All posts by Radmilo Bozinovic

Assembling the Multitude

Few modern political-economic works have the objective reach and power as Assembly by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri — the recent coda to their original magnum opus trilogy (Empire – Multitude – Commonwealth) from the millennium’s first decade.  Perhaps even fewer have the quality that a single sentence — the book’s final, at that — summarizes so succinctly and incisively the essence of its ca. 300 pages: “We have not yet seen what is possible when the multitude assembles”.

The book must be carefully read for proper understanding, but for starters here, suffice it to say that the sentence reaffirms one of the main foci the authors have developed over the years; i.e.,  the concept of the multitude, a version of the proverbial “99%” that decisively moves away from some fade-to-gray melting pot of faceless clones (“the masses”) to a loose coalition of varied constituencies firmly united in opposition to the rule of global capital and private property. Next, the statement squarely hints at the potential of this force – elaborated in much detail throughout the text. Finally – and somewhat ominously – its negative form implicitly testifies to the real difficulties on the road to realizing this potential.

Certainly, Negri and Hardt are rather clear throughout Assembly on many such difficulties, but firmly stand behind the multitude’s ultimate (and practical) transformative potential. This is not a trivial point – indeed, in one segment the authors explicitly differentiate themselves from (otherwise much praised) fellow Marxist Wolfgang Streeck, who presents a far bleaker view of contemporary resistance forces in the opening summary of his recent essay collection How Does Capitalism End? – suggesting this is not just a “glass half empty/full” relativity. Perhaps it is not a fateful and clear dichotomy either – after all, the authors’ evidence for the potential is indeed compelling –  but still, given the “devil in the details”: Are there real signs that the multitude has a fighting chance of making a lasting change for the better?

In the book, Negri and Hardt early on state: “There are two primary roads by which the poor themselves can respond to this contemporary neoliberal condition”. Taking into their cross-hairs various right-wing populisms, they see the wrong one basically involving attempts to “construct, defend or restore the identity of the people”; the other “refuses the siren calls of identity and instead constructs […] secure forms of life grounded in the common.”  Similar clear distinctions between Left and Right populisms are echoed even in staunch criticisms of globalizing neoliberalism outside the Marxist tradition (cf.  Stiglitz’s separation in Globalization and it Discontents, Revisited). Nonetheless, some evidence suggests matters might be a bit more nuanced.

Objectively, the further we move from the globally dominant nation-states toward subordinate ones (and excluding egregious right-extremist bigotry), it often becomes increasingly difficult to separate nationalist demagoguery from legitimate national identity mobilizations, in line with known anti-imperialist and anti-colonial traditions. Take this example: the Greek island of Lesvos (i.e., its native inhabitants and local government) was widely praised during the height of the Middle East migrant/refugee crisis – which was crested in 2015, but spans much longer and to date – for the compassionate and effective response in the front line of this disaster, despite virtual abandonment by national and supranational governing bodies; indeed, even an apparent Nobel Peace Prize nomination ensued.

However, years of continued neglect and impotence by said bodies, straining limited resources at the periphery of an already impoverished EU pariah, unfortunately changed that tune of compassion in tangible ways; and this tale of gradual shift from virtue to  “xenophobia” and “anti-immigrant sentiments” can certainly find echoes elsewhere along the circuitous routes of migrant flow to the coveted global “Northwest”.  This highlights another key point: finding diverse allies in what might be shaping into a directed protest against “the Man”.  Occupy, Standing Rock, Yellow Vests, etc. is one thing, but doing that in the seemingly zero-sum games constantly framed by Empire is considerably harder. Returning to Greece for a moment – the just completed results of the national parliamentary elections only further confirms this: the deep general disillusionment with the once promising SYRIZA (= “radical leftist coalition”!) government is really much less testimony to the (undeniable) poor choices they made at some key junctures, as to the power that Empire still wields over limiting options of the dissenters.

Indeed, Empire’s standard “divide-and-conquer” play remains one of its workhorses against the Multitude and its ability to effectively assemble right here in the developed world as well (US above all). Much of this comes from specific events – keenly analyzed by Naomi Klein some time ago in her Shock Doctrine – that are capable of setting back promising agendas in unforeseen but decisive ways.  It is well established by now that the serious anti-globalist (and anti-capitalist) momentum from the turn of the century was effectively destroyed by the 9/11 shock and aftermath. (Not the movement – but the momentum!)

