Thursday, February 24, 2011

IMF Reviews Praised Libya

Less than two weeks ago, the International Monetary Fund’s executive board, its highest authority, assessed a North African country’s economy and commended its government for its “ambitious reform agenda.” The I.M.F. also welcomed its “strong macroeconomic performance and the progress on enhancing the role of the private sector,” and “encouraged” the authorities to continue on that promising path.

By unfortunate timing, that country was Libya.
Read the rest here (via NYTimes).


Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Awful NY Times Piece on Chicago Elections

From the NYTimes:

This city has had one mayor, Richard M. Daley, for 22 years, and, like his approach or hate it, Chicago has certainly grown used to it. So when Mr. Emanuel, the former chief of staff to President Obama, moves into the fifth floor at City Hall in May, it is expected to upend the politics of this city — not only because things have been mostly the same here for so long, but also because of Mr. Emanuel’s harsh style, his relationships and rivals, and the enormous challenges facing the nation’s third largest city.
“There will be more turmoil,” Kenneth Gould, a suburban Chicago resident, said recently, as the outcome of Tuesday’s race — an outright win by Mr. Emanuel — became increasingly likely. “Rahm will make more noise.”
First of all, this is going to be a totally smooth transition from Daley to Rahm. Chicago has merely exchanged one strong-man machine boss for another. There will be no "upending" whatsoever. On the contrary, Rahm will sit down in Daley's throne before the seat even has a chance to get cold. Business as usual is sure to continue. (For the record, I'm not convinced that any of the contenders were aiming to "upend" anything either. They were all machine-friendly candidates; no reformers in the whole lot, although Del Valle was marginally less bad than the rest. The main distinguishing feature of all of them, as Cornel West might have put it, was their "unadulterated mediocrity").
Second, why is the first person quoted on the election from a suburb? I don't know what "suburban Chicago" means. Either you live in the city or you don't. Suburbanites don't vote for Mayor. This much, however, is clear: Mr. Kenneth Gould probably doesn't want to pay Chicago property taxes and shoulder the responsibilities of funding the city of Chicago. Sure, he's probably happy to tell people he's from "Chicago" and opine as to how it should be run. But when it comes to actually being democratically responsible for the shared fate of Chicagoans, he'll likely admit that he's not really a "Chicagoan" per se, but a Blackhawks fan who lives near the city or whatever. I'm sure he's really happy in his single-family home in a tax haven far enough away from the darkness of the city, but close enough to his job (which is likely in city limits). These suburbanites like to play fast and loose with the mantle of "Chicago" when it comes to appropriating the things they like. But when it comes to actually sharing the burdens and benefits of social cooperation that Chicago makes possible, they prefer their exclusive sprawling enclave outside the city itself.
Why not begin the article with a Chicago voter? And if you are going to interview a Suburbanite, why not make clear that they are a different constituency with different interests from most Chicagoans? I feel like that bit speaks volumes about the perspective of the article.
My only remarks regarding Rahm are as follws. Grrrrrrrr.


Saturday, February 19, 2011

Structural Adjustment, USA

Without exception, everywhere in the world that the IMF's neoliberal "Structural Adjustment" program was implemented, it was met with massive public outrage and resistance. From Tanzania to Bolivia, no population took kindly to this obvious full-frontal attack on their living standards. The reasons for the public outrage were obvious: the masses of people did not want to accept massive cuts to basic services, huge layoffs of public sector workers, elimination of food subsidies, removal of environmental regulations, abolishment of minimum wage ordinances, or the curbing of trade union power. They didn't buy the patronizing, technocratic line coming from above that this "shock therapy" was what was best for them.

So how was "structural adjustment" pushed through if the masses were unified in their hatred of it? How did elites force its implementation on populations who didn't want it?

Well, this much is obvious: those implementing structural adjustment didn't bring it to a vote among local populations. The IMF didn't work through democratic channels one bit. How could it have? When you want do something that the vast majority of the population is against, it is clear that democracy is not the route you want to pursue. The population will say "no" and that will be that. It's no surprise, then, that some of the first "experiments" of this kind were in repressive countries like Egypt (the first country to undergo structural adjustment in the world). And even when it arrived in countries with stronger democratic institutions, it was pushed through just the same, whether or not the population liked it.

This is highly instructive in making sense of the concerted effort to break workplace democracy in Wisconsin, as well as Tennessee and Indiana and elsewhere. There is, as I've described elsewhere, a strong desire by ruling elites to push through punishing austerity cuts that will, in effect, deeply undermine the quality of life of the vast majority. Unsurprisingly, the vast working majority does not want this to happen.

Thus, unions, the only organs of workplace democracy, the only means of representation that working people have, are being targeted and attacked viscously. They are an obvious barrier standing in the way of pushing through harsh cuts and layoffs. They give working people a voice, a collective means of forcing uncaring capitalists to make concessions they're not keen on making. They are a small democratic check on the otherwise unchallenged power of employers.

But, as in the structural adjustment examples above, when you want to do something that the vast majority strongly opposes, you don't want to hear these voices. You don't want a democratic check on your power. You don't want to have to negotiate with those whose lives you are undermining. You want to just push the fucking thing through by any means necessary. You want to be able to pummel working people without facing any resistance.

Hence the concerted attack on unions and the entire idea of workplace democracy. The goal is to lay the groundwork for successfully pushing through "structural adjustment". That can only be pushed through after people are beaten down so thoroughly that they have no means of self-defense. This is a high-stakes battle. If the rich win, they will win similar battles elsewhere. But if they lose, that sets an important precedent and gives hope to millions all over the country (and, even, all over the world).


All You Need to Know about Budget Deficits

All you need to know about the budget debates, austerity, cuts, and taxes is this: The basic function of the state in capitalist societies is to secure the conditions for profitability at any cost.

In less jargonistic language, that means that of everything the state does, we can almost always say that it is aimed at restoring, maintaining, or otherwise fostering the conditions in which capitalists can accumulate profits. The health of the capitalist economy, after all, depends on the profit rate being sufficiently high. When it is low, capitalists don't invest and hoard their capital: in this way capital "goes on strike" and makes political demands aimed at restoring profits (see the 1970s for an excellent example of this). In such cases, growth withers on the vine, production grinds to a halt, layoffs are implemented, and tax revenues plummet.

We are all in a relation of dependence on the capitalist class in a way that they aren't dependent on us: whereas they have massive reserves of capital that they're happy to sit on in a recession (which they can live off of in the meantime), we have no such reserves. We don't own any substantial productive wealth or capital to live off of in a recession. The vast majority of us rely on our month-to-month paychecks as well as various social services (e.g. Public Education, Pell Grants, fire protection, public transportation, public infrastructure, Libraries, public grants, Social Security, Medicare, unemployment insurance, etc. etc.) to procure the basic necessities of life. Recessions are far more dire, pressing, and threatening to us than they are to the ultra rich.

