Counterpunch Articles

Gaza’s New Conflict: COVID-19

Photograph Source: Garoa – CC BY 2.0

At a time when everyone was celebrating the arrival of a new decade, a rare once-in-a-100-year event took the world by surprise: a major global pandemic named COVID-19. Governments around the world struggled to fight the virus, taking extreme measures to contain it with nearly one billion people now living in confinement. At first, Palestinians followed up on the pandemic with sighs of relief thinking that the virus will never reach them, especially in Gaza, where two million people have been living under a suffocating siege for more than a decade. Alas, their worst fears have been realized: the discovery of dozens of Coronavirus cases in both the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.

In 2012, The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees warned that the Gaza Strip would be uninhabitable by 2020. Years of a devastating siege and a series of military conflicts taking the lives of thousands struck the enclave with misery and poverty, bringing youth unemployment up to 75% and the economy to its knees. The current healthcare and sanitary system in the Gaza strip are extremely exhausted, lack basic resources, equipment and material that would be necessary not only to fight a major pandemic, but to simply treat normal day-to-day patients. A major outbreak of COVID-19 in the Gaza strip would lead to nothing less than a disastrous effect and would likely cause a death toll higher than all previous military conflicts combined.

On March 26th, 2020, the United Nations announced that it would facilitate the delivery of a total 1200 COVID-19 testing kits to Gaza’s hospitals to help fight the outbreak. Nearly 1636 people who arrived in Gaza via the Rafah Crossing border or the Beit-Hanoun (Erez) checkpoint have been placed in mandatory quarantine in 22 centers around the Gaza Strip, including schools, hotels and healthcare centers. 505 more people are currently in confinement at home. In the Gaza strip, every individual has an average of 0.18 square meters of personal space, which would place Gazans into involuntary clusters of interconnected social networks. One person can easily transmit the disease to scores of family members and neighbors living nearby, in houses that are glued side by side to each other. At one of the most densely populated areas in the world, the average family has nearly 6 members on average and most of the population lives in extended family homes of 20 members and more. More strict measures must be taken to contain the virus or catastrophic consequences will ensue the like of which Gaza has never seen before.

When the news of confirmed cases broke out, Gazans started taking precautionary measures to protect themselves and their family members from infection. However, with the lack of sufficient resources and equipment, Gazans had only one other way to cope with stress: cynicism and dark comedy. From Facebook posts to Twitter hashtags, Gazans reacted to the irony of being advised by the Palestinian Authority not to travel, whilst living under siege and prohibited from doing so for more than a decade. Others reacted with sarcasm to isolation notices to close down businesses and shops and go into confinement, wondering how they would provide for their children when there is little commercial activity in an ailing economy, even before the arrival of the virus in the first place.

In Gaza, over 50% of the entire population is unemployed; the percentage is 75% for the youth, which renders thousands of workers in agriculture, transportation, retail, and other industries desperate (The Israeli GDP per capita is nearly 30 times that of Gaza’s). Unemployment rates are expected to rise due to major lockdowns of commercial and economic activities. Authorities in Gaza have already closed mosques for prayer, shut down events and activities involving any gathering of people; limited entry to Gaza’s seaport for fishermen under tight restrictions and closed street markets. These decisions were seen as a necessary evil to prevent a major outbreak. However, they will present a painful strike to a weak economy. In the absence of an economic rescue plan, more Gazans will suffer.

In the event of a major COVID-19 outbreak in the Gazan enclave, the numbers draw a dark picture: according to the WHO’s Gaza office, there are only 62 ventilators in the Gaza Strip. They represent far less than what is needed to fight off the virus, and many of them currently do not function properly. There are only 2313 hospital beds available for an entire population of over 2 million people, with the capacity dwindling to less than 0.5 hospital beds per 1000 individuals. This compares to over 4.6 beds in Switzerland, 3.3 beds in Italy, and 3 beds in Spain, Europe’s most affected countries by COVID-19. There are currently 60 intensive care units in the entire Strip, 40 of which are currently occupied. The cost of preparing a single intensive-care unit costs nearly $50 000. The cost of a single testing kit is almost $5000. Gazan hospitals do not currently have the financial resources to equip themselves with enough equipment and basic material such as face masks. In short, an outbreak scenario similar to that of Europe or China will be a death sentence to the Gaza strip.

The supply chain will become even more exhausted under an imminent lockdown with major logistical difficulties of transporting food items, medicine and other essentials on a daily basis to families and shops around the Strip. The negative impacts of electricity cuts and lack of accessibility to clean drinking water can be fatal as well. NGOs, private-sector corporations, self-employed workers and students have all increased their reliance on the internet to work from home or study. However, many families around the Gaza strip do not have a smartphone or an internet connection.

In order to reduce the probability of a major outbreak in the Gaza Strip, the international community needs to recognize the difficulties that lie ahead. Hamas’ authority in the Gaza Strip is currently not recognized by the U.S, the EU or Israel. The two main doors of entry into the Gaza Strip are Kerem Shalom and Erez, both of which are under full Israeli control. The Covid-19 outbreak has no consideration for borders, ideology or ethnicity. It transcends them all, it attacks all humans. Israel and Hamas must cooperate with one another to keep each other safe. Israel seems to have already understood the upcoming challenge and therefore it facilitated the entry of testing kits and other medical essential equipment over the past few days into the Gaza strip. On the other hand, Hamas recognized that there could be a political opportunity that it could seize: by proving its ability to contain the virus with responsible measures and a smart management, they could be seen as competent and more legitimate.

However, the COVID 19 outbreak has shown not only Israel and Hamas but also many advanced countries around the world that they should have invested more in healthcare and sanitary infrastructure rather than dedicating entire budgets to defense and warfare. Economic stability is an additional essential factor for containing a virus: Gaza has lost many of its professionals, particularly, doctors and nurses who emigrated abroad due to dire economic conditions.

The COVID crisis has brought into stark relief the vital importance of investment in healthcare as a crucial factor in economic wellbeing at the individual and societal level. The virus knows no borders; as such, it has also underscored the imperative of mutual cooperation, which, perhaps ironically, could create political openings once considered impossible.

The post Gaza’s New Conflict: COVID-19 appeared first on CounterPunch.org.

Work, Crisis and Pandemic

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

As the depth of the crises resulting from the coronavirus pandemic sink in, millions of the most vulnerable citizens will be facing eviction, hunger and the ravages of illness. America has always been a brutal place for workers and the socially marginalized. Recently enacted economic stimulus and corporate bailouts will demonstrate both the bluntness of the government’s tools and the differentiated class interests they serve. The difference between who they help and who they don’t will be spilling forth as people facing sudden homelessness and hunger aren’t going to just fade away.

Beyond the question of aid from the Federal government, many workers face the prospect of getting sick and dying for simply going up to work. The largest employers, low-wage retailers deemed ‘essential’ through their grocery and hardware business lines, have hundreds of thousands of workers who are only eligible for unemployment benefits if government stay-at-home orders are issued. And with no requirement that employers provide PPE (personal protective equipment), many workers are earning money to pay for their own funerals.

The Federal aid programs are capitalist in the sense that they see the world through a capitalist lens. Unemployment benefits are premised in the idea that only paid labor matters. Since the 1970s, women entering the workforce have added to household income without the work that they were doing— household labor, being considered. The informal economy that sustains the poor exists outside of Social Security numbers, unemployment insurance, and many times the law. It ebbs and flows with the broader economy, growing in times of broad social failure and pitting citizens against the forces of capitalist order.

A virtual chorus of leftish economists has called for maintenance of this order through keeping workers ‘attached’ to their employers. A host of European governments are paying worker’s salaries through their employers so that economies can be restarted quickly once the danger of the pandemic has passed. Left unaddressed in comparisons with the U.S. is that despite four decades of neoliberal reforms, it was never that easy for European companies to fire their workers. ‘At will’ employment, the neoliberal standard, embodies the brutality of American labor relations when compared with Europe.

Labor market ‘flexibility,’ the ability of companies to fire workers quickly at low cost, has long been valued by capitalists who shed workers in recessions to protect profits. The Fordist / Keynesian insight that capitalists are firing their customers was, for a period, mitigated through New Deal programs to support household incomes during economic downturns. Between the end of WWII and the 1970s, unemployment insurance provided an economic bridge during periodic layoffs. As neoliberalism gained traction, state unemployment insurance schemes were systematically underfunded to limit payouts.

The workers for whom maintaining attachment with employers is most feasible are the capitalist functionaries in the PMC (professional managerial class). Together with corporate executives and various and sundry oligarchs, the PMC represents the richest 10% of the U.S. Over the last four decades, its role has been to organize work below it to make it more ‘efficient’ in the capitalist sense of producing more for stagnant or falling wages. The goal of this engineered precarity is to assure that the employer-employee bond exists only to benefit employers.

With respect to Federal stimulus passed to ameliorate the effects of the pandemic, these economists face the challenge that the only group whose interests are guaranteed to be have been represented in congressional deliberations are corporate executives and their agents. From the capitalist perspective, why save jobs now when you can buy desperate labor at half the cost later? This is to make the point that broadening and deepening unemployment benefits is exactly how the capitalist class wants the economic stimulus to be structured.

There are rational reasons for keeping workers attached to employers. The social organization behind capitalist production was decades in the making. Where people live, their shelter, sustenance and support relations can’t be shuttered for six months or a year and survive. To understand the impact of doing so, travel the U.S. to see the devastation that four decades of neoliberalism have wrought. The ultimate logic, as expressed through the structure of the stimulus and bailouts, is to create a tiny island of super-rich amidst a vast wasteland of the cast-aside.

Fear that workers will lose their skills overlooks both the availability of skilled labor overseas and the financial incentives that motivate modern corporate management. Since the 1980s, the role of corporate managers has been to keep ‘their’ organizations from falling apart as financial gamesmanship and eternally rising financial asset prices made them rich. Today, corporate executives and the PMC live in walled ghettoes where the improbable stories and implausible logic that emerge from remoteness and ignorance inform their power.

Not much about America works as claimed. The largest employers follow the Walmart model of low wages, weak worker attachment and the sale of mediocre products from squeezed suppliers at low prices. Through capitalist logic, these weaknesses are strengths. Amazon achieved critical mass as a corporation by starving state and local governments of needed tax revenues that brick and mortar stores were required to collect. This meant in turn that either government services were cut, needed revenues were squeezed from other sources, or some combination of the two.

Deskilling is MBA-speak for the commodification of labor to make it interchangeable and expendable. It is also a conceit of corporate executives who have little hands-on experience with the production processes they oversee. Here is ex-presidential candidate and CEO of Bloomberg Corporation, Michael Bloomberg, confidently explaining farming and metalwork to a roomful of corporate executives. He conspicuously doesn’t know what he is talking about. His broader point is to distinguish between ‘knowledge work’ and unskilled labor. But he has no knowledge of his topic.

Given how common this view is among the executive class— no one challenged Mr. Bloomberg on it, it is unsurprising that enhancing and extending unemployment benefits was favored over maintaining worker attachment. Almost anyone can be trained to dig a hole and drop a seed in it—his explanation of agriculture, in about fifteen minutes. Likewise, almost anyone can be placed in front of a metal press and taught to press the ‘on’ button— his explanation of metalworking. So, why not let the economy crash and afterwards hire unskilled labor at the prevailing wage to run the machines?

As the coronavirus pandemic is in the process of demonstrating, the U.S. hasn’t been run by wise and competent leaders, be they corporate executives or elected representatives, in living memory. Ivy league technocrat Barack Obama led the reorganization of both the healthcare and financial sectors. Both are currently failing due to faulty design, not the skill and dedication of their workers. And those paying attention wouldn’t let Joe Biden make change for a dollar, drive a car or feed their dog. He may soon be joining Michael Bloomberg in deciding how we live.

The issue of worker attachment is the clever branch of a larger debate over ‘liquidationism.’ First, by funding unemployment benefits rather than keeping workers attached to their employers, the bonds of employment are dissolved, or liquidated, goes the theory. Second, stimulus that goes to sustaining corporations keeps them from being liquidated— divided up into pieces, in the bankruptcy process. Finally, liquidation is the fire sale of ‘distressed’ assets that in theory exacerbated the Great Depression.

Not to be flippant, but the entire point of folding finance capitalism into neoliberalism was to end worker attachment to specific employers; to carve corporations up into their constituent pieces to be sold through investment banking (asset stripping); and to create zombie corporations that exist solely through bailouts. The objection appears to be that the Federal government shouldn’t be facilitating this process, meaning leave liquidation to the ‘private’ market.

Bailing out financial institutions, which the Federal Reserve is in the process of doing, keeps the mechanisms and means of predatory finance alive. And bailing out corporations maintains the value of the constituent pieces to be stripped by bankers. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin made more than one fortune as a pirate capitalist. So again, the complaint seems to be that the Federal government is stepping on private toes by floating banks and corporate valuations through bailouts.

In 2009, the decision was made to sacrifice mortgage borrowers to increase bank profits. The picture was muddied by fees, systematic document fraud and perverse incentives, but the choice was to either give banks bailouts to cover bad loans or to pay mortgage balances to keep borrowers in their homes and to cover bad loans. The Obama administration decided that paying mortgage balances would sully the moral character of undeserving homeowners (‘moral hazard’), but that bailing out miscreant bankers was a strike for capitalism.

With regard to a potential fire sale of assets, at the outset of the Great Depression there was no Federally guaranteed deposit insurance, meaning that when banks went under, they took all of the savings of their depositors with them. This created a vicious cycle where insolvent banks created payments crises that made for more insolvent banks, etc. It also resulted in a large number of banks being liquidated in waves that produced a deflationary spiral.

Today, the FDIC (Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation) is tasked with winding down insolvent banks. This means that it sells bank assets into orderly markets. It doesn’t dump them in fire sales. Around 2009 this was a point of some contention between the then head of the FDIC, Sheila Bair, and the Obama administration. Ms. Bair thought it best to liquidate insolvent banks while the Obama administration wanted to place them on Federally funded life support in perpetuity while allowing them to pay exorbitant bonuses to miscreant bankers.

Related, in 1998, (Ayn) Randian ‘genius’ and Fed Chair Alan Greenspan organized a privately funded bailout of LTCM (Long Term Capital Management) when its excessive leverage threatened to bring down Wall Street. After 2008 the Treasury Department and Federal Reserve stepped into this role of saving errant hedge and private equity funds. While a few hedge funds were initially allowed to go belly up, Federal Reserve Chair Ben Bernanke quickly stepped in to create the bailout culture that permeates Wall Street today.

With the grip that finance has on American political economy, there is little possibility of public financial liquidation. The most likely scenario is private liquidation where predatory financiers loot pension funds, bailed out corporations and government coffers. Given the power that predatory finance has been given to destroy the economy in normal times, a functioning society would shut Wall Street down in an orderly fashion and turn what remains into a heavily regulated public banking utility.

Reflexive defense of the status quo by an erstwhile left is ironic in the American context. Capitalists, oligarchs and most of the political class don’t appear to see their lots tied to it. An alternative explanation of the focus on unemployment benefits versus keeping workers attached comes through the flow of payments. Income pays the rent; the rent pays the landlord’s mortgage and the mortgage payment keeps the bank solvent. As long as owners and bankers are happy, the ultimate plight of workers is an afterthought.

Finally: Job Guarantee. Job Guarantee. Job Guarantee. And Job Guarantee.

Notes

For those with an interest, Milton Freidman wrote a bit about liquidation and the Great Depression as part of his Monetary History of the United States. Charles Kindleberger’s The World in Depression provides an international take with emphasis on how the charter and structure of the Federal Reserve left banks outside of Wall Street to their own devices. There is no need to take Wall Street propaganda at face value when more likely stories can be found.

 

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Slumlord Capitalism v. Global Pandemic

Photograph Source: Will Buckner – CC BY 2.0

The poet Langston Hughes once wrote, “I wish the rent was heaven sent.” With 10 million Americans filing for unemployment benefits in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, Hughes’ words resonate now more than ever. As we hurtle toward a public health and economic catastrophe, we must reckon with the sobering fact that our federal government is helmed by landlords, real estate developers, and financiers whose fortunes have been made – and whose worldview has been shaped – by years of predatory and extractive business practices. These practices prefigured the federal response to the pandemic and overdetermine the nature of the state-led economic rescue that is already underway.

Jared Kushner is widely regarded as the Trump administration’s behind-the-scenes point person on the coronavirus. Kushner, like Trump, inherited his family’s real estate holdings, updating the business model and expanding its geographical footprint. A New York Times expose from 2017 sheds light on the day-to-day workings of Kushner’s properties in the Baltimore area, where tenants live amidst chronically poor conditions and are subjected to a relentless pattern of petty and meritless litigation. In New York City, Kushner’s residential real estate portfolio has benefited from generous tax incentives and exploited loopholes in the state’s rent laws to remove units from regulation, in the process converting affordable apartments to luxury goods.

The extraction of value that is at the core of Kushner’s business model is based on the multiplication of rents-debts and the intensification of inequalities.

The business practices of Kushner – like those of the real estate industry more broadly – are emblematic of the shifting relationship between the state and the market economy over the past four decades. Beginning in the 1970s, after years of intellectual mobilization by right-leaning economists, neoliberal policies began to take hold in the US and Western Europe. The redistributive functions of the state, established during the New Deal and expanded during the Great Society, were whittled down to a nub, resulting in a tattered safety net and exploding inequalities. At roughly the same time, capital began to move more freely across borders, and once-vibrant economic centers saw massive losses of stable, relatively high paying industrial jobs.

During this period, the power of finance capital grew and real estate became a motor of economic growth. In fact, global real estate now comprises the majority of the world’s assets. The economic centrality of real estate is inextricably linked with financialization, which refers to the expansion of financial services and technologies, and denotes the process through which financial markets have been unleashed, empowering creditors and expanding private debt. Across the country, private equity landlords have bought up swaths of residential properties, preying on tenants of meager means, in the name of short-term value maximization. Though the spread of financialized real estate seems bland and technocratic on the surface, its effects – rent hikes, harassment, evictions – are dislocating and violent. In the words of economic geographer Desiree Fields, the end result is the plundering of “the spaces of existence of the working poor.”

For decades, the bipartisan commonsense has been that government should be run according to market principles. The current administration takes this logic a step further, governing the country like the financialized landlord of a recently purchased ‘distressed asset’: seeking immediate, short-term gain wherever possible – via massive tax cuts and the gutting of already-depleted social programs; nickel and diming workers and poor people; exploiting racist and xenophobic tropes to erode solidarities; seizing on – and expanding – regulatory loopholes; allowing vital public infrastructure to decay, particularly in poor and Black and Brown communities; and casting itself as the insurgent populist that is cutting through entrenched and inefficient bureaucracy.

As it turns out, this mode of governance is particularly ill-suited to deal with the type of crisis we currently face. Despite having a clear window into the near-term trajectory of the coronavirus (see Italy) and a blueprint for how to contain it with relative success (see South Korea), the Trump administration – reportedly under the guidance of Kushner – initially viewed it as a hoax. Then, like a slumlord confronted with well-founded complaints about serious structural conditions, the administration failed to take action. Little to no testing was done initially, leaving the scientific and medical communities at an information deficit regarding the pace and scale of the virus’ advance. This problem was exacerbated by the interplay between our profit-driven healthcare system and our under-resourced medical and public health infrastructure.

In late February, the precipitous decline of the stock market and the inevitability of the virus’ spread left the administration with no choice but to act. The federal response – uneven and incoherent as it has been – can be viewed as a reflection of the worldview of financialized real estate. President Trump’s first instinct, apart from repeatedly referring to the coronavirus as “the Chinese virus,” was to slash the federal payroll tax – this would have given workers in much of the formal economy a small infusion of cash; it also would have starved social security of funding. The $2 trillion bailout passed by Congress and signed into law by Trump is a boon to large corporations and Wall Street. The idea – held by some progressives – that Trump would outflank the Democrats from the left was belied by the paltry benefits offered to workers: a modest one-time check for $1200, extended unemployment benefits, and no relief for renters.

During a stay in New York City in the midst of the Great Depression, the Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca, shaken by the inequality and alienation of his host society, wrote, “[t]he terrible, cold, cruel part … is Wall Street. Rivers of gold flow there from all over the earth, and death comes with it.” In recent years, these rivers have coursed with lucre from the real estate industry, whose representatives wield state power in much the same way that they made their fortunes – through predation, extraction, grift, racism. As a global pandemic bears down on us all, disproportionately impacting the most vulnerable, the bankruptcy of that project is on full display. And death comes with it.

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The Bigger Picture is Hiding Behind a Virus

Things often look the way they do because someone claiming authority tells us they look that way. If that sounds too cynical, pause for a moment and reflect on what seemed most important to you just a year ago, or even a few weeks ago.

Then, you may have been thinking that Russian interference in western politics was a vitally important issue and something that we needed to invest much of our emotional and political energy in countering. Or maybe a few weeks ago you felt that everything would be fine if we could just get Donald Trump out of the White House.

Or maybe you imagined that Brexit was the panacea to Britain’s problems – or, conversely, that it would bring about the UK’s downfall.

Still feel that way?

After all, much as we might want to (and doubtless some will try), we can’t really blame Vladimir Putin, or Russian troll farms spending a few thousand dollars on Facebook advertising, for the coronavirus pandemic.

Much as we might want to, we can’t really blame Trump for the catastrophic condition of the privatized American health care system, totally ill-equipped and unprepared for a nationwide health emergency.

And as tempting as it is for some of us, we can’t really blame Europe’s soft borders and immigrants for the rising death toll in the UK. It was the global economy and cheap travel that brought the virus into Britain, and it was the Brexit-loving prime minister Boris Johnson who dithered as the epidemic took hold.

The Bigger Picture

Is it possible that only a few weeks ago our priorities were just a little divorced from a bigger reality? That what appeared to be the big picture was not actually big enough? That maybe we should have been thinking about even more important, pressing matters – systemic ones like the threat of a pandemic of the very kind we are currently enduring.

Because while we were all thinking about Russiagate or Trump or Brexit, there were lots of experts – even the Pentagon, it seems – warning of just such a terrible calamity and urging that preparations be made to avoid it.

We are in the current mess precisely because those warnings were ignored or given no attention – not because the science was doubted, but because there was no will to do something to avert the threat.

If we reflect, it is possible to get a sense of two things. First, that our attention rarely belongs to us; it is the plaything of others. And second, that the “real world”, as it is presented to us, rarely reflects anything we might usefully be able to label as objective reality. It is a set of political, economic and social priorities that have been manufactured for us.

Agents outside our control with their own vested interests – politicians, the media, business – construct reality, much as a film-maker designs a movie. They guide our gaze in certain directions and not others.

A Critical Perspective

At a moment like this of real crisis, one that overshadows all else, we have a chance – though only a chance – to recognize this truth and develop our own critical perspective. A perspective that truly belongs to us, and not to others.

Think back to the old you, the pre-coronavirus you. Were your priorities the same as your current ones?

This is not to say that the things you prioritize now – in this crisis – are necessarily any more “yours” than the old set of priorities.

If you’re watching the TV or reading newspapers – and who isn’t – you’re probably feeling scared, either for yourself or for your loved ones. All you can think about is the coronavirus. Nothing else really seems that important by comparison. And all you can hope for is the moment when the lockdowns are over and life returns to normal.

But that’s not objectively the “real world” either. Terrible as the coronavirus is, and as of right as anyone is to be afraid of the threat it poses, those “agents of authority” are again directing and controlling our gaze, though at least this time those in authority include doctors and scientists. And they are guiding our attention in ways that serve their interests – for good or bad.

Endless tallies of infections and deaths, rocketing graphs, stories of young people, along with the elderly, battling for survival serve a purpose: to make sure we stick to the lockdown, that we maintain social distancing, that we don’t get complacent and spread the disease.

Here our interests – survival, preventing hospitals from being overwhelmed – coincide with those of the establishment, the “agents of authority”. We want to live and prosper, and they need to maintain order, to demonstrate their competence, to prevent dissatisfaction bubbling up into anger or open revolt.

Crowded out by Detail

But again the object of our attention is not as much ours as we may believe. While we focus on graphs, while we twitch the curtains to see if neighbors are going for a second run or whether families are out in the garden celebrating a birthday distant from an elderly parent, we are much less likely to be thinking about how well the crisis is being handled. The detail, the mundane is again crowding out the important, the big picture.

Our current fear is an enemy to our developing and maintaining a critical perspective. The more we are frightened by graphs, by deaths, the more we are likely to submit to whatever we are told will keep us safe.

Undercover of the public’s fear, and of justified concerns about the state of the economy and future employment, countries like the US are transferring huge sums of public money to the biggest corporations. Politicians controlled by big business and media owned by big business are pushing through this corporate robbery without scrutiny – and for reasons that should be self-explanatory.

They know our attention is too overwhelmed by the virus for us to assess intentionally mystifying arguments about the supposed economic benefits, about yet more illusory trickle-down. 

There are many other dramatic changes being introduced, almost too many and too rapidly for us to follow them properly. Bans on movementIntensified surveillanceCensorship.

The transfer of draconian powers to the police, and preparations for the deployment of soldiers on the streets. Detention without trialMartial law. Measures that might have terrified us when Trump was our main worry, or Brexit, or Russia, may now seem a price worth paying for a “return to normality”.

Paradoxically, a craving for the old-normal may mean we are prepared to submit to a new normal that could permanently deny us any chance of returning to the old-normal.

