The Greanville Post • Vol. VIII All captions, well-deserved insults, and pull quotes provided by the editors, not the authors. Fri, 31 Oct 2014 13:35:45 +0000 en-US hourly 1 The Illusion of Democracy Many people realize that systemic change is imperative, but few are willing to admit that only global revolution can challenge entrenched plutocratic power. Thu, 30 Oct 2014 19:03:44 +0000

From people’s rule to a broken social contract

democracy-Not-corporatocracyIt is ironic, considering democracy’s pitiful state worldwide that, in accordance to its etymology, it literally means “common people’s rule” or, more simply, “people’s power.” The English term democracy and the 14th-century French word democratie come from the Greek demokratia via the Latin democratia. The Greek radical demos means “common people,” and kratos means “rule, or power.” How did we manage to pervert such a laudable notion of power to the people and diametrically turn it into a global system of rule at large under the principles of oligarchy and plutocracy? Everywhere we look, from east to west and north to south, plutocrats and oligarchs are firmly in charge: puppet masters of the political class. They have transformed democracy into a parody of itself and a toxic form of government. The social contract implied in a democratic form of governance is broken.

At the start of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s The Social Contract, written in 1762 and one of the inspirations for the French revolution 27 years later, the Enlightenment philosopher wrote: “Men are born free, yet everywhere are in chains.” The key argument of The Social Contract is that only those governments that function with the express “consent of the governed” have a legitimate right to exist. Further, Rousseau introduced the fundamental and revolutionary notion of sovereignty of the people, as opposed to sovereignty of the state or the rulers. For Rousseau, the only legitimate form of political authority is the one agreed upon by all the people in a social contract with full respect of everyone’s natural birthrights to equality, freedom and individual liberty.

capitalismNotDemocracyThe electoral process is an essential part of “the consent of the governed” defined by Rousseau. In almost all of the so-called democratic countries, however, the important act of voting to elect the people’s representatives has become an exercise in futility. Today politicians, who still have the audacity to call themselves public servants, are the obedient executors of the trans-national global corporate elite. These politicians are actors who are cast to perform in opaque screenplays written by top corporate power brokers and marketed to the public like products. In this sad state of affairs that passes for democracy, citizens have become blind consumers of  products, which are political figureheads working  for global corporate interests. For any organism to remain healthy, it must be able to excrete. The same applies to our collective social body, but instead of regularly eliminating our political residue and flushing it away, we recycle it.

Neoliberal corporate imperialism: a global one-party system

Mark Twain wrote: “If voting made any difference, they wouldn’t let us do it.” This quote from the gilded age has never been more accurate than it is today. A vote implies real choice, and we have none. From France to Brazil, the United Kingdom, Germany, India and of course the United States — all of which pass for great democracies — political choices have become largely reduced to two electable political parties with different names to accommodate the local cultural flavors. This comforting idea of an option between left and right that spices up democracies’ voting menus is a farce. For example, in France, the so-called socialist Francois Hollande and his right-wing predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy are both docile servants of neoliberal and imperial policies dictated from elsewhere. Both, Sarkozy and Hollande, are proponents of austerity measures imposed by financial institutions (IMF, World Bank, etc.), and also imperialist actions such as rejoining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and intervening militarily in Libya (Sarkozy) and Mali (Hollande).

The key argument of The Social Contract is that only those governments that function with the express “consent of the governed” have a legitimate right to exist.


The United Kingdom offers the example of the phony difference between Labor, the party of warmonger in Iraq and Afghanistan, Tony Blair, and Tory, the party of warmonger in Libya, Afghanistan and Syria, David Cameron. This observation extends, of course, to the fake choice between Democrats and Republicans in the United States: the names change periodically, but the neoliberal imperialist policies remain the same. In reality, the pseudo two-party system accommodates a one-party power structure that is financed and ruled by the same people everywhere and serves identical interests. This fake two-party system maintains the appearance of democracy by giving people the impression that voting matters. If voting makes no difference, then what can be done?

Power to the people: challenging unelected global-governance institutions

David Cameron is the current mask of the plutocracy in Britain. His rule is no different than that we see in other so-called "democracies".

David Cameron is the current mask of the plutocracy in Britain. His rule is no different than that we see in other so-called “democracies”. / click to expand

Although there is rampant dissatisfaction with politicians globally, few people are willing to admit that democracy is broken or take direct action to create a new system. According to an October 2014 poll, only six percent of US voters think that their Congress is doing a good job, and 65 percent rate its performance as being poor or very poor. Even more telling of the popular sense of an assumed general political corruption, 63 percent of US voters think that most members of Congress are willing to sell their votes for either cash or campaign contributions. In France, President Hollande’s approval rating has crashed to 13 percent: the lowest for any president since the early 1960s. Despite France’s revolutionary history, the country’s constitution gives its president the power to remain in office until the full term of his five-year mandate and, if necessary, to rule by decree.



(click to expand)

In our current supra-national world order, however, to focus popular dissatisfaction on interchangeable figureheads such as Francois Hollande, Barack Obama, David Cameron, Narendra Modi, Dilma Rousseff, Angela Merkel, etc., is a largely counterproductive undertaking. All are expendable. Instead, the global public opinion should contest the legitimacy of unelected global-governance institutions such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF), World Bank, United Nations, World Trade Organization (WTO), and other powerful non-governmental organizations, think tanks, and consortia like the World Economic Forum. These institutions dictate global policies, draft secret treaties such as the trans-pacific partnership agreement (TPP) concerning billions of people, and largely constitute the global elite. Such global institutions would have to be elected by the world citizenry for global governance to be viewed as being remotely democratic.

All revolutions need revolution

“Protest beyond the law is not a departure from democracy; it is absolutely essential to it” wrote Howard Zinn. People worldwide are fed up with their politicians, and they are protesting. Yet, as if most are suffering from a collective Stockholm syndrome, they are not sufficiently pro-active to rid themselves of their abusers by all means necessary. Voting was meant to be a sacrosanct civic duty in a democracy, but it has become the unconscious action of sleepwalkers.

In 1789, toppling the monarchy was a tall order in France. The intellectual inspiration for this revolution came from the works of Rousseau, Voltaire, Diderot and Montesquieu, who can be viewed as the founding fathers of modern democracy.  If the veneer of the Enlightenment philosophers’ discourse has survived time, the spirit of it has been gutted out. The elite of corporate global governance have trampled the social contract. People who had gained their freedom during 200 years are everywhere back in chains. Although an increasing number of people realize that a drastic systemic change is imperative, few are willing to admit that nothing short of a global revolution can challenge the entrenched plutocratic world order.


Obama, Romney, Bush—you call that a choice? (click to expand)

In the aftermath of such a revolution, or ideally before it, we must redefine the parameters of what should guarantee representative governance in real democracy with common people’s rule. Real democracy works best on a small scale. In ancient Greece, for example, democracy worked because its scale was limited to small communities in which citizens personally knew their politicians. Today, pushes for autonomy in regions such as Catalonia and Scotland represent the aspirations of people for smaller governance and their reactions against globalization and the threat to their cultural identities. On the other hand, global problems such as pollution, the squandering of limited resources, climate change and the current mass extinction, must be dealt with globally to have any impact. Therefore a type of direct democracy is also needed to deal with global issues; this could consist, for example, of global referendums on critical issues. The current systems of supposed democratic governance are corrupt and decayed; after we demolish them and reconstruct democracy for our times, it might finally, for us, become true to its name.

Gilbert Mercier is the Editor in Chief of News Junkie Post.


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Beyond Piketty – and Capital For all the noise surrounding him, the new rock star of bourgeois economics is quick to declare his anticommunism. Thu, 30 Oct 2014 17:13:13 +0000

The Official Web Site of Paul Street

Piketty: In a way the pinnacle of useless economic theory.

Piketty: Tediously telling us the obvious. In a way the pinnacle of useless mainstream economic theory. Statistical economists are in a way the willful moles of a notoriously myopic profession.

“I am Not a Marxist”

When the “Public” Broadcasting System Newshour’s Paul Solman sat down with the overnight academic rock-star Thomas Piketty at the height of the latter’s celebrity in the United States (US) last spring, Solman’s first question was about his politics:

Solman:Capital, capitale, the name of Karl Marx’s famous work, so are you a French Marxist?”

Piketty: “Not at all. No. I am not a Marxist. I turned 18 when the Berlin Wall fell, and I traveled to Eastern Europe to see the fall of the communist dictatorship….I had never had any temptation for communism or, you know, Marxism.” [1]

The celebrated French economist Piketty may have invited comparisons with the great anti-capitalist Marx by writing a bestselling tome titled Capital in the 21st Century (NY: Belknap, 2014), using Marx-like (or Marx-mimicking) phrases like “the central contradiction of capitalism” and “the fundamental laws of capitalism,” and arguing that economic inequality is deeply rooted in the institutional sinews of the profit system. But in his surprise spring and summer US bestseller Capital in the Twenty-First Century (New York: Belknap, 2014) Piketty tells us that Marx was wrong. While he admits that “Modern economic growth and the diffusion of knowledge… have not modified the deep structures of capital and inequality,” he argues that they “have made it possible to avoid the Marxist apocalypse.” (Piketty, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, p.1, emphasis added).

In the introduction to his magnum opus, Piketty says that he “belongs to a generation that came of age listening to news of the collapse of the [Soviet bloc] communist dictatorships,” something that “vaccinated [him] for life against the conventional but lazy rhetoric of anticapitalism….” He says he “ha[s] no interest in denouncing inequality or capitalism per se – especially since social inequalities are not in themselves a problem as long as they are justified, that is, ‘founded upon common utility,’ as article 1 of the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen  proclaims.” (Piketty, 31, emphasis added)

Savage Inequalities Right Out of Capitalism

But what justifications of “common utility” can possibly be found in the extraordinary level of the socioeconomic disparity the profits system has brought into being today? Just here in the US, where 16 million children languish below the federal government’s inadequate poverty level, the top 1% owns more wealth than the bottom 90% and a probably comparable share of the nation’s “democratically elected” officials. Six Walmart heirs have more wealth between them than the bottom 40%. Between 1983 and 2010, the Economic Policy Institute has calculated, 74% of the gains in wealth in the U.S. went to the richest 5%, while the bottom 60% suffered a decline.

This savage inequality comes courtesy of the class-based socioeconomic regime called capitalism, a defining aspect of which is its constant underlying tendency towards the concentration of more wealth in fewer hands – a tendency Piketty demonstrates with more than two centuries of brilliantly compiled and analyzed data. It also comes from forms of elite business-class agency that Piketty does not come close to thoroughly examining. Last May, the left economist Jack Rasmus rightly took Piketty to task for missing two leading explanations for dramatically increased inequality in the US since the 1970s: “the manipulation of global financial assets and speculative financial trading” and the “reducing of labor costs across the board.” Focusing almost exclusively on changes in the tax system (the third leading explanation by Rasmus’ account), Piketty ignores both the remarkable proliferation and de-/non-regulation of financial instruments (credit default swaps and other complex derivatives and financial “innovations”) and the “top-down class war” (former UAW president Douglass Fraser) that corporations have waged on unions, wages, job benefits, and the social safety net over the last four decades. These are critical omissions.[2]

An Alternative System? 