Every vital service and virtually all social goods depend upon the health of the capitalist economy, and, by extension, our access to all of these vital services and goods depends upon capitalists getting their way. And capitalists only "get their way" when their earning a sufficiently high rate of profit. What they think is "sufficient" is hard to specify abstractly, and depends on history, expectations, and their class power. But this much is true: when capital is not happy, the economy goes into crisis and everyone suffers as a result.

The function of the state is to make capital happy again so that the whole seedy process can resume. Capital, thus, can be thought of as a whiny, spoiled, short-sighted trust-fund baby... whereas the state can thought of as the underpaid nanny, who will do anything necessary to stop the spoiled brat from throwing a fit. That is the basic relationship between the capitalist class and the state.

Why think this is true? Well, let's look at the major things the state has done in the last 2 or 3 years and see how well it is explained by the model.

Take the bailout, first of all. What was the function of TARP? It was, quite obviously, a policy designed to shift massive amounts of toxic assets from "too big to fail" banks onto public rolls. It was a massive conversion of private debt into public debt. Why did the state do this? In order to restore profitability to the big banks since they teetered on the verge of collapse. So, when people think it odd that the banks are able to use the TARP funds to purchase federal bonds and earn money off the difference... what they're missing is that this is an intentionally designed function of the policy. The goal was to make the banks profitable again, the thought being that "what's good for Wall Street is good for Main Street". Policy makers from both parties agree on this whole-heartedly: the way to get the economy running again is to restore the conditions of profitability for big business.

Or, take another example: the stimulus bill. The basic goal of the bill was the traditional Keynesian one: to prop up effective demand. When you layoff millions of workers, cut their pay, force them into foreclosure and bankruptcy, etc... you create a problem for yourself if you're a capitalist: who is it that is going to buy all the commodities you produce if everyone is broke? The goal of the stimulus was to try to increase the purchasing power of workers in order to enable them to go out and buy things so that profitability can be restored to the system. Now, there is certainly a sense in which the stimulus bill wasn't Keynesian through and through: too much of it included worthless tax breaks for the rich, and the spending component of it was much too small. Still, it is a better solution than the neoliberal medicine of cuts and austerity. But let's be clear: the stimulus wasn't pushed through because of some sentimental concern for the well-being of the working class majority. It wasn't pushed through because lawmakers thought it the most just way to go. It was passed because Washington thought it was key to restoring profitability to the system.

Finally, take one further example: the austerity drives to slash basic services. Why is this happening? There are at least four reasons to explain it:

  1. For starters, it's happening because the recession severely decreased tax revenues. When companies earn less, tax revenues decrease. When companies layoff millions of workers who then have no more taxable income, that hurts revenues. When workers' consumption plummets, so do sales tax revenues. And when you push down workers standard of living and lay them off, they need to rely more on the very services whose present sources of funding are being eroded. Recessions hurt the state's capacity to do what it does, since it is, like all the rest of us, dependent on the engine of profit accumulation.
  2. Another reason is that the ways of collecting taxes in place before the recession were, in almost all cases, highly regressive and biased against the working majority. Payroll taxes, which the rich don't pay, tended to be high, whereas taxes on productive assets and property tended to be low. Many states rely heavily upon regressive, high sales taxes. Others, like Illinois, rely upon an ultra-regressive flat income tax that taxes corporate fat cats at the same rate as working class single mothers. The top marginal rate of taxation at the federal level is obscenely low. And there are more loopholes in the corporate tax code than anyone could ever hope to count in one lifetime. Finally, we must note that corporate profits reached record levels last quarter. So, it's false that our society doesn't produce enough to pay its bills. We produce plenty. But the disposition over and control of what we socially produce is limited only to a small class who owns the means of production. The simple, socialist thought here is that we, as a society, should have democratic control over what we, as a society, produce together.
  3. When there is a budget shortfall, there are always at least two things that can be done: one can cut services or collect more revenue. Since the political system is committed, as I argued above, to securing the conditions for profit accumulation at all costs... the preference for cuts is obvious. Think about it: if you're a corporate elite, you certainly don't want to pay higher taxes. And you don't care a thing about the well-being of the working majority, as evidenced by the fact that you've likely laid off hundreds if not thousands of your employees in order to keep your profit margins intact. You're happy to have the state pick up the slack for your layoffs by giving struggling workers unemployment insurance and food-stamps. But you're not necessarily happy to have to contribute to the state in order for it to provide these basic services. When push comes to shove, you want to keep what you have at all cost. Thus, rather than helping to pick up the tab, you do what you always do: protect your own profits and force the working majority to take a sharp cut in its quality of life.
  4. At the Federal level, austerity also has another function. Insofar as massive private debt was transferred onto public rolls... this puts even more pressure on the budget. In order to finance the bailout, now we're being told that we have to "live within our means" and accept deep cuts to our quality of life.
In all cases, the basic function is clear: the goal is to restore the conditions in which profit accumulation can resume. If this means massive human suffering, economic misery, and massive blows to the living standards of the vast majority... well, so be it. There's a question about whether this is self-undermining in the long-run even for capitalists, since it threatens to severely undermine effective demand. But at present (and the short-term present is all that capitalists care about), capitalists are earning big profits so they aren't likely to be moved by such long-term problems. After all, most of them have invested their new masses of capital outside of the US rather than right here at home, so it's not even obvious that all sectors of industry are worried about eroding effective demand here.

So, to understand what's happening from Greece, to London, to Washington, to Madison... all one really needs to know is that be basic function of the state is to secure the conditions in which stable, sufficiently high profits can be made by the ruling class. This has nothing to do with "fiscal responsibility", an empty and ultimately meaningless phrase. This has to do with forcing those least able to fight back to foot the bill for a mess caused entirely by those who own and control the basic structure of our economy. This is a class war being waged on us from above. Those occupying the Capitol in Madison recognize this, and their doing something that hasn't been done enough in the last 30 years in the US. They're saying enough is enough and they're fighting back. If the Democrats in opposition in WI are getting dragged along by this movement, we shouldn't be surprised at their opportunism. But we shouldn't make the mistake of thinking that they're unqualified allies in the struggle. When they are forced to act by big movements on the ground, they behave a lot differently than they do in the absence of struggle. This is instructive.


