Chapter 26: “Post Mortems: Gierek & Myles Reflect on the Execution Class”

Joaquin Phoenix as Jesus in “Mary Magdalene” (played by Rooney Mara) — highly recommended

This is Chapter 26 of my novel, The Pope’s Secret. For previous chapters, just scroll down.

Pentecost Sunday Homily: Don’t Support the Hong Kong Protesters

Readings for Pentecost Sunday: ACTS 2: 1-11; PSALMS 104: 1, 24, 29-34; I CORINTHIANS 12: 3-7, 12-13; JOHN 20: 19-23

Today is Pentecost Sunday – the originally Jewish harvest festival that comes 50 days after Passover. The day’s readings remind us that from the beginning Jesus’ Jewish followers were working-class internationalists. Despite their lack of what the world calls “sophistication,” they recognized a unified divine order where barriers of language, nationality, and differentiating wealth were erased.

Before I get to that, let me connect that central fact with perhaps the prominent international and class-based concern in our contemporary context. I’m referring to the demonstrations in Hong Kong and an emerging new cold war between the United States and China. Our Pentecostal readings suggest we should be standing with the Chinese government and not with our own.

China and Hong Kong

Last week I shared a summary of an important debate about China between Matt Stoller and Kishore Madhubani. The debate’s question was: Is China merely a competitor of the United States or is it an adversary or even an enemy? Doesn’t China’s suppression of free speech and free press, of religion and of democracy make it an enemy?

My article held that, all things considered, China is a more genuine defender of human rights than the United States. I won’t repeat my argument here, but it turned on the distinction between bourgeois human rights (private property, contract observance, free speech, free press, and freedom of religion) and socialist rights to work, food, shelter, clothing, health care, and education.

Since the publication of my column, its relevance was highlighted by renewed demonstrations in Hong Kong. There despite a COVID-19 lockdown with its social distancing requirements, demonstrators came out in force last Sunday. They were protesting against new legislation in the territory that would allow officers of the law to arrest protestors for speaking out against the local government or authorities in Beijing.

Whom to Support?

So, the question became how should progressives respond? Even granted the distinctions between bourgeois and working-class rights, shouldn’t leftists seeking consistency and coherence, be on the side of the Hong Kong protestors? After all, they’re described as “pro-democracy.”

Despite such description, my answer would be a resounding “No.”

The main reason for my saying that is related to the class concerns reflected in the above distinctions between bourgeois and working-class rights. The fact is, all demonstrations are not the same. Some are organized against oppressive systems such as capitalism and its prioritization of wealth accumulation and contract obligations on the one hand and its marginalization of workers’ needs to eat, be decently clothed and housed, and to have dignified work and a healthy environment on the other. The Yellow Vest Movement in France and the Water Protectors’ demonstrations against the Keystone XL Pipeline in North Dakota offer examples of protests against capitalist exploitation.

In contrast, other demonstrations are reactionary and directed against specifically working-class reforms. Participants typically support colonialism and imperialism. The thousands in the streets of Hong Kong and Venezuela offer prime examples of such protests.  Hong Kong protestors’ waving of Union Jacks signals their preference of the status quo ante of British colonialism. Their appeals for U.S. intervention (with U.S. flags unfurled) express support for imperialism.

(Of course, especially under the guidance of foreign interventionist forces such as the CIA and its sister National Endowment for Democracy (NED), other lower-class social forces such as unemployed and underpaid workers (Marx’s lumpen proletariat) can also be organized by their betters to direct their anger at the class enemy of their bourgeois organizers — in this case, the Chinese government in Beijing.)  

The bottom line here, however, is that to be consistent, progressives must oppose not only prioritization of wealth accumulation by financiers, but also anything connected with colonialism and imperialism.    

To repeat: not all demonstrations, not all clamoring for “human rights” are created equal.  Class-consciousness provides an indispensable tool for distinguishing the causes and demonstrations that progressives should support from those we should oppose.

Pentecost Readings

With all of that in mind, let’s turn our attention to the readings for this Pentecost Sunday. Let’s read them with the same class consciousness I’ve just referenced. Here are my “translations.” You can examine them here to see if I got them right.

ACTS 2: 1-11: Fifty days after Jesus’ New Manifestation as one with all the poor, executed and other victims of imperialism, his fearful working-class followers suddenly found themselves filled with the same consciousness Jesus had. They internalized the Master’s conviction that poor people like themselves could embody his vanguard consciousness heralding the completely new world order Jesus called God’s “Kingdom.” Suddenly on fire and filled with courage, these poor, illiterate fishermen electrified huge crowds from “every nation under heaven.” Despite language barriers their impoverished and oppressed audience understood that God was on their side.

PSALMS 104: 1, 24, 29-34: Jesus shared his Spirit with the poor in order to renew the face of the earth – this earth (not heaven above) filled with magnificent creatures of all types. They’ve all been put here to make everyone (not just the wealthy) happy and joyful. We who identify with the poor are entirely grateful.

I CORINTHIANS 12: 3-7, 12-13: It is the Holy Spirit of Jesus that makes us recognize that he, not any oppressive Caesar, is in charge here on earth. The Spirit’s gifts have been given for the Common Good not for private gratification or foreign control. In fact, all of us are one – as if we comprised a single body. Nationalities are irrelevant. Slavery of any kind is completely passé.

SEQUENCE: So, may we too receive Jesus’ Spirit this very day. May we recognize it in the poor, in our hearts, in the light of our new understanding, in the gifts we’ve received, and in just rewards for our labor. Yes, we’ve been wounded, desiccated and made to feel guilty. We rejoice to know that poverty and misery are not the will of some God “up there.” The Holy Spirit’s will is abundance for all. Thank you!

JOHN 20: 19-23: Following his execution, in his New (resurrected) Manifestation, the meaning of Jesus’ execution by empire became apparent. Having internalized his Spirit, his friends recognized his wounds as badges of solidarity with the poor, tortured victims of imperial powers. They threw off guilt and embraced world peace instead.