Does the misery and collapse of the Soviet Union/bloc really discredit Marxism or other forms of “anticapitalism”? “One can debate the meaning of the term ‘socialism,’” Noam Chomsky noted in the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse, “but if it means anything, it means control of production by the workers themselves, not owners and managers who rule them and control all decisions, whether in capitalist enterprises or an absolutist state.”[3]Bearing that consideration (true to Marx) in mind and adding in the question of who controls the economic surplus, the US Marxist economist Richard Wolff reasonably describes the Soviet experiment as a form of “state capitalism.” Under the Soviet model, “hired workers produced surpluses that were appropriated and distributed by…state officials who functioned as employers. Thus, Soviet industry was actually an example of state capitalism in its class structure.” By calling itself socialist – a description of “Marxist” Russia that US Cold Warriors and business propagandists eagerly embraced, for obvious reasons – the Soviet Union “prompted the redefinition of socialism to mean state capitalism.”[4]

In a mostly flattering review of Piketty’s book, the Brooklyn-based Marx fan and political-economic commentator Doug Henwood remarked that “the USSR…for all its problems, was living proof that an alternative [to capitalism] economic system was possible.”[5] Alternative post-capitalist systems are indeed achievable, but Henwood’s statement on Soviet Russia is dubious in light of the Soviet Union’s class structure and demise.

The nature and collapse of the Soviet system might with reason be seen as discrediting the “lazy anti-capitalism” of say, the old (Stalinist) French Communist Party. But, as Henwood wrote in his Piketty review, and here we must concur, “Anticapitalist rhetoric need not be lazy.” Marx’s certainly wasn’t. Neither is that of numerous subsequent radical thinkers and activists like, say, Chomsky or Wolff. (Or Sweezy or Baran, Huberman and dozens of others.—Eds)

“Dark Prophecy”? 

What is “the Marxist apocalypse” that we have “avoided” in Piketty’s view? Piketty means the growing division of Western industrial society between a wealthy bourgeoisie on one hand and a vast ever more miserable property-less proletariat, leading to working class socialist/communist revolution – what he calls “Marx’s dark prophecy.” (Capital in the Twenty-First Century, p.9).

Piketty’s insidious choice of words reflects his own class bias (in favor of the capitalist elites). 

Piketty is correct that the European and North American socialist revolutions that many leftists dreamed of didn’t happen in the late 19th or early 20th centuries. Neither did proletarian immiseration on the scale that Marx predicted – at least not in the core Western countries at the center of capitalist development. But why call Marx’s dialectical divination “apocalyptic” and “dark”? Piketty’s word choices strongly suggest elite bias: it’s always been the ruling classes who have most particularly found radical anticapitalists’ ideas catastrophic, for obvious reasons. For socialist, communist, and left anarchist revolutionaries of the mid and late-19th century, the overthrow of private capital and its amoral profits system and the replacement of the capitalist ruling class by the democratic reign of the associated producers and citizens in service to the common good was hardly an apocalypse. It was for them the dawning of the end of the long human pre-history of class rule, ushering in the possibility of a world beyond exploitation and the de facto class dictatorship of privileged owners. It was a “true realm of freedom” beyond endless toil and necessity and “worthy of …‘human nature.’” (Marx, Capital, v.3, p.820). “In the place of the old bourgeois society, with its classes and class antagonisms,” Marx and his indispensable comrade Frederick Engels proclaimed in their 1848 Communist Manifesto, “we shall have an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.”

The Capitalist Apocalypse That Is

Another, more genuinely dark question arises.   Have we really “avoid[ed]” Marxist, well, capitalist apocalypse in the years since Marx wrote? Forget for a moment the cataclysmic global wars, imperial policies, abject plutocracy, and misery of the 20th and early 21st centuries, terrible problems that Marxist and other radical intellectuals reasonably root to no small degree in the system of class rule called capitalism. Never mind the global pauperization that has spread like something out of the Communist Manifesto in the neoliberal era, however much the rich nations may have avoided Piketty’s “Marxist apocalypse.”

Put all that aside for a moment, if you can, and reflect on the growing environmental catastrophe that now poses a genuine threat of human extinction. Marx suggested two stark alternatives in the Manifesto: “either…a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes.” Can there be any serious doubt in the current age of accelerating and catastrophic climate change that the very “modern economic growth” that Piketty praises for having kept “the Marxist apocalypse” at bay threatens to bring about “the common ruin of the contending classes” – indeed the degradation and final destruction of life on Earth – because it is taking place under the command of capital? More than merely dangerous, uncomfortable, and expensive, anthropogenic global warming (AGW) threatens the world’s food and water supplies. It raises the very real specter of human extinction if and when terrible “tipping points” like the large-scale release of Arctic methane (a potential near-term context for truly “runaway” warming) are passed. The related problem of ocean acidification (a change in the ocean’s chemistry resulting from excessive human carbon emissions) is attacking the very building blocks of life under the world’s great and polluted seas. Thanks to AGW and other forms of toxic human intervention in global ecology we most add drastically declining biodiversity – a technical phrase for the massive dying off of other species – to the list of “ecological rifts” facing humanity and other living and sentient beings in the 21stcentury.

The findings and judgments of the best contemporary earth science are crystal clear. As the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research (UK) concluded last year: “Today, in 2013, we face an unavoidably radical futureWe either continue with rising emissions and reap the radical repercussions of severe climate change, or we acknowledge that we have a choice and pursue radical emission reductions.” Sadly, however, the Tyndall scientists failed to radically confront the social-systemic cancer behind AGW. The deeper disease is capitalism, for whose masters and apologists the answer to the venerable popular demand for equality has long been “more.”[6]The answer is based on the theory that growth creates “a rising tide that lifts all boats” in ways that make us forget about the fact that a wealthy few are sailing luxuriantly in giant yachts while most of us are struggling to keep afloat in modest motorboats and rickety dinghies.

As Le Monde’s ecological editor Herve Kempf noted in his aptly titled book The Rich Are Destroying the Earth (2007), “the oligarchy” sees the pursuit of material growth as “the solution to the social crisis,” the “sole means of fighting poverty and unemployment,” and the “only means of getting societies to accept extreme inequalities without questioning them. . . . Growth,” Kempf explained, “would allow the overall level of wealth to arise and consequently improve the lot of the poor without — and this part is never spelled out [by the economic elite] — any need to modify the distribution of wealth.”

“Growth,” the liberal economist Henry Wallich explained (approvingly) in 1972, “is a substitute for equality of income. So long as there is growth there is hope, and that makes large income differentials tolerable.” (1)

But growth is more than an ideology and a promise to cover inequality under the profits system. It is also a material imperative for investors, managers, workers, and policymakers caught up in the disastrous competitive world-capitalist logic of what the Marxist environmental sociologist John Bellamy Foster calls “the global ‘treadmill of production.” Capitalism demands constant growth to meet the competitive accumulation requirements of capital, the employment needs of an ever-expanding global class or proletarians (workers dependent on wages), the sales needs of corporations, and governing officials’ need to legitimize their power by appearing to advance national economic development and security. This system can no more forego growth and survive than a person can stop breathing and live. It is, as the eco-socialist Joel Kovel notes, a system based on the “eternal expansion of the economic product,” and the “conver [sion of] everything possible [including the air we breathe, the water we drink, the soil and plants] into monetary [exchange] value.”

“The Earth we live on,” Kovel notes, “is finite, and its ecosystems have evolved to accommodate to that finitude. Therefore, a system built on endless growth is going to destroy the integrity of the ecosystems upon which life depends for food, energy, and other resources.” [7]

Consistent with this harsh reality, the system’s leading investors have invested massively in highly wasteful advertising, marketing, packaging and built-in-obsolescence. The commitment has penetrated into core processes of capitalist production, so that millions toil the world over in the making of complex electronic (and other) products designed to lose material and social value (and thus to be dumped in landfills) in short periods of time.[8]

Along the way, U.S. capital has invested huge amounts of fixed capital in the existing fossil fuel-addicted energy system – “sunk” capital investments that make giant and powerful petrochemical corporations and utilities all too “rationally” (from a profit perspective) resistant to a much needed clean energy conversion. And there are more than enough fossil fuels left underground to push the planet past livability before carbon capital’s drillers and frackers run out – something to keep in mind in light of a recent report that methane released from melting permafrost has opened a gigantic crater in Siberia’s Yamal peninsula [9]. Talk about a “specter haunting Europe” (Marx and Engels, 1848) and indeed the whole world.

The same irrational systemic imperatives that drive capitalism into recurrent cycles of boom and bust turn the profits system into a cancerous threat to human existence. The extermination of the species is practically an “institutional imperative” (Noam Chomsky[10]) for the state-capitalist ruling class that imposes the lethal triumph of “exchange value” over “use value” (a key dichotomy in Marx’s analysis) atop the malignant rat-wheel of endless accumulation.

“The World’s Principal Long-Term Worry”

The Jacobin growth and equity advocate Piketty (he reports that high economic and demographic growth rates tend historically to reduce inequality) is not completely unconcerned with the problem. In a brief sub-section of his book, he writes the following: “The second important issue on which [capital accumulation] questions have a major impact is climate change and, more generally, the possibility of deterioration of humanity’s natural capital in the century ahead. If we take a global view then this is clearly the world’s principal long-term worry.” Piketty’s statement comes on page 567, like a tiny afterthought near the end of Capital in the 21st Century, in the volume’s mere three pages that focus on the leading specter haunting humanity in the 21st century, brought to us courtesy of capital. A “global view” would seem to be the view to take when it comes to planetary ecology, but “deterioration of natural capital” is econospeak for eco-cide.

According to the conservative Marxian Meghnad Desai more than a decade ago (in a book provocatively claiming that Marx would have predicted and welcomed the collapse of the Soviet Union), Marx felt that a real and viable socialism would only come after capitalism had exhausted its limits and was no “no longer capable of progress.”[10A] Whatever the accuracy of Desai’s claim regarding Marx (questionable since the mature Marx told Russian radicals they could skip the capitalist stage on the path to socialism), the ecological limits to “progress” under the profits system (private and/or state versions) were passed decades ago. It’s “[eco-] socialism or barbarism if we’re lucky” (Istvan Meszaros): a revolutionary red-green transcendence of continuing bourgeois class rule or a capitalist eco-apocalypse that is right out of Marx.

One can label this stark conclusion as a form dysfunctional “catastrophism” – a nasty term hurled by some Marxians (including the aforementioned Henwood[11]) at those who (like Chomsky) warn of the ever more imminent environmental….well, catastrophe. But to paraphrase and adapt Che Guevera, it’s not my fault if reality is now eco-socialist. “The Earth,” as the young Buddha was reported to have said, “is my [our] witness.”

“Capitalism is Awful but There is Nothing We Can Do About it”

The “catastrophist” matter of capital-o-genic eco-cide aside, what does the neo-Jacobin Piketty recommend in the way of solutions, so as to bring inequality back into the proper bourgeois-revolutionary boundaries of “common utility”? Proclaiming that that the standard liberal-domestic tax, spending and regulatory agenda is now ineffective in the face of capital’s planetary reach, he advocates a measure that is beyond the grasp of any currently existing national or international body: “a global tax on capital”– something Piketty candidly calls “a utopian idea” (Capital in the 21st Century, 515). Only such a worldwide levy “would contain the unlimited growth of global inequality of wealth,” Piketty writes.

Given the monumental logistical and political barriers to the implementation of such a tax, it’s hard not to see Piketty’s heralded Capital as feeding popular pessimism about the existence of any alternatives to the United States’ drift into what former New York State Tax Commissioner James Wezler calls “a plutocratic dystopia characterized by wealth inequality approaching that of ancien régime France.”[12] Piketty feeds the “de facto mental slavery” (David Barsamian[13]) of our time: the widespread sense of powerlessness and isolation shared by millions of citizens and workers and the intimately related idea that there’s no serious or viable replacement for – and nothing much that can be done about – the dominant order.

