Populists, plutocrats and the democracy scare

July 21, 2020

Populism: a political approach that strives to appeal to ordinary people who feel that their concerns are disregarded by established elite groups.  [Google Dictionary]

A good bit is being written nowadays about the alleged threat of populism.  The word is usually taken to mean an uprising of ignorant and intolerant masses against knowledgeable and responsible powers that be.  Donald Trump is called a populist, but so is Bernie Sanders.

Frank set the record straight in his new book, THE PEOPLE, NO: A Brief History of Anti-Populism, which is just out.  He begins with the original Populists, members of a radical farmer-labor party in the 1890s that briefly threatened the rule of bankers, railroad barons and grain and cotton merchants..

Naturally the plutocrats feared and hated the Populists, Frank wrote.  They said Populism was mob rule, the second coming of the French Revolution.  They said Populism was hatred by the failures and losers of the successful and capable, who deserved to be on top.  In the end, through the power of money, they won.

The core of the opposition to populism was opposition to democracy itself—what Frank called the “democracy scare.”  In The People, No, he traced the history of this opposition.

Frank wrote an excellent book.  It is short, it is easy to read and it covers a lot of ground.  What he wrote is true, important and largely ignored.  He also had a few blind spots and omissions, which I’ll get to.

Right now the USA is on the brink of an economic crisis as great as the ones in the 1890s and 1930s, and today’s economic, political and intellectual elites are failing just as badly as their predecessors did.

There is just as great a need now as there was then for a movement of the common people to take back control of the political and economic system, and just as much of fear of democracy.

The world “populist” is Latin for “of the people.”  The Constitution, the USA’s founding document, begins with the words “We, the people…”   President Abraham Lincoln said the USA stood for “government of the people, for the people and by the people.”  So why does the word “populism” have such a bad name?

Read the rest of this entry »

More about Thomas Frank’s new populism book

September 21, 2020

Democracy Scares, from the Destruction of Bryan to the Abdication of Bernie: Why America Desperately Needs a Second Populist Movement, But Ain’t Gonna Get One by John Siman for Naked Capitalism.

 

Snapshots of the global pandemic

September 18, 2020

Anders Tagnell

Anders Tagnell and the Swedish Covid experiment by Richard Milne for the Financial Times.

Coronavirus: What explains Pakistan doing so much better than India? by Shoiab Daniele for Scroll.in.

Brazil surpasses 4 million Covid-19 cases amid tentative signs of virus easing by France24.

Europe overtakes U.S. as coronavirus hotspot by Thomas Mulier for Fortune.

Anarchists, protests and revolution

September 17, 2020

Photo via Berkelyside

Those who make peaceful revolution impossible make violent revolution inevitable.  [==John F. Kennedy]

The Black Lives Matter movement wants to de-fund the police.  So do anarchists.  There’s nothing surprising or hard to believe about anarchists involving themselves in the George Floyd protests.

By all accounts, these anarchists are very different from the peaceful, naive, idealistic Occupy Wall Street demonstrators.   They are revolutionaries.

I have a certain amount of sympathy with anarchist ideals, as expressed by the late Murray Bookchin and David Graeber.  Like James C. Scott, I am not sure a society based entirely on voluntary cooperation, mutual aid and self-reliance is feasible, but I think present-day society is more authoritarian than it needs to be.

But I don’t think that destroying the existing corrupt and oppressive economic and political structure will automatically produce a better result/

I take the possibility of revolution seriously.  I think the USA is on the verge of a social breakdown in which violent revolution is a real possibility.

I am sure most people who take part in the Black Lives Matter protests are ordinary people who want to correct an obvious injustice and do not advocate or practice violent aggression.

Photo via CGTN.

My guess is that the “Black Bloc” and “Antifa” are relatively few.  But a small, determined, purposeful minority can have a greater impact than a confused majority.

As has been said, revolution is not a dinner party. Few revolutions turned out the way the original revolutionaries expected.  Even revolutions that historians say were beneficial to humanity were not something I would want to live through.

