Kelley Beaucar Vlahos, the new Managing Editor of The American Conservative magazine, discusses her great new job and the terrible ongoing war in Afghanistan.6/21/17 Kelley Vlahos on The American Conservative Magazine and the Afghan War was first posted on June 21, 2017 at 11:09 pm.
F-16 Chased Away by Russian Su-27 Fighter
Tensions are seemingly always rising between the US and Russia these days, but the latest incident appears to be far more serious, as Russia has released a video showing a US F-16 intercepting the plane of Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu over the Baltic Sea, sparking a tense encounter with a Russian Su-27 fighter jet.
Shoigu’s plane was reportedly carrying the defense minister and a number of reporters to a conference in the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad, between Poland and Lithuania. The plane was reportedly escorted by a pair of Su-27s, and the F-16 fighters were scrambled, claiming the plane with the DM on board was not identified and they were trying to make a “visual” identification.
When one of the fighters started getting too close to Shoigu’s plane, a Su-27 flew in between the two and tilted its wings, apparently to underscore that it was armed with anti-aircraft weapons, at which time the F-16 flew off.
That’s not sitting well with Russia at all, as Defense Committee chairman Vladimir Shamanov, who was also the former Commander of Russian Airborne Forces, condemned the incident as “military rudeness” on NATO’s part.
Shamanov insisted it should’ve been readily apparent when the F-16 arrived that a civilian plane with an escort of multiple Su-27s was carrying “protected persons,” and that approaching the plane would be considered unacceptable.
Ultimately, Shoigu’s plane was unharmed, and arrived safely in Kaliningrad. The plane returned home to the Russian mainland escorted by a much larger retinue, this time including a number of Su-34 fighter-bombers, among the most advanced warplanes in the Russian fleet. They apparently went unchallenged.US F-16 Intercepts Russian DM’s Plane Over Baltic Sea was first posted on June 21, 2017 at 11:00 pm.
It’s said that tough cases make bad law. If so, Maryland’s prosecution of Dennis Fusaro and Stephen Waters for campaign finance law violations threatens to make some really bad law. The prosecutors themselves believe the case will “justify burdening speech and associational rights” under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and article 10 of the Maryland State Constitution’s Declaration of Rights. The latter promises “That freedom of speech and debate, or proceedings in the Legislature, ought not to be impeached in any Court of Judicature.”
The case stems from a county council race in Anne Arundel County, Maryland in 2014 between 2004 Constitution Party candidate for president Michael Peroutka and Democrat Patrick Michael Armstrong. Peroutka won the race after the following anonymous robocall was sent to approximately 5,000 Anne Arundel County voters:
“Hello, what a great opportunity for the LGBT community. We have a true believer for our cause in Patrick Armstrong who’s running for County Council in Anne Arundel County, Maryland. Call Patrick today and thank him for his bravery in coming out of the closet. Coming out of the closet and supporting the fairness to all Marylander’s Act, the Maryland State Senate Bill 212, and supporting the rights for all transgenders. Transgenders can now openly and freely go into any bathroom of their choice based on their confused gender identity. Tell Patrick to continue to stand loud and proud in support for transgenders’ equal rights. While our opponent argued that children could be at risk by sexual predators with this new law, we celebrate the rights of transgenders and what this does for equality for transgenders in Maryland. Call him today at 410-***-**** and thank him for supporting the bathroom bill. Paid for and authorized by Marylander’s for Transgenders.”
The satirically written phone message – “Marylanders for Transgenders” doesn’t exist – accurately related Armstrong’s position with regard to the “bathroom bill” then before the county (and his already very public sexual preference), but failed to disclose who had paid for the robocall. Authorities eventually arrested Peroutka’s campaign advisor Dennis Fusaro, as well as Stephen Waters, both political professionals, and charged them with violating Maryland’s campaign finance laws. The robocall cost less than $200 to set up. Fusaro, the judge concluded, had purchased the phone used for the robocall and Waters set up the robocall after Peroutka had rejected the idea of the call for his campaign. (Peroutka testified at trial for the prosecution and testified he didn’t know about the call until after the election.) Both Fusaro and Waters were convicted in a bench trial February 22, given a $1,000 fine, 60 days in prison and three years probation. The case is currently under appeal.
Wither the right to anonymous political speech?
The case is important for defending anonymous political speech, and America has a long tradition of anonymous political speech going back to Samuel Adams writing against the British as “Vindex” in Boston newspapers, the Federalist Papers, Anti-Federalist Papers, and the Jefferson/Hamilton correspondence over Washington’s Neutrality Proclamation as Americanus, Pacificus and Americanus. But District Judge John P. McKenna, Jr. would criminalize anyone who engages in the modernized version of pampleteering like the Federalist Papers. “The voters of Anne Arundel County had a right to judge the content of that robocall for themselves and make up their own mind as to whether or not it bears any weight,” McKenna said during sentencing. “But they (also) had the right to know who was behind the call.”
One of several interesting details about the case is that none of the actions, spending or speech took place inside the State of Maryland. Prosecutors claim that Fusaro bought the phone used for the call at a Virginia Wal-Mart and had Waters set up the robocall from Virginia with a Canadian company. In short, Maryland is claiming that it can regulate political speech initiated in other states. The prosecution statement against dismissing the case actually claimed regulating out-of-state political speech was a feature, rather than a bug, of their case, stating: “This is not a case of ‘an individual leafleteer who, within her local community, spoke her mind, but sometimes not her name.'” Indeed, the Federalist Papers analogy goes one step further; none of the Federalist Papers (or, for that matter, the Anti-Federalist Papers) were written in Maryland by Marylanders, and yet were reprinted widely in local papers and printed on broadside pamphlets. One might quibble that the quality level of the content in the robocall was of a different level from the Federalist Papers, but the regulatory regime set up to prohibit anonymous political speech is identical and equally applicable to all forms of anonymous political speech regardless of perceived quality.
Overly broad laws and selective prosecution
Judge McKenna acknowledged in his February 22 decision of Maryland’s election disclosure law encompasses just about every kind of political speech: “There is no question that the definition contained in §1-101(k), at first blush, seems broad.” He added that “While Citizens United upheld limited disclosure requirements, it did so because Congress specifically drafted the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (“BCRA”) to apply to limited forms of communications that were easily identifiable and only when high-dollar thresholds had been met.”
But in the Fusaro/Waters case, there’s no high-dollar threshold, unless a couple of hundred dollars counts as “high-dollar.” McKenna, Jr.’s February 22 decision documented only the purchase of a cell phone in a Federicksburg, Virginia Wal-Mart for less than $100, and noted that the total cost of the robocall – including the cost of the phone and use of the Canadian robocall firm Impact Strategies to make the calls – was less than $200. Maryland’s election law calls for disclosure of any expenditures of more than $100, though Maryland’s Capital Gazette newspaper’s endorsement of Peroutka’s opponent contained no formal disclosure statement. But while multi-billion dollar corporate media empires (the Capital Gazette is owned by the giant Tribune Media conglomerate) and pay to deliver their endorsement to tens of thousands of voters, politicians are cracking down on small-time operators. And the reason is clear: Little people are having a bigger impact than the giant established media empires that back big government incumbents, which explains why the IRS went after fledgling Tea Party groups in the wake of the 2010 Tea Party revolution.
Waters and Fusaro’s lawyers have argued that the communication was targeted outside of existing law, noting that the law had limited to disclosure to official campaigns and expressed advocacy where the political message was to vote for or against a specific candidate. The Fusaro-Waters robocall above did not make an expressed advocacy. The defense argued that “This narrowing construction (or, more accurately, redefinition) borders on parody. The State does not explain how this excludes political posts on social media, e-mails, or dozens of other forms of speech that each occur thousands of times a day in Maryland and cannot be required to include disclaimers.” Of course, those disclaimers may be on the docket in the future if this case goes forward.
The defense attorneys argued in their consolidated reply for dismissal that “Because the Election Law Article’s disclaimer requirements are so broad, it is not a campaign finance regulation, but a political speech regime. Because it is not tied to money spent on election campaigns and forces political actors to speak, it is a content-based restriction that must be subjected to strict scrutiny.”
Soviet dictator V.I. Lenin has been paraphrased as saying that politics is about “who does what to whom for whose benefit?” and not abstract principles of justice. And there’s a bit of that in practice among prosecutors of this case. Fusaro’s attorney Benjamin Barr, of the Pillar of Law Institute, told the Libertarian Institute that another issue the court failed to consider was the selective prosecution issue. Barr noted that he had brought before the court a large number of robocall cases – including Americans for Job Security and others on both the political left and right – none of which were prosecuted. Why are only Fusaro and Waters being prosecuted by state Prosecutor Emmet Davitt? They were likely prosecuted for the presumably unpopular and politically incorrect content of their call, and not for crossing some bright line campaign finance law.
A history of intimidation and harassment
The U.S. Supreme Court observed of disclosure laws directed against civilians in the 1976 Buckley v. Valeo case that “we have repeatedly found that compelled disclosure, in itself, can seriously infringe on privacy of association and belief guaranteed by the First Amendment.” Transparency laws have generally been a ruse for intimidation. This goes back to the 1958 case of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People v. Patterson, when the State of Alabama demanded the membership and donor rosters of the local NAACP during the height of the civil rights movement. The court ruled in that case disclosure would effectively publish a hit-list for the then-very active local Ku Klux Klan terrorist cells: “A requirement that adherents of particular religious faiths or political parties wear identifying armbands, for example, is obviously of this nature. Compelled disclosure of membership in an organization engaged in advocacy of particular beliefs is of the same order. Inviolability of privacy in group association may in many circumstances be indispensable to preservation of freedom of association, particularly where a group espouses dissident beliefs….Petitioner has made an uncontroverted showing that, on past occasions, revelation of the identity of its rank-and-file members has exposed these members to economic reprisal, loss of employment, threat of physical coercion, and other manifestations of public hostility.”
While some may scoff at the comparison between NAACP donor disclosure in the midst of Ku Klux Klan-inspired violence during the height of civil rights movement furor and a robocall involving a county council race today, gender issues have a recent history of violence and intimidation in the United States. This was especially true with California’s Proposition 8, a move to define marriage as between one man and one woman in 2008. Brendan Eich, co-founder of Mozilla, donated $1,000 to the campaign for Prop. 8, and was forced to step down from his job because people objected to the donation once it was exposed publicly. Police were called to a Los Angeles restaurant and donned riot gear after a local restaurateur had been revealed on-line to have donated to Prop. 8. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas noted this wave of violence in the wake of Prop. 8 disclosure in his concurrence in the Citizens United case:
“Some opponents of Proposition 8 compiled this information and created Web sites with maps showing the locations of homes or businesses of Proposition 8 supporters. Many supporters (or their customers) suffered property damage, or threats of physical violence or death, as a result. They cited these incidents in a complaint they filed after the 2008 election, seeking to invalidate California’s mandatory disclosure laws. Supporters recounted being told: “Consider yourself lucky. If I had a gun I would have gunned you down along with each and every other supporter,” or, “we have plans for you and your friends.””
The Fusaro/Waters case also has several side issues, which is to say, distractions. Patrick Armstrong stressed in a Facebook post the facts of the robocall were accurate and that the robocall had improperly brought his parents into the race:
“Point of clarification: I don’t want this story to be taken the wrong way.
My problem with the robocall is not the linking of me to a law that protects the transgender community, not at all!
My many problems with the call are as follows:
1) It smeared the transgender community, citing a “confused gender identity” and suggested that they are child sex predators.
2) It mocked me, my sexuality, and the transgender community.
3) It provided my parent’s home phone number and asked people to call it.
4)It broke the law, failing to identify who authorized and paid for it.
