Monday, August 29, 2011


Harry Targ

For many years those of us who followed United States/Cuban relations puzzled over the variety of explanations for why United States policy toward the small island was so hostile. Some spoke of the fear of “communism,” others the influence of anti-Castro Cuban-Americans, and still others how American politicians for two hundred years believed Cuba really belonged to the United States. An alternative explanation, some felt, was the power of a good example. This latter thesis suggested that since Cuban socialism was providing good health care and education for its people and since the quality of life and culture in Cuba had been thriving under socialism, others might choose the Cuban path to building their own political, economic, and cultural institutions. This development, that is an improving quality of life on the island, must be disrupted.

In January and February, 2011, masses of Tunisians and then Egyptians went into the streets to protest the dictatorial governments that ruled their lives for years. As it turned out, protests, at least in Egypt, were part of a long tradition of activism, fueled by enthusiastic organizing efforts of young people. Massive mobilizations included youth, women as well as men, workers, religious and secular people, and Egyptians of all educational levels and occupations. While many protestors over the weeks were victimized by police and military, they committed themselves, in part out of necessity, to non-violent resistance.

In Egypt the immediate goal was the ouster of the forty year dictator, Hosni Mubarak, but people interviewed in the streets indicated that in addition to democratization they wanted jobs, and improved living standards, and rights for all Egyptians irrespective of class, ethnicity, religion, and gender. Some analysts claimed that protesters knew that their struggle for a better life was a long-term one that would extend well beyond the overthrow of the dictator. While they sought support from the powerful military, they had no illusions about the role the military would play in the long-term.

Their force was in their numbers, their determination, their articulated vision, and the inspiration they communicated to each other and to those in similar situations all around the world. Protestors in Madison, Wisconsin, began to refer to peoples movements “from Cairo to Madison,” suggesting that non-violent mass mobilizations representing progressive majorities could spread throughout the Middle East, Europe, the United States, and elsewhere. The Arab Spring was another “power of a good example.”

But in early March, after a seeming upsurge in protest against the dictatorship in Libya and threats against those in rebellion, the United Nations voted to authorize NATO forces to be used in that country if human life was threatened. As we know, NATO launched a massive air war, presumably against targets of the Muammar Gaddafi government. That set off a violent war between unidentified rebels and the Libyan government. Now it seems that the rebels backed by NATO bombing and arms are on the verge of toppling the Gaddafi government.

In this latter case, the rebels have engaged in violence, the Libyan government engaged in violence, and NATO forces have unleashed massive violence. Media coverage is of the bombing, the fighting, and the eccentric behavior of the Libyan dictator. But NATO has exceeded its UN mandate to engage in humanitarian intervention. And we know little about the rebels except that they employ violence.

And in the end, the Libyan experience returns us to the old narrative: a crazy dictator, brutal violence on all sides, and a virtual absence of declaration of any vision and purpose by those fighting on either side. Contrary to the vision of the non-violent youthful workers, men and women, who went out in the streets of Cairo, we have returned to the old Middle East narrative of guns, brutal dictatorships, massive bombings, death and destruction, and great powers to the rescue.

NATO countries can heave a sigh of relief: the Arab Spring is over.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011


Harry Targ

I was on an educational tour of Vietnam when NATO forces launched an air war on Libya. Our group heard the news with shock and horror. Part of the reason for the depth of our reaction was that we were touring a country that had experienced a decade of sustained bombing by U.S. aircraft.

Members of our delegation to Vietnam had come to political awareness in the 1960s. We were educated by the daily bloody newscasts we watched of the Vietnam War and the anti-war movement we observed and played a role in building. In addition to observation and participation in anti-war activities, we read about the history of empires, particularly the American empire.

Through our study in school and out, we learned how European powers--the Dutch, the Spanish, the French, and the British--had emerged from feudalism, built modern navies, and developed weapons systems to conquer the world. The Western Hemisphere, the African continent, the Persian Gulf region and Asia were occupied by foreign powers and forever had their cultures, polities, and economies shaped by them.

