Sunday, September 29, 2013

THE PAINFUL TRUTH: CAPITALISM IS A ZERO-SUM GAME



Harry Targ

Mitch Daniels knows a few things about finances and managing a budget. He was director of the Office of Management and Budget under President George W. Bush, president of Eli Lilly and Company's North American Pharmaceutical, governor of Indiana, and currently president of Purdue University. …

Daniels spoke about the harmful impact of unbridled spending on Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security during an on-camera interview with FreeEnterprise.com following his remarks on the same topic at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation's Business Horizons entitlement reform program. (“Mitch Daniels: Entitlement Spending Is ‘Hurting Economic Growth’ ” FreeEnterprise.com, September 25, 2013)

In a fascinating essay entitled “Neoliberalism and Globalization,” Cliff Durand (Durand and Steve Martinot editors, Recreating Democracy in a Globalized State, Clarity Press, 2012), likens the capitalist system to the old board game “Monopoly” which most of us played when we were kids. He reminds older readers and informs younger ones that all the players begin the game with equal amounts of currency, move pieces along the board, and buy and sell property. Players accumulate wealth or suffer economic loss (even going to jail) depending on which squares they land on based on the roll of the dice.

To win the game of Monopoly, a player must buy up all the properties, purchase all the hotels, and accumulate all the money, stocks, and bonds. Durand continues: “You win by bankrupting the other players, forcing them to pay rent every time they land on your property. You win by driving them into destitution so they can no longer continue to play.” 

Durand’s central point which is critical to reality today is that: “This is a zero sum game; what one wins is at the expense of another. This is a game in which each is to be guided by self-interest alone.”  Compassion for a player under financial stress may impair the desperate drive to accumulate all the wealth the board game affords. Therefore, any collaboration between players in the game is merely temporary and is motivated only by the desire to win all the wealth.

In the United States, from the era of the New Deal until the 1970s  and from the end of colonialism all across Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and, in a sense, Latin America until the rise of neoliberalism, wealthy classes and powerful nations saw the need to temporarily partner with adversaries, not out of compassion but out of interest. With the collapse of the New Deal coalition in the United States in the 1970s, the Non-Aligned Nations in the 1980s, and the Socialist Bloc in the early 1990s, capitalist institutions such as banks and transnational corporations launched a massive economic, military, and political campaign to bankrupt all sectors of all societies.

Let’s be clear: the capitalist system that was once forced to engage in reform is now on track to bankrupt and starve the vast majority of the world’s people. Workers in virtually every level of society, global, national, and local, are being economically marginalized and politically disenfranchised. Meanwhile the natural environment is being destroyed. The rich and powerful live in mansions in gated communities surrounding ponds and streams, protected by private security, and send their children to high-priced private schools.

At the global level, about 200 financial and industrial corporations control about a third of the value of all that is produced in the world. The one hundred largest economic actors in the world include 52 corporations and 48 nation-states. WalMart has risen to the 19th largest economic actor in the world.

And on the other hand, a recent UNICEF study reports on continuing, if not growing, global economic inequality, The top 20 percent of the world’s population controls 70 percent of total income while the bottom fifth account for 2 percent. Fifty percent of children and youth live below internationally recognized poverty rates. The middle income countries are the most unequal: the former Soviet Bloc, and countries in Asia experiencing the greatest increase in income inequality. Even though Latin America has experienced declining income inequality, it remains the region with the greatest levels of inequality.

The report makes a critical point: “Overall, the extreme inequality in the distribution of the world’s income should make us question the current development model (development for whom?) which has accrued mostly to the wealthiest billion. Not only does inequality slow economic growth, but it results in health and social problems and generates political instability.” (Isabel Irtiz and Matthew Cummins, “Global Inequality: Beyond the Bottom Billion: A Rapid Review of Income Distribution in 141 Countries,” UNICEF, April, 2011).