Given all this and more, including its oversized and tedious nature, why was Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Centurysuch a hit with relatively well-off, highly “educated” and supposedly “left”-leaning US liberals this last spring and summer? Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, got to the heart of the matter last May, at the peak of the Piketty craze. In an email to Columbia University journalism professor Thomas B. Edsall, Baker wrote that “a big part of the appeal is that it allows people to say capitalism is awful but there is nothing that we can do about it.” The author of a comprehensive domestic policy agenda for reducing inequality, Baker told Edsall “that many people will feel that they have done their part after struggling through a lengthy book on economics, and now they can go back to their vacation homes and say it’s all a shame.”[14]

It takes a lot more time and energy to read Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century than it does to vote for Barack Obama. Still, it’s hard to miss the parallel here. Like poking a ballot card for the first half-white US president, purchasing (and maybe even working their way through some or all of) Piketty’s book seems to help some liberals think they’ve made a contribution to solving the world’s injustices even while it asks them to do nothing of substance to fight inequality and justifies that nothingness by suggesting that nothing much can be done anyway.

Alternative Reading

For readers interested in deeper anti-capitalist substance and more than  Pikettyan powerlessness, there is no lack of first-rate writing on how to construct a radically transformed and democratized America Beyond Capitalism – title of an important book by the University of Maryland economist Gar Alperovitz. Alperovitz advocates giving workers and communities stakes and self-management through the expansion and support of significantly empowered employee stock ownership and other programs and policies (including highly progressive tax rates and a 25-hour work week) designed to replace the current top-down plutocracy with a bottom-up “pluralist commonwealth.”

Another “utopian” proposal is MIT engineering professor Seymour Melman’s call – developed in his 2001 book After Capitalism and other works—for a nonmarket system of workers’ self-management. Also important: left economist Rick Wolff’s Democracy at Work: A Cure for Capitalism,combining a Marxian analysis of the current economic crisis with a call for “worker self-directed enterprises”; David Schweikert’s After Capitalism,calling for worker self-management combined with national ownership of underlying capital; Michael Liebowitz’s The Socialist Alternative,taking its cue from Latin America’s leftward politics to advance a vision of participatory and democratic socialism; Joel Kovel’s The Enemy of Nature (arguing that solving the current grave environmental crisis requires a shift away from private and corporate control of the planet’s resources); and Michael Albert’s prolific writing and speaking on behalf of participatory economics (“parecon”),inspired to some degree by the “council communism” once advocated by the libertarian Marxist Anton Pannekeok. In his book Parecon: Life After Capitalism (2003), Albert calls for a highly but flexibly structured model of radically democratic economics that organizes work and society around workers’ and consumers councils – richly participatory institutions that involve workers and the entire community in decisions on how resources are allocated, what to produce and how, and how income and work tasks are distributed.

More recently, a sprightly and highly readable Occupy-inspired volume published by a major US publishing house, HarperCollins, is titled IMAGINE Living in a Socialist America (2014). It includes essays from leading intellectuals and activists and provides practical reflections on how numerous spheres of American life and policy – ecology, workplace, finance/investment, criminal justice, gender, sexuality, immigration, welfare, food, housing, health care/medicine, education, art, science, media, and spirituality – might be experienced and transformed under an American version of democratic socialism.

Imagine the lively, inspirational, and forward-looking Imagine and not Piketty’s lumbering, backwards-looking, and pessimism-inducing Capital in the 21st Century (which offers little in the way of solutions and comes up very short on the problem) as the surprise bestseller of 2014. It’s not too late: order your copy here:


Author and historian Paul Street’s latest book is They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (order at Street is the author of “Part I: What’s Wrong with Capitalism?” in IMAGINE Living in a Socialist USA

Editor’s Note: The compulsive pursuit of growth as the panacea for all social ills and a good in itself by both politicians and academics (not to mention business elites) relies on the fact, easily illustrated, that indeed as pointed previously, growth makes a redistribution of wealth less urgent or necessary. The idea here is that if the national (and international) economic pie keeps growing, even relative reductions in the income share received by the non-capitalist sectors will be hidden by the fact the losers do not actually see it or feel it, and, in absolutely terms, may even witness a net increase in their consumption levels.

Just consider the following table, illustrating the capitalists’ sleight of hand, applying to a society of, say, 1 million people.
In this imaginary society, there are 500 capitalists, or 1 capitalist for every 2000 people. To simplify the example, assume further that  capitalists split their share equally among themselves, and the same goes for each ordinary citizen. As well, we will momentarily disregard population growth, and the outrageously fast rate of growth of the economy, which naturally impacts all these calculations. The important thing here is to realize how the people’s declining share of total income can be hidden by GDP growth, the old canard about “lifting all boats.”

K%= Capitalists’ share of income; P%= People’s share; K/i= Capitalists’ per capita annual income; P/i= Ordinary citizen per capita annual income.

YEAR GDP (MM) K% P% K/i ($) P/i ($)
1 1000 10 90 200,000 900
2 1500 15 85 450,000 1275
3 1850 18 82 660,000 1518
4 2100 23 77 966,000 1617
9 6700 78 22 10,452,000 1475
10 8300 78   12,948,000 1827
 6374% gain

Summation: In less than a decade, with the GDP expanding, working people saw their share of the total national income drop from 90% to a mere 22%, an alarming loss, but their income doubled (albeit much more slowly)  from $900 per capita to $1827, an improvement of a 103%. Many workers saw that as an actual gain in their economic situation, especially since this was repeatedly mentioned in the press. That said, in the same period, the capitalists watched their income per capita jump from $200,000 to $12,948,000, an astonishing 6,374%, or 64 times improvement, and now capture almost 4 out of 5 dollars in the national pile of produced goods and services. Is it clear why growth is such a constant refrain on capitalists’ lips? This is what some economists cryptically call, “income distribution at the margin.” Naturally, with the economy standing still or contracting, capitalists push to extract their accustomed pound of flesh from an even higher exploitation of labor.—P. Greanville


Selected Endnotes 

1. “P”BS Newshour, May 12, 2014,

2. As Marx would certainly note with no small disdain. See Jack Rasmus, “Economists Discover Inequality But Have Yet to Explain It,” Jack Rasmus: Predicting the Global Economic Crisis (May 13, 2014),

3. Noam Chomsky, What Uncle Sam Really Wants (Berkeley, CA: Odonian Press, 1991), 91.

4. Richard Wolff, Democracy at Work: A Cure for Capitalism (Chicago: Haymarket, 2012), 82). For a brilliant left-anarchist historical perspective on the Soviet model (and the broader evolution of capitalist class relations in the workplace), see the formerly radical Stephen Marglin’s classic essay, “What do Bosses Do?,” pp. 13-54 in Andre Gorz, ed., The Division of Labor: The Labour Process and Class Struggle in Modern Capitalism (Humanities Press, NJ, 1976). The Soviet “model” was hardly without real accomplishments.  It succeeded in significantly modernizing Russia (the nation that more than any other defeated Hitler’s fascist regime) outside the pure Western capitalist model of privately owned means of production, distribution, transportation, finance, and communications. This was the main reason for U.S.-led Western hostility of the “Soviet specter,” not (following the doctrinal U.S. Cold War line) Russia’s alleged commitment to global revolution, something it abandoned with the exile of Trotsky in the 1920s. On Western/US Cold War complicity in the false description of the USSR as socialist, see Chomsky, Want Uncle Sam Really Wants, 92: “The world’s two major propaganda systems did not agree on much, but they did agree on using the term socialism to refer to the immediate destruction of every element of socialism by the Bolsheviks. That’s not too surprising. The Bolsheviks called their system socialist so as to exploit the moral prestige of socialism. The West adopted the same usage for the opposite reason: to defame the feared libertarian ideals [of workers’ control and true popular governance] by associating them with the Bolshevik dungeon, to undermine the popular belief that there really might be progress towards a more just society with democratic control over its basic institutions and concern for human needs and rights. If socialism is the tyranny of Lenin and Stalin, then sane people will say: not for me. And if that’s the only alternative to corporate state capitalism, then many will submit to its authoritarian structures as the only reasonable choice.”

5. Doug Henwood, “The Top of the World,” Book Forum, April/May 2014, It is interesting to compare this description of the Soviet model as proof that “an alternative system was possible” with Henwood’s dismissal of Mike Albert’s Parecon – the most elaborate attempt in recent post-Cold War times to develop a comprehensively non-and anti-capitalist economic vision (including non-hierarchical work relations) – as an unhelpful “off-the-shelf utopia.” See Doug Henwood, “A Post-Capitalist Future is Possible,” The Nation, March 13, 2009, Parecon is a dysfunctional dreamland but the Soviet state-capitalist tyranny shows “that an alternative economic system was possible.”

6. Tyndall Center for Climate Change Research, “The Radical Emission Reduction Emission Reduction Conference, December 10-11, 2013,”; Richard Smith, “Beyond Growth or Beyond Capitalism,” Real World Economic Review, issue 53, June 26, 2010, reprinted with revisions at Truthout (January 15, 2014),

7. John Bellamy Foster, “Global Ecology and the Common Good,” Monthly Review (February 1995), read online at; Joel Kovel, Chapter 2: “The Future Will be Ecosocialist Because Without Ecosocialism There Will be No Future,” in Francis Goldin, Debby Smith, and Michael Steven Smith, IMAGINE Living in a Socialist USA (New York: Harper Collins, 2014), 27-28.

8. John Bellamy Foster and Brett Clark, “The Planetary Emergency,” Monthly Review (December 2013),

9. Terrence McCoy, “Scientists Maye Have Cracked the Giant Siberian Crater Mystery – and the News Isn’t Good,” Washington Post, August 5, 2014,; Katia Moskia, “Mysterious Siberian Crater Attributed to Menthane,” Nature (July 31, 2014),

10. “I do not want to end without mentioning another externality that is dismissed in market systems: the fate of the species. Systemic risk in the financial system can be remedied by the taxpayer, but no one will come to the rescue if the environment is destroyed. That it must be destroyed is close to an institutional imperative.” Noam Chomsky, “Is t he World Too Big to Fail?” TomDispatch (August 20, 2012),,_who_owns_the_world_ On the permafrost crater in Siberia, see Nature (July 31, 2014),

10A. Meghnad Desai, Marx’s Revenge: The Resurgence of Capitalism and the Death of State Socialism (New York: Verso, 2002).

11. See the horrid ecological chapter by Eddie Yuen in Sasha Lilley, David McNally, James Davis, Eddie Yuen, and Doug Henwood, Catastrophism: The Apocalyptic Politics of Collapse and Rebirth (PM Press, 2012). For a measured and brilliant response to Yuen, see Ian Angus, “The Myth of ‘Environmental Catastrophism,’” Monthly Review(September 1, 2013),

12. Wezler is quoted in Thomas B. Edsall, “Thomas Piketty and His Critics,” New York Times, May 14, 2014),

13. Noam Chomsky, Power Systems: Interviews with David Barsamian (New York: Metropolitan, 2013), 34.

14. Edsall, “Piketty and his Critics.”


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Scientists Discover Huge ‘Bathtub Ring’ Of Oil On Sea Floor From BP Spill We knew the Feds would do little or nothing, and we were unfortunately right. Wed, 29 Oct 2014 21:16:33 +0000


This October 2010 photo provided by Penn State University shows the arms of a brittle starfish, red in color, clinging to coral damaged by the Macondo well in the Gulf of Mexico. // CREDIT: AP PHOTO/NOAA AND WOODS HOLE OCEANOGRAPHIC INSTITUTE / click to expand

Scientists have discovered yet another unforeseen effect of BP’s historic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico: a 1,235-square-mile “bathtub ring” of oil on the deep ocean’s floor.

