We can do better than capitalist formal “democracy”

An article I read shortly after Jacinda Ardern’s re-election in New Zealand noted, with a touch of weariness, that Labour’s victory came after a campaign measured in “weeks.” Folks there ought to count themselves lucky — the United States has endured years of campaigning in what has proved, to the surprise of no one, its nastiest presidential contest in memory.

Not to mention that the sclerotic U.S. political system has yet again thrown up two dismal choices, sadly reiterating that the two major parties offer a choice of extreme right (Republican) and center-right (Democrats). And although a common lament is that a third party is needed, one that might actually represent the interests of the majority of United Statesians, very few seriously considering pulling the lever for an alternative party, and the number of those who actually do are likely to be less than usual, given the understandably fervent desire to push Donald Trump out of the White House.

Millions will hold their noses while voting for Joe Biden. The lesser evil is still evil, especially given former Vice President Biden’s dismal record of war mongering, acting as an errand boy for big banks and turbo-charging the prison-industrial complex. So why does the U.S. not only offer such abysmal choices, but seemingly worse ones every four years?

Ultimately, the stranglehold of capital on all aspects of U.S. institutions, the ability of industrialists and financiers to buy Republican and Democratic politicians and their ownership of the news media makes the idea of “democracy” a farce. But the U.S. is a formal democracy, not yet a fascist dictatorship (despite the wishes of Trump), so theoretically it is possible for a popular movement to elevate a candidate pursuing progressive goals.

Cherry Blossoms in Washington during March (photo by Sarah H.)

Not so easy, of course, as the Democratic Party leadership, obeying the wishes of its corporate benefactors, did all it could to oppose the rise of Bernie Sanders — and Senator Sanders is merely an FDR-style liberal, not actually a socialist (despite what he calls himself). That a platform emulating the time that the party enjoyed its biggest congressional majorities is now beyond the pale speaks volumes. Even if Senator Sanders had been able to win the presidential nomination, corporate Democrats would undoubtedly have undermined his candidacy; party leaders like Hillary Clinton made it clear they would have rather seen Trump win re-election than see Senator Sanders win. Just as we saw in Britain, where Labour potentates, and far from only Blairites, clearly preferred to lose to the Conservatives rather than win with Jeremy Corbyn.

But beyond the sad spectacle of Democratic fealty to Wall Street and Republican worship of industrialists, the U.S. system, as currently constructed, is as foolproof a system of maintaining elite power as exists in any capitalist formal democracy. It’s only partly due to the U.S. being saddled with an anachronistic Constitution hopelessly out of date, a document that cements this corporate lockbox. Not that the Constitution should be overlooked; the U.S. Senate is the world’s most undemocratic legislative body (Wyoming, with 570,000 people, and California, with 39 million, both have two members) and the Electoral College allows a minority of voters to elect a candidate with a minority of votes (a presidential vote in Wyoming counts three times more than a vote in New York).

A president who received nearly 3 million votes less than his opponent in 2016 is enabled by a Senate in which the controlling party received a cumulative 20 million votes less than their opponents and is able to pack a Supreme Court with extremists out of step with majority opinion (an unelected Supreme Court that is a political super-legislature with powers far beyond those possessed by other countries’ high courts).

Choice is an illusion in a two-party system

The foregoing are certainly serious contributors to the backward U.S. political system, easily the worst among all advanced capitalist countries and worse than plenty of others elsewhere in the world. And we haven’t even touched on the pathetic unwillingness of Democrats to stand up for whatever it is they believe in and the party’s bizarre tendency to “stand up” to its base, products of the intellectual dead end of liberalism. Nonetheless, the ultimate reason for the two-party system is the U.S. system of single-seat, winner-take-all representation.

Until some form of proportional representation is enacted, United Statesians will be stuck with their deadening two-party system.

A representative body based on districts each with one representative is a closed system. With two entrenched parties contesting for a single seat, there is no room for a third party to emerge. Campaigns for elections to these bodies 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.”

The Hague (photo by Alphaomega)

The advantage of the two-party system (for its beneficiaries) is that is offers the illusion of choice, in contrast to one-party systems. This “choice” is illusory because capitalists, through the concentrated power amassed in their corporations and the ability of those capitalists to suffuse their ideologies into other institutions, restrict the scope of debate within boundaries acceptable to them — ideas that question their dominance are far outside those boundaries. Still, there is much more scope for the contesting of ideas and for serious acknowledgement of problems and devising solutions than in a one-party system. Individual political figures can be voted out of office, unlike in a one-party system, and although changing personalities does not in itself change the system in any way, it does provide a safety valve.

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.

Personalities over substance

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 the views that are going to be heard. And if the district boundaries can be redrawn any which way periodically, the two parties can work together (since they control all political institutions) so that both have “safe” seats, or if one party is much more willing to employ bare-knuckles tactics than the other, it draws the lines to benefit itself.

The two parties nonetheless compete fiercely to win elections. They represent different groupings within the capitalist class — Republicans favor industrialists and Democrats favor financiers. This is a closed competition: They act as a cartel to keep corporate money rolling in and other parties out. These are the underlying reasons for the stability of a two-party system — replacing it with a multiple-party system would require fundamentally changing political structures.

Most any other system would be more democratic. Not altogether democratic as long as capitalism exists (the built-in inequalities and power imbalances can’t be wished away but must be eliminated through the construction of a better world), but at least an improvement.

One system increasingly being experimented with is ranked-choice voting, also known as instant runoff. In this system, a voter ranks as many candidates as she or he likes. If no candidate wins a majority of first-choice votes, the candidate with the least number of votes is eliminated, and the second choices of ballots choosing the eliminated candidate are then added to the remaining candidates; this can be done multiple times until someone has a majority. In this system, a voter can vote for who they really wish to see take office and rank the “lesser evil” second to keep the “greater evil” out. Australia uses this system but because its House of Representatives uses a winner-take-all, single-seat districts, there is an effective two-party system there (the Liberal/National coalition and Labor), although 14 of the 151 seats are held by minor parties or independents.

This system is an improvement, but it’s not the panacea its promoters promote it as. Using it for single-seat, winner-take-all districts leaves the system of two dominant corporate parties intact, continues to allow them to draw district boundaries to their benefit and only very marginally increases the long odds of a third party winning. At best, this is tinkering with a fatally flawed system.

If you want more choices, you need proportional representation

Multi-party systems can only exist where there is proportional representation, no matter the content of a constitution, even if a constitution never mentions parties.

Some parliamentary systems use 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 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. Germany, New Zealand and Scotland use this system.

There can be two dominant parties in this system (as is the case in Germany and New Zealand), 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. The rules can be set to make it difficult for any party to achieve a majority, as New Zealand and Scotland do, and thus encourage coalition governments. (Labour’s victory this month in New Zealand marked the first time a party won a majority on its own since this system was adopted.)

The city of Wellington (photo by John Ted Daganato)

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. However, 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 and allows more parties to be seated. Governments of coalitions are the likely result of such a system, which encourages negotiation and compromise. The most common thresholds are three or five percent of the vote, but cutoffs can be lower. In the Netherlands, a party need only win 0.67 percent — the country is a single constituency with 150 seats. Thirteen parties currently have seats in the parliament.

Do we really have to limit ourselves to geography?

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 members of a parliament, can still be subjected to legal oppression. The threshold to win a seat in the Israeli Parliament has been set as low as one percent, and no party has ever won a majority, but that hasn’t prevented the consolidation of an apartheid state that renders Palestinians third-class citizens. 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. 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 seats three to five members of the Dáil from each constituency, and additionally uses a form of ranked-choice voting known as “single-transferable vote” in which a voter can rank as many or as few of the candidates in his or her constituency as wished. All but four of the 39 constituencies seated at least three parties.

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. There is such a stipulation in the District of Columbia — two of 13 seats are reserved for candidates not affiliated with the dominant Democratic Party. But that is not a guarantee that small parties will be represented. Both non-Democratic seats are currently held by independents, one of whom was previously a failed Democratic candidate. Members of the DC Statehood Party, however, have held seats in the past.

Of course we need not limit ourselves to traditional parliaments. Councils representing workplaces or other non-geographic constituencies were organized in revolutionary situations across the 20th century. Yugoslavia had a Chamber of Producers, elected from workers’ councils, one of two chambers in the federal parliament, from 1953 to 1963. For the next several years, Yugoslavia seated a five-chamber legislature! One chamber was the Council of Nationalities (10 members from each of six republic and five from the two autonomous provinces, a setup designed to dampen ethnic rivalries); the other four chambers included representatives from citizens by their economic or social-political function (economy, education and culture, welfare and health and organizational-political chamber). Unfortunately, the five-chamber federal legislature was not fully democratic because its members were delegated by members of lower bodies; there were direct elections only at the local level.

