Global warming will accelerate as oceans reach limits of remediation

If humanity stopped all production of greenhouse gases today, Earth would experience several decades more of additional global warming. That is not simply because the carbon dioxide, methane and other greenhouse gases thrown into the atmosphere by human activity won’t disappear in a day, but because the oceans can’t continue to act as shock absorbers.

Earth has tipped into a heat imbalance since 1970, and this excess heating has thus far been greatly ameliorated because the world’s oceans have absorbed 93 percent of the enhanced heating since the 1970s. This accumulated heat is not permanently stored, but can be released back into the atmosphere, potentially providing significant feedback that would accelerate global warming.

The latest in a series of scientific reports detailing the disastrous course of global warming, “Explaining Ocean Warming: Causes, Effects and Consequences,” concludes that the mean global ocean temperature will increase by as much as 4 degrees Celsius by 2100. In addition to the increasingly unstable weather, more potent tropical cyclones, displacements of aquatic life and boost to atmospheric temperatures that such a rise would cause, massive amounts of frozen methane hydrate in the depth of the seas could be thawed, adding a potent new source of greenhouse gases.

Retreating glacier in Greenland (photo by Bastique)

Retreating glacier in Greenland (photo by Bastique)

Dozens of climate scientists from around the world contributed peer-reviewed work to the report, research that in turn is based on more than 500 peer-reviews papers. The report builds on the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which in turn was the basis for the Paris climate summit in late 2015. That summit was noteworthy in setting a goal of limiting the increase in temperature to 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels, instead of the previous target of a 2-degree rise, often cited as the outer limit before uncontrollable changes are inevitable.

But even if all the national pledges of the Paris climate summit were achieved, global temperatures would rise 2.2 to 3.4 degrees C. by 2100, and the likelihood of all those pledges actually being met are minuscule as there are no enforcement mechanisms. A list of major countries’ pledges reveal a failure to make adequate progress, with many pledges dependent on “cap and trade” scenarios that often amount to subsidies for polluters.

Paris climate summit pledges inadequate

The “Explaining Ocean Warming” report does not sugar-coat that, stating in the conclusion that a fulfillment of the Paris pledges would not result in a return to hospitable conditions. The report says:

“[T]hey actually represent a ‘minimum ambition’ to prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system. Achieving the ‘minimum ambition’ will already bring major changes in the functioning and resources of the ocean as we know them. Exacerbating an already concerning situation is the fact that the absorptive role of the ocean is also predicted to decline in the 21st Century, suggesting that the physics and chemistry of the ocean will be significantly different by 2100. As atmospheric CO2 continues to increase as a result of our activities, the solutions (i.e. mitigate, protect, repair, adapt) become fewer and less effective, thus decreasing the long-term ability of humankind to cope with the changes in the ocean that are now being observed.”

Annual global sea surface temperature anomalies from 1880 to 2015. (Source: U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)

Annual global sea surface temperature anomalies from 1880 to 2015. (Source: U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)

The report explains that, volume to volume, sea water is 4,000 more times efficient at retaining heat than is air, providing thus far a buffer to further global warming. But how long can the oceans do this? And at what cost? Coral reefs are dying, sea life patterns are changing, fisheries are in danger of collapsing and oceans are becoming more acidic. Further changes are locked in for decades ahead already, and humanity is ill prepared for this as the stresses on the seas through this excess warming are barely understood. The report says:

“[T]he consequences of increasing human activities have indeed injected vast quantities of heat into the ocean, shielding humanity on land, in so doing, from the worst effects of climate change. This regulating function, however, happens at the cost of profound alterations to the ocean’s physics and chemistry that lead especially to ocean warming and acidification, and consequently sea-level rise. … The problem is that we know ocean warming is driving change in the ocean — this is well documented — but the consequences of these changes decades down the line are far from clear.”

The 13 warmest years for sea surface temperatures have all occurred since 1997, with 2015 the highest yet and eclipsing the previous record of 2014. Parallel to that, August 2016 was the 16th consecutive month that overall global temperatures were the highest on record.

How high and fast will the seas rise?

The continuing building up of heat portends a potentially catastrophic rise in sea level. Two papers published last year calculate that, because of the greenhouse gases already emitted, humanity has already committed itself to a six-meter rise in sea level, and a paper published earlier this year predicts that seas could rise “several meters” in 50 to 150 years.

Changes in the warming influence of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. (Source: U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)

Changes in the warming influence of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. (Source: U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)

A still more pessimistic National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientist, Margaret Davidson (giving her personal opinion, a NOAA publicist stresses), says that sea level could rise by as much as three meters by 2050 to 2060, a faster rise than current projections. She cites studies being done on the West Antarctic ice sheet. It is important to remember that the scientific controversy centers on the speed of global warming, not its existence — 97 percent of climate scientists agree that human activity is causing global warming, according to a NOAA study that also found the highest levels of agreement correlate with higher levels of expertise.

A major problem is that global warming, as with the associated environmental problems, can’t be solved within the capitalism that has caused, and is accelerating, the problem. All incentives under capitalism are for more growth and thus more greenhouse-gas emissions, and there is no provision to provide new jobs for the many people who would be displaced should the heavily polluting industries in which they work were to be shut down in the interest of the environment. The private capital that profits from environmental devastation is allowed to externalize the costs onto society, an inequality built into the system. The concept of “green capitalism” is a dangerous chimera.

There is no alternative to a dramatic change in the organization of the global economy and consumption patterns. That means significant reductions in energy consumption, an impossibility within a system that requires constant, unending growth. The rosy predictions of magical technology that will allow business as usual while scrubbing the atmosphere of new greenhouse gases, relied upon in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report that was in turn the basis for the Paris climate summit pledges, are not realistic, environmentalists say, and thus an illusion. Earth’s environment is crossing multiple points of no return — business as usual is impossible.

If we are to be serious about reversing global warming and repairing the environment, we have to create an economic system based on human need that is stable as a steady-state system and under democratic control, rather than our present authoritarian system that is designed to maximize private profit. That is necessary for economic and political reasons, but the environmental crisis adds another dimension. Otherwise, we “will sleepwalk ourselves into a nightmare, where no level of conservation action in the future will be enough,” in the concluding words of the “Explaining Ocean Warming” report. The task is enormous, but the consequences are even bigger.

What do we do when a neo-Nazi speaks at a Left venue?

A sharp controversy has been raging in New York City Left circles for the past week, as one of the city’s few remaining Left spaces allowed a neo-Nazi to speak as part of a forum about the 9/11 attacks.

I had originally intended to not name names because the intent with this article is to discuss the broader issues raised, not only one specific incident. But as the issue has been widely discussed already, there isn’t any point to withholding the name of the locale, The Commons in Brooklyn. Nonetheless, this issue is much bigger than any one institution.

The basics are this: The owner of The Commons allowed the space to be used for a presentation by Christopher Bollyn, a virulent anti-Semite with a long history of publishing on neo-Nazi and white-supremacist sites. He was booked to speak as a “9/11 truther” who would talk on “9/11 and our Political Crisis.” Adding to the intrigue is that the owner of The Commons has herself been a prominent “9/11 truther.”

Brooklyn Botanic Gardens (photo by Daderot)

Brooklyn Botanic Gardens (photo by Daderot)

I don’t wish to paint with an overly broad brush. Many people who continue to investigate what happened on September 11, 2001, do so out of genuine principle and attempt legitimate research. There is no reason to believe the official government account of that day, and one need not believe 9/11 an “inside job” to question the official narrative. (So as to not hide my own perspective, I don’t believe 9/11 was an “inside job,” for multiple reasons, and I am skeptical of the so-called “truther” movement.)

Although reasonable research merits support, we should distinguish between people who investigate the commercial ties of Bush II/Cheney administration members or who make scientific inquiries into the physical properties of the World Trade Center materials that were destroyed on 9/11 from the unsubstantiated conspiracy theories that shade off into the considerable anti-Semitism that permeates the “truther” movement. That movement consistently provides platforms for rabid anti-Semites, and that is to their cause’s detriment.

On what basis do we defend an objectionable speaker?

This issue is impossible to disentangle from the Right’s continual conflation of anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism. It is not difficult to distinguish criticism of the state of Israel for its apartheid policies and other crimes against humanity in its ongoing subjugation of Palestinians from blanket accusations against all Jews. Critics of Israel routinely do so. Ironically, one defender of the owner of The Commons decided to build on Right-wing tactics of misinformation by inverting the meaning of words when he absurdly claimed that “There are zionist-fascists who are trying to destroy The Brooklyn Commons as a venue for radical events.”

