The rise of Trump and the global right and other loose ends

1. In the last two decades of the 20th century, two seismic events occurred. First was the rise of the right in the U.S. and the ascendancy of neoliberalism across the capitalist world, which became the grease for the retreat, transformation, and taming of social democratic and liberal politics. The other was the sudden and unexpected collapse of the Soviet Union, which had been the mainstay of the communist movement and world socialism from its inception.

Looked at another way. the two main political currents of the working class movement – communism and social democracy – that challenged capitalist power to one degree or another in much of the world in the last century took a drubbing. It was a setback of the first order. Neither was down for the count, but historical initiative passed from their hands.

The winner in this contest was their common adversary — capitalism. And its cheerleaders took every opportunity to crow about its success. But its victory was short lived. Capitalism in its neoliberal form, resting on a turn to finance and unchecked financial and capital flows, the explosion of debt among investors and consumers alike, a punishing austerity and inequality, the dramatic expansion and spatial redistribution of global labor, and the atomization of the working class and other oppositional social constituencies, grew for sure. But at the same time, its performance was sullied by its inability to recapture its old economic dynamism of earlier decades and spread its bounty to broad sections of wage and salary workers and other social constituencies – especially people of color and women.

This lackluster performance, however, turned into a catastrophic condition when a world-wide economic crisis struck in 2008 and shook the foundations of capitalism, while spreading hard times to people everywhere.

Not surprisingly, this massive implosion triggered a surge of mass anger and popular resistance, and undercut capitalism’s legitimacy worldwide. And into this breech stepped progressive and left people and organizations — old and new. But the right, already a dominant actor in U.S. politics and a growing presence elsewhere in the world, seized this moment as well, and actually with greater vigor than a left that was the fractured and less politically coherent. Presenting itself as an outsider and defender of the nation and its “culture,” zealously employing xenophobic, racist, nationalistic, and even anti-capitalist rhetoric, and enjoying the financial and institutional support of a bevy of deep pocketed moneybags in finance, industry, and real estate, the right captured the imagination and shaped the thinking of millions, including sections of white workers.

Meanwhile, U.S. imperialism, free of its Soviet foe after a half century, paradoxically had a hard time exploiting its new advantage in the international arena. The overnight erasure of its global rival and the establishment of a military network that encircled the globe gave U.S. imperialism new latitude to maneuver. But that was quickly squandered in endless wars, beginning in Yugoslavia and then moving to Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East and horn of Africa.

In each bloodland, the projection of asymmetrical military power came with massive unintended consequences that even now show no sign of easing. If anything this display of force revealed the limits of the use of U.S. military power to shape the world according to U.S. interests in the 21st century.

Indeed, U.S, global power brokers still confront an at times (and now increasingly so) reluctant Europe, formidable regional competitors (Russia and Iran especially), and as it gazes across the Pacific, it sees a potential global peer and competitor in a rising China.

U.S. imperialism isn’t yet in a terminal crisis, to use the term of the great social theorist Giovanni Arrighi, but its hegemonic status on a global level, projecting out into the 21st century, is far less secure than some suggest. Moreover, It is in this significantly reconfigured national and global context that Trump’s candidacy and Electoral College victory — not to mention the rise of the right in Europe and elsewhere –is best understood.

2. Any accounting of successes in restraining Trump has to go beyond the seemingly obligatory invocation of the “Resistance Movement.” Give it its due for sure and find ways to expand its reach and depth too.

But an analysis should also include the positive role of the Democratic Party and the mass media, the rifts, even if small, in the GOP, and the discontent with Trump that is growing in elite circles in the state, courts, and economy — not to mention Trump’s breath-taking incompetence, indiscipline, out of control ego, and habit of putting his foot squarely in his mouth. In some ways, he is his worst enemy.

Which goes to prove once again that the process of social change is complicated, contradictory, and full of surprises and paradoxes. It doesn’t come, as much as we might wish, in pure and neat forms. Not one class — the working class — here and another class — the capitalist class — there. Not the people at one pole and the elites (and “establishment”) at the other. Not actors with impeccable credentials and unimpeachable aims on one side, while nothing but bad actors with scant possibility of a change of mind on the other.

In other words, if we are looking for simple and cut-and-dried explanations and schemes, we aren’t going to find any. And if we do, we would probably do ourselves (and others) a favor by digging a little deeper.

