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D2. Socialism

Answering the call to fight injustice

Tempest Magazine - Mon, 06/10/2024 - 22:39

Barbara Smith is one of the leading intellectuals and activists who developed the traditions of Black feminism. A part of a group of Black lesbian socialists, she co-authored the groundbreaking “Combahee River Collective Statement.” A prolific writer, she has published many books and articles that have emphasized the interlocking nature of systems of oppression under capitalism and the necessity of fighting all of them as part of a struggle for collective liberation. But she is no armchair intellectual; she is also an organizer and activist. Tempest’s Ashley Smith interviews her here about her history as a participant and leader in struggles from the civil rights movement to Palestinian solidarity today.

Ashley Smith: In a meeting we were both in, you said that history doesn’t repeat itself but it sometimes rhymes. We are in the midst of one of the largest student revolts since the 1960s. You were part of that great uprising. How did you get involved in it? How did it develop and what did you do in it?

Barbara Smith: I became politically active in the heart of the 1960s during the long Civil Rights Movement. As a teenager in Cleveland, Ohio, I joined the struggle that was centrally focused on school desegregation.

Urban school districts were segregated then and are segregated now. What’s ironic is that my twin sister and I lived in a neighborhood where Black people could buy a house. Our family had moved there because it had really good public schools, probably some of the best in the city. And so, my sister and I went to integrated schools from first grade through 12th.

As teenagers, we were following the civil rights movement. My entire family was from the deep South, from a town in rural Georgia called Dublin. I like to say, kind of jokingly, that my sister and I were the only two Northerners in our house.

The adults in Cleveland’s movement made a priority of getting young people involved. We went right to work to challenge the de facto segregation of almost all neighborhoods and schools in our city.

The city officials, in a typically cynical manner, built new schools in segregated areas so that the color line was upheld and reproduced. This was true of all northern school systems. They would never put a school in an integrated neighborhood.

So, our movement started protesting segregated school construction. One of the actions ended in the tragic death of a white minister named Reverend Bruce Klunder. People had blocked the front of a bulldozer while Reverend Klunder blocked its back.

The driver put the bulldozer in reverse and ran over Reverend Klunder, killing him instantly. He was in his 20s, married, and had young children. His death escalated the movement to a much higher level. In April of 1964, the movement launched a boycott of Cleveland public schools on the east side of the city where Black people lived.

My sister and I joined it. Our family had no issues with us participating in the boycott and in fact I think they expected us to. Our family members were pillars of one of the most prominent Black churches. It was very progressive.

My sister and I were mid-year high school graduates, so we had a lot of time on our hands before college. They made a lot of students graduate mid-year then because the schools were so over-crowded. If your birthday was after a certain point in the fall or even in the late summer, you’ve had to start school mid-year and then graduate mid-year.

The Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) demonstrates for housing justice in Seattle in 1964. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

With time on our hands, we volunteered with CORE (the Congress of Racial Equality). Fortunately, the executive director of CORE was a wonderful woman, a German teacher, who had left teaching in the school district to work for civil rights.

If there had been someone more typical in that leadership role, they might have been dismissive of people like us who didn’t fit the standard profile. They might have said, “What could you do? You’re two teenage girls. What could you possibly do?”

But this teacher saw our potential. We worked in the office, took notes, typed up letters and documents, and also went out canvassing in neighborhoods where the housing quality was poor, whether it was public housing or not. They didn’t send us out by ourselves, but they would send us out with this wonderful person named Chuck, who was blind.

We were a great team. Since Chuck did not have a guide dog, we were his guides and he was our mentor as we rode the bus and walked door to door talking about integration, housing, and other issues in the struggle against racism and inequality.

Already active in the struggle, I went to Mount Holyoke College in the fall of 1965. There were virtually no Black students on my campus. There was a group called the Civil Action Group, which I joined. Most of the Black students already at the school were active in it.

We didn’t have a Black student group or an Afro-American society yet. The focus of the Civil Action Group was civil rights organizing. Already, the movement was turning toward Black nationalism and Black power and also beginning to take up the struggle against the Vietnam War.

We were in a very small, rural town. It felt like being in a Norman Rockwell painting! So, we didn’t have the forces for large rallies locally. But we organized, nonetheless. We held vigils and organized fasts for peace and to stop the war in Vietnam.

Out of those struggles I went on to become active in the feminist and LGBTQ movements. And thinking about their interaction led me to Black feminism and the Combahee River Collective and our statement about the interlocking systems of oppression and the need to fight against all of them as part of our struggle for collective liberation.

The Combahee River Collective in 1977. Photo: UCLA Care Program.

AS: The Black freedom struggle set in motion the whole chain of radicalism in the 1960s. Black Lives Matter along with Occupy and a whole wave of struggles from teacher strikes to Bernie Sanders’ campaigns and Women’s Marches have all seemed to flow into Palestine solidarity as a point of profound convergence. What is similar and different between the process of radicalization in the 1960s and today?

BS: I hesitate in some ways and just to make clear that these are not in any way definitive thoughts. These are observations in the midst of a dynamic movement. What we’ve been through as organizers since October 7 feels pretty unprecedented to me in my lifetime.

That includes the struggle to end the war in Vietnam. Although the body count in Vietnam was much higher than what we have seen in Gaza, and the conditions were quite different.

The war in Vietnam was a war and civilians were being killed and napalmed, but it wasn’t under an occupation. Palestine has been under the [Israeli] occupation since 1948. The West Bank has been occupied since 1967 and Gaza has been under siege since 2007, essentially turning it into an open-air prison.

Then in the wake of Hamas’ October 7 attack, the Israeli government launched a genocidal war on Gaza. I say the Israeli government, because I think it’s really important to make distinctions between the government and the people.

Remember, before October 7 there was quite a vibrant movement against Netanyahu’s regime. People were protesting its attempt to abolish the court system so that he could rule with impunity.

But Netanyahu has used October 7 to galvanize his base and justify genocide in Gaza. He even said that if Biden pauses shipment of the 2,000-pound bombs, we will fight with our fingernails.

He will not relent in his declared aim to get rid of Hamas, under the illusion that that will make people in Israel safe. He cannot achieve that goal and wiping out people in Gaza will certainly not make Israelis safer.

So, the wars are different, the period is different, and the political dynamics of the movement are different. I was in college at the height of the 1960s. My campus transformed during those years.

The student movement at that time was shaped by the contrast between the new Left versus the old Left. I had the opportunity to meet people who had been in the old Left, people who were middle-aged or elders at that time.

Because there was no Internet, there was no way of getting information except through books, articles, and newspapers. The new Left valued studying and reading. It was like a litmus test.

If we met someone–it might even be somebody you were interested in dating– we asked each other what we had been reading. Have you read Frantz Fanon? Have you read Herbert Marcuse? What about Karl Marx? There was an assumed reading list that serious politicos were expected at least to have dipped into.

I don’t think it’s like that now. People in my generation, not to be ageist, talk about how we can get our younger generations more interested in studying and engaging with theory, analysis, and history.

The old Left and its movements still influenced us—the struggle in the 1930s for unionization and workers’ rights. And of course, the Black freedom struggles of that period like the Scottsboro Boys. All of that was part of the emotional, social, and political context that affected how we thought about the world.

The imprisoned Scottsboro Boys with their lawyer. Source: Washington Area Spark.

But there was a different experience then between Black and white activists. I knew this from first-hand experience. In the 1960s, young Black people were not rebelling against our parents. We did not think that our parents were the root of the problems. We knew that racism was the root of the problem, and our parents were being victimized by that as well.

Young white activists were rebelling against how they were raised. To be honest, if I was raised the way they were, I’d have been rebelling too. Of course, some Black people were rebelling against their parents, particularly those from the Black bourgeoisie.

But my sister and I, like most Black people at the time, were from working-class or lower-middle-class backgrounds. We didn’t have a lot of money and went to college on a complete scholarship.

Today’s rebelliousness I don’t think has much to do with rebellion against parents. Activists today are focused more on systemic problems across the board. I have joined all the recent waves of the new movement since Occupy through Black Lives Matter (BLM) to Palestine solidarity today.

I participated in Occupy right outside of City Hall in Albany, New York. Those were some of my happiest days as an elected member of the Albany Common Council. I would go to Council meetings, which all too often were like watching paint dry.

After these meetings, I would go outside to Occupy, and it was like a breath of fresh air. I wasn’t on the Common Council primarily to do legislation per se, but to make change and represent my Black working-class community. So, it was the struggle outside of City Hall like Occupy and BLM that were much more compelling for me.

The Occupy encampment was just across the street from City Hall and the New York State Capitol. I would go there and join people of color meetings. It was just great until the city shut it down one day in December.

Occupy had an anti-capitalist stance without articulating it. In some ways, it really was getting at the bottom line of what makes the society unjust, which is the economic disparity—the great gaps in income. But it wasn’t saying that we need to build a socialist society.

I supported Black Lives Matter when it burst onto the scene. It is the Black liberation movement of our era. It’s different from the Civil Rights Movement. Although it has a number of things on its agenda, it is focused on a particular aspect of white supremacy—police brutality and the criminal injustice system.

I have nothing except praise for what people of younger generations are trying to do from Occupy on through BLM to Palestine solidarity today. The solidarity with Palestine is simply amazing, especially the student encampments.

It has transformed politics in this country. Six months into this genocide, my Jewish Voice for Peace chapter was exhausted. We never thought this war on Gaza was going to go on so long.

Members and supporters of Fordham Students for Justice in Palestine rallied on the university’s Manhattan campus, before marching to nearby Columbus Circle and back, to protest the Fordham administration’s refusal to register SJP as a student organization. Photo: Joe Catron.

Then at the end of March all of a sudden an encampment popped up first at Columbia; then they spread all over the United States and around the world. Before that, our movement had been demanding a ceasefire, which is of course essential, but the encampments upped the ante by demanding university divestment and an academic boycott.

I went to some events at the encampments, but not too many, because of my mobility issues. I’m not prepared to stand for a long time these days let alone engage in defense of encampments against police.

But I try to be at as many as I can. It matters to show up. When history speaks, when we are called upon, you either answer or you don’t. I’ve always been a person who answered the call to fight injustice on any and every issue as best I could and can.

I went to the mobilization at the University of Albany as well as a number of demonstrations at the Capitol. I went to a May Day rally to stop the genocide organized by our BLM in Saratoga, New York. I have nothing but joy with the connections that I have made during this period, working on all these connected issues.

AS: You have been intimately involved in the Palestine solidarity movement in Albany, New York. How has it developed? What have been the key events and turning points in the struggle so far?

BS: I have been working pretty much nonstop on the liberation of the Palestinian people since October. Not that anybody outside can make that happen, but we can definitely support their struggle.

When history speaks, when we are called upon, you either answer or you don’t.

I have been an active member of Jewish Voice for Peace since 2019, well before Israel’s current genocidal war. I have been part of organizing for Palestinian rights in Albany ever since I moved here 40 years ago in 1984. I’ve been affiliated with the Palestinian Rights Committee.

I went to their regular protests in front of what used to be an armory in downtown Albany. Those were the years when I was running Kitchen Table Press, a publisher for women of color, so I didn’t have a lot of time to be in a lot of groups.

But I was in a feminist group that we started that was explicitly focused on fighting racism called the Feminist Action Network. We were doing very different kinds of work than most so-called feminist groups do because we had an explicit anti-racist agenda.

All of this flowed together after 9/11 when we formed the Stand for Peace Coalition to stop the war on Iraq. Everyone in Albany’s progressive community came together. For a city of our size of less than 100,000 people, we have a pretty large progressive community.

Maybe our progressive community is so big because it’s the state capital or because it has a major university. But we’re up against a mainstream political culture run by the Democratic Party machine that is conservative.

When our Stand for Peace Coalition came together, we rowdy feminists had questions about why there were so few people of color in this organizing. We raised the question with pretty familiar white male activists and some women as well.

They had no idea what we were talking about or why. They said, “What difference does it make? We just want people to be for peace and opposed to the war in Iraq. What difference does it make whether we have people of color here or not!” What?

So, we started a sub-group of the Coalition made up of white women and women of color called the Stand for Peace Anti-Racism Committee. It actually stayed together longer than the Coalition itself.

One of the things we prioritized in the Stand for Peace Anti-Racism Committee was to connect with the Muslim, Central Asian, and Arab American communities because we knew that they were under attack.

One of the things that we did that I loved was that every so often we would go to restaurants owned by people in the Muslim community whether they were Middle Eastern or South Asian. We’d have these wonderful dinners with like 20 children running around.

We made a priority of connecting with women in the Muslim community. Through that work, we started the Capital District Coalition Against Islamophobia in the 2010s, in the time right before Trump. Luckily, when he came to power, we already had an organization to oppose his Muslim ban. We did some major actions.

This work led me to focus on Palestine and to join Jewish Voice for Peace. It is, of course, an anti-Zionist, pro-Palestinian organization. We had an incredible seder in the spring of 2019, which was attended by 200 people, and we were looking forward to having another one, but COVID interrupted those plans.

During the worst of the pandemic, we stopped being very active. Some people made the transition to Zoom meetings, but our JVP did not do very well. Some people had illnesses, some sadly passed away, and others got new jobs and moved away.

So, it dwindled to a small group that would every so often meet with our congressperson. We met with the mayor of Albany who had gone to Israel to try and educate her. But the chapter really wasn’t growing or vital.

After October 7 and the start of Israel’s genocidal war, suddenly dozens and dozens of young people whom we had never met before joined the organization. They have remade our chapter, indeed, remade JVP as a whole organization.

One of our leaders, a founding member of JVP, would go with these new members to protest after protest with a sign-up sheet and register new members. Our chapter has grown in leaps and bounds.

We now have subcommittees of all sorts. We have an events committee, we have communications, and many more. I was the point person for a committee that organized a Black History Month event sponsored by JVP. That was, I think, pretty unique for JVPs around the country.

We mostly plan events like screening the film “Israelism.” Our most recent event was a seder, which was actually an event in solidarity with Palestine. It was outside next to a statue of Moses in Washington Park and drew a couple hundred people.

It had the atmosphere of a seder, which is of course a serious annual holiday. Our chapter wrote our own Haggadah emphasizing our collective struggle for liberation.

Our most significant achievement to this point was the passing of a ceasefire resolution in the Albany Common Council, the first one in all of New York State. We worked with members of the Muslim community based on all the years of previous collaboration to bring the resolution forward.

We had a core group that worked on it night and day from early December until we passed it in January. We had two Council members, one who had introduced the legislation and the other who co-sponsored it.

There were all kinds of shenanigans, and that’s a nice word, on the part of the Common Council. It was just a mess. One of the things that I felt so great about is that, as a former Council member, I knew what their tricks might be and could explain to our team how to use their tactics against them.

We brought hundreds of people to City Hall to the second council meeting in December, the last one of the 2023 calendar year. Unsurprisingly we made little headway on the resolution. So, we were determined to be better prepared for the next one in January 2024. One of our members, who’s a part of the Muslim community, said we need to get five hundred people to turn out to the next one.

I thought, oh yeah, five hundred people, that’s a heavy lift to persuade people to leave their couches and their comfortable heated homes for City Hall. So, our planning meeting was tasked with an enormous project.

I said that we needed to do something that the Council was not expecting like, maybe, a newspaper ad. Everyone thought that was a great idea and collaborated to make it happen. We launched a GoFundMe campaign to pay for it and one week later, we had a full-page ad in The Times Union in print and online that said, “Cease Fire Now!”

Vigil at Albany City Hall calling on the Common Council to support a Gaza ceasefire resolution on December 18, 2023. Source: Albany Times-Union.

Over 20 organizations, including labor unions and Muslim groups, signed on to the ad. That helped us rally people to come to City Hall. When we all got to the Council meeting in January, it was standing room only with the crowd inside with more outside the door in the corridor. We had too many people to fit into the Council chamber.

Amazingly, people brought copies of the print ad and held it up like a placard during the meeting. They lined up to testify and they were all so eloquent. But we faced some serious opposition.

We have a committed Zionist on the Common Council. She’s the only Jewish member and had pushed the Council to pass a pro-Israeli resolution in their first meeting after October 7. There was no vetting. There was no observance of standard procedure. They just declared that they stood with the state of Israel.

Astonishingly, the Council had the gall to then declare when faced with our push for a ceasefire resolution that they didn’t deal with international issues. But in the past, they had passed several resolutions on such issues from one declaring support for Israel to another one on Ireland.

They used a terrible incident of someone brandishing a gun in front of a synagogue and saying something about Palestine as another reason not to pass a resolution calling for a ceasefire. The Zionist rabbis backed them up.

But the combination of the horror of the war, our pressure, and the enormous shift in public opinion enabled us to win a ceasefire resolution. Since then, we have continued to organize in several working groups dedicated to all sorts of projects.

We have one called our cross-pollination group. It brings together groups and communities of all sorts for social events and actions. One of my favorites was an Iftar during Ramadan that brought together people from the Muslim community with JVP and BLM.

Such interlaced connections would be hard to imagine before this period. Of course, some of these connections existed. After all, we call our small city of Albany, “Smallbany.” People in our activist community know each other well. But this moment has deepened such solidarity and expanded it in ways we could never have imagined.

AS: What are your thoughts about the student encampments and their significance?

BS: The encampments spotlighted the contradictions in our society, between the students’ demand for an end to this war and the violent, repressive response from the establishment. I watched the confrontation at Columbia on TV. It was shocking to behold.

First students at Columbia and then all over the country just peacefully occupied their college greens. They were then met with police repression sometimes in the most brutal fashion. At Columbia, the police stormed Hamilton Hall with a twenty-first-century siege engine and brutalized and arrested scores of students.

The idealism of these young people is extraordinary and special. Having been one of those people at one time, I remember back to what we used to do, but can’t do now. I would if I could, but I can’t climb into windows or run from the police anymore. But I support and admire what they’re doing.

The youth are the future. Why? Because the youngest have not yet fully absorbed and even better yet have rejected all the oppressions. There’s not a baby in the world ever born as a card-carrying racist, homophobe, elitist, capitalist exploiter or whatever.

Even royal babies are just like all the other babies until they find out where they are living, in Kensington Palace. Only once they’ve absorbed their privileged position with all its prejudices do they become defenders of the established order.

Until then they’re just like all babies—interested, curious, and playful. They don’t have a whole portfolio of carefully adopted and rigid beliefs. That only comes with socialization.

Anyone who is in favor of the policies of the Israeli regime at this point have lost their moral compass….I know which side I’m on when it comes to oppression. I’m always with the oppressed. I’m a Black person living in the United States, the belly of the beast, and I understand what side needs to be treated as full human beings. The Palestinians.

Many young people who are in college today, not the majority by any means, but enough of them have brought a new passion for solidarity and justice to the table. It’s wonderful and it’s expanded globally. As we used to say, La luta continua, the struggle continues.

They have challenged all those who say the situation in Israel Palestine is complicated. It’s not complicated for the students in the encampments and it’s not for me. People are dying, people are being annihilated, people are being starved, people don’t have clean water to drink, and people don’t have sanitation.

And doctors don’t have anesthesia for operations. All I could think is, what’s it like to be a six-year-old and having your limbs cut off with no anesthesia? What trauma will last for that child if they survive? But 15 thousand children have not survived.

Who on earth can defend such horrific crimes against humanity? Anyone who is in favor of the policies of the Israeli regime at this point have lost their moral compass. The “buts” that fill their sentences are just appalling.

I know which side I’m on when it comes to oppression. I’m always with the oppressed. I’m a Black person living in the United States, the belly of the beast, and I understand what side needs to be treated as full human beings. The Palestinians.

I haven’t been to Palestine, but I know people in this group, the National Council of Elders, which is made up of all sorts of leaders from SNCC and other organizations from the civil rights and peace movements. Many of them have visited the occupied territories.

One of them, Zoharah Gwendolyn Simmons, who was in SNCC, converted to Islam, got a PhD in Islamic Studies, lived in Jordan, and went to Palestine several times. She grew up under Jim Crow in Memphis, Tennessee. I know of other people from South Africa who lived under apartheid and have visited Gaza.

All these people who experienced Jim Crow in the United States and South African apartheid say they have never seen anything as bad. They all say that Israeli apartheid is far worse. I absolutely believe my siblings in the movement.

We’re at the start of a new, long struggle to get rid of Israeli apartheid. But we’re seeing a paradigm shift today and the students have led the way into a new era. This struggle in solidarity with Palestine is going to impact all our movements and make them all stronger.

AS: One of the most shocking things we have witnessed is the repressive and sometimes brutal response to the encampments, not only by Republicans and conservative leaders of school administrations, but also by the Democrats and liberal administrators. They have all unleashed police on protestors. What explains the bipartisan nature and brutality of the crackdown?

BS: I watched the crackdown unfold and couldn’t help but think of my own experience in the late 1960s. During that period, I was in New York City studying at the New School for Social Research during my junior year.

It was my junior year abroad. I left bucolic Mount Holyoke for something I was more familiar with—urban America. I got to go to the city I had been dreaming about ever since I saw its skyline on our black-and-white TV in the early 1950s.

At the New School College, we had young radical professors who closed the school in solidarity with Columbia when students went out on strike.

I was part of the movement, but as a Black woman I felt marginalized among the white student Left I was around. So, although I was definitely down with SDS, I was not a part of it because if you were Black there were limits to what you were supposed to be interested in.

After college, I started graduate school at the University of Pittsburgh in the fall of 1969. Some of the Black nationalists on campus harshly criticized me because I was active in advocating for an end to the war in Vietnam, which was peaking toward a major mobilization in November of 1969.

We’re seeing a paradigm shift today and the students have led the way into a new era. This struggle in solidarity with Palestine is going to impact all our movements and make them all stronger.

I faced challenges as a Black woman because the colleges and universities were still in the process of desegregating. But even the most ridiculous of these institutions could not help but be impacted by the zeitgeist of the times, by the cascading social and political movements of that era.

Every night when administrators of colleges and universities went home, they were seeing Black people beaten by police and attacked by police dogs. Remember, the 1963 March on Washington had happened, the anti-war movement was reaching a crescendo, a new women’s movement was starting, and Martin Luther King had just been assassinated.

The university bosses were impacted by this climate. They were also shaped by a political consensus around the social welfare state forged out of the New Deal. But that didn’t stop Columbia from building its gymnasium in Harlem and displacing all of those Black families.

So, the conflict remained intense between the radicalizing students and their administrations on a whole number of issues. At Columbia, students shut down the school in 1968. They detained administrators in their offices, they occupied whole parts of the campus, and they held Hamilton Hall for about a week.

The whole scenario in 2024 is different. This year, students at Columbia held Hamilton Hall for less than 24 hours. Today, the people who head up these institutions are products of the backlash that began with Nixon and peaked with Reagan.

A rebuilt encampment at Columbia University on April 21. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Nixon came in with an agenda to roll back every single gain of the twentieth century. While Nixon’s government fell apart in disgrace after Watergate, he set the direction for a counter-offensive that would culminate in Reagan’s all-out attack on workers and oppressed people.

Today’s administrators are products of that era of backlash and corporate greed. They head up institutions that are thoroughly neoliberalized and preoccupied with the financial bottom line and efficiency.

Their chief priority is fundraising and pleasing their capitalist donors, not enhancing knowledge or improving culture. As a result, liberal arts are being cut and even eliminated.

So, like the capitalists who control them, they are absolutely hostile to those below them—professors, students, and staff. That is one reason for the ferocity of their crackdown on the encampments.

Another reason is the nature of the student activists who are participating in the protests. Unlike in the 1960s, when campuses were still mostly segregated, today they are much more multiracial and multi-gendered. So, the administrators responded to them like the city bosses and police did to Black Lives Matter, with brutal repression.

AS: It seems that we are in the midst of a New McCarthyism with far-right GOP leaders like Representative Elise Stefanik holding hearings in the House, grilling college presidents, and pushing for legislation that essentially criminalizes criticism of the state of Israel. Palestinians, Arabs, and Muslims as well as their allies have been canceled, fired, denied promotion, and disciplined. What explains the ferocity of this backlash against people calling for an end to genocide and for equality, justice, and democratic rights for Palestinians?

BS: These hearings could have been organized by the House Un-American Activities Committee. They have grilled university president after university president, pressuring them to escalate the crackdown they have already ordered.

They went after Claudine Gay in particular. She has been justifiably criticized for adapting to the right’s charge against the movement being antisemitic and for not being an outspoken proponent of liberation for Palestine.

Now, what would we expect from the president of the most elite university in the entire nation? But I have issues about how they went after her, the first Black woman president of Harvard. Politicians, donors, and alumni did everything possible to bring her down.

This is undoubtedly a new and racist McCarthyism. Everything old is new again. I lived through the McCarthy era as a kid in elementary school. I remember when the Rosenbergs were executed. Our family paid attention to the news, and we talked about it.

My sister and I were around the same age as the Rosenbergs’ two sons, the Meeropol brothers. Both of us asked our family, how can they kill those two boys’ parents? They’re allowed to kill somebody’s parents?

We didn’t know then that we would lose our mother three years after the Meeropol boys lost their parents. Our mother died of a disease. So, I’ve always felt a bond with those kids out of that horrific experience of loss. At least my mother’s death was not the decision of a completely evil state. She died of supposedly natural causes.

This is undoubtedly a new and racist McCarthyism. Everything old is new again.

Her death led my sister to get a master’s degree in public health from Yale specifically focusing on Black women’s health. She is very aware of the disparate outcomes for Black people suffering from diseases compared to whites.

My mother died as a result of rheumatic fever, something one of my favorite college professors, a white man, had and survived. My mother had been long gone by the time I met him. Given the lack of access to health care in rural Georgia in the 1920s when she contracted rheumatic fever as a child, her death was not simply from “natural causes.”

But no one sentenced her to death as the state did with the Rosenbergs. And she wasn’t wantonly killed by the state like Black people are murdered by police mostly in our cities. Those killed by the state, if they are not children themselves, leave behind orphans and bereft loved ones. So, when I speak of McCarthyism, I speak from experience across generations.

Speaking across generations is vital. Those of us engaged in revolutionary political work have to unite all different kinds of people, including people of different ages. This young generation of activists is so much more diverse than ours was.

I grew up in a Black-white dichotomy. My college years were a Black-white dichotomy. For a long time after that, it was a Black-white dichotomy. But as a result of all our struggles the new generation is much more diverse and much more aware of the intersectional nature of our collective fight for liberation. That is heartwarming for me as a Black, anti-racist, feminist, lesbian.

Our new LBGTQ+ movement has benefitted from all this diversity. It is not so mono-issue. Mono this or mono that politics is now a thing of the past. Today’s radicals are so much more open to the incredible diversity of human beings.

Today’s new right that is driving these new McCarthyite hearings want to roll all that back. They want to restore all the old binaries, all the old hierarchies, all the old divisions. That’s what’s behind their slogan, “Make America Great Again.”

Please don’t Make America Great Again. Please don’t. I’ve already been through that. I don’t want to live through that again.

AS: The current struggle is playing a profound role in the shaping of a new Left in this country. Coming out of the 1960s radicalization, you as part of the Combahee River Collective emphasized in your Statement and work the importance of understanding interlocking systems of oppression and the necessity of an intersectional approach to resisting and changing them. How do you think this is useful for today’s Left? Has it become their common sense? Or is there work to be done?

BS: There’s always work to be done. We’re mortals and we’re still trapped in this capitalist society and the oppressions and divisions it breeds. None of us are free from it yet. So, we all need to engage in collective, intersectional struggle till we’re all free.

In this struggle, we need as I and many others have said a collective intelligence. You cannot solve social problems as an individual. It’s not possible. Our problems are the product of our society and especially its capitalist economy.

Our problems are ones of political economy. The only way we overcome these and find solutions is by joining together in struggle, sharing what each of us brings to whatever the issue is, and creating a collective intelligence capable of transforming our world.

Humor plays an important role in this process. It can help us to relate to each other when we’re dealing with dire situations. You generally don’t joke with people you don’t like. This has been part of our dynamics within our local groups organizing for Palestine. Humor can be a way of showing kindness. It’s been a part of every healthy movement I’ve ever been part of.

Speaking across generations is vital. Those of us engaged in revolutionary political work have to unite all different kinds of people, including people of different ages. … We all need to engage in collective, intersectional struggle till we’re all free.

Part of that collective intelligence is face-to-face organizing in meetings. Don’t just do slogans. Don’t just think that because you get a certain number of likes on whatever social media platform you’re on that you’ve done the organizing.

You have to be organized and meeting with people. I’m a member of DSA (Democratic Socialists of America) here in Albany. It functions pretty well and has taken some different stances than some other DSAs, including national. It’s a good organization.

There is a housing committee in DSA. Some of us are in another group that also works on housing that’s called the Albany Justice Coalition that includes some of the same DSA members. DSA has led the way in doing canvassing around legislation for housing rights.

They go out once a month and door-knock in the neighborhood that I used to live in and that I represented on the Common Council. That’s organizing. They are talking to people and asking them what are the problems you have day to day?

And they tell tenants that if this housing bill gets passed, you will be able to have protections against what your landlord might do. They’re both doing political education and they’re finding out what’s the situation here on the ground.

This movement for a ceasefire, an end to this genocide, and for Palestinian liberation is grassroots organizing. That’s what I want people to understand. It’s not just being cute and having a following on a static medium, which is your computer or your phone.

It’s about knowing people, meeting people where they’re at, and finding out if there is anything that my little mind or my little body can do that could perhaps help your situation to be different than it is. The most wonderful thing is when people get this and mobilize on their own to change their life circumstances, stand up and fight, and speak truth to power.

One of the most important things to do when we face some of the most intractable problems like the assault on reproductive justice is to look for our opponent’s vulnerabilities. What are their weak points we can exploit to change the power dynamics?

Within our own movement, we have to make sure we are empowering oppressed people. In the mid-1970s, I was involved in a campaign against sterilization abuse in Boston. We noticed that there were no guidelines for people facing the problem, so we just wrote guidelines ourselves and publicized them ourselves.

In Albany during the late 1980s, our anti-racist feminist group noticed that a new shelter for women who were experiencing battering, or domestic violence, had hired an all-white staff. That was typical of the white feminist movement.

We had a frustrating meeting with the shelter organizers. We made the point that a lot of people who were going to use the shelter were going to be women of color, and that they needed staff who were like them, but they didn’t hear what we were saying.

So, you know what we did? We wrote our own job description, and we circulated it in the city. As a result, several women of color applied and got staff positions. We took the approach that if they can’t figure it out, we’ll just take action ourselves.

In the current movement, one of my favorite examples of exploiting our opponent’s weakness was the bridge and tunnel shut-down in New York City. It was the right people, at the right place, at the right time. And it made a statement.

A couple of friends of mine have a son in New York who’s right at the center of all this activism. I’ve known him since he was a child. He was one of the people perching on a high balcony at one of the actions when they occupied Grand Central Station.

