Wednesday, November 26, 2008

WSWS on Pashukanis

World Socialist Web Site on A Marxist perspective on jurisprudence
By Kevin Kearney 26 November 2008

Evgeny Pashukanis, A Critical Reappraisal, Michael Head, Routledge-Cavendish, 2008, 271 pp., $55.95.

Bourgeois jurisprudence's state of decay, manifesting itself most sharply in the perversion of constitutional law and the systematic destruction of democratic rights, can be understood only through an analysis of law in its historical development on an ever-shifting socio-economic foundation.

Such an approach is almost non-existent in legal academia. Instead, academia is dominated by a militantly empirical, practice-based orientation characterized by the meticulous study of individual cases, largely disconnected from history, politics, current social reality and even international law treating the same topics. In most university law libraries today one would be hard pressed to find any serious consideration of the origins and development of what has been virtually deified as the "rule of law."

In this cloistered atmosphere, Michael Head's book, Evgeny Pashukanis, A Critical Reappraisal, shines the light of day on one of the most important legal theories to come out of "the boldest and most sweeping experiment of the 20th century"—the October 1917 Russian Revolution. Head is a law professor at the University of Western Sydney in Australia and a regular contributor to the World Socialist Web Site.

Prior to the revolution, as now, the "rule of law" routinely put its seal of approval on economic exploitation, political repression and state murder. Upon seizing power, the Soviet government disposed of the previous courts, legal system and legal profession in its effort to radically refashion society and facilitate the ultimate "withering away" of the state.

Head notes, at the outset, that the Soviet legal experiment spearheaded a great expansion of basic rights worldwide, particularly in the areas of labor protection, social welfare, domestic relations and gender equality. This period in Soviet law is characterized by groundbreaking achievements such as the eight-hour work day, the establishment of social insurance, rent control and rent-free public housing. Moreover, Soviet women were the first in the world to enjoy full voting rights and—at a time when Great Britain allowed divorce only for women where adultery was proven—the Soviet legal system afforded divorce on demand to all.

In the same vein, the first Soviet criminal code replaced the archaic notions of crime and punishment with the concepts of "social danger" and measures of "social defense," because the former concepts, rooted in religious concepts of evil and individual guilt, served only to obscure the social roots of crime, thereby forestalling any real solutions to anti-social behavior.
Head aptly summarizes the Soviet legal project: "Overall, the Soviet government sought to make a fundamental shift from private property and individual rights to social ownership and collective rights and responsibilities... accompanied by far-reaching efforts to develop more humane and civilized approaches to social problems."

Revolutionary legal debates
Although the goals of the revolution were clearly defined, the tactics for realizing these goals—given the material limitations of the unfolding Russian revolution—could not be rigidly predetermined.

Following the seizure of power in 1917 by the soviets, or workers' councils, the Bolsheviks inherited a society burdened by backward feudal relations, exhausted by years of imperialist war, increasingly isolated from the developed capitalist economies of Western Europe and surrounded on all sides by imperialist predators. A period of civil war ensued in which the displaced Russian ruling elite, backed by imperialist powers, sought to retake the country by force.

From mid-1918 until 1921, the survival of the revolution was the most pressing issue, consuming nearly all the time, energy and, ultimately, the lives of masses of people. This was a harsh period, and, as Head points out, "hardly conducive to theoretical contemplation." Nonetheless, many of the legal concepts and conflicts that would emerge in a more developed form in the following period made their first appearance in the brief window of time preceding the civil war.

The post-civil war period from 1921 to 1924 saw the flowering of legal debates involving a host of soviet jurists and a variety of schools—including what have been described as the sociological, psychological, social function and normative schools. Head cites one scholar's description of the legal discourse in the 1920s as "a dynamic and prolific period in the history of soviet legal thought ... characterized by intellectual ferment, optimism and impatience."

All those involved in the debates were ostensibly seeking the transitional form of law best suited to carry out the revolutionary social transformation, while ensuring sufficient stability for the revolution's day-to-day survival. At the same time, the participants attempted to elaborate a comprehensive Marxist theory of law. Head manages to parse these debates into three core questions: "1) What was the class character and function of the Soviet state and Soviet laws? 2) Whether and how quickly the state would wither away into communism? and 3) What is the underlying role of law in socialist and communist society?"

Within this milieu, the work of Evgeny Pashukanis has evoked more interest than that of any other figure. As Head points out, this is in large part due to an enduring and growing interest in Marxism, the Russian Revolution and the contemporary relevance of Pashukanis's analysis of the law.

In 1924, Pashukanis published his most important work, The General Theory of Marxism and the Law. With this, he sought to probe deeper than other Soviet jurists of the period into the very essence of law itself.

Pashukanis's argument in a nutshell was that law is a historically limited form of regulation peculiar to class societies, peaking under capitalism and destined to fade away with the elimination of socio-economic classes and class conflict—in other words, in a truly socialist society. The most important implication of the theory was that the use of the traditional legal form in post-revolutionary Russia was a continuation of bourgeois law, although in the hands of the proletariat.

The General Theory is best known for its elaboration of the "commodity exchange theory of law," which traced the modern legal form not directly to class interests, but rather to the elemental logic operative in capitalism itself—a process occurring "behind the backs" of both the ruling class and the working masses. Head describes the theory as "the kernel of an historical materialist approach to the rise and evolution of the legal form."

The commodity exchange theory emerged from Pashukanis' debates with the then-dominant legal "instrumentalists"—represented by Piotr Stuchka—who viewed the law as nothing more than a "blunt instrument" of class domination, whose social function was considered as either purely ideological or, at most, just another form of coercion in the arsenal of the ruling elite.
Although Pashukanis did not deny the class instrumentalism and coercive functions of the law, he viewed them as secondary to the nature of the legal form itself. He wrote: "Having established the ideological nature of particular concepts in no way exempts us from the obligation of seeking their objective reality... external and not merely subjective reality." His analysis was unique, in that it was not limited to the role of law under capitalism, but extended to the very concept of law itself as an intrinsic and longstanding instrument of social regulation.

The commodity exchange theory of law
In order to present the basics of Pashukanis' commodity exchange theory, it is necessary to briefly review some points from the first chapter of Marx's Capital.

Capital identifies a duality—an immanent contradiction—within the commodity, as an immediate unity of both a use value and an exchange value. The former embodies what is particular to the commodity, its unique utility and the unique type of labor required for its production. If a useful object, for example a broom, were produced by an individual for his own use, it would be merely a product and not a commodity. However, when such a product is produced for the purpose of exchange on the market and is actually exchanged for another commodity, its value, its social nature, is revealed.

Exchange value is a quantitative ratio of exchange between commodities rooted in the amount of socially necessary labor time that went into the production of the commodities. Although initially this abstract labor time is reflected in a ratio of exchange between two given commodities—i.e., two gallons of milk for one broom—it is eventually represented by a third commodity—the universal equivalent of money.

In this process, the inherent differences between the commodities—the different types of labor required to produce them and their distinct uses—are masked. Quality is transformed into quantity and substance into form, and money is worshiped as the universal equivalent.
Pashukanis argues that this same process—the exchange of commodities in the market place—produces not only the value form, but also the legal form. In the legal form, individual human beings are abstracted into a juridical subject or something akin to the "reasonable man in law," and—ignoring the inherent class differences between these individuals—they are all considered formally equal before the law as juridical subjects.

He finds the origin of this development in the necessities of efficient commodity exchange in the market place. All enter the market place as inherently different from each other, akin to use values. However, all must enter into a definite relationship for purposes of exchange.

At the moment of exchange, Pashukanis identifies three forms which appear in the process: 1) Each merchant must recognize the other as an equal for purposes of the exchange, despite any inherent differences; 2) Each merchant must recognize the free will of the other to exchange the commodity; and 3) Each merchant recognizes the other as the rightful owner of the commodity.
Therefore, the constant exchange of commodities on the market gives rise to three phenomenal forms: equality, free will and a private ownership interest, which find ideal legal expression in the notion of the juridical subject as an abstract bearer of these rights before the law. The individual has thus been transformed into a juridical subject.

Pashukanis argues that this is the essence of the legal form which came into being wherever there was commodity exchange—initially on the periphery of ancient and feudal societies and finally predominating in capitalist society.

Although the legal form finds its fullest expression in contract law, as it is rooted in the concrete requirements of commodity exchange, the victorious bourgeois revolutionaries of Western Europe managed to raise this legal form "to the heavens," enshrining it as a set of "god-given" constitutional principles: liberty, property and equality before the law, as distinguished from the enforced inequality of the outgoing feudal regime, which divided individuals into separate castes from birth, each with distinct rights and responsibilities.

Pashukanis argues that, in its application to the spheres of constitutional law and criminal law, the legal form is effectively disembodied and devoid of any concrete content. Therefore, he asserts, "Outside Contract... the very concepts of subject and will exist only as lifeless abstractions in the legal sense."

The commodity exchange theory, by extension, impacts the concepts of morality and of crime and punishment under capitalism. Ideas of morality, Pashukanis argues, were based on the abstract notions of the rational individual and abstract equality before the law. He asserts that "if moral personality is nothing other than the subject of commodity production, then moral law must reveal itself as the rule of exchange between commodity owners."

By this token, he argues that the capitalist idea of "justice" is also derived from the process of commodity exchange, referring to the concepts of crime, punishment and guilt as examples of the "radical individualism of the bourgeois." As opposed to the concept of collective responsibility which dominated the ancient world, Pashukanis demonstrates that the requirements of equivalent exchange manifest themselves in the notion of equivalent punishment and finally become dominant under capitalism.

On this basis, bourgeois law injects an extreme notion of individual responsibility into criminal law. This is most easily recognized in the notion of "pay-back," or the idea that the legal subject must lose a certain amount of personal freedom as payment for a crime, without regard to the social causes of the anti-social behavior or to any real solution to such recurring, systemic social problems.

As opposed to a system of retribution, Pashukanis advanced the idea of social defense as a response to crime. This approach would abandon the market-based abstract equivalence principle, focusing not on the proportionality of the punishment to the crime, but rather on the correspondence between the measures taken and the ultimate goal of social defense.
With such a non-juridical approach, attention would shift from proving individual guilt to a more all-encompassing focus on the social and psychological symptoms. Examination of the social, cultural and economic environment associated with anti-social forms of behavior would replace the isolated focus on "the facts" of a single incident as the decisive factor in the process.

