Weapons, War and the Divided Left

It Comes Down To Political Practice, It Comes Down to Weapons 

The deep divisions in the US left over the Ukraine war can be reduced to a single practical question: Do you support sending weapons to Ukraine?

The answer to that question depends on whether or not you accept the idea that we’re the cops of the world. The two parties accept this without question but the pro-weapons left? Behind a facade of left-sounding words, political practice tells the tale.

Does the pro-weapons pro-war left practice what they preach? Do they raise their own funds to run their own guns or organize their own combat units? Are they at least joining Zelensky’s international legion and standing shoulder-to-shoulder with their friends and allies? Hell no, they won’t go! Their practice is to let someone else do the dirty work: that “somebody” is the US military-industrial complex, NATO, but mostly the Ukrainian people they claim to care about.  

The pro-weapons left hides their collaboration with NATO behind the seemingly simple idea that “Ukraine has the right to get weapons or seek aid from anywhere they see fit.” Except that “anywhere” does not exist in the real world. Ukraine is not a customer in some free market for weapons. There is a highly structured supply chain for weapons that is a long-standing feature of the US empire and it is directed by the US war machine.  The US has dominated the weapons trade since its rise to global power after WWII. Yes, Russia was often in second or third place, but Ukraine will sure not get its weapons from Russia. The only “anywhere” that actually exists is the US government, which is the primary source for weapons transfers to Ukraine.  

The other flaw in the “from anywhere they see fit” formula is the assumption that weapons given from the US to Ukraine are simply an exercise in Ukrainian self-determination — not one way it’s incorporated into the US-dominated global order. Self-determination is not a by-product of the world’s largest military alliance, whose standard operating procedure is to turn allies into pawns and proxies. The drill begins with the mandatory weapons trade demanded of all NATO members. The Ukrainian defense minister recently admitted that Ukraine is a NATO proxy trading blood for weapons.

No, the existing international order is not some normal, natural state of affairs whose peace and harmony was disrupted by the “unprovoked” Russian invasion. To believe that, you’d have to ignore decades of historical context, including the obvious expansion of NATO that put missiles and troops on Russia’s borders, military advisors inside Ukraine and the less obvious policy of “full spectrum dominance” by which the US seeks to dominate “everyone, everywhere, all at once.” The neoliberal world order is no more based on free markets than self-determination or peace.

Instead, Ukraine found itself between two great powers with a long history of hostility and rivalry. Its only hope for self-determination would have been to maintain the balancing act of neutrality and diplomacy, playing one power off the other. Ukraine’s Declaration of State Sovereignty in 1990 and the 1996 Constitution claimed neutrality. After the 2014 coup, neutrality was sold off for an unprecedented supply of weapons and money, US/NATO military advisors, and a false sense of security. Using the Minsk II treaty as a cover for war preparations, the Ukrainian ruling class refused to cut a deal with their own citizens in the Donbas — choosing war instead — and the downward spiral to invasion and disaster began. Russia is not without blame for this war, but history shows a long record of provocation by the world’s dominant military power. The fact that it is “our” country and “our” empire makes all the difference, or should.

Once the Ukrainian ruling elites put their fate in the hands of the west, the IMF and big corporations moved in big time. Today, Blackrock — the world’s largest private bank worth some $8 trillion and deeply connected to the Biden Administration— is in charge of the economic reconstruction of Ukraine. They smell $billions waiting to be made by propping up the new Ukraine. Submission to finance capital is the only kind of  “self-determination” the neoliberal world order offers, yet the pro-weapons left seems to mistake it for the real deal.    

Sunshine Anti-imperialists

As the Ukraine war threatens to escalate out of control, the position of the pro-war left becomes increasingly indefensible. Press them and many will continue claiming they are anti-imperialists. It’s just that Russian or Chinese imperialism is, according to them, more dangerous. But in practice, they are, we all are, failed anti-imperialists who have not seriously challenged, let alone dismantled, the war machine of our own country. The American War in Vietnam was the last time we even got close. Instead of reckoning with that history, the pro-war left has turned its guns on the empire’s enemies. Their return to a pro-peace position can only be triggered by conditions that will never occur in the actual historical moment we live in.     

On some fine and idyllic summer day when the US empire has no rivals; when no other great powers exist; when there are no competing “imperialisms,” when every country abides by the norms of liberalism in their moral judgment — then and only then — will these sunshine anti-imperialists stand against the war machine of their own country. That day will never come again. Until then — climate chaos be damned, class struggle be damned, the risks of world war and nuclear war be damned. Not only has the pro-escalation left assimilated the war-mongers’ gun fetish, but it has also internalized tolerance for collateral damage on a mass scale.

You can reveal the true meaning of the pro-war left’s position against Russia or China or Iran by asking the practical question: “You and what army?” The only honest answer: the armies of the US empire. The sunshine anti-imperialists stand behind the world’s largest military.

Their shared practice unites them in a working political coalition. The Bush-era neo-conservatives, the Democratic party neoliberals, the obedient base of both Republican and Democratic parties, and the humanitarian war crusaders are united with the pro-war left, including factions within the DSA and Green Party. Even some self-described socialists play a role in the pro-war coalition.

That a faction within the Green Party stands for weapons and escalation shows how lost the left can be. Madelyn Hoffman, the co-chair of the Green Party Peace Action Committee, knows what’s at stake:

Peace is one of our single most important values. If we give up on being the party of peace not only do we betray our deepest values but also forfeit our hard-won position as an opposition party.

We Cannot Be Both Pro-war And Pro-worker

So far, the war has strengthened the hand of the entire ruling class which includes some of the most vicious, powerful, and insatiable corporations in the world. Not content with the crushing transfer of wealth over the last fifty years, corporations have taken advantage of the war to jack up prices and maximize profits. At the same time, the Federal Reserve is doing its best to protect corporate power by targeting workers and wages. That is why anyone who claims to support the working class must oppose the war machine. The pro-weapons socialists are walking contradictions and damn fools for giving aid and comfort to the forces waging class warfare.

The pro-weapons left has not attempted to tell us how US involvement in Ukraine is in the interest of the US working class. And, for a good reason: the US working class has no material interests in this war. In fact, the budding labor movement is endangered by the burgeoning war effort. These two things cannot coexist for long. Workers want a voice and economic security, while warmongers want to crush dissent and push the costs of war onto the backs of the working class. Labor leaders must decide which they love more — the war party or the working class.

It’s a bit of a puzzle as to why the US left — which does not have the power to win health care, reproductive rights, free and fair elections, or labor rights — has the strength to summon intense moral indignation about the sins of other countries. We cannot do jack against our bosses or our empire, but boy-o-boy are we going to teach the Russians and Chinese a thing or two about justice and morality. 

What accounts for this virtuous global moralism? One source is the culture we inherited from the first settlers. We tend to see life as a moral crusade, not a political struggle: this “frees” us to disregard both history and power. So I ask the pro-weapons left — so weak in America yet so strong in Ukraine — where does your secret superpower come from? I fear it comes from the same source as the weapons. 

Maybe after years of losing, the pro-weapons and escalation left want to be winners on the “right side of history?” With over $100 billion already spent on US aid to Ukraine, the pro-weapons left must be popping corks and celebrating! I can’t recall the last time the left won such a huge victory! How did they pressure the US government into adopting such a progressive policy?

War Policy is Domestic Policy 

Much of the pro-NATO left has taken this stand to protect its domestic electoral project. If sending weapons is wrong, their political heroes who repeatedly voted without debate for more weapons are also terribly wrong. A narrow choice remains: either admit that the attempts to reform the Democrats have failed or follow their war-mongering leaders to the right. So far, they have chosen the warpath and loyalty to the Democrats. They seem willing to risk everything to do it.

If a wider war comes, history will judge the pro-escalation left harshly — but we cannot wait on disaster. A powerful peace movement will be built first and foremost around unity in practice, not unity in analysis or ideology — just like the pro-war coalition we confront. When working people realize that we, not the ruling classes, pay the price of economic hardship and lives lost, they will turn toward peace. Immediate ceasefire and negotiations remain the best practical demands — demands we make directly to the US government without needing go-betweens who make arms and profit from war. The only “army” we need is the peace movement that we are building. That is genuine self-determination.

To succeed, we must broaden our appeal. The scorched-earth tactics of war accelerate the climate crisis. Climate chaos is the ultimate collateral damage and the surest single threat to life everywhere — on a par with nuclear war. In the end, the pro-weapons left serves the war machine, while the peace movement must serve the people and the planet.   

This essay also appeared in Counterpunch.



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Moral Crusade or Class Interest? Does the US Working Class Have a Material Interest in Ukraine?

Also in Counterpunch.