More recently, the real story of the 2016 US presidential election  – the blatant interference by major party structures to sideline the candidate with a potentially dangerous, progressive-sounding agenda – (and above all any real content of that agenda) somehow morphed into a completely different Cold-War-like narrative of some “foreign interference”, which persists with an uncomfortably large segment of what should nominally be the American “99%”.  Luckily, that candidate (Sanders) and his basic message did survive into the opening rounds of the currently crowded, early Democratic Party field of 2020 contenders. Yet, during their recent debates (despite some creative variety on the soft targets of the administration’s many obvious trespasses), the dearth of ideas on, say, the crucial question of identifying “the one country to reset US relations with first” – with a couple of reasonable suggestions far outshadowed by the trite and nonsensical “NATO allies” – is as symptomatic as it is disturbing.

Although it is hard to gauge the complex US scene, much of this divisiveness seems reinforced from the agendas set by various elements of the putative Multitude coalition, and much too often playing right into the hands of the ruling system. Negri and Hardt  are clear on this point in Assembly as well: “movements must be nonidentitarian” (p. 57).  But leveraging identity politics is another favorite play of capital, and these challenges have been the subject of some very eloquent recent analyses right here on Dissident Voice, like those by David Penner, and Chris Wright.

To summarize: the quoted ominous closing sentence of Hardt and Negri’s seminal work both beckons and warns. In some ways, it even reminds us of the famed opening sentence of the original Marxist work, the Communist Manifesto: “A spectre is haunting Europe — the spectre of communism”.  The potential of that spectre has been open ever since. For it to convert and close, the multitude truly needs to assemble into one.

The Trump Base and Year 2

Trump’s much trumpeted first State of the Union address came and went… The event is traditionally meant to sum up achievements and challenges of the administration’s first year, setting the stage for the remaining three, all in the somber, live presence of the entire US government in all branches, with the rest of the nation tuned in through other means. But as even the BBC commentator quickly remarked, the luster of this special occasion has objectively long disappeared — and all the more so with this president who has missed few opportunities to communicate with his subjects far less formally, usually drawing (and duly receiving) attention by elliptic zingers in channels designed for frivolous social small talk. Now, sure, this speech was still promptly and critically combed over: relative emphases subtly weighed, numerous liberties with the facts meticulously inventoried, and trademark oxymorons (like “beautiful clean coal”) duly noted. But in the end, the carefully choreographed and executed event revealed little news, which frames it more as one of the occasional subliminal proofs that this chief US executive can still stick to the script, moderating Twitter with teleprompter, and ultimately, as another reassurance to his supporters among the masses (the “Base” for short here), that they can still count on him.  Which brings us then to some important broader questions as we enter Year 2 of this administration.

The main one, rather bluntly, is: how does this Base still persist? Really, there is no good reason for Trump to have a base any wider than the slim top of the wealth pyramid that he so blatantly represents. After all, in the broad spectrum of more modern right-wing populism — from a Thatcher to a Hitler — most had a modicum of lower-class personal pedigree that allowed some identification from rank-and-file followers. But there’s no such thing here, not even some sappy “rags-to-riches” myth — just inherited wealth, shrewd business dealings and pure, unabashed Veblenian “conspicuous consumption”, Mar-a-Lago style. This question is even starker in this post-Great Recession era when Reaganesque neoliberal fairy tales have lost most currency. Furthermore, these 15 months (just since the election, with many more before) of continuous faux pas, scandal and turmoil are objectively discrediting. Finally, this administration has by now really shed most of its “anti-establishment” veneer, revealing openly pro-elite, anti-public core policies. So, why has the Base not disintegrated yet? What is it in the Trump brand and message that actually still resonates with some broad segments of the proverbial “99%”? And what will it take to change that?

There are certainly no simple answers here, but we might turn for some clues to president’s apologist Newt Gingrich, who commented the day after the infamous January 11 immigration vulgarities:

Trump relies on the fact that his opponents are so nihilistic and elitist that they’ll react hysterically to something like this. […] And [Trump’s] base isn’t remotely corroded by this. Almost anything he does that is outside the establishment resonates in the end with people who say, well, at least he’s sticking it to the powerful.

Please parse this carefully. Ignoring details and exaggerations, it does accurately reveal the basic play: regardless of the ostensible recipient, Trump’s communication is mostly aimed at the Base: cementing at the core, extending around the edges. There is no need to cozy up to Republican party establishment. By now, they have no choice but to fall into line. No need to harangue the moneyed elites. They’ll be getting their payback and they know it. And no need bothering to soften up outright opponents. The message is targeted at reaffirming his populist brand directly, and even more so by eliciting predictable opposition reaction that reinforces that.

