Friday, December 30, 2016

No “Peace on Earth” in 2016

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“Peace on Earth, and goodwill to men”—so goes the line of an oft-sung Christmas carol. The end-of-the-year holidays are a season in which such sentiments are generally expressed, genuinely by broad sections of the population, with utmost cynicism and hypocrisy by various figures in the political establishment.
The actual trajectory of world politics, however, was perhaps best reflected in a tweet from the soon-to-be president of the United States. “The United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability,” Trump declared on Thursday. This was followed by a statement from MSNBC host Mika Brzezinski on Friday: “Let it be an arms race. We will outmatch them at every pass and outlast them all.”
The statements from Trump, part of an exchange with Russian President Vladimir Putin, in which both men boasted of the nuclear arsenals of their respective countries, seems like a fitting close to a year of bloodshed.
In 2016, large portions of the globe were engulfed in military conflict. And those states that were nominally at peace spent their time preparing for war and mistreating refugees from armed conflict.
Although definitive figures have not yet been released, at least 150,000 people have been killed in armed conflicts throughout the world in 2016. There were three “major wars,” with a 2016 death toll of over 100,000:
 The Syrian civil war, in which 46,442 people were reportedly killed this year. Since the US began backing the Islamist insurgency in 2011, up to 470,000 people have died. The war has forced 4.9 million people to flee abroad and displaced 6.6 million people within Syria itself.
 The Iraq war, in which 23,584 people were killed this year. Since the United States invaded the country in 2003, more than a million people have died. As of November, 3.1 million people were internally displaced in the country, and millions more had fled abroad.
 The war in Afghanistan, in which 21,932 people were killed this year. Since the United States began providing arms to the Mujahedeen, the predecessor of Al Qaeda, in 1978, more than two million people have been killed in that country, which was torn apart by the 2001 invasion and occupation.
These three conflicts accounted for two-thirds of global deaths in military conflicts. They have also led to a refugee crisis unparalleled in scale since World War II. According to the United Nations, there were 65.3 million displaced people at the end of 2015, up by 5 million since 2014, and by nearly 25 million since 2011.
The surge in refugees, together with their increasingly cruel treatment by destination countries, has led to the highest number of refugee deaths ever recorded by the International Organization for Migration.
Some 7,100 refugees died last year, up from 5,740 in 2015. Half of the fatalities took place as refugees sought to enter Europe across the Mediterranean Sea from war and devastation in the Middle East and North Africa.
This year, Europe shut its doors to refugees. The EU agreed to pay Turkey to serve as the gatekeeper of Europe and block refugees from entering, as it militarized its border patrol and deployed the navies of its member countries to stop “people smuggling.”
This change is best exemplified by Germany, the region’s most powerful state, which is rapidly militarizing as it asserts itself as the dominant European power. While Chancellor Angela Merkel hypocritically proclaimed a “welcoming culture” toward refugees in 2015, this month she adopted large sections of the program of the fascistic Alternative for Germany, calling for a ban on the full-face veil and demanding a further crackdown on refugees.
Beyond the “hot wars” of Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan, the drive of the US to militarily encircle China has poured fuel on the world’s regional flashpoints. This year, nearly 300 people died in raids and shelling over the border between India and Pakistan, both nuclear-armed powers. Meanwhile military tensions between North and South Korea, which also threaten escalation into nuclear war, have dramatically intensified.
A quarter century of unending and expanding war is reaching a new and even more explosive stage. Beginning with the first Gulf War of 1991, which directly preceded the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the United States has sought, through a succession of adventures abroad, to reverse its long-term economic decline.
Obama will leave office as the first US president to serve two full terms under continuous war. He will go down in history as the man who proclaimed the right of the president to assassinate US citizens without due process, and who personally authorized drone “hits” that led to the deaths of thousands of people.
These unending wars, however, have failed to achieve their desired end. Over the past fifteen years, China has tripled its share of the world export market, while America’s share of exports has declined. US military operations, from Iraq to Afghanistan to Libya, have turned into quagmires and debacles. The defeat of the CIA’s Islamist proxies in Syria this month has hammered home the failure of the United States to impose its will upon the Middle East and the world.
But only a fool would believe that these failures will turn America’s warmongering ruling elite into pacifists. Rather, they have led the American ruling class to focus ever more directly on its larger competitors.
The inauguration of Donald Trump will mark a new phase in global conflict. Trump’s provocations against China and his declaration that he welcomes a new arms race with Russia are only the initial indications of the lengths to which his administration is prepared to go to preserve the interests of the American oligarchy.
The year 2017, the centenary of the Russian revolution of 1917, will once again place the struggle against war as the highest and most urgent political task facing mankind.

