Saturday, November 26, 2016

Remembering Fidel

Mourning the Death of Fidel Castro and Remembering

Readers are encouraged to discuss Castro's legacy, and what happens in Cuba now

Tristan Ewins

News today of the passing away of former Cuban Marxist revolutionary and President Fidel Castro.

Fidel rose to power through the vehicle of a popular insurgency which overthrew the corrupt US-backed Batista government.
   Turning to the USSR for support, Castro survived arguably hundreds of assassination attempts, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Bay of Pigs invasion, and more.  He built a one-party state – albeit one based on overwhelming popular mobilisation and participation.  Arguably his government was authoritarian: though this must be largely understood in the context of terror attacks, and the aforementioned assassination attempts.   Much like Western intervention in Revolutionary Russia drove Lenin to embrace a spiralling Red Terror (which ultimately descended into Stalinism), Castro embraced authoritarian measures to ward away his adversaries.  Though certainly he was never a monster like Stalin. 

For decades Cubans flourished in the context of a system which prioritised Health Care for all,
  reducing infant mortality, eliminating illiteracy, and reaching out to Cuba’s neighbours  through the vehicle of volunteer doctors and teachers.  Indeed, on many indicators (eg: infant mortality) Fidel’s Cuba out-performed his neighbours, including the United States itself.

Castro was one of the earliest and most consistent opponents of Apartheid in South Africa.
  He actively supported revolutionary movements in Central and South America, including in Nicaragua and El Salvador.  The brutality with which those movements were repressed – with US support – stands in stark contrast with many Western nations condemnation of Fidel’s government as ‘totalitarian’.  Repression of left-wing movements, including the murder of Liberation Theologian Archbishop Oscar Romero ; saw the deaths of hundreds of thousands.

But when Communism collapsed in the USSR and Eastern Europe in 1989-1991 Cuba was left exposed to the long-term US Economic Embargo.
   Living standards fell on many indicators.  But still Cubans overwhelmingly supported their government.   Fidel lived to see the Cuban economy recover ; and to see his brother, Raul engage in ‘fence-mending’ with the government of Barack Obama.  Under Raul there were market reforms – which were essential to Cuba’s survival, including its engagement with the rest of the world ;  But Cuba’s identity and orientation remained inarguably socialist.  For instance Cuba remained implacably in solidarity with the Leftist/Bolivarian governments of Venezuela.

All this aside,
 the threat of Terror and assassination do not fully explain or fully excuse repression in Cuba.  There have been extrajudicial executions ; Imprisonment of political prisoners, systemic harassment of critics.  Cuba’s government may have overwhelming popular support: but as Rosa Luxemburg effectively argued in contrast to Lenin and Trotsky: human rights and democracy must always also be rights for those who dare to think and speak differently.  It is easy to romanticise Fidel’s reign given his enormous personal charisma.  But on the Left we must keep in mind the shortcomings, also.  And strive to do better.

Nonetheless for many of us on the Left this is a sad day.
  Fidel achieved so much in his leadership of socialist Cuba.   And socialist Cuba’s survival in the post-Cold War world is remarkable.  Fidel deserves to be remembered for the sum of his achievements and of his legacy.  Some of that is questionable ; but much of it is laudable.   When we remember him let it be in applying those same standards to our own governments ; and the governments of our historic allies.

Friday, November 11, 2016

What the Trump Victory means about 'Political Correctness', 'Anti-Political Correctness' and the American Working Class

above: An Exhausted Hillary Clinton after the Shock Donald Trump Presidential Victory

'Political Correctness' is a common bogey deployed by the Right in order to wedge the Left ; But here 'Anti-Political-Correctness' is the much bigger problem when viewed in perspective ; As effectively argued by former Keating speech writer, Don Watson.  At the same time the Left needs to 'return to class' ; and engage with opinions we don't like.  The 'political pressure cooker' alternative may blow up in our faces...

Dr Tristan Ewins

In response to the surprise Trump victory in the US Presidential election

  I’ve written a couple of letters to Australian newspapers : though neither published yet.  Before engaging in a broader examination of ‘political correctness’ and ‘anti-political correctness’  (which I thought I’d deal with in response to some negative commentary) – here are the letters in their original form.

