Saturday, July 28, 2018


Harry Targ

What we are seeing today is a new iteration of that very old impulse in America: the quest of some of the propertied (always, it bears noting, a particularly ideologically extreme-and some would say greedy-subsection of the propertied) to restrict the promise of democracy for the many, acting in the knowledge that the majority would choose other policies if it could. (Nancy MacLean, Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America, New York, Random House, 2017, 5).
“Democracy in Chains”: Multiple Themes

Friends of mine insisted I read Nancy MacLean’s recent book, Democracy in Chains. Their enthusiasm for the book was so great that I finally picked it up. I found it profound as to how it addressed issues of political theory, consciousness, and political practice.
First, the book is a narrative biography of one scholar of political economy, James Buchanan, who has had a significant impact on the development of “public choice” theory in political science, sociology, and economics. In addition, the text uses his biography to develop larger theoretical, historical, and political themes.

Second, it is a book about what used to be called the “sociology of knowledge”; that is how ideas are developed, disseminated, institutionalized, and become dominant ways in which academic disciplines address the subject matter they study.
Third, Democracy in Chains addresses the development of democratic theory, relating contemporary ideas about public participation in decision-making to eighteenth and nineteenth century American political theory. Significantly, it addresses Professor Buchanan’s attraction to Southern anti-federalist John C. Calhoun.

Fourth, the book provides a rich description of the theory of “free markets” developed by the Austrian school of economics founded by Ludwig von Mises and Fredrich Hayek and institutionalized by the economics department at the University of Chicago.
Fifth, the book describes in some detail how scholars such as James Buchanan and wealthy advocates of “free market” philosophies have worked to influence higher education and public policy, not only at the national level but through the states and local government. The book describes how enormously wealthy free marketeers led by Charles and David Koch, their association, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), and hundreds of think tanks, lobby groups, and funded politicians have been implementing their policy agenda.

Each of these themes richly developed by MacLean deserves detailed examination and evaluation. As my exuberant friends suggested to me, the MacLean book is a major work of political theory and policy analysis that should significantly energize those progressives who see democracy in the United States as an endangered species.
The Threat to Democracy

But for starters, it is critical in 2018 to address one of the central themes developed in her book, the contradiction between democracy and capitalism.
MacLean analyzes central premises of the so-called Austrian school of economics. Nineteenth and twentieth century luminaries from this tradition, particularly Van Mises and Hayek, articulated the view that the main priority of any society, but particularly democracies, is the extent to which markets are allowed to flourish, unencumbered by governments.

According to this view in a truly free society markets remain supreme. In fact, “liberty” exists in a society to the extent economic actors are able to act in the market place. Virtually all limitations on economic liberty so defined constitute a threat to “real” democracy. Governments exist only to maintain domestic order (the police power) and to defend the nation from external aggression (defense of national security). Governments provide police protection and armies. And that should be all. In sum, as President Ronald Reagan expressed the market vision: “Government is not the solution. Government is the problem.”
To further illustrate, MacLean describes the brutal dictatorship that overthrew the democratically elected president of Chile, Salvador Allende. Allende, a socialist, was elected by a plurality in the 1970 presidential election in that country and in the spring, 1973 in municipal elections held across the country, Allende’s coalition of parties drew even more votes for their candidates than did Allende in 1970. The United States, based on directives from President Nixon, had already moved to make the Chilean economy “scream” and had initiated contacts with Chilean generals who would be prepared to carry out a military coup against the popular government.  The military coup, ousting Allende from power, was launched, ironically on September 11, 1973.

As MacLean points out, in the aftermath of the coup, General Augusto Pinochet rounded up and killed thousands of Allende supporters, destroyed the long tradition of electoral politics, abolished trade unions, and began the process of ending government involvement in the economy and public institutions. Social security and education were privatized. Policies of nationalization of key industries were reversed. 

All of the shifts to what the Austrian school called economic liberty were imposed on the Chilean people with the advice of University of Chicago economists, such as Milton Friedman, and later, George Mason University economist, James Buchanan, who was instrumental in recommending “reforms” to the Chilean constitution making return to democracy more difficult. Subsequently only a few other dictatorships in Latin America showed any sympathy for the Pinochet regime with most of the world condemning its domestic brutality. But as MacLean reports, Milton Friedman and his colleagues never condemned the Chilean regime and Buchanan regarded it as a paradigmatic case of economic liberty, a model which the world should emulate.
Although the Chilean case represents an extreme example of dictatorship and free market capitalism, she uses it to illustrate a central point. In most societies, and the United States is no exception, majorities of people endorse government policies that can and often do serve the people. As a rule citizens support public transportation, schools, highways, libraries, retirement guarantees, some publicly provided health care, rules and regulations to protect the environment, as well as police and military protection. The problem for Buchanan and his colleagues is that each one of these government programs. except for the police and military, constrains the “liberty” of entrepreneurs to pursue profit.