Conclusions

Think of today’s readings as they relate to Hong Kong. . . Though recorded two generations after the fact, the Jerusalem events portrayed were extraordinarily revealing. They had people of the lowest classes (no doubt, under the watchful eye of Rome’s occupying forces) – probably illiterates – claiming to be spokespersons for God. And this, not even two months after the execution of Jesus the Christ, who had been executed as a terrorist by Roman authorities. What courage on their part!

The readings, then, remind us of whose side the biblical All Parent is on. In contemporary terms, it’s not the side of financiers, bankers, imperialists or colonialists. Rather, it’s the side of those the world’s powerful consider their sworn enemies – the poor, illiterate, unemployed, underpaid, tortured and executed victims of colonialism and empire.

However, those latter categories represent the very classes that socialism (even “with Chinese characteristics”) rescued from their landlord oppressors in 1949 and that have been under western siege there ever since. Under socialism, the impoverished in China are the ones who have seen their wages and standard of living massively improve over the last thirty years.

Improvements of this type under communist leadership are totally unacceptable to the United States and the “allies” it has absorbed into what it proudly describes as its empire. That empire always opposes socialism and will stop at nothing to make it fail.

Such realizations lead to the following observations about Hong Kong in particular:

  • As shown by the display of Union Jack and American flags and by signs invoking the intervention of President Trump, the demonstrations in Hong Kong are neo-colonialist, neo-imperialist and neoliberal in their understandings of human rights.
  • They are seeking the bourgeois “democratic rights” that overridingly prioritize private property and the integrity of commercial rights over the socialist rights championed by the Chinese Communist Party—food, shelter, clothing, jobs, health care, and education.
  • The fact that ex-CIA chief, Mike Pompeo, is leading the charge in Hong Kong should give everyone pause. (This, especially in the light of Pompeo’s boast and endorsement of “lying, cheating, and stealing” as CIA standard operating procedure.)
  • In fact, and on principle, any Trump administration defense of human rights should probably drive those with social justice concerns to defend the other side.   
  • Or at the very least, Pompeo’s and the Trump administration’s diverse response to demonstrations in Hong Kong on the one hand and to the (working class) Yellow Vests in France and to indigenous Water Protectors in North Dakota on the other, should raise serious questions.

Closing Note

The bottom line here, however, is that all demonstrations and protests are not created equal. The Pentecost gathering in Jerusalem was a poor people’s international meeting of “every nation on the face of the earth.” It celebrated the Spirit of a poor worker who was a victim of torture and capital punishment by imperial Rome. Its claim was that the Divine World Spirit is on the side of the imperialized, colonized, tortured and executed. “Socialism with Chinese characteristics” is far more in line with that tradition than is neoliberal capitalism.

Progressive followers and/or admirers of Jesus the Christ should keep that in mind as they watch events in Hong Kong unfold.

Trump Has Not Out-lefted the Left: It's What Fascists Do

So now the word in the mainstream media (MSM) is that Donald Trump has successfully co-opted the so-called “American left.” After all, they tell us, he’s implemented Universal Basic Income (UBI); he’s promised to set up government hospitals to treat COVID-19 patients; he’s proposed delayed foreclosures and evictions and has strengthened unemployment measures for laid-off workers. Unwittingly, we’re told, he has become a “socialist.” And worst of all (for his opponents) under that new identification, his approval ratings have risen.

Does this mean he’ll be reelected next fall even though his handling of the coronavirus crisis has been abysmal? Remember: he mocked it at first. The testing kits he promised still haven’t materialized. And, as usual, his pathological duplicity makes it impossible for anyone to know what’s really going on in the man’s little head. Do his promises mean anything, or will they be rescinded tomorrow?

Nonetheless, there’s a grain of truth in his latest manifestation as socialism’s champion.

Additionally, if we understand fascism as “capitalism in crisis”, Trump’s co-optations can be unmasked as mirroring faithfully those of his forebears in that system. And finally, there’s hope to be found in the president’s rising numbers.

Trump’s Socialism

To begin with, it must be acknowledged that all of the above (UBI, government-sponsored healthcare, policies preventing homelessness, and unemployment insurance) are indeed key planks in any socialist platform.

At the same time, it is also true to say that the president has very little choice in the matter. History has shown that in circumstances like these, heads of state interested in self-preservation and regardless of their ideological propensities, best serve their interests by intervening in the marketplace on behalf of their official constituents.

Put otherwise, the crisis at hand has once again exposed the fact that capitalism’s regular-as-clockwork systemic dysfunctions can only be remedied by socialist programs. (There are no exceptions to that rule.) That’s because government-coordinated socialism is far more efficient in addressing pressing crises than the necessarily disjointed, atomized and uncoordinated capitalist responses. This has been demonstrated most recently by China’s quick success in dealing with COVID-19.

In reality, however, Trump’s proposals are far from genuinely socialist. To begin with, ALL of them are emphatically temporary. His version of UBI are intended to last a month or two; his government hospitals are narrowly targeted at coronavirus patients (all others are still on their own and at the mercy of giant health insurance and pharmaceutical conglomerates); the evictions and foreclosures will resume when the current crisis has passed. Republicans will also reprise their attacks on unemployment insurance (and Social Security) when and if we return to “normal.”

By way of contrast, socialism’s remedies are permanent; they represent once-and-for-all transformations of the reigning economic system. Socialism is about Medicare for All, affordable housing, rent-control, job guarantees and adequate wages.

Moreover, socialism is an international movement of working-class people. Its philosophers — those who favor the working classes instead of their exploiters — are the ones our educational system of indoctrination has taught us to hate. We’ve been taught to despise Karl Marx, but to love Milton Friedman. Despite our ironic distaste for them, our class’ philosophers have always addressed themselves to “the workers of the world.”

