Thursday, September 27, 2012

We're Baaack!/"They're Baaack!"

With the protests breaking out again in Greece and Spain, I decided yesterday morning to resume my blogger’s account of events in this late phase of late capitalism, and, I’m afraid, took the less-than-inspired, less than original, title “We’re Baaack!” as a way of announcing a renewed presence. I thought that “We” could also serve as a Blogger’s We (a descendent of the “editorial We” from the days of print journalism) that said that your faithful blogger was again in the room. But I turned on CNBC around noon yesterday, and was greeted by Michelle Caruso-Cabrera’s introduction of the European news with “They’re Baaack!” Caruso-Cabrera, despite her right-wing orientation, had, I thought, done a good job of reporting previous Athens protests . Like me, she seemed surprised that social movements can take summers off for long European vacations.

As other reporters and analysts responded to the news from Europe, an improved grasp of economic fundamentals was evident as compared to past discussion. It is now recognized that austerity does not solve an economic crisis, repair deficits, or create jobs. Now economists recognize that austerity destroys jobs, and, by reducing tax revenues, increases deficits. Only the Republicans in the USA make the argument for austerity now, but I have come to realize that they do so only to capture votes, especially from white voters who feel that government spending directed to minorities has bankrupted the nation. The core Republicans see austerity as a way of getting the working class to pay for the economic crisis while the 1% retain their tax breaks.

Two questions about the protests kept coming up on CNBC:  What do the protestors want? and What do they think their governments can do? Long ago, in my early discussion of the Greek protests I cited the slogans of the Greek section of the Committee for a Workers International: 1. Don’t pay the debt. 2. Nationalize the banks. 3. Tax the Rich. To answer the question, “what do they think their governments can do,” as asked by the innocents at CNBC, the answer is probably “nothing.” System-change is needed.  At present, we have a crisis precipitated primarily by the fear that European banks will collapse because of “sovereign debt” that they hold.  Debts should now be paid on the basis of need (i.e. “widows and orphans”). The rich should, in the words of a famous Socialist politician in the UK, “be squeezed until the pips sqeak.“

Your humble blogger, not fully himself yet, as may be too evident, here re-enters the verbal fray after  a year and with some severe illness. After congestive heart failure, which still leaves me less than functional, I was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma, an “aggressive” form of blood cancer. I’ve been in chemotherapy for four months and have one more hospitalization (as opposed to “in-patient” treatment) ahead.

Studying my Medicare statement, I realize that no one without coverage could afford the care that I’ve received. I didn’t add them up, but the total charges would exceed $100,000. Obama’s version of Hillarycare--a pay-off to insurance companies who support the Democrats and Republicans--was a cynical political maneuver to secure the base of his party.  I support not a single-payer system, although that would be a huge improvement over Hillarycare/Obamacare, but a “no-payer system.” The huge waste in the American approach to healthcare comes from bill-collecting and financial record-keeping, not to mention the profits of the insurance companies. Dump all the other paperwork; keep only medical records: and pay the doctors as government employees until they are ready to work for their local communities.

Healthcare insurance is a particular sore point for me. After my fatrher died, my mother was left without health insurance because my father, a railroad worker, was a few months short of having his insurance “vested.” We called an insurance agent--there was no Medicaid in thise days--and he asked for such a high premium that my mother was both angry and in tears. She drove him from the house. In the transition to socialism, we must call on the working-class to show all restraint toward our present-day masters and toward the petite bourgeois. The impulse to take revenge must be checked. But the healthcare insurance incident still makes me angry.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Why Do It in the Road?

Uneasy about the growth of the Occupy movement, and uncertain about its motives, people nearly of my advanced age, ask me why the current uprising has chosen to make itself heard through occupation and protest rather than through the ballot box.  But the form that the uprising takes is also its message: electoral representation has been denied, so the people have taken to the streets (and parks).  In slogans heard not only now but over the last two decades, “Wall Street has two parties” or “The bosses have two parties.” No one represents the 99% at election time. The record shows that Obama’s leading corporate contributor was Goldman Sachs; both parties are controlled by the corporations, and the government functions as a committee for managing the common affairs of the bourgeoisie. A sub-committee (the “Supercommittee”) appointed from the two ruling class parties will soon impose the American version of the austerity programs that Europe has resisted over the last year. To be sure, a mass party of the working-class needs to be created, and I hope that it will be, but the billions of dollars needed for campaigns in the country are not available to ordinary people (the 99%), and even ballot access for third party candidates faces obstacles that are insurmountable in some states, and meant to be. Campaigns limited in duration, with free television time for all parties, and with limits on campaign contributions, might help provide a playing field that is more nearly level; but fair  play along those lines would hardly appeal to Democrats or Republicans.