I asked his mother: Did you tell him not to do that again? But I was just joking. I take great joy in seeing a new generation spread their wings. They are playing a leading role in this great new movement we have created in solidarity with Palestine.

AS: Solidarity with Palestine has brought together many wings of today’s radicalization, including sections of the trade union movement. The higher education workers in California voting to go out on strike against police brutality and in solidarity with the Palestinian movement is a profound example of the intersectional nature of the struggle for liberation. What has been its impact on our social and labor movements?

BS: The best example of its impact has been the UAW. The fact that this major industrial union called for a ceasefire is a breakthrough. Others have followed their lead. The union movement in this country is not where we would like it to be, but it’s definitely different from where it was, say, in the, in the moribund 1980s and 1990s.

The movement in solidarity with Palestine has profoundly impacted working-class communities inside and outside unions, especially people of color in the working class. I’ve experienced this personally at the mosque here in downtown Albany, which is where working-class Muslims in that neighborhood go to worship.

Most of the meetings of our Coalition against Islamophobia were in that mosque. It was an intersectional space. It’s where a lot of people of African heritage and African Americans worship. So, it’s a racially diverse mosque.

All that has flowed into the broader solidarity movement with Palestine. It really does feel like a point of convergence for Palestinians, people of color, Arabs, Muslims, Jews, and white activists as well. It is a sign of hope for our collective future.

AS: One of the positive developments of the new Left that is forming is opposition to US imperialism. We have been collaborating together in the Ukraine Solidarity Network where we have tried to put forward a principled position of solidarity with all struggles for national liberation and self-determination against all imperialisms, whether that of the US or China or Russia. We have put forward the slogan, “From Ukraine to Palestine, Occupation is a Crime.” That seems exceptional on the Left, with many instead practicing selective solidarity, supporting this or that struggle but not all of them. What explains this? Why is it a problem? What do you think should be done about it?

BS: I try to practice solidarity without exception. So, I have these two buttons that I wear at protests, one for Ukraine and another for Palestine. And I just don’t wear those buttons. I speak about the connectedness of the struggles against imperialism of all sorts.

At the May Day event in our area, I talked about the struggle for a free Palestine and a free Ukraine. I explained why we need to oppose Israel’s genocidal war and Russia’s imperialist invasion of Ukraine.

Listen to the Black person, listen to the Palestinians, listen to the Ukrainians, listen to the Muslims, listen to the queer people, listen to workers.

I told the crowd that I was a member of the Ukraine Solidarity Capital District and that we were working in solidarity with the people of Ukraine and people applauded. That gave me confidence that we can and must oppose occupation from Ukraine to Palestine as part of a common struggle for collective liberation.

I really don’t understand why some on the Left cannot see it that way. How can people be in solidarity with Ukraine but not Palestine? And how can people be in solidarity with Palestine but not Ukraine?

That kind of politics, which is very different from mine, leads them to selective solidarity. Several of us here in Albany reject that approach and have joined the movement in support of both Palestine and Ukraine.

I think the key to such politics—solidarity without exception—is listening to the people impacted, in this case, the Palestinians and Ukrainians, and taking a lead from them, their experience, and their analysis. That’s in keeping with what Tempest I think calls socialism from below.

That means always siding with listening to the people who are experiencing oppression and exploitation. Who would be surprised by me saying that? Listen to the Black person, listen to the Palestinians, listen to the Ukrainians, listen to the Muslims, listen to the queer people, listen to workers.

That may sound simplistic, but I think it provides a reliable moral and political compass to find our way forward in this complex world in our struggle for collective liberation.

Featured image credit: Williams College; modified by Tempest.

The post Answering the call to fight injustice appeared first on Tempest.

Categories: D2. Socialism

Rosa Luxemburg and the democratic road to socialist revolution 

Tempest Magazine - Sun, 06/09/2024 - 21:14
Introduction: The unknown Rosa Luxemburg

Luxemburg’s Complete Works in English (from Verso Books) will number 17 volumes, each approximately 600 pages. Anglophone socialist militants, young and old, are likely to be familiar with only a few hundred pages constituted by four, landmark essays: Reform or Revolution? (1899), a critique of reformism; Organizational Problems of Russian Social Democracy (1904), a critique of Lenin’s ostensible Blanquism;1 The revolutionary strategy attributed to Louis Auguste Blanqui (1805–1881) involved a seizure of power by a small, secretive group of conspirators. The Mass Strike, the Political Party, and the Trade Unions (1906), her masterly study of the universal features of any workers’ revolution, whether in autocracies or republics, using the 1905 Russian Revolution as an illustration; and, finally, in the present volume under consideration (vol. 5), the draft of her well-known, wide-ranging and oft-cited, On the Russian Revolution, written in prison. Luxemburg composed this unfinished, 32-page manuscript in the summer of 1918. It was published posthumously, in 1922.

Whose Luxemburg?

For the past century, many on the Left have taken the Russian Revolution to be Luxemburg’s final and irrevocable verdict: Bolshevism was incompatible with Marx’s dictum that the emancipation of the working class can only be the work of the working class, not that of a “dictatorial” party. By dissolving, in January 1918, the Constituent Assembly elected on the basis of universal, equal, and direct suffrage, Lenin’s partisans “helped create precedents and preconditions for what became known as Stalinism,” as the volume’s editors state—nothing less (xxxviii).

This thumbnail characterization of Bolshevism, and the attendant teleology, is not the exclusive preserve of the Left. Bourgeois liberals, conservatives and reactionaries also subscribe to it. But this approach, where Stalin’s dictatorship appears largely as Lenin’s “dictatorship” multiplied tenfold, so to speak, unwittingly negates, or at the very least obscures, the opposition between the two dictatorships with respect to their objectives: Lenin’s “dictatorship” repressed counter-revolution against the democratic October Revolution—enter the Red Terror. Stalin’s dictatorship mobilized counter-revolution against the October Revolution—through the Five-Year Plans and forced collectivization. Lenin’s majoritarian “terror” sought to preserve the October Revolution; Stalin’s minoritarian terror destroyed it.

Rosa Luxemburg in 1905. The creator of the image is unknown. Circulated by Verso.

In any event, whatever the critic’s political ideology, many take Luxemburg’s judgment on circumstantial and, therefore, transient aspects of Bolshevik policies of 1918-1919—repression and terror—to characterize “Leninist” politics per se, then and forever. But this approach to Luxemburg muddies the waters because it does not fully engage with the febrile, dynamic, and multi-dimensional character of her thinking.

Upon her liberation on November 7, 1918, Luxemburg wrote a series of articles and essays—around 130 pages—re-evaluating long-held notions concerning the state, democracy, parliament, repression and terror. Most were published in Die Rote Fahne (The Red Flag), the newspaper of the Spartacists2The Spartacus League, identified with Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, broke from the German Social Democratic Party in 1914 after the party’s endorsement of Germany’s entry into the First World War. and, later, official organ of the KPD, founded in late December 1918.

In these newly translated documents, composed in the last 64 days of her life, Luxemburg learned much and understood still more. Though she never read Lenin’s State and Revolution, she staked out positions very close to the Bolshevik chief. Lenin insisted on the democratic advantages of soviet democracy over bourgeois democracy, developing a new theory of state and revolution that incorporated older, social democratic notions of state, democracy and freedom into a superior synthesis.

This excursion into history is politically relevant today. Those on the Left campaigning to “rehabilitate” Kautskyism3Karl Kautsky (1854–1938) was a longtime leading theoretician of the German Social Democratic Party. and the democratic parliamentary road to socialism look askance at anything in Luxemburg’s political writings that might imply a defense of Bolshevism, of a democratic, soviet road to socialism.

Through a glass darkly: Luxemburg’s prison writings on the Russian Revolution

While incarcerated Luxemburg could only see the Russian Revolution through a peephole, as it were: scattered press reports published by a violently anti-Bolshevik press, ranging from German Social Democracy on the “Left” to reactionary effluvia on the right. Communications from close comrades supplemented her knowledge. But there can be little doubt that no issues of Pravda or Izvestia regularly landed in her mailbox in the last year of her imprisonment. And so, she could not follow, day by day, what the Bolsheviks were saying and doing between the February and October Revolutions of 1917, or beyond. This created immense difficulties for Luxemburg to understand precisely what was going on, to get the Big Picture from the Bolshevik perspective.

Structure and conjuncture: The peasant question

Luxemburg’s understanding of agrarian relations in late imperial Russia was faulty, and this mistaken view was part of what underlay her critique of the Bolsheviks in On the Russian Revolution. It was the structural dimension of the Russian Revolution that commanded Luxemburg’s attention, relating specific Bolshevik policies to that dimension. Unfortunately, students rarely study questions of political economy in relation to Luxemburg’s historically concrete criticism of Bolshevik policies.

Thus, Luxemburg assailed the Bolshevik policy of land to the peasant, decreed by Soviet power in October 1917, for reversing the ostensibly pro-capitalist reforms in agriculture undertaken in late Imperial Russia, known as the Stolypin reforms. In her view, these reforms had led to a large-scale proletarianization of the peasantry. But Bolshevik policy, she averred, had dismantled these reforms, reversing the trend toward proletarianization and leading instead to “the fragmentation of the relatively advanced large-scale agricultural enterprise into the primitive, small-scale holding, the latter operating with technical means from the time of the pharaohs.” This not only failed to constitute a “socialist measure,” she thought, it also blocked the “route to any such measure” by piling up “insurmountable difficulties in the path of the reconfiguration of agrarian relations along socialist lines.” Indeed, “social and economic inequality within the peasantry had increased,” and “class antagonisms” had “intensified” (226).

Contrary to Luxemburg’s view, there never was any significant large-scale agriculture in late imperial Russia worked by largely landless peasants using novel methods unknown to the pharaohs. Agriculture remained what it always was. Peasants sought to hold on to their small plots of land, the basis of their existence, by any means necessary. In tsarist times, they rented additional lands from the gentry at exorbitant rates or took out loans at equally exorbitant interest rates to purchase land. In the revolution, however, the peasants took matters into their own hands. In the summer of 1917, and using the age-old institution of peasant self-rule, the commune or mir, they began a, by and large, orderly (not “chaotic,” as Luxemburg thought) expropriation of gentry land, stopped paying rent, and canceled loans.

Contrary to Luxemburg’s view, there never was any significant large-scale agriculture in late imperial Russia … Agriculture remained what it always was.

In sweeping away the landed aristocracy, the Russian Revolution did not significantly alter the peasant’s relationship to other peasants or to the land. The number of peasant households with land rose from 18 to 25 million. They had tilled their bantam household plots before, under the tsars, and continued to do so under Soviet power. In the long run, this peasantry proved to be a truly insurmountable obstacle to building socialism democratically until Stalin’s policies of forced collectivization annihilated the peasant way of life, marking the end of any kind of socialism.

When Luxemburg wrote On the Russian Revolution in the summer of 1918, the great share-out of land at the expense of the landed aristocracy was in full swing. As noted, the first decrees of Soviet power called, among other things, for land to the peasant, recognizing de jure what the peasants were doing de facto, and forcing the Bolsheviks to renounce their original program of land nationalization, designed to foster the development of “capitalism” in agriculture in favor of the Socialist Revolutionary Party (SR) program of land to the peasant.

Luxemburg thinking Bolshevik policy had radically reconfigured agrarian relations—when it had not—nevertheless contained a profound truth about the Russian Revolution that most Marxists ignore at their peril: A landholding peasantry was indubitably detrimental to “proletarian and socialist interests.” Any “attempted socialist reform of agriculture,” she wrote, “will be confronted by an adversary consisting of an enormously expanded and powerful mass of property-owning peasantry, which will fight tooth and nail to defend its newly acquired property from any socialist attacks” (227).

This understanding of the peasantry was an ideological stock-in-trade of Second International “stageist” Marxism, indeed, the ABCs of Marxism. Luxemburg, Trotsky, and Lenin were simply repeating Kautsky on this question, and Kautsky was simply repeating Marx’s dictum that historically definite material premises of socialism—identified with the proletariat and the capitalist mode of production—formed a necessary, preparatory, pre-socialist “stage” in socio-economic development, one, moreover, that could not be circumvented by “leaping” over it, as in “voluntarist” versions of Marxism, notably Maoism and Guevarism.

That stage may have been reached on a world scale by the early twentieth century but no social democrat thought tsarist Russia alone, with its 100 million peasants, had reached it. If workers were to seize power there, they would also have to seize it elsewhere, in the capitalist world proper. If they didn’t, building “socialism in one country”—in Russia—became a dystopian project. And that is what it turned out to be historically, after the hope of revolution in Western Europe subsided in the 1920s. Luxemburg understood this danger; so did Lenin, Trotsky, and anyone else with a minimal understanding of the world.

Soviet Power dissolves the Constituent Assembly: The historical background

In the Russian Revolution, the peasantry destroyed all local organs of the tsarist administration, the zemstvos, through which the ruling class, the landed aristocracy, had extorted its share of peasant surpluses. Originally, the zemstvos had been established in the wake of the abolition of serfdom in 1861 to nominally take over from this gentry the conduct of local affairs. The peasants paid increasingly onerous taxes to support zemstvo functionaries—statisticians, teachers, agronomists, surveyors, doctors, secretaries, clerks. Critically, these functionaries also formed the core of SR activists, organizers, and cadres. This party obtained a plurality of votes in elections to the Constituent Assembly.

In democratic elections to the Constituent Assembly, held before the Soviet seizure of power in October 1917, the peasantry overwhelmingly voted for the Socialist Revolutionaries, a party that had long advocated land to the peasant in their program. Collecting 40 percent of the popular vote, the SRs represented the largest party in the assembly. The Bolsheviks and the Left Socialist Revolutionaries were in the minority, with 25 percent of the popular vote. Overtly non-socialist parties, notably the counter-revolutionary Kadet party, made up the right. With five percent of the vote, the imperialist-minded liberals of the Kadet party had managed to outpoll the Mensheviks’ paltry three percent, sealing the latter’s final political bankruptcy in the eyes of the working class—while simultaneously endorsing the living alternative to a bourgeois republic, Soviet Power.

But the SRs together with the Menshevik wing of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party had proved to be neither socialist nor revolutionary nor democratic in practice in the eight-month period of “dual power,” misleading all those who thought they were—mostly peasants in the countryside where Bolsheviks were not present in sufficient numbers to counter SR ideological influence over them. So, this class unknowingly voted against its interests—a phenomenon socialists are familiar with.

In the proletariat, Lenin’s partisans commanded an overwhelming majority of the votes, over 60 percent. However, in the population at large … they were clearly in the minority.

Thus, between February and October 1917, Mensheviks and SRs opposed land distribution without compensation, favored continuing the imperialist war until an imperialist peace could be concluded, and insisted on maintaining managerial authority on the factory floor at the expense of factory committees organized and led by workers—all in the name of “revolutionary democracy.” After the October Revolution, and upon the convocation of the Constituent Assembly, the SR majority, supported by the Mensheviks, understandably refused to ratify Soviet decrees on land, workers’ control, and peace. At stake: Who was in charge—Soviet Power or the Constituent Assembly? Which authority would enforce freedom of speech, assembly, and press in public accommodations, on college campuses, in the streets, and on the shop floor?

In the proletariat, Lenin’s partisans commanded an overwhelming majority of the votes, over 60 percent. However, in the population at large, among the “citizenry,” they were clearly in the minority. So here is the paradox: The Russian Revolution, universally regarded by honest people as a movement of the overwhelming majority in the interests of the majority, nevertheless democratically elects an assembly that, if allowed to perform its role in establishing a bourgeois democratic state, would have compelled the Bolsheviks to abdicate leadership of the revolution in favor of the Socialist Revolutionary Party and their ally, the Mensheviks, who had also decried the Soviet seizure of power as an anti-popular, anti-democratic coup, an old charge repeated today under a new name—“Leninist insurrectionism.”

To prevent the destruction of the new-born soviet state under the banner of “democracy,” the Bolsheviks (and their temporary allies, the Left SRs), thought best to displace the Constituent Assembly in favor of “All Power to the Soviets,” the slogan the Bolsheviks had adopted in late April 1917, following their acceptance of Lenin’s supposedly famous April Theses. The theses, however, were not famous to Luxemburg and many others when they first came out. She never wrote explicitly about them. She may have heard of them but there is no evidence that she understood their world-historic significance then, as we do now—some present-day outliers excepted. Readers are urged to unfailingly keep track of what Luxemburg knew, and when she knew it, to understand the dynamic of Luxemburg’s thought. Concrete historical analysis and clear chronology are indispensable.

Luxemburg’s argument

Soviet Power dissolved the Constituent Assembly in January 1918. This act was central to Luxemburg’s critique of Lenin and the Bolsheviks as falling afoul of the most basic principles of democracy, a critique repeated time and again today. But Luxemburg’s critique lacked the necessary specificity, born from real knowledge of the historically concrete circumstances of, and reasons for, the dissolution of an assembly elected based on universal, equal, and direct suffrage. She often fell back to rhetorically reiterating the First Principles of Democracy to make up for unavoidable gaps in her knowledge, a reflex some commentators today also exhibit but with considerably less justification since they are not locked up and can go check the historical record.

While in prison, Luxemburg read and attacked Trotsky’s reasoning defending the Bolshevik action. In From October to Brest Litovsk, Trotsky had argued that since the Constituent Assembly had been elected long before the October Revolution, its composition when it met ten weeks after the overthrow of the Provisional Government no longer registered the new balance of class forces created by the soviet seizure of power. Luxemburg agreed that the assembly was “an image of a past that had been superseded”—just as “Herschel’s night sky never shows us celestial bodies as they are, but rather as they were at the precise moment at which … they dispatched their emissaries of light toward Earth.” Luxemburg capped her starry analogy with a triumphant flourish:

… [I]t necessarily followed that the course of action to be taken was to dissolve the obsolete—and thus stillborn—assembly and to call fresh elections for a new Constituent Assembly without delay! 235

But the “clever” Trotsky and Lenin did not follow this logical course, eliminating “democracy as such” (237, emphasis added). There are many facets to Luxemburg’s analysis that require individualized study. I deal only with the ones immediately and directly relevant to the matter at hand.

Who-whom?

Luxemburg’s starry reasoning begged the fundamental, earthly political question: Who would decide whether the Constituent Assembly was stillborn or not? The Constituent Assembly? Soviet Power? How could this be decided democratically? If it were left to the Assembly, it meant acknowledging it—and not the Soviet—as the supreme power. As the supreme power, it could not have been in the interests of the majority there, the SRs above all, to permit new elections to reflect the “current state of affairs” in the countryside—peasant annihilation of the zemstvos.

The new assembly elections that Luxemburg favored, which would reflect the peasantry’s scorched-earth policy toward the zemstvos, would have meant the SRs undermining the very basis of their social existence. After all, the peasants were paying the salaries of this social stratum. Hence this party’s material interest in invoking formal democracy—the electoral configuration of the Constituent Assembly—at the expense of substantive democracy. As Lenin pointed out, substantive democracy involved peasants who had already “voted with their feet” to desert the army and join their classmates in the countryside to divide the land—and do without the hardships of materially supporting an SR-influenced bureaucracy to run the now-defunct zemstvos.

When the Soviet Power issued its ultimatum to the Constituent Assembly regarding the land—acknowledge and respect the peasantry’s democratic choice—Mensheviks and SRs refused. Had the Bolsheviks deferred to it, they would have discredited themselves in the eyes of the majority in society at large, workers and peasants. Lenin’s partisans did not want to commit political suicide by recognizing formal democracy at the expense of substantive democracy.

The question of suffrage: A counterfactual

Luxemburg’s democratic criticism would have carried greater credibility had the peasantry become proletarianized, if the material basis for socialism had actually existed not just in the cities but in the countryside. In that case, elections would have reflected a state of affairs where the urban and rural proletariat would have constituted a majority of the entire population, as in the West. As such, however, the working-class majority would have voted for the Bolsheviks not only in the cities of Russia, as it did historically, but in the countryside as well. On the assumption that there would have been little compartmentalization between the two electoral processes—the left, “soviet” hand of the proletariat fully aware of what its right, “constitutional” hand was doing—the Bolsheviks would have been running the Constituent Assembly and the Soviet, commanding a majority in each, according to the logic of Luxemburg’s reasoning.

After her liberation, however, Luxemburg explicitly dropped the notion she had held in prison, that general democratic forms could meaningfully coexist with class-specific forms of democracy, parliaments with workers’ councils, bourgeois democracy with soviet democracy, whether in “backward” or “advanced” societies. In this new conception, socialist democracy cannot coexist with bourgeois democracy—an institutional form now historically outdated yet still constituting an undemocratic barrier to socialist transition, mandating its destruction.

Sixty-four days of freedom: Luxemburg’s implicit reevaluation of the Russian Revolution in light of the German Revolution

Revolution in Germany—whose outbreak led to her release from prison—convinced Luxemburg that bourgeois democratic political forms, no matter where they might exist, were not only incompatible with proletarian democratic forms but, in times of revolution, a mortal danger to them. For it is in the name of these universal forms—rule of the majority or democracy per se—that counter-revolution in Germany justified suppressing the revolutionary minority.

Luxemburg’s heinous murder—a crime against humanity—prevented her from explicitly revising her initial evaluation of the Russian Revolution in the light of extraordinary developments in the German workers’ movement that concentrated her mind in the last two months of her life, while on the run from the police from November 9, 1918, to January 15, 1919. But logical inferences, applicable to Russia, can be drawn from her analysis of events in Germany.

Against putschism

Luxemburg always insisted that (initially minoritarian) revolutionary tactics had to be used to rally the otherwise non-revolutionary majority to revolution as a prerequisite to overthrowing the bourgeois state and seizing power, banning any Blanquist or quasi-Blanquist notions of minoritarian revolutionary seizures of power. Luxemburg’s memorable dictum was: “not through a majority to revolutionary tactics, but through revolutionary tactics to a majority—that is the way the road runs” (223). And that is how the road ran in the October Revolution, considered as a workers’ revolution only. Only after the Bolsheviks had won majorities in virtually all the workers’ institutions, the factory committees and soviets, could they actually overthrow the Provisional Government. Only after the Bolsheviks had secured majority support of the working class could they actually found a soviet state.

Some socialists today draw the lesson from Luxemburg’s dictum that it was possible for an elected minority to seize power without majority support and then rally the majority to support this fait accompli, temporarily establishing a “lack of correspondence between an oppositional revolutionary movement that has not yet obtained a majority and a consolidated post-revolutionary democratic society” as in Russia (Samuel Farber, Before Stalinism: The Rise and Fall of Soviet Democracy, 39.) This not only misconstrues Luxemburg and misrepresents the October Revolution; it also inadvertently makes room for putschist notions.

The German Revolution was precipitated by mutinies in Germany’s North Sea ports. Here, sailors in the port of Kiel hold a sign that reads, in part, “Long live the socialist republic. Image by Allgemeiner Deutscher Nachrichtendienst.

Only in Russia was it possible, though not inevitable, for majority representation of workers in the Soviet to go hand-in-hand with minority representation in the Constituent Assembly because the peasantry, not the working class, elected a counterrevolutionary majority hostile to workers’ interests and, indeed, to the peasants’ own interests, as was historically the case with the SRs and the Mensheviks. Only in Russia was it possible, though not inevitable, for a non-consensual resolution to this conflict. Matters were different in Germany.

In Germany, an opposition between workers’ councils and National Assembly roughly analogous to that between Soviet Power and Constituent Assembly in Russia also arose. But (attempted) dual power operated in Germany in the presence of the capitalist state, whereas dual power in Russia operated in the presence of Soviet Power—a decisive difference.

Sounding the alarm

Within days of her prison release Luxemburg sounded the alarm. She drew up a lengthy bill of indictment against her erstwhile comrades of Social Democracy for creating the National Assembly, elected by universal suffrage, as it was meant to act as

… a bourgeois counterweight to the workers’ and soldiers’ representatives, diverting the revolution onto the tracks of bourgeois revolution, and spinning the socialist goals of the revolution into oblivion.

The assembly was doing “nothing to destroy the continued power of capitalist class rule” and everything “to placate the bourgeoisie, to proclaim the sacrosanctity of property, to safeguard the inviolability of capital relations.” It allowed “the counterrevolution to continue at every turn, without appealing to the masses, without loudly warning the people” (258).

The struggle for the National Assembly is fought under the battle cry of “democracy or dictatorship.” Even socialist leaders obediently adopt these slogans of counterrevolutionary demagogues without noticing that this alternative is a demagogic falsification. Today it is not a question of democracy or dictatorship. The question that history has put on the agenda is: Bourgeois democracy or socialist democracy? (267)

While the majority of the Russian proletariat voted for Bolshevik delegates to the Constituent Assembly, the German proletariat returned a counter-revolutionary, Social Democratic majority to the National Assembly. When this assembly ordered the dissolution of the workers’ councils, the latter had little choice: submit or be repressed. Though Luxemburg and her small band of followers resisted as best they could savage militarized police operations launched against them by Freikorps death squads, they were not really in a position to do so successfully because they lacked majority working class support for socialist revolution and Soviet Power. Had Luxemburg’s partisans disregarded that majority notwithstanding, that majority would have interpreted their actions as an attempted putsch, destined to fail, not a self-conscious act of the immense majority in the interests of the immense majority, which would have opened the road to victory.

Revolutionary demonstration on December 29, 1918, at Berlin’s Potsdamer Platz. Image by Imperial War Museums UK.

Correlatively, where the working class majority backs a soviet seizure of power in the course of its self-movement, and there contingently arises in the post-seizure-of-state-power period a conflict between bourgeois and socialist democracy (i.e, between institutions elected on the basis of universal suffrage and those elected on a class basis), that conflict will, in all probability, be resolved peacefully because workers will, in all probability, have elected majorities to both institutions. In this hypothetical case, party-political representatives of the working-class majority in a Constituent Assembly, elected to found a bourgeois-democratic state suited to the capitalist mode of production, vote for its self-dissolution, voluntarily giving way to their counterparts in the Soviet, the superior, proletarian-socialist state form corresponding to the developing proletarian-socialist relations of property—based on workers’ control of production—that can put an end to class society.

Conclusion

From the experience of the German Revolution, unfolding before her very eyes, Luxemburg explicitly repudiated her earlier view, in On the Russian Revolution, that general democratic forms could exist side-by-side with class-specific forms of democracy. It was no longer a matter of “preferring” (237) one electoral system over another, as Luxemburg had originally thought. In her new view, the National Assembly in Germany, democratically elected by all citizens in January 1919, in the wake of the Kaiser’s overthrow, was incompatible with class-based soviets, with workers’ councils or Arbeiterrate—to use the expression familiar to her and to Second International Marxists–the word “soviet” not acquiring rights of citizenship in German Marxism and elsewhere until after her death.

Only a movement of the immense majority in the interests of the immense majority can overthrow capitalism. When the material basis for proletarian revolution and socialism is present, a theory of politics of the post-revolutionary transition to socialism in advanced capitalist societies that takes the post-October 1917 domestic Soviet experience, in part or in whole, as meaningfully relevant to this theory can only go astray, offering illusory solutions to imaginary problems since that experience is inapplicable because it is irrelevant.

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Categories: D2. Socialism

Pretty sure this FedEx job will kill me

Tempest Magazine - Wed, 06/05/2024 - 20:07

There’s a crisis at FedEx. As our Houston contact Malli Nath put it a few days ago: “The heart of FedEx just got liquidated for parts.” The company is merging FedEx Ground with FedEx Express—and “consolidating” FedEx Freight—but that really entails mass layoffs of drivers, and the conversion of company jobs with benefits to poorly compensated “independent contractor” positions. As Nath puts it, the affected people are “freaking out.”

“Fedex Express drivers are talking about losing their jobs like they are losing family, because the Express part was the heart of Federal Express…. This was the way they met their neighbors. It is heartbreaking to see people who have worked more than thirty years providing for their communities, who did meaningful work yesterday, and who are now suddenly superfluous. The people behind the counter are also devastated. … It never felt like this before.”

Nath themself works in a FedEx warehouse, and sent us the following report about the work situation inside.

This article is the first in an occasional series that Tempest is calling “Scenes from the social crisis.” See the end of the article for more information.

I just survived the tornado, the power outage, and the aftermath that others in Houston, TX, are going through. But in addition to that, I worked tirelessly in a FedEx sortation facility that was operating on generators alone. And every time something happened, or a light went out, or the conveyor belt sputtered, I was pretty sure that this was going to be the end of me. I don’t say this lightly. I am good at my job and I like most of my coworkers and almost none of my managers. But FedEx’s central role in the logistics operations of retail and residential deliveries means that when the machines don’t work because the weather is bad or a pandemic happens—the humans in the building are forced to make up for it.

Every time a crisis happens, humans need to make up for the failures of the machines to deal with the crisis.

What that realistically means, in case you don’t know, is that boxes have to be moved no matter what if FedEx is to turn a profit. So heavy objects that would routinely be carried by conveyor belt are manually moved down rollers or more likely carried by human beings or ill-designed Powered Industrial Transport or, dear God, those awful carts. FedEx is efficient and fast when everything works. But when the power goes down, everyone’s anxiety goes up because things are not just inefficient, they are downright deadly.

See, FedEx prides itself on speed and efficiency. Every package handler is shown the way to move boxes in and out of vehicles at the pace required by the machines. We use machines to scan packages and print labels that all work on networked servers. Profit depends on the speed of the electronic devices, the workings of the printer, the utility of the walkie-talkie, the working of the lights and fans. In ideal conditions FedEx tells you that the job is dangerous and requires vigilance.

 The chaos of the sort.

There are safety protocols that you are supposed to follow, but here is the kicker: You are occasionally written up if you have too many injuries on the job because that was a result of you not paying attention to your surroundings. Injuries are so under-reported at FedEx that it is not even funny. Everyone who works there will tell you that there is rarely a day when something doesn’t fall on you, cut you, scratch you, trip you, bump you, etc. We don’t report those. We sometimes report the bleeding but even then we are encouraged to triage ourselves at first aid stations (rarely well stocked or useful when your hands are already filthy) unless a medic is needed. At the local stations, there are rarely medics on call.

Just imagine the dangerous job (that pays just under $17 an hour part-time where I am) in which the average worker is expected to be able to move 50 lbs by themselves (but is actually goaded into lifting well above that weight and being docked for being slow), in slippery when NOT WET trailers or trucks (which are rarely maintained or cleaned) or working on those grated platforms which make you dizzy the first time you step on to them, or dealing with hazardous materials, or dealing with the dozens of various chutes and belts that are constantly getting jammed and requiring human intervention in almost always unsafe ways in the service of efficiency.

Climate change will kill me one way or the other it seems, but the job at FedEx will actually kill me faster … because they expect us to do it in increasingly dangerous conditions.

