Removing Billboard “Honoring the First Responders of Gaza” is Attack on Free Speech

Nearly 3 weeks into its planned 4-week run, an electronic billboard honoring first responders in the Gaza Strip was pulled November 13th because the billboard company received phone calls and email complaints calling their staff terrorists and anti-Semites, and threatening a boycott.

The Palestine Advocacy Project sponsored the billboard on Interstate 93 near Boston to highlight the desperate situation in the Gaza strip, and to emphasize the humanity and agency of the people of Gaza, who are often portrayed as terrorists or victims. The billboard included a photo of deceased Palestinian medic Razan al-Najjar and text reading: “Honoring the First Responders of Gaza. Saving Lives. Rescuing Hope.” It was estimated to be viewed by over a half million motorists each week of its planned 4-week run, beginning 24 October. The billboard was met with positive media coverage.

This week, a coordinated, aggressive campaign was launched against the billboard company with accusations of anti-Semitism, intended to damage the company for hosting this billboard. Sarah Gold, a volunteer with the Palestine Advocacy Project, said, “This campaign is neither engaging us nor our perspective. Instead it is attempting through intimidation to eradicate the avenues of free speech we have endeavored to use; to silence us.”

The billboard is another casualty in an ongoing attack on free speech. Palestine Legal states in their 2017 report “The Israeli state and its proxy organizations in the U.S. are investing heavily in punitive measures to intimidate and chill the free speech of those who wish to express criticism of Israeli policies.” The report documents 308 attacks on U.S.-based Palestine-related free speech in 2017 alone.

Razan al-Najjar and other Gazan first responders were doing their best to attend to wounded civilians; yet celebrating them is construed as an act of “hate & anti-semitism.” One complaint reads in part: “A billboard glorifying those who try to kill and destroy our People and Homeland! Anti Semitism is as old as time itself, Hate of Israel is hate of Jews, completely unacceptable!” This negative campaign appears to be based on the erroneous notions that all Gazans are anti-Semites intent on murdering Jews, that Gazans are not entitled to basic human rights, and that any display of solidarity with them equates to a call for the destruction of Israel.

Richard Colbath-Hess, founder of the Palestine Advocacy Project, remarked that “The billboard was extremely positive and does not even mention Israel. Instead it was a celebration of Palestinian heroes. Apparently, there cannot be Palestinian heroes without some advocates of Israel feeling attacked.”

The Filter Bubble: Owen Jones And Con Coughlin

There is something dreamlike about the system of mass communication sometimes described as ‘mainstream media’. The self-described ‘rogue journalist’ and ‘guerrilla poet’ Caitlin Johnstone tweeted it well:

The Iraq invasion feels kind of like if your dad had stood up at the dinner table, cut off your sister’s head in front of everyone, gone right back to eating and never suffered any consequences, and everyone just kind of forgot about it and carried on life like it never happened.

In a dream, the common sense rules and rationality of everyday life are, of course, suspended – we float to the top of the stairs, a cat smiles, a person is beheaded at the dinner table and the vegetables are served.

In similar vein, Iraq was destroyed in a nakedly illegal oil grab, more than one million human beings were killed, and the ‘mainstream’ continued to treat the criminals responsible as respectable statespeople, and to take seriously their subsequent calls for ‘humanitarian intervention’ in oil-rich Libya. With Libya reduced to ruins, the same journalists dreamed on, treating the same criminals with the same respect as they sought yet one more regime change in Syria.

This nightmare version of ‘news’ is maintained by a corporate ‘filter bubble‘ that blocks facts, ideas and sources that challenge state-corporate control of politics, economics and culture. It is maintained by a mixture of ruthless high-level control and middle- and lower-level compromise, conformity and self-serving blindness.

It stands to reason that anyone seeking employment within this bubble will have to accept an unwritten agreement not to challenge the integrity of the bubble by which they are granted wealth and fame. Any ingrate deciding to renege is attacked, reviled and cast out; treated almost as sub-human, not entirely real. Politicians like George Galloway challenging the bubble can be beaten up in broad daylight and it is of no concern. Idealistic hippies like Russell Brand preaching love can be torn to shreds and silenced by the press pack – it doesn’t matter. Whistleblowing activists like Julian Assange can be trapped, threatened with life imprisonment and death, and it is a laughing matter. Whole countries can be destroyed – it doesn’t matter. The climate can be destroyed – it doesn’t matter. The filter bubble has its own dream logic, follows its own cosmic laws as if the real world was none of its concern.

It is fine for one corporate bubble-head to criticise another bubble-head’s take on current affairs – boisterous, jovial, intra-bubble gossip is welcome. Anything that challenges the integrity of the bubble is forbidden, hated; tolerated in tiny doses, perhaps, to keep up appearances. It is just understood.

So what happens when a high-profile political commentator breaks the rules and thrusts a pin of Truth at the filter bubble? What happens when a fellow journalist is exposed in a way that has negative implications for all newspapers, all media outlets? How will the rest of journalism respond?

Owen Jones on Con Coughlin

On October 11, Guardian columnist Owen Jones broke the usual rules in an attack on the Telegraph’s defence correspondent, Con Coughlin, who, Jones noted, had attended a party at the Saudi embassy in London:

Hi @concoughlin. You left tonight’s Saudi Embassy bash at the @NHM_London safe and well. That’s more than can be said for your fellow journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who allegedly was chopped into pieces in Turkey’s Saudi Consulate. Any pangs of conscience?’

The following day, Jones tweeted a thread exposing Coughlin that included these comments:

A thread. The Telegraph’s Defence Editor churns out Saudi propaganda after going to a Saudi party.

He is married to Katherine Bergen who worked for Meade Hall & Associates, paid lobbyists for Bahrain’s dictatorship, which was propped up by a 2011 Saudi invasion.

Katherine Bergen is a former journalist who wrote pro-Bahrain propaganda for publications ranging from The Daily Mail to Standpoint Magazine.

Con Coughlin himself has a history of churning out pro-Bahrain propaganda. In a now deleted Telegraph blog headlined “Why is Britain harbouring Bahrain’s dissidents?” (referred to in the book Oil States in the New Middle East) he fawns over Bahrain’s ruling dictator.

Con Coughlin’s output on Saudi Arabia is ludicrously Pravda-esque fawning. Scan through the articles he’s written here: it is beyond belief. Seriously, have a sickbag ready.

Here is a fawning interview Coughlin conducted with Saudi dictator Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud in March, who he describes as a “human dynamo”. He concludes: “With this young royal at the helm, Saudi Arabia’s future prospects clearly know no bounds.”

All Coughlin does is churn out Saudi propaganda and Saudi talking points. Check this out when Saudi Arabia and its allies clashed with Qatar. Is this news reporting, or a de facto press release Saudi Arabia might as well have written?

Having described Coughlin’s role in promoting Saudi propaganda, Jones turned to other areas:

A 2000 article reveals Coughlin was fed material by MI6 for years, which he then turned into Telegraph news articles. One false story fed to him by MI6 about Saif Gaddafi led to the Sunday Telegraph apologising for libel ( …)

Stories published by Con Coughlin include a front page splash: ‘TERRORIST BEHIND SEPTEMBER 11 STRIKE WAS TRAINED BY SADDAM’. It was based on a forged letter which had been fed to him.’

Con Coughlin went on NBC to tell viewers that the (forged) letter was “really concrete proof that al-Qaeda was working with Saddam”. This false claim was invaluable: it justified one of the Bush administration’s false pretexts for the invasion of Iraq.

As his “story” fell apart, Coughlin said: there’s “no way of verifying it. It’s our job as journalists to air these things and see what happens.” Errrrr.

A book by Pulizter-winning journalist Ron Suskind claims the Bush administration forged the evidence.

Jones unsubtly hinted at Coughlin’s true role:

According to Suskind, Coughlin was “a journalist whom the Bush administration thinks very highly of” and was “a favourite of neoconservatives in the U.S. government.” Suskind says Coughlin got the letter from the former CIA and MI6 agent, former Iraqi exile Ayad Allawi.

Remember the discredited 45 minute claim? Conveniently after the invasion of Iraq Coughlin went to Iraq and found a source who claimed it was “200 per cent accurate.” I’m sure that the scandal-hit British intelligence services were delighted.

