Counterpunch Articles

Colombia on the Brink

Photograph Source: Humano Salvaje – CC BY-SA 2.0

In memory of Lucas Villa Vargas.

In the last week, Colombia has experienced the most widespread civil unrest of its modern history. Since Wednesday, April 28th, millions of people have taken to the streets to fight back against a regressive national tax reform bill. The bill, farcically called the “law of sustainable solidarity,” aimed to cover budgetary shortfalls resulting from the paralysis of the economy brought on by COVID. In fact, the legislation was a cynical attempt by right-wing President Ivan Duque to shift the burden of the economic crisis onto those who can least afford it.

The Reforma Tributaria, as the bill was called, aimed to raise US $ 6.3 billion (about 23 billion Colombian pesos), through regressive sales taxes of 19% on essential products such as cereal, milk, sugar, and coffee. It also threatened to impose 19% taxes on utilities (water, electricity, and gas).[1] Meanwhile, the financial sector and oil and mining corporations enjoy substantial tax benefits that were granted as part of Duque’s last tax reform in 2019.[2]

Demonstrations began last week with a strike, called by the Comité Nacional del Paro and the Central Unitaria de Trabajadores (National Strike Committee and the National Unions Council). By the weekend huge protests had broken out in the major cities of Cali, Bogota, Medellin, Pereira, and hundreds of other municipalities. On Sunday night, with half a dozen cities up in flames, President Duque rescinded the bill. But as you Americans are fond of saying, the horses were out of the barn.

Throughout the week, protesters have remained on the streets in force, fueled by anger at the poor management of the pandemic and widespread sentiment that the government has completely lost touch with the struggles and troubles of common people in the country. This feeling has only been exacerbated by the extreme police brutality unleashed during the strikes, which has left close to 30 dead, hundreds wounded, and close to a hundred missing. Amnesty international has called the use of force by ESMAD (the riot police of Colombia), “excessive and unnecessary,”[3] and the UN reported its own mission in Cali was attacked and threatened by the police[4].

What has emerged in the last week is a distinct pattern, a contrast between tense protests during the day and police terror at night. Daytime protests are often led by strike committee members and other civil society groups: teachers, civil servants, students, activists. These protests have been attacked by the ESMAD, but have remained largely peaceful. At night, the security forces’ reign of terror begins. Across the country reports have emerged of kidnappings, assassinations, random shootings at unarmed crowds, and rapes. As Bogotá based El Tiempo columnist Sandra Borda said in an interview with the New York Times, Duque appears to be offering an olive branch to protestors during the day and sending police and thugs out to kill protestors by night.[5]

In Bogota, the protests during the day have remained relatively peaceful. Green Party mayor Claudia Lopez rejected Duque’s offer to send troops alongside of ESMAD police and instead sent the army to guard jails and police stations. However, protesters have denounced ESMAD abuses and human rights activists have been detained. In the south of Bogotá, the anti riots police (ESMAD) attacked protesters with an electronic multiple projectile launcher propelled from a tank. The “Venom,” as it is nicknamed, costs US $ 110,000, and the flash grenade canisters of tear gas that it fires cost $ 71 a piece.[6] By the middle of the week, on the 8th day of protests more than 27,000 protesters were gather in 20 points around the capital. Despite heavy rains and strong ESMAD presence protesters held rallies at cities main parks and universities. On Thursday, a major of the police in a town near Bogotá was captured as person of interest for the murder of the 24 year old Brayan Niño, who has become a symbol of police violence in the capital.[7]

Last weekend Cali, a city of 3 million (the third largest in the country), became the epicenter of the protests. Famed for its Salsa dancing, a huge “salsa party protest” broke out in the streets, with people dancing to the rhythm of their beloved salsa music and the sound of the cacerolazos (banging on pots and pans, a universal form of protest in South America, especially when food is at stake). However, this week the situation in Cali has become increasingly complicated. The city has been the focus of an intense police and military crackdown on the protest—it is by far the most militarized of Colombian cities at this point. However, this is in part because the national strike has in Cali been infiltrated by unidentified armed groups, which in addition to looting and stealing gasoline have been accused of shooting protesters. In one strange case, protesters actually convinced looters to return goods to stores. On Tuesday, Caleños endured twelve-hour-long Internet and power outages. Protesters were panicked because they could not get through to their families and post on social media, the preferred mode of denouncing ESMAD’s abuses. As of today, Cali has suffered the most cases of police brutality and murders,[8] and is running out of gasoline, as the main access roads to the city are barricaded.

North of Cali, in the heart of the coffee region, Pereira was the site of the tragic death of Lucas Villa-Vargas, one of the faces of the movement. On Wednesday evening, Villa-Vargas, a college student of physical education, was standing on El Viaducto, the main bridge running into Pereira, when he was killed by a gunman in a drive-by motorcycle shooting. As people who live in popular neighborhoods in Colombian cities know well, two men approaching on a cheap motorcycle is an ominous sign. Along with Villa, the gunman shot two other young movement members, who are now fighting for their lives at a local hospital.[9] The mayor of Pereira has offered rewards for capturing the gunman and hundreds of thousands of viewers have seen Lucas’s assassination online. Amongst Pereiranos there is little doubt that Villa’s murderer was a hired gun. Lucas’s leadership had become highly visible among the protesters in Pereira; sadly, such recognition in social justice protests often comes with a high cost in Colombia.

The rage over the proposed tax reform also comes amidst one of the worst waves of Covid outbreak in the world. In many cities’ ICUs are at full capacity, and the vaccination drive has been a resounding failure. Less than 8% of the population have received the first dose and many of those saw their second doses postponed as far as three months due to lack of supplies. Instead of prioritizing direct negotiating with Pfizer, the government authorized private health companies to negotiate in order to purchase doses for the elite. Public testing is hardly available, and at $50, private labs testing is well beyond the budgets of most families.[10] The day after the strikes began, the Minister of Health tweeted a threat that cities with large strikes and protests would have their already poor supplies of the vaccine suspended. He retracted his grotesque threat a day later, but the damage was done.[11] Social media and news outlets have ridiculed the incompetence of the government and the high-profile staff who, as is well known throughout the country, fly to Miami to get vaccinated while prioritized groups in the low-income class wait anxiously for their first shots.[12]

As in many countries, so in Colombia, covid has exacerbated what were already, before the pandemic, outrageous wage and income disparities and deep inequality. In Colombia 63.8% of the population earn no more than a minimum wage, equivalent to US $270 monthly (DANE, 2020), and 2.2 million Colombian families eat only twice a day (DANE, 2020). The percentage of people living in poverty went from 35.7% in 2019 to 42.5% in 2020 (Portafolio, March 2021). Contrast this with the government officials who were poised to push through the regressive reform. In Colombia, a member of congress earns thirty four times the minimum monthly salary, or around US $9,430 every month. Congressman and women also receive a monthly quota of plain tickets, a rented bulletproof car, insurance, cellphone plans, and staff salaries for a total monthly cost per member of US $ 25,837.[13] As far as public spending goes, in March, Duque announced a decision to acquire twenty-four last generation F-16 air force planes for US $ 4.5 billion. On Tuesday, May 4th, amid the protests, the minister of finance withdrew the plan.[14]

Across society, Colombian inequality is backed by a well-consolidated stratum system. In the strata system, urban areas get assigned a number from one to six according to the quality of the dwellings and urban development (Decree-Law 3069/1968; Law 142/1994). The stratum system is unique to Colombia, designed in the late 60s to redistribute utilities costs by assigning subsidies to low strata (1 and 2) through overpayments from high strata (5 and 6). However, in reality, it has become a widespread mark of status and contributes to discrimination and social immobility. While the strata system is not based on household income, it has led to outcomes that are similar to the effects of redlining in American cities. In a large city like Bogota, a strata 5 person in the north could spend his or her entire life without setting foot in the poor south. In all likelihood, the maids, nannies, and doormen working for them are the only close relationship with a low strata person that high-strata people ever experience. This total disconnection, separating rich and poor, perhaps explains why vice-president Marta Ramirez recently blamed informal workers themselves for not having savings to ride out the pandemic, adding that they should stop expecting welfare to solve their problems and urging them to take the pandemic as an opportunity to “rebrand” themselves.[15]

Colombians have tended to respond to such ignominies with meme-gallows-humor in social media. Likewise, they responded to colossal corruption scandals, and continuous incites of public money defraud. Each corruption scandal floods the news for a few weeks until it dissolved into the next, hardly ever any high public official is held accountable or the public money recovered. Meanwhile, neighboring countries have overthrown presidents and convicted high officials for similar white-collar crimes. Accurately, conservative sectors flaunt that the country is the steadiest democracy in the continent. But last week, sarcasm and passivity gave way to fury.

The resilience of the protesters is a hopeful sign for a country that has not witnessed the level of popular urban protest and progressive political organizing as many of its neighbors on the continent. Colombia was, of course, home to Marxist guerrilla movements, most famously the FARC, and experienced a half-century-long civil war. This war, however, was fought in the rural hinterlands while cities remain in compliance with every neoliberal reform implemented by one right wing government after another. For decades, the very presence of the unpopular guerilla helped the government and elites stigmatize and delegitimize any political activity that showed the slightest socialist influence. When more muscle was needed, paramilitary groups could be relied on, and Colombia was long one of the most dangerous places in the world for union organizers.

However, as Hylton (2020) has written, many Colombians see their current political situation as a potential historical opening. President Duque’s labor reform bill in 2019 catalyzed a nationwide urban mobilization not seen since the 1977 civic strike.[16] In this presidential period, protests have emerged as a regular feature of Colombia’s political landscape. The defeat of the regressive bill is an unprecedented triumph for the youth, the urban poor, and the unions of teachers and health care workers who promoted the uprising. The government, eager to regain control of the situation, has reached out to the Comite del Paro to accelerate the time table for talks. The Strike Committee has maintained that the demilitarization of the cities is a condition of its coming to the table.

Thanks to Patrick Madden for editorial assistance.


















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Napoleon Between War and Revolution

Napoleon at Saint Helena, aquarel by František Xaver Sandmann.

The French Revolution was not a simple historic event but a long and complex process in which a number of different stadia may be identified. Some of these stadia were even counterrevolutionary in nature, for example the “aristocratic revolt” at the very start. Two phases, however, were unquestionably revolutionary.

The first stage was “1789”, the moderate revolution. It put an end to the “Ancien Régime” with its royal absolutism and feudalism, the power monopoly of the monarch and privileges of the nobility and the Church. The important achievements of “1789” also included the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, the equality of all Frenchmen before the law, the separation of Church and state, a parliamentary system based on a limited franchise, and, last but not least, the creation of an “indivisible”, centralized, and modern French state. These achievements, amounting to a major step forward in the history of France, were enshrined in a new constitution that was officially promulgated in 1791.

France’s pre-1789 Ancien Régime had been intimately associated with the absolute monarchy. Under the revolutionary system of “1789”, on the other hand, the king was supposed to find a comfortable role within a constitutional and parliamentary monarchy. But that did not work out because of intrigues by Louis XVI, and thus arose a radically new type of French state in 1792, a republic. “1789” was made possible by the violent interventions of the Parisian “mob”, the so-called “sans-culottes”, but its outcome was essentially the handiwork of a moderate class of people, virtually exclusively members of the haute bourgeoisie, the upper-middle class. On the ruins of the Ancien Régime, which had served the interests of the nobility and the Church, these gentlemen erected a state that was supposed to be in the service of the well-to-do burghers. Politically, these solid gentlemen initially found a home in the “club” or embryonic political party of the Feuillants, subsequently in that of the Girondins. The latter name reflected the place of origin of its leading element, a contingent of members of the bourgeoisie of Bordeaux, the great harbour on the banks of the Gironde estuary, whose wealth was based not only on trade in wine but also, and primarily, in slaves. In Paris, the den of the revolutionary lions, the sans-culottes, and more respectable but still radical revolutionaries known as the Jacobins, these provincial gentlemen never felt at home.

The second revolutionary stage was “1793”. That was the “popular”, radical, egalitarian revolution, with social rights (including the right to work) and relatively thorough social-economic reforms, reflected in a constitution promulgated in the revolutionary year I (1793), which never went into effect. In that stage, incorporated by the famous Maximilien Robespierre, the revolution was socially oriented and prepared to regulate the national economy, thus limiting individual freedom to some extent, “pour le bonheur commun”, that is, for the benefit of the entire nation. Since the right to own property was rmaintained, one can describe “1793” in contemporary terminology as “social democratic”, rather than truly “socialist”.

“1793” was the work of Robespierre and the Jacobins, especially the most ardent Jacobins, a group known as the Montagne, the “mountain”, because they occupied the highest rows of seats in the legislature. They were radical revolutionaries, predominantly of petit-bourgeois or lower-middle class background, whose principles were just as liberal as those of the haute bourgeoisie. But they also sought to satisfy the elementary needs of the Parisian plebeians, especially the artisans who constituted a majority among the sans-culottes. The sans-culottes were ordinary folks who wore long pants instead of the knickers (culottes) complemented by silk stockings typical of aristocrats and prosperous burghers. They were the storm troops of the revolution: the storming of the Bastille was one of their achievements. Robespierre and his radical Jacobins needed them as allies in their struggle against the Girondins, the bourgeoisie’s moderate revolutionaries, but also against the aristocratic and ecclesiastical counterrevolutionaries.

The radical revolution was in many ways a Parisian phenomenon, a revolution made in, by, and for Paris. Unsurprisingly, the opposition emanated mainly from outside of Paris, more specifically, from the bourgeoisie in Bordeaux and other provincial cities, exemplified by the Girondins, and from the peasants in the countryside. With “1793”, the revolution became a kind of conflict between Paris and the rest of France.

The counterrevolution – embodied by the aristocrats who had fled the country, the émigrés, priests, and seditious peasants in the Vendée and elsewhere in the provinces – was hostile to “1789” as well as “1793” and wanted nothing less than a return to the Ancien Régime; in the Vendée, the rebels fought for king and Church. As for the wealthy bourgeoisie, it was against “1793” but in favour of “1789”. In contrast to the Parisian sans-culottes, that class had nothing to gain but a lot to lose from radical revolutionary progress in the direction indicated by the Montagnards and their constitution of 1793, promoting egalitarianism and statism, that is, state intervention in the economy. But the bourgeoisie also opposed a return to the Ancien Régime, which would have put the state back in the service of the nobility and the Church. “1789”, on the other hand, resulted in a French state in the service of the bourgeoisie.

A retour en arrière to the moderate bourgeois revolution of 1789 – but with a republic instead of a constitutional monarchy – was the objective and in many ways also the result of the “Thermidor”, the 1794 coup d’état that put an end to the revolutionary government – and the life – of Robespierre. The “Thermidorian reaction” produced the constitution of the year III which,.as the French historian Charles Morazé has written, “secured private property and liberal thought and abolished anything that seemed to push the bourgeois revolution in the direction of socialism”. The Thermidorian updating of “1789” produced a state that has correctly been described as a “bourgeois republic” (république bourgeoise) or a “republic of the property owners” (république des propriétaires).

Thus originated the Directoire, an extremely authoritarian regime, camouflaged by a thin layer of democratic varnish in the shape of legislatures whose members were elected on the basis of a very limited franchise.The Directoire found it excruciatingly difficult to survive while steering between, on the right, a royalist Scylla yearning for a return to the Ancien Régime and, on the left, a Charybdis of Jacobins and sans-culottes eager to re-radicalize the revolution. Various royalist and (neo-)Jacobin rebellions erupted, and each time the Directoire had to be saved by the intervention of the army. One of these uprisings was smothered in blood by an ambitious and popular general called Napoleon Bonaparte.

The problems were finally solved by means of a coup d’état that took place on 18 Brumaire of the year VIII, November 9, 1799. To avoid losing its power to the royalists or the Jacobins, France’s well-to-do bourgeoisie turned its power over to Napoleon, a military dictator who was both reliable and popular. The Corsican was expected to put the French state at the disposal of the haute bourgeoisie, and that is exactly what he did. His primordial task was the elimination of the twin threat that had bedeviled the bourgeoisie. The royalist and therefore counterrevolutionary danger was neutralized by means of the “stick” of repression but even more so by the “carrot” of reconciliation. Napoleon allowed the emigrated aristocrats to return to France, to recuperate their property, and to enjoy the privileges showered by his regime not only on the wealthy burghers but on all property owners. He also reconciled France with the Church by signing a concordat with the Pope.

To get rid of the (neo-)Jacobin threat and to prevent a new radicalization of the revolution, Napoleon relied mostly on an instrument which had already been used by the Girondins and the Directoire, namely warfare. Indeed, when we recall Napoleon’s dictatorship, we do not think so much of revolutionary events in the capital, as in the years 1789 to 1794, but of an endless series of wars fought far from Paris and in many cases far beyond the borders of France. That is not a coincidence, because the so-called “revolutionary wars” were functional for the primordial objective of the champions of the moderate revolution, including Bonaparte and his sponsors: consolidating the achievements of “1789” and preventing both a return to the Ancien Régime and a repeat of “1793”.

With their policy of terror, known as la Terreur – the Terror -, Robespierre and the Montagnards had sought not only to protect but also to radicalize the revolution. That meant that they “internalized” the revolution within France, first and foremost in the heart of France, the capital, Paris. It is not a coincidence that the guillotine, the “revolutionary razor”, symbol of the radical revolution, was set up in the middle of Place de la Concorde, that is, in the middle of the square in the middle of the city in the middle of the country. To concentrate their own energy and the energy of the sans-culottes on the internalization of the revolution, Robespierre and his Jacobin comrades – in contrast to the Girondins – opposed international wars, which they considered to be a waste of revolutionary energy and a threat to the revolution. Conversely, the endless series of wars that were fought afterwards, first under the auspices of the Directoire and then Bonaparte, amounted to an externalization of the revolution, an exportation of the bourgeois revolution of 1789. Domestically, they simultaneously served to prevent a further internalization or radicalization of the revolution à la 1793.

War, international conflict, served to liquidate the revolution, domestic conflict, class conflict. This was done in two ways. First, war caused the most ardent revolutionaries to disappear from the cradle of the revolution, Paris. Initially as volunteers, but all too soon as draftees, countless young sans-culottes vanished from the capital to fight in foreign lands, all too often never to return. As a result, in Paris only a comparative handful of male fighters remained to carry out major revolutionary actions such as the storming of the Bastille, too few to repeat the successes of the sans-culottes between 1789 and 1793; this was clearly demonstrated by the failure of the Jacobin insurrections under the Directoire. Bonaparte perpetuated the system of compulsory military service and perpetual war. “It was he”, wrote the historian Henri Guillemin, “who shipped the potentially dangerous young plebeians far away from Paris and even all the way to Moscow – to the great relief of the well-to-do burghers [gens de bien]”.

Second, the news of great victories generated patriotic pride among the sans-culottes who had stayed at home, a pride that was to compensate for the dwindling revolutionary enthusiasm. With a little help form the god of war, Mars, the revolutionary energy of the sans-culottes and the French people in general could thus be directed into other channels, less radical in revolutionary terms. This reflected a displacement process whereby the French people, including the Parisian sans-culottes, gradually lost its enthusiasm for the revolution and the ideals of liberty, equality, and solidarity not only among Frenchmen but with other nations; instead, the French increasingly worshipped the golden calf of French chauvinism, territorial expansion to their country’s supposedly “natural” borders such as the Rhine, and the international glory of the “great nation” and – after 18 Brumaire – of its great leader, soon to be emperor: Bonaparte.

Thus we can also understand the ambivalent reaction of foreigners to the French wars and conquests of that era. While some – e.g. the Ancien Régime elites and the peasants – rejected the French Revolution in toto and others – above all local Jacobins such as the Dutch “patriots” – warmly welcomed it, many people wavered between admiration for the ideas and achievements of the French Revolution and revulsion for the militarism, the boundless chauvinism, and the ruthless imperialism of France after Thermidor, during the Directoire, and under Napoleon.

Many non-French struggled with simultaneous admiration and aversion for the French Revolution. In others, initial enthusiasm gave way sooner or later to disillusion. The British, for example, welcomed “1789” because they interpreted the moderate revolution as the importation into France of the kind of constitutional and parliamentary monarchy they themselves had adopted a century earlier at the time of their so-called Glorious Revolution. William Wordsworth evoked that feeling with the following lines:

Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,
But to be young was very heaven!

After “1793” and the Terror associated with it, however, most British observed the events on the other side of the Channel with revulsion. Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France – published in November 1790 – became the counterrevolutionary Bible not only in England but all over the world. In the mid-20th century, George Orwell was to write that “to the average Englishman, the French Revolution means no more than a pyramid of severed heads”. The same thing could be said about virtually all non-French (and many French) to this day.

It was to put an end to the revolution in France itself, then, that Napoleon abducted it from Paris and exported it to the rest of Europe. In order to prevent the mighty revolutionary current from excavating and deepening its own channel – Paris and the rest of France – first the Thermidorians and later Napoleon caused its troubled waters to overflow the borders of France, inundate all of Europe, thus becoming vast, but shallow and calm.

To take the revolution away from its Parisian cradle, to put an end to what was in many ways a project of the petit-bourgeois Jacobins and sans-culottes of the capital, and conversely, to consolidate the moderate revolution dear to bourgeois hearts, Napoleon Bonaparte was the perfect choice, even symbolically. He was born in Ajaccio, the French provincial city that happened to be the farthest from Paris. Moreover, he was “a child of the Corsican gentry [gentilhommerie corse], that is, the scion of a family that could be equally described as being haut-bourgeoise but with aristocratic pretensions, or else as lesser nobility but with a bourgeois lifestyle. In many ways, the Bonapartes belonged to the haute bourgeoisie, the class that, in all of France, had managed to achieve its ambitions thanks to “1789”, and later, in the face of threats from the left as well as the right, attempted to consolidate this triumph via a military dictatorship. Napoleon embodied the provincial haute bourgeoisie which, following the example of the Girondins, wanted a moderate revolution, crystallized in a state, democratic if possible but authoritarian if necessary, that would permit itself to maximize its wealth and power. The experiences of the Directoire had revealed the shortcomings in this respect of a republic with relatively democratic institutions, and it was for that reason that the bourgeoisie finally sought salvation in a dictatorship.

The military dictatorship that replaced the post-Thermidorian “bourgeois republic” appeared on the scene like a deus ex machina in Saint-Cloud, a village just outside Paris, on “18 Brumaire of the year VIII”, that is, 9 November 1799. This decisive political step in the liquidation of the revolution was simultaneously a geographic step away from Paris, away from the hotbed of the revolution, away from the lions’ den of revolutionary Jacobins and sans-culottes. In addition, the transfer to Saint-Cloud was a small but symbolically significant step in the direction of the far less revolutionary, if not counterrevolutionary countryside. Saint-Cloud happens to be on the way from Paris to Versailles, the residence of the absolutist monarchs of the pre-revolutionary era. The fact that a coup d’état yielding an authoritarian regime took place there was the topographic reflection of the historic fact that France, after the democratic experiment of the revolution, found itself back on the road towards a new absolutist system similar to the one of which Versailles had been the “sun”. But this time the destination was an absolutist system presided over by a Bonaparte rather than a Bourbon and – much more importantly – an absolutist system in the service of the bourgeoisie rather than the nobility.

The coup d’état of Saint-Cloud on a British caricature by James Gillray.

With respect to the revolution, Bonaparte’s dictatorship was ambivalent. With his advent to power, the revolution was ended, even liquidated, at least in the sense that there would be nor more egalitarian experiments (as in “1793”) and no more efforts to maintain a republican-democratic façade (as in “1789”). On the other hand, the essential achievements of “1789” were maintained and even enshrined.

So, was Napoleon a revolutionary or not? He was for the revolution in the sense that he was against the royalist counterrevolution, and since two negatives cancel each other, a counter-counterrevolutionary is automatically a revolutionary, n’est-ce pas? But one can also say that Napoleon was simultaneously against the revolution: he favoured the moderate, bourgeois revolution of 1789, associated with the Feuillants, Girondins, and Thermidorians, but was against the radical revolution of 1793, handiwork of the Jacobins and sans-culottes. In her book La Révolution, une exception française?, the French historian Annie Jourdan quotes a contemporary German commentator who realized that Bonaparte “was never anything other than the personification of one of the different stages of the revolution”, as he wrote in 1815. That stage was the bourgeois, moderate revolution, “1789”, the revolution Napoleon was not only to consolidate within France but also to export to the rest of Europe.

Napoleon eliminated the royalist as well as Jacobin threats, but he rendered another important service to the bourgeoisie. He arranged for the right to own property, cornerstone of the liberal ideology so dear to bourgeois hearts, to be legally enshrined. And he showed his devotion to this principle by reintroducing slavery, still widely regarded as a legitimate form of property. France had actually been the first country to abolish slavery, namely at the time of the radical revolution, under Robespierre’s auspices. He had done so despite the opposition of his antagonists, the Girondns, supposedly moderate gentlemen, precursors of Bonaparte as champions of the cause of the bourgeoisie and of its liberal ideology, glorifying liberty – but not for slaves.

“In Napoleon”, wrote the historian Georges Dupeux, “the bourgeoisie found a protector as well as a master”. The Corsican was unquestionably a protector and even a great champion of the cause of the well-to-do burghers, but he was never their master. In reality, from the beginning to the end of his “dictatorial” career he was a subordinate of the nation’s captains of industry and finance, the same gentlemen who already controlled France at the time of the Directoire, the “république des propriétaires”, and who had entrusted him with the management of the country on their behalf.

Financially, not only Napoleon but the entire French state were made dependent on an institution that was − and has remained until the present time − the property of the country’s elite, even though that reality was obfuscated by the application of a label that created the impression that it was a state enterprise, the Banque de France, the national bank. Its bankers raised money from the moneyed bourgeoisie and made it available, at relatively high interest rates, to Napoleon, who used it to govern and arm France, to wage endless war, and of course to play emperor with lots of pomp and circumstance.

Napoleon was nothing other than the figurehead of a regime, a dictatorship of the haute bourgeoisie, a regime that knew how to dissimulate itself behind a lavish choreography in the style of ancient Rome, conjuring up first, rather modestly, a consulate and subsequently a boastful empire.

Let us return to the role of the endless series of wars waged by Napoleon, military adventures undertaken for the glory of the “grande nation” and its ruler. We already know that these conflicts served first and foremost to liquidate the radical revolution in France itself. But they also enabled the bourgeoisie to accumulate capital as never before. Supplying the army with weapons, uniforms, food, etc., huge profits were realized by industrialists, merchants, and bankers. The wars were great for business, and the victories yielded territories that contained valuable raw materials or could serve as markets for the finished products of France’s industry. This benefited the French economy in general, but primarily its industry, whose development was thus accelerated considerably. Consequently, industrialists (and their partners in banking) were able to play an increasingly important role within the bourgeoisie.

Under Napoleon, industrial capitalism, poised to become typical of the 19th century, started to overtake commercial capitalism, economic trendsetter during the previous two centuries. It is worth noting that the accumulation of commercial capital in France had been possible above all thanks to the slave trade, while the accumulation of industrial capital had a lot to do with the virtually uninterrupted string of wars fought first by the Directoire and then by Napoleon. In this sense, Balzac was right when he wrote that “behind every great fortune with no apparent source there lies a forgotten crime”.

Napoleon’s wars stimulated the development of the industrial system of production. Simultaneously, they sounded the death knell for the ancient, small-scale, artisanal system in which craftsmen laboured in the traditional, unmechanized manner. Via warfare, the Bonapartist bourgeoisie not only made the sans-culottes – predominantly artisans, shopkeepers, etc. – disappear physically from Paris, it also caused them to vanish from the social-economic landscape. In the drama of the revolution, the sans-culottes had played a major role. Because of the wars that liquidated the (radical) revolution, they, the storm troops of revolutionary radicalism, exited the stage of history.

Thanks to Napoleon, France’s bourgeoisie thus managed to rid itself of its class enemy. But that turned out to be a Pyrrhic victory. Why? The economic future belonged not to the workshops and the craftsmen who laboured “independently”, owned some property, if only their tools, and were therefore petit-bourgeois, but to the factories, their owners, the industrialists, but also their labourers, the wage-earning and typically very poorly paid factory workers. This “proletariat” was to reveal itself to the bourgeoisie as a much more dangerous class enemy than the sans-culottes and other craftsmen had ever been. Moreover, the proletarians aimed to bring about a much more radical revolution than Robespierre’s “1793”. But this was to be a concern for the bourgeois regimes that were to succeed that of the supposedly “great” Napoleon, including that of his nephew, Napoleon III, denigrated by Victor Hugo as “Napoleon le Petit”.

There are many people inside and outside of France, including politicians and historians, who despise and denounce Robespierre, the Jacobins, and the sans-culottes because of the bloodshed associated with their radical, “popular” revolution of 1793. The same folks often display a great deal of admiration for Napoleon, restorer of “law and order” and saviour of the moderate, bourgeois revolution of 1789. They condemn the internalization of the French Revolution because it was accompanied by the Terror, which in France, especially in Paris, made many thousands of victims, and for this they blame the Jacobin “ideology” and/or the presumably innate bloodthirstiness of the “populace”. They appear not to realize – or do not want to realize – that the externalization of the revolution by the Thermidorians and by Napoleon, accompanied by international wars that dragged on for almost twenty years, cost the lives of many millions of people throughout Europe, including countless Frenchmen. Those wars amounted to a much greater and bloodier form of terror than the Terreur orchestrated by Robespierre had ever been.