Then imagine doing it with the lights out. Or with the power only partially up. Or without the Internet. Without scanners that can make sense of the barcodes over which FedEx has some kind of proprietary lock and printers that can print those labels. Without being able to verify from HQ whether to proceed or not, through rain or sleet or snow or not. Or without the fans. In the heat. In Texas. Where construction workers routinely die of heatstroke outdoors, while the temperature inside the FedEx sortation facility is almost always ten degrees warmer (I am not allowed to carry my cell phone in so I have no way of fact checking this.)

Climate change will kill me one way or the other it seems, but the job at FedEx will actually kill me faster and not because I can’t do the job, but because they expect us to do it in increasingly dangerous conditions. We did it through COVID when mandatory masking was a fiction inside any FedEx facility (because you couldn’t breathe through them and move boxes and suffer the heat or cold, too). Some people wore them at the start. But almost no one wore them most of the time. Unsurprisingly, FedEx had a large number of COVID deniers among its workforce and lower management, not that anyone bothered to check what that would mean for us on the inside. We were shipping PPE and other necessary materials across the country and called “heroes” even though I had way too many conversations with 20-year-old co-workers who were convinced that COVID was a hoax (because they didn’t get it).

I hope you see the pattern. Every time a crisis happens, humans need to make up for the failures of the machines to deal with the crisis. And when the job is already hard and dangerous, the consequences are deadly. No one has died where I work that I know of. But I will be working this summer in the heat and through hurricane season. And I am no longer sure that this is a wise choice for many of us. More so than ever, we need a union at FedEx. I’m asking for a coworker.

And if the Amazon workers are joining the Teamsters, should we get in the fight, too?

To our readers: Tempest wants to run pieces like this one, where readers describe the signs of social crisis at work, in your community, in your daily life—and how you or other people are dealing with it. Please submit articles through this form.

Featured image credit: Dandy John; modified by Tempest.

The post Pretty sure this FedEx job will kill me appeared first on Tempest.

Categories: D2. Socialism

Resisting authoritarianism in the Caucasus

Tempest Magazine - Tue, 06/04/2024 - 21:19

The country of Georgia, a small nation of 3.7 million people in the Caucasus, has been thrown into a political crisis. In early April, the governing party, Georgian Dream, introduced “a foreign influence law” very similar to the one imposed on Russia in 2012. Vladimir Putin’s law helped transform Russia from a so-called managed democracy into an authoritarian state, which has crushed any and all dissent, especially in the wake of its imperialist war on Ukraine.

In Georgia, the billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili pulls the strings behind Georgian Dream. He is the country’s richest oligarch and possesses a fortune of $6.4 billion, which is nearly the size of the government’s entire budget and a fifth of the country’s GDP. He has denounced the influence of Western NGOs and so-called LGBT propaganda to justify passage of the law and a crackdown on democracy so that he can implement a capitalist plan of extractivist development.

Georgians have responded with a mass uprising in defense of their rights for the last two months. Despite their efforts and the veto of the law by the country’s president, Georgian Dream has remained determined to carry out the transformation of the government into an authoritarian regime. It has unleashed police to repress the movement. Its parliamentary majority overrode the President’s veto and has now enacted the law. Despite these setbacks, the struggle shows no signs of abating as elections approach in October.

Tragically some on the international Left have caricatured the protest movement as a so-called color revolution carried out by Western-backed NGOs. Here Tempest and Posle Media interview Georgian activists and scholars, Ia Eradze, Giorgi Kartvelishvili, Luka Nakhutsrishvili, Tamar Qeburia, and Lela Rekhviashvili, to set the record straight against such slander and answer questions about the roots, nature, and trajectory of the movement and the future of Georgia.

Ia Eradze is a political economist, with a research focus on finance in the post-socialist space. She is currently an associate professor at the Georgian Institute for Public Affairs (GIPA) and a CERGE-EI Foundation teaching fellow. She is also a researcher at the Institute for Social and Cultural Research, Ilia State University.

Giorgi Kartvelishvili is a member of the “Khma” (voice) movement. He is a PhD researcher of Modern & Contemporary History and Far East Studies (Tbilisi State University) and holds M.A. in Contemporary East Asian Studies (Duisburg-Essen University).

Luka Nakhutsrishvili teaches critical theory at Ilia State University Tbilisi and is a researcher and project coordinator at the Institute for Social and Cultural Research at the same university. He holds a PhD in Comparative Literature (Tübingen/Perpignan) and an MA in Philosophy (Wuppertal/Prague/Toulouse-le Mirail).

Tamar Qeburia is a PhD Candidate in Eastern European History at Ilia State University and the University of Göttingen. She is an affiliated researcher at the Institute of Social and Cultural Studies.

Lela Rekhviashvili is a researcher at the Leibniz Institute for Regional Geography, specializing in political economy and regional geography, with a regional focus on post-socialist Eastern Europe and Eurasia.

Posle & Tempest: The Georgian Dream Party’s determination to push through a “foreign influence law” has precipitated a wave of mass demonstrations in Georgia. What is the law? Why has Georgian Dream pushed for it now?

Giorgi: This foreign agent law is similar to the one in Russia and other post-Soviet countries like Kyrgyzstan. It requires noncommercial non-state organizations, including NGOs and independent media organizations who receive at least 20 percent of their annual income from foreign sources to register with the state as an organization under the influence of foreign powers.

The Russian law is much wider and more oppressive. It impacts not only organizations, but individuals as well. But if we remember in 2012, when the Russian law was first implemented, it looked very much like the one in Georgia, but it was expanded to include nearly any organization and individual purportedly under foreign influence.

We fear that the proposed law in Georgia will be expanded in the same manner. It already has ominous provisions. For example, the law gives the ministry of justice the right to monitor and request information, including private information and personal data, from organizations and individuals.

It does not exclusively focus on big, Western-backed NGOs. Georgian Dream has made it clear that one of its biggest targets is our country’s most progressive grassroots movement that emerged in the past 30 years probably—the movement against the Namakhvani Hydroelectric Power Plant.

That movement was not run by any NGO nor foreign funded, but was a grassroots mass movement. This example demonstrates that the government’s actual intent is the repression of any and all opposition to its dictates.

Lela: The other part of this law that is so threatening is that it can apply to migrants, especially those who have given up their citizenship to become citizens of different, mostly European, countries. Migrants have supported the Georgian population over the past decades through remittances, and in recent years have begun to support local social movements, like the one against the Namakhvani Plant.

Back in 2021 the Namakhvani movement did an audit of their donors to fend off accusations from the Georgian Dream government that it was backed by foreign powers. It showed that working class people, especially female care-migrants based in European countries, were the main funders of the movement. And they made small donations averaging something like $10.

So categorizing such support as being under the influence of a foreign agent will cut off a lifeline to local protest movements in Georgia.

Luka: Too much has been made of the NGOs as the target of this legislation. Certainly, there are a handful of powerful Western backed NGOs that are in its sites. And to be honest, they have in general played a negative role in promoting neoliberalism in Georgia.

But they are a small part of the organizations the law targets. It goes after everything from environmental groups to trade unions, who receive support from Western governments and union federations.

Almost all academics in Georgia will be impacted. Why? Because state support for research is almost non-existent, most of us receive support for our research from international funders like the Heinrich Boell Foundation or the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung.

Without this backing, we cannot do our jobs. So we’re targets of this law. That’s why university scholars have joined in the protests alongside students, who are staging massive strikes.

The logic of increasingly intrusive surveillance is at work. Soon, just as in Russia, we will start being branded as a foreign agent for just posting something on Facebook.

Already the law has been amended to allow the government to inquire about the personal lives of not only employees or board members of organizations considered under foreign influence, but their beneficiaries as well. They can even ask about the sexual life of targeted individuals.

Ia: What Luka is saying is really important about how quickly this law has gotten worse. This right to inquire about people’s personal lives was not in the original version introduced in April. This amendment was added during a third reading of the law. So already the logic of intensifying surveillance is in effect.

I want to underscore the stakes of this for university professors. This law will essentially cut off our funding for research and prevent us from being able to do academic work. Working conditions at Georgian universities are precarious and research funds provided by the Georgian government are extremely limited.

Therefore, foreign funding plays a crucial role in conducting research and therefore, literally enables academics to pursue their profession. Me and my colleagues genuinely fear that we will no longer be able to do our jobs and will be forced to leave the country. As a political economist, without the possibility to protect our interview partners’ confidentiality, I will not be able to do basic things like interviews, which are the foundation of our research.

Even if we don’t leave the country, the law will have a chilling effect on academic freedom. We won’t be able to write critically about politics and economics. The government is using this law to forge an authoritarian regime of the kind we see in Russia under Putin.

[T]he law will have a chilling effect on academic freedom. We won’t be able to write critically about politics and economics. The government is using this law to forge an authoritarian regime of the kind we see in Russia under Putin.

Posle & Tempest: How does Georgian Dream justify this crackdown? Does it have support among the people?

Giorgi: They have adopted a rightwing populist position like that of Donald Trump, Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, and Italy’s Matteo Salvini to justify their authoritarian turn. They describe their law as a defense of sovereignty against foreign influence, particularly the Western powers.

They blend this with advocacy of so-called traditionalist values against “LGBTQ propaganda” and standard populist anti-liberal positions. They hope to cultivate and mobilize a conservative base in the country, and they have found some support, but it’s limited.

The majority of the population in Georgia favors democracy, a fact that explains the size of the protests against the law.

Ia: The government has also claimed that they are taking measures, including this law, to prevent Russia from using supposed Western influence as justification to launch another war in Georgia like they have in Ukraine. That has resonated with some people who are understandably afraid of such a possibility.

Posle & Tempest: Is it right to say that the Georgian Dream government, which has been balancing between the EU and Russia, has now decisively tilted toward Russia? Is it trying to scuttle Georgia’s candidacy for membership of the EU?

Lela: We are in a very hard place. Georgia is a specific kind of peripheral capitalism; it is a transit hub capitalism open to capitalist investment from the U.S., EU, China, Turkey, and Russia.

These capitalist powers have all invested in infrastructure to turn the country to transport energy and commodities between the EU and China. So Georgia has been balancing between dominant imperial powers and emerging ones.

But now this integration is starting to unravel. Internally, the government has faced popular opposition to their hydroelectric projects. Externally, they face growing geopolitical tensions between their investors.

So to manage the contradictions of this situation, Georgian Dream is turning to authoritarian solutions to push their infrastructure plans against popular opposition. My fear is that, because of Georgia’s significance as a transit hub, all imperial powers will continue to collaborate with an increasingly authoritarian government. And under this law, we will not have the means to resist and challenge Georgia’s development policy.

Giorgi: The U.S. and the EU have been the biggest partners in terms of economy and everything else over the past 30 years. But with the rise of China and the West’s conflict with Russia, a whole new economic and geopolitical situation is developing around Georgia.

As Lela said, Georgia has become an energy and trade transit site between China and Europe. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has disrupted trade through northern transit routes and forced the EU to look for other suppliers of energy besides Russia.

So both China and the EU are seeking to diversify their trade routes and looking more and more to Georgia as part of a middle corridor and key transit site. And they are looking to the development of Georgia’s infrastructure to bring electricity and green energy to Europe.

This is a profoundly different geopolitical position for Georgia, which did not exist when Georgian Dream came to power over a decade ago. Now Georgian Dream is turning to authoritarianism to manage the contradictions of balancing between the U.S. and the EU on the one hand and China and Russia on the other.

And they might even get away with it for a certain period. Remember that Azerbaijan, which has been a major EU energy partner for 30 years, is an authoritarian state without any Western NGOs or democratic pluralism. Georgian Dream hopes to occupy a similar position—running an authoritarian state balancing between increasingly antagonistic powers.

Georgia is a specific kind of peripheral capitalism; it is a transit hub capitalism open to capitalist investment from the U.S., EU, China, Turkey, and Russia. These capitalist powers have all invested in infrastructure to turn the country to transport energy and commodities between the EU and China. So, Georgia has been balancing between dominant imperial powers and emerging ones.

Ia: Georgia is in a risky situation. Its development agenda has been dictated by loans from foreign powers, including international financial institutions like the World Bank as well as U.S., European, and Asian development banks. As a result, 75 percent of government debt is foreign debt, owed to such institutions and banks.

Their loans have bankrolled this transit hub form of capitalism. Georgian Dream is committed to investing in more and more hydropower stations as well as ports for shipping.

The question that I have right now is where the money will come from. It could continue to come from Western development banks. They have been happy to lend to authoritarian regimes.

But Georgian Dream has a backup plan if such funding dries up. They have introduced an offshore law that encourages other sources of capital, including from Russian oligarchs, to flow to Georgia. They have also introduced an amendment to the pension law that enables the government to draw partially on the country’s pension to invest in development projects.

So while Georgian Dream keeps following the infrastructure-led development model imposed by western actors, it hopes to diversify funding for transit hub capitalism. They’re happy to take capital from the EU, China, Russia, offshore accounts, or even the pension fund.

Posle & Tempest: What is the character of the protest movement? What is its composition? What are its demands? What is its relationship to the opposition parties, especially the United National Movement? What is the movement’s relationship to a history of struggle in Georgia?

Giorgi: The protest movement has rallied many sectors of society. Like any mass movement, it includes a wide range of forces from the organized to the unorganized. The big NGOs have played a role. So have mainstream opposition parties, but they cannot play a leading role because people see them as lacking any legitimacy.

Students have played a major role as the entire educational system is at stake. They have shut down whole institutions with strikes. The professors, teachers, delivery drivers and other professionals have joined the movement.

The main demand has been to stop the foreign agents law. I think the demands must be expanded to deepen the reach of the movement.

Tamar: The movement is extremely decentralized. There is no central body of the organizers responsible for organizing it, certainly not the parties and NGOs. Of course, there are certain well organized groups, particularly among the student groups.

People are finding their own voice and own way of organizing, mobilizing, and choosing their strategies. This lack of organization creates a feeling of chaos, but it also prevents the state from identifying and arresting organizers.

The authorities are obsessed with trying to find who’s behind the movement. People who have been arrested report that the authorities ask who’s behind the protest, what channels of information do you follow, and who inspired you to join?

They cannot grasp the fact that they are confronted with a rising of huge sections of society that want to preserve our democracy, rights, and livelihoods. The movement has been very inspiring.

It has shown to people who have been atomized and isolated that they are not alone. And it has reaffirmed people’s deep opposition to the government. People now feel that we are many and they are few.

Protesters from the Khma movement. The three flags read: “No home”, “no food”, and “only debts.” Photo by Mautskebeli.

Lela: I want to underscore that this movement cannot be reduced to Western backed NGOs as some on the Left have claimed. Nor is it right to dismiss this movement as bourgeois and claim that it has nothing to do with workers.

It’s silly to contend that this movement involves only the bourgeoisie. Frankly there are just not that many bourgeois or middle class people in Georgia. It is a very large movement comprised of whole swathes of our society including workers.

There are teachers, professors, and other kinds of professionals. There are mothers groups. There are ecological groups. There are grassroots movements from peripheral regions that have joined because they see this law as a means for the government to push through extractivist mining and infrastructure projects that are threats to them.

Workers and their organizations and unions have also been in the struggle. In fact, the Georgian Trade Union Confederation and some of its member unions have voiced opposition to the law. Delivery drivers and public transport drivers are showing solidarity.

Most workers, however, are not unionized in Georgia so the workers that have joined the movement are mostly unorganized and often precarious workers. And let’s remember that most of the students are in fact part of the precarious working class. And why would we want to dismiss student activists fighting for democracy anyway?

Luka: I want to affirm what Lela just said about students. Some people are trying to provide a definition of working class, which is out of touch with Georgian realities. The tens of thousands of students mobilizing are not bourgeois bohemians.

Many students work night shifts in completely unprotected conditions to pay their tuition fees. This interferes with their ability to attend classes, properly study, and find any kind of healthy balance between work, study, and life.

It’s completely dishonest intellectually to counterpose workers to this protest movement. The working class in its diversity is part of this uprising against the government.

[T]his movement cannot be reduced to Western backed NGOs as some on the Left have claimed. Nor is it right to dismiss this movement as bourgeois and claim that it has nothing to do with workers…Frankly there are just not that many bourgeois or middle class people in Georgia. It is a very large movement comprised of whole swathes of our society including workers.

Posle & Tempest: Some on the Left have essentially dismissed the protest movement as another so-called color revolution, as essentially a vehicle for Western imperialism in Georgia. What’s wrong with that argument?

Luka: It is completely at odds with reality. First of all, this movement has not been organized by powerful NGOs or opposition parties to carry out some color revolution. This is a vast, national movement in defense of democracy. Second, the attack on our rights is not just against NGOs but all kinds of organizations and individuals.

It’s also disgraceful to dismiss an entire movement that is facing severe state repression. The police are threatening people, repressing protests, beating people up, arresting them, and handing out harsh sentences. The state has also unleashed thugs  to attack protests.

Shamefully, some on the Left have trotted out a formula of Western imperialism manipulating NGOs to overthrow a government. And some Western readers, who are familiar with the U.S. carrying out such operations in various countries, think that’s what’s happening in Georgia. It is not.

We have seen this done to Ukraine’s struggle for self-determination. Some on the Left have reduced it to an inter-imperial war that has nothing to do with the Ukrainian people.

They are not recognized as agents in their own struggle but reduced to pawns of bigger powers. That is wrong about Ukraine, and it is also wrong about Georgia. We are not marionettes blindly following the orders of others.

Lela: I am frankly outraged that some on the Left have launched a campaign that reduces this dynamic situation in Georgia to the NGO story. By doing so, they distort not just what the movement is about, but also the nature and problems with Georgia’s political economy.

It is a disgrace from leftists. These people are doing quite a lot of harm. By caricaturing the protests as an NGO-backed color revolution they have led many on the international Left to balk at extending solidarity.

Even worse, they have weaponized all the criticism that people like ourselves have made for years against the big NGOs and the controversial role they have played in Georgia to malign the current protests. Blaming everything on big NGOs actually makes it harder for us to criticize them, because it makes us sound like we are on the side of the government.

We are in a mass movement in a tiny country against a party backed by an oligarch, who is turning Georgia into his backyard for capitalist profiteering. We are facing down the threat of authoritarianism if not fascism. That some on the Left don’t take our concerns seriously and dismiss it is shocking.

Shamefully, some on the Left have trotted out a formula of Western imperialism manipulating NGOs to overthrow a government. And some Western readers, who are familiar with the U.S. carrying out such operations in various countries, think that’s what’s happening in Georgia. It is not. We have seen this done to Ukraine’s struggle for self-determination…That is wrong about Ukraine, and it is also wrong about Georgia. We are not marionettes blindly following the orders of others.

Giorgi: I completely agree with Lela. Many Western leftists are used to applying these vague formulas over and over again to every event happening in the world without any materialist analysis of particular situations.

The real world is simply not reducible to EU or NATO expansion alone. In Georgia’s case, our ruling class, its parties, their authoritarian turn, and the whole political-economic model of Georgia is putting all our democratic rights, individual rights, and workers’ rights in jeopardy.

Ia: I only want to add two things. First, I find it stunning that some on the Left use the same argument about NGOs as the oligarchic government does to legitimate their foreign agent law. Don’t they find that embarrassing?

Second, Lela, I, and many others have written many critiques of NGOs, but we never absolved Georgian elites, parties, and governments of their accountability for all the social and economic misery in Georgia. It is unreasonable to blame it all on the NGOs. It’s dishonest.

Lela: That’s completely right. You cannot blame NGOs for Georgia’s position as a dependent economy with no social welfare state and plagued with poverty. NGOs are a symptom of the problem and have played a role in neoliberalization, but they are not the cause of it.

It’s irresponsible for anyone on the Left to reduce this massive problem to NGOs and absolve the Georgian elites and their governments for dismantling the welfare state. It’s just not accurate.

Luka: These sections of the Left don’t take the threat of authoritarian rule seriously. That threat is most evident in the justice system. Our oligarch has made sure that Georgian Dream has appointed a so-called Clan of Judges, which is completely loyal to him, to run the courts in his interests.

This is just one example of the overall drift into authoritarianism. For the Left not to be concerned about this in Georgia and everywhere else is shocking. To write about the current protest without taking into account this enormous crackdown on democracy is dishonest.

Posle & Tempest: Russian imperialism seized 20 percent of Georgia in 2008 setting in motion its aggression in other former Soviet states culminating in Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine in 2014 and then in 2022 through to today. What impact has Russia’s imperialist war in Ukraine and its ambitions to rebuild its former empire had on both Georgian Dream, popular opinion in Georgia, and the protest movement?

Giorgi: Georgian Dream has used the war to adopt this balancing position between the West on one side and Russia and China on the other. They’ve argued that some “global war party” made up of influential states, corporations, and NGOs have been pushing Georgia toward war against Russia.

They use that argument to justify their foreign agent law and authoritarian turn. Recently they even hinted that they have some kind of solution to Georgian territories occupied by Russia but are prevented from implementing it by NGOs.

Tamar: The government is trying to scare us by saying that if we don’t implement this law, we are going to end up like Ukraine. The opposition parties, by contrast, project our future if the law is implemented as Belarusization, that we will become another Belarus, an authoritarian state under the thumb of the Kremlin.

We on the Left have failed to popularize a positive alternative vision of our national and international future. That is our task in the midst of this movement. That is not a simple one given the weaknesses of our Left.

Posle & Tempest: So what position has the Georgian Left adopted in this whole situation? What is its relationship with the political parties both Georgian Dream and the main opposition party, the United National Movement. And what is the position on the imperial rivalry between Russia and the Western powers, the EU, NATO, and the U.S.?

Giorgi: When we talk about Georgian Left, we have to be specific about what we mean by the Left. The Georgian political landscape, just like other post-Soviet countries, does not have a strong Left in general.

We do not have parties of our own for the most part. We also do not have strong unions and labor movements. The Left consists of scattered individuals, public figures, academics, small groups, some student organizations, grassroots networks, and civil society formations of various kinds. So it’s a challenge for us on the Left to play a big role.

Given that reality, how has this Left positioned itself in Georgian party politics? The first thing to say is that the contemporary Georgian Left formed in opposition to Mikhail Saakashvili’s United National Movement, its allies in the big NGOs, and their neoliberal policies. So the Left does not support that former ruling party.

The Left’s relationship with the Georgian Dream has been problematic and complex. Some leftist groups even joined Georgian Dream in the United Coalition to run against Saakashvili in the 2012 elections. Georgian Dream presented itself then as a reformist project promising improvements in people’s lives.

But the “coalition” around Georgian Dream has long collapsed. Georgian Dream has turned to completely monopolizing economic and political power. The social and economic conditions of the majority of the population have not improved and we are still the most unequal country in the region. Of course we should oppose Georgian Dream with its right wing authoritarian turn and monopolistic capitalism.

Our movement “Khma” started precisely against the systemic ills it has produced: predatory banking, hunger in schools, ‘cartels’ in the pharmaceutical sector, forced evictions, exploitation of strategic natural resources in the interests of big capital and so on. The Left has to find new political shape and provide a positive alternative to the ruling class and their political parties.

Lela: I think the minimum positive program is to assure that local progressive movements have a fighting chance for welfare and protection of their living environments.

That is only the start of providing an alternative to the transit hub development our rulers and their international backers have imposed on our country. Opposing that and defending our democratic rights remain the top priority.

Giorgi: I think one of the duties of the Left is to challenge the notion that we have to simply make a choice between the West and East. While the EU seems appealing, we must remember that Georgia can be a part of the EU without much changing for the better.

Our country could still be unequal, poor, and dependent inside the EU like some of the post-socialist Eastern European states. Of course, a direct drift into the Russian or Chinese camp would be no better and perhaps even worse as it would come with authoritarian rule.

In this situation of heightened imperial rivalry, we have to focus on putting forth the interests of the majority in all questions. Take all the infrastructural development plans for example.

The problem in my opinion about Namakhvani was not that it was a big hydroelectric plant, but that it undermined precisely the sovereignty of the state and did not benefit the majority of our society. The unequal contract between the Georgian state and a private company from Turkey was the main reason that fueled the protest.

We should approach the question of foreign policy in the same way. We should ask: does this benefit the working class and the majority of the society? Does it improve our social welfare? Does it improve the conditions of life for many Georgians?

Of course, Georgia has the right to choose its geopolitical orientation. But we must always ask what the social character of that orientation is? If we choose Europe, which kind of Europe? That of Viktor Orbán? Rampant neoliberalism? Or the more social and progressive side of Europe?

Therefore, the Left must at all times advocate for the interests of workers and the majority and of course for our democratic rights.

Lela: I think we have to challenge the notion of development pushed by all the capitalist and imperial powers. That impacts how I think the Left should position itself in the current rivalries for capitalist hegemony.

All the powers are pushing an extractivist green capitalism that will have a devastating impact on Georgia’s society and ecology. We need to advocate an alternative that will benefit society and preserve the environment and local ways of being.

We must not accept this transit hub extractivist development strategy from either the EU or China. So the Left must strengthen our anti-capitalist politics and reject a simplistic pragmatic politics of picking the lesser evil imperial power.

The scale of Western hypocrisy makes this even more problematic. The same Anthony Blinken that is announcing travel limitations is greenlighting Israel’s genocide in Gaza.

Posle & Tempest: The U.S. has turned up the pressure on Georgian Dream and its imposition of the foreign agent law by putting travel limitations on its leading politicians? What should the Left say about this?

Lela: I think it’s very problematic for the U.S. to impose a travel ban on Georgian Dream politicians. The government will use these bans to whip up fears of war, legitimate their turn against the West, and double down on their imposition of authoritarian rule.

We should also look at this scenario geopolitically. If the U.S. tries to bring down the government, it could trigger Russia to retaliate in some way, including launching a war.

Luka: I also am worried about members of the European Parliament discussing proposals to suspend visa rights for Georgia. Right now, we can travel without visas for three months in the Schengen zone.

Ending that would play into the hands of Georgian Dream. They would disguise the fact that they are the ones delinking from Europe and moving towards Russia, saying, “look Europe doesn’t want us anymore. They have once again betrayed us just like they have many times before.”

Tamar: I agree. For now, such threats just confirm Georgian Dream’s claims about the West threatening our sovereignty. The only way such travel limitations, visa suspensions, and sanctions would make sense is if there is consensus within Georgia that these politicians are traitors.

For the Western powers to act unilaterally before that consensus develops could backfire. But the potential for that consensus to develop is strong right now. And we, before anyone else, must find a way to hold these politicians accountable and make them pay for their actions.

A banner reading “Rafah we hear you”, is from this week’s demonstration during the parliament session where the veto of the Foreign Influence Law was overridden. Photo by Mautskebeli.

Lela: The scale of Western hypocrisy makes this even more problematic. The same Anthony Blinken that is announcing travel limitations is greenlighting Israel’s genocide in Gaza. That puts us as leftists in a terrible position. It’s hard to be in protests where some people cheer Blinken threatening sanctions on Georgia.

Luka: This is a very tragic situation. It’s problematic in the context of Gaza to fight for anything under the EU flag. Israel’s genocidal war has exposed the fact that  international legal order and how justice is determined by powerful players, particularly the U.S. and EU, and done to serve their interests.

Georgian Dream has responded to Western criticism of its repression of protests by denouncing West as hypocrites. The prime minister has pointed to Biden’s repression of Palestine encampments on campuses across the U.S. and similar repression in EU countries.

But this should not lead any Georgian leftists or on the international Left to support Georgia delinking from the Western camp, turning the government into an authoritarian regime, and aligning with Russia and China. We must reject that as completely cynical and nihilistic.

Russia and China offer no alternative. Their advocacy of a multipolar world order, as Boris Kagarlitsky has argued from Putin’s dungeons, is rhetorical justification for their imperialist interests and amounts to nothing more than leaving each government to do whatever they please in absence of any common rules.

Posle & Tempest: What can activists sympathetic to Georgia’s struggle for democracy and equality do to build solidarity and support to the movement?

Luka: First of all, do not buy into narratives that downplay the authoritarian threat posed by Georgian Dream to people in Georgia. Do not fall for abstract ready-made formulas, in this case spouted by Georgian Dream and parroted by some on the Left, that Western NGOs are carrying out a color revolution.

As I hope we’ve shown, those formulas do not explain what’s happening in our country. Instead, the international Left should extend solidarity to our struggle for democracy and self-determination.

Lela: We’re in a very dire situation. People around me are genuinely scared that they will have no choice but to migrate. If this type of authoritarianism is consolidated life as we know in Georgia will dramatically change for many people.

We have already seen this in Russia, Belarus, Hungary. Similar threats of strengthening conservative and far-right politics are looming not only in other former Socialist states, but also in the West.

Faced with social insecurity, unemployment and huge economic inequalities, many citizens have left Georgia in recent years. In 2023 alone, up to 250,000 people left, doubling the emigration rate of 2022. The current authoritarian consolidation and attack on political rights threatens to trigger another, and probably large, wave of emigration from Georgia.

So out of basic solidarity the international Left has to take our struggle seriously, and see it as part of a common struggle for democratic rights, equality, and alternatives to extractivist green capitalism.

[O]ut of basic solidarity the international Left has to take our struggle seriously, and see it as part of a common struggle for democratic rights, equality, and alternatives to extractivist green capitalism.

Ia: I totally agree with Lela. Many of us have a feeling that if we don’t stop this authoritarian turn now, it’s going to take many years to win back our democratic rights. This is an existential crisis in Georgia. If we have to leave our country, it is an open question whether we will ever have the possibility to come back home.

Lela: One of the most important ways of solidarizing with us is to listen to Georgians in the movement, read our analysis, and take it seriously. Only then can we build bonds of solidarity in a common struggle for a better world.

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Categories: D2. Socialism

BDS is about justice, not antisemitism

Tempest Magazine - Mon, 06/03/2024 - 21:13

The children of Jubbet al-Dhib wake up early every morning to walk several kilometers along a rough dirt track to get to school. Their West Bank village lacks electricity despite several requests to be connected to the Israeli electric grid, which the Israeli authorities have rejected, so they rely on candles to study at night. Their diets suffer from a high proportion of preservatives since the village lacks refrigeration. Just 350 meters away is another village, Sde Bar. With a population of just 50, a third the size of Jubbet al-Dhib, it has a paved road and is connected to Jerusalem by a new highway that bypasses Jubbet al-Dhib and villages like it. Sde Bar has a high school, but children from Jubbet al-Dhib are ineligible to attend. From their homes at night, families in Jubbet al-Dhib can see the refrigerators and electric lights of their neighbors in Sde Bar. The difference between these two small villages, of course, is that Sde Bar is a Jewish settlement and the residents of Jubbet al-Dhib are Palestinian.