BUT THEY’RE SOOOO SORRY (Courtesy of South Park)

Research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science on Monday showed that approximately 10 million gallons of oil settled and coagulated on the floor of the Gulf near the Deepwater Horizon rig, which spilled a total of 172 million gallons of oil into the ocean in April 2010. That oil left a footprint on the ocean floor about two times the size of the city of Houston, Texas, and approximately the size of the state of Rhode Island, the study said.

Study author David Valentine told the Associated Press that tests to determine the oil’s chemical signature were not performed because the oil has degraded in the four and a half years since the spill occurred, but also said it’s obvious where the oil is from, since it settled directly around the site of the damaged rig. BP disputes the claim, telling Fuel Fix  that the researchers need to chemically identify the source of the oil before they can credibly blame the company.


Still, the research serves to try and answer some of the lingering questions from the 2010 oil spill, the largest in U.S. history. One of those questions is where all the oil went — approximately 2 million barrels were never found — and another is how the spill impacted the health of the deep sea. In July, a scientist who led a study on the impacts of the BP spill and found a wider range of impact on the deep sea than previously believed, told ThinkProgress that he was worried about how much we don’t yet know.

“What we still don’t know, and what we need to all keep in mind, is that there’s the potential for sub-acute impact,” Penn State University’s Charles Fisher said at the time. “In other words, things that might have happened to corals’ reproductive system — slower acting cancers, changes in the fitness of the animal. These are very hard to detect and they’ll take a long time for us to see whats going on.”




Seagull flying in the beachCommitment to the Gulf of Mexico BP is committed to supporting economic and environmental efforts in the Gulf of Mexico We have spent more than $26 billion in claims payments and response, clean-up and restoration costs. BP has also committed to provide up to $1 billion to fund early restoration projects. Our Gulf Coast recovery efforts have focused on paying all legitimate claims stemming from the accident and supporting two of the regions most vital industries – tourism and seafood. SOURCE:


BP has maintained that most of the unrecovered light sweet crude oil dissolved or evaporated before it reached land, and that it didn’t settle on the ocean floor. Indeed, just last week, Politico published an article written by BP senior vice president of communications Geoff Morrell titled “No, BP Didn’t Ruin The Gulf.” The article argued that the Gulf of Mexico has “inherent resilience” when it comes to oil spills and that environmentalists are overreacting about its impacts.

Geoff MorrellPentagon:BP

Geoff Morrell: Formerly a lying bastard for the Pentagon, now for his new masters at BP. These are the prostitutes that are sinking this nation and the planet. How do you reform such parasites? It’s what the system calls “success stories”.

On Monday, Politico ran a response to that article, titled “Yes, BP Did Damage The Gulf.” The article, written by the Ocean Conservancy’s Gulf Restoration director Kara Lankford, slammed BP for attempting to downplay the effects of the spill on the Gulf’s ecosystem.

“We would like to invite Geoff Morrell to sit down with us to discuss the scientific evidence of impacts from the BP oil disaster, as it seems he may be unaware of some important research,” Lankford wrote. “We look forward to the Gulf’s full restoration and hope BP will accept accountability for the spill — and will acknowledge the complete scientific evidence of the impact, not a few carefully selected data points.”



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Election Boycott Advocates, rising Reject Capitalism Demand Democracy Wed, 29 Oct 2014 20:06:57 +0000

We did not vote ourselves into this mess and we cannot vote ourselves out of it. 
-Adolph Reed, Jr.

electionBoycottIconExploring the logic behind election boycotts, election


Hard-faced shills for the corporate super-rich. Their expression tells it all. They know what they are doing, and it's not working for the 99%.

A great deal of the rejectionist mood sweeping the United States stems from the repeated betrayals of the Democratic party, and the huge expectations of progressive change aroused by the presidency of Barack Obama.

Since the 1950s Americans increasingly stopped voting. Even in the historic 2008 Obama election with a record number of African Americans and youth turning out, only 58 percent voted. In non-presidential Congressional elections, less than 40 percent vote. While voting advocates charge apathy and laziness, most nonvoters say they are fed up with a corrupt government and elections with no reasonable choice. In recent elections, non-voters have been the majority, and if they had been a political party, would have been by far the largest party in America.

The loss of faith in the government is not only reflected in low voter turnout; the most recent Gallop Poll found only 7 percent have a positive view of Congress.

Laws restricting third party participation, an elections system that favors money over votes, a two-party system that has no room for any other than the official liberal and conservative ideologies, a Supreme Court that protects the right of billionaires to buy elections and politicians. Why bother, the majority of Americans ask as they throw their hands up in exasperation with a system that just doesn’t work for them.

Isn’t it time to consider joining together with other non-voters to create a massive Election Boycott of US Elections?

Explore the website to learn more. To learn why so many are turning the current silent boycott into a militant act of electoral defiance, click here. 

Making the Case for an Election Boycott: Why the Left Should Refrain from US Imperialism’s Electoral Charade 
Danny Haiphong  
Re-posted from Black Agenda Report | 
June 17 2014 

The left should not participate in, “and thus provide consent for, the rule of imperialism every four years.” Say “No” to the charade. “Barack Obama’s two-term presidency has been a lesson for the entire left that voting for a Wall Street politician within the imperialist state can only bring more misery and political confusion, not less.”


The two-party US political system more clearly than ever works exclusively in the interests of the imperialist ruling class.”

There are many dangerous trends emerging from progressive and revolutionary forces in the US. One of the most concerning is a growing focus on electoral campaigns as a tactic to achieve grassroots objectives.  The electoral victories of Kshama Sawant, Chokwe Lumumba (Rest in Power), and Ras Baracka are a clear indication of popular discontent with austerity, gentrification, and privatization in US cities under capitalist siege.  However, whatever encouragement these victories provide cannot resolve the contradictions of US capitalism. The primary purpose of US capitalism’s state machinery is to manage the affairs of the ruling class. This poses the important question of whether electing representatives into political office is a worthy tactic for the left or whether it should be abandoned all together.

 Historical Context of Capitalist State-Reform and the US left

The English colonizers, after defeating the British Crown in the American (counter) Revolution, made it clear that African slaves, property-less Whites, women, and indigenous people would have zero decision-making power in who would represent them in the newly formed US nation-state. As US capitalism industrialized, property restrictions were lessened to further privilege White Americans into “citizenship” at the expense of Black and indigenous people. From the very beginning, electoral politics were a stage where capitalists performed for the state power needed to manage the profits obtained from racism and labor exploitation.

US government hostility to the interests of the working class and oppressed understandably deterred the left from pushing revolutionary goals through electoral politics.  Prominent socialists like Eugene Debs ran for President a handful of times with little success. For the most part, leftists understood that running candidates for political office was a drain on resources and political morale. So, rather than run candidates, the left organized people to win concrete victories from the capitalist state in specific historical moments.  Progressive labor and civil rights legislation, such as the Civil Rights Act and the National Labor Relations Act, were won because the collective organization of workers and victims of white supremacy presented a direct threat to the interests of capitalism. What made such gains so important was how they expanded popular vision of what was possible and at the same time failed to fully transform the inherent antagonisms of the US capitalist social order. Poor Black and colonized peoples in the US, largely excluded from state-reforms, saw no other option but to demand complete self-determination and liberation from capitalist domination.

George Jackson warned that imperialism ensured that the US government could no longer reform itself in the last stage of capitalism.”

Most whites have negative, racist and above all ignorant views of George Jackson, but he remains one of the most important revolutionary thinkers in modern America.

Most whites have negative, racist and above all ignorant views of George Jackson, but he remains one of the most important revolutionary thinkers in modern America.

George Jackson was a leader of the Black liberation movement that was partly inspired by inadequate state-reforms.  Jackson wrote extensively in his book Blood in my Eye (1971) on the changing nature of capitalist state-reform. He learned quickly from his experiences organizing for the Black liberation movement from behind the walls that there was nothing left that Black America could wrestle from the US capitalist state. The conditions of the working class were on the decline. Prior reforms had improved the economic conditions of White America while doing virtually nothing for the economic needs of poor Black and indigenous nations.  Jackson concluded that these developments were evidence of US capitalism’s last stage: imperialism.

Jackson warned that imperialism ensured that the US government could no longer reform itself in the last stage of capitalism to appease certain sectors of its exploited subjects. And he was, and still is, correct. The ruling class went on an offensive that has yet to end, brutally repressing revolutionary upheaval in the US while making calculated and necessary changes to ensure the survival of capitalism on the global stage. Some of these changes included ending of the Vietnam War, monopolizing corporate power into the realm of finance, and most importantly for the purposes of this article, opening up avenues to Black candidacy in corporate and political office. These “reforms” isolated revolutionary organizations like the Black Panther Party and re-directed popular energy toward what the imperialist ruling class deemed acceptable forms of political participation.

Boycott the Vote!

George Jackson’s analysis points to the need to direct political energy away from participation in the imperialist state.  Popular mistrust in the US government is at a high point, as shown by low voter-turnouts and percentages of Presidential and Congressional approval.  However, the political vacuum created by imperialism has strengthened the illusion of legitimacy around running candidates for political office. This contradiction exists despite the fact that the two-party US political system more clearly than ever works exclusively in the interests of the imperialist ruling class.

The political party for bankrupt liberal leftists, the Democratic Party, has jointly expanded the prison state, austerity, surveillance, war, poverty, and by extension, corporate rule with its Republican counterparts. Still, both Democrats and Republicans rhetorically perform a show of opposition for the corporate media. And in no other historical period has any President provided a more effective assault on oppressed people for the imperialist ruling class. Barack Obama’s two-term presidency has been a lesson for the entire left that voting for a Wall Street politician within the imperialist state can only bring more misery and political confusion, not less.

Occupy Chicago activists burned their voter registration cards outside of Obama’s campaign office.”

So while some organizations like Socialist Alternative are seeking city council victories to achieve goals such as a $15 per/hour minimum wage, others are organizing to boycott US electoral politics all together. In 2012, a group of organizers campaigned for an election boycott of the Presidential election.  The campaign emphasized a shift in consciousness around the act of voting.  Instead of voting for the Democratic or Republican Parties of imperialism and legitimizing their rule, the campaign called on people to actively withhold their vote.  This meant not only being absent from the polls as individuals, but also collectively organizing others to withhold their vote in opposition to the electoral charade of the capitalist class.

Although Obama was re-elected President, the efforts of boycott organizers were not in vein. Numerous tactics were employed to make the stand against US imperialism’s elections visible. Occupy Chicago activists burned their voter registration cards outside of Obama’s campaign office. Organizer Terri Lee and others presented the idea of an election boycott to as many media sources and events as possible, which included venues such as the Left Forum.  As a collective, the boycott organizers were most concerned with positioning themselves as a left movement that refused to vote in, and thus provide consent for, the rule of imperialism every four years.  This is an important position that deserves serious ideological and practical consideration from leftist formations in the US imperial center.


US governmental elections are advertised as a staple of Western “democracy” by the imperialist ruling class. However, the fact remains that elections under this racist, capitalist, neo-colonial system only legitimize the rule of the capitalist class over its exploited subjects.  Electoral politics are movement killers, not movement builders. In the 1970’s, the Oakland chapter of the Black Panther Party split with the more militant chapters around the country and began focusing on mayoral and city council campaigns.  Each campaign drained the resources of the Party and diluted the revolutionary ideological foundation that had once inspired young, working class Black Americans.

Sawant’s election has helped begin the process of removing the “Fight for $15″ out of the streets and into the seats of bourgeois government.”