By the late nineteenth century the industrial revolution spread to the United States. Agricultural and industrial productivity required markets, natural resources, and cheap labor. To fulfill these needs the United States became an imperial power.

The U.S. empire was launched in a war that crushed Spain in 1898 and led to the colonization of Cuba and Puerto Rico in the Caribbean, and the Philippines in Asia. For the next thirty years, the marines were sent to the Caribbean and Central America at least 30 times. After two world wars, the United States began to construct a worldwide empire in 1945. It overthrew governments overtly and covertly that were deemed part of the “communist threat.” By the dawn of the twenty first century in response to wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the United States established over 700 military installations in 130 countries and created a high-tech war machine to target presumed enemies virtually everywhere.

So as we traveled through Vietnam we remembered the 1960s when our consciousness, our sensibilities, and our passions were driven by a commitment to challenge American imperialism. And then, all of a sudden, we heard about the United Nations resolution endorsing humanitarian intervention in Libya. This was followed by a NATO-led air war on targets in that country. We asked how another preposterous war could be waged in 2011 by NATO and its key partner, the United States. In the Persian Gulf the contradictions between so-called humanitarianism and reality seemed more stark than ever.

First, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization was established in 1949 as a military alliance to defend Europe from any possible aggression initiated by the former Soviet Union. If words mattered, NATO should have dissolved when the Soviet Union collapsed.

Second, the United States, so concerned for the human rights of people in the Persian Gulf and Middle East, was virtually silent as non-violent revolutions overthrew dictatorial regimes in Tunisia and Egypt earlier in the year.

Third, the United States continued to support regimes in Bahrain and Yemen in the face of popular protest and violent response.

Fourth, the United States has been a rock-solid supporter of the state of Israel as it has expanded settlements in the West Bank, and embargoed Palestinians in Gaza

Fifth, in the face of growing ferment in the Middle East and Persian Gulf for democratization not a word has been said by way of criticism of the monarchical system in Saudi Arabia.

So as the Qaddafi regime in Libya nears its end, the NATO alliance and the United States praise themselves for their support of movements for democratization in Libya. What they cannot hide in the media is the fact that the overthrow of the Libyan regime, for better or worse, could not have occurred without the massive bombing campaign against military and civilian targets throughout Libya carried out by NATO forces.

Remembering our shock when we heard of the initiation of bombing of Libya in March and seeing what has happened since, I can only come to the conclusion that United States foreign policy and the reaction to it has not changed very much from the Vietnam era. Deadly policies, we are told, are carried out for humanitarian reasons. Violence remains the major tool of the state. The great powers continue to interfere in the political life of small and poor countries. And, the mainstream media continues to provide a humanitarian narrative of imperialism at work.

Alexander Cockburn put it well in The Nation in June, 2011 when he wrote:

“America’s clients in Bahrain and Riyadh can watch the undignified pantomime with a tranquil heart, welcoming this splendid demonstration that they have nothing to fear from Obama’s fine speeches or Clinton’s references to democratic aspirations, well aware that NATO’s warplanes and helicopters are operating under the usual double standard-with the Western press furnishing all appropriate services.”

Thursday, August 18, 2011


Harry Targ

Seventeen community activists met Tuesday August 16, 2011 to view Van Jones’ speech initiating his “American Dream Movement.” The 70 minute video was followed by 45 minutes of discussion on how progressives in Central Indiana should respond to the national, state, and local economic and political crises of 2011.

Participants included activists from various local organizations: the local labor council and building trades, the peace movement, Planned Parenthood, the independent Obama campaign organization, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the local alternative newspaper, the Lafayette Independent.

Jones gave his inspirational speech hoping to initiate a national progressive movement at Town Hall, in New York on June 23, 2011.

Jones, a former advisor to the Obama administration on green jobs, resigned from office after being attacked for radicalism by Fox News. The specious attack on Jones preceded similar attacks on the community organization, ACORN, and Department of Agriculture expert Shirley Sherrod. In none of these cases did the Obama administration defend the targets of lies and slander.

In his speech, which was designed to inspire progressives to organize house parties and other public meetings in every city and town in America, Jones identified four lies that have come to shape our political discourse.