First to ‘The Age’:

Hard as it may be to believe there’s a silver lining to the US Election result. Instead of being taken for granted one way or another, both Republicans and Democrats will now have to take account of the needs of the US working class. Bipartisan support for the neo-liberal interpretation of globalisation will need to be re-thought. In the mid-West and elsewhere the industrial working class and its sons and daughters have long suffered a deindustrialisation which robbed them of social and economic security and identity. The Right also increasingly uses narratives of ‘Left elites’ and ‘political correctness’ to drive a wedge against the progressive Left. An unambiguous return to class politics could sweep the rug from under that strategy. The old Left made the mistake of taking working class support for granted. Some in today’s US Democrats make the opposite mistake of ‘writing white male workers off’. What we need is a strategy to build a multi-faceted electoral bloc based on a politics of solidarity, mutual respect, and mutual liberation.

And also to the ‘Herald Sun’ ( a counter to Andrew Bolt):

Andrew Bolt calls the Trump election victory “a revolt against the Left’s arrogance” (10/11). But reality is more complex than this. A neo-liberal consensus - a particular INTERPRETATION of ‘globalisation’ - has prevailed around much of the world, facilitated by BOTH the parties of the Right and of the ostensible Centre-Left. Working class people who had lost their identity, as well as their economic and social security with the destruction of their jobs – gravitated towards a promise to restore America’s industrial base. Trump’s old school protectionism might not be the answer, but Nordic-style, targeted industry policy might serve better. Policies which promote high value-added manufacturing alongside Research and Development, and promotion of information and communications technology industrial development. Instead of taking their orientation for granted, the US Left needs to actively court the working class – including white males – with policies that offer the respect and security which could be key to building a broad electoral bloc, and rolling back Trump’s support base.

After I had posted one of these at Facebook I got the response from one reader:

I see, so white males are the most important in all of this are they?

I was surprised at this as I thought many on the Australian Left could see the problems with US politics ; that is – the lack of a clear class perspective; and hence the political alienation of a great many American workers.  Great swathes of the American working class have been co-opted by Conservative interests who play ‘divide and conquer’.   This is similar to the situation in Australia.  For instance where certain media outlets play the working poor off against some of the most vulnerable welfare recipients.  

That strategy is detestable ; but has proven quite effective.

The best response it to build solidarity – and promote the rights and interests of both those on benefits AND the working poor.   More robust labour market regulation and social wage provision for the ‘working poor’ is a crucial strategy in response to those Conservative ‘wedge strategies’ in Australia.

In the US, however, the Democrats have allowed themselves to be wedged by propaganda which emphasizes themes of  ‘political correctness’ , ‘Left cultural elites’ and so on.  (also similar to Australia) What’s more, modern identity politics has paved the way for this strategy’s success.  The class perspective was abandoned.   There has been an emphasis on the privileges of white men – but where class just never comes into the picture.   At its most vulgar and simplistic this is interpreted by some as suggesting there is something just ‘essentially bad’ with white male identity, sexuality and status.  

Race and gender no doubt need to be seriously taken into account when constructing a critique of privilege and power in modern capitalist societies.
  They are a big part of the overall picture.  We need greater equality in the labour market, the public sphere, sport, the home, and so on.  We need a women’s movement which demands these – and more.

But as former Keating speech writer Don Watson effectively argued on QandA recently (I paraphrase) : ‘political correctness can be bad’ ; although ‘anti-political correctness is much worse!’.

The lack of tolerance for real engagement with more conservative social perspectives : indeed the tendency to supress debate for fear of being vilified or shamed – actually plays into the Right’s hands.  It can create a ‘pressure cooker’ environment which can finally explode with the rise of a Trump-like character.  And if people are already disengaged because no-one is speaking to their economic and social interests ; and because they are prejudged as ‘red-necks’ – that just facilitates the Conservative agenda.   (not that Trump is ‘traditional Conservative’)

But sure
 - the monopoly mass media does the same thing – but in reverse.  Mostly it fails to engage with progressive perspectives.  Systemically excludes them on any significant scale. Often it facilitates that strategy of ‘divide and conquer’.  It facilitates intolerance, fear, ‘downward envy’ and so on.  Often it is intellectually dishonest.

