Obama and Miracles that Never Happen

By Gowans

If 10 times more people claimed to have attended Woodstock than were actually there, I suspect 10 times more people claim to have wept at Obama’s election victory than actually did. Weeping on the night of November 4 – or claiming you did — has now become a fashion. I, too, wept, though not because Obama won, but because the number of times I heard the words “Obama is the embodiment of hope” was too much to bear.

The day before the election, my son called me from school.

“I was just interviewed on Obama for the national news,” he related excitedly.

“”How’d that happen?”

“Actually, it was a group of us who were interviewed. I’m not sure I’m going to make it on the newscast, though. The reporter was looking for gushing reactions, and I pointed out that I had some concerns about Obama because he had received more in corporate donations than McCain had. I don’t think that’s quite what she was looking for.”

No mistake there. Two days later the segment aired in the last 10 minutes of an hour-long news show devoted to documenting (and manufacturing) excited reactions to the Obama victory. After 50 minutes of Europeans, Asians, Africans and Latin Americans delivering encomia on the Obama victory, my son’s chance at a brief moment of public exposure arrived. A group of high-school students, my son among them, is seen walking into a room. The reporter turns to each in turn and asks, “What do you think of Obama?” The first, a young man born in Canada to Chinese parents, says he identifies with Obama, because they’re both ethnic minorities. Another talks of hope. A third says she gets shivers down her spine whenever she hears Obama talk. (Demonstrating a talent for prophecy, my son predicts two days earlier that “She’ll make it on the newscast for sure.”) And so it goes, each student joining in the celebration, because, wasn’t that the implicit contract? Gush over Obama, and see yourself on TV. My son, whose concerns over Obama’s netting more corporate donations than McCain clashed impolitely with the intoxicated atmosphere of Obama worship, became a voiceless image; the one student who, for reasons never explained, was seen, but not heard, on camera.

To those grasping at straws, the election of a black man as president signals the recession of anti-black racism in the United States. For the gullible, it signals the dawn of a new age of hope.

There have been black people in numerous positions of power in the US before, from CEOs to mayors to governors to secretaries of state to the country’s top soldier. Now we can add president. Will anything of substance change because of this? Obama’s victory hasn’t caused anti-black racism to recede; it is, instead, a consequence of this. Will a black man in the White House make clear to the romantics who haven’t figured it out yet that black people are no different from white people, equally capable of oppressing, exploiting, plundering and killing on a massive scale? Add that liberals are as capable of these things as conservatives, and Obama, the black liberal president, offers no hope of departure from the accustomed trajectory.

Despite its recession, anti-black racism has only receded to the point where a privileged black man with rare forensic talents, the massive backing of the corporate community, and the help of the best marketing talent money can buy, can get elected; it has by no means disappeared, nor receded enough to make a substantial difference in the lives of most black people.

But for black people there’s inspiration to be found in one of their own ascending to the highest office in the land. The joy is misplaced. The only thing Obama shares in common with 99 percent of blacks in the United States is the color of his skin, and skin color, when you get right down to it, is only of consequence to bigots who continue to embrace the echo of a racist ideology once used by slave-owners (who happened to be white) to justify exploitation of slaves (who happened to be black.) If you’re going to screw people over, it’s useful to have a body of legitimizing ideas; after all, who wants to come face to face with the reality that he’s an unconscionable prick living off the toil of others? That’s where racism comes in handy. And if we’re talking about people exploiting others of the same skin color, there’s a whole other body of ideas to justify that, which, in these days of thin class consciousness, most of us mistake for common sense. To be sure, skin color does matter to the victims of racism because they can’t escape the fact that the bigots who continue to embrace the echo of a racist ideology keep making a fuss about it. But that makes Obama as much like them as George Bush is like me.

Come to think of it, George and I are alike in many ways. We’re middle aged; we both trip over words; we’re white; we’re male. But so what? George comes from a ruling class family; my forebears worked in factories, did manual labor, and in recent years, ascended to the ranks of the white-collar proletariat, deluding themselves that by wearing a tie and acting “professional” they had transcended their class. George snorted coke; I worked in a pharmaceutical factory for his friend Donald Rumsfeld. George went to Yale and the Harvard Business School on his family’s money; I went to two undistinguished public universities, one located in the gritty industrial city of Hamilton, Ontario, paying subsidized tuition with money saved up working at a grocery store. Whatever we have in common is picayune next to what sets us apart.

