Thursday, February 21, 2013

Imperialism, socialism, and democracy: coups and social change in Latin America

Originally published by NACLA Report on the Americas

IN 1960, FIDEL CASTRO DECLARED THAT "CUBA'S example would convert the Andean Cordillera into the hemisphere's Sierra Maestra," referring to the mountains in eastern Cuba that served as the guerrillas' base during the revolutionary war. (1) After seizing power from U.S.-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista, Cuba's revolutionaries actively promoted "continental revolution" to destroy the network of military states that constituted the U.S. empire in Latin America, and eliminate the capitalist order that sustained them.
Armed revolution has long since subsided in Latin America, but over the past decade the revolutionary vision of sovereign, socialist development has resurfaced--though in modified form. The success of Venezuela's Bolivarian Revolution, followed similarly in Bolivia and Ecuador, has again raised the banner of socialism and regional independence, but this time through electoral means. For Latin Americans pursuing social change, Venezuela, rather than Cuba, has become the model to follow.
The Cuban revolutionary model was based on complete social and institutional reconstruction, which entailed the total destruction of the existing state apparatus. Only such a radical approach, the revolutionaries believed, could prevent the region's tremendous wealth from continuing to flow into the pockets of multinational corporations and their local oligarchic allies who, together with the U.S. government, worked to perpetuate a social order that relegated millions to lives of desperate poverty.
The Venezuelan model has taken a significantly different course. In stark contrast to the Cuban method, the governments of Venezuela, Bolivia, and Ecuador--not to mention a decidedly leftward turn in many of the region's other governments--have used existing electoral mechanisms and state apparatuses to compel the capitalist social order and its beneficiaries to make compromises with the masses of poor.
The achievements of these regimes have been considerable: in Venezuela, for example, the Chavez government succeeded in cutting the poverty rate in half in just five years (2003-08), while extreme poverty was reduced by 72%. (2) Furthermore, these governments are the leading voices in a growing chorus of opposition to U.S. hegemony, objecting in particular to the neoliberal "Washington Consensus" developmental model that has aggravated social inequalities and produced the worst long-term economic growth in a century. (3)
But in each case, capitalism remains alive and well--in fact, healthier than ever--though the national wealth is distributed more equitably and political participation broadened. (4)
And although the new "revolutionary" regimes have accomplished a great deal, the electoral approach to social change has inherent weaknesses that the United States and its allies have shown an increasing ability to exploit. Following a template designed to counteract the new revolutionary model, the U.S.-backed coup in Honduras in 2009 and the recent impeachment of Paraguay's President Fernando Lugo highlight some of the difficulties of pursuing progressive social change through existing state structures.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Springsteen's "Wrecking Ball" and the Plague of the 99%

Originally published in Monthly Review

On his most recent album, Wrecking Ball, Bruce Springsteen crafted a powerful statement of support for the working class, the existence of which barely penetrates contemporary art or politics. This is not an accident: the growing power of capital over public discourse has provided it a forceful means through which to shape individual consciousness, and establish an apolitical and at most technocratic understanding of power. Those at the top, we are led to believe, are there because of their technical skills and have risen by meritocratic means—the vast gulfs created by inequalities in wealth, power, and privilege are ignored. In fact, gigantic corporations—controlled by the 1% (or by the 0.1%)—dominate all forms of production. Even in the cultural realm, the art and voices of the working class are sidelined and squelched. Working people thus become invisible. As Occupy has helped make clear, the 99%, though divided in all kinds of ways, share the collective disappointment of being ruledby others, as opposed to ruling themselves;of constantly producing and reproducing the bases of wealth and power at the top of society, rather than fulfilling their own developmental potential…. Power over surplus distribution—and thus nearly everything else—is left to an unelected ownership class. The overwhelming majority of the population is unable to locate itself in the “democratic consensus” or the dominant culture.