The commodity exchange theory is firmly rooted in the proposition that the legal superstructure grows necessarily out of the individualization and opposition of interests inherent in the capitalist mode of production. In this socio-economic context, the law suit (or controversy) is the basic mode of resolution of legal matters, whereas a social unity of purpose is the premise for a purely technical regulation—for example, the administration of a system of mass transit or standardized medical procedures. In this manner, Pashukanis draws a fundamental distinction between bourgeois law and what would emerge as socialist regulation.

The theory holds that the legal form would wither away as commodity exchange and market relations gave way to social production and distribution. Pashukanis put it best, saying, "Only when the individualistic economic system has been superseded by planned social production and distribution will this unproductive expenditure of man's intellectual energies (the law and law suits) cease."

In other words, as private interests are replaced by collective interests, society's governance will no longer require the compulsion of formal legal instruments to manage myriad individual disputes, and social regulation will increasingly take the form of simple technical coordination and management.

Although Head notes that this conclusion has been routinely assailed by bourgeois academics as utopian, he points out that "if masses of people actually controlled their own lives as well as the economic, political, social and cultural direction of society" the "unity of purpose"—made possible by socialist revolution—could be a reality.

The demise of Pashukanis and his enduring relevance
Like the revolution itself, the Soviet legal experiment which produced Pashukanis was cut short by the consolidation of the Stalinist bureaucracy and its attack on Marxism in the form of the nationalist theory of "socialism in one country." The legal complement to "socialism in one country" was the concept of "socialist legality"—a complete abandonment of the classical Marxist perspective of the "withering away" of the state and law. Ultimately, the bureaucratic caste isolated itself from and dominated the masses, necessitating not only the permanency of the state and "the rule of law," but an unprecedented strengthening of their invasive and repressive powers.

With the publication of his General Theory—the same year Stalin unveiled his theory of "socialism in one country"—Pashukanis became the preeminent Soviet jurist, and his book was required reading at universities around the country. Within a period of 12 years, however, Pashukanis found himself under increasing pressure to adapt his ideas more openly to the needs of the Stalinist bureaucracy. Pashukanis was eventually labeled a "Trostskyite saboteur" and executed by Stalin in 1937. His writings were subsequently expunged from the universities.
Pashukanis was by no means a recanting anti-Stalinist, nor was he a Trotskyist. Head successfully tackles this myth by clarifying the political record, which demonstrates that Pashukanis lined up against the Left Opposition, which was led by Trotsky, from at least 1925. Moroever, by putting Pashukanis' theoretical work in the correct economic and political context, Head shows how it was used as Marxist window-dressing for the bureaucracy's counter-revolutionary policies.

He highlights the fact that Pashukanis' General Theory debuted in 1924, after the institution of the New Economic Policy—enacted in 1921 as a temporary policy necessitated by the defeats of the European revolution and enforced isolation of the backward Soviet economy. The NEP made key concessions to capitalist market relations, thus promoting a return to traditional legal forms to protect private ownership in some of the means of production.

Head notes that although the General Theory was shaped by the requirements of the NEP, Pashukanis' theoretical work makes little reference to the NEP. When Pashukanis did refer to the NEP, he merely asserted that it represented an insufficient level of development for the building of socialism. Inherent in this was a bowing to mounting fears that a long period would have to ensue before socialism could be realized in the Soviet Union.

The period of the NEP was laden with political pressures exerted by the growing bureaucratic caste, anxious to consolidate its power on the national arena by abandoning the struggle for international revolution. Head finds the theoretical reflection of these pressures in aspects of the General Theory which naturally appealed to the bureaucratic caste—in particular, its assumption that the struggle for revolutionary social change would have to be shelved for an indefinite period and its general lack of emphasis and clarity on the repressive role of law and the state.

Head illustrates the political logic behind these theoretical failures by tracking Pashukanis' growing and ultimately futile capitulation to the Stalinist bureaucracy, to which he had wedded himself—from his denunciation of "Trotskyism" in 1925, his acceptance of "socialist legality" in 1927, to his repeated revisions of Lenin's State and Revolution in 1936. In that year, Pashukanis repudiated the theoretical core of the General Theory but was nevertheless executed the following year.

Pashukanis made a genuine contribution to understanding the nature of the legal form. But, as Head notes, "by lining up against the Left Opposition, he helped deprive the debates of the analysis and programme that could have combated the political and theoretical degeneration." Ultimately, Pashukanis became a casualty, not because of any principled political stance against the Stalinists, but rather because he still represented a link to the Marxist heritage of the revolution and thus a threat to the bureaucracy.

Head's book also corrects a tendency in other works to isolate the General Theory from its foundations in the Russian revolution and decades of Marxist cultural development in 19th century Europe. In particular, Head is careful to attribute the foundational concepts of Pashukanis' theory—the "withering away" of repressive instruments of government, law as an outgrowth of society's economic development, and the materialist analysis of the state and law—to the works of Marx and Engels.

Beyond this, Head traces key elements of Pashukanis' General Theory—the distinction between law and regulation, the rejection of law as an eternal form of social regulation, and the dual character of Soviet law—to the earlier works of lesser known, but important, Marxist legal scholars such as Lunacharsky, Reisner, Magerovsky, Podvolotsky, Krylenko and Goikhbarg.
Head ends the book by discussing Pashukanis' contemporary relevance. He examines the current assault on civil liberties as a component part of the "war on terror," the crisis in criminal justice and the prison explosion (citing statistics showing that, as of 2005, one in every 136 Americans was under the control of the penal system), from the standpoint of Pashukanis' theoretical perspective.

In the final chapter, Head demonstrates how the General Theory provides a framework for a materialist analysis of the American criminal justice system, which has severed nearly all connection with its stated purpose of protecting society and maintaining the peace, and is rapidly becoming an instrument of intimidation and political repression and a means for systematically stripping away the basic rights of masses of people.

In the context of the "global war on terror," Head's examination is particularly timely. The General Theory demonstrates that the traditional forms of bourgeois democracy and constitutional law are increasingly at odds with the class interests and social policies of the bourgeoisie in times of crisis. Thus they are increasingly abandoned, allowing politically-vetted judges an almost unlimited discretion in constitutional interpretation, and ultimately the freedom to abandon age-old democratic norms altogether, or to place a judicial seal of approval on the executive's efforts to do so.

On this topic, he quotes Pashukanis: "For the bourgeois has never, in favour of purity of theory, lost sight of the fact that class society is not only a market where autonomous owners of commodities meet, but it is at the same time the battlefield of a bitter class war, where the machinery of state repression represents a very powerful weapon... The state as a power factor in internal and foreign policy—that is the correction which the bourgeois was forced to make to the theory and practice of its ‘constitutional state.' The more the hegemony of the bourgeois was shattered, the more compromising these corrections became, the more quickly the constitutional state was transformed into a disembodied shadow, until finally the extraordinary sharpening of the class struggle forced the bourgeois to discard the mask of the constitutional state altogether, revealing the nature of state power as the organized power of one class over the other."

These words have renewed currency at the close of 2008. The economic crisis of world capitalism and the explosion of imperialist militarism across the globe, politically manifested in the "global war on terror" or the "long war," have led US imperialism and all national ruling elites to lay the legal groundwork for just such an "unmasking." Bourgeois democracy and the "rule of law" are giving way to authoritarian capitalism.

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Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Labour Notes: End of Auto Industry?

End of the Road: Is the Auto Industry Dead?
By Mark Brenner and Jane Slaughter, Labor Notes
Posted on November 19, 2008

In the 1980s Chevrolet proclaimed itself the "Heartbeat of America." Today many would say that the American auto industry qualifies for life support. Last November, General Motors (owner of the Chevy brand) announced that it was cutting 25,000 jobs and closing up to 12 factories by 2008.

The news came one month after auto parts giant Delphi declared bankruptcy, promising to shutter at least a dozen plants and cut as many as 24,000 jobs in three years time. Ford completed the grim hat trick in January, revealing a plan to cut 30,000 jobs by 2012.

Just months before, GM and Ford had convinced Solidarity House, headquarters of the once-mighty United Auto Workers, to make $1 billion in concessions to help pay for retired auto workers' health benefits. Detroit is abuzz over the additional give-backs the Big Three auto
makers (GM, Ford, and DaimlerChrysler) are likely to wrest from the union in next year's contract talks, and the rank-and-file hear no tough talk -- let alone action -- from their leaders.

On the face of it, the industry's problems seem almost insurmountable. Collectively, U.S. car makers are billions of dollars in the red and foreign competitors continue to gobble up the Big Three's market share. America's auto giants boost their bottom line only by selling
gas-guzzling trucks and SUVs, and cars would be moving off the lots even slower were it not for thousands of dollars in incentives used to sweeten each sale.

In the face of these pressures, it's no surprise that analysts from the Motor City to Wall Street are convinced that this is the end of an era in the auto industry. There is no alternative, these experts lament. Today's auto workers will have to make do with less or kiss their jobs goodbye.

For over a century the auto industry has been an anchor for the U.S. economy and a trendsetter for corporate America. What does the current upheaval mean for workers? Announcing the company's bankruptcy, Delphi's CEO Steve Miller signaled what was at stake: "I want you to view what is happening at Delphi as a flash point, a test case, for all the economic and social trends that are on a collision course in our country and around the globe."

The auto industry paid out a living wage for millions of working-class people. Is Detroit about to call an end to that life? What's Good for GM ...

Times weren't always so tough in the Motor City. On the heels of World War II America's auto manufacturers were the undisputed titans of industry. Although UAW President Walter Reuther began his tenure with visions of government-provided pensions and health care for all
Americans, that drive was blunted when the union achieved, at the bargaining table, a private welfare state for its members at the Big Three. In addition to private insurance and 30-years-and-out retirement benefits, they also received "supplemental unemployment benefits" to
cushion the blow when the cyclical nature of the industry brought about layoffs -- a step toward Reuther's social democratic dream of a guaranteed annual wage. Besides their 3 percent annual raises to compensate for productivity improvements, auto workers also received cost-of-living increases, and, as the decades rolled on, tuition and legal services were added as well.

Unions in steel and rubber followed suit with similar contracts and, to a lesser extent, other blue-collar workers such as miners, telephone workers, truckers, and electrical workers all attempted to follow the UAW's lead. The pattern of steady wage increases together with health and retirement benefits stretched well beyond heavily unionized industries, setting a higher standard for all the nation's employers, union and non-union alike.