Moral crusade or working-class interest? Which should guide our actions on Ukraine and the escalating conflict with China? How do we work through the dilemmas of peace activism given the contradictory mess that is the War in Ukraine? Start by asking the right questions.

Moral Crusades and Cold Wars

Popular support for US involvement in Ukraine is based on a persuasive moral crusade most forcefully advanced by Joe Biden and other leading Democrats. Biden’s speech in Poland was one of those defining moments framing future wars as a repeat of past ones. On behalf of the “Free World,” Biden placed Ukraine “on the front lines” in “the perennial struggle for democracy and freedom.”

Biden did not invent the fiction of the “Free World” or the “perennial struggle” of good v. evil. He simply recycled lines from the first Cold War. Long before him, John F. Kennedy’s “long twilight struggle” committed Americans to an anti-communist crusade that morphed into the unending struggle against any and all rivals after the fall of the Soviet Union.

The problem: moral crusades tend to rule out compromise and negotiations. Behind them lies the mirage of “total victory.” In Ukraine, this is a dangerous illusion for anyone that supports any side in the conflict. Even war at the scale of WWII — that ended in as total a victory as could be imagined — did not finish off fascism, militarism, or empire. Those evils run deep because they sustain capitalism.

War leaders are not about solving fundamental issues so they give us the twin deceptions of moral crusade and total victory. Joe Manchin, who always serves the Democrats by saying the quiet part out loud, entertained the Davos crowd by rejecting negotiations and holding out for a win.

The call to war enjoys strong bipartisan support. Liberal politicians and their supporters  have pushed pro-war attitudes deep into progressive territory by appealing to ideals of self-determination, and “agency.” This also recalls the “cold war liberalism” of the past when some radicals and many labor officials fell into line against the communist menace and supported the Vietnam War.

All the talk of agency and self-determination used to support a war thousands of miles away rings hollow since US workers —right here, right now — are denied effective agency and self-determination. We do not even have health care or reproductive rights — the simplest forms of bodily self-determination. The current organizing upsurge will surely help but true agency still requires mass independent political action as argued by the President of the Vermont AFL-CIO.

Contrary to the stories of triumph we’ve all heard since the Soviet Union collapsed, the Cold War was a disaster for the US working class; the new wars will be worse, much worse.

The war’s mass appeal is not based on informed, analytical, historical, or left-wing arguments but on simple binaries of good and evil promoted by both parties and blasted across all corporate media channels. The moral crusade works to silence any consideration of the material interest of the US working class in this conflict, and for good reason — we have none.  

The Right Question: Is the Ukraine War in the Interest of the US Working Class?

The US working class has a direct and vital material interest in peace. That means the dismantling of the US empire, cutting military budgets, defunding the police army, and in the case of Ukraine: immediate ceasefire and negotiations.

It’s hard to find a single example outside of revolutions and the national liberation struggles of the 20th Century when wars were fought in the interest of the working class. Ukraine is no exception. 

When ruling classes fight each other it’s the working class that does the dying and pays the bills. Wars can only be made when nationalism, fascism or liberalism overcome class consciousness and solidarity. If this argument sounds familiar it’s because it has been a staple of working-class politics since at least WWI. 

Eugene Debs, the great socialist leader, was imprisoned for opposing WWI.

War and sanctions have provided the chaos, cover, and consent for yet another wave of austerity pushing workers down and corporate profits ever upward.   

  • Inflation — an across-the-board cut in pay and social security
  • Rising food prices and possible shortages. 
  • Surging costs of housing
  • Increasing fuel costs for transportation and heating
  • Record hikes in Medicare costs
  • Fed policy ‘to get wages down”

That’s just everything workers need to live.

The war multiplies the power of the very forces that exploit us: big corporations and billionaires. Worst of all, war in all its forms accelerates climate change. Escalation in Ukraine is death to the Green New Deal and a war on Mother Earth. No greater reason to oppose war has ever existed.

Despite these truly existential threats, the ruling class and ruling parties are experts in getting people to vote and act against their own interests. While workers do have jobs in arms factories the weapons industry fails as a jobs program because it produces fewer jobs than any other form of investment. It’s a net loss. Even for those that benefit from war work these imperial privileges are like white privileges: a form of divide and conquer that trades short-term advantage for long-term survival.

Solidarity with the Ukrainian Working Class?

One of the great tragedies of Ukraine was the initial phase of the war that started in the Donbas in 2014. Instead of living up to the Minsk II accords, the Ukrainian state was able to convince one part of the Ukrainian working class to wage war against another part based on nationalism and ethnic differences — with an assist from fascist ideas and neo-nazi fighters. But for the purposes of this essay, I am going to momentarily suspend discussion of that class treachery and the contentious question of what the Russian invasion means for workers in Ukraine and Donbas in order to make clear my argument about the US working-class.  

We have mutual class interests with Ukrainian workers; we both face the assaults of the neoliberal order. Finance capital commands that order by controlling global institutions like the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

In 1992, just after independence, Ukraine joined the IMF and was soon trapped between access to loans and the austerity measures the IMF typically demands. Between 2010 and 2014 the IMF ramped up its assault on the Ukrainian working class by demanding budget cuts, higher home heating prices, the scrapping of pension reform, and the defeat of the proposed minimum wage law. In a move that would trigger his downfall, former Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovych went so far as to seek money from Russia instead. 

The US-supported 2014 coup that ousted Yanukovych was cemented by a multi-billion dollar IMF loan. Monsanto and big agribusiness have grabbed land and profits also with the blessings of the World Bank and IMF. By 2014 corporate control of Ukraine was well underway. Being held hostage to the IMF is not self-determination. US workers have suffered from 50-years of austerity under the heel of the same financial forces. We have a shared class interest and a shared position of servitude under the big money dictatorship.   

From Oxfam: We, the undersigned, call on the IMF to immediately stop promoting austerity around the world, and instead advocate policies that advance gender justice, reduce inequality, and decisively put people and planet first.

We also have mutual interest with Ukrainian workers because the Zelensky regime is seeking new pro-corporate labor laws to bring Ukrainian working conditions more into line with the needs of the global market and further away from its socialist past. The new law proposes exempting workers at small and medium corporations from all legal protections. Approximately two dozen large corporations have already suspended their contracts. In the US, workers struggle under the terms of the 1947 Taft Hartley “Slave Labor” Act which Democrats have refused to repeal these past 70 years. We have common interests in advancing workers’ rights — war or no war.  

We have common ground in that we are controlled by pro-war governments. After its independence in 1991, Ukraine choose neutrality but after 2014 opened the door to NATO expansion with its predictable outcome. The 2015 Minsk II accords were a viable yet never enforced peace plan. As late as 2019 Zelensky himself was elected on a peace platform. Nevertheless, opposition parties were banned outright, and a “uniform information policy” was imposed.

As in the US, the desire for peace among everyday people is subject to intense propaganda and subverted by a political system that allows no alternatives. The US has a far more effective system of suppressing opposition parties. The entrenched parties snag rivals in a web of restrictive state laws and false narratives. Again, we have common ground.

The war has deepened division within an already divided working class in both countries. Perhaps the greatest act of solidarity is to fight our own battles on our own ground. It sure as hell isn’t in handing billions in weapons to a government that does not represent workers any better than our own.

The Global South is leading the way; they are trending toward non-alignment and neutrality. Why should Africa, Asia and South America support war and sanctions that will not only hurt them but are sponsored by the very countries that colonized them? Why should the US working class support a war and war sanctions that hurt us and are backed by the very class that exploits us? We should sit this one out too, except of course for the class struggle that offers a morality far higher than anything the liberal crusaders can offer.

Organizing a Working-Class Peace Movement

The moral crusade has divided, demobilized, and defeated the peace movement — for now.  But changes are afoot.

The pivotal moment was when Democrats gave their unanimous support to the $40 billion funding package and the “lend-lease” bill granting the President even greater powers to make war. All this was done without a word of debate or dissent from leading progressives. We are on our own — and that’s not all bad.

This crisis is an opportunity for the peace movement. The anti-war movement of the Vietnam era was such a driver of social change precisely because the Democrats were pro-war. Participation in the peace movement shifted people into opposition — not just to the war but to the established order itself. 

As the war drags on, working-class support is bound to decline. While polling conducted by the Pew Research Center documents just how successful the pro-war propaganda has been, and just how bi-partisan it is, there’s some evidence that popular support for the war is turning.

Workers are no fools. Over time the price we are paying will become more and more obvious. Inflation is already the most important issue by far.

The sanctions aimed at driving the Russian working class into opposition to Putin may well backfire, turning the US working class against Biden. Tensions with China will further strain working-class support. Since WWII the US has failed to win any wars but has proven quite successful at baiting the bear. Now they are after China. Does anyone believe they can actually slay the dragon?