In Europe, there are still remnants of the old working-class parties and emergent--but small--new ones, and they have been active over the past year. The austerity measures are only now being put into place in Greece and presumably in Italy. As in the USA, democratic decision-making would now threaten the rescue of the banks. Suggestions that a referendum be held in Greece dealt the stock markets of the world a serious blow, but the markets calmed when an economist with MIT credentials was put in charge of the Greek economy--another such economist is proposed as Italian prime minister, and one now runs the European Central Bank. Elections will not threaten these arrangements for some years; indeed the bureaucracy of the European Union will directly intervene in the day-to-day management of both Greek and Italian financial affairs. The people and their parties have for now been excluded, leaving them only the streets.

When the kids fight the cops for democracy in the USA, the Europeans will be doing the same in several countries. With the austerity measures imposed, the fights will, I fear, become more determined. This age of austerity arrives at a time when unemployment is extremely high, when social services face elimination, and people’s homes are being taken away from them. Mrs. Patrick Campbell famously said that she didn’t care what people did, so long as they didn’t do it in the streets and frighten the horses. I’m afraid that the tranquil lives of both horses and citizens will suffer some disruption.

The battle for civil rights in the USA was fought in streets as was the effort to end the Viet Nam War.  Mass protests led by the Militant Tendency (now the Socialist Party of England and Wales) in the UK defeated the Poll Tax and led to the downfall of Thatcher, but they featured the decisive tactic of Non-Payment. In Oakland the Occupiers have made an initial step toward organizing a General Strike, wielding thereby the traditional weapon of the working-class. What strategy and tactics will now emerge, I cannot presume to say. I hope that they will be decided upon democratically. I hope that they will help secure democratic participation in the affairs of this nation for the 99%

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The Dialectic Ripens

The processes whose working-out your humble blogger has tried to study seem at times to move at a glacial pace. It was important to identify the responses of the working-class to the proposed austerity measures early on and tie them to an awakening of long dormant class consciousness. Otherwise this admittedly vision-impaired old head might have been whacked with the usual crack that hindsight is always 20-20.  Similarly, it was important to refute early on the silly argument that austerity measures (“cuts”) would create jobs and prosperity--although, even now, capitalist economists seem bewildered at falling GDP in, for example, the UK. Protests have continued across Europe, with one of the largest in the UK, involving 700,000 people. But, overall, social processes gather force slowly, and especially in this case, when most austerity measures await implementation.

Perhaps, then, your blogger’s long bout with congestive heart failure was well-timed, pulling him away from the blogspot for a good three months and more with a considerable part of that time in the Massachusetts General Hospital. This blogless interval saw revolts across Northern Africa and the Middle East, the outcome of which will depend on whether working-class-based forces can find ideas and structures after decades of repression and with them take power. Europe still has the advantage of  remembered struggles  and some organization. This blog had located the austerity programs in the USA at the state- and municipal-level because programs like the Ryan budget had not yet been unveiled. And, for now, resistance to austerity measures in the USA--austerity measures which were to be accomplished in part by an attack on union rights--is most felt at the state level and produced the massive fight back in Wisconsin.

In their effort to enforce the cuts, the capitalist class is dropping its pretense of support for democracy. In Michigan, the new Republican governor has asserted the right of his party-in-power to take over towns not able to balance their budgets, pushing out the elected officials. It is a process also being seen in the EU, where fines and other punishments will be imposed on member states not in compliance with austerity measures. EU officials now regret that some member states have the right to vote on bailouts.