In our media alert of November 4, 2004, we noted that, having worked hard to pave the propaganda way to war on Iraq, Coughlin later worked hard to justify this terrible crime. In June 2003, under the title, ‘So what if Saddam’s deadly arsenal is never found? The war was just,’ he wrote in the Telegraph:

Another day and another mass grave is unearthed in Iraq.

He added:

So many of these harrowing sites have been uncovered in the two months since Saddam’s overthrow that even the experts are starting to lose count of just how many atrocities were committed by the Iraqi dictator’s henchmen… If this were Kosovo, the Government would be under fire for not having acted sooner to prevent the genocide.

His conclusion:

Having just returned from three weeks in post-liberation Iraq, I find it almost perverse that anyone should question the wisdom of removing Saddam from power.1

Commenting on Coughlin’s ‘reliance on unnamed intelligence sources in several far-fetched articles about Iran,’ the Campaign Against Sanctions and Military Intervention in Iran (CASMII) identified key features in reports filed by the Daily Telegraph’s then foreign editor:

Sources were unnamed or untraceable, often senior Western intelligence officials or senior Foreign Office officials.

Articles were published at sensitive and delicate times where there had been relatively positive diplomatic moves towards Iran.

Articles contained exclusive revelations about Iran combined with eye-catchingly controversial headlines.2

Jones emphasised the significance of his tweets:

Read through this thread, and bear this mind. Con Coughlin was Foreign Editor, and is now Defence Editor of one of Britain’s main broadsheet newspapers. He is treated as a respected journalist. What does this tell us about the British media?

As The Canary website noted, ‘After the revelations Con Coughlin had so little credibility left, he deleted his Twitter account.’

On October 17, Jones tweeted:

Con Coughlin has just had another load of shameless Saudi propaganda published by the @Telegraph, it is utterly remarkable

We responded:

Even more remarkable from ProQuest UK newspaper database, last 30 days:

“Your search for (Owen Jones) AND (Con Coughlin) found 0 results.”

Silence across the media “spectrum”.

In other words, no UK journalist anywhere had picked up on Jones’ damning comments on Coughlin. They had been ignored. In possibly Jones’ first ever positive response to us, he replied confidently, indicating that a Guardian article was on the way:

about to change this.

We retweeted this, taking Jones at his word. One week later, on October 24, he published an article in the Guardian titled, ‘Britain has sold its soul to the House of Saud. Shame on us’. So how much of Jones’ criticism of Coughlin had survived the attentions of the Guardian editors? The answer is contained in this single paragraph:

Con Coughlin, the Telegraph’s defence correspondent, attended the National History Museum bash [hosted by the Saudi embassy], posting the next day an article accompanied by the tweet: “Was Jamal Khashoggi a liberal or a Muslim Brotherhood lackey who reviled the west?” He has written fawning interviews with Bin Salman, describing him as a “human dynamo” under whose rule “Saudi Arabia’s future prospects clearly know no bounds”.

Attending the Saudi bash was the least of the sins exposed by Jones, and the ‘fawning interviews’ are rather less damning than Coughlin acting as a conduit for MI6 propaganda. We wrote to Jones:

Owen, we absolutely loved your thread exposing Con Coughlin. But what happened to the promised Guardian article on this? I’m asking because you told us you were writing something on Oct 17. The piece then came out a week later on Oct 24 with almost all the meat missing. Did you run into internal opposition at the Guardian?3

We received no reply. Jones, of course, is not about to reveal what happened to his article. Perhaps the Guardian editors simply published what he submitted. One thing is clear: somehow, at some point, the filter bubble worked its magic and prevented a damning expose of a senior UK journalist reaching the Guardian’s readers.

In a tweet, Jones asked of the Coughlin case: ‘What does this tell us about the British media?’ Without the filter bubble, journalists would surely be asking exactly that question of ‘defence’ and ‘diplomatic’ journalism more generally.

The problem was indicated by one of the great Freudian slips of our time, supplied by a Fox News anchor on March 24, 1999, as Nato was preparing to wage war on Yugoslavia:

Let’s bring in our Pentagon spokesman – excuse me, our Pentagon correspondent.

In 2002, Michael Evans, The Times’ defence correspondent, reported:

Saddam Hussein has ordered hundred of his officials to conceal weapons of mass destruction components in their homes to evade the prying eyes of the United Nations inspectors.

This was fake news – Iraq’s WMD had been dismantled and destroyed by December 1998. In a guest media alert, ‘Hacks And Spooks’, Professor Richard Keeble, then Professor of Journalism at the University of Lincoln, described Evans’ comments as an example of ‘disinformation… spread by dodgy intelligence sources via gullible journalists’.

On the April 12, 2005 edition of the BBC’s Newsnight programme, diplomatic editor Mark Urban discussed the significance of a lessening of Iraqi attacks on US forces since January:

It is indeed the first real evidence that President Bush’s grand design of toppling a dictator and forcing a democracy into the heart of the Middle East could work.4

The claim that Bush aimed to create a democracy in the Middle East clashed impossibly with his actual grand design of controlling Iraq’s oil.

In 2011, the Guardian’s diplomatic editor, Julian Borger, anticipated a new report on Iran by the International Atomic Energy Agency, with a piece titled ‘Iran “on threshold of nuclear weapon”‘. The accompanying photograph depicted a giant mushroom cloud from a nuclear weapons test. In fact, Iran had no nuclear weapons, nor even a nuclear weapons programme.

Why are defence editors, defence correspondents, diplomatic editors and the like so often biased in favour of the Western defence and diplomatic establishment they are covering? And why are they allowed to demonstrate this bias without anyone so much as commenting?

The filter bubble ensures that these questions can never be asked, much less answered.

  1. Con Coughlin, ‘So what if Saddam’s deadly arsenal is never found? The war was just,’ The Sunday Telegraph, June 1, 2003.
  2. Campaign Iran, ‘Press Watchdog slammed by “Dont Attack Iran” Campaigners,’ May 1, 2007.
  3. Direct message, Twitter, November 8, 2018.
  4. Urban, Newsnight, BBC2, April 12, 2005.

US Midterms Expose Russia Hacker Myth

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Don’t hold your breath for it, but there should be an abject apology coming from US politicians, pundits, media and intelligence agencies.

For months leading up to the midterm elections held last week, we were told that the Kremlin was deviously targeting the ballot, in a replay of the way Russian hackers allegedly interfered in the 2016 presidential race to get Donald Trump into the White House.

Supposedly reliable news media outlets like the New York Times and heavyweight Senate panels were quoting intelligence sources warning that the “Russians are coming – again”.

So what just happened? Nothing. Where were the social media campaigns of malicious Russian-inspired misinformation “sowing division”? Whatever happened to the supposed army of internet bots and trolls that the Kremlin command? Where are the electoral machines tampered with to give false vote counts?

Facebook said it had deleted around 100 social media accounts that it claimed “were linked” to pro-Russian entities intent on meddling in the midterms. How did Facebook determined that “linkage”? It was based on a “tip-off” by US intelligence agencies. Hardly convincing proof of a Kremlin plot to destabilize American democracy.

If elusive Russian hackers somehow targeted the midterm Congressional elections they certainly seem to have a convoluted objective. Trump’s Republican party lost the House of Representatives to Democrat control. That could result in more Congressional probes into his alleged collusion with Russia. It could also result in Democrats filing subpoenas for Trump to finally disclose his personal tax details which he has strenuously refused to do so far.

Moreover, having lost control of one of the two Congressional chambers, Trump will find his legislative plans being slowed down and even blocked.

Thus, if Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin are the purported “puppet masters” behind the Trump presidency, they have a very strange way of showing their support, as can be seen from the setbacks of the midterms.

A far simpler, more plausible explanation is that there was no Russian hacking of the midterms, just as there wasn’t in the 2016 presidential election. Russian interference, influence campaigns, malign activity, “Russia-gate”, and so on, are nothing but myths conjured up by Trump’s domestic political opponents and their obliging media outlets.

Now that all the dire warnings of Russia hacking into the midterms have been shown to be a mirage, the US intelligence agencies seem to be adopting a new spin on events. We are told that they “prevented Russian interference”.

In a Bloomberg article headlined ‘One Big Loser of the Midterms – Russian Hackers’, it is claimed: “Security officials believe [sic] they prevented cyberattacks on election day.” However, they added, “it’s hard to tell.”

