allowing economic malaise to continue without a solution or alternative. If the Left is unable to offer a coherent alternative, the extreme Right will threaten to fill the vacuum. Golden Dawn won seven percent of the vote in Greece on Sunday, elevating a fascist party into a national parliament. And if you have doubts about Golden Dawn being fascist, here is an excerpt from a report by Maria Margaronis in The Guardian on May 7:

“Its leader, Nikolaos Michaloliakos, threw Greek journalists who wouldn’t rise for him out of his press conference and dedicated his victory to ‘the brave boys in the black shirts.’ ‘Those who slander us,’ he barked, and ‘those who betray this country should be afraid: we’re coming.’ Near Kalavryta in the Peloponnese, the site of one of the most terrible Nazi massacres in the 1940s, Golden Dawn graffiti calls for ‘a new Holocaust to clear the filth from the country.’ ”

Greece has enough history with Right-wing extremism that the Golden Dawn’s words can not be dismissed as mere antics. The Nazi occupation of Greece during World War II, conducted through a Greek puppet government, caused hundreds of thousands to die of starvation, and tens of thousands more to be executed. An armed resistance movement, organized by Left groups but widely supported, gradually forced the Nazis to withdraw. A government was installed in Athens by the British, but the Communist-led resistance, having liberated the country, had strong support and could have taken power. Josef Stalin, however, ordered Greece’s Communists not to do so. In return, the British-backed government made mass arrests of resistance fighters while allowing Right-wing gangs to kill others by the thousands. In response, Communists resorted to an armed struggle, reversing themselves in a much less favorable position, touching off a civil war that crushed them and displaced millions, so furious was the counter-insurgency. The British heavily supported the régime it had installed while Stalin simply stood by because he did not want further tensions with his former World War II allies.

Execution, long imprisonment or exile became the fates of many Greeks. The Left was outlawed for three decades, and a period of disastrous Right authoritarian government culminated in the murderous military junta of the “four colonels” from 1967 to 1974. That junta imprisoned several thousand people just in its first month, many of whom were tortured, and imposed a brutal dictatorship. Although this history, completely entangled with Cold War politics, might seem to have no bearing on present-day Greek politics — and definitively rendered armed uprisings by the Left a relic of the past — it left Greece with a legacy of deep social divisions, a weak political center and an archaic class structure compounded by an exemption from paying taxes for the favored.

Considerable force was applied to provide Greece’s capitalists with large advantages. But although in recent decades they have been content to maintain their privileges via traditional legal means, the system they have been reliant on has become unstable. Stirring up nationalism has been a common method for the world’s privileged to maintain power, and nationalistic attitudes below can easily take a violent direction.

When fascists declare an intention to “clear the filth” and threaten violence, they mean it: Fascists speak with fists and weapons, not words and ideas. The showings of Len Pen and Golden Dawn are alarm bells are ringing, loudly. And fascists do not need a majority to seize power — Hitler never received more than a third of the vote and was appointed chancellor by German president Paul von Hindenburg; Mussolini never won more than a tiny percentage of votes. Force elevated them to power, with just enough people susceptible to their simplistic siren songs to provide the shock troops.

The Greek Left — split three ways among the Coalition of the Radical Left (Syriza), the Communist Party of Greece (KKE) and the Democratic Left — did score much higher than the extreme Right, a combined 31 percent of the vote, although this was at the low end of the 30 to 40 percent they had collectively polled during the past couple of months. Syriza finished second and only two percentage points behind the mainstream Right party, New Democracy. But because of a quirk in the Greek electoral system — otherwise a proportional-representation system requiring only three percent of the vote to enter parliament — the May 6 results rendered it impossible for the Greek Left to form a government by themselves, even if the parties could reconcile their significant differences.

That quirk is that the first-place finisher gets a bonus of 50 extra seats above what it earns from its proportional share of the vote. New Democracy, as the first-place winner, therefore was awarded 108 seats instead of 58 — a massive boost. Put another way, N.D. has more than a third of parliament’s 300 seats despite winning nineteen percent of the vote. That, in theory, made the most likely government to be formed a “grand coalition” of N.D. and the mainstream Left party, the “socialist” Pasok, plus at least one other because New Democracy and Pasok together finished short of a majority.

