Monday, March 20, 2017

A Last Chance for Resistance

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The crawl toward despotism within a failed democracy is always incremental. No regime planning to utterly extinguish civil liberties advertises its intentions in advance. It pays lip service to liberty and justice while obliterating the institutions and laws that make them possible. Its opponents, including those within the establishment, make sporadic attempts to resist, but week by week, month by month, the despot and his reactionary allies methodically consolidate power. Those inside the machinery of government and the courts who assert the rule of law are purged. Critics, including the press, are attacked, ridiculed and silenced. The state is reconfigured until the edifice of tyranny is unassailable.

Alexander Solzhenitsynin “The Gulag Archipelago” noted that the consolidation of Soviet tyranny “was stretched out over many years because it was of primary importance that it be stealthy and unnoticed.” He called the process “a grandiose silent game of solitaire, whose rules were totally incomprehensible to its contemporaries, and whose outlines we can appreciate only now.”

Czeslaw Miloszin “The Captive Mind” also chronicles the incremental expansion of tyranny, noting that it steadily progresses until intellectuals are not only forced to repeat the regime’s self-praising slogans but to advance its absurdist dogmas. Few ever see the tyranny coming. Those who do and speak out are treated by the authorities, and often the wider society, as alarmists or traitors.

The current administration’s budget proposes to givethe war industry, the domestic policing agencies, the fossil fuel industry, Wall Street, billionaires and the national security and surveillance agencies more than they could have imagined possible before the election. These forces, as in all fascist states, will be the pillars of the Trump regime. They will tolerate Donald Trump’s idiocy, ineptitude and unbridled narcissism in exchange for increased profits and power. Despots are often buffoons. Appealing to their vanity and ego is an effective form of manipulation. Skilled sycophants can play despots like musical instruments for personal advancement.

Trump, like all despots, has no real ideology. His crusade against Wall Street, including Goldman Sachs, and the billionaire class during the presidential election campaign vanished the moment he took office. He has appointedfive former Goldman Sachs employees to high posts in his administration. His budget will bleed the poor, the working class and the middle class and swell the bank accounts of the oligarchs. He is calling for abolishing the Corporation for Public Broadcastingand the National Endowment for the Artsand the cutting of programs that provide legal service to low-income people and grants to libraries and museums. If Trump’s budget is approved by Congress, there will not even be a pretense of civil society. Trump and his family will profit from his presidency. Corporations will profit from his presidency. Wall Street will profit from his presidency. And the people will be made to pay.

Despots demand absolute loyalty. This is why they place family members in the inner circles. The Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, whose vanity rivaled that of Trump, and Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein filled their governments with their children, siblings, nephews, nieces and in-laws and rounded out their inner courts with racists, opportunists and thugs of the kind that now populate the White House.

“President Trump’s point man on Israeli-Palestinian negotiations is a longtime Trump Organization lawyer with no government or diplomatic experience,” reads the opening paragraph of a New York Times article headlined “Prerequisite for Key White House Posts: Loyalty, Not Experience.” “His liaison to African-American leaders is a former reality-TV villainwith a penchant for résumé inflation. And his Oval Office gatekeeper is a bullet-headed former New York City copbest known for smacking a protester on the head.”

Despots distrust diplomats. Diplomats, often multilingual and conversant with other cultures and societies, deal in nuances and ambiguities that are beyond the grasp of the despot. Diplomats understand that other nations have legitimate national interests that inevitably clash with the interests of one’s own country. They do not embrace force as the primary language of communication. They are trained to carry out negotiations, even with the enemy, and engage in compromise. Despots, however, live in a binary universe of their own creation. They rapidly dismantle the diplomatic corps when they take power for the same reason they attack intellectuals and artists.

Trump’s proposed cut of nearly 29 percent to the State Department’s budget, potentially eliminating thousands of jobs, is part of the shift away from diplomacy to an exclusive reliance on violence or the threat of violence. The militarization of the diplomatic corps, with the Central Intelligence Agency and military intelligence operatives often taking over embassies, especially in conflict zones, began long before Trump took office. But Trump will deal the coup de grâce to the diplomatic corps. Despots replace diplomats with sycophants with no diplomatic experience, such as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who promise to impose the despot’s will on the rest of the world.

The dismantling of a diplomatic corps has dangerous consequences. It leaves a country blind and prone to wars and conflicts that could be avoided. Leon Trotskycalled Josef Stalin’s foreign minister, Vyacheslav Molotov, who negotiated the disastrous 1939 Nazi-Soviet nonaggression pact that left the Soviet Union unprepared for German invasion, “mediocrity personified.” The other signatory of the pact, Joachim von Ribbentrop, was a former champagne salesman. Ribbentrop, as Molotov did with Stalin, parroted back to Adolf Hitler the leader’s conspiratorial worldview. Ribbentrop, again like Molotov with Stalin, knew that Hitler always favored the most extreme option. Molotov and Ribbentrop unfailingly advocated radical and violent solutions to any problem, endearing themselves to their bosses as men of unflinching resolve. This is what makes Steve Bannon so appealing to Trump—he will always call for Armageddon.