Thursday, February 17, 2011

Wisconsin Unions Turn up the Heat



Wednesday, February 16, 2011

On the Ideological Character of "Revealed Preferences"

Neoclassical economists purport to be able to give rigorous and accurate explanations of human behavior. But to explain actions, you have to have an idea of what it is that agents are doing. It used to be that early economists, who were utilitarians, held the view that what we're doing when we act is trying to maximize utility (construed as felt or experienced pleasure). But insofar as pleasure is difficult to quantify and measure, economists decided they needed a more easily quantified view about what agents are doing. Reality must simpler than that, they thought, because otherwise how could it fit into clean formal models? Moreover, some economists bought the argument that social science could be "value free", and they worried that utility (pleasure) was too value-laden and tendentious. At first, economists went with "desire-satisfaction" instead of felt pleasure, but then the problem arises as to how economists can describe what desires people have. The resting consensus today is that economists should just talk in terms of an agent's "preferences" and whether or not such preferences are being "satisfied".

But how do economists know what an agent's preferences are? According to contemporary orthodoxy, an agent "reveals" her preferences in certain behaviors. We look at what she in fact does (e.g. buys a coffee) and infer her preferences from that. It's actually a bit narrower than that: the only behaviors where agents reveal their preferences is in market transactions (and, maybe voting), and the measure of how to rank one's preferences is given by the amount of money they're willing to pay for some thing. When I buy a coffee everyday for a year, economists hold, it is reasonable to say that I have "revealed" a certain preference. It is in this way that economists think that they can explain everything about us that matters.

There are tons of things wrong with this whole setup. I just want to point out one glaring problem.

First, take the problem of environmental degradation. Now, it should be pointed out that neoclassicals are falling all over themselves in trying to explain how their enterprise, which essentially adopts the perspective of the capitalist and spells out what it's "rational" for capitalists to do, can account for the obvious problem of environmental degradation. At first glance, their approach seems to either say that the environment is not of value, or that it only has value insofar as it can be commodified and traded on markets. Contemporary economists are aware that this is a problem. So they are scrambling to try to re-package the same old game in order to fend off some recent criticisms of their discipline.

As is well known, one obvious problem with capitalism is that it encourages investors and capitalists to take a very narrow, short-run perspective. Big profits this quarter are often all that matters. Among it's many problems, this narrow perspective obviously clashes with the long-term perspective we would need to even begin to seriously address the problem of environmental degradation. So what do economists say about this?

Well, according to them, if we care about anything at all, it can be modeled by "revealed preference theory". We all place different emphasis on the value of the future, they'll say, so we all have different preferences regarding the importance of the future (as opposed to the present). How do we know what different preferences people have regarding the future? Look at how they're "revealed" in market activity.

Do capitalists then have a very low preference ranking for the future, and a high preference ranking for short-run profits? Capitalists, it turns out, "reveal" such preferences all the time. And insofar as capitalists are merely satisfying their preferences like the rest of us, they aren't doing anything wrong. Economics, in this way, is "neutral".

But here's the rub. This behaviorist setup is circular. It says that what people want, indeed what it would be rational for them to do, is basically just what they're already doing. That is extremely conservative. It suggests that we couldn't fall short of what we want, that we couldn't fail to be rational. It suggests that what we want just is what we're already doing. On what basis could someone, then, want to change anything? Could I have a "preference" for radically changing society? It seems not, since I'd have to actually change it in order to "reveal" such a preference. This setup is ideological because it suggests that there is no gap between the way we think things should be and the way that they are. It leaves us without very language we'd need to articulate what's wrong with existing states of affairs.

In the case of the narrow-minded capitalist chasing down short-run profits, it seems like the thing we'd want to say is this: she is acting irrationally. By her own lights, she is undermining the possibility of continuing her own enterprise in the long run. More strongly, she's undermining the possibility of doing much of anything at all in the not-so-distant future. But we cannot say this on the "revealed preference" model. For that model says that her preferences regarding the future are simply "revealed" by what she is presently doing. Thus, she's just satisfying her revealed preferences for the present, so there is no self-undermining problem. The theory forces us to say that she is acting rationally after all.


Tuesday, February 15, 2011

How to Talk About Deficits (and How Not To)

As I've noted on many occasions, there is a fallacious and deceptive argument that always surfaces when the powers that be need to legitimate deep cuts to working class living standards (such as those being proposed by Obama at present). This argument is what I've called "budget cut fatalism".

But, given that this line of reasoning is a complete distortion, what is a more accurate way of discussing budget crises and deficits?

First, we must ask: why is there a deficit? This requires that we ask how the budget works in the first place. As everyone knows, budgets consist of two components: revenues and expenditures. Depending on the context, the immediate "cause" of a deficit could either be a steep increase in spending or a steep drop in revenue. In our case, as everyone knows, the primary cause was a sharp drop in revenue.

Next, we ask: why was there a sharp drop in revenue? The answer is obvious: because our economy (and most other capitalist economies around the world) are experiencing the worst crisis since the Great Depression. This has caused revenues to decline sharply, eroding the funding for many of the basic social institutions that make up our society.

But, who is responsible for this crisis? One thing is for sure: the culprit isn't social expenditure. The obvious answer to who's responsible is: the "too big to fail" banks and financial institutions that plunged the global economy into crisis by hitching economic growth to various ponzi-like asset bubbles, of which the housing crisis is the most visible and important. A more succinct answer to the question of "why are we in a crisis?", however, would be as follows. Capitalism is a rotten, crisis-prone system.

So let us take stock of what's been said so far. First of all, the deficit is not the result of "out of control spending", it is quite obviously the result of a sharp decline in revenues. Second, the sharp decline in revenues was brought about by the global economic crisis. Third, the crisis was fomented by those who run our economy, namely the class of persons who own and control the commanding heights of the economy. They are responsible for the crisis and the deficit, (and for all the social misery it has unleashed).

Looked at in this sober light, the question of "what is to be done?" is an easy one to answer: let those who made the mess pay to clean it up. In other words, "chop from the top". A 2% windfall tax on the record profits earned last quarter would be enough to obviate the need for all austerity measures.

Note that this is precisely the opposite of what Obama has done so far. He has done more than simply propose punishing cuts to the living standards of the vast majority of Americans. He has done more than simply refused to chop from the top... he has in fact made it his priority to give the top even more by embracing the Bush tax cuts for the rich. And his "deficit commission" has recommended even more gifts to the rich: a further reduction in the top marginal tax rate, a reduction in the rate of corporate taxation, etc. The argument that such obscenely low levels of taxation for the rich are needed for "economic growth" is just plain false. The longest, most robust period of economic growth in American history saw top marginal tax rates as high as 90%, even under Republican presidencies such as Eisenhower.

What's happening is simply a narrow exertion of class power. The few are throwing the many under the bus. And its a double-whammy: first, we had to pay to bailout the banks and transfer toxic assets from corporate rolls to public ones... and now we have to pay for the deficits caused by the bank crisis (and the bailout) by taking sharp hits in our standard of living. First we are forced to shell out billions of taxpayer money to underwrite a restoration of profitability for the financial elite. Now we are forced to close schools, cut health-care, slash Pell Grants, shut down libraries, cut public transportation, layoff public workers, etc. all in order to pay for a crisis we didn't even have the chance to cause, given our powerlessness to impact the decisions made by those who own and control the commanding heights of the economy.