Next week, Finland will be under enormous pressure to support the latest bailout, this one for Portugal. They have no doubt been offered financial incentives to vote as required, but the threat represented by a new party in Finland that opposes bailouts has already been dealt with through a deal between the conservative coalition in Finland and the social democrats. The new political party that forced this so-called "left-right" alliance is the Perussuomalaiset, whose name is awkwardly translated as the “True Finns.”  The True Finns, who have reached 19.1% in the latest Parliamentary election, are a centre-left formation, supporting the welfare state and sharply progressive taxation, and opposed to EU bailouts of banks and governments. (Unfortunately, they are also anti-immigration, and some of their representatives sound racist.)  In class terms, the True Finns come largely from former rural and peasant parties, and as owners of farms are petite-bourgeois.

But, if EU plans to solve the economic crisis were threatened in Brussels, at least until the social democrats in Finland showed the limits to their "socialist" principles by getting in bed with the conservatives, they are again more seriously threatened in the streets.  Greece is today closed by a general strike. That really is why I decided to resume the blog today. The latest news is that electrical power will soon be cut off by the utility workers. The airports are again closed. Will general strikes, in time, be coordinated to occur simultaneously across Europe? Why have the French been relatively silent of late? The British are already in the streets in record numbers, and not just to watch the Royal Wedding.

And so the Dialectic ripens. Broad-based working-class formations--parties-- are lacking. But it is class struggle that we are seeing. And all history is the history of class struggle.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Engineering a Recovery

I must apologize to my faithful reader for the lengthy hiatus in the production of my blog entries.  The most valid of the excuses that I might offer is that I have had a bout of what was apparently pneumonia, and that did cost me some weeks of normal functioning. I have, however, also ceased reporting “routine” European protests in these blogs: there are many of them, and they will increase when this harsh winter eases. What caught me  by surprise were the outbreaks of food and employment protests in Algeria, Jordan, and Tunisia, events that had no less an outcome than the ousting of the Tunisian dictator. Increases in food and gasoline (petrol) prices will also make the European austerity measures even more painful to endure, and this pain will also be felt in the USA where there are no federal austerity measures but sharp cuts at the state and municipal levels.

On my recent European wanderings, I saw little in the way of physical evidence of the austerity measures. Those measures are only now being implemented. The recession has itself left its mark in empty storefronts, and a taxi driver in Dublin told us that two large, formerly thriving pubs in Parnell Square, the Parnell Mooney and the Parnell Conway had closed because “nobody has any money to go out.”

Europe has, at any rate, seemed to me, over the last decade and more, more affluent than the USA. No doubt this appearance of general affluence stemmed in part from there not being the huge gap between rich and poor that the USA tolerates. In addition Europe has seemed far ahead technologically, whether in high speed rail transportation or broadband access. It has had , moreover, a social safety net in place to deal with unemployment and health problems. Rankings of nations by “quality of life” have supported my impressions, placing a country like Belgium, for instance, well ahead of the USA.

The cuts that are now in the works in Europe will be an assault on such “quality of life.” The social safety net will, in many instances, be cut away.During my recent illness, a few weeks ago, I saw and heard both George Osborne, the current Chancellor of the Exchequer, and Gordon Brown, who was Chancellor of the Exchequer for perhaps ten years before he became Prime Minister, admit in separate Fareed Zakaria interviews, that the coming cuts would not only be painful but would make recovery from the recession difficult. Both saw “growth” as the way to recovery and looked to “innovation” as the way to get the economy moving. Both praised the American record of innovation and looked forward to its next successes, especially in technology.

I was surprised by their candor: they were in effect admitting that the recovery in employment will not occur until the slow processes of product development have time to work. But I wondered whether they were right that we can trust American innovation to lead the way. We produce far fewer engineers than nations like China and India, so we have fewer minds to apply to product development. The products that we do “innovate” are not produced in this country but usually in Asia, so the products produce profits for some American-based corporations but few American jobs.  Our manufacturing base is, in fact, in poor shape because we have shipped the literal means of production--by which I here mean only machinery--overseas.

I recently asked a retired engineer, who had had a long career with one of the USA’s industrial giants, about our manufacturing capabilities. He said that the machines are not here, the parts are produced overseas, and we frankly can’t depend on domestic production any longer. He and I speculated what would happen if the USA had to re-tool for wartime production as we did so successfully in World War II.