I stand with the transgender community because no one deserves to be bullied and I stand up to bullies. No one deserves to be mocked or made fun of for being who they are. If someone doesn’t understand sexuality or sexual identity, or if it scares them as it scares many conservatives, they do not then have the right to bully. Not understanding, or misunderstanding, is not a free pass to attack anyone. I am proud to represent the G in LGBT, and I am proud to defend those who are in the T of LGBT. Live and let live, mind your business, and never, ever bully anyone. Point clarified.”
Armstrong’s complaint about the phone number on the robocall being his parent’s home number is technically accurate: Armstrong lived at home with his parents, and listed his home address as a contact address on his official registration with the State of Maryland’s State Board of Elections. Armstrong did, however, supply a different contact phone number on his official state election form, so Waters could have used that number as a contact number on the robocall if he had gone to Armstrong’s filing with the state. But it’s a bit of a stretch to claim that his parents were targeted by the robocall, as Armstrong has charged, since a simple web search for Patrick Michael Armstrong comes up with his home number (which doubles as his parents’ number).
Making the claim that Fusaro and Waters dragged Armstrong’s family into the race doesn’t directly change the court proceedings, but it does prejudice most people against the defendants for engaging in unpopular speech – the only kind of speech that traditionally needs legal protection.
The other wrinkle in the case is that the person who initiated the speech was Fusaro, who had been a paid advisor to a political campaign. Peroutka had explicitly rejected the robocall during a campaign meeting, Judge McKenna noted, and there was no claim that this was a “wink, wink” off-the-books campaign operation by Peroutka. But Fusaro did receive a $2,000 bonus for winning the campaign, and the judge believed the robocall was an attempt by Fusaro to win the bonus by winning the campaign. But does a person give up his freedom of speech upon contracting to work on a political campaign? Maryland’s prosecutors evidently think so. “These laws that require disclosure are very important to ensure the integrity of the election process,” Prosecutor Emmet Davitt, a longtime donor to Democratic Party political causes, claimed. “We want the message out that it’s not just a matter of a rule or a dirty trick – that it’s against the law. And we hope it sends a message that, if you can’t obey the laws, kindly stay the hell out of Maryland.” But of course, Fusaro is being prosecuted for what he did when he wasn’t in Maryland at all.
“You have a chance to make an impact and send a message,” Davitt said in an interview for the Washington Post before the trial got underway. “We have a fantastic democracy, but people have to play by the rules.” But the real message being sent is by this case is that if you engage in the right kind of anonymous political speech, you’re safe from prosecution, but if you engage in spreading the “wrong” political opinions, you might find yourself in legal jeopardy.
Full disclosure: Though I have never met Dennis Fusaro face-to-face, I have corresponded with him by phone off and on since the 1990s when he was state and local affairs coordinator for Gun Owners of America and I was the director of research for The New American magazine.The New Threat to Free Political Speech was first posted on June 21, 2017 at 11:00 pm.
Nostalgia seems to be very popular in Washington. While the neocons and Democratic Party hard-liners have succeeded in bringing back the Cold War with Russia, it looks like President Trump is determined to take us back to a replay of the Bay of Pigs!
In Miami on Friday, the president announced that he was slamming the door on one of President Obama’s few foreign policy successes: easing 50 years of US sanctions on Cuba. The nostalgia was so strong at Trump’s Friday speech that he even announced participants in the CIA’s disastrous 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in the audience!
President Trump said Friday that his new policy would be nothing short of “regime change” for Cuba. No easing of US sanctions on Cuba, he said, “until all political prisoners are freed, freedoms of assembly and expression are respected, all political parties are legalized, and free and internationally supervised elections are scheduled.”
Yes, this is the same Donald Trump who declared as president-elect in December that his incoming Administration would “pursue a new foreign policy that finally learns from the mistakes of the past. We will stop looking to topple regimes and overthrow governments.” Now, in another flip-flop toward the neocons, President Trump is pursuing regime change in Cuba on the pretext of human rights violations.
While the Cuban government may not have a spotless record when it comes to human rights, this is the same President Trump who just weeks ago heaped praise on perhaps the world’s worst human rights abuser, Saudi Arabia. There, he even participated in a bizarre ceremony to open a global anti-extremism center in the home of state-sponsored extremism!
While President Trump is not overturning all of President Obama’s Cuba policy reforms – the US Embassy will remain open – he will roll back the liberalization of travel restrictions and make it very difficult for American firms to do business in Cuba. Certainly foreign competitors of US construction and travel companies are thrilled by this new policy, as it keeps American businesses out of the market. How many Americans will be put out of work by this foolish political stunt?
There is a very big irony here. President Trump says that Cuba’s bad human rights record justifies a return to Cuba sanctions and travel prohibitions. But the US government preventing Americans from traveling and spending their own money wherever they wish is itself a violation of basic human rights. Historically it has been only the most totalitarian of regimes that prevent their citizens from traveling abroad. Think of East Germany, the Soviet Union, and North Korea. The US is not at war with Cuba. There is no reason to keep Americans from going where they please.
President Trump’s shift back to the bad old days on Cuba will not have the desired effect of liberalizing that country’s political environment. If it did not work for fifty years why does Trump think it will suddenly work today? If anything, a hardening of US policy on Cuba will prevent reforms and empower those who warned that the US could not be trusted as an honest partner. The neocons increasingly have President Trump’s ear, even though he was elected on promises to ignore their constant calls for war and conflict. How many more flip-flops before his supporters no longer recognize him?Trump Turns Back the Clock With Cold War Cuba U-Turn was first posted on June 21, 2017 at 11:00 pm.
On July 6th, 2016 Philando Castile was stopped by a police officer. Allegedly he was stopped for a broken taillight but a recently released dashcam video from Jeronimo Yanez’s vehicle puts this notion in dispute. Instead, it seems like Castile was mistaken for a suspect in a convenience robbery, something that Yanez did not tell Castile.
After a brief exchange and Castile informing the officer, calmly, that he has a gun on him, Yanez tells him not to pull out the gun. When reaching for his ID as Yanez requested, Castile is shot 7 times by the officer when he tries to put his hands back in the air, also as the officer requested.
Yanez was then charged, in November of that same year with three felonies: One count of second-degree manslaughter and two counts of dangerous discharge of his firearm. That manslaughter part is important because most defendants, if they didn’t have a badge, likely would have gotten the full murder charge, but Yanez was excepted from this.
Finally, on June 16th, 2017, Yanez was acquitted and also fired by the city of St. Anthony
Yanez’s justification for the shooting was fear and, incredibly, second-hand smoke inhalation,
“I thought, I was gonna die, and I thought if he’s, if he has the, the guts and the audacity to smoke marijuana in front of the five year old girl and risk her lungs and risk her life by giving her secondhand smoke and the front seat passenger doing the same thing, then what, what care does he give about me?”
The jump in logic here is notable. Smoking marijuana isn’t as dangerous as nicotine, for starters and the effects of second-hand smoke are by several magnitudes less severe then shooting someone.
Yanez was irritable, nervous, acting recklessly and his justifications for it, the dashcam video and, of course, Castile’s girlfriend Diamond Reynold’s Facebook video, all show that.
The response to both the initial death and the recently failed court case has been an outpouring of political exhaustion and rage. There have been many shootings and failed convictions like this and to have one so explicit and clear in the eyes of so many, is a recipe for a political explosion, both figurative and literal, on the streets and online.
But why was Yanez treated so differently than anyone else who would have normally been called, and actually prosecuted, as a murderer? Michael Huemer, a professor of philosophy at the University of Colorado, has a quote about authority that gets to the heart of the matter:
“1. The only people to punish the authorities are other members of the same organization … 2. …[B]eing in power means that everyone else has to treat you with deference and respect almost regardless of your conduct. Thus, juries tend to bend over backwards to give the most radically charitable interpretations … In effect, most people think authorities should be held to drastically lower standards of conduct than anyone else.”
There are also racial elements to this, where juries are often containing white people and especially in cases where the victim is a person of color, this creates disparities in people’s perceptions of the world and what individuals are likely to experience.
The solution to these problems is not to have more cameras on police, fight for more rules and regulations police need to adhere to or teach people to respect authority. The solution is to stop treating authority as if it’s something that people should be murdered over.
If we stop treating police like they are allowed to kill people and stop seeing them as these infallible agents, we can do more justice in the world. We can start that process by realizing the courts are much more likely to see things in the officer’s favor, than ours. We should speak up and say that police officers are human beings and that putting all of the weight of policing on one special group is not only ethically specious but ineffectual and dangerous.
We should focus more on building alternatives to the police within our communities and resisting police through our art, through our solidarity to each other and through the hope that many of us share for a less violent world.No Justice, No Peace, Abolish The Police was first posted on June 21, 2017 at 11:00 pm.
The Western narrative of the Syrian conflict, which began in the Spring of 2011, suggests that the Syrian people began to peacefully protest for an end to the Assad regime, which then responded with brutal oppression; killing, imprisoning and torturing innocent Syrian civilians in an effort to maintain power. In time, Syrian soldiers defected from the army (because they refused orders to shoot peaceful protesters), began to arm themselves, and created the Free Syrian Army (FSA) to fight the regime. The West then began to support the Syrian rebels, in an effort to protect civilians and allow Syrians to realize their aspirations for democracy and freedom.
The Syrian government of course rejects this narrative, claiming instead that it has the support of the majority of Syrians, and is in fact the victim of a “conspiracy” or “plot” by the Western powers to support “terrorists” in an effort to overthrow it.
While Western journalists at times report on claims of such a plot by Syrian officials, the tone of such reports is always from the perspective that that these claims are regime propaganda meant to justify the killing of civilians. There is no attempt to analyze the claim or determine if it might have some merit. It is simply taken for granted that Syrian government claims are not credible. In contrast, Western officials’ counter-claims ridiculing the Syrian government view are assumed to be true and quoted uncritically, as are claims by spokespersons of Western-backed Syrian rebels.
As skeptical as one should certainly be regarding claims by any government, a closer examination of US policy toward Syria, as well as of the development of the Syrian conflict over time, suggest that in fact there was (and still is) a Western plot to overthrow the Assad government and replace it with one more friendly to US interests. This plot has resulted in US support for Islamic militant groups that, in other contexts, would be considered terrorists by the West.
Given that the Syrian government has faced a foreign inspired plot before (the campaign of assassination and terrorism carried out by a militants from a Muslim Brotherhood offshoot in the early 1980’s, backed by Israel and Jordan), that US efforts to overthrow Assad long predate the 2011 uprising, that armed gunmen were indeed attacking Syrian police and security forces from the first weeks of the protests, and that the US and its regional allies (Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, and Israel) have openly supported Syrian rebel groups (financially, militarily, and through public relations efforts), including groups who espouse the ideology of Salafi-Jihadism (the same ideology espoused by al-Qaeda and ISIS), Syrian government claims of such a plot should be taken seriously.
Evidence of such a plot is abundant and openly available in the Western press if one takes the care to look. Sometimes, it turns out, plots are real. In this essay, I will discuss each of the above mentioned claims in additional detail.
The Syrian Government has Faced Foreign Plots Before
In his book “Assad: The Struggle for the Middle East,” historian Patrick Seale details how from 1977 to 1982, the Syrian regime, led by Bashar al-Assad’s father, Hafez, faced a campaign of bombings and assassinations by militants from the Islamic Front, an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, which very nearly toppled the regime, and to which Assad responded with considerable brutality.
According to Seale, some of the victims of the Islamic Front terror campaign “were prominent officers and government servants but others were professional men, doctors and teachers and the like, who were not involved with the regime and were therefore undefended. Most of them were ‘Alawis which suggested that the assassins had targeted the community and were deliberately setting out to sharpen sectarian differences. . . (page 317).”