In other words, US security officials have no idea if putative Russian hackers were targeting the elections. The contorted logic is that if there were no hacking incidents, then it was because US cybersecurity prevented them. This is tantamount to invoking absence to prove presence. It’s voodoo intelligence.

President Trump has a point when he lambastes Democrats and their supportive media for crying foul only when they lose an election. In various midterm races, it was apparent that Democrats would protest some alleged electoral discrepancy when their candidate lost against a Republican. But when Democrats came out on top, there were no irregularities.

One can imagine therefore that if the Democrats had failed to win control over the House of Representatives, then they and their intelligence agency and media supporters would have been clamoring about “Russian interference” to help Republicans retain the House.

As it turned out, the Democrats won the House, so there is no need to invoke the Russian bogeyman. In that case, it is claimed, Russian hackers “did not succeed” to penetrate the electoral system or pivot social media.

Nonetheless, there was indeed rampant interference in the recent US election. For one thing, some 28 pro-Israeli Political Action Committees and wealthy individuals spent around $15 million to promote 80 candidates in the Congressional elections, according to the organization If Americans Knew. This foreign influence on US voters in favor of Israeli interests is nothing new. It is standard practice in every election.

During the presidential campaign in 2016, the Israeli-American billionaire Sheldon Adelson reportedly donated $25 million to Trump’s campaign. Undoubtedly that legalized bribery is why Trump on becoming president has pushed such a slavishly pro-Israeli Middle East policy, including his inflammatory declaration of Jerusalem as the sole capital of the Zionist state.

But there is no outcry about “Israeli influence campaigns” and “hacking” from the US media or from Democrats over this egregious interference in American democracy. No, they prefer to obsess about the phantom of Russian meddling.

Another evident source of electoral hacking was of the homegrown variety. There seem to be valid grievances among ordinary American voters about gerrymandering of electoral districts by incumbent parties, as well as voter disenfranchisement, especially among poor African-American and Latino communities. There were also reported cases of phone canvassers making malicious calls to discredit candidates, as was claimed by the beaten Democrat contenders in Florida and Georgia.

Clearly, there are huge flaws in the US electoral system. Most glaringly, the gargantuan problem of campaign funding by corporations, banks and other representatives of the oligarchic system.

A further chronic problem is yawning voter apathy. The recent midterms were said to have seen a “record turnout” of voters. The official figure is that only 48 per cent of voters exercised their democratic right. That is, over half the voting population view the ballot exercise as not worth while or something worse. This is a constant massive disavowal of American democracy expressed in every US election.

The midterm elections demonstrate once again that American democracy has its own inherent failings. But the political establishment and the ruling oligarchy are loathe to fix a system from which they benefit.

When the system becomes unwieldy or throws up results that the establishment does not quite like – such as the election of uncouth, big mouth Trump – then the “error” must be “explained” away by some extraneous factor, such as “Russian hacking”.

However, the latest exercise in American democracy, for what it is worth, gave the salutary demonstration of the myth of Russian interference – at least for those who care to honestly see that.

Another valuable demonstration was this: if supposedly reliable news media and an intelligence apparatus that is charged with national security have been caught out telling spectacular lies with regard to “Russian hacking”, then what credibility do they have on a host of other anti-Russia claims, or, indeed, on many other matters?

Reprinted with permission from Strategic Culture Foundation.

Beltway BS on ‘Speaking Truth to Power’

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Lying and piety go together in Washington like ham and eggs. After 9/11, a profusion of government falsehoods on Iraq and other topics ravaged official credibility. The political class responded with an endless profusion of promises to “speak truth to power.” Unfortunately, there are far more Washingtonians praising honesty than there are honest politicians.

According to Wikipedia, “Speaking truth to power is a nonviolent political tactic, employed by dissidents against the received wisdom or propaganda of governments they regard as oppressive or authoritarian.” Ironically, that phrase has become one of the favorite accolades in the least trusted city in America.

When seven-term congressman and low-watt Republican functionary Porter Goss was nominated in 2004 to become CIA chief, Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) endorsed him after he promised to “always speak truth to power.” Fat chance: after he was confirmed, Goss speedily sent a memo to CIA employees muzzling them, declaring that their job was to “support the administration and its policies in our work.” Goss bungled the CIA so badly that the Bush administration heaved him out less than two years later. Columnist Walter Shapiro observed, “Normally under Bush, promoted-above-your-abilities incompetence is not a firing offense unless, of course, you drown an entire city.”

“Speaking truth to power” had a starring role in the 2005 Senate coronation of John Negroponte, America’s first director of National Intelligence. While working as Reagan’s ambassador to Honduras, Negroponte perennially denied that the Honduran regime was committing vast atrocities, despite its killing of tens of thousands of its own citizens. (Honduras was aiding the Nicaraguan Contras at the time.)

Yet, when the Senate Intelligence Committee held his confirmation hearing, he was treated as if he were Diogenes waiting to carry his lamp into the White House. Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) talked about Negroponte’s record breeding “a tough and disciplined man with self-esteem and with the willingness to make decisions and to tell truth to power, which I think is key in all of this.” Sen. Jon Corzine (D-N.J.) filibustered: “It seems to me that it is almost imperative that the director of national intelligence — what’s the term? — speak truth to power or whatever the phrase is will be absolutely a requirement.” Senator Mikulski also recycled the “speak truth to power” bromide while kowtowing to the nominee. The Democrats on the committee approved Negroponte at the same time they permitted Republicans to thwart their investigation into whether the Bush administration deceived the nation regarding intelligence on Iraq. (Negroponte was confirmed by the full Senate in a 98-2 squeaker.)

Mike McConnell, a retired admiral and prominent defense contractor, took Negroponte’s place in early 2007. McConnell never wearied of proclaiming in congressional testimony and TV interviews, “My job is to speak truth to power.” This claim was rarely challenged, allowing McConnell to preen to greater credibility. In reality, his job was to frighten Americans who sought the truth about government. McConnell helped frighten Congress into submission with bizarre tall-tales, as when the Bush officials falsely claimed that al-Qaeda could imminently attack Capitol Hill — coincidentally when Congress was considering legislation to expand and extend NSA wiretaps on Americans.

When Michael Hayden was nominated as CIA chief in 2006, Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) vouched that Hayden would “speak truth to power.” But Hayden profoundly misled Congress regarding the CIA’s torture program, and his credibility was demolished in the 2014 Senate Intelligence Committee report on the enhanced-interrogation program.

From 2010 to 2016, James Clapper served as director of National Intelligence. He scored a “speaks truth to power” honorific when Defense Secretary Ash Carter awarded him the Distinguished Civilian Service Medal. He is much better known for his false 2013 congressional testimony denying that the National Security Agency collected data on millions of Americans. Legal experts marked the day earlier this year when the statute of limitation expired for indicting Clapper for perjury. Law professor Jonathan Turley observed, “The problem is not that the perjury statute is never enforced. Rather it is enforced against people without allies in government.”

The torture scandal

When James Comey was nominated as FBI chief in 2013, the ACLU and Human Rights Watch protested his role providing legal buttressing for Bush-era torture. But Comey worked the media so well that people probably thought he copyrighted “speaks truth to power.” But, from misrepresenting the FBI’s ability to crack an Apple iPhone encryption, to falsely promising transparency after the Orlando Pulse nightclub massacre, to perpetuating often deceptive FBI interview practices, he failed to live up to his hype.

The “speaks truth to power” surge hit new high-water marks this spring with the nomination of Gina Haspel to be CIA chief. Haspel was notorious for her role in the Bush-era torture scandal. She was perhaps best known for sending out an order to destroy 92 videotapes of waterboarding. As an ACLU analysis noted, “In 2004, one year before the tapes’ destruction, a judge ordered the CIA to ‘produce or identify’ records relating to the treatment of detainees in CIA custody. That order came as a result of a legal challenge by the ACLU. One year later, a federal judge in a separate case ordered the government to search for video or audio recordings of detainee interrogations. In clear defiance of the courts, the CIA destroyed the tapes.”

As acting CIA chief, Haspel had discretion to determine exactly what details from her 33-year CIA career would be disclosed to Congress. The public heard about her meeting Mother Teresa but details on her linchpin role in the torture scandal were sparse.