There are three institutions tasked in a functioning democracy with protecting the truth and keeping national discourse rooted in verifiable fact—the courts, the press and universities. Despots must control these three to prevent them from exposing their lies and restricting their power. Trump has not only attacked the courts but has also begun purges of the judiciary with his mass firing of U.S. attorneys. The Trump White House plans to fill 124 judgeships—including 19 vacancies on federal appeals courts—with corporatist lawyers such as Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch who are endorsed by the reactionary Federalist Society. By the time Trump’s four-year term is up, Federalist Society judges could be in as many as half of the country’s appellate seats.

Trump has continued to attempt to discredit the press. During his rally in Nashville, Tenn., on Wednesday, he told the crowd, “Some of the fake news said I don’t think Donald Trump wants to build the wall. Can you imagine if I said we’re not going to build a wall? Fake news. Fake, fake news. Fake news, folks. A lot of fake.” He went on to say in an apparent reference to the reporters covering the rally, “They’re bad people.”

The attacks on universities, which will be accelerated, are on display in the budget proposal. The Department of Health and Human Services, the National Science Foundation, NASA, the Department of Education, the Commerce Department, the National Institutes of Health, the Energy Department and the Department of Veterans Affairs all give grants and research money to universities. Colorado State University, for example, gets about 70 percent, or $232 million, of its research budget from federal sources. In February, Trump suggested he might attempt to cut federal funding for universities such as UC Berkeley. His comment was made after a riot at the California school forced the cancellation of a speech there by the far-right ideologue Milo Yiannopoulos, who has called Trump “Daddy.”A university will of course be able to get corporate funding for research if it casts doubt on the importance of climate change or does research that can be used to swell corporate profits or promote other business interests. Scientific study into our ecocide and the dangers from chemicals, toxins and pollutants released by corporations into the atmosphere will be thwarted. And the withering of humanities programs, already suffering in many universities, will worsen.

It will be increasingly difficult to carry out mass protests and civil disobedience. Repression will become steadily more overt and severe. Dissent will be equated with terrorism. We must use the space before it is shut. This is a race against time. The forces of despotism seek to keep us complacent and pacified with the false hope that mechanisms within the system will moderate Trump or remove him through impeachment, or that the looming tyranny will never be actualized. There is an emotional incapacity among any population being herded toward despotism or war to grasp what is happening. The victims cannot believe that the descent into barbarity is real, that the relative security and sanity of the past are about to be obliterated. They fail to see that once rights become privileges, once any segment of a society is excluded from the law, rights can instantly be revoked for everyone.

There is a hierarchy to oppression. It begins with the most vulnerable—undocumented workers, Muslims, poor people of color. It works upward. It is a long row of candles that one by one are extinguished. If we wait to resist, as the poet C.P. Cavafy wrote, the “dark line gets longer” and “the snuffed-out candles proliferate.”

