Thursday, February 27, 2014

Ukraine: Where Should Progressives (Socialists) Stand?

There's a fascinating debate going on about Ukraine at a Facebook page I frequent called 'Being a Socialist'. The debate consists of two questions (and subsidiary questions branching out of each):

1) How do revolutionaries push forward an independent socialist alternative, in the midst of a civil war where both sides are backed by reactionary imperialists?


2) how do revolutionaries recognize which side to side with in different circumstances?

In Ukraine currently, there are at least two sides: that of the Putschists, whose parties Fatherland, UDAR and Svoboda are backed by the EU and US and that of the democratically-elected government (now deposed) whose party, the Party of Regions, is backed by Russia.

So question #1 asks us as revolutionaries whether it is possible to create an independent socialist alternative when both sides (Russia and EU\US) are imperialist. Further complicating matters is that one axis of this imperialist standoff is using fascist and neo-Nazi shock troops (from Svoboda and Right Center) to seize power from the legitimate government and upend the democratic process. But that democratic government is supported by the other side of the imperialist standoff.

So in a struggle between two imperialist powers (the US and Russia), what position should Socialist revolutionaries take? Or should Socialist revolutionaries declare, like Mercutio, "a plague on both your houses" and not have anything to do with either side?

There is no easy answer to this question, which may be why it is so fascinating to me. While my normal proclivity is to respond that Socialists must never side with any bourgeois society that uses fascists and neo-Nazis, I also recognize that EU\US democracy may be slightly more advanced with regard to certain  interests of the working class than the Russian autocracy. Is that slight advantage enough to lead me to set aside my moral scruples to make common cause with the side relying upon fascists? Not on your life. So the only question that remains for me is whether the need to smash European fascism and neo-fascism is important enough for me to set aside my scruples about backing autocracy. I have not yet fully decided although I am deeply sympathetic to Russian interests in Ukraine, based on history and demographics.

Question #2 poses a more interesting philosophical problem which is what method revolutionaries should use to decide with whom, if anyone, to side in these imperialist squabbles. Some argue that smashing fascism should be the top priority, which makes backing the Party of Regions and Russia logically follow. Others argue that both sides are capitalist-imperialist which argues for not taking either side. Finally, there are a couple voices arguing that western-style imperialism (the EU\US variety) is more advanced in terms of 'internationalism, liberalism and democracy' than the autocratic traditions underneath the Russian Federation.

Given my background in modern European history, I find myself drawn to the first position: that smashing European fascism should be the highest priority. Thus, even though the deposed government party Party of Regions and its leader Yanukovych represent the interests of a decadent bourgeois state, they are better for workers' long-term interests than a fascist regime and so I support Russia and the Party of Regions and oppose the Putschists as anathema to the working class' interests.

My answer to question #2 is that we must first determine which 'side' in a battle between imperialist forces better serves the long-term interests of the working class. Given m background in history, I am always looking for historical analogues and here, the example of the U.S. Civil War is instructive. In that case, as well, there were two sides, one bourgeois-capitalist and the other bourgeois-slave. Neither side ideal, each side parasitical to the output of the working class. But one side (the North) clearly better for workers than the other side (the South). Once we have determined which side better advances the interests of the working class, we can then pick a side or choose to remain neutral on the issue. But we need to analyze and determine objectively which side is better for the working class before making that decision.

This fascinating, all-important debate is far from over and ongoing. It can be found here:

Being a Socialist Facebook Page

Monday, February 24, 2014

Ukraine and America's Unkept Promise(s)

The United States of America has a piss-poor record when it comes to keeping its promises. Whether it be promises made to the indigenous peoples regarding their vested rights in the land, promises made to newly-freed African Americans about '40 acres and a mule,' promises to the Vietnamese to pay reparations (politely termed 'compensation' in the historical documents) or promises to close the concentration camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, the U.S.A. can be trusted about as far as you can throw it. Which is to say, not very far at all.

During all the tumult in Ukraine over the weekend, few paused to reflect upon yet another broken promise in a long trail of American perfidy. Few paused to remember that President George H.W. Bush promised Mikhail Gorbachev that if Gorbachev allowed the USSR to dissolve peacefully, NATO would seek no expansion into Eastern Europe. 25 years later the record is clear: Gorbachev kept his promise, but the USA has welched on its word yet again.