Many of her supporters recited the “speaks truth to power” accolade as if they were trained seals waiting to earn a treat. At the brief Senate Intelligence Committee hearing to confirm Haspel, Sen. Roy Blount (R-Mo.) threw Haspel a soft ball: “Talk about your sense of obligation to present those facts and to speak truth to power at a moment when it matters.” Haspel replied, “Truth to power is one of CIA’s most important missions.” (She also assured senators and the television audience that “my parents gave me a very strong moral compass.”) Haspel initially dodged making criticisms of the torture program but eventually conceded that “the program ultimately did damage to [CIA] officers.” After the committee hearing, she sent a letter to senators assuring them, “I have spent my life speaking truth to power.”

Shortly before the vote on her nomination, the Senate Intelligence Committee “restricted access to a classified memo that Democratic staff put together, detailing Haspel’s role in advocating for torture and later destroying related evidence,” The Intercept reported. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) complained of an “A to Z” coverup of Haspel’s torture record.

There was an uproar by liberal activists, libertarians, and others about the CIA’s withholding of Haspel’s record. That did not stop Sen. Richard Burr, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, from announcing during the Senate confirmation vote, “Gina has also the courage to speak truth to power, and she has demonstrated that courage time and again.” Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), the ranking Democrat whose public support for Haspel clinched her confirmation, portrayed himself as an innocent victim of Haspel’s stonewalling: “I wish she had been more open with the American public during this process.” Then he declared, “Most importantly, I believe she is someone who … will speak truth to power.” Perhaps Haspel will speak truth after she finishes destroying all the evidence of federal criminality.

Actual truth-speakers

Praising nominees’ candor seeks to make Americans believe that honesty has a snowball’s chance in hell inside the Beltway. But people who speak truth to power tend to end up fired, exiled, shafted, or imprisoned:

Lawrence Lindsay was George W. Bush’s economic advisor — until he predicted that Bush’s war on Iraq could cost $200 billion. (The actual costs of the war far exceeded $1 trillion.)

Eric Shinseski was US Army chief of staff — until he testified to Congress in 2003 that “several hundred thousand soldiers” would be necessary to occupy Iraq after Bush invaded that nation. The shortfall in the occupying army quickly turned Iraq into a catastrophe.

Valerie Plame’s career as a covert CIA operative was torpedoed by leaks by Bush administration officials in retaliation against her husband, ambassador Joseph Wilson, who publicly criticized Bush’s falsehoods on the Iraqi regime’s pursuit of nuclear weapons material.

CIA agent John Kiriakou disclosed that the CIA was waterboarding detainees and was prosecuted by the Obama administration Justice Department — the only CIA official to be sent to prison for the torture scandal. (Kiriakou led the charge in the media against Haspel, whom he nicknamed “Bloody Gina.”)

Former NSA staffer Edward Snowden exposed a vast NSA illegal surveillance network and remains living in exile in Russia, perhaps because a top congressman and former intelligence agency chief publicly joked about putting him on a “kill list.” Snowden’s experience illustrates that exposing federal crimes is the ultimate unforgiveable sin in Washington.

The notion that some official will stalwartly tell the truth is supposed to spur Americans’ faith that Washington can be redeemed — as if we are only two or three nominations away from honest government. This is why “speaks truth to power” is lathered onto almost any nominee without multiple felony convictions. But it remains the political equivalent of a used-car dealer’s swearing a vehicle was previously owned by a grannie who only drove on Sunday afternoons.

“Truth delayed is truth defused” is a much better guide on how most political appointees will behave. But, as former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg declared in a recent commencement address, “When we tolerate dishonesty, we get criminality.” Bloomberg labeled “our own willingness to tolerate dishonesty in service of party, and in pursuit of power” as “the greatest threat to American democracy.” Unfortunately, there is no reason to expect this threat to subside anytime soon.

Promising to “speak truth to power” encourages Americans to view political life as a fairy tale — or perhaps a variation of the old story of a young George Washington confessing to his father about axing a cherry tree. But this wishful storyline obscures the profound damage to the Constitution and to Americans’ rights and liberties that both parties have inflicted for decades. As Haspel’s case illustrates, political appointees receive far more career boosts from covering up atrocities than from speaking truth to power.

Reprinted with permission from JimBovard.com.

The Korean War: The Moral Bankruptcy of Interventionism

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An article in Sunday’s New York Times entitled “Remembering the Forgotten War” demonstrates perfectly the moral bankruptcy of the philosophy of foreign interventionism. Calling for the Korean War to become more highly remembered, the author, Hampton Sides, extols some of the popular justifications for subjecting US troops to death, injury, and maiming in the Korean War.

Hampton tells the story of a veteran named Franklin Chapman, who is still alive. Hampton was sent to fight in Korea, was shot several times, and also hit by shrapnel. He was taken captive by the enemy and was held as a POW for three years. Today, the 85-year -old suffers from the aftereffects of frostbite, experiences aches and pains from his wounds, and suffers severe memory loss, sometimes unable to recognize his daughter.

Sides implies that while all this is regrettable, it’s all justifiable because Korean War veterans “stopped a naked act of Communist aggression and opposed three malevolent dictators — Stalin, Mao and Kim – while helping South Korea take wing as a democracy.”

What is fascinating about Sides’s article is that it is completely bereft of any moral outrage whatsoever against the US government and, specifically, the US national-security establishment. Sides seems to forget something important: The reason that Chapman was there in Korea waging war was because the president of the United States and the Pentagon ordered him to be there.

I was curious about Chapman and so I looked him up. It turns out that he has written a biography that is posted online, where he tells the reason he joined the military. No, it wasn’t to stop communist aggression in Korea or to oppose three malevolent communist dictators. Chapman explains that he joined the military for one reason alone: He needed a job.

My hunch is that like many people who join the military, he believed that his job would be the defend the United States from invasion or attack. My hunch is that the last thing he ever expected was to be sent to wage a land war in Asia. But that is precisely what the US government did to him. It ordered him to report to Korea to be kill or be killed.

That doesn’t seem to concern Hampton Sides, any more than it concerns any interventionist. Equally important, it obviously doesn’t concern Sides that the order to send Chapman to fight in the Korean War was illegal under our form of government. The US Constitution, which governs the actions of federal officials, including those in the Pentagon, prohibits the president from waging war against a foreign nation without first securing a declaration of war from Congress. It is undisputed that President Truman, who ordered US soldiers into Korea, did not secure a congressional declaration of war. That means that he had no legal authority to order Chapman or any other US soldier to kill or die in Korea.

In claiming that Chapman was fighting to oppose communist aggression, Sides ignores the fact that the Korean War was actually a civil war, not a war between two independent and sovereign nations. The country had been artificially divided into two halves by Soviet communist leader Joseph Stalin, who, ironically, was a partner and ally of the US government during World War II. (The irony lies in the fact that Sides extols Chapman for opposing the man who had been a partner and ally of the US government just a few years before.) In any event, every Korean understood that the dividing line between North and South Korea was just an artificial construct based on international politics. Even today, if you ask a people of Korean descent here in the United States where they are from, they always, without exception, say “Korea” rather than “South Korea.”

We can concede that the northern half of the country was ruled by a brutal communist regime, one that attempted to unify the country by force. But why does a nation’s civil war justify US intervention? Why should US soldiers be sacrificed to help out one side or another in a civil war? I’ll bet that that’s not what most US soldiers were signing up to do after World War II. They were signing up to defend the United States, not help out one side or another in another nation’s civil war. (By the way, the same principle applies to the Vietnam War, another favorite foreign war of the interventionists.)

Another aspect of the Korean War that Sides fails to mention is conscription. The US military didn’t have enough active-duty servicemen to intervene against the North Korean regime, and not enough American men were volunteering for “service.” So, Truman and the military resorted to conscription. That means that they were forcing American men, against their will, to go to Korea and kill or be killed. An interventionist would say that it was nothing wrong with destroy the freedom of Americans to protect the “freedom” and “democracy” of South Koreans.

Sides’s expression “helping South Korea take wing as a democracy” is an interesting one. It’s interesting because South Korea’s first elected president, Syngman Rhee, was one of the most brutal dictators in the world. Immediately after taking office, he curtailed political dissent and authorized his goons to engage in indefinite detention, torture, assassination, death squads, and massacres.

On the suspension of hostilities in 1953, it was clear that the National Assembly, which elected the president, was going to boot Rhee out of office. In order to avoid that, he ordered a mass arrest of opposition politicians and then unilaterally changed the Constitution to enable him to be elected directly by the citizenry. He remained in power until 1960, when he was forced to resign after his police shot demonstrators who were protesting his regime.

