Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Exposing the Myth of a Free-Market Economy

My former Lehigh University colleague, Anthony Patrick O’Brien, recently traced the evolution of the iPhone back to Adam Smith and the origins of capitalism in The Morning Call. There’s some truth in that.

However, along the way, his argument reinforced two oft-repeated ideological myths that have long crippled the American polity’s ability to deal with the profound problems we face.

In O’Brien’s account, the Industrial Revolution in England produced “economic growth capable of improving the life of the average person … . Capitalism had arrived!”

Yet what improved the lives of average people? According to this free-market mythology, rising productivity meant that “for the first time in human history, the average family was well clothed, well fed, and well housed.” In other words, left to its own devices, the market takes care of average people.

The reality is radically different. Anyone who has read Smith knows he made no such claim, but instead maintained that state intervention was necessary to level the playing field for a market system to work. Left to its own devices, industrial capitalism produced — and continues to produce — massive inequality and the horrific exploitation of working people, all reinforced by violent repression by the state and private goons. The unfettered market also produces a tendency toward giant monopolies.

So, what did improve the lives of average people?

Against the resistance of capitalists, laborers organized and became a political force via their ability to strike and demand concessions. In part, worried about the danger of mass uprising, the state intervened in the economy and produced a wide range of social reforms — minimum wage and overtime protection, collective bargaining guarantees, a graduated income tax, efforts to equalize educational opportunity, and a public safety net for the elderly.

Later interventions began to safeguard us all from the ravages of industrial capitalism, protecting both our rights as consumers and the environment we all share.

Of course, the state has also consistently intervened to protect capitalism from its own built-in destructiveness — through anti-trust laws, subsidies, insurance against bank failures, and bailouts, among many other actions. Government in the modern state is inextricably involved in the market economy, one reason the free market is itself a mythical concept.

The idea of government being used to help the average person be “well clothed, well fed, and well housed” (and well educated) is precisely what has been under attack for decades, going back to the rise of neoliberalism under Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, and we have been paying a deep price for that attack for a long time.

Along with deregulation, privatization, a campaign to destroy organized labor, and attacks on public education and social welfare policies, tax “reforms” have produced obscene wealth in the hands of relatively few.

Because of the significance of money in politics, neoliberalism means that the average person is increasingly at risk while the state is dominated by the interests of capital.

How can this be sustained where there is supposed to be one person, one vote (although that, too, is under attack)? One thread running through our entire history has been the use of race to create a threatening “other” that allegedly endangers our well-being. Not surprisingly, the Trump administration has hyped up the alleged threat to our way of life of Muslim and brown-skinned immigrants. Divide and rule goes back a long way.

But the other ideological device echoed in O’Brien’s piece, to say nothing of the leaders of both political parties, is the alleged threat to our freedom of something called socialism. In conventional usage, socialism now means any effort to use government to address the needs of average people or to protect our commons.

Yet lurking in that distortion is the implied connection with the long-discredited state socialist model we used to call communism. As O’Brien puts it, socialism would bring a “stagnation in living standards and the loss of freedom.” Sounds like the old USSR, doesn’t it?

It’s certainly radically different from the poorly understood idea of democratic socialism — a democratic ideal, really, in which we, an aware, civically educated and engaged people, work together to figure out the constraints that need to be put on how markets operate so as to ensure the well-being of all, including future generations. 

In other words, markets subservient to democratically generated aims of the people, not the aims of 
the people subservient to imperatives of capitalism.

Average people have endured a stagnation in living standards for some time now; democratic socialism would obviously begin to redress that. If there is to be some loss of freedom, it is most likely to revolve around the ability of the very wealthy to expropriate and horde wealth and the ability of private enterprise to endanger the prospects for human survival.

Monday, August 27, 2018

Mainstream Media Obscure the Real Immigration Story

Published by Truthout Buzzflash

July 26, 2018


The cruel separation of undocumented immigrant children from their parents and the Trump administration's continuing deportation of parents persists as a hot-button news item.
Much can be learned from the way the mass media have informed and misinformed us about immigration issues.

For starters, as is often the case, dramatic and heart-wrenching visuals of children being separated from their parents catapulted the issue into public awareness and debate over administration policies.

Yet importantly, this latest chapter took place against a backdrop of Trump's 2016 presidential campaign that effectively played on fears of "criminal" immigrants "stealing Americans' jobs." Fears of "illegal immigrant gangs" burning down cities have been stoked by right-wing media for years.