This time, the consequences could not be more serious for those with an understanding of the region and its history. Russia quite rightly can regard Ukraine (which has its origins in the word 'border') as vital to its national security interests, far more than the U.S.A. can regard, say, Alaska as vital to its national security interests. In history and demographics, Russia can with no small justification claim that Ukraine is the western-most province of Russia.

But over the weekend, we had to listen to the American National Security Adviser, Susan Rice, bleat that the U.S. government "supports the Ukrainian people" (as though the prominence of unabashedly proud fascists among the coup instigators is not readily apparent) and listen to her lecture Putin on 'grave consequences,' should he intervene there militarily.

Well, if I were the Ukrainian people, I'd be very leery of believing anything issuing from an American official's mouth. Instead, I'd be remembering how the British promised to support the Czechs before agreeing to give Hitler the Sudetenland. Because, see, once you've broken one promise, no one is required to give credence to any further of your promises. You are instead revealed as risible realpolitkers whose machinations would have Bismarck recoiling in disgust, once he stopped laughing at the absurdity of our hypocritical pretensions.

Note: I am indebted to Eric Margolis for reminding me of Bush Sr.'s promise to Gorbachev 25-some years ago. Margolis' column is a must-read, in my opinion:

Margolis' Column

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

When Ya Gotta Go . . .

So you're an undocumented worker out and about seeking work and one day the urge to purge comes over you. Better hope you're not living and working in Arizona. If Republicans there have their way, it may soon become illegal for anyone in the state 'illegally' to relieve him- or herself in a public restroom.

You can't make this shit (npi) up:
An Arizona Republican, Carl Seel, recently introduced legislation that would make it a crime for a ‘person in the state illegally’ to use any public resource or facility. This would include sidewalks, roads, parks and yes, even public restrooms.
How Low Can Republicans Go?

Representative Carl Seel's Legislative District 20, the Arizona Capitol Times notes tersely, "is located entirely in Maricopa County and includes parts of Phoenix and Glendale. It is bounded on the north by State Rte. 101, on the south by Butler Dr., and on the east by Cave Creek Rd. The district’s western boundary is near 75th Ave. Minorities represent 32.1 percent of the district’s total ..."

Since Representative Seel's proposal deserves more than mere vocal support, I would encourage all undocumented workers living within his district to familiarize themselves with the location of  his personal residence and make their way to his front or rear lawns to show their, ahem, solid-arity in person.

If you need directions to Representative Seel's residence, you can email him at or phone him at (602) 926-3018 to get directions. The U.S Postal Service also makes a wonderful method to deliver expressions of your support the good old-fashioned way. You might wish to call ahead to confirm the best address or, if you feel an urgent need to show your support immediately, you can send your expressions of support to:
Arizona House of Representatives
1700 W. Washington
Room 341
Phoenix, AZ 85007
If, sadly, you're not one of the wealthy 'taker' undocumented workers with access to a taxpayer-funded mobile phone, internet access or postage stamps, I would suggest the front or rear lawn of any Republican in the state would suffice. After all, we're all in this together.

Friday, February 7, 2014

What Is To Be Done? (What Is To Be Done)

A couple weeks ago, various progressive media outlets published the transcript of a speech -- "The Myth of Human Progress and the Collapse of Complex Societies" -- that social critic Chris Hedges delivered in my neighborhood of Santa Monica back in October, 2013. The speech is a remarkable tour de force that centers around Melville's Moby Dick and uses the voyage and quest at the center of that novel as a metaphor for the various crises that global capitalism has both created and continues to hurtle towards. I wish to recommend Hedges' remarkable speech (essay) in the strongest terms possible to my readership here.

Midway through his address, Hedges begins to talk about what he thinks we must do:

We must develop a revolutionary theory that is not reliant on the industrial or agrarian muscle of workers. Most manufacturing jobs have disappeared, and, of those that remain, few are unionized. Our family farms have been destroyed by agro-businesses. Monsanto and its Faustian counterparts on Wall Street rule. They are steadily poisoning our lives and rendering us powerless. The corporate leviathan, which is global, is freed from the constraints of a single nation-state or government. Corporations are beyond regulation or control. Politicians are too anemic, or more often too corrupt, to stand in the way of the accelerating corporate destruction. This makes our struggle different from revolutionary struggles in industrial societies in the past. Our revolt will look more like what erupted in the less industrialized Slavic republics, Russia, Spain and China and uprisings led by a disenfranchised rural and urban working class and peasantry in the liberation movements that swept through Africa and Latin America. The dispossessed working poor, along with unemployed college graduates and students, unemployed journalists, artists, lawyers and teachers, will form our movement. This is why the fight for a higher minimum wage is crucial to uniting service workers with the alienated college-educated sons and daughters of the old middle class. Bakunin, unlike Marx, considered déclassé intellectuals essential for successful revolt.

