Monday, September 29, 2008

La Botz on the Bailout

The Financial Crisis: Will the U.S. Nationalize the Banks? by Dan La Botz
September 28th 2008

The political conflict over the Bush administration's plan for a bailout of the banks, brought about both by differences with the Democrats and even more intensely with rightwing Republicans, makes it highly unlikely that Congress will be able to pass a bailout plan that can stabilize the financial situation along the lines that Secretary of the Treasury Henry Paulson originally asked for. Paulson wanted a $780 billion check to clean up the banks' books by taking their bad loans off their hands. Many believe the price tag would ultimately come to a trillion dollars. He simply wanted taxpayers to save the banks. While a minority of rightwing Republicans reject the fundamental basis of the plan, the Democrats would add conditions -- Congressional oversight, better terms for homeowners, limits on executive salaries, and other items -- which would (from the bankers' point of view) weaken the plan and limit its effectiveness.

Even if Congress can quickly arrive at an agreement with the Bush administration and Secretary Paulson about the bailout, the financial situation in particular and the economic situation in general will probably get worse. The underlying problems facing American capitalism -- the failure of the United States in Afghanistan and Iraq, the rising cost of petroleum, the continuing and increasing competition from Europe and Japan, and now the ascendancy of China -- make it very likely that the country's economic power will deteriorate, leading to the decline of the United States as a world power. Beyond that are structural and systemic weaknesses in the American economy and society as a result of neoliberal capitalism which have caused a deep disjuncture between the vision of the United States as a post-modern, high-tech economy and the reality of a nation with a crumbling infrastructure, a disintegrating public education system, inadequate health insurance, and persistent problems of poverty.

The economy is already in a recession. Whatever the ultimate bailout plan, the financial situation could well continue to unravel, curtail credit, and shrink the broader economy, leading to a deep recession or depression. The U.S. Congress, both Democrats and Republicans, might then be forced -- despite their deep aversion to any form of government ownership -- to not only bail out the banks but to buy them. The increasingly popular sentiment that the bankers should be made to pay for the crisis opens the door to the notion of nationalization of the banks. What would it mean to have the government own the banks?

Historically the Populists, various labor parties, and the Socialist and Communist left have raised the slogan of nationalization of the banks as part of a process of bringing about socialism. Their argument has been that if the banks were owned by the government, and the government were controlled by the people, we could democratically plan an economy to meet the needs of all. Nationalization of the banks would form part of a plan of socialization of the economy -- banks and corporations, mines and factories, airlines and railroads -- brought under the control of a combination of citizens, workers, and consumers. We would put our children, the elderly and the infirm first, and organize the economy to provide jobs, housing, health care, education, and retirement benefits for all. Bank nationalizations in reality, however, have usually just been a stage in the boom-bust cycles of modern economies, a period when the state lends its strength to finance to see it through hard times, and once finance has recuperated, the state returns it to its private owners so they can continue to reap the benefits of wealth plus interest.

When Governments Nationalize the Banks
In recent history governments have nationalized banks when the pressures of internationalized financial markets and international competition have made it difficult for them to control and stabilize their finances and currency. During the last couple of decades, countries as different as Mexico, France, Sweden, and Japan carried out partial or more or less complete bank nationalizations to regain control of the financial situation.