Our production of engineers for American industry may not, furthermore, be quite at  the level that we assume it to be. Perhaps the situation has changed, but, over thirty years ago, as an assistant dean of a graduate school, I produced a report on foreign student enrollments in graduate programs in some Midwestern universities. I had not expected to find, as I did, that most of the graduate students in engineering were from other countries. Many remained here, of course, to work in American industry or teach in American  universities after receiving their degrees, but I know that complaints from industry are heard even today about how difficult it is to secure permission for these trained engineers to become residents.  And, with industry and university opportunities well developed in their home countries, these advanced degree recipients may today well prefer to return home. Indeed, they may choose to do their advanced degree work in their home countries.

We have, moreover, to face the fact that the USA ranks very low in the provision of the math and science education that produces engineers and thereby innovation. Singapore is likely to educate future engineers; East Boston, MA, is not. George Osborne and Gordon Brown may have to look elsewhere than to American innovation to engineer a recovery from the recession..

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Das Narrenschiff

According to an Wikipedia article, Das Narrenschiff or the Ship of Fools  “is an
allegory that has long been a fixture in Western literature and art. The
allegory depicts a vessel populated by human inhabitants who are deranged,
frivolous, or oblivious, passengers aboard a ship without a pilot, and seemingly
ignorant of their own direction.” Jose Barchilon explains in his  introduction
to  Michel Foucault’s Madness and Civilization that
  "Renaissance men developed a delightful, yet horrible way of dealing with
  their mad denizens: they were put on a ship and entrusted to mariners because
  folly, water, and sea, as everyone then "knew," had an affinity for each
  other. Thus, "Ship of Fools" crisscrossed the sea and canals of Europe with
  their comic and pathetic cargo of souls. Some of them found pleasure and even
  a cure in the changing surroundings, in the isolation of being cast off, while
  others withdrew further, became worse, or died alone and away from their
  families. The cities and villages which had thus rid themselves of their
  crazed and crazy, could now take pleasure in watching the exciting sideshow
  when a ship full of foreign lunatics would dock at their harbors."
Katherine Ann Porter’s novel Ship of Fools invokes the Narrenschiff motif in her depiction of representative figures aboard a ship who are oblivious to the forces at work to create World War II.

I thought of the tradition of Das Narrenschiff while on a cruise around the boot of Italy as part of my Wanderjahr. Except for crossings of the English Channel or the Irish Sea I had not traveled on a ship for over thirty years and looked at ship travel exclusively as transportation. (I did not risk air travel until 1977, when I was already 39 years old.) I knew, however, that “cruises” had become popular over the intervening years. Cruises take place on ships fitted with amusements of all kinds, including gambling. Disneyland and Las Vegas influence the planning of the ships as do luxury resorts and grand hotels. All entertainment having been concluded, the cruise returns to the port from which it set forth.

The ship that my companion Diane and I were on was the Costa Fortuna, an Italian ship but staffed largely by people from South America and Asia. The ship is so massive--over 100,000 tons--and so thoroughly stabilized that one is rarely aware of being on the ocean. Indeed, unlike the ships on my Atlantic crossings, it is difficult to find an open deck from which to view the sea. The experience is that of life in a grand hotel although the sense of enclosure made me at times remember the Beatles’ song that sees us all living in a yellow submarine. The Costa Fortuna attempts to reproduce some of the most impressive features of the famous Italian ships of the 1920s and 1930s: the slightly ominous result--if one remembers Porter’s Ship of Fools--is that the décor  might well be described as Mussolini Modern.