Protecting Profits

Many big companies, facing higher raw material costs, say they cannot hold off any longer and must raise prices to protect profits.
Read the full NYTimes article, of which the above is an excerpt, here.

The above is honest in a way that many discussion of such phenomena are not. We often read about unemployment figures as though they were meteorological ongoings, i.e. as if unemployment just rises in the same way mechanical, impersonal way that the temperature does. But, of course, unemployment literally means that some group of agents (those who do the employing) did something concrete (terminated the employment of some other group of persons). To understand why they did it, one would need to look at the economic system and their role within it.

The above is honest because it says of rising prices that they can be chalked up to a desire to protect profits. The same is true of layoffs, wage cuts, speed-ups, etc. As far as a capitalist firm is concerned, it's basic function is simple: make as much profit as possible. So it doesn't even cross the mind of capitalists to balance employment against quarterly profits, i.e. to allow profits to decrease in the interests of saving jobs. Employees are mere means to the end of profit, so when profit is at stake, there is no problem with dispensing with mere tools that are no longer needed.

This makes clear how disingenuous it is to say that capitalists are "forced" to layoff workers. For example, neo-classical types will say that increasing wages (by means of a minimum wage, say) causes unemployment. This is empirically contestable, but that's beside the point. Saying that such policies "cause" unemployment is a tendentious and confused way of describing what happens. What happens is that certain agents, viz. capitalists, decide that they would rather layoff workers (causing all kinds of economic misery for those laid off) than allow their profits to decrease. They throw their workers under the bus in order to keep their profits as high as possible. So what "causes" them to do it, in effect, isn't the minimum wage ordinance, but their basic goal of maximizing profit at the expense of everyone else. I'd much rather that pundits said that in public, because it makes obvious how odious the system is.


Sunday, February 13, 2011

Obama to Unveil Deep Austerity Plan

The plan:

  • Cut $1.1 trillion deficit over next 10 years
  • Two-thirds of savings to come from spending cuts and one-third from tax increases.
  • Defence budget: $78bn over five years
  • Pell Grant Programme: $100bn over a decade
We will be told in no uncertain terms that, regrettable though all of this is, it is unavoidable. But we know better.

First of all, Obama only just recently caved in on the Bush tax give-aways and signed over a massive lump sum of cash to the nation's wealthiest taxpayers. The Bush tax breaks for the rich have already inflicted a $3 Trillion loss over 8 years. Given that Obama has extended them, we are set to lose $67 billion over the next 2 years alone in order to pay for these lavish gifts. This is, of course, to not even mention the fact that our top marginal tax rate was already very low before the Bush cuts (well, now, they're the Obama cuts) went into effect. And, of course, corporate loopholes are so bounteous that almost no corporation in the US actually pays at the official rate of taxation.

Now, as if all of the above wasn't awful enough, there's plenty more to add. First off, last quarter corporations posted the highest profits on record, even though the majority of us are still suffering the effects of the recession. As millions are evicted and laid off, the richest are getting richer. This was made possible because of layoffs and work speed-ups, which actually caused productivity to rise last quarter. That makes clear a basic economic truth: more exploitation means bigger profits. So it's false that there just isn't enough money to go around right now.

Second, as everyone has recently become aware, the government spends a massive amount of money doing unsavory things abroad (e.g. propping up (former!) dictators like Mubarak to the tune of several billion a year). Plus, you may have heard of these two wars we're still fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan... yeah, kinda pricey. The bills on those as yet unpaid-for adventures continues to increase every day. I'm not impressed by Obama's plan to modestly decrease the number of $400 toilet seats purchased by the military each year. Ending the wars would free up a massive wealth of funds that could be redirected to meet human need at home.

Third, you may have heard of this thing called TARP. Recall that close to a $1 trillion dollars was suddenly mobilized and distributed, at the drop of a hat, to the financial institutions that caused this crisis. All of that money emerged in an instant when the elite were in trouble- but when schools, public transit, parks, libraries, health-care and scholarships are on the line we're told, patronizingly, to live within our means.

Yet, despite all of this, the folks upstairs are telling us "we" need to tighten our belts. But who the fuck is "we"? Certainly the massive profits amidst layoffs, and the massive tax breaks for the rich amidst school closings aren't felt equally. Some are letting their waistlines balloon as others are literally starving.

Obama has already done more to increase inequality in 3 years than Bush did in 8. He has already overseen more transfers of wealth from the bottom to the top than his widely-despised predecessor. If this isn't a clear indication that Obama, and the Democratic Party, are not progressive, I don't know what is. Progressives and liberals would do well to look at the writing on the wall. Their resources and energies are wasted so long as they are funneled into the Democratic Party, the party of continued war, austerity, tax breaks for the rich, and environmental degradation.


Saturday, February 12, 2011

Herbert on the Weakening of US Democracy

As Bob Herbert writes in his most recent column:

As the throngs celebrated in Cairo, I couldn’t help wondering about what is happening to democracy here in the United States. I think it’s on the ropes. We’re in serious danger of becoming a democracy in name only.

While millions of ordinary Americans are struggling with unemployment and declining standards of living, the levers of real power have been all but completely commandeered by the financial and corporate elite. It doesn’t really matter what ordinary people want. The wealthy call the tune, and the politicians dance.

So what we get in this democracy of ours are astounding and increasingly obscene tax breaks and other windfall benefits for the wealthiest, while the bought-and-paid-for politicians hack away at essential public services and the social safety net, saying we can’t afford them. One state after another is reporting that it cannot pay its bills. Public employees across the country are walking the plank by the tens of thousands. Camden, N.J., a stricken city with a serious crime problem, laid off nearly half of its police force. Medicaid, the program that provides health benefits to the poor, is under savage assault from nearly all quarters.

Read the rest here. Herbert has been steadily moving Left in the last year or so. Unlike most of the usual suspects on the Opinion pages (Paul Krugman included), he is sober about the Democratic Party, and he is right on target about how progressive changes are brought about:

The Egyptians want to establish a viable democracy, and that’s a long, hard road. Americans are in the mind-bogglingly self-destructive process of letting a real democracy slip away.

I had lunch with the historian Howard Zinn just a few weeks before he died in January 2010. He was chagrined about the state of affairs in the U.S. but not at all daunted. “If there is going to be change,” he said, “real change, it will have to work its way from the bottom up, from the people themselves.”

I thought of that as I watched the coverage of the ecstatic celebrations in the streets of Cairo.