The WikiLeaks exposures and the CIA’s threat to democratic rights

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Speaking at a cybersecurity conference at Boston College Wednesday, FBI Director James Comey said, “there is no such thing as absolute privacy in America.” Every activity that Americans engage in, including conversations between spouses and with members of the clergy and attorneys, is within “judicial reach.” He declared, “In appropriate circumstances, a judge can compel any one of us to testify in court about those very private communications.”
The FBI director did not add, although he could well have, that a judicial order is completely irrelevant to the US military-intelligence apparatus. The US government has far more direct methods than court orders to learn what its citizens are thinking and talking about, through the use of sophisticated cyberweapons. These include the thousands of hacking tools whose existence was made public Tuesday by WikiLeaks, in a data release exposing efforts by the CIA to turn millions of ordinary electronic devices, from cellphones and smart TVs to the computer systems running most cars, into spy weapons.
The FBI director’s declaration that there is no right to privacy was greeted with a yawn by the corporate media, which barely reported his comments, and by Democratic and Republican party politicians. This is in keeping with the overall treatment of the WikiLeaks revelations, which has been one of indifference to the threat to democratic rights exposed in the CIA cyberweapons cache.
As far as the media is concerned, anyone who raises concerns about the right to privacy, or other democratic rights, being threatened by the national-security apparatus is an agent of Russia. This position was put most bluntly by the Washington Post, in its lead editorial Thursday, headlined, “WikiLeaks does America’s enemies a big favor.”
The editorial begins with a flat-out, 100 percent defense of the CIA, declaring, “The first thing to say about the archive of cyberhacking tools stolen from the CIA and released by WikiLeaks is that they are not instruments of mass surveillance, but means for spying on individual phones, computers and televisions. There is no evidence they have been used against Americans or otherwise improperly …”
The editorial continues, “It follows that the targets of the hacking methods, and the prime beneficiaries of their release, will be Islamic State terrorists, North Korean bombmakers, Iranian, Chinese and Russian spies, and other U.S. adversaries.” The editorial goes on to smear WikiLeaks as a tool of Russia, and denounces “privacy zealots” who “are, in effect, advocating unilateral U.S. disarmament in cyberspace.”
In response to such a brazen defense of the CIA, one is tempted to ask, why doesn’t the Washington Post simply announce that it is a propaganda arm of the U.S. government, tasked with the ideological and political defense of the military-intelligence apparatus? There is not a shred of an independent, critical attitude in this editorial. The newspaper swallows whole the CIA’s assurances that its agents are “legally prohibited” from spying on Americans. And it denounces WikiLeaks for acting as real journalists do, collecting information about government misconduct and making it public.
This from a newspaper that, 46 years ago, in conjunction with the New York Times, published the Pentagon Papers, over the vehement objections of the Nixon White House and the CIA and military leaders of the day, who raised the same cry of “national security.” One can only conclude that if someone brought the equivalent of the Pentagon Papers to the Post (or the Times ) today, the editors would immediately call up the FBI and have the leaker arrested.
The line of the Post has been repeated in innumerable forms in newspapers and on television. Former director of the CIA and the NSA Michael Hayden has been brought forward on nearly every news program to deliver the official government line. None of the major broadcasters adopt a critical line or seek to interview anyone who supports WikiLeaks and its exposure of CIA crimes.
A concrete demonstration of the relationship between the media and the military-intelligence apparatus is provided by a report posted on the web site of the New York Times earlier this week by David Sanger, the newspaper’s principal conduit for information that the CIA and Pentagon wish to make public.
Sanger wrote about how he and another Times reporter, William Broad, prepared last Sunday’s front-page report on US efforts to counter North Korean missile launches, headlined, “Trump Inherits a Secret Cyberwar Against North Korean Missiles,” which suggested that the US military had developed methods for causing North Korean missile launches to fail. The main thrust of this article, splashed across the newspaper’s front page, was that the countermeasures were insufficient, and more drastic actions were required against the supposed threat of a North Korean nuclear strike against US targets.
In a remarkable paragraph, Sanger describes “the sensitive part of these investigations: telling the government what we had, trying to get official comment (there has been none) and assessing whether any of our revelations could affect continuing operations.” He explains, “In the last weeks of the Obama administration, we traveled out to the director of national intelligence’s offices,” where, Sanger says, it was “important to listen to any concerns they might have about the details we are planning to publish so that we can weigh them with our editors.”
In plain English, the New York Times’ front-page “exclusive” was nothing more than a press release from the military-intelligence apparatus, aimed at spreading fear of North Korean nuclear capabilities in the upper-middle-class readership of the Times, and setting the tone for national media coverage of the issue. The political goal was to shape public opinion to support a preemptive US military attack on North Korea, an impoverished country the size of the state of Mississippi.
The main significance of the media response to the WikiLeaks revelations is that it demonstrates the complete erosion of democratic consciousness in all the institutions of the American ruling elite. In any serious accounting of the threats to American democracy, the CIA would be in first place: America’s own Gestapo, what even President Lyndon Johnson described as a “damned Murder Incorporated” for its brutal methods of assassination and provocation across the Caribbean and Latin America.
There is no greater danger to the democratic rights of the American people than the military-intelligence apparatus of the American government itself, the last line of defense for a crisis-stricken and historically doomed ruling elite.