The point is not just that things are far more provisional than most of us are ready to contemplate; it’s that our window on what we think of as “the real world”, as “normal”, is almost entirely manufactured for us.

Distracted by the Virus

Strange as this may sound right now, in the midst of our fear and suffering, the pandemic is not really the big picture either. Our attention is consumed by the virus, but it is, in a truly awful sense, a distraction too.

In a few more years, maybe sooner than we imagine, we will look back on the virus – with the benefit of distance and hindsight – and feel the same way about it we do now about Putin, or Trump, or Brexit.

It will feel part of our old selves, our old priorities, a small part of a much bigger picture, a clue to where we were heading, a portent we did not pay attention to when it mattered most.

The virus is one small warning – one among many – that we have been living out of sync with the natural world we share with other life. Our need to control and dominate, our need to acquire, our need for security, our need to conquer death – they have crowded out all else. We have followed those who promised quick, easy solutions, those who refused to compromise, those who conveyed authority, those who spread fear, those who hated.

If only we could redirect our gaze, if we could seize back control of our attention for a moment, we might understand that we are being plagued not just by a virus but by our fear, our hate, our hunger, our selfishness.

The evidence is there in the fires, the floods and the disease, in the insects that have disappeared, in the polluted seas, in the stripping of the planet’s ancient lungs, its forests, in the melting ice-caps.

The big picture is hiding in plain sight, no longer obscured by issues like Russia and Brexit but now only by the most microscopic germ, marking the thin boundary between life and death.

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Silver Linings Amidst the Capitalist Coronavirus Crisis

Photograph Source: 2C2K Photography – CC BY 2.0

The COVID-19 crisis is confronting U.S.-Americans with yet more undeniable evidence of the complete craziness and cruelty of American capitalism and class rule more broadly. The demented viciousness of the possessing class’s parasitic profits regime and many elite professionals’ privileged status are being exposed in graphic ways.

It is absurd that the nation’s economic system can’t pause and hold in place without taxpayers being compelled to spend trillions of dollars to protect the profitability of the wealthy Few’s giant corporations and financial institutions (while providing a bare minimum for the working- class majority). A “modern” economic order that refuses to stand still when nature and public health require it to without massive public bailouts for the rich (and very little for rest) is ridiculous, cruel, and dangerous

A system that throws millions out of work and off absurdly employment-based health insurance when their employment is no longer suitably profitable for the employer class is vicious and absurd.

A globally super-powerful industrial “democracy” that (thanks to extreme corporate power) never made health care a human right is cruel and irrational. Ordinary Americans are being bankrupted by absurdly high medical bills resulting from COVID-19 (for which treatments run around $35,000) along with other health conditions.

Under the rule of capital, the pandemic that U.S.-led global capitalism dug up and spread around the planet is causing Americans to lose health coverage in their critical time of need. The virus has forced people to stay home, causing businesses to lay off workers. And with roughly half of Americans nonsensically getting their health insurance through their jobs, layoffs mean losing medical coverage as well as income for millions. While everyday Americans’ need for medical care is rising steeply, fewer have health insurance or the cash to pay for it. That is cruel and absurd.

A system that has downsized hospitals and medical resources in the name of profitability while digging up and spreading deadly viruses in the pursuit of (what else?) profit is absurd, hazardous, and cruel.

A growth-addicted system that only cuts its lethal rate of eco-exterminist carbon emissions by going into a major, poverty-generating recession is cruel and absurd.

A system that pays corporate lawyers, lobbyists, and campaign consultants’ incomes far greater what it gives those who provide essentially life-sustaining health, sanitation, and food-provision services during a pandemic is cruel and absurd.

A system that hitches the retirement incomes of senior citizens to the manic boom and bust cycles of unbalanced and inadequately regulated financial and stock markets is cruel and absurd.

A system that rations exposure to and protection from a deadly virus by class position and status is cruel and absurd.

A system that makes frontline health-care workers perform life-saving duties without adequate protective gear while medical-industry elites stay sheltered from danger is cruel and absurd. Scientific American reports that “health care workers are facing the threat of disciplinary action for wearing masks in the hallways, elevators and shared clinical and nonclinical areas of hospitals—in some instances even if they come from the worker’s own supply.” Kevin Readel, a veteran nurse in Oklahoma, told the magazine that he was called into his hospital’s human resources office and threatened with immediate termination after he was seen wearing a procedural mask while inserting an intravenous line in a patient’s room.

Some hospitals have gone beyond threat. Four days ago, Bloomberg News reported this:

“Hospitals are threatening to fire health-care workers who publicize their working conditions during the coronavirus pandemic — and have in some cases followed through. Ming Lin, an emergency room physician in Washington state, said he was told Friday he was out of a job because he’d given an interview to a newspaper about a Facebook post detailing what he believed to be inadequate protective equipment and testing. In Chicago, a nurse was fired after emailing colleagues that she wanted to wear a more protective mask while on duty.”

“‘Hospitals are muzzling nurses and other health-care workers in an attempt to preserve their image,’ said Ruth Schubert, a spokeswoman for the Washington State Nurses Association. ‘It is outrageous.’”

So, it’s come down to this: firing medical professionals for telling the truth about inadequate protection amidst an epic public health crisis during which skilled medical labor is in shortage.

Talk about class rule. As Terry Thomas wrote me: “People who heal the sick and shelter the weak vs. a bunch of executives worried about PR. Which side are you on?”

Which side would that great brown-skinned peasant-artisan and radical anarchist healer Jesus be on? The folks who healed and sheltered the poor and weak, of course:

“No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money” (Matthew 6:12)

“For we struggle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places” (Ephesians 6:12).

I’m not religious myself but Jesus was just alright with me if and when he said stuff like that.

(Curiously enough, the CDC is now considering telling all Americans that they’d be well advised to wear protective masks when outside their homes in coming weeks.)

Could there be any silver linings in this crisis? Yes. Two come to mind: (1) the reduction in carbon emissions and other forms of deadly pollution resulting from the economic crash and (2) the lessons the 2020 capitalogenic COVID-19 meltdown is giving us on the need to move beyond capitalist and professional class rule — beyond an amoral and socio-pathological system of savage class disparity that is cruel and absurd almost beyond words.

COVID-19 reminds us that life is short, posing core existential and if you like spiritual questions of what we want our collective as well our personal lives (the two are intertwined) to be about. Do we really want to live in a savagely unequal world dominated by the endless, “growth”-addicted quest for profit by malevolently egoistic owners and rulers whose reigning eco-exterminist order is hard-wired to push the planet beyond the limits of decent livability even without viral pandemics?

Capitalism, intimately related to the mastery of money, is the very contemporary embodiment of “spiritual wickedness in high places.” We must choose. We cannot serve humanity and capitalism at one and the same time.

The post Silver Linings Amidst the Capitalist Coronavirus Crisis appeared first on CounterPunch.org.

Roaming Charges: Strange Things Happening Every Day

CLR James: “When history is written as it ought to be written, it is the moderation and long patience of the masses at which men will wonder, not their ferocity.”

+ Is it possible for an entire country to win a Darwin Award?

+ At the onset of a pandemic outbreak of a virus that viciously attacks the lungs of humans, the Trump administration is rolling back the clean cars rule, permitting a billion more tons of carbon dioxide into the air.

+ Despite months of warning, the Coronavirus has now killed more people in the US than 9/11. By next week, it will probably be killing more people in the US than 9/11 every week. By the following week, every day.

+ 6.6 Million initial jobless claims. That’s 10 million over the last two weeks. As designed, the neoliberal system is barely capable of serving the un- & underemployed in a mild recession. It’s going to collapse under the weight of a cratering depression. Then what? Are we to suppose that Biden and Trump, two of the most ridiculous figures ever to rise to leadership positions in this country, are going to work it all out on the phone from their respective bunkers?

+ Biden was asked by Chuck Todd if there’s blood on Trump’s hands. He responded: “I think that’s a little too harsh.”

+ Wrong again, Nate. There were 1,000 Richard Clarkes warning this was coming…

+ Nancy Pelosi, April 2019: “When most people say they’re for Medicare-for-all, I think they mean health care for all. Let’s see what that means. A lot of people love having their employer-based insurance.” Have you polled the 10 million newly unemployed to see how they like it now, Nancy?

+ Is PeteBot still promoting his Medicare-for-All-Who-Want-It scheme? I bet about 6.6 million people raised their hands today…

+ When speaking about nuclear war, Jonathan Schell talked about the “two deaths”: those killed immediately in the blast and those who would die lingering deaths from radiation, starvation, economic privation. Under our merciless form of government, COVID-19 will also exact a cascading sequence of miseries: first your job, then your health insurance, then your life…

+ Warning: This is your country on neoliberalism. Reserve your space soon. The parking lot is filling fast…

+ Ralph Nader: “Trump complains that China didn’t notify us when they knew about the coronavirus, but the NSA surveils everything, and they would have scooped up the first electronic transmissions between officials in Wuhan and from Wuhan to Beijing. Letting Trump know what Chairman Xi knew.”

+ What happens when the scapegoat (China) for your own lethal incompetence is richer, bigger and in a stronger global position than you are? Buckle up, we’re about to find out…

+ South Korea had the same “intelligence” about China’s COVID-19 crisis as Trump, yet skillfully and methodically managed to shackle the spread of the virus two weeks ago, while it rages here like a climate-change driven wildfire…Looks like somebody left the rake in the barn.

+ The country of immigrants is the most anti-immigrant country in the world.

+ I take it as a basic fact that all governments lie and that all governments know all other governments lie and they lie about the lies to cover the consequences of their own lies.

+ It’s probably pointless to note that South Korea has ranked higher than the US in most global “democracy” ratings since the 2000 elections…

Here's Seema Verma suggesting that one reason South Korea has been so effective in responding to the coronavirus is because it isn't a "free" country like the United States pic.twitter.com/ortfUBBYri

— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) April 2, 2020

+ Speaking of the state of democracy in America, here’s Trump speaking to the very same FoxNews about the House corona relief bill: “The things they had in there were crazy. They had levels of voting, that if you ever agreed to it you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.”

+ Mike Pence Wednesday on CNN: “We think Italy may be the most comparable area to the United States at this point.” (We could have been like South Korea, Japan, or Vietnam. But, no, because, you know, China…)

+ When Pence says the US is on the Italy trend, let’s be clear what he’s admitting: Italy currently has the WORST death COVID-19 death rate in the world at 218 deaths per 1 million people, though Spain is closing rapidly. That’s an admission of staggering incompetence and negligent homicide.

+ What to do when you’ve fucked up bigger than anyone has fucked up in the history of the Republic? Blame hospital workers, of course…

+ Aura Bogdado: “Maybe you have COVID so don’t leave the house and spread it. Maybe you DON’T have COVID so don’t leave the house and get it. Sorry no coronavirus tests are available. Also don’t wear a mask it’s PPE. Just kidding wear a mask it’s good public health. Sorry no masks are available.”

+ Total U.S. coronavirus tally at the end of each Friday. As Andrew Yang would say: MATH…

• Jan 17 — 0
• Jan 24 — 2
• Jan 31 — 7
• Feb 7 — 12
• Feb 14 — 15
• Feb 21 — 30
• Feb 28 — 65
• Mar 6 — 310
• Mar 13 — 2,224
• Mar 20 — 17,962
• Mar 27 — 102,636
• April 3 — 245,000 and rising…

+ According to the latest CDC modeling (assuming full mitigation measures are enforced), the virus will peak in the US at 2,214 daily deaths on April 15…

+ A couple of weeks ago, Trump said the virus would come and magically go away, killing maybe 15 people. Now, he’s saying anything less than 200,000 dead would be a big success thanks to him.

+ Anyone who survives will owe Trump a check…

+ Trump’s nightly carnival show will soon become a spectacle of him drawing lines with his Sharpie on CDC charts to explain away the daily body count of dead Americans.

+ Natalie Elsberg: “’Please don’t let anything happen to my loved ones that might require us going to a hospital’ is how millions of Americans were living without health care before COVIDー19.”

+ On April 1st, 1871, the Paris Commune abolished rent. It could happen here…if we make it.

+ The final survivor of La Nueve, the company of Spanish Republican soldiers who were the first to enter Paris in 1944, has died aftering having contracted the coronavirus. Rafael Gómez Nieto was aged 99….

+ Billionaires’ net worths, measured in the cost of ventilators:

Bezos: 4,784,000 ventilators
Gates: 4,004,000 ventilators
Buffet: 2,860,000 ventilators
Zuckerberg: 2,472,000 ventilators
Bloomberg: 2,344,000 ventilators

Hospitals in the US have a total of 170,000 ventilators. (Source: Public Citizen)

+ After announcing he is finally utilizing the Defense Production Act to make ventilators, Trump says, “C-O-V-I-D 19. You know what that is. Right? Become a very famous term. C-O-V-I-D. COVID.” Trump has all the best words, no question…

+ New York is paying enormous markups for vital supplies (as much as 15 times the normal prices in some cases), including almost $250,000 for an X-ray machine. Laws against price gouging usually don’t apply…

+ HRC with one more “bad call”…

+ Cost of hospital stay for COVID-19

Without insurance: $42k-$74k
With insurance: portion of $22k-$38k

+ Like every check Trump ever signed his name to….

NBCNews: Week of April 13 is earliest Americans will see direct deposit relief payments from the government; paper checks could take as long as 20 weeks — nearly 5 months — for some Americans

+ Nurses, the people Lindsey Graham claimed were ripping off America by making $24 an hour…

+ NYC emergency room Dr. Calvin Sun worked 18 shifts in the last 21 days, intubated his own nursing staff, and saw ER patients, who were clearly COVID positive, wait for more than 80 hours for a hospital bed.

+ One big step closer to single-payer (the hard way)…”Trump closes Obama health insurance exchanges…”

+ Dave Anthony: “It’s going to be called Trumpcare and it will be an expansion of Medicare for everyone. Democrats will have to live with that failure for decades.”

+  The Thalidomide Solution: On March 11th, the Food and Drug Administration said that it was postponing most inspections of foreign manufacturers of pharmaceutical products, medical devices and food imported into the United States.”

+ I understand why Don Jr. and Eric didn’t volunteer for military service (brain spurs). But that incapacity should in no way deter them from volunteering as human guinea pigs in clinical trials of untested potential COVID vaccines

+ Here’s what West Virginia (!) asked for in terms of emergency COVID-response supplies and what they received from FEMA, according to the US House oversight committee…

+ Matt O’Brien: “New rule: anyone who thinks the cure is worse than the disease should be given the disease first.”

+ When Trump says he knew “thousands” would die & that it could be both “horrible” and “good”, it means he thought most of the victims dying horrible deaths would be New Yorkers, liberals, his creditors, blacks, Hispanics, women he’d sexually assaulted and people who had said bad things about him…

+ Trump, Feb. 26: “This is a flu. This is like a flu.”

Trump, March 31: “It’s not the flu. It’s vicious.”

+ How much advance warning did Trump give Hannity before he broke the news to America that the flu had flown and the vicious virus had arrived?

+ It’s not like the Trump administration is totally incapable of taking prompt actions in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Case in point: they moved swiftly to add firearms to the list of critical pandemic infrastructure.

+ The fact that people are dying in jails because they can’t afford bail for minor, non-violent crimes and this walking is walking free, voting on legislation that will further enrich her sums up the state of play in America. Sen. Kelly Loeffler (R-GA) has reported more stock sales amid insider allegation accusations. Among that spate of sales, though, was an interesting stock purchase– in a company that makes COVID-19 protective garments…

+ Loeffler spends more on her hair in a week than most people will draw from unemployment…Where’s Joe the Sniffer when you need him?

It’s easy to feel down right now. But we can’t forget: social distancing will save lives. During these times, it’s the small, positive moments that remind us why we must stay strong.

Whether you’re on the front lines or at home, each of us plays a role in getting through this. pic.twitter.com/O5z7BDYRrU

— Senator Kelly Loeffler (@SenatorLoeffler) April 1, 2020

+ Adam Smith (1759): “The disposition almost to worship, the rich and to despise persons of poor and mean condition  [is] the cause of the corruption of our moral sentiments.”

+ During World War 2, FDR instituted the Lend-Lease program to provide $1 billion worth of tanks, planes and other military aid to the USSR. Now the US finds itself on the receiving end

+ Army briefing from early February warned that Coronavirus could kill between 85,000-150,000 Americans. The assessment made it at least as far up the chain of command as the Army Secretary and the Chief of Staff….

+ It was the worst of times; it was the most absurd of times…Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu shared with his cabinet a video he claimed was evidence of Iran concealing coronavirus deaths by dropping bodies in garbage dumps. Hours later, his office realized it was actually a clip from a 2007 Hallmark mini-series called “Pandemic”…Perhaps that’s where Trump got the intelligence about Iran planning to strike US bases in Iraq?

+ What if the wars you plotted as a distraction from the wreckage you made of your own country end up taking down the Empire instead?

+ Don’t let the Governor of Florida see this: Turkmenistan ‘bans the word coronavirus‘. People wearing face masks are even liable to be arrested by undercover police…

+ Among states with 5000 or mores cases, Florida was the only one that was not under a statewide ‘stay-at-home’ order (until Weds afternoon). On Tuesday, Gov. Ron DeSantis said at a news conference that he had no plans to issue a statewide order because “the White House had not told him to do so.” (He abruptly change his mind after Florida report more than 1,000 new cases on Tuesday night.)

+ That moment you realize that “Florida Man”…is the governor of your state.

+ Speaking of Florida Men, Brian Kolfage, a Florida military veteran who recently convinced Americans to donate millions of dollars for a privately built wall on the U.S. southern border, is now hawking millions of protective face masks in critically short supply during the COVID-19 pandemic…

+ Alabama Gov. Kay (the Executioner Lady) Ivey, explaining why she didn’t institute a state-wide stay at home order: “Y’all we are not California”.  She’s right, of course. Alabama’s Covid-19 infection rate is 25 per 100k, higher than California’s rare of 17 per 100k.

+ A jaw-dropping admission of deadly ignorance (or feigned deadly ignorance) from Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, who says he only just learned that asymptomatic people can transmit Covid-19. “[I]ndividuals could have been infecting people before they ever felt bad, but we didn’t know that until the last 24 hours.”

+ Florida Senator Rick Scott, whose company made $1.7 billion from fraudulent billings to Medicare  now wants to cut US funding for the World Health Organization because he believes it helped China cover up the extent of the COVID-19 crisis. Why not investigate why FLORIDA kept the beaches open for spring break, months after China informed WHO and the USA government about how infectious and lethal COVID was and revealed its genetic sequencing…eh, Sen Scott?

+ FEMA is warning states not to expect any shipments of ventilators until they are within 72 hours of a crisis. Crisis? What crisis?

+ Jared Kushner: “The notion of the federal stockpile was it’s supposed to be OUR stockpile. It’s not supposed to be states stockpiles that they then use.” Now that Kushner’s running COVID-ops for Trump, we’re all Palestinians …

Here's Jared Kushner going for the world record of most meaningless corporate buzzwords used in a single one-minute video clip pic.twitter.com/Vy1QJEhLQa

— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) April 2, 2020

+ I can to an increasingly limited extent understand the white working class’ ongoing attraction to Trump, who remains in character as a familiar rogue out the World Wrestling Federation’s cast of brawlers. But for the life of me I can’t comprehend why they don’t want to set their packs of coon dogs loose on the slumlord Jared Kushner every time he opens his whiney, condescending little mouth.

+ Trump was quick to try to fill up the Strategic Petroleum Reserve to bailout the oil industry, but neglected to fill the orders for the Strategic Ventilator Reserve to bailout those whose lungs were drowning in fluids from COVID-19…

+ America First (suckers): “As coronavirus sweeps the globe, there is not a single Trilogy Evo Universal ventilator — developed with government funds — in the U.S. stockpile. Meanwhile, Royal Philips N.V. has sold higher-priced versions to clients around the world.”

+ When the people running the government don’t believe in government why would you expect even the basic & essential services of the government to work? Every one of their own failures reconfirms their believe that government should be replaced by private enterprises…

+ Camus, 60 years in the ground, on the present moment:

“Nevertheless, many continued hoping that the epidemic would soon die out and they and their families be spared. Thus they felt under no obligation to make any change in their habits as yet. Plague was for them an unwelcome visitant, bound to take its leave one day as unexpectedly as it had come. Alarmed, but far from desperate, they hadn’t yet reached the phase when plague would seem to them the very tissue of their existence; when they forgot the lives that until now it had been given them to lead. In short, they were waiting for the turn of events.”

+ Oops, he did it again…

+ As Britney Spears knows, the economic impact of COVID will not be shared equally: The average woman in the USA made just 81% of what her white male counterpart earned in 2019. Black women earned 67%, Hispanic women earned 58%.

+ COVID-19…it’s not just for geezers. (And despite what you heard from CNN & the NYT, it never was.)…28 students from the University of Texas at Austin chartered a plane to Mexico for spring break. They’ve now all tested positive for coronavirus.

+ A 42-year-old woman in Arkansas with no pre-existing health condition (and who had never been hospitalized before, according to her sister) who felt “a little sick” on March 15 and thought it to be a cold or a sinus infection. After developing shortness of breath and cough that wouldn’t go away, she was admitted to the hospital and tested positive to Covid-19. She was put on a ventilator in ICU and, after 4 days, she died.

+ There goes Ralph Nader making entirely too much sense for television again: “Not giving undocumented workers insurance for COVID-19 is foolhardy. Do we want these workers who harvest our food, serve our elderly, and other critical tasks to go without testing and treatment and be contagious? This is where compassion and self interest can join together.”

+ If CNN gave Ralph Nader just one hour each Friday evening to demolish all the nonsense Trump, Pence and Biden had spewed over the course of the previous week, can you imagine how much better informed the country would be about what is required to confront the crisis that is enveloping us?

+ In the areas worst hit by the pandemic, Italy is undercounting thousands of deaths caused by the virus, a Wall Street Journal analysis shows, indicating that the pandemic’s human toll may end up being much greater, and infections far more widespread, than official data indicate.

+ In California, Governor Gavin Newsom remains reluctant to release people from overcrowded prisons, even as COVID-19 spreads. The state is under a federal court order to reduce its inmate population to less than 137.5% of capacity. It is barely under that cap.

+ Most of the talk about prisons now centers on the belief that inmates will infect staffers, who will then carry the virus into the public realm, making the inmates doubly guilty: first for their alleged crimes, then for being vectors of the virus. In fact, It’s more likely that the staff will be infected by their families who will infect other staff members who will infect inmates who will infect other inmates who will infect more staffers who will infect their families who will infect….

+ Number of inmates in Oregon prisons: 14,500
Number tested for COVID-19: 10

+ I wonder if “Rev.” Franklin Graham will allow such blood (Type: O-Satan) inside his Central Park MASH units?

+ It’s as if we’re back at the beginning of the AIDS crisis, when it wasn’t enough to fight a killer virus you had to fend off the ravenous swarm of “religious” bigots as well…

+ The Trump Administration is now saying seniors on Social Security must file a tax return to get a $1,200 check. This extra hurdle means millions of Americans will likely miss out on the payment.

+ John Henry: “Suddenly, the whole nation is depending on the same people they say shouldn’t make $15 an hour.”

+ Mark Ames: “Assume they knew long ago we should all be wearing masks—this idea has been floating around for awhile—but they lied to cover up the fact that they didn’t prepare, didn’t want to prepare, and didn’t really give a shit about our peon lives anyway.”

+ I know Andrew Cuomo is suddenly the new hero of the libs, but has he really been the man of the hour?

+ There’s an impression that the NYC outbreak is largely centered in Queens. In fact, it’s all over the place. Here are the numbers from Wed. morning’s Dept. of Health update…

– 40,900 positive cases
– 932 deaths

– 13,576 in Queens
– 10,904 in Brooklyn
– 7,625 in the Bronx
– 6,446 in Manhattan
– 2,314 on Staten Island

+ Andrew Cuomo on his brother Chris Cuomo: “Everyone is subject to this virus, it is the great equalizer.” Yes, Gov, the virus is the great equalizer. It’s the kind of treatment you receive after you contract the virus which reveals the great, often fatal, inequalities…

+ Jay Inslee ain’t great (as anyone living in the PNW knows) but he looks like the best we’ve got at the moment and he beats the hell out of Cuomo. Bonus points for getting called “a snake” by Trump…

+ Average travel in Seattle per person fell from 3.8 miles per day to 61 feet per day due to social distancing…

+ Rarely has America witnessed an election where the two leading candidates for president seem so eager to kill off the electorate: Joe Biden still wants people in Wisconsin to vote in person. “A convention with 10,000 people in an arena..is very different from having people walking into a polling booth…” Biden says he also supports using “some” mail-ballots. But refuses to support an all-mail election.

+ Joe Biden just seems out of touch. In fact, he’ll touch you when (and where) you least expect it…

+ Biden surrogates have spent the last couple of days going back in their timelines to delete Brett Kavanaugh-related Tweets and Facebook posts in order not to have their “Believe the Women” standards invoked against Joe the Groper…

+ But, hey, our sexual predator isn’t as crude as their sexual predator.

+ Some things Biden doesn’t equivocate about. For example, his unyielding opposition to single-payer health care. On MSDNC just now, Joe Biden says he still opposes Medicare for All as the coronavirus crisis grows: “Single payer will not solve that at all.” (Please go back to sleep, Joe. No one except Trump wants to hear you talk.)

