SOLIDARITY FOR WHAT?

Over the weekend, the New York Times had a pair of revealing pieces about US Senator and Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders.

A lengthy article, and subsequent interview, explore Sanders’s foreign policy positions, highlighting especially his long-held opposition to war and imperialism. In particular, the pieces detail how Sanders established two sister-city programs with Puerto Cabezas, Nicaragua, and Yaroslavl, Russia, while mayor of Burlington, Vermont, from 1981-1989, and also describe visits he made to both places during those years.

At first glance, both the article and the interview are familiar, if tired, attempts to expose the seemingly-sordid past of a presidential candidate. But more importantly, they provide a useful illustration of how the mainstream media serves to further the project of US empire.

While both pieces aim to uncover and question Sanders’s ideological outlook on foreign affairs, they more clearly furnish a window into US imperial culture. The tone and focus of the article, along with the questions posed during the interview, serve as a helpful reminder that the mainstream view of US foreign policy, buttressed by the popular press, is one of unwavering support for militarism, foreign intervention, and capitalist exploitation.

Anything less is highly suspect, when not simply unthinkable.


The attempts by the article’s authors to wring controversy out of Sanders’s foreign activity as mayor are at times overwrought, at other times laughable.

To lend the article an air of dogged research, we’re told that the authors reviewed Sanders’s mayoral papers, “including hundreds of speeches, handwritten notes, letters, political pamphlets and domestic and foreign newspaper clippings from a period spanning nearly a decade.” If the exhaustive description didn’t make the point clear enough, the article is also lavishly illustrated with photographs of pages from yellow legal-pads and bulging file folders.

The reader, though, has to wonder what the authors found hiding in all those pages. For example, to demonstrate Sanders’s determined efforts to visit Nicaragua, the authors note that to reach the country, he had to change planes in both Miami and San Salvador. The frivolous nature of this detail will be readily apparent to anyone who has flown to Central or South America.

Another personal favorite is when the authors note that Jane Sanders, Bernie’s newly-wedded wife and someone who apparently “shared his ideological enthusiasms,” used the phrase “Fellow Traveler” on city letter-head. In case you’re unfamiliar, the authors make sure to note this is “an arcane euphemism used among socialists and communists.”

The last detail is telling as the article is shot through with anti-communist innuendo straight out of the Cold War era. After reporting that during his visit to Yaroslavl, Sanders praised the greater access to healthcare and housing in the Soviet Union, the authors warn that “Mr. Sanders … walked a line between fostering kinship with a foreign people and admiring aspects of a repressive system.” When the authors are not simply red-baiting Sanders, they tend to update the tar on their brush from communist sympathizer to anti-American.


Ultimately, the Times authors present a flimsy case against Sanders. In their estimation, his foreign policy positions do not result from a sober assessment of foreign affairs (ostensibly what a major newspaper would expect from a presidential candidate), but rather reflect his “combative” and “confrontational” ideology.

Yet the article provides no evidence to support this claim. The only real criticisms they can dig up come from Burlington residents irritated that Sanders spent more time on issues abroad than on fixing sidewalks at home. The authors even admit that the locals generally shared Sanders’s views on foreign affairs.

Instead of a rigid ideological worldview, the article paints a picture of a public official concerned with the destructive policies of the US government and committed to devoting his time and resources to support the people suffering under those policies. In the interview, Sanders states this plainly, saying: “I plead guilty to, throughout my adult life, doing everything that I can to prevent war and destruction.”

Could this be a deeply-felt belief based on an up-close view of the imperialist violence and exploitation the United States has spread throughout the world? Not according to the Times authors, who can only conceive of Sanders’s ideas as the work of a sinister ideology. Indeed, they appear suspicious of the very idea that a mayor would concern themselves with what the United States does abroad.


Especially disturbing in both the article and the interview is the author’s own unexamined ideology. The article especially suffers from a lack of context, at times even carefully eliding the evidence it does raise.

This is most evident in the discussion of Sanders’s opposition to the Reagan administration’s policies toward Nicaragua. The history of Reagan’s support for dictators, death squads, and other repressive forces in Latin America is well told. As is the story of the Iran-Contra Affair (Theodore Draper’s book is one of the most comprehensive, but this website hosted by Brown University is a useful substitute.)

I don’t want to repeat those stories here. But as a thumbnail sketch, the Sandinista National Liberation Front (Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional, or Sandinistas) came to power in 1979 after helping to overthrow the long-ruling Somoza dynasty. The party then lead Nicaragua until 1990, when it was voted out of power in national elections. Notably, the Sandinistas named themselves after Augusto Sandino, a revolutionary leader who helped organize opposition to the US military occupation of Nicaragua in the 1920s and 1930s.1

Soon after coming to power in 1979, the Sandinistas faced violent opposition from the Contras (la contrarrevolución), a reactionary force of Nicaraguans that opposed the new government. Throughout the 1980s, the Contras waged a campaign of murder, torture, rape, and sabotage against the Sandinista government and the country’s civilian population. The Reagan administration not only provided significant funds to the Contras, but the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) worked with them directly, providing intelligence, training, and supplies (for example, supplying them with a manual on psychological warfare and helping them to mine Nicaraguan harbors).