Seale emphasizes the importance of the June 1979 Aleppo Artillery School massacre, in which Islamic militants murdered thirty two Alawi army cadets. “A member of staff, Captain Ibrahim Yusuf, assembled the cadets in the dining hall and then let in the gunmen who opened fire indiscriminately (page 316).”
In June 1980, Assad himself narrowly escaped death after militants threw two hand grenades and shot bursts of machine gun fire at Assad while he waited to welcome an African dignitary. In response, Assad’s brother, Rif’at sent army units to the prison in Palmyra, where soldier’s murdered some 500 Muslim Brotherhood members held by the regime (page 329).
The terror campaign and brutal Syrian government response famously culminated in a showdown between the Syrian army and Islamic militants in 1982 in the town of Hama. On February 2nd, 1982 militants ambushed an army unit. Roof top snipers killed some 20 soldiers. When army reinforcements were sent in, the local militant commander put out the call for a general uprising throughout Hama. According to Seale, “At this signal hundreds of Islamic fighters rose from their hiding places. Killing and looting, they burst into the homes of officials and party leaders, overran police posts and ransacked armories in a bid to seize power in the city (page 332).” By the time the Syrian army was able to crush the uprising three weeks later, between 3,000 and 20,000 Syrians lay dead (depending on whose estimates one believes) including Islamic militants, Syrian security forces and civilians living in the city (page 334) .
Important for our purposes is that the Islamic militants enjoyed external support, from both the Jordanian and Israeli governments, who wished to see Assad overthrown, and that as result, the militants “had a fortune in foreign money, sophisticated communications equipment and large arms dumps (pages 335-336).” Further, Seale writes that Assad was convinced of US support for the militants, given the “discovery of US equipment in the hands of the guerrillas, and especially sophisticated communications equipment of a kind, he claimed, that could only be sold to a third-party with US government permission (page 336).”
This experience colored the views of the current Syrian government when the initial protests and attacks by armed groups against Syrian security forces began in the Spring of 2011.
Why Does the US Want to Overthrow the Syrian Government?
Flynt Leverett, former senior Middle East analyst at the CIA and senior director for Middle East affairs at the National Security Council during the first Bush Administration, described the reasons why US planners have long wished to overthrow the Syrian government. Writing in “Inheriting Syria: Bashar’s Trial by Fire” in 2005, Leverett highlight’s Syria’s strategic importance to the US interests in the Middle East, and the Syrian government’s resistance to these interests. Leverett explains that Syria is a “swing state” in the Middle East, and that since the establishment of the Assad regime in 1970, US policy toward Syria has been motivated by an interest in bringing Syria into the pro-US camp and therefore “tipping the regional balance of power against more radical or revisionist actors,” in particular Iran (page 8). Leverett complains however, that the US has “had to cope with Syrian resistance on a variety of fronts” since 1970, which resistance includes opposition to US support for Israel’s annexation of the Syrian Golan Heights, Syria’s “largely successful campaign to repulse Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon,” Syria’s “inauguration of a strategic alliance with Iran” which “ran against American moves throughout the 1980’s to bolster [Saddam’s] Iraq as a bulwark against the Islamic Republic’s revolutionary influence.” Leverett notes further that “As the Bush administration launched its military campaign against Saddam’s regime in 2003, Bashar [al-Assad] not only opposed the war but authorized actions that worked against the US pursuit of its objectives in Iraq (page 10).” Leverett also discusses Syrian support for Palestinian militant groups (PFLP-GC, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad) and the fact that Syria “has for many years been the principle conduit for Iranian military supplies going to Hizballah fighters in southern Lebanon” and that Syria “continues to see its ties to Hizballah as an important tactical tool in its posture toward Israel (pages 12-13).”
Leverett then wonders whether the best course for “changing problematic Syrian behaviors” would entail US efforts to “ratchet up economic, political, rhetorical pressure on Damascus,” on the one hand, or “coercive regime change” on the other (pages 17-18).
It must be noted here that the unprovoked Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 (killing some 10,000 Lebanese) and the unprovoked US invasion of Iraq (based on a series of fabrications) in 2003 (killing some 200,000 Iraqis) have caused immense human suffering, as has Israel’s ongoing colonization and occupation of Palestine (now reaching its 50th year). It is therefore inappropriate to refer to Syrian resistance to these US/Israeli policies as “problematic,” from a moral perspective. To its credit, Syria was opposing US/Israeli aggression in these instances. Also of note is that human rights concerns are not among the reasons cited by Leverett for proposing the overthrow of the Syrian government. Rather it is Syria’s challenge to US and Israeli aggression and hegemony in the region that necessitates regime change, from the US perspective.
US Plans to Overthrow the Assad Long Predate the 2011 Uprising.
The US desire to topple the Syrian government reaches back to at least 2001, when prominent neoconservatives in the US government threatened to invade not only Iraq, but also Syria and Iran.
Former US General Wesley Clark discusses a conversation he had with a “senior general” a few weeks after 9/11 at the Pentagon, in which the general purportedly showed Clark a memo from then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s office which advocated a strategy to “take out seven countries in five years,” which would start with Iraq and Syria and end with Iran. That Syria and Iran were at that time potential US targets for regime-change was later confirmed by then Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith.
These plans to intervene militarily in Syria seemed to have been put on hold due to the difficulties the US military faced in Iraq at the hands of Sunni and Shiite armed groups opposed to the occupation. However, US planners were still actively looking for concrete opportunities to covertly destabilize the Syrian government.
In early 2005 the Bush Administration began to markedly increase funding for Syrian opposition groups, including some within Syria, leading to “persistent fears among U.S. diplomats that Syrian state security agents had uncovered the money trail from Washington,” according to the Washington Post.
By 2006, US planners were seeking to exploit the fact that many Islamic militants were traveling through Syria to join the fight against US forces in Iraq, and to turn these fighters against the Syrian government, according to a classified December 2006 cable written by William Roebuck, Political Counselor at the U.S. Embassy in Damascus.
With the coming of the Arab Spring in 2011, popular anti-government protests broke out in various Arab countries, leading to the downfall of pro-US dictators in Tunisia, Egypt, and Yemen. US planners saw the chance to exploit the nascent protest movement that had also emerged in Syria, in order to destabilize and ultimately overthrow the Syrian government, and by extension weaken Syria’s Iranian and Russian allies.
In June 2011, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton exchanged emails with an adviser, Sydney Blumenthal, in which they discuss whether the Syrian government could be overthrown in the manner in which US-supported rebels were then seeking to overthrow the Ghadhafi-led Libyan government. Blumenthal wrote in a June 2011 email to Clinton that, “Likely the most important event that could alter the Syrian equation would be the fall of Qaddafi, providing an example of a successful rebellion.”
Syrian Security Forces are Attacked from the Early Days of the Uprising
Protests in Syria began in early February 2011 in the southern city of Deraa, when several youths were arrested and tortured by Syrian intelligence for writing anti-government slogans on the wall of a school. These events were followed by protests in Deraa. Coincident to these peaceful protests, armed groups began attacking Syrian police and security forces, apparently with weapons smuggled in from outside the country. On March 11th, Reuters quoted Syrian state media as reporting that “security forces seized a large shipment of weapons and explosives and night-vision goggles this week in a truck coming from Iraq.” On the same day, Israel National Newsreported that 7 Syrian policeman were killed in clashes with protesters (or more likely, armed militants, given the number of police killed). On March 23rd, Al-Jazeera cites Syrian state media reporting that an armed gang attacked an ambulance near the Al-Omari mosque in Deraa, killing a policeman, a doctor, a paramedic and the ambulance driver, and that Syrian state television showed footage of weapons that were found stock piled in the same mosque. On April 5th, CNN cites Syrian state media as reporting that unidentified men shot and killed two police officers during a routine patrol in the town of Kafar Batna. On April 11th, nine Syrian soldiers traveling by bus near the town of Banyas were killed by unknown gunmen. Syrian opposition members immediately claimed the soldiers had been killed by fellow soldiers for refusing to fire on civilians, however, this was debunked by Syria expert Joshua Landis, whose Syrian wife was able to speak with the brother-in-law of one of the dead soldiers to confirm details of the attack. Journalist Sharwine Narwani reports that on April 25th, nineteen Syrian soldiers were killed by unknown gunmen. Narwani also provides names and links to Youtube video footage of funerals for several Syrian soldiers and police officers killed in April 2011 in Homs, Hama, and Damascus. On April 29th, four Syrian soldiers were killed and 2 others kidnapped in Deraa, according to Syrian state media, as cited by the Saudi newspaper, Al-Riyadh. Al-Jazeera journalist Ali Hashem reported seeing groups of armed men passing into Syria from Lebanon in May. Lebanese newspaper Al-Akhbar cites Syrian state media in reporting on June 11th that the provinces of Latakia and Deraa saw funeral processions for dead members of the police and security forces who had been targeted by armed groups, and that sheikh Anis ‘Eirut issued a call for help from the residents of Banyas, who demanded the “quick intervention of the Army to stop the gangs represented by known people to arrest them and sweep their areas.” On June 4th in Jisr al-Shagour, Syrian state media reported that 120 members of Syrian security forces were killed by unknown attackers, however Landis was only able to confirm the deaths of ten soldiers, four of whom were decapitated. On June 7th, the Independent’s Robert Fisk noted that, “For well over a month, I have been watching Syrian television’s nightly news and at least half the broadcasts have included funerals of dead soldiers.” The Christian Science Monitor reported in June that weapons dealers in neighboring Lebanon were having trouble finding weapons to sell, as prices of common items such as AK-47s and rocket propelled grenades had increased significantly in recent months, and that “The demand is huge . . . They’re all going to Syria.” Narwani also mentions the observations of Dutch priest, Frans Van der Lugt, who had lived in Syrian city of Homs since the 1960’s before his killing in 2014, and who noted that “From the start, I saw armed demonstrators marching along in the protests, who began to shoot at the police first.” As noted above, reports from Syrian state media are typically dismissed by Western observers. In the case of soldiers who are killed by armed opposition groups, however, the fact that Syrian state television has so frequently aired footage of the funerals of these dead soldiers provides strong evidence that the Syrian uprising was not, as a whole, peaceful, despite the many peaceful protests opposition activists did in fact organize.
The above mentioned violent attacks aside, Syrian security forces certainly used unjustifiable violence and fired on peaceful protesters in the early days of the uprising. Journalist Nir Rosen wrote how “I have been to about 100 demonstrations in Syria. In many of them I had to run for my life from live gunfire. I was terrified. The demonstrators who go out every day since March know they are risking their lives.” This is, sadly, not surprising as most governments respond to popular protest with violence. Demonstrations during the Arab Spring in Iraq, Egypt, Bahrain, and Yemen have all seen security forces fire on protesters, while US forces fired on protesters in Fallujah in the aftermath of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. However, the armed and violent aspect of segments of the early Syrian opposition should not be ignored, especially when coupled with years of US threats to topple the Syrian regime. Surely these factors colored the response of the Syrian government to the uprising, reinforcing the view that the government was the target of a foreign-inspired terrorist plot reminiscent of the events of 1977-1982 discussed above. Syrian government fears would soon prove justified once US and Gulf backed efforts to support Salafi-Jihadi rebel groups in Syria became clear.
The US Arms Salafi-Jihadist Rebels in Syria
US efforts to arm Syrian rebels via its regional allies date from at least January 2012. The New York Times reported that American officials described how, “[f]rom offices at secret locations, American intelligence officers have helped the Arab governments shop for weapons, including a large procurement from Croatia, and have vetted rebel commanders and groups to determine who should receive the weapons as they arrive,” and that a “former American official said David H. Petraeus, the C.I.A. director until November, had been instrumental in helping to get this aviation network moving and had prodded various countries to work together on it,” noting also that the arms airlift to Syrian rebels had started in January 2012 and “has grown to include more than 160 military cargo flights by Jordanian, Saudi and Qatari military-style cargo planes.” The NYT cited a former American official who noted that, “People hear the amounts flowing in, and it is huge.”
A Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) memo acknowledged that by August 2012, the Syrian rebel groups were dominated by religious extremists. The DIA memo notes that “The Salafists, the Muslim Brotherhood, and AQI [Al-Qaeda in Iraq] are the major forces driving the insurgency in Syria,” contradicting the Western media narrative suggesting that the opposition was largely secular and “moderate.” Despite this conclusion, US support for the Syrian rebel groups continued, primarily by way of its allies, Saudi Arabia and Qatar..
Open Saudi and US support for rebels advocating Salafi-Jihadism is illustrated by their relationship with Zahran Alloush, the now deceased leader of a Syrian rebel group known as the Islamic Army (Jaish al-Islam), which Saudi Arabia played a crucial role in creating. Alloush’s father is a prominent Wahhabi cleric. Alloush embraced Wahhabism (the fringe version of Islam from which Salafi-Jihadism rises), including the concept of takfir, leading him to refer to Shiites as “rejectionists” (rafidha), and “Zoroastrians” (majus) and thus not Muslims, therefore justifying their killing. He stated that his goal was to “cleanse” Syria of all Shiites and Allawites, and to “destroy their skulls” and make them “taste the worst torture in life before God makes [them] taste the worst torture on judgment day,” employing rhetoric indistinguishable from that of ISIS.
Alloush has also declared his hostility to democracy. The pro-Saudi Lebanese newspaper An-Nahar reports that Alloush is “responsible for the disappearance of Ruzan Zeituna,” who is a well-known human rights lawyer, and that Alloush is “famous for his attacks on advocates of democracy,” and that he “embraces Salafi-Jihadi ideology and calls for an Islamic State, and is opposed to the democratic and republican systems.”
The Telegraph reported in November 2015 that the Army of Islam was using captured Syrian soldiers and kidnapped Alawite civilians as human shields by holding them in cages near public squares in areas under its control.
Syria expert Joshua Landis noted in December 2013 that “Alloush has gone out of his way to keep good relations with Jabhat al-Nusra [the official branch of Al-Qaeda in Syria]” and that Alloush has said, “his relationship with Nusra is one of brotherhood with only superficial ideological differences that can be settled with shari’a and discussions,” leading Landis to argue that “the ideological differences between the Front and al-Qaida are not deep.”
In November 2013, the Army of Islam joined with other major Syrian Jihadist factions to form the Islamic Front (al-Jabha al-Islamiya) and Alloush became its head military commander. In December 2013, the Washington Post quoted a US intelligence official as saying, “We don’t have a problem with the Islamic Front.”
When Alloush was killed in a Russian airstrike in December 2015, the pro-Saudi Lebanese newspaper An-Nahar, surmised that Russia intended to “direct a blow against the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia with the assassination of one of its most prominent trusted persons in the Syrian opposition,” further making Saudi sponsorship for Alloush clear.
Qatar has also proven a crucial ally in US efforts to fund Salafi-Jihadi rebels as part of the effort to overthrow the Syrian regime. Foreign Policy reports that in an effort to help Syrian rebels, Qatar “sent planes to move an estimated 3,500 tons of military equipment in 2012 and 2013, reportedly with the CIA’s backing,” and that working with Qatar is easy given that “‘Their inter-agency process has about three people in it,’ said one former U.S. Official.”
Qatari is the main provider of support to Ahrar Al-Sham, a Salafi-Jihadist rebel group that calls for Jihad against Shia Muslims and other minorities in Syria, and that has worked closely with the Nusra Front (Al-Qaeda’s official affiliate in Syria). Notably, the two groups cooperated in 2015 a joint offensive that captured the provincial capital of Idlib in the north of Syria, which then prompted Russian intervention.
Ahrar Al-Sham’s founder, Abu Khalid al-Suri, had long standing links to Al-Qaeda, before he was killed in February 2014. According to reporting from the Long War Journal, the leader of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, Ayman al-Zawahiri named al-Suri as his “representative” in Syria. Al-Suri attempted to mediate the dispute between the Nusra Front and the Islamic State at the time the two groups split. Al-Suri was previously a courier for Osama Bin Laden in Afghanistan, and Spanish officials allege that he received surveillance tapes of the World Trade Center from the operative who made the videos and delivered them to al Qaeda’s senior leadership in Afghanistan.
In September 2014, much of the leadership of Ahrar al-Sham was killed in a large explosion. As a result, Hashim al Sheikh (also known as Abu Jaber), was elected as the new leader of the group, which role he filled for one year before stepping down. Abu Jaber had previously been a recruiter for al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), helping Jihadists to travel from Syria to Iraq to fight, and then was arrested by the Syrian government and imprisoned from 2005 to 2011. After Ahrar al-Sham was formed, he became the deputy to Abu Khalid Al-Suri (mentioned above) who was then Ahrar’s leader (emir) of the Aleppo area. Another Ahrar al-Sham commander, Abu Hani al-Masri, fought with al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, Somalia, and Chechnya, and was the al-Qaeda commander responsible for defending Kandahar airport with the Taliban in 2001.
Despite Ahrar Al-Sham’s ties to Al-Qaeda, the Obama administration did not list Ahrar al-Sham on its list of terrorist organizations, and the group was allowed to publish an Op-ed in the Washington Post in July 2015, while a sympathetic article about the group was published in the New York Times one month later. These articles seemed to be part of a US campaign to paint the group as “moderate” despite its Jihadist ideology, ties to Al-Qaeda, and praise of Mullah Omar, the leader of the Taliban in Afghanistan, describing him as the embodiment of “the true meanings of Jihad and sincerity” after his death. The NYT tried to justify Ahrar Al-Sham’s praise of Mullah Omar, by citing a cleric close to the group who contends that it “contained only an extremist minority.” A senior figure from Ahrar Al-Sham, Labib Nahhas, was then quietly allowed to visit the United States in May 2016.
In September 2014, when asked to comment about Qatar’s role in supporting Jihadist militant groups in Syria, the State Department made clear that Qatar is “a valuable partner to the United States” and plays “an influential role in the region through a period of great transformation.”
A less formal description of the Qatari and Saudi role in Syria was provided by former CIA field officer Robert Baer: “[T]here are just too many groups. The Saudis and the Qataris are doing everything through intermediaries. People are being handed out money and told to ‘go blow shit up.’”
Remarks made by Vice President Joe Biden and comments by Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey also suggest that US allies sent many of these weapons to extremist rebel groups in Syria (including even ISIS), rather than to so-called “moderate” rebels. Speaking at Harvard University, Biden claimed that “Our biggest problem is our allies” who “poured hundreds of millions dollars, and tens thousands of tons of weapons into anyone who would fight against al-Assad, accepted the people who would be in supply for Al Nusra and Al Qaeda and extremist elements of Jihadists coming from other parts of the world.”
In 2014 Senator Lindsey Graham asked US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey during a Senate hearing if any major Arab ally of the US “embraces” the Islamic State (ISIS). Dempsey replied bluntly, “I know major Arab allies that fundthem,” after which Graham suggested this was understandable because these allies “were trying to beat Assad.”
Rather than a rogue entity supporting extremist groups against US wishes as Biden claims, however, Saudi Arabia is a crucial US ally in supporting such groups. The New York Times reported that “When President Obama secretly authorized the Central Intelligence Agency to begin arming Syria’s embattled rebels in 2013, the spy agency knew it would have a willing partner to help pay for the covert operation. It was the same partner the CIA has relied on for decades for money and discretion in far-off conflicts,” making reference to the conflicts in Afghanistan and Nicaragua in the 1980’s, while the Wall Street Journal reported in August 2013 on the importance of Prince Bandar bin Sultan (former Saudi Ambassador to the US, and by this time the head of Saudi intelligence) in providing “what the CIA couldn’t: planeloads of money and arms” to Syrian rebels.
The Growth of Jihadist Rebel Groups in Syria Serves US Interests
Given that the 9/11 attacks were carried out by al-Qaeda, it seems odd that US planners would endorse Saudi and Qatari support for Islamic militant groups in Syria. Logic dictates that if US planners were really fighting a “War on Terror” as is typically presumed, the US would have taken action against their Gulf allies, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, once it became clear that these countries were supporting Islamic extremist groups. The US took no such action however. This is because Gulf support for such Sunni Jihadist groups was beneficial for accomplishing stated US government goals in Syria.
Speaking in a meeting with members of the Syrian opposition at the Dutch Mission to the United Nations in September 2016, Secretary of State John Kerry explained the growth of ISIS in Syria served US interests, namely to pressure Assad to negotiate his exit from power.. Kerry explains that “the reason Russia came in is because ISIL [ISIS] was getting stronger. Daesh [ISIS] was threatening the possibility of going to Damascus. And that is why Russia came in. They didn’t want a Daesh government and they supported Assad. And we know this was growing. We were watching. We saw that Daesh was growing in strength. And we thought Assad was threatened. We thought we could manage that Assad might then negotiate. Instead of negotiating, he got Putin to support him [emphasis mine].”
Given the evidence cited above, it is therefore no surprise that the Syrian government views the conflict currently engulfing Syria as a Western-inspired plot to overthrow it, in a replay of the foreign-inspired campaign of assassination and terrorism faced by the Syrian government from 1977-1982. Sometimes plots and conspiracies are real, then as now.
US efforts to overthrow the Assad government and militarize (through support for Islamic extremists) any opposition to Assad all but guaranteed that any legitimate, peaceful movement for democracy would fail, that much of Syria would be destroyed, and that tens of thousands would die, and millions be displaced, whether outside the country, or internally. Such results were entirely predictable, given the results of US intervention in Iraq since 2003 and Libya in 2011.
This is illustrated by comments made by US Special Envoy to Syria Michael Ratner, who explained that, “when you pump more weapons into a situation like Syria, it doesn’t end well for Syrians, because there is always someone else who is going to pump more weapons in for the other side. The armed groups in Syria get a lot of support, not just from the United States but from other partners. . . . But pumping weapons in causes someone else to pump weapons in and you end up with Aleppo.”
Failure to acknowledge the reality of the US plot to overthrow Assad, and to insist instead that the conflict in Syria is merely between a brutal dictator on the one hand, and peaceful, democratic activists and “moderate” rebels struggling for their freedom on the other, merely reinforces the false narrative of the conflict promoted by the Western powers. Such a narrative serves the geopolitical interests of the US and its regional allies, rather than the interests of the Syrian civilians the West purports to care for.Is There a Western Plot to Overthrow Assad? was first posted on June 21, 2017 at 11:00 pm.
Writing in Reason magazine, Ronald Bailey asks (and tries to answer) a question you’ve probably been hearing a lot lately and may have silently asked yourself: “Are Robots Going to Steal Our Jobs?” Bailey takes an optimistic view. “[A]s we look ahead now to the end of the 21st century, we can’t predict what jobs workers will be doing, he writes. “But that’s no reason to assume those jobs won’t exist.”
Bailey has history on his side. On the other hand, the question is certainly worth taking seriously.
Technological advances have historically ended up creating more jobs than they eliminate and increasing the aggregate wealth and power of the societies which adopt them. Oral Messengers and Backpack Wheat Carriers Union, Sumer Local #1, probably lobbied against the adoption of writing and the wheel, but it’s hard to envision a path from Sumer to modern civilization that doesn’t include them. And by comparison to the kings of Sumer, the lowest quintile of any developed society today live like, well, kings. Technological advancement makes more things available to more people more cheaply. Technological stagnation produces social stagnation a la the Dark Ages.