Voter turnout among the young is small.  But the protests draw lots of younger people.  They have good reason to give up on politics as usual.

I’m not sure what I would say to them.  I could argue that violent protests are playing into the hands of the Trump Republicans.  I could say that they are doing what provocateurs  and infiltrators want them to do.

I could say that if there is a break-down in social order, the radical right is more likely to pick up the pieces than the radical left,  The right has more guns and more sympathizers in the police and military than the left does.

But I could not say with a straight face that the protesters can accomplish necessary change by working through the two-party system.  I don’t honestly see hope in a third-party campaign.  I see bad years ahead.

LINKS

Blocs, Black and Otherwise on Crimethinc.  A manual of tactics for anarchist protesters.  Important.

Inside the Antifa Riots by J.D. for Seemorerocks.  A report on these tactics in action. Also important.

Antifa: What is behind the masks at Berkeley? by Natalie Orenstein for Berkeleyside.

Who are the extremist outsiders appropriating the Black Lives Matter movement? by Wang Yan for CGT

Inside a Cop-Free Zone by Wes Enzinna for Harper’s Magazine.

What Trump’s eviction moratorium really does

September 16, 2020

Trump’s weak record is hurting him

September 15, 2020

‘I Keep My Promises,’ Trump said – Let’s Check by Nicholas Kristof for the New York Times.

Keeping Score – Trump’s Broken Promises by Hedrick Smith for Reclaim the American Dream [Added 9/16/2020]

How Trump Is Losing His Base by Stanley B. Greenberg for The American Prospect.

Majority of voters don’t see either Trump or Biden as mentally fit to be president by Tal Axelrod for The Hill.

Obama’s legacy is normalization of war

September 15, 2020

The Obama foreign policy was a continuation of the Bush foreign policy by other means.  

It is a mistake to think of Obama’s election as a change of direction, as I and others hoped and expected at the time.

Shortly after the 9/11 attacks, ex-General Wesley Clark, former commander of NATO, visited old friends in the Pentagon.  

One of them showed Clark a copy of the long-range strategy.  After a supposidly easy victory in Iraq, U.S. forces would go on to invade Syria, Libya, Somalia and other countries including Iran.

The American public, thinking this had something to do with fighting terrorism, went along with this for a while, but after a while became sick of seeing their sons and brothers coming home in flag-draped coffins for no apparent reason.

Barack Obama, running in 2008, said, “I’m not opposed to wars.  I’m opposed to stupid wars.”  He instead waged “intelligent” wars based on flying killer robots, teams of trained assassins and subsidies to local armed factions who supposedly would serve U.S. purposes.

He did not end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and instigated new wars in Libya and Syria.  Yes, there were pro-democratic protests in those countries that provided an excuse for intervention, but the purpose of U.S. intervention had nothing to do with those purposes.

The war in Syria would long ago have died down if not for U.S. forces there, U.S. bombing and U.S. and Saudi subsidies to rebels, many of whom are Al Qaeda rebranded.

The U.S. meanwhile has special forces carrying on war in more countries in Africa, Asia and Latin American than any member of the public and probably any member of Congress knows.  

I don’t know to what degree Obama’s policies represented his sincere conviction and how much he simply acquiesced in what he thought he had to do to protect his political career.  I do give him credit for trying to establish normal diplomatic relations with Iran and Cuba.

On the other hand, his administration instigated a new proxy war in Ukraine.  It engineered the overthrow of an unpopular and corrupt but legitimate government before the incumbent could be removed by means of an election.  This set off a conflict that continues to this day.

I think one purpose of the Russiagate investigations, now largely discredited, was to cancel the possibility that Donald Trump might make peace with Russia.

Donald Trump from time to time talks about winding down wars, but then backs down.  He has stepped up drone warfare and war by economic sanctions, and increased the danger of nuclear war with Russia by canceling important arms control treaties. 

There is no reason to think Joe Biden will be any better.  Normalization of the forever wars is the continuing Obama legacy.