Japan's experience more than a decade ago was much like that of the United States in many ways. After a period of great productivity and prosperity in the 1980s, in the early 1990s, Japan's housing bubble burst, leaving Japanese banks holding sheaves of bad loans. The Japanese housing boom collapsed just as China began to become an export competitor.1 After neglecting the problem for some time the Japanese government intervened, spending $440 billion dollars of its taxpayers' money to nationalize the weakest banks, infuse capital into the stronger banks, and to protect depositors.2 Japanese banks were required to create a Business Revitalization Plan, at the center of which was a capital/asset ratio. Some economists and journalists have suggested that Japan's solution -- partial nationalization and partial financial support for private banks -- could provide a model for the United States in the current crisis.
Sweden handled its financial crisis of the early 1990s through a quasi-nationalization. The Swedish Social Democrats -- not the conservatives -- had deregulated the banks in the 1980s. But in the early 1990s Swedish real estate values began to fall and banks were left holding bad loans. Sweden spent $11.7 billion to rescue its banks but in return received warrants, that is, paper granting the government the right to buy stock in the banks whenever it wished. This constituted a quasi-nationalization of the banks restoring public confidence. As part of the Swedish deal, banks had to write down their losses, sell their distressed assets, and later the government sold the shares it held in the banks.3 The government's temporary control allowed the financial situation to stabilize, and the re-privatized banks reentered the national and global financial markets strengthened, though still subject to the ongoing, worldwide crisis of capitalism.
Both Mexico and France nationalized their banks in the 1980s in response to international financial pressures and international competition. In Mexico, the government of President López Portillo raised the banner of the Mexican Revolution as he nationalized the banks in an attempt to regain control of finances and to stop capital flight abroad. In France, the Socialist and Communist parties and the middle class Radical party had adopted in 1972 the Common Program of the Left, which called for the nationalization of the banks. But in France too it was the new international character of finance which led the government to nationalize the banks in large part to get control of the expanding money supply.4

Lessons of the Experience
Without going into all the details of the Japanese, French, and Mexican cases, we can note some similarities in the experience of nationalization of the banks. First, an important sector of bankers resisted nationalization and, when finally forced by the government to relent, fought for higher compensation for their property than originally offered . . . and usually won. Second, in none of these cases was bank nationalization complete, with some domestic and foreign banks usually excluded. Third, where banks were more completely nationalized, the bankers opened new financial institutions which tended to engage in banking functions and significantly drained off capital. In general, bank nationalization tended to contribute to the centralization and modernization of the banking industry as a whole. In all cases after a few years the nationalized banks were reprivatized, usually to many of the same financiers who had previously owned them.

The nationalization of banks does not necessarily represent a progressive measure, nor is it a logical next step toward socialism. Government ownership of banks, at least partial ownership and sometimes complete ownership, is quite common around the world. Many capitalist nations -- both developed and developing ones -- have nationalized their banks during the twentieth century. A 2002 study of banks found that around a third of all banks were government-owned, though such bank ownership was more common in the developing world.5 In capitalist societies governments engage in the nationalization of banks to reestablish financial stability and improve their economic position in the international market, not to advance the common good.

The Slogan of Nationalization in a More Radical Time
Bank nationalization had a different character in an earlier era. During the 1930s a far more radical left than that of the 1980s had raised the slogan "Nationalize the Banks!" as part of a revolutionary, transitional, or radical reformist program aiming at the establishment of socialism in a not too distant future. Socialist parties around the world had since the nineteenth century called for the nationalization of the banks, transportation and communication, industry and mining. The idea was that nationalization formed an integral part of socialization, of banks and industries which would be guided by a national economic plan elaborated democratically either by a kind of parliament or by national representatives of workers councils. For some the Soviet Union's experience -- a nationalized economy which brought about rapid industrialization and victory in World War II -- represented a confirmation of their notions of the value of centralized planning. Only later would the problems of Stalinism or bureaucratic Communism, that is, undemocratic centralized planning managed by a totalitarian dictatorship and forced labor, become clear to all.

In France, liberated at the end of World War II by a combination of Allied invasion and national resistance movement of the Maquis' guerrilla bands, there was a great revulsion against the Third Republic, the Vichy government, the French elite, and capitalism more generally. Socialist and Communist Party influence was great, and it was in this atmosphere and under this pressure that the French government nationalized the largest banks on December 2, 1945. This was a far more popular and democratic nationalization than those of the 1980s and 1990s, but it did not fundamentally change the character of French capitalism. Socialists, Communists, and Christian Democrats then joined together in the Three-Party Alliance, and established the Fourth Republic.