That terror-regime is estimated to have cost the lives of approximately 50,000 people, representing more or less 0.2 percent of France’s population. Is that a lot or a little, asks the historian Michel Vovelle, who cites these figures in one of his books. In comparison with the number of victims of the wars fought for the temporary territorial expansion of the grande nation and for the glory of Bonaparte, it is very little. The Battle of Waterloo alone, the final battle of Napoleon’s presumably glorious career, including its prelude, the mere “skirmishes” of Ligny and Quatre Bras, caused between 80,000 and 90,000 casualties. Worst of all, many hundreds of thousands of men never returned from his disastrous campaigns in Russia. Terrible, n’est-ce pas? But nobody ever seems to talk about a Bonapartist “terror”, and Paris and the rest of France are full of monuments, streets and squares that commemorate the presumably heroic and glorious deeds of the most famous of all Corsicans.

Antoine Wiertz, “Une scène de l’enfer”, Wiertz Museum, Brussels.

By substituting permanent warfare for permanent revolution within France, and above all in Paris, noted Marx and Engels, the Thermidorians and their successors “perfected” the strategy of terror, in other words, caused much more blood to flow than at the time of Robespierre’s policy of terror. In any event, the exportation or externalization, by means of war, of the Thermidorian, (haut) bourgeois revolution, update of “1789”, claimed many more victims than the Jacobin attempt to radicalize or internalize the revolution within France by means of la Terreur.

Like our politicians and media, most historians still consider warfare to be a perfectly legitimate state activity anda source of glory and pride for the victors and, even for our inevitably “heroic” losers. Conversely, the tens or hundreds of thousands, and even millions of victims of warfare – now mainly carried out as bombings from the air and therefore really one-sided massacres, rather than wars – never receive the same attention and sympathy as the far less numerous victims of “terror”, a form of violence that is not sponsored, at least not overtly, by a state and is therefore branded as illegitimate.

The present “war on terror” comes to mind. As far as the never-ceasing-to-wage-war superpower is concerned, this is a form of permanent and ubiquitous warfare that stimulates unthinking, flag-waving chauvinism among ordinary Americans – the American “sans-culottes”! – while providing the poorest among them with jobs in the marines. To the great advantage of American industry, this perpetual warfare gives US corporations access to important raw materials such as petroleum, and for weapons manufacturers and many other firms, especially those with friends in the halls of power in Washington, it functions as a cornucopia of sky-high profits. The similarities to Napoleon’s wars are obvious. How do the French say it again? “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose”.

With Napoleon Bonaparte, the revolution ended where it was supposed to end, at least as far as the French bourgeoisie was concerned. With his arrival on the scene, the bourgeoisie triumphed. It is not a coincidence that in French cities members of the social elite, known as les notables, meaning businessmen, bankers, lawyers and other representatives of the haute bourgeoisie, like to congregate in cafés and restaurants that are named after Bonaparte, as the brilliant sociologist Pierre Bourdieu has observed.

The haute bourgeoisie has always remained grateful to Napoleon for the eminent services he rendered to their class. The most prominent of these services was the liquidation of the radical revolution, of “1793”, which threatened the considerable advantages the bourgeoisie had acquired, thanks to “1789”, at the expense of the nobility and the Church. Conversely, the bourgeoisie’s hatred of Robespierre, figurehead of “1793”, explains the almost total absence of statues and other monuments, names of streets and squares, that honour his memory – even though his abolition of slavery amounted to one of the greatest achievements in the history of democracy worldwide.

Napoleon is also venerated beyond the borders of France, in Belgium, Italy, Germany, etc., mostly by the well-to-do bourgeoisie. The reason for this is undoubtedly that all those countries were still feudal, quasi-medieval societies, where his conquests made it possible to liquidate their own Ancien Régimes and introduce the moderate revolution, wellspring, as it had already been in France, of considerable improvements for the entire population (except nobility and clergy, of course) but also of special privileges for the bourgeoisie. That probably also explains why, in Waterloo today, not Wellington but Napoleon is the undisputed star of the tourist show, so that tourists who do not know better might get the impression that it was he who won the battle!

Statue of Napoleon in Waterloo (Photo: J. Pauwels).

Jacques Pauwels’ latest book is Le Paris des san-sculottes: Guide du Paris révolutionnaire 1789-1799 (Éditions Delga, Paris, March 2021; English edition forthcoming).

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My (Your) University is Still Racist and Equity Training Won’t Change That

Marion S. Trikosko, James Meredith walking on the campus of the University of Mississippi, accompanied by U.S. marshals, October 1, 1962, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Racism and “Critical Race Theory” in the Age of Reagan

When I began teaching almost 40 years ago, Ronald Reagan was president. Denouncing affirmative action and “welfare queens,” and endorsing “states’ rights” and Apartheid South Africa, Reagan described the America of Jim Crow as a golden age, the “shining city on a hill.” Racism increasingly appeared to be woven into the fabric of national and international politics with no way to unravel it.

At that time, progressive scholars at universities across the country began to discuss “structural” – also called “institutional” or “systemic” — racism. In fact, the argument went, all racism was structural. Whereas bias, prejudice, chauvinism and ethnocentrism were individual failings, racism was a legal and extra-legal system that favored white subjects while condemning non-whites (Blacks, Latinx and Native Americans), to social and economic ostracism and early death. The function of racism was to divide the low-wage workforce against itself, encouraging poor whites to disparage Black and Latinx workers, and make alliances with wealthy, white capitalists and conservative politicians. Structural racism is why Reagan got elected and why Democrats put up so little effective resistance.

Racism was manifested in multiple ways, including housing and job discrimination, educational advantages for the children of rich (white) parents, and a criminal justice system that specially targeted Blacks, Latinx and Native Americans. It also took the form of psycho-social domination: Centuries of denigration of Blacks, for example, had a powerful, cumulative impact upon the subjectivities of both Blacks and whites, as W.E.B Du Bois and James Baldwin argued. For Blacks, it was a matter of double-consciousness, the “sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others.” For whites, it was the unshakeable conviction that they possessed rights and privileges that others should not have — the doctrine of “white supremacy.”

The point of the Critical Race Theory that emerged in the 1980s and 90s, pioneered by Derrick Bell, Kimberlé Crenshaw, Cheryl Harris and others, was to closely examine the origin, development, and persistence of structural racism, with the goal of challenging it. One of the key texts back then – and still powerful today — was Harris’s “Whiteness as Property” published in 1993 in the Harvard Law Review. In that article, Harris argued that from the time of the founding of the United States, whiteness granted its possessors measurable value. Moreover, that value was inherited, an unearned legacy that bolstered white achievement and prevented Blacks from attaining the same social and economic standing. (Prof. Harris recently published an important reflection on her earlier essay.) To be sure, many whites were also poor, but they were still better off than Blacks. As Du Bois wrote in Black Reconstruction in America (1935), quoted by Harris:

The theory of laboring class unity rests upon the assumption that laborers . . . will unite because of their opposition to exploitation by the capitalists . . . . This would throw white and black labor into one class . . . . [But] it must be remembered that the white group of laborers, while they received a low wage, were compensated in part by a sort of public and psychological wage. They were given public deference . . . because they were white. They were admitted freely with all classes of white people to public functions, public parks, and the best schools. The police were drawn from their ranks, and the courts, dependent on their votes treated them with…leniency.

The remedy for structural racism and inequality, Harris wrote was “distributive justice”, and more specifically, “affirmative action” an idea addressed by the legal scholar Ronald J. Fiscus among others.

Affirmative action, Harris writes, “[ensures] that individuals receive that share of the benefits they would have secured in the absence of racism.” In 1993, when “Whiteness as Property” was published, affirmative action was still in the ascendant. At Occidental College in Los Angeles, where I taught from 1984-98, I regularly served on (and sometimes chaired) the Faculty Affirmative Action Committee. Our job was to make sure that teaching and administrative positions were defined in such a way as to attract the most “minority” (the preferred term at the time) applicants, and that searches were conducted without prejudice. Some departments and offices hated us; if we believed a search was faulty, we shut it down. But we were also remarkably successful, helping to hire many brilliant, Black, Latino and Asian American scholars, and making it possible to appoint a Black, college president.

By the late 1990s however, a slew of statewide, so-called “civil rights” initiatives — in California, Michigan, Texas, Florida and elsewhere — derailed affirmative action. And it’s been a see-saw ever since. The election of Barak Obama in 2008 partially restored the former impetus, but in 2018, Trump rolled back Obama-era educational guidelines. On his first day in office, Biden revoked Trump’s roll-back.

Structural racism is probably as pronounced today as it was back in the age of Reagan when Critical Race Theory was announced. Indeed, the gap in wages between Blacks and whites is greater now than it was then. The same is true for wealth, with white households having an average net worth ten times greater than Black ones. The incarceration rate of Black men is three times that of whites. And even though whites and Blacks use illegal drugs in more or less equal measure, the latter are much more likely to be arrested and sentenced to prison. Police violence is the sixth leading cause of death among young, Black men. Blacks, Latinx and Native Americans suffer worse health than whites, as the recent pandemic has proven, and have lower life expectancies. Non-whites are also much more likely to be impacted by environmental pollution and climate change. Despite a general decline in air pollution over the past generation, Black and Latinx communities still experience dangerously high levels of particulate pollution, the most dangerous part of fossil fuel emissions from cars, factories and power plants.

Current Responses to Structural Racism

At my current (soon to be former) institution — Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois — faculty and students receive regular emails from the administration supporting racial justice, and pledging to end structural racism in all its forms. The tide of such communications became a flood following last year’s civil rights protests after the police murder of George Floyd and others. Here are two recent examples of the messaging, jointly authored by the president, provost, the office of Equity and Diversity and others:

The persistent, systemic nature of police brutality can take a psychological toll on many in the Northwestern community, particularly Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC). For Black people, who are disproportionately shot and murdered at the hands of the police, these killings are an all-too-frequent reminder of the urgent work that needs to happen to ensure issues of systemic racism and all forms of oppression are addressed. This is the only way we will create a truly equitable and just society in which marginalized people can safely live. (March 13, 2021)

We, as a University, will not stop until our institutional structures are equitable and just. We invite our community to join us in affirming our commitment to the pursuit of systemic change, to reexamine community safety and the carceral state, and to end anti-Blackness, racism and bigotry in all forms. (April 19, 2021)

These messages are powerful and even stirring, but the measures taken by the university, are tentative and few. They include allocating funds to re-furbish the “Black House” — an academic and social center for Black and African students established in 1968; a million dollars for a “Good Neighbor Racial Equity Fund” to support outreach to the diverse city of Evanston – though that program, among others, has been in operation since 2014; an uncertain number of “Racial Equity and Community Partnership Grants”; and the launching of a “Social Justice Website.” In addition, the university has supported equity training for senior administrators and similar courses for hundreds of staff managers. There are also plans to introduce required, “digital, anti-racism training courses” for students and faculty.

Equity training, formally called Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DE&I), has grown into an industry, an Anti-Racism Industrial Complex. There are multiple schools and professional associations of equity trainers. (The median salary for a trainer is about $72,000.) In 2020, American companies expended about $8 billion on DE&I, and that number is sure to grow this year. Nearly all Fortune 500 companies run DE&I programs and half of S&P 500 companies have a Chief Diversity Officer, as do most major colleges and universities. Their purpose is 1) to reduce costly payouts due to racial bias and sexual harassment lawsuits; 2) recruit a more diverse and productive workforce; and 3) public relations. Evidence for the success of DE&I at any of these is uncertain at best. Indeed, what evidence there is, indicates that some of the most popular equity interventions make businesses and educational institutions less, not more diverse. The reason, according to researchers, is that these programs feel coercive to participants, generating greater antagonism toward targeted communities than before.

Even more doubtful is DE&I’s success at the more exalted ambition articulated by administrators at Northwestern and other universities: reducing or ending structural racism. The reason is plain: Structural racism is not primarily an issue of thought, communications or personal behavior; it’s a problem in political economy that equity training cannot reach. As indicated earlier, structural, or systemic racism is a political, legal and social order that affirms hierarchy and divides and disempowers the working class. What university-sponsored DE&I programs do is promote a shallow politics of identity while avoiding discussions of structural change like the plague. My own art history department at Northwestern recently participated in such a program, (virtually that is). Each hour-long session (six in total over two terms), was intended to focus on a single theme, but with ten-minute warm-up exercises and multiple break-out room side-conversations, it proved hard to stay on track. Attendance dwindled from session to session.

The themes we discussed included the impact of personal formation on racial attitudes; “who carries the most power” in department meetings; and micro-aggressions. One exercise especially revealed to me the superficiality of the endeavor: We were shown a sentence and asked how we would respond:

You are in a department meeting devoted to graduate student enrollment, and a colleague says: “As you all know, I’m strongly in favor of recruiting as diverse a cohort of Ph.D students as possible, but we also have to maintain our high, academic standards.”

We all quickly scrambled to signal our disdain for the hypothetical speaker, and repeat what we sincerely believed to be true: that diversity was not in conflict with “high, academic standards.” If the equity trainer was giving out grades, we’d all have scored an A. But we never addressed what the benighted, fictional speaker probably meant, and what all of us (white and non-white faculty) have said at one time or another:

“The graduate class we recruited is well prepared to excel. But we need far more Black, Latinx and Native American applicants. Of those that applied, only a few have the appropriate academic background. How can we change the American educational and economic system so that more non-white kids have access to the arts and reason to believe they can earn a decent living with a humanities Ph.D?”

The basic point here is that if we want to address structural racism, we must do so at a structural level.

A Nine-Point Program of Structural, Anti-Racism on Campus

The choice facing students, faculty and administrators at Northwestern and other universities is whether, as political theorist  Nancy Fraser puts it, “to double-down on the forms of shallow identity politics that drive cancel culture and diversity fetishism,” or engage in a more radical practice that actually dismantles the political and economic structures of racism. Such a program of distributive justice on campus might include the following:

1) Ending affirmative action for rich, white people. “Legacy admissions” — by which the children of alums have an admission advantage — perpetuate inequality and enhance white privilege. Also: stop the focus on recruitment from posh, mostly white, suburban high schools and colleges; and end reliance on SATs and GREs — student scores are improved by test preparation, available only to wealthy families.

2) Break down the barriers between town and gown, especially in communities with high Black and brown populations. When colleges and universities invest in their local communities, they improve the social and economic lives of students and residents alike. Universities like Northwestern, University of Chicago, Yale, University of Pennsylvania, Columbia and USC, should heavily recruit from their urban surroundings, offering college preparatory courses in the high schools themselves.

3) Ensure that university endowment portfolios do not perpetuate systemic racism, for example by investing in for-profit prisons; chemical industries that produce guns, tear gas and other chemical weapons used against BLM and other justice protesters; drug companies that target opioids to poor people and communities of color; and fossil fuel companies whose pollution disproportionately impacts Black and brown neighborhoods. Review real estate investments to ensure they don’t support de-facto red lining and other forms of housing discrimination.

4) Wealthy institutions like Northwestern (endowment of $12 billion) should pay educational reparations to the descendants of those who have been systematically excluded from Northwestern, especially Black, Native America and Latinx students.  This could be in the form of additional scholarships or preferably, shifting endowment to colleges and universities, including community colleges, HSBCs and tribal colleges that educate these students. Also, instead of establishing satellite campuses in Qatar or Abu Dhabi, (Northwestern and NYU), universities should locate them in low-income urban or rural locations, tribal lands (if invited), and state or federal prisons.

5) Work cooperatively with other universities to demand better state and federal funding for K-12 education and lobby to end differential funding based upon local tax revenue. Better primary education will create a more diverse pool of college-ready applicants. Primary school students of color should have the same access to education in the arts and sciences as white students.

6) Be responsible in university spending. Here are examples of reckless expenditures from Northwestern: Salaries of $5 million for a football head coach, $2.5 for an assistant coach, $1.5 million for a basketball coach, $1.5 million for a university president and $1.3 million for a business school dean. Spending almost $300 million for a football practice facility should be considered theft of endowment. Many other wealthy universities have their own, ridiculous boondoggles.

7) Reduce support for university business schools, like Kellogg at Northwestern. They play a major role in buttressing the racist, national and global system of labor arbitrage — the moving of fixed capital from areas with high paying jobs, to locations with low paying or non-union jobs and a non-white workforce. All people deserve a living wage. Business schools also promote an ideology of growth-at-any-cost, regardless of environmental consequences for marginalized communities.

8) Demand that our university medical schools focus their attention not on profit and growth but on society’s greatest need: public health, and especially the compromised health of underserved communities. For that reason, medical school administrators and doctors should demand single payer health insurance, or even better, nationalized medicine.

9) Universities should challenge war and militarism. The global victims of war are mostly non-white. Annual U.S. spending of $900 billion for the military equals disinvestment in safe, healthy, and prosperous communities at home.  Universities should end cooperation with military recruiters, as well as with the CIA, NSA and other agencies that promote war and environmental devastation. The U.S. military emits more CO2 than most countries, impacting U.S. and global communities of color most of all.

Perhaps the most profound expression of racism at American universities is that which perpetuates the myth that racism is a matter of individual thoughts and speech acts or arises from insufficient respect for cultural difference. Prejudice, bias and chauvinism of all kinds (national, cultural and gender) should be attacked and uprooted. But Racism is a political and ideological structure that sickens and kills millions and threatens the survival of human civilization itself. Progressive faculty and administrators can’t by themselves make a revolution, but they can join a national movement that challenges structural racism and inequality through a coordinated program of distributive, educational and social justice.

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Roaming Charges: We Who Are About to Get Shot, Salute You

The great Christopher Lee in “I, Monster.”

My number had finally been called. Well, texted. No one calls anymore, except sexy robotic voices trying to sell me extended warranties for my car and electric toothbrush. On Monday, I was scheduled for my second dose of Pfizer’s COVID elixir, a strange brew which one friend pungently described as “a mixture of germs, animal parts, formaldehyde and pus.” Yum. My appointment with destiny: High noon at the convention center in Portland, shrouded in tear gas or not. My only choice: right arm or left.

I didn’t sleep much the night before. Did I mention I have a palpable fear of needles? I spent an hour online filling out the pre-check-in, which allegedly was meant to speed my way through the maze at the convention center, where they were mass-jabbing people at the rate of 1,100 an hour. The rest of the night I spent worrying about the much-dreaded side effects of the Second Shot. (The most prevalent side-effect of the vaccines is almost certainly the creeping anxiety about the side-effects.)

On Monday morning, I suffered a minor panic attack searching for my vaccine card, which I’d stashed away two weeks earlier so as not to lose it prior to today’s main event, without having the foresight to put a post-it note on the fridge reminding me precisely where that secure hiding place was. After some frantic scrambling, it came to me: Ah, yes, inside the copy of Dubliners in the back of the sock drawer! I was halfway to Portland before I remembered that I had forgotten the most vital document of all.

The series of probing personal questions I’d answered the previous night, including queries about my medical but also financial history, sexual identification and religious affiliation, questions which it didn’t strike me the Medicalized-for-Profit State had any business asking, had been digitally rendered into a QR code that I needed to print out and bring to the vaccination center. This document wasn’t a vaccine passport, but a passport to the vaccine, which had to be scanned at each security station and again at the “insertion point.”

Some shot-averse people fear Bill Gates. They believe that the “vaccine” contains a micro-micro-chip that enters the bloodstream and begins transmitting vital data back to the servers at whatever the soon-to-be-divorced couple is calling their foundation these days. I wasn’t much concerned about that. First, my body no longer yields data that would be of much value to anyone. Second, Bill Gates has never used chips that worked. Instead, I felt like I’d already been virtually chipped. How much of my life had been encoded on that black-and-white QR pattern, which looked as if it had been designed by Yves Klein on an off night?  I couldn’t help thinking the essential data documenting my existence was being sent to entities much more sinister than Gates: hackers, robocallers and insurance companies.

When I arrived at the Convention Center (which Portland old-timers (ie, people who have lived here longer than five years) have long referred to as the Palais de Gaultier, because the twin glass cones outside the hulking post-modernist structure resemble the spiky bra Jean-Paul designed for Madonna during the Blonde Ambition Tour), it was clear that the vibe of the place had changed.  Three weeks earlier, the cavernous building had a community atmosphere. The way stations were helmed by welcoming volunteers, the jabbing was done by retired physicians, the recovery rooms monitored by local nurses.

Now the building resembled an armed camp. Those of us about to be shot were herded into serpentine lines by burly figures in uniform and combat boots, their severe eyes scanning our faces from behind camouflaged masks. The festive spirit of April had been replaced by May’s military gloom.

The National Guard had taken over the operation and few of them looked glad to be here, as if helping to save what’s left of the Republic from a killer pandemic was beneath their calling and that they’d rather be searching the border for migrant “caravans” or making some of the last raids on peasant villages in Kandahar before the big show leaves Afghanistan.

There was something deeply unsettling about the entire scene and it flashed into my head that the Guard had taken over not for reasons of efficiency, but to instill popular fear about what a national health care system might look like if it fell into the wrong hands. The vaccination program in the US has been one of the most successful government operations in decades and one that the moneyed interests are desperate not to see replicated.

My dystopian reverie was interrupted first by raised voices in the line behind me, then by the sound of charging boots as two national guard soldiers rushed into the line, rudely breaching social distancing rules. I turned around and watched as the guard troops interrogated a thickly-muscled man in his 40s, wearing a John Deere cap and a cheap cloth mask draped beneath his unshaven chin. In a sick parody of George Floyd, the man kept repeating in a faux-shrill voice, “I can’t breathe! I can’t b-br-br-r-r-eathe!!” People began taking out their cellphones to record the drama. “No filming in here,” yelled one of the soldiers. “Read the fucking sign!”

I read it. The sign said, “No photographs in the vaccination hall. Use the selfie stations.” Selfie stations? A nurse later told me that they’d had to ban photos inside the jabbing zone because the vaccinators and the vaccinated were being trolled and doxed by anti-vaxxers, who’d tracked them down from images posted to Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Of course, all of the selfie stations had corporate sponsors, so who knows what the real story was.

Here was an intriguing dilemma. A COVID skeptic was in line to get vaccinated but had forced a confrontation over mask wearing. As a matter of public health, this epidemiological renegade was exactly the kind of person you didn’t want wandering the streets, malls and bars unvaccinated. In the end, I don’t know what happened to him. The guard troops escorted him out of line. I hope that his tantrum was rewarded with a hot shot of J&J, instead of detention in a black site for COVID deniers.

Almost everyone in line was white. There were more black people administering shots than receiving them. I noticed few Hispanics and even fewer Native People, perhaps because my appointment was on a weekday afternoon, when it’s nearly impossible for minorities to get off work, even to get a shot that might save their lives. There was no getting around the fact that the demographics of the vaccination line were an even whiter version of already alabaster-white Portland.

But as if in tribute to the city’s hard-won reputation as an anarchist jurisdiction, the masks were mostly black, including my own, featuring an image of John Lennon that I’d designed myself using a photo from one of the Plastic Ono gigs.

When I finally reached the center of the labyrinth, I arrived at Station 9, where a buzzcut medic in battle fatigues asked, “Who’s that on your mask, David Bowie?” He said it with what I took to be a homophobic sneer.

Bowie?  Suddenly, I had a new fear. Could these medics be trusted to tell the difference between the vial of Pfizer I was meant to get and the J&J that had a chance–infinitesimal as it might be–of sending killer blood clots racing into my lungs?

“Which arm?” the medic inquired sternly.

“Doesn’t matter, I’m not pitching today,” I replied, a little nervously.

“Sit down,” he commanded. “And take off that hat.”

Take off my hat? Was I about to get shot in the head?

“The Orioles are, in theory at least, a professional baseball team,” I snapped, pedantically. “It’s a cap not a hat.”

The medic grunted, then rubbed my skin with a swab of ethyl chloride, a little more vigorously than seemed strictly necessary. I turned away, wincing as the needle arced toward my arm, hoping it would land more accurately than one of the Pentagon’s typical drone strikes.

Did I mention my fear of needles?

I’ve had severe allergies most of my life. Sore throats and earaches during the winter months, snotty nose and cacophonous sneezing all summer. When I was about 10, I recall asking my pediatrician, “What exactly am I allergic to?” “Everything from the dust to the air, son. And cats, stay away from cats and anyone who has them.”  In other words, I was probably the most likely person in the convention center that day to keel over in an anaphylactic spasm five minutes after being injected.

Back in the late Sixties and early Seventies, the treatment for extreme allergies such as mine was a regimen of injections. I never knew the ingredients of the concoction, whether those too contained germs, animal parts, formaldehyde and pus. But from the age of 7 until I was 16, I grudgingly made weekly visits to the doctor to get poked in the thigh with a long and ominous hypodermic needle. On at least three visits, the needle snapped off in one of my anterior quadriceps and had to be removed with a scalpel and medical tweezers. I’ve hated and feared needles ever since. Indeed, my fear of needles was always the main inhibition to experimenting with heroin in a quest to play “Let’s Get Lost” with authenticity.

“Move along,” the medic growled. “You’re done.”

The needle had gone in and out, but I didn’t feel the injection for another 12 hours, when my arm began to throb. A few hours later came the headache. Then a slight fever, which persisted through the next day. On Tuesday night, I began to gets chills and then to sweat profusely. The sweat soaked the sheet, the blanket, the mattress. It was a cold sweat, how I imagined withdrawals would feel. Going cold turkey for a few hours, minus the cramps and the cravings.

I slid out of my saturated bed on Wednesday morning feeling fresh. Or as fresh as usual at my age. My system had been re-booted, the bloodstream realigned; my body newly fortified by anti-bodies, like some Manichaean organic machine, ready to re-enter the world immune to all the traumas it might inflict. Like Alex at the end of Clockwork Orange, I felt “cured.”  Until some mutant variant arrives to crash the system again. Or some damned cat.


+ Nearly 20 years ago, US special forces captured Zayn al-Abidin Muhammad Husayn (AKA, Abu Zubaydah) and named him a senior leader of Al Qaeda. In one of its early uses of “enhanced interrogation techniques,” the CIA tortured him until he became catatonic. But it turns out that Husayn wasn’t who the figure they thought he was and 15 years ago they admitted as much. But that didn’t matter. He’s still locked up in a cage, though his lawyers are making one more desperate legal move to free him

+ Speaking of Gitmo try your hand at deciphering this mish-mash from Tony Blinken on when (or if) Biden will move to shutter the US torture prison: Decipher this mish-mash… “We believe that it should be [closed,] that’s certainly a goal, but it’s something that we’ll bring some focus to in the months ahead.”

+ In Obama time, Hillary and Biden were always at odds over Afghanistan. He wanted to withdraw, she wanted to escalate. And she still can’t drop the drone, warning of “huge consequences” from US troop withdrawals. Once a forever warrior, forever a forever warrior.

+ C’mon, man, don’t you have better things to do, like keeping Biden from compromising with the likes of Cheney on the infrastructure bill…?

+ As a party, the Democrats function as a kind of one-stop political concession stand

+ Pandemic Profiteers: Pfizer announced this week that its vaccine has generated $3.5 billion in revenue in the first three months of 2021.

+ According to a new study by William Hartung and Liela Riazi at the Center for International Policy, the executives at the top Pentagon contractors banked at least $276.5 million in compensation packages last year. And under Biden’s $753 billion Pentagon spending plan, they’ll probably bank even more next year…

+ Amerigun Gothic…

+ Yes, those are guns on the roof, just like The Clash warned you about all those years ago…

+ Arundhati Roy on Modi, and COVID’s accelerating toll on the people of India:

“Modi the magician takes a bow for saving humanity by containing the coronavirus effectively. Now that it turns out that he has not contained it, can we complain about being viewed as though we are radioactive? That other countries’ borders are being closed to us and flights are being cancelled? That we’re being sealed in with our virus and our prime minister, along with all the sickness, the anti-science, the hatred and the idiocy that he, his party and its brand of politics represent?”

+ When the Right takes power, they use it until they lose it…In the past week, 28 new anti-abortion restrictions were signed into law in seven states, the highest in a single week in the past decade.

+ The hunt for the Bamboo Ballots….

John Brakey, an official helping oversee the audit of the 2020 Arizona election, says auditors are looking for bamboo fibers because of a baseless accusation that 40K ballots from Asia were smuggled here. #AzAuditPool

— Dennis Welch (@dennis_welch) May 5, 2021

+ In ruling in a FOIA case seeking the Office Legal Council’s memo regarding whether Trump could be indicted for obstructing the Mueller investigation, Judge Amy Berman Jackson said Bill Barr’s Justice Department lied to her, when it claimed the memo was “predecisional”. After the Justice Department reluctantly showed her the memo in camera, it became clear that the memo was actually strategic arguments for Barr kill any prosecution of Trump, which he had already decided to do. It was not predecisional as DOJ lawyers had claimed in a sworn affidavit. Unfortunately, under FOIA the only sanction for lying about the status of requested documents is the release of the documents, which of course is a powerful incentive to lie, obfuscate, hide and delay with impunity.

+ Why “Santorum” is still Latin for Asshole: “We came here and created a blank slate. We birthed a nation from nothing. I mean, there was nothing here. I mean, yes we have Native Americans but candidly there isn’t much Native American culture in American culture…”

+ Yes, Marjorie, America is “on top of the world” the way Derek Chauvin was on top of George Floyd…

Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene: "Right now, America is on top in the world. President Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, Nancy Pelosi, AOC, the rest of the Democrats are going to plunge America down to the bottom."

— The Hill (@thehill) May 1, 2021

+ How “socialism” came to America…

+ The return of Old Sparky? The South Carolina house of delegates just voted to legalize executions by firing squad and electric chair.

+ Meanwhile, DNA testing from a 1993 killing in Arkansas has revealed the genetic material in the case came from a male other than Ledell Lee, the inmate who despite his claims of innocent was executed for the murder in 2017.

+ The people who tend to fetishize US history the most obsessively know almost nothing about it…Case in point, Justin Lafferty, the Tennessee legislator who claimed that the Constitutional agreement under which three-fifths of a state’s enslaved people counted toward its population was adopted for “for the purpose of ending slavery.” In fact, it was meant to empower the slave-owning states.