But the real question for US activists is: will we be able to build a peace movement infused with the kind of ecological wisdom and working-class consciousness that is capable of meaningful resistance to the truly existential threats we all face.

Posted in American Culture, American Exceptionalism, austerity, Capitalism, Climate Change, Corporate Power, Empire, History, Labor Movement, Military, police state, War, War creates Climate Change, White Privilege, Working Class | Tagged , , , , , , | 4 Comments

I Ain’t Marching Anymore

This essay also appears in CounterPunch.

Chris Lombardi’s book,  I Ain’t Marching Anymore: Dissenters, Deserters, and Objectors to America’s Warscouldn’t be more on time. As the US ramps up its proxy war in Ukraine and paves the way for even wider conflict, Lombardi gives us the knowledge we need to help rebuild the peace movement. It’s a monumental task fraught with error and risk, but we can take courage from this story of anti-war resisters who took the most difficult and dangerous of all paths to peace — a route running right through the war machine itself.  I Ain’t Marching Anymore is a must-read addition to books on the US peace movement.*  

Lombardi’s writing is infused with the passion and insight of an activist. Having spent years with the Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors she combines deep political commitment with the skill of an accomplished storyteller and the intellect of a scholar. That alone is a huge accomplishment. It’s a very accessible page-turner and a great book for someone new to the peace movement.

Lombardi shines a light on the unexplored depths of military dissent back to the 1750s. Right from the start, she shares the stories of unknown peace heroes like William Apess, the first known Native soldier dissenter, as well as the infamous Daniel Shay of Shay’s Rebellion. Throughout this survey of war and peace, she introduces us to previously little-known actors while enriching our understanding of high-profile military dissenters like Harriet Tubman, Howard Zinn, Brian Willson, Susan Schnall, and Chelsea Manning.

We also learn a surprising fact: peace organizations led by veterans crop up in opposition to almost every US war of conquest.

Lombardi’s account of World War I is chock full of relevant history. President Wilson — one of the most racist liberals in our history and the invader of Mexico — increased military spending in preparation for war. Yet, he ran on the slogans, “He Kept Us Out of War” and “America First.” The US peace movement was deeply divided, with many repurposing their peace principles and falling into line for war. Remember WWI was sold as the “War to End All Wars” making the world “Safe for Democracy.” It was packaged as a war for peace and democracy. Today’s moral crusade against Russia relies on the same sort of lofty but deceptive appeals to convince otherwise peace-minded people of the necessity for war.

Repression of anti-war voices was rampant at that time too. Congress passed the Espionage Act in 1917; the same law is still used to torture Assange and others. Members of the anti-war union, Industrial Workers of the World, were imprisoned as was Socialist Party leader Eugene Debs. Debs had the audacity to give a speech against war. Mennonites and other Christian pacifists also did hard jail time for their faith-based resistance.

Unlike the Democrats’ current lockstep march to war, a few elected politicians were vocal opponents. Today only one or two libertarian-leaning Republicans make principled criticisms of war. The Congressional “left” is pro-war both supporting massive weapons exports and demobilizing the peace movement as Obama had before them. Although it may feel lonely standing for peace we have anti-war ancestors who saw through the lies and tried their best to oppose WWI. That war would claim 20 million lives, but with nuclear weapons and accelerating climate destruction, today’s stakes are truly cataclysmic.

The section on the Vietnam era is distinctive in Lombardi’s narrative because it takes a helpful detour from the book’s tendency to focus on conscientious objection. Yes, the COs were a vital part of that resistance but were joined by a far larger number of soldiers reacting to the lived experience of blood and brutality — the unavoidable price of US aggression in Southeast Asia.

The Vietnam Veterans Against the War was one of the most influential peace organizations in our history and 80% of its members were combat veterans. They were not, by and large, pacifists. In that sense, we could see them as selective conscientious objectors to the war they fought but that was enough to create the largest military resistance in US history.

When I did my own research on these unlikely heroes many years ago, the very first thing I discovered was that they walked and talked like veterans — that was their leading political identity. They were workers, Black, Brown, and white, but with a special form of class consciousness shaped by the work of war. What gave them their terrible wisdom and their political power was, first and foremost, the fact that they were soldiers and veterans. I treated them as such, and Lombardi did too.

These hard-core activists had not rejected the citizen-soldier role so much as transformed and refashioned it for their peaceful purposes. It was this collective, cultural and political revolution that made the Vietnam Era the high-water mark of soldier dissent in US history— a movement that continues to shape all that would come after it. 

The Veterans for Peace, Iraq Veterans Against the War, About Face: Veterans Against the War and many others would respond to more recent wars by building a permanent military resistance. This movement was able to adapt to the changing terrain of the volunteer army and advances in military technology that the military hoped, and many observers predicted, would prevent resistance. It’s hard to think of a more important historical development for the peace movement.

Lombardi lets her rowdy characters and their wild adventures guide us through the contemporary terrain of high-tech warfare, gender and sexual politics, and the connection with anti-war resistance. She brings all this together when telling of the heroic resistance of Chelsa Manning. Lombardi concludes:

“Manning thus brought together almost all the 21St Century threads…She used Information-warfare techniques, her backups and algorithms, her cutting edge internet hacks, to expose torture and asymmetric warfare, while Manning herself unfurled the misogyny and racism at militarism’s core, between her own gender-dissent and the leaks exposure of US treatment of local allies.”

Mannings’s story helps us to understand that the interlocking crises of war, empire, climate chaos, racism, and misogyny call for a truly interconnected movement capable of alliances and analysis far beyond the fakery of liberal identity politics.

Lombardi navigates the tricky terrain of soldier and veteran dissent at a deep historical level. She gives full weight to the “founding injustices” of slavery, patriarchy, and conquest while not losing sight of the citizen-soldiers’ double-edged struggle. Soldiers often see military service as a means of gaining the rights and security of full citizenship, while simultaneously struggling to free themselves and their community from the very founding injustices of the state they are serving. They want entrance into a house they know is on fire. These contradictions have shaped soldier dissent throughout our history. As Lombardi’s treatment of WWI tells us, even the great WEB Dubois was unable to escape this historical briar patch.

There is so much to learn from I Aint Marching Anymore a short review cannot do it justice. But this much I can tell you (and I am confident Lombardi would agree): a peace movement that does not include, welcome, and help to organize soldiers and veterans will fail. As long as movements for social change continue to view veterans and soldiers as damaged goods and fools — or organizing in the military as a waste of time — those movements can never win. 

Peace, it turns out, has a lot to do with war — it too must be waged. Soldiers and veterans can help lead the way.

*Another important work is Nan Levinson’s War Is Not A Game: The New Anti-War Soldiers and the Movement They Built. 

Posted in American Culture, American Exceptionalism, Climate Change, Corporate Power, History, Military, Movement Culture, Organizing Strategy, revolutionary strategy, unions, War, War creates Climate Change, Working Class | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Basic Training For Organizers

Basic training with Morris Mutual — a mutual aid project in NJ. Thanks to Theresa Markila for inviting me to participate and her assistance with the meeting.

As a labor organizer, I had thousands of conversations with the “unorganized.” But, much of my work was “organizing the organizer” — preparing members and activists to talk to their co-workers. I use the method in the video as a guide to action. If you want to have a successful union or community campaign the organizers need to practice. This is the introduction to our core activity: the one-on-one encounter with the unorganized worker or community person. This method can be tailored to electoral work, union drives, community work, peace and environmental activism, or any other social movement work. The most important part of the training — where people practice talking with each other in small groups — follows the introduction.

Posted in Labor Movement, organizing, Organizing Method, Organizing Strategy, union organzing, unions, Working Class | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Jackson Lears on the War in Ukraine

Eminent US historian Jackson Lears weighs in on Ukraine. This essay first appeared in the London Review of Books.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a catastrophic violation of international law. The US and its Nato allies must do everything possible to bring it to a peaceful end as soon as possible by promoting a ceasefire and a neutral Ukraine. But the obstacles to peace are complex and not simply traceable to Russia. Putin’s war did not begin on 24 February 2022. It was foreshadowed as early as 1996, when the US announced its determination to expand Nato eastwards, despite warnings by seasoned observers from George Kennan to William Burns (now Biden’s director of the CIA) that to do so would aggravate Russian security concerns. The situation escalated in February 2014 with the Washington-backed coup against Viktor Yanukovych, the gradual takeover of the Maidan movement by hard-right nationalists, and the installation of a new government led by Arseniy Yatsenyuk – which included right-wing ideologues in four cabinet posts.