The very best comment I’ve heard on the Obama victory comes from Mickey Z. Obama’s ascendancy, he said in a Dec 1 interview published in the British newspaper, The Morning Star, “is an excellent illustration of how the system handles dissent. A black face, a soothing voice and a vague message of change – all designed to keep the rabble pacified without changing anything at all.”

While a debate whirled around me during the days leading up to the election over the question of whether leftists ought to vote for Obama or opt for someone who wasn’t going to put more boots on Afghan soil and rattle the Pentagon’s sabre at Iran, I kept my counsel. For one thing, I’m not a US citizen. The job of everyone else in the world is to bear the brunt of the stupid decisions Americans make. As much as the rest of us wish the consequences of their choices were limited to the US, sadly, what happens in the United States often has dire consequences for those living everywhere else. For another, all the reasons for not voting for a Democrat or Republican had been made cogently and repeatedly before, apparently, to no avail, and having exceeded my limit in flogging dead horses, I was tapped out. What’s more, it was clear that the Obama-supporters had formed an impermeable seal around their brains that admitted no appeal to reason. This was to be a purely emotional choice; hence, the tears of joy on election night.

While a vote for Nader had its merits, I couldn’t help but wonder whether the Nader-supporters shared a delusion with the Obama-backers – that of believing that the right person in the Oval Office would make a difference. Americans might be excused for this delusion; after all, they’ve never elected a leftwing president and therefore have been spared the cold blast of reality that disappoints those who’ve worked to elect a leftwing government. Had they not been deprived of this sobering experience, they would recognize their faith in third party politics for the naïveté it is. A quick survey of what has happened when social democrats, socialists and even communists have won elections and formed governments with a program of reforming the system from within, leaves no doubt as to the possible outcomes. A new socialist age is not one of them. Either the new government:

o Recognizes that it must cater to the imperatives of the system it has chosen to work within to prevent its rule from being destabilized, and therefore behaves as any other pro-capitalist government does.

o Boldly introduces anti-capitalist reforms, only to suffer a backlash as investors and businesses withdraw their capital and refuse to make further investments. This provokes an economic crisis, and the government’s supporters, menaced by rising unemployment or shortages or rampant inflation, withdraw their support.

o Is ousted in a military or fascist coup.

o Is destabilized by outside forces.

Only where the energy of the bulk of people has been mobilized to tear the system down and replace it with one friendly to popular interests, have leftwing forces prevailed for any substantial period.

How is it, then, that substantial reforms, such as the public health care systems of Western Europe and Canada, came into being, if not by the agency of leftwing governments voted into power to reform the system from within? The truth of the matter is that reforms were just as likely to be introduced by conservatives as social democrats (and none of the reforms ushered in by Western governments, often as Cold War expediency, ever matched the programs established under Marxist-Leninist governments in the Soviet Union and Eastern European.) It was Bismark and Gladstone – hardly lefties — who introduced the first modern social welfare programs. The basis for social security in the US came not from the Democrats or organized labor, but from the Rockefeller-founded Industrial Relations Counselors Inc., to head off labor unrest. While a Labour government was introducing the NHS in Britain, conservative governments on the continent were introducing their own NHS equivalents. And in Canada, it was the conservative government of John Diefenbaker that introduced the Hospital Insurance and Diagnostic Services Act of 1957. Social democrats have claimed social programs as their own, but they can lay no claim to being the sole parents, and have just as often been involved in dismantling the reforms predecessor (and often conservative) governments had introduced.

The programs pursued by governments are shaped by the circumstances they encounter, surrounding events, and for those with reformist aims, by the constraints of the constitutional system and the logic of the capitalist system they’ve chosen to work within. Left-leaning governments bow to the demands of the capitalist economy to survive; conservative governments introduce reforms and concessions to head off labor militancy. Often these constraints are ignored by critics, who assume implicitly that the right person, once elevated to a position of power, is free to make history as he pleases. “Once our man is in power, just wait to see what happens.” The answer is often, more of the same, or policies the government’s backers revile.

Across from me sits a book on whose spine is written “Giving Away a Miracle.” It’s the story of the unlikely election in the 90s of a social democratic government in Ontario (the miracle.) The giving away began the very same night the party was elected, as its leader began beating a hasty retreat from the party’s campaign promises. It ended with the party, the supposed voice of organized labor, tearing up collective agreements it had negotiated with public sector unions.