There is nothing particularly original about this age-old approach of divide-and-conquer. It was quite prominent in the US even in the post-Civil War era and ensuing Gilded Age. Among many others, Robert Reich articulated its pitfalls in his 1997 resignation speech. More recently, in her excellent  latest book, “No is Not Enough – Resisting Trump’s Shock Politics and Winning the World We Need”, meticulously analyzing this kind of multilevel shock therapy, Naomi Klein states:

In truth, nothing has done more to build our present corporate dystopia than the persistent and systematic pitting of working-class whites against Blacks, citizens against migrants, and men against women.

In the present context, this generally might mean: Stop playing the Trump game and falling for his tricks, provocations and divisiveness. Stop being reactive.  A sensible resistance should start defining its own frame and game. Somewhat more specifically, offered are three interrelated modest suggestions:

Look at the big picture and stop preaching to the choir.  It’s a globalized world out there, with the many well known negative effects ranging from the “race to the bottom”, all the way to global climate impacts and beyond. This is a deeper subject, but suffice it to say that the same basic systemic problems of the political economy that have generated countless refugees fleeing wars in large swaths across Africa and Asia, along with scores of economic migrants fleeing destitution in other parts of the Global South, have also adversely affected various US “demographies”, including much of the Base. Mobile global capital can play many games, but few are net-gain, with most being zero-sum and the discontents paying the price far out of sight.  As such, raising the awareness of these global connections, and shifting the primary focus away from specific underprivileged groups, might take some wind out of the deleterious anti-immigration populism sails and rock the Base. To quote Klein again:

Instead, the overarching task before us is not to rank our various issues – identity versus economics, race versus gender […]  It is to understand in our bones how these forms of oppression intersect and prop each other up, creating the complex scaffolding that allowed a kleptocratic thug to grab the world’s most powerful job […].

Granted, this is not easily done. However, one step in this direction is to stop knee-jerk rallying to the cause of one identity group — just because Trump baldly singled it out — at the effective expense of other ones.

Let go of the 2016 election. The spectacle of the heavily politicized Mueller investigation, with its sometimes byzantine complexity, claims and counterclaims, should be left squarely out of this discussion. This might seem even harder with the just announced bombastic indictments of “13 Russian nationals”. To be clear, this is not to say that alleged campaign illegalities should not be duly investigated: perjury, obstruction of justice, whatever…  nobody should be above the law. But nothing here seems to really go beyond the boundaries of a seriously flawed electoral system, and a legacy of smear campaigns that runs deep in US politics. The stubborn insistence on some hackneyed, game-changing “Russian interference” belies the Democratic establishment’s effort to exonerate its own, much more evident, consequential and damaging culpability in shifting the 2016 election away from the high road paved by the Sanders campaign. Period. The Base understands that pretty well, and such hypocrisy plays right into the hands of reaffirming it.

Never forget foreign policy. When the going gets rough, the one staple entry in the US executive playbook is the good ol’ “rally ‘round the flag”. Not foolproof — thankfully — but still tried, tested and dangerous. Under the guise of benevolent global hegemony and axiomatic American exceptionalism many scapegoats can be found, with rather facile bipartisan support and perilous consequences. Ample modern evidence has shown that behind semi-abstract “wars” (on Terror, Drugs, etc.) lie identifiable targets; and the most recent mainstream media pronouncement of “Russian plot to disrupt America’s democracy“ is ominous enough. More generally, “America First” could be interpreted as a focus on domestic needs at the expense of fewer foreign adventures or something much more sinister. Seeking clarity here might go a long way to disarming one of the administration’s levers on the Base.

In the end, the “Trump base” is not some mystical bunch. They are an amorphous and heterogenous group of flesh-and-blood humans. We all know some personally. Many certainly suffer from various prejudices. But leaving extremist fringes aside, probably most are decent people, with at least a general sense of fairness and a healthy dislike for hypocrisy. Admittingly or not, many are part of that group simply for apparent lack of better options.  To a significant enough degree, these are bona fide members of the proverbial “99%”. To paraphrase what Gore Vidal (and many others) once astutely said, the challenge is to make them realize and vote their own interests.  Of course, none of this will be easy nor can it yield quick results. The (often perceived as paramount) drive to galvanize Democratic base support and “get out the vote” for next election cycle can easily be tempted by the lowest hanging fruit of patently scandalous Trump administration excesses.  But to be effective, an American progressive movement (broadly understood) must dissociate itself from the trite “merely liberal” tropes with a much narrower, “major-partisan” agenda, a significant contributor to the deeper problems of which Trump is but a symptom. As Andre Vltchek recently lamented on these Dissident Voice pages (albeit with an emphasis beyond just the US):

It is now absolutely clear that the Western left lost patently and shamelessly. It has almost no power, it has no courage to fight or to take risks.