Huh? People who oppose neo-Nazism, and condemn anti-Semitism on a Left basis, are fascists — and Zionists! Truly remarkable. That statement can be dismissed as the desperate agitprop of an individual who has burned many a bridge. But what of the owner of The Commons herself? When asked to cancel the appearance of Christopher Bollyn, she responded with a lengthy statement that seems to have since been pulled from her venue’s web site. But, in part, she wrote:

“I did not research the speaker before accepting the rental. I do not have the time, resources or inclination to censor the hundreds of groups who rent the space.”

That is not unreasonable. But once it was brought to her attention, she could have canceled the event, as Busboys and Poets in Washington and the Unitarian Society of Hartford swiftly did when confronted with the nature of the speaker. Two paragraphs later, however, she wrote:

“I never intended for The Commons to be a safe space at all times. Nor was it designed to be a cozy cocoon for intramural debate among leftists. From the beginning my goal has been to foster discussion among disparate groups across a wide political spectrum.”

Nobody is asking for a “cozy cocoon,” and the many groups and individuals aren’t objecting because Bollyn is from another part of the political spectrum, but because he represents something that ought to be out of bounds anywhere: A Holocaust denier and an advocate of an ideology that calls for (and has attempted) genocide. There can be no “debate” with that. To deny the Holocaust is to endorse the murder of 6 million Jews and the Nazi ideology behind it. If we are part of the human race, we give no quarter to that. Period.

One other passage stood out in The Commons’ owner’s response. Although the venue has consistently been promoted as a Left space (and many Left organizations have offices there), she wrote:

“Since launching in 2010, the list of renters has included local Tea Partiers, conservative promoters of charter schools, explicitly anti-union corporations, elected officials who voted for the Patriot Act and wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

Lies and damned lies

If I were an advocate of charter schools, I sure would be upset at being grouped with a neo-Nazi. To be sure, advocates of charter schools peddle lies about the performance of them, and knowingly do so in the hopes of destroying public schools systems, reducing education to narrow training schools for future corporate drones and busting unions. Alas, there are liberals, unable to free themselves of corporate ideology, who go along with this, thereby making themselves useful dupes. But discussion of charter schools is a legitimate topic, however much we disagree with them.

flier-opposing-bollyn-at-the-commonsThe purpose of the above defenses is to obfuscate the issue and turn it into one of “censorship” and of Leftists’ supposed inability to tolerate opposing viewpoints. This is the first I had heard of charter-school advocates booking the space and although I might not like that, there is no comparison to inviting a neo-Nazi.

Another defender of the decision to allow Bollyn to speak, Nathan J. Robinson, did so under the straightforward title “Let The Kooks Speak. They will only embarrass themselves.” Writing in Current Affairs, Mr. Robinson said:

“[T]he best way to deal with a Holocaust denier is to allow him to hang himself with his own words. Because the historical reality of the Holocaust is among the most well-established of factual certitudes, anyone attempting to deny it will quickly be forced to resort to babble rather than reason. It is the simplest thing in the world to humiliate such people.”

He backs up this viewpoint by citing what he says happened at the talk:

“[A]ccording to witnesses, he simply rambled incoherently for nearly two hours to a tiny group of bored misfits. The AlterNet writer who went said it was a ‘pathetic spectacle’ with the ‘supposedly brave iconoclast, prevaricating for a half-empty room of gullible dimwits while dressed like a dad at a PTA meeting.’ The Daily Beast’s Jacob Siegel wrote that ‘not long after the talk started, people started to nod off,’ and that and that once you ‘strip away everything else … here was a middle-aged man dully clicking through slides.’ So Bollyn gave his speech, and he was a failure who converted nobody.”

Facing the larger issue

The point, however, isn’t that a raving anti-Semite who denies the Holocaust and claims Jews assassinated John F. Kennedy to take over the U.S. government could be convincing. The issue here isn’t this or that individual speaker, it is the failure to confront anti-Semitism, racism and associated social ills. None of the defenders of allowing the speaker to talk have bothered to address the larger issue of the anti-Semitism that pervades the “truther” movement.

Take one prominent example. Many a “truther” (including some I personally know) repeat the preposterous argument that two, or five, (depending on the version) Mossad agents were “jumping up and down with joy” as the World Trade Center towers came down. This, sadly, seems to be widely believed among “truthers.”

Were these agents the same ones who called 2,000 Jews the night before to tell them not to go to work? What a busy day. Maybe the conversation went like this: “Yitzhak, Shlomo here. The family is fine, thank you. Listen, Yitzhak, I can’t stay on the phone; I’ve got another 500 to call tonight, but please stay home tomorrow because we’re taking out the towers. Oy, I better get time and a half for all these hours.”

Did the Mossad agents identify themselves to onlookers? Were they wearing Mossad name tags? (Maybe the tag read, “Hi, my name is Shlomo. I’m a Mossad assassin. How can I help you?”) Can anybody imagine one of the most professional (and thus deadly) spy agencies on Earth being so ham-fisted and obvious? No. Why would such a preposterous story gain traction for even a second? Because of belief, even if held unconsciously, that Jews constitute some sort of cabal, and when that arises on the Left it is among those who are unable to distinguish anti-Zionism from anti-Semitism.

I suppose that is not completely separable from a belief that because the U.S. government, or the Bush II/Cheney administration (take your pick) is capable of evil acts, all evil acts are done by them and thus 9/11 has to be an “inside job.” This is reductionist thinking. The irony of inside-job belief is that is actually lets U.S. foreign policy off the hook! Maybe people in the Middle East really are pissed off about the oppression they’ve endured thanks to U.S. imperialism and maybe some of them, with a deficit of political knowledge or guidance, decided that individual acts of terrorism would be their response.

Evil individuals or a rotten system?

We really need to get beyond the idea that no so much as a leaf moves without the CIA being behind it. I write that as someone fully aware of the CIA’s record (and have recounted it in numerous articles and in my book.) The CIA is not a secret cabal of evil people; it is simply the government agency that carries out much of the dirty work that is required to maintain capitalism and the U.S. as the financial and military center of it. If the CIA didn’t exist, some other agency would be doing that work.

Much of the 9/11 “truther” movement derives from an unwillingness to grapple with the concrete realities of the capitalist system, and the structural inequalities and oppression built into it. The CIA is not ultimately the problem; it is the system it serves.

Unfortunately, it is far easier to indulge in conspiracy theories than to systematically analyze the world we live in. Those evil doers did it! Let’s get rid of those bad people and all will be well! Anti-Semites who cast Jews in the role of evil doers, and assign responsibility for all ills to them, are just a more extreme version of conspiracy-theory mongers and, ultimately, lie on a continuum.

This I suspect is why otherwise rational people exhibit a willingness to believe ideas that fall apart once they are examined seriously, and why the “truther” movement is unwilling, or unable, to separate itself from unexamined, often unconscious anti-Semitism (such as the Mossad agents jumping for joy) nor even from outright virulent anti-Semitism that goes so far as to deny the Holocaust. Even if someone was unfamiliar with Bollyn before this episode (I, for example, had never heard of him), the most basic Internet search would find his work. The New York Left activist Carol Lipton, for example, did a quick search and found:

“Bollyn also makes repeated reference to The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. … Bollyn regularly appears on David Duke’s blogs, blames Jews for all the ills in the world, is a strident Holocaust denier who refers to the ‘Holohoax,’ and has been quoted across Twitter in hundreds of posts to show everyone his fiercely Jew-obsessed and Jew-hating statements. He is credited by some 9/11 truthers with originating the theory that Israel and Mossad were to blame for 9/11. He blames Israel for everything from Orlando to problems in Ukraine. He was formerly a long-term writer with the American Free Press, a white supremacist newspaper that was founded by fascist Willis Carto, founder of the Liberty Lobby.”

The online magazine JewSchool similarly had little difficulty finding Bollyn’s rants, publishing a long list of his nonsense, including numerous mentions of “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” well known as a crude forgery concocted by the frantically anti-Semitic régime of Tsarist Russia.

Taking a stand, even at a cost

To their credit, several Left organizations that are tenants of The Commons issued a statement condemning Bollyn’s appearance:

“As organizations that work out of the Brooklyn Commons, we reject the antisemitic politics of Christopher Bollyn. We do not have any say in event booking and management at the Commons but agree that such politics should have no place in leftist spaces.”