+ The German philosopher Hans Jürgen Wendel, coeditor of the works of Mortiz Schlick, a leader of the so-called Vienna Circle of philosophers, has joined the neofacist Alternative for Germany Party (AfD),  prompting this denunciation from Wendel’s own co-editor, Friedrich Stadler and the philosopher Martin Kusch, head of the Vienna Circle Institute:

As has been widely reported in the German media, the current co-editor of the Moritz Schlick Gesamtausgabe, prof. em. Hans Jürgen Wendel, has joined the German far-right AfD party, and given interviews in support of the AfD. This action completely contradicts the life and work of Moritz Schlick and the philosophy of the Vienna Circle generally. The Institute Vienna Circle and the Vienna Circle Society are committed, in their objectives and principles, to the values of the historical Vienna Circle. Together with the Moritz Schlick Forschungsstelle at the University of Rostock and the Springer Verlag Wiesbaden, we are aiming to reorganize the editing of Schlick’s works.

Schlick, who was murdered in 1936, would have abhorred any association with fascists, neo-, proto- or crypto-.

+ Speaking of fascism, Tucker Carlson has a brother. His name is Buckley. Buckley Carlson. I’m not making this up.

+ So Bill and Melinda Gates are splitting  because, according to their joint press release, they “no longer believe we can grow together as a couple.” Grow? What does that mean for all the agricultural land Bill’s been snapping up?

+ Move over George Soros, there’s another European billionaire showering the Democrats with money…

+ The debate over Free Will goes lethal: I got a death threat, therefore I am…(Even though there was nothing in my power to keep me from getting a death threat and nothing my correspondent could do to keep from sending it.)

+ The Biden climate plan looks a lot like the Clinton, Bush, Obama, Trump nuclear plan

+ We all know that Greater Yellowstone is the largest block of unroaded landscape in the lower 48, right? This map, however, may require us to redefine our notion of what “large” “block” “unroaded” and “landscape” really means…

+ The average temperatures in US over last three decades reached record highs, prompting NOAA to issue new “normals“…

+ A new study from Rhodian concludes that for the first time China’s greenhouse gas emissions have exceeded the combined total from other “developed” nations. In sum, we’re fucked: “Based on our newly updated preliminary estimates for 2019, global emissions—including emissions of all six Kyoto gases, inclusive of land-use and forests and international bunkers—reached 52 gigatons of CO2-equivalent in 2019, a 11.4% increase over the past decade. China alone contributed over 27% of total global emissions, far exceeding the US—the second highest emitter—which contributed 11% of the global total. For the first time, India edged out the EU-27 for third place, coming in at 6.6% of global emissions.”

+ Alaska is losing its glaciers faster than any place in the world,  accounting for about a quarter of global mass loss, more than twice the share of other areas including the Greenland periphery and the Himalayas.

+ The Sierra Nevada snowpack is down to a mere 15% of average to date. The situation in the Southern Sierra is even more grim, where the snowpack is only 9% of the average. The cause: Far below-normal snowfall during the winter and record snowmelt rates in the Sierra over the last two months. The fire season is going to be really ugly in Cali again this summer.

+ A new study out of UC-Santa Barbara suggests that nearly 20% of the planet’s groundwater wells are facing imminent failure, a calamity that would deprive billions of people of fresh water.

+ A Beyond Meat-commissioned Life Cycle Assessment found that the Beyond Burger generates 90% less greenhouse gas emissions, requires 46% less energy, 99% less water, and 93% less land use than a burger made from U.S. beef.

+ Ecologist Suzanne Symard has documented the social life of trees, which learn, remember and communicate across vast tracts of forest.

+ A study of 11 county jails in the three biggest systems in the US — Los Angeles, New York City, and Chicago — conducted by the online site Grist found that people residing within or surrounding eight of these facilities are in the 90th percentile or higher for pollution-related cancer risk, respiratory hazards, and diesel pollution exposure. Nine of the jails are located closer to toxic wastewater than at least 97 percent of the country, and all 11 are in the 90th percentile or higher for proximity to hazardous waste.

Michael Redgrave, Giorgia Moll and Audie Murphy in The Quiet American (1958).

+ When first Humphrey Bogart, then Montgomery Cliff pulled out of the 1958 film of Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, the studio cast World War 2 icon Audie Murphy in the role of Pyle, this caused Lawrence Olivier to back out and the role of the sour, opium-smoking British journalist Fowler went to Michael Redgrave. (He’s good.) At the peak of the McCarthy era, this would have been a brave film to make. But Murphy refused to have his name attached to a movie that was in any way critical of US involvement in Indochina, so the script was rewritten by director Joseph Mankiewicz and CIA man Edward Lansdale, giving the still lingering impression that Lansdale was the model for Pyle. Greene repeatedly said this was nonsense and that the character of Pyle was largely based on an American economic advisor (assumed to be CIA) named Leo Hochstetter, who had  harangued Greene about the virtues of the so-called “Third Force” on a long car ride from Hue to Saigon. But the Lansdale myth took root, in part because Lansdale himself kept propagating it. So Greene’s anti-war novel was turned into a pro-intervention movie that paved the way for the US entry into Vietnam.

+ This wasn’t the first time Audie Murphy appeared in a Hollywood travesty of an anti-war novel. He played Henry Fleming in John Huston’s mangled version of Stephen Crane’s Red Badge of Courage, where MGM slashed Huston’s two-hour film down to a mere 69 minutes, excising the heart of film, and destroying the cut footage so that it could never be restored. (See Lilian Ross’ account in her book Picture, one of the best inside views of how the Hollywood studio system worked in the 1950s.) Murphy functioned as a one-man Hays Code for the censorship of anti-war movies.

+ In the Mankiewicz/Lansdale version, the role of Phuong, the young Vietnamese woman caught between Pyle, Fowler and the war for the independence of her country, is played incredulously by the Italian actress Giorgia Moll. I’ve long wondered whether the CIA didn’t codename the Phoenix Program–its covert (to Americans at least) torture and assassination operation, which resulted in the deaths of 30,000 Vietnamese–after Phuong, as an ironic rebuke to Greene and his bitter novel: the Phoenix (Phuong) in a land where “nothing is fabulous and nothing rises from its ashes…a [Phoenix] which is sometimes invisible, like peace.” Of course, that would mean crediting the CIA with a sense of irony, even a malicious one, which seems far-fetched.

+ Joseph Losey’s film Accident is basically Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? set in Oxford and filmed in lurid technicolor. The script was by Harold Pinter from a novel by the son of Oswald Mosley and Pinter has a very funniy cameo as a TV producer. Unlike his Nazi father and step-mother Diana Mitford, Nicholas Mosley was something of a Leftie, who wrote a scathing biography of the man whose marital union with Mitford was conducted in the house of Josef Goebbels with Hitler as the guest of honor. In fact, almost everyone associated with the film was a socialist: the director Joseph Losey, who had been blacklisted in Hollywood, Pinter, Dirk Bogarde and Stanley Baker. (As figures of beauty and objects of desire, the film also features a young Michael York, Jacqueline Sassard and Delphine Seyrig, previously seen being enigmatically chased around the chateau in Last Year at Marienbad) The amount of drinking in the film is truly olympian, making Burton and Taylor’s quaffing seem almost amateurish. And then after being fully lubricated they get behind the wheel with consequences that give rise to the title of the movie. “Is it true, all aristocrats really want to die?” Bogarde asks his blue-blooded student Michael York, after playing a surrealistic variation on rugby called “Tradition” during a soiree at a baronial estate, where the “ball” is a leather object fashioned to look like a giant turd. They won’t be making films like this any more for the simple reason that the principle characters are either professors or students in the philosophy department and as we know all of those extraneous precincts of learning are currently slated for extinction.

+ Losey was blacklisted and ultimately felt it as a kind of liberation from the shackles of the Hollywood system, a lesson he might have picked up in less politically fraught way from Jean Renoir, if he’d run into the French master in the late 40s. In 1941, Renoir fled fled Nazi-occupied France to lend his enormous talents and humane sensibilities to Hollywood. Renoir drank with Faulkner, whose novels he’d admired from afar, and used the table talk to help fashion The Southern. He watched with bewildered amusement, I think, as Fritz Lang botched two remakes of his own films, Human Desire (La Bete Humaine) and Scarlet Street (La Chienne), while he crafted in these constrained conditions one of his best movies, Diary of a Chamber Maid. Then he heard David O. Selznick, the most self-destructive producer in town, deprecate him by saying, “He’s good, but he’s not one of us,” which is about the time Jean must’ve said to himself, “Fuck this place” or maybe just “Baise ça!” and left for India, where, without a single Hollywood star on the bill, he made that lustrous film of Rumer Godden’s novel, The River. Renoir returned to France to shoot his late-career masterpieces, but, ironically, died in Los Angeles, a town which sells fantasies but never understood or appreciated one of the greatest magicians who ever turned tricks with light, shadows and sounds on its backlots.

+ So I watched Mr. Arkadin last weekend. Or maybe it was Confidential Report. I’m not sure. I’d seen a film by this name before, but not *this* film. This film was told in flashbacks. The film I saw 20 years ago was a straightforward, if confusing, narrative. One film was a naturalistic noir, the other a kind of cubist pastiche. Linking them is a masked ball where the guests are wearing giant plaster of Paris heads in the shape of figures from Goya’s nightmare period, a clue to where this is headed. There are apparently five more of these “films,” all of them with footage shot and scripted by Orson Welles. But once again Welles walked away before the footage reached the editing room, as he had done with Ambersons and would do again with Touch of Evil. So the film was cut and assembled by seven different editors, into seven very different films, for seven very different schemes of making money from it. The pattern was one of self-destruction or boredom. Or both. Welles called the fate of Mr. Arkadin his greatest tragedy. But the tragedy, if it was a tragedy, was self-inflicted. Or perhaps it was the gift that keeps giving new versions just when we think we’ve decoded the last one. There’s still, apparently, another film that opens with a close up of Milly’s nude body on the beach, a knife in its back. But that cut seems to have disappeared, like Arkadin himself from the plane that keeps flying across Spain without him. Oh, yes, there is also a novel, published in French shortly after the release of the Confidential Report version of the film. The author of the novel is Orson Welles. Welles claimed he didn’t write it. Who’s ready for F is for Fake?

+ Alfred Hitchcock apparently had one recurring dream for most of his adult life: that his penis was made of crystal and that his wife Alma kept trying to smash it with a hammer. Does this explain why so many of his male characters are on the run, often from women they believe (fantasize?) are out to get them? Too bad he didn’t ask Dali to render this dream for the famous sequence in Spellbound.

+ Alma wouldn’t have been the only woman in Alfred’s orbit who might’ve wanted to take an emasculatory whack at his little MacGuffin. There’s Tippi Hedren, who Hitchcock groped and mauled during the filming of The Birds and Marnie and the brilliant Madeleine Carroll, the original “Hitchcock Blonde,” who the director exposed himself in front of on the set of The Secret Agent, as a “motivational technique.”

+ Cockburn could have a gruff exterior at times but he was really a very generous person. He liked giving presents. (He also liked receiving them. And you were more likely to get if you gave.) Our house is filled with Cockburniana, from trinkets to a hand-painted photograph of James Joyce walking along the Quai Voltaire in Paris. On Sunday, the grandkid was eating with “‘Xander’s spoon,” a salt spoon he’d picked up in Ireland. This morning, stunned by the aftershocks from Pfizer jab number two yesterday, I was hazily flipping through one of my favorite Cockburn presents, an anthology of essays and reviews from Cahiers du Cinema, and came across their 1959 list of the greatest films ever made. The braintrust included Bazin, Truffaut, Rivette, Godard, Chabrol and Rohmer. No women as far as I can tell, Varda not yet having gained admittance to the boy’s club. They really were a perverse lot, as you can tell from this list…

1. Sunrise, Murnau, 1927
2. Rules of the Game, Renoir, 1939
3. Viaggio en Italia, Rossellini, 1956
4. Ivan the Terrible, Eisenstein, 1945/58
5. Birth of a Nation, Griffith, 1915
6. Mr. Arkadin, Welles, 1956
7. Ordet, Dreyer, 1955
8. Ugetsu Monogatari, Mizoguchi, 1953
9. L’Atalante, Vigo, 1934
10. The Wedding March, Von Stroheim, 1927
11. Under Capricorn (!), Hitchcock, 1949
12. Monsieur Verdoux, Chaplin, 1947

+ The first thing that struck me was, what no Frank Tashlin films? The other thing was that even if the list was constrained to pre-1959 films, how many of these would that same group of critics have on the list say 10 years later? The Renoir and Mizoguchi, certainly, and perhaps the Vigo? But given their professed love for American genre films, where’s Hawks, Ray, Ford, and Sturges?

+ So, it led me to think about my own list of the 12 best pre-1960 films, which is, of course, an impossible assignment. In my Pfizer hangover this is what I came up with…(It likely would have been different under the influence of Moderna.)

1. Rules of the Game, Renoir (1939)
2. Citizen Kane, Welles (1941)
3. Tokyo Story, Ozu (1953)
4. Notorious, Hitchcock (1946)
5. Smiles of a Summer Night, Bergman (1955)
6. Red River, Hawks (1948)
7. Sullivan’s Travels, Sturges (1941)
8. Sansho the Bailiff, Mizoguchi (1954)
9. Some Like It Hot, Wilder (1959)
10. A Man Escaped, Bresson (1956)
11. Rome: Open City, Rossellini (1945)
12. The Third Man, Reed (1949)

+ Here’s a belated May Day anecdote: Alex’s cockatiel, Percy, used to whistle the Internationale, often during radio interviews, and he once broke into a very robust version during an interview with Sputnik. Percy’s trilling irritated the host, who demanded that Alex silence the bird, who was one of Alex’s closet companions on Earth at the time. Bad move, Mr. Radio Host. Alex erupted into rant saying the interviewer’s failure to recognize the Internationale and hum along was all the evidence you needed that Putin’s Russia had fully embraced neoliberalism. The interview never aired because Alex went what we used to call the “full-Cockburn” on the poor guy, who, of course, fully deserved the avalanche of invective he was buried in.

+ Geoffrey Keezer: “I miss playing with UK musicians, not least because they use phrases like ‘penultimate semiquaver’.”

+ On trying to play drums for Rickie Lee Jones

+ In an despicable effort to smear him for his homosexuality, Tennessee Republicans have probably helped to dramatically boost record sales for country musician TJ Osborne

+ I don’t know what’s more disturbing: that a million people watched this before I did or that it shows David Sanborn playing sax with Sonic Youth on a cover of The Stooges’ “I Wanna be Your Dog”…

Booked Up
What I’m reading this week…

Jackpot: How the Super Rich Really Live
Michael Mechanic
(Simon and Schuster)

The Twelve Lives of Alfred Hitchcock: an Anatomy of the Master of Suspense
Edward White
(WW Norton)

Silicon Values: The Future of Free Speech Under Surveillance Capitalism
Jillian C. York

Sound Grammar
What I’m listening to this week…

Black to the Future
Sons of Kemet

Vijay Iyer, Linda May Han Oh and Tyshawn Sorey

Second Line
Dawn Richard

He Had Read a Lot of Books

“I was a correspondent. I thought in headlines. ‘American official murdered in Saigon.’ Working on a newspaper one does not learn the way to break bad news, and even now I had to think of my paper and to ask her, ‘Do you mind stopping at the cable office?’ I left her in the street and sent my wire and came back to her. It was only a gesture: I knew too well that the French correspondents would already be informed, or if Vidot had played fair (which was possible), then the censors would hold my telegram till the French had filed theirs. My papers would get the news first under a Paris date-line.  Not that Pyle was very important. It wouldn’t have done to cable the details of his true career, that before he died he had been responsible for at least fifty deaths, for it would have damaged Anglo-American relations, the Minister would have been upset. The minister had great respect for Pyle–Pyle had taken a good degree in–well, one of those subjects Americans can take degrees in: perhaps public relations or theatrecraft, perhaps even Far Eastern studies. (He had read a lot of books.)” (Graham Greene, The Quiet American)

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Death by Neoliberalism

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

One of the persistent questions from history is how once thriving peoples and nations decline? This decline can come in the form of high drama— think Germany in the 1930s, or steady social decline that reaches a point where it becomes irreversible. Part of an explanation is that the terms ‘peoples’ and ‘nations’ suggest singularities that internal divisions render irrelevant. Many of the nations created when the Allies divided the world after WWII were built to fail. Current political rancor in the U.S. is largely attributable to five decades of the public realm being handed over to ‘capital’ through neoliberalism

This isn’t a line of reasoning that has a grip on the public imagination at present. The press is busy proclaiming upheavals and social clarity that haven’t yet come to pass. Theories from both the political right and left have it that moral depravity— social injustices from one side, and the economic dependencies created through social-welfare policies on the other, are motivating social decline. That these ideas have long histories in the U.S., both through their facts and as points of political contestation, begs the question of timing: why now? That both critiques emerge from neoliberal premises illustrates its totalizing character.

This latter point will seem counterintuitive to readers on what is now called the ‘cultural’ left, which apparently constitutes much of the American left. How can social justice concerns emerge from the logic of the political right? The answer comes through proposed solutions. Trying to solve social problems through changing individual behavior has been the purview of the patrician right for a century or more. Doing so is a base conceit of neoliberalism. It is hardly incidental that the dominant neoliberal institutions all claim to support racial justice while doing what is in their power to head off redistributive policies.

Picture: J.P. Morgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon takes a knee, Colin Kaepernick style, in front of a bank vault to demonstrate his political affiliation with the cultural left in the U.S. J.P. Morgan’s Payday Lending operations are part of the ‘democratization of capital’ intended to liberate the poor via high interest loans. Source: source photo from New York Post.

To this affect, the back-and-forth over a CIA recruitment ad that uses woke buzzwords largely misses the point. The CIA isn’t acting to change its institutional mandate. It is using what is alleged to be liberatory language to create the appearance that its institutional mandate is somehow liberatory. Jamie Dimon ‘taking a knee’ in front of a bank vault, which I address in detail below, isn’t tied to changes in J.P. Morgan Chase’s institutional mandate or business practices. Mr. Dimon is shifting the blame for so-called institutional racism to people who overwhelmingly lack the capacity to act on their beliefs, whatever they might be.

The point here isn’t a search for some abstract ideological purity. The question, again, is how did the U.S. get so far gone? Furthermore, what do the relevant ‘we’ do about it? For instance, two differing ideological interpretations of the shifting political allegiances of suburban Republicans are 1) suburban Republicans are shifting left or 2) cultural liberalism is providing cover for right-wing economics. The motive for the question is that a similar shift took place in the U.S. in the mid-1970s. The sensibility being promoted then was similar to today, cultural liberalism combined with the economics of the John Birch Society. In fact, this about dates the launch of neoliberalism.

This thesis likely reads as if I haven’t seen a newspaper in the last six months. In the ghettoized environs of the establishment press, the U.S. is in the midst of the second coming of FDR, with both positive and negative takes on the move. In fact, all of the dominant neoliberal institutions are as fat, flush, and ready to take on challenges from without, as they have ever been. What is being undertaken— that which actually gets turned into legislation, is a bridge, not a change of course. With apologies, this looks very much like 1976 or thereabouts, without the art, the outstanding jazz, the Punk Rock, and the sense of humor.

Coming out of WWII, the programs of the New Deal and more precisely, the power of organized labor, served to balance political power in the U.S. Neoliberalism was a counter-revolution that shifted economic power, and with it, political power, all to the side of capital. From 1950 to about 1980, Democrats served power through serving organized labor. As the power of organized labor was diminished, Democrats joined Republicans on the side of capital. At present, the political contest in the U.S. is over who can better serve capital.

By the 1990s, two miraculous conversions occurred. The first was a mass migration of former Marxists over to the side of neoliberalism. The second was a coalescing of the then emerging professional class around neoliberal logic. In both cases, the individualist premises of American liberalism facilitated the re-emergence of a unified class logic. While neoliberal economic reorganization created the material basis for clear class distinctions, it also served to hide the unity of this emerging class logic behind a stilted cultural liberalism.

To see this, consider the picture above of Jamie Dimon using the symbology of racial justice in front of a bank vault. Mr. Dimon heads one of the largest banks in the world. His politics are expressed through the institutional role that J.P. Morgan Chase plays in global affairs. The idea that Mr. Dimon can believe one thing, say in ‘racial justice,’ while targeting the (disproportionately PoC) poor through the bank’s Payday Lending operations, points to a package of suspect logic.

In the first, Mr. Dimon’s social power as head of a major neoliberal institution is erased through the flattening of ‘beliefs.’ Through beliefs, what Mr. Dimon believes and what an unemployed former factory worker in the American Midwest believes are equilibrated. The asymmetrical capacity to act on these beliefs is erased through the erasure of power. Furthermore, what of compound, and / or contradictory beliefs. Mr. Dimon almost certainly believes that J.P. Morgan Chase should earn a profit. Is predatory lending racist because PoC are disproportionately poor, or anti-racist because race isn’t a consideration in the predatory lending process?

Mr. Dimon presumably spends his days acting on behalf of ‘his’ bank, but the institutional mandates that motivate the bank’s actions and business practices are distinct from Mr. Dimon’s personal beliefs. This isn’t to merely claim that they are different. It means that institutions have mandates that are wholly unrelated to personal beliefs. But actual human beings create these mandates. And actual human beings act on them. In this sense, the mandates are codified power, instructions on how to behave that are enforced through economic rewards and sanctions.

This form of economic organization has produced a social order where people, in particular the PMC, spend their days fulfilling institutional mandates that are wholly unrelated to their ‘personal beliefs’ as they are conceived in liberal theory. Should an anti-racist, in terms of ‘personal beliefs,’ be appointed to head J.P. Morgan Chase’s Payday Lending operations, the profit motive would dictate that they disproportionately target PoC because that is where the profits are made. Conversely, were they to target the rich, the Payday Lending unit would go out of business because the rich have easy access to low cost credit. The business of Payday Lending is targeting the economically vulnerable.

In this circumstance, which is broadly analogous to most capitalist practice, the PMC spends its days carefully separating what it does for a living from what it ‘believes.’ The anti-racist head of a major Wall Street bank spends his or her days engaging in ‘institutional racism.’ s/he can join a Black Lives Matter protest, or ‘take a knee,’ with a clean conscience because s/he isn’t personally racist. From a perspective of power, the Payday Lending model is of large, powerful, institutions using asymmetrical power to prey upon the economically vulnerable. Conversely, if there is no large, economically vulnerable population, there is no Payday Lending industry.

This latter point is important. So-called subprime lending operations tend to be far more profitable than lending to ‘prime’ borrowers. This means that a bank like J.P. Morgan Chase benefits when the breadth of economic vulnerability in ‘the economy’ increases. While there are multiple explanations for the explosion in bank profits in recent decades, seeing what used to be called the Middle Class reduced to ‘subprime’ status was an unqualified boon to retail lenders, slumlords, liquor stores, pawn shops and private security firms. And through financialization, retailers have seem profits rise through their finance subsidiaries. Taken together, there is a powerful constituency for immiseration.

The patronizing, and ultimately racist, nature of the liberal conception of racism is rendered visible through Payday Lending. Once economic power is removed from consideration, all capitalist exchange is freely undertaken. The case from 2008 where Blacks were charged predatory interest rates on home mortgages while Whites with similar credit ratings weren’t, faces the challenge that everyone engaged in these transactions did so freely. The interest rate paid wasn’t determined by the mortgage brokers. It was determined in negotiation with the borrowers. The ‘customers’ had the choice of either negotiating the interest rate offered lower, searching for a lower interest rate elsewhere, or forgo the transaction entirely. I guarantee that this is how the bankers involved saw it.

This conceit of free choice is central to capitalist economics, liberal social theory, and racist dogma. ‘Free’ here means uncoerced. All exchange is considered to be freely undertaken because once coercive power enters, the difference between freedom and authoritarianism quickly disappears. In the mortgage lending case, the mortgage brokers could have pledged allegiance to Adolf Hitler and come directly from a cross burning to negotiate the mortgage lending rates, and this wouldn’t have demonstrated racist intent. As long as the borrowers had the ability to walk away, the price they paid was / is on them.

Through the conceit of free exchange, the charge of ‘institutional racism’ devolves to either the claim that certain classes of people are incapable of competently engaging in market transactions, or that racism produces an asymmetry in social power that impacts some groups more than others. Only the first ‘explanation’ can be specific to race. Multiple factors produce asymmetries is social power, including prior asymmetries in social power. These asymmetries explain ‘risk’ pricing. Tellingly, it is illegal to include ‘intersectional’ categories in lending decisions. However, these are easy enough to deduce through economic metrics like income, home ownership, purchasing patterns, etc.

The charge of ‘systemic racism’ begs the question of which system? In terms of accountability, J.P. Morgan Chase and Payday Lenders aren’t responsible for the banking system. And the banking system isn’t responsible for capitalist social relations. Jamie Dimon and the major thinkers on Twitter understand the public relations value of spouting vague platitudes about social justice to which no one— in particular, them, can be held to account. However, to the extent that ‘systemic racism’ can be tied to asymmetrical social power, and asymmetrical social power can be tied to its basis in asymmetrical economic power, the tables can be turned.

Through the (descriptively) liberal frame of voluntary exchange, systemic racism is either incoherent— which system?, or racist— some classes of people have special needs when it comes to navigating the world. When Jamie Dimon took a knee, was he implying that the ‘system’ that he plays a key role in needs to be radically reorganized? Or was he implying that certain classes of the bank’s customers lack the social competence to be held responsible for their economic decisions? When it comes to ‘internal’ considerations, the same conceit of voluntary exchange was given a diversity overlay.

In earlier epochs, the ‘special needs’ critique was used to substantially end so-called quotas. In an effort to get around charges of racial discrimination, large employers began to use class markers like education to claim that hiring decisions were based on qualifications, not race, gender, etc. However, as class markers, qualifications come far more easily to those of the right class than to others. Racial quotas occasionally led to those with fewer ‘qualifications’ being hired or promoted over those with more, leading to the charge that racial quota hires were inferior. Logically speaking, corporations were never called upon to demonstrate that the qualifications they deemed important had bearing on job performance.

Not addressed, or even considered publicly, is that if there were enough jobs for those who want to work, none of this would be necessary. Labor market competition, and even the base fact of a market for labor, are evidence of the failure of capitalism to provide enough employment to fill the social need. Racial bias in hiring and racial quotas to right the wrong both result in capable workers being denied jobs that they can do. ‘Qualifications’ that are stealth class markers do the same. Implied is that capable workers without the ‘qualifications’ are being denied jobs that they are capable of doing.

Graph: The premise of full employment needed to assume away economic power, and with it economic vulnerability, hasn’t held for more than a few months in modern history. The Labor Participation Rate is the more accurate measure of labor market conditions than the unemployment rate. It is currently at the level it was at when Donald Trump was elected in 2016. Whatever your beliefs regarding the reasons behind the election of Mr. Trump, the failure to create full employment will leave the economic explanation open. Source St. Louis Federal Reserve.

The promise of neoliberalism was that neoliberal reforms would produce full employment. Had the quantity of meaningful and remunerative jobs grown in excess of the working population, all boats might have been lifted. The actual outcome is that tremendous wealth has been generated since 1980. But much of it is illusory— wealth transfers rather creation. And the wealth that was created has been concentrated to an extent that would make the Ancien Regime envious. The result is a lot of people competing for the few jobs that pay, and a majority of workers who are wildly underpaid relative to their economic contribution.

In other words, the implied point of neoliberalism was to concentrate and stratify economic power. That concentrated political and economic power is invisible in liberal social theory makes it the preferred ideology of oligarchs. ‘Merit’ is the claim that in a perfectly ordered universe, the just fruits of labor land where they belong. Missing from this theory is what happens when the inevitable happens, and the universe isn’t perfectly ordered. In fact, the conditions of this perfect ordering are the realm of academic economists. Merit ties to Social Darwinism and other regressive theories of the political right through the conceit that social welfare is to take from those who merit it to give it to those who don’t.

Of note is that ‘qualifications’ are the corporate quantum of merit. That college-educated Blacks possess this quantum of merit, but aren’t benefiting from it in measurable ways, is interpreted to indicate mal-intent— racism. Assume for the moment that this is true and replace the people who would be hired in a racist hiring system with college educated Blacks. Because both groups possess qualifications, hiring qualified Blacks would mean firing, or not hiring, qualified Whites. Were diversity to be achieved, the problem of a dearth of good jobs would still exist. Conversely, were there plentiful good jobs, diversity would be irrelevant.

And more to the point, through the extreme economic stratification that neoliberalism has produced, economic vulnerability, as defined by both relative economic power and resources, now defines Western economic relations. With the experience of differentiated mortgage interest rates outlined above, this vulnerability becomes the basis for corporate profits. Jamie Dimon might take a knee against racism, but he isn’t going to negotiate mortgage interest rates that are lower than what people are willing to pay.

In the circumstance where there are more qualified workers than jobs, employers hire fewer workers than social necessity dictates, and they hire workers with more qualifications than they are willing to pay for. Lest this not be evident, this is the flip side of mortgage pricing by economic vulnerability. When there are more workers than jobs, it is logically impossible to infer that those without jobs don’t merit jobs— without jobs there is no test of merit. To the extent that qualifications quantify merit, over-qualified jobholders aren’t being compensated based on ‘merit.’ The ideological solution to this is through tautology (circular logic).

The way that the tautology of economic power = merit works is, again, shared between the cultural left and the neoliberal right. The premise that all exchange is voluntarily undertaken defines it. This implies that all labor exchanged for wages is voluntarily undertaken, in turn meaning that the wage equals the value of the labor provided. As long as this relationship holds— and there are no conditions short of putting a gun to someone’s head that would render it inoperable, there is no coercive power in the relationship. Jamie Dimon taking a knee is in response to the racists standing over there in the corner, not to the fact that Blacks were charged predatory interest rates because of their relative social vulnerability.