Today’s socialists recognize what the coronavirus crisis has laid bare, viz. that even apart from present circumstances, we’re all in this together. Socialists also see clearly that our common enemy is the greed and self-centeredness that globalized capitalism itself has forced on our employers. Without heartless devotion to the “bottom line,” virtually none of those we work for would ever survive under free enterprise competition that rewards and necessitates starvation wages for so many and environmental devastation for us all. The system has made our employers our mortal but largely unrecognized enemies.

Trump’s Fascism

As opposed to socialism’s internationalism, Trump is a nationalist. Recall his inaugural proclamation, “From now on it’s only going to be America First, America First.” Nothing could be further from the ideals of citizens of the world. That is, insofar as circumstances have forced socialism upon him, Herr Trump is a National Socialist.

And that’s exactly what the fascists who came to power in the 1930s were. They were National Socialists in contrast to the international socialists and communists they hated so fiercely. In fact, Trump’s nationalism and his attempts at co-opting socialist policies to mollify a rebellious populace represents his tearing a page right out of Mein Kampf.

Think about it. As already mentioned, fascism is best defined as “capitalism in crisis.” Or as Benito Mussolini described it more exactly, fascism is corporate capitalism united with state power. In ultimate form, it enforces its order through a police state armed against its traditional enemies, viz. communists, socialists, labor organizers, Jews, non-whites, the disabled, immigrants, gypsies, etc. All those scapegoats receive blame for the inescapable inefficiencies and dysfunctions of the newly christened old system. All of them found places in fascism’s death camps.

Why then the name-change in the 1930s? Why the “National Socialist German Workers’ Party?” It’s because the Great Stock Market Crash of 1929 and the depression that followed had completely discredited capitalism. No one wanted to be associated with it any more than (until recently) people wanted to be associated with socialism and Marxism after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Following the Crash everyone, left and right, claimed to be some kind of socialist.

It’s similar today, even though the name itself is not yet so much in fashion. Still, socialist policies are much in favor among the American people. A solid majority wants Medicare for All. The Fight for $15.00 minimum wage is extremely popular among wage workers. In this age of climate chaos, environmental protection laws receive widespread approval. The same is true for free college education and forgiveness of student loans. And Social Security remains the most popular program ever instituted by the federal government.

More particularly, at this time of corona crisis, people need money to pay their bills. They want those monthly checks. Under the threat of COVID-19, they don’t want to worry about deductibles and co-pays. They need rent relief.

Hope behind Trump’s Ratings

All of that is hopeful. Any rise in Trump’s approval ratings because of the policies just reviewed reveal that Americans favor what the Republican Party is ideologically incapacitated to provide. Republicans will never permanentize the programs we all want.

And if they do, that’s o.k. too. Whether a red administration or a blue one meets genuinely human needs is beside the point.

More likely, however, the temporary programs currently receiving approval simply describe for true socialists (whether they embrace the name or not) the policy trajectories they must follow, propose, fight for and finally implement. Now’s the time to insist on a Green New Deal.

Sanders’ Real Plan: As Much Market as Possible/As Much Planning as Necessary

Last Tuesday (March 10th), opinion columnist, Thomas Friedman published and OpEd In the New York Times. It was entitled “Joe Biden, Not Bernie Sanders Is the True Scandinavian.”

There, Friedman argued that despite Mr. Sanders’ frequent references to Denmark as the standard for “democratic socialism,” the country is actually a hotbed of free market capitalism. Hence, Biden’s more balanced views on trade, corporations and unions make him more “Scandinavian” than his rival. Hence too, Biden’s free market capitalism is vastly preferable to Sanders’ socialism with its proposal of a totally planned economy.

To prove his point, Friedman’s crucial focus was not so much on Denmark as on three well-worn rhetorical questions addressed to the senator from Vermont:

  1. Does money grow on trees or does it come from heroic capitalist risk-takers who deserve their profits because of the jobs they provide? And shouldn’t they be rewarded accordingly?
  2. Aren’t at least some capitalist entrepreneurs admirable, or are they all examples, as Sanders would have it, of “corporate greed and corruption?”  
  3. What’s better at producing jobs and prosperity, a free enterprise economy or one based on central planning? (It was here that the question of Denmark came sharply to the fore.)

All three questions were entirely disingenuous and misleading. Let me explain.

In Praise of Risk Takers

To begin with (and to answer Friedman’s first question) money obviously doesn’t grow on trees and capitalist risk-takers do, of course, play an important role in the provision of jobs and prosperity. And risk deserves corresponding reward. All true.

However, what Friedman neglects to mention is that capitalists aren’t alone in highly productive risk-taking. No, far from being passive beneficiaries of entrepreneurial courage and largesse, workers and the risks they take clearly confer huge benefits on their employers. Hence, if their employers’ gambles deserve reward, so do their own.

By this I mean not only the obvious – viz. that capitalist enterprises would never succeed without workers. I mean as well that the capitalist system actually forces employees to be more adventuresome risk-takers than their employers. While the latter typically risk only their money, workers within the system risk their very lives and the existential welfare of their families.

Think about it. In preparing themselves to enter the world of work, college students bet four years or more of their lives as well as thousands of dollars in borrowed money on the wager that their “major” (be it Economics, Business, English, Math, Science, Pre-Med, etc.) will actually someday land them a job. That’s a gamble that benefits not only employers, but the rest of us as well.

Moreover, if they’re fortunate enough to land a job, the graduates’ work often forces them to change location to places far from their families and friends. That too involves leave-takings, courage and high-stakes risk.

And if their gamble does not pay off (unlike their employers) there’s no Chapter 11 for them to invoke. Thanks to politicians like Joe Biden, they still have to pay back those college loans, and/or live far from the support of their extended families.

It’s similar for those who do not go to college. Every day, countless numbers of them risk their very lives in jobs whose dangers are far more threatening than losing money in a failed business venture. So, if roofers fall from a great height, if fishermen are swept overboard, or if carpenters cut off a finger or hand, they often have no benefits to sustain them while recovering or to insure their eventual return to the workforce. All of that represents acceptance of risk that benefits employers.  It contributes far more to economic prosperity than dangers involved in the process of securing loans in the comfort of a banker’s office or in a simple telephone call.