To put it simply, if citizens of the United States were asked if they support public programs, majorities would say “yes.” Although there have been extraordinary constraints on majority rule, even enshrined in the US constitution, the history of the United States can be seen as a history of struggle to improve and achieve majoritarian democracy. Demands for voting rights for women, African/Americans, non-propertied and low-income workers and others have been basic to the American experience. The great anti-colonial struggles of the twentieth century all across the globe were premised on the vision of individual and collective sovereignty of the people. If economic liberty is conceptualized as inversely related to majoritarian democracy, then capitalism and democracy are incompatible.
Nancy MacLean, based on this fundamental contradiction, develops a narrative of efforts by celebrants of economic liberty, the Koch brothers and their allies, to build campaigns in virtually every state and locale to disenfranchise people. ALEC affiliates in state legislatures over the last decade have promoted legislation to suppress the right to vote, eliminate the rights of workers to unionize, disempower city councils, eliminate the right of local governments to make fiscal decisions, and to enshrine in curricula in K to 12 education systems and the universities ideologies about the virtues of economic freedom. There are powerful political pressures to privatize every existing public institution. Again, the best government is no government (except for the maintenance of police force to squelch demands for change and military power to protect the nation at home and abroad).

So Democracy in Chains is as rich in analysis and warning as my friends have suggested. Much more needs to be disaggregated and discussed. But for starters Nancy MacLean is warning us that there is a powerful drive, based on wealth and power, in the United States to destroy democracy. This democracy, while flawed, has been fought for since the founding of the United States. Its continuation, leaving aside its need for improvement, is under fundamental threat.

Saturday, July 21, 2018


Harry Targ

Russiaphobia is being promoted by the MSM, leaders of both parties and why? It is being promoted because of the danger of tension reduction with Russia (and North Korea) which is the fear of the military/industrial complex and because grassroots movements for progressive change are growing by leaps and bounds.
If our grassroots social movements fall prey to the media's narrative about Trump and foreign policy and channel their energies away from single payer health care, free public education K through college, a green jobs agenda, fight for $15 (all of which Trump and the Republicans are out to oppose) they will have lost a major opportunity to begin to bring positive change in this country. In addition, the peace movement must use the Trump overtures to North Korea and Russia (however disingenuous) to build a campaign to end nuclear weapons, cut the military budget, end the NATO alliance, and reduce the US military presence all across the globe. Again, this is not Trump's agenda but it must be ours.

The ruling class and political elites oppose this progressive agenda and Trump is a viable target for changing the political discourse and defusing the energy of our growing mass movement.. These are dangerous times.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018


Harry Targ

Trump Adventures in Foreign Policy
There has been much reason for optimism in 2018 as political movements grow, more young people identify with socialism, greater numbers of activists embrace an intersectional lens (linking class, race, gender, and sexual identity), and progressive and socialist candidates for public office win victories in state and national campaigns.

However, the massive increase in activism is being derailed by mainstream media narratives and positions taken by centrist politicians of both political parties suggesting that the real issues the United States face have to do with the interference of Russia in the US political system and Trump’s foreign policy conduct over tension-reduction on the Korean Peninsula and negotiations between himself and Vladimir Putin.
A common media frame is being articulated virtually everywhere that the intelligence agencies, such as the FBI and the CIA, are unassailable in their claims that the Russians interfered with the US elections. After all, it is argued, these agencies were created to protect the integrity and viability of American democracy.

Further, pundits and politicians argue that Trump’s meetings with the leaders of North Korea and Russia are illegitimate and by implication their avowed goal to reduce tensions and the likelihood of war, are illegitimate. The narrative adds that contrary to prior presidents, Trump is particularly enamored of dictators.
In the case of his meeting with Putin, the media says, the Russians “won.” And they won, the story suggests, because Russia alone was responsible for undermining Ukraine, creating the Syrian humanitarian crisis, and stimulating the rise of the right in Eastern Europe. How could a President of the United States meet with a man like Putin they ask? (They forget candidate Barack Obama’s 2008 wise campaign claim that diplomacy is precisely to be used in interactions with adversaries). And one day after the Putin/Trump meeting the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) sent an “urgent” electronic petition calling for 100,000 signatures to “Condemn Trump for meeting with Putin, denying Russian interference, and threatening our democracy!”

This campaign was launched three weeks after Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez won a stunning primary victory in New York’s 14th Congressional District, on a platform that she called democratic socialism. She stood against the Democratic Party establishment articulating a vibrant reform agenda that defends the gains workers have made over the last 70 years and calls for advances in access to health care, fair wages, environmental justice, immigration reform, and a green jobs agenda. She also criticized the Israeli Defense Forces for their violence against Palestinians.
Threat to the Broad Left

There is no question that President Trump is a narcissistic, ignorant, and racist man who had done and will do enormous damage to the lives of workers, women, people of color, immigrants, and the environment. He has the power to launch wars and already has committed to new generations of weapons and authorized covert operations against regimes in Latin America.
However, if Trump, for whatever reason, participates in dialogue with the Korean people in ways that reduce tensions, denuclearize the peninsula, lead to the withdrawal of US troops, and end the war in Korea, these should not be opposed because Trump was a participant. And, if Trump and Putin could agree to dismantle their nuclear weapons, withdraw troops from Central Europe, and join in talks to end the violence in Syria these also should be supported.