LINKS

Let’s Be Real: President Biden Would Probably Be More Hawkish Than Trump by Caitlin Johnstone.

On Foreign Policy, Biden Is Worse Than Trump by Ted Rall.

Expect More ‘Liberal Interventionism’ Under a Joe Biden Presidency by Derek Davidson and Alex Thurston for Jacobin.

The end of war as we know it

September 12, 2020

The U.S. never recovered from the 2008 crash

September 11, 2020

LINK

America’s Current Jobs ‘Great Depression’ by Jack Rasmus.  Important.  Another Great Depression is not only possible, but may already be upon us.

The pre-pandemic Trump economy in charts

September 11, 2020

Click to enlarge.

Click to enlarge.

Click to enlarge.

For good and ill, the Trump economy was a continuation of the Obama administration.  The only thing Donald Trump did, pre-pandemic, that had an immediate effect on the economy was to push legislation to cut upper-bracket taxes.

I thought there would be a recession, not specifically because of any specific thing President Trump would do, but because I thought that all the conditions that brought about the 2008 recession still existed, and that Trump would not try to change them.

I was surprised that the boom continued as long as it did.  I did not and could not have predicted the pandemic, which changed everything.  I don’t think Trump has handled the pandemic crisis well, but it would  have been an economic catastrophe regardless of who was in the White House.

None of this is an excuse for Trump’s failures.  Presidents are not graded on the curve; they are graded on a pass/fail system.

Read the rest of this entry »

The passing scene: Links and charts 8/9/2020

September 9, 2020

Click to enlarge.

Click to enlarge.

Click to enlarge.

Some graphs and comments by Tony Wikrent on Ian Welsh’s blog.

UNITED STATES OF INEQUALITY: 2020 and the Great Divide on Capital and Main (Hat tip to Bill Harvey)

The passing scene: Links & chart 9/8/2020

September 8, 2020

The Left Secretly Preps for MAGA Violence After Election Day by Sam Stein for The Daily Beast.

Matt Taibbi on the origins of the Russiagate hoax, an interview for Antiwar.com.

America and Russia in the 1990s: This is what real meddling looks like by Yasha Levine for Immigrants as a Weapon.

Academics Are Really, Really Worried About Cancel Culture by John McWhorter for The Atlantic.

The Trouble With Disparity by Adolph Reed Jr. and Walter Benn Michaels for nonsite.org.

Disdain for the Less Educated Is the Last Acceptable Prejudice by Michael J. Sandel for the New York Times.

Book note: My Travels With a Dead Man

September 7, 2020

My friend Steve Searls has written an intriguing and highly original novel entitled MY TRAVELS WITH A DEAD MAN. 

It reminds me of the SF novels of Philip K. Dick in the way it shows the ambiguous nature of perception and identity.

The protagonist is a half-Japanese young America woman named Jane Takako Wolfsheim, who encounters a mysterious stranger who calls himself Jorge Luis Borges.

They become lovers and go on a strange journey.  As things develop, she sees him variously as a benefactor, a mentor, a protector. a manipulator, a deceiver, a moral monster and a lethal threat. She learns that her Borges is the son of the deceased famous Argentine writer of that name and a time-traveling Viking princess who is very much alive.

She experiences hallucinations, amnesia, false memories and an alternate life in an alternate world.  Along the way she receives oracular advice from the ghost of Basho, a 17th century Japanese poet.

As the novel begins, Jane is weak, passive and naive.  As it progresses, she learns to be assertive, courageous and skeptical, and the ending finds her the mistress of her fate.

I found the novel engrossing.  I kept turning the pages to find out what happened nest and what happened next was usually something i would not have predicted.

Steve has a web site where you can read some of his short fiction, essays and poetry.

A tribute to David Graeber

September 5, 2020

David Graeber, author of Debt: the First 5,000 Years and Bullshit Jobs: a Theory, died Wednesday.

His writings made me take anarchism seriously as a possible alternative to monopoly capitalism and state socialism

Click on the link below to read one of his best essays.

The Shock of Victory: An Essay by David Greaber–And a Short Eulogy for Him.