In our ad-driven consumer age, it is a monumental struggle to encourage sympathy and solidarity by bringing the stories and views of working people to a mass audience. Indeed, one of the greatest successes of the Occupy movement has been to force the idea into the national discourse that the working class exists as such (we are the 99%), a notion that is usually reserved for the radical fringe. On Wrecking Ball, Springsteen channels and supports the proletarian discourse of the 99%, which overcomes post-political, technocratic ideology and constructs a world sharply divided between exploited and exploiters. He crosses over from his earlier lament for a fallen America and the unfulfilled promise of the American dream to rage at the “robber barons” who “ate the flesh off everything they’ve found” and “whose crimes have gone unpunished,” calling on workers to stand united in seeking social justice. In telling the seldom-heard stories of working people and subjectivizing them as victims of the violence of capital, Wrecking Ball represents an important salvo in the cultural struggle, providing justification for and encouraging solidarity with the cause of the 99%.

In its review of the album, the popular music website Pitchfork chides Springsteen for “rail[ing] against those up on ‘Banker’s Hill’ in the sort of black-and-white terms that continue to plague and cleave his home country.” In suggesting that those who have united as “the 99%” are merely troublemakers, and that Occupy is actually a “plague” on society, Pitchfork—regarded as a hip and liberal publication in the hegemonic discourse—paradoxically adopts a position that would make Newt Gingrich blush. How is this possible? In fact, the Pitchforkreview can be taken as a model to demonstrate the shortcomings of the so-called “hipster” current. This social current, of which Pitchfork is the ultimate expression, is the embodiment of postmodern skepticism and relativism. Artistically, it is concerned solely with exhibiting middle-class angst, while it presents liberation as the styling of an individualized consumerism and pornographic self-expression. Any transformational social project, or genuine contact with the working class, is seen as anachronistic and totalitarian. As Arcade Firedescribed on their 2010 album The Suburbs, what appears as progressive experimentation and “liberation” is really Rococo—trivial but elaborate ornamentation that amounts to little more than an indication of privilege and isolation, like the elaborate dress of the court of Louis XVI.

Naturally, this ideology—which emphasizes consumerism and the liberation of the market while discouraging social and political engagement—poses no threat whatsoever to structures of power and domination, and is therefore ubiquitous. It has served to mask and even defend the marginalization of working-class art while concealing the domination of the cultural terrain by the forces of capital, under the guise of liberation and freedom. As Arcade Fireput it, “they seem wild, but they are so tame.” With Wrecking Ball, Springsteen has produced a record of startling beauty, that unambiguously proclaims solidarity with the 99% and reaffirms the possibility of a better world. It is a powerful statement in support of the Occupiers’ struggle against a ruling class that is waging unmitigated war against workers and the poor. The force of this statement, and the nature of Pitchfork’s response, help to reveal the class bias concealed behind postmodern “common sense” and hipster skepticism.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

The Ubermensch Rises: Justice, Truth and Necessary Evil in "The Dark Knight Rises"

Originally published by Truthout

Nietzsche's declaration that "God is dead" is quoted nearly as often as it is misunderstood. Nietzsche did not simply intend to express that there is no God. Rather, he meant that the notion of God had ceased to play its value-generating role as an organizing principle, maintaining order and social harmony. Since God is what gives the world structure for the plebian masses, the death of God opens a space in which meaning can be reshaped and ideals redefined. For Nietzsche, God would have to be replaced by an ubermensch, a higher sort of human being who would "revalue all values," assuming the role of imposing meaning and purpose for the weaker class of followers.

Christopher Nolan's "The Dark Knight Rises" takes place at a rather similar moment. In the film, the system and those who lead it ("the 1%" of Occupy's imagery) have failed: we are shown images of economic decline, unemployment and hardship. This fall corresponds with the disappearance of Batman, the patriarchal guardian of order in Gotham City. This absence of "God" brings imbalance in the form of a mass uprising led by arch-villain Bane, which threatens dominant values and relationships. It is not often that superhero villains explain their goals in terms of social justice and democracy, yet that is precisely what Bane does - but he seeks to redefine these terms in a manner contrary to that of the existing establishment. The clash between Batman and Bane is, on one level, a clash of values between value-creating ubermenschen, two contradictory notions of social order and harmony. In the film, concepts like democracy justice, and equality are deformed and manipulated by the "bad guy" as a means of leading the masses astray, into what is ultimately a murderous plan to destroy the entire city. Then, in true Bonapartiste fashion, Batman the ubermensch joins the cops in reimposing the rule of the social elite, restoring law and order.