Such a government, to put it mildly, would be seen as illegitimate by Greeks — more than two-thirds voted against the two ruling parties and their policy of pitiless austerity. But that illegitimacy surely was not the reason that N.D. leader Antonis Samaras handed back his mandate to form a government after one day instead of using all three days he was granted to find willing coalition partners. There are two conclusions that can reasonably be drawn: Samaras does not actually want to govern, or he is calculating that nobody will be able to form a coalition and new elections will be called for June that he believes he will win by a greater margin.

The first scenario in the preceding sentence arises because, in essence, Samaras would have his bluffed called were he to become prime minister. The N.D. is Greece’s Big Business party, and has consistently boosted those interests while expanding its base through policies that enable Greece’s middle class professionals to avoid paying taxes the same as the rich and powerful. But its support, in practice, for austerity are a direct contrast to its verbal claims of opposition to austerity, a contradiction exposed by its “solution” to Greece’s crisis: tax cuts for businesses. The Big Business backers of New Democracy are too connected with business and financial interests elsewhere in Europe to abrogate the austerity agreements with the European Union, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund.

Greeks voted against austerity. What did they vote for? That is not nearly so easy to answer.

Syriza, itself a coalition of Trotskyist, Maoist, Eurocommunist and other non-orthodox communist Leftists, has called for a coalition with the KKE and the Democratic Left, in contrast to the orthodox communist KKE that eschews working with other parties and the moderate Democratic Left that, during the electoral campaign, sought a coalition only on its terms. As Syriza won more votes than KKE and the Democratic Left combined, and as the party most willing to join hands with other anti-austerity parties, it might develop into a home for Greeks sick of austerity and willing to throw off the shackles of European Union financiers.

Syriza contains differing opinions on retaining the euro (although its leader, Alexis Tsipras, favors remaining in the eurozone) and definitively advocates remaining within the E.U. but with a thorough restructuring. Syriza demands a suspension in debt payments until the economy recovers, followed by a “selective” default; redistribution of wealth; and a re-orientation of priorities toward growth-inducing investment. A day after Syriza’s second-place finish, as multi-sided negotiations to form a government began, Tsipras told Athens News:

“We strongly believe that the country’s salvation will achieved through the rejection of these barbaric measures, through relief from recession and the looting of pensions and salaries, through the cancelation of austerity measures and their replacement with measures to boost the economy and tax built-up wealth so that funds are found to help the weaker sections (of society). … Our message of our people to European leadership is clear, the Greek people last night rejected the policy of austerity, as it is being rejected by all the peoples of Europe. The time has come for it to be withdrawn.”

Having been given the mandate to form a government as the leader of the second-place finisher after Samaras said he is unable to form one, the Greek newspaper Kathimerini reported that Tsipras’ coalition negotiations will center on these demands:

  • The immediate cancellation of all impending measures that will impoverish Greeks further, such as cuts to pensions and salaries.
  • The immediate cancellation of all impending measures that undermine fundamental workers’ rights, such as the abolition of collective labor agreements.
  • Reform of the electoral law and a general overhaul of the political system.
  • An investigation into Greek banks, and the immediate publication of the audit performed on the Greek banking sector by BlackRock.
  • The setting up of an international auditing committee to investigate the causes of Greece’s public deficit, with a moratorium on all debt servicing until the findings of the audit are published.

The “policy of austerity” has unquestionably suffered a “crushing defeat,” but without any consensus among Greeks as to what the alternative should be. Regardless of whether Greece leaves the eurozone and re-adopts its former national currency, the drachma, Greece’s future is in Europe. There is no Greek solution to Greece’s crisis, nor is there a French solution to France’s stagnation, nor a national solution to any other country’s economic malaise.

The only way forward for Europe is for a European Union radically different from the one that exists — an E.U. that is democratic and designed to benefit all peoples, not a dictatorial bureaucracy interested only in maintaining the fabulous wealth of a capitalist elite, in particular financiers, at the cost of everybody else.