This is what Sides and other interventionists calling “democracy taking wing.” It brings to mind the US-inspired coup in Chile in 1973, which ousted the democratically elected socialist president of the country, Salvador Allende, and installed a brutal right-wing military dictator in his stead, army Gen. Augusto Pinochet. To this day, interventionists say that the Chilean coup demonstrated that “democracy was taking wing” in Chile with the coup that nullified the presidential election, followed by a 16-year-long brutal military dictatorship entailing round-ups of some 50,000 people, torturing most of them, raping and committing gruesome sexual acts against women, and killing and disappearing around 3,000 people.

Sides and other interventionists are dead wrong about the Korean War and other foreign interventions. No US soldier deserves to be ordered to faraway lands to kill or be killed or maimed, as Franklin Chapman was. If Sides or other interventionists want to go overseas and help out one side or another in some faraway civil war, they are free to do so. Just leave US soldiers out of it. The job of a US soldier is to defend the United States from invasion or attack, not be sent to participate in some bogus fight for “freedom” or “democracy” in some foreign country.

Reprinted with permission from the Future of Freedom Foundation.

Chaos In Israel: Are Bibi’s Days Numbered?

Just days into a ceasefire with Gaza, the Israelis sent commandos in to assassinate a Hamas leader. Hamas then surprised Israel with more than 400 rockets in retaliation, leading to another ceasefire agreed by Netanyahu. But this time his defense minister was having none of it. He wants a conflict and is threatening to bring down the government if he does not get one. What's next? Tune in to the Liberty Report:

The destroyers of Libya are now « for Libya », by Manlio Dinucci

After Emmanuel Macron's failure to solve the Libyan crisis, it's now Giuseppe Conte's turn to take a shot at it. It's true that Rome is better placed than Paris, insofar as it enjoys the support of the White House. However, there is little chance that any progress of any sort will be made, since these « fairy godmothers » are in fact the big bad wolves who recently devoured Libya.

Convenient Demonologies: Stopping Migrant Caravans

President Donald J. Trump has been engaged with berating human caravans, a spectacle that might have been odd in another era.  At first instance, it all seems fundamentally anachronistic, a sort of history in reverse.  It was, after all, the caravan packed with invasive pioneers that gave the United States its distinct frontier identity, moving with relentless, exterminating purpose in ultimately closing it.

On October 19, some 7,000 Central American migrants, mostly from Honduras and Guatemala, made an attempt to cross the bridge between Guatemala and Mexico. “Una necesidad nos obliga,” came the justification of a 20-year old man to the Washington Post.  The ultimate destination for most: the United States.

Such a necessity does not merely apply to states in social and political decay.  Honduras has historically been an eviscerated client state, its politics those of a marionette of Washington’s interests.  In similar fashion, Guatemala continues to bleed before the preying involvement of Washington in its history.  The US-owned United Fruit Company craved gangsters for capitalism, and the Central Intelligence Agency obliged in protecting its assets, assisting the overthrow of the Arbenz administration in 1954.

The Mexican authorities made various attempts to repel the human stream with violent though modest success.  With the November mid-term elections looming, this small group became electoral dynamite for Trump.  It gave him a chance to militarise matters, announcing the deployment of 5,200 troops to the US-Mexico border.  (Some 5,600 have currently taken their positions.)

The language of General Terrence John O’Shaughnessy, in describing the proposed plan, resembled a description of an armed operation against an elevated enemy. “Our concept of operations is to flow in our military assets with a priority to build up southern Texas, and then Arizona, and then California.”

In the words of the previous US president, Barack Obama, “They’re telling us the single most grave threat to America is a bunch of poor, impoverished, broke, hungry refugees a thousand miles away.”  Film director Spike Lee, presenting his latest effort, BlacKkKlansman, at the Los Cabos International Film Festival in Mexico, was even more unvarnished.  “Agent Orange was on the campaign trail for his fellow gangsters and stirring his base by saying the migrant caravan was his invasion.”

If there is something that tickles and engages the populist sentiment, Trump is up for it.  His “base”, as it were, is up for rocking, chilling and entertaining.  Obama might accuse Trump of being a fan of the “political stunt”, but that is the essence of this administration, a sequence of aggravated rehearsals that have distracted when needed and enraged when required.

Some of these ploys have gone beyond the category of temporary fancy.  Senior policy advisor Stephen Miller had demonstrated that policies of indignation can have purchase at chance moments.  While Trump is always bound to claim copyright over such ideas, it was Miller who proved influential in sketching the selective Muslim ban and the head-scratching policy of separating children from parents at the border.  Immigration is being larded with further, stifling regulations with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo confirming that a mere 30,000 refugees for resettlement will be accepted by the US in 2019.

Such cruel exercises are the stuff of modern reactionary politics, notably from governments wishing to remove the clammy hand of international law upon them.  Refugees, the outsiders, the marginalised, are ideal fodder to mince and grind.  It is the language of Australian Prime Minister John Howard who, in the federal elections of 2001, insisted that the island continent would become an impregnable fortress against the undesirables coming by sea.  He illustrated this fact by deploying, much in the Trump manner, soldiers against refugees stranded at sea in August 2001.  “We simply cannot allow a situation to develop where Australia is seen around the world as a country of easy destination.”  Given Australia’s lethal natural barriers, the remarks were as incongruous as they were fictional.

It was a policy twinned with the feather brained notion, ruthlessly exploited, that terrorist operatives might sneak their way to Australia on leaky vessels, avoiding more salubrious options.  As Australia’s defence minister Peter Reith brazenly asserted at that time, such boat arrivals “can be a pipeline for terrorists to come in and use your country as a staging post for terrorist activities”.  Howard himself added taste to the fear: “you don’t know whether they have terrorist links or not,” he suggested rather casually to Brisbane’s Courier Mail.

Trump would have approved of such laxity, having himself claimed, with an approach immune to evidence, that there might well be “unknown Middle Easterners” heading to the US in these migrant caravans.  When probed on the matter by CNN’s now bedevilled Jim Acosta, Trump twisted slightly. “There’s no proof of anything but they could very well be.”

Trump’s language of the demonised caravan is also the language of a host of European leaders who have decided to dust off chauvinistic sentiments long held in the archive and ignore any central, humanitarian approach to refugees.  At work here is a species of depraved transatlantic consensus on cruelty propelled by strongman bullying.  Hungary’s Viktor Orbán fantasises about Muslim hordes in an Ottoman invasion redux, a positioning that elevates himself as defender of the West against Islam and the dark forces of the barbaric East. “We don’t see these people as Muslim refugees,” he snorted in an interview with Bild in January this year.  “We see them as Muslim invaders.”

Other states contemplate a further entrenched, barbed wire approach, finding much value in shirking or adjusting the refugee resettlement quota.  Poland can add itself to Hungary in that regard, with Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki stating his position plainly to Radio Poland in January that “we will not be allowing migrants from the Middle East and North Africa to enter Poland.”  Austria, Slovakia and the Czech Republic are not far behind.

Like his Australian and several European counterparts, Trump has deployed the instruments of violence and demonization against refugees with a degree of commitment and, it must not be forgotten, success.  It also supplies a fitful reminder how criticising him for doing so remains a more difficult exercise, given the number of states which have gotten a cold regarding refugees.  A certain villainy against humanity has taken hold.

Canada’s Arms Lobby supports Sale of Light Armoured Vehicles to Saudi Arabia

Will they cancel the contract or won’t they? In order to understand Ottawa’s decision-making process regarding General Dynamics’ massive arms deal with Saudi Arabia one must look closely at industry lobbyists.

While the Trudeau government is under substantial public pressure to rescind the $15 billion Light Armoured Vehicle sale, to do so would challenge the company and the broader corporate lobby.

Last week a senior analyst with the GD-financed Canadian Global Affairs Institute boldly defended the LAV sale. “There has been no behaviour by the Saudis to warrant cancelling this contract”, said David Perry to the London Free Press. Perry must have missed the Kingdom’s violence in Yemen, repression in eastern Saudi Arabia and consulate murder in Istanbul.

Two weeks ago Perry told another interviewer that any move to reverse the LAV sale would have dire consequences. “There would be geopolitical implications. There would be a huge number of economic implications, both immediately and in the wider economy… cancelling this, I think, would be a big step because as far as I understand the way that we look at arms exports, it would effectively mean that we’ve changed the rules of the game.”