During this first bank nationalization, the new French government established a Bank Control Commission with the power to oversee the running of both the nationalized banks and the remaining smaller, private banks. But there was also a National Credit Council appointed by the government, which played a key role in determining the policy of the banks. It was made up of seven members chosen for their expert financial knowledge (from the nationalized and private banks, from the foreign trade banks, and from the stock exchange), seven representatives of the country's labor unions, including the bank workers, and ten representatives of various economic interests (agriculture, cooperatives, foreign trade, shipping, chambers of commerce, and craft organizations). A cabinet minister presided over the council and the governor of the Bank of France served as vice-president.6

France's nationalized banks worked with the government and private industry to fulfill the 470 billion franc Monnet plan for reconstruction and development. The nationalized banks were used in particular to finance other nationalized firms, such as the gas and electric company. Often the nationalized firms were less sound and less profitable than the private corporations, so the nationalized banks became a kind of government subsidy to state industry. Whatever the left parties had envisioned when they supported nationalizing the banks at the end of the war, and some no doubt saw nationalization as a step toward socialism, it became part of the process of reconstructing European capitalism. European social democracy gave up the struggle for socialism and undertook instead the management of capitalism along Keynesian lines. While the social democratic welfare state provided reforms, it could not ultimately escape the vicissitudes of capitalism and, like the American liberal welfare states, had to bend before neoliberal reforms in the 1980s.

The Question of State Capitalism
Nationalization of the banks has usually represented a recurring stage in the experience of modern capitalism, which is to say state capitalism. At its birth, capitalism shared the cradle with the modern state. The two grew up together, two brothers testing their strength against each other, and drawing strength from the tests. As they matured, they transformed capitalism into imperialism, and used their strength to extract wealth from the societies of Asia, Africa, and Latin America.

Throughout the world, including in the United States, at every stage of development government provided capitalism with a legal framework, with a domestic market, with government subsidies for the construction of infrastructure, and often with vast grants of land, lucrative contracts, and periodic infusions of capital. Government and finance have a particularly close relationship; they are practically Siamese twins sharing the same nervous and circulatory system. In the United States, the Secretary of the Treasury and the Federal Reserve Bank are the point of connection and each is as much a part of government as of finance. In the modern world, the token of and the tendency toward state capitalism is ever present.

Some have seen nationalization per se as a step toward socialism. In the nineteenth century, some argued that state nationalization of industry by the governments of Bismarck of Germany or Napoleon III of France represented socialism. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, the founders of modern socialism, disparaged and ridiculed the idea that the state might hand down socialism from above. Engels wrote,
"But of late, since Bismarck went in for state ownership of industrial establishments, a kind of spurious socialism has arisen, degenerating now, and again, into something of flunkeyism, that without more ado declares all state ownership, even of the Bismarckian sort, to be socialistic. Certainly, if the taking over by the state of the tobacco industry is socialistic, then Napoleon and Metternich must be numbered among the founders of socialism."

Engels pointed out that in Europe in the late nineteenth century various nations had nationalized banks and some industries, but, he insisted, ". . . the transformation, either into join-stock companies and trusts, or into state ownership, does not do away with the capitalist nature of the productive forces."7 Neither does the capitalist state's nationalization of banks represent a step toward socialism.

Rudolf Hilferding, the Austrian-German socialist economist, wrote in his book Finance Capital published in 1910:
"Finance capital does not want freedom, but domination; it has no regard for the independence of the individual capitalist, but demands his allegiance. It detests the anarchy of competition and wants organization, though of course only in order to resume competition on a still higher level. But in order to achieve, and to maintain and enhance its predominant position, it needs the state which can guarantee its domestic market through a protective tariff policy and facilitate the conquest of foreign markets. It needs a politically powerful state which does not have to take account of the conflicting interests of other states in its commercial policy. It needs also a strong state which will ensure respect for the interests of capital abroad, and use its political power to extort advantageous supply contracts and trade agreements from smaller states; a state which can intervene in every corner of the globe and transform the whole world into a sphere of investment for its own finance capital.8

The Russian Bolshevik political leader and intellectual Nicolai I. Bukharin, following Hilferding, would argue in his book Economics of the Transformation Period published in 1920 that out of imperialism and war had arisen "a new model of state power, the classical model of the imperialist state, which relies on state capitalist relations of production."9