Kshama Sawant’s city council victory in Seattle will inevitably run into similar issues in the fight for a $15/hr minimum wage. It already appears her election has helped begin the process of removing the “Fight for $15″ out of the streets and into the seats of bourgeois government.  Additionally, Sawant’s recent appearances on Democracy Now! alarmingly argued for mass movement forces to run “third party” candidates for political office and emulate her victory around the country. If history is our guide, than Sawant’s strategy needs reconsideration.  Malcolm X, in his speech The Ballot or the Bullet, cautioned Black left political forces on the limitations of merely exercising the right to vote with a vow of non-violence despite the white racist terror that awaited them at the polls.  In this period, the right to vote has been rolled back by the same imperialist state the vote legitimizes.  The US imperialist system only guarantees incorporation of revolutionary and progressive objectives into the imperialist state machinery.  This spells defeat of, not victory for, working class power in contrary to what Sawant claims.

An organized election boycott has the potential of channeling the mistrust that most left-leaning folks have with the US imperial state into concrete political action. Instead of electing city council members, let’s confront our municipal officials that are hell-bent on selling neighborhoods and assets to the corporate ruling class.  Let’s confront our elected officials in Washington for their service of empire and corporate power.  The left’s most important task in this period is to take principled positions against US imperialism. Electing “third party” candidates into this machinery won’t do this, but campaigns such as an election boycott give us a chance to fight for transformation of the imperialist system we so desperately need.


Danny Haiphong is an activist and case manager in the Greater Boston area. You can contact Danny at:



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Piketty, Marx—and Lenin Piketty's tome, so widely acclaimed, is no fire breathing threat to the current power structure. Wed, 29 Oct 2014 14:45:35 +0000
Piketty and his magnus opus. (click to expand)

Piketty and his magnus opus. (click to expand)

Steven Jonas, MD, MPH

Earlier this year the French economist Thomas Piketty published the English translation of his book Capital in the 21st Century.   For a time this 665 pp. apparently densely-written tome amazingly enough ranked No. 1 at Amazon and as of this writing (Oct. 28, 2014) is still ranked no. 224.  I must admit that I have not read the book, but I have read a fine review/critique of it that appears in the November, 2014 issue of Monthly Review (the leading Marxist journal in the United States): “Piketty and the Crisis of Neoclassical Economics,” by John Bellamy Foster and Michael D. Yates, pp. 1-24.  And thus while I come not to review Prof. Piketty’s book, I will review briefly some of what Messrs. Foster and Yates, Editor and Associate Editor respectively, of Monthly Review, have to say about it.

Prof. Piketty is a statistics-based economist.  For years, he has been working on the gradually widening wealth and income gaps in the capitalist world.  Conventional, “neoclassical” capitalist economics tells that that the number one function of the system is to “generate full employment,” and that any failures along that line are generally “not its fault” but rather those of “frictions” and “government interference,” as capitalist economists and social critics from Ayn Rand on up or down (depending upon your point of view) repeatedly tell us.  The role and function of each individual working in the system is totally dependent upon what they “put into it” in terms of education, effort, and so on, not any external factors, such as the relations of production.

Contrariwise, Prof. Piketty, rather, with tons of data at his disposal, tells us that this is not so.  That in its current form capitalism is indeed designed to produce income and wealth inequality as its first goal.  As Foster and Yates point out, this conclusion of Piketty, who regards himself as a “neoclassical economist” in the capitalist camp, puts to rest (or stronger) the long-term capitalist myths, that the system, especially if the “free market” is allowed to function without “government interference,” works to the benefit of everybody.

Further, Foster and Yates make it quite clear that both classical and neoclassical economics (the latter being the dominant one in the capitalist world today) rather than being a set of theories upon which capitalism was built, are indeed a set of constructs designed post-hoc to justify the reality of capitalism that Marx and Engels described in their seminal work over the years of the mid-19th century.  One can hardly see the mill-owners in Manchester, England or the metal-works owners in the Wuppertal, Germany sitting down to read “Say’s Law” and then deciding, “ah yes, that’s how I’m going to run my business, and I’m going to run my workers into the ground because they just haven’t put enough into it, and I have.”

need_marxPiketty, apparently, makes a shambles of “neoclassical” theory, but he would seem to fail in one critical area: the primary function of capitalism is not the accumulation of financial and material wealth.  Plenty of rulers during the slave and feudal epochs did that.  The primary function is to create capital (gee, who was it who proved that, at great length, with lots of data too?), that is productive resources, to own and create more of it, privately owned, for private purposes.  The accumulation of wealth, especially in the modern era when much of the effective moderating force that grew out of the trade union/party movements and their accompanying political parties, that began in the 19th century, have been swept away or co-opted (see the British Labour Party and the French Socialist Party), is simply a by-product of the evermore concerted ownership of the means of production and its concomitant exploitation of the working classes, a truth of course that Marx and Engels revealed way back then.




Piketty's book as seen by other social critics

A sweeping account of rising inequality… Eventually, Piketty says, we could see the reemergence of a world familiar to nineteenth-century Europeans; he cites the novels of Austen and Balzac. In this ‘patrimonial society,’ a small group of wealthy rentiers lives lavishly on the fruits of its inherited wealth, and the rest struggle to keep up… The proper role of public intellectuals is to question accepted dogmas, conceive of new methods of analysis, and expand the terms of public debate. Capital in the Twenty-first Century does all these things… Piketty has written a book that nobody interested in a defining issue of our era can afford to ignore. (John Cassidy New Yorker 2014-03-31)

An extraordinary sweep of history backed by remarkably detailed data and analysis… Piketty’s economic analysis and historical proofs are breathtaking. (Robert B. Reich The Guardian 2014-04-06)

Piketty’s treatment of inequality is perfectly matched to its moment. Like [Paul] Kennedy a generation ago, Piketty has emerged as a rock star of the policy-intellectual world… But make no mistake, his work richly deserves all the attention it is receiving… Piketty, in collaboration with others, has spent more than a decade mining huge quantities of data spanning centuries and many countries to document, absolutely conclusively, that the share of income and wealth going to those at the very top—the top 1 percent, .1 percent, and .01 percent of the population—has risen sharply over the last generation, marking a return to a pattern that prevailed before World War I… Even if none of Piketty’s theories stands up, the establishment of this fact has transformed political discourse and is a Nobel Prize–worthy contribution. Piketty provides an elegant framework for making sense of a complex reality. His theorizing is bold and simple and hugely important if correct. In every area of thought, progress comes from simple abstract paradigms that guide later thinking, such as Darwin’s idea of evolution, Ricardo’s notion of comparative advantage, or Keynes’s conception of aggregate demand. Whether or not his idea ultimately proves out, Piketty makes a major contribution by putting forth a theory of natural economic evolution under capitalism… Piketty writes in the epic philosophical mode of Keynes, Marx, or Adam Smith… By focusing attention on what has happened to a fortunate few among us, and by opening up for debate issues around the long-run functioning of our market system, Capital in the Twenty-First Century has made a profoundly important contribution. (Lawrence H. Summers Democracy 2014-05-01)


It is easy to overlook the achievement of Thomas Piketty’s new bestseller, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, as a work of economic history. Debates about the book have largely focused on inequality. But on any given page, there is data about the total level of private capital and the percentage of income paid out to labor in England from the 1700s onward, something that would have been impossible for early researchers… Capital reflects decades of work in collecting national income data across centuries, countries, and class, done in partnership with academics across the globe. But beyond its remarkably rich and instructive history, the book’s deep and novel understanding of inequality in the economy has drawn well-deserved attention… [Piketty’s] engagement with the rest of the social sciences also distinguishes him from most economists… The book is filled with brilliant moments… The book is an attempt to ground the debate over inequality in strong empirical data, put the question of distribution back into economics, and open the debate not just to the entirety of the social sciences but to people themselves. (Mike Konczal Boston Review 2014-04-29)

What makes Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century such a triumph is that it seems to have been written specifically to demolish the great economic shibboleths of our time… Piketty’s magnum opus. (Thomas Frank Salon 2014-05-11) [A] 700-page punch in the plutocracy’s pampered gut… It’s been half a century since a book of economic history broke out of its academic silo with such fireworks. (Giles Whittell The Times 2014-05-07)


Nevertheless, Prof. Piketty has produced reams of data on the concentration of wealth, unassailable, one would think (except of course on Fox”News” as analyzed, I’m sure, by their all-round expert economist-scientists-physicians-climatologists like Hannity, O’Reilly and the folks at ”Fox and Friends” [but, I must admit I’m only guessing at that --- don’t watch them too much]).  And so, even though he apparently doesn’t talk about the central feature of capitalism, the private ownership of the means of production in an industrialized society, one would think that in order to deal with the ever-increasing wealth and income disparities around the world, he would propose some major structural reconstruction, no?  Well, no.  Prof. Piketty is a) a capitalist and b) a neoclassical economist (or so he regards himself, apparently) who has come up with reams of new numbers to justify his new conclusions about the nature of capitalism.  But those discoveries hardly make him want to change it.


“Neoclassical economics (the latter being the dominant one in the capitalist world today) rather than being a set of theories upon which capitalism was built, are indeed a set of constructs designed post-hoc to justify the reality of capitalism that Marx and Engels [already] described in their seminal work…in the 19th century.”


Marx said it all, almost two centuries ago, but the system apologists buried him.

Marx said it all, almost two centuries ago, but the system apologists buried him.

Does he indeed propose to change the relations of production, to change the mode of ownership of the means of production? Well, revealing (surprise, surprise) that he is not a Marxist, he does not.  What he proposes, rather, is wealth tax (!?!)  In so doing, Prof. Piketty reveals that he not only has no understanding of Marx, he doesn’t have any understanding of Lenin either.  (It is, as the song goes, hard to have one without the other) As Lenin described the real world (under any economic system, slave, feudal, capitalist or socialist) it is the ruling class, that is the class that owns and controls the means of production, that controls the State apparatus, legislative, executive, judicial, and repressive.  One must wonder then, a) why the ruling class would tax itself in such a way and b) even if it did, why would they distribute the product of such taxation to the benefit of the population at large.  Lenin wrote at length on how the ruling class controls the state apparatus.  It took Andy Borowitz (who may not even know that he is a Leninist) to boil it down into one sentence: “Midterms Prediction: Billionaires to Retain Control of Government.”


The acclaim given to Piketty’s book in the corporate media and by fellow mainstream economists can only be explained by the fact he is simply not a radical interested in replacing capitalism. He is one of them.

So after all, and after all of the kerfuffling and harrumphing by conventional neoclassical economists like Martin Feldstein, who said words to the effect of “wealth tax [!!]; are you kidding me [?!?]” we can see why the good Prof. Piketty presents no significant challenges to international imperialist capitalism.  The same capitalist mythology will continue to be promulgated: that “if you work hard, you can make it too,” that “if you don’t make it, it’s just your own fault,” and that for sure, “poverty is the fault of the poor.”  The latter falsehood of course has been around since Elizabethan England and the foundation of the first poor houses, well before any economists, classical or otherwise, had made their appearance.  But that doesn’t prevent the corporate-owned Duopolist Party from trumpeting it widely again, going into the upcoming mid-terms.

Just to repeat, classical/neoclassical economics serves the interests of the capitalist ruling class, which appeared long before economists did.  Indeed the history of the mercantile capitalism can be traced back to 15th century Venice, if not earlier.  The theory was developed to serve the socio/political/economic structures which their interests produce.  The theory did not come first, as much as the ruling and the mouthpieces/minions would like everyone to believe that it did.  As for class struggle, in Piketty’s presentation, according to Foster and Yates, fuhgeddaboudit.   As Foster and Yates state clearly: “Piketty’s acceptability to neoclassical economics is dependent on his avoidance of the question[s] of inequality and power.”  And acceptable he is.  Which does not mean, of course, that the Left cannot make great use of the great data that he has assembled.