I must admit that Herbert's reaction to the (ongoing) Egpytian Revolution resonates with me. And he's drawing the right inference here: we need to learn from Egypt, not break our arms patting ourselves on the back for allegedly "showing them the way to freedom". We need to see Egypt as an example that impinges on the ways in which the status quo right here at home is legitimated by those in power. Though those in power will attempt to appropriate recent events in Egypt in order to encourage us to reaffirm status quo beliefs, in reality the events in Egypt should lead most Americans to drastically revise their basic beliefs about their own society and their own political process.

What the Egyptian people are learning in the course of struggle is what we need to learn as a society right here, right now: without struggle, there is no progress. Acquiescing to the barely "lesser evil" and settling for a few stale crumbs from those in power is not tantamount to struggle; this is resignation. We need social movements that are organized independently of the two major corporate parties which can force the system to honor its demands. We need to model progressive activism on the labor movement of the mid 1930s and the civil rights movement of the 60s. The cynical, conciliatory "credit card" activism of is not a way forward, but the surest means of thwarting real change.


Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Hypocrisy On Display

Compare and contrast the following.

First, this from when the protests first broke out in Egypt:

Asked if he would characterize Mubarak as a dictator Biden responded: “Mubarak has been an ally of ours in a number of things. And he’s been very responsible on, relative to geopolitical interest in the region, the Middle East peace efforts; the actions Egypt has taken relative to normalizing relationship with – with Israel. … I would not refer to him as a dictator.”
The Obama administration was continuing its efforts to influence a transition. Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. called Mr. Suleiman on Tuesday to ask him to lift the 30-year emergency law that the government has used to suppress and imprison opposition leaders, to stop imprisoning protesters and journalists, and to invite demonstrators to help develop a specific timetable for opening up the political process. He also asked Mr. Suleiman to open talks on Egypt’s political future to a wider range of opposition members.
Hmmm. So first he staunchly refuses to recognize Mubarak as a dictator (for reasons that are instructive). Then, in the face of unremitting struggle from below, he is forced to eat his words and "call on Mr. Suleiman", i.e. Torturer-in-Chief, "to ask him to lift the 30-year emergency law that the government has used to suppress and imprison opposition leaders, to stop imprisoning protesters and journalists, and to invite demonstrators to help develop a specific timetable for opening up the political process". But none of that should be necessary if, as Biden so vehemently maintained a few weeks ago, Mubarak really was not a dictator presiding over an authoritarian regime.

Now, we should be clear that this is basically just a rhetorical about face. I don't think the underlying objectives of Washington have changed one bit. But it's important to note how mass struggle and pressure from social movements can force elites to change, revise and adapt their legitimating narratives. And even more important is the obvious fact that the protesters aren't susceptible to such rhetorical flourishes or subtle revisions in the old legitimating stories. They're fed up with this brand of filth, and they don't want a new narrative from the old leaders. They want the old leaders to be history.

I'm watching very closely the emergence of mass strikes and the direct interventions by the working class in recent days. Washington has recently moved aircraft carriers to Suez ostensibly to "enable the evacuation of US citizens" from the area, but the more likely story is that they're trying to make sure that the canal, which facilitates close to 8% of worldwide trade, remains open.


Sunday, February 6, 2011

Kristoff: "They want to be just like us!"

When I recently criticized the "Western" ideology which contorts the events in Egypt to fit the pre-packaged "they want to be just like us!" mold, this is precisely the sort of filth I had in mind.

The entire set of assumptions that Kristoff uses to "understand" recent events in Egypt are problematic. Take, first of all, his invocation of us "Westerners". I ask, again, who is this we? Next, consider the following paragraph:

In 1979, a grass-roots uprising in Iran led to an undemocratic regime that oppresses women and minorities and destabilizes the region. In 1989, uprisings in Eastern Europe led to the rise of stable democracies. So if Egyptian protesters overcome the government, would this be 1979 or 1989?
This is an excellent distillation of the ideological framework undergirding what Kristoff says. One could, in effect, simply take this framework and churn out the rest of his conclusions without even so much as gathering a single piece of information about the concrete conditions in Egpyt. It all follows frictionlessly from a certain framework of discussion that is presupposed and unacknowledged.

But what is content of this ideological framework exactly? It's first component becomes clear if we collapse the interests of all the different groups and classes in the United States into this mythical notion of the "national interest". This is the "we", the "Westerners" of whom Kristoff speaks. All of us, from the Washington foreign policy insiders and multinational corporate elites to the jobless and the disempowered... yes, all of us have the same interests at home and abroad. Yes, we are to believe that all ordinary Americans benefit equally from the foreign adventures put together by the Military-Industrial complex. The slogan "money for jobs and education, not for war and occupation" evidently has no merit whatsoever.

Next, having sold the lie that poor workers and rich corporate elites have the same interests here and abroad, we must explain what these allegedly coinciding interests are. Unsurprisingly, these "national interests" are precisely the same as the interests of the ruling class: e.g. "stability in the region" means stable US dominance and control, "moderation and tolerance" means tolerance of US imperialism, "democracy" means capitalism, etc. Thus the 1979 Iranian revolution was "bad" from the get-go because it through out the US-backed Shah and was therefore hostile to Washington's geopolitical and economic interests in the region. By contrast, the 1989 anti-Stalinist revolutions in the East Bloc were "good" because many of them ended up being subordinate to US interests in the region and were willing to accept neoliberal "economic shock therapy". Again, we see here a perfect embodiment of the binary between "anxious" imperialism and "co-opting" imperialism. At the end of the day, it hardly matters whether the interests of the peoples of these respective regions were well-served by what occurred there: the only criterion for "good" and "bad" here is good or bad for U.S. imperial interests.

A more sober, and factually accurate, analysis of 1979 and 1989 would go as follows: 1979 was an emancipatory, mass-democratic event in which a (deeply unpopular) US-backed and funded dictator was overthrown by an uprising from below. This event opened up space for all kinds of possibilities, and it was not fomented from above by the clerics who subsequently squelched it. It was not inevitable that the revolutionary eruption that created it would be extinguished, it's most impressive gains rolled back. But of course, Washington hardly cares that the gains of the revolution were rolled back, democratic participation drawn down. They only see two states of affairs: one in which they had control, and another in whic they don't. That is, one in which they had a client regime with the Shah, and another in which they no longer had the influence and power that client regimes afford. If Iran is not democratic today, Washington isn't losing sleep over that fact. After all, the US's closest allies in the Middle East are the most repressive and opposed to democracy.

1989 was, for Washington, sort of the opposite of 1979. Again, set aside empty rhetoric from US officials about "democracy" (if you want to know what they think about democracy see what they did in Chile in 1973). What happened, from a ruling class perspective, was this. A global power opposed to US interests (Stalinist Russia) disintegrated into a large number of smaller states that could be, for the first time in decades, brought into the orbit of US influence. Despite the fact that many involved in 1989 uprisings opposed both Stalinist domination and Washington-backed global capitalism, these events are all contorted into the model of pro-capitalist triumphalism: "Finally, now they fulfill their deep desire to be just like us!". This is the manic, co-opting/appropriating maneuver which often figures opposite the fearful, survivalist maneuver that captures the anxious, imperialist response to 1979.