While many things have changed since 1910, the tendency of financial institutions to seek the protection of the state in a world of intense foreign competition remains. While Hilferding and Bukharin seem to have envisioned something like the literal fusion of the state and finance, what we have seen instead throughout the modern period is an oscillation of periods of quasi-fusion through nationalizations and of quasi-independence during periods of privatization. Whatever the exigencies of the moment, in the face of international competition, diplomatic rivalry, and foreign wars, financial institutions and the state will tend to seek out relationships of mutual benefit to the dominant bloc of finance capital. Nationalization of the banks tended to be a moment in this oscillating relationship, the moment of the salvation of the banks by the state.

The Role of Nationalization in the Program of the Left
Yet the socialist argument that banks controlled by a government of the people could be a step toward socialism does have merit. Left social movements and political parties should raise the idea of nationalization of industries and the banks propagandistically and educationally, but this notion only has socialist implications when linked with the idea of working-class control of the state. The slogan "Nationalize the Banks!" as an agitational point makes sense only when there is a mass movement and a working class ascendant which has the power to use nationalization even under capitalism as a tool to weaken private capital. The left has usually called for the expropriation of the banks without compensation, though perhaps in some situations it might be possible to buy them and permanently retire the bankers. The slogan of nationalization becomes most meaningful as part of the program of the left when we make it clear that we mean the socialization of industry under democratic control, combined with workers' control of production itself. The goal in the end is the most democratic control of the government and the economy.
The problem for the left today, however, is to organize to build labor and social movements, and to build a political party of the left which could put such a demand as "Nationalize the Banks!" on the agenda. Today the problem is to keep the government from simply using the taxpayers' money to save the banks and sending them back on their merry way. We have to be part of the struggle to make sure that that doesn't happen.

1 Steve Lohr, "From Japan's Slump in 1990s, Lessons for U.S.," The New York Times, February 9, 2008.
2 Yuka Hayashi, "International Finance: Japan's Bank Crisis Is Combed for Lessons," The Wall Street Journal, August 13, 2008;
3 Carter Dougherty, "Stopping a Financial Crisis, the Swedish Way," The New York Times," September 23, 2008.
4 Sylvia Maxfield, "The international Political Economy of Bank Nationalization: Mexico in Comparative Perspective," Latin American Research Review, Vol. 27, No. 1 (1992), pp. 75-103.
5 Rafael La Porta, Florencio Lopez-de-Silanes, and Andrei Shleifer, "Government Ownership of Banks," The Journal of Finance, vol. 57, No. 1 (Feb. 2002), 265-301.
6 Margaret G. Myers, "The Nationalization of Banks in France," Political Science Quarterly, Vol. 64, No. 2 (June, 1949), pp. 189-210.
7 Friedrich Engels, Socialistm: Utopian and Scientific, in: Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Colected Works (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1970), Vol. III, p. 144, fn. and p. 145.
8 Rudolf Hilferding, Finance Capital: A Study of the Latest Phase of Capitalist Development (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1981), p. 234.
9 Nicolai I. Bukharin, Economics of the Transformation Period (New York: Berman Publisher, 1971), p. 37.
Dan La Botz is a Cincinnati-based teacher, writer, and activist. He is the author of Rank-and-File Rebellion: Teamsters for a Democratic Union (1990), Mask of Democracy: Labor Suppression in Mexico Today (1992), and Democracy in Mexico: Peasant Rebellion and Political Reform (1995), Made in Indonesia: Indonesian Workers Since Suharto (2001) and the editor of Mexican Labor News & Analysis, a monthly collaboration of the Mexico City-based Authentic Labor Front (FAT), the Pittsburgh-based United Electrical Workers (UE), and the Resource Center of the Americas. His writing has also appeared in Against the Current, Labor Notes, and Monthly Review among other publications.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Callinicos in East London Advertiser

Callinicos in East London Advertiser
Global market collapse is ‘opportunity’ for Left, says SWP professor
25 September 2008
by Ted Jeory

THE current crisis in global financial markets presents a crucial “moment of opportunity” to rebuild the Left in politics, one of Britain’s foremost socialist thinkers told a public meeting in London’s East End.The world was “confronting a major historical turning point” in the march of capitalism, particularly the system of neo-Liberalism that has dominated the last few decades, Prof Alex Callinicos told the meeting in Bethnal Green’s Oxford House centre last night (Wednesday).