+ Biden is very clear and adamant about his opposition to single-payer, but generates nothing but verbal mush when questioned about the murderous toll being exacted by the US’s sanctions on Iran…

+ Whenever Biden starts a sentence by saying, “Let me be clear…” (as in “people won’t have to pay for COVID testing or treatment”), it’s a flashing indicator that he’s about to lie his ass off…

+ $300 Million: the amount of money the airline industry has spent lobbying congress since their last big bailout…

+ $47 Million: the amount of money they spent on stock buybacks over the last decade. (h/t Doug Henwood.)

+ Zoom is now valued at 50% more than all the US airlines put together.

+ Low & mid-income countries don’t have the luxury of relying on their hospitals to mop up the mess of COVID-19. They hardly have ICUs. So many are taking extreme measures to curb total disaster. Amy Maxmen, one of the best health and science journalists around, reports for Nature on how four nations are struggling to limit deaths faster than the United States and other wealthy countries.

+ Week 3: About half of U.S. workers say they or someone in their household has lost income due to the COVID-19 pandemic, including 23% who have experienced a household job loss….”

+ Your mission, should you choose to accept it, Corona…

+ Carnival Cruise CEO Arnold Donald is pleading for a bailout:

•They’re registered in Panama
•5% of their workforce are American
•They pay <1% federal tax
•Many of their workers earn $500/mo despite working 12 hour days 7 days a week

+ At the moment Trump sent this Tweet this Tweet, 2,538 US residents had died of COVID-19 and another 3,000 were in critical condition. But, you know, RATINGS…

+ Three days later, as the American COVID Death Count hit 4,788 President Trump had this to say: “Did you know I’m #1 on Facebook? I just found out I’m #1 on Facebook.”

+ After appearing at the White House on Monday, Mike Lindell, the MyPillow CEO, shared a post connecting his company to the QAnon conspiracy theory. Also, he said that demons are attacking his website….Go, demons, go!

+ While searching for something else, I came across this article in the Washington Post headlined: “Trump Administration Ill-Prepared for Pandemic.” The date: April 8, 2017.

+ Hannah Arendt would have to come up with something a lot more prosaic than the “banality of evil” to describe the cretins now running the government, like Devin Nunes, who is urging California to reopen its schools.

+ In a moment of global crisis, Trump, Bolsanaro and Modi–the Axis of Assholes–are fucking up in exactly the ways you could have predicted they would fuck up (and some ways we weren’t dumb enough to predict)…

+ Meanwhile, Trump wannabe Rodrigo Duterte has ordered the Philippine military and police to shoot on sight anyone who defies his COVID-19 lockdown orders: “I will not hesitate my soldiers to shoot you. I will not hesitate to order the police to arrest and detain you. Now, if you are detained, I will leave it up to you to find food.”

+ Lee Papa (aka, the Rude Pundit): “How fucked are things on supplies? My campus is being turned into a hospital, and I was just asked if the speech language pathology lab in my department has any masks or gloves that could be taken for the medical staff to use.”

+ Nearly 60% of Americans in a recent poll have concluded that the US economic system is made solely to serve the rich. Are they mistaken?

+ “We don’t do body counts”: The Pentagon this week explicitly barred military commanders from publicly reporting COVID-19 cases.

+ We don’t do body counts, but we do place body bag orders: 100,000 for FEMA alone. Since our own funerals will probably be DIY affairs, I wonder how many are left on the shelves at Costco. Anybody checked?

+ So not only does the Pentagon get a blank check, it’s also written in invisible ink: The Pentagon wants classify the Future Years Defense Program, citing fears the data ‘might inadvertently reveal sensitive information.’

+ I imagine FoxNews will be holding a show trial for the court martial of Capt. Brett Crozier, commander of the USS Theodore Roosevelt, who was removed from his post for raising the alarm about COVID-19 rampaging through his ship.

+ The Navy fired the captain who tried to protect his crew and Amazon fired and smeared the organizer who tried to protect his fellow workers…”He’s not smart, or articulate, and to the extent the press wants to focus on us versus him, we will be in a much stronger PR position than simply explaining for the umpteenth time how we’re trying to protect workers,” wrote Amazon General Counsel David Zapolsky in notes from the meeting forwarded widely in the company.

+ Very interesting piece in Grain, which argues that 1) the virus didn’t spring from the ‘wet markets’ of Wuhan, 2) the first case showed up in Hubei province a month earlier, 3) Hubei is one of the centers of industrial pig “farming” factories, 4) it’s likely that the COVID originated with bats and then passed from pigs to humans at a factory farm…

+ Trump: Just spoke to the Butcher. He’s ready to raise your gasoline and heating oil prices. I know it sucks for you, but it’s great for the fossil fuel industry! Drain the swamp! Heh heh heh.

+ Inmates at Rikers Island are being offered $6 an hour and protective gear to dig mass graves. Who will they get to dig the gravediggers’ graves?

+ No masks, no ventilators, no tests, no hospital beds, but, hell, man, we’ve got this: Raytheon has secured a new $146.08 million firm-fixed-price contract for the Rolling Airframe Missile Block 2/2A Guided Missile Round Pack and spare replacement parts for the US Navy. Ain’t America great?

+ All aboard the Crazy Train (Cue mad cackling from Ozzie)! A train engineer at the Port of Los Angeles is facing federal charges for charging a locomotive off tracks the toward the USNS Mercy, which he suspected is tied to a government plot involving COVID-19, federal prosecutors said Wednesday….

+ A rural Minnesota county has unexplained spike in coronavirus cases. Local public health expert thinks it’s because of Fox News coverage dismissing the danger of the virus.

+ At some point, the people of Detroit and Flint are going to risk up and exact a mighty vengeance for two decades of unconscionable misery that has been inflicted upon them, as water shut-offs continue during a time of pandemic ….

+ Ernst Bloch, The Principle of Hope: “What is a health which merely makes people ripe to be damaged, abused, and shot at again?” (h/t Joe Lowndes)

+ Cigarette smoke triggers the expansion of a subpopulation of respiratory epithelial cells that express the SARS-CoV-2 receptor ACE2 … Don’t smoke?

+ Yes, that’s Alan Greenspan working as the second unit director for MSDNC …

+ Coming Soon from Judith Regan Books: America on $17 a Day by Steve Mnuchin, featuring an afterward by his wife Louise (“Did You Say $17 a Minute, Dear?”)

+ Trump: “When they disrespect me, they’re disrespecting our government.” Trump doesn’t speak French (because that would be too gay for Falwell), but what he meant was this: “L’etat c’est moi.”

+ For decades, Americans have been sorting their trash believing that most plastic could be recycled— but the vast majority can’t or won’t be. Oil and gas companies have known that all along, even as they told the public the opposite

+ As the EPA guts every air pollution regulation on the books, the planet says, I’ll see yours and raise with another hole in the ozone layer

+ Go ahead, kick us while we’re down. We are Americans, we can take it…(Hello, Putin, can you send bottled water with those masks and ventilators?)

+ Only the Best People: The White House wanted to give Native American tribes $0 in the $2 trillion emergency stimulus bill….(Better than infected masks, I guess.)

+ Trump’s new rule gutting the Migratory Bird Treaty Act could end up killing billions of birds. The American Petroleum Institute suggested in a regulatory filing that “the birds themselves are the actors, colliding or otherwise interacting with industrial structures.”

+ The federal government has listed the coal industry to its list of critical infrastructure that’s considered vital to public health, the economy, and national security, which is kind of like saying “virus” is essential to the public health…

+ Despite the subsidies and regulatory rollbacks from Trump, COVID-19 just might knock off the coal industry. Moody’s: “Before the intensification of the coronavirus pandemic in the US, we expected that coal production would fall by 15%-20% in the US, to about 550 million st-600 million st. We now expect that the industry conditions will worsen beyond this forecast.”

+ Kodiak, Alaska received just 0.19″ of precipitation in March. That’s only 3 percent of normal and makes 2020 by far the driest March of record. The previous driest was 0.40” in 1918.

+ Looks like the planetary defense system may be shifting into Full-Spectrum Dominance mode, as the Gulf and Caribbean warm up for another powerful hurricane season.

+ The Atomic Energy Commission created logos for their nuclear tests. Here’s the one for the “Dido Queen” blast at the Nevada Test Site, June 5, 1973, which plays on their mad theme of turning swords into nuclear plowshares…

+ The Day the Earth Stood Still: Researchers report a drop in seismic noise — the hum of vibrations in the planet’s crust — that could be result of transport networks and other human activities being shut down…

+ The National Zoo has euthanized Ambika, the elephant. She was 72 years old and has lived in DC for 59 years. Generations of kids here grew up with her. (I saw her my first week in DC and my last.) Her keepers called her “The Queen.” They gave her bok choy as her final meal.

+ I know everyone is sitting six-feet apart on the couch watching The Tiger King and it must seem like karma that Joe Exotic has been transferred to a prison hospital after testing positive for COVID-19, but I just can’t watch hours and hours of tigers in cages without wanting to destroy something or someone…

+ When Herbie Hancock dropped acid for the first time, he wanted to listen to one of John Coltrane’s free jazz albums. But his friend wouldn’t let him: “I think this might be too much for your first trip.”

+ During his first acid trip, Foucault listened to Stockhausen on Zabriskie Point, as the sun set over the Panamint Range and the stars exploded above Death Valley. He then returned to Paris and burned the manuscript of the 2nd volume of the History of Sexuality and completely re-wrote it focusing on the care of the body, which had hummed with electricity for him along the walls of Golden Canyon…

+ The soundtrack to my first trip was provided by Blue Öyster Cult live at the old Indianapolis Convention Center during the the annual Xmas concert, on a bill that including KISS (opening) and (strangely) Quicksilver Messenger Service. I took a tab during KISS but it didn’t really kick in until BOC played Harvester of Eyes…

+ Things I streamed while unable to sleep the past couple of nights: Altman’s Buffalo Bill & the Indians, a weird Freudian noir called Conflict with Bogart as the conflicted husband and Sidney Greenstreet as his Vienna-trained analyst, Hannah Arendt’s Goethe House lecture on Walter Benjamin and Lady From Shanghai, Welles’ best film (minus the original cut of Magnificent Ambersons, which no one but the butchers at the studio ever saw, before dumping the excised footage into the Pacific off of Catalina. Alexander Cockburn and I heard the entire grim story one afternoon at Musso & Franks in Hollywood from the great British journalist Charles Higham, who had tracked down the vault where the footage was stored and the day it was dumped in the Pacific and the name of the boat that dumped it. His book is a fun read, Welles: the Rise and Fall of an American Genius. Higham gay and an outrageous flirt. He kept putting his hand on my thigh and saying, “Did you know you look like Mark Ruffalo?” I’m ashamed to say, at the time (July 2000), I had no clear idea who Mark Ruffalo was or what he looked like…I kept brushing Higham’s hand aside, as he drained martini after martini. Later, Alex said, “Who the hell is Mark Ruffalo, Jeffrey?” I just shrugged and laughed.

+ Thanks to CounterPuncher Michael Mueller for sending along this recipe for Confiment Mirepot, which I made and we greedily consumed this week. Try it, you’ll like it…

1 large head cabbage
2 lg onions
2 bell peppers
4 stalks celery
3 large carrots
2 cups mushrooms
2-3 cloves garlic
1 large can crushed tomato
1 qt. veg stock
2 cubes veg bullion
herbs and salt to taste

Chop and combine in large pot with 3 qts water.

Simmer all day, add protein of choice (e.g. tofu, tempe, seitan, egg, animal flesh, if that’s your thing)

Feeds approx. 8-12 comrades.

+ RIP Wallace Roney, a protege of Miles Davis, who played with Art Blakey, Tony Williams, and Herbie Hancock.

+Richard Kidd writes from Toronto to remonstrate against the use of the term “socialism for the rich”:

I’m sick and tired of leftists continually trotting out the epithet “socialism for the rich, capitalism for the rest of us” whenever the government lavishes support on the banks, Wall Street, and corporations while it ignores the needs of the general public.  The expression may seem clever, but it just reinforces the popular conviction that socialism is all about a nanny state doling out goodies to undeserving wastrels.  Our goal should be to promote the positive interpretation that socialism means social ownership and control of the means of production and other economic institutions for the betterment of all.  In other words, the people themselves run the show with the common welfare in mind.  Why defeat the purpose by promoting a counterproductive narrative?

The tribunal of the people has considered the evidence presented before us and found in favor of the plaintiff. Off to the tumbrils….

If you want to view the climb, You must learn to quit your lyin’

Booked Up
What I’m reading this week…

Foucault in California
Simeon Wade
(Heyday)

Jet Stream: a Journey Through Our Changing Climate
Tim Woollings
(Oxford)

Circle in the Darkness: Memoir of a World Watcher
Diana Johnstone
(Clarity)

Sound Grammar
What I’m listening to this week…

Angular Blues
Wolfgang Muthspiel, Scott Colley and Brian Blade
(ECM)

Your Life is a Record
Brandy Clark
(Warner)

Last Desert
Liberty Ellman
(Pi Records)

The Chomsky Hash

Q. Have you ever smoked grass before?

Foucault: I have been smoking it for years, particularly when I was in North Africa, where they have marvelous hashish.

Q. Do you smoke grass in Paris?

Foucault: Grass is very hard to come by in Paris, but I smoke hash whenever I can get hold of some. We have been in good supply recently, thanks to Noam Chomsky.

Q. How did that happen?

Foucault: I appeared with Chomsky on TV in Amsterdam, and after the show the sponsors of the program asked me what kind of remuneration I would like. I told them that I would like some hashish, and they happily complied with my wish with a large block of the stuff. I refer to it as the Chomsky hash, not because Chomsky himself had anything to do with it but because he occasioned it.” (Foucault in California)

The post Roaming Charges: Strange Things Happening Every Day appeared first on CounterPunch.org.

The Control of Nature

Photograph Source: Mark Heard from Calgary, Alberta, Canada – CC BY 2.0

I started the day (Sunday, March 29, 2020) in relatively good spirits. The Sun was bathing nature in light and pleasant warmth. Spring and flowers were everywhere. My wife and I were walking in our beautiful neighborhood in Claremont, California.

Poisoning the Wind

But, suddenly, a man holding a sprayer was furiously drenching his front yard with  chemicals. I asked him what he was spraying and why and he angrily said miticides, and, besides, he said, it was none of my business what he was doing.

Mites are tiny insects related to spiders and ticks. And, like most pesticides, chemicals designed to kill mites, miticides, are toxic poisons that may harm the brain and the nervous system and probably cause cancer.

I continued my walk and  tried to forget my unpleasant confrontation with this illiterate and irresponsible person. However, he is not alone. In the last three years of the Trump administration, I have seen enough infractions of civilized life, that I am almost certain Trump’s influence has reached even in this small town in southern California. Several of the houses for sale are covered with a canvas for fumigation. More home owners or their “gardeners” attack the natural world with poisons.

The Tyranny of Trump 

The example of Trump is insidious, though compelling of a cultural and business tradition and pathology. He sought and succeeded in resurrecting Ronald Reagan’s hatred for environmental protection and contempt for public health. The first act of Ann Gorsuch, the first EPA administrator under Reagan and mother of Supreme Court Judge Gorsuch, was to fire the EPA attorneys enforcing the laws.

Trump left the powerless EPA lawyers alone, but, immediately, started diluting and weakening the country’s laws protecting public and environmental health. Electricity power plants could go back to increasing pollution. Owners of farms, coal mines, timber, and oil fracking and drilling would not have to worry about polluting creeks, rivers of groundwater or destroying wetlands or threatening and killing wildlife and endangered species. All 450 million acres of public lands would continue being haciendas of the timber, petroleum, cattle grazing cowboys and miners. And, thanks to Trump, hundreds of millions of cars would be designed to emit more poisons affecting human health and intensifying global warming. In other words, the United States would undermine its strongest policy of fighting climate change.

The Pandemic of Abusing Nature

In the midst of the Trump and industry onslaught on public and environmental health, this country and the world came under another attack – this time, in early 2020, by the corona virus. This pandemic was the product of human abuse, poisoning, and destruction of the natural world. But Trump did not see the corona virus’ connection to the business as usual annihilation of nature. His narrow mind and ecological illiteracy pushed him to another giveaway to polluters. He ordered EPA to stop its rare environmental enforcement. Now all bets are off. The chief beneficiaries of the tax cuts, and the two trillion dollars corona virus economic stimulus would have another environmental cut. Forget that there are people and the natural world beyond factory gates. And forget that people compromised by pollution, like those living in the neighborhood of the Cancer Valley in Louisiana, would die in droves from the raging pandemic.

In fact, all people, here and abroad, who have been victimized by the prevailing Wall Street billionaire economy, are likely to take their anger to the streets. Francesco Rocca, director of the International Federation of Red Cross, warned of a social bomb ready to go off.

Ignoring the social volcano is typical of oligarchic and plutocratic regimes. American billionaires think they can outsource this security threat to the feds.

However, things are complicated, especially now that an invisible enemy makes no distinction between rich and poor. Gregg Gonsalves, assistant professor of epidemiology of microbial diseases at the School of Public Health at Yale University, explains:

“The failure of care in the United States, which is not recapitulated anywhere else in the industrialized world, has led us to a point where — depends on who you are whether you’re going to get sick or whether you’re going to get well, whether you’re going to get infected with coronavirus or you’re not going to get infected with the coronavirus. So, unless we take care of each other from coast to coast, from north to south, east to west, we’re going to be vulnerable as the… most vulnerable person in our society. And so, unless undocumented immigrants, unless the incarcerated, unless the homeless are brought into the circle of care, with healthcare universally accessible across the United States, there will always be somebody who’s going to get sick who could be the spark that sets off the next epidemic.”

The Control of Nature

This logic of science and compassion does not have a chance to make a difference in the kingdom of Trump. The man is utterly corrupt. Like King Louis XVI facing the guillotine of the French Revolution, but unable to understand the gravity of the drama outside the walls of his palace, Trump keeps preaching lies to a fearful, exhausted, and ill country. And, of course, Trump is oblivious to another looming disaster.

This calamity is even more pernicious than the virus pandemic. I am referring to our attitude and policies towards nature. This is a metaphysical fault line facing all Americans: an obsession with what we usually call natural world (the environment): mountains, forests, uncultivated land, rivers, seas and wildlife. Most urban people don’t like these wild, untamed places. They wish the natural world was a bottomless sink, in which they dump their mountains of waste.

They also want to control the environment by killing nearly all non-human life: clearly a pathology of long standing. In his pathological greed, Trump has widen the gap between Americans and the environment.

Humans in towns and cities have been divorced from the natural world for so many generations, they feel uncomfortable with wildlife of any kind. Their “gardens” and parks are synthetic green places of trees and grass and, sometimes flowers and bushes, under constant chemical treatment and management, mowing, and “landscaping.”

Aside from squirrels and birds, which, conveniently enough, run and fly away the moment they see humans, parks much more than gardens, are inhospitable to wildlife. They are not urban forests.

The most persistent means of controlling nature has been the spraying of powerful synthetic chemicals, mostly byproducts of war. This barbarian habit takes a morbid form in industrial farms, country roads, and forests.

The entire operation of spraying the natural world is like a religion. It has its high priests, dogma, inquisition, and millions of faithful.

Chemical Madness: United Kingdom 

For about 20 years in late twentieth century, the UK government forced sheep farmers to dip their animals in cocktails of nerve poisons known as organophosphates. These chemicals came straight through the chemical warfare stockpiles of Nazi Germany. Thousands of farmers and their families suffered deadly diseases and wildlife was driven to extinction in the countryside, especially in the contaminated rivers and creeks.

In 2014, Dave Goulson, professor of biology at Sussex University, did a “pesticide audit” of a single field of oilseed rape and one of winter wheat. To his dismay, he discovered that any honeybee, bumblebee, butterfly or ladybug of worm feeding on oilseed rape would also be eating six insect poisons, three weed killers, nine fungicides, and insect growth regulators (deadly concoctions made up of crushed insects).

The terrifying reality of this audit is that it reflects the reality of the overwhelming number of farmers spraying their oilseed rape, and most other crops, with exactly the same variety of poisons. In the United Kingdom, the territory sprayed in this fashion includes more than 20,000,000 acres of land growing crops.

The American Poison Giant

In the United States, the ecological and human harm is much more severe. In 2012, about 915 million acres of land was agricultural land. Close to 450 million acres of that land produced crops. The average size of 2.1 million farms was 434 acres. Immense amounts of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides go into the growing of those crops.

The result of so much land under the mechanized and chemical factory of food production is colossal pollution. Add to this the harmful genetic engineering of crops, and the overall effect could have serious consequences for life on Earth and the survival of civilization. In addition, the costs of this pollution to Americans and wildlife are so enormous that are inestimable. They are life bending and deleterious.

The problem is not limited to bad federal government decisions. States share the blame for these merciless and blind policies.

Why does the government of California, for example, allows the spraying of the neurotoxic neonicotinoids in the more than a million acres of wildlife refuges? What exactly is the purpose of poisoning of the natural world in such vast scale? Why allow farmers growing rice in lands reserved for the protection of birds, honeybees and countless other species?

Earthjustice, an environmental organization, is right that neonicotinoids “are sabotaging the very organisms on which we all depend.” In September 20, 2017, it petitioned the California Fish and Game Commission to stop this obscene policy.

I asked Earthjustice and the Commission for clarification, but they refused to say anything about the outcome of the petition. I concluded that the Commission did nothing.

I could go on with other examples of savagery, but the lesson is clear. The United States and the world are suffering from a much deeper and longer pandemic: that of the hubris of thinking and acting as if humans are controlling nature.

Unless, we wake up to the terminal threat of this delusion, we are doomed. If anything, nature will keep sending invisible diseases to teach us what we refuse to learn from science and civilization.

The post The Control of Nature appeared first on CounterPunch.org.

COVID-19 and the “Just-in-Time” Supply Chain: Why Hospitals Ran Out of Ventilators and Grocery Stores Ran Out of Toilet Paper

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

On March 25th, N.Y. Times op-ed columnist Farhad Manjoo wrote about “How the World’s Richest Country Ran Out of a 75-Cent Face Mask.” The subtitle certainly went against the grain of what you’d read from a page dominated by Thomas Friedman: “A very American story about capitalism consuming our national preparedness and resiliency.”

Manjoo identified just one of many failures of the Trump administration to be prepared for the epidemic. Alex Azar, the HHS Secretary had testified that there were only about 40 million masks in our domestic stockpiles, around 1 percent of what would be required. Like much else, mask manufacturing had migrated to China in the same way as all other textile industries had long ago.

Manjoo put this into context:

Hospitals began to run out of masks for the same reason that supermarkets ran out of toilet paper — because their “just-in-time” supply chains, which call for holding as little inventory as possible to meet demand, are built to optimize efficiency, not resiliency.

I remember first hearing about just-in-time inventory techniques in the 1990s in the aftermath of the collapse of the USSR. Just-in-time was also called “lean manufacturing” or “stockless production.” Management gurus saw it as a way to eliminate waste and continuously boost productivity. Toyota Corporation adopted it in the 1950’s and soon American auto-makers followed suit in the 1980’s. Ironically, this kind of advanced industrial engineering hearkens back to Frederick Taylor, who Lenin sought to emulate in the early years of the USSR.

Today, Wal-Mart is the marquee brand when it comes to just-in-time inventory. Using sophisticated computer systems, it can guarantee profitability on items that are characterized by low retail margins. Combined with a non-union workforce, it allowed Wal-Mart to become one of the great successes of the capitalist system.

Some on the left were so impressed with Wal-Mart’s technological prowess that they saw it as proof that socialism could work. In a book titled “The People’s Republic of Walmart: How the World’s Biggest Corporations are Laying the Foundation for Socialism,” Jacobin contributors Leigh Phillips and Michal Rozworski argued that if planning could work for a capitalist powerhouse, it could also work for state-owned enterprises. They even refer to how Toyota was a forerunner to Wal-Mart:

The same phenomenon occurs in retail as much as it does manufacturing (and manufacturing is merely another link within the retail supply chain anyway), with Toyota being one of the first firms to implement intra-and inter-firm information visibility through its Walmart-like “Kanban” system, although the origin of this strategy dates as far back as the 1940s. While Walmart was pivotal in development of supply chain management, there are few large companies that have not copied its practices via some form of cross—supply chain visibility and planning, extending the planning that happens within a firm very widely throughout the capitalist “marketplace.”

As for just-in-time techniques accounting for the shortage of life-saving masks, Farhad Manjoo has only scratched the surface. It is not just masks that are in short supply; it is also hospital beds. Hospitals are expected to have a “surge capacity” in case of some calamity—either a pandemic like the current one or—god forbid—a nuclear war. With patients now lying on gurneys in the hallway of hospitals everywhere, what happened to the “surge capacity”?

It turns out that they have followed in the path of Toyota and Wal-Mart. Like the university system, hospitals expanded in the mid-twentieth century when a reasonably progressive tax rate allowed them to add beds on a yearly basis. By the late 1950s, we had nine hospital beds for every 1,000 people. Even if they remained empty much of the time, they were crucial during periods of extreme demand. For example, in the winter of 1957 and 1958, there was a flu epidemic—the worst outbreak since 1918. But hospitals met society’s needs with few problems. Like now, New York City was the hardest hit. Yet it coped with the heightened demand, only needing to add a few extra beds.

In 1983, all that began to change. Like all other institutions relying on an ample tax base, hospitals ran into the consequences of Grover Norquist’s “starve the beast”. Congress passed a bill that made Medicare payments far less able to cover a hospital stay. They could no longer bill by the day, only by the case. Hospitals began shedding beds, just as colleges began shedding tenure-track positions. By the early 1990s, the number of beds per 1,000 population had decreased by fifty percent.