Compared with so-called ‘political correctness’ the ‘anti-PC’ movement
 is so frightening as it could facilitate a full-on political and social Reaction : perhaps even fascism in some instances.   There is a disposition to wind back past gains: social security and welfare ; affirmative action and women’s right to choose ; the welfare state and social wage. Civil and industrial liberties are mocked, belittled and trivialised.

Here I had chosen in one of my letters to mention white working class men specifically because of their strategic importance ; but also because they matter as human beings ; and should just not be ‘written off’.
 Karl Marx argued for the human liberation of ALL working people.  Facilitating the fullest possible human development of all working people ; and the amelioration (and finally abolition) of alienating forms of human labour under conditions of material abundance.  That is: Marx critiqued physically and/or mentally punishing labour with people treated people like ‘cogs in the machine’.  Where labour was for subsistence ; and its fruits are taken by capitalists in the form of a surplus.  So emphasising peoples’ class interests could be ‘the foot in the door’ – to gain peoples’ trust for a broader strategy of mutual solidarity ; and of building an unbeatable electoral bloc. 

I like to think of the strategy I propose as one of ‘mutual liberation’.
  The aim, here, is not to write off or humiliate those demographics who are considered ‘problematic’.  But rather to suggest that the liberation of each is interconnected with the liberation of all. This should involve a real conversation: about democracy, and about class, race, sexuality, liberal rights, education and civic activism, and gender.   

In Australia right now it could be argued we’re wrapped up in veritable ‘cultural revolution’ with regard to gender and sexuality.
  Broadly this revolution is a good thing.  But arguably sometimes ‘the Left’ gets it wrong.  Privilege can be conceived of in a overly-simplistic way: not only neglecting social class , but also age, disability, body image and so on.  What is more: real privilege is complex.   If we are to employ an approach of ‘intersectionality’ (ie: the various forms of privilege and the ways in which they intersect) we need to use those more complex variations on that framework : which look to specific experiences.  Not ONLY the large scale social relations of inequality and oppression ; but ALSO the highly individualised experiences.   When we accept this we can see that we ought not judge any person until we fully understand their individual circumstances.  Without accepting this we are left in the position of unnecessarily alienating some people: people who might otherwise be convinced if there was a strategy of respectful engagement.  

But where the project of liberation is subverted into becoming a project of ‘turning the tables’ this also can fuel a political and social reaction.
  It can ‘blow up in our faces’ with exactly the opposite consequences to what we aspired towards.

So the Trump electoral result is a real wake-up call for the broad American Left.
  ‘Class’ has to return to the front and centre of progressive American politics.  Promotion of working class interests is a good thing in itself ; but also ‘a foot in the door’ for a broader engagement on the project of mutual human liberation. 

Active and targeted industry policy is a desirable strategy to engage with the needs and aspirations of the traditional industrial working class.
  To achieve full employment ; and the creation of secure, well paid jobs.  The movement for a $15/hour minimum wage needs to be fully embraced – and even updated to account for inflation and a rising cost of living. Industrial rights and liberties are paramount.   The neo-liberal interpretation of free trade and globalisation needs to be re-thought in a way which does not undermine popular sovereignty.  While nonetheless encouraging nations to take advantage of each others’ specialisations and comparative advantages.   And making the most of everyone’s  ‘skill sets’ ; not leaving them on ‘the labour market scrapheap’. And the benefits of the social wage and welfare state need to be sold to layers of the working class which used to enjoy such benefits provided through the private sector.
Finally I should mention the fact that despite being slaughtered in the electoral college vote, Hillary Clinton won a clear majority of the popular vote.   In this scenario the ‘industrial rust belt’ really was critical to the Trump ‘electoral college landslide’.  That’s the sense in which we have ‘a silver lining’.  That those displaced by a decades-long process of deindustrialisation must finally be taken seriously.  That workers’ interests more broadly will be embraced as being of real strategic value.  That the working class will no longer be practically ‘invisible’ in American politics.