The WikiLeaks revelations and the crimes of US imperialism

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With increasing frequency, aggressive foreign policy moves by Washington have been palmed off by the media and political establishment as defensive responses to “hacking” and “cyber-espionage” by US imperialism’s geopolitical adversaries: Russia and China.
For months, news programs have been dominated by hysterical allegations that Russia “hacked” the Democratic National Committee in order to subvert the 2016 election. As the print and broadcast media were engaged in feverish denunciations of Russia, the US and its NATO allies moved thousands of troops and hundreds of tanks to the Russian border.
Not content to allege interference only in the American election, the US media and its international surrogates have alleged Russian meddling in elections in France, Germany and other far-flung countries. Prior to the current furor over Russian “hacking” of the election, the Obama administration used allegations of “hacking” and “intellectual property theft” to justify the trade sanctions and military escalation against China that accompanied its “pivot to Asia.”
Whenever the State Department, the CIA or unnamed “intelligence officials” proclaim another alleged “cyber” provocation by Washington’s geopolitical rivals, news anchors breathlessly regurgitate the allegations as fact, accompanying them with potted infographics and footage of masked men in darkened rooms aggressively typing away at computer keyboards.
But the official narrative of a benevolent and well-intentioned US government coming under attack from hordes of Russian and Chinese hackers, spies and “internet trolls” was upended Tuesday with the publication by WikiLeaks of some 9,000 documents showing the methods used by the Central Intelligence Agency to carry out criminal cyber-espionage, exploitation, hacking and disinformation operations all over the world.
The documents reveal that the CIA possesses the ability to exploit and control any internet-connected device, including mobile phones and “smart” televisions. These tools, employed by an army of 5,000 CIA hackers, give the agency the means to spy on virtually anyone, whether inside or outside the United States, including foreign governments, “friend” and foe alike, as well as international organizations such as the United Nations.
The WikiLeaks documents expose the United States as the world’s greatest “rogue state” and “cyber criminal.” The monstrous US espionage network, paid for with hundreds of billions in tax dollars, uses diplomatic posts to hide its activities from its “allies,” spies on world leaders, organizes kidnappings and assassinations and aims to influence or overturn elections all over the world.
On Tuesday, former CIA director Michael Hayden replied to the revelations by boasting, “But there are people out there that you want us to spy on. You want us to have the ability to actually turn on that listening device inside the TV to learn that person’s intentions.”
One can only imagine the howls of indignation such statements would evoke in the American press if they were uttered by a former Russian spymaster. In his comments, Hayden barely attempts to cover up the fact that the United States runs a spying and political disruption operation the likes of which Russian President Vladimir Putin or Chinese President Xi Jinping could only dream of.
The WikiLeaks documents show that the United States seeks to cover up its illicit operations by planting false flags indicating that its geopolitical adversaries, including Russia and China, bear responsibility for its crimes.
Cybersecurity expert Robert Graham noted in a blog post, for example, that “one anti-virus researcher has told me that a virus they once suspected came from the Russians or Chinese can now be attributed to the CIA, as it matches the description perfectly to something in the leak.”
The revelations have already begun to reverberate around the world. German Foreign Ministry spokesman Sebastian Fischer said Wednesday that Berlin was taking the revelations “very seriously,” adding, “issues of this kind emerge again and again.” Meanwhile Germany’s chief prosecutor has announced an investigation into the contents of the documents, with a spokesperson telling Reuters, “We will initiate an investigation if we see evidence of concrete criminal acts or specific perpetrators…We’re looking at it very carefully.”
The documents expose the CIA’s use of the US consulate in Frankfurt, Germany as a base for its spying and cyber operations throughout Europe, employing a network of intelligence personnel including CIA agents, NSA spies, military secret service personnel and US Department of Homeland Security employees. Many of these operatives were provided with cover identities and diplomatic passports in order to hide their operations from the German and European governments.
Wednesday’s rebuke by the German government followed the revelations in 2013 by Edward Snowden that “unknown members of the US intelligence services spied on the mobile phone of Chancellor Angela Merkel,” as Germany’s top prosecutor put it in 2015.
The US media, true to its function as a propaganda arm of the CIA and other intelligence agencies, immediately sprang into action to minimize the significance of the revelations and to accuse Russia, entirely without substantiation, of having released the documents in an effort to subvert US interests.
NPR quoted favorably the statements of Hayden, who declared, “I can tell you that these tools would not be used against an American,” while the Washington Post quoted a bevy of security experts who said there is nothing to worry about in the documents. It favorably cited one such “expert,” Jan Dawson, who declared, “For the vast majority of us, this does not apply to us at all … There’s no need to worry for any normal law-abiding citizen.”
Such absurd statements, made about a security apparatus that was proven by Snowden’s revelations to have spied on the private communications of millions of Americans, and then lied about it to the public and Congress, were taken as good coin by the US media.
Just one day after the WikiLeaks revelations, the media spin machine was already busy portraying them as part of a Russian conspiracy against the United States, and indicting WikiLeaks for acting as an agent of foreign powers. “Could Russia have hacked the CIA?” asked NBC’s evening news program on Wednesday, while another segment was titled “Could there be a [Russian] mole inside the CIA?”
The types of spying and disruption mechanisms revealed in the documents constitute a key instrument US foreign policy, which works to subvert the democratic rights of people all over the planet in the interest of US imperialism. No methods, whether spying, hacking, blackmail, murder, torture, or, when need be, bombings and invasion, are off the table.