Hospital administrators resorted to just-in-time techniques to rein in costs. They called their version of this technique going back to Taylorism “managed-care”. In 2015, a supply chain manager at Chicago’s Mercy Hospital told reporters, “It’s our job to make sure clinicians have what they need when they need it, but we must also make sure we don’t have too many dollars tied up in inventory.” Mercy went ahead and cut its on-hand inventory by half.

As for Wal-Mart, one must never forget that their profitability is not just based on sophisticated just-in-time computer inventory systems. The corporation also relies on a non-union workforce that tends to accommodate itself to lower wages and onerous working conditions because better-paying jobs have evaporated. In addition, Wal-Mart has an inexhaustible need to encroach upon forests everywhere as part of its supply chain. Without penetrating the Amazon, where are you going to get the land necessary to raise cattle? Without chopping down trees, where are you going to get toilet paper?

Looking back at the forced march of neoliberalism for the past fifty years or so, your first reaction might be to turn back the clock. In many ways, that’s what Bernie Sanders’s campaign was all about. Raise the tax base to what it was under Eisenhower. Use the revenue to add hospital beds and tenure-track positions. This is based on the presumption that it is greed that has led to the impasse we face today, as if Stephen Schwarzman comparing tax increases to Hitler’s invasion of Poland is our main problem. Yes, we understand that people like Schwarzman feel that their life would be incomplete unless he was able to spend $20 million on his 70th birthday party, but there’s more to it.

The real explanation for the attacks on our standard of living, if not our lives, is capitalist competition. Each nation-state understands that its stability rests on the ability to keep its working class mollified through job security and a living wage. In the early part of the twentieth century, countries like the USA, England, Germany and France had to build empires to keep peace at home. Lenin pointed this out in “Imperialism, the Latest Stage of Capitalism”:

And Cecil Rhodes, we are informed by his intimate friend, the journalist Stead, expressed his imperialist views to him in 1895 in the following terms: “I was in the East End of London (a working-class quarter) yesterday and attended a meeting of the unemployed. I listened to the wild speeches, which were just a cry for ‘bread! bread!’ and on my way home I pondered over the scene and I became more than ever convinced of the importance of imperialism…. My cherished idea is a solution for the social problem, i.e., in order to save the 40,000,000 inhabitants of the United Kingdom from a bloody civil war, we colonial statesmen must acquire new lands to settle the surplus population, to provide new markets for the goods produced in the factories and mines. The Empire, as I have always said, is a bread and butter question. If you want to avoid civil war, you must become imperialists.

If colonial empires are no longer feasible, the ruling class must seek other ways of profit-seeking. So, instead you get Chinese manufacturers using raw materials ripped from the earth in Latin America, Africa and Asia with little regard for the environmental consequences. As long as China can provide low-interest loans for infrastructure development in a nation as desperate as Ethiopia or Zimbabwe, this part of the supply chain will remain intact. Furthermore, if Chinese goods can be purchased at low costs at Wal-Mart, it might mollify an American worker who used to have a good union job.

However, if a virus generated by the expansion of cattle ranching into the forests threatens the life of such a worker through starvation or eviction after he loses his job, all bets are off.

The post COVID-19 and the “Just-in-Time” Supply Chain: Why Hospitals Ran Out of Ventilators and Grocery Stores Ran Out of Toilet Paper appeared first on CounterPunch.org.

The Highly Contagious Idea

Photograph Source: Dmitry Djouce – CC BY 2.0

The COVID-19 pandemic has laid waste to the notions of American Exceptionalism (other than perhaps an exceptional level of infection) and the unsustainable practice from the last couple of decades that reality is essentially what you force it to be. It’s the magical thinking that if you manufacture enough consent, eventually that square peg will fit in a round hole.

The trouble is…. the coronavirus has no interest in adhering to anything but pure cause and effect.

Ron Suskind famously reported during the GW Bush era, that one of those staff members said  to him  “that guys like me were ‘in what we call the reality-based community,’ which he defined as people who ‘believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality. ‘That’s not the way the world really works anymore,’ he continued. ‘We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do’.

This is all true. They are history’s actors, but not in the manner that pompous ass was describing. They will be the cautionary tale of the ages—that of unbounding hubris and the demise of yet another Empire.

“An idea is like a virus, resilient, highly contagious. … Once an idea has taken hold of the brain it’s almost impossible to eradicate. An idea that is fully formed – fully understood – that sticks; right in there somewhere.” This was a quote from the movie “Inception”, but sometimes pop media gets it right. This idea, this notion, that somehow America does not have to play by any of the rules, that its wanton selfishness can go unchecked—this was the idea virus that allowed a presidency like Obama’s—largely symbolic and unsuccessful for the average American, and then the subsequent travesty of the Trump administration. That you don’t have to deal with the facts and find solutions. You try to create a narrative that fits what you already believe. You set the stage for what you want to have played out. The end result of the idea that aide spoke of, that particular virus/idea has allowed nothing short of a plague—the ultimate in realty based living.

This illness doesn’t believe in American Exceptionalism or that reality is a fungible quotient. Donald Trump and his narcissistic mental illness is an entirely expected effect from this model. That idea that reality isn’t a firm thing and problems aren’t to be solved, but molded and managed to what you want—sadly that lethal idea really spread and took hold.

As recently as October, a Global Health Security Initiative related to pandemic response was released by yet another gatekeeper/expert entity– Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. They ranked the United States as number one among 195 nations in prevention, early detection and reporting, rapid response and mitigation. They said the US is also number one as far as having a sufficient and robust health system, and a compliance with international norms. In short, everything we are not, they said we were. They considered the world at risk for pandemic prep, but gave overwhelmingly glowing reviews as far as the US potential to deal with such an event. This was brazenly cited by Trump this February as proof the United States is up to the task for pandemic related issues. Anyone with an ounce of empathy in the US would know that our health system is grossly unfair, unbelievably punitive, and callous beyond belief. No study needed. There is no way such a system can handle a collective threat such as a pandemic in a remotely functional fashion. It’s as obvious as hell to those with eyes and a heart. These types of studies may be operating from a normalcy bias, and hell, it’s normal to consider the US to be fantastic at everything when you are a part the elite or one of the stewards of that oligarchy. Perhaps the incredible level of faith the study promoted was for the subclass of NBA players and the pandemic response for them. For the rest of US, the claims are, in retrospect, quite laughable (if you are a laugh at a funeral type—not that we can have funerals right now). It’s a system with no guaranteed healthcare, no guaranteed time off, rampant homelessness…… that’s what I’d put on a recipe list for pandemic non-preparedness if I had to make one.

But Johns Hopkins didn’t stop there. They also went full on creepy with Taiwan, at one point labeling it on maps with the preferred Chinese nomenclature: “Tapei and environs”. They also predicted that Taiwan would suffer 2nd only to China with COVID-19. Something hard to believe given their steroid level response to the threat. They are handling this situation in a beyond admirable manner. Watch this link if you want to see how a functioning, reality-based government responds to a pandemic. I was moved by the faith the girl being followed had as far as feeling like her government would care for her, even if her body became ill. I’m only speaking to the country’s response to COVID-19, but that evidence-based response looks to be unimpeachable.

The American experts who seem to believe they have some right to provide us with guidance continue to mislead, whether purposely or not. The issue of droplet precautions versus airborne has massive implications, but the lack of personal protective equipment seems to have pushed again, “the experts” towards calling for droplet precautions. One requires more heavy-duty protection (airborne). The need to call this “droplet” transmission seems to have stemmed from a lack of equipment to deal with “airborne”. This is again, another example of trying to bend reality to what you want the end result to be. And as I keep saying, the virus could care less what you want to morph truth into. And even paper masks do help decrease community transmission, but when we have a lack of masks…..well, they tell the public they don’t help. Anthony Fauci is now saying they might change their advice regarding masks because they “don’t want the perfect to be the enemy of the good”. But that is exactly what they were pushing as recently as a couple of weeks ago. If they didn’t have enough masks for healthcare, they needed to say this, but for people at home with even hardware-store masks laying around, maybe it would have helped if they put them on in public. But they insist on treating the citizens in an infantile and disposable manner– in the end this gaslighting decreases their credibility as quickly as a parent who tells their kid not to smoke weed, but the kids spot them doing blow in the bathroom.

The lessons learned from this pandemic are going to fill volumes. Those who have been expertly telling us that funds don’t exist for universal healthcare, that the US is somehow exempt from the realities the rest of the world manages– it will become unavoidable to most that all of these statements and boundaries have been nothing but fairy tales and constraints drawn up by a oligarchic elite to hold the system together in their own sociopathic image.

And that idea, the one that will let everyone know that this contrived system has been nothing but a sham—well here’s to hoping that idea will also be “like a virus, resilient, highly contagious. … Once an idea has taken hold of the brain it’s almost impossible to eradicate. An idea that is fully formed – fully understood – that sticks; right in there somewhere.”

That’s when all things will become possible.

The post The Highly Contagious Idea appeared first on CounterPunch.org.

The Apartheid Wars: Non-Accountability and Freedom for Perpetrators.

Painting of the Sharpeville Massacre of March 1960 – CC BY-SA 3.0

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was a vital means to save the country from unending civil war. These had raged with increasing intensity since 1960, and in 1994 the forces of oppression were militarily intact. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu, soon to be chair of the Commission observed in 1995, “Nuremberg trials” were not for South Africa. The TRC should include “ordinary people”, who had themselves been victims: “We shouldn’t just be…objective in a cold cerebral kind of way.” Importantly, “we can’t just say ‘let bygones be bygones’…because they will return to haunt us forever”, he said in late 1995. The country’s new Justice Minister allowed that the country’s then interim constitution was really a peace treaty. Amnesty (for full disclosure of political crimes) was ‘the price of securing peace and cooperation in the negotiated collapse of white rule.’ The country’s situation was complex, and the TRC’s aims were ‘not so much for justice as for national unity and reconciliation.’ Some 2,700 persons had then said that they wanted to confess their crimes: but the family of Steve Biko, the Black Consciousness leader slaughtered in 1977, wanted instead to see his killers tried and sentenced in court. Truth and justice were possibly incompatible.

The TRC was a very costly expedient in human and political terms. Not only regarding justice for victims, but also concerning the non-apprehension of perpetrators of torture and killings, and the eventual suppression of prosecutions. Big consequences flowed: no reckoning with the past was achieved; on this absence, an elevation of historic myths was made; that liberation in 1994 came through an externally-based armed struggle led by the African National Congress (ANC), and the closure of the participatory democratic aspiration that had characterised domestic politics through the 1980s. The United Democratic Front (UDF) promoted a broad, open, critical process for public morality and elite accountability, until Nelson Mandela closed it down in March 1991 to preserve the ANC’s predominance. When the ANC’s Thabo Mbeki endeavoured to suppress the TRC’s final report (because it contained criticism of ANC injustices), Tutu objected: “Sycophants are the worst possible thing to have around you when you are in power. Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it.” Churches and the media had to keep watch on the ruling party. “It is important that we retain the vigour of our civil society organs that were part of the struggle… We’ve got to retain the same capacity to smell out corruption, [and] the abuse of power” (The Economist, 20 April 1996.

It can be seen through the detailed evidence in the TRC’s final report, that the apartheid wars were fostered and crimes endorsed at the highest levels of the state. After 1976, apartheid was recognised as a crime against humanity, but the architects of apartheid and their senior generals negotiated themselves out of murder. The ANC elite, responsible for the harsh treatment of thousands of the ‘Soweto generation’ in its camps in Angola (Good, The Struggle For Democratisation, 2019) promoted this cover up. Jacob Zuma, an ANC espionage chief in the 1980s and future state president, was “chief among them”: according to Lukhanyo and Abigail Calata, his eyes “firmly fixed on self-interest and [power]” (Calata, My Father Died For This, 2018).

David Beresford (Truth is a Strange Fruit, 2010) used the term apartheid war in the singular, though for this writer, it is their multi-faceted complexity that stands out. Under P.W. Botha’s rubric of ‘total war’, apartheid fought internationally and domestically, to win “at all costs”, with the Soweto Generation, and Angola suffering badly. And the war endures. Though a verbal order was made in 1992 to destroy all security branch files, some survived, while other records were stolen by officials as possible bargaining chips. Former law and order minister, Adrian Vlok, received a 10-year suspended sentence, and largely no trials followed. On 5 February 2019, Tutu and 10 other “deeply outraged” former TRC commissioners wrote to President Cyril Ramaphosa demanding an official commission of inquiry to investigate “political interference” in suppressing prosecutions recommended by the TRC. In April, Lukhanyo Calata informed the Zondo commission of inquiry of 300 cases referred for prosecution that “were all deliberately suppressed, and the perpetrators shielded from justice” (quoted in Michael Schmidt, “The Struggle for Justice Continues”, Business Live, 30 May 2019).

The Sharpville Massacre, beginning on 21 March 1960, launched the apartheid wars. It was a watershed nationally and internationally, with huge ramifications. The Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) had been formed the previous year under Robert Sobukwe. They organised a march of some 300 people protesting against pass laws. Sobukwe stressed their “absolutely non-violent” intents: “We are ready to die for our cause but we are not ready to kill.” A letter was sent to the commissioner of police “explaining fully the peaceful nature of the campaign.” Nonetheless, the police opened fire, killing 69 marchers. Conflict erupted in Langa in Cape Town simultaneously, killing two more and injuring fifty, and more in coming days in other cities (TRC, Final Report, vol 3, p. 533). Sharpville ‘signalled an end to the era of non-violent struggle, and ushered in a period of armed struggle.’ According to the TRC, apartheid came under scrutiny, and was debated for the first time in the United Nations Security Council. The 21 March became the international day for the struggle against racism (Final Report, 3-534). But Sharpville Day was later annexed by the ANC, which imposed an anodyne Human Rights Day on the old hard bloody name.

A few weeks later, came the first assassination attempt on Prime Minister H.F Verwoerd, the man proud to be known as the architect of apartheid. He survived gunshot to his head by David Pratt at the 1960 Rand Show. Pratt said from the dock that he held “a personal guilt in my mind for everything that was going wrong in South Africa…for the stinking monster of apartheid”. Pratt was consigned to an institute for the criminally insane, where he died two years later, allegedly by suicide, though independent medical opinion suggested his death might have been ‘assisted’. Susie Cazenove, Pratt’s daughter and author of An Unwitting Assassin, said that “the powers that be had decided from the beginning that… they would find him insane and brush the whole thing under the carpet” (Mark Gevisser, “The Moral Struggles Imparted by Verwoerd”, Business Live, 30 July 2019.)

The second assassination did not fail. Dimitri Tsatfendas, parliamentary messenger, stabbed Verwoerd repeatedly in the chest, heart and neck, in parliament on 6 September 1966. The attack was well planned (Harris Dousemetzis, The Man Who Killed Apartheid, 2018). Tsatfendas ‘believed he committed an act of tyrannicide’. As with Pratt, the state set out to portray him as insane, ‘covering up mountains of evidence about [his] political motivations’ (Dousemetzis, 2018), and he was kept exceptionally in solitary confinement on death row (Gevisser, 30 July 2019). The state subjected him to ‘a living hell’: the weekly proceedings of the gallows, with the thump of the trapdoor as the hangman despatched fellow prisoners in batches of up to seven at a time. He endured this for ‘nearly a quarter of a century’ (Beresford, 2010).

Paula McBride was a daily visitor to death row then, and told the Commission that hanging in South Africa brutalised not only the victims, but also the judges, and ‘our whole country’. She detailed what happened in ‘the Christmas rush’ of 1988, when 28 people were hanged in one week. Testimony indicated that capital punishment was used as ‘an important weapon against opponents of apartheid’ (TRC, 4-103, 213).

Steve Biko and Black Consciousness (BCM)

Born in 1946, to a father who was a clerk and his mother a domestic worker, Biko was educated at Lovedale and St Francis Colleges, before entering the University of Natal Medical School. He was soon elected to the Students’ Representative Council (SRC), and involved with the multiracial National Union of Students (NUSAS). Until the late 1960s, black students saw it as their only agency for change. But Biko’s direct experience showed him that

NUSAS offered only “a one-way course with the Whites doing all the talking and the Blacks listening.” In a country where blacks formed the overwhelming majority, apartheid existed because of its psychological dominance over the minds of blacks. Whites possessed an assurance of their superiority, and blacks had developed a deep dependency. They must identify with themselves completely, and build their solidarity socially and politically. Blacks must acquire in fact a “new way of life” (quoted by Millard Arnold, The Testimony of Steve Biko, 1979).

In 1968, he and his confederates formed the South African Students Organisation (SASO). The new organisation and its ideology ‘struck a hugely responsive cord in young blacks, and the movement spread rapidly’. Like no other ideology, it ‘inspired hope and gave direction and purpose to black lives’ (Arnold, 1979). In 1969, the Black People’s Convention (BPC) was launched as a coordinating body in fields like community health and education. Both SASO and BPC operated under the constant threat of banning, where survival was at stake. But the big issues were paramount.

Along with a belief in the importance of developing a new way of life (an aim they shared with Cradora and later with the UDF), was anti-elitist democracy. “Our belief was essentially…that we must not create a leadership cult”. Biko firmly upheld this principle. He was president of SASO for only one year, and virtually all the first presidents of SASO served only one year. Opposition to the ‘leadership cult’ was critical for democratisation, and ‘focused attention on the message rather than the messenger, on the core of what you are saying not individuals’ (Arnold, 1979).

Biko’s disdain for the “system” was boundless, and he ‘broke his banning orders all the time’. He was ready to deal with the police by “being as unhelpful as possible” (Peter Bruce, Business Live, 17 September 2019).

Early on 7 September 1977, Biko was confronted by a group of security police bent on murder. He died on 12 September 1977, but was effectively dead just minutes after the confrontation began. The police began their assault just after 7am. As Bruce pictures it: ‘One of them would have hit him. He would have hit back.’ The multiple interrogators would ‘then have assaulted him with brute force’. According to Sir David Napley of the UK Law Society, Biko died as a result of brain injury inflicted by members of the security police at a time proximate to 0715 hours on the seventh of September (Bruce, 17 September 2019).

An amnesty hearing in 1999, heard that Harold Snyman led the interrogation, while Jacobus Beneke, Daniel Siebert and Rubin Mark all joined in bashing and shackling Biko: typical of what occurred: Beneke ‘ran in and shouldered Biko roughly below the ribs towards the wall.’ After he sustained the fatal injury, he was ‘shackled to a metal grille and transported [naked in an open vehicle] from Port Elizabeth to Pretoria’ (George Bizos, Star, 18 February 1999).

The Soweto Uprising and Democratisation

The Soweto Uprising began in May 1976, initially as a protest against the use of Afrikaans in secondary schools. A class boycott began at Orlando West Junior Secondary school, and by month’s end the number of boycotting schools had risen to six. Education authorities declared that they would expel pupils and transfer teachers, but more schools joined the boycott.

The state’s resort to force was quick. Captain ‘Rooi Rus’ Swanepoel led the Riot Unit into Soweto and Alexandra around 16 June, with a shoot-to-kill policy. Such action was strongly promoted by Prime Minister John Vorster in parliament on 18 June: “The government will not be intimidated. Orders have been given to maintain order at all costs” (TRC, 3-555).

The government closed schools in at least eighty townships country-wide. In August, as the police conducted a series of raids on schools, searching for Soweto Student Representative Council (SSRC) leaders (TRC, 3-555), the uprising assumed its full character as an organised movement for participatory democracy.

Certain schools and students became prominent. The Morris Isaacson School in Soweto played ‘a leading role in raising awareness and organising among students. It produced some of the organisers of the 16 June protest’,

including Murphy Morobe and Tsietsi Mashinini. The TRC noted ‘the unusually close relationship between students and teachers’, and the ‘overtly anti-establishment stance of the principal, Lekgau Mathabathe’ (TRC, 3-557-558).

The June protest was planned by an Action Committee, an elected body of secondary students in Soweto. They were imbued with a strong sense of mission. A member of the Committee, Dan Motsisi, said that ‘students felt they were taking up a battle their parents and teachers had lost’. Ellen Khuzwayo noted the powerlessness of their elders: ‘75 per cent of the parents of these children had no education’ and were readily intimidated by the police. “These kids took it into their hands”, she said (TRC, 3-558).

To preserve secrecy, ‘the Action Committee gave itself only three days to organise the march.’ Morobe was aware how ‘politically and historically significant’ the march was. Leonard Mosala stressed their generational differences: these were not the people of Sharpville. “Their aspiration level was far higher, their political sensitivity was deeper, and their anger matched [both]” (TRC, 3-558-559).

The Commission held a special Soweto Day hearing, at which several witnesses said that the township was “on fire” that day. By 0900, approximately 10,000 had converged on Orlando West High School. Police formed an arc in front of the marchers, a tear gas canister was thrown into their midst, and they responded with stones. The police opened fire, and two pupils were fatally wounded, one of whom was Hector Peterson, aged 13. Pupils erected barricades, and attacked property, as ‘hundreds of police reinforcements’ rushed in (TRC, 3-559).

Murphy Morobe testified that the students resort to violence was a spontaneous expression of their anger and shock, never part of the plan. ‘It was the first time that many of us had experience of tear gas…we tried to rally the students’ (TRC, 3-560).

The SAP Riot Unit was set up in 1975, and there was already a ‘strong connection between riot control and counter-insurgency’. Swanepoel ‘became known for his brutality’: he was a founder of koevoet on the Namibia-Angola region: “I made my mark. I let it be known to the rioters I would not tolerate what was happening. I used appropriate force…that broke the back of the organisers” (TRC, 3-568).

Clashes continued for nearly two years after 16 June. On the understanding of the Commission, the ‘police pursue[d] a policy of generalised intimidation’. The official toll between June 1976 and the end of February 1977 was 575 killed and 2,389 injured: probably an underestimation. Morobe and a number of other activists were detained in December 1976: ‘They interrogated us at John Vorster Square… to get statements [implicating] others: ‘Students could not have planned this…There was clearly someone else other than you chaps who were involved in this’, they insisted (TRC, 3-569).

The myth of the ANC’s external armed struggle arose in part out of the repression of the Soweto Generation. Around 1978, some 4,000 young men and women were in ANC camps in Angola, for want of a better alternative. Fighting a just war against apartheid did not preclude the ANC from resorting to unjust methods, and Angola saw some of its worst. By early 1984, many of the ANC’s new recruits were in revolt against the idleness, waste, corruption and authoritarianism they experienced in the ranks of Umkhonto (MK): mutinies had been crushed at Viana and Pango camps, with the execution of protesters and the imprisonment of others at Quatro (TRC, 3-21 and Good, 2019). The Commission understood ‘students such as Morobe [as operating] within the paradigm of Black Consciousness’: external armed struggle for them was explicitly diversionary from domestic democratisation. ‘It was not my intention nor that of my colleagues to leave the country. We wanted to continue inside the country and ensuring that the student movement remained intact.’ (TRC, 3-589). Morobe went on to work in the UDF and to demand accountability of the ANC.

Kassinga and the Termination of Apartheid’s Military Dominance

South Africa’s massive assault on Kassinga in 1978 was part of apartheid’s attempt (1975-1989) to assert dominance over Angola.

It began just weeks after the Carnation Revolution in Lisbon on 25 April 1974, and the liberation of Angola under an MPLA government on 11 May 1975. On 14 October, encouraged by the United States, South African forces invaded from the south, and rapidly advanced on an unprepared Luanda. Thanks to strong and prompt military assistance from Cuba, the apartheid forces were forced to withdraw, defeated and humiliated by a small socialist island and an African liberation movement, in late March 1976. It is possible that people like Morobe in Soweto were aware of these sensational advances.

Kassinga is 200 kms north of the Namibian border. It was one of SWAPO’s principal bases, with about 800 personnel in camp. It was also the main medical centre for seriously injured guerrillas. As the SADF’s Gen. Viljoen noted, Kassinga ‘was not heavily defended’, and the nearest Angolan and Cuban forces were 15 kms away. The target ‘lent itself to the maximum use of airpower and the infliction of maximum casualaties’. It was ‘both a military base and a refugee camp…and it housed considerable numbers of civilians’ (TRC, 2-47-48).

The assault began at 0800 on 4 May 1978. Four Canberra bombers attacked. One minute later four Buccaneers dropped seven 400 kg fragmentation bombs, a weapon intended to wound and kill indiscriminately. 370 paratroopers followed. The ground forces were commanded by Col. Jan Breytenbach of 32 Battalion. As the operation proceeded, apartheid not only failed to attend to the wounded, but shot many out of hand: as an anonymous soldier reported: “There was just too many wounded… I was given an AK-47 and instructed to kill…Some were conscious…We found this woman clutching her screaming baby…we saw the terrible wounds inflicted by an Air Force bomb…She looked at me. I can never describe what it did to me” (TRC, 2-54). The dead were hastily buried in two mass graves. Foreign journalists who accompanied the SADF confirmed that ‘large numbers of the dead were women and young people wearing civilian clothes’. By evening the assault was complete. The Commission believed that some 1,200 people died, and over 600 people were wounded. In two testimonies, Lt. Johan Verster said: “Kassinga was probably the most bloody exercise we ever launched…It was a terrible thing…Its damaged my life.” For Gen. J. Geldenhuys ‘it was a jewel of military craftsmanship’ (TRC, 2-52-54).