The question of Trump’s ‘mandate’, however - and the ‘mandate’ of the Republicans more broadly – needs to be viewed in this context.
  Also it is cause to apply a critical eye to the US electoral system.  It demands constitutional reform.

Finally: although Bernie Sanders will not likely re-emerge as a Presidential candidate in four years time, nonetheless the movement he helped create is far from exhausted. If anything it may gain momentum if Trump’s failure to deliver disillusions parts of his base.
  Economically Left: they are in a position to appeal to workers’ interests.

Hillary Clinton has not ‘shattered the glass ceiling’.
  And indeed while her victory would have been of great symbolic importance – it is actually POLICY and how it affects specific groups which matters most.  Clinton will not likely return ‘for another shot’ in four years’ time.   But also it really is only a matter of time before a woman ‘takes the top job’.  Also she was the first woman candidate to run in a US Presidential election.  And she won the popular vote.  Regardless of her flaws: that will go down as history.

Saturday, November 5, 2016

Trump Economic Policy not 'Business as Usual' for Neo-Liberalism - But Clinton offers real change for the Working Poor

above:  The Economic Policy Contest between Clinton and Trump is more interesting than a first glance may suggest

Dr Tristan Ewins

This week I begin my blog post with a correction.  In an earlier article I described Donald Trump as ‘a neo-liberal’.  Based on corporate welfare policies – such as cutting corporate tax by more than half , as well as cutting other taxes affecting corporations  – this may have appeared accurate.  But upon closer inspection this election is more interesting than it first appears.

Yes, Trump wants to hold minimum wages down to the existing miserly rate of $7.25 an hour.  Yet Democrats are campaigning for an increase to $15 an hour. For the American working poor this could prove to be a real watershed.  Though Clinton has only absolutely committed to a rise to $12/hour she will be under significant moral and political pressure to go further.  That could result in a defining moment for social justice in the workplace at ‘at the lower end’ in America.  But the centre-piece of Trump’s economic policy is a reversion to protectionist policies.  He has talked about a 25% tariff on Chinese goods and a 35% tariff on Mexican goods.  Hence Trump's position is actually NOT 'business as usual for neo-liberalism'. But the immediate effect of this may well be to shore up some American jobs ; but there’s the prospect of economic retaliation as well.  If that happens it could hurt everyone.

Trump is assuming massive growth in jobs and investment – and that revenue from tariffs will pay for the massive tax cuts ; as well, perhaps, as reductions in some military expenditure – pressuring NATO allies, and East Asian allies such as Japan and South Korea to invest more into their own defence.  Hence Australian commentators such as Paul Kelly suggest (I paraphrase here)  a ‘US withdrawal from the world stage’ , and the end of the US as ‘world’s policeman’, ‘enforcing a liberal political model’, including in our region.  (though In reality the US was often concerned with its diplomatic and economic hegemony more-so than ‘enforcing liberalism’)  Conservative commentators such as Greg Sheridan fear US partial withdrawal from the region and what it might mean for Australia. (eg: pressures for a big increase in Australia's Defence budget)

Hillary Clinton’s economic policies contrast quite starkly with Trump’s economic policies.  She is proposing  big investments in infrastructure, child care,  and in boosting women’s economic participation.  Also borrowed from Bernie Sanders – she is proposing policies to cut back student debt and hence make tertiary study more accessible.  Further she supports profit sharing with workers, collective bargaining rights for organised labour, and investment in the broader education system – both academic and vocational training.   She’s also supporting longer-term investment by taxing short term investment more severely than long term investment .

Other authors are also pointing to the malaise amongst layers of the US working class – still scarred by the process of deindustrialisation which took effect from the 1970s to the 1980s and 1990s.  Authors observe the loss of certainty and security.  Often there have been much lower wages.  Losses of health benefits.  Loss of respect, working class identity, organisation and social networks.  And where the US Democrats have increasingly pitched their message to ‘the middle’ , working class Americans are sometimes left to wonder ‘if they really matter anymore’.  Many modern middle class liberals have a lot to say about the privileges of being white and male, but have had little to say about the working class ; or about class more generally.   These ‘blind-spots’ have left many working class Americans disoriented ; and at least Trump was speaking to their experiences, fears and insecurities.  Even if his ‘solutions’ are dubious.  Sometimes working class Americans even feel patronised by a ‘middle class liberal establishment’ which hasn’t taken class seriously enough ; which sometimes have disrespected or misunderstood them, or subjected them to caricature.