So, the question Kristoff is really asking is this: will this revolution result in conditions favorable or unfavorable to the interests of the US ruling class? The perverse thing, whether he realizes it or not, is that he is substituting this narrow question for the following, more general question: "does this revolution create conditions favorable or unfavorable to the interests of the masses of ordinary Americans?" The obvious answer to the general question is "yes". The clear answer to the narrow question is "no". Anytime the oppressed fight for their own self-emancipation it is a boon to the interests of ordinary people everywhere, and, a threat to the rule of elites everywhere. As I've said, there is a lot we can learn from Egypt right here at home. It's not as though we live in a classless, horizontal society.

Though Kristoff tries to offer, within this frustrating ideological framework, the "counter-intuitive" insight that democratic struggle in Egpyt "might not be that bad after all", I don't think this means we should let him off the hook here. Once we make the distinction between "soft" and "hard" imperialism, between appropriating and anxiety-ridden imperialism, it becomes clear that Kristoff is no progressive. I genuinely believe that he means well, but that's simply not enough. Perhaps some colonial officials really did believe that they were on a civilizing mission in what was called the Third World. But that hardly obscures the barbarity of colonialism and the unequal social relations it presupposes. Moreover, that things should look so distorted from the top should not come as a surprise. It would be stranger, in fact, if the "natural" way that things appeared to a person like Kristoff were clear-eyed and unsentimental about power.


Saturday, February 5, 2011

What we can learn from Egypt

Egyptians are revolting over rising costs of living, soaring unemployment, economic misery, and an ossified political system that is hardly democratic and which is unresponsive to their needs. They're sick and tired of crony capitalism imposed on them from above.

How different are things right here in the good ol' USA? To be sure, we're better off with Obama than with Hosni Mubarak. But that doesn't obscure the fact that many of the deep problems facing Egyptians are afflicting our society as well, and for similar reasons.

As Bob Herbert makes clear in a recent column on the suffering caused by the crisis in the US:

What’s really happening, of course, is the same thing that’s been happening in this country for the longest time — the folks at the top are doing fabulously well and they are not interested in the least in spreading the wealth around.

The people running the country — the ones with the real clout, whether Democrats or Republicans — are all part of this power elite. Ordinary people may be struggling, but both the Obama administration and the Republican Party leadership are down on their knees slavishly kissing the rings of the financial and corporate kingpins.

I love when the wackos call President Obama a socialist. Wasn’t it his budget director, Peter Orszag, who moved effortlessly from his job in the administration to a hotshot post at Citigroup, beneficiary of tons of government largess? And didn’t the president’s new chief of staff, William Daley, arrive in his powerful new post fresh from the executive suite of JPMorgan Chase? And isn’t the incoming chairman of Mr. Obama’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness very conveniently the chairman and chief executive of General Electric, Jeffrey Immelt?

You might ask: Who represents working people? The answer, as Tevye would say with grave emphasis in “Fiddler on the Roof,” is, “I don’t know.”
He's talking about the US, not a the strange "Other-ized" image of Egpyt produced by mass consensus media.

And, as I said in a recent post, the inference to draw from Egpyt isn't that we should pat ourselves on the back and rejoice in how eager the Egyptians are to join us in the world of freedom and prosperity. No, the inference to draw is that the Egyptians are showing us something about how power works and how social change happens. They are standing up to an uncaring political/economic strata of elites who have profited from their immiseration for decades. It's time for Americans to do the same. Real change, the sort of change we can really "believe in", is not going to come from on high by way of the usual suspects in the two major corporate parties. It will not be handed to us after a mass email-campaign to our senators or a funding-drive organized by It will be won in the same way that all progressive changes have been one in this country: through hard-fought struggle.

The sooner that ordinary people in the US begin rising up, demanding that their government assuage their suffering and economic misery, the better. The sooner we begin demanding real health care reform for all, full employment, and a re-investment of war funding in education and infrastructure, the better. Tunisia and Egypt are teaching the world a valuable lesson. The first step to understanding it is to open ourselves to the raw facts of our situation in the US, and those facts are not pretty.


Two Left Views of the Revolutionary Situation in Egypt

Žižek has a piece in The Guardian here, which skewers the "cynical wisdom of western liberals, according to which, in Arab countries, genuine democratic sense is limited to narrow liberal elites while the vast majority can only be mobilized through religious fundamentalism or nationalism". Indeed, he also puts a lie to the even more cynical wisdom that liberation can only be "brought" to the Middle East by way of U.S. military occupation.

Also, see Ahmed Shawki's excellent update on the situation from here. As he notes, "Right now, the movement is united around the political aim of getting rid of Hosni Mubarak. But hopefully, once Mubarak is unseated, the political questions will then mesh with social questions that still remain unresolved...If that happens, there will be a really explosive mix of political and social issues that represents the possibility of political and social revolution."

Both focus in on the most exciting thing about what's happening in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere: the fact that there is a space being opened up in which social transformation is possible. Comparing recent events to the early, emancipatory stages of the 1979 Iranian Revolution, Žižek argues that "it did lead to a breathtaking explosion of political and social creativity, organizational experiments and debates among students and ordinary people. This genuine opening that unleashed unheard-of forces for social transformation, a moment in which everything seemed possible, was then gradually stifled through the takeover of political control by the Islamist establishment."

It is always easy to say, in a cynical deterministic way, that unsuccessful revolutions were always fated from the very beginning to turn out as they did. But this facile bit of cynicism is not grounded in fact. The 1979 Iranian Revolution was not fated to turn out as it did from the very beginning, and, though seldom discussed, there were many emancipatory possibilities in its early stages. We must learn from such failures, such "revolutionary rehearsals", so that we can do better the next time around. The same is true right now: we cannot say what the result of these uprisings will be a priori. The exciting thing is precisely that, unlike the normal functioning of an oppressive society, space is being opening up in which people may have the opportunity to determine their own fate, to shape society in a humane, democratic way that brushes against the grain of neoliberal capitalism.

To fear this opening as such, to distrust this new possibility in itself, is just to side with the status quo. It is also to verge on an old colonial kind of racism which suggests that "I'm not sure the time is right for the Arab region to go through the democratic process", i.e. "the Arabs are not yet ready for self-governance". To fear incredible possibility of a free and democratic society created by these uprisings is to fear freedom and democracy themselves. It is to be content with the slow-grinding, everyday, ordinary oppression and exploitation that characterizes an unjust social order. No one except the most inveterate conservative could take such a position.

