Friday, June 26, 2009

The tottering US imperium

Dedicated empire-watchers like myself have long been arguing that the days of the US imperium are numbered. But the argument for this position quickly becomes a little more intricate than I would wish. The imperium has two foundations -- financial and military -- and they are mutually reinforcing. The collapse of one has grave implications for the other. Without the ability to run huge fiscal deficits -- and as a concomitant have them financed by foreigners such as the Chinese and Japanese -- the US military complex cannot be sustained even for a year or two. Yet there is now a growing reluctance to finance these deficits when the value of the paper these foreigners buy (in return for real goods and services) becomes increasingly dubious. This growing scepticism and reluctance is what we've been seeing the last few months, and in particular at the meeting in Yekaterinburg a few days ago attended by SCO and BRIC countries (see Hudson's article here for an excellent analysis).

Every week now there are a handful of articles in serious publications worrying about the fate of the dollar. The crux of the problem is an utterly irrational US financial and political system whose dynamics no-one understands -- not even those at the helm of affairs in the US. For instance, no-one knows what the consequences of "quantitative easing" are going to be -- is it going to be deflation or Weimar-style hyper-inflation? No-one knows. Even I don't know. All serious people agree, however, that the house of cards that is now the US economy, is looking increasingly fragile and unsteady. The US today is not the juggernaut of half a century ago. Most people also agree that this is a time of transition as the US loses its top-dog position and we enter a more confusing multi-polar world whose rules and dynamics are unclear.

The catalyst for this post was a well-crafted article in the Daily Telegraph.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

The effectiveness of strikes in difficult economic times

Here is an interesting article in today's Guardian:

The most recent walkouts have naturally focused on jobs, as insecurity grips the labour market. But they also show that, as one leading trade unionist puts it, "it isn't inevitable that employers have the whip hand, even during a recession, and collective action can deliver results" – while passivity guarantees that jobs, pay and conditions are culled, squeezed and slashed.

Second, they underline the irrelevance of anti-union legislation when workers are determined and well-organised. Every single one of the walkouts at Lindsey and at dozens of other power stations and refineries has been illegal under what Tony Blair boasted were "the most restrictive union laws in the western world". But so far no employer has even hinted at a visit to the courts, so counter-productive would that be in the real industrial world.

It's now become obvious that only by defying or ignoring the anti-democratic legislation bequeathed by Margaret Thatcher – which outlaws, for example, all solidarity action – will there ever be the political will to ditch or replace it with something more reasonable.

This is precisely what should be occurring in the United States. American workers need to be organising and striking. And even more importantly, they need to be aiming for political power. Had American labor not relinquished claims to political power eons ago, the social, economic, and political texture of the country would be radically different today. As it is, American labor gets into a one-night stand with the Democratic Party at election time -- a party that is indistinguishable from the Republicans in its obeisance and fealty to capital.

American capitalism is unequivocally demonstrating that it does not work -- except for an insignificant minority of capitalist. Yet without insistent countervailing pressure from labor, absolutely nothing will change. We can already see this clearly. And conditions for American labor -- and by implication the mass of American people -- are continuing to steadily deteriorate.

Friday, June 19, 2009

SUV's under Socialism

Ecology & Marxism – Do they connect?

Most older Marxists – no matter what tradition – were brought up thinking that the ‘production’ of material goods was one of the only gauges to measure the well-being of the proletariat. Marxism developed against capital, but Marxism also developed in a world where resources were just being developed, or ‘exploited.’ Hence Lenin and Trotsky were for industrializing the primitive, mostly agrarian Soviet Union (quite rightly), and Stalin took this to the ultimate extreme, favoring giant industrial building projects over closing a ‘scissors’ of any kind – the 'scissors' being the relationship with the countryside and peasantry. Instead, it was widened. We can see this today in the deformed and even more degenerated workers’ state in China, which has become the productive marvel of the world under its’ mostly planned economy, while depopulating its impoverished rural areas.