Gold-Plated Sweatshops
The ratcheting productivity that allowed for these benefits was good for the bottom line but it meant that the factories continued to be, in Reuther's words, "gold-plated sweatshops." The foundry and the assembly line remained an inhuman way to make a living. The common pattern was for workers to sign on, thinking to stay just a few years, but to be seduced by the benefits -- and then say to themselves "it's only 30 years." The mind-numbing drudgery, the high injury rates, the heat and smoke and oil in the air led many workers to hit the bottle -- and, in one famous case, led black Detroit Chrysler worker James Johnson to pick up a gun and shoot two supervisors and a co-worker. A jury, after a plant tour, found that brutal working conditions and Chrysler's shop-floor racism had literally driven Johnson insane.

Removed from the daily grind of factory life, however, UAW officials became far more attuned to the gold-plating in the shops than to the sweat. They sought gains they could measure in dollars, and Reuther's belief in the benefits of technology and productivity kept him from protesting either automation or speedup. Officials came to see themselves as partners with management, truly convinced that "what's good for GM is good for America," and for UAW members.

This outlook ensured that a host of management initiatives -- and stupidities -- went unchallenged. Early on, the UAW abandoned Reuther's fight for low car prices; later, it joined auto manufacturers in lobbying against higher fuel economy standards. The UAW also embraced its role as guarantor of orderly industrial relations, repudiating the tactics that gave birth to the union in the 1930s.

The Path Downwards
These years of collaboration and quiescence left the union ill prepared for the crisis that shook the auto industry in 1979. The UAW once again blazed a trail the rest of the labor movement would soon follow-only this time it was the path of concessions and explicit labor-management

Through postwar recessions and expansions, it had not occurred to American employers that signed contracts could be breached. But when Lee Iacocca's Chrysler Corp. threatened bankruptcy in the fall of 1979, the UAW stepped up to the plate. Chrysler workers and retirees broke the once-sacrosanct pattern contract, taking concessions estimated at $203 million, $2,000 per worker, nonrecoverable. More cuts soon followed; by January 1981 Chrysler workers were collectively a billion dollars behind. The next year, with the economy and the industry in full-blown recession, the union opened pacts at Ford and GM to make cuts there.

Describing the new bargaining climate, a steel industry official told the Wall Street Journal, "The whole posture of negotiating is changed. Basically we're asking for something that we're not entitled to." A staffer for the United Food and Commercial Workers noted, "After
Chrysler, everything changed."Employers from meatpacking to airlines to education demanded and got wage cuts. In Michigan, the hospital workers union reported that every hospital it bargained with in 1982 used the argument "GM took a wage freeze." Companies used economic hard times to force a redistribution of power in their own favor.

Accepting Competition
As important as the monetary concessions was an explicit change in union philosophy: acceptance of the notion that it is the union's job to make the employer more "competitive."
Workers were to contribute their ideas for boosting productivity, including speedup and job cuts. This "team concept" quickly spread from auto throughout manufacturing and beyond. The flagship team concept plant jointly run by GM and Toyota in Fremont, California, became the
most famous factory in America and the site of manager-pilgrims from every walk of life, seeking the secrets of productivity. In essence, the UAW's deal with the auto makers was this: do whatever you need to do to boost profits, as long as you maintain the wages and benefits of (a steadily shrinking number of) workers at the Big Three. That "whatever" included lean production, outsourcing to nonunion parts plants at home and abroad, the sale of GM's and Ford's parts divisions in 1999 and 2000 (lopping off 52,000 workers) and, today, buyouts. Therewere 466,000 GM hourly workers in 1978 and in 2006, 112,000.

Buoyed by the Bubble
After a decade-long downturn, the 1990s was like winning the lottery for Detroit's auto makers. Mini-vans, one of the Big Three's only bright spots in the 1980s, continued to register solid sales, hovering at about 8 percent of the total domestic car and truck market. And because their Japanese rivals were slow to introduce their own models, Detroit maintained its dominance, with market share never dipping below 75 percent.

But the Big Three's real gold mine was the phenomenal growth of sports utility vehicles (SUVs) during the 1990s, rising from 7 percent of the total car and truck market at the beginning of the decade to roughly 20 percent by the end. And sales really took off in the latter half of the 1990s, when most Americans saw their real wages inch up for the first time in 15 years. Concerns over fuel efficiency also seemed to melt away, with gas prices averaging a little over a dollar a gallon for most of the decade. As with mini-vans, Detroit's foreign rivals lagged behind, leaving the Big
Three to dominate the SUV market. Bolstered by strong sales in these new niches, together with
skyrocketing stock prices, Detroit's auto giants hoped to reclaim the global dominance that had seemed to slip through their fingers a decade earlier.

In addition to expanding their existing global operations, the Big Three also engineered some very high- profile mergers and strategic investments, acquiring the Saab, Fiat, Suzuki, Daewoo, Jaguar, Volvo, and Land Rover brands. Investments, of course, can flow in both directions, and in 1998 Chrysler was acquired by Daimler-Benz.

Spin-offs and Restructuring
Detroit auto makers were also busy reshaping their domestic operations. They spun off their parts divisions into stand-alone companies and then negotiated steep wage cuts for new-hires there. GM hived off American Axle and Delphi, while Ford created Visteon. Chrysler took outsourcing to a new level by pioneering "modular production" in the U.S. At its Jeep plant in Toledo, body work, chassis and paint -- considered the core of auto assembly--will soon be
performed on-site by non-Chrysler workers at lower pay. GM and Ford also paid less and less attention to producing cars, focusing instead on their financial services arms, with General Motors Acceptance Corporation (GMAC) and Ford Credit adding more and more heft to each company's bottom line. Indeed, by 2000 both GMAC and Ford Credit accounted for a third of net revenue for their respective companies.

Mixed Bag for Workers
For America's auto workers, the 1990s were decidedly more mixed. On the one hand, after a decade of bruising concessions and plant closings, everyone was relieved to see the return of both jobs and steady wage increases.

On the other hand, much of the new investment coming into the industry was from foreign companies -- Toyota, Mazda, BMW, Nissan, Honda, Mercedes -- who sprinkled factories first on the outer edges of the Midwest auto corridor and then across the right-to-work South. These
"transplants" kept their factories non-union, as did the auto parts industry that mushroomed in the 1990s, as the Big Three replaced vertical integration with outsourcing.

Union density in auto, which in the dog days of the 1980s declined from 62 percent to 50, fell even faster in the prosperous 1990s, dropping to 37 percent by the year 2000. The UAW proved unwilling or unable to organize these newcomers, and one can only wonder whether things might
be different today had the union summoned up some of the spirit, energy, and vision that drew hundreds of thousands of unorganized auto workers into the union in the 1930s.

Instead the UAW concentrated on the state of its existing members, securing promises of new investment and job security from the Big Three both in contract talks and through job actions. For example, a 54- day strike at two strategic GM parts plants in 1998 idled most of General
Motors' North American operations, and resulted in $200 million in new investment in the two plants.

Unfortunately for the UAW, its fight to protect its shrinking store of good jobs was swimming against a much stronger national tide. The 1990s witnessed an explosion in income inequality, in no small part due to skyrocketing CEO pay (71 times workers' average wages in 1989, rising to
300 times by 2000) and a stock market run-up of historic proportions. The longest economic expansion since World War II did surprisingly little for those in the lower rungs of the income distribution, in part because of the declining share of the workforce represented by unions.
Adding to the insecurity were large-scale retrenchments by the bulwarks of corporate America, including Xerox, IBM, and ATT.

Underappreciated at the time, perhaps the biggest development of the 1990s was the move from defined-benefit pension plans to 401(k)-style defined-contribution plans. This seemed of little consequence when the stock market was posting double-digit gains year-in and year-out, but
when the turn of the century recession hit, baby-boomers across the nation saw their retirements vaporize. UAW members at the Big Three were some of the few to retain their original pensions.

These trends collided with a deflating stock market in 2000 to create a squeeze play for the auto industry and its hourly workforce. The recession hit Detroit particularly hard, as rising gas prices turned consumers off the low-mileage SUVs and minivans that had saved Detroit's bacon a decade earlier. In the last five years the Big Three's market share has fallen from 66 percent to 58 percent, and sales would have been even worse without the deep discounts auto makers felt forced to offer.

At the same time that the domestic picture soured, many of the Big Three's global acquisitions also unraveled. General Motors, for example, paid a cool $2.4 billion to acquire a 20 percent stake in Fiat in 2000, then ponied up another $2 billion to get itself out of the deal five years later.

Ford has injected more than $5 billion into Jaguar and to this day the luxury brand remains stubbornly in the red. Meanwhile the marriage of DaimlerChrysler has hardly been a match made in heaven--the merged company is worth less today in stock market terms than Daimler was on its own before they united.

Hemorrhaging money and with no end in sight, last year Detroit's automakers took desperate measures to become smaller but more profitable companies, with Delphi declaring bankruptcy and GM and Ford putting 55,000 jobs on the chopping block. Since that time, they have all been
singing the same tune, blaming their troubles on the generous wages, pensions, and healthcare of their unionized workforce. In a move whose irony cannot be lost on executives, Detroit has
redirected decades of consumer frustration with American automakers for their lackluster designs and poor quality into widespread resentment of rank-and-file auto workers for their company-paid health care and pensions. The auto makers have tapped into middle America's deep-seated anxiety and insecurity with a not-so-subtle message: "If you don't have a pension or any hint of job security, why should they?"The scale and speed of these changes has left the UAW flat-footed, struggling to get a hearing-much less formulate a strategy-in its fight to save some of the last good manufacturing jobs in America.

So Who Cares?
Cynics might argue, who cares? The UAW represents fewer than 400,000 auto workers in an industry of more than a million, and the concessions the companies are clamoring for will simply bring their wages and benefits closer to what the market will bear for less-skilled workers
anyway. Besides, manufacturing is so 20th century. Aren't we a post-industrial economy with a future in services and high-tech jobs? America can design and engineer stuff and let the rest of the world build it (think X-Boxes and Ipods).

This mindset misses most of what's important about the crisis in auto. Downsizing isn't accountants shuffling numbers around on a spreadsheet; the lost jobs are concentrated in specific communities, such as the already devastated Flint, Michigan made famous by Michael Moore in his first film, Roger and Me.

Cuts of this magnitude will reverberate throughout the Midwest, leaving a lasting economic and social hangover. And they will not be confined to auto, as other companies follow the Big Three's lead.High tech companies can't fill the void. Google, for example, has just announced plans to open up shop in Michigan. But Google employs less than 6,000 people worldwide, a drop in the bucket compared to the 70,000 jobs this round of auto restructuring will destroy.

How could the auto industry right itself without devastating workers and communities? Execs have shown themselves curiously unwilling to campaign for one measure that would save them billions of dollars per year: single-payer health insurance.