Earlier in this piece I mentioned the mid-1970s as analog to current conditions. The difference is that much of the country has been through four plus decades of neoliberal ‘reforms’ since then. The idea on the Left that liberals see this as a problem, or are even cognizant of it, is misplaced. This is partly a function of the invisibility of power in the liberal worldview. It is partly a function of highly sectioned-off economic experience. And it is partly a function of positive and negative propaganda. This means lies in the service of power plus the disappearing of relevant information to prevent alternative (from the official line) information and ideas from being brought forward. If you want to know how peoples and nations decline, you’re living it.


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The “Kill a Leftist” Law

Photograph Source: Anthony Crider – CC BY 2.0

So now it’ll be legal in some Neolithic U.S. states to run over leftists with your car. What’ll come next? Legalizing pushing people out of airplanes at 35,000 feet? Running over swimmers with boats? Unleashing your rabid dog on people whose political persuasions offend you? There are so many possibilities! It’s already legal for cops to shoot leftists. They did so with no repercussions in Oregon, after Trump took to the airwaves to tell them to hurry up and “do what has to be done” to Michael Reinoehl, suspected of shooting a fascist. And cops murder people in traffic stops all the time. But why just police? Doesn’t any idiot with a gun have the right to “stand his ground?” Why can’t fascists like the Proud Boys shoot anybody they don’t like? After all, if radical right-wing thugs don’t like somebody, GOP governors can’t be far behind, nodding in agreement. This is the new criteria in some U.S. states for how we excuse homicide – red-blooded Amuricans don’t like these people, so yeah, it’s cool to drive smack into them.

According to the Des Moines Register, a new law in Iowa would “grant civil immunity to drivers of vehicles who injure someone who is blocking traffic while engaging in disorderly conduct or participating in a protest, demonstration, riot or unlawful assembly without a permit.” The Washington Post reports that Florida governor Ron “Who Needs Masks?” DeSantis signed a similar law. “That legislation is already a target of a federal civil rights lawsuit,” the Post reports. Oklahoma also passed such a measure.

So these states want to enshrine in our jurisprudence the right to run over protestors. Will that encourage more such homicidal behavior? The Post doesn’t think such incitement is needed, noting USA Today’s report of “at least 104 incidents of people driving vehicles into protests from May 27 through September 5.” Black Lives Matter was the target of choice. And police do it too – eight times last year. Really, we should just rewrite the first amendment to mandate that freedom of assembly only applies to certain people. If you’re not in that select group of patriotic Amuricans, you’re fair game for someone who uses their vehicle as a murder weapon.

Overall 34 states are currently weighing anti-protest bills. All introduced by Republicans, the Hill reports. Over 80 such bills so far. Though only a few legalize killing protestors with cars, the general drift is clear: these scruffy people don’t have the right to protest, according to the GOP. If they want to exercise their first amendment rights they should move somewhere else; Russia or China, I guess.

And don’t forget Montana! There, GOP governor Greg “Punch a Journalist” Gianforte will soon sign a law “that would criminalize protesting fossil fuel infrastructure,” reports Brian Kahn of earther. “It would foist up to $150,000 in fines and 30 years in prison on individuals convicted of protest-related ‘vandalism’ and $1.5 million in costs on any organization charged as ‘conspirators.’” Montana is locked and loaded (and so, probably, is its wolf-slaughtering governor): Tree huggers beware! You better think twice about exercising your right to assembly up in big sky country. And indigenous people on reservations should adjust to hydrocarbons in their drinking water, I suppose.

The inescapable conclusion here is that large parts of the bill of rights are very unpopular with much of the nation. Indeed, in MAGA land, God help us, outside of the second amendment, I’m sure most people would be just as happy without the bill of rights, since the exercise of those rights so offends them. Here the imbecile hordes are in sync with law enforcement, which, at its pinnacle, namely the CIA, NSA and FBI, tired of the fourth amendment years ago. Our police state hasn’t just chipped away at the right to freedom from unreasonable search and seizure – it sledge-hammered that amendment, with the aid, of course, of congress and several presidents.

Having devoured fourth amendment protections, so that now government snoops can read our emails, text messages and monitor our phone calls, America moves on to the next course, that is, the first amendment. Once a critical mass of states legalizes murdering protestors with a car, things will doubtless move to the federal stage, where some intellectual heavyweight like Lauren Boebert, Mo Brooks, Louie Gohmert, Marjorie Taylor Green or Matt Gaetz will introduce a “Crash and Carry for Freedom” bill, a sort of combination of “Plow Into ‘Em, Then Stand Your Ground.”

“Crash and Carry for Freedom” could allow those so offended by unkempt leftwing protestors that they drove their SUVs over them, to then exit their vehicle and finish the job with their semi-automatic weapons. Law suits would undoubtedly follow, but hey, when they wend their way up to THIS supreme court, I’m sure, the “Crash and Carry for Freedom” bill will be upheld by the Cro-Magnon majority. Even though, according to a recent SCOTUS ukase, Black youth offenders may not deserve second chance, I’m still sure the high court’ll carve out an exception for Fine People, like white Republican murderers.

The goal for our MAGA morons is to whittle that nettlesome bill of rights down to one amendment, the second, because freedom clearly means being able to shoot people. Then there are the other oft-maligned freedoms that Trump so terrifyingly brought to our attention – the freedom to pollute the atmosphere with carbon, or indeed any toxic substance of choice, to poison drinking water with heavy metals, fracked methane and PFAS, to persecute migrants at the border, to thumb your nose at antitrust laws if you’re a big enough corporation, to assassinate foreign government officials as they step out of planes onto the tarmac, to lie boldly that you didn’t lose an election and to rally the entire GOP behind this gargantuan fib, to incite your followers to overrun the capitol and disrupt the certification of an election. These freedoms, so dear to those in the eclectic universe of bigwig corporate lunatics and gun-toting hoi polloi, recently yclept Trump-land, clearly should be codified in a NEW bill of rights; and while it’s hard to decide which matters most, undoubtedly the right to drive over a protestor should be at the top of the list.

Let’s face it: as it now stands, the bill of rights has lost its shine, and so have amendments that allow things like birthright citizenship. Freedom of assembly, prohibitions on search and seizure, freedom from excessive bail and from cruel and unusual punishments – these freedoms only appeal to left-wingers. No self-respecting Amurican wants any of that. In fact, any sincere right-winger must question whether they are freedoms at all, or just liberal mollycoddling of unpatriotic radical losers. Even the second amendment is deficient. It doesn’t spell out the right to own and publicly carry an assault weapon! What were the founders thinking?

So clearly, it’s time to revise the list of amendments, and what better way than to start off, bang! with the right to drive your car over protestors? Iowa, Florida and Oklahoma blaze the trail, as they have on so many matters (think Florida and Stand Your Ground, as well as its Let Covid Rip governor), to a brave new world where you can commit homicide with your car before rolling into the drive-thru to purchase your burger. Now that’s the land of the free!

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Does Big PhRma Know No Shame? Profiteering While People Die by the Hundreds of Thousands

Photograph Source: Felton Davis – CC BY 2.0

The global COVID-19 pandemic is far from over, as the current human catastrophe in India reminds us, a nation of 1.3 billion people where just 2 percent of the population has been fully vaccinated against COVID and more than 400,000 new cases a day are being reported with some 3,000 deaths. Now enter Moderna, with its approved COVID-19 vaccine, pledging to supply the World Health Organization (WHO) with 34 million doses of its vaccine in the fourth quarter of 2021 at its “lowest tiered price.”

As Guardian columnist Nesrine Malik has recently observed about India’s large population “trapped and condemned” to live with COVID, “The world needs a global logistical exercise, a sort of Marshall plan that would provide financial support, expert manpower, and medical technology …By the time the real numbers of deaths and infections become clear, it will be far too late for many people.” 1

The United States has had a reputation since World War II of stepping forward to help under these kinds of circumstances, but where are we now? We’re embroiled in yet another battle by Big PhRMA over patent rights to its vaccines. This is a far cry from the early 1950s, when the first effective vaccine for polio was developed here in the U. S. by Dr. Jonas Salk, with some support from the March of Dimes. When released to the public in 1955, he refused to patent his invention. Questioned by Edward R. Murrow about who would own the patent, he replied: “The American people, I guess. Could you patent the sun?” 2

Less known about Jonas Salk is that he spent much of the last decades of his life developing an evolutionary philosophy that could serve as the basis for resolving some of the fundamental problems of humankind. This work has carried on through the 2018 book, A New Reality: Human Evolution for a Sustainable Future, written with his son Jonathan, a psychiatrist at UCLA School of Medicine. Here is one relevant quote from that book that applies to this battle today:

Profit, wealth, and unremitting growth often proceeded with little  regard to the well-being of individual human beings or the conservation of natural resources. Our task in the future will be to reconcile human value with material value in a way that supports the overall quality of life for all human beings. 3

Big PhRMA has long claimed that its prices are needed to cover the costs of research and development, but it greatly exaggerates its own costs. This claim does not pass scrutiny—the federal government through the National Institutes of Health bear most of the costs, while much of industry’s costs are more marketing than rigorous research. Moreover, drug companies often tend to avoid developing needed vaccines, as less lucrative public health needs, to the point that we have had shortages for such essential products as immune globulin and the vaccine for shingles. As Zain Rizvi, law and policy research in Public Citizen’s Access to Medicines program, has said:

The coronavirus outbreak should be a wake-up call. We cannot depend on monopolies to deliver the medicines we need. 4

What did the Trump administration do on this front? It rejected help from the World Health Organization (WHO) towards needed testing kits and development of a COVID vaccine, then paying nothing to it for a global effort to develop and deploy COVID vaccines. U. S. vaccine companies were wary of handing over their trade secrets to any WHO-designated manufacturer. Several months later, Trump declared that the U. S would not participate in a global effort to develop, manufacture, and equitably distribute a coronavirus vaccine.

Corporate interests were thriving under Trump’s hands-off approach even as Operation Warp Speed was independently proceeding ahead, with large federal subsidies, to build a vaccine market with no price controls. Unsurprisingly, serious financial conflicts of interest soon came to light involving $10 million in stock options for the former PhRMA executive appointed to lead Operation Warp Speed. 5 As profiteering continues by vaccine manufacturers that have received large amounts of federal funding, we learn that Pfizer expects global sales of its COVID-19 vaccine to reach $26 billion in 2021, which would make it the biggest-selling pharmaceutical product in the world. 6

Now, under the Biden administration, the U. S. is fortunately returning to a participative and leadership role by rejoining the WHO. However, the supplies of COVID-19 vaccines are way below international needs at this time as the situation worsens due to trade restrictions. Just four countries produce both the key vaccine ingredients as well as any type of final vaccine to the entire world. Recently a group of former heads of government, including former U.K. Prime Minister Gordon Brown, urged the U. S. and others to agree to a temporary suspension of COVID-19 vaccine patents and to pressure drug makers to share technology and know-how in order to turbocharge global manufacturing of the vaccines. To date, the U. S. has opposed such a suspension. 7

Despite the critical shortage and need, vaccine nationalism, together with an aggressive stance of some countries, stand in the way of timely and equitable distribution of essential vaccines. The main reason for countries not sharing their secrets and expertise is because these countries don’t want to give up their monopolies. A program launched by the WHO last spring, the COVID-19 Technology Access Pool (C-TAP), to train dozens of drug manufacturers in Latin America, Asia and Africa to increase worldwide production of vaccines once they came on the market, has gone nowhere since then.

The Biden administration is at least open to considering a temporary suspension of COVID-19 vaccine patent rights to meet this global crisis. It will participate in forthcoming trade talks with the World Trade Organization on ways to distribute these vaccines more widely around the world. The world is watching to see if the U. S. can address this public health crisis in keeping with its past history.


1. Conley, J. Moderna offer of vaccines for a global south ‘not a substitute for patent justice,’ advocates say. Common Dreams, May 3, 2021.

2. Smith, J. Patenting the Sun: Polio and the Salk vaccine. New York. William Morrow, 1990, p. 159.

3. Salk, J, Salk, J. A New Reality: Human Evolution for a Sustainable Future. Stratford, CT. City Point Press, 2018, p. 174.

4. Feng, R. A new epidemic tests the limits of PhRMA’s monopoly model. Public Citizen News, March/April 2020, p. 4.

5. Corcoran, A. COVID-19 vaccine program has $10 million in stock options for a company getting federal funding. Business Insider, May 16, 2020.

6. Rowland, C. Pfizer coronavirus vaccine revenue is projected to hit $26 billion in 2021 with production surge. The Washington Post, May 4, 2021.

7. Douglas, J, Kim, K. Vaccine supply chain fuels world output. Wall Street Journal, May 1-2, 2021: A 6.


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Would Anyone Care to Defend American Radicals?

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

I am told that a leading senior and radical American historian quipped last year that a second Trump administration might have given the American Left a chance to gather together – under armed guard “in Yankee Stadium.”

A bit of excessively paranoid dark humor? Maybe. But maybe not entirely. Consider. As President of the United States, Donald Trump:

+ Made repeated fascist-style conflations of corporate and moderate Democrats with the “radical” and “socialist Left.” Trump (and his allies) did this continuously through the summer and fall of 2020, routinely calling the Democrats “the radical left Democrats” and “the socialist Democrats,” preposterously claiming that Kamala Harris was a “communist,” and absurdly calling Wall Street ally Joe Biden “a trojan horse of socialism.”

+ Tried to blame the fascistic white-supremacist atrocities in Charlottesville on something he called “the Alt-Left,” absurdly suggesting moral and practical equivalence between violent white supremacists and fascists who came to defend Confederate (secessionist slave power) statues and the peaceful liberal and progressive civil rights counter-protesters who counter-marched in the name of Black Lives and social justice.

+ Said this during a September 2020 campaign rally in Ohio: “The choice in November is going to be very simple. There’s never been a time when there’s been such a difference. One is probably communism. I don’t know. They keep saying socialism. I think they’ve gone over that one. That one’s passed already.”

+ Repeatedly called Black Lives Matter and anti-racist demonstrators “radicals,” “Marxists,” and “anarchists.”

+ Repeatedly spoke and tweeted in menacing terms about “radical Left ANITIFA,” as if a large and radical Left organization by that name existed and posed a dire threat to American society.

+ Held a July 4th, 2020 celebration event displaying openly fascist Third Reich aesthetics at Mount Rushmore in South Dakota, where he claimed that a “left-wing fascist mob” was trying to end “America” by “erasing the nation’s history and indoctrinating its children.”

+ Gave a July 4th speech in Washington DC featuring high-tech military displays and patriotic pomp. Trump proclaimed that “We are now in the process of defeating the radical left, the Marxists, the anarchists, the agitators, the looters, and people who, in many instances, have absolutely no clue what they are doing.”

+ Threatened the tax-exempt status of American colleges and universities, bizarrely claiming that “Too many universities and school systems are about Radical Left Indoctrination.”

+ Told a white Texas audience in the summer of 2020 that “the radical Left” wanted to “abolish the suburbs” and “incite riots.”

+Called the remarkable anti-racist George Floyd Rebellion a “radical Left” attempt to “destroy our country” and described mass protest of racist police violence as “left-wing rioting and mayhem” that was “the direct result of decades of left-wing indoctrination in our schools” that had “gone on far too long,”

+Issued an under-reported June 26th, 2020 “Executive Order on Protecting American Monuments, Memorials and Statues and Combating Recent Criminal Violence” that sought to justify the repression of civil rights and social protesters by falsely claiming that “innocent citizens” were under attack from “arsonists and left-wing extremists” who “have led riots in the streets, burned police vehicles, killed and assaulted government officers as well as business owners defending their property.” Trump’s Order claimed that the George Floyd uprising “paints the United States of America as fundamentally unjust,” “shamelessly attack[s] the legitimacy of our institutions,” and challenges “the fundamental truth that America is good, her people are virtuous, and that justice prevails in this country to a far greater extent than anywhere else in the world.” In an especially ominous passage, Trump targeted “Marxism” in particular, saying that: “Many of the rioters, arsonists, and left-wing extremists who have carried out and supported these acts have explicitly identified themselves with ideologies—such as Marxism—that call for the destruction of the United States’ system of government.”

+Absurdly called the centrist magazine The Atlantic “radical left.”

+ Justified the provocative, constitutionally dubious deployment of federal paramilitaries to Portland by claiming absurdly that Portland’s “radical Left” mayor was “going to lose Portland” to radical Marxists and anarchists.

I could go on.

It wasn’t just Trump. His Christian white nationalist Attorney General Bill Barr went on the television show of the frothing FOX News fascist Mark Levin to call Black Lives Matter “Bolshevik” last summer. And GOP politicos across the country went and continue to go fully neo-McCarthyite in their insane denunciation of mostly centrist and corporate Democrats as “socialist” and “radical Left.” (How many times did the neofascist former Georgia senator Kelly Loughlin called the progressive Reverend Warnock “radical left” and “socialist” before he beat her in a special election last January?)

Absurdly calling the Democrats “radical Left” and “socialist” is a staple on FOX, OAN, Newsmax, right-wing talk radio, and in Republican campaign literature and agitation. It hardly causes a single raised eyebrow to hear the centrist corporate and imperialist ruling class president Joe Biden described as an agent of “socialism” by politicos and talking heads on the right.

All of which raises an interesting question to this writer and historian, for whom open identification as an anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist socialist has long been a career-killer: has anybody of any prominence in American public life stood up to say a kind, decent, and honest human word in defense of the right of American human beings to actually be left radicals, Marxists, anarchists, socialists, and communists and/or about the remarkable contribution such human beings have made in American history and society?

I haven’t seen or heard any such defense or acknowledgement. Biden last year boasted of how he “beat the socialist” – that is, how he defeated the vaguely social-democratish Bernie Sanders (with some unacknowledged help from the corporate political and media establishment) in the Democratic primaries. Democrats habitually shrug off and deny charges of socialism as if socialism is a virulent and evil disease instead of what it really is: an existential necessity if humanity is going to have any chance at a decent future. Mr. “socialist” Sanders himself eschews radicalism, denying that there is anything radical about his calls for Single Payer national health insurance and a Green New Deal. “We are not calling for radical change!” But what on Earth would be wrong with doing that?

When’s the last time you heard Bernie quote Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on how “the real issue to be faced” beyond superficial matters is “the radical reconstruction of society itself”? I’ve never heard him or Alexandria Ocasio Cortez quote King or Albert Einstein or Hellen Keller or WEB DuBois or John Dewey on the need for radical societal overhaul.

Does anybody in the mainstream political culture care to acknowledge and remind Americans about the incredible damage that was inflicted on American life and democracy (and many thousands of individuals, including my liberal and distinctly non-radical grandfather) by McCarthyism? Would anybody like to acknowledge the critical role that real actual red-blooded American radicals have played in expanding popular power and fighting for democracy and social justice in movements against chattel slavery, wage slavery, racial oppression, sexism, imperialism, fascism, nativism, industrial oppression, corporate monopoly, financial domination, educational stultification, ignorance, thought control, propaganda, and ecocide?

Would anyone in public life like to publicly acknowledge that obsessive anti-Left radicalism and chronic false conflation of liberals with Left radicals are hallmark parts of the fascist political and ideological playbooks? (Don’t look for this on MSNBC or in The New York Times: FOX News and the Republicans constantly, falsely, and absurdly call the Democrats socialists; the Democrats never accurately and honestly call the Republicans fascists.)

For what it’s worth, my life was saved and turned around at a young age by radicals, by Marxist historians, some veterans of the McCarthy era, many schooled not just in the ivory tower but in battles for industrial unions, civil rights, the antiwar movements, and (in at least three cases) the global war against fascism (1939-45). They were wonderful people for the most part, as were many of the Communist Party activists I studied and interviewed in my later work in labor history. These and other “radical Left” people deserve not only to exist but to be celebrated for their contributions to humanity, justice, and democracy at home and abroad.

In the meantime, there’s this little matter of capitalism (and its fraternal twin imperialism) destroying life on Earth, just as one my earliest radical Left influencers – Barry Commoner – said it was doing and would continue to do unless and until it was replaced by a system that puts life and people, the common good, above profit, class rule, and empire. That system would be socialism, properly understood as predecessor to communism.

Would anyone in a position of at least slight public prominence like to point out that there are no real and lasting solutions to contemporary problems – racial oppression and disparity, class inequality and rule, gender oppression, ecocide (the biggest issue of our any time) and more – short of revolutionary, radical, that is, root-and-branch societal change?

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Palestine’s Moment of Reckoning: On Abbas’ Dangerous Decision to ‘Postpone’ Elections

Photograph Source: U.S. Department of State – Public Domain

The decision on April 30 by Palestinian Authority President, Mahmoud Abbas, to ‘postpone’ Palestinian elections, which would have been the first in 15 years, will deepen Palestinian division and could, potentially, signal the collapse of the Fatah Movement, at least in its current form.

Unlike the last Palestinian parliamentary elections in 2006, the big story, this time, was not the Fatah-Hamas rivalry. Many rounds of talks in recent months between representatives of Palestine’s two largest political parties had already sorted out much of the details regarding the now-canceled elections, which were scheduled to begin on May 22.

Both Fatah and Hamas have much to gain from the elections; the former relished the opportunity to restore its long-dissipated legitimacy as it has ruled over occupied Palestinians, through its dominance of the Palestinian Authority, with no democratic mandate whatsoever; Hamas, on the other hand, was desperate to break away from its long and painful isolation as exemplified in the Israeli siege on Gaza, which ironically resulted from its victory in the 2006 elections.

It was not Israeli and American pressure, either, that made Abbas betray the collective wishes of a whole nation. This pressure coming from Tel Aviv and Washington was real and widely reported, but must have also been expected. Moreover, Abbas could have easily circumvented them as his election decree, announced last January, was welcomed by Palestinians and praised by much of the international community.

Abbas’ unfortunate but, frankly, expected decision was justified by the 86-year-old leader as one which is compelled by Israel’s refusal to allow Palestinians in Jerusalem from taking part in the elections. Abbas’ explanation, however, is a mere fig leaf aimed at masking his fear of losing power with Israel’s routine obstinacy. But since when do occupied people beg their occupiers to practice their democratic rights? Since when have Palestinians sought permission from Israel to assert any form of political sovereignty in occupied East Jerusalem?

Indeed, the battle for Palestinian rights in Jerusalem takes place on a daily basis in the alleyways of the captive city. Jerusalemites are targeted in every facet of their existence, as Israeli restrictions make it nearly impossible for them to live a normal life, neither in the way they build, work, study and travel nor even marry and worship. So it would be mind-boggling if Abbas was truly sincere that he had, indeed, expected Israeli authorities to allow Palestinians in the occupied city easy access to polling stations and to exercise their political right, while those same authorities labor to erase any semblance of Palestinian political life, even mere physical presence, in Jerusalem.

The truth is Abbas canceled the elections because all credible public opinion polls showed that the May vote would have decimated the ruling clique of his Fatah party, and would have ushered in a whole new political configuration, one in which his Fatah rivals, Marwan Barghouti and Nasser al-Qudwa would have emerged as the new leaders of Fatah. If this scenario were to occur, a whole class of Palestinian millionaires who turned the Palestinian struggle into a lucrative industry, generously financed by ‘donor countries’, risk losing everything, in favor of uncharted political territories, controlled by a Palestinian prisoner, Marwan Barghouti, from his Israeli prison cell.

Worse for Abbas, Barghouti could have potentially become the new Palestinian president, as he was expected to compete in the July presidential elections. Bad for Abbas, but good for Palestinians, as Barghouti’s presidency would have proven crucial for Palestinian national unity and even international solidarity. An imprisoned Palestinian president would have been a PR disaster for Israel. Equally, it would have confronted the low-profile American diplomacy under Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, with an unprecedented challenge: How could Washington continue to preach a ‘peace process’ between Israel and the Palestinians, when the latter’s president languishes in solitary confinement, as he has since 2002?

By effectively canceling the elections, Abbas, his benefactors and supporters were hoping to delay a moment of reckoning within the Fatah Movement – in fact, within the Palestinian body politic as a whole. However, the decision is likely to have far more serious repercussions on Fatah and Palestinian politics than if the elections took place. Why?

Since Abbas’ election decree earlier this year, 36 lists have registered with the Palestinian Central Elections Commission. While Islamist and socialist parties prepared to run with unified lists, Fatah disintegrated. Aside from the official Fatah list, which is close to Abbas, two other non-official lists, ‘Freedom’ and ‘Future’, planned to compete. Various polls showed that the ‘Freedom’ list, led by late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s nephew, Nasser al-Qudwa, and Marwan Barghouti’s wife, Fadwa, headed for an election upset, and were on their way to ousting Abbas and his shrinking, though influential circle.

Yet, none of this is likely to go away simply because Abbas reneged on his commitment to restoring a semblance of Palestinian democracy. A whole new political class in Palestine is now defining itself through its allegiances to various lists, parties and leaders. The mass of Fatah supporters that were mentally ready to break away from the dominance of Abbas will not relent easily, simply because the aging leader has changed his mind. In fact, throughout Palestine, an unparalleled discussion on democracy, representation and the need to move forward beyond Abbas and his haphazard, self-serving politics is currently taking place and is impossible to contain. For the first time in many years, the conversation is no longer confined to Hamas vs. Fatah, Ramallah vs. Gaza or any other such demoralizing classifications. This is a major step in the right direction.

There is nothing that Abbas can say or do at this point to restore the people’s confidence in his authority. Arguably, he never had their confidence in the first place. By canceling the elections, he has crossed a red line that should have never been crossed, thus placing himself and few others around him as enemies of the Palestinian people, their democratic aspirations and their hope for a better future.

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An Urgent Call for Action by Nobel Laureates

Photograph Source: GPA Photo Archive – CC BY 2.0

Our Planet, Our Future is the title of the 2021 Nobel Prize Summit. As a follow up to that summit, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine recently published Our Planet, Our Future: An Urgent Call for Action d/d April 29th 2021.

The opening paragraph of the Noble Laureate declaration implicitly calls for immediate unified worldwide action: “The first Nobel Prize Summit comes amid a global pandemic, amid a crisis of inequality, amid an ecological crisis, amid a climate crisis, and amid an information crisis. These supranational crises are interlinked and threaten the enormous gains we have made in human progress.”

The context and content of that prestigious summit is well worth analysis and contemplation. The Nobel Laureates identified looming risks to “the enormous gains we have made in human progress.” In other words, the Nobel Laureates foresee a distinct possibility that human progress may be on a path of diminishment if the world does not join together to take care of and fix the biosphere, our planet Earth. In that regard, President Biden’s infrastructure plan is merely a big blip.

The Nobel Laureates clarion call implicitly exposes neoliberalism’s driving force of globalization as a core issue that impacts the planet by reaping riches without any hesitation or concern for the disintegration of ecosystems. Not one ecosystem is left unscathed, not even one, as the planet huffs and puffs and exudes gas under the most severe stress in millions of years, “unprecedented” has become the most favored word in scientific jargon.

Although not mentioned by the Nobel Laureates, one of the biggest challenges to their concerns is a burgeoning worldwide right-wing anti-science populist movement, which may be the Achilles heel to any and all agreements amongst major nations to fix the planet. In such case, there’s a distinct possibility that the world’s right-wing populist crusade may take civilization down a rabbit hole, sans a return ticket.

Trump-style leadership is found throughout the world, and it’s not going away any time soon. Quite the opposite as it’s the most extreme anti-intellectual, anti-establishment, anti-science faction in modern history. Trump’s anti-science stance chased top-flight scientists out of the country, several fled to France. In the first two years of the Trump administration, more than 1,600 federal scientists left government according to Office of Personnel Management employment data analyzed by The Washington Post. Similar articles in other publications describe nearly total decimation of key science personnel and loss of access to crucial scientific information that will take years and years to replenish. Trump tossed science out the window and crushed access to crucial data that’s needed to meet the very goals required to repair the planet, as suggested by the Nobel Laureates.

Moreover, anti-intellectual right-wing populists are not finished. They’ve only just begun. “Across Europe, right-wing parties have become not just increasingly authoritarian and anti-democratic but anti-fact, anti-expert, anti-reason.” (Source: Right-wing Politics and Anti-Science Positions are Locked Together in a Literal Deadly Mix, Daily Kos, March 31, 2021)

The Nobel Laureates didn’t mention, and likely would never mention, the biggest obstacle to their plans, which is the growing powerful right-wing anti-science populist crusade. America’s Congress is filled with them: “Rejection of mainstream science and medicine has become a key feature of the political right in the U.S. and increasingly around the world.” (Source: the Anti-Science Movement Is Escalating, Going Global and Killing Thousands, Scientific American, March 29, 2021)

It’s likely that the Nobel Laureate proposals (see link at end of this article) don’t have a snowball’s chance in hell as long as major countries are poisoned by lowly ignorance and make-believe lies, thus exposing a universal failure to provide the basics of education, thereby spewing out reams of anti-science nitwits. In the end, it spells trouble for a very troubled planet. Failure of education is fatal!

Alas, history does repeat: “The destructive potential of anti-science was fully realized in the U.S.S.R. under Joseph Stalin. Millions of Russian peasants died from starvation and famine during the 1930s and 1940s because Stalin embraced the pseudoscientific views of Trofim Lysenko that promoted catastrophic wheat and other harvest failures,” Ibid.

In similar fashion, repeating Stalin-type lunacy but 80 years later: “The Trump White House launched a coordinated disinformation campaign that dismissed the severity of the epidemic in the United States, attributed COVID deaths to other causes, claimed hospital admissions were due to a catch-up in elective surgeries, and asserted that ultimately that the epidemic would spontaneously evaporate. It also promoted hydroxychloroquine as a spectacular cure, while downplaying the importance of masks. Other authoritarian or populist regimes in Brazil, Mexico, Nicaragua, Philippines and Tanzania adopted some or all of these elements,” Ibid.