Military brutality prevailed on the Namibia-Angola border. Koevoet operated on a bounty basis, where members were paid for killings and for seizures of enemy weapons: kopgeld. Sean Callaghan was a young conscript who chose to be a military medic, so he could “help people”: he told the TRC that among Koevoet bounties were a “great motivating factor”. In one instance, an officer became so frustrated when he could not find a weapon in a patient’s possession that he shot the man in the head as Sean was treating his wounds. Torture was rife. Once information was extracted, prisoners were shot and buried. “Bodies were often tied to armoured vehicles “and the men would drive round with them for a week with their skin being ripped off”. Suicides were frequent. Sean Callaghan experienced PTSD for ten years (TRC, 4-122-123).

The Commission found Prime Minister Vorster principally responsible for the Kassinga atrocity as head of state: Minister of Defence P.W. Botha, was responsible as political head of the SADF: and Gen. Magnus Malan responsible as chief of the SADF (TRC, 2-55). This was apparently the extent of their accountability.

The effects of South Africa’s war on Angolan civilians were ‘devastating’. UNICEF estimated that, between 1980 and 1985, ‘at least 100,000 Angolans died’ mainly as a result of war-related famine. Between 1981 and 1988, UNICEF thought that ‘333,000 Angolan children died of unnatural causes’ (TRC, 2-60).

Pretoria’s regional dominance was brought to an appropriate end in the skies over Cuito Cuanavale in 1988. From the previous year, Cuba’s air capacity in the south of Angola was strengthened and extended: building two new airstrips, and installing a radar network linking together 150 SAM-8 missile batteries. The Soviet Union supplied Angola with MiG-23 fighters, assault helicopters and T-64 tanks: Soviet military aid was worth $15 billion by that year. Crucially too Cuba sent its most experienced combat pilots. When Cuba gained air superiority over the battlefield at the end of 1987, it neutralised Pretoria’s prized long-range artillery: every shot fired by a G-5 could be located and destroyed. Col. Breytenbach said that South Africa’s attack on Cuito was “brought to a grinding and definite halt” (quoted in Good, “Cuba’s Defence of Angola”, 2015).

Cuba became a full participant in negotiations for Namibian independence, able to determine outcomes: the complete withdrawal of South African forces would be completed not later than September 1988. Namibia became independent in March 1990. In May 1991 the last Cuban troops flew home.

Nelson Mandela, speaking in Havana, in 1991, recognised the significance of these con-joined military-political advances: without Cuito Cuanavale “our organisations would not have been legalised. The defeat of the racist army…made it possible for me to be with you today. Cuito Cuanavale marks the divide in the struggle for the liberation of southern Africa.” The ANC’s armed struggle had been a bitter, notable irrelevance (Good, 2015).

Lawlessness and Terror

From the mid-1980s, a climate of ‘state lawlessness’ prevailed, as the Botha regime abandoned any pretence of adherence to the rule of law. This was manifested as ‘emergency executive decree became the chosen method of government’ (TRC, Findings, 4:101). It was also expressed through the reliance on torture and terror against popular democratic organisation. It was sanctioned and promoted at the highest level. It was seen when John Vorster adopted a ‘shoot to kill’ policy to ‘maintain order at all costs’ at the start of the Soweto Uprising. But it had already been utilised on 24 July 1964, when Vorster (then Minister of Justice) gave the go ahead for the bombing of Johannesburg railway station by the African Resistance Movement (ARM), a small liberal-radical grouplet. The security forces knew well of the ARM’s plan, the concourse could have been cleared, Brigadier van den Bergh phoned Vorster (his friend) that the bomb was in position, who replied, ‘let it happen’. One blast destroyed the Liberal Party, the ARM, and the life of an elderly woman: it was ‘state depravity’ (Beresford, 2010).

Covert actions, such as ‘Operation Zero Zero’ where eight young East Rand activists were given booby-trapped grenades by a Vlakplaas operative (established in 1979 with askaris or turned ANC or PAC, it evolved into the special forces of the Security Branch under Col. Eugene de Kock): its activities were ‘sanctioned at the highest levels of government’ (TRC, 3-599 and 2-30).

Internal political mobilisation was targeted, and state torture was routinised. In 1986 groups like the Alexandra Consumer Boycott Committee, demanded the withdrawal of the SADF from townships. Late April saw ‘the emergence of “street Committees”, as well as “alternative structures” of community organisation’. On the night of 22 April, police attacked the homes of activists, and ‘five people died’. The Alexandra Action Committee announced on 30 April that “people’s power” had been established there. But the nationwide state of emergency decree, of 12 June, ended that initiative then (TRC. 3-614).

Police torture was ‘endemic’. Youths 13-24 years were likely victims, especially those ‘who held local leadership positions’. In the 1980s, state torture was punitive, sustained and intense. Jacob Khoali was a member of the Katlehong Residents Action Committee, a UDF affiliate. He was detained for 14 days, then arrested again after June 1985. He was taken to a private house and subjected to ‘helicopter torture’ and electric shocks. As a result both Khoali’s legs were amputated above the knee (TRC, 3-617).

Through 1985, resistance to apartheid was often closely inter-linked with organised democratisation. The UDF was formed two years earlier. The PEBCO Three showed this association in May 1985. Sipho Hashe, Champion Galela, and Qaqawuli Godolozi, members of the Port Elizabeth Black Civic Organisation (PEBCO), were abducted on 11 May by the Security Branch, taken to Port Chalmers and killed. Askaris from Vlakplaas assisted in the operation. Galela was tortured to death. With his body in full view, Hashe was brought in and ‘subjected to unremitting torture until he too died’. Godolozi spent the night in a garage with the bodies and the following morning suffered the same fate. Their remains were thrown into the Fish River.

Shortly before the killing, ‘a high-powered political delegation’ including President Botha and Ministers Vlok and Malan visited the rebellious Eastern Cape. Numerous security personnel testified that they were informed that the area ‘had to be stabilised at all costs.’ Harold Snyman of the Port Elizabeth Security Branch reported that they must ‘act in a drastic way to neutralise activists’ (TRC, 2-224-226). The characteristic apartheid instruction: order must be restored at all costs.

Six weeks later, in late June 1985, the Cradock Four, Matthew Goniwe, Fort Calata, Sparro (or Sparrow) Mkhonto, and Sicelo Mhlawuli, were targeted. Cradock was a small farming town 300 kms north of Port Elizabeth, and Matthew Goniwe was the popular principal of the Lingelihle Secondary School: when he was threatened with an enforced transfer, a boycott by around 7,000 students lasted over 15 months. He was ‘instrumental’ in forming the Cradock Residents Association (Cradora) in 1983, and became its first chairperson, assisted by Fort Calata, fellow teacher and community organiser.

At the end of March 1984, Goniwe and Calata were detained, effectively for six months. Amidst various community actions, and state repression, a ‘successful seven-day boycott of white shops took place in Cradock in August. On 10 October, Goniwe and Calata were released ‘to a hero’s welcome.’ The Commission said that Cradora ‘enjoyed widespread support from most of the township’s 20,000 residents’: Cradora it could be said controlled Cradock (TRC, 3-112-114).

The Cradock Four epitomised the association between broad community action and advanced democratisation. On 3 March 1985, Matthew Goniwe was elected to the UDF’s Eastern Cape regional executive as rural organiser. He ‘helped establish civic structures’ in towns all across the region ‘us[ing] the same methods as organisations in Cradock’. Cradock itself was doubly distinguished: it was seen as ‘a model of organisation by the UDF’ (TRC, 2- 227). The ‘effectiveness of Goniwe’s organisational methods’ were also noted by the state: the security forces saw ‘Goniwe in particular’, as ‘the epicentre of revolutionary organisation in the sub-region’: Gen. Joffel van der Westhuizen noted that Cradock was “the very first town [in South Africa] where they successfully implemented alternative structures [of government]” (quoted in Calata, 2018 and TRC, 2-227 and 3-115).

The Four were killed on 27 June 1985. They were ‘tortured by blowtorch’, stabbed many times, and ‘the fingers of Fort Calata’s left hand were severed’ (Jacqueline Rose, “One Long Scream”, LRB, 23 May 2019). Nomonde Calata described how she had identified her husband’s mutilated body: “his hair was plucked out, his tongue pulled, his fingers cut, his calf bitten by a dog and there were wounds all over his body” (The Economist, 20 April 1996): as Boesak noted, it was a flagrant demonstration of apartheid’s awfulness. The bodies were ‘dumped in the veld near Port Elizabeth’ (TRC, 3-117). The PEBCO and Craddock killings were only weeks apart, and both concerned ‘prominent UDF activists’ (TRC, 3-117). Sixty thousand people defied a banning order to attend the Four’s funeral on 21 July. That night a state of emergency was declared over most of the Eastern Cape.

Authorisation at the Top: The Crimes and the Destruction of the Records

Gen. Nic van Rensberg, the commander of the police, instructed Eugene de Kock to carry out the ‘Mothwerwell Bombing’: the silencing of four black policemen attached to the Motherwell station in Port Elizabeth who had ‘threatened to expose their white colleagues’ involvement in [the death of the Cradock Four]. So effective was the Vlakplaas network that security departments throughout the country used it, ‘often with the tacit support or outright connivance of cabinet-level politicians.’

De Kock saw himself as “a crusader” of apartheid: he was the commander of the headquarters of the ‘dirty war’ waged at home and abroad, and he regularly ‘went out with his men’. In this war there were for him ‘no rules except to win’ (Gobodo-Madikizela, A Human Being Died That Night, 2003). After he was arrested in May 1994, he was criminally charged and sentenced to 212 years jail. When he testified before the TRC, Albie Sachs, now a Constitutional Court judge, thought he was telling the truth “like no one else” (quoted by David Greybe, Business Day, 6 April 1998). Gobodo-Madikizela believed he ‘made an extraordinary contribution to the TRC’. Most of the security police ‘and certainly all the police generals who applied for amnesty were forced to do so as a result of de Kock’s disclosures…Yet they still walk free.’

During the height of the wars, de Kock had received the country’s highest national award for bravery, the Silver Star, and ‘his unit had been allocated millions in secret funds’ (Gobodo-Madikizela). F.W. de Klerk’s relation to the TRC and the truth was the opposite of de Kock’s. In a great reversal, the Nobel laureate portrayed himself as the man who dismantled apartheid, and insisted “my hands are clean” (statement in Sunday Times, 25 August 1996).

De Kock was aware of the hypocrisy and the abnegation of the state leaders. Gobodo-Madikizela learnt of his bitterness “at all those who gave me orders…[and] the person who sticks most of all in my throat is former president F.W. de Klerk” (2003).

The Commission found that the destruction of state records was done systematically, affecting a huge body of material. The sabotage began in the 1980s, and was coordinated and sanctioned by the Cabinet. The destruction undermined the TRC’s work ‘more than any other single factor’ (TRC, 1-201-204). In 1993, the Cabinet expanded the process to ‘all state offices’ to eliminate evidence of gross human rights violations. By May 1994, a ‘massive deletion of state documentary memory’ had been achieved (TRC, 1-209).

An accompaniment and consequence was the state’s near loss of control over the military in the run up to the country’s first democratic elections. From the start of formal negotiations in mid-1990 and April 1994, some 14,000 people died in ‘politically related incidents’. In December 1993, a Transitional Executive Council was installed, but the Inkatha Freedom Party had also been established in July 1990, and violence massively escalated. There were, additionally, ‘military-style attacks on trains’ (in which some 572 people died), massacres and assassinations (TRC, 2-584-585).

As evidence emerged of security force involvement in such activities, de Klerk appointed Gen. Pierre Steyn to investigate certain military units. Steyn concluded that available prosecutionary evidence was unreliable largely because of the destruction of state documents. After discussions between de Klerk and three SADF commanders, six top-ranking officials faced compulsory early retirement, and Steyn himself took early retirement in October 1993, aged 51. His report to the Minister of Defence noted there was little progress in reforming the military, and specifically, that ‘many role-players protected each other and would murder if they felt threatened’ (TRC, 2-587-588 and 3-32).

In this precarious situation, it is notable that the military power of apartheid included nuclear weapons. The decision to build six nuclear devices was taken in 1974, against the background of supposed Soviet expansionism and Angola. The new capability came at “great cost” and through “massive spending”, de Klerk admitted. He announced the dismantling of the programme on 24 March 1993 (de Klerk, The Autobiography, 2000), but the acquisitions had huge consequences. The strategy of ‘total war’ entailed ‘total corruption’. Under secret funding the state was looted to an extent where it could barely meet its debts. Frene Ginwala, Speaker in the first democratic parliament, believed that apartheid created a system of “facilitated corruption” to survive (quoted in Good, 2019).

Among apartheid’s collaborators in domestic violence few were more deadly than the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) and its leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi. The TRC found the IFP responsible for some 3,800 killings in KZN and Natal areas during its mandate period, compared with about 1,100 attributed to the ANC and 700 to the Police. Responsibility rested firmly with Buthelezi as the leader of the party, the KZN government and the KZN police: his was a one-party dictatorship. Statistics established the IFP as the foremost perpetrator of gross human rights violations in the region, and led the TRC to describe Buthelezi as an ally of the apartheid state. But the counting in the founding 1994 elections had seen the IFP being awarded 10.5% of the national vote and its blood-stained leader becoming Home minister (de Klerk became Deputy President). The dominant ANC now favoured détente, and looked to possible unity between themselves and Inkatha. Elite impunity was strengthened and justice for Buthelezi’s victims was sacrificed.

Unjust Methods in a Just War

Many injustices could be attributed to the ANC during the apartheid wars, notably the suppression of the youthful pro-democratic dissidents in the MK’s Angolan camps.

But few unjust methods stand out more than the use of the necklace and burnings which began around Port Elizabeth in the mid-1980s. From September 1984 to December 1989, police national statistics recorded 406 deaths by necklacing, and 395 deaths by burning. Victims were mostly alleged informers, councillors, police and chiefs (TRC, 3-667). Cruelty was commonplace. A KwaNobukle town councillor, Ben Kinikini, was stoned, stabbed and necklaced on 23 March 1985. Four of his sons and nephews were killed with him, either burned or hacked to death. His widow testified: “He was made to drink petrol, they put a tyre over him and then they ignited him…my younger son was hiding…they took him and they ignited him alive…I am telling you as it is. They cut his testicles while he was still alive”. This was the first ‘widely publicised necklace killing’ (TRC, 3-22, and 108-109).

Policeman Aubray Fulani and his wife were abducted from their home in Uitenhage by ‘comrades’ on the night of 28 April 1985. They had five litres of petrol and some tyres. Ms Fulani said “they made him drink petrol and burnt him right in front of me” (TRC, 3- 110-111).

The TRC found that “the necklace became a terrible symbol of the brutalisation of political conflict…during the mid-1980s” (TRC, 3-667). Yet Winnie Madikizela Mandela vigorously promoted the practise, and Chris Hani, a top SACP and MK leader, saw it as ‘a weapon of the masses…I refuse to condemn our people when they mete out their own traditional form of justice to those who collaborate.’ Both Boesak and Tutu had direct experience of innocent people being threatened with necklacing.

Impunity for Perpetrators and Posthumous Justice for Victims

Apartheid’s wars were comprehensive and remorseless, the large-scale killings at Kassinga, and the frightful torture of people like Goniwe and Calata: targeted killing in a way that did the most damage. Apartheid crimes of this exceptionality are not easily counter-balanced by de Klerk’s realisation in the late 1980s that apartheid’s struggle for survival was over. Assisting the transition was desirable, but it said nothing of the preceding decades.

A lot revolved around amnesty. It promoted peace, but at the high cost of freedom for perpetrators. Informed opinion believes it was ‘unlikely’ that Pretoria would have conceded power without it. While ‘the architects’ saw that ‘the system’ was finished economically, politically and internationally, amnesty smoothed the way among the generals.

Calata believed there were ‘secret negotiations between the ANC and apartheid leaders way before…December 1991’. This view was backed by Boesak, and supported pragmatically by the Deputy Minister of Justice, John Jeffery, in 2017: We didn’t have the resources to have inquests into all these murders, “there [we]re so many”. Pressures were on him to “deal with present-day crimes” (Calata, 2018).

The issue is not dead. The letter to President Ramaphosa, by Tutu and others, February 1919, emphasised “political interference” in recommended prosecutions.

Persistence may pay off even at high political levels. The National Prosecuting Authority ‘recently decided’ to reopen apartheid-era inquests and ‘pursue prosecutions’. But it is the foot-soldiers who are currently being investigated (Karyn Maughan, “Apartheid’s Skeletons”, Business Live, 4 July 2019).

Many years have passed since the TRC’s founding, and for the families, says Ex-Commissioner Yasmin Sooka, delayed justice represents its denial. The process is also deeply inequitable: two life sentences for de Kock and a Nobel for his commander-in-chief. For top perpetrators, really no trials resulted (Schmidt, “TRC”, Business Live, 30 May 2019).

Time is short: perpetrators are dying, and the culpability of leaders like de Klerk and Buthelezi is recorded.

The post The Apartheid Wars: Non-Accountability and Freedom for Perpetrators. appeared first on CounterPunch.org.

Democracy in America: Sorry, But You Can’t Get There from Here.

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

There was a time, just a few weeks ago, when hardly anyone thought it literally true that, as he boasted, Donald Trump could shoot somebody on Fifth Avenue and become more popular for having done so.

Whatever Trump himself had in mind, most of the people who would repeat that claim approvingly, as many have done over the past four years, thought of it as a rhetorical exaggeration, a hyperbole, useful for driving home the point that Trump was, figuratively speaking, getting away with murder.

However, over the past few weeks, in view of his role in making the COVID-19 pandemic now raging all around us so much worse than it would otherwise have been, the idea that Trump’s boast just might be true in a literal sense has come to seem increasingly reasonable.

Trump is plainly not guilty of first- or second- degree murder, but of a legally recognized form of homicide that is morally equivalent or worse — depraved indifference to human life.

Like so much else that he has done since assuming office, this is worse by many orders of magnitude than the underlying offense for which he was actually impeached, soliciting the help of Ukraine to advance his own electoral prospects.

Impeaching him for that was like getting Al Capone for taxes, but at least the feds did manage to put Capone in prison; Trump’s impeachment, like so many of his other more egregious “high crimes and misdemeanors,” has only made him more popular with his base, just as he boasted shooting someone on Fifth Avenue would.

Nancy Pelosi has been praised in heaps for her role in getting Trump’s impeachment through Congress, but Democrats and their media flacks haven’t had much to say about how little good, and how much harm, has come from that deployment of her vaunted political skills. In Democratic Party circles, it is practically axiomatic that Nancy knows best.

Corporate media have been fairly silent too about how, since the crisis erupted, Trump’s popularity, according to reliable polls, has come to top fifty percent, a record high for him. Perhaps because his rise in the polls is partly their fault, they are too embarrassed to dwell on the subject.

Trump was elected in the first place thanks, in part, to the free publicity corporate media bestowed upon him in 2016. They could hardly help themselves then, inasmuch as they are as much in thrall to the Almighty Dollar as any other capitalist enterprise, and his antics boosted their ratings and therefore their revenues.

Ironically, they have a more compelling reason for giving him free airtime now: he is, sad to say, the president and is therefore officially in charge.

Never one to miss an opportunity to glorify himself, Trump is playing them for all they’re worth, and doing a good job of it.

Having shunned press briefings from the getgo, preferring instead to connect with the public – or rather with the part of it that sees him as their savior — through barely literate and frequently incoherent tweets and fascistic campaign rallies, he is now holding daily, seemingly interminable, press briefings, nauseating displays of sycophancy, in which, when not congratulating himself or being congratulated by others, he attacks his foes in the media and the State Houses, indulges his grudges, and, worst of all, endangers public health by misinforming and disinforming his audience.

To be sure, it is no great shakes for a president to have high approval ratings in a national crisis or during a national emergency – the two Bushes know all about that – and, for any other president, approval ratings like the ones Trump now enjoys would be a signal for despair, not a portent of electoral success ahead.

Still, when a Donald Trump or anyone of his ilk becomes more, not less popular, as more people become familiar with how he thinks and what he does, it is a sign that something is seriously wrong. It is hard, with that going on, not to despair for America, and indeed for the human race.

Trump’s popularity could, of course, tumble downwards as the virus spreads and the death toll mounts; as, so to speak, the body count on Fifth Avenue rises.

But suppose it remains (comparatively) high long enough to make concerns about Trump’s reelection reasonable. What is to be done in that, not entirely unlikely, case?

In those circumstances, or indeed in any circumstances at all, trying to talk sense to terminally benighted morons, which is what most Republicans nowadays have become, no matter how many or few of them there are, is a fool’s errand. They are too dead set against reason, evidence, and common decency. The more vile and even criminal Trump becomes, the more the bodies pile up on Fifth Avenue, the more they stand by him.

Mainstream Democrats are less blatantly odious, but they are part of the problem too.

I used to think that their support for “moderates” was wrong-headed but harmless because Trump would surely in due course defeat himself. I still think that, but recent events are shaking my confidence.

The problem with moderates is not just their moderation, their determination to put a potentially transformative crisis to waste. It is that, whether they realize it or not, their defense of the old regime is tantamount to a defense of the neoliberal, liberal imperialist, war-mongering politics that made Trump or someone like him all but inevitable, and that will do it again unless a principled and militant opposition arises.

Joe Biden is the worst of the moderates by a good margin; the one least likely to campaign well, and the one who, installed in the White House, would do the worst job. It would be hard to make even Hillary Clinton look good, but that is the one job Hapless Joe is good for.

To be sure, Biden could choose a better (less bad) running mate and then senesce quickly enough to leave or be removed from office prematurely; he seems already well on track for that. And so, by that route, we could end up with our first woman president – he has said that his running mate would be female – and with a president whose politics is at least not worse than the politics that brought the Trump affliction on.

But these are slender reeds upon which to hang even the kind of vague hopes for change that Barack Obama raised at this point in the 2008 campaign and then for the first few months of his presidency.

There are solutions readily at hand, however; and some of them aren’t half bad. The problem, though, is that there seems to be no getting to there from here.

This is an instance of a problem that all so-called democracies in today’s world confront in one form or another. The American case, however, is extreme.

***

When people nowadays praise American democracy, they are either just replicating familiar pious cant, as when they talk about “the Free World,” or they are contrasting our governing institutions with those of more blatantly autocratic regimes of one or another kind.

Typically, the contrast is more political than analytical. What authoritarian regimes have in common is not exactly that their institutional arrangements contrast sharply with our own or with those of other so-called democracies. It is that they are or are thought to be unfriendly, or insufficiently subservient, to the United States.

By gaining a sounder than usual purchase on what actually is the case, it is possible, as it were, to de-weaponize the contrast. That would be a good thing to do from both a theoretical and practical political perspective. To that end, it can be useful first to dispel a widespread conceptual muddle.

This would be the idea that when people nowadays talk about “democracy,” what they mainly have in mind is not some notion, attenuated but still substantially similar, to “democracy” as understood within the Western philosophical tradition, both ancient and modern. It is what political philosophers understand by “liberalism.”

Historical and conceptual connections between that sense of the term and its various uses in political contexts, in the United States and elsewhere, are complicated. But what the philosophical notion itself involves is plain enough. It is a view about the limits of political authority relations that contrasts not with “conservatism,” as in mainstream political discourse in the United States nowadays, but with what historians and political theorists call “absolutism.”

In pre-modern times in Europe and, in various ways, in other parts of the world too, political authority relations were diffuse. There were kings and emperors, but real power, more often than not, rested with the nobility and with religious orders and ecclesiastical authorities of various kinds.

Thus, the state form of political organization, which emerged out of the class struggles of the early modern period, transformed the political sphere fundamentally.

States concentrate political authority relations into a single institutional nexus which holds, as Max Weber (1864-1920) famously put it, a monopoly of the means of (legitimate) violence. It is through violence or, more precisely, the use or threat of force, that states coordinate the behaviors of individuals and groups under their respective jurisdictions.

Within the institutional framework that the state form of political organization brought into being, “sovereignty” designates supreme authority over a given territory or population. In the early modern period, sovereignty was usually vested in a monarch whose power was in theory, and often in practice as well, unrestricted – or “absolute.”

It was in this context that liberalism, the theory and practice of partial or non-absolutist sovereignty, emerged. In liberal states, there are areas of individuals’ lives and behaviors into which the sovereign power cannot rightfully interfere.

But for the wars of religion brought on by the Protestant Reformation and Catholic reactions to it, liberalism would not have emerged where and when it did. Religious toleration was a pressing concern of the first liberal thinkers; as the various parties to seemingly never-ending conflicts fought to exhaustion, their core idea – that matters of private conscience like religious beliefs are no business of the sovereign’s – eventually won the day.

The rise of capitalism, another creature of the early modern period, further advanced the idea that there are aspects of public life that ought to be immune from state interference. The first capitalists were proponents of laissez-faire, intent on replacing the heavy and very visible weight of state institutions with the invisible hand of ostensibly voluntary market relations.

Economic liberties, freedom to engage in capitalist acts, and political liberties of the kind that the authors of the Bill of Rights were intent on installing are not the same. It is, however, a cardinal tenet of certain strains of liberal theory and practice – the ones we nowadays call “libertarian” – that they comprise a seamless web. Increasingly over the past several decades, even liberals who despise libertarianism accept that libertarian conviction to at least some extent.

The United States was never the only non-absolutist state in the family of nations and, if it ever was, it is certainly no longer, the most liberal state on the face of the earth. However, its record over the years has been good; far better than most.