Will the current era of automation culminate in the opposite of historical results — mass unemployment, a dramatic increase in the wealth and power gap separating rich and poor?
Or are we at the doorway to a “post-scarcity” era, a product of what Ray Kurzweil calls the Law of Accelerating Returns, in which work as we know it becomes highly optional because the necessities and minor luxuries of life get so cheap that we’re free spend the bulk of our time doing whatever we please instead of scrabbling for food, shelter, clothing, and cable television?
The answer may not be quite so binary. Maybe things will just keep slowly getting better, or maybe they’ll start slowly getting worse.
But my guess is that if we can successfully shed the burden of our most regressive and wealth-draining social institution — political government, aka the state — before it drags us down into global totalitarian slavery or nuclear suicide, the future will look a lot more like the latter than like the former.
In the US, government leeches more than third of GDP directly out of the productive sector and into its political schemes, and kills still more of the productive sector’s potential with regulation.
The democratization of technology (these days you can make things in your garage or on your desktop that could only be made in a large factory 50 years ago) and the rise of economic networks that can at least potentially function beyond the reach of state taxation and regulation represent an opportunity to take back the future. Let’s seize that opportunity.Contemplating a Jobless Society: I For One Welcome Our New Robot Overlords was first posted on June 21, 2017 at 11:00 pm.
Today in the corporate media, Venezuela's economic problems are used to paint the country as a failed state, in need of foreign-backed regime change.
To get the Bolivarian government's side of the crisis, Abby Martin interviews Venezuela's Minister of Economic Planning, Ricardo Menéndez. They discuss shortages, oil dependency, the role of the US-backed opposition movement and more.
The Empire Files joined him in Cojedes, Venezuela, where he was speaking to mass community meetings, organizing the population to fight against what he calls an economic war.
Those who expected Trump to keep his promise to bring drug prices "way down" are in for a shock. His planned executive order on drug pricing reads like a Big Pharma wish list of eased regulation and extended monopolies. It even calls for restricting the discounts that pharma companies benefiting from the lucrative Medicaid market currently offer providers that serve low-income patients.
(Photo: TBIT; Edited: LW / TO)
Sadly, skepticism about the true impact of Trump's populist posturing on drug pricing has proven to be well justified. As a worried nation focuses on the looming danger of the Senate vote to repeal the Affordable Care Act, the pharmaceutical industry has joined hands with the president who once said its corporate members are "getting away with murder."
This week, the New York Times obtained a draft of a planned President Trump executive order on drug pricing. As Patients for Affordable Drugs founder and cancer patient David Mitchell told the Times, the text indicates that "Pharma has captured the process."
The order, which appears likely to be rolled out after the dust settles on the Affordable Care Act repeal effort, was reportedly written largely by Trump budget staffer Joe Grogan, who was hired by the administration fresh from his role as a drug industry lobbyist. But Grogan is certainly not the only one carrying Big Pharma's interests into the Trump administration. Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price has been a heavy investor in the pharma industry, and FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb spent years collecting hundreds of thousands of dollars in consulting fees from pharma companies. Predictably, Trump's team has written an executive order that reads like a Big Pharma wish list of eased regulation and extended monopolies.
Conspicuously absent from the proposed Trump order are the most logical and popular reform proposals, including allowing the Medicare program to use its massive purchasing power to negotiate lower drug prices. Trump has explicitly endorsed Medicare negotiation in the recent past, and the shackles on Medicare are a key contributor to patients in the US paying the highest medicines prices in the world. But there is no mention of Medicare drug price negotiation in the draft order.
Also missing is any embrace of the movement to allow US patients to import their medicines from Canada or other nations with far cheaper prices. Nor are there provisions to take advantage of the government's extensive legal rights to allow generic drug production and break the monopolies of over-priced patented drugs, especially the many critical drugs that were developed thanks to taxpayer funding. A majority of states are considering legislation to require increased drug price transparency and justification for large price increases, and some have passed such legislation -- but the Trump administration's draft order does not enhance transparency.
Instead, in an audacious example of blaming the victim, the draft order takes aim not at the industry whose profits rival those of banks and oil companies, but at low-income patients, both in the US and in developing countries. The proposal calls for restrictions on the 340B Drug Pricing Program, in which pharma corporations that benefit from the lucrative Medicaid market for their drugs are required in return to give some discounts to hospitals and clinics that serve low-income patients. And the order pushes for ramped-up trade pressure on developing countries that try to reduce the duration of drug monopolies that make medicines unaffordable for their citizens.
Not only are such measures mean-spirited, they would also be completely ineffective at reducing medicine prices for US patients. Rolling back limited drug price discounts for the poor would only increase revenue for pharmaceutical corporations that have a proven track record of directing their dollars into marketing, lobbying and breathtakingly high CEO pay, not lowered prices.
The argument that lower drug prices outside the US are hurting medicine research has been thoroughly debunked: High US prices have been proven to be fueling corporate profits, not industry research. Even if the Trump administration harbors legitimate concern that other countries are getting a free ride on US research investments, extended monopolies are not the answer. Knowledge Ecology International's Jamie Love and others have proposed several ways the Trump administration could make increased medicine research contributions part of its ongoing trade negotiations with other nationsg -- a far more effective way to spur increased research than hiking drug prices overseas.
As Public Citizen's Peter Maybarduk says of the executive order, "The way to reduce medicine prices in the United States is to reduce them in the United States. Making medications more costly for the world's poor won't make them more affordable in the US, and won't help Americans who are forced to choose between paying for their health care and paying the rent."
But making medications even more expensive than they already are is precisely what Big Pharma wants. And President Trump appears determined to give it to them, all promises to the contrary be damned.
More than 10,000 people have died amid the ongoing U.S.-backed, Saudi-led war in Yemen, which has also destroyed the country's health, water and sanitation systems, sparking a deadly cholera outbreak. The cholera death toll has risen to 1,054. The United Nations warns some 19 million of Yemen's 28 million people need some form of aid, with many of them at risk of famine. We speak to Kristine Beckerle of Human Rights Watch.
AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about what is happening right now in Yemen, how devastating the situation is.
KRISTINE BECKERLE: It's hard to describe in words how devastating it is, to be totally frank. So what you've got is what the U.N. describes as the world's largest humanitarian crisis. And that means thousands upon thousands of cases of cholera, famine for millions across the country, and, on top of that, you've got parties at war who have been fighting for now more than two-and-a-half years, who seem to have no regard for the ways in which that war is affecting the civilian population. Human Rights Watch has documented over 80 apparently unlawful coalition attacks in Yemen that have hit schools, markets, homes, hospitals. Last Sunday, we heard new reports about them hitting a market, killing around 20 people. And this is -- what we've seen is these attacks continuing and there being very little response in terms of the international community pushing for either the attacks to stop or accountability for the attacks that have already occurred.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to the U.N. emergency relief coordinator, Stephen O'Brien, addressing the U.N. Security Council late last month.
STEPHEN O'BRIEN: Yemen now has the ignominy of being the world's largest food security crisis, with more than 17 million people who are food-insecure, 6.8 million of whom are one step away from famine. Crisis is not coming. It is not even looming. It is here today, on our watch, and ordinary people are paying the price. ... It is important to bear in mind that malnutrition and cholera are interconnected. Weakened and hungry people are more likely to contract cholera and less able to survive it. According to estimates, 150,000 cases are projected for the next six months, in addition to the broadly 60,000 current suspected cases since last April with 500 associated deaths. The scale of this latest outbreak is, as well as being depressingly predictable, a direct consequence of the conflict. And had the parties to the conflict cared, the outbreak was avoidable.
AMY GOODMAN: This is U.N. Emergency Relief Coordinator Stephen O'Brien addressing the U.N. Security Council. I want to ask you, Kristine Beckerle, about Human Rights Watch's call for an arms embargo on Yemen.
KRISTINE BECKERLE: So, we've been calling for an arms embargo on Saudi Arabia, in particular, given the sort of strength of the evidence that has mounted against Saudi Arabia, in particular, as the leader of the coalition, in terms of carrying out war crimes and violations of the laws of war in Yemen. Others have echoed that call -- Amnesty, many other NGOs. And what's amazing is, last -- just recently, 47 senators in the U.S. tried to block an arms sale to Saudi Arabia. So you're seeing governments across the globe, basically -- because, in the U.K., arms sales also are subject to judicial review. The Netherlands has imposed a presumption of denial on arms sales to Saudi Arabia. So you're seeing countries really take steps.
But it's not enough, because, in the end, the U.S. arms sale is going forward. In the end, Donald Trump went to Riyadh and said, "Here's $110 billion in arms." In the end, the U.S. is still providing significant support to the coalition, that is carrying out these attacks in Yemen, and, as we just heard in terms of the humanitarian crisis, also blocking, impeding and delaying the flow of aid into a country that, again, is facing famine and cholera.
AMY GOODMAN: And the major winners here -- since Trump talks about winners and losers -- the weapons manufacturers here in the United States?
KRISTINE BECKERLE: Basically, right? So, it's one of those things where you're seeing, in a very gross way, the prioritization of profit over civilian lives. And it's sort of -- at what point do you sort of take the step and say it's not worth it to sell another weapons deal, when it not only means that, first, the message you're sending to Yemeni civilians is that you don't care, and, second, that what you're saying to U.S. officials who are involved in these deals, that "Don't worry. Just take the risk of potential legal liability and move forward, and things will be fine"? And I think that that's quite problematic, again, because this isn't a new war. These allegations aren't hidden or secret. Nothing is unknown. So the U.S. and other arms manufacturers and arms sellers can't say they don't know. So the question is: OK, now you know; when are you actually going to take the action you need to take?
Noam Chomsky. (Photo: Jeanbaptisteparis)
Income inequality is not caused by globalization itself but rather by economic policies that, since the 1980s, have increasingly been set by transnational corporations, Ha-Joon Chang and Noam Chomsky point out. But globalization during the era of industrial capitalism has always enhanced dependence, inequality and exploitation, often to horrendous extremes.
Noam Chomsky. (Photo: Jeanbaptisteparis)
Since the late 1970s, the world's economy and dominant nations have been marching to the tune of (neoliberal) globalization, whose impact and effects on average people's livelihood and communities everywhere are generating great popular discontent, accompanied by a rising wave of nationalist and anti-elitist sentiments. But what exactly is driving globalization? And who really benefits from globalization? Are globalization and capitalism interwoven? How do we deal with the growing levels of inequality and massive economic insecurity? Should progressives and radicals rally behind the call for the introduction of a universal basic income? In the unique and exclusive interview below, two leading minds of our time, linguist and public intellectual Noam Chomsky and Cambridge University economist Ha-Joon Chang, share their views on these essential questions.
C. J. Polychroniou: Globalization is usually referred to as a process of interaction and integration among the economies and people of the world through international trade and foreign investment with the aid of information technology. Is globalization then simply a neutral, inevitable process of economic, social and technological interlinkages, or something of a more political nature in which state action produces global transformations (state-led globalization)?
Ha-Joon Chang: The biggest myth about globalization is that it is a process driven by technological progress. This has allowed the defenders of globalization to brand the critics as "modern Luddites" who are trying to turn back the clock against the relentless progress of science and technology.
However, if technology is what determines the degree of globalization, how can you explain that the world was far more globalized in the late 19th and the early 20th century than in the mid-20th century? During the first Liberal era, roughly between 1870 and 1914, we relied upon steamships and wired telegraphy, but the world economy was on almost all accounts more globalized than during the far less liberal period in the mid-20th century (roughly between 1945 and 1973), when we had all the technologies of transportation and communications that we have today, except for the internet and cellular phones, albeit in less efficient forms.