That paragraph has been fermenting in my mind ever since I read it. (I did not hear Hedges speak in person.) What does Hedges mean when he talks about a 'revolutionary theory'? I am no great 'theorist' myself, although I acknowledge theory's vital importance. I do not have a wide knowledge of all the various theories of 'revolution' that have come before, so as to evaluate the wisdom in Hedges' remark. Perhaps we do not need to develop a revolutionary theory. Perhaps we already have one that will suffice.

Hedges elaborates that older revolutionary theories were developed for agrarian and, later, industrial populations of workers, both of which he suggests have largely disappeared from the American scene. Hedges thinks we need a new 'revolutionary theory' to serve the interests of the 'working poor' and the unemployed intelligentsia (of whom I am currently one).

Hedges moves on from this issue in fairly short order, but I was again reminded of this paragraph yesterday when I came across remarks made by billionaire Sam Zell, chairperson of the vulture capitalist group Equity Group Investments. Zell was responding to a question from Bloomberg's Betty Liu about the Tom Perkins' letter last week to the Wall Street Journal where Perkins compared the current plight of the global 1% to the plight of Jews during Kristallnacht.

That letter by Perkins (and the responses to it) are grounds that have been thoroughly plowed and I see no need to rehash them. No, what brought me back to Hedges' speech was this little zinger by Zell:
The problem is that the world and this country should not talk about envy of the 1 percent. It should talk about emulating the 1 percent . . . The 1 percent work harder. (Emphasis added.)

Think about that throw-away line for a second. Allow it to sink in. Does this not smack you across the face with its arrogance and paternalism? Does this not make you furious? This is how the 1% think of the rest of us: "The 1 percent work harder."

When I read this, I remembered back to my days growing up on a dairy farm in Southwest Missouri, of baling hay under a hot, sweltering August sun and storing that hay in barns roofed with corrugated tin where the heat radiated from the structure like some Dante-esque oven. I remembered getting up at 4 a.m. on icily cold frosty January mornings to sit in an unheated barn and milk cows by hand while my toes slowly froze within my boots. But Zell also made me remember that my 'work' was as nothing compared to the work of the adult farm workers in whose presence I lived, my Dad who had to drive 20 miles into town to work at a local manufacturing plant because the farm didn't earn enough for us to survive, our neighbor who died of a heart attack trying to hand-deliver a baby calf whose mother was having problems during a tumultuous rainstorm, of one of the local magnates who seemingly worked himself non-stop and sold insurance on the side to help make ends meet.

Does the 1% 'work harder' than those agricultural workers? Do its CEOS deserve to earn 500 times what the average employee earns because those CEOs 'work harder'?

After the fury that boiled in my blood had subsided to a low simmer, I came back to the Hedges' excerpt quoted above and its call. Surely something must be done about attitudes such as Zell's (and Perkins'). Are we going to let such comments and such attitudes stand? What is to be done?

As soon as I asked myself that question, an answer proposed itself, born out of the syntax of that question, indeed a transformation of that sentence from question to statement. One could almost say the question answers itself. A little over a century ago, Lenin grappled with similar ruling class arrogance and decadence and working class suffering and despair and published a pamphlet. Lenin's 1902 pamphlet, ironically, was also titled "What Is To Be Done?" and, in it, he argued that workers will not gain political power merely through battling with employers over economic issues. Instead, Lenin proposed, workers need a vanguard party of revolutionaries ready to propagate a 'revolutionary' consciousness among workers and, when conditions are ripe, to seize power on workers' behalf.

Here is another answer that proposes itself from a revolutionary (Emma Goldman) more militant than I can ever dream of being:
Demonstrate before the palaces of the rich; demand work. If they do not give you work, demand bread. If they deny you both, take bread.
So, to answer Lenin's century-old question and the question in my title, to rise to the challenge Hedges sets us, here is what is to be done: seize the assets of anyone with personal assets worth more than $1 million and put those assets to work for the common good. Seize the assets of any estate valued at more than $500,000 and put those assets to work for the common good. That's being merciful to Zell and other members of his entitled parasite class. They need look back no further than a century to observe what happens to other parasites whom history does not treat so kindly.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Why, oh why, would anyone take food from hungry children?