Among other risks to be taken in Year 2 is to get out of the comfort zone and engage Trump at his very base.

The Trump Base and Year 2

Trump’s much trumpeted first State of the Union address came and went… The event is traditionally meant to sum up achievements and challenges of the administration’s first year, setting the stage for the remaining three, all in the somber, live presence of the entire US government in all branches, with the rest of the nation tuned in through other means. But as even the BBC commentator quickly remarked, the luster of this special occasion has objectively long disappeared — and all the more so with this president who has missed few opportunities to communicate with his subjects far less formally, usually drawing (and duly receiving) attention by elliptic zingers in channels designed for frivolous social small talk. Now, sure, this speech was still promptly and critically combed over: relative emphases subtly weighed, numerous liberties with the facts meticulously inventoried, and trademark oxymorons (like “beautiful clean coal”) duly noted. But in the end, the carefully choreographed and executed event revealed little news, which frames it more as one of the occasional subliminal proofs that this chief US executive can still stick to the script, moderating Twitter with teleprompter, and ultimately, as another reassurance to his supporters among the masses (the “Base” for short here), that they can still count on him.  Which brings us then to some important broader questions as we enter Year 2 of this administration.

The main one, rather bluntly, is: how does this Base still persist? Really, there is no good reason for Trump to have a base any wider than the slim top of the wealth pyramid that he so blatantly represents. After all, in the broad spectrum of more modern right-wing populism — from a Thatcher to a Hitler — most had a modicum of lower-class personal pedigree that allowed some identification from rank-and-file followers. But there’s no such thing here, not even some sappy “rags-to-riches” myth — just inherited wealth, shrewd business dealings and pure, unabashed Veblenian “conspicuous consumption”, Mar-a-Lago style. This question is even starker in this post-Great Recession era when Reaganesque neoliberal fairy tales have lost most currency. Furthermore, these 15 months (just since the election, with many more before) of continuous faux pas, scandal and turmoil are objectively discrediting. Finally, this administration has by now really shed most of its “anti-establishment” veneer, revealing openly pro-elite, anti-public core policies. So, why has the Base not disintegrated yet? What is it in the Trump brand and message that actually still resonates with some broad segments of the proverbial “99%”? And what will it take to change that?

There are certainly no simple answers here, but we might turn for some clues to president’s apologist Newt Gingrich, who commented the day after the infamous January 11 immigration vulgarities:

Trump relies on the fact that his opponents are so nihilistic and elitist that they’ll react hysterically to something like this. […] And [Trump’s] base isn’t remotely corroded by this. Almost anything he does that is outside the establishment resonates in the end with people who say, well, at least he’s sticking it to the powerful.

Please parse this carefully. Ignoring details and exaggerations, it does accurately reveal the basic play: regardless of the ostensible recipient, Trump’s communication is mostly aimed at the Base: cementing at the core, extending around the edges. There is no need to cozy up to Republican party establishment. By now, they have no choice but to fall into line. No need to harangue the moneyed elites. They’ll be getting their payback and they know it. And no need bothering to soften up outright opponents. The message is targeted at reaffirming his populist brand directly, and even more so by eliciting predictable opposition reaction that reinforces that.

There is nothing particularly original about this age-old approach of divide-and-conquer. It was quite prominent in the US even in the post-Civil War era and ensuing Gilded Age. Among many others, Robert Reich articulated its pitfalls in his 1997 resignation speech. More recently, in her excellent  latest book, “No is Not Enough – Resisting Trump’s Shock Politics and Winning the World We Need”, meticulously analyzing this kind of multilevel shock therapy, Naomi Klein states:

In truth, nothing has done more to build our present corporate dystopia than the persistent and systematic pitting of working-class whites against Blacks, citizens against migrants, and men against women.