Prof Callinicos, a prolific author on Marxism and member of the Socialist Workers Party’s central committee, told the audience of 50 that unless the Left began to organise better, workers would once again be exploited as businesses strove to cut the real value of wages to maintain profits.

He was giving his talk as American politicians debated the merits of an $800 billion rescue package for US markets.“I’m not arguing that capitalism is going to fall apart though,” he said.“To get rid of capitalism, we need the mass of working people to be determined to get rid of it.
“As long as that doesn’t take place, the system will revive. “Already, they are resorting to massive action on the part of the State. But instead of putting the money in the pockets of working people, they are rescuing the financial institutions of greed that caused the crisis in the first place.“Their solution is to make us pay for it! And in order for banks and other companies to push up profits, they’ll need to push down real wages.”

Prof Callinicos, professor of European Studies at King’s College, London, and the great-grandson of famous historian Lord Acton, asked: “So what do we do?”

He continued: “First of all, we need to say, ‘no—we’re not going to pay for your crisis’.
“We need to break through the kind of pay limits that Gordon Brown is trying to impose on the public sector.
“Then we need to organise the world and society on a different logic and end the blind process of competition. We need planning so that we can work out where we need to go.“But we need that planning to be democratic—we need socialism.”

He was asked by an East London Advertiser reporter after the meeting that if capitalism was able ride out the collapse of two major investment banks, whether the system was adaptable and robust enough to survive most turbulence.

“Capitalism is adaptable,” he replied. “But it is surviving because the Left is weak. The Left needs to organise and grow support.”
The crisis-provoked shift in wealth from Western economies to countries like China could be a “good thing”, he argues. But more than that—the US is much more of an imperialist power.“If America is weakened, that’s also good for the world.”

Prof Callinicos was a significant figure in the row that led up to the split between the SWP and MP George Galloway’s Respect Party last year.

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Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Wallerstein on NATO

Commentary No. 240, Sept. 1, 2008
"Can NATO Survive Georgia?"

Amidst all the journalistic brouhaha about a new cold war, most analysts are missing out on the real crisis that has been crystallized by Saakashvili's imprudent excursion into South Ossetia. The very existence of NATO has been put into question.

To understand that, we have to go back to the beginning of NATO as an institution and a concept.

The story began in 1947 when the United Kingdom and France signed the Treaty of Dunkirk, pledging mutual assistance in case of a revival of German military aggression. In 1948, this grouping was expanded to include the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxemburg in the Treaty of Brussels, in a move still designed to defend against Germany. Later that year, the five nations set up the Western Union Defence Organization, with a combined chiefs of staff committee. There are two things to note about these treaties. The United States was not part of them, and they were aimed primarily at Germany, not the Soviet Union.

The founding of NATO in 1949 came in the wake of the Berlin Blockade of 1948. NATO in effect nullified the Western Union defense treaties. It was focused not on the dangers of renewed German militarism but on the cold war between the United States and the Soviet Union. From the point of view of the United States, NATO served several purposes. It was a message to the Soviet Union that the United States was committed to maintaining the existing boundaries of the division of power in Europe, which had seemed threatened by the Berlin Blockade. It was a method of reconciling the French and the British to the rearmament of West Germany. And it was a way of controlling the military operations of the allies by undoing their nascent military structure and subordinating their troops to a U.S. command.

The political leaders and the majority of the population of western European countries were initially quite favorable to the concept of NATO. For them, it guaranteed that the United States would indeed defend them should the Soviet Union come to think it could violate the Yalta arrangements. And France was now ready to accept West German rearmament as a part of their historic reconciliation. France, however, chafed at the third objective - keeping French troops under U.S. command, which is what led Charles De Gaulle in 1966 to withdraw from the NATO command structure and require its headquarters to move from Paris to Brussels.