The first lie, plastered across the screens and print media, is that America is broke. Presenting data and analysis, Jones showed that the US economy was not broke. In fact, the United States remained the richest country in the world, but the wealth and income was shifting ever more dramatically from the vast majority of the population to banks and corporations.

The second lie, he claimed, which has become part of common wisdom, though untrue, is that if the rich are taxed more equitably, the economy will be hurt. He presented evidence from periods of America’s greatest growth, from the 1940s to the 1970s, that wages, profits, taxes, and productivity increased together. But since 1980, wealth has increased while taxes declined along with jobs and wages. In other words, radical tax cuts have made the rich richer but the population at large poorer.

The third lie is that the problem with today’s economy is the existence of an active, involved government. As President Reagan put it: “Government is the problem, not the solution.” Jones spent much of his speech pointing out that capitalism as an economic system would not have developed, nor individual corporations profited, nor communities survived without government. Roads, schools, health care delivery systems, protections from fire and crime, and basic environmental standards all result from government programs. The American people pay taxes to provide the supports for corporations and banks that accumulate the wealth produced by workers.

The fourth lie, and for Jones the most damaging, is that the people are helpless to reshape the course of American economic and political life. As so many learned from weary parents: “You can’t fight city hall.” For Jones that proposition contradicts all of American history. Movements to end slavery, for civil rights, for worker rights, for moving toward equality for women, for environmental justice, all occurred because of peoples’ movements.

So Jones in his June speech called for local meetings around the country. He urged these meetings to generate ideas for building a new national movement out of local activism.

Since the speech some 1,500 house parties were held, generating 25,000 ideas for the development of a “Contract for the American Dream.” 125,000 people rated the ideas.

In early August a ten-point “Contract for the American Dream” was posted on a website ( The ten points included:

1.Invest in America’s infrastructure.
2.Create 21st Century energy jobs.
3.Invest in public education.
4.Offer medicare for all.
5.Make work pay.
6.Secure social security
7.Return to fairer tax rates.
8.End the wars and invest at home.
9.Tax Wall Street speculation.
10.Strengthen democracy.

In the discussion following the video, the Indiana activists reflected on what if anything a coalition of progressives represented at the video showing could and should do in the community. Most attendees agreed that the crisis in our community and the state and nation was severe; that we needed to begin organizing. But we asked: how, who, and for what goals? Questions were raised about whether a progressive coalition should engage in electoral work, participate in the local Democratic Party or not.

Some participants suggested distributing progressive literature on jobs, health care, the threat to reproductive rights, and ending wars at the local Labor sponsored September 3 picnic, Labor’s Family Day in the Park. Others talked about organizing a series of panels presenting the major issues our groups are concerned about.

While the problems of organizing seemed enormous, everyone agreed that attendees and friends should be invited to another meeting to continue the dialogue. It was felt that with further discussion we could adapt the Contract for the American Dream to our local needs and capabilities.

Sunday, August 7, 2011


Harry Targ

Fred was dating a young woman who gave him the two Weavers Carnegie Hall albums for Chanukah in the winter, 1958. He brought the albums over to my house so I could listen. He never got them back.

I’m not a Red Diaper baby. I didn’t read Marx until the 1970s. I don’t know when I decided I was a Marxist. I didn’t start teaching Marx and political economy until the late 1970s. But I became a small “r” red when I first heard those albums. Then on to Pete Seeger alone, Woody Guthrie, Cisco Houston, and later Arlo Guthrie, Phil Ochs, and even Kris Kristofferson and Bruce Springsteen.

From time to time I reminisce about all this as I still listen to the music that makes me mad, makes me cry, and makes me want to hit the streets. I forget the fine tuned lectures I listen to and even give myself, on neoliberal globalization, the tendency of the rate of profit to fall, over-production and under-consumption, and financialization, and break into song and tears as I hear the old music in the car or at home.