In the present context, this generally might mean: Stop playing the Trump game and falling for his tricks, provocations and divisiveness. Stop being reactive.  A sensible resistance should start defining its own frame and game. Somewhat more specifically, offered are three interrelated modest suggestions:

Look at the big picture and stop preaching to the choir.  It’s a globalized world out there, with the many well known negative effects ranging from the “race to the bottom”, all the way to global climate impacts and beyond. This is a deeper subject, but suffice it to say that the same basic systemic problems of the political economy that have generated countless refugees fleeing wars in large swaths across Africa and Asia, along with scores of economic migrants fleeing destitution in other parts of the Global South, have also adversely affected various US “demographies”, including much of the Base. Mobile global capital can play many games, but few are net-gain, with most being zero-sum and the discontents paying the price far out of sight.  As such, raising the awareness of these global connections, and shifting the primary focus away from specific underprivileged groups, might take some wind out of the deleterious anti-immigration populism sails and rock the Base. To quote Klein again:

Instead, the overarching task before us is not to rank our various issues – identity versus economics, race versus gender […]  It is to understand in our bones how these forms of oppression intersect and prop each other up, creating the complex scaffolding that allowed a kleptocratic thug to grab the world’s most powerful job […].

Granted, this is not easily done. However, one step in this direction is to stop knee-jerk rallying to the cause of one identity group — just because Trump baldly singled it out — at the effective expense of other ones.

Let go of the 2016 election. The spectacle of the heavily politicized Mueller investigation, with its sometimes byzantine complexity, claims and counterclaims, should be left squarely out of this discussion. This might seem even harder with the just announced bombastic indictments of “13 Russian nationals”. To be clear, this is not to say that alleged campaign illegalities should not be duly investigated: perjury, obstruction of justice, whatever…  nobody should be above the law. But nothing here seems to really go beyond the boundaries of a seriously flawed electoral system, and a legacy of smear campaigns that runs deep in US politics. The stubborn insistence on some hackneyed, game-changing “Russian interference” belies the Democratic establishment’s effort to exonerate its own, much more evident, consequential and damaging culpability in shifting the 2016 election away from the high road paved by the Sanders campaign. Period. The Base understands that pretty well, and such hypocrisy plays right into the hands of reaffirming it.

Never forget foreign policy. When the going gets rough, the one staple entry in the US executive playbook is the good ol’ “rally ‘round the flag”. Not foolproof — thankfully — but still tried, tested and dangerous. Under the guise of benevolent global hegemony and axiomatic American exceptionalism many scapegoats can be found, with rather facile bipartisan support and perilous consequences. Ample modern evidence has shown that behind semi-abstract “wars” (on Terror, Drugs, etc.) lie identifiable targets; and the most recent mainstream media pronouncement of “Russian plot to disrupt America’s democracy“ is ominous enough. More generally, “America First” could be interpreted as a focus on domestic needs at the expense of fewer foreign adventures or something much more sinister. Seeking clarity here might go a long way to disarming one of the administration’s levers on the Base.

In the end, the “Trump base” is not some mystical bunch. They are an amorphous and heterogenous group of flesh-and-blood humans. We all know some personally. Many certainly suffer from various prejudices. But leaving extremist fringes aside, probably most are decent people, with at least a general sense of fairness and a healthy dislike for hypocrisy. Admittingly or not, many are part of that group simply for apparent lack of better options.  To a significant enough degree, these are bona fide members of the proverbial “99%”. To paraphrase what Gore Vidal (and many others) once astutely said, the challenge is to make them realize and vote their own interests.  Of course, none of this will be easy nor can it yield quick results. The (often perceived as paramount) drive to galvanize Democratic base support and “get out the vote” for next election cycle can easily be tempted by the lowest hanging fruit of patently scandalous Trump administration excesses.  But to be effective, an American progressive movement (broadly understood) must dissociate itself from the trite “merely liberal” tropes with a much narrower, “major-partisan” agenda, a significant contributor to the deeper problems of which Trump is but a symptom. As Andre Vltchek recently lamented on these Dissident Voice pages (albeit with an emphasis beyond just the US):

It is now absolutely clear that the Western left lost patently and shamelessly. It has almost no power, it has no courage to fight or to take risks.

Among other risks to be taken in Year 2 is to get out of the comfort zone and engage Trump at his very base.

Remember the Balkans?

“The Balkans” – this notion that signifies more a state of mind than geographic location, usually derisively associated with powder kegs, ancient hatreds and “Asiatic” primitivism “in the heart of Europe” – has long ceased to occupy the headline pole position of the Clinton era. Used since the 1990s mostly as code for the violent dissolution of former Yugoslavia and the various spillover effects regionally and beyond – the term and its theme have been since displaced by waves of other real (and some imaginary) news, only occasionally to briefly flash back through mainstream Western media. The recent flare with the final verdicts of the Hague tribunal (ICTY) – replete with the almost ritual hara-kiri of a convicted Croatian general in open court – is no different, as it will quickly fade back into apparent oblivion. However, this is a good opportunity to bring up some of the many lessons and occasional pointers still relevant today.