Currently, three nationwide surveys show white Republicans, including one-in-four Republican House members, refusing COCID-19 vaccines. This obstructionist behavior originated with protests against vaccines as a major platform of the Tea Party with its “health freedom” rallies when a measles epidemic hit parts of California. The same health freedom rallying cry then spread to Texas. Nowadays, Public refusal of COVID-19 vaccines extends to India, Brazil, South Africa, and several lower income countries and in parts of Europe, providing first-hand real-time evidence that ignorance spawns avoidable deaths.

Right-wing populism and the practice of science naturally clash. Studies show that science is (a) evidence-based (b) objective and (c) demands proof of statements, whereas populist politics is based on emotional, easily falsifiable annunciations, but the truth destroys their agenda. Therefore, truth must be avoided at all costs. “If you tell a big enough lie and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.” (Joseph Goebbels)

The Nobel Laureates offer guideposts for the initial stages of saving the planet: (1) the next decade is crucial (2) global emissions must be cut in half (3) destruction of nature must stop. They “get it” in terms of what ails the world, and their declaration is remarkably similar to statements made by a few bold outspoken scientists over the past couple of decades. In fact the Nobel Laureates endorse warnings found throughout peer-reviewed literature over the past couple decades that unfortunately never found loud enough voices to make a difference.

Thus, the Nobel Laureates “Urgent Call for Action,” has exposed serious threats to the planet already recognized over the past several years, as stated: “Societies risk large-scale, irreversible changes to Earth’s biosphere and our lives as part of it.”

That warning has been repeated, but largely ignored, over and over again over the past several years but voiced by too few scientists, until recently, things are changing so fast that they’re coming out of the woodwork with warnings of the loss of ecosystems, meaning loss of habitat, loss of vertebrates, loss of the Great Barrier Reef, loss of the Arctic, loss of flying insects in ‘protected’ European nature reserves, loss of arthropods in tropical rainforests in Puerto Rico and Western Mexico, loss of rainforest throughout the world, and irreversible Antarctica disintegration, as the world’s Nobel Laureates finally plead for “An Urgent Call for Action.”

Throughout years of concern by scientists of loss of the planet’s remarkable capabilities, nature has never really had a chance. It simply can’t avoid the impact of the Anthropocene Era humongous wayward human footprint that arbitrarily crunches and munches everything in site. Nature is an easy target.

In the final analysis, saving the planet may be beyond the clarion call by Nobel Laureates simply because the challenges of accomplishment may be bigger than the final solution: “One would be hard-pressed to find a region of the world that populism didn’t touch in the 2010s. The decade brought us the election of Donald Trump in the United States and the Brexit vote in Britain. It witnessed the rise of the Alternative for Germany—the first far-right party to enter the country’s national parliament in decades—as well as the ascent of populist parties in countries such as Austria, Brazil, Italy, India, Indonesia, and Poland. By 2018, as many as 20 world leaders held executive office around the world.” (Source: Populism is Morphing in Insidious Ways, The Atlantic, January 5, 2020)

The aforementioned article identifies the next big target of right-wing populists, as follows: “Whereas much of the past decade revolved around arguments over issues of immigration and sovereignty, the 2020s could be dominated by a new, more pressing narrative: climate change.”

Link to: Our Planet, Our Future, An Urgent Call for Action

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The Fascinating Memoir of a “Citizen Pilgrim”: Q&A with Richard Falk

Image Source: Cover art for the book Public Intellectual: The Life of a Citizen Pilgrim

Richard Falk, the well-known international relations scholar, taught at Princeton University for four decades. Starting in 2002 he has taught Global and International Studies at UC Santa Barbara. Falk is also a chair for the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation. This lengthy interview is about his latest book, a memoir, Public Intellectual: The Life of a Citizen Pilgrim, that explores his career as an academic, activist, rapporteur, political theorist, and professor.

Daniel Falcone: Public Intellectual: The Life of a Citizen Pilgrim is considered both an autobiography and a book about international relations. I like how you provide the reader, with a narrative-analysis. In other words, it seems that you are interested in explaining a great deal of your (and others) analytical frameworks by unpacking your own life in the pursuits of these intellectual developments. Can you comment on this?

Richard Falk: From the beginning I was seeking to understand the interfaces connecting the personal, professional, and political that seemed to have dominated the adult portions of my life journey. In doing this, I realized that it was an exercise in self-scrutiny that is comparable with self-administered post-Freudian therapy. I was, in part, motivated by the goal of understanding why I had chosen several less traveled paths in shaping life experience, as well as narrating my journey guided in its last stages by a progressive imaginary. I decided, also, to risk recalling my past totally on the basis of memory, without recourse to such materials as journals and books in my possession. Of course, this was hazardous at any age, but particularly on a project that did not get fully underway until my late 80s. I doubt that it would have been more selective in distorting ways than if I had checked my recollections against the records I kept over the years.

I also had a strong sense that my problematic childhood and adolescence was relevant to what came later. I am quite sure that my interpretative gaze would have been quite different if I had started this project five or ten years earlier, which suggests that there is a degree of contingency embedded in attempting a memoir. The personal and historical context would have been different, and hence the lens by which I reconstructed my life.  I felt strongly that I should be as honest as possible, while taking on responsibilities of not without being hurtful to persons who were alive and with whom I had once been intimate. I found it difficult to decide whether explaining why a romantic relationship did not endure was worse than overlooking the relationship altogether, which was the course chosen in several instances.

Early on as I reflected upon my childhood, why it was so humdrum, exhibiting little by way of achievement or even sense of direction. Aside from my own failings, I attribute the snail pace of my development, perhaps overly, to the impact of my divorced parents, my mother detached and uncaring, my father too protective and deeply disappointed by the downward trajectory of his own life. In some ways, I think my insecurity of those years helped me avoid the worst sorts of failures. In a real sense, I lacked the courage to fail altogether, hanging on to the edge of the cliff with my fingernails because of my fear of falling. I began to gain a certain composure, probably nothing more than a fragile veneer of self-confidence as a college undergraduate, then a law school student, and later as a young faculty member at a large mid-western university. Each of these experiences in an academic institution by stages helped me find a political identity of my own. I had long lounged under the umbrella of my father’s ultra-conservative stance, which was both anti-New Deal and unconditionally anti-Communist. I was not at ease with such a political outlook, but I lacked an alternative.

The publisher of my memoir, supportive and empathetic from start to finish, rightly instructed me cut 100,000 words that I had struggled to find during the ordeal of composition. As it said, sometimes the best of a film is left on the floor of the cutting room, I am not sure whether my editorial surgery was properly selective in its arbitrary decisions about what could go and what should stay. In retrospect, the subjectivity of constructing one’s own life by staring for several years at oneself in a rear view mirror made me aware that there is a much finer line separating fiction from non-fiction than I had assumed for the prior 90 years.

Maybe a better book, certainly a different one, would have emerged if I had allowed myself the freedom to embellish my life rather than to try to render it. Is it important, in other words, to keep the faith? Or would most readers prefer to wander with me down phantasy lane? Is there really such a thing as a ‘fake life’ any more than there is a ‘true life.’ Of course, appalled by Trump’s dodges of truth and truthfulness, I felt it a political obligation to be as truthful as possible. And maybe this worked to skew the narrative toward an unimaginative literalness, and is the sort of historical contextual circumstance that tilts the tone and substance in a different way than I had embarked the memoir writing experience during the Obama presidency.

Daniel Falcone: I particularly enjoyed reading about the impacts that students from Puerto Rico had on your educational leadership, your politics in general, and how they helped you gain an appreciation for the politics of the island specifically. Can you inform readers of this experience and what these mentorships and friendships cultivated and produced?

Richard Falk: You pose an interesting series of questions about friendship with a particular stress on friendship with students. It may be had I responded to these questions prior to writing this memoir I would have approached these issues in more perceptive ways. Pondering now why friendship has always loomed large in my enjoyment of life at every stage, I would have to acknowledge that it probably reflects the shortcomings of the family dimensions of my life, leading me to search elsewhere for meaning and affection. As well, the absence of the kind of community affiliations that bestows a sense of both identity and belonging that most frequently arise from religious practices and cultural traditions was entirely absent, leading to feelings of envy for apparent ‘normalcy’ of my school classmates who almost all seemed more attached to their families and ethnic backgrounds than I.

As so much of my early pleasure and later of wellbeing involved competitive sports. I found many early friends on these playing fields, and this kind of satisfying bonding continued to be a sustaining feature of my social life throughout my life. Especially at Princeton where so many students were talented and ambitious, I found many young persons who interested me, especially among those who came from less privileged backgrounds at graduate levels. At the same time, because my research interests and political activities situated me at the professional margins, I found students by and large less judgmental than my faculty colleagues and often more congenial and interesting. It embarrasses me, yet only slightly, that after 40 years at Princeton, with a few notable exceptions, my only close faculty friends on campus, with a few exceptions, were those with whom I played tennis and squash with on a weekly basis over many years. Others with strong shared interests and views were not to be found on campus, but were either former students or those with whom I bonded through shared political commitments or other forms of sympathetic intimacy.

What I discovered early on in my faculty experience was that teaching provided a great arena for learning provided I had the self-confidence to listen carefully even to objections and also to approach my lectures without excessive preparation, which I realize may sound strange. This latter characteristic might seem odd, and it can be taken too far, or prove disastrous if not familiar with the overall subject-matter, particularly its framework. The advantage of being creatively underprepared is that it leaves space for spontaneous free associations and opens more space for dialogue with students. If relying on old notes or even transcripts of old lectures there is a fixation on text, a corresponding reluctance to explore uncharted territory, and at atmosphere not receptive to dialogue.

In my memoir I describe lingering impressions of students who made a career with a public resonance, often having the opportunity to relate to them in small-class atmospheres or as thesis advisees. Among the most notable were Robert Muller, David Petraeus, Richard Perle, Saud Faisal, Moulay Hicham Abdullah, and Anne-Marie Slaughter. They were a diverse group, which sometimes anticipated what they became later on in ‘the real world’ and other times surprised me. Except for Moulay Hicham these celebrity students never became friends, and we lost contact after they left Princeton, but they left imprint with their strong personalities. I take note of the fact, with regret, that were male with a single exception.

I think your question is primarily concerned with the interplay between the pedagogy of university education and arenas of political activism. By pointing to the exertion of influence by a Puerto Rican student, you hit upon a good example, although it relates more to my being influenced by students than befriending them. In this particular instance, a graduate student in history at Princeton who came from a political independentista background educated me about the tawdry nature of what I came to regard as the ‘internal colonialism’ in his homeland within my homeland.

Through this student I came into contact with several leading Puerto Rican political figures and intellectuals, and visited the country, not in the normal tourist modalities but to understand more experientially the detrimental impacts associated with making PR serve U.S. military priorities, and caught between the emotions of nationalism and the practical advantages of tax advantages that derived from their intermediate status as a commonwealth within the frame of U.S, sovereignty. This squeezed identity is expressed by singing songs of liberations in barrooms and voting to remain tied to the commonwealth reality.

I was especially struck by visiting the small island of Vieques (part of the PR island group), two-thirds of which was appropriated as a naval artillery range for U.S. warships greatly harming the traditional island’s economy and traditional way of life based on small-scale fishing and farming. Above all, I learned a valuable lesson from this involvement. It taught me that supplementing academic learning with the experience of being there in some caring (not for a research project) capacity contributed a dimension to understanding that could not be derived from tourism or even prolonged academic field trips. As it happened, I soon became preoccupied with the Vietnam War, and lost contact with my Puerto Rican student mentor, but the effects of his pedagogy lingered.

More associated with the interplay between classroom and being there was my contact with the somewhat analogous role played by the United States in the Philippines. The Marcos dictatorship was providing hospitality for large U.S. military bases that compromised political independence and provided a cover for elite corruption that kept the country poor, and its citizenry repressed and antagonized. In this instance, two Filipino students with deep and abiding ties to the national struggle for human rights, democracy, and true political independence, kindled my interest and arranged for me to make several trips to the country, either related to the nationalist movement of opposition to the bases that included several politicians who were leading members of the Senate, and who also became my friends in the course of these visits.

The students back in Princeton, Walden Bello and Lester Ruiz, went on to have important careers of their own, and they remain among my cherished friends to this day. Walden became a leading anti-imperial voice through his books and activism, while Lester became a colleague in my more future-oriented work in the World Order Models Project that devoted itself to envisaging a humane world order, its structure and how to bring into being. What I want to stress is that the original interaction in the classroom led to a learning experience in a distant country, which deepened my understanding and motivation when I returned to the classroom.

It was not just a matter of being there, but being engaged while in the Philippines, leaving a lasting imprint, and making me, I believe, a more effective lecturer. The experiential factor was thus not observational in the spirit of anthropology but enlivened by active solidarity with ongoing struggles for justice that provided insight into a range of analogous issues in an array of countries throughout the global south. The friendship dimension was integral to the existential context, enabling me to be received in communities of solidarity in an atmosphere of trust, friendship, and disclosure.

Daniel Falcone: Although you are a widely read international relations scholar, with experience in research schools and global institutions, I learned in the book that you often navigated a common humbling experience of everyday life within the humanities and education. Your teaching at Ohio State and Princeton at times brought you into contact with people interested in athletics and activities that were prioritized over your subject matter. Can you talk about this more, as I think teachers and professors would find your insights helpful.

Richard Falk: Over the years in academic life, I came under various sorts of pressure, which were more-subtle during my time at Princeton than during the five years spent at Ohio State University at the end of the 1950s. OSU was a nationally ranked team in the two major college sports of football and basketball, and it was the source of institutional pride for its alumni and administrators. I was approached on one occasion by an adjunct member of the faculty who made his name and his fortune as a lawyer in private practice in Columbus with an angry request that I change the grade of a student in my first year class in criminal law because, and solely because he was the son of a prominent figure in Ohio state politics. This lawyer, used to getting his way confronted me as a young untenured member of the law faculty with what amounted to a diktat, and when I declined, he stormed out of my office never to speak to me again. After the incident I was rather sure he would approach the dean of our faculty who was known to have ambitions to become president of OSU, and I feared that this would be my last year at the university. Actually, nothing came of my refusal to adjust this student’s grade, perhaps because it was such a crass attempt to encroach upon faculty grading autonomy. He could have at least pleaded the case for a grade change by some sort of story that the boy was under unusual pressure because his parents were going through an ugly divorce, and a low grade would have devastated him further.

At Princeton, pressures from the alumni were frequent and more sophisticated. For one thing, the Princeton alums felt as an entitlement to interfere as many were major annual donors, accounting for the wealth of the university, and university administrators wanted them to feel a stake in the institution. Some conservative alumni were upset with my political activism, and visibility in the national public sphere. I was told by a sympathetic administrator in the aftermath of the Vietnam War that it was estimated that my anti-war stands cost Princeton $1,000,000 per year as a result of donors flexing their philanthropic muscles.

After my visit in 1979 to Iran to view the unfolding of the Iranian Revolution, which was widely reported including a NY Times opinion piece that I had been solicited to write, members of the Board of Trustees in conjunction with enraged members of the alumni informally established a ‘Committee to Investigate Richard Falk.’ I am not sure whether this committee ever did any investigating, but the pushback against my activism came to nothing.

Another time, I was asked by NBC to comment on the appointment of Henry Kissinger as Secretary of State, and they listed my Princeton title under my name on the TV screen—‘Albert G. Milbank Professor of International Law and Practice, Princeton University.’ I received a message from the Princeton President reporting that the Milbank family requested that I not be identified in public by reference to the Chair that they had endowed. I responded that I was not even aware that my title had been shown, and that I never mention it in media appearances. Again, nothing came of it, beyond giving me a reputation as ‘controversial,’ which had the undisclosed blessing of keeping me from being appointed to university-wide committees that would call attention to my presence in the campus community.

For some years in the 1970s and early 1980s, the Princeton Alumni Weekly (PAW), a glossy magazine designed to keep the alumni connected with the university after graduation, and hopefully financially supportive, I was for years a habitual target of disgruntled alums who blamed me (falsely) for broader changes at Princeton that they believed tarnished their fondest memories of the place. I was blamed for the admission of women as students, political activism on campus, and disappointment that their children developed with what the U.S. was doing in the world. Week after week these hostile letters appeared in the PAW blaming me for a range of developments that they disapproved, many of which I had no connection. If the truth was told in those activist years on the campus between the mid-1960s and mid-1970s I was much more influenced by the students than the other way around.

I think over time has led me to become what I would call ‘a patriot of humanity,’ a term more expressive of this ethos of solidarity for me than proclaiming myself ‘a world citizen,’ which lacks real substance given the non-existence of a ‘world community.’ Citizenship is only meaningful to the extent that allows participation in what can be legitimately called a community that coheres because of shared perceptions of security, justice, identity bound together by effective procedures of governance, respect for diversity of belief and practice reflected in some form of effective legal order. These elements of political community are lacking at the global level although the UN and some elements of international law express aspirations and strivings for such a world community, yet it remains largely unrealized.

In retrospect, I believe that if my overall profile as someone who advocated controversial positions through journalism, media appearances, publicized visits to countries at odds with the U.S. had been clearer during my years at OSU, the Princeton gatekeepers would have barred my entry. However, once through the gates, academic criteria sufficiently prevailed with respect to career assessments, and I published enough scholarly work and enjoyed a decent reputation among colleagues in my field. I felt no pushback in terms of salary and leaves of absence, and was glad about my status as someone who was never invited to speak at alumni events when Princetonians returned to the campus for a weekend of drinking and exposure to faculty talks on current events and research at frontiers of specialized knowledge in the natural and social sciences.

Only once when I was invited to accompany a Princeton alumni cruise in Asia as a faculty lecturer, which was an expensive, secure, and luxurious way to visit foreign countries, a public relations service of the university presumably reinforcing alumni loyalty. I enjoyed the experience of lecturing to these conservatives as we traveling the Mekong River visiting Vietnam and Cambodia. I was amused when one of passengers told me that several of those who had signed up for the cruise were on the verge of canceling because I was one of the two lecturers. In his words, “we thought you had horns, but happily our experience was good.” I found this reaction amusing and instructive because I developed friendly and appreciative relations with these Princeton ultra-privileged alums, another instance of how experiencing the other can be enlightening, avoiding stereotyping dismissals of those with whom we have both real and imagined disagreements.

Busra Cicek: I admired your personal, academic, and activist story while discussing encounters with authoritarian regimes re: Philippines and South Korea, apartheid South Africa, wartime Vietnam, revolutionary Iran, repressed Palestine, polarized Turkey, and the United States. In your work, you stated your awareness of your “Ivy-league educated, white, and American, privileged way of living that was free from oppression or acute pressures of deprivation.” Could you talk about how you managed to intellectually escape the United States’ political imagination?

Richard Falk: I have wondered about this myself. Part of the explanation is that I did not find my father’s strong anti-Communist ideology combined with enthusiasm for the armed forces congenial. It took me a long time to work out my own way of engaging politically with the world. All along I was helped by encounters with progressive friends. My educational experience, particularly at Yale Law School, I came under the influence of several gifted lecturers who endorsed the prevailing Cold War worldview, and rather than persuading me, stimulated strong contrarian tendencies, which by then I was capable confident enough to rely upon as providing independent rationalizations of my alternative worldview. I felt as though I was finally walking on my own path. As described in an earlier response, at every stage there were people, often students, who encouraged me to take an interest in particular problems involving injustices of a systemic nature. Additionally, later on my public visibility as an anti-war critic of the Vietnam War opened other my eyes to many other ongoing struggles of resistance against U.S. intervention and to human rights abuses in distant countries, as well as here at home.

I did not altogether escape from the influence of U.S. dominant forms as I inhabited, although more and more of a dissenter from within than participant, including such influential platforms as Princeton, the Council of Foreign Relations, and the American Society of International Law. This gave me an insider/outsider identity that was rather unusual and came about as a result of unplanned circumstances, resulting from a combination of good credentials, late political maturity, and a curiosity as to what elites were really thinking. I was more a witness than a participant. I learned to stand my ground when important issues of principle came to the surface. It was not always easy. There were costs as I never belonged anywhere, producing a degree of loneliness.

I think that the decisive influences came from experience and likeminded friends, not ideology, and moral intuition. I was influenced both by experience taking the form of direct contact with the realities of injustice, or through artistic renderings that combined screams of rage and plaintive calls for help. I felt that I began to understand the structures of racism upon reading James Baldwin, Fire Next Time and Toni Morrison, Beloved and listening to Martin Luther King, Jr. and Cornel West speak. I was not clear about Vietnam and South African racism until I visited Hanoi in 1968 during the war, and in the same year, Pretoria and Johannesburg during the height of the apartheid regime. I was influenced forever by what I saw and heard, and the feelings of empathy for those who suffered and admiration for those who resisted.

The same pattern holds true with respect to the Palestinian struggle. Friendship with Edward Said and Raji Sourani, followed by visits to Israel and Occupied Palestine shifted my perspective from an opinionated observer to a dedicated advocate of Palestinian basic rights. I began telling my students that knowledge without experience tends to be barren, and there is only so much you can learn from reading and lectures. I guess I am expressing a truism: that emotional underpinnings are integral to political engagement. This helps explain why feelings/values arise from experience and background, and it also accounts for why novels and poems often proved to be my favorite teachers when it came to understanding how the world works.

Most of my faculty colleagues seemed more comfortable being compliant ‘children of the enlightenment,’ trusting in the sufficiency of the rational mind, scientific method, and the implicit biases of middle class social positioning, liberal in disposition, risk averse. Inevitably, I still partake of this mentality, more than I realized until Donald Trump came on the scene with his post-truth politics. It allowed me to rediscover the virtues of the Enlightenment at least as a shield against bigotry and lies and made me think that I had blamed the failures of modernity too much on its reliance upon instrumental rationality. I still think the marginalization of conscience is the curse haunting modernity, accounting for its insensitive exploitation of nature and imperial forms of domination over variously victimized peoples.

There are a few exceptional events that can be understood sufficiently without direct experience or artistic renderings—images of Nazi death camps and the atomic bombings of Japanese cities need no commentary to be felt. When visiting Hiroshima thirty years after the fact, it struck me that the city of Hiroshima was the one place where the memory of that horrendous event was erased or minimized because the residents did not want to go through life with their identities tied to that horrifying and traumatizing past. The past was not altogether ignored in Hiroshima. There was a peace museum in Hiroshima devoted to the radioactive birth of the nuclear age, but it was visited when I was there mainly by foreigners. And annual anniversaries of remembrance, acknowledging and bemoaning the tragedy. The images of ‘the mushroom cloud’ and the burning victims or the Nazi death camps and the starving and pathetic victims are so vivid as to provoke our silent screams.

Busra Cicek:  In your work, you shared your academic and diplomatic experiences as “a critic of Israel and Zionism in the context of the Palestinian struggle for basic rights and an activist to opposing the Vietnam War from the perspective of international law” that situated you on “the far left,” meanwhile you positioned yourself as a “visionary humanist.” Could you please talk about what this position means in the context of the American political spectrum? What does it tell us about current American academics and students engaged in critical scholarship? How can your notions of “humane realism,” “progressive internationalism,” and “visionary humanism” shape progressive academia?

Richard Falk: To some extent, my prior response addresses this question. I guess for liberals and right-wing people I am perceived as being on the left, but among those dogmatically or organizationally on the left I am not one of them. I do not explain myself or my politics by reference to any variant of Marxist thought or even the leftism of Antonio Gramsci, and besides my receptivity to religion and spirituality is not rooted in an institutionalized canon of thought as was the case with ‘liberation theology.’ I find kinship with those traditions of systematic thought but I tend to learn on the job. Your question makes me realize that I have never been recruited by formalized leftist such as political parties or NGOs.

I suppose I felt closer to the progressive variants of existentialist thinking that prevailed after World War II as it stripped away the metaphysics of fixed belief and seemed to align with those that were struggling for emancipation in one form or another without demonstrating ‘scientifically’ that it was materially conditioned or preordained by the contradictions of class conflict. Existentialism took its shape in reflections on and resistance to the Nazi experience.

I suppose that my language of ‘visionary humanism’ makes clear that I don’t belong to any of the familiar political categories. My anti-militarist, anti-interventionist, anti-business and socialist approaches to health, education, and welfare to alienate and antagonize the right. Liberals, or so-called independents, favor making incremental changes that are ‘realistic’ and tend to avoid what they deem as extremes on either side of the political spectrum, generally refraining from dwelling on divisive structural explanations of social policy that focus on predatory capitalism, systematic racism, and entrenched militarism. The liberal/independent orientation aims to improve the quality of democracy one step at a time, doing what is feasible in the political domain, while I advocate what I believe to be necessary and desirable even though not feasible from the perspective of politics as the art of the possible.

This has pushed me in the direction of what is deemed by the mainstream as ‘utopia,’ which I call a ‘necessary utopia’ or ‘a politics of impossibility.’ On some immediate agenda issues such as restoring the nuclear agreement with Iran or avoiding a cold war with China I feel almost comfortable making common cause with liberals/independents. On other issues I gladly take a left position such as support for self-determination in Venezuela and Palestine, demilitarization, and opposition to imposing sanctions on adversaries of the United States that makes those who are centrists, drawing support from ‘both sides of aisle’ uncomfortable. Their politics of feasibility is based on what for me is delusional, that the only way to get things done in America is by building a broad coalition that stretches beyond independents to incorporate moderate Republicans, pointing to issues such as immigration, tax reform, climate change, and minimum wage to prove their point. This may be a description of the workings of top down American politics in the last half century, but it does not meaningfully respond to the crucial challenges that require transformative initiatives based on pressures from the street.

My efforts over the years have been divided between resistance to existing policies by solidarity with ongoing struggles or structural longer term critiques of global governance that aim at sustainability, justice, and nonviolence, hoping for the emergence of ‘patriots of humanity’ and ‘guardians of nature’ who seek equitable management of the planetary agenda and minimum governmentality in societal arrangements.

Busra Cicek:  You describe the current national and international order as neither “ethically acceptable, politically legitimate, nor ecologically sustainable, [thus] creating an unprecedented challenge to the political, moral, and cultural imaginations and practices of all.” Can you share your thoughts on the future of disadvantaged people and all citizens more broadly, and especially the prospects for those who do not belong to the “minority near the top of the social and economic pyramid?” How can we talk about “social and ecological revitalization, and of the [hope for] progressive versions of democracy” better?

Richard Falk: On the level of critique, the grossest ethical deficiencies of the current form of global governance is expressed by reliance on ‘ethically unacceptable’ practices and policies including systemic  denials of fundamental human rights, dependence on warfare and coercive diplomacy for the resolution on conflict, multiple forms of inequality, and imposition of destructive forms of dominion over nature. There are failures of ‘political legitimacy’ associated above all with the inability to address adequately challenges of global scope including nuclear weaponry, climate change, hunger and malnutrition, migration and asylum, and the extension of legal accountability to geopolitical actors. Finally, there are disastrous shortcomings when it comes to ‘ecological sustainability’ the most prominent of which are insufficient regulation of greenhouse gas emissions, loss of biodiversity, failures to protect the viability of the global commons, especially air, soil, water (rivers, oceans), and jeopardizing the quality of life of future generations. These conditions affect even the most privileged elites whose imaginary increasingly veers toward escapist scenarios that borrow from science fiction. At their extreme are plans for migrating to the moon, building underground habitable structures in New Zealand, or being content with denialism. In these circumstances, the poor and disadvantaged feel the heaviest blows from a world order system that endangers humanity as a whole. This pattern of vulnerability has been evident in various studies of infection and death rates resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, which is a template for illustrating the inequitable distribution of benefits and burdens embedded in current arrangement of global governance.

A more emancipatory perspective presupposes thinking beyond the horizons of what seems politically feasible given global constraints, and imagining what is necessary if we are to overcome the dire deficiencies of existing world order. Essentially, this means a transformative shift in energies from the priorities of modernity—basically, national interests as measured by the efficiency and profitability of capital and the security, autonomy, and status of the territorial sovereign state. To close the gap between the feasible and the necessary depends upon enough people becoming guardians of nature and patriots of humanity rather than patriots of the state and promoters of corporate capitalism. More concretely this means creating mechanism that recognize that the whole is greater than the parts in the reorganization of life on the planet, establishing effective mechanisms for realizing global and human interests, respecting the carrying capacity of the earth. Admittedly such a vision of the future has a utopian quality, what I have earlier called to ‘a necessary utopia’ that can be attained by ‘a politics of impossibility.’ For this to happens, requires a massive movement from below, possibly nurtured by elite defectors, that appears to come from nowhere, a carrier of an ecological ethos of renouncing harmful and reckless policies and practices.

Will this happen? We should know from experience that the future unfolds in unpredictable ways. There are hints that there are active cultural tremors seeking transition to an ecologically oriented civilization. There are also contradictory signs that the human species has no collective will to survive beyond its own mortality. My response is that since the future is unknowable and has given rise throughout history to major unpredicted changes for better and worse, we have no excuse but to struggle as best we can for the future we prefer. We are living in an unprecedented time in human history signaled by geologists and others identifying this epoch as the Anthropocene in recognition of the fact that human activity has the capability to impact on the basic ecological balances of the earth. In this sense, the necessary utopia as seen from the perspective of the dysfunctional present is nothing other than ‘responsible anthropocentrism,’ entailing renegotiating our relations with nature, the future, and learning to live together on the planet in a spirit of coexistence and dialogue.

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How We Lost It All: Labor Unions and Taft-Hartley

Photograph Source: Sarah Stierch – CC BY 2.0

It’s hard to know precisely what’s being asked of them, but opinion polls show that upwards of 50% of working people say they’d be interested in joining a labor union. That much seems to be true. Yet, only 10.8% of America’s workforce is unionized. Barely one in ten.