However, a look back at the Soviet Union shows some of the niggling flaws in an approach that favors production over anything else. Visit Baku and see the devastation of dry holes, rusting oil derricks and poisoned soils for miles around the city. Watch the Aral Sea shrink, as it is used for irrigation across the plains – to the point where the lake is disappearing. And then there is Chernobyl, which continues to affect hundreds of thousands of citizens with the aftermath of radioactive poisoning. Regarding China, an excellent article in Mother Jones in 2007, "China's Pollution Problem Goes Global" by Jacques Leslie shows what pell-mell production has done to China and her people, exclusively from an environmental and health point of view. It is devastating.

As scientists first and necrophiliacs last, Marxists have to examine this new (actually not so new) phenomenon, and integrate it into our program. A good case can be made that environmentalism should be considered an essential part of an updated transitional program. Where environmentalism would fit into the bureaucratic/Stalinist model of the minimum/maximum ‘program’ conundrum, or the Maoist ‘mass’ line, I really do not know.

The most prominent synthesizer of Marxism and environmentalism in the U.S. is John Bellamy Foster, the editor of Monthly Review, a long running left-Marxist journal in the U.S. Foster wrote “Marx’s Ecology – Materialism and Nature” in 2000. This ground-breaking work looked at the works of Marx and Engels and how they noted environmental pollution and the ill-effects of capitalist production on the health of the working classes of England and Germany. Polluted water, leveled forests, smoke-filled air, work accidents, bad food, early death– it was all noted as part of the exploitation of the working classes. Environmental ‘racism’ would be no surprise to Marx or Engels. Foster has just come out with a new book called “The Ecological Revolution – Making Peace with the Planet.” I have not read the book yet, but his thesis is that human survival – and the survival of our class – is based on a revolutionary transformation of our relationship with the planet. He points out that capitalism cannot succeed at this task, as ‘profit’ demands the unending exploitation of people, plants, animals, air, water and land. So it has been from the beginning of the capitalist mode of production. Only socialism, which is based on scientific planning and not profit, can make the switch to a sustainable economy. Socialism is not based exclusively on the unthinking exploitation of nature.

We are all familiar with the position – from ostensible Marxists no less - that anything less than an SUV in every driveway, a 10,000 foot house on every lot, and a 4x4 in every woods is the due of the working class. Bicycling, growing your own food, shutting off the lights, eating organic, reusing and repairing, vegetarianism, grey-water systems, saying no to bottled water, getting rid of throw-away products, solar or wind power - you get the idea – are all expensive and ‘petit-bourgeois’ deviations from working class needs. This by the way is also the view of right-wing Republican populism. This interesting congruence should raise a ‘red flag’ in the best possible sense.

While it is true that many of these practices did not solely originate from the working class, it is also true that they did not originate from corporate America. American workers have been buying used goods, or repairing broken ones, or eschewing the ease of expensive throwaways since the class began. If one has been to Hanoi recently, bicycles outnumber cars or trucks – though small scooters are now the majority. Vietnamese food is not grown with massive inputs of chemical oil-based fertilizers, as this costs too much. It is fresh and organic – horrors - and is reputed to be the best food in the world, if you listen to people like Anthony Bourdain, or even your own stomach. Anyone following the development of Cuba since the collapse of the Soviet workers’ state will find out that the Cubans have developed organic agriculture to an extent not seen anywhere else in the world. Their army of scientists has been devoted to this issue. This was occasioned by the end of cheap Soviet oil imports. If Cuba had been a capitalist society, they would have gone into debt as a nation to buy more oil from OPEC or the United States. The Cubans refused to go this route. Interestingly, urban gardens in Havana now account for much of the fresh food in the city. North Korea also faced this situation in 1989 too. Instead of switching over to another mode of agriculture, hundreds of thousands or more died of starvation. This does not reflect well on the entrenched bureaucrats in Pyongyang in comparison to the cadres in Havana.