To clarify – this is not a requiem for the Hague kangaroo court, as many measured reviews of the subject have been done to date. Let’s simply summarize that this caricature of the Nurenberg war tribunal has failed miserably in its purported main goals of bringing truth, justice and reconciliation to an area in dire need of it, along with a greater accountability in world affairs. Quite the contrary: its glaring political dependence, selective local justice and, above all, complete blindness to any outside culpability – all have considerably set back these necessary processes. They will simply have to wait for some more dispassionate – and more autochtonous – vehicle for the dispensation of real justice. Likewise, a critical analysis of the South Slav national project – and specifically, of the post-WW II socialist, nonaligned Yugoslavia – is beyond the scope of this short note. Suffice it to say that this was a country of some relevance, warranting careful study that eschews glib and summary pronouncements. So, the main focus here is to briefly explore a couple of key issues going forward.

At first it is hard to see much hope in the post-Yugoslav wasteland: a familiar picture of dysfuntional banana-republics with corrupt quasi-democratically elected governments (fiercely nationalist locally, pliably globalist beyond), botched privatizations, plundered public assets, brain-drain exodus, rampant unemployment, torn safety nets…  Although Serbia fits well this general mold, there are important differences. Specifically, there is resistance to joining the EU – certainly on the demeaning terms of territorial dismemberment currently proposed, but increasingly in general as well – along with almost universal aversion to entering NATO, a declared military neutrality with refusal to participate in the anti-Russian sanctions regime, and an increasing openness to economic partnerships and investments from China, Russia, Gulf states etc. These are not policies that the Serbian power structure can abandon easily, regardless of outside pressure or its neighborhood with virtually universal membership (or aspiration) to both the EU and NATO, with Western-sponsored propaganda ceaselessly implying that resistance is futile: “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em”. Many suspect that they would if they could – numerous WikiLeaks dispatches show regular promises made to US/EU interlocutors to that effect — except for the amorphous but ominous pressure of the Serbian body politic.

In many ways, this might appear paradoxical. In the aftermath of the wars, sanctions and international ostracism — followed by a disappointing “transition” and copiously aided in all that by Western propaganda outlets — the Serbian body politic at large has become mostly dispirited and apathetic. The collapse of the larger country at the dawn of the New World Order was never properly fathomed, the response mostly reactive and ambivalent, the disappointment of apparently lost (both shooting and information) wars quite thorough. An objectively most honorable collective history for much of the 19th-20th centuries gave way to bitter feelings of resentment, self-doubt and insularity.

Nonetheless, the Washington-Brussels-Berlin axis somehow failed to secure the needed coup de grace, with the requirement of Serbia formally abandoning its occupied Kosovo province in exchange for further EU accession steps never materializing – despite the fact that every Serbian government since 2000 has been anointed (if not effectively appointed) by Washington.  However, these politicians — and, in particular, the currently well-entrenched government of the (grossly misnomered) SNS Progressive Party — are generally well aware of the local “red lines” whose crossing could easily lead to loss of  the driving seat and associated privileges (not to mention some more vital values). Relatively calcified over the years, this state of affairs is unlikely to change without major shifts.

There have certainly been many objective outside factors from our century that may have contributed to this: from the 9/11/01 attacks, to the ensuing US-led military misadventures in Asia, the Great Recession, the irrevocable demise of the EU project (in its current form), refugee crises, the rebound of Russia and rise of China – to name but a few. Nevertheless, this is not an accident — there is a deeper historical logic to it all, in some ways related to the genesis of Yugoslavia itself — that might help explain it better (with possible elaboration to be left for another time).

The movement behind this process is admittedly messy — mostly intuitive, heterogenous and spontaneous. It lacks a real “vanguard”, claiming only token representation in the national parliament, with any attempts at better articulation and organization facing forceful discreditation methods by the government and its captive media. It frequently seems flirting dangerously close to the fringes of retrogressive movements that are no different than various chauvinistic counterparts regionally and in much of Europe. It often appears unaware of its natural allies in a broader struggle. Nonetheless — and this is important to understand — there is a real and progressive element here that must not be discounted. The reality is that the pulse of this broadly understood Serbian public opinion has, willy-nilly, informed key elements of its government’s policy for some time now, and remains the bulwark precluding this last East European domino to fall in line with basic imperial precepts. And while their exploits hardly make Western media headlines, the constant stream of sundry Eurocrat commissars and ministers, along with plenipotentiary DC apparatchiks — visiting Belgrade with various carrot and stick combinations — is pretty conspicuous and just as clearly indicates their staunch interest in addressing the issue on their terms.