Even acknowledging that some of those expressing an interest were fooling themselves and misleading the pollster, there is still a huge number of working people out there who would like to become union members but either don’t quite know how to proceed or, frankly, are too frightened to make their feelings known, fearing management retaliation.

This discrepancy (between the number of those who’d like to join and actual membership) reflects brutal two truths: management has the statutory ability to limit organized labor’s power; and companies are still dedicated to the point of obsession to keeping non-union workers away from union organizers.

While insuring that the workforce remain unrepresented has always been a cat-and-mouse game, one which management has played well through the use of flattery, deceit, rewards and intimidation, the statutory limits on labor’s power are directly traceable to the Taft-Hartley Act, passed in 1947. The Act was passed by a Republican congress, with the help of southern Democrats (“Dixiecrats”), over the veto of President Truman.

Taft-Hartley not only amended or rescinded many of the bedrock components of the 1935 National Labor Relations Act (commonly known as the “Wagner Act”), it more or less defanged the labor movement. It domesticated the movement. By adopting a set of “unfair labor practices” (ULPs) that applied to unions in the much the same way that the Wagner Act applied ULPs to management, Taft-Hartley effectively blunted labor’s ability to resort to “radical” action.

Taft-Hartley outlawed the closed shop, eliminated the sanctity of the union shop (allowing “right-to-work” states to exist), enacted a mandatory waiting period before calling a strike, made it illegal to engage in jurisdictional strikes, secondary strikes and boycotts, gave management the right to stall and impede a membership certification vote, and expanded the NLRB’s governing board from three to five members. In a word, Taft-Hartley made unions infinitely more “controllable.”

Right-to-work laws allow employees the privilege of choosing whether to join or not join a union. Prior to Taft-Hartley that right didn’t exist; if you hired into a facility that had a union you were required to join it, or you lost your job. Today there are 27 states with right-to-work laws on the books, mainly in the Deep South and Midwest, and four of them (Arkansas, Arizona, Florida and Oklahoma) include these right-to-work provisions in their state constitutions.

Supporters of right-to-work statutes tend to be anti-collectivist, libertarian wannabes who elevate personal choice to iconic status, and are willing to be paid less and accept substandard benefits in return for the right not to have to join a big, bad workers’ collective. When you consider the simple arithmetic involved, this antipathy to unions, this flat-out rejection of economic advancement via strength-in-numbers, isn’t merely irrational, it’s pitiful.

Then, of course, there’s the whole other matter of “free riders,” those workers who benefit from union wages and benefits by hiring into a union shop but who aren’t required to join the union. They’re able to maintain their ideological “amateur status” while simultaneously drawing a professional wage. Not too shabby.

Also, it’s no coincidence that the overwhelming majority of states with right-to-work laws have significantly poorer safety records than those without them. Say what you will about labor unions, their safety records have always been demonstrably superior to those of non-union facilities, and this has remained true even after passage (in 1970) of OSHA.

Since the enactment of the Taft-Hartley Act there have been a few half-hearted attempts at repealing all or parts of it, most recently under the Carter and Clinton administrations. Vehement Republican opposition and tepid Democratic support were responsible for the defeat of these attempts. There are simply too many lobbying groups opposed to it, too much money arrayed against it, to give anyone hope that the Act will ever be repealed.

But what would the country look like if that were to happen? How would repeal of Taft-Hartley affect organized labor?

In truth, it could be argued that too much has occurred in the intervening 75 years to result in the radicalization of the labor movement. The connection to labor’s revolutionary ideological roots has been severed. The face of the American worker isn’t what it was in 1947.

Yes, without Taft-Hartley there would be more national membership drives, more people being allowed to join unions, all of which would be a salutary, democratic effect of repeal, one that would benefit working people. But, arguably, the country is too “grown-up,” too cynical and world weary, to engage in radical industrial actions such as secondary strikes and boycotts, even if they were made legal.

With so many workers now invested in the stock market, and union expectations and identity having been profoundly warped over the last half-century, it would be hard to find a critical mass willing to engage in the more radical actions made available by repeal of Taft-Hartley. In any event, to get back anything close to the mindset labor once had would require a lengthy period of adjustment.

As for President Truman, let’s not pretend that he was terribly pro-union. The only reason Truman allowed Taft-Hartley to “pass” was because he’d already done the necessary arithmetic, and had been assured that the veto override was in the bag.

How do we know that? Because if he was truly on the side of unions—if he was as adamantly opposed to organized labor’s legislature as he claimed—Truman never would have invoked the Taft-Hartley Act a whopping twelve times.

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Biden’s Big Steps on TRIPS: Getting the World Vaccinated

President Biden made a huge step yesterday when his trade representative, Katherine Tai, announced that the United States would be supporting a resolution at the World Trade Organization (WTO), to suspend intellectual property rules on vaccines for the duration of the pandemic. This resolution had been introduced by India and South Africa back in October.

The United States had previously been leading wealthy countries in opposition to the resolution. With Biden now reversing the position of the Trump administration, the resolution is likely to be approved.

However, the approval is not necessarily a foregone conclusion. In reversing the U.S. position, Biden went against a major lobbying campaign by the pharmaceutical industry.  Many European countries also have large pharmaceutical companies. They are being every bit as vigorous in lobbying their own countries’ governments to get them to maintain their opposition to the resolution.

Since everything at the WTO has be unanimous, a single country can block action on the resolution. Nonetheless, it is unlikely that any of the European countries, or even a small group of them, would want to be seen standing in the way of getting the world vaccinated as quickly as possible.

It is also important to recognize that Ambassador Tai’s announcement only indicated that the United States supported the proposal to end intellectual property protections on vaccines. The resolution introduced by India and South Africa also called for ending protections on treatments and tests for the duration of the pandemic. A suspension of IP protections in these other areas is needed to minimize the death and suffering from the pandemic, but we still should recognize the huge step taken by the Biden administration yesterday.


How We Got Here


While President Biden deserves enormous credit for this step, it is important to realize that it came about as a result of a great deal of work by activists here and around the world. First of all, the Indian and South African governments kicked it off with their WTO proposal. Many groups had been urging open source technology from the beginning of the pandemic, but this resolution gave activists and policy types a clear rallying point.

I am tempted to list the groups and individuals who deserve congratulations for their efforts on this, but I am going to restrain myself out of the fear of leaving some important ones off the list. I will just say that this came about because of the efforts of many people in the United States and around the world, who argued that we have to do everything possible to limit the suffering from the pandemic.

The change in positions shows the potential for public pressure to have an impact. This calls to mind the possibly apocryphal story of when a group of progressives met with Franklin Roosevelt to press him on one of the important New Deal issues. He supposedly said something to the effect of, “you convinced me, now make me do it.”

We needed a president who was open to this sort of move for the pressure to succeed. But without the pressure from activists here and around the world, it is unlikely that Biden would have bucked the Big Pharma lobby.


What is Left to be Done

It is important to realize that the change in the U.S. position at the WTO doesn’t directly get a single shot in anyone’s arm. What is needed is a full-scale effort to not only remove the constraints of patent monopolies, but also to push the drug companies to transfer their technology as quickly as possible.

Ideally, this would mean going full open-source. That would require Pfizer, Moderna, and the rest to post their manufacturing plans on-line, and then conduct webinars, and hands on training with everyone capable of quickly getting manufacturing capacity up to speed.

It is unlikely that the Biden administration will go this route, but it should be seen as the gold standard here. Not only would this allow for the most rapid diffusion of the technology, it would also open the door for further innovations that could hasten production.

Back in February, Pfizer announced that it had found ways to improve its production process so as to nearly double output. It also discovered that its vaccines did not need to be super-frozen, but could be safely stored in a normal freezer for up to two weeks. Unless we think that Pfizer’s engineers are the only people in the world who could improve its production and delivery process, making the information open-source is likely to lead to further improvements that could increase its rate of output.

Assuming that we do not go the open-source route, Biden should be prepared to use the Defense Production Act to force vaccine makers to enter into contracts with manufacturers around the world, in which they share the technology needed for them to start production as quickly as possible. He already did with Johnson and Johnson and Merck, with the latter now producing the vaccine developed by Johnson and Johnson. Biden needs to take the same step, forcing our manufacturers to transfer their technology to anyone with capacity anywhere in the world.

We also really need to collaborate with Russia and China, as well as any other country has a vaccine that is shown to be safe and effective. We can have our political fights in other spheres, we have a common interest in getting the world vaccinated as quickly as possible.

In addition to doing an inventory of the obstacles to ramping up production of the U.S.-European vaccines, we should also be addressing obstacles that prevent these countries from producing more of their vaccines. Ideally, they can also be pushed to have increased transparency on their clinical trial results. It is important to know which vaccines are most effective against each variant, and also the extent to which some are better or worse for different demographic groups.

The goal here should be getting the world vaccinated, not scoring propaganda points. If President Biden approaches the issue that way, hopefully he can get his counterparts in other major powers to do the same.


Implications for the Longer Term

In my spare time, I have been writing on patent and copyright monopolies for a quarter century. This is the first time I have ever seen IP issues get any substantial amount of attention from a general audience. Usually the only people paying attention are the affected industries and a relatively narrow group of activists and policy types.

That matters hugely, because when the affected industries dominate the debate, they can be pretty much guaranteed of being able to steer the policy in a way that benefits them. This is really the story of patent and copyright policy over the last four decades, with the inclusion of the TRIPS provisions in the WTO being the most notable example. TRIPS got added to the WTO because the drug companies wanted to impose U.S.-style patent protection on the developing world. There was no major public debate in the United States, or anywhere else, as to whether it was a good idea.

Now that we do have the public paying attention to IP issues, it is worth trying to press a few points.

First, we need to recognize that there are alternatives to patent monopolies for financing research and development. That should be obvious, since the federal government already spends more than $40 billion a year on biomedical research through the National Institutes of Health (NIH). (That compares to roughly $90 billion spent by the industry.)

In addition, the government put up another $10 billion in funding of pandemic related research with Operation Warp Speed (OWS). While most of the NIH funding goes to more basic research (occasionally it has financed the developed of new drugs), OWS was directly focused on developing treatments, tests, and vaccines. In the case of the Moderna vaccine, the government picked up the full tab for the development costs.

In principle, there is no reason why direct public funding cannot be the more standard route of paying for research. There are various ways this can be done (I discuss mechanisms in chapter 5 of Rigged [it’s free], see also this paper by Arjun Jayadev, Joe Stiglitz and me) , but the point is that we don’t have to rely on government-granted patent monopolies to provide incentives for developing drugs.

There are many advantages of direct public funding. First, if the government has paid the tab for the research, any new drugs or vaccines can be sold as cheap generics from the day they are approved. This means that nearly all drugs would be cheap. Instead of selling for hundreds or thousands of dollars a prescription, drugs would sell for ten or twenty dollars.

A second major advantage is that if the government is funding the research, it can require that it all be open-source. This means that, not only are all patents placed in the public domain, but all research findings are posted on the web as soon as practical. That would allow researchers all over the world to quickly build on successes and learn from failures.

A third major benefit is that if all drugs were sold as cheap generics, it would take away the incentive that patent monopolies give drug companies to lie about the safety and effectiveness of their drugs. When a drug is selling for a mark-up of several thousand percent over production costs, companies have a huge incentive to push it as widely as possible. We saw this most recently with the opioid crisis, where several companies paid billions of dollars in settlements based on the allegation that they deliberately misled doctors about the addictiveness of the new generation of opioids.


A second important point is that we need to have a clear understanding of the economic importance of patent and copyright monopolies. By my calculations we transfer over $1 trillion annually (half of all corporate profits) from the public as a whole to the beneficiaries of rents from patents and copyrights. This is a huge amount of money and a big part of the story of the rise in inequality over the last four decades.

While it can be argued that our rules on patents and copyrights promote economic growth (the counterfactual should be alternative incentive mechanisms, not no incentive mechanism) it is indisputable that these are government policies, not the market.

This means that when someone says that technology has been responsible for the upward redistribution over the last four decades, they are speaking nonsense. Technology did not make Bill Gates rich, the patent and copyright monopolies the government gave Microsoft on its software made him rich. These monopolies can be longer and stronger, or shorter and weaker, or they can be replaced by different mechanisms altogether. The fact that a substantial segment of the population was able to get very wealthy from these monopolies was due to policy choices, don’t blame the technology.

The rents created by government-granted patent and copyright monopolies are also a form of government debt. It is utterly bizarre that we have so many people complaining about the debt burden that government borrowing is creating for our children, while completely ignoring the burden created by patent and copyright monopolies.

It’s pretty nutty to claim that if we tax people $400 billion to pay debt service (roughly twice the current debt level of debt service), it’s a burden. But, if we give drug companies patent monopolies, that allow them to raise their prices by $400 billion above the free market level, it’s not a problem. Government-granted patent and copyright monopolies are alternatives to direct government spending. We cannot claim the debt from direct spending is a burden and then pretend the rents from these monopolies are not a problem.

Finally, we should be taking away some lessons from the pandemic for future trade policy, most importantly with China, our major competitor in the world economy. We have real and important differences with China.

China is not a democracy and it does not respect human rights. Critics of the government face serious risks of persecution and imprisonment. It has engaged in large-scale abuses against minority populations in Tibet and the Uygur population in Xinjiang. It also is reversing commitments it made to respect the autonomy of Hong Kong.

But it doesn’t follow that we would benefit from having a Cold War stance toward China, as we did with the Soviet Union for most of its existence. (One consideration for those wanting to go the Cold War route is that China’s economy is already almost 20 percent larger than the U.S. economy, the Soviet economy probably peaked at less than half of the size of the U.S. economy.) Many bad things, both domestically and internationally, were justified by the need to confront the Soviet Union. We should not want to see that story again in a Cold War with China.

We should look to cooperate with China in the areas where we can, most obviously in health and climate change. This would mean a full sharing of technology. After all, in both cases, we gain if China gains and vice-versa. We are not harmed if China uses our technology to develop better ways to store energy or to treat cancer. Ideally, we would look to pool our resources in these, and possibly other areas, with all research findings being fully open. We should look to bring in the rest of the world as well to address the common problems that confront us.

I won’t claim to be an expert in political science and to make predictions about what impact greater sharing of technology can have on China, but I will note an argument that was often made to justify opening to trade with China in the 1990s and 2000s. Many supporters of removing trade barriers argued not just that there would be economic benefits, but also political ones, in that increased trade would lead to more openness in China and a move towards democracy.

While China is undoubtedly more open in some ways than it was three decades ago, it clearly is not a democracy. I never fully understood how increased U.S. imports of Chinese manufactured goods, which were often produced by very low-paid workers, with few rights, were supposed to lead to democracy, but this was the line parroted by many people in policy debates.

By contrast, if the plan is to have open cooperative research in health, climate, and possibly other areas, we will be creating a system in which large numbers of Chinese scientists and researchers would be in regular contact with their counterparts in the United States and West Europe. These scientists and researchers will be the brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, and fathers and mothers of the leaders in China. I don’t know if this contact is likely to have an impact on China’s policy towards democracy and the West, but I will speculate that it has a greater chance of having a positive impact than buying textiles produced by low-paid workers putting in long hours in unsafe conditions.

But that is all just speculation. What is not speculation is that a relatively small group of people stand to benefit from continuing to make our patents longer and stronger and seeing health and climate as areas of competition with China. Most of us will be better off without these policies, and certainly without a new Cold War.

This post first appeared on Dean Baker’s Patreon page

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Tamál Húye: Coast Miwoks Fight for Recognition of Point Reyes’ Indigenous History

Theresa and Tiger Harlan in front of her family’s former home at Laird’s Landing in Point Reyes National Seashore, Calif., on April 20, 2021.

On April 22, the California Coastal Commission held a virtual hearing to discuss the impact of dairy and cattle ranching at Point Reyes National Seashore. Superintendent Craig Kenkel began his presentation with the words, “Point Reyes is the ancestral home of the Coast Miwok.”

Kenkel spent the rest of his talk advocating for a Park Service proposal to increase the terms of ranching leases from five to 20 years. This, despite the findings of an Environmental Impact Statement released by the National Park Service last year which revealed multiple harms caused by 150 years of bovine-centric agriculture at the seashore. The ongoing damage includes water pollution by cow urine and feces, atmospheric pollution by carbon and methane gas emissions, and the extinction of native plant and animal species. [See “Apocalypse Cow,” Dec. 9, 2020]

Kenkel said that extending the leases is necessary to “preserve multi-generational ranches” that are protected by the National Register of Historic Places. He did not mention that in 2015 the Park Service terminated a proposal to protect the archeological remains of Coast Miwok habitation using the National Register.

Rep. Jared Huffman came online and told the Commission, “Ranching is part of the Seashore’s DNA.” Five commissioners disclosed that Huffman telephoned them before the meeting, asking for a vote in favor of the proposal. But the congressman did not reach out to Theresa Harlan, whose family’s actual DNA is embedded throughout the Seashore.

In her testimony to the Commission, Harlan asked, “Why is a 100-year-plus dairy-ranching history more valuable than a Coast Miwok history of 10,000 years? You have a decision to either protect Coast Miwok archeological sites, or to add to the erasure of the Coast Miwok archeological record.” The Commission voted 5-4 to approve the Park plan to protect and preserve commercial agriculture at the endangered national seashore.

Tomales Bay Indians—Tamáls

This reporter first met up with Harlan and her husband, Tiger, at Point Reyes. On a windy March afternoon, the two Indians and I hiked a dirt road as it curved into a tree-shaded cove on the west side of Tomales Bay. Revealed were wooden houses built by a Coast Miwok family during the late 19th century. A stream trickled onto the beach. Hanging from a tree, a frayed rope that once anchored a row boat danced in the wind. The place was Harlan’s ancestral home.

Harlan, 61, told me, “There is a myth that the Indigenous people simply walked away, and the land was empty, and the settlers came, and took title to it, and developed it, and there wasn’t any contest.” She channels a force greater than herself. “My people are still here. All public land is native land.” As the Indigenous saying goes, the people are the land.

In the language of the Coast Miwok people, Tomales Point is Calupetamál or Hummingbird Coast, and Point Reyes peninsula is Tamál-Húye, Coast Point. Ten thousand years ago, trekkers from Beringia settled in the fog-watered meadows of Tamál Húye, founding  long-lasting, intelligently-managed societies that left an imprint on the land.

The modern descendants of these first peoples call themselves Tomales Bay Indians, Tamáls. Tamáls have survived Ice Ages, 500-year-long droughts, and rising seas, but it was industrial-strength colonization by Europeans at the turn of the 19th century that proved to be near-fatal. Carrying guns, crucifixes and diseases, the potola-inigo, white people, despoiled Yówa, the land. They installed Western-style property “rights” that liquidated aboriginal presence. In an unrestrained search for profit, they felled oceans of redwood forests, slaughtered bears, wolves and tule elk, and began dairying.

Displacement and starvation propelled Coast Miwoks into virus-infected, Catholic-run plantations to work as slaves and concubines. After the San Francisco and San Rafael  agricultural mission lands were secularized and sold in 1834, Tamáls made their way back home. But Tamál Húye was changed. “Point Reyes became Rancho lands, with huge herds of cattle initiating the destruction of the Native resource base,” the National Park Service wrote in a 2008 report to the National Register of Historic Places.

Making matters worse, after California was awarded statehood in 1850, the U.S. Army and gold- and cattle-crazed vigilantes murdered and terrorized natives by the thousands. Indians were legally classified as subhuman. “Native Americans were denied citizenship, voting rights, and were not allowed to testify in court against white defendants … any [orphaned] Indian up to 18 years old could be assigned to a white family for up to 14 years of labor,” wrote anthropologist Lynn Compas in a 1998 report to the Park Service assessing hundreds of Indigenous archeology sites throughout Point Reyes.

The coves of Tomales Bay offered shelter from the holocaust of Manifest Destiny and institutionalized racism. Some returnee Tamáls, including Harlan’s great-great grandmother, Euphrasia, married non-Indian laborers. And for a century, cove-dwellers raised children, fished, hunted and tended Tamál Húye as best they could under colonial conditions. They worked as cooks and fieldhands for European immigrant ranchers who barb-wired the commons, dammed the streams and polluted beaches as they reshaped Tamál Húye to suit burgeoning beef and dairy industries. Colonial governments outlawed the controlled burning of forests and fields as practiced by the Indigenous for the benefit of all beings.

And yet, despite the destruction of Tamál Húye, and despite the price of being known as Indian in a white-dominated world, many 19th- and 20th-century Tamáls self-identified as Indigenous. They did what they had to do to survive, but they also passed the ancestral ways and traditions on to their children through storytelling.

More than a family saga

Harlan’s mother, Elizabeth, was raised at the cove which is mapped as “Laird’s Landing,” after a butter-and-cheese dealer who ran K Ranch up the hill. Elizabeth’s mother, Bertha Felix Campigli, was born at the cove in 1882 to Joseph and Paulina Felix, both of Tamál ancestry.

Joseph’s parents were Domingo Felix, a Filipino, and Euphrasia Felix, a Coast Miwok who had left Mission Dolores when San Francisco was nothing but “forest and a log house,” she reportedly told a friend. Euphrasia, Domingo and their children had moved to Tomales Bay around 1860 after a Marin County Tax Assessor named James Black bought the Miwok rancheria in Nicasio where they had resided, and expelled the people.

At the cove, generations of Felixes built residences, sheds, gardens and chicken coops and quietly lived off the land. Calvin Coolidge was elected president, and Bertha married her fifth husband, Arnold Campigli, a hunter, farmhand and jack-of-all-trades. Campigli’s Swiss-Italian parents tenanted a dairy ranch near Coast Camp. They disowned him for marrying an Indian, and he did not look back. In 1925, Bertha gave birth to Elizabeth, the youngest of her eight children. With teenagers spilling out of the one-room house, Campigli built a second one-room dwelling. They had no electricity, gas heat or telephone. “We were poor, but not hungry,” Elizabeth said in an oral interview with a Park Service historian.

Tamáls fought in wars, married, moved to cities and returned to Tomales Bay. After World War II, Elizabeth married John Harlan and they made a home in Napa, where Theresa and her sister, Beverly, were raised. Harlan, of the Kewa Pueblo tribe based in New Mexico, was adopted by Elizabeth and John as an infant, and raised as a Tamál.

After Bertha died in 1949, S.A. Turney, the owner of K Ranch, evicted the Felix family from the cove and put their homestead up for sale. Court records document how the Felix family fought back, providing testimony from community elders that their family had resided at the cove before K Ranch was deeded, which meant they could own it under common law. But because Marin County had never billed the family for property taxes, an appellate court ruled in 1954 that they had to leave. Campigli moved in with daughter Elizabeth in Napa.

Harlan grew up hearing hilarious stories about the hard-easy life. There was Babe, a cow who cow-paddled around Tomales Bay scouting for bulls when in heat. And then there was the afternoon when Elizabeth had finally had it with racial taunting, and beat up a pack of white boys who bullied her. She cherished the memory because the school’s only teacher had defended her against outraged parents, saying that the rancher-kids deserved it.

In the early 1960s, an itinerant artist named Clayton Lewis moved his family into the Felix’s empty houses, with the K Ranch-owner’s blessing. When the Park Service bought the cove in the early 1970s, it allowed Lewis to stay. Treating the land as his private property, he remodeled the houses to suit his “countercultural” tastes. He built a foundry where he fashioned jewelry and sculpture. He threw wild parties. He dug privy and trash pits. Once, he uncovered and displayed a human skull, until giving it to the University of California. “I want the remains returned to my family,” Harlan said.

After Lewis died in 1995, the Park Service allowed the buildings to decay, to become snarled with vines and cracked by tree limbs. As Harlan, Tiger and I peered into the broken houses, we saw tags and cartoons defiling walls. There was a pile of trash and construction rubble on the lawn, left there by the Park Service in 2017 after it demolished the foundry. For Harlan and her family, the trash, graffiti, weeds and jungle of vines desecrate a place inhabited for thousands of years, a place made sacred because people are the land.

On April 2, Kenkel met privately at the cove with Harlan and a dozen of her relatives. Family members took turns speaking about why the place is special. Elder Arlene Delahoussaye, of Daly City, shared, “I think of this place as my true home. And I always bring my children and grandchildren here to picnic.” The family is asking that Laird’s Landing be reinvented as a living cultural center celebrating the Indigenous practices of managing the land for the common good. The superintendent promised to consult with the family on a restoration of the houses, Harlan told me.

Days later, the Park Service hauled away the pile of rotting garbage. The agency assigned a team of youthful carpenters from a national nonprofit to work on restoring the vandal-shattered structures, and there are some signs of progress.

Harlan has a degree in ethnic studies from Berkeley. She is a professional art curator, and worked as a legislative analyst for the California Department of Public health before retiring last year. Her goal is that all of Point Reyes, the land of the Tamál people, be given over to the ministrations of future-conscious caretakers. Lessons for the healing of Earth are encoded in the human-shaped lands of Tamál Húye, and the ancient guidelines are needed now more than ever. But at the Park Service, politics rules the day.

Playing shell games with historic districts

Since 1976, a series of archeological “reconnaissance” studies commissioned by the Park Service have determined that a combination of natural erosion processes and cattle ranching and park construction activities are destroying the land’s record of Indigenous history. Sonoma State University anthropologists collaborating with the Park Service to monitor the condition of ancient Tamál habitations have repeatedly urged it to protect all of Point Reyes National Seashore as an Indigenous Archeological District on the National Register of Historic Places.

In 2008, using more than a decade’s worth of Sonoma State research, the Park Service nominated an Indigenous Archeological District to the Register, which is a division of the Park Service. The proposal languished in bureaucratic limbo for seven years with no action. Meanwhile, in 2013, the Register quickly protected the Drakes Bay Historic and Archeological District, which was created to celebrate the 16th century pirate Francis Drake; more on that story below.

Here is the shell game: In 2015, the Park Service withdrew the Indigenous District nomination and replaced it with an application for a Historic Dairy Ranching District to protect 17 spreads. The Register rapidly approved the newly created Dairy Ranching District, even as the Indigenous District proposal was taken off the table.

The anointing of the park’s dairy and cattle ranches as “historic” by the Register serves to prioritize funding the preservation of commercial ranching infrastructure over preserving Indigenous archeology. It creates federal tax credits for ranchers. It is also a key element in the Park Service’s public relations campaign supporting the lease extensions. But, as Harlan observed, the politician- and business-powered campaign for “preserving ranching culture” is predicated on erasing the cultural and scientific significance of 10,000 years of Tamál habitation.

Tsim Schneider is a professor of anthropology at the University of California, Santa Cruz. He is also a member of the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria, whose homeland includes Tamál Húye. Schneider researches the ways in which Coast Miwok people survived existential crises through the millennia. Most importantly, he views research that focuses only on the harm done to Indigenous societies as a tacit form of “taking the accomplishments of the colonial elites for granted.” Coast Miwoks were written out of the anthropology textbooks, he says, with “terminal narratives that reinforce the logic of settler colonialism by eliminating narratives of Indigenous survivance” and an “outdated colonial-Indigenous dichotomy that essentializes landscapes along tidy, racialized boundaries.”

Tomales Bay was a refuge for “Indians unwilling to be converted [to Catholicism]” where Tamáls engaged in “creative cultural resistance, preservation of identity, linking memory and physical surroundings,” Schneider says.

Two related misperceptions about the Coast Miwok have informed scientific research, Schneider says. One is the mistaken idea that the Coast Miwok were extinct by the 1920s. A related error is that science tends to “conflate chronology with identity. It treats ancient people as frozen in time, as fossils trapped in amber.”

Obsessing with pinpointing the dates of a pot, bone, bead or house pit breaks the living link between past, present and future. Focusing on dating and classifying objects compartmentalizes the flow of the human story and fails to reveal the continuity of social systems and of human agency from time immemorial to now.

Speaking as a Coast Miwok, Schneider says, “Our knowledge of these places, our memories of these places, have always been secondary to science. There is a saying among Indians that archeologists borrow our watches to tell us the time.”

Schneider tells the story of an archeologist digging at Laird’s Landing in 1934. The scientist “recorded ‘broken mortars’ and ‘a good specimen of a spear head’ in the artifact description, while casually mentioning that an ‘Indian woman, [Bertha] Campigli, has lived on this site for many years.’” It did not occur to the man that it was the living woman’s ancestors who fashioned the spearhead and hunted with it, who processed meal with the mortar and who lived for thousands of years in relatively stable societies. “The presence of Harlan’s grandmother was a living sign that Tamals stayed on ancestral lands because the people are the land,” Schneider says. Tamáls were not eager to assimilate into an alien, racialized society. They knew their ancestors had created the once-vibrant ecology of Tamál Húye, and hoped those lessons would not be forever lost. Today, Harlan stands in the place of her grandmother.

The trail of the dead

The first archeologists to explore Tamál Húye envisioned the story told by the land through the thick lens of settler colonialism. They assumed nothing of much importance happened to the people whom they named Coast Miwok until 1579, when Drake supposedly “discovered” Punta de los Reyes, Point of the Kings. It turns out that decades of Drake-obsessed archeological research at Point Reyes was based upon a lie.

In 1936, the social club E Clampus Vitus claimed to have found a 16th-century “Plate of Brass” near Drakes Breach. “Despite initial authentication, the plate was ultimately determined to be a hoax, a prank … For at least two decades, however, belief in the plate’s authenticity perpetuated nearly exhaustive excavation at Point Reyes in search of Drake’s campsite and other evidence of his stay,” the Park Service reported to the Register.

The settler-colonial mindset still prevails at the Park Service. The agency claims that the Drakes Bay Historic and Archeological District is deserving of the Register recognition it rendered in 2013, because Sir Francis Drake “strengthened England as a maritime power and gave England a stake in western North America,” and the District “includes 15 California Indian sites that provide material evidence of one of the earliest instances of European contact and interaction with native peoples on the west coast of the United States.”