So, no, Mr. Friedman, money does not grow on trees. It comes from employers risking their money. However, in at least equal measure it derives from the risks taken by their employees. The latter deserve guaranteed reward that can fittingly come from government’s repaying them with as much abundance as it currently extends to their employers.

A Corrupt System

As for Friedman’s question about greed and corruption. . .  Is Sanders correct in saying that all capitalists are somehow consumed by avarice?

Of course not. And it’s clearly deceptive to accuse Mr. Sanders of saying so. And this even though we have ample evidence that many capitalists (including our current president) are indeed wildly greedy and deeply unethical.

The truth is that many more of them are no more acquisitive and dishonest than the rest of us.

However, the capitalist system itself is indeed corrupt. That’s because it rewards immorality in the form of underpaying workers, environmental destruction, and acceptance of huge income inequalities in the face of widespread hunger and poverty.

For starters, consider how the dynamics of an unregulated wage market forces workers to accept the lowest remuneration possible. This is especially true in job categories deemed “unskilled.” Because of such classification, and absent minimum wage guarantees, capitalist theory rewards such occupations (belonging to waitpersons, cleaners, grocery clerks, vegetable pickers, etc.) with wages as close as possible to what’s absolutely necessary to keep body and soul together. (It’s why, for instance, Wal-Mart workers often end up qualifying for food stamps – a form of socialism, as Mr. Sanders rightly observes.)

Generous employers who decide to exceed the market-determined minimum will typically find themselves undersold by competitors who more obediently follow the dictates of unfettered markets. Because of wage differentials with their rivals, the generous ones will soon find themselves shuttering their enterprises and witnessing from afar the success of their more tight-fisted counterparts.

It’s similar with the environment. Competitive market forces reward producers who choose to externalize their costs. Meanwhile, market forces penalize conscientious manufacturers who for example, put scrubbers on their smokestacks or filters on corrosive effluents otherwise polluting nearby bodies of water.

This is because the use of environmentally friendly technologies cost money. They necessarily raise costs of production. They disadvantage those who implement them as they compete with their marketplace opponents who lack environmental conscience. Such destructive outcomes result not from personal greed and corruption, but from systemic failure.

And finally, in an unregulated market, the underpayment of workers along with the externalization of environmental costs (as well as colonial theft of resources) inevitably and historically results in wide income gaps that can only be described as unconscionable.

To illustrate this point, it suffices to cite a single now-familiar statistic that Mr. Sanders often does call out: three American entrepreneurs own as much wealth at the bottom half of U.S. wage earners. And this in a context where an estimated 48.8 million Americans, including 16.2 million children, live in households that lack the means to feed themselves on a regular basis.

Almost anyone with a conscience would be justified in calling such a system “greedy and corrupt.” However, the application of those epithets is justified not principally by the shortcomings of entrepreneurs, but by the capitalist system itself.  

Capitalism vs. Socialism    

And that brings us to Thomas Friedman’s final question to Bernie Sanders. Despite its acknowledged shortcomings, isn’t capitalism the best we can do? Is Sanders really claiming that planned economies are more productive than their free market alternatives?

Of course, Mr. Sanders says no such thing. This is because despite their rhetoric of “democratic socialism” and “free market economy,” the senator from Vermont no more champions an entirely planned economy than Friedman does an economy without any regulation at all.

In reality, both have no alternative but to advocate some form of mixed economy. That’s because mixed economies are the only game in town. Except for black markets (which almost everyone recognizes as criminal), no economy in the world can function without heavy regulation. And Mr. Sanders’ version of “democratic socialism” is nothing more than Rooseveltian New Dealism, which ironically was required during the 1930s to save capitalism itself.

More specifically, the New York Times columnist praises Denmark’s “broad social safety net” its “expanded welfare state, high level of taxation, as well as its spirit of cooperation between all stakeholders. All these taken together with free markets explain for him the country’s enviable living standards.

For his part, what Sanders demands repeatedly is not the dissolution of corporations, but that they play by the rules and pay their fair share of taxes.       

None of this implies however that Friedman and Sanders want the same mixed economies.

Instead, they differ in argument about whom the economies they favor should be mixed in favor of. Friedman wants an economy mixed in favor of the opulent risk-takers he lionizes along with the rest of mainstream media and education. Ignoring worker risk-taking, he evidently believes in shopworn trickle-down theory.

Nevertheless, Friedman’s economic class has shown again and again that it is not averse to socialism when the stock markets crash, when their opulent sea-side homes are destroyed by natural disasters, or when national survival demands “war socialism” complete with ration cards and patriotic slogans about sharing.

Sanders on the other hand, wants an economy mixed directly in favor of working classes and the impoverished. Rather than trickle-down, his ideal might be called percolate-up. It’s a theory that (in watered-down form) has actually worked throughout Europe in the form of post-WWII welfare states, in Denmark, and (yes!) in the United States under FDR.

Conclusion

So, what’s the formula that might deliver the world from the ills of low wages, environmental destruction, and huge income gaps between rich and poor?

In the light of the inevitability of mixed economy, any answer to that question must strike a compromise between economies mixed in favor of the rich and those mixed in favor of working classes and the poor.

The formulation of that compromise would run as follows: “As much market as possible with as much planning as necessary.”

Yes, maximize incentives that might motivate capitalists to innovate, produce, and create jobs. That’s what Thomas Friedman, Joe Biden, and Denmark’s entrepreneurial classes seek.

But also recognize and implement the interventions in the marketplace necessary to ensure the emergence of a world with room for everyone. That’s really all Bernie Sanders is after: As much market as possible, with as much planning as necessary to ensure that kind of capacious planet.

In the end, this is not a debate about who or what is more Scandinavian. It’s about recovering what experience under FDR and Europe’s welfare states have shown is entirely feasible.