Amidst an earlier wave of criticism towards GD’s LAV sale, the Canadian Global Affairs Institute published a paper titled “Canada and Saudi Arabia: A Deeply Flawed but Necessary Partnership” that defended the $15-billion deal. At the time of its 2016 publication at least four of the institute’s “fellows” wrote columns justifying the sale, including an opinion piece by Perry published in the Globe and Mail Report on Business that was headlined “Without foreign sales, Canada’s defence industry would not survive.”

Probably Canada’s most prominent foreign policy think tank, Canadian Global Affairs Institute is a recipient of GD’s “generous” donations. Both GD Land Systems and GD Mission Systems are listed among its “supporters” in recent annual reports, but the exact sum they’ve given the institute isn’t public.

The Conference of Defence Associations Institute also openly supports GD’s LAV sale. Representatives of the Ottawa-based lobby/think tank have written commentaries justifying the LAV sale and a 2016 analysis concluded that “our own Canadian national interests, economic and strategic, dictate that maintaining profitable political and trade relations with ‘friendly’ countries like Saudi Arabia, including arms sales, is the most rational option in a world of unpleasant choices.” Of course, the Conference of Defence Associations Institute also received GD money and its advisory board includes GD Canada’s senior director of strategy and government relations Kelly Williams.

Representing 150 top CEOs, the Business Council of Canada (formerly Canadian Council of Chief Executives) promoted a similar position. In a 2016 iPolitics column titled “We can’t always sell weapons to people we like” the corporate lobby group’s head, John Manley, wrote that LAVs are not “used in torture or persecution of women. We are selling military vehicles — basically fancy trucks.”

Another corporate lobby group applauded GD’s Saudi sale. In 2014 Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters president Jayson Myers labeled the LAV sale “an Olympic win for Canada and for Canadian manufacturers … All Canadians should be proud of this record achievement.”

The armament industry’s primary lobby group also backed GD’s sale to the Saudis. In 2014 Canadian Association of Defence and Security Industries president Tim Page celebrated the LAV sale as a “good day for Canada” and two years later its new president, Christyn Cianfarani, defended the deal from criticism, telling the press “we certainly don’t take positions on the judicial practices of other nations.” GD is a member of CADSI and GD Land Systems Vice President, Danny Deep, chairs its board. With an office near Parliament, CADSI lobbyists have likely spoken to government officials about reversing the Saudi LAV sale.

For its part, GD has been lobbying decision makers aggressively. According to an October 24 iPolitics article “General Dynamics Land Systems-Canada has filed almost a dozen communications requests with government officials in the last week.” Like other military companies, the London, Ontario, armoured vehicle maker maintains an Ottawa office to access government officials.

GD has contracted former military officials to lobby on its behalf and offered retired Canadian Forces leaders senior positions. Before becoming Defence Minister, Gordon O’Connor, a former Brigadier-General, represented GD as a lobbyist while GD Canada hired former Navy commodore Kelly Williams as senior director of strategy and government relations in 2012.

GD also advertises at events and in areas of the nation’s capital frequented by government officials. Similarly, it promotes its brand in publications read by Ottawa insiders.

If the government does not cancel the Saudi LAV sale it will be further proof of the corporate lobby’s political influence.

Realities and Challenges of Recuperated Workplaces in Argentina

Workers demonstrate in defense of Cerámica Zanon and other recuperated ceramics factories, in 2003 (Photo: Indymedia Argentina)

In this interview we talk to Andrés Ruggeri, anthropologist and researcher who directs the Facultad Abierta programme (Open School) of the University of Buenos Aires, dedicated to researching and supporting workplaces recuperated by their workers. Ruggeri tells us about the history of this movement, the challenges it faces, the relations with recent governments in Argentina, and much more.

*****

Ricardo Vaz:  Can you tell us a bit about this programme, Facultad Abierta?

Andres Ruggeri:  Facultad Abierta (Open School) is something that in Latin America is usually known as a University Extension, understood as the university function that is dedicated to the community. Usually these have to do with cultural aspects, courses, workshops, and this issue has also been commodified recently.

We started the programme in 2002. In the School of Philosophy and Literature of the University of Buenos Aires we set up a tiny extension unit to work with social movements, popular movements, that were flourishing at the time, among them the recuperated workplaces. We quickly turned to the subject of worker self-management, or workers’ control, on one hand doing research, and on the other taking part in the processes, trying to support the organizations that emerged.

RV: So it is not just a matter of doing research and documenting. What is, so to say, the contribution in the opposite direction? What do recuperated workplaces look for from Facultad Abierta?

AR: We never come with an attitude of telling the workers that “this is what needs to be done,” rather we look to work on a joint analysis of the issues, that will help with self-management. There are many aspects to it. One of them is actual participation: spreading information, supporting the occupations, collaboration in specific tasks, as well as articulating with other professionals. For example, we work with engineers, lawyers, accountants, people from the exact sciences, that may on occasion collaborate with a given company.

At the same time through the canvassing of recuperated workplaces, and the reports that are always discussed with the workers, we are generating a body of knowledge. I think at this point the work of Facultad Abierta is something that the movement has embraced as one of its tools. There is a documentation centre of recuperated workplaces that works out of a cooperative which is Imprenta Chilavert. There we document an endless number of things that have fuelled this relationship, as well as share the day-to-day life of this cooperative. At this point, it is sometimes hard to tell apart what is the movement and what is Facultad Abierta.

Facultad Abierta also edits the “Cuadernos para la autogestión,” (“Self-management notebooks”), produced at the Imprenta Chilavert.

RV: Does the movement also extend its reach beyond the Argentinian borders?

AR: Yes, another important development are the international meetings, called The Economy of the Workers. This was also an initiative of ours, in 2007, but it now extends far beyond Facultad Abierta.

These are meetings that bring together workers, activists, movements, and researchers. These international meetings were planned to be held once every two years, and later regional meetings started taking place in the intermediate years. Last year we had the sixth international meeting, with participants from over 30 countries, many different recuperated workplaces from around the world. It took place in Textiles Pigüé – a recuperated factory from the south of the province of Buenos Aires.

Billboard for the VI International Meeting Economy of the Workers, which took place in 2017 in Textiles Pigüé.

RV: The recuperated workplaces [note: we will often use the Spanish acronym ERT (Empresas Recuperadas por sus Trabajadores)] emerge strongly with the crisis in late 2001. Were they building on an existing tradition?

AR: Argentina is probably the Latin American country with the oldest history of cooperativism, dating back to the late XIX century. It is related to the history of migration and the emergence of the workers’ movement itself, just like in Europe. The workers’ movement, trade unions and cooperatives, emerge more or less in parallel, before diverging over time. But a certain tradition of cooperativism remained, even if generally separate from the question of production.

With the implementation of neoliberalism, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, there was a shift in the economic structure: the country starts getting de-industrialised, lots of production chains are destroyed, resulting in lots of unemployed workers. Some unions, very few, start to promote and form cooperatives in the companies that were being shuttered. They were mostly small metal workshops, print shops, these kinds of companies. And the unions were essentially of metalworkers from the south of Greater Buenos Aires, from Quilmes, and the Buenos Aires Graphics Federation. Then in some locations in the interior other cooperatives also sprung up, as means of resisting against this process.

RV: Is it fair to say that these are more cases of abandoned companies than of occupied ones?

AR: It is a bit of both. Actually the workers occupy companies that are being abandoned, it is a simultaneous process. When the bosses are looking to close doors, or when there is a fraudulent bankruptcy, that is the moment when the occupation takes place. In the 1990s, we estimate there were around 30 cases in which cooperatives were set up, because there were many others in which it was attempted but it was not possible.

What happens in 2001 is that this becomes a movement. This movement acquires an identity, calls itself “recuperated workplaces,” organizes, sets forward demands, and in some sense creates a strategy of “what to do” when a company is abandoned, in order to preserve jobs, which is to form cooperatives and fight for expropriation. The movement’s slogan, which is actually borrowed from the MST [Landless Workers Movement, from Brazil], sums it up: “Occupy, Resist, Produce.”

RV: Do new cases of ERT keep appearing after 2001?