But was this a Ship of Fools, a Narrenschiff?  Not exactly, we were fools not because of madness but because of being fooled. It was a ship of the fooled. The genuine boom of the post-war years and the credit bubble that followed encouraged ordinary people to aspire to consumption that was previously only possible for the wealthy . The cruise ship is part of that fantasy world in which everyone is “middle class,” a fantasy that is a feature of the economy now winding down. It is a good thing that  these pleasures seem available for all, and the cruise is democratic in character once you have paid the stiff price of a ticket. It is meant as “affordable luxury.“ Every large ship on which my late wife Donna and I had previously sailed--with the exception of the Soviet ship the Alexander Pushkin--had a First Class from which we were firmly excluded. I remember that we tried to get a peek into First to spot celebrities--the kind of people who now travel by private yacht or private jet. Dress is now casual, and there were no tuxedos even on Gala Night. One meal a day is served with traditional restaurant service, but breakfast and lunch are usually taken from a buffet of one’s own choosing, including one always offering hamburgers and hot dogs. The entertainment was for all ages, but I would say 70s disco music got a heavy play. I did like the Cole Porter and Sinatra era piano music in the bars. The only entertainment that I disliked was an event in which fat men from among the passengers--not me though!--dressed in drag, but were mostly bare-chested with their layers of fat hanging out as they postured sexily (with bumps and grinds)  to compete for applause and a prize.  Well, different strokes for different folks.

People had fun, and that’s a good thing. Because port visits were on quick bus tours, I can’t say that anyone experienced a new country or culture. It reminds me of the resorts that I hear about where guards with machine guns protect the hotels used by Americans lest they come in contact with the natives. It also reminds me of  some executives and university administrators who boast of their international experience, which seems to consist of having stayed in the Hilton in numerous cities around the world. Cruises will soon suffer from the brutal fact that the  affluent “middle class” for whom cruises were created will find themselves again a struggling working-class.

While we were on our cruise, the protests against austerity programs contined across Europe. We, however, pushed on to Amsterdam, where the fantasy world that began in the the mid-70s there, continues, especially for narco-tourists, including many American students. Even there, however, there is a sense that the party is winding down. Proposed new regulations would turn the coffee shops that sell cannabis into private clubs that would not be open to foreign visitors, and the Dutch do not themselves smoke more dope per capita than people in neighboring countries. Earlier we had been in Ireland, where the Celtic Tiger economy is dead, and a grim reality is being faced. A strong protest movement in which the Socialist Party of Ireland (CWI) plays a leading role is, in effect, demanding default on Irish debt and independence from the Eurozone. Amsterdam and Dublin had been Ships of Fools during the bubble economy.

Opposition to the austerity measures is rapidly bringing large groups into protest. Diane and I got off the train at Charing Cross just as the huge protest against tuition increases was occurring at nearby Trafalgar Square. The station was in a chaotic condition, and we were hampered by too much baggage, so Diane’s wallet was snatched. What Marx calls “the dangerous classes" see opportunities in times of crisis, and so does the fascist movement. The challenge is to build the movement for socialism even more rapidly than the forces of barbarism grow. It’s time to disembark from Das Narrenschiff.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

It's Not Just About the Pensions--Listen to the Music

The protests that continue in France are not just about the pensions.  The US media fail to understand that and also distort the pension --“Social Security” in the US--issue. The age for full pension benefits in France is 65. The Sarkozy government wants to raise that to 67. Just as Americans can start receiving Social Security benefits at a reduced rate at age 62, the French can get reduced payments at age 60, but only if they have worked for 40.5 years.

The early stages of the protests, largely organized by the trade unions, were a response to the proposed changes in the pension. For millions of French people the protests also  became an opportunity to voice many other suppressed demands and dissatisfactions. The protests are rightly called a referendum on the Sarkozy administration, which is seen as pandering to the rich elites. The protests also target the huge economic inequality in French society, the squalor of the housing projects, and the way that immigrant populations have been received. The placards show a wide range of demands. In Nanterre, where, as in 1968, the protests are at times violent, issues include the fact that the opening of the University has this fall been delayed because of overcrowding, with 35,000 students squeezed onto a campus built for 14,000.

Taking to the streets and erecting barricades are what the French turn to when democratic participation in government policy is denied. Sarkozy is very unpopular. 70% of the French people support the strikers. The police are not liked because they resort too easily to violence.

My initial Wanderjahr project involved looking at the economic and cultural aspects of this late phase of late capitalism, particularly in Europe. Were I there, I would I hope grasp enough of the consciousness and mood of the protestors to offer some assessment. From this distance, the best insight that I have comes from the song adopted by the movement: “On Lache Rien” or “Never Give an Inch” as originally performed by HK and Les Saltimbanks but now cropping up everywhere on videos of the protests, on YouTube and other video and music-sharing sites.