In the 1920s, University of California, Berkeley archeologist Alfred Kroeber declared the Coast Miwok were no more. That erroneous assumption guided his doctoral students, James Beardsley and Robert Heizer, during the 1940s, as they shoveled shell mounds all over Point Reyes looking for artifactual evidence of Drake’s passage. The scientists unearthed 122 human skeletons and hundreds of charm stones, beads, knives, arrowheads, awls, whistles, mortars and pestles fashioned by ancient human hands. Many of the grave-related artifacts are still stored at the Phoebe Hearst Museum in Berkeley.

For the Berkeley anthropologists, the real treasures were the non-Indian artifacts found mixed with human remains—shards of blown glass, spent cartridge shells and fragments of blue-and-white Ming china. They theorized that because the Indigenous people were unable to comprehend European technology, they had repurposed shattered china as cutting tools, iron spikes as awls and glass as ornament. The 16th-century inhabitants of Tamál Húye may very well have been awed, perplexed and even frightened by machine technologies foreign to their world. But it was a culture-laden mistake for scientists to presume that Indigenous people were not capable of taking an active role in the history of the world until they absorbed the miracles of the West.

Only recently has it occurred to anthropologists that the Indigenous were potent scientists, keenly observant of the forces connecting trees, rocks, fire, water, plants, animals, life and death. In the early 1930s, an observant ethnographer named Isabel Kelly recorded Coast Miwok elders speaking of ancient technologies and beliefs. Tom Smith and Maria Copa spoke of where, at Tamál Húye, “a place of rock about two feet long marks the spot where the dead jump into the ocean. They go down there. They said that was the trail of the dead. Over the land they traveled on a cloud path. They go there to be with Coyote where the sun goes down. They never come back—maybe in night time.”

Maybe in night time

Laws and ethical codes guiding 21st-century archeology recognize that the bodily remains and belongings of Indigenous people must remain undisturbed. Government agencies are urged to accept tribal leadership in all matters that are principally Indigenous. In short, Tamál Húye is not the property of the Park Service, just as it was not the property of European settlers. And yet, the Park Service has long acted as if it is the indisputable lord of hundreds of Indigenous villages, food-processing camps, rock shelters, house pits, hunting blinds and lithic scatters endemic to the 71,000-acre Seashore. It acts as if preserving the archeological story is compatible with dairy and cattle ranching, which is demonstrably not the case.

The aforementioned Environmental Impact Statement strongly prioritizes protection of ranch history over preserving Indigenous archeology. While confirming that cattle have been and continue to disturb “sensitive” archeology sites, the statement promises, in the future, to “take measures … to exclude cattle.” However, it will allow “targeted” grazing at known locations, and unrestrained grazing on the many that are undoubtedly unknown, and therefore, subject to inadvertent destruction.

Kevin Lunny’s family has run cattle on a ranch overlooking Abbotts Lagoon since World War II. Lunny told the Bohemian/Pacific Sun that obsidian flakes are abundant on lagoon beaches, but his cattle are fenced off. He said it is possible that cattle may be damaging archeological sites on other ranches. “Ranchers are willing to work with the Park Service and the Graton tribe to protect Indigenous sites,” Lunny said.

The Federated Indians of the Graton Rancheria represent the Miwok and Pomo peoples of Sonoma and Marin Counties and Point Reyes. According to Chairman Greg Sarris, the tribe is negotiating a confidential agreement with the Park Service to protect archeological sites.

But last year, the Park Service failed to consult with the Graton tribe, as it is required to do by law, when it released the Environmental Impact Statement calling for extending cattle operations in perpetuity.

In December, the tribe informed the Park Service of the oversight. The tribe wrote, “We are disappointed that the National Park Service did not reach out to us and provide an opportunity for our Tribe to consult with the agency, as is required under Executive Order 13175.” The tribe continued, “We need to revisit the ranching lease program and look for ways that enable the landscape to heal. This should be done with the Tribe and using our traditional ecological knowledge and understanding of the land.”

Cattle trample Indigenous history

Federal laws require the Park Service to protect Indigenous archeological sites. By the agency’s self-assessments it is failing to do that at Point Reyes. Documents obtained by the Bohemian/Pacific Sun under the California Public Records Act reveal that many Indigenous archeological sites inside park boundaries have long been violated by ranching and the construction of roads, trails and facilities serving tourists.

In the 1990s, the Park Service began working with anthropologists based at Sonoma State University to engineer a preservation plan for more than 150 Indigenous sites. The resultant field work formed the scientific underpinning of the Park Service’s later withdrawn nomination of the Indigenous Archeological District.

In 1998, Sonoma State graduate student Lynn Compas reported that many of the Indigenous sites were damaged by “ranching, visitors, and construction. … [C]attle grazing causes damage to archeological sites. … [R]emains may be obliterated or obscured.” She observed that the Park Service could prevent further destruction by “extensive cattle grazing” by curtailing ranching activities. Realistically, though, she mused, “Ranching is a source of revenue for [the Park Service] and will continue, therefore impacts to archeological sites from cattle must be evaluated before more archeological data is lost.”

Compas reported that while the Park Service substantially funded the preservation of settler-era ranching culture, there was little or no funding for preservation of Indigenous culture. She said that the stories revealed at the Indigenous sites are important because, “One of the dominant paradigms of the past has been that ‘interactions between Native Americans and Europeans were governed and structured by European objectives and that the role of Native peoples was passive and easily explained.’” She observed that a core group of Tamáls had resisted colonization and survived at Tamál Húye through the generations, physically, spiritually and culturally.

Uniting the past and present, Compas noted that at Laird’s Landing “the buildings and the archeological site are in good condition. … The mixture of artifacts demonstrates that the Coast Miwok strategically retained traditional lifeways while accepting new ones in order to survive.”

Compas identified Tamál families who in the early 20th century resided in the Tomales Bay coves: Ouse, Alcantra, Campigli, Sandoval, Jewell, Felix, Friase, Elgin, Sanchez, Goosman, Zopie and Weber. She reported archeological evidence that the coves were homesteaded for thousands of years, and that sites with prehistoric human remains were disturbed or vandalized by campers, and that “a request for funding to remove the burials to a safer place was made by PRNS in 1997, however the funding request was denied.”

Compas suggested that money for protecting the Indigenous sites would be forthcoming if the sites were placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Subsequently, Sonoma State graduate student, Barbra Polansky, conducted “the inventory, research, and analysis necessary to nominate the PRNS Prehistoric Archeological District.” The proposed district encompassed the entire acreage of the park “in the hopes that [the site’s] significance and tremendous research potential may be recognized.”

Polansky defined patterns of how Coast Miwok adapted to climate and social stresses by “exploiting the richest area of resources that require the least amount of energy.”

She researched how the Tamáls used plants, game and shellfish to sustain large populations at Tomales Bay, Drakes Estuary and Abbotts Lagoon. Ducks, sandpipers and mud hens were lured by decoys stuffed with grass, and then trapped with nets. Hunters felled birds on the fly with bolas made of string-wrapped heavy bones. Owls were downed with bow and arrow. “Miwok did not generally eat bears, because a bear was considered to be a person.”

Polansky cautioned, “Cattle grazing and current and historic ranching activities can mix the soil or midden deposit and obscure features such as house pits.” She noted, “PRNS is one of the finest, most intact examples of California Coast archeology,” and even though the sites are threatened by “cattle grazing, plowing and past archeological excavations. There is still much information to be gained.”

Building on Compas’ and Polansky’s research, a bevy of Sonoma State professors led by Suzanne Stewart contracted with the Park Service during the aughts to craft a formal application for an Indigenous Archeology District. According to Stewart, “By about 10,000 years ago, California’s Paleo-Coast peoples were traveling in seaworthy boats, using fish hooks and other fishing tackle, hunting marine mammals and sea birds, weaving cordage and basketry from sea grass, and making shell beads for ornamental use and exchange with interior peoples.” She detailed the existence of four large villages and more than 100 sites, one-third with “human skeletal remains, some with moderate to abundant grave goods … the sheer size and relative wealth of [village] site constituents suggest a focus of activity—perhaps serving as a ceremonial and political center for the locality.”

Stewart called for examining ancient plant and animal remains to learn from responses to extreme climate variations by prehistoric populations. She lamented, however, that at fragile archeological sites, “non-native, domestic range animals have … exacerbated erosion [of sites] by over-grazing and trampling.”

Decades of research shows that the Coast Miwok’s non-patriarchal social system encircled Tomales Bay and spread throughout the Point Reyes peninsula. There were large villages at the mouth of the Bay and at Olompali. Drakes Estuary was basically a larder. The largely peaceful Tamál economy was collectivized, with limited, family-oriented property rights to defined food-bearing areas. But, mostly, they strove to co-exist with Yówa and all of Coyote’s creations, adapting to environmental stresses by intelligently managing energy resources in ways we are at risk of forgetting.

Autopsy of the Indigenous District

In California, nominations to the Register must be approved by the state Office of Historic Preservation. On May 12, 2008, the Office acknowledged receipt of the Indigenous Archeological District application and promised to review it. And then, nothing.

Until March 5, 2015, when the Office returned the nomination to the Park Service, “with brief comments to inform a future resubmittal.” The Park Service did not resubmit it.

In fact, “The Park Service withdrew the nomination,” Julianne Polanco, State Historic Preservation Officer, told the Bohemian/Pacific Sun. Why?

In Harlan’s opinion, “The Park Service pulled the Indigenous Archaeological District nomination because the protections of a historic place listing would interfere with rancher interests. The Park would be forced to re-direct resources to tell the story of 10,000 years of Coast Miwok land stewardship, thereby diminishing the 150 year rancher history.”

Case in point: the park’s website falsely asserts, “The dairy and cattle ranches on Point Reyes peninsula represent the single largest cultural landscape.” In fact, the Indigenous landscape is more than three times the area of the ranching district. Indigenous culture is vastly older and more venerable than the capitalist byproducts of imperial Christianity.

Even as it aborted the Indigenous district in 2015, the Park Service asked the state to sign off on the demolition of all of the buildings at Laird’s Landing as unsafe. The preservation officer forbade the demolition of the Coast Miwok houses. But instead of moving to preserve Laird’s Landing as an example of thousands of years of continuous Indigenous presence, the Park Service incorporated the Felix buildings into the historic ranching district nomination, “as a reflection of how native populations adapted to European cultural ideals and practices and for its association with the history of tenant laborers.”

Looking towards the future, the Graton Rancheria released its Tribal Perspective on Climate Change in 2013. The tribe speaks of the hundreds of sacred sites throughout the park that are threatened by erosion and submergence as the seas rise again. “In the traditional and historical cultural order, the destruction of cultural resources occurred and this loss was permitted because the spirits in nature have power over them. Now, natural climate change and its effects cannot be separated from … pollution from modern life and industry.” Human action is required if Tamál Húye is to heal from human action.

And the dead abide.

Craig Kenkel and Point Reyes National Seashore staff did not respond to multiple calls and emails requesting comment on the facts presented in this story.

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This piece first appeared in Bohemian

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Liberalism’s Last Legs?

By destroying traditional social habits of the people, by dissolving their natural collective consciousness into individual constituents, by licensing the opinions of the most foolish, by substituting instruction for education, by encouraging cleverness rather than wisdom, the upstart rather than the qualified, by fostering a notion of getting on to which the alternative is a hopeless apathy, Liberalism can prepare the way for that which is its own negation: the artificial, mechanized or brutalized control which is a desperate remedy for its chaos.

– TS Eliot

Liberals may be surrounded at all sides but it has done little to shut them up. From the ramparts, a gaggle of gargoyles, their expressions at once haughty, ludicrous and insane, unload their protestations: we are still right, it’s the world that has gone wrong!

There is little doubt that these liberals, in a post-Iraq War, ’08, Brexit and Trump world, are besieged. Online, a hefty portion of what passes for political discourse is directed at attacking the “new” centrists. It is genuinely bewildering, however, how anyone could’ve made it through Iraq, ’08, Brexit and Trump and remained a liberal. Iraq showed up the fatal limitations of their universalist vision, the Great Recession did that for their economic models, and 2016 shattered any illusions of democratic legitimacy.

But the likes of Blair, Adonis, Soubry, the so-called Cameronite Tories, as well as their media cheerleaders, don’t want you to see it that way. Indeed, their proposed solution to the disasters of liberal centrism is unreformed liberal centrism. Although mass appeal eludes them, they are finding a hearing among the middle classes.

While the working class is enthusiastically taking up new (that is to say much older) illusions, it’s among the further educated you will find this article’s target. In Britain, the now dead in the water Change UK, the Lib Dems, and Starmer’s Labour draw their support almost exclusively from this demographic. An old anarchist can perhaps help make sense of this. Education in the hands of the state and business (which is what universities increasingly are), Noam Chomsky has remarked, is a synonym for indoctrination.

And yet this slightly conspiratorial explanation isn’t enough: liberalism persists, despite it all, because it is the ideology of capitalism.

As understood by way of John Gray, the liberalism which now dominates is indebted to the radical individualism of the Enlightenment, rather than being a product of philosophical realism. (The latter being conservative, communitarian and suspicious of upstarts.) This is the liberalism of Thatcher and Reagan, of the Victorians, of the go-getting man of means. He who considers tremendous waste a necessity, and a wasted opportunity the very worst of sins. His religion rails against want while feeding off it; it’s the friend of poverty and an enemy of the poor. He was born during Polanyi’s “Great Transformation” of the 18th century, and he’s been getting one over on the rest of us ever since.

Liberalism is paradox. This is the conclusion drawn by Domenico Losurdo in his “counter-history” of the project. There’s the contradiction just alluded to: its unencumbered economy being born from, and dependent on, ravaging its accompanying society in order to survive. (The host has the unenviable task of regulating its own devourment.) But there’s also the uncomfortable fact that, right at the moment liberalism was most vociferously demanding liberty, it did so while upholding the most depraved chattel slavery. When it declared the necessity of self-determination, its ideologues were undertaking the almost total annihilation of North America’s first nations. The continent had to be made safe for the free market.

But today’s liberals can’t countenance this reality, it doesn’t fit with their cognitive maps. To them, the logic of the market — that leviathan that they will sacrifice everything to — is above criticism. After all, through it we have equality (in that, with enough money, intrinsic qualities are no constraint), freedom (regardless of previous error there’s always the option of succumbing to exploitation or starving), and smart phones (late modernity’s bread). This perfect system, which works best of all in minds poisoned by game theory, is forced into every part of society. The idea of a moral economy — i.e. all economies that existed before the Industrial Revolution — is lost; a dangerously utopian one is born.

It is usually enough to dissuade someone of their quixotic fantasies with a persistent “but how would that work, exactly?” No imagination is required for the liberal to see how their utopia has failed, and so, inevitably, they resort to mythology.

This is not as anachronistic as it might sound. As Adorno and Horkheimer made clear in that eerily beautiful text of theirs, Dialectic of Enlightenment, “myth is already enlightenment, and enlightenment reverts to mythology.” Enlightened liberal modernity, far from being a sceptical age, is one steeped in illusion.

This claim can be approached from the hard Left, Right, and, even, somewhere in the middle: that’s with the aid of “Adorkheimer”, Carl Schmitt and Karl Polanyi respectively.

For the Frankfurt School duo, liberals in Western nations prior to WWII were captured by an ideology that blinded them to the pitfalls opened up by technical and rational development. Moral progress, it was believed, was inextricably tied up with that of technics: as machines got better so did their makers. But social dynamics are far more complex, and under certain conditions — such as came with the domination of instrumental rationality (i.e. when moralistic ends are overtaken by their technological means) under capitalism — technology can become an existential threat to the ostensible master. In Adorno and Horkheimer’s own country, Weimar liberalism gave way all too easily to National Socialism and the industrial slaughter of millions. The Atom bomb wasn’t far behind — this time thanks to the world’s foremost liberal regime. To employ some Greek imagery of my own: Prometheus, self-immolated.

Humanity, whose skills and knowledge become differentiated with the division of labor, is thereby forced back to more primitive anthropological stages, since, with the technical facilitation of existence, the continuance of domination demands the fixation of instincts by greater repression. Fantasy withers. The calamity is not that individuals have fallen behind society or its material production. Where the development of the machine has become that of the machinery of control, so that technical and social tendencies, always intertwined, converge in the total encompassing of human beings, those who have lagged behind represent not only untruth. Adaptation to the power of progress furthers the progress of power constantly renewing the degenerations which prove successful progress, not failed progress, to be its own antithesis. The curse of irresistible progress is irresistible regression.

A belief in unstoppable, uncomplicated and irreversible “Progress” (examined previously here) may be comforting but it leaves a people utterly unprepared in the face of history. Much as Lasch wrote:
“Believers in progress like to think of themselves as the party of hope, actually have little need of hope, since they have history on their side. But their lack of it incapacitates them for intelligent action. Improvidence, a blind faith that things will somehow work out for the best, furnishes a poor substitute for the disposition to see things through even when they don’t.”

Progress is the biggest crutch of the liberal, but this concept, which borders on the theological, isn’t the only one. The idea that late capitalism is a meritocracy is yet another cherished fantasy: a review of the literature found it to be not only a false belief, but a socially pernicious one. Even Hayek, if only in private, had to admit that success in the market was a little more than a matter of chance.

Another is the commonplace faith in civil discourse.

Liberals love debate, and all this talk can give liberal polities the appearance of genuine plurality (the telling phrase “the free marketplace of ideas” is incessantly used). They claim that this is how differences are mediated, conflicts settled, and, ultimately, progress made. For Schmitt, this is self-indulgent guff. Throughout history the major political shifts were made, not as a result of squabbling — or the clashing of memes, as they might have it — but through exercises of power. This goes for the struggle for democratic rights nationally, as much as for the establishment of our “liberal world order”.

Questions of power are always something liberals wish to avoid, attached as they are to abstract thought experiments, where everything can be imagined as equal — most of all opportunity. This tendency, highlighted by the much-missed Michael Brooks, is evident in Sam Harris, Steven Pinker, Jordan Peterson, and all those other New Charlatans.

They claim that everything is up for debate. Be it underlying sexual antagonisms, the true nature of virtue, racial differences in intelligence, or your gender identity; seemingly nothing is off limits.

Despite the renegade pretence, liberals of this type, which is to say “classical”, understand exactly which side their bread is buttered on. To ensure endless publicity in the mainstream, questions which might implicate empire, or trigger a serious interrogation of the reigning economic myths are entirely absent from their performances (the supposedly hegemonic Left is left with these).

Commenting upon the latter, Schmitt wrote:
“That production and consumption, price formation and [the] market have their own sphere and can be directed neither by ethics nor aesthetics, nor by religion, nor, least of all, by politics was considered one of the truly unquestionable dogmas of this liberal age.”

Consequently, politics under this regime concludes where private enterprise and property begin. Public energies are instead funnelled into mostly inconsequential, and infinitely tedious, arguments. On the important issues, Walter Lippmann wrote, “the public must be put in its place … [so that we may] live free of the trampling and the roar of a bewildered herd”. By ‘we’ he meant the political and intellectual elite, liberal and conservative. The people at large could have their outlets — they could certainly have their never-ending “culture wars” — but, where it mattered, they were designated spectators.

Liberalism may have developed in an effort to ease tensions between religious communities in Europe – undoubtedly worthwhile – and to some extent been successful, but it came at a price. In Schmitt’s account, in moderating difference over the centuries, liberalism birthed a new subject: universal man. Someone stripped of former, troublesome particularities, he became part of the utopian endeavour to standardise the human animal in line with rationalist ideals. In other words, this was yet another way liberals sought to put a cap on politics. This time by undermining the very basis of those contentious groupings which give life meaning; be they regional, class-based or otherwise. In doing so, he proved to be the perfect accompaniment to the globalised capitalism also emerging — with no ties to get in the way of profit-seeking, the world was truly up for grabs.

In time, universal man became intolerant of everything that didn’t conform to his new, and supposedly wholly rational, standard. The old bonds of community, once nurtured or at least respected, had now to be neutralised. The Enlightenment ideal of sameness everywhere and, consequently, eternal peace was within reach. (Adorno and Horkheimer would compare this pursuit of a false universality to commodity production.) Recent talk of a Somewheres-Anywheres distinction, although crude, aligns with this analysis.

Schmitt was dismayed to see this trend at the level of states. Internationally, it seemed to be that liberalism was doing all it could to “level down all civilisations to a single cheap and dreary dream”, as George Santayana put it.

Declaring its constituents the species as a whole, liberalism leaves nowhere free from its remit. In stark contrast to the petty nationalisms it ultimately wished to erase, like a painter with a bad smudge, liberalism claims to speak for everyone. For Schmitt, this is what makes the venture so menacing: if you oppose it you are at base opposing “humanity”. And, surely, an “enemy of humanity” deserves no quarter. As a result, when not engaged in bluster and theatrics at home, it was doggedly enforcing its bland principles upon an unsuspecting world.

Karl Polanyi began writing at a time when one behemoth, the British Empire, was giving way to another, the equally dogged United States. Both entities, although the latter will go to huge lengths to deny it, are liberal empires par excellence. Hegemons in a global system that promotes the doctrines of the capitalist faith, chief among them the illusion of a “self-regulating market”. As before, market fundamentalism of this sort depends on the phony division of the political and economic. From the very start of the Great Transformation, the institution of the market society made apparent the marriage of both.

What was enclosure, the forceful dispossession of lands held in common, and putting them into private hands, if not political? Was not the implementation of high tariffs on foreign goods, in order to shore up domestic industry, a political act? Surely the physical decimation of rival industries — such as England did in India — impinged on the deep-seated interests of some group or other? It is only after the event, when everything has been privatised, built up and the necessary elements have been crushed, that our liberal friends decide politics has had its day.

These policies, alongside wholesale ethnic cleansing and racialised slavery, were what made the UK and US forces to be reckoned with. Only, in the 20th century they began to preach from quite a different hymn sheet. Suddenly high tariffs and sizeable state intervention equalled economic ruin. And so poorer nations were taught, with a mixture of disciplinary wars and, later, IMF strong-arm tactics that they had to keep their economies open to foreign exploitation. No doubt this made some very rich, but it left entire nations impoverished.

This is where Polanyi comes into his own: the relationship between liberalism and democracy on a national level. For him, a liberalisation of the economy corresponds with a social counterforce: the “double movement”. This consists of those social forces which seek to put a check on the all out anarchy of the fundamentally undemocratic market, with all its sudden lay-offs, environmental destruction and endless demands on labour. These can come in the form of trade unions, corporate regulation, welfare states, etc.

For Polanyi, although economic liberalism was always studiously planned, the popular — if not populist — reaction, taken in the forms mentioned, was spontaneous. They are mostly of a red bent, but, if for whatever reason those paths are closed off, the double movement will take a right-wing course. Walter Benjamin comes to mind: “behind every fascism there is a failed revolution.”

With an infuriating sleight of hand, after fighting bitterly against it, capital’s most strident defenders will declare the successes of the double movement — increased life expectancy, greater political engagement, fewer working hours, clean air — as achievements of capitalism. Alternatively, when we’re left with conflict-ravaged (Iraq and the Congo), cartel-ridden (central and south America, post-Soviet Russia) and ecological disaster zones (Gulf of Mexico, India), we’re told, by the very same people, that it was because economic liberalism wasn’t pursued with enough vigour in these places. What is chalked up to being a lack of will should be seen as what it really is: that great liberal vice, hubris.

But what exactly will come of all my talk? Nothing, of course. Liberalism won’t be defeated with words, any more than feudalism was brought down by verse. Liberalism, in its rationalist mode, created the world we live in. It will ultimately be the victim of it.

When Locke, Smith and Jefferson penned their lines, nature was considered, in the “civilised world” at least, little more than land, a commodity to speculate on. Stock wasn’t an issue: the horizon in every direction held plenty more, even if people with different nose shapes needed liberating from it. And, regardless, Earth, the old bitch, would keep putting out, when or if reserves ran dry: new New Worlds were ripe for discovery. Their models based on infinite growth demanded it.

If liberals today find it difficult accepting their errors in other regards, the clear eyed and honest among them must see the overwhelming problem nature now presents them. Arable soil is disappearing, ice caps are melting, the sea is rising, whole forests are alight. And, of course, all this means: people are on the move. The number of climate refugees by 2050 is estimated to be in the hundreds of millions. The centre will not hold.

We shall see just how committed the liberals remain to their ideals when faced with these cataclysms. How tolerant of dissent they will be when a groundswell rejects capitalist progress and all that goes with it. How open they will be when the starving millions are at the gate. How devoted to laissez-faire they will be when the state is the only institution with the power to respond to the demands of the citizenry.

It won’t be long before the great political metamorphosis is upon us. Which way will your favourite liberal go?

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The Global Spread of Fascism is as Real as the Spread of COVID-19

The global spread of fascism is real, as real as the spread of COVID-19, and you better believe it.

For purposes of academic analysis, it might be legitimate to distinguish between a “fascist-leaning” movement and a truly fascist one, or a far-right regime and fascist regime, or an authoritarian populist and a fascist. But I am a former member of the Philippine parliament and a street activist. While I have great respect for academics, those of us who operate in the realm of practical politics cannot afford to act as academics.

For me a movement or person must be regarded as fascist when they fuse the following five features: 1) they show a disdain or hatred for democratic principles and procedures; 2) they tolerate or promote violence; 3) they have a heated mass base that supports their anti-democratic thinking and behavior; 4) they scapegoat and support the persecution of certain social groups; and 5) they are led by a charismatic individual who exhibits and normalizes all of the above.

Belittling the Threat

When Mussolini and Hitler were still upstarts fighting to barge into the political mainstream in Italy and Germany, politicians of the left, center, and traditional right dismissed them as oddities who would either disappear or be absorbed into the parliamentary democratic system.

When Donald Trump got elected president of the United States in November 2016, opinion makers — with the exception of a handful, like the progressive filmmaker Michael Moore — were taken by surprise. But most predicted that the office would transform the unpredictable star of reality television into a proper president, one respectful of the customs and traditions of the world’s oldest democracy.

In the Philippines, after warning before our own 2016 elections that Rodrigo Duterte would be “another Marcos,” I wrote two months into Rodrigo Duterte’s presidency that he was a “fascist original.” I was criticized by many opinion-makers, academics, and even progressives for using the “f” word.

How wrong the pundits were in dismissing these personalities as flukes, as they were when it came to others, like Victor Orban in Hungary, Narendra Modi in India, and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil.

Academics are scornful of what they put down as “loaded terms,” but the consequences of underestimating the threat posed to democracy by fascists are not academic. It would be superfluous to be reminded now of Trump’s almost successful effort to prevent a peaceful transfer of power in the United States by systematically spreading the lie that he lost the elections and instigating a violent insurrection.

But for those who have not followed the career of other persons of interest as closely, let me acquaint you with the highlights of their respective reigns: Five years and over 20,000 extra-judicial executions later, the “f” word is one of the milder terms used for Rodrigo Duterte, with many preferring “mass murderer” or “serial killer.” Modi has made the secular and diverse India of Gandhi and Nehru a thing of the past with his Hindu nationalist project. And Orban and his Fidesz Party have almost completed their neutering of democracy in Hungary.

Democracies in Peril

The United States, India, Brazil, and the Philippines were four of the seven biggest democracies in the world just nine years ago. Today, three of them are led by fascists who are determined to complete their transformation into non-liberal democratic systems. The other barely survived a fascist’s determined effort to hold on to power.

With 11 million more Americans voting for Trump in 2020 than in 2016, 70 percent of the Republican Party believing against all evidence that he won the election, white supremacy emerging as the guiding ideology of the Republican Party, and a coalition of angry extremists open to violent means of seizing power emerging as the party’s driving force, who can deny that American democracy is in intensive care, despite the passage of the presidency to Joe Biden?

I would like to stress three things at this juncture.

First, the features of fascism come together in unique ways. If we are waiting for the ideal-type fascist to make his appearance, meaning a spitting image of Adolf, then we will be waiting forever.

Second, the key features of fascism do not become prominent all at once. They may, in fact, be institutionalized only late in the day, such as Mussolini’s eliminationist policy towards Jews, which he only made law in 1938, 16 years after he came to power.

Trump’s true willingness to openly overthrow the cornerstone of democracy — the peaceful succession of power via majority decision of the electorate — was not on full display until he lost the November 2020 elections. Modi and the BJP’s incendiary views of Muslims were dismissed by many as simply rhetorical excesses until the BJP came to power in 2014. Then began the lynching of Muslims falsely accused of being cattle traders, followed by mob attacks on Muslim ghettos, and the legalization of the social subordination of Muslims.

The third point is that the closer fascists come to power, the more some of them feel they must put on a pretense of respecting democratic processes and values to lull the electorate into believing they’re really not as bad as the liberal and progressive press make them out to be and evince horror at being branded as fascists.

Leaders of the Alternative fur Deutschland (AfD) in Germany have been trying hard to cultivate the image of responsible politicians who can be trusted to behave in a coalition with the Christian Democratic Party, the country’s main traditional conservative party. Fortunately, just when they think they’ve succeeded, someone from their ranks lets the cat out of the bag — like Christian Lueth, formerly the press spokesperson of AfD, who recently slipped and publicly assured a right wing blogger on the question of migrants, “We can always shoot them later, that’s not an issue. Or gas them, as you wish. It doesn’t matter to me.”

How can one deny that there is a fascist resurgence if one were to do even just a brief survey of today’s Western and Central Europe, which birthed fascism in the first half of the 20th century and has again become its fertile soil in the second decade of the 21st century?