JonasSteveSMALLSteven Jonas, MD, MPH is a Professor Emeritus of Preventive Medicine at Stony Brook University (NY) and author/co-author/editor/co-editor of over 30 books. In addition to being a Senior Editor, Politics, for The Greanville Post, (; he is Editorial Director and a Contributing Author for The Political Junkies for Progressive Democracy (TPJfPD) magazine (; a regular Columnist for BuzzFlash@Truthout (,; a “Trusted Author“ for Op-Ed News (;  a Contributor to The Planetary Movement (; and an occasional contributor to the Information Clearing House (, Dandelion Salad (, and TheHarderStuff newsletter.



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Where Hucksters Rule The greatest democracy in the world is actually a gigantic con job. Wed, 29 Oct 2014 02:41:52 +0000

OpEds: Democracy in America

The Democrats' leadership personifies the useless doctrine of the "Third Way"—a cover for social democrats doing the dirty work of Big Business.

The Democrats represent the fraudulent idea of a genuine alternative to hard-core corporatism embodied by the Republicans.

ANDREW LEVINE, Counterpunch 

In less than two weeks, this year’s midterm elections will be history; hardly anyone cares.  Why would they?  There are some state and local elections in the offing where the outcomes matter. But at the national level, it is a wasteland.

The results are already in too – ninety-nine percent of us lose.  We have no one to vote for, and no good way to vote against anyone either.

There is not even a good way to express contempt for what the duopoly party system has put on offer.  Not voting is an ambiguous gesture at best.

If control of the Senate weren’t at stake, even inveterate liberals would have a hard time finding reasons to care what the outcome will be.

They ought to have a hard time anyway.  In view of the abundance of evidence accumulated in recent years when Democrats controlled the Senate, it is hard to see how it could be worse were Republicans to wrest control away from them.

And, as President Obama starts a third Iraq War – or revives Number Two, depending on how you count – it is hard to enthuse over the candidates of his feckless party.

Still, elections focus the mind.  This election season is therefore as good a time as any to reflect on what (small-d) democrats ought to make of elections nowadays – the one about to happen and in general.

Thinking about them, it is hard not to despair.  So far from implementing defensible democratic ideals, they neuter democratic aspirations by disempowering the people, and then making them think that elections, the kind we are about to suffer through and others like it, are what democracy is about.

* * *

Until about two hundred years ago, “democracy,” rule by the demos, the people as distinct from social or economic elites, was widely regarded in much the way that “anarchy” now is.

The prevailing view was that while it could be enlightening to reflect upon democracy as a theoretical possibility, no reasonable person would actually endorse it as a political ideal.

The idea that massive non-voting is worse than voting for the lesser evil is an untested proposition amounting to a groundless “article of faith.” Like any Big Lie repetition has rendered it believable.—Ed.

This understanding dates back to the beginnings of Western philosophy; the reasoning behind it is already evident in Aristotle’s Politics.  For most of the past two and a half millennia, Aristotle’s position – not the details, but the general idea — seldom encountered serious dissent.

For both the ancients and the moderns, the prevailing view was that, except in very small communities, democracy cannot work; that effective governance is possible only when the few rule the many.  Monarchies and various forms of aristocratic governance pass the test; democracy does not.

But times change.  As the modern  — capitalist — era took shape, the demos, once an inchoate agglomeration of no political consequence, became a lively and potent presence on the political scene.  Rulers could no longer ignore its interests, except at their own peril.

And so, they and those who think for them changed their view one hundred eighty degrees.  The case against democracy was no longer that it couldn’t work, but that it would likely work too well.

The fear was that an empowered demos, without property or privileges, would put the property and privileges of social and economic elites in jeopardy.  What the ruling classes feared most, for just this reason, were free and fair elections.

But, for the peoples’ interests to be taken into account, there has to be a way to ascertain what they want.  This is what voting does.  Elections are indispensable.

Nevertheless, the two are not the same.  Elections are held in all kinds of circumstances for all kinds of reasons, not just to ascertain the peoples’ will.  And, in principle, statistical polling, or some functional equivalent, can work as well or better than voting for discovering what the people want.

This point was understood in Greek antiquity; in fourth century BCE Athens, for example, magistrates were sometimes chosen by lot.

The connection between voting and democracy is therefore more practical and historical than conceptual.  But there is a conceptual connection as well, and the association runs deep.  This is why it is natural to think of democracy and elections together.

Because elites feared the popular masses, the first elections in the modern era were modest in scope.   Voters could not decide very much, and voting rights were severely restricted – typically, to male, white property holders.

In time, though, it became apparent that, with well-constructed representative institutions and with political parties mediating between the people and the state, voting rights could be extended broadly without endangering the interests of ruling elites.  The demos, tamed, was no longer feared – not, anyway, in the voting booth.

And so, as if by common consent, democracy’s standing in the political culture changed; formerly despised when taken seriously at all, it became honored and esteemed.

The transformation was so far-reaching that, before long, no regime could count as legitimate without the consent of the governed, the people.

Of all the ways to indicate consent, political theorists came to focus mainly on participation in electoral processes.  From there, it was just a small step to the view that prevails today: that for a country to count as a democracy, it is both necessary and sufficient that its rulers be chosen in free and fair competitive elections.

Because views about what counts as free and fair are, almost without exception, undemanding, the requirement that elections be competitive is the one that, in practice, does most of the work.

In the United States, for example, if there is a Democrat running against a Republican, the election is ipso facto free and fair, so long as there are no unusually egregious shenanigans involved in getting out or suppressing the vote, and so long as the votes are tallied more or less honestly.

The election that put George W. Bush in office in 2000 is a case in point.  It was stolen, but, by prevailing norms, it was stolen fair and square.

Al Gore said as much when he conceded – after Republicans on the Supreme Court stopped Florida from recounting the votes.  It is now generally conceded that had the recount continued, Gore would have won the state’s electoral votes and therefore the Presidency.  However, nobody, Gore included, seemed at the time or later to care all that much.

As understandings of democracy were transformed and as the idea itself was revalued, democracy effectively dropped its connection to the demos; it lost its class content. The ideal became rule by the undifferentiated people, not the popular classes.

This made widespread acceptance easier, inasmuch as social and economic elites, though opposed as much as ever to demotic power, no longer found it useful to oppose democratic forms and procedures.

The institutions that shape opinion to accord with their interests naturally followed suit.

It is hardly surprising, therefore that, for some time, democratic theory has been a flourishing academic enterprise.

And with so much attention lavished on the topic, it is not surprising either that progress has been made in understanding what democracy is, and how it can be justified.

This too is hardly surprising.  Once the general line of inquiry was legitimated, denizens of ivory towers were more or less free to do as they pleased, blessed with means, motives and opportunities to follow the arguments, wherever they lead.

The downside of this freedom is, of course, political irrelevance.  Except when they have some pecuniary interest is this or that type of research, America’s social and economic elites seldom pay heed to what goes on in academic precincts; they neither know nor care much about it.

But the general drift does trickle out into the larger culture; and so, at least indirectly, sophisticated understandings of what democratic values and aspirations imply have taken hold.

This being the case, the political class has no choice but to get on board too, and at least pretend to follow.

It is therefore remarkable how attenuated the connection is between what democratic theorists envision and the real world of democracy.  There are few aspects of human life where the gap between theory and practice is wider.

* * *

In theory, elections combine the choices of individual voters, each counting equally, to produce a social choice that expresses the voters’ collective will.

When a simple numerical majority determines the outcome, the social choice is neither biased for nor against the status quo.   When larger majorities are required, the outcome is biased in favor of the status quo; numerical minorities have effective veto power.  This may be wise for some kinds of decisions – those that bear on constitutional arrangements, for example — and it is not necessarily undemocratic.  But it does introduce a limited form of minority rule.

It has been known for some time that there are significant conceptual problems involved in aggregating individuals’ choices in the ways democratic theorists suppose.  These problems have fueled important lines of research in economics, political science, and related fields.

But difficulties in generating social choices out of individuals’ choices seldom become manifest in actual electoral contests.  Those difficulties are therefore of more theoretical than practical importance.

And so, for all practical purposes, we can proceed as if majority rule voting does what it seems to do, and what the great democratic theorists of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries thought it could do.

Those theorists, and their intellectual heirs, fall broadly into two categories: those that idealize the fora of Greek antiquity, the site of public deliberation and debate, and those that idealize markets.

The most prominent exponent of the former view was Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778).  In his political philosophy, majority rule voting is part of a process in which citizens collectively discover what is best for the whole community.

What is best, as he conceived it, is logically independent of individual citizens’ opinions about what is best.   But, he argued, citizens collectively, in the right conditions, can discover what is best by combining their opinions through majority rule voting.

However, for majority rule voting to have this effect, citizens must vote disinterestedly; their votes must register their opinions about what is best, not their preferences for one or another outcome.

Rousseau held that citizens are well positioned to do this because, as citizens, what they want is what is best for the community of which they are integral parts.

In principle, therefore, they have privileged access to what is best for the whole community, in much the way that they have privileged access to their own preferences – not just their actual preferences (this is trivially true), but also to their ideal preferences, to what they would want given full knowledge and adequate reflection.  They know what they want – not infallibly, but well enough.

Like the political philosophers of Greek antiquity whose views anticipate modern democratic theory, Rousseau thought that public deliberation and debate are indispensable for shaping individuals’ judgments and therefore for getting the truth about what is best for the whole community to emerge in elections.

Philosophers who follow his lead today are, if anything, even more inclined to emphasize the deliberative side of democratic collective choice.

It is telling that a near contemporary of Rousseau’s, the Marquis de Condorcet (1743-1794) proved mathematically that if individual voters have a greater than 50% chance of getting the right answer on a matter of fact, the probability that a majority of voters will get the answer right rises exponentially, almost to certainty, as the size of the majority increases.

Condorcet was interested, in the first instance, in jury voting; that is, in cases where there is a matter of fact to be discovered because the defendant is either guilty or not.  Rousseau thought of voting in political communities in a similar way.  He thought that there is a right answer to the question: what ought we, the collective body of which are integral parts, to do?

The other model, more plainly a creature of emerging capitalism, trades on the structural similarity between consumer sovereignty in markets and democratic notions of popular sovereignty.

Adam Smith (1723-1790) famously conjectured that when economic agents do what is best for themselves, then, provided certain background conditions are met, the outcome at the societal level is, in a well-defined and pertinent sense, as good as can be.  This happy result comes about, Smith said, as if by the workings of an “invisible hand.”

In fact, it comes about because markets, like majority rule voting, aggregate individuals’ choices in ways that generate a social choice that reflects the preferences of individuals for alternative outcomes.

Inasmuch as we are disinclined these days to think that there is a right answer to such questions as, for example, should Barack Obama or Mitt Romney be President – or, worse, Hillary Clinton or any of a dozen certifiable Republican whackos – the market model has, by now, become overwhelmingly dominant.

The idea is that elections run on the principle of majority rule produce fair outcomes when everybody’s preferences are taken into account and accorded equal weight.  Nowadays, this seems only commonsensical.

What elections do not, and cannot, do, Rousseau notwithstanding, is discover what, as a matter of fact, is best, regardless of what people think.  The commonsense view is that elections cannot do that, even in theory, because there is no fact of the matter to discover.

But not all preferences are created equal.  Some truly are autonomous, freely formed by consumers and other economic agents, based on adequate knowledge and reflection.  Others are in one way or another induced.

In markets for consumer goods, most preferences are induced; advertisers and other hidden persuaders see to that.

Consumer sovereignty is therefore often a sham.  Consumers do determine outcomes by buying and selling, but the preferences they act on are not really their own.  The ideal is a theoretical possibility, but the practical reality is something else.