Looking at the United States, the picture is almost as grim. Mark Gongloff reviews a recent study of income inequality in the United States by economists Facundo Alvaredo, Anthony B. Atkinson, Thomas Piketty, and Emmanuel Saez. The top one percent of income earners have doubled their share of income since the 1970s to 20 percent.  Growing income inequality in the United States since 1960 is significantly greater than all developed countries. U.S. income inequality is bested only by Chile, Mexico, and Turkey among all nations. Gongloff attributes growing income inequality in the United States to long years of reduced taxes for the rich and financial deregulation. “The same politicians that have busily been slashing taxes on the wealthy have also been loosening fetters on banking, allowing the financial sector to swell to bloated size and mop up ever-more income while contributing ever-less back to the economy.” (Mark Gongloff, “The U.S. Has the Worst Income Inequality in the Developed World, thanks to Wall Street: A Study” Huffington Post, August 15, 2013).

 Looking at just one state, Indiana, suggests that local economic trends mirror the accumulation of wealth on one side and poverty on the other. In fact, Indiana has been one of the worst states in terms of providing for its working population. Almost 16 percent of the state’s population lives in poverty, including over 22 percent of its children, 17 percent of women, 33 percent of African Americans, 29 percent of Latinos, and 25 percent of Native Americans. One third of Indiana residents are low income and for a decade have experienced a decline in median household income. Even with a recent slight decline in the rate of poverty, the number of low income Hoosiers has risen since 2011. (Indiana Institute for Working Families, 9/19/13; cited in “Slight Decrease in Poverty Offset by Increase in Low-Income Hoosiers,” Lafayette Independent, October, 2013).

In an illuminating series on “The Unequal State of America: a Reuters Series,” by Deborah Nelson and Himanshu Ojha, December 18, 2012, www.reuters.com/subjects/income-inequality) the authors report on state-by-state trends in the U.S. economy from 1989 through 2010. Among their findings are the following:

*Inequality has increased in 49 of 50 states.

*The poverty rate increased in 43 states, most sharply in Nevada and Indiana.

*In all 50 states, the richest 20 percent of households made the greatest economic gains of any quintile.

As to tax policy over the last several years, the rich were the main beneficiaries. Nelson and Ojha cite a Tax Policy Center finding “…that two-thirds of the tax savings would go to the top quintile of households and 1 percent to the lowest quintiles in 2012. In dollar savings, that’s $371,000 for the top 0.1 percent of households in 2012, $958 for the middle and $66 for the poor.”

So we must remember that when politicians (whether they are currently in office or using other visible institutional positions such as Purdue University President Mitch Daniels) warn of the need to “cut entitlements” to reduce “unbridled spending,” what they are talking about is blocking the necessary redistribution of the wealth of society for the benefit of the bottom ninety percent of the population. In addition, what they are really advocating is the enhancement of the wealth and income of the superrich.

 And it is useful to remember also that the logic of the prevailing global and national economic system works like the old Monopoly board game; the object is to amass all the wealth on the board and to bankrupt all the other players.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

REVISITING "AMERICAN EXCEPTIONALISM"



Harry Targ

Continued study and research into the origins of the folk music of various peoples in many parts of the world revealed that there is a world body-a universal body-of folk music based upon a universal pentatonic (five tone) scale. Interested as I am in the universality of (hu)mankind-in the fundamental relationship of all peoples to one another-this idea of a universal body of music intrigued me, and I pursed it along many fascinating paths. Paul Robeson, Here I Stand, 1959.

America’s destiny required the U.S. “…to set the world its example of right and honor…We cannot retreat from any soil where providence has unfurled our banner. It is ours to save that soil, for liberty, and civilization….It is elemental...it is racial. God has not been preparing the English-speaking and teutonic peoples for a thousand years for nothing but vain and idle self-contemplation and self-admiration. No! He has made us the master organizers of the world to establish system where chaos reigns. He has given us the spirit of progress to overwhelm the forces of reaction throughout the earth.” Senator Albert Beveridge, Indiana, Congressional Record, 56 Congress, I Session, pp.704-712, 1898).