The story of these two neighboring villages offers a distillation of the realities of occupation. Israel has exercised ultimate jurisdiction over the West Bank since it invaded in 1967. Yet Palestinians have no right to vote for the Israeli government which controls their movements by requiring Israeli-issued passes to travel even short distances through the 500 roadblocks and checkpoints packed into the small area.

Jewish residents are not subject to these restrictions on movement. 73 percent of the West Bank’s water is piped to Israel, and only 17 percent is accessible to Palestinians, whose average water intake is four times lower than that of Israelis according to Amnesty International. Jewish settlers in the West Bank live under Israeli civil law. Every one of their Palestinian neighbors, from the moment they are born, lives under military law and can be detained indefinitely without charge. It is difficult to imagine a clearer example of apartheid, the crime defined in international law as an “institutionalized regime of systematic oppression and domination by one racial group over another.”

Blaming the victim

Talking about the existence of apartheid (and restating it again and again) is crucial because the Israeli occupation is accompanied by a battle of characterizations.

It is a battle the Israeli government fights with relish; each time their military shoots a child or bombs a school, their spokespeople flood media outlets across the world to push their “angle.” The Israel Defence Forces even have a Facebook page, and recently offered Twitter users money to tweet positive stories about Israel. Whereas progressives the world over knew who was the oppressor and who was the victim in apartheid South Africa, in Israel considerable effort is expended muddying the waters.

The struggle of the Palestinian people has to overcome not only the material force of Israeli occupation but also an ideological offensive described by Edward Said as “blaming the victim”; a deliberate attempt to cloud the power dynamics at play by seeing Palestinian violence as the cause of the region’s problems. This is best characterized as a decontextualizing project, since it encourages the world to see Palestinian violence outside its context of occupation and dispossession.

The violence of the occupier is qualitatively different from the violence of the occupied. No mainstream supporter of the Palestinians calls for Israelis to be penned into an open-air prison and denied equal citizenship rights, yet this is precisely the reality established by Israel over the Palestinians in the West Bank.

Paradoxically, that violence is then used to perpetuate the occupation – the building of a Berlin-style wall imprisoning Palestinians in the West Bank, the pummeling of a condensed population in Gaza with advanced weaponry, and so on – which provoked the violence in the first place. Hamas would have no recruits were it not for the continuing suffering of the Palestinian people.

Israelis, as well as Palestinians, argue that their violence is reactive, but the oppressor/oppressed distinction is key to understanding the problems with what Israeli claim. The language of “war” and the mutual need for “self-defense” can obscure the lack of parity between Palestinians seeking equal dignity and an Israeli state seeking to maintain its supremacy.

The violence of the occupier is qualitatively different from the violence of the occupied. No mainstream supporter of the Palestinians calls for Israelis to be penned into an open-air prison and denied equal citizenship rights, yet this is precisely the reality established by Israel over the Palestinians in the West Bank. “Self-defense” for Israel in the Occupied Territories means defending an imbalanced status quo. The South African apartheid regime employed the same category in claiming that its abuses were necessary to defend itself from the specter of black violence, and activists pointed out then that “self-defense” was invalid where the status quo being defended had no legitimacy. The apartheid analogy is perhaps most useful in showing how the logics of Zionism and South African apartheid overlap, both of them governed by fear of the “demographic threat” posed by a racial Other.

Playing the victim

By contrast, the movement for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) makes three demands: the ending of the occupation, equal rights for Palestinians inside Israel, and right of return for Palestinian refugees (under the status quo, any Jew in the world is entitled to live in Israel, but Palestinians forced to flee their homes in 1948 are barred from returning). It seeks to isolate Israel commercially and diplomatically in order to pressure the government to grant those concessions, in a strategy used by activists against South African apartheid and now applied to apartheid in the Occupied Territories with the backing of luminaries from the South African struggle like Desmond Tutu and the Jewish ANC leader Ronnie Kasrils. Emanating from the call of an impressive coalition of Palestinian civil society organizations, it matches its opposition to Israeli racism with a firm and explicit rejection of anti-Semitism, and its supporters include leading Jewish public intellectuals like Judith Butler and Naomi Klein as well as experts like Ilan Pappe and Anna Baltzer and organizations like Independent Jewish Voices and Jews for Justice for Palestinians.

An anti-apartheid demonstration at Harvard, 1978; Source: Harvard Crimson.

It might therefore seem puzzling that a movement dedicated to opposing structural racism and achieving equality has been compared to the Nazis by Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Palestinians, he implies, oppose Israel not because it occupies their land and demolishes their homes, but because its population is Jewish.

Alleging that all who criticize Israel are motivated by anti-Semitism is a powerful mechanism for painting Israel as the victim, exploiting the memory of a horrifically tragic history. By causing non-Jews to fear that their concern for human rights is somehow offensive, the allegation is designed to shut down debate and prevent criticism of Israel. It is therefore vital that the charge is answered.

The first form often taken by the anti-Semitism allegation is to query the “singling out” of Israel. Lots of countries behave awfully, goes the argument, but people obsess over Israel because they hate Jews. That argument is factually flawed from the start; the vast majority of BDS activists are engaged in a whole range of political activity, much of which does not concern Palestine. Those Palestinians whose campaigning is dominated by Palestinian questions are no different from Kurds who feel obliged to fight for Kurdish rights, or African-Americans who threw themselves into the Civil Rights movement in the United States at the expense of other more distant struggles.

Alleging that all who criticize Israel are motivated by anti-Semitism is a powerful mechanism for painting Israel as the victim, exploiting the memory of a horrifically tragic history. … [T]he allegation is designed to shut down debate and prevent criticism of Israel.

A similar thought process applies to Jewish campaigners who feel a grave responsibility to disavow Israel’s claim to speak in their name and to make clear to the world that being Jewish is not equate-able with supporting state violence and discrimination. Moreover, there is a division of labor among people campaigning for a better world – some devote the majority of their time to environmental activism, others build campaigns against war, others focus on injustices in different regions of the world. “Singling out” is not necessarily a crime, and certainly does not necessarily imply a hidden racist agenda.

The other reason to single out Israel is that Israel is, in important senses, unique. First, like apartheid South Africa and unlike most repressive regimes, Israel writes suffering into its legal code along ethno-national lines; wealth and poverty exist side by side everywhere, but in the Occupied Territories people’s rights are determined by whether they are Jewish or not. Most people have a special intuitive disgust for the deliberate promulgation of poverty in a wealthy nation by policy-makers consciously aiming to deprive a certain segment of the population of equal rights.

Secondly, though Israel is by no means unique for the scale of its brutality – few would dispute that North Koreans have it worse than Palestinians – it is rare in being so enthusiastically supported by our governments in the West. Much Israeli killing would be impossible were it not for the cash and guns with which Israel is furnished by the American government. Britain also plays its part. The fact that we as taxpayers fund the occupation gives us a strong imperative for making clear our opposition to it. Third, unlike other shady friends of the West, Israel is sufficiently deeply embedded in the Western consumer economy that citizen boycotts can have a real effect; Top Shop and H&M closing down their stores would have more of an impact in Tel Aviv than in Riyadh, and going without Israeli tangerines is a more practical proposition than managing without Saudi oil.

The anti-Semitism charge relies on a worrying conflation between Jews and Israel. Even if it were true that Israel is the representative of all Jews, opposing the policies of its government would not imply a hatred of Jews any more than those who criticize American foreign policy despise all Americans. Some Americans may of course defend their government’s policies, they may even be angered and upset by their government”s critics, but they are not entitled to claim that criticizing the war in Iraq amounts to a racist attempt to discriminate against Americans. The same is true of Israeli policy. Israel’s advocates should have the intellectual honesty to admit that Palestinians would be no more or less upset about their treatment by the Israeli state if Israel’s population were made up entirely of gentiles. That is also the case for the global solidarity movement with the Palestinians, made up mostly of left-wingers committed to opposing oppression regardless of the religion of its perpetrators.

The sad irony is that the effect of Netanyahu”s insistence that Israel is synonymous with Jews can only be to increase anti-Semitic feeling. Opposition to Israeli policies is widespread, and when Zionists tell people that Israel speaks for all Jews and anti-Zionism is no different from anti-Semitism they are at one with Islamists and fringe neo-Nazis who see the conflict in crudely racial terms as a battle between Palestinians and world Jewry.

Those of us who affirm our Jewishness, while remaining steadfast in our support for the Palestinian people refuse the conflation and demonstrate that anger at Israeli crimes should never spill into anti-Semitism, since Israel”s racism is no more the product of its Jewishness than South Africa’s racism was the inevitable consequence of whiteness.

Image credit: Jewish Voice for Peace.

The conflation between Jews and Israel is especially disingenuous because its basic assertion – that Israel is the representative body for all Jews – is so misleading. Zionism was never anything other than one political current in Jewish communities rich with variety and debate, and until the Second World War it was a less significant current in most European Jewish communities than socialism, whose advocates passionately opposed the nationalism of the Zionist claim that Jews should leave Europe and build their own state.

A different Jewish tradition

As the Auschwitz survivor and BDS supporter Hajo Meyer has written, “Like most German Jews, I was raised in a secular and humanist tradition that was more antagonistic than sympathetic towards the Zionist enterprise.” Bundists, Bolsheviks and Jewish leftists of all stripes instead mobilized the Jewish experience of oppression to construct a politics of universal emancipation, which sought to create a world free from national and ethnic discrimination.

The case of Marek Edelman is instructive; one of the central leaders of the heroic Warsaw Ghetto uprising against the Nazis, he survived the War and infuriated Zionists by refusing all entreaties to move to Israel. He was a socialist, he said, and he did not believe that the memory of the Holocaust should be used to justify uprooting another people.

Neither his Jewishness nor his unquestionable opposition to anti-Semitism led him to believe that the solution to racism should be sought in national separatism, just as gay and black activists have fought homophobia and white supremacy without demanding separate black or gay nations. Others who supported Jewish immigration to Palestine, like Albert Einstein and the philosophers Martin Buber and Hannah Arendt, sounded firm warnings about Zionism”s racist policies towards the Palestinians; all three had fled the Holocaust and said ethnically based nationalism in any form made them profoundly uneasy.

Israel may claim to speak for the Israelis who form its electorate, but its claim to speak for Jews in London, Paris, and New York is tenuous to say the least.

As Primo Levi, articulate chronicler of Auschwitz, remarked after Israeli-backed militias slaughtered Palestinians in 1982, “Everybody is somebody’s Jew.”

Those who claim that criticisms of Israel attack all Jews wipe Jews like these out of history. Like any other representative democracy, Israel may claim to speak for the Israelis who form its electorate, but its claim to speak for Jews in London, Paris, and New York is tenuous to say the least.

A sensible strategy

Why, then, is the BDS call gaining such traction? The first and most obvious explanation is the simple pull of principle; people disgusted by the violence endemic to the occupation wish to act on their feelings by refusing to fund companies and institutions that profit from the occupation or help to reinforce it. They thus choose to boycott everything from Caterpillar, the manufacturer of Israeli tanks that demolish Palestinian homes, to Israeli universities that pioneer military research, offer scholarships to soldiers returning from the Occupied Territories and regulate Palestinian access to education.

Beyond that ethical imperative, BDS is driven by shrewd geopolitical calculations. For decades, Palestinians and their supporters across the world have placed their hopes in top-table negotiations. Those have borne little fruit given Israel is unwilling to freely give up its position of supremacy and American backing means Israel has thus far come under relatively little pressure to make serious concessions. No Israeli government has ever been willing to grant the three fundamental demands for equality sought by BDS and seen as a basic minimum by the vast majority of Palestinians, and their voting records demonstrate that fewer than ten percent of members of the Israeli parliament would willingly countenance such concessions.

Student Palestine solidarity encampment at Cal State LA. Photo: Dana Cloud.

Those demands, it is worth stressing, do not seek to replace Jewish domination with Palestinian domination. They call for replacing domination with equality; a viable Palestinian state, equal citizenship rights for all, and an end to the ban on Palestinians returning to the homes they were forced to flee. Achieving those demands requires placing sufficient pressure on Israeli policy-makers to force a realization that they face a choice between agreeing a just peace or facing the tough consequences economically. As it becomes increasingly clear that Israelis” standard of living is under threat from their inability to sell their goods abroad and the reluctance of firms under pressure from BDS campaigners to invest in Israel, the political calculus within Israel will shift. Similar pressure was necessary to force the equally intransigent South African whites to concede the equality most had opposed for decades.

[Palestinians’ demands], it is worth stressing, do not seek to dissolve the Israeli state or replace Jewish domination with Palestinian domination. They call for replacing domination with equality; a viable Palestinian state, equal citizenship rights for all, and an end to the ban on Palestinians returning to the homes they were forced to flee. Support from the unions

As in the South African case, it is true that boycotts are a crude tool. Some of those who would be deprived if boycotts meant Israeli factories in the West Bank could not find a global market for their products and had to close, would be Palestinian workers and Israelis opposed to the occupation. Unanimously declaring their support for BDS, Palestinian trade unions have rightly stressed that their members suffer above all because of the occupation, and the short-term pain caused by boycotts is a sacrifice worth making in order to heal that far greater wound.

UAW 4811 strikers. Photo: UAW 4811.

It is testament to the harshness of the occupation that not a single Palestinian trade union takes a different view. The “Boycott!” movement of Israeli citizens supporting BDS points out that Israelis also suffer from the “extreme militarization” of a state whose dedication to maintaining the occupation diverts government spending and attention away from social problems. BDS may cause hardship, but trading with Israel has served to keep it afloat and has thus enabled the continuation of the occupation.

The mass Palestinian call for BDS in 2005 represented not only a welcome turn to non-violent but strident opposition to Israeli occupation, but also a declaration by 171 organizations representing hundreds of thousands of Palestinians that it has become necessary now to force Israeli politicians to rethink. For the children of Jubbet al-Dhib, deprived of everything from electricity to access to good education, this is all long overdue.

Featured image credit: Joe Catron; modified by Tempest.

Opinions expressed in signed articles do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Tempest Collective. For more information, see “About Tempest Collective.”

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Categories: D2. Socialism

In bird flu, capitalism is the culprit

Tempest Magazine - Sun, 06/02/2024 - 09:11

HHorror stories are profitable, so it is no surprise that the mass media are full of stories and speculation about H5N1. Saying this, of course, does not mean that the furor is unwarranted.

It is not yet known if the current H5N1 outbreak among animals is likely to spark a pandemic among humans. A second case of the current variant of H5N1 in the U.S. was diagnosed in Colorado on April 28 and a third case in Michigan on May 22. Both are workers whose jobs bring them into contact with cows. Updated information on the status of bird flu cases and CDC efforts around them are available from the CDC.  It is unclear whether this bird flu outbreak will unleash a pandemic among people and whether it will be a deadly outbreak or just create mild discomfort.

In the long run, however, capitalism is creating conditions for more frequent pandemics, and–as COVID-19 showed–ones that have potentially devastating consequences. I sometimes think about a nightmare scenario in which a virus that spreads and mutates as fast as COVID develops two characteristics:

  1. It remains latent for more than a few days, so that no symptoms appear for several weeks. (With HIV/AIDS, latency frequently lasts ten years or more.) This would mean a virus would spread undetected for that long, and infect lots of people very quickly.
  2. It is more virulent, and kills five percent or more of the people who become infected. Some viruses kill fifty percent or more, with HIV killing more than ninety percent of the time before treatments were developed; but luckily, HIV is a relatively difficult virus to transmit. The strain of influenza that caused the great flu pandemic in 1918 had a virulence of 2.5 percent, which meant that about one person in every forty who was infected died.

You can see how frequently pandemics take place from Figure 1 [see below]. The list, which was adapted from a paper published in 2021, is already out of date, since it omits the MPOX pandemic. Luckily, most of these pandemics, including MPOX, were contained rather quickly. AIDS (in the Twentieth Century) and COVID-19 have been two recent exceptions. Even though it is no longer in the news, AIDS is still killing more than half a million people in the world every year. As climate change increasingly disrupts the medical system’s ability to prevent and treat infection, these numbers will almost certainly increase. COVID, too, is likely to erupt again due to climate change, as large numbers of migrants and people fleeing from war zones (conflicts that develop due to climate change interacting with imperial instability) go unvaccinated and untreated. This absence of care lets the virus mutate to become highly infectious and virulent, but cases may go unreported: Public health agencies worldwide have gutted their reporting systems so that “business as usual” can take place.

Pandemics in the 21st Century

SARS-1 pandemic 2002-2004 spread from cave-dwelling horseshoe bats. Thirty countries were affected. A total of 8,422 cases were reported, with 11 percent case fatality ratio (CFR).

Influenza H1N1 2009 swine flu spread from Mexico 2009-2010 to ~214 countries. ~ 700 million to 1.4 billion cases. Deaths were only about 18,000, due to effective vaccine and antiviral treatments.

Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) is a coronavirus respiratory infection that spread from camels to humans. Luckily, so far, it has a very low human-to-human transmission rate so there have been only a few hundred cases since it emerged in 2012.

Ebola virus pandemic 2013 – 2016 spread from bats to people and from West Africa to other parts of Africa and to Spain, USA, UK, and other countries. It was contained by strict infection-containment measures and contact tracing. Eventually, a vaccine was produced but vaccine coverage is low and clusters continue to emerge.

Zika started in 2015, spread to 87 countries by the anopheles mosquito. Was controlled by case identification, controlling mosquito spread, and other preventive measures. Climate change is increasing the geographic range of this and other disease-carrying mosquitoes, such as those that carry dengue (also known as bone-break fever), which has been pandemic since the 20th Century and is spreading rapidly now, including in some parts of the United States.

SARS-CoV-2 or COVID-19 emerged in Wuhan, China. Still uncontrolled, despite what some are claiming. Prevention policies varied enormously among countries, and were worst in countries like the USA where the public health systems had been stripped of resources and public health decisions were heavily influenced by private sector actors, media, and elected officials.

Source: Modified from Bhadoria, Pooja; Gupta, Gaurisha; Agarwal, Anubha. Viral Pandemics in the Past Two Decades: An Overview. Journal of Family Medicine and Primary Care 2021. DOI: 10.4103

Most experts expect the frequency of both pandemics and major pandemics to increase, and huge numbers of potential pandemic pathogens are “out there.” Both the World Health Organization and the U.S. Public Health Service have programs to identify potential pandemic pathogens, conduct research on them, keep track of their epidemiology and mutations, and plan responses if they start spreading in humans.  Although many mainstream and Marxist researchers have shown ways in which the economy is multiplying pandemic risks, insofar as I know, no country on Earth has developed programs to try to restrict the ways capitalist economic development and profit making is exacerbating pandemic risks.

In the long run, however, capitalism is creating conditions for more frequent pandemics, and–as COVID-19 showed–ones that have potentially devastating consequences.

Why do pandemics seem to be increasing? Why do I say that capitalism is the culprit? The reasons are very much the same as those behind global climate change although some of the specific pathways are different. Most fundamentally, capitalism is driven by companies’ search for profits. Capitalists make decisions about what and where to invest based on what profit rate they can expect from their investment.  Even if a CEO has a conscience, the calculation is, “If I don’t do it, my competitor will. The damage will occur anyway, and my firm may go out of business.” And as Tempest readers know, governments depend on business growth for the revenues to operate and, for imperialist countries, for the money to build armies with which to dominate other countries.

So business decisions are made with little regard for pandemic risk, which is driven, to a large extent, by the market forces that cause mutated viruses and bacteria in other species to come into contact with humans and then mutate to become even more dangerous. As businesses destroy forests to grow pigs or cattle on the land, or to build suburban houses, this means that animals migrate and come into more contact with people. For example, where I live in New Jersey, this has meant that deer (and thus Lyme disease and any flu strains that infect deer) become frequent visitors to the parks and grass in my neighborhood. When random mutation takes place making it easier for a flu to move from those deer to me, this may lead to a pandemic. I should add that climate change means that lots of animal species are migrating as their habitats become unlivable. This migration puts them into closer contact with humans.

Bird flus have several ways to infect people. One way is directly, which most often happens when a poultry worker gets infected by poultry being grown for profit in unsafe industrial farms. To make matters worse, it is most profitable to do this with chickens that are genetic clones of each other, so if a virus evolves to infect one chicken, there is no genetic variability present to slow down the infection. Such homogeneity may limit mutation as a result, but the possibility of explosive spread encourages mutation towards even greater infectiousness.

Another way is that a bird flu jumps to a cow or pig, and then infects lots of cattle or pigs. Pigs are particularly likely to be good places for flus or other viruses to mutate to infect human beings. This is why swine flu epidemics among people happen with relatively high frequency. And there are a lot of pigs being grown to make profits for meat companies. Each pig that becomes infected has vast numbers of viruses in her or his system, and they replicate at a rapid rate within the pig, with each replication providing the opportunity for mutation that can generate a pandemic among people.  Mike Davis wrote about the risk of flu and other pandemics twenty years ago, and Rob Wallace more recently, as have numerous non-Marxists. So scientists and CEOs in the meat industry and the government should know the risks. But capitalism does not let them take any effective action to keep us safe.

[B]usiness decisions are made with little regard for pandemic risk, which is driven, to a large extent, by the market forces that cause mutated viruses and bacteria in other species to come into contact with humans and then mutate to become even more dangerous. As businesses destroy forests to grow pigs or cattle on the land, or to build suburban houses, this means that animals migrate and come into more contact with people.

So will the current H5N1 flu mutate to become a horrid pandemic? No one knows.  We do know, however, that there are lots of infected birds and at least 48 species of mammals out there carrying the current virus, and that this is causing massive numbers of deaths in some species of wild birds and South American sea lions, and mutation into potentially pandemic form is always a possibility.

We also can predict that if bird flu does become a pandemic, it will probably begin among workers of poultry or meat mega-corporations and then spread outward, including to workers in hospitals, nursing homes, and prisons. This would suggest that the U.S. Public Health Service and those in similar countries should set up frequent testing for these workers to detect transmission to humans as early as possible—but this has not been done yet, although funding for expanded testing of cattle and people has recently been increased. In all probability, members of racialized groups (in the United States, perhaps particularly African Americans and other Black, Latino/a people, and American Indians) will be particularly likely to get infected—as has been the case for COVID-19 and AIDS. Other working-class people will also be at high risk. As with past pandemics, the rich, and some professionals, will have greater access to medicines and vaccines.

Public health officials say that if H5N1 becomes an epidemic among people, they have millions of doses of medicine to treat it, and can rapidly produce a lot of vaccines as well. This should be reassuring—but we know how badly the U.S. responded to COVID, and we know that public health and medical staff are overworked and few on the ground due to burnout, low pay, and bottom-line bosses. One leading expert on avian flu, David Bunn, has criticized the CDC and other health agencies for not beginning to mass produce vaccines now given the potential horrible costs to human health (and economies) if a pandemic takes off.

In addition, in the wake of COVID-19, many state governments cut the power of public health agencies and governors to respond to epidemics. Furthermore, the anti-vaccine believers are numerous, militant, and supported by a range of politicians and media pundits. Thus, if bird flu does become an epidemic, current politics, fueled as they are by corporations’ need to get back to “business as usual,” will almost certainly weaken any public health response. Even more than in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, workers will have to strike and take other actions to protect themselves and those they might infect, and community-based mutual aid and community pressures for everyone to wear masks and to stay at home as much as possible will be needed.

So long as capitalism exists, pandemics and climate change will get worse, and from recent events, the ability of the system to respond to them is also getting worse. This means that workers and members of oppressed groups need to organize, and that a major goal of this organizing should be to end capitalism before it ends us.

Featured image credit: Wikimedia Commons; modified by Tempest.

Opinions expressed in signed articles do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Tempest Collective. For more information, see “About Tempest Collective.”

The post In bird flu, capitalism is the culprit appeared first on Tempest.

Categories: D2. Socialism

The (not so) new red scare

Tempest Magazine - Thu, 05/30/2024 - 20:56

On May 24, tenured, award-winning Justice Studies Professor Sang Hea Kil at San José State University (SJSU) received a letter from the university president announcing that she was suspended pending an investigation of her political activities. These activities included advising student organizations in their desire to protest in solidarity with Palestine and criticizing administrators for their public endorsements of Zionism and their crackdown on student protest. The letter uses language from the California Faculty Association collective bargaining agreement and cites state law as grounds for sanctioning Kil and other outspoken faculty.

“The basis of this decision is your reported violations—despite notice—of university policies,” “directing and encouraging students to violate university policies,” and “targeting at least one colleague and/or a group of colleagues,” the letter states.

About her suspension, Kil wrote,

All of the accusations made against me by SJSU are completely false. In fact, I believe that my temporary suspension is part of an academic freedom suppression campaign against me. I have been an outspoken critic of the genocide in Gaza as well as an advocate for faculty rights as a CFA union member and leader. At SJSU, the administration has been completely silent and complicit on the matter of genocide in Gaza. Outcries for some accountability have been called upon by SJSU students. In my capacity as the Faculty Advisor for the Students for Justice in Palestine chapter at SJSU, I felt it was within my duties to support them in their campaign to bring greater awareness to the university community. It is their constitutional right to be able to protest against the Israeli genocide of Palestinians and its silence on campus.

In response to the suspension, the Young Democratic Socialists of America club at SJSU published a press release defending Kil. The release notes that Kil helped students defend their encampment and exposed the administration’s actions to undermine the student protests, including the turning on of campus sprinklers at night to flush out the activists. “The CSU has decided to, instead of answering student and faculty demands for divestment from companies financially and materially supporting genocide, escalate the situation by suspending faculty,” the YDSA wrote.

A campaign is underway to contact the president of SJSU to reinstate Dr. Kil. It is unclear whether Kil can turn to the California Faculty Association for support. Although the union’s general assembly passed a cease-fire resolution earlier this spring, leadership has not responded to requests for support. Activists are contacting union leaders to insist that they defend Kil.

Professor Sang Hea Kil

Meanwhile, Zionists across multiple campuses of the California State University are mounting a systematic campaign to discipline pro-Palestinian scholars. On May 28, they sent a letter to the Chancellor making their case. This letter is horrifying in a number of ways:

  1.  It conflates anti-Zionism and the critique of the Israeli state with antisemitism. (For a fuller discussion of how this conflation is worse than misguided, see Barnaby Raine).
  2. It accuses the movement of harming or threatening Jewish students, without specific evidence.
  3. It constructs a definition of academic freedom (ironically citing the American Association of University Professors, currently engaged in defending targeted academics) that restricts what professors can and cannot say in the classroom.
  4. It advocates denying anti-Zionist speakers a platform to speak.
  5. It encourages discipline against educators who give students “loaded or one-sided prompts” regarding “on-campus antisemitic and anti-Israel actions” in their classrooms. (On this basis, I could be fired for teaching sympathetically about the movement in my class on social movements.)
  6. It condemns campuses that have responded positively to the BDS demands of the encampments. It equates BDS with antisemitism.
  7. It denies Palestine studies a place in ethnic studies curricula, arguing that ethnic studies should only, by law, include the concerns of Native American, African American, Asian American, and Latinx people. Of course, the letter advocates adding Jewish studies to ethnic studies programs, in contradiction to the rationale excluding Palestine studies.
  8. It argues that Students for Justice in Palestine and Faculty for Justice in Palestine have no place on our campuses, threatening to revoke recognition and funding for these groups.
  9. It empowers the administration to enforce rigged anti-discrimination policies, codes of conduct, and enforced education programs to curtail professors’ speech in the classroom.
  10.  It calls on the CSU administration to “curb the unchecked antisemitic activism of faculty and departments.”
  11.  It blames “outside agitators”—a.k.a. socialist and other militants in what amounts to red-baiting—for influencing, or even instigating, the student protests.
  12.   Horrifyingly, it refers to Israel approvingly as “the Jewish State,” implying and endorsing the purgation of non-Jews from the land, while condemning any slogans or rhetoric insisting upon the rights of Palestinians to return to their land.

The letter represents one among many efforts by Zionist appologists for genocide in Gaza to discipline pro-Palestinian academics. Another example from my experience is the censoring of a Palestinian speaker at the national meeting of the academic National Communication Association last November.

As The Intercept reported on May 16, the jobs of scholars committed to Palestinian liberation are at stake. The article states:

Since the beginning of Israel’s war on Gaza, academics in field including politics, sociology, Japanese literature, public health, Latin American and Caribbean studies, Middle East and African studies, mathematics, education, and more have been fired, suspended, or removed from the classroom for pro-Palestine, anti-Israel speech. … Scores of academics across the country are likely under investigation and many stand to have their contracts quietly expire without renewals.

The Intercept spoke with a dozen professors, all of whom were at one point under investigation since October 7, and four of the professors lost their jobs as of the end of this semester. The American Association of University Professors is pursuing inquiries of violation of due process based on the politics of professors who have turned to the AAUP, all of whom have been in support of the Palestinian cause. AAUP senior program officer Anita Levy said, “We are at the dawn of a ‘new McCarthyism.’ This may be the tip of the iceberg.”

Indeed, the opening of Congressional hearings on campus activism and speech harkens back to the days of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), which was formed in 1938 to investigate citizens, public employees, organizations, and culture workers (among others) who were suspected of having ties to the Communist Party. It blacklisted and convicted Hollywood actors and writers, encouraging comrades to “name names” among culture workers and government officials. President Harry Truman denounced this committee as “the most un-American thing in the country.”

The House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution and Limited Government held a hearing on May 15, during which committee members grilled the presidents of Northwestern University, Rutgers University, and the University of California, Los Angeles. These presidents acknowledged that a number of investigations of pro-Palestinian faculty were underway.

It should be said that this wave of academic repression is not new; elsewhere I have analyzed how the neoliberal university in capitalism functions to silence dissenting voices and how right-wing attacks on scholars minimize the critical potential of universities. The 2017 resurgence of the far-right led to numerous attacks on critical and outspoken academics.

Over the past three decades, professorial advocacy of Palestinian liberation has been the most common target of right-wing backlash. Established in 2014, the Canary Mission Blacklist has targeted numerous faculty, including myself, for expressing pro-Palestinian views. One prominent example is that of professor Steven Salaita, who was denied employment—after having been offered a job—at the University of Illinois in 2014 for expressing support for Palestinian liberation. About this case, I argued that Salaita’s exclusion was about how “the war in Gaza and the emergence of a political antagonism in the US and elsewhere that threatens any ideological unity regarding Israel, Palestine, and the U.S.’s relation to them.”

Despite the disciplining of pro-Palestinian intellectuals not being a new phenomenon, in the context of the present war on Gaza, it has taken an even more virulent turn. However, academics across the country are fighting back, emboldened by the wave of militant student encampments and the increasing isolation of Israel from the world community, most recently exemplified by the condemnation of Israel by Ireland, Spain, and Norway.

Student encampment at California State University, Los Angeles. Photo by Dana Cloud.