Interesting that many of these cities have declared themselves "sanctuary cities" to protect undocumented immigrants from deportation by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

Meanwhile, empirical research has demonstrated that immigrant populations are, in fact, less likely than citizens to break the law and that rising immigration does not lead to rising crime.
Yet Trump's repeated dismissals of "fake news" helps to lock his electoral base into a right-wing echo chamber, led by Fox News. In effect, exposed to no countervailing views that might be considered legitimate, they live in a kind of totalitarian realm.

The Boundaries of Mainstream Debate

The inhumane practice of separating children from their parents legitimized widespread denunciation across much of the political spectrum, and was the catalyst for recent "Families Belong Together" protests erupting across the US and in cities around the world.

Trump administration responses appealed to a simplistic "law and order" mentality: "Illegal" immigrants are "criminals" and should be treated as such, and separating children from parents will "deter" future migration from Mexico and Central America.

Mainstream media coverage makes it too easy to see this as simply a Trump-caused problem, when in fact it is produced by an imperial US foreign policy and the wider exploitation of the Global South by the wealthy nations of the world.

As many in the mass media have documented, most migrants are fleeing for their lives from gang violence or state oppression in El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico.

The question is: Where does this violence come from?

The answer has the bloody hands of the United States all over it.

Gang violence in El Salvador took root after the US deported hundreds of gang members from Los Angeles, without letting the government of El Salvador know that the deported had criminal records.
These MS-13 members grew up poor and marginalized in the barrios of Los Angeles, the children of parents who had fled for their lives from the brutal police-state violence of the US-backed regimes in El Salvador and Guatemala in the '70s and '80s -- what mainstream media outlets like The New York Times sanitize as those countries' "civil wars."

This makes their parents legitimate recipients of political asylum. However, US policy has restricted that category to those who fled repression from enemy(e.g., leftist) regimes. To designate Salvadoran or Guatemalan immigrants as political refugees would be to acknowledge the brutal repression the US supported. Hence, they instead became "illegal immigrants."

Those foreign policies were echoed in the 2009 Obama-supported military coup in Honduras that restored the brutal repression of the traditional Honduran elites.  Honduras has joined El Salvador as one of the murder capitals of the world and is now a leading source of immigrants fleeing north.
As Honduran singer, Karla Lara, put it at a Bethlehem, Pennsylvania concert, "We are not a violent people. [Honduras] has been made violent by US guns. For years, the US military has been killing us."

Rarely acknowledged in mainstream media, support for brutal police-state dictatorships has been a persistent feature of US foreign policy for decades, typically justified in the name of "defending freedom" -- against, you know, the "international communist conspiracy," as Sen. Joseph McCarthy liked to put it.

Yet beneath this support lies the imperative of imperialism -- of creating a good climate for business and investment in what was called the "Third World." As political scientists Daniel Hellinger and Dennis Judd have written in The Democratic Fa├žade,
The important features of a good business climate, as defined by corporate and foreign policy elites, are: a tractable low-paid labor force; an absence of worker-controlled unions; weak or nonexistent environmental protection laws; lax health and safety regulations in the work place; tax concessions and government subsidies for business; the use of public money to provide the infrastructure necessary for the functioning of business; and laws permitting the tax-free repatriation of corporate profits back to the United States.  Because political revolutions commonly arise in reaction to such a system of exploitation, a repressive political system is a necessary feature of a `good business climate.'
US policy has, of course, been reinforced by international institutions of capital like the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. Loans to aid "development" follow the "good business climate" model. Nations devoting too much public effort to the needs of their own citizens are then required to make "strategic adjustments" if they want to receive more aid.

A similar dynamic can be seen in the wealthy European Union seeking strategic adjustments by the struggling nations of Greece, Spain and Italy.

So much for "spreading democracy" in the world. But as with blowback from US policies in the Middle East, the plight of immigrants brings the impact of US policy abroad back home to us.

These costs are only the tip of the iceberg of what Americans pay for our heavily militarized, imperial foreign policy. The political mainstream operates much like a totalitarian society where these crucial truths are invisible to all who don't seek access to progressive resources.

50 Years Later What Can We Learn from the My Lai Massacre?

Published on Friday, March 16, 2018

[Photo taken by United States Army photographer Ronald L. Haeberle on March 16, 1968 in the aftermath of the My Lai massacre showing mostly women and children dead on a road. (Photo: Ronald Haeberle/Wikimedia Commons)]

On March 16, 1968, platoons from the army’s Charlie and Bravo companies began an assault on the village of Son My and particularly the hamlet of My Lai in South Vietnam.  Without encountering a single act of resistance from Viet Cong guerrillas, the American soldiers brutally killed roughly 504 Vietnamese civilians, including pregnant women and 210 children under the age of 13, among them, babies.  Women were brutalized and gang raped and the village was burned to the ground.  Lieutenant William Calley ordered his men to herd village residents into a ditch and left them with the order, “You know what I want you to do with them.”  Confused, the men failed to act until Calley returned and told them to “waste them,” opening fire himself.  The soldiers obeyed.