Julian Assange is fighting for us all

September 3, 2020

Julian Assange is being abused and prosecuted and prosecuted for the crime of making the U.S. government’s crimes known.

If a government can commit crimes in secret and imprison or execute those who reveal its crimes, there is no limit to tyranny.

People like Assange stand between the public and absolute power.  That is why they are considered so dangerous.

LINKS

For Years, Journalists cheered Assange’s abuse | Now They’ve Paved His Way to a US Gulag by Jonathan Cook.  An important article.

The War on Journalism: The Case of Julian Assange.  An important video.

The virus and the world food supply chain

September 2, 2020

The fight against the coronavirus has resulted in collateral damage to world food supplies.  Or rather it has revealed underlying weaknesses in the world economic system.

The world produces enough food that no-one need go hungry.  An expert quoted by National Public Radio said average world food prices are lower than they were a century ago, despite the huge increase in world population.

The question is how to get the food to those who need it and who pays for it.  There is nothing in the nature of things that makes this impossible, but only the structure of the world economy.

LINKS

‘Instead of Coronoavirus, the Hunger Will Kill Us’; A Global Food Crisis Looms by Abdi Latif Dahir for the New York Times.

COVID-19 pandemic leads to huge spike in world hunger by Kevin Martinez for thr World Socialist Web Site.

COVID-19 risks to global food security by David Laborde, Will Martin, Johan Swinnen and Rob Vos for Science magazine.

Joe Biden and the George Floyd riots

September 1, 2020

Strong and wrong beats weak and right.  [Attributed to Bill Clinton]

A month or two ago, I thought that the Presidential election would be a referendum on President Trump’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic and that Trump would probably lose.

Now it is shaping up as a referendum on the George Floyd protests, which will work against the Democrats.

The American public may support peaceful protests for just causes.  Looting and revolutionary violence are a different matter.

Reports of major violence are in cities with Democratic mayors and states with Democratic governors—Washington, D.C.; New York City; Chicago; Kenosha, Wisconsin; Minneapolis; Seattle; and Portland, Oregon.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but I know of no breakdown in civil order in cities with Republican mayors in states with Republican governors.  And I don’t think this is because white people are more racist in states like Minnesota than we are in states like Texas.

It is ironic and unfair that Joe Biden should get the blame for this.  He has been pro-police and in favor of harsh penalties for crime throughout his political career, as has Kamala Harris.

On the other hand, the Trump administration and right-wing street fighters, some working with the official police, have been adding fuel to the fire.

Some news accounts tell of police attacking peaceful protesters, which I am sure happens.  Other news accounts tell of vandals and looters destroying small businesses, which I am sure also happens.

There is almost no overlap between the two types of reports.  I don’t know what weight to give to each.

Joe Biden upholds the right to peacefully protest, while condemning vandalism, looting and mob violence.

I completely agree with him on that.  But I don’t think either side will accept an even-handed approach that equates themselves with the opposition.  Unfortunately.

LINKS

The Trap the Democrats Walked Right Into by Andrew Sullivan for The Weekly Dish.

One Author’s Argument ‘In Defense of Looting’, an interview of Vicky Osterweil for National Public Radio.

When Violence Is Justified to Defend Civil Society by Tony Woodlief for The American Conservative.

You Know In Your Heart the Day of Real Resistance Is Coming by Yves Smith for Naked Capitalism.

How White Radicals Hijacked Portland’s Protests by Michael Tracey for Unherd.

White Vigilantes Have Always Had a Friend in Police by Christopher Matthias for HuffPost.

Joe Biden Whispers the Riot Act, Sort Of by Rod Dreher for The American Conservative.

Obstacles to a new New Deal

August 31, 2020

The USA is heading into an economic crisis with evictions, foreclosures, small-business failures and unemployment rates like those of the onset of the Great Depression of the 1930s, made worse by the pandemic and catastrophic climate change.

But Thomas Ferguson, a political scientist whose specialty is money and politics, said that a second Great Depression will not necessarily result in a second New Deal.