The Real Reason for Trump’s Strategy in Syria

People are scratching their heads over President Trump’s sudden decision to withdraw troops from the Kurdish area in northeastern Syria. In effect, American troops there had been acting as human shields against the designs of Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and his long-standing vendetta against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey and their Kurdish allies in Syria. Both have struggled for Kurdish rights and independence since 1979.

As well, American troops have guaranteed the stability of prison camps for terrorists in Northern Syria, where up to eleven thousand Muslim militants have been concentrated after the supposed defeat of ISIS in Syria. In the absence of U.S. troops, Erdogan now has free rein not only to decimate his Kurdish opponents, but to release those ISIS fighters who, he says, will help him defeat the PKK in Turkey.

But why this apparently impulsive decision on the part of President Trump ?

A number of reasons have been advanced to explain it, as well as to understand Turkey’s sudden aggressive action:

  • The United States is cultivating Turkey to become the dominant regional power rather than Iran.
  • The U.S. is tired of fighting the war in Syria that has cost billions of dollars.
  • Trump has business interests in Turkey where he’s building two Trump Towers. To protect those interests, he’s doing Erdogan a political and military favor.
  • According to Erdogan, he is simply attempting to create a “safe zone” for the relocation of 3.5 million Syrian refugees who have sought asylum in Turkey during the war in Syria.
  • As well, Turkey claims that the safe zone would destroy the terror corridor which the PKK and Kurdish-led Syrian Defense Forces have been trying to establish on Turkey’s southern border.
  • The U.S. isn’t really interested in defeating ISIS. On the contrary, it favors its revival in order to use it in regime-change wars, and to justify continuance of an endless “war on terror” – all in order to benefit the military-industrial complex.

In the end, all of those “explanations” might have some credibility. No doubt, each of them plays some part in creating the chaos that now reigns in Syria.

Nevertheless, U.S. history after World War II indicates that Tulsi Gabbard put her finger on the real reason for the events unfolding in Syria. I’m referring to her remark that the conflict in Syria represents an illegal regime-change war initiated by the United States. That is, absent U.S. efforts to unseat Syria’s president Bashar al-Assad, the current crisis would not exist. That she was onto something was indicated by the severe backlash she experienced from Hilary Clinton, a principal advocate of U.S. policy in Syria.

None of this means that without American intervention Syria would be care-free. On the contrary, its unprecedented climate-change drought and accompanying desertification have caused farmers to migrate to Syria’s large cities in turn leading to an unemployment crisis and civil unrest that beggar description. The drought and resulting state of emergency also created an opening and excuse for the U.S. to mount a campaign to remove Syria’s president from office.

But why specifically does the United States want al-Assad removed? As I’ve indicated elsewhere, the U.S. wants him out because he’s a Baathist, i.e. a Pan Arab socialist.  And wherever the United States encounters socialism, Pan Arabism or Pan Africanism, it works for regime change, since such movements constitute a threat to America’s white supremacist, imperialist, capitalist patriarchy. Think of Iraq, Libya, Egypt, Honduras, Nicaragua, Cuba, Brazil, the former Yugoslavia, and a host of countries in Africa.

To implement its world-wide regime change strategy, America creates and/or employs local anti-government groups like the Mujahedeen in Afghanistan, the Contras in Nicaragua, or the Kurds in Syria. It continues to use “terrorist” forces like al-Qaeda as it did successfully in Afghanistan against the Russians. In the Syrian conflict, those forces were renamed and described as “moderate” for purposes of fighting ISIS – another U.S. creation this time unintentionally produced by its illegal invasion of Iraq in 2003. Meanwhile, America’s real quarry in Syria remained Bashar al-Assad.

As Chris Hedges has recently noted, the United States has no loyalty to such agents, and often drops them as soon as convenient once their services are no longer required. It vilifies them anew with their old names restored – al-Qaeda and ISIS.

Using such forces, efforts to overthrow Assad (begun in 2013) have failed miserably. So, the U.S. and Turkey have decided to give up on the Kurds, who in northeastern Syria are also socialists. Additionally, they are allies of the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK), Erdogan’s archenemies in Turkey. In terms of socialism, the PKK’s name says it all.

Put otherwise, in the face of our country’s regime change failure, Trump and Erdogan are trying to save the imperialist day by at least defeating the socialist Kurds in both Turkey and Syria. However, they have instead driven Syrian Kurds to seek protection from Bashar al-Assad. His troops have been welcomed as heroes in the Syrian northeast. And so have Russian support troops who represent the only legal foreign military presence in Syria, since they are there at the behest of the Syrian government.

The bottom line here is that the United States has no legal leg to stand on in Syria. It should leave the country entirely. In fact, its military should leave the Middle East altogether. The U.S. should instead sponsor diplomatic solutions to the mess it has created. There are no military solutions to any of the problems in the region.

While this does not mean completely abandoning the Middle East to its own devices, it does mean abandoning the use of force. Correspondingly, it entails seeking diplomatic solutions through the U.N. which was created precisely to avoid the kind of illegal, arbitrary military measures routinely implemented by U.S. presidents of both parties.

But to prioritize diplomacy over war, the U.N.’s international law as well as U.S. legislation must be respected. I’m referring to the international requirement that member nations seek U.N. approval for initiating any military action not demanded as immediate response to direct attack. Similarly, our own government must respect the U.S. Constitution’s requirement that Congress (not the executive branch) approve any acts of war by our nation.

In summary, while Trump’s reassignment of U.S. troops in Syria from protecting Kurds to protecting Syria’s northeaster oil fields may have been puzzling to those not paying attention, consummate insiders like Tulsi Gabbard, see the pattern. And it looks like serial regime change criminality.