One regular user of the space, the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research, has said it will “pull all of its classes and upcoming events” and go elsewhere, even though this will cause itself problems in the near term. And that brings up to the final point for now. Should a space that booked a neo-Nazi be boycotted?

That is not so easy to answer, especially for those familiar with the effect runaway gentrification has had on New York City real estate. This, alas, has to be practical discussion. One prominent Left activist, with a well-earned reputation for integrity, argues that any organization that stays by renewing its lease would lose its credibility and that people should cut its ties with the venue. Another prominent Left activist, with a similar reputation, argues the opposite, saying that to leave would be to allow the far Right to drive us out. “We have hardly any spaces left and an easily accessible space, such as The Commons, that includes both meeting rooms and a hall for large gatherings is not something we should easily abandon — such spaces are central to our organizing,” she said.

There is no simple answer here. For years, The Commons has provided a low-cost space for a variety of Left causes and events, and the Left organizations that rent office space do so at below market rates. (Full disclosure: I have given talks there, had my first book party there and have attended dozens of events.) It is very painful to have to have this discussion, but it has been forced upon us.

The question of real estate in a capitalist economy looms large here. If housing and real estate were not capitalist commodities, and instead meeting places and centers for organizers were part of a public commons, this discussion would not be necessary; organizers would not be dependent on the decisions of one person who, as the owner of a private property, is not necessarily answerable to a broader community. Organizers may choose to “vote with their feet,” but those would be individual decisions.

Housing should be a human right, and would be in a better world, but an incident such as under discussion here reminds us that the the issue of space goes beyond basic housing — the restoration of a public commons needs to be central to our struggles.

Building a better movement

All of us who struggle for a better world are disheartened that so many advances of the 20th century have been lost. The mounting crises of the environment, the global economy and ever more constricted political systems are unmistakably moving humanity toward a cliff. And yet social movements, for all the victories here and there, again and again fail to sustain momentum.

Why are we in this predicament? No single person or organization can fully answer such a question, of course, but we do need to seriously reconsider what has been done and how. In this spirit, Marta Harnecker’s “Ideas for the Struggle” is a document that merits wide discussion. Originally written in 2004 and updated this year, the paper consists of 12 short, closely linked sections. And although written with Latin America in mind, the ideas are borderless.

Argentines demonstrate against banks in February 2002 (photo by Usuario:Barcex)

Argentines demonstrate against banks in February 2002 (photo by Usuario:Barcex)

Taking on the idea of spontaneity head on, Ms. Harnecker, a sociologist and activist since the 1960s, opens her paper by declaring that popular uprisings are insufficient in themselves. She writes:

“The recent and not so recent popular uprisings that rocked numerous countries across the world have clearly demonstrated that the initiative of the people, in and of itself, is not enough to defeat ruling regimes. Impoverished urban and rural sectors, lacking a well-defined plan, have risen up, seized highways, towns and neighborhoods, ransacked stores and stormed parliaments, but despite being able to mobilize hundreds of thousands of people, neither their size nor their combativeness have been enough to move from mass uprisings to revolution. They have overthrown presidents, but they have not been able to conquer power and initiate a process of deep social transformations.”

The example of successful revolutions, she argues, demonstrates that a “political instrument” capable of a national struggle is essential. To be effective,

“to convert mass uprisings into revolutions, a political instrument capable of overcoming the dispersion and fragmentation of the exploited and the oppressed is required: one that can create spaces to bring together those who, in spite of their differences, have a common enemy; that is able to strengthen existing struggles and promote others by orientating their actions according to a thorough analysis of the political situation; that can act as an instrument for cohering the many expressions of resistance and struggle.”

The past doesn’t have to be the future

That “political instrument” has to be welded anew and based on current, concrete conditions; people who believe that strong organizations are something to be avoided because many parties of the past engaged in authoritarian or manipulative political practices should not be trapped in the past. She writes:

“I believe it is fundamental for us to overcome this subjective barrier and understand that when we refer to a political instrument, we are not thinking about any political instrument; we are dealing with a political instrument adjusted to the new times, an instrument that we must build together. … We are talking about understanding politics as the art of constructing a social and political force capable of changing the correlation of force in favor of the popular movement, to make possible in the future what today appears impossible. We have to think of politics as the art of constructing forces. We have to overcome the old and deeply-rooted mistake of trying to build a political force without building a social force.”

By “social force,” Ms. Harnecker refers to the multitude of grassroots organizing that takes on particular struggles, including at local levels, and whose autonomy must be respected. A larger organization working on the broader project of building a revolutionary movement can only do so by working with these multitudes of grassroots movements. There can’t be a movement toward a better society without organic movements seeking to transcend the current society. This “construction of forces,” as the author defines this process, has to be conscious work. She writes:

“[T]his construction of forces cannot occur spontaneously; only popular uprisings happen spontaneously. It requires a political instrument that is capable of consciously building the required forces. … I envisage this political instrument as an organization capable of raising a national project that can unify and act as a compass for all those sectors that oppose neoliberalism. As an organization that is orientated towards the rest of society, that respects the autonomy of the social movements instead of manipulating them. And one whose militants and leaders are true popular pedagogues, capable of stimulating the knowledge that exists within the people — derived from their cultural traditions, as well as acquired in their daily struggles for survival — through the fusion of this knowledge with the most all-encompassing knowledge that the political organization can offer.”

Balancing debate with the necessity of action

How should such an organization develop its ideas? In what some readers would likely see as more controversial, Ms. Harnecker argues for democratic centralism. Although a term that is looked on with disfavor due to how the concept was badly distorted in 20th century communist parties, she argues that only through thorough democratic discussion can activists be prepared to carry out work, but that there also has to be strategic action rather than simply debate. She argues:

“This combination of a) a democratic debate at different levels of the organization and b) a single centralized leadership based on whatever agreements are arrived at by consensus or by majority vote is called ‘democratic centralism.’ I do not see how one can conceive of successful political action if unified action is not achieved around key issues. I do not see any other alternative to democratic centralism for achieving this, if consensus cannot [be] reached.

Only a correct combination of centralism and democracy can ensure that agreements are effective, because having engaged in the discussion and the decision-making process, one feels more committed to carry out the decisions.”

That a decision must be made and actions taken based on that decision does not mean an issue is closed in this conception. The minority must be allowed to continue to argue its case because that minority might be right, and if the majority is convinced it is right it should have no fear of further debate, the author writes.

Popular Unity supporters rally in Chile in 1972 (photo via Revista Argentina Siete Días Ilustrados)

Popular Unity supporters rally in Chile in 1972 (photo via Revista Argentina Siete Días Ilustrados)

This is a crucial point. The road to one-person dictatorship began with the stifling of minority viewpoints. As the spaces for debate steadily constricted in the 1920s Soviet Union, it is impossible not to think of Leon Trotsky’s warning that the party would substitute itself for the working class, that a faction of the party would substitute itself for the party and finally a single leader would substitute itself for the faction.

We should never under-estimate the isolation that the Bolshevik Revolution faced, nor the enormous challenges of modernizing a backward country while defending itself against a hostile capitalist world. Nor ignore the huge advances made in a country that went from a 20 percent literacy rate to producing more engineers than any other country in the span of two generations. Nonetheless, the political distortions imposed by first a single-person dictatorship and then a bureaucratic monopoly of power by a single party placed fatal fetters on Soviet development.

People can only solve their problems by freely discussing them, without coercion or manipulation, and then freely acting through coordinated activity based on the results of their discussion. In turn, there must be larger organizations that connect the many particular struggles into a broad movement, one that enables activists to see the links and commonalities between these struggles and the often common enemies that they face.

Confronting capitalist hegemony

None of us possess a blueprint on how to build an effective mass movement. But one thing that ought to be clear, yet often isn’t, is that simply replicating the models of the past is a dead end. To return to Ms. Harnecker’s paper, she argues that no movement can be effective without consideration of capitalist hegemony in opinion manufacturing and the broad acceptance of capitalist rule that hegemony engenders. She writes:

“I am talking about a strategy that takes into consideration the important social, political, economic and cultural transformations that have occurred across the world in the last period. One that understands that the new forms of capitalist domination go far beyond the economic and state sphere, have infiltrated into all the interstices of society — fundamentally through the mass media which has indiscriminately invaded the homes of all social sectors, and in doing so changed the conditions of struggle. … The capitalist elites tend to achieve a significant hegemony over important popular sectors, a real cultural leadership over society; they have the capacity to ideologically subordinate the popular sectors, even those who are exploited by them. As [Noam] Chomsky says, propaganda is to bourgeois democracy what the truncheon is to the totalitarian state.”