AR: According to our estimation of currently existing recuperated workplaces, which is around 380 with some 16.000 workers, there have been more recuperated workplaces after 2001 than the ones that took place at the time. The thing is that in 2001 there was a tremendous concentration of occupations, with massive mobilisations, with lots of social and political impact.

RV: In terms of the relationship with the state, how was the relationship between the Kirchner governments and the ERT? What was their perspective?

Andrés Ruggeri being interviewed during the sixth international meeting (Youtube screenshot, video available here)

AR: Kirchnerismo was very contradictory in what concerns recuperated workplaces, just like they were with many other issues. Nevertheless, they were not hostile to recuperated workplaces, even if they did not particularly favour them. Within their neo-keynesian conception of development, workers’ control and all of this did not really fit. All of the state’s policies for economic recovery were geared towards – and with great success for the most part – recovering employment and production by focusing on the internal market, but with a national bourgeoisie leading the way.

Then as the economy recovered, all these expressions such as cooperatives, small companies, even social movements, would tend to disappear because people would go back to formal employment, thus strengthening the unions. This was the plan. In that sense, the Kirchner governments collaborated with the ERT, with some programmes of subsidies and support. But never with an economic policy, it was rather a social policy, of managing conflict, with the perspective of helping people that had lost their jobs and formed cooperatives. However, ideally these people would go back to work in the formal job market.

Naturally the entire policy of kirchnerismo had this idea as its base, but it morphed over time. At some point, especially with the international crisis in 2008-2009, we see that the economy is troubled and that it cannot meet this goal of full employment. Then state programmes for creating cooperatives appear, although these were “cooperatives” in which the state paid salaries and said what was to be done. In the end you had a kind of two-faced policy, in which the cooperatives seemingly did not fit but were fostered at the same time.

RV: We could say that support towards cooperatives and ERT was due to necessity…

AR: Precisely. And a significant debt of kirchnerismo towards the recuperated workplaces was that it did not contribute to solving the judicial problems that have lingered and are now a liability for many ERT, such as the Hotel Bauen.1 These are usually disputes surrounding property. Not necessarily with the former owners, but since these are often bankrupt companies, they are still involved in legal proceedings, there are still creditors, who want to collect debts with property. The property is in the hands of the workers, but not legally, and that creates many problems.

RV: How was this sector affected by the arrival of Macri?

AR: We produced a report midway through 2016, and subsequent events proved us right. The general economic policy of the Macri government affects cooperatives just like it affects all aspects of the productive economy destined towards the internal market, small and large companies alike. These are the common effects of neoliberal programs, especially in Latin America.

It is a policy dedicated to weakening the working class, to lowering salaries in favour of an economy designed for the exporting of raw materials and energy, and for the prevalence of financial capital. The results are massive layoffs, both in public and private sectors, a decrease in the purchasing power and the consumption capacity of the population. As a result, production goes down, demand goes down, cooperatives cannot fight against that, they need to accommodate. To this we must add the opening up to imports. There are very cheap products coming in especially from China, and national production, cooperative or otherwise, cannot compete.

Finally there is the tarifazo, which is something incredible that has multiplied utility costs in a way that completely breaks cooperatives. Many recuperated workplaces, for example, currently have gas bills that are higher than their revenue. This means they either not pay or try to stop their electricity from being cut off, but this does not stop debt from building up. The goal is somehow to buy time, waiting to see if there is a change in the political arena.

RV: Beyond its economic policy, does the government have an ideological position with regards to the ERT?

AR: Besides the economic choking there is a constant hostility and, when an opportunity arises, the government acts against the recuperated workplaces. The clearest case is the Hotel Bauen, which never saw its situation regularized, it was never expropriated. There was an attempt to do so in the last parliamentary session with the previous correlation of forces of kirchnerismo, it then went to the Senate when Macri was already in office, and Macri vetoed the law.

Rally in favour of the expropriation of Hotel Bauen (Photo: workerscontrol.net)

The same thing has happened to every expropriation bill coming out. The law of expropriations was a mechanism that we had managed to put in place as a way to legalise the ERT. Macri will always use some pretext, but ideologically he is clearly against everything that has to do with workers’ control. This in turn is reflected on the judges, who are ever less inclined to helping the workers.

RV: But the justice system, in principle, would not be a natural ally…

AR: Definitely not. Nevertheless, on labour matters there have often been more or less favourable rulings, as the judicial power is also influenced by mobilisations, by the political context. When the political context was a bit more favourable there were decisions that prioritized the continuity of production, the safeguarding of labour as opposed to the seizure of assets. The bankruptcy legislation was modified, in 2011, to offer a legal way out for bankrupt factories and companies so that they were taken over by workers’ cooperatives. But this always implies putting pressure on the judges.

All of this is now much more difficult. The judges that by nature are against the working class are now much more so. Another thing that macrismo is trying to do is to stop factories from being recuperated. The factory closes and the police is there to ensure that it does close, avoiding any occupation. They stay one step ahead to stop workers from trying to occupy.

RV: Can you describe the relation between trade unions and ERT? Because they operate with different logics.

AR: Trade unions, with the establishment of fordism and of the welfare state, have occupied a place that is generally understood, by the organisations themselves as well, within the framework of struggle, or negotiation, between capital and labour. But the traditional base of the wage-earning, formal worker, has been shrinking with the rise of precarious and informal work, and most of the unions retain a “classical” mindset, they have not found a way to represent these new kinds of workers.

In general it is hard for them to think about what happens to a worker after he loses his job. Some unions simply do not care because they can no longer extract anything from this worker, neither a union fee nor a social security contribution.2 But leaving the corrupt unions aside, the ones that take part in fraudulent closures of companies in exchange for something from the bosses, the traditional union will go as far as trying to stop the company from shutting down, to stop the workers from losing their jobs. However, once these jobs are lost, there is nothing left to do. This is the approach, more or less.

Then there are some unions that have asked themselves: if we do not manage to stop the closure, because there is a general policy, an economic context that leads to this, what do we do? That is where the support for eventual recuperated workplaces appears. Some unions have long understood this issue, and others are coming to grips now.

RV: Are these, for the most part, smaller unions?

AR: Yes, very small unions in general. It also has to do with the interests they have. Unions also work as corporations that negotiate. For the larger unions, especially the industrial ones, it is very hard for them to embrace such as strategy.

Smaller unions, or from specific crafts, are ever more interested in the subject, also because practically all of their companies are shutting down. For example, the union of marroquineros, leather workers, if it does not actively intervene to stop companies from shutting down or to recuperate them somehow, it is doomed to disappear because there will be no workers left. Because of this I see a growing support for this struggles from trade unions.

RV: Turning now to political parties, in Argentina we find this strong ERT movement without there being a strong “workers’” party. How do the leftist parties position themselves vis-a-vis the ERT? Is it a struggle that is common to all of them?

AR: No, leftist parties have not always been favourable to this question of recuperated workplaces. Some have, but here the left is a minority. Within peronismo we could say there is a left, and in general the left in peronismo is very favourable to the recuperated workplaces. I believe that in the large majority of ERT, the leaders identify themselves, despite all the contradictions, with this political position.

The non-peronista left, be it trotskyist or otherwise, also has a very classical conception of class struggle, where self-management in general does not fit. Some have even declared themselves against self-management because, from their perspective, it does not contribute to the path towards revolution. This discussion was very visible in 2001-2002. There were recuperated companies whose leaders identified with some of these parties from the trotskyist left who were against forming cooperatives. Their goal was nationalisation, or state ownership, with worker control.

This is a slogan that may be fine as an horizon, but which is unfeasible with a state that is not a revolutionary state, so to say. Therefore many of these cases ended up in dead ends. With each experience of a recuperated workplace, we can derive many things that question capitalism in its foundations: property, democracy in the workplace, the division of labour, horizontality, all of that. But that is not necessarily the goal of the recuperated workplace. The goal, first and foremost, is to safeguard jobs.

RV: More important than having the correct horizon is addressing the immediate needs of the workers…

AR: Exactly. If the proposal is maximalist and offers no way out to the specific situation, the workers will turn their backs on you. This is a problem of the left. While peronismo perhaps does not have this horizon of workers’ control, nor of the socialist revolution for that matter, nevertheless it understands these situations of workers fighting for their jobs. From the left, where we would expect this, these experiences are often rejected because they do not conform to the manual…

 

The incomprehension from sectors of the left is due to a lack of ideological flexibility, but also a lack of presence in the working class. Because if it had delegates, workers in each of these experiences, it would understand them much more clearly. Not having them, and coming from the outside, it ends up clashing.