Sort-of Update: I might have added a third, namely, this piece by Noam Chomsky in the guardian. Echoing the views above, Chomsky holds that "It's not radical Islam that worries the US – it's independence...The nature of any regime it backs in the Arab world is secondary to control. Subjects are ignored until they break their chains."


Thursday, February 3, 2011

Hegel and Marx on Freedom

"For Hegel freedom consists in being in a certain reflective and deliberative relation to oneself, which itself is possible, so it is argued, only if one is also already in a certain (ultimately institutional, norm-governed) relations to others, if one is a participant in certain practices... Put most simply, for an action to count as mine, it must make a certain kind of sense to the agent, and that means it must fit in intelligibly within a whole complex of practices and institutions within which doing this now could have coherent meaning... On his view, all of the standard conditions of action (e.g. "doing it voluntarily, uncoerced") could be fulfilled, yet we would not want to say that the action is truly "mine" such that I could fully or truly stand behind it, own up to it, and claim ownership of it... Hegel denies that we can separate the moral-psychological, individual dimension of freedom from social relations of dependence and independence said to be equally constitutive of freedom..." Robert Pippin, Hegel's Practical Philosophy, p.4-7
There is much about this that is very attractive as a conception of freedom. Hegel rejects the impoverished "negative" liberal conception of freedom that claims that we are free to the extent that we, as isolated individuals, are not "interfered" with by external coercion. Whereas this anemic view of freedom begins from the idea that persons are asocial atoms unto themselves, Hegel's conception of freedom proceeds from the fact that we are not isolated individual atoms: the institutions, traditions, practices, norms and social relations which surround us are partly constitutive of us. To be free is, therefore, not to be cut off from these constitutive features of human life. To be free is to stand in the right kind of relation with respect to oneself and others. It is to be able to affirm the basic institutions of social life; it is to be able to see oneself and be at home in such institutions.

But, of course, life under modern capitalism is such that we cannot rationally be at home in our society. We cannot see ourselves in the basic institutions of society (e.g. the market, private ownership of the means of production, etc.), since they lord over us as something alien to us, something not under our control. As I noted in a previous post:

"Consider the well-worn idea that you 'can't buck the market'. We have become so used to things as 'market forces'...that you are just as likely to come to grief as if you ignored natural forces -gravity, magnetism and so on.... you'd better do what the market says or else you will be in trouble. But what is the market? Simply the accumulated effects of innumerable human decisions about production and consumption. It is, thus, our own product, from which it follows that, once more, we come to be dominated by our own product."
Think of the terms in which the present financial crisis is described. People in the media talk about the economy as though it were a natural disaster, completely beyond our control, laying waste to human lives in its wake. But the market is no force of nature; it is something that human beings constructed. And what we've built up, we can tear down. "The market is like a monster we have accidentally created, but which now comes to rule our lives". Capitalism is, thus, in Marx's words, "the complete domination of dead matter over men". We cannot affirm the basic institutions of capitalist societies as our own since they dominate us. They are not the products of deliberative, collectively exercised reason, as are the expressions of a democratic process. The basic institutions of capitalism are the products of a system whose basic function is to generate profit for the ruling class. The result is that work, daily life, leisure, the majority of cultural production, etc. all tend to be structured around this unsavory, inhuman end of profit accumulation. This condition of not being able to affirm and recognize our social condition as our own is what Hegel called alienation. Freedom, then, is a kind of "non-alienation", an achievement in which alienation is overcome by way of a socially-grounded self-determination.

Moving from Hegel to Marx, it's worth saying a bit more about why contemporary capitalism is both alienating and unfree. By any measure, capitalism has succeeded in developing the forces of production (e.g. technology, productive instruments and techniques, instrumentally useful technical knowledge, etc.) to a very high degree. But rather than putting this powerful productive capacity in the service of meeting human needs, developing human talents and capabilities, creating the conditions for flourishing, etc... instead, almost all human potential is subjected to, and dominated by, the need to increase profit. Growth for the sake of growth, accumulation for the sake of accumulation, profit for the sake of profit. These are the unsavory priorities that shape social life under capitalism.

Whereas a free society would be one in which the productive forces were put in the service of human interests... ours is one in which human interests are subordinated to the expansion of the productive forces for the sake of expansion. Whereas a rational society would be one in which capital was subordinated to human ends, ours is a society in which human ends are subordinated to the dictates of capital. Whereas capitalism makes us feel as though we're the playthings of larger economic and social forces beyond our control... a socialist society would be one in which we could take control over our own lives by democractizing the basic structure of society. We can only call a society our own when we are able to say of the basic goals of that society that they are the products of our collective deliberations.

It should be obvious why so much of Hegel's conception of freedom appealed to Marx. To be sure, Hegel did not properly understand what the institutions and basic structure of modernity are like. Moreover, whereas Hegel claimed that modern capitalism was a product of a rational historical process, Marx was unrelenting in showing this to be false. History, Marx argued, is not the gradual unfolding of reason, culminating in modern capitalism. History is a political struggle among different groups, framed by the way in which the social surplus is produced. Capitalism, therefore, is not the rational overcoming of alienation, but merely another form of alienation, another class society like those that preceded it. The difference, however, is that capitalism, for the first time, creates the conditions for a free society in a way that previous societies did not. Whereas a free, egalitarian society may not have been possible in the Bronze Age, capitalist societies have made possible such a high degree of productivity that we can satisfy all basic human needs without working ourselves to death doing it. For the first time in human history, the high level of development of the productive forces under capitalism make possible a society free from alienation, class domination and objectively necessary poverty and suffering.

Freedom would not be to walk through a supermarket perusing 20 different brands of toilet cleaner without "external interference"... freedom would be to see in basic social institutions the mark of human, democratic reason. It would be to see oneself, as a member of a modern democratic society, in the basic structure of society and, thus, to be able to reflectively endorse and affirm that society. Such is not possible when the iron law of profit dictates what is to receive investment and what is to wither on the vine. It is not possible to reflectively endorse and affirm what is imposed upon us in the interests of inhuman ends. That is to say, it is not possible to be fully free in a society in which the commanding heights of the economy is governed by the demands of profit and controlled by a small class of capitalists.

In light of the above we can make sense of Alasdair MacIntyre's claim that " least one philosophy course, and, more adequately two, should be required of every undergraduate. Of course an education of this kind would require a major shift in our resources and priorities, and, if successful, it would produce in our students habits of mind which would unfit them for the contemporary world. But to unfit our students for the contemporary world ought in any case to be one of our educational aims." To "unfit" students for the modern age, as I'm reading it, means to get them to think critically, i.e. to become aware of alienation (to see clearly the sense in which we cannot truly be at home, and hence free, in modern capitalism). A good education would not be one that subordinated all curricula to the capricious demands of the labor market. A good education would be one which produced in us "habits of mind which would unfit them for the contemporary world" in such a way that they would come to demand that the world itself change. Rather than pandering to the world as it is, good education would challenge us to think seriously about how to change it for the better and truly make it our own.