It still is, thanks, in large part, to a judiciary that, over the years, has been generally good – some egregious counter-examples notwithstanding – at protecting individuals’ basic rights and liberties from the tyranny of the executive and legislative branches of federal and state governments.

But now that the more odious duopoly party has been packing the federal judiciary with judges who champion stone age ideas, this safeguard is in jeopardy. In the long run, the harm Mitch McConnell and his fellow GOP Senators will have done may outweigh even the harm done by Donald Trump.

However that may be, praise for American democracy is, more often than not, really praise for American liberalism. This is an understandable confusion: for all its shortcomings and flaws, American liberalism genuinely is praiseworthy. On the other hand, there is hardly anything to praise in American democracy.

No modern democracy is anything like the democracies envisioned by the great democratic theorists of the past. In the real world, the demos, the people as distinct from social or economic elites, never rule. Neither does the undifferentiated citizenry except insofar as, from time to time, there are free and fair elections for representatives over whom there is then little or no popular control.

In the American case, those elections are held at fixed terms, so that the system is unresponsive to widespread desires for change. Elect a Trump, and you’re stuck with a Trump — for four long, dreadful years.

In America too, in presidential elections, where the outcome is decided ultimately by a Constitutionally mandated Electoral College, not by the popular vote, garnering a majority or even a plurality of votes cast is no guarantee of victory. Presidential elections can therefore result in outcomes that make a mockery of the core democratic principle of majority rule.

Throughout the twentieth century, the consensus view was that minority rule was a theoretical possibility only that (small-d) Democrats could live with. But then two of our three twenty-first century presidents were elected with a minority of the popular vote; George W. Bush, our second-worst president in modern times, in 2000, and Trump, the worst American president ever, in 2016.

Then, in many modern democracies, there is the problem of “democracy deficits.” A majority votes for what they want, the majority rules, but then in one way or another, depending on institutional factors, political machinations, and outside, usually American, interference, they end up with something very different from what they voted for.

In the American case, the democracy deficit problem is partly mitigated by a duopoly party system that makes it almost impossible much of the time to vote for what one wants. This is a problem that especially affects citizens with progressive bones in their bodies.

Trump has changed the Republican Party radically, turning it into a de facto Trump party, and after the Sanders insurgency, the Clinton fiasco and the 2018 election, the Democratic Party is not what it used to be either. In the former case, the change has been unequivocally for the worse; in the latter case, it is, albeit equivocally, for the better. But it is not yet anywhere near better enough.

Meanwhile, the duopoly system itself has somehow managed to remain robust despite the advent of the Trump era, and despite the perturbations of the Trump-exacerbated COVID-19 pandemic, and the system’s dysfunctionality has become, if anything, even more extreme.

***

Because the Democratic Party’s Pelosiite center, aided and abetted by “liberal” corporate media and by machine politicians, black and white, in the South especially but not only there, who, like Jim Clyburn, are more Clintonite than the Clintons themselves, held, we now have a Biden problem on top of everything else.

In the pre-pandemic days, one could almost understand how a Democratic candidate who reeked of Obama style “normalcy” could appeal to a public worn out and exasperated by Trump’s vile machinations. It is a lot harder to understand, with the pandemic on full-blast, how anyone who, like Biden, opposes making health care a basic right – on fiscal grounds moreover, even as the government is again bailing out major corporations with reckless abandon — could have any appeal whatsoever. And that is just the least of it.

Biden has a woman problem like Trump’s, though in a minor key– witness the revelations now coming out about Tara Reade – and, again like Trump, he and his children have been capitalizing on his political connections in ways that are unseemly at best.

Worse still, his politics is like Clinton’s, though a tad more rightwing.

Like Obama, Biden is a Wall Street toady.

He is also a Cold War revivalist, and an avid supporter of liberal imperialist interventionism.

He has instigated and helped support every ruinous neoliberal trade agreement that the United States has pursued for as long as he has been in public life, and he is a longstanding enemy of our already feeble welfare state institutions, including Social Security.

For voters wanting Medicare for All and a Green New Deal, he is emphatically not their man, no matter how much, in an effort to placate Sanders supporters, he might intimate otherwise.

And did I mention that he seems not all there upstairs?

Democrats could do a whole lot better. Indeed, there are better alternatives readily at hand.

But in our “democracy,” you can’t get there from here – because, at this point, that would require the active support of the old regime stalwarts who have all but inaugurated Biden already.

If only Sanders hadn’t been so kind to him in the debates; if only Elizabeth Warren had been more aggressive. If only any of the marginally less retrograde “moderates” had pulled their weight. If only voters concerned about electability hadn’t been so obtuse.

Then Sanders might now be the one now on track to become the nominee, or perhaps it would be Warren.

Or since 2020 has turned into a plague year, it could even be Andrew Cuomo, not exactly a man of the Left, but the best antithesis to Trump and Trumpism around.

The party honchos might not take to Sanders or even Warren, but how could they object to him?

The problem is getting from here to there. Sadly, indeed tragically, it seems that, barring a miracle, there is no way.

This would be true even in pre-pandemic times, but it is especially the case now when meetings and rallies and anything resembling normal campaigning is out of the question.

Should Biden continue to deteriorate in way that cannot be ignored, and were the corvid-19 danger to lift overnight, I could imagine a brokered Democratic Party convention this summer choosing Cuomo to be the nominee. But the danger will not be going away any time soon. It isn’t even clear that there will be a Democratic convention this year; it may have to be called off.

Biden will probably still defeat Trump – or rather Trump will defeat Trump – but a truly world-historical opportunity to make the American political universe worthy, at last, of the American people will have been squandered, perhaps not irretrievably, but significantly.

So much for democracy in America. We may get to it someday, but, even when Trump is definitively dispatched, it looks now like that day will remain a long way off.

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Tunisia Leads the Way: New Report Exposes Israel’s False Democracy

Photograph Source: Keith Roper – CC BY 2.0

Tunisia is the Middle East’s greatest success story, according to the findings of the V-Dem Annual Democracy Report 2019.

One of the world’s most regarded annual reports on democracy and good governance, the V-Dem Report is produced by the V-Dem (Varieties of Democracy) Institute at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden.

While Tunisians can be proud of the prospect of democracy in their country, Israelis have little to be proud of. A country that has long prided itself, however misleadingly, of being ‘the only democracy in the Middle East’, has lost the title to Tunisia, a small North-African Arab nation of just over 11 million people.

Understandably, Tunisians might find their overall ranking ahead of well-established democracies less meaningful, considering that the politically unstable country is still undergoing a painful democratic transition. However, considering that the country has registered a sizable improvement in every democratic aspect examined by the V-Dem Report, Tunisia truly deserves the title of “the star pupil of democratization of the past ten years.”

Israel, however, has been, once more, exposed for its charade democracy. Since it was established atop the ruins of the Palestinian homeland, Israel has relentlessly touted its democratic virtues while excluding millions of Palestinian Arabs from any form of democratic participation.

There are 5 million Palestinians living under Israeli military occupation in East Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Not only are they denied the right to exercise any form of real democracy, they are also denied their very freedom of speech, expression, and movement.

Meanwhile, 2 million Palestinian Arabs, who are citizens of Israel, are treated as second or third-class citizens, subjected to numerous discriminatory laws that aim at curtailing their political, cultural, and economic aspirations and rights.

In fact, the institutional racism and fear-mongering against Arab minorities in Israel has been the rallying cry among most of Israel’s political parties, whether of the right, center or left. No wonder, then, that Israel has recently received its worst rating ever in the Freedom House’s ‘Freedom in the World 2020’ Report.

According to the report, Israel was classified among the world’s 25 “declining democracies”, which, unsurprisingly, include the United States as well.

In its report, Freedom House had many harsh words for right-wing Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, described as “at the vanguard of nationalistic and chauvinistic populism.”

“Netanyahu has taken increasingly drastic steps to maintain the loyalty of far-right groups, entrenching and expanding West Bank settlements at the expense of the moribund Palestinian peace process, banning foreign activists based on their opposition to such policies, and enacting a discriminatory law that reserved the right of self-determination in Israel to the Jewish people,” the report stated.

This partly explains the significant drop in Israel’s score of six points in the democracy index since 2009, seen by Freedom House as “an unusually large decline for an established democracy”.

Here, one is left to ponder why the belated acknowledgment in Israel’s undemocratic credentials, despite the fact that Israel would have scored poorly in all indexes of democratic standards at any point in the past.

Certainly, Netanyahu has managed to decimate any Israeli claim to true democracy, thanks to his government’s assault on civil liberties and freedoms even within Israel’s Jewish constituencies. But was it fair that Israel was still classified as a ‘liberal democracy’ when millions of Palestinian Arabs and other minority groups were the main and perhaps only victims of Israel’s institutional racism and discrimination?

In other words, it seems that Israel began losing its democratic accolades when Netanyahu dared upset the socio-political equilibrium among Israel’s Jewish, not Arab population.

Be that as it may, the jig is up. If the Freedom House report was not clear enough regarding Israel’s failed democracy, the V-Dem Report is more damning and detailed.

According to the Swedish report’s ‘Political Corruption Index’, Israel is the 35th most politically corrupt country, followed immediately by Botswana in Southern Africa. Interestingly, the United Arab Emirates is six spots ahead of Israel in that category, and one spot ahead of the United States.

If that score was not bad enough, it was actually Israel’s best performance in all other indexes: Israel occupied the 51st spot on the ‘Liberal Democracy Index’, 53rd in the ‘Egalitarian Component Index’, 55th in the ‘Electoral Democracy Index’, 57th in the ‘Liberal Component Index’ and 76th in the ‘Deliberative Component Index’. It gets worse.

Particularly revealing is Israel’s score in the ‘Participatory Component Index’, where Israel claimed the 80th position, lagging behind Congo, Zambia, Somaliland and Myanmar – the latter being the focal point of international attention over its massacres and ethnic cleansing campaigns of the Rohingya Muslim minority in the Southeast Asian country.

This is not in the least surprising as Israel has long perceived its Palestinian Arab population, in fact all Palestinians, as a ‘demographic bomb’, whose diffusion can only happen through exclusion, marginalization or outright ethnic cleansing.

The Nation-State Law of 2018 was not an innocent attempt of a country eager to define itself (oddly enough, seven decades after its founding), but a deliberate attempt at laying the legal ground for a prolonged system of apartheid.

Netanyahu has summed up this sentiment perfectly when he exclaimed, prior to the March 2015 general elections that “the right-wing government is in danger. Arab voters are heading to the polling stations in droves.”

In Netanyahu’s mind, in fact, by the calculation of mainstream Israeli politicians, the participation of Arabs in the democratic process is a threat that must be eliminated, exactly as their increasing numbers are also a demographic threat that has to be thwarted at any cost.

In truth, neither the Freedom House nor the V-Dem Institute are conveying new information regarding Israel’s democratic status. Israel never deserved the badge of democracy, which it used to rationalize all of its wars, sieges, and mistreatment of Palestinians, in the first place.

Now, even that false pretense of democracy is lost, likely forever. According to the very democracy standards created by Western institutions, Tunisia is now the only democracy in the Middle East.

More important than badges and titles, however, is the fact that Israel should now be exposed for its crimes against Palestinians without such long-overdue criticism having to be filtered through Israel’s false democracy discourse.

The post Tunisia Leads the Way: New Report Exposes Israel’s False Democracy appeared first on CounterPunch.org.

Coronavirus and the State-of-Emergency Pandemic

You never want a serious crisis to go to waste. And what I mean by that [is] it’s an opportunity to do things that you think you could not before.

– Rahm Emanuel

A silent pandemic is sweeping the nation and across the globe, the panic of the ever-expanding authoritarian state. The coronavirus medical emergency is legitimizing the ever-increasing power of a vigorous state apparatus operating at the federal, state and local levels. The great challenge is what will happen to these powers when the current Covid-19 epidemic is contained?

The U.S. has joined more than a half-dozen European countries to impose a state of emergency on its people. Within the European Community, Armenia, Estonia, Georgia, Latvia, Moldova and Romania have declared a state of emergency; Italy and Spain have imposed states of emergency under their respective constitutional provisions. Hungary, under Viktor Orban, is moving closer to a dictatorship. And still other countries — most notably China — have used the coronavirus epidemic to strengthen state power.

On March 13th, Pres. Donald Trump declared a national state of emergency, invoking what is known as the Stafford Act. According to Just Security, the Act “empowers” Dept. of Homeland Security’s FEMA “to assist state and local governments in responding to the outbreak by coordinating relief efforts and through the release of a reported $50 billion in funding.” The Act was previously invoked in 2000 by Pres. Bill Clinton in response to outbreaks of West Nile Virus in New York and New Jersey. Going further, it warns, “Throughout history, public health has been used as rationale for limiting rights, legitimately and illegitimately.”

The Brennan Center reports that in addition to the Stafford Act, a president can invoke more than 100 statutory powers to declare a national emergency. It notes that Trump invoked the National Emergencies Act — 10 U.S.C. 2808 (a) — to help build the Mexican border wall. It adds, “an additional 13 statutory powers become available when a national emergency is declared by Congress.”

Trump opined in January: “Because of the tremendous dangers at the Border, including large scale criminal and drug inflow, the United States Military will build the Wall!” He followed up, insisting: “We can call a national emergency because of the security of our country … I haven’t done it. I may do it … We can call a national emergency and build it very quickly.”  In March, he used the emergency to rationalize building the wall to halt the coronavirus.

In March, the Trump’s Justice Department upped the ante of the expanding security state when — as reported in Politico — it “quietly asked Congress for the ability to ask chief judges to detain people indefinitely without trial during emergencies — part of a push for new powers that comes as the novel coronavirus spreads throughout the United States.”

It sought to enable the Attorney General to pause court proceedings “whenever the district court is fully or partially closed by virtue of any natural disaster, civil disobedience, or other emergency situation.” And that this power would apply to “any statutes or rules of procedure otherwise affecting pre-arrest, post-arrest, pre-trial, trial, and post-trial procedures in criminal and juvenile proceedings and all civil process and proceedings.”

Seeking to obfuscate a likely Congressional rejection, the DOJ quickly back peddled. A department spokeswoman argued that the proposals were made to “promote consistency” and would empower judges, not the executive branch. “The goal of these provisions (is) to ensure that the justice system continues to operate equitably and effectively, and to harmonize what is already being done on an ad hoc basis by courts around the country,” she wrote. “Bottom line: The proposed legislative text confers powers upon judges. It does not confer new powers upon the executive branch.” If you believe that, I’ve got a bridge in Brooklyn for you.

***

Since the coronavirus emerged in Washington state in January, governors and mayors across the country have decried not only Trump’s inept leadership but his administration’s failures as well. Innumerable officials have raised concern over the lack of testing equipment, masks, ventilators and other needed personal protection equipment. This occurred at the same time when, according to Mother Jones, the federal “government sent nearly 17.8 tons of donated medical supplies to China” and State Department “agency announced it was prepared to spend up to $100 million to assist China as the number of COVID-19 cases and deaths continued to rise there.”

The tension between governors and the president is exemplified by the contentious jousting match been Andrew Cuomo (D-NY) and Trump. Cuomo represents the battle underprepared local officials are waging to contain the ever-expanding virus; Trump appears at his daily press briefings as if at a campaign rally in which only information that makes him look good is presented. This tension recently came to a head when Trump proposed the following:

We might not have to do it, but there’s a possibility that sometime today we’ll do a quarantine, short-term, two weeks on New York. Probably New Jersey, certain parts of Connecticut. This would be an enforceable quarantine. I’d rather not do it, but maybe we need it.

Cuomo quickly responded, “It’s a preposterous idea, frankly.” And added, “Why you would want to just create total pandemonium on top of a pandemic I have no idea.” He explained, “You wouldn’t at this point literally fracture the entire nation because it’s not just New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, it’s Louisiana and New Orleans. The numbers will continue to rise and every few days it’s going to be another hotspot.” Trump withdrew his proposal.

Faced with the mounting crisis, Cuomo declared a state of emergency in early March. According to some reports, the law expanded his administrative power and provided him with $40 million to fight coronavirus. It enables him

to issue edicts “necessary to cope with” potential disasters, ranging from a “disease outbreak” to a volcanic eruption. He defended his new power, saying to reporters, “You recognize the law is deficient, you recognize just suspension of a law doesn’t give you the ability to do anything affirmative,” Cuomo said rhetorically. “Fix it for this situation, but don’t fix it for the other situations?”

Cuomo’s enhanced executive authority raised the ire of some. Manhattan Assemblyman Richard Gottfried argued that no past governor has ever asked for the powers Cuomo requested during any previous public health emergencies. “The governor and health commissioner have, for decades, had extraordinarily broad executive powers.” He went on, “I’ve never heard a governor or health commissioner in any disaster or emergency say that there was something that needed to get done that couldn’t get done because of a lack of what this bill does.”

Cuomo isn’t alone among governors to invoke executive authority in an effort to contain the coronavirus outbreak. Al Jazeera provides an overview assessment of how all the states – as of March 31st — have responded to the epidemic, including those that have invoked a state of “public health” emergency. Their executive actions include:

+ Closing public schools – e.g., Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, etc.

+ Closing public libraries, museums, parks, etc. – e.g., Alaska, Hawaii.

+ Closing of “nonessential businesses (e.g., bars, eateries, wineries, cinemas, casinos, racetracks, fitness centers, bowling alleys, private clubs, tattoo parlors, nail salons, barber shops and other public spaces — except for take-out – e.g., Alaska, Colorado, Connecticut, Indiana, New Jersey, New York, Washington, DC.

+ Imposing stay-at-home/shelter-in-place orders – e.g., California, Colorado, Delaware, Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, New Mexico, Vermont.

+ Have hospitals postpone elective or non-essential surgeries — e.g., Indiana, Kentucky, Massachusetts.

+ Restrictions on visitors to elderly care facilities, hospitals, prisons and daycare centers — e.g., Texas, Washington.

+ Quarantine restrictions — e.g., Hawaii (on tourists).

+ Delay political primaries – e.g., Indiana, Louisiana.

There are individual variations of implementation within these categories. For example, in Florida bars close at 5 pm and public beaches remain open; some states (e.g., California) imposed mandatory restraints while others (e.g., Idaho) encouraged voluntary compliance; and there are variations on restricted crowd size (e.g., 250 in Tennessee and Texas, 100 in Utah, 50 in Illinois and Kansas, 25 in Rhode Island, 10 in Iowa and Nebraska).

For all the states that imposed some form of emergency decree, there are common exemptions. They include (i) people covered (e.g., “essential workers” list doctors and nurses, police and firefighters as well as Amazon workers and UPS drivers); (ii) businesses covered (e.g., grocery store, pharmacy, doctor’s office) and (iii) activities covered (e.g., getting groceries, exercise).

Some states have yet to order the closure of major businesses, restaurants or bars, including Mississippi, Missouri, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Wyoming. And Texas adopted a “patchwork” of local regulations allowing cities, counties and school districts to adopt proprietary approaches to the virus.

Finally, on March 22nd, Trump announced the National Guard would be deployed to assist in efforts to contain the virus in California, New York and Washington State.

It should also be noted that some mayors and city administrators have also declared a local state of emergency. Such actions have occurred in big cities like New York and smaller cities like Albuquerque as well as towns like Bellingham (WA) and the Minooka Village (IL).

***

The U.S. has a long way to go to before it returns to the society that existed before Covid-19. Addressing the immediate pandemic is one thing; providing a successful antibiotic something else; and still more troubling is preparing for recurring round(s) of the disease and/or the possibilities of still other viruses yet to come. Equally troubling, Trump’s cheer-leading about a great economic recovery that will arrive once the coronavirus is contained is a political fiction. As history sadly shows, the Great Depression was only truly ended with the coming of WW-II.

The current pandemic has exposed fundamental problems with the nation’s health-care infrastructure, and it will likely have to be rebuilt as the country recovers. The rebuilding of the U.S. economy – let alone the globalized system – will take months if not years to achieve. More troubling, the epidemic will likely only exaggerate the social crisis that Trump’s presidency sought to mask. This festering crisis includes deepening inequality, growing despair, increased suicides, mounting drug overdoses and rising levels of family abuse.

The post-Covid-19 recovery will likely be marked by high levels of unemployment or underemployment (especially among “gig” workers and “independent contractors); innumerable closing of retail outlets, restaurants and mid-market businesses; and staggering levels of evictions of renters with accompanying homelessness. More troubling, there might be a significant increase in crime, whether by scam artists, street muggings, car thefts and house break-ins. This situation might well exaggerate social tensions, leading to increased white racist attacks on “immigrants” and other people of color, among others.

Under such conditions, the new era of enhanced emergency authority required to address a pandemic could easily provide the justification for greater police and military control of civic life. And no one is better situated to push such an agenda then an insecure, aggressive and autocratic president.

Limits to the deployment of the military personnel to address civil conflicts fall broadly under what’s known as the Posse Comitatus Act. It was adopted during the early days of the Jim Crow era (1878) to enforce racial segregation in the South. Its purpose was to block federal troops from policing the South by limiting federal troops deployed on U.S. soil and prohibiting them from enforcing domestic laws. Members of the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps are prohibited from engaging in direct law enforcement activities, including search, seizure and arrest. Troops can only be deployed during an insurrection or invasion on U.S. soil; currently, the Coast Guard is exempt from these restrictions for drug enforcement purposes. The president must secure such authority from the Congress.

The challenge facing the nation is not “merely” containing and recovering from the coronavirus but protect the nation — and its people — from the pandemic of emergency state authority.

The post Coronavirus and the State-of-Emergency Pandemic appeared first on CounterPunch.org.

Will Trump Cancel the Election? Will the Democrats Dump Joe?

With there being no campaign left to trail, I reached out with my questions to someone on the inside, and got the following email:

Trump doesn’t care if three million Americans die from the virus as long as he can appear on nightly television, basking in the limelight with either immunologists or the CEO of Walmart obediently at his side.

Trump doesn’t care whether some community hospital has on hand enough masks, ventilators, aspirin, or Xeroxed copies of last rites, provided that he remains must-watch television and has better ratings than Joe Biden, who, by the way, must be the first person ever to run for president from the candidate protection program. Is Biden spending his days in a Wilmington panic room, on the phone with an aid who is explaining for the fifth time how to log into Zoom?

I digress, and the question you asked is: Will the election be cancelled?

I have no doubt that somewhere in the depths of the White House—my suspicions are on the Stephen Miller band—there’s a group that is exploring how Trump could suspend or otherwise manipulate the 2020 election to continue governing, as if some Latin American strongman given to rambling speeches from balconies.

Here’s what they would be thinking:

The most confusing clauses in the constitution are those dealing with the election and succession of the president and vice-president.

Everyone talks about the “electoral college,” as if it were Amherst or Williams, but the constitution only speaks about electors and all it says is that they have to show up in Washington every four years and choose a president and a vice-president.

How the electors get there and how they cast their votes remain a source of endless dispute, even though the constitution has been amended on several occasions to clean up the mess.

In Bush v. Gore (yet another big-time fix, in the 2000 election), the Supreme Court made the point that the states hold the right to choose presidential electors and that they only ceded that right provisionally to the people. At any time, so the court concluded, the states are free to reclaim their right and choose whomever they want as presidential electors.

In other words, the people don’t own the democracy; we merely have it on a long-term rental.

The drafters of the constitution were leery of direct democracy and giving citizens the right to choose their president. That was why they vested more power in Congress, notably the House of Representatives.

As conceived in 1789, the office of the president was more that of a sheriff or chief enforcement officer, and the occupant was there to make sure that the laws Congress passed were enacted.

The president wasn’t intended to be a king or prime minister. One of the most amusing debates in constitutional history concerned whether the members of Congress would stand up if the president ever entered the room in which they were seated. (Most thought him unworthy of such obeisance; after all, he was democracy’s footman.)

Nor did it bother the drafters of the constitution that most presidential elections would be determined with many thumbs on the scales. In this way, slaveowners could have their say in a weak branch of government (as they did until the Civil War, if not beyond), and the rest of the country could get on with the business of making money.

The delegation of presidential elections to electors is the opening that the Trump gang needs to keep His Rotundity (the name was first used for John Adams) in office beyond 2020.

Technically speaking, Trump, personally, cannot cancel the November election. Various federal statutes, Congressional oversight, and state laws are the reason that the presidential vote takes place every four years (on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November). But he can try and is not without resources to deal from the bottom of the deck.

Amidst a Covid crisis, it is easy to imagine Trump telling the nightly press conference that he’s “looking at” delaying the election “for the safety of all Americans” although he would have to persuade pliant governors and captive state legislatures to carry out his deferment wishes.

For this argument, let’s assume that he manages to postpone the popular vote in November 2020, at least in a number of states, including some that he needs to carry to be re-elected.

In that event, under the constitution, it would still be up to each state to send a slate of electors to Washington (“on the Monday after the second Wednesday in December”), and it would be that body (we call it the electoral college, as if it were choosing a pope) that would select the next president and vice-president.

For Trump what’s important is that nearly all the key swing states, including Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Florida, have Republican control of the legislature (thanks to the munificent Koch brothers and gerrymandering).

Throwing the presidential election into state legislatures might be Trump’s only chance for victory. (Mark Twain liked to say: “No man’s life, liberty, or property are safe while the legislature is in session.”)

Especially during a recession, Trump could well lose then popular vote in places such as Michigan or Pennsylvania, but he could well win there if the state legislatures choose their own electors.