* * *

It is much the same in the real world of democracy, and for much the same reason.  Popular sovereignty too is often a shame.

In theory, the collective choice is the one most preferred by individual voters.  When elections are free and fair, this may be so.  But, even then, preferences are often shaped by circumstances and by outside forces to such an extent that the case for satisfying them is diluted beyond recognition.

In other words, the preferences votes register are often not preferences voters autonomously form.  They are preferences they are sold on, in just the way that they are sold on preferences for consumer goods and other objects of sales campaigns.

Because people understand this intuitively, it has become commonplace in practice to understand “democracy” in a way that has very little to do with traditional or even plausible theoretical understandings of democracy.

This is why the term is often used to designate practices that have more to do with liberalism, as traditionally conceived, than democracy.   For a regime to count as democratic in current parlance, it must, as liberalism requires, acknowledge and protect basic rights and liberties.

But only some of those rights and liberties, like the right to vote and otherwise participate in political processes, fall within the purview of democratic theory, strictly speaking.

This is obvious on a moment’s reflection: rights that accord liberal protections that have nothing to do with governance can be upheld, in principle, in regimes that no one would call democratic — in benevolent dictatorships, for example; and they can be denied in democratic regimes that fall prey to “the tyranny of the majority.”

Nevertheless, in the world today, countries that hold some semblance of free and fair competitive elections and that generally respect the individual rights that liberals have traditionally defended are deemed democratic.

This usage is widespread.  But the only real connection between it and any genuine strain of democratic theory is the endorsement it accords to democratic procedures in voting.

In the democracy envisioned by democratic theorists, people vote and their votes are counted fairly.  Allowing for inevitable imperfections and occasional shenanigans around the edges, this happens in our elections too.  But nearly all the action in democratic theory happens before this final procedural stage is reached.

And almost none of it happens anymore in American elections.

Where is the rational deliberation and debate?  The idea that there is any seems almost ludicrous.  For that matter, where is interest-driven electioneering?

The American party system used to have a place for that – in big city machine politics, in the labor movement, in rural areas, and so on.  The party system still fulfills some of its traditional functions; parties are instrumental for, among other things, recruiting candidates, staffing positions, and raising money.

But when elections come around, what they mainly do is sell their brand.   This has no more to do with discovering what is best for the whole community or for aggregating autonomously developed preferences than any other marketing campaign.

This is why the situation voters will face on November 4 in the election booth is very much like the situation they will face at the convenience store on the way there or back:  Coke or Pepsi.

Elections aren’t about doing what is best or maximizing collective preference satisfaction.  They are about persuading voters to choose Brand X over Brand Y;  they are about selling candidates to voters.   Hucksters run the show.

The affront to democracy would be more forgivable if the wares the hucksters were peddling were more responsive to peoples’ interests, particularly the interests of the popular classes, the demos.  With Big Money calling the shots, this is out of the question.

Why then care about the outcomes?   The question is mainly rhetorical because it is plain, nowadays, that the less local electoral politics is, the less reason there is to care.

Democrats could lose control of the Senate this year.  This is supposed to matter, but does it really?  Except to those who have a pecuniary interest in the outcome, it is not at all obvious how.

The outcome will determine who will serve America’s and the world’s social and economic elites.  There are no doubt differences among candidates and parties that matter to them; and, at the margins, the results could have broader consequences for others as well.  But the one sure thing is that whoever wins, the demos will lose.

Coke or Pepsi?  Neither is good for you and, for most people most of the time, neither is especially appealing; yet Coke or Pepsi choices are all that the system offers.  Even the lesser evil, these days, isn’t clearly lesser.

When the time comes to vote, voting for the lesser evil, if there is one; is as reasonable an option as any, though there are problems associated with the practice – like accelerating the race to the bottom.  But lesser evil voting hardly speaks to the real problems at hand.  The only way to do that is to change the system itself.


ANDREW LEVINE is a Senior Scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).



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The War Nerd: The long, twisted history of beheadings as propaganda Terror, as war propaganda, has a long history, sometimes subterranean, always sordid. Tue, 28 Oct 2014 19:58:22 +0000



Well, here we are: Another American journalist beheaded by the Islamic State (IS). First it was James Foley, a wild-child freelancer, who was shown kneeling on the sand in an orange jumpsuit—a little visual revenge on Guantanamo dress code—while a Brit jihadi scolded America for daring to interfere with the Islamic State’s blitzkrieg-lite campaign to overrun Northern Iraq.
Foley’s beheading video was released on August 19, 2014. Two weeks later, IS killed a second American hostage, Steven Sotloff, using the same jihadi mise-en-scene: Sotloff in an orange jumpsuit, kneeling in the sand, while the same London-raised war tourist stands next to him with a short combat knife, gesturing with the blade while complaining again about the sheer unfairness of airstrikes taking out IS comrades.
Then the blade goes into action—though several news networks announced they had no intention of showing the actual knife-work, in a “That’ll show those terrorists” tone. Yes, the media is doing its part to fight terrorism—by giving it a bigger buildup than bikini week during the sweeps, then doing a classic tease-cut before the X-rated stuff.
It hasn’t been a great moment in media. Most commentators are settling for outrage, horror, shock, disbelief—the whole deplorer’s thesaurus. But there’s really nothing very irrational or surprising about these beheading videos.  IS was on a roll, overrunning lightly armed Peshmerga and village militias, before the US ruined everything by authorizing drones and airstrikes. It must have been damned annoying, being an IS fighter, bouncing over the plains in your Toyota Hilux, as the terrified Iraqi Army forces vanished ahead of you in a cloud of panicky dust. Quite a rush for the mix of AQI survivors and European-Muslim war tourists who fill IS’s ranks.
And then all of a sudden, you go from the dashing light-armor knights of the Iraqi plain to the biggest, most vulnerable targets imaginable—thin-skinned vehicles crawling over a completely flat, treeless plain while the drones buzz overhead, armed with Hellfire missiles, just waiting for authorization from a desk jockey in suburban Virginia before they release a weapon designed to destroy much bigger, tougher, Soviet tanks. Suddenly, you, with your Sunni Lawrence of Arabia war-tourist dreams, are nothing but a bug getting zapped by an automated pest-control device.
It’s insulting. And the kind of young men who join IS are romantics, of a sort. They might not mind dying in the abstract—most guys don’t, at that age, until they find out what it feels like to get shot in the stomach—but they hate the idea of dying in such an unchivalrous way.
So, they take their revenge the best way they can: With a video camera, a hostage, and a short, sharp knife. Why a short knife, by the way? Why not use an ax, if you’re going to behead someone? Because with a short knife, you have to saw the head off slowly. It’s how you kill a sheep. It’s degrading to the victim.
Beheading, done with a sharp, heavy ax or sword, was traditionally an aristocratic death in Europe; when Dr. Louis invented the guillotine, he was extending human dignity, as he saw it, by making a noble and quick death by decapitation available to the masses—a huge improvement on hanging, which was usually the “yank on a rope til he stops moving” kind, not the advanced calculation of the Victorian hangman you see in movies. The Parisians loved the new machine; they had a sweet little name for death by guillotine: “Putting your head on the windowsill.” And it was that easy—lay your head down and off it rolled!
But decapitation by knife is a very different matter from the sharp, heavy, greased blade of a guillotine. When you saw the head off with a small knife, you’re not trying to make it quick or easy. You’re doing several things at once, aimed at several different audiences who’ll watch the video online: For the audience of IS supporters worldwide, you’re offering revenge porn, revenge for all the airstrikes hitting IS positions over the past few weeks, and for all the other American attacks over the years, inflicted on the body of this American captive.

Suddenly, you, with your Sunni Lawrence of Arabia war-tourist dreams, are nothing but a bug getting zapped by an automated pest-control device.

For the American/Western audience, you’re hoping to provoke disgust and horror intense enough to weaken support for any more intervention in Iraq. Finally, you’re hoping that some Kurdish and Shia Iraqi fighters will see or hear about the video, because you want them terrified of you. It was that terror that led many Iraqi Army units to bug out before they ever even saw the black flag of IS up close. As Brando intoned while the sweat dripped from his fat face in Apocalypse Now, “Terror is your friend…” When you’re a relatively small conventional fighting force like IS, terror is your best weapon.
So these videos are eminently practical and effective. The one thing they won’t bring about is the demand the beheader makes: Getting the US to stop the air/drone strikes on IS.
But why the emphasis on beheading? IS has used Kalashnikovs to kill low-value prisoners—Syrian and Iraqi soldiers and security men, suspected informers, collaborators—very quickly and efficiently.
Automatic rifle fire is the best way to kill lots of people quickly, but it lacks the slow, atavistic drama of beheading—which is why IS uses the knife on its high-value prisoners, especially Americans.
Sunni jihadism is a profoundly conservative, defensive movement, a reaction against the corrosive flood of new social rules—above all, uppity women, secularization, and the privileging of civilians over warriors.
Sunni jihadis like the men of IS are very willing to use the latest social technology in their propaganda, but that propaganda is in the service of a deeply nostalgic struggle. So naturally, they are drawn to the most universal, powerful, familiar image in war propaganda, all through human history and across all known cultures: The severed head of an enemy.
I doubt that the IS crew who put together these videos know much about Mesopotamian history (in fact, IS is downright hostile to history, smashing every artifact they can find)—but the fact is, there are Assyrian bas-reliefs showing the very same scene, acted out on pretty much the same patch of ground, almost 3000 years ago. Using the best visual-media technology available at the time—stone walls carved in bas-relief—Assyrian sculptors created in loving detail a portrait of their King, Sennerachib, using a short knife to saw off the head of a kneeling prisoner. All that’s missing is a link to Facebook and that Guantanamo jumpsuit.
The Assyrians were experts in using the available media to spread terror, or respect—the distinction wasn’t so clear in their world—for their war-making ability. They used the same skill in carving bas-reliefs to show their kings blinding prisonersimpaling rebels, and otherwise displaying their familiarity with the pain centers of the human body. But those are all exotic variants; always and everywhere, the most basic form of showing your victory over a prisoner and his tribe is decapitation.
Decapitation is the classic way of demonstrating that you have defeated your rival, once and for all. Some cultures found it more practical to take less bulky, messy trophies than the whole head, like scalps or ears. The Tibetans—who have never been anything like the sweet pacifists Hollywood Buddhists imagine them to be—named a region of their country “The Plain of Stinking Ears” because, after a victory over the Mongols, they moved among the enemy dead collecting ears, so many they filled several carts, and then laid the ears out on the ground to dry.

…The ten myriarchies of Tibetan troops defeated the many hundreds of thousands of Stod Hor troops. As proof of having killed many thousand [Mongols], they cut off only the right ears [of the dead] and put them into many donkey loads… the ears started stinking. After they had exposed them to the sun on a cool plain, the stone enclosure…is today known as ‘stone enclosure of the ears’ (Tib. Rna ba’i lhas).