This history is only barely mentioned in the article. Even more troubling are the careful elisions. For example, the article suggests that outrage over Contra atrocities was confined to the American left in the 1980s. Yet the US Congress itself cut off funding to the Contras given the latter’s human rights record. Moreover, the Reagan administration’s subsequent decision to use the profits from illegal arms sales to Iran to continue funding the Contras created a national scandal.

Strikingly, the article even quotes from Otto J. Reich, who remained on the periphery of the scandal but nevertheless faced significant sanctions. The Times authors describe Reich as “a former special envoy for Latin America who helped oversee Nicaragua policy for the Reagan administration.” They don’t mention, however, that what he oversaw was a “prohibited” propaganda campaign in support of the Contras, which the US Comptroller General described as “beyond the range of acceptable agency public information activities.” Other exploits from the office Reich lead are detailed here.

In another bizarre move, the article tries to present Sanders’s activity as a solitary campaign to oppose US foreign policy from the shores of Lake Champlain. Yet the authors neglect to mention that Sanders’s actions were only a small part of a much larger Central American solidarity movement. Across the 1980s, tens of thousands of Americans joined or worked with groups like Witness for Peace (WFP) and Pledge of Resistance (POR) to form a transnational advocacy network. The members of this network pressured the US Congress to stop funding the Contras, raised awareness in the United States about the Reagan administration’s support for human rights abuses, and brought thousands of Americans to Nicaragua, El Salvador, and other countries to help local people suffering under US intervention in the region. The sister-city program that Sanders helped spearhead in Burlington was only one feature of this diverse and wide-ranging movement.


This context is nowhere to be found in the article. Instead, we get a thin attempt to present Sanders as a crusading communist sympathizer, pursuing a quixotic quest to support a Marxist government in Latin America.

The idea that people in another country would support a revolutionary movement to overthrow a decades-long ruling family, that the US government would covertly intervene to thwart that same movement, or that ordinary people in the United States would organize against their government, is shunted aside in favor of ominous anecdotes about Sanders attending a protest where anti-American chants may have been uttered.

The interview is much like the article: cynical, obtuse, and frankly embarrassing. Some commentators online have criticized Sanders for his tone, though it’s difficult to blame him. The interviewer seems strikingly blasé about the US government’s support for murderous paramilitaries, not to mention the national scandal that erupted as a result. Moreover, the questions are clearly intended to catch Sanders in some kind of “gotcha” moment.

The cumulative effect is to underscore a basic set of assumptions adopted by the mainstream media: The lives of people beyond our borders do not matter; the US government can intervene where it wants, when it wants, whether overtly or covertly and without consideration for the justification or consequences; and the actions of that same government abroad are ethical, necessary, and not to be questioned.

Empire, in other words, as a way of life.


  1. As an aside, I once took a class on Central American history from Daisy Zamora, a leading Nicaraguan poet and a member of the FSLN. She told our class a story about how during the struggle against Samoza, she lost a pregnancy while in the field because she was unable to get to a hospital fast enough. One example of the sacrifices some people made to create a better world.

GREEN MIND TWISTS THE PLAN

Posting below another letter to the editor I wrote to the Daily Campus, the University of Connecticut’s student newspaper, in response to a spurious editorial on socialism and environmentalism. The letter was not included on the Daily Campus website, for whatever reason.

To the Daily Campus editors,

I’m writing in response to Jacob Marie’s opinion piece, “Socialism is an environmental nightmare,” which ran in the paper on March 26, 2019. The piece was so misguided in purpose and faulty in reasoning that it demands a response. But rather than address the fuzzy logic, potted histories, or quixotic digressions about popular and not-so-popular political figures, I feel it’s necessary to counter Marie’s central claim that environmental issues can only be successfully addressed through the free market.

Marie is right to suggest that capitalist societies possess incentive structures that shape human interactions with the environment. But in contrast to his sunny optimism, the reality is that these incentive structures have been profoundly destructive for the landscapes and cycles of the natural world.

In capitalist societies, a generalized market dependence introduces competitive constraints in productive relations that force individuals and firms to produce commodities more cheaply than their direct competitors. If they fail in this endeavor, they will be unable to meet their subsistence, continue to access the means of production, or secure adequate profits for reinvestment. These competitive constraints not only subject everyone to market demands, they also drive a cycle of endless accumulation that produces detrimental effects for the environment and human society alike.

Market dependence predictably results in the exhaustion of natural resources and dangerous environmental pollution, leads to ever-more intensive and extensive forms of commodification that alienates people from their land and labor, and encourages private companies to shift the costs of environmental degradation and the work of ecological restoration onto state institutions and public finances.