Beginning in the 1970s, western Europe had not only gotten over its worries about Germany but had begun to think that the Soviet Union no longer posed an imminent menace of invasion. Various countries, and not only France, began to think of how they could bring a tamer, post-Stalinist Soviet Union into more intensive cooperation with western Europe. This was notably the case with West Germany's Ostpolitik. And when, in the 1980's, the idea was broached of a gas pipeline from the Soviet Union to western Europe, this was favorably received even by the United Kingdom under Margaret Thatcher.

The United States was dismayed by these developments. It unsuccessfully opposed the gas pipeline. It sought to discourage all talk of reviving a European army that was not part of NATO. In general, it became considerably less friendly to the idea of Europe as Europe, one that was separate from a North Atlantic community.

The strain was intensified with the collapse of the communisms in 1989 and the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. Since NATO had been created as a structure to defend western Europe against a Soviet Union governed by a Communist party, what function did NATO now have? The United States was determined to maintain NATO, and sought a new definition of its role. It was also determined not to permit the emergence of an autonomous European structure, delinked from the United States, and worse still, possibly creating the "common European home" that would include Russia, and which Mikhail Gorbachev had proposed.

The immediate structural question for NATO was the issue of expansion - to include or not the former Soviet satellites, which were now emancipated from their links with the Soviet Union/Russia. The United States pushed hard, almost immediately, for their incorporation into NATO. The western Europeans were less enthusiastic. The former satellites saw their incorporation as their link to the United States, as protection against Russia, and as a gateway to economic betterment. The United States saw their incorporation as a constraint on Russia's possible resurgence but even more as a guarantee that "Europe" would not be able to delink from its U.S. close alliance, since these countries would oppose it. And western Europe was less enthusiastic precisely because they understood what the United States was doing.

The Iraq war exacerbated the situation greatly. Donald Rumsfeld gloated over two Europes - "old" Europe, which was effete and uncooperative, and "new" Europe, which was committed to the same world objectives as the United States. Actually, in the immediate situation of the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, there were three Europes: Rumsfeld's "new" Europe (that is, the former Soviet satellites); those that refused to join the "coalition of the willing" (notably France and Germany); and those western European countries that in 2003 supported the U.S. invasion of Iraq (notably the United Kingdom, Spain, and Italy). France and Germany pulled closer, politically, to Putin's Russia in their common opposition to the United States at the United Nations.

The strain continued. When the United States pushed this year for the launching of the process to include Ukraine and Georgia in NATO, they met strong opposition not only from France and Germany but from the United Kingdom, Spain, and Italy as well. Indeed they had strong support in only four of the eastern European states - Poland and the three Baltic states. The other eastern European states were reticent as well.

Then came Saakashvili's march into South Ossetia and Russia's vigorous and successful riposte. Poland and the three Baltic states immediately gave full support to Georgia, and the United States a bit less rapidly raised its rhetorical level, and sent in warships with humanitarian aid.

What did western Europe do? Immediately, and without consulting anyone, President Sarkozy of France negotiated a truce in the fighting, and then got the European Union to endorse this fait accompli. Chancellor Merkel of Germany then got into the act with further negotiations with Russia. Even Silvio Berlusconi of Italy was telephoning Putin. All this while, Condoleezza Rice was out of the real diplomatic picture.

Did the diplomacy work? Only of course up to a point, as controversy continues about where Russian troops are presently stationed and Russia's definitive recognition of the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. But western European statesmen keep making statements about how one should be careful not to cut off ties with Russia. And it seems the most the western European press can do is to scold Russia that it is they who are breaking friendly relations with western Europe. Most revealing of all is the report in the New York Times that Poland, the Czech Republic, and the Baltic states are calling not Rice but Angela Merkel, asking her to use her influence to help resolve the situation. Angela Merkel has made it clear that Germany will not be rushed into approving Georgian membership in NATO.