Discussion of alternatives to capitalism must become more serious. Not only do social movements need to free themselves of forms of thinking imposed by capitalist hegemony, alternative spaces must be opened and successfully defended:

“[W]e must develop a process of popular construction opposed to capitalism in the territories and spaces won by the left, that seeks to break with the profit logic and the relations this imposes and tries to instill solidarity-based humanist logics. We must promote struggles that are not limited to simple economic demands — although these need to be included — but that advance the development of a more global, social project that encourages authentic levels of power from the grassroots.”

As I noted earlier, the author has written “Ideas for the Struggle” with the experiences of Latin America in mind, and some of the examples she provides are specific to that region. Nonetheless the ideas expressed (of which I have quoted only a very small sample) provides much material for discussion that is pertinent to any country or region. We do need to stop lamenting that we don’t know how to build an effective movement and start seriously discussing how we are going to build an effective movement.

If we don’t, barbarism will be the future. As the world’s resources are depleted, the environment is polluted beyond near-term remediation and ever more people are thrown into desperation — if we go on with capitalism, this is the path humanity will continue to walk — the industrialists and financiers who rule the world will surely have more intensive repression in store for us. If that is not the future we want, we’ll have to change it ourselves.

Don’t mourn lack of electoral choice, organize!

Capitalist ideology tells us that “democracy” means voting once a year, or every four years, after which we can congratulate ourselves for our participation in turning the wheels of government in one or the other direction.

I would be the last person to tell someone not to vote, but casting a vote ought to be the least of what we do. Around the world, we are given a choice among corporate candidates, a dismal prospect that, perhaps, is reaching its nadir this year in the U.S. presidential race that features two of the most unpopular candidates ever.

Photo by Alex Proimos

Photo by Alex Proimos

Well, we hope it won’t get worse, but the trend around the world is not encouraging. Canada has just elected its “hope” candidate, but so far Justin Trudeau has proven more style than substance, given his support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, for CETA, for oil pipelines and much of the neoliberal agenda. In France, Francois Hollande seems determined to snuff out whatever good associations may still cling to the Socialist Party. In Britain, the Labour Party old guard seems to prefer committing suicide rather than accept the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn. No, we don’t want people joining our party in large numbers! Anything but that!

Back across the Atlantic, all signs point to a victory in November for the technocratic war monger over the misogynist ego maniac. Should Donald Trump somehow win the White House, there is little doubt that liberals would join leftists in massive protests. But why shouldn’t this be the case when Hillary Clinton takes office?

There is a belief among U.S. liberals that they shouldn’t give any “ammunition” to right-wingers by protesting a Democratic president. Or that they can gain access and persuade Democrats to “do the right thing” despite the corporate money that put them in office. Sometimes this extends to candidates. The idea of “Anybody But Bush” took hold in the run-up to the 2004 election, and although removing George W. Bush from office was a necessary goal, the narrowness of “Anybody But Bush” was exemplified when the liberal United For Peace and Justice coalition successfully steered the U.S. anti-war movement into becoming a wing of the campaign of pro-war candidate John Kerry. That movement was thereby snuffed out, never to regain its momentum.

We can’t afford to continue to make these kinds of basic mistakes. The only recourse to a Clinton presidency is to get in the streets on day one. If U.S. progressives don’t mobilize against Hillary Clinton’s White House the same way they would against a Republican president, then the widespread fear that her recent leftward shifts in response to Bernie Sanders are an election ploy that will quickly be forgotten will surely come true.

What we do in the streets, how movements respond, is what matters. The social gains of past decades did not come as manna from heaven or as gifts from politicians. They came as the result of organized struggle and a willingness to be in the streets, occupy workplaces and not allow business as usual. Without struggle, there is no advance, as Frederick Douglass put it succinctly.

Like social democracy in other parts of the world, North American liberalism has reached the point of exhaustion, having no way out of the trap of believing that capitalism can somehow be made nice with a few reforms. Neoliberalism is not the result of a cabal, nor an unfortunate turn by misinformed leaders. The neoliberalism the world has been living through the past few decades is the natural development of capitalism.

Nobody decreed “we shall now have neoliberalism” and nobody can decree “we shall now go back to Keynesianism.” The path to a better world will not be found in an election booth. That is not a reason not to vote, whether for a lesser-evil candidate as a short-term tactic or for a socialist candidate as a gesture of protest. But once election day is over, the real work begins, regardless of who takes office.

Cooperatives becoming bigger part of Cuba’s reforms

The continuing debates over cooperatives, including whether they represent a promising form of socialism or a reinforcement of capitalism, will likely have fresh evidence in coming years from Cuba.

The nascent cooperative movement in Cuba is genuine and growing, but many questions about its future direction are yet to be answered. That the Cuban cooperative movement is largely a top-down process, and subject to still opaque decision-making by party and government officials, adds more uncertainty. And inevitably intertwined with these debates are long-standing tensions between traditional state-owned models of property and emerging de-centralized models of cooperative property.

Perhaps the safest observation that can be made today is that nobody knows where Cuba’s experiment will lead.

Sunrise in Havana (photo by Jvlio)

Sunrise in Havana (photo by Jvlio)

The beginning stages of Cuban cooperatives were handled with considerable input. Thousands of meetings were held throughout the country in advance of the Communist Party of Cuba’s Sixth Congress, held in April 2011, to discuss the document Lineamientos de la política económica y social en Cuba (Guidelines on Economic and Social Policy in Cuba), which listed more than 300 goals intended as significant reforms to the Cuban economy. The guidelines approved at the Sixth Congress included autonomy for the state enterprises, an expansion of cooperatives, new taxing laws and changes in the system of subsidies.

Changes came swiftly. Almost 200 occupations previously limited to state enterprises were opened, and within three months of the Sixth Congress, more than 100,000 new small-business licenses were granted. The Cuban government estimated that about 489,000 people, representing nearly a tenth of the workforce, were self-employed in the first half of 2015.

The cooperative sector has not grown as fast, but by October 2013, 270 urban cooperatives had been approved. By late 2014, that number had reached nearly 500. But cooperatives are not new to Cuba — agricultural cooperatives have existed since the early years of the revolution and they produce about 80 percent of the food grown in Cuba. What is new is that cooperatives are now encouraged outside of agriculture, although they are primarily in services rather than manufacturing.

Reversal of previous openness to discussion

The Communist Party had intended to “update” the Guidelines at its Seventh Congress, held in April 2016. But no final documents have been released, nor had the documents to be discussed at the Congress been made available for discussion. This lack of transparency, said to be due to a continuing inability to complete the work, resulted in considerable public disapproval. A commentary in Green Left Weekly, contrasting this lack of transparency with the public input that helped shape the Guidelines approved by the Sixth Congress, noted the party faced a choice of either abandoning public consultation or postponing the congress.

The congress was not postponed. But the party did acknowledge the criticism directed at it. In a March 28 article (shortly before the Congress convened) in Granma, the official party newspaper, the paper wrote:

“The editorial office of this newspaper has received, by various means, expressions of concern from Party members (and non-members, as well) inquiring about the reasons for which, on this occasion, plans were not made for a popular discussion process, similar to that held five years ago regarding the proposed Economic and Social Policy Guidelines of the Party and Revolution.

The fact that such opinions and doubts were expressed is in no way reproachable, much less when they come from people who are genuinely concerned about the work of the Party and the country’s destiny.”

The Granma article argued that the discussions scheduled for the Seventh Congress would be a “continuation” of the work of the Sixth Congress, and that most of the Guidelines were still in the process of being implemented. Therefore, “what is more appropriate is finishing what has begun” rather than opening new discussions. The article argued that:

“[T]he guidelines approved by the 6th Congress serv[e] as the tactical approach to reach our aspirations, reflecting their continuity and development. These documents do not, therefore, represent anything different in terms of the road taken, but rather a higher level expression based on what has been discussed and submitted for consultation to all Party members and the people.”

Responding to criticisms of this line, President Raúl Castro later proposed that the Seventh Congress would adopt any documents “in principal” rather than definitively, promising further public consultation. The Congress did agree, but the documents still have not been released. This delay appears to be due to the drafts still being in progress; one of the documents is reported to have been drafted eight times.