Since the rise of capitalism around the world roughly 500 years ago, this unique incentive structure has generated innumerable harms for human beings, non-human animals, and their shared environments. The immense challenge posed by climate change to the continued existence of human life on the planet is only the most immediate and far-reaching manifestation of capitalism’s negative impact on the biosphere.

Despite Marie’s claims to the contrary, capitalism is not a good way to protect the environment. Indeed, it is the chief source of the ecological crisis we now face. To get beyond this crisis, we will have to get beyond capitalism. Or as the scholar Nick Estes recently put it: “For the earth to live, capitalism must die.”

BORDERS OF THE MIND

Posting below a letter to the editor I wrote to the Daily Campus, the University of Connecticut’s student newspaper, in response to a disgusting editorial on immigration and the US-Mexico border.

To the Daily Campus editors,

I’ve been impressed with the variety and quality of opinion pieces appearing in the Daily Campus this semester. Yet I’ve also been disturbed to come across a number of reactionary screeds, the latest of which, “Open Borders Are Not Compassionate,” by Jacob Marie, appeared in the paper on November 29.

Purportedly a criticism of the Left’s desire for open borders, the piece mostly serves to spread racist caricatures of immigrants, support punitive policies on the US-Mexico border, and stoke partisan sentiment.

What’s more, Marie’s central claims are easily refuted.

The notion that undocumented immigrants commit more crimes than documented people living in the United States can be passed over quickly. Researchers across the political spectrum have proven this assertion false, time and time again.

Similarly, the idea that lax border enforcement promotes human trafficking and other illegal activity rests on a truly twisted logic.

Legal restrictions on immigration, which produce a dual regime of legal and illegal residency, are what render people vulnerable to victimization, not the lack of them. Whether it’s exploitation by a human trafficker when crossing the border or exploitation by a boss on the job within the United States, the vulnerability undocumented immigrants face is conditioned by restrictive immigration laws and militarized border enforcement.

The many migrants who predictably, and unnecessarily, die trying to cross the border every year provide only the most vivid example of that terrible reality.

Another predictable result of the US border regime is the representation of immigrants as dangerous, undesirable, and unsuitable for citizenship. And these negative stereotypes are everywhere on display in Marie’s piece, from the ridiculous (and unsourced) allegation that members of the migrant caravan currently seeking asylum in the United States used children as human shields, to the characterization of Mexican society as uniquely violent and criminal.

Perhaps Marie’s unfortunate opinion is simply a product of ignorance. If so, then the University of Connecticut has many resources that can help. But if the editorial is, in fact, a series of bad faith assertions made only to arouse anger and resentment, then I question the paper’s decision to print writing that so readily demeans and denigrates immigrants, documented and undocumented, who make up a vital part of the UConn community, and so easily abuses any notion of truth, fairness, or humanity.

A HOUSE IS NOT A MOTEL

I’ve been in California the last few days, and perhaps unsurprisingly, the anti-Prop 10 commercials have been inescapable. I’m not sure what the buzz around Prop 10 is elsewhere, but I thought I would put a couple words down in favor of the proposition and encourage others to vote for it (and register if need be).

Julian Smith-Newman had a short article on one of the LARB blogs about Prop 10 back in June, and so far, it’s the best primer on the proposition I’ve seen. You should read it, but in case you don’t (or just don’t want to), let me gloss the explanation here.

The rent-seeking interests in the state, that is—investment banks, building developers, and landlords, all push a simple but false narrative about rent control. As the story goes, the price of rent follows the laws of supply and demand. When a lot of rental units are available, demand goes down and landlords are forced to lower rents to attract tenants. When rental units are in short supply, demand goes up and thus landlords can charge more without worrying about attracting tenants.

Of course, in states with large populations like California, and in perennially attractive cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco, the demand for housing is always high. The market then provides investors and developers an incentive to build more affordable housing because they can expect a healthy return on their investment. If rent control is instituted, though, landlords can expect only a limited return on their investment. As a result, they will be forced to divert their investments into other, more profitable ventures instead of building more rental units.

But as Smith-Newman’s article makes clear, this narrative about the housing market is pure fantasy. Housing is not like most commodities where the price goes up and down based on supply and demand. In reality, housing works more like a financial asset. Investors, developers, and landlords are not driven by the market to build affordable housing to attract tenants and ensure a healthy annual return. The profit motive pushes them to make speculative investments in housing in an effort to receive the largest return possible at some future date.

The geographer Neil Smith developed one of the most influential explanations of this process with his theory of the rent-gap in the context of gentrification. Simply put, consumer demand does not drive housing markets, the profit motives of private developers combined with a supportive regulatory framework from government does. The only way to lower rents is to change one of the latter two. Rent control does this by limiting the market incentives for speculation by developers and price gouging by landlords.

The theoretical explanation is borne out by empirical evidence. Smith-Newman’s article highlights the experience of Massachusetts, where the removal of rent-control not only raised rents in the few cities that previously had rent-control laws but even raised rents across the entire state.