The human imagination can surely conceive of still more representative bodies. But future designers of political structures will need to eliminate single-seat, U.S.-style electoral districts — and overturn capitalism — if we are to ever had legislatures that are responsive to non-manipulated popular will.

Will the pandemic finish Trump or give his régime an escape?

Amidst all the talk about if the global Covid-19 pandemic will lead to an opening for socialism, or at least a reduction in the grip of neoliberalism, in the wake of capitalism’s failures, a more immediate question is if there is to be a reversal of the march of the Right in electoral politics.

Elections in New Zealand and several Australian states are scheduled for later this year, as are Brazilian municipal, Venezuelan parliamentary and French senatorial elections. The results in Brazil will be of particular interest, given the disastrous administration of Jair Bolsonaro, the extreme right president who lusts for dictatorship and continues to deny the effects of the virus despite the vast numbers of people who are dying. Will Brazilians turn local elections into a referendum on their neofascist president?

To the north, the U.S. elections in November will unavoidably be a referendum on the disastrous régime of Donald Trump, who has mishandled the pandemic from the beginning. But to be counter-intuitive: Will the economic collapse triggered by the pandemic serve to save him?

Times Square never looks like this

Bear with me here. By any logical standard, the performance of President Trump (I still can’t believe I have to put those two words together) even before the pandemic struck should have been sufficient to ensure the biggest electoral loss in history. But if logic was operative, he wouldn’t have been elected in the first place, and his fanatical base is completely impervious to facts, reason or reality. Nonetheless, his base is too small on its own for him to be re-elected. Thus President Trump has consistently staked his presidency on the state of the economy, falsely claiming that the economy has been just wonderful.

For his billionaire buddies, the economy has been wonderful. Not so much for working people. The official low unemployment rate is not a realistic measure. Only working people who are receiving unemployment benefits are counted as “unemployed” in official statistics issued by countries around the world. Thus actual unemployment rates around the world are much higher than the “official” rates, generally about twice as high. A better measurement is the “civilian labor force participation rate” — all people age 16 or older who are not in prison or a mental institution. By this measure, the percentage of people holding jobs in the U.S. remains significantly below its May 2000 peak.

And if what jobs there are don’t pay enough to survive on, what good is that? As a meme recently making the rounds of the internet featured a store clerk saying “Sure the Trump administration has created jobs. I have three of them!”

Overdue for the next recession

The long “recovery” from the 2008 crash could not have lasted much longer. Entering 2020, the world’s capitalist economies were overdue for a recession. The question is always what the proximate cause will be. A downward slide in the U.S. economy would have wiped out the single reason the Trump gang could point to for a reason to vote for the incumbent. In normal circumstances, that would almost certainly have ensured his deserved defeat.

An economic downturn has arrived, with astonishing force. The wildcard is that the downturn’s proximate cause is the pandemic. Will this provide the Trump gang with the excuse that enables them to evade their responsibility? It is no stretch to imagine the talking points once the 2020 presidential campaign resumes: “We had nothing to do with it; it was the virus; nobody could have foreseen it.” President Trump’s base will of course lap up such nonsense and it’ll be endlessly repeated on Fox News. The rest of the corporate media isn’t likely to be a big help here; it is easy to foresee endless hand-wringing pablum asking if the downturn could have been avoided and if the administration is responsible.

In such circumstances, it is possible that the Trump gang will be able to avoid their responsibility and escape blame for an economic downturn that is likely to last for some time, particularly if a significant fraction of the vast numbers of small businesses forced to close under government orders are unable to survive. That seems likely, given that small businesses are expected to keep paying rents to landlords despite having no income and a federal small business loan program that swiftly proved inadequate. Why is it that everybody is expected to sacrifice, except landlords? And except Wall Street, of course.

If, despite the foregoing, the 2020 U.S. election turns on the economy without allowing for excuses, then the Trump gang will be finished. But if instead the state of the economy is knocked out as an issue because the Trump gang successfully portrays the economic crash as a deus ex machina for which they have no responsibility (which would require some corporate media collaboration), then the election will hinge on the ability of both corporate parties to bring out their base on election day, and the degree to which voters loathe the candidates.

The Democratic Party has few peers in its ability to blow elections as was amply demonstrated in 2016. Having done all it could to hand its nomination to its least popular candidate and thus run a Wall Street corporate centrist in an election in which voters were clamoring for a change, the Democratic Party national leadership decided to once again elevate a Wall Street corporate centrist.

The failure of the political process

Joe Biden is not as unpopular as Hillary Clinton, but nonetheless he is emblematic of a party that is incapable of learning lessons or imagining a world not under the thumb of the financial industry. One can imagine the panic that must have set in when a few financiers casually made it known publicly that they would back President Trump if Bernie Sanders were the nominee. Senator Sanders, with his formal endorsement of Vice President Biden on April 13, has formalized the end of his campaign. Attacks on Senator Sanders for being a “sheepdog” or any other such useless epithet, clarify nothing. He won’t have any ability to be an influence on a Biden administration, and retain any ability to shift the Democratic Party at least a little bit leftward, if doesn’t act as a good political soldier and work to elect Vice President Biden. That is hard political reality, however much either Sanders supporters or those to the left of the Vermont senator find it distasteful.

It’s once again a “lesser evil” vote for United Statesians. A bitter pill to swallow. Given the unprecedented danger of the Trump gang, it is perfectly understandable that millions who would have preferred a better choice will vote for the Democratic nominee. If popular opinion puts all due blame for the horrific death toll from the virus on the Trump régime, the Orange Tantrum-Thrower will lose, but that is nothing to count on given that the wanna-be fascist dictator has gone all his life avoiding responsibility for his actions. As already speculated above, it is conceivable that the pandemic will provide an escape card from responsibility. How much will the corporate media enable that escape and how willing will voters be to swallow it?

All the above is short-term politics. (I am assuming the November vote will be held as usual; the voting schedule is specified in the constitution.) The larger question emanates from the spectacular inability of capitalism, and especially of institutions hollowed out by neoliberalism, to cope with the Covid-19 crisis. The failure of neoliberal ideology is clearly seen by large numbers of people as never before, and, to a lesser extent, the failure of capitalism itself, not simply its most recent permutation. But observation and organized action in response are not the same.

Neoliberalism was already breaking down and seen as an ideology needing to be sent to the dustbin of history by ever larger numbers of people. Should neoliberalism be replaced by a somewhat reformed brand of capitalism, a reform that would prove short-lived, or should we properly target the real problem — capitalism itself. Reform the unreformable, or a better world based on human need and environmental stability rather than a mad scramble for private profits and ever widening inequality?

That is a question beyond any election and a question to be answered by all the world’s peoples.

No thinking please, we’re red-baiting

The red-baiting of Bernie Sanders is in full swing. From Democrats. Yes, the silly season is upon us as Senator Sanders was roundly condemned because he believes literacy campaigns are good things.

I know the United States is a uniquely anti-intellectual country, but, still, you’d think teaching reading and writing might be thought of as positive goals. The Republican responses to Senator Sanders’ 60 Minutes interview in which he condemned the late Cuban leader Fidel Castro’s authoritarianism but also acknowledged Cuba’s social achievements, such as drastically improving literacy rates, was predictable. It was only to be expected that there would be pushback by Florida Democrats, who continue to believe they have to roll in the dust at the feet of right-wing Cuban émigrés.

Nonetheless, Democrats outdid themselves. Let’s first pause to quote the words of Senator Sanders that sent them into paroxysm of indignation: “We’re very opposed to the authoritarian nature of Cuba but you know, it’s unfair to simply say everything is bad. You know? When Fidel Castro came into office, you know what he did? He had a massive literacy program. Is that a bad thing? Even though Fidel Castro did it?”

Evidently it is. Particularly humorous was the response of Representative Stephanie Murphy, a Florida Democrat, who said of President Castro on Twitter: “His ‘literacy program’ wasn’t altruistic; it was a cynical effort to spread his dangerous philosophy & consolidate power.”

Teaching people who previously had been left in miserable poverty and without adequate education how to read and write? Run, run for your life!

Viñales Valley, Pinar del Rio province, Cuba (photo by Adam Jones adamjones.freeservers.com)

And demonstrating yet again his complete ignorance, Senator Marco Rubio offered this “history” lesson: “Democratic socialism sounds benign, but at the core of Democratic socialism is Marxism, and at the core of Marxism is this fake offer that if you turn over more of your individual freedom, we’re going to provide you security. We’re going to provide you free healthcare. We’re going to provide you free education. But the problem is that when they can’t deliver on it or you’re not happy with it, you don’t get your freedoms back.”

Where does one begin with such nonsense? Before we get to what socialism actually is, allow me to inform Senator Rubio and other bloviators that virtually every country on Earth, and every advanced capitalist country other than the U.S., has universal health care — and gets better results than the U.S. for a lot less money. Arranging for everybody to have access to health care really isn’t a spectacular achievement. It is not even necessary to be a socialist country to achieve it.