The deficit battle, which is a farce except for the pain the outcome will cause working people, reminded me of the Weavers blasting out “The Banks Are Made of Marble.” They sang of travels around the country seeing all the suffering that the capitalist system was causing; “the weary farmer,” the idle seaman, the miner scrubbing coal dust from off his back, “heard the children cryin” as they froze in their shacks, and the suffering of workers everywhere.

Why does the song suggest there is so much suffering all across America? The answer is so simple:

“… the banks are made of marble
With a guard at every door
And the vaults are stuffed with silver
That the miner sweated for”

The song, written by Les Rice in 1948 said the antidote to this situation was workers getting together and together making a stand. He predicted that the result would be a good one:

“Then we’d own those banks of marble
With a guard at every door
And we’d share those vaults of silver
That we have sweated for”

I also was thinking about an old Robin Hood song written by Woody Guthrie in the 1930s about an Oklahoma legend, Pretty Boy Floyd. According to Woody’s rendition, Pretty Boy Floyd got into a fight with a deputy sheriff and killed him. Floyd was forced to flee and allegedly took up a life of crime. At least authorities and journalists blamed Floyd for every robbery or killing that occurred in the state of Oklahoma. “Every crime in Oklahoma was added to his name.”

But in true Robin Hood fashion Pretty Boy Floyd stole from the rich and gave to the poor. Floyd, the outlaw, paid the mortgage for a starving farmer. Another time when Floyd begged for and received a meal in a rural household, he placed a thousand dollar bill under his napkin when he finished dinner. One Christmas Day Floyd left a carload of groceries for starving families on relief in Oklahoma City.

And in these days of massive unemployment, mortgage foreclosures, criminal wealth, and staggering poverty, through the voice of Pretty Boy Floyd, Woody Guthrie tells the wrenching story of capitalism that today is not too much different from during his time.

“Yes, as through this world I’ve wandered
I’ve seen lots of funny men;
Some will rob you with a six-gun,
And some with a fountain pen.

And as through your life you travel,
Yes, as through your life you roam,
You won’t never see an outlaw
Drive a family from their home.”

Monday, August 1, 2011


Harry Targ

Common threads run throughout America’s history from the revolution to 2011. Class and race are particularly enduring features of the life of the nation. Perhaps we need to examine our history and contemporary plight using class analysis and the fundamental interconnections of class and race to better understand why American society is in crisis today and what can be done about it.

First, it is undeniable that America is a class society. The dominant class owns the factories, the businesses, the entertainment and information industries, and the financial institutions that control investment, trade, debt, and speculation. As the capitalist economy has changed, the ruling class has changed also. But in each historical period the ruling class has acted on the basis of its interests and ideology. Since the 1970s, the economic ruling class, while diverse, has been dominated by finance capital.

Second, it is important to remember that concentrated economic wealth is usually complemented by centralized political power. In our own day, for example, Wall Street financial interests dominate the political process. In the increasingly desperate pursuit of increased rates of profit since the 1970s, financiers have been pressuring political elites to institutionalize policies that cut government programs, deregulate the economy, reduce workers rights, and shift societal wealth from the poor and working people to the wealthy. The deal being brokered to “solve the deficit ceiling” problem is the most current of examples.

Third, set against the economic ruling class in every age is a broad array of sectors of the working class, some employed, some not, who have little wealth and power. During exceptional periods they rise up angry, challenge myths about what the economy needs, and demand policies to further the shift of wealth from the few to the many. Since the 1980s, with brief exceptional periods, wealth and income has shifted more to the few.

This model of an economic ruling class and a vast working class is largely an accurate framework for understanding American history, from the revolution of 1776 to the deficit crisis of 2011. But the model needs to be refined based upon the particular interests, organizations, economic activities and ideologies of the two basic classes, the ruling class and the working class.

For example, even within the two classes there are “fractions” or segments that do not share precisely the interests of other fractions within the class. For example, since the 1970s, more and more wealth has been invested in finance and less and less in manufacturing and agriculture, the traditional backbones of a capitalist economy. It became clear to the financiers that government regulations, social safety nets, and public institutions of all kinds had become impediments to the free flow of money capital. Thus we saw the dawn of the Reagan “revolution,” which consisted of policies designed to replace the New Deal policies of mixed government and the private sector that favored manufacturing and workers in industry.