GM is the largest private purchaser of healthcare in the country, providing coverage to 1.1 million people. Last year the price tag was $5.3 billion, which, as CEO Rick Wagoner is fond of pointing out, is more than GM pays for steel. Half of those covered are retirees, and the
company claims to provide healthcare to 1 percent of America's seniors.

Legacy Myths
The Big Three say that such "legacy costs," which also include pension benefits, are choking their business, obscuring the fact that all three auto makers have pension and retiree health funds flush with cash--healthy for the foreseeable future. If health care is such a heavy burden, why not join the movement for a far cheaper national health care plan? Canada's single-payer system makes it much less expensive to do business there and has spared most Ford and GM plants north of the border from the ax.

But despite promises to the UAW to pursue "universal coverage" in exchange for the union's $1 billion in concessions on retiree health care last fall, GM's CEO didn't even mention national health care in testimony before a June Congressional special hearing on the nation's healthcare crisis. Either free-market ideology is trumping good business sense, or paying for benefits is not such a burden after all -- or the employers don't mind having a propaganda hammer to use against the union.When Henry Ford introduced the five-dollar day in 1914 he famously quipped that he wanted to pay his workers enough so that they could afford to buy his cars. Today, a new-hire at Delphi or Visteon now makes $14.50 an hour, a bit more than half his or her counterparts at the Big Three. In 2007, when new agreements are negotiated, the Big Three's
new-hires are sure to take a hit.

What will America look like if most workers earn Wal-Mart, instead of General Motors, wages? For those without a four year college degree - i.e., about 70 percent of the labor force - average wages (adjusted for inflation) have stagnated or fallen for the last 30 years, hovering under $15 today. Manufacturing jobs paid wages no better than the economy-wide average when Henry Ford was perfecting the assembly line, but by the end of the 20th century they were about 25 percent above average, in no small part due to unions like the UAW.

A New Playbook
To solve the industry's problems, many analysts have urged Detroit executives to go back to the drawing board and start fresh. This advice applies with even more force to the UAW.

Forged in the 1930s' social upheaval, the UAW's pioneers originally saw the union as just one piece of a large-scale social movement to solve the problems of the Great Depression.

Today the stakes are higher than they have been in 60 years, but the UAW is still fumbling through its golden-age playbook. The rank-and-file revolt after the Delphi bankruptcy demonstrates that members are willing to fight, but they can't do it alone.Now, more than ever, the UAW needs the audacity and the guts of its founders, who set their sights on more than the survival of their union headquarters. Their fight to build a better world inspired millions.
With health care becoming less and less attainable for more and more working people, the fight for national single-payer health care has the potential to galvanize a new workers' movement. Rekindling such a movement may be the only way to ensure that the UAW founders' legacy
doesn't evaporate before our eyes.

Mark Brenner is the Director of Labor Notes.
Jane Slaughter is a Detroit freelance writer and frequent contributor to
the Metro Times.

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Friday, November 21, 2008

Bad result for Respect in Mile End

Mile End East Novemeber 20th by-election result:
Labour 1208
Conservatives 630
Respect 604
Liberal Democrats 110

Go to Socialist Unity or Liam McQuaid for discussion, much of it on tried and true (or tired and terrible) sectarian discussion.


Convention of the Left invite

Dear Comrades
The organisers of the Convention of The Left would like to invite you to the free one day conference - "Capitalism Isnt Working - What Is The Alternative?" - to be held at the Friends Meeting House, Manchester, from 10-5 on Saturday 24th January 2009.

More details (plus downloadable leaflet, advance registration and discussion contributions) can be found on our website and we encourage you to circulate widely and to join in the debates taking place.

As was agreed at the Convention's week of debate in September, we know that the wealth exists in the world to pay for our essential needs, conspicuous consumption only leads to escalating warfare and environmental destruction, and we cannot let the recession be used as an excuse to scapegoat refugees and migrants - the poor must not be punished for the crisis of capitalism and we must directly challenge any legitimisation by Labour of the racism and fascism that threatens to emerge as a result. The recent comments of the appalling Immigration Minister Woolas are only too clear.

So we must provide the alternative - in the interests of the planet, peace and people, not profiteers - and we look forward to seeing everyone who supports the Statement of Intent that was agreed in September, at the Recall Convention meeting on 24th January in Manchester.

The provisional agenda is for a general political discussion (particularly about the development of a socialist economic alternative) followed by three parallel workshops (loosely along the lines of planet, peace, people) and a final plenary for agreeing demands, actions, campaigns, and ways of working that we can all carry out together across the left.

All sessions will follow the style developed by the Convention in September - participation rather than top-down platforms, consensus rather than polarisation - and we encourage background contributions or suggestions for action that will fit with the themes outlined. We would also welcome progress reports from local Convention groups or forums that may have started to develop. (We do request that all contributions are short and, in line with the Statement of Intent agreed in September, we request that contributions are not about the creation of a new left party now.) Please can you email these or submit to the website discussion - no later than January 10th, so that we can collate and circulate for the day itself.

The Organising Group has now drafted a Statement of Action which we hope may be useful for setting the context (please see below) - and there are a number of other proposals that have been developed recently on the left, particularly about the economy, and also from organisations supporting future Convention activity - please do let us have these so that we can publicise them on the website and at the Recall Convention itself on January 24th.

Thank you for your support and good luck with developing left unity in practice in your own campaigns and activities.

John Nicholson (on behalf of the Convention of The Left Organising Group)

Convention of The Left – moving forward – Statement of Action
The September launch of the Convention of The Left exceeded expectations and was a significant event on the left. We must now work out how to build on this positive beginning.
We re-affirm our intention “to join together with all those seeking a better society, as an anti-capitalist left fighting for an alternative socialist society” (September 21st 2008 Statement of Intent).

Local Campaigning
To do this effectively we must “go local” – building local Conventions, experimenting with organisational and political models, learning from each other and from experience, building on “what works”, with an emphasis on bottom up campaigning, participation and decision making.
Local Convention of The Left groups or forums should develop a combination of campaigning and political discussion – not duplicating other campaigns or seeking to replace them but drawing the left together in co-operation and struggle. We should go out of our way to overcome the division that exists between the organised left and the direct actionist and libertarian groups.

Campaigns should be developed and supported locally. Already some local groups have taken a lead in actions coming out of the financial crisis, on house repossessions, on fuel poverty and energy costs. Other areas of activity might include anti-academy campaigns, defence of local GP surgeries against poly-clinics, campaigns against privatisations, in support of migrants and opposing deportations, fighting the fascist threat.

Local Convention of The Lefts should be encouraged to:
1. produce reports for a local convention section of the website
2. discuss demands and programs of action around their struggles
3. submit these demands and charters to the Convention website and future events for further discussion.

National Campaigning
We re-affirm that this is not the construction of another political party. Rather, the strength of the Convention lies in attempting to bring local groupings together and to provide a wider forum for discussion and united action – so that we can strengthen the anti capitalist left by uniting ourselves around action and policies where we can.The Recall Event on January 24th 2009 should elect a steering committee to build on the work of the group that organised Manchester 2008’s Convention. This steering committee should be charged with organising or co-ordinating future activity – such as a further day or weekend Convention in summer 2009 – and with exploring the possibilities of a similar event at TUC and/or Labour Party Conference in Brighton 2009 as was organised in Manchester 2008.


World Socialist Website on NPA

Always interesting to read about the LCR and the creation of the new anti-capitalist party in France. Here's the ex-Healyites sectarian and ultra-left take. Shame they didn't take the opportunity to translate the Krivine interview.

France: Alain Krivine explains the role of the "New Anti-Capitalist Party"
By Peter Schwarz 21 November 2008

Last week, the Internet publication Médiapart published an interview with Alain Krivine, the long-time leader of the French Revolutionary Communist League (LCR). The interview throws light on the programme and political role of the New Anti-Capitalist Party (NPA), which the LCR plans to found at the end of January.

Krivine makes three things clear: First of all, the new party will be reformist rather than revolutionary; its aim is not to build a socialist society, but rather to refurbish the existing capitalist system. Second, the new party does not represent a political break with the old, bankrupt workers’ organisations, but will operate instead as a vessel for assembling disappointed reformists, Stalinists, trade unionists and petty-bourgeois “lefts.” Third, the party cultivates a cynical and dismissive attitude to the traditions of the revolutionary Marxist movement.
In his first answer, Krivine reveals himself to be within the political spectrum of bourgeois politics. When asked, "How does the LCR analyse the current ‘crisis’ of the capitalist system?" he replies, "It is one of the big crises that periodically rock a system that is dominated by the drive for profit."

This is false and leads to completely wrong political conclusions.

The present crisis is not merely one of the cyclical downturns that grip capitalism at regular intervals—and give way to a new upsurge. It has already spread from the financial sector to the sphere of production and has led to the first worldwide recession since the Second World War. It marks a new stage in the decline of world capitalism and invokes all the historical contradictions that, between 1914 and 1945, plunged the world into revolutionary class struggles, fascist barbarism and two world wars.

At the heart of the crisis is the decline of American imperialism, whose economic superiority provided the basis for the temporary stabilisation of world capitalism after the Second World War. Now, the US is compensating for its economic decline by the aggressive deployment of its military forces. The reaction of the European ruling class has been to undertake its own military rearmament and its own initiatives to redivide the world and its resources. The growth of militarism and social reaction are two sides of the same coin.

This confronts the working class with revolutionary tasks. It can no longer defend itself on the basis of reformist or trade union methods, which seek to achieve class compromise within the context of the national state. The globalisation of production has superseded and rendered obsolete and reactionary the borders of the national state. The decay of all reformist organisations is an expression of this fact. The crisis cannot be solved within the context of capitalist society. It confronts the working class with the task of breaking with the old reformist organisations, taking the political initiative and struggling for political power—or facing a descent into dictatorship and war. The working class is posed with the alternative: socialism or barbarism.

That is not Krivine's perspective. His estimation of the crisis does not substantially differ from that of bourgeois politicians, who—like French President Nicolas Sarkozy or German Chancellor Angela Merkel—declare that the "real economy" is basically healthy, attribute the financial crisis to the misdeeds of a few speculators and promise to resolve the problem with stricter regulations. Echoing them, Krivine declares that the crisis has taken place at a time when "financial wealth no longer corresponds to real wealth."

He proposes a series of "immediate measures"—the setting up of a public banking system subject to democratic control, a prohibition on dismissals at profitable companies, the opening of corporate books, the abolition of bank secrets, a rise in purchasing power by increasing wages and pensions, etc.