One of my Facebook friends, Sara Peterson, reminded me this morning about the Stanford Prison Experiment, a psychological experiment conducted in the early 1970s at Stanford U. The wikipedia article does an excellent job of summarizing the experiment:

Twenty-four male students out of seventy-five were selected to take on randomly assigned roles of prisoners and guards in a mock prison situated in the basement of the Stanford psychology building. The participants adapted to their roles well beyond Zimbardo's expectations, as the guards enforced authoritarian measures and ultimately subjected some of the prisoners to psychological torture. Many of the prisoners passively accepted psychological abuse and, at the request of the guards, readily harassed other prisoners who attempted to prevent it. The experiment even affected Zimbardo himself, who, in his role as the superintendent, permitted the abuse to continue. Two of the prisoners quit the experiment early and the entire experiment was abruptly stopped after only six days.

The Stanford Prison Experiment

In discussing the Stanford Experiment with Sara, I was in turn reminded of another set of experiments conducted at Yale University in the early 1960s by Stanley Milgram. Again, the wikipedia entry summarizes Milgram's experiment well:

The Milgram experiment on obedience to authority figures was a series of social psychology experiments conducted by Yale University psychologist Stanley Milgram. They measured the willingness of study participants to obey an authority figure who instructed them to perform acts conflicting with their personal conscience. Milgram first described his research in 1963 in an article published in the Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, and later discussed his findings in greater depth in his 1974 book, Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View.
The experiments began in July 1961, three months after the start of the trial of German Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem. Milgram devised his psychological study to answer the popular question at that particular time: "Could it be that Eichmann and his million accomplices in the Holocaust were just following orders? Could we call them all accomplices?" The experiments have been repeated many times in the following years with consistent results within differing societies, although not with the same percentages across the globe."
. . . .
Milgram summarized the experiment in his 1974 article, "The Perils of Obedience", writing:
The legal and philosophic aspects of obedience are of enormous importance, but they say very little about how most people behave in concrete situations. I set up a simple experiment at Yale University to test how much pain an ordinary citizen would inflict on another person simply because he was ordered to by an experimental scientist. Stark authority was pitted against the subjects' [participants'] strongest moral imperatives against hurting others, and, with the subjects' [participants'] ears ringing with the screams of the victims, authority won more often than not. The extreme willingness of adults to go to almost any lengths on the command of an authority constitutes the chief finding of the study and the fact most urgently demanding explanation.
Ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process. Moreover, even when the destructive effects of their work become patently clear, and they are asked to carry out actions incompatible with fundamental standards of morality, relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority.
The Milgram Experiment 
My friend Sara concluded that, based on the Stanford Prison Experiment, "there may just be something innately cruel in the human animal when it is in a position of power." I did not think to mention to Sara at the time that there is a wonderful line in Shakespeare's Measure for Measure when Isabella complains about the Duke's abuse of his powers: "Oh, it is excellent to have a giant's strength. But it is tyrannous to use it as a giant." That great humanist Shakespeare understood quite a bit about human nature and how power can corrupt, but even he probably would have been shocked at the actions of the Uintah Elementary School officials in Salt Lake City who took food away from children without adequate funds on account to pay for it.

As Sara reminded me today, "
The real problem is trying to figure out why that happens."

Milgram found that most people will become Eichmanns given the right set of cultural cues. In Milgram's case, those cultural cues were in the form of a supposedly scientific authority issuing orders in the name of science. In this case, a culture that says that money is more important that feeding young children combines with a culture that says employees must never under any circumstances challenge or question the orders of their superiors to produce a vignette from which all but the least squeamish recoil in horror.

And yet I would challenge my readership to ask themselves this. When is the last time that you yourself were faced with an order you considered morally reprehensible with which you nonetheless held your nose and complied? If you are being honest with yourself, I'd wager it has been far more recent than you would care to admit. Our culture behaves with the utmost brutality and scorn to those who, like Melville's Bartleby, would simply "prefer not to." And thus, we come full circle to that very wise 17th-century epigrammatist La Rochefoucauld's observation that 'Hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue.' After we have paid our tributes, perhaps we can use the Uintah episode as an opportunity for self scrutiny, an opportunity to resolve that we shall never henceforth take food from hungry children.