As Helen Scott recently explained, the greatest source of power for academics speaking out in solidarity with Palestinians is the connection to the labor movement. Scott argues, “The convergence of union, student, and community struggle is a model of the way forward. Palestine is at the epicenter of a radical convergence of movements.”

Starting last week, the United Auto Workers 4811, which organizes 48,000 academic workers in the University of California System, began a series of rolling strikes. Focusing on economic pressure points through labor action and BDS campaigns is a source of real leverage for the pro-Palestine struggle.

Focusing on economic pressure points through labor action and BDS campaigns is a source of real leverage for the pro-Palestine struggle.

The fact that university administrators and politicians are ramping up the persecution of people aligned with the Palestinian cause is, in fact, an indicator of their weakness and desperation to minimize the impact all of us are making on an increasingly fractured ideological, political, and economic consensus around Israel. As Sang Hea Kil herself urged,

Please do not be scared off by this. Our academic freedom is so important to us all and these scare tactics to threaten and repress me hurt us all as faculty. We need to fight as a united front or we will lose our constitutional freedoms and soul to the ivory tower. I will never give up. Let’s continue to battle hard on all fronts!

In the context of defending academic freedom, it should be noted that Israel’s assault has reduced all twelve universities in Gaza to rubble. The death toll mounts in Gaza as millions, starving and desperate, are relentlessly driven from the land. It is our duty as socialists, workers, unionists, students, faculty, staff,  and other activists for Palestinian liberation to organize in our unions and communities, to defend scholars and others who are under attack for their solidarity, and to carry this powerful struggle forward.

Featured image credit: Khalid Albaih; modified by Tempest.

Opinions expressed in signed articles do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Tempest Collective. For more information, see “About Tempest Collective.”

The post The (not so) new red scare appeared first on Tempest.

Categories: D2. Socialism

Who and what is the ruling class?

Tempest Magazine - Wed, 05/29/2024 - 11:30

“We are all in this together.”

This is a verbatim quote said time and time again by such luminaries as Winston Churchill, Barack Obama, Donald Trump, Joe Biden, and the list goes on. It is a favorite of the ruling class, and yet they try to deny the existence of a ruling class altogether. This article explores why some people have more power to make important decisions that affect us all. It also explores who these people are and how they rule today. It will provide an analysis of the structural relationships that cement their rule: the market and the state.

Why is it that in every country in the world, some people have nearly all the wealth while most people are scraping to get by? As much as the ruling class clings to the mantra “we are all in this together,” if we look at the distribution of wealth, this claim is obviously false. In the United States, for example, the distribution of household wealth remains unevenly distributed. The top one percent owns 30.6 percent of the wealth, whereas the bottom 50 percent–a full half of the country–only owns 3.3 percent of the wealth.

Clearly, this is not a great situation, but the justification provided by the ruling class and their ideological mouthpieces is that all boats float in this system and so some inequality must be accepted. If we go back in history about three decades to 1989, we see that the boats of the ruling class floated on 22.7 percent of the wealth and the bottom 50 percent floated on 3.8 percent–slightly more than present. This uneven distribution remains relatively the same except for moments of crisis during which the bottom 50 percent loses even more ground. For instance, in 2008 following the financial crisis, the bottom 50 percent claimed only 0.6 percent of the wealth, and while that figure has been steadily rising throughout a long and protracted recovery, it pales in comparison to the enormous wealth collected by the one percent over that same period. The middle earners, those who fall into the 50 to 90 percent have also lost ground during this same period, which, in part, accounts for the deepening political polarization experienced in the U.S.

When Marxists describe class, we are not speaking about the distribution of wealth exclusively, but the relationships between the classes that lead to this distribution. Nevertheless, these figures are a good proxy to illustrate the outcomes of these class relations. If wealth in the U.S. were to be distributed evenly, everyone below the top 10 percent would increase their wealth–that is, 90 percent of the population would be better off than they are under the present distribution. The bottom 50 percent, who currently own 3.3 percent of the wealth would suddenly own 50 percent of the wealth. That is a massive increase which would be transformative for people’s lives and for the relations between people in the U.S. However, importantly, these relations would have to be transformed through massive social upheaval in order to achieve a redistribution of this magnitude.

What allows for a ruling class?

Class has not always been a feature of human experience. There have been societies that can be best described as egalitarian. In these societies, individuals had a great amount of autonomy and they organized themselves through mutual collaboration. These were communities without fixed hierarchies of power. Although not exclusively, and with an enormous amount of variation, this is likely the way human beings organized themselves for most of history.

A society with permanent class divisions requires a sustained surplus, and without the ability to produce, maintain, and store surplus, class divisions have no material basis. Thus permanent class stratification emerges only when the ability to produce consistent surplus is achieved. The ruling class and the society that sustains it need to be fed. Societies that develop the ability to create and preserve enough food can also support a group of people who can spend time doing things other than hunting, gathering, or farming. This group comes to coordinate the production and storage of food and other resources, a role that separates the group from the other layers of society and establishes a class society.

Class has not always been a feature of human experience. There have been societies that can be best described as egalitarian. In these societies, individuals had a great amount of autonomy and they organized themselves through mutual collaboration. These were communities without fixed hierarchies of power.

In order for this surplus to be sustained by this ruling layer, the ruling class must reproduce itself and control that surplus across generations. In this sense, the emergence of class distinctions also accompanied gender-based oppression. Where there is a class-divided society, there has, for the most part, also been gender inequality.

It is not that agricultural technologies make inequality inevitable, but they make inequality possible, or at least much easier. Before agriculture, there may have been seasonal and or regional surpluses that meant that you could have some hierarchical structures within a given society – sometimes just seasonal – but in rare cases, enough to support a ruling class that passed down wealth from generation to generation. This is much easier if the group is sedentary so members don’t have to carry the extra food around for their rulers to eat.

What is a ruling class?

Ruling classes control and make decisions regarding the surplus resources generated by society. They are able to do so because they own or control the means for producing that surplus–the land, the infrastructure, etc. The ruling class needs technology to store surplus and to control its production in order to enforce its rule. They rely on ideology to justify that rule and force to back that up. The modern state emerges from these needs.

Importantly, just because a surplus allows for class stratification to happen doesn’t make it inevitable. Even once agriculture developed, it took around four thousand years before we saw class societies with states. Despite this, class-divided societies have become ubiquitous.

There was much resistance to establishing these societies along the way and that resistance, of course, continues to exist. Further, establishing a class society was difficult for both social and physical reasons. Sedentary societies were more prone to disease, and also had less diversity of resources to fall back on in times of bad harvests. But once we have planted seeds in the ground – we want to reap what we sow, and that invested labor would have compelled farmer societies to stay put. In addition, the force and/or ideology used to impose rule internally may have given these societies an advantage to conquer and or control those around them.

The fact is that it happened, and since then we have had various forms of class societies still with enormous variation including slave, feudal, and today various formations of capitalist relations. In some of these societies, the ruling class’ economic control of the surplus was explicit. For example, in slave societies, the surplus created by slaves is taken from them under conditions of force. In feudal societies peasants worked the land and produced enough food for their own survival; however, the nobility, who controlled the land, directly requisitioned any “extra” crops. In both these instances, surplus is directly extracted from the labor of another. There have been all sorts of variations of this design, but the real innovation was capitalism.

In capitalism, the process of extracting surplus from workers is more opaque. We are told that we are paid a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work, but the wage we receive is not based on how much value we produce. Instead, wages are determined by what it costs to keep an average person like you and your family alive. This amount is far less than the value we produce, and since the capitalist only wishes to part with the portion of profit that is absolutely necessary, wages are kept as low as possible.

In Marxist terms, this economic transaction is called the Labor Theory of Value. Capitalists invest wealth into the production of things in order to create profit. They expect to put a certain amount of money into the production of things and receive a greater amount on the other side.

They Rule

When I created TheyRule.net to educate people about the linkages between ruling-class players, I realized that the indefinite pronoun “they” allowed for some misinterpretations. One is that corporate conspiracy cements the rule of the elite.

 

Certainly, corporations that are ostensibly competing with one another but connected through mutual directors give the impression of conspiracy! Despite this, It is notoriously hard to prove any price-fixing or other collusion, which is not to say it doesn’t exist as This American Life made clear. In today’s post-QAnon world, I am more wary than ever about insinuating that a conspiracy exists where I can’t demonstrate it.  In earlier iterations of They Rule, I let people save maps with titles and annotations, but in the newly released version, I restricted the ability to annotate saved maps to minimize unfounded conspiracies being spread through the site. Corporate conspiracies, though no doubt they exist, are not the story I want to focus on.

 

From the beginning, I have seen They Rule as a cartoonish “glimpse of some of the relationships of the U.S. ruling class.” It is not an exhaustive view of the class; rather, it is a small sample of it–a demonstration of its existence. This is the message I would like to convey with They Rule: there is a ruling class. It is the core claim of many Left traditions, such as the sociology developed by C Wright Mills and continued by William Domhoff who collates empirical evidence that there is a “power elite,” and Marxist traditions, which claim that class struggle is the key to understanding history and shaping our future.

In 2001, when I first began the They Rule project, the only class regularly discussed in polite circles was the “middle class”– a contested term that in some definitions consists of 96% of the population. Class was not a dominant lens for understanding society. They Rule was then meant to contest that absence by showing that a ruling class exists and that we can point to it, and visualize it.

Since the Great Recession of 2008, Americans’ perceptions of class have been shifting and more people consider themselves working class. The Occupy movement of 2011 and the slogan “We are the 99 percent” brought the language of class struggle back into public discourse. By 2015, Obama was using middle class as more of an aspirational term, and Bernie Sanders’ 2016 and 2020 presidential campaigns talked openly about the conflict between the billionaire class and the working class.

But, the Left is not the only group to re-engage with the idea that society is made up of opposing forces–a working class and a ruling class. The U.S. right has also started to claim these categories. The wealthy Republican senator, Josh Hawley, son of a banker, claims that his party is a “working class party now” and he is not alone. Following Trump’s lead, many GOP leaders see appealing to the working class as the best way forward for their party. Continuing in that vein, some on the far right shifted their rhetoric about a ‘liberal elite’ to include the label of  ‘ruling class.’ For example, Tucker Carlson, once the most-watched cable news host, tweeted, “The ruling class has a new message on inflation: it may be painful, but it’s going to be good for you.” But, the Right’s definitions of class are not the same as the Left’s definitions. No one should be confused.

Other Carlson tweets make this difference clear: “Our ruling class prefers immigrants to Americans. Who are they more worried about those here illegally or citizens?” and “Donald Trump is and has always been a living indictment of the people who run this country. That was true eight years ago when Trump came out of nowhere to win the presidency and it’s every bit as true right now. Our ruling class is disgusting.” For Carlson, the ruling class is pro-immigrant and anti-Trump, a force aligned with the mythic coastal elite.

The Right’s use of the category of working class is equally manipulated. They use it as a thinly veiled synonym for the white working class. Carlson again: “Before deciding he didn’t really care, Obama once noted that low-skilled immigration hurts the working class.” For Carlson, immigrants are not part of the working class. And as he points out this is often true for the Democrats too. The working class, when employed by the right, tends to be a whitewashed category.

Without a doubt, you could construct maps using They Rule to tell a selective story about the ruling class. The far-right could attempt to create maps with antisemitic tropes; however, a holistic view of the data does not support this conclusion. For example, the most common given name of a director in 2001 and 2021 was John, and the top five family names common across 2001 and 2021 include, Smith, Johnson, and Brown. These family names are most often attributed to individuals of English descent.

Reality does not map onto Carlson’s claims about the ruling class. Nevertheless, if you traverse the connections in They Rule to the conservative think tanks and Republican administrations you find considerable interlocks.

There is a ruling class in the U.S., but it is not as the right imagines it to be.

The Right’s use of the category of working class is equally manipulated. They use it as a thinly veiled synonym for the white working class.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the first thing that stands out is that the ruling class is comprised of mostly older, white, men. This is changing. In 2001, only 13 percent of the directors of the 100 companies in They Rule were women, by 2021 that number had more than doubled to 31 percent. According to research by Institutional Shareholder Services, Inc. (ISS), the percentage of board seats held by racially/ethnically diverse directors in the S&P 500 increased from 13 percent in 2013 to 23 percent in 2022.

These modest changes are not the signs of progressive political leadership, rather this is a reflection of changes that have been won through struggle in society at large, and the corporate elite are catching up, sometimes because of legislation.

Demographics

The 2020 Black Lives Matter demonstrations in response to the racist police killing of George Floyd precipitated an abrupt rise in corporate board diversity according to a blog post on the Harvard Law School Forum on Corporate Governance. “As the ISS board diversity data shows, there has been visible progress since 2020 in the number of racially/ethnically diverse directors on U.S. company boards, and this uptick in diversity and inclusion initiatives has been dubbed by some ‘The George Floyd Effect’.”

The increase in diversity does not suggest that those directors who are in under-represented groups don’t face any oppression. Consider this auto-biographical story told by Dambisa Moyo in her book How Boards Work:

In May 2010, I joined a dozen board colleagues onstage at the annual general meeting of a board on which I served. During the question-and-answer portion of the proceedings, a shareholder in the audience posed a question to the chairman of our board. The shareholder asked, while gesturing at me, “What are the credentials of that statutory board member that she would be allowed to sit on the company’s board?” I was, at the time, the only woman and the only visible minority serving on the board.

Moyo has a BS in chemistry, an MBA, an MPA, and a DPhil, which makes her more qualified than almost anyone else included in the They Rule data set. Despite being a Baroness and married to a billionaire, Moyo’s story shows that directors from oppressed groups may be part of the ruling class, but they still face much of the bigotry of our society.

Singling out Moyo to question her qualifications was racist and sexist, but the general question of what qualifies people to be in this slice of the ruling class (as well as the ruling class in general) is worth considering.

A Masters’ in Business Administration (MBA) is the most common qualification for the directors included in the They Rule data set; at least 35 percent of the 2021 cohort hold one. 19 percent of directors attended Harvard Business School (HBS), 12 percent attended Harvard University, 10 percent attended Stanford University and 8 percent attended The Wharton School [the business school at the University of Pennsylvania]. These prestigious college MBA programs are explicitly training world leaders. Perhaps surprisingly, the missions of all these programs place less emphasis on the specifics of finance, accounting, or particular sectoral acumen, and more emphasis on developing ethical leadership qualities.

These universities have succeeded in replenishing the elite with their stock, but what can we say about the results of their leadership? Amongst the elite themselves this is up for debate. I opened with a quote from Klaus Schwab, the Founder of the World Economic Forum (WEF) who points to the world’s problems including climate change and the reemergence of infectious diseases, and concludes that “Our institutions and their leadership are no longer fit for purpose.” This would be a remarkable statement, and we might think it an outlier position; nevertheless, it represents at least a public-facing ideological shift amongst a section of the class.

Environment, Social, and Governance (ESG)

In August 2019, the Business Roundtable, an association of U.S.-based CEOs, issued a new Statement on the Purpose of a Corporation, which confirms that they “believe the free-market system is [still] the best means of generating good jobs, a strong and sustainable economy, innovation, a healthy environment and economic opportunity for all,” but also specifically commits to companies fostering “diversity and inclusion, dignity and respect.” “[d]ealing fairly and ethically with our suppliers,” and “[s]upporting the communities in which we work. We respect the people in our communities and protect the environment by embracing sustainable practices across our businesses.”

Pronouncing that corporations should care about more than just their shareholders might not seem like a big deal, but in a press release for the statement the Business Roundtable outlined its significance:

Since 1978, Business Roundtable has periodically issued Principles of Corporate Governance. Each version of the document issued since 1997 has endorsed principles of shareholder primacy – that corporations exist principally to serve shareholders. With today’s announcement, the new Statement supersedes previous statements and outlines a modern standard for corporate responsibility.

Marc Benioff, co-founder, chairperson, and co-CEO of Salesforce, put the shift in thinking more dramatically:

Capitalism as we have known it is dead. This obsession we have with maximizing profits for shareholders alone has led to incredible inequality and a planetary emergency. When we serve all stakeholders, business is the greatest platform for change.

The mechanisms for encouraging and enforcing the boardroom focus on shareholder interests or wider stakeholder and environmental interests are shifting too. The rise of institutional investors – large investment management companies like Blackrock which manage huge pension and 401k funds for millions of people have promoted Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) criteria to receive or maintain their investment.

Critics of ESG

ESG has been a target of conservatives, and not just rhetorically. In April 2022, Judicial Watch, a right-wing advocacy group, had success with its lawsuit against a California law requiring diversity on corporate boards. And Republican politicians have made their fight against ESG a prominent feature of their war on what they call “woke capitalism”.

The idea that capitalism is the best framework for addressing environmental and social challenges like climate change or racism (ie “woke” issues) is also coming into question by those who would like to see these issues actually addressed. The benchmarks for evaluating the ESG performance of corporations are questionable at a minimum. The New York Times published an opinion piece by Hans Taparia, a clinical associate professor at the New York University Stern School of Business, claiming that ESG is a sham:

McDonald’s, for instance, was given an upgrade of its E.S.G. rating last year by MSCI [Morgan Stanley Capital International]… [b]ut greenhouse gas emissions from the operations and supply chain of McDonald’s, which is one of the world’s largest buyers of beef, grew by 16 percent from 2015 to 2020.

Perhaps the most publicly damning critic of the effectiveness of the ESG investment strategy is Tariq Fancy, the former chief investment officer for sustainable investing at BlackRock who questions the basic premise of ESG:

The ESG story is sold as an opiate to the masses. It lulls everyone from investors to activists into believing that more responsible companies also consistently perform better financially. In practice, ESG information has limited use in most investment processes. This is due to a combination of ambiguous data and inconsistent standards, short time-horizons for most investment strategies and the uncomfortable reality that being responsible usually isn’t profitable (emphasis added).

Liberal and conservative critics of ESG often come to a similar conclusion: It would be more effective to keep political decisions in the realm of the state. Former presidential candidate in the 2024 GOP primary Vivek Ramaswamy, author of “Woke, Inc.” [sic], and conservative critic of ESG, wrote in the Economist in 2022 that his 

greatest concern of all with stakeholder capitalism, no matter how it’s defined: its proponents are eager to strengthen the link between democracy and capitalism at a time when we should instead assiduously disentangle one from the other.

The more liberal Hans Taparia says, “Policymakers — specifically, the Securities and Exchange Commission — can and should play a role in designing and enforcing an E.S.G. rating system worthy of the name.” And Fancy agrees, “The central tenet of ESG investing—that more responsible companies are more profitable—has a better chance of becoming true if the state regulates critical areas and penalises bad behaviour.”

The conclusions sound similar, but we should be skeptical, especially with regard to the conservative side of the argument. Ramaswamy, just raised funds for an “anti-ESG” Exchange Traded Fund (ETF) to counter BlackRock’s ESG strategy. Far from being neutral on political questions – they actively criticize corporations for progressive actions. And remember, when the state does intervene to impose ESG criteria like corporate board diversity requirements, conservatives are quick to sue the state on constitutional grounds. The reality is that although both the liberal and conservative capitalists endorse a separation of the state and the market the two are entwined.

When we consider the ruling class as a whole, with political and corporate leaders, we are really discussing a division of labor in decision-making. They are debating about the best way to distribute those responsibilities. The closer we look, the more arbitrary that division appears to be. You can not “disentangle” the market from the state. You cannot separate politics from the economy.

Political Economy

The question of where to draw the line between decisions made by the state and those made in the competitive context of the market was a chief concern of twentieth-century economic theorists. The leading critique of centralized economic planning by the state was written by the Austrian social and political theorist Friedrich Hayek. He argued, in a debate known as the economic calculation problem, that economic planners would never have enough information to plan an entire economy effectively. One of his main intellectual adversaries (they were on personally friendly terms) was John Maynard Keynes, who argued that given the fluctuations of capitalist economies from recessions to booms, government intervention and some degree of planning would be necessary to stabilize the system.

Both Hayek and Keynes agreed that there needed to be a regulatory framework that allowed markets to exist. And although Hayek was very critical of a planned economy, he was open to the state providing some social support if needed, which may be surprising given the extreme anti-state positions of his contemporary adherents. Nicholas Wapshott reveals this in his book Keynes Hayek: The Clash that Defined Modern Economics (2011). Hayek believed that the state may have a moral duty to step in and that was admissible so long as the spirit of free enterprise was not compromised. Indeed, Hayek conceded, “There can be no doubt that some minimum of food, shelter, and clothing, sufficient to preserve health and the capacity to work, can be assured to everybody.” Hayek goes on to affirm:

Where, as in the case of sickness and accident, neither the desire to avoid such calamities nor the efforts to overcome their consequences are as a rule weakened by the provision of assistance—where, in short, we deal with genuinely insurable risks—the case for the state’s helping to organize a comprehensive’ system of social insurance is very strong.

Hayek sounds like someone advocating for Medicare for All.

Wapshott provides Keyne’s response to this admission that the state has some role to play in planning to meet human needs. Keynes writes:

I come to what is really my only serious criticism. You admit here and there that it is a question of knowing where to draw the line. You agree that the line has to be drawn somewhere; and that the logical extreme is not possible. But you give us no guidance whatever as to where to draw it. It is true that you and I would probably draw it in different places.

The debate about state economic intervention continues to play out today with little agreement over where the line between government and corporate authority lies. Moreover, this line is drawn differently across geopolitical locations and across time. During my early childhood in Aotearoa/New Zealand, for example, the state-owned and managed forestry, air travel, telecommunications, and the post office. The 1984 Labour government shifted or sold all of this into either corporate partnerships or completely privatized enterprises. These actions were justified by the argument that competition would be better at managing these areas of the economy than the state.

When we consider the ruling class as a whole, with political and corporate leaders, we are really discussing a division of labor in decision-making. They are debating about the best way to distribute those responsibilities. The closer we look, the more arbitrary that division appears to be. You can not “disentangle” the market from the state. You cannot separate politics from the economy.

The shift was dramatic and its results were life-altering. If we look at an overall indicator of public well-being like child poverty, we can see a devastating decline in living standards. Child poverty doubled from 14 percent in 1982 to 28 percent in 1996. This pattern is not unique to New Zealand. It occurred across the world as countries with robust social welfare systems and state-controlled enterprises for much of the twentieth Century faced economic crises in the 1970s. The Keynesian promise that state intervention could keep the worst excesses of capitalist recessions within reasonable limits.

The response across the world was a shift to what became known as neo-liberalism and the ideas of Hayek gained greater credibility amongst the ruling class. Hayek won the Nobel Prize for Economic Science in 1974. In the U.S., although it never had a large social welfare system and limited state enterprise beyond the military, these changes began under the Carter Administration with the deregulation of the airline industry, continued through the Reagan Administration with trickle-down “Reaganomics,” and were realized under the Clinton Administration who carried out his promises to “end welfare as we know it.”

Sixteen years after the onset of the Great Recession, which was characterized as a protracted crisis with slow and unstable recovery, COVID-19 brought the global economy to a sudden halt. Although an official economic downturn beyond the initial shut-down periods was avoided (for now), the question of state economic intervention is back on the table. Worsening environmental conditions and increasing inequality, are driving the resurgence of Left Keynesian demands like the Green New Deal and Medicare For All. However, the ruling elite, those reflected in the They Rule data set, do not agree on how and when it is appropriate for the state to intervene. What this demonstrates, in addition to some capitalists’ seemingly irrational short-sightedness, is that the ruling class is not a monolith. Though they share interests, they have different positions regarding how those ideas should be carried out.

Featured image credit: RawPixel; modified by Tempest.

Opinions expressed in signed articles do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Tempest Collective. For more information, see “About Tempest Collective.”

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Categories: D2. Socialism

The Left and U.S. politics today

Tempest Magazine - Mon, 05/27/2024 - 21:02

​​At a certain point in their historical lives, social classes become detached from their traditional parties. In other words, the traditional parties in that particular organizational form, with the particular men who constitute, represent, and lead them, are no longer recognised by their class (or fraction of a class) as its expression. When such crises occur, the immediate situation becomes delicate and dangerous, because the field is open for violent solutions, for the activities of unknown forces, represented by charismatic “men of destiny.”

–Antonio Gramsci, “Observations on Certain Aspects of the Structure of Political Parties in Periods of Organic Crisis,” Selections from the Prison Notebooks, Section II, Chapter 2, “State and Civil Society.”

International Socialist League: We’ve noticed that a common argument, raised in articles on the Tempest website, is that the U.S. Left that has been facing a strategic impasse, in part of its own making. So has the Left internationally, in many respects. How would you describe our current conjuncture?

Aaron Amaral: What we have been witnessing in the United States since the impact of the Great Recession in 2008 (and the efforts by capital and the state to find a way out of that crisis through a flood of cheap money) are continually emerging cracks in a social and political order that continues to strain under the weight of the deep contradictions of world capitalism, the imperialist world order, and the inability of the ruling class institutions to accommodate to those changes and to build any kind of ruling class–led political consensus on the strategies for governance—that is, hegemony.

We have also seen growing right-wing authoritarian challenges to the late neoliberal international order. Like the parallel dynamic of a resurgent left reformism, which had its heyday almost ten years ago, it is critical to root the right-wing populist authoritarian tendencies firmly in an international context. This is a context of economic dislocation animmd social crisis that is unprecedented in the last 40 years. This has led to levels of political polarization and radicalization greater than we have seen in more than a generation.

As David McNally observed recently,

It’s always worth reminding ourselves that all seven major Wall Street banks faced collapse in 2008–09 and that there was genuine trauma in ruling-class circles about whether they could pull off an immediate rescue. Once that happened, I think the best commentators understood that neoliberalism was really fundamentally about a realignment of class power and much less about a hard ideological commitment to never running deficits and never going into debt. In other words, to preserve the existing configuration of class power that characterized neoliberalism (based on weakened unions, depleted social movements, and restored profitability), they would inject unprecedented amounts of stimulus into the system, and they would run enormous deficits to make this happen. While stabilizing the system, stimulus policies also essentially offset capitalism’s inbuilt restorative mechanisms.

Corporate indebtedness is enormous and remains an important threat to any sustainable recovery of profitability in the United States, not to mention the impact of sovereign debt within the less developed capitalist states.

In the post-COVID-19 period, inflation rates started rising rapidly as a result of a confluence of conditions, including crises of classic neoliberal just-in-time distribution chains, investment bubbles in various sectors caused by the the massive flood of cheap money seeking less and less available profitable sectors of investment, and growing instability and conflict in the imperialist world system (and in particular, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine). The response of the world’s banking system, and most importantly the U.S. Federal Reserve, has been to jack up interest rates to levels not seen since the so-called Volcker shock (named after the then-head of the US Federal Reserve bank Paul Volcker), which began in late 1970 and initiated the period of Reaganite neoliberalism in the United States.

This is a context of economic dislocation and social crisis that is unprecedented in the last 40 years. This has led to levels of political polarization and radicalization greater than we have seen in more than a generation.

In the last few years, the Federal Reserve’s focus on interest rates has also centrally been driven by ruling-class fears about a tight labor market and the idea that working-class people are gaining undue leverage in that market as the economy has been growing since 2021. In reality, despite the tight labor market, wages relative to inflation have not grown but have continued to fall behind. For working people, and especially for a generation of workers who came into the labor market after 2008, meaning anyone under the age of 35, they feel a profound sense of instability, precarity, and downward social mobility.

This reality can be tracked in a number of ways, but it is a stark reality. There has been a drop in overall life expectancy in the United States. The 0.9-year drop in life expectancy in 2021, along with a 1.8-year drop in 2020, represents the biggest two-year decline in life expectancy since 1921–1923. And after the Indigenous community, Non-Hispanic white people in the United States had the second biggest decline in life expectancy in 2021, one full year from 77.4 in 2020 to 76.4 in 2021. This is significant given the relatively privileged material position of the white community historically in the United States, a relative advantage that includes life expectancy. Relatedly, between 2000 and 2020, the suicide rate increased by more than 40 percent for all ages, spiking notably after 2008. The numbers are particularly egregious for younger workers, especially teenage boys and girls and women in their prime working ages between 25 and 44. The age-adjusted rate of drug overdose deaths has almost tripled in the US between 2008 and 2021.

This is a broader stroke picture of the social landscape here that provides the backdrop to what is happening politically.

ISL: How do you situate Donald Trump’s current presidential bid in this context and that fact that, yet again, we have Joseph Biden and him in a rerun of the last election?

AA: Back in 2018 Sam Farber wrote an article in which he accurately described Trump as a “lumpen capitalist.” Farber was responding to a liberal instinct—or strategy—to psychologize Trump, to delink him from his social context and what he represents. This is not to deny the fact that Trump is likely a certifiable sociopath and malignant narcissist. It is just to put the emphasis where it belongs.

Farber quotes from Marx’s Class Struggles in France, 1848–1850:

Marx wrote that the finance aristocracy of that time “in its mode of acquisition as well as in its pleasures, is nothing but the rebirth of the lumpenproletariat on the heights of bourgeois society.” Marxist scholar Hal Draper clarified that Marx’s “finance aristocracy” did not refer to the finance capital that plays an integral role in bourgeois economy, but to the “vultures and raiders” who swing from speculation to swindling and who are the near criminal or extralegal ex-crescences from the body social of the rich just like the “lumpen proletariat” proper are ex-crescences from the poor.

There is way too much to say about Trump as an absolute hustler, confidence man, and convicted fraudster. There is just as much to say about Trump as the apogee of a rich racist, rapist, and misogynist. But a fundamental issue is how he has his social and political power, and this, in the first instance, grows out of his decades-long role as a lumpen capitalist.

Photo: Gage Skidmore.

Another key question is how such a figure is able to use that power and then subvert the existing institutions of the capitalist republic at the imperialist core. Or, to turn this on its head, how those existing institutions both accommodate to, and are unable to stop, Trump.

It is without doubt that Trump taps into deep rooted strains of U.S. reactionary politics—chauvinistic isolationism (Make America Great Again), xenophobic know-nothing-ism with fascist overtones that speaks of threats to the “blood of the nation,” the recurring paranoia of the white petit bourgeoisie also feeling the impact of the post-2008 world, and the appeal to the anxieties of millions with “replacement” theories (be it about constructing threats to heterosexuality, masculinity, or hetero-normativity, the Christian nation, to white power, or a mix of it all).

But what most needs unpacking is how Trump and the Trumpite movement have been able to turn these long established strains of U.S. politics into a real threat to the foundational institutions of the capitalist republic, the courts, the representative institutions (Congress, legislatures), and the security establishment itself. Some of the details include the manipulation of the various court cases with which we have become all too familiar in this country. Remember, Trump is currently facing about 90 felony charges, almost all of which in the world of a “rule of law” would stick but which may, in this reality, never be heard.