The reason why the world was much less globalized in the latter period is that, during the period, most countries imposed rather significant restrictions on the movements of goods, services, capital and people, and liberalized them only gradually. What is notable is that, despite [its] lower degree of globalization … this period is when capitalism has done the best: the fastest growth, the lowest degree of inequality, the highest degree of financial stability, and -- in the case of the advanced capitalist economies -- the lowest level of unemployment in the 250-year history of capitalism. This is why the period is often called "the Golden Age of Capitalism."
Technology only sets the outer boundary of globalization -- it was impossible for the world to reach a high degree of globalization with only sail ships. It is economic policy (or politics, if you like) that determines exactly how much globalization is achieved in what areas.
The current form of market-oriented and corporate-driven globalization is not the only -- not to speak of being the best -- possible form of globalization. A more equitable, more dynamic and more sustainable form of globalization is possible.
We know that globalization properly began in the 15th century, and that there have been different stages of globalization since, with each stage reflecting the underlying impact of imperial state power and of the transformations that were taking place in institutional forms, such as firms and the emergence of new technologies and communications. What distinguishes the current stage of globalization (1973-present) from previous ones?
Chang: The current stage of globalization is different from the previous ones in two important ways.
The first difference is that there is less open imperialism.
Before 1945, the advanced capitalist countries practised [overt] imperialism. They colonized weaker countries or imposed "unequal treaties" on them, which made them virtual colonies -- for example, they occupied parts of territories through "leasing," deprived them of the right to set tariffs, etc.
Since 1945, we have seen the emergence of a global system that rejects such naked imperialism. There has been a continuous process of de-colonialization and, once you get sovereignty, you became a member of the United Nations, which is based upon the principle of one-country-one-vote.
Of course, the practice has been different -- the permanent members of the Security Council of the UN have a veto and many international economic organizations (the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank) are run on the principle of one-dollar-one-vote (voting rights are linked to paid-in capital). However, even so, the post-1945 world order was immeasurably better than the one that came before it.
Unfortunately, starting in the 1980s but accelerating from the mid-1990s, there has been a rollback of the sovereignty that the post-colonial countries had been enjoying. The birth of the WTO (World Trade Organization) in 1995 has shrunk the "policy space" for developing countries. The shrinkage was intensified by subsequent series of bilateral and regional trade and investment agreements between rich countries and developing ones, like Free Trade Agreements with the US and Economic Partnership agreements with the European Union.
The second thing that distinguishes the post-1973 globalization is that it has been driven by transnational corporations far more than before. Transnational corporations existed even from the late 19th century, but their economic importance has vastly increased since the 1980s.
They have also influenced the shaping of the global rules in a way that enhances their power. Most importantly, they have inserted the investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) mechanism into many international agreements. Through this mechanism, transnational corporations can take governments to a tribunal of three adjudicators, drawn from a pool of largely pro-corporate international commercial lawyers, for having reduced their profits through regulations. This is an unprecedented extension of corporate power.
Noam, are globalization and capitalism different?
Noam Chomsky: If by "globalization" we mean international integration, then it long pre-dates capitalism. The silk roads dating back to the pre-Christian era were an extensive form of globalization. The rise of industrial state capitalism has changed the scale and character of globalization, and there have been further changes along the way as the global economy has been reshaped by those whom Adam Smith called "the masters of mankind," pursuing their "vile maxim": "All for ourselves, and nothing for other people."
There have been quite substantial changes during the recent period of neoliberal globalization, since the late 1970s, with Reagan and Thatcher the iconic figures -- though the policies vary only slightly as administrations change. Transnational corporations are the driving force, and their political power largely shapes state policy in their interests.
During these years, supported by the policies of the states they largely dominate, transnational corporations have increasingly constructed global value chains (GVCs) in which the "lead firm" outsources production through intricate global networks that it establishes and controls. A standard illustration is Apple, the world's biggest company. Its iPhone is designed in the US. Parts from many suppliers in the US and East Asia are assembled mostly in China in factories owned by the huge Taiwanese firm Foxconn. Apple's profit is estimated to be about 10 times that of Foxconn, while value added and profit in China, where workers toil under miserable conditions, is slight. Apple then sets up an office in Ireland so as to evade US taxes -- and has recently been fined $14 billion by the EU in back taxes.
Reviewing the "GVC world" in the British journal International Affairs, Nicola Phillips writes that production for Apple involves thousands of firms and enterprises that have no formal relationship with Apple, and at the lower tiers may be entirely unaware of the destination of what they are producing. This is a situation that generalizes.
The immense scale of this new globalized system is revealed in the 2013 World Investment Report of the United Nations Commission on Trade and Development. It estimates that some 80 percent of global trade is internal to the global value chains established and run by transnational corporations, accounting for perhaps 20 percent of jobs worldwide.National wealth by conventional measures has declined. But US corporate ownership of the globalized economy has exploded.
Ownership of this globalized economy has been studied by political economist Sean Starrs. He points out that the conventional estimates of national wealth in terms of GDP are misleading in the era of neoliberal globalization. With complex integrated supply chains, subcontracting and other such devices, corporate ownership of the world's wealth is becoming a more realistic measure of global power than national wealth, as the world departs more than before from the model of nationally discrete political economies. Investigating corporate ownership, Starrs finds that in virtually every economic sector – manufacturing, finance, services, retail and others -- US corporations are well in the lead in ownership of the global economy. Overall, their ownership is close to 50 percent of the total. That is roughly the maximum estimate of US national wealth in 1945, at the historical peak of US power. National wealth by conventional measures has declined from 1945 to the present, to maybe 20 percent. But US corporate ownership of the globalized economy has exploded.
The standard line of mainstream politicians is that globalization benefits everyone. Yet, globalization produces winners and losers, as Branko Milanovic's book Global Inequality has shown, so the question is this: Is success in globalization a matter of skills?
Chang: The assumption that globalization benefits everyone is based on mainstream economic theories that assume that workers can be costlessly re-deployed, if international trade or cross-border investments make certain industries unviable.
In this view, if the US signs NAFTA with Mexico, some auto workers in the US may lose their jobs, but they will not lose out, as they can retrain themselves and get jobs in industries that are expanding, thanks to NAFTA, such as software or investment banking.
You will immediately see the absurdity of the argument -- how many US auto workers do you know who have retrained themselves as software engineers or investment bankers in the last couple of decades? Typically, ex-auto-workers fired from their jobs have ended up working as night-shift janitors in a warehouse or stacking shelves in supermarkets, drawing much lower wages than before.
The point is that, even if the country gains overall from globalization, there will always be losers, especially (although not exclusively) workers who have skills that are not valued anymore. And unless these losers are compensated, you cannot say that the change is a good thing for "everyone".…
Of course, most rich countries have mechanisms through which the winners from the globalization process (or any economic change, really) compensate the losers. The basic mechanism for this is the welfare state, but there are also publicly financed retraining and job-search mechanisms -- the Scandinavians do this particularly well -- as well as sector-specific schemes to compensate the "losers" (e.g., temporary protection for firms to promote restructuring, money for severance payments for the workers). These mechanisms are better in some countries than others, but nowhere are they perfect and, unfortunately, some countries have been running them down. (The recent shrinkage of the welfare state in the UK is a good example.)
In your view, Ha-Joon Chang, is the convergence of globalization and technology likely to produce more or less inequality?
Chang: As I have argued above, technology and globalization are not destiny.
The fact that income inequality actually fell in Switzerland between 1990 and 2000 and the fact that income inequality has hardly increased in Canada and the Netherlands during the neoliberal period show that countries can choose what income inequality they have, even though they are all faced with the same technologies and same trends in the global economy.
There is actually a lot that countries can do to influence income inequality. Many European countries, including Germany, France, Sweden and Belgium are as unequal as (or occasionally even more so than) the US, before they redistribute income through progressive tax and the welfare state. Because they redistribute so much, the resulting inequalities in those countries are much lower.
Noam, in what ways does globalization increase capitalism's inherent tendencies toward economic dependence, inequality and exploitation?
Chomsky: Globalization during the era of industrial capitalism has always enhanced dependence, inequality and exploitation, often to horrendous extremes. To take a classic example, the early industrial revolution relied crucially on cotton, produced mainly in the American South in the most vicious system of slavery in human history -- which took new forms after the Civil War with the criminalization of Black life and sharecropping. Today's version of globalization includes not only super-exploitation at the lower tiers of the global value chains system but also virtual genocide, notably in Eastern Congo where millions have been slaughtered in recent years while critical minerals find their way to high-tech devices produced in the global value chains.
But even apart from such hideous elements of globalization ... pursuit of the "vile maxim" quite naturally yields such consequences. The Phillips study I mentioned is a rare example of inquiry into "how inequalities are produced and reproduced in a [global value chains] world [through] asymmetries of market power, asymmetries of social power, and asymmetries of political power." As Phillips shows, "The consolidation and mobilization of these market asymmetries rests on securing a structure of production in which a small number of very large firms at the top, in many cases the branded retailers, occupy oligopolistic positions -- that is, positions of market dominance, and in which the lower tiers of production are characterized by densely populated and intensely competitive markets…. The consequence across the world has been the explosive growth of precarious, insecure and exploitative work in global production, performed by a workforce significantly made up of informal, migrant, contract and female workers, and extending at the end of the spectrum to the purposeful use of forced labour."
These consequences are enhanced by deliberate trade and fiscal policies, a matter discussed particularly by Dean Baker. As he points out, in the US, "from December 1970 to December of 2000, manufacturing employment was virtually unchanged, apart from cyclical ups and downs. In the next seven years, from December of 2000 to December of 2007, manufacturing employment fell by more than 3.4 million, a drop of almost 20 percent. This plunge in employment was due to the explosion of the trade deficit over this period, not automation. There was plenty of automation (a.k.a. productivity growth) in the three decades from 1970 to 2000, but higher productivity was offset by an increase in demand, leaving total employment little changed. This was no longer true when the trade deficit exploded to almost 6 percent of GDP in 2005 and 2006 (more than $1.1 trillion in today's economy)."
These were substantially consequences of the high-dollar policy and the investor-rights agreements masquerading as "free trade" -- among the political choices in the interests of the masters, not the results of economic laws.
Ha-Joon Chang, progressives aim to develop strategies to counter the adverse effects of globalization, but there is little agreement on the most effective and realistic way to do so. In this context, the responses vary from alternative forms of globalization to localization? What's your take on this matter?
Chang: In short, my preferred option would be a more controlled form of globalization, based on far more restrictions on global flows of capital and more restrictions on the flows of goods and services. Moreover, even with these restrictions, there will inevitably be winners and losers, and you need a stronger (not weaker) welfare state and other mechanisms through which the losers from the process get compensated. Politically, such a policy combination will require stronger voices for workers and citizens.
I don't think localization is a solution, although the feasibility of localization will depend on what the locality is and what issues we are talking about. If the locality in question is one village or a neighborhood in an urban area, you will immediately see that there are very few things that can be "localised." If you are talking about a German land (state) or US state, I can see how it can try to grow more of its own food or produce some currently imported manufactured products for itself. However, for most things, it is simply not viable to have the majority of things supplied locally. It would be unwise to have every country, not to speak of every American state, manufacture its own airplanes, mobile phones, or even all of its food.
Having said that, I am not against all forms of localization. There are certainly things that can be more locally provided, like certain food items or health care.
One final question: The idea of a universal basic income is slowly but gradually gaining ground as a policy tool in order to address the problem of poverty and concerns over automation. In fact, companies like Google and Facebook are strong advocates of a universal basic income, although it will be societies bearing the cost of this policy while most multinational firms move increasingly to using robots and other computer-assisted techniques for performing tasks traditionally done by labor. Should progressives and opponents of capitalist globalization in general support the idea of a universal basic income?