What even Gabbard might not see is the pattern’s very raison d’etre. It’s that American leadership always becomes alarmed when any head of state on the one hand or anti-imperialist force on the other attempts to create a country where the interests of all (not just the elite) are served. When that happens, the “guilty” party will be subject to regime change measures of one kind or another. In the Middle East, that’s been the case with Baathists, Pan Arabs, Pan Africans, and now with the PKK.  As Ozlem Goner has indicated, such indigenous entities typically cultivate democratic, non-patriarchal, anti-imperial, and gender-egalitarian structures.

To repeat: that invariably proves intolerable to the United States and its bought-and-paid-for clients. History since the Second Inter-Capitalist War has shown as much.

But you won’t read about this long-standing dynamic in the New York Times. Instead, you’ll find it in sources like Howard Zinn‘s A People’s History of the United States, in Eduardo Galeano‘s The Open Veins of Latin America, in Walter Rodney‘s How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, in Oliver Stone‘s and Peter Kuznick’s The Untold History of the United States, and in Vijay Prashad‘s The Poorer Nations: a Possible History of the Global South.  I recommend all of them very highly.

Clarifying Economic (& Theological) Terms in the Capitalism-Socialism Debate

Readings for 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time: AM 8: 4-7; PS 113: 1-2, 4-6, 7-8; 1TM 2: 1-8; 2 COR 8:9;LK 16: 1-13

Last weekend, comedian, Bill Maher, and film-maker, Michael Moore, got into a shouting match on Maher’s show “Real Time.” Their point of contention was capitalism vs. socialism. Moore argued for socialism; Maher was against it. Their boisterousness reminded me of dinner-table arguments which (I’m ashamed to admit) I’ve been part of myself.

I bring all this up because the debate is intimately related to this morning’s liturgy of the word. Though the readings obviously pre-date the emergence of the modern system, they all criticize what has historically become “the spirit of capitalism.”  

In any case, the Maher-Moore debate is worth considering not only because it manifests the relevance of the Jesus tradition to arguments like theirs. The argument also demonstrates the counter-productivity of the squabble itself. It’s counter-productive because its terms fall into a trap congenial to the enemies of the biblical tradition. The trap frames alternatives to our present economic system in terms of “socialism” instead of in terms of social justice, mixed economy, and “preferential option for the poor.”

That’s a simple distinction I never tire of making, because (as I point out in my book, The Magic Glasses of Critical Thinking: seeing through alternative fact and fake news) it’s absolutely key to the discussions of capitalism and socialism that will inevitably characterize the election season we’ve just entered – especially following the eventual selection of any Democratic candidate. No matter who the candidate turns out to be, s/he will be predictably vilified for advocating socialism pure and simple – an economic system that simply does not exist.

Maher and Moore both missed that point. The rest of us shouldn’t. In fact, I recommend avoidance of capitalism-socialism framing altogether. I’ll explain what I mean, and then elucidate the connections with today’s readings.

To begin with, Moore’s mistake was to represent as “socialism” his advocacy of Medicare for all (Maher was against it), free college tuition, college loan-forgiveness, and the Green New Deal. In reality, those programs notwithstanding, each of them represents elements of mixed economies – the only form of economic organization that exists in our present context. And a mixed economy always has three elements (1) Some private and some public ownership of the means of production, (2) Some controlled markets and some that are free of control, and (3) earnings limited (usually by progressive income taxes).

Every economy in the world has those elements. There are no exceptions.

Mixed economies contrast with the three elements of capitalism as well as with those of socialism. Capitalism’s three points are (1) Private ownership of the means of production, (2) Free and open markets, and (3) Unlimited earnings. None of the world’s economies embodies those elements untempered by planning.

Meanwhile, socialism’s three points are (1) Public ownership of the means of production, (2) Controlled markets, and (3) Limited earnings. Like untempered capitalism, such economic arrangement exists nowhere (including in “communist” China or Cuba).     

For his part, Maher’s defense of capitalism was also a defense of mixed economy. He agreed with many of Moore’s points. So, Maher’s “capitalism” was no less mixed than Moore’s. The difference was that Maher wanted more market and less planning in economic policy.

This is not to say that all mixed economies are equal. (And this point is essential to keep in mind). The crucial question with them is “Mixed in favor of whom?” Those who mistakenly identify themselves as “capitalists” tend to advocate economies mixed in favor of the rich. They do so on the belief that wealth trickles down; a rising tide lifts all boats, etc.

Those who (equally mistakenly) identify as “socialists” want economies mixed more in favor of the working and unemployed classes. They recognize that unregulated markets respond primarily to those with the most money. Economies therefore have to be controlled to include those with limited (or no) resources.

With all of this in mind, Moore and Maher might have resolved their argument by recognizing that the choice before them is not between capitalism or socialism, but between an economy mixed in favor of the rich or one mixed in favor of the poor. And the formula for doing so might be: As much market as possible, with as much regulation as necessary (to assure a decent standard of living for everyone on the planet).   

Now, a formula like that not only avoids “the socialist trap;” it is also highly compatible with the biblical social justice tradition that’s expressed so clearly in this morning’s liturgy of the word. As I’ve translated them below, today’s selections point out the injustices inherent not only in the economies of the ancient world, but in today’s neoliberal order. Both, the readings imply, were and are rigged in favor of the rich and against the poor.  Check the readings for yourself here.

This is the way I interpret them:

 AM 8: 4-7

Money makes the rich
Exploit the poor.
It leads the wealthy
To distort religion
Manipulate currency
Put thumbs on scales
Sell shoddy products
And underpay workers.
But never doubt:
They will one day reap
Due karma.
 
PS 113: 1-2, 4-6, 7-8
 
For God will lift up
The poor
From the dirt
And “shitholes
They’re forced
To live in.
Thank God:
The lowly
Will one day
Become their own
Masters instead.
 
1 TM 2: 1-8
 
In the meantime,
Pray that the powerful
Might change their ways
For God cares
Even for them.
Pray that they
Might know God
As revealed in
The poor man
Jesus who died
For them too
Despite their bitterness
Lies and self-serving
Talking points.
 