The massacre produced heroic actions by a few American soldiers, most notably Hugh Thompson.  From his reconnaissance helicopter, Thompson and his crew were alarmed by what they saw happening on the ground.  Landing the helicopter, Thompson stood between American soldiers and a group of villagers they had rounded up.  Ordering his crew to open fire on the Americans if they began shooting the villagers, Thompson rescued the Vietnamese civilians.

Army brass rebuffed complaints Thompson filed.  The military’s official version of the incident, published in several American newspapers, was that the Americans had killed 128 enemy soldiers.
However, one helicopter gunner named Ron Ridenhour began to hear about the massacre back in base camp.  After cautiously gathering information while still in Vietnam, Ridenhour wrote letters detailing the massacre to 30 government and military officials.  Most were never answered, but Ridenhour’s Congressman, Morris Udall, followed up by urging a formal military inquiry.  The secret investigation of Lieutenant Calley’s role led to his arrest for premeditated murder.

Tipped off about the investigation in late October 1969, investigative reporter Seymour Hersh interviewed Calley, Ridenhour and several soldiers who had been at My Lai.  Hersh’s widely published stories along with army photographer Ron Haeberle’s photos horrified millions at a time when the antiwar movement was at a peak and a majority of Americans believed the war to be a mistake.  Still, from that point forward media coverage was dominated by Calley’s trial and eventual conviction in 1971.  Many on the left maintained that Calley was being scapegoated to protect the military chain of command, while many on the right attacked the mass media or hailed Calley as a hero and flooded the Nixon White House with demands for his release.  Calley served only three and a half years of his initial life sentence, most of it in his own quarters.

Military brass quickly distinguished between the “isolated incident” of “murder” at My Lai and normal conduct of the war in Vietnam.  However, many veterans came forward to acknowledge that the killing of large numbers of civilians was a routine part of the American war.  As the Vietnam Veterans Against the War put it at their Winter Soldier Hearings, “My Lai was not an isolated incident,” but “only a minor step beyond the standard official United States policy in Vietnam.”

Indeed the destruction and poisoning of the Vietnam countryside and slaughter of the Vietnamese people is the most appalling feature of the American war.  By best estimates, more than 2 million Vietnamese civilians were killed in the war and more than an additional 2 million were wounded.  In addition to ground search and destroy missions, the United States dropped on Vietnam 1.5 times the tonnage of bombs the Allies dropped in all of World War II, along with 20 million gallons of Agent Orange and other poisonous herbicides, and an estimated 400,000 tons of napalm.

As we know, American ground units in particular suffered greatly, as well.  58,000 soldiers were killed, about 300,000 were wounded (21,000 permanently disabled) and 830,000 have had to struggle with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, as did many involved in the My Lai killings.

Vietnam remembers My Lai with the Son My Vestige Site, a somber museum and green space where photographs, sculptures, mass grave sites, villagers’ relics, and foundations of 18 destroyed homes are on display.

If the Vietnamese remember My Lai this way, how might My Lai be relevant to the United States today?  While it is horrifying that American soldiers responded to what they perceived as orders to “kill everything in the village” by doing just that, what of the morality of killing or maiming civilians as a routine function of warfare?

Historically, World War II was the difference maker.  About 15% of World War I casualties were civilians; most of the time soldiers simply slaughtered each other across “no man’s land.”  By the end of World War II, however, with vast “improvements” in weaponry and air power, 65% of all victims were civilians, according to the landmark 1996 United Nations report; by the 1990s more than 90% of war casualties were civilians.  The carnage of World War II prompted the participants to establish the Geneva Conventions, protecting civilians from “violence to life and person, in particular murder of all kinds, mutilation, cruel treatment and torture,” as well as “outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment.”

So what does this mean for American wars or quasi-covert wars and military strikes in Central America, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Libya, and Yemen which have produced hundreds of thousands of innocent civilian casualties?  Are not these war crimes according to the Geneva Conventions?  And what of the government’s repeated efforts to hide these casualties from us, and the mass media’s complicity in this?  Not only do American military attacks in the Middle East help to produce the spreading threat of blowback against Americans, but American soldiers continue to suffer from profound physical and emotional damage.  A contemporary term for the latter is “moral injury,” particularly relevant in wars where little distinction can be (or is) made between enemy fighters and civilians.

Is not this country suffering from moral injury?  Isn’t it time we had a full and open reckoning with this history?