Chang: Universal basic income (UBI) has many different versions, but it is a libertarian idea in the sense that it puts emphasis on maximizing individual freedom rather than on collective identity and solidarity.
All citizens in countries at more than middle-income level have some entitlements to a basic amount of resources. (In the poorer countries, there are virtually none.) They have access to some health care, education, pension, water and other "basic" things in life. The idea behind UBI is that the resource entitlements should be provided to individuals in cash (rather than in kind) as much as possible, so that they can exercise maximum choice.
The right-wing version of UBI, supported by Friedrich von Hayek and Milton Friedman, the gurus of neoliberalism, is that the government should provide its citizens with a basic income at the subsistence level, while providing no (or little) further goods and services. As far as I can see, this is the version of UBI supported by the Silicon Valley companies. I am totally against this.
There are left-wing libertarians who support UBI, who would set its level quite high, which would require quite a high degree of income redistribution. But they too believe that collective provision of "basic" goods and services through the welfare state should be minimized (although their "minimum" would be considerably larger than the neo-liberal one). This version is more acceptable to me, but I am not convinced by it.
First, if the members of a society are collectively provisioning some goods and services, they have the collective right to influence how people use their basic entitlements.
Second, provision through a citizenship-based universal welfare state makes social services like health, education, child care, unemployment insurance and pensions much cheaper through bulk purchases and pooling of risk. The fact that the US spends at least 50 percent more on health care than other rich countries do (17 percent of GDP in the US compared to at most 11.5 percent of GDP in Switzerland) but has the worst health indicators is very suggestive of the potential problems that we could have in a system of UBI combined with private provision of basic social services, even if the level of UBI is high.
Chomsky: The answer, I think, is: "it all depends" -- namely, on the socioeconomic and political context in which the idea is advanced. The society to which we should aspire, I think, would respect the concept "jedem nach seinen Bedürfnissen": to each according to their needs. Among the primary needs for most people is a life of dignity and fulfillment. That translates in particular as work undertaken under their own control, typically in solidarity and interaction with others, creative and of value to the society at large. Such work can take many forms: building a beautiful and needed bridge, the challenging task of teaching-and-learning with young children, solving an outstanding problem in number theory, or myriad other options. Providing for such needs is surely within the realm of possibility.
In the current world, firms increasingly turn to automation, as they have been doing as far back as we look; the cotton gin, for example. Currently, there is little evidence that the effects are beyond the norm. Major impacts would show up in productivity, which is in fact low by the standards of the early post-World War II era. Meanwhile there is a great deal of work to be done -- from reconstructing collapsing infrastructure, to establishing decent schools, to advancing knowledge and understanding, and far more. There are many willing hands. There are ample resources. But the socioeconomic system is so dysfunctional that it is not capable of bringing these factors together in a satisfactory way -- and under the current Trump-Republican campaign to create a tiny America trembling within walls, the situation can only become worse. Insofar as robots and other forms of automation can free people from routine and dangerous work and liberate them for more creative endeavors (and, particularly in the leisure-deprived US, with time for themselves), that's all to the good. UBI could have a place, though it is too crude an instrument to achieve the preferable Marxist version.
Just hours after a 24-story London apartment building went up in flames on June 14, Faiza Shaheen appeared on Britain's Sky TV to connect the dots between this horrific tragedy and the city's rank as one of the world's most unequal.
Inequality.org co-editor Chuck Collins and I sat down with Shaheen the following day, as the death toll, now estimated at 79, continued to rise. We talked about the public anger over the fire and what she sees as the related outcry for economic and racial equity that resulted in an unexpectedly strong showing for the UK Labour Party in the country's June 8 election. Shaheen directs the Centre for Labour and Social Studies (Class), a London-based think tank.
Inequality.org: What's the connection between the Grenfell Tower fire and London's extremely high levels of inequality?
Faiza Shaheen: The neighborhood surrounding the tower has the biggest gap between rich and poor of any in the country. It's a very wealthy area, but the people living in this particular tower were mostly working class ethnic minorities. Also, in terms of voice, you see the disparities. People living in this building had clearly spoken out about the problems with safety -- you can find their blogs online. But they also said they knew nothing would be done until there's a catastrophe. Well, now that's happened and we need to make sure the authorities can't just brush this away anymore.
How much was the recent election about inequality?
I would say inequality was fundamental to understanding the narrative of this election. When it was first announced, people thought it would be about Brexit again. But the Labour Party very effectively pivoted away from that. Their language was about the elites and about the rest of us not getting salary increases and facing cuts to public services.
We've had these cuts for the past seven years, but people were far more aware of them in this election than in the last one. We heard about parents getting letters from their children's teachers saying they didn't have money because of the budget cuts and asking for donations. With the terror attacks in London and Manchester, there was a lot of talk about the culling of police officers and how that had affected community policing.
The conservatives thought we could have a conversation about being strong and stable. But as a country it's very obvious that we're not strong and stable right now.
Didn't Prime Minister Theresa May initially make some proposals to reduce inequality?
When she first became prime minister less than a year ago, she spoke in quite strong terms about inequality. But in this election she didn't appeal to that language very much. And on some things, she reversed her position. For example, at one point she called for requiring large corporations to have worker representatives on their boards. Then later she said this could be voluntary and the "workers" could be managers. So it's completely meaningless. Conservatives showed themselves to be very out of touch by sticking with the status quo.
In the end, the Labour Party did gain 30 seats and the Conservative Party lost their majority, but Prime Minister May is still hanging on to power by pursuing a coalition with a small Northern Ireland party. Where do you see things going in the next year?
Most people think they'll be going into election before the end of the five-year term because the Conservatives are really weakened. To build support, they'll need to put more money into education and the National Health Service. They came across as quite mean in the campaign. When nurses asked ministers why they haven't had a pay raise, they were told very dismissively that there isn't a "magic money tree." We've got nurses going to food banks. That really connects with people emotionally.
Brexit negotiations began on June 19. How might this affect inequality?
The decision to withdraw from the European Union has already weakened the pound, making inflation worse. Because they don't know what will happen, businesses are holding back on investments that could boost productivity. And while wages don't always rise with productivity, this means we're likely to continue to have stagnation in most sectors. Combined with automation and the lack of strong trade union rights, this could mean even worse inequality under Brexit.
Where's the movement energy now for tackling inequality?
With Labour doing so well, we feel there's a mandate now to lift the pay cap on public service workers. We also feel May will have to abandon her plans to expand grammar schools, which are free schools that are academically selective. The evidence shows they don't help with social mobility and they tear the school system apart. That can't happen now.
We also think we can take advantage of the Conservative Party's statements about addressing excessive pay at the top. They pledged to require corporations that receive public contracts to report their CEO-worker pay ratio. And even May's weak current position on worker representation on boards gives something to push for that could affect executive pay. From the experiences in Germany and elsewhere we've seen that executives don't want to talk about giving themselves bonuses with workers at the table.
Labour proposed to tax the top 5 percent much more and leave bottom 95 percent as is. That drew a lot of support but the Conservatives are very unlikely to support that.
Like Bernie Sanders, Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn did very well among young voters. Do you think this block will continue to be mobilized?
It was amazing to see tons of people coming out to volunteer for the campaign for the first time and really passionate about what Labour was calling for, especially young people. There was an app so that you could find your nearest marginal neighborhood, where it could go one way or another, and you could just turn up and help knock on doors. But they had so many volunteers they had to turn many away.
Labour had much less money than the Conservatives, but they really won the branding war. Corbyn definitely came out as cooler. There was even #Grime4Corbyn. People made videos with grime music mixed with Corbyn speeches, which worked well to encourage turnout by young people and ethnic minorities.
We're in a political quagmire now in terms of the makeup of parliament. In terms of the movement, people are really enthused and passionate. Horrible things keep happening but they are a reminder that we need to keep fighting. It will be really important to keep the pressure up and find ways to campaign -- it might be single issues, it might be Grenfell Tower and how we get justice there. Some of it will happen naturally because people have made friends through their political work.
We're in permanent campaign mode now.
Disposable Americans shows the impact of extreme capitalism on children; on the poor and the sick and the elderly; on people of color; on women; on workers, especially young Americans; and on all average Americans, including the middle-class and those just above and below, who make up approximately 90 percent of us, and who have become increasingly disposable to the fortunate minority at the top of the wealth distribution.
A Ford Fusion modified by Uber for autonomous use on the streets of Pittsburgh ahead of the launch of its driverless system, September 8, 2016. (Photo: Jeff Swensen / The New York Times)
To be a "winner" in capitalism requires an endless supply of disposable people. As inequality in the United States has widened, more and more Americans are dismissed as disposable "losers." But there are policies that can reverse this pernicious trend, as Paul Buchheit shows in his new book, Disposable Americans: Extreme Capitalism and the Case for a Guaranteed Income. Order your copy today by making a donation to Truthout!
In the following lightly edited excerpt from Disposable Americans, Paul Buchheit examines the factors that have led to lower wages and less job security for most workers in the US, and the terrible material consequences that have resulted.
Our jobs are disappearing. In the not-too-distant future we might wait around for a package delivery, hurry off to class, grab a taxi downtown, consult with a financial advisor, meet the family for dinner, and then take the train home. All without being served by a single human being. No delivery person, no teacher, no cab driver, no financial advisor, no food server, no train conductor.
That may be disputed by free-market defenders, but even today many of our traditional mid-level jobs are being handled by fewer human beings, as our workload is gradually surrendered to our own innovative technologies. The World Economic Forum says "we are on the cusp of a fourth industrial revolution in which ‘smart systems’ in our homes, factories, farms, and entire cities will help get our work done."
A variety of new jobs -- and the dropping out of discouraged job-seekers -- have padded the recent unemployment figures, but in large part today's work opportunities are lower-wage and less secure forms of employment. The jobs that made the middle class prosperous -- manufacturing, education, construction, social services, customer service, transportation, administrative support -- have dramatically declined since the recession. Globalization is a big part of it. A National Bureau of Economic Research study found that the job loss from foreign import competition is not being replaced by jobs in other industries.
Another major factor is the rapid rise of alternative work arrangements in the "1099 economy" -- contract and 'gig' jobs -- which are impacting, according to a recent Harvard/Princeton study, "previously lagging sectors including transportation and warehousing, information and communications, education and health care, and public administration."
For all the above reasons, traditional employer/employee relationships are fading away. High-level positions in engineering, project management, and finance are still in demand. But nine of the ten fastest growing occupations don't require a college degree.
Yet our nation keeps making money. The 14 richest Americans made enough money from their investments in one year to hire two million pre-school teachers, about four times the number of pre-school teachers who currently have jobs in the United States. Total US wealth increased by a stunning 60 percent between 2009 and 2015, from $54 trillion to $86 trillion, but 3/4 of that massive increase went to the richest 10 percent of Americans.
The health of Americans is tied to our nation's extreme inequality. The lowest-income people live up to 15 years less than those at the high-income end. As a result of their low pay and almost nonexistent savings, almost half of Americans would be unable to afford a $400 emergency room visit without borrowing money or selling personal items. The resulting stress leads to mental and physical illness, and perhaps worse. The Centers of Disease Control reported a 24 percent increase in suicides in the first 15 years of this century.
The correlations may not be entirely certain, but the evidence is accumulating. Our system of poorly regulated capitalism is causing destruction in American lives. As Thomas Piketty made clear in his book Capital in the 21st Century, the growth of capital has outpaced that of productive labor, to the point that our economy is driven more and more by the creation of financial instruments rather than real goods. Hence the redistribution of national wealth from preschoolers to billionaires.