While these measures sound radical, Krivine does not link them to a programme of working class power. They are raised from the standpoint of exerting pressure on other parties. The task of the NPA is not the preparation of the working class for inevitable class confrontations by breaking it from the paralysing influence of the reformist, Stalinist and trade union apparatuses. Instead, it encourages the illusion that precisely these apparatuses can be pressured to adopt policies favourable to the interests of workers.

How closely the LCR/NPA is linked to the old bureaucratic organisations is made clear in the next paragraph of the interview.

Krivine boasts that the NPA is already exerting a positive effect on the old parties: "Even prior to its birth, it is already forcing all of the time-worn left-wing parties to define themselves in accordance with the NPA or statements made by Olivier Besancenot [the leading light of the LCR/NPA]. It is already proving useful."

In particular, Krivine appeals to all those who have been left politically stranded by the lurch to the right of their old organisations: "The NPA project consists of creating a political opening for all currents, for all persons who wish to oppose the unparalleled offensive of the entrepreneurs and the Sarkozy government with a unified ‘all together’ approach."

He is pleased that so many have already taken up this appeal: "This party, which still does not even exist, has already absorbed a small group of experienced members from the Socialist Party (more than expected...) and the Communist Party, as well as a strong contingent from the trade union movement and from citizens' initiatives."

Krivine is open to any sort of political manoeuvre or combination—including participation in government. The NPA, he says, "is a tool useful for struggles, useful to develop a political alternative, and, why not, under certain, but not yet existing, conditions, useful tomorrow for the exercise of power. Nothing is impossible, a new chapter is opening up."

Krivine also declares his willingness to cooperate and draw up joint lists of candidates with other political currents. His only condition: no participation "in government coalitions with the Socialist Party, similar to the coalitions entered into by the PRC [Refounded Communism] in Italy and the Left Party in Germany."

Such declarations mean little. The timeline for such promises is usually short. In addition, there are different forms of cooperation. In 1936, the French Communist Party did not directly take part in the Popular Front government led by Léon Blum, which consisted of a coalition of the Socialist Party and bourgeois radicals. Nevertheless, the CP was Blum's most important prop, voting for his government in parliament and strangling the powerful general strike movement of that time in order to secure the survival of French capitalism.

Time will tell whether the NPA takes part in a future French government. At present, its most important task consists of cutting off a new generation of workers and young people from the inheritance of the revolutionary workers' movement. In this respect, it has a similar function to that of the Spanish POUM, whose role Trotsky described as follows: "By their general ‘left’ formulae the leaders of the POUM created the illusion that a revolutionary party existed in Spain and prevented the appearance of the truly proletarian, intransigent tendencies.” In so doing, as Trotsky explained, the POUM bore "an enormous responsibility for the Spanish tragedy." (1)

Krivine is completely dismissive of the inheritance of the Marxist movement. He contemptuously derides the great theoretical and political debates that decided the fate of millions as a controversy over antiquated "isms."
"Up to now we have had difficulty recruiting several hundred people into the LCR who differentiated between Stalinism, Maoism, anarchism, Trotskyism and all manner of ‘isms,’ ” Krivine declares. "Today, the revolutionaries are been heard by millions and are striving, while not denying their struggles, to develop a popular party forcing us to jointly change our vocabulary, methods and our ways of operating."

Krivine categorically dismisses the tradition of Trotskyism, which the LCR had invoked (falsely) up to now: "As a party which seeks to ‘revolutionise society,’ the NPA will not be ‘Trotskyist.’ Instead, it will strive to synthesise what is positive in the different traditions of the workers' movement, enriched by the contribution of the critics of globalisation, environmentalists, feminists, and not least the experience of those who come from traditional parties or the anarchist movement."

This opportunist mixing of irreconcilable political currents into a political mishmash is reactionary. One cannot "synthesise" Stalinism and Trotskyism. What separates them is not just differences of opinion but, in Trotsky’s words, a river of blood. The Stalinist regime murdered far more communists than the fascists, as the Italian fascist leader Mussolini once declared. The conflict between Trotskyism and Stalinism was the highest theoretical and political expression of the international class struggle itself. Stalinism was responsible for defeats of the working class whose impact has lasted for generations. The same can be said with regard to the Marxist movement's disputes with reformists and anarchists.

A revolutionary socialist strategy can be developed only on the basis of an assimilation of the lessons of past struggles. Only when the working class learns from history and draws lessons from earlier victories and defeats can it be prepared for a new period of revolutionary conflict. At the heart of these lessons is the struggle waged by the Fourth International against Stalinism, reformism, Pabloite revisionism and all other forms of political opportunism. The most important lessons of the twentieth century are summarised in this tradition.

The LCR/NPA deliberately strives to sever workers and young people from this history and from the political knowledge that must be extracted from history. It turns toward a new generation that grew up in a period marked by the collapse of the Soviet Union and amidst a propaganda campaign proclaiming the alleged "failure of socialism," and which knows little of the revolutionary traditions of the workers' movement. But it does so not to politically educate this generation, but rather to imbue it with contempt for theory and history. Such a movement can only serve as an impediment to the revolutionary development of the working class and a prop for bourgeois rule.

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Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Race and Class Vol 50, 2 Oct-Dec 2008

Race and Class is justly celebrating its 50th anniversary. This issue (Vol 50, 2 Oct-Dec 2008) carries a re-print from Sivanandan's Race and Resisitance: The IRR Story, his pamphlet from 1974 that gives the history of the Insitute of Race Relations and explains the insurgency that led to a transition from a kind of Commonwealth liberalism to the current radicalism. And Jenny Bourne contributes a piece on 'The IRR: the story continues'.

As well as these two pieces are there are another two articles of great interest. Arun Kundnani writes about 'Islamism and the Roots of Liberal Rage' and Richard Phillips on the Muslim Association of Britain and the anti-war movement, especially the Stop the War Coalition, in 'Standing Together'. Kundnani (who's 2007 book The End of Tolerance is an important contribution to debates about racism) gives a detailed account of British Islamicist politics and the Islamophobic response coming from the likes of Paul Berman and Nick Cohen and how this shapes Ed Husein's account of The Islamist. Phillips provides a very useful and interview based account of one of the crucial and most controversial features of anti-war politics, the participation of the MAB in the Stop the War Coalition, and of special interest an account of how the MAB moved away from STW.

There's more, but that's enough to be going on with.

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Mike Davis on Obama

Can Obama See the Grand Canyon?
On Presidential Blindness and Economic Catastrophe
By Mike Davis

Let me begin, very obliquely, with the Grand Canyon and the paradox of trying to see beyond cultural or historical precedent.

The first European to look into the depths of the great gorge was the conquistador Garcia Lopez de Cardenas in 1540. He was horrified by the sight and quickly retreated from the South Rim. More than three centuries passed before Lieutenant Joseph Christmas Ives of the U.S. Army Corps of Topographical Engineers led the second major expedition to the rim. Like Garcia Lopez, he recorded an "awe that was almost painful to behold." Ives's expedition included a well-known German artist, but his sketch of the Canyon was wildly distorted, almost hysterical.

Neither the conquistadors nor the Army engineers, in other words, could make sense of what they saw; they were simply overwhelmed by unexpected revelation. In a fundamental sense, they were blind because they lacked the concepts necessary to organize a coherent vision of an utterly new landscape.

Accurate portrayal of the Canyon only arrived a generation later when the Colorado River became the obsession of the one-armed Civil War hero John Wesley Powell and his celebrated teams of geologists and artists. They were like Victorian astronauts reconnoitering another planet. It took years of brilliant fieldwork to construct a conceptual framework for taking in the canyon. With "deep time" added as the critical dimension, it was finally possible for raw perception to be transformed into consistent vision.

The result of their work, The Tertiary History of the Grand Canyon District, published in 1882, is illustrated by masterpieces of draftsmanship that, as Powell's biographer Wallace Stegner once pointed out, "are more accurate than any photograph." That is because they reproduce details of stratigraphy usually obscured in camera images. When we visit one of the famous viewpoints today, most of us are oblivious to how profoundly our eyes have been trained by these iconic images or how much we have been influenced by the idea, popularized by Powell, of the Canyon as a museum of geological time.

But why am I talking about geology? Because, like the Grand Canyon's first explorers, we are looking into an unprecedented abyss of economic and social turmoil that confounds our previous perceptions of historical risk. Our vertigo is intensified by our ignorance of the depth of the crisis or any sense of how far we might ultimately fall.

Weimar Returns in Limbaughland

Let me confess that, as an aging socialist, I suddenly find myself like the Jehovah's Witness who opens his window to see the stars actually falling out of the sky. Although I've been studying Marxist crisis theory for decades, I never believed I'd actually live to see financial capitalism commit suicide. Or hear the International Monetary Fund warn of imminent "systemic meltdown."

Thus, my initial reaction to Wall Street's infamous 777.7 point plunge a few weeks ago was a very sixties retro elation. "Right on, Karl!" I shouted. "Eat your derivatives and die, Wall Street swine!" Like the Grand Canyon, the fall of the banks can be a terrifying but sublime spectacle.

But the real culprits, of course, are not being trundled off to the guillotine; they're gently floating to earth in golden parachutes. The rest of us may be trapped on the burning plane without a pilot, but the despicable Richard Fuld, who used Lehman Brothers to loot pension funds and retirement accounts, merely sulks on his yacht.

Out in the stucco deserts of Limbaughland, moreover, fear is already being distilled into a good ol' boy version of the "stab in the back" myth that rallied the ruined German petite bourgeoisie to the swastika. If you listen to the rage on commute AM, you'll know that ‘socialism' has already taken a lien on America, Barack Hussein Obama is terrorism's Manchurian candidate, the collapse of Wall Street was caused by elderly black people with Fannie Mae loans, and ACORN in its voter registration drives has long been padding the voting rolls with illegal brown hordes.

In other times, Sarah Palin's imitation of Father Charles Coughlin -- the priest who preached an American Reich in the 1930s -- in drag might be hilarious camp, but with the American way of life in sudden freefall, the specter of star-spangled fascism doesn't seem quite so far-fetched. The Right may lose the election, but it already possesses a sinister, historically-proven blueprint for rapid recovery.

Progressives have no time to waste. In the face of a new depression that promises folks from Wasilla to Timbuktu an unknown world of pain, how do we reconstruct our understanding of the globalized economy? To what extent can we look to either Obama or any of the Democrats to help us analyze the crisis and then act effectively to resolve it?

Is Obama FDR?

If the Nashville "town hall" debate is any guide, we will soon have another blind president. Neither candidate had the guts or information to answer the simple questions posed by the anxious audience: What will happen to our jobs? How bad will it get? What urgent steps should be taken?