As with God in Nietzsche's age of scientific discovery, and in Gotham in "The Dark Knight Rises," for us today the system has lost its self-evidence, the automatic legitimacy that usually renders its role in underwriting social order invisible. But in this moment of liminality, no ubermensch, but the Occupy movement, has risen to challenge fundamental ideas and structures, striving to re-articulate the very principles on which the prevailing ideology claims a monopoly. This struggle has contributed to the crisis of ruling-class power, and has accordingly been met by a level of state violence that has shocked the nation and contributed to a growing awareness of the tenuous, limited nature of our democracy. In this context, "The Dark Knight Rises" has been interpreted by several critics as a shameless, reactionary attack on the efforts of Occupiers to endure police beatings and brave the winter cold to propel us toward a more just and democratic future. This is worth paying attention to, because it is not just fictional characters Batman battles, but real-life ideas that are of great importance to our future.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

The Corporate Media's Attempt to Kill the Occupy Movement

By Michael Corcoran and Stephen Maher

Originally published by Truthout

"It was a bright cold day in April and the clocks were striking thirteen." George Orwell, 1984

This May Day brought the explosive global resurgence of Occupy, one of the most significant social movement in decades. In New York City, the heart of global capitalism and center of the movement, the New York Civil Liberties Union estimated that 30,000 demonstrators took part in a massive rally and march down Broadway, led by a score of city taxicabs. As has become alarmingly common for a country that constantly proclaims its zealous devotion to democracy, the day ended with brutal police violence and arrests.

The visible success of Occupy in creating a space for the voice of the people impelled uncontrolled thousands to pour onto the streets of New York City, Oakland, and elsewhere around the country and across the world on May Day, in the start of what US organizers have called an "American Spring." Touting its message of class solidarity--"we are the 99 percent" - Occupy has revealed the profoundly undemocratic nature of a democratic consensus expressed by corporate-sponsored political representatives, demanding direct popular involvement in areas of social and political life normally dominated by ruling class power.

The powerful rejuvenation of the Occupy movement, however, was used by the US media - owned by the very same interests that Occupy directly threatens - as an opportunity to finally kill the Occupy movement and marginalize the voices of its participants. Since September, the mainstream press in the US has systematically ignored and demonized the Occupy movement. The nakedness of the class bias in this case, however, was especially jarring: the size and significance of the protests were downplayed, reports of police brutality were largely ignored, and the movement was portrayed as violent and dangerous. Many of the most prominent US news outlets, such as The New York Times, practically ignored the protests altogether. These shameful distortions by the corporate press display the function of the media as an organ of the rule of "the 1 percent," and reveal how threatened elites are by organized, direct action and democratic participation.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Radio Interview with "Alert" on Egyptian Elections

Canadian Dimension's "Alert" radio program interviewed me this week on the Egyptian elections and the ongoing uprising in that country. Listen here (the interview begins at about 10:26).

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Unmasking Gershom Gorenberg, historian and apologist for ethnic cleansing

Originally published by Electronic Intifada

The popular internet magazine Slate recently published an excerpt from The Unmaking of Israel, a new book by the historian Gershom Gorenberg. The title of the excerpt asked “Did Israel actually plan to expel most of its Arabs in 1948? Or not?” (“The Mystery of 1948,” 7 November 2011).

As most critical scholars of Palestinian history and the Zionist-Palestinian conflict would likely agree, this is an odd question to ask. Since Israel’s “new historians” began publishing revised histories that undermined the long-held official Zionist ideological narrative of the creation of Israel (in which the Arabs left Palestine voluntarily, or in response to urgings from the Arab states) it has become increasingly clear that Ilan Pappe was correct in suggesting a paradigm shift in historical analysis of the Palestinian Nakba (catastrophe). Instead of viewing the violent, bloody events of 1948 through the lens of “war,” Pappe proposed a framework of “ethnic cleansing” — which, as he demonstrated, is well supported by the available evidence. But despite such growing clarity and consensus, Gorenberg implicitly rejects Pappe’s framework.