Within weeks, the coup had provoked a separatist rebellion among ethnically Russian Ukrainians in Donbas, who had reason to fear the new government’s anti-Russian cultural agenda. For nearly eight years, the Ukrainian army – with the hard-right Azov brigade in the vanguard – has been trying to suppress the uprising. Fourteen thousand people have died, including more than forty peaceful protesters who were locked into a trade union building and burned alive or jumped out of the windows. Instead of denouncing the atrocities, US politicians swung into full Cold War mode, evoking the period’s weariest cliché. ‘The United States aids Ukraine and her people,’ Congressman Adam Schiff said in January 2020, ‘so that we can fight Russia over there and don’t have to fight them here.’

US military support for the Ukrainian war on the separatists, combined with Nato manoeuvres on Russia’s borders and dogged insistence on Ukraine’s de facto (if not de jure) membership of the alliance, can only be described as sustained and deliberate provocation of a powerful rival. It was no surprise when Putin finally responded by recognising and protecting the breakaway republics in Donbas. Unfortunately, he pressed on, inducing rage in the US, EU and beyond. The atmosphere is now poisoned by militarist rants, including the ignorant and irresponsible demand for a no-fly zone – which would require US/Nato forces to shoot down Russian planes and risk World War Three.

Under what Denis Johnson called the ‘tree of smoke’ created by the national security state and its media stenographers, it’s impossible to know what’s going on in Ukraine. Few journalists are able to report from the east of the country, where most of the fighting is, and there is no acknowledgment of the extensive role of far-right extremists in Ukrainian politics and the military. The irony is that for years American liberals have been obsessed with anything that can be loosely labeled as fascism. Only Ukraine is absolved from scrutiny, perhaps because in current American mythology the world’s leading neofascist is Vladimir Putin. Thanks to this madman, Robert Reich announced, ‘the world is currently and frighteningly locked in a battle to the death between democracy and authoritarianism.’ Rather than face up to the major global realignment that is underway, with the convergence of Russia, China and India, Americans remain attached to visions of Armageddon – the death wish at the heart of imperial hubris.


Posted in American Culture, American Exceptionalism, Empire, History, Military, Organizing Strategy, Red Scare, Strategy, War, White Supremacy | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Stand With The Peace Movement

These are challenging times for the US peace movement. We are struggling to find our bearings. The people of the US have been subject to a level of propaganda and censorship unprecedented in recent history. How can we respond?

There are some signs of life and a coalition is emerging. CodePink, Black Alliance for Peace, ANSWER, Veterans for Peace, United National Antiwar Coalition, and others are leading the way. Yet, we’re a long way from a mass movement against war. How can we engage the millions? How do we wade through the many conflicting viewpoints? 

Follow the Action/Follow the Power

It’s an easy thing to oppose the war of your government’s enemy and stand behind the military might of the US. It is far more challenging to oppose the wars of your own country. The power to do that has yet to be created. But, that is what we must do in order to wield independent political clout.

A peace movement would create an alternative political space — a liberated zone — freeing people to act and think independently of the forces that rule over them. Without that, we remain helpless before the twin catastrophes of perpetual war and climate chaos. 

We face a very contradictory struggle. On one hand, we need to know all the dead-ends and traps that will weaken us. On the other hand, we must engage people from all walks of life and political views if we want the peace movement to come into its own.

Do you want to cut through the confusion? Follow the power.

You and What Army?

Whatever your plans or demands they must stand the reality test: How are you going to achieve them? What is the action plan?

To put it simply: You and what army? The only potential “army” we have is the movement and we damn well better get about raising the troops. 

Our work should focus on the US provocation of the war, the refusal to negotiate peace, and the broader context of US empire and war making. This is not only for grand political reasons but also for compelling practical reasons that cannot be dismissed. We live in the US. It’s the only place where we can build a movement and do real organizing. That much should be obvious. We have at least a small chance of changing US policy.

Putting Russia, Ukraine, or China at the center of our work ultimately aligns us with forces far beyond our control. Our main solidarity should be with ourselves, as best represented by the anti-war movement and other social movements. The simmering class struggle, the all-important environmental movement, and the movement against the police state are our natural allies. Let’s stand with them. 

Dead Ends

Since the well-orchestrated and widely felt need to “stand with Ukraine” has influenced millions we must engage.  

The massive but short-lived protests in the run-up to the Gulf War warn that the anti-war views typical of Democratic Party loyalists cannot be counted on in the long run. Still, anyone who “Stands with Ukraine” but is also against US/NATO turning Ukraine into a proxy war is a keeper.

All the Democrats place the onus on Russia and avoid any hint that US policy provoked the crisis. Once Russia holds all the blame, the calls for diplomacy are empty gestures since that leaves US/NATO with nothing to bargain. The results? US/NATO has only undermined peace negotiations.

Just take a look at war spending and you’ll know how Democrats answer the question of “you and what army?” Congress is flooding Ukraine with weapons and material support. Many who “Stand with Ukraine” have crossed over to the pro-war camp embracing dangerous “no-fly zones” and escalation. Such policies turn Ukraine into a sacrifice zone. 

Then there is the popular “blame both sides” rhetoric. And, yes, Russia bears its share of the blame. There are always alternatives to war. There is plenty of blame to go around — if blame is your game. But, if you want peace then tell me: what is the practical action connected with demonizing Russia apart from support for US/NATO? Why offer people an escape from the responsibility to confront their own government.

Since millions are already conditioned to hate Russia and see America as “the good guys” blaming both sides is an invite to become supporters of the US government or passive spectators in a game controlled by the ruling class. Worse than that, a third of Americans would be willing to risk nuclear war with Russia. Words have consequences. We need to be on high alert against feeding these suicidal attitudes with more hate. 

So here is the irony: “blame both sides” often comes draped in left-wing or humanitarian ideology but as a practical matter inhibits the creation of a peace movement. What army? Against Russia, you have the world’s largest. Against US/NATO we have nothing but the peace movement.

A few believe they can defer to Russia or China to oppose NATO in some kind of WWII replay but there is no mass action for this view. They are also missing the real struggle: the US empire’s greatest weaknesses are internal. Political movements in “the belly of the beast” are best positioned for effective anti-imperialist action — but that takes organizing, independence, and practice, practice, practice.

Be wary of slogans, ideas, or analyses that are not connected with an actual plan of action.

Social media lends itself to lofty but empty talk. I hear radicals calling for the Russian or Ukrainian army to lay down their weapons and revolt. Good idea. But who has lifted a finger to support organizing inside the US military?

I hear calls for international proletarian solidarity. Nice army on paper. How many divisions have we got? Not enough to win universal health care, sick days, and other minimum standards for the US working class. Luckily for us, there is a resurgent class struggle bubbling up from the bottom. If we want to figure out how to talk to workers about war then organizing is the place to start. 

Without power and without action, any ideology can turn into hopes and prayers, slogans, loose talk, and pious wishes. The organizer’s work is designed to produce action because it is in the tumult of political life that leaders merge, relationships develop, and transformations in consciousness are realized. Practice is primary so let’s practice building the peace movement.


Drill Down to the Underlying Causes: American Exceptionalism

Yes, it’s capitalism, yes it imperialism but in the US, those systems seem a natural and normal part of life because they are woven into our national identity. 

The years of propaganda, — starting in a big way with Russiagate — have conditioned millions to hate on Russia and accept the New Cold War. But the propaganda is effective not because Russiagate was proven, (it was not) or because the Russian invasion of Ukraine is any worse than the many wars waged by the US, (it is not). It works so well because it resonates with the national code of honor and historical amnesia we know as “American Exceptionalism.” 

Exceptionalism is the master narrative for all American wars. Attempting to alter this cornerstone of national identity is a steep challenge but it is precisely in times of deep crisis that consciousness can be raised.

Like “Both Sides,” demonizing Putin comes with unintended consequences. Whatever small advantage anyone thinks is gained by equating Putin to Hitler, Stalin, Czar, or madman that is far outweighed by the exceptionalism it encourages.

There is a far better way: reasoned critiques based on evidence and history. A comparative analysis of the US war machine and the Russian war machine would be useful and revealing. But, demonization is counterproductive — unless war is your idea of productivity. 

And that is because exceptionalism is founded on binaries. 

“Here is how war propaganda works: if authority figures in government and media denounce foreign leaders or countries or immigrants as an evil threat and repeat it thousands of times, they do not even have to say, “We are the chosen people destined to bring light to the world.” They know that millions of Americans will unconsciously refer to the exceptionalist code by default because it’s so deeply embedded in our culture. Once made brave by our exceptional character and sense of superiority, the next moves are war, violence and white supremacy.” [1]

War offers us intense but corrupted spiritualism. War is a myth-making drama based on life lived at the extremes of human experience. America has always been susceptible to this kind of religious fervor particularly when we need to forget all our deep internal divisions and our failure to address even the most elementary social problems. We have pushed the uneasy memory of our own war crimes into the deep recesses of our souls but we still long for absolution. There is nothing like a really nasty enemy to induce amnesia and restore a sense of our own high moral character. Of course, the thrill of this spiritual revival is usually experienced from the comforts of home far from the blood, guts, and gore.