The United States of Inequality

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Earlier this month, economists Thomas Piketty, Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman, leading experts on global inequality, released a groundbreaking study on the growth of income inequality in the United States between 1946 and 2016.
While the economists’ earlier studies made substantial advances in documenting inequality in the United States, the most unequal developed country in the world, this is the first survey claiming to “capture 100 percent of national income,” including the impact of taxation, social programs such as Medicare and Medicaid, and income from capital gains.
The result is a fuller picture of social inequality in the United States than any previous attempts. The conclusions are staggering, revealing that over the course of the past four decades there has occurred one of the most rapid upward redistributions of income in modern history.
The economists found that the pre-tax share of national income received by the bottom half of the US population has been cut nearly in half since 1980, from 20 percent to 12 percent, while the income share of the top one percent has nearly doubled, from 12 percent to 20 percent. “The two groups have basically switched their income shares,” the authors note, “with 8 points of national income transferred from the bottom 50 percent to the top 1 percent.”
The study documents a sharp change between 1946-1980 and 1980 to the present. In the first period, the pre-tax incomes of the bottom 50 percent of earners more than doubled, growing by 102 percent, while the incomes of the top 1 percent increased by only 47 percent and the top 0.001 percent by 57 percent.
Since 1980, however, the incomes of the bottom 50 percent of earners have stagnated at about $16,000 a year (in current dollars), while the incomes of the top 1 percent have grown by 205 percent, and the top 0.001 percent by 636 percent.
After accounting for the impact of various tax credits and social programs, the economists found that the incomes of the bottom half of income earners increased by 21 percent since the 1980s. They note, however, that none of this increase has gone into disposable income. Rather, it is almost entirely the result of increased health care payouts from Medicare, which has simply been absorbed by the pharmaceutical giants and insurance companies engaged in price-gouging for vital health care services.
The principal factor in the surge in income inequality, particularly since 2000, has been the growth in “capital income,” that is, the stock market. The inflation of stock market bubbles has been the primary form through which the ruling class and its political representatives have engineered a massive transfer of wealth.
The figures contained in the report by Piketty, Saez and Zucman reflect historical transformations in the structure of American capitalism and class relations in the United States. The colossal growth of social inequality is bound up with the decay of American capitalism and decline in its world economic position.
Historians have often remarked that during its early days, the United States was the most socially egalitarian region of the Western world. The growth of monopolization and finance capital in the latter part of the 19th century transformed America into a land of “robber barons” at one pole and workers and immigrants whose living conditions were exposed in such works as Jacob Riis’ How the Other Half Lives, published in 1890, and Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle of 1906.
But along with these processes came the growth of the workers’ movement, which, largely through the efforts of socialists, fought to organize the American working class across its myriad ethnic, religious and regional divisions. The Russian Revolution of 1917 gave new impetus to these struggles, including the militant labor actions of the 1930s that led to the formation of the industrial unions.
The American ruling class, alarmed by the prospect that American workers would follow the example set by the Bolsheviks, and having at its disposal the economic might of the world’s largest and most advanced industrial economy, set out on a program of social reform exemplified by President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, which introduced Social Security and curbed the worst abuses of Wall Street.
The United States emerged from the Second World War as the dominant global power, commanding more than 50 percent of world economic output. By the late 1960s, however, the economic domination of American capitalism began to decline, as the economies of Europe and Asia were rebuilt. A series of economic and political crises culminated in the combination of economic stagnation and inflation of the 1970s.
The US ruling class responded by embarking on a policy of class war, deindustrialization and financialization. With President Jimmy Carter’s appointment of Paul Volcker to head the Federal Reserve in 1979, the US central bank threw the United States into a manufactured recession. After coming to power in 1981, Ronald Reagan launched a full-scale social counterrevolution, initiated by the breaking of the PATCO air traffic controllers’ strike and firing and blacklisting of the strikers. Similar policies were pursued by the ruling classes throughout the world.
The trade unions played a vital role in facilitating this offensive, isolating and betraying every attempt at resistance by the working class throughout the 1980s and incorporating themselves into the structure of corporate management and the state. By the end of the decade, the unions had transformed themselves, for all practical purposes, into arms of the companies and the government. The bureaucratic elites that dominated them devoted all their efforts to suppressing and sabotaging working class struggle.
Every subsequent administration, Democratic and Republican alike, has pursued policies that promote social inequality, including successive rounds of financial deregulation, repeated tax cuts for corporations and top income earners, the slashing of social programs, and the elimination of workplace protections.
After the 2008 financial crisis, the Obama administration accelerated these processes. The White House continued and expanded the bank bailouts initiated under the Bush administration and helped funnel trillions of dollars to Wall Street through the Federal Reserve’s “quantitative easing” programs, while working, as in the 2009 auto restructuring, to slash wages.
Under the incoming administration of President-elect Trump, the offensive against the working class will sharply intensify. The election of Trump represents something new. He has staffed his cabinet with billionaires, far-right, pro-business ideologues, and generals—all of them dedicated to the impoverishment of the working class and the ever more violent suppression of popular opposition.
But Trump does not emerge from nowhere. He is not some aberration. Rather, he is the noxious culmination of the decay of American capitalism, growth of unprecedented levels of social inequality and collapse of American democracy.