Differing ideas as to direction of reforms

There is a consensus among informed observers that a primary reason for the Communist Party’s slowness in promulgating clear rules for the formation of cooperatives is that the party leadership has yet to reach a consensus itself. The Green Left Weekly commentary mentioned above suggests this division of opinion is behind the delays in producing the updated documents promised for the Seventh Congress. The author, Marce Cameron, wrote:

“The Central Committee’s glacial progress in drafting the two key documents suggests that it has tried to reconcile, behind closed doors, divergent conceptions of the new Cuban socialist model that is aspired to. They had to be reconciled if the leadership were to present a more or less coherent programmatic vision to the party as a whole—rather than strive to involve the party as a whole in developing that vision from the outset over the five years since the 6th Congress.”

In a thoughtful NACLA article, Roger Burbach, basing his analysis on the work of Camila Piñeiro Harnecker, summarized three visions of socialist economic development in Cuba. They are:

  • A statist position, largely reflecting the old guard. Advocates of this position call for more discipline and greater efficiency among state industries and enterprises, and argue that Cuba’s economic problems can be corrected through a more efficient state, not through a dismantling of the state.
  • A market socialist perspective, advanced by many economists. Advocates of a “socialist market economy” argue for privatization, even at the price of increased inequality, the exploitation of wage workers and environmental degradation, as the route to increased productivity and efficiency. These advocates assert the state can always step in to correct excesses.
  • An “autogestionario,” or self-management, stance that calls for democratic and sustainable development primarily through the promotion of cooperatives. Participation, association and solidarity should be at the heart of the new economy, advocates say. In this view, control should not come from the top down but from the bottom up, as workers engage in self-management to further their social and economic concerns.

The so far strong push for cooperatives from the party, and the assistance provided to them, is a good indication that cooperatives will be a part of Cuba’s future. To what degree remains an open question, but however that question is ultimately answered, the intention is that a significant portion of the economy will remain in state hands for the foreseeable future.

No return to capitalism

In a presentation on Cuba cooperatives at the Left Forum in New York last May, Isaac Saney noted that, despite the top-down manner of cooperative creation and the ongoing debate on whether the state should drive the development of cooperatives, popular support remains firm. He gave the example of U.S. President Barack Obama, on his trip to Cuba, saying the U.S. would buy coffee directly from Cuban coops, but the coops condemned that as intended to undermine the socialist state, which they would not go along with.

In the same Left Forum presentation, Al Campbell offered five considerations:

  • Cooperatives tend to build a sense of responsibility for the participants.
  • Coops build collective consciousness.
  • A negative is that coops can develop competition and rivalry with others; structures and practices are necessary to connect coops with the rest of society.
  • The danger of leaving economic coordination to the market; planning is an essential aspect of socialism.
  • Self-determination is a collective process; different decisions must be made by different people.

Parallel to these factors, in a part a reflection of the complex nature of the reforms, is that many cooperative enterprises did not become so on their own initiative. The Left Forum presenters, and others, have interviewed members of cooperatives who, when asked why they became a cooperative, did not know, saying they were told their state enterprise would now be a cooperative. Of 124 non-agricultural cooperatives created by mid-2013, 112 were former state enterprises, according to the Inter Press Service.

Complimentary to the creation of cooperatives, enterprises remaining in state hands are to be given more autonomy. The Inter Press Service reports:

“The authorities have defended ‘social ownership of the basic means of production’ as an essential aspect of the new economic model being built on the basis of reforms outlined by the ‘economic and social policy guidelines’ of the governing Communist Party of Cuba, considered a roadmap for ‘updating’ the socialist system promoted by President Raúl Castro.

In recent legislative debates that touched on this issue, the vice president of the Council of Ministers, Marino Murillo, said the changes underway were aimed at building ‘prosperous and sustainable socialism, in which the main protagonist is the public enterprise, strengthened with greater autonomy in its management and the distribution of its results.’ ”

Cooperatives not necessarily a path to socialism

There is some fear that cooperatives could lead Cuba back to capitalism. Although cooperatives represent a socialized form of production, and potentially can form the basis of a socialist economy based on democratic principles, coops are also completely compatible with capitalism. The formation of cooperatives in itself does not eliminate competition, not even capitalist competition. Locating the cause of greed, injustice, inequality and other social ills in the authoritarian, hierarchical structure of the capitalist enterprise is an overly simplistic analysis.

Co-op symbolAlthough that structure certainly is a factor, the cut-throat nature of unfettered, market-driven competition is central. The relentless pressure to increase profits, maximize market shares and eliminate competition — on pain of enterprise death for those who don’t do this sufficiently — makes unethical or anti-social business decisions inevitable. Putting social decisions in the hands of the capitalist “market” means putting those decisions in the hands of the biggest industrialists and financiers.

What if an economy was dominated by cooperative enterprises, but those coops competed ruthlessly with one another in unfettered market competition? Cooperative members would wind up reducing their own wages (which would be a commodity in such a scenario) and cutting whatever corners they could to survive the competition, just as capitalist enterprises do today. Smaller coops would go under or sell themselves to larger coops — an oligarchy would inevitably arise in most industries.

Working for a cooperative has its advantages, even under capitalism, but even a hugely successful cooperative such as Mondragon faces limits due to the relentless nature of capitalist competition, as the 2013 closing of its household-appliances company, Fagor Electrodomésticos, demonstrates.

An economy based on cooperatives would have to have cooperation between its cooperatives, rather than competition. Prices would have to be negotiated up and down the supply chain (with all enterprises’ financial information available to prevent unfair price-gouging) with perhaps an arbitration board to step in when parties could not agree. Community input would also be desirable, in the industries in which a given community is directly involved and for retail prices of consumer goods.

Cooperative enterprises can be responsible for investment, production and financial decisions — subject to democratic oversight — but might be required to demonstrate full compliance with a range of standards on issues such as equal opportunity, workers’ rights, health and safety, environmental protection and consumer protection. Enterprises could be required to be certified on all relevant issues before conducting business, and perhaps be re-certified at specified intervals.

And of course an economy based on cooperatives does not preclude that certain key industries remain in state hands (with democratic control). Banking, energy and basic utilities such as water come to mind as too important to allow any private control.

Old patterns of hierarchy not eliminated

The foregoing are theoretical constructs for a more developed system. In present-day Cuba, as would any society moving toward a cooperative model, there are many practical questions still to be worked out. There are also growing problems that need to be tackled. Writing in Daily Kos after a trip to Cuba, “Geminijen” observed that hierarchy seemed to stubbornly survive in some coops. She wrote:

“Although the coops are managed by the workers and the workers share the profits, many of the criteria of a coop seemed to be missing or in progress — i.e., there was usually one spokesperson who appeared to be the manager or ‘boss’ or a husband and wife heading up the business (coops are not supposed to be family businesses) and there did not always seem to be a clear path as to how the people who worked there could elect a different manager or board members (they all had elected boards) if they wanted to do so. In some cases, the members were encouraged to participate in the decision-making process, in others not so much.”

Although the writer noted that workers mostly seemed to not mind these conditions because they were making more money and had a say in pay scales, nonetheless inequality is a potential problem. In examining why “self-organized” forms of private enterprise approved by the state seemed more successful than state-run coops,

“[W]e didn’t consider that the state coops were hampered by their lack of access to raw materials necessary to create the coops. As a visiting Puerto Rican educational scholar pointed out to me, the privately organized coops have come in and taken over the failed state coops because they have the money (capital) to develop the business that the state run coops do not. When I asked self-organized coops where they got their capital, they were often evasive. My source suggested that many of these businesses were started with money from remittances from wealthy relatives in the United States. She also noted that since most of the wealthy people living in the States are white, this ability of one group of Cubans to obtain and invest capital not only was reintroducing class divisions, but increasing the divisions again between the races since most Afro Cubans did not have access to remittances.”

The Cuban government is making efforts to assist the coops created from state enterprises. Earlier this year, the government announced that restaurants and some other ex-state enterprises would be able to buy products at reduced prices from wholesale operations to be established for them, along with a tax cut, in exchange for price controls. Construction cooperatives are also hampered by inconsistent access to supplies and the sometimes poor condition of equipment inherited from state companies.