3. In an interesting article, Nate Silver writes that Trump’s high floor of support — thought by many to be set in stone — is eroding. According to Silver, his strongly approve numbers have fallen significantly, while those who strongly disapprove of Trump have tracked upward. This, Silver says, could turn into an “enthusiasm” advantage for the Democrats in next year’s elections.

“Trump,” Silver adds,” has always had his share of reluctant supporters, and their ranks have been growing as the number of strong supporters has decreased. If those reluctant Trump supporters shift to being reluctant opponents instead, he’ll be in a lot of trouble,3 with consequences ranging from a midterm wave against Republicans to an increased likelihood of impeachment.”

“So while there’s risk to Democrats in underestimating Trump’s resiliency, there’s an equal or perhaps greater risk,” Silver concludes, “to Republicans in thinking Trump’s immune from political gravity … If you look beneath the surface of Trump’s approval ratings, you find not hidden strength but greater weakness than the topline numbers imply.”

All this is music to my ears. Yours too, I’m sure.  And I also hope that it will give new momentum to the far flung and varied coalition that opposes Trump.

Memorial Day: Honoring fallen friends, not war

I post this every Memorial Day to recall my friends whose lives were cut short in the Vietnam War. Let’s continue to lift our voices against the insanity of war and insist that peace be given a chance. Too many flowers have gone. SW 

Today, I will again lift a pint of ale in memory of my three friends and their comrades who died in Vietnam.

I honor them without honoring the aggressive and unjust war in which they fought.

I don’t know what their motivations were to join the military, maybe it was simply that the draft gave them no choice, but it really doesn’t matter. What I do know for sure is that their lives were unnecessarily cut short.

As a young peace activist in the late 60s, I probably didn’t always make a distinction between the soldiers fighting the war and the war itself. The soldier and the general were equally responsible as I saw it.

But I don’t make that mistake now. I place responsibility for war on its architects in high places and a social system – capitalism – whose logic is to expand, dominate, and make war when necessary.

Ricky, Tuna and Cotter were at the bottom of this hierarchy of war making, nothing but cannon fodder, working class kids whose lives didn’t count for much in our government’s war plans. None of them were born with a silver spoon in their mouths.

I will always wonder what kind of lives they would have lead. With no heroe’s welcome, no jobs, no counseling waiting for them, would they have had the internal resources and family support to come to terms with the war and to live productive lives?

I easily (perhaps unfairly) doubt it, because each of them was not that different from me, and I have no confidence at all that I could have made that adjustment either. It was hard enough to grow up in the 1960s without the ghastly war experience on my emotional resume.

I wish, though, that they had a chance. I wish that their sweetness wasn’t wasted doing things that no one should be forced to do. I wish that they had the opportunity to live long and happy lives.

I miss them. I celebrate them. They were “my buddies.” I wish they could join me at the Bronx Ale House today for a pint in their honor, although knowing them, I suspect, a single pint wouldn’t quite satisfy them, which would be ok with me.

I also wish that we could toast to the millions in our generation who opposed the war. Some of them lost their lives, some of them went to jail, and some of them were scarred by the experience. They, too, deserve to be honored. It was our generation’s “finest hour.”

Finally, to top off the afternoon, I would like the four of us to clink glasses to the people of Vietnam who suffered so much during and after the war and who are now rebuilding their country in conditions of peace and mutual relations with our country.

Maybe that is too much to expect from them. Unfortunately, I will never know. They will join me only in memory this afternoon. I wish it were different, but I will treasure the memory anyway, as I wash down my pint of ale.

Armando Ramirez — the real deal

Today would have been the 87th birthday of Armando Ramirez. But two months ago he quietly bid farewell to this world — a world that he loved, but also gave his energies and spirti to change for the better. In his final moments, he was listening to his favorite folk songs, sung by two of his children.

Armando was my pal of forty years. Someone I could lean on, and I like to think he could do the same. I miss him dearly and daily.

Though we were living on opposite ends of the country, we talked frequently on the phone and few things gave me more pleasure than to hear his voice. Our conversations were never long. And sometimes we talked nonsense, although in the past year we inevitably gravitated toward the elections.

And of course basketball, a game we loved, often came up. So much so that when we were both living in Detroit we were fans of the famed Southwestern High School high school in our neighborhood.