Most remarkable of all is an op-ed in the Financial Times by Kishore Mahbubani, a senior academic in profoundly pro-Western Singapore. Mahbubani says that 10% of the world is united in condemning Russia, and the other 90% "is bemused by western moralising on Georgia." He says Mao Zedong was right in one thing - the distinction between the primary contradiction and the secondary contradictions with which one must always compromise. "Russia is not close to becoming the primary contradiction the west faces." He ends by saying that it is Western "flawed (strategic) thinking" that is causing the world to be a more dangerous place.

The United States is not yet ready to listen to the sage counsel of its own friends in the non-Western world. Western Europe is grappling its way to understanding what's at stake for them. NATO cannot survive the irrelevance of its strategic activity in what Mahbubani calls the "post cold-war era."

by Immanuel Wallerstein


Anti-war protests in St Paul

The Nation Beat
Thousands March Against War & McCain
posted by John Nichols on 09/01/2008 @ 2:25pm

ST. PAUL -- "We are the troops!" chanted the Iraq War veterans.
"How do you support us? their comrades responded.
"Bring us home!" came the response.

So began Monday's massive anti-war demonstration, led by members of Iraq Veterans Against the War and Veterans for Peace that brought tens of thousands of demonstrator from Minnesota's state capitol to the Xcel Energy Center where Republicans will nominate pro-war Senator John McCain for president.

Edwin Pagan, 25, a U.S. Army sergeant who served in Iraq and now lives in Las Vegas, and a buddy from Seattle carried a U.S. flag upside down as a signal of distress.

"We are in distress," he said, "Brothers, sisters are dying in a war that we should not be fighting. We needed to be here to tell John McCain, as veterans of this war, that it must end."
The first day of the Republican National Convention had been constrained of concern about partying as Hurricane Gustav struck the Gulf Coast.

But the Iraq and Afghanistan veterans -- who began the day by delivering a folded flag and a briefing on veterans issues to the gates of the convention center complex -- and their anti-war supporters said they had come to make it clear, despite what might eventually be said from the podium inside the Xcel Center, that the only way to support the troops is to end the war.
"The Republicans who go on and on about maintaining this war don't care. We care," said retired U.S. Army Col. Ann Wright, who resigned as a State Department official in March, 2003, to protest the invasion of Iraq. "That's why we're here on the streets. It's for our conscience and our principles. We could not allow John McCain to be nominated and to have all this talk about how he is a veteran and how he supports the war go unchallenged. It was necessary that we be here to say: No, this war is wrong. It is wrong for the U.S. troops. It is wrong for their families. It is wrong for America. It is wrong for Iraq and the Iraqis. It is just wrong. John McCain is just wrong."

Marching with the troops "were" veterans of another kind -- hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Minnesotans who pulled out t-shirts and signs with the name of the late Paul Wellstone. Police, who reported making roughly 100 arrests after clashes in other parts of downtown St. Paul, estimated that roughly 10,000 people participated in the peaceful march from the state capital to the convention center.

Organizers put the number of marchers much higher.

Throughout the crowd, which took hours to move through the streets of St. Paul, were men and women carrying green "Wellstone" signs and wearing "Camp Wellstone" shirts. Wellstone, the Minnesota senator who votes againt authorizing the Bush administration to attack Iraq just weeks before he died in an October, 2002, plane crash, was remembered as an American patriot who had the courage to stand against the rush to war by the Bush administration and congressional allies such as John McCain.
"If Paul Wellstone had lived, we might not have to be marching today," said Mary Vanderford, a naturalist from the Twin Cities. "He would have emerged as the leader of the fight to prevent the war, and if it had started I think he would have gotten the Democrats to oppose it sooner and more firmly."

Carol Becker, a Minneapolis Board of Estimate member, was equally firm.
"We're marching to oppose the war," she said. "But we are also marching in memory of our senator, who had the courage and the wisdom to oppose the war when others -- including John McCain -- did not."

As she spoke, a groups of students began chanting, "McCain says: 'a hundred years.' We say: 'No more!'"