Build the Peace Movement*

The best way to show solidarity with our own people, as well as the Russian peace movement, is in our own streets following the Russian people’s example of protesting the wars of their own ruling class. 

We cannot build a peace movement based just on hopes and prayers. Peace is not a morality play; a senior seminar; a talk show. The movement is not a global central committee sitting in judgment of every county in the world. 

Peace is a power struggle and our job is to build it. When you engage people online or in person, ask yourself some simple questions. Does this help the peace movement? Am I unifying people around opposition to war and empire? Will this information I’m sharing help inform and move people? 

Knocking on doors, talking with co-workers and neighbors is hard work but it’s the shortest and quickest route to peace and power. All of our demands and hopes shrivel before our failure to build organizations. It’s difficult work but when crisis flares up — and crisis is now a permeant feature of our lives — then at least we are not just talking to ourselves. 

Here is the vision: 

And finally, for all nations to move their war dollars into an emergency Green New Deal. This would defuse one threat to human survival – the nuclear one – – while tackling the other – – the climate collapse that is spinning-out-of-control as we speak. — Jill Stein

Here is the action plan:

  • Start your own local peace center.
  • Build CODEPINK: more chapters are needed.
  • If you are a veteran or supporter: Veterans for Peace or About Face. Veterans know how to talk with soldiers. I am a monthly contributor. You should be too.
  • Support Matthew Hoh. Matt is the Green Party candidate running for Senate in North Carolina. He is an anti-war veteran of the highest caliber and one of our most articulate voices for peace. Matt takes no corporate funds so fund him.
  • Care about kids? Join the crucial but under appreciated work of counter-recruitment. Find all the resources you need at National Network Oppose to the Militarization of Youth or the American Friends Service Committee
  • Black Alliance for Peace is rebuilding the Black radical tradition against war. Become a member or monthly sustainer. I am.
  • If you are a union member circulate this statement from the founders of US Labor Against the War or the resolution from Labor Against Racism and War.
  • Protest. The 1969 Moratorium is a model. It mobilized over 2 million by working on local events as well as national demonstrations. 
  • GI Rights Hotline is one of the few groups involved in sustained work with soldiers. 
  • Plan a teach-in or study group on American exceptionalism. Knowing ourselves is the first condition for victory.
  • Support the Civil Liberties Center. They provide free legal support for direct action movements.  
  • The War Resisters League is the oldest secular pacifist organization in the US.

If you’re more interested in workers’ movements, environmental action or BLM style opposition against police brutality — dig in — it’s all connected. 

This is the “army” we need to wage peace. Is it your army? 


1/Richard Moser, American Exceptionalism, War and Empire. 

*If you sign up for monthly donations — no matter how small — your donations count more because the organizers can count on a stable source of funding. 



Posted in American Culture, American Exceptionalism, Capitalism, Climate Change, Corporate Power, Empire, Green Party, History, Labor Movement, Military, Movement Culture, organizing, Organizing Strategy, police state, Red Scare, Strategy, unions, War, War creates Climate Change, Working Class | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

“Favor and Affection:” From Glynn County, Georgia to Kenosha, Wisconsin, Police/Vigilante Collusion Is A Far Bigger Story Than The Verdicts.

“Favor and Affection”

In late November, Jackie Johnson, the District Attorney in the Arbery murder case, was arrested and charged with obstruction of justice for showing “favor and affection” toward the murderers. No wonder it took over 70 days for the killers to be arrested. No wonder it took a public campaign to even bring the case to trial. Sure, the guilty verdict against the three murderers gives us some basic accountability but justice? Not yet. For justice, we need to expose and abolish the police/vigilante alliance. The indictment of Johnson is a step in the right direction.

According to detailed coverage in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, a pattern of immunity for police-involved killings had already been established. The murders saw themselves as patrolling their neighborhood in lieu of regular police. And, they enjoyed a special relationship with authorities which the charges against Johnson accurately describe as “favor and affection.” In fact, Johnson had previously worked with ex-cop Greg McMichael. It was a classic cop/vigilante alliance.

Jackie Johnson and Greg McMichael

Johnson was released on her “own recognizance.” She did not have to pay the bail so routinely used to control Black, Brown, and working-class suspects. The waiver of bail implies that Johnson is no threat to public safety. But this was the second time she was on the wrong side of a police shooting. In 2010 Caroline Small an unarmed white woman was killed by police. Johnson intervened clearing the police of any wrongdoing. The claims of misconduct — possibly criminal — against her in Small’s death were raised by former Glynn County prosecutors. She sure sounds like a menace to public safety to me. 

Johnson will be tried for the crime of telling police officers that no crime had occurred and instructing them to lay off the shooters. George E. Barnhill, her friendly neighboring DA also concluded that no crime had been committed. In an official letter, Barnhill wrote, “We do not see grounds for the arrest of any of the three parties.” Is this a criminal conspiracy or just the default mode of a racist, classist penal system?

Greg McMichael, the former cop, and now convicted murderer, and his son the convicted shooter would not have been so willing to be cop, judge, jury, and executioner had they not been accustomed to the protections and immunities usually granted to police and their allies. 

Kenosha: The Verdict Was A Sideshow

When is the other shoe going to drop in Kenosha? According to documents acquired by the ACLU, the Kenosha police had hundreds of regular officers under their command and the help of 40 different police agencies it could have counted on but instead relied on an armed group of militia and vigilantes to do their dirty work.

Kevin Mathewson, a former Kenosha politician and self-styled “commander” of the “Kenosha Guard” circulated a “call to action” on Facebook recruiting would-be vigilantes to oppose the protesters. Did the police counteract the command from a self-proclaimed militia leader? No, but, the police did use, “rubber” bullets, tear gas, flash-bang grenades and armored vehicles to drive protestors into the hands of the vigilantes — including their most famous pawn Rittenhouse. “Kettling” has become a common police tactic.

The cops showed “favor and affection” to the vigilantes (as is consistent with the historical pattern) so they could wash their hands of the violence and let their puppets take the heat.  But in truth, the cops did everything but pull the trigger themselves.

And, if you think police do not commit crimes take a look at the recent bombshell report covered by Forbes that found the FBI, DEA, and ATF had authorized 22,800 crimes for their informants between 2011-2014. While the overlap between informants and vigilantes is unknown, the long-standing relationship between the FBI and Enrique Torres, the leader of the Proud Boys is a telling example.

Missing The Forest For The Trees

Lacking the broader context of vigilantism, a number of left-leaning commentators and journalists went astray. They were eager to distinguish themselves from corporate media’s inflammatory treatment of Rittenhouse, which they saw as divisive and distracting. But, they gave in to the media’s single greatest narrative power: the ability to determine what is newsworthy and what is not. Police/vigilante collusion was not on the corporate agenda — the courtroom drama was. It is far, far better to be the authors of our own narratives than critics of the existing ones.

While many journalists were obsessed with the details of the case they were all but silent about the much bigger story that unfolded in Kenosha, in Minneapolis, in Portland, and in other cities. The story of police and their vigilante allies has everything to do with how the ruling class rules. White supremacy is more than bad attitudes or who shot who — its most powerful forms are systematic and routine.

If the left was more grounded in grassroots organizing and less on media commentary, this kind of mistake — missing the forest for the trees — would not happen so easily nor be faithfully repeated by so many well-meaning people. 

What the left media should have said is that the legal system, is broken. We have a penal system for Black, Brown, and working-class people and a justice system to protect the chosen few. 

Margaret Kimberly captures it clearly in Black Agenda Report:

“Of course an armed Black man would not have been warmly greeted by law enforcement as Rittenhouse was in Kenosha. Nor would a Black person be able to fatally shoot two people and then leave the scene without being arrested. A claim of self-defense in a situation brought about by the perpetrator placing himself in a situation where his presence created a danger would not be permitted. Black people rarely find friendly judges as Rittenhouse did. All of these observations are valid, but they are no more true for Rittenhouse than in hundreds of other cases across the country.”

Inequality before the law is one more form of inequality that is woven into the fabric of American politics. Wealth and political inequality have reached epic proportions. The system has put far more effort into protecting the rights of corporations than the rights of living breathing people.

The left-leaning defense of the Rittenhouse verdict claimed their stand was principled but self-defense, right to a trial of your peers, due process: these are only actual legal principles in a system where everyone – rich and poor, black and white, powerful and powerless — have equal protection under the law. That is clearly not the case.  