***

Here’s another angle that might excite Trump’s henchmen.

If Trump has no luck in calling off the popular vote in the election (perhaps by then the country will have figured out how to vote by mail), his next best game would be somehow to deny the Democratic candidate a majority of electors and to throw the election into the House of Representatives.

I realize that would be a long shot, but so you know, here’s how that game would be played:

In the case where there is no majority (270 electors for one candidate), the presidential election is immediately sent to the House of Representatives which chooses the next president.

You might think that, as the House has a Democratic majority, such a move would be against Trump’s interests, but here’s why you’re wrong.

In an election decided by the House (it happened in 1800, 1824, and 1876), each state delegation in the House of Representatives gets one vote. Meaning: the Montana delegation gets to cast one vote for the next president, as does the California delegation.

A vote in each state’s House of Representative delegation would determine how that state’s one vote would be cast for president.

That means, while Trump would lose by huge majorities in the New York and California delegations, he would gain votes in southern and western states that have a Republican majority in their state delegations.

In the current Congress, Republicans have a majority in twenty-seven states, and those votes would re-elect Donald Trump as the next president (27-23—the District of Columbia does not get a vote if the race goes to the House).

By the way, if, on January 20, 2021, neither the electors nor the House of Representatives have chosen a new president, the current vice-president, Task Rabbiter Mike Pence, would become the acting president until a new one is chosen.

Maybe during that time he could pardon Trump? Already he takes the End of Days view that God gave us the coronavirus so that the world would finally recognize the infinite wisdom and judgment of our lord and savior, Donald J. Trump.

***

Is it far-fetched to think about the election in these dire terms? Not really. In the Covid disaster and great recession to follow, Trump is going down for the count.

I know, you think that his approval rating is up and that Americans are rallying to their president “in a time of national crisis” and there is a lot of television palaver about how he has become a “wartime president” with increasing public support.

That’s a sugar high of political polling, and once the out-of-work public sees Trump presiding over a daily Pearl Harbor, telling everyone who will listen how he’s done a “fantastic job” ordering up all those body bags from China, he’s finished—unless, of course, he can rig the election.

Why does Trump need to put the fix in?

For starters, if he is turned out of office in January 2021, he will almost certainly face criminal charges as Individual-1, in the District Court for the Southern District of New York proceedings that sent Trump bagman Michael Cohen up the river for three years.

Trump is an unindicted co-conspirator in those charges, and only by winning re-election (and serving in office for another four years) can he beat the rap by letting the statute of limitations expire in New York.

Special counsel Robert Mueller’s great contribution to constitutional theory was to conclude that it was up to Congress alone to decide on the indictment of a sitting president. Otherwise, Trump would have been charged in New York, irrespective of what Congress decided over impeachment.

If Trump loses the 2020 election and leaves office, he will be indicted in New York. And not many presidents win re-election when the unemployment rate is 30%. So he has a personal stake to remain in office.

As I see it, Trump’s only get-out-of-jail card is to steal the election. To find willing partners in such an enterprise (especially during a national emergency) should not be very difficult. Look at the phalanx of lackeys who surround his lectern each evening and nod solemnly, no matter what fantasy he is peddling. (“We have it totally under control…”)

***

Second question: will the Democrats cut their losses with Joe Biden and try to nominate someone else at the national convention, even if it’s held on the world’s largest video conference call?

Let’s get real about Biden. He’s a dead candidate running, whose only role in this campaign was to deny the Democratic nomination to the bomb-throwing Bernie Sanders.

Did anyone vote for Biden for his intellectual prowess, leadership qualities or record in crisis management? I didn’t think so.

The only reason anyone voted for Biden in the primaries was because his name wasn’t Sanders and because he was seen as someone who would endorse bailout checks to corporate America—whatever the crisis. The rest hardly mattered.

Now, a month into what is called his “presumptive” candidacy, Democrats are waking up to the fact that their nominee cannot string together three comprehensible sentences and is just as clueless as Trump and Mike Pence in dealing with a national health crisis (“brought to you by Walmart, for all your testing needs….”)

I trust you have seen a few of the videos circulating online of Biden broadcasting from his undisclosed location.

He sounds like an old man on a golf club membership committee, complaining how it’s impossible to find a parking place near the men’s grill on Saturdays.

And now there’s another of Joe’s #MeToo moments. In case you missed it, a report has surfaced that back in the 1990s Biden mashed one of his staffers, Tara Reade, up against a congressional wall and, with his hand roaming around her skirt, asked for a little senatorial privilege.

I don’t know the woman personally, but at the very least she captured Joe’s pattern of speech, when she quoted him as saying (while she struggled to free herself from his grinding): “I thought you liked me, man?”

For not putting out, Reade was assigned to a windowless office and then fired.

The Reade drop came amidst the virus pandemic and so far her allegations have largely vanished without a trace, although not before Biden apologists trashed her as a Russian plant, cultist, political wannabe, and stalker of the Squeaky Fromme variety.

But I am sure the Trump campaign will have taken note of her complaints, and will use of them, should the Democrats try to trot out any of the twenty-two women who have come forward publicly to say that the current president groped, fondled, or otherwise forced himself on them against their wishes.

In 2016, Hillary Clinton was unable to exploit Trump’s legacy of perversion, given her own husband’s touchy record on the subject.

Now in 2020, the Dems seem to have gone out of their way to confront a seventysomething incumbent with wandering hands and crooked kids with their own nominee who seems cloned from the same source code. Heck of a job, Brownie.

***

So will the Dems dump Biden before or during the national convention? I think they will, based either on the Reade allegation or his incoherent response to the Covid crisis. (“We have to take care of the cure that will make the problem worse no matter what, no matter what…)

Just as Republicans are good at rigging elections, Democrats are skilled at marking the cards in their primaries and caucuses.

The reason Bernie hasn’t thrown in the towel and endorsed “my friend Joe” is because he knows how the Democratic game is played, and the party will do to Biden as it did to him—namely screw him out of the nomination. It’s about all the party does well.

Getting rid of Biden will be a lot easier than getting tested for the virus. If the remaining primaries are postponed or cancelled (“a national emergency…this grave crisis…”), Biden would arrive at the virtual convention with 1,217 delegates (where the count stands today) while 1,991 are needed for the nomination.

Nor do we know at this point what happens to the outstanding primaries. It’s only the party hierarchs who will decide.

Right now Bernie has 914, but it feels like we’re done with voting. No matter how bad the health crisis becomes, the party will never turn to Sanders. No one likes a prescient loser.

If no Democratic candidate at the convention gets a majority on the first ballot, the 771 superdelegates become eligible to vote on the second and all subsequent ballots.

That bloc should be sufficient to throw the nomination in whatever direction it chooses, especially given that superdelegates come from the ranks of senior Democratic office holders and members of the national committee.

My guess is that, as a group, the superdelegates are tired of YouTube watching Weekend at Biden’s (“A lively comedy about a guy who isn’t…”) and despair that their man could lose to the criminally negligent, emoluments-rich, woman-abusing, narcissistically incompetent Trump.

At this point, the Democrats would happily nominate some tough-talking, Covid-fighting governor on the 38th ballot so long as it was not Sanders or, now, Biden.

***

Standing in the way of rational behavior, of course, is the Democratic Party itself, which has been in self-destruct mode since it loaded the dice in favor of Hillary Clinton in 2016, if not long before. Remember Mike Dukakis and John Kerry?

Note the ages of the party leadership: Biden is 77 and Nancy Pelosi is 80. (Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer is 69, which makes him, relatively speaking, “the kid”.) And the runner-up in this race, Bernie Sanders, is 78. Even China has done away with its gerontocracy.

Is it any wonder that the Democratic party has so run out of ideas that all it can think to do, during a time of national crisis, is to nominate Clueless Joe?

The bungled Trump impeachment should have been an indicator that the party is over its head in national politics.

My take is that Pelosi only went ahead with the impeachment trial (knowing it would fail) to consolidate her position as speaker in the face of opposition from the Democratic left, the Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) wing of the party.

Pelosi’s fear had nothing to do with Trump’s high crimes and misdemeanors in office but everything to do with not wanting her party to slide too far to the left and for AOC’s squad to remove her from her beloved speakership.

Pelosi gave committee chairmen Adam Schiff and Jerry Nadler the go-ahead on impeachment, knowing that the far left of the Democratic party would be the loser. (“You wanna impeach the guy? Here you go….”) Maybe along the way some mud would stick to Trump’s shoes in the 2020 election but the goal was always to consolidate her position as speaker.

It was a cynical power grab on Pelosi’s part, as was her part in the camarilla that decided to put the boot into Sanders after New Hampshire and turn Biden into an inflatable candidate.

Now she and the Democratic party are stuck in the middle with Joe. (As he said: What I’m suggesting is that I know what has to be done and that in the following is that faster is better than slower…”) How is that working out?

The great irony of the 2020 Democratic primaries and the general election is that the two candidates who ran largely on medical reform—Sanders and Elizabeth Warren—stand discredited, while the last two (tired old white) men still in the race—Trump and Biden—have nothing coherent to say about medicine (or anything else).

And you wonder why the crisis is out of control.

Stay safe or, as they ended letters during the Depression, write when you find work.

The post Will Trump Cancel the Election? Will the Democrats Dump Joe? appeared first on CounterPunch.org.

Seattle—Anti-Capitalist Hotbed

Popular uprisings are rarely as spontaneous as the mainstream press often makes them out to be. Instead, from the Paris Commune to the Arab Spring and beyond, they are more often the result of extended grassroots organizing, previous actions and strikes, and even legislative campaigns. The rates of participation are almost always linked to the amount of organizing that took place weeks, months and even years before the event takes place. Of course, the immediate cause of these popular, radical and even revolutionary events is usually an action taken by the powerful that serves as a catalyst for the reaction of the people in the streets. In the May 1970s national strike against the US war on the people of Southeast Asia, the catalyst was the deadly military assault on college students protesting the US invasion of Cambodia. The national rebellion following the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968 was part of a decades-long movement against the racism of the US government and economic system. The catalyst for the uprisings known as the Arab Spring was the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi, but the organizing for the protests that followed in Tunisia and throughout the Middle East had been taking place for years.

It is this understanding that makes Cal Winslow’s recently published book Radical Seattle: The General Strike of 1919 such an excellent history. Winslow tells the story of the five-day general strike, but more importantly, he spends most of the text relating the strikes, protests, and overall organizing that culminated in the event itself. It is a story that includes the tumultuous and occasionally deadly history of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW/Wobblies) in the woods and mills of the US Pacific Northwest, the ups and downs of the Longshoreman’s Union on the Seattle docks, and the influence of a labor newspaper that rivaled the circulation of the mainstream press during its heyday. There are personalities larger than life: labor organizer Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and socialist politician and organizer wo opposed World War One Louise Strong; IWW organizer Walker Smith and organizer Kate Sadler among them. Yet, despite Winslow’s occasional focus on these and a couple other individuals, his true and constant focus remains on the role of the common working person. Loggers, mill workers, steelworkers, longshoremen, seamstresses and others—this history is truly a people’s history. It also does not shirk from the movement’s shortcomings, primarily the racism against Blacks and Asian workers in some unions.

The reader is presented with the story of a city—indeed, a region—lively with worker’s organizations and an almost universal understanding amongst laborers that they deserved better than what they were getting, that it was the owners and the politicians they ran that were the immediate cause of their poverty and pain, and that the working class held the means to change things for the better. Naturally, that means was the strike. By withholding their labor, the loggers were able to get shorter working days and better living conditions in the camps. Mill workers obtained pay raises and shorter hours, and longshoremen hoped to get steadier work and more control over the hiring. Radical Seattle describes the successes and failures and the nature of the enemy. Composed of powerful men in the city and region aligned with wealthy financial interests on the east coast of the United States, it was a formidable foe. Unafraid to use the police and private security forces who were little more than vigilantes, the rulers gloated when their mercenaries killed Wobblies in Everett, Washington and toasted the police and sheriffs when they drove them out of town.

The culmination of the text is the story of the general strike itself. Other books may have provided more detail regarding the actual mechanics of the strike, but Winslow’s work does a fine job of expressing its spirit. The management of a city by workers’ councils and without regular police or capitalist politicians in charge of anything is a dream that the workers of Seattle managed to pull off, if only for five days. Inspired by the revolution in Russia and angered by their abuse by management, ownership and the political system in cahoots with the capitalists, Seattle’s workers proved that they could run their world without those who stole it from them. Instead of repeating the conclusion that the strike was a failure because it did not meet its primary goal of gaining the longshoremen’s demands, Winslow writes that the overall consensus among the general strike’s participants that it was a success, even if the time wasn’t quite ripe. The workers proved to themselves they did not need the bosses to run their lives. That, in itself, is a lesson we can all learn.

The post Seattle—Anti-Capitalist Hotbed appeared first on CounterPunch.org.

Avenger Planet: Is the COVID-19 Pandemic Mother Nature’s Response to Human Transgression?

As the coronavirus sweeps across the planet, leaving death and mayhem in its wake, many theories are being expounded to explain its ferocity. One, widely circulated within right-wing conspiracy circles, is that it originated as a biological weapon developed at a secret Chinese military lab in the city of Wuhan that somehow (perhaps intentionally?) escaped into the civilian population. Although that “theory” has been thoroughly debunked, President Trump and his acolytes continue to call Covid-19 the China Virus, the Wuhan Virus, or even the “Kung Flu,” claiming its global spread was the result of an inept and secretive Chinese government response. Scientists, by and large, believe the virus originated in bats and was transmitted to humans by wildlife sold at a Wuhan seafood market. But perhaps there’s another far more ominous possibility to consider: that this is one of Mother Nature’s ways of resisting humanity’s assault on her essential life systems.

Let’s be clear: this pandemic is a world-shattering phenomenon of massive proportions. Not only has it infected hundreds of thousands of people across the planet, killing more than 40,000 of them, but it’s brought the global economy to a virtual stand-still, potentially crushing millions of businesses, large and small, while putting tens of millions, or possibly hundreds of millions, of people out of work. In the past, disasters of this magnitude have toppled empires, triggered mass rebellions, and caused widespread famine and starvation. This upheaval, too, will produce widespread misery and imperil the survival of numerous governments.

Understandably, our forebears came to view such calamities as manifestations of the fury of gods incensed by human disrespect for and mistreatment of their universe, the natural world. Today, educated people generally dismiss such notions, but scientists have recently been discovering that human impacts on the environment, especially the burning of fossil fuels, are producing feedback loops causing increasingly severe harm to communities across the globe, in the form of extreme storms, persistent droughts, massive wildfires, and recurring heat waves of an ever deadlier sort.

Climate scientists also speak of “singularities,” “non-linear events,” and “tipping points” — the sudden and irreversible collapse of vital ecological systems with far-ranging, highly destructive consequences for humanity. Evidence for such tipping points is growing — for example in the unexpectedly rapid melting of the Arctic icecap. In that context, a question naturally arises: Is the coronavirus a stand-alone event, independent of any other mega-trends, or does it represent some sort of catastrophic tipping point?

It will be some time before scientists can answer that question with any certainty. There are, however, good reasons to believe that this might be the case and, if so, perhaps it’s high time humanity reconsiders its relationship with nature.

Humans vs. Nature

It’s common to think of human history as an evolutionary process in which broad, long-studied trends like colonialism and post-colonialism have largely shaped human affairs. When sudden disruptions have occurred, they are usually attributed to, say, the collapse of a long-lasting dynasty or the rise of an ambitious new ruler. But the course of human affairs has also been altered — often in even more dramatic ways — by natural occurrences, ranging from prolonged droughts to catastrophic volcanic activity to (yes, of course) plagues and pandemics. The ancient Minoan civilization of the eastern Mediterranean, for example, is widely believed to have disintegrated following a powerful volcanic eruption on the island of Thera (now known as Santorini) in the 17th century BCE. Archaeological evidence further suggeststhat other once-thriving cultures were similarly undermined or even extinguished by natural disasters.

It’s hardly surprising that the survivors of such catastrophes often attributed their misfortunes to the anger of various gods over human excesses and depredations. In the ancient world, sacrifices — even human ones — were considered a necessity to appease such angry spirits. At the onset of the Trojan War, for example, the Greek goddess Artemis, protectress of wild animals, the wilderness, and the moon, stilled the winds needed to propel the Greek fleet to Troy because Agamemnon, its commander, had killed a sacred deer. To appease her and restore the essential winds, Agamemnon felt obliged— or so the poet Homer tells us — to sacrifice his own daughter Iphigenia (the plot line for many a Greek and modern tragedy).

In more recent times, educated people have generally seen coronavirus-style calamities as either inexplicable acts of God or as explicable, if surprising, natural events. With the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution in Europe, moreover, many influential thinkers came to believe that humans could use science and technology to overpower nature and so harness it to the will of humanity. The seventeenth-century French mathematician René Descartes, for example, wrote of employing science and human knowledge so that “we can… render ourselves the masters and possessors of nature.”

This outlook undergirded the view, common in the last three centuries, that the Earth was “virgin” territory (especially when it came to the colonial possessions of the major powers) and so fully open to exploitation by human entrepreneurs. This led to the deforestation of vast areas, as well as the extinction or near-extinction of many animals, and in more recent times, to the plunder of underground mineral and energy deposits.

As it happened, though, this planet proved anything but an impotent victim of colonization and exploitation. Human mistreatment of the natural environment has turned out to have distinctly painful boomerang effects. The ongoing destruction of the Amazon rain forest, for example, is altering Brazil’s climate, raising temperatures and reducing rainfall in significant ways, with painful consequences for local farmers and even more distant urban dwellers. (And the release of vast quantities of carbon dioxide, thanks to increasingly massive forest fires, will only increase the pace of climate change globally.) Similarly, the technique of hydraulic fracking, used to extract oil and natural gas trapped in underground shale deposits, can triggerearthquakes that damage aboveground structures and endanger human life. In so many ways like these, Mother Nature strikes back when her vital organs suffer harm.

This interplay between human activity and planetary behavior has led some analysts to rethink our relationship with the natural world. They have reconceptualized the Earth as a complex matrix of living and inorganic systems, all (under normal conditions) interacting to maintain a stable balance. When one component of the larger matrix is damaged or destroyed, the others respond in their unique ways in attempting to restore the natural order of things. Originally propounded by the environmental scientist James Lovelock in the 1960s, this notion has often been described as “the Gaia Hypothesis,” after the ancient Greek goddess Gaia, the ancestral mother of all life.

Climate Tipping Points

Posing the ultimate threat to planetary health, climate change — a direct consequence of the human impulse to dump ever more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, potentially heating the planet to the breaking point — is guaranteed to generate the most brutal of all such feedback loops. By emitting ever more carbon dioxide and other gases, humans are fundamentally alteringplanetary chemistry and posing an almost unimaginable threat to natural ecosystems. Climate-change deniers in the Trumpian mode continue to insist that we can keep doing this with no cost to our way of life. It is, however, becoming increasingly apparent that the more we alter the climate, the more the planet will respond in ways guaranteed to endanger human life and prosperity.

The main engine of climate change is the greenhouse effect, as all those greenhouse gases sent into the atmosphere entrap ever more radiated solar heat from the Earth’s surface, raising temperatures worldwide and so altering global climate patterns. Until now, much of this added heat and carbon dioxide has been absorbed by the planet’s oceans, resulting in rising water temperatures and the increased acidification of their waters. This, in turn, has already led to, among other deleterious effects, the mass die-off of coral reefs — the preferred habitat of many of the fish species on which large numbers of humans rely for their sustenance and livelihoods. Just as consequential, higher ocean temperatures have provided the excess energy that has fueled many of the most destructive hurricanes of recent times, including Sandy, Harvey, Irma, Maria, Florence, and Dorian.

A warmer atmosphere can also sustain greater accumulations of moisture, making possible the prolonged downpours and catastrophic flooding being experienced in many parts of the world, including the upper Midwest in the United States. In other areas, rainfall is decreasing and heat waves are becoming more frequent and prolonged, resulting in devastating wildfires of the sort witnessed in the American West in recent years and in Australia this year.

In all such ways, Mother Nature, you might say, is striking back. It is, however, the potential for “non-linear” events and “tipping points” that has some climate scientists especially concerned, fearing that we now live on what might be thought of as an avenging planet. While many climate effects, like prolonged heat waves, will become more pronounced over time, other effects, it is now believed, will occur suddenly, with little warning, and could result in large-scale disruptions in human life (as in this coronavirus moment). You might think of this as Mother Nature saying, “Stop! Do not go past this point or there will be dreadful consequences!”

Scientists are understandably cautious in discussing such possibilities, as they are harder to study than linear events like rising world temperatures. But the concern is there. “Large-scale singular events (also called ‘tipping points,’ or critical thresholds) are abrupt and drastic changes in physical, ecological, or social systems” brought about by the relentless rise in temperatures, noted the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in its comprehensive 2014 assessment of anticipated impacts. Such events, the IPCC pointed out, “pose key risks because of the potential magnitude of the consequences; the rate at which they would occur; and, depending on this rate, the limited ability of society to cope with them.”

Six years later, that striking description sounds eerily like the present moment.

Until now, the tipping points of greatest concern to scientists have been the rapid melting of the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets. Those two massive reservoirs of ice contain the equivalent of hundreds of thousands of square miles of water. Should they melt ever more quickly with all that water flowing into neighboring oceans, a sea level rise of 20 feet or more can be expected, inundating many of the world’s most populous coastal cities and forcing billions of people to relocate. In its 2014 study, the IPCC predicted that this might occur over several centuries, at least offering plenty of time for humans to adapt, but more recent research indicates that those two ice sheets are melting far more rapidly than previously believed — and so a sharp increase in sea levels can be expected well before the end of this century with catastrophic consequences for coastal communities.

The IPCC also identified two other possible tipping points with potentially far-reaching consequences: the die-off of the Amazon rain forest and the melting of the Arctic ice cap. Both are already under way, reducing the survival prospects of flora and fauna in their respective habitats. As these processes gain momentum, entire ecosystems are likely to be obliterated and many species killed off, with drastic consequences for the humans who rely on them in so many ways (from food to pollination chains) for their survival. But as is always the case in such transformations, other species — perhaps insects and microorganisms highly dangerous to humans — could occupythose spaces emptied by extinction.

Climate Change and Pandemics

Back in 2014, the IPCC did not identify human pandemics among potential climate-induced tipping points, but it did provide plenty of evidence that climate change would increase the risk of such catastrophes. This is true for several reasons. First, warmer temperatures and more moisture are conducive to the accelerated reproduction of mosquitoes, including those carrying malaria, the zika virus, and other highly infectious diseases. Such conditions were once largely confined to the tropics, but as a result of global warming, formerly temperate areas are now experiencing more tropical conditions, resulting in the territorial expansion of mosquito breeding grounds. Accordingly, malaria and zika are on the rise in areas that never previously experienced such diseases. Similarly, dengue fever, a mosquito-borne viral disease that infects millions of people every year, is spreading especially quickly due to rising world temperatures.

Combined with mechanized agriculture and deforestation, climate change is also undermining subsistence farming and indigenous lifestyles in many parts of the world, driving millions of impoverished people to already crowded urban centers, where health facilities are often overburdened and the risk of contagion ever greater. “Virtually all the projected growth in populations will occur in urban agglomerations,” the IPCC noted then. Adequate sanitation is lacking in many of these cities, particularly in the densely populated shantytowns that often surround them. “About 150 million people currently live in cities affected by chronic water shortages, and by 2050, unless there are rapid improvements in urban environments, the number will rise to almost a billion.”

Such newly settled urban dwellers often retain strong ties to family members still in the countryside who, in turn, may come in contact with wild animals carrying deadly viruses. This appears to have been the origin of the West African Ebola epidemic of 2014-2016, which affected tens of thousands of people in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone. Scientists believe that the Ebola virus (like the coronavirus) originated in bats and was then transmitted to gorillas and other wild animals that coexist with people living on the fringes of tropical forests. Somehow, a human or humans contracted the disease from exposure to such creatures and then transmitted it to visitors from the city who, upon their return, infected many others.

The coronavirus appears to have had somewhat similar origins. In recent years, hundreds of millions of once impoverished rural families moved to burgeoning industrial cities in central and coastal China, including places like Wuhan. Although modern in so many respects, with its subways, skyscrapers, and superhighways, Wuhan also retained vestiges of the countryside, including markets selling wild animals still considered by some inhabitants to be normal parts of their diet. Many of those animals were trucked in from semi-rural areas hosting large numbers of bats, the apparent source of both the coronavirus and the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or SARS, outbreak of 2013, which also arose in China. Scientific research suggests that breeding grounds for bats, like mosquitoes, are expanding significantly as a result of rising world temperatures.

The global coronavirus pandemic is the product of a staggering multitude of factors, including the air links connecting every corner of the planet so intimately and the failure of government officials to move swiftly enough to sever those links. But underlying all of that is the virus itself. Are we, in fact, facilitating the emergence and spread of deadly pathogens like the Ebola virus, SARS, and the coronavirus through deforestation, haphazard urbanization, and the ongoing warming of the planet? It may be too early to answer such a question unequivocally, but the evidence is growing that this is the case. If so, we had better take heed.

Heeding Mother Nature’s Warning

Suppose this interpretation of the Covid-19 pandemic is correct. Suppose that the coronavirus is nature’s warning, its way of telling us that we’ve gone too far and must alter our behavior lest we risk further contamination. What then?