Since the early Zionist leadership formed a planning body (the Situation Committee) to determine how the Palestinian minority who remained within the borders of the future Jewish state would be managed, Gorenberg concludes that David Ben-Gurion and his affiliates had no firm plans to cleanse the territory on the eve of the 1948 conflict. Of course, these leaders had contemplated “transfer,” but this was an understandable manifestation of demographic unease and only one possible option among others. Though Ben-Gurion and the liberal Zionists likely had the best of intentions toward the Arabs, the right-wing spoiled the hopes of the more progressive and committed violent atrocities.

Gorenberg thus presents an image of a powerless Zionist left, which was presented with a fait accompli by the radical right and the unpredictability of the “chaos of war,” then attacked head-on by the confused natives and forced to defend itself.

By relentlessly placing the blame on a few “crazed” right-wing groups and the whims of fate, Gorenberg exculpates Zionism as such from responsibility for its brutal colonial history and leaves room for some “good Zionists,” who can doubtless count him among their number. In Gorenberg’s version of events one can detect the revenge of the “old historians,” mediated through several decades of the revisionists: the discredited fictions proffered by the Israeli state and allied ideologues are revitalized while simultaneously acknowledging the now-undeniable crimes of Zionism’s past. Though some misguided right-wing Zionists committed or caused horrendous injustices against the Palestinians, fuelling the conflict, there is a “pure” left-wing Zionism that stands apart from these acts and which was dragged against its will into a situation from which there was no easy escape. It was all an accident.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Labor Radicalism and Popular Emancipation: The Egyptian Uprising Continues

Originally published by Dollars & Sense

     In mid-August, the eminent Marxist philosopher Slavoj Žižek wrote, “Unfortunately, the Egyptian summer of 2011 will be remembered as marking the end of revolution, a time when its emancipatory potential was suffocated.” Indeed, the forcible clearing of protestors from Tahrir Square, the outlawing of labor strikes, and the imprisonment of thousands by the military that was taking place as Žižek wrote did not bode well for the revolution. In the months since his words were published, things have not gotten much better: the military has reinstated Mubarak’s Emergency Law, the International Monetary Fund has issued grim predictions for Egypt’s economic performance as interest rates soar, and Moody’s has again downgraded Egypt’s bond rating and that of several of its major banks. Meanwhile, the Islamists, marginalized in the earlier days of the revolutionary uprising, have returned, well organized and poised to play a significant part in the constitution-writing process that will commence following the upcoming elections.

     Yet since the overthrow of Mubarak, industrial actions against low wages and poor working conditions have persisted, and a multitude of new, independent labor unions have been formed. In recent weeks, a new wave of labor strikes has exploded across the country on a scale “not seen since the earliest weeks of the revolution,” as the Washington Post put it. But in view of the monumental challenges they face, what can these ongoing labor and leftist popular political movements still hope to accomplish? Is the revolution doomed, as Žižek suggests, or is a brighter future, and a truly radical social transformation, away from the domination of Egyptian society by capital, still within reach for Egypt?

Friday, November 11, 2011

The Political Economy of the Egyptian Uprising

Originally published by Monthly Review

Not long after Egyptian Vice President Omar Suleiman announced that Hosni Mubarak would resign his post as President, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton flew to Egypt to congratulate the Egyptian people on a job well done. The revolutionaries had accomplished their goal, she said. Everyone could go home and feel proud of their historic achievement and leave the cleaning up to the responsible adults—the United States and the closely allied Egyptian military, which has ruled Egypt since 1952. To prove that there were no hard feelings against the Egyptians for overthrowing one of the closest and most important U.S. allies in the Arab world, the IMF, World Bank, the G8, and the United States itself—the very entities responsible for supporting Mubarak’s thirty-year rule and imposing draconian neoliberal programs on Egypt—have extended as much as $15 billion in aid and credit to Egypt and Tunisia to assist in their transitions to democracy. This generosity begs the question: why are Western governments, and the international financial institutions (IFIs) that are closely linked to them, falling over one another to show their generosity to the revolutionaries and to display their support for progress in the Middle East?