The transformation from rhetorical champion of the average worker to just another pro-capitalist government was inevitable. The promises made – among them public auto insurance — would have ended in a messy fight with corporate Canada. Investments would be delayed, capital would be taken out of the province, and jobs would be lost. The news media, which exert a powerful influence in shaping public opinion, were uniformly hostile, warning that the new government would turn Ontario into an economic basket-case. The only way the government could have pursued its agenda was to have had massive popular support, toughened by the people’s readiness to suffer the inevitable blows that the corporations whose interests would be encroached upon, would rain upon the province. This, the government didn’t have, nor could have for long under circumstances in which conservative forces were allowed to continue to control the means of production and means of persuasion. What would have truly been a miracle is if the powerful opponents of the government’s agenda had stepped aside in deference to the people’s will and allowed anti-capitalist reforms to go ahead. But this never happens. The problem, then, wasn’t that a miracle had been given away; the problem was that the miracle of absent opposition never materialized.

The same can be said about Obama. Even if he were pro-labor and anti-war — which even a superficial look at his voting record, campaign statements, and cabinet choices will reveal he is not –- the course he pursued would have infinitely more to do with the socio-economic forces that press upon him than the color of his skin, his political leanings, or the fact that he belongs to one party of business rather than another. The same goes for Nader. If by some miracle he had won, his good intentions would prove no match for the system he chose to work within.

Obama’s election is no miracle, just what was needed to create the illusion of change. Any chance of meaningful change will require more than the election of another exhibitionist lawyer whose charm, forensic skills and ambition allowed him to catch the eye of people with the connections and resources to get him elected – the people who really rule America. The United States’ first black president is just another instrument of moneyed interests whose decisions will be structured by his obligations to the people who put him power and the logic of the capitalist system in which he must work — a charming Bush, with darker skin and a liberal pedigree. A better alternative than McCain? If you prefer the used car salesman who sells you a piece of crap while making you feel good about yourself, to the one who’s less talented in hiding his guile, yes. But shit is shit, whether you mask the odor with perfume or not.

Prominent progressive intellectuals

By Gowans

James Petras has taken issue with progressive public intellectuals (PPIs) who endorsed the Obama candidacy on pragmatic grounds and who argued the Democratic candidate is a lesser evil, while at the same time condemning lesser evils abroad. In particular, Petras wonders why there’s not a single PPI who supports “the democratically elected Hamas in Palestine or Hezbollah in Lebanon, or the popularly supported nationalist Muqtada al-Sadr in Iraq, the anti-occupation Taliban in Afghanistan or even the right, recognized under international law, of the Iranian people to the peaceful development of nuclear energy.” Whatever their defects, continues Petras, “these are the ‘lesser evil’.” (1)

To Petras’ list can be added Zimbabwe’s Zanu-PF, a lesser evil no PPI would publicly support. While the secular nature of Zimbabwe’s party of national liberation makes it marginally more attractive to secular leftists than Hamas, Hezbollah, the Taliban and the Sadrists of Iraq, it is still shunned for its failings. Its failings, however, do not erase two realities: (a) with its land reform and economic indigenization policies it is a more progressive alternative than the opposition MDC, which is virtually run from Western capitals and, not surprisingly, promotes a comprador program; (b) there is no other progressive alternative with any realistic chance of coming to power in the foreseeable future. (2) In other words, the situation in Zimbabwe parallels the situation in the US, in which PPIs concluded the progressive alternative, Nader, couldn’t win, that Obama was marginally better than McCain, and, therefore, that an Obama presidency deserved their endorsement on pragmatic grounds. If PPIs are willing to sacrifice their moral hymens at home, why do they keep their legs tightly crossed when surveying the political landscape abroad?

Support for the lesser evil at home but never abroad is a manifestation of an older PPI double-standard: eschewing communist organizations for their ‘crimes’ and hierarchical structure while supporting, working within, endorsing or voting for the Democrats, an organization that can hardly be considered non-hierarchical or free from moral failure. PPIs are forever condemning organizations that effectively oppose imperialist spoliation, while justifying support for a major party of imperialist predation whose commitment to civil and political liberties is no more absolute than that of communist organizations. As Michael Parenti points out:

“Left anticommunists find any association with communist organizations morally unacceptable because of the ‘crimes of communism.’ Yet many of them are themselves associated with the Democratic party in this country, either as voters or as members, apparently unconcerned about the morally unacceptable political crimes committed by leaders of that organization. Under one or another Democratic administration, 120,000 Japanese Americans were torn from their homes and livelihoods and thrown into detention camps; atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki with an enormous loss of life; the FBI was given authority to infiltrate political groups; the Smith Act was used to imprison leaders of the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party and later on leaders of the Communist party for their political beliefs; detention camps were established to round up political dissidents in the event of a ‘national emergency’; during the late 1940s and 1950s, eight thousand federal workers were purged from government because of their political associations and views, with thousands more in all walks of life witchhunted out of their careers; the Neutrality Act was used to impose an embargo on the Spanish Republic that worked in favor of Franco’s fascist legions; homicidal counterinsurgency programs were initiated in various Third World countries; and the Vietnam War was pursued and escalated. And for the better part of a century, the Congressional leadership of the Democratic party protected racial segregation and stymied all anti-lynching and fair employment bills. Yet all of these crimes, bringing ruination and death to many, have not moved the liberal, the social democratic, and the ‘democratic socialist’ anticommunists to insist repeatedly that we issue blanket condemnation of either the Democratic party or the political system that produced it, certainly not with the intolerant fervor that has been directed against existing communism.” (3)

Petras amplifies Parenti’s point:

“PPIs justified their support for Obama on the basis of his campaign rhetoric in favor of peace and justice, even as he voted for Bush’s war budgets and foreign aid programs funding the murder of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, Afghanis, Palestinians, Colombians, Somalis and Pakistanis and the dispossessing and displacement of at least 10 million people from their towns, farms and homes.” (4)

PPIs like victims, so it’s fitting that they’ve endorsed or voted for a candidate who as president will continue to produce victims in abundance. They’re always springing to the defense of innocent civilians, but rarely to the defense of those who fight back (who in doing so, in the view of PPIs, are no longer innocent). The problem with Hamas, Hezbollah, the Taliban and the Sadrists, from the point of view of the PPIs, is three-fold: (i) they’re religious-based, (ii) they use violence, and (iii) they’re not victims. The secular Zanu-PF earns the PPIs’ enmity because it uses the wrong tactics to resist imperialist pressure (presumably it should remove all impediments to the US and Britain using civil society and the MDC as instruments of Western foreign policy.)

To be sure, secular socialist alternatives would be preferable to these lesser evils, but those that exist command insufficient support to mount effective oppositions, and, in many cases, are supporting larger, religious-based, anti-imperialist organizations. And while nonviolent direct action alone is preferable to violence, it has yet to prove effective against armed occupations, except in circumstances in which the violence of war has weakened the oppressor (Britain in India).

There is both a moral and tactical argument for supporting existing organizations which have mounted effective anti-imperialist oppositions. First, they have a right to resist occupation, aggression, and intervention. That their political orientations may be repellent is irrelevant. We don’t deny the right to a fair trial on the basis of the accused’s views, no matter how offensive they are. Second, to the extent these organizations are successful in exercising their right, they weaken the ruling class forces against which progressive at home struggle. The anti-occupation Taliban is reactionary, and is an organization one would bitterly oppose at home, but in its resistance to occupation, and in this alone, it is objectively progressive from the standpoint of Western working class populations; a Taliban that is successful in its efforts to oppose occupation weakens the class forces that both exploit foreign populations by conquest and economically exploit populations at home.

Petras attributes the PPIs’ double standards to what aspiring PPI Stephen Zunes called “the sad reality of capitalism” (5) – “supporters of the millions of victims of Western and Israeli butchery do not live off foundation handouts,” while those who condemn organizations that have mounted effective opposition to imperialist predations receive “invitations to speak at universities with offers of five-figure honorariums.” (6)

There’s a principle governing which political ideas bubble to the surface of public awareness: the prominence of a political idea and of whoever can articulately express it, is proportional to the degree to which it is congenial to the interests of those who have the wealth to bring it to prominence.

Conservative intellectuals (CIs) enjoy the greatest degree of prominence because they articulate ideas that closely match the interests, and justify the privileges, of the wealthy. For example, a CI writing in my daily newspaper said Obama will back away from his pledge to hike taxes on Americans who earn over $250,000 per year and that this is prudent because the wealthy are “the most productive element of society.” It should be no surprise that intellectuals who articulate these kinds of legitimating ideas have no problems securing access to platforms capable of giving their views prominence.

PPIs are far less prominent than PCIs (prominent conservative intellectuals) because they articulate ideas that are often hostile to the interests of the wealthy. But their condemnations of any effective opposition to the interests of the wealthy are congenial to the interests of predatory capital. Whatever the failings of communist governments, they remained effective oppositions to capitalist interests. Whatever the failings of national liberation and anti-occupation movements, they act as effective oppositions to imperialist aims. And whatever the regrettable and grim outcomes of violence, movements and governments that use violence to defend themselves against the aggressions and predatory pursuits of capital, have enjoyed more success than their counterparts who won’t or can’t use violence. Progressive intellectuals who are able to set forth compelling cases against communism, really-existing national liberation and anti-occupation movements, and political violence, earn access to platforms which allow their views to be widely circulated within the progressive community. In this way, they become PPIs.