Instead, the candidates stuck like flypaper to their obsolete talking points. McCain's only surprise was yet another innovation in deceit: a mortgage relief plan that would reward banks and investors without necessarily saving homeowners.

Obama recited his four-point program, infinitely better in principle than his opponent's preferential option for the rich, but abstract and lacking in detail. It remains more a rhetorical promise than the blueprint for the actual machinery of reform. He made only passing reference to the next phase of the crisis: the slump of the real economy and likely mass unemployment on a scale not seen for 70 years.

With baffling courtesy to the Bush administration, he failed to highlight any of the other weak links in the economic system: the dangerous overhang of credit-default swap obligations left over from the fall of Lehman Brothers; the trillion-dollar black hole of consumer credit-card debt that may threaten the solvency of JPMorgan Chase and Bank of America; the implacable decline of General Motors and the American auto industry; the crumbling foundations of municipal and state finance; the massacre of tech equity and venture capital in Silicon Valley; and, most unexpectedly, sudden fissures in the financial solidity of even General Electric.

In addition, both Obama and his vice presidential partner Joe Biden, in their support for Secretary of the Treasury Paulson's plan, avoid any discussion of the inevitable result of cataclysmic restructuring and government bailouts: not "socialism," but ultra-capitalism -- one that is likely to concentrate control of credit in a few leviathan banks, controlled in large part by sovereign wealth funds but subsidized by generations of public debt and domestic austerity.

Never have so many ordinary Americans been nailed to a cross of gold (or derivatives), yet Obama is the most mild-mannered William Jennings Bryan imaginable. Unlike Sarah Palin who masticates the phrase "the working class" with defiant glee, he hews to a party line that acknowledges only the needs of an amorphous "middle class" living on a largely mythical "Main Street."

If we are especially concerned about the fate of the poor or unemployed, we are left to read between the lines, with no help from his talking points that espouse clean coal technology, nuclear power, and a bigger military, but elide the urgency of a renewed war on poverty as championed by John Edwards in his tragically self-destructed primary campaign. But perhaps inside the cautious candidate is a man whose humane passions transcend his own nearsighted centrist campaign. As a close friend, exasperated by my chronic pessimism, chided me the other day, "don't be so unfair. FDR didn't have a nuts and bolts program either in 1933. Nobody did."

What Franklin D. Roosevelt did possess in that year of breadlines and bank failures, according to my friend, was enormous empathy for the common people and a willingness to experiment with government intervention, even in the face of the monolithic hostility of the wealthy classes. In this view, Obama is's re-imagining of our 32nd president: calm, strong, deeply in touch with ordinary needs, and willing to accept the advice of the country's best and brightest.

The Death of Keynesianism

But even if we concede to the Illinois senator a truly Rooseveltian or, even better, Lincolnian strength of character, this hopeful analogy is flawed in at least three principal ways:

First, we can't rely on the Great Depression as analog to the current crisis, nor upon the New Deal as the template for its solution. Certainly, there is a great deal of déjà vu in the frantic attempts to quiet panic and reassure the public that the worst has passed. Many of Paulson's statements, indeed, could have been directly plagiarized from Herbert Hoover's Secretary of the Treasury Andrew Mellon, and both presidential campaigns are frantically cribbing heroic rhetoric from the early New Deal. But just as the business press has been insisting for years, this is not the Old American Economy, but an entirely new-fangled contraption built from outsourced parts and supercharged by instantaneous world markets in everything from dollars and defaults to hog bellies and disaster futures.

We are seeing the consequences of a perverse restructuring that began with the presidency of Ronald Reagan and which has inverted the national income shares of manufacturing (21% in 1980; 12% in 2005) and those of financial services (15% in 1980; 21% in 2005). In 1930, the factories may have been shuttered but the machinery was still intact; it hadn't been auctioned off at five cents on the dollar to China.

On the other hand, we shouldn't disparage the miracles of contemporary market technology. Casino capitalism has proven its mettle by transmitting the deadly virus of Wall Street at unprecedented velocity to every financial center on the planet. What took three years at the beginning of the 1930s -- that is, the full globalization of the crisis -- has taken only three weeks this time around. God help us, if, as seems to be happening, unemployment tops the levees at anything like the same speed.

Second, Obama won't inherit Roosevelt's ultimate situational advantage -- having emergent tools of state intervention and demand management (later to be called "Keynesianism") empowered by an epochal uprising of industrial workers in the world's most productive factories.

If you've been watching the sad parade of economic gurus on McNeil-Lehrer, you know that the intellectual shelves in Washington are now almost bare. Neither major party retains more than a few enigmatic shards of policy traditions different from the neo-liberal consensus on trade and privatization. Indeed, posturing pseudo-populists aside, it is unclear whether anyone inside the Beltway, including Obama's economic advisors, can think clearly beyond the indoctrinated mindset of Goldman Sachs, the source of the two most prominent secretaries of the treasury over the last decade.

Keynes, now suddenly mourned, is actually quite dead. More importantly, the New Deal did not arise spontaneously from the goodwill or imagination of the White House. On the contrary, the social contract for the post-1935 Second New Deal was a complex, adaptive response to the greatest working-class movement in our history, in a period when powerful third parties still roamed the political landscape and Marxism exercised extraordinary influence on American intellectual life.

Even with the greatest optimism of the will, it is difficult to imagine the American labor movement recovering from defeat as dramatically as it did in 1934-1937. The decisive difference is structural rather than ideological. (Indeed, today's union movement is much more progressive than the decrepit, nativist American Federation of Labor in 1930.) The power of labor within a Walmart-ized service economy is simply more dispersed and difficult to mobilize than in the era of giant urban-industrial concentrations and ubiquitous factory neighborhoods.

Is War the Answer?

The third problem with the New Deal analogy is perhaps the most important. Military Keynesianism is no longer an available deus ex machina. Let me explain.

In 1933, when FDR was inaugurated, the United States was in full retreat from foreign entanglements, and there was little controversy about bringing a few hundred Marines home from the occupations of Haiti and Nicaragua. It took two years of world war, the defeat of France, and the near collapse of England to finally win a majority in Congress for rearmament, but when war production finally started up in late 1940 it became a huge engine for the reemployment of the American work force, the real cure for the depressed job markets of the 1930s. Subsequently, American world power and full employment would align in a way that won the loyalty of several generations of working-class voters.

Today, of course, the situation is radically different. A bigger Pentagon budget no longer creates hundreds of thousands of stable factory jobs, since significant parts of its weapons production is now actually outsourced, and the ideological link between high-wage employment and intervention -- good jobs and Old Glory on a foreign shore -- while hardly extinct is structurally weaker than at any time since the early 1940s. Even in the new military (largely a hereditary caste of poor whites, blacks, and Latinos) demoralization is reaching the stage of active discontent and opening up new spaces for alternative ideas.

Although both candidates have endorsed programs, including expansion of Army and Marine combat strength, missile defense (aka "Star Wars"), and an intensified war in Afghanistan, that will enlarge the military-industrial complex, none of this will replenish the supply of decent jobs nor prime a broken national pump. However, in the midst of a deep slump, what a huge military budget can do is obliterate the modest but essential reforms that make up Obama's plans for healthcare, alternative energy, and education.

In other words, Rooseveltian guns and butter have become a contradiction in terms, which means that the Obama campaign is engineering a catastrophic collision between its national security priorities and its domestic policy goals.

The Fate of Obama-ism

Why don't such smart people see the Grand Canyon?

Maybe they do, in which case deception is truly the mother's milk of American politics; or perhaps Obama has become the reluctant prisoner, intellectually as well as politically, of Clintonism: that is say, of a culturally permissive neo-liberalism whose New Deal rhetoric masks the policy spirit of Richard Nixon.

It's worth asking, for instance, what in the actual substance of his foreign policy agenda differentiates the Democratic candidate from the radioactive legacy of the Bush Doctrine? Yes, he would close Guantanamo, talk to the Iranians, and thrill hearts in Europe. He also promises to renew the Global War on Terror (in much the same way that Bush senior and Clinton sustained the core policies of Reaganism, albeit with a "more human face").

In case anyone has missed the debates, let me remind you that the Democratic candidate has chained himself, come hell or high water, to a global strategy in which "victory" in the Middle East (and Central Asia) remains the chief premise of foreign policy, with the Iraqi-style nation-building hubris of Dick Cheney and Paul Wolfowitz repackaged as a "realist" faith in global "stabilization."

True, the enormity of the economic crisis may compel President Obama to renege on some of candidate Obama's ringing promises to support an idiotic missile defense system or provocative NATO memberships for Georgia and Ukraine. Nonetheless, as he emphasizes in almost every speech and in each debate, defeating the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, together with a robust defense of Israel, constitute the keystone of his national security agenda.

Under huge pressure from Republicans and Blue Dog Democrats alike to cut the budget and reduce the exponential increase in the national debt, what choices would President Obama be forced to make early in his administration? More than likely comprehensive health-care will be whittled down to a barebones plan, "alternative energy" will simply mean the fraud of "clean coal," and anything that remains in the Treasury, after Wall Street's finished its looting spree, will buy bombs to pulverize more Pashtun villages, ensuring yet more generations of embittered mujahideen and jihadis.

Am I unduly cynical? Perhaps, but I lived through the Lyndon Johnson years and watched the War on Poverty, the last true New Deal program, destroyed to pay for slaughter in Vietnam.

It is bitterly ironic, but, I suppose, historically predictable that a presidential campaign millions of voters have supported for its promise to end the war in Iraq has now mortgaged itself to a "tougher than McCain" escalation of a hopeless conflict in Afghanistan and the Pakistani tribal frontier. In the best of outcomes, the Democrats will merely trade one brutal, losing war for another. In the worst case, their failed policies may set the stage for the return of Cheney and Rove, or their even more sinister avatars.

Mike Davis is the author of In Praise of Barbarians: Essays Against Empire (Haymarket Books, 2008) and Buda's Wagon: A Brief History of the Car Bomb (Verso, 2007). He is currently working on a book about cities, poverty, and global change. You can listen to a podcast of Davis discussing why the New Deal isn't relevant as a solution today by clicking here.

Why Obama's Futurama Can Wait
Schools and Hospitals Should Come First in Any Stimulus Package
By Mike Davis

America's "Futurama" is defunct. The famous walk-through diorama of a car-and-suburb world, imagineered by Norman Bel Geddes for General Motors at the 1939 New York World's Fair, has weathered into a dreary emblem of our national backwardness. While GM bleeds to death on a Detroit street corner, the steel-and-concrete Interstate landscape built in the 1950s and 1960s is rapidly decaying into this century's equivalent of Victorian rubble.