In previous posts, I have summarized programs proposed by various economists, some envisioning Greece remaining in the eurozone and some envisioning Greece dropping the euro and returning to the drachma. What these programs have in common is a vision of a European-wide economic restructuring.

To summarize some of these ideas: The E.U. should be leveraged to internationalize the resistance of working people; full employment demanded as an explicit goal; banks should become publicly owned and democratically controlled so that capital is directed toward socially useful investment instead of speculation; a highly progressive taxation system should be coordinated at the E.U. level; wages raised to account for improved productivity that has, for three decades, gone to capitalists; governments should default at least some of their debts to banks; bank deposits should be guaranteed; and there should be more investment in education to enhance future productivity.

Some of these, or at least moderate versions of some of these, are articulated by the Greek Left. These are, however, yet to be articulated by European politicians elsewhere. Politicians such as Hollande argue for reforms within the current E.U. framework, not a break from that framework or even a strong questioning as to why ensuring profits to bond holders and speculators should be the highest principle of Europe and that entire countries should be immiserated for it.

Although a reformist, it can be said that Hollande came to advocate strong reforms, winning backing for ideas such as including a 75 percent tax rate on France’s highest earners, the hiring of new teachers and social spending to stimulate the economy. Sarkozy, on the other hand, dangerously adopted some of the arguments of Le Pen and her National Front party in a craven attempt to win her voters — thereby giving legitimacy to extremists who scapegoat immigrants and attack intellectuals. Such programs (and its equivalents elsewhere, including the “tea party” in the United States and Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party in the Netherlands) are demagogic attempts to deflect attention from the structural issues underlying economic malaise and the vast wealth inequalities that are destabilizing society. Although these have the appearance of grassroots “populist” movements, they are always supported by Big Business interests and are often, as is case with the “tea party,” lavishly funded by those interests.

Elections for the French parliament occur in mid-June, and that might provide more guidance as to where France is going. But the mainstream Center-Left governments of Europe that have imposed austerity have fallen just the same as Center-Right governments doing the same. It is possible that a spell of both applying roughly similar austerity policies will finally spark the rupture that is necessary. If that proves to be so, then we will be able to look back and say that Greece — having rejected both its major parties — arrived first. But a systemic break with the capitalist logic of austerity can only be an international movement: It is indisputable that “socialism in one country” can’t survive a hostile capitalist world, and a small country such as Greece all the more so could not survive as a socialist island in a capitalist Europe.

Inevitably, a post-capitalist Europe would be an example for the rest of the world, not excepting other advanced capitalist countries. I want to be clear here that I — and those whom I have summarized here and in previous posts — are advocating a democratic system, one much more democratic than currently exists. The 20th century’s top-down, state-owned and -controlled economic system that developed in the Soviet Union failed, and failed for real reasons — sufficient reasons can be found internally. Rather, what is advocated is cooperation in a decentralized economy.

Political democracy is not possible without economic democracy. Economic democracy is impossible without production being oriented toward human, community and social needs rather than private accumulation of capital. Everybody who contributes to production earns a share of the proceeds — in wages and whatever other form is appropriate — and everybody should be entitled to have a say in what is produced, how it is produced and how it is distributed, and collective decisions in turn should be made with community involvement.

A Left that can articulate a democratic vision of a better world can succeed. The signs are around us: the rapid assent of the Occupy Wall Street movement in the United States, the electoral success of the Greek Left, the mounting fury around the world at a rigged capitalist system that is failing humanity. But a better world can only be made through international struggle and a radical vision of economic and political democracy. Such a task will not be easy: The rulers of the capitalist world have a panoply of weapons at their disposal (control of the workplace, the ability to fund groups to do their ideological bidding, seemingly limitless budgets for police and militaries among them) and a historical willingness to fund extreme Right movements when feeling threatened.

The breakthroughs of the extreme Right in France and Greece over the weekend are sober reminders that a descent into barbarism and dictatorship under conditions of scarcity is also a possible future if we do not find a way out of the ongoing economic malaise.