There is another study, this time of San Francisco, by two economists at Stanford’s School of Business (one a former Goldman Sachs asset manager and the other a former UBS investment banker) that purports to tell a different story. According to this study, rent control, at least eventually, drove up rents and spurred gentrification in San Francisco. This study has been making the rounds in an effort to get people to vote against Prop 10.

The study argues that rent control did lower rents and keep people in their homes, but in the long run, investors used loop-holes in the law to convert previous rental housing to condominiums, to redevelop buildings, or to sell them outright. With a cap on their potential returns, developers and landlords pursued other investments rather than increasing the stock of affordable housing. Rent control then, according to the study, fails in the long term even if it works in the short term.

Dean Preston and Shanti Singh of California’s Tenants Together have a long report refuting the article’s claims and highlighting its many flaws. I would encourage you to read both reports.

But you don’t even have to read the Stanford study to see that rent control works: the authors admit as much. If in the face of rent control’s success, landlords chose to exploit loopholes to get around the law, does that mean rent control doesn’t work? It seems like the more reasonable conclusion to draw is that rent control should be even more strict and far-reaching in order to prevent landlords from exploiting loop-holes in the law.

Housing is an incredibly complex issue, and rent control is no panacea. It’s undoubtedly true that California needs more housing, evidenced by the fact that most California residents are spending way too much of their income on housing, and the rates of homelessness have grown significantly in recent years.

But construction, even in the best of circumstances, takes time. Rent control is the only way to keep housing costs down right now. Ultimately, we need to decommodify housing altogether if we want to ensure that everyone has a safe, secure, and attractive place to live. In the meantime, rent control is a step in the right direction. The market cannot solve the problem, and in the case of housing, it only makes it worse.

TO THE FINLAND STATION II

A quick follow up on my post about the Helsinki summit from the other day.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, a fusillade of fulminations from the media, pundits across the political spectrum, and members of Congress forced Trump to walk back some of his statements from the press conference with Putin. The most laughable was his claim that when he said he didn’t see why Russia “would” interfere in the 2016 election, he meant he didn’t see why they “wouldn’t.” Oh, word?

Either way, in the same breath he then walked-back the walk-back, saying, “I accept our intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election took place. It could be other people, also. There are a lot of people out there.” The guy is nothing if not consistent.

As other people have pointed out, it’s likely that Trump simply cannot understand the difference between accusations that Russia interfered in the 2016 election and accusations that the Trump campaign “colluded” with Russia.

Regardless, the disconnect between his cozy relations with Putin and his administration’s policies toward Russia is clear. Seth Ackerman, who has been doing some great writing on this issue, quoted from a Bloomberg op-ed that made the same case.

The author of the Bloomberg article, Leonid Bershidsky, noted:

Trump didn’t recognize the Russian annexation of Crimea, announce a troop pullout from Syria, promise to disband NATO, withdraw U.S. troops from Germany or stop the deployment of U.S. anti-missile defenses in Eastern Europe. He didn’t give up his opposition to Russia’s Nord Stream 2 pipeline into Germany or express regret about his decision to supply lethal weapons to Ukraine. In fact, he did nothing that could be construed as undermining U.S. interests as traditionally understood. His comments revealed no freebies to Putin or even any sign that the two leaders had attempted to negotiate compromises on the many substantive issues that divide their two countries.

As I pointed out last time, the gap between the media’s response to the Helsinki summit and the actual foreign policy of the Trump administration couldn’t be wider. And this is from Bloomberg, not some lefty rag, like, well Jacobin. Maybe Putin has something on Trump, but their relationship probably tells us more about the president’s own depravity than U.S. policy as a whole.

Despite all the huffing and puffing, Ackerman rightly asks what should be done about the election interference? Well, apparently Trump has already signed a federal law to help state and local governments combat cybercrime. Of course, many municipalities haven’t done much with the funding provided by the law (Denise Merrill here in Connecticut seems to be working on it). Nevertheless, steps have been taken. The media just don’t seem very interested. Ackerman calls the phenomenon, “the expressive function of the Russia freakout.” I just call it a lot of hot air.

Michael Kazin, writing for Dissent, offered some suggestions as to why those on the left should care about this issue. Several of the suggestions—election interference is bad regardless of who does it, Putin is the presumptive figurehead of rising reactionary forces, the Republicans in Congress are abetting Trump because they need him to secure their redistributive agenda—seem reasonable to me and even overlap in some places with my thoughts from the other day.

But a few paragraphs in, and you run across a line that is the literary equivalent of the skipping needle/record scratch/freeze frame moment in a classic TV sitcom.

Kazin writes:

Those past transgressions should make us all the more determined to find out how the Russians sought to sabotage our election—and support and publicize the work of Robert Mueller and his team of prosecutors. Immoral equivalence demands a moral response, not a cynical shrug.

Yeah, no. Surely, it would be good to learn about all of Trump’s illegal dealings at home and abroad, both as president and before. And if the Mueller investigation is the best way to get that information, so be it. But I don’t think that line of reasoning should lead us to carry the flag of the FBI (If you need a quick reminder that the FBI is not good, here’s a piece by the historian Beverly Gage on the time your friendly neighborhood FBI agents tried to blackmail Martin Luther King, Jr. into killing himself.