Cubans not looking north for answers

Forming a cooperative from scratch can still be difficult. There are heavy barriers, a Cuban anarchist visiting New York earlier this year reported in a presentation — approval is needed from the government, and there is no time period in which a response must be made. Political resistance remains; the presenter reported that his group was told to take down a banner saying “socialism is democracy” while participating in a parade, although they refused to do so. He is also fearful that Cuba is headed toward the model of China and Vietnam — a capitalist direction that he disapproved of.

Concomitantly, his biggest fear was of genetically modified organisms and other ills pouring into Cuba from the United States. Although there is a widespread desire among Cubans to be rid of the U.S. blockade that has done so much damage to their country, there is little desire for Cuba to revert to capitalism.

Daniel Hellinger, writing of the increased incomes but widening class divisions resulting from the reforms, reports that Cubans are firm in seeking to defend their gains. In a report written after a two-month stay in Havana, he wrote:

“They unfailingly welcome change — so long as three major accomplishments of the revolution are left untouched. No one wants a future without free, quality universal health care; free, quality education; and the peace of mind that comes with streets that are virtually free of crime or violence at any hour of the day or night. Moreover, while Cubans clearly welcome the thaw in relations, they are not looking to the U.S. to save them. Virtually everyone who talked to me seemed to agree with the government’s approach to rectifying problems; where they disagreed was over the pace of change, with most hoping to see it speed up, but more than a few anxious about their jobs, rations, pensions, etc.”

The Cuban government has consistently said it intends its reforms as a renewal of socialism, not a retreat. An objective accounting of the old Soviet model of centralized control with state ownership of all means of production has to acknowledge the disadvantages that come with it, along with the accompanying political constrictions. Change came too late, too haltingly and too much on the backs of working people in the Soviet Union, factors that can’t be ignored in assessing why the Soviet Union crumbled.

Cuba is a different country, but does face the problems of centralization. To the leadership’s credit, it is making a bonafide effort to effect necessary change, even if that change is yet to be agreed upon. It is much too early to say where Cuba’s experiment in cooperatives will lead, but the surest guarantee that it will prove to be an advance and not a retreat is the Cuban people themselves, who have stood up to unceasing U.S. attacks for more than a half-century.

There are no Democratic or Green saviors: Get in the streets!

Regardless of the outcome of November’s U.S. elections, what will count most is what happens in the streets. As Frederick Douglass put it plainly a century and a half ago, “If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and never will.”

All the advances of the 20th century (most of which are being steadily eroded in these early years of the 21st century) came about through organized movements, forcing elected officials to react.

I know that what I’ve written above is something that most of you reading this already know. But it does seem that we need to remind ourselves of this as United Statesians ponder a choice of two of the most unpopular candidates in the history of U.S. presidential campaigns, a choice reflecting the growing crisis of capitalism. The technocratic corporate war monger versus the proudly ignorant misogynist egomaniac. But it doesn’t necessarily follow that a ready-made alternative exists on the November ballot, and not simply because either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump will be the next president.

Hermann Park in Houston, location of the 2016 Green Party convention (photo by Another Believer)

Hermann Park in Houston, location of the 2016 Green Party convention (photo by Another Believer)

Revolutions are made in the street, not in the election booth. Bernie Sanders can promise a “revolution” all he wants, but no matter how fervently some of his followers wish it, the Vermont senator offered no revolution. Significant reforms that would be welcome should they be realized, certainly. But Senator Sanders offered merely to ameliorate the conditions of capitalism, not transcend them. His example, Sweden, is not a socialist country, even if it is a county that is much more humane. The Swedish government didn’t keep its banks in public hands after nationalizing them during an early 1990s crisis; instead it re-privatized them.

Secretary Clinton supports every U.S. imperial adventure, while Senator Sanders supports only some of them. Moreover, Senator Sanders’ main complain about NATO isn’t its imperial mission but rather that Europeans don’t pay more. Why should I get worked up over this difference?

And that brings us to Jill Stein, about to receive the Green Party’s presidential nomination. Or, rather, to the Green Party itself. Those who see the Greens as an anti-capitalist alternative are, sad to say, destined for disappointment. Here I can speak from personal experience, having been highly active in the New York State Green Party more than a decade ago, and even serving as the editor of state party’s newspaper for two years. There are Greens who are sincerely socialists, and who would like to see the party be socialist, but these folks represent the left wing of the party, not the party as a whole.

Contradictory trends among Greens

The New York Green Party at the time I was active was filled with liberals and ex-Democrats; the latter joined when the Greens earned ballot status in New York because they had not risen in the Democratic Party and believed they could be big fish in a small pond. Many of these folks wished for nothing more than to tug the Democrats a bit to the left and to cross-endorse Democratic candidates deemed sufficiently progressive. But as Democrats thoroughly dominate state politics and have no need for Green support, such cross-endorsements were worth nothing and these dreams of influence proved empty. At the national level, shortly before I ceased active involvement, a bureaucratic structure calling itself Green Party US was created, further cutting off the party’s rank and file from decision-making.

The center and right wings of the party (more oriented toward electoral politics than activism) generally supported the creation of Green Party US; unfortunately they were supported by a minority of activism-oriented Greens, one of whom, a sincere life-long activist who should have known better, argued on the floor of a state party assembly against me that “the train is leaving the station and we have to be on board.” That the Green Party’s national committee this year approved an “ecological economics” plank that declares the party “anti-capitalist and in favor of a decentralized vision [of] socialism” does not magically turn a “big tent” party into a socialist one.

The party’s platform has stated that “Greens support small business, responsible stakeholder capitalism, and broad and diverse forms of economic cooperation.” The new language, to be formally approved at this week’s national convention, states that the party “seeks to build an alternative economic system based on ecology and decentralization of power” and seeks to instead “build an economy based on large-scale green public works, municipalization, and workplace and community democracy.” Further, the new language states that “Production is best for people and planet when democratically owned and operated by those who do the work and those most affected by production decisions. This model of worker and community empowerment will ensure that decisions that greatly affect our lives are made in the interests of our communities, not at the whim of centralized power structures of state administrators or of capitalist CEOs and distant boards of directors.”

Yes, a significant step forward from the thinly disguised “green capitalism” that the party previously had stood for. Green capitalism, the hope of liberals and social democrats that the same system that has brought the world to economic, political and environmental crisis will somehow solve these problems, is a fantasy, one best given no quarter. I certainly do not wish to discourage Greens, or anybody else, from moving beyond the chimera of “green capitalism.” But does an organization declaring itself “socialist” — or, in this case, “anti-capitalist” — make it so? A measure of caution is warranted.

The record of the Green Party is not particularly strong. In 2004, maneuvering by David Cobb’s supporters wrested the presidential nomination from Ralph Nader (although national-convention attendees I talked to told me that had Mr. Nader campaigned for the nomination rather than expecting it to be handed to him by right he would have been the nominee). Mr. Cobb ran a “safe states” campaign, whereby he would only ask for votes in states that were firmly in the hands of one of the major parties, unmistakably implying that voters in states that were up for grabs should vote for pro-war Democrat John Kerry. I should note that when I had a chance to ask him about this intellectually dishonest campaign, he, with a straight face, told me that he was running a 50-state campaign. But his slick “professional politician” personality told a different story.

Mistaking Bernie Sanders for a savior

That mistake hasn’t been repeated. But Dr. Stein committed a serious strategic error when she offered to cede the presidential nomination to Senator Sanders if only he would abandon the Democratic Party and instead become his vice presidential running mate. Why a person as serious as she is would indulge in such a fantasy I do not know. There was no possibility of Senator Sanders doing anything other than endorsing Secretary Clinton; he not only said so clearly from the start but political reality (i.e., his ability to retain any influence in the party) mandated that he do so. Complaining that he is a “sellout” for doing so is naïve.

Here, I would strongly disagree with the analysis of Chris Hedges that it was a mistake for him to have run as a Democrat instead of as an independent — his impact would have been minuscule had he done so. Whatever criticisms we have of Senator Sanders, he galvanized millions of people and put socialism into a national conversation, even if he wasn’t actually offering socialism. These are positive steps.

Dr. Stein does offer a more progressive vision than that of Senator Sanders. And let us note the new anti-capitalist plank in the Green platform. But there is a world of difference between an abstract idea and practical work to make that idea a reality. The history of social democracy, theoretically parties working toward a form of socialism, provides ample evidence.