When Tibetans called the place “Plain of Stinking Ears,” they weren’t complaining or deploring the alleged horrors of war. Deploring such things is a very, very recent trend. The Tibetans were bragging, not complaining. The stench of the enemies’ ears was a source of deep patriotic pleasure for them, and a kind of humor as well: “Whoa, we collected so many durn Mongol ears, they stank the place up for good!”
Then there were scalps, penises, and other body parts—all ways of confirming the death of an enemy without the trouble of bringing back an entire head.
The Mayans, always inventive where human anatomy was concerned, liked to tinker with their prisoners of war by removing their fingernails, and devoted huge, detailed frescoes to showing the unhappy, bound prisoners looking at the blood pouring from their mangled fingers.
But the trouble with all this elaborate mangling, as compared to decapitation, is that the victim could survive the operation. When you took the head, that wasn’t a possibility. So, across the centuries, around the globe, the gold standard in war propaganda has always been the removal of an enemy’s head.
There’s a practical side to lopping off the head, of course—it’s guaranteed to diminish the combat value of the victim—but its importance as war propaganda is much greater. It’s a show of power—“look what we can do!”—and a deterrent to future challengers (“You want this to happen to you? Then don’t mess with us!”), but it’s also a revenge movie for audiences who aren’t satisfied with fictional representations of revenge, and a demonstration, for the devout, that God is on the side of the decapitator, and has abandoned the decapitate-ee.
The first, simplest method of displaying this trophy was to post it—literally, as in ‘stick it on a post’ and put the post up in a prominent position, like a crossroads, the entrance to the chieftan’s hut, or the border zone between two clans’ territories, as a way of saying, “You might want to stay on your side.”
But the actual severed head, though a powerful image, had its limitations. It didn’t last, for one thing. So, as communications tech evolved—and I’m talking about the last several thousand years here, not just the last couple of decades—tribes’ ways of disseminating the image of the severed head that would reach a wider audience and last through the hot season without drawing flies.
Stone-carving, a huge breakthrough in war propaganda tech, allowed a conqueror to leave a record of his ravages that would, in theory, last forever. Yeah, maybe your Art History class chose to focus on nice images like the bust of Nefertiti or the Pieta, but those were exceptions. As soon as human cultures discovered stone-carving, slaves were put to work carving, in loving detail, all the monstrous tortures and slow, unpleasant deaths inflicted on enemy combatants and prisoners of war.
One of the most popular scenes carved in stone, painted on wall murals, etched into panels, and recorded in every known writing system, was the killing of prisoners taken in war. This mass ritual killing was a pre-television way of bringing the gore to the home front, as those unlucky enough to be taken alive would be marched back to the capital and killed, either by the ruler or at the ruler’s command, in front of huge, cheering crowds. The sheer number of depictions of these killings, by cultures all over the world, shows their importance as propaganda. Pharaoh Ramses II, shown four or five times life size, grabs prisoners representing three rival countries—a Syrian, Nubian, and Libyan—by their distinctly styled top-knots, bringing their necks up to a good angle for the ax he’s holding.
Japanese troops in China, 1894, watch happily as prisoners are brought up and beheaded, their Manchu ponytails rolling in blood.
A British Royal Marine holds up two severed heads, both Chinese-Malaysian villagers suspected of Communist sympathies, in the 1948 CI campaign.
You could actually argue that the most basic subject for human art, across all media and all eras, is the depiction of a victorious soldier holding up the severed head of an enemy. It’s a synecdoche for victory, instantly understandable without language, across cultures.
So it’s only natural that as communications media change, that same image will be disseminated by the new media. First came the heads-on-sticks, then stone-cutting—decapitations in bas-relief along the palace walls, to impress visitors with the wisdom of obedience. Then, with the printing press, it was possible to show the most important beheadings to people who might never leave their villages to go to the capital.
After the near-miss of the Guy Fawkes plot to blow up Parliament in 1605, gloating Protestants found a way to combine old and new by publishing wood-block prints of the severed heads of Fawkes and his fellow Papists, stuck up on pikes like a barber’s advertisement for new beard stylings for hipsters.
You might expect, given this long history of exploiting new tech to disseminate the beloved image of the severed head,  that when photography, then motion pictures, come into use, we would see more and more detailed images of this scene. But it didn’t quite happen that way. There was a little thing called the Enlightenment, that convinced some human cultures—not all, but disproportionately those which had the money and advanced tech to use film and photo—that we were actually nice guys, and that it was a little barbaric to devote so much artistic energy to heads without bodies.
Beheadings still took place, on even larger scale—but they were off-stage now, as the Victorians developed a sly new way to exploit gore. As the colonial empires grew more and more powerful, they no longer needed to show the folks on the home front images of enemies’ severed heads. It went without saying that British, French, and Spanish colonial armies could slaughter hundreds of “natives” without suffering serious casualties, and showing those slaughters in detail might awaken something like pity.
So Victorian war propaganda focused on the few, the very few, European casualties of the colonial wars. The “natives” who died at a rate of 100, or even 1000 to one, in some of those late colonial slaughters, were unfilmed, as the empires struggled to make their invasions seem like a grim moral duty rather than a bloody spree.
Only the latecomers, the imitators, like Japan—doing its best to act like the big boys of the colonial enterprise—were naïve enough to produce beheading images. They were slow to get the message, and it cost them dearly.
What the cutting edge empires, particularly the Anglos, had learned, was that when it comes to beheadings, it is better to receive than to give. Better to let the foolish, old-school warriors try to inspire their troops by making videos of themselves holding up a Westerner’s head. It’s the best propaganda the West could ask, in the run-up to massive air strikes.
The high point of this new strategy was the waning British Empire’s brilliant propaganda campaign against the Kikuyu in Kenya during the Mau-Mau Uprising of the 1950s. If you watched English-language media, all the beheading, mutilating, and other low-tech bloodshed was on the hands of the Kikuyu rebels. The Empire was merely trying to restrain their bloody hands. After a few scare movies and hysterical, blood-soaked radio broadcasts, “Mau-Mau” meant sheer terror.
Only when Caroline Elkins looked back at the records of the rebellion did the truth come out. The Kikuyu, driven from their lands, revolted with minimal violence, killing only 32 British colonists over the whole war. The Empire killed or maimed 90,000 Kikuyu over the same period, and still came away with the role of peacemaker, restorer of order.  (Click here to see this BBC account of the British counterinsurgency campaign.—Ends)

Mau-Mau prisoners.  Their treatment was despicable, but the Brits had the upper hand in propaganda power. They still enjoy it, thanks to their close affiliation with the American juggernaut.

Mau-Mau prisoners. Their treatment was despicable, but the Brits had the upper hand in propaganda power. They still enjoy it, thanks to their close affiliation with the American juggernaut.

That’s the way you do it. The good old days of severed-head videos just don’t work like they used to. It’s not that we don’t kill; we kill wonderfully, better than ever. But the tech has gotten too good for us. Now that everyone from Kuala Lumpur to Oslo can watch your knife cutting through the fat on a beheading victim’s neck, the power of the stylized depictions in earlier media is gone. What’s left is more like a surgery demonstration, and it’s out of tune with the happy tone of the social media—Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest—you’re sending it through.
What you want on those media is to be an object of sympathy—the decapitated, not the decapitator. Well, “you,” the individual losing his head, may not particularly feel thrilled that you’re serving as excellent passive-aggressive Western propaganda and airstrike pretext. You singular, the unlucky adrenaline freak who thought it’d be a smart idea to go to Iraq, may not be pleased at all. But in the tribal sense, you are doing much more for the propaganda goals of your people—the ones with the drones—than that fool of an Ali-G-hadi with the knife is for his.
We’re all familiar and comfortable with the second kind of propaganda, showing the devastation wrought by whatever enemy the propagandist is trying to demonize at the time. But, again, until recently, that kind of pity-based propaganda was a very minor variant on war propaganda that stressed the devastation wrought by our side. When this kind of war propaganda shows images of pain, death, and destruction, it’s a way of reassuring the home folks that we are the biggest badasses around, and they are the ones suffering devastation.
It’s funny how many people nod their heads when someone intones Sherman’s pithy phrase about war as Hell, but forget that it’s a Hell that takes a lot of energy, one that has to be sustained by nonstop, enthusiastic human effort. That ought to tell us something most people would rather forget: We have a huge, endlessly-renewed appetite for cruelty, as long as our clan/tribe/sect/nation is the one dishing it out, rather than taking it.
In fact, it’s only very recently that human cultures have learned to be coy about that fact. Before the Victorians came up with the brilliant notion of depicting conquest as a dreary but needful chore, war propaganda was an innocent, constant celebration of horrors committed by the victors, incised on the bodies of the losers.
This article appears in PandoQuarterly issue three, published later this month.

 (Original iteration Sept. 3, 2014)


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Boycott the Vote The moment is ripe to try something different. The system's apologists are showing concern the vote will not legitimate the results. Tue, 28 Oct 2014 17:29:12 +0000


This time around Mr. & Mrs America may decide to stay home in droves. (lick to expand)

This time around Mr. & Mrs America may decide to stay home in droves.  (click to expand)

by MISSY BEATTIE, Counterpunch

Go to and enter—never mind. Just click this to see a new synonym for voting, the word juggernaut.

Okay, okay, for those of you in a rush, unlikely to detour, here are the definitions:

(often lowercase) any large, overpowering, destructive force or object, as war, a giant battleship, or a powerful football team.

(often lowercase) anything requiring blind devotion or cruel sacrifice.

Also called Jagannath. an idol of Krishna, at Puri in Orissa, India, annually drawn on an enormous cart under whose wheels devotees are said to have thrown themselves to be crushed.

Yes, this is what happens when you go to the polls to cast your vote on Election Day. You are juggernauted or Jagannath’d, despite the brainwashing, the belief that your candidates will listen to your voice, embrace your needs, and represent you. You have thrown yourself beneath the crushing wheels through your blind devotion to a formidable force—suffrage.

I voted for the last time in 2012. I did not intend to vote. I told people I wouldn’t vote—that voting was legitimizing a corrupt system. A wedge issue sucked me beneath the wheel. While there, I stared at the names of the candidates for president and then wrote in “Nobody”. Still, I felt icky, ashamed enough to reject the sticker I was handed to attach to my clothing, an advertisement that I was present and counted, a reward for participating.

What about you? Do you still have that Obama bumper decal on your car? Do you still believe he’d fulfill those lofty campaign promises if he didn’t have an obstructionist Congress? Please.

Do you still have that Obama bumper decal on your car? 


Are you one of those supporters who said, “During his second term, he’ll make those changes? He won’t be concerned about running again.” Please.

Some months ago, I told someone I don’t vote. He was angry. Said I was responsible for unleashing vast problems and I’d get what I deserve.

I just reread that paragraph (above this one) and shook my head, stunned that he doesn’t get it. Doesn’t GET that it’s no longer a decision between greater and lesser evils. They, the men and women who manipulatively attempt to convince us that they are one of us and will act in our interests, are equally evil in their service to Wall Street, in their choices that deliver squalor and violence to the world’s children, in their acts condemning these children to either a joyless future or no future, period.

Furthermore, those who control the electoral model aren’t stupid. These uber-wealthy, the powerful exploitive class on whose behalf politicians perform, know precisely how to market voting as a vehicle of freedom and democracy. This is propaganda.

I’m reminded of another definition: engaging in the same behavior over and over and expecting a different result. This is insanity. Voting is insanity.

If I weren’t despairing and repulsed, I’d laugh that Hillary Clinton, signing, selling her book, and campaigning for Juggernaut 2016, said that when she and Bill left the White House, they were broke.

If I weren’t despairing and appalled, I’d laugh that Joe Biden, campaigning for Juggernaut 2016, said he’s poor, that he wears “a mildly expensive suit” but has no savings account, no investments. Jill’s name has to be on those monthly statements.

If I weren’t despairing and disgusted, I’d laugh at their out-pouring of, well, out-pooring.

But get a load of this. You MUST click that link. It’s a Whoa, a WTF?, an assault, offensive and insulting to sooooooo many people.

I’ve made a measured decision to boycott the vote, joining Election Boycott as an act of conscience. Hit that link too.


Missy Beattie has written for National Public Radio and Nashville Life Magazine. She was an instructor of memoirs writing at Johns Hopkins’ Osher Lifelong Learning Institute in Baltimore. Email:



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