The Great Depression was touched off with a crash in the financial markets.  Banks closed.  Business profits fell.  This weakened both the credibility and political power of big business.

No such situation exists today, Ferguson noted.  The Federal Reserve is propping up the banks and the financial markets.  The super-rich are actually richer and more powerful than ever.

President Roosevelt’s first response to the crisis was the National Recovery Act, a kind of democratic corporate state.  It was only when big business turned against him that the New Deal as we remember it emerged. with Social Security, the Wagner Act and so on.

The impetus for the true New Deal came from the new labor movement organized by John L. Lewis and the CIO.

Conditions today are different. Ferguson said.  Big business is entrenched in both parties and is able to block popular and necessary reforms such as Medicare for all.

There are wildcat strikes and a few militant unions, but nothing as yet like the labor movement of the 1930s.

Ferguson saw some long-range hope in the insurgent movement in the Democratic Party as represented by the Justice Democrats and other factions.  But in the long run, as someone said, we are all dead.  The crisis is not going to put itself on hold until 2022 or 2024.

LINKS

Biden Blurring Almost Everything, an interview of Thomas Ferguson for theAnalysis.com.

Joe Biden’s Platform for 2020: Anti-Populism by Bill Scher for POLITICO.

The Non-Voter by Chris Arnade for American Compass.

A coronavirus near-death experience

August 30, 2020

A 29-Year-Old’s Strange, Unforgettable Trip Into a Covid Coma and Back by Luke Mullins for The Washingtonian.

Mozart Serenade No. 10 for winds

August 29, 2020

I’ve been holding this one back too long.  I lifted it from Decker’s Dispatches from the Asylum blog, whose posts always end with a great musical selection

The violent George Floyd protests will backfire

August 27, 2020

Civilization is not so stable that it could not be easily broken up; and a condition of lawless violence is not one out of which any good thing is likely to emerge.  For this reason revolutionary violence in a democracy is infinitely dangerous.
  [==Bertrand Russell, in 1922]

A protest movement accompanied by vandalism, looting and mob violence will not persuade the public to de-fund the police or impose restrictions on them.

I believe the violence accompanying the George Floyd protests is worse than being generally reported.  The destruction caused in the name of George Floyd will not be balanced by any public good.

Instead it will make the re-election of Donald Trump and the Republicans more likely.

News reports say the protests are “mostly nonviolent.”  I am willing to believe that most of the protest demonstrations are non-violent and most people taking part in demonstrations are non-violent.  But this doesn’t matter.

If you have a crowd of 200 protesters, and 10 of them throw brickbats at the police and two of them throw gasoline bombs, it is not a non-violent protest—especially if the rest of the group refuses to disassociate themselves from the brick and bomb throwers.

This is why the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. exercised such tight control over the demonstrations he led.  He did not want anything to happen that interfered with his objective.  Malcolm X differed from Dr. King in many ways, but he, too, insisted on discipline among his followers.

I am an elderly tax-paying, law-abiding, middle-class homeowner.  I am not a revolutionary.  I do not condone vandalism, looting or mob violence.

But I know enough of history to know that violent and terrorist movements have sometimes brought about social change.  This requires a structured organization that is capable of taking power or of negotiating a set of demands and keeping its side of the bargain.  The BLM movement does not have such a structure.

Read the rest of this entry »

What the Republican Party stands for now

August 27, 2020

The Platform the GOP Is Too Scared to Publish by David Frum for The Atlantic.

The Real Republican Platform by Ian Welsh.  Comment on Frum’s article.

The Lost Republicans by Rod Dreher for The American Conservative

The swamp wasn’t drained—-it expanded by Albert Hunt for The Hill.

Are bread riots coming to America? by Ryan Cooper for The Hill.

A constructive future for the GOP

August 26, 2020

When Donald Trump was campaigning in 2016, the most powerful thing he said was, ‘We don’t make things in this country anymore.’

He campaigned in the Rustbelt and promised to rebuild American manufacturing.  He said the leaders of China, Mexico and other countries are laughing at us for allowing our industrial base to decline.