Organizing against the plutocratic insurgency: A strong moral response. Touting the work of the FBI: A cynical shrug? I’m not so sure.

TO THE FINLAND STATION I

Donald Trump met with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, in Helsinki today. Unsurprisingly, it did not go well. The news media were aghast at the press conference held after the presidents' two-hour closed-door meeting. And perhaps rightfully so. Among so many of Trump's bizarre assertions, he once again affirmed that he doesn't believe Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election. An especially disjointed statement given that his own justice department indicted thirteen Russian intelligence officers for doing just that only two days before the Helsinki summit.

But there was plenty more to chew on, all of it suffused with a general air of nose-holding because Trump did not behave as he should. A number of commentators have gone so far as to suggest that he “betrayed” the United States (how is not exactly clear) or even committed treason (again the details are fuzzy). Much of the commentary seems overblown and irrelevant, at least at this point in the Trump presidency.

Similar to Trump's meeting with Kim Jong-un, it's worth noting at the outset that Vladimir Putin is a bad guy. Trump, as I've said before, is also a bad guy. But like Kim Jong-un, we can all probably agree we're talking about different orders of magnitude here. The political situation in Russia is no secret: the human rights abuses, the authoritarian rule, the klepotcratic economy, the vicious murder of journalists and political opposition. The list goes on.

But why the foaming at the mouth? Why the pounding on the table? Why the eyes bulging out of the head? I listened to a full hour of Connecticut's beloved radio host Colin McEnroe struggle to find the words to convey his sense of bewilderment. It was not thrilling radio.

Much of the shock among media and pundits alike seems to center on the idea that Trump did something he shouldn't have done, indeed, that no president has ever done before. Why, though, is this so shocking? Almost two years into his presidency, does Trump ever doing anything he's supposed to do? In fact, his modus operandi appears to be working as hard as he can to upset any expectations a reasonable person might have about how a U.S. president is supposed to behave.

Another recent example illustrates the point. Last August, Trump was apparently contemplating a U.S. invasion of Venezuela, a proposal his staff repeatedly shot down (thankfully). Nevertheless, he persisted. In a private dinner with several Latin American heads of state, Trump broached the issue again. Here's how the Associated Press reported the unfortunate encounter:

The U.S. official said Trump was specifically briefed not to raise the issue and told it wouldn’t play well, but the first thing the president said at the dinner was, 'My staff told me not to say this.' Trump then went around asking each leader if they were sure they didn’t want a military solution, according to the official, who added that each leader told Trump in clear terms they were sure.

The absolute short-circuiting of reasonable thought and behavior could not be more clear. So why expect Trump to do anything different at his meeting with Putin? If you read the transcript or watch the video, it was classic Trump. He brought up his electoral college numbers, Hillary Clinton's emails, he railed against the Mueller investigation, and on and on.

The reason, I guess, is that this kind of feigned outrage does good numbers. The news media in general, and the supposedly serious commentators it employs in particular, have surely spilled an ocean of ink on Trump's many appearances and varied performance since the campaign. Substantive analysis, though, has been in short supply. Maybe appearances and performance are important. Scholars of the presidency and U.S. foreign policy have made a convincing case for the idea, as far as I can tell.

But it seems worth asking: What's behind all the show? It would undoubtedly be better for everyone if the U.S. president wasn't so consistently clownish. How dramatically, though, has U.S. policy toward Russia changed, even with all of Trump's obsequious behavior? Furthermore, how much does Trump actually represent “America”–its people, its institutions, or its values (the ones he's supposedly so terribly betrayed)? If anything, he represents some of the worst characteristics of American culture, though I don't think that's what commentators have been crowing about.

Why bother with the presidency anyway? Since the election, a good rule of thumb has been to simply accept that there is no president. Frankly, we'd be better off without one. Why not start now?

Aside from the hand-wringing over Trump's grotesque yet entirely expected behavior, there's another story here worth considering. The problems on the table–foreign intervention in elections, the brutal conduct of political leaders, the unsavory behavior of economic elites–runs right through both the United States and Russia.

For one thing, the United States is no stranger to intervening in elections. Covert intervention in the domestic affairs of foreign countries has been one of the central planks of U.S. foreign policy, especially since 1945. And the covert nature of that policy, in many respects, only marked a shift in style from more explicit forms of foreign domination and exploitation in the period before 1945. I still think we haven't yet fully reckoned with what the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) as an institution has wrought in the world since World War II.

But isn't this just whataboutism? (A term I hate, by the way). Well, no. Intervening in foreign elections is bad whether the United States or Russia does it. Of course, the Soviet Union also had its own nefarious history of intervening in foreign elections throughout the Cold War period. U.S. empire is bad; so is its anti-capitalist mirror. But it pays to keep things in perspective. I don't think there's an easy equivalence between the United States and Russia. But there are plenty of relevant similarities.