To adapt a phrase from the Cold War era, what humanity may need to do is institute a new policy of “peaceful coexistence” with Mother Nature. This approach would legitimize the continued presence of large numbers of humans on the planet but require that they respect certain limits in their interactions with its ecosphere. We humans could use our talents and technologies to improve life in areas we’ve long occupied, but infringement elsewhere would be heavily restricted. Natural disasters — floods, volcanoes, earthquakes, and the like — would, of course, still occur, but not at a rate exceeding what we experienced in the pre-industrial past.

Implementation of such a strategy would, at the very least, require putting the brakes on climate change as swiftly as possible through the rapid and thorough elimination of human-induced carbon emissions — something that has, in fact, happened in at least a modest way, and however briefly, thanks to this Covid-19 moment. Deforestation would also have to be halted and the world’s remaining wilderness areas preserved as is forever. Any further despoliation of the oceans would have to be stopped, including the dumping of wastes, plastics, engine fuel, and runoff pesticides.

The coronavirus may not, in retrospect, prove to be the tipping point that upends human civilization as we know it, but it should serve as a warning that we will experience ever more such events in the future as the world heats up. The only way to avert such a catastrophe and assure ourselves that Earth will not become an avenger planet is to heed Mother Nature’s warning and cease the further desecration of essential ecosystems.

This article first appeared on TomDispatch.

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COVID-19 and the Forgotten Working Class

We hear a lot these days about providing benefits and income for the tens of millions of workers who are being laid off, required to ‘stay in place’ by government orders, or out of necessity have to stay home with young children now that schools have shut down. The recent passed CARES ACT provides some minimal and basic income and unemployment benefits for those without work.

But what about the working class that is still at work? Why are they being asked to sacrifice and get nothing in return but words of praise from politicians and media talking heads?

I’m talking about those workers who are required to continue essential work just in order to keep what’s left of the economy going. Those whose work keeps our increasing tenuous social system from flying apart.

I’m talking about workers who are making sure essential utility services aren’t cut off. Who are ensuring that food is available and delivered to stores and homes. Who continue to pick up our garbage in order to prevent a further health crisis. Who keep the pharmacies open so those who need essential medicines can still get them. I’m talking about all those warehouse workers at Amazon and elsewhere filling orders for food and other essentials. The firefighters who still call when emergencies happen. The workers still processing health insurance claims. The subway workers, bus drivers and railroad workers. The truck drivers, local and long haul. Postal workers who keep processing and delivering the mail. The assembly line workers still working their machines that produce the desperately needed PPE. And of course the nurses, technicians, doctors and administrative hospital staff. And let’s not forget the volunteers of all kind, who keep delivering meals to grandma and grandpa, and checking in on them to help with basic physical needs. Forget them at your peril because there are limits to what they can be asked to do.

They are the combat troops at the front line. The rest of us are on leave behind the line and not facing imminent danger.

Politicians keep telling us they are heroes. Yeah, we know that. They’re working in dangerous and hazardous and even life threatening conditions. But simply saying they’re heroes doesn’t cut it. It’s not enough. Words are cheap.

My point is this: Why aren’t we compensating and rewarding these folks too, just as we’re protecting those losing their jobs with expanded unemployment benefits? Why isn’t the ‘still working working class’ being properly rewarded for the hazardous jobs they’re doing, the long hours, the unhealthy working conditions?

We’re giving corporations and businesses trillions of dollars in grants, loans, and free money from the Federal Reserve bank. Why are we short-changing those workers who are the real source of keeping the entire system from collapsing during this crisis, who are keeping the economy—or what’s left of it—still running?

They are holding the entire economy and social system together in this crisis. Why isn’t that properly recognized? And rewarded?

Here’s what the politicians should be doing. Here’s what should be included in Congress’s next spending bill for those occupations who are now keeping the system itself from crashing during this crisis:

• Hazard pay at time and one-half base pay
• Time and one-half for all hours worked beyond 7 hours; double time beyond 10 hours
• Full health care coverage provided under an emergency new ‘Part E’ of Medicare
• 90 day moratorium on apartment rent or home mortgage payment
• Government reimbursement for minimum credit card interest charges for six months
• Government reimbursement for auto loan monthly payments
• Clothing allowance tax credit for costs of cleaning & PPE equipment purchases

There’s an analogy here that’s relevant. It’s a strike. When workers go on strike, any decent union strike fund will pick up their mortgage or rent when it comes due. The strike fund covers the monthly auto payment. It provides for food on the table. Everyone in the union pays into the strike fund during good times, so that those in need during a strike can continue.

Isn’t the country supposed to be a union? Don’t we all pay taxes into the ‘national strike fund’ that is the government budget? Well it’s time to use that budget to cover those in need. And that includes not just the unemployed but the employed as well—i.e. those who are keeping it all together during the crisis.

It’s not just the unemployed who are in need. We should recognize all those still working who are risking their lives for the rest. Who are out there on the front lines, risking their health, working extended hours, often under terrible conditions, worried about their families at home. Managers, professionals, and other occupations may be able to work from home. Or telecommute. Or use videoconferencing to keep their companies afloat as the economy shuts down. But workers who are essential must continue to go out into the world and work, or else the entire economic edifice will come down around all our ears.

So why aren’t we properly rewarding and compensating these folks who are keeping an even greater crisis and social collapse at bay?

Let’s not forget the working class still at work.

Forget them at your peril. Forget them and there’ll come a time, and maybe not too far off, when they just decide ‘the hell with this, it’s not worth it’, and just walk off the job in protest or disgust or just decide to take care of their own instead of all of us. And no nice words by politicians about being ‘heroes’ will bring them back.

Then you’ll see how important workers are to the economy and even to what we call civilization itself!

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The Madness of More Nukes and Less Rights in Pandemic Times

Another perilous pandemic is sweeping the country in the midst of the coronavirus one, and it has been lurking in the shadows for years just itching for a fear-ridden moment like this to break out forcefully. Right-wing repressive forces are using this unprecedented crisis to impose unconstitutional denials of abortion rights; to drastically lower voter participation rates; to grant sweeping new powers of indefinite incarceration without trial to the Department of Justice; to relax or even abolish regulations from the Environmental Protection Agency; and to criminalize fossil fuel protests should they ever recur in the wake of the March 31 decision to proceed at full speed with the controversial Keystone Pipeline project. In these dark times, American democracy itself has fallen victim to COVID-19 and is now on life support.

At the other end of the grim life-death spectrum, nuclear weapons, ones which would end in omnicide if ever used in war, recently received a tremendous new lease on life by the Trump regime. Two weeks before Trump declared the coronavirus pandemic to be a “hoax” hatched by Democrats, he proposed a 25% hike in spending for modernization of US nuclear weapons. And on March 20, as the US officially marked 255 deaths by the coronavirus pandemic and 18,965 confirmed new cases, Trump formally submitted a request for nearly $50 billion in the next fiscal year to be split between the Department of Defense and Department of Energy for nuclear weapons development and deployment. Specifically, some of the key allocations for an enhanced US nuclear triad call for over $12 billion to the National Nuclear Security Administration and billions more for Columbia-class ballistic submarines; B-21 Raider strategic bombers; W87-1 warheads; modernized intercontinental ballistic missiles and air-launched cruise missiles; and B61-12 gravity bombs, a megaton-class warhead, to be deployed in Europe. A new era of nuclear weapons proliferation is upon us.

Even without these new or expanded nuclear weapons, the current US nuclear arsenal already contains the destructive equivalent of 130,000 Hiroshima-sized bombs. From 1940 until 2019, the US government has spent a conservatively estimated $8 trillion to develop its gargantuan nuclear arsenal. Nevertheless, the US is on track to spend some $494 billion more on a new generation of nuclear weapons over the next decade.

From a human needs perspective, this is sheer madness. To squander such colossal amounts of public funds on weapons of mass destruction is not only profoundly immoral, but doubly deadly. It massively deprives our overburdened healthcare system of funds and equipment desperately needed to sustain life, while simultaneously directing those funds into the creation an omnicidal potential.

Giving voice to those misguided policies and the grave dangers they invite was none other than a former US President and Five-Star General, Dwight Eisenhower: “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children..This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron”. While still threatened today by the cloud of nuclear war, the cross of the coronavirus has radically changed the calculus. One of the bitter ironies of the current worldwide war against the coronavirus pandemic is that the enormous arsenal of weapons, especially nuclear ones, developed at enormous cost is utterly useless in containing, let alone vanquishing, this novel invasive invisible enemy of unknown origin.

Terribly misplaced priorities squandered trillions of dollars on non-useable weapons while leaving our social safety net, especially the failing healthcare system, in shambles. A gargantuan military arsenal does absolutely nothing to stem the deadly coronavirus pandemic, but a resultant weakened healthcare system certainly enhances its potency and accelerates its path. The US healthcare system, foolishly built upon the overriding principle of maximizing private profit, is the most inefficient and dysfunctional one in the modern world. Despite having the highest per capita medical expenditure in the world, our health outcomes regarding longevity, infant/maternal mortality. obesity and other conditions are deplorable. Basic medical supplies such as testing kits, ventilators and masks as well as hospital beds, all badly needed to combat the coronavirus, are in short supply due to years of institutionalized neglect. Yet the US government spending on healthcare has been and remains comparatively low while our military spending is, by far, the highest in the world. As the coronavirus pandemic continues to increasingly ravage our land, the US strategic stockpile of medical supplies is virtually empty while the US strategic stockpile of nuclear weapons is filled and growing, a decisive indictment of institutionalized values and misplaced priorities.

The dream of a world freed of nuclear weapons is as old at the Nuclear Age. Hundreds of millions throughout the world in the 1950s signed the anti-nuke Stockholm Peace Appeal, launched and coordinated in the USA by an embattled and elderly W.E.B. Du Bois. Over one million peacemakers filled the streets of New York City on June 12, 1982 demanding the abolition of nuclear weapons. In 2017, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, and in the same year 122 nations formally adopted the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, the first legally binding resolution to ban all nuclear weapons. Obviously the Trump regime regards itself above international law and remains hell-bent on massive production of weapons of mass destruction. If there ever was a time to demand an end to this mad march to collective annihilation, surely it is now when humanity collectively hangs on a cross of the coronavirus pandemic.

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Why a Race is Not a Virus and a Virus is Not a Race

It is dangerous rhetoric indeed when President Donald J. Trump calls the Coronavirus (COVID-19), the “Chinese Virus”. Even if the intent was political and meant to communicate to Beijing that the United States military was not responsible for the spread of the disease within China, contrary to a conspiracy theory there.

By the president naming the Coronavirus (COVID-19), as “Chinese”, has unnecessarily allowed for prejudice and racism into an epidemiological discussion about the consequences of a deadly pandemic and an increasingly growing tragedy for the United States and the rest of the world. Consequently, a couple of days later, President Trump seemingly retracted his former remarks by stating: “…It seems there could be some nasty language toward our Asian-Americans, and I don’t like that at all. These are incredible people and they love their country…”

Thus, as most know, a virus is not tied to any particular ethnic group or race. Nor does it have any religious origins. A virus is entirely agnostic and mindless. Its aim is contagion and replication, and has biologically evolved to attach itself to the most hosts possible. Even so, throughout human history ignorance has persisted and people have paired diseases with ethnic groups and particular populations. And if not disease, then other tragedies and unusual events.

Of course, the president was not alone in linking the Coronavirus (COVID-19) to China, or simply relating to it as solely a “Chinese Virus”. Ever since the pandemic has spread across the United States, racial incidents against Asian-Americans have been on the rise and have been widely reported across the country. In the initial stages of the spread, “Chinatowns” in many large cities such as San Francisco and New York City, were notably avoided. The ignorance about disease and race in popular mythology link the two together—even though nothing could be further from the truth.

As one woman, Trang, explained in a USA Today interview: “There have been a lot of people who just use this fear to justify racism against Asian people and to scapegoat Asian people for their fear of the Coronavirus.” As such, there is so much misinformation and so many urban myths among the general population, which has caused more unwarranted racial attacks against Asian-Americans. The FBI, in fact, has warned of an increase in hate crimes against Asian-Americans.

Likewise, many have used the Coronavirus to validate their own racist views. The New York Attorney General has launched a hotline for New Yorkers to report hate crimes associated with COVID-19. Additionally, the Asian Pacific Planning and Policy Council and Chinese for Affirmative Action, following its launching on March 19th, “has received more than 1,000 reports from people in 32 states detailing verbal abuse, denial of services, discrimination on the job or physical assaults” according to a recent LA Times article.

Unfortunately, throughout history, people have made similar mistakes by associating particular ethnic groups with epidemics. In the Middle Ages, for example, Jews were widely scapegoated for causing the “Great Plague”. As the “Black Plague” had spread across Western Europe by 1349 A.D., massacres of Jews increased on massive scales, “pogroms”, in such places as Aragon, Spain, and Flanders, Belgium as well as Jewish communities in Frankfurt, Mainz, and Cologne in Germany. Thousands of Jews were burnt at the stake, or were tortured into falsely confessing about poisoning city-wells.

In 1918, the influenza outbreak which caused as many as 50 million deaths worldwide was known as the “Spanish Flu”, and in all likelihood, was a misnomer. Scientists are still uncertain of the flu’s origins. It may have been spread from pig farms in the Midwest of the United States to U.S. military camps and then on to the killing grounds of World War I in Western Europe and elsewhere. It became known as the “Spanish Flu” because the Spanish media was free to report on the disease.

In relation to Asian-Americans in the United States, there is a long history of racism associated with disease. In 1900, in Honolulu, Hawaii, the Board of Health burned Chinatown there to the ground for fear of the spread of the plague whose residents included “3,000 Chinese, 1,500 Japanese, and 1,000 Native Hawaiian residents”. Similarly, in Reno, Nevada, its Board of Health Department demolished that city’s Chinatown because the area was viewed as “unclean” and “immoral”, making room for land development.

Aside from disease, there has been a long history of “Nativist” views against Asian-Americans with the “Chinese Exclusion Act” of 1882, which prohibited Chinese laborers from entering the United States, and a similar act, known as the “Gentleman’s Agreement of 1907”, limiting Japanese migration to the U.S. Moreover, following the Japanese attacks on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii in 1941, mostly Japanese-Americans living the states of California, Oregon, and Washington, were relocated to internment camps during World War II.

Regrettably, the past xenophobia and racism experienced by many Asian-Americans still persists and has considerably worsened because of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) and the pandemic’s association to their ethnicities. In fact, many Asian-Americans are wrongly blamed for the virus.

Trump’s initial insisting that the Coronavirus was “not” racist because his labelling it a “Chinese Virus”, indicated according to him, its geographical location and country of origin. Whereas health experts, historians, and even the World Health Organization (WHO) emphasized how unhelpful it is to label a disease by its geographic locale. Such associations become blurred with particular ethnic groups and may lead to xenophobic violence, as evident in recent reports and in the past.

Former presidential candidate, Andrew Yang, stated in a recent NY Times interview about Trump’s use of the term as his way: “…to distract from his administration’s slow response to the Coronavirus.”

The National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) has likewise perceived these negative associations of the disease and its association with racism. On its website, it informs parents how they might speak to their children about the Coronavirus (COVID-19) and the current stigma of Asian-Americans related to it. As NASP states: “Though the initial spread of COVID-19 occurred in China, it is important to inform children in a developmentally appropriate manner that the disease is linked to a geographic location and not to a race or nationality. People who identify as Asian American or Pacific Islander (AAPI) are currently being subjected to racism related to the COVID-19 virus.”

As Cornel West once observed in his renowned book, Race Matters (1993): “To engage in a serious discussion of race in America, we must begin…with the flaws of American society—flaws rooted in historic inequalities and longstanding cultural stereotypes. How we set up the terms for discussing racial issues shapes our perception and response to these issues.”

In my view too, we must recognize the “structures of violence” in society which have kept minorities oppressed. Until we deconstruct such barriers and reshape the public rhetoric, fears and scares will persist. Ethnic groups will be unfairly scapegoated.

As a society, we are better than this. We all deserve a United States of America where everyone is invited to the table and everyone participates in our democracy, even through great crises, as the one now, and not bumbling from unfounded fears.

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We Need a Coronavirus Truce

During World War I, soldiers all along the Western front held a series of informal truces in December 1914 to commemorate Christmas.

It was early in the war, and opposition had not yet hardened into implacable enmity. The military command, caught by surprise, could not impose complete battlefield discipline. An estimated 100,000 British and German soldiers participated. They exchanged smokes, sang together, and even, on at least one occasion that has since been widely mythologized, played a game of soccer.

Imagine how different the world would look today if that truce had held, if it had turned into a lasting ceasefire, if Europe had not burned itself to the ground in a fit of nationalist pique. There might not have been a global flu epidemic spread by soldiers in 1918. The Nazis might not have seized power and precipitated the Holocaust. World War II might never have happened and nuclear weapons never used.

At the very least, nearly 20 million people would not have perished in that first world war.

We are now in the early stages of another world war, call it World War III, this time against the common enemy of pandemic. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres last week called on all countries to observe a global ceasefire to focus all resources on beating back the coronavirus. “The fury of the virus illustrates the folly of war,” he concluded.

Meanwhile, eight countries that have been suffering under economic sanctions — China, Cuba, Iran, Nicaragua, North Korea, Russia, Syria, and Venezuela — have appealed for an end to the economic sanctions that are hampering their efforts to battle the disease.

And a number of civil organizations are pressing for the release of political prisoners, jailed journalists, and as many nonviolent offenders as possible to reduce the crowding that makes prisons a potential killing ground for the coronavirus.

Not surprisingly, there has been pushback to the idea of even temporarily ending these three expressions of state power: military conflict, war by economic means, and mass incarceration. But this pandemic, for all of its ongoing horrors, can serve as a jolt of smelling salts. International cooperation needs to take priority right now, and countries must stop their wars against one another and against their own populations.

Bombs, sanctions, and prisons are not effective tools in the fight against the coronavirus. Indeed, by aiding and abetting the enemy, they will only make the war worse.

Silencing the Guns?

There has been much talk of repurposing the U.S. military to fight the coronavirus. Two Army field hospitals have been sent to New York and Seattle. Some soldiers have already been deployed, the National Guard has been activated in three states, and the Pentagon has been authorized to call up former soldiers to help in the fight. But the military is, to use an apt simile, like a large battleship that is not easily turned. The Pentagon hasn’t even allowed immigrant doctors in its ranks to help against the pandemic.

In the meantime, the Pentagon continues to pursue its prime directive: planning war and killing people. On March 12, the United States conducted air strikes against Iran-backed militias in Iraq, in response to attacks that killed two U.S. service personnel. It was billed as a “proportional” response. Yet the Pentagon has been pushing a far more ambitious plan to go to war against Iranian proxies and, ultimately, Iran itself.

“Some top officials, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Robert C. O’Brien, the national security adviser, have been pushing for aggressive new action against Iran and its proxy forces — and see an opportunity to try to destroy Iranian-backed militia groups in Iraq as leaders in Iran are distracted by the pandemic crisis in their country,” write Mark Mazzetti and Eric Schmitt in The New York Times.

In nearby Afghanistan, the United States and the Taliban signed a peace deal at the end of February. But any end to the war in Afghanistan will require a truce among the factions within the country, indeed within the government itself. After a disputed presidential election that once again pitted President Ashraf Ghani against chief rival Abdullah Abdullah, even the threat of reduced U.S. aid didn’t persuade the two sides to unify.

The fighting continues on the ground, with air strikes against the Taliban most recently on March 24as well a series of Taliban attacks in the last week against Afghan soldiers and policemen. In the leadup to the signing of the peace agreement, the United States conducted the second highest number of air attacks for the month of February since 2009. And last year, Afghanistan sustained the most U.S. aerial attacks since 2006.

Wars grind on in other parts of the world, pandemic be damned. All sides declared a truce in Syria in early March, but Turkey exchanged attacks with “radical groups” in Idlib province on March 19. This week, Israeli war planes targeted a Syrian military base near Homs. And the Islamic State has indicated that it sees the coronavirus as an opportunity to step up attacks — like a recent massacre at a Sikh temple in Kabul — because the last thing the “crusaders” want is “to send additional soldiers to regions where there is a chance for a spread of the disease.” However, COVID-19 will most harm Syrian refugees, particularly the recent wave of nearly a million people who fled Idlib and Aleppo in December.

In Libya, both sides of the civil war agreed to a humanitarian truce that evaporated after only a day and now the fighting there has even intensified. Whoever wins Tripoli will take over a capital with an already ravaged infrastructure and a collapsed economy. The Pyrrhic victor will then have to address a mounting health emergency with ever diminishing resources.

Meanwhile in Yemen, which is on track to becoming the poorest country in the world because of its five-year-long war, the combatants agreed to a truce last week. As in Libya, it hasn’t lasted long. The Houthis have since launched some easily intercepted ballistic missiles at Saudi Arabia, which retaliated by once again bombing Sana’a, the capital of Yemen.

Conflicts throughout Africa — in Cameroon, Chad, Nigeria, Mozambique, Mali — also continue despite pleas for a truce. Neither has al-Shabaab stopped its suicide bombings nor the United States ceased its drone attacks in Somalia.

Elsewhere in the world, there’s no pandemic pause for a series of equally deadly cold wars.

Weaponizing Sanctions

For years, the United States has tried to shut down North Korea’s economic relations with the outside world as a way to force the government to negotiate away its nuclear weapons program. North Korea devised a variety of methods to get around U.S. and UN sanctions, including illicit transfers of oil from foreign ships to North Korean vessels in the middle of the ocean.

But the most lucrative source of goods and revenues continued to be China, which has been responsible for upwards of 95 percent of North Korea’s trade. Washington has intermittently put pressure on Beijing to shut down this trade to pressure Pyongyang to return to the negotiating table. It hasn’t worked.

Then the coronavirus hit. By the end of January, North Korea had shut its borders with China to minimize the risk of infection. It even issued a directive to guard posts to put a stop to flourishing smuggling operations. What sanctions couldn’t accomplish in years, the virus managed to achieve in weeks.

Despite these precautionary measures, the coronavirus has no doubt reached North Korea. There have been reports of probable coronavirus-related deaths in the North Korean military. Thousands of people have been quarantined. Even as the North Korean government insists that the country remains pandemic-free, it has quietly appealed to other governments for assistance in addressing the disease.

The United States has so far held firm. Even though sanctions are holding up the delivery of critical humanitarian aid, Washington has refused to reconsider sanctions. Secretary of State Pompeo continues to talk as if a pandemic isn’t raging outside: “The G-7 and all nations must remain united in calling on North Korea to return to negotiations and stay committed to applying diplomatic and economic pressure over its illegal nuclear and ballistic missile programs.”

Pompeo has been even more ruthless toward Iran, an early pandemic hotspot. Tehran initially fumbled its response to a disease, which was quickly spreading through the populace as well as the political and religious leadership. As Human Rights Watch has meticulously detailed, U.S. economic sanctions have only made a bad situation worse.

Yes, the U.S. government formally permits humanitarian aid to the country. But its sanctions regime — which includes the threat of secondary sanctions against entities that engage Tehran — ensures that banks and companies steer clear of Iran. Pompeo’s take: “Things are much worse for the Iranian people, and we’re convinced that will lead the Iranian people to rise up and change the behavior of the regime.”

That’s also pretty much the U.S. strategy toward Venezuela, which is in an even more vulnerable position. Though it only has a little more than 130 confirmed cases, COVID-19 will likely ravage the weakened country. “Only a quarter of Venezuela’s doctors have access to a reliable supply of water and two-thirds are without soap, gloves or masks,” reports The Guardian. “There are 73 intensive care beds in the whole country.”

This week, the Trump administration conditioned any reduction in sanctions on a political deal that requires President Nicolas Maduro to step down in favor of a transitional council that includes the political opposition. The current government has rejected this regime-change option.

These maximum pressure tactics toward North Korea, Iran, Venezuela, and others recently led Washington Post columnist Jackson Diehl, who is no softy on foreign affairs, to conclude that Pompeo’s “pandemic performance will ensure his place among the worst ever” secretaries of state.

Emptying the Prisons

Egypt freed 15 prominent oppositionists on March 21. A few days earlier, Bahrain let go nearly 1,500 detainees, but no prominent human rights activists or political oppositionists. Iran has released85,000 prisoners, but only temporarily. Turkey is planning to release 90,000 prisoners, but none of them political.

Prisons are the perfect breeding ground for the coronavirus: poor sanitary conditions, overcrowding, minimal medical facilities. Many countries, including the United States, are looking into ways of reducing the population behind bars.

The Committee to Protect Journalists is mobilizing support to pressure governments to release the 250 journalists who are currently in prison worldwide. UN High Commissioner on Human Rights Michelle Bachelet has urged countries to reduce the numbers of people in detention, with a special emphasis on political prisoners. “Now, more than ever, governments should release every person detained without sufficient legal basis, including political prisoners and others detained simply for expressing critical or dissenting views,” she said last week.

Those behind bars are frequently the victims of various government campaigns: against a free press, against political dissent, against drugs. But when a major war threatens the homeland, prisoners are sometimes drafted into military service. That happened during the French colonial period and by different sides in World War II.

In World War III, we need everyone on our side. If countries don’t significantly empty out their prisons during this COVID-19 crisis, the inmates as well as the guards will likely be drafted by the enemy. This foe only gets stronger as our petty conflicts continue and the stiffest sanctions remain in place.

It’s time for a truce on all fronts — or else we will surely lose the larger war.

The post We Need a Coronavirus Truce appeared first on CounterPunch.org.

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