It ought to be possible to hold more than one thought in one’s head at a time, that there could be positive and negative attributes at the same time. Nor should it be forgotten that although demonologists like Florida politicians reflect those who didn’t like Cuba, we never hear from those inside Cuba who support their revolution.

Can reading be a conspiratorial act?

A short-hand definition of socialism would be this: Popular control of production so that enterprises are oriented toward meeting the needs of everyone in a democratic system instead of for the profit of an individual owner or for speculators. A system in which working people make the decisions in their enterprises and their communities and that such decision-making is done in a broader social context so that decisions with social repercussions are made with the peoples and communities affected. In other words, when people have real control over the conditions of their lives — the rule of people instead of the rule of capital.

Incidentally, Senator Sanders isn’t offering anything like that. He’s also been in favor of some U.S. overseas offensives, such as the bombing of Yugoslavia; echoes the right-wing lies about Venezuela even if he opposes an invasion; and refers to Hugo Chávez as a “dead communist dictator” even though President Chávez and his Bolivarian movement won 16 out of 17 elections in an electoral system the Carter Center called “the best in the world.” So the red-baiting of Senator Sanders is not based on reality but on an inability to distinguish between New Deal liberalism, designed to save capitalism, and socialism.

Miami skyline (photo by Wyn Van Devanter)

As I am writing these lines, I happen to be reading the autobiography of Dorothy Healey, the long-time Communist Party organizer who rose to be the chair of the party’s Los Angeles branch, then the second biggest in the U.S. In her book, she gave a detailed account of the political trial she and several other party leaders underwent in the 1950s on trumped up, political charges. Without minimizing the seriousness of the many years of jail they faced, this story also makes useful parallels with today. The prosecution used a strategy of guilt by association, and by distorting the party’s ideas, whether intentionally or out of ignorance of what those were. Healey wrote:

“As in the Foley Square case [a previous political trial of Communist leaders], it was a trial of books. The prosecutor would have witnesses read big chunks of violent-sounding passages from Marx, Engels, and Lenin. This kind of trial could not have been conducted in any other advanced capitalist country — France or England or Italy — because the basic concepts of Marxism were so well known, studied in every university, and familiar to every active trade unionist, that people would have laughed at the outrageous simplifications offered up so solemnly at our trial. That was a peculiarly American phenomenon.”

The mere act of reading and self-education was considered part of the “evidence” against Healey and her co-defendants! She wrote:

“The assistant prosecuting attorney, Norman Neukom, was a vulgar, ignorant man. He was so astonished when one of the defendants was quoted on the need for Communists to engage in continual study. ‘Imagine,’ he told the jury, ‘grown-up people feeling the need to continue to study history and economics and philosophy after they’ve left school.’ For him, somehow, this was further evidence of the evil nature of our conspiracy, grown-ups discussing books they had read. In his cross-examination he wasn’t interested in or capable of refuting any of the substantive points Oleta [O’Connor Yates] made about Party theory and activities.”

Times certainly haven’t changed.

Cubans under Batista had good reasons to join a revolution

None of the above is to suggest that Cuba is above criticism, or that the constrictions on political expression in Cuba is something to ignore. Cuba needs more democracy as it continues to convert the services sections of its economy from state-owned enterprises to cooperatives, as agriculture has long been. We might, however, reflect on the crushing burden of 60 years of attempts to strangle the country by its giant neighbor to the North.

The United States not only threatens to use its overwhelming power in military might but abuses its desirability as a huge market for exports by making its embargo extra-territorial and fully leverages its position as the controller of the global financial system. U.S. embassy personnel have reportedly threatened firms in countries such as Switzerland, France, Mexico and the Dominican Republic with commercial reprisals unless they canceled sales of goods to Cuba such as soap and milk. Amazingly, a American Journal of Public Health report quoted a July 1995 written communication by the U.S. Department of Commerce in which the department said those types of sales contribute to “medical terrorism” on the part of Cubans! Well, many of us when we were, say, 5 years old, might have regarded soap with terror, but presumably have long gotten over that.

Conditions in pre-revolutionary Cuba were ripe for a revolution. The country’s hundreds of thousands of agricultural wage earners averaged only 123 days of work per year. Nearly half of the rural population was illiterate, 60 percent lived in huts with earth floors and thatched roofs and two-thirds lived without running water. Not surprisingly, poor health was rampant with health care generally unavailable and unaffordable to the poor who made up the huge majority of Cuba’s population. Plenty of force was used to maintain that level of inequality. In Santiago de Cuba, the country’s second-largest city, Batista’s police would torture people to death, with mutilated bodies strung from trees in city parks or dumped in gutters; victims could be as young as 14.

Those conditions and the use of state terror tactics to keep those conditions in place were swiftly reversed after the revolution, never to return. But let us not have any fear of acknowledging that authoritarianism is not unknown in post-revolutionary Cuba and although there are fully free elections at the municipal level, higher-level government positions are not subject to popular vote. One-party states are not conducive to democratic decision-making, regardless of where on the political spectrum the one-party state sits and even in a case like Cuba where citizens are widely consulted and policies adjusted based on popular feedback. Consultation isn’t the same as the power to make decisions.

There is terrorism, but it comes from Washington

But is the United States in any position to point fingers at another country? Let’s look at the record of U.S.-Cuba relations.

The mere fact of the revolution, and its insistence on developing Cuban resources to benefit Cubans rather than immiserating them to enhance U.S. corporate profits, was sufficient to ensure steady hostility from Washington. Aviva Chomsky, in her book A History of the Cuban Revolution, reports the Central Intelligence Agency’s Miami station alone was given $50 million per year to coordinate the sabotage and overthrow of the Castro government following the Cuban rout of the Bay of Pigs invaders. Not content with the CIA’s efforts, President John Kennedy established a separate effort to sabotage Cuba, called “Operation Mongoose,” tolerated terrorist activities by Cuban exile groups based in Miami, and oversaw a series of sabotage operations against Cuban infrastructure, one of which led to the death of 400 workers at an industrial plant. A steady stream of raids intended to sabotage infrastructure and industry continued after the missile crisis, including a CIA-organized operation in which Cuban exiles mined a harbor, which led to the destruction of boats and the deaths of several people.

Cartoon by Carlos Latuff

Later in the 1960s and thereafter, CIA tactics switched to encouraging exile groups to conduct those types of terrorist operations rather than directly conducting them itself. Instead, the CIA concentrated on biological attacks that resulted in a variety of crop, animal and human outbreaks of diseases. The CIA goal (carrying out U.S. government policy) remained fixed, as an agency operative would later admit: “We wanted to keep bread out of the stores so people would go hungry. We wanted to keep rationing in effect and keep leather out, so people got only one pair of shoes every 18 months.”

In a report published on April 20, 2000, in the Miami New Times, Jim Mullen compiled a list of terroristic acts committed by Cuban exiles in the Miami area, a list Mr. Mullen said is “incomplete, especially in Miami’s trademark category of bomb threats.” Mr. Mullen listed 71 acts of violence from 1968 (all but two from 1974) through April 2000. The list includes seven people, six of whom were exile figures, murdered in a three-year span of the 1970s; a radio reporter whose legs were blown off by a bomb after the reporter condemned exile violence; dozens of actual bombings; several beatings of demonstrators, including a nun; and bombings of cultural events.

Who gets to point fingers?

There is no bigger hypocrisy than U.S. government officials condemning other governments. Martin Luther King was correct when he called the U.S. the biggest pervader of violence in the world, and that is no less true today. The list of countries that the U.S. has invaded, overthrown governments or interfered in elections is too long to fully recount. In Latin America and the Caribbean alone, the U.S. has invaded 96 times. That total represents only the direct invasions; it doesn’t include coups fomented by the U.S., including Guatemala in 1954 and Chile in 1973.

Chile under Salvador Allende was similarly denounced as a dangerous dictatorship even though the Allende government kept strictly within legal bounds while the right-wing opposition used extralegal means to oppose it and when that didn’t work called in the military to bomb, arrest, force into exile, “disappear,” torture and kill hundreds of thousands. What “crimes” did President Allende commit? These three statistics concisely summarize the story:

• In 1970, on the eve of Allende’s electoral victory, 50 percent of Chile’s children were undernourished, stunting their development; there were 600,000 considered developmentally disabled because of lack of protein and other problems of malnutrition.

• In 1972, the Allende administration arranged for 550,000 breakfasts and 700,000 lunches to be served daily to students.

• By the early 1980s, under Pinochet, more than half the population of greater Santiago was unable to develop normally either physically or mentally as a result of lack of proper nourishment.

It takes a breathtaking level of ignorance to see providing health care, seeing to it that children receive proper food and raising literary and cultural levels is a form of terrorism while believing such basics should be provided only to those who can afford them. Unfortunately, such ignorance is bipartisan.