US ruling elite moves to repeal the 1960s

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The repeal of Obamacare, which began last week with the introduction of legislation drafted by Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan, working in conjunction with the Trump administration, has become the vehicle for a much wider program of social reaction.
The new legislation, which will cut off health coverage for 24 million people, will essentially put an end to Medicaid, one of the major social reforms of the 1960s, a program that has funded health care for tens of millions of poor, blind or otherwise disabled people, as well as nursing home care for the low-income elderly. It sets the stage, as Ryan has indicated, for even more sweeping legislation that will undermine and eventually destroy Medicare, which has provided health coverage for most elderly people in the United States for more than 50 years.
The major social gains of the 1960s--the last period of significant social reform in American history--are in the final stages of liquidation. This is the culmination of a protracted historical process that began almost as soon as the American ruling elite made its decision, driven by the breakdown of the post-World War II economic boom, to shift from policies of relative class compromise to ruthless class warfare. The initial steps were taken as long ago as the Democratic administration of Jimmy Carter (1977-81), which began to curb social welfare spending and targeted striking coal miners for government intervention under the Taft-Hartley Law.
The attacks were accelerated greatly under Republican Ronald Reagan, who smashed the PATCO air traffic controllers strike, giving the green light for a decade of corporate union-busting and wage-cutting, and slashed federal social spending to fuel a record military buildup. Reagan set the pace for further attacks on the programs established in the 1960s and even in the 1930s, from Clinton’s abolition of Aid to Families with Dependent Children to Bush’s targeting of aid to public education with his “No Child Left Behind” legislation, co-authored by Democrat Edward Kennedy, and the first steps towards the privatization of Medicare.
The Obama administration did not mark a reversal of this decades-long process, but rather its intensification. Obamacare was not an expansion of the welfare state, as its apologists claimed, but a reactionary effort to shift the cost of health care from employers and the government to working people. The all-out support of the Democrats for this legislation, worked out in collaboration with the insurance industry and the drug monopolies, testifies to the rightward evolution of the Democratic Party over the past 40 years.
The eight years of the Obama administration--begun with promises of “hope” and “change” and filled instead with endless war, attacks on jobs and living standards, and the steady erosion of social services such as education and health care--created the conditions for the Republican takeover of Congress and finally the victory of Donald Trump.
The ideologues of capitalism claim that the “free market” will work wonders if only the restraints placed upon its operations by past social reforms are removed. These “restraints” include every social benefit won through the struggles of the working class over more than a century. Now, every one of Great Society liberalism’s “big four,” as one historian described the laws enacted in a six-month period from April to October 1965, is targeted for destruction.
The Elementary and Secondary Act of 1965: This legislation provided the first extensive federal support for local public schools, which had become politically possible following the legal abolition of segregated public schools in the South. Funds were allocated to improve public schools in poor communities, expand libraries and take the first steps in what became known as “special education.” The law established the pre-school program Head Start as a permanent federal program.
Republican Congressman Steve King of Iowa has introduced legislation that would rescind the Elementary and Secondary Act and bar the Department of Education from funding any educational program except state-controlled vouchers that could be used for charter or religious schools or for home schooling.
Medicare and Medicaid, established through the Social Security Act of 1965: This bill for the first time provided government-backed health insurance for those over 65, half of whom had no coverage in 1965. Medicare covered hospital care (Part A) and medical and nursing fees (Part B), but did not pay for vision, dental or prescription drugs. Medicaid covered the poorest sections of working people, including children, the disabled and the blind, as well as long-term nursing home care for the poorest elderly.