Armando, perhaps more than anybody I know, was extraordinarily kind, generous of spirit, and modest. Bullshitting and name dropping to impress others were not in his DNA. He was also, over a lifetime, a warrior for justice and socialism and a member of the Communist Party. If the term “genuine article” has any meaning, he embodied it. He’s on my Mt. Rushmore of beautiful people and will stay there forever.

Of course, my affection for him was no more than that felt by others who met and loved him too.

His life journey began in Chicago’s “back of the yards” neighborhood and eventually took him to Detroit, where he was first a Communist Party organizer and then an auto worker, at GM and at Ford. He told me more than once that his political education largely took place in Detroit. There he was involved in a whole range of struggles — against plant closings, the organization of Mexican Industries, the election campaigns of Mayor Coleman Young, and much more. He was no Monday morning quarterback.

He knew socialism had no delivery date, but no doubt he wished it would have arrived before he departed this world. Nonetheless, he was happy in the good fight, shoulder to shoulder with the class and people of which he was a proud son.

When I saw him last, in Oakland in January, I told him that I would come back when the weather  warmed up — he hated the cold — and that we would sit on his daughter’s deck. And the deal was that he could regale me with stories and I would drink some good red wine and probably get a little tipsy. He liked the bargain, and I did even more.

Two weeks ago, we planted an apple tree in my daughter Julia’s backyard in memory of Armando. Our small ceremony included short remembrances by each of us and a toast or two. We also buried a tennis ball — he loved and played tennis well into his early 80s — with the tree. And songs he knew and loved well filled the air: De Colores (Joan Baez), Guantanamera (Cubans around the world), Deportee (Arlo and Emmy Lou Harris), and Long Way Around (Dixie Chicks). The rain that fell blended with our bittersweet tears of love and sorrow.

After the planting, we went inside, enjoyed some homemade (and very good) Mexican food plus drink, and shared more memories of Armando.

Armando will never disappear into the recesses of our memory. He will remain, presente!

From senseless violence to an oasis of peace

The senseless killing of upwards of 22 innocent people and the injuring of many more in Manchester, England last night at a music concert serves no purpose other than to put the wind in the sails of the most right wing, reactionary, anti-democratic, and xenophobic politicians and political groups worldwide – not least Trump and his ilk. To think that such inhumane and deadly actions in any way serve the cause of justice in the Middle East or anywhere else is delusional.

The organizers of these dastardly acts aren’t “freedom fighters.” What animates them is a retrogressive, exclusivist, and sectarian ideology that pivots on hate and violence. While they should be apprehended and brought to justice in quick order, security and safely will come to people in the Muslim and non-Muslim world only when the ground on which they thrive and recruit new adherents is transformed into an oasis of peace, equality, opportunity, and economic security.

A reply to “Power, socialism, and the communist movement”

Introductory note: below is a reply to a post of mine that I received from Juan Lopez. I asked Juan if I could post it on my blog site and he graciously agreed. Juan’s reply raises a number of important issues that warrant further discussion. I will reply to some of them soon, but if the spirit grabs you, please do so yourself. Dialogue is an essential part of gaining new insights into past and contemporary events. SW

Dear Sam,

I want to thank you for raising these critical issues and, in so doing, pushing the envelope. I agree with your general conclusions as a matter of principle and practice. You elaborate them clearly, powerfully and succinctly.

Now, I’d like to develop some ideas that your piece stimulated in me.

[But two caveats first:

[One: as you well know, life never unfolds neatly. It is messy, contradictory, more complicated and more nuanced than any conclusion or theory we humans can arrive at. So what may appear as absolutes are approximations of reality.

[Two: for the sake of brevity I will use “democratic” and “humane” alternately instead of the full “democratic, egalitarian, sustainable, and humane” to characterize the socialism you project and that I agree with).

I would argue that power and democratic values must co-exist and, even more, reinforce each other. I agree when you say, “…we still have to ask what measures are necessary to guarantee that power and its practitioners are subordinated to (and, when necessary, reined in by) socialist values, norms, vision, and democratically constituted bodies.”

At the same time, I think that power and its practitioners (worthy of their revolutionary values) must act as facilitators and guarantors of “socialist values, norms, vision, and democratically constituted bodies,” as you say.

Power can be wielded to advance and/or suppress democracy.A particularly egregious example of suppression of democracy is that of the Stalin reign and its political, ideological and practical premises and consequences, as you have been so wel  elaborating for some time.