Why are Leftists cheering the potential demise of Rojava’s socialist experiment?

Lost in the discussions of Donald Trump’s abrupt announcement of the withdrawal of United States troops from Rojava is the possible fate of the democratic and cooperative experiment of the Syrian Kurds. Threatened with annihilation at the hands of Turkish invaders, should we simply wipe our hands and think nothing of an interesting experiment in socialism being crushed on the orders of a far right de facto dictator?

The world of course is accustomed to the U.S. government using financial and military means to destroy nascent socialist societies around the world. But the bizarre and unprecedented case — even if accidental — of an alternative society partly reliant on a U.S. military presence seems to have confused much of the U.S. Left. Or is it simply a matter of indifference to a socialist experiment that puts the liberation of women at the center? Or is it because the dominant political inspiration comes more from anarchism than orthodox Marxism?

Most of the commentary I have seen from U.S. Leftists simply declares “we never support U.S. troops” and that’s the end of it; thus in this conception President Trump for once did something right. But is this issue really so simple? I will argue here that support of Rojava, and dismay at the abrupt withdrawal of troops on the direct demand of Turkish President and de facto dictator Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, is not at all a matter of “support” of a U.S. military presence.

Kurds, Assyrians, and Arabs demonstrate against the Assad government in the city of Qamişlo (photo via KurdWatch.org)

Let’s think about World War II for a moment. Was supporting the war against Hitler and Mussolini’s fascist régimes simply a matter of “supporting” U.S. troops? The victory over fascism likely could not have been won without the herculean effort of the Soviet Union once it overcame the initial bungling of Josef Stalin and the second-rate commanders he had put in charge of the Red Army after purging most of the best generals. To say that the Soviet Union won World War II is no way is meant to denigrate or downplay the huge sacrifices borne by the Western allies. That Western effort was supported by communists and most other Leftists. The Communist Party of the United States of America (CPUSA) were staunch supporters of the U.S. war effort — party members well understood what was at stake.

In contrast, the main U.S. Trotskyist party, the Socialist Workers Party, dismissed the war as an inter-imperialist dispute. That may have been so, but was that the moment to make a fetish of pacifism or of an unwillingness to be involved in any way in a capitalist fight? We need only think of what would have happened had Hitler, Mussolini and Tojo triumphed in the war to answer that question. Backing the war effort was the only rational choice any Leftist not blinded by rigid ideology could have made. It is no contradiction to point out the CPUSA took the correct approach even for someone, like myself, who is generally strongly critical of the party.

Shouldn’t we listen to the Kurds?

To bring us back to the present controversy, we might ask: What do the Kurds want? The Syrian Kurds, surrounded by hostile forces waiting for the opportunity to crush their socialist experiment, made a realpolitik decision in accepting the presence of U.S. troops, and a limited number of French and British troops. The dominant party in Syrian Kurdistan, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), is strongly affiliated with the leading party of Turkey’s Kurds, the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). The PKK has been locked in a decades-long struggle with successive Turkish governments.

The preceding sentence is something of a euphemism. It would be more accurate to say that the Turkish government has waged an unrelenting war against the Kurdish people. Ankara has long denied the existence of the Kurdish people, banning their language, publications, holidays and cultural expressions, and pursuing a relentless campaign of forced resettlement intended to dilute their numbers in southeast Turkey. Uprisings have been met with arrests, torture, bombings, military assaults, the razing of villages and declarations of martial law. Hundreds of thousands have been arrested, tortured, forcibly displaced or killed. Turkish governments, including that of President Erdoğan, do not distinguish between “Kurd” and “terrorist.”

The PKK’s leader, Abdullah Öcalan, has been held in solitary confinement since his abduction in Kenya in 1999, an abduction assisted by the U.S. Successive U.S. governments have capitulated to Turkey by falsely labeling the PKK a “terrorist” organization and have actively assisted in the suppression of Turkish Kurds. Can it really be possible that Syrian Kurds are somehow unaware of all this? Obviously not.

YPJ fighter helping maintain a position against Islamic State (photo by BijiKurdistan)

Surrounded and blockaded by Turkey, an oppressive Syrian government, Islamic State terrorists and a corrupt Iraqi Kurdistan government in alliance with Turkey, the Syrian Kurds of Rojava have made a series of realpolitik choices, one of which is to accept a U.S. military presence in the territory to prevent Turkey from invading. That in the wake of the announced U.S. withdrawal Rojava authorities have asked the Syrian army to move into position to provide a new buffer against Turkey — despite the fact the Assad father and son régimes have been relentlessly repressive against them — is another difficult decision made by a people who are surrounded by enemies.

To ignore what the Kurdish people, in attempting to build a socialist, egalitarian society, have to say are acts of Western chauvinism. It is hardly reasonable to see the Syrian Kurds as “naïve” or “puppets” of the U.S. as if they are incapable of understanding their own experiences. And Turkey’s invasion of Rojava’s Afrin district, which was disconnected from the rest of Rojava, resulting in massive ethnic cleansing, should make clear the dangers of further Turkish invasions.

The Kurdistan National Congress, an alliance of Kurdish parties, civil society organizations and exile groups, issued a communiqué that said, as its first point, “The coalition forces must not leave North and East Syria/Rojava.” The news site Rudaw reports that Islamic State has gone on the offensive since President Trump acquiesced to President Erdoğan’s demand, and quotes a spokesperson for the Kurd-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces as saying that “More than four million are exposed to the danger of massive displacement, escaping from possible genocide,” noting the example of Turkey’s brutal invasion of Afrin.

Here’s what someone on the ground in Rojava has to say:

Trump’s decision to withdraw troops from Syria is not an ‘anti-war’ or ‘anti-imperialist’ measure. It will not bring the conflict in Syria to an end. On the contrary, Trump is effectively giving Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan the go-ahead to invade Rojava and carry out ethnic cleansing against the people who have done much of the fighting and dying to halt the rise of the Islamic State (ISIS). This is a deal between strongmen to exterminate the social experiment in Rojava and consolidate authoritarian nationalist politics from Washington, DC to Istanbul and Kobane. … There’s a lot of confusion about this, with supposed anti-war and ‘anti-imperialist’ activists like Medea Benjamin endorsing Donald Trump’s decision, blithely putting the stamp of ‘peace’ on an impending bloodbath and telling the victims that they should have known better. It makes no sense to blame people here in Rojava for depending on the United States when neither Medea Benjamin nor anyone like her has done anything to offer them any sort of alternative.”

None of this means we should forget for a moment the role of the United States in destroying attempts to build socialism, or mere attempts to challenge U.S. hegemony even where capitalist relations are not seriously threatened. Certainly there is no prospect of a U.S. government supporting socialism in Rojava; experiments in building societies considerably less radical than that of Rojava have been mercilessly crushed by the U.S. using every means at its disposal. That the project of Rojava, for now, has been helped by the presence of U.S. troops is an unintentional byproduct of the unsuccessful U.S. effort to overthrow Bashar al-Assad. At the same time of the expected pullout from Rojava, U.S. troops will remain in Iraq and Afghanistan, where they are unambiguously occupiers.

Assad brutality in the service of neoliberalism

Even if the analysis is overly mechanical, cheering the withdrawal of troops is understandable, given the imperialist history of U.S. aggression. Less understandable is support for the bloodthirsty Assad regime. “The enemy of what I oppose is a friend” is a reductionist, and often futile, way of thinking. The Ba’ath regime of Hafez and Bashar Assad have a long history of murderous rampages against Syrians. The United Nations Human Rights Council reports “patterns of summary execution, arbitrary arrest, enforced disappearance, torture, including sexual violence, as well as violations of children’s rights.” Amnesty International reports that “As many as 13,000 prisoners from Saydnaya Military Prison were extrajudicially executed in night-time mass hangings between 2011 and 2015. The victims were overwhelmingly civilians perceived to oppose the government and were executed after being held in conditions amounting to enforced disappearance.”

Enforced monoculture agriculture was imposed on the Kurdish regions of Syria by the Ba’ath régime, with no economic development allowed. These areas were intentionally kept undeveloped under a policy of “Arabization” against Kurds and the other minority groups of the areas now comprising Rojava. Kurds were routinely forcibly removed from their farm lands and other properties, with Arabs settled in their place. Nor should the Assad family rule be seen in as any way as progressive. Neoliberal policies and increasingly anti-labor policies have been imposed. The spark that ignited the civil war was the drought that struck Syria beginning in 2006, a disaster deepened by poor water management and corruption.

Political scientists Raymond Hinnebusch and Tina Zinti, in the introduction to Syria from Reform to Revolt, Volume 1: Political Economy and International Relations, provide a concise summary of Assad neoliberalism. (The following two paragraphs are summarized from their introduction.)