The Obamacare repeal legislation would put an end to Medicaid as an entitlement program beginning in 2020, when grants to the states would be capped, forcing them to ration care to the poor and disabled. Medicare was already significantly undermined through Obamacare itself, which cut $700 billion in reimbursements over 10 years, and the repeal legislation will set the stage for even larger cuts, based on Ryan’s plan to convert the program from an entitlement to a voucher program.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was the most radical democratic measure enacted by a US Congress since post-Civil War Reconstruction. It targeted those states, mainly in the Deep South, where denial of the franchise to minorities was widespread. Before its passage, few blacks were allowed to register and vote in southern states from Texas to Virginia. Afterwards, voter participation among African-Americans rose sharply, as the federal Justice Department continued to oversee state electoral policies to block any efforts to discriminate.
The US Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act by a 5-4 decision in 2013 in Shelby vs. Holder, ruling that the targeting of the southern states for federal intervention could no longer be justified, despite repeated renewal and extension of the law by Congress, most recently in 2006. This decision was part of a wider effort led by Republicans in state after state to enact voter ID laws and other measures whose purpose was to resurrect discriminatory practices against minority and poor voters.
The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, also known as the Hart-Celler Act after its leading Senate and House sponsors, abolished longstanding restrictions on immigrants from Asia, Africa and the Middle East, and ended the preference for immigrants from Northern and Western Europe over those from Southern and Eastern Europe. It also allowed unlimited immigration of family members of US citizens and residents, encouraging the growth of immigrant communities.
Trump’s travel ban on visitors from six majority Muslim countries directly violates the 1965 law, which prohibits the use of national origin as a test for restricting immigration. His executive orders on immigration as well as the proposed wall along the US-Mexico border represent an effort to turn the clock back to the period of the exclusion laws that barred Asian immigrants and the bracero program that allowed Mexican immigrants only as semi-slave labor in the fields.
There are other reforms of the 1960s, from the establishment of the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for Humanities, to the Clean Water Act and dozens of other anti-pollution laws, which led ultimately to the creation of the Environmental Protection Administration. All these are under attack by the Trump administration and the Republican Congress.
The Democratic Party has collaborated in one attack after another on the social reforms with which it was once identified. The Democrats have spearheaded the attacks on public education, introduced major cuts in Medicare funding as part of Obamacare, and did not lift a finger to restore enforcement after the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act. They oppose Trump, not in defense of social services, but on behalf of sections of Wall Street and the military-intelligence apparatus, attacking the new administration over its supposed softness towards Russia.
Even in the 1960s, Democratic Party liberalism was not a challenge to capitalism, but rather an effort, at the height of the post-World War II economic boom, to make American capitalism more palatable to the masses, and therefore safer for the capitalists, under conditions of growing mass struggles over civil rights, against the Vietnam War, and for better wages and working conditions. The measures of Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” were far less ambitious than the welfare states built up in Western Europe during the same period.
As historian James T. Patterson wrote of that period: “The Great Society programs were… quintessentially liberal, not radical. Except in the area of race relations--a major exception--they made no serious effort to challenge the power of established groups, including large corporations. In no way did they seriously confront socio-economic inequality or seek to redistribute wealth.”
Today, under conditions of the protracted historical decline of American capitalism, exacerbated by the impact of the 2008 financial crash and the massive transfer of wealth from working people to bail out Wall Street, no section of the American ruling class can or will defend any of the social gains of the 1960s.
The supposed Democratic resistance to Trump’s program in Congress is merely for show. The Trump administration and the Republican Party will get nearly everything they want, while the Democrats wage a phony war and call on the victims of Trump’s attacks to wait until the 2018 elections.
The Democratic Party does not represent the popular opposition to Trump and the Republicans, as congressional Democrats and political charlatans like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren claim. Rather, its function is to serve as a brake on the actual resistance to Trump, from the working class, which will take on an increasingly explosive and politically radical form.
The working class must take the lead in the struggles to defend health care, education, environmental protection, the rights of immigrants and all basic democratic rights. It must answer the capitalist program of social counterrevolution with the working class alternative of social revolution. Workers must build a mass political movement independent of and opposed to the twin parties of big business