As we wait in potholed gridlock for the next highway bridge to collapse, the French, the Japanese, and now the Spanish blissfully speed by us on their sci-fi trains. Within the next year or two, Spain's high-speed rail network will become the world's largest, with plans to cap construction in 2020 at an incredible 6,000 miles of fast track. Meanwhile China has launched its first 200 mile-per-hour prototype, and Saudi Arabia and Argentina are proceeding with the construction of their own state-of-the-art systems. Of the larger rich, industrial countries, only the United States has yet to build a single mile of what constitutes the new global standard of transportation.

From day one, Barack Obama campaigned to redress this infrastructure deficit through an ambitious program of public investment: "For our economy, our safety, and our workers, we have to rebuild America." Originally he proposed to finance this spending by ending the war in Iraq. Although his present commitments to a larger military and an expanded war in Afghanistan seem to foreclose any reconversion of the Pentagon budget, he continues to emphasize the urgency of an Apollo-style program to modernize highways, ports, rail transit, and power grids.

Public works, he also promises, can put the public back to work. His "Economic Rescue Plan for the Middle Class" vows to "create 5 million new, high-wage jobs by investing in the renewable sources of energy that will eliminate the oil we currently import from the Middle East in 10 years, and we'll create 2 million jobs by rebuilding our crumbling roads, schools, and bridges."

Of course, Bill Clinton entered the White House with a similarly ambitious plan to rebuild the derelict national infrastructure, but it was abandoned after Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin convinced the new president that deficit reduction was the true national priority. This time around, a much more powerful and desperate coalition of interests is aligned to support the Keynesian shock-and-awe of major public works.

Rolling Out the Dozers

Since the Paulson bailout plan has become so much expensive spit in the wind, and with bond spreads now premised on the possibility of double-digit unemployment over the next 18 months, massive new federal spending has become a matter of sheer economic survival. As innumerable influentials -- from New York Times columnist David Brooks to House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi -- have argued, a crash program of infrastructure repair and construction, likely to include some investment in the new power grids required to bring more solar and wind energy online, is the "win-win" approach that will garner the quickest bipartisan support.

It has also been portrayed as the only lifeboat in the water for the ordinary steerage passengers in our sinking economy. The emergent Washington consensus seems to be that those five million green jobs can actually come later (after we save GM's shareholders), but that infrastructure spending -- if resolutely pushed through the lame-duck Congress or adopted in Obama's first 100 days -- can begin to pump money into the crucial construction and manufacturing sectors of the economy before the end of next winter.

Unlike Comrade Bush's "socialist" efforts to save Wall Street, a public-works strategy for national recovery has had broad ideological respectability from the days of Alexander Hamilton and Abraham Lincoln to those of Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy. If Democrats can brag about the proud heritage of the Works Progress Administration and the Public Works Administration from the era of the Great Depression (ah, those magnificent post offices and parkways), there are still a few Republicans who remember the Golden Age of interstate highway construction that commenced in the 1950s with President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Indeed since the national shame of Hurricane Katrina, Americans have become outspokenly nostalgic about competent federal governments and magnificent public achievements.

If one accepts the reasonable principle of supporting the new president whenever he makes policy from the left or addresses basic social needs, shouldn't progressives be cheering the White House as it rolls out the dozers, Cats, and big cranes? Aren't high-speed mass transit and clean energy the kind of noble priorities that best reconcile big-bang stimulus with long-term public value?

The answer is: no, not at this stage of our national emergency. I'm not an infrastructure-crisis denialist, but first things first. We are now at a crash site, and our priority should be to save the victims, not change the tires or repair the fender, much less build a new car. In the triage situation that now confronts the president-elect, keeping local schools and hospitals open should be the first concern, rebuilding bridges and expanding ports would come next, and rescuing bank shareholders at the very end of the line.

Inexorably, the budgets of schools, cities, and states are sinking into insolvency on a scale comparable to the early 1930s. The public-sector fiscal crisis -- a vicious chain reaction of falling property values, incomes, and sales -- has been magnified by the unexpectedly large exposure of local governments and transit agencies to the Wall Street meltdown via complex capital lease-back arrangements. Meanwhile on the demand side, the need for public services explodes as even prudent burghers face foreclosure, not to speak of the loss of pensions and medical coverage. Although the public mega-deficits of California and New York may dominate headlines, the essence of the crisis -- from the suburbs of Anchorage to the neighborhoods of West Philly -- is its potential universality.

Certainly, in such a rich country, wind farms and schools should never become a Sophie's choice, but the criminal negligence of Congress over the past months should alert us to the likelihood that such a choice will be made -- with disastrous results for both human services and economic recovery.

Saving Schools and Hospitals

Congress naturally loves infrastructure because it rewards manufacturers, shippers, and contractors who give large campaign contributions, and because construction sites can be handsomely bill-boarded with the names of proud sponsors. Powerful business lobbies like the National Industrial Transportation League and the Coalition for America's Gateways and Trade Corridors stand ready to grease the wheels of their political allies. In addition, if the past century of congressional pork-barrel methods is any precedent, infrastructural spending typically resists coherent national planning or larger cost-benefit analyses.

Yet saving (and expanding) core public employment is, hands-down, the best Keynesian stimulus around. Federal investment in education and healthcare gets incomparably more bang for the buck, if jobs are the principal criterion, than expenditures on transportation equipment or road repair.

For example, $50 million in federal aid during the Clinton administration allowed Michigan schools to hire nearly 1,300 new teachers. It is also the current operating budget of a Tennessee school district made up of eight elementary schools, three middle schools, and two high schools.

On the other hand, $50 million on the order book of a niche public transit manufacturer generates only 200 jobs (plus, of course, capital costs and profits). Road construction and bridge repair, also very capital intensive, produce about the same modest, direct employment effect.

One of the most likely targets for a Congressional stimulus plan is light-rail construction. Street-car systems are enormously popular with local governments, redevelopment agencies, and middle-class commuters, but generally they operate less efficiently (per dollar per passenger) than bus systems, and at least 40% of the capital investment leaks overseas to German streetcar builders and Korean steel companies.

Personally, I would love to commute via a sleek Euro-style bullet train from my home in San Diego to my job in Riverside, 100 grueling freeway miles away, but I'll take gridlock if the cost of rationing federal expenditure is tolerating the closure of my kids' school or increasing the wait in the local emergency room from two to ten hours.

Obama, unlike his predecessor, has a bold vision, shared with his powerful supporters in high-tech industries, of catching up with the Spanish and Japanese, while redeeming America as the synonym for modernity. Lots of new infrastructure will, however, become so many bridges to nowhere (especially for our children) unless he and Congress first save human-needs budgets and public-sector jobs.

A good start for progressive agitation on Obama's left flank would be to demand that his health-care reform and aid-to-education proposals be brought front and center as preferential vehicles for immediate macro-economic stimulus. Democrats should not forget that the most brilliant and enduring accomplishment of the Kennedy-Johnson era was Head Start, not the Apollo Program.

If, after saving kindergartens and county hospitals, we someday hope to ride the fast train, then we need to rebuild the antiwar movement on broader foundations. The president-elect's original proposal for funding domestic social investment through downsizing the empire offers a brilliant starting point for basing economic growth on an economic bill of rights (as advocated by Franklin Roosevelt in 1944) instead of imperial over-reach and Pharaonic levels of military waste.

Mike Davis is the author of In Praise of Barbarians: Essays Against Empire (Haymarket Books, 2008) and Buda's Wagon: A Brief History of the Car Bomb (Verso, 2007). He is currently working on a book about cities, poverty, and global change.

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Monday, November 17, 2008

Tomgram presents Tariq Ali on Afghanistan

November 16, 2008
Tomgram: Tariq Ali, Flight Path to Disaster in Afghanistan

One of the eerier reports on the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan appeared recently in the New York Times. Journalist John Burns visited the Russian ambassador in Kabul, Zamir N. Kabulov, who, back in the 1980s, when the Russians were the Americans in Afghanistan, and the Americans were launching the jihad that would eventually wend its way to the 9/11 attacks… well, you get the idea…

In any case, Kabulov was, in the years of the Soviet occupation, a KGB agent in the same city and, in the 1990s, an adviser to a U.N. peacekeeping envoy during the Afghan civil war that followed. "They've already repeated all of our mistakes," he told Burns, speaking of the American/NATO effort in the country. "Now," he added, "they're making mistakes of their own, ones for which we do not own the copyright." His list of Soviet-style American mistakes included: underestimating "the resistance," an over-reliance on air power, a failure to understand the Afghan "irritative allergy" to foreign occupation, "and thinking that because they swept into Kabul easily, the occupation would be untroubled." Of present occupiers who have stopped by to catch his sorry tale, Kabulov concludes world-wearily, "They listen, but they do not hear."

The question is: Does this experience really have to be repeated to the bitter end -- in the case of the Soviets, a calamitous defeat and retreat from Afghanistan, followed by years of civil war in that wrecked country, and finally the rise of the Pakistani-backed Taliban? The answer is: perhaps. There is no question that the advisers President Obama will be listening to are already exploring more complex strategies in Afghanistan, including possible negotiations with "reconcilable elements" of the Taliban. But these all remain military-plus strategies at whose heart lies the kind of troop surge that candidate Obama called for so vehemently -- and, given the fate of the previous 2007 U.S./NATO "surge" in Afghanistan, this, too, has failure written all over it.

If you want a glimmer of hope when it comes to the spreading Afghan War -- American missile-armed drones have been attacking across the Pakistani border regularly in recent months -- consider that Barack Obama has made ex-CIA official Bruce Reidel a key advisor on the deteriorating Pakistani situation. And Reidel recently reviewed startlingly favorably Tariq Ali's must-read, hard-hitting new book on Pakistan (and so Afghanistan and so American policy), The Duel: Pakistan on the Flight Path of American Power for the Washington Post. ("My employers of the past three decades, the CIA and the Brookings Institution, get their share of blame," Reidel wrote. "So do both of the current presidential candidates…")

Ali believes that there could be a grand, brokered regional solution to the Afghan War, essentially a military-minus strategy. Let's hope Reidel and others are willing to listen to that, too; otherwise it will certainly be "Obama's war," and -- for anyone old enough to remember -- haven't we been through that before? Tom

Operation Enduring Disaster
Breaking with Afghan PolicyBy Tariq Ali
Afghanistan has been almost continuously at war for 30 years, longer than both World Wars and the American war in Vietnam combined. Each occupation of the country has mimicked its predecessor. A tiny interval between wars saw the imposition of a malignant social order, the Taliban, with the help of the Pakistani military and the late Benazir Bhutto, the prime minister who approved the Taliban takeover in Kabul.