There is a parallel in the control of insect populations. If you want to reduce the mosquito population, you introduce sterile mosquitoes who mate with fertile counterparts and produce no offspring. This doesn’t eliminate successful fertile pairings, but it does reduce the probability, and checks population growth. Favoring sterile PIs with foundation grants, invitations to lectures, and ready access to progressive media (much of which operates on foundation grants), is equivalent to overwhelming mating populations with sterile mosquitoes.

Articulating a compelling case for effective organization against the wealthy at home is, to those who dole out foundation grants, also undesirable; accordingly, PIs who promote engagement with the Democratic party while condemning effective anti-imperialist movements aboard, are highly valued, and earn access to platforms capable of raising the visibility of their ideas. The question of whether PPIs alter their ideas to cater to foundation and progressive media gatekeepers is beside the point; all that matters is that the right ideas, articulated in compelling ways, earn their bearers prominence.

What we need to do is examine ideas on a case-by-case basis, immune from the halo effect of someone’s admirable political stance on other issues. Aspiring PPI Stephen Zunes makes much of the fact that he’s earned his progressive stripes, but his political stance on the IMF, World Bank, debt peonage or the Bush administration does not mean his stance on ruling class funded nonviolent pro-democracy activism is sound. In particular, we should ask:

• What movements and forms of organization have been historically effective in opposing exploitation and oppression?
• What political positions have PPIs taken on these movements and forms of organization?
• Are there systemic imperatives that push to prominence PIs who can persuasively argue against effective movements and forms of organization?

It might be argued that capitalist forces centered in the Western world are a common enemy of Western working class populations and the Taliban. Failure of the West’s popular forces to forge contingent, ad hoc, alliances with the Taliban weakens their common fight. From a purely self-interested standpoint, Western working classes stand to profit from such an alliance, in the same way the US state profited from an alliance with reactionary Islam in opposing a pro-Soviet government in Afghanistan. This does not mean, however, that, from the standpoint of Afghans opposed to the Taliban, or the progress of humanity, that the Taliban is the lesser evil; nor that it is preferable from the perspective of a large number of Afghans to a secular comprador regime which guarantees the equality of the sexes, makes provision for the education of females, and expunges the remnants of feudal institutions. The question of who is the lesser evil, then, is necessarily relative. For women and peasants in Afghanistan, it’s difficult to imagine what the Taliban could be the lesser evil to.

My interest, however, isn’t in the normative question of whether Western working classes ought to pursue their own interests by supporting the Taliban in it fight against occupation, even if an alliance with the Taliban means sacrificing the interests of the peasant and female populations that face Taliban oppression. It is, rather, in the empirical question of whether PPI opposition to the Taliban serves the interests of imperialist forces, and whether PIs become PPIs as a consequence of their hostility to movements and forms of organization that have been historically effective in combating exploitation and oppression. The weakness of Petras’ argument lies, I think, in its reliance on the idea of the lesser evil, which is a contingent idea reflecting class interests in a particular place and time. The elevation to PPI from PI of those who favor support for the Democrats while condemning effective anti-imperialist oppositions abroad, can best be understood, not from the perspective of double standards, but as a necessary outcome of the way wealth operates to bring ideas acceptable to the interests of the wealthy to prominence in progressive communities.

1. James Petras, “Western Progressive Opinion: Bring on the Victims! Condemn the Fighters!” November 22, 2008, http://petras.lahaine.org/articulo.php?p=1763&more=1&c=1
2. While PPIs argue that Zimbabwe civil society is a progressive third force in Zimbabwe, the country’s NGOs are in thrall to the Western governments, capitalist foundations and wealthy individuals who provide their funding. They are no more a progressive alternative than the MDC is, which shares the same backers.
3. Michael Parenti, Blackshirts & Reds: Rational Fascism and the Overthrow of Communism, City Lights Books, San Francisco, 1997; pp.48-49.
4. Petras.
5. Stephen Gowans, “Zunes compromising with capitalism’s sad reality,” What’s Left, https://gowans.wordpress.com/2008/02/25/zunes%e2%80%99-compromising-with-capitalism%e2%80%99s-sad-reality/
6. Petras.

William Blum: Neo-Malthusian

By Stephen Gowans

One billion people in the world – one-sixth of humanity – have too little to eat. One-half of humanity is malnourished. Some 18,000 children die every day from malnutrition. (1)

If that weren’t enough, rising prices are pushing food beyond the reach of numberless more.