What should be universal rights for all instead regularly functions as privileges — the property of those that serve power. Many acted as if the kind of justice Rittenhouse received could be applied universally. Without sweeping social change, that is an illusion.  

Did we forget that twenty million people marched to protest the fact that police routinely deny these rights by too often acting as cop, judge, jury, and executioner? Police continue to kill on average 1,000 people and wound 3,000 more every year. Approximately 95% of state crimes and 97% of federal crimes never go to court. So much for our right to a trial. The penal system very efficiently metes out punishment and the US has the largest prison population in the world to show for it. 

But, when a police ally — a vigilante — is caught killing or wounding, the heavy-handed penal system suddenly switches gears and becomes a noble “justice” system with all the trappings of due process and trial by jury. Rittenhouse’s innocent verdict is not truly in keeping with due process or rule of law but illustrates how the system works to protect some while punishing others. Yes, in Georgia the verdict was correct but that was the result of public video evidence and public pressure. Left to their own devices the system’s agents might have covered it up as was successfully done with the murder of Caroline Small. 

Foto: Demonstrators at the Glynn County Courthouse on May 8, 2020 in Brunswick, Georgia, push for District Attorney Jackie Johnson to be removed from office. Source: Sean Rayford/Getty Images

Why is the cop/vigilante connection far more important than the verdict in any one case? Individual trials are episodes that set an uncertain legal precedent while the cop/vigilante alliance is a structural feature of policing with deep historical roots reaching back to slavery. It is also evidence of a tyrannical police state that extends from the front-line police to the 18 secret police forces we euphemistically call “the intelligence community.”

This unholy alliance also lies at the heart of Jan. 6 and no government investigation will ever uncover a conspiracy for insurrection because that would mean revealing the police/vigilante collusion that goes right to the top.

These forces — top to bottom — are hostile to our human and political rights and part of the reason the old Constitution is dead as a doornail. We abandoned the rule of law long ago and we will not recover it easily. 

The “favor and affection” between the penal system and its vigilante allies carry the threat of fascism far beyond the courtroom dramas of Kenosha and Glynn County. It is as dangerous as the other tendencies pushing us toward despotic rule: neofascist gangs, the merger of corporation and state, white supremacy, censorship and propaganda, austerity, mass incarceration, the collapse of meaningful elections, and other authoritarian measures championed by both major parties and the corporate elites. 

Posted in American Culture, History, organizing, Organizing Strategy, police, police state, Racism, Strategy, White Privilege, White Supremacy, White workers, Working Class | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

Workers Are Walking Out

Workers Are Walking Out

After decades of retreat, it might just be that workers are coming into their own as a force for social change. Forty years of punishing austerity and a two-tiered labor system pitting new, temporary, or part-time workers against regular workers have finally found the lowest pay and conditions workers will tolerate. The risk of death and illness from COVID was a profound trigger magnifying an already dire situation. The bosses’ “race to the bottom” finally found the bottom.

The working class is cornered but the working class is fighting back.

It’s a two-pronged labor revolt: an organized strike wave and an unorganized but much larger movement in which millions of workers are quitting their damned jobs. The corporate media is calling it the “Great Resignation.” It’s less polite than that — millions have simply walked off without giving notice. They are not looking back.

This is good news. The only way for us to learn how to exercise power is to practice exerting it. The strike wave and the record-setting walkouts are so full of promise because the people are acting on their own behalf — on their own interests — both collective and individual. We hope people will see the connection between the two. Will the millions of discontented workers form unions? Will the unions field an army of organizers to help out?

Workers have reached the breaking point but not before inequality reached epic proportions and COVID revealed just how little the bosses cared if we live or die.  Fifty trillion dollars have been redistributed to the 1% since the mid-1970s with the corporate-bought politicians playing bag man. And as teams of scholars studying wealth inequality have suggested, this problem cannot be resolved through normal means. 

The same researchers found that pandemics sometimes redistribute wealth. At first, the covid crises led to a concentration of wealth unprecedented in its speed and scope. Corporations and their political servants saw the pandemic as a business opportunity or a chance to loot the public treasury (see CARES Act) instead of a public health crisis. But what goes up must come down and maybe — just maybe — it’s our turn.

1,600 Strikes Since the Start of the Pandemic

There is nothing better than the power of a good example. Strikes have been on the rise since 2017 and 1,600 strikes have been recorded by Payday Strike Tracker since the pandemic began.

Wildcats strikes and non-union workers were the cutting edge of the initial Covid strike wave. The current strike wave has shifted toward existing unions and national contracts with the rank and file leading the way. Remember, the Deere workers rejected the first UAW contract.  

Bottom-up momentum will intensify internal conflict such as we are already seeing in the Teamsters election, the Carpenter’s struggle over picketing, and the discontent with the IATSE tentative agreement.  

The strike wave will also push conflicts within the ruling class as the liberals push for incremental change while the hard-liners double down demanding even more blood sacrifice. Either way, it’s a strategic difference over the best route to preserving and securing their power and position.

A Tale of Two Tiers*

At Kellogg and Deere workers are rejecting not just low pay but also a system — the two-tiered labor system. The two-tier system has been one of the structural weapons used by bosses to break worker solidarity, weaken unions, and lower wages and benefits. Two-tier systems were innovated by the liberal management of higher education beginning in the mid-1970s when the corporatization of education and austerity kicked in. 

The evil genius of two-tier systems is that it entices existing workers with minor privileges and short-term benefits while luring new hires with the promise of work experience, or at least survival. The two-tier system makes class traitors out of people by encouraging them to sell out the next generation of workers.

Bill Gates’s big invention was not some smart computer program but the “permatemp”— permanent temporary workers. Amazon relies on millions of seasonal and part-time workers baited by bonuses and then trapped by non-compete contracts. Half of Google’s global workforce is part-time or temporary.  

If workers can break the two-tiered labor system. then we will have a fighting chance to rebuild the labor movement. 

Millions Walk Out

The great walkout is an unorganized yet powerful game-changer for workers because it has altered the labor market. The end of the meager unemployment benefits has not pushed workers back to poverty wages and abusive management.

Even marginal changes to the labor market can have considerable impacts because staffing is already stretched so thin. We are already overworked with millions working multiple jobs. The fear of covid deaths and illness are powerful motivations for staying home or seeking safer jobs. Vaccine mandates, when used by management as a way of breaking unions or attacking workers will add to the upheaval. The pilots’ union at Southwest put it this way: 

We want to be perfectly clear: SWAPA is not anti-vaccination, but we do believe that…it is our role to represent the health and safety of our Pilots and bring their concerns to the Company….We will not sit idly by while the Company blatantly ignores our legal right to represent you.

The combination of strike wave and walk-off will intensify conflict within the labor movement. Will the loyalty of union officials to the Democratic Party’s weak incrementalism be stronger than their loyalty to their own members and the working class in general? Will class collaboration or class struggle shape negotiation strategies? 

General Strike or General Election?

There is talk of a general strike again. It is unlikely that a general strike can be organized without a major rank and file upheaval that changes labor leadership. But a general strike will never happen unless we keep the idea alive.

The only time recently even a few labor officials mentioned a general strike was to halt Trump’s “stop the steal” campaign. Well, Jan. 6 came and went and there was no action at all. I can only guess that the specter of independent worker action on the national stage was just too scary to consider for the party bosses that hold sway over labor strategy. For them, it was better to let the ruling class deal with the rioters and to support increased funding for the Capitol Police. 

If some modest concessions can be won in Congress I am all for it. But the strike wave and walk-off are good evidence that it is far better to “vote with your feet” than electing lesser evil politicians and lobbying the trusted servants of the corporate class.

Austerity is not over but it’s possible that we are turning a corner. But, the pandemic and tight labor markets alone will not produce democracy: that must be fought for.

If everyday workers can force the strike weapon and organizing into the center of labor strategy and repurpose the millions funneled to the Democratic Party, then we will see a new form of pressure far stronger than phone banking and GOTV efforts.

Electoral politics may not be a total dead end but it sure as hell is a long winding detour compared to a direct confrontation with the corporations that dominate both the workplace and the electoral process. Why lobby politicians when you can challenge their masters?


*I worked with the contingent faculty movement in higher education for over 15 years where you can still find some of the clearest thinking about two-tiered systems. See Joe Berry and Helena Worthen’s, Power Despite Precarity and Keith Hoeller’s Equality for Contingent Faculty: Overcoming the Two-tiered System

Posted in austerity, Capitalism, Corporate Power, Labor Movement, organizing, Organizing Strategy, revolutionary strategy, Socialism, union organzing, unions, White Privilege, Working Class | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

How They Stole $50 Trillion. How We Take It Back.