2 COR 8:9
 
Yes, don’t forget:
God chose
Self-revelation
In the poor
Not in the rich.
Ironically,
God’s Preferential Option
For the Poor
Is the only way
To prosperity.
 
LK 16: 1-13
 
In fact,
The poor man, Jesus,
Laughed at the rich
Who can’t use a shovel
To save their lives,
But blame the beggars
Their own policies have created.
The rich are so crooked,
He joked,
That they even admire
Shrewdness in those
Who end up stealing from them!
Their own small larcenies
Grow exponentially.
So they cannot be trusted.
Restitution is therefore in order.
But don't worry
About the bankers:
Their “generous” loans
Can easily be written off
Without in the least
Impacting their
Decadent life-styles.
Their basic mistake
Is believing that
Differentiating wealth and God
Are somehow compatible.
They are not!

Don’t you agree that sentiments like those favor economies mixed in favor of the poor? (That’s the way they appear to me.) The readings imply that if mixed economies are all we have, we shouldn’t allow ourselves to fall into the trap that ensnared Moore and Maher. Instead of arguing about non-existent “capitalism” or “socialism,” we should make sure to embrace the principle “As much market as possible, but as much planning as necessary (to insure a dignified life for all).”

But to avoid pointless shouting matches, it will be necessary to carry around in our minds those clear and easily understood ideas about what capitalism and socialism are. To repeat: capitalism’s essential elements are (1) private ownership of the means of production; (2) free and open markets, and (3) unlimited earnings. Socialism’s defining points are just the opposite: (1) public ownership of the means of production; (2) controlled markets, and (3) limited earnings. Once again, those two definitions make it clear that mixed economies are all we have. 

Finally, we should be emphasizing the incompatibility between  the Judeo-Christian tradition and the spirit of capitalism as characterized in today’s readings. Excessive wealth on the one hand and God on the other are not compatible. Or, as Jesus put it, “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.”

Despite our culture’s claims to the contrary, that’s the faith we “People of The Book” (Jews, Muslims, and Christians) are called to embrace.

Let’s Not Be Fooled Again – this time about Venezuela

How are we to think about the crisis in Venezuela when the main proponents of U.S. policy are known liars and war criminals? Specifically, of course, I’m thinking about Donald Trump and Elliot Abrams — not to mention John Bolton. That, for me is the question.

It seems to me in such tragic circumstances, our attitude towards the crisis (regardless of our judgments about Nicolas Maduro and socialism) should be governed by principle.

In fact, the current policy of the United States violates at least half a dozen principles. They include:

  1. National Sovereignty: Venezuela’s political and economic problems should be of no concern to our government.  
  2. Self-Determination: Venezuela has the right to choose its own form of government and economy.
  3. Anti-Imperialism: Revealingly, most of the countries aligned with the Trump administration are either charter members of Europe’s Axis of Colonialism or representatives of Euro-American client states. Meanwhile those opposing Trump’s policy are former colonies of the U.S. and Europe and/or have been invaded by the military forces of those inveterate imperialists. The latter include Russia, China, India, South Africa, and Mexico along with countries such as Ecuador, Bolivia, and Nicaragua. All of those countries know a thing or two about European and U.S. imperialist tyranny.
  4. Nuremberg (forbidding the punishment of civilian populations)
  5. Skepticism about the statements of proven liars
  6. Consistency

For starters, let me focus here on consistency. This principle dictates that:

  • If we’re worried about foreign interference in our own electoral process, we should stay out of Venezuela’s.
  • If Maduro’s jailing of political opponents concerns us, the same should be true relative to Brazil and Bolsonaro’s jailing of Luiz Ignacio Lula da Silva, the country’s most popular politician. (And yet, our government had no hesitation in recognizing Bolsonaro’s legitimacy.)
  • If we worry about humanitarian crises, we should stop cooperating with Saudi Arabia and its war against Yemen, the poorest country in the Middle East. That war has caused the worst humanitarian crisis in the world.
  • If crooked elections are cause for delegitimizing governments, we shouldn’t recognize the current government of Honduras, whose election of Juan Orlando Hernandez was certified as unfree and unfair by the OAS. It called for new elections. (But, of course, both the Obama and Trump administrations have recognized Hernandez as a legitimate head of state.)
  • If we’re outraged by police violence against demonstrators, we should cut off all aid to Israel for killing hundreds of unarmed demonstrators (including women and children) at the Gaza border and wounding thousands of others.

But none of these issues matter at all to the Trump administration. They care not a bit about humanitarian crises, fair elections, the right to protest or the jailing of political opponents. As both Trump and John Bolton have said openly, their concern is Venezuelan oil, controlling it and profiting from that control. That’s imperialism.

Moreover, the so-called “humanitarian aid” at the country’s borders in Brazil and Colombia is a pittance worth some millions of dollars, while the profits frozen from the country’s sale of oil and its access to its own gold reserves are worth billions – as are the mercantile transactions with other countries now prevented by the U.S. embargo. According to the Red Cross and the U.N.  (both of whom refuse to participate in its distribution) the disputed humanitarian aid is nothing more than a political ploy. In other words, if the U.S. truly cared about the welfare of the people of Venezuela, it would stop its embargo and allow Venezuela access to its money and markets so the country itself could buy food and medicine on the open market.

The appointment of Elliot Abrams as the Trump’s point man for Venezuela speaks volumes about the administration’s criminal intentions. Abrams, of course, is a convicted felon. He was the U.S. brains behind the genocidal policy of Rios Montt in Guatemala during the 1980s, when more than 200,000 Guatemalans (mostly indigenous) were slaughtered by Montt and his generals. Elliot Abrams is a war criminal. And his selection by Mr. Trump to run his show in Venezuela indicates an embrace of the old CIA playbook used again and again in its more than 68 regime-changes operations since World War II – with most of the removed officials having been democratically elected.