More importantly, an SUV in every driveway, a 10,000 foot house and a 4X4 actually impact the environment of the rest of the world. Internationalists do not consume in a state of oblivion. The constant flow of scientific data now indicates that global warming is past the point of no return, and that it is affecting the third world even more than the first world. Which is one reason the Republican Party pooh-poohs global climate change as an erroneous ‘theory’ – they couldn’t care less about people in Bangladesh. Or New Orleans. Unless Marxists can refute the science behind global climate change, Marxists are obligated to follow what it indicates. And by all indications, global warming is now farther alone than most thought only two years ago.

The other fact that will dominate future development in the world is peak oil. American capitalism was based on early and massive exploitation of oil – the most useful and powerful energy source ever discovered. To some extent, the immense growth in the Soviet Union was also based on drilling for oil. Oil is the key commodity for the recent development of capital. US imperialism cut off the oil supply to Japan, which was one of the sparks behind the attack on Pearl Harbor. The Battle of the Bulge was won because the Nazi tanks ran out of … gasoline from Rumania. The two wars in the Gulf were directly based on control of this most precious of commodities. Arguments can be made over the importance of oil to the wars in Afghanistan and in the former Yugoslavia. And as oil dwindles it will become more precious, more expensive, more destructive, but also more marginal. The oil age is over, and Marxists should read the handwriting on the wall.

I have to agree with Foster that without a Marxism infused with environmentalism, we will be unable to cope with the destruction of our biosphere, or the depletion of oil, and hence our ability as a class to lead the way to the future. As the saying goes, an unlimited appetite for ‘goods’ has now run up against the limited objective carrying capacity of the planet. The effect of bourgeois ‘globalism’ has created its opposite - a sense of a some world-wide alternative to a runaway cheap-labor, oil-war Dickensianism.

Enlightened Democratic capital thinks there is a purely technical fix to this – turbines, solar panels and a massive grid. And this project is indeed part of the solution. However, conservation is not a concept that is bankable, even under ‘enlightened’ capitalism. Nor is the need to control production, and eliminate anything that is unsustainable. Capital cannot do this – without moving towards social control.

Note my use of the word ‘enlightened’ – most capital is not enlightened and will fight the other wing of capital, and the working class, to the death. This is partly what we see in the battle between the Republican and Democrat parties – the clash of outmoded production, and an ostensibly ‘new’ production. Al Gore and Obama want to grow or transform a new generation of capitalists to meet this situation – witness what they are attempting to do with Chrysler and GM. However, they are also representatives of that whole capitalist class. Given this, they cannot carry through this battle to the end, and will instead protect all wings of capital. The collapse of the capitalist world economy is already hindering efforts to accomplish this transition in time. Money for a new grid is being dumping into warfare or the dead banking system by the Democrats. One of their solutions, the proposed market for ‘pollution credits’ will only create another unregulated gold rush in pollution derivatives – and, as has been proved in Europe, will not slow carbon production significantly. As "AA" points out in his reference to the declining dollar, this will make deficit financing even more difficult for U.S. imperialism - including infrastructure improvements related to a green economy.

Of course, China, which has created itself as the workhouse of world capital, has many of the same dilemmas. What they have as an advantage, however, is some centralized planning control. Overnight they shut hundreds of small coal plants. Overnight they ordered an end to the production of plastic bags. Overnight they decreed that all new skyscrapers built in Shanghai and Beijing would be ‘green.’ This is the benefit of a theoretically planned economy, not one dominated by a short-term market and millions of individual bourgeois decisions. Because global warming and peak oil are not ‘short term’ issues, the short term corporate shareholder is not the best judge of where an economy should go. Nor is a government theoretically and financially based on these same shareholders able to chart a real solution.

Both books by Foster are available at Mayday books.
Red Frog, 6/19/2009

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The Wizards of Wall Street have convinced millions of younger Americans that there will be no money for their Social Security retirement This could happen if we let the finance thieves run things and it would have come partly true if the Bush plan for privatizing the system had been enacted.
As of now, our planet is quite sick BUT with intelligent planning it can support 2 or 3 billion more persons for a millennium or two and, as always, there is more than enough labor to create the wealth needed to provide economic security for everyone. The same would be true for our health care system. Or is this overly optimistic?