Between the mid-1930s and mid-1970s worker organizing and unrest created a degree of economic democracy not achieved since. It was quite an accomplishment. After several decades of increased standards of living for most US workers, corporate actors organized a counter-attack that aimed to reverse those gains. 

The mid-20 century was no golden age. But, it does stand as a measure of just how much — and just how little — economic democracy the existing order will allow. Black and Brown workers, for example, saw the gains last and least but suffered from the austerity counter-attack first and foremost. While progressive reforms won during those four mid-century decades did help working people, the system still belonged to the bosses and they still called the shots. 

Against the backdrop of Cold War anti-communism, the US Congress restricted workers’ rights while top labor “leaders” pledged their allegiance to the empire. New global institutions such as the IMF were the cutting edge of austerity protecting the rule of big money by pitting workers vs. workers worldwide. 

The 1970’s:  The Great Austerity Begins

The deep multi-faceted crisis of the late 60s and early 70s undermined the existing social contract. Feeling threatened, the elites shifted costs and risks to where they had historically been: the backs of everyday people. Better, they thought, that workers struggle to survive than begin to dream of democracy and organize themselves into political movements. The most effective corporate strategy was wage reduction. Over the next four decades, they cut wages in half for millions and redistributed at least $50 trillion upwards.

The ruling class vision was set out by soon-to-be Supreme Court justice Lewis Powell in his infamous 1971 memo for the Chamber of Commerce. For Lewis, corporate elites should see themselves as a ruling class and act accordingly. While Powell issued the call, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), founded in 1973, became the vanguard pushing legislative reforms to suit corporate interests. 

The crackdown on workers included military reforms. In response to the Vietnam Era peace movement, the politicians and generals replaced mass conscription with the illusion of an “all-volunteer” army. Since 1973 the war machine has had a vested interest in austerity because poverty and insecurity pushed millions of young people into its ranks. They swapped an open form of coercion like the draft for a covert form of coercion: a poverty draft cloaked as “opportunity” for working-class kids. 

Prison slavery has a long history. Although it was legalized by the 13th Amendment, unions successfully lobbied to restrict its use during the heyday of the New Deal. By 1979 however, Congress joined the corporate counteroffensive and passed the Justice System Improvement Act and other pet projects of ALEC.

New laws opened the door to the rapid expansion of prison labor to match the rapidly growing ranks of the incarcerated. These corporate reforms also cemented public-private partnerships. Congressional action impoverished families of the imprisoned and drove down wages for all of us by providing the cheapest possible labor for the government and corporations.[1]    

The military, penal system, Congress, the Democrats, and Republicans became the agents of austerity and the tools of corporate power.

The Corporate Two-Step

The mid-1970 were pivotal. Workers would face greater insecurity as corporations consolidated their position through a remarkable two-pronged strategy that was decades in the making.

On one hand, the corporations successfully gained political rights and personhood under the 14th and 1st Amendments — gutting the old Constitution and recasting it in their own image. Corporations became “We the People” instead of actual people and their vast wealth became “free speech.” Using the Bill of Rights as their shield, corporations claimed the protection of individuals against the heavy hand of the state. This legal fiction is now the “law of the land.”

At the same time corporations acted more and more like the tyrannical state itself — even while posing as protected persons. Without political power, they simply could not maximize profits. Maximum profits through maximum power became the true goal and true method of neoliberalism.

Two landmark Supreme Court decisions (Buckley v. Valeo 1976 and First Nat’l Bank of Boston v. Bellotti, 1978) set the stage for the “corporate domination of the electoral process” finally completed with the 2010 Citizens United decision.[2]

In 1979, The Federal Reserve — long a bastion of corporate power — moved decisively to fight inflation, raising interest rates to historic heights, forcing recession, and boosting unemployment. The “reserve army” of unemployed workers undermined wages and concentrated power and profits in the hands of big capital just as Karl Marx had observed long ago. 


Big Unions Retreat

By the late 1970s, attacks on workers were codified in labor contracts — most decisively in the 1979 Chrysler bailout.[3] The United Auto Workers — the trendsetter for US Labor since the 30’s — buckled under by not just accepting the terms of the bailout but pitching it as good for workers.

The Carter Administration and the Democrats, (in control of Presidency,  House, and Senate) led the way. They and their Republican allies worked with bankers, business, and union officials on a $1.5 billion bailout for Chrysler. In classic IMF style, the bankers demanded at least $462 million in cuts to wages and benefits. The joint Corporate/Carter/UAW move was an early “too big to fail” bailout and a sure sign that the merger of the corporation and the state was well underway.  

What followed was the long disastrous era of “concession bargaining” as workers and union officials surrendered before the onslaught.[4] By the mid-1980s the Teamsters and the United Food and Commercial Workers further undermined worker pay and solidarity by agreeing to multi-tiered wage systems. Multi-tiered labor systems were also pioneered in the liberal haven of higher education where low-paid contingent faculty now far exceed the tenured minority.

These multi-tiered agreements created new class divisions within unions (as if the racist, sexist and ageist divisions weren’t bad enough) and paid second-class workers with lower wages. The new lower classes were either new employees or the temporary and part-time workers that are now common everywhere. Needless to say, two-tiered labor systems undermined worker solidarity. They mask the conflict between workers and bosses behind the conflict between different classes of workers. It was classic divide and conquer.

As unions divided their own members and failed to deliver the goods, they simultaneously turned away from large-scale organizing efforts. The slow retreat of labor turned into a demoralizing rout with devastating long-term consequences for the working class.

The Reagan Revolution

It went from bad to worse when Ronald Reagan took office. He fired striking air traffic controllers and staffed the National Labor Relations Board with hacks hostile to workers’ rights. The Reagan Revolution enacted more structural reforms: Republicans and Democrats passed the new tax, budget, money, and debt policies that would complete the groundwork for the ongoing redistribution of wealth. Together, the major parties rigged the economy.[5]

Here are a few of their achievements.

  • Dramatic cuts to tax rates for corporations and the rich.
  • Tax on Social Security and Unemployment for the first time — never to be reversed
  • Continue shifting budget priorities toward the military
  • Debt and money policies to favor dividends, interest, and rent — the income sources of the wealthy

The “race to the bottom” and the “race to the top” would continue through the following decades as the US continued structural reforms such as replacing welfare for the poor with corporate welfare. When Clinton ended “welfare as we know it” he flooded the bottom of the labor market with easy to exploit low-wage workers. 

The pandemic only accelerated extreme inequality. Congress propped up the rigged economy with the 2020 CARES Act. CARES was a power-play enforcing austerity and inequality for us while subsiding corporations with trillions.[6] The US government also took the unprecedented step of directly purchasing corporate bonds (debt). The government can retire corporate debt alright, just not educational or medical debt.

Austerity was created by structural changes and can only be repealed the same way.

How We Take It Back

History follows a twisted and tangled path. By their relentless resistance to reform, the US ruling class is making revolutionary solutions possible if not inevitable. The ruler’s drive for total domination — at home and abroad — sows the seeds of their own defeat.  

Austerity is a form of social control, not an economic necessity. Nothing reveals that more clearly than the simple fact that other wealthy capitalist countries took the path of reform. 

We could have labor law reform like the repeal of the Taft-Hartley “slave labor” bill; the passage and enforcement of the PRO Act; a $25 minimum wage effective immediately; national universal healthcare; national month-long paid vacations; shorter workweeks; national sick time; parental leave, the dramatic expansion of social security; free public higher education and debt cancellation for all medical and educational debts. Prison labor could be abolished.

These universal benefits would limit the most predatory effects of US capitalism. Such reforms have long since been achieved by other capitalist countries but are out of reach for our corporate two-party system. For the rulers to call off the class war by eliminating poverty and economic anxiety is to risk losing control. That is the lesson they learned from the mid-twentieth century.

Even if halfway reforms are passed, the problem, as the history of austerity shows, is that any reforms that leave the corporate empire intact will be open to powerful counterattack and cancellation. Since the ruling class refuses real reform they put revolutionary change on the agenda.

True solutions must place people and planet first. How can we restore economic democracy without reverting to the twin environmental catastrophe of infinite economic growth and perpetual war? Industrial expansion and forever wars must come off the table if we want to avoid climate chaos and mass death.

In the end, expropriation and redistribution may be the only practical solution since that would limit the need to produce new wealth. That means we must retake the $50 trillion stolen by the 1% and spread it around equal.

Yes, expropriate the billionaires and convert the industries already deeply intertwined with government into public assets.  