The playbook runs like this:

  • Any country attempting to establish an economy that serves the interests of its poor majority
  • Is routinely accused of being run by a dictatorship
  • It is subject to regime change by direct U.S. invasion
  • Or by right wing (often terrorist) elements within the local population
  • To keep said country within the capitalist system
  • So that the U.S. might once again use the country’s resources for its own enrichment
  • And for that of the local elite.

Standardly, the strategy is to use a combination of terrorism, sanctions, embargoes to make civilians within the country so miserable that even the poor will rise up and join forces with the elite to remove the so-called “dictator” from office.  That’s what’s happening in Venezuela at this very moment. To repeat: it’s a violation of the Nuremberg Principles forbidding punishment of civilian populations.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about Venezuela is how we believe our politicians on the subject of regime change. You’d think that at least after Iraq and Libya (not to mention Panama and Grenada) we’d show some skepticism. What was it that Great Man tried to say a few years ago? “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me”? I mean, how many times do we have to be fooled before we’re shamed out of our minds by our collective stupidity?

After all, these people (the Trumpists) are proven liars. Everybody knows that. It’s the subject of jokes every night on Colbert and on Saturday Night Live. Trump is a laughing stock. And yet when he speaks about his compassion for the Venezuelan people, about the lies of its government (!!), his concern for democracy and the integrity of elections, or about Maduro’s corruption (!!) the press actually takes him seriously. Give me a break, please!

Let me say it clearly, Donald Trump and his administration have not a shred of credibility. Period! Not a shred! Whatever he says (whatever they say) should be taken as an outright lie unless proven otherwise by absolutely unimpeachable sources.

And by the way, let me conclude by saying that it’s clearly wrong to blame Venezuela’s problems on socialism. First of all, Venezuela is not a socialist country. It’s governed by a socialist party, but its economy is dominated by private corporations. So is its news media.

France is more socialist than Venezuela. And besides, under Hugo Chavez, the economy thrived (largely because oil prices remained high). And just six years ago (after 14 years of so-called Bolivarian Socialism), polls determined that Venezuela was the happiest country in South America. As a matter of fact, it won that distinction two years in a row – in 2012 and 2013. Worldwide, in those years, its happiness index came out ahead of France, Spain, Italy, and Germany.

Right now, of course, it is not a happy place. Its condition is roughly the same as when Chavez took over in 1999 after decades of governance by its white elite creols. And, it’s true, the current unhappiness is surely due to mismanagement and corruption on the part of the Maduro administration. But it also has a lot to do with the fall of oil prices on the world market, but especially with the U.S. embargo and sanctions against Venezuela.

Bottom line: Please realize that we are being lied to about Venezuela! Our government is the main criminal there. Whatever we might think of Maduro or of socialism, the principles articulated at Nuremberg, as well as those of national sovereignty, self-determination, anti-imperialism, consistency, and common-sense skepticism before liars should be our guides.

Tell the president, your senators and congressional representatives: Yankee go home! Get out of Venezuela!

For Lower Fares and Better Service, Nationalize Public Transportation!

Fair Skies

The airline industry is in big trouble with most of us, I’m sure you agree. I mean fares keep going up with no end in sight. You have to pay extra for any baggage you need to check. The seats keep getting smaller, and sometimes it costs you more for slightly wider accommodations even in the coach section. Meals that used to be free now come in little boxes at hefty prices. And even if you’ve paid for all of that, they still might call in the cops and evict you, bloody your nose, and knock your teeth out so that airline employees might take the seat you purchased, and more conveniently hitch a ride to their next gig.

I was reminded of all that when on my last Delta flight, I read an ad in that airline’s August edition of Sky Magazine.  It was headlined “Help Us Defend U.S. Jobs.” In part, the text complained:

“The nations of Qatar and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) are attempting to take over international aviation by funneling billions of dollars in subsidies into their state-owned airlines. U.S. airlines . . . can’t compete with the unreasonably low prices of the gulf airlines. And for every route lost, 1,500 Americans lose their jobs. Left unaddressed, the U.S. aviation industry is at risk . . . Join the fight to protect fair trade and American jobs.”

Say what? “Unreasonably low prices?” They want me to campaign against that? Hmm.

So, what’s Delta’s real problem here?  The ad says the company’s worried that it can’t compete with state-owned airlines that are less concerned with turning a profit than with serving the public – providing more of what travelers want: cheaper fares, good service, no extra charges, and free food and drinks.

How do Qatar, UAE and others do that? Simple: they funnel billions of dollars of investment (Delta misleadingly calls it “subsidies”) into the airlines they own rather than making profit maximization their be-all and end-all. Or, as it’s expressed at DELTA.COM/OURFIGHT: “Because they have large sums of money available, these . . . airlines don’t have to rely on profit.”

What’s wrong with that?

According to the Delta ad quoted above, what’s wrong is that the state-owned airlines are more successful; they’re getting bigger market shares and, Delta claims, costing Americans jobs – 1500 for each lost route. In fact, if it weren’t for the questionable protectionism of U.S. regulations, those airlines would enter our domestic market and take over there as well.

But, of course, there’s a cure for all of that too – one that will not only save those jobs, but likely get us cheaper fares and better service. It’s to follow the example of Delta’s vilified competitors: invest our tax dollars in U.S. airlines too. Nationalize them!

Don’t worry: no jobs will be lost. (It takes just as many people to run state-owned airlines as private ones.) And just watch: those fares will become “unreasonably low” in the process. Services and passenger perks might even reach the level of those gulf companies that so irritate Delta and other U.S. airlines.

Bring it on!

And, while you’re at it, how about investing “billions” of our tax dollars in state-owned railways, rather than in further bloating the defense budget? The state-owned China rail system runs bullet trains that travel at speeds over 200 mph. Meanwhile our under-funded Amtrak locomotives continue plodding along no faster than they did about 50 years ago.

Thank you, Delta, for making the point so exquisitely: when “airlines don’t have to rely on profit” consumers benefit. Air fares become “unreasonably low.”

At least as far as public transportation is concerned, socialism is far more efficient than capitalism.