Bye-bye, US hegemony

In the last few days there have been three articles devoted to the imminent demise of US financial hegemony -- a corollary of which will be the loss of US military hegemony.

1) An essay by Michael Hudson on "de-dollarisation,"

2) An essay by W. Joseph Stroupe on the move out of dollars and US Treasuries,

3) And an essay by Chris Hedges on how bankrupt the US imperium is.

These essays are of interest to someone like myself who for years has known that the US-dominated financial system is utterly unsustainable but yet was never able to figure out what kind of tectonic changes would have to occur for the demise of the old system and its replacement by a multi-polar system. In the past few months we've begun to receive intimations, suggestions, of what an emerging new set-up may look like. It appears that both the world's major central banks and private investors are becoming increasingly averse to both dollars and US treasuries. This means it will not be possible for the US to deficit-finance its budget. And since half the budget deficit for this year is defence-related, this suggests the US is going to have to trim its sails. Drastically.

I always enjoy everything Michael Hudson writes. If memory serves, I bought one of his two books -- "Global Fracture" -- at Mayday some years back, and this was my introduction to his historical analysis of how the US-dominated financial order came into being. In the essay listed above he examines how, inter alia, the emerging BRIC powers, are trying to diversify out of dollars -- primarily for economic reasons (no-one wants to be left holding a bag of worthless paper), but also with an eye to reducing USA's deficit-financed bellicose stance towards the rest of the world. But in order to get out of the present system, they have to devise a new one, however tentatively and uncertainly. This is what the current SCO meeting in Yekaterinburg is all about.

The second essay, by Stroupe, confines itself to discussing how Washington's policies of exploding budget deficits is undermining faith in both dollars and Treasuries, and how this will likely accelerate a trend towards a new global around based around the major emerging economies rather than the USA and UK.

And the final essay, by Chris Hedges, rewords some of Hudson's essay, and points out some of the dire domestic implications for the United States. Some of these can be questioned but will no doubt divert those who enjoy doomsday scenarios.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Not Socialist Realism...

Let Us Now Praise the Dead –

The Grateful Dead got their start in 1965 in the Bay area. They are on tour this summer again, 45 years after they got their start as the Warlocks in 1964. The survivors – Phil Lesh, Bob Weir, Bill Kreutzman, Mickey Hart – were joined on this summer’s tour for the second time by Allman Brother’s member Warren Haynes, and by keyboardist Jeff Chimenti of Ratdog, who is the permanent keyboardist now. Former core members Jerry Garcia and Rod ‘Pigpen’ McKernan, lyricists Robert Hunter and John Barlow, and keyboard players Keith Godchaux, Tom Constanten, and Vince Melnick, along with female vocalist Donna Godchaux, were all inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1994 as members of the Grateful Dead. People like Stanley Owsley, the creator of LSD, was their soundman for many years. They are the most long-running rock act in the U.S. The only acts that have been around longer are doing an ‘oldies’ style show at casinos. I don't think I go out on a limb when I say they are the best live rock band - ever.

Let us examine what the Dead have done to music.

They came out of a scene in San Francisco that was not controlled by corporate music interests. It was the product of an artistic community of musicians and the cultural impact of the unique times and a unique place – San Francisco. Other bands like the Jefferson Airplane, Santana, Country Joe & The Fish, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Moby Grape and Janis Joplin/Big Brother came out of that same organic scene. In fact, at Monterey, they and the other San Francisco bands faced off with the more commercial groups from Los Angeles. The Dead played free shows and benefits constantly. They fought and succeeded in controlling their studio sound from record one. They are one of the main historical links between the Beat Generation of the 50’s and the counter-culture of the 60’s –working with Ken Kesey and Allen Ginsburg at “Acid Tests” – and traveling with Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady on the ‘bus.’ Their style of music is an amalgamation of blues, country, folk, bluegrass, rhythm & blues, 50’s rock, electronica and jazz into a peculiarly American style. First called ‘psychedelic’, they became the originator of the ‘jam band’ scene, which has spawned imitators like Phish, Widespread Panic and festivals like Bonnaroo and ‘10,000 Lakes’ across the U.S. In effect, they encompass almost every popular U.S. musical style. Their use of drugs to enhance music creativity and collectivity is almost unique, but also predictably destructive.