It is important to understand that when we talk about the U.S. electorate as a whole, the entire political class is wildly unpopular. Both Trump and Biden have negative approval ratings in the double digits. The approval rate of the U.S. Congress is at 12 percent, according to a February 2024 Gallup poll. Gallup likewise rates the Supreme Court to have a nearly 60 percent disapproval rate. And in this context it would be hard to overstate how unwanted a Trump/ Biden rematch is in the broader US population.

If the only vehicle for oppositional politics is seen and understood as either these elections or the reactionary politics of scapegoating offered by the right, we are in for some dark days.

Then there is the debacle that is the 118th Congress, whose closest approximations may take us back to the 19th century, the takeover the Republican National Committee by the Trump family, the corruption of the Wall Street markets by Truth Social, and the role of the broader ecosystem of lumpen capitalism that surrounds Trump. Most significant from the perspective of the state is the slow infiltration and degradation of the vaunted national security establishment and the former ruling class consensus on imperial rule.

If the only vehicle for oppositional politics is seen and understood as either these elections or the reactionary politics of scapegoating offered by the right, we are in for some dark days.

Collectively, this speaks to the depths of the weakness of those institutions and their persistent inability to address the frontal attacks on their own constitutional order. It is also intimately linked to the challenges faced by the U.S. state as the imperial hegemon facing asymmetrical challenges to its rule, primarily from China. From the 2016 elections through the spectacles of the Trump presidency–the Muslim travel ban; the formal embrace of neofascists and authoritarians; the unprecedented obsequiousness towards Vladimir Putin, among other authoritarian figures like Viktor Orban, Narendra Modi, Jair Bolsonaro, and Benjamin Netanyahu; attacks on NATO, the embrace white evangelicals, the jailing of migrant children,the loss of abortion rights, the book banning, and the skyrocketing growth of racist violence, assaults, and murders of trans people—the mainstream conceptions of the U.S. liberal republic have been profoundly destabilized.

But at the level of mainstream politics, within those institutions, and within the popular imagination, what has emerged as the alternative to Trump and Trumpism, the Joe Biden–led Democratic Party, should also be of grave concern to the Left. This is not because this so-called alternative is politically equivalent, but because this purported alternative can only at the end of the day serve to strengthen the far right and will only further entrench the populist authoritarian right as a political counter-power—and ironically as the vehicle for anti-establishment politics at the level of the institutions of governance.

So when it comes to the 2024 elections, increasingly, the Democratic Party is reaping what it has sown. There is an increasing alienation from the Democratic Party from key constituencies upon which it relied in the past. This includes younger voters and Black and Latino voters. As the social crisis deepens, the Democratic Party is seen, quite correctly, as defenders of the status quo. And particularly with the ongoing slaughter in Gaza, and the growing movement in defense of Palestine, the stark reality of Biden’s Democratic Party as the first team of U.S. imperialism is making it much harder–if not impossible–for defenders of Palestine (overwhelmingly a multi-racial coalition of younger people and the Arab and muslim community) to vote for “Genocide Joe [Biden].”

At the same time, as the Trumpite movement has consolidated control over the Republican Party, a consistent minority of traditional right-wing voters has refused support. It is undeniable that 15 to 20 percent of Republican voters in state primaries are refusing to vote for Trump. Given the way the U.S. electoral system works, if even a third of those voters refuse to vote for Trump in the general election in November, this can weigh heavily in the outcome.

And while it is not possible to make a realistic prediction on the outcome of the election at this time, what seems clear is that Biden and the Democratic Party will be reliant on building a coalition of the so-called “political center.” This will be based on being the best defenders of the imperialist status-quo and the national security state (i.e. defenders of “our democracy”), increasing belligerence towards China, a nationalist industrial policy tied to imperialist Keynesianism as a selling point to organizer labor, and being the most reliable hands on so-called “border security” (read: scapegoating of migrants). In this, they will be seeking votes from a minority of the Republican Party refugees from Trump and will be running a campaign against this likely-to-be-convicted felon, with the primary message of “look at this madman, at least we are not him.” In this, they will rely on corralling the Left with the quadrennial “lesser-evil” arguments. Whether or not this is a winning electoral strategy, it is one that the Left needs to wholly reject on the basis of both the defense of democratic rights and the fight to strengthen an independent infrastructure of working class resistance to this bleak capitalist future.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers and agents observe  the Inauguration of Joseph R. Biden as the 46th president of the United States ,  January 20, 2021. Photo: Rawpixel.

ISL: Where do you see the independent Left and Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) in this?

AA: First, we have to talk about the failures and defeats—and I use both words purposely—of a populist reformism electoral politics embodied by Bernie Sanders, the DSA, and the so-called Squad (the group of “progressive” and Sanders- and/or DSA-aligned representatives) to help build a political alternative to the Democratic Party.

To be clear, I am not suggesting that such a strategic outlook ever motivated Sanders and the squad. And while this was a contested question for a period of time within DSA—that is, the idea that building a political alternative to the Democratic Party was a sine qua non for building a left-wing, let alone socialist, political alternative in the heart of world’s imperialist hegemon—it has long since ceased to be contested in any meaningful way.

[Seeing the Democrats as a real alternative] can only at the end of the day further entrench the populist authoritarian right as a political counter-power—and ironically as the vehicle for anti-establishment politics at the level of the institutions of governance.

Millions of people looked to Sanders, the Sanders movement, and the DSA as the vehicle—however inchoate—for building a political alternative to the “millionaires and billionaires,” as Sanders likes to say, and were led into a dead end as an increasingly marginal appendage of the Democratic Party. In all the excitement and support for the Sanders movement, we saw incredible naivete on the socialist Left, including its revolutionary wing. Thus far, we have largely failed to win those supporters to seeing the need for a different strategy, one directed away from the centrality of electoral politics to one based on rebuilding infrastructures of resistance within the working class and communities of the oppressed. (However, the current movement n defense of Palestine is raising fundamental questions within the radicalization, albeit in the context of a brutal genocide.)

How the capture of this left-wing energy into the Democratic Party came to pass over the last few years (and continues today) in some ways is a story as old as the Democratic Party, or at least since the emergence of the U.S. socialist movement in the 19th century. However, there are specific stories to be told here that should begin with the kneecapping of Sanders by Hillary Clinton in 2016 and his campaign’s wholesale capitulation in both 2016 and 2020. It would also include the absence of the DSA in any meaningful organized fashion from the biggest social rebellion in U.S. history, the antiracist uprising in the summer of 2020. It would also include the Democratic Party’s role in capturing that movement in the service of the 2020 elections and helping to ensure that the organized legacy of that movement was minimal.

As Haley Pessin wrote in a prescient piece for Tempest at the beginning of 2021, following the concerted efforts of black celebrities and politicians to funnel the energy of the movement into electoral support for Biden:

It was Democrats, however, who blamed calls to “defund the police” for costing them at the ballot box. In a post-election call between Nancy Pelosi and her caucus, Democrats singled out the demand in explaining why they had lost seats in competitive races against House Republicans or had won by slimmer margins than predicted. As a result, some Democrats have considered reversing their support for the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act so as not to risk alienating moderate voters…Later, ahead of Georgia’s Senate runoffs, Biden warned civil rights leaders that painting Democrats as supportive of defunding the police was “how [Republicans] beat the living hell out of us across the country.”

This handwringing echoes attempts by the liberal establishment to discipline the left-wing of the Democratic Party, such as when former President Barack Obama disparaged the demand to defund the police as a “snappy slogan.”

In a similar dynamic to the one described by Pessin, Ashley Smith has described the support of Sanders, AOC, and the squad for Biden’s industrial policy, which he characterizes as “Imperialist Keynesianism.” Smith writes,

Biden designed [this policy] to prepare U.S. capitalism for imperial rivalry with China, ameliorate domestic social inequalities, and neutralize challenges from the Left and especially the Trumpian right. While the administration failed to secure increased spending on social infrastructure, it has implemented a new industrial policy investing in hard infrastructure and high-tech manufacturing to restore U.S. supremacy over Beijing and other rivals.

Biden won the support for this program from most of the union officialdom, NGO bureaucracy, and progressive and socialist politicians. They have helped demobilize struggle with the exception of the new rank-and-file militancy in the labor movement.

[Biden] never intended to implement a neoliberal program and did not adopt Bidenomics, as some on the Left argue, because of pressure from the small U.S. socialist movement, Bernie Sanders, and other left-leaning politicians. Biden and his brain trust developed it to overcome the relative decline of U.S. imperialism.

Alicia Garza, founder of Black Lives Matter, addresses a crowed at Georgetown University. Photo: www.montecruzfoto.org.

In the intervening years, the social democratic Left around Sanders and DSA failed to reckon with the impasse caused by its own strategy. To provide just one particularly poignant example, DSA came to the defense of Jamaal Bowman, a DSA member and representative from New York who in 2021 voted in favor of direct military aid to Israel for $3.3 billion and later voted another $1 billion in funding for the Iron Dome, an air defense system that makes it much safer and easier for the apartheid state to bomb indiscriminately the Palestinians living in the occupied territories. Bowman then joined the liberal establishment pro-Zionist group J-Street on a congressional delegation visit to Israel, where he met with the Foreign Minister. Rather than call for his expulsion or suspension, the DSA leadership began a process of suspending its own BDS Working Group (the start of a process that recently led to the working group leaving the DSA altogether). Bowman then left DSA.

And ironically for those holding onto a strategy of tying the Left to the Democratic Party since 2020, the party’s “center,” led by Biden, Nancy Pelosi, and others, has only increased its power. Four years following the second ignominious defeat of Sanders, the political coalition that constitutes Biden’s Democratic Party has taken on the character not of a progressive alternative to Biden buttressed by the energy of Black Lives Matter and as a champion of the 99 percent but rather as the vehicle for capitalist stability and the stalwart defense of the national security state and the imperialist status quo.

Our capacity to build an alternative will not come through a strategy built on electoral politics.

ISL: You just mentioned it in passing, but how would you characterize the mass mobilizing against the genocide in Gaza, and the U.S. role in arming and funding this? How would you situate the recent wave of student encampments in this process?

AA: The movement that has been renewed in the United States following October 7 in Palestine and the genocidal response of the Zionist state has been incredible. Of course, in the context of international solidarity and building a principled anti-imperialist movement, the reemergence of this movement has been incredibly inspiring. It is estimated that in the U.S., as we talk, there have been over 10,00 pro-Palestine protests and actions across the country, involving more than 1.4 million people in more than 920 localities.

In this context, the wave of recent student encampments have been an incredible development, speaking to the depth of the radicalization, the varied—and too often outright repressive – responses by university administrations and the state, and the pressing strategic questions facing the movement, including the relative social power ot students. Nothing of this character–with its spread and militancy–has been seen in the U.S. since at least the anti-apartheid movement in the 1980s, and maybe we have to go back to the 1960s for the best comparisons. And now the cudgel has been taken up by academic workers, including in California with the recent strike authorization, raising the strategic stakes. I encourage people to read Helen Scott’s recent article, which speak to this evolution.

Cal State Los Angeles Palestine solidarity encampment, May, 2024. Photo by Dana Cloud.

For the movement throughout the country, these  are very important advances, given the more than seven months of consistent mobilization in the face of the genocidal assaults. For Tempest we see the desperate need to grow the democratic coalitional organizing spaces that are necessary to build on this movement and to take it into this next phase of the struggle and prepare it for the longer fight for Palestinian liberation. The experience of student encampments, and their spread, show that these spaces are needed and can be built.

For the first time since the occupation of Iraq, we are seeing a newly developing, radicalizing Left in the United States rooted in a consciousness of U.S. imperialism and the importance of internationalism and solidarity.

More generally we are seeing people making critical connections between Palestine and labor organizing. I spoke earlier of the particular impact of the post-2008 economic order on younger workers. And this experience of downward mobility of precarity, along with the experiences of the last round of organizing in the movement and Left spaces going back to Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter, has led a new generation of radicalized young people organizing with renewed energy within the labor movement. To be clear, this has not been sufficient to overcome the longer term trajectory or organized labor in the United States, but it has been a consistent source of movement energy and struggle in workplaces across the country. Recent labor struggles, including at Amazon and Starbucks, the railway workers, and more recently with the Writers Guild and Screen Actors Guild, the Teamsters and United Auto Workers, not to mention the continuing organizing and striking of teachers’ unions across the country, are examples of this energy.

You can see the growing support for Palestine within the rank-and-file labor movement in varying support for calls for ceasefire as a basic floor to more advanced demands to heed the call from the Palestinian trade unions who are asking unions to:

  1. To refuse to build weapons destined for Israel.
  2. To refuse to transport weapons to Israel.
  3. To pass motions in their trade union to this effect.
  4. To take action against complicit companies involved in implementing Israel’s brutal and illegal siege, especially if they have contracts with your institution.
  5. Pressure governments to stop all military trade with Israel, and in the case of the US, funding to it.

But beyond its importance for international solidarity, this movement has the potential to help guide the Left beyond the impasse presented by the Democratic Party. Given the decades-long centrality of Israel to U.S. foreign policy and the depths with which Zionist politics and support for Israel defines establishment politics, it is hard to envision the type of dynamic that led to the Democrats successfully coopting the energy of Black Lives Matter activists in the run up to the 2020 election.

For the first time since the occupation of Iraq, we are seeing a newly developing, radicalizing Left in the United States rooted in a consciousness of U.S. imperialism and the importance of internationalism and solidarity. This is renewing attention on the importance of breaking out of the cul-de-sac the Left has placed itself in, not only with regard to the Democratic Party, but in understanding electoral politics as the key strategic focus, rather than social movement organizing.

In a similar vein, see have seen a broadening of the horizons of militants within the trade union movement extending beyond the sort of narrow trade union consciousness fostered by that same social democratic Left that has done great work in training a new generation of trade unionists to file grievances, build caucuses, and to be the next generation—for good and bad—of trade union officials, but has done little to nothing to prepare that generation to participate in a broader workers’ and socialist movement. The current movement offers the possibility of just such an advance.

Opinions expressed in signed articles do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Tempest Collective. For more information, see “About Tempest Collective.”

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Categories: D2. Socialism

The transformative power of solidarity

Tempest Magazine - Sat, 05/25/2024 - 21:15

Neoliberalism has done a number on us. Collective working class cultural values built up over the 19th and 20th centuries eroded badly in our era—and in some ways that’s accelerating. More than that, truly ancient patterns of cooperativeness aren’t immune to the competitive-individualist solvent. Free-market theorist Friedrich Hayek considered human solidarity itself a progress-limiting holdover, “an instinct which we have inherited from tribal society.” Today tech capitalists take it as their mission to replace all such holdovers with the digital cash nexus, and all too often they succeed.

Leah Hunt-Hendrix and Astra Taylor’s timely book rescues the left’s fundamental concept, solidarity. As they note, “there is a scarcity of historical and theoretical writing on the subject.” It is necessary as a cure for our metastasizing social pathologies. It is the cultural ethos of a socialist future. And it’s the key notion framing today’s needed strategies of class struggle by and for workers.

Hunt and Taylor met as activists in Occupy Wall Street. Hunt, rebellious heir to the ultra-conservative donor J. L. Hunt’s family fortune, organized in support of Occupy and went on to found Way to Win, an electoral donor network that organized the youth vote to help flip Georgia and Arizona in 2022. Taylor founded the Debt Collective, a debtors’ union that has organized a debt strike and helped press student debt forgiveness onto the national agenda.

Solidarity is an informative book that begins a much-needed discussion for everyone on the Left. The book traces the word solidarity to ancient Rome (actually Byzantium). There it referred to farmers who obtained loans collectively, holding them “in solidarity” so that if one were unable to pay their share, the others would cover it. Debt proves a surprisingly central idea in the history of solidarity.

In the 19th century Emile Durkheim, founder of sociology, theorized that solidarity flows naturally from the division of labor of modern society. He claimed this division creates materially based feelings of interdependence. Furthermore, despite diverse occupations, “difference…can be a cause of mutual attraction” (p. 12). This is important to the authors, because “though Durkheim did not share our focus on the transformative power of solidarity, we believe this insight is key: solidarity does not depend on sameness” (p. 12). Later Durkheim emphasized that the organic growth of the necessary social glue of solidarity he described needs the addition of rituals and beliefs intentionally cultivating it.

At the same time militant workers’ movements produced a notion of solidarity as a means to build power for the purpose of class struggle. The authors credit this working class solidarity with a “transformative” power capable of winning social justice. In this sense they side with Marx over Durkheim. But they also dispute Engels’ claim that “‘the simple feeling of class solidarity, based on an insight into the sameness of class position, is sufficient…to create…one large and cohesive proletariat party” (p. xvi). Thus they aim to take from both Marx and Engels’ class struggle perspective on solidarity, and Durkheim’s emphasis on the need to cultivate it.

The authors feature the ideas of late 19th century reformists Leon Bourgeois, Leon Duguit, and Pierre Leroux, who developed a philosophy and political practice called solidarism. For them, solidarity was based on mutual indebtedness: present generations stand in debt to their ancestors, members of inevitably interdependent societies stand in debt to each other. The solidarists believed private ownership of the productive forces could be reconciled with social cohesion and justice through “ensuring social security and public health; providing for full employment for the able-bodied, and for public assistance for those in need;…and progressive taxation”  (p. 15). They enacted several programs in France before World War I. After the War Bourgeois went on to bring his theories to the League of Nations and International Labor Organization.

Hunt and Taylor suggest a necessary complementarity between the transformative power-building solidarity of the workers’ movement, and the solidarists’ philosophy of interdependence, mutual debt, and reparative justice. But they miss that workers’ struggle has its own philosophical implications. Workers are a collective class, only able to take over the means of production together (you can’t divide up a factory, hospital, etc.). And our class can only maintain our rule cooperatively—economic competition between worker-owned businesses would tend toward the return of classes within and between them. These and other conditions of workers’ solidarity make it about more than just building power—it necessarily involves building a culture of cooperation. Hunt and Taylor are correct, however, to emphasize that such a culture requires conscious cultivation. So some of Durkheim and the solidarists’ ideas, removed from their class-collaborationist standpoint, may indeed be useful to revolutionary workers (along with the writings of Antonio Gramsci and Amilcar Cabral, among others).

Hunt and Taylor envision a society of cross-class harmony, and they stress the value “class traitors” (p. 178)—like Hunt—can bring to movements of workers and the poor. But they sharply differentiate solidarity from charity. “Benevolence, altruism, deference, allyship, and charity…place the onus on individual action…and harness pity or guilt.” (p. xx) Charity enables corporate whitewashing. Controlled by benefactors who place conditions on their aid, charity “is a form of domination” (p. 136). The authors expose, with the benefit of Hunt’s inside view, the way charitable foundations exist more as tax shelters than effective philanthropic vehicles. And their takedowns of the Gates Foundation and Mahatma Gandhi are essential reading.

Substantial space is also devoted to how to allegedly do “philanthropy-in-solidarity.” (p. 167) “At this point in history, philanthropic support can play a role in this urgent project (of changing systems)” (p. 166). and furthermore “organizers cannot do their work without financial support” (p. 167). They admit that even in the best case the philanthropic/charitable relationship is “fundamentally broken and arbitrary” (p. 166). So they offer strained historical models, like revolutionary abolitionist John Brown’s “Secret Six” wealthy donors. But this wasn’t philanthropy, merely fundraising. The Secret Six placed no conditions on their donations and had no means of monitoring which guns Brown bought with their contributions. They highlight Farhad Ebrahimi’s self-liquidating Chorus Foundation as a positive philanthropy. And they advocate long-term funding, with conditions defined by recipients rather than donors: “the young person of wealth can put themselves at the service of those who are closer to the ground” (p. 174).  Good ideas perhaps, and Hunt and Taylor are careful to keep skepticism in the foreground here.

Is solidarity the self-change that results from collective struggle or the product of pre-existing social conditions? Hunt and Taylor emphasize the latter. Redistributive social programs like the British National Health Service create “policy feedback loops” (p. 218)—beneficiaries have better lives, creating a more solidaristic consciousness, and political constituencies for further redistribution.

The book mentions an array of progressive programs, many of which can give left activists ideas for demands and campaigns today—public banks, cooperative utilities and dispensaries, social housing, worker and union ownership schemes, maximum wage laws, and climate jobs programs. They encourage unions, cooperatives, and mutual aid projects but argue (with justice) that “any real solution would require the support of the whole society…the state would need to play a central role” (p. 21).

Their program for the “solidarity state,” as they call it, goes a step further, invoking the Johnson Administration’s War on Poverty slogan “‘maximum feasible participation of the poor’.”  (p. 196) The Black Panther Party and Welfare Rights Organization, they remind us, have their roots in Federal Community Action Programs from the mid-1960s. These autonomous self-managed government programs hired youth organizers, many of whom were leftists. The Office of Economic Opportunity provided Federal money for tenant organizing, funding rent strikes and demonstrations to bail out arrested activists in New York. In New Mexico indigenous youth took these jobs and organized on a radical basis. As Hunt and Taylor see it, “a solidarity state must create…formations that enable regular people to come together and challenge authority, whether held by corporations or the government.” They call this “countervailing power” (p. 201).

This is great, largely forgotten history, for which we can be grateful to the authors. But the outcome of 20th century welfarism, from the relatively expansive Swedish social democracy to the more limited New Deal of the US, suggests limits to this framework. As the authors note, only a “militant labor movement…inflicting real costs on bosses and investors through thousands of work stoppages” (p. 66) made the New Deal possible. As they also note, these programs have been largely or wholly rolled back everywhere in the neoliberal era. One can agree that welfarism created a more solidaristic consciousness in its generational beneficiaries. But this never outweighed the overall individualistic social conditioning of societies with private ownership of the means of production. For solidarity to win out in mass psychology, workers and the oppressed must collectively rule our own lives from the top to the bottom of society, with workers’ control of production, housing cooperatives, self-policing communities, democratic economic planning, and more.

In the long run the ruling class counteroffensive succeeded beyond the imaginings of those who lived through the welfarist golden years. What appeared to be permanent advances toward solidarity ended up not so. As for the “countervailing power” of the War on Poverty left wing of the welfare state, it was small and quickly dismantled, having provoked a furious response. This is not to argue that any of these reforms were futile. Just that if they remain a destination rather than a stepping stone to overthrowing a system based on private profit and replacing it with one truly built on solidarity and numan need, such advances cannot last.

Hunt and Taylor argue that solidarity requires a kind of internationalism. They devote their chapter “Solidarity Beyond Borders” to recovering more history leftists should know. At the same time, they ignore some important historical examples of workers’ self-activity.

They mention that the Second International promised to mobilize workers against conflict “only to be dissolved by the nationalist fervor of the First World War” (p.  231). This left Luxemburg (somewhat misleadingly counterposed to Lenin) defeated in her heroic anti-war stand: “in the midst of World War I, dreams of an international working-class movement seemed decidedly moribund” (p. 232). As a result internationalism had its day only after the war, with the League of Nations and International Labor Organization (influenced by the French solidarists) beginning an ostensibly progressive project ultimately sullied by a failure to break with global “racial hierarchy” (p. 233).

But Luxemburg (and Lenin) did not fail at all. Their revolutionary socialist internationalism grew to influence millions of anti-war strikers as the War dragged on. That War was abruptly ended when mass German naval mutinies and insurrectionary strikes overthrew the Kaiser, created workers’ councils positioned to become the basis of a potential workers’ state, and released Luxemburg herself from prison. In this context, Luxemburg and Lenin’s revolutionary anti-colonial politics led to the formation of Communist Parties allied with them across much of what would later be called the Third World.

Hunt and Taylor pick up their story after World War II, when decolonization put Third World solidarity for real self-determination on the table. Tanzanian leader Julius Nyerere and Argentine economist Raul Prebisch led a block of 77 “non-aligned” UN countries pressing for a New International Economic Order based on genuine sovereignty and welfarism. Burkina Faso’s Thomas Sankara “proposed that the indebted countries band together…and refuse to repay” (p. 252). The authors echo Third World Marxists such Walter Rodney in criticizing the limits of left nationalists like Julius Nyerere, who argued in effect “solidarity…is a bond between states; the suffering of people living in those states could be ignored” (p. 246). But, “these internal contradictions were not the cause” (p. 246) of the neoliberal rollback that followed. Instead, “violence did the trick” (p. 247) through right wing coups in the Third World, backed by Washington.

This century Chile and Greece had governments and movements striving, as the authors see it, toward a solidarity state. Chile’s uprising against its neoliberal constitution led to the election of Gabriel Boric and a referendum on a new constitution. The referendum failed because “the far right used an effective playbook of lies and misinformation…aided by multinational social media companies.” “No country is an island; we are all subject to these strategies and the only way forward is…to out-organize our adversaries” (p. 265).

In Greece, Hunt and Taylor point to mutual aid “practiced as a matter of survival…and modeling the kind of state they hoped SYRIZA would create” (p. 266) as part of the organizing wave that brought SYRIZA to power in 2015, but don’t discuss the multiple general strikes that took place there. They explain SYRIZA’s immediate capitulation to the very EU demands for austerity they existed to oppose, saying “no country—especially a small one like Greece—can resist the forces of global capitalism alone” (p. 266). True, but SYRIZA leadership also made compromises that foreclosed other possible avenues for transformation..

The authors’ neglect of the Greek general strikes fits an overall pattern. They praise unions but don’t explore their contradictions, such as that between rank and file and bureaucracy. The US’ World War II union no-strike pledge is disparaged, without mention of the massive wave of wildcats that defied it. Their account of Poland’s Solidarnosc doesn’t see that that union in 1980-81 built an effective dual power, presenting a genuine workers’ government alternative to the rhetorically existing “workers’ state.” And they don’t explore the flood of workers’ self-activity, including the Russian Revolution, that actually did end the First World War.

Hunt and Taylor favor direct action and self-organization. They usefully highlight autonomous movements of poor people. But rank and file self-activity precisely where our class has the most power—in workplace struggles and revolutions anchored by them—gets short shrift. This leaves them with a vision of social change limited to altering the power balance between the classes, not abolishing class, and the hope that poor and working people’s self-organization short of control of the means of production can sustainably hold its own.

Featured image credit: Wikimedia Commons; modified by Tempest.

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Categories: D2. Socialism

Imperialism and anti-imperialism today

Tempest Magazine - Thu, 05/23/2024 - 21:01

Capitalism produces imperialism—the competition between the great powers and their corporations for the division and redivision of the world market. This competition generates a dynamic hierarchy of states, with the most powerful at the top, middling or sub-imperial powers beneath them, and oppressed nations at the bottom.

No hierarchy is permanent. Capitalism’s law of uneven and combined development, its booms and busts, its corporate competition, its interstate conflict, and its uprisings by the exploited and oppressed destabilize and restructure the state system.

As a result, the history of imperialism has had a sequence of orders. A multipolar one characterized the period from the late 19th century to 1945. It produced the great colonial empires and two world wars. It was supplanted by a bipolar order from 1945 and 1991, with the United States and Soviet Union struggling for hegemony over the newly independent states liberated from colonial rule.

With the collapse of the Soviet empire, the United States oversaw a unipolar order of neoliberal globalization, faced no superpower rival, and fought a series of wars to enforce its so-called rules based order of global capitalism from 1991 through the early 2000s. That order ended with the relative decline of the United States, the rise of China, and the resurrection of Russia, ushering in today’s asymmetric multipolar order.

The United States remains the dominant power, but it is now locked in competition with China and Russia, above increasingly assertive sub-imperial states such as Israel, Iran, Saudi Arabia, India, and Brazil, as well as subject nations that suffer both political and economic oppression. Faced with a looming epoch of crisis, wars, and revolts, the global Left must build international solidarity from below among workers and the oppressed in a struggle against imperialism and for socialism throughout the world.

Global capitalism’s multiple crises

Global capitalism has produced multiple intersecting crises that are intensifying conflict between and within states. These crises are a global economic slump; sharpening interimperial rivalry between the United States, China, and Russia; climate change; unprecedented global migration; and pandemics, of which COVID-19 is only the most recent example. These crises have undermined the political establishment, caused political polarization in most countries of the world, opening the door to the Right and the Left, and triggering waves of explosive yet episodic struggles from below. We have not witnessed such a period of crisis, conflict, wars, political instability, and revolts in decades.

All of this is a challenge and an opportunity for an international Left and workers’ movement still suffering from the consequence of several decades of defeat and retreat. It is also an opening to a new far right that offers authoritarian solutions promising to restore social order by scapegoating the oppressed at home and whipping up reactionary forms of nationalism against enemies abroad.

Once in power this new far right has failed to overcome any of global capitalism’s crises and inequalities but has exacerbated them. As a result, neither the establishment nor its far right opponents offer any way out of our epoch of catastrophe.

We have not witnessed such a period of crisis, conflict, wars, political instability, and revolts in decades. All of this is a challenge and an opportunity for an international Left and workers’ movement still suffering from the consequence of several decades of defeat and retreat. The asymmetric multipolar world order

Amid these metastasizing crises, the United States no longer stands atop a unipolar world order. It has suffered relative decline as a result of the long neoliberal boom, its failed wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the Great Recession. Those developments have enabled the rise of China as a new imperial power and Russia’s resurgence as a nuclear-armed petro-power. At the same time, a host of sub-imperial powers have become more assertive than in the past, playing the great powers off one another, and jockeying for advantage in their region.

All of this has created today’s asymmetric multipolar world order. The United States remains the world’s most powerful state, in possession of the biggest economy, the dollar as the world’s reserve currency, with the most powerful military, largest network of alliances, and therefore greatest geopolitical power. But it faces imperial rivals in China and Russia and sub-imperial ones in every region of the globe.

These antagonisms have not led to coherent geopolitical and economic blocs. Globalization has bound most of the economies of the world tightly together, preventing the return of blocs like the ones during the Cold War.

Thus, the two biggest rivals, the United States and China, are also two of the most integrated in the world. Think of Apple’s iPhone—designed in California, manufactured in Taiwanese-owned factories in China, and exported to vendors in the United States and throughout the world.

The new sub-imperial powers are not loyal either to China or the United States, but opportunistically forge pacts with one or the other power in pursuit of their own capitalist interests. For example, while India strikes deals with China in the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) alliance against the United States, it participates in Washington’s QUAD alliance (United States, Australia, India, Japan) against China.

That said, the global economic slump, the intensifying rivalry between the United States and China, and especially Russia’s imperialist war in Ukraine and US/NATO sanctions against Moscow are beginning to pry apart globalization as we have known it. Indeed, globalization has plateaued and begun to decline.

For example, through the so-called Chip War, the United States and China are segregating the top end of their high tech economies. In another, Western sanctions against Russia over its imperialist war on Ukraine have excluded it from U.S. and European Union (EU) trade and investment, forcing it to turn to markets in China and Iran.