Germany’s former Social Democratic chancellor, Gerhard Schröder, pushed through his “Agenda 2010” legislation in 2003 that imposed austerity. The so-called “German miracle” has been so only for German multi-national capital. The “secret” to Germany’s economic dominance within the European Union is cuts to German wages. Germany has undercut other countries that use the euro as their currency by suppressing wages, while the common currency has the effect of making German exports cheaper.

In France, the “Socialist” government of Francois Hollande has resorted to bypassing parliament to impose rules speeding up layoffs and cutting wages. And then there is Tony Blair in Britain, Jean Chrétien in Canada and so on.

German Greens invert definition of imperialism

The Greens are not the Social Democrats. But does that make them genuinely different? Recall that when the German Greens attained power, joining a Social Democratic government as a junior partner, they found themselves administrating Germany’s nuclear power plants despite their anti-nuclear stance, and eagerly joined in the bombing of Yugoslavia, a particularly unfortunate place for Germany to intervene militarily given the history of World War II in the Balkans. This was the handiwork of Joschka Fischer and his wing of the German Green Party, who liked to call themselves “realos” (realists) while dismissing those who sought to uphold the party’s ideals as “fundis” (fundamentalists).

The “realos” did not engage in Germany’s first post-World War II imperial adventure unwillingly. I was one of a small group of New York Greens who sent a letter to the German Green leadership asking them to honor party principle and not participate in the U.S.-led bombing of Yugoslavia. We received a response calling us arrogant and imperialists for daring to discuss their policies. Separately, a letter sent from The Greens/Green Party USA, the more progressive of the then two U.S. national organizations, asked the German Greens to “set an example” by opposing the bombing of Yugoslavia or participating in the U.S. war in Afghanistan. German Green leadership responded by dismissing the request as “a terrific exercise in ‘green imperialist’ thinking,” as “sectarian propaganda from afar” and as an “attempt to lecture and bully other parties.”

A U.S. sister organization asks for support of its opposition to U.S. war-mongering waged to open new lands for U.S. multi-national corporations to exploit and for this they are called imperialists and bullies!

Expecting socialism from such a party is futile. Remember, that swatted-away criticism wasn’t from U.S. Greens as a whole, but rather from the party’s left wing. The Greens are not a revolutionary grouping, and are and will be moved in the directions that social democratic parties are moved. That Dr. Stein in effect declared that a Democratic candidate who is in favor of many imperialist adventures and who supported the stationing of air force bombers against the will of his constituents is the savior of the United States amply demonstrates that the party has not shaken itself free of capitalism or properly analyzed the nature of imperialism.

One of the underlying reasons for that is its lack of strongly defined principles. The “10 Key Values” on which the party bases itself are vague, a lowest common denominator representing what could be agreed upon. Much of the party is led by middle class people who tend to vacillate. For now, the campaign of Senator Sanders has helped put socialism in a national conversation, so the switch to anti-capitalism in the party’s program can be interpreted more as a weather vane than a sudden move leftward. If the wind shifts, it can not be excluded that the platform will as well.

Expediency over principle

Senator Sanders simply fails to make the connection between austerity at home and imperialism abroad, and that is a serious error reflecting his lingering nationalistic thinking and an inability to make a proper critique of capitalism. Dr. Stein, I believe, does not share these deficiencies, but that she was willing to indulge them for the sake of an ill-fated, chimeric short-term expediency reflects an organization that is groping toward some version of a kinder and gentler capitalism, not one working toward socialism no matter what its platform states. And thus not a party that genuinely offers an alternative to the detested two-party system, one deeply rooted in the winner-take-all, single-seat district U.S. electoral structure.

And what choice is there between those two parties? On the surface, it would appear that there are drastic differences between the two. The demagogue Donald Trump offers a dark vision of turning back to the 19th century, when everybody not a White male possessing wealth knew their place. The technocrat Hillary Clinton, and other speakers at the Democratic Party national convention, offered soaring visions of a coming world of equality and hope, a kinder and gentler capitalism that will bring prosperity to all. President Barack Obama, in particular, gave a bravura performance. As I watched some of this, I couldn’t help but think “If only they meant it.”

However outstanding the oratory, the dismal results speak for themselves. Bill Clinton was the most effective Republican president the U.S. ever had, putting into law policies that Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush could only dream of doing. The Obama administration organized repression against Occupy Wall Street, unilaterally kills people with drones and protects Wall Street. Given her record as a senator, her pathetic foot-dragging on same-sex marriage until it was absolutely safe to be in favor, her role as the leading hawk of the Obama administration and her support of the Trans-Pacific Partnership as the “gold standard” of trade agreements until political pressure forced her into carefully worded opposition that leaves her maneuvering room, can it be reasonable to believe her administration will be substantially different?

The only route to a better world is through mass movements articulating clear goals. But instead of settling for reforms, the only way out of our present crises is to push beyond what is possible in the world’s present political systems. There are only two reasons for voting for Secretary Clinton instead of Mr. Trump — one, that voting for the latter is a vote for open racism, misogyny and immigrant-bashing embodied in a candidacy that carries with it the seeds of a potential fascist movement and, two, that it would be better to be on the offensive than the defensive. A Trump presidency would necessitate a multi-pronged movement against an all-around assault on civil rights just to maintain the crumbs left to us. Although a Clinton presidency is hardly destined to be a golden age, mass movements would be better able to go on the offensive as she will have to give lip service to the campaign promises she has been forced, through gritted teeth, to make to fend off Senator Sanders’ primary challenge.

Either way, what we do in the streets, what pressure movements bring to bear, will be decisive. Vote for a lesser evil if your conscience dictates (although I can’t bring myself to do so), but then get in the streets to push hard that lesser evil. There are no saviors on the ballot, not Bernie Sanders, not the Green Party. Some day we will have candidates we can vote for rather than against, but there is much work to do before we arrive at that day. That work is up to us.

Consumer detritus and the elevation of “freaks”: A reconsideration of Susan Sontag’s On Photography

I wrote this in 2005, after seeing an excellent exhibit of Diane Arbus’ photography at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. As she is in the news again with another show of her work, the themes of this article seem to me still very relevant.

To say a photograph is worth 1,000 words is to repeat the hoariest of clichés. Does that make the statement completely wrong? Consider that the most unwavering of the Bush II/Cheney administration’s censorship efforts is the suppression of photos. United Statesians are not allowed to see coffins of dead soldiers nor even injured soldiers, not the carnage wrought by their invading military in Iraq, and most certainly not the horrific destruction of Falluja. The corpses of the four mercenaries hung on the Falluja bridge were shown; it was the easiest way to raise a sufficient crescendo of indignation to create the political space needed to carry out the vengeance-inspired massacre that the pitiless logic of invasion required.

By the same logic, the Bush II/Cheney administration and the Pentagon can’t be completely upset by the Abu Ghraib torture photos. Although word of mouth goes a long way when it comes to torture, the handful of leaked photos did demonstrate to people in developing nations around the world just what they can expect should they get in the way of multinational corporations’ asset acquisition programs.

On Photography coverPunishing the enlisted personnel who carried out their orders rather effectively — and what, after all, are enlistees for from the standpoint of the corporate elite and their governmental and military hirelings? — provides a nice public relations opportunity and also underscores that the actual crime was the releasing of the photos and not the torture itself. At any rate, the U.S. corporate media quickly tired of torture and abuse photos; intra-media competition forced torture into the news temporarily, but there soon was a tacit understanding that we had seen enough of these photos.

But however ubiquitous photography is, it has its limits. Humans see what they wish to see, which Susan Sontag amply demonstrated in On Photography, although she demonstrated that principle more than she intended. Ms. Sontag’s book is a collection of six essays written for The New York Review of Books during the 1970s, as the Vietnam War was winding down. The Pentagon certainly has taken a lesson from that war, taking strong measures to censor photography and videography today. But the military, and the economic interests for which it serves, is more than capable of using photography for its own purposes. This is not new, Ms. Sontag notes:

“The photographs Mathew Brady and his colleagues took of the horrors of the battlefields did not make people any less keen to go on with the Civil War. The photographs of ill-clad, skeletal prisoners held at Andersonville inflamed Northern opinion — against the South. … Photographs cannot create a moral position, but they can reinforce one — and can help build a nascent one.”1

Ms. Sontag also noted the propaganda value that a photo can have, although a photo can be so iconographic that it transcends it political use value.