Hafez al-Assad became dictator, eliminating Ba’athist rivals, in 1970. He “constructed a presidential system above party and army” staffed with relatives, close associates and others from his Alawite minority, according to professors Hinnebusch and Zinti. “[T]he party turned from an ideological movement into institutionalized clientalism” with corruption that undermined development. In turn, Alawite domination bred resentment on the part of the Sunni majority, and a network of secret police and elite military units, allowed to be above the law, kept the regime secure. Over the course of the 1990s, widespread privatization drastically shrank the state sector, which earned Assad the support of Syria’s bourgeoisie.

Upon Assad’s death in 2000, his son Bashar was installed as president. Bashar al-Assad sought to continue opening Syria’s economy to foreign capital. In order to accomplish that, he needed to sideline his father’s old guard and consolidate his power. He did, but by doing so he weakened the régime and its connections to its base. He also altered the régime’s social base, basing his rule on technocrats and businessmen who supported his economic reforms and concomitant disciplining of the working class. Syria’s public sector was run down, social services reduced, an already weak labor law further weakened and taxation became regressive, enabling new private banks and businesses to reap big incomes.

Not exactly friends of the working class, and a strong contrast to the system of “democratic confederalism” as the Rojava economic and political system is known.

Building political democracy through communes

Clandestine organizing had been conducted among Syrian Kurds since a 2004 massacre of Kurds by the Assad régime; much of this organizing was done by women because they could move more openly then men under the close watch of the régime. Kurds were supportive of the rebels when the civil war began, but withdrew from cooperation as the opposition became increasingly Islamized and unresponsive to Kurd demands for cultural recognition. Meanwhile, as the uprising began, Kurdish self-protection militias were formed in secret with clandestine stocks of weapons. The drive for freedom from Assad’s terror began on the night of July 18, 2012, when the People’s Protection Unit (YPG) took control of the roads leading into Kobani and, inside the city, people began to take over government buildings.

What the Syrian Kurds have created in the territory known as Rojava is a political system based on neighborhood communes and an economic system based on cooperatives. (“Rojava” is the Kurdish word for “west,” denoting that the Syrian portion of their traditional lands is “West Kurdistan.”) The inspiration for their system is Murray Bookchin’s concept of a federation of independent communities known as “libertarian municipalism” or “communalism.” But democratic confederalism is a syncretic philosophy, influenced by theorists such as Immanuel Wallerstein, Benedict Anderson and Antonio Gramsci in addition to Mr. Bookchin but rooted in Kurdish history and culture.

Political organization in Rojava consists of two parallel structures. The older and more established is the system of communes and councils, which are direct-participation bodies. The other structure, resembling a traditional government, is the Democratic-Autonomous Administration, which is more of a representative body, although one that includes seats for all parties and multiple social organizations.

The commune is the basic unit of self-government, the base of the council system. A commune comprises the households of a few streets within a city or village, usually 30 to 400 households. Above the commune level are community people’s councils comprising a city neighborhood or a village. The next level up are the district councils, consisting of a city and surrounding villages. The top of the four levels is the People’s Council of West Kurdistan, which elects an executive body on which about three dozen people sit. The top level theoretically coordinates decisions for all of Rojava.

Integrated within the four-level council system are seven commissions — defense, economics, politics, civil society, free society, justice and ideology — and a women’s council. These committees and women’s councils exist at all four levels. In turn commissions at local levels coordinate their work with commissions in adjacent areas. There is also an additional commission, health, responsible for coordinating access to health care (regardless of ability to pay) and maintaining hospitals, in which medical professionals fully participate. Except for the women’s councils, all bodies have male and female co-leaders.

At least 40 percent of the attendees must be women in order for a commune decision to be binding. That quota reflects that women’s liberation is central to the Rojava project on the basis that the oppression of women at the hands of men has to be completely eliminated for any egalitarian society to be born. Manifestations of sexism, including male violence against women, have not magically disappeared. These may now be socially unacceptable, and more likely to be kept behind closed doors, but the system of women’s councils attached to the communes, and councils at higher levels, and the self-organization of women, has at a minimum put an end to the isolation that enabled the toleration of sexist behavior and allowed other social problems to fester.

A system of women’s houses provides spaces for women to discuss their issues. These centers also offer courses on computers, language, sewing, first aid, culture and art, as well as providing assistance against social sexism. As with peace committees that seek to find a solution rather than mete out punishments in adjudicating conflicts, the first approach when dealing with violence or other issues of sexism is to effect a change in behavior. One manifestation of putting these beliefs into action is the creation of women’s militias, which have played leading roles in battlefield victories over Islamic State.

Building a cooperative economy based on human need

The basis of Rojava’s economy are cooperatives. The long-term goal is to establish an economy based on human need, environmentalism and equality, distinctly different from capitalism. Such an economy can hardly be established overnight, so although assistance is provided to cooperatives, which are rapidly increasing in number, private capital and markets still exist. Nor has any attempt to expropriate large private landholdings been attempted or contemplated.

Given the intentional under-development of the region under the Assad family régime, the resulting lack of industry and the civil-war inability to import machinery or much else, and the necessity of becoming as food self-sufficient as possible due to the blockade, Rojava’s cooperatives are primarily in the agricultural sector. There is also the necessity of reducing unemployment, and the organization of communes is seen as the speediest route to that social goal as well.

The practitioners of democratic confederalism say they reject both capitalism and the Soviet model of state ownership. They say they represent a third way, embodied in the idea that self-management in the workplace goes with self-management in politics and administration. Since their liberation from the highly repressive Assad régime, Rojava agriculture has become far more diversified, and price controls were imposed.

The city of Qamishli in Syrian Kurdistan (photo by Arab Salsa)

Cooperative enterprises are not intended to be competitive against one another. Cooperatives are required to be connected to the council system; independence is not allowed. Cooperatives work through the economics commissions to meet social need and in many cases their leadership is elected by the communes. The intention is to form cooperatives in all sectors of the economy. But basic necessities such as water, land and energy are intended to be fully socialized, with some arguing that these should be made available free of charge. Because the economy will retain some capitalist elements for some time, safeguards are seen as necessary to ensure that cooperatives don’t become too large and begin to behave like private enterprises.

We need not indulge in hagiography. There are, naturally, problems and contradictions. Private ownership of the means of production is enshrined in documents espousing socialism and equality, and large private landholdings, with attendant social relations, will be untouched. It is hardly reasonable to expect that a brand new economy can be established overnight, much less in a region forced to divert resources to military defense. Nonetheless, capitalists expect as much profit as can be squeezed out of their operations, an expectation decidedly at odds with goals of “equality and environmental sustainability.” In essence, what is being created is a mixed economy, and the history of mixed economies is fraught with difficulties. Another issue is that Rojava’s authorities, connected with the dominant Democratic Union Party (PYD), can be heavy-handed, including the closing of the offices of the opposition Kurdish National Council on questionable legal grounds.

Nonetheless, what is being created in northern Syria is a remarkable experiment in economic and political democracy — not only Kurds but other minority groups and Arabs consciously working toward socialism. Why shouldn’t this be supported? The authors of the book Revolution in Rojava, supporters of the project and one of whom fought in the women’s militia, argue that the idea that Rojava’s acceptance of Western aid is a “betrayal” is “naïve,” drawing parallels with Republican Spain of the 1930s. Describing Rojava as an “anti-fascist project,” they note that the capitalist West turned its back on the Spanish Revolution, allowing fascism to triumph.

In the forward to the same book, David Graeber, careful to differentiate the targets of his critique from those who oppose the global dominance of North American militarism, argues:

“What I am speaking of here instead is the feeling that foiling imperial designs — or avoiding any appearance of even appearing to be on the ‘same side’ as an imperialist in any context — should always take priority over anything else. This attitude only makes sense if you’ve secretly decided that real revolutions are impossible. Because surely, if one actually felt that a genuine popular revolution was occurring, say, in the [Rojava] city of Kobanî and that its success could be a beacon and example to the world, one would also not hold that it is better for those revolutionaries to be massacred by genocidal fascists than for a bunch of white intellectuals to sully the purity of their reputations by suggesting that US imperial forces already conducting airstrikes in the region might wish to direct their attention to the fascists’ tanks. Yet, astoundingly, this was the position that a very large number of self-professed ‘radicals’ actually did take.”

It does seem quite reasonable to hope for a socialist experiment to avoid being destroyed by Islamic State fascism, Turkish ultra-nationalism or Syrian absolutism rather than clinging to dogmatism.

Why do Yemen’s dead not merit the attention of Jamal Khashoggi?

The apparent murder of Saudi Arabian dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi is a shocking crime that merits the international attention it has received, but nonetheless it is impossible not to wonder why the death of a single person receives vastly more coverage than ongoing Saudi atrocities in Yemen.