As a result, we are on a trajectory toward increasing economic division, geopolitical rivalry, and even military conflict between the United States, China, and Russia, as well between them and sub-imperial powers. At the same time, the deep economic integration of especially the United States and China, as well as the fact that each possesses nuclear weapons, counteracts the tendency toward open war, which would risk mutually assured destruction and global economic collapse.

Washington rearms for great power rivalry

Since the Obama administration, the U.S. state has been trying to develop a new strategy to counter the rise of China and the resurgence of Russia. Obama announced his so-called Pivot to Asia and Trump openly placed great power rivalry with Beijing and Moscow at the center of his National Security Strategy, but neither developed a comprehensive approach to these conflicts or others in the new asymmetric multipolar world order.

We are on a trajectory toward increasing economic division, geopolitical rivalry, and even military conflict between the United States, China, and Russia, as well between them and sub-imperial powers.

President Barack Obama remained preoccupied with the Middle East, wrapping up the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan and then shoring up the region’s existing order after the Arab Spring and the rise of ISIS. Trump proclaimed his strategy for great power rivalry, but it was incoherent in practice. It included a chaotic mix of far right nationalism, protectionism, threats to abandon historic alliances like NATO, and transactional bilateral deals with both designated rivals and traditional allies. His erratic years of misrule led to the further relative decline of the United States.

President Joe Biden has developed the most coherent strategy to date. He hoped to co-opt class and social struggles with minor reforms, implement a new industrial policy to ensure U.S. competitiveness in high tech manufacturing, and rehabilitate Washington’s alliances like NATO and expand them through launching a so-called League of Democracies against Washington’s autocratic rivals.

In the end, centrist Democrats, Republicans, and the courts blocked many of his reforms designed to ameliorate social inequality. But he succeeded in implementing his industrial policy through multiple bills. Biden also has begun to refurbish and expand U.S. alliances through new pacts and economic initiatives. The goal of all this is to contain China, deter Russian expansionism in Eastern Europe, and pull as many sub-imperial powers, subordinate states, and oppressed nations back under U.S. hegemony and its preferred international order.

Biden has continued his predecessors’ attempt to extract the United States from its failed occupations. He finally ended Washington’s twenty-year occupation of Afghanistan in shambolic style, committing war crimes in the process and abandoning the country to the Taliban. He then tried to stabilize the Middle East by continuing Trump’s Abraham Accords and further efforts to normalize Israel by establishing formal relations between the Arab regimes with Tel Aviv. Of course, this gave the greenlight to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to continue the siege on Gaza, the settler expansion in the occupied West Bank, and the deepening of apartheid within Israel, now given horrific expression in Israel’s genocidal war on Gaza. In Europe, Biden recommitted the United States to NATO, sending a signal to Russia that Washington, not Moscow, would remain the predominant hegemon in the region.

But the main target of Biden’s strategy for great power rivalry is China. On the economic front, his industrial policy is designed to restore, protect, and expand U.S. economic supremacy against Beijing, especially in high tech. It aims to onshore or friend shore high tech manufacturing, impose a high fence of protectionism around U.S. design and engineering of computer chips, and fund U.S. high tech companies and universities in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields to lock its dominance in AI (Artificial Intelligence) and other cutting-edge tech, especially because of their military applications.

On the geopolitical front, Biden has consolidated existing alliances with Japan and expanded them to include especially those antagonized by China, including Vietnam and the Philippines. He also reiterated the One China policy that recognizes only Beijing and the policy of strategic ambiguity on Taiwan, which commits the United States to arming the island nation like a “porcupine” to deter Chinese aggression but remains vague about whether it would come to the island’s defense in the event of an attack or invasion.

On the military front, Biden doubled down on U.S. military alliances such as the QUAD and the Five Eyes (Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States), and established new ones, notably the deal between Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States (AUKUS) for the deployment of nuclear submarines in Australia.  Washington is in the process triggering an arms and base building race with China throughout the Asia Pacific.

Washington’s imperialist rivals: China and Russia

China and Russia have implemented their own strategy to project their imperial ambitions. These three powers form what Gilbert Achcar has called the “strategic triad” of world imperialism.

Under the leadership of Xi Jinping, China has aimed to restore its standing as a great power in global capitalism. It has implemented an economic strategy to leap up the value chain to compete at the highest level of design, engineering, and manufacturing. It has funded both state and private capital through programs such as China 2025, which aims to establish select corporations as national champions in high tech.

This has been highly successful with Huawei and BYD among others establishing themselves as global competitors. China is now an industry leader in whole fields such as solar energy and electric vehicles, challenging U.S., European, and Japanese capital.

With its massive economic expansion, China has tried to export its surplus capital and capacity abroad through its $1 trillion Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a vast plan for infrastructure development throughout the world, especially in the Global South. None of this is altruistic. Most of this investment is designed to construct infrastructure, rails, roads, and ports to export raw materials to China. China then exports its finished products back to those countries in a classic imperialist pattern. But a combination of its slowing economy, banking troubles, and debt crises in countries it had loaned to has led China to retreat from its grandest ambitions for BRI.

Nevertheless, China is trying parlay this investment into geopolitical influence through economic formations like the BRICS, as well as political/security pacts like the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (including China, Russia, India, Pakistan, Iran, and a host of Central Asian states). It has also asserted its influence in the Middle East by encouraging normalization of diplomatic relations between its ally Iran and Saudi Arabia, which it depends on for the bulk of its oil.

To back its newfound economic clout with military might, China is modernizing its armed forces, especially its navy, specifically to challenge U.S. naval hegemony in the Pacific. As part of that, it has seized islands claimed by other states, creating antagonisms with Japan, Vietnam, the Philippines, and many others. It has militarized some of these, especially in the South China Sea, to project its power, protect shipping routes, and assert rights to undersea oil and natural gas reserves.

Finally, Beijing is enforcing historic claims to what it considers its national territory as part of a project of national rejuvenation. Thus, it has imposed its dominion over Hong Kong with brute force, carried out its own war on terror and cultural genocide against Uyghurs in Xinjiang, and escalated threats of invasion of Taiwan, which it regards as a renegade province.

Under Vladimir Putin’s rule, meanwhile, the Russian ruling class has aimed to restore its imperial power, so devastatingly undermined by the collapse of the Soviet Empire in Eastern Europe and its disastrous implementation of neoliberal shock therapy. It has watched the United States and European imperialism gobble up its former sphere of influence through the expansion of NATO and the EU.

Putin rebuilt Russia as a nuclear armed petro-power with the aim of reclaiming its former empire in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, while imposing order domestically against any popular dissent and especially against its sometimes recalcitrant republics. It has tried to consolidate its hold over its former sphere of influence through collaboration with China in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.

That imperialist project has led it to launch a succession of wars in Chechnya (1996, 1999), Georgia (2008), and Ukraine (2014, 2022–) as well as interventions in Syria and several African countries. Russia’s imperial assertion has precipitated resistance from states and peoples it has targeted and also imperialist counter-offensives from the United States, NATO, and the EU.

Russian imperialist war on Ukraine

Three strategic flashpoints have brought these interimperial rivalries to a head—Ukraine, Gaza, and Taiwan.

Ukraine became the site of a major war in Europe for the first time since World War II. Russia invaded the country in 2014 and then again in 2022 in a clear act of imperialist aggression, attempting to seize the entire country and impose a semicolonial regime on it. Putin justified this with lies about de-Nazification (hardly believable from one of the most reactionary states in the world and an ally of the far right internationally).

Of course, its aggression was in part in response to U.S., NATO, and EU expansion, but that does not make its war any less imperialist in nature. It aimed to use the conquest of Ukraine as a stepping stone to reclaim its former sphere of influence in the rest of Eastern Europe.

The Ukrainian state, military, and people rose up against the invasion in a fight for national self-determination.

Biden has supplied Ukraine with economic and military aid for Washington’s own imperial reasons. It is no ally of national liberation struggles, as its long history of imperialist wars from the Philippines to Vietnam and Iraq attests. Washington has aimed to weaken Russia, prevent its encroachment on its expanded sphere of influence in Eastern Europe, and wield its NATO allies together against, not only Moscow, but also China, which NATO has designated as a strategic focus for the first time in its history.

The United States and its NATO allies imposed the most severe sanctions in history on Russia and pressured Western Europe to wean itself off Russian energy supplies and instead rely on U.S. natural gas exports. Russia in reaction has become increasingly dependent on China for trade and tech, as well as North Korea and Iran for missiles, drones, and other military hardware.

Washington also tried to use Russia’s aggression to gather the Global South under its rubric. But it has not had much luck with the governments of those states, despite popular identification of most of these formerly colonized countries with Ukraine’s struggle for self-determination. Nonetheless, Biden used Ukraine to shore up Washington’s global alliances and soft power as it postured as the defender of self-determination and its so-called rules based order against Russian imperialism.

Israel’s U.S.-backed genocidal war in Gaza

Israel’s genocidal war in Gaza has upset Washington’s imperial plans for the entire Middle East and precipitated its biggest geopolitical crisis since Vietnam. Faced with slow strangulation by the total siege in Gaza, Hamas led a desperate jailbreak on October 7, seized hostages, and killed large numbers of soldiers and civilians.

Its attack exposed the weaknesses of Israeli intelligence and border control over its apartheid wall. In response, Israel launched its biggest military incursion into Gaza with the stated aim of retrieving the hostages and destroying Hamas. It has succeeded in neither. Instead, it has laid waste to Gaza in a war of collective punishment, ethnic cleansing, and genocide. The Biden administration has supported this every step of the way, funding it, providing it political cover with vetoes in the United Nations, and arming it to the teeth.

But there is a schism between the United States and Israel. While Washington supports Israel’s goal of destroying the Palestinian resistance, it has tried to cajole Israel into shifting its strategy from carpet bombing Gaza and killing civilians to special operations to target Hamas. The Biden administration’s strategic disagreement with Israel has come to a head over its assault on Rafah with the US pausing shipments of some of its most destructive bombs.

The U.S. government also does not approve of Israel’s widening attacks in the region, which include the bombing of Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and Yemen. Washington has not openly opposed these strikes but has instead tried to pressure the targeted regimes from responding.

While Washington supports Israel’s goal of destroying the Palestinian resistance, it has tried to cajole Israel into shifting its strategy from carpet bombing Gaza and killing civilians to special operations to target Hamas. The Biden administration’s strategic disagreement with Israel has come to a head over its assault on Rafah with the US pausing shipments of some of its most destructive bombs.

The United States has been unable to restrain Netanyahu, who is captive to fascists in his coalition government who are calling for genocide and regional war, especially against Iran. Netanyahu has followed their lead to preserve his coalition government, because if it falls, he will likely be jailed on corruption charges.

Thus, Israel’s genocidal war and regional aggression could trigger a wider war. Already, it provoked the Houthis in Yemen to stage attacks on oil and commercial ships, threatening the world economy, and leading the United States to pull together a coalition to protect their vessels and threaten the Houthis.

But the sharpest and most dangerous of all the conflicts Israel has staged is with Iran. It bombed Tehran’s embassy in Damascus, killing one of the leaders of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard. Washington went into overdrive to pressure Iran from striking Israel and thereby triggering a full-scale war.

In the event, Iran carried out a largely symbolic attack on Israel. It telegraphed its plans to the United States and Arab nations, enabling Israel and its allies to shoot down almost all the drones and missiles. The United States then leaned on Israel to limit its counter-attack. But Tel Aviv nevertheless sent an ominous message with a limited strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities. In response, Tehran will move forward with plans to develop nuclear weapons and Israel will respond with military strikes to protect its regional nuclear monopoly, threatening Armageddon in the region.

Amid this spiraling conflict, Israel’s barbarity has triggered mass protest throughout the Middle East and North Africa and globally, exposing and isolating both it and the United States as architects and perpetrators of genocide. South Africa brought a case against Israel to the International Court of Justice, charging it with genocide, a case that the Court ruled as plausible.

China and Russia have taken advantage of the crisis to posture as an ally of Palestine, despite their deep economic and diplomatic relations with Israel and their support for stabilization of the status quo in the region. The oppressors of Xinjiang and Ukraine have no grounds to say they support national self-determination.

Nevertheless, the United States has suffered an enormous setback. Its soft power has been fundamentally undermined. No one can scarcely believe its claims to support “a rules based order” or “self-determination” or even “democracy.”

Plans for the normalization of Israel through the Abraham Accords have been disrupted for the moment. With their populations out in the streets and at least expressing sympathy with Palestinians, no Arab regime will publicly cut a deal with Israel, despite their increasing economic integration with the apartheid state, though a number are still advancing those plans behind closed doors

None of these regimes or Iran can be considered allies of the Palestinian struggle. Except for the Houthis, all of them have restricted military responses against Israel. None have cut off oil shipments to the great powers.

There is no real “axis of resistance.” All these states are posturing to keep a lid on popular solidarity with Palestine from tipping over into opposition to their own despotic rule. And when faced with any domestic resistance, all, from Egypt to Iran, have repressed it with brute force. They are all counter-revolutionary capitalist regimes.

Israel’s genocidal war has, however, fundamentally undermined Washington’s attempt to woo sub-imperial states and countries in the region and throughout the Global South. These states and their peoples’ memories of their own liberation struggle leads them to identify with Palestine and to oppose both the United States and Israel. This has produced an unprecedented global wave of popular protest in solidarity with Palestine. Meanwhile, the Biden administration’s lockstep support of Israel has triggered relentless protest for the last six months, culminating in a student rebellion on campuses across the country. Further undermining Washington’s claims to be a model of democracy, both political parties in collaboration with liberal and conservative university administrations have repressed that student rebellion with the utmost brutality.

Israel has thus undone all the geopolitical advances the United States made through its posturing around Ukraine, thrown U.S. imperialism into crisis, and put Biden’s reelection in jeopardy. It has also given great space for Washington’s global and regional rivals to become increasingly assertive of their own interests, escalating conflicts throughout the world.

Taiwan: epicenter of the US-China rivalry

Taiwan has become the epicenter of the rivalry between the United States and China. China has set reunification, that is the seizure of Taiwan, as one of its core imperialist objectives. While Biden has promised to maintain its One China Policy and strategic ambiguity, he has repeatedly promised to come to the defense of Taiwan in the event of a war.

To prepare for such a conflagration, he is trying to overcome historic antagonism between regional allies Japan, the Philippines, South Korea, Vietnam, and others to unite them in various multilateral and bilateral pacts against China. All of this is ratcheting up conflict over Taiwan.

At the same time, the economic integration of the United States, China, and Taiwan dampens the drift toward war. One of Taiwan’s multinationals, Foxconn, manufactures Apple’s iPhone in giant factories in China for export throughout the world, including the United States. Taiwan’s TSMC is also the manufacturer of 90 percent of the world’s most advanced microchips, which are used in everything from toaster ovens to high tech military weapons and fighter bombers such as the F-35.

Despite this integration, the conflict between the United States and China over Taiwan has intensified throughout Biden’s tenure, with U.S. representatives ratcheting it up even further with provocative visits. For example, Nancy Pelosi staged a diplomatic trip promising U.S. support for Taiwan, prompting China to respond with threatening military exercises. For its part, China has also engaged in provocations to impact Taiwanese politics and send a message to Washington.

In reality, neither great power respects Taiwan’s right to self-determination. China wants to annex it and Washington only uses Taipei as part of its imperial offensive against Beijing. While war is unlikely, because it could trigger nuclear conflagration and wreck the world economy by interrupting the production and trade of microchips, commodities that are just as important as oil to the functioning of global capitalism today, given the sharpening imperialist conflict, it cannot be ruled out.

Slump intensifying interimperial rivalry

Capitalism’s global slump is intensifying the rivalry between the United States, China, and Russia over everything from trade to geopolitics and these strategic flashpoints. The global slump is also exacerbating inequality within and between nations throughout the world.

As the dominant imperialist power in control of the world reserve currency (the dollar), the United States has recovered more successfully than its rivals from the pandemic recession. It is the exception, not the norm in the advanced capitalist world. Despite this, inflation has hammered working-class people and intensified social and class divisions.

Europe and Japan teeter between recession and slow growth, with deepening class inequality. China continues to grow but at a much reduced rate. Russia has implemented a war economy to escape the worst impact of sanctions and maintain growth rates, but that is unsustainable. In both countries, inequality is growing.

The global slump is having similar effects among sub-imperial powers, many of which rely on diminished export markets in the advanced capitalist world. And a severe sovereign debt crisis has exploded in the oppressed and indebted countries of the Global South. The combination of slow growth, weak export markets, inflation, and hiked interest rates has made them unable to repay their loans. While private capitalist lenders as well as the International Monetary Fund/World Bank and China’s state-owned or controlled banks have agreed to partial deals with the indebted countries, they still want their loans repaid and have imposed various conditions to secure repayment. All this exacerbates class and social divisions, in some cases causing the growth of extreme poverty, which had shrunk during the neoliberal boom.

Polarization, revolt, and revolution

The fact that the capitalist establishment, whether in liberal democracies or autocracies, is unable to overcome this slump, will drive greater and greater political polarization, providing an opening to both the Left and the Right.

Given the weaknesses of the far left and the organizations of class and social struggle, various forms of reformism have been the main expression of an alternative on the Left. But predictably reformists in government have been constrained by the capitalist state bureaucracy and their sluggish and crisis ridden economies, leading them to either fail to deliver on their promises or betray them and adopt traditional capitalist policies.

The failures of the capitalist establishment, as well as their reformist opponents, are opening the door globally to the electoral far right and incipient fascist forces.

The paradigmatic example is Syriza in Greece. It betrayed its promise to stand up to the EU and international creditors and capitulated to their austerity program, leading it to being voted out of office in favor of a right-wing neoliberal government.

The failures of the capitalist establishment, as well as their reformist opponents, are opening the door globally to the electoral far right and incipient fascist forces. However ethnonationalist, authoritarian, and reactionary, most of this new right is not fascist. They are not building mass movements to topple bourgeois democracy, impose dictatorship, and crush struggles by workers and the oppressed. They are instead trying to win elections within bourgeois democracy and use the state to reimpose social order through law and order policies against various scapegoats, especially migrants fleeing poverty, political crises, and climate change.

In the United States, Europe, India, China, Russia, and other states, the far right is particularly obsessed with attacking Muslims. Almost without exception, the right promises to restore social order by enforcing “family values” against feminists, trans people, and LGBTQ activists.

The right has already made historic gains in Europe, Asia, and Latin America. And in 2024, with elections in 50 countries involving 2 billion people, right-wing parties are well positioned to make more advances.

Perhaps the most consequential of these for world politics is in the United States, where Biden is running on consolidating U.S. imperialism’s alliances and projects abroad and supposedly defending democracy at home. Trump threatens to abandon U.S. imperialism’s project of superintending global capitalism, withdraw from its multilateral alliances, impose more economic nationalist policies, and scapegoat the oppressed at home and abroad to get away with it. In doing so, he would accelerate Washington’s relative decline, intensify domestic inequality, and exacerbate interimperial and interstate antagonisms.

Neither Trump nor the far right anywhere offer the exploited and oppressed any solutions to the crises in their lives. As a result, their victories will not lead to stable regimes, opening the door for the reelection of the establishment parties.

The combination of crises and the failure of governments of any kind to solve them has driven workers and the oppressed into waves of struggle since the Great Recession. Indeed, the last 15 years have included some of the largest revolts since the 1960s.

Almost every country in the world has experienced some form of mass struggle from below, especially in the Middle East and North Africa. All these have been hampered by the defeats and retreats of the last few decades, which have weakened class and social organization and shattered the revolutionary left.

As a result, even the most powerful revolts have not been able to carry out successful political or social revolutions. That has left an opening for the ruling class and its political representatives to maintain their hegemony, often with the backing of this or that imperial or sub-imperial power.

For example, Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah saved Bashar al-Assad’s brutal regime from revolution. And in another, the U.S. strategy of regime preservation helped Egypt’s ruling class reimpose a brutal dictatorship under Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. But these regimes have in no way stabilized their societies. The persistent crises and grotesque level of inequality and oppression keep stoking resistance from below throughout the world.

Three traps for anti-imperialism

The new asymmetric multipolar world order with its growing interimperial rivalries, interstate conflicts, and waves of revolt within societies have challenged the international left with questions it is ill-prepared to answer. In the belly of the beast, the United States, the Left has mainly adopted three mistaken positions, all of which undermine building international solidarity from below against imperialism and global capitalism.

First, those with an orientation on the Democratic Party have fallen into the trap of social patriotic support for the United States against its rivals. They have supported Biden’s call for countries to form a “league of democracies” against China and Russia. This is especially prominent among followers of Bernie Sanders, who, however critical of this or that “mistaken” U.S. policy, see Washington as a force for good in the world.

In reality, as Biden’s support of Israel’s genocidal war proves, the United States is one of the principal enemies of national liberation and social revolution throughout the world. It is the main hegemon that aims to enforce a wretched status quo and is therefore an opponent, not an ally, of collective liberation internationally.

Second, other sections of the Left made the opposite mistake of treating “my enemy’s enemy as my friend.” Variously called vulgar anti-imperialism, faux anti-imperialism, or campism, this position backs Washington’s imperial rivals as a so-called axis of resistance. Some of its advocates go even further claiming that obviously capitalist states like China represent some kind of socialist alternative (even as, for example, Xi Jinping praises far right Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán and touts China and Hungary’s “all-weather comprehensive strategic partnership for the new era”). Thus, they support rising great powers, sub-imperial states, and various dictatorships in subordinate countries.

In the process, they ignore the imperialist nature of states like China and Russia and the counter-revolutionary nature of regimes like those in Iran and Syria, no matter how repressive they are to workers and the oppressed. And they oppose solidarity with popular struggles from below within them, dismissing them as faux “color revolutions” orchestrated by U.S. imperialism.

They also provide alibis for, and in some cases openly support, Russia’s war on Ukraine and China’s crushing of the democratic uprising in Hong Kong. In the end, they position themselves on the side of other imperialist and capitalist states, going through mental gymnastics to deny their capitalist, exploitative, and oppressive character.

Finally, some on the Left have adopted a position of geopolitical reductionism. They recognize the predatory nature of the various imperialist states and do not support any of them. But when these powers come into conflict over oppressed nations, instead of defending those nations’ right to self-determination, including their right to secure arms to win their liberation, they reduce such situations to the sole axis of interimperial rivalry. In the process they deny the agency of the oppressed nations.

Sections of the Left made the … mistake of treating “my enemy’s enemy as my friend.” Variously called vulgar anti-imperialism, faux anti-imperialism, or campism, this position backs Washington’s imperial rivals as a so-called axis of resistance.

Of course, imperialist powers can manipulate struggles for national liberation to such an extent that they become nothing more than proxy wars. But geopolitical reductionists use that possibility to deny support to legitimate struggles for liberation today.

This has been the position of many on the Left regarding Russia’s imperialist war on Ukraine, reducing it to a mere proxy war between Moscow and Washington. But as Ukrainian polls and its national resistance demonstrate, Ukrainians are fighting for their own liberation, not as some cat’s paw of U.S. imperialism.

Based on their mistaken assessment of war, the geopolitical reductionists have opposed Ukraine’s right to secure arms for its liberation from Russia imperialism and opposed shipments, with some going so far as to celebrate actions to block them. A successful blockade of such arms would lead to a victory for Russian imperialism, something that would be a disaster for the Ukrainian people, dooming them to the fate of those massacred in Bucha and Mariupol.

None of these three positions provide the international left a guide to address the questions posed by the new asymmetric multipolar world order.

Internationalist anti-imperialism

A far better approach is internationalist anti-imperialism. In place of siding with this or that imperialist or capitalist state, advocates of this position oppose all imperialisms as well as less powerful capitalist regimes, even if we oppose imperialist interventions against them. We build solidarity with all popular struggles for liberation, reform, and revolution throughout the world and without exception.

In cases of national liberation, we unconditionally but critically side with the oppressed in their struggle for freedom. In those struggles, however, we do not confuse national liberation with socialism, rejecting the temptation to paint such battles with a red brush.

Instead, we adopt an independent approach of building solidarity with the workers and the oppressed within those struggles and cultivating political relationships with their progressive and revolutionary forces to turn struggles for national liberation into ones for socialism.

That leads us to take distinct positions compared with much of the Left on the three strategic flashpoints in today’s imperial order.

First, in the case of Ukraine, we support its liberation struggle and defend its right to secure arms, even from the United States and NATO, but we do not support Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s neoliberal government. We also oppose Western imperialism’s use of Ukraine to advance its own predatory ambitions to open the country and region to its banks and corporations.

Instead, we cultivate relations with the Ukrainian left and the country’s trade union movement. We raise their demands against neoliberalism, debt driven reconstruction, and the opening of Ukraine’s economy to multinational capital. We support their call for a popular reconstruction of the country based on public sector investment with all labor paid livable wages and done by unionized workers.

In the case of Palestine, we oppose U.S. imperialism’s support for Israel’s genocidal war in Gaza and support the Palestinian resistance unconditionally. But that does not mean we support its existing political leadership or its strategy and tactics. We adopt a critical position toward its bourgeois and petty bourgeois parties, whether that is the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) or its Islamic fundamentalist alternative Hamas.

The PLO’s main leadership, Fatah, abandoned armed struggle for the illusion of a diplomatically crafted two-state solution. Three decades of such diplomacy has failed, leaving the West Bank occupied, Gaza under siege, and Israel ruling through apartheid over Palestinians within its 1948 borders.

Hamas filled the vacuum in the resistance left by Fatah’s capitulation. It, however, did not develop an alternative strategy, instead continuing Fatah’s old strategy of relying on supposedly friendly Arab and Iranian allies to aid its military struggle against Israel. There is no reason to think that that strategy, which failed when pursued by the PLO, will succeed today.

Backed by U.S. imperialism and buttressed by alliances with most of the Arab regimes, Israel will not be defeated militarily alone. Only a strategy that combines Palestinian resistance against Israel, revolutionary struggle against all the region’s regimes, and anti-imperialist movements in all the great powers can free Palestinians from Israeli apartheid and establish a secular, democratic state from the river to the sea with equal rights for all, including the right of Palestinians to return to their stolen homes and land.

Finally, in the case of Taiwan, we oppose China’s threat to annex the island and defend Taiwan’s right to self-determination, including armed self-defense, and at the same time oppose Washington’s attempt to weaponize the country in its imperial rivalry with China.

Internationalist anti-imperialism offers a strategy to build solidarity from below among workers and the oppressed against all the great powers and all the world’s capitalists states. We have an enormous opportunity and responsibility to advocate this approach among a new generation of activists.

We do not support any of the bourgeois parties contending for the leadership of Taiwan, but instead build solidarity with the country’s emergent left, popular organizations, and trade unions. Only they have an interest and the power to challenge both imperial powers and Taiwan’s capitalist class and build solidarity with workers and the oppressed in China, the region, and the United States.

Thus, internationalist anti-imperialism offers a strategy to build solidarity from below among workers and the oppressed against all the great powers and all the world’s capitalists states. We have an enormous opportunity and responsibility to advocate this approach among a new generation of activists who are instinctively opposed to U.S. imperialism and suspicious of other great powers and oppressive states.

We can only prove the superiority of these ideas in practice, in the living struggles–from domestic class and social struggles, to ones in solidarity with Palestine, Ukraine, and other oppressed nations. In doing so, we can help forge a new international left committed to building solidarity from below in the fight against global capitalism and for international socialism.

Featured image credit: IamDas-Man; modified by Tempest.

Opinions expressed in signed articles do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Tempest Collective. For more information, see “About Tempest Collective.”

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Categories: D2. Socialism

Convergence of labor and Palestine on campus

Tempest Magazine - Tue, 05/21/2024 - 20:39

Tempest: Thanks for talking with Tempest. Could you introduce yourselves?

Amy Conaway: I’m Amy Conaway. I’m a fourth-year molecular and cellular biology student at Dartmouth. I’ve been a union member since before our election last spring and I’m here on the picket line today to support our strike. I’m also a member of our Palestine caucus within the union.

Danny Keane: Thanks for interviewing us. My name is Danny Keane and I’m in comparative literature. I joined the collective action team of the union, a couple of months after coming to Dartmouth, and along with Amy, we formed the Palestine caucus about three weeks ago.

Tempest: Before we get to your Palestine organizing, you have been on strike for a couple of weeks now. What are your demands and how are things going?

AC: We recently, just yesterday, got dental insurance, so that was a big win for us. We are also bargaining over cost-of-living adjustments tied to rent. Two-thirds of our members are rent-burdened, meaning they pay more than a third of their stipend in rent. And a lot of people have experienced receiving a raise and then having their rent raised the exact same percentage. And so having cost of living tied to rent will address some critical issues with the housing up here. And then the last piece that’s really holding us back from reaching a contract is childcare. We have very few parents in our bargaining unit, but they can’t afford childcare and we have not been able to use the Dartmouth child care facilities. They’ve offered to expand those facilities, but we would like a specific timeline. And we would also like more of the dependent health care premium to be covered by Dartmouth because it seems to be very affordable and it would make a huge difference in the ability of parents to be a part of this community at Dartmouth.

Tempest: You helped start your union’s Palestine caucus. What has been your experience so far?

DK: We see the Palestine caucus as a way to have conversations around Palestine with fellow people on the picket line or in our union more generally. And our caucus has brought resolutions about Palestine to the general body meetings where everything is voted on. So far we’ve brought a resolution that the union formally condemns the arrests that  [Dartmouth President] Beilock made on May 1 to prevent a student Palestine encampment. We made a resolution where we call on the college to disclose their investments and provide transitional funding for researchers who have an ethical reason for wanting to pursue different research. For example, this may apply with research currently funded by the Department of Defense.

AC: We passed the resolution condemning the arrest and calling for the charges to be dropped. And we passed the resolution advocating for transparency and investments in funding. And then we’ve tabled the discussion on providing transitional funding. Something that we’re discussing with the members now is whether we want to tie those public stances to our ongoing strike. We’ve been very inspired by the University of California graduate workers who just recently voted to authorize a strike specifically for these issues around Palestine. And they’ve been real mentors to us in navigating this in our union. It’s been really nice to have the support and mentorship from other students. Students that have been doing this work for longer than we have.

We’ve been very inspired by the University of California graduate workers who just recently voted to authorize a strike specifically for these issues around Palestine. And they’ve been real mentors to us in navigating this in our union.

DK: Both the resolutions  passed with a super majority. While I think it will be much harder to get people to vote “yes” on making these strike demands, so far we are getting a lot of support.

Tempest: What prompted you to bring Palestine to the union?

DK: I think ultimately this genocide is happening because it’s benefiting capital. So really the one of the main ways that we in the United States at least have to help stop it is by putting a dent in the profits of this institution. To do that our union needs to take action and that’s the best way we can stand in solidarity with people in Palestine and Yemen and Lebanon who are at the forefront of this fight.