The Serbian body politic was the backbone of a functional and prosperous Balkan federation once before, and it has the potential to be a catalyst for positive and unifying processes again. Of course, for this resistance to yield any broader anti-imperial fruit, a few more dots need be connected.  Likewise, there should be no illusions of this being an easy or straightforward process. For starters, some of the painful but required regional truth and justice issues from the opening paragraph are still ahead, and the many salutary lessons from Yugoslavia’s collapse will have to be understood better. Furthermore, a currently missing realization of the real common goals with other regional forces — for example, the Greek Left, most certainly including its KKE Communist Party — will have to emerge. However, the stakes are simply too high for this not to be attempted in earnest, loudly barking populist ruling regimes notwithstanding. The disillusionment among the masses in the rest of the Balkans is too high not to be harnessed. And history has repeatedly shown that once the globalist neoliberal “prosperity lifting all boats” narrative runs its local course, the choices become rather stark: either a nationally-aware but internationally-oriented progressive coalition, or the scourge of xenophobic reactionary demagoguery. Let’s hope for the former, with the metaphor of the Balkan Sprachbund prevailing over its derogatory tinderbox alternatives.

Tree-huggers, Trees and Forests

Navigating the current world of torrential actual news – never mind the copious “fake” stuff – is becoming increasingly difficult. With traditional common sense under constant attack by sensory overload, sidestepping the numerous trees placed before us in order to perceive the larger forest remains the big challenge.

A short salutary omnibus of key news as reported in the last day or so might illustrate the point. One of the latest headlines crossing NPR feeds stated bluntly: “Massive Government Report Says Climate is Warming And Humans Are the Cause”. Ignoring for the moment  intricate arcana of American “checks and balances”, it is hard to square that with the US government’s dominant denialist narrative, dismissive of any tree-huggers blocking economic growth. Perplexed, we might then turn to the next worthy government-related headline on promoting growth: the tax reform proposal. This is the one where, in the words of Sen. Sanders, “Donald Trump and the Republican leadership in Congress are […] trying to push through one of the most horrific and destructive budget and tax proposals in the history of our country“.  So, we might reasonably and naively conclude that such twin calamities, stated in no uncertain terms, would mobilize Sanders’ progressive allies to the max. Until we flip the channel again…

Instead, there we find the ongoing saga of alleged Russian interference into the sacrosanct US electoral process, with the those (mostly Democratic) senatorial allies engaged in it with apodictic, magisterial certainty – this time ostensibly directed at the complicit/lax behavior by the social media trio of giant darlings of both The Valley and The Street.  Never short of his SNL-style comic flare, Sen. Al Franken amusingly proceeds to “grill” the Facebook corporate counsel – although it’s not quite clear whether the inconvenient fact that these “sophisticated foreign operatives’” paid for their foul ads with dead-giveaway Russian roubles and/or N. Korean wons (instead of some crypto-currency or honest-to-God greenbacks) is part of the skit, or some even more sinister Ruskie strategy…  But the combination of the witness’ salubrious, patriotic prepared remarks (slightly self-flagellating, very self-regulating) and bumbling evasive answers – would still indicate that we might be on to something and looking at the right tree. Until we notice the next news piece…

Here, CBS news anchor Elaine Quijano focuses on the horrendous Manhattan massacre, and the question of how the perpetrator might have been radicalized. From her conversation with a bona fide expert (Haroon Ullah), we learn of massive Twitter traffic by radical terror-preachers, that “ISIS and people affiliated with ISIS use social media to find outsize influence beyond any borders”, and that therefore “many believe the group is actually winning”.  These are serious words. Also, they suggest that the supposed senatorial tree-huggers that are about to rein in the unpatriotic corporate giants are really barking up the wrong tree – or at least missing the much bigger one behind it. To verify, we might flip the channel once more…

There, the massive shadow of an even bigger tree suggests that Sens. Franken, Feinstein et al. may have created a fake Frankenstein monster after all: the next headline reports on new evidence (from former DNC interim chair Donna Brazile) that eseentially the DNC rigged the system to steal the primary from Sen. Sanders. Translated to even plainer English, this means the real corruption of a fair US election – the one that robbed the electorate of a cogent debate on substantive issues raised by Sanders during primaries – is hiding in plain sight, on US soil, paid by USD. Still, one might ask, what’s the deal then with the Google-Facebook-Twitter trio, with all that foreign platform abuse (Russian, N. Korean, Islamist, whatever)?