Disposable Americans shows the impact of extreme capitalism on children; on the poor and the sick and the elderly; on minorities; on women; on workers, especially young Americans; on soldiers; and on all average Americans, including the middle-class and those just above and below, who make up approximately 90 percent of us, and who have become, as aptly expressed by Henry Giroux, increasingly disposable to the fortunate minority at the top of the wealth distribution.
The book describes a process of "Americide," the gradual killing off of the once-vibrant middle class of our society. The violence begins with economic oppression. But the resulting disparities in wealth and income have increasingly caused physical damage, both in the health of the American people and in the surge in violence in our poverty-stricken urban communities.Truthout Progressive Pick
"As eloquent as it is convincing. Buy this book and give copies to everyone you know." -- Henry A. GirouxClick here now to get the book!
I begin discussions of disposable Americans by telling stories from the past, at a time when prospects may have seemed dim for a vulnerable class of people, yet were in reality teeming with hopefulness, as new technologies were beginning to create living-wage jobs, and as social dependencies were being strengthened in the waging or aftermath of war. Those moments from the past are in stark contrast to the present day, in which technology generates low-income jobs, while globalization allows multinational companies to seek the cheapest labor in all corners of the world. These rapidly occurring changes have been exacerbated by the rise of an economic system -- starting in the era of Ayn Rand and Milton Friedman and Reaganomics -- based on individual gain rather than on social interdependencies. And by the rise of a financial industry that has transformed the widespread fruits of productive labor into fees and interest and investment returns. The result has been extreme and ever-worsening inequality.
In an important sense, little has changed from past to present. Minorities and children and soldiers and workers and seniors are on one end. On the other is unimaginable wealth, for a relatively few people. Our nation started with dreams of equal opportunity. Then came deregulated capitalism. That brought opportunities for individuals who knew how to manipulate the markets, who had friends in high places, and who frequented the revolving door between business and politics. The wealth of John D. Rockefeller, and Andrew Carnegie, and then Vanderbilt and Astor, was comparable to the modern fortunes of Bill Gates and Warren Buffett and the Waltons and the Kochs. The inequality we see today has a long history.
Yet there is hope. ... But that hopefulness, if it is to bear fruit, will require society to begin catching up to technology, to recognize the changing paradigm of human involvement in the nation's (and the world's) progress, and to reevaluate the meaning of "progress." All Americans, through their own efforts and that of their ancestors, have contributed to the dramatically productive society that has compensated fewer and fewer people over time. Everyone deserves a guaranteed living income. How that is to be accomplished -- in a way that appeals to Republicans and Democrats, liberals and neoliberals, conservatives and progressives -- is one of the objectives of the chapters in this book.
Copyright (2017) by Taylor & Francis. Not to be reprinted without permission of the publisher, Routledge.
The seven climate activists convicted in district courts this month were not allowed to present a "climate necessity" defense for their acts of civil disobedience. But the growing movement of climate activism against the fossil fuel industry and its political enablers is determined to keep the fight going in the courts until "climate necessity" becomes an acceptable defense.
(Photo: Gil Megidish; Edited: LW / TO)
This month a group of climate activists were convicted in district courts in Mount Vernon, Washington, and Wawayanda, New York, for committing acts of civil disobedience against fossil fuel infrastructure. Each defendant (one in Washington and six in New York) had attempted to present a "climate necessity defense," arguing that their nominally illegal actions were justified by the threat of climate catastrophe -- in other words, that the real crime is continuing to pollute the atmosphere, not interfering with corporate property. The courts weren't having it: The activists were convicted on June 7 on charges of varying seriousness, although they anticipate appealing their rulings.
The activists aren't hanging their heads, though. Instead, they're doubling down on their civil resistance mode of political activism. In doing so, they're joining a growing movement of direct action climate dissidents across the country who have taken to the streets, the pipelines and the coal trains to do what the government won't: confront an industry that poses an existential threat to human civilization.
The Washington trial began with an October 2016 protest in which Ken Ward -- a long-time environmental leader who pursued conventional climate policy avenues for decades before turning to civil disobedience in recent years -- entered a Kinder Morgan pipeline facility in Anacortes, Washington, and turned a valve to cut off the flow of tar sands oil entering from Canada. His action was coordinated with other "Shut It Down" activists in Montana, North Dakota and Minnesota, who were responding to a call for action from the Standing Rock encampment, and together succeeded in temporarily halting the flow of all tar sands oil into the United States. At the time of his protest (which was preceded by a warning call to pipeline operators), Ward called upon President Obama to make this interruption of tar sands oil permanent, citing the fuel's particularly carbon-intensive nature and the need for much more aggressive federal action to curb emissions.
In the New York case, the six activists blocked a construction site for a Competitive Power Ventures natural gas-powered electricity plant. Plans for the plant have gone ahead despite ample evidence of inadequate environmental reviews and the plant's obvious detriment to the climate. In his decision finding the activists guilty, the judge acknowledged that "the pollution expected to be caused by this power plant once it is operational would be significant and contrary to New York State's policies on global warming."
Courtrooms Now Battlegrounds in Struggle Against Fossil Fuel Status Quo
These trials are part of a growing wave of climate protest cases in which activists have taken their on-the-ground resistance into the courtroom. Climate necessity defendants have made the justification argument in Utah, Massachusetts, Michigan, Washington, New York and Oklahoma, taking as target both the physical infrastructure of the fossil fuel system -- pipelines and coal trains -- and its legal infrastructure -- industry-friendly environmental agencies and criminal laws that protect polluters. In nearly all cases, judges have decided prior to trial that the defendants have no right to present their necessity evidence to the jury, perhaps fearing that, as often happens, juries will accept political necessity arguments. Being blocked from presenting the necessity evidence then results in nearly unavoidable guilty verdicts for activists who have admitted to the charged conduct.
There are two important contexts to consider when assessing the importance of these verdicts.
First, the criminal prosecution of nonviolent climate activists -- which, in the case of the Ward trial, featured felony charges that are rarely, if ever, used against protesters -- is part of a broader criminalization of dissent that has accelerated since the election of President Trump. Many states have recently passed reactionary laws restricting the right to protest, including some that specifically target opponents of the fossil fuel industry, and prosecutors in Washington, DC, are seeking unprecedented sentences against participants in the peaceful protests on Inauguration Day. This shared exposure to government repression will likely strengthen the bonds of solidarity between climate activists and other social movements, and will underscore the point that climate change is as much a political issue as it is a scientific one.
Second, although the Shut It Down and Wawayanda protests took place when Obama was president and the prosecutions were commenced months ago, it's significant that their outcomes were decided just days after President Trump's decision to pull the United States out of the Paris accords. As bad as the withdrawal was as a symbolic rebuke to the idea of coordinated international action to cap emissions, it was also a clarifying moment, a clear signal to anyone still in doubt that the federal government generally works at the behest of the fossil fuel industry and that climate action must be undertaken against, rather than within, the system. (Ward penned a recent analysis making this point.)
So just what is that "system," at least insofar as it involves climate change? Climate necessity activism -- the combination of direct action against fossil fuel infrastructure with a legal argument that such action is not only justified but necessary -- helps to answer that question.
Activism Offers Radical Critique of Conditions That Created Climate CrisisClimate necessity activists have pushed their cause away from wonky, inside-baseball environmentalism and toward grassroots, social justice insurgency.
For one thing, the "system" is simply the body of government policy that stands in the way of effective climate action and the powerful interests that preserve this policy. The idea that such a system should be challenged is actually relatively new for the climate movement, which for decades eschewed direct action and looked for salvation in mainstream policy solutions. By cribbing from the playbook of past social movements like the Vietnam War resistance and anti-nuclear power campaigns -- which used political necessity trials to educate the public and to ratify the idea that social progress required working outside of established channels -- climate necessity activists have pushed their cause away from wonky, inside-baseball environmentalism and toward grassroots, social justice insurgency.
Bad policy and self-interested policymakers aren't the fundamental problem, though -- it's the conditions that create and coddle them. With that in mind, climate necessity activism challenges the idea that we'll be able to effectively address climate change through technical fixes within our existing political and legal frameworks. One important lesson from the dismal track record of institutional efforts to tackle global warming -- failed carbon tax legislation, inadequate regulations, non-binding treaties -- is that we need a fundamental reworking of the basic structures in which the fossil fuel status quo operates, and that modest policy reform is insufficient. By directly targeting harmful fossil fuel infrastructure and challenging the legal prohibitions against such action, activists like Ward call into question the institution of private property, which allows oil companies to recklessly pollute the atmosphere as a matter of right, as well as our system of political representation, which encourages politicians to serve moneyed interests and short-term goals over the long-term interests of the public.
Climate necessity activism also forces a reevaluation of what's "legal" in the age of climate change. As it stands now, it's generally illegal to interfere with industry practices known to cause massive harm to the planet and its people, and judges read the Constitution as protecting the rights of corporations over individuals and natural entities. In his speech withdrawing the United States from the Paris Agreement, President Trump summed up the status quo by framing government commitments to reduce emissions as a "massive legal liability" rather than as a desirable legal obligation on par with the commitment to due process or the guarantee of free speech. By flipping the script of who's acting illegally and seeking to reverse the targets of the law's protections and prohibitions, climate necessity activists are slowly steering the ship of the legal system away from the icebergs ahead and back toward calmer waters. (In this way, the climate necessity movement is linked to efforts to recognize an affirmative government duty to protect the climate and the push to ratify the rights of nature).
Finally, climate necessity activism forces an official reckoning with climate science, which is sadly still necessary at this advanced stage of the climate crisis. Even as the head of the Environmental Protection Agency denies that CO2 significantly contributes to global warming, protester defendants can use rules of criminal discovery and evidence to force courts to recognize that the burning of fossil fuels does in fact cause climate change and its resulting harms, moving climate science from the contested realm of political contention to the domain of legal objectivity. Immediately following his guilty verdict, Ward noted that "beyond advancing necessity defenses and other specific precedents that we're trying to achieve, it's very useful for us at this point to try to take climate change into the courts, because for all the downsides it's a fact-based venue. And that's a very valuable thing when facts are in jeopardy in the broader political sphere ... Americans understand that serious matters get dealt with in courtrooms, and so it's very important for us to be in here and testing these things in a variety of ways."Overturning legal precedent and settled institutional arrangements takes time and tenacity -- but when the levee breaks, it's usually all of a sudden.
It's important to focus on that experimental, "testing" nature of climate necessity activism. Overturning legal precedent and settled institutional arrangements takes time and tenacity -- but when the levee breaks, it's usually all of a sudden. The struggles for racial equality before the law and for gay people's access to marriage faced enormous public opposition until in rather rapid fashion mass public consciousness changed. Those changes were often significantly nudged along by courtroom experiments.When we are swiftly shuttling ourselves down the path of irreversible climate cataclysm, the only unreasonable option is to double down on the status quo.
In a time when our political orthodoxies are being scrambled and rearranged, when what seemed preposterous just months ago becomes terrifyingly real, and when we are swiftly shuttling ourselves down the path of irreversible climate cataclysm, the only unreasonable option is to stick with what we know, to double down on the status quo. Climate necessity activism is a rejection of such complacency. It's a wedge in the armor of the fossil fuel state, as well as the state of institutional and ideological affairs that insulates climate criminals from accountability.
In his speech announcing that the federal government had stuck its head in the climate sand, President Trump declared that he represented the people of Pittsburgh, not Paris. One need only glance at the composition of the president's cabinet to understand that this is malarkey. Lucky for us, then, that there are individuals out there willing to do the actual work of representing the public interest, of ignoring the strictures of short-term gain and encrusted doctrine to do what needs to be done.
It's an experiment. It's a test. But it's one that, in our current climate, can only result in something better than what we've got.
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