AC: Yeah, and many people have been motivated to be involved specifically by the calls for solidarity from labor unions within Palestine. I think many of our members, especially those that we talked to in the reading group, share the sense that, you know, the money that we bring to Dartmouth with our labor may be invested in causes that we find ethically appalling. And we feel strongly that our work should not be weaponized against other people that we would like to be in solidarity with.

Tempest: You mentioned a reading group. What have you discussed and what has that been like?

AC: Yeah, the main theme of our reading group has been that labor and Palestine do intersect and that it’s not just a political issue, but it is a labor issue. Like Danny said, it’s closely tied to capitalism. We’ve been doing a lot of reading about the history of the anti-apartheid movements in labor, both for Palestine and also against apartheid South Africa. And we’ve been really inspired by the movements that worked in dismantling the apartheid in South Africa. Today we’ll be reading about the history of that movement here at Dartmouth specifically. And so it’s been educational for us because we weren’t adults when this was happening. A lot of it is new information. It’s been inspiring to see that people have been fighting against this for so long and that these things have worked in the past. And I think that’s what continues to motivate us.

DK: I think Amy pretty much covered it. We’ve recently moved to a three times a week reading group on the picket line and then we also do canvassing to try to bring people out to those.  Also, next week, Annelise Orleck [Dartmouth professor and former head of Jewish Studies who was arrested standing with students against police sacking of Dartmouth encampment] will be leading a teach-in at the picket line.

[M]any people have been motivated to be involved specifically by the calls for solidarity from labor unions within Palestine. I think many of our members, especially those that we talked to in the reading group, share the sense that, you know, the money that we bring to Dartmouth with our labor may be invested in causes that we find ethically appalling.

Tempest: And have you been in contact with the UAW members in California?

DK: Yeah, so I actually, at Labor Notes in Chicago a month or so ago one thing that was really great was there were a lot of forums or discussions about Palestine. And at one of those I met someone at UC Santa Cruz who now we’ve all talked to a couple times and yeah, as Amy said, has been like a really good sort of source of inspiration and ideas and suggestions.

She also connected us with a larger group called Researchers Against War. That is a national network of graduate students that we plan to join with. Organizers at Santa Cruz in physics and astronomy have been active in Palestine organizing, including promoting the system wide strike just authorized.

Tempest: Any final thoughts on how you see your work related to bringing Palestine into the labor movement, things that you would like to see, opportunities that you’re now thinking about for the future?

AC: On a personal level, I feel very strongly about transparency and where our funding goes and where our investments go. And I think a lot of what I’ve heard from our reading groups is that we work with a lot of scientists who feel very passionate about the work they do in changing the world for the better. It’s a problem not to have control over how science is done. Some of that work is then weaponized against people, and that  is really alarming to them. The more control we can give to our scientists to actually have a say in what is funding their research and what it’s being used for is the goal. And I think transparency is the first step and down the line, divestment and supporting students who want to transition away from that kind of work would be a great thing to achieve.

DK: I also see that grad student organizing around Palestine is in conjunction with other movements that we’ve seen across the country.  We had 90 people arrested at Dartmouth by police who came in riot gear and it really makes a lot of us think that the money for armored cars, all these riot gear cops on our campus, could be used to pay for student housing, for scholarships, for so many other things. Not to mention we should divest from Israel, of course. That is going to be a long battle. It could be a year before we all go on strike for that. Hopefully sooner, of course. Or it could be two years, but I do feel that it’s going to happen sooner or later. So that gives me a lot of hope.

AC: I will say we are actively bargaining for our right to strike for unfair labor practice. And that is the approach that University of California [workers are] using in their current strike. And so our future opportunities to strike for this issue are directly related to what we can get in our current strike and our current contract. And so a lot of us feel that without the right to strike, our union really has no power. And that’s why we’re pushing so hard for that specific protection.

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Categories: D2. Socialism

Campus encampments and beyond

Tempest Magazine - Sun, 05/19/2024 - 20:40

Student encampments have shone a spotlight on U.S. support for Israel’s genocidal war against Gaza and links between university administrations, capital, and state power.

What are the key lessons we should learn from the encampments? And how can we best build on them to strengthen the Palestine solidarity movement?

Featuring student activists and grad students from the frontlines of this organizing in solidarity with Palestine.

Register @ https://bit.ly/encampments4palestine

Featured image credit: Wikimedia Commons; modified by Tempest.

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Categories: D2. Socialism

From student revolt to workers’ power

Tempest Magazine - Thu, 05/16/2024 - 21:00

This week, academic student employees, postdocs, and academic researchers in the University of California system voted overwhelmingly to authorize strikes to protest UC’s complicity in right-wing and police violence against pro-Palestinian encampments, particularly at UCLA. Leadership of their union, UAW 4811, will meet today to consider calling “stand up” (rolling) strikes on various campuses—although some union activists have been getting ready to strike even without a go-ahead from top union leaders. Meanwhile, one militant caucus is pressing to expand the demands of divestment from Israel and to add a demand to abolish campus cops.

Scott made her presentation in Burlington, VT, on May 9, a week after the assaults on the UCLA encampment but before the strike vote.

I want to begin by sharing some stories from the press this last week. The first is from the May 4 issue of the New York Times and has the stunning headline, “From free speech to free Palestine: Six decades of student protest”:

The protests against Israel’s war in Gaza that have erupted on college campuses around the United States are merely the latest in a tradition of student-led, left-leaning activism dating back at least to the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War protests of the 1960s.

The second is from a May 5 piece in the British Guardian, called “There are people in tents writing dissertations”:

Hala Hanina, a Palestinian who has been involved in protests at the University of Newcastle, said more than 400 people she knows in Gaza have been killed. Hanina, 31, who came to the UK before October, said: “I don’t have friends now. They have all either been killed or lost their families … I’m doing this for all of Gaza that’s facing a genocide, something that’s unprecedented and unimaginable.

“I must do whatever is possible to be done and even impossible, we’ll make it possible … It’s so important for the student community and British community that they are fighting for justice.”

And the last is from the Wall Street Journal of May 4 2024:

Faculty, many of whom are in their 60s and 70s and came of age during the era of Vietnam War protests, are pushing back against university presidents, accusing the leaders of heavy-handed and inconsistent crackdowns on free speech, and warning against a wave of authoritarianism some say has been creeping onto campuses for years. Professors in leadership positions are guiding calls for votes of no-confidence, spearheading classroom walkouts and visiting encampments alongside students. Many are facing punishment from police and their employers.

These three stories reflect the central dynamics of this stage of the Palestine solidarity movement: students’ deep emotional pain, anger, and moral outrage in response to Israel’s continuing genocide and ethnic cleansing; the mass shift by students to civil disobedience; the brutal crackdown from university and city authorities which has only led to renewed struggle, including extraordinary solidarity from faculty; and the spread of university protests across the nation and the globe. New School faculty, for example, set up their own encampment named for the Palestinian teacher and poet Refaat Alareer, who was murdered by Israel earlier this year—and whose eldest daughter and new grandchild were murdered by Israel last month.

Demonstrators at George Washington University, May 2. Image by Diane Krauthamer.

We have all been watching the stunning scenes from Columbia, NYU, USC, UCLA, and across the country, and in the last almost two weeks we have seen this take hold in Vermont, with student encampments at Middlebury, Sterling, and the University of Vermont (UVM) provoking a huge outpouring of support from the campus and local communities. As many have said, students are the conscience of the nation, refusing to accept the normalization of genocide, and they have revitalized the broader movement in solidarity with Palestine.

After seven months of Israel’s genocidal assault, following 75 years of Israel’s settler colonialism, illegal occupation, and apartheid, solidarity with Palestine has grown dramatically. Our movement has been protesting and agitating for a ceasefire constantly for seven months now, but without having a visible impact on Israel’s war on Gaza: After the International Court of Justice confirmed South Africa’s charge of genocide, the Biden administration went ahead and rewarded Israel with $26 billion in extra funding and heavy munitions. But even while nothing seemingly changes, Palestinian liberation can no longer be stifled and suppressed—it has burst out into every area of life. And everything has changed. The student revolt has revitalized the movement and expanded the demands from ceasefire to Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions.

Student encampments and direct action have been met in most cases by the armed might of the police wielded by both university administrators and city governments. Republican far right forces have been leading a campaign against “wokism” for years, targeting trans rights and any critical investigation of systemic racism in schools and universities. The opponents of “cancel culture” are happy to cancel anyone who dares to criticize Israel. (Of course we have never been for “cancel culture”: we support freedom of speech. But the first amendment protects all political speech; it doesn’t protect acts of genocide—we are for cancelling war criminals).

These same right-wing forces are some of the most vocal enemies of the campus protests now, leading the New McCarthyism which criminalizes and punishes any advocacy for Palestinians. But the attack on Palestine organizing is fully bipartisan. In fact some of the worst crackdowns have been ordered by liberal administrators, often women and people of color, and approved by Democratic Party mayors. Biden has explicitly supported this criminalization of dissent. His speeches have falsely portrayed the student protests as lawless and antisemitic. Others have added to these slurs the old threat of “outside agitators.”

[The] convergence of union, student, and community struggle is a model of the way forward. Palestine is at the epicenter of a radical convergence of movements.

Let’s take a moment to respond to these charges. First, the encampments have been uniformly peaceful—the only violence has come from provocateurs or the police. Second, the protesters are not antisemitic, they are anti-Zionist, and, as many Jewish voices are warning, the weaponization of antisemitism is disturbing and dangerous.

And third, students have organized themselves quite successfully. Any outside forces are there to offer solidarity.

When Zionist and fascist provocateurs have attacked encampments, liberals have given them a free pass while presiding over mass arrests of students and faculty peacefully protesting genocide. This is because U.S. support for Israel itself is bipartisan: The two nations are deeply connected. U.S. imperialism relies on Israel to be its “watchdog” in the Middle East; Israel relies on the U.S. to provide economic support and weapons.

This special relationship explains why both academic and political establishments are largely united behind the use of brute violence and vicious slander to crush dissent. We have seen the viral videos of peaceful students beaten and dragged away by riot cops. We watched riot cops and armored vehicles sweep in to dismantle tents and arrest 90 protesters at Dartmouth. Among them was 65-year-old history professor and former head of Jewish studies Annelise Orleck, who was knocked to the ground and arrested. Orleck wrote on social media:

Those cops were brutal to me. I promise I did absolutely nothing wrong. I was standing with a line of women faculty in their 60s to 80s trying to protect our students. I have now been banned from the campus where I have taught for 34 years.

She also wrote that the cops “tried to hurt me. They did hurt me. And they seemed to enjoy it.”

Screen shot of the tweet from Annalise Orleck.

And we watched as the chair of philosophy at Emory, Noëlle McAfee, was led away by police and called out to someone to inform the department office. McAfee explained the context in an interview with the Chronicle of Higher Education:

Before this it was sunshine. Students were chanting. It’s so peaceful. Faculty were gathering around just observing. It’s just a beautiful day. Then the Georgia State Patrol just run in and attack. I now know that their mission was to clear the encampment of three tents that had been there for two and a half hours.

They were also clearing anybody who was right there. Students are just being pummeled. And so I go walking a few steps over, and then I see this child on the ground, a 20-year-old being pummeled by the police. There’s like two of them pulling and pushing. Her head is on the ground as she curled up in a ball, trying to put her arms over her head to keep them off of her. So I’m standing back six feet holding my camera at them, and I started yelling, “Stop, stop!”

That’s when she was arrested.

In the face of state violence, these protests have drawn wide support from the mass movements they are connected to such as Black Lives Matter and Abolitionism. Stop Cop City in Atlanta, for example, has stood in solidarity with the students and faculty at Emory.

The generalization of disproportionate violence to include those, such as senior academics at elite colleges, who would have previously been unlikely to fall foul of police brutality, has only broadened the breadth of support for the movement. When encampments were razed, new ones sprang up, faculty organized human chains to protect their students, and the protests drew widespread support from the campus and broader community despite vilification in much of the news.

On some campuses the encampments continue. Others have been forcibly razed by the state. Others have themselves strategically dismantled, as here in the University of Vermont, so that students can continue the struggle in other ways. In some cases, there have been significant victories, such as Trinity College Dublin agreeing to divest from Israel. At UVM just over a week of an encampment won two important victories: some financial disclosure, and, most magnificently, the cancellation of genocide-enabler Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield as commencement speaker.

Whatever the specific story of the encampments, the upsurge in student struggle has given the global solidarity movement hope and inspiration—from the West Bank to Burlington VT. The movement now faces two major questions. The first is how to sustain and build mass support and expand our demands. This is going to be a long struggle. As we watch the brutal attack on Rafah it is obvious that Israel is determined to continue its ethnic cleansing, genocide, and apartheid. And our government continues to lend unconditional support: The indelible bond between Israel’s settler colonialism and U.S. imperialism will not easily be broken. So, we must figure out what kinds of strategies will allow us to hold strong, increase our reach, and keep moving forward: opening up democratic spaces so that widening layers of people can take ownership; engaging in collective campaigns like Apartheid Free Communities, and ultimately building Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions against Israel.

Students have significant power to ignite and expand movements. But students alone have limited power … The force that does have the power to paralyze universities and other workplaces is labor.

The second question is to do with social power. The student encampments have successfully re-galvanized the movement and drawn renewed attention to Gaza. Students have significant power to ignite and expand movements. But students alone have limited power to change the course of institutions. Yes, in some cases universities have made concessions. But even the biggest and most militant encampments have not paralyzed institutions or done more than temporarily disrupt business as usual.

The force that does have the power to paralyze universities and other workplaces is labor. By withholding our labor, workers can stop business as usual. That’s why it’s so significant that some unions in the U.S. are making unprecedented moves towards Palestine solidarity. We have seen countless calls for ceasefire, resolutions against genocide, and statements of solidarity with student protesters from locals and internationals. Many students are themselves workers and are at the forefront of organizing drives and social justice unionism. Here at UVM, Palestine solidarity is bringing staff, faculty, and graduate student workers together in new ways, including in the young but vibrant Vermont Labor for Palestine.

We are seeing changes in the labor movement, organic developments that are merging student and worker struggles. The UAW is unionizing more student workers while democratizing its own structures; rank and file pressure from below have led union President Sean Fain to take a principled stand on Palestine.

One of the most significant developments nationally is UAW 4811 at the University of California, which have filed an Unfair Labor Practice over unilateral changes to campus speech policy at UCLA: A strike authorization vote to be held on May 13-15 will involve 48,000 workers in the UC system!

Today’s radicals are … inclined to be pro-labor: More people are seeing the interconnections between global capitalism, U.S. imperialism, systemic racism, and oppression around gender and sexuality.

When merged, the student movement can reinvigorate the labor movement, and the labor movement can provide more social power to the student movement, and this brings us closer to the goals of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions. One thing making this easier is that campuses are more unionized than ever, and many students are now in unions, which puts them in touch with other workers. Today’s radicals are also more inclined to be pro-labor: More people are seeing the interconnections between global capitalism, U.S. imperialism, systemic racism, and oppression around gender and sexuality. This May Day students and workers showed how to unite in demonstrations across the country.

At Dartmouth, the graduate student workers’ union, GOLD-UE, is on strike. Tempest Collective member Nancy Welch, who is an activist in the Palestine solidarity movement there, sent me this video compilation of their May Day event and this report of the struggle:

At Monday’s General Body Meeting, my understanding is that members voted to support the demands of disclose, divest, and drop the charges against the 90 people arrested at the May Day Labor for Liberation rally. I’m told they scheduled to take up at next Monday’s GBM meeting the question of making these demands a condition for ending the strike. The grad students on the picket line and the Palestine Solidarity Committee (PSC) undergrads who are now holding 9 am to 9 pm teach-ins on the Baker Lawn or the lobby of Baker Library are being fed three meals a day M-F by the strike kitchen, organized by DSA but with many students and community members participating. Faculty haven’t turned up for kitchen shifts but have signed up to send restaurant meals to the pickets. The strike kitchen dinners have become an organizing space for GOLD and PSC to collaborate and work together.

This convergence of union, student, and community struggle is a model of the way forward. Palestine is at the epicenter of a radical convergence of movements. It is more resistant to co-optation than previous movements because Israel is so fundamental to U.S. imperialism and global capitalism. As the highly political strike at Dartmouth suggests, the political and economic are not separate, but rather they are connected and build on each other. Through Palestine solidarity, the merger of student and worker movements has revolutionary potential that can bring us closer to challenging the entire capitalist system.

Featured image credit: Wikimedia Commons; modified by Tempest.

Opinions expressed in signed articles do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Tempest Collective. For more information, see “About Tempest Collective.”

The post From student revolt to workers’ power appeared first on Tempest.

Categories: D2. Socialism

Defend the encampments!

Tempest Magazine - Wed, 05/15/2024 - 10:22

As we publish this, the 48,000 California academic workers of UAW 4811 are completing a strike authorization vote called to protest the University of California’s actions against peaceful protesters.

Zionists organized their first major counter-demonstration against the Gaza solidarity encampments at UCLA on April 28, collecting over $60,000 in donations a couple of days prior on GoFundMe. I joined other pro-Palestine protesters that day to oppose them, and a sizable group of us took over their event at Dickson Court for nearly an hour, pressuring them back and delaying the event. We were physically assaulted and surrounded by the Zionists but quickly regrouped right outside and ended up with a large contingent of protesters that quickly rivaled the size of the Zionist rally.

The Palestine rally soon became the last one standing as the Zionist rally ended relatively quickly. A few days later, on the eve of May Day, a mob of dozens of Zionists returned to assault the Gaza solidarity encampment at UCLA, spraying mace, beating up protesters, and shooting fireworks into the encampment—all while shrieking genocidal slogans like, “the second Nakba!” The encampment successfully withstood this night of violent attacks. The police stood by for hours, and campus security reportedly fled from sight. On the night of May 1, a few Zionists returned, but this time they were supported by three different police units that directly waged war on the encampment. Thousands of students and community allies—many coming straight from local May Day rallies—bravely withstood different waves of police onslaught that continued into the early morning. The overnight battle ended in a tactical defeat, as more than a hundred protesters were arrested, some suffering multiple head injuries resulting from rubber bullets.

Late April marked a qualitative shift in the reaction against the global solidarity movement with Palestine: Zionist counter-insurgency has escalated from pressuring … civic institutions to mobilizing popular forces in the streets.

Let’s be clear: This is fascist mob violence backed by the police force of a liberal regime. These incidents are among countless incidences of state and Zionist violence on the encampments that have sprouted across the nation in recent weeks. Late April marked a qualitative shift in the reaction against the global solidarity movement with Palestine: Zionist counter-insurgency has escalated from pressuring state, media, and other civic institutions to mobilizing popular forces in the streets.

Socialists and mass movements must not allow this popular fascist militancy to fester. At this moment, militant self-defense—even without strong working-class consciousness just yet—is crucial to building the potential for workers’ collective action as a class. A practical readiness against Zionist militancy can encourage militant workers to develop mass organizations as an alternative to the Democratic Party, which has abetted the Zionists by repressing pro-Palestine protesters with police violence at every turn.

Fascism erodes broad civil liberties across all sectors of society, but even more specifically, as Leon Trotsky wrote,

The historic function of fascism is to smash the working class, destroy its organizations, and stifle political liberties when the capitalists find themselves unable to govern and dominate with the help of democratic machinery.

The task for socialists is straightforward. I quote my fellow Tempest member Alvaro Maldonado—a working-class Chicano Marxist who has mobilized against the Minutemen, SOS, and other armed far-right forces threatening immigrant movements in Los Angeles in the 2000s—who said on the eve of the April 28 Zionist rally that we both helped to disrupt: “It is crucial that the student camp not be allowed to be overwhelmed by the Zionists, as it could set an example and spark a reaction nationally by fascists and other reactionary forces.”

April 28, video 1: Pro-Palestine protesters push past campus security and take over the Zionist rally minutes before its scheduled start. Video by the author.

It is no coincidence that working-class students and workers have been at the forefront of the rebellion for Palestine, just as they are also the ones in the most direct line of fire. Cal Poly Humboldt, a campus in which nearly a fifth of the students were unhoused as recently as last year, fought the police and nearly took over the whole university with barricades at the encampment’s height. UCLA and CUNY students have both successfully resisted Zionist and police assaults. The emergent wave of graduate workers’ unionization struggles in recent years, like the 2022 UC strike, has provided the foundation for mobilizations at these universities as well.

As Lenin remarked on the St. Petersburg student strike in 1908, we must not “divide every student movement beforehand into compulsory ‘stages,’ and make sure that each stage is properly gone through, out of fear of switching over to ‘untimely political actions, etc.”

Socialists, he writes, must “agitate for political action, making use of all possibilities, all conditions and, first and foremost, all mass conflicts between advanced elements, whatever they are.”

This is not simply a wave of student struggles separate from workers’ movements, but a mass mobilization led by a student-worker alliance unfolding from the campuses.

In our period, we must firmly recognize that this is not simply a wave of student struggles separate from workers’ movements, but a mass mobilization led by a student-worker alliance unfolding from the campuses. Mass workers’ organizing on campus enabled the student-led solidarity for Gaza, as academic workers from UAW 4811’s 2022 strike formed a key base for the UCLA encampment. “Rank and File for a Democratic Union”—a militant group of rank-and-file workers that emerged from the strike—are now running a “Reform UC-UAW” slate in the union elections in the local with a firm pro-Palestine platform for divestment. At the same time, anti-fascist self-defense by academic workers and community allies (despite its tactical defeat) directly paved the way for the local, representing over 48,000 academic workers, many of whom were directly involved in the UCLA battles, to call for a historic strike authorization vote. The rationale for the potential strike lies in identifying UCLA’s violent attacks on its academic workers as an unfair labor practice (following the 3000-member-strong UAW 872’s unfair labor practice complaint for the arrests of nearly a hundred students and workers in the prior week at the University of Southern California). In this case, the possibility of workers’ mass action emerged from concrete struggles resisting fascists’ armed attacks. We should not fetishize the latter as a substitute for long-term political strategy, but nonetheless recognize that anti-fascist self-defense is a crucial part of defending and extending workers’ gains, especially in this climate of repression.

Reflecting on the urgency of fascism’s rise in France in 1934, Trotsky observed that fascism “directly” and “immediately threatens” the different means and institutions of working-class struggle—from its organizations to its press—and these we must “conserve” and “strengthen,” coupled with means of self-defense. As he wrote,

Fascism finds unconscious helpers in all those who say that the “physical struggle” is impermissible or hopeless.… Nothing is so dangerous for the proletariat, especially in the present situation, as the sugared poison of false hopes. Nothing increases the insolence of the fascists so much as “flabby pacifism” on the part of the workers’ organizations. Nothing so destroys the confidence of the middle classes in the working-class as temporizing, passivity, and the absence of the will to struggle.

Our conditions today are not the same as 1934, nor does fascism take the exact same form. The Zionist agitators may be the fringes of a far-right movement still to be coalesced into durable organization. But to underestimate such elements in their infancy risks further ceding ground to the right, which has been increasingly emboldened during the Trump years and may continue to congeal. As another Tempest comrade, Jonah ben Avraham, observed in Israeli politics last year before October 7, though far-right Kahanists remain a minority, they now have more power than ever to influence the agenda of the whole Israeli government, since “formal disaffiliation from fascism in no way inoculates a right-wing electoral party or coalition from surrendering leadership to a fascist vanguard.” Such forces have played a key role in empowering the genocidal destruction of Gaza in a matter of months.


April 28, video 2: Pro-Palestine protesters face off Zionists at their rally, moments before Zionists began physically assaulting protestors. Video by the author.

Ben Avraham also correctly points out then that “the U.S. fascist movement is, no doubt, a decade or more behind in this process compared to the Israeli right”—but nonetheless, “a growing fascist parasite on the mainstream right’s political base can metastasize in the right social, political, and economic environment and infect the whole.” Ben Avraham’s other warning, unfortunately, is also true: “fascism doesn’t creep. It explodes. There is no incremental road to fascism because it can only emerge as a revolutionary response to a profound social crisis.” The rapid congealing of Israeli and US fascist popular forces in the wake of October 7 may be quickening this rise of fascism in a matter of weeks and months, not decades—now firmly aided by the party still proclaimed by some in the Left as the “lesser-evil” alternative to fascism.

As Ernest Mandel pointed out in a debate with Joseph Hansen in the Fourth International in 1973, the point is that we must not wait to mobilize tens of millions of workers to organize as a class before openly confronting fascists: Mandel states (building on Trotsky), “Only by successfully breaking the fascists’ terror first in a few meetings and neighborhoods, then in key towns and provinces, and finally in the whole country, are the preconditions created for ‘mobilizing tens of millions.’”

Militant self-defense, even without significant participation of the working class, is precisely key to arousing the masses toward greater consciousness and action. This is not done through clandestine armed units and conspiratorial organizing, but by encouraging more and more workers to recognize and act on the basic need for self-defense in upcoming actions, creating, as Trotsky said, “an atmosphere of ardent sympathy and active support,” and developing a political campaign that must expand in “meetings, factories, in the streets and on the public squares.”

Thus, this is not a general call for everyone to rise up in arms in guerrilla warfare as an adventurist substitution for class struggle, but to understand our next steps from the concrete conditions of the encampments, which have seen—and in some cases, successfully resisted—police and fascist attacks.

Workers and socialists must mobilize to defend the encampments as a key priority here in the United States. We must expose these Zionist agitators, protest them at their homes and workplaces, and give them no space to rest, regroup, and expand. It would be dogmatic to see this work as a distraction from the class struggle. The solidarity movement with Palestine has sharpened the class consciousness (almost overnight) of every emergent working-class struggle brewing from the Movement for Black Lives into the labor upsurge since the start of the pandemic.

Trotsky wrote,

It is nonsense to say that, in itself, the organization of the militia leads to adventures, provokes the enemy, replaces the political struggle by physical struggle, etc. In all these phrases, there is nothing but political cowardice.

When we witness the rise of fascist militancy coupled with state violence, there can be no mechanical separation between the “political” and “physical” struggle. Militant self-defense on the streets can empower workers to understand that their independent self-organization is the best bulwark against fascism, not any “progressive” wing of the Democratic Party (which has been inconsistent, at best, in defending Palestinian liberation). On the other hand, we must also not fetishize street action at the expense of cultivating mass organizations in a united front toward a more cohesive political strategy. We need a militant mass movement against the Zionists and a political alternative to the two-party system that empowers them, from now and into the November elections.

The speed and decisiveness with which UAW 4811 called for a strike authorization vote show that some tactical defeats (like the ones at UCLA) do not delegitimize a broader need for self-defense or shatter the confidence of the working class; on the contrary, the lack of a political strategy that boldly acknowledges the need for self-defense against fascism would precisely be what erodes working-class organization at a critical stage. We must quicken these protests toward mass organization, walkouts, strikes, and broad spaces for political discussion—all while recognizing that being able to defend such encampments and each other against armed attacks by fascists is a precondition for mass action.

The encampments demonstrate that the hegemony of Zionist propaganda … is not impenetrable.

At the same time, anti-fascist action only opens up the space for independent political struggle led by workers, but in itself, does not guarantee or model a clear strategic path forward. More militant asks by some rank and file workers, Rank and File for a Democratic Union, UCLA Students for Justice in Palestine, Faculty for Justice in Palestine, and the UC Divest coalition, which called for law enforcement agencies to be removed from campus and divestment from all companies complicit in Israeli occupation (not just weapons firms), were struck from the official demands for the UAW 4811 strike. The strike authorization vote sent to union members pre-determines the strike’s end date as no later than June 30th. As a rank-and-file UAW 4811 member points out, this aspect was not clearly communicated to members or discussed in union meetings beforehand, and suggests a dangerous willingness by union leadership to prescribe an end date to striking that may erode striking workers’ bargaining power.

And so, translating the militancy of anti-fascist action into militancy in our political demands within mass organizations is not given: socialists and militant workers must organize collectively to push for this link to rebuild the confidence and sharpen the long-term political horizon of the working class.

The lightning speed at which Gaza solidarity encampments are gaining and losing ground in different regions shows that the encampments may be an important step toward building effective counter-hegemony against imperialism at home—though we must not mistake this as a sure and steady fortification. The encampments represent and quicken mass insurgency against Zionism at a critical moment, but UCLA shows that our class enemies can dismantle these fortresses as quickly as we erect them.

At the same time, the encampments demonstrate that the hegemony of Zionist propaganda, desperately amplified and repeated by politicians and mainstream news organizations on top of a months-long media blackout on pro-Palestine actions—is not impenetrable. As the great Marxist theorist of hegemony Antonio Gramsci admits, “The structures of national life are embryonic and loose, and incapable of becoming ‘trench’ or ‘fortress.’” The successes of these mass encampments are a culmination of years of labor, anti-racist, queer, disability justice, and other liberatory struggles that are rebuilding working-class consciousness after decades of ruling class onslaught.


April 28, video 3: Pro-Palestine protesters regroup into our own mass rally a few yards away after being ejected from Zionists’ space. Video by the author.

But also, the encampments’ uneven and ephemeral character exposes the tenuous nature of the emergent wave of student and labor militancy in recent years. Ruling class reaction to emergent struggles may come not gradually, but in one abrupt and coordinated swoop, be it the state clampdown on UCLA last Wednesday or the broader climate of neo-McCarthyite repression of social movements. We must be ready to update our slogans and shift tactics on the ground to effectively keep building on this momentum for divestment, be it within the parameters of a single institution or in the larger perspective of the global movement against imperialism.

In a similar vein, we must also remember that the class struggle does not always mainly proceed through ‘economic’ or ‘bread and butter’ issues, and we will not win by appealing simply to such registers. Class enemies understand that the different identities of workers are irreducibly interconnected. At the Zionist rally, I witnessed the convergence of different reactionary ideologies reinforced by physical violence by Zionists. They hurled Anti-Black slurs at Black pro-Palestinian protestors. I personally experienced at least several different instances of Sinophobic, anti-immigrant rhetoric, with Zionists questioning which country I was from, telling me to go back to China, etc.

What the UCLA encampment experienced on April 30 and May 1 exceeded what I encountered on April 28. Five days after the UCLA encampment was swept, members of the Jewish Defense League (JDL), a group founded by the fascist Meir Kahane—which had physically targeted Arab and Muslim people in the past—appeared at the University of Toronto encampment to harass the protesters. Two days after the JDL’s Toronto appearance, another man linked to the JDL rammed his car into protesters around the Columbia encampment in New York. In the face of Zionist aggression, we must be flexible in how we define de-escalation and defense: being prepared to fight back may be the best way to defend, de-escalate, and arouse class consciousness.

Defend the campus encampments! From the river to the sea, free Palestine!

Opinions expressed in signed articles do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Tempest Collective. For more information, see “About Tempest Collective.”

The post Defend the encampments! appeared first on Tempest.

Categories: D2. Socialism

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