When fossil fuels, banking, the Military-Industrial Complex, Big Tech, and Big Pharma are converted into democratically controlled public utilities we will have true structural changes. When subsidies and political support — similar in scale to that now granted corporations — are directed to worker-owned enterprises we would have workplace democracy as a structural feature. These deep changes are far beyond anything the existing corporate order could envision or deliver. 

Big historic problems require big historic solutions.

Call it economic and workplace democracy, call it socialism or revolution, call it love or call it treason — I call it the only game in town. It’s democracy or catastrophe. 

1/ Heather Ann Thompson/New Labor Forum, “The Prison Industrial Complex: A Growth Industry in a Shrinking Economy” Also see Mike Elk and Bob Sloan/The Nation, The Hidden History of ALEC and Prison Labor

2/ The quote is in Justice Steven’s dissenting opinion in Citizens United. Also, see Ciara Torres-Spelliscy/Brennan Center’s great short review of the judicial roots of corporate personhood.  

3/See Lawrence Mishel/Economic Policy Institute, “The Enormous Impact of Eroded Collective Bargaining on Wages.

4/ Kim Moody lays out concession bargaining in “Concession Bargaining and the Decline of Industrial Unionism in the 1980s.”

5/ The Democrats controlled the House for all eight years of the Reagan administration and had both House and Senate the last two years. Kevin Phillips’s old bestseller details the “Reagan Revolution.” The Politics of Rich and Poor: Wealth and Electorate in the Reagan Aftermath (1990) 

6/ See Robert Brenner’s “Escalating Plunder” in New Left Review, for an excellent analysis of CARES.


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What is Austerity? That is the 50 Trillion Dollar Question.

Photograph: Mike Kemp/In Pictures via Getty Images

The modern system of austerity took shape in the mid-1970s and we are still in its grip. Austerity is meant to trap us in a destructive double-bind; the race to the bottom for millions of people is also the race to the top for the few. The cost? More than $50 trillion. The human cost in misery, death, and despair? Devastating yet uncounted.

The deliberate creation of poverty and scarcity was necessary for the corporations to consolidate their power. It did not just happen on its own. Austerity required far-reaching structural changes in the US economy.

Beginning in the 1970s the reforms of the New Deal and Great Society were gradually gutted and the economy was recast to suit corporate demands. Biden’s corporate-centered, temporary, and incremental approach won’t touch austerity. Biden promises a small fraction of what is needed and will not reverse the wage cuts at the core of austerity. The major parties will not reform the corporate system that enforced austerity in the first place — instead, they aim to defend it.   

Austerity is the big lie: “We Are Broke.” When the big truth is: the economy is rigged and inequality is the result.[1] Austerity is when the ruling class gets most of everything society produces leaving the people with less than they can live on. To bridge that gap, the bosses and bankers substitute high-interest consumer debt for decent wages.

Austerity is the opposite of economic democracy — it is the dictatorship of big money. Contrary to corporate propaganda, austerity is the opposite of free markets too; it is the result of planned policy decisions made by corporations and government. 

Austerity is a core feature of neoliberal policy and the forefather of the recent fascist revival— both the overt vulgar fascism of the extreme right and the covert systematic fascism of corporate power, empire, and the police state. Austerity was the “solution” big capital devised to maintain profits in the short run. In the long run, austerity only intensified the crisis. In this context, both the powerful and powerless are drawn toward the other “fix” for the mess that austerity and corporate power created: fascist-style politics.

Austerity serves many purposes to those in power. Enforced despair was a political weapon as well as an economic one: keeping us all so busy surviving that we must struggle with all of our might to contest power or address the really big issues like war and climate change. 

While austerity reigns at home for workers, the US has the largest and most expensive war machine in world history, including a domestic cop army that ranks third among global military expenditures while a class of billionaires possesses wealth too vast to even imagine. 

Austerity is not the lack of money, it’s a statement of priorities. And those priorities are protecting the ruling class with the military force necessary to maintain order abroad and at home and to distract and demobilize everyday people. Money talks and money says they are going to double down. Austerity is social control.

50 Trillion Dollars!

The long-term results of the redistribution of wealth are absolutely mind-boggling.

A RAND Corporation report found that $50 trillion was redistributed from bottom to top since the mid-70s. It’s hard to grasp just how profound that is and just how vicious the class struggle waged by the owning class has been. According to Time


On average, extreme inequality is costing the median income full-time worker about $42,000 a year. Adjusted for inflation using the CPI, the numbers are even worse: half of all full time workers…now earn less than half what they would have had incomes across the distribution continued to keep pace with economic growth.


It’s the old half a loaf!

According to Business Insider: “The median college-educated American worker would have seen their annual pay double without this theft.”

This extreme exploitation is a systematic form of violence that results in suicide, premature death, and disease. It’s organized class warfare. According to a major study of life expectancy between 1959 and 2017:

“By 2014, midlife mortality was increasing across all racial groups, caused by drug overdoses, alcohol abuse, suicides, and a diverse list of organ system diseases.”

The report, cited by David Rosen in Counterpunch, continued: 

“During the half-century between 1959 and 2016, Americans’ life expectancies increased by nearly 10 years. Sadly, since then, the average lifespan slowly declined….There has been an increase in death rates among working age Americans…This is an emergent crisis. And it is a uniquely American problem since it is not seen in other countries. Something about life in America is responsible.”

That exceptional “uniquely American problem” is the extreme stress of extreme poverty not experienced in other wealthy countries. This is how the ruling class maintains control here in the imperial core. Yet, there is so much hoarded treasure that $21 trillion is stashed away in tax havens around the world that allow the very richest to legally avoid taxation.

So when the bosses say “we don’t have money” you better believe they mean “we don’t have money for you!” Biden will not recover the $50 trillion heist. Why? Because the Democrat’s sorry excuses for reform avoid the main culprit: wage suppression.

The Wages of Corporate Power

Wage suppression and the attack on workers and our unions are at the heart of this epic theft. It all began with a set of structural reforms designed to break the direct link between productivity and compensation that was forged by working-class struggles during and after the Great Depression and World War II.

Wage suppression creates austerity. If we cannot change wages the rest is tinkering around the edges.

Take federally enforced minimum wages for example — once designed to provide a decent wage floor it now tends to pull wages down. $15 was visionary when first proposed, now it is just a new substandard minimum wage — and we can’t even get that. The failure of the Democrats to live up to that often-made promise is proof that decent wages will not be won inside the existing political order.

Both major parties are sold to the highest bidder and union officials aren’t even “at the table” despite decades of being loyal Democrats. If labor was truly “at the table,” would the Democrats have gotten away with a cheap trick like hiding behind the Parliamentarian to kill $15? This is not just an insult to every union member but a signal that beyond a few stimulus crumbs the war on the poor continues.

Not only aren’t workers “at the table” they are behind bars. The system of slave-like prison labor is a ball and chain driving down labor costs, eliminating real jobs, and weakening unions. Unions once understood this threat and fought against it. Now? Nary a word. Austerity — and the wage suppression it is founded on — will not end as long as prisoners are worked like slaves.  

Now more than ever, working-class solidarity both within and outside of the formal labor movement is the best way forward. Organizing and the threat of strike, including a general strike, is infinitely more valuable than standard ways of lobbying politicians.

Since low wages lie at the heart of the austerity regime then workers are at the heart of the solution.

The Protect the Right to Organize (PRO) Act does contain many important reforms like the abolition of the “right to work” laws. The most potentially useful reforms are the legalization of spur-of-the-moment strikes; unpredictable on-again-off-again strikes; slowdowns while still at work; and “secondary” boycotts that allow unions to call boycotts against anyone they choose. All these powerful tactics were prohibited by the 1947 (and still enforced) Taft-Hartley Act — one of the first “reforms” that paved the way to austerity. 

But to pass PRO, enforce PRO, and realize its promise will take an aroused and independent-minded working class. We lost the class struggle of the last four decades, in part, because we laid down our best weapon. We failed to negotiate by abandoning the class struggle in favor of collaboration with the bosses. The increase in strikes since 2018 means the fight is on again and that’s the real reason unions feel confident enough to advance national labor law reform like PRO.

The chart misses many smaller strikes but does show that the period of relative economic democracy relied on strikes and the dramatic drop off in the number of large strikes from the mid-1970s until 2018.

Approximately 1,300 strikes — by essential workers of all kinds, including prisoners  — have occurred since the pandemic began.[2] Many strikes were self-organized, outside of official union channels.

Is this the shape of class struggles to come? Can the union movement be reborn? Only if we make it so.


1. Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century provides a wealth of evidence that the primary product of the modern corporate system is inequality. Also, see economist Richard Wolff’s The US Economy Excels in One Thing: Producing Massive Inequality in Counterpunch.

2. Follow Payday Report or join On the Picket Line for strike news.

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