“The photograph that the Bolivian authorities transmitted to the world press in October 1967 of Che Guevara’s body, laid out in a stable on a stretcher on top of a cement trough, surrounded by a Bolivian colonel, a U.S. intelligence agent, and several journalists and soldiers, not only summed up the bitter realities of contemporary Latin American history but had some inadvertent resemblances, as John Berger has pointed out, to Mantagna’s ‘The Dead Christ’ and Rembrandt’s ‘The Anatomy Lesson of Professor Tulp.’ What is compelling about the photograph partly derives from what it shares, as a composition, with these paintings. Indeed, the very extent to which that photograph is unforgettable indicates its potential for being depoliticized, for becoming a tireless image.”2

Pastel portrait of Susan Sontag by Juan Fernando Bastos

Pastel portrait of Susan Sontag by Juan Fernando Bastos

Her argument here is that photography unnaturally beautifies what it captures, even “the small Jewish boy photographed in 1943 during a roundup in the Warsaw ghetto” with “arms raised in terror.”3 Ms. Sontag’s lament (critique would be too strong a word) is in contradiction to her themes elsewhere in the essays when focused on cultural analyses. This contradiction is most sharply in focus in her unwarranted criticisms of Diane Arbus, which frankly say much more about Ms. Sontag herself than Ms. Arbus. Ms. Sontag, with an air of disapproval, claimed that Ms. Arbus’ work

“lined up assorted monsters and borderline cases — most of them ugly; wearing grotesque or unflattering clothing; in dismal or barren surroundings. Arbus’s work does not invite viewers to identify with the pariahs and miserable-looking people she photographed. Humanity is not ‘one.’”4

A “freak” is in the mind of the viewer

To be sure, Diane Arbus’ work took a dark turn in her final works, a collection grouped as “Untitled, 1970-71” in the retrospective organized by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art that showed at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in spring 2005. But her mental health must have been a factor during this period; she committed suicide in 1971. Her skill, fully put to use prior to her final series, was to bring out the humanity in her subjects and to coax out their personality. Ms. Sontag’s repeated reproaches to Ms. Arbus for showing “victims” who are “pathetic,” “pitiable” and “repulsive,” in which “everybody looks the same,” only paint Ms. Sontag as uncomfortable with ordinary people even as her political sympathies were clearly with them. “Anybody Arbus photographed was a freak,”5 citing, as one of several examples, a boy waiting to march in a pro-war march wearing a “Bomb Hanoi” button.

But why is this earnest young man a “freak”? The picture is of a naïve, fresh-scrubbed boy, rather typical of the 1960s, and shows the young man as he is. His politics, undoubtedly the product of teaching from a conservative family, are horrible. We can recoil at the ignorance of wishing to bomb people for the crime of resisting an invasion; we can be amused at the absurdness of the sight (we can easily feel both), but this falls far short of reaching the status of “freak,” especially as plenty of United Statesians, sadly, supported the Vietnam War.

Portrait of Diane Arbus by Beppe Devalle

Portrait of Diane Arbus by Beppe Devalle

One picture in the Arbus retrospective that particularly stands out is “The 1938 Debutante of the Year at Home, Boston, 1966,” a picture of an extremely privileged woman well into the transition from middle age to seniority smoking in her bed. Every pore of this woman exudes privilege, captured in astonishing clarity by Ms. Arbus, a perhaps unequaled master of technique. This woman, like most of those whom Ms. Arbus photographed, was said to have loved the photo. Why not? It certainly captured this woman brilliantly. This woman most assuredly would not have considered herself a “freak.”

One photo that Ms. Sontag did specifically mention in her catalogue of horror is the “human pincushion” of New Jersey, a middle-aged man who, while demonstrating his specialty, nonetheless is very proud. The privileged once-debutante and the circus performer are both far removed from the life experiences of most people, but both, as are most of Ms. Arbus’ subjects, clearly are comfortable with themselves and thus in front of the camera. That they are “freaks” because they are different, or simply comfortable with their differences, is a terribly elitist attitude, and a misreading of Ms. Arbus’ work.

On the larger terrain of consumerist culture and national privilege, Ms. Sontag was on firmer ground, although her dismissal of Surrealism is jarring. She wrote:

“Surrealism is the art of generalizing the grotesque and then discovering nuances (and charms) in that. No activity is better equipped to exercise the Surrealist way of looking than photography, and eventually we look at all photographs surrealistically. People are ransacking their attics and the archives of the city and state historical societies for old photographs. … The Surrealist strategy, which promised a new and exciting vantage point for the radical criticism of modern culture, has devolved into an easy irony that democratizes all evidence, that equates its scatter of evidence with history. Surrealism can only deliver a reactionary judgment; can make out of history only an accumulation of oddities; a joke; a death trip.”6

Reactionary? Pressing ahead with this ultra-left phrasemongering, Ms. Sontag wrote:

“Surrealists, who aspire to be cultural radicals, even revolutionaries, have often been under the well-intentioned illusion that they could be, indeed should be, Marxists. But Surrealist aestheticism is too suffused with irony to be compatible with the twentieth century’s most seductive form of moralism. … Photographers, operating within the terms of the Surrealist sensibility, suggest the vanity of even trying to understand the world and instead propose that we collect it.”7

Photo of a Iraqi prisoner in Abu Ghraib

Photo of a Iraqi prisoner in Abu Ghraib

Photography as a privilege

Susan Sontag’s argument was part of her larger point that the ubiquity of photography is a function of the privilege of capitalist nations and that a culture based on consumerism necessarily produces photographic detritus as it does other consumer products. True enough. But consumer culture, none more so than the U.S. variety, is based on the reduction of freedom to the free choosing of products and the active trampling or co-optation of any artistic expression that does not extol consumerism, while Surrealism arose as artistic expressions in opposition to mechanized, mercantile society.

This line of attack is at least consistent with Ms. Sontag’s attack on Ms. Arbus, but is even more off the mark; the combination of squeamish cultural conservatism and “more revolutionary than thou” psuedo-radicalism makes for a creaky Stalinist muddle. Ms. Sontag had brilliant observations to make; it is difficult to understand these sorts of sojourns that only detract from her larger points.

Ms. Sontag began to develop her central themes in the opening pages, displaying the vast knowledge of photographic history that she was known for. Sontag posited that taking vacation photos, for many people, is a way of ameliorating feelings of guilt for not working and that travel is reduced to becoming a strategy for accumulating photographs.

“The method especially appeals to people handicapped by a ruthless work ethic — Germans, Japanese, and Americans. Using a camera appeases the anxiety which the work-driven feel about not working when they are on vacation and are supposed to be having fun.”8

Debord coverOf course, that was written before the rise of video recorders, which frequently replace the camera. This sense has only escalated with the notion that something did not happen if it wasn’t on television, and is a natural outgrowth of a hyper-consumerist society—the “society of the spectacle,” to use Guy Debord’s famous phrase. How can United Statesians be distracted, and therefore be content to buy things as a substitute for meaningful participation in their own society, unless there is a cornucopia to catch their attention. Pictures provide a part of this distraction.

Ms. Sontag took this a step further, noting that “photography is acquisition in several forms,” as a surrogate possession, a consumer’s relation to events, as an acquisition of information and furnishing knowledge independent of experience.9 But photography’s utility extends to the nation as a whole, she declared:

“A capitalist society requires a culture based on images. It needs to furnish vast amounts of entertainment in order to stimulate buying and anesthetize the injuries of class, race, and sex. And it needs to gather unlimited amounts of information, the better to exploit natural resources, increase productivity, keep order, make war, give jobs to bureaucrats. The camera’s twin capacities, to subjectify reality and to objectify it, ideally serve these needs and strengthen them.”10

Of course, the camera can point more than one way, and is a convenient tool of demonstrators and others — the police generally don’t attack when the cameras are watching. Arthur C. Clarke’s maxim that there are no evil technologies, only evil uses of technology, however much we may quibble with it, rings true in regard to the camera. If the U.S. bourgeoisie ever decide to go completely to the dark side, they will surely not want the counter-revolution to be televised. Or photographed. The ubiquity of cameras would work against them, caught in a consumerist contradiction that we, Surrealist or not, can appreciate.

1 Susan Sontag, On Photography [Picador, New York], page 17
2 ibid, pages 106-107
3 ibid, page 109
4 ibid, page 32
5 ibid, page 35
6 ibid, pages 74-75
7 ibid, pages 81-82
8 ibid, page 10
9 ibid, pages 155-156
10 ibid, page 178