Is it that a dramatic story involving a single personality is easier to grasp than a war fought over complex political and ethnic issues, or does the differing levels of attention signal that Mr. Khashoggi has achieved the status of an honorary westerner while the tens of thousands dead in Yemen represent a distant “other”? Some combination of both of these are likely at work, and that he is a fellow journalist makes his fate all the more compelling for reporters and editors. Geopolitical considerations are certainly at play here, with the towering hypocrisy of the Trump administration on full display, a hypocrisy that stands out even in the dismal history of U.S. government policies toward Saudi Arabia.

President Donald Trump’s transparent attempts to exonerate Saudi Arabia’s de facto leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, by “speculating” that “rogue agents” might be behind Mr. Khashoggi’s demise inside the consulate is beyond laughable, or would be if the issue weren’t so serious. Billions of dollars of arms sales are at stake (not to mention a reliable supply of oil), so minor trifles like human rights or cold-blooded murder can be swept aside. Whatever evidence the Turkish government possesses has not been made public, and it would seem the most likely reason is because Ankara has bugged the Saudi consulate. If so, a sensitive matter that the Turkish government would rather evade.

The thuggish behavior of the crown prince has to be laid partially at the doorstep of the White House because President Trump has heartedly embraced him, giving the green light to Saudi Arabia’s bottomless contempt for human rights. We might even speculate that President Trump wishes he could do away with opponents as firmly as the crown prince. And never mind the atrocities the United States (along with Britain and France) facilitate in its all-out support of Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen — what is human life (especially the lives of “others”) when profits are at stake?

A blind child carries a dove at a protest against the attack on the al-Nour Center for the Blind in Sana’a, Yemen, on January 10, 2016. Students say neither the school, nor themselves, have taken any side in the war. (photo by Almigdad Mojalli/VOA)

By any standard, the conduct of the war in Yemen is inhumane. Nobody knows how many people have died as a result of the fighting, although the independent group Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED) estimates that almost 50,000 people were killed from January 2016 to July 2018. Implying a much higher total, Save the Children estimates that at least 50,000 children died in 2017 alone, or about 130 per day. The charity further estimated that almost 400,000 children will need treatment for severe acute malnutrition.

The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs offers this sobering assessment:

“An alarming 22.2 million people in Yemen need some kind of humanitarian or protection assistance, an estimated 17.8 million are food insecure — 8.4 million people are severely food insecure and at risk of starvation — 16 million lack access to safe water and sanitation, and 16.4 million lack access to adequate healthcare. Needs across the country have increased steadily, with 11.3 million who are in acute need — an increase of more than one million people in acute need of humanitarian assistance to survive.”

The United Nations Human Rights Council reports that Saudi-led “coalition air strikes have caused most direct civilian casualties. The airstrikes have hit residential areas, markets, funerals, weddings, detention facilities, civilian boats and even medical facilities.” Both sides are reported by the council to forcibly conscript children between the ages of 11 and 17 to fight.

A study written for the World Peace Foundation, The Strategies of the Coalition in the Yemen War: Aerial bombardment and food war, by Martha Mundy reports that “From August 2015 there appears a shift from military and governmental to civilian and economic targets, including water and transport infrastructure, food production and distribution, roads and transport, schools, cultural monuments, clinics and hospitals, and houses, fields and flocks.”

To what end are these atrocities committed? Professor Mundy writes:

“While the US and UK back their Coalition allies unfailingly in their wider political and strategic objectives, the two major Arab actors in the Coalition, Saudi Arabia and the [United Arab] Emirates, have different economic priorities in the war. That of Saudi Arabia is oil wealth, including preventing a united Yemen’s use of its own oil revenues, and developing a new pipeline through Yemen to the Indian Ocean; that of the Emirates is control over seaports, for trade, tourism and fish wealth. The attack on al-Hudayda [a major port] explicitly aims to complete the economic war militarily. That the immense suffering of Yemen’s people has still not brought surrender by those in Sanʾa [the Yemeni capital] does not give credibility to the tactic of further hunger and disease. Yet for the Coalition, as a senior Saʿudi diplomat responded (off the record) to a question about threatened starvation: ‘Once we control them, we will feed them.’ ”

Yemen is highly dependent on food imports, and the blockades of its ports have put Yemenis at risk of famine. Professor Mundy draws this conclusion:

“If one places the damage to the resources of food producers (farmers, herders, and fishers) alongside the targeting of food processing, storage and transport in urban areas and the wider economic war, there is strong evidence that Coalition strategy has aimed to destroy food production and distribution in the areas under the control of Sanʾa. … [F]rom the autumn of 2016, economic war has compounded physical destruction to create a mass failure in basic livelihoods. Deliberate destruction of family farming and artisanal fishing is a war crime.”

There is little coverage of this ongoing humanitarian disaster in the corporate media. Why are millions of lives almost an afterthought while one privileged life merits such intense attention? Again, the fate of Mr. Khashoggi and the spotlight it shines on Saudi practices merit the widespread commendation it has attracted. But why such indifference to millions of others? Where is our humanity?

China maintains its capitalist course

The Western corporate media have been fixated on Chinese President Xi Jinping’s hold on power, speculating on if he will follow the Communist Party’s tradition of leaders stepping down after two five-year terms. The larger story, however, is that there appears there will be no change in course, at least for now, for China.

Perhaps the fixation on President Xi is due to the corporate media’s tendency to focus on personalities over issues, or perhaps because it could be presumed in advance that China would not become a poster child for the International Monetary Fund or World Bank. To be fair, Chinese institutions have strongly emphasized President Xi’s leadership, continually referring to him as the “core” of the party’s central committee and celebrating that “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era” has been enshrined in the party constitution.

The way in which “Xi Jinping Thought” has been enshrined, however, indicates that the party and state leader is stressing continuity with his predecessors. The resolution by the 19th Chinese Communist Party Congress adopting the report of the outgoing central committee said this in the first paragraph:

“The Congress holds high the banner of socialism with Chinese characteristics and is guided by Marxism-Leninism, Mao Zedong Thought, Deng Xiaoping Theory, the Theory of Three Represents, the Scientific Outlook on Development, and Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era.”

Forbidden City, Beijing (photo by Adamantios)

Looking past the ritualistic style, what is noteworthy about the above paragraph is that every Chinese leader is mentioned. The “Scientific Outlook on Development” is the product of President Xi’s predecessor, Hu Jintao, who declared that China must end its reliance on cheap labor and invest more in science and technology. The “Theory of Three Represents,” laid down by former President Hu’s predecessor, Jiang Jemin, declares that the party should represent the most advanced productive forces, the most advanced culture and the broadest layers of the people. That is an assertion that the interests of different classes are not in conflict and that the party can harmoniously represent all classes simultaneously.

On the surface, that lineup of leaders seems unremarkable, but it represents a change from four years ago, when the party did not formally mention the “Scientific Outlook on Development” and attached the adjective “important” to the “Three Represents.” Combined with the announcement four years ago that the party declared “the role of the market” in China to be “decisive,” a switch from “basic,” this was a strong indication that China would further its integration into the world capitalist system, albeit on its own terms.

A continuing commitment to the capitalist road

The lines laid down by presidents Jiang and Hu, following the turn toward capitalism by Deng Xiaoping, would seem quite contradictory to “Mao Zedong Thought” or, for that matter, Marxism-Leninism. What can be reasonably inferred here is that the party will continue to use Mao as one source of its authority. That all post-revolutionary rulers are included in the list of enshrined theories, with none elevated above any other, indicates that the party is stressing continuity.

If there are to be any significant changes, particularly to economic policy, they are unlikely to be revealed before next autumn, when the third plenum of the new central committee will likely be held. Third plenums, generally held about a year after a congress, are often the occasions for major announcements, as was the case in 2013, when the above switch to making the market “decisive” was announced. (A plenum is a meeting of the entire central committee, generally scheduled at precise intervals.)

Also noteworthy in the congress’ resolution of October 24 was an acknowledgment that the party has to give greater priority to consumer interests and the environment:

“[T]he Congress forms the major political judgments that socialism with Chinese characteristics has entered a new era and the principal contradiction in Chinese society has evolved into one between unbalanced and inadequate development and the people’s ever-growing needs for a better life.”

The party, despite the heavy stress on “Xi Jinping Thought,” also sought to dampen hopes that the growth in living standards would be rapid:

“The Congress elaborates on the Party’s historic mission in the new era and establishes the historical position of Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era. It sets forth the basic policy for upholding and developing socialism with Chinese characteristics in the new era, and establishes the goal of securing a decisive victory in building a moderately prosperous society in all respects and then embarking on a journey to fully build a modern socialist China.”

The resolution, which repeatedly referred to the goal of a “moderately prosperous society,” also stressed the party will firmly hold onto its leading role, uphold the unity of China and strengthen its military. As to the direction in which the party intends to lead, the list of goals in the resolution give a strong hint. Among the listed goals are “pursue supply-side structural reform as our main task” and “endeavor to develop an economy with more effective market mechanisms.”