The chant turned to a roar that echoed through the streets of St. Paul, where there were few Republicans to be found outside a slimmed-down convention. There was little question, on a day when those with anti-war signs easily outnumbered those wearing McCain pins on the streets of St. Paul, that the next chant of the demonstrators was right: "Get up! Get down! There's an anti-war movement in this town."


Monday, September 01, 2008

Besancenot brings good cheer

Sunday Times August 31, 2008
Red postman’ knocks at Nicolas Sarkozy’s door

With the Socialists in disarray, a young firebrand is now the best opponent of the French president
Matthew Campbell in Paris

Seldom have France’s opposition Socialists seemed in a more pitiful state. Overtaken long ago by the right, they were also being outflanked by the left last week as the public fell under the dubious spell of “the red postman”.

Olivier Besancenot, the charismatic postal worker from Neuilly, an affluent suburb of Paris, has emerged as an icon of the French left, whose growing popularity has been an embarrassment to the mainstream Socialist leaders. They met yesterday in the western port of La Rochelle for an annual “summer university” debate to help to find a new leader.

The fact that Besancenot, leader of the Communist Revolutionary League, was in the throes of establishing an “anticapitalist” party committed to toppling the French state did not seem to damp enthusiasm among the public. Polls showed the radical firebrand to be more popular than most of the Socialist leaders, and he is ranked as the “best” opponent of President Nicolas Sarkozy.

In Britain he might have had to make do with a soap box, but Besancenot, 34, embodies a very Gallic “down with the rich” mentality. This is, perhaps, a legacy of the revolution and helps to explain why droves of extremely wealthy French families are opting for exile in Brussels, Geneva or London each year.

“We’re not waiting for the next election to try to stop Sarkozy,” said Besancenot last week in a dig at Socialist leaders. They seemed to put more energy into feuding with one another than opposing the French leader’s programme of economic and social reforms.

The bickering has helped Besancenot to win new supporters, but his rise was also a reflection of French nostalgia for communist ideology long since discredited in the rest of the world. At the same time Besancenot’s “anticapitalist party”, to be launched in January, is intended to appeal to a generation of young leftists inspired more by the antiglobalisation struggle than by the communist hammer and sickle.

Already he was won protestations of support from José Bové, the pipe-smoking antiglobalisation campaigner, and from Daniel Cohn-Bendit, the Green MEP and former leader of the May 1968 student riots. Arlette Laguiller, leader of another Trotskyist group and serial presidential candidate, has also signed up as a member of the new party.

“We want to be a credible alternative,” said Besancenot, a teacher’s son whose boyish air has led to comparisons to Tin-tin, the comic strip hero.

Despite the wholesome look – one observer described him as everybody’s “ideal son-in-law” – Besancenot is considered in some quarters as a dangerous revolutionary, quaint though his early-20th-century rhetoric may seem. He has complained of being followed and bugged, presumably by the domestic intelligence service.
“It’s up to the population to get there one way or another,” he said, referring to the revolutionary goal recently on the French television equivalent of This Is Your Life. The class struggle did not have to be violent, he added, to the relief of a country forged in the shadow of the guillotine: “For me, the revolution is not a puddle of blood on each street corner.”

Sarkozy, who came to power on a promise of “rupture” with the bad ways of the past, has wrongfooted the Socialists, already demoralised after three consecutive losses in presidential elections, by recruiting some of their best assets to serve in his government. Union leaders also appeared to have lost their teeth after being wined and dined by Sarkozy.

Besancenot has stuck to his guns and appears to be reaping the rewards. One poll last week gave him an approval rating of 47%, way above François Hollande, secretary-general of the Socialist party (31%), and Ségolène Royal, the latter’s former companion and also the Socialist presidential candidate who was defeated by Sarkozy last year (35%).

Compared with the deeply split Socialists, Besancenot’s anticapitalist grouping seems harmonious, but he has come under attack from some of the comrades for being a darling of the media. He defends himself by saying that appearing on television chat shows helps him to communicate his message better.

The criticism of him just goes to show, as Le Figaro newspaper put it, that in France “there is always someone to the left of you”.

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