As for power to advance democracy I will cite something closer to home: The presence of the Union army in the South after the Civil War as guarantor of the safety of newly freed slaves and of democracy’s burst during the Reconstruction period. This short-lived but consequential period is an example of power in the service of advancing democracy and, at the same time, suppressing the class and political forces impeding democracy.

Or, take Cuba and Venezuela.

The former is an example of power being wielded in defense of democracy and democracy being applied to reinforce power in the face of imperialist aggression. One cannot do without the other. These two inter-dependent categories are critical to the nation’s economic development which, depending on the latter’s success or lack thereof, can play a critical role in advancing or retarding the consolidation of power and democracy.

For the moment at least, that’s the dilemma in which Venezuela’s revolutionary process finds itself.As you say, “Power has to be devolved and decentralized to the people and popular institutions,” which I think Raul Castro at the 6 th Congress of the Communist Party of Cuba did very ably. “And the only hope of such an outcome,” you add beautifully, “is a multi-racial, working class-based, majoritarian movementof great depth, understanding, and unity that acts as socialism’s midwife and stays engaged long into its old age.”

This brings me to an additional observation I had: The quest for power and democratic values must co-exist and reinforce one another at every stage of struggle. For example, at the Riverside Church I was struck when Fidel said that, in guerrilla encounters, vanquished enemy government soldiers who were captured, instead of being executed as the oligarchy would do, would be cut loose (I suppose after an education on the revolution’s aims). In some cases, this happened with the same soldier more than once.The rebel army was in no position to tug along prisoners.

More importantly, the rebels cut loose prisoners as a living example of the humanistic revolutionary values for which they were aiming. This played a role in eventually winning over many soldiers and those with whom they came into contact and, when coupled with other measures, securing the moral high ground with the people generally. These and other humanistic and democratic-minded actions foretold early on the nature of the revolution once power was won.

During our own Civil War, after an initial “tug-of- war” among generals in the field and in Lincoln’s own thinking, the Union forces went on to encourage consciously what initially the enslaved did spontaneously – running away from the plantations (in what Dubois aptly described as a general strike).

Later Lincoln proclaimed the Emancipation Proclamation and went on to arm the newly freed slaves (which played a decisive role in victory over the Confederacy and the abolition of slavery).

I have some questions regarding point 1 and 2 in your piece.

With reference to point 1, in arguing against the “vanguard” party you say: “Power should never again be the property of anyone party (or movement). There is little evidence for the notion that under socialism social contradictions disappear and thus obviating the need for a multi-party system.”

I do agree we should retire the “vanguard” party concept. But, let me raise these questions:On the world scene today there are nations at various levels of anti-imperialist and socialist development with one party rule and also multi-party left-center coalitions at the helm of government. In the case of multi-party left-center fronts while proclaiming a socialist path they are confronting right-wing parties coalescing together in most, if not all cases, being encouraged by imperialism (Here I’m thinking of Latin America because I am unacquainted with developments in Africa and Asia).

In our country, we have a two party winner-take- all electoral system, obviously not based on proportional representation and multi-party electoral system as in most countries.

Let’s put aside the idea that we are “the vanguard” party. The party has argued for the formation of an anti-monopoly party, in which the party is one force among others, as we enter the anti-monopoly stage laying the basis for the socialist stage.

Whether the anti-monopoly party emerges within or outside the Democratic Party shell remains to be seen, in my opinion. So, how would your views in point 1 play out in these circumstances?

Then you say: “Much the same can be said about state-controlled media. Experience abounds that an independent and broadly based media is crucial in socialist as well as capitalist societies.” I too think it’s necessary.

How would this play out at different junctures on the road to socialism? In countries where big business and the rightwing sections still can influence public opinion through its media outlets? Or where imperialist media outlets continue to try topenetrate? And finally, in nations on the path to socialism (here I include China, Cuba and Vietnam) where power is consolidated in one party and, depending on the country, with varying degrees and forms of participation, influence and decision-making powers by the people?

How do you envision “an independent and broadly based media” in our country as we move through higher stages of struggle? What popular forces do you envision constituting “independent and broadly based media?”

Perhaps on these last two points, I am trying to give concrete shape to general principles that developments over time will determine.

Anyway, again I want to emphasize how much I appreciate your probing ideas.

Take care my friend and brother,

Juan

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