Although “supply-side” in this context certainly is not meant in precisely the same way that “supply-side” was meant during the Reagan administration in the United States, it is not without content, either. The Chinese business magazine Caixin, in a commentary about the congress, had this to say:

“The report said that ‘in resource allocation, the market plays the decisive role and the government plays its role better.’ This line shows unwavering determination to move toward market reform. But we should remain vigilant about how, under China’s current system, in terms of specific administration, the government plays a decisive role, while the market is in a subordinate role. Supply-side reform needs to accomplish five tasks — cutting overcapacity, lowering inventory, deleveraging, lowering costs, and improving economic weak spots. ‘Government failure’ cannot be entirely absolved in causing these problems.”

Party acknowledges “unbalanced and inadequate development”

So, again, more capitalism for the Chinese Communist Party despite its insistence that “socialism” is its guiding ideology. A commentary by the official Chinese press agency, Xinhua, offered these passages:

“The genesis of China’s development miracle is socialism, not other ‘-isms.’ The country succeeds not by rigidly copying the original ideas of scientific socialism, but by adapting it to China’s reality. Xi Jinping’s thought will be China’s signature ideology and the new communism. … China is now strong enough, willing, and able to contribute more for mankind. The new world order cannot be just dominated by capitalism and the West, and the time will come for a change.”

The reality is that China is ever more integrated into the world capitalist system, and has built its economy on being the world’s sweatshop — rendering it highly dependent on exports, particularly to the West. The party would like to follow the path of Japan, which started out making cheap consumer products before moving up the value chain to become a producer of high-end electronics and other technological products. Traveling such a path is a necessity if the party is to fulfill its goal of raising Chinese living standards and making China an undisputed global power.

Shanghai (photo by dawvon)

The reference to the “principal contradiction” of China being “between unbalanced and inadequate development and the people’s ever-growing needs for a better life” is an acknowledgment that China has made insufficient progress. A few numbers will illustrate that.

Household consumption in China remains far below the level of advanced capitalist countries. According to World Bank data, household consumption accounted for 37 percent of China’s gross domestic product in 2015, barely improved from 36 percent in 2007. (Household consumption is all the things that people buy for personal use from toothbrushes to automobiles.) To put that number in perspective, household consumption was as high as 71 percent during the Mao era and above 50 percent as recently as the early 1980s. In comparison, household consumption in advanced capitalist countries tends to be between 58 and 72 percent of GDP.

China’s rapid growth has been overly dependent on investment, and given the overcapacity of many Chinese basic industries and the rash of ghost cities constructed, the ability to continue driving growth through investment is questionable. Here again, data from 2015 is the latest available, when investment accounted for 45 percent of Chinese GDP, down only slightly from a high of 48 percent in 2011. To put that in perspective, the world average is 24 percent.

Wages rising but are still very low

Concurrent with the over-reliance on investment is an ongoing real estate bubble and increasing debt. For the period 2007 to 2014, only four countries saw their debt increase faster than China. A 2016 Financial Times report said that more than 60 percent of Chinese bank loans were directly or indirectly tied to real estate. That any downturn or stagnation remains well into the future is demonstrated in a sudden and pronounced drop in the Shanghai stock market in 2015, ending a stock bubble, not having much of a dampening effect on the economy. Nonetheless, a stock-market bubble is no panacea for low wages or a shredded social safety net.

And wages remain low in China, despite the gains of recent years. The minimum wage in Shanghai, the highest in China, more than doubled from 2010 to 2016, but was still the equivalent of US$327 per month. The minimum wage in most major cities is US$239 and in poorer provinces can be lower still. These increases, the product of labor struggle, may be coming to an end for the near future, however, reports the China Labour Bulletin:

“Current central government policy was clearly stated by Vice Minister for Human Relations and Social Security, Xin Changxing, in July 2016 when he said that because: ‘Our advantage in labour costs is no longer as clear-cut as before; we should ease the frequency and scale of wage increases so as to preserve our competitive advantage.’ ”

Garment manufacturers are relocating to Bangladesh, Cambodia and Vietnam, where wages are even lower. The Bulletin reports that Chinese minimum wages (which are set locally) should be between 40 and 60 percent of the local average wage, but in most cities it is less than 30 percent. The gap between low-paid workers and those earning the average wage has been growing, nor are overtime rules enforced.

The Bulletin concludes its report on Chinese working conditions in sobering terms:

“A superficial look at China’s major cities seems to show a reasonably affluent society: young, hard-working middle class families, determined to make a better life for themselves. Look beneath the surface however and you soon realize that the goods, services and lifestyle products that these middle class families aspire to are all produced, marketed, and delivered to their homes by an army of over-worked and under-paid working class labourers.”

Socialism or sweatshops?

If socialism is defined as a system of political and economic democracy in which industry and agriculture are brought under popular control so that production is oriented toward human, community and social need rather than private accumulation of capital, and all human beings have a say in decisions that affect their lives and communities, integration into the world capitalist system on the basis of low-paid sweatshop labor allowing massive profits for foreign multi-national corporations is not socialism, whether or not with “Chinese characteristics.”

Western corporations, led by Wal-Mart, are responsible for production being moved to China. China did not “take” anybody’s job; it became the favored destination of the transfer of production by taking advantage of capital’s relentless desire to relocate to locations with the lowest wages and most permissive regulations. Japan and South Korea were able to move up the value chain, develop industry and become new members of the Global North. China’s intention is to do this, but it is by no means certain that there is room for it to do so.

China, because of its size, is able to extract concessions from foreign capital and assert more control than other developing countries, and thus is in the unique position of entering the capitalist system on its own terms. But the market has its own “logic,” one that no country is able to escape.

There is considerable speculation that Chinese leaders are playing a long game, using the capitalist system to develop with the intention of later nationalizing and moving again to a socialist system. A healthy skepticism toward such scenarios is more than warranted. Wealth is being accumulated. The power the concentration of capital inevitably builds, and the commonality of interests of capital across borders, are not something that can removed via a decree.

However much China’s leadership might believe it can control and harness the market, there are always interests at stake. Capitalist markets are nothing more than the aggregate interests of the largest industrialists and financiers, and, in the absence of sustained, organized resistance, those interests are decisive, with all the attendant exploitation.

The rapid minting of billionaires in China, the party’s welcoming of those with wealth, and the wealth acquired by those related to party officials, means that the material interests of the Chinese Communist Party is more capitalism.

Pence as president could be worse than Trump

The thought of Donald Trump’s monstrous ego being swiftly turned out of office because of his incompetence and corruption can’t help but give us a warm feeling of schadenfreude. Yet contemplating his possible impeachment gives full meaning to the idea of being careful of what you wish.

The complicating factor here is that an impeachment and removal from office would elevate Christian fundamentalist Mike Pence to the presidency. That would be truly a horrifying development. Not only because Vice President Pence is more of a “true believer” in the extreme Right agenda than is President Trump but as an experienced legislator and governor, he’d likely be far more effective in steering bills through Congress.

With some of the most ideological Republicans in control of all three branches of government, and given that the Democratic Party has shown no sign whatsoever of learning from last year’s electoral debacle, hoping for relief from traditional politics seems even more hopeless than it is ordinarily. What to do? Even the ongoing campaign to “Refuse Fascism” by “driving out the Trump/Pence regime” has a controversial element to it. Although appropriately aimed at both while targeting the system that could elevate such horrors to the apex of political power, this sort of campaign spreads confusion by equating what is a particularly nasty manifestation of capitalist formal democracy with full fascism.

The Indiana Toll Road (photo by Georgi Banchev)

Let’s step back for a moment and remember a bit of history. In the last years of Weimar Germany, the Communist Party of Germany maintained a rigid sectarian line that focused its attacks not on the Nazis, but at Social Democracy. The Social Democrats were scorned as “social fascists,” and the coalition governments of Social Democrats and its moderate Right allies denounced as “objectively fascist” already. Instead of a united front against the Nazis, the only strategy that could have defeated Hitler before Hindenburg appointed him chancellor, energy was dissipated in sectarian sniping.

When the Nazis took power, they wasted no time rounding up Communists and Social Democrats, sending them to the first concentration camps. Of course, it was the Social Democrats who paved the road for the Nazis through their continual reliance on the right-wing death squads known as the “Free Corps” who would later became the seeds for Hitler’s storm troops.

The difference between a miserable, politically bankrupt bourgeois government and a fascist government was hammered home the hard way. Let us not make the same mistake now. Donald Trump’s ascension carries the seeds of a potential fascist movement but it is not actually fascist; thus far it is a conventional Republican administration in its policies, albeit one more extreme and incompetent than even the Bush II/Cheney administration. That is more than enough reason to organize with urgency, going beyond demonstrations to building organized movements. But if both Trump and Pence were removed from office before their terms were up, then House Speaker Paul Ryan would take office. Hardly an improvement!