Government leaders, corporate board members, the owners of large corporations, are concerned – not because billions are hungry, but because the hunger of billions threatens to destabilize their rule. Food riots have become too frequent to ignore. The head of the CIA worries that growing desperation and poverty in the world will degrade “the US security environment.”

The causes of rising food prices are manifold and interconnected. The industrialization of China and India has created growing demand for oil, putting upward pressure on the price of agricultural inputs based on petroleum, from fuel to run farm machinery, to fertilizers and pesticides. Downstream, rising oil prices increase the costs of transporting foodstuffs to market. Increased emission of greenhouse gasses has created droughts, desertification, and extreme weather, the latter responsible for considerable crop damage. For example, heavy rains last summer left tens of thousands of acres of farmland flooded in north Korea. The growing demand for oil has led agribusinesses to divert land use to ethanol production, reducing the supply of corn for human and livestock consumption. Finally, rising standards of living in China and India have led to an increased demand for food.

Global growth in demand for comestibles at a time supply is contracting has hurt Third World populations the most. Many were already precariously balanced between subsistence and famine. Now millions more are faced with starvation. Western domination long ago forced Third World countries into a pattern of monoculture farming, where a few cash crops are raised for export and most foodstuffs are imported. These countries are food insecure, relying on exports to earn sufficient foreign exchange to import what food they need. But as food prices rise, countries that export foodstuffs are imposing export tariffs, reducing even further the supply of food heading to straitened Third World countries. That has put even more upward pressure on prices in places where rising prices can be absorbed the least. Food aid from Western countries palliates the problem in the short-term, but reinforces the underlying causes. The food the West sends to the Third World to avert famine is grown in the West, which means the problem of Third World dependence on Western countries for food is never addressed. The Third World needs to become food independent, which means breaking the chains of neo-colonial bondage.

Rising food prices command considerable attention today, partly because their effect is felt in the West and partly because they threaten to touch off militant challenges to the system, but the real reason one-sixth of humanity is hungry and one-half malnourished has nothing to do with the rising standard of living in China and India (indeed, rising standards of living attenuate the problem.) The roots of hunger are found in the reality that food is produced and sold to earn a profit, and half of humanity doesn’t have the income to pay for food at prices that allow the producers to make a profit.

At root, it is a system that sets prices above the ability of half of humanity to pay that is to blame. It is not a paucity of food and water relative to the population that is creating privation, as William Blum, author of Killing Hope and the Anti-Empire Report, would have you believe. Blum recommends that birth rates “be radically curbed” because “all else being equal, a markedly reduced population count would have a markedly beneficial effect upon global warming and food and water availability.” There are simply too many people, he says. (2)

About the time Blum was revealing his neo-Malthusian sympathies, Fred Magdoff was pointing out in The Monthly Review that the fact billions are hungry has nothing whatever to do with population counts, but with capitalism. In the US, more food is produced than the population requires, yet hunger remains a problem. Cut the US population in half and there would still be an over-supply of food — only a bigger one. Would food banks suddenly disappear? The same is true elsewhere. Magdoff points to two headlines to make his case:

“Poor in India Starve as Surplus Wheat Rots.” (3)

“Want Amid Plenty: Bumper Harvests and Rising Hunger.” (4)

Those who remember the Great Depression will recall that poverty and hunger co-existed with plenty. Indeed, poverty and hunger were the children of plenty, of “too much civilization,” as Marx and Engels put it in the Communist Manifesto.

If the crises that threaten capitalism occur predictably so too do the regular bouts of Malthusianism that break out whenever the system threatens to fall into disrepute among those who must bear the brunt of its inhumanity. It is then that intellectuals, both left and right, raise the over-population alarm. Beneath their apparent hard-headed realism lurks the system-conserving message: poverty and hunger are not systemic; they happen because there are too many mouths to feed. In 1936, when Blum’s intellectual predecessors were attributing the Great Depression to over-population, one opponent of this deeply reactionary view replied:

“The plea of ‘over-population,’ of the ‘pressure of rising population on natural resources’… has demonstrably no basis in world facts, that is, in the physical and technical facts of world resources and world production. The alleged ‘over-population’ of particular countries is in the first place relative to the social relations within those countries, and is finally…relative to the existing system of division of the unity of world economy. On a world scale the advance of productive forces and even of actual production far outstrips the advance of population.

“The expansion of world production…including foodstuffs, has far exceed the growth of world population.