Adequate Housing: Global Financial Institutions Hold the World to Ransom

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In corporate finance, the world resembles the classic board game Monopoly, where players trade in and develop properties, demand rents and aim to bankrupt others. The players in this game are a global political and financial elite that include US President Donald Trump.
Global real estate is valued at around USD 217 trillion, representing 60% of all global assets. At a recent press conference, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Adequate Housing, Leilani Farha, stated that "Residential real estate is valued at $USD 163 trillion or more than twice the world's total GDP." She added, "Imagine if that capacity was harnessed for the realization of the right to housing instead of speculation and profit."
In presenting a new hard-hitting report on 1 March, which "focuses on the "financialization of housing" and its impact on human rights", Farha stated that "Housing has lost its currency as a human right" and "has been financialized: valued as a commodity rather than a human dwelling."
The right to adequate housing is recognised as a part of the right to an adequate standard of living in Article 25 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Article 11(1) of the 1966 International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. The UN defines the human right to adequate housing as "more than just four walls and a roof. It is the right of every woman, man, youth and child to gain and sustain a safe and secure home and community in which to live in peace and dignity".
In 2015, states signed up to UN Sustainable Development Goals to be achieved by 2030, number 11 of which is the goal of sustainable cities, which includes "access for all to adequate, safe and affordable housing and basic services and upgrade slums." From street level, the view is very different. The housing crisis, which "has not often been considered from the standpoint of human rights", is global.
Many Western governments have adopted a "let them eat cake" response to the crisis. Rather than address the question of affordable and adequate housing, governments have acquiesced to market forces, with the governments of the UK and Ireland, for example, seeing a solution in building more private homes, to the benefit of developers, even though many properties lie empty in both states. The Australian government continues to grant tax concessions to developers.
The commodification of housing has had an enormous impact on communities around the world. According to the report, "Financialized housing markets have caused displacement and evictions at an unparalleled scale": in the USA, over 5 years, over 13 million foreclosures have seen more than 9 million households evicted, resulting in communities and families being torn apart. Broken social housing policies in various states also see families forced to move away from their communities to cheaper areas or to appease gentrification.
With millions of foreclosures in Europe too over the past decade, the housing crisis is surely as great a cause of dispossession and displacement as natural disasters, international sports events and the refugee crisis. They are also entry points to local property markets for international corporations. Ironically, while the media decries the risk of damage to property by protesters, the damage done to human lives by these various forms of internal and cross-border dispossession and deprivation of homes is seldom newsworthy.
The financialization of housing and the housing crisis it has created is identified as the result of neoliberalism, the deregulation of housing markets and international trade agreements. The housing crisis has rewarded the wealthiest while who have lost their homes are "often blamed for taking on too much debt". A common tactic to avoid human rights accountability is to shift the blame to the victim.
Closely tied to the global debt crisis, the global economic system lies at the heart of the matter. The report singles out international financial institutions such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank as actively promoting "the financialization of housing as the dominant strategy for addressing the critical need for housing." For example, Mexico and South Korea saw rapid financialization of their housing sectors as part of the conditions of IMF and World Bank assistance.
European states have imposed strict austerity measures on their citizens, cutting public services such as social housing while implementing policies to entice foreign investors who are granted permanent residence or citizenship for investments of large amounts in properties. Such measures were often negotiated in the bailout packages offered by the IMF and the European Central Bank (ECB). Farha reminds states that they are "first and foremost accountable to international human rights obligations -- not investment portfolios."
Internationally, around 2500 bilateral investment treaties include provisions that "generally provide protection for investors from actions by States without imposing obligations on them to uphold human rights." While it is almost impossible for individuals and communities facing the loss of their homes and communities to take action against the might of the state or developers, developers have greater rights and access to sue states, often secretly through commercial arbitration proceedings, at the public expense.
With skyscrapers rising commensurate with the numbers of unsheltered people sleeping in the streets below, the message is clear: the public gets austerity measures, homelessness and instability whereas wealthy investors, often faceless corporate entities, get concessions and greater legal rights than taxpayers. Criminal behaviour by investors is ignored.
In cities like London and Sydney, house prices have risen over 50% since 2011. While the number of rough sleepers increases in almost all major cities, many foreign investor-owned properties -- safe deposit boxes in the sky -- sit empty. In one prestigious London borough, between 2013 and 2014, "the number of vacant units increased by 40 per cent."
The report states, "Accountability to global finance rather than to human rights has been rigorously imposed by the International Monetary Fund and other creditors when Governments have faced foreign debt crises." Nonetheless, governments cannot hide behind the global economy, which they help to perpetuate, and then lay the blame at the feet of the ordinary citizen.
Governments use the housing crisis to perpetuate other forms of human rights abuses: discrimination against inadequately housed disabled people who find themselves trapped indoors, inadequate provision for rough sleepers, domestic violence sufferers trapped by poverty, not to mention the knock-on effect precarious housing has on education, health and mental health inequalities.
It has long been assumed that markets are a private space safe from government regulation and interference. Nonetheless, international financial institutions do not operate alone. They are reliant on governments for treaties and property law. However, "Government accountability to international human rights obligations has been replaced with accountability to markets and investors." Following the 2008 financial crisis, governments spent more on bank bailouts than supporting those who had lost everything. Books and Hollywood films have been produced about banks and bankers while the voices of the victims remain unheard.
According to Farha, the greatest threats the financialization of housing poses are that it undermines democratic governments and accountability whereby decisions on policy are made remotely by unseen forces, it is the greatest accelerator of inequality and social exclusion in the world -- residents of informal settlements, women, migrants and people with disabilities are particularly affected -- and it detaches housing from its social function within the community, and the right to a place to live in dignity and security.
Positive action has been taken by some states in the form of taxes on foreign ownership of residential property, which is sometimes allocated to the provision of social housing, and taxes on luxury properties. These measures do not go far enough. The special rapporteur calls for a "need to shift the paradigm from housing as a commodity to retrieve what housing means in terms of human dignity and security." As stated in the conclusion of the report, "That requires a transformation of the relationship between the State and the financial sector, whereby human rights implementation becomes the overriding goal, not a subsidiary or neglected obligation."
Global crises need global solutions and solidarity. Top-down solutions can only be driven by bottom-up suggestions and pressure. Human rights struggles are exactly about the David vs Goliath struggle between the individual and the state, or corporate entities implicated in the state. The human right to adequate housing belongs to everyone and it is time to refocus all human rights as being based on the protection of human beings.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Retail Apocalypse Gains Momentum As David Stockman Warns ‘Everything Will Grind To A Halt’ After March 15th