He promised to repeal and reject pro-corporate trade treaties.  He promised to stop illegal immigration.  He promised a trillion-dollar infrastructure program. He promise to ‘drain the swamp’ of special interests.

He promised to repeal and replace Obamacare with something better.  He promised to wind down the forever wars in Afghanistan and the Middle East and improve relations with Russia.

Nobody else was talking about these issues except Bernie Sanders.  Npbody, including Sanders, talked about them in this year’s election campaign.

Trump did do some things to carry out his promises.  He rejected the pro-corporate Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement.  He canceled NAFTA and replaced it with a new agreement that was less bad.

He imposed new tariffs on Chinese imports in a willy-nilly way.  He did not propose a systematic industrial policy to rebuild American industry.

On the other hand, he worsened Obamacare instead of improving it.  He did not end the wars.  His administration stepped up the Cold War with Russia.  He did not clean house of special interests; just the reverse.  But it is not as if his Democratic opposition was proposing something better.

Trump benefited from the economic recovery that began under the Obama administration.  If not for the COVID-19 pandemic and his failed response, he would have an excellent chance of winning a fair election.

If I were a Republican strategist, I would be content to see the Democrats win the 2020 election, have them take the blame for the impending economic crash and pick up the pieces in 2024.

There is an emerging school of thought in the Republican Party called National Conservatism.  It consists of an industrial policy to rebuild industry and infrastructure, cancellation of free trade agreements, a non-interventionist foreign policy and social conservatism.

With such a policy, and with a candidate who did not make a fool of himself on a daily basis, like Trump., the GOP could win and deserve to win.

I don’t think a hypothetical national conservative administration would do everything I think needful.  I can’t imagine Republicans supporting a Green New Deal or strong labor unions.  But if such an administration was serious about ending the wars and reversing de-industrialization, it would be an improvement over what we’ve got now.

A certain amount of economic nationalism is needed because all international economic institutions are controlled by global corporations and banks.  At this point in history, the nation-state is the highest level subject to democratic control.

I am not predicting the Republicans will actually choose this path.  I am speculating on the best path open to them.

LINKS

The New Populist Right Imagines a Post-Pandemic America on BIG by Matt Stoller [Added 8/28/2020]

National Conservatism Conference Draws Big Names by Emma Green for The Atlantic.

National Conservatism Conference: ‘Intellectual Trumpist’ Movement Takes Shape by Jimmy Quinn for National Review.

Getting Behind Enlightened Nationalism by Patrick J. Buchanan from his new book.

Joe Biden is already planning a failed presidency by Ryan Cooper for The Week.

“Celui qui tombe” (He who falls)

August 24, 2020

Dancers guided by choreographer Yoann Bourgeois used a spinning turntable and centrifugal force to do things not ordinarily possible.

LINKS

Turntable Acrobats Performing Centripetal Illusions by Jason Kottke for kottke.org.

He Who Falls (Celui qui tombe) review – hyper-skilled and remote by Luke Jennings for The Guardian.

Katharine Hepburn as Joan of Arc

August 23, 2020

This is a digital restoration of an RKO screen test that Katharine Hepburn took in 1934 for a role in an adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s “Saint Joan.”  It was shot in Technicolor, which was new then, and was restored by the Museum of Modern Art.

The movie wasn’t made then because Shaw wouldn’t agree to cuts in the script that the directors wanted to make.  A movie version of Shaw’s play was finally made in 1948, with Ingrid Bergman in the title role.  I take nothing away from Ingrid Bergman, but Katherine Hepburn would really have been great in the role.

“Stormy Weather” in color

August 22, 2020

These is a colorized scene from the 1943 movie “Stormy Weather.”  Cab Calloway and his Cotton Club Orchestra play “Jumpin’ Jive.”  The tap dancers are the Nicolas Brothers.

LINK

Stormy Weather Rolled Into Theaters 75 Years Ago by Troy Brownfield for the Saturday Evening Post (2018)