Finally, and most importantly, the Broad Left must continue to work for social and economic justice. It must organize to dismantle the stranglehold of the US economy by Wall Street, and small numbers of banks and corporations and to create a green jobs agenda that puts people to work for a livable wage at the same time as the environment is revitalized. It must demand accessible health care, affordable housing, free education and safety from police violence.
If the Broad Left adopts the media and centrist Democrat and Republican narrative that is solely based on the damnation of Donald Trump it will have lost the opportunity for fundamental change that growing mass movements have been working to achieve.

Friday, July 13, 2018


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 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).

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.

Tuesday, July 3, 2018


Harry Targ

                             There's something happening here
                              But what it is ain't exactly clear  
There's a man with a gun over there
Telling me I got to beware

There's battle lines being drawn
Nobody's right if everybody's wrong
Young people speaking' their minds
Getting so much resistance from behind

It's time we stop
Hey, what's that sound?

Everybody look - what's going down?

“For What It's Worth" Buffalo Springfield

Hundreds of thousands of people, reflecting the diversity of America hit the streets in over 700 cities and towns to declare that “Families Belong Together.” The specific occasion for the mobilization of so many people in such a short time was the news of at least 2,000 migrant children being separated from their parents along the Texas/Mexican border amid the smug assertion of Trump administration spokespersons that the children and their parents were in the United States “illegally.”

In addition, Fox News commentators were framing the separations as a net gain for the children: comfortable quarters, summer camp-like conditions instead of the reality of children housed in cages. The specific crisis of the children reinforced anger at the general brutality caused by the broken immigration system that has led to the brutalization of people seeking refuge from violence and poverty in their home countries.

Named organizers of the rallies around the country included, the American Civil Liberties Union, The Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, the National Domestic Workers Alliance, Amnesty International, the Anti-Defamation League, the Southern Poverty Law Center, and the Women’s March.  Also, many actors and actresses, such as Alicia Keyes, and politicians participated in rallies, particularly in coastal cities.

Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal, Democrat from the state of Washington, expressed the anger and frustration of masses of people: “The idea of kids in cages and asylum seekers in prisons and moms being separated from breast-feeding children, this is beyond politics, it really is just about right and wrong, (Alexandra Yoon-Hendriks and Zoe Greenberg, “Protests Across U.S. Call for End to Migrant Family Separations,” The New York Times, June 30, 2018).

The marches and rallies represented a sense of outrage, an expression of the fact that, as the Congresswoman suggested, certain government actions may be just plain wrong, grotesquely immoral. And in those cases people of good will must stand up and say “enough is enough.” Families Belong Together, the event organization, articulated three central demands: that separated migrant families be reunited immediately, the government end family detentions, and the Trump administration end its “zero tolerance” immigration policy.

But beyond this extraordinary mobilization is perhaps a deeper meaning, a deeper purpose, and a possibility of hope for change. First, the placards signaled how marches were seeing the connection between the tragedy of the 2,000 children separated from their parents and broader issues: “fight for families,” “childhood is not a crime,” “human rights have no borders,” “abolish ICE,” “my people were refugees too,” “November is coming,” “no hate no fear, immigrants are welcome here,” “no one is illegal on stolen land,” “Nazis were following the law too, abolish ICE,” “Trump for prison, lock him up.”

Second, a multiplicity of organizations, beyond the mainstream national ones, participated in mobilizations around the country. Youth organizations, progressive alliances, and democratic socialist groups played a role in organizing the events and brought out their members to support the actions. For example, in Milwaukee, Democratic Socialists (DSA) participated in two mobilizations with placards calling for the abolition of ICE. In addition a radical immigrant rights group, Voces De La Frontera, which concentrates on immigrant rights and class issues participated prominently. Also, in Milwaukee, there was a strong representation from progressive sectors of various faith communities: Christian, Muslim, and Jewish.

Third, the June 30 Families Belong Together nation-wide mobilization may be the largest since President Trump assumed office. Beginning with the inauguration day rallies led by women, there have been mobilizations around peace, immigration, guns, women’s rights, the right of workers to organize, and against police violence. Peoples’ movements are growing in size. Mobilizations more consciously seek to connect the particular issues that occasion rallies and calls to action with other issues. And, with the emergence of the New Poor People’s Campaign, spokespersons of that movement are making the case that issues around poverty and racism are connected to militarism, war, and the destruction of the environment and all these are connected to the history of the brutalization of  Native Americans, African Americans, and immigrants seeking asylum from violence and poverty in Latin America. As Reverend William Barber calls it there is an emerging “fusion” of issues and a “fusion” of movements.

Will this lead to a well-organized purposive, multi-issue movement that will challenge capitalism and imperialism?  Will it create the building blocks for a humane and democratic, and socialist future? As the song says: There's something happening here. But what it is ain't exactly clear.