President Vladimir Putin wrote in the New York Times, September 12, 2013 that “it is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation.” This statement embedded in a generally reasonable statement about the instability of Syria brought an outcry from the liberal media elite and often-quoted academics. For example a Bloomberg editorial refers to Putin’s “bizarre” “out-of date” analysis. Professor Fouad Ajami wrote that “Arab regimes of plunder and tyranny were both physically close to Russia” and the “lawless Kremlin model.”

Liberal commentators dwelled on the silly pictures of muscular Putin riding a horse without a shirt. Or they reminded viewers of Russia’s recent (and vile) homophobia. Or they referred to Putin’s pedigree as a KGB operative or as the ruler behind the throne manipulating the Russian electoral system in order to return to office after being replaced.

Although critics were probably correct to challenge his claim that the recent gassing of Syrian citizens was done only by rebels, he did admit that the Assad regime in fact does have such weapons. But both Democrats and Republicans expressed outrage that anyone could challenge the idea that the United States is the “exceptional” nation.

Let’s be clear. United States foreign policy over the last 150 years has been a reflection of many forces including economics, politics, militarism and the desire to control territory. The most important idea used by each presidential administration to gain support from the citizenry for the pursuit of empire is the claim that America is “exceptional”. 

Think about the view of “the city on the hill” articulated by Puritan ancestors who claimed that they were creating a social experiment that would inspire the world. Over three hundred years later President Reagan again spoke of “the city on the hill.” Or one can recall public addresses of turn of the twentieth century luminaries such as former President Theodore Roosevelt who claimed that the white race from Europe and North America was civilizing the peoples of what we would now call the Global South.  Or Indiana Senator Beveridge’s clear statement: “It is elemental….It is racial.” From the proclamation of the new nation’s special purpose in Puritan America, to Ronald Reagan’s reiteration of the claim, to similar claims by virtually all politicians of all political affiliations, Americans hear over and over that we are different, special, and a shining example of public virtue that all other peoples should use as their guide to building a better society and polity.

However, looking at data on the United States role in the world, the United States was at war for 201 years from 1776 to 2011. Ten million indigenous people were exterminated as the “new” nation moved westward between the 17th and the 20th centuries and at least 10 million people were killed, mostly from developing countries between 1945 and 2010 in wars in which the United States had some role. In addition, world affairs was transformed by the singular use of two atomic bombs;  one dropped on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945 instantly killing 80,000 people and the other on Nagasaki on August 9, 1945 killing another 70,000.

Comparing the image of exceptionalism with the domestic reality of American life suggests stark contrasts as well: continuous and growing gaps between rich and poor, inadequate nutrition and health care for significant portions of the population, massive domestic gun violence, and inadequate access to the best education that the society has the capacity to provide to all. Of course, the United States was a slave society for over 200 years formally racially segregated for another 100, and now incarcerates 15 percent of African American men in their twenties.

The United States is not the only country that has a history of imperialism, exploitation, violence, and racism but we must understand that our foreign policy and economic and political system are not exceptional and must be changed.

Finally, a better future and the survival of the human race require us to realize, as Paul Robeson suggested, what is precious about humanity is not our differences but our commonalities. Exceptionalist thinking separates us. Sharing what we have in common as human beings, both our troubles and our talents, is the only basis for creating a peaceful and just world.




Saturday, September 7, 2013

THE SPIRIT OF SOCIALISM IN CHILE LIVES ON



Harry Targ

The Chilean Song Movement had become so identified with Popular Unity, it had been such a strong factor, emotional, cohesive, inspiring, that the military authorities found it necessary to declare ‘subversive’ even the indigenous instruments, whose beautiful sound had become so full of meaning and inspiration. Together with prohibiting even the mention of Victor’s name, they banned all his music and the music of all the artists of the New Chilean Song Movement….

It was a mystery to me how Victor was remembered. Since the coup his very name had been censored, his records prohibited. But in spite of that I heard his songs being sung in poor community centres, in church halls, football clubs and universities, with whole audiences of young people joining in the singing as though his songs had become part of Chilean folklore (from Joan Jara, Victor, An Unfinished Song, Bloomsbury, London, 1998).