The Dead started out as a cover band, and continue to play covers of Rolling Stones, Dylan and the Beatles, along with blues, country and 50’s covers. They make each cover song their own, which is why they can get away with it. Listen to Pigpen singing “King Bee” and compare it to Jagger, and you will see McKernan rips the throat out of the song, while Jagger sounds like a mincing boy. They are the best cover band in the country, and in this process, show their respect to other musicians, and to popular music’s traditions.

The Dead are the most recorded live group in history, playing more than 2,350 concerts, including three at the Great Pyramids in Giza. They encouraged their live shows by allowing music tapers, not discouraging them, and not suing people who recorded them ‘illicitly.’ They were the first group to sell soundboard CDs to fans after each show. Until recently they sold their own tickets so that people did not have to go through Ticketmaster – a conglomeration of thieves. They are followed by both young and old at live concerts, not just elderly fans in wheelchairs and oxygen tanks. Their fan base is, to put it mildly, very dedicated. Very few bands have such numbers of people who drive from one concert to another. Concerts range up to 3+ hours normally, so that the audience gets their money’s worth. Marijuana is a standard item at concerts, shared by many, and hence the band plays a non-public role in efforts for the legalization of this, and other, drugs. A Dead concert is a sort of semi-religious event, heightened by the marijuana as communion, much as peyote is used in Native American Church. People dance for nearly the whole 3 hours, so it has something of the nature of an ecstatic St. Vitus dance. They like outdoor arenas due to the clear sound outside. Essentially, the heart of the Dead sound is jazz improvisation, by every musician, not just one. Set lists vary from night to night, and songs are played as themes, not copies. So one song can have many versions, segueing into each other, which stretches the music out. This is the heart of their jazz approach, and one reason people like Wynton Marsalis play with them.

Garcia started as a bluegrass player, Lesh as a classical musician, Pig Pen as a blues man, and Kreutzmann as a jazz drummer – incorporating their styles at the very beginning. No other band has two such accomplished drummers as Kreutzmann and Hart – making the Dead sound heavily rhythmic and intricate. Hart himself has become a top ‘world music’ drummer. Every concert includes a 15-20 minutes “drums & space” set allowing these two to stretch out, which includes an electronic section that the other members come in on.

Since day one, sound quality and instrument quality was a number one concern. They were tired of the low quality PA systems offered bands. Their interest in giving the audience the best sound possible lead to the Wall of Sound – a massive distortion-free sound system with 7 separate instrument systems - being developed by Oswley and Alembic Studios. The Dead recorded their albums on 4 and 8 track systems long before any other band, including the Beatles. They even went independent for awhile, putting out their own albums. Their staff was large, and paid well – until they could no longer support so many people. Graphically, the Dead still rely on striking graphics and light shows at their concerts. No other band has so many ‘logos,’ symbols and emblematic/thematic visuals – strutting bears, skulls alone, and crossed with roses, terrapins, Uncle Sam as a skeleton, and others. Most music acts pay little attention to artwork – but the Dead, and the San Francisco sound they came out of – revered visuals.

The Dead have done it their own way from the beginning, not following the clich├ęs of the music business. They came out of a collective music scene, and the way the band toured and played was an extension of that collectivity. Which is why so many musicians have been part of the band. They represent the best of American popular music creativity and artistic freedom. So let us praise the Dead. They are growing old, and will one day no longer be able to play. They are the great American ‘rock’ band. Period.

And you cannot buy them at MayDay books.
Red Frog – 6/7/2009