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J.C. Penney and Family Christian Stores are the latest retail giants to announce widespread store closings. As you will see below, J.C. Penney plans to close between 130 and 140 stores, and Family Christian is closing all of their 240 stores. In recent months the stock market has been absolutely soaring, and so most people have simply assumed that the “real economy” must be doing well. But that is not the case at all. In fact, the retail apocalypse that I have been documenting for quite some time appears to be gaining momentum.
J.C. Penney is not in as rough shape as Sears is just yet, but it is definitely on a similar trajectory. In the end, they are both headed for bankruptcy. That is why it wasn’t too much of a surprise when J.C. Penney announced that they are getting rid of about 6,000 workers and closing at least 130 stores
J.C. Penney (JCP) plans to close 130 to 140 stores and offer buyouts to 6,000 workers as the department-store industry sags in competition with online sellers and nimble niche retailers.
The company said Friday that it would shutter 13% to 14% of its locations and introduce new goods and services aimed at the shifting preferences of its customer base.
Meanwhile, many observers were quite surprised when Family Christian Stores decided to fold up shop for good. They were known as the largest Christian retailer on the entire planet, but now after 85 years they are going out of business forever
Family Christian, which bills itself as the “world’s largest retailer of Christian-themed merchandise,” announced Thursday it is closing after 85 years.
The non-profit company, employing more than 3,000 people in 240 stores in 36 states, said in a brief statement that the retailer had been facing declining sales since filing for bankruptcy protection in 2015 and had no choice but to shut down.
These two announcements are part of larger trend that we have been witnessing all over the country. As I have documented previously, Macy’s announced that it would be closing 100 stores earlier this year, and about the same time Sears said that it would be closing another 150 stores.
Back in 2010, Sears had a staggering 3,555 stores.
Before their recent announcement, Sears was down to 1,503 stores, and now this latest round of cuts will leave them with somewhere around 1,350.
Of course it won’t be too long before Sears has zero stores, and my regular readers know that I have been talking about the demise of Sears for a very long time.
The cold, hard truth of the matter is that the “real economy” is a total mess, and that is one of the primary reasons why these ridiculous stock market valuations that we are seeing right now are not sustainable.
One expert that agrees with my assessment is former Reagan Administration White House Budget Director David Stockman. In a recent interview, he explained why he believes that “everything will grind to a halt” after March 15th…
Stockman, who wrote a book titled “Trumped” predicting a Trump victory in 2016, says, “I don’t think there is a snowball’s chance in the hot place that’s going to happen. This is delusional. This is the greatest suckers’ rally of all time. It is based on pure hopium and not any analysis at all as what it will take to push through a big tax cut. Donald Trump is in a trap. Today the debt is $20 trillion. It’s 106% of GDP. . . .Trump is inheriting a built-in deficit of $10 trillion over the next decade under current policies that are built in. Yet, he wants more defense spending, not less. He wants drastic sweeping tax cuts for corporations and individuals. He wants to spend more money on border security and law enforcement. He’s going to do more for the veterans. He wants this big trillion dollar infrastructure program. You put all that together and it’s madness. It doesn’t even begin to add up, and it won’t happen when you are struggling with the $10 trillion of debt that’s coming down the pike and the $20 trillion that’s already on the books.”
Then, Stockman drops this bomb and says:
“I think what people are missing is this date, March 15th2017. That’s the day that this debt ceiling holiday that Obama and Boehner put together right before the last election in October of 2015. That holiday expires. The debt ceiling will freeze in at $20 trillion. It will then be law. It will be a hard stop. The Treasury will have roughly $200 billion in cash. We are burning cash at a $75 billion a month rate. By summer, they will be out of cash. Then we will be in the mother of all debt ceiling crises. Everything will grind to a halt. I think we will have a government shutdown. There will not be Obama Care repeal and replace. There will be no tax cut. There will be no infrastructure stimulus. There will be just one giant fiscal bloodbath over a debt ceiling that has to be increased and no one wants to vote for.”
In that same interview, Stockman also predicted that “markets will easily correct by 20% and probably a lot more“, and he noted the glaring disconnect between current stock prices and how the U.S. economy is actually performing
“The S&P 500 has been trading at 26 times earnings while earnings have been dropping for the past six or seven quarters. There is no booming recovery coming. There is going to be a recession and there will be no stimulus baton to bail it out. That is the new fact that neither Trump nor the Wall Street gamblers remotely understand.”
It is very difficult to argue with Stockman on this.
There are some people out there that seem to think that Donald Trump can miraculously turn the U.S. economy around just because he is Donald Trump.
It doesn’t work that way.
We are 20 trillion dollars in debt, and we are currently adding about a trillion dollars a year to that total. There is no possible way that Trump can cut taxes, increase military spending, build a border wall, spend much more on veterans and spend an extra trillion dollars on rebuilding our crumbling infrastructure.
We are flat broke as a nation and there simply is not money available to do everything that Donald Trump wants to do.
So we shall see what happens after March 15th.  Unfortunately, I happen to agree with Stockman that economic reality is about to come knocking and Trump and his supporters are about to get a very rude wake up call.