Victor Jara, The Voice of the People
In a powerful biography of the life of Victor Jara, his wife captures the deep political and cultural roots her husband planted in the soil of the working people of Chile. He committed his life to celebrating and popularizing the songs and stories of the Chilean people, recognizing that his cultural project had to be intimately connected to the political project of Salvador Allende’s socialist and democratic Popular Unity coalition. Allende in October, 1970, was the first elected socialist president of a Latin American country. 

The Nixon Administration and the Chilean military found the people’s choice unacceptable and set about undermining Allende’s government. On September 11, 1973 the military launched a coup, killed Allende, rounded up thousands of his supporters, and brought them to a huge soccer stadium, and tortured and shot their cultural icon, Victor Jara.

The United States Crushes Revolution in Chile
The United States had supported the Christian Democrats in Chile with official assistance and CIA financing since the 1950s. The Christian Democratic candidate in 1970 was opposed by Marxist Salvador Allende, who, as the head of a coalition of six left parties, won a plurality of votes.

From the time of the election in October, 1970, until September, 1973, when a bloody military coup toppled Allende, the United States did everything it could to destabilize the elected government. First, the United States pressured Chilean legislators to reject the election result. When that failed, energy and resources were used to damage the Chilean economy and build a network of ties with military personnel ready to carry out a coup.

Allende developed policies to redistribute land, nationalized the vital copper industry, and established diplomatic relations with the former Soviet Union, China, and Cuba. Popular culture stimulated by artists such as Victor Jara flowered and grew. All these moves exacerbated tensions with the United States, since its investments in copper, iron, nitrates, iodine, and salt were large.

The Nixon administration formed a secret committee, “the 40 committee,” headed by National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger, to develop a long-term plan to destabilize and overthrow the Allende government. The CEO of the International Telephone and Telegraph Company, a major foreign influence in Chile, was enthusiastic about the Nixon plan.

Among the policies utilized by Washington were an informal economic blockade of Chile, termination of aid and loans, International Monetary Fund pressure on the government to carry out anti-worker policies, the engineering of a substantial decline in the price of copper on the world market, fomenting dissent in the military, and funding opposition groups and newspapers, particularly the influential Santiago daily, El Mercurio. Despite growing economic crisis and  protests by the rightwing spurred by U.S. covert operations, the Allende-led left coalition scored electoral victories in municipal elections throughout the country in March, 1973.  

Since Nixon’s directive to make Chile’s “economy scream” had not led to Allende’s rejection at the ballot box, the Kissinger committee and the right-wing generals decided to act. On September 11, 1973 the military carried out a coup that ousted the Allende government, assassinated him in the Presidential Palace, and established brutal rule under the leadership of General Augusto Pinochet. A year after the coup, Amnesty International reported that some 6,000 to 10,000 prisoners had been taken. The new regime banned all political parties, abolished trade unions, and initiated programs to assassinate pro-Allende emigres, including former Foreign Minister, Orlando Letelier, who was blown up in an automobile in Dupont Circle in Washington D.C.

The spirit of the brutal U.S. policy in Chile was expressed by Kissinger in 1970 when he declared: “I don’t see why we need to stand by and watch a country go communist due to the irresponsibility of its own people.” One year after the coup President Ford (who replaced the discredited Richard Nixon) defended the it as being in the “best interests of the people of Chile and certainly in the best interests of the United States.” A different assessment was provided by a distinguished diplomatic historian, Alexander De Conde who wrote that the United States “had a hand in the destruction of a moderate left-wing government that allowed democratic freedoms to its people and to its replacement by a friendly right-wing government that crushed such freedoms with torture and other police-state repressions.” 

Chile is one example of the way the United States has sought to control and influence the internal affairs of nations. But the spirit of resistance planted in so many different ways in so many places by cultural performers and revolutionaries such as Victor Jara lives on. 

As long as we sing his songs,
As long as his courage can inspire us
to greater courage
Victor Jara will never die.

“Singout Magazine” 1975