The final channel flip is again to CBS news, with the anchor this time engaging a financial analyst on the just released phenomenal results by Facebook, its consequent stock surge and any possible dampening effects of the ongoing Senate hearings. The guest quickly dispels any doubts and calms the investor audience by plainly reminding us that these companies did not get to their coveted leadership positions by subjecting themselves to much regulation, by limiting the tremendous traffic that their worldwide platforms generate, or ultimately – by neglecting the primacy of profits.

Which brings us full circle to the real forest.  Saving these (and much more) that seems threatened in our opening news piece indeed requires seeing the forest through the noise of individual trees. To borrow some of the ominous words and ideas of Naomi Klein’s recent book, “This Changes Everything – Capitalism vs. the Climate”, the forest in the big picture is the profit motive of capital. Effecting that change will require the observer(s) to read through the lines, spot the elephants in the room and discern the truths hiding in plain sight. No amount of crash courses on fake news, “big data crunching” or quasi-artificial intelligence will help here – only human intelligence aiding our capacity for independent thinking and decision-making.

The First Hundred Days

The “grace period” of the new administration’s proverbial first 100 days in office is far from over, but there is no relenting in the controversy, acrimony and political turmoil. Events are unfolding fast, and some observations might be in order.

Let’s cut to the chase and repeat an important axiom – not necessarily original here, but often overlooked: Trump is not the problem, but merely the symptom of a (deeper) problem.  Sure (and apart from the obvious reality-show antics) – there are plenty of easy targets: the ridiculous wall proposal, dismantling Obamacare safety net provisions, ineffective passport profiling, sundry “alternative facts”…  But US immigration policy – along with trade and foreign policies it stems from – have long been broken. American health care even under ACA remains the most inefficient among developed nations, and lack of both government transparency and honesty has been an American staple even long before Wikileaks or the infamous Clinton perjury. Put another way – in a society where (no pun intended) the adjective “social” is just as likely to be completed with the noun “media” as with “justice”, where collective amnesia all too often obscures the connection between nouveau constructs like “fake news” and traditional brain-washing propaganda, and where infatuation with quasi-artificial intelligence comes at the expense of the natural – it is rather easy for elites to manufacture consent or ever so slightly guide the rage of the system’s discontents, who will thus miss the proverbial forest for the trees.

As the nonsensical math of the administration’s neo-“voodoo economics” becomes clearer –  so will the search for debtors, scapegoats and a broader state of exception accelerate. Once the current War on Terror runs its course and with most liberal gazes fixed on traditionally oppressed groups – there is always room for finding the Subaltern Other. Many troubling indications of old tropes resurrecting from the mothballs are already evident – most notably, the “Red Russian” scare of decades past – except this time, with much of the red gone, leaving mostly pure racist stereotypes.

Above all, mortgaging livelihoods outside of the narrow space-time zone of corporate quarterly profits has always been a standard play. The present exuberance of Wall Street is plainly based on the promised unholy trinity of lower corporate taxes, emaciated regulation and increased military spending. Even mainstream commentators (NYT’s D. Brooks) have astutely observed this trend of “privatizing compassion and nationalizing repression”.  But this is just an extension of the bipartisan “privatizing profit and socializing risk” that characterized the previous government’s Great Recession response. Knee-jerk reactions to the most egregious excesses of this regime – sometimes topped with inane attempts to trump Trump in his own game – blunt a clear understanding of the deleterious trends this administration is merely ratcheting up.

Therefore, thinking outside the elite-mandated boxes is always good advice for a progressive movement. For one thing, waiting for the Democratic Party to internally reform into an agent of real change is a non-starter – as the recent DNC chair (s)election amply confirmed. The persistent popularity of Sen. Sanders’ message continuously clashes with his puzzling attempts to reform a party he is not even affiliated with, leaving him vulnerable to cheap but discrediting goading by the likes of Giuliani and Trump. There has not been a better time in decades to get outside of the damaging straight jacket of one-dimensional two-party American politics.  The next US election cycle is never too far away, and ground for it is prepared now.

“Big data analytics” has recently claimed a surge in public interest for Orwell’s classic ‘1984’. Quite encouraging, if true – all the more so as this time the paradigm is no longer singularly associated with communist excesses. But many other worthy tomes in recent years (often very serious non-fiction – e.g. Piketty’s “Capital in the 21st century”) have also allegedly topped bestseller charts, with little visible effect.  Real progress will require a real awareness by the “99%” of broader historical realities, in order to avoid the continuous traps set by the “1%”.  For starters – remembering the lessons of  Jack London’s mostly forgotten, but arguably most relevant today, “The Iron Heel”.