“Potentially, then, we have all the conditions present for world abundance and for immeasurable advance for every inhabitant of the globe. For the actual expansion of production bears no relation to the potential expansion which could be achieved, if the existing fetters” (i.e, capitalism) “were removed.” (5)

The solution for hunger is not, as Blum advises, “petitioning American leaders to become decent human beings” and radically curbing birth rates. (6) The moral decadence of American leaders and the size of the world’s population are not the problem. The problem is the organizing principle of the capitalist system. Food isn’t grown to feed people; it’s grown to feed bottom lines. Prices are set to make a profit. If the prices are out of reach of half of humanity, from the point of view of the system, that’s regrettable, but unavoidable. Profit is the system’s alpha and omega; people are simply the means of getting there.

Blum, whether he intends to or not, is a system-conserver, acting to deflect attention away from the system itself, to red herrings, like American leaders needing sensitivity training and women needing to be outfitted with the Malthusian belts imagined by Aldous Huxley in Brave New World to keep the world population in check. If you’re bamboozled into believing the cause of world hunger lies in George Bush needing moral remediation and people being too philoprogenitive, the system carries on, and is never challenged and changed. When future crises arise, and want worsens in the face of “all the conditions (being) present for world abundance and for immeasurable advance for every inhabitant of the globe,” another Blum will step forward, as Blum’s have before, to blame capitalism’s failure on an unsustainable population count.

1. Fred Magdoff, “The World Food Crisis: Sources and Solutions,” Monthly Review, May 2008.
2. William Blum, “Anti-Empire Report,” May 1, 2008. Blum argues in the same issue that Colombia’s rebel guerrilla army, the FARC, long ago ceased to be Marxist and has become the Colombian equivalent of the Mafia, engaged in kidnappings for ransom, protection rackets and drug trafficking. Blum seems to regard the words “Marxist” and “criminal” as mutually exclusive. Being outside the state, the FARC is hardly in a position to tax the residents of Colombia to raise money in “legal” ways as Colombia’s regular army does. Blum’s disqualification of the FARC as being Marxist because it engages in criminal activities brings to mind Brecht’s question: What is the crime of robbing a bank against the crime of founding one? It’s unclear how Blum expects the FARC to furnish itself with the means to operate – apply for a Ford Foundation grant?
3. New York Times, December 2, 2002.
4. Wall Street Journal, June 25, 2004.
5. R. Palme Dutt, World Politics, 1918-1936, Random House, New York, 1936, pp. 27-28.
6. Anti-Empire Report.

No individualist solution to foundations

By Stephen Gowans

A number of articles published here and elsewhere have been critical of progressives who have become entangled with foundations sponsored by corporations, imperialist governments and wealthy individuals. These progressives have been criticized by some for being willing to accept foundation support and by others for presenting themselves and other foundation-connected leftists as “independent” left voices. The first group of critics complains that progressives undermine their credibility by taking foundation grants and accepting foundation positions or unjustifiably enhance the credibility of the foundations they take money and jobs from. This group has no basic disagreement with the political positions of the foundation-connected progressives. The criticism of the second group, on the other hand, originates in disagreement over fundamental political positions. It defines the political position of foundation-connected progressives as pro-imperialist, not in intentions but in its effects, and argues that it is this basic political position which makes these progressives attractive to foundations. They appear to be credibly progressive – even radical – but in fact promote views that pose no real threat to corporate domination and indeed even buttress the ideological foundations of that domination. They are independent in the sense that they are not told to what to do or say, but their views considerably overlap in important ways those of their foundation sponsors.

The first group of critics argues that progressives should reject connections to corporate and government-controlled foundations, or, alternatively, should take the money but scrupulously refuse to self-censor, even if it means losing funding. The point of this article is to argue that were progressives to follow this advice, little of consequence would change.

The most significant role foundations play, is not in encouraging progressives to self-censor, either to guarantee ongoing funding or to secure funding for the first time (although this doubtlessly happens), but to funnel money to progressives who promote views that are no threat to continued ruling class domination and reinforce certain views and values that discourage leftists from emulating or supporting militant movements or parties, at home and abroad. By providing these progressives with a platform to reach a large part of the progressive community, the corporate community, through its foundations, puts these left intellectuals in a position to define for the progressive community a common sense that is at worst innocuous to the interests of foundation sponsors and more often indirectly conducive to those interests. More militant voices, whose views are uncompromisingly antagonistic to those of the foundations’ sponsors, are denied funding, and dwell, as a consequence, along the margins, where their ability to set the agenda is severely limited. This is a long-standing ruling class strategy: give the moderates a voice and marginalize the militants. If the militants can’t be marginalized, suppress them.