Along with foreign intervention, the shady dealings of plutocratic elites also connects the United States and Russia. Much of the financial influence Russia spreads around the world (like providing funds to support the National Front in the last French presidential election or the Leave campaign with the Brexit vote) is not so different from the underhanded influence doled out here in the United States through so-called “dark money.” Again, I'm not trying to draw an easy equivalence. But we should condemn the influence of hidden corporate spending at home just as we should condemn the financial influence of oligarchs from abroad.

One final point to bring things together. The biggest problem it seems to me is the overwhelming focus on national leaders. Why say that Trump has betrayed America? Only a small section of the country put their trust in him in the first place. Many people spent the campaign and now the presidency pointing out how little Trump represents them or what they think of as America. You see the same blinkered vision with Russia. Rarely do we learn about the thoughts, beliefs, or actions of ordinary Russians. Pick through the major newspapers, and you'd be forgiven if you thought Russia was composed solely of Vladimir Putin, Russian intelligence officers, and some shadowy oligarchs.

Foreign intervention is bad for all people who want to live in a democratic society. It doesn't matter which opponent, whether at home or abroad, is standing in the way. Similarly, the transnational capitalist class is bad for working people everywhere. It doesn't matter if they're hardened Russian mineral magnates or vulgar American real estate scammers. Surely, we could do without either.

CRUELTY AND IMMISERATION

As always, the Trump administration was pasted across the news this week. The main story was the administration’s “zero tolerance” policy on border crossings and the widespread practice of separating families trying to cross the US-Mexico border without authorization. But there was another, and I would argue related, story worth noting.

The United States also withdrew from the United Nations Human Rights Council this week. The current Ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki R. Haley, called the council “a cesspool of political bias.”

Her main gripe, it seems, was the council’s many criticisms of Israel, though she raised some other issues as well. I don’t think her reasons are worth taking too seriously. The current National Security Adviser, John Bolton, has long criticized the Council on Human Rights, along with the entire United Nations (most pointedly when he was the Ambassador to the United Nations under the Bush administration).

The move simply points to the further consolidation of right-wing forces in the Trump administration, and a policy (if we can call it that) of petulant grandstanding against international institutions (most of which the United States not only helped create but also overwhelmingly benefits from).

The timing is interesting though, notwithstanding the clear violations of human rights on the U.S.-Mexico border, given that the Human Rights Council recently released a report on poverty and human rights in the United States.

Philip Alston, the Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, even got into something of a sparring-match on Twitter with Nikki Haley over the report, seemingly prompted by a letter US Senator Bernie Sanders sent to Haley that criticized some of her statement regarding the U.S. withdrawal from the Human Rights Council. Haley has since responded to Sanders’s letter, saying that poverty and inequality are not political issues (a point the report strongly disagrees with).

The full report is worth a read if you have the time (you can download it here, click on the link at the top right). The report shows in clear and convincing detail the breadth, depth, and pervasive cruelty of poverty in the United States.

One of the summary paragraphs hits the point home:

[The United States’] immense wealth and expertise stand in shocking contrast with the conditions in which vast numbers of its citizens live. About 40 million live in poverty, 18.5 million in extreme poverty, and 5.3 million live in Third World conditions of absolute poverty. It has the highest youth poverty rate in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), and the highest infant mortality rates among comparable OECD States. Its citizens live shorter and sicker lives compared to those living in all other rich democracies, eradicable tropical diseases are increasingly prevalent, and it has the world’s highest incarceration rate, one of the lowest levels of voter registrations among OECD countries and the highest obesity levels in the developed world.

The report goes on to note that the United States has the highest level of income inequality among Western countries, and the recent tax bill passed by the Republican-controlled Congress will only worsen the situation.

This paragraph sums up this state of affairs:

The share of the top 1 percent of the population in the United States has grown steadily in recent years. In 2016 they owned 38.6 percent of total wealth. In relation to both wealth and income the share of the bottom 90 percent has fallen in most of the past 25 years. The tax reform will worsen this situation and ensure that the United States remains the most unequal society in the developed world. The planned dramatic cuts in welfare will essentially shred crucial dimensions of a safety net that is already full of holes. Since economic and political power reinforce one another, the political system will be even more vulnerable to capture by wealthy elites.

A few other interesting findings from the report.

First, persistent discrimination, unsurprisingly, means that women, people of color, and American Indians suffer most from poverty. But the report makes clear that poverty is pervasive in American society, affecting everyone but the most wealthy. Even middle-class white workers face serious precarity in their lives and work, often living on the edge of financial ruin.

Second, the report also identifies the role of political ideology and public policy in obscuring the all-encompassing nature of American poverty. Many Americans see the social welfare system as rife with corruption, fraud, and free-riding. At the same time, politicians depict poverty as a crime and treat it largely by locking people up. When the system fails to physically hide the problem through incarceration, it paints the condition of poverty with a moralizing brush, pointing to a thin-veneer of criminality to deflect any real discussions about the United States’ exploitative economic structures and punitive state apparatus.