On the other hand Clinton’s policies do offer more social mobility through greater access to tertiary education.  And while she won’t restore the industrial working class jobs which many look back to as representing a kind of ‘heyday’ ; some working poor Americans could see close to a doubling of their hourly wages rate.   Some jobs might go ; but others will be created by the increase in consumption power.  Clinton has some good economic policies – obscured by the never-ending mud-slinging ; the constant emphasis on ‘dirt’ and ‘denigration of character’.  (which has become the defining feature of the campaign for both sides)

That said Clinton needed to do more and say more to win over great swathes of working class America. 

US industrial working class music icon,
Bruce Springsteen has called Trump a ‘conman’ with ‘glib’ and ‘superficial’ ‘answers’ to a problem which has spanned over several decades.  Massive tariffs on China and Mexico are a very blunt instrument.  Again, they may provoke retaliation which ends up hurting everyone.  What jobs are created will possibly pale in comparison to the collapse in corporate tax revenue , with a loss of public sector jobs.   

But a more nuanced industry policy – such as the Nordics have experimented with over the decades - should not be considered ‘out of the question’.   The age of retirement must not rise – either in America or in Australia – in order to buoy the economy.  That’s the wrong approach – which depresses rather than improves real living standards. (ie: with a ‘work/life balance’)  Neither should labour market deregulation aim to ‘clear the labour market’.  

Strategic economic intervention makes more sense.  Targeted education and training linked with job creation for existing/sympathetic skill sets.  More extensive retraining where necessary for those deemed capable.  Perhaps even government support for workers co-operatives – providing tax breaks and co-investment to help maintain jobs, and improve economies of scale without dependence on take-over capital. 

The US government needs a PLAN for a far more balanced and equitable labour market and economy.   Clinton’s increase in the minimum wage is a good start ; as are her plans for accessible education and greater economic and social mobility.  But depressed regions cannot just be left ‘to carry the can’.  Durable jobs need to be created and maintained over the long term.  And communities need to be reinforced around the necessary social infrastructure.   Where the loss of well-paying working class jobs in manufacturing and heavy industry saw the loss of private sector benefits in areas like health – the State needs to step in and fill the gap.  The social wage is potentially the answer for both middle income and lower income Americans.   And the working class needs to return to ‘the front and centre’ of Democrats policy and rhetoric.

The real danger now is that Trump is gathering enough momentum to deny the Democrats control of BOTH Houses ; ie: the House of Representatives AND the US Senate.  SOME of the truly progressive policies emanating from Hillary Clinton have been derived from Bernie Sanders ; and enshrined in the Democratic Platform.  With control of both houses and massive political and moral pressure to implement that platform – we could see some truly meaningful gains under a Clinton Presidency.  But failure to speak to the fears and insecurities of the US working class – including recognition of the dignity of labour – have undermined the Democrats position ; and left these people exposed to Trump’s demagogic posturing on the home front.   

Even on parts of the Left some are also fearful that Clinton may prove to be too ‘Hawkish’ on the foreign policy front.  Trump is seen by some as ‘the lesser evil’.   Julian Assange will likely never forgive the US Administration’s pursuit of him under Obama.  L.B.Johnson implemented ground-breaking ‘Great Society’ social and welfare policies – but will be remembered by most as pursuing the war in Vietnam.  We need a United States which doesn’t just ‘roll over’ in the face of aggression.   But which at the same time goes to extraordinary lengths to preserve peace as well.  And which appreciates the concerns of other Great Powers where they are legitimate.  Yet a vacuum from any US withdrawal within our own region could create more instability, not less. (though no I am not making excuses for past US policies, such as support for the Suharto regime)

The US Presidential Election is almost upon us.  Let’s hope for a Clinton victory.  But also for a reformed Democratic Party which speaks to – and shows clear respect for – the United States’ working class.

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