Over the last two years, the U.S./NATO occupation of that country has run into serious military problems. Given a severe global economic crisis and the election of a new American president -- a man separated in style, intellect, and temperament from his predecessor -- the possibility of a serious discussion about an exit strategy from the Afghan disaster hovers on the horizon. The predicament the U.S. and its allies find themselves in is not an inescapable one, but a change in policy, if it is to matter, cannot be of the cosmetic variety.

Washington's hawks will argue that, while bad, the military situation is, in fact, still salvageable. This may be technically accurate, but it would require the carpet-bombing of southern Afghanistan and parts of Pakistan, the destruction of scores of villages and small towns, the killing of untold numbers of Pashtuns and the dispatch to the region of at least 200,000 more troops with all their attendant equipment, air, and logistical support. The political consequences of such a course are so dire that even Dick Cheney, the closest thing to Dr. Strangelove that Washington has yet produced, has been uncharacteristically cautious when it comes to suggesting a military solution to the conflict.

It has, by now, become obvious to the Pentagon that Afghan President Hamid Karzai and his family cannot deliver what is required and yet it is probably far too late to replace him with UN ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad. On his part, fighting for his political (and probably physical) existence, Karzai continues to protect his brother Ahmad Wali Karzai, accused of being involved in the country's staggering drug trade, but has belatedly sacked Hamidullah Qadri, his transport minister, for corruption.

Qadri was taking massive kickbacks from a company flying pilgrims to Mecca. Is nothing sacred?
A Deteriorating Situation
Of course, axing one minister is like whistling in the wind, given the levels of corruption reported in Karzai's government, which, in any case, controls little of the country. The Afghan president parries Washington's thrusts by blaming the U.S. military for killing too many civilians from the air. The bombing of the village of Azizabad in Herat province last August, which led to 91 civilian deaths (of which 60 were children), was only the most extreme of such recent acts. Karzai's men, hurriedly dispatched to distribute sweets and supplies to the survivors, were stoned by angry villagers.

Given the thousands of Afghans killed in recent years, small wonder that support for the neo-Taliban is increasing, even in non-Pashtun areas of the country. Many Afghans hostile to the old Taliban still support the resistance simply to make it clear that they are against the helicopters and missile-armed unmanned aerial drones that destroy homes, and to "Big Daddy" who wipes out villages, and to the flames that devour children.

Last February, Director of National Intelligence Michael McConnell presented a bleak survey of the situation on the ground to the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence:
"Afghan leaders must deal with the endemic corruption and pervasive poppy cultivation and drug trafficking. Ultimately, defeating the insurgency will depend heavily on the government's ability to improve security, deliver services, and expand development for economic opportunity.
"Although the international forces and the Afghan National Army continue to score tactical victories over the Taliban, the security situation has deteriorated in some areas in the south and Taliban forces have expanded their operations into previously peaceful areas of the west and around Kabul. The Taliban insurgency has expanded in scope despite operational disruption caused by the ISAF [NATO forces] and Operation Enduring Freedom operations. The death or capture of three top Taliban leaders last year -- their first high level losses -- does not yet appear to have significantly disrupted insurgent operations."

Since then the situation has only deteriorated further, leading to calls for sending in yet more American and NATO troops -- and creating ever deeper divisions inside NATO itself. In recent months, Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, the British Ambassador to Kabul, wrote a French colleague (in a leaked memo) that the war was lost and more troops were not a solution, a view reiterated recently by Air Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup, the British Defense Chief, who came out in public against a one-for-one transfer of troops withdrawn from Iraq to Kabul. He put it this way:
"I think we would all take some persuading that there would have to be a much larger British contingent there… So we also have to get ourselves back into balance; it's crucial that we reduce the operational tempo for our armed forces, so it cannot be, even if the situation demanded it, just a one for one transfer from Iraq to Afghanistan, we have to reduce that tempo."

The Spanish government is considering an Afghan withdrawal and there is serious dissent within the German and Norwegian foreign policy elites. The Canadian foreign minister has already announced that his country will not extend its Afghan commitment beyond 2011. And even if the debates in the Pentagon have not been aired in public, it's becoming obvious that, in Washington, too, some see the war as unwinnable.

Enter former Iraq commander General David Petraeus, center stage as the new CentCom commander. Ever since the "success" of "the surge" he oversaw in Iraq (a process designed to create temporary stability in that ravaged land by buying off the opposition and, among other things, the selective use of death squads), Petraeus sounds, and behaves, more and more like Lazarus on returning from the dead -- and before his body could be closely inspected.
The situation in Iraq was so dire that even a modest reduction in casualties was seen as a massive leap forward. With increasing outbreaks of violence in Baghdad and elsewhere in Iraq, however, the talk of success sounds ever hollower. To launch a new "surge" in Afghanistan now by sending more troops there will simply not work, not even as a public relations triumph. Perhaps some of the 100 advisers that General Petraeus has just appointed will point this out to him in forceful terms.

Flight Path to Disaster
Obama would be foolish to imagine that Petraeus can work a miracle cure in Afghanistan. The cancer has spread too far and is affecting U.S. troops as well. If the American media chose to interview active-duty soldiers in Afghanistan (on promise of anonymity), they might get a more accurate picture of what is happening inside the U.S. Army there.

I learned a great deal from Jules, a 20-year old American soldier I met recently in Canada. He became so disenchanted with the war that he decided to go AWOL, proving -- at least to himself -- that the Afghan situation was not an inescapable predicament. Many of his fellow soldiers, he claims, felt similarly, hating a war that dehumanized both them and the Afghans. "We just couldn't bring ourselves to accept that bombing Afghans was no different from bombing the landscape" was the way he summed up the situation.

Morale inside the Army there is low, he told me. The aggression unleashed against Afghan civilians often hides a deep depression. He does not, however, encourage others to follow in his footsteps. As he sees it, each soldier must make that choice for himself, accepting with it the responsibility that going AWOL permanently entails. Jules was convinced, however, that the war could not be won and did not want to see any more of his friends die. That's why he was wearing an "Obama out of Afghanistan" t-shirt.

Before he revealed his identity, I mistook this young soldier -- a Filipino-American born in southern California -- for an Afghan. His features reminded me of the Hazara tribesmen he must have encountered in Kabul. Trained as a mortar gunner and paratrooper from Fort Benning, Georgia, he was later assigned to the 82nd Airborne at Fort Bragg. Here is part of the account he offered me:

"I deployed to Southeastern Afghanistan in January 2007. We controlled everything from Jalalabad down to the northernmost areas of Kandahar province in Regional Command East. My unit had the job of pacifying the insurgency in Paktika, Paktia, and Khost provinces -- areas that had received no aid, but had been devastated during the initial invasion. Operation Anaconda [in 2002] was supposed to have wiped out the Taliban. That was the boast of the military leaders, but ridiculed by everyone else with a brain."

He spoke also of how impossible he found it to treat the Afghans as subhumans:
"I swear I could not for a second view these people as anything but human. The best way to fashion a young hard dick like myself -- dick being an acronym for 'dedicated infantry combat killer' -- is simple and the effect of racist indoctrination. Take an empty shell off the streets of L.A. or Brooklyn, or maybe from some Podunk town in Tennessee… and these days America isn't in short supply… I was one of those no-child-left-behind products…
"Anyway, you take this empty vessel and you scare the living shit out of him, break him down to nothing, cultivate a brotherhood and camaraderie with those he suffers with, and fill his head with racist nonsense like all Arabs, Iraqis, Afghans are Hajj. Hajj hates you. Hajj wants to hurt your family. Hajj children are the worst because they beg all the time. Just some of the most hurtful and ridiculous propaganda, but you'd be amazed at how effective it's been in fostering my generation of soldiers."

As this young man spoke to me, I felt he should be testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The effect of the war on those carrying out the orders is leaving scars just as deep as the imprints of previous imperial wars. Change we can believe in must include the end of this, which means, among other things, a withdrawal from Afghanistan.

In my latest book, The Duel: Pakistan on the Flight Path of American Power, I have written of the necessity of involving Afghanistan's neighbors in a political solution that ends the war, preserves the peace, and reconstructs the country. Iran, Russia, India, and China, as well as Pakistan, need to be engaged in the search for a political solution that would sustain a genuine national government for a decade after the withdrawal of the Americans, NATO, and their quisling regime. However, such a solution is not possible within the context of the plans proposed by both present Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and President-elect Barack Obama, which focus on a new surge of American troops in Afghanistan.

The main task at hand should be to create a social infrastructure and thus preserve the peace, something that the West and its horde of attendant non-governmental organizations have failed to do. School buildings constructed, often for outrageous sums, by foreign companies that lack furniture, teachers, and kids are part of the surreal presence of the West, which cannot last.
Whether you are a policymaker in the next administration or an AWOL veteran of the Afghan War in Canada, Operation Enduring Freedom of 2001 has visibly become Operation Enduring Disaster. Less clear is whether an Obama administration can truly break from past policy or will just create a military-plus add-on to it. Only a total break from the catastrophe that George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and Donald Rumsfeld created in Afghanistan will offer pathways to a viable future.

For this to happen, both external and domestic pressures will probably be needed. China is known to be completely opposed to a NATO presence on, or near, its borders, but while Beijing has proved willing to exert economic pressure to force policy changes in Washington -- as it did when the Bank of China "cut its exposure to agency debt last summer," leaving U.S. Treasury Secretary Paulson with little option but to functionally nationalize the mortgage giants -- it has yet to use its diplomatic muscle in the region.

But don't think that will last forever. Why wait until then? Another external pressure will certainly prove to be the already evident destabilizing effects of the Afghan war on neighboring Pakistan, a country in a precarious economic state, with a military facing growing internal tensions.

Domestic pressure in the U.S. to pull out of Afghanistan remains weak, but could grow rapidly as the extent of the debacle becomes clearer and NATO allies refuse to supply the shock-troops for the future surge.

In the meantime, they're predicting a famine in Afghanistan this winter.

Tariq Ali, writer, journalist, filmmaker, contributes regularly to a range of publications including the Guardian, the Nation, and the London Review of Books. His most recent book, just published, is The Duel: Pakistan on the Flight Path of American Power (Scribner, 2008). In a two-part video, released by, he offers critical commentary on Barack Obama's plans for Afghanistan and Pakistan, as well as on the tangled U.S.-Pakistani relationship.

Copyright 2008 Tariq Ali

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