Western ideological systems and establishment propaganda in Egypt have largely reproduced Clinton’s implicit message of “bad” versus “good” capitalism: Mubarak and his gang of “corrupt” associates have been driven out, and now the system’s benevolent equilibrium can be restored by replacing the bad guys with good guys chosen through elections overseen by the U.S.-backed Egyptian army. Accordingly, as recent events make clear, the commitment of IFIs and Western governments to “social justice” comes predicated on continuing the neoliberal transformation of Egyptian society that has been underway for decades. But is the problem the Egyptians face merely a long series of corrupt anomalies, or the system as such? Is a liberal capitalist democracy adequate to meet the demands of the revolution? And is there the potential for something more? Here we cannot avoid the essential question: how does the Egyptian uprising and the new reality it is helping create relate to global capitalism?

Sunday, June 5, 2011

MSNBC's Flawed Coverage of Libya, Economy

Stephen Maher and Michael Corcoran

The channel, viewed by far as the most progressive on cable television, keeps its critiques well within the narrow framework of "acceptable" discourse in the corporate media. 
When US bombs began to drop on Libya last month, representing the start of the third simultaneous US war (not including covert wars being waged by US Special Forces and the CIA in YemenPakistan, Somalia, and elsewhere), it was not surprising to see the media jump into a pro-war frenzy, as it so often does. One might hope, however, that perhaps MSNBC - on the liberal side of acceptable discourse in US cable media - would at least offer significant skepticism toward another expensive and bloody US war. This is especially true given that 74 percent of the US population opposed US intervention.

A close look, however, reveals the opposite is true. MSNBC, whose hosts align themselves closely with Barack Obama and the Democratic Party, has been perhaps the most hawkish station on cable news. Literally every single one of the channel's nighttime hosts (Ed SchultzRachel MaddowChris Matthews,Lawrence O'Donnell and Cenk Uygur) has failed to oppose the war (the morning hours are hosted by Joe Scarborough, a reliable conservative). In many instances, they have vigorously supported the war, or at the least, have deflected criticism away from Obama and the Democrats. In fact, MSNBC has arguably defended President Obama's war policies with nearly the same vigor as their Fox News competitors did with President George W. Bush, when he pushed the US into Iraq in 2003. MSNBC's coverage of the intervention in Libya shows one of the great flaws of even the most critical corporate media in the United States. Such limitations do a great disservice to the prospects of a much-needed class-based movement. And given that a recent poll done byAlternet showed how influential MSNBC is - Maddow was overwhelmingly voted as the most influential progressive, and a number of other current or former MSNBC hosts were in the top 20 - it is important that the limits of MSNBC's independence and criticism be well understood.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

The Myth of U.S. Humanitarian Intervention in Libya

Stephen Maher and Michael Corcoran

Originally published by the ISR

THE MYTH of humanitarian intervention has once again surfaced as the key justification for Western imperial adventurism. This time, Libya has been targeted by the United States and France for a bombing campaign that is alleged to be primarily about “protecting” the people of Libya, who joined others in the “Arab Spring” in demanding freedom from a ruthless dictator.

As this so-called humanitarian intervention takes place, the United States continues its support for the brutal suppression of peaceful demonstrations in states allied with the United States, such as Bahrain and Yemen. This clearly demonstrates the brazen level of hypocrisy of the U.S. position and illustrates just how concerned U.S. state managers are with human rights. Clear geopolitical motives for the intervention in Libya, as well as the suppression in Yemen and Bahrain, show the true purpose of the U.S. policy: to maximize its control of a vital, resource-rich region while hiding its true intentions, as always, behind the veil of benevolent intentions. This has been made possible, in part, because the media has worked to spread the party line of U.S. humanitarian intervention and benevolent intentions, serving as what the neo-Marxist writer Louis Althusser referred to as an “Ideological State Apparatus” (ISA).1

This article seeks to dismantle the arguments made by apologists for U.S. imperialism in Libya by examining the true nature of U.S. foreign policy and its concern (or lack thereof) for human rights, the illegality of the Libyan invasion through the lens of both domestic and international law, and by demonstrating how corporate media complicity has helped to sell this narrative, serving, as always, as an arm of official ideology.