To give an example, in 2001-2002 there were two cases that everyone was hearing about, both in Argentina and abroad, which were Zanon and Brukman,3 [3] which had ties to the PTS [Socialist Workers’ Party], a trotskyist party that is now part of FIT [Workers’ Left Front]. In Zanon the leaders were trotskyist militants and their vision was widely shared by the collective, but in the end Zanon ended up forming its cooperative, and walking the same path as all the others, although it is a very interesting and creative experience. In Brukman it was different. The workers did not even have a union, the militants arrived from outside looking to direct the struggle, but the direction was according to the manual. And with the manual they were doomed.

RV: In a 2006 article you talked about a “social innovation” component in the ERT. What is the importance of the ties to the community for these companies?

AR: Nowadays I think I would not talk about “social innovation” because it is a term that is also being used from the neoliberal side. But yes, clearly there are changes in the economic rationale of a recuperated workplace, which articulates with the political and social spheres. And that would be this question of ties to the community, which I believe are important.

 

Not all recuperated workplaces have this concern, or this strategy. For the most part, the opening up to the community is something that the workers see as positive, but also a strategy to build strong ties to the neighbourhood, to the people, articulating with organizations, etc. Because the ERT are often small or mid-size companies, and each on its own does not have the strength to implement self-management without these social networks of support, everything that mobilises around a recuperated workplace.

Workers’ assembly in Cerámica Zanon (Photo: La Izquierda Diario).

I think any time a company is recuperated there is a strong wave of mobilisation and support that is generated, reaching way beyond the strength of the workers themselves. Therefore the workers realise this and want to do right by it, to give something back for the support. But later, along these lines of innovation, or of changes in the production rationale, many ERT activities make no sense from a business standpoint. This, I should stress, has nothing to do with “corporate responsibility” or anything of the sort. It has no logic, it does not generate business…

RV: Nevertheless, the goal is also to overcome this separation between economic, social and political spheres…

AR: Of course. Since they transcend this logic, they break the concept that a company is a mere tool for the accumulation of capital. It is broken in two ways. For one, because the workers are not necessarily interested in accumulating capital. What they want is to keep their jobs, and they can possibly manage with much less than it would take for a capitalist to, within his rationale, keep the company running.

At the same time, there is a risk that a recuperated workplace will operate in a conservative fashion, doing the bare minimum to survive, with no growth or renovation. There are ERT that have been around for several years, and it is clear that when the workers retire, or die, the cooperative will disappear. But if on the other hand we take into account this opening up to the community, reaching into social and political spheres, that is another avenue of growth that does not necessarily have to do with accumulation.

RV:study of around 100 ERT suggested that around 20% of their economic activity is with other ERT or with the solidarity economy. Do you think this is progress in terms of creating a sub-system that is not 100% capitalist?

AR: Yes, but it is much harder than it sounds. The numbers, I believe, are not that high. We usually track this in our reports. But it is a necessary step, one which we are working on. Sometimes, precisely in the context of economic growth we had before, with a dynamic internal market, this was not seen as a priority because each company could survive on its own in the market.

Now that the situation has completely turned, there is a bigger concern that there is a need to build links, even create a sort of special market, with different rules, that will allow both for survival and for growth. This will also demonstrate that an alternative is possible. Nevertheless, it is much more complicated than it looks, even with the 400 recuperated workplaces by themselves. We need to extend to other cooperatives, other types of organisations.

In one case we are trying to articulate Textiles Pigüé, a very recent ERT that produces clothing for children, and another cooperative that produces fabric in the north of Argentina, and we are working on a common product. One of the ideas is also to place production in solidarity networks in Europe, not just for sale but also to bring these products to migrants and refugees.

I do not believe the challenge is just to build chains inside the same sector. Textile factories do not just require products from other textile factories, the same for metallurgical ones. Production can be integrated in other chains and inputs can come from other sectors. We need to create wider networks and also fight in terms of consumption. This means getting people to consume products from sectors where there is no exploitation of labour, or at least not to the same degree as in capitalist companies, and where environmental concerns are taken into account. There are a number of struggles ahead. But this one is a struggle against capitalism in its economic core.

RV: In your opinion, where does the state stand in all of this? Sometimes a very romantic vision is generated, of an ecosystem on the margins of capitalism, but is there not still a need to struggle for the state?

AR: Yes, I think this struggle for the state should not be abandoned. This romantic vision exists, of creating a ghetto where we, the good guys, stand, without capitalism or the state. But the state will still exist. Both the state and capital will not sit idly by while we build the economy of the future! In fact, the experiences of the recuperated workplaces have shown time and again that the struggle is always on 2 or 3 fronts at the same time, against the capitalist market, against the state, even when the state thinks it is helping.

Worker in Imprenta Chilavert. (Photo: Taringa).

Therefore, obviously all the state policy tools we can put to use to strengthen the movement need to be used. No matter how much we want to stay outside or want nothing to do with the state, the state still wants something to do with you. That is the question. And although the neoliberal state is weak in terms of allowing financial capital and large corporations to run rampant, it remains strong and repressive in what regards us, with no concern for legality whatsoever.

RV: Almost all the ERT form cooperatives. Is there a difference between these cooperatives and others which are not borne out of this struggle to preserve labour posts?

AR: Indeed. In general the discourse we find among the workers in recuperated workplaces is that they are cooperatives out of necessity. Because there is also a romantic vision of cooperatives like the one we were just discussing.

Even within this more traditional cooperative movement, for a long time the ERT were questioned because they were not true cooperatives, they were so only out of necessity, did not share the values, etc. And in truth this sector is reviving this old cooperativism, giving it a content that had been lost, of a cooperativism which is not just about companies coexisting with capitalism with no issues whatsoever. On the contrary, they are part of the same capitalist economy with almost no contradictions.

Of course, a cooperative is not the same as a corporation, a capitalist company with a boss, but in many cases it is hard to tell them apart. In general the juridical form is called work cooperative, in the case of the ERT these are cooperatives of the workers. This is not the same as a consumption cooperative, or a credit one, or a housing one, or one that provides services, and which in turn hires workers.

RV: This self-management/worker control component is missing…

AR: Precisely. Even the non-exploitation of labour is not a cooperative principle, for example. Cooperatives will often outsource work or exploit workers just like other companies. I believe the emergence of these cooperatives, the ERT, has generated an important contradiction inside this more traditional cooperativism. It is a breath of fresh air that is bringing back an old tool, which at its inception belonged to the workers.

RV: In their struggle to survive in a capitalist market, the ERT will also be tempted to sub-contract workers, or resort to other practices of capitalist companies. Are these contradictions that need to be confronted all the time?

AR: I believe so. The ERT emerge from different kinds of workers’ struggles. Therefore, at least at the beginning, they are more or less vaccinated against the exploitation of other people. Not necessarily against their own self-exploitation, which is an equally complicated matter. Now, as time passes, the market mechanisms also influence and condition self-managed companies that emerge within capitalism, because it is not a case of a movement that is fighting capitalism and building something else. Rather, these emerge as solutions to the very problems and the lack of options that labour faces in capitalism nowadays.

Therefore, within this context there can very well be processes of bureaucratisation, or of the leaders identifying with market values such as competitiveness, efficiency, etc., and starting to see that the economic viability of the company requires certain kinds of practices. The fact that one works in a context of self-management/workers’ control does not imply that one has the conscience that this is the economic system worth promoting. It is an ongoing struggle to learn from the self-management experience and to change how we envision labour.

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• First published in MR on line

Andrés Ruggeri is an anthropologist and directs, since 2002, the Facultad Abierta programme in the School of Philosophy and Literature of the University of Buenos Aires, dedicated especially to the issue of workplaces recuperated by workers. He is the author or co-author of several works on this subject [in Spanish], including Qué Son Las Empresas Recuperadas (What are the recuperated workplaces) and Crisis y Autogestión en el Siglo XXI (Crisis and self-management in the XXI century). Ruggeri is also the director of the Autogestión magazine.

  1. The Hotel Bauen is symbolic as an ERT due to its central location in the city of Buenos Aires. It is also a space where popular movements gather. Andrés Ruggeri has written a book about the history of the Hotel Bauen.
  2. In Argentina a part of social security is managed by trade unions.