“Never Give an Inch” speaks from the “urban project” and in behalf of “the homeless, the unemployed, workers/ Farmers, immigrants, the undocumented.” It directly indicts Sarkozy: “It’s crazy the way they’re protected/ All our rich and powerful/Not to mention the help they get/For being the friends of the president.” HK, who sings the song, is Kadour Haddadi, from an Algerian family settled in Calais. The music is a blend of Algerian Chaabi, reggae, rock, hip hop, blues, and gipsy, a mixture which reflects the emergent culture of France. But it must be heard, and its performance seen. It is perhaps the sound of revolution, but it is life-affirming, joyful, and sexual. One hears within it the potential for the completion within this new France of the project of human liberation that Marx set forth.

Friday, October 15, 2010

The Tea Party on the Eve of Mid-term Elections

Earlier in the blog, I expressed the opinion that there is not substantial evidence for the rise of a fascist movement in the United States. And, even though some leading figures in the Tea Party and one of its internal tendencies have, as the Guardian (UK) reported, allied themselves, with a violent neo-fascist group in England, I am still not convinced that neo-fascism is precisely what the Tea Party as a whole intends to embrace. I must now, however, admit that the danger of a turn to overt fascism exists and try to explain why it does.

I quoted earlier in the blog the formula that says that fascism is the socialism of the middle class. I also tried to explain that the illusion that someone is “middle class,” although really a well-paid member of the working-class, is a fantasy fed  by genuine boom periods or by credit bubbles such as the one recently ended. With the disappointment, felt in both consumption and aspiration, that ensues when the boom ends or the bubble bursts, a labor aristocracy experiences the same emotions as the fading petite bourgeoisie (the class of small shopkeepers), and these emotions are largely those of fear.

The fears of a “middle class” are fears of falling into a working-class that lacks opportunities for consumption and prestige. Fascist groups have directed such fears into suspicion of working-class organizations and of socialists, who are reputed to be levelers or equalizers. This ’middle class” itself finds groups to scapegoat for reduced opportunities. It fears minorities who take jobs and university places through affirmative action and immigrants who receive support from the taxes the middle class feels itself unfairly forced to pay. It resists welfare programs that tend to equalize quality of life between the middle class and the lower orders. It feels that the American way of life is what brought its own benefits, and it fears the enemies of America, whether political or ideological. 9/11 added an immediate sense of being under siege, and one result is the anti-Islamic hysteria of one wing of the Tea Party including those in discussions with the English Defence League in the UK.

An identity coming out of all these middle class fears would seem to present a group of people ready for fascism: disappointed, robbed of their chances, scapegoating Reds (including the “Marxist” Obama),  Affirmative Action recipients (seen as African-American and Hispanic or even, simply, female), and immigrants, and ready to cleanse America of the Muslim menace. They look for a strong and charismatic Leader (Glenn Beck? Sarah Palin?). They defend their right to bear arms (as I do myself). For the most part, the Tea Party supports the costly wars that are one large factor in their threatened impoverishment. They have strong financial support and a major television network to back them up. Do they project a new form--or is it an old form?-- of patriotic, industrial, and military state? The neoconservative intellectuals serve them by putting an intellectual gloss on such a vision when they pontificate on Fox News.

I must seem pretty naïve to my faithful reader by not getting the point by now, but I still wonder whether they are, precisely, fascist. They will certainly take their revenge on their perceived enemies by assuring the election of representatives who will cut funding of social services--and giving tax cuts to the party’s wealthy supporters. They are definitely an electoral force. I don’t, however, believe that they do envision a society in which a powerful centralized government with pervasive military and police control runs the country for the benefit of the corporations--or for the benefit of what I think I’ll call the Financial, Industrial, Military, Political Complex (FIMPCO). Perhaps I take their Libertarian rhetoric too seriously. Maybe I shouldn’t believe that they dislike big government, but in the bank bailouts FIMPCO exerted its presence and power, and the Tea Party didn’t like it. With the austerity programs now, however, beginning to  wreak destruction at the state and city level, the recession will worsen. The bottom won’t, I think, be reached until 2012--without prospects for an upturn. Maybe the uniforms, armbands, and jack boots will have more appeal for these people by then. And I will be one of those who could not see the dangers.