One of the report’s most biting paragraphs underscores the dispiriting disconnect between poverty in the United States and many Americans’ views of the poor:

In thinking about poverty, it is striking how much weight is given to caricatured narratives about the purported innate differences between rich and poor that are consistently peddled by some politicians and media. The rich are industrious, entrepreneurial, patriotic and the drivers of economic success. The poor are wasters, losers and scammers. As a result, money spent on welfare is money down the drain. If the poor really want to make it in the United States, they can easily do so: they really can achieve the American dream if only they work hard enough. The reality, however, is very different. Many of the wealthiest citizens do not pay taxes at the rates that others do, hoard much of their wealth offshore and often make their profits purely from speculation rather than contributing to the overall wealth of the American community.

Third, and crucially, the report maintains that the problem of poverty is a political one. Not only do political choices exacerbate the condition of poverty in the United States, but they also undermine the everyday practice of democracy. In a vicious cycle, economic inequality forces more and more people into poverty while at the same time, creating an opening for wealthy elites to exert greater influence and control over the political system, a key mechanism that in different hands could be used to reduce poverty and inequality.

The overall result is a thoroughly unequal and undemocratic society in which many live in deprivation and squalor, a precious few live on the edge of it, and a tiny elite plays the latter two off each other while they enrich themselves, undermine the political system, and spoil the planet.

So what does all this have to do with the Trump administration’s cruel and unusual policy of separating families on the border? More than it might seem, I think.

One debate since the last presidential election has centered on the question of whether or not Trump represents a decisive break with the past or simply more of the same. I think both of these positions are inadequate. It might just as well be the case that the current moment represents a specific historical configuration of both ideas. The relationship between a general deepening of poverty and inequality and the specific policies pursued on the border provide a useful way of making this connection.

As the United States’ hegemonic position in the world capitalist system began to decline in the early 1970s, domestic policies increasingly turned to austerity and punishment to mitigate its effects. Those policies were the expression of an elite class project (pursued by segments of both parties) to beat back labor, rip-up an already threadbare social-safety net, and use greater force at home and abroad to shore up declining profits, secure new avenues of capital accumulation, and contain anti-systemic movements.

Trump, his administration, and his policies are just one especially virulent expression of this right-wing revanchism, what Vijay Prashad calls “cruel populism.”

The Trump administration is working to construct a hegemonic position organized around economic nationalism and ethnic cleansing. One distinct aspect is the performative cruelty that attends certain policy decisions like the separation of families at the border. And I don’t think we should take this as mere performance.

Vanity Fair recently quoted an outside White House adviser saying that Stephen Miller, the chief architect of this policy along with Jeff Sessions, “actually enjoys seeing those pictures at the border. He’s a twisted guy.” Contrast that with the supposedly “compassionate conservatism” of the last Bush administration.

The policies pursued on the border speak to one aspect of the turn toward neoliberalism (and particularly the austerity policies that followed on from the 2008 financial crisis), namely–the dramatic expansion and intensification of the national security state.

At the same time that the state has increased its capacity to manage the population through surveillance and force, it has lost the capacity to augment the population through the social welfare system designed under the New Deal Order (i.e. enforced capital-labor truce, military Keynesianism, direct social investment, albeit racialized and feminized in important ways).

The result is a basic inability of the ruling class to either overcome the crisis of profitability or to effectively manage the state. The only thing left is austerity and policing (whether at home or abroad).

Alex Vitale’s recent book makes a fairly convincing case that much of the violent excess of policing today has resulted from the fact that a withered welfare state has forced police to manage more and more aspects of society. The U.S. military presence across the Middle East and North Africa make this clear as well. Absent any achievable political or military goals, what is the work of the U.S. military other than policing unruly populations?

Similarly, Sam Moyn’s recent book shows that the for the last forty years, the transnational capitalist class has been working to blow the ceiling off inequality while it rips the floor out from under the people relying on already meager social welfare systems. The Trump administration, it would seem, is just deploying a particularly cruel strategy in a longer struggle to shore up capital and elite rule amid hegemonic decline.

Ultimately, I think this strategy might call for using the state as a strategic mechanism to stop the bleeding and help build a path to a different future.

I’m no more sanguine about this proposition than I’ve been since coming to political consciousness. But when you consider that Trump is holding the door open for the Federalist Society and the Heritage Foundation to take over government and work to immiserate wide swaths of the population, winning state power seems a necessary tactic alongside mass mobilizations against these same policies.

The cruel populism of the Trump administration also suggests the left has to combine a robust strategy of social welfare with a commitment to anti-racism. More than mere principle, it seems necessary to short-circuit the hegemonic discourse of economic nationalism and ethnic cleansing. But then again, what do I know?

BY ANY REASON, WAR IS UNNECESSARY

If you’re at all interested in the summit between the US and North Korea happening in Singapore, I would encourage you to ignore basically all of the mainstream media’s coverage of the event. It runs the gamut from blinkered ignorance to hawkish apoplexia to orientalist grumblings.