It should be obvious, but it's nonetheless worth saying, that bureaucratic central planning is equally condemned by this view of freedom. The mechanistic distortions of Stalinism are anathema to freedom. If the basic institutions of society are under the control of a bureaucratic nomenklatura, this is hardly better than capitalism. In such a case we would still feel that we were subject to forces beyond our control, forces which were emphatically not the products of collective, democratic deliberation. For if the state, rather than private capitalists, dominates production there is still the question: but who controls the state? Thus, it should be obvious that taking this Hegelian-Marxist view of freedom leaves only one route to overcoming alienation and class domination: the most radical form of democracy. Only when we're all able to interact with each other as equal co-legislators are we fully free. As long as social relations of domination exist, freedom is not possible. Thus, freedom and equality are not antagonistic others, but mutually constitutive aspects of the same goal.


Wednesday, February 2, 2011

G.A. Cohen BBC Video: "Against Capitalism"

Sure, the tone and presentation is a bit ridiculous... and the bit about "shmoo" is sort of hilarious in an embarrassing way. But I think this is on the whole really quite good. This aired on the BBC in the 80s, I'm told, as a sort of response to Milton Friedman's 1980 pro-capitalist "Free to Choose" TV series.

The second part is much better than the first, not that the first part is bad. The points about productivity, unemployment and leisure time are particularly poignant right now (e.g. "The same system that overworks people in the interests of profit, also deprives them entirely of work when it's not profitable to employ them.") Such arguments are almost never made in the licit, consensus media. The reasons why not are obvious: this forms the basis of the one of most intuitive, simple arguments for socialism. The questions we must ask are: why not use the highly developed productive forces to shorten toil and maximize human potential? Why squander such productive potential by putting it all in the service of enriching the ruling class?


Tuesday, February 1, 2011

"Why... they want to be just like us!"

The imperialist orientation toward "events" elsewhere in the world typically falls on one or other side of the following dichotomy.

On the one hand, there is the survivalist, frightened, anxious gaze that "Otherizes". On the surface, it can be relatively collected or vitriolic, but the basic attitude is the same. Such a gaze regards that which is "other" as nothing but a threat. Underlying all of this is a rigid unwillingness to question the basic beliefs and ideological framework that legitimate the status quo.

On the other hand, there is the co-opting, appropriating gaze that obliterates all difference. This orientation tends to project a great deal onto other people (expectations, presumed endorsement of one's own politics, etc.). This gaze appropriates movements elsewhere on the globe, and contorts them in such a way that they are entirely consistent with the status quo at home. Again, underlying all this is a similar unwillingness to question or revise basic status quo beliefs and ideological coordinates.

I think we could plausibly argue that the Anglophone media has covered the events in Egypt in one or other of these two ways. Whereas the first response from the US ruling class was one of disbelief, shock, and anxiety, the most recent news from Washington suggests that a shift is underway toward a more co-opting, appropriating gaze. Again, this is typical: when power is in a position to do so, power often reacts swiftly to put down resistance that is visible enough as to not be ignored. But when conditions are such that resistance is growing in confidence and numbers, powerful groups often attempt not to simply "oppose" resistors directly, but to "accommodate" or "co-opt" them in such a way as to undermine their potential as a threat. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 is absolutely a case of the latter, whereas the indifference and direct violence against the black liberation movement that preceded it seems more like a case of the former.

It has been obvious from the beginning of the Egypt protests that the US could not directly intervene, for both political and logistical reasons. Politically, there would have been very little support or legitimating grounds for a direct US intervention. The fallout within and without Egypt would have been massive for a US war machine that is already held in contempt by much of the world for its brutal occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan. Moreover, the US has indirectly lorded over Egypt by "soft imperialist" tactics, and a move toward direct, "hard imperialist" intervention would breach this longstanding approach. Logistically, the US is over-extended and facing a deep economic crisis at home. It simply could not afford an adventure or increase of military expenditure in Egypt. Thus, the only available course of action for Washington is to work its connections and to try to manage "damage control" via PR. The PR effort, predictably, has shifted back and forth between chastising the protesters and expressing anxiety on the one hand, and appearing to support them and "democracy" on the other.

Now that Mubarak is on his way out, now that it is clear that the protesters will prevail, it comes as no surprise that Obama and Co. have come out as tentative supporters of some kind of "regime change". How could they take any other position at this point? They are merely being dragged along with the tide of this revolution. The interesting question is not "is Washington publicly taking a "pro" or "con" position vis-a-vis the protests?" The question is "what kind of "alternative" is Washington pushing for, and what sort is it pushing against"? Once power realizes that something must change, its task is to influence and mold the alternative in such a way that as little changes as possible (e.g. this is more or less exactly what happened to health care "reform" the US).

So, now that much of the outright anxiety and fear (what about our oil?, what about the "islamofascists"?, etc.) has given way to appropriation, the line coming from the "soft imperialists" is "Look! The Egyptian people want to have freedom just like us!".

Thus, the inspiring revolutionary uprising in Egypt is de-fanged, sanitized and re-packaged for mass consumption. Rather than implicitly criticizing our own society and proposing ways that we, Americans, could change it... the protests are merely an affirmation of our status quo. It's as if they're simply holding a big 4th of July BBQ celebration in our honor in demonstration of their "desire" to "graduate" and join "us" at the adult table.

The reality, of course, is precisely the opposite of this rose-tinged fantasy. The Egyptian people are sick and tired of a frozen, ossified political system that is unresponsive to their needs and interests. They are sick and tired of skyrocketing food prices, high unemployment, repression of labor, neoliberal policies and economic insecurity. They are, in short, angry about problems that are angering Americans every single day. They want changes that Americans desperately need: a complete transformation of the political institutions in society, an overturning of the existing strata of elites, a turn towards more Left economic policy, a full-employment economy, etc. etc.

To say that there is no friction between Egyptian protests and the political situation in the USA is to deeply misunderstand both Egypt and the US. It is to walk about covering ones eyes and chanting the trite slogans that cover up the deep cracks in the status quo. The Egyptian people aren't "trying to be like us". They are doing something that we should take note of, that we must learn from: real change only comes as a result of mass struggle from below. The protesters are bearing witness to a basic fact about entrenched power which Fredrick Douglass captured nicely when he said:

"The whole history of the progress of human a
liberty shows that all concessions yet made
to her august claims have been born of
earnest struggle.... If there is no struggle,
there is no progress. Those who profess to
favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation
are men who want crops without plowing up
the ground, they want rain without thunder
and lightning. They want the ocean without
the awful roar of its mighty waters. The
struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a
physical one, and it may be both moral and
physical, but it must be a struggle.

Power concedes nothing without a demand.
It never did and it never will."