The bar is mighty low indeed when Speaker Ryan, capable of little more than robotically repeating the lines he’s been fed by the Koch brothers, can, with a straight face by corporate-media commentators, be considered an “intellectual.” As the Green Party activist Paul Gilman jokes, “Ryan is considered an intellectual by Republicans because he’s read both of Ayn Rand’s novels.”

None of the foregoing in any way is an attempt to discourage the work of Refuse Fascism, or anybody else organizing against the Trump administration. We need more of this kind of work — especially work that targets capitalism instead of focusing on personalities. For our ability to limit the damage from the White House and its congressional enablers will depend on the intensity and effectiveness of our organizing.

A general in the Republican war on women

Circling back to Vice President Pence, it would be nearly impossible to overstate his extremism. In public speeches, he has said he is “a Christian, a conservative and a Republican in that order.” Like many evangelical Christians, he believes he has a right to impose his religious beliefs on everyone else, and as Indiana governor passed a law intended to do that. As a Daily Kos report put it:

“He has repeatedly claimed that he should make policies and pass laws that are in accordance with his faith. The evangelical church Mike Pence has been attending teaches that marriage is only between one man and one woman. The wife must be submissive to her husband. All women are expected to submit humbly to the teachings of Christian men.”

The church he attended in Indianapolis openly calls for a theocratic state, believing the Bible should be taken literally:

“We believe the Bible to be the verbally inspired Word of God, inerrant in the original manuscripts and the sufficient and final authority for all matters of faith, practice, and life.”

And this church asserts that not only should women be “deferential” to men and be “guided” toward marriage and away from a career, but that this applies to all women, whether or not church members. The Daily Kos article notes that a foundational book used by the church

“does not distinguish between conduct expected from women in voluntary marriages and unrelated women who may be members of another faith. This book teaches that preferences of women from different faiths (or no faith) are simply wrong and need to be corrected by the older women.”

And thus it is no surprise Vice President Pence would so distinguish himself for his crusades against women. As a member of Congress, he led fights to defund Planned Parenthood. Upon becoming Indiana governor, he cut Planned Parenthood funding by more than half and cut funding for domestic-violence programs. The slashing of funding for Planned Parenthood forced five non-abortion clinics that provided testing for sexually transmitted diseases to close, leading to an increase in HIV infections so severe that federal intervention was required. As the health crisis began to spiral out of control, local public health officials suggested using a needle exchange and harm-reduction program to combat it, but Pence refused, allowing the crisis to worsen.

Women’s March of January 21, 2017, in Chicago (photo by Jonathan Eyler-Werve)

As member of Congress, he co-sponsored a bill allowing hospitals to turn away women in need of life-saving abortions, and another bill that would have designated fertilized eggs as people with legal rights.

As governor, he signed into law a measure requiring fetal tissue from abortions to be buried or cremated, which was suspended by a federal judge before it could go into effect. The law would also have imposed rules designed to seriously impede the right to an abortion and subject doctors to potential jail terms. And it was under Pence’s governorship that Purvi Patel was given a since-reduced 20-year prison sentence for a miscarriage, after prosecutors claimed she had induced a “late” abortion.

A general in the war on gays and lesbians

In an Orwellian touch, then Indiana Governor Pence signed into law the “Religious Freedom Restoration Act.” The act does not grant freedom of religious belief, already strictly enforced and one that governments and courts bend over backwards to support, but rather was intended to allow evangelicals to force their religious beliefs on others. The law would have trampled on the rights of others, such as allowing businesses to refuse services to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, similar to Southern businesses being allowed to refuse service to African-Americans.

The Human Rights Campaign, in a report analyzing the Indiana law and other similar laws around the country, wrote:

“These bills are often incredibly vague and light on details — usually intentionally. In practice, most of these bills could empower any individual to sue the government to attempt to end enforcement of a non-discrimination law. The evangelical owner of a business providing a secular service can sue claiming that their personal faith empowers them to refuse to hire Jews, divorcees, or LGBT people. A landlord could claim the right to refuse to rent an apartment to a Muslim or a transgender person.”

Swift public pressure and announced boycotts led to a revision allegedly softening the law, but the intention is clear. A President Pence would surely feel emboldened to attempt such a law on the national level.

His animus toward the LGBTQ community is so severe that he tried to block federal funding of HIV treatments unless they came with a requirement to advocate against same-sex relationships. He opposes non-straight people serving in the military, going so far as to claim that “Homosexuality is incompatible with military service because the presence of homosexuals in the ranks weakens unit cohesion.”

A crusader against science

Not surprisingly for someone who believes in the Bible as the sole source of truth and law, Vice President Pence is no fan of science. He doesn’t believe in evolution or global warming. On evolution, a Think Progress analysis notes:

“Speaking with an inflection many evangelicals would recognize in their pulpits, Pence advocated in 2002 for changing science textbooks to describe evolution as merely one ‘theory’ among many, and suggested including ‘intelligent design’ — a school of thought similar to Christian Creationism — alongside the work of Charles Darwin.

‘The truth is [evolution] always was a theory,’ he said. ‘And now that we’ve recognized evolution as a theory, I would simply and humbly ask: can we teach it as such? And can we also consider teaching other theories. … Like the theory that was believed in by every signer of the Declaration of Independence? The Bible tells us that God created man in his own image, male and female he created them — and I believe that.’ ”

Vice President Pence’s hostility to science has apparently prevented him from understanding that human knowledge has progressed since the 18th century. That is of no consequence because God gave him the ability to read the minds of people dead more than 200 years.

The Minneapolis climate march of April 29, 2017 (photo by Fibonacci Blue)

And as to global warming, perhaps here the concerns of his billionaire backers are intermingled with his religious obscurantism. He once wrote an essay in which he said: “Global warming is a myth. The global warming treaty is a disaster. There, I said it.” Putting “greenhouse gases” in quotation marks (maybe he didn’t take chemistry in high school?), he assured his potential voters that the Earth had actually cooled over the previous 50 years. In a truly marvelous piece of perfect ignorance, he wrote:

“[T]he greenhouse gases alluded to are real but are mostly the result of volcanoes, hurricanes and underwater geologic displacements. Regrettably, none of these causes can be corralled by environmentalists hungry for regulation and taxes and, therefore, must be ignored.”

Funded by the Koch brothers

The Koch brothers must have been proud of him. He certainly has proved to be a winning investment for them. One of the brothers, David Koch, donated $300,000 to Pence’s gubernatorial bids, and there are strong ties. A 2014 Politico article reported:

“A number of Pence’s former staffers from his days in Congress have assumed major roles in the brothers’ corporate and political spheres. And Americans for Prosperity, the Kochs’ top political group, has been holding up Pence’s work in Indiana as emblematic of a conservative reform agenda they’re trying to take nationwide. … Pence has worked to spotlight the fiscal issues that animate the Kochs’ political giving. People close to the brothers say he first earned their network’s admiration during the George W. Bush years, when he opposed what he deemed Big Government policies backed by his own party, including No Child Left Behind and a Medicare expansion, and repeatedly warned that the GOP was veering off course.”

The Bush II/Cheney administration was too liberal! Something else to keep in mind should Vice President Pence gain even more power than he already has. Given his ability to understand how government works, he would likely be more effective at ramming through far Right wish lists than Trump. A Republican consultant quoted by The Guardian backed this opinion:

“Pence has outstanding relationships with the GOP leadership on Capitol Hill of all stripes, not just the social conservatives. So there’d be clear alignment and rapid progress on healthcare, taxation, and many other key policy initiatives that have eluded the party over the past months as a result of Trump’s unorthodox approach.”

To what extent the policies of the Trump administration are those of Mike Pence and what policies are those of White supremacist chief strategist Steve Bannon are difficult to know. Perhaps they have separate spheres of influence or, as is likely, there is considerable overlap in their agendas. The draconian budget proposed by the Trump administration on May 23 has the fingerprints of the budget director, Mick Mulvaney, a far right ideologue himself, but it is likely the vice president had much say in it — the punishments intended to be administered to people for the crime of being poor are certainly consistent with his style.

Given that Donald Trump doesn’t have the intellectual capacity or attention span to actually be president, and appears to rely heavily on a small coterie, Mike Pence likely is already directing much policy. There is nothing to choose between the two. We don’t have to declare them fascists to find them plenty scary enough. (You are, after all, reading this on your computer screen at your leisure rather than having this conversation in a concentration camp. And by this point, Hitler had already consolidated his dictatorship with political opponents and union officials murdered or in camps.)

We have all the reasons we could want to oppose the Trump administration at every step. An administration, not one personality. There is no reason to think ousting President Trump would lessen the danger to the world he presents, and could actually have the counter-intuitive effect of increasing it. Organize!