Over the last thirty years, the United States economy, and more or less all of the wealthy capitalist economies, has shifted its priorities to making money via financial speculation. Government has helped by adopting free market, market fundamentalist, and what people around the world call neo-liberal economic policies. Introduced selectively during the presidency of Jimmy Carter and promoted full blown in the Reagan era, United States economic policy has been driven by the downsizing of government (except the military) and deregulation.

Today, most Democrats and Republicans are fighting over how to cut government spending and which people-oriented programs to eliminate. They are not fighting about whether to cut government, but rather in what ways it should be cut. In sum, if we label political actors, the neo-liberal monster has two heads, Democrats and Republicans.

The current context is made even more complicated by the so-called Tea Party. The Tea Party was created by a small fraction of the wealthy economic class and sectors of the monopoly controlled media. Its membership consists of a vast array of disenchanted, alienated increasingly marginalized business and professional elites who claim to be motivated by the need to challenge intrusive government. While it has its roots in fractions of the economic ruling class it has used its resources to appeal to a base of supporters from the working class.

Many Tea Party activists have used the historic and institutionalized racism in the United States as a tool to expand their support. Tea Party enthusiasts have made it clear that their real motivation is to destabilize and destroy the United States government which happens to be led by the first African- American president. Senator Mitch McConnell, in a desperate attempt to co-opt this political fraction, spoke frankly when he declared that the number one priority of the Republican Party is to insure that Barack Obama is a one-term president. This simple and frank declaration parallels the constant racist stereotypes of Obama that find their way into main stream media and are staples of Fox News, and the reactionary radio chorus. And to generalize, the Tea Party and much of the Republican Party express their racism against Islamic and Latino targets as well.

Furthermore, the racist ideology that is just below the surface of political discourse has escalated as the gaps in wealth and income between whites and people of color have expanded over the last thirty years. In fact, the assault on government programs, and the vast majority of workers, has been at the same time an assault on African Americans, Latinos, and all other so-called minorities, who by 2050 will be the new majority of Americans.

In short, the deficit struggle may be seen as a conflict between two fractions of the economic elite, represented by most of their Democratic and Republican allies, over the shape of the neo-liberal policies to be adopted as public policy AND the Tea Party political fraction, from the ruling and working class, who are driven as much by racism as by any idea of doing what is best for the economy. The ideology of racism used by some of those who promote the neo-liberal agenda is paralleled by the real mal-distribution of wealth and income that has been exacerbated in recent years and will be a center-piece of any deficit reduction deal in the future.

But as Marx said, all history is the history of class struggle. The working class, varied as it has been over time, continues to resist the efforts of the wealthy and powerful to appropriate more and more of society’s resources. In fact, what may be called the Progressive Majority is a coalition of workers, women, people of color, environmentalists, health care activists and others who will refuse to accept neo-liberal and Tea Party policies. For them the struggle is not over. It is just beginning.

In some ways, the impending deficit deal that leaders of the two political parties are consummating clarifies the task the progressive majority faces. The American Dilemma of 2011 requires mobilizing on two interconnected fronts. First, progressives must adopt a campaign to increase government support for the vast majority of Americans and to do so by taxing the rich. In other words, progressives must say “no” to neo-liberalism. Second, progressives must incorporate a 21st century anti-racism platform in their economic program. Demographically, people of color will constitute a majority of the voting age population by 2050, a disquieting realization for Tea Party supporters and their neo-liberal representatives who want to return to an era of Jim Crow economically and politically.

A useful guide for this progressive agenda is The People’s Budget proposed recently by the Congressional Progressive Caucus ( which calls for a massive jobs program, the construction of a fairer more equitable tax system, real health care reform, tax reforms to safeguard the social security trust fund, and dramatic cuts to military spending. The People’s Budget clearly would address issues of government spending by shifting to policies of fairness that benefit the vast majority of the country’s population.

So the task of the progressive majority is clear whatever final form the deficit compromise takes. Joe Hill is still right: “Don’t Mourn, Organize!”