From having no radical right-wing regime in the 2000s, except occasionally and briefly as junior partners in unstable governing coalitions as in Austria, the region now has two solidly in power — one in Hungary, the Orban government, and one in Poland, the Peace and Justice Party. The region has four more countries where a party of the far right is the main opposition party. And it has seven where the far right has become a major presence both in parliament and in the streets.

Seeding the Ground for Political Success

It would be myopic to judge fascism’s resurgence only in terms of its political success. The spread of fascist ideas is much faster than the pace of its electoral successes and, indeed, seeds the ground for its eventual political success. Racism, white supremacy, promotion of violence, conspiracy theories — such as Muslims seducing Hindu girls “in love jihads” to change the demographic balance in India — all spread fast online, become normalized in the echo chambers of the internet, and eventually are legitimized.

Especially alarming for people in the West who think liberal democratic beliefs are too solidly entrenched in their polities to be eroded should be the fact that holocaust denial is now more widespread in Europe than three decades ago, and that in the United States, surveys suggest broad ignorance about the Holocaust among millennial and Gen-Z respondents . These inroads in eroding the collective memory of 20th century fascism’s most diabolical crime must surely count as one of 21st century fascism’s biggest successes.

If you think I am exaggerating, listen to the German authorities, who report that anti-Semitic incidents in Germany in 2020 rose to 2,275, the highest since they started collecting data on politically motivated criminality in 2001. Listen to Charlotte Knobloch, former head of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, who tells us, “Anti-Semitism has become socially acceptable again.” Talk to the German domestic intelligence agency BfV, which has made the unprecedented request to the judiciary to place the AfD, Germany’s biggest opposition party, a hotbed of both Islamophobia and anti-Semitism, under scrutiny as a suspected fascist organization.

Why Fascists Target Migrants First

Especially targeted by fascists today are non-white migrants. Now, just because an individual is anti-migrant does not mean he or she is a committed fascist. The problem is anti-migrant attitudes today are bound up with support for repressive moves against them, like drastically limiting asylum to political refugees, deporting large numbers of them as “criminals” or “national security risks,” physically breaking up their communities under the pretext of “assimilation,” and denying them fundamental human rights, like the right of parents and children to stay together, which the Trump administration violated in the case of Central American and Mexican migrants.

The most vulnerable groups, like migrants, are the first targets of fascists, but you can be sure they won’t stop with them. As Pastor Niemoller’s celebrated poem reminds us, you only think you’re safe until they come for you and “there won’t be anyone left to speak” for you.

The beast is struggling against its chains in Germany. It has bared its fangs in Washington, D.C. It has shed blood in the Philippines and India. Let us not repeat the mistake of the democracies of the early 20th century of hesitating to call that beast by its name.

This first appeared on FPIF.

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Postal Service Reform: One Step Forward, Two Steps Back?

Where there is no vision, the people perish: but he that keepeth the law, happy is he.

– Proverbs 19:18

We are starting to see changes come the way of the US Postal Service (USPS). There is a bill from Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-OR) and a multitude of co-sponsors to eliminate the arbitrary requirement that the USPS prefund its workers’ retirement benefits, a burden not shared by most other federal employees. This bill is not new, but now with Democratic majorities in Congress, its chances of passage are more conceivable.

There is also a new plan from the USPS and its Board of Governors that has won grudging approval from one of the two principal postal workers unions – the National Association of Letter Carriers (NALC). However, the plan has received a more equivocal reaction from the American Postal Workers Union (APWU) and some activists. The NALC represents letter carriers, as the name suggests; the APWU represents workers in the vast mail sorting facilities.

The USPS plan cannot be celebrated for its vision, which as the Bible says, we sorely need, and the urgency of keeping the mail moving has given rise to some problematic compromises. Above I have linked to the union statements. Another source is the rank-and-file oriented Communities and Postal Workers United organization.

I cannot hope to adjudicate the disputes between the unions and some Democrats in Congress who support the USPS plan. What is safe to say is that the emerging deal continues to view the USPS mission narrowly, limited to delivering mail and packages, and reliant on its own revenues. As such, this framework going forward threatens further service cutbacks, reductions in USPS labor standards, and privatization of selected USPS operations, as I outlined in my USPS report for CEPR.

Presently the USPS is a free-standing organization led by a Board of Governors (BoG) nominated by the president and approved by the Senate. Its independent status is a double-edged sword, as far as its workers are concerned. That independence facilitates contract negotiations between the USPS and its unions, free of direct meddling from Congress. But it also tends to suggest that the service ought to be self-financing, “like a business.”

I criticized the latter nostrum at length in my report. Looking beyond the immediate future, the USPS ought to be all it can be. It should be more than a business since it provides public benefits far beyond its direct customer base. Besides establishing a solid basis for excellent mail and package delivery service, the service ought to be expanding its scope into other functions that would benefit the nation. This will require the abandonment of the self-financing constraint and regular appropriations from Congress. Mail service and new functions ought to be offered to customers at discounted prices that reflect the external benefits to the public, just as we subsidize solar energy and electric vehicles.

Top of the menu of such functions would be postal banking. Representatives Marcy Kaptur (D-OH) and Bill Pascrell (D-NJ), and Senators Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Bernie Sanders (I-VT) have a bill to this end.

Seeing postal services as part of a national communications infrastructure, it also makes sense for the USPS to be involved in the provision of basic Internet services. Besides broadband itself, we could benefit from public alternatives in web browsing, search engines, and social media that forego the predatory practices regarding labor relations, privacy, fake news, and intolerance attributable to the big tech monopolies. This sort of expansion depends on a more visionary Board of Governors than we have seen to date.

The Board of Governors still has a Republican majority since the Senate, under the leadership of Mitch McConnell, refused to approve any of President Obama’s nominees. In other words, McConnell packed the Board of Governors. President Biden has forwarded new nominees that, if approved, would create a nominal Democratic majority on the BoG. On April 28th, Biden’s nominees were approved by the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee. Once approved in the full Senate, they will give Biden a majority on the Board.

The majority could be fragile because one Democrat on the Board appointed by Donald Trump is Donald Moak, a former leader of the Air Line Pilots Association, who has not proven especially helpful. The other Democrat is Ron Bloom, also appointed by Trump. He is a banker and private equity investor. Bloom played a role in rescuing the US auto industry as part of the Obama Administration. Now he is collaborating with the postmaster general, the odious Trump donor Louis DeJoy.

Getting rid of DeJoy would not be easy. First the BoG would have to be brought into line, possibly by removing some current members. Then the Board would have to fire DeJoy, although the current head of the Board, Bloom, is working with DeJoy.

It was widely feared that DeJoy would sabotage mail-in balloting last November, but for several reasons this did not come about. It did come to pass, however, that Christmas mail and package delivery was entirely disrupted, due to management misfeasance, inadequate resources, and the effects of the coronavirus on postal workers. There are also reports that mail delivery service under DeJoy’s stewardship has been on a long-term decline.

Bloom is in a difficult spot. Being stuck with DeJoy and still lacking a Democratic majority on his Board, he chose to work with DeJoy on the new USPS plan cited above. As such, he is invested in that plan, and in DeJoy himself. For its part, so far, the Biden Administration has shown little interest in the USPS, which should not be surprising in light of the numerous fires with which it has to contend. The upshot is that DeJoy’s position has been strengthened.

At a minimum, the priorities now are to secure the approval of Biden’s nominees, pass the DeFazio bill, and get the best plan possible going forward. Republican intransigence on these counts may not be as severe as suspected. The fact is that rural localities and red states have an important interest in a USPS with ample funding. DeFazio’s bill is co-sponsored by Sen. Steve Daines (R-MT).

Privatization measures in the USPS plan to replace APWU jobs with contract workers would set the stage for further such policies, likely eliminating six-day delivery, rural postal facilities, and affordable postal rates for those in relatively remote locations that are costly to serve.

For the long term, it is worth imagining that another postal service is possible. The USPS is the premier public enterprise of the United States, and we could do with more of it.

This column first appeared on CEPR.

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Capitalism, Borders and the Damage They Do

Todd Miller writes about modern empire and borders. His works tell of a US border security apparatus that extends into other nations around the world and provides various immigration police agencies in the United States to operate anywhere they please inside US borders. His descriptions of the surveillance technology and its uses are simultaneously fascinating from a scientific point of view and terrifying in their potential. The reports he includes about the human side of border and immigration policing is just frightening. The inference I have drawn from his descriptions is that even if an agent of the immigration or border police is inclined to act humanely when it comes to dealing with migrants, the very structure and mindset of the agencies makes such acts subject to discipline from above. The conclusion is a simple one—open borders to people, not just business.

Build Bridges, Not Walls: A Journey to a World Without Borders, is a new book from Miller. In it he utilizes his understanding of the US border regimes to inform a collection of encounters with those affected by that infrastructure. This includes border patrol agents, border abolitionists, academics and most importantly, migrants themselves. The reader meets Miller as he drives in the Sonora Desert about twenty miles from the US-Mexico border. He sees a man on the side of the road hoping for a ride. Although Miller gives the man a ride, taking him to a shelter run by a group established to assist immigrants without question, he acknowledges his hesitancy in doing so. The reason for Miller’s hesitation is the fear he could get stopped by law enforcement and charged with a felony for helping an undocumented migrant. The reader is barely five pages in when the question which propels this text becomes obvious: “what happens to our collective humanity when the impulse to help another is criminalized?”

The answers to this are hinted at throughout this slender book. Many of them are manifestations of something I would call evil; the evil of intention and the banality of bureaucratic evil. Sometimes the two find a home in one individual—a sadistic guard in a private immigration detention camp. Most of the time, however, it is an evil defined by its lack of passion or personal delight. It is the uniformed official doing their job or the bureaucrat issuing citations on their keyboard. Or it is the egocentric and sycophantic politician voting yes on laws that criminalize kindness and demonize children. It is this evil which informs the actions of a society with little self-reflection and an outsized sense of entitlement. It is a society so removed from its kinder impulses that locking up battered and abused people because their papers are not in order is justified by almost all those in control.

The humans J. Malcolm Garcia writes about live south of the US-Mexican border. However, they are not immune from the meanings that border proscribes. The effects of industrial and financial endeavors from companies and institutions to the North are the essence of his essays. His stories are of the multitudes in the migrant caravans escaping lives filled with violence and hunger. They are about families living in the aftermath of US-engineered coups and wars. Garcia reports from neighborhoods made of cardboard and tin next to refuse dumps, from refugee detention centers in Mexico and from the streets of cities throughout Central America. The people he talks to are nuns caring for abandoned children and fighting mines poisoning rivers and farmlands; children living on the fringes of gang-infested cities trying to go to school while taking care of siblings and other relatives. The pure horror of their lives goes unnoticed by most of the world, in part because the authorities hide it away but mostly because people do not want to look. Garcia’s text, titled A Different Kind of War: Uneasy Encounters in Mexico and Central America is but a small part of a momentum to force people to look; to look and do something about it.

His lyrical prose transcends its journalistic task. The lives he enters and modestly profiles are humble lives. The book features the aforementioned nuns devoting their selves to the wretched of the earth. It also describes what might be seen as an unwarranted hope in the hearts of children who, despite the objective despair of their situation, tell Garcia of their desire to be a doctor or a nurse. Beyond the desperate nature of the lives Garcia writes about lurks a spirituality that his writing fashions into a beautifully wrought verse.

Many of the pieces in A Different Kind of War were originally written for newspapers connected to a religious faith, as are most of Garcia’s subjects. It is within these people’s lives that Karl Marx’s description of religion as the ” sigh of the oppressed ” is made real. Spiritual belief is often the one of the few phenomena that gives them a reason to live; a hope that defies the despair of their lives. It is not something to be laughed at, but to be reckoned with. There’s a reason people turn to ministers for guidance. Quite often that guidance suggests acquiescence. In Garcia’s reports, the opposite is often true. Nuns and priests are engaged in the struggle for a more equitable existence; against the bloodshed and economic injustice they know so intimately—from their work and from their own lives.

The common thread in these two texts involves borders and capitalism. Both include profiles of individuals and communities struggling to make their lives better in the face of the obstacles placed in their way by borders and capitalism. Todd Miller provides an overview that discusses the political and economic system that profits from and enforce the regime of borders. J. Malcolm Garcia lets his wonderfully narrated stories speak for themselves. In both works, we find a beauty scuffling not necessarily to thrive, but to exist.

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Castigating Its Competitors: Western Hypocrisy and China

The West’s political and media assault on China increases week by week. Human rights has become the primary means of criticism and justification for sanctioning China over its actions in Hong Kong and treatment of the Uighers.

This info war is creating a divide – those pro-Western ‘values’ arguing China has to be brought to heel, and those that criticise Western hypocrisy for banging on about human rights abuses. If you fall in the latter camp, you are seen as an appeaser, a defender of China – and Russia – devoid of criticial reflection and guilty of ‘whataboutism’.

The situation is making discussion, and argument, difficult, to say the least.

It is not as if China is acting like a cuddly bear and being unfairly criticised (although the Uigher issue has been politicised and claims of genocide seem tenuous), but the media attacks are being rather blinkered, which is what gets the goat of many critics of Western policy and those seeking a more just world.

This was evident in a recent Financial Times opinion piece – Western companies in China succumb to Stockholm syndrome – in which Jamil Anderlini argued that Western executives are so fearful of antagonising Beijing that they’ve adopted a hostage mindset, aka Stockholm syndrome. “If you want to make money in modern China you have to toe the Communist Party’s line, engage in ostentatious displays of fealty and assist in its propaganda efforts,” he wrote.

This is true. Companies do make a Faustian pact to enter the Chinese market – the FT itself self-censors stories related to Taiwan, Xinjiang and Tibet on its Chinese language website. But one can say the same about Western companies and other autocratic regimes and markets, the Middle East and North Africa being a prime example.

The UK is the biggest foreign investor in Egypt, and the USA the largest military donor, yet there are few calls, if any, for imposing sanctions and for such transactions to halt despite the appalling human rights record, the near total erosion of press freedoms (I’ve been stopped for filming the Nile from a hotel balcony for ‘national security’ reasons; Egyptian academics refuse to give interviews as they are so fearful), mass surveillance of Egyptian citizens, and an ever tightening grip of the security state led by a former director of military intelligence, President Abdel Fattah Sisi.

Egypt is too strategically important, too close to the European Union (EU) and Israel, to antagonise, and Sisi knows it (he threatened the EU a few years ago, saying he could unleash Egypt’s then 80 million people – now over 100 million – to sail across the Mediterranean if he didn’t get support).

It is a similar story in the Gulf, with Western companies and governments over looking the usual suspects list of violations for lucrative deals, oil revenues, and massive arms contracts.

Anderlini writes of ‘Hong Kong-based international business executives’, several from ‘democratic societies’, saying they ‘viewed the free press as their greatest enemy’… as ‘pesky journalists dared to report on these developments, thereby convincing head office to stop investing in the city’.

I’ve encountered a similar attitude, this ‘Stockholm syndrome’ of buying into the business-first narrative, in Westerners in the Gulf. In Dubai during the first year of the so-called Arab Spring, in 2011, and following Saudi Arabia’s brutal crackdown on demonstrators at Manama’s Pearl Roundabout (which has been erased from the face of Bahrain’s earth, in case anyone might remember), I was covering an IT expo. Interviewing a British CEO, I asked how the Arab Spring had impacted business. He said Riyadh had done a ‘good job in bringing back stability’, and growth was back to normal. Human rights violations, freedom of expression and so on were clearly not as important as profit.

It is not a surprise, it is a capitalist mindset, but it is indicative of a wider trend. I noticed the same among many Western expats in the Gulf, especially Dubai. After a year or two there, they would take offence at any criticism of the Emirates, and even defended the leadership.

Many times I heard Western businessmen gush about the ‘vision’ of ‘His Highness’ or ‘His Excellency’. They weren’t very different from government employees in the Gulf, Jordan, Egypt or Syria I had interviewed, but the difference is that Westerners could be critical, whereas these government employees of autocratic states could not – they could not leave without repercussions unlike the craven Westerner.

Criticism of the Gulf has increased in recent years, particularly of Saudi Arabia following the brutal murder of Jamal Khashoggi and the Yemen war, but business is still ongoing. Arms deals in particular.

And here we see real Stockholm syndrome. One of the biggest cases of corruption in the arms trade was the Al-Yamamah oil-for-arms deal agreed by Saudi Arabia and Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s, which netted the British arms giant $55 bn in revenues from 1985 to 2006.

In 2006, a media investigation alleged that BAE paid over GBP1 billion to Saudi Arabian facilitator Prince Bandar to secure the Yamamah arms deal. The case went to the UK’s Serious Fraud Office. It was then squashed by then Prime Minister Tony Blair, under pressure from the Saudis, but also the British monarchy, to maintain relations.

Over in South America, the Stockholm syndrome of siding with strong men and political meddling is apparent. The West went along with the coup in Bolivia in 2019, and Canadian mining companies in the 2012 coup in Paraguay. In the lead up to the 2018 Brazilian elections, a Dutch journalist friend living in Sao Paulo told me that the Dutch men he played football with, who worked for the Big Four accountancy firms, all backed Jair Bolsonaro as he was ‘good for business’. The destruction of the Amazon and labour rights be damned.

There are innumerable examples of businesses and governments looking the other way to get into markets. That is capitalism, and that is the real Stockholm syndrome at play here, of people hostage to an imperialist system they believe is better than any alternative, and use mental gymnastics to go along with. This includes racism and Otherness – how else to explain EU companies banned from selling toxic  pesticides containing glyphosates to spray on crops within the EU yet can export to third countries?

What is ultimately missing in the Western media’s critiques of China and elsewhere is objectivity. The raping of the planet, the massive inequality and so on, is being carried out by all sides – China, Russia, the EU, and the US. The human rights and the war of words is used selectively when politically expedient to do so.

Everyone should be held to high standards, to uphold the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Calling out the transgressions of another without looking at yourself is hypocrisy. And the West doesn’t have a leg to stand on, it hasn’t for years. Not after up to 2 million were killed in the War on Terror and the destruction of Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Yemen… Not after Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, extraordinary renditions, the mass surveillance revelations of Edward Snowden, or the unjust incarceration of Julian Assange.

The US and EU can resort to sanctions that have more impact due to greater economic strength than China’s or Russia’s to rein in bad behaviour. Yet these are unilateral, or multilateral in the weakest sense, rather than being globally backed. As Jeffrey Sachs noted, the UN should be used to investigate the situation in Xinjiang – let’s have the accusation of genocide from the UN itself, rather than the US and EU.

Yet the West, especially the US, doesn’t want to use an organisation it was central to creating as it is fearful of the majority, the General Assembly, as it can’t whip everyone into line anymore. It is why there is no possible change in the structure of the Security Council – all the world’s top financial powers and arms dealers, Russia and China included – to be more universalist.

If the West practiced what it preached, it would have a higher moral ground to castigate its competitors, especially as the West established the so-called ‘rules based system’ and enacts globally reaching laws. But it doesn’t. Until it does – and that will require revolutionary change – accusations of human rights abuses will ring hollow, and only those with Stockholm syndrome, taken hostage in believing in the sanctity of the neoliberal, imperialist Eurocentric order, will keep believing otherwise.

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Challenging the Bias of the Refugee as “Other”: Behrouz Boochani’s No Friend but the Mountains

Refugee narratives contain the stories of those voices that rarely see the light of recognition or acceptance. The defining characteristic of a refugee is the perception thrown upon them by the nations of closed borders that they can only be seen as the “other.” The inescapable label many refugees face then reinforces the false stereotypes spread by ill-informed fear and racism.

With so many stigmas working against the image of the refugee, it can be difficult to overcome the predetermined notions of the refugee being more than the unfounded speculations. The splicing of the refugee into isolation and a human category of their own, propagates the belief that they are an “other.” This overtly racist and discriminatory designation denies the refugee their socially prescribed normality and instead sets them apart as something that is not entirely human. Therefore, the importance of refugee narratives resides in their ability to close the gap between the polarized images projected between those outside of the camps and the humans trapped inside of them. Specifically, No Friend but the Mountains by Behrouz Boochani acts as an opportunity for a refugee narrative, told both from a biographical and an activist angle, to uncover the nonexistent gap between refugees and the rest of the world. Boochani’s No Friend but the Mountains candidly shares his own firsthand experience of being imprisoned in a refugee camp surrounded by the reality that escape is not possible. However wretched the conditions, Boochani finds ways of sharing beauty and hope. His constant connection to nature and elevated prose brings light to the narrative of the refugee. This light then defies the claim of the refugee being the “other.”

To begin, one must consider the stigmatization and dehumanization of the individuals who are strapped to the label and identity of “refugee.” It has long since been a burdensome reality for refugees to carry the weight of a label that has been categorized outside of the normal social order. The images portrayed of refugees and the selective space provided for their stories to be told are often isolated to the frequency of lost causes. Sadly, many people who enter the migrant categorization of “refugee” may never leave the position of being considered stateless, even after having gained entry and settling. Thus, the social stratification of refugees works to eliminate their belonging to the shared global community. Just as Julie McDougall and Don Fletcher state in their article discussing the dehumanization of refugees, “[S]tigma and normalcy produce each other: stigmatization places a group outside the bounds of what is considered ordinary, acceptable, and expected by others; members of stigmatized groups are deprived of […] being normal.” The distancing tactics employed in national immigration policies across the globe create a plot that poses the refugee as undeserving of defining and speaking to their own identity or experiences. The “self-protective” strategies of national borders seek to highlight the security risks of migrants; however, McDougall and Fletcher further state that such accusations are meant to generate fear and insecurity of a national identity.

Additionally, the stereotyping of refugees allows for negative generalizations to be made where individuals are deprived of the opportunity to break away from the collectively stigmatized identity. With this, negative images and oversimplifications are drawn (especially within media) as to how a refugee may look, live, or identify themselves. These sweeping applications feed into the panic behind the designation of the refugee as a deserved outcast. Elleke Boehmer writes on colonial and post-colonial literature and argues that ‘othering’ involves fear of the other, invoking images of contamination, infection and bewitchment, but also the assumption that the other is less than human. It is clear that refugee identities have become all too intertwined with the labels and stigmas that have been generated and distributed by the world. The role refugee narratives play in giving refugees the space to define and express their experiences in their own words takes place within the confines of an immigration court as well as the world stage. Refugee narratives give those individuals the time and space to use their own voice and portray their own image to the world. This reclamation of a narrative is extremely important as it can uncover the harsh realities of imprisonment and statelessness as well as refute the ingenuine claims made by the media. Simona Bonini Baldini holds the capability of the refugee narrative to high esteem and writes that, “Critical reflection on the performative dimension of the media representation of refugees, driven between the threatening and the self-pitying image of the other, brings attention to the need to view the process of recognizing the refugee in relation to the act of narration.” Behrouz Boochani’s narrative accomplishes this as it delves into his experience of what imprisonment was like while being held on Manus Island. Basic human rights were routinely violated in the prison while a ‘kyriarchical’ system ruled the Australian detention regime. The ‘kyriarchy’ references the interconnected social systems established for the purposes of domination, oppression, and submission within the Australian refugee response. Thus, the narrative of Behrouz Boochani communicates agency through its ability to reclaim an individualistic refugee identity.

Where stigmas and labels reign, there is an allowance made for imaginative falsehoods to take over. However, through the biographical work of Behrouz Boochani, there is no need for the imagination to take over in an attempt to create a genuine image of a refugee as Boochani does this with his own voice, and speaks truth from his own experience. The very use of imagination sets the refugee apart as something that can only exist in the mind while the reality of Boochani’s narrative brings a clear reality to the scene and identity of the refugee. In this setting, Boochani is using his own voice, as opposed to another taking his place. With this, Boochani is brought to the forefront in order to speak on his own behalf. This closes the gap between the refugee and the global audience so that a closeness may be established that otherwise wouldn’t have been available through the frequencies of stigmas held by the world. Boochani writes of the circumstances that defined his childhood, “I am a child of war. I don’t mean to say I’ve been sacrificed. I never ever want to be labelled with this word. That war has taken its sacrifices . . . and continues to make sacrifice.” Thus, the chosen medium of the Boochani’s self-written narrative stimulates the reader into an in-depth interaction with the text and refugee identities at large. Consequently, the myth that refugees differ from the rest of the world and exist outside of the social order is erased. Boochani aids in this process when he voices his perspective of Manus prison and provides a bridge for the reader to absorb the truth of the refugee experience:

A nightmare turned into a reality

A nightmare within the prison

A nightmare with the sound of locals

A nightmare drumming with their footsteps.

The poetic imagery digs into the tortured beauty of the human condition as Boochani illustrates every scene with his soul bared in order to expose the truth of imprisonment. To unearth the realities of imprisonment is to refute the stigmas where distancing tactics seek to keep the truth of equality of personhood and worth hidden away. The perceived identity gap between refugees and the rest of the world is an excuse to hide the experience of the refugee. With the words of Bridget Hayden, from her article on the nature of the migrant individual, “[T]he recognition of refugees is the recognition of mutual bonds of humanity and need. It is an empathetic and moral relationship that should be predicated on truly listening to the displaced themselves.” In writing his own story, Boochani proves that his existence is as worthy and dignified as those outside of the prison gates. Recognition is both provided by and given to himself as the promotion of individuality within the refugee identity. Additionally, the recognition brings him closer to the global audience. This raw closeness, then, between author and audience, or rather the world, challenges the hypocritical myths that oust the displaced people of the world.

Though his reality is extraneous, Boochani refuses to live his life through the lens of inescapable tragedies. The motif of poetic device, present throughout the entirety of the novel, works to weave Boochani’s refugee narrative together as a mixture of both light and darkness. The use of this medium binds the horrific realities of refugee imprisonment and the beauty of reclaimed narratives. The combination of light and darkness Boochani shows prove the versatility of the refugee experience and their common ground with the rest of the world. In other words, there is no “other.” One of the very first traumatic moments of Boochani’s attempted journey to Australia is the sinking of the boat all hopeful refugees were on. Boochani uses idyllic language to describe the scene:

Sinking into mountains of waves

Drowning into the darkness

Sinking into the bitter ocean

Swallowed up by the ocean

Swallowed up without mercy.

The uses of the word ‘sinking’ as followed by ‘drowning’ and ‘swallowed’ contribute to the dark yet beautiful imagery of the moment. Though Boochani is detailing the ticking seconds of his life that almost ended entirely, the slowed beat of the rhythm warps the reader’s reaction. The repetition of words mirrors the movement of one struggling to swim. The divisions meant to separate the lines take on the expressions of pulses. Such artistry elevates the distressing life-story and calls for the symptomatic scene to show Boochani’s genius. The complexity of the peace wrought between the lines shows the expansion of Boochani’s mind and proves the perceived “otherness” as false labels created by those who see nativeness as the only true form of identity.

Boochani writes to highlight the situational “othering” taking place within the prison when discussing the guards who seek to protect the institutionally protected stigmas of refugees, “It is just extremely hard to believe / It is painful to be in a situation where it is difficult to believe so many things / When an individual is in a situation in which it is difficult to believe that so many things are a certain way / . . . That situation becomes the cause of suffering.” Thus, the skillful use of poetry and elevated prose in the novel preserves the refugee identity in defining it as a living and ever-changing entity worthy of positive self-representation. With the perceived differences between the refugee and the rest of the world erased, one can see the unchallenged similarities between those separated meaninglessly by fences. The intertwining of tragedy and beauty comes as the added power of refugee narratives.

This power then speaks to the capability of the narrative in surpassing the constructs behind the categorization of the “we,” the stranger, and the excluded. The capital of the reclaimed narrative lies in its realignment from the purely dark focus to one of diversified perspectives. Simona Bonini Baldini writes of the continued potential of refugee narratives in her article detailing the capability of the self-recognizing narrative, “The way a subject is narrated not only determines the shape of the subject, but also highlights the type of development of the society where that representation takes form.” Thus, the decision made by Boochani to portray both elements of light and dark balances the narrative and adds to its rawness, for it was his own decision to portray his experiences as such. The prospective role of the refugee narrative’s future is one that fuses the power and beauty of choice in unveiling reality as well as the darkness of reality itself. The circumstances of Boochani’s imprisonment do not define him, as he transcends each moment through the channels of linguistic artistry. In other words, Boochani’s work does not feed into the refugee industry that attempts to misuse refugee narratives as an emotive trap. Rather, Boochani works to unveil systematic torture through the medium of a poetic narrative all the while pursuing interconnectivity with the global audience.

In conclusion, the defining characterization for a displaced person is the recognition tossed upon them by the countries of nativists that they must be viewed as the “other.” The inescapable label many refugees face then reinforces the false stereotypes spread by ill-informed fear and ill-conceived racism. With so many generalizations stigmatizing the picture of the refugee, it becomes extremely hard to negate the predetermined ideas of the outcast being more than the unwarranted theories. The stigmatized exile of humans strips them of being considered a normal being and the idea of the “other” becomes indoctrinated into the global perception of their identity. This unmistakably prejudicial designation prevents the refugee from securing their socially awarded normality and separates them as something that is not entirely human. Hence, the significance of refugee narratives lives in their capacity to close the gap between the varying pictures projected between those outside of the camps and the people caught inside of them. No Friend but the Mountains by Behrouz Boochani acts as an opportunity for a refugee narrative to be told both from a biographical and an activist angle to uncover the nonexistent gap between refugees and the rest of the world. Boochani’s constant connection to nature and elevated prose bring light to the experience of the refugee. This light then defies the claim of the refugee being the “other.” In the words of Simona Bonini Baldini, “The expansion of individual capabilities into social capabilities highlights how people, through the capability of reflecting on their own condition and participating in public debate, must no longer be considered the means of every social policy, but the ends.” Therefore, in consideration of the importance of refugee studies, there is much more room for work to be done in surveying the relationship and reclamation process of refugee labels and identities. Given the powerful properties of the refugee narrative, there are now steps to be taken in order to reflect and act upon the integration of refugee perspectives within national policy.

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