What would happen if those who self-censored refused to do so any longer, and renounced their ties to foundations, as the first set of critics prescribes? The same foundation money would flow to someone else who expressed the same self-censored views, only this time without the need of self-censorship. Wolfe’s quip applies not only to journalists but to intellectuals generally. “You cannot hope to bribe and twist, thank God, the British journalist. But seeing what the man will do unbribed, there’s no occasion to.”

There is no shortage of people who lean to the left who needn’t be bribed through the promise of foundation grants or implicit threats of their withdrawal to express views that are pleasing to corporate foundation sponsors – views that implicitly accept as desirable certain societal arrangements or strategies for the left to follow that allow the corporate rich to maintain their dominance and further their goals. It’s wrong to suggest that Stephen Zunes has been bought or sold out because he has accepted a position with a foundation controlled by former Michael Milken right hand man Peter Ackerman. Zunes is saying what he would have said all along, even if he hadn’t forged foundation ties. That Zunes has found a community of interest with Ackerman, who is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and head of Freedom House, simply reveals how mildly left Zunes’ views really are.

Foundation-friendly leftist views hold that the world can be changed without taking power; that hierarchical political organizations of the type that have proved successful in class and national liberation struggles of the past are undesirable and should be set aside in favor of loose, decentralized, (and therefore ineffective) movements; that the highest task for progressives is the extension of the democratic project, defined without reference to class; and that this goal should be achieved by a loose coalition of grassroots groups practicing non-violent direct action. These views are, of course, far more pleasing to the dominant class than the view that says power should be seized and held onto to accomplish concrete anti-capitalist goals (freedom from exploitation or neo-colonial domination) and that the route to power lies in the same hierarchical, disciplined organizational forms that have proved successful in the past. Z-Net style progressives are pleasing to the ruling class because they promote a strategy for the left that has no chance of success, and is built around the pursuit of nebulous goals. To conserve the status quo, all you have to do is make sure this brand of leftism receives a large “advertising” budget, to maintain the “brand’s” dominant share position in the left community. I’m borrowing marketing terminology, but it fits well. Coke has more customers than RC Cola because it has a much large advertising and promotion budget. Foundation funding is like an advertising budget that allows the foundations’ sponsors to push their preferred brand (in this case, a brand of leftism) to the fore.

Telling progressives, therefore, that they’re being manipulated by foundations is pointless and at odds with reality. Many progressives with foundation ties are not being manipulated, bribed or bought. They point out correctly that there are no strings attached to the money they receive, they say what they want to say without interference, and they’ve secured a platform they would not otherwise have to advance views they strongly believe in. To these progressives, it is the foundations that are being used, not themselves. Journalists say the same: Editors don’t tell me what to write. But, then, editors don’t have to tell journalists who implicitly accept capitalist goals and values what to say. Likewise, foundations don’t need to use the threat of withdrawing support to left intellectuals. Many left intellectuals have, without the spur of stick or carrot, adopted views that are already, in the view of foundation sponsors, desirable for a leftwing opposition to hold.

The problem, then, is much larger than one of individuals’ relations to foundations. It is a problem of a class comprised of a tiny minority, which, by virtue of owning the major productive resources, has a virtual monopoly on resources that allow it to define the common sense of the age, not only broadly, but within the left community as well, by giving a platform to those who hold desirable views. The same problem surfaces in the media, where the parallel individualist solution of importuning journalists to stop self-censoring or give up their jobs as journalists, has obvious weaknesses. There is also an obvious weakness in FAIR’s strategy of asking the mass media to forget they’re owned and controlled by corporate wealth that has an interest in propagating certain views and values.

To define the common sense view, all you have to do is make sure those whose view of the common sense is compatible with your own interests, get heard. Challenging the virtual monopoly of the corporate rich to define the ruling ideas or to define what constitutes a desirable set of views and values for the left to hold cannot be done, therefore, by urging individuals to be incorruptible, most of whom are not corrupt now and are incorruptible anyway. The challenge is a systemic one, whose solution lies in changing the system, not individuals. So long as major productive resources are privately owned, the wherewithal to define the common sense will lie within the grasp of private owners. They will use foundations to raise the visibility and voice of left intellectuals who hold desirable views to weaken left opposition and divert its energies to humanitarian, but conservative, tasks which pose no threat to the interests and continued domination of the corporate rich. The left intellectuals who rise to prominence will do so, then, not because their arguments are more compelling, their approach more realistic, or their orientation more leftist, but because they’ve been handed a platform their militant left competitors are denied.