Instead, I would encourage you to watch this coverage hosted on Democracy Now!, especially the segments with Tim Shorrock, one of the best journalists writing on the US role in Korea, and Bruce Cumings, one of the best historians writing about Korean history in general and US relations with North and South Korea in particular.

It’s especially worthwhile to listen as Cummings describes the US bombing campaigns carried out against North Korea during the Korean War (1950-1953), and their effect on the history, identity, and views of North Koreans. If you don’t care to watch, just consider this testimony from General Douglas MacArthur, given before Congress in 1951, shortly after President Truman fired him as head of US military operations in Korea for unnecessarily trying to expand the war:

The war in Korea has already almost destroyed that nation of 20,000,000 people. I have never seen such devastation. I have seen, I guess, as much blood and disaster as any living man, and it just curdled my stomach, the last time I was there. After I looked at that wreckage and those thousands of women and children and everything, I vomited.

For my two cents, I’m in favor of peace over war, self-determination over imperialism, diplomacy and dialogue over militarist posturing and egotistical bluster, solidarity with ordinary people over voyeuristic obsession with their leaders.

It’s curious to note the almost total lack of discussion in the mainstream media of what South Korean leaders or its people think about the summit or US relations with North Korea more generally. Perhaps we should spend more time seeking out and trying to understand the perspective of ordinary Koreans and their leaders rather than become once again trapped forever in Trump’s gravitational field, locked in orbit around a hot, gassy planet devoid of life.

Simply put, Trump is a bad person. I think most people recognize this, even many of his supporters. What he does or does not do in office won’t change that. It’s not unlikely that effectively nothing will result from this summit. I would not be surprised if Trump’s main interest was simply to seize the opportunity, as he often does, to say that he did something no one else has done (whether true or not).

But if Trump and Kim Jong-un end the Korean War, denuclearize North Korea, remove the US military installations from the Korean peninsula, and allow a people separated by war, history, and everything else to choose for themselves how they’d like to live in the future, we’d be foolish not to take them up on it.

SILICON STRUGGLE

Over at Jacobin Magazine, there’s a really interesting interview with an anonymous Google employee on the successful campaign against Project Maven, a project contracted with the US Defense Department to use machine learning to improve drone strikes. Given their problems with accuracy, the project is no surprise. For reference, see this absolutely harrowing story in the New York Times Magazine.

A few things from the article stand out. First, the basic fact that the employees, through a largely spontaneous and autonomous process, successfully pressured the company leadership not to renew the contract. Given that it was a multi-year contract worth $10 billion that other tech firms are bidding on, this seems like a real victory.

Also interesting is the strategic importance of the Trump presidency. So much discussion about the Trump presidency is contained within a moralizing discourse (read: liberalism) that toggles between either the erosion of norms or personal injury (and not the bodily kind).

In contrast, it’s interesting to see how people are not only being politically activated by Trump but are being spurred into thinking about strategy and organizing, even beyond just whether or not the Democrats are going to win big in the mid-term elections. I wonder what other kinds of activity and organizing are going to spring up from this whole mess (ICE, healthcare, housing, etc. all seem on the offing; the wave of recent teachers strikes also comes to mind).

The interview also raises the interesting issue of overseas Google employees. This gets at something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately, namely—the proper scale of anti-capitalist organizing. Should the left be organizing around a kind of soft economic nationalism that people like Josh Mason (among others) have suggested, or has the global economy become too entangled to disconnect some sectors, and instead, action should center on nodes in the global economy like supply chains, logistics, etc that people like Jamie Merchant have put forth.

I’m still not sure, though my personal inclinations are toward the latter approach. In that regard, the fact that the participation and experiences of international workers proved so crucial in the campaign opposing Project Maven seems noteworthy.

I was struck too by how the anonymous employee frames the ethical component of their work:

We stood up because we believe that companies should be accountable to their users, their workers, and their communities. And we stood up because we believe a strong ethical framework that values human life and safety is inseparable from positive technological progress.

I can’t say I disagree. The last point about “a strong ethical framework that values human life and safety” seems good to me. I wonder, though, how this squares with most of the work undertaken by firms like Google, and not just when they pursue an obviously ethically compromised project like helping the military kill people more efficiently. Some of what you hear from tech workers on how they see the ethical component of their work beggars belief.

In a somewhat related point, it’s striking though not necessarily shocking when the employee recounts this experience among some workers:

Before the campaign, a lot of Googlers had never considered the fact that their values might not be aligned with the values of leadership. Organizing around Project Maven helped people realize that no matter how good their job is—and generally speaking, Google jobs are good—they’re still workers, not owners.

It’s good that these employees came to this realization but also intriguing that it never came up before. I’m not sure if there is just too much of an incentive not to think about it, tech workers genuinely don’t care, or that they just generally buy into the mantra of “Don’t be evil” (though they apparently got rid of that slogan). Clearly, the increased organizing among tech workers and the recognition that their work might be used for bad ends is a fruitful kind of consciousness-raising.

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